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In Court : Science vs. Creationism

Posted by jns on September 15, 2010

Someplace in my reading recently I happened upon the “memorandum opinion” in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1982). My attention was drawn to it because of a remark about how it “defined science”. Well, I wouldn’t go so far as “defined” although the characteristics of the scientific enterprise are outlined, and that may have been a first for American jurisprudence (but I haven’t made a study of that history yet).

Judge William R. Overton summarizes the case succinctly in his introduction:

On March 19, 1981, the Governor of Arkansas signed into law Act 590 of 1981, entitled “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act.” The Act is codified as Ark. Stat. Ann. &80-1663, et seq., (1981 Supp.). Its essential mandate is stated in its first sentence: “Public schools within this State shall give balanced treatment to creation-science and to evolution-science.” On May 27, 1981, this suit was filed (1) challenging the constitutional validity of Act 590 on three distinct grounds.


The grounds were 1) that it violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution; 2) that it violates a right to academic freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment; and 3) that it is impermissibly vague and thereby violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The judge ruled in favor of plaintiffs, enjoining the Arkansas school board “from implementing in any manner Act 590 of the Acts of Arkansas of 1981″. So, there is where so-called “scientific creationism” was pushed back out of the scientific classrooms, and the reason creationists began–yet again–with rebranding and remarketing creationism, this time as “intelligent-design” creationism, to try to wedge it back into the scientific curriculum.

The opinion is refreshingly brief and to the point. It’s difficult to avoid the impulse simply to quote the whole thing.

In his discussion of the strictures of the “Establishment of Religion” clause, Judge Overton quotes from opinions by Supreme-Court Justices Black and Frankfurter

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church-attendance or non-attendance. No tax, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or what ever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause … was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.”
[Justice Black, Everson v. Board of Education (1947)]

Designed to serves as perhaps the most powerful agency for promoting cohesion among a heterogeneous democratic people, the public school must keep scrupulously free from entanglement in the strife of sects. The preservation of the community from divisive conflicts, of Government from irreconcilable pressures by religious groups, or religion from censorship and coercion however subtly exercised, requires strict confinement of the State to instruction other than religious, leaving to the individual’s church and home, indoctrination in the faith of his choice. [Justice Frankfurter, McCollum v. Board of Education (1948)]

The phrases that jump out at me are “means at least this” and ” the public school must keep scrupulously free from entanglement in the strife of sects”. He also quotes Justice Clark (Abbington School District v. Schempp (1963)) as saying “[s]urely the place of the Bible as an instrument of religion cannot be gainsaid.”

Put them together and it’s quite clear, as Judge Overton wrote, that “[t]here is no controversy over the legal standards under which the Establishment Clause portion of this case must be judged.” Of course, this doesn’t keep certain christianist sects from repeatedly trying to assert that their version of a holy book is somehow an American historical and cultural book and not an “instrument of religion”. To the objective observer, of course, those repeated attempts merely underscore the importance and continuing relevance of vigilance in keeping schools “scrupulously free from entanglement in the strife of sects”.

Judge Overton begins section II this way:

The religious movement known as Fundamentalism began in nineteenth century America as part of evangelical Protestantism’s response to social changes, new religious thought and Darwinism. Fundamentalists viewed these developments as attacks on the Bible and as responsible for a decline in traditional values.

He continues with more brief historical notes about “Fundamentalism” (NB. his remark that it traces its roots to the nineteenth century) and its renewed concerns with each passing generation that America is finally succumbing to secularism and its civilization is at last crumbling, paralleling the conviction of millennialists that their longed for second coming of Jesus is forever imminent. Perhaps needless to say, since I am a scientist, I’d like to see predictions about the second coming and the end of civilization given a time limit so that, when said events fail to materialize in the required time, we can consider the parent theories to be disproven.

In particular he notes that fundamentalist fever was pervasive enough that teaching evolution was uncommon in schools from the 1920s to the 1960s; sentiment and practice only changed as a response to Sputnik anxiety in the early 1960s, when curricula were revamped to emphasize science and mathematics. In response, the concepts of “creation science” and “scientific creationism” were invented as a way to repackage the usual anti-evolution ideas. As Judge Overton says

Creationists have adopted the view of Fundamentalists generally that there are only two positions with respect to the origins of the earth and life: belief in the inerrancy of the Genesis story of creation and of a worldwide flood as fact, or a belief in what they call evolution.

It’s a false dichotomy, of course, but is an idea heavily promoted (usually implicitly) by modern creationists. Of course, it’s a double edged sword: when creationists work so hard to instill the idea that it can only be creationism or Darwinism, they are perceived as losing big when creationism is, yet again, crossed off as a viable “science” option by the courts.

In the remainder of this section Judge Overton examines in some detail the testimony and evidence of “Paul Ellwanger, a respiratory therapist who is trained in neither law nor science.” It’s revealing stuff, demonstrating that “Ellwanger’s correspondence on the subject shows an awareness that Act 590 is a religious crusade, coupled with a desire to conceal this fact.” It’s an arrogance on the part of creationists that we’ve seen over and over again, his recommending caution in avoiding any linkage between creationism and religion and yet continually using rhetoric about Darwinism as the work of Satan. There’s more that I won’t detail here. His conclusion for this section:

It was simply and purely an effort to introduce the Biblical version of creation into the public school curricula. The only inference which can be drawn from these circumstances is that the Act was passed with the specific purpose by the General Assembly of advancing religion.

In a nice rhetorical flourish, Judge Overton echoes this conclusion in the opening of section III:

If the defendants are correct and the Court is limited to an examination of the language of the Act, the evidence is overwhelming that both the purpose and effect of Act 590 is the advancement of religion in the public schools.

Section 4 of the Act provides:

Definitions, as used in this Act:

  • (a) “Creation-science” means the scientific evidences for creation and inferences from those scientific evidences. Creation-science includes the scientific evidences and related inferences that indicate: (1) Sudden creation of the universe, energy, and life from nothing; (2) The insufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of all living kinds from a single organism; (3) Changes only within fixed limits of originally created kinds of plants and animals; (4) Separate ancestry for man and apes; (5) Explanation of the earth’s geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of a worldwide flood; and (6) A relatively recent inception of the earth and living kinds.
  • (b) “Evolution-science” means the scientific evidences for evolution and inferences from those scientific evidences. Evolution-science includes the scientific evidences and related inferences that indicate: (1) Emergence by naturalistic processes of the universe from disordered matter and emergence of life from nonlife; (2) The sufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of present living kinds from simple earlier kinds; (3) Emergence by mutation and natural selection of present living kinds from simple earlier kinds; (4) Emergence of man from a common ancestor with apes; (5) Explanation of the earth’s geology and the evolutionary sequence by uniformitarianism; and (6) An inception several billion years ago of the earth and somewhat later of life.
  • (c) “Public schools” means public secondary and elementary schools.

The evidence establishes that the definition of “creation science” contained in 4(a) has as its unmentioned reference the first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis. Among the many creation epics in human history, the account of sudden creation from nothing, or creatio ex nihilo, and subsequent destruction of the world by flood is unique to Genesis. The concepts of 4(a) are the literal Fundamentalists’ view of Genesis. Section 4(a) is unquestionably a statement of religion, with the exception of 4(a)(2) which is a negative thrust aimed at what the creationists understand to be the theory of evolution (17).
Both the concepts and wording of Section 4(a) convey an inescapable religiosity. Section 4(a)(1) describes “sudden creation of the universe, energy and life from nothing.” Every theologian who testified, including defense witnesses, expressed the opinion that the statement referred to a supernatural creation which was performed by God.

Defendants argue that : (1) the fact that 4(a) conveys idea similar to the literal interpretation of Genesis does not make it conclusively a statement of religion; (2) that reference to a creation from nothing is not necessarily a religious concept since the Act only suggests a creator who has power, intelligence and a sense of design and not necessarily the attributes of love, compassion and justice (18); and (3) that simply teaching about the concept of a creator is not a religious exercise unless the student is required to make a commitment to the concept of a creator.

The evidence fully answers these arguments. The idea of 4(a)(1) are not merely similar to the literal interpretation of Genesis; they are identical and parallel to no other story of creation (19).

Judge Overton continues to draw connections between the act’s definition of creation science, coupled with testimony, and it’s undeniable connections to religious doctrine and its lack of identifiable standing as anything that might conceivably be identified as “science”. He also examines, and denies, the creationists’ false dichotomy that I mentioned above that the origin of humankind must be described either by Darwinism or creationism.

And then he makes these exceptionally straightforward assertions:

In addition to the fallacious pedagogy of the two model [false dichotomy] approach, Section 4(a) lacks legitimate educational value because “creation-science” as defined in that section is simply not science. Several witnesses suggested definitions of science. A descriptive definition was said to be that science is what is “accepted by the scientific community” and is “what scientists do.” The obvious implication of this description is that, in a free society, knowledge does not require the imprimatur of legislation in order to become science.

More precisely, the essential characteristics of science are:
(1) It is guided by natural law;
(2) It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law;
(3) It is testable against the empirical world;
(4) Its conclusions are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word; and
(5) Its is falsifiable. (Ruse and other science witnesses).

Creation science as described in Section 4(a) fails to meet these essential characteristics. First, the section revolves around 4(a)(1) which asserts a sudden creation “from nothing.” Such a concept is not science because it depends upon a supernatural intervention which is not guided by natural law. It is not explanatory by reference to natural law, is not testable and is not falsifiable (25).

If the unifying idea of supernatural creation by God is removed from Section 4, the remaining parts of the section explain nothing and are meaningless assertions.

Section 4(a)(2), relating to the “insufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of all living kinds from a single organism,” is an incomplete negative generalization directed at the theory of evolution.

Section 4(a)(3) which describes “changes only within fixed limits of originally created kinds of plants and animals” fails to conform to the essential characteristics of science for several reasons. First, there is no scientific definition of “kinds” and none of the witnesses was able to point to any scientific authority which recognized the term or knew how many “kinds” existed. One defense witness suggested there may may be 100 to 10,000 different “kinds.” Another believes there were “about 10,000, give or take a few thousand.” Second, the assertion appears to be an effort to establish outer limits of changes within species. There is no scientific explanation for these limits which is guided by natural law and the limitations, whatever they are, cannot be explained by natural law.

The statement in 4(a)(4) of “separate ancestry of man and apes” is a bald assertion. It explains nothing and refers to no scientific fact or theory (26).

Section 4(a)(5) refers to “explanation of the earth’s geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of a worldwide flood.” This assertion completely fails as science. The Act is referring to the Noachian flood described in the Book of Genesis (27). The creationist writers concede that any kind of Genesis Flood depends upon supernatural intervention. A worldwide flood as an explanation of the world’s geology is not the product of natural law, nor can its occurrence be explained by natural law.

Section 4(a)(6) equally fails to meet the standards of science. “Relatively recent inception” has no scientific meaning. It can only be given in reference to creationist writings which place the age at between 6,000 and 20,000 years because of the genealogy of the Old Testament. See, e.g., Px 78, Gish (6,000 to 10,000); Px 87, Segraves(6,000 to 20,000). Such a reasoning process is not the product of natural law; not explainable by natural law; nor is it tentative.

“Creation science…is simply not science.” Now, there’s an unequivocal statement! This was a very clear death knell for creationism in its guise as “creation [so-called] science” and the beginnings of the ill-concealed attempt to rebrand religious creationism, this time as “intelligent design”.

Please note that the five “characteristics of science” given above by Judge Overton are in no way a “definition” of science, which only reinforces my own impression that Judge Overton was thinking very, very clearly on the subject. I am quite ready to agree with him that the five things he lists are indeed characteristic of science. It is not a comprehensive list, and it doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive list–another thoughtful and precise step on Judge Overton’s part–but they are correct, precise, and enough in this last section of his opinion to counter very thoroughly the claims of creationism to being a science.

This gets us about halfway through Judge Overton’s opinion and this listing of some “characteristics of science”, and I’ll stop here. Before I read the opinion I feared, based on the evidently casual and inaccurate comment that led me to it, that the Judge may indeed have tried to “define” science, a difficult task that I was convinced hardly belonged in court proceedings. I was delighted to discover that Judge Overton instead developed careful and precise “characteristics of science” that served the purpose of the court and are undeniably correct.


On Reading The Age of Entanglement

Posted by jns on May 21, 2009

Reading proceeds apace, but writing about the books seems to happen in big clumps. For instance, my book note on Louisa Gilder’s The Age of Entanglement : When Quantum Physics was Reborn (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. xvi + 443 pages). Perhaps if I wrote less I could write sooner.

Oddly, I didn’t realize how much I had enjoyed the book until I wrote about. I found it quite engaging and, despite the author’s defensiveness about writing narrative nonfiction (and her queasiness cause me a bit of queasiness at first), I thought it was not only engaging but high in scienticity. She’s done a very careful and thorough job with keeping her science precise, and I thought she showed quite a depth of understanding in what is described as her first book.

From my collection of quotations noted but unused in the book note, this one about the distinction between a theoretical physicist and an experimental physicist. It’s pretty much true, but a bit of reflection makes it unsurprising.

“How do you tell an experimental physicist from a theorist?” asks [experimental physicist John] Clauser more than thirty years later, in his northern California desert home encrusted with sailing trophies and plaques. Running his finger along the thick spines of schoolbooks, he beings to answer his question: “A ”theorist” will have: lots of textbooks (the experimentalist will have some engineering ones, too).” He taps these with his finger. “Lots and lots of ”Phys. Rev. Letters.”” In fact, a bookshelf taking up a whole wall is crowded with the pale green journals. “Biographies of the great, and books written by them.” Clauser gestures through the door of his wood-paneled office. “But the ”experimentalist” will have”—he turns: here, in the hallway beside the kitchen door, is another floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, packed with rows and rows of narrow, shiny softcover book spines in garish fluorescent colors—””catalogues.”” He grins. “Anything I need to make, if I don’t have the pieces already, I look for it here. I can make anything.” [pp. 260—261]


“Disproving” Darwin

Posted by jns on February 9, 2009

This is birthday boy Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882), born 200 years ago on 12 February 1809. This photograph (which I have cropped) was taken in 1882 by the photographic company of Ernest Edwards, London.*

Many people call Darwin’s great idea, common descent through evolution by means of natural selection, the greatest scientific discovery ever. Maybe. It’s certainly big. My hesitation is merely a reflection of my feeling that it’s really difficult to prioritize the great ideas and discoveries of science and math into a hierarchy that would assign the top position to one idea alone. No doubt it’s the over cautious precision of my inner scientist asserting itself.

Almost since the pages of Origin of Species were first sewn into a book there has been a cottage industry of trying to “disprove Darwin”. So strongly associated is his name with the big idea that “Darwin” and “Darwinism” serve as effigies for those who revile the idea so much that they expend considerable energy looking for anything that might weaken the authority of the idea so that it can be toppled from its scientific pantheon.

Unfortunately for their efforts, they sorely misunderstand how science works and, therefore, how futile their efforts are. Detractors seem to believe they are operating under junior debating-society rules where locating any hint of a logical inconsistency in the “theory”, or any modern deviation from what they think is Darwinian orthodoxy, is certain to be a fatal blow to the hated “theory”. Alas, they hope to disprove Darwin but can only disapprove and look silly and naive.

The biggest impediment to tearing down the edifice of “Darwinism”, of course, is reality. Scientists believe that reality has a separate, objective existence that affords no special place to humans. One corollary to this is that objective reality is what it is regardless of our most fervent desires, regardless of our prayers to a supernatural deity to change it, regardless of the stories we tell ourselves over and over about how we would like it to be. Deny reality for your own psychological benefit as needs must, but you will not alter reality by doing so.

But, suppose there are chinks in the armor of “Darwinism”–isn’t that fatal? Well, no. Great ideas that flow into the vast river of science stay if they are useful ideas. Depending on utility they may change, grow, even evolve over time, but they’re frequently treated as the same idea. Creators do not have veto power over how their scientific ideas are used, nor how they are changed or updated, although they continue to get the credit for great ideas. The way we understand and describe gravity is nothing recognizable to Newton, but he continues to get credit as the discoverer of “universal gravitation”.

But aren’t wrong theories, those that have been “disproven” by logical errors or deviations from precise descriptions of reality, immediately discarded as useless? Oh no, far from it. See the aforementioned Newtonian theory of gravity for but one ready example.

This is the trade-off: a somewhat inaccurate (or “wrong”) but productive theory is of far more use to science than a correct but sterile idea. By “productive” I refer to ideas that lead one to new ideas, new experiments, and new understandings. Compare that notion with what some would have you believe is the undeniable perfection of revealed truth from a divine creator: it is an investigative dead end, it leads to no new ideas whatsoever, it affords no solution beyond the parental disclaimer, “because”.

“Why” is the path science follows, not “because”. I believe that “why” is the more interesting and the more valuable path to follow, at least when it comes to understanding how the universe works. One may feel free to disagree on its value and utility, of course, but denying its reality is futile.
* The photograph is part of the wonderful collection of “Portraits of Scientists and Inventors” from the Smithsonian Institution, which we have sampled here before and undoubtedly will again and again, photographs they have contributed to the Flickr Commons Project. (The Flickr page; the persistent URL)

This is probably the source of the calm, know-it-all demeanor that atheists tend to exhibit, and that so inflames those who would consign us prematurely to the flames of hell: all the evidence we see about how the world really operates fails to suggest that a creator-deity exists–not to mention a personal-coach-deity–and no amount of wishful thinking can change reality.

Sometime we’ll talk about the contingent nature of scientific “truth” and how uncomfortable that idea is for those with an absolutist predilection.


Fast-Tack Evolution

Posted by jns on May 1, 2008

The story, as it’s told online in National Geographic News,* goes like this.

n 1971, scientists transplanted five adult pairs of [Italian wall lizards] from their original island home in Pod Kopiste to the tiny neighboring island of Pod Mrcaru, both in the south Adriatic Sea[, off the coast of Croatia].

Genetic testing on the Pod Mrcaru lizards confirmed that the modern population of more than 5,000 Italian wall lizards are all descendants of the original ten lizards left behind in the 1970s.

However, the Pod Mrcaru/Italian wall lizards of today are no longer much like the original pair. It seems that the population has evolved some new digestive strategies–and parts!–along with a different head with a stronger jaw to go along with the new strategy. All this they managed to do in only 30 generations on the island.

As the report says, all of the current lizards have been tested genetically and are known to be descended from the original pair. It also turns out that the new lizards have displaced the aboriginal lizards on the island when the first pair were transplanted. There is no determination mentioned about whether the new lizard is a different species from the original pair.

Isn’t that interesting! Evolution in action, and on a surprisingly short time scale. How can this be possible though? Doesn’t evolution take ages and ages to accomplish change?

Yes and no. As our understanding of evolution (and natural selection) improves and deepens, it seems that evolution is anything but uniformly slow and uniformly steady.# Indeed, the more modern understanding is coming to terms with how genetic information is prepared, as it were, to make rapid changes when the occasion arises. Some of this is touched on in Sean Carroll’s book Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

Of course there is a political aspect to this report of scientific findings. Some evolution deniers will continue to deny that speciation is possible through evolution, but they will be seen to be wrong, probably sooner rather than later, too.
*Kimberly Johnson, “Lizards Rapidly Evolve After Introduction to Island“, National Geographic News, 21 April 2008.

#Although I don’t really see the need to turn to the concept of Punctuated Equilibrium, as promoted by Eldredge & Gould to incorporate the nonuniformity. Doing so seems to me to caricature any realistic understanding of gradualism.


APS Openness

Posted by jns on March 9, 2007

Today in Bob Park’s What’s New (9 March 2007 edition) was this tidbit:


The commitment of physicists to the principle of openness was tested this very morning in Denver at the APS March meeting, as it has been every year for 108 years. Roy Masters, author of “God Science and Free Energy from Gravity,” was to deliver “Electricity from Gravity” at 9:36 a.m. Anyone can deliver a paper at the March Meeting. What if Masters actually succeeded in using up our gravity to keep the lights on? Not to worry.

I think all physics graduate students, sometime during their years’ long hazing, have noticed this phenomenon. It’s always good for a few giggles. But what Park says is true: any member of the APS may submit an abstract and deliver a 10-minute paper at general meetings of the society. Especially in the days when programs of abstracts were printed and distributed on paper, it was common for a few abstracts to appear for which no speaker materialized at the appointed time.

In my day there was someone who submitted an abstract at every opportunity, but who never appeared at the meetings; I don’t remember his name or where he was from. In those days one had a piece of paper on which a rectangle was inscribed; one’s abstract would be photographically reproduced and everything that was to be printed must appear withing the bounds. Said person always included a photograph of some geological feature, around which he typed his abstract, and then he filled the remaining bits of space with arrows to bits of the photo and handwritten notes. In the physics world I suppose it’s what passes for conceptual art.

Similarly, for years while I was in graduate school, there was every month, without fail, a small advertisement in the back of Physics Today from a person whose name now escapes me, who was searching for his “gamma-gamma correlations”. None of us knew what “gamma-gamma correlations” were — mostly because there is no such thing — but the advertiser never gave up hope.

Then, when I was nearing the end of graduate school, the advertisements disappeared. We were all a bit bereft at the loss of this institution. Then, after a couple of months another advertisement appeared in which the previous advertiser now promised to sell, for a small fee, something like all the secrets of the universe based on his theory about “gamma-gamma correlations”, or something like that. He had apparently found them and we could all rest again, knowing that the integrity of fringe science was safe again.


The “Woodstock of Physics”

Posted by jns on March 9, 2007

There has been lots of talk, relatively speaking, this week about a now-famous event that took place at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society 20 years ago. The first piece that I saw was in the New York Times (Kenneth Chang, “Physicists Remember When Superconductors Were Hot“, 6 March 2007 — his piece is fine, but I think I’ll scream if anyone mentions mag-lev trains again in the same breath as superconductors, or anything else for that matter) about what quickly became known as “The Woodstock of Physics”, if you can imagine.

Today it’s the lead story in my e-mail’s “Physics News Update” (9 March 2007 edition), by Phil Schewe and Ben Stein of AIP (the American Institute of Physics is an umbrella organization that encompasses the American Physical Society, and publishes Physical Review and Physics Today, among others).

So this is the story that got everyone all excited twenty years ago. I wasn’t at that meeting — I usually attended a smaller local meeting the next month where most of my low-temperature colleagues congregated by tradition — but I certainly remember the buzz it created in the hallways near my lab. This is probably the event I will recall when people start talking again, as they seem to every generation or so, about how physics is pretty much played out and all important discoveries have already been made.

It was rather more excitement than you might expect to see among a group of typically staid physicists. By the way, this gives you a chance to see the differences between a news story written for the public, and one written with an audience of physicists in mind.

“THE WOODSTOCK OF PHYSICS,” the famous session at the March 1987 meeting of the American Physical Society, earned its nickname because of the rock-concert fervor inspired by the convergence of dozens of reports all bearing on copper-oxide superconductors. The 20th anniversary of this singular event was celebrated this week at the APS meeting in Denver.

Why such an uproar over the electrical properties of an unlikely ceramic material? Because prior to 1987 the highest temperature at which superconductivity had been observed was around 23 K [i.e., "Kelvins", centigrade sized degrees where 0 K is "absolute zero"]. And suddenly a whole new set of compounds–not metallic alloys but crystals whose structure put them within a class of minerals known as perovskites–with superconducting transition temperatures above 35 K and eventually 100 K generated an explosion of interest among physicists. Because of the technological benefits possibly provided by high-temperature superconductivity (HTSC)—things like bulk power storage and magnetically levitated trains—the public was intrigued too.

This week’s commemoration of the Woodstock moment (the months of feverish work leading up to the 1987 meeting) provided an excellent history lesson on how adventurous science is conducted. Georg Bednorz (IBM-Zurich), who with Alex Mueller made the initial HTSC discovery, recounted a story of frustration and exhilaration, including working for years without seeing clear evidence for superconductivity; having to use borrowed equipment after hours; overcoming skepticism from IBM colleagues and others who greatly doubted that the cuprates could support supercurrents, much less at unprecedented temperatures; and finally arriving at the definitive result–superconductivity at 35 K in a La-Ba-Cu-O compound. In October 1986 Bednorz and Mueller prepared a journal article confirming their initial finding in the form of observing the telltale expulsion of magnetism (the Meissner effect) from the material during the transition to superconductivity. Submitting this paper, however, required the approval of the IBM physics department chairman, Heinrich Rohrer who, that very week, had been declared a co-winner of the Nobel prize for his invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). Afraid that he would not be able to obtain the preoccupied Rohrer’s attention, Bednorz obtained the needed signature by thrusting the approval form at Rohrer as if he (Bednorz) desired only a celebratory autograph. A scant year later Bednorz and Mueller pocketed their own Nobel Prize.

The IBM finding was soon seconded by work in Japan and at the University of Houston, where Paul Chu, testing a YBaCuO compound, was the first to push superconductivity above the temperature of liquid nitrogen, 77 K. Very quickly a gold rush began, with dozens of condensed matter labs around the world dropping what they were doing in order to irradiate, heat, chill, squeeze, and magnetize the new material. They tweaked the ingredients list, hoping to devise a sample that superconducted at still higher temperatures or with a greater capacity for carrying currents. At this week’s APS meeting Chu said that he and his colleagues went for months on three hours’ sleep per night. Several other speakers at the 2007 session spoke of the excitement of those few months in 1987 when-according to such researchers as Marvin Cohen (UC Berkeley) and Douglas Scalapino (UC Santa Barbara)-the achievement of room-temperature superconductivity did not seem inconceivable.

The Woodstock event, featuring 50 speakers delivering their fresh results at a very crowded room at the New York Hilton Hotel until 3:15 am, was a culmination. In following years, HTSC progress continued on a number of fronts, but expectations gradually became more pragmatic. Paul Chu’s YBaCuO compound, under high-pressure conditions, still holds the transition
temperature record at 164 K. Making lab samples had been easy compared to making usable power-bearing wires in long spools, partly because of the brittle nature of the ceramic compounds and partly because of the tendency for potentially superconductivity-quenching magnetic vortices to form in the material. Paul Grant, in 1987 a scientist at IBM-Almaden, pointed out that HTSC applications have largely not materialized. No companies are making a profit from selling HTSC products. Operating under the principle of “You get what you need,” Grant said, superconducting devices operating at liquid-nitrogen temperatures weren’t better enough so as to displace devices operating at liquid-helium temperatures.

Nevertheless, the mood of the 2007 session (Woodstock20) was upbeat. Bednorz said the 1986/87 work showed that a huge leap forward could still take place in a mature research field whose origins dated back some 70 years. Bednorz felt that another wave of innovation could occur. Paul Chu ventured to predict that within ten years, HTSC products would have an impact in the power industry. Paul Grant referred to the study of superconductivity as the “cosmology of condensed matter physics,” meaning that even after decades of scrutiny there was still much more to learn about these materials in which quantum effects, manifested over macroscopic distances, conspire to make electrical resistance vanish, a phenomenon which at some basic level might also be related to the behavior of protons inside an atomic nucleus and the cores of distant neutron stars.

(Photographs and an original summary press release from the 1987 meeting is available at our Physics News Graphics website, www.aip.org/png)


Farewell to James Van Allen

Posted by jns on August 12, 2006

Physics* tends to carry around all manner of homages to its creators and discoverers. Vast numbers of units of measure, constants, concepts, equations, effects, principles, and laws are named for famous scientists: Galilean Relativity, Newton’s Laws of Motion, Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion, Bernoulli’s Equation, Euler’s Equation, Laplace’s Equation, Boltzmann’s Constant, Planck’s Constant, Hubble’s Constant, the Compton Effect, the Zeeman Effect, Kelvins, Celsius degrees, Curies…. Obviously the list is not strictly endless, but it does go on quite a bit.

I’ve always found it a humanizing influence to acknowledge scientific pioneers this way, and a useful way for students of physics to learn some of its history as they go, which I also think is a good thing. I also find that it helps me remember which equation, constant, or effect is which — just imagine the mental chaos if all our equations and constants were simply numbered!

One thing that virtually all these nominal designations have in common is that the person after whom they are name is dead. There are a few exceptions, of course, for those that are associated with phenomena discovered more recently.

One such was the Van Allen radiation belts around the earth. They had been discovered in 1958 by James Van Allen. Van Allen and his team had built Explorer I, the first satellite launched by the US. The satellite carried only one instrument: a Geiger counter#. The instrument’s readings led Van Allen to deduce the existence of regions of high-energy charged particles trapped by the Earth’s magnetic field. **

I went to college in Iowa (Cornell College, in Mt. Vernon, Iowa) in the late 70s. I knew about the Van Allen Belts, but hadn’t quite caught on to the fact that they had been discovered after I was born (albeit in my extreme youth: I was 2 years old). Thus, I thought of them as named for an historic scientist — if I thought of it at all back then.

Imagine my surprise then when I learned not only that Van Allen was a living, working physicist, but that he was also living and working at the University of Iowa, a mere 30-minute drive south through the corn fields from me! It was probably the only time I would be young enough and naive enough to react to something like that with such profound surprise — I had never imagined something like that! It seemed almost mystical at the time, since I was certainly still in awe of anyone who had something like that named for him. Since then I have met physicists with things named for them and they seemed like … people.## It’s just as well, though, that I never met James Van Allen since, for me, he had mytical status and I’m sure I would have been embarrassingly tongue-tied.

James Van Allen died this past Thursday, news that seems surprising to me since — in my mind — he is immortal.

Here’s what Bob Park had to say in today’s “What’s New“:


Almost nothing was known about conditions beyond the ionosphere when the US launched Explorer I on 31 Jan 58. The Cold War was at its peak, and the Soviets seemed to own space. Sputnik I, launched 4 Oct 57, carried no instruments. Sputnik II, a month later, could only send back Geiger counter readings taken when it was in sight of the ground station. In June, however, at a conference in the USSR, James Van Allen, a physics professor at the University of Iowa, announced that Explorer I had discovered the first of the two “Van Allen radiation belts.” Soviet space scientists were crushed; the “space age” was not a year old and already the U.S. had taken the lead in science. Two years ago I visited Prof Van Allen in his office at the U. Iowa. At 89 he was down to a 7-day work week. He showed me an op-ed he was sending to the NY Times in which he described human space flight as “obsolete” http://bobpark.physics.umd.edu/WN04/wn072304.html. I don’t believe they used it. Van Allen said using people to explore space is “a terribly old fashioned idea.”

*I’m sure this is true of many other fields, but I’m a physicist, so I’m talking about physics.

#Named for Hans Geiger, one of its inventors in 1908.

**Here are two pieces about the radiation belts: one more technical, one less technical; also, an article with lots of pretty pictures — be sure to scroll down past the section “Reading to be Informed Questions” to see them.

##With maybe one exception (although we didn’t actually meet). The background is this: there was a famous textbook in quantum mechanics written by Eugen Merzbacher that was known to any physics student at the time; not surprisingly, given the familiarity of his name, Merzbacher also had a status that exceeded mere personhood. Once, when I was at a meeting of the American Physical Society, Merzbacher was there: I happened to stand in line next to him at a McDonald’s for breakfast. To this day it fascinates me to have heard someone of such exhalted status say: “I will have an Egg McMuffin, please.”


The Purpose of Science (Part I)

Posted by jns on June 27, 2005

About 10 or 12 years ago, when I was still a scientist producing science, I was working on an experiment that eventually flew on two Space Shuttle missions (in 1994, then 1996 — our project was called “Zeno”1). We were working under the umbrella of “microgravity” research, research that wanted to exploit the very reduced gravity available while orbiting the Earth.2 We were studying some general properties of fluids in very unusual thermodynamic states; when they were in these states, they were very susceptible to the effects of gravity, which supressed the effect we were trying to look at. “Turning down gravity” was our answer.
At any rate, our experiment was of the type often referred to as “pure science”; we were doing “science for science’s sake”. Of course, to us, the goal of the experiment was importantly related to questions about thermodynamics, critical phenomena, universality, the renormalization-group theory, and other things that we physicists got excited about but no one else had ever heard of.
I spent quite a bit of time working with the NASA Public-Affairs Office (at Marshall Space Flight Center, our home for mission operations, in Huntsville, AL) trying to find interesting things that they could say to the public-at-large about our project. We all took that goal — inviting the public to share our excitement — very seriously and worked hard at it, but it was a challenge to explain in a sound-bite why we were doing it all and why we were spending $20 million to do it.
I still think that elucidating science to interested non-scientists is an important thing to do. Generally, my feeling is that understanding full-blown concepts deserves more than bite-sized explanations, at least when there’s time, but there’s not always time.
The perennial question about any science experiment seems to be “what’s it good for”, that is, “what new product to make out life better are you working on”. It’s very frustrating to be asked over and over, when we felt that our work was important but that our distance from products on the shelf was rather large. We often felt that it was not the best question to ask.
I wanted to expound about the thrill of intellectual pursuit, the great adventure, exploring the unknown corners of the physical universe … but those weren’t the answers that were wanted. We could say some things about how it might lead to new, environmentally friendlier refrigerants, or help in industrial painting applications (both were true), but that seemed so trivializing.
I still don’t have the sound-bit answer. The best I’d been able to come up with then was a small parable, a metaphor for the place of science in a technology consumer’s life.

Think of technology as being a house that we all live in. The house of technology is built on a foundation of science. The foundation is made of many, many bricks. Each brick is a scientific idea, or scientific discovery, or the result of a scientific experiment. All the bricks fit together and make a solid foundation for the house of technology.
Perhaps, we think, all those bricks aren’t really necessary to hold up the house. Surely we could take some out and the house would still stand.
Undoubtedly this is true. Pull out some of the bricks. Choose some more and yank them out, too. For awhile the house is fine, but sooner or later trouble arrives. The house develops cracks in the walls, the floor shifts precariously, windows no longer open properly. Ultimately the house collapses, unable to stand without a solid foundation.
Which bricks are the most important ones? Who can say which bricks are supporting the house and which ones are not essential for holding the house up?
Technology is built on a solid foundation of science, a foundation that gets its strength from many, many interconnected bricks. Although individual bricks look individually unimportant, and any one or two might be removed with no apparent effect, all of them are needed to keep the foundation strong.

[Edited and updated from the orignal post of 4 April 2005.]
1There is a Zeno home page, which is very rudimentary. I put it together during the second Zeno mission in 1996. It was my first website, and the technology was still in the early stages, which explains why there was no website at the time of the first mission in 1994.
2“Microgravity” was meant literally as a measure: micro, 10-6, times g, the acceleration due to gravity. One micro-g was about the level of residual accelerations in quiet orbit on the space shuttle, i.e., provided the astronauts weren’t exercising or bouncing (literally) off the walls. These tiny accelerationswere mostly caused by tidal forces on the shuttle itself, due to the fact that the spacecraft is large enough (an “extended body”, i.e., not a “point mass” without size) that different parts of the craft, being at slightly different distances from the center of the Earth, would prefer to orbit the Earth at slightly different velocities. Thus, the magnitude also depended slightly on the “attitude” of the Shuttle, whether it was moving with its nose in front of it (in the direction of the velocity vector) or pointed away from the center of the Earth (tail to the Earth); the latter was common, apparently because it was led to more stable orbits that required fewer firings of the retro-rockets to maintain. However, I’m no expert at orbital dynamics, which would nevertheless be an entirely different posting anyway.


Scientific Truth

Posted by jns on March 17, 2005

Mark, the “Moderate Liberal”, wrote a good piece called “The War Against Evolution“, trying to understand, as I do with very little success, the anti-science forces at work in the USA today. It’s all very trying (the anti-scientism, not Mark’s essay).
He and I, who both have degrees in Physics and are therefore part of the “science elite”, so we know that in fact there is no “scientific dogma”, but he touches on a very important point:

Remember, most of us “elite” think of science as a very different endeavor than, say, the priesthood. After all, scientific theories must be falsifiable and withstand years of observation, experimentation and criticism before any scientist will begin to think of a theory as fact.

But to the lay person, science is no different than any other elite endeavor; a bunch of people in power they don’t know get together to determine their version of the truth, then preach it to everyone else.

I do, in fact, think of it — science, that is — as a very different endeavor, perhaps a unique intellectual quest. Laying out my philosophy (and not “mine” so much as what I understand to be “the” philosophy of scientific endeavor, or even the basis of the “scientific method”, such as there is one) will take more than these 500 or so words, but Mark offers a very useful starting point.
Set aside for a moment the philosophically fundamental ideas about theories and falsifiability and all that — I do, in my way, reserve the right to disagree with Mark about the details of how science works. Nevertheless….
It’s the idea of the “elite” that brings out something I’ve long thought is a unique characteristic of science, an idea that bolsters its claim to some subset of truth:

Science invites anyone to examine its claims.

Oh, sure, to understand some of the claims may take years of study to achieve, but it’s all there, waiting for you. Science does not rely on authority to operate. Agreed, most people (i.e., those not part of the “science elite”, indeed, even scientist who don’t specialize in some field) get their information about scientific truths from scientific “authorities”. But, in my mind, getting information from these “authorities” is a practical short cut, not a dogmatic elite; everything they say is testable, in principle, if you feel the need.
This, I believe, is a defining characteristic of science: it’s truths are writ in an open book, inviting all to see, to understand, and to test. No truth in science is ever absolute.
Science thrives on openness and skepticism. In the end, if scientific practice is to survive, it will be this invitation to skepticism, examination, and revision that will win out over external, dogmatic forces that would attempt to coerce scientific truth towards their perferred, non-scientific goals.