Speaking of Science

The Scienticity Blog


The Orthography of Equations

Posted by jns on 21 July 2010

Every now and then this little image appears on my Facebook page, as a sponsored ad, with the headline “Become a Physics Teacher”. The sponsors claim that they will help me get a master’s degree online in education so that I can become a physics teacher.

Now tell me, if you were considering paying someone to help you get certified in, say, programming C++, how would you respond if the image in their add had this programming fragment:

i = i + 1;

I don’t know that the above is a very clear analogy to any of you, but the point is this: if the ad in question displays a lack of knowledge of the idioms of the discipline, should you trust the advertiser to provide what’s on offer in a reliable way?

Why do I object to this little image? May I see a show of hands from the physical scientists who know the answer please?

Yes, that’s right. In this most famous equation from physics, a result of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, the letters ‘m’, representing mass, and ‘c’, representing the speed of light in vacuum, are never, ever written as upper-case letters; they are always, invariably written in lower case. I should, perhaps, be more grateful that the ’2′ is at least written as a superscript.

A tiny detail, a nit that I’m picking? Would you trust a brain surgeon with dirty fingernails? A car mechanic who’s not aware of what a “spark plug” is called?

Long ago I started to draft a blog entry called “On the Orthography of Equations”, but I never got around to it. It was going to relate a story and draw some interesting conclusions.

The events of the story happened, now, some 20 years ago. I was talking to a secretary in our University department who was typing (yes, on a typewriter) a paper for another faculty member. She asked for some advice on how to type an equation. While I was answering her question I mentioned that if she put some space between two symbols and moved another to a slightly different place that the equation would be significantly easier to read.

“Easier to read?” she exclaimed. Clearly the idea that equations were somehow “read” rather than merely looked at surprised her. And that was when I realized that, to this secretary and likely to most people with relatively little mathematical training, the symbols in equation were mostly decorative and they did not realize that how the symbols are deployed affect the meaning and readability of the equations.

I was nearly as surprised as she to discover this, although it’s an observation I’ve never yet figured out what to do with. Neither am I sure that this was the blog post that I was going to write, but there you go–it’s the one you got.


Gullibility’s Price

Posted by jns on 13 June 2010

From Bob Park’s What’s New for 11 June 2010:

According to a story in The Independent (UK) on Tuesday, the investigation into the sale of fake bomb detectors has been expanded to a number of firms in the UK. It seemed comical fourteen years ago when we learned that golfers were buying fraudulent golf-ball finders (WN 12 Jan 96). The Quadro Tracker was nothing but an “antenna” mounted on a pistol-grip with a swivel that was free to rotate 360°. An almost imperceptible deviation of the swivel from horizontal would cause the antenna to rotate under the force of gravity to its lowest point. To a credulous observer it might seem to be controlled by some mysterious external force. Quadro soon began marketing them to law enforcement agencies and the Department of Defense for $995 each to search for drugs and weapons. It failed a simple scientific test. Sandia National Labs took one apart and found it contained no internal parts. The FBI shut Quadro down and arrested its officers (WN 26 Jan 96). However, the device soon reappeared in the UK as the ADE 651, sold by ATSC for prices as high as $48,000. At least 1,500 were sold to the government of Iraq as bomb detectors at a cost of millions of dollars, as WN reported in January (WN 29 Jan 2010). The fake bomb detectors have reportedly contributed to hundreds of bomb deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, including British and American troops.

In spite of the heinous nature of the ATSC crime, it may be difficult to
obtain a conviction. The defense of those charged with selling fake bomb detectors will be that they believe the devices work. Their defense will point to the hundreds or thousands of people who openly market their services to dowse for water or other substances. Sometimes called water-witching, dowsing is said to rely on supernatural influence over the muscles of the person holding a willow fork or an ADE 651. Dowsing doesn’t always work, but what does? The prosecution will find itself hip deep in arguments over how an ADE 651 differs from prayer. Magical thinking will be with us until children are taught that observable effects result only from physical causes. It must be taught at the time they are learning their first language.


It’s Cool that No One’s in Charge

Posted by jns on 20 April 2010

I think one of the defining moments of adulthood is the realization that nobody’s going to take care of you. That you have to do the heavy lifting while you’re here. And when you don’t, well, you suffer the consequences. At least I have. (And in the empirical study I’m performing about interacting with the universe, I am unfortunately the only test subject I have complete access to, so my data is, as they say, self-selected.) While nobody’s going to take care of us, it’s incumbent upon us to take care of those around us. That’s community.

The fiction of continuity and stability that your parents have painted for you is totally necessary for a growing child. When you realize that it’s not the way the world works, it’s a chilling moment. It’s supremely lonely.

So I understand the desire for someone to be in charge. (As a side note, I believe that the need for conspiracy theories is similar to the need for God.) We’d all like our good and evil to be like it is in the movies: specific and horrible, easy to defeat. But it’s not. It’s banal.


No one is in charge. And honestly, that’s even cooler.

The idea of an ordered and elegant universe is a lovely one. One worth clinging to. But you don’t need religion to appreciate the ordered existence. It’s not just an idea, it’s reality. We’re discovering the hidden orders of the universe every day. The inverse square law of gravitation is amazing. Fractals, the theory of relativity, the genome: these are magnificently beautiful constructs.

The nearly infinite set of dominoes that have fallen into each other in order for us to be here tonight is unfathomable. Truly unfathomable. But it is logical. We don’t know all the steps in that logic, but we’re learning more about it every day. Learning, expanding our consciousness, singly and universally.

As far as I can see, the three main intolerant religions in the world aren’t helping in that mission.

For all their talk of charity and knowledge, that they close their eyes to so much—to science, to birth control education, to abuses of power by some of their leaders, to evolution as provable and therefore factual (the list is staggering)—illustrates a wide scope of bigotry.

Now, just to be clear. If you want to believe, or find solace in believing, that someone or something set these particular dominoes in motion—a cosmic finger tipping the balance and then leaving everything else to chance—I can’t say anything to that. I don’t know.

Though a primary mover is the most complex and thus (given Occam’s razor) the least likely of all possible solutions to the particular problem of how we got here, I can’t prove it true or false, and there’s nothing to really discuss about it.

If Daniel Dennett is right— that there’s a human genetic need for religion— then I’d like to imagine that my atheism is proof of evolutionary biology in action.

[excerpt from Adam Savage, "Food for the Eagle", speaking to the Harvard Humanist Society, April 2010.]


See a Scientist Being Scientific

Posted by jns on 27 March 2010

Today in my email I got a link to a video* with this startling title:

NASA Oceanographer Uses Science to Study the Sea

Right there, in a video under two minutes in length, we were being offered the chance to see an actual scientist using science! Not only that, it was an oceanographer using science to study the ocean, if you can imagine such a thing!

But now that I’ve mocked the title–but hardly more than it deserved for being so state-the-obvious ridiculous–we should perhaps look at the video.

Said video is a rather nice, short biography of one Callie Hall, who works at the Stennis Space Center (near the south coast of Mississippi; map). NASA posted it as part of their observation of National Women’s History Month.

[YouTube link for those who don't see the embedded player.]

p.s. I don’t want to be tetchy, but why is she using that reasonably precise analytical balance to weigh that off-the-shelf bottle of whatever?
* From a NASA mailing list this time rather than from some nefarious spammer.


Perpetually Park

Posted by jns on 5 March 2010

Bob Park, in his “What’s New” this week (5 March 2010) had two items on perpetual-motion machines, an idea, like creationism, that seems not to go away but just to get repackaged on a regular basis, said new packaging bagging lots of new, credulous believers–rather like creationism.

I particularly enjoyed ‘it’s not a perpetual motion machine, but it’s “so efficient that it keeps on producing power when it’s unhooked from an outside power source.”‘ Wow.

As for the case law on perpetual motion machines, you’d think that the second law of thermodynamics might be enough but apparently reality is not a form of legal truth.

The town of Odessa, MO, population 4,818, located somewhere east of Kansas City, needs jobs. So when a company, Manna of Utah, said it wanted to build a plant there employing 3000 people, folks cheered. All the town had to do was provide $90 million in revenue bonds and a site. The company even flew local officials to Florida for a demonstration of the “world-changing” technology that would be built there. It’s a home generator developed by Maglev Energy in Largo, Florida, which is leasing the technology to Manna of Utah. State Representative Mike McGhee (R-Odessa) said the product would be the “equivalent of the light bulb.” Steve Everly of the Kansas City Star thought it might be a good idea to check with scientists and engineers, including Bob Park. The mayor of Odessa, Tony Bamvakais, who went on the trip to Florida, says it’s not a perpetual motion machine, but it’s “so efficient that it keeps on producing power when it’s unhooked from an outside power source.”

When Joseph Newman was refused a patent for his Energy Machine he sued the US patent office. Legendary US District Court Judge Robert Penfield Jackson ordered Newman to turn his machine over to the National Bureau of Standards for testing. It was found to be a motor/generator of a design vastly inferior to those on the market. The case, Newman v. Quigg (Quigg was the patent Commissioner) is cited as case-law giving the patent office authority to reject perpetual-motion claims out of hand. The only effect is that they are no longer called “perpetual motion machines.” They are called over-unity devices, or zero-point-energy machines. Coverage of the Joe Newman case in Wikipedia is terrible. It’s a remarkably useful encyclopedia, but you need to verify.


95 – 21 = ?

Posted by jns on 3 March 2010

This is a fine development in UK news for people LGBTness, but my interest in this excerpt is in the second sentence/paragraph:

The House of Lords voted to lift the ban on civil partnership ceremonies in churches and other religious premises last night.

Peers voted by 95 to 21 – a majority of 74 – to lift the ban which previously prevented gays and lesbians from getting “married” in such places.

[from Mary Bowers, "Peers vote for church civil partnership ceremonies", TimesOnline [UK], 3 March 2010.]

Is it just me or is it odd to have the newspaper doing subtraction for us?

Maybe it’s my internal physicist, maybe it’s because I like numbers, or maybe it’s just my personality as a secret stair-counter, but whenever I read or hear an assertion with numbers, some sort of calculation usually happens in my head. I don’t think I’m alone on this.

“Hmm,” I think, “95 to 21, that’s a majority of 74 out of 116 peers, close to a 75% majority.” This usually gets one more refinement — 74% if it were a 100, but it’s 16% more than 100 so subtract about 15% of 74 from 74 gives about 63 — so let’s say about 63%. Not a bad majority.

Did I learn somewhere along the way always to calculate percentages or fractions when I’m given two numbers as input?

Okay, so I realize that quite a few people feel uncomfortable around fractions and percentages, although I’d like them not to. But isn’t addition and subtraction pretty much within the comfort level of most readers of that newspaper article?

So that leaves me trying to understand why the author (or, perhaps, editors), felt it necessary to subtract 21 from 95 in print.


Special Relativity: A First Reading List

Posted by jns on 3 February 2010

A long-time friend of mine, quite inadvertently and perhaps to his lasting regret, brought up the subject of special relativity : we briefly touched on the idea central to special relativity that the speed of light (in vacuum) is constant (as measured) in every inertial reference frame.*

At first hearing it’s a rather unsettling idea, and of course one wonders how one could possibly make a physical theory around such an idea and have it come out in any meaningful way. Well, one can if one is Einstein, and there are unexpected and startling consequences that flow logically from that simple idea about the speed of light.

The next step in our conversation–not surprising since I was party to the discussion–was “what book should one read to learn these things about special relativity?”

Well, that turned out a bit of a poser. I was certain that we should have something appropriate in our Scienticity Book Notes collection, but there was nothing. Nothing at all!

Well, that was a deficiency that needed some attention. So, we need to have some books read about special relativity and some notes written. Therefore, I’ve put together a tentative wish list of titles that look promising.

I say “promising”–there are no guarantees. Everyone who writes a book on a subject has unique ideas about what should be discussed and how to go about it, and I’ll admit that not all of those ideas align with my ideas about what should be in the book.

I’d like a book about light — not about vision, or color, or art, or optics, but light itself, what it is, how we think about it now, how we used to think about it, how unusual is its place in the physical universe, and then about how the idea of the constancy of the speed of light (in vacuum, in inertial frames, etc.) lies at the heart of special relativity (which is a theory of “electrodynamics”, i.e., a theory of moving charged particles and interactions with electromagnetic fields, i.e.2, essentially a theory of light).

I don’t think the readers I have in mind are much interested in deriving mathematical consequences and such, so there needn’t be a go at developing, say, the Lorentz-contraction equations, but the concepts and ideas must be explored for the average reader in a nonpatronizing way.

It may be too tall an order. I’d just as soon not write the book myself at this time, although it would make a fabulous subject if it’s not been written. (Please let me know if you personally know of such a book.)

And so, the following reading list, the result of a rather cursory look at some sources to try to uncover some candidate titles.

  • Brian Cox, Why Does E=mc2?: And Why Should We Care? (Powell’s synopsis). I’m not so interested in the “deeper” meaning of that famous equation — it’s really far from the most important idea of special relativity despite it’s explosive significance — but the synopsis suggested that Cox might explore the ideas in a useful way.
  • Richard P. Feynman, Six Not So Easy Pieces: Einstein’s Relativity, Symmetry, & Space-Time (Powell’s synopsis). I know, even Feynman’s “Easy Pieces” are far from easy, but if one is in the mood to read slowly and savor, there’s a high density of delight in Feynman’s expositions, and I’d like to know just how hard these seem to normal people.
  • Alan Lightman, Great Ideas in Physics (Powell’s synopsis). This book isn’t exclusively about light or relativity, but the few other books I’ve read by Lightman were very nicely written and he impressed me with with profound understanding of the ideas he talks about, so it made this list with high hopes.
  • N. David Mermin, It’s about Time: Understanding Einstein’s Relativity (Powell’s synopsis). I knew Mermin’s name during my years as a working physicist from his writing, which I regarded highly. This apparently is his attempt to do just what I would like to see done, so I’m keenly interested in the result.
  • Nigel Calder, Einstein’s Universe : a Guide To the Theory of Relativity (79 Edition) (Powell’s synopsis). When I was a young pre-scientist, Calder had quite a reputation as a popularizer, but I’ve never read any of his writing so I can’t comment. Maybe this is the jewel we seek?

If you know about these, or have other titles to suggest, please chime in.

If you’d like to read and write about some of them as part of your Science-Book Challenge (What, not already signed up? Tsk. Use that link and do it now!), that would be fabulous and will help other people when the question comes up again, as it most certainly will.

*You can take this to mean any frame of reference, i.e., viewpoint, that is moving at a constant velocity, i.e, not accelerated; accelerated frames of reference are the subject of general relativity (Einstein’s theory of gravitation). If you’d like to know more about this idea of reference frames, I can recommend the now vintage but very fine film “Frames of Reference”, which you will find as the second video offering in this blog posting of mine.


Shortest Day vs. Earliest Night

Posted by jns on 21 December 2009

I am always happy to celebrate the decision of our sun to return to a higher point in our northern sky, a decision it routinely takes about this time of year: 21 December. It seems so delightful that the days seem to start getting longer immediately it makes the decision.

And then, whenever the topic comes up, as it certainly has today, I always make a pest of myself by pointing out my favorite astronomical fact for those of us in the northern hemisphere: although the winter solstice marks the shortest amount of daylight in the year, the earliest sunset of the year actually happened three weeks ago, on 7 December. The last time I mentioned it in this space (in 2006) I didn’t have any really good, clear explanation to offer and I don’t this time, either. I posted a few links previously — look at them if you feel yourself the intrepid explorer of orbital dynamics — but for now we’ll just wave our hands and say it’s because of the tilt of the Earth, and the fact that it’s roughly spherical (at least, I think this would not happen if the Earth were cylindrical along its axis of rotation).

But anyway, the point I always make is this: by the time we get to the solstice, the sunset is already getting noticeably later and psychologically (to me, at least, since I rarely encounter sunrise) this makes us feel the day is getting longer at a rather brisk pace once the solstice is passed. The reason for that sensation, of course, is that it started three weeks ago. (Have fun verifying this for yourself with the NOAA Sunrise/Sunset calendar.)

For those who key on the sunrise to judge the length of their day–I’m sorry, but the latest sunrise falls on 7 January.


Intro Physics Courses Save Lives

Posted by jns on 10 December 2009

Following a series of links (first, then, finally) got me to this “old physics joke” related by one Craig Moe (in 2001).

Honestly, I’d never heard this one, so it struck me as a real knee-slapper. I’m still giggling.

A physics professor’s teaching an introductory course, and going over kinectics in mind-numbing detail, when a pre-med student yells in exasperation, “How is this shit useful?” (I know, an asshole pre-med. Who could imagine such a thing?) The professor, without turning around, responds “It saves lives.”

The lecture continues for a couple of minutes, until the same pre-med student asks “How does this help save lives?” The professor, again without turning around, replies “It keeps ignoramuses like you out of med school.”


An Early Conservationist

Posted by jns on 7 September 2009

This is Congressman John Fletcher Lacey (1841 – 1913).* Mr. Lacey came to my attention while I was writing a short article on the introduction of starlings to North America (“Starlings Arrive in North America“), of all things. Just how his name came up should become clear shortly.

Here is my abridged version of his official biography (Biographical Directory of the United States Congress):

Representative from Iowa; born in New Martinsville, Va. (now West Virginia), May 30, 1841; moved to Iowa in 1855 with his parents, who settled in Oskaloosa; attended the common schools and pursued classical studies; engaged in agricultural pursuits; learned the trades of bricklaying and plastering; enlisted in Company H, Third Regiment, Iowa Volunteer Infantry, in May 1861[; ...] studied law; was admitted to the bar in 1865 and commenced practice in Oskaloosa, Iowa; [...] elected as a Republican to the Fifty-first Congress (March 4, 1889-March 3, 1891); unsuccessful candidate for reelection; elected to the Fifty-third and to the six succeeding Congresses (March 4, 1893-March 3, 1907); chairman, Committee on Public Lands (Fifty-fourth through Fifty-ninth Congresses); was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection; resumed the practice of law; died in Oskaloosa, Iowa, September 29, 1913….

These days we’d find it exceedingly odd to find the name of someone associated with the Republican party to be a leading conservationist, but times have changed and Lacey is remembered for two important legislative innovations in conservation: “The Lacey Act of 1900″, and “The Antiquities Act of 1906″.

The Lacey Act of 1900“, sponsored by the congressman, was “the first Federal law protecting game, prohibiting the interstate shipment of illegally taken wildlife, as well as the importation of injurious species. Enforcement of this Act became the responsibility of the Division of Biological Survey, U.S. Department of Agriculture.” (source) The ban on the importation of “injurious species” was the connection with starlings and their introduction to North America, although the legislation came 10 years too late to halt that process.

A curious article from the Thoreau Institute (“State Fish & Wildlife Agencies“) gives some background to the Lacey Act:

A legal tradition dating back thousands of years governed wildlife by a “rule of capture”–meaning that they are owned by no one unless killed or captured. Under U.S. common law, wildlife are owned by the people, and the states, rather than federal or local governments, have jurisdiction over their use.

Therefore, regulation of “market hunting” was up to the states. Some few did regulate the practice in the late 1800s, but most did not. This resulted in the common evasive practice of animals being killed illegally in one state and transported into another, where killing them was legal, for sale.

Efforts to ban or regulate commercial hunting accelerated in 1887 when Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell started the Boone and Crockett Club, which soon became the most powerful conservation organization in the country. The club is not as well known today, partly because it restricts its membership to 100 people, but those 100 people tend to be highly influential.

Bans on commercial hunting were difficult to enforce when hunters could take their wares across state lines. In 1900, Boone and Crockett Club member and Iowa Congressman John Lacey convinced Congress to pass a federal law prohibiting interstate shipping of wildlife taken in violation of a state game law. This effectively put commercial hunters out of business.

The Lacey Act was signed into law on May 25, 1900 by President William McKinley.

By the time Lacey introduced “The Antiquities Act of 1906“, Congress had already been creating national parks for some 40 years, including Yosemite Valley, Yellowstone National Park, General Grant, Sequoia, Mount Ranier, and Casa Grande and Mesa Verde. (source). It was concern about vandalism and theft of antiquities from the two historic Indian sites that prompted the Antiquities Act. The bill, signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt on June 8, 1906, gave the President authority to restrict the use of particular public land owned by the federal government by using an executive order to designate a “national monument”. The first use of the act: Roosevelt proclaimed Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming, on September 24, 1906. (source)

While I was researching Congressman Lacey’s contributions I came across one more interesting one worth noting, this having to do with the “Jefferson Bible”. You may recall that this refers to Thomas Jefferson’s highly abridged version of the New Testament in which he cut out all the miraculous and mystical stuff he didn’t care for and kept the better ethical teachings of Jesus, ending up with a slim, svelt 82-page volume. The work has been published on several occasions, notably the Beacon Press, associated with the Unitarian Church.

Here reporter Cathrine Dunn (“Jefferson Bible returns to publication“) takes up the story:

In 1886 Cyrus Adler found the book, which had been passed down through the Jefferson family. He bought the original copy and donated it to the National Museum – now the Smithsonian Institution – where Iowa Congressman John Lacey happened upon it at the turn of the century [i.e., c1900].

It was Lacey who initiated the idea of publishing the book, introducing legislation in Congress that would fund the printing and distribution of the Jefferson Bible to all senators and representatives at the start of their terms.

Lacey saw the book as an important “moral basis for representatives,” said Bellevue University economics professor Judd Patton. “For a good government, we need to have good leaders with moral principles.”

For unknown reasons the Government Printing Office stopped publishing the book in 1957, and its distribution to new congressional members ceased.

* Image source: collection National Conservation Training Center, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.