Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book Review – A Tear At The Edge of Creation

Sometimes books jump out at you.

While I was last at the bookstore I was walking along the isles and found a book sitting out of place on a table. It seemed interesting enough, so I picked it up.

The book is A Tear at the Edge of Creation by Marcelo Gleiser. The main notion of the book is that science in general (and physics/cosmology in specific) is fixated on trying to find unified theories that are beautifully elegant and simple. There's a belief that there must be a simplest, unified form from which all natural laws spring, if only we could understand it.

Marcelo's argument is that perhaps it's time to give up on this idea; To get past the notion that the universe must inherently make sense and that all forces must be tied together by some uniting background symmetry that unites everything into a great “Oneness”. He suggests this idea is rooted in monotheistic religion and is baseless as the faiths themselves. Instead, he suggests, we should look at the universe from the point of view of asymmetries.

This is best summarized in his chapter entitled “Science of the Gaps”. He states:
unification begins where our current theories stop. What we don't know, unification will explain. As science advances and we learn more about Nature and its violation of symmetries, unification, to its humiliation, gets squeezed into an ever-shrinking gap. Theories are hastily revised, parameters are shifted, the whole mission of unification gets redefined.
Obviously, he is making reference to the God of the Gaps fallacy, implying that now, we scientists are relying on faith to suppose that our remaining gaps will be filled by a single theory. However, there's some obvious differences Gleiser ignores; Namely, God has never successfully filled a gap. When we've looked into the gap, it's not been God, it's always been something else. Meanwhile, the expectation that forces will unify has filled many gaps.

As he points out, time and time again, nature has proven us wrong. At one time we held that atoms were the smallest, indivisible units that tied all matter together. But those fundamental units weren't the quintessential building blocks. Nor were the protons, neutrons and electrons that made those up. Nor were even the hadrons. The rabbit hole is much deeper than we've ever suspected and aside from our desires that it will, there is no actual evidence to suggest that there is an end.

To illustrate the point, Marcelo discusses several of the problems facing particle physicists today in which symmetry is apparently being violated. Charge and Parity have both seen to be violated with exotic subatomic particles. New particles have been proposed to rectify this, but have not (yet) been discovered. Will they be?

While I agree with this point, I feel the author's claims are somewhat overstated. Although I'm sure there is a large contingent that holds a belief in a final theory that will unify all branches of knowledge, I've never really felt that anyone has ever expected this to truly be the end. Sure, we can tie everything we know about together, but what of the things we don't know about? Are we really so arrogant to assume we've discovered enough about the universe to truly say when we've reached the end? I find science to be much the opposite: It's a humbling experience that is constantly reminding us how much there is to discover and we exalt in the joy of doing so. Regardless of whether there is an end or not, we'll keep exploring. Meanwhile, names like the “Theory of Everything” are overstated, but I look at it in much the same way as naming new telescopes: We have to call them something. And given we keep making them bigger, it's no surprise that our descriptions of their size are often somewhat hyperbolic. It would be more appropriately named a "Theory of Everything (we know about right now)".

But what of the claims that we should abandon the notion that things must be “beautiful” and “symmetric”. The symmetry argument has worked well in the past. It's led to the discovery of new sub-atomic particles when charge symmetry has been violated. But Marcelo points out it hasn't panned out so well in the search for things like magnetic monopoles or anti-mater. The latter we know exists, but for some reason, there's far more matter in the universe than anti-matter (thank goodness). Meanwhile, magnetic monopoles haven't been discovered at all. So “theories are hastily revised” to constantly explain why. We're constraining where they could be, but only on one end. Are we to forever chase it to infinity?

The “beauty” concept is one that I can't get on board with. To me, the idea that a solution for a problem must be “beautiful” is a ridiculous concept due to a loose definition of the concept itself. As is said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Obviously not an objective standard. It's much the same problem as trying to define the second law of thermodynamics as dealing with “order” and “disorder”. Many times you can call a system either, depending on how you look at it.

One of my favorite parts of this book came later in as the author discussed the realization that there is an inherent asymmetry in life: our proteins all share the same chirality. This was initially discovered by Pasteur and Gleiser walks the reader through the feat of the discovery (which also fundamentally linked biological life to molecular roots). He finishes it with a quote from one of Pasteur's contemporaries that is a good summary of the excitement that such discoveries can cause:
My dear child, I have loved science so much throughout my life that his makes my heart throb.
Gleiser discusses why life may have selected this chirality posing several possible scenarios. Although it was unlikely, the one that most interested me was the potential that it was due to an interaction with neutrinos which only appear in a "left-handed" form. If this was the case, then any life would have a preference for similar chirality. This would put a wrench in the works of looking for the "shadow biosphere" Davies wrote about in Eerie Silence. However, Gleiser dismisses this possibility because the interactions are not strong enough to create a statistically significant initial preference. Oh well. Fun to think about.

So what was the grand conclusion of this book? It seemed to be that we need to give up the idea that there is a single underlying cause to everything that we should try to figure out. In the last few chapters, Gleiser discusses the potential for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe concluding that there is no imperative for intelligence to evolve (although simplistic life is probable). With no divine guardian and no guarantee that if we fail, other intelligent life will surely rise, that makes us, as a species, even more unique and special. If we realize this specialness, we should to more to protect it.

Overall, I think it's a nice sentiment, but it's not especially well supported. While I agree that there's no fundamental reason to assume that there will be a complete unification of everything, it's a methodology that has worked well in the past. Gleiser even acknowledges this. What I don't think he gives enough credit to, is that, even with this assumption, scientists can do perfectly well because we're very good at compartmentalizing. Essentially, although we'd like to eventually get to some sort of unification, we'll work on this little corner over here for now. Unification will come later. The way Gleiser paints it, everyone's so busy trying to fit everything into the big picture, science is about to fall apart because they're not focusing in enough on things that may well not be connectible. Perhaps the people in his crowd do, but I absolutely disagree that it's a prevailing condition of science.

Furthermore, I just can't get onboard with the idea of "beauty". I did have an encounter with a professor that was very into this concept, but he couldn't really define it. As such, it seemed pretty useless. Gleiser doesn't define it either. Thus, the substantial portion of the book devoted to it is pretty useless as well. I've seen people describe the Friedmann-Walker metric described as beautiful. I don't get it. I think it's pretty nasty. I think the universe would be much more beautiful if everything could boil down to very simple quadratics. I like those. So again, what one person deems "beautiful", another may not.

What I do find beauty in, is that we can write equations that accurately describe the workings of the universe. But in my book, the beauty comes from them working. Them being beautiful doesn't tell me that they'll work as Gleiser seems to imply they will. It seems he's stuck in a circular logic loop in which they work which makes them beautiful which makes them work which makes them beautiful..... And somehow you can start at either point. If he ever believed this (or other scientists do) then I'd say they have a serious problem, but again, it's not something I've ever viewed as pervasive in science.

The last thing that ate at me was Gleiser's frequent attacks on Dawkins and other "New" Atheists early on in the book. For no real reason, Gleiser chastised Dawkins for daring to call theists "deluded" (ie, The God Delusion) even though he Gleiser makes it perfectly clear that there is no reason to believe in that God. He goes on to ask if scientists are "deluded" for believing in unification. I'll have to go back to what I stated earlier: Unification has a track record of success. Thus, "believing" in it is not "deluded". So really what it boiled down to was Gleiser whining about the tone. That was not necessary in the book, especially since he goes on to use the exact same language as well.

Overall, the grand conclusions of this book weren't worth much. There was quite a bit of good science that may make it worthwhile. In general, this book may be worth it as a paperback, but don't blow the money for the hardback version.

Religious Views in the Classrooms

A new story has just come out about a Christian graduate student in Georgia being threatened with expulsion. I can't seem to find a good source on the story (hence the linking to Fox) because there's a few important questions that all the media outlets seem to forget to ask, and really, they're the important ones.

The story, as it's being told, is that the student, Jennifer Keeton, is working to be a school counselor, but due to her Christian views that discriminate against gays, she's being told to go through an extra remediation program. The question is, is this legitimate school practice for a failure on her part to comply to the American Counseling Association's code of ethics or is this a case of violation of free speech and religious freedoms?

As I'm seeing it, this is very close to another question that I've had to consider quite often: What should a science teacher/program do with students that are Creationists? Generally the answer to that question boils down to two main parts.

The first part is that, in order to receive a degree, students must show mastery of the material regardless of their beliefs. If I posed a test question on the age of the Earth, saying "I believe it's 6,000 years old" doesn't cut it. In the context of the subject, it's wrong. Students can't be stopped from holding that opinion or even expressing it at the appropriate time, but it can't be used as an excuse to not show that the student has learned the appropriate material. So the first question that needs to be asked (that no media outlet seems to), is whether or not Jennifer has been successfully completing assignments that demonstrate the understanding of the material, or whether she's simply responding with belief statements.

The second question is whether or not she's disrupting class time to argue her beliefs. In my teaching, the age of the Earth is a frequent topic. There's no way to get around it. If the first time I mentioned it a student wanted to voice their beliefs, I might spend some time exploring it, but after that, it's been covered and, unless there's something new and relevant to add, it's a closed topic. If a student continued to argue every time the topic was mentioned, then absolutely, they should be removed from the class. And if that class was a core requirement for their degree, then likely, this would mean the program as well.

Thus, if a student is demonstrating mastery of the material, remaining appropriate in class, and only voicing beliefs at appropriate times, then there should be absolutely no reason to deny them a grade or a degree.

So is Jennifer doing this? The video interview here makes me somewhat suspicious that she is. There, she says,
I have, on a few occasions, shared my biblical convictions and views in assignments, in class discussions, and with other students.
Furthermore, in the Motion for Preliminary Injunction, it is made apparent that Jennifer has been trying to push for the acceptance "conversion therapy" among other students. This would clearly violate both of the questions I'd asked; Doing this shows that she has rejected class curriculum and doing so attempts to undermine the other students education with a "therapy" that studies have shown to be ineffective and quite often dangerous. She makes it clear that she cannot affirm a homosexual lifestyle which would compromise her qualifications as a counselor. Clearly, this was something she'd intended to take with her to her chosen profession, thereby making her wholly unfit. As such, there's absolutely no way she should receive a degree certifying that she is.

Sadly, as is often the case, I think Jennifer is likely to win this lawsuit because the school handled the events poorly by insisting (and then not insisting, and then insisting again, then not insisting....) that she change her base views instead of demonstrating the ability to address them in an appropriate manner and not advocate disproven methods.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Kepler's Magic

An Indian news outlet is reporting a major discovery.

Kepler has found planets that are "Earth-like containing both land and water". And not just one, but potentially 140 of them. With oceans.

This is some amazing work. Especially given that Kepler works by looking at the light curves of stars to look for periodic dips as the potential planet would pass in front of the star and NOT through the spectroscopic data that would, you know, allow us to actually analyze chemical composition to look for water.

And furthermore, finding planets like the article implies would require similar orbits of about a one year period. And since Kepler has barely been in orbit a year, noticing a periodic trend with only one possible data point is pretty amazing work too.

In fact, it's so impressive, it's impossible. It's magic.

Probably has something to do with why the real scientists working on the Kepler mission haven't bothered to report anything about this on their discoveries page.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Book Review - The Eerie Silence

Awhile back, I wrote a review of Perfect Rigor by Masha Gessen. It was ok. Not the most thrilling read I'd had. The publisher found my review and suggested that another book from their company might be more up my alley. So they sent me a review copy of Paul Davies The Eerie Silence. This book is a 50 year retrospective on the SETI program, written by the head of it's post detection taskforce.

The role of the post detection taskforce is to lay out the recommended policy for the procedure to follow if we ever do discover any sort of extraterrestrial life. But the book isn't about what we'll do, it's about why we haven't found any yet and what possible improvements can be done to improve the program in order to up our chances of actually detecting something.

The main argument of the book is that we've been far too narrow in both our methods of looking as well as our definition of life and intelligence.

One of the first things Davies asks is how likely is it that there is some other form of life out there? We know all life on Earth had a common origin, so we've really only got one example to study and try to understand. Small number statistics impress no one (aside from the pseudoscientists). Thus, to even begin to get a reasonable predictive handle on such things, we'd like to try to find another example of life. SETI could stumble across this in the heavens, or it's possible that it's right here on Earth.

Davies suggests that we look for forms of life on Earth that don't use the same base pairs (or amino acids) that life as we know does. Or life that has an opposite "handedness" (chirality) to it. If these were discovered, it would likely imply a second example of biogenesis and we could start getting a feel for how likely life is to originate in the first place. Although attempts have been made to look for such life (by looking in the most extreme environments in which "normal" life was not expected to exist), the only life that's been found has always been of the same base pairs and the same chirality.

But even without forming full fledged life, Davies points out that amino acids are plentiful in space, including ones that aren't used for life as we know it, as indicated by the Murchinson Meteorite.

Of course, even if weird life were discovered here on Earth (or in rocks from space) it doesn't necessarily prove a completely separate biogenesis. While it would lend credence to it, there's always the possibility that it came from a different branch of our own evolutionary tree or due to some sort of horizontal gene transfer. This would obviously muddy the waters.

On top of that, Davies suggests that looking for odd lifeforms like this may be another way to find messages from extraterrestrial civilizations. ET may use life as a carrier since it's essentially a self sustaining message that can propagate itself. And even if not life, then perhaps nano-machines that can self replicate to spread. Such methods would be more enduring than a short radio message.

If this all starts sounding too close to Intelligent Design, Davies is quick to assure us it's not. In fact, one of the very first parts of the book discusses the difference between good science and pseudoscience, namely that good science must actually work through the math to show just how closely the evidence fits the hypothesis through use of Bayes rules. Although the Discovery Institute is desparate to be similar to SETI, they've never done any such analysis, or even made a hypothesis to be actually testable.

Davies concludes by briefly discussing the post detection sequence, affirming an open and honest dispersal of the information, but a quiet one so as not to get the media all fired up over the possibility of a false positive (as they have before). After all, we've seen the devastation that the media misportraying science can have of the public view with the recent "Climategate" nonsense.

Overall, this book was pretty good. The extreme edge of what Davies proposed (super computer AI taking over in place of life, growing into quantum computers and living in deep space, not communicating with the outside world), goes a bit beyond the believable, but that's the point. We don't have enough information to truly make any good predictions about intelligent life so we need to keep an open mind and open eyes.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Oh hey look! A post!

It's been awhile since I've posted anything here. June got busy. I hit several conventions last month that kept me out on the weekends. The first was OMGCon down in Paducah, KY. This tiny convention had almost nothing of interest for me aside from the costuming competition. I ended up with an award for Best Prop for my Rossiu costume from Gurren Lagann, complete with the Spiral King's head. But other than that, that con was pretty disappointing.

Tokyo in Tulsa, meanwhile, was fantastic. No awards there, but I did get another chance to present my Anime Mythbusters panel. As I got to the room 10 minutes before the panel started, there was already a line down the hall waiting for it. The staff had to switch me to a larger room and there was still standing room only. It went over extremely well. I'll be presenting the panel again at Natsu Con in St. Louis in two weeks!

I also finished up teaching for the semester. Despite all the difficulties teachers face, and the numerous struggles, it's still an amazing and rewarding job. Instead of giving a final test to my Bio I class, I had them do a final paper on their choice of topics from Biotechnology. A few of the papers were absolutely amazing in their level of writing. I had one student that went to primary sources in the journals to get information. Although he didn't understand much of it, the fact that he went so far and was able to get anything was fantastic.

On the other hand, I did have one student that handed in a rough draft for me to review. There were several phrases that sounded far more intelligent that anything I expected from the student. A quick Google search later and I found his primary source. Being that it was a rough draft, I told him to redo it and that plagiarism wasn't acceptable. A second rough draft was handed in a few days later and still, it was 90% copied word for word. Again, I handed it back and told him it would have to be redone. When the final draft came in, it was still so rife with plagiarized material that I gave it a 0%.

This was extremely frustrating because in so many other respects, the student was excellent. Prior to that paper, he maintained high A's. But this lack of academic integrity just destroyed the 4.0 that he had longed for. Oops.

In the meantime, I'm trying to finish up my teaching certification this summers. I've been going through the ABCTE program. As I'd been warned (by my mother who's been in education for most of her life), most of what they have to say is common sense; It's just a matter of learning the buzzwords. Sadly this is rather monotonous and progress has been slow.

I recently finished a new book. I was somewhat disinclined to read anything after that trash by FINIFID but completed The Eerie Silence last night. A review will come as soon as I have time to collect my notes and thoughts.

Anyone remember that Katy Perry parody I posted a link to back in January? Well, they finally got a music video together for it. A few people I know worked on it (Geoff from Naka Kon, and Emery Emery who is married to one of the officers that was in SOMA with me).

Last night I hit a 3D showing of Last Airbender. The show on which the movie was based has been fairly popular at cons, so I figured I might as well watch it since it's available on Netflix's instant streaming queue. So last week I watched the first season and was anticipating the movie. Sadly, it didn't live up to expectations. I'm pretty sure that even seeing the movie first and knowing nothing about the series, the movie would still have been awful. One of the most fundamental conventions in writing is "show, not tell." Events should be witnessed and not just mentioned by characters or the narrator. The movie shucked this and summed up major plot points with little more than a sentence. Much of the character development was treated with the same disrespect. This was absolutely not a movie worth seeing.

Unfortunately, I also missed the midnight showing of the new Twilight movie. I'll still see it because I need the laugh. After how funny the last one was, I expect great things from Eclipse.