Posts tagged ‘physics’

I Don't Get It

I refuse to follow the ins and outs of polls and the horserace aspects of elections.  But I couldn't miss all the blog activity that somehow Nate Silver is purposefully corrupting his election predictions for some partisan reason.

A physics professor once used to tell us that if we don't even know the sign of the answer, then we should assume we have no understanding of what is going on.  Well, I don't even know the sign of the answer here.  Would a partisan inflate Obama's predicted chances of winning, thus giving him some sort of momentum?  Are there voters who just want to be on the winning side and vote on election day for whomever they think is going to win?  Or would a partisan make his man look worse in order to panic the base and make sure they get out and vote?

Looking for Help on Tesla Battery

I have read a number of stories about how Tesla batteries become bricked if they are completely discharged.  What I have not seen is an explanation of the physics or chemistry of why this is true.  Can anyone explain it or give me a pointer to an explanation?  Certainly if this happened to, say, iPod batteries we would have had torches and pitchforks outside of Cupertino long ago.

The Media and Cancer Risks

The old saying goes, "where there is smoke, there's fire."  I think we all are at least subconciously suceptible to thinking this way vis a vis the cancer risks in the media.  We hear so much about these risks that, even if the claims seem absurd, we worry if there isn't something there.  After all, if the media is concerned, surely the balance of evidence must be at least close - there is probably a small risk or increase in mortality.

Not so.  Take cell phones.  We have heard for decades concern about cancer risk from cell phones.  But they are not even close to dangerous, missing danger levels by something like 5 and a half orders of magnitude.

Cell phones do not cause cancer. They do not even theoretically cause cancer. Why? Because they simply do not produce the type of electromagnetic radiation that is capable of causing cancer. Michael Shermer explains, using basic physics:

...known carcinogens such as x-rays, gamma rays and UV rays have energies greater than 480 kilojoules per mole (kJ/mole), which is enough to break chemical bonds... A cell phone generates radiation of less than 0.001 kJ/mole. That is 480,000 times weaker than UV rays...

If the radiation from cell phones cannot break chemical bonds, then it is not possible for cell phones to cause cancer, no matter what the World Health Organization thinks. And just to put the "possible carcinogen" terminology into perspective, the WHO also considers coffee to be a possible carcinogen. Additionally, it appears that politics and ideology may have trumped science in the WHO's controversial decision.

Krugman Unintended Irony: Anyone Who Does Not Unquestioningly Believe Authorities is Anti-Science


It's a wonder how, when over "97 percent to 98 percent" of scientific authorities accepted the Ptolomeic view of the solar system that we ever got past that.  Though I could certainly understand why in the current economy a die-hard Keynesian might be urging an appeal to authority rather than thinking for oneself.

When, by the way, did the children of the sixties not only lose, but reverse their anti-authoritarian streak?

Postscript:  I have always really hated the nose-counting approach to measuring the accuracy of a scientific hypothesis.  If we want to label something as anti-science, how about using straw polls of scientists as a substitute for fact-based arguments?

Yes indeed, the number of people in the newly made-up profession of "climate science" that are allowed by the UN control the content of the IPCC reports and whose funding is dependent on global warming being scary probably is very high.  The number of people in traditional scientific fields like physics, geology, chemistry, oceanography and meteorology who never-the-less study climate related topics that wholeheartedly are all-in for catastrophic man-made global warming theory would be very different

 Decide for yourself - see my video on global warming.  Am I anti-science?

The Observer Effect and Using Google for Social Science

I thought this was an interesting quick and dirty social study using Google. (via Knowledge Problem)

For any individual study you can validly say that you think the estimate is too low, or indeed, too high, and give reasons for that. For instance, you might say that your sample was mainly young people who tend to be healthier than the general public, or maybe that the diagnostic tools are known to miss some true cases.

But when we look at reporting as a whole, it almost always says the condition is likely to be much more common than the estimate.

For example, have a look at the results of this Google search:

"the true number may be higher" 20,300 hits

"the true number may be lower" 3 hits

I often tell folks that the key to understanding behavior is to understand incentives. The media as institutions have incentives to sensationalize and scare (it sells papers) and as individual reporters have incentives to magnify the importance of whatever story he or she is working on.

But what I found really interesting was how the Observer effect comes into play here.  Wikipedia has this brief definition of the observer effect:

In physics, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on the phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner.

Click on the Google hit numbers above.  I get 42,700 and 5,360 respectively, the increase presumably due in part to this article and links to it.  Its impossible to report on patterns in Google searches without the very fact of such reporting affecting what is being measured.

Things I Didn't Know

As both a computer geek and a WWII buff, I of course know something of Alan Turing's incredible contributions to both.  I also knew he was gay, but didn't think much about it.  What I didn't know was how horribly he was abused by the British government, actions for which the government has now appologized:

In 1952, he was convicted of "˜gross indecency' -- in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence -- and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison -- was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

A lot more at the link.  I am constantly amazed at how we tend to elevate the mediocre while treating the truly great so shabbily.

Postscript: The most entertaining way to learn something about Turing, albeit in fictionalized form, is to read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, one of my favorite books.  The story is good (not great, but good) but the writing is just fabulous.  Who else could entertain one for page after page on the physics of eating Cap'n Crunch cereal?

Vampiric Regeneration

How can you get free power?  Well, one way is to steal it from other people.  And if you steal it in small enough bites from a lot of people, they may never notice.

This seems to be the basic idea in this article in the Guardian, whose author clearly attended lots of journalism classes while studiously avoiding any class that might have made mention of the first law of thermodynamics.

"Green" speed bumps that will generate electricity as cars drive over them are to be introduced on Britain's roads. The hi-tech "sleeping policemen" will power street lights, traffic lights and road signs in a pilot scheme in London that could be rolled out nationwide.

Speed bumps have long been the bane of motorists' lives, but these will capture the kinetic energy of vehicles.

Peter Hughes, the designer behind the idea, said: "They are speed bumps, but they are not like conventional speed bumps. They don't damage your car or waste petrol when you drive over them - and they have the added advantage that they produce energy free of charge." An engineer who formerly advised the United Nations on renewable energy sources, Hughes added: "If it [the energy] wasn't harnessed by the speed bumps, it would go to waste."

The ramps - which cost between £20,000 and £55,000, depending on size - consist of a series of panels set in a pad virtually flush to the road. As the traffic passes over it, the panels go up and down, setting a cog in motion under the road. This then turns a motor, which produces mechanical energy. A steady stream of traffic passing over the bump can generate 10-36kW of power.

OK, I am willing to believe that you might be able to recover some net energy from a system with this kind of dynamic speed bump replacing an existing static bump  (but I am skeptical, and would want to see the math).  Of course, if you really have a road with a speed bump and so much traffic that it will generate this much power and repay a large investment, then you probably have a road/traffic design issue.

But the article seems to be positing that towns could install these as flat devices --"virtually flush to the road" --  that drivers would hardly notice.  Power from these devices would help the town power its lights and other devices.  But unless these guys have invented the perpetual motion machine, there is no free energy to be had here.  In fact, due to that nasty old spoil-sport, the second law of thermodynamics, there has to be a total system loss.  The device might only steal the equivalent energy of a thousandth of a gallon of gas from each driver, so the driver of each car won't really notice, but the total system expenditure of the thousands of drivers who power the device will still be there, just hidden.  This is a new stealth tax on drivers, dressed up in green clothing.

Next up:  Britain proposes to put windmills on the roofs of electric cars as a power source.  After all, when you are driving at 60 miles per hour, all that wind energy coming past your car is just lost, right?  Once you got the car up to speed, it would just generate its own electricity.  LOL.  I shouldn't laugh, there is probably a billion or so for this in Obama's stimulus bill.

via Tom Nelson.

Last One -- Thank God

My kids' middle school has a tradition among 5th and 6th graders that once a year each student creates a science model out of food.  The kids love it, because they get to eat them after each presentation.  But all we parents know how stressful science fair projects can be.  Trying to create a meaningful science display from only edible materials is really a pain.  We pretty much nuked the kitchen this Sunday and spent all day with this.  But it's the last one!  And it came out pretty well -- this is my daughter's "physics of the circus."


PS - TGFF - Thank God For Fondant, a material used in making fancy cakes that you can think of as edible clay.  The materials here are graham cracker, Hershey bar, and sugar wafer stands, gum drop and lemon ball audience, frosted vanilla cake for the platforms, pretzels for the posts, licorice for the ropes, donuts for the cannon and the hoop, and fondant for the animals and people.  And two full pounds of royal icing to glue everything together.

PSS - One of the things you discover about food is that despite the incredible amount of quality control on its composition and taste, there is not much quality control on its construction properties.  Pretzel rods that always seemed straight enough turn out to be, when you come to actually build something from them, more warped than picked-over Home Depot lumber.  Ditto graham crackers.  Mini donut sizes vary tremendously.  Licorice tensile strength that always seemed fine turns out to be woefully inadequate.  And don't even get me started on gumdrop repeatability.

Some Thoughts on Peer Review

Some thoughts on the obsession with peer review as the gold standard guarantee of climate science goodness, from Climate Skeptic:

One of the weird aspects of climate science is the over-emphasis on peer
review as the ne plus ultra guarantor of believable results.  This is absurd. 
At best, peer review is a screen for whether a study is worthy of occupying
limited publication space, not for whether it is correct.  Peer review, again at
best, focuses on whether a study has some minimum level of rigor and coherence
and whether it offers up findings that are new or somehow advance the ball on an
important topic. 

In "big
boy sciences
" like physics, study findings are not considered vetted simply
because they are peer-reviewed.  They are vetted only after numerous other
scientists have been able to replicate the results, or have at least failed to
tear the original results down.  Often, this vetting process is undertaken by
people who may even be openly hostile to the original study group.  For some
reason, climate scientists cry foul when this occurs in their profession, but
mathematicians and physicists accept it, because they know that findings need to
be able to survive the scrutiny of enemies, not just of friends.  To this end,
an important part of peer review is to make sure the publication of the study
includes all the detail on methodology and data that others might need to
replicate the results  (which is something climate reviewers are particularly bad at).

In fact, there are good arguments to be made that strong peer review may even
be counter-productive to scientific advancement.  The reason is that peer
review, by the nature of human beings and the incentives they tend to have, is
often inherently conservative.  Studies that produce results the community
expects often receive only cursory scrutiny doled out by insiders chummy with
the authors.  Studies that show wildly unexpected results sometimes have trouble
getting published at all.

 As I read this, it strikes me that one way to describe
climate is that it acts like a social science, like sociology or gender studies,
rather than like a physical science.  I will ahve to think about this -- it
would be an interesting hypothesis to expand on in more depth.  Some quick
parallels of why I think it is more like a social science:

  • Bad statistical methodology  (a hallmark, unfortunately, of much of social
  • Emphasis on peer review over replication
  • Reliance on computer models rather than observation
  • Belief there is a "right" answer for society with subsequent bias to study
    results towards that answer  (example,
    and another

Advice to Climate Alarmists

If you are going to lecture skeptics on science, it is probably a good practice not to begin with an analogy that gets the most basic physics incorrect (hint:  the fact that falling objects of different masses fall at the same rate has been "settled science" since the late 1500s).  Also, using the children's book "If you give a mouse a cookie..." as proof of the existence of positive feedback loops will not be very persuasive to practitioners of big-boy physical sciences and other non-post-modernist researchers.

Steve McIntyre Comments on Historical Temperature Adjustments

Steve McIntyre, the statistician than called into question much of the methodology behind the Mann Hockey Stick chart, has some observations on adjustments to US temperature records I discussed here and here.

Eli Rabett and Tamino have both advocated faith-based climate
science in respect to USHCN and GISS adjustments. They say that the
climate "professionals" know what they're doing; yes, there are
problems with siting and many sites do not meet even minimal compliance
standards, but, just as Mann's "professional" software was able to
extract a climate signal from the North American tree ring data, so
Hansen's software is able to "fix" the defects in the surface sites.
"Faith-based" because they do not believe that Hansen has any
obligation to provide anything other than a cursory description of his
software or, for that matter, the software itself. But if they are
working with data that includes known bad data, then critical
examination of the adjustment software becomes integral to the
integrity of the record - as there is obviously little integrity in
much of the raw data.

While acolytes may call these guys "professionals", the process of
data adjustment is really a matter of statistics and even accounting.
In these fields, Hansen and Mann are not "professionals" - Mann
admitted this to the NAS panel explaining that he was "not a
statistician". As someone who has read their works closely, I do not
regard any of these people as "professional". Much of their reluctance
to provide source code for their methodology arises, in my opinion,
because the methods are essentially trivial and they derive a certain
satisfaction out of making things appear more complicated than they
are, a little like the Wizard of Oz. And like the Wizard of Oz, they
are not necessarily bad men, just not very good wizards.

He goes on to investigate a specific example the "professionals" use
as a positive example, demonstrating they appear to have a Y2K error in
their algorithm.   This is difficult to do, because like Mann, government scientists maintaining a government temperature data base taken from government sites paid for with taxpayer funds refuse to release their methodology or algorithms for inspection.

In the case cited, the "professionals" also make adjustments that imply the site has
decreasing urbanization over the last 100 years, something I am not
sure one can say about any site in the US except perhaps for a few
Colorado ghost towns.  The "experts" also fail to take the basic step of actually analyzing the site itself which, if visited, would reveal recently installed air conditioning unites venting hot air on the temperature instrument.   

A rebuttal, arguing that poor siting of temperature instruments is OK and does not affect the results is here.  I find rebuttals of this sort really distressing.  I studied physics for a while, before switching to engineering, and really small procedural mistakes in measurement could easily invalidate one's results.  I find it amazing that climate scientists seek to excuse massive mistakes in measurement.  I'm sorry, but in no other branch of science are results considered "settled" when the experimental noise is greater than the signal.  I would really, really, just for once, love to see a anthropogenic global warming promoter say "well, I don't think the siting will change the results, but you are right, we really need to go back and take another pass at correcting historical temperatures based on more detailed analysis of the individual sites."

Diminishing Return

I know a number of readers are tired of my writing about climate, so I am instead taking a shot at writing a comprehensive skeptic's argument on Anthropogenic Global Warming.  A free pdf will be available for download next week, with a bound copy available for purchase at manufacturing cost.

In the mean time, Luboš Motl presents one of the core skeptics arguments, that CO2 heat absorption is a diminishing return relationship to concentration, making frequent predictions of runaway climate scenarios a real head-scratcher.

In terms of numbers, we have already completed 40% of the task to
double the CO2 concentration from 0.028% to 0.056% in the atmosphere.
However, these 40% of the task have already realized about 2/3 of the
warming effect attributable to the CO2 doubling. So regardless of the
sign and magnitude of the feedback effects, you can see that physics
predicts that the greenhouse warming between 2007 and 2100 is predicted
to be one half (1/3 over 2/3) of the warming that we have seen between
the beginning of industrialization and this year. For example, if the
greenhouse warming has been 0.6 Celsius degrees, we will see 0.3
Celsius degrees of extra warming before the carbon dioxide
concentration doubles around 2100.

It's just like when you want
your bedroom to be white. You paint it once, twice, thrice. But when
you're painting it for the sixteenth time, you may start to realize
that the improvement after the sixteenth round is no longer that

If CO2 is not responsible for all the 0.6C of historic warming (a proposition for which there are good arguments) then future warming is even less.  Read it all for more detail, or look for my paper next week which covers this topic and many, many others in more depth.  There are lots of complications - aerosols, dimming, feedbacks - that are discussed in the paper.

Socialism in an Engineering Article

I am writing a paper on climate models, and an important part of that discussion is on positive feedback (most climate models get large changes in future climate through the liberal use of positive feedback assumptions).  I was looking around the Internet for a nice pithy explanation of positive feedback.  This one on Wikipedia was fine, until I got wacked in the face with the last line (emphasis added)

The end result of a positive feedback is often amplifying
and "explosive." That is, a small perturbation will result in big
changes. This feedback, in turn, will drive the system even further
away from its own original setpoint, thus amplifying the original perturbation signal, and eventually become explosive because the amplification often grows exponentially
( with the first order positive feedback), or even hyperbolically (with
the second order positive feedback). An intuitive example is "the rich
get richer, and the poor get poorer."

Wow, intuitive?  How can a statement that is wrong in at least two major ways be intuitive?  First, the poor generally do not get poorer.  In fact, the poor in the United States are in many ways better off than the richest men of the mid-nineteenth century (particular example linked is for the middle class, but many of the same arguments hold for the poor), and better off than the middle class of many nations.  Second, while it might be arguable that there is a positive feedback loop that helps the rich get richer, no such loop is even possible with the very poorest.  Without going into too much detail, the simplest explanation is that with income you can't go below zero.  What people really mean by this statement is that the poor get poorer relative to the rich, rather than on an absolute scale.  Which of course has little to do with positive feedback.  By the way, the rest of the article is equally bizarre, giving more examples of social phenomena that are only weakly linked to positive feedback (Internet echo chamber effect?) rather than physical processes.  It looks like a physics article written by a politics major.

Here are some alternative non-socialist examples of positive feedback from the physical world that actually have the virtue of being true:  Nuclear fission, some exothermic chemical reactions, and acoustic feedback.  In actuality, since positive feedback reactions are so explosive and unstable, they are very uncommon in nature, which is part of the argument against how climate models are constructed.

If you don't know the connection between climate models and positive feedback, see here

What Do We Know and How Well Do We Know It

"Consensus" is an absurd word to apply to science.  It is more accurate to say that we have a series of hypotheses about the universe with varying levels of confidence.  LuboÅ¡ Motl has a post to get all you physics geeks arguing:  His estimate of the probability certain hypotheses about the universe are correct.  Some examples:

  • 99.999% - String theory is a mathematically consistent theory
    including quantum gravity, even non-perturbatively, at least in some
    highly supersymmetric vacua
  • 99.999% - General relativity
    correctly predicts phenomena such as frame dragging and classical
    gravitational waves in the real world
  • 99.995% - Black holes exist  ...
  • 60% - At very high energy scales, a GUT theory with unified gauge
    interactions becomes more natural zeroth approximation: GUT is correct
  • 50% - Supersymmetry will be found at the LHC
  • 40%
    - The Hartle-Hawking wavefunction or its generalization that will
    require the author(s) to cite Hartle and Hawking correctly predicts
    non-trivial features of the initial conditions of the Universe...
  • 0.0001% - Loop quantum gravity, with the metric as the only and
    well-defined degree of freedom and with quantized area, is a correct
    description of gravity in the real world at the Planck scale
  • 0.00001%
    - One of the ESP phenomena measured in the Princeton lab actually
    exists and can be measured again with a similar equipment

Many more here.

Here are some of my own:

  • 95% - Probability that the Raiders, Browns, and Lions will all botch their first draft picks next weekend
  • 85% - Probability someone will introduce legislation in Congress in the next 7 days in direct response to the Va Tech shooting rampage
  • 80% - Probability that man-made CO2 is contributing a non-zero effect to global temperature
  • 70% - Probability that Barry Bonds will break the home run record this season
  • 60% - Probability that Prince Charles will ever serve as King of England
  • 50% - Probability that all-electric vehicles will make up more than 10% of the auto market in the US in ten years
  • 5% - Probability that man-made CO2 will contribute more than 2 degrees C warming in the next 50 years
  • 5% - Probability of meaningful earmark reform getting passed in Congress
  • 5% - Probability that ethanol or other bio fuels will make any measurable reduction in oil imports.
  • 1% - Probability that the costs of CO2 reduction will be less than the benefits of CO2 reduction
  • 1% - Probability that a true libertarian candidate will be elected president in the next 20 years

How Climate Science Works

When I was an undergraduate in physics, and later in engineering, we had this quaint process where we would conduct experiments and generate data, and from these results generate conclusions.

Climate science works differently.  First, political types and activists write the management summary in as alarming and as headlines-grabbing terms as they can, largely without the help or concurrence of the majority of the scientists involved in the study.  Then, they spend months modifying the underlying data, models, and scientific analysis to fit this management summary.

The summary of the most recent IPCC climate survey has already been released.  The body of the study, with the actual facts and models and stuff, has not been released (won't be for months) and carries this warning on the last draft:

"Changes (other than
grammatical or minor editorial changes) made after acceptance by the
Working Group or the Panel shall be those necessary to ensure
consistency with the Summary for Policymakers or the Overview Chapter.

Neptunists and the Vulcanists

I like reading about the history of science, and one of its more famous chapters is the debate between the Neptunists and the Vulcanists in early 19th century Great Britain.  At the risk of oversimplifying, the debate was over whether the earth's features (and life on it) were formed slowly over long periods, or relatively quickly through catastrophes.  Secondarily, it was about heat and fire vs. water as forces shaping the Earth (thus the names).  Eventually a consensus  (an actual consensus, not a declared one) developed that they were both right in some ways and both wrong in others. 

What struck me reading about this again over the weekend was that it took decades, and sometimes centuries, for this to sort out.  Take the part of this debate over extinction.  The initial consensus was that extinction was due to catastrophes, ala the Biblical flood.  Then Darwin came along and shifted the consensus away from catastrophes, showing that extinctions occurred in the normal order of species action-reaction to threats and opportunities.  And then in the 20th century, revisiting the K-T geologic layer we have come around to dinosaur extinction being catastrophic as a result of a big meteor.  Except nowadays there are scientists who think this is too simplistic.  Geology, in turn, made it all the way until the 1960's before anyone was even talking about plate tectonics, something that was still being derided in the 1970's but is fundamental to our understanding of numerous aspects of the earth today.

And so it goes in normal scientific inquiry.   Scientists expect it to take decades and generations to really shake out new theories and areas of inquiry.  Sometimes, as with Newton's laws of motion, we still accept the theory, though even here we have tweaked at the edges (e.g. relativity when things are moving fast) and exempted certain regions (e.g. quantum mechanics and the very small).  Other times, we have thrown theories that were cherished for decades completely away (e.g phlogistan).   After decades of work, string theory in physics could easily be thrown out completely and looked upon as the 20th century's phlogistan, or it could really be the theory of everything Einstein searched for in vain.

Which is all fine and expected, except when governments are standing by to make trillion-dollar choices, as they are in global warming, a scientific body of inquiry that is barely 20 years old.  Go back to any new scientific theory in its first 20-years, and think about the governments of the world betting the entire global economy on scientific understanding of that theory at that point in time.  It's pretty scary.  We'd probably have a 5-trillion dollar government controlled medical leach industry.

On Not Having A Clue

It would be tough for me to single out my single least favorite member of my alma mater Princeton's faculty.  However, Peter Singer would certainly be in the running.  TJIC fisks some of Singers recent writing in the NY Times.  I will leave you to read his thoughts, except I wanted to comment on this paragraph of Singer's:

"¦The rich must - or so some of us with less money like to assume -
suffer sleepless nights because of their ruthlessness in squeezing out
competitors, firing workers, shutting down plants or whatever else they
have to do to acquire their wealth"¦

I could probably write a book just from this quote, but let me just focus on two responses:

  • It helps prove my long-time observation that politicians, artists, and academics of a socialist bent who frequently criticize business have absolutely no idea what they do day to day or how they make money or create value.  Most have been an artist/academic/politician since the day they left school, and if they have held a real job in the value-creation part of the world, it is seldom as any type of manager or supervisor.  Singer knows no more about wealth creation than I do about sub-atomic particles.  The amazing thing, though, is that the NY Times would never quote me on sub-atomic particles but frequently gives Singer a platform to hold forth about wealth creation.  Economics is a science too, just as much as physics.  As I said in that linked post:

Economics is a science.  Willful ignorance or emotional
rejection of the well-known precepts of this science is at least as bad
as a fundamentalist Christian's willful ignorance of evolution science
(for which the Left so often criticizes their opposition).
fact, economic ignorance is much worse, since most people can come to
perfectly valid conclusions about most public policy issues with a
flawed knowledge of the origin of the species but no one can with a
flawed understanding of economics.

  • Read the statement, and really think about what he says, remembering that he really believes these exact words.  Forget about the squeezing out competitors part -- presumably we capitalists are just bashing each other so this is likely the least of his arguments (not to mention how many people Singer likely "squeezed out" in the competition for scarce tenure and professor positions at Princeton).  Think about his statement that the way wealth is created is by "firing workers" and "shutting down plants."  So the logical implication is that the corporation who ends up with no workers and not assets will be the richest?  And here all this time I have been stupidly growing my company by trying to hire more good people and add on productive assets. 

Singer is as qualified to write about business practices as I am to write about South East Asian mating rituals.  Each of us is equally experienced and knowlegeable about these topics.  Somehow, though, the NY Times sees fit to publish Singer and my beloved University pays him to teach.  Unbelievable.

Actual Expert Too Boring for TV

The Onion has a dead-on spoof of how major media selects "experts" for their articles.  The spoof is worth reading in total, but to give you a taste:

Dr. Gary Canton, a professor of applied nuclear physics and
energy-development technologies at MIT and a leading expert in American
nuclear-power applications, was rejected by MSNBC producers for being
"too boring for TV" Monday....

"[Canton] went on like that for six... long... minutes," ...
"Fact after mind-numbing fact. Then he started spewing all these
statistics about megawatts and the nation's current energy consumption
and I don't know what, because my mind just shut off. I tried to lead
him in the right direction. I told him to address the fears that the average citizen might have about nuclear power, but he still utterly failed to mention meltdowns, radiation, or mushroom clouds."...

MSNBC chose Skip Hammond, former Arizona State football player, MBA holder, and author of Imprison The Sun: America's Coming Nuclear-Power Holocaust. Hammond is best known for his "atomic domino" theory of chained power-plant explosions and his signature lavender silk tie.

"Absolute Armageddon," Hammond said when asked about the dangers
increased reliance on nuclear power might pose. "Atoms are not only too
tiny to be seen, they're too powerful to be predicted. Three Mile
Island? Remember it? I do. Don't they?"

"Clouds of radiation, glowing rivers, a hole reaching to the earth's
core"”that's what we're facing, " Hammond continued. "Death of one in
four Americans! Count off, everyone: one, two, three, you. Millions of people gone. And no one's even mentioned terrorism yet. You have to wonder why not."

According to [MSNBC], Hammond was "perfect."

Dead-on.  Tell me you haven't seen this exact type of thing in stories on nuclear power, biotechnology, genetically modified crops, global warming, breast implants, Vioxx, etc etc.

Reading About the Next War

I just finished reading these three books, one after the other:

In basic outline, each book has exactly the same plot, about a man joining the army in some future war.  Each have many of the classic war-story elements, including the tough over-the-top drill Sargent in basic training. 

At the same time, all three are totally different, in different universes with different physics and different politics and enemies.  And, perhaps most importantly, each with a different outlook on war and its necessity.  Each one is awesome individually but created an amazing accidental trilogy when read together.

The Check is NOT in the Mail

I have not asked my wife yet, but she certainly must be proud today to be a Harvard (B-school) alumna today, given recent comments by Harvard President Larry Sommers:

The president of Harvard University prompted criticism for suggesting that innate differences between the sexes could help explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers.

My gut feel, though, without having talked to her, is that the annual giving check is probably not in the mail.

By the way, I do think there are innate differences in the sexes - it is almost impossible not to see this having raised kids of both genders.  It is also fun to joke about women and math skills - I joke with my wife all the time.  However, I am not speaking as the representative of the leading university in the country.  Mr. Sommer's remark is pure supposition, without any real research behind it (he admits as much).  That said, given that he is in charge of an educational institution whose job is to push people of both sexes up to and beyond their potential, it was a stupid statement from the wrong person.

Is this hypocritical on my part - criticizing Mr. Sommers for something I have done myself?  No.  Here is an analogy:  Its may be fun for all of us to joke about French military prowess, or lack thereof (Q:  Why are the streets of Paris lined with trees?  A: Because the Germans like to march in the shade) but it would be absolutely wrong for the president or the state department to do so in any public venue, because they are representing our country in an official capacity.  Mr Sommers is representing Harvard University, and to suggest publicly that half his student body is biologically incapable of being successful in a substantial part of his University's course work is stupid and irresponsible.


Virginia Postrel comes to Sommers defense here and here.  She argues that Sommers did indeed have quite a bit of good analysis behind him, and that those of us who criticize him are being politically correct and hindering academic inquisitiveness.    Hmmm, maybe.  I have a lot of respect for Ms. Postrel, so if she says I am missing something, I am willing to think about it some more.  However, I will say that all I saw in the write-ups was data that women are underrepresented in math and science related careers (duh) and speculation but no evidence that this may go beyond socialization to biology. 

I still have trouble buying the biology thing.  For two reasons:

  • The distribution of careers data is loaded with social factors that are really, really hard to control for.  Based on the same data, you might come to the conclusion that blacks are biologically less suited to be corporate CEO's or that men are less suited to being nurses or flight attendants.
  • We are in the middle of a radical change with women and education.  A wave of women more comfortable with educational and intellectual achievement in general is moving through the system.  It is therefore dangerous to read data ahead of the wave - say with 30 and 40 year olds, since everything will change when the wave rolls through. 

How do I know there is such a wave?  If you graduated high school 20 or more years ago, look at the picture of the honor society in the yearbook.  Likely as not, the picture will be mostly boys.  Now go to just about any high school and look on the wall.  Taking my kids to chess tournaments and the like, I have been in a lot of high schools lately, and it is not at all unusual that the pictures of the honor society are ALL girls - not more girls than before, but all girls.  Then, take a look at college enrollment and the huge influx of women there.  Yes, for various reasons, these women may still not be choosing careers in the sciences, but you can't tell me that they are somehow biologically less prepared to do math.

UPDATE#2:  I really did not intend for this to be such a long post, but there is another good defense of Sommers here at Asymmetrical Information.  Apparently most of the left is explaining the "gap" with bias rather than biology.  Which is funny, because I thought much less about bias but rather personal choice - that for a variety of reasons women were not choosing math/science careers.  Anyway, the post from McCardle had this humorous observation:

Interesting, isn't it, how many of the liberals proclaiming that it's utterly ridiculous to think that a department running 95% leftists might be, consciously or unconsciously, discriminating against those of a more right wing persuasion, find it completely obvious that if a physics department is 80% male, that must be because they're discriminating

lol, anyway, no more.  I have decided to cut Sommers some slack, in part because I obviously don't have all the facts, and in part because I am sympathetic to him since I know for a fact that Harvard University is somewhat less governable than, say, Haiti. 

The Incredible Edible

I try not to impose too much of my personal life on this blog, but I couldn't resist showing off our weekend project.

This is my 10-year-old son's recent science project.  They are required to do a report on a subject (in this case, he chose the biology and physics of hitting a home run) and supplement the report with a model that has to be entirely edible - i.e. all made out of food (Seriously - what sadistic maniac thinks up this stuff?).  He and I worked most of Sunday on this, while mom laughed her butt off watching.  He presents tomorrow, and then the class eats it (who wants to bet that they will fight over eating the eye?)

Edible3_1 (Click for larger image)

Anyway, this thing includes cookie bones (we used foil for molds for the bones and bat) licorice muscles, gummi worm brains and nerves, cake baseball, chocolate bat, and fondant hand and eye (with almond nails).  Thank God for fondant - usually a smooth finish layer for cakes, it basically acts like edible clay.

Move over Martha, coyote is here!