Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


August 22, 2017

Me, viewing eclipse

With all the pre-eclipse coverage, I somehow initially didn’t grasp there’d be much to see here in Albany, NY, quite far from the totality band. But the map in The Economist Saturday showed we’d get about 2/3 of it. So then my wife and I started scrambling for viewing options. By now it was too late to obtain the needed glasses (one risks eye damage looking directly at an eclipse without special protection). And most venues with eclipse activities were already fully booked.

We decided to try our luck at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, across the river in Troy, offering free glasses. The hoo-ha was scheduled to begin at 1:22 PM; we arrived about 40 minutes before, and there was already a huge line snaking around the building. Within a short time it was twice as long. They had 400 pairs of glasses, and we did get one. Our neighbor and acquaintance Heidi Newberg (an RPI astrophysicist) was there, helping to instruct the crowd. (I think the last time our paths crossed was actually in the Beijing subway.)

With my wife’s pinhole box

The weather report called for cloudless skies, and it started that way, so we got some good looks. My wife had also made a pinhole camera for viewing, which worked pretty well; she had decorated it with relevant poems. Unfortunately, it clouded over during the time of maximum eclipse, so we had only glimpses of that. Of course, we didn’t get real darkness, but during the maximum it did seem eerily dimmer than it should have been on a cloudy afternoon. The whole experience was pretty cool.

We get solar eclipses like this only due to a freakish confluence of facts: the moon is vastly smaller than the Sun, but it’s far closer to Earth, so when the two line up, it just happens that their profiles exactly match, producing the dramatic effect.

My wife Therese

Well. The next solar eclipse will occur in April, 2024, and with that one, we’ll get the Full Monty quite near us. I’m already praying for clear skies 😉

The Bonobo and the Atheist

August 20, 2017

Our closest biological relatives are chimpanzees. They’re not as cute as you might think; often nasty and violent. How nice then to have discovered the bonobo — an equally close cousin, but a much better role model. Anatomically chimplike, bonobos behave very differently, very social, peaceable, and they’re sex fiends. A lot of humans are in love with the idea of the bonobo, seeing them as living in a prelapsarian paradise of free love, undarkened by sin. They’re even matriarchal. How politically correct can an animal get?

This evokes Rousseau’s “noble savage” and Margaret Mead’s idealization of Samoan sexual promiscuity (which turned out to be fake news).

De Waal (at right)

The book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, seems to have been written by the bonobo. Actually by primatologist Frans de Waal, who’s studied them. He likes them. Atheists, not so much. Even though he is one himself.

A self-hating atheist, then? No, he sets himself apart from atheists who make a big deal of it. His own attitude is nonchalant — “I don’t believe that stuff, but if others do, so what?” Too many atheists, he feels, are overly obsessed with the question of truth, which he deems “uninteresting.”

De Waal’s critique of assertive “new atheists” (like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens) has become familiar. We’re told they do the cause no favor by insulting religious believers. I’ll make three points.

First, through most of history, religious dissent was not only taboo but cowed into silence by the threat of fire. Subjecting religious ideas to serious intellectual challenge is long overdue.

Second, about those fires: many atheists believe religion has done great harm, being a wellspring of violence, and we’d be better off without it. (I recently reviewed a book arguing the contrary.) This too is a debate we need to have.

And third, when billions do believe in religious dogmas (with vast impacts upon human society), their truth is hardly an “uninteresting” matter. Even leaving aside the violence, such beliefs dominate one’s entire engagement with the world. You cannot have a sound conception about the human condition and the issues facing us while being fundamentally mistaken about the essential nature of reality. That truth matters.*

But back to bonobos. For de Waal, they’re Exhibit A for the book’s main point — that morality and altruism do not come from religion. They long antedate religion’s beginnings and in fact are seen among other animals. The bonobo “too, strives to fit in, obeys social rules, empathizes with others, amends broken relationships, and objects to unfair arrangements.” De Waal relates an observation of two young chimps quarreling over a leafy branch. An older one intervenes, breaks it in two, and hands a piece to each youngster! And in a famous experiment, chimps would happily perform a task for cucumber slices, until seeing other chimps getting grapes, a more coveted reward. Then, offended by the unfairness, they spurn the cucumber and go on strike. (Some grape receivers even joined them in solidarity.) The Occupy movement sprang from the same primordial feelings.

Altruism evolved because it was beneficial within the groups that practiced it. De Waal reminds us that the most conspicuous form of altruism throughout nature is often overlooked: parental nurturing and even self-sacrifice. Not surprisingly, the basic trait extends beyond just one’s own progeny.

Altruism is commonly defined as doing something for another at cost to oneself. Yet if that makes you feel good, is it really costing you? And why are we programmed to feel good when acting altruistically? De Waal points out that, logically enough, nature makes it pleasurable to do things we need to do — like eating and copulating. Altruism falls in the same category.

The idea that humans need religion for morality is actually insulting to us. And ridiculous. While religionists say without God anything goes, we could all rape, steal, and murder, nobody wants to live in such a world, and most of us recognize that that means we don’t rape, steal, and murder. Which we wouldn’t do anyway because of our nature-given moral instincts. God is irrelevant.

De Waal doesn’t join those who wish we could be more like our bonobo cousins about sex. He explains that their promiscuity makes it impossible to know who anyone’s father is. That diffuse paternity creates a certain kind of societal structure. We humans went down a different path, with pair bonding and clear paternity, so fathers are invested in protecting and raising their offspring. Emulating bonobos would wreak havoc in human society. Indeed, to the extent some people do emulate them, it does cause social havoc.

De Waal also discusses the religion-versus-science thing. No contest, really; religion comes much more naturally to us, fulfilling deep needs. Science does not, and is a far more recent and fragile invention. He says a colony of children left alone would not descend into the barbarism of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but would develop a hierarchical society as apes do — and likely some sort of religion — but not science.

De Waal suggests that when humans lived in small bands, moral instincts could serve their function effortlessly because everybody knew what everyone else was doing.** But not when societies grew much larger. Thus were gods invented to keep “sin” (i.e., antisocial behavior) in check.

Religion serves other needs too. Some go to church for the donuts. That’s shorthand for all the social togetherness religion entails. For many it’s a matter of finding meaning in an otherwise cold cosmos, and in their own lives. And of course palliating fear of death.

And what’s truth got to do with it? It turns out truth and reality actually rank pretty low on many people’s priority lists. Indeed, many seem to have a fuzzy grasp on the concept. We see this in the political realm, where tolerance for lies is far greater than I once imagined. In religion, people believe things mainly because they want to; and this extends to other aspects of life.

But I’ll repeat: you cannot live an authentically meaningful life if its foundation is lies. And as de Waal recognizes, humanism does enable us to find meaning in life while embracing its reality rather than cocooning ourselves in fairy tales. The essence of humanism is the recognition that life is intrinsically valuable for its own sake, that our purpose is to live it as well as we can, and to make it as good as we can for everyone.

De Waal argues that religion is deeply embedded because of its roots in our biology. But we have overcome innumerable constraints imposed by nature. He does acknowledge a “giant experiment” in Northern Europe’s recent and really remarkably rapid turning away from conventional religion. And these societies have seen nothing whatsoever of the negative consequences that religious apologists warned about for eons. Those Europeans who have largely freed themselves from religion are not going to Hell — neither figuratively nor literally.

* An example of how this messes up thinking is strong support for a moral creep like Trump among the devout, who forget, among much else, the commandment against lying.

** Note the importance of language. If one chimp mistreats another, no one else may know. But in human society, with talking, word gets around. This raises the stakes for violations of social norms.

What Einstein means to me

August 5, 2017

Having read Walter Isaacson’s excellent books on Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs, I assigned myself his Einstein. Even though, of course, I already knew all about the man and his work. Doesn’t everybody? Actually, some of what everybody knows isn’t true.

One false myth is that he “failed math in school.” This was even featured in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” What is true is that Einstein’s talking was a little delayed, worrying his parents. But in school he did brilliantly, was a precocious mathematical star. Reading about his childhood intensity with math, science, and philosophy, contrasted against my own sleepwalking early life, I could see why he was a genius and I am not.

Secondly, religious believers love to claim Einstein was a believer too, a perfect validation for them. He did give them a lot of fodder, in delphic pronouncements (like the famous “God does not play dice with the Universe”), using “God” in a somewhat metaphorical rather than literal sense. I do that myself; Einstein was no more a believer than I am. He had a spasm of religiosity in childhood, but snapped out of it at age 12 and never looked back. Whatever his quasi-mystical thoughts about the nature of nature, they certainly included nothing like the God of the Bible – a book he loathed as full of lies.

In fact, Einstein’s early liberation from religion was central to his intellectual development. It gave him a deep suspicion toward all received opinion, authority, and dogma. If so many people could be so wrong about something so fundamental, what else could they be wrong about? This empowered Einstein to look at the cosmos from a fresh perspective.

(I won’t expound here the theory of relativity (but see the appendix); however, it doesn’t mean “everything is relative” – the stance of postmodernist relativism, that nothing truly is true. Such nonsense has nothing to do with Einstein.)

Here is what Einstein does mean to me.

Humanity’s quest for understanding uplifts me. At last – a being on this Earth not at nature’s mercy but capable of mastery. Some people actually hate this, calling it hubris, even wicked. I find that sad. To me our quest for knowledge, and the power it brings, could not be more noble.

Nobility lies in challenge. Ancient man, looking at his world, had so much to wonder about, with hardly a clue for finding answers. But undaunted we searched, through thousands of years, and the efforts of thousands of heroic seekers, giving us finally more understanding than anyone at the start could have dreamt of.

You must crawl before walking, and walk before you run, and that’s the history of science. Most of it was to explain what we saw. But gradually we grasped there is a deeper reality unseen. Einstein’s work, more than any other, ended our stages of crawling and walking, and took us into that deeper reality – a depth that those who commenced the great quest could not even have imagined was there to be plumbed.

The hard slog of science through the ages has been all about gathering evidence and decoding what it tells us. Evidence can come from experimentation, or (as in Darwin’s case, or all of astronomy,) observation. Yet Einstein stands out because he performed no experiments, and gathered no observations. It was all done between his own ears, by thinking. That’s what gave us a new and deeper understanding.

And so, in the end, he represents for me not just (just!) our achievement of understanding, but the wonder of our tool for gaining it: the human mind. It’s a gift we all have. I may not be an Einstein, nor you, but we are human, we are part of this great enterprise, and those brains of ours give us a richness of experience beyond measure. Be thankful and use it well.



Two things puzzle me. We see light traveling from a star to one’s eye. But it’s not just one light beam. Light from a star a billion light years away would reach anyone that distant. Envision a sphere with a billion light year radius – its surface area would be 12.56 times a billion light years squared – a very very BIG area. Every spot on that area would receive the light. How can a star emit that much light? As light spreads out from its source, the photons should get farther apart; at a billion light years, they should be so spread out that seeing even one would be statistically improbable.

Secondly, Einstein’s famous equation E = mc 2 posits the equivalency between matter and energy; the “c” is the speed of light. But why is that part of the equation (let alone squared)? I admit I’m not privy to the math behind this; but what does light speed even have to do with it? The relationship applies regardless of motion. Newton’s law that gravity diminishes proportionally with the square of the distance intuitively makes sense to me, but I can’t say that about the matter/energy proportionality with light speed squared.

We are all conspiracy theorists

June 30, 2017

Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories starts off saying it won’t be a book cataloguing and debunking them. Instead it aims to explain the psychology underlying such beliefs.

What exactly is a “conspiracy theory?” Real conspiracies, large and (mostly) small go on all the time, but that’s not what we mean. We know Lincoln’s assassination was part of a conspiracy. But a “conspiracy theory,” in common usage, is unproven — by design, Brotherton says. Its adherents think they see something deeper than others do. And — in common usage — they’re whacko.

The book’s key take-away is that conspiracy theories come from psychological quirks that are actually not the exclusive province of whackos, but affect us all. Our brains are products of a long evolution during which our ancestors faced many life-or-death challenges requiring quick intuitive responses. You had to be good at spotting predators. And if making a mistake, better make it on the safe side, of seeing something, even if it’s not really there.

This bequeaths us a highly valuable capability, for pattern recognition. The world is a place of dizzying complexity that bombards our brain with a jumble of information. To survive, to function at all, we have to make order from that chaos — to recognize, for example, that that thing concealed in the bushes is a lion. We literally “connect the dots.” And we’re so good at it that we sometimes connect more dots and see more patterns than comport with what’s really there. Thus are conspiracy theories (and religions) born. Conspiracy theories quintessentially entail seeing patterns and connecting dots.

Despite its opening disclaimer, Brotherton perhaps inevitably does fill many pages with the details and defects of popular conspiracy theories. The JFK assassination gets much attention; a majority of Americans believe it was a conspiracy. This illustrates one psychological factor: we are primed to suppose that big outcomes must have big causes. (Thus dice players, when shooting for a high number, instinctively throw the dice more forcefully.) So we refuse to believe JFK’s death resulted from a lucky shot by a pathetic little twerp, Oswald. And Oswald’s killing by another loser, Ruby, almost begs for a bigger conspiratorial explanation. But would a serious conspiracy have relied on two flakes like those? And as Brotherton also explains, truth can be stranger than fiction. (For the truth about the JFK assassination, click here.)

Another key psychological factor is confirmation bias. I’ve written before how our beliefs become impervious to correction, because we love information that seems to validate them, and shun anything that undermines them. Ironically, smarter people are more prone to this, because they are better at coming up with rationalizations to support their preconceptions and to reject contradictory data. As Brotherton writes, “we’re not always the best judge of why we believe what we believe.”

Our brains’ neuronal wiring changes as experiences are absorbed. It’s a canonical principle that neurons that “fire together wire together.” After finishing this book, I happened to read an article applying that to beliefs. A strongly held belief actually makes your brain’s wiring to go along the same pathway whenever the subject arises. Over time, this “fire together wire together” effect strengthens, as though etching grooves in the brain — making the belief ever more impervious to being modified.

Humans are story lovers, and Brotherton explains how conspiracy theories feed that hunger via the greatest archetypal story line — the underdog hero battling the powerful monster (think Gilgamesh, Beowulf, etc.). The conspiracy is the monster with evil aims. We are also natural born morality seekers, and enjoy exercising that faculty, puffing up our moralistic feathers. Thus conspiracy theories push our psychological buttons.

Not surprisingly, the kind of mind that goes for one conspiracy theory is likely to buy others, even if unrelated. One Austrian study found that conspiracy-minded people would even agree with a completely made-up conspiracy theory. Such theories don’t even have to agree with each other. Brotherton notes that some conspiracists believe Osama bin Laden was actually killed back in ’02 and the fact was covered up, but also in theories that he’s actually still alive. A “Schrodinger’s terrorist?”

And radio nutball Alex Jones never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like — Newtown, 9/11, the Oklahoma City and Boston Marathon bombings, you name it — all faked by government conspirators.

Alex Jones

(The fool in the White House appeared on Jones’s show and said Jones has an “amazing reputation.”)

What makes all such conspiracy theories ultimately laughable is the large number of (otherwise serious and responsible) people who would have to agree to be involved, and who would have to keep mum.

The book explores why some of us are more conspiracy minded than others. It has to do with the lens through which you view the world — how you think it works. A big factor is how much trust you have in general, and the degree of control you feel over your own life. But nobody feels totally in control or has absolute trust; we are all suspicious to a degree, indeed, all paranoid to a degree. This too is an evolutionary inheritance — suspicion was prudent for our ancestors, and surely even today there is much to be suspicious about — like e-mails from Nigeria. Brotherton also points out that the randomness factor in life is unsettling to us. Conspiracy theories are a way to impose some seeming order on a chaotic cosmos.

Belief in them also correlates with other departures from conventional paradigms — like belief in the supernatural, parapsychology, alternative medicine. Common to all is rejection of “what they want you to think,” so you can congratulate yourself as an independent mind. Opposition to vaccination and Genetic Modification fits right in with this too. (It’s “How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World,” as the title of a book by Francis Wheen declares.)

Most conspiracy theories spin together facts and evidence, even if drawing from them tortured conclusions. JFK is again a case in point; conspiracists are fountains of details. But evidence isn’t strictly necessary. For example, the book details the theories of David Icke, who attracts large audiences to his ten-hour lectures. Commonly enough, Icke sees the world being run, behind the scenes, by faceless conspirators for large and evil purposes. But he takes it a step further, postulating that they are actually being manipulated by a deeper “interdimensional” conspiracy of reptilian aliens called “Archons.”

I wrote in the margin, “He knows this how?”

The march for science

April 24, 2017

Quiz #1 — Who made this statement about Saturday’s march for science: “Rigorous science depends not on ideology but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate”?

a) Neil deGrasse Tyson
b) Bill Gates
c) Stephen Hawking
d) Donald Trump

The answer is (d).

Quiz #2 — Did the statement come from

a) His lips
b) His Twitter account
c) His pen
d) A spokesperson

The answer is (d).

Science is not just another belief system or “faith.” Belief and knowledge are two different things. One can say “Joe believes the earth is flat” but not “Joe knows the earth is flat.”

How we know things is called epistemology. Scientific knowledge comes from a rigorous process of deduction from observation and evidence, always open to correction through better observation and evidence. Belief has nothing to do with it.

You can believe the earth is flat, but through science we know it isn’t. You can even do fake science, cherrypicking bits of information (and making up a lot) to deny evolution, but real science knows it’s true.

You can similarly torture facts to deny climate change and/or humanity’s role in it. Or to see harm outweighing benefits in vaccination, or Genetic Modification. Pick your ideology; believe what you like. But if you prefer reality, try real science.

Photo of me at the march by Therese Broderick

The gem, mineral, and fossil show

March 24, 2017

unknownMy wife Therese had the idea of going to the gem, mineral, and fossil show held at the State Museum. To humor her, I agreed, though this isn’t really my thing. Well, something to do, a little salutary marital togetherness. I was kind of expecting a dull exhibit, but instead it was a vendor bourse, very different, quite extensive, and fascinating.

We saw some amazing and bizarre stuff; the variety mind-boggling. So many mineral names I’d never heard before, seemingly without end. Many crystals looked quite astonishing, like dramatic little sculptures.



And cool fossils. Lots of ancient cephalopods (sea creatures like squids), highly polished and beautiful; hard to believe they were not carved by cunning artists.

Many items, like those, seemed surprisingly affordable too. As a passionate collector myself (of coins), I could see how people could really get into collecting this stuff. Rocks rock!

Therese and I tend to be lookers, not buyers, at art shows and the like, and we certainly had no expectation of purchasing anything here. But when I drew attention to one small item, Therese was blown away by it. Next to all the other bigger and dramatic pieces on view, it might not have seemed like much, a very simple little thing. Indeed, its very simplicity made it dramatic in its own way. It was a piece of whiteish rock on which was perched a good sized perfect cube* of silver-black pyrite crystal, about an inch on each side. With surfaces so smooth they were mirrors. I couldn’t recall ever having seen a crystal so geometrically perfect. Therese could hardly believe this was actually made by Nature; it took some convincing.

untitled-1And this too was not terribly expensive ($45), so we bought it. No sooner had we done so, and moved on to other sellers, suddenly we started seeing similar ones, even cheaper. But none possessed quite the dramatic in-your-face perfection of ours, so I was not unpleased.

It looks other-worldly to me, as though dropped onto our planet by ethereal aliens, like something out of Kubrick’s 2001. With mystical powers.

Therese calls it spooky, saying it almost scares her, and that it changes her relationship with existence.

* Actually, it’s what’s called a rectangular prism, as the facets are not exactly square.

The Time Lords and the Leap Second

February 11, 2017

images-1My previous partner used to call me “The Time Lord” (taken from Dr. Who). Because I was a stickler for punctuality. When I was an administrative law judge, and a hearing was scheduled for 10:00, it started at 10:00 – not 10:01. (Except once or twice when I overslept.)

As you may know, a “day” is from one sunrise to another; the year has 365 days, the time it takes for the Earth to circle the Sun. Except that it actually takes 365-1/4 days. unknown-2So we have leap years. Except that it doesn’t take exactly 365-1/4 days either. So we omit the extra leap day once every 100 years. Except for every fourth century, when we don’t. This keeps things just about right.

Our “hour” is based on dividing by 24 the planet’s rotation time. The hour, minute, and second, are as long as they are simply so that 60x60x24 equals one day, with no need for any fudge factor, like with leap years. However, here too there’s a wee problem. The rotation is slowing! It actually now takes a teensy bit more than 24 hours. The discrepancy wasn’t noticed until we started measuring time with super-accurate atomic clocks.

The world actually does have Time Lords. You’ve heard of “Greenwich mean time?” That refers to all clocks being set by reference to a master clock in Greenwich, England. images-2This system’s superintendents are the Time Lords (so to speak). It’s one o’clock when they say it’s one o’clock. And to keep time absolutely accurate, since 1972 they’ve inserted, every other year or so, an extra second into the year, based on their calibration of the Earth’s current rotation time.*

A one-second adjustment might seem like no big deal. But whereas, in past epochs, people were content merely to tell time roughly by hours, lacking timepieces capable of greater accuracy, today’s world runs on global time synchronicity down to the millisecond. And it’s actually important that the exact time in New York matches the exact time in Tokyo.

For example (as Michael Lewis’s book Flash Boys, about high speed trading, illuminated), it’s crucial for financial transactions that the sequence of events – purchase orders and their execution – occur unambiguously. The extra leap second throws a monkey wrench into this. It might be no problem if, when the Greenwich Time Lords insert the leap second, all clocks and computers and time-incorporating mechanisms throughout the world automatically adjust. But of course they don’t.

There have been global gabfests trying to straighten this out. A lot of people don’t like it that some self-important British nerds get to decide what time it is, and to change it on whim. But not surprisingly the Brits are extremely reluctant to let go of this vestige of the epoch when they really did rule the world.

images-4So far, no resolution has been achieved. For a Time Lord like me, it’s terrifying to think that when my watch says it’s 10:00, it may actually be 10:00:01.


* Without such adjustment, the discrepancy would cumulate, and in around 20,000 years, noon and midnight would be switched.

My credo

January 18, 2017


unknownAs our political transition unfolds, I find myself caught between the Scylla of a Democratic party increasingly romanticizing socialist economics hostile to enterprise and trade, and a Republican Charybdis fallen into a dark hole of nativism romanticizing a past that won’t return and shouldn’t. Today’s real divide is between mindsets of openness and closedness. With irresponsible foolishness of every sort running rampant, trampling sound classically liberal principles, I will not give up on them, but will continue to defend them in the years ahead. Here I recap those core principles.


  • Democracy and rule of law, so government is accountable to citizens, its powers over them restricted.


  • Freedom of speech, expression, and argument. images-1No idea immune from critical examination – even if that offends or discomfits some. This is not only integral to personal freedom, it is also crucial for society to evaluate ideas and progress thereby.


  • Limited government, filling only roles that individuals cannot. People able to choose for themselves how to live and act, with society dictating only when its reasons are compelling; basically, only to protect others from harm.


  • Free market economics is the best way to grow the pie so all can prosper. images-2Profit-seeking business is how people’s needs and desires get satisfied. That is best promoted when businesses are forced to compete openly and fairly with each other, none gaining advantage through government intervention. Instead government should function to remove barriers to competition and business enterprise.


  • This does not mean businesses unregulated. They too are subject to laws to protect others from harm.


  • Inequality is the inevitable result of people striving to better themselves, and is not unjust or an evil. Successful people are not the enemy, nor the cause of want. But a market economy generates enough wealth that we can afford to give everyone a decent living standard, out of simple humanity.


  • When another country can sell us something cheaper than we can produce it ourselves, we benefit as well as they. images-3Impeding such trade only impoverishes both nations. The gains from freer global trade, through lower consumer prices, vastly exceed the costs in any jobs lost.


  • America prospers best in a world wherein democracy, free trade, and peaceful development prevail among other countries, making them too more prosperous; so promoting those values must be the core of our foreign policy. Forces in the world threatening those values must be actively combated.


  • Government spending and taxation must be brought into a sustainable balance. Heedlessly piling up excessive debt will not end well.


  • Truth and facts should be sought objectively, and should shape our beliefs, rather than our beliefs shaping what we think are facts. unknown-1Confirmation bias is the enemy of reason. We acquire truth through science, a method of rational inquiry which progresses by self-correction as more facts become known and understood.


  • No religion is better or truer than any other. All are equally false; and that false consciousness can only impede people in grappling with challenges all too real.


  • Human beings are natural animals, resulting from Darwinian evolution. Ultimately the only thing that matters in the Universe is the well being of creatures capable of feeling. All people have equal dignity and worth (except for those who imagine their kind is superior, thereby proving they are inferior).


  • Over the centuries, the increasing application of all these principles has made for enormous global progress, with ever more people able to live ever better lives. unknown-2Abandoning these principles endangers that progress.

Chaos, fractals, and the dripping faucet

January 4, 2017

Physicist Arthur Eddington said, “the Universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can imagine.”

Right off the bat are two possibilities: either it always existed, or had a beginning. Either one blows fuses in my brain. (Note: the God idea doesn’t help. The same problem applies to him.)



Which brings me to chaos.

Religionists imagine God organized creation from primordial chaos; in common parlance that word connotes a state of complete disorganization. But in science its meaning is more subtle, and much more interesting, as famously pioneered by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot starting in the 1960s.

Take the weather. It can’t be forecasted very far because there are so many interacting factors; a tiny change in one cascades into ever bigger changes over time. images-1Thus the proverbial “butterfly effect” – one flapping its wings in Brazil can ultimately cause a storm in Canada.

Mandelbrot posed the seemingly simple question: how long is Britain’s coastline? But it’s not so simple. Measuring it on a map of course can’t account for all the little crenellations. You could take a yardstick and walk the coast, getting a much more accurate answer. unknownBut the coast between two ends of the yardstick is not exactly a straight line, so you’re under-measuring. A foot-ruler would do better, but still won’t capture irregularities within each foot. No matter how finely you measure, the true coastline will always be longer. (Does that mean it’s infinite?)

Coastline irregularities are a kind of seemingly patternless phenomenon found throughout existence. But Mandelbrot’s startling discovery was that there is a pattern. The kind of coastal irregularities you see on a world map are exactly replicated when you focus on a smaller area. No matter how small. unknown-1And this paradigm of like patterns repeating at different scales of examination occurs again and again in nature. The word for this is fractal. It is order hidden within seeming randomness, seeming chaos.

Look at the illustration. No matter the scale, no matter how much you magnify, the pattern persists. If the picture reminds you of a snowflake, it should, because snowflake formation is a good example of the phenomenon.

Environmentalists romanticize a “balance of nature,” an ecosystem in harmonious equilibrium. It turns out no such thing exists. An ecosystem works like the weather, one small perturbation sending it on an unpredictable and quintessentially chaotic path.

Chaos can also affect a system close to your own heart. In fact, it is your heart. Its normally regular beating can sometimes become chaotic in the textbook sense. That calls for attention.

images-3I read James Gleick’s book Chaos hoping for a better understanding. Frankly much of it was way too deep for me. But it described one illuminating experiment, conducted by Robert Shaw at the University of California at Santa Cruz. It involved the most mundane thing: a dripping faucet.

Shaw found that certain flow rates produced chaotic drips, with no regular intervals between them. Then all he did was measure those intervals and plot those numbers on a graph. Actually he used pairs of intervals to produce a graphing in three dimensions. Now, you might expect a truly random distribution, with the dots falling all over, patternlessly. But that’s not what Shaw found. The pattern of dots took on a distinct shape (“resembling loopy trails of smoke left by an out-of-control sky-writing plane”).

Strange attractor

Strange attractor

A shape thusly revealed is called a “strange attractor.” I was puzzled by that term until I realized it’s as though the shape attracts the data points to itself, keeping them from falling elsewhere.

This is extremely weird. While the shape acts like a magnet for data points, of course a magnet is a physical object, but the “strange attractor” is not, it’s just a concept. So what is going on here? What makes the seemingly random, chaotic drip intervals form a certain distinct shape when graphed? unknown-2The hand of God?

Of course not. Surely God wouldn’t bother to carefully regulate the dripping to produce the pattern. Yet it’s as if he did.

But why? That’s what I really wanted to understand. The book doesn’t tell me; Gleick writes as though the question never occurred to him. He even quotes John von Neumann: “The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models . . . [which describe] observed phenomena.” In other words, science reveals what happens, but not why.

With all respect to the great von Neumann, I disagree. Why the Universe exists may be a meaningless question, but why Shaw’s faucet dripped the way it did is not. Another scientist Gleick quotes answered Einstein’s famous line by saying God does play dice with the Universe, and the dice are loaded; “the main objective of physics now is to find out by what rules were they loaded and how can we use them for our own ends.”unknown-3

Science is humanity’s great quest for understanding. Through that understanding we can control our destiny. But that’s almost a mere side effect of the real motivation: we just want to know.

Fear and loathing in chemistry sets

December 26, 2016

images-1Remember chemistry sets? Millennials won’t. They pretty much vanished about 25 years ago. These were kits sold for kids, with arrays of different chemicals in little jars, and maybe some equipment like tongs, glassware, and Bunsen burners.

People loved them. Were they out of their minds? The danger! The danger!

Well, they sure were dangerous. I don’t recall having had a store-bought chemistry set, but I did have a science bent, and one time when my parents were out, I conducted a little clandestine chemistry experiment on the kitchen counter. images-2Yes, it blew up. The countertop was damaged, but luckily I was unscathed . . . until Mom got home.

The idea of letting a kid today play with chemicals, using fragile glassware and a Bunsen burner no less, would be seen as flat-out madness. Such a parent would probably be locked up.

Actually, chemistry sets are still sold, but they’re a pale shadow, with only a few insipid substances that do nothing more than change color; and certainly no Bunsen burners. unknownI even read that the Consumer Product Safety Commission was considering banning one set because it included . . . wait for it . . . a paper clip. Yes, the dreaded paper clip. Could be swallowed.

Remember the “Bubble Boy” . . . ?

But no doubt old-time chemistry sets did cause some injuries. However, when I googled the phrase “children killed by chemistry sets” (yes, intensive research goes into these blog posts), I couldn’t find a single case. But one commentary that came up said chemistry sets in fact taught kids safety. You learn by doing. (I certainly learned from that kitchen mishap.) Whereas today’s kids are so overprotected from every conceivable danger that they don’t properly develop the concept of danger. unknown-1I wonder if this is a cause for a modern behavior that really is insanely hazardous (killing thousands annually): texting while driving.

Chemistry sets also taught kids about, well, chemistry, and science more generally. My googling, while it turned up no death stories, did turn up kids who developed a love of science from those chemistry sets and went on to scientific careers. Maybe the demise of chemistry kits is one small reason why we’re producing fewer scientists.

Yet another casualty of our twisted mentality about fears and dangers. Both fear and its lack can be irrational, and we often get it wrong both ways. How many people have ever sent a text expressing fear about GM foods (no danger at all) – while driving? And too often we vent fears about good things (like GM, and child science kits) but not truly bad things (like guns in the home which, unlike chemistry sets, kill kids in droves).

unknown-2Another good thing that has suffered from this syndrome is the childhood fun of Halloween. Do you know how many kids were ever actually poisoned by Halloween candy?

Precisely one. His father did it to collect insurance.