Posts Tagged ‘Science’

The search by physicists to understand the way the world works has been going on since the first man wondered why things fall down but they don’t fall up.  In the long history of physics, there have been a few preeminent physicists whose reputations have spanned the centuries.  Isaac Newton made a huge leap in knowledge when he was able to describe the force of gravity mathematically.  Newtons equations very reliably predict the trajectory of a cannonball or the motion of the planets.  However, it is interesting to note that Newton was frustrated by this thing called gravity and admitted that he did not understand how it really worked. In Newton’s own words in his Principia he writes: “I feign no hypothesis… That one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of anything else, by and through which their action and force may be conveyed from one another, is to me so great an absurdity that, I believe, no man who has in philosophic matters a competent faculty of thinking could ever fall into it.”  In other words, although Newton had an equation that seemed provide the capability to determine the gravitational force of one body upon another, he had absolutely no idea of the mechanism of how the gravitational force was exerted by one body upon another.

Centuries later another of the giants of physics took on the problem of gravity.  Albert Einstein, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics for his explanation of the photoelectric effect and one of the founders of quantum theory (he actually coined the word “quantum”) would eventually develop his crowning achievement, the General Theory of Relativity, which provided a mathematical description of the gravitational field far more exactly than Newton’s equations.  Today, NASA wouldn’t consider putting a satellite into orbit using Newton’s equations, it is always Einstein’s equations that must be used to account for the relativistic effects of the high speeds of the satellites as they orbit the Earth.

It is therefore curious to the average person that Einstein and his philosophy are often shunned and even ridiculed by modern physicists.  Ever since Einstein published his General Theory other physicists have tried to find an error in its predictions, but to no avail.  Most recently NASA launched a satellite to test a very small, second order effect, that is predicted by the equations of General Relativity. The effect is called frame dragging. Essentially, Einstein’s equations predict that space and time will be affected by the rotation of the Earth in a way similar to how a spoon dipped in molasses will create swirls in the molasses if the spoon is twirled.  The NASA experiment corroborated this very tiny, second order effect of Einstein’s theory. This effect was not something that Einstein was keen on predicting, instead it was the result of the equations he had created in order to predict the major interactions of gravity, space, and time, effects such as the precession of the perihelion of Mercury or the bending of starlight as it passes near the sun.

So what does this have to do with CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research? It is all about what causes gravity.  Newton just didn’t have an explanation for how gravity actually worked.  Einstein was able to show that gravity can be interpreted as the geometrical distortion of spacetime.  However, his equations do not specify an agent of the gravitational force between too adjacent objects. This is where the particle physicists come in. They have a theory that a particle called a Higgs boson must exist and it is this particle that confers mass to a body – and it is mass that interacts with or creates gravity.

Einstein spent the latter years of his life in the search for a Grand Unified Theory that would combine gravity, electricity, and magnetism in to a single set of equations. However, he died before he was able to determine what this set of equations must be.  The particle physicists, the quantum theorists, have taken a different approach altogether from Einstein.  While Einstein envisioned fields and warps in space and time as the explanation for gravity and electricity and magnetism, modern quantum theorists prefer particles and the mathematics of randomness and probability, because, for them, the universe at its heart can never be known precisely, as stated in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. This was the source of great debate between quantum physicists and Einstein, and in the end Einstein was marginalized.

CERN is now on the verge of a major test to determine whether the hypothesized Higgs boson, the agent of gravitational mass, exists. The Large Hadron Collider is about to be fired up, generating collisions between high energy particles that, it is hoped, will momentarily create a Higgs boson.  Interestingly, it is also predicted that it might temporarily create a microscopic black hole – and this has some people very concerned. What if it did create a black hole in Switzerland? Would it swallow up the Earth in a split second?  The people at CERN have bent over backwards trying to show that such a black hole would not last long enough to do any damage.  They even point out that Einstein’s theory says that they could not even be produced at the Large Hadron Collider.  It’s sort of interesting that the quantum theorists are quoting Einstein at this time in order to assure the public that the experiment is safe.

At any rate we’ll soon know. The LHC could be fired up as early as this weekend for preliminary testing. It’ll be a while before they get to the real super particle collisions.  I suppose then we might actually have the answers to some questions that have been around for a long time. Will it disprove General Relativity? No.  Will it show that Einstein’s determinism is wrong and the world is really based upon random probability? No. If it shows the existence of a Higgs boson, it is more than likely that it will open up a whole new set of questions, because that has been the history of quantum physics. It is like peeling the layers of an onion. A good example is the search for the Omega Minus particle back in the 1960’s.

Of course, if the calculations of the theoretical physicists at CERN are completely wrong, and if they accidently create a massive black hole that swallows us up in a nanosecond…well, we’ll never know, will we?

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I happen to like Golden Retrievers. They seem to be intelligent and friendly and make the perfect family dog – in my opinion anyway.  It’s interesting to note that if you wanted to buy a Golden Retriever in 1850 you couldn’t.  Not for any money in the world.  Why? Because they didn’t exist.  Golden Retrievers were created by breeding a Retriever with a Tweed Water Spaniel in the late 1800’s.

I don’t think I would care much for having a Lhasa Apso, however.  Too much chance of accidentally stepping on it. They’re really, really small and don’t look or act anything like a Golden Retriever. The Lhasa Apso was bred exclusively in Tibet about 2,000 years ago and was not found in the west until about one hundred years ago.  At first glance, if you didn’t know better, you might not guess that both of these animals are actually dogs.

DNA evidence has shown that dogs became a separate breed apart from wolves about 100,000 years ago. If you look at the diversity in dogs, from Chihuahuas to Saint Bernards to the vicious and often banned Presa Canario, it becomes even harder to believe they are all examples of the same species, let alone all descended from wolves.  How could a Lhasa Apso be a modern day wolf?  But they are and their DNA proves it. So do the written records of the modern day 19th and 20th Century breeders who created most of our breeds by mating selected individual dogs. These latter day breeders were unknowingly the agents of artificial evolution. By using selected breeding they were able to accomplish in a hundred years what nature might have taken thousands of years to produce, if at all. (Why would nature ever create a Lhasa Apso anyway?)

Most of our domestic animals, horses, cows, chickens and so forth have been bred by farmers over the centuries in order to optimize some property or other.  The same is true for the vegetables and fruits that are grown on our farms.  Farmers have long known that they could alter the size, shape, and taste of animals and plants by selective breeding.  In the process they have created a variety of breeds and variations, all descended from a handful of ancestors.  In some cases there is only a slight resemblance between today’s descendants and the ancient origins of the various breeds and cultivars.  Once again we have humans deliberately creating evolved organisms in a much shorter time that would normally occur by the chance matings in nature.  The results, like those with dogs, can show such wide variation that it might be hard to believe that a particular plant or animal had descended from a certain distant parent.

If you look at people in America today and compared them with the people who lived here 200 years ago you would notice something different right away: on the average we are quite a bit taller than the people of those days. Not because of selective breeding but because we have a more nutritious diet.  We are also a lot heavier on the average too, because we are overfed.  We also suffer from diseases, such as heart disease, that were essentially unknown 200 years ago.  Is this a sort of evolution?  Well, if by evolution we mean change, then of course it is. If you care to look, you can see we are immersed in a constantly changing world. Almost every living species, for one reason or another, is continually evolving – some slowly and some quickly.  So why do only 39% of Americans believe in evolution? Why do 61% of Americans deny it?

Good question, when all you have to do is open your eyes to see it. It is undeniable.  It is the way of the world.  So what is the problem and why do the fundamentalist churches teach their members that evolution cannot and does not happen? And why do the people who belong to these churches deny the evidence of their senses and agree with the leaders of these churches?  It comes down to how evolution happens and what is evolving. Even those people who are determined to believe that the Adam and Eve story is literally true have to explain how we have now become an assortment of Eskimos and Kenyans, Irish and Tibetans, Native Americans and Russians, Australian Aborigines and African Pygmies. If there is no evolution then why do we all look so different, and which of us looks most like Adam and Eve?And are the others, who don’t look much like Adam and Eve anymore therefore less perfect? I would have to believe that, because the Bible originated in the Middle East, our best guess would be that Adam and Eve must have looked sort of Semitic, right? I mean, what else makes sense? So…what happened to the rest of us?  Why don’t we look Semitic too?

Part of the issue the churches have is the random change theory. You know, evolution is caused by completely random changes in DNA that sometimes works out and sometimes doesn’t.  This is the theory put forth by many proponents of evolution, but it is not necessarily correct, even if Darwin proposed it himself. This theory completely ignores selective breeding and the potential, newly discovered, adaptive capabilities found in the epigenome.  The idea that randomness is the only engine of change in the world is a philosophy put forth by people who, for one reason or another, want to prove that there is no need for an ordered mechanism in evolution, because then someone might say this orderly mechanism is proof of the existence of God.  However, we have just shown that people are capable, all by themselves of causing dogs to evolve.  The presence of a causative mechanism or the effect of random mutations in DNA cannot be used to either prove or disprove the existence of God. It’s time we got past this artificial argument and accepted the reality we live in. Our world is a constantly changing and mysterious world, and we are part of the change and mystery.  To deny this is to deny reality – which, apparently, is what 61% of Americans are happy to do.

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In retrospect, it seems that President John F. Kennedy’s support of the space program marked the beginning of a golden age of science in America. Although NASA’s goal was to reach the moon, their research into exotic materials and new technologies spawned a diversity of scientific endeavors that, more than likely, were even beyond Kennedy’s initial vision.  However, after Kennedy’s death the nation slowly but surely turned away from pursuing scientific goals until we arrived at where we are today, a nation with a creaky, aging, marginally safe fleet of space shuttles that will soon be decomissioned and no national sense of scientific direction.  What little scientific research we do in physics is mostly to see what can be done to enhance our military capabilities.  Our biotech companies are making strides in certain areas – those that might turn a profit by making breakthrough drugs, for example, but our government isn’t funding anything grand like the human genome project these days. It seems that we have lost interest in knowledge – that is what science is, after all, knowledge.  Indeed, the very word “science” itself is derived from the Latin word “scientia”, meaning “knowledge”.

Instead of a search for knowledge we seem to be turning to a search for belief, based upon the words of a known authority. As an example, consider the subject of evolution.  On February 12th the world celebrated the birthday of Charles Darwin – at least some of the world did, anyway.  In commemoration of the anniversary of his birth the Gallup Poll took a survey to see how many people believed in Darwin’s theory of evolution. The answer: 39% of Americans believe in evolution.  25% of Americans are convinced Darwin is wrong, and 36% have no idea.  Despite strong indications from our DNA that we evolved from other primates, most Americans just don’t believe it.  Despite strong DNA evidence that all sorts of life froms evolved from other life forms, most Americans just don’t believe it.

Perhaps part of the problem with evolution is that the proponents of the theory seem to insist that the engine of evolution is random mutations, followed by survival of the fittest. These people leave no room for evolution being an organism’s adaptive response to the environment via a mechanism like the epigenome.  This argument has an interesting parallel in physics where the proponents of quantum theory insist that, at its heart, the universe is a random process.  Of course the great proponent for a causative universe was Albert Einstein, who was subjected to massive scorn by the scientific community for his opinions.  Even so, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is still the best explanation for how our universe functions, much to the chagrin of the string theory crowd.  In the end, both physics and biology have been infiltrated by a debate about the existence of  God and the respective sides have dug their heels in, believing that the proof or disproof of a particular position could in some way prove or disprove the existence of God.

Meanwhile, we find ourselves in economic freefall with politicians, i.e. former lawyers and businessmen, determining how to fix a shattered economy based upon what they believe is the way an economy works.  Lawyers and businessmen running an economy.  It’s like asking baseball players to fly commercial aircraft, and yet that is what we are doing.  We don’t have an operational model of our economy that runs on a supercomputer, do we? Yet, it’s not impossible. It’s not rocket science, but if it were we have plenty of rocket scientists. One thing we do have is plenty of economists: people like Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman who has been saying over and over again that the stimulus bill is way too small.  We have NYU professor and economist, Nouriel Roubini, who predicted this economic catastrophe when everyone else was cheering on the real estate bubble. Roubini says we need to do a lot more than the stimulus. But do our politician lawyers and businessmen listen? Are they interested in a scientific analysis of our economy? Or do they just want to believe what they want to believe?  And these are the guys who are driving.

The leading center for research into clean, safe, nuclear fusion (not nuclear fission like we have today) energy is at ITER in France. It is funded by a group of the world’s leading nations from Europe and Asia.  The United States has withdrawn all funding for ITER.  The world’s leading center for nuclear physics is in Europe at CERN.  We have gutted nuclear research in the United States and have turned toward “green” energy instead – implying that nuclear fusion couldn’t be  “green” because of the word nuclear.

We have become an anti-science, pro-blind faith country.  We have buried our heads in the sand hoping that windmills and solar collectors will solve all of our energy requirements without ever thinking about the environmental consequences of extracting that amount of energy from our environment.  It’s the same mentality that allows people to clear cut forests believing that the supply of trees in the world is semi-infinite and cutting down a few here and there won’t hurt anything. There is nothing we can do that doesn’t affect everything else and it is imperative that we understand the effects of our actions whether it is in nuclear physics, biology, or the economy.

The answers are to be found in science, not in dogged attachment to systems of beliefs that do not have a firm foundation in real knowledge.  We used to know that.  How have we gone so far astray?

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