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A load of science Ken Perrott Aug 02

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If you are into science videos this will interest you. It’s a collection of 100 science lectures given by top scientists.

They are divided into the following groups:

  • General,
  • Science and engineering,
  • Biology and medicine,
  • Chemistry,
  • Physics and astronomy,
  • Earth and environment,
  • Technology and computer science,
  • Science and the future,
  • Science and business, and
  • Miscellaneous

Some are several years old – but they look interesting. And they certainly cover a range of interests within science.

Thanks to Shirley Zeilinger for pointing me to 100 More Incredible Lectures From the World’s Top Scientists.

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The trouble with physics? Ken Perrott Apr 10

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Scientists working on the Atlas experiment at the Large Hadron Collider ( Photo: REX FEATURES & The Telegraph)

No, this is not an in-depth critique of string theory along the lines of Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next or Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law. It’s more along the lines of how do you know when a physicist is joking?

I think part of the attraction of modern physical theories and speculations are their non-intuitive nature. I buy that – and don’t find myself rejecting ideas just because they violate “common sense.” But I have often through that this non-intuitive nature does leave the field wide open to bullshit.

OK – I am aware that pseudo-science uses this to it’s own advantage to sell products and ideologies. But here’s a more practical problem I face – who do you believe when you read stories about physical discoveries on or around April 1 every year?

For example – I am pretty sure that the CERN Newsletter editors were pulling my leg when they reported – CERN scientists report sidereal influence on the behaviour of antimatter:

CERN scientists today reported an unexpected effect in the behaviour of antiprotons in the ALPHA experiment’s particle trap. ALPHA traps antiprotons from the laboratory’s Antiproton Decelerator and mixes them with positrons to form antihydrogen.

The experiment’s ultimate goal is to perform spectroscopic measurements on antihydrogen atoms in order to investigate nature’s preference for matter over antimatter. ALPHA reported an important step forward last month with the announcement that they had succeeded in changing the internal state of antihydrogen atoms using microwaves.

One of the key stages in CERN’s antimatter programme is slowing the antiprotons down as much as possible, a process known as cooling. In all measurements to date, the ALPHA experiment has cooled the antiprotons to a temperature of just 0.5 Kelvin. However, when the experiment ran on Monday 26 March, they observed antiprotons cooled to 0.4 Kelvin: in other words, they were moving more slowly than usual. Another curious phenomenon was that the temperatures of the antiprotons followed a Poisson distribution instead of the usual Gaussian. The following day, the antiprotons were back to their normal temperature of 0.5 Kelvin.

“We took a long time to figure this one out,” explained collaboration spokesperson, Jeffrey Hangst. “On Monday, the antiprotons were particularly cold, but they responded well to microwave warming, allowing us to conclude the run. On Tuesday, our antiprotons were back to normal.”

The solution came from an unexpected direction.

“There was something else strange about Monday’s run,” said Hangst. “Our run coordinator Niels Madsen arrived an hour late, which is very uncharacteristic behaviour for him.”

This provided the clue the ALPHA collaboration needed.

“I’d forgotten that the time changed over the weekend,” said Madsen. “And of course no one had told the antiprotons that the clocks went forward either, so they were just a little more slow than usual. By the time we got to Tuesday, they’d adjusted to Central European Summer Time.’

But what about this from Jon Butterworth – a physics professor at University College London and a member of the High Energy Physics group on the Atlas experiment at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider. He’s normally a serious guy but reported in his Guardian Blog Life and Physics recently (April 1 actually) that “a bug in the software used to model the detectors at the Large Hadron Collider could have been covering up evidence for extra space time dimensions” (see  First evidence for string theory at the Large Hadron Collider):

Complex software models are used to understand the results from the Large Hadron Collider. These include simulations of the particle physics in the proton-proton collisions, as well as of the material and geometry of the detectors and the strength of the various magnetic fields. As more data are accumulated, the required precision of this software increases.

A recent review recommended that the number of decimal places used to represent numbers in the software should be increased. This means all mathematical constants such as e and pi, as well as physical constants and the measured dimensions of the detectors. So far, so routine. But when adding more precision to pi, a strange effect was noticed. The alignment of charged particle tracks across detector boundaries actually got worse when a more precise value was used. In addition, the agreement between simulation and data also got slightly worse.

This really should not happen – more precision should mean better alignment and better agreement.

Boring scientists say this is probably evidence that some physicists don’t know how to write proper code. However, string theorists have pointed out that a firm prediction of string theory is the existence of extra space-time dimensions. In a space which is curved into a higher dimension, the apparent value of pi can deviate from that seen in real life. And thus the LHC may have proved that they were right all along. More data are needed before we can be sure.

Well, I don’t know. Sounds as credible as most of the stories coming from the LHC and the scientists working there.

Perhaps a hint that the story is an April Fool’s joke comes from the last sentence:

Less welcome news for CERN is that since they have been near to the beams for two years, the values of pi used in those parts of the ATLAS which were built in the UK are now hot, and therefore as of today will attract VAT.

Or perhaps it’s only the last sentence which is the joke?

That’s the trouble with modern physics. When should we take it seriously.

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Another lousy photo of the sun? Ken Perrott Mar 29

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As a photo of the sun this doesn’t look very impressive – until you realise it was taken using neutrinos!

And also that it was taken through the earth – when the sun was on the other side of the earth!

An exposure of 503 day was used and neutrinos detected using a 50 000-ton water pool located 1 km underground. Neutrinos have an extremely weak interaction with other matter. Most of them pass through the earth without interaction and the detection relies on Cherenkov radiation emitted during a rare interaction with an electron in the water.

Thanks to: The Sun seen through the Earth in ’neutrino light’

Comprehending reality — Should we give up so easily? Ken Perrott Jan 17

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The Edge question is an annual event. Publisher John Brockman poses an interesting question to a large number of scientists, thinkers, academics and writers. He publishes their answers on the Edge website and usually, later,  as a book*

The 2012 question is:

What Is Your Favorite Deep, Elegant, Or Beautiful Explanation?

Andrei Linde, Stanford University

There are answers from 190 people – many you will know, some you won’t, but all are thoughtful and stimulating. I am starting to read through them and found the first really intriguing. It’s from Andrei Linde, Professor of Physics at Stanford University and originator of the Chaotic Inflation Cosmological theory, and has the title Why Is Our World Comprehensible?

Here’s an extract:

“The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” This is one of the most famous quotes from Albert Einstein. “The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.” Similarly, Eugene Wigner said that the unreasonable efficiency of mathematics is “a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.” Thus we have a problem that may seem too metaphysical to be addressed in a meaningful way: Why do we live in a comprehensible universe with certain rules, which can be efficiently used for predicting our future?

One could always respond that God created the universe and made it simple enough so that we can comprehend it. This would match the words about a miracle and an undeserved gift. But shall we give up so easily? Let us consider several other questions of a similar type. Why is our universe so large? Why parallel lines do not intersect? Why different parts of the universe look so similar? For a long time such questions looked too metaphysical to be considered seriously. Now we know that inflationary cosmology provides a possible answer to all of these questions. Let us see whether it might help us again.

I like his point, his response to a “god did it!”answer provided by the theologically-inclined.

Should we give up so easily?

Linde explains how modern cosmological theory leads to the possibility of regions of the universe where “different laws of the low energy physics operate” – the “multiverse” concept.

“In some of these universes, quantum fluctuations are so large that any computations are impossible. Mathematics there is inefficient because predictions cannot be memorized and used. Lifetime of some of these universes is too short. Some other universes are long living but laws of physics there do not allow existence of anybody who could live sufficiently long to learn physics and mathematics.”

And:

“We can only live in those universes where the laws of physics allow our existence, which requires making reliable predictions. In other words, mathematicians and physicists can only live in those universes which are comprehensible and where the laws of mathematics are efficient.”

And he concludes that while some people may dismiss his ideas as “wild speculation:”

 It seems very intriguing, however, that in the context of the new cosmological paradigm, which was developed during the last 30 years, we might be able, for the first time, to approach one of the most complicated and mysterious problems which bothered some of the best scientists of the 20th century.


*Previous questions/books include:

 2011 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY’S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?
 2010 : HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK?
  2009 : WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?
  2008 : WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT? WHY?
   2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?
  2006 : WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?
  2005 : WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS TRUE EVEN THOUGH YOU CANNOT PROVE IT?

And so on – back to 1998.

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Fine-tuning fallacies Ken Perrott Nov 10

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In Fiddling with ’fine-tuning’ I discussed the way theologians and philosophers of religion have used claims of fine-tuning of the cosmological constant erroneously. That they have taken the fact that the value of the measured cosmological constant is 120 orders of magnitude different to the value of vacuum energy used to explain it. This has been described as the “worst calculation in physics history.” But never mind, these apologists have just utilised the huge mistake to claim that the cosmological constant is fine-tuned to 1 part in 10120! So there god must be responsible.

This is what happens when you use scientific knowledge opportunistically. Like a drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination. Because the problem with the theological approach is that there is no interest in understanding the world around us – just in using science to support any argument they can drag up to “prove” the existence of their particular god.

Mind you, some non-theists also find the fine tuning concept beguiling. And they can also uncritically accept some of the fine-tuning claims that circulate. The idea that many of the physical and cosmological constants in our universe are extremely delicately balanced to values necessary for life to exist. The so-called anthropic principle.

So, Victor Stenger’s new book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us will be very useful for anyone attempting to check out these arguments by actually considering the science. He describes the physical and cosmological background to the constants, or parameters as he prefers to call them, usually used in fine-tuning arguments. And then he considers, one by one, just how valid – or invalid – the fine-tuning arguments are.

Here I will just deal with two “fine-tuned” constants – the “Hoyle resonance” for carbon nuclei and the “nuclear efficiency.” I think they illustrate two common mistakes made in estimating the degree of fine-tuning.

Hoyle resonance

This refers to the 1953 prediction of astronomer Fred Hoyle that the reactions necessary for the nucleosynthesis of carbon in stars would “not occur with sufficient probability unless that probability was boosted by the presence of an excited nuclear state of C12 at a very specific energy. Hoyle proposed that this previously unknown state must exist at about 7.7 MeV. The existence of such a state was quickly confirmed experimentally.”

Although Hoyle did not connect this resonance with the existence of life (and therefore an example of the anthropic principle) it has often been quoted by theists as a miraculous example of fine-tuning. And they like to quote Hoyle himself:

“A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”

But Stenger points out that many physicists question how fine-tuned this excited resonance state of carbon really is. He demonstrates this in the following figure from his book.

Here (a) shows two energy levels: (1) the amount by which the total rest energy of Be8 + He4 exceeds that of the C12 nucleus, which is 7.3367 MeV; (2) the excited state of C12 predicted by Hoyle and observed at 7.656 MeV. On this scale, the ground state of C12 is zero.

And (b) shows the range of values this excited state could assume and still produce that same amount of carbon in the universe. That is 7.596 – 7.716 Mev. So this excited state is not as fine-tuned as often claimed. The “miracle” is disappearing.

But the fine-tuning really evaporates when we acknowledge that while the existence of life like ours requires the presence of carbon, it does not necessarily require the exact amount of carbon that exists in our universe.  As (c) shows, an excited state anywhere from 7.933 Mev down to near the minimum energy would produce adequate carbon!

In this case the fine-tuning argument has been fallacious because recent work of the required values has been ignored. And it has been unnecessarily assumed that life requires exactly the same amount of carbon as present in the current universe.

Nuclear efficiency

Martin Rees describes “nuclear efficiency” in his book Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape The Universe. It refers to the fact that in the synthesis of helium from protons and neutron in stars the mass of the original particles and final nuclear differs – 0.007 of the mass is converted into energy. He defines this as the “nuclear efficiency,” Є, and the value of this depends on the forces holding nuclei together determines how long stars can exist. Rees concludes that “any universe with complex chemistry requires Є to be in
the range 0.006-0.008.”

“If the nuclear ‘glue’ were weaker, so that Є were 0.006 rather than 0.007, a proton could not be bonded to a neutron and deuterium would not be stable. Then the path to helium formation would be closed off. We would have a simple universe composed of hydrogen, whose atom consists of one
proton orbited by a single electron, and no  chemistry. Stars could still form in such a universe (if everything else were kept unchanged) but they would have no nuclear fuel. They would deflate and cool, ending up as dead remnants. There would be no explosions to spray the debris back into space so
that new stars could form from it, and no elements would exist that could ever form rocky planets.”

“But we couldn’t have existed if Є had been more than 0.008, because no hydrogen would have survived from the Big Bang. In our actual universe, two protons repel each other so strongly that the nuclear ‘strong interaction’ force can’t bind them together without the aid of one or two neutrons (which add to the nuclear ‘glue’, but, being uncharged, exert no extra electrical repulsion). If Є were to have been 0.008, then two protons would have been able to bind directly together. This would
have happened readily in the early universe, so that no hydrogen would remain to provide the fuel in ordinary stars, and water could never have existed.”

But these estimates assume that other physical constant remain constant. Stenger argues that this is unrealistic because if the value of one parameter could be randomly selected during formation of a universe, so could the values of others.

In particular he considers the effect of just varying one other constant – the electromagnetic strength α. The figure below demonstrates the situation.

If α remains fixed at its current value of 1/137 then Ð„ must take a value between 0.006 and 0.008. Higher and all hydrogen would be converted to helium. Lower and no nuclei would form. But as shown in the figure - if  α varies between 1/191 and 1/107 then Ð„ can vary between 0.004 and >0.01.

So, in this case the fine-tuning fallacy has relied on the unwarranted assumption that the value of only one parameter is varied at a time in the calculations,. In reality this is unlikely.

This particular fallacy will be common to most of the physical and cosmological constants that are usually quoted as examples of fine-tuning by religious apologists.

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Art in science Ken Perrott Sep 26

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Elusive … subatomic neutrino tracks showing electrons and muons. Photograph: Dan Mccoy/Rainbow/Science Faction/Corbis

The process of science is very creative in itself. But I think creativity in science  takes on a deeper meaning, and provide a wider communication, when it involves other art forms like writing, music and the graphic arts.

Spare a thought

So I enjoyed this little song by Andrew Pontzen (a theoretical cosmologist – @apontzen) commenting on  the recent news of neutrinos caught travelling faster than light.

It’s called Spare a Thought – and to my limited appreciation of the subject he seems to hint at the underlying physics of the situation.

Thanks to Geek Pop Podcast: The Live Sessions at geek pop.

Some NZ poetry

And I have just found out that SciBlogsNZ has its own resident poet. The chemist Michael Edmonds who writes the blog Molecular Matters.

He has just posted two poems Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing and A New Scientific Revolution. Both are very relevant to the issues we face today.

Hawking’s grand design — lessons for apologists? Ken Perrott Oct 05

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I managed to get my own copy of  The Grand Design (co-authored by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow) the other day. Talk about luck. I was on one of my rare visits to the big smoke and inquired at Borders. It had just come in that day and wasn’t yet on the shelves!

 

Victor Stenger

 

Obviously I won’t comment in depth until I have read the book. I get the impression that I may find the discussions of philosophy more interesting then the physics, though. And I guess it is the philosophical aspects of the book which have provoked the most criticism, or at least the theological criticism. (Mathematicians and physicists like Peter Woit, of course are making their criticisms – but hardly making the newspapers with them – see for example Hawking gives up).

However, I am aware the Victor Stenger is reviewing the book and look forward to his views. He has some standing in cosmology and philosophy, and his writing in these areas are excellent.

So far he has made only limited comments based on other reviews (see Hawking and the Multiverse). I feel he makes an important, point in his conclusion. It does seem obvious to me, but then again the extreme theological reaction to news of the book suggests it may not be to some others. Victor says:

So, at least according to the reviews, Hawking and Mlodinow haven’t said much that physicists and cosmologists haven’t already heard before. However, thanks to Hawking’s notoriety, at least more people will now have heard that science has plausible answers to how the universe came about naturally without the need for a creator. Hopefully this will include those theologians and apologists who continue to wrongfully insist that modern science has demonstrated a need for God.

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Not about Einstein Ken Perrott Sep 29

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Book Review: Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit by Krista Tippett

Price: US$10.88; NZ$12.97
Paperback:
304 pages
Publisher:
Penguin (Non-Classics) (February 23, 2010)
Language:
English
ISBN-10:
0143116770
ISBN-13:
978-0143116776

The media reports of Stephen Hawking’s new book with co-author Leonard Mlodinow (The Grand Design) attracted hostile reaction from some theological quarters (see The Grand Design – neither God nor 42). This reminds me of similar treatment meted out to Albert Einstein in his time.

Einstein had many religious critics for an article of his on the philosophy of religion in 1940. An Episcopalian responded ’to give up the doctrine of a personal God . . . .  shows the good Doctor, when it comes to the practicalities of life, is full of jellybeans’. He was accused of providing fuel for the fanatical antisemitism of religious bigots and told that he should ’stick to his science’ and stop delving into philosophy (sound familiar). And this from the founder of the Calvary tabernacle Association in Oklahoma City ’Professor Einstein, every Christian in America will immediately reply to you, ‘Take your crazy, fallacious theory of evolution and go back to Germany where you came from.’

Perhaps some of today’s scientists who hesitate to respond to their theological critics could learn from Einstein’s reaction. While criticising atheist reaction he described his theological critics as ’numerous dogs who are earning their food guarding ignorance and superstition for the benefit of those who profit from it.’

However, the religious usually in the past interpreted some of Hawking’s previous comments as favourable to religion and god beliefs. Similarly many of Einstein’s comments on religion have been interpreted favourably. In fact, nowadays, the favourable (to religion) interpretations prevail. How often do we hear of Einstein’s negative comments about religion today? More commonly believers claim Einstein, wrongly, as ’on their side.’

Spiritual conversations

Tippet’s book ’Einstein’s God’ is promoting this line. Even when accepting Einstein’s rejection of a personal god it still manages to encompass him in a loose, fluffy, embrace of ’spiritualism.’

However, Tippett doesn’t attempt a factual account of Einstein’s attitudes towards religion and god beliefs. For that Max Jammer’s Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology is much more reliable. In fact ’Einstein’s God’ is not about Einstein at all. The subtitle ’Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit’ is far more accurate.

Krista Tippett is the host of the public radio programme Speaking of Faith, distributed and produced by American Public Media. (This programme was recently renamed Being.) And this book is a collection of conversations between Tippett and scientific personalities from the radio programme.

The personalities are: Freeman Dyson (theoretical physicist); Paul Davies (astrophysicist); Sherwin Nuland (surgeon); Mehmet Oz (cardiovascular surgeon); James Moor (biographer of Charles Darwin); V. V. Raman (theoretical physicist), Janna Levin physicist); Michael McCullough (psychologist); Esther Sternberg (immunologist); Andrew Solomon (novelist); Parker Palmer (Quaker and educator); Anita Barrows (psychologist); and John Polkinghorne (Anglican priest and former physicist).

The science-religion conflict denied

Of course Tippett’s agenda in this book is to promote the idea that religion and science are compatible, almost two sides of the same coin. Even when recognising the epistemological conflict she still believes they are complementary.

Tippett argues that in ’the plain light of day . . . . the suggestion that science and religion are incompatible makes no sense at all.’ And in a manoeuvre often used by those who wish to justify the ridiculous she resorts to quantum mechanics. ’Images from the world of science enliven my understanding of God, and of religion.’ She uses wave/particle duality as ’a template for understanding how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true.’

And, of course, there are the tired old arguments. While accepting the power of science she claims: ’But science cannot mobilise human consciousness and human passion. We need the simultaneous resources of story, ritual, relationships and service that spiritual traditions have the capacity to nurture at their core.’ The old argument by default.

Or: ’But here again I’d insist that religion at its best is clear-eyed and reality based.’ Yeah, right!

And she refers to Einstein’s wish to understand the order ’deeply hidden behind everything’ as ’his longing to understand what God was thinking.’

So Einstein’s use of metaphor get’s tied in with the apologist ’proof’ of their god in scientific laws.

Agenda driven conversations

Of course many of the participants in these discussions are happy to engage in vague talk on spiritual issues, but I couldn’t help feeling that at times Tippett was working hard to put words in mouths. She specifically asked Davies to comment on the suggestion ’that there might be room for an involved God within the laws of physics themselves.’ (Davies response is that ’you could insert the hand of God’ into the ’interstices having to do with quantum uncertainty,’ ’if you want.’)

Commenting on James Moore’s ideas she claims: ’There is much in Darwin’s thought that would ennoble as well as ground a religious view of life and of God.’ And then she finishes that chapter quoting from the famous  last paragraph of Darwin’s ’The Origin of Species:’

’There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one;’

No mention that a ’creator’ was absent from the first edition, which reads:

’There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one;’

Insertion of a ’creator’ into later editions seems to have been an attempt to soothe religious opinion which Darwin later regretted (suggested by comments he made in a letter to his friend Joseph Hooker in 1863).

Conclusions

So this is not a book about Einstein or his understanding of religion. It’s a collection of conversations guided by Tippett to elucidate thoughts on spirituality and religion. While scientists can reach an amazing amount of agreement about reality they are as diverse as any other social group on the issues discussed.

Their differing views may interest some readers. However, this is a limited sample and no one should see the views expressed as in any way representative of scientists as a whole.

Even with these limits the different experiences, specialities and lives could have produced some interesting insights.

Personally, I would have preferred discussions driven more by the scientist involved rather than the programme host with her own agenda. But I guess this inevitably results from the format of this radio programme.

However, the science-religion conflict is as active today as it has ever been. In fact it is a prominent feature of the current ’culture wars.’ Thus attempts to deny this or explain it away are fashionable in theological circles. ’Einstein’s God’ will appeal to those in denial. But the book doesn’t provide a suitable outline of the diverse attitudes of scientists towards religions and god beliefs. And the agenda of the ’Speaking of Faith’ radio programme doesn’t enable elucidation of their different approaches to human spiritually in any depth.

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What is matter? What is materialism? Ken Perrott Sep 09

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I have often thought most philosophers vague when they talk about matter. And especially when they use the word “materialism.”And this includes some who call themselves “philosophers of science.”

And try to hunt down the definitions. Answers for example describes matter as “something that has mass and exists as a solid, liquid, gas, or plasma.” In Wikipedia we find: Matter is the substrate from which physical existence is derived, remaining more or less constant amid changes. Anything that occupies space and has mass and weight.” Search for clarification usually produces the circular definitions that matter has substance and substances are matter.

Philosophical materialism

This understanding of matter extends to definitions of philosophical materialism. Wikipedia says: “the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance.”

These definitions may have been useful 2oo years ago but surely the discoveries of the last 100 years or more make them inadequate. We now understand the equivalence of matter and energy. We know about mass less particles. Matter comes and goes – it has become very unsubstantial. Yet some philosophers don’t appear to have caught up.

This is often manifested in discussions of philosophical materialism.  Of course the critics of materialism will opportunistically use the old definitions. It sets up a straw man that is very easy to knock down. The old mechanical materialism is really no longer relevant but it makes a handy target.

But even those who might be expected to accept philosophical materialism. I just wish that they would carefully define terms like “materialism” when they use them to prevent this sort of straw mannery.

At least Michael Ruse in his book Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science acknowledges the problem (see Making room for faith in science?). He points out the discovery of electromagnetic forces ’showed the idea of a world of simple masses, atoms, is no longer tenable. Whatever may be the basic stuff of existence, forces in some sense must be included. For this reason, a lot of people (myself included) hesitate to speak of themselves as materialists, if this means some sort of Cartesian res extensa is the substance of reality.’

This seems to me an avoidance of the problem. Why not talk in more depth about the modern scientific understanding of matter and introduce better definitions. Leaving the old definitions unscathed hands them over to those who wish to use them maliciously.

Particle physics

However, the particle physicists are well aware of the inadequacy of of definitions of matter. They are busy creating weird and wonderful particles all the time in their accelerators. They have particles for forces and forces for particles. It’s fascinating but all very confusing to the lay person.

Frank Wilczek

So people like Frank Wilczek are very valuable. He is a Noble Prize winner and an educator – a professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But he has also done a lot to make his field more intelligible to the motivated lay person.

I was impressed with his book Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces. Very readable but still covering the field, new discoveries and speculations.

There are a number of videos of popular lectures of his online (* see below for a short list).

And last week a discussion between him and Robert Wright on Blogging Heads became available (see Bloggingheads.tv – Science Saturday: Lightness of Being). It’s a great discussion and he provides useful descriptions of some modern scientific understandings of the nature of matter.

Really, matter is more like light than the old mechanical matter. And more easily understood as fields. Particles are excitations in a field.

He really knocks the old concept of matter as “substance with mass volume and weight” to six.

Now all we need is for philosophers of science to incorporate this into their teachings. A year ago I wrote a review of Alan Chalmers’ excellent book The Scientist’s Atom and the Philosopher’s Stone: How Science Succeeded and Philosophy Failed to Gain Knowledge of Atoms (see From stones to atoms). I think the title summed it up well. Philosophical atoms was vague and unproven. It took science to make atoms real.

Perhaps we need a book with a title like “The scientist’s field and the Philosopher’s substance.”

* See also some of Frank Wilczek’s lectures:
Nobel Lecture by Frank Wilczek
The J. Robert Oppenheimer Lecture – Frank Wilczek. Anticipating a new golden age.
The Large Hadron Collider and Unified Field Theory – Frank Wilczek

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Fallacy of Fine Tuning Ken Perrott Aug 19

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I just picked up in my browsing that Victor Stenger is working on a new book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: How the Universe is Not Designed for Us. Its planned for publication early next year.

This should be a great read. Victor is an excellent and prolific science writer.  He is an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado and Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii (retired in 2000). Much of his writing is aimed a countering theological distortion and misuse of science.  This is badly needed for the “fine-tuning” question. In Godless cosmology I refer to an article of his on this in Russell Blackford‘s 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (see Testimony of non-believers for a review of this book).

Books Stenger has published in recent years (click for a list) include two I have reviewed here. They are:

Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness (for my review see Quantum Gods), and
The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (for my review see Defending science and reason).

So, I am looking forward to the new book. But, meanwhile, I was interested to see that Stenger has posted on-line draft chapters from his book. He is requesting comments from interested people with scientific and editing expertise.

First time I have seen this approach. Anyone interested can go to Fallacy of Fine Tuning and register their interest. registration is required for access to the documents.

I am not registering myself but the list of chapters below give an idea of the books likely content.

0.   Preface
1. Science and God
2.  The Anthropic Principles
3.  The Four Dimensions
4.  Point-of-View Invariance
5. Cosmos
6. The Eternal Universe
7.  The Large Number Puzzle
8.  Chemistry
9.  The Hoyle Resonance
10.  Physics Parameters
11.  Cosmic Parameters
12.  The Cosmological Constant
13. MonkeyGod
14. Convergence
15. Quantum and Consciousness

See also: Slide show of Victor Stenger’s talk “The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning.”

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