Wait For It

“So, Jeremy, have I convinced you that there’s poetry in Physics?”

“Not quite, Mr Moire. Symbols can carry implications and equation syntax is like a rhyme scheme, okay, but what about the larger elements we’ve studied like forms and metaphors?”

“Forms? Hoo boy, do we have forms! Books, theses, peer-reviewed papers, conference presentations, poster sessions, seminars, the list goes on and that’s just to show results. Research has forms — theoretical, experimental, and computer simulation which is sort of halfway between. Even within the theory division we have separate forms for solving equations to get mathematically exact solutions, versus perturbation techniques that get there by successive approximations. On the experimental side—”

“I get the picture, Mr Moire. Metaphorically there’s lots of poetry in Physics.”

“Sorry, you’re only partway there. My real point is that Physics is metaphor, a whole cascade of metaphors.”

“Ha, that’s a metaphor!”

“Caught me. But seriously, Science in general and Physics in particular underwent a paradigm shift in Galileo’s era. Before his century, a thousand years of European thought was rooted in Aristotle’s paradigm that centered on analysis and deduction. Thinkers didn’t much care about experiment or observing the physical world. No‑one messed with quantitative observations except for the engineers who had to build things that wouldn’t fall down. Things changed when Tycho Brahe and Galileo launched the use of numbers as metaphors for phenomena.”

“Oh, yeah, Galileo and the Leaning Tower experiment.”

“Which may or may not have happened. Reports differ. Either way, his ‘all things fall at the same speed‘ conclusion was based on many experimental trials where he rolled balls of different material, sizes and weights down a smooth trough and timed each roll.”

“That’d have to be a long trough. I read how he used to count his pulse beats to measure time. One or two seconds would be only one or two beats, not much precision.”

“True, except that he used water as a metaphor for time. His experiments started with a full jug of water piped to flow into an empty basin which he’d weighed beforehand. His laboratory arrangement opened a valve in the water pipe when he released the ball. It shut the valve when the ball crossed a finish line. After calibration, the weight of released water represented the elapsed time, down to a small fraction of a second. Distance divided by time gave him speed and he had his experimental data.”

“Pretty smart.”

“His genius was in devising quantitative challenges to metaphor‑based suppositions. His paradigm of observation, calculation and experimental testing far outlasted the traditionalist factions who tried to suppress his works. Of course that was after a century when Renaissance navigators and cartographers produced maps as metaphors for oceans and continents.”

“Wait, Mr Moire. In English class we learned that a metaphor says something is something else but an analogy is when you treat something like something else. Water standing for time, measurements on a map standing for distances — aren’t those analogies rather than metaphors?”

“Good point. But the distinction gets hazy when things get abstract. Take energy, for example. It’s not an object or even a specific kind of motion like a missile trajectory or an ocean wave. Energy’s a quantity that we measure somewhere somehow and then claim that the same quantity is conserved when it’s converted or transferred somewhere else. That’s not an analogy, it’s a metaphor for a whole parade of ways that energy can be stored or manifested. Thermodynamics and quantum mechanics depend on that metaphor. You can’t do much anywhere in Physics without paying some attention to it. People worry about that, though.”

“Why’s that?”

“We don’t really understand why energy and our other fundamental metaphors work as well as they do. No metaphor is perfect, there are always discrepancies, but Physics turns out to be amazingly exact. Chemistry equations balance to within the accuracy of their measuring equipment. Biology’s too complex to mathematize but they’re making progress. Nobel Prize winner Eugene Wigner once wrote a paper entitled, ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in The Natural Sciences.’ It’s a concern.”

“Well, after all that, there’s only one thing to say. If you’re in Physics, metaphors be with you.”

~~ Rich Olcott

4 Tips 4 A Young Scientist

From: Robin Feder <rjfeder@fortleenj.com>
To: Sy Moire <sy@moirestudies.com>
Subj: Questions

Dear Mr. Moire, I am a High School student who has a crazy theory about dark matter. I get bored often and do not learn as much as I think most believe I should in science class. I was thinking about dark matter and how it reacts oppositely of how we expect it to. We expect it to probably not follow “normal” physics. This got me thinking about other impossible things the human mind has thought of. One of them caught my mind–absolute zero. The logic connected itself in my mind and later that day I typed up a doc just to keep my ideas. I played with it and the more I thought about it the evidence started to overlap. I have finally found an end to the theory. I am now ready to send this theory with some scientists who actually have the expertise to critique me. Please give me your thoughts as I of course am not fully confident in it. I have a lot of information that I can’t fit in one email so this is all for now. Hope to improve it. Sincerely, Robin Feder

From: Sy Moire <sy@moirestudies.com>
To: Robin Feder <rjfeder@fortleenj.com>

Subj: Re: Questions

My best to your Dad, Robin, you take after him and I’m glad you’re thinking about science. I hear you about the boring classes often feel that way if the other kids don’t pick things up as quickly as you do. Maybe your teachers can point you to supplementary materials that’ll perk up your interest.

Before we get into your topics I’ll give you some tips that may help your future. The first is, keep an idea notebook. It could be a physical book you keep in your pocket or it could be a directory of files on your phone or computer, doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you record all your ideas as they occur to you so you don’t forget one that might become important later on. In science and other fields, ideas are your stock in trade so you want to preserve your inventory. That absolute‑zero doc is a good start.

Second tip is, after you’ve written down an idea, take a long look at it and ask yourself, “How could I disprove this?” and write that down, too. The essence of science is that it relies more on disproving things than proving them. Get into the habit of thinking about disproof — it’s a powerful way of filtering out incorrect thinking. Works better in some areas than others but in general there’s forward progress.

The reason I highlighted “after” up there is that the first thought, even if it’s wrong, often leads to second and third thoughts that are better. If you discard ideas too quickly you limit yourself. Think of it as an ongoing one‑person brainstorming session. So write first, maybe cross off later, OK?

Third tip is, read up on what your idea is about. A lot. Every field of study has its own “language,” a set of words and concepts that people in the field generally understand. You need to have some command of those if you’re going to ask them clear questions about your idea.

That’s for two reasons. The most important is that using the correct terminology speeds up communication — neither you nor they will have to stop and explain a term or concept. But in addition, if you use the words and concepts properly that tells your conversation partner that you respect their time enough to have done your initial reading.

Fourth tip is where to look for that initial reading. Most textbooks, even shiny freshly-printed ones, are decades behind the current research frontiers. You need to go deeper. You’ll Google your topic, of course, to find popular science articles. Here’s another path to more recent work. Start at a good Wikipedia article. Follow the links to its key recent footnotes and Google the names of the paper’s authors. Many of them will have blogs that they write for a student audience. Follow those blogs.

Looking forward to reading those two files.

Sy Moire.

~~ Rich Olcott

Unless We’re All In This, Together

I wrote the italicized text for another forum, but I’m reposting it here because my head and heart and the times demand it…

We’ll soon be in the month of our national Independence Day so it’s appropriate to point out that we’re living in an Age of Heroes.  We’ve had heroes all along, of course — the Founding Fathers and Mothers, the military who defend the country we’ve built, the first responders who run toward danger to protect the rest of us. 

Less lauded but still crucial is another group of heroes – parents, teachers, caregivers and others who take on responsibility for nurturing and supporting people who for whatever reason can’t handle the challenge themselves.  These heroes may not risk bodily damage but the emotional toll can be devastating.  It says something positive for our society that we have so many in this group.

But in the past few months we’ve come to recognize yet another category of heroism.  From maintenance and transportation staff to the entire farm‑to‑table supply chain workforce, these people have quietly continued their tasks in the face of COVID‑19, with or without protective measures in place.  Without their brave efforts our cities and economy would have been weakened far more than they have been. 

Those three categories together comprise a significant fraction of our population.  In my opinion, there’s a lesson there that our country has been too slow to learn.  Humans got where we are because we’re a societal species.  The Western Frontier closed a century ago.  Even the legendarily reclusive “mountain men” had to come into town occasionally for medical care or supplies they just couldn’t produce on their own.  In the past few months, our distress with social distancing and our burgeoning activity on social media highlight just how much we want/need to interact with other people.

Like it or not, we are all part of society.  Moreover, the smooth functioning of our society depends on our collaboration.  I’m not arguing an absolutist position here – cooperation leaves plenty of room for competition and individual liberty (how best to organize the economy is a separate discussion).  But I do think we need official and explicit recognition of the fact that what I do affects you and what you do affects me.

Here’s my modest proposal – let’s rename the Fourth of July as National Interdependence Day.

Part of being societal, of course, is the impulse to protect those about us. That’s why many of those on the Thin Blue Line got into the force and I’m grateful and more than a little awed. But as we’ve seen, some of them don’t live up to what’s expected of them.

“There’s some bad apples in every barrel,” has been said too often. The question is, why are they still there? The line officers know better than anyone else the characters of their peers. Can’t they get rid of the bad apples themselves?

The most common defense I’ve heard from my LEO friends has been along the lines of, “Out there we can only survive if we know we have each other’s backs. If I write up a complaint and if the higher-ups don’t desk or boot the guy, he’ll look the other way the next time something goes down when we’re on the street together.” That culture must change, for the sake of the good cops and the rest of us.

There are some indications that the no-snitch attitude may be changing as the unions and PD administrators and prosecutors realize that bad cops directly contribute to the deadly conditions the rest have to work under. I sure hope so.

In closing, I highly recommend this thought piece from Trevor Noah, who is far more than a comedian. Please do listen through to the end. Then think about it. Then do something.

~~ Rich Olcott

RIP, Dr Hawking

Today I depart from my normal schedule and the current story line and science line.  A giant has left us and I want to pay proper tribute.

Dr Stephen Hawking enjoyed telling people of his fortunate birth date, exactly 300 years after Galileo Galilei passed away.  He liked a good joke, and I think he’d be tickled with this additional connection to the man whose work made Hawking’s work possible:
RIP Hawking

The equation in the center of this cut is Hawking’s favorite result, which he wanted to be carved on his gravestone.  It links a black hole’s entropy (S) to its surface area (A).  The other letters denote a collection of constants that have been central to the development of theoretical Physics over the past century and a half:

  • k is Boltzmann’s constant, which links temperature with kinetic energy
  • c is the speed of light, the invariance of which led Einstein to Relativity
  • G is Newton’s universal gravitational constant
  • h is Planck’s constant, the “quantum of action”

Hawking spent much of his career thinking deeply about the implications of Einstein’s concepts.  Newton’s equations support excellent descriptions of everyday physical motions, from the fall of raindrops to the orbits of solar systems.  Einstein’s equations led to insights about conditions at the most extreme — velocities near lightspeed, masses millions of times the Sun’s but packed into a volume only a few dozen miles wide.

But Hawking also pondered extremes of the ultimately large and the ultimately small — the edge of the Universe and distances far smaller than atomic nuclei.  Because his physical condition prohibited speech or quick jottings, he was forced to develop extraordinary powers of concentration and visualization that enabled him to encapsulate in a few phrases insights that would take others books to develop and communicate.

Hawking wrote books, too, of course, of a quality and clarity that turned his name and Science into watchwords for the general public as well as the physics community.  By his life and how he lived it he was an inspiration to many, abled and otherwise.  Science needs its popularizers, though some in the field deprecate them as hangers-on.  Hawking managed to bridge that gap with ease and grace, a giant with standing on either side.

Requiescat in pace, Dr Hawking.  Thank you.

~~ Rich Olcott

Wikipedia Skillz

A young man’s knock, eager yet a bit hesitant.

“C’mon in, the door’s open.”

Tall kid, glasses, hoodie thrown back.

“Hi, Mr Moire, can I ask you some questions?  I’m doing a term paper on black holes and I’ve read up on in Wikipedia but there’s things I don’t understand and besides Ms Plenum said not to trust Wikipedia.”

“Hold on, son, let’s get acquainted first.  You are…?”

“My name’s Jeremy Brannigan, sir, and I’m like Richard Feynman’s archetypical intelligent high school student he wanted to explain things to except he gave up on particle spin.”

“Well, you have done your homework, though you’ve muddled a couple of his quotes.  But about Wikipedia — Ms Plenum’s mostly right but in my experience the technical articles are pretty dependable.  Those writers are usually more interested in explaining than convincing.  Have you checked Wikipedia’s Talk pages?”

“There’s, like, comments?”

“Sort of, except Talk pages lie behind articles and target what’s right or wrong and what should be changed to make the article better.  I often learn as much from the technical discussion as I do from the article itself.”

A riff on Wikipedia’s logo, original in Wikimedia Commons

“I’ve never seen those pages.  How do I get to them?”

“You need a desktop view.  That’s the standard view when you use a desktop or laptop computer, but you can only maybe get to it on a handheld device.  Depends on the device, the browser, and even their maintenance levels.  Do you have a handheld in that backpack?”

“Yeah, an iPad.”

“Safari, Firefox and Chrome can all show that other view.”

“I’ve got all three.”

“Great, pull up Chrome, get to Wikipedia and look up ‘Black hole.'”

… “Got it.  Uhh… don’t see anything about a Talk page.”

“You’re looking at ‘mobile mode.’  See that three-dots icon at the top right?  Tap on it and check the pop-up menu.”

“Hah, here’s one that says, Request Desktop Site.  I’ll tap on that.  Hey, now I’ve got tabs above the text, one says Article and another that says Talk.  Whoa, here’s one that says View Source.  Whups, now there’s a box that says I can start editing.  Better not, huh?  How do I get out of that?”

“Tap your browser’s backup button.  By the way, even though in principle anyone can edit any article, the Wikipedia moderators have locked down some of the most popular or controversial just to prevent update wars.  This article’s one of those.”

“Yeah, I just backed up then tried View Source again and it says I’m not an established registered user.  No duh, right?  OK, lessee what’s in the Talk page.  Umm, how-to stuff and then organization stuff and then, huh! ‘this article has been rated GA-class on the quality scale.’ People come around and, like, check your work?”

“Absolutely, which is why I think Ms Plenum’s advice is a little too pessimistic.  Trust but verify — if you see something you’d like to quote but you don’t want to look foolish, double-check with another source.  But on the whole I’ve found the science, math and other technical articles to be trustworthy.”

“Aha, the first set of comments is about my questions, Hawking radiation and how black holes evaporate and what are virtual particles and like that.”

“So many questions, so little time.  Let’s finish off with the browser issue before we dive into physics.  Bring up your Firefox browser on that iPad.”

“All right.  Mmm, I’m going to Wikipedia, and I’m searching for ‘Black hole’ … got it, but the display doesn’t have tabs or a three-dot icon.”

“Firefox has two ways to get to desktop mode.  One way is to tap the three-bar icon at the top right…”

“YESS! the pop-up menu has half-a-dozen options and there’s Request Desktop Site.  Hey, it toggles, I can flip modes back and forth.  Sweet!  What’s the other way?”

“Press-and-hold the reload circle-arrow in the address bar.”

“A-hah, that opens a Request Desktop Site button right under the arrow.  Cool, that’s a toggle, too.  How does Safari handle this stuff?”

“They use the reload circle-arrow ploy, same as Firefox, dunno who did it first.”

“Oops, late for class.  Seeya.”

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Importance of Saving Data

Sorry, but I’ve got to break into my normal Monday-morning stream to spread this around.  It’s a ProPublica document (click on the link to pull down a copy) detailing safe ways to leak information.

When I first heard about the data-stashing “parties” I thought it was something of an over-reaction.  Climate scientists and students organizing a massive effort to copy important data out of government files in case the new Administration decided to cover it all up somehow.

I’ve changed my mind.

What changed it was USDA’s suddenly blocking access to their animal welfare database, the one that keeps inspection records on research labs, companies, zoos, circuses, and animal transporters and how well they adhere to the Animal Welfare Act.

The agency said in a statement that it revoked public access to the reports “based on our commitment to being transparent …”  Being transparent by blocking information — there’s a certain Orwellian flavor to that, but it gets better.

I followed this article‘s link to see the original statement.  Well, I tried to follow it.  FireFox flat-out refused to show me the page because “Your connection is not secure. The owner of acis.aphis.educ.usda.gov has configured their website improperly.”  The error code was “SEC_ERROR_UNKNOWN_ISSUER.” Funny that an official .gov site mucked up its security certificate.

Then I tried Microsoft’s  edge browser, which has less alert security than my beefed-up FireFox.  edge showed me an imposing and somewhat threatening USDA e-Login page including the statements that “Unauthorized or improper use of this system may result in disciplinary action, as well as civil and criminal penalties…. You have no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding any communications or data transiting or stored on this information system…. Your consent is final and irrevocable…

disappearing-lorem-ipsumAll this before Mr Sonny Perdue III is confirmed as the new Secretary of Agriculture. That name rings a bell, right?  Yeah, Perdue Farms, the country’s #3 poultry farmer. It’s hard not to connect dots to the Department suddenly wanting to hide farm inspection records.

So, it’s now pretty clear that we can expect other government-funded databases to disappear without warning, especially databases even remotely related to climate change, drug safety, water supply degradation, … you know, the things that there are regulations about that get in the way when your object is to maximize profits.

So — if you’re in science and you have possession of or access to data (databases, files, whatever) that might be in jeopardy

  1.  Get it to an offsite and secure backup ASAP
  2. When/if it becomes clear that your or the public’s access to that data is about to be restricted, take one or more of the actions laid out in the ProPublica document.

Sometimes it’s rational to be paranoid.

~~ Rich Olcott