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Posts Tagged ‘Big Bang theory’

The big news of late is the discovery of gravitational waves from the very earliest time after the Big Bang.  What hasn’t been widely reported is that this represents a huge bit of indirect evidence that multiple universes really do exist.

Here’s more:

Big Bang Discovery Opens Doors to the “Multiverse”.

la-sci-sn-gravitational-waves-inflation-big-ba-001

(Harvard University / EPA)

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When I was young, I once looked at a box of cereal and had an epiphany.  “Why is that cereal there?”  A universe of unfathomable complexity, with 100,000,000,000 galaxies, each with 100,000,000,000 stars, making 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible solar systems with planets around them—all that, and I’m sitting across from a box of Vanilly Crunch?

Vanilly

Since that existential crisis, I’ve always wondered why there was something instead of nothing.  Why isn’t the universe just one big empty set?  “Emptiness” and “nothingness” have always seemed so perfect to me, so symmetric, that our very existence seems at once both arbitrary and ugly.  And no theologian or philosopher ever gave me an answer I thought was satisfying.  For a while, I thought physicists were on the right track: Hawking and Mlodinow, for example, in The Grand Design, describe how universes can spontaneously appear (from nothing) according to the laws of quantum mechanics.

I have no problem with quantum mechanics: it is arguably the most successful theory devised by mankind.  And I agree that particles can spontaneously create themselves out of a vacuum.  But here’s where I think Hawking and Mlodinow are wrong: the rules of physics themselves do not constitute “nothing”.  The rules are something.  “Nothing” to me implies no space, no time, no Platonic forms, no rules, no physics, no quantum mechanics, no cereal at my breakfast table.  Why isn’t the universe like that?  And if the universe were like that, how could our current universe create itself without any rules for creation?

But wait—don’t look so smug, theologians.  Saying that an omnipotent God created the universe doesn’t help in any way.  That just passes the buck; shifts the stack by one.  For even if you could prove to me that a God existed, I would still feel a sense of existential befuddlement.  Why does God herself exist?  Nothingness still seems more plausible.

Heidegger called “why is there anything?” the fundamental question of philosophy.  Being a physicist, and consequently being full of confidence and hubris, I set out to answer the question myself.  I’d love to blog my conclusions, but the argument runs about 50,000 words…longer than The Great Gatsby.  Luckily for you, however, my book Why Is There Anything? is now available for the Kindle on Amazon.com:

rave book

You can download the book here.

You might wonder if my belief in the many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics affected my thinking on this matter.  Well, the opposite is true.  In my journey to answer the question “why is there anything?” I became convinced of MWI, in part because of the ability of MWI to partially answer the ultimate question.  My book Why Is There Anything? is a sort of chronicle of my intellectual journey, one that I hope you will find entertaining, enlightening, and challenging.

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maser

CNN has no love for the room-temperature maser.

It’s almost a new year, which of course is the time that everyone writes retrospectives of the year before.  I don’t really want to write a retrospective; I’d rather start a new tradition: criticizing someone else’s retrospective.  So to begin: I draw your attention to CNN’s Top 10 science stories of 2012.

Let me start by emphasizing that this list was not written by a scientist.  It was written by the CNN Health beat reporter.  So maybe I shouldn’t be so critical: maybe I should give that reporter a pass.  But come on, shouldn’t we expect at least half of the “top 10 science stories” to actually be science?  Is that so much to ask for?  Ideally, such a list should be written by several scientists, or at the very least one scientist.  Having the CNN Health reporter compile a list of the top 10 science stories is a kind of near miss—like having Bob Vila comment on the top 10 advances in mechanical engineering, or having Tiger Woods list the best Cricket players in Australia (be sure to mention Michael Clarke, Tiger).

I am a scientist, so I feel qualified to comment on CNN’s list.  Therefore, in the spirit of new year snarkiness, let’s evaluate each “top 10 science story” for import, for scientific value, and for “wow” factor.  And let’s see how the health reporter did.  Remember, that reporter got paid for their work (and I am not getting paid).  Go figure.

1. Curiosity lands, performs science on Mars

OK, this is cool, and maybe some science will be done eventually—I am not aware of any actual results published yet in a peer-reviewed journal.  But the Curiosity landing on Mars is in itself not science; it’s a remarkable feat of technology and engineering.  So it shouldn’t be on the list.

2. Higgs boson — it’s real

I don’t have a problem with this being on the list.  This is big, and important, and exciting to most physicists.  The one thing it is not is surprising: most physicists had faith in the Standard Model, and most expected the Higgs to be found in the 125 GeV/c2 range.  Now the real work begins: determining all the properties of the Higgs, and all the interactions that it might participate in.

3. James Cameron’s deep dive

Seriously?  How is this science?  Avatar-boy goes on a vanity jaunt to the heart of the ocean, and we pay attention why?

4. Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking jump

This is an even more embarrassing entry than the previous one.  An idiot pushes the envelope, and we call it science?  Does the CNN Health reporter even know what science is?

5. Planet with four suns

Planethunters.org discovered a quadruple star system with a planet in a (somehow) stable orbit.  This is an interesting discovery and an impressive feat by an amateur collective.  Maybe someone will get a journal article out of this someday, but that’s it.  A bigger story is how many extrasolar planets have been discovered so far—854 by Dec. 24, 2012.

6. Nearby star has a planet

So Alpha Centauri B has a planet.  That’s nice.  But didn’t we already cover extrasolar planets in the previous entry in the list?  A good list should vary its entries: if you were listing your top 10 favorite comfort foods, and if #5 were pepperoni pizza, would #6 be sausage pizza?  I didn’t think so.

7. Vesta becomes a ‘protoplanet’

Sigh.  What’s with all the space stuff?  Hey CNN Health reporter: only a small percentage of physicists are astronomers, you know, and there are many other branches of science than just physics.  Did you consider asking a chemist what’s hot in chemistry?  Did you think of calling a geologist, or a neuroscientist, or a paleontologist, or a solid-state physicist?  I didn’t think so.

mayim

Hey CNN? Why didn’t you call Dr. Mayim Bialik?

8. Bye-bye, space shuttles

Again?  More space?  And this isn’t even remotely science.  This is about the retirement of a vehicle.  Good riddance, I say: imagine all the real science that could have been done if the space shuttle money had instead been used to send out hundreds of unmanned probes, to Europa, Titan, Callisto, Ganymede…

9. SpaceX gets to the space station, and back

And still more space?

Dear lord, you’d think from this list that space exploration is the only kind of science that anyone does.  And again: not a science story.  It’s a technology story.  Look up the difference, CNN.

10. Baby’s DNA constructed [sic] before birth

“For the first time, researchers at the University of Washington were able to construct a near-total genome sequence of a fetus, using a blood sample from the mother and saliva from the father.  The study suggested this method could be used to detect thousands of genetic diseases in children while they are still in the fetal stage.”

This is interesting, and may be important, but I have an issue with the list item as the CNN Health reporter wrote it.  The baby’s DNA wasn’t constructed before birth.  The DNA was present before birth, sure; fetuses do have DNA.  The baby’s genome was sequenced before birth, which is a completely different thing.  You’d think a health reporter would know better.

Final Score

So what’s the final tally?  By my count, only of 6 of the items on the list are science, and that’s being very generous.  Of those 6, the fields of science represented are astronomy, particle physics, astronomy, astronomy, astronomy, and biology/medicine.  Nice, balanced list there.  Way to go.

So what stories did deserve to be on the list?  I don’t know.  I am a (mostly) solid-state physicist, and I could mention that researchers successfully used neutrinos to communicate, built a room-temperature maser, and found Majorana fermions.  I’ll stop there, and let chemists, neuroscientists (that means you, Mayim), and geologists add items of their own.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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One Data Point

The name of this blog was originally not “Many Worlds Theory”.

I was going to call it, at first, “One Data Point”.  I know: not very exciting.

I still think that’s a good name;  it gets to the heart of what I want to say in this blog, for reasons I’ll discuss in a moment.  But I went with “Many Worlds Theory” for purely selfish, economic reasons.

(Here’s the monologue that went on inside my head: “Man, I bet I could have made some money if I had registered bigbangtheory.com a few years ago.  That TV show is quite clever.  My wife says I’m a bit like Leonard.  Anyway it would be nifty if I could register a name that would show up on Google searches… Let me play a round a bit and see what happens on Google.  Holy crap, no one has registered manyworldstheory.com?  How’d that happen?”)

I know, I know.  The chance of making money off a blog is about the same chance that the Carolina Panthers’ coaching staff makes good coaching decisions this coming week.  (Is this a topic for a future blog?)  But the name “Many Worlds Theory” is too good to pass up.  In some universe, this domain name really pays off for me.

So.  Back to “One Data Point”.  I got the idea from a physics lab I taught a few years back.  The lab was about the simple pendulum.  What variables affect the period of the pendulum’s motion?   The instruction up front was minimal; the students were supposed to design the experiment themselves.  They were to vary things like mass, initial angle, string length, and see which parameters were important.  (If you’re curious about the outcome, why don’t you try the experiment yourself?)

Fast forward about a week.  A student turns in a lab write-up, and I am grading it.  And I notice: their graph of “Period as a Function of Mass” has only one data point.

One data point.

Their conclusion is that period doesn’t depend on mass.  And to their credit, they have actually drawn a horizontal line through that one data point to make their case.

Here’s a reconstruction of the subsequent conversation I had with the student:

ME: [Pointing] So, do you see anything wrong with this graph?

STUDENT:  Uh, no?

ME: Well, there’s only one data point.

STUDENT: So?

ME: So how were you able to draw a line through it?

STUDENT: Well, I knew it had to be a horizontal line—

ME: You were supposed to verify that it was a horizontal line, with data, not assume the line was horizontal to begin with.

STUDENT: But it was horizontal.

ME: Only because you drew it that way!

STUDENT: Well, no, it was horizontal because it went through the data point we had.

ME: [Stifling laughter] But couldn’t you have drawn a line going in any direction you like, with only one data point?

STUDENT: But it was horizontal.

I’ll stop here; you get the idea.  It reminds me of the bit about the volume “going to eleven” in This is Spinal Tap.

This sort of reasoning is much more common that you might imagine.  I call it the “one data point” fallacy because I am not knowledgeable enough to know what it’s really called (or too lazy to look it up).  The idea is this: most people seem to be unaware that it takes two points to define a line.

Examples:

  • “Hurricane Sandy is awful!  Global warming must exist.”
  • “My friend Joe lost his job.  Therefore the economy is getting worse!  ”
  • “The drinking water must cause cancer, because our neighbor’s son got cancer.”
  • “The streets are getting more dangerous!  I know because I got mugged.”
  • “TV is getting worse!  Just look at that Honey Boo Boo show.”

I hope you can see that all of the reasoning here is completely ludicrous.  That doesn’t mean that all of the statements are wrong; I happen to agree with exactly two of the statements.  But in each case a conclusion was drawn from one data point.

You know that you can draw a line in any direction, consistent with a single point?  That basically means that you can draw any conclusion you like from any of the above examples.

For instance:

“My friend Joe lost his job.  Therefore the economy is getting better!”

How so?  Well, what if Joe were the only person in the entire country to lose his job?  Then that one data point would be a sign of 0.0% unemployment!

The “one data point” fallacy is so pernicious that you have to stop yourself from using it.  It crops up everywhere.  Politicians love it: it is reasoning by anecdote.  “North Carolina is hurting.  Alice lost her job at the factory and had to go onto food stamps.  Vote for me.”  This stuff drives me crazy.

It almost makes you think that people can’t reason worth a damn.

But then again, I need more data to draw a definitive conclusion.

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