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Debunking the Paradigm Shifters


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Tuesday, Aug 31, 2010
Renewed controversy over group selection
Evolutionists have never been able to agree on whether evolution works entirely on the gene level, as Richard Dawkins claims, or whether it also works on the group level. I've mentioned this issue before here and here.

Now the NY Times reports:

Why are worker ants sterile? Why do birds sometimes help their parents raise more chicks, instead of having chicks of their own? Why do bacteria explode with toxins to kill rival colonies? In 1964, the British biologist William Hamilton published a landmark paper to answer these kinds of questions. Sometimes, he argued, helping your relatives can spread your genes faster than having children of your own.

For the past 46 years, biologists have used Dr. Hamilton’s theory to make sense of how animal societies evolve. They’ve even applied it to the evolution of our own species. But in the latest issue of the journal Nature, a team of prominent evolutionary biologists at Harvard try to demolish the theory.

The scientists argue that studies on animals since Dr. Hamilton’s day have failed to support it. The scientists write that a close look at the underlying math reveals that Dr. Hamilton’s theory is superfluous. “It’s precisely like an ancient epicycle in the solar system,” said Martin Nowak, a co-author of the paper with Edward O. Wilson and Corina Tarnita. “The world is much simpler without it.”

No, the ancient epicycles were not superfluous, and the world is not simpler without them. The epicycles were invented to describe the apparent retrograde motion of Mars and other planets, The epicycle corresponds to the revolution of the Earth. There is no simpler system for describing that motion, than using an epicycle or something equivalent to represent the Earth's orbit.

Richard Dawkins sticks to his position:

Edward Wilson was misunderstanding kin selection as far back as Sociobiology, where he treated it as a subset of group selection (Misunderstanding Two of my 'Twelve Misunderstandings of Kin Selection': Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie 1979). Kin selection is not a subset of group selection, it is a logical consequence of gene selection. And gene selection is (everything that Nowak et al ought to mean by) 'standard natural selection' theory: has been ever since the neo-Darwinian synthesis of the 1930s.
It is funny to see Dawkins so ideologically committed to being against group selection. He hates the theory of ethnic nepotism, for political reasons.
Richard Dawkins’ tremendous career as a science journalist has been built on his talent at translating Hamilton’s formulas into engaging prose. But he has long denied the possibility of ethnic nepotism, even though Hamilton had published an elaborate model of it the year before Dawkins published The Selfish Gene.
E. O. Wilson renounced what he previously called a paradigm shift:
I gave up. I was a convert and put myself in Hamilton's hands. I had undergone what historians of science call a paradigm shift.
Be wary of any scientist claiming to follow a paradigm shift. That means that there is no empirical proof that the new theory is any better than the old one, but he is following it like a fad anyway. In this case, he later decided that the paradigm shift was contrary to the evidence.

Monday, Aug 30, 2010
String theory has petered out
Amanda Peet describes string theory in this video of a lecture to a Canadian atheist group.

Her claim that string theory is falsifiable (1:20) is refuted here. She also says that they are waiting on results from the LHC, but cannot say what. She also promotes string theory in a 2003 interview.

Don't miss her arrogant answers and non-answers to questions at the end. When asked for some empirical evidence (1:21), like the starlight deflection for general relativity, she said quantum gravity and black hole entropy. She keeps asking "what's the standard of proof", even tho the questioner clearly says that he is looking for a measurement like the starlight deflection. She also made the usual ad hominem attacks against those who disagree with her.

She makes a reference to the possibility that string theory might "peter out", but it is not clear whether anyone understood this as a pun on her name. My guess is that the audience of skeptics were not too impressed, if they were really skeptics.

Tuesday, Aug 24, 2010
Does the past exist yet?
Robert Lanza writes:
Recent discoveries require us to rethink our understanding of history. "The histories of the universe," said renowned physicist Stephen Hawking "depend on what is being measured, contrary to the usual idea that the universe has an objective observer-independent history."

Is it possible we live and die in a world of illusions? Physics tells us that objects exist in a suspended state until observed, when they collapse in to just one outcome. Paradoxically, whether events happened in the past may not be determined until sometime in your future -- and may even depend on actions that you haven't taken yet.

In 2002, scientists carried out an amazing experiment, which showed that particles of light

I think that these articles are nonsense. It says:
It turns out that what the observer decided at that point, determined what the particle actually did at the fork in the past.
We do not know that there is any such thing as a particle. We only know that there are mysterious fields that look like particles when we make observations. Some when someone makes a claim about what "the particle actually did", he is choosing some interpretation of quantum mechanics, and not necessarily talking about reality. We are never sure that the particle "actually did" anything.

12 interpretations of QM are listed here. To say that these are interpretations means that no known experiment can prove that any one of them is more correct than any other.

So when you read some article that claims that some new experiment has demonstrated some metaphysical consequence of QM, the first question is whether the experiment proved the impossibility of any of those 12 interpretations. If so, then give that guy a Nobel prize. If not, then he is just elaborating some interpretation that is contrary to interpretations promoted by others. If the article does not even mention which interpretation it is talking about, then it may not have even considered the possibility that another interpretation might have a radically different conclusion.

As for whether others would agree with my response, I guess I am subscribing to Poincare's conventionalism. Others might be more realist, and insist that physics tell us what is really going on. They would be more likely to adopt one of those QM interpretations, and insist that the others are wrong and need not be discussed.

Einstein is supposed to be a great philosopher of science, but his opinions on thie subject are incoherent. Sometimes he claimed to be a conventionalist, and sometimes not.

The Lorentz contraction of special relativity had two interpretations -- that changes in the electromagnetic fields cause the molecules of the measuring rod to move closer together, or that space itself is contracting. I say that both interpretations are valid, and it is meaningless to say that one is more correct than the other.

In reading Einstein-related works, I have found that hardly anyone recognizes the simple fact that both interpretations are valid. Everyone acts as if it is obvious that Einstein's big breakthru was to disover the 2nd interpretation, while Lorentz had the 1st. However I say that Einstein never said anything of the kind, until well after Minkowski gave that 2nd interpretation in 1908. Furthermore, no one before about 1910 ever credited Einstein with having an interpretation of the contraction that was different from Lorentz. Einstein's famous 1905 paper talks about measuring rods contracting, but conspicuously avoids saying anything about why they contract.

NewScientist mag says

Is quantum theory weird enough for the real world?

Our most successful theory of nature is bewilderingly remote from reality. But fixing that may require a weirder theory still

Lubos Motl responds:
How it can be "bewilderingly remote from reality" if it is our most successful theory of Nature? It just doesn't make sense. A theory's proximity to reality is defined by its ability to successfully and accurately reproduce and predict the information about the relevant class of phenomena and objects. So it is just a logical contradiction for a successful theory of Nature to be "remote from reality".

Moreover, as long as one is doing science, there is no justification for attempts to "fix" a theory that agrees with all the observations and works perfectly consistently at the mathematical level, too.

He has a followup here.

Yes, the complaints about quantum reality are complaints that the theory has multiple interpretations. This much of Motl's rant is correct, altho he has his own goofy ideas about fixing quantum mechanics with string theory.

Monday, Aug 23, 2010
First They Came For The Climate Scientists
Nobel Bank of Sweden prize-winner and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman writes:
Everyone knows that the American right has problems with science that yields conclusions it doesn’t like. Climate science — which says that we face a huge global externality that requires not just government intervention, but coordinated international action (black helicopters!) has been the target of a sustained, and unfortunately largely successful, attempt to damage its credibility.
No, this is quite wrong. There is no climate science that requires any government intervention or international action.

The IPCC report does predict that sea level will right about two feet in the next century, in addition to the foot it rose in the last century. I accept this as a valid scientific prediction that is likely to come true, but it says nothing about the necessity of the drastic actions that Krugman supports.

An externality is economics jargon for a side effect. It means that when we buy gasoline and other fossil fuels, the price does not include the possible adverse effects of the resulting carbon dioxide. The increased CO2 will surely make some people better off and some people worse off. The statement that we face an externality has no scientific content; it is just a statement about how gasoline is priced.

But it doesn’t stop there. We should not forget that much of the right is deeply hostile to the theory of evolution.

And now there’s a new one (to me, anyway; maybe it’s been out there all along): it turns out that, according to Conservapedia, the theory of relativity is a liberal plot.

You may think that Krugman's main problem is that he expresses opinions outside of his expertise, but he says silly things in his own field of economics, as Steve Landsburg frequently points out.

My guess is that the Conservapedia editors will see this Krugman column as just another example of dogmatic knee-jerk leftists rushing to the defense of evolution and relativity, without much apparent understanding of what either theory is about. Climate science is important to justify expanded government powers and coordinated international action. But why does he care about evolution and relativity? It does not seem to be the science, so what is it?

The title is a Nazi name-calling analogy from Krugman. It is an example of Godwin's law, which points out how online discussions degenerate into Nazi analogies. As a comment points out, Krugman paraphrases a famous quote that starts, "They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

Another comment mentions this blog.

Saturday, Aug 21, 2010
Get the buzz
The word buzz is one of the hardest hangman words. Only jazz and maybe some obscure words are harder, depending on how many guesses are allowed.

You can also get the hot news from Yahoo buzz, or subscribe to my wisdom on Google Buzz. The origin of dark buzz is explained here.

Friday, Aug 20, 2010
No way it came from an ape
The NY Times ethicist is presented with this problem:
As I was wired up and moved to the treadmill, the technician said that she was fascinated with the heart, had studied it and knew that “there is no way it came from an ape.” Then she added, “Only divine creation could have created such an organ.”
His advice is that she has an ethical obligation to report the technician to her boss!

The comment does not make much sense, as apes have hearts also. But it is a little bizarre to advocate actively trying to punish folks who don't believe in evolution.

Maybe 30% of the population does not believe that we came from apes. Get over it.

Thursday, Aug 19, 2010
Replace liberals with Jews
A Jewish site argues (also here) this:
Now a new generation of Einstein deniers, including some Holocaust revisionists, are launching attacks, simultaneously rejecting Einstein’s science and accusing him of stealing his ideas from others.

They point to the published work of French physicist Jules Henri Poincare and Dutch physicist Hendrik Antoon Lorentz, which preceded Einstein’s publication by several years. These men were superb physicists (Lorentz won a Nobel Prize) and they had thought about relativity, but neither made the huge leap in imagination Einstein did, although Poincare came close and probably did influence him.

Lorentz had these huge leaps: length contraction, local time, explaining Michelson-Morley with transformations of Maxwell's equations, extending that explanation to all velocities, relativistic mass.

Poincare had these huge leaps: relativity principle, relativistic clock synchronization, E = mc2, no aether, spacetime geometry, electromagnetic covariance, gravity waves.

Einstein had nothing comparable for special relativity, and just recapitulated what Lorentz and Poincare had published years earlier. I have detailed these points on this blog, such as here and here.

While there is no overt anti-Semitism in the Conservapedia entries on Einstein, the ones on relativity are redolent with the old arguments. For instance, Schlafly writes: “The theory ... is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.”

Greg Gbur, assistant professor of physics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, argued in his blog, Skulls in the Stars, that if you “replace ‘liberals’ with ‘Jews’ in [that] sentence,” the words might as well have been written by a Nazi circa 1930s-era Germany.

Here is an example of relativity being promoted by liberals. You can also find Einstein's works on Marxist sites.

It is remarkable how strongly everyone identifies Einstein with relativity. An attack on relativity is assumed to be an attack on Einstein, and vice-versa. In reality, Conservapedia is attacking relativity and not Einstein, while I am attacking Einstein and not relativity.

There is nothing wrong with promoting relativity. I do it myself, just as I promote evolution and many other scientific ideas. There is something wrong with using it to promote a misleading world view, and to justify Nazi name-calling.

It is also very strange to see Einstein so heavily promoted for things that he did not do. The promotion is not just from Jews and liberals, but it is certainly not rooted in pure science either.

Meanwhile, physicists are expressing mixed feelings about how to react. Several refused to comment for this story because they did not want to give Schlafly credibility. But Clifford Will, professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis, did weigh in.

“The Internet world is full of kooks and crackpots who put out all kinds of drivel. It is pointless to attempt to refute these people with evidence, because they don't believe in evidence,” Will wrote in an e-mail from Paris.

“…People may not like relativity,” he wrote, “but the experimental and observational evidence that supports it is so overwhelming that it is now a fact of the universe.”

I previously criticized Will on relativity. Will idolizes Einstein, regardless of the contrary evidence. He does not address the reasons for crediting Lorentz and Poincare, and neither do his colleagues.

The Conservapedia arguments do have some scientific weaknesses, but hardly anyone is addressing those. Mainly, liberals seem to be upset that it is challenging their cherished icon.

Another Conservapedia-hating site says this:

The page on Einstein himself also contains some amazing deprecation, mostly by Roger Schlafly, including the following astonishing paragraph:
Many ideas and quotes are falsely attributed to Einstein. He did not invent very much of we now call special relativity. The Principle of Relativity, that the law of physics should be the same in all inertial frames, had already been published before Einstein. He did not discover the Lorentz transformation, or the Lorentz invariance of Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism. He was not the first to propose that the speed of light is constant for all observers, or that the aether is superfluous and not observable. He was not the first to recognize and explain how special relativity causes an ambiguity in defining simultaneity. He did not combine space and time into a four-dimensional spacetime in his special relativity papers until others had been doing it for a couple of years.

Einstein was not the first to observe the equation E=mc2 as a consequence of special relativity, or to foresee its application to nuclear binding energies or antimatter annihilation. He did not foresee a nuclear chain reaction and had to be persuaded about the possibility of an atomic bomb.

Einstein did not originate the idea of using metric tensors to reconcile gravity with special relativity. He did not discover the Lagrangian formulation of general relativity, and was not the first to publish the field equations. He did not foresee the expansion of the universe, the possibility of black holes, or dark energy.

(In fairness, the statements in that paragraph cite (and spin) "references", which we have not included here. Feel free to look at the actual CP article [4].)

Even if absolutely true, however, one is instructed to remember that breakthroughs in science, as often as not, are in tiny increments that sometimes shift the entire course of thought in a subject, and to also remember Isaac Newton's invocation of the old statement: "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

I guess that he is not disputing what I say in that "astonishing paragraph". Of course it is absolutely true. If Einstein did contribute some tiny increment to special relativity, what was it? No one will say today, because his contribution was so negligible. You have to go back to the papers of 1906-09 to find physicists who tried to say accurately just what Einstein added to the theory.

Wednesday, Aug 18, 2010
Can quantum gravity be directly measured?
Lubos Motl says the answer is no:
Today, we still lack experimental tools to directly see some qualitative effects of quantum gravity. And chances are that we always will.
He is right. The supposed incompatibility between general relativity (gravity) and quantum mechanics is a big myth. You can say whatever you want about quantum gravity, and no experiment will test your ideas. You can test quantum mechanics, and you can test gravity. You can even test quantum effects in a weak gravity field, with effective field theory. But we cannot test the very high energy quantum gravity that the researchers are concerned with. The subject is not scientific.

Tuesday, Aug 17, 2010
Overselling the human genome
Here is a new interview with the man chiefly responsible for the human genome project:
In a SPIEGEL interview, genetic scientist Craig Venter discusses the 10 years he spent sequencing the human genome, why we have learned so little from it a decade on and the potential for mass production of artificial life forms that could be used to produce fuels and other resources. ...

SPIEGEL: The genome project has been called the Manhattan Project or Moon Landing of its era. It has also been said that knowledge of the genes will change the future of humanity and become a "main driver of the world economy."

Venter: Who said that? I didn't. That was the people at the consortium.

SPIEGEL: You're wrong. You made all those statements in an interview with DER SPIEGEL in 1998. ...

SPIEGEL: The decoding of your personal genome has so far revealed little more than the fact that your ear wax tends to be moist.

Venter: That's what you say. And what else have I learned from my genome? Very little. We couldn't even be certain from my genome what my eye color was. Isn't that sad? Everyone was looking for miracle 'yes/no' answers in the genome. "Yes, you'll have cancer." Or "No, you won't have cancer." But that's just not the way it is.

SPIEGEL: So the Human Genome Project has had very little medical benefits so far?

Venter: Close to zero to put it precisely. ...

We have learned a lot from the human genome, but not as much as people think.

There is still plenty of optimism:

Here's how that math works, Kurzweil explains: The design of the brain is in the genome. The human genome has three billion base pairs or six billion bits, which is about 800 million bytes before compression, he says. Eliminating redundancies and applying loss-less compression, that information can be compressed into about 50 million bytes, according to Kurzweil.

About half of that is the brain, which comes down to 25 million bytes, or a million lines of code.

This will take about a millennium, at our present rate of progress. Kurweil famously believes in the Technological singularity, where unlimited progress could occur in a couple of decades.

Meanwhile, dog breeds are determined by just few genes:

These seven locations in the dog genome explain about 80 percent of the differences in height and weight among breeds, said Carlos Bustamante, a geneticist at Stanford University and one of the study’s authors.

Monday, Aug 16, 2010
The cause of the pertussis epidemic
The NY Times reports:
Highly contagious, spread by coughs and sneezes, pertussis is now epidemic in California, with 2,774 confirmed cases in 2010 — a sevenfold increase from last year, putting the state on track for the worst outbreak in 50 years. Seven infants have died. ...

Another factor may be the declining use of antibiotics to treat simple coughs and colds. While doctors legitimately worry that indiscriminate use of antibiotics can lead to the development of drug-resistant bacteria, it may be that in the past the drugs inadvertently cured many cases of undiagnosed pertussis.

The rise in pertussis doesn’t seem to be related to parents’ refusing to have their children vaccinated for fear of potential side effects. In California, pertussis rates are about the same in counties with high childhood vaccination rates and low ones. And the C.D.C. reports that pertussis immunization rates have been stable or increasing since 1992.

The evolutionist and other science bloggers have been pushing pro-vaccination propaganda, and warning about the overuse of antibiotics. They even claim that people overuse antibiotics because they did not learn evolution is school. Eg, the bad astronomer says:
That’s right: an almost completely preventable disease is coming back with a roar in California.
What he does not say is that it is preventable by overusing antibiotics.

Saturday, Aug 14, 2010
Evidence for natural selection
Here is progress in the search for evidence of natural selection in humans:
One of the problems of these studies, as Gibbons notes, is that statistics is not sufficient to show selection: “Finally, few teams have been able to prove that a particular allele actually affects the function of a trait under selection.” I think it’s unwise to say that your case for selection is conclusive without showing that the genetic variants you’re studying make a physiological difference to their carriers. And, of course, the ultimate “proof” of selection is to connect those physiological differences to reproductive output: i.e., that there really was selection.

Gibbons talks a bit about physiological studies (there aren’t many of these), but showing that genetic variants really do affect reproductive fitness is even harder. For one thing, that selection might have occurred in our ancestors, and not be going on so much today. Or, the selection could be very weak, and, though sufficient to cause significant evolution over centuries, might be undetectable in just one or two generations of an experiment.

Note how difficult it is to prove that a specific natural selection mechanism actually happens. No one doubts that natural selection happens -- that was understood long before Darwin. The question is to determine what exactly it has to do with evolution. There is no consensus on how much evolution is caused by natural selection, and how much by genetic drift or something else.

Thursday, Aug 12, 2010
Conservapedia on relativity
The UK NewScientist magazine follows its previous article on relativity with this:
Despite the fact that it has passed test after test, you would be hard-pressed to find a single physicist who believes that general relativity is ultimately the correct theory of the universe. That's because it conflicts with quantum mechanics and is yet to be unified with the other three forces of nature. A theory of quantum gravity such as string theory will be needed to pick up where Einstein left off. General relativity is certainly not wrong – but it's not the whole story.
The article attacks the Conservapedia Counterexamples to Relativity:
In the end there is no liberal conspiracy at work. Unfortunately, humanities scholars often confuse the issue by misusing the term "relativity". The theory in no way encourages relativism, regardless of what Conservapedia may think. The theory of relativity is ultimately not so much about what it renders relative – three dimensional space and one-dimensional time – but about what it renders absolute: the speed of light and four-dimensional space-time. Einstein himself lamented the name "relativity", wishing instead to call his theory the theory of invariance. The name change might have avoided this whole mess.
Poincare popularized the term "relativity" before Einstein ever wrote anything on the subject. Einstein soon called it the "so-called theory of relativity" in 1909. Calling it the "theory of invariance" was not Einstein's idea either, as it was Poincare who emphasized basing the theory on the invariants of the Lorentz group, not Einstein. It was Felix Klein's suggestion in 1910. Klein was a pioneer in understanding geometry in terms of transformation groups. Poincare and Minkowski (but not Einstein) understood special relativity that way.

The name relativity is from motion being relative. A basic premise is that electromagnetic experiments were not able to detect the motion of the Earth, and that only relative motion is observable.

The theory does not encourage relativism, but non-physicists use relativity and Einstein to promote all sorts of wacky ideas, as the magazine explains:

Read further and you will find this astonishing piece of information, clearly the smoking gun of the Einsteinian liberal conspiracy: "Barack Obama helped publish an article by liberal law professor Laurence Tribe to apply the relativistic concept of 'curvature of space' to promote a broad legal right to abortion".

Wait. What? The article in question is "The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What lawyers can learn from modern physics" (pdf) by Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School. Published in 1989 in the Harvard Law Review, the paper includes a "thank you" to Barack Obama in the acknowledgments, an unsurprising fact given that Obama was the journal's editor at the time.

In the article, Tribe uses metaphors of space-time curvature in the context of constitutional law, including an analysis of Roe v. Wade. "I do not address the subject because I am determined to bring science or mathematics into law," he writes. "Rather, my conjecture is that the metaphors and intuitions that guide physicists can enrich our comprehension of social and legal issues."

General relativity proposes that space-time is not an inert stage upon which the world plays out but rather a dynamic medium that is warped and curved by the presence of matter and in turn affects matter's motion. Tribe argues that constitutional law is likewise not only the backdrop against which the nation's affairs play out but a dynamic force that shapes those very affairs. In summary, Tribe writes, "The question is whether the state's combination of acts and omissions, rules, funding decisions and the like, so shaped the legal landscape in which women decide matters bearing on their reproductive lives as to violate the constitution's postulates of liberty and equality."

Articles do not usually thank the editor. I think that Tribe employed Obama to do some research for the article. The Tribe-Obama analogy is crackpot stuff, as previous theories also had gravity as a dynamic force.

The magazine also has an interview that argues for the usefulness of some creation science techniques:

Creation scientists take data from nature and try to reconcile it with a literal interpretation of the Bible, such as the creation of the world in six days. ...

Like evolutionists, creationists assess relationships between animals by comparing their morphology [physical characteristics] and their molecules. They continue to doubt the geologic timescale and that all life shares a common origin, but most creation scientists accept other evolutionary concepts such as natural selection and beneficial mutations. ...

I used a statistical technique called classic multidimensional scaling, which creation scientists use to quantify morphological gaps between species.

I guess some of them do use some scientific methods, even if their conclusions are far-fetched.

Wednesday, Aug 11, 2010
Lucy’s Kin Carved Up a Meaty Meal, Scientists Say
The NY Times reports:
As early as 3.4 million years ago, some individuals with a taste for meat and marrow — presumably members of the species best known for the skeleton called Lucy — apparently butchered with sharp and heavy stones two large animals on the shore of a shallow lake in what is now Ethiopia.
Look at the picture and decide for yourself. They did not find any tools or any Lucy or hominid bones. No Lucy tools have ever been found. All they found were a couple of animal bones with some scratch marks. It looks dubious to me.

Here is another opinion

Could the “cuts,” for example, be toothmarks from animal preadators and not hominins? We don’t for sure, of course, but I know that evolutionary anthropologists have spent a lot of time, including replicating the actions of hominins with stone tools, trying to distinguish between animal carnivory, natural abrasions, and real tool use. I don’t know a lot about this, but clearly these speculations were not off the cuff. The cuts certainly look real (see photo from yesterday)! But of course there is some dissent: Tim White, who has worked at the site for 40 years, observes that his team has never found a stone tool and that that the authors’ “claims greatly outstrip the evidence.”

Monday, Aug 09, 2010
Albert Einstein's hot new idea
The UK NewScientist magazine reports:
IT WAS a speech that changed the way we think of space and time. The year was 1908, and the German mathematician Hermann Minkowski had been trying to make sense of Albert Einstein's hot new idea - what we now know as special relativity - describing how things shrink as they move faster and time becomes distorted. "Henceforth space by itself and time by itself are doomed to fade into the mere shadows," Minkowski proclaimed, "and only a union of the two will preserve an independent reality."
No, Minkowski was not trying to make sense of Albert Einstein's hot new idea. Here is all Minkowski says about Einstein in that 1908 paper:
Lorentz called the combination t' of (t and x) as the local time (Ortszeit) of the uniformly moving electron, and used a physical construction of this idea for a better comprehension of the contraction-hypothesis. But to perceive clearly that the time of an electron is as good as the time of any other electron, i.e. t, t' are to be regarded as equivalent, has been the service of A. Einstein [ Ann. d. Phys. 891, p. 1905, Jahrb. d. Radio... 4-4-11—1907 ] There the concept of time was shown to be completely and unambiguously established by natural phenomena. But the concept of space was not arrived at, either by Einstein or Lorentz, probably because in the case of the abovementioned spatial transformations, where the (x', y') plane coincides with the x-t plane, the significance is possible that the x-axis of space some-how remains conserved in its position. ...

The fact that the world-postulate holds without exception is, I believe, the true essence of an electromagnetic picture of the world; the idea first occurred to Lorentz, its essence was first picked out by Einstein, and is now gradually fully manifest. [Indian translation]

As you can see, the credit for Einstein is fairly narrow. It is only for writing about two ideas credited to Lorentz, local time and the relativity principle (that the laws of physics are the same in different frames). Lorentz got the 1902 Nobel prize for his electrodynamics, and in part for those ideas. They were old news when Einstein first wrote about them in 1905. Minkowski denies that Einstein had the idea of spacetime.

Minkowski does not mention Poincare in that paper. His previous 1907 paper starts with Poincare's approach to 4-dimensional spacetime, and uses it for all subsequent work. When Minkowski's 1908 paper was reprinted after his death, a credit to Poincare was inserted.

The NewScientist article is about research that has nothing to do with any of Einstein's ideas. It is a common example of how he is credited for work that he did not do.

Friday, Aug 06, 2010
Cunningham on relativity
The English mathematician Ebenezer Cunningham wrote this in a 1909 paper:
By E. Cunningham.
[Received May 1st, 1909]
1. The absence, as far as experiment can detect, of any phenomenon arising from the Earth's motion relative to the electromagnetic aether has been fully accounted for by Lorentz and Einstein, provided the hypo- thesis of electromagnetism as the ultimate basis of matter he accepted, so that the only available means of estimating the distance between two points is the measuring of the time of propagation of effects between the bodies, such propagation taking place in accordance with the equations of the electron theory. It has been proved not only within the limits of experimental accuracy, but exactly, that any actual effect is completely obscured by the fact that the observer necessarily shares in the motion of the earth, and has therefore different measures of time and space from those which he would have if he did not do so. The foundation of this theory of relativity is the set of relations subsisting between the space and time measures of two observers having a uniform relative velocity. ... [p.77]

It has been pointed out by Minkowski that in a space of four dimensions in which the coordinates are (x,y,z,ct√-1), the geometrical transform- ation employed by Einstein, is simply a finite rotational displacement of the whole space about y=0, z=0. [p.79]

Poincare pointed that out earlier in 1905, before Einstein and Minkowski had ever published anything on the subject.

I am not sure how it is possible that a leading relativity researcher in 1909 could not be aware of the leading 1905 paper on the subject. Maybe his German fluency was better and his French. But Minkowski's 1907 paper cited Poincare, so Cunningham would not have to look very hard.

More importantly, why do textbooks still get this point wrong, a century later?

Note also that Cunningham credits "Lorentz and Einstein". By 1915, he was giving Einstein more of the credit.

Wednesday, Aug 04, 2010
Movie celebrates ancient female mathematician
A new movie Agora tells the story of Hypatia of Alexandria. It is an anti-Christian polemic set in Alexandria, Egypt, AD 415. The Slate review says:
In the movie's most spectacular set piece, the legendary library of Alexandria is destroyed by marauding Christian hordes as the pagan scholars flee with whatever scrolls they can carry. ...

But like Spartacus, this movie is engaging because it's actually about something: the love of learning, the clash between science and religious faith, and the grim fact that political change often proceeds on the foundation of mob violence and genocide. Agora engages more effectively with this kind of big historical idea than it does with human drama. The movie's most emotionally powerful moment has nothing to do with any individual character. It's the looting of the library, the burning of all those irreplaceable documents from the early years of human history, that really makes you cry.

The movie portrays Apatia as an atheist scholar who was on the brink of discovering heliocentrism and the Earth's elliptical orbit, when the Christian authorities felt threatened by scientific knowledge, and had her murdered.

This is about 99% fiction, of course. There was a scholar named Apatia who was murdered by an angry mob, but it is not known that the reasons had anything to do with science or Christianity. Nor was the library destroyed by Christians. And Apatia had nothing to do with those astronomical ideas. Elliptical orbits were first discovered 1200 years later, without any Christian objection.

The errors in this movie are explained in May 2009 and May 2010 blog posts by someone who seems to know what he is talking about. He says:

The final major invention by Amenábar which also suits his agenda is the rather fanciful idea that Hypatia was on the brink of not only proving heliocentrism when she was murdered but at establishing Keplerian elliptical planetary orbits into the bargain. The film makes reference to the fact that Aristarchus of Samos had come up with a heliocentric hypothesis in the 300s BC, and mentions a couple of reasons it was regarded as making "no sense at all" (though doesn't mention the primary one - the stellar parallax problem). But it invents a series of scenes depicting Hypatia pressing on with this idea despite these (then) not inconsiderable objections. The whole purpose of these sequences is to make the murder of Hypatia seem like more of a loss to learning at the hands of ignorant fundamentalists. ...

One IMDB reviewer certainly got the message, writing a glowing review entitled "Atheists of the all the world unite!" Another notes " Amenábar made a statement before the screening that if the Alexandria library had not been destroyed, we might have landed on Mars already." A third declares "I hope the film is appreciated and understood, and that we learn a little bit from its depiction of history so that we can't allow the destruction of art, history, knowledge, and the respect that allows civilizations to flourish." And these comments are typical. These viewers accepted all the invented pseudo historical additions to the story without question and happily swallowed the sermon they rest on.

An atheist site says:
It has just opened in a limited number of cinemas in the US to great acclaim, but has been utterly condemned by the Catholic Church.

Just days before the release last year in Europe of Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar’s movie, religious organisations denounced the film for promoting hatred of Christians and reinforcing false clichés about the Catholic Church. ...

Amenabar insists that the film:

Is not against Christians but rather against those who set off bombs and kill in the name of God, that is, against religious fanatics.
Apparently Amenabar was inspired by some myths promoted by Carl Sagan in PBS TV Cosmos.

Christians do not set off bombs and kill in the name of God today, and they did not kill Apatia in the name of God. It is the Mohammedans who have a long history of doing that. If he really wanted to make a movie about religious terrorists, he picked the wrong target. This movie should be treated as fiction and propaganda.

George writes:

Why do you think that they call it the Dark Ages? It is because Christian superstition and intolerance suppressed Greek and Roman science and philosophy. If the Bible is the supreme authority, then there is no need to have any other book. It was not until Galileo and Copernicus stood up to the Church that Western Civilization started to recover.
No, that is not why they call it the Dark Ages. Wikipedia says this:
When the term "Dark Ages" is used by historians today, therefore, it is intended to be neutral, namely, to express the idea that the events of the period often seem "dark" to us because of the paucity of historical records compared with both earlier and later times. ...

The 2007 television show The Dark Ages from The History Channel called the Dark Ages "600 years of degenerate, godless, inhuman behavior".

The public idea of the Middle Ages as a supposed "Dark Age" is also reflected in misconceptions regarding the study of nature during this period. The contemporary historians of science David C. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers discuss the widespread popular belief that the Middle Ages were a "time of ignorance and superstition", the blame for which is to be laid on the Christian Church for allegedly "placing the word of religious authorities over personal experience and rational activity", and emphasize that this view is essentially a caricature.

For instance, a claim that was first propagated in the 19th century and is still very common in popular culture is the supposition that all people in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat. According to Lindberg and Numbers, this claim was mistaken: "There was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth's] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference".

Ronald Numbers states that misconceptions such as "the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages", "the rise of Christianity killed off ancient science", and "the medieval Christian church suppressed the growth of natural philosophy" are examples of widely popular myths that still pass as historical truth, although they are not supported by current historical research.

The Catholic Church has a long history of supporting the study of Aristotle and other classical non-Christian scholars. It never burned libraries or anything like that. The Greeks and Romans were in decline before the Christians came along.

I see that Numbers edited a new book on Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. The book starts with the story of Hypatia, and how anti-Christian propagandists have been distorting it since 1720.

Tuesday, Aug 03, 2010
Galileo was not the first observer
The NY Times reports:
Galileo’s rolling of spheres down an inclined plane four centuries ago disproved Aristotle’s notion that falling (or rolling) objects move at a constant speed. That was one of the earliest examples of using experiments to devise and test hypotheses to explain observations.
No, Aristotle never said that falling objects move at a constant speed. And ancient people were testing hypotheses 1000s of years before Galileo.

I wonder how anyone could say anything so silly. Does the reporter really think that the ancient Egyptians built those pyramids without ever testing a hypothesis?

Apparently it is conventional wisdom that Galileo was the first real scientist, and Aristotle and all those others were just inventing bogus ideas that their followers blindly accepted. That conventional wisdom is wrong.