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Thursday, Sep 30, 2010
DNA letters released
Letters about the 1953 Watson-Crick work on DNA have been released. This discovery applied Linus Pauling's methods to Rosalind Franklin's data. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins shared a Nobel prize for it. They had surreptitiously taken Franklin's ideas and data without her consent, and the letters reveal:
Dr. Bragg learned that Pauling, his longtime rival, was also hot on the trail of the DNA structure. ...

An added complication was that Pauling was about to visit London and Crick feared that Dr. Franklin, who hoped to see him, might give him her experimental data on DNA, enabling him to guess and announce the structure before the articles then in press with Nature were published.

This is an example of a couple of scientists who got fame and glory for rushing a good idea into print, and capitalizing on the work of others. The hard leg work had been done by others, and the Watson-Crick model would have been found in a few months anyway, without Watson and Crick. Pauling even had to correct an error in their model.

Wednesday, Sep 29, 2010
Flores Man exposed
Leftist-atheist-evolutionist Jerry Coyne complains that an open-access journal publishes too much science when it has this policy:
PLoS ONE will rigorously peer-review your submissions and publish all papers that are judged to be technically sound.
But only in that journal will you learn that Post-Cranial Skeletons of Hypothyroid Cretins Show a Similar Anatomical Mosaic as Homo floresiensis.

Razib Khan writes:

I just went back and reread some of the press when the hobbit finds were revealed. New member of the human family tree! Evolution rewritten! And so forth. If H. floresiensis turns out to be pathological, I don’t know what to think about paleontology. More honestly, I might start slotting the discipline in with social psychology or macroeconomic modeling.
I think that Flores Man is the new Piltdown Man. The evolutionists made a very big deal out this as the latest missing link, based on some very flimsy evidence.

Sunday, Sep 26, 2010
Chopra reviews Hawking
New Age guru Deepak Chopra writes:
Stephen Hawking occupies a position in popular culture comparable only to Einstein's eminence sixty years ago: he is our last wise man speaking with the total authority of advanced science.
Chopra has his own cult following, with goofy pseudoscience:
The word “quantum” appears frequently in New Age and modern mystical literature. For example, physician Deepak Chopra (1989) has successfully promoted a notion he calls quantum healing, which suggests we can cure all our ills by the application of sufficient mental power.

According to Chopra, this profound conclusion can be drawn from quantum physics, which he says has demonstrated that “the physical world, including our bodies, is a response of the observer. We create our bodies as we create the experience of our world” (Chopra 1993, 5). Chopra also asserts that “beliefs, thoughts, and emotions create the chemical reactions that uphold life in every cell,” and “the world you live in, including the experience of your body, is completely dictated by how you learn to perceive it” (Chopra 1993, 6). Thus illness and aging are an illusion and we can achieve what Chopra calls “ageless body, timeless mind” by the sheer force of consciousness.

It is a sad day when our leading science authority and our goofiest New Age guru are babbling the same sort of nonsense.

Einstein set the example, I am afraid. He babbled a lot of nonsense, and a lot of intellectuals ate it up.

Update: Landsburg reviews Hawking, extends the argument into believing in every mathematical possibility:

Every modern physical theory, taken literally, predicts that our universe is a mathematical object. For example, the simplest version of special relativity posits that we live in a four-dimensional geometric object called “spacetime”. More sophisticated theories posit that spacetime is part of some larger geometric object whose properties we perceive as “forces” or “particles”. According to modern physics, everything is made of math. ...

Once you believe the universe is a mathematical object, its existence ceases to be a mystery—at least if you believe, along with most mathematicians, that mathematical objects can’t help but exist.

It sounds like he believes in Simulism or the Simulation hypothesis. Or maybe the Boltzmann brain. There is a long history of such beliefs, but I doubt that Hawking would endorse them.

The Simulation Argument is promoted by Professor Nick Bostrom, who "was listed as one of the world's 100 most influential intellectuals by FP Magazine in 2009."

Saturday, Sep 25, 2010
We already have a theory of everything
The Cosmic Variance blog writes:
The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood

Not sure why people don’t make a bigger deal out of this fact. Physicists (and scientists more generally) are infamous for making grandiose claims about how close we are to Figuring It All Out, only to be shocked by some sort of revolutionary discoveries soon thereafter. Personally I have no idea how close we are to a comprehensive theory of absolutely everything. But I do know how close we are to having a comprehensive theory of the basic laws underlying the phenomena we encounter in our everyday lives — without benefit of fancy telescopes or particle accelerators or what have you. Namely, we already have it! That seems to be worth celebrating, or at least remarking upon, but you don’t hear it mentioned very much.

The public has been fooled by Einstein and his worshipers that we need some sort of unified field theory. The belief seems to be based on some religious belief in Monism, not physics. They say that quantum mechanics is inconsistent with relativity, and that we need quantum gravity.

But there is no contradiction between quantum mechanics and relativity in any physically observable realm. There is no observation or experiment that awaits explanation by some new quantum gravity theory. We do have some unexplained anomalies, but none of them involve quantum gravity.

Supposedly the need for quantum gravity comes during the first 10-43 seconds of the big bang. But there is so much other misunderstood physics after that point, that such speculation is meaningless.

Update: Cosmic Variance responds to criticisms.

Tuesday, Sep 21, 2010
Kooky birth order theories
This is from the intro to a Skeptic magazine interview:
The publicity surrounding his new book — Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives (Pantheon) — has been extensive to say the least. Even more striking than The New Yorker’s nine-page story about Sulloway and his theory was Newsweek’s six-page review, complete with Sulloway’s formula for calculating your own propensity to rebel. In the New York Review of Books Jared Diamond found no flaws whatsoever in the theory, calling it a “fascinating and convincing work.” PBS’s Charlie Rose and Patt Morrison each hosted Frank on their respective author talk shows. In addition he has been featured on numerous magazine television programs such as Dateline, was challenged by Bryant Gumble on The Today Show, and even appeared unopposed on Ted Koppel’s Nightline, almost unheard of for a program based on point-counterpoint confrontations. The author of the highly acclaimed and extremely controversial biography (within psychoanalytic circles), Freud, Biologist of the Mind (Basic Books, 1979), Sulloway is perhaps best known as the scholar who showed that Darwin did not convert to the theory of evolution during his five-year voyage around the world, but only after his return home to England.
I would expect Skeptic magazine to be more skeptical about Sulloway's ideas. His science is shoddy, and his work has not been replicated. He published his theory in a popular book, but it has not survived the scrutiny of peer-review journals, as far as I know.

I have criticized Jared Diamond for being unscientific before, in Dec. 2007, June 2005, June 2006, April 2009, and Dec. 2002. He has won a lot of awards, but I should would not accept his opinion on whether some research has some validity.

Monday, Sep 20, 2010
Early acceptance of special relativity
S. G. Brush supplies this comment on acceptance of Einstein's 1905 relativity paper in England:
derived from their adherence to the formal school of [Joseph] Larmor’s ETM [Electronic Theory of Matter]. They fully accepted the reality of the contraction of moving matter, and routinely applied the Lorentz transformations, in Lar- mor’s sense, when tackling problems in the electrodynamics of moving bodies. We should not, then, be surprised that they did not identify Einstein’s work as representing any kind of important break-through or advance in physics, but treated it rather as a comparatively minor philosophical gloss upon one of the important results of the ETM. [Stephen G. Brush, Why was Relativity Accepted?, Phys. perspect. 1 (1999) 184–214]
I think that was the view elsewhere as well. No one was so impressed with Einstein's 1905 paper until after other versions of special relativity were popularized.

Here he explains that Einstein's theory was supposed to be better because it was less ad hoc:

The preference for novel predictions is often associated or confused with the dislike of ad hoc hypotheses. For example, G. F. FitzGerald explained the nega- tive result of the Michelson-Morley experiment by postulating that ‘‘the length of material bodies changes, according as they are moving through the ether or across it,’’ by an amount just sufficient to cancel the expected differences in the times for the light beams to travel the paths along and perpendicular to the earth’s motion.7

A similar assumption was later made by H. A. Lorentz as part of his electron theory. The FitzGerald-Lorentz contraction (FLC) was considered ad hoc by physicists because it was not derived from a plausible theory. It is considered ad hoc by philosophers of science because it is not independently testable by any experiment other than the one it was invented to explain. Thus many physicists considered that Einstein’s theory was preferable to Lorentz’s because it explained the FLC by deriving it from general postulates.

No, this is incorrect. The contraction was considered ad hoc because, as of 1900, Lorentz and Larmor had only shown that it explains the first-order aether drift experiments, and not Michelson-Morley. Lorentz did not demonstrate the higher order invariance until 1904. Larmor is said to have discovered it also, but did not publish it. By 1905, it was not an issue, and Einstein's 1905 paper had no such advantage over the previous work.

Einstein once complained that Lorentz's theory was ad hoc, but Einstein was dishonestly ignoring the 1904 work.

Brush says that Einstein's theory was preferable to Lorentz's because of the use of postulates instead of an ad hoc Michelson-Morley. This idea is commonly stated by physicists and philosophers. And it is nonsense. No one ever said anything so ridiculous around 1905. This idea was only cooked up many years later in order try to find some explanation for Einstein having done something better than the previous work. But Einstein's theory was just as ad hoc as Lorentz's.

FitzGerald, Lorentz, and Einstein all deduced the length contraction in the same way -- as a logical consequence of the speed of light being constant for all observers. Einstein had no plausible theory other than what others had already published.

It is also incorrect to say that there was no independent test of Lorentz's theory. His prediction of electron mass increase with velocity was already being successfully tested in 1901, long before Einstein first said anything on the subject in 1905.

Brush goes on to kookier theories:

Why would a particular physicist tend to accept or reject an idea because it is revolutionary? We might find an answer to this question in Frank Sulloway’s study of openness to scientific innovation. Based on analysis of 308 scientists whose positions on relativity before 1930 are known, Sulloway concluded that age is a strong predictor of tendency to accept Einstein’s theories, while social attitudes and birth order are moderately good predictors: young, more liberal scientists who were the second or later child in their family were statistically more likely to support relativity. ...

Sulloway, in his analysis of the response of first-born and later-born scientists to radical innovations, found that the correlation between birth order and acceptance of relativity was much weaker after 1915 than it had been before the publication of the general theory. He suggests that ‘‘the eclipse results of 1919 caused empirical arguments to uncouple from ideological ones.’’

This article lists Poincare as someone who rejected relativity!

These folks completely misunderstand the innovation of relativity, its scientific merits, and who did what. They think that acceptance and rejection of relativity was entirely or mostly ideological. If they were deciding whether to accept or reject relativity based on ideology and birth order, then they sure were not very good scientists.

I guess the point is that science is just a big game, with scientists jumping on new ideas like fads in the world of clothing fashions. Their main example is always Einstein, because he did so little of substance. It does not matter to them what Einstein really did, because they see his role as leading an ideological shift. He is primarily credited for his ideology, not his science.

Brush also has this amazing story about letters between FitzGerald and Lorentz. FitzGerald published his famous contraction hypothesis in a leading American science journal in 1889, but it went unnoticed by relativity historians for decades. It did not even appear in a compilation of his complete works. Apparently FitzGerald's ideas spread by word of mouth in Europe in the early 1990s, and started to get cited in papers around 1992.

Saturday, Sep 18, 2010
Galileo was wrong
Andrew Sullivan is upset by an upcoming conference on Galileo was wrong, promoting geocentrim. The organizers have a book out on the subject, and it seems to be more theology than science.

A lot of nonsense gets said on the subject of geocentrism. It has been going on for centuries, so I doubt that it will end any time soon. Here is the scientific conventional wisdom.

The theory of relativity teaches that motion is relative, and we only know how to define motion relative to some frame of reference. Special relativity required inertial frames, but general relativity can handle any frame, including one that is rotating or revolving.

Thus you can write the laws of physics relative to the frame of the Earth, and the Earth will be stationary in that frame. That frames is as valid as any other. This view has been widely accepted for a century.

About 10 years ago, the velocity of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation was measured. You can think of the CMB as being the center of mass of the big bang. The CMB is therefore a natural frame for anyone in the universe to use, and we can now give a velocity for the Earth, the Sun, the Milky Way, and other galaxies.

The Catholic Church's opinion in 1616 was that Galileo could teach geocentrism and heliocentrism, but it was incorrect to say that the immobility of the Sun had been proven. The Church was quite correct about that, as relativity shows that the immobility of the Sun cannot be proven.

Geocentric coordinates are still used today when convenient, just as they were two millennia ago. There is nothing wrong about them, either then or now.

The funny thing about this subject is how people are so eager to ridicule others as being stupid, and yet they do not acknowledge basic facts about the matter that have been known for centuries.

The Bad Astronomer makes some of these points, and says:

I have two things to say that might surprise you: first, geocentrism is a valid frame of reference, and second, heliocentrism is not any more or less correct. ...

However, as soon as you want to send a space probe to another planet, geocentrism becomes cumbersome. In that case, it’s far easier to use the Sun as the center of the Universe and measure the rotating and revolving Earth as just another planet. The math works out better, and in fact it makes more common sense.

However, this frame of reference, called heliocentrism, still is not the best frame for everything. ...

So geocentrism is valid, but so is every other frame. This is the very basis of relativity! ...

In the end, the actual evidence is totally against the Geocentrists. The only way — the only way — they can assert their idea being factual is to rely on the Bible itself, and ignore everything else.

His evidence consists of saying that geocentric calculations are more complicated for some purposes. The whol point of choosing a frame is that different frames are simpler and more convenient, depending on the purpose of the calculation.

The Bad Astronomer says that he had to consult a relativist to get this right. But really, this is has been a basic premise of relativity for a long time. Of course he attacks the Geocentrists for believing in the Bible, and for overstating their case if they say that there is physical proof of an immobile Earth.

Meanwhile, a senior Vatican astronomer says that "the idea that God could be discovered in the laws of space and time and the existence of human reason" is bad theology because "it turns God once again into the pagan god of thunder and lightning." He is open to space aliens and whatever else science may discover.

Friday, Sep 17, 2010
Poincaré anticipated the so-called Minkowski space-time
Jean Mawhin writes, in a 2005 biography of Poincare:
Among other things, he carefully discussed Hertz’s experiments on the propagation of elec- tromagnetic waves and the beginnings of wireless telegraphy. His books on Maxwell theory contain the germs of special relativity and led him to analyze, correct, and name the Lorentz transformations. Poincaré published in 1905 a note (followed by an extended memoir) on the dynamics of the elec- tron, containing the whole mathematics of special relativity. Historians of science still passionately discuss the priority between Einstein and Poincaré, and if one follows some recent publications, one might conclude that Hercule Poireau might be the only one able to uncover the whole story. Curiously, the mathematician Poincaré reached relativistic kinematics via Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, while the physicist Einstein used an axiomatic method. But it is unquestionable that Poincaré an- ticipated the so-called Minkowski space-time.
This suggests that Einstein actually proved something in a mathematically rigorous way. He did not. Even tho many textbooks purport to reproduce Einstein's 1905 theory, with his postulates and deductions, none do it correctly. They rarely say that Einstein has hidden assumptions, such as spacetime being homogeneous and isotropic, and confusing reasoning. More importantly, no one correctly explains how Einstein's work is any better than Lorentz's 1895 theorem of the corresponding states. If Einstein really used an axiomatic method, then it would be clear what he had proved.

This also suggests that Poincare's assumptions were more electromagnetic than Einstein's. They were not. Einstein described his assumptions this way in 1905:

I based that investigation on the Maxwell-Hertz equations for empty space, together with the Maxwellian expression for the electromagnetic energy of space, and in addition the principle that:--

The laws by which the states of physical systems alter are independent of the alternative, to which of two systems of coordinates, in uniform motion of parallel translation relatively to each other, these alterations of state are referred (principle of relativity).

In effect, he assumed Maxwell's equations as well as the covariance of those equations.

By contrast, Poincare assumed a spacetime geometry, and proved the electromagnetic covariance.

I don't know how anyone could study this and say that there is any mystery about it. There are no significant facts in dispute. Just read the papers.

Wednesday, Sep 15, 2010
Einstein's philosophy of science
John D. Norton is a philosophy professor and Einstein expert, and says this:
What is less well recognized is how Einstein's work altered our understanding of the nature of science itself. ...

The most enduring change brought by Einstein's work was to shake our sense of certainty. When Einstein entered science at the start of the 20th century, there was a strong sense of its stability. ...

Later in life, Einstein came to a radical solution of the problem of responsibly practicing science while still believing that its core concepts are free inventions. Drawing on his discovery of general relativity, he concluded that the right concepts and theories could be found merely by seeking the mathematically simplest theories.

A philosophy site says:
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is well known as the most prominent physicist of the twentieth century. Less well known, though of comparable importance, are his contributions to twentieth-century philosophy of science.
No, Einstein had no coherent philosophy of science, and no lasting influence on philosophy.

He occasionally endorsed the philosophies of others, such as Mach's and Poincare's. But he had no consistent explanation of what he meant. He gave philosophical attacks on quantum mechanics and other physical theories, but he was nearly always wrong with those arguments, and had to retract most of them. He often said obvious truisms, such as simplicity being a good property of a theory, but that has been conventional wisdom for centuries. Today, there is no Einstein philosophy that anyone uses for anything. Just read the above page.

What is not so clear is whether he subscribed to scientific realism or anti-realism; whether his search for a Unified field theory was a byproduct of monism; and whether he followed conventionalism or positivism.

Tuesday, Sep 14, 2010
SciAm trashes Hawking book
John Horgan writes for SciAm:
Actually M-theory is just the latest iteration of string theory, with membranes (hence the M) substituted for strings. For more than two decades string theory has been the most popular candidate for the unified theory that Hawking envisioned 30 years ago. Yet this popularity stems not from the theory's actual merits but rather from the lack of decent alternatives and the stubborn refusal of enthusiasts to abandon their faith.

M-theory suffers from the same flaws that string theories did. First is the problem of empirical accessibility. Membranes, like strings, are supposedly very, very tiny -— as small compared with a proton as a proton is compared with the solar system. This is the so-called Planck scale, 10^–33 centimeters. Gaining the kind of experimental confirmation of membranes or strings that we have for, say, quarks would require a particle accelerator 1,000 light-years around, scaling up from our current technology. Our entire solar system is only one light-day around, and the Large Hadron Collider, the world's most powerful accelerator, is 27 kilometers in circumference.

Hawking recognized long ago that a final theory -— because it would probably involve particles at the Planck scale -— might never be experimentally confirmable. "It is not likely that we shall have accelerators powerful enough" to test a unified theory "within the foreseeable future—or indeed, ever," he said in his 1980 speech at Cambridge. He nonetheless hoped that in lieu of empirical evidence physicists would discover a theory so logically inevitable that it excluded all alternatives.

Quite the opposite has happened. M-theory, theorists now realize, comes in an almost infinite number of versions, which "predict" an almost infinite number of possible universes.

Horgan is right. He charitably suggests that Hawking is joking with the more foolish statements in his new book.

M-theory promoter Lubos Motl responds by launching an attack on Horgan's IQ. If M-theorists really had such an IQ, then you would think that they could defend theory from criticism. But all I ever see are ad hominem attacks.

Saturday, Sep 11, 2010
Epicycles and electrons are real
The 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica defines:
EPICYCLE (Gr. Esri, upon, and icbsXos, circle), in ancient astronomy, a small circle the centre of which describes a larger one. It was especially used to represent geometrically the periodic apparent retrograde motion of the outer planets, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, which we now know to be due to the annual revolution of the earth around the sun, but which in the Ptolemaic astronomy were taken to be real.
This is fine right up to the last word, "real". What does it mean?

This is like defining an electron as a negatively-charged subatomic particle which we now know to be due to the quantization of electromagnetic fields, but which in the 1913 Bohr atomic model were taken to be real.

Or like defining an elliptical orbit as an elongated circle used to represent geometrically the periodic apparent motion of the planets, which we now know to be due to the curvature of spacetime, but which in the Keplerian and Newtonian astronomy were taken to be real.

Epicycles have gotten a reputation for bad science, as I have commented before, but they were actually great scientific breakthrus. Without them, civilization would have been set back centuries.

Ptolemy also used epicycles for the Moon, Mercury, and Venus. This use of epicycles is more obviously valid, so it is not criticized so much. Criticizing Ptolemaic astronnomers for thinking that Martian epicycles were "real" is bizarre. Mars really has a periodic apparent retrograde motion as viewed from Earth, and epicycles are as real as any other geometric construction.

Hawking's new book, The Grand Design, mentioned below, has a chapter on reality. It describes the conflict between the realists, who believe that science describes an objective reality, and the anti-realists, who say that the world may all be just a figment of our imaginations.

The book tries to convince you that epicycles and the aether were not real. It blames Ptolemy and Lorentz for thinking that they were real, and praises Copernicus and Einstein as great geniuses for proposing otherwise.

Meanwhile it presents quantum mechanical arguments that seem to contradict naive ideas about reality. While it seems that the book has descended into philosophical mumbo-jumbo, it starts by declaring that philosophy to be dead, and that physicists have taken over the subject from the philosophers.

The book is still topping the Amazon top seller list. I just don't see how the arguments in this book would convince anyone. I hope to quiz people who have actually read it.

The book does have critics, such as Marcelo Gleiser who writes:

The search for an all-embracing theory of nature inspired by beauty and perfection is misguided, rooted in the monotheistic culture that has for so long dominated Western thought.

Superstring theory, and the widespread belief that it represents the truth of all existence, is the scientific equivalent of a Jewish-Christian-Muslim God that designed the cosmos, a theory based on mathematical symmetry as an expression of nature’s perfection. Even if God is hidden from the equations (and He certainly is), the mythic equivalent of “all is one” persists.

Yes, the main idea behind this book is seriously misguided.

Thursday, Sep 09, 2010
Evolutionists take Bible too literally
Leftist-atheist-evolutionists frequently attack a literal interpretation of the Bible. Jason Rosenhouse writes:

For example, consider the book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally, by Marcus Borg, published in 2001. According to the back of the book, Borg is a professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University.

... Here is Borg's summary of the modern consensus among Biblical scholars:

But contemporary biblical scholarship does not read these stories as historically factual accounts of the world's beginnings. Instead, it sees them as ancient Israel's stories of the world's beginnings and interprets them as profoundly true mythological stories. ...

Second, to call these early chapters of Genesis prehistory means that they are not to be read as historical accounts. Rather, as ancient Israel's stories about the remote beginnings before there was an Israel, they are to be read as a particular kind of metaphorical narrative -- namely as myths, about which I will soon say more. For now, I simply note that while myths are not literally true, they can nevertheless be profoundly true, rich in powerfully persuasive meanings.

Finally, what really strikes me is Borg's insistence that these stories are not intended as historical narratives. This, too, is ubiquitous in the writings of Biblical scholars, ...
Borg is correct. Mainstream Christian theology has never said that a literal reading of Genesis should outweigh scientific evidence. As a comment on an evolutionist blog explains:
So there is at least some truth to the idea that fundamentalist literalism is a relatively recent development, although there were signs of it throughout the Middle Ages, often brutally suppressed. But the idea of completely literal interpretation is a fairly late development, the church reserving to itself the judgement as to which portions should be read literally, and which should be read allegorically and figuratively. ... But, of course, the whole Bible was held to be revelatory of God’s nature and purposes for mankind.
I don't mind the evolutionists attacking people for their religious beliefs. They can burn Bibles, for all I care. But they are making a silly straw man attack when they treat all Christians as believing in a literal interpretation of Genesis.

Wednesday, Sep 08, 2010
More reviews trash Hawking's new book
I commented before about Hawking's new book. It is getting a lot more attention. It is intended as a sequel to one of the best-selling science books of all time. The NY Times reviews it:
Many Kinds of Universes, and None Require God

Stephen Hawking, the most revered scientist since Einstein, is a formidable mathematician and a formidable salesman. ...

Mr. Hawking’s “Brief History of Time,” published in 1988, sold some nine million copies. (A typical science best seller will move a tiny fraction of that number.) It did so partly by leaning on his preoccupying personal story. ...

In “A Brief History of Time” Mr. Hawking also dabbled in what the science writer Timothy Ferris has called “Godmongering.” Mr. Hawking, a longtime professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, has hardly displayed a religious bent during his long career. (A memoir by his former wife outed him as an atheist.) But he ended “Brief History” by declaring that the discovery of a unified theory of physics could help us to “know the mind of God.” It was a line that — cynically, some thought — allowed glints of fuzzy sunshine to warm the cold blade of his thinking.

Mr. Hawking’s new book, “The Grand Design,” published on Tuesday, has already made headlines and been a trending topic on Twitter, thanks to a different sort of Godmongering. This time Mr. Hawking has, we’re told, declared God pretty much dead. ...

At its core “The Grand Design” is an examination of a relatively new candidate for the “ultimate theory of everything,” something called M-theory, itself an extension of string theory, which tries to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics. “M-theory is not a theory in the usual sense,” the authors write. “It is a whole family of different theories.” According to M-theory, “ours is not the only universe,” the authors say. “Instead M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing.” The image that comes to mind here, others have written about M-theory, is of a God blowing soap bubbles.

But Mr. Hawking and Mr. Mlodinow assert that “their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law. They are a prediction of science.” Many of these universes would be quite different from ours, they add, and “quite unsuitable for the existence of any form of life,” or at least any form of life remotely like ours.

M-theory, if it is confirmed, would be “the unifying theory Einstein was hoping to find,” the authors write. But it’s a somewhat disappointing theory, a patchwork quilt rather than a fine, seamless garment.

Peter Woit's review is much more critical:
One thing that is sure to generate sales for a book of this kind is to somehow drag in religion. The book’s rather conventional claim that “God is unnecessary” for explaining physics and early universe cosmology has provided a lot of publicity for the book. I’m in favor of naturalism and leaving God out of physics as much as the next person, but if you’re the sort who wants to go to battle in the science/religion wars, why you would choose to take up such a dubious weapon as M-theory mystifies me. A British journalist contacted me about this recently and we talked about M-theory and its problems. She wanted me to comment on whether physicists doing this sort of thing are relying upon “faith” in much the same way as religious believers. I stuck to my standard refusal to get into such discussions, but, thinking about it, have to admit that the kind of pseudo-science going on here and being promoted in this book isn’t obviously any better than the faith-based explanations of how the world works favored by conventional religions.
Roger Penrose concludes his review with:
unlike quantum mechanics, M-theory enjoys no observational support whatever.
This book has been the Amazon top seller for a week. It is as ridiculous as a college class on zombies:
Students taking English 333 will watch 16 classic zombie films and read zombie comics. As an alternative to a final research paper they may write scripts or draw storyboards for their ideal zombie flicks.
The leftist-atheist-evolutionists love to go around denouncing the evils of pseudoscience, and lecturing us on the merits of the scientific method. If they really believed that, then they could start by denouncing Hawking's crackpot book.

Update: Lawrence Krauss is promoting his own book, and adds:

Physicist Stephen Hawking has done it again. This time he's sent shock waves around the world by arguing that God didn't create the universe; it was created spontaneously. Shocking or not, he actually understated the case.

For over 2,000 years the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" has captured theologians and philosophers. While usually framed as a religious or philosophical question, it is equally a question about the natural world. So an appropriate place to try and resolve it is with science.

NewScientist says:
M-theory in either sense is far from complete. But that doesn't stop the authors from asserting that it explains the mysteries of existence: why there is something rather than nothing, why this set of laws and not another, and why we exist at all. According to Hawking, enough is known about M-theory to see that God is not needed to answer these questions. Instead, string theory points to the existence of a multiverse, and this multiverse coupled with anthropic reasoning will suffice. Personally, I am doubtful.
The Wash. Post reviews:
Deep stuff, indeed. In the first chapter, Hawking and Mlodinow launch into an accessible and elegant history of the progression of scientific knowledge from the Greeks to modern cosmology. As is customary in such treatments, the authors point out the significance of certain milestones. The first of these, the realization by the Ionian Greeks that nature could be explained by laws rather than by the whims of the gods, is really the start of modern science. The second, the discovery by Copernicus that the Earth is not at the center of the universe, opened the door for a realistic exploration of our solar system and, later, our galaxy and universe. ...

In other words, not only is the Earth just one of several planets in our solar system and the Milky Way one of billions of galaxies, but our known universe itself is just one among uncounted billions of universes. It's a startling replay of the Copernican Revolution.

Monday, Sep 06, 2010
Hoping for a final theory
The latest SciAm mag says:
Rummaging for a Final Theory: Can a 1960s Approach Unify Gravity with the Rest of Physics?

To unify the four forces of nature, physicists are turning to Lie groups, an approach famously resurrected in 2007 by a surfer-dude theorist

Turning the clock back by half a century could be the key to solving one of science’s biggest puzzles: how to bring together gravity and particle physics. At least that is the hope of researchers advocating a back-to-basics approach in the search for a unified theory of physics.

In July mathematicians and physicists met at the Banff International Research Station in Alberta, Canada, to discuss a return to the golden age of particle physics. They were harking back to the 1960s, when physicist Murray Gell-Mann realized that elementary particles could be grouped according to their masses, charges and other properties, falling into patterns that matched complex symmetrical mathematical structures known as Lie (“lee”) groups.

No, there is a big difference. Gell-Mann was trying to explain hadrons (protons, neutrons, and more exotic particles) that had actually been observed. His predictions were testable. He predicted a particle that was soon found.

The surfer-dude and the string theorists are not doing anything related to the real world. Gell-Mann was doing science, and these modern-day unified field theorists are not. That is the difference.

Saturday, Sep 04, 2010
Sponges have more genes than we do
An NPR radio blog comments:
Recently, geneticists obtained a remarkable result: sponges, the oldest form of multicellular life known, can harbor between 18,000 and 30,000 genes, a range comparable to that of humans, fruit flies, roundworms, and many other animals. Since the sponge was taken from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and I’m presently here in a conference, I felt compelled to reflect about this. Considering that sponges have been around for over 500 million years, possibly even a billion years, many scientists believe they form the base of the evolutionary branch in the tree of life that led to animals. In other words, don’t think of humans as coming from monkeys; we, and every other kind of critter out there, came from sponges, the cousins of the porous yellowy objects you use to scrub yourself in the shower.

It may be a bit strange to think of such simple beings as our ancestors. After all, sponges don’t have skin tissue or nerve cells.

We only have about 20k genes. Some plants have a lot more.
Creationists are going to love this.

“Ha!” they’ll say with glee, “how could something like this happen without the agency of purposeful engineering? Clearly, there was some serious tweaking with primitive life forms to get to this level of complexity.” I predict that the argument for the implausibility of the eye will be taken a notch further down the evolutionary ladder.

Biologists, and I hope my distinguished co-bloggers will come in to say hi and set me straight, should easily dismiss any of this nonsense. There is something fundamentally perverse in using scientific evidence at hand as proof of a final argument.

It is funny how evolutionists get upset when their ideological opponents use scientific evidence.

Assuming that life on Earth evolved gradually from non-living chemicals, then I figure that we had an ancestor with only 10k genes, and that had one with only 1k genes, and so on down to some primitive life form with only a few genes. We should be able to find ancient life forms with very low gene counts. Apparently not. These ancient sponges have a lot of genes.

It seems also possible that we are descended from beings that did not have genes as we know them today. I have no idea how that would work.

It would be nice if the evolutionists could admit that they have no idea what early life on Earth was like, and if they were not always worrying about encouraging creationists.

Friday, Sep 03, 2010
Objecting to the word theory
A Slashdot comment says:
Actually, it seems to me like we don't call those grand-unified things a proper scientific theory either. As long as there are no testable predictions, and it fails Occam's Razor, it's not a theory, plain and simple. It's a hypothesis.

Yes, there is a name for a theory which hasn't yet been tested: hypothesis.

And really, as someone who's gotten tired of hearing Young Earth Creationists go "well, evolution is just a theory" and having to explain to them "yeah, but theory in science doesn't mean what you think. It means it already made testable predictions and is the best we have"... it's getting annoying to see that a whole bunch of physicists are actually using it exactly as the YECs and conspiracy theorists think: as just an untested and untestable supposition, which may or may not actually hold any water at all.

Yes, I realize that calling it a "theory" is more science-y sounding and good for your funding. But it devalues the whole idea of science for everyone. If we accept that some untested and untestable calculation is just as worthy of being called a "theory" with a straight face as GR or electromagnetism just because it's the pet supposition of some physicist, then basically why wouldn't Behe's pencils-up-the-nose ID idiocies be a "theory" too? I mean Behe _is_ a professor of biochemistry.

Call it the String Hypothesis, and you'd see a lot less complaints, basically.

No, this is not correct. A hypothesis is a scientific statement, possibly generalized from observations, which is subject to verification or falsification by experiment. There is no String Hypothesis.

This comment is an attempt by leftist-atheist-evolutionists to re-define the word theory in order to score some debating points with creationists. The word has been in common use for centuries, and there is little chance that everyone is going to change in order to justify censoring the ideas of an obscure biochemist.

Use of the word theory in string theory is consistent with many other usages of the terms, as you can see from examples in the dictionary.

Thursday, Sep 02, 2010
Hawking and the Big Bang machine
Stephen Hawking is promoting his new book, and says:
In 1915, Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity solved the conundrum: space and time were not fixed backgrounds to events, but dynamic entities. And, just as there is no point further south than the South Pole, time cannot exist outside the universe. But there was a problem: Einstein's idea, which describes the very large, does not fit with the other pillar of 20th century physics - quantum theory - which describes the very small.
No, Einstein thought in 1915 that the universe had no beginning or end. Theory and evidence for a finite age of the universe came about ten years later, and Einstein did not believe until after most other astrophysicists did.

Saying that "time cannot exist outside the universe" has nothing to do with relativity, or even with science at all. There is nothing that anyone can do to prove that statement true or false. You can believe it, or disbelieve it, regardless of whether you believe in relativity.

There is also no known conflict between "Einstein's idea" and quantum mechanics. In 1915, Einstein was trying to explain the planet Mercury's perihelion doing extra revolution once every million years.

Some have asked if turning on the LHC could produce some disastrous, unexpected result. Indeed, some theories of spacetime suggest the particle collisions might create mini black holes. If that happened, I have proposed that these black holes would radiate particles and disappear. If we saw this at the LHC, it would open up a new area of physics, and I might even win a Nobel prize. But I'm not holding my breath.
No, I am not holding my breath either. No one is ever going to create a black hole in a particle accelerator, and Hawking is never going to get a Nobel prize.

Hawking seems to have reversed himself about whether God created the universe. Now he says that cosmology supports atheism.

The new book is The Grand Design.

Wednesday, Sep 01, 2010
Quantum crypto broken again
Nature mag reports:
Quantum hackers have performed the first 'invisible' attack on two commercial quantum cryptographic systems. By using lasers on the systems — which use quantum states of light to encrypt information for transmission — they have fully cracked their encryption keys, yet left no trace of the hack.

Quantum cryptography is often touted as being perfectly secure. It is based on the principle that you cannot make measurements of a quantum system without disturbing it. So, in theory, it is impossible for an eavesdropper to intercept a quantum encryption key without disrupting it in a noticeable way, triggering alarm bells.

Vadim Makarov at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim and his colleagues have now cracked it. "Our hack gave 100% knowledge of the key, with zero disturbance to the system," he says.

You can get the details here. This sounds like a repeat from 2007, when I reported a previous break.

The claims that quantum crypto is provably secure are bogus, as I have argued here, here, here, and here. The whole field seems to suffer misunderstandings about what both quantum mechanics and cryptography are all about.

Bruce Schneier tries to explain this by saying:

Just because something is secure in theory doesn't mean it's secure in practice. Or, to put it more cleverly: in theory, theory and practice are the same; but in practice, they're very different.
No, that is the wrong lesson. There are plenty of good cryptographic methods that are secure in theory and secure in practice. Quantum cryptography only promises security in some idealized model that has no obvious applicability to the real world. Its proponents claim that it is more secure than anything else. But nobody should rely on this to protect any valuable data.