All posts by Psybertron

Interesting and thorough piece in Nature on why basic scientific method of empirical falsification still matters to the integrity of physics however creative the hypothesising.

Of course (as the sole commenter so far says), there are plenty of other valuable kinds of knowledge and evidence, which also require careful reasoning. Some scientists may wish to claim redundancy of any other kind of philosophical thinking – but it wouldn’t be science. (Hat tip to Sabine Hossenfelder on Facebook.)

[Post Note – and quite a few articles responding to the post in Nature, also being collected by Sabine.]

Interesting analysis by Paul Mason of C4.
Not particularly original ideas, but good to see the whole position summarised readably:

Opec’s decision to go on pumping oil, in November, faced with collapsing demand, was designed to do exactly what has happened – sink the oil price to the point where only the big Gulf producers can break even, harming their competitors [including Russia] – and in the process sabotaging the expensive end of the US shale-oil industry.

What it does to Putin’s power base is scary of course.

Just a quickie to highlight for posterity a point I made earlier (and before).

Forget – “Collapse of the observed probability wave function.”

Think – “Collapse of the mythical abstract concept of objective reality.”

You may have heard that here first, but I’ve been piecing it together from the giants on whose shoulders I would that I stood. For example: now that we’ve buried his cat once and for all, could we please resurrect the good work of Erwin Schroedinger.

Interesting that Jim Al Khalili retweeted a linked review of his Life on the Edge from Nicola Davis in The Grauniad. Not exactly a glowing report, but I often feel the same, that the stack of assumptions and interpretations needed to support scientific “fact” at the extremes of fundamental physics are exactly that – a house of cards. (PS not seen any reference to the Schroedinger work “What is Life?” – a fine little book on the topic.)

Watched episode 1 of Jim Al-Khalili’s “The Secrets of Quantum Physics – Part 1 Einstein’s Nightmare” at last. (Mentioned related stories in a couple of previous posts.)

In synopsis – ‘cos I’m in a hurry as ever – everything about discoveries of quanta from Einstein on the photo-electric effect, the many forms of the ubiquitous dual-slit experiment(s), “spooky” action at a distance, EPR and the Einstein, Bohr (and Heisenberg) disagreements have been the stuff of popular science writing for some time (archetypically for me, Gribben and Charlesworth in cartoon form.) Even up to Bell’s inequality and the experiments on pairs of polarised electrons following separate paths. No mention of advanced or pilot waves and thankfully no mention of Shroedinger’s cat, despite numerous “open the box” opportunities. If that is unintelligible to you, then you need to watch Jim’s program and/or read his book.

Only weak point for me was that it is not made clear how and why the Bell card-pairs-game and the polarised-electron-pair experiment using Bell’s inequality does actually prove the Einstein-Bohr argument one way or the other. Bell’s inequality is stated without really explaining what it means?

BUT sure Einstein was wrong with his rigged-deck take on avoiding the conclusion of observer driven outcomes. He was of course right on a lot more. I always felt the concept of there even being a (predetermined) deck to be rigged was his point, the point being it’s a daft idea, like Shroedinger with his cat – to illustrate how mad – weird – the prevailing quantum concepts are when related to our common sense world. Thought experiments to demonstrate how inconceivably these metaphors could possibly reflect how reality really is. Which is the point.

Good that Jim clearly sees the ongoing weirdness as a problem needing sorting out. The fact this suggested some serious misunderstandings about the true nature of reality itself, exposed by Einstein’s refusal to agree with Bohr being ignored post-war in the Copenhagen drive to “shut-up and calculate” – QM works for (say) nuclear power and the electronics of the communications age – who cares? Conflicting opinions were simply “swept under the carpet”. Interesting that the hippy and eastern mysticism movement – that in fact led hippy physicists to the polarised-electron-pair experiment – is indeed a part of the story – a story about the nature of reality that is, not about any good or bad “science of the supernatural”. Looking forward to Part 2.

My take – the weirdeness is simply a consequence of misguided common sense about objects and objectivity. ie it’s not their “observation” that’s the problem, but their conceptualisation in the first place, which ultimately leads to them being set up to be observed. We reify into objects what is in fact more immediate pre-conceptual empirical experience – deliberately to make objects distinct from ourselves as subject. Science is based on objectivity, whereas reality really isn’t. I hope Jim recognises that’s a philosophical question and not a scientific problem, ie I’m not knocking the science. Science cannot know reality at these levels. As Jim says it is in some sense unknowable, unknowable to science that is.

Really good takeaways. Honest on the state of what is truly (not) known and understood at the QM level and seriously well done for not resorting to Schroedinger’s damn cat. Well done.

[Aside – no mention of De-Broglie-Bohm advance “pilot” waves – Jim mentioned in a tweet he had a preference for this view – over Copenhagen anyway.]

[Post Note : Even objects as large as molecules comprising 114 atoms (!) giving double slit interference signature. LiveScience via @cpwernham. Beware spammy site, checking secondary sources. Objects are not what they seem.]

[Post Post Note : And in response to comments Jim has blogged more explanation of what he glossed over about what Bell’s inequality said about Einstein, Good stuff. Even again, forced to choose, would side with Einstein. My point is, sure all authoritative science remains contingent, but some science has never got beyond being contentious. Good mention of the De-Broglie-Bohm alternative too. And sure too, a public TV programme is not a physics lecture, so difficult details have to be excused, but the key messages must remain honest.]

The paper referenced in the previous post is well worth a read, if you find probabilistic collapsing wave-functions, and the suggestion that thanks to quantum mechanics there is no actual single physical reality, too weird to actually believe. Einstein was right for knowing Bohr was wrong, even if he never cottoned onto De Broglie’s pilot wave model, later picked up by David Bohm. Chaotic and difficult to predict individual histories, sure, but deterministically so. May Shroedinger’s cat forever rest in peace never to be heard of again. (Must actually watch Jim’s series and read his book, to see where his beliefs lie.)

A century down the line, the standard, probabilistic formulation of quantum mechanics has been combined with Einstein’s theory of special relativity and developed into the Standard Model, an elaborate and precise description of most of the particles and forces in the universe. Acclimating to the weirdness of quantum mechanics has become a physicists’ rite of passage. The old, deterministic alternative is not mentioned in most textbooks; most people in the field haven’t heard of it. Sheldon Goldstein (*), a professor of mathematics, physics and philosophy at Rutgers University and a supporter of pilot-wave theory, blames the “preposterous” neglect of the theory on “decades of indoctrination.” At this stage, Goldstein and several others noted, researchers risk their careers by questioning quantum orthodoxy.

The key thing about the article is that it’s an empirical demonstration at human visible scale, using oil drops on water surface waves. Suck that up Copenhagen. Interesting that the cautiously informed responses are all about how “hard” the pilot-wave model is going to be to create all the mathematics needed to replace Copenhagen, but no suggestion that it’s demonstrably wrong.

Aside – I’m wondering if, like fluid mechanics, the practicalities will always be calculated and predicted using statistical approximations, ratios and scale factors determined from historical measurement. Tracking the real “particles” of fluid is always too complex and therefore performed computationally at “finite element” level with fluid properties based on the empirical factors – whether Roman water in pipes or 21st century aircraft in the air, maybe now for elementary particles in the ether.

[(*) First husband of Rebecca Goldstein cited previously as also being a supporter of Bohmian Mechanics.]

It’s all happening at once today. Prompted I guess by the first episode of Jim Al Khalili’s BBC4 series on Quantum Mechanics, the usual alternative theories are crawling out of the woodwork.

Not watched the episode yet, but judging by the Grauniad review we get the “Einstein was wrong” take and a bit of wave-particle duality so far – Feynman’s quantum physics in a nutshell “double-slit experiment”. Jim tweeted this morning receiving a link to Natalie Wolchover’s piece in Wired from back in June about the David Bohm interpretation of QM – basically an Einstein and Bohr were both wrong, take on things. Coincidentally mentioned by Rebecca Goldstein last month as her own preferred interpretation before she switched from physics to philosophy.

And talking of philosophy at the other end of the scale just yesterday we have Roberto Unger collaborating with Lee Smolin on anthropic mistakes in cosmological interpretations.

Two givens

Firstly, at the extremes of fundamental physics much is speculation, and the touch points with empirical reality few, indirect and incomplete. Yes, the maths work in given contexts and scales, but the explanatory understanding of reality – beyond doubtful metaphors – is a long way off.

And, secondly, physics needs philosophy to help sort out it’s relation to both reality and humanity.

Related – but more general (medical) science in this case: the recurring agenda of mine: when is speculative (or interested) science newsworthy? The tag of “science” allows so much hyped crap to be touted as worthwhile knowledge, when it’s really churn in the processes of science – speculative in both senses, doubtful, but worth a shot if it justifies the funds.

Interesting blog, collection of bloggers, and additional linked blogs, all on a topic dear to my heart. Hat tip to Rebecca Goldstein @platobooktour for the link to the specific post.

When apparently serious commentators simply dismiss ideas they don’t agree with (or understand) as “silly” you can be pretty sure they’re defending a position rather than advancing knowledge.

Interesting interview of Roberto Unger by Ian Sample in a Grauniad podcast. It concerns a book co-authored with Lee Smolin concerning some pretty drastic meta-law proposals to govern evolution of the universe, including the actual (evolving) laws within it. Much about inflation theories and anthropic hacks in the likes of multiverses simply not being science, but fanciful speculation to prop-up misguided theories. (Book published early 2015)

(Hat tip to Sabine Hossenfelder again on Facebook.)

The Candy Crush saga. Apart from the pejorative headline “caught” rather than the value-free “noticed” – a fair cop.

In my experience of noticing people on London public transport entertaining themselves with their portable devices, I would say 3/5 of all passengers, of which 3/5 are doing nothing more than playing said game. I totally despair – why miss such fantastic (real) people-watching and mass-transit-operational-psychology-study opportunities, if no other real individual human conversation arises?

In a commons committee – I could understand it – the need to stimulate the brain above mind-numbing politically-correct procedure in between the occasional attention-needing episode.

Hopefully I’ve made it sufficiently clear that the main reason I’m a fan of Jon Butterworth is because, as far as celeb scientists go, he’s as honest and grounded as they come. Loved this (*) quote from his Grauniad column a couple of weeks ago:

Physics is in an interesting position, now that the Higgs Boson has been discovered. The “Standard Model” doesn’t predict any more new particles, no matter how tiny, and it could be considered internally complete. However, it is very far from being a theory of everything, failing to account for such major experimental facts as gravity, the different amounts of matter and antimatter in the universe, and the 85% or so of stuff that seems to be “Dark Matter”. It also struggles with neutrinos.

It would be good to have some clues to a new theory which might account for those awkward facts.

Accounting for awkward facts is something scientists need to do. Interesting to see Sabine Hossenfelder commenting on “the Anthropic Principle as neither tautological nor useless“, despite being one of those controversial “theories” easier dismissed with smart-ass one liners than thoughtful consideration. The comment thread on her Facebook post gives a clue to the smart-ass dismissers. My agenda has only ever been to keep science, and those who claim scientific rationality, honest.

A rhetorician might say science is only about 1/6th right so far?

[Post Note (*) – I should say, I love it because it effectively publishes what I’ve been paraphrasing I’d heard Jon and his colleagues saying at this event, and confirmed personally with him afterwards.]


40 years after publication of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, an extended and updated version of the 1974 CBS Ideas radio interview of Robert Pirsig by Tim Wilson. (Hat tip to Mark Richardson on Facebook.)

Fascinating stuff to add to the timeline. The basement with the “roller-skate drawer”. The MoQ given its intended name for the first time. The emotional telling of the ECS treatment episode. [Here a post I made the day I visited the basement.]

[Probably explains high number of Pirsig-related hits on my pages in recent days.
And the continued high hit-rate today.]

I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that” is the title of both the latest book by @bengoldacre and his #londonthinks talk tonight @ConwayHall

Strangely that title is my conclusion from both of the last two Ethical Society and Humanist talks I saw last week – so much so that having drafted a piece on those two together,  I can now see me enlarging it to cover all three talks in one post.

[Post Note : Scrap that. Not as advertised.  Old TED Talk “Better Data” on Statins et al. Cheap laughs and no new content, but good points included:

  • Psychology of statistics and down-side risk is real problem even for official practitioners and management of medical options – perverse decisions in terms of optimum outcomes.
  • Big data approach is real option for public health, despite being largely marketing jargon in so many fields. Again perversely it is easy to justify one-off expensive clinical trials with lower value (even negative value) outcomes, than to do cheap easily-randomised long-term statistical analyses on “freely” available GP records – because of privacy rights risks perceived with the easy option. Wrong view of risks again.
  • (It’s not about making “data” publicly available, but making available public data into proper “information” for decision-making. Since there are many ways to manipulate statistical data, we need to be able to trust who is turning data into information for us, ‘because psychologically it’s not intuitive for us, Joe public, to interpret data directly without a proper statistics & risk lens. I’m guessing Ben’s agenda is to sell the industry such a lens and trust is pretty much my earlier “authority” topic – ie who says?.)

 But not the talk advertised. Left before the Q&A. Oh, and I now see the new book is just a collection of Ben’s previous posts and articles, hence why no new content. Be really interested to know the context of the title quote.]

It’s pretty well known that following his joint discovery of the structure of DNA with Francis Crick (helped by Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling amongst others), James Watson made some dubious suggestions about racial differences based on DNA – disgraceful by today’s standards. It’s also quite likely as “men of their time” that Watson (and Galton, referenced) actually held sexist and racist world-views, and even pursued misguided agendas based on such views. I have no reason to either deny or justify any of the above. I repeat, I’m not disagreeing.

What I would take issue with in Adam Rutherford’s Grauniad piece is the denial of any racial (or gender) DNA differences. (I bring in gender simply because Rutherford already brings in Watson’s sexism alongside his racism – no reason to conflate, but we can draw on analogous examples.)

Now, gender-wise there are DNA differences (*) that result in physiological and physio-chemical differences between the sexes. What significance(s) you attach to those differences and what consequential behaviours you attribute to them, or counter-behaviours you propose, are a whole ‘nother kettle of fish – a veritable minefield of ethics and political correctness not to mention mis-directed reductive science or scientism. But denial of difference seems neither scientific nor in any other way rational or valuable, and indeed to deny or misrepresent any such differences can only obscure human value. Vive la difference is my typical positive reaction in gender difference cases.

Race is a very slippery concept scientifically, but then even species is a bio-genetic concept whose boundaries are ill-defined and variably-defined depending on which aspect of significance you are proposing to use for what purpose – no less a minefield than gender. (We are evolutionarily fortunate, that none too close hominid cousins exist today, for human species definition to be problematic in practice. Gender-wise there are of course definitional border-line cases, but sufficiently uncommon statistically that the grey areas definitionally-speaking can be addressed by gender re-assignment if the individual so desires – proper understanding helps address the reality of such cases in practice. Race is a totally distinct concept from either species or gender, however ill-defined it or they are.)

The nicest irony is that genetics – the field he founded and Watson transformed – is precisely the subject that has singularly demonstrated that race as a scientific concept holds no water.

It holds water with great difficulty, that’s for sure. However objectively ill-defined, denial of difference cannot be the best course. I’d be very interested in whether “holds no water” is really just a statement of failing to meet certain scientific objectivity criteria in defining racial difference, or literally no demonstrable difference at all. Which specific references this alludes to. Ill-defined is not the same as non-existent – it just means understanding is more complex and problematic. Denial is not really a valid alternative.

Vive la difference I’d probably say again. Better to understand than deny.

As a humanist, I’d say Watson is human too, fallible like Rutherford and the rest of us.

[(*) Post Note : Of course another part of this minefield is that DNA genes are themselves over-definitively-objectified in the reproductive, developmental and evolutionary story – a whole ‘nother story.]

[Last laugh to James Watson . Gets $ 4.8m for his Nobel Prize medal .]

[Last last laugh to Usmanov. Ian Sample in the Grauniad.]

And to join up the dots between the last post and a couple of others recently.

What social media misses is any concept of authority.
Ooooh anathema – free expression and science fact denies authority surely?

Well no. We do of course use the concept of friendship – in terms of who shares what with circles of known sources – to confer some level of trust and filter out noise in the tweets and posts we receive. But its very non-specific trust, unless we spend a great deal of effort organising our circles and lists.

What we need is some authoritative tags that perform a kinda “Snopes” function in near real time. Not just fact / fiction / but partisan / interest warning flags. Tags that can scale priority of visibility, without directly limiting freedom to express. Tags that automatically get copied with any Reply or Retweet or M-retweet.

[BTW I recently subscribed to (and unsubscribed from) Quora – a Q&A based social-media micro-blog – where in principle anyone can ask a question (and use it to make a rhetorical point, naturally), but only authorised responders assigned by subject matter are allowed to correspond. Sadly for the topics I was interested in, the questions were too basic / trivial or the responders too obviously following limited agendas. But nice try. Might subscribe again if I have time to interact more, but in current form not working for me.]

Just a quickie. A story on BBC R4 Today this morning. These recent photos of parliament showing empty and full houses for different debates, circulating on social media and used to suggest how badly MP’s see their priorities. They’re fake. No shit Sherlock?!? Some discussion about how social media readers are less critical in their judgement of what they find, and how stories, particularly those with images, spread like wildfire.

So to repeat my long standing memetic lesson – ideas spread and multiply not according to the quality of their content, but according to (a) how easy they are to spread (their medium and the simplicity of their presentation) (b) how catchy the content is to the receiver – how much it appeals to existing beliefs and preferences (ie consistency with prejudices).

Fact of life,  ideas with real quality and content are both more complicated in their expression and more complex in their relationship to existing “knowledge”.

(Counter example – also on R4 Today this morning, interviewing Cleggy. The question continually put to him was “flip-flopping” on some policy decision. His defence was changing your mind was not flip-flopping. Flip-flopping is changing your mind back and forth multiple times. But flip-flopping has simple onomatopoeic ring to it, so it will stick to Cleggy. R4 is as “guilty” as anyone – ie it’s not a conspiracy it’s a natural evolutionary problem we need to learn to understand and deal with.)

[Post Note – and here also picked-up by The Spectator.]

A quickie – Several scientific commentators suggesting is on a par with when it comes to posting low grade speculative (mischievous?) non-science into wider public media. [Previously here, When is Science News? with footnotes added.]

Latest example from Sabine Hossenfelder on FB
(Super-duper-symmetry maybe ? I said, tongue in cheek.)

Science depends on authority – not on free publication. People who reject authority are militant freedom extremists – anarchists we used to call them. But of course there is interesting information behind the story – on what might be wrong with the “standard model(s)” – but it’s not “science news”. Not news from science to the wider world of applied reality, it’s part of the churn within science, which may still be newsworthy, but needs to be presented as such, with suitable disclaimers.

[Post Note : And as well as footnotes to the “When is Science News?” link above, some more here, again from Sabine:

More technical clarification on the above story:
Oh, and notice “an entirely theoretical construct” (the mass in the news story), but yet again the Gravitational Constant is part of the argument – the contingent aspects lie deep in this space, a lot could unravel.

And more follow-up to what went wrong with BICEP story:

So it goes.]