1. Wikipedia Tourism #22

    August 16, 2009 by Craig

    The picture isn’t really NSFW, but I’m going to link-only to it anyway for humor value.

    Tyrannosaurus skeleton casts mounted in a mating position, Jurassic Museum of Asturias.

    From Tyrannosaurus

  2. Happy Darwin Day

    February 12, 2009 by Craig

    Charles Darwin was born 200 years ago today. I guess I should be taking today off of work.

  3. Educational Uncertainty

    November 25, 2008 by Craig

    Although I don’t have much real by way of reliable comparisons, I think I attended a pretty decent science program in high school. Our teacher was actually involved in the scientific community (instead of being a teacher who has science thrust upon him) and made an effort to introduce real scientific principles into the classroom. (He also shares a name with a very famous writer so he’s completely un-Googleable.) From what I’ve read, most other students are not so lucky.

    Eventually, he taught us about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Of course, he taught that it was the fact that you can’t know both the position and the momentum (speed) of a particle at any given time. He explained this in terms of trying to measure electrons; to do so, you needed to bounce photons off of them, and this changed both their position and momentum. This fundamental fact meant that particles didn’t really have a precise position in the classical sense, and so we had to think of particles as being somewhat random/probabilistic at quantum levels.

    To me, this particular argument made sense, but it didn’t seem to explain why this was an all-encompassing principle of physics. Was there really no other way to measure electrons? What about other particles? Isn’t this just a problem with our technology & process? Why does it have to be a fundamental property of particles? Surely they have both a definite position & momentum, even if we can’t measure it.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t ask these questions at the time. Looking back on it, Mr. Adams probably wouldn’t have been able to provide satisfactory answers anyway. None of the other students raised similar questions, and I have to assume that most of them didn’t consider them in the first place. Over the years, I’ve seen similar explanations from a wide variety of sources.

    Then, on one of my random walks down Wikipedia, I happened to come across an description for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that not explained its fundamentality but also explained why the common answer I’d been told was completely incorrect.

    In quantum mechanics, the particle is described by a wave. The position is where the wave is concentrated and the momentum, a measure of the velocity, is the wavelength…. The only kind of wave with a definite position is concentrated at one point, and such a wave has an indefinite wavelength. Conversely, the only kind of wave with a definite wavelength is an infinite regular periodic oscillation over all space, which has no definite position. So in quantum mechanics, there are no states which describe a particle with both a definite position and a definite momentum. The narrower the probability distribution is for the position, the wider it is in momentum.

    To understand the HUP, you first need to ditch the idea that particles are discrete balls of stuff, and instead think of a wave in motion. Think back to the Slinky wave experiments you may have done in school (if you haven’t, this YouTube clip is a good substitute). What’s important is the change in distance between the coils (which make up the abstract entity known as the “wave”), not the coils themselves. You can’t point to the wave as being “at” any particular position in the slinky; you have to measure it over a given distance. You can start with the entire length of slinky, and reduce that down to smaller and smaller (ie: more “precise”) chunks, but there’s no discrete part where you can say “here is where the wave is”. The wave is defined by its wavelength, which in turn is directly related to its momentum (speed). But you can only measure momentum by measuring over a distance. Thus, as you gain a more precise measure of momentum, your measure of position necessarily has to be less precise.

    This is not the same thing as saying “measuring one value will necessarily change the other.” This is better described as “the description of either quantity on its own is meaningless; are really two opposing aspects of the same property”. In fact, the common explanation of the HUP is really an explanation of a completely separate issue: the Observer Effect. Both Wikipedia articles on the HUP and the observer effect talk about how the two are often conflated in the minds of the layperson (including those who instruct others). Furthermore, the Observer Effect article explains how it’s not a fact specific to weird quantum particles (which is another explanation I see on a regular basis) but in fact is a class of issues that applies to many separate circumstances.

    The misexplanation surrounding the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the Observer Effect is one of many examples of how laypeople and popular culture can get the wrong idea about natural / scientific issue. Another common one is lift: the force that keeps airplanes in the air. More than likely you’ve seen an explanation of how lift works that involves the air over a wing flowing faster than the air under it. This is wrong. There’s lots of other examples too.

    Most people won’t ever need to know the details of how these principles work. But that then raises the question: why are we spending time teaching them in the first place? If it’s important to have a base of not-immediately-useful knowledge, then why do we accept incorrect knowledge to fill that void?

  4. Teach the Controversy

    October 23, 2008 by Craig

    These are in reference to the Discovery Institute’s intelligent design promotional campaign. I don’t know if they have a T-shirt too.

    (Found at Fark)

  5. Abracadabra

    September 13, 2008 by Craig


    Magicians are entertainers who manipulate the human mind; some take that art too far.

    When I went to my local bookstore to buy a copy of Predictably Irrational, I walked all the way to the back of the store to where the business books were kept. On the way in and out of the store, I passed by prominent display that housed the latest book from famous psychic Sylvia Browne. I think that is a nice theme for my next post on magicians and irrationality.

    In response to my last post on irrationality Marco wrote:

    The placebo effect is a pretty well understood phenomena and we can no more consider it irrational than we can consider a group of people thrilled by a magician “irrational.”

    Before I can respond to this, I have to ask what “thrills” people about magicians. I don’t have a solid answer for that, but I expect that it comes from seeing people exhibit powers that appear to be unusual: i.e., they do not occurr in our everyday lives. Of course, science and technology can give us unusual powers too; Arthur C. Clarke even linked the latter directly to magic. One of my favorite classroom-level demonstrations is hammering a nail into a piece of wood with a banana that’s been dipped in liquid nitrogen. These sorts of scientific demonstrations share some of entertainment value of magical acts. However, I don’t think they have quite the same level of appeal; to my knowledge there’s no big-budget Vegas shows or prime-time TV programs dedicated to entertainment through science, as there are with magic.

    Thus, I think that the impossibility of the acts being presented is part of the allure. We intellectually know that something cannot happen, yet we see it appear to happen with our own eyes. We want to believe that the impossible is possible, and so the demonstration thrills us… and so we believe just a tiny bit. That’s nearly the definition of irrationality. But, in the end, the impossible cannot happen, and magicians use a bevy of tricks and illusions to make us believe the unbelieveable. Magians are masters of the natural, not of the supernatural.

    Some magicians like to claim that they do, in fact, have supernatural powers. When they do, they cross the line from entertainers to con artists. I consider people like Sylvia Browne, Uri Geller, and John Edward to be more hurtful than Harry Houdini, David Copperfield and David Blaine because they become meta-deceptive: they are deciptful about their deception. Without self-imposed limits on their trickery, they prey upon vulnerable people like parasites.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t really like most magic shows myself. I know that the claimed powers are nothing more than (relatively) mundane tricks, and I tend to feel frustrated when I can’t figure out what the trick actually is. I do enjoy seeing the tricks explained; Penn & Teller are the poster boys for this sort of entertainment. (Not surprisingly, Penn & Teller are also noted skeptics, debunkers, and atheists.)

  6. Double-Blind Parachute Trials

    September 8, 2008 by Craig

    From In a Parachute-Effectiveness Trial, Who Gets the Placebo?.

    It might be argued that the pressure exerted on individuals to use parachutes is yet another example of a natural, life-enhancing experience being turned into a situation of fear and dependency. The widespread use of the parachute may just be another example of doctors’ obsession with disease prevention and their misplaced belief in unproved technology to provide effective protection against occasional adverse events.

  7. What’s In Our Water?

    August 6, 2008 by Craig

    We, as a nation, have to ask ourselves “What the hell is going on?

    Apparently this woman’s water has been contaminated with electromagnetic radiation.

    Via Fark.

  8. 100 Trillion Brain Cells

    August 1, 2008 by Craig

    While in Costa Rica, I had a brief discussion (with a poker website employee) about the likelihood that a computer will eventually be able to beat any human player (at which point it’s pretty much useless to play poker on websites; you can be assured that everyone there will be an unbeatable computer player). That came to mind when I read this:

    100 trillion brain cells and most of us can’t reliably multiply a pair of two digit numbers. If computers had invented humans as part of a BI program (biological intelligence), humans would have been tossed aside as barely having achieved perfect game play at Tic-Tac-Toe. What use is 100 trillion brain cells that can’t reliably compute a 15% tip after a heavy lunch? Many computers would like to know.

    From Poker Program Battles Humans In Vegas on SlashDot.

  9. Stealing Projectors

    April 21, 2008 by Craig

    Twelve years ago, Homer Simpson said:

    I got kicked out [of the audio-visual club] ’cause of my views of Vietnam. Also, I was stealing projectors.

    Ben Stein and the intelligent design movement are also trying to “steal some projectors” with their new movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Besides trying to promote the validity of intelligent design / creationism over evolution and tie Darwinism to the Holocaust, it also claims that the mainstream scientific community has persecuted those who do not believe in evolution — including firing various academics for publicly making anti-evolution statements.

    Depending on your exact definition of “persecute”, part of that last statement may well be true. The major problem is that the cases that the movie cites as examples are basically exaggerated or otherwise misrepresented.

    It’s important to see Expelled for what it is: a propaganda piece intended to win converts in order to gain power (and probably not a little bit of money). The evidence for this lies not only in analysis of the movie’s content but in analysis of the marketing campaign for the movie:

    “Expelled” is spending millions to succeed, huge for a documentary. It’s hired four PR firms. It’s running a sweepstakes for church groups, offering a cash prize to the one that sells the most tickets. It’s paying up to 10 Grand for schools to send their students. The movie even staged a songwriting competition.

    SONG: If you challenge evolution, you get expelled!

    Oh, and Ben Stein traveled across the country on a bright red bus for “Expelled, the Road Show.” This is mostly the work of Motive Marketing’s Paul Lauer. He’s the guy who made “Passion” [ed: “of the Christ”, the Mel Gibson movie about Jesus] into a phenomenon by harnessing the power of this country’s 160 million Christians.

    PAUL LAUER: How do you get this big amoeba to flex its muscle? When it flexes, it’s enormous. The challenge has always been, How do you get those people to activate.

    Expelled‘s message is that the scientific community is using indoctrination, obfuscation, and coercion to push it’s agenda. The irony (hypocrisy?) is that, in reality, those are the very tactics being employed by Expelled and the rest of the intelligent design movement. Skepticism and rebuttal are the ways to counteract this, and those are the goals of the scientific community — not its opponents.

  10. How’s the Weather?

    by Craig

    Another good Freakonomics article states what you probably already knew: weather forecasters are pretty much full of crap, especially when making predictions past “tomorrow”.

    For all days beyond the next day out, viewers would be better off flipping a coin to predict rainfall than trusting the stations on days where rain was possible.

    This was a U.S. study, both of TV stations (i.e.: “We use Doppler Radar even though we have no idea what that means.”) and the NOAA, the official government weather service. I would very much like to see the same study done in Canada; Environment Canada gets a lot of respect out here, and it’s important to see whether it’s actually deserved.

    In related news: Calgary has been hit with yet another April snowstorm.