Archive for the '… the Hell?' category

Whittaker breaks the irony meter (1910/1953)

Sep 11 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, History of science, Physics

I'm currently working my way through E.T. Whittaker's monumental A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity (1910), among other things.  Whittaker's book is a very comprehensive study of electricity and aether that stretches back from the seventeenth century up to the beginning of the twentieth, and it really is excellent -- I've already learned a lot, and am only 20 pages into it!  (I loved a fascinating tidbit about the first experimental measurement of magnetic field lines, demonstrating the poles of the magnet -- I'll come back to this in a future post.)

However, as I've blogged about previously, there is one glaring weakness in Whittaker's treatment.  In his second volume of the 'History, released in 1953,  he almost completely discounted Einstein's contribution to the theory of special relativity!  While discussing the "relativity theory of Poincaré and Lorentz," his primary statement regarding Einstein's work is:

In the autumn of the same year, in the same volume of the Annalen der Physik as his paper on the Brownian motion, Einstein published a paper which set forth the relativity theory of Poincaré and Lorentz with some amplifications, and which attracted much attention.

Whittaker is much more generous towards Einstein's general theory of relativity, and gives him the credit, but his dismissal of Einstein's contribution to special relativity is puzzling.  I've speculated that Whittaker was perhaps a bit miffed that his life's work on the aether was made obsolete in 1905 by Einstein before it was even published; it may also be that Whittaker genuinely didn't completely grasp the philosophical implications of Einstein's contribution.

So what is the irony in this?

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Physical Review Letters gives a WARNING!!! (1958)

Though scientific knowledge has increased by leaps and bounds throughout the course of human history, human nature itself hasn't changed very much!  Looking through the old scientific journals, one can find arguments and conflicts that are still in some form still playing out today.  A few months ago, I described an 1804 paper titled, "On the decline of mathematical studies, and the sciences dependent upon them," which laments England's loss of competitiveness due to lack of comprehensive mathematics education; the arguments in the paper might have been written today.

A week ago, I was browsing the archives of Physical Review Letters, which is in essence the most prestigious physics-only journal in existence.  (Papers in Nature and Science are considered more prestigious, but those journals cover all scientific topics.)  Getting a paper into PRL is considered a great achievement -- it supposedly indicates that your research is a significant scientific advance of very broad importance that should be published rapidly.  The prestige is so great, in fact, that it is very tempting for researchers to submit work that is not quite appropriate for PRL, on the off-chance that it can be "snuck in".  This results in an excessive amount of papers being submitted to the journal, overwhelming its editors and its peer-reviewers, and can be a real hassle.

I suspect the top journals in every field see this sort of problem, but surely this wasn't a problem for PRL in the heyday of physics, when the journal was first initiated, right?

Volume 1, issue 1 of Physical Review Letters came out on July 1st, 1958; in the February 1st, 1959 issue of PRL (vol. 2, p. 80), an editorial appeared with the very ominous title, "A WARNING".  The text of this editorial is presented in its entirety below.

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Conservation mode/growing pains

Sep 01 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, [Etc]

What Christina said:

We’re putting scientopia basically in to conservation mode to conserve resources until we get hosting issues squared away. So we’ll have no commenting on new posts for a bit.

This isn't a sinister plot to stifle dissenting opinions -- as you may have noticed, we've been having some issues lately!  If you want to comment on any new posts I write in the near future, you can always email me at:

skullsinthestars *the*at*thingy*

You can also "tweet" me at @drskyskull.

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Tolman goes silly for similitude! (1914)

This post is for the special "fools, failures and frauds" edition of The Giant's Shoulders.

The early 20th century was clearly an exciting time to be a physicist. In 1905, Einstein published his special theory of relativity, radically revising human concepts of space and time. In the same year, and the same issue of the Annalen der Physik, Einstein really sparked the "quantum revolution" with his explanation of the photoelectric effect, an explanation that would scramble existing preconceptions of the nature of light and matter and would eventually shake the deterministic foundations of physical theory.

By the teen years of the 1900s, it must have seemed to many physicists that no idea was too crazy to possibly be true!  Furthermore, the simplicity and elegance of Einstein's relativity must have suggested to scientists that the secrets of the universe remaining to be discovered would be of the same sort of "beautifully obvious" form.

One researcher who was  seduced by this sort of thinking was Richard C. Tolman.  In 1914, he published a paper on a new physical principle that he referred to as "the principle of similitude".  In Tolman's own words, his principle represented a new form of "relativity of size", which "provides a very simple and general method for obtaining conclusions as to the form of functional relations connecting physical magnitudes."

Tolman's theory was bold, it was powerful... and it didn't really work out.  It is a great example of a failed theory, and even more fascinating because its proponent was no crackpot, and its insights turned out to have some practical use in the end.  There's even a whiff of a conspiracy surrounding similitude, which I will describe at the end of the post!

This post is closely related to the idea of dimensions in physics; if you're not familiar with this concept, check my earlier post here.

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Right-wing refutations of relativity really, really wrong!

Aug 09 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, Relativity

Back when I first started my blog, I spent a lot more time dealing with crazy people who are convinced that Einstein's theories of relativity are wrong (see here, here and here).  More recently, I haven't spent a lot of time on the crazy train, but I have been meaning to get back to my long-neglected series of posts explaining relativity.

Enter Conservapedia, the right-wing version of Wikipedia intended to combat the liberal bias in reality!  Over the past day, Twitter has been abuzz with tweets¹ on the Conservapedia page on "Counterexamples to relativity", provides a list of 24 "points" that attempt to show the weakness of Einstein's crazy ideas!

In my mind, perhaps the most despicable sort of denialism or crankery, however, is that which is based on some sort of political or religious ideology.  This is clearly what is going on here, and the author relies on a familiar form of rhetorical trickery known as the "Gish Gallop": throw as many claims out there as possible, regardless of their validity, with the realization that most people will be swayed by the amount of "evidence", and not look too closely at the details.

Looking at the "evidence", it is clear that there isn't a single point made that isn't misleading, incoherent, or simply dishonest.  A person reading the Conservapedia post will be measurably more ignorant afterwards, and I get the distinct impression that this is what the author intended.

But never fear, dear reader!  I'm here to go through the list of some of the most entertaining assertions, and explain why they're nonsense. Why bother, you ask?  For one thing, entertainment.  For another, there's always a chance that someone may come across the Conservapedia entry and look for some sort of counterbalance... someone should write one!

One caveat: I can't guarantee that the list I present will match the list on the Conservapedia page.  I saved the tweeted list, but after all the internet attention, it was reduced to four points.  Soon afterwards,  it reverted to the original list again.  There's no guarantee that it will remain in its current form, though...

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The sciencebloggosphere is a changing! (updated)

Jul 07 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?

(Updated July 22, 2010 -- been hard to keep up with all the changes! Let me know if I have left anyone out.)

Update: The strike is over!  SEED seems to have agreed to the changes requested.

BIG Update: PZ Myers of Pharyngula is going on strike until SEED makes changes both in its communication policies and improves its technical support! (Greg Laden joins the strike.)

Update: Food Frontiers is officially off of Scienceblogs.  It remains to be seen how this will affect the bloggers' decision to stay or go -- some have already stated that they won't be coming back.

If you haven't heard, the Scienceblogs community has gone through a tremendous upheaval over a short span of 24 hours, with a number of their best science writers basically resigning from the community in protest.  The spark that ignited the powderkeg was the introduction of a corporate paid for and sponsored blog to the science blogging mix, Food Frontiers: a blog by PepsiCo on nutrition, of all things!  This has been seen by many, if not most, of the bloggers as corporate propaganda masquerading as legitimate science, which hurts the reputation of said bloggers and corrupts the integrity of the system.

I don't have enough of an understanding of the details to make a strong statement about the controversy here (at the very least, the whole thing seems like a very big PR clusterf#$k on the part of SEED).  Right now I can understand the arguments of both those who have chosen to stay at SBs and those who have chosen to move on to, or rather back to, independent blogging.  I did want to say that I support all of the Sciencebloggers and feel your pain right now (hell, the whole thing has made me anxious, and I have no association with SBs!).

I also wanted to help out those who have departed by throwing a few links towards their new/old homes!

People who were undecided but seem to be staying (for now):

I'll try and update this when I hear more about where folks are ending up...

Note: Carl Zimmer is also keeping a list of evacuees here.

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"On the decline of mathematical studies, and the sciences dependent upon them"

Jun 21 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, History of science

I was browsing the internet a few weeks ago, and came across an opinion piece lamenting the poor state of mathematical education and the detrimental effect it has had on science.  The provocative piece starts as follows:

It is a subject of wonder and regret to many, that this island, after having astonished Europe by the most glorious display of talents in mathematics and the sciences dependent upon them, should suddenly suffer its ardour to cool, and almost entirely to neglect those studies in which it infinitely excelled all other nations.  After having made the most wonderful and unhoped-for discoveries, and pointed out the road to more; suddenly to desist, and leave these to be cultivated, and the road to more to be explored, by other nations, is very remarkable.  It seems as strange as the conduct of a conqueror would be, was he to conquer all the countries around him, and then tamely to suffer his own and the subjugated ones to be possessed, governed, and cultivated, by those whom he had conquered.

It is a very great disgrace for a nation like this, which can proudly boast of a superiority over all others in arts, arms and commerce, to suffer the sublimest sciences, which once were its greatest pride and glory, to be neglected.  Surely a much more solid fame accrues to a people from their superiority in talents than in arms.  Athens is as celebrated for its learning as its commerce or its victories.  It cannot be owing to any want of importance in the sciences themselves that they are neglected; the discoveries made in them are of the most astonishing nature, and such as seemed absolutely beyond the reach of human intellect.  By the marvellous assistance of the mathematics from the simple law of gravity are deduced the orbits of the planets and satellites, their distances, the times of their revolutions, their densities, quantities of matter, and many other remarkable properties too well known to be enumerated.  Were it not for them, mechanics, optics, hydrostatics, geography, and other branches of natural philosophy, would hardly have been known as science.  It is possible that discoveries more wonderful and of greater utility than those already made by the help of mathematics, may some time or other be effected, should some great genius once point out the way.  It is the opinion of many philosophers, that the various forms and diversified properties of bodies are owing to the various laws of attraction and repulsion which their constituent particles exercise upon each other.  Should these laws ever be discovered, we shall become as well acquainted with the structure, affinities, and mutual operations of boides, as we are with the revolutions and actions of the planets upon each other.

As you probably have noted already from the style of writing, this is not a particularly recent article.  In fact, this call-to-arms in favor of mathematics education was written in 1804!

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Infinite series are weird -- redux!

May 25 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, Mathematics

A bit over a year ago, I wrote a blog post about the mathematics of infinite series, and how weird such series can be, considering in particular the behavior of "conditionally convergent series".  A recent post at Built on Facts covered similar oddities and gave a nice and different perspective on them.  In the comments of that post, though, an even more bizarre result from the theory of infinite series was introduced, namely the argument that

$latex displaystyle 1+2+3+4+ldots = -1/12$.

This result, if true, is enough to shake one's faith in mathematics, and is completely non-intuitive for no less than three very big reasons:

  1. The sum of an infinite series of increasing positive integers should not converge to a negative value,
  2. The sum of an infinite series of increasing positive integers should not converge to a fractional value,
  3. The sum of an infinite series of increasing positive integers should not converge at all to a finite value!

So is the equation above correct?  Not exactly; it is based on a valid bit of mathematics centered on the Riemann zeta function, but that mathematics is being somewhat misinterpreted to get the paradoxical equation.  An explanation of what went wrong is interesting in itself, however, and allows me to describe a rather difficult concept in the theory of complex analysis known as analytic continuation.

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Mythbustin': 1808 edition (the incombustible man)

I swear that I'm not going through journals looking for old versions of the Mythbusters' experiments!  After blogging about old scientific papers on myths such as "finger in the barrel" and "Archimedes death ray", I figured I'd pretty much tapped out historical mythbustin' papers.  Scientists of every era, however, have an eye for the weird, so I suppose it was inevitable that I found another paper with a connection to modern mythbusting!

The paper in question is "Memoir on the Incombustible Man; or the pretended phænomenon of incombustibility," from volume 32 of the Philosophical Magazine from 1808, by Louis Sementini, M.D., chief Professor of Chemistry in the Royal University of Naples.

What this paper describes is an in depth series of experiments, performed by Dr. Sementini upon himself, on the science of fire eating!*

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Perpetual motion -- nonsense for over 100 years

Mar 10 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, History of science

Some two years ago, I wrote a post about a device called the "whipmag", a thinly-disguised perpetual motion machine based on magnets that would supposedly accelerate without an external source of energy once set in motion.  I was understandably critical of the device, and free energy has yet to reach the masses, but that doesn't stop people from being true believers.  Last week, I received the following comment on the post (written two years ago, mind you):

Neither the author of this article nor the guy in the second video actually gives any data or analysis applicable to the device in the first video. The author’s diagram does not reflect the structure of the device in the video. Also the author mentions several times “conservation of energy” and “thermodynamics” laws, but does not apply those concepts to explain how the device could not work. Thus no analysis has taken place in this article, only emotional oversimplification ( just like the second video guy ) and a trail of distracting mini history lessons.

The complaint seems to be that I don't actually spend my time proving that the device can't work.  My answer to this is that I don't have to!  At this point, such devices have been debunked so often and the laws of physics so well understood that the onus is on any would-be perpetual motion discoverer to demonstrate that their device does work, and ideally explain why.

It is especially amusing to hear criticism of "mini history lessons".  Science is a process which builds upon all knowledge that has come before; what we have discovered previously -- scientific history -- is crucial.  It would be impossible for science to progress if we spent all of our time, in the absence of new evidence, testing schemes that we know have already failed.

With that in mind, it is worth pointing out that perpetual motion has been considered impossible -- and treated with scorn -- for a long, long time.  When I dug up the first volume of The Harmsworth Magazine, dated 1899, to seek out a story by Winston Churchill, I also found a popular article on perpetual motion. It is not kind to the concept, or the people who pursue it.

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