Uncertainty is not an excuse for ignorance

20 10 2010

It would be arrogant to say that science has had its heyday and that all the big discoveries are behind us. The universe is as complex as it is large. The need for good science will never go away.

Imagine if we had stopped physics research after Newton had worked out calculus and classical physics. Imagine if we had stopped biology research after Henry Gray published his text book on human anatomy.

Isaac Newton was a brilliant person. He figured out the motions of the planets and worked out his now well-known three laws of motion. He discovered that the planets do not revolve around the sun but the planets and the sun all orbit around a common center of mass. In the process of doing this, he had to come up with differential and integral calculus.

However, Newton was confounded by something. He and other astronomers kept detailed logs of the planets’ motion in the sky. They indicated that the planets’ orbits were not constant; they were constantly being perturbed by the gravitational pull of the other planets and other objects. According to all the math he had done up to that point, he found that the planets should be knocked out of their relatively stable orbits. Rather than try to solve the problem, he supposed that there was a divine hand in keeping the planets in the proper places in the sky.

The is the tragedy of Isaac Newton’s life. He was undoubtedly smart enough to figure out this perturbation problem but he did not. It was another 200 years before a comprehensive description for perturbation theory was established.

Because we might be amazed at what we have discovered or that we do not know what we will discover in the future, that does not mean that we should not expect to discover anything. The universe is huge and our understanding of it is anything but complete. Until we are absolutely certain of everything, then scientific advance has to continue on.

The secular movement needs diplomats, not warriors

18 08 2010

I watched a great half-hour talk from Doctor Phil Plait, who was at The Amazing Meeting. In it, he gave his insights for bringing people over to rationality and skepticism. Most if it I agreed with and it changed the way I think about my interactions with non-skeptics.

He sums it up succinctly, “Don’t be a dick.” Whenever you, as a non-believer goes after a believer with ridicule and anger, it instantly turns that person off to your point of view and can cause them to dig in even more deeply on what they believe. Phil cited a recent encounter he had with a young-Earth creationist at a talk in West Virginia. She cited the observation that the moon is moving away from Earth and its rate of recession indicated that the Earth was only a few thousand years old. Instead of calling her out and ridiculing her position, he simply explained that the moon’s recessional rate is not constant and the Earth is indeed 4.5 billion years old. They ended up having a discussion afterwards.

He made more progress by respecting the other’s views than he would have by mocking them. For people who are scientifically literate and have a skeptical mind, it is very easy and tempting to make fun of people who are credulous when it comes to religion, UFOs, homeopathy, the like. To those of us who do not believe those claims, they seem so absurd. However, when trying to convince someone who does not thing they are absurd, diplomacy is key.

To paraphrase Dr. Plait, we need diplomats, not warriors. It may feel like we are fighting a war, but we really are not. We are trying to skew people towards a skeptical method of thinking and analysis.

I would set aside half an hour to watch the talk in its entirety and read the accompanying blog post. It was definitely worth it.

Welcome to Mars National Park

6 08 2010

This is old news in astronomy circles but I just started thinking about it recently – we may have been polluting Mars for decades. I don’t mean landing probes, rovers, and the like on its surface since the first Viking mission in 1976. Microbes may have been hitching a ride on those probes and spreading to a degree in the areas surrounding those landing sites. There are two big ways this could be bad thing. It is possibly the pollution (even if accidental) of another world and it can interfere with scientific investigations to detect native Martian life.

NASA has long since been cleaning, baking, and otherwise disinfecting its probes before they ever get close to a launch pad. They are nowgiving a special eye to making sure the probes are absolutely sterile. There are some environments on Mars in which Earth-native microbes could survive and grow.

There is nothing intrinsically bad about Earth life growing on Mars. In a way, it’s kind of uplifting and encouraging. It would mean that life is possible on Mars, it could be common in the universe, and it might be possible for us to grow our own food there, a necessary first step toward colonization. The greatest drawback would be that it could contaminate Martian soil samples and make it difficult to determine if life already exists there.

Mars, for the most part, is untouched by human hands. It is a perfectly natural world. As missions to Mars become more common, we will have to decide how important it is to preserve Mars. Maybe we should declare certain areas of the planet to be off-limits to human exploration in order to preserve them, in much the same way we create national parks and reserves to preserve nature here on Earth.

This is really something that bears consideration as we plan for more missions to Mars. We have already made a mark upon our own world; we should be careful not to do the same to others.

An appeal to technocrats

2 08 2010

This is really just an open request to anyone who believes that science and technology are the means to achieving a brighter future for humanity. I suppose it is even a request to those who do not, as well.

As has been demonstrated time and time again throughout human history, we have an ability that most other species lack – the ability to fashion tools to more easily achieve a task. Granted, we are not the only species on Earth that has this ability. However, we seem to have taken this skill the furthest.

When we were first starting out, we created shelter and clothing for ourselves. This was a skill that allowed us to more easily endure multiple ice ages. Much later, we began to gain a meaningful understanding of the world around us and created life-saving vaccines and devices. We even sent a total of twelve people to the moon.

I do not believe these accomplishments are isolated incidents or momentary flashes of intellect and ability. We really are capable of doing some capable things. Our civilization is faced with increasingly serious threats. They will not be solved with good intentions and empty commitments. We have to solve our own problems and the people who will make it happen are scientists and engineers. We will need people with technical abilities to build a better society. More than just needing scientists and engineers, we need to inspire future generations of them. They will make even more incredible things.

I realize that this is all empty talk but we all need to keep in mind that politicians do not solve real-world problems, nor do artists, performers, or businessmen. It is the people with knowledge in their heads and tools in their hands who build and sustain civilizations. Without them, we would be nothing.

Command-line Ruby quadratic solver

2 08 2010

I have been thinking a lot about school lately. I already miss it a great deal. I spent a few years studying algebra and pre-calculus topics. When I was doing homework, I found myself repeating myself in that I was doing similar problems again and again.

I fully acknowledge that there was a point in me doing all of these exercises. But there were occasions when I would *cough* *cough* run out of time and have to power through a set of problems quickly. This is what led me to the world of TIBasic programming when I was a senior in high school. I am revisiting one of my old programs and I refactored it in Ruby.

# quadratic.rb
# Written by Patrick Proctor (patrick42h@gmail.com)
# on August 2, 2010
# This is a program that accepts the three coefficients from a quadratic equation and solves for x.
# Enjoy!
#/usr/bin/env ruby
class Quadratic
def find_x(input_a, input_b, input_c)
answer = this_is_x(input_a, input_b, input_c).to_s
puts "x = #{answer}"

def this_is_x(a, b, c)
a = a.to_i
b = b.to_i
c = c.to_i

pos_x = (-b + Math.sqrt((b*b)-(4*a*c)))/(2*a)
neg_x = (-b - Math.sqrt((b*b)-(4*a*c)))/(2*a)

if pos_x != neg_x
return "#{pos_x}\nx = #{neg_x}"
return "#{pos_x}"

Quadratic.new.find_x(ARGV[0], ARGV[1], ARGV[2])

An (in)famous astronomer has died

29 06 2010

I have no idea how I missed this. English-born astrophysicist Geoffrey Burbidge died earlier this year, on January 26 at the age of 84. He was instrumental in helping to develop the now commonly-accepted theory that all elements heavier than hydrogen, including those in planets and organisms come from ancient stars.

He gained a bit of notoriety and controversy for advocating the alternative cosmological model known as the Quasi-Steady State (QSS). In a steady-state universe, matter is being created, along with space, as the universe expands. QSS is an addition to the steady-state theory that states that miniature Big Bangs, called “minibangs,” are going off constantly, even after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago that sparked the creation of our universe. Because these theories directly contradict established observations and these discrepancies have not been properly addressed by QSS or SS proponents, they have yet to gain any real traction in the astronomy community.

In his later years, he gained even further notoriety for proposing that extremely red-shifted quasars were not distant, but were, in fact much closer. Due to the expansion of space, objects appear to accelerate from one another faster at greater distances. Burbidge proposed that these extremely red-shifted objects were really nearby galaxies moving away from us at the relativistic speeds and not moving at those speeds because of the expansion of space.

He came to fame in astronomy by contributing to a 1957 paper that explained how any element can be synthesized from hydrogen within the cores of stars. If a star is sufficiently massive to nova or shed its outer atmosphere, it will then spread these heavier elements throughout its galaxy. This is the commonly-accepted scientific theory to explain how heavier elements came into existence and were distributed throughout the universe.

Argument from ignorance

27 04 2010

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an excellent lecturer and public speaker. He is also a great advocate for science and rational thought.

At a PBS/NOVA-sponsored event, he answered a question regarding his belief in the existence of UFOs and extraterrestrial visitors. He began his response by reminding the audience what the “U” in “UFO” stands for and how humans, in a desperate need for answers, will fill in the blanks of our perceptions.

He was quite right in saying that humans are flawed information gatherers. We are forced to rely on precision instruments, repeated observations, the Scientific Method, and comparing observations with others to get a reliable picture of reality.

Perhaps we are not given to naturally processing information reliably, in favor of forming quick conclusions and quick reactions. An animal in the wild is not usually benefited by calm, slow, patient reasoning and analysis. In a life-and-death situations, an animal must react quickly to escape or fight and survive.

I do not blame people for seeing a mysterious light in the sky and instantly filling in all the banks with whatever happens to be on their minds. That is just the way the primal human mind works. However, it is within our power to stop that thought from reaching our lips and sit down and think about what we just saw. I do not know the exact numbers, if they exist, but the odds of seeing a genuine alien spacecraft or their occupants is far less likely than catching a glimpse of Venus or a meteor hitting the atmosphere.

While not an irrefutable piece of logic in scientific circles, Occam’s razor would seem to apply here. “The simplest solution is usually the correct one.”