Pioneer Anomaly: New Physics or Bad Maths?

1972 and 1973, NASA sent two unmanned spacecraft on a one-way trip to the edge of the solar system and beyond, Pioneer I and Pioneer II. These two spacecraft were sent to take pictures of the gas giants and give us insight into their structure, they did their job, scientists oohed and aahed at the results, updated all the relevant textbooks, and moved onto the next big project in science. But because scientists are inquisitive, and care about the well-being of the Pioneer craft, they kept tabs on them, to make sure they stay fit and healthy. This was meant to be just a routine check-up every now and then, just to see how far they go, but physicists discovered something strange. The distance between where Einsteins physics predicted the spacecrafts should be and where they actually were was different. Somehow, the crafts where slowing down. Now, they amount of deceleration was very small, less than one nanometer per second per second, but this was enough for scientists to really consider revising physics books, because nobody could think of anything that would cause this extra deceleration.

For scientists, this was a prime time to witness a paradigm shift, something key to the process of science. Some may think that science is just a steady progress of learning about nature, but its not. It actually involves rapid changes of ideas most of the time, in so-called paradigm shifts. This is a stage in science which occurs when evidence comes up which is contradictory to current science. After new evidence shows up, there will be further investigation from scientists to try to figure out what is the correct model, if the first evidence is overturned, and science stays with the current theory, this is not a paradigm shift. When the evidence is confirmed and new evidence supports it, scientists will formulate a new model which accounts for this evidence, and this is known as a paradigm shift.

Paradigm shifts are very important to science, as they mean deeper knowledge of the universe. But a possible paradigm shift which turns out not to be one is good too, because it means that our current model is pretty good. Pioneer was worthy of study to find out if the physics textbooks needed a re-write.

For almost 30 years, there hasn’t been enough evidence to formulate a hypothesis either way, and it has been an unsolved mystery to science, often called the Pioneer Anomaly. But now, a team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California have an answer. The team published a paper in Physical Review Letters in which they demonstrated that some electronic components on the craft where producing small amounts of heat, and the force imparted on the craft from this heat was enough to cause the deceleration. “I think it is solved for good” said lead author of the report Slava Turyshev.

Great! The mystery is solved. Just put this down as another proof of Einstein’s Gravity. As a good scientist, you should know that any result is a good result. Confirming evidence just means one more piece in the puzzle which proves our theories, contradicting evidence means new physics, which is also good.

Infanticide VS the Atomic Bomb

Greetings and Salutations skeptics,

While watching a debate between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens, a particular question was put forward to Hitchens by an audience member. it went along the lines of “If you are so critical of all of the harm caused by religion, then surely you must be more critical of the atomic bomb, created by physicists, the most dangerous weapon in all of history”. In today’s blog post, I will answer the question, and point out a vital difference between the screw-ups of religion and the screw-ups of science.

When Hitler decided to wipe out the Jews, as well as other historical events enacted for purely religious reasons, the decision was made to intentionally perform violence against a particular race, religion, culture or age group. These groups of people made the choice to go out and kill, abuse, rape, torture, pillage or conquer particular people for religious reasons.

When Physicists embarked on creating the atomic bomb, they were simply doing what scientists do, following the evidence to see where the research leads. By looking at Einstein’s most famous formula, it is obvious that a great amount of energy is potent in every atom in the universe, so physicists decided to go out and test it, to see how they could tap into this energy. It could then be argued “Why didn’t the physicists just stop at nuclear power stations, and avoid an atomic bomb?”

Well, its not that simple, seeing as the same mechanisms are used in both apparatus, and they are both using the same underlying physics, but there was reason behind the decision to create an atomic bomb. It is the same reason that almost every dedicated scientist has for creating ruthless killing machines, they are trying to end warfare. By creating the atomic bomb, physicists where aiming to end world warfare, by making it so ruthless, so destructive and so vile that it just could not be done. The same aim was shared by Alfred Nobel, who created dynamite. It didn’t work with dynamite, it just made war more efficient, but it worked with the atomic bomb, eventually. Warfare between the large countries is impossible today, as any one of them could wipe out an entire country with its nuclear arsenal, so they have to be very friendly with each other.

There is the vital difference, religious people are simply going out, to kill or harm a particular group of people, where as physicists are just following the research where the evidence leads, and trying their hardest to end world war. It is only symbolic of the underlying process of religion, as opposed to science.

Science is a process of testing a hypothesis critically and rigorously, and drawing from those tests a theory or subsequent hypothesis, which you test again, and again, to try and best understand the reality we live in. There is no a priori assumption in science. Whereas in religion, there is one big assumption, god. All of religion revolves around the god hypothesis being true, and any evidence for god presented by religion has been cherry-picked to prove the a priori assumption which is god.

Is Lawrence Krauss’ Nothing Really Nothing? – Does it Matter

Sveiki Skeptics,

Not to long ago, Lawrence Krauss published a book entitled “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?”, and there was a lot of hype over it, he made all the rounds on the scientific, atheistic and religious podcasts, and was often criticized for many reasons. One of the most commonly argued points by the religious was that the nothing that Lawrence Krauss describes is not ‘strictly’ nothing. Today, I will not try to argue that it is nothing, or that we know how to get something from ‘strictly’ nothing, I am going to argue that it doesn’t really matter, and try to and explain why it is an important part of the progress of science.

First of all, an explanation of Lawrence Krauss’ ‘nothing’. When he talks about something coming from ‘nothing’ which has been proven by science, he is talking about  the vacuum of space, as well as a TOE and electromagnetic fields and gravity. In the vacuum of space, matter and antimatter are created fleetingly, and then come back together and collide back into nothingness. This has been proven by science, and is the reason Hawking radiation exists, causing the shrinking of black holes. One particle of antimatter goes into the black hole, and the other particle of matter goes off into other places, taking down the net weight of the black hole. This happens all the time, everywhere.

When he suggests that the universe can be created from nothing, he is talking about absolute nothingness + a TOE. He gets a lot of flack from the religious about that. They argue that it is really not nothing, and I agree. However, it is unscientific to just say, “Well, its not nothing, ergo God.”

The process of science is to continually discover more and more about the universe, and at no time saying that there is no more that can be found. Science works by looking and looking. But for the religious to just dismiss it because it isn’t quite nothing yet, is just terrible.

Another argument is that you cannot get something from purely nothing, and therefore it is pointless to even bother. But for the religious to just say that something can never come from nothing is hypocritical. The whole concept of religion is that god just IS, ad will always BE. Yet they say that everything has to have a cause.
“Everything has to have a cause… except God.”

The point that Lawrence Krauss’ makes, that something can come from almost nothing, is a valuable scientific contribution, and is important for the progress of science. And religious criticism of this is completely hypocritical, as is almost all cosmological arguments for god, or against natural arguments against god.

Deepak Chopra, Cosmic Consciousness and Heisenberg Uncertainty

hei skeptics,

Yesterday I blogged to you about how physicists have discovered the Higgs Boson, after it being predicted 40 years ago. Today I am going to be blogging about a spiritual person abusing and misinterpreting the work of physicists to try to prove his particular ideology. Deepak Chopra has, for a long time, been trying to prove his western ideology that consciousness creates matter, and recently, I got into a bit of a twitter debate with him. I’m fairly sure I came out on top, with him resorting to ad hominem attacks and fallacious reasoning, but here i will post an elaborated explanation of my argument, as it is difficult with only 140 characters.

One of the main arguments Chopra uses which has some reasoning and comes from real science, is the idea of observation of quantum systems. His argument is as follows. If the act of observing quantum systems (wave function collapse) changes a system, then this means that the act of our consciousness observing something has an active effect, which shows that our universe is just created by our conscious, and that matter is an illusion, created by consciousness.

There is one problem with this argument (other than that conscious probably doesn’t exist), and it is his assumption that observation is the only way to cause wave function collapse. He is right, observation is enough to cause the collapse, but it is not the only way. What actually causes the collapse of wave functions is the interaction of particles.

What is important to know is that observation is itself an interaction, but not all interactions are observations. When an interaction occurs, a particle (usually a photon) bumps into another particle, and exerts a force on that particle, and then goes on its way. This force changes the way the particle acts. Now, that is an interaction. An observation is when this photon goes on and subsequently hits somebody’s retina or a sensor designed to detect photons. This is an observation. Observation requires interaction, but not visa-versa.

This interaction, which results in observation, is what makes the uncertainty principle an impossible nut to crack. This photon running into the particle always has an effect on it. And seeing that we cannot observe the particle any other way, we can never find out perfectly where it is and where it is going, but that’s another time.

Deepak Chopra then decided to call this an oxymoron, which is just ridiculous, and called me ‘a materialist kid’ and a ‘teenager’ as insults (ad hominem!!!), before insulting my spelling when my phone auto-corrected consciousness to conscience, and then refusing to debate me until I learnt to spell and use perfect grammar on a social networking site which has a rule of only 140 characters.

He threw many other arguments at me, which I will tackle at later dates, but this one was his most prominent argument, which is based on a false premise (he attacked me for accidentally spelling it premace while debating him) and has no real tangibility with quantum mechanics.

Higgs Boson Discovery

hallo skeptics,

Yesterday was witness to one of the biggest events in scientific history. A triumph for the scientific method. At the university of Melbourne, a large congregation of physicists and science journalists were assembled to listen to what was hyped as an important presentation. There was leaked information which suggested that this was going to be a big story in the scientific world. After a large amount of formalities, introducing of speakers, explanation of the processes and equipment involved, and then they got down to the results. (never mind the comic sans typeface) Here is a graph of the data:

that red line jumping above the green line means… Higgs Boson!

When the results were shown, every thing went crazy, though I wasn’t in the room, I was following the live blog and as soon as that was read on the screen, my twitter feed exploded with tweets about the Higgs Boson and for a few minutes, only Higgs related material was trending world-wide. The Higgs Boson had been discovered at 125.3 GeV with 5 sigma certainty.

Sigma is important in physics, so I’ll explain it briefly here. Sigma is the term used to describe Standard deviation, used to work out probabilities. Standard deviation is the maths relating to how far a result deviates from the mean, or in more layman’s terms, how likely it is that something is just a fluke of data noise. In any experiment, there is noise, random fluctuations which occur in the data, it isn’t large, but it has an effect. so when a result is measured, you have to ensure that it is unlikely the result is noise. The gold standard for this is 5.0 sigma. I won’t go into the maths of calculating sigma, but 5.0 sigma is equal to 0.0002% chance the result is just a fluke of noise.
Previous tests have been done which have shown results around the 3 sigma range, but physics errs on the side of caution and needs 5 sigma certainty for something to be claimed a discovery. And last night, they hit the target and confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson.

The Higgs boson was first predicted in 1964 by physicist Peter Higgs, Who was present yesterday. It is the particle predicted by the standard model which gives mass to all the other particles in the universe. Since its prediction in 1964, physicists the world over have been trying to find this particle. It was one of the holy grails of physics, to be able to prove the existence of this particle.

I’m not going to talk about the meaty parts of the Higgs and its field, and what it does for the universe, but I am going to talk about how much of a triumph for science it is.

Science predicted this particle to exist, and the whole story of the Higgs is a case example of how the scientific method should be conducted. A scientist, from looking at data and doing maths, predicts that this certain particle should exist. Then, science goes out and tries to find it. We test the hypothesis that the Higgs exists in a certain place, we don’t find it, so we hypothesize another place and look for it there. After hundreds of trials-and-error, we finally pinpoint where it is, but we don’t have enough evidence yet, we are only at 3 sigma, so we look with finer tools and better measuring devices to see if we can more definitively say it exists. And alack, we find it.
It is a testimony to science, and now, I wish to put up another prediction.

As it has been with all other scientific discoveries for the last 400 years, science has found out that something exists, and then for the next few weeks, while the scientists are off partying about their discovery, the religious scholars comb through their respective texts to see if there is some vague scripture reference that could be twisted, manipulated and exaggerated to sort-of fit with the scientific discovery of the time. I talk about it here –> in-depth, but I’ll summarize here. When science (back then it wasn’t science but the religious) said the earth was flat, “The circle of the earth” meant a flat disc which is a circle. Then, when real science looked at the issue and decided, “No, it’s really actually a sphere”, then “The circle of the earth” was interpreted as how a sphere is viewed in 2-D. This sort of manipulation of text occurs every time science finds out something ground breaking. Even when its a flat-out contradiction, it suddenly becomes “Just a metaphor.” from then-on-in.

The Higgs boson discovery is a triumph for science and a great testimony to the effectiveness of the scientific method, and is going to be the arbiter of a lot of new physics for years to come. Tomorrow, I will be blogging on about the Boston Celtics, as well as about a person who is using the discovery of the Higgs as evidence for his claims, Deepak Chopra, and I will be tackling the claims of his cosmic consciousness.

Could the laws of the universe be different?

Hello skeptics and other lurkers,

Today’s post again comes courtesy of a tweeter, who asked a question along the lines of this post’s title. This is a question which I have wanted to deal with for a while now, and I think that tonight is as good a time as ever for me to deal with it.

The laws of nature (as you should all know by now) are the laws which define the four fundamental forces we observe (gravity, strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetism) and the mathematical equations which describe these four forces. Most of the plight of modern particle physics is to find out as much as we can about these forces and equations, and see how it works out for the universe now, in the past and in the future, hoping to discover as much about our universe as possible, with the ultimate goal being to finish with one sum which describes all of these forces, the Theory of Everything (TOE). Last night I talked about string theory and the TOE, and this is one of the important parts in answering tonight’s question.

One of the most important ideas in particle physics is that, under extremely high energies, three of the fundamental forces (electromagnetism, strong nuclear, weak nuclear) can be united by one Grand Unified Theory (GUT) which describes all three forces. This theory has survived mathematical attempts at disproof and appears strong mathematically. This Grand Unified Theory is very important to particle physics. The hope is that, under EVEN higher temperatures and energies, this Grand Unified Theory can be combined with gravity to create the Theory of Everything. Gravity has always been a thorn in the side of physicists, and is actually the least understood and proven of all the fundamental forces, despite its obviousness in everyday life.

The hope and expectations are that gravity and the other three forces can be combined under higher temperatures to form one Theory of Everything. If it is true, as predicted by modern physics, then this has surprising implications for the four fundamental forces.

When the universe was born in the big bang, it was in a state of extreme heat, pressure and energy. Then it went under a process called ‘inflation’, where the universe expanded extremely rapidly (faster than the speed of light) and cooled extremely rapidly. There are two factors which are important in answering our question. 1. At the start, the universe was in a state of very high energy and heat, and 2. The universe expanded faster than the speed of light. Now, if there was ever a time in the history of the universe where the four fundamental forces would be combined, it would be right at the start.

Now, one hypothesis of a multiverse is extrapolated from this. If the universe went under rapid expansion while the four fundamental forces were combined, it could be true that, due to different parts of the universe being cut off from each other because of the speed of light, in different places, the universe could have cooled at different rates, meaning that the four fundamental forces could be different in those universes. Due to this hypothesis, it could be true that from one big bang, multiple universes could have been created. The definition of a universe is all of the things which can be observed, and seeing that these places are cut off from each other due to the speed of light, you have your self a multiverse, with different laws of physics.

This idea, like all multiverse hypotheses, has ramifications for the fine-tuning of the universe. It is one which is also hypothesized by accepted physics models, and is one if the easiest to accept, seeing that we know there must be much more out there than the observable universe.

String Theory – Science or Sermon?

Hello skeptics and others,

I recently came across a question on twitter which went as phrased “String Theory, Science of Philosophy?” and I thought, as I had not done much with string theory, that now would be as good a time as ever to tackle this question which comes up with string theory often. But first, a bit of background on string theory.

String theory is the name given to a set of sums which attempt to explain things about the things we observe in particle physics. It is basically the claim that the 3 spacial dimensions and 1 time dimension we observe in our universe, are the left overs and that there are possibly up to 8 other dimensions which are all just packed in very tight so that we cannot see them. To explain this to you, I will use the same method Stephen Hawking has done.
Imagine a plastic drinking straw. From up close, you can easily see that it is a three-dimensional object, with height, width, and breadth. If you back it up to a distance of a few metres, the drinking straw starts to appear as two-dimensional, with only length and breadth, you can no longer make out the depth of the straw. As you back out further to a distance of about 20 metres, you can only observe one dimension, it only has length, and you can no longer observe the width of the straw.

Now, the other 2 dimensions still exist, but you can only make out one from this resolution, so for all intents and purposes, the straw is 1 dimensional. The same is true with the hypothesized extra 8 dimensions of string theory. They still exist, but we cannot observe them because they have been compressed in so small. It is physicists belief that these extra dimensions, ‘strings’, carry along them the elementary particles which create the four fundamental forces, gravitons, photons etc. in the world of particle physics. String theory is also said to be the most favoured path for the elusive Theory Of Everything (TOE).

String theory often comes under attack for a few reasons, being that it makes no specific predictions about the universe, it is no different from other theories about observed phenomena and there is so far no test of the ‘theory’. These criticisms all have legitimate reasons behind them.

It is true that string theory makes no predictions and it is indifferent about what we are already observing in the universe. String theory has not been of any real use to us yet other than jobs for people to do the maths behind string theory. In that way (except the maths), string theory is just like creationism… it makes no predictions or offer a hypothesis to test.

However, I think that just because string theory has not provided any scientific worth so far, it is in no way something we should give up on. It is a theory which has held up to all that maths has to throw at it, so there are no real internal problems with it, but the real question is “Is this how reality really is?” and that question is a long way off. String Theory is a path worth following, as it could be of value to future scientists. At best it is still only a hypothesis… not a theory, and should be treated as such. But it is worth the time and effort to work with and who knows, it may cough up a test for us, and it is worth waiting around for.

120 Years of the Electron

Hello there skeptics,

This month, June (its June on Australia already, so I’m celebrating), is marking a very special occasion. It was 120 years ago that Hendrik Lorentz published his paper, which is now known as the birth of the electron. The electron is one of the most pivotal ideas in physics, and is crucial to our understanding of electromagnetism, but it was only an idea for most of the 19th century.

For a long time, electrons were thought about in relation to electricity and magnetism, ad was theorized by quite a lot of physicists, but there was no maths for it, until 1864. It was that year that James Maxwell put forward his theory of electrical and magnetic fields. To some people’s surprise, the equations many physicists learn today as ‘Maxwell’s equations’ are not what Maxwell wrote about in 1864. Maxwell’s equations where messy and complicated. Maxwell did not know that what he was writing could have become the biggest set of equations in physics history, he was only  thinking about making his fundamental equations fit with the phenomena observed. He just put the equations on paper as best as he could. The equations today known as Maxwell’s are only a readers digest of the many symbols, scribbles and sprawls which can be found in his exposition.

It took Lorentz, in 1892, to tidy it all up, purify the jumble of equations and symbols in Maxwell’s work, and make physics poetry for the next century. Lorentz had to sort the signals and beauties of Maxwell’s work from the mess. The signal: four equations which describe how electrical and magnetic fields respond to electric charges, and one equation that specifies that force the fields exert on charge. The noise: Pages upon pages of scrawling, jottings, symbols and messiness left behind by Maxwell.

Now that some (relatively) simple equations where around, physicists started to wonder if these equations could be used to rebuild how we think matter works, starting ground up from the electron, and pave the way for particle physics. Lorentz and others set out to test it, and sure enough, they could use this equation to explain phenomenons of the universe one after the other; conduction of heat, conduction of electricity, reflection of light, refraction of light, and many more electron related things.

In 1897, Joseph Thompson provided experimental proof that electrons really do exist, considered now the birth of the electron, after its conception in 1892.

This work set up the next century of physics and beyond, with a lot of the quantum mechanics, special relativity and general relativity work relying upon these equations. One must not forget the role that Maxwell played, but it was Lorentz who paved the way for particle and astro physics for they next 120 years and beyond. Even today, we still use these equations in our physics, and in almost every physics domain, you trace back its roots to Lorentz and his electron, because electrons rule our world.

Another Roy Williams example of idiocy

Hello there, skeptical friends,

Lets all guess what I’m going to be blogging about today? That’s right, I’m sure you all guessed it, I’m going to be continuing my constant crusade against Roy Williams and his idiotic arguments, which seem alright on the surface, but soon seem not so alright when you actually look at them deeply. Today’s post is about an argument which was used by Williams to demonstrate the ‘deep, designed plan’ of the universe. Williams has made the claim that the fact that the moon lines up nicely with the sun, points towards the fact that there is design in the universe.

But unlike ‘the other creationists’, who say that the moon, with its protecting of the earth from asteroids and things, shows that god is looking out for us, Williams makes the claim that the fact that there is a solar eclipse shows proof of a god. This allows for things like the first proof of relativity, (with the measuring of the lensing of the stars) to occur. This is all part of Williams’ “God designed the universe to allow humans to figure out its inner workings.” Idea. I have some rebuttals for this argument.

The first point is that our moon is not that special. The fact that the moon eclipses the sun perfectly once in human history is not a big deal. There are a couple of factors which make this occurrence not all that rare. The distance from the earth to the moon is changing quite a lot, meaning that the size of the moon in the sky changes a lot. This means that sometimes the moon is a bit big for the sun, and sometimes the moon is not big enough to cover the sun completely, this is why you should never look directly at an eclipse. This means that there is a big variance and this leaves a big window.

The other thing that varies a lot in the sun, moon, earth system is the distance from the sun to the earth. This means that the size of the sun in the sky varies a lot. So this opens the window even more. The last thing that would change this is the fact that the moon is getting further and further away from us all the time. This means that at one time in early history, very early history, the moon appeared very large in the sky, and in a few more years, the moon will be very small in the sky, and it will not cover the sun at any time.

The second point against this argument is this. There are a lot of things that could be a certain way, but aren’t, why doesn’t god make them line up nice and pretty?

The last argument I will use is this. The eclipse of 1919 is not the only proof of relativity, there have been thousands of since proofs of relativity, and the only reason why this eclipse is still remembered is because it was the first one.

I will leave you with a humorous quote from Brian Greene, “No matter how hard you try to teach your cat general relativity, you’re going to fail”, If you don’t get it, get of my blog, or read my Quantum Mechanics posts. Brian Greene, A theoretical physicist of some note.


The Job of Skeptics in Science

Greetings, skeptical and freethinking fellows,

I was recently addressed with a question from a family member about what makes being a scientific skeptic any different from being a scientist. They were obviously looking for the “Oh, we desire much more proof and are very cynical of everything new that comes up.”, looking for the big follow-up “Bam! You’re just a closed-minded skeptic.” But they didn’t get the response they were hoping for, and I will be extrapolating on my response to them today.

I will start with an opening difference between a skeptic and a scientist, and how it is useful to have a skeptical group in the scientific world.
What it means to be a scientist. A scientist is a person who devotes their entire career to a small topic in science, such as archaeology,  paleontology, nuclear physics, neurology or cardiology. Now that’s great, we need scientists spending as much time on a topic that they specialize in, so that all the details can be figured out, but a scientist can be very ignorant on fields that are not important to him, and this means that they can be very gullible on topics that do not relate to their interests and specialties. An engineer needs no knowledge of biology to get through university, so it is quite possible that this engineer could be a young earth creationist.

Skeptics are often the people set with the task of just stepping back a little, and looking at the whole picture. I will use the analogy of a wall, where the wall is science. Each scientist can be working on his little 2 x 2 inch part of the wall, and not have any idea what is going on in the other thousand 2 x 2 inch segments of wall. The skeptic is the person who just looks at the whole wall from 20 feet away, so that the whole picture can be seen. Obviously, when you stand 20 feet away, you cannot get the details of all of the little cracks and crevices of the wall, that is the scientists job, but the skeptic looks at the whole picture.

It is also the skeptics job to defend the wall from outside scientists who also want a look at the wall but aren’t doing a very good job of it. If somebody who isn’t part of the group inspecting the  wall decides to come over and take a hammer to the wall (creationists, homeopaths, acupuncturists, PSI researchers and ghost hunters), then it is the skeptics job to shoo away the person attacking the wall and tell them that it is wrong for them to be attacking the wall.

Of course, the skeptic can’t know all the details of all of the wall. He just needs to take the important bits from each scientist, and stitch together all the parts to make a wall.
Science is a brick wall, the closer you are to the wall, the more you understand what is in front of your face, but the more ignorant you become of the other parts of the wall.

I will leave you with a quote from Miguel De Unamuno, “The skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches, as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found” Miguel De Unamuno, a Spanish Playwright, poet, author, essayist, novelist and philosopher.