Category: Science and Society

Boycott Elsevier

By Sean Carroll | January 30, 2012 8:56 am

While I have the blog open, let me throw in a quick two cents to support the Boycott Elsevier movement. As most working scientists know, Elsevier is a publishing company that controls many important journals, and uses their position to charge amazingly exorbitant prices to university libraries — and then makes the published papers very hard to access for anyone not at one of the universities. In physics their journals include Nuclear Physics, Physics Letters, and other biggies. It’s exactly the opposite of what should be the model, in which scientific papers are shared freely and openly.

So now an official boycott has been organized, and is gaining steam — if you’re a working scientist, feel free to add your signature. Many bloggers have chimed in, e.g. Cosma Shalizi and Scott Aaronson. Almost all scientists want their papers to be widely accessible — given all the readily available alternatives to Elsevier (including the new Physical Review X), all we need to do is self-organize a bit and we can make it happen.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Science and Society

Noisy Systems and Wandering Canines

By Sean Carroll | January 10, 2012 4:03 pm

There are three types of scientific explanations: those involving cats, those involving dogs, and those that aren’t very interesting. Via Andrew Revkin, here’s a well-done animation that uses a dog to explain the difference between a long-term trend and a short-term variation.

Show this to your local climate denialist when they get confused about the distinction between “climate” and “weather.” Not that it will change their minds, but the dog is cute.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Science and Society

UC Davis Physicists to Chancellor Katehi

By John Conway | November 22, 2011 4:16 pm

Chancellor Linda Katehi
November 22, 2011
UC Davis

Dear Chancellor Katehi:

With a heavy heart and substantial deliberation, we the undersigned faculty of the UC Davis physics department send you this letter expressing our lack of confidence in your leadership and calling for your prompt resignation in the wake of the outrageous, unnecessary, and brutal pepper spraying episode on campus Friday, Nov. 18.

The reasons for this are as follows.

• The demonstrations were nonviolent, and the student encampments posed no threat to the university community. The outcomes of sending in police in Oakland, Berkeley, New York City, Portland, and Seattle should have led you to exhaust all other options before resorting to police action.

• Authorizing force after a single day of encampments constitutes a gross violation of the UC Davis principles of community, especially the commitment to civility: “We affirm the right of freedom of expression within our community and affirm our commitment to the highest standards of civility and decency towards all.”

• Your response in the aftermath of these incidents has failed to restore trust in your leadership in the university community.

We have appreciated your leadership during these difficult times on working to maintain and enhance excellence at UC Davis. However, this incident and the inadequacy of your response to it has already irreparably damaged the image of UC Davis and caused the faculty, students, parents, and alumni of UC Davis to lose confidence in your leadership. At this point we feel that the best thing that you can do for this university is to take full responsibility and resign immediately. Our campus community deserves a fresh start.


Andreas Albrecht (chair)
Marusa Bradac
Steve Carlip
Hsin-Chia Cheng
Maxwell Chertok
John Conway
Daniel Cox
James P. Crutchfield
Glen Erickson
Chris Fassnacht
Daniel Ferenc
Ching Fong
Giulia Galli
Nemanja Kaloper
Joe Kiskis
Lloyd Knox
Dick Lander
Lori Lubin
Markus Luty
Michael Mulhearn
David Pellett
Wendell Potter
Sergey Savrasov
Richard Scalettar
Robert Svoboda
John Terning
Mani Tripathi
David Webb
David Wittman
Dong Yu
Gergely Zimanyi

CATEGORIZED UNDER: News, Science and Society

Scientists: Scamming America

By Sean Carroll | October 27, 2011 9:17 am

From The Daily Show, via Why Evolution is True, here’s a hard-hitting expose on the slick con called “science” that is scamming America.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Weathering Fights – Science – What’s It Up To?
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

I am generally a fan of the two-party system. Sadly, at the moment in this country, one of the parties is completely crazy.

Update: Sorry that the video isn’t available outside the U.S. Note that Lisa Randall was a guest earlier on the show.

Trusting Experts

By Sean Carroll | September 13, 2011 12:40 pm

Over on the Google+, Robin Hanson asks a leading question:

Explain why people shouldn’t try to form their own physics opinions, but instead accept the judgements of expert physicists, but they should try to form their own opinions on economic policy, and not just accept expert opinion there.

(I suspect the thing he wants me to explain is not something he thinks is actually true.)

There are two aspects to this question, the hard part and the much-harder part. The hard part is the literal reading, comparing the levels of trust accorded to economists (and presumably also political scientists or sociologists) to the level accorded to physicists (and presumably also chemists or biologists). Why do we — or should we — accept the judgements of natural scientists more readily than those of social scientists?

Although that’s not an easy question, the basic point is not difficult to figure out: in the public imagination, natural scientists have figured out a lot more reliable and non-obvious things about the world, compared to what non-experts would guess, than social scientists have. The insights of quantum mechanics and relativity are not things that most of us can even think sensibly about without quite a bit of background study. Social scientists, meanwhile, talk about things most people are relatively familiar with. The ratio of “things that have been discovered by this discipline” to “things I could have figured out for myself” just seems much larger in natural science than in social science.

Then we stir in the matter of consensus. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society, Top Posts

Hubble's Successor

By Risa Wechsler | September 6, 2011 5:34 am

My friend and colleague James Bullock, a professor at UC Irvine, has a great editorial up today in the LA Times about the next generation space telescope JWST. JWST is big. And it’s over budget, which makes it especially vulnerable in the current political climate. But it’s damn important. It’s a tool to inspire, a tool to help us write the story of the universe.

Walk through the halls of UC Irvine’s astronomy wing after dinner on a weeknight and you will find roomfuls of young graduate students, crammed into small desks, solving equations, writing computer code and developing innovative ways to analyze data. They do not have to be here. These are people with career options. They are scary-smart, creative and hardworking. Yet they have come here from all over the country and the world to sit in windowless offices and make a fifth of the money they could make back home or up the street. Why? They want to unlock the universe.

The United States is still the scientific light of the world. Ours is the society responsible for discovering humanity’s place in the universe, that we live in a galaxy called the Milky Way, one among billions of other galaxies stretched across the cosmic landscape. A hundred thousand years from now, if humans make it that long, the U.S. will be remembered for this, and historians will point to the immense contribution of the Hubble Space Telescope, with its miraculous visible-light images, the most detailed pictures of the cosmos yet produced by humankind.

Sadly, U.S. scientific leadership is beginning to fade. There is a sense of fear among our leaders that we can’t afford to invest in our future, just the kind of fear that endangers thoughtful debate about big-picture priorities.

One testament to our changing priorities is our commitment to the Hubble telescope as compared to its successor. The Hubble is, in every way, a monument to scientific exploration. Thanks to the Hubble, orbiting 350 miles overhead, we know that the universe began just under 14 billion years go. The age of the cosmos, once believed to be unknowable, is now available at the click of a mouse and has made it into schoolbooks in all 50 states. Astronomers have used the Hubble to determine the chemical makeup of planets that orbit distant stars and to discover dark energy, a mysterious substance propelling the universe to expand at an accelerating rate.

Many of the graduate students filling astronomy departments at University of California campuses, as well as Caltech and Stanford, have come to the state to explore and analyze terabytes of Hubble data. These data involve complex digital images, created in raw form onboard the orbiting telescope, and then decomposed into precise component colors. The Hubble beams this information to receivers around the world, where it is processed and made available for download. A graduate student working in Irvine can transfer Hubble images to a computer and then develop software to process and analyze the images’ meaning.

The goal is to squeeze information out of the gathered light that will help us discern the size, structure and chemical composition of objects that are almost always too far away for humans to ever hope to visit. The people who do this work are both creative and technically gifted. They must take what the universe provides — a shred of light collected by the Hubble — and discern implication from its signal.
We want these intelligent, dedicated people to live in our cities, to make their discoveries at our universities and to raise their families — the next generation of bright minds — right here.

Read the whole thing here. And then write your Senators and Representatives. JWST, and with it, US scientific leadership, and an amazing opportunity to fill in the contours of the history and physics of our Universe, is really at risk. Very possibly only an outcry of the kind that saved Hubble will be enough to launch Hubble’s successor.


God and Cosmology Conversation

By Sean Carroll | August 9, 2011 9:20 am

Here is the video of the panel discussion from Discovery Channel’s Curiosity Conversation last Sunday. Not sure how official it is, so it might not last. Jerry Coyne was motivated to dig them up, since he doesn’t have cable TV. I’m putting the panel first — this is all about me, baby — and the Hawking program under the fold.

The participants were me, David Gregory, Paul Davies, and John Haught. But there were also short video interventions from Jennifer Wiseman, William Stoeger, and Michio Kaku. Actually seeing the program made me even more frustrated about the lack of time and inability to discuss any issue in depth. Also, while the makeup of the original panel seemed fair (committed atheist, wishy-washy physicist, Catholic theologian), the pre-recorded videos all took the line that science shouldn’t be talking about God. That gave the final program more of a “gang up on the atheist” feel than I would have really liked. I don’t think the videos added much, other than to eat into our valuable time. An hour-long program would have been better, and it probably would have been a much sharper conversation if there had just been two panelists rather than three. But again, credit to Discovery for having the event at all.

Specific thoughts on the participants:

  • David Gregory: I thought he did fine. Not sure why some people were complaining about the questions; his job was just to get the conversation going and keep it moving, which he did with admirable professionalism.
  • John Haught: He actually had a very difficult job, since his take on the nature of God isn’t easy to boil down to a sound bite. Still, I personally don’t think there’s any there, there. If you can’t imagine a universe in which God doesn’t exist, you need to work on your imaginative skills.
  • Paul Davies: A very clear speaker and strong communicator, but again not a sound-bite kind of guy. He did win the Templeton prize, but isn’t very explicitly religious. (At least, not that one can discern, which is part of the problem.) But he does strongly believe that it’s not okay to simply say “the universe is like that” — he thinks there is necessarily a deeper explanation for the laws of physics.
  • Jennifer Wiseman and William Stoeger: Neither really even tried to argue in favor of God’s existence. They just took the angle that religion talks about value while science talks about facts. I think it’s important to get the facts right before you start talking about values, and said as much, but we didn’t have time to dig into that issue.
  • Michio Kaku: I tease Michio. The guy is a brilliant science communicator, but I don’t think he added anything of value here.
  • Me: This isn’t an easy format, and I would probably grade myself a generous B. I don’t feel like taking back anything I said, but I definitely could have been more forceful about it. Still looking to improve at things like this — any suggestions?

Okay here are the videos, judge for yourselves. First the panel, in two parts:

Here’s the episode of Curiosity, hosted by Hawking, in four parts. Read More

Physics and Modern Media at DPF2011

By Mark Trodden | August 8, 2011 12:11 pm

I’m leaving early in the morning for the annual meeting of the Division of Particles and Fields (DPF) of the American Physical Society, which is being hosted by Brown University in Providence. Later in the week (9am Thursday, to be precise) I’m delivering a plenary talk with the assigned title “Early Universe and Cosmology“, which I’m looking forward to, and which I’ll report on after it’s over. I’m also just generally looking forward to being in Providence again, having studied for my Ph.D. at Brown a long time ago.

The meeting begins tomorrow, and a new and interesting event taking place on the first day is a lunch-time forum (noon to 1:30pm) on Physics and Modern Media. University of Washington Professor Gordon Watts, who blogs over at Life as a Physicist, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professor Ken Bloom, who blogs at Quantum Diaries, were nice enough to ask me to be on this panel. But unfortunately my travel constraints mean I’m almost certain to miss it, and so I had to decline. Despite this crushing blow, they’re going ahead anyway, and have invited several others to discuss how physicists interact with the public in the world of blogs, tweets, and other social media. Their intention is to discuss some general issues, such as how these can be used to better communicate science to the public, as well as tackling some of the better known controversies, such as the appearance of unofficial “results” from particle physics experiments on blogs.

As if this acknowledgement of the modern world wasn’t enough, the DPF has also encouraged its members to use Twitter to engage other DPF members and the broader public during the conference, using the hash tag #DPF2011. They intend to monitor this through the forum and relay comments to the panel. While I don’t tweet myself, this certainly seems like an efficient way to get questions in real time to the moderators. I know a lot of you out there have strong opinions on these issues, one way or another, and I hope you’ll take this opportunity for an open discussion.

I’ll be back later to report on the meeting, but for now let me just wish Gordon and Ken luck with this new addition to the DPF meetings.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Internet, Science and Society

Live-Blogging Curiosity, Hawking, and God

By Sean Carroll | August 7, 2011 12:43 pm

Tonight’s the premiere of Curiosity on the Discovery Channel, featuring Stephen Hawking talking about cosmology and God, followed by the “Curiosity Conversation” panel that I’m on along with David Gregory, Paul Davies, and John Haught. Hawking’s hour-long show is scheduled for 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific, and will then repeat 3 hours later (11E/8P). Our half-hour panel discussion follows immediately afterward — you do the arithmetic.

There’s a lot to say about these shows, and in particular there’s a huge amount that we didn’t have time to say during the panel. So as I sit in front of the TV, I’ll be live-blogging along by adding updates to this post. This will be the early show, so the fun will happen 8pm-9:30pm Eastern. Hey, Nathan Fillion live-tweets during Castle, so why not me? There is also a chat going on at the Discovery site.

The main attraction of Hawking’s program is not that he has disproven the existence of God. Certainly I don’t think he’s going to be changing the minds of many religious believers. His argument is essentially that the universe is self-contained, and doesn’t really have “room” for God (nor any need to invoke a creator). It’s very easy to wriggle free of that conclusion, if you are inclined not to accept it.

But “changing people’s minds” isn’t the only reason to talk about something, even about controversial issues. Religion, like sex and death, is one of those topics where it’s very difficult to simply have a dispassionate discussion without making people uncomfortable. It can happen within a group of similarly-minded people, of course, but once a wider range of views gets involved, it’s hard to maintain comity. (Comedy, on the other hand, is pretty easy.) I don’t mean everyone has to agree — just the opposite. We should be able to talk about things we completely disagree on, while still maintaining level heads.

That’s why I think this episode of Curiosity is potentially important. It’s a forthright statement of a view that doesn’t often get aired in American media. Even if nobody’s mind is changed, simply talking rationally about this issues would be a step forward.

Pre-show update: I should note ahead of time that I was not wearing a tie. Haught, Davies, and Gregory were all wearing ties. But Hawking wasn’t. Maybe atheists don’t wear ties? (Although I’m pretty sure Jesus never wore a tie, either.)

Start: We begin with a disclaimer! These are Stephen Hawking’s opinions, not those of Discovery. :)

4 minutes: I hope the analogy here is clear. “People who believe God made the universe are kind of like the Vikings shouting at the Sun to stop a solar eclipse.”

8 minutes: Snark aside, the message here is a fundamental one. Nature obeys laws! Something that’s certainly not a priori obvious or necessary, but a really profound truth.

14 minutes: I wasn’t able to find an independent confirmation of this story about Pope John XXI condemning the idea of “laws of nature.” (It’s true that he did die when the roof collapsed.) Presumably this refers to the Condemnations of 1277.

20 minutes: The universe is a big, messy, complicated, and occasionally quite intricate place. On the face of it, the idea that it’s all the working-out of some impersonal patterns of matter and energy, rather than being constructed by some kind of conscious intelligence, is pretty remarkable. (But true nonetheless.)

27 minutes: Hey, a tiny ad for Discovery Retreats!

28 minutes: Hawking says Einstein might be the greatest scientist ever. He has long favored Einstein over Newton, I’m not sure why. Hawking appeared on an episode of Star Trek: TNG, where he was a hologram playing poker with Einstein, Newton, and Data. He actually wrote the script, and Newton doesn’t come off well.

36 minutes: Ah, negative energy. Depends on what you mean by “energy,” but this isn’t the venue to get overly technical, obviously. Roughly, matter has positive energy and gravity has negative energy. That’s hopefully enough to help people swallow the crucial point: you can make a universe for nothing. There isn’t some fixed resource, out of which we can make a universe or two, before we hit Peak Universe. There can be an infinite number of universes.

41 minutes: People on Twitter are asking why Hawking doesn’t have a British accent. He easily could, of course; voice-synthesis technology has come quite a way since he first got the system. But he’s said that he now identifies with that voice he got years ago, and doesn’t want to change it; it’s identified with him.

47 minutes: Okay, here’s the payoff. He’s saying that generally we’re used to effects being caused by pre-existing events. (The first step toward a cosmological argument for God’s existence.) You might think that a chain of causation takes you back to the Big Bang, which then requires God as a cause. But no! The Big Bang can just … be.

50 minutes: The point of the black hole discussion is to get to the idea of a singularity, a conjectural point of infinite curvature and density. The Big Bang, in classical general relativity, is also a singular moment. But classical GR isn’t right. We need quantum gravity. Hawking believes that quantum gravity smooths the singularity and explains how there was no pre-existing time. (At least in the TV show, unlike A Brief History, he doesn’t start talking about “imaginary time.”)

56 minutes: Ultimately Hawking’s argument against God is pretty simplistic. He assumes that if God created the Big Bang, God must have existed before the Big Bang, but there was no “before the Big Bang,” QED. It’s easy enough to simply assert that God doesn’t exist “within time” (if that means anything). It would have been better (IMHO) to emphasize that modern cosmology has many good ideas about how the universe could have come to be, so there’s no need to rely on a divine creator.

58 minutes: Final thought from SWH: no life after death! Enjoy it while you’re around, folks. An important message.

Panel discussion starts: Forgot to mention that Paul Davies has shaved off his moustache. Disconcerting.

4 minutes: Also disconcerting: watching myself on TV. Hate it. But I persevere for the greater good.

5 minutes: Here’s Michio Kaku, not saying very much.

7 minutes: Jennifer Wiseman and I were actually grad students together! She’s good people, even if we disagree about the whole God thing.

9 minutes: I come out in favor of basing purpose and meaning on reality. But I’m pretty sure a longer remark was cut off there. Arrrrgh! Nothing nefarious, we intentionally recorded a bit more than they had time to show. But enormously frustrating that there was so little time.

13 minutes: Not sure why we kept talking about the multiverse. Hawking didn’t bring it up, did he?

17 minutes: I thought a lot of what Haught said was not even really trying to argue in favor of God’s existence, but simply expressing a desire that he exist. “God is the grounding of hope” isn’t evidence for God’s existence.

22 minutes: Haven’t said anything completely silly yet, so that’s good. But so little time…

27 minutes: Always time for more Michio!

30 minutes: Arrrrgh again, this time for real: in the live conversation, I had the last word and it was a pretty good one. In the televised program, not so much. Had to end wishy-washy.

Thanks for tuning in. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have the time for a real conversation? But big ups to Discovery for hosting the panel at all — it’s a rare event on TV.

Hawking and God on the Discovery Channel

By Sean Carroll | August 2, 2011 10:23 am

Last week I got to spend time in the NBC studio where they record Meet The Press — re-decorated for this occasion in a cosmic theme, with beautiful images of galaxies and large-scale-structure simulations in the background. The occasion was a special panel discussion to follow a Stephen Hawking special that will air on the Discovery Channel this Sunday, August 7. David Gregory, who usually hosts MTP, was the moderator. I played the role of the hard-boiled atheist; Paul Davies played the physicist who was willing to entertain the possibility of “God” if defined with sufficient abstraction, while John Haught played the Catholic theologian who is sympathetic to science.

The Hawking special is the kick-off episode to a major new Discovery program, called simply Curiosity. I predict it will make something of a splash. The reason is simple: although most of the episode is about science, Hawking clearly goes all-in with “God does not exist.” It’s not a message we often hear on American TV.

The atheistic conclusion is really surprisingly explicit. I had a chance to talk to someone at Discovery, who explained a little about how the program came about. The secret is that it was originally produced by the BBC — British audiences have a different set of expectations than American ones do. My completely fictional reconstruction of the conversation would go something like this. Discovery: Hey, blokes! Do you have any programs we could use to launch our major new series? BBC: Sure, we have a new special narrated by Stephen Hawking. Discovery: Perfect! That’s always box office. What’s it about? BBC: It’s about how there is no God. Discovery: Ah.

[Update: Alas, reality is intruding upon my meant-to-be-funny imaginary dialogue. The episode was actually originally commissioned by Discovery, not by the BBC, although it was produced in the UK. More power to Discovery!]

At first, I will confess to a smidgin of annoyance that an opportunity to talk about fascinating science was being sacrificed to yet another discussion about religion. But quickly, even before anyone else had the joy of pointing it out to me, I realized how spectacularly hypocritical that was. I talk about religion all the time — why shouldn’t Stephen Hawking get the same opportunity?

The more I thought about it, the more appropriate I thought the episode really was. I can’t speak for Hawking, but I presume his interest in the topic stems from similar sources as my own. It’s not just a coincidence that we are theoretical cosmologists who happen to go around arguing that God doesn’t exist. The question of God and the questions of cosmology arise from a common impulse — to understand how the world works at its most fundamental level. These issues naturally go hand-in-hand. Pretending otherwise, I believe, probably stems from a desire on the part of religious believers to insulate their worldview from scientific critique.

Besides, people find it interesting, and rightfully so. Professional scientists are sometimes irritated by the tendency of the public to dwell on what scientists think are the “wrong” questions. Most people are fascinated by questions about God, life after death, life on other worlds, and other issues that touch on what it means to be human. These might not be fruitful research projects for most professional scientists, but part of our job should be to occasionally step back and look at the bigger picture. That’s exactly what Hawking is doing here, and more power to him. (In terms of his actual argument, I’m sympathetic to the general idea, but would take issue with some of the particulars.)

Nevertheless, Discovery was not going to feature an hour of rah-rah atheism without a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Thus, our panel discussion, which will air immediately after the debut of Curiosity (i.e., 9pm Eastern/Pacific). The four of us had fun, and I think the result will be an interesting program — and hopefully I did the side proud, as the only legit atheist participating. Gregory seemed to enjoy himself, and joked that he might have to give up politics to do a weekly show about cosmology. (A guy can dream…) But we all agreed that it was incredibly frustrating to have so little time to talk about such big issues. The show will run for half an hour; subtract commercials, and we’re left with about 21 minutes of substance. Then subtract introduction, questions, some background videos that were shown … we three panelists had about five minutes each of speaking time. Not really enough to spell out convincing answers to the major questions that have troubled thinkers for centuries. Hopefully some of the basic points came across. Let us know what you think.


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