When physicists go bad

My latest comic with Maki Naro addresses the instances where certain physicists abandon scientific ethics to promote dubious causes: eugenics, climate change denial, and so forth. Since this issue is a bit fraught, I’ve included notes and references at the end of this post. Journalism, y’know?

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When Good Scientists Go Bad

Science doesn’t make you magically objective, and it’s not separate from the rest of human experience.

Albert Einstein wearing a "Black Lives Matter" shirt next to William Shockley carrying a tiki torch

Albert Einstein obviously died many years before the Black Lives Matters movement, but he was a strong anti-lynching advocate. William Shockley similarly never waved a tiki torch at a neofascist rally, but he did hang out with Ku Klux Klan financiers. [Credit: Maki Naro (art)/moi (words)]

There’s a common myth that scientists are objective participants in the world, applying the same rigorous standards to life outside the lab as they do within it. However, everyone’s biases affect our interactions with the world (and the practice of science itself is less objective than many people would like to believe). In some instances, when scientists leave the world of research, they still pretend that’s not the case, using scientific credentials to make statements beyond their expertise. In this new comic with Maki Naro, we looked at a few cases where right-leaning physicists endorsed outright pseudoscience: eugenics, questionable weaponry, and — most prominently today — climate change “skepticism”.

References for the comic:

  1. Elizabeth Catte. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Belt, 2018). This book is where I first found out about William Shockley’s attempt to implement IQ-based eugenics in Appalachia, and the original inspiration for this comic. It’s also a well-sourced and -researched antidote to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.
  2. For more on the meeting between Shockley, Harry Caudill, and KKK financier J. W. Kirkpatrick, see this excellent report from the Lexington Herald Leader. Kirkpatrick was (among other things) involved in an attempted white supremacist coup to overthrow the government of the Dominican Republic.
  3. Naomi Orekes and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury, 2010). Oreskes and Conway provide a detailed exposé of scientists (not just physicists) involved in anti-environmentalist and pro-corporate activities from the mid-20th century up to today. The “Rogues Gallery” in the comic is derived from this book. (There’s also a documentary, but I haven’t watched it.)
  4. The quote from William Happer comparing carbon dioxide to Holocaust victims was widely reported; see this MediaMatters summary and his profile on DeSmog Blog. DeSmog Blog is also the source of the information about Willie Soon.
  5. I wrote about Einstein’s antiracist and anti-lynching work for Smithsonian, which contains its own sources and notes. (I also wrote in Forbes about Einstein’s own racism about Asian people.)
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Why falsifiability is a false guide to what is and isn’t science

I had a liberal arts education, which means that I mostly use what I learned to post nonsense on Twitter. However, thanks to my advisor, I got a solid grounding in the philosophy of science. While I’m certainly no philosopher myself, I also (hopefully) have a less simplistic view of how science works and doesn’t work than what is often presented as the “scientific method” and suchlike. For Symmetry, I got a chance to talk a little about how “falsifiability” is widely promoted as a way to tell what is scientific and what is not, and why it’s actually a poor criterion, both from a philosophical and scientific point of view.

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Falsifiability and physics

Can a theory that isn’t completely testable still be useful to physics?

For Symmetry Magazine:

What determines if an idea is legitimately scientific or not? This question has been debated by philosophers and historians of science, working scientists, and lawyers in courts of law. That’s because it’s not merely an abstract notion: What makes something scientific or not determines if it should be taught in classrooms or supported by government grant money.

The answer is relatively straightforward in many cases: Despite conspiracy theories to the contrary, the Earth is not flat. Literally all evidence is in favor of a round and rotating Earth, so statements based on a flat-Earth hypothesis are not scientific.

In other cases, though, people actively debate where and how the demarcation line should be drawn. One such criterion was proposed by philosopher of science Karl Popper (1902-1994), who argued that scientific ideas must be subject to “falsification.”

[Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

Seeing the unseeable: humanity’s first image of a black hole

Yesterday, the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration released the first image of a black hole humanity has ever seen. That simple-looking image represents a century of scientific work: from the first theoretical calculations describing black holes; to the earliest hints that every large galaxy contains a supermassive black hole at its heart; to the technological advances needed to network a world-spanning array of radio telescopes. When I was in college and graduate school, many people thought this very thing was impossible — I know I did. I am happy to say I was wrong then, and this picture of the 6.5 billion solar-mass black hole at the heart of the galaxy M87 is the most thrilling image of my scientific and science-writing career thus far.

the black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy, as seen by the Event Horizon Telescope

The first image humanity has ever captured of a black hole: the supermassive black hole at the heart of the M87 galaxy. [Credit: Event Horizon Telescope]

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The incredible story behind our first image of a black hole

For the first time ever, scientists have captured a direct image of a black hole. The image, captured by the Event Horizon Telescope, allows us to see something that was thought to be invisible

For WIRED UK:

A black hole is invisible by nature. One of the strangest predictions to come out of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, a black hole emits no radiation we can detect, and it swallows up everything that falls on it, matter and light alike. The boundary of a black hole — its event horizon — is a border that can only be crossed from the outside to the inside, not in reverse.

So it might seem paradoxical to talk about capturing an image of a black hole, but this is precisely the mission of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). Today, April 10, 2019, will go down in history as the day EHT scientists released the very first direct image of a black hole.

It’s not one in our own Galactic centre, but is at the centre of the galaxy M87 – a resident of the neighbouring Virgo galaxy cluster, which is the home of several trillion stars. The feat marks the first time in history that astronomers have seen the shape of an event horizon. It’s an unprecedented map of gravity at its strongest, involving hundreds of astronomers, engineers, and data scientists from around the world.

[Read the rest at WIRED UK…]

You won’t be traveling by quantum teleportation

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This article appeared in the spring print issue of Popular Science, but has also been published online.

Quantum teleportation is real, but it’s not what you think

A commute so quick you could just die

For Popular Science:

In 2017, physicists beamed photons from Tibet to a satellite passing more than 300 miles overhead. These particles jumping through space evoked wide-eyed sci-fi fantasies back on Earth: Could Star Trek transporters be far behind? Sorry for the buzzkill, but this real-world trick, called quantum teleportation, probably won’t ever send your body from one place to another. It’s essentially a super-secure data transfer, which is tough to do with the jumble of code that makes a human.

Photons and teensy bits of atoms are the most complex bodies we can send over long distances in a flash. Each particle of the same type—photon, neutron, ­electron—​is largely the same as every other member of its subatomic species.

Configurations known as quantum states distinguish them. Two photons spinning clockwise, for example, are identical. You can’t make one zip elsewhere with no lag time (sorry, that’s magic), but you can create its duplicate in another spot. Not so useful for moving people, but valuable for instantaneous, secure communication.

[Read the rest at Popular Science]

Asteroids, Mars, and a vision for space beyond colonialism

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Who owns an asteroid?

Celestial bodies like Bennu could help us tell Earth’s origin story. Or they could be strip-mined for resources

Panel from “Who Owns an Asteroid?” with words by me and art by Maki Naro. Click for the whole comic.

Discussions around space travel are saturated in colonialist language and narratives, from “space colonies” on Mars to multiple proposals for mining asteroids. These concepts are often treated as inevitable, with conversations about when and how, rather than if we should do any of this in the first place. In The Nib, artist extraordinaire Maki Naro and I look at how colonialist attitudes have colored our dialog on asteroids and Mars, with a focus on the ethical and — dare we say — the spiritual component of conservation on other worlds.

The mathematics of knowledge networks in the brain

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This article is for SIAM News, the magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). The audience for this magazine, in other words, is professional mathematicians and related researchers working in a wide variety of fields. While the article contains equations, I wrote it to be understandable even if you skip over the math.

Understanding Knowledge Networks in the Brain

For SIAM News:

One strength of the human mind is its ability to find patterns and draw connections between disparate concepts, a trait that often enables science, poetry, visual art, and a myriad of other human endeavors. In a more concrete sense, the brain assembles acquired knowledge and links pieces of information into a network. Knowledge networks also seem to have a physical aspect in the form of interconnected neuron pathways in the brain.

During her invited address at the 2018 SIAM Annual Meeting, held in Portland Ore., last July, Danielle Bassett of the University of Pennsylvania illustrated how brains construct knowledge networks. Citing early 20th century progressive educational reformer John Dewey, she explained that the goal of a talk—and learning in general—is to map concepts from the speaker/teacher’s mind to those of his or her listeners. When the presenter is successful, the audience gains new conceptual networks.

More generally, Bassett explored how humans acquire knowledge networks, whether that process can be modeled mathematically, and how such models may be tested experimentally. Fundamental research on brain networks can potentially facilitate the understanding and treatment of conditions as diverse as schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.

[Read the rest at SIAM News…]

Squeezing light to detect more gravitational waves

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This article appeared in the fall print issue of Popular Science, but I missed that this article had also been published online.

Something called ‘squeezed light’ is about to give us a closer look at cosmic goldmines

Gravitational wave detection is going through an even tighter squeeze.

For Popular Science:

In 2015, scientists caught evidence of a ­cosmic throwdown that took place 1.3 billion light-​years away. They spied this binary black-hole collision by capturing gravitational waves—­ripples in spacetime created when massive objects ­interact—​for the first time. But now physicists want to see even farther. Doing so could help them accurately measure waves cast off by colliding neutron stars, impacts that might be the source of many Earthly elements, including gold. For that, they need the most sensitive gravitational-wave detectors ever.

The devices that nab waves all rely on the same mechanism. The U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and its European counterpart, Virgo, fire lasers down two mile-plus-long arms with mirrors at their ends. Passing waves wiggle the mirrors less than the width of an atom, and scientists measure the ripples based on when photons in the laser light bounce off them and come back. Ordinarily, photons exit the lasers at random intervals, so the signals are fuzzy.

[Read the rest at Popular Science]