The white scientist versus the African teenager

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A Rationalist’s Irrationality

Why is Richard Dawkins such a jerk?

For Slate:

Richard Dawkins is not your garden-variety Internet troll. He’s a retired professor at Oxford University and the author of a number of well-received, best-selling books on science and atheism. His book The Selfish Gene is one of the most-read popular accounts of evolution, and it introduced the term “meme,” long before Internet cats, as a way to express how ideas spread and evolve. In other words, he’s as establishment as they come. He is no fringe conspiracy-monger lurking in the anonymous cave of message boards and comment sections.

But you’d be forgiven for thinking he is, based on his willingness to say offensive things on social media, often at the expense of non-famous people. In the latest iteration, he proposed the notion—just as a simple “what if”—that Ahmed Mohamed got himself arrested on purpose as a way to get money and attention. [Read the rest at Slate….]

As a personal aside, I expected some pushback over this piece, and I certainly got it. At present, there are nearly 1000 comments at Slate, and I’ve lost track of how many people have sent me angry messages on Twitter. However, I’ve gotten a lot of positive responses as well, and despite a few people declaring they’ll never read a thing of mine again, I hope I haven’t driven too many away. It’s been an interesting 24 hours, to put it mildly.

One thing I did find interesting though was the various interpretations of the piece. I wrote a critique of a prominent scientist and science communicator, and intended it to be nothing more or less than that. It wasn’t a critique of atheism (though some took it that way), or a defense of religion in general or Islam in particular (though some took it that way). I personally am uninterested in debating those things in the abstract. Ideas are always fair game for criticism in my view, but people are only fair game in inverse proportion to their vulnerability. Thus, the powerful and the privileged are tough kids and can handle a little harsh truth if they need it. Picking on the poor, the minority, those whose voices are not widely respected is at best bullying.

Systems that privilege some and deny others demand criticism, which means yes! the practice of religion is definitely a legitimate target for criticism where it deserves it. But to say that any random practitioner of a religion — a child, say — is fair game because you don’t like some of the tenets of that religion? I can’t follow you there. Someone who uses political office to enforce their religious beliefs on another is leveraging power and privilege; an atheist like Dawkins with many listeners and a stable social position can also leverage power over others, albeit a less direct form of power. The privilege and power are the enemies when they are misused, and I think people of goodwill can unite in that cause, regardless of religious convictions or lack thereof.


The dinosaur-killing dark matter of DOOM!

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

A few weeks ago, several news outlets ran stories based on a press release, in which a researcher claimed that dense clumps of dark matter could be responsible for the extinction of dinosaurs. I found this claim dubious, based on what we know about dark matter. Here’s my response.

Did Dark Matter Doom the Dinosaurs?

From Slate:

he history of life on Earth is marked by occasional mass extinctions, events wiping out huge numbers of species. The most famous of these killed off all the dinosaurs (or at least those that hadn’t evolved into birds) 65 million years ago. But the mass extinction that ended the Permian period 250 million years ago was even more dramatic, killing off 90 percent of all species in an astonishingly short amount of time. As yet, the cause of this devastation is unexplained.

Mass extinctions have happened at least five times. (A sixth great extinction currently in progress, but that’s an anomaly because humans are responsible.) Some researchers have tried to figure out whether they’re periodic, recurring after specific time intervals. If they truly do repeat regularly, maybe there’s a common cause for them. [read more on]

Calvin has it right.

“Dark energy” is one of the more unfortunate names in science. You’d think it has something to do with dark matter (itself a misnomer), but it has the opposite effect: while dark matter drives the clumping-up of material that makes galaxies, dark energy pushes the expansion of the Universe to greater and greater rates. Though we should hate on the term “dark energy”, we should respect Michael Turner, the excellent cosmologist who coined the phrase. He is also my academic “grand-advisor”: he supervised Arthur Kosowsky’s PhD, and Arthur in turn supervised mine.

And of course, I worked on dark energy as a major part of my PhD research. In my latest piece for Slate, I describe a bit of my dysfunctional relationship with cosmic acceleration, and why after 16 years dark energy is still a matter of frustration for many of us.

Because dark energy doesn’t correspond easily to anything in the standard toolkit of physics, researchers have been free to be creative. The result is a wealth of ideas, some that are potentially interesting and others that are frankly nuts. Some string theorists propose that our observable universe is the result of a vast set of parallel universes, each with a different, random amount of dark energy. Other physicists think our cosmos is interacting with a parallel universe, and the force between the two drives cosmic acceleration. Still others suspect that dark energy is a sign that our currently accepted theory of gravity—Einstein’s general theory of relativity—is incomplete for the largest distances. [Read more…]

My dysfunctional relationship with dark energy

Stephen Hawking, black holes, and scientific celebrity

The active galaxy Centaurus A, rendered in several different types of light. Note in radio waves (the central image at right), the galaxy itself seems to disappear, replaced by crossing jets of radio-emitting jets. Those are produced by the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core.

The active galaxy Centaurus A, rendered in several different types of light. Note in radio waves (the central image at right), the galaxy itself seems to disappear, replaced by crossing jets of radio-emitting jets. Those are produced by the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core.

For the upcoming ScienceOnline 2014 meeting, I’m leading a session titled “Reporting Incremental Science in a World that wants Big Results“. It’s an important topic. We who communicate science to the general public have to evaluate stories to see if they’re worth covering, then translate them in such a way that conveys their significance without hyping them (ideally at least). That’s challenging to do on deadline, and we’re not always or maybe even usually experts on the topics we report. I know a fair amount about cosmology and gravitational physics, but very little about galactic astronomy or planetary science — yet I must write about them, because it’s my job.

So Stephen Hawking’s recent talk on black holes is an interesting case study. I won’t rehash the whole story here, but I wrote not one but two articles on the subject yesterday. Article 1 was in Slate:

Hawking’s own thinking about black holes has changed over time. That’s no criticism: Evidence in science often requires us to reassess our thinking. In this case, Hawking originally argued that black holes violated quantum mechanics by destroying information, then backed off from that assertion based on ideas derived from string theory (namely, the holographic principle). Not everyone agrees with his change of heart, though: The more recent model he used doesn’t correspond directly to our reality, and it may not have an analog for the universe we inhabit. The new talk suggests he has now moved on from both earlier ideas. That’s partly what raises doubts in my mind about the “no event horizons” proposal in the online summary. Is this based on our cosmos or yet another imaginary one of the sort physicists are fond of inventing to guide their thinking? In my reading, it’s hard to tell, and in the absence of a full explanation we are free to project our own feelings about both Hawking and his science onto the few details available. [Read more…]

Article 2 was a follow-up on my own blog:

But at the same time, we have to admit that nobody—not Nature News, not—would have covered a paper this preliminary had Hawking’s name not been attached. Other people are working on the same problem (and drawing different conclusions!), but they can’t command space on major science news sites. So, by covering Hawking’s talk, we are back on that treacherous path: we’re showing how science works in a way, but we risk saying that a finding is important because somebody famous is behind it. [Read more…]

The week in review (September 22-28)

I spent much of the week sick, but that doesn’t stop me. I care about you, people.

  • All black holes, great and small (Galileo’s Pendulum): As my regular readers have probably figured out, I love black holes. I could probably find an excuse to write about them most days. So, why not take an online class from me and learn about black holes? The class begins this Tuesday (October 1), and runs for four one-hour sessions. Sign up today!
  • A Holographic Big Bang: Did the universe start with a five-dimensional black hole? (Slate): Much as I love black holes, however, I cast a skeptical eye on a new paper proposing that the Big Bang had an event horizon. This Slate piece examines what we mean by the “Big Bang model” (which isn’t quite how it’s often described), and the reasons why this five-dimensional theory probably won’t solve the mystery of our Universe’s origins.
  • Scientific grumpfiness and open-mindedness (Galileo’s Pendulum): All three pieces I’ve written for Slate thus far, in addition to a number of other articles published elsewhere, are critical responses to scientific reporting. Generally, I find myself on the opposite side to those who promote radical new theories, which makes me worry sometimes that I’m just a naysayer with no positive commentary to make. Here’s my examination of that worry. (Yes, it’s a bit meta, I suppose.)
  • Pulsar’s magnetic field strong enough to clean up after nuclear explosion (Ars Technica): While pulsars are all fast-spinning objects, some are extremely so, rotating hundreds or thousands of times each second. A new observation caught one of these pulsars in the act of feeding off material from a companion star, lending strong support to the theory of how they spin so fast. Bonus: runaway nuclear explosions! on the surface of a dead star! Who needs science fiction?
  • Snobbish photons forced to pair up and get heavy (Ars Technica): Photons don’t usually interact in the usual sense that matter particles do. Researchers produced a weird medium by pumping a diffuse gas of rubidium atoms with laser light until they puffed up. The result: the interactions between the atoms made an environment where photons have an effective mass (!) and attract each other, forming pairs. Beyond being really cool, this could have all sorts of applications in quantum logic and even “photon materials”.

And just because I can, here’s Cookie Monster playing with his Newton’s cradle again.

Cookie Monster is me brother from another mother.


The week in review (August 18-24)

Granulation on the surface of the Sun, created by rising bubbles of hot plasma. Fluctuations in these bubbles can be measured on distant stars, which provides a way to calculate the stars' surface gravity. [Credit: Hinode JAXA/NASA/PPARC]

Granulation on the surface of the Sun, created by rising bubbles of hot plasma. Fluctuations in these bubbles can be measured on distant stars, which provides a way to calculate the stars’ surface gravity. [Credit: Hinode JAXA/NASA/PPARC]

I’ve been remiss in blogging at Bowler Hat Science, largely because…well, I’ve been writing too much elsewhere. So, I’m going to try something different: instead of blogging each new article I write in a separate entry, I’ll write a single post summarizing everything in one go.

  • How I learned to stop worrying and love tolerate the multiverse (Galileo’s Pendulum): My explanation of cosmology involving parallel universes is a response to a piece placing the multiverse in the same category as telepathy. While I’m not a fan of the multiverse concept, I reluctantly accept that it could be a correct description of reality.
  • An Arguably Unreal Particle Powers All of Your Electronics (Nautilus): Electrons in solids behave differently than their wild cousins. In some materials, the electronic and magnetic properties act as though they arise from particles that are lighter or heavier than electrons, or multiple types of particles with strange spins or electric charges. Are these quasiparticles real?
  • Kepler finds stars’ flickers reveal the gravity at their surface (Ars Technica): The Kepler observatory’s primary mission was to hunt for exoplanets, but arguably it’s been equally valuable for studying stars. A new study revealed a way to measure a star’s surface gravity by timing short-duration fluctuations — the rippling of hot plasma bubbles on the surface known as granulation (see above image).
  • Destruction and beauty in a distant galaxy (Galileo’s Pendulum): The giant galaxy M87 has a correspondingly huge black hole at its heart. That black hole in turn generates an enormous jet of matter extending 5,000 light-years, which fluctuates in a way we can see with telescopes. In that way, an engine of destruction shapes its environment and produces a thing of beauty.
  • The Freaky Celestial Events We See—and the Ones We Don’t (Nautilus): In another faraway galaxy, a black hole destroyed a star, producing a burst of gamma rays that lingered for months. This event is the only one of its kind we’ve yet seen, prompting the question: how do we evaluate events that are unique? How can we estimate how likely they truly are, especially if we’re seeing them from a privileged angle?
  • This isn’t writing, but after listing two black hole articles in a row, it seems a good time to advertise my Introduction to Black Holes online class in October! Sign up to learn all* about black holes. *All = what I can cover in four hours of class time.
  • Warp Speed? Not So Fast (Slate): Many articles have appeared over the last year or so profiling a NASA researcher, whose research supposedly could lead to a faster-than-light propulsion system. The problem: very little actual information about his work is known, and what he’s said publicly contradicts what we understand about general relativity and quantum physics.

Speaking of warp drives, I’ll conclude with this wonderful video of Patrick Stewart engaging with some obvious Star Trek fans.