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.)

Yerkes Observatory: 1897-2018

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A few years ago, I visited Yerkes Observatory while driving across the country to gather material for a book that never came to fruition. It’s a marvelous relic of astronomy on the cusp of modernity, so when I heard it was closing its doors, I knew I had to write about it. Thankfully, Astronomy Magazine let me use some of my research from my book, including a few photographs. The following is a story of robber barons, huge telescopes, and an early unrecognized discovery of Pluto.

Yerkes Observatory is closing its doors

Once state of the art, this Gilded Age observatory has been left behind by progress. Now astronomers wonder what will happen to this piece of history.

Yerkes Observatory dome for the 40-inch refracting telescope. I rendered this photo in black and white for an old-timey feel, because why not? [Credit: moi]

For Astronomy Magazine:

A piece of astronomical history is closing its doors this year: Yerkes Observatory, which opened in 1897, will cease operations on October 1, 2018.

In many ways, this closure isn’t surprising. Yerkes is very much a relic of a past era, not the type of observatory that is used for major discoveries in the modern day. The University of Chicago, which owns and operates the facility, has decided the observatory is not worth the expense of maintaining it. However, we can hope someone will take over the operations and keep the building open to the public, because it’s truly one of the great pieces of scientific history and architecture. Yerkes Observatory is an impressive late-19th-century structure, housing what is still the largest refracting (lens-based) telescope in the world. The primary lens in the main Yerkes telescope is 40 inches (102 centimeters) in diameter. The observatory was named for the impressively mustached railroad tycoon Charles Yerkes, who bankrolled it in Gilded Age style. (The name is pronounced “YER-keys,” and the less said about how Yerkes ran his businesses, the better. “Yerkes was jerky” is a good mnemonic.)

The observatory stands on the shore of Geneva Lake in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, just across the border from Illinois. The land is sits on is parklike, and the building itself is a marvel of astronomical architecture and engineering from the dawn of the modern era of big science.

[Read the rest at Astronomy Magazine]

Evolution, entropy, and beards

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The Hidden Connections Between Darwin and the Physicist Who Championed Entropy

These magnificently bearded men both introduced a dose of randomness and irreversibility into the universe

For Smithsonian Magazine:

Of all the scientific advances, evolution has been the hardest on the human ego. Charles Darwin’s revolutionary theory, laid out in his groundbreaking 1859 book On the Origin of Species, threatened to overturn humanity’s exalted position in the universe. Yet in the same era, a quieter—and seemingly unrelated—scientific revolution was also taking place.

The concept of entropy in physics began harmlessly enough, as an explanation for why steam engines could never be perfectly efficient. But ultimately, entropy also threatened an established hierarchy. And in fact, entropy and evolution were more than casually related. [Read the rest at Smithsonian]

The week in review (October 20-26)

Evidently, Nicole "the Noisy Astronomer" Gugliucci did not like it when I quoted Star Wars at her. All I said was "Aren't you a little short for a Stormtrooper?" [Credit: Melanie Mallon]

Evidently, Nicole “the Noisy Astronomer” Gugliucci did not like it when I quoted Star Wars at her. All I said was “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?” [Credit: Melanie Mallon]

I had a wonderful time at GeekGirlCon; thanks again to Dr. Rubidium, AKA Nick Fury, for putting together the DIY Science Zone, and to everyone who made it a great event. I have a more formal wrap-up post in the works, but in the meantime, have some science writing.

  • The river of spacetime (Galileo’s Pendulum): As a follow-up to my earlier post, I extended the metaphor of dynamic spacetime. If spacetime is the river, gravity is the current, carrying matter and light along with it.
  • New type of quantum excitation behaves like a solitary particle (Ars Technica): In materials, the relevant entities aren’t particles, but quasiparticlesThese are quantum excitations that have mass, charge, spin, and all that jazz, but those properties depend on the specifics of the material…and of external influences. So, physicists would like to create quasiparticles that are less finicky, and behave more like free, solitary particles. That type of excitation is a leviton, and experimenters created them for the first time, as described in this new paper.
  • Taking Measure: A ‘New’ Most Distant Galaxy (Universe Today): It seems that every week, we see a new “most distant galaxy” announcement. However, this new find is special for two reasons: it’s a rare case where astronomers have measured the distance accurately using the galaxy’s spectrum, and the specific galaxy is producing new stars at a much higher rate than expected. Also, this is my first contribution to Universe Today!
  • For the love of Gauss, please stop (Galileo’s Pendulum): A somewhat ranting post in which I get grumpfy about the over-use and misuse of certain examples from the history of science in popular science writing.
  • What do we call a theory that is no longer viable? (Galileo’s Pendulum): As a follow-up to that previous post, I ponder better ways to think about the history of science, and propose (somewhat seriously) a term to describe theories that were once viable, but are now ruled out by evidence.