Category Archives: Science and Modern Society

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

The cost to American science and healthcare of the administration’s attack on legal immigration is hard to quantify.  Maybe it will prevent a terrorist attack, though that’s hard to say.  What is certain is that American faculty are suddenly no longer able to hire the best researchers from the seven countries currently affected by the ban.  Numerous top scientists suddenly cannot travel here to share their work with American colleagues; or if already working here, cannot now travel abroad to learn from experts elsewhere… not to mention visiting their families.  Those caught outside the country cannot return, hurting the American laboratories where they are employed.

You might ask what the big deal is; it’s only seven countries, and the ban is temporary. Well (even ignoring the outsized role of Iran, whose many immigrant engineers and scientists are here because they dislike the ayatollahs and their alternative facts), the impact extends far beyond these seven.

The administration’s tactics are chilling.  Scientists from certain countries now fear that one morning they will discover their country has joined the seven, so that they too cannot hope to enter or exit the United States.  They will decide now to turn down invitations to work in or collaborate with American laboratories; it’s too risky.  At the University of Pennsylvania, I had a Pakistani postdoc, who made important contributions to our research effort. At the University of Washington we hired a terrific Pakistani mathematical physicist. Today, how could I advise someone like that to accept a US position?

Even those not worried about being targeted may decide the US is not the open and welcoming country it used to be.  Many US institutions are currently hiring people for the fall semester.  A lot of bright young scientists — not just Muslims from Muslim-majority nations — will choose instead to go instead to Canada, to the UK, and elsewhere, leaving our scientific enterprise understaffed.

Well, but this is just about science, yes?  Mostly elite academics presumably — it won’t affect the average person.  Right?

Wrong.  It will affect many of us, because it affects healthcare, and in particular, hospitals around the country.  I draw your attention to an article written by an expert in that subject:

http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/29/opinions/trump-ban-impact-on-health-care-vox/index.html

and I’d like to quote from the article (highlights mine):

“Our training hospitals posted job listings for 27,860 new medical graduates last year alone, but American medical schools only put out 18,668 graduates. International physicians percolate throughout the entire medical system. To highlight just one particularly intense specialty, fully 30% of American transplant surgeons started their careers in foreign medical schools. Even with our current influx of international physicians as well as steadily growing domestic medical school spots, the Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that we’ll be short by up to 94,700 doctors by 2025.

The President’s decision is as ill-timed as it was sudden. The initial 90-day order encompasses Match Day, the already anxiety-inducing third Friday in March when medical school graduates officially commit to their clinical training programs. Unless the administration or the courts quickly fix the mess President Trump just created, many American hospitals could face staffing crises come July when new residents are slated to start working.”

If you or a family member has to go into the hospital this summer and gets sub-standard care due to a lack of trained residents and doctors, you know who to blame.  Terrorism is no laughing matter, but you and your loved ones are vastly more likely to die due to a medical error than due to a terrorist.  It’s hard to quantify exactly, but it is clear that over the years since 2000, the number of Americans dying of medical errors is in the millions, while the number who died from terrorism is just over three thousand during that period, almost all of whom died on 9/11 in 2001. So addressing the terrorism problem by worsening a hospital problem probably endangers Americans more than it protects them.

Such is the problem of relying on alternative facts in place of solid scientific reasoning.

Alternative Facts and Crying Wolf

My satire about “alternative facts” from yesterday took some flak for propagating the controversial photos of inaugurations that some say are real and some say aren’t. I don’t honestly care one bit about those photos. I think it is of absolutely no importance how many people went to Trump’s inauguration; it has no bearing on how he will perform as president, and frankly I don’t know why he’s making such a big deal out of it. Even if attendance was far less than he and his people claim, it could be for two very good reasons that would not reflect badly on him at all.

First, Obama’s inauguration was extraordinarily historic. For a nation with our horrific past —  with most of our dark-skinned citizens brought to this continent to serve as property and suffer under slavery for generations — it was a huge step to finally elect an African-American president. I am sure many people chose to go to the 2009 inauguration because it was special to them to be able to witness it, and to be able to say that they were there. Much as many people adore Trump, it’s not so historic to have an aging rich white guy as president.

Second, look at a map of the US, with its population distribution. A huge population with a substantial number of Obama’s supporters live within driving distance or train distance of Washington DC. From South Carolina to Massachusetts there are large left-leaning populations. Trump’s support was largest in the center of the US, but people would not have been able to drive from there or take a train. The cost of travel to Washington could have reduced Trump’s inauguration numbers without reflecting on his popularity.

So as far as I’m concerned, it really doesn’t make any difference if Trump’s inauguration numbers were small, medium or large. It doesn’t count in making legislation or in trade negotiations; it doesn’t count in anything except pride.

But what does count, especially in foreign affairs, is whether people listen to what a president says, and by extension to what his or her press secretary says. What bothers me is not the political spinning of facts. All politicians do that. What bothers me is the claim of having hosted “the best-attended inauguration ever” without showing any convincing evidence, and the defense of those claims (and we heard it again today) that this is because it’s ok to disagree with facts.

If facts can be chosen at will, even in principle, then science ceases to function. Science — a word that means “evidence-based reasoning applied logically to determine how reality really works” — depends on the existence and undeniability of evidence. It’s not an accident that physics, unlike some subjects, does not have a Republican branch and a Democratic branch; it doesn’t have a Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Jewish branch;  there’s just one type.  I work with people from many countries and with many religious and political beliefs; we work together just fine, and we don’t have discussions about “alternative facts.”

If instead you give up evidence-based reasoning, then soon you have politics instead of science determining your decisions on all sorts of things that matter to people because it can hurt or kill them: food safety, road safety, airplane safety, medicine, energy policy, environmental protection, and most importantly, defense. A nation that abandons evidence is abandoning applied reason and logic; and the inevitable consequence is that people will die unnecessarily.  It’s not a minor matter, and it’s not outside the purview of scientists to take a stand on the issue.

Meanwhile, I find the context for this discussion almost as astonishing as the discussion itself. It’s one thing to say unbelievable things during a campaign, but it’s much worse once in power. For the press secretary on day two of a new administration to make an astonishing and striking claim, but provide unconvincing evidence, has the effect of completely undermining his function.  As every scientist knows by heart, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Imagine the press office at the CERN laboratory announcing the discovery of the Higgs particle without presenting plots of its two experiments’ data; or imagine if the LIGO experimenters had claimed discovery of gravitational waves but shown no evidence.  Mistakes are going to happen, but they have to be owned: imagine if OPERA’s tentative suggestion of neutrinos-faster-than-light, which was an experimental blunder, or BICEP’s loud misinterpretation of their cosmological data, had not been publicly retracted, with a clear public explanation of what happened.  When an organization makes a strong statement but won’t present clear evidence in favor, and isn’t willing to retract the statement when shown evidence against it, it not only introduces immediate suspicion of the particular claim but creates a wider credibility problem that is extremely difficult to fix.

Fortunately, the Higgs boson has been observed by two different experiments, in two different data-taking runs of both experiments; the evidence is extraordinary.  And LIGO’s gravitational waves data is public; you can check it yourself, and moreover there will be plenty of opportunities for further verification as Advanced VIRGO comes on-line this year.    But the inauguration claim hasn’t been presented with extraordinary evidence in its favor, and there’s significant contradictory evidence (from train ridership and from local sales).    When something extraordinary is actually true, it’s true from all points of view, not subject to “alternative facts”; and the person claiming it has the responsibility to find evidence, of several different types, as soon as possible.  If firm evidence is lacking, the claim should only be made tentatively.  (A single photo isn’t convincing, one way or the other, especially nowadays.)

As any child knows, it’s like crying wolf.  If your loud claim isn’t immediately backed up, or isn’t later retracted with a public admission of error, then the next time you claim something exceptional, people will just laugh and ignore you.  And nothing’s worse than suggesting that “I have my facts and you have yours;” that’s the worst possible argument, used only when firm evidence simply isn’t available.

I can’t understand why a press secretary would blow his credibility so quickly on something of so little importance.  But he did it.  If the new standards are this low, can one expect truth on anything that actually matters?  It’s certainly not good for Russia that few outside the country believe a word that Putin says; speaking for myself, I would never invest a dollar there. Unfortunately, leaders and peoples around the world, learning that the new U.S. administration has “alternative facts” at its disposal, may already have drawn the obvious conclusion.    [The extraordinary claim that “3-5 million” non-citizens (up from 2-3 million, the previous version of the claim) voted in the last election, also presented without extraordinary evidence, isn’t helping matters.] There’s now already a risk that only the president’s core supporters will believe what comes from this White House, even in a time of crisis or war.

Of course all governments lie sometimes.  But it’s wise to tell the truth most of the time, so that your occasional lies will sometimes be thought to be true.  Governments that lie constantly, even pointlessly, aren’t believed even when they say something true.  They’ve cried wolf too often.

So what’s next?  Made-up numbers for inflation, employment, the budget deficit, tax revenue? Invented statistics for the number of people who have health insurance?  False information about the readiness of our armed forces and the cost of our self-defense?  How far will this go?  And how will we know?

What’s all this fuss about having alternatives?

I don’t know what all the fuss is about “alternative facts.” Why, we scientists use them all the time!

For example, because of my political views, I teach physics students that gravity pulls down. That’s why the students I teach, when they go on to be engineers, put wheels on the bottom corners of cars, so that the cars don’t scrape on the ground. But in some countries, the physicists teach them that gravity pulls whichever way the country’s leaders instruct it to. That’s why their engineers build flying carpets as transports for their country’s troops. It’s a much more effective way to bring an army into battle, if your politics allows it.  We ought to consider it here.

Another example: in my physics class I claim that energy is “conserved” (in the physics sense) — it is never created out of nothing, nor is it ever destroyed. In our daily lives, energy is taken in with food, converted into special biochemicals for storage, and then used to keep us warm, maintain the pumping of our hearts, allow us to think, walk, breathe — everything we do. Those are my facts. But in some countries, the facts and laws are different, and energy can be created from nothing. The citizens of those countries never need to eat; it is a wonderful thing to be freed from this requirement. It’s great for their military, too, to not have to supply food for troops, or fuel for tanks and airplanes and ships. Our only protection against invasion from these countries is that if they crossed our borders they’d suddenly need fuel tanks.

Facts are what you make them; it’s entirely up to you. You need a good, well-thought-out system of facts, of course; otherwise they won’t produce the answers that you want. But just first figure out what you want to be true, and then go out and find the facts that make it true. That’s the way science has always been done, and the best scientists all insist upon this strategy.  As a simple illustration, compare the photos below.  Which picture has more people in it?   Obviously, the answer depends on what facts you’ve chosen to use.   [Picture copyright Reuters]  If you can’t understand that, you’re not ready to be a serious scientist!

A third example: when I teach physics to students, I instill in them the notion that quantum mechanics controls the atomic world, and underlies the transistors in every computer and every cell phone. But the uncertainty principle that arises in quantum mechanics just isn’t acceptable in some countries, so they don’t factualize it. They don’t use seditious and immoral computer chips there; instead they use proper vacuum tubes. One curious result is that their computers are the size of buildings. The CDC advises you not to travel to these countries, and certainly not to take electronics with you. Not only might your cell phone explode when it gets there, you yourself might too, since your own molecules are held together with quantum mechanical glue. At least you should bring a good-sized bottle of our local facts with you on your travels, and take a good handful before bedtime.

Hearing all the naive cries that facts aren’t for the choosing, I became curious about what our schools are teaching young people. So I asked a friend’s son, a bright young kid in fourth grade, what he’d been learning about alternatives and science. Do you know what he answered?!  I was shocked. “Alternative facts?”, he said. “You mean lies?” Sheesh. Kids these days… What are we teaching them? It’s a good thing we’ll soon have a new secretary of education.

Spinoffs from Fundamental Science

I find that some people just don’t believe scientists when we point out that fundamental research has spin-off benefits for modern society.  The assumption often seems to be that it’s just a bunch of egghead esoteric researchers trying to justify their existence.  It’s a real problem when those scoffing at our evidence are congresspeople of the United States and their staffers, or other members of governmental funding agencies around the world.

So I thought I’d point out an example, reported on Bloomberg News.  It’s a good illustration of how these things often work out, and it is very rare indeed that they are discussed in the press.

Gravitational waves are usually incredibly tiny effects [typically squeezing the radius of our planet by less than the width of an atomic nucleus] that can be made only with monster black holes and neutron stars.   There’s not much hope of using them in technology.  So what good could an experiment to discover them, such as LIGO, possibly be for the rest of the world?

Well, Shell Oil seems to have found some value in it.   It’s not in the gravitational waves themselves, of course; instead, it is in the technology that has to be developed to detect something so delicate.   http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-07/shell-is-using-innoseis-s-sensors-to-detect-gravitational-waves

Score another one for investment in fundamental scientific research.

 

Science, Technology and Modern Forms of Evil — Linked. (In.)

Readers are probably wondering what’s become of me, and all I can say is that career challenges are occupying 120% of my time. I do miss the writing, and hope I will get back to it soon, though it seems unlikely it will be before December.  So it is all the more unfortunate that today’s post has almost nothing to do with science at all. It is an apology.

Which is weird. I have nothing to apologize for, and yet I have to apologize to everyone on my contacts list for the unsolicited invitation they received to become my contact on LinkedIn. Or rather, LinkedIn needs to apologize, but they won’t, so I have to do it. Continue reading

Why did so few people see Auroras on Friday night?

Why did so few people see auroras on Friday night, after all the media hype? You can see one of two reasons in the data. As I explained in my last post, you can read what happened in the data shown in the Satellite Environment Plot from this website (warning — they’re going to make new version of the website soon, so you might have to modify this info a bit.) Here’s what the plot looked like Sunday morning.

What the "Satellite Environment Plot" on swpc.noaa.gov looked like on Sunday.  Friday is at left; time shown is "Universal" time; New York time is 4 hours later. There were two storms, shown as the red bars in the Kp index plot; one occurred very early Friday morning and one later on Friday.  You can see the start of the second storm in the "GOES Hp" plot, where the magnetic field goes wild very suddenly.  The storm was subsiding by midnight universal time, so it was mostly over by midnight New York time.

What the “Satellite Environment Plot” on swpc.noaa.gov looked like on Sunday. Friday is at left.  Time shown is “Universal” time (UTC); New York time is 4 hours later at this time of year. There were two storms, shown as the red bars in the Kp index chart (fourth line); one occurred very early Friday morning and one later on Friday. You can see the start of the second storm in the “GOES Hp” chart (third line), where the magnetic field goes wild very suddenly. The storm was subsiding by midnight Universal time, so it was mostly over by midnight New York time.

What the figure shows is that after a first geomagnetic storm very early Friday, a strong geomagnetic storm started (as shown by the sharp jump in the GOES Hp chart) later on Friday, a little after noon New York time [“UTC” is currently New York + 4/5 hours], and that it was short — mostly over before midnight. Those of you out west never had a chance; it was all over before the sun set. Only people in far western Europe had good timing. Whatever the media was saying about later Friday night and Saturday night was somewhere between uninformed and out of date.  Your best bet was to be looking at this chart, which would have shown you that (despite predictions, which for auroras are always quite uncertain) there was nothing going on after Friday midnight New York time.

But the second reason is something that the figure doesn’t show. Even though this was a strong geomagnetic storm (the Kp index reached 7, the strongest in quite some time), the auroras didn’t migrate particularly far south. They were seen in the northern skies of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, but not (as far as I know) in Massachusetts. Certainly I didn’t see them. That just goes to show you (AccuWeather, and other media, are you listening?) that predicting the precise timing and extent of auroras is educated guesswork, and will remain so until current knowledge, methods and information are enhanced. One simply can’t know for sure how far south the auroras will extend, even if the impact on the geomagnetic field is strong.

For those who did see the auroras on Friday night, it was quite a sight. And for the rest of us who didn’t see them this time, there’s no reason for us to give up. Solar maximum is not over, and even though this is a rather weak sunspot cycle, the chances for more auroras over the next year or so are still pretty good.

Finally, a lesson for those who went out and stared at the sky for hours after the storm was long over — get your scientific information from the source!  There’s no need, in the modern world, to rely on out-of-date media reports.

Will the Higgs Boson Destroy the Universe???

No.

The Higgs boson is not dangerous and will not destroy the universe.

The Higgs boson is a type of particle, a little ripple in the Higgs field. [See here for the Higgs FAQ.] This lowly particle, if you’re lucky enough to make one (and at the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, only one in a trillion proton-proton collisions actually does so) has a brief life, disintegrating to other particles in less than the time that it takes light to cross from one side of an atom to another. (Recall that light can travel from the Earth to the Moon in under two seconds.) Such a fragile creature is hardly more dangerous than a mayfly.

Anyone who says otherwise probably read Hawking’s book (or read about it in the press) but didn’t understand what he or she was reading, perhaps because he or she had not read the Higgs FAQ.

If you want to worry about something Higgs-related, you can try to worry about the Higgs field, which is “ON” in our universe, though not nearly as “on” as it could be. If someone were to turn the Higgs field OFF, let’s say as a practical joke, that would be a disaster: all ordinary matter across the universe would explode, because the electrons on the outskirts of atoms would lose their mass and fly off into space. This is not something to worry about, however. We know it would require an input of energy and can’t happen spontaneously.  Moreover, the amount of energy required to artificially turn the Higgs field off is immense; to do so even in a small room would require energy comparable to that of a typical supernova, an explosion of a star that can outshine an entire galaxy and releases the vast majority of its energy in unseen neutrinos. No one, fortunately, has a supernova in his or her back pocket. And if someone did, we’d have more immediate problems than worrying about someone wasting a supernova trying to turn off the Higgs field in a basement somewhere.

Now it would also be a disaster if someone could turn the Higgs field WAY UP… more than when your older brother turned up the volume on your stereo or MP3 player and blew out your speakers. In this case atoms would violently collapse, or worse, and things would be just as nasty as if the Higgs field were turned OFF. Should you worry about this? Well, it’s possible this could happen spontaneously, so it’s slightly more plausible. But I do mean slightly. Very slightly. Continue reading

Will BICEP2 Lose Some of Its Muscle?

A scientific controversy has been brewing concerning the results of BICEP2, the experiment that measured polarized microwaves coming from a patch of the sky, and whose measurement has been widely interpreted as a discovery of gravitational waves, probably from cosmic inflation. (Here’s my post about the discovery, here’s some background so you can understand it more easily. Here are some of my articles about the early universe.)  On the day of the announcement, some elements of the media hailed it as a great discovery without reminding readers of something very important: it’s provisional!

From the very beginning of the BICEP2 story, I’ve been reminding you (here and here) that it is very common for claims of great scientific discoveries to disappear after further scrutiny, and that a declaration of victory by the scientific community comes much more slowly and deliberately than it often does in the press. Every scientist knows that while science, as a collective process viewed over time, very rarely makes mistakes, individual experiments and experimenters are often wrong.  (To its credit, the New York Times article contained some cautionary statements in its prose, and also quoted scientists making cautionary statements.  Other media outlets forgot.)

Doing forefront science is extremely difficult, because it requires near-perfection. A single unfortunate mistake in a very complex experiment can create an effect that appears similar to what the experimenters were looking for, but is a fake. Scientists are all well-aware of this; we’ve all seen examples, some of which took years to diagnose. And so, as with any claim of a big discovery, you should view the BICEP2 result as provisional, until checked thoroughly by outside experts, and until confirmed by other experiments.

What could go wrong with BICEP2?  On purely logical grounds, the BICEP2 result, interpreted as evidence for cosmic inflation, could be problematic if any one of the following four things is true:

1) The experiment itself has a technical problem, and the polarized microwaves they observe actually don’t exist.

2) The polarized microwaves are real, but they aren’t coming from ancient gravitational waves; they are instead coming from dust (very small grains of material) that is distributed around the galaxy between the stars, and that can radiate polarized microwaves.

3) The polarization really is coming from the cosmic microwave background (the leftover glow from the Big Bang), but it is not coming from gravitational waves; instead it comes from some other unknown source.

4) The polarization is really coming from gravitational waves, but these waves are not due to cosmic inflation but to some other source in the early universe.

The current controversy concerns point 2. Continue reading