Guest Post: Anand Gnanadesikan, Oceanographer

I know Anand Gnanadesikan, professor at Johns Hopkins University’s department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, from when we were both studying physics as undergraduates in college.  He wrote something today that speaks with more authority than I could in my post earlier this morning, and it is a pleasure to make it available to you. … Read more

North-East Winds A-Blowin’

The big storm of 2012 (at least, we hope it’s the biggest we’ll see this year) is approaching the New York City area, and though no one can predict in detail how bad it will be and for whom, there’s no question that with so much energy to play with, post-tropical quasi-hurricane quasi-nor’easter Sandy (also called “Frankenstorm” in honor of the Halloween holiday) is going to hit some of us very hard in the northeastern United States.  Not that it will be a disaster everywhere in the region.  With hurricane Irene last year, some areas just had a bit of wind and rain, while others had tremendous flooding that wiped out towns and roads and houses and history… and a few dozen lives, too. It will likely be the same this time.

How unusual is this storm?  Several weather forecasters have been quoted as saying that their supercomputer-based forecasting tools, which predicted Sandy to strengthen and become a monster in size, were doing things they’d never previously seen them do.  Right now, all you have to do is look at the weather map — the fact that there are tropical force winds extending over several hundreds of miles, and at the fact that the pressure of the atmosphere at the core of this storm is around 946 millibars and falling — to know there’s a lot of energy in this system that has to go somewhere, and is going to be taken out on somebody.   Although this is a Category 1 hurricane in terms of its fastest winds, 946 millibars is what one expects for a strong Category 3 hurricane; 1000 is average atmospheric pressure, and the mid-800s is about as low as it ever gets.  By comparison, the great blizzard of 1993 had a central pressure of about 960 millibars.  The Perfect Storm of 1991 (also a nor’easter-hurricane hybrid, like Sandy) had a central pressure of 972 millibars.  Anyone who thinks Sandy isn’t a dangerous storm hasn’t read enough history.

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Shock, Foreshock and Aftershock in Italy

It’s hard to know quite what to say about the verdict in Italy convicting scientists — experts on earthquakes — for having… for having… well, what, exactly did they do?  That’s the whole question.  They made pronouncements that tried to state that risks of a big quake, following a swarm of smaller earthquakes in the L’Aquila area of Central Italy, were low, although of course not zero.  But their wording and their calls for calm led to some people staying in their homes instead of remaining outdoors, and consequently losing their lives when, in fact, the big quake did take place soon after.   The issue is not whether they failed to predict the quake — no one is arguing they could have done that.  The issues are whether they did enough to make clear that there was a small risk of a big quake, and also, who is ultimately responsible — the experts, the government, or the public — for making the final cost-benefit analysis about the risks to individuals’ lives?

And of course, following the conviction, and a sentence of six years in prison for manslaughter, the next question is: even if this sentence is overturned on appeal, what scientist, or expert of any type, will dare to give advice to the Italian public in future, knowing that if the advice proves incomplete or unwise in retrospect, the result may be incarceration? Has Italy lost its wisest advisors?  (Four members of the “Great Risks Commission” have already resigned, including one of Italy’s greatest theoretical particle physicists, and I doubt they’ll return without new legal protections.) Will other countries lose theirs?

The issue at stake is clearly not Italian earthquakes; it is expert advice.  Sometimes I feel that we in modern society are forgetting how to be grown-ups and take responsibility for our own actions, and how to accept that bad things do just happen sometimes and it isn’t always someone’s fault.  When we go and get advice from anyone — whether it be medical advice,  financial advice,  advice about the weather or advice about the risks from earthquakes — we need to remember it’s provided by a human being.  Ideally that human being has access to the best information available and understands the odds, and will give us a recommendation based on the odds — on the probabilities for various things to happen.  But even when it is the best available advice, it’s based on odds… on statistics.  It’s an educated guess — yes, it’s educated, but also yes, it’s a guess.

And one thing that is dead certain, given that it is a guess based on odds, is that occasionally — rarely, perhaps, but not never — that guess will be wrong.   It’s inevitable, even if the expert is making the best possible recommendation, based on the best available information and the most accurate possible assessment of the odds.  When that bad guess happens, property may be lost, and people may die.  It’s sad, but it is inherent in the nature of odds and probabilities.

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Why the Higgs Crew Waits for a Nobel

I was busy with some personal issues over the past few weeks, so I hadn’t even really been following the rampant speculation about the Nobel Prize for this year. Apparently a lot of people (including some of my colleagues) thought that the July discovery, at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] experiments ATLAS and CMS, of a new particle resembling the long-sought Higgs particle would generate a Nobel Prize in 2012 for Peter Higgs and for the other physicists who predicted the existence of such a particle.

Well, I never thought this notion was very plausible; I was confident it wouldn’t happen before 2013. And that is for several reasons.

The first and most important is that although the evidence that a new particle has been found is very strong, the evidence that it is a Higgs particle of some type (which I’ll describe below) is still only moderate. Personally, I’m convinced that the new particle is a Higgs particle, but that is based partly on the evidence from the data and partly on theoretical prejudice — on my knowledge of theoretical physics and of what the alternatives to the Higgs-particle interpretation of the data are. If I’m wrong, too bad for me, but no harm done. However, the Nobel Prize committee is making a permanent, irrevocable award for the history books, and the bar for evidence from the data alone should be very high. Now here’s the key point: by March 2013 at the latest, the data from all of 2012 will have been analyzed. The amount of data that will be available by then will be about three times as much as was available in July 2012 — enough to change the current moderate evidence to strong evidence, if in fact we’re dealing with a Higgs particle of some type. The Nobel Prize committee is surely well aware of this — that by next year the situation is likely to have qualitatively changed, with the evidence beyond controversy.  So it makes sense to wait until 2013, when the case is likely to be closed.

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Quantum Physics Is Very Real

Just ask the Nobel Prize committee: is quantum physics some sort of speculative new science? (A smart educated woman asked me, just a week ago, `What do you think about that quantum physics stuff?’, as though it were in the same category as theories of consciousness, speculations about the origin of life, and string theory.) … Read more

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

I highly recommend Steve Myers’ article Why is it that when a scientist makes up scientific information, he or she is fired, but when a journalist or writer makes up scientific information, he or she is promoted and ends up making lots of money with a best-seller? And why is mis-quoting Bob Dylan so … Read more

Physics and Curiosity on Mars

The promised follow-up article on the workshop last week in Waterloo, Canada will have to wait til Monday; I had too many scientific activities and chores to take care of today, and I want to make sure the article, which is a bit complicated, is nevertheless clear.   But in the meantime, let’s celebrate Martian Curiosity!

First, a big congratulations to the NASA folks!  Very impressive, and fantastically cool.  I was a huge fan of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, especially of their 3D photography.  Looking at those photos on a big screen, through red/green 3D glasses. brought me to sweeping Martian vistas and deep Martian craters — as vivid and as close as I’ll ever see them.  It was amazing stuff, and I look forward to more from the new rover.

Next: some perspective.

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Reminder to Readers

A pause from the usual stuff for a necessary reminder: please keep the comments of a non-personal nature. Talk about the science; if someone makes a mistake, say so, but don’t attack their personalities and intelligence. While I was away from the computer there were a number of comments that turned very nasty toward an individual, and I don’t want that happening here. I did some editing of the worst stuff, but I’d much rather not have to.  Yes, I know some very nasty personal things about me have been said in past comments; but while you’re free to defend me when that happens, please don’t say anything offensive about someone else.

The relevant comments, however, did have some content, which I’ve tried to leave in place.  They were relating to the Milner $,$$$,$$$ prizes (here’s the NY Times article.)  Once-respected Nature News, whose reputation is in precipitous decline within high-energy physics, did a story on the Milner prize in which the only people quoted (other than awardees saying “ooh” and “aah”) were Milner himself and blogger Peter Woit. No matter what you think of the prize [and I have my own serious concerns], it is shocking that an article in Nature on this subject does not quote a single scientist, within or outside the field, whether for or against the prize. I’ve asked for an explanation. Have scientists become invisible? Do we have no rights to express our own opinions anymore?  Are we destined to have our fates and research determined by former science students who haven’t been in the field for decades but have become extremely wealthy and/or extremely vocal?  Hello?  Is anyone sensible still out there?

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