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All articles with the No Equations tag


A conversation regarding “intelligent design”

77 Comments
Posted October 22nd, 2008 in Biology. Tags: , , , , , .

This conversation began when I posted an inflammatory essay about creationism on Slashdot. I was pleasantly surprised with the sophistication of The Famous Brett Watson‘s arguments, and he later agreed to let me display this debate online (edited for clarity) to rescue it from being buried in the Slashdot archives. (more…)

A conversation regarding origins

14 Comments
Posted November 20th, 2008 in Philosophy. Tags: , , , , .

Reythia says:

Let me ask a question to all you atheists out there: if some sort of God didn’t create the universe (or at least the laws behind it), then what did? How did our universe get here? And, by the way, the answer, “It’s always existed,” isn’t an answer at all. After all, that’s the same as saying, “God’s always existed,” and if a good atheist can’t believe that, then he shouldn’t believe “the universe’s always existed” anymore!

It wasn’t exactly aimed at me, but I love the sound of my own voice/keyboard so much that I couldn’t resist answering. (more…)

A conversation regarding the “electric universe”

170 Comments
Posted March 28th, 2009 in Astronomy. Tags: , , , , , .

Marble and I have previously discussed creationism and evolution, but our conversation later centered on a non-standard cosmology known as plasma cosmology (popularized as the “Electric Universe”). (more…)

Abrupt climate change

807 Comments
Posted July 19th, 2009 in Physics. Tags: , , , , , , .

One part of a recent survey caught my attention:

The strongest correlate of opinion on climate change is partisan affiliation. Two-thirds of Republicans (67%) say either that the Earth is getting warmer mostly because of natural changes in the atmosphere (43%) or that there is no solid evidence the Earth is getting warmer (24%). By contrast, most Democrats (64%) say the Earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity. … The divide is even larger when party and ideology are both taken into consideration. Just 21% of conservative Republicans say the Earth is warming due to human activity, compared with nearly three-quarters (74%) of liberal Democrats. [Pew Research Center] (Skip to videos, data, index.)

In other words, most of the general public appears to believe that the existence of abrupt climate change A large-scale change in the climate system that takes place over a few decades or less, persists (or is anticipated to persist) for at least a few decades, and causes substantial disruptions in human and natural systems. (formerly known as anthropogenic ‘Human-caused’ global warming) is a question of politics rather than science. (more…)

American politics as I see them in 2008

8 Comments
Posted November 3rd, 2008 in Politics. Tags: .

Before I begin, I should note that I feel even dumber writing about politics than physics because I find politics to be much more confusing than physics. This is mostly due to how hard it is to get unbiased information (not to mention recognizing my own biases and trying to compensate for them). Also, there isn’t a clear “measure of success” analogous to experimental constraints placed on theoretical predictions that can be used to compare different policies. Finally, separating policy effects from other socio-economic factors is generally difficult if not impossible. As a result, one personality trait that I dislike in leaders is unquestioning certainty in the righteousness of their own actions and political positions. I want leaders to have the introspective critical thinking skills needed to see the flaws in their own ideas, the objectivity to recognize good points raised by their opponents and the humility to admit it. (more…)

American politics as I see them in 2016

4 Comments
Posted August 1st, 2016 in Politics. Tags: , .

Donald Trump spreads misinformation about vaccines and global warming while vowing to “cancel” the Paris climate deal. Hillary Clinton doesn’t, so I’m with her now.

Any FTL signal can be sent back in time

11 Comments
Posted October 27th, 2008 in Relativity 2. Tags: , , , .

One surprising consequence of Einstein’s special theory of relativity is that any signal traveling faster-than-light (FTL) can be used to send a message to the past. Special relativity divides the entire universe into three distinct regions as seen by any observer: (more…)

Are women really the fairer sex?

26 Comments
Posted January 6th, 2009 in Psychology. Tags: , , .

As a young boy, I was often intimidated by beautiful women. I only began to conquer this social anxiety when I concluded that the situation was symmetrical; women probably thought the same thing about handsome men. Later, I began to notice that many women don’t agree with my early conclusion. As evidence, here’s a conversation from Seinfeld:

Elaine: “Whoa! Walking around naked? Ahh… that is not a good look for a man.”
George: “Why not? It’s a good look for a woman.”
Elaine: “Well, the female body is a… work of art. The male body is utilitarian, it’s for gettin’ around, like a jeep.”
Jerry: “So you don’t think it’s attractive?”
Elaine: “It’s hideous. The hair, the… the lumpiness. It’s simian.”
George: “Well, some women like it.”
Elaine: “Hmm. Sickies.”

(more…)

Arguing about DRM

2 Comments
Posted November 13th, 2008 in Politics. Tags: , .

The following question about Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) was posed on Slashdot by laxcat:

Would someone please explain what exactly is wrong with DRM? If you have a problem with the concept of copyrights in general, then I can understand. But is there anyone out there that is cool with copyrights, but thinks DRM is bad?

I’m not trying to be an apologist for the corporations. I know they don’t care about the art or the artist, only money. That’s a given. But do they not have a right to protect their intellectual property? Are the detractors of DRM against the concept of intellectual property altogether?

The way I see it there is nothing wrong with the concept of DRM, only with the abuse of DRM. Is this a “slippery slope” argument?

I’m serious in my plea here. Someone please fill me in on what I am missing!

I couldn’t resist answering, and the ensuing discussion quickly became… lively. (more…)

Arguing with atheists about Einstein

22 Comments
Posted November 12th, 2008 in Philosophy. Tags: , , , , .

I once noticed a (presumed) atheist make the following statement during an unrelated discussion about Buckminster Fuller:

Fuller did contribute some interesting stuff but some of his ideas were unworkable. That’s pretty common for most contributors/geniuses. Look at Einstein: some cool research, but he was highly disruptive in other areas (eg. quantum mechanics or putting religious beliefs before science).

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Einstein was one of my childhood heroes so I wasn’t about to let that go unchallenged: (more…)

Automated notifications in C++ loops

6 Comments
Posted February 26th, 2009 in Software. Tags: , .

As a computational physicist, I’m often running programs that consist of many nested for-loops. At the moment, my outermost loop cycles through millions of data points and various inner loops explore tens of thousands of parameters. I’m always fiddling with the settings on the inner loops in ways that cause the run time to vary between 10 seconds and 10 weeks.

Annoyingly, it’s not always easy to predict how long the program will run after each set of modifications. Also, my code occasionally has bugs which make it hang indefinitely. When a program’s expected run time is measured in weeks, it’s reassuring to see regular progress reports. Otherwise I worry that the program has silently crashed.

At first I just slapped a print statement into the outermost for-loop, encased in an if-then statement which only activated once every 1000 loops. The print statement used the time elapsed since the start of the loop and the progress made to estimate the time remaining. It looked a little like this (plus some type casting): (more…)

Beliefs are like glass sculptures

1 Comment
Posted January 2nd, 2009 in Philosophy. Tags: , , , .

I have a tendency to get attached to my beliefs, because in a very real sense they’re the only possessions which can’t be taken from me. I’ve poured countless hours of effort into them, whether I derived the belief independently or found them in another person’s writings. I find it easier to be an intellectual parasite in this sense, because independently deriving beliefs is much harder. But some beliefs can’t be easily falsified, so critically examining them is often just as difficult as independently discovering them. Either way, the prospect of abandoning any of my beliefs is painful because it involves admitting I was wrong. I always find that difficult; the shame of admitting my mistake and the difficulty of re-aligning my worldview pose serious challenges. (more…)

Brontosaurus never existed

12 Comments
Posted November 29th, 2008 in Philosophy. Tags: , , , , .

When I was a college freshman, a fiery preacher named Tom Short would stand in a courtyard, evangelizing and arguing with any pedestrian who challenged him. More often than I’d care to admit, I found myself in that courtyard listening to him. It was like watching a car accident– horrible but so fascinating that I couldn’t look away. He spent a lot of time talking about Hell. He casually dismissed accusations that his homophobic rhetoric was indirectly responsible for a recent tragedy– the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard— by suggesting that Matthew was actually killed by other homosexuals. Other frequent topics included the pack of atheistic lies called “evolution,” and the argument that the Earth was only a few thousand years old.

Then one day, I heard him say: “Brontosaurus never existed.” Someone immediately responded: “That’s ridiculous! Of course (more…)

Can art be evaluated objectively?

4 Comments
Posted October 21st, 2008 in Philosophy. Tags: , .

Art is “good” or “bad” only in a subjective sense, or so I’m always told. But is there really no objective measure by which to judge the merits of a work of art? I believe that there is a limited sense in which art can be objectively evaluated, provided certain definitions are agreed upon.

I think all acts of artistic creation are motivated by a universal human desire for personal expression. Therefore, I propose the following definition for art: “A work of art is an object or performance which is created primarily as an outlet for creativity.” For example, a bucket isn’t a work of art because it’s simply a tool designed to carry water. A painting, on the other hand, is created to capture an emotion or reproduce a scene; it isn’t useful in any utilitarian sense and can therefore be classified as art. (more…)

Climate destabilization

64 Comments
Posted April 7th, 2012 in Physics. Tags: , , , , , , .

The overwhelming majority of scientists endorse this statement:

“Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.” [IPCC Summary for Policymakers, 2007]

Here, “most” means at least 50% of the 0.55°C rise since 1950. Some mistakenly call this an “alarmist exaggeration” but it actually understates the human contribution because it’s easy to incorrectly conclude that the other 50% of the trend might be caused by natural forcing variations: (more…)

Cold weather really can make you sick

119 Comments
Posted December 5th, 2008 in Biology. Tags: , , .

My mother always tells me to bundle up before I go outside during the winter, because otherwise I’ll “catch a cold.” When I first learned about the germ theory of disease, I thought she was wrong. Cold doesn’t make you sick, I thought. Germs make you sick.

Recently, it’s become obvious that I was wrong and she was right. (more…)

Crash course on climate change

41 Comments
Posted February 9th, 2013 in Science. Tags: , , , , , , .

Before the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million (ppm). This means that for every million molecules in the atmosphere, about 280 of them were CO2.

However, climate.nasa.gov shows that we’ve burned so much coal and oil that atmospheric CO2 is now approaching 400 ppm. It hasn’t been this high for millions of years. The last time Earth’s atmosphere had this much CO2, our species (and many others) hadn’t yet evolved. (more…)

Farewell, Dr. Mandelbrot

3 Comments
Posted October 17th, 2010 in Math. Tags: , , , .

Dr. Benoît B. Mandelbrot passed away last Thursday at the age of 85. He’s best known for coining the term “fractal,” so it might be appropriate to remember him by looking at some pictures of the Mandelbrot set. He discovered this hauntingly beautiful fractal shape while exploring the mathematics of imaginary numbers. His discovery inspired generations of scientists and mathematicians, some of whom have recently found a 3D version that they call a Mandelbulb. (more…)

Fundamental flaws in general physics education

31 Comments
Posted October 21st, 2008 in Physics. Tags: , , , , .

After years of serving as a physics teaching assistant at several public American universities, I’ve come to an alarming conclusion: students in today’s general physics courses (i.e. courses that don’t require calculus, intended for non-physicists) aren’t being taught physics. They might be learning how to mechanically calculate answers, but they’re learning very little about the actual scientific process of inquiring about the nature of reality. They aren’t learning how these physical laws were deduced in the first place– which is far more important than the intricate details of those laws. I think this educational deficiency contributes to widespread misconceptions such as the belief that the Earth’s seasons are caused by variations in the distance from the Sun, and the curious notion that toilets flush in opposite directions on different sides of the equator. (more…)

Gay marriage

43 Comments
Posted April 25th, 2009 in Politics. Tags: , .

Many issues in American politics confuse me, but the widespread opposition to gay marriage truly boggles my mind. In a bizarre turn of events, California banned same-sex marriage, then Iowa struck down a similar ban. Until just recently, the U.S. was one of the few western nations that refused to decriminalize homosexuality. Miss California became a GOP star last week because of her opinion on this issue. My personal reaction, on the other hand, was similar to Jon Stewart’s: (more…)

Global counterterrorism strategy

4 Comments
Posted October 24th, 2008 in Politics. Tags: .

I’m often confused by other peoples’ political positions. For example, I’ve quoted a position that confuses me below. I believe that this statement wasn’t made in jest and may in fact be a widespread opinion- at least in the United States. If you agree with the quote below, please help me to become less dumb by explaining the reasoning that would lead someone to hold this position.

After 9/11, Gore would have made some big talk in front of the U.N. about terrorist groups. But the U.N. would have done exactly what it did do: nothing. The terrorists would have seen us as unwilling to defend ourselves and would have made subsequent attacks on us. This cues more rhetoric from Gore and eventually he and the U.N. would try to negotiate a truce with the terrorists, which would have given them “legitimate” status and guaranteed more attacks in the future.

I can’t confidently say what Gore would’ve done after 9/11. Frankly, I’m not even sure that (more…)

I’m never using RAID again

6 Comments
Posted November 6th, 2008 in Hardware. Tags: .

Hard drive failures have taught me to be very careful about backing up my data. Currently, I use a Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID) and Super Flexible File Synchronizer (SFFS) to provide two levels of data redundancy. I use RAID 1 (where two hard drives are exact copies of each other) which allows one drive to fail without shutting the system down. I don’t like the native backup utilities in Windows XP, so I bought SFFS to automatically backup my main machine’s data to a secondary computer every morning at 4AM.

This is the second PC I’ve built with a RAID 1 array. It’s also the last. (more…)

Levels of doubt

2 Comments
Posted November 26th, 2008 in Philosophy. Tags: , , , .

I don’t believe in anything with absolute certainty; I always allow room for doubt. How much doubt, though, depends on the type of statement:

Level 1 – Least doubtful

In my opinion, Descartes uttered the least doubtful statement ever: “I think, therefore I am.” I’d have no sense of self without making this assumption, so I definitely couldn’t inquire about anything else. (more…)

My theological journey

27 Comments
Posted November 28th, 2008 in Philosophy. Tags: , , .

I grew up in the southern United States, a region famous for religious fundamentalism. My parents are Roman Catholics, and nearly all of my extended family identifies as Christian. I went to a Catholic primary school and later attended a Catholic high school.

Given that history, you might be surprised to learn that I’d always found the concept of God confusing. I was 10 years old the first time I recall thinking about this subject. These thoughts usually took place at the top of an oak tree (more…)

People who argue to win annoy me

7 Comments
Posted December 1st, 2008 in Philosophy. Tags: , , , .

I enjoy civilized debates, but only rarely get a chance to engage in them. That’s because in my experience nearly everyone assumes they’re correct, so they only debate to beat their viewpoint into the other person’s head at all costs.

In other words, most people argue to win… and I can’t stand it. Whenever I mention this pet peeve, the response is almost always “Oh, so you argue to lose, huh?” (more…)

Quantum entanglement and parallel universes

6 Comments
Posted October 23rd, 2008 in Quantum 2. Tags: , , , .

In 2007 I noticed a confusing post on Slashdot quoting from an article claiming that the no cloning theorem prevented entangled particles from being used for faster-than-light (FTL) communication. I had never heard of any FTL implications of the no cloning theorem, so I responded to this post to see if a less-dumb scientist could explain this connection to me (incidentally, I’m still waiting- someone please educate me!).

While the resulting conversation didn’t shed any light on the purported FTL implications of the no cloning theorem, DrVomact asked a question that eventually led to an enjoyable discussion (edited for clarity) about quantum entanglement and parallel universes. (more…)

Stereogram puzzles

5 Comments
Posted November 11th, 2008 in Math. Tags: , , , .

I’ve found stereograms entrancing ever since I first managed to “see” one. If you can’t see them, try viewing these images on one of those shiny new LCD monitors and focus on your own reflection. Be sure the monitor is perfectly level, and your head is perfectly vertical. Then use your peripheral vision to search the image for a hint of 3D structure but keep your face in focus. With any luck the image should simply pop into view. (Unless your eyes point in slightly different directions… right?).

These images fascinate me because they’re essentially tricking my binocular vision into hallucinating objects when I look “through” a pattern of (almost) random noise. I used to make my own stereograms using (more…)

The faint young Sun paradox

5 Comments
Posted May 24th, 2009 in Physics. Tags: , , , .

According to the standard solar model, the Sun’s brightness steadily increases because helium ash slowly builds up in its core. The introduction of heavier elements like helium forces the Sun to fuse hydrogen faster in order to prevent gravitational collapse, so it shines brighter as it ages. The Sun was ~25% dimmer 4 billion years ago compared to now.

Liquid oceans had already formed 4 billion years ago, so Earth’s temperature must have been above the freezing point of water. A faint young Sun presents a paradox: how could a 25% dimmer Sun warm the Earth enough to develop liquid oceans? (more…)

The Moon wobbles

44 Comments
Posted December 4th, 2008 in Astronomy. Tags: , , , , , .
Lunar wobbling animation

This is what you get if you take a photo of the Moon every night for a month, then make a movie out of those pictures. The Moon’s phases aren’t surprising, but the Moon also appears to grow and shrink as it orbits the Earth. This happens because the Moon’s orbit is slightly elliptical; its distance to the Earth varies by about 10%.

Also, the Moon appears to “wobble” from left to right. That’s because the Earth’s gravity pulls harder on the Moon the closer it is to the Earth, so the Moon travels faster in its orbit when it’s closer to the Earth. The Moon’s rotation rate matches its average orbital speed (which is why we only see one face of the Moon), but its orbital speed varies during the orbit while its rotation rate remains fixed, so the Moon appears to wobble from left to right.

2009-08-10 Update: I’ve noticed that many people arrive at this article by googling moon wobbles. All the other sites on the first page claim that “moon wobbles” are responsible for explosions, mass-murder, earthquakes, terrorism, etc. Sadly, I need to emphasize that the wobbling I’m describing can’t possibly result in these kinds of ludicrous effects.

The Moon’s final resting place

1 Comment
Posted February 19th, 2015 in Astronomy. Tags: , , , .

I’ve been wondering about the future evolution of our solar system.

The Moon is spiralling away from Earth due to tidal friction, which slows Earth’s rotation. I used to think tidal braking would stop when Earth’s daysidereal day, to be specific. matched the Moon’s orbital period, as with Pluto and Charon. (more…)

The pink triangle

Posted October 22nd, 2008 in History. Tags: .

The Nazi persecution of homosexuals was strangely contradictory in nature. While officially condemned for their negative effect on the nation’s reproductive rate, gay men often held high offices and rank in the Nazi government and military. In addition, a rigorous legal distinction was drawn between gay men and lesbians. Homosexuality of either gender among non-Aryan races was almost completely ignored. (more…)

Theories and metatheories

Posted April 16th, 2009 in Science. Tags: , , , .

I’ve previously called evolution and the Big Bang “theories” to confront widespread confusion regarding the differences between theories and hypotheses. However, using the word “theory” in these instances might be a subtle mistake. It may even be partially responsible for the systemic communications barrier between scientists and the general public. (more…)

What causes motion sickness?

6 Comments
Posted February 19th, 2009 in Biology. Tags: , , .

I used to go scuba diving, but I routinely got seasick on the boat. Since I had nothing better to do while leaning over the water, I wondered why I had to go through this wretched experience. I understood the origins of physical pain– an animal that didn’t realize it had sprained an ankle would likely hurt itself even more rather than waiting for it to heal. But why should I feel nauseous when on a boat? I wasn’t being hurt by the waves, so this incapacitating condition wouldn’t have provided any advantage to my ancestors and therefore shouldn’t have been favored by natural selection. (more…)

Why do pigeons bob their heads?

19 Comments
Posted November 23rd, 2008 in Biology. Tags: , , .

Recently, I’ve started to wonder why pigeons bob their heads in such a violent manner when they walk. This habit seems like it consumes a lot of calories… don’t they need every bit of energy in order to fly? I don’t understand why natural selection hasn’t bred pigeons that walk without bobbing their heads. Wouldn’t they be more efficient and therefore more fit?

Here are some hypotheses I’m toying with to explain this behavior (more…)

You called your website WHAT?

8 Comments
Posted December 31st, 2011 in Psychology. Tags: , , .

When I mention Dumb Scientist, a common reaction is “Wait… you called your website WHAT?” I usually deflect this question by joking that irony is all the rage these days, but the truth is that I chose this pseudonym because I think many people accidentally imply that intelligence is fixed at birth. For instance, many parents praise their children by saying they’re smart, but this tactic backfires:

Since Thomas could walk, he has heard constantly that he’s smart. … as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. “Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.'” With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two- things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t. [The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids]

My early education was similar to Thomas’s, and it seems we’re not alone: (more…)

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