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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…)

Cold weather really can make you sick

121 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…)

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.

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…)

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…)

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…)

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…)

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…)

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…)

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…)

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…)

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…)

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…)

Quantum teleportation

2 Comments
Posted October 28th, 2008 in Quantum 3. Tags: , , , .

Teleportation, a term originally coined by science fiction, refers to a hypothetical technology that can transport objects (or, eventually, people) nearly instantaneously from one location to another without sending the object through the intervening space. Classically, one might approach this problem by attempting to record the states of all the particles constituting the object to be teleported; that information could then be transmitted to a distant receiver and used to reconstitute the object out of raw materials available at the receiver. For many years this approach to teleportation was considered implausible because of quantum mechanical concerns. For instance, a teleportation device must somehow record the precise positions and momenta of all atoms in an object in order to reconstruct the object on the other side. This simultaneous measurement of non-commuting observables is forbidden by the uncertainty principle. A more fundamental problem exists, though, which is evident even in situations where the uncertainty principle is not directly applicable. To illustrate this point, consider the teleportation of a (more…)

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Recent comments


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