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When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

~Walt Whitman



I first encountered this poem in high school English, and I come across it again every few years. I can't explain entirely the rage it summons in me.

But maybe this is the point I wish to make. A friend mentioned the Randall-Sundrum model of the universe and I went to that wikipedia page to try to learn what that was. Pretty soon I was desperately linkhopping- I have a basic education in relativity and differential geometry, but pretty basic, and even the vocabulary I did learn at some point, it's been a decade since and I needed to refresh my memory.

So I clicked on anti-de-Sitter space and from there to Lorentzian manifold and from there to Riemannian manifold, and I want to point out something about these four articles.

The article on Randall-Sumdrum model begins "In physics" The article on Anti-de-Sitter Space begins "In mathematics and physics." The articles on Lorentzian Manifold and Riemannian Manifold begin "In differential geometry." There's that tricksy slippage between physics and mathematics Whitman is writing about. Are the learn'd astronomer's "proofs, the figures," his "charts and diagrams" a meaningful and interesting representation of the actual stars, or are they just lifeless mathematical models that lack the "mystical" potency of observing the stars with the naked untrained eye? Aside from answering this question, though, the distinction is, I think, actually important to doing physics. Because if you theorize that spacetime takes a certain shape that can be modeled by a particular manifold, and then your measurements in an experiment don't match the manifold, you have to consider two different possibilities: One, that spacetime doesn't match your theorized model, and two, that your measurements were inaccurate. But if you're a mathematician working with a manifold and it doesn't match your expectations, only your math is wrong.

So this distinction Whitman writes on matters. There are the mathematical models of the stars, and there are the actual stars themselves, and if you forget this you end up confusing the manifold with the spacetime. A physicist needs both to do their work.

Nonetheless, I feel a great rage when I read Whitman's poem, a rage at the idea that the untrained eye bestows a more exciting and therefore truer reality than the subtle delver into the measureable mysteries of the cosmos can attain through experimentation and analysis. This may be dogmatic scientism on my part, but if so, let it be!
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I heard a Chuck Klosterman interview about his new book about humanity's tendency to be wrong, which sounds fascinating. Klosterman is a fascinating writer, someone who is deeply obsessed with and passionate about all the ebbs and flows of popular culture, but who is capable of stepping back from that passion to be strikingly dispassionate. I do not say what follows to criticize Klosterman.

But Klosterman said something about how the world believed Aristotle's ideas about gravity for 2000 years and has only believed in Newton's for a few hundred, and... I think this is worth picking apart. Call it an addendum to my post on Einstein overthrowing Newton (http://seekingferret.dreamwidth.org/165355.html).

I think this is a wrong way to think about Aristotle because it misunderstands the ancient world and therefore leads us to incorrect ideas about how science works.

Aristotle ascribed to materials some sort of natural desire to move toward the center of the Earth. He did so, one assumes, based on making the following observations: If you take an object and elevate it, it will fall toward the Earth. A person is capable of moving upward and downward depending on what naturally suits them. Therefore, one may guess that objects that move are impelled on similar principles, and if we only observe them moving downward, it is because their natural inclination is to move downward.

This is not a very sophisticated argument. A modern 10 year old with a little sophistication can conduct the experiments that guided the Newtonian revolution. But it's an observational argument from analogy. I've seen much, much worse from modern social science theorizing. It's not super terrible to believe this if you haven't performed the Galilean and Newtonian experiments. The consequences of believing this wrong theory are not particularly dire, unless you think that failing to achieve the Industrial Revolution until 1750 was a dire failure for humanity.

But my intention isn't to defend Aristotle. It's to say that it's silly to say that everyone believed this for 2000 years, just because nobody came up with Newtonian mechanics until the 1600s. I don't believe it's true that everyone believed this.

First of all, the Asian, African, and American worlds had never heard of Aristotle. I don't say this to score cheap PC points by biting back at someone for suggesting that the West was the whole world. I think there is something more fundamental here. Because large parts of Europe probably also hadn't heard of Aristotle. This was not an era of mass media, this was not an era of globalization. Suggesting anything about what large masses of people believed is wrongheaded. For the most part, peoples' beliefs were probably informed by the people in the village around them and not much else.

And second, as a consequence of this and of the kind of world they lived in, people probably had simple and particular ideas about how gravity worked. It's not like it was impossible to work with gravity before Newton, it's just that there wasn't Newton's powerful and useful mathematical system for calculating the force of gravity. So when an engineer designed and constructed a water-wheel to turn a mill, they made determinations about gravity that were functional. They had observations about how the wheel turned that were dependent on an in some cases very intricate empirical understanding of how gravity behaved.

So I'm not sure how productive it is to say that the ancients believed in Aristotelian gravity. They believed in a combination of Aristotelian gravity and empirically observed gravity, a theory of gravity we might call 'Carpenter's Gravity'.

And recall what I said in my last post in this series: "The value of science is not its elegance. The value of good science is its descriptive power, which endures even after good theories fall." What's important to recognize about pre-Newtonian physics was that in limited ways it was productive in terms of descriptive power. It did have an observational truth to it: Objects tend to move toward the ground, at a speed that can be measured in order to build mechanisms. And in some ways that pre-Newtonian Carpenter's Gravity remains productive to this day. Can you go to the moon with Carpenter's Gravity? No, but there are many simple mechanisms that can be designed without specific reference to Newtonian mechanics by trial and error and simple gravitational intuition. I know lots of actual carpenters who couldn't hack a high school physics class but are plenty clever when it comes to how things move.

And I think it's bad to go around telling each other that until Newton showed up, everyone was wrong about gravity. It gives a false sense of superiority, and a false sense of the narrative of scientific history. I think there is a problem when we exclusively think of science in terms of paradigms supplanting paradigms, because some component of the past paradigm always remains: the part that was productive. As an engineer, that's the part I usually care about anyway.
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When we talk about Einstein overthrowing Newton, there's a degree to which the language we use is wrong. After all, as a mechanical engineering student, I had six or seven semesters of Newtonian mechanics and one semester of Einsteinian mechanics. Newton must have been really, really wrong, for his theories to still be taught in that depth a century after he was relegated to the dustbin.

If you drop an apple to the ground, it falls according to Einstein's equations, not Newton's (to the best of our understanding at the moment). But if you try to measure the position of the apple as a function of time, that measurement will look as if it follows Newton's equation just as much as it follows Einstein's equations. That's because the difference between Einstein's result and Newton's result is infinitesimal in the speed regime of the apple's fall, at such a small fraction of the speed of light.

So to a certain extent the choice of using Einstein's equations or Newton's equations in this regime is arbitrary. We could, every time we wanted to calculate the speed of that apple, use general relativity. The result might be closer to the physical reality. Then again, we know that Einstein is 'wrong' too by the same definition that says that Newton is wrong. We believe there are regimes in which Einstein's equations don't accurately model reality, and that there are other equations we don't yet have that do a better job of modeling the movement of bodies in these regimes, the so-called equations of the Grand Unified Theory.

And yet in spite of that, in spite of us knowing for sure that both sets of equations are inaccurate models of the universe, either Einstein's or Newton's equations can be used to calculate the motion of the ball with accuracy sufficient for any practical purpose. What's more, we can simplify those equations yet further- leave out forces like air resistance that both theories know are part of the math, for example- and still get useful results much of the time.


Saying that science is never settled, that scientists are constantly disproving past theories, misses this point. The value of science is not its elegance. The value of good science is its descriptive power, which endures even after good theories fall.
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Thomas Kuhn's Structures of Scientific Revolution is most famous in the popular culture for coining the phrase 'paradigm shift', which the popular culture then proceeded to horribly misinterpret. It's most famous in the scientific community among people who like thinking about the bigger picture of scientific discovery as one of the most definitive accounts of how the scientific community moves from the orthodoxy of an old scientific theory to its replacement.

Kuhn separates scientific research into three categories- prescience, which is exploratory and unsystematic, normal science, which operates under the acceptance of the current scientific theory and develops the theory in detail, and revolutionary science, which rejects the current paradigm.

And what I recall finding striking about Structures of Scientific Revolution was Kuhn's notion that because revolutionary science is fundamentally opposed to normal science, people engaged in one can't really communicate their ideas to people engaged in the other, and people doing normal science are so reluctant to embrace revolutionary science that a political entanglement happens and revolutionary science tends to win out not when the rest of the scientific community is convinced of its value, but when the old generation gradually retires/dies and is replaced with a generation that grew up accepting the revolutionary science as its own normal science.

I found this analysis striking, satisfying, in alliance with a lot of the data, and in complete disagreement with everything I'd been taught about the scientific method in school. According to the idealized scientific method, when someone establishes a new scientific theory, everyone the scientific community looks at it, says "That seems right", and adopts it. But the reality is that science is not magic, and the personalities of the people driving science forward matter to its adoption.

Where I don't recall Kuhn being particularly specific, though, is about the process of political engagement between the old guard and the revolutionaries. And so I found myself looking at Kuhn with new eyes as I read Scientists under Hitler: Politics and the physics community in the Third Reich by Alan Beyerchen, a really well put together study of the personal and political dynamics of the German scientific community in the '20s, '30s, and early '40s and their interaction with the rise of Naziism. In particular, Beyerchen looks at Johannes Stark and Philipp Lenard, a pair of nationalistic German physicists who championed a Deutschephysik in opposition to Einstein's Judischephysik, i.e. relativistic physics. According to them, Deutschephysik was experimental and empirical where Judischephysik was theoretical. In reality, Deutschephysik was scientifically unproductive and eventually was abandoned, whereas relativity underpins much of modern science, including modern experimental physics.

This is interesting with respect to Kuhn because the adoption of relativity by the scientific community, which was a process that took decades, is one of the classic examples of a paradigm shift and how its adoption played out. But when you throw in the Deutschephysik aspect, Kuhn's notion of the push and pull that leads to paradigm shift starts to seem awfully reductionist. Opposition to relativity didn't only happen because older scientists were unwilling to embrace it, it also happened because of racism. It happened because it was politically convenient to oppose, because some (brilliant) physicists managed to construct an epistemology that was incredibly toxic and opposed to truth.

Or maybe I have it backwards. Maybe Deutschephysik was one of the normal science response to Einstein's revolution, maybe its racism was a consequence of the physicists struggling against their inability to make sense of the new theory within the paradigm they'd spent their life developing, maybe Kuhn's whole point is that revolution is never painless, that scientific revolutions should be studied with scrutiny because they are revolutions, traumatic overthrows of the values of a civilization. Relativity isn't important merely because it brings us closer to some magical truth of the universe, it's important because our struggle to accept it depends on who we are as a society and what our values are.

As I write this, I'm also thinking about Cixin Liu's The Three Body Problem, which also depicts a society coming to terms with a paradigm shift of sorts, though the paradigm shift is "Humanity is not alone in this universe." And the meaning of the new paradigm is dependent on the politics of the people accepting it, because in Cixin Liu's China everything, even or especially science, is political. (The same is true in our America, and perhaps even in every civilization) The discovery of the Trisolarians doesn't create one new vision of the world, it creates a half dozen that then compete for primacy. The winner is not necessarily the 'truest', it's just the winner. That's something scientists should think about, when they talk about discovery in terms of 'elegance' or 'beauty' or 'truth'.
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http://www.wnyc.org/story/reading-screens-messing-your-brain-so-train-it-be-bi-literate/

In which I am skeptical about research in the social sciences and the reporting thereof, news at 11.

Did you know that Twitter is rotting your brain? Well, I'm not on Twitter, so my brain's not rotting, but you, all of you who use Twitter, your brains are rotting away because of Twitter. Well, and also because... get this! : You have no gene for reading!!!!!!

"In the old days before the internet, reading was a linear event," Mike Rosenwald.

Except for all the times in which it wasn't. Like reading a newspaper with columns that you could jump between. Or flipping past a boring chapter in a book to get to an interesting one, or flipping to the end of the book to find out who killed Roger Ackroyd. Or walking down a busy main street looking at all the signs on storefronts. Or, you know, reading the Talmud.




"The human brain is almost adapting too well to the particular attributes or characteristics of internet reading," says Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University.

This is because unlike such skills as seeing, there is no gene in the human genome for reading, the story tells us. It is something scary called a learned skill, which means that the human brain is forced to rewire ancient brain circuits in order to read. But if you exercise those brain circuits in the WRONG WAY, meaning using Twitter, you will reprogram your brain so that you are not capable of 'reading linearly'. (In other news, sometimes it is hilarious when you take a metaphor and extend it too far just to see what happens.)

How do we know this twitter brain rot is happening? Because RESEARCHERS gave 25 people a story on paper, and 25 people the same story on a Kindle, and the ones who read it on paper were better able to describe the order of events in the story. "Significantly" better, in fact. Of course, somehow science reporters still have not figured out that statisticians use the word significantly to mean something entirely different than what the general public thinks it means. For a statistician, it means that there was a difference between the two groups that was not explainable by pure chance in the sampling. For the general public, it means that there was a difference between the two groups that was big enough that we should care about it.

In this case, the researcher has not yet published her result, only discussed it with reporters and presented it at a conference, so I cannot tell which it is, but I rather suspect it's the former. BECAUSE IN SCIENCE JOURNALISM, IT'S ALWAYS STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT, NOT ACTUALLY SIGNIFICANT.

To be fair, there's other proof. This one guy who works at the Washington Post thought he was reading less deeply than he used to, so he called a few friends and they said "Me too!". And then they all said "It must be the Internet!" I AM NOT JOKING, THIS IS PART OF THE NEWS REPORT.


I think it is likely that we read books differently than we do internet things, and I think it is likely that the things we choose to read are also teaching us how to read, but these intuitions do not extend to claims about how the internet has reprogrammed out brains so that we can't read deeply anymore. Because the brain is really complicated and we mostly don't understand it. And because I have read the first 11 books of the Wheel of Time on my ereader over the last two months, linearly.

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