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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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Cosmic Inflation or Are the Photons Messing with Our Minds?

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Recently it has been announce that a smoking gun has been found for cosmic inflation but could it instead be the smoking[1] gun for a grand conspiracy, the mother of all conspiracies, the conspiracy theory to put all other conspiracy theories to shame?  You may have your favourite conspiracy theory: the Roswell cover up, who shot JFK, the suppression of perpetual motion machines by the energy companies or the attempt by communication departments to take over the world. As a professor, once said: “Just because you are paranoid does not mean they are not out to get you.” (Followed closely by my second-best piece of advice, “Never trust a communications expert.”) But the conspiracy I am talking about is on a much larger scale, a cosmic scale, the conspiracy of all elementary particles in the universe to use their free will for the sole purpose of messing with the minds of humans and particularly that subclass of humans known as particle physicists[2]. The professor was right to be paranoid.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all particles are created equal and endowed by their Creator with free will. Surely you do not question that elementary particles have free will. Consider the muon. It decays at a time if its own choosing.  There is no rule that says when a given muon will decay. It is decided by the muon in its own stubborn way.  But you still claim that only humans have freewill. Why? Could it not be just of part the grand conspiracy of elementary particle to give humans the illusion of freewill? Besides we all know politicians do not have freewill. They just do, as a Pavlovian reflex, what they think will get them the most votes.  Hence the mess the world is in. But I digress.

To explore further: what criteria is there to decide if a given object has freewill? Is it just unpredictability? If so, then Vancouver weather has freewill. We have already decided that politicians do not have freewill. But what about dogs? Are all their reactions Pavlovian conditioning? Most certainly not.  Hence they are better candidates to have freewill than politicians. And what about cats? Cats certainly have will but it is free?  Does the fact cats cannot be herded indicate they have freewill? And cows, do cows have freewill? Does the fact they can be herded indicate they do not have freewill? Or that plant on my window sill beckoning to be watered?  Does it cause its leaves to droop out of the exercise of its own freewill just to annoy me? Possibly (there it goes again). It seems to me the hallmark of freewill is precisely that combination of random and non-random behaviour found in elementary particles and not in politicians. Hence another interpretations of quantum uncertainty, it is just elementary particles exercising their freewill.

You may be surprised that I claimed all particles are created equal. Surely the neutrino and electron have different properties and are not equal. But that is just them exercising their freewill. Those particles we call electrons have decided (note the verb decided) to behave as if they had a given set of interactions while the neutrinos have decided to be behave like they have a different set of interactions. The interactions, themselves, are illusionary created by the particles exercising their freewill. There was probably a grand council meeting at the beginning of time where the grand conspiracy was initiated and the roles assigned to different sets of particles.  Indeed, it may have been that grand council meeting that started time itself.

The freewill of particles also explains the problem of evil. From earthquakes to global warming[3], the evil consequences are due to particle exercising their freewill. This type of evil could only be eliminated by denying particles freewill­–an even greater evil.

Now back to the initial observation about the polarization of photons in the cosmic microwave background. Surely that polarization is not due to gravitational waves but due to photons exercising their freewill to mislead humans. Is it not more reasonable to assume that the measured polarization[4] is due to freewill than to some far distant interaction with gravitons? (Do gravitons even exits? They have never been directly observed.)

This conspiracy theory–just like all conspiracy theories–accounts for all the known facts and cannot be disproved. It therefore must be correct and we have shown conclusively that it is particles, not people, that have freewill and the photons are trying to mess with our minds[5].

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[1] And no, I have not been smoking with the mayor of certain large Canadian city.

[2] Nuclear physicists have always known that something was messing with the minds of particle physicists.

[3] Global warming is due to particles excising their freewill not carbon dioxide emissions.

[4] But beware the Jennings principle: Most exciting new results are wrong.

[5] This is not the perfect particle physics blog because it does not mention the Higgs boson, the LHC or super symmetry. Oops, maybe now it is.


Nobody understands quantum mechanics? Nonsense!

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Despite the old canard about nobody understanding quantum mechanics, physicists do understand it.  With all of the interpretations ever conceived for quantum mechanics[1], this claim may seem a bit of a stretch, but like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, many physicists prefer to claim they do not understand quantum mechanics, rather than just admit that it is what it is and move on.

What is it about quantum mechanics that generates so much controversy and even had Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) refusing to accept it? There are three points about quantum mechanics that generate controversy. It is probabilistic, eschews realism, and is local. Let us look at these three points in more detail.

  1. Quantum mechanics is probabilistic, not determinist. Consider a radioactive atom. It is impossible, within the confines of quantum mechanics, to predict when an individual atom will decay. There is no measurement or series of measurements that can be made on a given atom to allow me to predict when it will decay. I can calculate the probability of when it will decay or the time it takes half of a sample to decay but not the exact time a given atom will decay. This lack of ability to predict exact outcomes, but only probabilities, permeates all of quantum mechanics. No possible set of measurements on the initial state of a system allows one to predict precisely the result of all possible experiments on that state.
  2. Quantum mechanics eschews realism[2]. This is a corollary of the first point. A quantum mechanical system does not have well defined values for properties that have not been directly measured. This has been compared to the moon only existing when someone is looking at it. For deterministic systems one can always safely infer back from a measurement what the system was like before the measurement. Hence if I measure a particle’s position and motion I can infer not only where it will go but where it has come from. The probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics prevents this backward looking inference. If I measure the spin of an atom, there is no certainty that is had only that value before the measurement. It is this aspect of quantum mechanics that most disturbs people, but quantum mechanics is what it is.
  3. Quantum mechanics is local. To be precise, no action at point A will have an observable effect at point B that is instantaneous, or non-causal.  Note the word observable. Locality is often denied in an attempt to circumvent Point 2, but when restricted to what is observable, locality holds. Despite the Pentagon’s best efforts, no messages have been sent using quantum non-locality.


Realism, at least, is a common aspect of the macroscopic world. Even a baby quickly learns that the ball is behind the box even when he cannot see it. But much about the microscopic world is not obviously determinist, the weather in Vancouver for example (it is snowing as I write this). Nevertheless, we cling to determinism and realism like a child to his security blanket. It seems to me that determinism or realism, if they exist, would be at least as hard to understand as their lack. There is no theorem that states the universe should be deterministic and not probabilistic or vice versa. Perhaps god, contrary to Einstein’s assertion, does indeed like a good game of craps[3].

So quantum mechanics, at least at the surface level, has features many do not like. What has the response been? They have followed the example set by Philip Gosse (1810 – 1888) with the Omphalos hypothesis[4]. Gosse, being a literal Christian, had trouble with the geological evidence that the world was older than 6,000, so he came up with an interpretation of history that the world was created only 6,000 years ago but in such a manner that it appeared much older. This can be called an interpretation of history because it leaves all predictions for observations intact but changes the internal aspects of the model so that they match his preconceived ideas. To some extent, Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601) used the same technique to keep the earth at the center of the universe. He had the earth fixed and the sun circle the earth and the other planets the sun. With the information available at the time, this was consistent with all observations.

The general technique is to adjust those aspects of the model that are not constrained by observation to make it conform to one’s ideas of how the universe should behave. In quantum mechanics these efforts are called interpretations. Hugh Everett (1930 – 1982) proposed many worlds in an attempt to make quantum mechanics deterministic and realistic. But it was only in the unobservable parts of the interpretation that this was achieved and the results of experiments in this world are still unpredictable. Louis de Broglie (1892 – 1987) and later David Bohm (1917 – 1992) introduced pilot waves in an effort to restore realism and determinism. In doing do they gave up locality. Like Gosse’s work, theirs was nice proof in principle that, with sufficient ingenuity, the universe could be made to conform to almost any preconceived ideas, or at least appear to do so. Reassuring I guess, but like Gosse it was done by introducing non-observable aspects to the model: not just unobserved but in principle unobservable. The observable aspects of the universe, at least as far as quantum mechanics is correct, are as stated in the three points above: probabilistic, nonrealistic and local.

Me, I am not convinced that there is anything to understand about quantum mechanics beyond the rules for its use given in standard quantum mechanics text books. However, interpretations of quantum mechanics might, possibly might, suggest different ways to tackle unsolved problems like quantum gravity and they do give one something to discuss after one has had a few beers (or is that a few too many beers).

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[1] See my February 2014 post “Reality and the Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics.”

[2] Realism as defined in the paper by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen, Physical Review 47 (10): 777–780 (1935).

[3] Or dice.


Reality and the Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics

Friday, February 7th, 2014

If there were only one credible interpretation of quantum mechanics, then we could take it as a reliable representation of reality. But when there are many, it destroys the credulity of all of them. The plethora of interpretations of quantum mechanics lends credence to the thesis that science tells us nothing about the ultimate nature of reality.

Quantum mechanics, in its essence, is a mathematical formalism with an algorithm for how to connect the formalism to observation or experiments. When relativistic extensions are included, it provides the framework for all of physics[1] and the underlying foundation for chemistry. For macroscopic objects (things like footballs), it reduces to classical mechanics through some rather subtle mathematics, but it still provides the underlying framework even there. Despite its empirical success, quantum mechanics is not consistent with our common sense ideas of how the world should work. It is inherently probabilistic despite the best efforts of motivated and ingenious people to make it deterministic. It has superposition and interference of the different states of particles, something not seen for macroscopic objects. If it is weird to us, just imagine how weird it must have seemed to the people who invented it. They were trained in the classical system until it was second nature and then nature itself said, “Fooled you, that is not how things are.” Some, like Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), resisted it to their dying days.

The developers of quantum mechanics, in their efforts to come to grips with quantum weirdness, invented interpretations that tried to understand quantum mechanics in a way that was less disturbing to common sense and their classical training. In my classes in quantum mechanics, there were hand waving discussions of the Copenhagen interpretation, but I could never see what they added to mathematical formalism. I am not convinced my lecturers could either, although the term Copenhagen interpretation was uttered with much reverence. Then I heard a lecture by Sir Rudolf Peierls[2] (1907 – 1995) claiming that the conscious mind caused the collapse of the wave function. That was an interesting take on quantum mechanics, which was also espoused by John von Neumann (1903 – 1957) and Eugene Wigner (1902 –1995) for part of their careers.

So does consciousness play a crucial role in quantum mechanics? Not according to Hugh Everett III (1930 – 1982) who invented the many-worlds interpretation. In this interpretation, the wave function corresponds to physical reality, and each time a measurement is made the universe splits into many different universes corresponding to each possible outcome of the quantum measurement process. Physicists are nothing if not imaginative. This interpretation also offers the promise of eternal life.  The claim is that in all the possible quantum universes there must be one in which you will live forever. Eventually that will be the only one you will be aware of. But as with the Greek legend of Tithonus, there is no promise of eternal youth. The results may not be pretty.

If you do not like either of those interpretations of quantum mechanics, well have I got an interpretation for you. It goes under the title of the relation interpretation. Here the wave function is simply the information a given observer has about the quantum system and may be different for different observers; nothing mystical here and no multiplicity of worlds. Then there is the theological interpretation. This I first heard from Steven Hawking (b. 1942) although I doubt he believed it. In this interpretation, God uses quantum indeterminacy to hide his direct involvement in the unfolding of the universe. He simply manipulates the results of quantum measurements to suit his own goals. Well, He does work in mysterious ways after all.

I will not bore you with all possible interpretations and their permutations. Life is too short for that, but we are still left with the overarching question: which interpretation is the one true interpretation? What is the nature of reality implied by quantum mechanics? Does the universe split into many? Does consciousness play a central role? Is the wave function simply information? Does God hide in quantum indeterminacy?

Experiment cannot sort this out since all the interpretations pretty much agree on the results of experiments (even this is subject to debate), but science has one other criteria: parsimony. We eliminate unnecessary assumptions. When applied to interpretations of quantum mechanics, parsimony seems to favour the relational interpretation. But, in fact, parsimony, carefully applied, favours something else; the instrumentalist approach. That is: don’t worry about the interpretations, just shut up and calculate. All the interpretations have additional assumptions not required by observations.

But what about the ultimate nature of reality? There is no theorem that says reality, itself, must be simple. So quantum mechanics implies very little about the ultimate nature of reality. I guess we will have to leave that discussion to the philosophers and theologians. More power to them.

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[1] Although quantum gravity is still a big problem.

[2] A major player in the development of quantum many body theory and nuclear physics.


Is there a place for realism in science?

Friday, January 10th, 2014

In the philosophy of science, realism is used in two related ways. The first way is that the interior constructs of a model refer to something that actually exists in nature, for example the quantum mechanical wave function corresponds to a physical entity. The second way is that properties of a system exist even when they are not being measured; the ball is in the box even when no one can see it (unless it is a relative of Schrodinger’s cat). The two concepts are related since one can think of the ball’s presence or absence as part of one’s model for how balls (or cats) behave.

Despite our and even young children’s belief in the continued existence of the ball and that cats are either alive or dead, there are reasons for doubting realism. The three main ones are the history of physics, the role of canonical (unitary) transformations in classical (quantum) mechanics, and Bell’s inequality. The second and third of these may seem rather obtuse, but bear with me.

Let’s start with the first, the history of physics. Here, we follow in the footsteps of Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996). He was probably the first philosopher of science to actually look at the history of science to understand how science works. One of his conclusions was that the interior constructs of models (paradigms in his terminology) do not correspond (refer in the philosophic jargon) to anything in reality. It is easy to see why. One can think of a sequence of models in the history of physics. Here we consider the Ptolemaic system, Newtonian mechanics, quantum mechanics, relativistic field theory (a combination of quantum mechanics and relativity) and finally quantum gravity. The Ptolemaic system ruled for half a millennium, from the second to seventeenth centuries. By any standard, the Ptolemaic model was a successful scientific model since it made correct predictions for the location of the planets in the night sky. Eventually, however, Newton’s dynamical model caused its demise. At the Ptolemaic model’s core were the concepts of geo-centrism and uniform circular motion. People believed these two aspects of the model corresponded to reality. But Newton changed all that. Uniform circular motion and geo-centrism were out and instantaneous gravitation attraction was in. Central to the Newtonian system was the fixed Euclidean space time geometry and particle trajectories. The first of these was rendered obsolete by relativity and the second by quantum mechanics; at least the idea of fixed number of particles survived–until quantum field theory. And if string theory is correct, all those models have the number of dimensions wrong. The internal aspects of well-accepted and successful models disappear when new models replace the old. There are other examples. In the history of physics, the caloric theory of heat was successful at one time but caloric vanished when the kinetic theory of heat took over. And on it goes. What is regarded as central to our understanding of how the world works goes puff when new models replace old.

On to the second reason for doubting realism–the role of transformations: canonical and unitary.  In both classical and quantum mechanics there are mathematical transformations that change the internals of the calculations[1] but leave not only the observables but also the structure of the calculations invariant. For example, in classical mechanics we can use a canonical transformation to change coordinates without changing the physics. We can express the location of an object using the earth as a reference point or the sun. Now this is quite fun; the choice of coordinates is quite arbitrary. So you want a geocentric system (like Galileo’s opponents), no problem. We write the equation of motion in that frame and everyone is happy. But you say the Earth really does go around the sun. That is equivalent to the statement: planetary motion is more simply described in the heliocentric frame. We can go on from there and use coordinates as weird as you like to match religious or personal preconceptions.  In quantum mechanics the transformations have even more surprising implications. You would think something like the correlations between particles would be observable and a part of reality. But that is not the case. The correlations depend on how you do your calculation and can be changed at will with unitary transformations. It is thus with a lot of things that you might think are parts of reality but are, as we say, model dependent.

Finally we come to Bell’s inequality as the third reason to doubt realism. The idea here goes back to what is known as the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox (published in 1935). By looking at the correlations of coupled particles Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen claimed that quantum mechanics is incomplete.  John Bell (1928 – 1990), building on their work, developed a set of inequalities that allowed a precise experimental test of the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen claim. The experimental test has been performed and the quantum mechanical prediction confirmed. This ruled out all local realistic models. That is, local models where a system has definite values of a property even when that property has not been measured. This is using realism in the second sense defined above. There are claims, not universally accepted, that extensions of Bell’s inequalities rule out all realist models, local or non-local.

So where does this leave us? Pretty much with the concept of realism in science in tatters. The internals of models changes in unpredictable ways when science advances. Even within a given model, the internals can be changed with mathematical tricks and for some definitions of realism, experiment has largely ruled it out.  Thus we are left with our models that describe aspects of reality but should never be mistaken for reality itself. Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), the great German philosopher, would not be surprised[2].

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[1] For the relation between the two type of transformations see: N.L. Balazs and B.K. Jennings, Unitary transformations, Weyl’s association and the role of canonical transformations, Physica, 121A (1983) 576–586

[2] He made the distinction between the thing in itself and observations of it.


Has there ever been a paradigm shift?

Friday, December 6th, 2013

Yes, once!

Paradigm and paradigm shift are so over used and misused that the world would benefit if they were simply banned.  Originally Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996) in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, used the word paradigm to refer to the set of practices that define a scientific discipline at any particular period of time. A paradigm shift is when the entire structure of a field changes, not when someone simply uses a different mathematical formulation. Perhaps it is just grandiosity, everyone thinking their latest idea is earth shaking (or paradigm shifting), but the idea has been so debased that almost any change is called a paradigm shift, down to level of changing the color of ones socks.

The archetypal example, and I would suggest the only real example in the natural and physical sciences, is the paradigm shift from Aristotelian to Newtonian physics. This was not just a change in physics from the perfect motion is circular to an object either is at rest or moves at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force but a change in how knowledge is defined and acquired. There is more here than a different description of motion; the very concept of what is important has changed. In Newtonian physics there is no place for perfect motion but only rules to describe how objects actually behave. Newtonian physics was driven by observation. Newton, himself, went further and claimed his results were derived from observation. While Aristotelian physics is broadly consistent with observation it is driven more by abstract concepts like perfection.  Aristotle (384 BCE – 322 BCE) would most likely have considered Galileo Galilei’s (1564 – 1642) careful experiments beneath him.  Socrates (c. 469 BC – 399 BC) certainly would have. Their epistemology was not based on careful observation.

While there have been major changes in the physical sciences since Newton, they do not reach the threshold needed to call them a paradigm shifts since they are all within the paradigm defined by the scientific method. I would suggest Kuhn was misled by the Aristotle-Newton example where, indeed, the two approaches are incommensurate: What constitutes a reasonable explanation is simply different for the two men. But would the same be true with Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) and Niels Bohr (1885–1962) who were chronologically on opposite sides of the quantum mechanics cataclysm?  One could easily imagine Faraday, transported in time, having a fruitful discussion with Bohr. While the quantum revolution was indeed cataclysmic, changing mankind’s basic understanding of how the universe worked, it was based on the same concept of knowledge as Newtonian physics. You make models based on observations and validate them through testable predictions.  The pre-cataclysmic scientists understood the need for change due to failed predictions, even if, like Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) or Erwin Schrödinger (1887 – 1961), they found quantum mechanics repugnant. The phenomenology was too powerful to ignore.

Sir Karl Popper (1902 – 1994) provided another ingredients missed by Kuhn, the idea that science advances by the bold new hypothesis, not by deducing models from observation. The Bohr model of the atom was a bold hypothesis not a paradigm shift, a bold hypothesis refined by other scientists and tested in the crucible of careful observation. I would also suggest that Kuhn did not understand the role of simplicity in making scientific models unique. It is true that one can always make an old model agree with past observations by making it more complex[1]. This process frequently has the side effect of reducing the old models ability to make predictions. It is to remedy these problems that a bold new hypothesis is needed. But to be successful, the bold new hypothesis should be simpler than the modified version of the original model and more crucially must make testable predictions that are confirmed by observation. But even then, it is not a paradigm shift; just a verified bold new hypothesis.

Despite the nay-saying, Kuhn’s ideas did advance the understanding of the scientific method. In particular, it was a good antidote to the logical positivists who wanted to eliminate the role of the model or what Kuhn called the paradigm altogether. Kuhn made the point that is the framework that gives meaning to observations. Combined with Popper’s insights, Kuhn’s ideas paved the way for a fairly comprehensive understanding of the scientific method.

But back to the overused word paradigm, it would be nice if we could turn back the clock and restrict the term paradigm shift to those changes where the before and after are truly incommensurate; where there is no common ground to decide which is better. Or if you like, the demarcation criteria for a paradigm shift is that the before and after are incommensurate[2]. That would rule out the change of sock color from being a paradigm shift. However, we cannot turn back the clock so I will go back to my first suggestion that the word be banned.

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[1] This is known as the Duhem-Quine thesis.

[2] There are probably paradigm shifts, even in the restricted meaning of the word, if we go outside science. The French revolution could be considered a paradigm shift in the relation between the populace and the state.


Selling Science: Can we best the preachers and politicians at the PR game?

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Too many of the attempts to sell science are like the proverbial minister preaching to the choir: they convince nobody but the already converted. This is unfortunate because we, as scientists, have a duty and a responsibility to sell science to a wider audience.  There are four motivations for this:

  1. There are important technical questions that can only be answered by the scientific method. These include, for example, what is causing global warming? Or why are the returning salmon runs in British Columbia so erratic? We must make the case that science and only science can address these types of questions and that the answers science provides should be listened to.
  2. To provide answers to questions like those above, science must have ongoing support since the answers can only come from a scientific infrastructure that is maintained for the long haul.  In addition to answering practical questions, science also has the important cultural role of satisfying human curiosity. To satisfy either the practical or cultural goals, science needs support from the public purse. This means science must be sold to politicians and the general public who elect them and support science through their taxes.
  3. We need to excite the next generation’s best and brightest to consider science as a career. This is the only way that we can ensure science’s future.
  4. Selling science is rewarding and can even be fun. You should have seen the fun both TRIUMF staff and visitors had at the last TRIUMF Open House. There is also something contagious about explaining a topic you are passionate about.

The allusions to religion in the opening sentence are appropriate as many attempts to sell science come across as a claim that science is the one true religion and anyone who disagrees is a fool.  While that may, indeed, be true[1], hollering it from the hill tops is a strategy doomed to failure. A frontal attack on a major component of a person’s world view will only arouse hostility.  Hence, to sell science, we have to start with a common ground with the audience. To achieve maximum impact, you have to know your audience and tailor what you say to its interests.

However, there are three things that should be part of any attempt to sell science:

  1. A definition of what science is. This may seem self-evident but I have seen seminars on selling science that carefully avoided any attempt to define what science actually is. I have this real nice pig in the poke to sell you. Even worse are attempts to define science that are wrong and/or annoy people. A major impediment to selling science is that there is no commonly accepted definition of what science is. However, allow me to offer a fairly safe definition: using observation as a basis for modeling how the universe works. This definition is simple, understandable and reasonably accurate[2].  Alternatively, one can talk about the ability to make testable predictions as the hallmark of the scientific method. Use the word theory sparingly as that word has multiple meanings and invariably leads to confusion. Using words like objective reality, truth, or fact is a real turn off to many audiences. Besides, every Christian will tell you that Jesus is the truth and the more fundamentalist Christians that the bible is fact. You cannot win with those words, avoid them.
  2. Examples of scientific successes.  This is the greatest strength in selling science. We have a plethora of examples to choose from, but it is probably not a good idea to start with the nuclear bomb[3]. Again, it is important to understand the audience. To a person talking non-stop on his cell phone, the cell phone would be a good example (if you can get his attention) but to other people the cell phone is an anathema. The same is true of almost any example you can choose. After all, curing disease (and motherhood) leads to world overpopulation. On TV or radio, the role of science in enabling TV and radio is a good bet. On YouTube, the internet would be a good example.  Despite the comment above, curing disease usually gets brownie points for science.  But claiming the Higgs boson cures cancer is a bit of a stretch.
  3. Your personal experience of the thrill of science; whether it is for the good of humanity or just learning more about how the universe works. It is here that the emotional aspect of science can come to the fore. To some of us, the hunting of the Higgs boson is more thrilling than hunting grizzly bears and probably more environmentally friendly. Using personal experience may seem as going against our training as scientist; but here we can learn from the professionals, those who sell religion or political parties: Do not talk about theology but your personal experience[4]. Do not talk about the platform but your own experience[5].  In the end, this may be a telling argument and it is important to counter the stereotype of the mad scientist in his (almost always male) laboratory plotting world domination or ignoring the obvious flaws in his theory and its disastrous side effects.  Drs. Faustus and Frankenstein are never far from people’s conception of the scientist.

You would think that selling science would be easy. We have a well-defined technique, four hundred years of successes to prove its usefulness and the thrill of the hunt. But we are up against two formidable foes: competing world views and vested interests. If someone believes they will be raptured to Heaven in the near future, learning about the world below is not a high priority. Similarly if they subscribe to the old hymn, I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted to This World Below, finding a crack in which to start a conversation is difficult.

In the same vein, if you have spent your life building a tobacco empire the last thing you want is some scientist claiming tobacco causes cancer. Or if you have made selling tar-sands oil a key political plank, you do not want scientists claiming it is destroying the earth.  In these cases, science, itself, tends to become the target of the counterattack. With the world’s best public-relations machines powered by religion, politics and vested interests in opposition it is not at all clear that the efforts to sell science will be successful.  But we must try. The motivations are so compelling, we must try.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank T. Meyer and members of the TRIUMF Communications Group for comments on various drafts of this post.

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[1] Or not, as the case may be.

[2] My Quantum Diary blogs support this definition of science.

[3] Unless you are in Los Alamos.

[4] A well-known mega church pastor.

[5] Obama campaign worker.


Is science just another religion?

Friday, November 1st, 2013

Modern science has assumed many of the roles traditionally played by religion and, as a result, is often mistaken for just another religion; one among many. But the situation is rather more complicated and many of the claims that science is not a religion come across as a claim that science is The One True Religion. In the past, religion has supplied answers to the basic questions of how the universe originated, how people were created, what determines morality, and how humans relate to the rest of the universe. Science is slowly but surely replacing religion as the source of answers to these questions. The visible universe originated with the big bang, humans arose through evolution, morality arose through the evolution of a social ape and humans are a mostly irrelevant part of the larger universe. One may not agree with science’s answers but they exist and influence even those who do not explicitly believe them.

More importantly, through answering questions like these, religion has formed the basis for people’s worldview, their overall perspective from which they see and interpret the world. Religious beliefs and a person’s worldview were frequently so entangled that they are often viewed as one and the same thing. In the past this was probably true, but in this modern day and age, science presents an alternative to religion as the basis for a person’s worldview. Therefore science is frequently seen as a competing religion not just the basis of a competing world view. Despite this, there is a distinct difference between science and religion and it has profound implications for how they function.

The prime distinction was recognized at least as far back as Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274). The idea is this: Science is based on public information while religion is based on private information, information that not even the NSA can spy on. Anyone can, if they wait long enough, observe an apple fall as Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) did, but no one can know by independent observation what Saint Paul (c. 5 – c. 67) saw in the third heaven. Anyone sufficiently proficient in mathematics can repeat Albert Einstein’s (1879 – 1955) calculations but no one can independently check Joseph Smith’s (1805 – 1844) revelations that are the foundation of Mormonism, although additional private inspiration may, or may not, support them.  As a result of the public nature of the information on which science is founded, science tends to develop consensuses which only change when new information becomes available. In contrast, religion, being based on private information, tends to fragment when not constrained by the sword or at least the law. Just look at the number of Christian denominations and independent churches. While not as fragmented as Christianity, most major religions have had at least one schism. Even secularism, the none-of-the-above of religion, has its branches, one for example belonging to the new atheists.

The consensus-forcing nature of the scientific method and the public information on which it is based lead some to the conclusion that science is based on objective reality.  But in thirty years of wandering around a physics laboratory, I have never had the privilege of meeting Mr. Objective Reality—very opinionated physicists, yes, but Mr. Objective Reality, no.  Rather, science is based on two assumptions:

  1. Meaningful knowledge can be extracted from observation. While this may seem self-evident, it has been derided by various philosophers from Socrates on down.
  2. What happened in the past can be used to predict what will happen in the future. This is a sophisticated version of the Mount Saint Helens fallacy that had people refusing to leave that mountain before it erupted because it has not erupted in living memory.


Science and religion are, thus, both based on assumptions but differ in the public versus private nature of the information that drives their development. This difference in their underlying epistemology means that their competing claims cannot be systematically resolved; they are different paradigms.  Both can, separately or together, be used as a basis of a person’s worldview and it is here that conflict arises. People react rather strongly when their worldview is challenged and the competing epistemologies both claim to be the only firm basis on which a worldview can be based.

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Simplicity: The Secret Sauce in the Scientific Method

Friday, October 4th, 2013

Simplicity plays a crucial, but frequently overlooked, role in the scientific method (see the posters in my previous post). Considering how complicated science can be, simplicity may seem to be far from a driving source in science. Is string theory really simple? If scientists need at least six, seven or more years of training past high school, how can we consider science to be anything but antithetical to simplicity?

Good questions, but simple is relative. Consider the standard model of particle physics. First, it is widely agreed upon what the standard model is. Second, there are many alternatives to the standard model that agree with the standard model where there is experimental data but disagree elsewhere. One can name many[1]: Little Higgs, Technicolor, Grand Unified Models (in many varieties), and Super Symmetric Grand Unified Models (also in many varieties). I have even attended a seminar where the speaker gave a general technique to generate extensions to the standard model that also have a dark matter candidate. So why do we prefer the standard model? It is not elegance. Very few people consider the Standard Model more elegant than its competitors. Indeed, elegance is one of the main motivations driving the generation of alternate models. The competitors also keep all the phenomenological success of the standard model. So, to repeat the question, why do we prefer the standard model to the competitors? Simplicity and only simplicity. All the pretenders have additional assumptions or ingredients that are not required by the current experimental data. At some point they may be required as more data is made available but not now.  Thus we go with the simplest model that describes the data.

This is true across all disciplines and over time. The elliptic orbits of Kepler (1571–1630) where simpler than the epicycles of Ptolemy random graph(c. 90 – c. 168) or the epicyclets of Copernicus (1473–1543). There it is. We draw straight lines through the data rather than 29th order polynomials. If the data has bumps and wiggles, we frequently assume they are experimental error as in the randomly[2] chosen graph to the left where the theory lines do not go through all the data points. No one would take me seriously if I fit every single bump and wiggle. Simplicity is more important than religiously fitting each data point.

Going from the sublime to the ridiculous consider Russell’s teapot.  Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) argued as follows: If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. But what feature of the scientific method rules out the orbiting teapot? Or invisible pink unicorns? Or anyone of a thousand different mythical beings? Not observation! But they fail the simplicity test. Like the various extensions to the standard model, they are discounted because there are extra assumptions that are not required by the observational data.  This is otherwise known as Occam’s razor.

The argument for simplicity is rather straight forward. Models are judged by their ability to describe past observations and make correct predictions for future ones. As a matter of practical consideration, one should drop all features of a model that are not conducive to that end. While the next batch of data may force one to a more complicated model, there is no way to judge in advance which direction the complication will take. Hence we have all the extensions of the standard model waiting in the wings to see which, if any, the next batch of data will prefer – or rule out.

The crucial role of simplicity in choosing one model from among the many solves one of the enduring problems in the philosophy of science. Consider the following quote from Imre Lakatos (1922 – 1974) a leading philosopher of science from the last century: But, as many skeptics pointed out, rival theories are always indefinitely many and therefore the proving power of experiment vanishes.  One cannot learn from experience about the truth of any scientific theory, only at best about its falsehood: confirming instances have no epistemic value whatsoever (emphasis in the original). Note the premise of the argument: rival theories are always indefinitely many. While rival theories may be infinitely many, one or at most a very few are always chosen by the criteria of simplicity.  We have the one standard model of particle physics not an infinite many and his argument fails at the first step. Confirming instances, like finding the Higgs boson, do have epistemic value.

[1] This list is time dependent and may be out of date.

[2] Chosen randomly from one of my papers.


The Scientific Method (Poster)

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Here are a couple of posters that summarize my ideas on the scientific method. Please feel free to download them and put on your wall. As the first poster shows, the scientific method is indeed simple.

scientific method poster

PDF for the first poster available here.


PDF for the second poster available here.

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The Illusion of Purpose

Friday, July 19th, 2013

From whence does purpose arise?  People always want to know why: What is the purpose? Why did hurricane Sandy hit New York? Was it punishment for past sins? The idea of purpose is so central to people’s thinking that we want a purpose for every happening. This was engrained in philosophy as Aristotle’s final cause. Aristotle regarded the final cause as the most important of his four causes and it became central to medieval philosophy. Understanding the final cause has, indeed, been important to our survival. It was important to know the reason for the lioness taking a stroll. Was she just doing it for exercise or was she looking for a meal? If the latter, it was very important to give her a wide berth. Similarly in social interactions, it is important to know the purpose behind a person’s behaviour. Are they just being nice or do they have ulterior motives? And if so, what?

Purpose or Aristotle’s final cause[1] is entirely from the physical sciences and downplayed in science generally. This leads to an argument against evolution.  Evolution by natural selection has no purpose but is a stochastic process with the direction of each step being independent of the previous step and depending only on the local conditions at that moment. Apes did not evolve to form the stock from which humans later arose but rather humans arose as a result of local environmental pressures on the ape. The precise argument against evolution by natural selection is that since natural processes have no purpose, purpose could not have arisen unless there was an outside agency to give purpose. Since purpose is seen, for example in animal and human behaviour, such an outside agency must exist. If evolution produced this purpose, it must have been guided by an external purpose and not be due entirely to natural selection.

This argument is a prime example of proof by lack of imagination. It relies on not having enough imagination to find a method for purpose to arise from natural selection.  Hence, the precise argument against evolution can be stated as: I can imagine no way that purpose can arise except by an external agency, therefore evolution must be caused by an external agency. The counter to proof by lack of imagination is the just so story. That is a story made up to explain a given occurrence without any evidence of wide spread validity. Generally, I regard just so stories as uninteresting and certainly not science[2]. To make the just so story science, one would have to use it to make testable predictions. But as a counter to proof by lack of imagination, that is not necessary. All that is necessary is that to provide one plausible counter example.  I will now give a just so story to counter the argument in the last paragraph.

So, let’s see how the illusion of purpose, if not purpose itself, could arise. Consider some bacteria in a solution with a gradient for food.  The bacterium that moves towards more food will on average produce more offspring and therefore the population will eventually be dominated by those that move up the gradient. The resulting behaviour appears to have a purpose: namely to get more food.  However, it is just the response to the local conditions, conditioned by evolution’s feedback loop.

One can apply the same type of reasoning to more complex situations and in every case evolution favours those individuals whose behavior appears to have purpose. Consider the case of a bird building a nest. Birds that build nests that do a better job of protecting their young will have more offspring (balanced somewhat by the cost of building the nest).  Similarly with the behaviour of young men courting young women (and vice versa). Those that are successful produce offspring while those that aren’t, don’t reproduce.  Thus, the behaviour seems to have a purpose but in fact, it is only that those who behave in a certain way leave offspring and hence, the behaviour is all that survives. Incidentally, this also explains why there are so few geeks.

Thus, we see that purpose, or to be more precise, the illusion of purpose, can arise from the feedback loop in evolution. Evolution favours those behaviours that work towards the end of producing more offspring, which is a purely mechanical process. But saying purpose is an illusion is perhaps going too far. In building models of animal and even plant behaviour, purpose is a useful concept that makes the job easier. Models that include purpose are simpler and make better predictions than those without and even if they didn’t, we are human after all, and do enjoy a just so story. Purpose, like the nucleon, is an emergent property[3] that arises from the underlying dynamics. So the next time you are pursuing a member of opposite sex with a definite purpose in mind, remember that purpose is, if not an illusion, just an emergent property.

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[2] They can however be entertaining.