Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Public Presentation at National Capitol Area Skeptics

I'm scheduled to do a presentation for the National Capitol Area Skeptics based on my paper "The Cosmos in Your Pocket" .

The talk is scheduled for October 10, 2009 at 1:30PM at the Bethesda Library, Bethesda, Maryland and is open to the public.

Don't worry, it will be abbreviated to one hour duration, not the two hour marathon session at DragonCon.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Scott Rebuttal. III. The Importance of Quantum Mechanics

I make comments on Dr. Scott's lack of mention of QM:
Dr. Scott, an electrical engineer, is clearly a victim of this professional isolation himself. I found little mention of quantum mechanics or its impact in astronomical observations and astrophysical understanding and the feedback astrophysics provided to Earth laboratories. Considering that the quantum mechanics that explains the spectra and energy source of the stars is the same quantum mechanics that has made modern microelectronics possible, I suspect Dr. Scott probably has some interesting misconceptions about this subspecialty of his own field. (”The Electric Sky: Short-Circuited”, pg 8)
Dr. Scott has a rather bizarre response
A discussion of quantum mechanics has no place in my book. I intentionally do not discuss the very many subspecialties of electrical engineering. That was not the thrust of my book and I submit comments such as the one above are simply 'red-herrings‘ dragged across the path of that thrust. (”D.E. Scott Rebuts T. Bridgman”, pg 4).
But the quantum mechanics that explains atomic structure and spectra is the exact same quantum mechanics that made modern semiconductor electronics possible!  Does Dr. Scott know this?

One of the few references I provide that Dr. Scott did apparently examine is my paper “The Cosmos in Your Pocket: How Cosmological Science became Earth Technology” (Version 1 was available at that time). Dr. Scott reinforces the appearance of his misunderstanding of quantum mechanics on page 2 of his rebuttal:
At any rate, in one swoop, TB attempts to subsume all of the practical achievements of modern chemistry, solid-state physics, and electronics into owing their origins to astrophysics. This is absurd on its face. If he thinks that Leo Esaki, working for (what is now) Sony Corporation in 1957, had any thoughts about astrophysics in his mind while developing his tunnel diode, I submit he is delusional. What about Brattain, Bardeen, and Shockley while working at Bell Laboratories on their bipolar junction transistor – or the field-effect transistor? Were they thinking about astrophysics too? I very much doubt it. (D. E. Scott Rebuts T. Bridgman, pg 2)
Dr. Scott misses again. My point is the these individuals used the exact same quantum mechanics as Bethe, Teller, Gamow, and others used in solving problems in nuclear astrophysics. These successes in astrophysics also demonstrated the broad range of applicability of quantum mechanics, reinforcing both astrophysics and quantum mechanics as well as the concept that the physical laws we measure on Earth apply in the distant cosmos as well.

But to fully appreciate the quantum connection between astrophysics and modern electronics, one needs to examine some of the history.

These two papers, by Alan Herries Wilson from 1931, are regarded by many as the papers that put semiconductors on a firm theoretical foundation.
These two papers turned semiconductors from a mysterious material (its primary use in electronics was the 'crystal' in crystal radio sets) to a substance that could be understood, and subsequently manipulated, on a fundamental level. John Bardeen and others regard them as the classic papers in semiconductor electronics (see Oral History Transcript — John Bardeen).

While I was originally planning a different approach for this article, another search of the literature revealed a far more interesting connection between semiconductor electronics and astrophysics. Consider this paper, published by the same Alan Herries Wilson earlier in 1931.
This was one of the first papers to use quantum mechanics to in an attempt to understand the nuclear processes that could take place in stellar interiors.

This is a fascinating paper, as it would examine the impact of quantum tunneling on nuclear reaction rates in stars. It did not solve any significant astrophysical problems, for it was a little before it's time, but it outlined the quantum mechanical analyses that later researchers would use. Wilson could not solve the problem because he did not know about the neutron (which would be discovered the following year) nor did he have a way to include the newly-hypothesized neutrino into the reaction computations. A theory of neutrino interactions would not be available until some work by Enrico Fermi a few years later. Both of these discoveries were important to solve the problem of stellar nuclear reactions. It would be another eight years before Hans Bethe would solve the main bottleneck in the formation of hydrogen from helium [Bethe 1939]. Bethe's work would not fully solve the problem until after World War II when the uncertainties in stellar compositions would be resolved.

Even more interesting is the fact that Wilson would note how astrophysicists recognized the implications of the Pauli Exclusion Principle (Wikipedia: Pauli Principle) (the fact that no two electrons, or more generally, identical fermions, can occupy the same quantum state at the same time) before the physicists[Wilson 1980]. Astrophysicists immediately made use of this principle. Ralph Fowler (who was one of Wilson's professors) had already used the Pauli Principle for computing the structure of condensed matter at high densities in the interior of stars [Fowler 1926]. This paper would lay the foundations of later research on degenerate states of matter matter (Wikipedia: Degenerate Matter), a critical development in understanding the structure of white dwarf (Wikipedia: White Dwarf) and neutron stars (Wikipedia: Neutron Stars).

Wilson applied the exact same quantum mechanics in both astrophysics and the development of semiconductor theory. And Wilson wasn't the only physicist to do this. Exploring the publications of Hans Bethe (Nobel Prize, 1967), Edward Teller and others reveal contributions in our understanding of atoms and molecules as well as astrophysics - via the universal application of quantum mechanics.

This only reinforces my original claim, as the great majority of what we know about astrophysical plasmas is determined from their spectra, which can only be understood with quantum mechanics. This is the same quantum mechanics used in understanding technologies from semiconductor electronics to laser emission.

Prior to the discovery of astrophysical spectra, the only thing we knew about the cosmos were positions (mostly 2-D, but 3-D if sufficiently close), colors, motions and variability if we collect the data over time.

Spectra changed all that. With spectra, and the quantum mechanical framework which describes their formation, we can determine:
  • Compositions, ionization levels and temperatures: from lines and intensities of lines
  • Pressure and temperature: from the profile of the spectral lines
  • Radial velocities and intense gravitational fields: from spectral line shifts
  • Electric and magnetic fields: from line splitting, the Zeeman (Wikipedia: Zeeman Effect) and Stark effects (Wikipedia: Stark Effect).
Even on the Earth, quantum mechanics is needed for plasma diagnostics as many high-temerature plasmas of industrial and commercial interest are hot enough to destroy material probes inserted in them. We therefore measure their spectra and use quantum mechanics to determine the temperature and ionization levels.

The quantum mechanics that makes our semiconductor electronics in our homes possible, and enhances our understanding of laboratory plasmas, is the same quantum mechanics that explains the spectra of stars as well as their nuclear energy source.

Did Dr. Scott even bother to check his 'facts' before writing his 'rebuttal'?  Is he attempting to evade acknowledging the role of quantum mechanics in his own field of electrical engineering, as well as in the fields of plasma physics and astrophysics?  Does Dr. Scott understand the role that the concept of Fermi energy plays in semiconductor electronics as well as white dwarf and neutron stars?

  1. J. B. Hearnshaw. The analysis of starlight: One hundred and fifty years of astronomical spectroscopy. Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  2. R. H. Fowler. On dense matter. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 87:114–122, December 1926.
  3. A. H. Wilson. Solid state physics 1925-1933: opportunities missed and opportunities seized. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Containing Papers of a Mathematical and Physical Character, 371: 39–48, June 1980.
  4. H. A. Bethe and C. L. Critchfield. The formation of deuterons by proton combination. Physical Review, 54: 248–254, August 1938.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Still no electric currents powering the galaxies...

The ESA Planck mission has released some first images of the cosmic microwave background.

Planck first light yields promising results

Still no sign of those giant galaxy-powering electric currents so promoted by the Electric Universe crowd...
See "Scott Rebuttal. II. The Peratt Galaxy Model vs. the Cosmic Microwave Background"

Friday, September 11, 2009

DragonCon 2009 Report

I had hoped to post an update while I was at DragonCon but having the family along made that a bit more difficult than expected. I return to find a bunch of unmoderated comments (now published, thanks for your patience).

I gave my talk, “The Cosmos In Your Pocket”, based on my paper, on late Saturday afternoon. The DragonCon science organizers allocated me a full two-and-a-half hours and not only did I use almost the full allotment of time, but actually had many attendees stay for the duration.

I attended a number of sessions in the science, space, and skepticism programming tracks including Kevin Grazier's “The Science of Battlestar Galactica”, Phil Plait's and Kevin's “Myths in the Movies” session, and the “Stealth Science and Skeptical Thought” panel (see image below) with Phil, Adam Savage (Mythbusters), Scott Sigler (science fiction author), Rebecca Watson (Skeptics Guide to the Universe) and Melissa Kaercher (inker for science-related comic books).

Seeing again
  • Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy & JREF: Phil and I have crossed paths briefly a number of times, starting back around 1996 (or was it 1997?) when I invited him to give an Astronomy Day presentation for the Greenbelt Astronomy Club. We also crossed paths with the 2004 Venus Transit. He knows my face but can't quite remember my name. He did sign my copy of his new book, “Death from the Skys!”.
  • Eugenie Scott of NCSE: She spoke at the Goddard Scientific Colloquium in the fall of 2006 where I joined the speaker's luncheon.
Meeting for the first time
It apparently wouldn't be DragonCon without a report of Celebrity Sightings
All in all, it was a good trip for a first-time attending DragonCon.

The only downside was that
registration lines seem to be a persistent issue, even for those who pre-registered. The line was so long Thursday evening that I gave up after about 50 minutes. Friday morning I managed to make it through in just under two hours. The only break in the boredom of waiting in line was someone sent a beachball flying around the room and a free-form volleyball game broke out which was terminated when too many participants were hitting the large chandeliers in the ballroom. While final lines were organized alphabetically, the A-B-C lines were full while later letters in the alphabet had nearly empty chutes. Random clumping or bad planning? Only the organizers know for sure...

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Theory Vs. Experiment. II

Most of the science we know was discovered based on the mismatch between what we thought we knew and experimental/observational results. There are a host of historical discoveries that were precipitated by the discovery of such discrepancies. But as you can see in these examples, the time between the discovery of a problem and its resolution can be years, even decades.

Here's a list of discoveries which started with discrepancies relevant to 'missing mass' which existed at one time and have been resolved.

Discrepancies found in the orbit of the planet Uranus (discovered 1821):
Hypotheses: breakdown of Newtonian gravity
Undiscovered planets
Resolution: Planet Neptune discovered, 1846 (See Wikipedia: The Discovery of Neptune)
Time to resolution: 25 years

Discrepancies are found in the proper motions of the relatively nearby stars Sirius and Procyon (1844)
Hypotheses: Something massive but very faint, that did not emit enough light to be seen in the glare of the primary star, was orbiting these stars.
Resolution: Faint companion stars are found orbiting Sirius (1862) and Procyon (1896). These stars would turn out to be white dwarf stars. (see Wikipedia: White Dwarf)
Time to resolution: 18 and 52 years

Discrepancies found in the orbit of the planet Mercury (discovered 1859)
Hypotheses: Undiscovered planet between Sun and orbit of Mercury. Proposed name is Vulcan but repeated searches do not find it.
Resolution: Postulation of the General Theory of relativity, 1915 (See Wikipedia: Perihelion Precession of Mercury)
Time to resolution: 56 years

Beta-decay of atomic nuclei is found to violate conservation of energy and angular momentum (discovered 1911)
  • Beta-decay violates these conservation laws
  • there is an extra particle, electrically neutral, spin 1/2, very small mass, emitted in beta-decay that is not detected by current technologies (neutrino hypothesis, 1930)
Resolution: Neutrino detected, 1956 (See Wikipedia: Neutrino)
Time to resolution: 45 years

Atoms with the same nuclear charge are found to have different atomic masses (discovered 1913) (See Wikipedia: Isotopes). The mass of atomic nucleus for many elements is about twice the number of protons.
Hypothesis: tightly bound states of electrons and protons make up the difference in mass
Resolution: Discovery of neutron, 1932 (See Wikipedia: Neutron)
Time to resolution: 19 years

Shortage of neutrinos emitted from the Sun (discovered 1968).
Resolution: Neutrino oscillations, 2003 (See Wikipedia: Neutrino Oscillations)
Time to resolution: 35 years

What many people forget is that in the years between discovery of the problem and the resolution, there was often much contention between scientists. In a number of cases, there were experiments performed which reinforced some hypotheses.

In the case of the neutrino, theories of its interaction were developed which allowed theorists to treat it as a real particle and make numerical predictions. This capability also played a role in the eventual discovery as it enabled researchers to better estimate what level of technology would be needed for a direct detection.

Here's the big discrepancy in astronomy that has yet to be resolved. The is the focus of current controversy

Discrepancies: Rotation curves of galaxies doesn't match the visible matter distribution (discovered 1933). Clusters of galaxies have galaxies moving too fast to be gravitationally bound.

For information on the current state of searches for various particles beyond the Standard Model, check out the reviews at Particle Data Group, 2009 Reviews, Tables, and Plots

Frankly, I think the undiscovered subatomic particle option is most likely. It has the advantage of being the simplest solution that does not violate constraints from other observations. One could make the point that there seems to be an interesting hierarchy in the family of particles related to what interactions different classes of particles 'feel' (marked with an 'X').

Forces:gravityweakE&Mcolor (strong)




Electrons, muon, tau









It appeals to a sense of symmetry (a surprisingly successful concept in particle physics) that there should be one more line
Forces:gravityweakE&Mcolor (strong)
'Dark Matter'




In addition, the history has strongly favored the discovery of new particles just when we think we've found them all.

Consider the example from 1936, after the identification of electrons, protons, and neutrons, all the particles needed to build atoms. Carl Anderson discovered the muon in cosmic rays (see Wikipedia: Muon). It was such a surprise that one physicist commented “Who ordered that?”

Science involves finding solutions to difficult problems and sometimes it takes many years. I suspect there were cranks and crackpots exploiting the gaps in our understanding in the case of the older discrepancies, just as creationists and EU advocates try to exploit the more modern problems that are at the frontiers of our current knowledge.

In spite of the claims of pseudo-scientists, real scientists did the work and eventually solved the problems. They also improved on the measurements, sometimes revealing new discrepancies. Today, experiments are running that measure neutrino oscillations by measuring neutrinos that pass through the Earth emitted by reactors around the world (so there is a calibrated source). For more examples of science that started out as astronomical observations, see "The Cosmos in Your Pocket: Expanded and Revised".

Comments illustrating more examples from physics and astronomy are welcome.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Doin' Astronomy (and Science in General)...

I recently listened to two AstronomyCast podcasts that have some relevance to those who follow this blog.

Here's a summary of some of the major points, but one should really listen to these to get some of the important details. I've added some supplemental comments in red.

Ep 147: How to Be Taken Seriously by Scientists
Academic credentials are not a requirement to contribute in astronomy, even amateurs can make significant contributions.

Things to do to be taken seriously
  1. Do your homework. Find out what others have done.
  2. “Prove your idea”. (ACK! Science doesn't prove anything - it can only disprove or demonstrate agreement to some level of precision.)
  3. Mathematically, observationally and experimentally test the idea. (A huge amount of astronomical data is freely available online which can be used for testing some ideas. Much of it is in specialized professional file formats that require some study to use properly.)
  4. Determine what is necessary to test the idea.
  5. Get feedback. Get involved with local astronomy clubs. Sometimes professionals participate in these. Online forums have a number of professionals.
The big mistakes made by 'cranks':
  1. Science isn't about emotional reactions to ideas.
  2. They didn't do the math. You can't use words to prove a mathematical concept. (I do much of the math that the cranks/crackpots don't/won't/can't do, or don't what their 'fans' to see.)
  3. They don't do the experiment.
  4. They don't make predictions (or they make very imprecise predictions)
  5. They use the media for reporting their results. Professional journals or conferences are the proper place.
  6. Using all capital letters in the subject lines of their e-mail messages
  7. They self-publish books on their theory.
Many professional astronomers don't have funding for travel, conference fees, etc. They pay it out of their own pockets.

All scientists have the same rules. (And many of the cranks today try to target the rules that define science.)

Some things they missed:
* The web site lists arXiv as a peer-reviewed journal. ArXiv is NOT peer-reviewed. They require a sponsor for first-time submitters, but the sponsor is not required to review the paper.

Ep 146: Astronomy Research from Idea to Publication
A capsule summary:
  1. Get an idea
  2. Search existing literature
  3. If you require resources, such as observing time on specialized instruments or time on a supercomputer, you can seek grant money. The downside is this can take months for approval and only 1 in 5 get funding through the peer review process. If you can do the work with your existing computer system, most astronomers do it after hours.
  4. You get your data from an observation(s) or computer runs. Then you must do the data analysis. There are a number of standard steps that must be done with raw data from an instrument, such as cosmic ray removal, correction for instrument effects. Sometimes when your analysis is complete, the results don't match your expectations.
  5. Write paper and submit to journal
  6. Peer review process. It will often be done by someone who is knowledgeable in the field. Take their comments seriously.
  7. You may have to do several rewrites before the paper is accepted for publication