Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Self Evaluation 2

My regular readers can skip this post unless for some reason you are wildly interested in how I rate my blog for my science communication class.

I have kept up what I started with since my last evaluation. Before, I graded myself as an A. I believe I have improved greatly since then in several ways.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


The poll has been very illuminating. I got 6 votes.

0 votes for "Need to explain more" (phew!)
2 votes for "Needs more application"

1 vote for "Boooooring!"
3 votes for "Posts are too damn long"

I want to thank the voters for the feedback.

What's changing? Shorter posts for sure.  I've had the two votes for needs more application for a little while and have added more posts with application or things people care about (I think). How have I been doing? There was one vote for "Boooooring!", which is fine, I can't appeal to everyone. But I ask the one who voted on that, how can I make my content less boring? If it's just the topic that bores you, I guess there's not much I can do. If you think my blog has potential, what content would make it more interesting to you?

Thanks again for the feedback, I'll add a new poll soon!

EDIT: 3/23/2011
I received one more vote for "Posts are too damn long." Thanks for the input! 

Religion is NOT science - part 2


I had no idea of the discussion that would ensue. Mostly from people not reading my post, or putting words in my mouth. 22 comments, and possibly more physics content than the rest of my blogs posts thanks to a Mr. James Redford. That went way out of hand, and off topic, but I think the discussion has finally been brought to an end.

So instead of the part two I was originally planning, I'd prefer to summarize the previous (long!) post, and listen to what you guys have to say. So here goes.

My intention was not at all to bash religion. I thought I made that clear, but evidentally it wasn't clear enough. Let me make it clear. This post is not about whether or not religion is correct, necessary, a waste of time, or the most fruitful pursuit. This post is about how science and religion should remain separate entities. My reasoning for this is as follows. Religion is based upon faith in the unobserved (directly observed and quantifiable). Science requires quantifiable observations to make conclusions; otherwise it's just speculation. A scientific theory must be testable - religion is not. There's no way to disprove the existence of God or Gods (and arguably no way to prove them either.). Thus religion is not science. That's my point, and details are detailed in my previous post.

Regarding another topic. This was flushed out in the discussion, but I want to mention this once more here. A question was asked, (and I'm paraphrasing) if religion isn't science, where does that leave string theory? Regarding string theory as a theory. In my definition (the commonly accepted definition) of a scientific theory, string theory simply isn't one. It doesn't make any new predictions that can falsify it in the near future. It can be lumped into two categories.

1. A developing theory. This means it has potential to eventually become a true theory, but currently isn't one. This doesn't mean that it can't be applied to science or that work in the theory is pointless. Indeed string theory has been successful in a few areas of physics. Physicists are using string theory as a tool to learn more about quantum theory through something known as the AdS/CFT correspondence. I might discuss this at a later point, but it's an advanced topic - yes, it puts the subject of my this blog to shame as far as difficulty. String theories been used in other useful areas, but that's a whole other topic.

2. Philosophy. This means it could very well be true, but we can't prove it right or wrong right now. What does it mean for everything to be made of strings? Are there really 11 dimensions? What does this mean for the world? We can discuss implications as long as we understand these questions are philosophy - not science.

That concludes my posting about religion on this blog. Though I attempted to handle in an unbiased way, it still got slightly out of hand (yet yielded some interesting discussion!). I would really like to continue this discussion, but if I do, it'll be in the comments on this post, not in a future blog post (unless something changes and I'm compelled to do so for some reason...)

Cold Fusion Followup.

So, not much has been posted recently about it, but there are a few updates. This site seems kinda shady to me, just from the layout, but they've been giving updates on the situation. So what's new?

Looks like there's an upcoming test in the US. Of course, the device will still be kept under wraps until he is successfully able to file for a patent (his first attempt failed.). Hopefully this will allow scientists in the US to witness this device actually producing power. We'll see.

A one megawatt reactor is being constructed in Greece. From Free Energy Times, it looks like the start up date for this reactor is in October. A 1 MW reactor by October? I'm rather skeptical, but if this pans out, this could really change things.

Currently, a one year study on the reactor is being performed at the University of Bologna in Italy. The goal of this research is to better explain the theory behind the reactor.

Finally, I'd like to point out that they are trying to stay away from the term Cold Fusion for obvious reasons. Instead, they've been calling it LENR (low energy nuclear reactions) or chemically catalyzed nuclear reactions. Rossi has been documenting his reactor very well (as well as he really can whilst still keeping it secret...) on his blog, the Journal of Nuclear Physics (Not a peer reviewed journal; moderate skepticism is necessary; take what it says lightly please!)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Religion is NOT science - part 1

I'm probably going to step on some toes with this one, be warned. 

I was reading a post on fellow science communication blog They Let You Graduate?.  The author of this blog typically tends to anger me after reading his posts, but I'm fairly certain that's the very reason he's writing it. Whatever you think of his blog, he certainly does stir up deep thoughts in my head. His recent post was discussing the the movie Expelled, a documentary about how scientists that believe in the possibility of intelligent design (not necessarily creationism, I suppose it's different somehow...) are being discriminated against in academia. 

Consequently, that's not what my post is at all, but it did get me thinking about something that's dwelt on my mind for some time. People don't get what science means. People don't get what theory means. Yet people try to use science to prove unprovable things, and act as if it's perfectly valid! Now, I probably have a more liberal definition than most of what I call science. In a recent discussion in my science communication class, I stood firmly on the belief that science could exist independent of society, in an idealized sense. I believe science is a pure, unbiased entity. But when it comes down to it, this kind of science doesn't exist very often. I want to reserve the term to describe purely the "endeavor to uncover the mysterious truths of the universe." 

But we all know science doesn't end up being that. When I refer to science in this post, I speak of the socially, economically, political beast that requires certain ground rules. Here are my simple rules, and I reserve the right to edit this post if I change my mind (I'll leave original stuff intact though, I don't believe in covering up true mistakes.)

1. The only scientific absolute is that there are none.
2. A theory is a well established, physically motivated set of rules that describes something about how we perceive the world to work. 
3. In order to be a theory, it must make testable predictions, and there must be some way to prove it wrong. 

For example, I could write down a set of rules, but if I cannot determine whether or not they are correct, it's simply not science, it's just a guess! When a scientist talks about a theory, he doesn't mean, "this is our guess at how it works," he measn "this explains a particular set of observations, but could be proven wrong by x.". A well established theory is considered "fact" if it is unlikely to be proven wrong. The word fact here doesn't mean absolute certainty (absolute certainty is unscientific.), it is simply used to describe a well established theory because the colloquial use of the word theory is very very different from the scientific use.

This brings us to our main issue: Science and Religion. I should be perfectly transparent, so that should I introduce bias into my posts, hopefully you can take that into account. I am an atheist. This does not mean, however, that I think religion is a useless institution, nor do I believe the world would be better off without it. Quite the contrary, I believe religion is necessary, but this isn't the point of the post - I just wanted to make sure you understand where I am coming from.

What motivated me to write this post was a physical theory I read about some time ago.  A mathematical physicist cosmologist Frank J. Tipler devised a physical theory of everything - how everything works at a fundamental level. This is the holy grail for physicists! So what's the problem? 

Religion is the problem with this theory. There are two major physical theories that dominate our understanding of the way the universe works, namely Einstein's general theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics (the very subject of this blog!) has been exceptionally successful when dealing with small objects (and sometimes large objects!). General relativity, on the other hand, describes LARGE objects well, but really doesn't naturally extend to small objects because it isn't a quantum mechanical theory. This is a problem. Both theories cannot be correct, because quantum mechanics can't deal with gravity, and relativity can't deal with small things. The solution to this issue is known as quantum gravity. The issue? It doesn't work. More explicitly, if one tries to make certain calculations with the naive mating of relativity with quantum mechanics, you get infinity as you answer. I don't know about you, but anything infinite in this universe just doesn't make sense. Tipler's explaination? God. He says, accept the infinities in the theory, call it complete, and explain the infinities as the presence of God. 

Contrary to the belief of some people, you cannot disprove the existence of God or Gods. I don't like it, but I don't have to! I can't disprove the existence of Santa Claus either. My point is, it's not science! If it isn't falsifiable, it's not science!

I suppose you may be thinking, okay Dan, this is one crackpot theory, maybe you can put science into religion somewhere? My answer to you would be, notice how the title is "Religion is NOT science - part 1"? Well, you'll just have to wait for part two. Next I'm going to discuss what I'm simply going to call "quantum theology," to generally discuss attempts to mix religion and science (though there is a book by the same name).

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Quantum Spring.

Sorry for the delays! As it turns out this was becoming challenging to make an animation for, but I finally got it!

Alright, so here it is, the quantum spring. First and foremost, this is one of the more useful solutions to Schrodinger's equation.  Why? As it turns out, a lot of things behave like little springs! Anything that is held in place by some kind of force vibrates very slightly, the physics that describes that is the quantum harmonic oscillator. This means the quantum spring can be used to make calculations about solid materials. Understanding materials improves our every day lives!

Just as all quantum mechanics, it comes from a normal physical theory made weird by Schrodinger's equation. Remember the potential energy part? Well here's where it comes from in the case of the spring. With the infinite square well, I just said that it would take infinite energy to penetrate the walls, but in this case, I'm tying my particle to a little spring. This could be describing an electron wiggling around near an atom, or anything else that is small and vibrating! If you've ever studied physics in high school, then you've surely heard of Hooke's Law. This is a physical law that describes the motion of something attached to a spring. It simply says:

F = kx
The force on the particle is proportional to the distance it is from where it feels no force.

If this is confusing, think about this. Say you hang something from a spring. It'll bounce up and down going above and below a center point. We call this point the equilibrium point. I know you've all seen it in real life, but here's what I'm referring to.

Now what happens to the quantum picture? Well, we take Hooke's law and using some fancy math, turn it into a potential energy equation that we can shove into Schrodinger's equation. When we solve the equation, we find out what happens to a particle that we attach to a spring. I made these videos with Python using scipy and matplotlib, two open source modules that are easy to use and very fast! Feel free to ask me if you want my code, all my code is open source. Here's my videos, I added color this time! What you will see is the particle bouncing back and forth due to the spring pushing and pulling it.

Probability Density - Remember, I started the particle out as a bell curve, meaning I'm guessing it's right about the center of the peak, but there's some uncertainty in its position.

Wave Function. The "real" part is blue, the "imaginary" part is red.
Pretty trippy, eh?

These don't really get old for me. I think quantum mechanics is cool, and as we go on, it'll get weirder and cooler (for me, and I hope, for you.). Can anyone name some possible applications for a particle on a tiny "spring"? I've intentionally left some out. I'll give you a hint, your gps wouldn't work nearly as well without it!

Also, next up: Expectation Values, Delta Potential, Quantum Tunneling, and Quantum Theology (yeah, you heard me correctly!)