“What Mathematicians Can Teach Physicists”, by Peter Woit, AND, Is String Theory Science?


I just finished Peter Woit‘s book Not Even Wrong, about why he’s convinced String Theory is not really science. His book is more than that, it’s a wonderful romp through the history of 20th Century physics and the deep importance of mathematics to the development of quantum mechanics — not to mention his championing of the great mathematician Herman Weyl, the unsung hero of this story — with detailed explanations of the core principles that went into everything from QED to the Standard Model, etc. Very well done.

At the end he rightly critiques String Theory for not producing falsifiable hypotheses — ones that can be tested, and potentially proven wrong. Like Woit, and most hard-scientists, I believe the general principle of Falsifiability of Karl Popper’s is the defining characteristic of a scientific theory vs every other kind of speculation humans can make. While one can quibble about details (rightly) regarding exactly HOW to falsify one theory or another, the essence of being able to draw a hard line in the sand between science and non-science is of fundamental importance. Whether something is good science or not is far less important than if it is simply not science at all.

My own view regarding String theory is that it is properly placed within the realm of mathematical philosophy (note: I did NOT say “philosophy of mathematics”!), that is, it is a philosophical quest aided by mathematical tools.

Who knows, someday it may turn into either true mathematics (positing theories and proving them) or physics (positing theories that are falsifiable).

So far, that hasn’t happened.

If I was in the world of physics, I might be more concerned about this, as theoretical physics has been swamped by string theory, and so many of the brightest minds are being sucked up into it. That isn’t all bad, except that it means by definition that those minds are not being let loose on other problems that are testable in physics, and need work.

Reading between the lines, I take it that Woit is suggesting is that maybe the only sensible thing to do is to move String Theory over into the philosophy departments until it produces some testable theories, and leave open the funding for physics that is… physics.

Here’s a video with Peter Woit at Big Think talking about this topic. It includes a snippet on what mathematicians can teach physicists, among other cool things:

Russian Anti-Democracy Strikes Again: Blogger Law


The Russian government, as it stands today, is becoming worse for its people than it was under Soviet rule.

For all of my pro-democracy, near-libertarian, pro-free-market beliefs, we have to ask honestly — for the sake of the human beings forced to live in that country (and for those who are being oppressed by it) — is this mafia-government better than communism?

There is reason to believe things are worse today.

Sadly, the Russian people will be deprived of democracy for the foreseeable future.

A new law in Russia:

… requires any person whose online presence draws more than 3,000 daily readers to register, disclose personal information and submit to the same regulations as mass media. Critics — including some pro-Kremlin lawmakers — say the rules are confusing, poorly written and hard to enforce consistently. But the end effect is to put large swaths of Russia’s prominent online personalities in theoretical violation of the law at all times, risking fines and other harassment whenever authorities decide to crack down, critics say.

Starting Friday, “every blogger might face a threat of criminal prosecution,” said Oleg Kozyrev, a prominent opposition blogger, who said he does not intend to register his Web site.

Another law:

… gives Russian authorities the power to block Web sites without any official explanation went into effect Feb. 1, and it was put to use a month later, blocking four Russian opposition Web sites, including the blog of anti-corruption politician Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent anti-Kremlin leader. Navalny remains under house arrest on unrelated corruption charges and is barred from communicating with the media.

In the same month, another prominent independent news Web site, Lenta.ru, was transformed after the editor was fired and most of her staff left. That site’s coverage is now significantly more pro-Kremlin.

A very close friend of mine works for a (large) company (you’d know it if I named it) here in the U.S. that handles the blogs of many Russian bloggers. They are having to consider what to do in light of the new laws.

Not that my friend has any say in the matter, but, another of our friends suggested that the company should flat-out ignore the law. I agree. It could be considered a form of civil disobedience.

If you’d like to see some of the new research related to the surprising effectiveness of Civil Resistance in cases like this, check out professor Erica Chenoweth’s book, Why Civil Resistance Works.

Now go lift something heavy,
Nick Horton

The Consolation of Cosmology: Lawrence Krauss [Quote of the Day]

Atlas Greek Statue

“The two things modern cosmology have taught us are: one, that we are all more insignificant than we thought we were; and two, that the future is miserable. That should make you feel good!”

Lawrence Krauss

Zen masters throughout history would have to agree with that.

Now go lift something heavy,
Nick Horton

The Origin of the Word ‘Science’

William Whewell, coiner of the word 'science'

William Whewell, coiner of the word ‘science’

Historian, Melinda Baldwin, has written a wonderful article on the historical origins of the word ‘science’.

“Scientist” became so popular in America, in fact, that many British observers began to assume that it had originated there. When Alfred Russel Wallace responded to Carrington’s 1894 survey he described “scientist” as a “very useful American term.” For most British readers, however, the popularity of the word in America was, if anything, evidence that the term was illegitimate and barbarous.

Feelings against “scientist” in Britain endured well into the twentieth century. In 1924, “scientist” once again became the topic of discussion in a periodical, this time in the influential specialist weekly Nature. In November, the physicist Norman Campbell sent a Letter to the Editor of Nature asking him to reconsider the journal’s policy of avoiding “scientist.” He admitted that the word had once been problematic; it had been coined at a time “when scientists were in some trouble about their style” and “were accused, with some truth, of being slovenly.” Campbell argued, however, that such questions of “style” were no longer a concern—the scientist had now secured social respect. Furthermore, said Campbell, the alternatives were old-fashioned; indeed, “man of science” was outright offensive to the increasing number of women in science.

In response, Nature’s editor, Sir Richard Gregory, decided to follow in Carrington’s footsteps. He solicited opinions from linguists and scientific researchers about whether Nature should use “scientist.” The word received more support in 1924 than it had thirty years earlier. Many researchers wrote in to say that “scientist” was a normal and useful word that was now ensconced in the English lexicon, and that Nature should use it.”

Read the rest HERE

Lightning Rods: Ben Franklin to David Hume [Quote of the Day]


A letter from Ben Franklin to David Hume about how to set up a lightning rod to protect your building from the “mischiefs of lightning”. Given North Carolina’s high frequency of lightning strikes, maybe I should follow this advice.

Dear Sir,

In Compliance with my Lord Marishall’s Request,2 communicated to me by you when I last had the Pleasure of seeing you,3 I now send you what at present appears to me to be the shortest and simplest Method of securing Buildings, &c. from the Mischiefs of Lightning.

Prepare a Steel Rod 5 or 6 Feet long, half an Inch thick at its biggest End, and tapering to a sharp Point, which Point should be gilt to prevent its rusting. Let the big End of the Rod have a strong Eye or Ring of half an Inch Diameter: Fix this Rod upright to the Chimney or highest Part of the Building, by means of Staples, so as it may be kept steady. Let the pointed End be upwards, and rise three or four Feet above the Chimney or Building that the Rod is fix’d to. Drive into the Ground an Iron Rod of about an Inch Diameter, and ten or twelve feet long, that has also an Eye or Ring, in its upper End. It is best that this Rod should be at some Distance from the Foundation of the Building, not nearer than ten feet if your Ground will allow so much. Then take as much Length of Iron Rod, of about half an Inch Diameter, as will reach from the Eye in the Rod above to that in the Rod below; and fasten it securely to those Rods, by passing its Ends thro’ the Rings, and bending those Ends round till they likewise form Rings. This Length of Rod may either be in one or several Pieces. If in several, let the Ends of the Pieces be also well hooked to each other. Then close and cover every Joint with Lead, which is easily done by making a small Bag of strong Paper round the Joint, tying it close below, and then pouring in the melted Lead. It being of Use in these Junctures, that there should be a considerable Quantity of metalline Contact between Piece and Piece: For if they were only hook’d together, and so touch’d each other but in Points, the Lightning in passing thro’ them might melt and break them where they join. The Lead will also prevent the Weakening of the Joints by Rust. To prevent the Shaking of this Rod by the Wind, you may secure it by a few Staples to the Building till it comes down within ten feet of the Ground, and thence carry it off to your Ground Rod; near to which should be planted a Post, to support the Iron Conductor above the Heads of People walking under it. If the Building be large and long, as 100 feet or upwards, it may not be amiss to erect a pointed Rod at each End, and form a Communication by an Iron Rod between them. If there be a Well near the House, so that you can by such a Rod form a Communication from your Top Rod to the Water, it is rather better to do so than to use the Ground Rod above-mentioned. It may also be proper to paint the Iron, to render it more durable, by preserving it better from Rust.

A Building thus guarded, will not be damaged by Lightning, nor any Person or Thing therein kill’d, hurt or set on fire. For either the Explosion will be prevented by the Operation of the Point, or, if not prevented, then the whole Quantity of Lightning exploding near the House, whether passing from the Cloud to the Earth or from the Earth to the Cloud, will be convey’d in the Rods. And though the Iron be crook’d round the Corners of the Building, or make ever so many Turns between the upper and lower Rod, the Lightning will follow it, and be guided by it without affecting the Building.

B. Franklin

Monty Python Defends “The Life Of Brian” Against Christian Anger

In this video, John Cleese and Michael Palin attempt to defend their film The Life Of Brian — which was, in my opinion, one of the funniest films of all time — that depicts the life of the dude who was born in the manger next door to Jesus, against some rather upset Christians.

The inability to laugh about ones religion is precisely connected to religious-based violence and oppression. It is quite hard to righteously strike someone down for blasphemy when you are laughing too hard to pick up a sword.

Now go lift something heavy,
Nick Horton

George Washington’s Finest Moment [Quote of the Day]


“Friends and Fellow-Citizens:
The period for a new election of a Citizen, to administer the Executive Government of the Executive Government of the United States, being not far distant, and the time actually arrived, when your thoughts must be employed in designating the person, who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprize you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those, out of whom a choice is to be made.”

George Washington, in his Farewell Address, 1796

George Washington stepping down from office after his 2nd term may have been the single greatest act of leadership in favour of humanity, and over tyranny, in all of human history. Throughout his time in power he’d been given ample opportunity to become the American Napoleon — he chose, instead, to entrust his country to its people.

In the words of his old rival, King George III, upon hearing that Washington might step down:

“If he does that, he’ll be the greatest man in the world.”

While that designation is too broad to have meaning, the category of greatest humans would certainly include George Washington.

Now go lift something heavy,
Nick Horton

John Von Neumann [Quote of the Day]


“The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work.”

— John Von Neumann

NOTE: The picture of the statue of John Von Neumann above is from the University of Oregon library, in Eugene Oregon, where I spent a semester studying mathematics before switching up and moving to Portland to study at PSU. Neumann was the inventor of my field, Game Theory.

Christopher Hitchens on Nelson Mandela [video]


“Perhaps the most stirring single event of South African history was the aesthetically perfect moment in February 1985 when his jailers came to Nelson Mandela and told him he was free to leave. And he loftily declined! He would quit the prison when he was ready, and when the whole country had been released, and not a moment before. At that instant, the morons who had confined him became slowly aware that he was already the president of the republic and had in fact been in moral command of the office for some considerable time. Nor was it just a matter of his charisma. A well-rooted and experienced non-racial party, the African National Congress, had for years been saying to the apartheid authorities, with complete confidence: When you are finished running this country into the ground, we are absolutely prepared to replace you. In utero, and well into its third trimester, the new South Africa already existed.”

— Christopher Hitchens

Here’s a video of Hitch, from the 80’s, smoking throughout, predicting that if Mandela was freed from prison, and was able to contest a democratic election… he’d win. He was right.