Archive for the 'Science & Culture' category

Nobel Week Festivities Part 1

I'm out here in Stockholm for the ceremonies surrounding Saul Perlmutter's Nobel Prize. Most of the members of the group who were on the 1999 paper are here.

The Big Event (not to be confused with the Bang) comes tonight, when the prizes themselves are presented. However, there's been a fair number of festivities already. I arrived on Wednesday afternoon terribly jetlagged. It seemed odd that it was Wednesday to me, what with my having left early Tuesday morning. The flights were very long, but not that long. From this, I'm concluding that the Earth must be round, and that there must have been a 9 hour change in the clock time to account for the position of the Sun relative to my position on the planet. That it was already dark at 3PM didn't help much.... We're so far North that the Sun never gets very high in the sky in the winter, and it doesn't stay up very long. It was also cloudy when I arrived, so the deep twilight was even deeper.

I went to my room and crashed for a 1-hour power nap before putting on my jacket and tie and the shoes in which I'm not as happy walking as I am in my Birkenstocks, and, with Don Groom, wandered in the vague direction of the Grand Hotel, eventually finding it through not the most efficient route. From there, we went over to a reception at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. I foolishly forgot to bring my camera, and also didn't take any pictures with my phone, so no snaps from that night.

Susana Deustua before the Nobel Lecture

The next morning (Thursday, 8-December) was the Nobel lectures at the University of Stockholm. The physics lectures lasted about two hours. They started with Brian Schmidt, went through Adam Riess, and ended with Saul's. For the last 15 minutes of Saul's lecture, he made a point of describing how the whole team worked together. It evolved over time. Different members of the team were active in different eras. When he got to the era of the couple of years before the discovery, he was describing the distributed effort with people at telescopes all over the world, and the team in Berkeley working on a variety of things. What he said when my picture popped up was: "Rob Knop, who thinks, types, and programs faster than I talk." (Saul talks pretty fast, so this was a nice complement.)

Saul giving the Nobel Lecture

After the physics lecture, our team snuck out of the hall. (All due apologies to the Chemistry and Economics laureates.) We had scheduled a team lunch for the SCP at a smorgasbord restaurant. Where was it? I don't know... we got on a bus, and then on a boat to make our way over to the restaurant. The boat ride was nice, although up on the top deck it really was rather cold. Yesterday, I posted a group photo of the members of the SCP who were present at the lunch. There were a few people who were on the discovery paper who weren't there, because they hadn't arrived yet (I'm presuming), including Patricia Castro, Isobel Hook, and Matthew Kim. (Also on that paper was Alex Filippenko, but in 1996 he defected to the other team, so he hasn't been going to SCP team meetings for a decade and a half now.) Standing in for Gerson Goldhaber is his daughter, three from the right; Gerson died in 2010.

On the boat after lunch. Left to Right: Saul Perlmutter Alex Kim, Ivan Small, Julia Lee, Julia's Husband (Andrew, I think), and me

Joseph Calleja and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2011 Nobel Prize Concert

Finally, on the evening of December 8, I went to the Nobel concert. It's much easier to buy extremely expensive concert tickets when they're in a foreign currency, and you don't know the exchange rate. I blithely put down my credit card and was charged 1,500SEK, not realizing until later that that was in the neighborhood of $250...! I don't know if I've ever spent that much to go to a single concert before. The concert was good; I've been to other concerts that cost a quarter as much that were just as good, but you don't get the opportunity to go to the Nobel Concert very often, so what the heck. Tenor Joseph Calleja was the soloist, and he was quite good. I must admit, though, as a violinist myself, my favorite piece on the program was Dance Macabre by Saint-Saens. At the concert, I was sitting next to Rich Muller, about whom there's been a buzz in the science blogosphere recently because of his coming out and saying that, yeah, when he reanalyzed the data, it turns out that climate change is real just like all the people in the field who were working on it all along had said. I didn't talk to him about climate change, but I did talk about my general sense of despair about the world in general. (I feel more like we're screwed now than I did in the Cold War 1980s.) He doesn't share it at all; he thinks 2011 is the best time to be alive of all of human history. I must admit myself that I'm in a teaching job now that's more like the job I'm supposed to be in (and that I've always wanted) than any other job I've ever had, so perhaps 2011 is the best year for Rob Knop... but for the world at large? I honestly think that the world was a better place before Sep 11, 2001; not because of the terrorists directly, but because of how the world (mostly the USA) responded to it. But, enough gratuitous philosophizing.

Yesterday (Friday December 9) was a quiet day for me. There were events, but I didn't have tickets to any of them. There are finite tickets to each event, so Saul has been parceling them out. There was a reception at the Nordic Museum last night, but because I went to the December 7 reception, I sat out last night's. A bunch of team members also went to their national embassies for some sort of celebration or another. I'm not sure if I would have been sent to the USA or Canadian embassy... and, in any event, I spend too much time criticizing the government on microblogging platforms for them to want to be seen with me. I took the opportunity of the free day to sleep a lot...! Also, I had lunch with MICA director and Caltech astronomer George Djorgovski and his wife Leslie Maxfield (with whom I was in a production of Hello Dolly at Caltech a bit under 20 years ago); they were randomly in Stockholm for a conference.

George, Leslie, and myself

As an afterthought, I do need to read my camera's manual and figure out how to use it better. I've got blurry pictures of Saul and others from a great distance giving the Nobel lectures, and blurry pictures from the Nobel concert. It's not the world's most expensive camera, and it's already better than my skill with a camera for normal snapshot situations. However, I do know enough to be able to take advantage of some of its low-light tweaks, and to be able to take advantage of "focusing at infinity", so I should figure out what all the mysterious icons on the screen really mean when you're futzing with the settings.

Today (Saturday December 10) is the big event. Mid-afternoon, I'll start putting on my formal outfit. Once those two hours are done, I'll head down to the Grand Hotel, where we'll all get on the bus to go to the Nobel Banquet. After that is the midnight ball. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but I'm sure it has something to do with "rolling without slipping down a plane inclined at angle ϑ". That's how I usually encounter a ball.

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The SCP during Nobel Week in Stockholm

Much pomp and circumstance in Stockholm this week. I'll blog a bit more about it when I get a chance, but for now, here's a photo of the group that was taken yesterday during an enormous smorgasbord lunch.

Front, L to R: Alex Kim, Pilar Ruiz-Lapuente, Andy Fruchter, Richard Ellis, Julia Lee, Susana Deustua, Saul Perlmutter, Warrick Couch, Heidi Newberg, Silvia Gabi, Chris Lidman, Don Groom.

Middle: Nelson Nunes

Back, L to R: Ivan Small, Sebastien Fabbro, Greg Aldering, Robert Quimby, Brad Schaefer, Rob Knop, Reynald Pain, Carl Pennypacker, Shane Burns, Rich Muller, Ariel Goobar, Peter Nugent

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Online Talk Tomorrow (12-03) About FTL Neutrinos

Tomorrow morning, December 3, at 10:00AM pacific time (18:00 UT), I'll be giving the MICA public outreach talk about the faster-than-light neutrino results from CERN and Grand Sasso. The talk will include an overview of the OPERA experiment that has led to the result, a summary of the result, my own headscratching about whether or not it's real, and some notes about what this does (and, more importantly, does not) imply about our confidence in the theory of Relativity.

The talk will be at the MICA Large Ampitheater, and all are welcome. Remember, a Second Life account is free!

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In Which I Compare the Slashdot Commentariat to the 17th-Century Catholic Church

I am regularly struck, when giving public outreach talks, or when hearing the topic of Dark Matter discussed amongst the general non-Astronomer public, at the separation between acceptance of Dark Matter between astronomers and the general (informed) public. (The general public at large probably doesn't have enough of a clue about Dark Matter even to have a wrong opinion, alas!) Most astronomers know the evidence, and accept that non-baryonic dark matter is a real component of our Universe. Many in the public, however, seem to view Dark Matter as a horrible kludge, an ex-rectum fudge factor that astronomers have invoked in order to explain discrepancies between observation and theory. Indeed, topics related to this will be the subject of my upcoming August 16 365 Days of Astronomy podcast.

For a popular level discourse on the evidence for dark matter, I shall point you to two sources:

And now I can get to the snarky bits of this post. Yesterday, on Slashdot there showed up a post entitled CERN Physicists Says Dark Matter May Be An Illusion. In the paper indirectly referenced by the Slashdot article, a theoretical physicists explores the idea of negative gravitationally charged antimatter and the polarization of the vacuum as an explanation for the rotation speeds of galaxies (the mainstream explanation for which is, yes, Dark Matter).

What's interesting is the tone of the Slashdot comments. Some are informative, and ask exactly what I ask: what about the Bullet Cluster? However, a fair number of the comments show the same tenor as these excerpts:

I hope so. Dark matter is the ugliest kludge to the standard model ever.

Agreed. I have always had a hard time stomaching the theory that dark matter and dark energy exist. It seems far too much like aether, i.e. something made up to fill a gap in knowledge without much evidence backing it up.

Yay for phlogiston [] and aether []. Dark matter might end up on the list of ideas that physcists turned to in order to explain things that had other explanations. La plus ca change

Dark matter, too, has never been observed, and possesses properties of matter previous unseen or indeed thought impossible, and exists solely to bridge a gap between our model of how things should behave, and how things actually behave. This does not bode well for it.

There is a strong general sense among a large (majority? hard to tell) subset of the Slashdot commentariat that astronomers are all on the wrong track and propping up a failing theory, and that dark matter is a kludge that just can't be right.

The thing is, they're wrong. They just know that Dark Matter can't be real, because they are not comfortable with the idea that a substantial fraction of the Universe is made up with stuff that we can't see, that doesn't even interact with light. Much as... the 17th century Catholic church just knew that Galileo (and others) were wrong about Heliocentrism, because it's obvious to everyday observation that the Earth is still and the Sun is going around it. (Also, the Bible says so.) And, just as the leaders of the Catholic church completely discounted (and indeed refused to look at) Galileo's observation of Jupiter's moons orbiting Jupiter (and, crucially, not the Earth), armchair pundits completely ignore (probably mostly through ignorance!) the wide range of evidence for Dark Matter that goes beyond the "accounting error" represented by the motion of stars in galaxies, and galaxies in galaxy clusters. (Those motions are indeed one part of the evidence for Dark Matter, and historically formed the first evidence for it, but they're far from all of the evidence nowadays.) They cling to notions of how science ought to work, and how the Universe ought to be made up in a familiar way that seems natural to us humans, and use this to assert that an entire field full of scientists must all be on the wrong track for having a different model.

Specifically with regard to comparisons to the luminiferous aether, I would point you to my June 2010 podcast: "Dark Matter: Not Like the Luminiferous Ether". (And, yes, I'm conscious that I've spelled aether two different ways in this paragraph!)

Indeed, I would say that the comparison between denial of Dark Matter and denial of Heliocentrism goes deeper than that. The Copernican Principle is that the Sun, not the Earth, is at the center of... well, today we would say the Solar System, but in Copernicus' day that was also what was thought to be the whole Universe (the stars not at the time being understood to be things like the Sun). An extension of this is the Cosmological Principle, which stated succinctly says "you are nowhere special". We're not at a special center of the Universe, we're just at a typical random place in the Universe pretty much like any other. Observations (of galaxy distributions, of the Cosmic Microwave Background, and so forth) bear up this assumption or postulate, which is why we call it a principle. Think about it in broader terms, though. We are made up of "baryonic matter", which is Physicist for "stuff made of protons, neutrons, and electrons". In light of the Cosmological Principle, however, why should we expect that most of the Universe is made up of the same general kind of stuff as we are? In the face of evidence otherwise, many still insist that most of the Universe must be made up of baryonic stuff that interacts with other baryons and our familiar photons. Is this not just as much hubris as insisting that the Earth, where we live, must be the center about which all the other Solar System bodies orbit?

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"Galaxies in Collision" : public online talk today at 10:00AM PDT

As of this writing, in just over an hour I'll be giving a talk in Second Life on the topic "Galaxies in Collision".

Second Life is an online virtual world. Basic accounts in Second Life are free. I regularly give these talks as a part of MICA, the Meta-Institution of Computational Astronomy. Most Saturday mornings at 10AM pacific time (17:00 UT if we're during Daylight Savings), MICA has a public outreach astronomy talk. (However, like many academic institutions, we tend to slow down and get spotty over the summer.)

This talk will be at the MICA Large Amphitheater.

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"More Things in Heaven and Earth" -- the interaction of physics and astronomy

365 Days of Astronomy is a daily podcast about astronomy, entirely recorded by volunteers. The topics are all over the place; some are about amateur astronomy, some are about the history of astronomy, some are about recent discoveries in astronomy. I've done a number of these over the last couple of years, and am doing more this year.

I recorded today's podcast— and, if I am to be perfectly honest, I have to admit I recorded yesterday, way after when I was supposed to get it in. The topic is the interaction between fundamental physics and astronomy. I talk a little about ancient physics, where the realm outside the sky and the Earth were viewed to be separate realms. Newton's universal gravitation unified those two realms. Some chemical elements were discovered originally in astronomical objects, and it was from observations of astronomical objects that we learned about neutrino oscillations.

You can check out today's entry if you want to hear more.

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Online talk tomorrow morning : "Neutrino: Placeholder Particle"

I'll be giving a talk in Second Life tomorrow morning at 10AM pacific time. (That's Saturday, Feb 5, at 18:00 UT.) This is part of a regular talk series; follow that link to find the slides and audio recordings from most of the previous talks I've given in the series. Remember that a Second Life account is free! Come and hear the talk. You can also ask questions in text chat, which I generally try to respond to as the talk is ongoing.

Tomorrow's talk is entitled "Neutrino: Placeholder Particle". I'll talk about the history of the discovery of the neutrino. Even Pauli, the guy who proposed the neutrino, was uncomfortable with making up a new particle that nobody had seen to explain things that seemed to be missing from other observations. There are clear parallels to Dark Matter today, with many being uncomfortable that we've got most of the Universe made out of stuff that we can't identify. I'll also talk about our current state of knowledge of the neutrino, and I hope to get into the issue of how the "mass neutrinos" are not the same as the "flavor neutrinos", and even though there are three of each, there are still only three total neutrinos. (It's a Schrödingers Cat sort of thing.)

Here's the abstract I sent to Paradox Olbers, the organizer of the MICA talks:

Sometimes critics of nonbaryonic dark matter will characterize it as a "placeholder particle"-- the name we give to the fact that we can't find particles doing the things that we see happening gravitationally. Of course, dark matter is not new in astronomy; Uranus, for instance, was originally detected indirectly. Nor are palceholder particles new in particle physics. The neutrino was originally proposed more than 20 years before it was first observed. In this talk, I'll go over the history of our discovery of the neutrino, and how it was in fact astronomy that led to some relatively recent important discoveries about these elusive little particles.

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Why I don't like the term "Gnu Atheist"

You will say that a group has the right to call themselves whatever they want, and you will be right. I just wish they hadn't chosen that term. It extends this group's screwing up cultural battles that don't need to be fought into yet another realm I care deeply about, and as with the first, it can only make things harder and more complicated.

Who are the "gnu atheists"? Well, first, a word of warning. If you try to define them, they show up and accuse you of choosing a definition for purposes of setting up a straw man. However, most of those in the movement formerly known as "New Atheism" seem to share the following characteristics. They are atheists. They believe the world would be a better place if religion would go away, becoming nothing more than cultural history and cultural tradition. They think that any religion that claims to be anything other than just cultural tradition is incompatible with science and the scientific world view. They believe that if somebody aims to accept science and is intellectually honest and consistent, the success of modern science must necessarily lead that person to accept philosophical materialism. They use the word "reason" as a synonym for "application of scientific reasoning", thereby making anybody who is religious by definition guilty of thinking without reason. (As well as a lot of other people, for instance all faculty at a University who aren't in a science or engineering department, but they tend either not to realize that they're doing it, or to downplay that.)

Beyond that, a subset of them are incredibly strident and combative. They think that any religion at all is a threat to science. They do not hesitate to call non-atheists idiots or childish. They will crap the comment threads of posts like this one with all sorts of (frankly) bigotry hiding under the clothing of assumed "reason", citing the names of logical fallacies the way fundamentalists cite scripture. They will assert that they know the Truth and that therefore it's perfectly justified for them to say frankly insulting things, and then say that others shouldn't be offended by the Truth. They seem to think that non-fundamentalist theists are prevaricators who "pick and choose" from their religion, and thus are somehow misrepresenting their own religious beliefs. I generally think that this is because they'd prefer to argue against fundamentalists, for it's extremely easy to show how fundamentalists are at odds with science. But, it's very disheartening to see somebody who wants people to accept science then criticizing a theist for not being a fundamentalist. It is the behavior of this subset that leads me to the conclusion that "fundamentalist atheist" is the best term for this sort of atheist. Most atheists, thankfully, are not like this, but there is the subset that argues that their philosophy is the only philosophy that can be accepted by reasonable people who accept science— much as fundamentalist Christians argue that their philosophy is the only philosophy that can be accepted by people who are good and "saved".

What is the first cultural battle that these "gnu atheists" make more difficult? Well, obviously, the whole religion/science debate. Given that a substantial fraction of the USA is religious and values their religion, it should be pretty bloody obvious that if self-styled defenders of science are out there saying that science is incompatible with religion, it is only going to put up more barriers against the bulk of the population accepting science. Of course, sometimes obvious things are wrong— quantum mechanics is full of examples. And the new atheists are fond of pointing this out, arguing that there is no evidence that what they're doing is harmful. Of course, there's also no evidence that what they're doing is helpful... but they don't seem to think that a lack of evidence coupled with what is obvious disrespect and very plausibe harm is enough for them to question their behavior. What's more, when you do present evidence, they will often dismiss it as anecdotal, or not clear statistical evidence, or not enough evidence, in a manner that frankly reminds me of this comment on Phil Plait's blog by a creationist who insists that without complete timeline of all mutations in evolution, one shouldn't accept evolution. (Aside: despite having the same first name, I did not write that comment!)

These "gnu atheists" will attack defenders of science such as the Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshbaum, or Josh Rosenau, for pointing out the obvious harm that their tactics could do to our shared cause. They will argue that the National Center for Science Education shouldn't be saying that science and religion are compatible, because if they're really about "science" they shouldn't be saying anything about religion at all. This last tactic is particularly annoying, because of course they themselves will not hesitate to go out and say that science is incompatible with religion. After all, the way that they've defined things, they're just telling the truth, and anybody who claims to defend science and says that religion might be OK is venturing into off-limits territory. They will reject empirical evidence that religion and science are compatible— specifically, that huge numbers of working scientists are themselves religious— on the basis that it is incompatible with their philosophy, and therefore non-atheist scientists have something wrong with them (they're "compartmentalizing", or "intellectually dishonest", or some such).

So. We've got a cause that a lot of us care deeply about— mainstream acceptance of science, scientific reasoning, and the scientific method. We have those out there— fundamentalists of various religions, most obviously— who want to reject much of science, and who have a distressingly powerful voice in public political discourse. And, we've got a broad population who are religious and care about their religion, but who are capable of accepting science. Then, we have a subset of those arguing for science who also argue that accepting science means having to reject religion... which of course provides direct support for the fundamentalists who argue that scientists are cultural warriors trying to take away everybody's religion. That's not true, but the fact that some scientists are out there saying that makes it much harder for people like the NCSE to argue that the scientific establishment really doesn't want to destroy religion.

In other words, I'm annoyed at the "gnu atheists" in the first place; not just because many are so blinded by their love for their own philosophy that they can't see that it isn't necessarily objective truth, and not just because many are frankly rude and insulting while thinking there must be something wrong with me if I find them rude and insulting. I'm annoyed at them also because they're getting in the way of a cause I care about, mainstream acceptance of good science and scientific reasoning. There are a lot of religious people out there who have no problem with evolution or the Big Bang, and there are a lot more who wouldn't have any problem with it if they really learned about it and learned how Christians like myself are still Christian while accepting all of science. Those people are people we should reach out to. Telling them that religion is idiotic, or intellectually dishonest, and that the real people who accept science must all be atheists, isn't going to help.

What's the second issue? Open source and free software. "Huh?" you may say? To be honest, I don't know the etymology of the recently-arisen term "gnu atheism", but I'd wager that it's taking the term "new atheism" (which caused all sorts of boring pedantic and semantic arguments) and riffing it together with Gnu of the Gnu project. The Gnu project is one of the original projects that pushed the notion of open source and free software, long before the term "open source" was coined. Much of that movement today would not exist without what the Gnu project had done. A lot of the core software you use on your Linux system was written under their auspices. But, more importantly, the Gnu project gave people like me, people who have a strong ethical attachment to the notion of free software, a central place to rally around. And, crucially, they provided the Gnu Public Licence, or GPL, one of the most important and most widely used free-software licenses.

Of course, there are some in the business world who see free software as a threat. So, there have been, and will continue to be, disinformation campaigns that try to link free and open source software to other dubious and/or Unamerican things, such as communism, computer crime/hackers, rampant disrespect for copyrights, etc. It's a complete misrepresentation to say that there is a conflict between "the interests of business" and free software, but that is a narrative that's out there floating about. What's more, those who tend to care about "the interests of business" are likely to be, at least in the USA, on the "right" side of the political spectrum in the common but flawed one-dimensional model of political opinion. Those who are religious and worried, or potentially worried, that the scary scientific mainstream is trying to destroy religion are also more likely to be on the right side of the spectrum.

Put it together. You have this movement out there, the subset of atheists whose stated goal is to destroy religion and who assert that complete and intellectual consistent acceptance of science requires a rejection of religion. That is a movement that people who aren't already atheists are likely to view with suspicion. Now, they've taken a name that seems to link them to something that is completely separate, open source and free software. It bugs me already for aesthetic that these guys have hijacked the term "Gnu". But it can't help but create a link in some folks' minds between this crazy hippy dubious philosophy about sharing software you've written to attacks on religion. In sort, free software may now be perceived as having something to do with yet another cultural assault that, frankly, has nothing whatsoever to do with free software. "GNU public licence? Isn't that related to those scientists who want to destroy all religion?" Sigh.

Life is hard enough for those of us who want the world to accept science, and for those of us who want the world to at least be compatible with free software. It only gets harder when some act in a way that is basically the caricature of what our opponents already claim we are.

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One-Slide Explanation of Tides

I realize that this Bill O'Reilly quote is two weeks old, which in Internet time is a substantial fraction of the age of the Universe. And, the Internet being what it is, a top conservative commentator can't say something this butt-ignorant without having bloggers jump all over him within seconds. So, yes, I realize that I'm way, way behind the times, sort of like somebody getting all snarky to the dinosaurs because they didn't invest in programs tracking near-Earth asteroids. But, still, I think it bears repeating, to remind ourselves collectively the kind of people who are shaping the agenda of an entire political party in the USA right now.

Here's my one-slide explanation of how the tides work:

Click image for larger version

This slide does go along with some speaking, normally. Indeed, it is one (of 28) slides that I'll be using in the talk I'm giving in Second Life in about half an hour, all about interacting galaxies and whether or not they're connected to the phenomenon of active galactic nuclei. (Really, tides are relevant to this story!)

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Velikovsky: Worlds in Rectal Defilade

Perhaps the most extreme version of the persistent astronomy crackpot theory is Velikovsky's whole "Worlds in Collision" business. The basic idea behind this is that in Earth's recent past— that is, within the last several thousand years or so— there have been global catastrophes caused by objects in the Solar System moving around. Among other things, Velikovsky's ideas suggest that Venus was originally a comet (...yes...), that was ejected from Jupiter (...yes...), and migrated around the Solar System, having close passes with Earth and Mars, thereby causing the catastrophes that Earth supposedly had in the past. His most famous (infamous?) book is Worlds in Collision.


The various movements around the Solar System that Velikovsky needs, on the timescales he needs them, require massive violation of things like conservation of angular momentum, if the orbits are purely gravitational. His response to that was, well, electric forces must be responsible for planetary orbits! I've already pointed out how utterly unphysical and batty the whole "electric universe" thing is in my previous post. The Velikovsky business makes no sense, because the physical model of the solar system it needs to work makes no sense.

There's another basic reason why we can be pretty sure that Velikovsky is wrong. That is, there's absolutely no reason whatsoever to think that he might be right! His methodology for coming up with his model for the Solar System had absolutely nothing to do with science or scientific considerations. Rather, what he did was look at the myths of ancient cultures, and assumed that they were true— that is, when the myth said that there was a global catastrophe, there in fact was a global catastrophe. I would point out that this methodology, looking at ancient myths to determine natural history, is exactly the mythology used to come up with Young-Earth Creationism. As such, from a scientific point of view, there's absolutely no reason to pay any more attention to Velikovsky than there is to young-earth creationists. Trying to make a scientific refutation of it is like trying to explain the color blue in terms of musical theory.

So: Velikovsky's whole idea was based on non-scientific considerations, and as such isn't even worthy of debate on a scientific forum. Trying to shoehorn the physics to make it work requires resorting to the "electric universe" stuff that is crazy. And, as if that weren't enough, there's no evidence in the geologic record of the global catastrophes that Velikovsky was trying to "explain".

(So where do these ancient myths come from? If you've read the news for the last ten years, it's not very hard to imagine. Think of the people who lived through the east Asian tsunami in 2004— it's not very difficult to imagine somebody, especially somebody without the benefit of a world-wide media, believing that a global catastrophe had occurred after living through that! Flood myths are almost certainly so common in human cultures not because there ever was a global flood, but because there are floods, all the time, and sometimes they're really bad.)

Sadly, despite the fact that Velikovsky's ideas were ill-founded and have little or no connection to actual physics and astronomy, there remains a small fringe that think that the astronomy community is doing him a disservice by not taking him seriously. It's just like the electric universe business. Those of us in the "mainstream" are either deliberately hiding the truth, or are blinded by the dogma, and don't want to allow "outside" ideas to undermine the ideas that are the basis of our careers. Or, so they say. And, so, you can find books and websites out there saying that Velikovsky never got a fair hearing.

The truth is that Velikovsky has gotten way more attention and hearing than he ever deserved, at least as far as natural history is concerned. The fact that he wrote his stuff more than half a century ago, and I still feel some motivation to mention how wrong it is on this blog, indicates that his ideas have somehow garnered far more staying power than the ideas themselves would warrant.

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