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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

We Should Have Funded SETI Rather Than the LHC

The Large Hadron Collider has finally started operations again. The largest scientific instruments ever created, the Large Hadron Collider or LHC is a gigantic 17-mile-long circular underground tunnel where scientists collide together particles that have been accelerated to enormous speeds. So far at least 9 billion dollars have been invested into this machine, and physicists claim that it is a great success. But the Large Hadron Collider has actually produced relatively modest results which haven't clearly justified its costs. The 9 billion dollars spent on the project would have been better spent on other scientific projects.

What has the LHC discovered so far? The only really big discovery was the verification of the existence of the Higgs Boson, a type of particle. But it seems this isn't an item that can justify the gigantic cost. Scientists already strongly suspected that the Higgs Boson existed before the Large Hadron Collider started operating, so the LHC didn't really discover the Higgs Boson. The LHC merely confirmed that the Higgs Boson exists, and that it has a particular mass.

While the Higgs Boson and its related Higgs field are important, it is unlikely that any great bonanza will be reaped from verifying the existence and mass of the Higgs Boson. The discovery of the electron led to the incredibly useful thing called electronics, but it is hard to imagine any useful new science or technology coming from the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson. Why not? Because electrons are stable and abundant in our world, once we understood them, we could conveniently put them to our use. But the Higgs Boson only stays around for less than a sextillionth of a second,. It also requires fantastic amounts of energy to produce a single Higgs Boson. Give these facts, it seems hard to imagine any practical use that can be made of the Higgs Boson.

Even if something doesn't have much practical value, it might be justified to spend money on it if there is tremendous public interest. But in the case of the Higgs Boson, there is very little public interest. When scientists explain the Higgs Boson and the Higgs field that is related to it, they start getting into abstruse physics that the average person finds very hard to understand, and has very little interest in. From the standpoint of the average Joe, the Higgs Boson is a bore and a snooze.

Despite hyped-up stories about possible future discoveries, it is not likely that further runs of the Large Hadron Collider will produce much in the way of either practical discoveries or discoveries that the average person has much interest in. So it is easy to imagine science projects that would have been a better use of the 9 billion dollars used by the LHC. For example, the 9 billion dollars could have been spent on practical medical research that might have saved many lives and reduced much human suffering.

Another alternate use of the 9 billion dollars would have been to fully fund the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). When people talk about SETI, they are mainly talking about the construction and maintenance of large radio antennae designed to pick up radio signals transmitted by civilizations on other planets. Such projects have so far only been given funding of roughly a thousandth of the cost of the Large Hadron Collider. Making a full-scale effort at SETI would probably require several billion dollars. Such dollars have never been spent, partially because projects like the LHC are sucking up our science dollars.

A project such as SETI might produce results vastly more interesting than the results of the Large Hadron Collider. The average person devotes perhaps 10 minutes a year to reading about the results from the LHC. But if SETI were to succeed, and we were to start picking up radio signals from another civilization, it might be an entirely different matter. The results could easily include photos of some other planet which might be vastly more advanced than ours, photos which can be transmitted over radio wavelengths (yes, is it possible to transmit photos by radio, given a simple coding system in which particular radio blips stand for particular pixels). The results might even include television programs that originated on another planet. Such things would be an endless source of fascination that the average person might scan for hundreds of hours each year. If we had fully funded SETI, we might now be seeing headlines like the imaginary headline below.

ET Headline
We can also imagine the practical benefits that might accrue from picking up radio signals from extraterrestrials. Such benefits might be unlimited, since receiving radio signals from a civilization vastly more advanced than ours might allow us to improve our technology in thousands of different ways. But rather than fully funding a SETI project that might produce the greatest practical results combined with results of the greatest public interest, the decision was made instead to fund the Large Hadron Collider project, which has given us very little in the way of practical results, and results which are not of much interest to the general public. Why?

I can think of two reasons that may help explain it. One is the inflated authority that physicists have in our society, authority that may be excessive considering how many physicists these days are concentrating on cherished ethereal theories that haven't passed observational tests. Given such authority, people are reluctant to say no to physicists with billion-dollar wish lists. Another reason is our unreasonable tendency to shun ideas or projects that may be associated with the paranormal. Whenever large-scale funding for SETI is proposed, many will pull out their paranormal phobias, and start trying to use ridicule that includes comments about “little green men.” The same paranormal phobias that have inhibited discoveries about our own minds may be keeping us from making discoveries about minds very different from ours. 

Postscript:  By this post I don't mean to suggest that I am "anti-LHC," but merely that I think a full-scale SETI program would have been a better use of funds. I certainly appreciate the great work scientists are doing on the Large Hadron Collider, and I am very interested in the results it has achieved. I simply think that a full-scale SETI project might have produced results of much greater interest.  

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Absurdity of Corporate-Flavored “Anti-Science” Charges

Nowadays the term “anti-science” is being used in some fairly ridiculous ways. The term should rightfully be reserved for those who are opposed to the scientific method, or who reject the majority of scientific findings established by some large branch of science. But nowadays I read many people abusing the term “anti-science.” Writers nowadays are often throwing around the term “anti-science” as a term of abuse used against those who reject particular technological choices. Such charges are usually absurd, because technological choices should not be confused with science.

Let's consider the case of GMO's – genetically modified organisms. A GMO is usually created when some scientist plays around with the genes of some organism that is used for food, in hopes of doing something like increasing crop yields. Whether it is a good idea to do such a thing is actually a very complicated issue, involving lots of related issues such as subtle potential side effects. But GMO proponents want to make the matter nice and simple – if you oppose GMOs, or want your food to have labels indicating whether it has a genetically modified organism, then you're “anti-science.”

Such reasoning is absurd, because a GMO is not science. It is a technological product made using some scientific knowledge. So is a Justin Bieber CD, which is a product made using scientific knowledge involving electromagnetism. If you decide not to consume GMO's, this would be no more “anti-science” than choosing not to purchase a Justin Bieber CD. Genetics is a science, but genetically modified organisms are not science. They are a technological product.

It is also an abuse of language to be using the term “anti-science” against people who choose not to use particular medical products, even vaccinations. Now let me make it clear: I believe in vaccinations, and I have made sure that my children have all the required vaccinations. If a person chooses not to get vaccinations for himself or his children, that is a decision that may be rightfully criticized in several sound ways. But a charge of being “anti-science” is not one of them. An injection is not science; it is a technological product. A person should never be charged with being “anti-science” because he chooses not to consume a particular technological product.

A particularly ridiculous use of the term “anti-science” is made by proponents of fracking, a messy process for getting natural gas by injecting water into underground rocks. There are many serious reasons why reasonable people might wish to urge caution about such activity. One is environmental, such as the concern that fracking in upstate New York might affect the water supplies that New York City relies on. Recently a new concern arose: the concern that fracking may be causing increased radon levels. A story in yesterday's Washington Post was labeled “Rise of deadly radon gas in Pennsylvania buildings linked to fracking industry.”

But proponents of fracking sometimes try to make the issue real simple: fracking uses science, so if you oppose fracking, you're anti-science.

 Some argue like this

When I read reasoning this absurd, it makes me wonder how an impartial person can make an accusation like that. Then I remember that the people who make these kinds of accusations are often taking money from some corporation that is making money from the technological product that is misrepresented as being “science.”

During the 1950's the government started to test nuclear bombs in Nevada, blowing up more than 100 A-bombs in the atmosphere. The health effects for people living downwind of the tests were often devastating. Those who complained about potential health risks were labeled as “anti-science,” "anti-American,”  and “anti-progress.”  We were assured by numerous authorities that nuclear fallout was pretty harmless. This is something to remember the next time you hear someone being labeled “anti-science” for expressing reservations about some product or activity.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Dusty Many and the Splashing Few: A Science Fiction Story

Joanna woke up, and noticed that dust had got inside her bedroom.

Bill, how many times I gotta tell you,” complained Joanna. “You can't leave the window open at night. Too much dust gets inside.”

Sorry,” mumbled Bill. The couple got up, dressed, and had breakfast.

So who's gonna get the water today – you or me?” asked Joanna.

I'll do it,” said Bill. Bill and Joanna's apartment had a nice bathtub, and a nice kitchen sink. But there was no running water. After years of the long drought, their local municipal government in California had stopped providing running water to average citizens in the year 2052. Global warming was making the drought much worse.

So there was only one way for Bill to get water: he had to go to a local store, buy a 5-gallon jug, and carry it home. The water ran out pretty quickly, as it had to be used to flush the toilet. So Bill and Joanna didn't take showers very often.

Bill was halfway out the door when Joanna had a reminder.

Bill, you forget something?” she asked.

I got the cash,” said Bill.

No, silly,” said Joanna. “I mean your dust mask.”

Oh, yeah,” said Bill, grabbing the mask. He started out the door again.

You still forgot something,” said Joanna. “Your goggles. You wanna get dust in your eyes?”

Oh yeah,” said Bill, grabbing the goggles.

As he walked to the store, Bill wished that he had a car so he wouldn't have to lug the big water bottles back from the store. He once had an old used car, but he had sold it after he got tired of the chore of having to brush off the dust from the windows each morning. At least I have a good pair of goggles and a good dust mask, thought Bill; pity the poor people who walk around in this swirling dust without protection.

The water line at the store was too long, causing Bill to curse. He finally got his 5-gallon jug of water, paying 50 dollars. A large fraction of Bill and Joanna's income went just to pay for water.

Bill headed back home. But on the way back, he had a cruel surprise. A man approached him, and pulled out a knife.

Your water or your life,” the man with the knife said. Bill handed over the water bottle. He sadly walked home, and opened the door.

Take off your clothes, you're all dusty,” said Joanna. “Where's the water?”

I got robbed again,” said Bill. “Water muggers.”

What are we gonna do now?” asked Joanna. “We don't get paid until Friday. We got no more money for water.”

Don't worry, I'll take care of it,” said Bill. It was time for desperate measures. Bill looked in his closet, and got out a crowbar.

Bill then searched the streets for a car where no one was nearby. He used the crowbar to pry open the hood. He yanked out the water bottle that stored water used to clean the windshield. He tasted the water.

Argggh,” said Bill, spitting out the water. “Too much soap.”

Finally, after breaking open the hoods of six different cars, and looting the water supplies of three of the cars, Bill was able to collect enough water for him and his wife to drink for the rest of the day.

Elsewhere in the city, Caldwell and Bethany were having no water problems at all. They lived in a luxurious mansion surrounded by green lawns watered every day by sprinklers. In the back of the mansion was a large fountain that ran all day long. Their home had not just running water, but two large swimming pools – an indoor pool and an outdoor pool. Robots with water sprayers kept the dust off their gleaming home.

Caldwell was splashing with his friends in his huge outdoor pool filled with clean water. One of his friends had a question.

How can you have all this water with the long drought going on?” asked the friend. “What about all those rules restricting water use?”

Water rules are for poor people,” said Caldwell. “I paid for my 'rule exemption' fair and square.”

Do you think some day we should invite some poor people to come swim here?” asked Bethany. “Just for show, of course. It would make a good social media post, showing our generosity.”

Certainly not,” sneered Caldwell with snobbish disdain. “We don't want to dirty the pool. Do you know how smelly and dirty and dusty those poor people are these days?”

Yes, I know how those type of people are,” said Bethany vacantly. “Why can't they be civilized and take baths every day to wash off the dust-- or at least go swimming in the swimming pools in their homes?”

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Particle Size Analysis Refutes the “Orbs Are Dust” Theory

Orbs are circular anomalies that have been observed in many flash photos. You can see very many examples of orbs by looking at this list of web sites or this web site. These are often big, bright, colorful orbs that often appear to resemble faces, and many of these orbs appear to be moving very rapidly (as you can see by looking at this poster-type image). But skeptics often claim that orbs are just dust. They advance the theory that when you take a flash photograph of orbs under some ordinary conditions, you are really just photographing tiny specks of dust in front of the camera.

This theory is wrong, and I can tell you by how much of a factor it is wrong. The theory is wrong by a factor of 1000 times, and is therefore as wrong as the claim that you can buy a shiny brand new car for only 20 dollars. The particles of dust in ordinary air are about 1000 times too small to produce conspicuous orbs in your photographs.

To support this claim, I will present a logarithmic chart of particle sizes. The chart is very similar to many charts that have already been published, except for the yellow and green parts. You can find many similar charts on the Internet by doing a Google image search for “particle size chart.” One such chart can be found here. My chart uses the same estimates found in such charts. There is no real controversy or debate about the particle sizes of the items I have listed here in blue – the great majority of the “particle size” charts list the same estimates I have listed here (although some list “heavy dust” as being no larger than 500 microns).

particle sizes

In this chart I list in yellow a range of particle sizes that might produce a conspicuous natural orb in your photograph because of a camera flash reflecting off of a particle in front of your camera. I define a “conspicuous” natural orb as one that has at least 3 percent of the original width of the photo. The word “original” here is crucial. By original, I mean the photo before any cropping has been done.

Note that the maximum size of ordinary atmospheric dust is only about 1 micron. But what is the minimum particle size that might produce a conspicuous natural orb in a normal photo ? My experiments tell me that the size is about 1000 microns, or about a millimeter. By a normal photo I mean a photo taken with a normal camera setting as you might use to photograph a person, not some “macro-mode” photo in which the camera lens is extended way out (as you might use to get a closeup photo of a tiny object).


  1. I have done tests pouring cinnamon powder near the camera, which produced no orbs. Cinnamon powder has a particle width of about 70 microns.
  2. I have done tests photographing while vacuuming, which should have raised dust levels to as high as 100 microns. These tests produced no orbs greater than 2 percent of the original photo width.
  3. I have done tests photographing steam produced by photographing in a steam-filled bathroom. This should have created particle sizes of about 300 microns. No orbs were observed.
  4. I have done tests photographing mist sprayed in front of the camera, mist from a plant sprayer. This should have created particle sizes of between 100 and 500 microns. This produced a few very small “orbs” (really just droplets), but none that were “conspicuous” as defined above (none greater than 3% of the original photo width).

So based on these tests (which all used flash photos), I can conclude that  when using a normal camera setting (not “closeup photography” settings), you need a particle size of at least 1000 microns to get a natural dust or vapor orb that is “conspicuous” as defined above (having more than 3% of the original photo width). There is an entirely separate reason for drawing such a conclusion. No camera expert thinks that dust particles can be photographed within about 2 inches of the camera lens, so those who maintain that orbs are produced by dust tell us that dust is being photographed in a little “orb zone” area a few inches from the camera lens, in front of it. Such an area could not have a length of more than about 100 millimeters, about the length of a cigarette. So if a dust particle were to appear in such an area blocking as much as 3% of the original photo width, how big would it have to be? About 3 percent of this small area that is about 100 millimeters long – in other words, about 3 millimeters (the same as 3000 microns).

So both the results of experiments and camera field considerations lead us to the conclusion that under normal camera settings (not close-up photography settings) you need a particle size of at least 1000 microns for some dust or water particle to produce a conspicuous orb in a photograph (one that is more than 3% of the original photo width). But the particles of dust in ordinary air do not have such a size. Instead they have a size about 1000 times smaller, a size of only about one micron or less. This is why when skeptics claim that photos of prominent orbs taken in ordinary air are showing particles of dust, they are off by a factor of 1000, and are making a claim as wrong as the claim that you can buy a shiny new car for $20.

Could it be that when someone photographs an orb they might be photographing the “visible heavy dust” listed in my chart? No, that refers to the kind of dust you get in things like a steel foundry, a building collapse, or a volcanic eruption – dust so thick you can see the particles in front of you, and feel the particles collecting on your skin. Particles larger than about 10 microns can be seen with the eye.

Judging from this link which gives results from a fancy electronic particle counter, we should not at all expect particles of more than 10 microns to be floating around in typical air in residences or offices, and the particles in such air are mostly less than 1 micron.

But could it not be that when you are photographing an orb, you are photographing some relatively large particle of dust raised by some event that happened a few hours ago? No, it is not possible. This is because particles of dust larger than 10 microns always settle to the ground fairly quickly. This is shown by the chart below, derived from a chart at this URL.

Particle Size (Microns) Settling Velocity (How Fast the Particle Falls) Settling Velocity (Meters Per Minute)
0.1 .0000865 centimeters per second

1 .0035 centimeters per second

10 .306 centimeters per second .18 meters per minute

100 .262 centimeters per second .157 meters per minute

As we see from this chart, it takes only about six minutes for a 100 micron particle to fall a meter (about 3 feet), and dust particles of 1000 microns or larger have about the same settling velocity. While the dust particles in ordinary air (too small to produce orbs) take quite a while to settle to the ground, all of the larger dust particles above 10 microns settle to the ground fairly quickly at a rate of about a meter per six minutes. That means that unless some dramatic dust-raising event occurred very close to you within about 10 or 15 minutes of the time you took your photo (such as someone knocking out a wall, beating a rug with a stick, or toppling a large book case), there is no significant chance that conspicuous orbs produced in your photo are caused by dust.

This link has 11 photos of orbs that are more than 10 percent of the original photo width. How large would a dust speck have to be in order to produce such a large orb? It would have to be about 10,000 microns, larger than the width of a pencil (almost as wide as a dime). Such dust simply doesn't exist, not even in buildings that are being demolished. It is generally agreed that the maximum size of heavy dust is only about 1000 microns.

It would seem that our skeptical friends who claim that most orbs are just dust simply have not bothered to do their homework. Judging from their web sites, they apparently haven't done the experiments they should have done, and apparently haven't bothered to thoughtfully research the size of particles. So it's not surprising they've come up with an answer that is off by a factor of 1000.

If you go to one of the leading web sites of the “orbs are dust” skeptics, you will find some revealing text in which the author pretty much “gives away” that he doesn't seem to think dust in ordinary air is remotely sufficient for producing orbs. In a page called “How to Take Great Orb Pictures,” the author makes this revealing recommendation on how to photograph natural orbs that are just dust:

The basic idea is to drop or spray small particles close in front of the lens of the camera while taking flash pictures of an object beyond. This should yield orbs. Various solids (like flour, cinnamon, etc) can produce some pleasing, typical-looking orbs.

Here the writer revealingly seems to give away that he doesn't actually believe that ordinary photo conditions are anywhere near sufficient to produce natural orbs caused by dust. He asks us instead to create some ridiculously extreme and preposterously unnatural conditions in hopes that this would produce orbs, conditions that would create particle sizes 1000 times greater than in ordinary air. (I've tried the cinnamon test, and it doesn't produce conspicuous orbs.)

Such a recommendation is, of course, ridiculous. A theory that can only explain orb photos when people drop or spray particles in front of the camera is worthless for explaining 99% of all orb photos, which were not taken under anything like such absurdly extreme conditions.

The bottom line here: the orbs in the great majority of the better orb photos on the Internet are not photos of dust, because they were almost all taken in ordinary air, air in which the average dust particles are 1000 times too small to produce conspicuous dust orbs.