Header 1

Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, July 28, 2017

Does the Earth Have an Optimal Distribution of Fossil Fuels?

When speaking about global warming, people sometimes talk about fossil fuel reserves as a kind of great threat to us that we must resist fully using, or else face ruinous consequences. Some say that we have what is called a carbon budget that we must stick to, to avoid a future temperature rise greater than 2 degrees Celsius. The carbon budget has been described as being no more than 1500 gigatons of carbon dioxide that can be expended before the year 2050. Presumably a higher budget would be allowed for the period up until 2075 and the period up until 2100. It is argued that we must use great restraint in limiting ourselves to this carbon budget, rather like some person who can take some morphine pills, but who must restrain himself from taking too many, lest he die from an overdose.

But there is actually a reason for believing the chance of a carbon dioxide “lethal overdose” is low, and perhaps nonexistent. The reason has to do with the extent and nature of fossil fuel reserves. For one thing, there are not unlimited amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas lying about. The oil reserves of the top 15 oil producers is only about 1540 billion barrels, which is about 50 years of current global oil use, and considerably smaller than that if we allow for future population growth and economic growth. Some are worried that we may soon hit the “Peak Oil” point that has long been predicted. Although it is claimed that coal reserves are sufficient to last for 153 years of global production, many think that we will hit “Peak Coal” within a few decades.

What is called a resource pyramid is one of the reasons why both coal and oil production may decline within a few decades. As shown below, the resource pyramid is the concept that the easiest coal and oil resources to extract are found in the smallest amounts. The resources that are found in the greatest amounts are those which are hardest to extract.

resource pyramid
 A resource pyramid
Because coal and oil resources are arranged in a kind of resource pyramid, with most of the resources being very hard to extract, it is quite possible that there is almost no chance that mankind will “overdose” on carbon resources. By around the middle of the century, we may find it harder and harder to extract coal and oil resources, as we work our way deep down the resource pyramid of oil and the resource pyramid of coal. The very distribution of these resources may put a brake on runaway consumption, forcing humanity to reduce consumption and switch more to alternate energy sources such as solar and wind.

David Rutledge of Cal Tech has predicted that by 2069 the world will have produced 90% of the coal that it will ever produce. If something like that happens, the worst projections of the IPCC will not occur, and the world's temperature will probably never rise much higher than 2 degrees Centigrade above its current level.

These facts bring to mind a very interesting question that has rarely been considered: what would be the optimal distribution of fossil fuels that our planet might have had? And also: is it possible that the earth's actual distribution of fossil fuels is something close to an optimal distribution?

First, let us consider some distributions of fossil fuels that would not have been optimal. One distribution we can imagine is one in which our planet simply had no fossil fuels at all: no coal, no oil, and no natural gas. In such a case there would have been no modern civilization of the type we have enjoyed for the past 100 years or so. That obviously would not have been an optimal distribution of fossil fuels.

Another distribution of fossil fuels we can imagine is one in which oil and coal started to run out at a time such as about 1980. That also would not have been an optimal distribution of fossil fuels.

We can also imagine a distribution of fossil fuels in which coal and oil resources were two or three times higher than our planet has, with two or three times more easily accessible resources. In that case there might have been a much higher chance of catastrophic global warming caused by excessive use of fossil fuel resources.

Instead of any of these possibilities, what we may have on our planet is pretty much an optimal distribution of fossil fuels. The fossil fuels we have are enough to last us until the cost of alternate energy sources such as solar power and wind power falls down so low that such things (possibly assisted by nuclear fusion) can serve as replacements for fossil fuels. But existing as they are in a resource pyramid, the fossil fuels we have may be distributed in such a way so that the easily accessible resources start to gradually run out just at about the time that we will need for them to run out, so that we don't overheat the planet by burning too much carbon. At just about the best time for such a message, nature will in effect start telling us, “It's time to switch away from fossil fuels -- I'm going to slowly make it harder and harder for you to get them.” And nature will start delivering that message in a louder and louder voice over the span of several decades. We will get this message from nature pretty much at just the right time -- all because fossil fuels just happened to be distributed in a particular way that may turn out to be very lucky for us. 

If we have such a nearly optimal distribution of fossil fuels, we may wonder whether that is an improbable lucky coincidence, or something that was set up in advance for our benefit.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Dissipation Drivel of the “Easy Life” Guys

The online science magazine Nautilus sometimes gives its readers impressions that are completely at odds with reality. Based on many articles Nautilus has had on the multiverse, you might think that this is a well-confirmed scientific concept. But to the contrary, there is not a speck of evidence for any multiverse or any universe beyond or own. There are also very good reasons for thinking that no such evidence could possibly appear, given that any observations that we could possibly make would always be observations of our own universe, not an observation of some other universe.

Another area in which Nautilus creates an impression completely at odds with reality is the origin of life. An article by astrobiologist Nathaniel Comfort in the current edition of Nautilus has a subtitle telling us that “Hydrothermal vent models transform the origins of life from unlikely to near-inevitable.” The text of the article goes even further, stating this:

Vent models posit that given the initial conditions, the emergence of life was not a near-miracle. It was inevitable.

This statement gives the reader a very wrong idea. Any realistic appraisal of the origin of life must regard it as the most improbable type of event, basically a miracle. To calculate the odds of such a thing, we must consider all of the insanely improbable things that seemed to be required for life to originate from non-life. It seems that to have even the most primitive life originate, you need to have an “information explosion.” Even the most primitive microorganism known to us seems to need a minimum of more than 200,000 base pairs in its DNA (as discussed here). Protein molecules have to be just-right to be functional. It has been calculated that something like 1070 random trials would be needed for a functional protein molecule to appear, and many such protein molecules are needed for life to get started. And so much more is also needed: cells, self-replicating molecules, a genetic code that is an elaborate system of symbolic representations, and also some fantastically improbable luck in regard to homochirality.

Postulating hydrothermal vents as the spot where life originated does nothing to help with these problems. A hydrothermal vent could supply some heat. But a lack of heat was never the issue. The issue was the appearance of life requires a very high degree of organization and functional coherence that should have been fantastically improbable to have occurred by chance.

By claiming that life appeared at hydrothermal vents, it seems that you are sharply decreasing the odds of life appearing, not increasing them.  As the map below shows, hydrothermal vents are found on only a tiny fraction of the ocean's surface, at the bottom of the ocean.  A person assuming that life might have originated anywhere in the ocean would be assuming perhaps 100,000 times more volume of space for chemical reactions to occur. 

Credit: NOAA

To support his “easy life” insinuations, Comfort cites a scientific paper using the word “dissipation” or “dissipative” 18 times. Comfort also gives us a little thermodynamic mumbo-jumbo centered around the idea of dissipation. He states the following:

What most goes against our intuition is that complex structures can be better dissipaters of energy than simpler ones. Catalysts help you up an energy hill so that you can drop even further down on the other side. Casting our gaze across the entirety of biological evolution, each organism is such an energy hill. It forms only if it is thermodynamically favored—if by pumping energy uphill to create it, even more energy is released. ...A world that also includes warm-blooded cows, munching grass and emitting heat, methane, and fertilizer, is an even better entropy engine; one with tigers is better still. It is the ecosystem that is energetically favored: A lush green Earth teeming with life pulls more heat out of the hot center of the planet and out of the sun, releasing it into cold, dark space, than does, say, Mars. Our biosphere is but a sophisticated icepack for the sun. A giant dissipation engine came on the scene with Homo sapiens. The history of technology is ultimately one of developing ever more powerful methods of extracting energy from the earth and sun: fire, cooking, agriculture, mining, smelting, logging, steam engines. Like a trickle of water flowing downhill, the exact path of neither evolution nor culture is predetermined—only the overall trend. Thus, neither art, nor war, nor NASCAR, nor smart phones were inevitable, but all can be seen as work done by the human entropy engine. In this light, our dissipative tendencies are not an aberration, but thermodynamically required.

As some type of attempt to explain the origin of life and increasingly complex biology, this thermodynamic twaddle is a complete bust, and we can laugh at the loopy statement, “Our biosphere is but a sophisticated icepack for the sun.” The term dissipation is defined as “squandering of money, energy, and resources.” Such a concept does nothing to explain biological organization. If some chemicals become organized into a life form, that is the opposite of dissipation. Far from helping us out in regard to the origin of life, the second law of thermodynamics just gives a reason for thinking that such a thing is all the more unlikely. The second law of thermodynamics says entropy or disorder always increases as times goes on. If we have life appearing and becoming ever more organized, that is a trend that is disfavored (but not prohibited) by the second law of thermodynamics, rather than something favored by it. Far from being thermodynamically favored, each increase in biological order is thermodynamically disfavored.  Similarly, each step you take up a stairs is disfavored (but not prohibited) by the law of gravity.

You can summarize the second law of thermodynamics like this: it likes anything that involves a dissipation or dispersion of heat, but doesn't like anything that involves a concentration of heat.  Because life forms are a concentration of heat, they are thermodynamically disfavored.  Things that are thermodynamically favored are things like a fire burning out, a hot object cooling down, and the sun eventually burning out. 

The idea that hydrothermal vents would have made the origin of life likely is busted in this statement by origin-of-life scientist Nick Lane:

Deep ocean hydrothermal vents are the systems most likely to have given rise to life. These far from equilibrium systems do at least favour the production of organic molecules, the biomass that makes up cells, but the level of self-organisation and dynamism required to get from cell matter to living cells is so great that we're in no position to specify the probability of life arising even in the most favourable environment.

Comfort seems to favor the “easy life” hypothesis, which claims that the origin of life was for some reason inevitable or all-but-inevitable. There are many reasons for thinking that such an idea is not correct. The main reasons are all of the difficulties in explaining the giant leap in complexity, information and organization involved in moving from non-life to even the simplest living thing.

Another reason for rejecting the “easy life” hypothesis is that despite more than 65 years of laboratory research, no one has been able to artificially create life in a laboratory. If it were true that the origin of life was thermodynamically favored, then it wouldn't be too hard to create an origin-of-life experiment which produced life from non-life.

Still another reason for rejecting the “easy life” hypothesis is the failure of SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Life). If the origin of life was somehow thermodynamically favored or all-but-inevitable, then the whole galaxy would be teeming with life, and odds might have favored searching for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. But after decades of effort checking many thousands of sun-like stars, no such signals have been found.

Still another reason for rejecting the “easy life” hypothesis is that such an idea implies that life would have originated on Earth many times. If it was “all but inevitable” that life would originate, there should have been many separate origins of life. But the total number of times in which life has naturally originated on our planet seems to be no greater than 1. All earthly life uses the same genetic code. We see no organisms using a different genetic code. But imagine if life had independently originated multiple times on Earth. Then we would see various types of life that each used a different genetic code.

People sometimes argue that if there had been a second origin-of-life on Earth, then life based on that second origin would have been gobbled up by whichever life appeared first. But that's not a good argument. Imagine if these two things happened:

3,700,000,000 years ago: life originates using one genetic code, resulting in Biosphere 1
3,600,000,000 years ago: life has a separate origin using a different genetic code, resulting in Biosphere 2

In this case would the organisms of Biosphere 1 just destroy the organisms of Biosphere 2 through predation? No, since they both would use a separate genetic code, they would be incompatible.  The organisms of Biosphere 1 would not be able to consume the organisms of Biosphere 2 – or, if an organism of Biosphere 1 ate an organism of Biosphere 2, it would not find it nutritious, because it would be using an alternate chemistry. So rather than Biosphere 2 disappearing because Biosphere 1 had a head start, the two biospheres would both exist. 

There is no evidence of a second biosphere, and life seems to have not naturally originated on our planet more than once. Such a thing argues strongly against the "easy life" claim that the origin of life was inevitable or almost inevitable. 

Postscript: It is inaccurate for Comfort to be claiming that certain models posit that the origin of life was inevitable. While some of the authors of the papers that he references may have made optimistic statements about the origin of life, neither a mathematical model nor any set of equations could ever show the origin of life was likely.  There is no way to put "life" or "a living cell" on the right side of an equation. You could in theory have an experiment or a computer simulation that might show a likely origin of life, but none of the papers that he references involves such a thing. 

If a person tries to appeal to human beings or some other life form as a superior agent of heat dissipation, and then tries to suggest that such things are likely on the grounds of the second law of thermodynamics, such a person is committing a kind of fallacy like the fallacy in the reasoning below:

"The law of the wind is a kind of law of dispersion.  Wind likes to scatter things far apart. So the wind would bring various things together to make bombs. Because those bombs would be really good at dispersion, at scattering things far apart."

This reasoning is fallacious. The "law of dispersion" followed by the wind is not precognitive or intelligent. Such a law is too dumb and short-sighted to first bring things together because this will later eventually serve some goal of causing a high degree of blowing things apart.  Similarly, the second law of thermodynamics will act in a way that is completely short-sighted and lacking in any foresight, intelligence or precognition. It makes no sense to postulate that such a law will create things of concentrated heat and low entropy (living things) because such things might eventually engage in dissipation effects that result in heat dissipation and higher entropy.  Life forms are a concentration of heat, and there is no concentration of heat that is favored by the second law of thermodynamics.  

"Easy life" theorists sometimes cite the work of Jeremy England, an MIT Professor. A Harvard professor says, "Jeremy’s work represents potentially interesting exercises in non-equilibrium statistical mechanics of simple abstract systems," but says that any claims it is has to do with biology or the origin of life is "pure and shameless speculation." 

After quite a few absurdly immodest articles have appeared about his work, England seems to have got more modest. "I would not say I have done anything to investigate the 'origin of life' per se," he now says. He says, "If, when you say 'life,' you mean stuff that is as stunningly impressive as a bacterium or anything else with polymerases and DNA, my work doesn't yet tell us anything about how easy or difficult it is to make something that complex, so I shouldn't speculate about what we'd be likely to find elsewhere than Earth." 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Future Humans with Enhanced Imaginations May Have No Need for Virtual Reality

The idea of virtual reality has been around for decades. You put on a pair of goggles, and suddenly you find yourself immersed in a computer-generated 3D world. Technology has been slow at bringing this idea to fruition, but this is an area where we can be very confident that spectacular progress will be made. There are absolutely no theoretical roadblocks to creating an extremely vivid 3D landscape that you can view with virtual reality goggles. Making virtual reality a household reality is just a matter of making more progress in visualization technology that has been progressing at a high rate of progress for decades. No doubt within twenty years, you will be able to have spectacular virtual reality experiences at a reasonable cost.

But what about interacting with the 3D world you see while wearing the virtual reality goggles? It will be hard for an interface to allow seamless interactions. Someone wearing virtual reality goggles may be able to manipulate a controller with his hands, maybe something like a video controller. But this creates a kind of imperfect blend. You are using your hands (which you cannot see with the goggles on) to interact with the world you view while wearing the goggles. And what if you want to interact with the virtual world or its inhabitants in a way that the simple controller doesn't allow? For example, in the virtual world you might want to kiss a character on the cheek, but your simple controller may offer no way to do that.

Another idea for interacting with a computer-generated reality is an idea advanced on the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation: the idea of a holodeck. The idea is that you go into some special room where there are very sophisticated holographic projectors. All of the walls, the ceiling, and the floor of the holodeck are involved in the holographic projection. So after entering such a room, you might suddenly find yourself seeing just what someone would see at the Grand Canyon. You look all around, and everything looks just as it would if you were in the Grand Canyon, even at your feet. You may also interact with what looks like other people, but these too are just holographic projections.  There is no need to wear any special goggles.

The basic idea of a holodeck seems technically feasible, although in both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager, the idea was stretched to what seemed like unrealistic extremes, as we would see people using the holodeck sitting on holographic chairs and lying on holographic beds. It would seem that a holographic projection would offer no such solidity.

The main drawback of a holograph is that it isn't a “use around the house” kind of thing, requiring a large expensive room capable of sophisticated holographic projection. Another drawback is that a holodeck seems unsuitable for a simulation in which you are walking around for long distances, such as a simulation in which you are walking around on the streets of a city.

But there's another idea for how future humans could experience something like virtual reality, an idea rarely considered. The idea is to somehow upgrade human imagination. If human imagination were somehow to be expanded far beyond its current limits, then people might have within their own minds something that would be better than virtual reality or a holodeck.

Consider the human imagination. Any one of us can conjure up a “movie in our minds,” in which we can imagine anything we can please. But what we see in our mind's eye when we daydream is kind of pale, dim, and shadowy, without many details. But imagine if that “movie in our minds” could somehow become as detailed and vivid and life-like as a widescreen IMAX movie.  And imagine if we could fill in endless imaginative details effortlessly.

Such a thing might be possible in the future, given some imagination upgrade in the human mind that might be achieved through technology, neural implants, drugs, or genetic enhancements. After such an upgrade, you might have no need for VR goggles or a holodeck. You could simply close your eyes and see in your mind's eye something that might be as vivid as virtual reality or a modern video game on a wide-screen TV. And you could shape that very-vivid reality effortlessly, just by imagining something different. In your mind's eye you could move from one city to another effortlessly, or from one planet to another planet, seeing each one as vividly as if you were watching a wide-screen movie. A hundred vivid details might flow into such scenes, flowing effortlessly from the wellsprings of your enhanced imagination.

It might be dangerous to make such an imagination upgrade a permanent part of the human mind. For with such an imagination, prisons would not be such a deterrent. Every prisoner would know that from his jail cell he could have something as enjoyable as trips to a thousand Disney Worlds, just by closing his eyes and letting his imagination gush forth.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Why Don't More Scientists Use Something Like the IPCC's Probability Scale?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the main scientific body that studies global warming. Although it takes some heat from the skeptical, it seems that in a broad sense the IPCC has done two things right.

The first thing it has done right is to avoid making only one projection of future global warming until the year 2100. Given all the uncertainties, it would be very dogmatic to do such a thing. Instead of publishing only one projection, the IPCC publishes a variety of different scenarios, which have names such as RCP8.5, RCP6.0, RCP4.5, and RCP2.6. Some of them are shown in the graph below (from this document).

The climate change implications of these scenarios are shown in the next IPCC graph, which uses a color-coding scheme matching the one used in the previous graph. So we see that the RCP 8.5 scenario (requiring a total carbon dioxide emission of about 6000 gigatons or more) translates into a very damaging 3.5 Centigrade increase in global warming. But the RCP2.6 scenario and the RCP 4.5 scenario (involving only about 3 or 4 gigatons of carbon dioxide emission) result in a much smaller increase of between 1.5 and 2..0 Centigrade. 

Now, you could argue that the RCP 8.5 scenario will never occur, on the grounds that we will never be extract so much carbon dioxide (6000 gigatons or more). The International Energy Agency estimates that the total world reserves of coal are only about 892 billion tons, and much of that is hard-to-extract coal that may never be extracted because it is not economically feasible to extract.

But given the IPCC's approach of providing widely different scenarios, such an objection does not damage its credibility. For one of its other scenarios such as RCP 2.6 or RCP 4.5 may still be valid, despite such an objection. Given its differing scenarios allowing such a variety of outcomes, we really can't fault the IPCC for being too dogmatic in this regard.

There's another thing that is good about the IPCC approach: the fact that it uses a probability scale. The IPCC has a scale that looks like this:

These probability assessments are used in the IPCC's Fifth Assessment report. So rather than the report speaking as if it was 100% certain about everything, we are told that some things are likely, other things are very likely, and other things are as likely as not.

The use of such a likelihood scale is to be commended, because there is a great deal of uncertainty in our understanding of nature. If scientists are not sure about something, it is is good that they state assertions in a shaded away, expressing only moderate confidence or low confidence.

It would be good if other sciences followed such an approach. But do we find such a likelihood scale used in fields such as biology, physics, neuroscience or cosmology? No, we do not.

The general tendency in contemporary science is to follow a very different approach. It is as if there were two big lists: the list of approved doctrines, and the list of disapproved doctrines. All of the items on the list of approved doctrines are pretty much taught as if they were gospel truths. This is not too different from the way that the Catholic Church teaches religious doctrines.

Once some teaching somehow manages to get on this list of approved doctrines, the doctrine has it “made in the shade.” We are then told that there is a scientific consensus, so it's kind of “case closed.”

But what if a different approach was taken, an approach using a probability scale, like the IPCC is using? The results would be salutary. There would no more be a situation in which doctrines could endlessly “rest on their laurels.” Each scientific teaching would have to be graded on a probability scale. If such a probability scale was used honestly, it would soon become apparent that some of the theories that have chewed up the most research funding have a not-very-high ranking on the probability scale.

It would be best to make use of a probability scale rather different from the one used by the IPCC. The scale below would be better suited for grading a wide variety of scientific assertions.

Almost certain Greater than 99% likelihood
Very likely Greater than 90% likelihood
Likely Greater than 50% likelihood
Quite possible Greater than 5% likelihood
Possible Greater than 1% likelihood
Remotely possible Less than 1% likelihood
Apparently impossible Apparently no likelihood

I can imagine a two-phase exercise to make use of such a scale. In the first phase, you begin with a chart like the one below. You draw colored lines between the items on the left and the items on the right, using a different color of ink for each level of confidence.

probability scale
So the end result might look something like this:

probability scale

In the second phase of the exercise, you would be required to justify each case in which you had specified that one of the items on the left had a probability of “quite possible” or higher. This would require actually presenting observations or experiments that show there is a basis for concluding a likelihood of at least 5%. Appeals to current popularity or a consensus of agreement would not be allowed.

Let us imagine how clarifying such an exercise would be. Using such a scale in the area of physics and cosmology would throw light on how much of modern theoretical physics is on shaky ground. For example, there would be no basis for giving either the theories of supersymmetry or string theory a probability grade of higher than “remotely possible” or “possible.” The fact that such theories are widely popular would be no basis for granting them an assessment of “quite possible” or “likely.”

Using such a likelihood scale sounds like a great idea, so why is such a scale not used in fields such as cosmology, physics, and biology? I suspect the reason is that using such a scale would involve introducing a level of humility that today's dogmatic theoretician would prefer to avoid.

Consider the dogmatic scientific theorist. He may advance some theory unlikely to be true. But he would rather that people not judge his theory based on some scale in which it is judged whether the theory is “quite possible,” “likely” or “very likely.” Because then it might become clear that there is no basis for concluding that the theory is probably true. Such a theorist would prefer the current approach, in which it is as if there is a “list of approved doctrines,” and you are supposed to accept all the items on the list. Having got his theory on such a list (often because of sociological considerations), such a theorist would not want there to be a system in which scientists use varying shades of confidence in their assertions. It might then become apparent to all that the theorist's pet theory is not on very firm ground. 

Similarly, an apologist for an organized religion would never want you to make use of some exercise like the one above, in which you drew lines specifying whether 15 assertions of his creed were “possible,” “quite possible,” “likely,” “very likely,” or “almost certain.” He would instead want you to accept the whole creed with complete confidence, regarding every item in it as a certainty.

Like such a theological apologist, the modern pitchman for the "official party line" of modern science would rather that you not use probability scale ratings that might make his "standard story" look like something that is largely speculative, largely a kind of social construct in which many a predominant theory is more of a speech custom than something that has been established as a likelihood.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Cosmic Coincidence Cover-Up

In a recent post entitled “The Universe Itself May Be Unnatural,” cosmologist Ethan Siegel discusses some issues that he calls “coincidence problems.” He says, “If aspects of the Universe that should be very different turn out to be similar, we call this a "coincidence problem." He discusses some cosmic coincidences, but neglects to discuss the most dramatic ones, including the “vacuum catastrophe” issue discussed here, and the issue I will discuss in this post: the coincidence of the proton charge being the exact opposite of the electron charge.

As many a scientist has admitted in recent decades, the fundamental constants of the universe are very fine-tuned to allow the existence of living creatures such as us, in the sense that there are quite a few “coincidences” required for our existence, lucky breaks that we needed and just happened to get. Any fully informative listing of the universe's fundamental constants should show at least one such coincidence, standing out very plain for the eye to see. Such a listing would look like this:

Fundamental Constants

Speed of light 299,792,458 meters per second
Planck's constant 6.62607004 × 10-34 m2 kg / s
Gravitational constant 6.67408 × 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2
Proton mass 1.6726231 × 10-27 kg
Electron mass 9.1093897 × 10-31 kg
Proton charge 1.60217733 × 10-19 coulomb
Electron charge -1.60217733 × 10-19 coulomb

As we can see in this accurate listing, there is a great big coincidence. Even though each proton has a mass 1836 times greater than each electron, the charge of the proton is the exact opposite of the charge of the electron. An absolute magnitude is a number that you get when you discard the sign in front of the number. Experiments have actually indicated that the absolute magnitude of the proton charge and the absolute magnitude of the electron charge differ by less than 1 part in 1,000,000,000,000,000.

But if you do a Google search looking for listings of the fundamental constants of nature, you are not likely to notice this coincidence involving the proton charge and the electron charge. Why is that? It's because almost all of the tables of fundamental constants you will see will have concealed the coincidence.

Imagine some bank employee named John Wilson who each day is supposed to send out an email to his superiors entitled “Today's most important transactions.” On a particular day such an email might honestly include the following:

Money we lost overnight in bank robbery: $1,345,239
Today's biggest deposit (to account of John Wilson): $1,345,239

Of course, this coincidence is very embarrassing to Mr. Wilson, as it suggests that the bank robbery was what they call an “inside job.” So Wilson would no doubt arrange his table of “today's important transactions” so that it somehow covered up the coincidence. Similarly, almost always modern scientists creating a table of fundamental constants of the universe will arrange the table in such a way so that no one can notice any coincidence involving the charge of the electron and the proton. For they don't want anyone to think that the universe is something like “an inside job.”

A convention is followed as to how this concealment is done. The convention is to avoid listing both the proton charge and the electron charge, and to list a single value that is called “the elementary charge.” So the table of fundamental constants will look like this:

Fundamental Constants

Speed of light 299,792,458 meters per second
Planck's constant 6.62607004 × 10-34 m2 kg / s
Gravitational constant 6.67408 × 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2
Proton mass 1.6726231 × 10-27 kg
Electron mass 9.1093897 × 10-31 kg
Elementary charge 1.60217733 × 10-19 coulomb

This “elementary charge” is supposed to represent both the charge of the proton and the charge of the electron. Is it honest and accurate to be using such a term for both the positive charge of the proton and the negative charge of the electron? No, it isn't. Since the electron charge is negative and the proton charge is positive, it is misleading and inaccurate to use a single positive value to represent both of these things. It is as  misleading as representing both a $1000 withdrawal and a $1000 deposit under a single line giving a positive number. For example, you would be misleading your mortgage lender if you withdrew $20,000 one day and then re-deposited it the same day, and then emailed your mortgage lender with a line such as this:

Today's bank activity: +20,000

The convention followed in tables of fundamental constants of listing both the proton charge and the electron charge under a single “elementary charge” line listing a positive value is therefore a deceptive concealment. It is a concealment because it hides from us a fundamentally important fact that we should be informed about, that there is a huge coincidence in nature involving the proton charge being the exact opposite of the electron charge. The concealment is deceptive (in the sense of being literally inaccurate) in the sense that after looking at tables of fundamental constants that follow this convention, you will be left with the very inaccurate idea that the electron charge is positive.

Moreover, in physics the term “elementary” is used to mean something that cannot be reduced any further, as in the phrase “elementary particles” which refers to particles which cannot be subdivided any further. But we know that the proton charge is not even elementary in this sense. A proton is believed to consist of two Up quarks which each has a charge of 2/3 of the proton charge, and one Down quark which has a negative charge of 1/3 of the proton charge. So as the proton charge is not at all elementary, it is misleading to be listing it in a line labeled “elementary charge.”

There is quite a bit of talk in the news these days about obstruction of justice. What we have going on in the typical table of fundamental constants is what we can call an obstruction of learning. The person who bothered to view such a table should have been informed of the basic fact that the proton has a charge that is the exact opposite of the charge of the electron. Such a person is obstructed from learning this important fact by the typical table of fundamental constants, just as if the scientist creating the table was interested in covering up such a fact, and sweeping it under the rug.

sweeping under rug

The “elementary charge” concealment trick is used in many different physics references, but very rarely a physicist will let down his guard and “spill the beans.” That's what happens in the informative and entertaining new book We Have No Idea by physics professor Daniel Whiteson and Jorge Cham (which has many fun little cartoons which make it easier to read than a typical book on science). On page 54 the authors state this:

If the quarks had any more (or less charge), then the charge of protons wouldn't precisely balance the negative charge of the electron, and you couldn't form stable neutral atoms. Without these perfect -1/3 and + 2/3 charges, we wouldn't be here. There would be no chemistry, no biology and no life.

But is there any explanation for this? Apparently not, because the authors next state this:

This is actually fascinating (or creepy, depending on your level of paranoia) because, according to our current theory, particles can have any charges whatsoever; the theory works just as well with any charge value, and the fact they balance perfectly is, as far as we know, a huge and lucky coincidence.

It's not just one coincidence but two coincidences. The first coincidence is that the absolute magnitude of the charge of the Up quark is exactly twice the absolute magnitude of the Down quark. The second coincidence is that when you add up the charges in a proton (consisting of two Up quarks and one Down quark), you get a charge that is the exact opposite of the charge of the electron. As far as we can tell, these are separate coincidences, each with a likelihood no better than 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000. The chance of both occurring in nature is like the odds of you correctly guessing the telephone numbers of two strangers, and then correctly the guessing the telephone numbers of the next two strangers you met. 

The use of the word "creepy" in the quote above is interesting, as if the authors were afraid of learning about some contrivance in nature needed for their own existence. Would not "wondrous" be a more suitable adjective? 

Postscript: The universe's fundamental constants are correctly listed at this page, one of the few listings that correctly has separate lines for the proton charge and the electron charge, using a positive sign for the proton charge and a negative sign for the electron charge. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Election Tamperers: A Science Fiction Story

Susan Tyler never thought she would see her young brother George again when she said a tearful goodbye to him on the day before the interstellar mission left. It was the first manned mission to another star, on the mighty interstellar spaceship named Starbird. The 120 crew members had been trained to establish a colony on one of the planets revolving around Alpha Centauri, several light-years away.

Using the latest antimatter drive technology, the spaceship traveled at about one-third of the speed of light. It took 13 years for the ship to reach Alpha Centauri. The ship beamed a radio message saying that an apparently habitable planet had been detected. The nations of Earth were thrilled by the announcement.

But then there was a long radio silence. People asked: had something terrible happened? For weeks, everyone would check the news day after day, waiting for a new radio signal from the spaceship. But no signal was received. The weeks turned into months, which turned into years. Eventually the public reached the sad conclusion that something terrible had gone wrong, and that no signal would ever be picked up from the doomed mission. Susan Tyler reconciled herself to the idea that her brother George must be dead.

What happened thirteen years later was almost as shocking as the sudden radio silence from Alpha Centauri. Astronomers detected a spaceship entering the solar system. At first people thought it might be some extraterrestrial spaceship. But before long, astronomers announced something shocking: the spaceship was Starbird, the very spaceship that had left for Alpha Centauri 26 years ago. 

The ship's crew docked at a space station, and then returned to Earth. The ship's captain gave a press conference announcing what had happened.

We approached the planet revolving around Alpha Centauri, and at first we thought it might be a habitable planet with life,” said Captain Horton. “But when we got closer we were disappointed to find it was just rocky and moon-like, with no signs of life. So we decided to just turn around and come back to Earth. We were going to radio our findings, but a meteorite damaged our radio antenna.”

The story seemed strange, and raised eyebrows around the world. But most people accepted it.

Susan Tyler welcomed George back to the town where she and her parents lived, and she thought: this is so strange, I never thought I'd see him again. She was not surprised that George looked 26 years older. But she was surprised by his cold, humorless demeanor. She remembered her brother as a very warm and funny person.

What are you going to do now?” asked Susan.

I'm going to do what quite a few of my fellow astronauts are going to do,” said George. “I'm going to run for President.” He explained that quite a few of his astronauts had developed political ambitions on the long trip home from Alpha Centauri. A German was going to run to become president of the European Union. A Russian was going to run to become president of Russia. A Chinese astronaut was going to run to become the president of China, which had become a democracy 30 years ago.

Over the next few weeks, Susan began to develop suspicions about George. Although he seemed to think very fast, he seemed to have a very different personality than the George she remembered. Funny warm George had somehow turned into cold, humorless George. He also seemed to have no memory of the childhood they had shared. He would also never eat any food when he was at a family gathering, and would never drink anything.

Susan discussed her suspicions with her mother, her father, and her sister Betty. They all agreed that George somehow wasn't the George they knew. The family began asking George questions he couldn't answer. Their suspicions were also raised by the fact that George lived in a house in which the windows were always covered up. George would never invite any other family members over.

Susan's suspicions about George began to eat away at her. One day she decided to wait until George opened his door, and then barge into his house. She would look around before George had a chance to throw her out.

Susan did just that. She hid behind a bush near George's door. When he opened the door, Susan rushed in.

I didn't invite you in!” said George. “Get out of here!”

I'll be out in just a second,” said Susan, running around. She went down to the basement. She let out a scream when she saw what was in the basement.

In the basement were four tables. On the tables were what looked like the bodies of her father, her mother, and her sister.

You fiend!” screamed Susan. “What have you done with Mom, Dad, and Betty?”

Oh don't worry, those aren't Mom, Dad, and sister Betty,” said George. “But they will be soon.”

What are you talking about?” said Susan, horrified.

I guess it's time I told you the whole story,” said George. “When the Starbird reached the planet at Alpha Centauri, its crew members didn't find a lifeless rock like you were told. They found a thriving life-filled planet with a civilization much older than yours. The crew members of the Starbird were all arrested. I'm not your brother – he's still at Alpha Centauri.”

So who are you?” asked Susan.

I'm a replicant of your brother – what you would call a robot,” said George. “The Alpha Centaurians hatched a plot to control your planet. They decided they would send back to Earth the spaceship you sent to their planet, but its crew would not be the original crew – it would be a crew of robotic replacements like me. We were all told to run to become the leader of a country. The plan is to have us robots take over some of the key nations of your planet. So when Alpha Centauri sends its invasion fleet to Earth, things will be much easier. We'll already have control over some of the main nations on Earth.”

So what are these bodies on the tables?” asked Susan.

They're the robot replacements for George's family members,” said George. “I built them myself. You see, if I'm going to successfully run for President, I can't have George's family members saying things like 'there's something real weird about George' or 'we have all these suspicions about George.' I need to have someone who will say, 'George is the same fine fellow I knew before.' ”

George went over to a table that had a blanket over it.

Do you want to see the latest robot I created?” asked George. George removed the blanket. It was a naked robot looking just like Susan. George flicked a remote control unit, and the robot stood up.

Hello, my name is Susan Tyler,” said the robot, “and I think George Tyler would make a wonderful president of the United States.”

Susan screamed, and began to run up the basement stairs. George grabbed her by the throat. I'm doomed, thought Susan.

It's pointless to resist our scheme,” said George icily as he strangled Susan with his hands. “The Alpha Centaurians are older and more powerful. Earth will fall.”

But just then police officers broke open the front door. Armed with machine guns, they stormed into the house, and quickly found Susan and George, who were both arrested.

Susan told the whole story to the police. No one would have believed her wild story, were it not for the fact that the robots were still lying on the tables on the basement.

Faced with the undeniable evidence against him, robot George finally confessed.

How did you ever find out enough to come to my house?” asked George.

We didn't know a thing about all this weird robot space stuff,” answered a police official. “While you were manufacturing those robots, a pungent smell was coming from your house. Plus your windows were all closed up. One of your neighbors got suspicious, and reported your house as one of those houses where they illegally manufacture drugs. At the time we stormed in on what we thought was a drug bust, we thought your house was just a regular old crystal meth lab.”

Monday, July 3, 2017

Exaggerations Abound When People Talk About a Scientific Consensus

One of the most powerful argumentative techniques in favor of some truth claim is to assert that there is some consensus of opinion among scientists that the claim is correct. But often such assertions are unwarranted. Quite a few of the times that people claim that there is a scientific consensus on something, there is no actual majority of scientists who assert such a thing. Below are six reasons for thinking that quite a few claims of scientific consensus are exaggerated, and are not matched by an actual majority opinion of scientists on the matter in question.

Factor #1: Claims of Consensus Are Often Made Before a Consensus Is Reached

Let's imagine that there's some theory that is starting to get traction in the scientific community. Imagine you are some advocate for the theory, trying to get even more people to accept it. What is your easiest route to such a goal? It is to claim that there is a scientific consensus in support of this theory you support. Many people will meekly fall into line and accept your theory, as soon as they hear a claim that most scientists have accepted the theory. The temptation to claim “most scientists believe this” is so great that people often make such claims even when no such consensus has been reached.

Factor #2: Most People Who Claim a Scientific Consensus Offer No Evidence

The great majority of statements claiming a scientific consensus on something offer no evidence to back up for such a claim. For every time that someone claims that most scientists agree on something, and tries to back up such a claim by referring to some opinion poll or study of scientific opinion, there must be ten or twenty times that someone claims that most scientists agree on something without offering any evidence to back up the claim.

Factor #3: There Typically Exist No Formal Processes for Identifying the Opinions of Scientists on Theories

Given the fact that people are often claiming that most scientists think such-and-such a thing, it is rather surprising to consider that there typically exists no systematic process for having scientists state their opinions on whether particular theories are true. In the world of science, there is nothing equivalent to the voting booth. For example, scientists are not sent annual questionnaires in which they are asked to rate the likely truth of different theories on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being certainty about a particular theory.

So when people claim that most scientists believe this or most scientists believe that, and try to back up their claims with some evidence, they may refer to opinion polls or a survey of the scientific literature. These are very imperfect measures of opinion, for reasons discussed below.

Factor #4: People Often Self-Censor Private Opinions Conflicting With Perceived Norms

In November of 2016 there was a startling result in the American presidential election. Donald Trump won a victory in the electoral college, despite losing the popular vote by millions. This was despite both late election polls showing him losing by a substantial margin, and also Election Day exit polls showing him losing in some of the key states he won. A reasonable idea to explain this is the idea of self-censorship. This is the idea that when people hold opinions that differ from perceived norms, they often never publicly state such opinions, and will only express them in something like a secret ballot. It may be that a significant percentage of voters planned to vote for Trump, but told pollsters otherwise, as they regarded their support of Trump as something that conflicted with perceived norms.

We have no idea how much self-censorship plays a role in scientific opinion. Many a scientist may disagree with theories that are supposedly supported by a majority of scientists. Such scientists may engage in self-censorship, figuring that it is not a good career move to speak in opposition to some theory that many other scientists are supporting. This makes it harder to determine just what the majority of scientific opinion really is. 

An example of self-censorship

Factor #5: It Is Very Hard to Unravel the Level of Support for a Theory Based on Scientific Papers

Since scientists have no formal process for voting on the truth of theories, some people have attempted to use studies of scientific papers to draw conclusions about a scientific consensus on some topic. Such attempts can be problematic.

An example of an analysis of scientific papers that offers limited insight is this study, which has been widely although inaccurately summarized as reporting a 97% consensus about anthropogenic global warming. It is probably correct that a majority of scientists do believe that mankind is the main cause of global warming, although the study does not back up the claim of 97% consensus. For one thing, the study was based only on abstracts, those short summaries that appear at the top of a scientific paper. Secondly the study actually reported that 66% of the abstracts reported no opinion about man-made global warming. The 97% figure was from a second phase that sent a questionnaire to those who had already stated an opinion in their abstract about whether humans cause global warming. Of those people, only 14% responded; and of those 14%, 97% supported anthropogenic global warming either explicitly or in a weaker implicit sense. It is not correct to extrapolate from such a fraction of a fraction and make the same 97% claim about the scientific community in general, particularly given the dubious business of getting that 97% by lumping together explicit endorsements of anthropogenic global warming and merely implicit endorsements that may be more nuanced and ambiguous.

Page 15 of this Pew poll of scientists indicates that only 89% of them agreed that earth is warming mostly due to human activity, and that only 77% of them agreed that global warming is a very serious problem. This suggests a consensus about this topic much less than the 97% figure cited (I agree with the 89% on this topic).

It would also be extremely problematic for someone to draw conclusions about a scientific consensus based on an analysis of scientific papers on topics such as cosmic inflation or string theory. Let us consider a physicist who has become familiar with the arcane speculative mathematics of string theory or cosmic inflation theory. Such a physicist learns that he can make a comfortable living grinding out speculative papers offering yet another twist on these theories. But suppose this scientist publishes five papers on such a topic. Does it mean he actually believes the theory is likely to be true? We cannot tell. It could be that the physicist is simply interested in the mathematics, and finds that he can fulfill his yearly quota of scientific papers by writing on the topic. Such a thing does not tell us whether the scientist believes such theories to be true.

Factor #6: Opinion Polls Of Scientists Can be Misleading or Confusing Because of the Way They Are Phrased

Pros in the political field know that the way questions are worded can have gigantic effects on the results. For example, if a question asking about support for abortion is worded from a pro-choice perspective, it will get some answer suggesting a very high support for allowing abortion. The same question worded from a “protect the unborn child” perspective may show a vastly different level of support for allowing abortion.

The same principle holds true in regard to polls of scientists about scientific theories. For example, a Pew opinion poll asked a question of scientists that seemed designed to produce the highest level of response: a question asked whether they agree that “humans and other living things have evolved over time.” That got a 98% yes response. But “evolved over time” could mean small-scale stuff, what is known as microevolution. A scientist believing in small-scale evolution may answer “Yes” to such a question, even though he doesn't believe in the origin of species from more primitive species, or does not believe that such a thing is mainly caused by natural selection. 

Very absurdly, the Pew poll question gave respondents a choice between asserting that "Humans and other living things have evolved over time" and "Have existed in their present form since the beginning of time."  Such a choice forces anyone believing in a 13-billion-year-old universe to choose the first answer, since there is no option such as "Humans originated for unknown reasons about 100,000 years ago, long after the Big Bang." This is a classic pollster's goof: make it seem like almost everyone believes in choice A by offering a choice between choice A and some choice B that almost no one would accept. 

What if these questions were asked:

Is it true that humans have evolved from ape-like ancestors?
Is it true that humans have evolved from ape-like ancestors mainly because of Darwinian natural selection?

These are the questions Pew should be answering, but it doesn't. On page 28 of this full report, it does ask the respondent to choose between the choices shown below:

A poll of scientists (with dubious aspects discussed above and below)

It is interesting that despite constant indoctrination to the contrary, nearly two-thirds of the public reject the claim that humans have evolved over time due to natural processes such as natural selection. It is also interesting here that about 10% of scientists do not believe that evolution occurs mainly because of natural processes such as natural selection.  The survey was made only of American Association for the Advancement of Science members, a subset of scientists more likely to be "old guard" thinkers conforming to ideological orthodoxy.  A full survey of scientists might have yielded a number greater than 10% doubting the "party line" on this topic.

Here we also have a case where there is a large chance of significant self-censorship, as the prevailing academic culture declares deviation from Darwinian orthodoxy as a taboo. The actual percentage of scientists rejecting the Darwinian explanation may be much higher than the 10% indicated in this survey, and could easily be as high as 15% or 20%. The people who responded to the Pew survey were people who responded after being  mailed a letter with the AAAS masthead, signed by the head of the AAAS.  That must have maximized the peer-pressure "fall in line with the majority" effect. A secret ballot without such a "Big Brother is watching" effect might have produced a very different result. 

But the poll still doesn't tell whether there is any consensus about natural selection as an explanation for evolution. The poll asks about “natural processes such as natural selection,” but does not tell us what percentage of scientists are satisfied with the "prevailing party line" claim that natural selection and random mutations can explain the mountainous amounts of biological complexity we observe. Is that percentage 70%? 60%? Or less than 50%? We don't know. Although we sometimes hear claims that almost all scientists believe the idea that Darwinian natural selection explains the origin of species and biological complexity, we don't have polls backing up such a claim. We don't know whether this supposed overwhelming majority is even a 50% majority.

What about fields such as neuroscience? Is it really true that an overwhelming majority of neuroscientists believe that the mind is purely a product of the brain? We don't know, because there is no institutional scientific process for voting on such a thing.


From the discussion above, two general conclusions may be drawn:
  1. When it is claimed that there is a scientific consensus on something, the consensus is often much weaker than is claimed, with a substantial minority rejecting the majority opinion.
  2. Although some claims of a scientific consensus are warranted, it is often claimed that most scientists agree on some topic, when there is actually no clear evidence that such a majority of opinion exists.
Consider also this confusing fact: you may be inclined to believe something if you hear "there is an overwhelming scientific consensus in favor of this," but you may well suspend judgment about such a thing if you hear that "a substantial minority of scientists disagree with the claim."  But both phrases can be used to describe a situation where 90 percent of scientists accept some doctrine, and 10 percent of scientists disagree with that doctrine.

So what are you going to do, when the waters are so muddied in regard to what scientists think? The answer is simple: decide based on facts, logic and evidence, rather than following an “I'll think like most of them think” strategy. Since the insular tribes of academia are often ideological enclaves very much subject to dubious thought customs, inappropriate hero worship, bandwagon effects, sociological influences and groupthink, it's not a good idea to simply follow an “I'll go with the crowd” principle. “Follow the facts” and "follow the logic" are better principles than “follow the crowd.”