Morning Ed: Science {2018.06.08.F}


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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46 Responses

  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    Sc6: Let’s mark Siegel down as ‘highly critical and downright antagonistic to the idea of the EM drive’. Damn that was downright insulting to the people who were even a little excited at the idea.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

      Actually, I just re-read that and Siegel is being a dick to his peers. First off, a reactionless drive isn’t pure fantasy. There are plenty of hypothesis and theories about how one could work. Technically, we already have one (a maglev/railgun is reactionless in that nothing is being ejected/moved to proved thrust and nothing is in physical contact). The fact that we don’t have one that works in space and free of existing infrastructure doesn’t make it impossible. It’s just not possible given our current technology and understanding of the universe.

      Second, I don’t know much about Roger Shawyer other than he is an engineer, but he doesn’t strike me the perpetual motion conman Siegel suggests he is. He made his device, got thrust he thought he could explain, and rather than hide it under layers of IP while trying to sell it to idiots, he handed it off to others and asked them to check his work. And Harold White is no fool, even though Siegel basically calls him (and everyone else) one for even entertaining the notion that some engineer created a reactionless drive. Except entertaining these ideas is his job (he is the director of advanced propulsion concepts at NASA). He’s the guy you go to to vet these things. And he tried, and admitted he was getting thrust, and then rather than declare it gold, he publicly said, “I have no idea how this works, anyone else want to have a go at it?’

      Tamjar picked up the gauntlet and seems to have figured it out. Good on him. Science worked.

      But being derisive to your peers because they properly and professionally chased down something they enthusiastically hoped to be true is just being an ass. Every scientist has some flight of fancy that they would love to see be reality. I’d be highly distrustful of a scientist who had no such imagination. Maybe Shawyer still has dreams of his EM Drive being a reality, but to date, no one has pursued this past the point of reason, so the derision isn’t deserved.

      But I guess Siegel is too busy being self congratulatory about not being a wild idea enthusiast (among the many other things he is self congratulatory about) to keep some humility about him.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

      I was pretty enthusiastic about it. In fact, I’ve put a (unexplained) propellant-less drive into the sci-fi setting I’m using for some roleplaying. It makes interplanetary travel so much easier.

      I don’t think I felt quite as insulted by that piece as you seem to.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        I was mostly insulted by the tone of the author. It’s that whole, ‘you rubes got suckered in by a dream, I would never be so idealistic!’ attitude, just annoys me, especially given that no one got suckered in. They ran the problem down.Report

        • Avatar Pinky says:

          I’m not sure the article was belittling; it just felt padded. The story was “people thought it worked but it didn’t”, which is actually a pretty short story. So the author kept repeating that science is hard and sometimes scientists make mistakes.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

            I think that was the article he wanted to write, but that wasn’t the article I read.


            • Avatar Michael Cain says:

              He could have been more polite. Still, extraordinary claims (violates conservation of momentum) demand extraordinary doubt. After the “Pioneer anomaly” was detected, there were all sorts of people ready to start tearing down space-time theory. The anomaly, of course, turned out to be nothing more complicated than asymmetric radiation of waste heat. Some sort of magnetic field coupling in the EmDrive seems like a question that should have been raised years ago.

              I am also generally irritated when “reactionless” is used interchangeably with “propellantless”. A railgun projectile is “reactionless” only when you exclude the gun (that generates the necessary EM fields) and whatever the gun is anchored to. Many of the proposed reactionless drives aren’t really reactionless either — they push against space-time in one fashion or another.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                That’s a good point. Most reactionless drive concepts still have a reaction of some fashion, just no propellant that needs to be ejected. Work is still being done, energy consumed, and somehow you are pushing or pulling along ‘something’ (be it magnetic fields, or gravity, or something). Laws are still being observed, just not in the classical fashion we are all used to.

                As for the ‘being ready to tear down space-time’, we should always be ready to tear down existing theories. Keeps things flexible (like minds too set in their ways), as long as folks don’t go getting too carried away.Report

              • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

                As for the ‘being ready to tear down space-time’, we should always be ready to tear down existing theories. Keeps things flexible (like minds too set in their ways), as long as folks don’t go getting too carried away.

                This works better as a motivational poster than as a practical way to do science. If we see an anomaly and set ourselves the task of figuring out what is going on, it is far, far, …, far likelier to be something like asymmetric radiation of waste heat than it is anything that requires tearing down existing theories. In practice, our time is better spent looking for asymmetric radiation or the like. Then, if we don’t find anything, look again. If we still don’t find anything, go recruit some people smarter than we are to take a look.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                You know who usually goes off on enthusiastic head coasters about tearing down established theories, right?

                The people who have zero responsibility toward answering the question before us. Sure, that professor at Harvard with no connection to JPL or the Pioneer program has a crazy idea. So what, he’s just enjoying the mystery. He doesn’t have to actually figure out what is going on.Report

              • There is a terrific story about this: Shaffery Among the Immortals by Fred Pohl.Report

          • Avatar Morat20 says:

            The real story was “Everyone was pretty certain it didn’t work, but couldn’t figure out why it looked like it would work” with a side of “God, I wish physics allowed this kind of thing to work”.

            Sadly, “Someone figured out what was going on, which was basically what everyone assumed but couldn’t figure out exactly how” is not a great topic for a piece.Report

            • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

              Sadly, “Someone figured out what was going on, which was basically what everyone assumed but couldn’t figure out exactly how” is not a great topic for a piece.

              Am I the only one who thinks that is a great topic for a piece?Report

              • Avatar veronica d says:

                I think it would be a wonderful topic:

                Hey, you know that big mystery that perhaps would overthrow all conventional notions of mechanics — we figured it out.

                That is obviously interesting.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Maybe it’s the software dev in me. Oh, hey, you that big nasty bug in the code base base that’s been causing us all to drink way too much? Yeah, we had an extra curly brace in there. It’s all good now.Report

              • Avatar veronica d says:

                @oscar-gordon — Funny story. Once one of my coworkers got all excited and shouted, “Yay! I have a bug!”

                I was like, “Huh? That’s good?”

                Him: “Well, the other option was that math is fundamentally wrong.”Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Right up there with, “Oh good, I was tripping balls on LSD, because otherwise squirrels can talk and they know ALL our secrets!”Report

              • Given the choice between “I’ve found a compiler bug” and “I have completely lost my mind” …Report

              • Avatar veronica d says:

                @mike-schilling — It’s never a compiler bug!Report

              • It’s true that in C++ it’s less likely to be a compiler bug than that the language definition actually allows it.Report

              • Avatar veronica d says:

                @mike-schilling — I wonder if the C++ language spec is even a decideable format system.Report

              • Avatar veronica d says:

                I mean formal system, damn autocorrect ugh.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain says:

                It got lost somewhere over the years, but I used to have a letter from IBM acknowledging that I had found a reproducible bug in their PL/I compiler. Given some of the language’s “features”, I was surprised that there weren’t more letters like mine kicking around.Report

              • Avatar veronica d says:

                @michael-cain — Actually, I also once found a bug in a commercial Eiffel compiler at one point (since I guess we’re the sort to poke at now obscure languages).

                I mostly use SBCL these days for my job. Truth is, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish a “compiler bug” from the expected sheer perversity of common lisp.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                Good paper, less good news piece is probably how that goes.

                I mean I was pretty happy to see they figured out that weird thrust issue with Voyager after a decade or two, but I sincerely doubt the general public even cared.

                Rocket scientists, space nerds, and the like did.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                At least we are in good company..Report

              • Avatar veronica d says:

                Right. Those are some of my favorite people.Report

  2. Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

    Sc1 & Sc5: I routinely point out, whenever the topic of the replication crisis in science, that this is really a crisis in a few fields of science: in particular psychology, and biology as it intersects pharmaceuticals. There is no replication crisis in, say, particle physics. It has other problems, with limits to our capability to carry out experiments, but they replicate as well as could reasonably be expected. Then there are vast swaths of less sexy fields that are puttering along just fine. There is no hand-wringing about replication in, say, polymer chemistry.

    So what’s up with psychology? The field has from its inception had a high tolerance for bullshit. The entire career of Freud was based on this. Add to this physics envy: Research psychologists want to use lots of numbers, but kids who are interested in science and have strong math skills tend not to go into psych. The results are not pretty. A lot of the crisis comes down to researchers using math that they don’t really understand, and neither do the journal editors and peer reviewers.

    Pharma? This hardly requires explanation. The entire field is corrupted by too much money floating about and high stakes betting.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

      I want to note that while Freud was wrong about a lot of things, particularly dreams and sexual abuse of women, most people working in clinical psychology think he figured out a lot of the foundations of what we still use and know. The idea of say, superego vs ego vs id is still a solid and powerful tool. And in describing defense mechanisms, he was spot on.

      But that’s kind of my point. I am not inclined, like so many of my “hard science” peers are, to rain on psychology as “squishy”. For human beings to study the psychology of other human beings is really hard. And the level of funding they have is tiny when compared to drug trials or physics. And yeah, physics has its own problem with announcing stuff that’s wrong. Those errors just get caught a lot faster, because more money is riding on it.Report

      • Avatar Pinky says:

        Weren’t the ego, superego, and id pretty much cribbed from Plato?Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        I am not inclined, like so many of my “hard science” peers are, to rain on psychology as “squishy”.

        I’m not critical of ‘squishy’ science because it is squishy. As you say, that makes it very challenging and thus worthy of respect. I’m critical of it because enough of the practitioners of those disciplines, and damn near all of the media, forget that it is ‘squishy’ and act as if it is a ‘hard’ discipline, with all the mathematical and experimental rigor that entails.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        There’s a quote of his that has always stuck with me:

        I do not doubt that it would be easier for fate to take away your suffering than it would for me. But you will see for yourself that much has been gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.

        Achievable goals.

        I see a lot of psychology not as silly because it doesn’t work all the time, but as probably scratching into something we don’t understand because it works as often as it does.Report

        • fillyjonk fillyjonk says:

          Considering that there are so many diverse factors that affect a person’s temperament and how their mind works – genetics, past history, current environment, biochemistry, possibly even their own diets and specific gut flora – it is kind of amazing how often it does work. And we may never know fully how the mind works, anyway.

          (Off topic but: I am an ecologist and I have joked that I am in the “semi-soft” sciences. Because ecology is probably more like psychology in some ways than it is like physics)Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      “Research psychologists want to use lots of numbers, but kids who are interested in science and have strong math skills tend not to go into psych.”

      Brilliant point.Report

      • Avatar bookdragon says:

        For now. Among my 17 yr old’s interests are statistics, computational data analysis, and psychology. I had thought wanting to combine those would make her somewhat unique, but at a couple different university Honors College recruiting sessions there were several other prospective students who gave that combined major as their area of interest.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      I think a big issue with psychology is that they are dealing with a lot of things that are probably untangible and still in the realm of metaphysics. There is a lot of mental illness that has origins in chemistry but that doesn’t mean all people who need mental health help will benefit from pharmapsychology.

      A lot of work done by practicing psychologists is still the good old-fashioned talking cure. I think this is necessary and important but it is not really hard science.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        The big divide in mental health seems to be people who thinks its’ mainly about chemicals and prefer treating things through drugs and the people that would avoid drugs if possible or want drugs plus the talking cure.Report

    • Avatar PD Shaw says:

      SC1 is more specifically about social psychology, which is pretty fuzzy area. In undergrad, I was a research assistant for a social psych professor; I am the replication crisis given form and attitude. The conducted initial attitude surveys (generally away from college because student attitudes don’t count) so that the professor could fine-tune the final form of questions he wanted to ask or if you are cynical, draft the questions that got the answers he wanted. His interest area was finding correlations between people’s attitudes about animals and about foreign policy. If any of the information I gathered turned up in a publication, it would not have met standards of randomness; the people most likely to answer were coming in and out of public libraries. I was most likely to meet my quota sooner by seeking out locations and people most likely to respond.

      I don’t think the qualms I have about that area apply to other psych fields. I don’t think clinical psychology is much different from medical fields. Science doesn’t need to be quantifiable, it can be descriptive and observational. And the major field when I was in undergrad was cognitive psych, which was utilizing computers to test memory, problem-solving, attention, etc. to map how cognitive functions worked. Quite numeric and more about breaking down small pieces of thought, rather than bridging the gap between my attitude towards veal and my attitude towards the opium wars.Report

  3. Avatar Dark Matter says:

    [Sc8] Ouch. Males killing males to that extreme over many generations should create instincts pretty quickly.

    And they’re being very polite about it. You take over the other tribe and kill all the men.Report

    • Avatar atomickristin says:

      I was actually just writing about Sc8 for work this morning. I am not totally convinced it’s that simple to explain the bottleneck. Men and boys tend to die younger from many different causes aside from warfare and I am skeptical that the bottleneck was down to ONE single solitary cause. I suspect there were other environmental factors at play…some evidence indicates very strange solar activity at that point Harsher environment and war seems more plausible than just war alone. It’s an awesome theory, I’m just not quite convinced by it.Report

      • Avatar Dark Matter says:

        Harsher environment and war seems more plausible than just war alone. It’s an awesome theory, I’m just not quite convinced by it.

        It’s got to be something which targets the “Y”, so the “environment” is probably “polygamy”.Report

        • Avatar atomickristin says:

          It doesn’t have to target only the Y since males are more likely to die of all causes. A harsher environment (colder, drier, scarcer prey, agriculture more difficult) would affect everyone negatively but would affect males hardest, and then in addition to that there was also extensive warfare on top of it. Indeed, the stakes for warfare would be much higher if resources were scarce. It makes more sense to me than warfare alone.Report

  4. “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, ‘hmm… that’s funny…’”

    Often attributed to Isaac Asimov, and it really does sound like him, but AFAIK no one has ever found a source.Report

  5. [Sc8]

    “What are we fighting about?”

    “We are defending our nation. Our gods. Our sacred honor. And whoever wins gets like 17 women each.”Report