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Bloggingheads
04-05-2008, 03:39 AM

AemJeff
04-05-2008, 08:31 AM
Blogginghead Jennifer Oullette (http://twistedphysics.typepad.com/cocktail_party_physics/2008/03/doomsday-redux.html) has more to say about the -redacted- idiots trying to shut down the LHC.

And she has the coolest LOLCat I can think of in the article:
http://twistedphysics.typepad.com/cocktail_party_physics/images/2008/03/30/lhcdoom.jpg

AemJeff
04-05-2008, 09:52 AM
In computer science, some really smart person (was it Donald Knuth (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_of_Computer_Programming)? I can’t remember) said that there are really only three numbers: zero, one, and many. The point of that isn’t that seven, or three-thousand and two, e.g., aren’t useful values, but that the logical design for a process that deals with an arbitrary number of elements is fundamentally different from one that deals with only a single element; and of course zero elements is another special case. That’s loosely put, but another way to say it is that “two” is fundamentally different from “one” in a way that “three” is not different from “two.”

I see the unification quest in similar terms. I imagine that at the heart of creation there must be some fundamentally simple process involved, with only a minimum of moving parts. The “design” of this thing is far more elegant if there is really only a single force involved. A universe with two fundamental forces seems, in those terms, to be far more arbitrary – no less arbitrary than a universe with seven or three-thousand and two fundamental forces.

I don’t discount John’s notion that monotheism (even cultural monotheism among people who might self identify as atheists) has had a role in shaping the mindset that suggests unity; but I think the basic elegance of such a scheme was inevitably going to assert itself in expressions of theory.

apalazzo
04-05-2008, 11:21 AM
You guys are too obsessed with physics. Within biology there are still plenty of opportunities for a single individual to perform a beautiful experiment that uncovers some basic scientific concept. Look at the discovery of the cell cycle, RNA interference or reprogramming somatic cells into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.

This era will be known in the future as the golden age of cell biology, but it appears as if today's science journalists are busy looking elsewhere.

bjkeefe
04-05-2008, 12:31 PM
... on the imminent release of your new book. I can't wait to read it.

Glaurunge
04-05-2008, 01:38 PM
I don't think Monotheism has anything to do with the desire to unify the various realms of physics into a single domain. It probably has something to do with the fact that the islands of quantum physics, classical physics and relativistic physics all interact with and influence one another. So as long as they're interconnected in some causal way, isn't it reasonable to try to discover what, if anything, links them together?

Glaurunge
04-05-2008, 01:39 PM
I don't think Monotheism has anything to do with the desire to unify the various realms of physics into a single domain. It probably has something to do with the fact that the islands of quantum physics, classical physics and relativistic physics all influence and interact with one another. So as long as they're interconnected in some causal way, isn't it reasonable to try to discover what, if anything, links them together?

Happy Hominid
04-05-2008, 01:52 PM
I put it on my "to read" list. But then George spent the 70 minutes telling me about it. Since it's a short book, I'm guessing I heard most of the good stuff!

ctesias_ganges
04-05-2008, 02:27 PM
You talking to me? I do not see anyone else here. You talking to me?

http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/9987?in=01:08:38

osmium
04-05-2008, 02:35 PM
i'm looking forward to getting george's new book. i missed whether it was available yet--i'll go check today nonetheless.

i've always been really partial to the Michelson-Morley experiment, but that's another bigthink physics experiment. the twisted dude inside me just decided he'd put the Stanford Prison Experiment on the list, because it's a nice distillation of the twentieth century, inflicted on unsuspecting students.

WilliamP
04-05-2008, 02:38 PM
One thing totally missed in this dialogue is that in one sense, the search for unification is purely pragmatic. Quantum Mechanics and Relativity both have wonderful explanatory power, but they don't play well together. It's natural to ask what happens at the time and energy scales where this rough seam between them occurs. Right now we just don't know. So it's not so much that scientists have faith that there must be something tying them together, but logically something must happen in this in-between zone, right? And it also happens that knowing how this realm works would be crucial to understanding the early universe and extremely high energy and tiny distance phenomena like black holes.

If someone could come up with a rough and ugly idea for a bridge between Quantum Mechanics and Relativity, and it was nonetheless perfectly consistent with everything we see, would this be as good as unification? I think so, and if it made predictions, and if QM plus Relativity plus this bridge could now explain in principle anything at any energy scale, I think this would lay most unification discussion to rest, and couldn't you then say that it was now itself a unified theory? My (non-scientist's) impression of the Standard Model of particle physics is something like this. It is ugly and arbitrary, but it happens to just explain every experimental question would could possibly throw at it.

osmium
04-05-2008, 02:47 PM
P.S. back at Case Western we had a dorm named after Michelson, and we said "Michael Son."

A physicist I took a class from once told us that the whole thing was Michelson's experiment, and that Morley was only there because he was a chemist and the experiment required a lot of mercury, used to float the apparatus. The physicist's typical view: how could anyone but a physicist ever do anything!

bjkeefe
04-05-2008, 03:23 PM
Rather than monotheism explaining our desire for unified theories in science, it seems more likely that the two share a common cause in the structure of the human mind.

That's the thought that occurred to me, too. We humans seem to like unifying explanations. Another example: the love for conspiracy theories, especially the ones where the [Masons | Illuminati | Rothschilds | Carlyle Group | Trilateral Commission] secretly control everything.

Wonderment
04-05-2008, 04:12 PM
What would Freud have said about the cosmic death wish fantasies inherent in the LHC doomsday lawsuit?

I thought John's little joke, "At least if the end comes, it will presumably come quickly" was interesting. (Freud loved analyzing humor). Do human beings all see an "at least" redeeming value in the obliteration of life? ("At least I wouldn't have to go to the dentist next Tuesday.")

Is there something perversely irresistible (the universe's biggest tantrum?) about the ultimate act of nihilism? Something omnicidally exhilirating about creating a black hole that would devour everything? The cosmos vanishes in a nanosecond, as if it had never existed. The perfect crime. No one left to forgive or condemn. Or suffer. Or know.

If science someday brings us the cosmic equivalent of a loose nuke in the hands of a suicide bomber, my bet is some nut will happily activate it. Maybe on a bad day we all would.

bjkeefe
04-05-2008, 04:55 PM
Wonderment:

Maybe on a bad day we all would.

Having one yourself? Pretty gloomy comment!

I think there's less of an embrace of nihilism in John's joke than two other things: (1) Since we're all aware we're going to die anyway, the thought of a death that is not drawn out and is pain-free is appealing; and (2) At some point, we all acknowledge certain things are out of our control. Suppose the Earth really is a few months from being turned into a black hole? Nothing can be done about it. Humor is the best compensating mechanism.

Wonderment
04-05-2008, 05:38 PM
Having one yourself? Pretty gloomy comment!

Yes, but that's besides the point :)

Doomsday scenarios, even if this particular one is absurd, are important reminders of all the ways scientists can get reckless, abandon objectivity, exercise bad judgment and/or be the whores of governments and corporations.

We began a loony doomsday trajectory 63 years ago, and it's worth recalling Oppenheimer's profound meditation upon observing at Trinity the crowning achievement of the best and the brightest scientists of his era:

"Now I am become death, Shiva, the destroyer of worlds."

bjkeefe
04-05-2008, 05:57 PM
Wonderment:

I agree, and it never hurts to remind scientists of ethical responsibilities.

On the other hand, this attitude tends to be a little overwrought whenever it gets expressed. I think we have far more problems that stem from willful ignorance and fear of the unknown than we do from scientists pushing on the boundaries of knowledge.

AemJeff
04-05-2008, 06:02 PM
the search for unification is purely pragmatic

I think I'd quibble with the adjective "purely." There's undoubtedly something to what you're saying, and reconciling GR with QM is high on everybody's list. If somebody did come up with a "rough and ugly" bridging idea, you can bet that a lot of physics would get done in a hurry - but that wouldn't stop theorists from looking for a more parsimonious solution. One of the hallmarks of a good theory is having as few moving parts as possible, and adding a third domain to the sets of solutions offered by the former two theories is guaranteed to add to the motivation to find a cleaner solution - or a proof that there can't be one. String theory is one obvious example of an attempt. It may or may not contain a version of the truth, and it may or may not eventually provide something like clarity. (I have to say that complaints about the enormous number of solutions it implies strike me as beside the point - that may only mean that we lack some data.)

zookarama
04-05-2008, 06:48 PM
Seems like I read a short story by Larry Niven (I think) in which a very small black hole is created and it makes its way to the earth's core where it orbits around, creating lots of mortal mischief. By the end of the story, the problem is somehow solved. I've shed most of my SF library so I haven't an archive here to search. Anyone else familiar with this one? Niven was/is great for his expositions of these 'hard' science quandaries.

AemJeff
04-05-2008, 07:16 PM
I don't remember the Niven story, but Greg Bear wrote a novel entitled The Forge of God with a plot that used something similar, deployed as a weapon.

WilliamP
04-06-2008, 02:00 AM
I think it's not so much that, but that the history of science has practically been a history of finding unifying explanations, with fantastic real results. There's no reason to be sure this needs to continue forever, but also no reason not to be suspicious. E.g. sound and motion is the same thing. So is falling down and motion of celestial bodies. So is colour and radio waves, magnetism and electricity (and light!), so is all chemical reactions, such explains all that makes living things work. All of the vast range of experiences we see is explainable by Quantum Electrodynamics and Gravitation. And then QED can be merged quite nicely with some other phenomena like nuclear reactions. And then, as far as we know, these two things, Quantum Theory and Gravitation, have been enough to underlie (in principle) anything we could test in the universe.

So now, why would two be the magic number? Also, what happens in places where QM ought to apply, and also Relativity is important, but when the two just aren't compatible. Surely something must happen, it's only natural to ask what, especially since we've been so successful explaining everything else.

To say that physicists just believe it must be so because they like the idea of one God misses a lot of the point, I think.

look
04-06-2008, 07:42 PM
Seems like I read a short story by Larry Niven (I think) in which a very small black hole is created and it makes its way to the earth's core where it orbits around, creating lots of mortal mischief. By the end of the story, the problem is somehow solved. I've shed most of my SF library so I haven't an archive here to search. Anyone else familiar with this one? Niven was/is great for his expositions of these 'hard' science quandaries.

Yes, I recall a short story where a black hole drops through the laboratory floor and zings around inside the earth. Although I hadn't recalled it being restricted to the core, that seems to make more sense. I don't recall the resolution of the story, or it being a Niven story, but it may have been.

look
04-06-2008, 07:47 PM
Rather than monotheism explaining our desire for unified theories in science, it seems more likely that the two share a common cause in the structure of the human mind.A stucture created by Yahweh?

;-)

look
04-06-2008, 07:48 PM
Purrrfect!