Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The National Science Teachers Association recommends my new book. Which is gratifying:
John Farrell’s lively and concise biography of Lemaitre includes a history of the theories of the origin on the universe...The Day without Yesterday is a significant contribution to the history of science. Students and teachers will learn about a mostly unknown but quite important figure in the history of astronomy. Perhaps more important, they will understand how a person who was at the top of his profession in science and had a distinguished career within a traditional religious structure could reconcile these two ways of perceiving the universe.
Very gratifying!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Tom Bethell Concedes?

Missed in all the hoopla over the new Politically Incorrect Guide to Science by American Spectator editor Tom Bethell is an interesting fact.

There’s no chapter summarizing his past vaunted attacks on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Indeed, when I browsed the book recently at B&N I must confess I was almost disappointed when I went through the list of chapters and saw no “Rethinking Relativity”. In fact, the only reference to Einstein in the book is a positive one, regarding a consequence of general relativity. But Bethell has written at least three features attacking Einstein in the past, twice for the Spectator (1993 and 1999) and at least once for National Review (1990).

Well, after a little research, I discovered something surprising. It took over six years, but Tom Bethell has finally admitted that one of the “primary” sources for his vaunted anti-relativity essays is…well, a crackpot.

For all the questionable views Bethell espouses about Darwin, almost always backed up with quotes from dead people or sources who changed their minds after he quoted them (e.g., Karl Popper, Antony Flew) or sources from so long ago no one would consider them current, he is a good writer. Bethell knows how to concede something while not seeming to concede at the same time.

First, consider this response he was forced to pen recently in the letters section of the American Spectator: (at the very bottom of the page) regarding his past efforts against Einstein, and the source for one of his articles about it: Tom Van Flandern. Russell Seitz, who obviously remembers Bethell’s earlier articles attacking Einstein, associates Bethell’s crankiness with TVF’s., as Bethell apparently recommended TVF’s work to another author. Tom Van Flandern's eccentric views have been well known amongst astronomers and cosmologists for years.

He writes:
“Tom Van Flandern, a physicist and cosmologist formerly associated with the University of Maryland Physics Department, worked for the Nautical Almanac Office of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Currently he puts out a newsletter called the Meta Research Bulletin. He is an independent thinker who subscribes to a wide range of views, some of which have been quoted by the eminent physicist Paul Dirac. But other of Van Flandern's views are eccentric, and one in particular is hazardous to his reputation. This is the view that a designed artifact resembling a face is visible on Mars and has been photographed by NASA. I do not and never have subscribed to that view, which is unjustified by the evidence. You only have to look at the "face" to see that it is an accidental arrangement of canyons and shadows. In my view, it was reckless of Van Flandern to make such a claim and I have never endorsed it.”
Van Flandern published a paper on the speed of gravity in Physics Letters A (Dec. 21, 1998), arguing that gravity’s propagation must be virtually instantaneous (thereby contradicting a tenet of relativity, that nothing can travel faster than light). Like most of Van Flandern’s efforts (the alleged variation of the force of gravity, for example) it has duly received attention by the mainstream specialists in general relativity and cosmology. It has also been dismissed as the logic and mathematics behind the paper have been found lacking. Indeed, in two separate papers, published within the next year, physicists Michael Ibison et al and Steve Carlip rebutted Flandern’s claim in Physics Letters A. Flandern has never directly responded to their points, and indeed, has shown that he does not fully understand the GRT field equations.

Cosmologists have moved on. But not TVF. Though his article on general relativity has been dismissed by his colleagues, he continues to promote it to the general public.

In spite of the measured tones in which Bethell now describes TVF in the TAS letter above, he was not always so reserved about Van Flandern. In his April 1999 article he took TVF’s claims much more seriously. Here’s what Bethell had to say about TVF back in that article attacking Einstein. It is no longer available at the American Spectator’s web site (I wonder why?), but it can be found on various anti-relativity and astronomy sites, like here.)

Bethell wrote:
No one has paid attention yet, but a well-respected physics journal just published an article whose conclusion, if generally accepted, will undermine the foundations of modern physics -- Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in particular. Published in Physics Letters A (December 21, 1998), the article claims that the speed with which the force of gravity propagates must be at least twenty billion times faster than the speed of light. This would contradict the Special Theory of Relativity of 1905, which asserts that nothing can go faster than light. This claim about the special status of the speed of light has become part of the world view of educated laymen in the twentieth century. Special Relativity, as opposed to the General Theory (1916), is considered by experts to be above criticism, because it has been confirmed “over and over again.”

But several dissident physicists believe that there is a simpler way of looking at the facts, a way that avoids the mind-bending complications of Relativity. Their arguments can be understood by laymen. I wrote about one of these dissidents, Peter Beckmann, over five years ago (TAS, August 1993, and Correspondence, TAS, October 1993). The present article introduces new people and arguments. The subject is important because if Special Relativity is supplanted, much of twentieth-century physics, including quantum theory, will have to be reconsidered in that light.

Dissident physicists. Sure. Note the standard breathless promise of revolution that is typical of Bethell’s pronouncements against science (including the nonsense about SRT being "above criticism.") 30 years ago he was saying the same thing about Darwin’s theory in the Atlantic Monthly. Apparently he has never spoken to a single biologist familiar with Chromosome 2 and its implications for human evolution.

Bethell made three claims in this 1999 article, using TVF as his primary source: A. that the Global Positioning System undercuts general relativity. B. TVF’s Speed of Gravity paper undercuts special relativity. And the whopper. C. Einstein cheated: His Mercury perihelion derivation was deliberately fudged.

Heady stuff, huh? It’s just that…well, it turned out after Bethell’s article appeared (again based almost entirely on the quotes and ‘sources’ provided to him by TVF), that in addition to thinking that Relativity is wrong, it turned out TVF also…sorta…thinks there’s a face on Mars made by aliens.

When this was first pointed out by a reader in the letters section of the Spectator back in 1999, I think Bethell was surprised and embarrassed. Why? Well, he had nothing to say in defense of his ‘source’ except to print a defense of the Face on Mars silliness written by TVF himself. (This is no doubt what led TAS reader and letter writer Russell Seitz into thinking Bethell espoused the Face on Mars nonsense himself—and Bethell was right to dispute this.) Now, I don’t know whether TVF told Bethell he believed in the Alien Face before Bethell wrote his article attacking Einstein, but I doubt it. And further, somehow I have the feeling Tom Bethell would have had second thoughts about writing his article in the first place if he had.

Indeed, the biggest bogus claim in that article, based on TVF, which I discussed in detail for an article in Salon,was that Einstein deliberately fudged his field equations to get a correct figure for the advance of the perihelion of Mercury.

Note that today this tampering by Einstein is a claim that Tom Bethell was not interested in repeating in his response to Seitz. Why? Because it had no basis in fact—and not one scientist besides TVF could I find willing to support it—including his alleged source.

I believe Bethell has realized that this just won’t do. On the other hand, he does have to defend himself for his past actions. So, as we see, in response to the letter by Seitz reminding readers of TVF’scrankiness (and by association Bethell’s own), Bethell did his best to makeTVF look like…well, an independent thinker.

Let’s look at his letter quoted above more carefully. Because a couple of items stand out:

TVF as an "independent thinker." This is the standard defense of cranks. “He’s willing to buck the tide on (insert your whipping boy here)!” It would help, of course, if TVF had more than just one paper to substantiate this. And that his peers respected his independent thinking. But they don’t. Note by the way, how Bethell implies the apparent lack of independent thinking about scientists who actually work in universities like, oh, say Scott Hughes and Sean Carroll, two prominent young cosmologists. Check out their web sites and the number of peer-reviewed papers they’ve published. Don’t exactly look like lock-step conformists to me.

But what grabbed me is TVF’s supposed association with the late great Paul M. Dirac.

Bethell is at his most careful here. And he’s right to be. I find no such corroborating source from Dirac that in regard to TVF he “quoted his views.” One site I googled, from 2003, goes so far as to say: “The famous Nobelist Paul Dirac said of him [TVF] in his book “Directions in Physics” that Tom knows more about the changing gravitational constant than anyone else he knows.”

This sounds cool. A plaudit from a renowned 20th century physicist. I’d wear that as a badge.

Too bad it’s not true.

I went and looked up Dirac’s book, Directions in Physics. He never praised TVF as knowing “more about the changing gravitational constant than anyone else he knows”. What Dirac did do, in a lecture about the gravitational constant in 1975 (over 30 years ago—again there’s that habit Bethell has with relying on old sources), is he cited TVF’s early work on the subject, saying on p.82 that: “Several people have been working on this question. The man who has done most on it, so far as I know, is Van Flandern, in the Naval Research Observatory in Washington.”

I think you would agree that “Done most on it, so far as I know” is not the same thing as “knows more about it than anyone else he knows” or “quoting his views”.

Further, after discussing TVF’s work on measuring the angular motion of the moon—Dirac went on to say why he found it unsatisfying and based on primitive theory. See p. 83. Does not sound like a ringing endorsement to me.

So, after his tepid apologia for TVF, Tom Bethell admits, he can’t cover for the guy, stating that espousing junk science views like the Face on Mars is hazardous to your reputation. (I can’t help asking—does not the reference to independent thinker above not assume you don’t care what others think about your challenging views? Whatever.)

So, it seems, even Tom Bethell has some sense of the importance of methodological naturalism when it comes to doing science. Indeed, in regards to Van Flandern’s views on relativity, he now writes, “I did not (necessarily) thereby endorse all of those views.” Well, this is interesting. Because Bethell most plainly did get very excited about those views when he wrote his anti-relativity piece back in 1999. Excited enough to write a whole article about him. I’d call that endorsement. In fact he opened his piece, as we saw, foreshadowing (again) the death knell for the established theory by touting TVF’s paper and then explaining it in detail.

But no more, it seems. It looks to me from this response in the TAS letters section –and the lack of a Relativity Chapter in his new book, that Tom Bethell has changed his mind.

This is reason for optimism. (I know, I know, the cynics are snickering at me.) For science enthusiasts everywhere, this means there is hope for Tom Bethell. If he can change his mind about relativity (even if he doesn’t outright admit it), he may also see the light on Darwin as well. (provided he starts contacting sources who are a., still living, and b., still working in the field.)

I for one hope so.

Friday, January 27, 2006

My old college buddy and now priest in Rome, John Wauck, has a new blog. John's a priest of Opus Dei (cue sinister sounding music!). Funny, he doesn't look like an albino monk to me...

Thursday, January 26, 2006

From Publisher's Lunch:
Frey Acknowledges Mistakes on Today's Oprah; Readers Sue
"Now like many of you, I have a million little questions," Oprah Winfrey says of James Frey at the top of today's show--an evolution of the viewpoint she expressed in a phone call to the Larry King Show. An ABC news report says that on the broadcast, Frey admits, "I think I made a lot of mistakes in writing the book and promoting book."

Winfrey asks, "Do you think you lied or do you think you made a mistake?"

"I think probably both," he said.

Appearing on the show with Frey are publisher Nan Talese and some journalists.

Separately, two Seattle residents filed suit in federal court against Frey and Random House, charging "breach of contract, unjust enrichment, negligent misrepresentation, intentional misrepresentation and violation of the Washington Consumer Protection Act," according to the Seattle Times. The plaintiffs, whose main request is to be compensated for the "lost time" in reading the book, are seeking class action for the suit. The newspapers says the suit is "apparently the third of its kind to be filed across the nation, seeks class-action status against Frey and the publisher."
Seattle Times

What's next? A book about the book? Sheesh.

Einstein plus...?

A modified theory of gravity that incorporates quantum effects can explain a trio of puzzling astronomical observations – including the wayward motion of the Pioneer spacecraft in our solar system, new studies claim.

The work appears to rule out the need to invoke dark matter or another alternative gravity theory called MOND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics). But other experts caution it has yet to pass the most crucial test – how to account for the afterglow of the big bang.

Astronomers realised in the 1970s that the gravity of visible matter alone was not enough to prevent the fast-moving stars and gas in spiral galaxies from flying out into space. They attributed the extra pull to a mysterious substance called dark matter, which is now thought to outweigh normal matter in the universe by 6 to 1.

Article here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Excellent piece by Frank Furedi about how the so-called rationalists in our society can be given to their own forms of irrational behavior:
Superstition and prejudice should continually be countered by rational argument. But the vitriolic invective hurled at Christian believers today is symptomatic of the passions normally associated with a fanatical Inquisitor. Like the old Spanish Inquisition, anti-religious fanatics are constantly on the look out for fundamentalist plots. Richard Dawkins' recent two-part TV rant against religion on Channel 4 demonstrated the fanatical intolerance of critics of religion. The language and tone adopted by the anti-religious crusade - especially in the US - frequently acquires pathological dimensions. So, many anti-religious warriors repeat Dawkins' assertion that St Paul's idea of atonement for original sin is 'essentially, psychological and emotional child abuse' (1).
Article here.

Friday, January 20, 2006

As Dan Kennedy points out, Dan Shaughnessy thinks he is something more than just a journalist.
Dan Shaughnessy, the Red Sox' co-general manager:
[John] Henry and [Larry] Lucchino were in Phoenix yesterday at the owners' meetings. I spoke with Henry late in the afternoon before he boarded a jet to fly home to Boston. I told him the same thing I had told him in December. I thought it looked as if he could not make a decision. I thought he should either fire Lucchino or tell Epstein to get lost.
Whatever happened to journalists who ask questions? Amazing.
Amazing is the word. I hear the Globe is going to be cutting staff. Can they start by putting Shaughnessy at the top of their list?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Of Course You Realize This Means War Dept. The Discovery Institute's reaction to an article in the Vatican's official newspaper, critical of intelligent design and supporting the recent Dover, PA decision, is...sadly predictable.
The official Vatican newspaper published an article this week labeling as "correct" the recent decision by a judge in Pennsylvania that intelligent design should not be taught as a scientific alternative to evolution.

"If the model proposed by Darwin is not considered sufficient, one should search for another," Fiorenzo Facchini, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Bologna, wrote in the Jan. 16-17 edition of the paper, L'Osservatore Romano.

"But it is not correct from a methodological point of view to stray from the field of science while pretending to do science," he wrote, calling intelligent design unscientific. "It only creates confusion between the scientific plane and those that are philosophical or religious."

The article was not presented as an official church position. But in the subtle and purposely ambiguous world of the Vatican, the comments seemed notable, given their strength on a delicate question much debated under the new pope, Benedict XVI.

Advocates for teaching evolution hailed the article. "He is emphasizing that there is no need to see a contradiction between Catholic teachings and evolution," said Dr. Francisco J. Ayala, professor of biology at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Dominican priest. "Good for him."

But Robert L. Crowther, spokesman for the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle organization where researchers study and advocate intelligent design, dismissed the article and other recent statements from leading Catholics defending evolution. Drawing attention to them was little more than trying "to put words in the Vatican's mouth," he said.

Yeah, sure. The article just landed there by accident.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

P.Z. Myers has an interesting post today on that supposed "orthodox dogma of Darwinism" we're always hearing creationists complain about.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Just how utterly senile embarrassing is Walter Cronkite? Austin Bay has some thoughts...

Friday, January 13, 2006

Edward Feser, in an excellent piece at Tech Central, describes the philosophical varieties of conservatism:

If you are still with me ... you have no doubt already begun to see the relevance of metaphysics to conservatism, and in particular the relevance of the classical realist tradition to Weaver’s brand of conservatism. “Realist Conservatism,” as we might call it, affirms the existence of an objective order of forms or universals that define the natures of things, including human nature, and what it seeks to conserve are just those institutions reflecting a recognition and respect for this objective order. Since human nature is, on this view, objective and universal, long-standing moral and cultural traditions are bound to reflect it and thus have a presumption in their favor.

But this does not necessarily entail a deference to the status quo, for since human beings are by their nature free and fallible, it is possible for societies to deviate, even radically, from the natural law. When this happens, it is the duty of the conservative to “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” (as the editors of National Review so eloquently put it many years ago). Such yelling ought of course to be done with tact and wisdom, but if the cause of the Realist Conservative should end up a lost one, unlikely to win elections, that is irrelevant. What matters is fidelity to the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.

What then are the other two varieties of conservatism I promised to identify? Here another, and much briefer, excursion into the history of philosophy is in order. I noted that realism had as its great rival nominalism, but there is also a third position on the nature of universals -- “conceptualism,” which might be thought of as a kind of middle ground between realism and nominalism. The conceptualist does not quite deny that universals exist (as the nominalist does) but he does insist, contrary to the realist, that they exist only subjectively, in the human mind. If they are real, then, they are something other than what the realist takes them to be; though their existence isn’t exactly denied, they are nevertheless “reduced” to something less grand, and certainly to something less than eternal and unchanging.

I think I land in the realist camp...on my better days.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Jack Krebs makes a good point about what--for me and other Christians--is so depressing about the Discovery Institute's approach to "teaching the controversy."
They want the façade of credibility for ID by setting it against evolution – against some well-know[n] biology professor like Krishtalka, but they don’t want (and I find this ironic) to actually discuss the issue of Christianity and evolution in front of a group of Christians. What are they afraid of here?

This seems to me a deliberate strategy amongst otherwise well-respected conservative journalists as well. Instead of discussing the science of evolution, they are only interested in insisting it is a threat to theism, that there is an absolute choice between Darwin’s theory—or what they take to be the necessary materialistic nihilism behind the theory—and Christianity or Judaism.

This has made otherwise respectable and thoughtful conservative intellectuals like Irving Kristol, David Klinghoffer, David Warren, Tom Bethell, and lesser lights (Pat Buchanan, Phyllis Schlafly) look like willfully ignorant (if not intellectually dishonest) fools when it comes to science.

For educated conservatives, this is truly depressing.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

This is going to make some of my favorite bloggers...er, unhappy, but I can't help pointing to Christopher Hitchens on the Dover decision:
Christopher Hitchens, columnist, Vanity Fair
At the opening of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh wrote of hearing one sweet and civilized word, and of the effect it had—as if a fatuous, bawling voice on a loudspeaker had been suddenly switched off. The judge's highly literate and elegant ruling in the Dover, Pa., intelligent-design case has had precisely that effect upon me. Just for once—for once—the raucous, boring, bullying noise of the religious morons is turned off, and one can hear the lucid tones of reason, detachment, culture, and irony. That the voters of the same town should have firmly retired the demagogues and dolts of their school board, and that both they and the judge should have been of a Republican tendency, only adds to my sense that the resources of civilization are not yet exhausted, and that we have wells of real intelligence upon which to draw. Please don't wake me up.
(PS: and it's not because they were religious...it's because they were morons....)
"Saturday Night Live" fans looking to watch classic skits from the show may not have to depend on reruns and DVD compilations for long.

Apple is set to announce today that it will sell a limited number of archived "Saturday Night" skits through its iTunes Music Store for $1.99 each, for viewing on video iPods or personal computers.

The offering is the latest expansion of Apple's iTunes video library, which includes content from television networks including NBC and ABC.

I'm buying!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Too good to be true? Michael Ledeen says:
And, according to Iranians I trust, Osama bin Laden finally departed this world in mid-December. The al Qaeda leader died of kidney failure and was buried in Iran, where he had spent most of his time since the destruction of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Iranians who reported this note that this year's message in conjunction with the Muslim Haj came from his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, for the first time.
I hope it's true. Happy New Year.
Why I love Anthony Lane:
The box-office returns for 2005 are not yet complete. “King Kong” is still slugging it out with “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” and my money is on Tilda Swinton to beat the crap out of the primate.
"...stranger than we can imagine" Dept.

Scientists using NASA's Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer have found a doomed star orbiting what appears to be a medium-sized black hole – a theorized "in-between" category of black hole that has eluded confirmation and frustrated scientists for more than a decade.

With the discovery of the star and its orbital period, scientists are now one step away from measuring the mass of such a black hole, a step which would help verify its existence. The star's period and location already fit into the main theory of how these black holes could form.

A team led by Prof. Philip Kaaret of the University of Iowa, Iowa City, announced these results today in Science Express. The results will also appear in the Jan. 27 issue of Science.

Article here.

Friday, January 06, 2006

This guy Ross, guest-blogging at Andrew Sullivan's site...he's good.
Yet acknowledging that all deaths aren't the same, and that all murders aren't equally wicked, doesn't mean that all lives don't deserve legal protection. If I shoot a mother of four, it's a much greater tragedy than if I shoot a friendless bum, and you'd probably want to give me a much stiffer prison sentence. But it doesn't mean the mom should have the right to life and the bum - or the fetus, the embryo, or the zygote - shouldn't.

And of course, the other reason we don't respond emotionally to zygote deaths is because we don't know they're happening. The "zygote intuition" argument would make a little bit more sense, in this regard, if people never felt grief over a miscarriage. Then you could argue - "look, our moral intuitions tell us not to grieve over human life before that life acquires a personality, or self-awareness, or a face." But of course, people do feel grief over miscarriages, by and large - just as they feel guilt (again, by and large) over abortions. Which suggests, in turn, that we don't grieve for zygotes not because we somehow intuit that they aren't really people, but because - unlike embryos and fetuses - we aren't aware of their deaths. You can't grieve for something you don't know exists.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

What can Apple learn from some of its competitors when it comes to video for it's new iPod Video Player?
...from the PSP? A bigger, wide-screen display would be nice. I also like the PSP’s use of removable media, whether blank or with video content already on it; that’s the way we’re used to watching video in our living rooms, so why not do the same with a portable player? Combine flash media, UMD support, and the larger screen with the convenience of the iTunes Music Store and the iPod’s big hard drive, and Apple could have a best-of-breed portable player. And if Apple could also learn a thing or two from Sony about gaming, so much the better.
Read more of Macworld's take here.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The usual suspects of the Buchanan beer hall wing of conservatism attack Gary Rosen's defense of President Bush's foreign policy. And Rosen answers eloquently.