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New idea

  1. Jun 4, 2007 #1
    I read in New Scientist that some physicists believe that retrocausality may not only exist, but that life may somehow be able affect the past to enable its own creation. Taking this along with the idea with daughter universes which can break off our own universe, is it possible that there can be a kind of evolution of universes where ones which have the capability to harbour life survive? I realise this is a bit far fetched but it would explain the reason our own universe seems so well suited to creating life.
     
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  3. Jun 4, 2007 #2

    Wallace

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    I gave up reading New Scientist a while ago. It looks like I'm not going to regret it if they still print stuff like this and call it Science!

    Can you test it? Can you falsify it? Does it make specific predictions? I think the answer to all of the above is a resounding no...
     
  4. Jun 4, 2007 #3

    Chris Hillman

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    Is critical thinking dead?

    :rolleyes:

    I quote verbatim from something I just wrote in another thread in another subforum:

    Seriously, I think we need to ask someone like ZapperZ to write a sticky stating that New Scientist, while once a respectable science magazine, has degenerated to the point where mention of an NS article in scientific circles is usually followed by derisive laughter.

    In any case, I would advise anyone curious about some of the nuttier sounding things bandied about in the media to consider the possibility that journalists may not be competent to assess the scientific merits of some possibly highly technical proposal, or to fully and fairly present even "watered down" versions of possible limitations or objections from other scientists. Articles in pop sci magazines are often produced under deadline pressure and unfortunately, increasingly "journalists" rely on "sources" such as the Wikipedia, which may partially explain the notable decline in "science journalism" during the past few years. So be careful in assessing what you read about science in the news media! (Or anything, come to that.)
     
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2007
  5. Jun 5, 2007 #4
    Ok new scientist may not be the best source but I also read it in Paul Davies "God and the New Physics" if thats any better.
     
  6. Jun 5, 2007 #5
    And by the way Wallace they are testing for retrocausality using a beam splitter on entangled photons, so it is certainly falsifiable. The idea expressed by Paul Davies is that near the big bang the laws of physics were not concrete, and that *if* retrocausality were to exist then the existence of conscious observers later could have a retrocausal effect on the crucial moments in the early universe in order to shape the laws of physics to allow life to exist. "if the conditions necessary for life are written into the universe at the big bang, then there must be some kind of two way link".
    I accept that this is not necessarily scientific but it cant be dismissed on those grounds alone. Maybe I should have posted it in a philosophy forum but i thought it related more to cosmology.
     
  7. Jun 5, 2007 #6

    Wallace

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    Generally I'd say Paul Davies is on par with New Scientist in terms of credibility, possibly below it even. You don't win the Templeton Prize by being a good scientist...
     
  8. Jun 5, 2007 #7

    George Jones

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    Davies does sometimes present some ideas that are out there, but he has done good, solid science. Ever heard of Birrell and Davies? It's a classic.

    I guess you consider John Barrow, Freeman Dyson, Charles Townes, and George Ellis (Hawking and Ellis) to have credibilities below those of New Scientist.
     
  9. Jun 5, 2007 #8

    Wallace

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    Okay, so Davies did some good stuff early on, but a lot of his pop science stuff is not particularly rigorous. I'd like to see him try and publish some of the wild claims he's made in pop sci in scientific literature. The problem is when you meet people at parties and they find you work in cosmology they start talking Davism at you like it is accepted science, rather than hyperbole aimed at selling books.

    I don't mean to imply (though I admit my brief statement did seem to say this) that anyone who wins the Templeton has no credibility. My view is that you don't win the Templeton for doing good science. You may have (and of course the names you mention have) done so, but this is not what gets you the prize.
     
  10. Jun 5, 2007 #9

    Chris Hillman

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    Clarification and a related comment

    Exactly!

    George, of course I agree with you that Ellis and Dyson are outstanding physicists, but let's not let this distract attention from the real point: critical thinkers should be particularly critical whenever they read books with titles like ''God and Physics". By the way, a very similar comment could be made regarding Frank Tipler, who wrote some interesting papers many years ago but is now better known for extrascientific... well, insert here a polite word, since I can't think of one. :rolleyes:

    A general comment, following from the same line of thought: while I enjoy the wild sense of fun evident to the trained eye in many contemporary physics eprints, in particular, the frequent invention of humorous terminology, but there seems to be a definite downside to being provocative in the arXiv: these days all kinds of untrained individuals read the arXiv, and these individuals may be too unsophisticated (or too uncritical) to distinguish between solid theoretical work and wild but entertaining speculations. :grumpy:

    Well, I guess you learned a lesson: if you have any reservations that topic T is scientific, mention those reservations if you post about T in a science forum, and don't be upset if you are politly refered elsewhere. :wink: As a matter of fact, I do think your discussion would be more at home in a philosophy forum, since it seems we pretty much all agree that this discussion falls outside the boundaries of science.
     
    Last edited: Jun 5, 2007
  11. Jun 6, 2007 #10

    Chronos

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    A more polite approach is suggested, Chris, but I do agree. No harm in acknowledging the arguments that disagree. They have a point.
     
  12. Jun 6, 2007 #11
    Who really cares if ZapperZ were to write a sticky on PF about New Scientist?
    It seems that some people take PF a bit too serious.

    On the contrary, I think it is alive and kicking. :smile:
    Without critical thinking there would not be any possibility of development or adjustment of theories.

    But people who think they know it all and who are completely absorbed with themselves might feel threatened by such thinking.
     
    Last edited: Jun 6, 2007
  13. Jun 6, 2007 #12

    Nereid

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    I'm curious, interested, but don't have a PhD in astrophysics ...

    ... where do I go to learn more about the latest things that astronomers are discovering, wrt cosmology, and writing papers about?

    Obviously, wikipedia and New Scientist are out, and ApJ, MNRAS, etc are rather too heavy (as I said, no PhD in astrophysics), so Chris, Wallace, (and George?), what should I read?
     
  14. Jun 6, 2007 #13

    Wallace

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    It's a valid point, it's all very well for those in the Ivory Tower to poo-poo pop sci as being sensationalist/wrong/misleading etc etc but yeah, not everyone can just go and read the scientific papers.

    I'd say Scientific America isn't too bad. There are some websites such as Badastronomy.com and http://cosmicvariance.com/ that are very readable, but not as broad in coverage as a pop sci mag.

    It's possible that there is no right answer to your question, maybe there isn't a pop sci mass media source that is at the same time current, correct and easy to read. New Scientist is 2/3 on that score so at least Meatloaf would approve. As I say I think Scientific America is the best I can think of. Maybe it's a necessary evil that a rag such as NS would need to operate as they do in order to sell a critical number of copies and sustain their existence. Maybe not. I guess it's better that they exist than that they don't (i.e. maybe bad coverage of science is better than no coverage) but I'm not sure about that.

    I hope that went someway to answering your question....
     
  15. Jun 6, 2007 #14

    Chris Hillman

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    Where should the interested public go for reliable information about current science?

    That's a fair question, and I wish I had easy answers. The best I can do is to recommend specific books and other resources which treat specific topics at specific levels, which I happen to be familiar with and consider to be beneficial. The website in my sig offers links to on-line and citations to off-line resources (the latter are also known as "books" :wink:), organized by level. I hope that helps give some kind of half-answer to your general question which will be of at least some use.

    As for general audience pop science magazines, ironically twenty years ago I generally prefered to New Scientist to Scientific American. Now it's the other way around, but unfortunately, that's not because I think SA has improved. To the contrary, I feel it's declined over the past two decades, but not as drastically as NS. :grumpy: (Possibly the reason is that SA has been competing with Discover, which forced SA to "dumb things down" even further.) Similarly for the Science Times section of the NYT, although good articles still appear there from time to time. I am not sure that I could name many magazines which are decent sources of information about science at the edge. Physics Today? American Scientist? But these are not quite aimed at a general audience.

    As for pop sci books, a common sense rule, which I find to be a generally reliable rule of thumb, is that physics books by physicists who are experts on the topic in question are much more likely to be good books than books by journalists.

    But sadly, in the end my most honest answer to the question asked in the title of this post is "I don't know". I wish I did, but I don't. :frown:
     
    Last edited: Jun 6, 2007
  16. Jun 6, 2007 #15

    Chris Hillman

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    Actually, everyone can, if they know how to surf to arxiv.org :wink: The problem is rather that they have little chance of understanding what they read unless they have a strong background in math/physics.

    While I support the "open information" movement, one danger regarding open access to the arXiv is that some non-physicists might assume they understood something they read at the arXiv, when in fact they badly misunderstood--- I certainly see evidence of that at PF. An underlying problem here is that schooling generally fails to teach the citizenry how to think critically, i.e. fails in its most important function in a democratic society. One skill which all good physics students master is the art of continually testing one's understanding of what one is reading. One problem with typical popsci books, I think, is that these works tend to be far too "mushy" to admit such self-error-testing.

    Both run by academics (Sean Carrol of Cosmic Variance is also author of one of the leading contemporary gtr textbooks), and that reminds me of another often useful rule of thumb: websites or blogs maintained by recognized experts are likely to be much better sources of on-line information than just any old website. Statistically, there are far more crank physics websites than reliable physics-related websites.

    Sadly, I think that is true. I suspect that the problem might be that the demand isn't there, because increasingly general audiences are unwilling to read anything which demands close attention or wrestling with subtleties. :frown:
     
    Last edited: Jun 6, 2007
  17. Jun 8, 2007 #16

    George Jones

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    Since you're so current and well informed, I could turn this around and ask "Nereid, where do you go to learn more about the latest things that astronomers are discovering, wrt cosmology, and writing papers about?" I know that you know about Ned Wright's site, which has a News of the Universe section.

    For me, the arxiv the most important source of information, but I also regularly look at popular-level sources like (in no particular order)

    1) blogs, eg., Cosmic Variance

    2) CBC, in particular Quirks and Quarks

    3) BBC

    4) astro magazines, e.g., Astronomy and Sky and Telescope

    I keeps my eyes and ears open, and if I hear or see anything interesting in any of these, I try and find an original source on the arxiv (much easier that trying to articles in journals). If my search is successful, I might

    1) read the title

    2) read the abstract

    3) scan the article in overview mode, ignoring many of the mathematical derivations

    4) work through many of the mathematical derivations

    depending on my interest in the topic, on my background in the topic, on the style of presentation of the paper, and on the whims of what my nine-month old daughter thinks is an appropriate use of my time.
     
  18. Jun 8, 2007 #17

    Nereid

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    Thanks for your responses, George, Chris, and Wallace.

    As several readers of this thread already know, and perhaps you three also, "Nereid" was somewhat active in PF, and also in BAUT (the merger of Universe Today, run by Fraser Cain, and Bad Astronomy Bulletin Board, run by Phil Platt). You may not know that Nereid is also the handle of an admin at Night Sky Live, a.k.a. The Asterisk*, the discussion forum attached to Astronomy Picture of the Day.

    At least one mod, here in PF, thinks that "Nereid" does, indeed, have a PhD (I can dig up the post, if anyone's interested). However, as On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog, it is totally up to you what you consider Nereid to be, let alone what degrees she/he/it has!

    As to reliable sources - wrt astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology - one of my long term goals is to be able to offer succinct, accurate advice to the (no doubt many thousand, if not million) people who do not have advanced degrees in physics (or related field) yet who are genuinely fascinated, interested, attracted to, stimulated by, {insert your own phrases here} the reported research results (or other advances in) astronomy/astrophysics/cosmology.

    My conclusions, so far, differ little from what you, collectively, have written.

    In more detail:

    * wiki: some pages are excellent, some are less than excellent, one must decide on a case-by-case basis whether to use these ... and the context of their use is also very important. More generally, this is the most promising direction for the future, IMHO, and so those who can spot the imprecision, inaccuracies, etc in a heartbeat have, IMHO, a duty to roll up your sleeves and fix them.

    * popular magazines (SA, NS, S&T, Astronomy, ...): yes, they all have their strengths and weaknesses, and some articles are superlative (and some less so). Again, it's a matter of horses for courses: for example, the Lineweaver and Davis SA article on 'receding faster than c' (and other BBT myths) is, IMHO, one of the best popular pieces ... period (and you can always link to their more technical paper for those who want more detail).

    * Q&A: PF is, without a doubt, head and shoulders above anything else. However, it's also rather cold and somewhat too technical. BAUT's Q&A is more accessible, and there are enough professionals there that few, if any, questions will be answered badly (in the end). AFAIK, there are no other fora that come remotely close to these two.

    * books: indeed, but the range is vast - technical, accurate, etc to just plain awful ... it's another horses for courses, but the difficulty is recommending a book as the best way to answer a one-post internet discussion forum post may well miss the mark rather badly (so, in economic terms, is a poor allocation of scarce resources).

    * arXiv: indeed, so many papers, so little time! Add ADS to the mix, and you're in seventh heaven ... the 'only' thing you need is to assist folk with decoding the papers, reading through (or past) the math (etc) to the key findings ... My key wish here is some way of identifying good review papers ...

    * blogs, etc: there are several, which can help a great deal in terms of showing folk what it's really like ... and even some (such as CosmoCoffee and AstroCoffee) which do a filtering for you, in terms of papers likely to be interesting ...

    * press releases: these vary widely in quality ... the most maddening ones, IMHO, are those which do not provide a link to the relevant papers (whether in arXiv or already published). To me, this is about the worst sin they could possibly commit, even worse than the sometimes infuriating hyperbole the marketing folk who had a hand in writing the PRs insisted had to be there. OTOH, they do provide a direct, powerful hook to get key points across, especially wrt 'the origin of the universe as a singularity' (for example).

    So, let's welcome those who have curiosity sufficient to find a place like PF and ask questions!

    Let's not turn the fascination and hunger off, even if the poster has (apparently) some quite muddled ideas, or has been reading too much of what's on crank sites.

    After all, isn't the most valuable thing we can do is to convey some idea of the nature of the scientific method (wrt astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology), the rigour of the tests used (etc), the profound importance of critical thinking, along with the sense of wonder and awe we all feel reading the latest results?
     
  19. Jun 9, 2007 #18

    Chris Hillman

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    I didn't know that, but agree that BAUT can be a good place to discuss fringe ideas--- bearing in mind that many members are individuals who espouse fringe or cranky ideas, whose opinions I regard as incorrect and misinformed.

    (Just to clarify: I have never been a BAUT poster, but in recent months I have sometimes been a BAUT lurker.)

    Well, I don't have any formal background in physics, so it would be surprising indeed if I objected to the spirit of that maxim. However, while stating that one has earned a physics Ph.D. (preferably in a verifiable way) is not a magic bullet against crankery, it is an effective way to provide some indication that you probably are not a complete ignoramus. This can be particularly useful for those who are not familiar with the body of your on-line expositions of physics, which would be a more reliable guide to the extent/limitations of your knowledge (but only to someone with greater knowledge!)

    That's actually not far from what I wrote on my own graduate school applications (in mathematics) :wink:

    I think you should say "WP" or "Wikipedia", since the Wikipedia is only the best known wiki, or as Larry Sanger puts it, "the most massive [wiki] which is often called an encyclopedia". The distinction is important because I and several other technophiles have repeatedly suggested that the future of wikis lies in internal wikis which help coordinate large organizations (typical example: a wiki on the computer system of a large corporation, designed to be visible only to employees and devoted to helping them use the computer system properly, to discussing the effects of last nights power outage or upgrade gone horribly wrong) and in specialized research wikis (I know of inspiring examples but wish to avoid mentioning them because they are currently largedly unprotected against malicious edits, and as I think the moderators will genaerally agree, it is known that PF is read by some malicious individuals who enjoy spoiling good things :grumpy:).

    I've attempted to explain my criticisms of the Wikipedia on previous occasions. One good indication of the current extent of the problem is that I was one of the most active contributors to the physics pages in fall 2005-spring 2006 but was manuevered by crank-POV-pushing/vandalism/trolling into spending most of my wikitime on "legal proceedings", then on discussions of proposed policy reforms intended to make administrative, legislative, and judicial policies more effective and pursuing the allegedly encyclopedic mission of Wikipedia, and finally, discussions of proposals intended to make policy reform process itself more effective. I was unable to get my working notes for my essays even semi-protected, however, which eventually led me to give up when it became apparent that I was spending all my wikitime reverting vandalism to my user space notes.

    I feel that it is unfortunate that I have not yet found a "safe" place to discuss my criticisms of WP, because these are complex and nuanced, very well thought out, and based upon very extensive experience at WP. In my opinion, the WP community would have benefitted had I been able to express my views. Unfortunately, Wikipedia's defenders tend to be so passionate that many of them appear not to have noticed that I am actually an ardent proponent of the originally stated encyclopedic mision of WP, and of the "open information" movement generally. The distinction seems to be that I am very well aware of numerous unintentional and inimical side effects which I consider deeply troubling because they appear to have enormous and possibly irreversible consequences for the scholarly enterprise itself, and ultimately for society generally.

    Hard to disagree with that, but I feel that publishing the Mullin's article on Roger Shawyer in that form (not clearly stating that his claims violate conservation of momentum) and then defending that apalling editorial decision are in my view unforgiveable. As I have said several times, I find this very saddening since I once regarded NS as generally one of the better popsci mags. But brand loyalty cannot lead me to overlook its progressive descent to the disreputable level of a psuedoscience organ.

    I've seen recent threads in both forums in which cranky assertions went uncorrected. (Possibly I am not the only PF member who gets tired of correcting even the most egregious misstatements.)

    My solution to minimizing my own wastage of energy regarding book citations is to collect them on a webpage, e.g. http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/RelWWW/HTML/reading.html

    My principle goal in the website in my sig was always to provide help with precisely that. Unfortunately this page has been inadequately updated but FWIW, see http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/RelWWW/HTML/grad.html for good review papers on various topics connected to classical gravitation.

    Agreed, this is a very important point.

    I agree that press releases must avoid technical details, but many of them are seriously misleading and this leads to trouble of the kind I discussed in the "Singularity one-dimensional?" thread.

    I like the spirit of some WP traditions encapsulated in slogans like "don't bite the newbies" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Please_do_not_bite_the_newcomers

    I think that most "newbie biting" (often "suspicion of n00bs" would be a more accurate term) could be avoided if one had some unobtrusive but generally reliable way of gauging the educational level and intelligence of a newbie. In an on-line forum which permits handles and has a perennial problem with previously banned members returning as socktrolls (this claim might be controversial, but at least some PF moderators agree with me on this point), this can sometimes be difficult to do with reasonable effort.

    (To avoid possible misunderstanding: there can be good reason to permit handles, i.e. allowing individuals to build on-line identities apparently separate from their IRL identities. I am just referring to the fact that this has unintentional side effects inimical to the mission of forums like PF, such as socktrollery.)

    The profound importance of critical thinking, agreed. Where we differ is that I feel there are good reasons to fear that our well-intentioned activities might actually be having the opposite effect! In particular, I have tried to argue (but have been shouted down) that to judge from its apparent impact on the schools and on the mass media, WP seems to be contributing to a culture of anti-intellectualism, anti-scholasticism, and to what I fear may be the death of critical thinking.
     
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2007
  20. Jun 10, 2007 #19

    Chronos

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    Interesting points, Chris, but I think we can do better than submit to the will of temple priests. What is true will always be the true. Discussing ATM ideas is amusing, and should remain so. Not having a firm answer is not the same as affirming the premise.
     
  21. Jun 10, 2007 #20

    Chris Hillman

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    Chronos, I have no idea what you are talking about!
     
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