• Your one stop for college news and resources!

Martin Hempfling

Bill Nye on CNN: Climate Change is Our Most Urgent Priority

CNN calls into question the “seriousness” of climate change; accuses scientists of using “scare tactics”.

CNN dazzles us once again with responsible, honest reporting by presenting cherry-picked data intended to shed doubt upon the seriousness of climate change. Nicolas Loris was the featured economist who was pitted against none other than Bill Nye “the science guy” on CNN’s “Crossfire”.

Loris did not deny the reality of climate change. He even felt the need to mention, “I’m not a denier, I’m not a skeptic” right around the 2:54 mark when discussing the frequency of hurricanes as reported by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). However, Loris rejected a proposition that would keep C02 emissions below 450 parts per million (50 ppm above the critical threshold) at a cost of 0.06% global economic growth. To him, having a stable, livable environment for future generations isn’t worth going from 2.5% growth to 2.44% growth.

The main theme of his argument was essentially, “Yes, climate change is real but it’s not as serious as all the big scary scientists say it is, therefore I don’t see good enough reason to spend any money on trying to stop it.”

S. E. Cupp had her fare share of spin to add to the story as well. She accused scientists of utilizing “scare tactics” that “have not worked,” in trying to persuade politicians and/or public opinion. What Cupp calls “scare tactics” are actually experts in the field who are trying to convey the reality of the situation to people in Washington, many of whom are tied up in special interests with money to lose who are “scared” of losses. 

Contrary to what Cupp believes, you do not need “public consensus to move the needle on this”. The U. S. government quite often does whatever it wants—evidenced, largely, by congress’ approval rating and tendency to pass legislation against public interest. Just imagine if Grover Norquist had every republican sign a pledge saying “we will not raise carbon emissions”. The public consensus would be eclipsed by the wave of clean air that washed out our filthy lungs.

At 7:51 Cupp says to Nye, “I want you to look me in the eye and tell me climate change is our most urgent, number one priority right now,” to which Nye stares back and replies, “Climate change is our most urgent, number one priority.”

The level of denial among politicians, newspeople, talking heads, and the general public is truly staggering. Bill Nye got it right when he said “we don’t agree on the facts”. But the overwhelming majority of the scientific community, from those who specialize in meteorology and climatology, to those specialists in chemistry, biology, cosmology, etc., agree that climate change is occurring at an unsustainable rate. Too often are the fringe, outlier dissenters touted as the “true” climate experts; the bonafide geniuses who have been ostracized by their peers, akin to the likes of Alfred Wegener or Gregor Mendel.

The reality is that climate change is a very real threat to people everywhere on this planet and can be considered an imminent threat to coastal cities. Time is past due to let the scientists influence the policy making on this matter.

Video here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJj0JlcFKzY

Lollapalooza Official Lineup Announced

It seems last week’s rumors have turned out to be true.

The official Lollapalooza lineup has finally been announced, and it appears the initial rumors were true. Eminem, Outkast, Kings of Leon, Arctic Monkeys, Skrillex, and Calvin Harris are headlining the festival, while Zedd, The Glitch Mob, John Butler Trio, and many more are set to perform as well. The full lineup can be viewed on the Lollapalooza website: http://www.lollapalooza.com/2014-lineup/

Anyone who knows anything about Chicago, or music festivals in general, knows that Lollapalooza is an enormous event that brings close to 200,000 people to Grant Park every year for a three day party where people can get fucked up and hear/see awesome performances by talented artists. Sounds like a pretty good time, which it definitely is—for most people. To all those who love Lolla, its mainstream performances, delicious, yet expensive and unhealthy food, and enjoy the brotacular spectacle that it really is, I say all the power to you. By all means, knock yourselves out. Literally, if necessary.

But for me, I view those previous rumors and subsequent anticipation until the official announcement much in the same way I view say, Lindsay Lohan performing at a strip club. Yes, it sounds great at first, but then once you see it, you realize, holy shit 2004 was really ten years ago!

But I’m not here to hate. I happen to think Eminem is still the greatest rapper of all time (who’s still alive) even though his best work is behind him, and that all of the scheduled performers are truly talented. It’s just not my scene anymore. For example, I really have had quite enough of Skrillex. I don’t need vivid, strobe-light induced flashbacks of candyflipping during my raver days while rubbing up against somebody’s sweat-drenched shirt.

But to anyone who does enjoy that experience, please take advantage of everythingl that Lolla has to offer—and it definitely has a lot to offer. Just be sure to use the bathroom before you get trapped in a huge crowd, and don’t ingest anything that doesn’t have a name. Do these things and you can’t help but have a good time.  

 

No Tears Shed For Death of Westboro Baptist Church Founder, Fred Phelps

Respect for the dead… Right, let’s just say what we’ve all been thinking.

Fred Phelps, founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, died today, March 20th at age 84 of natural causes. Estranged son Nathan Phelps broke the news earlier this week on March 16 saying his father was “on the edge of death,” while his other son, Timothy Phelps, confirmed to Kansas’ WIBW that Fred Phelps did in fact die “before midnight” on Wednesday.

Although some of those for whom Phelps’ bigotry and hatred hits closest to home show true strength by not celebrating his death, such as George Takei: “I take no solace or joy in this man’s passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding ‘God Hates Freds’ signs, tempting as it may be. He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end….” a wise, cultivated sentiment. But the rest of us just want to say what we’ve all been thinking, which is fuck that guy.

Phelps was a hatemongering bigot who took almost every word of the bible—especially those horrific old testament gospels preaching against gays, women, foreigners and sick people—in a dangerously literal sense. Anyone who isn’t living under a rock knows of the organization’s dogmatic picketing of funerals for dead soldiers, protests outside of abortion clinics, and literal preachments of violence that have inspired actual attempts to murder abortion doctors (one of which has been successful).  

Phelps founded the church in 1955 and over the years his organization has amassed over an astonishing 100 members, most of whom are from his own family (a figure which NPR reported in 2011). Any other organization with 100 members probably isn’t nearly as well known across the nation as the Westboro Baptist Church, and that’s because Fred Phelps has done an exceedingly good job of making sure his tiny little footnote of a contribution to history is as hate-filled, misguided, and laughable as the primitive bronze-age desert herdsmen who thought such crazy ideas up. Thus, being able to accomplish so much with so little has landed him in the spotlight. 

However, Phelps was excommunicated from the church in August of 2013 for “asking that church members treat each other kinder,” a statement which I personally find very intriguing. It shows that the Frankenstein monster Phelps created has exploded with such seething hatred for everything on earth that even its own members are targets for boiling contempt. These people are so hot with rage and dense with stupidity they could ignite the core of a fucking star.

But alas, Phelps’ welcomed death will not reduce the prevalence of hatred, ignorance, and bigotry in this country or the world; it will just create a void waiting to be filled by the next unfortunate indoctrinee of hateful superstition and thousands-year-old folklore. It remains for us to be steadfast in the push to overcome intolerance and work to improve access to good education for all, so that maybe the number of people who spout this vehement anti-gay/anti-woman/anti-secular rhetoric will dwindle as the generations (hopefully years) go by.

Thanks to Fred Phelps, I think we can finally know what happens after evil, cold-hearted people die: they simply fade from all memory.     

Lollapalooza Headlining Rumors

Eminem..? Skrillex? Kings of Leon? Arctic Monkeys? How soon will we know?

Yesterday, March 18th, the Chicago Tribune announced that Eminem, Skrillex, Kings of Leon, and Arctic Monkeys are all rumored to be headlining the 2014 Lollapalooza festival. The Tribune cites “industry sources” (which remain anonymous) for providing the information. However, the festival producers will announce the official lineup next week. A representative for Lollapalooza unfortunately declined to comment when asked about the headlining rumors.

Assuming the headlining rumors are in fact true, it’d be interesting to note that none of the headliners would be new to Lollapalooza. Eminem headlined the festival in 2011, which coincidentally happened to be the same year Skrillex first came onto the Lolla scene; Kings of Leon headlined in 2009, and Arctic Monkeys headlined in 2011 during an afternoon set.

Lollapalooza is a three-day festival, which takes place from August 1st to August 3rd in Chicago’s Grant Park, and features more than 100 artists on eight stages. Last year’s Lollapalooza drew a reported 300,000 concertgoers, so be sure to prepare yourselves for some spectacular shows and plenty of drunk, sweaty bros in brightly-colored tank tops. 

Creationist Panties Up In Bunch Over "Cosmos" Second Episode

As if no one could’ve predicted an uproar from the people who think Earth is 6,000 years old.

No one could have possibly predicted that religious wingnuts—creationists in particular—would throw a series of massive hissy fits over Fox’s reboot of “Cosmos”. I mean, when a science show of this high production value airs in multiple countries worldwide on the very same network that once hired Sarah Palin as a contributor, you can be fairly certain that some folks might get their panties bunched up pretty badly over this stuff…. Especially when this show so effectively destroys the superstitious, and downright false claims made by the bible and its derivative works.

The second episode of the twelve-episode series entitled, “Some of the Things that Molecules Do,” kicks off with a brilliantly illustrated explanation of how evolution by artificial selection shaped the grey wolf into all the different breeds of domesticated dog we have today. Neil Degrasse Tyson, with his usual eloquent and inspirational oratory, explains how the symbiosis between the grey wolf and humans of 30,000 years ago was vital to our evolutionary success and overall survival.

He went on to address the indignation creationists and some moderate believers feel when scientists rightly profess our kinship to apes, and he did so with his usual polite articulation and candor. But more than that, the approach to breaching this subject was done very wisely; instead of just stating the facts of the matter, that humans’ genetic sequence is 98% similar to that of the chimpanzee, Tyson asks the audience, “What of our kinship to the trees?”

Indeed, all species of life are descended from the same origin. All life on earth is based on the DNA molecule: trees have DNA, fish have DNA, insects have DNA, mammals have DNA, etc; we are all of us related to each other through our DNA. It seems much easier to accept our kinship with all earthly creatures if we first start with a majestic form of life such as a tree. Of course, I think all life is majestic, but there is something about chimps throwing feces that religious people might find somewhat off-putting.

The episode goes on to detail the wonders of natural selection. If humans can breed all the known species of dog from the grey wolf in 15,000 years via artificial selection, what can natural selection accomplish given 13.8 billion years to work with? The answer is all the beauty and elegance and diversity of life we see around us today.

With each passing minute, the bible-thumper talking points eroded away; each passing minute demonstrated the ludicrous fictionality of creationism, if not most religious teachings. As stated in the previous “Cosmos” review, the importance of this show in our current day and age of religious pundits constantly trying to muddy the waters of what science is or is not, can hardly be overstated.

The episode concludes with one of my favorite Carl Sagan quotes, in reference to life and the staggering beauty of the universe:
“These are some of the things molecules do, given 14 billion years.”

“Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” can be viewed on Hulu, and I a most definitely looking forward to the next episode.  

Physicists Announce Breakthrough Gravity-Wave Discovery

Direct evidence of gravitational waves has finally been detected after over 30 years

A wave of excited relief has just swept over the physics community thanks to a recent discovery—the gravity of which can hardly be overstated.

The story broke on March 17th, when researchers at the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization 2 (BICEP2) experiment in the South Pole announced they had detected a pattern in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, known as primordial B-mode polarization. This pattern was originally predicted by a physicist named Andrei Linde (who was one of the founders of Inflation theory), which basically appears as a curling in the direction/polarization of light in the CMB. Such a pattern could only have been created by intense gravity waves produced as a result of inflation during the first few fractions of a nanosecond after the big bang. According to Chao-Lin Kuo, a Stanford University physicist who designed the BICEP2 detector, “We’ve found the smoking gun evidence for inflation and we’ve also produced the first image of gravitational waves across the sky.”

While the findings still have yet to go through the peer-review process, experts in the field say the results so far look very promising. Perhaps the most prominent figure in the formulation of Inflation theory is Dr. Alan Guth, who originally proposed the idea in 1980. Thirty-four years after this phenomenon was first predicted, physicists have finally found the hard evidence to support it. Guth says, “There’s a chance it could be wrong, but I think it’s highly probable that the results stand up. I think they’ve done an incredibly good job of analysis.”

A good scientist doesn’t leave much, if anything, to doubt before going public with a discovery of this magnitude. The signal, called B-mode polarization, came in much stronger than originally anticipated, and understandably gave the experimenters reason to suspect an error. In fact, they were so startled by the strength of the signal that they decided not to publish the findings for over a year—during which time they explored all other possible explanations. But when BICEP2’s successor, the Keck  Array, came online and showed the same signal, the scientists felt confident that they had accurate readings.

The CMB is leftover radiation that peaked in the microwave band of the spectrum from when our universe was a mere 380,000 – 400,000 years old—staggeringly close to the instant of the big bang itself. The infant universe was hot enough and dense enough such that photons couldn’t travel freely and uninhibited; reality was just an opaque soup of energy and matter. It then cooled to the point where atoms could form and light was able to travel through space unimpeded, at which point, the blueprint for our current observed universe was laid out. That is what the CMB actually is: the light that has been traveling through space ever since light was able to travel through space.

Since the inflation model predicted B-mode polarization years ago, physicists had a target to aim for in their research. Many different independent teams all over the world have been searching for this unique polarization. Some include: the POLARBEAR experiment led by the University of California, Berkeley; Atacama B-mode Search (ABS) led by Princeton University; the Cosmology Large Angular Scale Surveyor (CLASS) led by Johns Hopkins University; the high-altitude balloon–borne E and B Experiment (EBEX) run by the University of Minnesota, and many more. All of these researchers are racing to confirm BICEP2’s readings, which center around “the value for r”.

Originally, the value for r was predicted to be less than 0.11, based on the CMB maps used at the time. But BICEP2’s readings showed a value of 2.0, which is a significant difference. “Everything hinges on this little r,” Guth says, “and this measurement changes things quite a bit. In fact, the models that looked like they were ruled out last week are now the models that are favored this week.”

The high value for r indicates that inflation occurred even earlier than previously thought—as soon as a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a millionth of a second after the big bang, according to Andrei Linde. This helped physicists to rule out many other theories of inflation, and all but eliminate any non-inflationary theories on the table.

Why were gravity waves so sought-after? In short, gravity waves can give cosmologists a picture of the early universe even before the one given to us by the CMB. Unlike electromagnetic radiation, gravity waves could propagate through the hot, dense, opaque infant universe and potentially give us a way to detect the conditions of the big bang itself. This discovery has potentially brought us on the frontier of answering the question, “Where did we come from?”

Who was Saint Patrick?

And why do we honor him by getting hilariously drunk?

Anyone who’s over 21 should be readily familiar with the good old St. Patrick’s Day tradition of getting as shit-faced drunk as you possibly can, without having to go to the hospital or jail. But while St. Paddy’s Day is probably among the most fun holidays to celebrate for young adults, it’s also one that many people don’t know anything about. What’s with all the shamrocks? Who exactly was this St. Patrick? And why do we honor him by getting hilariously intoxicated on March 17th?

Who was Saint Patrick?

Saint Patrick lived during the 5th century in Ireland, where he served as a bishop for the Romano-British Christian missionary. He was not born in Ireland, however. In fact, when he was sixteen, he was kidnapped from his home in Britain, taken to Ireland, and forced to work as a slave for six years. During the time he spent in captivity, he strengthened his spiritual relationship with God, having not been a very active believer before. According to the story, St. Patrick “heard a voice telling him he would soon go home, and that there was a ship ready to depart”. He fled his captors (the details of which are unknown, or at best shoddy), and traveled two-hundred miles to the nearest port where he convinced the captain to let him aboard. After they landed in Britain, and were at the mercy of the wilderness, Patrick managed to convince all the crew to put their faith in God just before a herd of wild boar showed up to save them from imminent starvation. Great timing right? From that point St. Patrick deepened his study of Christianity.

Why Shamrocks? 

Fairly simple answer: St. Patrick would use the three-leaf clover to teach young indoctrinees about the Holy Trinity. As one might imagine, each leaf represents either the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost. Furthermore, the clover was seen as sacred even in the pre-Christian days of Ireland because of its green color, aesthetically pleasing shape, and the fact that the number “3” was a sacred number in the Pagan religion. It resembled rebirth and eternal life.

Bonus fact! Four-leaf clovers are considered lucky because of what each leaf symbolizes—and also because they’re so rare. Each leaf in the four-leaf clover symbolizes either faith, hope, love, or luck. The more you know.

What about all those snakes?

A keen observer would notice that there are no snakes in Ireland. Why are there no snakes in Ireland?
It must’ve been because St. Patrick chased them all into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast, right? Wrong! Post-glacial Ireland never had snakes, as it would have been quite difficult for a serpent to migrate across miles of open ocean to a new terrestrial habitat without dying from exhaustion, starvation, or being eaten. But for the sake of the holiday, let’s just assume he chased the snakes into the sea, because…

Why do we get drunk? 

March 17th is considered to be St. Patrick’s death date as well as the day celebrated as his Feast Day, according to the Catholic Church. Alcohol always accompanies a feast in the days of the 5th century, so the focal point of our commemoration has obviously fixed itself upon the drinking part of that equation in the centuries since. Who knows? Maybe if you get drunk enough you’ll also get lucky.

And that’s why we love St. Paddy’s Day.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal: Clearing Up Some of the Uncertainty

Why the uncertainty principal does not influence the results of scientific experiments.

 

When researching a topic as technical and in-depth as the uncertainty principal, one can draw distorted, or even erroneous conclusions about its implications if they haven’t first gained the crucial, but perhaps boring, background knowledge that would help them to better visualize these counter-intuitive ideas in a way truly representative of what has actually been discovered. If I were to look at the wikipedia page on the uncertainty principal, I would find this:

“In quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle is any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle known as complementary variables*, such as position x and momentum p, can be known simultaneously. For instance, in 1927, Werner Heisenberg stated that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa.”

(*the actual term is ‘conjugate variables’ but whatever same thing)

And then they would see this equation, where ħ is the reduced Planck constant.

…ok dafuq does all that mean?

It’s unfortunate that so many fascinating subjects in science often require years of prior learning in less fascinating, more trivial areas in order to be able gain a reasonably firm understanding of those discoveries which are mind-bending, and rife with profound philosophical and/or spiritual implications. It turns people off to the notion of getting involved with science if they feel apprehensive about having to sift through all the boring prerequisites before they get to anything interesting. Math is definitely a turn off for most people, but not to worry. I never really stood out in math class; typically my best grades were in the B range, with the majority of them reflecting just the bare minimum to get by… Fortunately, one does not need to be a mathematician in order to understand the essence of the uncertainty principal.

That being said, there is one small caveat: that is, quantum physics as a whole is entirely counter-intuitive. Despite not needing to be a mathematician to understand the essence of many of the phenomena, it does require a certain degree of cleverness/out-of-the-box type thinking.

WHY SO…. uncertain?

If you haven’t heard of the uncertainty principal, it’s often stated in simple terms as something like, “The act of observation affects the outcome of the experiment.” Thus we cannot be certain that our result is truly representative of reality. But this is a very, very simplified explanation that inevitably leads to some critical misconceptions. The uncertainty principal is an inherent property to all waves, as explained in this short video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vc-Uvp3vwg

The notion that the outcomes of experiments are influenced by the act of observation is likely a result of misinterpreting what’s going on at the subatomic level.

It is necessary to describe what happens during an observation at the quantum level and what happens during an observation at our human level. When someone observes something in our familiar macroscopic world, the effect they have on the object of observation is so infinitesimally small that it’s completely negligible and immeasurable. For example, if I wanted to check the air pressure in my tire, I would need to release a tiny amount of air into my pressure gauge to see exactly what PSI they’re at. But in so doing I decrease the pressure in my tire by a tiny bit—a fraction of a fraction of a single PSI—but nonetheless affecting the result of my ‘experiment’.

Another way to observe something is to simply look at it. Lets say I wanted to do a study in early child development (as used in an example for a question a friend asked me regarding this whole topic), I’d observe the infant by collecting the photons that bounced off his/her body in my retinae, and then recording what it was that i saw (behavior, temperament, play habits, level of social skills, etc). For my observation to affect the outcome in this experiment, as a result of the uncertainty principal and not shortcomings in the design of the experiment, the infant’s ability to engage in those activities would be acted upon in a physical way—as if being unable to play because of a powerful stream of air, like a jet engine blowing in its face, restricting proper use of motor skills, affecting mood, behavior, temperament, etc.

But we can all see that, unlike high-speed oxygen molecules, the photons bouncing around our atmosphere do not have this effect on anyone, despite hurtling at our faces at the speed of light 24/7. Bouncing photons off an infant does nothing to affect what it is the experimenter may be testing for, and that is an important distinction to make.

Outcomes changed/influenced by observation?

If a physicist wanted to observe the position and momentum of an election, the normal way of observation—to simply look at it—does not work. At the quantum level “looking” means to bounce photons off of something and collect them in your retinae (or whatever finely tuned optical instrument you may be using), but after a certain point, things just get too small to see. The tiny object does not have enough surface area to reflect the minimum number of photons necessary to be detected by your naked eye. With help from a microscope we can see these things, but what happens when the object is too small for the microscope?

An electron and a photon are roughly the same size; both are considered “point particles”, thus to bounce a photon off an electron is very similar to hitting the 8-ball with the cue ball. In order to measure the momentum, you inevitably must affect its position; in order to measure its position, you inevitably must affect its momentum. Such pairs of properties that behave in this way are known as “conjugate variables” (as noted in the beginning) and are of course not limited to just position and momentum.

This is not the result of shortcomings with observational technology. This is a universal, fundamental property in all wave-like systems, and it arises in particle physics because of the matter-wave nature of all quantum objects. It’s important to note that the uncertainty principal really doesn’t play a role in affecting outcomes/results outside of the quantum realm. Even on microscopic scales such as in cell biology and computer chip manufacture, the uncertainty principal does not influence results of those experiments. The fundamental particle level is yet many millions of times smaller than that. But to really understand why the uncertainty principal only works at the quantum level, requires an understanding of the role of the observer.

And understanding the role of the observer first requires an explanation of what superposition is, and to understand superposition requires an explanation of the double slit experiment.

Double-slit experiment and interference patterns

Thomas Young’s double-slit experiment actually belongs to a wider group of “double path” experiments that involve splitting a wave into two separate waves that later rejoin to become a single wave. First, lets examine the single-slit experiment.

An apparatus is constructed that fires a laser beam through a narrow slit onto a white screen. The original hypothesis was that, as the slit narrowed, so would the width of the laser beam. But instead, to the confusion of the experimenters, the beam grew wider, like this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8FTr2qMutA

If you feel the title of that video didn’t live up to expectations, then I agree. But it’s a simple, clear example of how these slit experiments are set up.

The beam doesn’t get narrower because the photons are essentially behaving like waves; consider a wave in the ocean as it hits a barrier with a single opening. From a top-down view you would see the wave radiating out from the opening in a semi-circle shape:

This is known as “single slit diffraction”. When the peaks and troughs of the wavelengths of light hit the screen at the same time, it is known as “arriving in phase”. This produces what’s called “constructive interference”, which we are able to see as the widening of the laser beam. However, when the peaks arrive simultaneously with the troughs, the wavelengths then cancel each other out, leaving us with a dark spot, called “destructive interference”:

 

It was early in the 19th century, and at the time this observed phenomenon was quite a mystery to physicists—many of whom supported the particle theory of light, published by Sir Isaac Newton in 1704. Although Christiaan Huygens proposed a wave theory of light in 1678, some did not accept it due to reasons which require a confusing, technical explanation…

(In short: longitudinal waves cannot show birefringence, which is the optical property of a material having a refractive index that depends on the polarization and propagation direction of light. These optically anisotropic materials are thus said to be birefringent.) wut o_O

So what would happen if we added a second slit? Back in the 1800’s everyone predicted there would be two separate lines of light; an entirely logical hypothesis considering people generally thought of light as a stream of particles, and seeing two separate lines would’ve confirmed their hypothesis. But instead of seeing that, an interference pattern was observed:

What was causing all that extra destructive interference? The answer to this question effectively takes us to…

SUPERPOSITION DOOD

Christiaan Huygens turned out to be right. There was no way around it; the only way results like these could be possible was if light behaved like a wave. Though he did not live to see it, Huygens managed to get the last laugh against Sir Isaac Newton.

…Or did he?

The screen detected points of interference, the likes of which are characteristic of particles. Yet, they aggregated in such a way that produced the interference pattern expected of a wave. Both men turned out to be right, which is precisely the reason why this shit is so fucking goddamn batshit crazy.

 

So the experimenters have results indicating particles behaving like waves; why is that so batshit crazy? Because in order to produce the interference pattern, the wave must pass through both slits simultaneously. If we go back to our beach wave analogy it’s easy to visualize how a wave passes through two openings at once. But the detector clearly picked up particles, and how could a particle pass through two separate openings at the same time?

Even when the rate of fire was decreased to a single photon at a time, the same interference pattern showed up on the detector. Therefore, the particle must fire from the laser, pass through both slits at once, interfere with itself, and then get picked up by the detector at a single point.

What in the world can account for this seemingly impossible behavior? Well, the photon is something unlike human beings have ever encountered before, and it’s important to gain an appreciation of that. Our minds simply did not evolve to understand this type of thing.

Once the photon leaves the light source, it behaves as though it has all possible values for a given property. It would be as if a pitcher threw a baseball, and as soon as it left his hand, instead of one baseball zooming straight into the catcher’s mitt, a wave of baseballs occupying that entire region of values would zoom into the catcher’s mitt. But as soon as it interacted with either the bat or the glove, it would be reduced back to a single value.

This wave of baseballs—our stand-in photons—is not the same as a familiar beach wave. Instead of a wave of water molecules, it is a wave of probability. The greater the amplitude of the wave, the greater the probability of finding a baseball at that position. You can imagine I’d be wasting my time trying to perform a measurement behind the pitcher, since the amplitude of the wave would be so tiny that the chances of me finding a baseball there would be virtually zero. In other words, the size of the wave at any given point predicts the likelihood of finding a photon at that location.

This is the essence of superposition. It cannot be said that the particle exists at this location or that location; the particle occupies all possible positions (thus referred to as being in a state of superposition) with increased likelihood of being found where the amplitude of the wave is highest.

This is how the photon passes through both slits at the same time. Once it leaves the light source (and before we can measure it), it exists in this weird state of superposition, with the size of the probability wave at the narrow slit openings being equal. The probability wave then radiates out from the two openings in the aforementioned semi-circular shape, interferes with itself—producing the interference pattern—and finally hits the collection screen.

If you recall, once the measurement has been performed, the multi-valued state of superposition disappears and is reduced to a single value; the photon has what’s called a collapsed wave function. Which finally brings us back to…

The Role of the Observer

In basic terms, the role of the observer collapses the wave function of the photon. Knowing the Heisenberg uncertainty principal is a fundamental property in all wave-like systems, and knowing the role of the observer collapses the photon’s wave function, we can now put two and two together and come to the obvious conclusion: particles that are “observed” are no longer affected by the uncertainty principal. But what exactly makes an observation? And how can the act of observing collapse a particle’s wave function?

In the documentary, “What the Bleep do We Know?” (spelled out with clever symbols and what not) there was a 5-min portion of the film explaining the double-slit experiment, but it put a slight spin on the results with spiritual—or perhaps more erroneously—mystical undertones. But there is nothing mystical about quantum physics; it is certainly bizarre and counter-intuitive, but these phenomena are pretty well understood and accurately modeled by equations developed by Shrodinger, Heisenberg, Planck, etc.

The spiritual/mystical element comes in when the experimenters move the detector to the site of the two slits. Before, the screen was effectively making the observation, but now the observation occurs at the two openings, thus the wave function of the photon (or electron or whatever particle) gets collapsed sooner, at which point the particle behaves just like a particle. The visible effect is that the interference pattern disappears and we are left with two separate, clearly defined lines. This was quite a conundrum for the physicists at the time for sure, but notice the way it’s portrayed in the movie:

http://youtu.be/fwXQjRBLwsQ?t=3m53s

“The electron decided to act differently as though it were aware it was being watched…”
Now, I’m all for the use of metaphors to convey a complex idea in simple terms, but that statement can be very misleading.

“What does an observer have to do with any of this?”
This is actually not a mystery and is in fact extensively researched. An “observer” does not need to be a conscious human being, nor does it need to be an instrument constructed for observation by a human being. The implication in the “What the Bleep” video that “it was aware it was being watched” because of the mere act of observing, is probably the result of doing just enough research into the topic to sound like an expert to all the non-experts (and people who don’t bother to dig deep).

There is a natural assumption we humans make (as a result of being at the mercy of our evolutionary biology) that there is a distinction between “observing” and “being observed”. Nature does not make such a distinction. As far as nature is concerned, “observing” and “being observed” is just an interaction between two bodies. Therefore, an observer can be an inanimate object. From nature’s perspective, it is just as valid for an inanimate object to observe a conscious being as it is for a conscious being to observe an inanimate object.

Once the particles involved in this interaction we humans have labeled “observation” interact, the wave function collapses. On the microscopic scale this means any molecule existing on its own is technically “observed”, since the interaction of its electromagnetic bonds collapses the wave function of the subatomic particles. On the macroscopic scale, everything we can perceive is comprised of molecules and compounds, and are technically “observed” even before we interact with them via our senses.

What does this mean for the rest of science???

This means the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal does not influence the results of scientific experiments :D!!!!! Unless, of course, that scientific experiment happens to be a double-path experiment, or some such other quantum physical experiment that involves particles being in a state of superposition. But in our everyday macroscopic world of scientific experimentation, you can rest assured that those results are in fact reliable and are not subject to the uncertainties of the uncertainty principal.

To review:

  • The Heisenberg uncertainty principal is an inherent property to all wave-like systems (see first video). There is a limit to how much we can know about a wave’s properties.
  • The bizarre things we detect at the quantum level are a result of particle-wave duality, which does not occur at the macroscopic level.
  • These waves are probability waves, not the wavelength of light determining the energy of the photon (visible light, ultraviolet, x-ray, etc).
  • Before we make a measurement, the particle exists in a state of superposition, occupying all values for a property, the highest likelihood of which exist where the amplitude of the probability wave is highest.
  • Once the measurement is performed, the wave function collapses and the particle takes a single value. (Role of the observer.)
  • Now that the particle has been observed and its wave function collapsed, the uncertainty principal is no longer a factor.
  • An observer does not need to be a conscious human, nor does it have to be an instrument constructed for observation by a conscious human. An observation from nature’s point of view, and in the technical sense, is simply an interaction between two bodies.
  • Macroscopic objects in our everyday world are comprised entirely of ongoing quantum interactions that collapse the wave functions of its constituent subatomic particles, which is why we don’t see all the stuff around us as being in a state of superposition.
  • Finally, this means the uncertainty principal does not play a role in influencing the results of scientific experiments in our familiar, macroscopic world—and that our science and our data and our results and our equations are, in fact, sound and continue to make accurate predictions about the crazy freakin universe we live in!

SCIENCE FTW!

Review of "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" with Neil Degrasse Tyson

Carl Sagan himself would surely have been pleased

On March 9th, 2014, an historic event occurred on television; it was the first time a science non-fiction show was ever broadcasted on Fox! According to Fox Networks, it was also the first time that a TV show premiered in a global simulcast across their entire network of channels.

“Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” hosted by celebrity astro-physicist, Neil Degrasse Tyson, aired 34 years after Carl Sagan first captured our imaginations with the original, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,”
which aired on PBS. In a time when our society is wholly run on the technology developed by science while most of its population remains scientifically illiterate, a more necessary program can hardly be imagined. After an intellectual drought on cable TV consisting of a stream of disgraceful reality shows (peppered in between by shows on other networks like “Duck Dynasty,” “Ancient Aliens,” “Swamp People,” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”), it’s refreshing to finally see a program that actually seeks to expand the minds of its viewers, rather than deflate them like Ken Ham’s ego after he lost to Bill Nye.

The show itself was brilliantly structured in a way that would be friendly to those who are not familiar with science and the discoveries it has yielded. Neil Degrasse Tyson is a phenomenal communicator; his vivd explanations and metaphors were delivered with clear understanding and awareness of the viewership—and done so with a befitting, awe-inspiring tone. I must applaud Seth MacFarlane for doing such a fantastic job with producing and helping to recreate this show; it has the spirit of Carl Sagan’s original series with effects and aesthetics geared toward a modern audience, which include artfully done animations.

It began by demonstrating the vast scale of the universe, which I think is a wise starting point. In a hypothetical, super-advanced ship of the imagination, we can visualize these concepts in exquisite detail. Beginning with our home planet, we explored our “cosmic address”; our location in the observable universe. From Earth, we venture to all the planets, out past the Oort Cloud, and view our solar system. We venture further and further out, past our Milky Way galaxy, past the Local Group, past the Virgo Supercluster, until we reach the end of the observable universe, the “light horizon”.

In addition to illustrating the vastness of space, Tyson showed us the staggering immensity of time. By compressing the entire 13.8-billion year history of the known universe into a single calendar year, people are able to comprehend these incomprehensible time scales far easier. If the Big Bang occurred on January 1st, and the present was marked by midnight, December 31st, each day of this hypothetical year would represent about 40 million years of cosmic history. The visualization of the information in this segment is truly astonishing, even for those who may have already been familiar with it. The scale simply never ceases to amaze.

After going through and summarizing the entire history of the universe as currently understood, Tyson then concludes the show with a short tribute to Carl Sagan, which I thought was pretty inspiring. Despite its faults and corruptions, the United States used to be innovators, and its people had things to look forward to. One of the main reasons for that was a thirst for learning and a desire to go where no one has gone before. Carl Sagan inspired people to seek out knowledge with the tools of science over three decades ago, and hopefully that inspiration can at least start to be reignited here.

Highly recommend watching the full episode: http://www.openculture.com/2014/03/watch-the-first-episode-of-neil-degrasse-tysons-cosmos-reboot-on-hulu-us-viewers.html

 

Snowden Talks About US Spy Programs at SXSW

Edward Snowden appeared live via Google hangouts to address the growing issue of NSA spy programs

On March 10th, 2014, famed whistleblower Edward Snowden appeared live via Google hangouts at the annual SXSW (South by Southwest) Music/Arts/Interactive festival to deliver a rare public presentation regarding the continued use of NSA spy programs against its own citizens, and the rest of the world. With a banner of the Bill of Rights displayed behind him, Snowden addressed thousands people at the festival and watching online.

The quality of the video feed was pretty low as one might imagine, considering the fact that Snowden’s signal had to be bounced through seven proxies. Nonetheless, Snowden revealed a wealth of new information as he always seems to do. 

There were many important elements to take away from this discussion, including the call for public oversight of U.S. spy programs and increased web security that’s “built-in from the beginning” so as to be friendly to the average web user. But perhaps one of the more chilling elements of the talk occurred during a segment in which Snowden revealed how the NSA actually “weakened cyber security defense in order to get attacking [inaudible],” at roughly the 15:00 mark.

According to Snowden, NSA directors Michael Haden and Kieth Alexander have “harmed our internet security and national security” by “elevating offensive operations… over the defense of our communications; they began eroding the protection of our communications…” [in order to attack and surveil].

Snowden points out that, in the post 9/11 era, people thought mass surveillance and storing huge amounts of data for an indefinite period of time would work. But they tried it, and found out that it did not work, and in fact harmed our security by taking the focus off of real suspects while spending too much time and money watching everyone else. How no one could have foreseen this pretty obvious shortcoming in tact remains a mystery.  

In response to a question posed by World-Wide-Web creator, Tim Berners-Lee, regarding what he would change about internet security, Snowden replied, “We need public oversight… some way for trusted public figures to advocate for us. We need a watchdog that watches Congress, because if we’re not informed, we can’t consent to these (government) policies.”

Another interesting and important question was posed right around the 31:00 mark, regarding whether it’s more dangerous for corporations to store and use your information or if it’s more dangerous for governments to do so. Snowden replied saying, “governments have the ability to take away your rights… they can literally kill you…. Corporations will [use information] to sell you a product.”

Snowden remains in Russia and will likely not return to the United States unless he is pardoned. During the discussion, Snowden speculated on what punishment might await him should he decide to return to the U. S. In all likelihood, he would be jailed, confined, denied access to family members, denied access to an attorney, refused trial, and “interrogated with persuasive means.” But despite this, he continues to stay in Russia and fight for Americans’ (and indeed the world’s) right to privacy. Snowden warns that “every citizen and every country has something to lose” as a result of mass surveillance. We don’t want the U. S.’s model of surveillance to inspire any other countries to do the same, nor do we want to continue to be surveilled in the first place. The key to accomplishing this, as Snowden emphasizes, is public oversight.  

A video of Snowden’s SXSW presentation can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRQTDNbYjqY