# 2016-2020 Archives

 War with Iran? — Posted Thursday December 31 2020 Might President Trump start a war with Iran in his final days in office? Tom Nichols of The Atlantic poses this question, and raises several disturbing issues regarding the state of Trump's mind, his maniacal desire to stay in power, and his likely decision to punish President-Elect Joe Biden and the American people by saddling us with an illegal and unwinnable war should Trump realize that his days in the White House are over. In the waning hours of the 1967 Six-Day War, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and other government officials faced a situation presented by Israel generals: Was now the time to destroy the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque (both governed by Muslims on the ancient site of the second Jewish Temple), thus offering the opportunity to reclaim all of the City of David and rebuild the Temple? Eshkol and others wisely declined the offer, which would have undoubtedly led to all-out war in the Middle East and Israel's probable use of nuclear weapons against her neighboring enemies. To this day, many evangelical Americans rue that decision, thinking that the building of the Third Temple needs to happen in order for Jesus Christ to return. These same evangelicals are also looking forward to war with Iran, thinking that it would lead to a worldwide nuclear conflagration that would also usher in the Second Coming. While Israel has every right to defend itself against her existential enemies, America is under no such threat. Instead, we're burdened with the sociopathic ego of a president who cannot accept losing the November election and who is capable of just about anything to retain power. Worse, Trump has some 74 million American followers, many of whom are crazed white Evangelical Christians, who view war with Iran as not only fully justifiable but a way of keeping Trump in the White House, the November election be damned. Trump has now returned to the White House from an extended Florida golfing vacation. What will he do next? PS: My dear late Egyptian wife Munira and her family were living in Cairo in June 1967 when bombs were falling on nearby Cairo airport. She often told me of the fear they experienced at the time, a fear that most Americans will never encounter.

 No COVID Relief, Just More Politics — Posted Wednesday December 30 2020 Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell's proposed bill would establish a bipartisan commission to investigate the presumed widespread voter fraud that led to the election of Joe Biden in November. The timing of this bill is actually intended to kill Democratic efforts to expand COVID relief payments and overturn protections that social media servers currently enjoy under First Amendment rights. What voter fraud and Section 230 have to do with COVID is simply beyond me, and I'm convinced that McConnell's bill is intended only to preserve President Trump's outrageous efforts to overthrow the election and keep Trump in power forever.

 More Geek Stuff — Posted Saturday December 26 2020 Could the conformally invariant 1918 theory of Hermann Weyl be used to explain the Hubble tension? Last week, Meir Shimon of Tel Aviv University posted a paper in which he claims that a version Weyl's theory might alleviate (if not completely resolve) the Hubble tension, bringing the higher 73 km/s/Mpc obtained from Type 1a supernovae data closer to the 67 km/s/Mpc figure obtained from cosmic microwave background data. By applying his formalism to selected data sets from others, Shimon arrived at figures ranging from 63.4 to 72.7 km/s/Mpc, with most in the 67 to 68 km/s/Mpc range. You can download Shimon's 12-page paper here. As I understand Shimon's approach, he assumes that the product of Newton's constant $$G$$ and the mass source $$M$$ undergoes the local Weyl rescaling $$g_{\mu\nu} \rightarrow \Omega^2(x) g_{\mu\nu}$$, which implies that $$G$$ is not a true constant of Nature. Shimon does not present a suitable revised action Lagrangian until the Appendix, where it appears as yet another scalar-tensor theory with a complex scalar field $$\phi(x)$$. Such theories (in my opinion) have been done to death, although to Shimon's credit his idea is the first I've seen that is applied to the Hubble tension issue. Weyl's 1918 action Lagrangian incorporated only the square of the Ricci scalar $$R$$, although he too had to bring in another quantity (the vector $$\phi_{\mu}$$ ) to make his theory conformally invariant. He believed $$\phi_\mu$$ might actually be proportional to the 4-potential $$A_\mu$$ of Maxwell's electrodynamics, and thus Weyl was able to present the very first seemingly viable unified field theory. Einstein was initially impressed with the brilliance of Weyl's theory, but he subsequently spotted a critical flaw that quickly took it down. However, in 1929 Weyl applied the same idea to the then-emerging quantum theory, where it became a cornerstone of modern theoretical physics. Update 12/30/20: I received a polite and informative rebuttal from Dr. Shimon regarding this post. I have a tendency to react to any new paper involving Weyl's gravity theory (which has fascinated me for 45 years), and my reactions often inadequately reflect the intent and depth of such research. My apologies to Dr. Shimon!

 How It Ends — Posted Friday December 25 2020 North Carolina State University physics professor Katie Mack's new 2020 book The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) is very short (150 pages), very readable, and very depressing. She not only talks about how the Earth will end (swallowed by the Sun when it goes red giant about 5 billion years from now), but how the universe itself will end (perhaps some $$10^{100}$$ years from today, give or take a few zillion years). The depressing part is that she's absolutely correct about both predictions. That assumes, of course, that what we know about the amount of matter in the universe is right, that Einstein's general relativity is correct, and that the effect of dark energy will remain constant in the future. But these assumptions appear to be perfectly borne out by all of our theories and observational data, so I guess that's about all she wrote, existence-wise. However, I'm not too concerned, because if the apparently inviolable law of quantum unitarity holds, the information our bodies and minds represent will somehow survive. And as a Christian, I believe that God will preserve us in some form, perhaps in an eternal parallel universe (or infinite universes). I realize that's not a scientifically verifiable belief, but at 72 years of age I won't have much of a wait to find out if it's true. Meanwhile, here's Dr. Mack in a short video that you may find interesting (if depressing). Merry Christmas!

 Gravitational Astronomy—Exciting New Applications — Posted Friday December 25 2020 By observing the gravitational and electromagnetic waves emitted from the merger of two neutron stars, astrophysicists have found a way to measure both the size of a typical neutron star and determine the rate of expansion of the universe. Scientists already knew that a neutron star cannot be larger than about 1.4 solar masses (otherwise it would collapse into a black hole), while refined estimates of neutron star densities limited their radii to a few kilometers. Now physicists have reported the results of an analysis of recent merger characteristics using measurements of the merger's gravitational and electromagnetic radiation. A typical 1.4 solar-mass neutron star has a radius of about 11.75 kilometers, while the data show also that the so-called Hubble constant $$H_0$$ is about 66.2 km/s/megaparsec. The Hubble estimate is particularly interesting, as there is a puzzling discrepancy between two other (independent) estimates of the parameter based on observations of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) and distant Type 1a supernovae. CMB data give about $$H_0 = 67$$, while Type 1a supernovae observations give about $$H_0 = 73$$. The error bars for these two estimates do not overlap, yet the precisions of the two methods are very high, giving rise to what is known as the Hubble tension, arguably the most important problem in cosmology today. Either one or both measurements is wrong, or there might be new physics involved yet to be discovered. Details of the merger can be read over at Ethan Siegel's website, while more can be read here (sorry, I haven't been able to find a downloadable version of the researchers' paper). Both articles note that far better estimates of $$H_0$$ will be available when more neutron star mergers are observed, and hopefully the Hubble tension will be resolved in the near future.

 Wake Up, Morons — Posted Wednesday December 23 2020 Until recently (and unlike most Los Angeles-area hospitals), Pasadena's Huntington Memorial Hospital was coping well with the increased influx of COVID patients, but now things have gotten much worse. While going for a medical check-up this morning, I saw a large COVID-19 tent set up on one of the access streets at the hospital: I spoke briefly with a doctor emerging from the tent, and he complained that people are still not taking the pandemic seriously. I was reminded of the Doonesbury comic I posted on Monday, and I wondered how things could have gotten so bad here in otherwise liberal and conscientious Southern California. While I realize that it can be both an economic and cultural matter (I often associate the rapid spread of the disease with red-state Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel types), it doesn't explain why people everywhere just aren't being more cautious. It also doesn't explain why an estimated 39% of the American population definitely or probably will not take either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine for the virus, a figure that is not too far from the 30% of Americans who continue to support the anti-fact, anti-science views of President Trump. At the same time I recognize that despite my masks, social distancing and other precautions, it's only by the grace of God that I haven't contracted this damned disease myself. My apologies to Cletus.

 The Awful German Language — Posted Wednesday December 23 2020 I took four years of French in high school and became fairly fluent in the language (thank you, Mrs. Farrell), and it came in handy later when communicating with my Egyptian mother-in-law (who spoke Arabic and French, but little English). I also took two years of German in college (it was a science prerequisite), but now I've largely forgetten it all. I can still read French pretty well, but technical German is way over my head. While in college I read a lot of Mark Twain's stuff, and his hilarious essay The Awful German Language really connected with me at the time. If you've ever wondered why words like das Mädchen (the young girl) is gender ambiguous (das is neuter), while the entire dative-accusative-genitive-nominative-possessive issue in German is frustrating as hell, you'll completely understand. So it was a relief for me to see noted German physicist Sabine Hossenfelder address some of the more common German language issues in her latest blog. I completely cracked up, and I hope you will appreciate it, too:

 Avian Quantum Entanglement?! — Posted Wednesday December 23 2020 For a hundred years or so, it has been thought that birds can navigate using the Earth's magnetic field. Recent studies have shown that magnetonavigation in carrier pigeons and other bird species allows them to find their way using the quantum entanglement of pairs of electrons in certain proteins in birds' eyes called cryptochromes. The latest airing of PBS Space Time describes this in detail. It's fascinating, and well worth watching:

 On Frost's "Stopping By Woods" — Posted Monday December 21 2020 Today is my 72nd birthday, the second one since my wife passed away. She's still all I can think about, and this morning my mind turned to my favorite poem by Robert Frost, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (1922): Whose woods these are I think I know His house is in the village though He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow. My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year. He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake The only other sound's the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake. The woods are lovely, dark and deep But I have promises to keep And miles to go before I sleep And miles to go before I sleep. Frost considered this poem to be his best, and he was often asked about its meaning. He denied that it had anything to do with death (or suicide), but he left it to the reader to figure it out. I've decided that it really is about death. My reasoning is this: In the first stanza, "Whose woods these are" merely defines a fellow villager's woods. In the second stanza, the woods are still specified as such, but now they're associated with a frozen lake and "the darkest evening of the year." However, in the last stanza they're now just "the woods," and they're "dark and deep." The woods now pertain to anything dark and deep, but they're also "lovely." I think this is Frost's way of saying that death can be a respite ("sleep") from the responsibilities and travails of life ("promises to keep") and a kind of welcome slumber, with "downy flake" almost pertaining to a pillow. Most analyses of Frost's poem differ, but to me this one is almost obvious. Frost said he wrote the poem in one go one morning, without hesitation. I consider that to be apocryphal, but maybe it's true. When reading this poem, I also cannot help but think of the Apostle Paul, who longed to die and be with Jesus Christ, but knew he had to persevere, to "fight the good fight" and to "finish the race." He did indeed, and we're all the better for it.

 In and Out with Doonesbury — Posted Monday December 21 2020 With the increased COVID-19 threat in California, I'm now wearing double masks, a hat, face shield and gloves while delivering food to the homebound. I haven't experienced what Doonesbury has to endure, but if this were Mississippi it might be the same:

 Many Rooms — Posted Friday December 18 2020 In high school we learn about the conservation of energy, be it a combination of kinetic, potential, linear, rotational, heat or chemical energy—it's the famous and never-violated First Law of Thermodynamics, yes? But then in graduate school we learn that, in an expanding universe and in general relativity, energy isn't really conserved at all. One might want to believe that all the positive matter-energy in our universe is exactly canceled by the negative energy of gravity but, since spacetime is expanding, it just ain't necessarily so. Sorry. In his latest online article, astrophysicist Ethan Siegel is asked the question: If there are multiple universes other than our own, where did the energy come from? Is it all balanced out by negative gravitational potential energy? My answer to the question is that if energy is not conserved, then it doesn't matter if one is talking about one universe or infinite universes, whether one is talking about a multiverse "out there" or many-worlds. If energy is not conserved, then it can be infinite in extent, period. Of course, I'm looking at things from a Christian point of view, where there are "many rooms" in our Father's house. You can talk about quantum fluctuations and any number of other possible reasons for the existence of mass-energy (and existence in general), but it leads nowhere. Whether it is God or an external computer programmer (it really makes no difference), the answer is obvious—there is a Creator, and not some wildly improbable happenstance.

 Ruben Bolling's on a Roll — Posted Friday December 18 2020 The Red-Stater's butt-crack is a nice touch Yep, the Texas Attorney General did say that Biden's chances of winning those four contentious states was "one in a quadrillion," which is forever immortalized in the Bill of Complaint filed by Texas in Texas v. Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin (see Pages 6 and 7). But that's just the cited odds for one state—for all four, the Complaint cites the odds as one in a quadrillion ($$10^{15}$$) to the fourth power ($$10^{60}$$), or roughly the amount of cash in Uncle Scrooge's money bin: PS: Believe it or don't, the proper name for $$10^{60}$$ is novemdecillion.

 Facebook As a Doomsday Machine — Posted Wednesday December 16 2020 Adrienne LaFrance, the executive editor of The Atlantic magazine, has written a lengthy article on today's website on the existential dangers of social media, Facebook in particular. It's well worth reading. Not long after Facebook was launched, I signed up to see what it was all about. Before long, I realized that it was not only a colossal waste of time ("I'm eating a sandwich right now"), but I was getting contacted by people I knew long ago who seemed intent on telling me how successful they had become in life ("Our lake home and our summer chalet in Tahoe"). I quickly canceled my Facebook account, and because of that experience I was determined to avoid other forms of social media, including Instagram and Twitter. As LaFrance notes in her article, Facebook has some good things to offer, such as video documentation of social injustice (Tunisia in 2010 and the subsequent Egyptian revolution of 2011), but its downsides include instantaneous global disinformation and the fomenting of violence, along with lesser forms of violence such as online bullying. Perhaps the worse example of Facebook's ability ot destroy society is the rise of authoritarianism due to widespread online disinformation and lies, which resulted in the rise of Donald Trump and his otherwise improbable election in 2016, preceded by the ruination of Hillary Clinton, which was driven not only by misogynistic Tea Partiers but by rumors that she was operating a child sex abuse business out of a Washington D.C. pizza shop ("Pizzagate"). This was compounded by the spread of unfounded political rumors about Clinton's emails and their supposed connection with Russia. And now we have groups like QAnon who are using social media to destroy faith in American governance, with the direct result that some 30% of Americans now fervently believe that Donald Trump was cheated out of a second presidential term by voter fraud. As a result, the upcoming inauguration of Joe Biden will be a sparsely attended affair, not just because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic but because of the very real threat of violence along Pennsylvania Avenue. And speaking of COVID-19, it is my fervent belief that President Trump's disdain for masks and social distancing is responsible for the unnecessary deaths of at least 100,000 Americans, a disdain that was actively supported by QAnon, Fox News, One America Today, the Drudge Report and Rush Limbaugh, all of which used social media liberally to spread Trump's lies, lies that persisted even when Trump contracted the disease himself, along with most of his family and supporters in the White House. There are now congressional calls for the breakup of Facebook on grounds that it is a monopoly, rather than a doomsday machine. But whatever grounds there are, I'm in favor of its obliteration.

 Medical Miracle Day! — Posted Monday December 14 2020 My younger son Kurt has a PhD in molecular biology and immunology from UCLA, so he is much better prepared than I am to fully appreciate the medical miracle that is unfolding before our eyes today. The first case of COVID-19 was identified in late December of 2019, so it has taken less than a year for scientists to develop an effective vaccine that promises to eradicate a disease that has plagued the entire human race. At this moment I'm watching the very first administration of the vaccine to a frontline healthcare nurse. In view of how much worse the virus has impacted black people in this country compared to whites, I'm heartened by the fact that both the nurse and administering doctor are black women. Praise God! I still don't understand how two of the new vaccines utilize mRNA to defeat the virus (I don't know what mRNA is, either), but today I thank God and the world's scientists for this medical miracle. I also thank those Americans who voted to rid this country of Donald Trump, whose personal ignorance, anti-science beliefs, bigotry and racist attitudes caused so many unnecessary deaths among people he swore to protect when he was elected. I urge our newly-elected President, Democratic leaders and fellow Americans to investigate and prosecute Donald John Trump to the fullest extent of the law, not only for punitive purposes but to ensure that a monster like him never presides in the White House again.

 Another Time Waster — Posted Saturday December 12 2020 Here's another interesting problem that looks simple as hell but is in fact fairly difficult. I saw it on the June 2020 Mind Your Decisions website I referred to earlier. You're given a ladder of length = 4 leaning up against a wall, touching a square box of height = 1 as shown. You're asked to find the distance $$y$$ from the top of the box to where the tip of the ladder touches the wall: You might think that you can simply use Pythagoras' rule and some simple geometry to find $$y$$, but if you do this you'll end up getting nowhere. The Mind Your Decisions website uses an extremely complicated (but ingenious) geometrical approach to solve the problem exactly, but it's easier to just consider the angle that the ladder is leaning with respect to the wall and use it to derive the answer. For a ladder of length $$L$$, you'll get the quartic equation $$y^4 + 2 y^3 + 2 y^2 + 2 y + 1 = L^2 y^2 \tag{1}$$ For $$L = 4$$, you can solve (1) iteratively to get $$y \approx 2.7609$$ (there are three other solutions, but they're all negative). Amazingly, the exact answer is $$y = \frac{1}{2} \, \left( -1 + \sqrt{17} + \sqrt{14 - 2 \sqrt{17}} \right)$$ which the website derives using a complicated geometrical method (but for the life of me, I can't follow it).

 The Grazing Goat Problem — Posted Friday December 11 2020 Although I do volunteer work for a food bank and support my church, in reality I'm an otherwise lazy wastrel who doesn't know what to do with himself. In addition to Sudoku, chess and being a rabid Mind Your Decisions math addict, I occasionally like to tackle more difficult problems on which to waste my time. Here's one I found on the online magazine Quanta. You're given a fenced circular field of grass with an area of one acre. A goat is tied to the fence with an inelastic rope, and it is allowed to graze the grass inside the field. How long does the rope have to be to give the goat access to exactly one-half acre of grass? The Quanta article states that this problem has sat around for centuries without an exact solution, which I found odd given the relatively simple geometry inherent in the problem: It took me about an hour to solve the problem in iterative form (it involves an inverse trigonometric function), only to learn that it had been solved in closed form earlier this year (see this Wikipedia article for the link). If the field's radius is $$R$$, then the length of the rope is about $$1.1587 R$$, which is the answer I got*. But for the life of me I cannot follow the approach used in the closed-form solution. I later learned that a Tyrannosaurus rex had crashed through the fence and devoured the goat, rendering the problem moot. (If you don't get the joke, go watch Jurassic Park.) * For $$R = 1$$, the problem reduces to solving $$\pi = \frac{2}{L}\,\sqrt{1-\frac{L^2}{4}}+2 L^2 \arcsin \left( \frac{L}{2} \right) + 2 \arcsin \left( 1- \frac{L^2}{2} \right)$$ for the rope length $$L$$.

 How Times Have Changed! — Posted Friday December 11 2020 World War II in America brought victory gardens, scrap metal drives, paper and rubber drives, steel Lincoln pennies, and gas, meat and butter rationing. Ruben Bolling shows us how Americans would have responded then given today's less than admirable patriotic sentiments:

 America's Lemming Death March, or The Year of the Jackpot — Posted Thursday December 10 2020 In 1952 sci-fi writer Robert H. Heinlein published a short story called The Year of the Jackpot, in which bizarre and inexplainable events occur prior to the end of the world, primarily people doing strange things, like the courts legally outlawing science and people spontaneously taking off their clothes in public for no reason. I was reminded of this story following a weird dream I had several nights ago. The sky turned a strange color, the shapes of objects were transforming before my eyes, and somehow it occurred to me that the universe was undergoing a transition from a false vacuum to the true one. Such a transition is not a figment of one's imagination—one might reasonably assume that the energy of the universe is at the bottom of a parabolic potential well with respect to a universal scalar potential field $$\varphi$$ (the Higgs field). But it could also be stuck at the bottom of a false minimum, with the true minimum lying farther down: If this is the case, the field could undergo spontaneous quantum tunneling through the potential wall to the true minimum, with unimaginable consequences—indeed, the energy released in the resulting transition would be sufficient to destroy the entire universe. Heinlein's short story describes a similar if more mundane event, but the circumstances leading up to it are very similar to those we're witnessing today—a disastrous worldwide pandemic (with nearly 300,000 dead in the U.S. alone in just 10 months), an unprecedented worldwide trend toward political authoritarianism and polarization, denialism of science, facts and truth—all occurring at a time when the world's human population has increased to 7.6 billion, a figure representing unimaginable potential human misery, death and suffering should things continue to go awry. Fundamentalists see the End Times coming, but I see it simply as a failure of people to deal honestly with the problems they have created and an unwillingness to do anything about them. More to the point is the insane condition of America today, with Joe Biden's sweeping presidential election win being challenged by sore loser Donald Trump in one failed baseless lawsuit after another, with no end in sight (the most recent being a multi-state Republican appeal that may go all the way to the Trump-leaning Supreme Court). If SCOTUS were to insanely vote 5-4 in Trump's favor, America would undoubtedly be plunged into a Trumpian dictatorship and even a civil war. Even if Trump loses, the country might very well see prolonged violence in its cities, pitting radical conservatives against liberals. This situation is on top of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, which is overwhelming hospitals and which will likely kill another 200,000 Americans before the much-awaited vaccines halt the spread of the virus. Worse, anti-vaxxers living in Trump Country have indicated they will not take the vaccines (because "science"), guaranteeing a prolonged epidemic. Heinlein's tale describes strange and inexplicable behavior in the last days, not unlike what we're seeing today. The year 2021 might very well be the Year of the Jackpot.

 White Evangelical Christianity as a Trump-Based Religious Cult — Posted Wedneday December 9 2020 "Ascended into Heaven, Christ Jesus sits at the right hand of His Father, and He is coming again in His glory to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom shall never end." — The Orthodox Christian Creed "In a dream I went to Heaven, where I saw Donald Trump sitting at the right hand of God." — Televangelist Pat Robertson Religious scholar and writer Reza Aslan (Zealot, No God But God) posted this video two years ago, arguing that President Trump had converted American white evangelical Christianity into a religious cult: I quite agreed with Aslan at the time, and I still do. It's the only possible explanation of why an irreligious, immoral sociopath could have been accepted as a man of God by America's white evangelicals and as a candidate for President of the United States. It's also the only possible explanation for why 77% of evangelicals still support Trump despite his losing re-election, and why they demand President-Elect Joe Biden be stripped of his election victory with Trump given another four years in office. I'm still personally unsure whether evangelicals are simply deluded woshipers in a Trump religious cult, or if they're simply fanatical tribalists who will reject reality at all costs. Perhaps there's really no difference.

 Another Gem from Ruben Bolling — Posted Sunday December 6 2020 Fun Fact 1: According to Greek mythology, Prometheus (who brought the gift of fire to mankind) was punished by the god Zeus by having his liver pecked out by an eagle (not a hawk) for all eternity. Fun Fact 2: In 2003 Dick Cheney, Vice President under George W. Bush, infamously claimed that "deficits don't matter". Fun Fact 3: Bolling's art style for his Lucky Ducky series deliberately imitates that of famed Disney cartoonist Carl Barks, whose drawings and stories of Donald Duck, Scrooge McDuck and others forever defined their characters.

 The Hubble Tension — Posted Sunday December 6 2020 Raffiniert ist der Herrgott, aber boshaft ist Er nicht ("Subtle is the Lord, but malicious He is not") — Albert Einstein There is a serious problem in cosmology today having to do with the rate that the universe is expanding. A detailed analysis of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the pattern of very low-freequency light that was emitted some 380,000 years following the cosmic fireball called the Big Bang, shows that the universe is currently expanding at about 68 km/s/megaparsec. This figure is closely tied to what is called the $$\Lambda$$CDM (Lambda Cold Dark Matter) cosmological model, currently accepted as the best model we have of the universe today. However, in 1998 two independent studies of the light emitted from far-distant supernovae showed conclusively that the universe is not only expanding at an accelerated rate, but that the rate is currently about 73 km/s/megaparsec. The errors bars associated with these two figures do not overlap, and the scientific consensus is that there is something amiss with either approach. This problem (called the Hubble tension) is outlined by science writer Stuart Clark in the November 28 issue of New Scientist. The writer calls his article "A Quantum Twist in Spacetime," but both the title and the article are misleading. In searching for an explanation for the Hubble tension, astrophysicists have considered modifying the $$\Lambda$$CDM model, the supernovae model, and even Einstein'stheory of general relativity itself, but none of these approaches have anything to do with quantum theory. Of these efforts, particular attention is being given to Einstein's gravity theory which, for over 100 years now, has never failed to agree with observation. But Einstein himself said that his theory was surely only an approximation to a more correct theory of gravitation, and since then numerous reasearchers have sought to generalize the theory. The most basic approach has been to reexamine the axioms of Riemannian geometry, the mathematical basis of Einstein's 1915 theory, and there are two primary ways to accomplish that. One is to reject the notion that vectors retain their length or magnitude under physical transplantation, an approach favored by the German mathematical physicist Hermann Weyl in 1918. The other is to reject the index symmetry of the metric tensor $$g_{\mu\nu}$$ and/or the affine connection $$\Gamma_{\mu\nu}^\lambda$$ upon which the Ricci tensor $$R_{\mu\nu}$$ is constructed. If the affine connection is not symmetric in $$\mu\nu$$, the resulting geometry is called Einstein-Cartan geometry. It is arguably the most important possible generalization of Riemannian geometry. The asymmetry of the affine connection in Einstein-Cartan geometry is called torsion, and it is associated with the concept of angular momentum. This has given researchers the notion that torsion might have something to do with particle spin, which is a quantum-mechanical property of matter. But attempts to utilize torsion as a means of constructing a theory of quantum gravity have failed, and even a classical theory of gravity based on torsion is fraught with complexity; indeed, the resulting mathematical formalism appears hopelessly complicated. Clark's New Scientist article seems to be promoting the quantum aspects of torsion rather than being merely a classical revision of general relativity, which is all that I think it is. But Clark does refer to the work of several researchers who believe that torsion might explain the Hubble tension, in which case the Hubble parameter would move closer to the 73 km/s/megaparsec figure. If successful, Einstein-Cartan theory would likely replace Einstein's original 1915 theory despite being far more complicated. In his final years of life, Einstein worked on a theory in which torsion plays an important role. He called this labor the relativistic theory of the non-symmetric field, and a few of the equations he derived were iced onto his 70th birthday cake: Lamentably, Einstein's last effort was a waste of time, although (in the words of his colleague and biographer Abraham Pais) it was an effort he simply had to see through to the end. Indeed, upon arriving upon Einstein's dead body in the hospital where he died, his nurse found several handwritten papers scattered on the floor next to his bed filled with scribbles of non-symmetric connections. All of Einstein's work on generalizing his 1915 theory and unifying it with the other forces of Nature went nowhere, but he determinedly dedicated the last decades of his life to it. In Pais' words, So it was to remain in the next decade, and the next and the next, until he laid down his pen and died. His work on unification was probably all in vain, but he had to pursue what seemed centrally important to him, and he was never afraid to do so. That was his destiny. — Abraham Pais, Subtle is the Lord: the Science and the Life of Albert Einstein

 How Many Stars and Galaxies Are There? — Posted Wednesday December 2 2020 This is the diffuse protogalaxy GN-Z11, the most distant object known to mankind, estimated to be 13.39 billion light years away. Probably in the early process of gravitational formation, its light left the galaxy only 400 million years after the Big Bang. The empirical formula known as Hubble's Law states that the recession velocity $$V$$ of a galaxy in km/s is proportional to its distance, or $$V = H_0 D$$ where $$D$$ is the galaxy's distance from the observer in megaparsecs and $$H_0$$ is a proportionality term known's as the Hubble constant. It's not actually a constant, but it is currently estimated to be about $$70 \pm 3$$ km/s/megaparsec. Thus, a galaxy measured to be 100 megaparsecs away is receding at about 7,000 km/s. (Hubble's Law cannot be strictly true, since extremely distant galaxies would exceed the speed of light.) There are a number of ways to accurately measure a galaxy's distance, while its recession velocity can be precisely determined using its Doppler redshift. Due to the redshift, extremely distant galaxies are exceedingly dim and hard to see, approaching the limit of the observable universe. But recent studies have pushed observations close to that limit, allowing for a relatively decent method to estimate the total number of galaxies in the observable universe. The New Horizons interplanetary space probe, having flown past Pluto, now has nearly unrestricted views of deep space, far from interfering light and radiation sources, allowing its cameras to collect visible light from extremely distant galaxies. By focusing on small patches of space and extrapolating the results to all space, the data show that the universe contains roughly 4 trillion galaxies. Because most visible galaxies contain in excess of 100 billion stars, the total number of stars is roughly Avogadro's Number, or $$10^{23}$$ stars. However, as the recession velocity of exceedingly distant galaxies approaches the speed of light, the resulting Doppler redshift is so great that their light is invisible. What lies beyond those galaxies? Is there a limit to the universe, or is it infinite in extent, with an infinite number of galaxies and stars? Scientists haven't a clue. What is perhaps even more amazing is that galaxies have very small peculiar velocities, meaning that they are essentially standing still. Their observed velocities are due to the expansion of space itself, a fact that was first proved in the early 1920s (the expanding universe is the cornerstone of modern cosmology). More amazing yet is the fact that the rate of expansion appears to be increasing with time due to dark energy, with the density of galaxies decreasing proportionately. Many astrophysicists believe that dark energy will eventually produce a universe that is essentially a nearly infinite void of stray photons, as black holes and other forms of matter decay and radiate away. Science can be so depressing.

 Poor Old Gravity — Posted Thanksgiving Day, November 26 2020 This comic has nothing to do with anything here. I just found it funny. Consider the subatomic realm, with its hundreds of stable and unstable elementary and composite particles, whose properties can be meticulously studied and predicted using the tools of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory. Compare this situation with the tools available for gravity, for which we have the Riemann tensor $$R_{\mu\nu\beta}^\lambda$$ and its contracted forms, the Ricci tensor $$R_{\mu\nu}$$ and the Ricci scalar $$R$$. That's it: all of Einstein's gravity theory and all we know about gravity is contained in these three quantities, which are all pretty much the same one geometrical thing. But there's a bright side to this discrepancy, which is the fact that in over 100 years of study, observation and prediction, Einstein's general relativity theory has never experienced a single failure. Quantum mechanics has also never failed, but it has benefited from the brilliant work of a thousand-fold more physicists and funding as compared with that of gravitational research. True, quantum mechanics has been far more beneficial to mankind in the practical sense (discounting perhaps its involvement in the development of nuclear weapons), while general relativity has given us GPS systems and little else by comparison. It is no wonder then that most efforts to produce a consistent quantum gravity theory (arguably the Holy Grail of modern physics) have focused on quantizing gravity, rather than "geometrizing" quantum mechanics. Still, there is one issue in which quantum mechanics seems to be intruding where gravity should be considered first, and that is the problem of dark matter. Dark matter is that hypothetical invisible, undetectable, chargeless, tasteless and odorless stuff that is required to explain galactic rotation curves and galactic clustering and lensing. It doesn't interact with matter or radiation, or even itself, but is susceptible to the force of gravity. It appears to clump around the centers of galaxies, where it provides the added gravitational force needed to explain the observed overly-rapid rotation of stars far from the galactic center. For decades, physicists have assumed that dark matter must consist of very weakly interacting particles. Cold neutrinos, massive photons, axions, primordial black holes and other more exotic explanations have been proposed, and highly sophisticated (and costly) detection projects have been built to detect them. Yet nothing to date has shown even the slightest physical evidence of dark matter. It all reminds me of the search for the hypothetical luminiferous aether of the late 19th century, a theory that was abandoned when Michelson and Morley famously proved it did not exist. Recently, scientists have doubled down on rheir search for the elusive dark matter particle. Like the nearly as elusive neutrino, dark matter is assumed to at least occasionally interact with ordinary matter, so massive projects involving materials such as liquid xenon and solid silicon have been or are are being built to capture dark matter, hopefully with detectable side reactions that would betray its existence and reveal its properties. Coupled with these experiments are ongoing theoretical investigations, most or all of which involve detailed quantum-mechanical calculations based on the properties dark matter is assumed to have. But Einstein himself admitted that his 1915 general relativity theory was just an approximation to an even deeper and better gravity theory, and he invested decades of his life trying to find one based on a generalization of his original theory. These efforts, like those of many of his contemporaries, tried to derive the laws of electromagnetism from a purely geometrical construct of general relativity. But they had nothing to do with quantum mechanics, not only because quantum theory was so new at the time but also because—like today—no one had the slightest idea how to merge the physics and mathematics into a unified theory of gravity and quantum mechanics. It's important to remember that there are alternatives to Einsteinian gravity that are being investigated today, a few of which might provide a classical explanation for dark matter. Most of these theories involve the addition of scalar and/or vector fields of one sort or another to the Einstein-Hilbert Lagrangian, but then one has to account for the masses and other properties of these quantities outside of the gravitational interaction itself. The best one I've seen so far that involves only the Riemann terms is the $$R^2$$ conformal theory of Mannheim and Kazanas, in which several parameters pop out as integration constants that might have something to do with dark matter and dark energy. But that theory came out back in 1989, and so far little else has appeared along the same classical lines. So it would seem that researchers will continue their efforts to quantize gravity while ignoring classical alternatives to Einstein's 1915 theory that might be more productive. More expensive dark energy projects will be constructed, while alternative approaches to the problem will languish. Meanwhile, the long-awaited theory of quantum gravity remains as elusive as ever. Happy Thanksgiving!

 What We Should Live For — Posted Friday November 20 2020 From 2018's Paul, Apostle of Christ, Paul tells the Roman prefect Mauritius what to live for:

 I'm Still Celebrating — Posted Saturday November 14 2020 Just take Exit 68 off I-95, past the Subway and La Familia Coin Laundry! (Parking fee used to support the "Your Favorite President" Comic Book Library and Adult Book Store)

 Penrose and Conformal Cyclic Cosmology — Posted Friday November 6 2020 British mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics, has written a number of compelling books on the nature of the universe and cosmology in general, but none of his earlier ideas can compete with his latest theory that our universe is just one of a continuous and eternal cycle of birth and rebirth. Here's a recent interview of Penrose by Robert Kuhn of Closer to Truth on the idea, which is called Conformal Cyclic Cosmology. Pay close attention to Penrose's comments on the cosmological microwave background (CMB), whose adherence to the Planck law of a gas in ideal thermal equilibrium is unnaturally perfect (indeed, the error bars associated with observation and prediction are too small to be seen on any graph). How did such perfection come about? And how is is related to the slight (1 part in 100,000) imperfection we see in the CMB with regard to matter/radiation density from one point in the sky to another?

 "Let's Play" — Posted Monday November 2 2020 The Netflix mini-series Queen's Gambit is the best thing on television in recent memory. Whether you're a mediocre chess player (like me) or a Grand Master, go watch it.

 The Country's Condition is Pathetic — Posted Thursday October 22 2020 I do volunteer work at a Pasadena food bank, delivering food and supplies daily to the homebound. Every morning when I arrive at the bank there is a long line of cars waiting at the parking lot to pick up their boxes. Most of the cars are late-model, indicating that the people were once middle class but are now out of work and down on their luck, primarily because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its enormous effect on society and the economy. We also have many homeless show up at the food bank in need of food, water and hygiene supplies. The bank even offers aluminized mylar blankets now, as the nights are getting colder. With the nation entering eight straight months of the pandemic, America is rapidly becoming a strict have- and have-not nation, with the wealthier upper classes relatively uneffected by the virus, while the lower classes are getting clobbered economically, socially and even mentally. Meanwhile, President Trump continues to ignore the problem and the 223,000 Americans who've lost their lives to date to the virus. Worse, he ignores the facts associated with the spread of the disease while actively berating the advice of the nation's top doctors, epidemiologists and medical scientists. This is what happens when a supposedly educated and democratic country falls for a demogogic sociopath who hates science as much as he hates the poor and minorities, and who is either unable or unwilling to tell the truth about anything. I don't know if Donald Trump is the Antichrist or not, but I do know that when the Antichrist arrives he will be welcomed with open arms by the ignorant, arrogant and fearful American public, which I'm beginning to despise as much as I do Trump and the Republican Party.

 The Last Videos — Posted Monday October 19 2020 My wife Munira died 15 months ago, and I've finally managed to finish digitizing all the 8mm films I took over the 42 years of our marriage. Here's a brief clip of our first son Kris and a trip we made to the L.A. Zoo in December 1979, taken when he was 11 months old. Shot with a sound-equipped 8mm camera I had at the time (now lost) with the films stowed in our garage for ages, I hadn't seen or heard these sights and sounds for almost 41 years. May the Lord Jesus Christ bless and keep my dear wife's soul forever.

 The First Unified Field Theory — Posted Monday October 19 2020 It's heartening to see more women in the physics and mathematics fields showing up on YouTube these days, from grad students to full professors. Here's Dr. Maggie Lieu of the University of Nottingham talking about the first unified field theory, published by Hermann Weyl in April 1918. It was a truly brilliant theory, but as Lieu points out it was opposed by Einstein for being unphysical (Einstein and Weyl were not only colleagues but good friends, from their days at the Swiss Technical Institute in Zürich to the year they both died in 1955). Einstein's objection carries less weight nowadays than it did then (considering the role that quantum mechanics might play in the theory), which is probably why Weyl's idea is still being investigated today. Einstein's objection can be interpreted as the ambiguity inherent in the path of a particle going from one point to another along different routes. I see the problem as being associated with Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which is purely quantum in nature. For example, in the hydrogen atom the electron doesn't take any particular path, but forms a "cloud" about the proton that is probabilistic in terms of its location (the electron may even pass "through" the proton). This uncertainty in the electron's position makes talking about paths ambiguous, so without a consistent theory of quantum gravity the notion of path itself appears to be meaningless.

 The Medicare Coverage Helpline Scam — Posted Monday October 19 2020 I'm sick to death of that constantly-running scam ad called the "Medicare Coverage Helpline" being pushed by Joe Namath and others. And why is it being aired so frequently? Because it's working, and fooling a lot of gullible people into buying additional medical coverage. Shame on you, Joe. The Helpline is intended to give aging asshats like myself the belief that we're missing out on additional free Medicare coverage like meals, home care, eyeglasses, hearing aids, trips to the doctor and other benefits that are there for the taking for no cost to us, if only we'd check into them. Oh, and the phone call is free! (Golly gee, imagine making a free phone call!) Also free is the Helpline's "Medicare Benefits Review," in which they will determine over the phone whether you're missing out on benefits you've been too ignorant or stupid to check into yourself. Of course, if you're already on Medicare you'll quickly discover that you're not missing out on anything, but those kindly Medicare Coverage Helpline folks will only be too happy to sell you the extra coverage. By flashing the American flag and giving the impression that the Helpline is somehow part of government-provided Medicare, they've bilked millions from people too dumb to realize they're being taken for a ride. Why does our government not crack down on this? Because in Trump's America any business is okay, even if it's a scam. But hurry! Don't miss the deadline! The Helpline's enrollment period is now open! (As it has been for at least two years now).

 For Geeks Only — Brans-Dicke Theory — Posted Saturday October 17 2020 I first posted this technical note back in July, but I was bothered with a particular issue is raises so I took it down. I recently contacted Dr. Viktor Toth (a noted theoretical physicist and technical consultant) regarding the possibility that the Ricci scalar $$R$$ might act as a scalar field that couples with itself. He assured me that it could indeed, thus alleviating some of the concerns I had about my earlier post. The following is a casual afternoon exercise masquerading as a problem in general relativity. It's straightforward but tedious, and although I've worked on it a bit I haven't solved it. Maybe it doesn't have a relevant solution, but perhaps some graduate student will find it useful as an independent study project. To begin, let. us note a commonly overlooked problem with the standard free-space Einstein-Hilbert action for general relativity, which is $$S_{EH} = \int \!\! \sqrt{-g}\, R\, d^4x \tag{1}$$ Although wildly successful with respect to the countless agreements it has made with observation since it was first published by Einstein in 1915, the action is not invariant with respect to a rescaling of the metric tensor $$g_{\mu\nu}$$, which makes up the Ricci scalar $$R$$ in the theory. In addition to all the other common requirements of physics, including conservation of energy, momentum, angular momentum and electric charge—all of which are derived from translational, time and rotational invariance—Nature almost certainly is invariant with respect to changes of scale. Indeed, it was first noted by the German mathematical physicist Hermann Weyl in 1929 that scale invariance in quantum mechanics is responsible for the conservation of electric charge. However, it is easily shown that (1) is not invariant with respect to the local change $$g_{\mu\nu} \rightarrow \Omega(x) g_{\mu\nu}$$, where $$\Omega$$ is an arbitrary scalar function of space and time. Thus, if a combined clock-ruler device is used to measure time and distance at some point $$P$$, it should measure the same physics at some distant point $$Q$$ even if the markings on the ruler and the ticking of the clock change arbitrarily from the one point to the other. Weyl's Theory In attempting to apply his idea of scale invariance to gravitation theory, Weyl determined that the only possible action would have to appear as $$S_W = \int \!\! \sqrt{-g}\, R^2\, d^4x \tag{2}$$ As is easily shown, (2) is scale invariant but only if the Ricci scalar $$R$$ is a non-zero constant following variation of the integral with respect to $$g_{\mu\nu}$$. For free space, the associated equations of motion are then $$R_{\mu\nu} - \frac{1}{4}\, g_{\mu\nu}\, R = 0$$ This traceless form of the Einstein field equations has the general Schwarzschild solution $$g_{00} = - 1/g_{11} = \exp \left( 1 - \frac{2m}{r} + kr^2 \right)$$ where $$m$$ is the usual geometric mass and $$k$$ is a constant (including zero). Thus, for small $$k$$ Weyl's scale-invariant theory is capable of making the exact same predictions as Einstein's theory, including starlight deflection, gravitational redshift, radar delay and the precession of Mercury's orbit. Weyl's action (2) is an example of what is today known as $$R^2$$ gravity theory, which is often supplemented with various scalar and vector terms designed to provide an explanation of the dark matter and dark energy problems in cosmology. Note that by simply taking the square of the Ricci scalar in the action we are able to introduce an additional term $$k$$ in the equations of motion. The $$k r^2$$ term actually represents an acceleration, which may have something to do with dark energy. The Brans-Dicke Scalar-Tensor Theory In 1961 the Princeton physicist Robert Dicke and his colleague, Carl Brans, proposed a variant of Einstein's gravitation theory that is still being studied today. They considered the possibility that the gravitational field might be coupled with a long-range scalar field $$\phi(x,t)$$ that connects local gravitating matter to the rest of the universe. This consideration was motivated by Mach's Principle, which states that the distribution of all the matter and energy in the universe should somehow affect local inertial frames. Einstein himself gave serious thought to the principle, which remains unresolved to this day. Brans and Dicke suggested that a suitable action for a coupled gravitational field would look like $$S_{BD} = \int \! \! \sqrt{-g}\, \left( \phi R + \frac{\omega}{\phi} \, g^{\mu\nu} \, \partial_\mu \phi \,\, \partial_\nu \phi \right) d^4x \tag{3}$$ where $$\omega$$ is a dimensionless constant. The second term is the standard notation for a Lagrangian density, and reflects the dynamics associated with the scalar field $$\phi$$. Equation (3) is an example of a scalar-tensor action which, when supplemented by vector fields, becomes what is known as a tensor-vector-scalar (TVS) action. TVS actions are also being investigated today as possible solutions to the dark matter and dark energy problems. By varying the action with respect to $$g_{\mu\nu}$$ and $$\phi$$ independently of one another, Brans and Dicke easily derived the equations of motion along with a set of equations that define the Ricci scalar $$R$$ in terms of $$\omega$$ and the derivatives of $$\phi$$. Brans and Dicke were then able to show that with a suitable choice of $$\omega$$, they could approximate the predictions of standard Einsteinian gravity. But not quite—for example, they could not quite reproduce the Einstein prediction for the precession of Mercury's orbit. The BD action is also not scale invariant unless special properties are given to the scalar field $$\phi$$. Revised Brans-Dicke Theory The scalar field denoted by Brans and Dicke as $$\phi$$ is not the only long-range field possible. One might rightly think that the Ricci scalar $$R$$ itself could be used instead of $$\phi$$, a consideration that solves two problems. One, the existence of some unknown universal field $$\phi$$ is not now required, and no expression independent of the equations of motion need be dealt with. And two, the replacement $$\phi \rightarrow R$$ turns the Brans-Dicke action into $$S = \int \! \! \sqrt{-g}\, \left( R^2 + \frac{\omega}{R} \, g^{\mu\nu} \,\partial_\mu R \,\, \partial_\nu R \right) d^4x \tag{4}$$ which now looks like Equation (2) with an extra term. This gives rise to the hope that a suitable choice for the constant $$\omega$$ in (4) will make the action automatically scale invariant. Indeed, the choice $$\omega = -3$$ appears appropriate, but we're still left with several terms involving multiple covariant derivatives of $$R$$ that need to be eliminated. Comments Einstein gravity is complicated by the fact that a gravitational field contains energy, and so acts as a source for an additional gravitational field. This feedback effect is responsible for making energy conservation in the theory ambiguous. One may view this effect as a kind of coupling of the gravitational field with itself, an effect that is clearly displayed in Equation(4). Even with $$\omega = -3$$, Equation (4) is still not quite scale invariant, requiring again that $$R$$ be a non-zero constant. In addition, the equations of motion are even more complicated. Brans and Dicke initially also sought an explanation for the extraordinarily small number $$G$$, Newton's gravitational constant, which is roughly $$6.67\times10^{-11}$$ nt-m-kg$$^{-2}$$. Their theory led to the possibility that $$G$$ is time dependent, appearing small only during the present epoch. Dirac also considered a time-varying gravitational constant, but the consequences would seem to present enormous problems in cosmology, if not all of physics. Even with these problems, the revised Brans-Dicke model appears worthy of further study. References 1. F. Yasunori and K. Maeda, The Scalar-Tensor Theory of Gravitation. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 2. C. Brans and R. Dicke, Mach's Principle and a Relativistic Theory of Gravitation. Phys. Rev. 124, 3. 3. W. Straub, Conformal, Parameter-Free Riemannian Gravity. https://vixra.org/abs/1711.0404.

 Three Aspects of the Reptilian Brain — Posted Friday October 16 2020 This short video perfectly describes Trump supporters, and the existential threat they represent to America, if not the entire human race: Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. — John 8:32

 The Brilliant Roger Penrose — Posted Sunday October 11 2020 Sir Roger Penrose is co-winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics, given for his contributions to the understanding of black holes using a rigorous mathematical analysis of Einstein's theory of general relativity (gravity). He was recently interviewed by Robert Kuhn of Closer to Truth in which the 89-year-old Penrose outlines his thoughts on the birth of the universe. He does not like the Standard Model of Cosmology's reliance on the hot inflatioanry theory of Alan Guth, but believes instead that our universe is just one of an endless cycle of universes spanning truly enormous stretches of time. His ideas on the nature of time and its reliance on the existence of mass in the universe is quite profound, and I encourage readers to seek out any of Penrose's latest books to learn more. Meanwhile, watch this video and be enlightened.

 Hossenfelder on Free Will — Posted Saturday October 10 2020 Noted German physicist Sabine Hossenfelder's latest video post deals with the question of free will, the notion that we have completely free rein on our thoughts and actions, subject only to changing external circumstances. Hossenfelder does not believe in free will, and in this 11-minute video she gives her reasons why she thinks it's nonsense: I was waiting for Hossenfelder to bring up the purely random and indeterministic effects of quantum physics on free will, which she rejects using an argument that I find wrong (in essence, she believes that random quantum effects are all part of a predetermined universe). She also touches on the moral aspects of such a universe ("I'm sorry I robbed that bank and killed the guard, Your Honor, but I had no choice in the matter because my actions were predetermined at the Big Bang"), an argument that would presumably exonerate all of us regardless of our actions. The question of free will began to be seriously considered when Newtonian mechanics came to be fully understood in the 1700s. Many scientists of the day saw the initial conditions of a Newtonian universe as being responsible for all future events, assuming one could know the precise location and momentum of every particle. Even without considering the effects of quantum theory, we know that any imprecision in initial conditions can and will have substantial, unpredictable and chaotic effects on future conditions. The question of free will is an ancient one that has been examined by countless philosophers and natural scientists. While I believe in free will myself (primarily for admittedly subjective religious reasons), it's still a puzzling issue whose answer likely lies in the nature of human consciousness, a phenomenon that will probably never be fully understood.

 The Traveling Salesperson Again — Posted Saturday October 10 2020 A mathematical problem I have long mused over is the traveling salesperson problem, in which a set of destinations consists of nodes connected by two and only two links. The problem is to determine how each destination (which can be visited only once) can be visited that minimizes the total travel distance. It's a very old problem, and while some progress has been made that provides near-optimal visitation schedules, no true solution has ever been found other than by brute force methods. The problem still stands, although recent efforts have made some progress. The latest is an approximate optimal algorithm described in the latest online Quanta magazine article, which references this paper in arXiv.org. The problem, which has considerable practical importance outside of travel (especially communications and computer design), falls into the realm of graph theory, the discrete mathematics of nodes and links and the relationships they exhibit in a number of areas, particularly linear algebra. For reasons I won't go into here, long ago I tried to optimize the following related problem, which is also based in graph theory. Given that $$A$$ is a sparse, symmetric square matrix of dimension $$N$$ and $$X$$ is the row vector $$[1 \, \, 2 \, \, 3 \, \ldots \, N]$$, find a permutation of the elements of $$X$$ that maximizes the quadratic quantity $$X A X^T$$. This problem, known as the nodal reordering problem, has enormous computational importance in a variety of fields, especially structural engineering design. If you try it, good luck, as it's harder than it looks.

 So Now It Begins — Posted Thursday October 8 2020 The FBI has arrested at least seven members of a right-wing militia group that planned to kidnap Democratic Michigan Governnor Gretchen Whitmer, try her for treason, and then murder her and other members of the Michigan state government. President Trump must be feeling proud that these groups are now rising up to kill Democratic leaders. As he once infamously said, "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" I encourage readers to go onto YouTube and check out a few of the millions of videos (like this one) posted by fanatic gun owners and gun collectors, the same folks who tend to be attracted to domestic militias. Many individuals have obtained hundreds of guns and tens of thousands of rounds of ammo, and having grown tired of hunting, plinking at tin cans and shooting at paper targets are now salivating over the chance to righteously slaughter human beings they see as enemies of their new Lord and Savior, Donald Trump. Finally, their massive collections of guns and ammo will have a more practical and patriotic purpose! And I'll wager they're all good, white, evangelical Christians who hate science.

 Trump's Only Honorable Option — Posted Thursday October 8 2020 (From Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, 1945)

 Duly Deserved — Posted Tuesday October 6 2020 The 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded exclusively to three black hole researchers. Roger Penrose (I have all his books), Andrea Ghez and Reinhard Genzel were awarded the prize today based on their theoretical and observational studies of black holes, whose properties I have expounded on countless times. I'm particularly happy for Penrose, whose brilliance spans pure mathematics as well as mathematical physics, and Ghez, whose dedicated decades-long observation of stars orbiting our galactic center, Sagittarius A*, showed conclusively that our galaxy hosts a four-million-solar-mass black hole at its center.

 To This Favor We Must Come — Posted Tuesday October 6 2020 As a long-time silent film fan, I was mesmerized by this short film of a snowball fight shot in Lyons, France in 1896. The original film has been digitally colorized, stabilized, remastered and adjusted for timing, but the result must be very close to how it looked when filmed. Indeed, the film looks like it could have been shot yesterday. I'm also thinking that it looks too good, considering its great age, the early technology used in its creation, and the modern techniques used in its restoration. I wonder if the cameraman, seeing the film today, might think it's not the same film he shot so long ago. This reminds of that old philosophical argument of the wooden boat that sets out on a years-long voyage. The captain, realizing that the boat will undergo much battering and weathering on its long trip, stocks the boat with spare wood beams, nails, sails and an extra anchor to replace those parts that will have to be replaced along the way. A stickler for accounting, the captain also stows away all the old parts, throwing away nothing. Upon arriving at its destination, the boat has been totally and exactly rebuilt using these materials, down to the last peg. The question then becomes: is it the same boat that left its port years before? It's disturbing to realize that all the folks in the film are long gone now. "Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that!" — Hamlet, musing upon Yorick's skull (Act 5, Scene 1)

 2020 Is Turning Out To Be The Worst Ever For Sane People — Posted Saturday October 3 2020 Sean Patterson, a 56-year-old Missouri truck driver and all-round Trump worshiper, gets his moment of fame in this new article from The Guardian. I truly despair when I read things like this, as I know that roughly 30% of the American electorate thinks exactly the same as Patterson does. That gives Trump an automatic 30% of the vote, regardless of anything. Trump could be conducting and broadcasting child sacrifice rituals from the Oval Office, and he'd still have his 30%. A former fellow gym partner of mine feels the same as Patterson. As a devout Christian and successful Pasadena businessman whose business has been devastated by mandated COVID-19 shutdowns, he assured me that the virus is a hoax cooked up by the Democrats. "How many people do you know that have gotten sick?" he asked me. I told him that I know of only three, all from my church (which nevertheless strongly enforces distancing and mask-wearing guidelines). "That's nothing," he replied, "probably just colds or the flu." He also doesn't trust virus testing, which he thinks misdiagnoses ordinary illnesses. And he'll vote for Trump again, as he views the presumed socialism he fears from Democrats as tantamount to abortion, family planning and homosexuality. When I pointed out that Trump is a bigoted, racist, womanizing pathological liar, he brushed it off with "So he's not perfect. God has always chosen great leaders who are not perfect." If Biden wins the election, how many of Trump's worshipers will take up arms and go on the attack? Hey, there's a lot of crazed right-wing militias and conspiracy theorists out there, not to mention insane truck drivers. And they have all the guns.

 Was It Good For You Too, America? — Posted Wednesday September 30 2020

 Will This Ever End?! — Posted Monday September 28 2020 It's hard to be a Christian and not truly hate President Trump and his minions. Every day there is some new disgusting revelation about the man, but yesterday's really took the cake. We learned from The New York Times that Trump is deeply in debt ($421 million) and for the past ten years has paid essentially no federal income taxes despite living a decadent, luxurious, pussy-grabbing lifestyle. I paid over$35,000 in federal income tax last year, and this royally pisses me off. But Trump's supporters have become Trump worshipers, and there is scant evidence in the polls that they are going to vote against him in November. It's hard to avoid my hatred of Trump carrying over to his worshipers, who appear to account for roughly 30% of the American electorate. I'm willing to bet that the loans Trump's in debt for were made by the Russians in exchange for Trump's obvious dismantling of our country. But folks in the Red States, who are poor but paying their fair share of taxes, will go right on worshiping him regardless. I'm so grateful to God that I'm 71 years old, and will not have to tolerate this madness much longer.

 Black Holes as Dark Matter? — Posted Wednesday September 23 2020 Remember the luminiferous aether theory of the late 1800s? The theory posited that some kind of undetectable "aether" in outer space simply had to exist, because how else could light travel in space without something to "wave" against, like sound waves in air or water waves on water? It wasn't until the work of Michelson and Morley in the 1880s and Einstein in 1905 who proved that the luminiferous aether simply did not exist—light can travel through empty space all by itself, without having anything to wave against. Now we have the theory of dark matter, which supposedly makes up some 80% of the ordinary matter that the universe is composed of. It can't be detected, observed, smelled, felt or tasted, but most cosmologists say it's out there anyway. Their proof is the excessive rotation rate of stars orbiting galaxies, the observed clustering of galaxies and pronounced gravitional lensing of other clusters, all of which appear to lack the necessary ordinary gravitating matter to explain what they're seeing. Either Einstein's gravity theory is wrong or incomplete, they say, or dark matter exists. But detection of dark matter has been a complete failure, despite decades of terrestrial and extraterrestrial searching, thousands of person hours, uncountable scientific papers and many billions of dollars spent on costly projects and equipment. By comparison, laboratory detection of a primordial black hole (one formed shortly after the Big Bang) has also yielded nothing, but we can truly be thankful for that—while laboratory detection of a primordial black hole would never receive any academic accolades, the black hole would rapidly swallow the laboratory, its personnel and the Earth as well. Today's Quanta Magazine again raises the possibility that dark matter is really just primordial black holes, created at the dawn of time and now scattered throughout the universe, but predominantly present in the vicinity of galaxies and galaxy clusters. The article quotes several recent scientific articles (here, here and here) that discuss the issue in detail. Indeed, it seems that primordial black holes might provide a better answer to the problem as opposed to a mysterious new kind of gravitating matter that has to be postulated out of ignorance and desperation. In order for the dark matter theory to work, cosmologists have had to assume it's made up of something that doesn't interact with light, electromagnetic fields or even itself. Consequently, a dark matter particle could pass through a star's core without interacting with it in any way other than by gravity. And even gravity could not capture the particle, as it would just continue to swing about the star forever. The only alternative conventional candidates are cold neutrinos, heavy photons, massive compact halo objects and supersymmetric particles, all of which have been pretty much dismissed for one reason or another. So what, you may ask. We live in a time of inconsequential murders of black people (Breonna Taylor, ad infinitum), a pandemic that has killed over 200,000 Americans (and claimed by President Trump to be largely due to "other factors," such as old age), and a looming Constitutional crisis in which the President has now stated he will not leave office no matter what the voting outcome might be. Does the dark matter problem even begin to compete with the destruction of American democracy and its replacement with a permanent Republican dictatorship? I suppose not, but it gives this writer a means of distraction from the continuing catastrophe he sees but can do little about except pray. And we call ours a Christian Nation?! God save us all.

 The Late Bronze Age Collapse and Modern Civilization — Posted Friday September 18 2020 I've long been fascinated by early Egyptian history, in particular the influence of Egypt's middle and late dynasties on trade with and the politics and culture of its neighbors. I suppose this fascination started with my interest in the Exodus story of the Hebrew Bible, a story that is steeped in a mixture of historical fact and myth. Despite its great importance in the Jewish faith, the Exodus cannot be accurately traced to any definite pharaoh, time or location, while the number of Israelite exiles involved (603,550 men of military age, according to the Book of Numbers) seems like a gargantuan overestimate (the total population of Egypt in the late Second Century BC was on the order of three or four million, and the loss of perhaps two million of its indentured working class would have destroyed Egypt's economy). But that's a story for another day.* Of particular interest to me is what is known as the Late Bronze Age Collapse, which occurred roughly around 1200 BC all along the lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea. In some fifty years, many great civilizations in the area were utterly and permaneently destroyed, including the Hittites, the Urgarits, the Mycenaeans, the Babylonians and the Amorites. Only Egypt and Assyria survived, but only just barely. Indeed, Egypt defeated the invaders, but never again enjoyed its reputation as the region's dominant economic, cultural and military powerhouse. The question of what led to the collapse has been a subject occupying historians and archaeologists for many decades, although key features and elements of the collapse have been indisputably identified. For one, it is clear that a widespread invasion by outsiders occurred that took place over several decades. Called the "Sea Peoples" by modern scholars, the invaders were most probably a confederation of various groups of smaller nations and kingdoms from the Mediterranean, including what is now Sardinia, Greece, Crete and Cyprus. Mounting a large fleet of ships, and carrying not only sword- and javelin-wielding troops but families, wagons, animals and other personal possessions, the invaders attacked numerous coastal cities and towns. Quickly decimating the populations while looting and pillaging, the invaders moved on to attack other locations in the eastern Mediterranean. The sheer catastrophic effect that the Sea Peoples had remains something of a puzzle to historians—how could a supposedly loose consortium of smaller nations and kingdoms mount such an effective assault? Why did they not remain to occupy their conquered countries? What were their numbers, how many ships did they have, where exactly did they come from, and what languages did they speak? And what motivated them to attack in the first place?** Many if not most historians and archaeologists today believe that a deadly combination of climate change, earthquakes, drought, famine and disease forced affected populations in the north of the Mediterranean to seek food and resources in more southerly and hospitable areas. Realizing that they wouldn't be entirely welcome by their neighbors to the south, they mounted a unified offensive force consisting of ocean-worthy boats, swords, spears and bronze armor. The assaulted countries were probably totally unaware of their intent, and their relatively stable system of international trade and peace treaties quickly broke down. Eventually, it was every man for himself. The Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III, upon hearing of the invasion to the north and its deadly effectiveness, mounted a do-or-die plan based in the Nile Delta region. Realizing that the attackers would most likely land their forces on foot in the Delta and make their way down the Nile River, Ramses III placed thousands of military and conscripted forces at the mouth of the river. When the Sea Peoples arrived in their boats, they were met with an onslaught of arrows and spears and a dedicated contingent of Egyptian boats carrying spear throwers and archers. The Egyptian forces carried the day, and the defeat of the Sea Peoples was commemorated in Ramses' victory monument carved onto the walls of his famous temple at Medinet Habu: Temple scene showing the "Battle of the Delta" between the Sea Peoples and Egyptian defenders But the damage had been done. The entire region, dependent on a network of often tenuous trade agreements and international cooperation, fell apart and was never the same. Egypt's victory over the Sea Peoples was essentially a pyrrhic one—Ramses' desperate commitment of thousands of troops and irreplaceable resources forced the country into a steep economic and cultural decline that it never recovered from. Many modern historians see a parallel between what happened to the world of 1200 BC and today's economically and culturally connected world. Climate change is already impacting millions of people, and when things get bad enough they will elect to leave for greener pastures. But unlike the Sea Peoples, they will most likely not do so with military force but with sheer numbers and desperation, with their main appeal being humanitarian pleas for help. Will they be beaten back with walls and weapons, or will they be accommodated by the richer nations in a world turned upside down by mega-droughts, famine, resource depletion and want? Here's a short video describing the Bronze Age collapse: * For more of the story, see my post dated October 18, 2014. ** A great reference is Eric Cline's 2015 book 1177 BC - The Year Civilization Collapsed. An interesting 2020 talk by Cline on the book's subject can be watched on this YouTube video.

 The Politics of Humiliation — Posted Thursday September 10 2020 Noted New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's latest article provides the best explanation I've seen for why President Trump remains in power, despite uncountable and provable lies, indiscretions and personal and political crimes. In a nutshell, what Friedman argues is that Trump's supporters have a visceral hatred of liberal elites, college graduates and progressives, who Trumpists view as looking down on them. This has led to feelings of humiliation, with the net result that Trumpists really don't care about Trump's policies (many of which actually hurt his supporters) but love his in-your-fucking-face attitude toward elites. In other words, Trump's blatant lies, crimes and outrageous behavior make liberals squirm, and that's the only thing Trumpists care about. Friedman's short article provides a much better argument than Thomas Frank's 2005 best-selling book What's the Matter With Kansas?, which attempted to explain why conservatives consistently vote for Republican leaders whose policies actually hurt them. Friedman notes that the issue of meritocracy has tended to overlook the hard work, moral values and earnest striving of those whose lack of college degrees prompts highly educated and financially successful elites to look down their noses at them. Friedman suggests that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden should take a tour of Red States for the purpose of actually listening to them (rather than lecturing to them) without condescension. This would go a long way to remove the notion that Democratic politicians are a bunch of elistist professors whose progressive views have to be rammed down the throats of supposedly ignorant farmers, blue collar workers and the religiously devout. In reading Friedman's article, I couldn't help but notice that my own views in the past have tended towards elitism—an attitude I will strive to abolish.

 Is Beauty in Physics the Same as Truth? — Posted Wednesday September 9 2020 In the latest episode of PBS Space Time, host Dr. Matt O'Dowd presents Hermann Weyl's often misinterpreted idea that beauty and truth in physics are inseparable. Both Weyl and Paul Dirac (there were others, but these two guys come to mind first) promoted the notion that mathematical beauty in a physical theory is a good indication that the theory is true. Indeed, to me the Dirac relativistic electron equation $$\left( i \hbar \gamma^\mu \mathcal{D}_\mu - mc \right) \Psi = 0$$ is absolutely the most beautiful mathematical expression ever devised by the human mind, as in 1928 it set into motion an entire range of great ideas, including antimatter, quantum field theory, relativistic invariance and gauge symmetry while being irreducibly short and concise. But physics today is in crisis, because for the past forty years essentially no real progress has been made on certain key problems, mainly quantum gravity, string theory, dark matter and dark energy. It's not that physicists' theories are necessarily wrong; it's just that experimental observations simply don't agree with their theoretical predictions. For example, supersymmetry underlies the most accepted version of string theory, but the Large Hadron Collider has—consistently and irrefutably—shown that supersymmetry is dead wrong, despite the pleadings of many physicists that supersymmetry is too beautiful to be wrong! Another example can be found in string theory, which assumes a negative cosmological constant in an anti-deSitter universe. But we live in a nearly deSitter universe, and measurements show that the cosmological constant is a small but positive number. Faced with this embarrassing impass, physicists (always seeking funding to support their work) have gone looking for a scapegoat. If beautiful mathematics isn't working, they reason, then beauty itself must be the culprit. This is not a plea for necessarily ugly theories, mind you, but it does take some of the heat off. Consequently, in recent years physicists have proposed some of the most implausible if not to say ridiculous theories. These theories might be mathematically correct, but their sheer complexity, ugliness and obtuseness renders them unexplainable to all but the most dedicated experts in their respective fields. I always shake my head when I see a paper (say) that examines higher-dimensional black holes as gateways to multiple mirror universes, invariably closing with "The authors wish to extend their gratitude to the NSF for funding their research." Well, that's my take. To see for yourself, watch the the PBS Space Time video:

Friday Funnies — Posted Friday August 21 2020

 One Year—Where Did the Time Go? — Posted Saturday July 25 2020 "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day ..." Munira, my dear wife of 42 years, passed away exactly one year ago. A day hasn't gone by since then that I haven't wept for her, prayed for her and wished I had her back with me. I'm still in grief therapy, and don't know when I'll ever feel any better. The pathetic blogs I post here help take my mind off the loss, but it gives me only momentary relief. Meanwhile, the days have turned into weeks, the weeks months, and now the years have begun. God bless you always, sweetheart. Please pray for me from Heaven so that I can be with you again someday!

 Donald Trump Sez: "I Am So Smart" — Posted Thursday July 23 2020 Can you name these animals? Yes, it's a toughie, but Trump could do it! And that's why he claimed the title A Very Stable Genius. penny, table, orange, zebra, chair This is the memory string from my cognitive test, which I took over a year ago as part of my annual wellness examination. I still remember the string, so I guess I'm eminently qualified to be President of the United States. Those of you of advancing years who've taken the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) will know that the test is almost ridiculously easy, designed mainly to reveal emerging or existing mental decline issues. It's not an IQ test, and it's not a measure of one's intellectual ability. Can you spot the difference between pictures of an elephant and a dog? Or a clock and a tree? Can you count backwards by threes from 100? If you can, then you'll also know that Trump's constant bragging about how he passed the MoCA reveals what a true moron he really is. Kinda like Homer Simpson:

 We Live in Interesting Times — Posted Monday July 20 2020 "It appears the virus did not get the memo about our exceptionalism..." I've got two young grandsons about to start Kindergarten this fall, and their parents and I are concerned about their safety regarding COVID-19 exposure. While there's some evidence that young children are less susceptible to the virus, university students and their professors are not. But many states are going ahead with in-class instruction in the fall anyway, in spite of warnings from nearly all doctors with expertise in the spread of the disease. New York University marketing professor Scott Galloway explains the danger we all will be facing later this year, when the majority of U.S. universities plan to resume in-class instruction, as summarized in the following graphic: My kids finished their university educations many years ago, but I'd be just as worried about them now as I am about my grandchildren. Meanwhile, our Glorious Führer Donald Trump continues to insist that the pandemic is not serious and that we can ignore the warnings and dire predictions being made by health experts. God damn that man, and God save us.

 My Father, the Collegian — Posted Thursday July 16 2020 Dang it—for years I believed I was the first one in my family to attend college, but while (still) clearing out the garage following my wife's passing, I discovered I was wrong. After graduating high school in 1924, my father attended Gem City Business College in Quincy, Illinois, matriculating on November 2, 1925 (coincidentally, my mother's 14th birthday). He studied bookkeeping at the school, a subject he subsequently learned to detest. That school is still around, having been in existence since 1892. But it only offers two study subjects today, cosmetology (which has nothing to do with cosmology) and something called horology, which I learned deals with the care and repair of watches, clocks and other time pieces (but probably not atomic clocks). My father never mentioned his college career (such as it was) to me, probably because he hated bookkeeping, which he worked at for the majority of his working life. But hey, his college experience still preceded mine by many years. Kudos, Dad. Note that entrance into the school required payment of $100 tuition, with actual attendance apparently being up to the student!  The Salton Sea — Posted Thursday July 2 2020 I've been watching a lot of film noir movies lately, many of which are downloadable from YouTube. One of my favorite actors is Richard Conte (1910 - 1975), who seems to have been made for the genre. You will remember him as Barzini in the Oscar Award-winning 1972 film The Godfather, although he'd been prominently on the scene since the late 1940s. Anyway, I recently watched Conte's somehat mediocre 1954 drama Highway Dragnet, in which he plays a Marine veteran wrongfully charged with murder. It's a pretty standard plot, but what particularly interested was the film's focus on the Salton Sea, a now-desolate oasis of sorts in Southern California some fifty or so miles south of Palm Springs. The film ends happily (if rather violently) at the flooded Salton Sea house owned by the parents of Conte's character. The Salton Sea was created by accident in the early 1900s as a result of an extended overflow of the Colorado River and local irrigation activities, which created a large permanent inland lake. It was subsequently stocked with fish, and from the 1940s to the late 1960s it was an ideal destination for boaters, sportfishers and vacationers. But, being a rather shallow landlocked lake, the Salton Sea was prone to evaporative salination and intrusive agricultural inflows that eventually turned the sea into a nearly dead environmental disaster. The Salton Sea's demise is documented in the very interesting 2004 film Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, which I encourage you to watch. The reason I was so fascinated by Conte's film and its depictions of the Salton Sea is due to my father's love of the place, which we visited many times in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We were poor in the lower-middle-class sense of the term, and the Salton Sea was not only a cheap getaway but a dream of what might have been for my Dad. You will note from the linked documentary that the Salton Sea was once viewed as a kind of Southern California Riviera destined for greatness by sun lovers, vacationers. fishermen, movie stars and real estate developers, all intent on taking advantage of the lake's proximity to Los Angeles and nearby Palm Springs and the availability of cheap land. But by the late 1960s it was viewed as an environmental disaster that even today no one knows what to do about. I can still recall days here in Pasadena in the 1980s in which the stench of decomposing fish from the Salton Sea could be discerned in the air, more than one hundred miles away. But my father dreamed of one day buying land at the sea's shore and building a little house there where he could dream of a better life. He died in 1981, and would undoubtedly be disappointed in what became of the place. If you watch the documentary, you'll find he wasn't the only one.  The Payoff — Posted Tuesday June 30 2020 For months the popular Caltech physicist Sean Carroll has been taking advantage of self-sequestration and social distancing by creating and presenting a series of videos on YouTube in which he discusses various important topics in modern physics. His first videos were kind of rough, as his format and electronic blackboard needed some work, but the material itself has been straightforward and very understandable. Carroll is now at Week 15, and he has pulled together much of what he has presented to date in a great session entitled Gauge Theory and Symmetry. Carroll refers to this latest session as "the payoff" in his series, since the subject matter encapsulates pretty much everything that physics has achieved to date — indeed, all of our modern physical theories are grounded in gauge invariance and mathematical symmetry, which are so closely linked that they are essentially interchangable. Carroll discusses the conjoined symmetry SU(3)$$\cdot$$SU(2)$$\cdot$$U(1) in some detail, at a mathematical level most undergraduates can easily follow. This symmetry represents the pinnacle of the Standard Model of physics, although to date it does not include gravity. Carroll does not discuss this omission to any great extent except to say that gravity must be characterized at the quantum level by a hypothetical spin-2 particle called the graviton. Adding gravity to the Standard Model is currently the Holy Grail of physics. Happily, this will not be the final episode in Carroll's weekly lectures. He will address the problem of quantum gravity in a forthcoming talk, one that should be fascinating for all students of science.  Oh God — Posted Sunday June 28 2020 This is Sunday, June 28, 2020, exactly 48 weeks since my wife died. Next month will mark the first anniversary of her death, and I'm dreading it. I've been through birthdays, anniversaries and other prominant dates, but next month's will be the worst. I don't know how I'll get through it. Thinking a house companion might help with my depression, I acquired a tabby cat through a local shelter. She's nice, but I still miss my wife, and at times I wish I were alone again. I have another week to decide if I'll keep her, and I'm undecided. While going through the garage for the umpteenth time, I finally found my wife's May 1975 Master's Degree thesis, although her diploma is still missing. Titled "Development of a Mathematical Model for Gas Turbine Cycles," it displays not only a depth of knowledge of chemical engineering but an expertise in FORTRAN programming as well, which I didn't develop until several years later. Rest in peace, sweetheart.  The Scariest Movie — Posted Sunday June 28 2020 I can't recall when I first saw it on TV in the late 1950s, but the 1953 sci-fi film Invaders from Mars scared the crap out of me and bothered me for weeks. Directed by William Cameron Menzies with an eerie, ethereal music score by Raoul Kraushaar, the movie's globe-encased Martian alien leader (of course, looking like a black Asian or other minority) was the epitome of horror to me at that time. I just watched it again for the first time in many years, and it still stirred a host of bad memories, particularly the idea of electronic probes being implanted at the base of the brain. Oddly enough, the full film is not available on YouTube, but it's not to be missed, especially if you're as old as I am. Here's a clip:  Saturday Morning Funnies — Posted Saturday June 27 2020 After spending countless lab hours and many millions of dollars, epidemiologists have finally come up with a fool proof way to cut COVID-19 infections by 75%. Well, maybe not completely fool proof. According to some people, there are better alternatives: By the way, Dr. Phil (Phil McGraw) is NOT a medical doctor. He does have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, but his show's incessant focus on medical issues fools his stupid fans into thinking he's a real M.D.  Oops — Posted Saturday June 27 2020 Exponential increase, check. Near-lognormal drop-off, check. Wait a minute, something's wrong with that last one. Oh, that's right, it's "freedom."  Dark Matter — Time to Cut the BS — Posted Friday June 26 2020 After decades of searching, billions of dollars spent and the careers of uncountable physicists waylaid into fantasyland, it's only now just possible that the reign of that elusive stuff known as dark matter may finally end, as astrophyicist Ramin Skibba writes in today's Aeon magazine. For years, physicists have sought to explain the problem of excessive stellar rotation rates in galaxies, gravitational lensing and galaxy clustering by hypothesizing the existence of haloes of unseen matter in galaxies that would explain the problem. But because dark matter doesn't seem to interact with ordinary matter, electromagnetic fields or even itself, physicists have had to propose new kinds of matter particles that themselves have never been observed or detected. These include WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles), MACHOs (massive compact halo objects), cold neutrinos, heavy photons, supersymmetric matter and even axions. It was hoped that Cern's Large Hadron Collider would see some of these hypothetical particles when it achieved full power, but to date it has seen nothing other than the Higgs boson, which was already highly anticipated. This leaves modified gravity or perhaps some unknown "fifth force" to explain the observations. It is absolutely amazing to me that the ridiculously simple Einstein-Hilbert action $$S_{EH} = \int \!\! \sqrt{-g}\, R\, d^4x$$ first proposed over one hundred years ago, has been so successful in explaining all manner of gravitational interactions (both here on Earth and throughout the observable universe). Indeed, with the exception of the above-mentioned problem, Einstein's general relatlvity theory has never failed in any experiment. It would therefore seem that some logical modification of the theory would be more successful in explaining the dark matter problem than hypothesizing the existence of new forms of matter that cannot be detected. The linked Wikipedia article describes a number of such approaches. When classical Newtonian mechanics and gravitation were conclusively overthrown by special and general relativity, Einstein himself admitted that his theories would also later be shown to be only approximations to the truth. Until I can hold a kilogram of dark matter in my hands, I'll forever believe that it's a completely failed hypothesis.  Would I? — Posted Wednesday June 24 2020 In the first episode of Season Two's Black Mirror ("Be Right Back"), a young woman in the near future whose husband has been killed in a tragic car accident submits all the available audio and video she has of him to a service that can digitally create him on a computer, whose voice, mannerisms and personality are identical to those of her dead husband. Later, the technology has improved to the point where she can buy an identical android of him that she can fully interact with in her home. But for reasons I won't go into here, it doesn't quite work out. So, would I resurrect my dear late wife in the same way? I have hundreds of hours of audio and video materials of her, in addition to many thousands of photos, so i have all the requisite analog and digital material. So why shouldn't I deepfake my wife back to life, if only to relieve the ongoing grief of her passing? Of coursee I would, I told my grief therapist. But, she reminded me, like in the episode it's not really the same thing as having her back again. Perhaps it's best to live my life as best I can as a Christian, in the hope that I will see her again for real.  Deaths from COVID-19 Compared — Posted Wednesday June 24 2020 Forget the number of COVID-19 cases being reported. The only important data are those related to deaths. According to Johns Hopkins University, as of 12:10 pm PST the death rates of COVID-19 are United States: 121,662 deaths out of 2,364,874 diagnosed cases (5.144%) Entire World: 479,215 deaths out of 9,323,932 diagnosed cases (5.140%) The percent differences are statistically insignificant. So much for America's "superior" health care system compared to that of the rest of the world, much of which has nationalized health care.  Energy from a Black Hole — Posted Wednesday June 24 2020 Over fifty years ago, famed Oxford mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose discovered how energy could be extracted efficiently from a rotating black hole. Even better, his energy extraction process also provides a way to dispose of useless garbage that would otherwise have to be burned or buried. The trick is to send a mass into the ergosphere of the black hole and let it decay or split into two masses, with one mass falling further into the black hole's interior. Penrose showed that the infalling mass would have a gravitational binding energy in excess of the rest energy of the original mass. The other mass would be automatically ejected from the ergosphere with a greater energy than the original mass that went in, effectively stealing rotational energy from the black hole. If the ejected mass could be captured, its kinetic energy could be used to power a generator. The technology required to capture this energy is not beyond current human capability, but it would certainly have to reside within our Solar System. On the other hand, a black hole anywhere near the Earth could be a dangerous thing, potentially disrupting the orbit of our planet with unpleasant consequences. However, if the ejected energy from a distant black hole could be converted to electromagnetic radiation, that energy might then be beamed safely to Earth. The mathematics of the Penrose process is not too difficult, but the process itself has eluded experimental verification. However, a classical variant of the process has demonstrated that it is valid, as shown in this video:  Modified Gravity and Cosmology — Posted Friday Juneteenth 2020 The first significant attempt at a modified gravity theory was presented by the German mathematical physicist Hermann Weyl in April 1918. Although Weyl was primarily interested in a theory that would unify gravitation and electromagnetism (the only fundamental forces known at the time), he was forced to utilize a variant of Einsteinian gravity that was invariant with respect to the conformal transformation $$g_{\mu\nu} \rightarrow \Omega^2(x) g_{\mu\nu}$$. Weyl also showed that a strictly Riemannian theory based on the quadratic action $$S_W = \int \!\! \sqrt{-g}\, R^2 \, d^4x$$ (where $$R$$ is the Ricci scalar) was fully equivalent to the classical Einstein-Hilbert action $$S_{EH} = \int \!\! \sqrt{-g}\, R \, d^4x$$ with respect to all the known tests of general relativity (including light deflection, gravitational redshift and the precession of Mercury's orbit). More important was the fact that Weyl's action was conformally invariant provided only that $$R$$ be a non-zero constant following a variation of the action with respect to $$g_{\mu\nu}$$ in free space. Today, Weyl's action is considered to be an example of what is known as quadratic gravity, which forms an important variant of modified gravity. Modified gravity, in all its forms, provides a logical alternative to more involved theories that attempt to explain the problems of dark matter and dark energy. These theories typically involve scalar, vector, tensor and/or spinor fields in an effort to bring quantum physics into classical gravity, in the hope that they will provide a suitable explanation for dark matter and dark energy (and perhaps even quantum gravity). With that terse introduction, here is a very comprehensive recent summary of modified gravity theories to date by researchers from the universities of Oxford and Nottingham, which include related cosmological models. For completeness, Kaluza-Klein theories are also presented in the paper. Have great weekend, but stay away from Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Gravity is Like No Other Force — Posted Tuesday June 16 2020 A recent article by science writer Natalie Wolchover in the online magazine Quanta presents the opinions of four notable physicists on the nature of gravity. I believe the article's second introductory paragraph explains gravity much better than the physicists have, although it's only a feature of gravity, not an explanation. While the three other primary forces of Nature—electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear interactions—occur on the backdrop of space and time, gravity itself is that backdrop, the stage upon which all the other forces strut upon. While intermediary, short-lived virtual particles can pop into and out of existence (the life-force of quantum field theory, our best description of reality), they still appear on the spacetime stage that gravity represents. To my knowledge, the only theory that attempts to explain this spacetime stage itself is loop quantum gravity, a backdrop-free theory that has had some notable (if limited) successes in its attempt to bridge the gap between gravity and quantum physics. While Wolchover's article presents four views on the nature of gravity, there's no summary discussion of what she's learned. This may be because the opinions presented are mostly just descriptions of the problem and a lot of semantic hand-waving along the lines of "What we need are bold new breakthroughs" and the like. The search for a workable quantum gravity theory is now about ninety years old, and there's been very limited progress on the problem since. Without such a theory, it's likely that we'll never truly understand gravity, black holes or the nature of reality itself.  PBS Spacetime on Conformal Cyclic Cosmology — Posted Tuesday June 16 2020 In standard Riemannian geometry (the geometry of Einstein's gravitation theory), the "interval" between two events is described by the invariant line element $$ds$$, expressed as $$ds^2 = g_{\mu\nu} dx^\mu dx^\nu$$ where $$g_{\mu\nu}$$ is the metric tensor. In flat space, this is just $$ds^2 = c^2 dt^2 - dx^2 - dy^2 -dz^2 = dt^2 \left( c^2 - v^2 \right)$$ where $$v$$ is the ordinary 3-velocity. As a massive particle approaches the speed of light $$c$$, the interval approaches zero. For a massless particle like a photon or graviton, the interval vanishes. If you were a photon, space and time would be meaningless to you—you'd perceive yourself as being everywhere in the universe at the same moment. As strange as this sounds, it's nothing more than Einstein's twin paradox taken to its extreme. As shown by numerous experiments, time does indeed slow down for moving objects, and perceived distances shrink. The noted mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose believes that the universe will eventually approach a state consisting only of stray, high-entropy photons and other massless or near-massless objects via black hole formation and subsequent evaporation. He has developed an interesting theory called conformal cyclic cosmology (CCC), in which Big Bang conditions and those of a near-infinite spacial universe containing only photons become essentially the same. This is because there would be no difference between a mathematical "point" and spacial infinity, since photons have no concept of size or distance. In the far distant future, the universe could then "reset" itself, resulting in a new Big Bang. Penrose calls each sequence (in what might be an infinite cycle) of Big Bangs and resettings as an aeon. Dr. Matt O'Dowd, the host of the YouTube website PBS Spacetime describes Penrose's CCC theory in much greater detail in this fascinating 18-minute video, which I encourage you to watch: PS: I've posted a photo of the German mathematical physicist Hermann Weyl (1885-1955) above as a reminder that it was Weyl who first initiated the idea of conformally invariant geometry as applied to Einstein's general relativity.  Trump: "When the Looting Starts, the Shooting Starts" — Posted Saturday May 30 2020 In 1941, German university students Hans and Sophie Scholl founded a subversive group called The White Rose, dedicated to alerting Germans to the fascist, racist and murderous intents and actions of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. They were caught in February 1943, and after a brief trial were executed along with several other members of the group. Just before the guillotine fell on her neck, 21-year-old Sophie uttered Die Sonne scheint noch! ("The Sun is still shining!"). Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie in 1942, with a line from one of their leaflets In November 2016, Americans knowingly and willingly elected an openly fascist, racist and murderous megalomaniac to the highest office in the land. Worse, some 81% of white evangelical voters–all professing a love of and devotion to Jesus Christ–voted for Donald Trump, who has never shown even the slightest evidence of Christian faith or humanity. Since then, the instances of Trump's sociopathic nature have been too numerous to recount, but in spite of everything he still stands a good chance to win re-election. Will the overt racism of Trump and the Republican Party play a role in the election this year? I'm hoping that the uprisings over George Floyd's murder by a Minneapolis police officer will make it a key electoral issue, and bring everyone who never thought voting would make a difference out in droves this November. So where are America's Scholls? Where is the conscience of America?  Hossenfelder on Entanglement — Posted Friday May 29 2020 One of my favorite physicists and writers is Germany's Sabine Hossenfelder, a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute of Advanced Studies. Her latest talk is on quantum entanglement, a subject that I broke down in the simplest manner possible some years ago here. It's a topic that Einstein and his colleagues addressed way back in 1935, where they argued that the apparent action-at-a-distance aspect of entanglement violates special relativity. That argument has long since been disproven, and today we know without any question that entanglement is a fact of Nature, as crazy as it might seem. To me, however, entanglement simply points out that "distance" is meaningless in quantum mechanics, and it's probably also true in the classical sense. The German mathematical physicist Hermann Weyl first brought the idea to light in a different form in his work of 1918, although it was subsequently abandoned as unphysical (by Einstein, no less). Well, the notion of entanglement itself would have certainly been abandoned as well at the time, and Weyl's 1918 theory has since been resurrected many times in both quantum physics and cosmology. Anyway, please listen to what Hossenfelder has to say about the subject in this short video:  The Seemingly-Eternal Torsion Balance — Posted Wednesday May 27 2020 String theory predicts six additional spacial dimensions, but they're presumed to be compactified around the Planck length, making them essentially unobservable. Meanwhile, the Newtonian law of gravity states that in any dimension the gravitational force $$F$$ is $$F = - \frac{G m_1 m_2}{r^{n-1}}$$ where $$n$$ is the total number of space dimensions. For our universe $$n = 3$$, so that $$F = - Gm_1 m_2/r^2$$, which is exactly what we observe down to a distance of a few hundred microns. But might this change for distances closer to the Planck length? Sadly, in spite of the sophistication of modern measuring instruments, Newton's gravitational constant $$G$$ must still be measured using archaic and relatively clumbsy Cavendish-type torsion balances. Dang it, we can measure quantum-level interactions accurately to twelve decimal places, but $$G$$ can be measured only to a relatively imprecise five or six decimals. This is a pity, because a precise measurement of the gravitational constant would provide a way of proving or disproving string theory once and for all. Australian astrophysicist Matt O'Dowd discusses this matter in the latest video on PBS Spacetime, which is an excellent source for all manner of physics and astrophysics issues. All of the roughly 300 videos are only 15 minutes or so in length, and I highly recommend what's available on its YouTube website.  The Lighter Side of Our Continuing Disaster — Posted Tuesday May 26 2020  A Toroidal Block Universe? — Posted Tuesday May 26 2020 Consider the conventional (and highly accurate) Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker cosmological metric, which is $$ds^2 = c^2 dt^2 - a^2 \left( \frac{dr^2}{1- k r^2} + r^2 d\theta^2 + r^2 \sin^2 \theta \, d \phi^2 \right)$$ Here, $$k$$ is a simple number that can be 0, 1 or -1. If $$k=0$$, then the universe is flat—two parallel lines will remain parallel forever, regardless of how far they're extended in the universe, and the universe will expand forever, gradually halting only at $$t = \infty$$. If $$k = 1$$, then the universe is closed, and the observed expansion of the universe will eventually reverse, ending in the Big Crunch. And if $$k = -1$$, then the universe is open, and it will expand forever. The observant student will note that whatever the hell $$k$$ is, it cannot be just a number, but a constant with units of length$$^{-2}$$. How can a constant be dimensioned? Only if it is proportional to some other dimensioned constant, such as one of the curvature scalars $$R, R_{\mu \nu} R^{\mu\nu}, R_{\mu\nu\alpha\beta} R^{\mu\nu\alpha\beta}$$, the energy-momentum scalar $$T$$ and its associated forms, the cosmological constant $$\Lambda$$ or any suitable combination thereof. But forget all that: for all practical purposes, the universe can only be open or closed. But can the universe be closed even with $$k = 0$$? Yes, if it's shaped like a 4-toroid, as astrophysicist Ethan Siegel points out in his latest article. Parallel lines would remain parallel throughout the universe, but they would eventually come back to where they started, along with light rays or rocket ships. But if such a universe were described as a toroidal block universe, then all of what we know would be an endless repetition of events, altered perhaps at each go-around only by quantum fluctuations. And if the universe we live in is only one of an infinite or near-infinite number of many worlds (some say $$10^{500}$$ ), then the cherished human desire for free will might still be possible. What happens when we die? We can't know until we get there, but Jesus's remark in John 14:2 might hold the anawer.  Quantum Cosmology—Much Ado About Nothing? — Posted Monday May 25 2020 Whenever I see the term quantum cosmology I shake my head. Despite the fact that it's (supposedly) legitimate physics, it seems like an oxymoron to me. How can quantum effects manifest themselves on cosmological scales? By comparison, it's well known that classical physics gives nearly identical results compared to the Einstein field equations regarding the Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker metric of cosmology, which might be expected considering the low velocities involved (actually, zero velocities in co-moving coordinates) and the sheer scale of things. So why should quantum physics (which deals with the very small) play any part in classical gravity? Quantum cosmology theories typically introduce scalar and vector fields into general relativity, with the possibility that these (quantum) fields influence gravity in some fundamental way. But of all the papers I've read, I get the distinct impression that gravity plays only a marginal role in these theories, with the Ricci scalar $$R$$ (the main gravity player) buried amid a preponderance of field terms and their derivatives. In addition, these theories are often disguised as modified gravity theories (or worse, quantum gravity theories), and the scope of their numbers and types defies catagorization. And to date, none of them seems to have led to anything useful. Consider the so-called $$R + R^2$$ gravity theories of Starobinski and others (a recent paper can be downloaded here). Since the units of the terms are inconsistent, a suitably-dimensioned scalar term $$\phi(\mathbf{x},t)$$ must be added, giving $$R + \phi R^2$$. Right away, one can see that the scalar $$\phi$$ is going to be treated as a quantum field, necessitating additional terms in the Lagrangian to account for its mass and kinetic and potential energy properties. The Ricci terms then quickly fade into the background of the formalism, and the resulting analysis is a complicated hodge-podge that resembles neither Einstein's gravity theory or anything in standard quantum field theory. I prefer to believe that quantum theory should play no important role in cosmology, and that modified gravity— if it's ever to explain the problems of dark matter and dark energy —should be a simple extension of classical general relativity, possibly with the inclusion of a (classical) scalar field. But why bring in quadratic terms like $$R^2$$ in the first place? It's because it's the only simple, classical quantity that can make the associated Lagrangian conformally (or scale) invariant, a fundamental mathematical symmetry that is lacking in Einstein's original gravity theory. But $$R^2$$ has its own problems, ones that have not yet been resolved. Still, I believe that the work of Mannheim and Kazanas is a step in the right direction. Their approach employs the conformally invariant Weyl quantity $$C_{\mu\nu\alpha\beta}\, C^{\mu\nu\alpha\beta}$$, which happily reduces to $$R^2 - 3 R_{\mu\nu} R^{\mu\nu}$$ in free space thanks to a property of the Gauss-Bonnet identity. Assuming a Schwarschild-like metric, their solution results in the appearance of two integration constants in addition to the usual mass term of the standard Einstein field equations. They have shown that these additional parameters might have relevance to the dark matter/dark energy problems which, if true, would make them important quantities having a purely geometric origin in classical cosmology.  Curious — Posted Sunday May 24 2020 As the US approaches 100,000 deaths due to COVID-19, here's an interesting graphic from the Washington Post showing the number of reported US deaths per day due to the virus from March 1 to the present: I find it curious that the reported deaths appear to follow a strong peaking every seven days, a trend that is very obvious from about April 1 onward, although there are indications that it has persisted since March 20. This may simply be due to weekly reporting practices, but I cannot see how that would fully explain the overall trend. Also curious is the ratio of deaths per diagnosed incidence, which initially ranged from 4% to 8% for the US and globally, but now seems to be settling down to about the 6% level worldwide. President Trump initally compared COVID-19 to influenza, and he infamously stated that COVID-19 shouldn't be taken seriously because far more deaths are due to influenza and the effects of the common cold. But influenza's death rate is only about 0.01%, some 600 times lower than that for COVID-19. I cannot but hope that Trump himself catches the virus, or that the useless but probably harmful hydroxychloroquine drug he's taking will prove to be his downfall.  Pebbles — Posted Thursday May 21 2020 Here's a photo of my late wife that I only just found out about, courtesy of my younger son. It was taken surreptitiously by the Google camera van in March 2019, only four months before she died. We had just installed artificial turf in the front of our house, and she is shown placing decorative rocks and pebbles along the edge. Google Maps and Google Earth have a "timeline" feature that can display aerial and street view shots of just about any place on the planet at selected dates. This one was heartrending for me, but I'm glad I have it. God bless you forever, sweetheart.  The Simulation Hypothesis, Again — Posted Sunday May 17 2020 As an Orthodox Christian, I believe in the Trinitarian God. But just how He pulls off His creation remains subject to interpretation and analysis. I still remain open to the idea that God is both a master mathematician and computer programmer, and that His creation is an offspring of these aspects of His ability and will. Here's a short video that again looks into the possibility that we're all living in a computer simulation of some kind: Think about the Andromeda Galaxy -- perhaps it really doesn't exist unless you're actually looking at it. Einstein dismissed this idea, but an external computer programmer wouldn't need to generate it unless you were indeed peering at it through a telescope. Einstein never considered this possibility, but we in the 21st century sure can.  Happy Mother's Day, Sweetheart — Posted Sunday May 10 2020 One morning in late 1999 my wife sat down with our sons to give them a short (well, two-hour) lesson in Arabic, which I videotaped. Kurt had just started at UCLA to study molecular biology, but he took a year of Arabic for the heck of it and became fairly adept at the language. Kris and I never picked it up, it being just too demanding. Munira had just been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, and she lost much of her eyesight for about a month. That explains the crazy thick eyeglasses! But at age 53, she was still very beautiful. I'm working my way through about 100 old camcorder video tapes and over 500 audio tapes, converting them to mp4 and mp3 digital format, respectively. Some of the tapes are already showing signs of degradation, and I don't want to lose them. As for who will watch and listen to them long after I'm gone, I have no idea. Anyway, now it's twenty-one years later, and Munira's in Heaven with Jesus. I pray constantly that I will be with her again someday.  Be White, Problem Solved — Posted Sunday May 10 2020 I've often wondered what would happen if hundreds of black men and women showed up at a protest legally carrying semi-automatic weapons. Ruben Bolling's strip gave me a good idea of the likely consequences:  A Novel Approach to Cosmological Averaging — Posted Friday May 8 2020 On truly large cosmological scales, the distribution of matter and energy in the universe is precisely uniform, isotropic and homogenous, which allows the universe to be modeled accurately by the Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker (FLRW) metric of general relativity. This situation changes when one considers the distribution of matter on smaller ( $$\lt$$ 100 megaparsec) scales. Even at galactic scales, the distribution pattern is highly non-isotropic and non-homogeneous, and one woudld naturally suspect that the FLRW model provides only a rough approximation. But even a gross approximation of the energy-momentum tensor $$T^{\mu\nu}$$ at galactic scales is impossible to make, so a general-relativistic approach would seem to be impossible as well. Transitioning from large, uniform, smooth scales to smaller, more granular or lumpy scales is difficult, but the idea of averaging matter distributions at smaller scales remains an active topic for research. The latest paper on the subject is this arXiv article dated May 6 2020. The author uses a perturbative approach that knits small-scale cosmology with larger scales, but overall the results are confusing, I suppose because I expected an FLRW-like result with some kind of fuzziness thrown in. However, the paper's list of references is extensive as well as informative, particularly with respect to research on the scale issue. I took only one course in astrophysics, where I learned that the FLRW model provides the only tractable approach to understanding physical cosmology. It should therefore not be surprising that the strictly Newtonian cosmological model gives results that are essentially identical to the FLRW model, with the most notable lacking feature being the cosmological constant $$\Lambda$$, which has no counterpart in Newtonian physics.  Oh, and Dr. Ian Malcolm Has Been Let Go — Posted Friday May 8 2020 The usually-prescient McSweeney's does it again.  Significant Shrinkage, Jerry, Significant Shrinkage! — Posted Wednesday May 6 2020 What would happen if a rogue black hole were to stray into our Solar System? Pretty much all hell would break loose — the planets would drastically alter their orbits, and the Earth-Moon system would experience tidal effects unseen since the formation of the Solar System itself. A direct- or near-direct hit of the Sun by the black hole would have the Sun's mass gobbled by the hole, with an attendant blaze of X-ray and gamma radiation spewing out from the encounter. If not eaten by the hole outright, the Earth and inner planets would be roasted by the radiation, ending all life. Until recently, the nearest confirmed black hole was the one at the center of our Milky Way galaxy (called Sagittarius A*). But at a distance of some 25,000 light-years, the 4-million-solar-mass hole has absolutely no effect on the Earth other than to give its scientists a neat object for astronomical study. But now a much closer back hole has been detected in a mélange à trois with two stars only 1,000 light-years away in the constellation Telescopium. Although this three-body system is practically in our back yard, it still poses no danger to us. Without the intervening stars and dust that tend to block much of our view of Sagittarius A*, the Telescopium system should provide a golden opportunity to study the gravitational radiation coming off of the system and the resultant change in the stars' orbits due to the loss of gravitational energy, which will eventually result in the merging of the stars with its attendant black hole. A similar situation presented itself in 1974, when two neutron stars were found locked in a tight orbit about one another. Although gravitational radiation could not be detected back then, the shrinkage of the stars' orbits could be measured with great accuracy by Earth-bound telescopes. The observed shrinkage exactly matched calculations made using Einsten's general relativity theory, which earned its discoverers the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1993.  Hello, Brilliant 3rd Graders! — Posted Wednesday May 6 2020 Let's say you want to climb a building using a rigid ladder. You know the height of the building $$y$$, while for safety's sake you place the bottom of the ladder a good distance $$x$$ away from the base of the building. What length of ladder $$L$$ will you need? This problem is faced by every 3rd grader when she learns the Pythagoras formula, $$L^2 = x^2 + y^2$$. She also knows that she'll have to take the square root to get $$L$$, but the brighter student knows that $$-L$$ is also a solution. But she rejects this solution, since ladders with negative length don't exist. In high school this same student learns the classical formula for the kinetic energy of a moving object. Of course it's just $$E = m v^2/2$$, but then in college she learns that this can also be expressed as $$E= p^2/2 m$$, where $$p$$ is the object's momentum. A little later on she learns that momentum is a more basic quantity than velocity, since the usual Newtonian force expression $$F = m a$$ then becomes simply (and more accurately) $$F = \dot{p}$$, where the dot means differentiation with respect to time. Still a little later in college the student learns Einstein's theory of special relativity, which replaces the classical energy formula with $$E^2 = m^2 c^4 + c^2 \mathbf{p}^2 \tag{1}$$ Here she encounters the same problem she did as a 3rd grader. Does she take the positive root or the negative root? Of course she takes the positive root, again thinking that the negative root is meaningless: $$E = + \sqrt{m^2 c^4 + c^2 \mathbf{p}^2}$$ But when the student enters her last year of college, she finds that in quantum mechanics the negative energy solution is not only valid, but absolutely necessary! How can this be? By assuming a plane-wave solution for the wave function $$\Psi ( \mathbf{x}, t)$$ of a free-particle in quantum mechanics, we find that particle energy and momentum can be expressed as the operators $$E = i \hbar \frac{\partial}{\partial t}, \quad \mathbf{p} = - i \hbar \mathbf{\nabla}$$ Plugging these identities into (1), we have $$-\hbar^2 \frac{\partial^2}{\partial t^2} = m^2 c^4 - \hbar^2 \mathbf{\nabla}^2$$ But this differential equation needs something to operate on, so we add $$\Psi$$ to both sides, which gives us the famous Klein-Gordon wave equation $$-\hbar^2 \frac{\partial^2 \Psi}{\partial t^2} = m^2 c^4 \Psi - \hbar^2 \mathbf{\nabla}^2 \Psi$$ This equation can be solved exactly for many applications. It gives wonderfully accurate results, but when applied to the hydrogen atom it gives electron energy levels that differ substantially from experiment. Oddly enough, the classical expression $$E = \frac{p^2}{2 m} \rightarrow i \hbar \frac{\partial \Psi}{\partial t} = - \hbar^2 \mathbf{\nabla}^2 \Psi$$ works very well. So what's the answer? The answer was found by the British mathematical physicist Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac in 1928, at the tender age of 25. He found a way to take the square root of (1), thereby opening a path in theoretical physics that still reverberates to this day. In a January 1928 paper delivered to the prestigious Royal Society, Dirac showed that his formalism not only led to an exact solution to the hydrogen atom, but predicted the existence of antimatter as well. Furthermore, Dirac showed that the conservation of angular momentum for the electron must include its intrinsic angular momentum (spin), which only occurs in units of $$\pm$$ 1/2 $$\hbar$$. Although Caltech Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman famously interpreted antielectrons (positrons) as ordinary positive-energy electrons moving backward in time, they are now known to be just positrons moving forward in time but described by negative-energy solutions of Dirac's relativistic electron equation, which to me is perhaps the most beautiful equation in all of physics: $$\left( i \hbar \gamma^\mu \mathcal{D}_\mu - mc \right) \Psi(\mathbf{x},t) = 0$$ Here, $$\mathcal{D}_\mu$$ is the covariant differentiation operator (which makes the equation valid for charged fermions). Indeed, it is hard to imagine the impact Dirac's theory has had on theoretical physics in the following 92 years that followed publication of the paper. It has long been one of my favorite papers, and I'm still amazed at Dirac's brilliance in coming up with it. Dirac's approach to taking the square root of things has prompted similar research in physics as well as geometry. For example, the invariant line element of Riemannian geometry $$ds^2 = g_{\mu\nu} dx^\mu dx^\nu$$ can be reduced to $$ds = \gamma_\mu dx^\mu$$ where $$\gamma_\mu$$ is the set of four $$4 \times 4$$ Dirac matrices, which may also be expressed as the base elements of complex Clifford algebra. Similarly, the associated double derivative operator $$\frac{d^2}{ds^2} = g^{\mu\nu} \frac{\partial}{\partial x^\mu} \frac{\partial}{\partial x^\mu} \,\,\,\, (= \Box^2)$$ (where $$\Box^2$$ is the d'Alembertian operator) is reduced to $$\frac{d}{ds} = \gamma^\mu \frac{\partial}{\partial x^\mu} = \Box$$ again, bringing in the possibility of complex Clifford algebra. Going the other way, note that the Einstein-Hilbert action for general relativity $$\int \!\! \sqrt{-g}\, R\, d^4x$$ is not conformally invariant (as one might demand from a gravity theory), though it has been remarkably accurate (indeed, insanely accurate) with respect to observations. But the square invariant $$\int \!\! \sqrt{-g}\, R^2\, d^4x$$ is conformally invariant, subject only to the condition that the Ricci scalar $$R$$ be a non-zero constant following conformal variation. And who knows, but thanks to Dirac a ladder of length $$- L$$ might very well be relevant someday!  Perchance to Dream — Posted Friday May 1 2020 Having read Sabine Hossenfelder's positive review of David Lindley's new book The Dream Universe - How Fundamental Physics Lost its Way, I picked up the book and started into it. I'm not a big fan of popularized science books, and this one so far is no exception, but it has its moments. I read the chapter "All This Useless Beauty" first, since it includes notable comments by Paul Dirac and Hermann Weyl, who both promoted the notion that mathematical beauty in physical theories is almost always a sign that they are true, but Lindley instead chooses to compare the apparent uselessness of pure and abstract mathematics and its occasional relationship with physics to more practical applications (I've always looked down on "useless" stuff like number theory, but it's mainly because I never understood it). He also touches on the degradation of mathematics by unrigorous physicists, with even the occasional dig on that ugly cousin of physics, engineering. Physicist: 1 + 2 = 3 Engineer: 1 + 2 = 3, but a safety factor should be included Mathematician: One first needs to establish the existence of the quantities involved, along with the validity of the $$+$$ and $$=$$ operators I next read the book's last chapter, "The Dream Universe" which, along with similar reflections sprinkled around in other chapters, discusses the author's (probably true) notion that today's fundamental physics — with its current emphasis on untestable and unobservable ideas like superstring theory, supersymmetry and extra dimensions — is no longer physics but philosophy. Indeed, Lindley notes that by abandoning observation, experiment and fact-finding, physicists have been forced to rely on mathematical reasoning and rationality, from which they are producing theories based more and more on arrogance and ego (my conclusion, not the author's). I really can't see Lindley's book offering anything more than the one by Hossenfelder (who I think is the better writer), although its many historical snippets are enlightening. My suggestion is to wait until your public library has a copy of The Dream Universe before you run out and buy it.  Deepfake, Again — Posted Tuesday April 28 2020 In The Very Real Threat of Trump's Deepfake, David Frum, staff writer for The Atlantic and a former notable conservative cheerleader for the Republican Party, writes about the dangers of the emerging Deepfake phenomenon from the ongoing and now ubiquitous "Fake News" point of view. Fake News has been around forever in one form or another —Luftwaffe leader Hermann Goering famously remarked that if you repeat a lie enough times, it becomes the truth, while the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's nightmarish 1984 inversely relied on the destruction of truth to control everyone. But Fake News requires a gullible base that will believe anything in the hope that they will become strong or influential enough to effect the desired political end, but it can be relatively ineffective given an electorate that is educated and rational. Fake News also relies on unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, which are also hugely popular with low-income, under-educated people. The most insidious effect of Fake News is that it gives those people a feeling that they're in the know and that they have power and influence that they wouldn't have otherwise. But Deepfake is far more dangerous, because while many if not most people will not believe everything they hear, they might believe what they both hear and see. And today's highly sophisticated digital video and audio technnology provides exactly the kind of convincing power to win over nearly everyone. You may recall seeing Forrest Gump in the 1994 movie of the same name seemingly interacting with Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, but the digital technology of the time — crude by today's standards — provided a merely amusing form of entertainment, as most people could easily see the audio and video glitches that give away the effect (as a youngster watching American Bandstand in the early 1960s, the lip-syncing of the "singers" was often painfully obvious and bad). But Deepfake technology is becoming so refined that it will likely be able to fool anyone watching it, especially if they're already inclined to believe the message the technology is selling. I wrote about Deepfake last year (June 19), when I also mused about the possibility of the technology's beneficial applications (such as resurrecting Humphrey Bogart in a new Sam Spade movie). It also offers the more remote possibility of being an important aspect of the simulation hypothesis, in which our reality (and that of the entire universe) is an artificial simulation carried out by unimaginably powerful computer technology. But today's Deepfake has the more immediate and dangerous potential for manipulating political outcomes, and this is the application that Frum touches on in his prescient article. Liar-in-Chief President Trump, unwilling to confront the nosedive in his ratings due to his pathologically sick handling of the COVID-19 crisis and just about everything else, may be desperate enough to implement Deepfake technology to discredit and/or embarrass his Democratic opponent Joe Biden in the November presidential election. He has already done this with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who, in a highly-edited video, appeared to be incoherently fumbling in her speech. But Trump and the sycophants in his administration aren't so stupid as to implement Deepfake technology on their own — it's far more likely that Trump would use the Russian president Vladimir Putin to build it for him. The Russians have already used computer technology to screw with America's voting systems, and the chance to implement Deepfake technology to further mess with our country would be hard to pass up.  A Divergence Diversion — Posted Friday April 24 2020 I haven't posted a single technical article since my wife died last year, but the ongoing appearance of papers on arXiv.org and elsewhere dealing with higher-derivative, conformally invariant Einstein gravity continues to interest me. In particular, research into what is known as quadratic gravity seems to be driving the field, since Lagrangians involving the terms $$R_{\mu\nu\alpha\beta}\, R^{\mu\nu\alpha\beta}, R_{\mu\nu}\, R^{\mu\nu}$$ and $$R^2$$ lead to renormalizable gravity theories, in spite of problems that arise from fourth-order metric and derivative terms. The mathematical physicist Hermann Weyl (1885-1955) was the first to study quadratic gravity using only the $$R^2$$ term in the Lagrangian. His research led him to believe that he could derive Maxwell's equations from the resulting conformally invariant formalism in addition to the standard Einstein field equations for gravity. His efforts to geometrize electrodynamics failed, but it is remarkable that Weyl's work continues to appear regularly in the physics literature today. Here I only want to address an issue in the formalism that seems to have plagued the literature for at least five decades, which is that the action quantity $$S = \int \!\! \sqrt{-g}\, \left(R_{\mu\nu\alpha\beta}\, R^{\mu\nu\alpha\beta} - 4 R_{\mu\nu}\, R^{\mu\nu} + R^2\right) \, d^4x \tag{1}$$ is a pure divergence and so can be ignored in quadratic gravity Lagrangians. The action's derivation is not only a difficult matter, but it obscures the fact that there are in fact an infinite number of related actions that are also conformally invariant. Years ago I showed that the quantity $$S = \int \!\! \sqrt{-g}\, \left(R_{\mu\nu\alpha\beta}\, R^{\mu\nu\alpha\beta} + A R_{\mu\nu}\, R^{\mu\nu} - \frac{1}{3}\, (A+1)\, R^2\right) \, d^4x \tag{2}$$ where $$A \ne -2$$ is any constant, is also conformally invariant via the Bianchi identities. Consequently, (1) might as well be replaced by $$S = \int \!\! \sqrt{-g}\, \left(R_{\mu\nu\alpha\beta}\, R^{\mu\nu\alpha\beta} - \frac{1}{3}\, R^2\right) \, d^4x \tag{3}$$ where we have set $$A= 0$$. As is easily shown, (3) is conformally invariant. To be honest, I still cannot see why (1) and (3) — although equivalent — have zero divergence except under a conformal variation. It is my hope that the constant $$A$$ may be useful in providing more flexibility in future research. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God, amen.  Absolutely Criminal — Posted Friday April 24 2020 Yesterday President Trump made the absurd as well as dangerous suggestion that ultraviolet (UV) light and/or chemical disinfectants might be useful in combating the COVID-19 virus if they could be introduced into the human body to ward off or treat infection. By way of a pathetically weak disclosure, he admitted that he was not a doctor, but that studies should be conducted into the efficacy of his moronic suggestion. Trump's latest "medical" advice followed hard on a previous (and much more forceful) suggestion that the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) held out great promise in treating COVID-19 infections, and Trump and sycophants like Fox News pushed the drug aggressively. His administration then went out and purchased millions of doses of the drug, which then reduced the nation's stockpile of HCQ for legitimate malarial applications. I believe that Trump also wanted to corner the market on the drug should it be proved effective, thus giving his re-election chances a huge boost, along with a hoped-for public image boost for Trump as a brilliant genius and savior. Subsequent studies by Veteran's Administration doctors and scientists and others showed conclusively that not only is HCQ ineffective in treating COVID-19, it actually killed twice as many patients compared to those who were not given the drug. Neither Trump, anyone in his administration nor Fox News mentions HCQ any more. But the very notion of introducing disinfectants into the body is dangerous as hell, and Trump should publicly disavow his suggestion as such, although he certainly will not. He still believes he's an unorthodox genius whose crazy ideas are nonetheless brilliant. By not acting on the COVID-19 pandemic a month earlier ("It's a Democrat hoax!"), Trump's arrogance, stupidity and ego resulted in thousands of unnecesary and avoidable American deaths, but this latest suggestion of his is pure evil. As a Christian, I cannot advocate Trump's assassination with a pure conscience, although I'm very tempted to do so. In J.B. Priestley's brilliant 1945 stage play An Inspector Calls, a distraught and unwed Eva Smith is forced to destroy her unborn child and herself by drinking disinfectant, overseen in the hospital by a compassionate angel who subsequently avenges her unjust death. The following clip is from the 2015 British adaptation of the play. Please take it to heart if you're considering following Trump's insane and criminal advice. Update: Today President Trump announced that he was just being sarcastic when he made his comments yesterday about putting ultraviolet (UV) light and disinfectants into the human body to protect against or cure COVID-19. Anyone watching yesterday's press session would easily agree that this is an outright lie. The truth is that Trump doesn't know a damn thing about science or medicine, but what's even more perplexing to me is that Trump's medical experts don't seem to know what the hell UV radiation is, either! Would it have been so difficult for Drs. Fauci or Birx to just say that UV light is a short-wavelength (high energy) form of light that damages living cells, not only killing them but affecting their DNA-based ability to reproduce and repair damage? That's why sunglass makers build UV protection into their eyewear, for crying out loud!! Meanwhile, why didn't Fauci and Birx jump up and cut off our idiot President and tell the reporters that ingesting chemical disinfectant in any amount is deadly as hell? I understand that they have to show some deference to the moronic utterances Trump makes, but when it comes to stuff that's outright dangerous to the public they need to speak truth to power, damn the consequences!  Trump Says: Red States, Free Yourselves! — Posted Saturday April 18 2020 Tomorrow is Easter Sunday in my church (Coptic Orthodox), and while I was saddened by the church's closure a month ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I wouldn't be tempted to attend services even if the church doors were opened. I can't help but contrast this with the half-dozen or so states that are either curtailing or eliminating stay-at-home restrictions in the hope that their economies will quickly recover. It's folly, but considering the fact that these states are either out-and-out conservative or Red States to begin with, I'm not surprised. Influenza strikes pretty much everyone at one time or another, and its symptoms can be life-threatening, but its morbidity rate (the ratio of deaths to total diagnosed infections) is only around 0.1%. Compare this figure to COVID-19, whose morbidity rate currently ranges from 5.3% in the United States to 6.7% globally, higher for seniors and people with existing health problems. Consequently, there's absolutely no sense in trying to compare influenza with COVID-19 in terms of the health threat. Should a massive resurgence of COVID-19 cases and deaths occur in these states, there's one prediction that you can almost be certain of — President Trump will blame the Democrats, former president Obama, and/or China for the disaster. You can also expect Fox News to report that progressives covertly sneaked in cannisters of weaponized SARS-CoV-2 virus onto the beaches of Florida and the cities in Texas and elsewhere to infect their otherwise happy and liberated denizens. I sincerely hope that whatever steps these states take, infection rates will continue to drop, and their populations will be able to recover economically. But I wouldn't count on it happening. PS: Considered completely objectively, viruses are marvels of Nature. They are nothing but packages of RNA or DNA in a lipid or protein container and sporting one or more external activation sites. They don't breathe, they don't take in food or water, they don't give off waste, and they don't reproduce like bacteria or other microorganisms. By any ordinary standard, they are not alive, and where they come from and what purpose they serve is anyone's guess. Fortunately, most viruses prefer to infect bacteria, which they inject with their base genetic material. This material reprograms the bacteria's own genetics, making it create baby viruses within the bacterial cell. The viruses then program the cell wall to break or lyse, spilling the viruses out and killing the cell. And off they go to seek new bacterial cells to infect. My favorite is the so-called T-even bacteriophage virus, which looks exactly like a little robotic machine or Mars lander. When it senses a bacterial cell, it lands on it, attaching its legs to the cell wall. A hypodermic-like needle then penetrates the cell, and a bit of viral RNA is injected into the bacterium. How frigging brilliant is that?!  Parabola, Ellipse, Rosette or What? — Posted Thursday April 16 2020 When you toss a ball to a friend, its arc is described perfectly by a parabola, right? well, Ethan Siegel of Starts With a Bang reminds us that the ball's trajectory is actually an ellipse (neglecting air friction), since Newton's gravitational law $$F = -GMm/r^2$$ says that parabolas only occur for unbound orbits (and a tossed ball is certainly bound, since it falls back to Earth). Of course, Siegel knows that this is also wrong. According to Einstein's gravitational field equations, a tossed ball in reality is described by a rotating or precessing ellipse — that is, an elliptical rosette. This was proved by Einstein himself in 1916, when he calculated the orbit of the planet Mercury around the Sun. For centuries, scientists had known that the planet doesn't quite follow the orbit predicted by Newton's law — it was off by 43 arcseconds per century (a small amount, to be sure, but easily observed even by the relatively crude telescopes of the 18th and 19th centuries). Einstein's calculations predicted a precession in Mercury's orbit of exactly 43 arcseconds. When he'd finished the math, Einstein was deliriously happy for days, as he then knew his gravity theory was correct. Einstein's theory has stood the test of time. The latest test — following a series of countless astronomical and terrestrial tests made since 1916 — shows that a star orbiting the 4-million-solar-mass black hole at the center of our galaxy is also a precessed ellipse, to an extent backed up exactly by Einstein's field equations. So a tossed ball does not follow a parabolic or elliptical path at all, but varies slightly differently from the latter path. Could that variation ever be observed in practice? Very doubtful, as the variation would be far too small to see. Even then, quantum fluctuations would also vary the path, producing a trajectory that is inherently random. Note: The link in the above article was dead at the time I read it. The scientific paper can be found here.  Memory, the Good and the Bad — Posted Tuesday April 14 2020 I've only just started going through the thousands of family photos and video- and audiotapes that my late wife and I compiled over our 42 years together. Many of the photos are difficult for me to look at now, as they bring back memories of times that will never happen again. Compounding the sense of loss is my long term memory itself, which seems never to dim despite my 71 years of age. Case in point is this photo, which turned up in the last sweep of the garage I made several weeks ago. It's my class picture from the third grade at Northview Elementary School in Duarte, California (1957), and I can still recall most of the names in the picture. For the benefit of posterity and those who were in the class: Top Row, Left to Right: Kent Rosenburg, Robin Campbell, Kenny Root, Judy Franz, Joe Woo, Unknown, Unknown, Cheryl Hultman, Greg Watson Second Row: Lloyd Markey, Unknown, Bruce Falkenborg, Peggy Falconer, Tom Brownlee, Karen Williams, Craig Williams, Unknown, Bill Green Third Row: Judy Siegfried, Richard Hescox, Teri Leverenz, Unknown, John Philp, Susan Schafer, Jefty Pickett, Sandra Bout Bottom Row: Miss Simmons, Calvin Somebody, Unknown, Debbie Hixson, Me, Unknown (Yes, the kid with the dumb bouffant hair style at the lower right is me.) John Philp and I both had a crush on Teri Leverenz, while Joe Woo was the only Asian student in the entire school. He and I struck up a friendship in the third grade, and I'm pretty sure I was the only friend he had at the time. A brilliant Chinese kid, he's probably a billionaire now. Two photos that make me sad are these. The first is a group photo from the laboratory Munira and I worked in, taken in July 1972 (too bad she had her eyes closed), while the second photo was taken on her last day at work (a chemical engineer, she found a better paying job elsewhere). I remember weeping when I said goodbye to her at the close of the day. I'm the guy second from the right, while at far left is the late Homer Miller (from an adjoining lab), who I'm absolutely certain also had a soft spot for Munira. Well, I can't blame him.  COVID-19 — Posted Saturday March 28 2020 I read Laurie Garrett's best-selling 1994 book The Coming Plague some twenty-five years ago, but like most people I didn't really take the threat of a worldwide plague very seriously. Now it's upon us, and by all indications it will be the worst pandemic since the 1918 Spanish influenza, which ended up killing 50 million people. Two years ago I also read Laura Spinney's 2017 book Pale Rider - The Spanish Flu and How it Changed the World, which was an even more compelling read. Perhaps the one thing that intrigued me most about the book (which Spinney addresses) is how few people today take that catastrophic, 100-year-old pandemic very seriously. My guess is that it was so bad that people just wanted to forget about it, despite how it affected so many families and lives for generations to come. I also suppose that the COVID-19 pandemic will suffer the same lapse of interest in the years to come, if only because the death rate (currently about 1.6% in the United States, and 4.7% worldwide) will nowhere approach the levels seen by the Spanish flu. Nevertheless, the cost to humanity in misery and money will far eclipse that of the 1918 plague, since it is affecting nearly all of the planet's 7.6 billion people, compared with the 1.8 billion or so that were alive a hundred years ago. Another factor (at least here in America) is the hyper-polarization of Americans with respect to politics. Although President Trump initially declared COVID-19 a Democrat hoax and dismissed the coming plague as nothing more than a related flu- and cold-like disease, the critical weeks that his bloviating cost the country in terms of mobilizing will be completely forgetton by his supporters. Indeed, many now believe that criticism of Trump's mistakes will instead be replaced by even more blind hero-worship on the part of his supporters. Remember what Trump said in his run-up to the 2016 presidential election "Only I can save you." My wife died exactly eight months ago, and to tell you the truth I could care less whether or not I contract the disease. I take the recommended precautions only for the benefit of others around me, lest I pass something on to them. But I dread the now-probable outcome of a Trump re-election in November, a disease that will be far worse than any viral parasite that ever infected this backward country.  Incompetent As Well As Corrupt — Posted Saturday March 21 2020 I'm almost thankful that my dear Munira left the world before this happened.  Wow — Posted Monday February 10 2020 Here is the most fantastic astronomical image I've ever seen. At 9.1 Gigapixels, this view of the Milky Way (and the central region hosting its 4-million-solar-mass black hole) is panable and zoomable. Taken by the European Southern Observatory's VISTA telescope, it's the largest (4.1 meter diameter) currently operating Earth-based infrared instrument. Zooming in, you can see approximately 84 million of our galaxy's estimated 100 billion stars. Unbelievable. Mimi must have an even better view!  For Mimi — Posted Friday February 7 2020 In 1969 I took an elective class in college called The Short Story. My favorite story was Gimpel the Fool, perhaps because I identified with the title character. Some 51 years later, I still think of the story, its meaning of faith in a corrupt world, and of lost love. So it is with dreams too. It is many years since I left Frampol, but as soon as I shut my eyes I am there again. And whom do you think I see? Elka. She is standing by the washtub, as at our first encounter, but her face is shining and her eyes are as radiant as the eyes of a saint, and she speaks outlandish words to me, strange things. When I wake I have forgotten it all. But while the dream lasts I am comforted. She answers all my queries, and what comes out is that all is right. I weep and implore, "Let me be with you." And she consoles me and tells me to be patient. The time is nearer than it is far. Sometimes she strokes and kisses me and weeps upon my face. When I awaken I feel her lips and taste the salt of her tears. — From Gimpel the Fool by Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1953.  Conversion — Posted Saturday January 11 2020 On Wednesday I was baptized into the Orthodox faith, and am now a member of the Holy Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Los Angeles. It took five months of catechism instruction (I'm rather dense, so it took that long), and I'm struggling with the church's Coptic and Arabic languages (which my late wife was fluent in), but it was worth it. All along I was impressed with the church's promotion of mystery and beauty, which fit in perfectly with my education, training and understanding of modern physics, and so my acceptance of the faith was not difficult at all. I had long wondered about the possibility that we are living in a computer simulation programmed by some external, all-powerful simulator who has complete control over the universe, who also established the insanely fine-tuned physical constants and laws of the world. But even considering the fine tuning that is evident in the universe, it's still possible that a near-infinite number of possible worlds could have resulted in the one universe we see courtesy of the weak anthropic principle. But when you throw in the principle of least action and the all-governing mathematical and physical laws that result from it, it becomes impossible to deny that everything had to result from a Creator who designed it all. From that point of view, the issue of whether God is the god of the Bible or a brilliant computer programmer becomes irrelevant, as it really makes no difference as far as humans are concerned. Indeed, the great French 18th century mathematician Pierre Louis Maupertuis, who helped establish the principle of least action, considered the principle to be irrefutable evidence of the existence of God.  My Dear Mimi — Posted Sunday September 8 2019 It has now been exactly six weeks since my wife died, and my grief has not measurably subsided, despite weekly grief therapy sessions and antidepressants. The tears still flow daily, almost hourly, but my family has been with me all the way, and without their support I wouldn't have made it this far. For the past three weeks I have been attending my wife's church, the Holy Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Los Angeles, which has given me much comfort. Munira was a lifelong Coptic, the oldest Christian faith since its founding in the 1st Century A.D. by St. Mark in Alexandria, Egypt. After many years of pursuing logic, reason and rationality, I never gave hope and faith much credence, but now they are my lifeline, literally my only hope of seeing my dear Munira again. I have resolved to become a Christian, as she always was, and cast off the doubts and criticisms I carried with me most of my adult life. With God's help, I pray that the last thing I see when I close my eyes for the last time will be my wife's beautiful, smiling face, and she herself will be the first thing I see when I open them again.  The Saddest Day of My Life — Posted Tuesday July 30 2019 Munira, my beautiful wife of 42 years, has passed away at the age of 73 years. Arriving in America from Cairo, Egypt in 1970, she earned a Master's Degree in Chemical Engineering and worked in the field for 33 years, retiring only because of a bout with breast cancer. She was highly intelligent, fluent in Arabic and French, and knowledgable in many fields of science and mathematics. We worked together in the same laboratory for over two years, and every day was a joy to me. My world has now dissolved into meaningless existence. I cannot stop crying or thinking about her. Every little object in our house reminds me of her, and how she touched and interacted with them just a few days ago. While she lives on in our two beautiful boys and our two beautiful grandchildren, nothing can fill the enormous emptiness that now pervades my utterly pathetic life. Wherever you are now, dearest Mimi, please know that I love you, and I pray that we will meet again someday in a far better world.  NOTE — Posted Monday April 13 2020 All of the posts below are old, put up prior to my wife's passing in July 2019. They represent a sea change from my life of today, particularly with regard to my current views on religion. I am now a devout Orthodox Coptic Christian, a decision motivated largely by my late wife's faith, but mostly because I felt the need to decide once and for all whether God existed and how He could allow the manifest suffering of so many people, past and present. I managed to put all my doubts and questions to rest, based on the rather sudden revelation that God's actions and His love for us transcend anything we hapless humans could ever possibly understand, given our meager intellectual abilities. I chose the Orthodox faith because I realized that the Christianity I so consistently criticized over the years was evangelical Protestant Christianity, a belief system whose monstrous hypocrisy and devotion to greed and political power still bothers me a great deal. But I decided to put these posts back up mainly as a reminder to myself just how pathetically wrong or misled I was about so many things. They also serve as kind of a diary of my life and thoughts, which might serve to jog my memory if and when I become truly befuddled in coming years.  Asian Invasion! — Posted Sunday July 14 2019 In addition to my daily gym routine, I typically walk six miles a day, hoping to stave off the ravages of being 70 years old. I often come across other walkers and their dogs, along with coyotes that are just going about their business. I also see gardeners going about their business, and I've gotten to know a few of them. With a single exception, the gardeners are all Mexican-Americans. The exception is a 50-something unmarried white guy who lives with his elderly father in a house that's easily worth more than a million dollars. I've had some pleasant conversations with him over the past few years, but yesterday he flew into a rage, recounting how a house on his street had just been purchased by an Asian couple for$1.6 million. He then went into a diatribe about how Asians are taking over everything, and perhaps thinking I was of the same opinion he seriously asked me how Asians might be driven out of the area. I told him how "red-lining" had been used many years ago to keep African-Americans out of white neighborhoods, and how I thought that as a species we had evolved beyond that kind of blatant ignorance and racism. I also informed him that I have a Chinese daughter-in-law and a half-Chinese grandson that I love very much. He was speechless, and I doubt if we'll ever be talking with one another again. From earlier conversations I also learned that this gardener is a devout Christian who attends church every Sunday. On a similar note, our supposedly divinely-elected President Trump has denounced our country's entire field of liberal freshmen congresswomen, all of whom are non-white. Trump wants them to go back to their "broken and crime-infested countries," echoing earlier racist remarks he made about keeping out immigrants from "shithole countries," who he also views as being "criminals and rapists." I detest Trump, I detest this country, and I detest the hypocritical Christian evangelicals whose voters got Trump elected. I'll never forget that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016.

 HADD — Posted Saturday July 13 2019 Here's Andrew Henry of Boston College and host of the popular Religion for Breakfast YouTube website talking about "Hyperactive Agency Detection," which has been proposed by many human behavioral psychologists as an explanation for why people are religious. People who hold religious beliefs are said to utilize - I would say "suffer from" - hyperactive agency detection device (HADD), although I would also replace "device" with "disorder." It's a fascinating topic, and well worth taking the ten minutes needed to watch the video. As usual, Henry attempts to have it both ways, noting that while HADD provides an excellent explanation for religiosity, he prefers to think of religious belief as being based in acquired cultural and social norms. He's welcome to his opinion, but that doesn't explain how it arose in the first place, which almost certainly sprang from the brains of early humans whose basic survival kit included a hyperactive sense of danger (real or imagined) and how to deal with or avoid it. My own point of view is that all religiosity, be it a belief in gods, the supernatural, magic or other irrational behavior, was originally invented by early humans as a "terror management" mechanism for coping with the existential fear of death. From that perspective, I really do believe that religion has become hardwired in the human brain. And that's very unfortunate, given the fact that religion has been at the foundation of so much war, persecution and suffering.

 The Ehrman Blog — Posted Tuesday July 9 2019 My favorite history writer is Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A prolific writer of popular books, scholarly texts and papers, Ehrman also maintains a popular website devoted to answering questions, posting information and discussing current research on a variety of New Testament subjects and early Christianity. His website costs $25 a year to join, with all proceeds going to fight homelessness and hunger. Despite his vast expertise on Christianity, Ehrman is reviled by most Christians. A former evangelical Protestant and graduate of the ultra-conservative Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College (Billy Graham's alma mater), Ehrman left the faith while pursuing his PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary. He subsequently became a vocal and well-published agnostic who nevertheless retains a respect for the Christian faith and its followers. Ehrman occasionally has guest writers on his website. The latest is Jennifer Knust, a professor of early Christianity at Duke University, whose three-part contribution discusses the fate of ancient religious manuscripts that were looted by the Nazis from Jewish book dealers and manuscript collectors, many of whom were subsequently murdered in the Holocaust. Her series notes that with relatively few exceptions, the vast majority of these writings were never returned to their surviving owners or their families. Perhaps just as importantly, the provenance and authenticity of many of these documents has been lost or compromised, making them subject to spurious interpretation by biased researchers. Knust is also the author of a recent book entitled To Cast the First Stone - The Transmission of a Gospel Story, which details the history of the famous story in the Gospel of John regarding Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. The earliest versions of the gospel do not include the story, which nearly all New Testament scholars (Christian or otherwise) believe was written hundreds of years later, likely penned by a scribe in the 4th century. Most modern Bibles today either provide a disclaimer to John 7:53-8:11 or exclude it altogether from the gospel. I have yet to read Knust's book, but it's currently on my short reading list. Scholars of early Christianity (and I count myself as an amateur in the field, having been a Christian once myself) have rightly documented how early Christians took the Old Testament (more correctly known as the Hebrew Bible) for themselves. Early Christian writers, increasingly desperate to resolve fundamental differences between their beliefs and those in the Old Testament, found ways to find predictions of the coming of Jesus in the Hebrew texts, which ultimately culminated in the outright usurpation of the Old Testament as a purely Christian testament, leaving the unbelieving Jews as unaware dolts, unaccepting of their predicted Savior. The most famous example is the probable misinterpretation of Isaiah 7:14. Even casual readers of the writings of the Apostle Paul and the four Gospels can easily detect the gradual change in attitude toward the Jews of the 1st century AD from learned and well-intentioned but misled adversaries of Jesus and his followers to John 8:44, which claims that the father of the Jews is Satan himself. At the same time, the killers of Jesus went from being Pontius Pilate and the occupying Romans to the Jews themselves (in several churches, Pilate is actually a canonized saint). When Christianity really got rolling in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, Christian writers were widely characterizing the Jews as the "murderers of God." The rise of anti-Semitism resulted almost immediately in the segregation, isolation and persecution of European Jews, eventually leading to their mass murder by the Nazis in World War II. I encourage visitors to my site, Christians and non-Christians alike, to join the Ehrman Blog and become knowledgable about early Christianity, a fascinating topic in its own right. Meanwhile, readers of Ehrman's popular books and articles will have their eyes opened regarding just how evangelical Christianity - which predominantly rejects scientific truth while embracing amoral criminals and conmen like President Trump - has become the mythological, fact-avoiding cult that it is today.  Wondering — Posted Tuesday July 9 2019 After retiring in 2002 I taught and did volunteer tutoring and mentoring, mostly undergraduate physics, calculus and chemistry. I also taught precalculus (what used to be called Algebra II), and was surprised that it was a lot more difficult for me than calculus. Perhaps it reminded me of high school geometry (which I hated) and Algebra II, which I didn't hate but didn't really grasp. I got a D grade in geometry from Miss Woods and a C in Algebra II from Mr. Nickerson who, despite my ineptness in the course, I greatly admired. Mr. Nickerson (I never learned his first name) seemed to always come to class wearing a plaid sports coat. He was always very open to stupid questions, which were the only questions I was capable of asking at the time. But the one thing I did learn from him was the algebra of conic sections (parabolas, ellipses and hyperbolas), and I would invariably raise my hand to answer a conic problem he might pose on the blackboard (which was mostly because I was trying to impress SHE, who was in the same class). I often wonder whatever became of SHE, the only true heartthrob I had in high school, but while thinking of that little blonde today I also wondered what had happened to Mr. Nickerson, who's almost surely no longer living. Although I liked science far more than I did math in those days, I thank Mr. Nickerson for providing at least something from Algebra II that I could use later when I taught it myself.  In the Distant Future, Size Won't Matter — Posted Wednesday July 3 2019 Here's some conventional physics. You'll have to trust me that everything I say in the following is based on currently accepted theory. Let's say you want to measure the distance between two points $$A$$ and $$B$$ on some massive object in curved spacetime. You get out your ruler and clock and determine the quantity $$dS^2 = g_{\mu\nu} dx^\mu dx^\nu$$, where $$g_{\mu\nu}$$ is the metric tensor and $$dx^\mu$$ is the infinitesimal distance measure. Integrating, you calculate the quantity $$S=\int_A^B \left( g_{\mu\nu} \frac{dx^\mu}{ds}\, \frac{dx^\nu}{ds} \right) ^{1/2} ds$$ If you do the measurements of $$A$$ and $$B$$ simultaneously, then $$S$$ will be the physical distance between the two points. Now let's say you want to measure the physical wavelength of a photon (light ray) using your ruler and clock. It's impossible, because you cannot follow a photon along its light-speed course, but if you could you'd invariably find that $$S=0$$. In fact, $$dS =0$$ is always true for a photon, so you needn't bother with any measurements. This is because photons live along what's call a null geodesic, which means that for a photon time and space have no objective meaning. In fact, if photons had consciousness they would perceive themselves as living forever and everywhere in the universe at the same time. How can this be true, you ask? After all, when you turn on a light bulb zillions of photons come into existence that weren't there before, and when they impinge upon your retina they cease to exist. Well, that may be true for you, but not for the photons. It's really just an example of Einstein's twin paradox, taken to its ultimate extent. What does this all have to do with the Big Bang (or Little Bang) theory? Conventional cosmological theory says that the universe will expand forever. Black holes will eventually swallow all matter (along with most photons and neutrinos), and when the black holes evaporate due to Hawking radiation the universe will consist of nothing but an uncountable number of stray, high-entropy photons flitting about in an enormous space created by dark energy. True, that'll take some zillions of years, but that's what will happen. What then? Now for the unconventional part. The famous Oxford mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose believes he knows the answer to this question. Forget about string theory and all those extra-dimensional multiverses you've read about, and consider the following possibility that Penrose proposes. In time, he says, the universe will reach a point in which it consists of nothing but photons, which will have no concept of time or distance, and the universe will have achieved maximum entropy. Still, quantum fluctuations will occur, giving rise to the occasional additional photon or matter-antimatter particle pair. But time, space and even entropy will no longer have any meaning at this point. Penrose suggests that since the "size" of the universe will have no meaning, it will be indistinguishable from the primordial, infinitely dense, infinitely tiny "egg" of the Big Bang, resulting in another Big Bang. Penrose calls this process, which he believes might have already been repeated an infinite number of times, Conformal Cyclic Cosmology, or CCC. The "conformal" aspect of his theory has to do with the invariance (actually, the meaninglessness) of size and distance in the far distant universe. If Penrose is right, then big and small have no meaning, and the universe might as well begin anew via something akin to the CCC process. Penrose seriously likens this to the universe "forgetting" what it was before. In addition to his hundreds of published mathematics and physics papers, Penrose has published numerous books, both conventional and unconventional. In his 2010 book Cycles of Time, Penrose details his ideas behind CCC. Meanwhile, my favorite book of his is the 2007 book The Road to Reality - A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, which in my opinion is a must-have text if you're ever stranded on a desert island. Is there any empirical evidence that Penrose's CCC theory might be right? It's just possible that a previous universe has left an imprint on the cosmological microwave background (CMB) in the form of large circular patterns (called "Hawking points") produced by ancient evaporating black holes. Penrose and his colleagues discuss this possible evidence in their 2018 paper Apparent Evidence for Hawking Points in the CMB Sky. Meanwhile, kudos to the German mathematical physicist Hermann Weyl (1885-1955) for having first introduced conformal invariance into gravitation, quantum mechanics and cosmology.  Scientific Arrogance — Posted Monday July 1 2019 Noted German physicist Sabine Hossenfelder published a best-selling book last year entitled Lost in Math - How Beauty Leads Physics Astray in which she argues that the pursuit of beauty and elegance in today's predominantly math-based theories has corrupted the search for physical truth. I bought the book and was impressed by it, although I disagreed that beauty and elegance in themselves are to blame. The real problem, as many have noted, is a kind of arrogance that some scientists are engaging in whose theories are mathematically beautiful (perhaps even correct) but can never be tested or proven. For example, the Hot Big Bang Inflation Theory is elegant and explains a number of issues in cosmology (flatness and the horizon problem), but due to its nature can never be experimentally tested or falsified. Perhaps the most popular current theory is superstring theory, which posits a unification of all forces in nature at an energy level (Planck energy) that will absolutely never be achieved in any experiment. A physical theory that cannot be experimentally tested, verified or falsified does not belong in science, but in metaphysics or religion instead. This view has been held by scientists for hundreds of years, but the allure of purely mathematical beauty - coupled with an arrogant attitude that such theories absolutely must be correct anyhow - seems to be taking center stage on the legitimate science scene today, and I believe this is the primary point that Hossenfelder tries to make in her book. The most powerful tools that physicists have discovered in elucidating the laws of the universe are mathematical symmetries, which include gauge invariance. These testable symmetries are unquestionably beautiful as well as profound, and historically they led to our current understanding of how the universe works, but today's scientists seem to have exhausted the set of physically meaningful symmetries. Supersymmetry Theory (SUSY), which posits a new kind of symmetry uniting fermions and bosons, was a noble idea but it has almost certainly been proven wrong by numerous experiments conducted at the Large Hadron Collider. Nevertheless, many physicists insist it is still correct anyway. Worse, SUSY underlies Superstring Theory which, even though it can never be tested, is assumed by many to be correct as well. "These theories are simply too beautiful to be wrong" is the rallying cry, although the arrogance of these scientists - coupled with the decades of earnest effort they have made to substantiate their ideas and the sunk costs they represent - appears to me to be the only truth they invoke.  Neat Photo — Posted Friday June 28 2019 Here's an undated photo of a group of mathematicians (and scientists, perhaps) from the photo archive of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). Hermann Weyl and his wife Hella are fourth and fifth from the right in the first row, and from their young age I'm fairly certain the photo was taken around 1914. Weyl was then newly married and a recently appointed professor of mathematics at the prestigious Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zürich at the time (as was his good friend and colleague Einstein). I'm also pretty certain that the man in the very center of the first row is the noted German mathematician David Hilbert, who was a long-time resident of the University of Göttingen, the world's premier institute of mathematics until the Nazis summarily dismissed all instructors at the school suspected of having Jewish heritage. Weyl and Hilbert were not Jewish, but Hella was, which forced the couple and their two sons to leave Germany and emigrate to the IAS in America in 1933. Judging from the large group shown here and the presence of Hilbert, it's possible that the photo was taken at a conference at Göttigen. Weyl (who received his PhD under the direction of Hilbert in 1908 at the tender age of 22) was a great admirer of Hilbert, who also acted as Weyl's mentor. Hilbert, considered to be the greatest mathematician of the 20th century, died in 1943. His gravestone is inscribed with the prophetic words Wir müssen wissen Wir werden wissen $$\,\,\,$$ ("We must know, we will know") Many thanks to Prof. Yao Liu for directing me to this neat high-resolution photo, which appears free of copyright at this link from the IAS. Update: I just discovered that I'd posted a slightly different (and much lower resolution) photo of this group in my post of June 1, 2016. The occasion was actually a 1917 meeting of the Swiss Mathematical Society, so the photo was taken in Zürich after all. Meanwhile, I wish I could find out more about this all-too-brief YouTube video featuring Hilbert and Weyl: <  Fake News $$\rightarrow$$ DeepFake — Posted Thursday June 13 2019 Like many people, I'm a big fan of the actor Humphrey Bogart. I have all of his films, some great, some not so great. He got a rather late start in the movies (he was in his mid-30s), and he died far too young (57), making me wonder how many more films he might have made if his career had started earlier and if he'd lived longer. Years ago, at the outset of the video gaming phenomenon, I realized that the technology would improve to the point where the video quality of the games might become indistinguishable from the real thing. Such technology could certainly be used to create films in which deceased actors like Bogart would be digitally resurrected to star in new roles, with their actions, facial expressions, voices and mannerisms recreated exactly by computers using their old films as templates. Imagine seeing a sequel to 1941's The Maltese Falcon, in which Bogart's Sam Spade is reunited with Effie Perine in an exciting new movie, one whose story and plot are also created by some suitable level of computerized artificial intelligence. Such technology would be both good and bad. Unscrupulous videographers could create horrendous child pornography films that circumvent the law, since no real children would be involved, while politicians could use fake videos to falsely portray their opponents in unflattering or illegal activities. There's really no end to how the technology could be misused, even in creating the basis for war, martial law, or even genocide. Guess what? We're nearly there. President Trump recently used a montage of altered video clips to portray Nancy Pelosi as a stammering idiot. His supporters ate it up, thinking that what they were seeing was the real thing. The potential abuse of this technology is apparent considering the so-called DeepFake phenomenon, an example of which is shown here with existing computer technology. And remember, this technology will only get better and better, eventually getting to the point where highly sophisticated tests will not be able to distinguish a real person from a digital impersonation. I fully expect a digital Jesus of Nazareth will be making guests appearances on Fox News in the near future, denouncing Democrats and liberals and promoting gun and gold ownership. Update: Here's philosopher/physicist Massimo Pigliucci talking about fake news and DeepFake in the context of pseudoscience and how to recognize it. Bottom line: he's truly concerned about abuses of the technology and its potential malevolent applications.  Still Running — Posted Tuesday June 11 2019 My favorite TV show of all time is The Fugitive, which ran (no pun intended) for four years over the period 1963-1967. The show's best episode was the two-parter Never Wave Goodbye (1963), but one of my lesser favorites was Season 3's End of the Line, which aired in 1965. I remember watching it with my folks, and the omnipresent Narrator's last words struck a nerve: Some people run for exercise. Some are professionals, chasing a record. And still others must run to live. Theirs is the longest race - if they can last until tomorrow, their reward is one more day of running. It greatly affected me because then (and now) it reminded me of my father (1905-1981). Although a talented musician, he never made much money, and was saddled his entire life in a series of low-paying, dead-end jobs. Always just barely ahead of the creditors, he and my mother struggled to raise my two (much older) sisters and me. My sister Connie (1934-1991) died from grief and drinking (her husband died unexpectedly in 1985, and she just gave up on life), while my younger sister Ria (1936-2018) died after a long bout with Parkinson's disease. So here I am at 70, the very last of the original Straub clan, wondering why I've lasted this long. A few weeks before he died, my father said to me "Bill, it seems like I've been running all my life. I could never get ahead, and I'm so tired." He was 76, not much older than I am now, but years of excessive drinking and smoking and lack of exercise had taken their toll on his heart, lungs and kidneys. He was barely coherent when he passed away in a nursing home in Duarte, California, on March 12, 1981. His last words (uttered in near incoherency while looking at my mother) were "You're never gonna have that baby!" - no doubt a reference to me, as I came along many years after my sisters (and certainly by accident). The angst of The Fugitive remained with me through my early college years. I was the first in my family to attend college, and for the first three years I believed I was never going to make it. Working full time throughout to pay for tuition and expenses, by the time my junior year arrived (with its mandatory dreaded three courses of Physical Chemistry), I figured that my innate ineptness and lack of confidence would soon force me to drop out, as did a number of other fellow chemistry majors. However, I did well that year, and graduated in 1971 with a BS degree in the subject. I later earned three graduate degrees in engineering and physics, including a PhD. But I never got over the feeling of running, or the self-doubt, or the self-loathing that comes with being raised poor and ignorant. My kids are now grown with jobs and families of their own. By comparison, they didn't have to struggle with doubt and self-confidence like I did, and looking back I can see that I had it a lot better off than my father did. But looking in the mirror today, I can still see my father - his eyes, his ears, his face - along with the same self-doubt that plagued him all his life. Like him, I'll likely have it until the day I die - the feeling that I'm really just a failure, a joke and a fake. When she goes, she's gone. If she stays, she stays here. The girl does what she wants to do. She knows what she wants to do. And I know I'm fakin' it, I'm not really makin' it. — Simon & Garfunkel, Fakin' It (1967)  Fear of Pathogens — Posted Wednesday June 5 2019 My son Kurt (UCLA PhD in Molecular Biology, 2010, top of his department) is a 7-year scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. I recently binge-watched the National Geographic's 6-part series The Hot Zone, which dramatizes the outbreak of the Ebola virus on U.S. soil in 1989 and our country's efforts to contain its spread. I know nothing about Ebola or pathogens, but reviewers have said it's an excellent series with a few mistakes. Still, it scared the hell out of me. As climate change worsens, deadly pathogen outbreaks will become more common. Why can't this country put more money into preventing these outbreaks instead of spending$1 trillion a year for war? Kurt was just named the CDC's Employee of the Month. That's great Kurt, but please stay out of BSL-4.

 "Hey, Mrs. Wilson!" — Posted Tuesday June 4 2019 Did I ever regale you with the story of my junior high school years? No, I suppose I did not, so here's a sample. At Northview Junior High School in 1962-1963, back in good old Duarte, California, I had the mixed blessing of having Mrs. Wilson as my science teacher. She was a regular battle ax, someone you did not want to piss off, but outside of the comic books I read in the 1950s she was responsible for my getting interested in science. She taught us basic chemistry and the Pauli exclusion principle, along with the fundamentals of nuclear physics. I still recall one immortal day when she caught me talking out of turn: "How many elements are there, Bill?" she asked sarcastically, expecting a look of sheepish dumbfoundment. "A hundred and six!" I replied with confidence (true at the time), which took her down a peg. "Just don't talk when I'm talking!" was her somewhat muted reply. But the truly amazing thing was that she paired us into teams to build solid-fuel model rockets. Using the school's Home Economics room, we mixed up stoichiometric batches of sugar and potassium nitrate and melted the batches in skillets, of which one girl team's batch caught fire and filled the room with white smoke (just imagine 12- and 13-year-olds doing that today!) Near the end of the term we took our rockets packed with the propellant and shot them off in the school yard, with students from other classes watching attentively. The rocket Richard and I made just scooted along the ground, but one team's effort actually went aloft a short distance. Naturally, it was that from one of the girl teams. I mentioned earlier that I don't always agree with City University physicist Michio Kaku's ideas. Here's one that I very much disagree with: his assertion that junior high schools destroy scientific curiosity: PS: Some of the "rocket" kids from my school are shown in the class photo I posted on April 20. I still wonder where many of them are today.

 Damned Dark Matter — Posted Saturday June 1 2019 It appears that the presumed existence of dark matter has passed another test (you can read a preprint of the peer-reviewed paper here). While I do not question the existence of dark energy (which is related to the cosmological constant of Einstein's gravity theory), I'm still at odds with the issue of dark matter. Supposedly making up some 85% of all matter in the universe, no candidate dark matter particle has ever been detected, despite numerous extensive and very costly experiments conducted around the world over the past 30 years. Astrophysicists claim that this is due to the particle's inability to feel any force — electromagnetic, strong or weak—except gravity. It can't even feel itself, so there are no tell-tale pressure effects that can be observed in galaxies and galactic clusters that otherwise betray its ghostly existence. My primary objection is that, if dark matter forms roughly spherical haloes around galaxies due to gravitational attraction, what exactly holds the particles in those haloes? They should eventually coalesce tightly around galactic centers under the influence of gravity. No, I'm told, dark matter particles just accumulate under the pull of gravity and orbit the galaxies forever, since they feel no other force. Then why does dark matter accumulate at all, since it would ordinarily just swing gravitationally from one galaxy or galactic cluster to another? Despite the mounting evidence for its existence, I'm still hopeful that the dark matter effect will eventually be explained by a modification of ordinary Einstein gravity, of which there are many possible theories ( here, for example), a few of which hold up as well as the dark matter concept. I've been told that this is a naive view, but until physicists detect the damned stuff I will remain unconvinced.

 Damned Dark Matter — Posted Saturday June 1 2019 While growing up I would occasionally see someone smoking Pall Mall cigarettes, whose package had the Latin phrase In hoc signo vinces. I had no idea what that meant, but years later I discovered that it translated into "By this sign, you will conquer," which of course still meant nothing to me. More years later, I learned that in the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD, Constantine the Great defeated his bitter rival Maxentius and went on to become the Emperor of Rome. More importantly, Constantine was to claim that the day before the battle he saw a sign in the sky that looked like a cross, and next to the sign were the Greek words Ev tovtw nika, en touto nika, which translate roughly to the above Latin phrase. The night after the battle, Constantine claimed that Jesus of Nazareth had appeared to him in a dream, explaining that the sign of the cross would be the power behind his future military victories. Constantine, who had been a life-long believer in a multiplicity of pagan gods, thus became the first Christian emperor, a truly historic event that would change all of western civilization forever. For an explanation of this, you should read Bart Ehrman's latest book The Triumph of Christianity — How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. (And no, it's not a devotional book, it's a purely historical account written by a leading writer who happens to be my favorite author of early Christian history.) We all know people who believe in astrology, homeopathy and ghosts, along with all sorts of other nonsense, but the reasons why people believe what they do isn't at all clear. There have been many psychological studies by respected universities and researchers that try to answer that question, but there has never been a definitive answer that everyone could agree with (especially the believers). Noted New York University physicist Michio Kaku has an idea, which he outlines in this brief video: Kaku's a brilliant string and quantum field theorist, although I don't always agree with his theories. In this case, however, he might be onto something. The notion that superstition is built into our genetics is a rather new take on things, since it leaves behind the purely psychological aspects of one's upbringing and environment and puts it into the realm of evolutionary biology. But Daniel Kahneman, the 2002 Nobel Prize winner in economics and a noted behavorial psychologist, touched on that notion in his best-selling 2013 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, in which he echoes Kaku's genetic idea. Early man knew damned well that it was almost always just the wind that caused a rustling in the bushes, but on rare occasion there was a predator lurking there, so he ran like hell regardless. The fact that it might have saved his life only once in a hundred such experiences was nevertheless sufficient to convince him that his superstition-based fears were perfectly valid. Over time, those superstitious notions may indeed have permeated into our genes, as Kaku posits. Worse, those genetic markers are still there. If true, it's all so sad, because it proves that fear and greed, Donald Trump, the Republican Party and the utter stupidity of 25% of the American electorate (which is the tail wagging the country's dog right now) will always be with us.

 Event Horizons — Posted Saturday May 25 2019 May 1919 - one hundred years ago this month - saw a number of historic and prescient events that resonate to this day. One was the Principe solar eclipse event, recorded on photographic film by the noted British astrophysicist Arthur Stanley Eddington, who took a series of photographs of the total solar eclipse off the west coast of Africa. Careful examination of the photographic plates verified Einstein's 1915 gravity theory, which predicted that the Sun's mass would deflect the grazing starlight of background stars by 1.75 arcseconds, exactly twice the Newtonian prediction. It was confirmed, and Einstein became an overnight scientific celebrity, a reputation that stands today. Another was the more recent end of World War I, an unprecedented conflict that claimed the lives of some 15 to 20 million combatants and civilians. Although the war officially ended in November 1918, the subsequent outbreak of the Spanish flu - which claimed another 50 million lives worldwide - was itself nothing short of apocalyptic in the toll of death and suffering it produced. Around the same time, the emerging theories of quantum physics and Darwinian evolution were taking off in popularity, resulting in widespread acceptance of the predictions they made. Although few people understood the mathematics behind Einstein's theory and quantum physics, the public at large was nevertheless impressed by their precision and accuracy with respect to scientific observation. Then there was the advent of commercial radio, whose domestic broadcasts provided affordable entertainment and education to people around the world. The Volstead Act (aka Prohibition) came into effect just a few months before May 1919, which prohibited the manufacture, sale and consumption of most forms of alcohol. It was repealed in 1933, but in America it greatly helped initiate the rise of the organized gangster phenomenon. (One of my favorite Laurel & Hardy films is their 1931 feature comedy Pardon Us, in which our heroes, while undertaking plans to (legally) produce 50 gallons of beer per year for personal consumption, ponder what to do with any excess. "What we can't drink, we'll sell!" says Hardy confidently. The very next scene shows the pair being escorted into prison.) Meanwhile, women's suffrage (the Constitutional right for women to vote in general and national elections) was all but assured in May 1919. But there was one other event that took place in May 1919, one that still reverberates today, perhaps with even greater impact given the vastly increased population our country now hosts. On May 25 of that year some 6,000 Christian ministers, theologians and evangelists (all white men and women) converged on Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for a week-long series of talks, sermons and public lectures on the threats of the modern world to fundamentalist Christian thinking. For many attendants, World War I, the influenza pandemic, evolution theory and science in general represented scary evidence that the sinful world was collapsing, and that Jesus Christ was about to return any minute. They were convinced that the country had to return to traditional Christian beliefs before the world descended into chaos, tribulation and the Final Judgment. The Philadelphia event became the harbinger of what we now call Christian fundamentalism, a phenomenon that is perhaps more widespread today in America than it was then. Well, the world didn't end, but today's American evangelists couldn't care less. They're still convinced that the End Times are still just around the corner, and that Jesus of Nazareth is waiting in the wings. It has been this way since Paul the Apostle's days (roughly 49-64 AD), when he wrote in 1 Thessalonians (when he was not excoriating the Jews for killing Jesus/God) that "the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." Well, that was 2,000 years ago. Paul himself (like Jesus and John the Baptist before him) mistakenly believed he was living in the last days, which is why he advised people not to marry and have children, because it would all soon come crashing down. So here we are some two millennia later, with no end in sight. Yet Christian fundamentalists (when not electing Antichrists like Donald J. Trump) keep trying to sell us their insane religious nonsense.

 Open Admission — Posted Monday May 20 2019 I never watched a single episode of Game of Thrones, and I never will. Ditto with Harry Potter and all that other crap. Dragons, dungeons, magic, sprites, evil kingdoms and all that bullshit just bore me to tears (my biggest gripe: gorgeous, athletic, lusty men and women playing with swords belie the utter filth, disease, despair and misery that accentuated Medieval life and all its modern copies). Hey, it's one thing for kids to get dragged into this nonsense, but quite another for grown American adults to spend their lives not only watching this crap and playing the associated video games, but also thinking that maybe the world of fire-breathing dragons and magic-spewing sorcerers is somehow still possible. This is the product of the infantilization of adults, in which things like superheroes, homeopathy, magnet therapy, water dowsing, astrology, religion, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, reincarnation, channeling and all manner of other pseudoscientific claptrap become real or at least plausible enough to give them leeway into people's lives. To me, it's the same kind of credulity coupled with arrogance and stupidity that made Trump president, and why the country has gone down the toilet intellectually and morally. I think it all started with 9/11, when Americans—so utterly fearful of everything—went bonkers and put the blinders on when it came to rational thinking. Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, and it was all planned by another Saudi, Osama bin Ladin. So what to do? Attack Iraq, of course! "Navy SEALS rock!" said pert and perky Katie Couric. "George W. Bush can land on my flight deck any time!" said a gushing Red State devotee on CNN. Now it's Iran, and President Trump is threatening that nation (oil-rich, of course) with nuclear genocide, while Americans cheer enthusiastically, anticipating another triumphant celebration of their awesome worldwide military dominance. I know, I digress. Wasn't I saying something about Game of Thrones?

 The Living End — Posted Monday May 6 2019 Many years ago I had a discussion with a fellow engineer who happened to be a Jain, something like a sect of the Hindu faith. Jains believe in a multitude of gods but no creator god, and they also believe the universe is eternal, with no beginning or end. When I brought up the issue of the life cycle of our Sun, he was skeptical but admitted he'd never read about it. He was also skeptical of the Big Bang theory, as it posits a definite beginning of the universe some 13.8 billion years ago. I remember being somewhat stunned that someone with a PhD in engineering believed the Earth would persist forever, and that reincarnation was real. At the same time, I was impressed with Jainism's adherence to vegetarianism and the aversion of killing anything (including insects) for food or convenience. Don't hang on, nothing lasts forever but the Earth and Sky It slips away, and all your money won't another minute buy — Kansas, Dust in the Wind A beautiful song, but not even the Earth and sky last forever: Some 5 billion years from now, there will be a last perfect day on Earth $$\ldots$$ then the Sun will begin to die, life will be extinguished, and the oceans will boil and evaporate away. — Carl Sagan, Cosmos Sagan wrote that over 40 years ago, but even he was too optimistic. When our Sun begins to run out of its stores of hydrogen in a few billion years, it will begin its gradual transition to the red giant phase, on the way to becoming a white dwarf with a surrounding nebula. As a red giant, the Sun's outer envelope will engulf Mercury and Venus, possibly even the Earth itself (whose living systems will all have been long extinguished by then). At any rate, our planet will be reduced to a cinder, and chromospheric friction drag will slow the Earth's orbital rotation until what is left of it will be pulled into the solar core. Thus the Sun, the source of all life on Earth, will reclaim its prodigal child after some 8 or 10 billion years. But what a ride the Earth will have had! As a onetime Christian, I once believed that all these things would happen, but not before Jesus would return and intercede on our behalf. But I'm no longer a Christian, and now I'm wondering if this life, this universe, is without meaning or purpose of any kind. Einstein once marveled at the very comprehensiveness of the universe, but the Nobel Laureate physicist Steven Weinberg is less impressed: The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

 Is Free Will an Illusion? — Posted Thursday May 2 2019 Noted Frankfurt physicist Sabine Hossenfelder has posted another blog on the free will issue, implying again that it doesn't exist. She's not alone when it comes to this issue, but I object anyway: There are an estimated $$10^{90}$$ particles in the observable universe, and the total number of arrangements these particles can have is truly stupendous. But that number is still finite, so in a Newtonian clockwork universe there would likely be no free will, as we'd all be acting out scenarios that were predetermined in a strict deterministic manner. But the universe obeys quantum rules, not Newtonian ones, and they inject an element of unpredictable randomness into the mix, making our choices and actions subject not to deterministic rules, but to how we choose to direct our lives. However, Hossenfelder uses randomness itself as an argument against free will, noting that we have no control over purely random events—hence, no free will. I think she has a point, but I still don't like it. I'm not a philosopher, and I'm embarrassing myself by even bringing up this age-old issue. But it's a neat problem all the same.

 Republican Politics and the Christian Faith Are The Same Damned Hypocritical Thing — Posted Monday April 29 2019 It's nice to know that the Rev. Franklin Graham, the fundamentalist Christian son of the late Billy Graham, knows class when he sees it: Trump's wife Melania definitely is classy, as she could have posed with the other First Ladies in a $19,000 Versace gown, but being naturally reserved and well-bred she chose a more natural style, as she did here and here. (Barbara Bush brought her cane, but Melania chose to leave her whip in the limousine.) Melania does indeed know how to dress for the occasion. Why, when visiting poor migrant children queued up for her along the Texas-Mexico border last year, in typical Republican Christian fashion she wore this$39 outfit to show just how much she cares about minority infants and kids being taken away from their families. If that ain't class, I don't know what is. Now, here's Mrs. Betty Bowers to tell us what American Christianity really is all about today (hint: ka-ching!):

 Science, Pseudoscience and Religion — Posted Friday April 26 2019 Indeed, [the science journal] Nature, apparently increasingly inclined to embrace public scientific controversy, has published a pro-vs-con analysis of the issue [extended evolutionary synthesis in biology], which of course has failed to settle anything at all. — Philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci Regarding the 'Earth is Round' vs the 'Earth is Flat' controversy, we should give both sides equal time and opportunity to explain and defend their positions, since nobody really knows who's right. — My paraphrasing of conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks I can't be sure of when it began (or when I first noticed it), but long-established scientific principles are being increasingly challenged on the basis of a variety of bogus claims having subtle or not-so-subtle undercurrents of political, religious and even respectable scientific biases. Actually, I think I first noticed something was wrong during the late 1980s, when conservatives (mostly Republicans) began to openly challenge, criticize or refute current or emerging issues such as climate change, evolutionary biology and the benefits of domestic social programs like welfare and Social Security. At the same time, I also began to see a creeping disdain for science itself, including long-proven theories like quantum mechanics and relativity. The now-common conservative refrain "It's just a theory" began to have an effect on the American public around this time. One way I see it now is that things went from "Sure, one plus one is two" to "Wait a minute, Einstein, maybe that's not right after all." I also see the effects of evangelical Christianity on the problem. One devout family member actually said to me "If one plus one is always two, then how did Jesus feed the five thousand with two fish and five loaves of bread, with many baskets of food left over?" Of late, the same kind of thinking seems to have infected the scientific community, particularly in high-energy particle physics. In 2012 the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) detected the Higgs boson (as expected), but since then it has seen no evidence of superstrings, supersymmetry particles, dark matter, extra dimensions or mini black holes (all of which were also anticipated) despite a doubling of the LHC's detection capabilities. For many physicists, this ongoing desert of particle detection and theory confirmation (which today constitutes what we call the "Crisis in Physics") says that these things either simply don't exist or should at least be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. But other physicsts disagree, saying that the theories are so mathematically beautiful that they just have to be right. Just build more and more powerful colliders, they say, and the theories will be proved after all. (This approach is known as "moving the goal posts".) This brings up the important subject known as falsifiability, a once generally accepted if not cherished scientific principle used to demarcate the difference between what should be considered believable and what should be dismissed as either irrelevant, wrong or simply nonsense. The notion of falsifiability was first proposed and championed by the Viennese philosopher Karl Popper, who believed that a valid scientific theory must be subject to refutation, rejection or modification if it's to be considered truly scientific. The falsifiability argument went on to become a keystone of scientific acceptance, but today it's being attacked in various scientific circles (notably by Stanford's Leonard Susskind and Caltech's Sean Carroll). They say that if there's no empirical evidence that any of these modern theories are correct, or even if the energies needed to confirm them lie at the Planck level (unattainable unless one has access to a collider with the power of the Big Bang), then it's not the theories that should be rejected, but falsifiability instead. Physicists Sabine Hossenfelder and Peter Woit both address falsifiability in their blogs this week, and their views bring with them a welcome air of reason. Hossenfelder says we shouldn't even be talking about the issue, as it's obvious that falsifiability is a needed and proven tool for the advancement of science. Woit instead criticizes current discussions that support superstrings, supersymmetry and related theories, noting that they're biased and one-sided (Woit's blog includes a link to a great article written by Massimo Pigliucchi, who I quoted above). Lastly, I want to mention here the Flat Earthers, which surely is a perfect example of what I'm talking about in this post. When I first heard about the Flat Earth Society some years ago, I thought it was a kind of fun, tongue-in-cheek, social get-together sort of thing along the lines of things you read in the satirical magazine The Onion. But I was wrong—the Society's members are dead serious about the Earth being flat, and how scientists have cooked up all kinds of lies to prevent the American people from finding out about it. Where do the ocean's waters go when they fall off the sides? ("Down"). Where does new water come from? ("It rises from the center"). In other words, it's just like a religious belief, and they have an answer for everything. Well, I guess it's better than the Hindu belief that the Earth is supported by gigantic elephants and tortoises. (It's actually turtles all the way down, you know.)

 Sex Ed, or How's Your Memory? — Posted Saturday April 20 2019 I found this photo while cleaning out the garage some time ago. I hadn't seen it for nearly 60 years, but I still remember the names of most of the kids in it. It's my class photo from the 6th grade (1960-61), which was conjoined with a number of 7th grade students. Starting at the top row from the left, that's Jaime Proudfit, Daniel McGuire, Dennis Maynard, Patricia Berry, Michelle McNamara, Cathryn Beekman, Somebody, Don Schaefer. Next row: Mrs. Wood (teacher), Peggy Hildreth, Peggy Falconer, Cindy Farrell, Somebody, Somebody, Somebody, Diane Corrigan, Dale Matthews. Next row: Bonnie Blazier, Gail Fugitt, Sandra Bout, Karen Kraber, Somebody, Diane Watson, Susan Miller, Somebody, Somebody, Sandra Stutz, Kent Rosenburg, Nancy Keefer. Bottom row: Richard Galleon, Bruce Falkenborg, Greg Watson, Me, Kenneth Root, Peter Steiner, Robert Gray, Gary Chiles, Somebody. I know that a number of these kids are passed on, a few of whom I knew well. I actually stepped on one kid's grave accidentally while visiting a local cemetery a few years ago (sorry, Gary). I remember the 6th grade well, mainly because Mrs. Wood taught us Sex Ed that year. I remember she used a flip chart to go over some of the dicier parts, but mostly it was stuff like "Mrs. Uterus builds a soft nest in the event that an egg might somehow get fertilized $$\ldots$$" I recall that I really learned nothing about sex in the class, but am amazed to this day that Sex Ed was taught at a time when it was still considered a taboo subject in elementary school, one usually reserved for difficult discussions between parents and their children. I remember that Mrs. Wood always wore a lot of perfume. She was roughly 40 when this photo was taken, making her about 100 years old today. She's surely gone as well, as we all will be someday. And whose face will you take with you into the dark?

 First Image of a Black Hole! — Posted Wednesday April 10 2019 description of the After several years of tentative announcements, astrophysicists have finally released the official first image ever captured of a black hole: The black hole, which resides in the supermassive elliptical Virgo galaxy called M87 some 55 million light years away, is itself supermassive, with an estimated mass of 6.5 billion times that of our Sun, or 6.5 billion $$M_{\odot}$$ (by comparison, our Milky Way Galaxy has a central black hole whose mass is "only" 4 million $$M_{\odot}$$). The black hole resides at the core of its host galaxy and is active, spewing out a jet of gas and particles at relativisitic speeds. Momentous news indeed for science.

 The Greatest Danger — Posted Tuesday March 26 2019 Here's a great (but flawed) interview with brilliant former Harvard mathematical physicist and current economist Eric Weinstein that you might enjoy as we await the Great Collapse. I say flawed only because interviewer Lex Fridman does a poor job of interviewing Weinstein, jumping from subject to subject while always trying to interject artificial intelligence (apparently the only topic Fridman's interested in) back into the discussion. But in the meantime Weinstein reveals deep insights about Tom Lehrer, the status of theoretical physics today (it's a mess), the need for a balance between capitalism and socialism that gives workers a sense of dignity, purpose and hope, and the greatest danger now facing the country—the return of sanity. It's 81 minutes long.

 The Block Universe — Posted Wednesday March 20 2019 Laurel and Hardy in their 1938 feature film Block-Heads. Quantum mechanics is said to be rife with probabilities, but in fact the Schrödinger equation $$i\hbar \,\frac{\partial |\Psi\rangle}{\partial t} = H |\Psi \rangle$$ is perfectly deterministic, while the wave function $$|\Psi(x,t)\rangle$$ undergoes straightforward evolution in time according to the unitary transformation $$|\Psi(x,t)\rangle = U(t;t_0) |\Psi(x,t_0) \rangle$$ where $$U(t;t_0)$$ is the unitary time evolution operator. All is well, then, except when a measurement is made, at which point the wave function collapses probabilistically to one of its allowed eigenfunctions. The concept of wave function collapse is central to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is arguably still the best description we have of what happens when a measurement or observation is made. But instantaneous collapse violates unitarity, and as yet no one has developed a satisfactory theory of how wave function collapse can occur smoothly without the sudden "jump." Perhaps the leading alternative to wave function collapse is the multiverse theory, which says that a wave function transitions smoothly into one or more parallel universes, where each of its allowed eigenfunction is seen by a parallel observer, who mistakenly believes the function has collapsed. But there is another candidate theory that maintains quantum unitarity, and that is the concept of a block universe. Imagine that all of four-dimensional spacetime can be represented by a continous block that might appear to an outside observer as a loaf of bread or a cement brick. At one end is the Big Bang, while the other end extends out either to infinity or some distant finite slice in the loaf (the block universe might even appear as a toroid, with its ends stitched together, thus having neither a beginning nor end). Imagine further that each slice in the block universe represents every event that takes place at a given instant, with the block extending backward and forward in time and the sides extending outward as far as need be (to accommodate the observed expansion of the cosmos). An external observer viewing the block would then find herself literally standing outside of time and space (possibly in some 4-D Kaluza-Klein space, witnessing all of the block's history at once. The block universe preserves quantum unitarity because wave function collapse never occurs—every event and observation is simply meant to be. The block universe concept is very interesting, and much has been written about it (an introductory overview is available here, while a more detailed dicussion can be found here). I suppose it's unavoidable that the block universe idea will be looked at from a predominantly metaphysical or religious point of view. In a discussion with a Christian friend of mine in the gym, he immediately took to the idea, noting that, of course, God resides in the spaceless, timeless outer realm surrounding our universe, where he/she/it can make observations and conduct any necessary interventions (either in the past, present or future). I asked him if Satan also hangs out in this realm, but my friend was less sure of that. Remember that the block universe was conceived in part as a way of avoiding the overthrow of quantum unitarity, a treasured quantum principle that every physicist takes seriously (unitarity is the primary stumbling block [no pun intended] in the information paradox problem). Unfortunately, the block universe idea is completely deterministic with respect to all future events, which would seem to destroy another treasured notion, that of free will. (Although some writers disagree that free will is completely lost.) It would then seem that if the theory is correct, then we are all doomed to an existence consisting of predetermined actions and events. Furthermore, assuming that no external god-like manipulator exists, those actions and events are purely random. So perhaps we're stuck with a probabilistic universe after all! PS: Readers my age may remember Mr. Mxyzptlk from the Superman and Superboy comic books of the 1950s, which I read voraciously as a kid. Mxyzptlk was a mischievous visitor from the 5th dimension with magical powers that he used against our heroes as a means of amusement. He could be tricked into returning to the 5th dimension by getting him to say his name backwards (Kltpzyxm)—no mean feat, but Superman and Superboy always found clever ways to do it. Anyway, that was my first exposure to extra dimensions, but around the same time the comics also introduced its readers to the Phantom Zone, a higher-dimensional prison space where criminals from the home planet of Krypton were banished (Krypton evidently did not practice capital punishment). Life in the Phantom Zone and the 5th dimension was never fully described, but today I might be tempted to liken them to the region outside a block universe.

 What a Comparison — Posted Monday March 18 2019 "Sure, there was violence. That's how things get done." I visited New Zealand only once, but I was struck by how protective (even paternal) New Zealanders seemed to be over their First Peoples, the Maoris. Based on what I saw and heard on the street and in the news there, I got the distinct impression of a collective responsibility that the government expressed for it natives, although I can't claim it was strictly true either then or now. It's remarkable that less than a week after the horrific white nationalist killings of fifty Muslims in a Christchurch mosque, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern promised swift reform of the country's gun laws. Today, thousands of New Zealanders began voluntarily turning in their firearms in an expression of solidarity with the country's Muslim population. Compare this situation with America, whose leaders respond to mass shootings in churches, schools, businesses, family planning clinics and other venues with "thoughts and prayers"™ for the victims and their families, all while promising zero efforts to enact any kind of gun reform. Indeed, the disgusting words of the late Charleton Heston (whose befuddled, Alzheimer's-racked brain had to be prompted by NRA representatives to say the words in his final speech) still ring loudly around the country: "From my cold, dead hands!"

 Shriek, Indeed — Posted Monday March 18 2019 Ruben Bolling gets it right again. America was a democratic socialist country in the 1950s, but it had some other problems $$\ldots$$

 At Last — Posted Friday March 15 2019 description of the Caltech finally hosted a lecture on the work of Einstein's long-time colleague and friend Hermann Weyl (1885-1955) today, given by the University of Pittsburgh's Prof. Joshua Eisenthal at the Einstein Papers Project House. Eisenthal seems to be just as enthusiastic about Weyl's mathematics, philosophy and physics as I am, and although some of Weyl's more philosophical issues went over my head, I welcomed the chance to get some nagging questions I had answered at last. There does indeed appear to be a resurgence of Weyl's work, not only in mathematics but in cosmology and quantum theory as well. A fantastic overview of Weyl's influence on physics today was posted recently by fellow Weyl enthusiast Erhard Scholz. At 92 pages it's a tad long, but well worth the read.

 Fine Tuning? — Posted Saturday March 9 2019 Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action. —Ian Fleming, Goldfinger To her great delight, an unemployed scrubwoman discovers she is the sole winner of a $25 million lottery. Elsewhere, to his great disgust, a man sunbathing on a beach is struck by a gull dropping. Neither story is unusual to any extent, since each happens all the time. But now consider that the woman had missed her bus by seconds because she had bumped into a friend she hadn't seen in years, and then had to walk the fifteen blocks to her job interview, and as it began to rain she stepped into a liquor store she happened to be passing at the time, and on a whim decided to risk the dollar bill she had found earlier on the street on a single lottery ticket. Meanwhile, the man was just one of many thousands of beachgoers stretched out on the sand that morning, and a sudden gust of wind not only blew sand all over his beach towel, but spirited an unwelcome surprise atop the man's head by a wind-tossed seabird. Now the stories doen't seem so trivial or ordinary. But here's a true story. In preparing for the 1974 film The Girl from Petrovka, the noted British actor Anthony Hopkins decided to read the novel the movie was based on. He went into town, searching numerous bookstores for a copy of the book, but was unable to locate one. Upon returning home by train, Hopkins spotted a book on a nearby seat. It was the book he was looking for, heavily annotated by its neglectful owner. Later, during the filming of the movie, Hopkins met the book's author, George Feifer, and related the story of how he'd found the book. To Hopkins' astonishment, Feifer told him that it was Feifer's own annotated copy that he had loaned to a friend, who had then absent-mindedly left it on the train. Such improbable events have happened to me. In 1985, the taxi driver who happened to pick me up at Auckland Airport in New Zealand was an engineer I had been corresponding with for many months prior to my visit (he drove a taxi at night to supplement his income). In 1995, while driving through my late mother's midwestern home town on a business trip, I spotted a girl I'd had a terrible crush on back in high school. When one considers the staggering probabilities against such events, one can't help but be struck by the seeming cosmic intentionality of it all—they simply can't be coincidences because the odds of them happening would appear to be impossibly small! But events like these are just a consequence of the Law of Truly Large Numbers (LTLN), which states that given a sufficiently large number of possible events, a small percentage will occur whose infinitesimal probabilities defy human reason, understanding or belief. But the LTLN still involves a finite set of possible events. What might we expect when the event set is infinite, or nearly so? That question is touched on in New York University philosophy professor Tim Maudlin's recent Aeon essay The Calibrated Cosmos, which addresses variants of what is generally referred to as the fine-tuning problem. As compared with the LTLN, the FTP is a more philosophically-driven issue that tries to provide plausible physical and/or mathematical explanations for events that might otherwise be looked upon as purely coincidental, all while leaving open the possibility that events could just be the product of chance anyway. For example, Maudlin notes that the concept of cosmological inflation—the theory that the Big Bang initially underwent a period of hyper-expansion lasting only $$10^{-34}$$ seconds or so—explains why today's universe appears so perfectly uniform on the largest scales, and why it also appears to be perfectly balanced between an eternally expanding universe and one that will eventually recollapse. This "fine tuning" of the universe's initial conditions is thus explained by inflation, but inflation itself requires some explanation—what turned it off just when it needed to be turned off, and what happened to the hypothetical inflaton field that set inflation off in the first place. The problem thus leaves open the "it just happened that way" dodge, which of course explains nothing. Maudlin also talks about how our universe and its physical laws seem to be so precisely fine-tuned for life. For example, if the fine-structure constant $$\alpha$$ of physics were only a few percent different than its observed (roughly 1/137) value, then particle interactions necessary for life would not occur. Similarly, if the proton were only slightly heavier than the neutron, the element carbon would be unstable, again preventing the formation of life. Maudlin also touches on how string theory (and its associated 6-dimensional Calabi-Yau geometry) can in principle lead to as many as $$10^{500}$$ universes (each with its own set of physical laws and particle properties), but he avoids the multiverse issue, perhaps because it's not necessary as long as string theory remains a plausible theory. Strangely, Maudlin also avoids discussing religious explanations for the way the universe happens to be, which, for some 80% of Americans, is a fully satisfactory answer for not only the existence of life but its purpose as well. In the end Maudlin concludes that things might be the way they are simply because of chance itself. Even if scientists are someday able to prove that life arose out of a necessity of some kind (for example, the conversion efficiency of high-entropy solar radiation to low-entropy form favors the existence of intermediary life forms), they will still have to chalk up much of what we observe around us to plain old probability. But Maudlin's calibrated or fine-tuned cosmos remains a perfect philosophical argument, as it really goes to the core of how we got here (if not why), and indeed why anything exists at all.  Fantasyland Redux — Posted Thursday March 7 2019 No, this man is not vomiting into his hat. He's translating divine scripture! Like New York Times writer Kurt Andersen, author of Fantasyland—How America Went Haywire (A 500-Year History), I've been thinking long and hard about the turnaround my country underwent around the time George W. Bush was illegally appointed President in 2000 by a politically conservative and corrupt U.S. Supreme Court. Most people my age (70) will remember this standard element of many movies and sit-coms of the 1950s—the highly successful businessman who returns home to adoring (and envious) former friends and neighbors, only to surprise them with his great regret that he never got a decent education. In the end, he always advised kids to "Stay in school," which most people did back then, at least to finish high school. But college was either financially out of reach for most high-school graduates back then, or they simply wanted to get a job and start making money, get married or indulge in some other pursuit. They knew that later they might regret having skipped higher education, but they just lived with the stigma. That scenario seems to have abruptly changed two decades ago, when people stopped regretting their lack of education or feeling envious of their highly-educated peers. Instead, they began to adopt a distrust (if not an outright hatred) of higher education, which I believe was at least partly due to the rise of conservative radio and cable television talk shows that were springing up at the time. My wife and I regularly watched Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and several other cable TV hosts back then, but while they were admittedly conservative they generally stuck to factually reporting the news of the day. But in the mid-2000s, they suddenly seemed to turn into rabid anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-progressive demagogues overnight, and we stopped watching. But the worst thing about these conservatives was the blatant, unapologetic lies and untruths they were reporting to their audiences, coupled with an undeniable Christian ring to everything they were saying. And you know what? Their audiences loved it, and Fox News soon went on to become the most-watched cable news station in the nation. I have conservative (usually Republican) friends, neighbors and relatives, and I'm witnessing the same alarming acceptance of outright lies, combined with what progressives like Andersen, Thom Hartmann and David Pakman are reporting as a gleeful willful ignorance of facts coupled with a renewed hatred of intellectualism, elitists and higher education. We see bumper stickers and signs extolling notions like "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" and "What I feel in my gut is the only thing I need to know." Conservative politicians recognize this, of course, and are only too willing to stoke the fire. Sure, George W. Bush was a Yale graduate, they say, but he was also a Skull and Bones Society bonesman at Yale whose grades were mediocre and who was "someone you could have a beer with." His reading of My Pet Goat while the 9/11 tragedy was unfolding surely endeared him to many similarly stupid Republicans, and his woefully premature "Mission Accomplished" speech sent followers into worshipful convulsions. Meanwhile, progessives just shook their heads in disbelief, unable to comprehend it all. And they still don't get it. Americans today are increasingly embracing a "Fuck you—I'm uneducated and stupid and proud of it!" philosophy, and today we have the proof: Donald Trump, unquestionably the most venal, amoral, corrupt, racist, bigoted and sexist president we've ever had the misfortune of electing, still has approval ratings in the low- to mid-40% range, with the increasing likelihood—despite the mounting charges of blatant high crimes while in office—that he will be reelected, with little chance that he will be deposed or impeached. In short, what we have today are Americans who, once filled with regret, envy or shame that they did not get a better education, have adopted an easy alternative reality—higher education is not only unnecessary, but it's something to be avoided, ridiculed and opposed. "Perfessor" types, they claim, are almost always God- and America-hating liberals who need to be stamped out by the likes of Trump, Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. And what's worse, they're actually winning the culture wars. Lastly, as an erstwhile Christian I will add that the willful ignorance and mind-boggling credulity required to embrace today's Trumpian culture would not be possible without a concurrent religiosity that borders on sheer insanity. While mainstream American Protestants tend to look down on Scientology, Dianetics and Mormonism (the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith claimed he translated the Golden Tablets by wearing a seerstone-containing hat over his face), the overall attitude is "Who really knows what the truth is? I say live and let live!" Sadly, as Kurt Andersen notes in his book, things are likely to get much worse.  א מ ת — The Best Endeavour Ever — Posted Tuesday March 5 2019 The Season 6 finale (Degüello, or Slaughter) was arguably the best Endeavour episode ever produced, with a satisfying conclusion to George Fancy's mysterious Season 5 killing and with no annoying cliff-hanger to clutter the lead-up to Season 7, which I can't wait for. Did you catch the subtle librarian reference in "Miss Paroo"? Or Thursday's preference for the writings of "Holly Martins"? Or the slight error in the reference to Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem? No matter, this British detective show is at its peak form, toppable perhaps only by the original Inspector Morse series (Endeavour's namesake) or the only slightly less excellent Inspector Lewis. My only complaint is that there are only four episodes produced each year, unlike another favorite detective series of mine (Canadian), Murdoch Mysteries, whose 18-episode-per-year history is about to run into a record-breaking 13th season, with nary a hitch in writing and production quality. Shaun Evans (Endeavour Morse) and Roger Allam (Fred Thursday) are truly great actors, and I encourage you to check out this engaging and highly intellectual British show.  Hopeless — Posted Sunday March 3 2019 Here's best-selling New York Times writer and author Kurt Andersen explaining how America went directly from Indian-slaughtering barbarism in the 1600s to today's decadence without an intervening period of civilization. The unceasing desire for riches at any cost, fame without talent or ability and celebrity worship perfectly explains why incompetents and amoral criminals like Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Donald Trump succeeded so brilliantly in American politics. The video's only 12 minutes, but if your attention span is a bit longer you may want to read Andersen's best-selling 2017 book Fantasyland—How America Went Haywire (A 500-Year History). [If the video doesn't play, try going to YouTube directly.] Indeed, America's infatuation with celebrities, fame, fantasy and unbridled wealth is now coupled seamlessly with religious belief, military glorification and the rejection of science and logic. I agree with Andersen's concluding remarks—there's no easy way out of the mess we're in.  Kip Thorne at Caltech — Posted Wednesday February 27 2019 Tonight I attended a lecture at Caltech given by Kip Thorne, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics for work leading to the 2015 discovery of gravitational waves emanating from an ancient black hole merger. The lecture was videorecorded, and when it's available I'll post it on this site. What impressed me most about the lecture was Thorne's description of the enormous amount of collaboration that went into the discovery—both the many hundreds of brilliant scientists and engineers who created LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatoriy) and the funding that had to be teased from federal and private concerns for its design, construction and operation. Thorne's lecture centered on LIGO and black holes, but he also talked about wormholes, the theoretical spacetime tunnels linking one part of the universe to another. I was pleased when he credited Hermann Weyl (my personal hero) for having initated pioneer work on wormholes back in 1924 (of the 1,000 or so attendees at tonight's lecture, I couldn't help but wonder how many people there would have recognized Weyl's name). After the talk, I went up to Thorne to get his autograph on my copy of his first book, Gravitation Theory and Gravitational Collapse (1965), which he co-authored with his mentor and PhD advisor, Princeton's John Archibald Wheeler. He laughed when he saw the book, and said he remembered signing it for me following another lecture he gave in 1994, adding that he still gets a few dollars a year in royalties from the publisher. Thorne worked closely with Stephen Hawking on many aspects of black hole theory, and had several famous bets with Hawking on topics such as naked singularities and the information paradox. With Hawking's death last year, the number of truly brilliant experts on general relativity is dwindling, but I'm happy to report that Thorne (who's now 78) is still as sharp as ever. Update: You can watch the entire lecture here.  Hot Hot Hot — Posted Monday February 25 2019 Alright, I admit I'm an old bastard who often pines for the past and the rock music of the 1960s, but dammit things have changed, and not for the better. I attended my best friend's Super Bowl party again this year (he's been throwing it for some 35 years now), and although the Patriots/Rams game itself was a snooze-fest we thought the half-time show would provide some real entertainment. Then some band called Maroon 5 came on, and we 70-somethings jointly wondered—What the fuck is this shit?! It amazes me to think that bands like the Beatles and Electric Light Orchestra made millions in their day, but not very many millions, despite the hundreds of hit songs they produced over the years. Now we have no-talent bullshit outfits like Maroon 5 whose music is completely without merit, yet I'm sure they're hauling in hundreds of millions per year. Indeed, just what the fuck has happened? The erstwhile Christian writer Chris Hedges' prescient 2010 book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle comes sadly to mind. Here's a contemporary music critic whose views mirror exactly what I've thought all along—today's pop music is all spectacle and presentation, with beautiful, slut-like women and good-looking men with zero musical talent gyrating to the same old bland shit, but with blinding pyrotechnic displays and mindless, screaming, adoring, drugged-out fans, all with their arms out like they were attending some religious rally. Watch the video before you pronounce me an irrelevant pop music dinosaur:  Oh Right, We're Not Supposed to Compare Trump with Hitler — Posted Thursday February 14 2019 Trump and McConnell — Noch Ungehängt! President Trump has announced that he will build his wall under the guise of a dire national emergency, thus guaranteeing the money he so desperately wanted to build die Wand der Wände by presidential fiat. Thus ends America's 230 years of Constitutional checks and balances, as Trump has effectively seized dictatorial powers for himself that could usher in broad new laws governing the elimination of family planning, health care, Social Security, immigation and individual rights. In March 1933 Adolf Hitler announced the Enabling Act, which allowed Hitler and his Nazi chiefs to bypass the parliamentary and legislative powers of the Reichstag. The Enabling Act effectively made Hitler dictator of Germany. The Enabling Act was brought about by the Reichstag Fire of February 1933, which Hitler blamed on Communists and other dissenters. Most likely the fire was started by the Nazis themselves to justify the Enabling Act under the pretense of "protecting" the German people. The following twelve years are history. Amerika ist jetzt ganz kaputt.  The End — Posted Saturday February 9 2019 Many years ago I attended a Mormon church service (please don't ask me why) in which members were invited to give testimonials of their faith. One man, a dentist, got up and spoke about why he thought population control measures on our shrinking planet were unnecessary. "When I fly over the deserts, mountains and other undeveloped areas of the country," I recall him saying, "I think about how many more people the world could easily accommodate, perhaps 30 billion." I distinctly recall his "30 billion" remark, wondering where he came up with it, along with the fact that it also implied a population limit, which the man was rejecting. Why not 100 billion, or a trillion, I remember asking myself. What is the ultimate fate of the human race, I also wondered, if such stupid thinking is so prevalent among otherwise intelligent people? I've recently become infatuated with physical cosmology, the mathematical nuts and bolts that describe the birth, evolution and fate of our expanding universe. The primary tool in the cosmologist's arsenal is the Friedmann-Lemaitre-Robertson-Walker metric, an equation derived from Einstein's 1915 gravity theory. The FLRW metric is a tad simplistic (understandable, given the enormity of the task), but it makes some pretty interesting predictions that agree well with astronomical observations. The metric describes a universe that is either expanding or contracting, with its ultimate fate resting primarily on a single parameter in the equation, given by $$ds^2 = c^2 dt^2 - S(t)^2 \left[ \frac{1}{1-k r^2}\, dr^2 + r^2 d\theta^2 + r^2 \sin^2\theta \,d\phi^2 \right]$$ Undergraduate physics and astronomy majors will instantly recognize this expression, but the point I want to make has to do with that $$k$$ factor in the denominator. If $$k =1$$ the universe is said to be closed, with the result that it will ultimately stop expanding and collapse back in on itself in the distant future. Alternatively, if $$k = -1$$ then the universe is open and will expand exponentially forever. Finally, if $$k = 0$$ then the universe will still expand (but not as quickly as in the $$k = -1$$ case), perhaps reaching some asymptotic size zillions of years from now. Modern calculations based on observations of the cosmic microwave background indicate that $$k$$ is very close to 0, meaning that the universe is likely to continue to expand into an increasingly rarified material nothingness as all the stars die off and the black holes evaporate into high-entropy photons. This probable fate of our universe is akin in the reverse sense to that of the human population, which Canadian philosopher and physicist John Leslie describes in his 1996 book The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction. Much of Leslie's book is concerned with what is called the Doomsday Argument of astrophysicist Brandon Carter, who first presented his views in a notable 1983 lecture. Boiled down, the argument basically says that the lifespan of the human race is either finite or essentially infinite, but that the likely fate of our species can be gleaned from a population growth curve showing how our numbers have increased exponentially over the past 12,000 years: Carter notes that if the human race survives and ultimately goes on to colonize the galaxy and beyond, then we who are alive today (and everyone who has ever lived up to the present time) must count as a relatively tiny percentage of all humans who will ever live. That scenario, he argues, would make those of us living today very special. Conversely, if the lifespan of the human species is limited, then those who are alive at or near the end will find themselves living among a significant percentage of people who will ever live. That scenario, Carter argues, would make those of us alive today relatively insignificant and very unspecial. The Doomsday Argument posits that since about 7 percent of all humans who have ever lived (estimated to be roughly 100 billion people) are still alive today, then it is statistically probable that we are likely close to the end of humanity's days on Earth. When Carter first announced the argument, there was such an outcry from both humanists and religious organizations that he chose not to formally publish it. Yet the fantastic exponential growth exhibited in the above graph cannot possibly be maintained given the Earth's finite extent and resources, most of which are non-renewable. Even today, the world's fisheries are collapsing due to overfishing, the availability of fresh water is shrinking drastically due to overuse, pollution and climate change, and the number of belligerent world leaders is increasing, many with access to or control of nuclear weapons and the willingness to use them. Leslie's book was recommended to me by a friend, who thought that my supposedly extensive scientific background would make it an easy read. But I am not proficient in formal logic or Bayesian probability, which Leslie uses often in the book, and many of his more philosophical arguments were difficult for me to follow, much less understand. But the population growth curve, coupled with Carter's Doomsday Argument, makes perfect sense to me. The human race is headed for disaster. And if mankind will not learn that lesson, then the time will come, soon, when he will be taught it — in fire, and blood, and anguish. — J.B. Priestley, An Inspector Calls  So Where Are My Soma Pills, Already? — Posted Tuesday February 5 2019 If you don't know what Soma is, read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.  The Good News for Trump — Posted Monday February 4 2019 Reminder: Trump's base is the 20-30 percent of all Americans who are white, racist, bigoted, misogynistic, poorly educated, anti-science trailer trash, yet still call themselves Christians.  An Inspector Calls — Posted Thursday January 31 2019 British playwright J.B. Priestley's hugely successful 1945 play An Inspector Calls has been performed innumerable times on the stage, along with two excellent film productions in 1954 (with Alastair Sim) and 2015 (with David Thewlis). Several years ago I posted the following YouTube clip from the 2015 production, which heart-renderingly summarizes the Christian moral of the play. For all you war-mongering, money-grubbing, minority-hating "Christians" out there, take this to heart, if you have one.  The Power of Jargon — Posted Saturday January 26 2019 Freedom isn't free That dog don't hunt Lock her up! That don't pass the smell test You're either with us or against us God said it, I believe it, that settles it Valerie Tarico's latest article speaks volumes about numerous issues, including the use of jargon in the evangelical Christian belief system, which has sadly taken over conservative political ideology as well. Being profoundly simple minded, evangelicals are amazingly susceptible to jargon and slogans, as they quickly reduce complex religious, political and cultural issues to something that even a one-celled amoeba can comprehend. There's a guy in my gym who regularly sports a t-shirt with the "Freedom isn't Free" logo, something I often see on many automobile bumper stickers. I confronted him on this the other day, and quickly learned from his comments that he's not only a Trump supporter but a minority-hating bigot as well. Christian evangelicals should learn to control their stupidity, as it not only reveals their basic beliefs but totally undermines what their presumed savior, Jesus of Nazareth, taught and preached as well.  Lazy Astronomy — Posted Friday January 25 2019 I used to be really into astronomy, built 4-inch, 8-inch, 10-inch and 12.5-inch telescopes, and drove to remote sites at night to view the heavens and take astrophotographs. Then I discovered I liked designing and building telescopes and not actually using them, because getting out at 2 am was a bitch. I still have a Meade 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope that I bought in 1999, but haven't used it for years. I'm more interested now in physical cosmology (the birth, evolution and fate of the universe and all that stuff), because it's far easier to do my exploring with books and pencil and paper. However, I regularly attend physics and astronomy lectures at Caltech, and last week I joined about 400 other people to view the total lunar eclipse from the school's athletic field. It's true—as the Earth's shadow gradually covers the Moon, it goes from gray to dull red, and near totality the Moon looks exactly like a gigantic Mars in the sky, red with what appears to be a brilliant white ice cap. But it was cold outside, and I was happy to go back inside for the panel discussion. Now that I'm seventy, it's almost certainly the last lunar eclipse I'll ever witness. Next time I'll just read about it, as you can here from this detailed article from Starts With A Bang. PS: What I find fascinating about cosmology nowadays is something called the Hubble constant $$H_0$$, which is not really a constant but a quantity that expresses the rate that cosmological objects are currently moving away from us with respect to distance. It's roughly 70 km per second per megaparsec, which is pretty fast when you get out to truly distant objects. But there's a big problem—there are two perfectly reliable methods for measuring $$H_0$$, but they disagree with one another by about 10 percent. For a detailed but understandable discussion of this problem, watch the short video below.  Why is This Woman Always Laughing? — Posted Thursday January 17 2019 I truly love MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, whose political analyses are invariably far above everyone else's in terms of depth and accuracy. I've even emailed her several times, once suggesting that she and her long-time partner Susan just split this stupid country and go live in Scandinavia—not because I want her gone, but just because the political situation and economic inequality in America is so pathetic that if I had her money, I'd be somewhere else for sure. I rarely watch cable news nowadays, and when I do it's usually only a brief coupla-minute drop-in to see if anything has changed for the better. But I'm always disappointed. How Rachel delivers the news at all is a wonder. I'd have to be hopped up on something to behave the way she does. So why does Rachel smile and laugh so much when she's delivering all that horrific news? I just don't get it, unless it's all simply intended as entertainment. In that case, I'm inclined to think that her annual multi-million-dollar income and the need to provide entertaining political news—as terrible as it always is—is more important than providing a public service or even having a life.  Won't Get Fooled Again? Hah! — Posted Thursday January 17 2019 In his current article William Barr is a Trojan Horse, political writer William Rivers Pitt describes two poker "tells" that reveal just how obedient the Attorney General wannabe is to both Trump and the Republican cause. The second "tell" is the most telling, and the one I immediately picked up on. Too bad so many Democratic congressional leaders missed it. When asked if there was any way Barr would prevent the congressional and public release of the upcoming Mueller investigation report, he repeatedly said "Not if I can help it", thus leaving open the very real possibility that Trump will peremptorily order the report to be hidden from sight and buried, regardless of its findings. The pending Attorney General could then just throw up his sycophantic hands and say "Hey, I did my best, but that's the way it goes sometimes." [Trump's justification for burying the Mueller report would of course be based upon "national security" concerns, since Trump's imprisonment as a criminal or his execution as a traitor would negatively impact the stock market and cause a Red State/Blue State Civil War.] I cannot count the number of times the Democrats have caved on this kind of obvious deviant behavior, and by all appearances this will be just one more instance. And I'll make one more prediction: when the Mueller report is no more, Trump will order his spanking-new AG to open another investigation of the Clinton emails, promising yet another round of Red State-driven vengeance on the previous First Lady.  Terminal — Posted Friday January 11 2019 Our new national symbol? Like many (but not enough) people, I've finally entered the terminal point of Trump outrage, coupled with a somewhat lesser disgust for the media (whose cable announcers seem oddly gleeful over the non-stop madness of the current President and the news he single-handedly creates for them). I've also had it with the American people, who couldn't care less about the ongoing destruction the country is experiencing. It's really frustrating to flip from one cable news channel to another only to see smiling, laughing morons who glibly report the latest news about Trump, when they should be sullen-faced and deadly fucking serious about what's going on. Yesterday my younger son called to tell me about a new social phenomenon called the "Bird Box Challenge," one based on a new horror movie called Bird Box, in which people blindfold themselves to avoid seeing malevolent entities whose appearance causes viewers to go mad and commit suicide. My son told me the movie's got many Americans going around blindfolded, bumping into walls and trees and other people in some kind of stupid daredevil Jackass-type shit. Oh, what fun. Jesus, and I thought the Ice Bucket Challenge was inane as hell. Hopefully they're not also driving or operating dangerous machinery, but I wouldn't put it past the utter mindless depravity of the average American these days. I'm reading and writing more than ever to avoid what I view as an irreparably broken America (and to take my mind off my tinnitus), but now that I'm seventy I frankly don't have the energy or chutzpah to do anything more than rant. If this were the 1960s I could look forward to someone blowing Trump's fucking brains out, along with that of several dozen of his fellow Washington criminals and all the country's Republicans. But Americans today simply don't care—they're too busy blindfolding themselves, both intellectually and now for real. Oh, what fun.  Prefrontal Cortex Impairment and Religious Fundamentalism — Posted Tuesday January 8 2019 The journal Neuropsychologia has a recent article reporting that religious fundamentalism is a form of brain damage (abstract is here, with a story on the report here). I always suspected this to be true. But will it make any difference in Trumpland? And why are we putting up with this insane megalomaniac, anyway?  Melania, Again — Posted Sunday January 6 2019 Oh come on, Republicans! Dancing?! The sanctimonious right-wing is also up in arms about Democratic congresswoman Rashida Tlaib's calling President Trump a motherfucker, which he most certainly is (and much more), but they continue to be in denial about First Lady Melania Trump's 1997 lesbian- and BDSM-tinged photo spreads (the link will take you to the less disgusting site, but there's more and even more if you look around for it). As they say, IOKIYAR (it's okay if you're a Republican).  Seventy — Posted Friday January 4 2019 Can you imagine us years from today, Sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be seventy. — Simon & Garfunkel, Old Friends, 1968 Simon and Garfunkel's 1968 album Bookends was one of my favorites, and the poster that came with it hung on my wall for several years. The song Fakin' It really resonated with me (I always saw myself as something of a fake human being), but Old Friends also hit me, as it made me think that someday I too would be seventy. Well, now I'm seventy, and I find that I don't like it at all. This last birthday motivated me to take an inventory of the decisions I made in my early life and the present condition of my aging body. My mind seems to be working okay, and my only major medical problem is tinnitus, which explains why I get grouchy at times. My only medication is a statin, 2 mg per day. I have some age spots on my hands, and while my hair is still dark brown it has thinned out quite a bit. I also have a touch of body dysmorphic disorder, which causes me to avoid looking at myself in the mirror and having my picture taken. My teeth and gums are in great condition, but I have flat feet, and the veins in my legs are beginning to show. I've managed to maintain my college-age weight of 170 pounds, but my 6'1" height is closer to six feet now. I work out at the gym regularly and take daily six-mile walks, and I have no aches or pains to speak of. Yet all the while I know this is going to change, and the journey downhill is about to begin, if it hasn't already started. My advice? Don't get old. But if you can't avoid it, at least try to develop a philosophy of life that will get you through the aging process. Me, I'm still trying to iron out the mistakes I made and the wrongs I committed against family members and others in my youth. There's a neat scene in the 1994 movie The Shawshank Redemption where an elderly prisoner tells the parole board that he would like to go back in time and shake some sense into his stupid, uncaring younger self. That elderly prisoner very much resides in me today. Perhaps the best thing about getting old is having the wisdom to admit one's youthful wrongdoings and to reflect on how different decisions would have changed things for the better. Youth is indeed wasted on the young.  Scientific Illiteracy is Rampant — Posted Sunday December 16 2018 Beware the dreaded Basilisk, unless you're looking to poison someone. If you've heard of the term junk science you can largely thank Steve Milloy, the lawyer and Fox News commentator who popularized (if not coined) the term. I don't doubt the existence of some junk science, which tends to serve the agendas of both conservatives and liberals alike, but the advent of supposedly science-based reality shows and related media has spurred the American illiterati's growing belief in really bizarre notions like alien visitations, Big Foot and parapsychology, along with truly stupid notions like the Science Channel's current popular series on mythical beasts, which actually tries to induce the viewer's belief in creatures like vampires, the cyclops, werewolves and dragons. (Oh my.) Most people would say this is all just harmless fun, but by preying on the public's ignorance and stupidity these media creations are very dangerous. Leaving America's election of the most venal, corrupt and criminal president aside for the moment, the reader might want to know that when the Black Death ravaged Europe over the period 1347-1351, tens of thousands of Jews were murdered (mostly by being burned alive) because of a widespread belief that Jews had acquired poisons from a mythological creature called a basilisk for the purpose of wiping out Christian communities. If you think that can't happen again, think again. After decades of claiming that Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were the Antichrist set upon America to destroy our democracy, 81% of white Christian evangelicals voted Donald Trump into the White House, proving that if and when the (similarly mythical) Antichrist really does come along, Christians will welcome him or her with open arms. But I digress. The afore-mentioned Steve Milloy doesn't believe in climate change, and as a lawyer and conservative media commentator he perfectly fits the picture of a scientific illiterate. He recently tweeted on Democratic Representative Peter deFazio's belief in climate change with this gem: Milloy is obviously not aware that Venusian temperatures are high enough to melt lead, and the planet's atmosphere is largely composed of sulfuric acid aerosols, not to mention the fact that any hope of life on Venus was snuffed out long ago due to a runaway greenhouse effect thanks to CO$$_2$$, which does indeed make up 96.5% of its atmosphere. Thus, the scientific dumbing-down of America continues apace. It used to be that you could watch a science or nature program on TV that was actually educationally informative as well as entertaining, but now they're all staged reality shows. Postscript: In 1950, the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury published The Long Rain (originally titled "Death-by-Rain"), a short story in which astronauts go insane in the constant, unrelenting rains of the planet Venus. In 1950 astronomers knew only that Venus was covered in clouds, and it was widely assumed they were made of water vapor, not sulfuric acid. Today, seventy years later, it seems that conservatives not only have rejected science, but have also forgotten what their predecessors knew as acience fact.  Today's Heirarchy of Modern Laboratories — Posted Friday November 23 2018 Despite the astounding achievements made by modern science, many people insist that tribes of Iron Age goat herders and apocalyptic 1st century CE Jewish preachers somehow got it just right. They didn't need no stinkin' science, and neither do today's Christian fundamentalists! Here's a sample of what they demand that you believe without question or hesitation: At that moment the curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus' resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. — Matthew 27:51-53 If physics and biology promised eternal life through a belief in utter nonsense, the bottom lab wouldn't exist. But then physics and biology wouldn't exist, either.  Bertrand Russell on Religion — Posted Friday October 12 2018 Bertand Russell (1872-1970) was a noted British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist, pacifist, atheist, free thinker and Nobel Prize winner in literature. In a 1927 essay he famously explained why he was not a Christian, and he noted that fear lay at the very foundation of the faith: Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown, and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing—fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion has gone hand-in-hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things. In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the Churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it. I have always believed (either consciously or unconsciously) that fear is the foundation of any religion, the sole purpose of which is to provide a way to deal with the fear of death, illness, poverty and the unknown, while allaying the uncomfortable feeling that life may be without meaning or purpose. Christians I know today invariably have a stock answer for this: "But I am not afraid!" That may indeed be true, but their purported lack of fear is like a heroin addict who, shaking and near insane over his desperate need for a fix, becomes relaxed and serene once the injected drug hits the brain. If you ask him then if he is experiencing any pain or discomfort, he will of course reply that he is not. But it's a temporary cure, as the addict will require regular drug injections to keep him feeling that way. It's exactly the same with a person of devout faith. Sure, she experiences occasional doubts about what she chooses to believe in spite of what her rational mind is telling her, but a visit to her pastor or priest quickly sends those doubts packing. It is no wonder that the great German philosopher, economist, historian, political theorist, sociologist, journalist and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx asserted in 1843 that Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.  But Will it Play in a Red State? — Posted Tuesday October 2 2018 Great, but I don't see how they got this past the copyright $$\ldots$$  Sickening — Posted Tuesday September 25 2018 There's an apocryphal (but possibly true) story about the noted mathematican, philosopher and atheist Bertrand Russell, who once gave a public talk on astronomy and the origins of the planet Earth. He told the audience about an ancient superstitious belief that the Earth was flat and supported on the back of a gigantic turtle. One woman in the audience, who apparently was a believer in the Flat Earth theory (sadly, still believed by up to 20% of Americans today), took exception to Russell's cavalier attitude. "What you have told us is rubbish," she said. "The world really is a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." Russell flashed a superior smile before replying, "Then what is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the woman. "But it's turtles all the way down!" New York Times columnist and writer Michelle Goldberg has an opinion piece$$^*$$ in the paper today entitled Pigs All The Way Down in which she reflects on the frat-boy substance of the Republican Party today, as evidenced by its refusal to even consider the possibility that Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh ever engaged in any high school or college hijinx involving sexual assault, despite an increasing number of women claiming that Kavanaugh had assaulted them in the past. If not outright rejection, we're hearing things like "Well, it's just what boys do," not only from Kavanaugh's male supporters in the Senate but from Republican women as well. I found Goldberg's article to be a devastating exposé of the "rotten foundations of elite [Republican] male power." Although Goldberg openly admits that some of the alleged incidents may be subject to faulty memory on the part of the women involved, she includes some very disturbing and factual aspects of the antics of men like George W. Bush, Donald Trump and Kavanaugh that make the GOP look like a misogynistic pig trough. I found the 2011 report on Yale University's Delta Kappa Epsilon (of which Bush and Kavanaugh were members) to be sickening. The university took action against the fraterity only when chants like "No means Yes! Yes means Anal!" got to be a little too much, even for an Ivy League college. Then we have all those pretty, invariably blonde 30-somethings on Fox News who consider themselves to be professionals but are willing to tolerate the fratboy antics of sexual perverts like Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, Bill Shine and Charles Payne, lest they be relegated to weather-girl assignments or worse. Naturally, they all fawn over Donald Trump despite proven sexual allegations against the old Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief. And did I mention that they're all good, devout Christians? $$*$$ The article may be behind a view limit. In that case, you can see it here  To Infinity and Beyond — Posted Monday September 24 2018 Writer Nicky Woolf has an interesting article in today's Medium dealing with the nature of reality. These days, theoretical talk about reality tends to gravitate to the Simulation Hypothesis—the idea that we, and everything around us, is a computer simulation. Readers of this site will note (and possibly complain) that I frequently bring up this topic, not because I'm a big fan of science fiction films like The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, World on a Wire and Inception, but mainly because of its philosophical and religious implications. For example, if we are simply digital beings created by a highly advanced "external" computer programmer, then the existence of an all-powerful Creator (or God, if you wish to call it) is neatly and fully explained, while the problem of theodicy is also solved, as the death and suffering of computer-simulated beings would not concern the programmer in the least. While the Simulation Hypothesis has been criticized by many philosophers and physicists as being either unfalsifiable or technologically impossible, Moore's Law (the doubling of computer speed and capability every two years or so) continues to hold, making plausible the possibility (or even likelihood) that the digital creation of vastly complicated simulations in the distant future will actually come about. Such simulations could be so highly advanced that the simulations themselves might be endowed with conscious self-awareness. As a result, the simulations might even have a sense of free will, whether it is truly free or simply implanted by the simulator. What makes Woolf's article so fascinating is that he raises an issue that is usually ignored by the critics. I detail it in the following: Our best estimate is that there is something like $$10^{80}$$ nucleons (protons and neutrons) in the universe, along with even more photons, electrons and neutrinos. Let's say that the universe is composed of $$10^{100}$$ particles, including the fields that accompany these particles. Critics of the Simulation Hypothesis argue that it is nonsensical to think that any computer program could possibly simulate such a vast number of particles and their interactions. But human brains have only about 100 billion neurons, and even with 7.6 billion of us running around the planet right now the total number of neurons is roughly a "mere" $$10^{21}$$, and it is these neurons that account for all of humanity's awareness of their world. A simulator would therefore not have to create $$10^{100}$$ distinct elements in the simulation, but only at most those $$10^{21}$$ comprising what we humans would call "reality." A biologist peering into a microscope, or a physicist conducting a particle physics experiment at the Large Hadron Collider, might then observe only what the simulation needs to serve up in order to complete the observer's sense of reality. But wait, say the critics: if we are being simulated, then what about the reality of the simulators themselves? Might they not be simulated in a higher-level simulation? If so, then there may be many levels of multiple simulations above (or parallel) to that, perhaps an infinite number. Is there an "ultimate" simulator, one that stands above all the rest? And if so, what's the underlying purpose of all these simulations? That's a good point, and I daresay we're now getting into the realm of the truly ridiculous. Most cosmologists today believe that our universe came into being on its own accord, and all questions of what came before or how it came about becoming meaningless. In that same sense it might be possible that an infinite "stack" of simulations simply "loops around," with every simulation in a sense being the creator of all the other simulations. There would therefore be no "ultimate" simulation, since every simulation would be the creator itself. In response to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (which roughly states that nothing can be deemed to exist until it is observed), Einstein posed the question "Does the Moon exist if no one is looking at it?" This is of course equivalent to the age-old question of whether a tree falling in a forest makes a noise if nobody's around, which has no answer because it can never be tested. It's the same with the Simulation Hypothesis, provided the simulator doesn't "screw up" by unintentionally revealing a glitch or bug in the software. I'll stop now, as my head is beginning to hurt. Anything that is not expressly forbidden in quantum mechanics is mandatory. — Murray Gell-Mann  Golly G — Posted Saturday September 22 2018 Nearly all of the basic physical constants of Nature are now known to fantastic precision, with measured and calculated values typically agreeing to 7 or more decimal places. For example, the gyromagnetic ratio of the electron is known to 12 decimal places, equivalent to measuring the distance between Los Angeles and New York City to within the width of a human hair. But the value of Newton's gravitational constant $$G_N$$ is known only to 3 decimals, or $$6.673 \times 10^{-11}$$ N $$\cdot kg^{-2} \cdot$$ m$$^2$$, with a large uncertainty beyond the third decimal. This is not only unfortunate but rather embarrassing, since the gravitational force was undoubtedly the first of Nature's forces to be discovered (often painfully and fatally) by man. The reason for this lies in both the relative weakness of the gravitational force and the lack of available precision measuring equipment. Remarkably, the torsion balance approach (see figure), dating back to the late 1700s, is still the only one we have (though it has been greatly refined). Another problem dogging the determination of $$G_N$$ is the lack of a sufficiently small but massive test body—heavy metal spheres, typically used in torsion balances, are comparable in size to the balances themselves, making any general-relativistic approach impossible. Physicist Ethan Siegel has a recent article on his It Starts With A Bang website that discusses the imprecision issue of $$G_N$$ in greater detail, and the reader is encouraged to give it a look. But to me the empirically-determined value of $$G_N$$ involves a bigger issue: is the value a transcendental number like $$\pi = 3.141592 \ldots \,$$, a rational number like $$5/3$$ or, (as some scientists have conjectured), not a fixed number at all, but one dependent on time or the radius of the expanding universe? The latter remains a possibility, as we've only been measuring it for the past two hundred years or so, a mere blink of the eye in cosmological terms. But if $$G_N$$ is not fixed, then what about other physical constants, like the mass and charge of the electron or the presumed infinite lifetime of the proton? We haven't been watching those "constants" for that long, either! All this reminds me of the story of the ephemeral fly (also known as the mayfly), a flying insect that hatches, flits around looking for a mate, then dies only a few hours after being born. Hypothetically, an intelligent ephemeral fly looks at its world as it flies about, marveling at the seeming immortality of the grass and trees it passes by, unaware that they too are mortal, with lifetimes surpassing its own by what we'd consider an inconsequential amount of time. So too might the stars and galaxies in the night sky which, gazing down upon Earth, might muse over the pathetically brief lifetimes of humans. And in an even greater sense is the life of the universe itself which, if the theory of the accelerated expansion of the universe is correct, will eventually wink out as a diffuse gas of high-entropy radiation, devoid of all matter in a bland, nondescript de Sitter void. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen? Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that! — Hamlet, musing over Yorick's skull  Immortality? — Posted Monday September 3 2018 When Groucho Marx died in 1977 at the age of 86 following months of lingering illness, he was asked if he had any desire to go on living. He replied that he had been everywhere, seen everything and had accomplished all that he wanted to accomplish, so there was no need for his life to be extended. And when the noted Caltech physicist Richard Feynman was dying, he noted that he wished it would hurry up, as he found the process "boring." He too had seen and done just about everything in his life, although his death in 1988 at the age of just 69 likely left many more things in physics that he might have contributed to. Paul Sagar, a lecturer in political theory in the department of political economy at King's College in London, has an interesting article on immortality in today's Aeon Magazine. His main point is that human life is worthwhile only as long as it's interesting and allows the promise of as-yet unattained fulfillment, and that without them immortality would be not only meaningless but tedious and boring. Notably, Sagar doesn't touch on the religious aspects of immortality—a pity since the very notion of the afterlife is really nothing more than immortality promised by several dominant religions. Ancient peoples, particularly pagans and even early Jews, had no interest in an afterlife. They viewed immortality as something enjoyed only by their gods, and that day-to-day life was difficult enough without worrying about what might come after it. They prayed and sacrified to their gods for a relatively fulfilling and easy life while they were alive, and when death came that was pretty much the end of everything. They accepted the inevitability of death and eternal oblivion without complaining. But that all changed when Christianity arose in the decades following the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Evolving as it did primarily through the writings of the apostle Paul and the gospel writers Mark, Matthew and Luke (although we don't know who they really were), the notion of eternal life inarguably became that faith's major selling point. Up until then the gods offered only earthly health and prosperity, but Christianity's promise of immortality in a blissful afterlife somehow caught on—perhaps living conditions in the first century CE had improved to the point where ordinary people could aspire to something after death. At the very least, the Christian faith provided—for the very first time—a way to allay the fear of death, which was probably just as prevalent and onerous then as it is now. Today, the promise of eternal life is just about all that Christians think about. Without that promise, Christians would feel free to spit in God's eye. But immortality—whether it's promised by the Judeo-Christian-Islamic trinity of Abrahamic religion or any other faith—does not circumvent the problems that Sagar talks about in his article. Even the most diehard Christian today would not deny that an eternity spent upon one's knees singing praises to God would be akin to living in hell, while the return of a Jewish king-like Messiah to rule his subjects in a perpetual earthly heaven would ultimately offer the same kind of unending tedium. If the only purpose of immortality is the permanent postponement of death, without any hope of learning, doing or accomplishing anything truly new and interesting, then eternal life really has no appeal.  Gotta Dance — Posted Monday August 6 2018 The dancers of Strasbourg were subjects of a rapidly changing world where suddenly old verities were in question, the mania spreading by means of the new media of the printing press, along with all manner of unconfirmed, superstitious ideas. — Ed Simon Long before American Bandstand there was the Dance Craze of 1518. Preface: In his strangely prescient 1952 short story The Year of the Jackpot, Robert Heinlein writes about an otherwise ordinary day when for some reason people start acting crazy—bus passengers spontaneously take off their clothes, the Alabama legislature proposes a law repealing the laws of atomic energy, a patent is filed to turn the Earth on its side to warm the Arctic for real estate purposes—all carefully noted by the story's protagonist, Potiphar Breen (the biblical name is not a coincidence), and his girlfriend. She snuggled to him. "Keep me warm." "It will be warmer soon. I mean, I'll keep you warm." "Dear Potty." She looked up. "Potty, something funny is happening to the sunset." "No, darling. To the Sun." Like Heinlein's fictitious nightmare story or a true historical event from 500 years ago, something very odd is happening to people today. In the Rewire.com article Irrational Fear and New Media: The Deadly "Dance Plague" at 500, writer Ed Simon notes a disturbing resemblance between the dance craze of 1518 (whose rapid spread from Strasbourg to other cities and towns in Europe was due in large part to the new-fangled printing press) and the similar inexplicable insanity that has overtaken people worldwide today (but particularly here in America). He notes the utter ridiculousness of the QAnon Conspiracy that has enveloped America's right wing, the persistent belief in a flat Earth by the same idiots, and the newer laundry detergent-eating craze that young and old people alike are increasingly engaging in (likely due to their confusion of bath salts with certain illicit drugs). Can this be attributed solely to the advent of social media technologies like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter or the obsessive (and annoying) use of now-ubiquitous smart phones? I think Simon's only partly right about that. In 16th-century Europe and even in the 1950s of "Jackpot," humans did not have the ability to destroy themselves (and all life) with nuclear weapons, global pollution or the intercontinental spread of contagious diseases. Perhaps the awareness of just how horrible things have gotten, particularly given the fact that some 7.6 billion people now inhabit our increasingly polluted and resource-depleted planet, is finally sinking in. But I would venture to guess that the magnitude of the problems is more than many people can deal with or even comprehend, so they retreat into simplistic thinking and give in to the false assurances of corrupt political leaders. And the most simplistic ones among us are religious believers, especially Christians, who for millennia have relied upon a series of provably-false, nonsensical mythological tales and legends to alleviate the greatest human fear of all, the fear of death.  How Will Trump Skate? With Brilliant Deductive Reasoning! — Posted Monday August 6 2018 Police Chief Wiggum: Nobody move! You're all under arrest for the murder of American democracy! Fat Tony: What's a murder? Rudy Guiliani: My client's innocent! Indeed, what's a murder? What's collusion? What's treason? There's no crime in any of that! American People: We're convinced. Case closed! With apologies to The Simpsons, Season 3, Episode 4, "Bart the Murderer"  What Would Jesus Mister Rogers Do? — Posted Tuesday July 24 2018 At the end of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary tribute to Fred Rogers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" that's setting box office records around the country, one of the show's principals advises viewers not to ask "What would Mister Rogers do?" but to consider instead "What will YOU do?" regarding the seemingly hopeless state the country and world are in today. I unashamedly laughed and cried throughout the movie. But it also angered me at times, especially when I saw footage of Fox News accusing Rogers of turning a generation of American children into noncompetitive, unTrump-like wusses with his "You're special and I like you just the way you are" attitude of unconditional acceptance and love. I hope there's a "special" place in Hell where the Fox News people, Trump and all his ilk are forced to watch the movie for eternity, all while roasting in flames. Go see the movie. You'll be a better person for it. And take lots of Kleenex.  Unwinnable — Posted Tuesday July 24 2018 A winnable war is a temp job. An unwinnable war is a yearly salary and a retirement plan. — Comment on YouTube The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. — Albert Einstein Major Daniel Sjursen is a 2005 graduate of West Point who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In this 5-minute video, he outlines the two primary reasons for America's ongoing involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan: profit and sunken costs.  Hermann Weyl Meets Queen — Posted Saturday July 21 2018 Hermann Weyl is immortalized via Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. The Einstein puppet is great, too  Dumber and Dumberer — Posted Thursday July 19 2018 The cover of this week's New Scientist magazine This morning I posted a comment on a popular website via the posting service Disqus.com regarding how stupid the American people have become, especially regarding political and religious issues. My comments were posted but then quickly taken down, presumably because the links I included might be construed as inappropriate or even obscene. Here is a somewhat shortened version: I find it remarkable that with today's advanced scientific knowledge and the instant communication ability we have to share that knowledge with everyone around the world, people seem to be getting dumber. They treat facts as opinions and opinions as facts, especially political and religious notions that we all know are false. "I believe what I believe, therefore it's true" seems to be the mantra of mankind today. This kind of non-thinking religious belief has now infected American politics, ergo Donald Trump and his third wife Melania, who notoriously posed for a lesbian- and BDSM-themed photo spread in 1997 that nobody seems to want to talk about today, especially American evangelicals that brought her and Donald into the White House. Indeed, these same religious conservatives appear to prefer a naked woman in black stilettos for their First Lady, rather than an ape in high heels. There comes a time when things get to be so bleak that hope turns to despair. I've reached that point and then some with America.  What's Missing? — Posted Thursday July 12 2018 PBS SpaceTime currently features about 160 episodes on modern physics, most of which are only about 10 minutes in length. But you can learn a lot of neat stuff in just 10 minutes. The latest episode, hosted by Australian astrophysicist and City University professor Matt O'Dowd, features the one topic that got me interested in physics almost 50 years ago—the principle of gauge invariance: Dr. O'Dowd neglects to say just how accurate these quantum gauge theories are, so here's an example: for the gyromagnetic ratio of the electron, gauge theory agrees with experiment to 12 decimal places, about the same accuracy as measuring the distance between New York and Los Angeles to within the width of a human hair. As far as we know, gauge theory profoundly underlies the forces of the electromagnetic and strong and weak nuclear interactions, giving rise to humankind's most accurate physical theory of all, the Standard Model. What's still missing is the Model's ability to account for gravitation, Einstein's theory of general relativity. Now over 100 years old, general relativity has been tested countless times and, like quantum theory, has yet to fail a single experimental or observational test. But the presumed underlying physical unity of quantum physics and gravitation has escaped the best minds for almost a century now, and the long hoped-for theory of quantum gravity remains as elusive as ever. Some glorious day, someone—very likely a young boy or girl now in grade school—will come along and give us the right answer to the mystery. It will explain much of what we don't yet know about the physical world, including black holes, the arrow of time, entropy, and perhaps even what our purpose is in this seemingly random and meaningless universe.  Do Americans Still Recognize This Face? — Posted Saturday July 7 2018 A great article in today's Big Think. Pop Quiz, Hotshots: Why do Americans invariably think of Israelis as bold, heroic freedom fighters, and Jews as hook-nosed, money-grubbing, Christ-killing bastards? They're the same people! While I totally disagree with Israel's apartheid treatment of the Palestinians, what the Jews have been through over the past 2,000 years (thanks to the New Testament identifying them as "children of the devil," and thereby initiating two millennia of anti-Semitism) makes it understandable, if not right in the eyes of their god.  Rolling in His Grave? — Posted Friday July 6 2018 "It is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiment." "It seems that if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one's equations, and if one has really a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress." — Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac In my opinion, Paul Dirac (1902-1984), is the greatest physicist who ever lived. There really is beauty in truth, although it can be a misleading mistress. With some trepidation I bought and read German physicist Sabine Hossenfelder's new book Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, which describes how things like mathematical symmetry and beauty have (unintentionally) led today's physicists into a netherworld of preposterous hypothetical ideas and theories that can never be experimentally tested, yet are being taken seriously nevertheless. Just witness the number of today's whoosh-bang cable science shows, whose computer-generated graphics lend these ideas and theories a semblance of reality. The trepidation I felt had to do with my love of mathematical symmetry and beauty, which have historically led scientists to fantastic truths underlying all of modern physics—things like gauge symmetry, which does indeed underlie all of our notions of physical reality, and Noether's theorem, which posits that every continuous mathematical symmetry gives rise to conservation laws for energy, momentum and electric charge (even the conservation of center of mass). My fears were unfounded, however, as Hossenfelder primarily attacks theories in which the mathematics appear sound (superstring theory and supersymmetry, or SUSY) but have no apparent physical or experimental basis. Similarly, she expresses her doubts about the multiverse and extra dimensions as being mathematically plausible but lacking a shred of experimental data to back them up. All of these "crazy" ideas are not without some merit. Take the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory for example, which says that a physical system or state is strictly probabilistic and unknowable until a measurement or observation is made, at which time it instantaneously "collapses" into a single eigenstate. How can an observation, made by either a human being or a mouse, cause a quantum system to collapse? Is a sentient mind required to collapse a state vector and, if so, how? Does it occur instantly, and is it bound by the laws of causality and locality? The entire notion of state collapse is offensive to many physicists, and for this reason the idea of the multiverse came about—that is, the state vector does not collapse at all upon observation, but splits the universe into the same number of alternate universes corresponding to the number of possible outcomes in the observation. That is, you flip a coin and get heads, but then another universe is created in which "you" get tails, and the two universes diverge from one another from that point on. Hossenfelder's is an important book. It's an easy read (no math) and should be read by everyone. Highly recommended, even. But say it ain't so, Sabine!  Duck and Cover — Posted Wednesday June 27 2018 Americans don't care about human beings. So why should they care about intelligent extraterrestrial life forms? I assume everyone's heard of the Drake Equation, which is a pseudo-plausible way of estimating the number $$N$$ of intelligent life forms now present in the observable universe. If $$R_s$$ is the average rate of star formations, $$f_p$$ is the fraction of star systems that have planets, $$n_e$$ is the number of those planets that can support life, $$f_l$$ is the fraction of those planets that actually develop life, $$f_i$$ is another fraction for which intelligent life has developed, $$f_c$$ is the fraction which have developed electromagnetic communication ability, and $$T$$ is the length of time over which detectable electromagnetic signals are sent out into space, then Drake's equation says $$N = R_s \cdot f_p \cdot n_e \cdot f_l \cdot f_i \cdot f_c \cdot T$$ How precise is this equation? Not very, and I never placed much faith in it, but there's a simpler, perfectly accurate comparable expression that is $$N \ge 1$$ (and even then I wonder if humankind qualifies as an "intelligent" life form). When considering the Drake equation, one is naturally led to the question of where those extraterrestrial life forms might be and, if they're assumed to be highly intellegent, why they haven't contacted us yet. There are all kinds of plausible explanations that have been proposed for their absence (which I won't go into), but the most recent is the one given by writer Scotty Hendricks over at Bigthink.com, who believes that the absence of alien contact may be due to a universal rule of most intelligent life. And that rule is survival. To see why Hendricks' idea is perhaps the most plausible to date, consider the following scenario. Imagine that humans someday detect and confirm an intentional alien signal coming from a nearby star system. Following a series of decades-long interplanetary deciphered communications, future humans might construct a spaceship capable of sending a representative group of people to the planet in question. In the absence of warp drive or other faster-than-chemical-propellant travel, the trip itself would take decades, perhaps even generations—at any rate, there would be no going back home. Upon discovering that the alien planet is capable of supporting human life, the humans would almost certainly break out the nuclear weapons they had brought with them and wipe out the planet's inhabitants, thus securing the planet for future human habitation and proliferation. Why? Because that's what intelligent life forms invariably do to ensure their survival. This is the gist of Hendricks' argument—to guarantee survival, intelligent life forms cannot take any chances, so the reason why we haven't heard from alien civilizations is because they're basically hiding from species such as the human race, which throughout its history has never missed an opportunity to wipe out neighboring peoples to acquire their resources. Oh, but you say we're better than that now? Silly rabbit, history says otherwise. And as Donald and Melania Trump are so generously demonstrating, it's still going on.  Reminiscences, Northview School — Posted Wednesday June 20 2018 My sister Ria recently passed away, and I acquired hundreds of family photos from her estate, most of which I'd never seen. One of the photos shows her as a gorgeous blonde 14-year-old 8th grader from Northview School in Duarte, California dated March 1951. I attended the same school from 1954-1963, completely unaware that my sister had been there as well (we did not have an exactly cohesive, communicative family). I even recognize the building the photo was taken in front of. (Full size here.) Regrettably for me, good looks are not hereditary. Goodbye, dear sister.  Final Word — Posted Wednesday June 20 2018 Enough is enough. Inspired by madman Donald Trump, the entire Republican Party is evil. Kill them all.  Balakrishnan on Science and Magic — Posted Monday June 11 2018 When I started to watch renowned Indian physicist Venkataraman Balakrishnan's 2016 YouTube lecture "Thaumaturgy in the Age of Science", I thought thaumaturgy was either a made-up term or something associated with a Hindu word. It turns out it's a legitimate English noun, meaning "hocus-pocus" or "flimflam." Balakrishnan notes that the word has no fewer than a dozen synonyms, all more or less pejorative, but it has only a few antonyms, like "fact", "truth" and "reality." He goes on to note that the word science itself acts as an antonym to thaumaturgy, with definitions that include "erudition" and "knowledge." Balakrishnan laments the fact that while thaumaturgy cannot compete with science in terms of benefits to humanity, today it outshines science in terms of predominance. He underlines our ongoing, incomprehensible fixation on superstition and nonsensical flummery as a means of illusory control over the laws of Nature, along with the power it has conferred to the current and historical charletans of politics and religion over fearful and ignorant populations, always with dire results. Prof. Balakrishnan notes also that humanity's ability to truly understand today's technology is outstripped by the apparent human preference to believe in unsubstantiated anecdotes, magic and pseudosciences like dianetics, homeopathy, quantum healing, palm reading and chiropractic. We have progressed, he further notes, in having rejected slavery and the divine right of kings, but regression is always never very far away (I am reminded of recent comments by certain conservative Republican political, religious and cultural leaders that African Americans "never had it so good" as when they were enslaved). At the same time, technology has advanced illusory special effects in motion pictures to the point where the magic and pseudoscience they feature appear to be true manifestations of Nature after all, while true science has failed to provide much concurrent enlightenment among clueless consumers awash in popular culture. At the conclusion of his talk, Balakrishnan invites questions from the audience. Interestingly, the first question is whether he believes in God. Balakrishnan's answer is indirect but fascinating, and I urge you to watch the entire video. By the way, interested readers are invited check out Balakrishnan's many excellent video lectures on physics. His talks remind me of those given by Stanford's Leonard Susskind, although Balakrishnan's are a little more mathematically rigorous and have the added advantage of subtitles.  Westworld — Posted Monday June 4 2018 I rarely watch cable television any more, primarily because I want to avoid the news, and I generally restrict myself to documentaries and nature and science shows. But the HBO series Westworld, now deep into its second season, has me addicted. Superbly produced and filmed on 35mm stock (a rarity in today's digital world), the plot line is devilishly hard to keep track of, much less comprehend, but last night's episode, Les Écorchés (roughly, The Flayed Ones), confirmed what I had suspected since the end of last year's airing regarding the series' deepest plot motif: that the human desire to live forever will persist far into the future. I admit that as a half-convinced adherent of the Simulation Hypothesis I see more than one connection of the show to what might actually be mankind's most fervent wish, which until the advent of unimaginably powerful computers had been relegated to religious faith. True, the simulation hypothesis is no more testable than is religious belief, but given the modest constraints of quantum computation and the reality of Moore's Law, the hypothesis makes about as much sense as anything else. The online science magazine Quanta currently has an article entitled "There Are No Laws of Physics. There's Only the Landscape" which claims that superstring theory is a unique theory with no free parameters. While I rather doubt those claims (as do others), I believe the author is actually advancing the idea that, given an infinity of possible universes with different physical laws in each, the one we happen to inhabit has just one unique set of laws, kind of like saying that people with brown eyes have brown eyes because they have brown eyes. Similarly, the electron has a mass of $$9.11\times 10^{-31}$$ kilograms because, well, just because it does. And if our universe had indeed been created by highly advanced computer programmers with that particular electron mass, then it would make no sense to wonder if a unified field theory of physics might ever provide a mathematical justification for the electron's mass, because it simply is what it is. "Nonsense!" say religious believers, "God, not happenstance or computer programmers, made the universe." But if God created the universe out of particles and fields, and if human beings are composed of those same particles and fields, why can we not make the inference that God is simply a highly advanced computer programmer (or a somewhat more advanced Westworld computer geek)? And if God is eternal, that would be great too, because maybe s/he might share that immortality with us as well.  It Did Indeed Happen — Posted Tuesday May 29 2018 The brilliant Austrian-American mathematician and logician Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) died forty years ago, but in addition to his famous incompleteness theorems of mathematical logic he is arguably most famous for a remark he made just prior to his induction as a U.S. citizen in 1947. Fleeing the Nazis, Gödel (pronounced girdle) went to America in 1939, taking up residence at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study alongside his good friend and colleague Einstein. Believing that he and his wife had escaped the Nazis by the skin of their teeth, Gödel took his citizenship exam very seriously, spending countless hours studying the U.S. Constitition. At one point he made a disturbing discovery about the Constitution—he found a loophole in the document which allows America to legally descend into a dictatorship. During his citizenship exam, Gödel was questioned by Judge Phillip Forman, who rhetorically asked if Gödel believed that America could ever become a dictatorship like Nazi Germany. At that point Gödel began to explain the constitutional loophole he had uncovered. Realizing that Gödel would likely be turned down for citizenship for what he was saying, Forman, who was a friend of Einstein (a witness at the citizenship exam), quickly cut Gödel off. He was thus granted citizenship, despite having nearly blown the exam. As of today, no one knows what flaw in the Constitution Gödel had uncovered; despite numerous inquiries, he never revealed it. But 40 years after his death it is all too obvious that he had discovered the truth—America has indeed become a fascist dictatorship under President Trump and the Republican Party.  Definition — Posted Tuesday May 29 2018 Christianity: The popular belief that a celestial 1st Century Jewish baby who was his own father and born from a virgin mother died for three days so that he could ascend to heaven on a cloud and let you live forever but only if you symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your lord and master so he could remove an evil force from your spiritual being that is present in all humanity because a naive woman made from a man's rib was hoodwinked by a talking reptile that was really a malicious angel into secretly eating a forbidden fruit from a magical tree. Oh, and you'll burn forever in hell if you don't believe all of it. Sounds perfectly plausible to me $$\ldots$$ Ex falso quodlibet — "Anything follows a falsehood"  Dark Matter — Posted Monday May 28 2018 The latest data from the orbiting Planck satellite, showing minute variations in the temperature gradient of the cosmic microwave background, a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang. Had the Big Bang event been perfectly uniform, galaxies and solar systems could never have formed. The Planck project confirms data from other satellite probes that the universe was born 13.8 billion years ago. On the basis of numerous terrestrial and space observations performed over the past two decades, astrophysicists have compiled an amazingly precise estimate of the amount of matter and energy in the observable universe. The usual, familiar matter that we can actually observe or detect—"baryonic" matter such as protons, neutrons and particles composed of these things—accounts for only about 5% of the stuff in the universe. Coming in at about 25% of the total mass-energy is so-called dark matter, a mysterious kind of matter that has been postulated to exist despite heroic (and costly) efforts to date to actually detect it. That leaves roughly 70% of the mass-energy of the universe unaccounted for—what scientists have dubbed dark energy, which seems to be everywhere in the universe at a constant "concentration." I'm not a fan of dark matter, as it smacks too much of the "luminiferous ether" hypothesis of the late 1800s. The ether was presumed to exist because scientists at the time believed that light waves—like sound and water waves—needed something to "wave against" in their journey through interstellar space. All efforts to actually detect the ether failed, but it was assumed to exist anyway as a kind of invisible, odorless, tasteless, incorporeal "stuff" permeating the universe. But it was also assumed that as the Earth moved around the Sun, the ether "wind" should be detectable by measuring its effect on the interference pattern of perpendicular light rays. In 1887, using a primitive (by today's standards) but highly accurate interferometer, Michelson and Morley proved that the ether was a figment of the imagination—it simply did not exist. By comparison, dark energy is most likely just the cosmological constant $$\Lambda$$ of Einstein's theory of general relativity. It appears in the ten gravitational field equations given by $$R_{\mu\nu} - \frac{1}{2}\, g_{\mu\nu}\, R + g_{\mu\nu}\, \Lambda= - \frac{8 \pi G}{c^4}\, T_{\mu\nu}$$ where the left-hand side is the glorious, gleaming "marble" of pure geometry and the right-hand side is the inferior "wood" of physical matter (Einstein's description). Einstein viewed the energy-momentum tensor $$T_{\mu\nu}$$ as a kind of placeholder for matter whose actual mathematical description had to be inferred. Einstein's famous "greatest blunder" was his 1917 assumption that the cosmological constant was required to keep the universe from expanding forever. When Hubble discovered in 1929 that the universe was indeed expanding, Einstein (and most other scientists) dropped $$\Lambda$$ from the equations, although today's astrophysicists tend to believe that it's really dark energy in disguise. Dark energy is also believed to be the force responsible for the observed acceleration of universal expansion which, many billions of years from now, will result in what's known as the "heat death" of the universe—a bleak, featureless, static expanse of nothingness except for a rarified gas of high-entropy photons. While the 5% ordinary matter and 70% dark energy budgets of the universe aren't terribly problematic, the dark matter question is still bugging astrophysicists. It's got to be there, they say, because there's some kind of additional matter in galaxies that is responsible for the high velocity of outer galactic stars—stars whose orbital motion should be much slower considering either Newton's gravity law or Einstein's general relativity. All kinds of weird things have been proposed to explain dark matter—axions, massive neutrinos, weakly-interacting massive particles (WIMPs), etc.—but all attempts to detect them have failed. This is largely because dark matter is assumed to be subject only to the force of gravity, and does not interact with itself, ordinary matter, light or dark energy (or detectors, either). Thus, my comparison of dark matter with the luminiferous ether seems to be justified (unless I'm wrong, because dark matter may still actually exist). A better approach (that has met with some success) is modified gravity (MOG), which assumes that Einstein's gravity theory is not quite right, despite the fact that it has brilliantly passed every experimental test thrown at it (with the exception of dark matter) since its inception over 100 years ago. Several MOG theories have explained the anomalous star-velocity problem for dozens of observed galactic systems, but have failed to fully measure up to others. The nice thing about MOG is that there are only a relative few things you can do to Einstein's theory without throwing it out altogether and starting out with something brand new. I think MOG is a better approach (I've tried my hand at it as well), since Einstein's theory is already so successful, but it still doesn't address the potential effects of quantum theory. That's what quantum gravity is all about, and while progress has been made along those lines we're still no closer to a working theory of quantum gravity. Hopefully, I'll see it in my lifetime. Meanwhile, the failures of dark matter theories continue to pile up. The latest is the last in a long series of dark matter research projects that have been carried out at the Gran Sasso Laboratory in Italy. The XENON projects utilize over three tons of ultra-pure liquid xenon stored deep underground, where extraneous particles (cosmic rays in particular) cannot reach. The researchers had hoped that even a few stray dark matter particles would be detected by their interaction with the liquid xenon, but in a report issued today the researchers reported that no interactions had been observed. The project will continue despite this latest failure, however, as it seems that funding for such expensive projects will also continue to be available, while boring theoretical efforts such as MOG will remain in the background.  Memorial Day 2018 — Posted Monday May 28 2018 Some 420,000 American troops died in World War II defending the nation and the world against the Axis powers of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy. But in 2016 "Christian" America decided that fascism, greed and breathtaking moral corruption weren't so bad after all, and elected a President so heinous and contemptible that those dead must surely be turning in their graves. Happy Memorial Day, Amerika.  More Incomprehensible Stupidity and Hypocrisy — Posted Wednesday May 23 2018 I just got back from a family visit to Duluth, Georgia, where Christian church attendance is damned near mandatory, and all vehicles must have an American flag in the window and sport a "God Bless Our Heroic Troops" bumper sticker (my son's car doesn't have any stickers, and he's probably the only PhD in town, so he's regarded with some wariness by the locals, even though he's a Christian). Just before departure at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, a woman on the public address system invited travelers to a non-denominational prayer service ("non-denominational" in a Red State still means "fundamentalist Christian"). Funny, the same damned thing happened to me on an Egypt Air flight from Rome to Cairo, but it was the pilot giving the prayer in Arabic while we were taxiing just prior to takeoff. Also funny is how all NFL players are now required to stand during the National Anthem or else be fined. They can't kneel, even in prayer, because kneeling has now been banned by the courts for being a form of non-patriotic behavior. No, they've got to stand, fully upright and proudly, too, with their heads held high and their protective athletic cups bulging out in genital salute to our glorious flag. And since most NFL players are black, we'll not be seeing any of that-there raised-fist, 1968 Olympics protest stuff either. Even though that was 50 years ago, you blacks have still got to know your place. Trump's in charge now. [My friend of over 60 years (also named Bill) works for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and during home games he is required to stand for the National Anthem. He's more liberal than I am, and he's told me many times how much he hates to see the patriotic bullshit that's trotted out before and during every game.] Perhaps in the near future all event attendees will be required to stand and salute during the National Anthem as well. We could even have Patriotism Police roaming the bleachers with clubs and tasers, ensuring that each and every attendee is expressing the proper amount of devotion. Hey, it's just a suggestion. It was the same in ancient Rome and in Nazi Germany, when open displays of protest against wars of aggression or the ruling regime were punishable by fines and even imprisonment and execution. I wonder if that's what in store für Amerika unter Trump und der republikanischen Partei. Gee, I can't wait.  Incomprehensible Stupidity and Hypocrisy — Posted Thursday May 3 2018 The first episode of the second season of HBO's The Handmaid's Tale has June and Luke reacting with alarm to live television reports of dozens of machine guns opening up in the Capitol, while explosions are being reported in the White House. It's a flashback, portending the rise of the Republic of Gilead, previously known as the United States of America. The episode does not reveal who's responsible for the terrorist attack, but the viewer is led to presume that it's not an external group of terrorists but a conservative cabal within America itself intent on overturning everything remotely liberal, from women's and minority rights to Roe v. Wade to family planning to MTV to no prayer in public schools. The attack is the last straw in the tottering social edifice called American democracy, and all it took was another televised incident of violence to end it. President Trump infamously bragged that he could personally shoot someone in cold blood and not suffer any loss of voter support. I wouldn't put it past him to initiate a home-grown terrorist attack that would give him the authority he so cravenly desires to have Robert Mueller assassinated, Hillary Clinton hanged by her pussy and all of America locked down under perpetual martial law, while America's Christians cheer the conversion of the country to a Bible-based theocratic state, one in which women and minorities know their place and where all dissent is outlawed under penalty of prison, dismemberment or death. Meanwhile, the media are reporting that in spite of the corruption, lies, whoremongering and everything else, Trump's base will support him no matter what, even if it turns out he conspired with the Russians to win the 2016 election. You may remember the scene in 1969's The Wild Bunch where the outlaws open fire on an otherwise heavily-protected General Mapache, and none of his dozens of troops and bodyguards do anything about it. Realizing they will suffer no repercussions, the outlaws gleefully start killing everyone. That's exactly what Trump and his minions are doing to America today. Case in point: This morning I talked to one of my town's public librarians about President Trump having been caught redhanded lying about his paying prostitute Stormy Daniels through his lawyer Michael Cohen. The librarian, a conservative Christian I've known for many years, responded only that he'd gotten$200 back on his federal taxes thanks to Trump, that it would help pay for his daughter's swimming lessons, and that this was good enough for him to continue supporting Trump. I don't intend to ever patronize that library branch again. God, how I do hate this fucking country.

 But We're Better, Right? — Posted Wednesday April 26 2018

 The Trump Effect on Evangelicals — Posted Sunday April 22 2018

 Fascism Forever or, "I Had a Dream!" — Posted Wednesday April 18 2018 In an insightful article entitled "Never Again?" How Fascism Hijacks Democracies Over and Over, Nexus president and cultural philosopher Rob Riemen writes "And so what are the characteristics of a fascist culture? In a fascist culture you'll always have, and again, you know, the terrible examples of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler — they tell us: The fascist leader will always come forward in a time of crisis." While Riemen rightly notes that past crises like mass unemployment and hyperinflation in post-Versailles Germany and Spain's civil war were directly responsible for fascist leaders like Hitler and Franco, there was no similar crisis in post-Bush 43 America that I can think of. The only thing that even approaches a crisis was the 2007-2008 financial meltdown, which was quickly alleviated by Bush authorizing the give-away of nearly a trillion dollars to the same banks and corporations that caused the mess in the first place. Riemen does not identify which crisis America found itself in when it elected Trump, but he does characterize the traits associated with fascist leaders that typically arise in times of trouble: "He — and most of the time it's a he — will present himself as the anti-political leader who will cure society of all social evils. A kind of new messiah. It's a cult figure. It will always be a form of extreme nationalism, you know, to "make the country great again.". That's a very old phrase every fascist will use. Deprived of any positive idea, not even interested in it, because those fascist leaders are completely obsessed by self-interest. It's all about them, them, them, them, and nothing else." Riemen won't admit it, but I believe the only "crisis" America found itself in was the eight-year leadership of a black, Democratic president who unwittingly brought out the primal, epigenetic racial hatred lurking in many Americans, the same Americans who call themselves "Christian value-voters" while at the same time despising blacks, minorities, free-thinking women, higher education and science. These same Americans bent over backward to elect a proven sexual predator and womanizing, thrice-married, money-grubbing monster whose unreformed predatory habits and habitual lying have continued right into the White House. And these same Americans continue to love and worship him. The ultra-conservative Christian televangelist and Trump supporter Pat Robertson described a dream he had just prior to the 2016 presidential election: "God came to me in a dream last night and showed me the future. He took me to Heaven and I saw Donald Trump seated at the right hand of our Lord." Robertson somehow either overlooked the New Testament's identification of Jesus Christ as the right hand of God, or he has identified Trump as the world's Messiah.

 Blood Pressure — Posted Tuesday April 17 2018 The recent disclosure that Fox News anchor and all-around conservative, lying asshole Sean Hannity is now caught up in the Trump-Cohen-Daniels-Broidy criminal conspiracy did not surprise me in the least. In fact, it reminded me of a short story I read many years ago in high school. It was a morning in October 1966 and I had a free period, meaning I was in the library of Duarte High School doing some free reading. One of the books on the shelf was titled A Damon Runyon Omnibus (who I later learned was a popular writer in the 1920s, and the author of Guys and Dolls), and I thought I'd spend the hour reading a short story called Blood Pressure. You can read the story yourself online here. Anyway, the story was about a typical Runyon down-and-outer (and the unnamed narrator of most of his stories) who finds himself confronted with a Broadway tough guy named Rusty Charley. Sitting at a library table, directly across from the school's librarian (one Mrs. Smith, who in my aged state today I recall with more than a little sexual interest), I started to chuckle at what I was reading. This soon became uncontrollable laughter, which initiated more than one remonstrance from the stern but fine-figured Mrs. Smith, and I retreated into one of the book aisles so I could finish the story. I never forgot it, and later acquired several volumes of Runyon's work, which still sit on one of the shelves of my library. Hannity's revealed involvement in the ongoing Trump debacle reminded me of a few lines from the story, which I still remember verbatim: Of course, I do not know that Rusty Charley is the party who guzzles [kills] Gloomy Gus Smallwood, but Rusty Charley is in Philly when Gus is guzzled, and I can put two and two together as well as anybody. It is the same thing as if there is a bank robbery in Cleveland, Ohio, and Rusty Charley is in Cleveland, Ohio, or near there. It's a sad comment that what was then a simple two-plus-two logic problem in the 1920s has morphed into blind fealty for Trump, Hannity and their corrupt company. Are you surprised that Hannity's involved in this huge, steaming pile of shit called the Trump presidency? You shouldn't be, and neither was I. Trump should be hanged for treason, and Fox News should either be shut down or bombed. And where are you today, Mrs. Smith?

 TGIF—Now For Something Completely Different — Posted Friday April 6 2018 I like puzzles, especially mathematical ones. I saw this simple puzzle years ago in a shop in Germany, but it's available now from an outfit here in America. It's made from cardboard and comes with ten pennies, so its monetary value is a mere ten cents, but it costs ten bucks—one hell of a mark-up (the company must be owned by Trump). Anyway, the object is to see if you can move the nine pennies around in the square so that you can fit another penny into it. The YouTube video calls it the "Impossible Ten Penny Puzzle," but it's really a snap to solve—just play with it a minute or two and you'll have it. If you assume that the tenth coin goes in perfectly snug, then you might believe that the puzzle could be proved geometrically. This is one variant of the so-called circle-packing problem, in which one tries to prove mathematically that $$N$$ circles can be tightly packed into a square having length $$L$$. It's the two-dimensional version of the sphere-packing problem in $$n$$ dimensions, which mathematicians have worked on for hundreds of years. Want to pack a bunch of oranges into a box of minimum size in 10-dimensional space? Go ask a mathematician. I tried my own mediocre mathematical hand at the ten-penny problem, but I couldn't do it. However, I did find that the solution is not unique—there are at least three different coin arrangements that work. Even worse, these arrangements are not "snug," since there's still some significant wiggle room available to the ten coins in the square. It was only then that I discovered that the seemingly simple problem of packing ten circles optimally into a square has not yet been solved mathematically, at least as of 1999. This paper by a group of mathematicians shows that the problem has been solved for $$N = 1$$ to $$9$$, but the $$N=10$$ case remains to be proved (see Table 1). You might give it a try, but it's entirely possible that a solution does not exist. "Perfect snugness" is actually what defines the requirement for a mathematical proof in this case, as any wiggle room is not allowed. A great example of this comes to us from The Simpsons (Season 10, Episode 2), where Homer appears to provide a disproof of Fermat's Last Theorem, which states that no integer greater than $$n = 2$$ satifies the Pythagorean equation $$x^n + y^n = z^n$$: Just about any scientific hand calculator will confirm Homer's seemingly brilliant ansatz, but if you carry things out past the 8th decimal (thanks to Mathematica) you'll find that he's wrong: D'oh! Stumped again!

 Breaking News: Most People Are Still Nuts — Posted Thursday April 5 2018 "The more the participants believed in religious or other paranormal phenomena, the lower their intuitive physics skills, mechanical and mental rotation abilities, school grades in mathematics and physics, and knowledge about physical and biological phenomena were [and] the less they reported interests and skills in systemizing and the more they regarded inanimate targets as mental phenomena." — Marjaana Lindeman and Annika Svedholm-Häkkinen, University of Helsinki, Finland When I first saw this image I thought it was some poor woman asphyxiating herself in a rather ornate fireplace, but she is in fact only praying in the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where it is believed Jesus of Nazareth was born. I guess her prayers get better signal strength in the place. Four bars! The above quote is from a recent research paper, which is reviewed in this article over at Bigthink.com. The article doesn't agree with everything, but overall it supports the researchers' assertion that a person's paranormal, superstitious and religious beliefs are strongly linked with a poor understanding of the physical world. The full paper can be downloaded here. The study in question was performed using 258 citizens of Finland (not a country where I would expect to find many religious adherents), but it included controls for age, gender, education and other personal characteristics that should make the study applicable to the western world overall. Similar studies have been conducted on the United States recently, and they all tend to confirm the Helsinki study findings. Science (especially physics and mathematics) as a way of life has been the lifelong motto of myself and many of my friends, but it seems the imbeciles of the world have taken over the place. As Trump would say, "Grab 'em by the $$\ldots$$", er, I mean, "Sad."

 That's MY Jesus — Posted Monday April 2 2018

 On Orwell, Atwood, and America — Posted Monday April 2 2018 I've been watching the Great Courses video lecture series on utopian and dystopian works of literature, focusing on the lectures concerning George Orwell's novel 1984 and Margaret Atwood's more recent novel The Handmaid's Tale. The lectures are given by the University of Connecticut's Pamela Bedore, an associate professor of English at that school. Her style is both enthusiastic and entertaining, and as a failed writer myself I stand in awe before her breadth of knowledge and her appreciation of the subject. I've read 1984 several times, but Bedore reveals a number of plot elements and other points in the book that I've missed. But at the same time I think Bedore herself missed an opportunity to reflect on how the dystopian aspects of both Orwell's and Atwood's novels touch on the modern world. While she does note that her students tend to see the applicability and danger of the novels' warnings for today's world, in my opinion they're more relevant and applicable today than ever before. Although Orwell viewed his novel's Oceania (ruled by Big Brother) as a dysfunctional nation governed by ideological oligarchs, the people forced to live under their totalitarian rule seem little more than unhappy slaves constrained to obey their masters, lest they end up in the truly barbarous Room 101 of the Ministry of Love. What Orwell missed, however, was the possibility (or likelihood) that a significant percentage of Oceania's population would willingly adopt and seek to preserve the hideous agenda of the ruling elite, even those who were injured by that agenda (and knew they were being injured). This idea is not new, having been proposed by writers such as Chris Hedges and political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, whose notion of "inverted totalitarianism" accurately describes such a "popular" dystopian government. This, in my opinion, is what America is today—an inverted totalitarian state. In Orwell's novel, the protagonist Winston Smith's government job is to seek out and revise if necessary all historical references to issues deemed unacceptable to Big Brother. In the novel, that pertains primarily to books and newspapers, but today it would apply more to digital media, which are more easily revised or deleted entirely. For example, when Oceania's supply of chocolate runs low (like today, everyone loves chocolate in Oceania!), the government restricts the weekly per capita allowance from 30 grams a week to just 20. One of Winston's jobs is to change "30 grams" to "20 grams" in every instance he can find, in effect rewriting history. Of course, his main job is to rewrite history for every government lie, including who is winning the perpetual war with Eurasia and East Asia. The dystopian government of Oceania thus seeks to control people by rewriting history and wiping out or adjusting their memories, a distinct "improvement" over Nazi aviation Reichsminister Hermann Goering's infamous belief that "If you tell a lie enough times, it becomes the truth." This is exactly what is happening in America today, as Americans have become accustomed to President Trump's lies and his claims that all news that he does not agree with are themselves lies. Thus, the lies that Americans hear on Fox News and Sinclair Media are to be accepted unquestionably as the truth, while liberal media like MSNBC and CNN are to be dismissed as lie peddlers. Worse, Trump constantly rewrites history, claiming that Barack Obama is a an anti-American Islamic quisling from Africa, while Hillary Clinton is a traitor who should be locked up. Every day, more and more Americans believe these lies, precisely what Herr Goering predicted. Meanwhile, Trump's extramarital sexual escapades and constant demeaning of women and minorities are likewise becoming accepted by ever-more clueless Americans, mirroring the dystopian leadership of the Republic of Gilead in Atwood's novel. Gilead (for those of you who still read) is the United States of the near future, having become a military theocracy that has turned its women into baby-making machines, literally owned by men whose wives are unable to conceive. The women have no rights, are not allowed to read or write, and are completely at the mercy of their male masters. If you can imagine the Red States of America taking over the entire country, I think you'll get the idea. Still meanwhile, see if you can guess whose quotes these belong to (at least until they disappear from history): "I'm the only one who matters," "Any negative polls are fake news," "Haiti is a shithole," "The media is the enemy," "Barack Obama's birth certificate is a fraud," "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 Hillary Clinton emails that are missing," "My fingers are long and beautiful," "You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever," "It's freezing and snowing in New York -- we need global warming," "If Ivanka weren't my daughter, perhaps I'd be dating her," "I never 'mocked' a disabled reporter but simply showed him grovelling," "You have to treat women like shit," "I am going to be dating this ten-year-old in ten years," "Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything," "Maybe I'll be president for life."

 Reminiscing about MLK Jr., and Other Things — Posted Monday April 2 2018 Fifty years later, I remember the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated quite well, primarily because of an incident that occurred the next day while I was finishing my first year of college. Students were assigned lockers in those days, and on the morning of 5 April 1968 I was getting a book from my locker when a friend (John S.) came up to chat about the assassination. I recall his exact words to me: "I don't know what all the fuss is about King's shooting, Bill. I mean, he was just a fucking nigger, right?" I was shocked by his unfeeling words, but I don't recall my exact response. I do remember wondering how there could be people like that, and how they could grow up with such hateful feelings about blacks. There were two instances of racial violence when I was in high school a few years earlier. I witnessed one of them in the school cafeteria, when a group of white students were yelling at some black students over some issue I never learned about. Some fists were thrown, and a few trash cans were tossed about, but that was about it. The school's administrators took the incident seriously, however, and we lost D-Day (a Friday when classes were shortened five minutes when good behavior prevailed) that week. It was even reported in the local newspaper (The Daily News-Post) the following day, something like "Race riot explodes at Duarte High School", but it really wasn't that big a deal at the time. Fifty years have now gone by, and to tell you the truth I don't think things have changed all that much. In 2016 Americans elected a bigoted, misogynistic, ignorant moron as their President, and we still experience regular unwarranted shootings of innocent black men by police officers, a fact that is sadly overshadowed by the regular mass slaughter of school children by maniacs with unregulated, rapid-fire assault weapons. I've completely given up on this country, if not the world. It's much worse than it's ever been, but we may soon see an end to all this. You may recall how, during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy fought with the military Joint Chiefs over how to deal with the situation. Republican General Curtis LeMay, who despised Kennedy because he thought he was a dovish wuss and coward, wanted to launch an immediate preemptive nuclear attack against the Soviet Union and its allies. Fortunately, Kennedy took a more reasoned approach to the crisis, opting for a blockade, followed by compromise and diplomacy. Today we have Donald Trump, an ignorant, stupid, womanizing sexual predator in the White House who recently appointed John Bolton as his National Security Advisor. Bolton, an ideological war hawk from his earliest days, would easily talk our clueless President into a nuclear world war under circumstances much less dicey than those posed by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Incomprehensibly, America's military leaders still think they can win an all-out nuclear war, while the American people think that would be fine, too, because they believe that Jesus will then return. This parasitic species called the human race fully deserves what appears to be headed down that very road. "I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species, and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed, and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer on this planet." — Agent Smith to Morpheus in The Matrix, 1999

 Child Sacrifice in a Supposedly Civilized Nation — Posted Thursday February 15 2018 Yes, it's happened again. Barbaric ancient civilizations (including the early Israelites) regularly sacrificed children to their gods to ensure bountiful harvests and for protection against foreign invasion. Millennia later, Americans are doing exactly the same thing, but the bountiful harvests are now called gun-industry profits ensured by Senate and House Republicans. The Republican Party plays down the money angle by telling Americans that only unregulated private ownership of multiple handguns and assault rifles can protect them against invasion by nuclear-armed foreign powers. The only price Americans are asked to pay, other than for the firearms themselves and the trillions in taxes they willingly fork over for national "defense," is the periodic slaughter of their children. Is this not modern child sacrifice in a supposedly civilized nation? Devastated parents who lose their children to this policy of profit-motivated child sacrifice are then coddled by Republican leaders offering only their "thoughts and prayers." Dear God, but I do hate this fucking country.

 Welcome to Shithole America — Posted Thursday January 11 2018 I have close family members from Africa, El Salvador and China, and I am personally outraged by President Trump referring to several of these nations as "shithole countries". They are highly educated, successful and productive people who don't deserve to be pigeonholed by a racist president whose own brain is itself a shithole and a national disgrace. The only shithole country I can think of right now (other than America) is Slovenia. It produced Melania Trump, our shit-for-brains First Lady, whose biggest claim to fame is the disgraceful nude girl-on-girl photo spread she posed for in The New York Post. Meanwhile, refusing to bow to worldwide condemnation for his vulgarity, a defiant Trump defended himself by telling news reporters "I'm not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed. Why can't the niggers, beaners and chinks get that through their fucking heads?"

 2018 - Wilkommen in Trumps Amerika! — Posted Monday January 1 2018 My New Year's prediction: Unser glorreicher Anführer Donald Trump will fire DOJ Special Counsel Robert Mueller and halt all investigations into Trump's treasonous ties to the Russians, the Nazi GOP will retain the Senate and House, America will be lost forever, and I will seek Canadian residency.

 Yeah, Happy New Year — Posted Sunday 31 December 2017 The best comment from today's Pharyngula:

 It's All Over — Posted Saturday 16 December 2017 The Trump administration has now banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from issuing any reports or documents using the words science-based, evidence-based, diversity, transgender, fetus, entitlement and vulnerable. My son is a CDC scientist, so this 1984-style authoritarian bullshit is just hitting too close to home now. Despite disturbing news of the word ban from the Washington Post, Gizmodo and many other news services, Americans are now so totally dumbed-down that they can't see that their democracy has been replaced by political-religious totalitarianism. Jefferson and Lincoln are rolling over in their graves. Scientific truth has become opinion. Logic has been prohibited. Rational thinking has been condemned. Alternative facts have replaced facts. Big Brother is just a moronic, addictive television reality show. Screw Trump. Screw the Republican Party. Screw religion, and screw this country. I'm outta here.

 It's Not Going Away — Posted Thursday 14 December 2017 Roy Moore (R-Alabama) may have been defeated by Democratic rival Doug Jones for the state's Senate seat in Congress, but he's hardly going away. He's not only vowing to fight on via an invalid bid for a recount of the votes, but he's proudly displaying the kind of sanctimonious, jingoistic bullshit we've come to expect from Republican pedophiles like him: Meanwhile, our Republican-led Congress is moving ahead with the largest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich in history, while the Republican-controlled FCC has declared net neutrality a thing of the past. Death to America? It's already dead.

 Tricks Are for Morons — Posted Tuesday 12 December 2017 I've just completed Mike's "Nature trick" of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e., from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline. A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can gets its shoes on. You may remember how Mr. Nickerson in Algebra I class explained to us how to solve the quadratic equation by "completing the square," a standard mathematical trick that's even used in quantum field theory. There are a lot of mathematical techniques used to solve problems, but the really clever ones are often referred to as "tricks." You may also remember some years ago when the noted climatologist Michael Mann coupled updated global warming data with previous data obtained from older equipment. He referred to it as a "trick," and that word reverberated in the miniscule brains of climate change-denying conservatives, who referred to Mann's use of the term as the "smoking gun" of a gigantic climate-change hoax intended to make people believe that anthropogenic climate disruption was true. All the usual Fox News pundits came out, including Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs, proudly announcing to their loyal brain-dead viewers that Mann and the climate-change crowd had been caught redhanded trying to pull a fast one. When the truth was finally revealed—that the climatologists had only added new data to existing data sets—the conservative crowd went dead silent. The new data confirmed an uptick in global temperatures in the past 30 years, but the damage had been done—the lie had indeed traveled around the world, becoming a fixed fact in conservative minds that still has not been dislodged. The entire sad story is neatly summarized in today's Skeptoid, a story that once again involves hackers, who in 2009 had stolen some 1,000 emails from a backup server maintained by the Climatic Research Unit of England's University of East Anglia. The emails quickly found their way to a server in Russia, and from there—surprise, surprise—to conservative groups in America. Former Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev's famous 1956 admonition to America that "We will bury you" seems to be coming true.

 God Bless the Dissenters — Posted December 12 December 2017

 Yes, Let Us Prey — Posted Sunday 3 December 2017

 Does Size Matter? (Speaking Cosmologically) — Posted Wednesday 29 November 2017 If you've ever been to Italy and marveled at the great statues that Michaelangelo, Donatello, Bandinelli and others created, you may have wondered why the male subjects' genitals seem to be so small. Many people today are asking that same question, and it invariably arises when visitors see Michaelangelo's statue of David for the first time. While it's possible that Signore Buonarroti was either reflecting on the fact that David was just a youth or trying to subtly re-dimension the male member to cover for his own shortcomings, I prefer to think that the famous sculptor simply didn't think that size mattered. Speaking of size: next year marks the 100th anniversary of the theories of gauge invariance and conformal gravity, which were introduced in April 1918 by the German mathematical physicist Hermann Weyl, a long-time personal hero of mine and the honoree of the meager website that spawned the even feebler website you're currently viewing. Gauge theory came into its own as a cornerstone of modern quantum theory, but Weyl initially proposed it as a fundamental property of Nature. However, he focused it primarily on general relativity (gravitation), which at the time had only recently been introduced by Einstein, Weyl's friend and colleague. Basically, conformal invariance is a mathematical symmetry that makes the notions of physical distances, size and scales irrelevant. In today's parlance, Weyl's theory essentially says that "Size doesn't matter." A recent paper on the topic, which also heralds the advent of the centenary anniversary of Weyl's work, was posted by some Russian physicists earlier this month. Conformal invariance and phenomenology of cosmological particle production is a short, readable paper that includes a simple attempt to generalize Weyl's theory (while the math is fine, the grammar's a tad off, but then again they're Russians). Many other papers are now appearing, and it would seem that physicists are finally getting around to seriously viewing conformal invariance as a fundamental law of Nature. For an even simpler but more comprehensive overview of conformal gravity, I recently posted a write-up on the topic that you can see here. (Meanwhile, sorry about the puerile lead-in reference to the statue of David's apparent inadequacies. Perhaps I'm unconsciously interjecting some of my own concerns along those same lines.)

 Why are Trump and Moore Skating on Sexual Allegations? Here's the Answer — Posted Wednesday 29 November 2017 About five years ago I was at my local sporting goods store here in Pasadena, searching for some item I couldn't locate. Looking about for a salesperson, I finally spotted a woman wearing an employee identification band around her neck, folding some sportswear. When I asked her where I could find the item, she rudely shot back "How would I know? I don't work here!" Realizing that she was indeed not an employee and sorry that I had bothered her, I apologized for my error and, giving her a gentle "sorry" pat on the shoulder, went off to find a real salesperson. At that point the woman screamed "Don't touch me!" and started to make a scene. Heads turned to see what the commotion was all about, and I felt truly awful about the whole incident. After making another apology bordering on dust-and-ashes groveling, I left the store without purchasing anything. Upon hearing the news that two more high-profile men (Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor) had been fired from their jobs this morning for alleged sexual harassment, I reflected on that incident from five years ago. While it seemed harmless to me at the time, I now realize that my behavior was inappropriate. The woman may have been the victim of true sexual harassment or even assault at some time in her life, and even a perfunctory pat on the shoulder by a stranger may have resulted in a torrent of bad memories. But I still cannot understand how the allegations of at least fifteen women for true sexual harassment against President Trump are being ignored, while the allegations of five women against Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore are also being pushed under the rug. President Clinton was impeached for lying to Congress about a consensual affair in the White House, and we now have what seems to be an ongoing avalanche of high-profile men being fired or forced to resign for far less serious allegations. In spite of all this, the self-admitted pussy-grabbing Trump will go right on destroying the country and threatening the planet, while Moore will almost certainly be elected over his infinitely more decent rival, Democratic candidate Doug Jones. And the only reason I can think of for this complete travesty of justice is the now-common explanation, "It's okay if you're a Republican."

 What in Hell is Happening in Alabama?! — Posted Friday 10 November 2017 Alabama lawmaker and US senate hopeful Roy Moore — a man that any 14-year-old girl would gladly drop her knickers for. And such a beautiful smile! Every day brings me nearer to the realization that America has gone fucking bonkers beyond anyone's wildest dreams. The allegations that Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore (a conservative Republican, natch) sexually molested four girls age 14 to 18 when he was a 30-something assistant district attorney are piling up, yet key Alabama Republicans are saying they will still vote for him to be the next U.S. senator from that state even if the allegations are proven to be true. And, of course, they're all using the Christian get-out-of-trouble card. Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler dismissed the allegations by saying that there was also an age gap between the biblical Joseph and Mary, adding that "Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There's just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual." Zeigler went on to add that even if Moore is guilty, it's all "much ado about nothing $$\ldots$$ Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist." [What I find particularly odd about Zeigler's logic is that even if Joseph was much older than Mary, Zeigler's Christian faith holds that he never had sex with Mary.] Moore similarly defended himself with a flurry of Bible-toned texts: We are are in the midst of a spiritual battle with those who want to silence our message. — (1/4) #ALSen JudgeRoyMoore(@MooreSenate) November 9, 2017 The forces of evil will lie, cheat, steal — even inflict physical harm — if they believe it will silence and shut up Christian conservatives like you and me. — (2/4) #ALSen JudgeRoyMoore(@MooreSenate) November 9, 2017 I believe you and I have a duty to stand up and fight back against the forces of evil waging an all-out war on our conservative values! — (3/4) #ALSen JudgeRoyMoore(@MooreSenate) November 9, 2017 Our nation is at a crossroads right now — both spiritually and politically. — (4/4) #ALSen JudgeRoyMoore(@MooreSenate) November 9, 2017 The last time I read the Gospel of Matthew, I counted fifteen instances of Jesus condemning hypocrites and hypocrisy. But I never considered the possibility that there was such a thing as immediate forgiveness for Republicans, even when serial adultery and child sexual molestation is concerned. Silly me. I you're not already vomiting over this latest Alabama debacle, I'd like readers to note that the ages of Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth and Zachariah (see the Gospels, especially Luke) were never specified in the Bible, although (in contradiction to Zeigler), both Elizabeth and Zachariah were both "advanced in years" according to Luke. The alleged age difference between Mary and Joseph was cooked up by the early Roman Catholic Church to validate its belief that Jesus's brothers and sisters were from a previous marriage by Joseph, thus preserving the perpetual virginity myth of Mary (before, during and even after she gave birth to Jesus!) Similarly, the church also believes in the perpetual virginity of Mary's mother Anna (which is the basis of the Immaculate Conception idea), who (according to the Gospel of James) was given an immediate post-partum hymen inspection by Salome, who happily pronounced Anna to be still intact (I guess the church decided to stop there, opting not to investigate the perpetual virginity of Mary's grandmother and others on down the line, ad nauseam). Jeez, and I thought Mississippi was totally fucked up. Again, silly me.

 Let's Take America Back! — Posted Thursday 9 November 2017 Here's a great message from the American Federation of Coal Producers, recommending that all freedom-lovin' Americans hearken back to their God-given heritage and entrepreneurial roots and reimplement home-brewed coal power seasoned with a little natural line-caught whale oil for added flavor. Come on, was the 18th century really so bad?

 "Poor Little Snowflake" — Posted Wednesday 8 November 2017 My younger son received his PhD in molecular biology from UCLA in 2010, graduating at the top of his department. He had spent one year rotating through various grad laboratories before settling in for five years of grinding study and research, rarely spending less than 70 hours a week in the lab. He was one of the more fortunate ones, having a scholarship and a stipend to live on, but the work load nearly broke him. The only other person in the lab who worked harder was his advising professor, whose life pretty much consisted of teaching and research while constantly pursuing grants to keep his lab going. "Life sucking" was the most frequent comment I heard from the students during my visits to the lab. Today it's far worse. The Trump administration is slashing operational and R&D funding for the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, JPL and other federal science, health and environmental agencies, while competition for grant funding has become a nightmare, especially for universities with limited endowments. At the same time, public interest in science in America is at an all-time low, resulting in a nationwide surplus of recent PhD graduates in nearly every hard-science field except statistics and mathematics, where otherwise unemployable scientists are finding unrewarding work doing market projections for hedge fund companies and venture-capital entrepreneurs. The current state of academic scientific research is neatly summarized in a revealing new article by Marc Edwards and Siddhartha Roy of Virginia Tech, who correctly identify the symptoms and consequences of the problems now plaguing scientific research in this country: The authors' article follows an influential 2016 paper they wrote describing the problems in greater detail. While the primary issues deal with the glut of desperate job-hunting PhDs, hypercompetition for limited funding, pressure to produce high numbers of research papers, a growing incidence of fraudulent or falsified data and perverse academic incentives (university prestige, etc.), the situation in my opinion is more a product of the kind of über-capitalistic society America is now embracing. So what if your "breakthrough" scientific discovery can't be duplicated in any other lab, or if you're using post-docs to do work that MS students used to do, or if your grads can't find meaningful work in their field? If you can hype your own questionable work and sell it to some greedy but gullible venture capitalist or impress some well-heeled donor into giving your school $25 million for a new research wing, your future (not to mention your tenure) is secured. Or you can take a slightly different path, going from pure academia to popularized science writing. Harvard's otherwise notable physicist Lisa Randall has books out that any knucklehead can follow (didja know that a cloud of dark matter killed off the dinosaurs?), while City University physics professor Michio Kaku will make you feel smarter with his views on quantum teleportation, time travel and the hazards of super-luminal space travel ("If you see a black hole coming, watch out!") There are many other such academics-turned-snake-oil-salesmen out there, all of whom have discovered that writing gibberish for Americans can pay better than a full professor's salary. After graduating, my son's first job offer was from a start-up firm whose scientists were all working 100-hour weeks to guarantee their boss mega-millions for some medical "breakthrough" that went bust two years later. He turned that down and taught for two years, and decided academia wasn't for him, either. He then took a job with the CDC, deciding that at least the nation's health should hold some interest for the American public. But things will remain tentative for the time being, at least until we can get some adults in Washington D.C. Meanwhile, ponder the possibilities of what could be, but is not.  Why I Despair — Posted Tuesday 31 October 2017 The New York Times reports today that despite the recent revelations of criminality in the Trump administration, Trump's supporters will never abandon him. This was true before the 2016 presidential election, and it's true today. As I've noted too many times on this site, I believe that the reason for this mindless loyalty and adoration stems from the fact that conservatives have now merged their political beliefs with their religious beliefs. And religious beliefs, no matter how insane or demonstrably false or self-contradictory, cannot be espunged from the conservative brain. Some 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in the election, along with a majority of less religious Republicans and the vast majority of white American nationalists. This voting bloc easily carried Trump into the White House, despite easily verifiable evidence of Trump's sexual hedonism, misogyny, egomania and constant lying. For many years America's conservatives warned about having an Antichrist in the White House, always believing it would be a Clinton, Obama, Sanders or other progressive candidate. Ironically, they brought that very person into the White House themselves, and they're not only ignorant of this accomplishment but proud of it as well. Before he leaves—either by serving out one or two terms, impeachment, resignation or assassination—Trump and the Republican Party will have reduced this country to a fascist shell devoid of environmental awareness, scientific literacy and ethnic and religious tolerance. The years-long succession of nationwide redistricting, the resurgence of white nationalism and adoration of the military, coupled with the now complete dumbing-down of the American public, guarantees the Republican Party complete control over the country for years to come regardless of Trump and his insane behavior. America wasn't even a decent country to begin with. Now it's infinitely worse.  Einstein Vindicated Again — Posted Monday 16 October 2017 Two weeks following the announcement that the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics had been awarded to three physicists for their research on gravitational waves, we now have confirmation from three detectors of a related event that occurred some 130 million years ago. But in addition to the detection of gravitational waves, scientists also have direct observational evidence of the event in the form of a gamma-ray burst and an accompanying visible supernova. Furthermore, this time the merging objects were not distant black holes—they were neutron stars, the burned-out remnants of massive stars that collapse under their own gravity to form pure neutronium.  Trump's Neural "Activity" — Posted Sunday 1 October 2017 The Blue Brain Project in Switzerland is currently using a supercomputer to simulate the neural activity of a rat, which has only a tiny fraction of the neural complexity of a human. With some 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses (connections), the human brain may truly be too complex to ever model or even understand, but figuring out how a rat's brain works might help us understand how Republicans and religious fundamentalists think (but I doubt it). There may be even some higher-dimensional topological aspects to the functioning of the human brain, although ordinary 3D brain complexity should be sufficient to keep neurobiologists scratching their heads for many years. Meanwhile, here's a video demonstrating the Project's simulation of a mere 100 neurons, which may provide insight into President Trump's "brain":  Gimme Shelter, or Where's the Loo, Again? — Posted Thursday 21 September 2017 It's beginning to feel like the 1950s again! Here's a nifty article about the rise in bomb shelter construction in America, featuring the homey comforts of guns, ammo, drinking water, beds, more guns, more ammo, an air filtration system, batteries, more guns and ammo, food, still more guns (there's 19 of 'em) and even a cabinet for your favorite wines, which will likely come in handy for those times when you feel like envying the dead. But the gold and silver bars you bought from the sponsors of Fox News and are now hoarding in your shelter will take away some of the angst of whatever you happen to be feeling, assuming you're still feeling anything after the bombs hit. Ron Hubbard of Atlas Survival Shelters, the entrepreneur who's selling these things like hotcakes, doesn't know much about physics or the human body's tolerance to radiation, but then the country's so dumbed-down about science now that trivial things like facts just don't matter anymore. A nice galvanized steel bunker sure looks secure, but it won't matter much when that 1,000-psi blast overpressure pulverizes you and your shelter. And if you happen to be one of the lucky ones living at least 25 miles or more from a 20-megaton nuclear explosion, the persistent radiation that Hubbard guarantees will magically evaporate in 28 days will have you watching reruns of Sean Hannity for a lot longer than you had planned. Sorry, but strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of some 30 years, and they're not biodegradable (or even compostable!) But then you really don't need to think about that—what the fuck do scientists know, anyway? Me, I like to imagine Melania Trump ducking-and-covering in a$60,000 designer dress and stiletto high heels, going out in style as she's turned to ashes.

 Goodbye Cruel World — Posted Wednesday 20 September 2017 Well, that's just dandy—I'll be on a long plane trip this Saturday, September 23, just as the world's scheduled to end. How do we know? Because some Christian numerologist/astrologer has interpreted the Book of Revelation that says it's gonna happen. But my iPhone battery mysteriously died this morning, so I guess that's proof enough for me. Sadly enough for Ned Flanders and others, however, it will not be The Rapture© but only the as-yet-undetected intrasolar planet Nibiru that will crash into the Earth. So I guess if Jesus is gonna come back, he'd better do it before then and whisk all his believers into space before all hell breaks loose down here. Where do people come up with all these nutty notions? I can think of one source.

 Goodbye Cassini — Posted Saturday 16 September 2017 Launched nearly twenty years ago, the joint NASA-ESA-ISA spacecraft Cassini-Huygens plunged into Saturn's atmosphere yesterday and is no more. Before burning up in Saturn's predominantly methane atmosphere, its camera looked one more time through the planet's rings at its forlorn home, Earth, the tiny white dot seen in this photo and, at nearly a billion miles away, some 80 light-minutes distant: The last photo Cassini would ever take is this view of Saturn, looming up to take possession of its alien visitor: Cassini is dead. Long live Cassini!

 Imaginary and Uncaring, But Comforting — Posted Thursday 14 September 2017 The only thing I remember from the Psych 101 class I took in 1968 was this iconic photo of a young rhesus monkey clinging to its fake cloth-clad "mother." Although the wire-mesh mother had a nursing bottle, the monkey preferred the food-barren cloth version instead. Noted Stanford psychologist Harry Harlow showed that baby rhesus monkeys knew that both mothers were not real, yet they invariably demonstrated a preference for the one that provided a more comforting form of "interaction," despite the fact that it was fake and provided no food. I came across this photo on my son's website, and even though I last saw the photo nearly 50 years ago it still disturbs me. Perhaps my aging brain is stretching things, but today I see it as a sad metaphor for man's preference for irrational religious belief over the far more sustaining and substantive field of scientific fact and evidence. Indeed, I tend to see belief in the Judeo-Christian God today as akin to spousal abuse—"Doctor, my husband beats me, cheats on me and promises me things that he never delivers, yet I just know deep down in my heart that he truly loves me." Case in point: following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed an estimated 230,000 to 280,000 people, a child was found clinging to a piece of floating debris, alive but close to death from injury and exposure. Amid the vast destruction that lay all around them, strewn with the bloated and mangled corpses of the drowned and crushed, her rescuers were heard to say, "Thank God." If that's not a metaphor for an imaginary but "caring" parent, I don't know what is.

 Great Book — Posted Wednesday 13 September 2017 Daniel Whiteson is a professor of particle physics at the University of California at Irvine. He's got a great new book out that explains why scientists today know far less than they're usually given credit for. It's a high school-level book, but it actually covers a lot of ground, and I really love it. With clever and insightful graphics by cartoonist Jorge Cham, We Have No Idea - A Guide to the Unknown Universe includes detailed overviews of all the known particles, forces and related mysteries in the universe, which is no small feat for a book that stretches less than 400 pages. My only complaint: the puns are sometimes very bad, so a rather foregiving sense of humor is a real necessity. I bought the book yesterday and devoured it in about two hours. It really brightened my otherwise current gloomy outlook on things, and I highly recommend it.

 I Want To Believe — Posted Tuesday 12 September 2017 Oh, how I wish I could describe how German physicist Sabine Hossenfelder's latest paper is something other than an uncited, uncredited rehash of Hermann Weyl's 1918 theory disguised as a "defects in spacetime" theory, but I can't because I've vowed not to post anything of a hard-science nature on this site. I also can't talk about how the long-hoped-for link between gravitation and quantum theory is now being touted as "defects" in spacetime, despite the fact that none of the researchers today can be bothered to describe just what the hell they mean by "defects." Are they "bumps in the road" of flat spacetime, point-like field/particle fluctuations or—as Hossenfelder and many others have opined—just random, stochastic glitches of unexplained origin? I want to believe that progress is being made in this "ultimate quest of physics," but I'm not hopeful. Plus, I can't even talk about it here.

 $$1+1=19$$ — Posted Tuesday 12 September 2017 Scientists, intellectuals and social scientists expected that the spread of modern science would drive secularisation—that science would be a secularising force. But that simply hasn't been the case. If we look at those societies where religion remains vibrant, their key common features are less to do with science, and more to do with feelings of existential security and protection from some of the basic uncertainties of life. — Peter Harrison Older readers will remember the second Twilight Zone series, resurrected in 1985 from its more famous cousin. In a segment from the second episode, medical equipment salesman Bill Lowery (Robert Klein) says hello to his next-door neighbor, who cheerfully informs him that his dog, an encyclopedia, has had a litter of nine puppies. Thus begins Bill's frightening descent into a world in which common expressions and language itself have gone mad. But Bill ultimately accepts his fate— while tucking his little son into bed he opens the boy's picture book, which features a cute brown wednesday, which Bill still thinks is a dog. That Bill and this Bill have a lot in common. Every day I wake up to a world that I do not recognize, whether it's an irredeemably immoral, corrupt president who's successfully fooled the country's conservatives into thinking he's a good Christian, or an entire country that seriously questions and even rejects established scientific facts like global climate disruption, evolution and the efficacy of vaccines. Peter Harrison is a professor of humanities and history at Queensland University, whose recent article in Aeon attempts to explain why irrational religious belief will always trump science. The above quote neatly summarizes his findings, so you need not read the entire article—religious belief is grounded in mankind's existential fear of death, the unknown and the inherent uncertainty of life, a fear that rationality, logic and scientific understanding cannot dispel. Magical-wishful thinking, coupled with ritual, tradition, hope and authoritarian dogma, seem to be what most people desire if not crave. "It's all in God's hands now," "I'll win the lottery and all my problems will go away" and "Let's give Trump a chance" are invariably the go-to plans for Americans today, primarily because they're quick and simple and don't require a university education. In his best-selling 2013 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman calls such thoughts "System One" thinking, somewhat akin to adding $$1+1$$ or counting four fingers. It's automatic, doesn't require any real consideration or thought and, best of all for conservatives, is rapid and doesn't involve nuancing. System Two thinking, by comparison, requires real thought and deliberation, such as figuring out $$237*512$$ or deciding which stock portfolio to invest in. The primary downside to System Two thinking is that it also requires a willingness to delay immediate action, which is not a trait of religious conservatives who want to drop those bombs RIGHT FUCKING NOW before the bad guys get us first. Sadly, unlike Bill Lowery, I find myself unable to accept things as they are today. A pity, as it looks like my Zoloft isn't working after all. "Wordplay," from 1985's The Twilight Zone

 The Curse of Ham — Posted Thursday 7 September 2017 Ken Ham, the curator of Kentucky's full-size replica of Noah's Ark, is blaming devasting hurricanes on sinning Americans. Ham justifies his reasoning with this verse from Romans 8:22: "For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now." We can perhaps forgive Ham for taking this verse completely out of context (they all do it). But the "until now" that the Apostle Paul was referring to was written around 58 CE, hardly in anticipation of events occurring in another country two millennia down the road. Stupid Christian Americans assume their New Testament was written just last week, and specifically for them, and not to a bunch of ancient Jews living nearly 2,000 years ago. Here's my take on the article PZ Myers wrote this morning on this issue: Dear God, save us from your insane followers!

 Over Before We Know It — Posted Monday 28 August 2017

 Wrong Button, Jerk! — Posted Monday 28 August 2017

 Smart Decision — Posted Sunday 27 August 2017 In response to an invitation to speak at a conference in the United States in April 1953, famed British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) replied that he would rather not attend: "I would not like the journey, and I detest America." That remark is included in a cache of nearly 150 lost letters of Turing's that has been discovered behind a filing cabinet at the University of Manchester, providing a little more insight into the tortured mind of the famed Bletchley Park codebreaker. Turing committed suicide in 1954 after being forced to undergo chemical castration for his homosexuality. Christian fundamentalists have longed believed that a "gay cure" exists, either through conversion therapy, electroshock treatments or chemical castration (and even rape), a belief that persists to this day. And if it doesn't "take," then fundamentalists believe it's no big deal, as the "patient" is destined for eternal damnation anyway. Turing's decision to avoid America was a smart move, indeed. If it weren't for family considerations, I'd move out of this goddamned country in a heartbeat.

 JFK and Einstein — Posted Tuesday 22 August 2017 The opening scenes of each episode of the brilliant 2016 television series 11.22.63 focus on the path of the bullet headed for Kennedy's brain. The bullet follows a geodesic trajectory in spacetime, losing altitude as it travels not because gravity is pulling it down, but because spacetime is curved in Earth's gravitational field. The concept of gravitational "force" is purely fictitious. My last two posts dealt with JFK's assassination and Einstein's prediction that starlight is deflected by a gravitating mass. It takes a pretty sick mind to bring the two together, so I'm stepping up to the plate. After laborious effort, I managed to finish reading Stephen King's mammoth (and excellent) novel 11.22.63, which tells the story of a man who travels back in time to prevent Kennedy's murder. The book's afterword notes that King staunchly believes the Warren Commission was correct in concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman (although King's wife believes it was a conspiracy). King also happens to be a big fan of time-travel stories, which was the main inducement for his writing 11.22.63, and in the same afterword he notes that the greatest time-travel story of all time (no pun intended) is Jack Finney's 1970 novel Time and Again. Intrigued, I bought the book from Amazon and am now halfway through it. Sadly, unlike King, I'm not impressed with the book at all. From Time and Again: "Did you know that years ago Einstein theorized that light has weight? Now, that's about as silly a notion as a man could have formed. But there was a way to test that theory. During eclipses of the Sun, astronomers began observing that light passing it bent in toward it. Pulled by the Sun's gravity, you see. Inescapably, that meant that light has weight. Albert Einstein was right, and he was off and running." Well, this is wrong in so many ways, and as late as 1970 a renowned science fiction writer like Finney should have known better. Light rays, or photons, are massless, so they have no weight whatsoever. Furthermore, the Sun does not "pull" light toward itself; instead, it warps spacetime so that light travels in what is called a geodesic—in flat space that's just a straight line, but in a gravitational field it's actually curved because spacetime is warped. Einstein proved that gravity exerts no "force" whatsoever on a light ray or on any massive body, such as an assassin's bullet. Since King thinks Finney's novel is the best time-travel story ever written, I have to conclude that King doesn't know much about modern science either. This actually scares me—not because Americans in general are preposterously illiterate when it comes to science, but because these same people also tend to vote. It's no wonder we're so fucked today. It amazes me that the "back-and-to-the-left" snap of Kennedy's head when struck by the kill shot is still not viewed as a basic physics problem today. Captured in Frame 313 of Abraham Zapruder's famous 8-mm film, it could only have been the result of a bullet coming from the area of the Grassy Knoll. The forward momentum of Kennedy's head due to the moving limousine if anything only serves to magnify that effect. Warren Commission apologists and lone-gunman theorists claim that Kennedy was struck from behind, his head movement being due to autonomic neurological reactions to the bullet. But at 18.3 frames per second, the Zapruder film demonstrates that Kennedy's body would have had only 55 milliseconds to counteract the head's forward momentum. I'm inclined to believe that a 55-millisecond neurological response of such magnitude would have damaged the muscles, tendons and attachment points in Kennedy's skull, neck and vertebrae, but no such damage was found on the body. But I digress. At the risk of appearing as an anal-retentive perfectionist, I might as well add that I have another major gripe about time-travel stories. As you probably know, the Earth travels around the Sun, and the Sun revolves around the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Our galaxy is in orbit around the Local Cluster of nearby galaxies, and this cluster moves about some bigger cluster, and so on. So if you blithely hopped into your time machine and went either backward or forward in time, you'd quickly find yourself suspended somewhere in airless, intergalactic space, and certainly not standing on the ground you were on when you started your journey. What you need instead is a spacetime machine, one that not only moves you in time but in space as well, preferably to something solid like the Earth's surface. Your machine would also have to be very precise in this regard, because materializing only a millimeter or two below the surface would likely be very painful. Meanwhile, any rapid materialization would displace the air that existed in that space just prior to your arrival (resulting in a sonic boom), so you'd want to materialize fairly slowly.

 Let the Looting Begin — Posted Tuesday 22 August 2017 It pained me to watch President Trump's so-called "Afghanistan strategy speech" to the nation last night, but watch it I did. His "strategy," not surprisingly, consists largely of not telling anyone what he will do next—not the American people, Congress, Afghanistan or any other country, all in the pretext of keeping our enemies in the dark. But what truly bothered me was Trump's veiled intent to loot Afghanistan to pay for the costs of our ongoing—and presumably eternal—military presence in that country and elsewhere in the region. Afghanistan has an estimated one to two trillion dollars' worth of mineral resources, and I highly suspect that Trump sees these resources as a way of making money while perpetuating America's aggression in that country: "In this struggle, the heaviest burden will continue to be borne by the good people of Afghanistan and their courageous armed forces. As the prime minister of Afghanistan has promised, we are going to participate in economic development to help defray the cost of this war to us. "America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress. However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check. The government of Afghanistan must carry their share of the military, political, and economic burden." If this is not a clear indication that Afghanistan's resources are available for the taking under any pretext, I don't know what is. The Nazis had something very similar to this in World War II. The families and friends of Jews and political prisoners who were either tried and shot or summarily executed without trial were required to pay the costs of the executions, usually by reimbursing the German government for bullets and other direct costs. The Nazis similarly stole many billions' worth of priceless art works, jewelry and other items from individuals, groups and even entire countries deemed unsupportive of Nazi occupation. I should know better by now, but each day of the Trump regime has me banging my head against the wall even harder in utter disbelief. Meanwhile, I find myself living in a frightened, superstitious, science-illiterate country ruled by religious ideologues. God, but I hate this place.

 Lucky Stars — Posted Monday 21 August 2017 My father used to tell me about the Great Comet of 1910, which occurred during the month of January that year. He was only five years old at the time, but he remembered his father taking him to Riverfront Park in Quincy, Illinois to witness the event. The park, which still overlooks the Mississippi River today, was just a few blocks west of their house on Cherry Street. My father recalled a large crowd that had gathered there, and that the comet itself was dazzling. But my father never mentioned the solar eclipse of June 8, 1918 which, although not quite a total eclipse at his location, must still have been memorable. It was also the first time that Einstein's prediction of the deflection of starlight was to be measured during a total solar eclipse, which allows the positions of stars near the sun's limb to be measured accurately. Unfortunately, bad weather hampered all the attempts, and so astronomers had to wait until May 29, 1919 for the next one. Several expeditions were mounted, and again clouds got in the way, but at the last minute the skies cleared and a series of accurate photographs were taken. When the photos were analyzed, they confirmed Einstein's theory, and the great scientist became a superstar overnight. The general theory of relativity predicts that a massive object actually warps spacetime, so that passing light is bent toward the object. But even for something as massive as the Sun ($$2\times10^{30}$$ kg), the deflection is tiny. It is especially tiny when one calculates the deflection using Newtonian theory, as it amounts to only 0.875 arc-seconds. Einstein's 1915 theory predicts exactly twice this amount, and the additional deflection was just barely observable by the technology of 1919. It is interesting that Einstein himself nearly botched his own theory. In 1913 the theory was still incomplete (and wrong), and Einstein proceeded to calculate the deflection of starlight using what turned out to be a bad theory. The result was exactly the same as that given by Newtonian mechanics, but Einstein consoled himself by thinking that his theory at least duplicated the classical result. Had a total solar eclipse been handy at that time, observed starlight deflections would have made Einstein and his theory look very bad, indeed.

 My Eyes! — Posted Monday 21 August 2017 The solar eclipse at Caltech was only about 60%, but the air got noticeably cooler and the sky was like evening (my sons were more fortunate—they got to see around 95% coverage from their homes). I estimated the crowd here to be about 3,000 people: The viewing goggles were free, and they were indispensable. I couldn't help think that it would have been a great time for Caltech to pull a nasty trick on everyone—goggles that don't really protect your eyes! Kind of like what Rainier Wolfcastle discovered in an old episode of The Simpsons: On a sadder note, the 400-year-old Engelmann Oak at Caltech finally died despite heroic efforts to save it, and this is all that remains of that magnificent tree today: Einstein must have paused before this tree many times during his stays in Pasadena, 1931-33

 JFK — Posted Monday 21 August 2017 Warren Commission Evidence No. CE 399—the magic bullet. Last night I re-read British author Jeremy Bojczuk's 2014 book 22 November 1963: A Brief Guide to the JFK Assassination. It's only 100 pages long, not including 75 pages of appendices, but of all the books I've read on JFK's assassination (and I've read all the good ones), this is undoubtedly the best of the bunch. Even with Kennedy's murder now nearly 54 years behind us, many questions remain. The book provides a concise summary and logical analysis of all the critical evidence, and it's apparent that Oswald could not have acted alone. But forget all those conspiracy stories you've read about—the CIA and Mafia organized the hit, the Russians did it, greedy defense contractors and the Pentagon did the killing, or enraged Cuban militarists with the backing of the US military were behind it all. We will probably never know. All the book says is that Oswald had help, almost certainly with the active or passive assistance of elements within the U.S. government, most likely the CIA. Meanwhile, the FBI, Secret Service and the Dallas Police Department were criminally remiss in their duties, and probably did what they had to in order to cover their errors in the mishandling of evidence and facts behind the killing. Did Oswald murder Officer J.D. Tippit? Absolutely. Did he shoot Kennedy? It's at least possible. But Oswald's known whereabouts in the Texas Schoolbook Depository almost certainly eliminates him from the 6th floor during the shooting, while the forensic evidence—the physical impossibility of the "magic bullet" theory, the neutron activation analyses, the discovery of both jacketed and soft-point bullet fragments in the bodies of Kennedy and Governor Connally and the choreographed autopsy of JFK's body—all point to collusion, whether pre-planned or not. Perhaps even more telling is the Warren Commission's intentional decision to not interview actual eyewitnesses to the tragedy or to even allow eyewitness evidence into its report. If you only read one book on the assassination, read Bojczuk's compelling account. You can also go to what is certainly the best online repository of information on the killing, MFF.org.

 Both Back Sides — Posted Thursday 17 August 2017

 Back to the Future — Posted Wednesday 16 August 2017 Chief Justice Roger Taney, 1777-1864. Not just another pretty face. This year marks the 160th anniversary of the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford Case which, after years of lower-court litigation, ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. As you are probably aware, Scott was a free black petitioning his continued freedom in the North while fighting extradition and re-enslavement to a slaveholder in the South. The case infuriated both sides of the country—abolitionists argued for his emancipation, while Southern sympathizers fought to have Scott returned as stolen property. Upon conclusion of the Court's worst decision of all time, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote "[African Americans] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it." This is the attitude that America's Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, skinheads and white nationalists would have us return to. It's also the attitude that President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and the majority of the Republican-led Congress either overtly or tacitly approve of. As I've noted on several occasions here, the biggest mistake that Abraham Lincoln and William Tecumseh Sherman made at the conclusion of the Civil War was their failure to utterly destroy the South and hang or exile Jefferson Davis and all the other Southern traitors. They did not, and the rallying cry of "The South Shall Rise Again!" continued to ring out, resulting in the glorification of the "Lost Cause," Reconstruction corruption, thousands of lynchings, a hundred years of Jim Crow and the perpetual mistreatment and persecution of American blacks and minorities. Ongoing and seemingly unending events like the recent Charlottesville tragedy demonstrate to the world that America has not really changed at all. The 13th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act stand as mocking reminders of this country's Christian hypocrisy regarding freedom, justice and love of one's fellow man. Indeed, in 2016 the Christians of this country voted overwhelmingly to put the most blatantly corrupt, money-loving and evil womanizer in the most powerful position on Earth, amid ongoing screams of "Lock her up!" and the persistent notion that Barack Obama was the Antichrist. America's woefully ignorant and hypocritical Christians today instead worship Donald John Trump, the most likely candidate for Antichrist the world has ever seen. The South has won. Gun-toting, club-wielding, noose-carrying Southern morons have taken over the country, under the protection and approval of the same man they put into the White House. My solution? Become a Canadian citizen, move out of this pathetic, goddamned "Christian nation," and pray for its destruction. That, or get a gun and go to Washington DC.

 Beautiful — Posted Tuesday 15 August 2017 Here's a nice break from the Trump insanity that now surrounds us. It's a beautiful new animated video explaining Einstein's gravitational field equations, the metric tensor $$g_{\mu\nu}$$, and the quantities $$R_{\mu\nu}, R$$ and $$T_{\mu\nu}$$ that make up the equations. It also neatly explains the concepts of spacetime curvature and parallel transport. I can't help but think Einstein himself would have gotten a big kick out this video!

 Who is He Trying to Kid? — Posted Monday 14 August 2017 Kenneth C. Frazier, CEO of Merck and one of President Trump's token African-American advisors on the Manufacturing Council, abruptly resigned yesterday when Trump refused to call out racist bigotry following the tragedy at Charlottesville. Trump, whose now-infamous "many sides" remark already had him in deep shit with the country, quickly criticized Frazier's resignation, adding the implication that Frazier was a drug pricing "ripoff artist." Today, with the shit now up to his ears, Trump finally described the KKK, neo-Nazi groups and white supremacists as "thugs and criminals". But it's too late—Trump had already shown his tacit support for these same groups, who are in fact an important part of his base of supporters that got him elected in 2016. His late denouncement of these groups is completely phony. I liken the whole episode to a man who one day screams at his wife "I hate you, you ugly, pathetic, stinking, steaming pile of shit! I will always hate you! I wish to God you were dead!" then the next day, realizing that he'll lose everything in a divorce, tries to rebuild the dike. But there are some things you cannot take back, because everyone knows your attempts are phony as hell. And Trump's denouncement of his racist, bigoted base, who he dearly loves and admires, is as phony as they come. Update: two more CEOs have now quit Trump's Manufacturing Council in protest. And now yet another. And now they're all gone.

 Phony Patterns and Imaginary Agents — Posted Thursday 10 August 2017 I'm re-reading Stephen King's 2011 truly great novel 11.22.63, which chronicles a time-traveler's extended efforts to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I don't ordinarily read fiction, especially long novels (King's is nearly 900 pages), but the writing is spellbinding while the subject matter has been of great interest to me for fifty years. Over those same years I've read all the books about the assassination and the numerous conspiracy theories involving CIA plots, the Freedom for Cuba Party, government-hired mafia hit men, military cabals and all that. Many of them have included fairly detailed discussions on the physics of bullet trajectories and head-snaps, but most tend to focus on Oswald's connections with Russia and the CIA and his alleged political motives. But none of that is included in King's book—it doesn't address assassination conspiracies at all. It's primarily a time-travel story that we've all thought about at one time or another—preventing the most infamous crime of the 20th century—but it has a truly unique aspect that touches on the notions of patternicity and agenticity. The only weak spot in the book concerns the existence of a time portal that just happens to be situated in an ordinary diner owned by Al Templeton, a Vietnam veteran who uses the portal partly as a means of acquiring 1960s-era supplies for his restaurant—which explains why Al's Famous Fat Burger meal costs only 1.19 (with fries and drink, to boot). Al's dream is to use the portal to prevent JFK's murder, but he is stricken with cancer and knows he can't complete the assignment. So he enlists the help of the younger Jake Epping, a friend who Al talks into undertaking the mission. What follows is a long, colorful, infinitely detailed story of how Jake finds ways to fit into the world of 1958 (where the time portal invariably takes you at the start) and how he earns money to live on and underwrite the costs of his ultimate mission in Dallas. What Jakes sees and experiences along the way will resonate with anyone who lived in the 1950s and early 1960s. But what fascinates me most about the book is Jake's realization that the past, while fully accommodating the time-traveler in his day-to-day activities, pushes back when Jake attempts something that might significantly change history. This push-back can be subtle (lost keys, flat tires, a viral infection, diarrhea, corroded spark plugs, etc.) or severe (Jake is physically attacked at numerous times to prevent his accomplishing the mission). The past, as Jake learns, can be a real bitch when it wants to be, and he quickly recognizes that there's a pattern to the past's annoying interferences. Psychologists have long known that humans are hardwired to see patterns in things, whether the patterns truly exist or are imaginary. This hardwiring springs from a survival instinct, probably traceable to our hunter-gatherer days. For example, a rustling motion in a bush might be a lurking predator or just a gust of wind—early humans were familiar with both, and while the presence of a wolf or saber-tooth cat might be highly improbable, it was always best to run like hell anyway. Even today, when shown a graph depicting a large number of completely random dots, a person might say that he sees a definite pattern of some kind in the arrangement of the dots. Such a response is completely harmless, of course, unless that person is a scientist whose pet theory happens to rely on there being a definite pattern in the data. Of greater interest, however, is the subsequent assignment of agenticity to observed patterns, whether they are imaginary or not. Agenticity, which is the assignment of some external agent or entity behind observed patterns and happenings, probably resulted at a relatively late date in human development, when hunter-gatherers conceived of the notion that there was some kind of external entity or force responsible for the patterns. For example, a hunter who successfully eluded a rampaging lion leaping from a rustling bush might not have attributed his luck to alertness, but to an agency—usually a god or gods—helping him get away. Behavioral psychologists say that such thinking almost surely arose as a result of increasing human intelligence and expanding populations coupled with a total ignorance of underlying natural phenomena—diseases, deadly lightning strikes, floods and droughts were bad, while bountiful harvests, recovery from sickness and successful hunts were good. Lacking any scientific or rational explanations for all these events, early humans conceived the notion of powerful gods—the ultimate agencies. Once the concept of a powerful god or gods was acquired, it was inevitable that humans would seek ways to placate those gods to ensure continued blessings or to avoid punishment. This then gave rise to the development and practice of religious rituals, initially primitive but eventually becoming elaborate affairs involving personal and communal sacrifices of some kind. The first sacrificial ritual was apparently recorded in the Hebrew book of Genesis (Cain and Abel), which revealed God's preference for sacrifices of blood and flesh over those of grains and fruit. This too is understandable from the viewpoint of ritualistic human behavior—meat was high in protein and energy while fruit and grain was not, so it was understandable that God would want sacrifices involving things that were not only difficult to acquire but far more precious to ongoing survival than ordinary fruit and vegetable matter. This notion of precious versus ordinary sacrifice ultimately resulted in the practice of human sacrifice, in particular the sacrifice of a community's firstborn sons. It's not a coincidence that the New Testament is grounded in the torture and sacrifice of God's supposed only son, Jesus. I don't think Stephen King considered any of these things when writing his book, but it does reveal our ongoing, all too-human notion of attributing unexplained phenomena to an external entity that somehow exercises power over us. Power, yes, and fearful power as well, and it this same fear that arose in an early humankind determined to appease those entities through ritual and sacrifice. It is perhaps the greatest tragedy of our species that erroneous pattern identification and resultant irrational agenticity still plagues us to this day. Indeed, fear and the belief in an imaginary God and his redeeming son continues to threaten the extinction of all human life today—and by our own hands, not God. Look ye, Starbuck: all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. Some inscrutable yet reasoning thing puts forth the molding of their features. The white whale tasks me; he heaps me. Yet he is but a mask. 'Tis the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate; the malignant thing that has plagued mankind since time began; the thing that mauls and mutilates our race, not killing us outright but letting us live on, with half a heart and half a lung. — Moby-Dick  Ride 'Em, Noah! — Posted Tuesday 8 August 2017 Paleontologists are confirming reports of the discovery of the largest animal that ever existed on Earth. The fossilized bones of Patagotitan mayorum, a herbivore, were recently uncovered in Argentina in an area unusually rich with the bones of gigantic dinosaurs. The animal weighed upwards of 75 tons and stretched approximately 120 feet from snout to tail. Scientists at the Ark Encounter in Kentucky also expressed delight over the discovery, noting that the animal, when suitably fitted with a row of saddles, could have easily accommodated Noah and his entire family on picnic outings and trips to church services. They added that the dinosaur and its yet-to-be-found mate were most likely ridden by Noah to the Ark, where the behemoths were magically shrunk down to the size of hamsters by God prior to being taken aboard the vessel. They further elaborated on the dating of the dinosaur, which had been estimated by godless, immoral, liberal "scientists" (probably Democrats) as having lived about 100 million years ago. Ark Encounter scientists have correctly refined that date to approximately 6,000 years ago, in keeping with biblical timelines. Update: Believe it or not, since posting the above item I've received emails from people wondering how I could possibly believe that dinosaurs and humans coexisted. Jesus H. Christ, people, can't you recognize sarcasm when you see it?! Perhaps you folks would be better served by the related thoughts of one of my favorite comedians, Lewis Black:  Truly Frightening — Posted Tuesday 8 August 2017 A fundamentalist Christian group called POTUS Shield (PS) has arisen in America, a group that exemplifies the frightening direction that the religious right in this country is now taking us. While admitting that President Donald Trump is "imperfect," PS nevertheless likens him to ancient Israel's King David, who was also imperfect but was anointed by God to lead his nation to greatness. Claiming that Trump too has been divinely anointed by God to lead America to glory, PS would have us all bowing our bludgeoned heads and kneeling on bloody knees to ensure the Second Coming of Jesus, who they claim will not return until America has been thoroughly chastised and Christianized. As I have so often pointed out to deaf ears, Christians (and Jews) simply refuse to read their Bibles, particularly when it comes to divinely appointed kings. King David, you will recall, impregnated Uriah's wife Bathsheba and then had Uriah killed to cover the illicit pregnancy. God punished David by having the baby die, but he quickly forgave him because David was an otherwise okay guy. David's subsequent offspring King Solomon inherited the kingdom and had the First Temple built to honor God, who was so happy that he gave Solomon 700 wives and 300 concubines so that the seemingly indefatigable Solomon wouldn't have to resort to adultery. But some of Solomon's wives, most of whom were gifts provided to ensure political alliances with foreign countries, talked him into worshiping false gods, and eventually Israel was split into two nations, Israel to the north and Judah to the south, both of which were quickly conquered and destroyed by invaders—first the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Syrians and finally the Romans, with occasional harassment by a host of other countries along the way. Jews were regularly exiled, imprisoned, persecuted, tortured and killed by the millions during the intervening centuries, whether they were rigorously following the Law of Moses or not. In all, over 2,500 successive years elapsed from Israel's destruction until its reestablishment in 1948, but not until God had sent a further six million Jews into the Nazi gas chambers and crematory ovens. I for one don't see anything divine at work in all this history, and as for Trump I hope someone blows his fucking brains out before his ego gets any worse by sycophants claiming his divinity. But wait! The religious right might want to fully Christianize America (and then the rest of the world, by force if need be), but then Jesus will come back and all will be fine. Won't that be nice? You can believe this bullshit if you want to, but I think it's far more likely that the Divinely Anointed Donald John Trump and his minions will destroy America long before any imaginary Rapture or Second Coming occurs, probably by way of a hail of nuclear weapons directed against a belligerent America by China, Russia and others in the nuclear club who see things a bit differently.  Mimicry — Posted Sunday 6 August 2017 The 1997 horror film Mimic was only average, but it introduced the interesting concept of an insect species that had learned to mimic the appearance of humans for the purpose of preying upon them. Mimicry in nature is not uncommon—the wings of some butterflies sport large, eye-like spots to discourage predators (mainly birds and lizards), for example—but such evolutionary changes are normally intended as defensive, rather than offensive, adaptations. The insects in Mimic have adapted instead because they've somehow developed a taste for human flesh, a behavior that is not fully explained in the film. There's also the possibility of unintended or accidental mimicry in nature. Some synthetic chemicals can mimic the properties of enzymes in the human body, for example, resulting in either biochemical disruption or overreaction. Often, such chemicals need only be present in minute, trace concentrations in blood, organs or tissues for such effects to occur. Environmental sociologist Rebecca Altman's excellent article in yesterday's Aeon Magazine primarily addresses the environmental problems associated with waste plastics in the Earth's ecosystem, noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that every human being on the planet now carries around some 200 different synthetic compounds in their system associated with the manufacture and use of plastics. She also (if tacitly) addresses the problem of endocrine disruptors that can mimic biochemical processes in humans and animals (which, even at the level of parts per trillion or lower, can result in adverse effects), while noting that in a sense humans and plastics are merging into something akin to a biological petrospecies. But for some reason she avoids the equally important issue of what these synthetics may be doing to our brains. As a child growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I was made aware of diseases such as polio (God, I hated those annual booster injections) and smallpox. But I never came across anyone in school who displayed the effects of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which today is said to afflict one out of every six Americans, or autism spectral disorder, which is said to afflict one in twelve. There are many other conditions (restless leg disorder, social anxiety disorder, etc.) that were unheard of way back when, and I'm tempted to think that they were either misdiagnosed as something else or didn't exist to begin with. I'm not a medical doctor, but I tend to go with the latter option. People seem to be pumping themselves with all kinds of prescription drugs and medications today (there's even a new one prescribed for people with double chins), and I can't help wondering what's becoming of all the associated waste products that are going down the toilet upon excretion. Speaking of which, it may be comforting to think that "out of sight out of mind" equally applies to the environment, but we know these flushed substances are getting into ground and potable surface waters as well as the ocean. What effects are these chemicals having on impacted macro- and microfauna? (It has been claimed that the orca whale population in Puget Sound is so contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls that each animal actually constitutes a hazardous waste.) It may also be comforting to believe that these substances are being physically or microbially degraded in the environment to benign levels, but I think that's a fool's attitude. More to the point, however, is the question of what long-term adverse effects these chemicals are having on our brains. If each dose of your diazepam, vicodin, tizanidine or whatever you take serves to wipe out 0.0001% of your brain's neurons, would you ever be able to notice it? For a population the size of America's, could widespread prescription drug use or inadvertent ingestion of chemical wastes like plastic products (BPA in particular) be producing an imperceptible but significant long-term adverse impact on our collective mental acuity? And if we never noticed it, how would we be aware there's a problem, and would the problem be reversible even if we did know? I hazard to guess that this is what may be wrong with America today—we've gone insane and don't know it. Perhaps some brave pharmaceutical outfit could develop a medication for Trump mental disorder, but the problem is already so widespread I doubt it would even be used.  Incredible Ignorance — Posted Monday 31 July 2017 Two amazing posts today. One is from Adrienne Petty, associate professor of history at William & Mary College, who writes about how the term populism has changed from the days when it meant working-class stiffs rightly complaining about how robber barons were controlling every aspect of their lives to today, when it means working-class (white) stiffs blaming minorities for the crappy way the country is abandoning all manner of domestic programs (but only the ones that are fucking them over): The problem isn't just using the word populist as a euphemism for racism and ethnic chauvinism. The term also helps to reproduce the very ideology that has trapped white working-class people by reinforcing the idea that they are not supposed to experience the same social and economic problems as everyone else. White workers outraged over the economic difficulties they're facing get a movement with a name; the economic hardship that non-white working people face is ignored. The implication is that white working-class people are the members of society who are supposed to be financially secure or comfortable—that they have a birthright to prosperity. You see, America was founded on institutionalized inequality, but with the promise that if you worked really hard you could pull yourself up and prosper. Of course, that promise only applied to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who had the gumption to steal land and labor from others on their way up the economic ladder, all the while attending church and worshiping a Jesus who conveniently looked the other way when it came to slavery and minority oppression. And as long as things were working in their favor, they didn't complain too much about the New Deal, Social Security and welfare. Today even middle-class WASPs are hurting, but as long as they have immigrants and minorities to blame they'll continue to elect Republicans who couldn't care less about anyone, including their supporters. And there's also this religious aspect to it: if you're struggling to keep your family afloat, it's because you've either sinned against God or haven't donated enough of your money to coiffed, wealthy televangelists who continue to dominate Red State airwaves. But the post that really got to me today was that of one Lucian B. Wintrich, a right-wing journalist who put up this incredibly offensive and ignorant photo: Yeah, go back to your own country, you fucking anti-American Native Americans! Hey, is this country totally fucked, or what?!  The Trump Method — Posted Sunday 30 July 2017 Republicans believe the Scientific Method is "nuancing," requiring the uncomfortable need to actually think about something before acting. Far better, they say, is the Trump Method, which is more convenient and doesn't require a functioning brain. That's why the GOP agenda is awash in empty slogans and platitudes, and it also explains why they're now running Amerika, which has finally been dumbed-down to the point of complete national lunacy.  Just One More Step — Posted Friday 28 July 2017 The British newspaper The Guardian has been reviewing the dystopian nightmare series The Handmaid's Tale since its first episode, and with the conclusion of the premier season the show has elicited more and more comparisons with the Trump-Pence-GOP vision of America than ever before. While I do not understand the transgender and gay lifestyles, I deplore the insistence by my country's right-wing maniacs to persecute people on the basis of biblical principles. Trump may want to ban transgenders from the military, but the Pences and Ryans and all the others would love to take it further, banning gays, then minorities, then non-Christians and finally non-whites from the military as well. The Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale, as the newspaper's article points out, is only one step removed from the current state of right-wing insanity that has infected this nation. Having watched all ten episodes, I can assure you that The Handmaid's Tale is indeed a horror show depicting what's next for America, and not some improbable sci-fi depiction of a dystopian future. In view of the fact that America is now being run by insane fanatics, along with the likelihood of continued gerrymandered redistricting of the country prior to the 2018 and 2020 elections, I see only one hope left for this country—a total military takeover of the U.S. government followed by the execution or deportation of nearly all the Republicans in Congress.  Uncertainty — Posted Saturday 22 July 2017 I've been listening to the audio book version of Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky's book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, now in its third printing. Sapolsky can also be seen in numerous YouTube lectures and presentations, and I encourage you to seek him out. It's a long book (the audio version is over 17 hours), but its initial focus deals with acute and chronic stressors and their health consequences. Acute stress is what we experience when facing a single, immediate stressor, such as a car accident or speaking before the public, while a zebra will experience acute stress when under attack by a lion. But animals like zebras generally do not experience chronic stress. After successfully eluding a lion, a zebra will go back to its day-to-day routine—it won't worry about future attacks, even though they're certain to happen. But humans can experience chronic stress by simply imagining future events that may or may not ever occur—an impending job loss, a disturbing health report, etc. Animals do not worry about the future because they are not sentient, while people can experience chronic stress just sitting in an easy chair and fretting about tomorrow. The premise of this part of the book is that chronic stress in humans can result in lowered immunity to disease, along with a host of physical and mental illnesses. Sapolsky notes that while chronic stress can lead to constant, energy-draining vigilance against real or imagined threats, it's really a consequence of human consciousness which, in addition to giving us the ability to anticipate and plan ahead, can also activate stressors involving uncertainty and fears of the unknown. In his famous poem To a Mouse, the Scottish poet Robert Burns compares the accidental destruction of a field mouse's nest to Burns' rue of past mistakes and future fears, emotions that the mouse never experiences. In short, the mouse gets over it, while humans may not. It is my belief that conservative Americans today are experiencing the consequences of chronic stress due to ongoing irrational fears over terrorism and the very real possibility that, after 2,000 years of patient waiting, their precious Jesus is not going to return after all. This induces not only physical illness but mental instability as well—witness the country's current madness involving facts that don't matter, lies that pass for truth and the election of unqualified, moronic and evil political ideologues, all tying in with their constant need for worldwide, full-spectrum military domination at any cost. It may be a cliché that conservatives dread change because of the uncertainty it produces, but I think it's all too true—frightened, panicking people simply cannot think. Welcome to 21st century America.  What a Difference Ten Years Makes — Posted Wednesday 19 July 2017 It's been ten years since the movie Shooter came out starring Mark Wahlberg as Bob Lee Swagger, a top-notch U.S. Army sniper caught up in a framed assassination plot. Despite its faults I've always enjoyed the movie, which not-so-subtly criticizes right-wing patriotic jingoism and political corruption. I especially like the film's conclusion, in which the bad guys (all corrupt American politicians and their stooges) get blown away and justice is served at the end of Swagger's gun. Fast forward ten years. Shooter is now a television series (produced by Wahlberg) in which Swagger is a brawny, handsome, larger-than-life military warrior whose patriotic heroics and demeanor span the gamut of every banal jingoistic, faith-based, family-values platitude you can imagine. His sharp eye and sinewy, muscular arms invariably guide his sniper bullets into the brain stems of every Taliban bad-guy he aims at, but at the same time he's a loving, caring Christian husband and father who rarely goes a minute without expressing his deep love for his country, little girl and wife, who also gets plenty of hot physical lovin', believe you me. I binge-watched the first season on Netflix, which pretty much reproduced the story of the 2007 film. I found it fairly entertaining, although the scenes depicting devout, praying Christian FBI characters and occasional overt, stomach-turning patriotism were a bit much for me. But then last night I watched the premier episode of Season 2, and it's apparent that the show has become nothing less than an all-out advertisement for Trump's vision of glorious worldwide American imperialism. I found the killings almost pornographic in their depictions of patriotic gore and God-granted American heroism, and I won't be subjecting myself to the show any longer. Jeez, what was Wahlberg thinking? This is the kind of insane shit that conservatives are wallowing in nowadays.  Rambling Saturday Thoughts — Posted Saturday 15 July 2017 Caltech's Cahill Center. How long before it's burned down and replaced with a megachurch? Last night I attended a lecture on gravitational astronomy at Caltech's new50-million, 100,000-square-foot Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. Before the talk I wandered around the building, peeking into the laboratories and various graduate research facilities and marveling at the level of science that the school represents. But I could also not help thinking about the new $800-million, 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible now being completed in Washington DC or the$200-million Ark Encounter in Kentucky, each with its own lecture halls, "research" facilities and man-walked-with-the-dinosaurs exhibits. All funded and supported by corrupt, wealthy evangelicals, these monuments to irrationality and ignorance serve as ample evidence that religion is easily besting science in this nation at every turn, if not actually destroying it. True, Pasadena has Caltech, JPL and a host of high-tech research companies, but I also could not help think about the hoards of poor, homeless and mentally ill people now populating Pasadena's streets and freeway underpasses, countered by America's ongoing love affair with hypocritical, proselytizing Republican politicians, coiffed billionaire televangelicals, a trillion-dollar-and-growing military war machine and an uncaring wealthy class that works tirelessly to transfer what little the poor have to themselves. And, at the same time, I read about how Americans think of their country as a "Christian nation." Much has been written about "tribalism" is this country today—how facts, evidence and logic simply have no effect on some people who will go right on supporting insane beliefs and those who hypocritically espouse those same beliefs for political and monetary gain. It's quite obvious, even to the 25% of Americans who are certifiably insane, that if President Hillary Clinton had been tainted with even the tiniest amount of collusion that Trump and his family have perpetrated with the Russians to undermine the 2016 presidential election, she'd have been extradited to Guantánamo, "interrogated" and executed by now. Yet President Trump and his corrupt family members and sycophants continue to evade justice. Why? Because that same 25% is running the country today, and they're not going to back off an inch. Does anyone today maintain the slightest hope that this can be turned around? Is a bloody revolution, replete with widespread political assassinations, the only solution left?

 Rambling Thursday Thoughts — Posted Thursday 13 July 2017 Some forty years ago I got interested in an idea that appeared to unify gravitation with electrodynamics, a fundamental goal of many physicists immediately following Einstein's publication of his general theory of relativity in November 1915. That idea was put forward by Hermann Weyl in April 1918, and represented the first mathematically consistent approach to a generalization of Einstein's theory. It was awesomely beautiful, but it had a fatal flaw—as Einstein himself showed, it was, to put it simply, wrong. But Weyl's work was the nucleus of what ultimately became the most beautiful (as well as successful) approach to modern physics, the notion of local gauge invariance. When first exposed to this approach in the 1970s, I felt, like many others have, that it represented proof of the existence of God. For logical reasons I won't go into here, I no longer believe in the so-called Judeo-Christian God. But I'm still fascinated by the beauty of Nature's laws and the stunning, almost incomprehensible ability of mathematics to consistently describe them at a profound, fundamental level. As a "Christian atheist" today I leave open the possibility of a God of some kind and, while he simply ain't the God of the Old and New Testaments, there's no question that, if he exists, he's a mathematician of the very first order. Over the years at Weylmann I've shared many of my thoughts about Weyl and his work, and I've tried to explain his beautiful 1918 theory and expand on it to the extent that I felt competent to do so. Along the way I was careful never to propose any theories of my own, fearful as I was of appearing as an unqualified crackpot. At the same time, however, my country's descent into political and cultural insanity—caused, I believe, by the underlying irrationality of religion and the fear it invariably induces in people—has radicalized me to an extent I never thought possible, and I've tried to realign my life accordingly. I simply have no interest in what happens to this nation any more or its people (other than my family and friends), and my only escape seems to be science and mathematics, along with the few hobbies I've pursued along the way. "Physics as a way of life," as the saying goes, makes a hell of a lot of sense in this day and age. I've written what will most likely be the last thing I'll ever write about Weyl and his theory. Although the theory has been dead nearly 100 years now, it still pops up regularly in the scientific literature and continues to be a source of fascination for many young physicists. It's satisfying to know that some beautiful things never die.

 Say It Ain't So! — Posted Wednesday 12 July 2017 Does anyone remember the 1963 Stanley Kramer comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World? If so, perhaps you'll recall the scene where Emeline (Dorothy Provine) discovers where the treasure's hidden (it's under a big "W"), and she reflects for a moment on how she's the only one in the madcap party of treasure hunters who knows where the money is. But only a minute later another hunter makes the same discovery, and Emeline laments how quickly the secret of her discovery has evaporated. Fast forwarding 54 years, we have the History Channel's recent two-hour documentary, produced at great expense, on the supposed discovery of a new photo of lost aviatrix Amelia Earhart in a Japanese-held port in the Marshall Islands, presumably taken in 1937 after her ill-fated crash into the Pacific Ocean with navigator Fred Noonan, which most investigators believe claimed the lives of both aviators. Well, quick as Bob's Your Uncle, a Japanese military history buff found the same photo in a magazine that had been published in 1935, two years before the Earhart/Noonan crash. And just like that, the History Channel's intriguing documentary has now been placed alongside Geraldo Rivera's much-publicized non-discovery of Al Capone's secret money vault in 1986. I watched the History Channel show and found it moderately interesting while thinking it might actually be true, but biology professor PZ Myers, who ungenerously called the documentary "bullshit," wasn't taken in at all. An atheist, Myers routinely uses his same powers of deduction to trash organized religion. He's completely right about that, of course, but while the History Channel's take on Amelia Earhart will be quickly forgotten, religion's bullshit will likely be here to stay until we finally blow ourselves and the planet up.

 It's Back — Posted Tuesday 11 July 2017 The Confederate Flag was raised again at the South Carolina State Courthouse yesterday by protesters who felt that the Deep South had been slighted by that state's decision to take it down two years ago following the murder of nine African Americans by a white supremacist. Seems like killing blacks these days carries about the same shock value as the thousands of lynchings the South is so proud of. Meanwhile, South Carolina's former governor, the cute-as-a-button-but-still-corrupt-as-hell Nikki Haley, is now America's Ambassador to the United Nations, having been appointed to that post by unser glorreicher idiotischer Führer Donald Trump. Haley will no doubt be seeking to have the Stars and Bars raised in front of the UN building but, sad to say, there are few trees nearby, so she will likely be unable to raise any Strange Fruit alongside the flag. How appropriate

 Sapolsky on the Schizotypal Basis of Religiosity — Posted Monday 10 July 2017 Robert Sapolsky is Professor of Biology and Human Behavior at Stanford University, and despite my lifelong aversion to the life sciences his YouTube video lectures are nothing short of spellbinding. He has an excellent 25-part lecture series that he posted fairly recently, but there's an older version of one of the lectures (it looks to be about 1999 or so) that just nails the likely relationship between religious belief and schizotypal personality disorder. It will enlighten anyone who's still stunned that a clueless, greedy, egomaniacal sexual predator like Donald Trump could ever be elected President. Fascinated, I took notes during the lecture but couldn't keep up with all the cogent points Sapolsky makes on the connections between obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizotypalism, superstitious conditioning, shared anxiety, temporal lobe epilepsy and religion's obsession with purity, cleanliness, ritual and numerology. Charismatic religious leaders, rabbis, pastors, shamans, witch doctors, medicine men, brahmans and their ilk all exhibit these traits to a great extent, while the people they lead around like sheep tolerate their irrational obsessions because we all share a common need to comprehend the incomprehensible and to explain the unexplainable—hence the descent into the inescapable madness we find ourselves in today. Want to know what disastrous psychological malady is shared by humans, pigeons and rats? You'll find out in the video, which is about 82 minutes long.

 A Different Kind of Crush — Posted Sunday 9 July 2017 Although my post of 15 June revealed an utter disdain for my high school years, the same is not true for those of my parents. My mother hailed from a small town in southwest Missouri, but as a teenager her family moved to Quincy, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from Hannibal, Missouri. There she attended Quincy High School, graduating in 1932 (it should have been 1930, but she had to drop out for two years due to a family illness). My father attended the same school, graduating in 1924 (it should have been 1922, but his family also had some problems). A treasured remembrance of my mother was her description of catching her hair on fire during a chemistry lab experiment in her junior year. She mentioned that it had something to do with nitric acid, but as a chemistry major myself many years later I can only wonder how HNO$$_3$$ could possibly have been involved. I did something equally stupid when as a chemist I prepared a small batch of nitrogen triiodide (NI$$_3$$) in the lab and set it off in a fume hood, which I managed to do without getting fired. Here's my mother (top row, third from the left) as a member of the school's Alchemy Club in 1931 (I guess that's what they called chemistry back then): For many years I've had in my possession my parents' graduation yearbooks, and when the Internet got active in the early 2000s I started collecting yearbooks from other years (mostly from eBay auctions). It was fun to see my parents as kids in group photos from their freshman, sophomore and junior years, where they typically appeared as tiny images amidst hundreds of other faces. Unlike me, they were both very good looking, and their faces were never hard to pick out from the crowd. The school's 1927 yearbook is now 90 years old, and I'm positive that all the graduates are now passed on. My mother's tiny image is in the book, but what really interests me is the book's owner, one Leafa Norene Bryant (shown above), a very attractive young lady herself, whose yearbook is replete with hundreds of autographs and written comments from fellow graduates (she must have been very popular). But I also couldn't help noticing the numerous and lengthy comments written by a fellow female graduate, all of which invariably begin with "Remember when we $$\ldots$$ " The writing (done in blue fountain pen) is very faded now and difficult to read, but it's evident that the girl had an enormous crush on Ms. Bryant, while a few of the comments reveal overt lesbian feelings for her. I can't help thinking that her comments represented the very last time she had to express those feelings, as morally wrong as they would have certainly appeared in those days. Although "Marguerite" is certainly dead now, I won't reveal her identity or reproduce her more intimate yearbook comments here. Anyone named "Leafa" is going to be easy to trace on the Internet, and I discovered that after graduation she moved to Oklahoma, where she married in 1930, dying there a widow in 2001 at the age of 92. But I can't help wonder what happened to Marguerite, whom I've been unable to trace because of a very common last name. I also have to wonder how she felt when her best friend, who was probably unaware of the extent of her friend's feelings until they were revealed in that 1927 yearbook, left the state after graduating. When Abraham Lincoln was shoveled into the tombs, he forgot the copperheads and the assassin $$\ldots$$ in the dust, in the cool tombs. And Ulysses Grant lost all thought of con men and Wall Street, cash and collateral turned ashes $$\ldots$$ in the dust, in the cool tombs. Pocahontas' body, lovely as a poplar, sweet as a red haw in November or a pawpaw in May, did she wonder? does she remember? $$\ldots$$ in the dust, in the cool tombs? Take any streetful of people buying clothes and groceries, cheering a hero or throwing confetti and blowing tin horns $$\ldots$$ Tell me if the lovers are losers $$\ldots$$ tell me if any get more than the lovers $$\ldots$$ in the dust $$\ldots$$ in the cool tombs. — Carl Sandburg, Cool Tombs

 Nationalism, Militarism and Greed Merge With Christianity — Posted Sunday 9 July 2017 Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. — Nazi Reichsminister Joseph Goebbels Megastore Hobby Lobby, an evangelically-owned and operated multibillion-dollar business based in Oklahoma, is completing the construction of the $800 million Museum of the Bible in Washington DC. The museum, which sits adjacent to numerous federal buildings, was intentionally designed to appear as a federal building itself to give the illusion that the U.S. government officially sanctions the Christian faith. At over 400,000 square feet, it will be the largest museum in the city when it opens to the public this fall, rivaled only by the Smithsonian. In addition to the usual religious claptrap, the museum intends to display thousands of archaeological objects from the ancient Middle East in the hope that visitors will come away believing that the Old and New Testament stories are literal, historical and inerrant. In that sense the museum follows the recently completed$200 million Ark Encounter in Kentucky (a full-size replica of Noah's ark, but without the use of biblical "gopher wood" because, like the ark itself, it never existed) and the Ark Discovery Museum, which has sadly been closed due to a lack of visitors. You will recall that Hobby Lobby famously went to the Supreme Court to argue against the Affordable Health Care Act's requirement that employers provide family planning and birth control medication for their employees. In a 5-4 decision in 2014, the Supreme Court decided for Hobby Lobby and gave the company an exemption from the law. Hobby Lobby repaid that favor by illegally obtaining millions of dollars worth of looted Middle Eastern archeological antiquities to stock their museum. Caught redhanded, the company must now return the items to Iraq and other countries that they looted and pay a fine of $3 million which, for a multibillion-dollar firm, is a mere slap on the wrist. Here in my dear old Pasadena I have been spotting billboards extolling the virtues of our glorious military (we have to invade and occupy other countries, you see, in order to spread democracy, freedom and Christianity), while what little cable television I still watch runs military ads for the Army, Navy and Marines depicting huddled, frightened (and white) families protected by garrisons of uniformed, medal-festooned heroes. Meanwhile, and perhaps not coincidentally, the streets and freeway underpasses of Pasadena are filling with homeless panhandlers, many with children, while President Trump is increasing military spending while slashing expenditures on domestic social services. "Start a business and get rich!" he says. It's sickening.  He's Not Just Adept at Closing Bridges — Posted Tuesday 4 July 2017 Down at the beach, I'm a lucky man I'm the only one who gets a tan. — Weird Al Yankovic, Fat Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) may have shut down the beaches to the public recently, but he managed nevertheless to sneak his enormous bulk onto one of them with his family yesterday. A sharp-eyed photographer snapped this picture from a Cessna aircraft, which was probably the only way he could fit the governor into the shot. A blow-up of the photo showed that it was indeed Christie. While his fabulously wealthy family members enjoyed a public beach all to themselves, they did note with some consternation that their volleyball had a peculiar habit of orbiting the governor and spoiling the fun. They also had to avoid the water because of all the sharks that gathered after they spotted Christie on the sand. One shark was heard to say to another "If we can pull this off, we'll eat like kings!" But they were sorely disappointed because Christie, after emerging from the sand with the same ease as a Brontosaurus emerging from a tar pit, left the beach after spotting an all-you-can-eat hot dog stand. If I have one more pie a la mode I'm gonna need my own zip code. — Al again  Weylguy — Posted Tuesday 4 July 2017 Doesn't this idiot ever shut up about religion and politics?  Science Correcting Itself — Posted Monday 3 July 2017 A friend alerted me to this article, which reports on the possibility that dark energy is a figment of the imagination. The article is based on a February 2017 arXiv paper entitled Concordance Cosmology Without Dark Energy. I think it serves as a great example of how scientists are always questioning their work, and how a theory is invariably treated as only a temporary scientific fact awaiting the arrival of contradictory evidence, at which point the theory is either modified or scrapped. Science is thus a falsifiable and self-correcting field—totally unlike religion or politics, which involve persistent and immutable lies. As a grad student many years ago I took a single course in astrophysics, thinking that my long-time interest in astronomy would carry over from my hobby of telescope-building and stargazing into physics proper. To my dismay I found I didn't really care for the subject, and I never bothered to pursue it. Part of that ongoing attitude comes from something I read in a textbook I had at the time, the 1965 edition of Introduction to General Relativity by Adler, Bazin and Schiffer (which is still my all-time favorite relativity book): Let us first remark that the use of a distinguished time-coordinate $$x^0$$ marks the abandonment of a completely covariant treatment of the cosmological problem. This is the price one has to pay to simplify the cosmological models and to describe physical reality in convenient mathematical terms. The authors wrote this as part of their introduction to what's known as the Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker (FLRW) metric, which is an exact solution of Einstein's gravitational field equations as applied to the entire universe. The solution relies on the assumption that on average the distribution of matter in the universe is both homogeneous and isotropic, a quite reasonable assumption considering the magnitude of the problem. What may or may not be reasonable is the additional assumption that there is a global time coordinate that applies to the universe everywhere at the same instant which, as the authors imply, represents a radical departure from strict relativistic covariance. I have always been bothered by the fact that the FLRW solution remains the primary tool for cosmological modeling despite the apparent questionability of this latter assumption. The new paper in effect addresses the issues of homogeneity, isotropism and global time simultaneously by not taking on the entire universe all at once, but breaking it up into bite-size chunks, each of which is allowed to have it own set of local properties. They did this by simulating a sample cube of space measuring 480 million light-years along each side, breaking it up into 1 million pieces, and applying the FLRW metric to each piece using a high-speed computer. They then "averaged" the results for the entire sample space. What they got was nearly exactly the same as that predicted by the so-called "lambda-cold-dark-matter" ($$\Lambda$$CDM) model, which today serves as the standard model for cosmology. The $$\Lambda$$CDM model assumes a non-zero value for the cosmological constant $$\Lambda$$, which is generally believed to be a form of dark energy. The new paper is based solely on Einstein's field equations without a dark energy component, making the presumed existence of dark energy itself highly questionable. Again, a neat example of the legitimacy of scientific pursuit. More information on the study is available here, while the following video shows a computerized comparison of the paper's simulation with the $$\Lambda$$CDM and FLRW models.  Is Science Becoming Like Religion? — Posted Friday 30 June 2017 The 3-dimensional "shadow" of a 6-dimensional Calabi-Yau manifold. In a previous post dated 30 May 2016, I outlined the derivation of the patently strange expression $$S = \sum_{k=1}^\infty k = 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 \ldots \infty = \infty - \frac{1}{12} \tag{1}$$ Odd as this appears, the derivation is relatively straightforward and the math involved is entirely correct. More to the point, however, is that it's important in the development of modern bosonic string theory. I won't go into it, but the 12 in the denominator of (1) is used (via $$2 \times 12 + 2 =26$$) to show that bosonic string theory is meaningful only when there are 26 spacetime dimensions, 22 more than are evident to our lying eyes (the extra space dimensions are all the size of the Planck length, you see, so we don't see them). But then one has to ask what happened to that $$\infty$$ in (1). Do we just ignore it? Not quite. In quantum field theory there are many calculations that essentially yield just two types of quantities: those that are finite, giving highly accurate answers to physical problems of great interest, while the others are infinite, and typically thrown away for the sake of convenience ("swept under the rug," as Richard Feynman once put it). The infinite parts involve things like the actual (bare) mass or electric charge of an electron, for example, which we can never directly observe or calculate anyway, so they're ignored. But in bosonic string theory the infinite piece in (1) is believed to exactly cancel out other infinities arising in the theory, so the $$-1/12$$ persists, and thus represents a highly meaningful and useful quantity. To see where I'm going with this, let's consider the similar infinite series (originally considered by the great 18th century Swiss mathematician Leonard Euler) $$T = \sum_{k=0}^\infty 2^k = 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 + 16 \ldots \infty = 1 + 2\,(1 + 2 + 4 + 8 \ldots \infty)$$ But this is just $$T = 1 + 2T$$, so that $$T = -1$$ or, equivalently, $$\infty = -1$$. This is clearly nonsense, but we've made absolutely no mathematical mistakes in the derivation. So where did we go wrong? The answer lies in the fact that infinity is not a number that can be added to and subtracted from, but is instead an abstract concept or representation of a quantity that cannot be expressed numerically. You simply cannot add, subtract or multiply $$\infty$$ in any mathematically consistent way that will end up giving sensible answers. It is thus entirely correct to write $$\infty + 1 = \infty$$, whereas $$7 + 1 = 7$$ is absurd. For the same reason, trying to balance out or "subtract away" infinities in quantum field theory and string theory would seem to be similarly absurd, but physicists do it because they have no better ideas on how to get rid of those otherwise unwanted and embarrassing infinities. In the 1980s, mathematical physicists found that the number of spacetime dimensions in string theory could be reduced to 10 if yet another complicated theory—supersymmetry (or SUSY)— were incorporated into the mathematics. This still involved six extra Planck-size space dimensions (in what is called a Calabi-Yau manifold), but it was a lot better than 22 extra dimensions. Then in 1995 the noted mathematical physicist Edward Witten discovered that string theory could be made even more consistent if an additional space dimension were added, bringing the total to eleven. Today, 11-dimensional superstring theory arguably represents the best shot physicists have of uniting all the known forces of Nature into a single theory. Unfortunately, the energies required to test the theory lie at or near the Planck energy level, which is many, many orders of magnitude greater than those that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is able to generate. In fact, it has been suggested that a collider the size of the observable universe would be needed to adequately verify superstring theory. Obviously, string theory in its current form will almost certainly never be testable. But that means it will have to reside outside the scientific method, which in addition to hypothesis requires verification through repeated experiment and peer review. True scientific theories are considered something akin to temporary facts, subject to both additional validation as well as future falsification. This is primarily what makes science different from religion, which is based solely on untestable, non-falsifiable claims of faith (whether the "facts" add up or are completely nonsensical, illogical or contradictory is irrelevant in religion). In July 2012 the LHC discovered the Higgs boson, the final link in the chain of the highly successful theory known as the Standard Model. It was an expected discovery, and the mass of the Higgs (about 125 GeV) had also been expected. The anticipated next step for the LHC was to be the discovery of a host of particles demanded by SUSY, many of which lie only a bit higher than the Higgs in terms of mass. Since 2012 the energy of the LHC has nearly doubled, and its improved resolving power was expected to start producing carloads of the postulated supersymmetric particles. But, to the surprise and dismay of many theorists, nothing has been found. As of this writing, for all intents and purposes, Nature appears to be a particle and field desert at energies above that of the Higgs. This represents a crisis in physics at two levels. One, at nearly its design energy capability of 14 TeV, the LHC has found nothing. And two, the absence of anticipated supersymmetry particles is a major blow for superstring theory, which in many ways is absolutely dependent on the validity of SUSY itself. Pro-SUSY and pro-string theorists have responded by moving the goal posts—surely, they say, the anticipated SUSY particles lie at higher energies than previously thought (requiring the construction of more powerful colliders), or superstring theory in its current form is strictly applicable only to lower energy regimes not entirely dependent on SUSY. These responses are not completely unrealistic or unjustified, but they do reflect a kind of faith sneaking into science. And I think that's dangerous, because it represents a kind of "God-of-the-Gaps" argument for science in which, regardless of the total lack of any empirical evidence, physicists may go ahead and believe in their theories anyway. When asked how he would have reacted if the 1919 solar eclipse data had refuted his theory of general relativity, Einstein replied that he would have felt sorry for God, because the theory was correct anyway. Einstein was fortunate that his braggadocchio was instead fully supported by the data. I very much doubt if the same will hold for the superstring and SUSY theories.  Post-Racial America? — Posted Tuesday 27 June 2017 Emmett Till, 25 July 1941 - 28 August 1955 The Mississippi memorial marker for Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black youth who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in Mississippi in August 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, has again been defiled by white nationalists. Till's killers were quickly identified and arrested, but they were just as quickly acquitted by an all-white jury in September 1955. After the trial the two killers publicly and proudly admitted murdering Till, knowing that Mississippi's double-jeopardy laws guaranteed that they could never be tried again for the crime. The offended white woman later admitted that she fabricated the entire story. Till's mother demanded and got an open-casket funeral for her slain son. She wanted the world to know that her son's mutilated, bloated and rotting corpse was the consequence of a white nationalist hatred that has never left this country. Indeed, that hatred is even more on display now that Donald Trump, the darling of the KKK, is the nation's president.  Collapse — Posted Monday 19 June 2017 They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force—nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the Earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. — Marlow, in Heart of Darkness (1899) On the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt is a low mountain called Mokattam Hill, which figures prominently in the Coptic Orthodox faith. Legend has it that here in the 10th century CE the Muslim Caliph al-Muizz Lideenillah challenged Christians to provide a demonstration of Matthew 17:20, in which Jesus tells his believers that faith as small as a mustard seed can move a mountain. Under the threat of death of the area's Christian inhabitants, the Coptic Pope Abraham led a series of prayers that are believed to have physically lifted the mountain above its base, thus satisfying the Caliph that the Christian faith was indeed both true and powerful. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find even a moderate Coptic Christian who doesn't believe the story is historically and factually true. The area of Mokattam today is called Garbage City. Bereft of basic services such as schools, running water, sewers and adequate electricity, it serves as the garbage repository of Cairo's 10 million inhabitants. It also serves to support thousands of poor Egyptians, who scavenge the rotting heaps of garbage to support their families. One has to wonder why another round of prayers might not today solve the problem, which invites disease, malnutrition and high childhood death rates. After all, it's gotta be a lot easier than moving a mountain. A young Egyptian girl squats amidst rotting garbage in Mokattam The primary reason I'm so negative about organized religion is because it encourages simplistic, irrational thinking that causes people to place hope and faith above rational thought and action, expecting that God will solve all their problems. It also allows people to retain the two most negative human emotions—fear and greed—by disguising them as positive traits, such as hard work, the indomitable spirit of human innovation and invention, and the notion that people who look, think and act differently are morally inferior and therefore deserve to have what little they possess taken away from them by the wealthy (Matthew 25:29-30). A colleague directed me to a recent article by ecology writer Rachel Nuwer entitled "How Western Civilization Could Collapse," a disturbing overview of how rampant human greed and fear over the millennia have caused widespread misery for both our species and the planet as well. But far more disturbing is the fact that in spite of war, disease and resource depletion, our species has managed to produce today's bumper crop of some 7.5 billion individuals, the vast majority of which subsist hand to mouth on pathetic incomes and even fewer material resources, with little or no real expectations that things will get any better. What little remaining hope exists is fueled by knee-jerk religious platitudes like "It's all in God's hands" and "God wants you to be rich" and "Kill them all and let God sort it out", thus relieving the human race of the responsibility of actually doing anything about serious problems or even recognizing they exist. People living on the edge then bring more children into their world of subsistence living, compounding the problem. Organized religion thus has the net effect of preventing the human race from developing a true action plan for sustainable living by encouraging us to trust in miracles and illogical nonsense, regardless of whether we're rich or poor and regardless of how we treat other people and the Earth that sustains us all. Nuwer's article should be required reading for everyone.  Yes, Burn It — Posted Monday 19 June 2017  Scapegoats — Posted Sunday 18 June 2017 Retired Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich (see my post dated May 16) has an op-ed in today's The Los Angeles Times, outlining Der Trump's plans to make his generals take the blame for Amerika's pointless and seemingly endless war in Afghanistan. In response to recent complaints by Sen. John McCain, Defense Secretary James Mattis responded with "we will correct this as soon as possible" via "a change in our approach" by "doing things differently" using "a more regional strategy" involving an "across-the-board whole of government" collaborative approach. I strongly suspect that even rabid war hawk McCain sees that this is all just more bullshit to buy more time in the Middle East (more time as in "forever"), but Bacevich's take is that Mattis knows full well that he and his fellow hawks will be taking the fall for a war that cannot be won. Meanwhile, Mr. Penis President Trump is actually counting on this, as he knows his campaign promises to end the conflict in that country were empty, and he desperately needs scapegoats. But fear not, fellow Amerikaners, Trump is already eyeing Iran as our next war objective which, just like Iraq, has oil to boot. While Iran is an enormous country, with 75 million people who are impossible to defeat militarily, don't expect that to deter Trump, who I liken to Hitler with 5,000 nuclear weapons.  Still Not So Long Ago — Posted Thursday 15 June 2017 On this exact day and date in 1967 I graduated from Duarte High School in California—fifty years ago. It seems like yesterday, and I still vividly recall being overjoyed that my high school days were finally done. Having had perfect grades throughout grade school, high school from the start was nothing but a traumatic experience for me—mediocre grades and endless crushes on girls who didn't know I existed, along with the sudden, crushing awareness that my home life with two poor, uneducated drunken parents who constantly fought with one another was not the norm after all, drove me into a shell at the age of 14. I was socially inept, a mediocre student and athlete without any personality to speak of, and almost pathologically shy. To top it off, I ended up barely a C+ student, hardly fit for the university and chemistry or physics career I had aspired to since the age of ten. One of the duties of the school's Vice Principal, Mr. Scheel, was to meet with and advise each of the graduating seniors on their respective paths into the adult world. When I told him I wanted to go to college and major in either chemistry or physics, he tactfully informed me that with my grades and SAT scores I should aspire instead to trade school—I distinctly recall him saying that plumbing might be a good career option for me. My parents somehow managed to remain sufficiently sober to attend my high school graduation, which took place in the middle of Falcon Field on that day at 6:30 pm. Sitting in the bleachers overlooking the ceremony, my Dad took this single photo of the event with his cheap Instamatic camera, which I managed to preserve over the years in all its glorious graininess. She, the blond high school goddess who occupied so many of my tormented, longing thoughts throughout most of my high school days and whose memory continues to haunt me still like a ghost from the past, is seated here among the guests—forever unknown and unidentified—in the last row of the photo. I watched her wistfully all through the ceremony, knowing I'd never see her again. Remember thee! Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat In this distracted globe. Remember thee! Yea, from the table of my memory I'll wipe away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past That youth and observation copied there, And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain, Unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven! — Hamlet She must be 67 now, and has not only certainly forgotten me, but will remain forever unaware of our coincidentally connected past lives. May you live in eternal happiness and joy, my dear oblivious sweetheart.  Not So Long Ago? — Posted Saturday 10 June 2017 I watched the movie Picnic last night, the first time I'd seen it since my late sister Connie and her boyfriend took me along to see it in the then-tiny beach town of Balboa, California sometime in early 1956. I had just turned 7, and I remember hating the film because I really wanted to see the science fiction movie It Came From Beneath the Sea, as I had been promised. Although the movie is full of stereotypical American mores (no blacks or minorities to be seen anywhere, for example), I can see the film now with its undercurrent of sexual repression and frustration, the looming hopelessness of goals and dreams, jealousy, the fleetingness of youth, and the need for true love in one's life. The dance sequence with William Holden and Kim Novak (the only surviving main actor from the film) is sensuous, exhilarating, moving and heartbreaking at the same time, made all the more poignant by Moonglow, the film's beautiful love song. The issue of sexual repression in 1950s films is not as rare as one might think, although I doubt very much if audiences at the time were aware of it. Charles Laughton's immortal 1955 film The Night of the Hunter is chock-full of subtle sexual imagery (contrasted with the innocence and frailty of children), but audiences at the time didn't understand the film at all. Conservatives longing for the naive simplicity of the 1950s elected Donald Trump last year largely because he represented a return to the good old days of Leave It To Beaver, never realizing that their sexually corrupt and moronic candidate actually preferred Grab The Beaver instead.  Don't Get Your Hopes Up — Posted Thursday 8 June 2017 Sorry, but I haven't been watching the Comey Hearing because I know full well nothing will come of it. We live in a different age from the days of Watergate, when Republicans were so disturbed about Nixon's lies and corruption that they could join with the Democrats to take the bastard down. That can't happen now—today's Republicans have all gulped down the Trump Kool-Aid and will stand with their man no matter what. The only hope I see for this country now is a military coup in which Trump and his administration minions are all lined up and shot, followed by military trials for all the Congressional Republicans and blue dog Democrats. That's absolutely not going to happen, so Amerika is just shit up a creek.  Yet Another Irrational Conservative Fear — Posted Wednesday 7 June 2017 Noted German physicist and blogger Sabine Hossenfelder routinely fields questions from her readers, usually at a level far from the lay person's ability to comprehend, but she occasionally stoops down to answer truly elementary inquiries. In today's post she responds to a letter from a person who expresses great anxiety over the end of the universe by vacuum decay, a possible but highly improbable event that's impossible to predict. In its simplest description, every quantum field $$\phi(x,t)$$ has a value in spacetime that is associated with a potential energy level denoted by $$V(\phi)$$. In the case of the Higgs field, that potential exists everywhere in the universe. Since the universe hasn't been blowing up lately, it is assumed that the value of $$\phi$$ is in a position of local (or relative) stability called a vacuum state. That state is assumed to be a minimum somewhere on the above state-potential graph. But that position could be a false vacuum, meaning that there's an even more stable (lower energy) state somewhere on the graph. If such a state exists, then there's the possibility that the current state could get there by quantum tunneling, a proven quantum-mechanical process that most high school kids have learned about. If and when that happens there's a release of energy to the surroundings, resulting in a more stable energy state. If the Higgs field happens to be in such a semi-stable (false vacuum) state, its collapse to a lower state would release unimaginable energies, resulting in the certain end of our universe. The person who wrote Hossenfelder is almost certainly a conservative Christian Republican, because only such a person would express such great anxiety over a highly improbable event (roughly once in about $$10^{600}$$ times the age of the universe) which, if and when it happened, couldn't be avoided anyway. This is a conundrum I've never been able to comprehend—these people routinely express great faith in God and Jesus, yet they're scared to death of any kind of uncertainty and of dying itself. But it's when those people act out their irrational fears—like electing monsters like Donald Trump to lead them and their country down the road to Perdition—that things get truly scary.  Checks and Balances?! Bwah-ha-ha-ha! — Posted Tuesday 6 June 2017 Truth-Out is claiming that President Trump's pull-out from the Paris Climate Agreement is an impeachable act, in part because he acceded to the demands of 22 Republican senators to get the United States out of the deal, who all received a total of over$20 million in donations and gifts from oil, gas and energy corporations that stand to make a killing when America becomes a lone environmental wolf in a rapidly degrading global ecosystem. What Truth-Out and others don't seem to understand is that unless Congress makes an effort to control Trump, he can do pretty much whatever he wants. Trump used the Russians to hack our voting systems and gut Clinton's chances in the 2016 election, and appointed corrupt, inexperienced family members to administration jobs who also have ties to Russia. He's gutting funding for scientific research, Social Security and Medicare, he's frozen Federal worker salaries and hiring, and he now plans to privatize the nation's air-traffic control and prison systems for the benefit of his corporate pals. As for the environment, Trump has cut 31% of the Environmental Protection Agency's funding, and has already banned that agency's mention of the terms "global climate change" and "sea level rise." Meanwhile, America's "Christians" love Trump, and our corrupt, go-along Congress is doing nothing to mitigate Trump's destruction of the county. Remember Schindler's List? For sport, Trump could sit in the Oval Office with a sniper rifle and gun down passersby outside the White House fence like Amon Göth, and it's doubtful that Congress or the courts would even bother giving a damn. During the 2016 campaign Trump even bragged "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters." Again, America's "Christians" simply loved it, but it was probably Trump's on-camera "Grab 'em by the pussy" remark that really endeared him to their satanic, hypocritical hearts. "Be careful what you say" — Warning issued by former Republican White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer to reporters who were getting too inquisitive regarding Bush 43's bogus Iraq War

 You Have Nothing to Fear if We Think You've Done Nothing Wrong — Posted Tuesday 6 June 2017 In this age of low-cost, high-quality color printers, it has always fascinated me to watch those old noir films about master counterfeiters who spend years and years engraving perfect copper plates to make bogus twenty-dollar bills—only to get tripped up by the Feds because the crooks left something out of the plates, like Andrew Jackson's left eyebrow. But today even the cheapest color printer can make seemingly perfect copies of U.S. currency. The trick is to get the paper just right, and then find a work-around for those annoying security strips embedded in the bills. It turns out that even if you had a stash of blank U.S. currency linen (which is illegal to own) and the best color printer that money can buy, you'd get caught anyway. That's because the government has colluded with printer manufacturers to have their printers embed secret and traceable printing dots on every page you print, whether it's an illegal portrait of Andrew Jackson or your Uncle Jack. Yes, your printer has been spying on you. I thought I could relax after putting my Vizio Smart TV set out to pasture to prevent the NSA from recording my plans to overthrow the government (and I always leave my GPS-equipped iPhone at home when I'm out burying a body), but I have to admit I never suspected my trusty Canon MX870 to turn on me. Now I'll have to think hard to remember if all those kidnap ransom notes and terrorist bomb threats I printed were in color or black and white. Must be B&W, since I'm not currently in the custody of the FBI or strung up in a torture cell at Guantánamo. Whew—dodged a bullet on that one. Although I know that my hero Mike Ehrmantraut is clever, supremely cautious and paranoid like me, he nevertheless screws up from time to time, so you can never tell. Hats off to PZ Myers for tipping me off. Just shut the fuck up and let me die in peace. — Mike Ehrmantraut

 GW170104 Joins the Party — Posted Thursday 1 June 2017 A third observation of the merger of a binary, multi-solar mass black hole system (dubbed GW170104) has been confirmed by the advanced LIGO instrument, which detected the signal in January of this year. The detected signal and source luminosity data indicate the merger of a 31 $$M_\odot$$ black hole and a 19 $$M_\odot$$ black hole some 880 megaparsecs ($$z=0.18$$, or about 2.9 billion light-years) from Earth, making the merger a relatively remote event. The measured outgoing radiation corresponds to a net energy loss of 2 $$M_\odot c^2$$, in complete agreement with Einstein's theory of general relativity. The data provides no reliable information on the estimated spins of the individual black holes, but the calculated spin of the merged system indicates that the initial rotation rates would not appreciably affect the overall calculations. The observation provides increasing confidence to scientists that gravitational radiation will become as important a tool as are optical and radio telescopes in astronomy today, and that it may ultimately confirm or disconfirm current theories of cosmological inflation, the expansion rate of the universe, and both the origin and fate of the universe itself. Meanwhile, President Trump is slashing federal funding for scientific research, while conservative morons like James Dobson, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and others continue to assert that scientific facts and theories are just opinions and lies, while maintaining that a man who lived 2,000 years ago absolutely walked on water and was resurrected from the dead. Go figure. Here's an undated Einstein photo, showing some of his "opinions and lies" on the blackboard. In the 1930s the Nazis placed pages in magazines and newspapers declaring that Einstein was Noch ungehängt, or "Not yet hanged." I'm pretty sure that Dobson, Hannity, Limbaugh and company feel the same way about all scientists today, as they cheer on Amerika's imminent return to the 13th century.

 Is This What You Want? — Posted Wednesday 31 May 2017 I've been watching the Hulu series The Handmaid's Tale for a number of weeks now, and it's getting more and more difficult for me to watch. Adapted from author Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel of the same name dealing with a dystopian America that has been taken over by a fundamentalist Christian government, most of the angst that I feel viewing it arises from the fear I have that it might actually transpire before long in this country. Writer and author Patricia Miller shares this same fear in her latest Religion Dispatches article, where she compares the Gilead Government's Commander Fred Waterford with Vice President Mike Pence, whose fundamentalist Catholic faith is eerily similar to the harsh attitudes of fanatics like Pence regarding the role of women. The sole job of the story's protagonist, Offred (meaning she is "Of Fred") is to bear children to Waterford and his barren wife. The similarities of the story line with the Old Testament tales of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel regarding conception and birth are pronounced. Miller also goes after conservative Catholic douchbag Ross Douthat who, while routinely voicing his discontent with the antics of the dangerous, moronic womanizer Donald Trump, cannot hide his delight that the country is nevertheless moving in the direction represented by Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale. Defying even the most trifling religious command in Gilead is punishable by beatings, amputations, female circumcision or death (usually by mass public hangings), for both men and women. But it's far worse for the women—they are forbidden to read or have any contact with men (eye contact with a man is considered both a sin and a capital crime), and they must always be completely clothed in red or green burka-like outfits. The Handmaids are forced to have sex with their men owners for reproduction purposes, while the Marthas cook and clean for their male masters. The men typically are married to barren wives (a global phenomenon caused by war and environmental degradation), who seem to have little to do but shop and look pretty for their husbands. And this is America in the near future, not Iran or Saudi Arabia. Miller cites five reasons why she believes America might go down the same road, all dealing with the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court, the Senate, the House of Representatives and most of the country's state governments are currently governing and enacting laws that seem frighteningly similar to what we're seeing in the series. Years ago I saw a university play based on the novel, and at the play's conclusion the women actors all came out on stage and asked the audience, in unison, Is this what you want?

 Covfefe — Posted Wednesday 31 May 2017

 Lying with Statistics? — Posted Monday 29 May 2017 I did my PhD dissertation on particle statistics. Not particle physics, but particle size distribution statistics. So I had to learn about $$r^2$$, $$\sigma$$- and $$p$$-values and all that, and I believe I got to be fairly adept at recognizing the significance of data, at least with respect to their statistics. So when it was announced in 1999 that the expansion of the universe was actually accelerating and not slowing down under the influence of gravity as expected, I naturally wanted to see the data that supported that claim, which won three researchers the Nobel Prize in physics in 2011. It's actually a very big deal in cosmology, because an accelerating universe implies dark energy. To be honest, I wasn't particularly impressed with the data, which I posted some years ago in the form of the researchers' published summary graph: Briefly, if the universe was simply expanding along normally, the data points would line up with the heavy dotted line. But for high-$$z$$ (red shift) observations, the data points appear to drift away from that line, implying that something is making the universe expand at an accelerated rate. It's not a huge drift, but it's statistically significant. Or so I thought. Last year a paper appeared that challenged that conclusion. The gist of the paper's argument is that true scientific discoveries generally have to achieve what is known as the 5-sigma significance level, meaning that there is only a $$2.867 \times 10^{-7}$$ probability (or about one in 3.5 million) that the discovery is false. Not false in any "rigged" sense, mind you, but false in that there's a slight chance that the discovery is just plain statistically insignificant—in other words, a fluke. But as this 2016 article notes, much more data has been accumulated since the original findings were reported, and they imply only a 3-sigma significance level for all the data, which puts the original discovery in the "possibly interesting" category. 3-sigma is definitely publishable (it means that there's a one in 741 chance that the discovery is a fluke), but it doesn't merit a Nobel Prize. I'm not a cosmologist, but I frankly don't agree with the dark energy idea, at least in the sense that it's some kind of mysterious, unknown particle or field that's being advertised today. It's probably just Einstein's cosmological constant $$\Lambda$$, which the great scientist introduced in 1917 to maintain a static, non-expanding universe in his gravitational field equations. He then famously dumped what he referred to as his "greatest blunder" when Edwin Hubble showed in 1929 that the universe is definitely expanding. A non-zero cosmological constant can make the expansion of the universe slow down or accelerate, depending in its sign, but efforts to date to determine its precise value have been inconclusive. It's very small, to be sure, but it ain't zero. In the meantime, the accelerating-universe discovery has maintained its popularity despite contrary evidence. This is disappointing to me, because science is supposed to be self-correcting, a consequence of the time-honored notion of falsifiability. Our theories of quantum physics and general relativity (gravitation) have yet to fail a single test, yet one verified piece of contrary evidence would send those theories back to the drawing board. Contrast that with politics and religion, whose dogmatic notions seem impervious to disproval.

 When, Dear God? — Posted Monday 29 May 2017 I attended a meeting last night on quantum gravity. It was very elementary, but the attendees did share the same question that has nagged me for years: will we ever see a workable theory of quantum gravity before we all start pushing up daisies? I for one am running out of patience, forced to read one inane paper after another claiming some minor breakthrough (or progress, at least) on the subject. Lots of hand-waving out there, but every idea to date has come up empty. Quantum mechanics and Einstein's gravity theory (general relativity) are the most supremely successful scientific theories we have. Neither has failed any of the experimental tests thrown at it, and with both theories now roughly 100 years old that's really saying something. But there's a problem—QM and gravity don't play well with one another. The mathematics behind each is straightforward, but to date no one has figured out how one might be related to the other. This is a damned shame because, unless we can figure this out, the problem of where matter and energy really come from, and perhaps what our purpose is here on this stupid planet, will never be resolved. I think part of the problem is due to the mathematics. In general relativity there's really only one quantity of any use—the Riemann-Christoffel curvature tensor $$R_{\,\, \mu\nu\alpha}^\lambda$$. It's a purely mathematical quantity that's never actually measured, just calculated. It only vanishes when there's no mass-energy (or gravity) lurking about, so it serves as the starting point for all conventional theories of gravitation. Physicists play with this quantity in their theories, contracting it into its lower forms $$R_{\mu\nu}$$ and $$R$$ and combining it with other quantities that they hope will lead somewhere, but always to no avail. By comparison, the mathematics of quantum mechanics is far richer, with its wave functions and operators and long-tested rules, however axiomatic many of them might be. But quantum theory only makes predictions of experimental outcomes, and while they are invariably successful the theory is inherently probabilistic, a feature that Einstein detested ("God does not play dice"). But the picture may be changing. There is one place where quantum mechanics and gravitation are forced to confront one another, and that is at the surface and interior of a black hole. There is now significant theoretical evidence that a black hole somehow preserves unitarity, the notion that information cannot be destroyed (a particle in a pure state, for example, cannot exit the black hole in a mixed state through Hawking radiation) when an object (say, Melville's book Moby-Dick) falls into a black hole. There is, however, also theoretical evidence that the event horizon ("surface") of a black hole destroys all infalling information via a "firewall." Whichever view is the right one, it would appear that black hole physics represents perhaps the only currently available gateway to a successful theory of quantum gravity—no other object in our universe provides such an ideal way to develop (and test) what happens when quantum mechanics and gravitation are so forcefully thrust upon one another. I include the word "test" because the recent (confirmed) observation of gravitational radiation from two merging black holes has effectively opened up the prospect of gravitational astronomy, a new area in which gravitational wave detectors (like LIGO) might be used in essentially the same way that radio telescopes are employed today. Still, that would require the development of the appropriate mathematics needed to describe what's going on, a task that's been underway for too many years now. There's an apocryphal story that Einstein, confronted with a young girl's exasperation over a problem in arithmetic, replied "I assure you, young lady, the problems I'm facing in mathematics are far greater." Interesting, but it provides little solace to aging idiots like myself.

 Blast from the Past — Posted Monday 29 May 2017 I recall flying to a conference in Missouri one day in 1995. I was working on a paper, and the woman seated next to me said she couldn't help noticing my math scribbling (it was something about hydraulics). She was an elementary school teacher, she said, and she sometimes taught math to the middle grades, but nothing like the kind of stuff I was working on. We ended up having a nice chat all the way to the St. Louis airport. Exactly a year ago there was a similar incident that occurred to a professor of economics on what should have been a routine 40-minute flight (I posted the story back in May 2016, and you can read it again here). He was scribbling some math notes on a pad of paper when a woman passenger took notice of his work. Suspecting the dark-skinned, curly-haired man was a terrorist plotting some nefarious scheme in Arabic or secret code, she promptly notified the authorities, who took the man into custody. He somehow convinced airport security personnel that his notes were differential equations, not plans for a terrorist strike, and the plane departed two hours late but without the woman passenger, who apparently decided not to take any chances. A year later, President Trump is now busy killing off funding for scientific research, which he believes is a waste of money. I can't help but think that doing math or science on a plane nowadays might result in a much more serious situation, one that could have the scribbler sent off in chains to Guantánamo. Now in complete control of Amerika, right-wingers figure it's better to be safe than sorry, especially when foreign-looking people are involved. I see defunding science research as the first step toward making it illegal. In 1933 the Nazis started burning science books that they deemed represented "Jewish science," and just a few years later they were burning the Jewish scientists themselves. The past is prologue.

 Real Classy — Posted Friday 26 May 2017 Two minor gripes here. One, The Los Angeles Times allows submitted comments on many of its articles and reports, but invites you to buy or bid for "points" that will promote your comments to the head of the submittal list. Anything for a buck, I guess. And two, Montana's Greg Gianforte handily won election to the state's House of Representatives yesterday, despite being charged by the police for physically assaulting a UK Guardian journalist two days ago and sending him to the hospital for asking tough questions about his campaign. Gianforte and his wife are good Republicans, you see, who heartily support Trump and his policies of anti-science and pro-war. As good Christians, they oppose family planning, retirement benefits for the elderly, the minimum wage, health care and environmental protection—all because they believe the Old Testament demands opposition to these programs and policies (Noah was 600 years old when he built the ark, you see, so only lazy undeserving bastards think about retiring). But Montana's a Red State, comprised of moronic shit-kickin' cowboys and rednecks, so Gianforte got elected anyway. Many of my Democratic friends and relatives have told me that sure, Trump and the Republicans are now in charge of everything, but their insane policies will fuck the country up so badly that the elections of 2018 and 2020 will surely send them packing. With Gianforte's win yesterday, I'd say that kind of logic doesn't work anymore.

 You Idiots! — Posted Thursday 25 May 2017 German director Fritz Lang's brilliant 1927 film Metropolis is now 90 years old, but its message of a future world gone stark raving mad is as prescient as ever. The dystopian city of Metropolis is ruled by wealthy corporatists, who are served by impoverished workers who slave underground to run the engines of empire. An apparent savior—Maria —attempts to negotiate decent living conditions for the workers with their above-ground industrialist masters. But the scientist Rotwang, crazed by his love for a woman whose death he blames on the industrialists, seeks to destroy the city and the people, rich and poor alike. He creates an evil robot that he transforms into the exact likeness of Maria, through which Rotwang will incite the workers to destroy the machines they're forced to operate and maintain. Because the workers are uneducated, ignorant and have little to look forward to in life, they blindly obey the Maria robot, rioting and destroying the hated machines and flooding their underground hovels, not realizing that they are only dooming themselves and their children in the process. Yes, that's your new First Lady in the photo, Amerika. Proud of yourselves now? Behold the Whore of Babylon! (To paraphrase Hamlet,"Has it really come to this?!") Although the film ends on a happier note ("The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart!"), it nevertheless accurately predicted the situation in America today. While Rotwang was a warped scientific genius, I see the equally warped but uneducated and moronic Donald Trump as Rotwang's evil parallel, with his equally braindead and materialist wife Melania as Maria, striving to lead America away from sanity and into a dystopian world of greed, stupidity, illusory wealth and excess. (Okay, it's a stretch, but as a long-time admirer of Lang's film I saw an obvious connection.) On a related note, I mentioned retired U.S. Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich in my last post, but neglected to point out an excellent article he wrote earlier this month that I spotted over at the Naked Capitalism website. In that article Bacevich recounts how the Trump- and Melania-obsessed media continue to ignore issues of real importance to this country, ignorance that serves to prop up the now total dumbing-down of an American electorate intent on focusing on trifling matters while the country continues on its merry way to hell. In the meantime, enjoy your jobs and health care plans while you can. Trump's coming. The restored film is gorgeous, and now available in Blu-Ray format from the above Amazon link. In the following low-res clip, the workers' representative tries in vain to restore order. The workers, of course, blame someone else for their problems (my translated subtitles): Wake up, you idiots!!

 The Four Horsemen — Posted Tuesday 16 May 2017 The times in which we live call for a Niebuhrian revival. To read Reinhold Niebuhr today is to avail oneself of a prophetic voice, speaking from the past about the past, but offering truths of enormous relevance to the present. As prophet, Niebuhr warned that what he called in this book "our dreams of managing history"— dreams borne of a peculiar combination of arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-delusion—posed a large, potentially mortal threat to the United States. Today we ignore that warning at our peril. — Andrew J. Bacevich in The Irony of American History, by Reinhold Niebuhr, 2008 Retired U.S. Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich wrote this preface to Niebuhr's reissued 1952 book nearly a decade ago. Bacevich, who lost his son to an improvised explosive device in Bush's bogus Iraq War, knows firsthand the dangers of presidential demagoguery and the stupidity of an American citizenry besotted with greed and fear, hubris and bigotry, ignorance and vainglory. I can only imagine how Bacevich felt when Donald J. Trump was elected President. They say history is a pendulum, not an arc. But I really can't see it ever swinging back to sanity in this country again. Meanwhile, here's a classic post from University of Minnesota scientist PZ Myers, explaining how and why America has an evil, petulant 6-year-old child running the country. Please read it. Oh, why do we progressives even bother? The country's in the fucking toilet, being run by insane Christian fundamentalists, while the entire world is at the mercy of a child with his hands on the nuclear arsenal. Evangelicals, your cup runneth over. Too many cars, too many people doing too many wrong things. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is us.

 What's the Matter with Kansas? — Posted Thursday 11 May 2017 If you're studying geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all, but philosophy you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life. — Steve Martin, comedian and onetime Cal State Long Beach philosophy major Idée Fixe: A kind of mental disorder in which the afflicted person can think, reason and act just like other people, but is unable to stop a particular train of thought or action regardless of proven truth, fact, evidence or consequence to the contrary. Unlike Martin I never took philosophy at university, but I managed to screw up my life anyway, thank you very much. I did, however, take a course in psychology, my meager efforts resulting in a lowly "C" grade primarily because it was a required elective, far outside my major (my undergraduate degree was in chemistry), and I had little interest in it. I still have little interest in formal psychology, but it holds some fascination for me today, mainly because what people think and believe (and why they believe what they believe) is of some interest to me in these post-fact, post-truth Trumpian times. But as more and more scientists are noting nowadays, people's beliefs are likely due more to evolutionary neurology than a consequence of external environmental and/or social influences. One of my favorite websites is Debunking Christianity, whose erudite and intelligent articles are nevertheless generally far less interesting than the comments that people post in response. One sees the usual supportive agnostic and atheistic comments, but there's always a healthy dose of Christian apologeticists on hand to refute both the articles and the comments. Often the back-and-forth posts are contentious, if not outright virulently argumentative. While the rebuttals are often quite well thought out, they invariably reveal the truth behind what is referred to as idée fixe which, to make a short story even shorter, means that people believe what they want to believe, and it's all because of a peculiar kind of brain wiring. This wiring is almost certainly responsible for how people respond to political and religious issues, along with how they feel about social conservatism and progressivism. For this reason, I tend to see politics and religion as basically the same thing nowadays. This incidentally provides a good explanation for why one should avoid these subjects with family members at the Thanksgiving dinner table, regardless of how utterly annoying conservative Uncle Jack might be. There's a great five-part PBS series now airing called The Victorian Slum, a British reality show that depicts what life was really like for the poor in London's East End spanning the four decades between 1860 and 1900. As the series notes in the first episode, gross economic inequality between the poor and rich was tolerated (if not encouraged) by the latter's belief that wealth and poverty were largely a consequence of the "natural order of things," a notion that was both Darwinistic at one extreme (natural selection, survival of the fittest) and religious at the other ("Poverty is God's punishment for wrong living"). There was no safety net for the poor in those days, and one's only recourse was to either barely survive on slave wages, go out on the streets, or die. Even a "dosshouse" (what we here would call a flop house) cost tuppence a night, the accommodations consisting of a filthy room sporting ropes strung wall to wall that the poor would sleep on while standing up: Still, it was better better than the street—if you could afford it The series goes on to document the eventual arrival of welfare and benefit programs for the sick, destitute and needy, a social phenomenon that eventually came to America. But as always, political and religious attitudes shaped the general public's willingness to support such programs, attitudes that persist to this day both in Britain (with the Labour and Tory parties) and America (the Democrats and Republicans). It has always amazed me that while Jesus of Nazareth preached ceaselessly in support of the least among us, conservative Americans—Christ's supposedly most devout adherents—invariably go in exactly the opposite direction, always calling for across-the-board cuts in social services to enable increased military spending and tax reductions for the wealthy. What's even more amazing is that poor Christian conservatives themselves can be counted on to vote against their own best social and economic interests, a fact that has not been lost on the Republican Party. This phenomenon was documented in both hilarious and tragic terms in writer Thomas Frank's 2005 book What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, which still failed to explain how and why people could be so fucking stupid. (The same phenomenon's occurring in Britain.) To me, this has all the logic of asserting that $$1+1 = 19.7$$, but then conservatives never were very good at math.

 Remembering Thee Midniters — Posted Wednesday 10 May 2017 Although their song Land of a Thousand Dances was a hit in Los Angeles in 1965, Thee Midniters' same-year instrumental Whittier Boulevard was far better. In those days you either had the 45-rpm record (hell, even $0.99 was a tad hard to come by for poor high school kids like me back then) or you waited for it to play on KRLA (about the only station that bothered to air Chicano music at the time). I saw them with several friends in East Los Angeles (in 1966, I believe) and they sounded terrific. Here for posterity is the song that artists today couldn't replicate if their souls depended on it (provided in glorious, dumbed-down 48 kbps audio to elude copyright issues):  Experiment, Entertainment or Education? — Posted Friday 28 April 2017 Well, at least we have beer. I just had a profound thought. Suppose we're actually living in a computer simulated universe whose creators did indeed embed all kinds of neat physical laws and mathematical symmetries into the workings of everything but whose underlying reality lies at a scale that's far too small for us to ever detect (which is indeed quite possible, since achieving Planck energies would require a linear accelerator the size of the universe itself). Now suppose that the simulators realized early on that humankind would ultimately seek a "theory of everything," including a consistent, working theory of quantum gravity. Such a theory might give humans access to the inner workings of the simulated universe and thereby blow the cover of the simulators, who are simply running the universe as an experiment (or as entertainment or an educational tool). They never intended to be "caught," so they never added quantum gravity to the world they created. In short, there may not be a quantum gravity theory at all, and we may have already reached the end of the line as far as high-energy physics is concerned. I've considered this possibility before—the Large Hadron Collider, after all, has not discovered anything meaningful since the Higgs boson was announced back in July 2012. The collider's null results since then appear to have confirmed that our ideas about supersymmetry (a key underpinning of superstring theory), extra dimensions and parallel universes are all wrong. We may have to consider the possibility that there's nothing left but a particle/field desert at energies higher than 15 TeV. So why should we expect quantum gravity to exist? Back in 2001, the noted quantum theorist Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute confidently predicted that we'd have the theory in our hands by 2015 at the latest. So far Smolin's only two years off, but I wouldn't be placing any bets right now. The simulators would not want us to know any of this, of course, since it would likely lead to worldwide social disorientation and a foreboding sense of purposelessness. They want us to simply keep on trucking, doing whatever the hell it is that we're doing until they either lose interest or discover what they're after. Then it will be time to pull the plug. Oh Marsha, Marsha, Marsha. When will you start behaving like the simulated being we created? The Twilight Zone, The After Hours, 1960  Here We Go Again — Posted Tuesday 25 April 2017 There's a great two-part series currently airing on the National Geographic Channel called After Hitler that chronicles the ongoing trials and tribulations of Europeans following the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II (you can also watch it on YouTube and Daily Motion). While basically a graphic history lesson, the series was particularly disturbing to me because it shows (perhaps unintentionally) how little the human race has learned when it comes to war, persecution and killing. The series only covers the period 1945-1949, but you'd be shocked to learn that the mistreatment and murder of Jews (especially German-speaking Jews in Poland) went right on after war's end, while pogroms and killings prompted by racist hatred and revenge were also widespread across the continent. Even as early as 1946, it was as if people had forgotten everything and were intent on just going back to way things were before the war—just like they did at the end of World War I. The news media today coincidentally features two articles demonstrating to me that we still haven't learned anything. The British newspaper The Guardian is reporting on Trump's assembling of the entire Senate to discuss plans for what's to be done about North Korea, while the American online magazine Newsweek warns that even a conventional, non-nuclear strike on that country would likely kill a million people, South Koreans included. Meanwhile, right-wing commentators like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh are drooling over the prospect of a pending U.S. attack and the glorious triumphalism that will certainly break out here should it take place. I know damn well that the average conservative Republican is a racist bigot who doesn't give a shit about the lives of Koreans (North or South) and who feels that the more death and destruction we inflict on them the better. Fundamentalist American Christians, on the other hand, welcome an attack because it might drag Russia and China into the conflict, resulting in a worldwide nuclear war that would surely (surely!) force Jesus to return and bring about the End Times that these maniacs so desperately desire. (I mean, they've waited 2,000 years for the Big Guy to show up, and they've run out of patience. But I digress.) The point is that here we are, the human race consisting now of some 7.5 billion souls, with thousands of years of plunder, rape, war, killing and destruction behind us, all neatly chronicled in our history books and sacred texts, and we still haven't learned a goddamn thing.  We Destroyed the Planet and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt — Posted Sunday 23 April 2017 Caltech physics professor and nanotechnology expert Michael Roukes speaks to the crowd. There's about 2,000 people behind me. Yesterday I attended the March for Science at Caltech. Hosted officially by the school's postgrad unions, most of the attendees were scientists, engineers and educators from Pasadena and nearby communities. Many of the pro-science signs and posters were quite clever (my favorite was "Science, not Reince," with a beautiful hand-drawn depiction of a steaming pile representing White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus). Best of all, there were many children in the crowd. Maybe there's hope yet, but I kind of doubt it. Some idiot taking a selfie. Get outta the shot, jerk! My lasting impression of the march (and of those that were conducted nationally and around the world), is that people whose mindsets are grounded in reality and rationality represent a handful of adults trying to maintain order in a room swarming with screaming, insane children bent on wrecking the place while gorging themselves on sweets. The only flaw in this impression is that real children can be educated and eventually reasoned with, while those running this country today are themselves "adults" who are insane and beyond educating. I believe much of the simple mindedness that drives this insanity is based on unquestioning, authoritarian religious belief, but it's also a product of a willful ignorance that besots at least half of the American population. Part of it can also be attributed to the fact that science and mathematics are difficult to comprehend for the vast majority of humankind, making simplistic slogans like "The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it" much more appealing. I've quoted Voltaire's famous admonition "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities" on my website more times than I can count. It's still true. Right now mankind, led by maniacs like the Trump administration in this country, are committing atrocities against Planet Earth. In all likelihood, scientists will be kept powerless and forced to watch them wreck the place, only to have those screaming, insane children sit down in reverent anticipation of the biblical End Times when they've finally succeeded in fucking everything over. Those times will indeed come in the form of global pollution, climate disruption, overpopulation, famine, resource depletion, disease and war, but Jesus himself will not be there—this will be an End Times of our own making.  Nothing Better to Do Today — Posted Sunday 23 April 2017 I'm sure I've posted a response to email requests like this on my website before, but I don't know where it is. Since I don't post to that site anymore, I'll put it up here, since it seems to be a common complaint of QM students (and because I have nothing better to do today). The derivations, while simple, are rather involved, so the textbooks tend to gloss over them. 1. The Canonical Commutation Relation We start with the unitary displacement operator $$\hat{T}(\Delta x)$$, which in one dimension is given by $$\hat{T}(\Delta x) = e^{-i \hat{p} \Delta x/\hbar} \approx 1 - \frac{i \hat{p}\Delta x}{\hbar} \tag{1}$$ where $$\hat{p}$$ is the momentum operator (to be derived) and $$\Delta x$$ is an infinitesimal distance parameter (not an operator, but with the dimension of length). $$\hat{T}(\Delta x)$$ takes a position eigenket $$|x\rangle$$ and "pushes" it into the eigenket $$|x + \Delta x\rangle$$. Note that $$p, x$$ are non-commuting conjugate variables that seem to always appear in each other's company, just like energy and time. The dimension of the product $$p x$$ is joule-sec, which cancels that of the Planck constant $$\hbar$$, making $$\hat{T}(x)$$ dimensionless (the combination of energy-time does much the same thing). We therefore write $$\hat{T}( \Delta x) | x \rangle = | x + \Delta x \rangle$$ Taking a first-order Taylor series expansion, we have $$| x + \Delta x \rangle = | x \rangle + \Delta x \frac{\partial}{\partial x} | x \rangle \tag{2}$$ Now, the closure relation of an arbitrary ket $$|\alpha \rangle$$ is expressed as $$| \alpha \rangle = \int \! \! dx \, |x\rangle \langle x| \alpha \rangle \tag{3}$$ The displacement operator thus gives $$\hat{T}(\Delta x) |\alpha \rangle = \int \! \! dx \, | x + \Delta x \rangle \langle x | \alpha \rangle = \int \! \! dx \, | x \rangle \langle x | \alpha \rangle + \int \! \! dx \, \Delta x \left( \frac{\partial}{\partial x} | x \rangle \right) \langle x | \alpha \rangle$$ or $$\hat{T}(\Delta x) |\alpha \rangle = |\alpha \rangle + \int \! \! dx \, \Delta x \left( \frac{\partial}{\partial x} | x \rangle \right) \langle x | \alpha \rangle \tag{3}$$ But by definition $$\hat{T} (\Delta x) \,| \alpha \rangle = \left( 1 - \frac{i \hat{p} \Delta x}{\hbar} \right) | \alpha \rangle$$ Combining this with (3) leaves $$- \frac{i \hat{p} \Delta x}{\hbar} |\alpha \rangle = \int \! \! dx \, \Delta x \left( \frac{\partial}{\partial x} | x \rangle \right) \langle x | \alpha \rangle$$ We now divide out the $$\Delta x$$ term, integrate by parts over the integral, and rearrange a bit to get $$\hat{p} | \alpha \rangle = \int \! \! dx \, | x \rangle \left( - i \hbar \frac{\partial}{\partial x} \right) \langle x | \alpha \rangle \tag{4}$$ Lastly, we premultiply (4) by $$\langle \alpha |$$, giving $$\langle \alpha |\hat{p} |\alpha \rangle = \int \! \! dx \, \langle \alpha |x\rangle \left( -i \hbar \frac{\partial}{\partial x} \right) \langle x|\alpha \rangle \tag{5}$$ or $$\langle \alpha | \hat{p} | \alpha \rangle = \int \! \! dx \, \Psi_\alpha^*(x) \left( -i \hbar \frac{\partial}{\partial x} \right) \Psi_\alpha (x) \tag{6}$$ where $$\Psi_\alpha (x) = \langle x | \alpha \rangle$$ is the wave function associated with the state ket $$|\alpha \rangle$$. But (6) is just the definition of the expectation value of the momentum operator $$\hat{p}$$ with respect to the state $$|\alpha \rangle$$ (which is arbitrary), so that $$\hat{p} = -i \hbar \frac{\partial}{\partial x}$$ Thus, the momentum operator in quantum mechanics is a derivative. Let us now consider the commutation relation $$[\hat{x}_i, \hat{p}_j]$$ for 3-dimensional space, where $$\hat{x}_i$$ is now considered an operator in its own right (which is trivial in this case). We then have $$[\hat{x}_i, \hat{p}_j] = \hat{x}_i \left( -i \hbar \frac{\partial}{\partial x^j} \right) - \left( -i \hbar \frac{\partial}{\partial x^j} \right) \hat{x}_i$$ In the last term, we have to remember to apply the derivative not only to $$\hat{x}_i$$ but past it as well, so that we have, finally, $$[\hat{x}_i, \hat{p}_j] = i \,\hbar \, \delta_{ij}$$ where $$\delta_{ij}$$ is the Kronecker delta, equal to 1 if $$i = j$$ and 0 otherwise. 2. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle Given an arbitrary Hermitian operator $$\hat{A}$$, let us define a related operator $$\Delta \hat{A}$$ that expresses the difference between $$\hat{A}$$ and its expectation value: $$\Delta \hat{A} = \hat{A} - \langle \hat{A} \rangle$$ Squaring both sides, we have $$\left( \Delta \hat{A} \right)^2 = \hat{A}^2 - 2 \hat{A} \langle \hat{A}\rangle + \langle \hat{A} \rangle^2$$ Taking the expectation value of both sides gives the simpler expression $$\langle \left( \Delta \hat{A} \right)^2 \rangle = \langle \hat{A}^2 \rangle - \langle \hat{A} \rangle^2 \tag{7}$$ In statistics this expression defines the variance of $$\hat{A}$$, while the square root, $$\sqrt{\langle \left( \Delta \hat{A} \right)^2 \rangle}$$, is called the standard deviation. Similarly, for some other operator $$\hat{B}$$, we have $$\Delta \hat{B} = \hat{B} - \langle \hat{B} \rangle$$ along with an identical argument as that given for $$\hat{A}$$. For simplicity, let us now make the identifications $$\sigma_A = \sqrt{\langle \left( \Delta \hat{A} \right)^2 \rangle}, \quad \sigma_B = \sqrt{\langle \left( \Delta \hat{B} \right)^2 \rangle}$$ which puts these quantities more in line with the conventional notation of the standard deviation $$\sigma$$. Now, given any arbitrary (but normalized) state vector $$|\Psi \rangle$$ let us define the state vector quantities $$|\beta \rangle$$ and $$\langle \beta|$$ as $$|\beta \rangle = \left( \Delta \hat{A} + i \kappa \Delta \hat{B} \right) |\Psi \rangle, \quad \langle \beta| = \langle \Psi | \left( \Delta \hat{A} - i \kappa \Delta \hat{B} \right)$$ where $$\kappa$$ is any real number. Using $$\langle \Psi |\Psi \rangle = 1$$, we can calculate the real quantity $$\langle \beta | \beta \rangle = \langle \sigma_A^2 + i \,\kappa [\hat{A}, \hat{B}] + \kappa^2 \sigma_B^2 \rangle \ge 0 \tag{8}$$ where the commutator $$[\hat{A}, \hat{B}]$$ results from the overall calculation. If we differentiate (8) with respect to $$\kappa$$ and set the resulting expression to zero, we can find what value of $$\kappa$$ extremalizes $$\langle \beta | \beta \rangle$$ (it actually minimizes it). Thus we have $$\kappa = - i \, \frac{[\hat{A}, \hat{B}]}{2 \sigma_B^2}$$ Plugging this into (8), we have the condition $$\sigma_A^2 \, \sigma_B^2 \ge - \frac{1}{4} [\hat{A}, \hat{B}]^2$$ or $$\sigma_A \,\sigma_B \ge - \frac{1}{2} i \, [\hat{A}, \hat{B}]$$ where we have taken the negative root for a very good reason. For the case $$x = A, p = B$$, we then have, using $$[\hat{x}, \hat{p}] = i \hbar$$, $$\sigma_x \,\sigma_p \ge \frac{1}{2} \hbar$$ which is the conventional definition of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Please note that the uncertainty principle is usually described using some kind of "fuzzy" notation for $$x$$ and $$p$$, as if they can't be pinned down in some sense. No, they're just standard deviations, a fact that most texts fail to emphasize. The canonical commutation equation and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle are undoubtedly the most fundamental and important of all identities in elementary quantum mechanics, and their derivations should be given in detail in any QM textbook. [By the way, there's a complementary operator (also unitary) called the time translation operator $$\hat{U}(\Delta t)$$ that works pretty much the same as $$\hat{T}(\Delta x)$$ but for time. It leads to Schrödinger's wave equation, but that's another story for another day.]  The Flip Side — Posted Monday 17 April 2017 Professor of clinical psychiatry Richard Friedman's New York Times article yesterday on mathematical beauty immediately brought to my mind the great British mathematical physicist Paul Dirac, who similarly sought mathematical beauty in his equations.$$^1$$ In addition to his assertion that "A physical law must possess mathematical beauty," Dirac somewhat recklessly noted that "It is more important for our equations to be beautiful than to have them fit experiment." I'm really not sure about that one. Most people do not see beauty in mathematics or in physical laws, regardless of their applicability to the world around them. I very much doubt if the average person is thinking about Maxwell''s equations of electrodynamics when using her smart phone or computer, or if someone using Onstar to locate himself on a road trip using GPS is consciously thanking Einstein for his theories of special and general relativity, which make the technology possible. People tend to think instead of sunsets and flowers, smiling infants and other more common things as beautiful—anything but mathematics and physics! But we also have to remind ourselves that many people see beauty in things of a more destructive nature, including the mathematicians and physicists who devised thermonuclear weapons and even the flag-festooned Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) weapon that America used recently in'Afghanistan and will likely use soon in North Korea. I had a very conservative cousin (now passed on) who used to constantly email me pictures of a religious nature along with images of American military might—aircraft carriers, tanks, skies filled with bombers, those sorts of things—and I would constantly respond asking her not to send me that kind of stuff. Her emails would also include glowing comments on the awesomeness of God or the beauty of a soaring B-2 stealth bomber, and I always wondered how on Earth someone could associate such things with beauty. Friedman's article reminded me that there is indeed this flip side to beauty that most mathematicians and scientists will never understand, nor will they ever comprehend, just as I cannot, how objects of mass death and destruction can be considered beautiful in a way that's related to God. At the same time, I'm reminded of the words of the early 5th century Christian theologian and philosopher Saint Augustine of Hippo, who penned the sickening commentThe good Christian should beware of mathematicians and all those who make empty prophecies. The danger already exists that mathematicians have made a covenant with the Devil to darken the spirit and confine man in the bonds of Hell.$$^2$$ I once entertained the naive fantasy that politics and religious could coexist peacefully with science. With America now in absolute control of theocrats who hate science and love war and killing, I can only shake my head in wonder at how stupid I was. $$^1$$ My most beautiful equation is Dirac's relativistic electron equation, $$i\hbar \gamma^\mu \partial_\mu \Psi = mc \,\Psi$$ $$^2$$ Offended Catholic apologists invariably claim that Augustine was referring to "numerologists" and not mathematicians, in an effort to equate them with astrologers, who he rightly denounced. But astrologers and numerologists were the only "mathematicians" of his day (there were no scientists or "natural philosophers"), who Augustine lumped in with "those who make empty prophecies" (as if the Bible never made any), so the quote still applies as I've written it.  Idiocracy — Posted Thursday 13 April 2017 My older son lived in Dallas for a number of years, doing mostly freelance computer programming work. "Have you seen the animated TV show King of the Hill?" he asked me about ten years ago. "I've heard about it, but never watched it," I replied. "Well, it's about this conservative family that lives in Texas, and it's not only hilarious, it's absolutely true to life here," he informed me. So in 2007 I started watching the show, and I learned to love it. I don't watch TV anymore, but I have the complete series of King of the Hill on DVD, and I still love it. It's about a blue-collar Republican family whose breadwinner, the obnoxiously conservative and patriotic Hank Hill, works in the propane and propane accessories field, a vocation he's enormously proud of and promotes with annoying frequency on the show. The humor is somehat dry and subtle, featuring little throwaway gems like Hank's wife Peggy remarking how her husband fitfully tosses and turns in bed the night before Flag Day, or Hank's neighbor, a slovenly Army barber named Bill, proudly referring to barber school at Fort Bragg as "baptism by fire." But the show does not belittle or make fun of small-town, conservative, religious America, just depicts it in a way that my son says reflects the true nature of the South. The show's creator is Mike Judge, who also created Beavis and Butt-Head, Silicon Valley and a number of less successful television and film ventures. In 1985 Judge graduated with a degree in physics from UC San Diego, then headed to Silicon Valley to pursue a technical career. How he veered away from that is documented in a profile of Judge that appears in today's New York Times Magazine. The article includes an overview of Judge's initially unsuccessful 2006 film Idiocracy, which has become something of a cult classic today. That's because the film unintentionally but presciently imagined a very ordinary Army recruit who somehow wakes up in America 500 years in the future, only to find that the country resembles the Trumpian America of today. Its president is a former porn actor and wrestler whose citizens are so dumbed-down that their visitor from the past is easily the smartest man in the country. The favorite television show of 2505 America is a reality show called "Ow! My Balls!", while other shows involving groin-punching and flatulence are also popular. "Come to Butt-Head." I've seen the movie, and despite its constant vulgarity it has its moments. Judge admits that when he wrote the script he never imagined it would accurately reflect America a mere ten years later, although he did notice that America was rapidly approaching terminal dumbness at a time when President George W. Bush was as stupid as the film's President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. While Judge's King of the Hill remains funny to me today, there are times in the show when it reflects the disastrous direction America was already heading toward. While I never really came to terms with America's past—you know, the slavery, the greed, the genocide of Native Americans, the mistreatment of minorities and the constant warmongering—I never really hated America. But with the ascendance of Donald Trump and the total takeover of the country by lying, hypocritical, fundamentalist "Christian" Republicans, I can honestly say that I truly do hate and detest America now. Idiocracy: Advertising slogans are much different in Trump's America of the future  Quantum Tunneling to Oblivion — Posted Monday 10 April 2017 A physics colleague sent me the following link to an interesting arXiv paper proposing that a peculiar quantum event occurred in the late quarter of 2016: Schrödinger's Cat and World History: The Many Worlds Interpretation of Alternative Facts I think this is the very first paper I've seen on arXiv that mixes quantum physics with politics. Sadly, it will only motivate conservatives to add Cornell University (which hosts arXiv) to its burgeoning list of entities to be shut down. Still, we hapless progressives can always hope that the universe's vacuum state will become unstable and annihilate the preposterous world we're living in.  The Status Quo as the Natural Order of Things — Posted Sunday 9 April 2017 In politics, religion and science, it takes a revolution to change the status quo. In my brief essay of 7 April, I mentioned how the "damned status quo" was restored in Jerusalem following the fall of the Sejanus/Antipas plot and the execution of Jesus of Nazareth. The beneficiaries were the priestly aristocratic Sadducees, who had the most to lose from a political revolution and a change in the status quo. They had the most money and private property and they and owned the finest clothes, jewelry and houses in Judea, and to finance all this luxury they operated the Temple as a business—the Temple tax (which all Jews were required to pay, in addition to the taxes they were forced to pay to Rome) was administered by the Sadducees, who used the money to pay for basic upkeep of the Temple and its appurtenant buildings and walls. They took a healthy cut of this for themselves to pay for the luxuries they enjoyed, all of which were far out of reach of the average Jew. They also took a cut from the courtyard money changers—the exchange rate they charged for converting "impure" and idolatrous Roman coinage to the required silver half-shekels bordered on extortion, and devout Jews wishing to make sacrifices at the Temple altar had no choice but to pay up (this was almost certainly the reason Jesus caused the ruckus in the Temple courtyard). Of course, the Jews then had to fork over the money they got to pay for the sparrows, doves, sheep and other animals that were used in the sacrifices. [You might recall that when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D., the wealth they plundered from it amounted to many billions of dollars in today's money. The tons of gold, silver, jewels and finery that Titus' army sent to Rome financed construction of the Flavium Amphitheater (the Colosseum) and many of Rome's other major building projects. This gives an idea of the fantastic wealth that the Sadducees controlled in the heyday of the Second Temple.] But the worst thing about all this was that the Sadducees had total control over a corrupt system based on an inherited hierarchal rule that was enabled and supported by the ruling Romans (who the Jews referred to as the despised Kittim). The Sadducees happily collaborated with the Romans because it benefitted them enormously and kept the Jewish underclasses under control (indeed, when things did get testy between the citizens and Roman soldiers it was often the Roman prefect who pulled back his troops to avoid further conflict and bloodshed, with the Temple priests compliantly standing by). This then was the status quo of First Century Judea, a system not unlike that which the world over seems to have perpetually adopted as the natural order of things. The Gospels tend to focus on the Pharisees as the primary enemies of Jesus, but they were relatively educated, progressive moderates whose only fault perhaps was a fixation over the exact meaning of the Torah laws and how they should be obeyed. Indeed, the Gospels' tendency to avoid condemnation of the far more hypocritical Sadducees may be simply because criticism would have necessarily fallen on the Romans as well—a dangerous and foolhardy way to express one's hatred of both the corrupt priesthood and Rome. Consequently, it's no wonder that Jesus seems to have reserved his venom for the Pharisees and not the far more culpable Sadducees. While we have the luxury of stepping back 2,000 years to see all this in hindsight today, I tend to view it as a model that has sadly been adopted time and time again as a means of controlling rank and file humans by the ruling elite. The Sadducees, the ruling classes of the Roman empire and the Europe of the Middle Ages and the pre-Renaissance justified the system as the "divine right of kings," but in one form or another it has always been employed to promote and enforce political legitimacy through the religious beliefs of the common man. Those beliefs have invariably been based on the fear of death and suffering, a fear that political leaders and the wealthy elite have long known about and have come to rely on to perpetuate the status quo and the natural order of things. Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful. — Lucius Annaeus Seneca Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale envisions a dystopian America that has become a harsh, fundamentalist, theocratic and militaristic dictatorship that has enslaved the people and rules them with methods not unlike those found in George Orwell's 1984. The novel's theme deals especially with the subjugation of women, but in a broader sense it is nothing less than a description of a nation governed by a ruling elite who see dictatorial control as the status quo and the natural order of things, to be maintained by enforced religious belief and practice and the right of men to rule the minds, bodies and souls of women. I could be wrong (and I hope I am), but I see this type of government as essentially what the Republican Party today is striving for—maybe not today or tomorrow but eventually, and along the same lines as described by Atwood. How else could you describe a party of men who see poverty and suffering as the divinely-imposed state of most people, and who despise government programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Meals on Wheels, and welfare for the poor and disabled? But Atwood's novel also envisions a time when this future America (called the Republic of Gilead) is overthrown by a violent grass roots revolution. I believe such a revolution is what's needed in this country today and right now, before things get completely out of hand. Sadly, I see another 9/11 event as the breaking point in which cowardly, existentially fearful Americans choose to hand over all their rights and privileges to an authoritarian leader. And just who might that leader be, I wonder? Here's the restored main marble panel in the Arch of Titus at the Roman Forum, depicting the public display of Temple treasures in Rome following the plundering of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The rectangular object on the left appears to be an early television camera, which it most assuredly is not! Still, the panel looks better than the one I saw during a recent visit, which had been attacked for many years by atmospheric CO$$_2$$ due to modern air pollution. No such thing as global climate change, you say? Bosh!  Still Hungry After All These Years — Posted Sunday 9 April 2017 In 1966 I bought my sister's old 1955 Chevy Nomad station wagon for$30 (with over 120,000 miles on it, it was that kind of a car), and having just passed the driver's exam I drove to Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood to see Dick van Dyke stick his hands and feet into the cement. Along the way I listened to the radio for the first time as a solo driver, and the first song I heard was Hungry by Paul Revere and the Raiders. They quickly became my favorite group, and I subsequently bought all their albums. They were also featured prominently on Dick Clark's American Bandstand and other teen shows of the time, all of which I eagerly watched. I later saw them perform live, and to my surprise they sounded just as good as their studio recordings. Years later, while looking for property along the Rogue River in Oregon in 2003, the real estate agent showed me a house that was owned by the Raiders' erstwhile drummer, Mike Smith. I didn't buy the house, but I got interested in the band again for the first time in forty years. I then got re-interested in the band again only recently, when I discovered that an extended version of Hungry existed that had been banned from commercial airtime in the 1960s due to the single lyric "$$\ldots$$ with a penthouse in the sky where we'll both stay stoned $$\ldots$$" Boy, have times changed. Anyway, for the sake of posterity and memory, here's the extended version:

 The Last Days of Jesus — Posted Friday 7 April 2017 PBS is currently airing (and repeating) a two-hour special entitled The Last Days of Jesus. It presents a fascinating theory based on some very recent biblical scholarship: that the heir apparent to the emperorship of Tiberius, Lucius Aelius Sejanus (the head of the Roman Praetorian Guard), did a deal with the tetrarch Herod Antipas (and possibly Pontius Pilate as well) to overthrow the priesthood of the Second Temple in an effort to ensure peace in Judea for political purposes. According to the noted ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, Antipas wanted Rome to appoint him king of the Jews, while Sejanus was conspiring against Tiberius to become the next Roman emperor. Antipas desperately wanted to rule over all the Jews like his father, Herod the Great, who died in 4 B.C. (Antipas considered his own reign as a mere tetrarch to be beneath him), while Sejanus needed peace in the Levant to enable his quick accession to the throne. Meanwhile, Pilate may or may not have been included in the plot. And according to the theory, an unknowing Jesus was a key part of the plot. The theory explains a number of odd things about the handling and fate of Jesus. One, why did Jesus—who had avoided going down to Jerusalem—suddenly decide to make the trip (John 7:1), presumably out of an invitation by Antipas? Why did the adoring Jews demand his crucifixion less than a week after rejoicing over his entry into Jerusalem? Why did the Roman and Jewish guards posted at the Temple not immediately arrest Jesus when he violently overturned the tables of the money changers, and why did the high priests (the wealthy and hated Sadducees) not immediately denounce the incident to Pilate? Why did Antipas refuse to judge Jesus for blasphemy and sedition when he was presented to him, instead sending him back to Pilate? Why was Jesus tried, condemned and crucified within hours of his arrest the night of Passover, when formal condemnation of an accused typically took at least days? Finally, why would Jesus be executed during Passover, the most celebrated of Jewish holidays, when tensions were always at a boiling point between the Jews and the detested occupying Romans? While the program does not implicate Jesus in the theorized deal between Sejanus, Antipas and Pilate, it notes that Jesus himself stood to gain from a successful plot—he would likely have been elected as the new Messiah, the Jews would have had a long-awaited religious figure ruling over Israel, and the hated aristocratic Sadducees would have been sent packing. Meanwhile, Sejanus would have been emperor, Pilate would have been appointed the secular head of the Jews, and all of Israel would have been at peace. Win-win, right? So what went wrong? According to the theory, in 32 A.D. Tiberius discovered that Sejanus had murdered his son Drusus, who would have succeeded Tiberius as emperor. The otherwise high-flying Sejanus was arrested and summarily executed, and Antipas quickly realized that the jig was up. At that point, neither he nor Pilate had any need for Jesus—the Jews' presumed religious leader—and so Pilate had him crucified, much to the delight of the high priest Caiaphas, who got to keep his job, not to mention his head. If all this is true, it's another example of the damned status quo holding firm. The Sadducees stayed in power, the Jews remained miserable, there were more wars in Israel, Pontius Pilate remained unscathed as prefect of Judaea, and Antipas remained tetrarch of the northern district of Galilee—until his role in the plot was exposed, when he was exiled for life. Meanwhile, upon Tiberius' death in 37 A.D., a charming fellow named Caligula became Rome's third emperor. Again, the PBS program does not implicate Jesus in the theorized plot; if the theory is correct, Jesus had no idea what was going on. But I have discussed the program with numerous people of faith, including family members, and nearly all have condemned the program as blasphemous. I just cannot understand this—I see their reactions as a kind of reverse revisionist history, in which that which is accepted as true can never be challenged by new data. You might want to watch this interesting and provocative PBS program and decide for yourself.

 Our Nictitating Brains — Posted Wednesday 5 April 2017 This morning a friend of mine and I were discussing a phenomenon both of us have observed many times in people, including close friends and relatives (and perhaps even ourselves). The best description I can give of this phenomenon is that of a nictitating membrane, the so-called transparent or translucent "third eye" that closes over some animals' eyes to protect them during feeding or from harsh environmental conditions such as blowing sand, rain and snow. For example, a great white shark's nictitating membranes commonly activate when attacking their prey, giving them what has been described as "doll's eyes"—the appearance of uncaring or unthinking that can make them seem stupid, uncomprehending or even coldly malevolent. I have noticed it most often in the eyes, faces and body language of people when the subject of a conversation begins to touch on contrary evidence to a belief that they hold dear and are not about to let go of. It almost always involves a religious or political belief, but to a much lesser extent it can involve personal preferences related to sports, fashion, movies or television shows. I tend to see it as a kind of protective conditioning the person has undergone that serves to effectively shut down a conversation or abruptly change the subject. If you challenge a Protestant, Catholic or other orthodox believer about the perpetual virginity of Mary (or her mother), the celibacy or marital state of Jesus, the provenance of his siblings, or any number of beliefs that have been cooked up regarding what they tend to believe today, you will instantly perceive the phenomenon I'm talking about. The doll's eyes come out, the facial expression and tone of voice changes, the body language shifts, and you know that they have erected an impermeable wall that you can never penetrate, regardless of the veracity of your logic, facts and evidence. And if you're crazy enough to really push things, the challenged believer is more than capable of responding with violence. All of these things apply equally well to politics today, although I tend to believe that American religion and politics have now merged into a single impenetrable wall of dogmatic belief. If you challenge a conservative over their beliefs concerning the legitimacy of unions, family planning, public welfare, Social Security and similar government programs, I can guarantee you won't get very far. Similarly, if you challenge a liberal over society's need to provide perpetual public assistance for people who don't want to work or be personally responsible, you may get hit in the mouth. Whether or not any of these nictitation-inducing beliefs are based on illogical but harmless personal opinions is one thing, but when they become dangerous or harmful to the public at large is quite another. The active avoidance or rejection of inconvenient facts is now pandemic in this country, and it has evolved to the point where actual existential threats—such as global anthropogenic climate disruption, gross economic inequality, resource deletion and overpopulation—take second stage to illogically perceived or nonexistent threats such as vaccination-induced autism, immigrant-borne diseases, racial accommodation and gun control measures. Note that the latter are invariably based on irrationality and emotions like fear, racism and bigotry, while true threats are based on science and logic. In the following video, noted astronomer and educator Michelle Thaller describes her epiphany of suddenly realizing that there is no way to adequately counter the inherent corruption and stupidity of people like über-conservative Fox News commentator Steve Doocy, who hung Thaller out to dry on his show while pretending to allow her to present scientific facts about climate change:

 My 1st Amendment Rights—While They Still Exist — Posted Sunday 2 April 2017 The Los Angeles Times has begun a series of reports starting with Our Dishonest President, the first installment of which appeared this morning. I agree with everything it has to say save one: Donald J. Trump is not, nor ever fucking will be, my president. And I will even go one step further: I want Trump taken out altogether, now, either by impeachment, act of God or military assassination. This pathetic shit of a human being has no business running the world's greatest power and endangering all of humanity. I doubt if the The Times' articles will do much to convince the pro-KKK, anti-science and anti-reason hillbillies now in charge of the country to doubt that their imaginary God had anyhing to do with Trump's election, but if we can muster enough Americans with the balls to act we can rid ourselves of this neo-Hitler wannabe, preferably by hanging or firing squad. If the US military is really sincere about the country's safety, I pray it will act accordingly—and quickly. April 3: Part 2: Why Trump Lies April 4: Part 3: Trump's Authoritarian Vision April 5: Part 4: Trump's War on Journalism April 6: Part 5: Conspiracy Theorist in Chief April 7: Part 6: California Strikes Back

 God Damn America — Posted Saturday 1 April 2017 PBS is currently airing a three-hour series called Dead Reckoning: War, Crime and Justice from WW2 to the War on Terror, documenting the history of war crimes, political torture and related atrocities committed by the United States and other countries from World War II to the present. The subject matter of the series is absolutely nauseating, not so much because of the topic itself but because it also documents the total lack of any accountability or humanitarian justice that countries at war exhibit, even when they've been caught red-handed at the crimes they commit. The segment on America's suppression of the 1968 My Lai massacre is particularly disturbing. Meanwhile, neither America nor any other political or military power has learned a damned thing. Here's our glorious new president promising that not only will he pursue enhanced torture of America's enemies, he will ensure that our military leaders obey his orders to carry it out: Still think that America is a godly, Christian nation?

 An STD on Steroids — Posted Saturday 1 April 2017 Ladies: if you're fleeing a malevolent entity, don't do it in high heels. This morning my older son told me about the 2014 horror film It Follows. I watched it on Netflix today, and it really freaked me out. It's about a malevolent entity that's transmitted through sexual intercourse—okay, not the most plausible kind of movie monster—but it's more of a psychological thriller than a horror film, one that harkens back to childhood fears and nightmares involving an impossibly animate creature, being or essence that H.P. Lovecraft might describe as "an unliving monstrosity, yet somehow instinct with hellish life." One neat aspect of the film's entity is that it not only follows the latest sexually infected "transgressor," but retains a kind of genealogical memory of the victim's past sexual history as well. Once it does away with the most recent offender, it immediately goes after the person before, and then the person before that—world without end. But don't fret—this isn't one of those Christian abstinence "message" films about saving yourself for marriage or anything like that (although the film may make you strongly consider it). It doesn't explain why or how the entity exists, or what its mission is. Indeed, the sexual angle is just a plot device to introduce a malevolent thing that's slow but methodical, can't be reasoned with, and always knows where you are—an unstoppable thing of pure evil driven by a purpose that you cannot comprehend, understand or escape, but one that seems to really have a hangup about sex. Kind of like the Republican Party today.

 A Nice Break — Posted Thursday 30 March 2017 This morning a colleague kindly directed me to a new paper by German physicist, historian and all-round Hermann Weyl expert Erhard Scholz entitled The Unexpected Resurgence of Weyl Geometry in Late 20th Century Physics, a massive (92 pages) overview of how Weyl's 1918 gauge theory is being reconsidered in light of its possible connection to a number of recent quantum and cosmological theories. Although I no longer believe Weyl's original theory had anything to do with reality, it continues to imply a profound and fundamental connection between gravitation and electrodynamics that suggests that gravity—the weakest of Nature's four known physical forces—may be lurking behind all manner of physical phenomena, including quantum mechanics itself. Meanwhile, I've written a paper for children (meaning undergraduates) explaining Bell's inequality and quantum entanglement. In addition to attending #resist meetings and participating in related activist discussions on the sad fate of our country today and what we can do about it, I now find myself getting re-interested in my lifelong love of physics. If nothing else, it's a nice break from the disaster that is Trump's Amerikkka.

 That's a Lot of Mountain Dew — Posted Tuesday 28 March 2017 My comment on today's Pharyngula article:

 Sheriff Taylor, Barney, Goober and the Rest of the Gang — Posted Friday 24 March 2017 See anything wrong with this picture? Or at least anything that's fucking missing?!

 Because Too Much is Never Enough — Posted Thursday 23 March 2017 Great New York Times article on the extent of America's preposterously bloated military budget, Trump's bizarre rationale for increasing it, and how it impacts how the rest of the world views the planet's only remaining superpower. Are you feeling any safer now, Amerika?

 Death to Fascists — Posted Thursday 16 March 2017 Copied from Letters of Note: Bertrand Russell, one of the great intellectuals of his generation, was known by most as the founder of analytic philosophy, but he was actually a man of many talents: a pioneering mathematician, an accomplished logician, a tireless activist, a respected historian, and a Nobel Prize-winning writer, to name but a handful. When he wrote this principled letter at the beginning of 1962, Russell was 89 years old and clearly still a man of morals who stood firm in his beliefs. Its recipient was Sir Oswald Mosley, a man most famous for founding, in 1932, the British Union of Fascists. 22 January 1962 Sir Oswald Mosley 5 Lowndes Court Lowndes Square London, S.W.1. Dear Sir Oswald, Thank you for your letter and for your enclosures. I have given some thought to our recent correspondence. It is always difficult to decide on how to respond to people whose ethos is so alien and, in fact, repellent to one's own. It is not that I take exception to the general points made by you but that every ounce of my energy has been devoted to an active opposition to cruel bigotry, compulsive violence, and the sadistic persecution which has characterised the philosophy and practice of fascism. I feel obliged to say that the emotional universes we inhabit are so distinct, and in deepest ways opposed, that nothing fruitful or sincere could ever emerge from association between us. I should like you to understand the intensity of this conviction on my part. It is not out of any attempt to be rude that I say this but because of all that I value in human experience and human achievement. Yours sincerely, Bertrand Russell

 Night is Falling — Posted Wednesday 15 March 2017 We all saw this coming again, thanks mainly to Trump supporters. Last night I watched the 2014 documentary Night Will Fall, chronicling the development, suppression and restoration of a 1945 documentary film on Nazi concentration camp atrocities produced by filmographer Sidney Bernstein in collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. The 1945 documentary itself was entitled German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. Compiled from miles of 16-mm color and 35-mm black-and-white footage shot by teams of British, American and Russian combat cameramen in April 1945 and following months, it depicts horrors that few people have ever seen, and much worse than the brief clips one typically sees in films documenting Third Reich atrocities. Night Will Fall left me in tears. But I was also filled with rage over the reason why the Factual Survey film was suppressed even before it was completed. You've no doubt read about boatloads of Jews leaving wartime Germany for refuge, only to be rejected again and again by countries that did not want the responsibility of looking after them. Most of those boats had no recourse but to return to Germany, where the SS was waiting for their human cargo. As a result, many thousands of Jews—men, women, children and infants—suffered horrible fates in the ovens and mass burial pits of slave labor camps spread throughout Germany, Poland and other occupied countries. Would-be boat refugees were just the tip of the iceberg, of course, as millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill and other "misfits" shared the same fate. The 2014 film informs us that the reason the Factual Survey documentary was shelved for over 70 years was political expediency. While the evidence of Nazi atrocities horrified the liberators, not long after war's end most people just wanted to get on with their lives. Indeed, the film shows the relatively few female survivors of Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz and Dachau who, even while recovering from unimaginable horrors, quickly got re-interested in clothes and fashion, perhaps only as a subconscious means of psychological adjustment. But the leaders and politicians of the victorious nations wanted to move on as well, since a new enemy (Stalin's Soviet Union) and a new war (the Cold War) was rapidly approaching and needed attending to. The leaders of the Free World realized they would need allies to fight this new war and, almost inconceivably, they viewed Germany as one of those allies, given its relatively close proximity to Moscow. German Concentration Camps Factual Survey was therefore left uncompleted and abandoned. It did not see the light of day until recently, when it was resurrected using forgotten cans of film, archived scripts and cameramen's notes, all documented in Night Will Fall. You can now watch it on Netflix, just as I did last night. But the last scene of Night Will Fall is perhaps the most disturbing, as it predicts the fate of those who choose to look the other way, or who persist in their hate-filled anti-minority mind sets: Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall. [Christians: While I'm at it, I'll ask you to please resolve your contradictory attitude toward Jews, which is that one day they're heroic Israeli freedom fighters while another day they're filthy, money-grubbing bastards. You should also understand that the New Testament is the basis for all anti-Semitism, present and past. The Gospel of John is absolutely the worst—read John 5:16,18; 7:1; 7:13; 8:44; 10:31; 11:8; 19:9,12,14-15; 19:38 and 20:19.]

 Theory and Non-Theory — Posted Tuesday 14 March 2017 The Hulse-Taylor binary system PSR B1913+16 has now been monitored for over 40 years, with continuing perfect agreement with general relativity. In the spring of 2005 I went to the Skirball Cultural Center near UCLA to see an exhibit of original Einstein papers and other memorabilia. One of the papers featured a 1912 calculation that Einstein had made on the deflection of light by the Sun, using only the principle of equivalence to carry out the calculation. For the light of a distant star just grazing the Sun's limb, Einstein came up with a deflection of 0.875 arc-second. While there was as yet no way to confirm this result experimentally, it agreed exactly with the Newtonian result (which involves a simple calculation that undergraduates are expected to know). At the time, Einstein was busy working on his general theory of relativity (GTR) which he presumed would give the same result. But following the completion of his theory in November 1915, Einstein was surprised that the theory predicted exactly twice the deflection amount, or 1.75 arc-second, in disagreement with his earlier calculation and with Newtonian physics. Nevertheless, Einstein happily discarded his earlier calculation, even though he had been confident it was correct at the time. A few years later, the great German mathematical physicist Hermann Weyl used Einstein's GTR to develop a beautiful theory that he believed unified the two forces of Nature known at the time, gravity and electrodynamics. Many physicists, including Einstein, initially hailed the theory as profound, but Einstein himself then spotted a flaw in Weyl's theory that could not be reconciled with physical evidence. Weyl resisted, twisting and squirming under the damage Einstein had done to his wonderful theory, but in the end he recanted and abandoned it, admitting that Einstein was right. This is how science progresses—theories that are shown to be wrong are either revised or thrown away in the hope that new data will lead to better and more accurate theories. No self-respecting scientist ever believes that she's found the ultimate explanation for anything, as a theory is considered scientific fact only until a single observation or piece of evidence shows it to be wrong. Then it's back to the blackboard to come up with something better. To date, two theories—GTR and quantum mechanics—have withstood the test of time, providing predictions for old and new phenomena that agree exactly with observation. Though both theories are now over one hundred years old, THEY HAVE NEVER FAILED, NOT ONCE. Indeed, GTR's prediction of the decay of the Hulse-Taylor binary system and quantum mechanics' prediction of the magnetic moment of the electron agree with observation to fantastic accuracy (some twelve decimal places). Yet, despite being the best scientific theories the human mind has yet developed, they are both considered fully falsifiable and subject to revision (even discard) pending presentation of new contradictory evidence. (I urge people of faith, especially those who consider scientific facts to be "just theories," to give credit where credit is due—science is falsifiable and subject to revision, whereas religious belief is unchangeable and immutably set in stone, even when it contradicts fact, experimental evidence, and reason.) Nevertheless, even great scientists are imperfect and thus subject to personal biases. When the results of the 1919 Principe solar eclipse observations confirmed the prediction of Einstein's GTR, he was asked what he would have thought if the results had disconfirmed the theory. "Then I would feel sorry for the good Lord," Einstein replied, "because the theory is correct." Many saw a note of arrogance in Einstein's remark. The rabidly antisemitic German physicist Philipp Lenard, winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in physics and no fan of Einstein's work, even went to far as to accuse Einstein of plagiarizing the work of German physicist Johann von Soldner, who in 1801 had also calculated the (Newtonian) deflection of starlight by the Sun. (Einstein was probably unaware of Soldner's calculation until Weyl referred him to it in a letter he wrote to Einstein in December 1921.) Even when the 1919 solar eclipse data confirmed Einstein's revised calculation, Lenard and many other German scientists refused to believe in either Einstein's GTR or his 1905 theory of special relativity. Indeed, much or all of Einstein's work was considered "Jewish physics" and thus certifiably wrong by several leading German physicists of the time, an attitude that led in 1931 to the publication of Hundert Authoren Gegen Einstein (One Hundred Authors Against Einstein). Purely racist (and later political) biases against legitimate science are regrettable. However, with the current rise of ultra-conservative politics we're now seeing a refutation of science on religious grounds as well. For example, Newtonian gravitation is based on the notion of "action at a distance," in which the force of gravity given by $$F = - \frac{GMm}{r^2}$$ is conveyed instantaneously between the masses $$M$$ and $$m$$ (Newton himself hated this notion, thinking it unphysical, but he had no better theory at the time). By contrast, Einstein's gravity theory predicts that the effects of gravitation can only travel at the speed of light. But theologians of Newton's day generally loved the idea of action at a distance, since it confirmed the presumed ability of God to instantly enact physical change. In a sad comment on how religious beliefs have remained unchanged over the past 350 years, religious apologists today reject Einstein's theory simply because it serves to place limits on God's magical powers. It is truly frustrating that these same apologists happily embrace the great technical advances relativity, quantum mechanics and modern medicine have given mankind in the form of computers, smart phones, GPS, antibiotics, MRI and other technologies, while at the same time denouncing them as "just theories." Even more maddening is the fact that many of these same people rely unquestioningly on pseudoscience such as magnet therapy, water dowsing, acupuncture and faith healing. But worst of all is their blind belief in a two-bit, racist, bigoted, "grab 'em by the pussy" hustler who promises to take away their health care in order to finance tax breaks for the rich. But look on the bright side: those who voted for Trump—Southern morons and hillbillies addicted to cigarettes, moonshine, Mountain Dew and methamphetamines—can now look forward to praying away their malignant tumors, black lung disease and addictions completely free of charge using God's action-at-a-distance healing power. Who needs science (or health care) when you have magic, right?

 Kong: Skull Island—No Respect (or Royalties) for Joseph Conrad — Posted Friday 10 March 2017 1933's King Kong wasn't perfect, but it came close. Here Kong takes a tumble during the T. rex fight scene, but the stop-motion animators forgot to remove the model's support strut before snapping the frame! I grew up with King Kong in the 1950s, and I watched the brilliant 1933 action-adventure film whenever it came on television. I've seen it many, many times over the years, and I never tire of it. With the exception of the 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai, it's my favorite film of all time. The otherwise notable film producer Dino De Laurentiis gave us a remake of King Kong in 1976, which unfortunately truly stunk to high hell. That, coupled with 1978's awful Superman, reminded me exactly why I now think of the 1970s as a lost decade in terms of motion picture art, not to mention the side burns, dress styles, insipid televison sit-coms and the disco nonsense that accompanied it. Dy-no-mite!, indeed. In 2005 we got Peter Jackson's version of the movie which, discounting its sillier segments (like stampeding apatosauruses with juvenile T. rexes chasing a movie crew underneath), was actually a fairly clever and decent adaptation of the 1933 film (true, Jack Black as Carl Denham was miscast, but the original film's Robert Armstrong apparently wasn't available). In addition, Jackson produced a host of supportive documentaries for the film, including a stop-motion reproduction of the lost spider and styracosaurus sequences that sadly ended up on the cutting room floor of the 1933 classic. The only thing I didn't like was the preposterous inclusion of Joseph Conrad's immortal 1899 novella Heart of Darkness in the film, with one wise, older crew member patiently teaching the book's deeper meanings to a younger crew member. Oh, brother. That brings us to today's Kong: Skull Island, which is being touted as a cross between King Kong and Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now, itself a modern retelling of Conrad's book (incidentally, two of the new Kong film's characters are named Conrad and Marlow). Kong has now grown to truly gargantuan size, belying his extreme athleticism and the innately structural inability of ordinary muscle and bone to support such heft (which is why Jurassic and Cretaceous titanosaurs like Argentinosaurus were sluggish, plodding beasts that likely spent most of their time in water). But the illogic of Kong's size shrinks into insignificance considering the illogic of the movie's plot (such as it is), the wooden, almost incidental acting of the protagonists, and the extreme, almost pornographic violence of the film's nonstop destruction of equipment, animals and people. Kong: Skull Island is not a remake of the original classic—there's no Carl Denham, no gas bombs and no capture of the animal and transport back to New York. But of course there is a woman (Mason) who Kong gets to know and sort of like, but it's because she shows kindness to one of the island's more docile creatures (a kind of water buffalo whose size rivals Kong himself) and, since Kong happens to be a protector of the island's native inhabitants and nicer animals, he touchingly shows his appreciation to Mason by not eating her. Lastly, there's some reference in the film to "hollow earth" that I did not quite follow. Hopefully it only had something to do with the realm of the island's subterranean dwellers (given the stupid name skull crawlers) and not the pseudoscientific concept known as the hollow earth theory. The new Kong movie reminded me of the innumerable (and forgettable) Godzilla films of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (there never seemed to be an end to them). The original 1954 Japanese film Gojira (meaning "ape-whale") was actually an antiwar movie that addressed the horror of nuclear Armageddon, but it was edited for American audiences as Godzilla, with the underlying antiwar sentiment removed and replaced by an overly-plump Raymond Burr. My main dislike of the movie, however, is that it continues what I see as an ongoing effort to use gaudy CGI effects and violence as a replacement for story, plot and acting. With such movies costing hundreds of millions of dollars these days (but raking in billions) it's clear that modern audiences are reflecting a global dumbing-down of the intellect, whether it's an inability to appreciate true art or the widespread acceptance of cultural garbage as its replacement. Chris Hedges' 2010 book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle was indeed a prescient comment on our Trumpian world today.

 I Remember Bernie — Posted Friday 10 March 2017 Here's Bernie Sanders talking about the total lack of Democratic leadership in the country today, noting that things haven't been this bad since the 1920s. You know—just before the Great Depression. I was all set to vote for him in the presidential election, but when he was thrown over for Hillary Clinton I voted for the Green Party's Jill Stein. Could Bernie have beaten Trump in the general election? We'll never know. And I'm still pissed that President Obama turned Total Uncle Tom when he congratulated Trump on winning, doing everything he could to be a good loser (Democrats are very good at that), and it wouldn't have surprised me at all to see Obama kneeling down with Trump's foot on his neck at the inaugural, just as I wasn't surprised when Trump viciously and falsely accused Obama of bugging Trump Tower in 2016. Yassah, Massah Trump! Sanders alludes to some ray of hope in 2020, when the decadal census hints at some possible gains for the Democrats district-wise, but then comes back down to Earth when he realizes that Republican gerrymandering all but eliminates that hope. Yes, I'm in deep despair over the state of this nation. Short of French Revolution-style targeted killings and assassinations, I think it's all over for America.

 Again with the States' Rights Thing! — Posted Wednesday 8 March 2017 I thought PZ Myers was kidding about H.R. 1275, the Republicans' health plan that was introduced a week ago by Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas). Jesus, he was right—it's actually titled The World's Greatest Healthcare Plan of 2017. Perusing the first few paragraphs, I saw that it focuses on eliminating Obamacare and giving the states the right to do pretty much whatever they want. I didn't read any more because I have my own plan, and because to be frank I don't really give a damn. But if you're one of the 18 million Americans facing the loss of affordable health insurance then you have my condolences. Actually you don't have my condolences, since Americans willingly voted Trump and his minions into office last November, so you can pay through the nose for all I care.

 Battlefield — Posted Tuesday 7 March 2017 In my post of 1 March I mentioned the excellent 2014 book Our Mathematical Universe by MIT physicist Max Tegmark. While the book is relatively free of political or religious discourse, Chapter 10 touches on what can only be viewed as a battlefield between the forces of truth and lies: Fortunately, the not-so-ancient practice of trepanning—the drilling of holes in a living person's skull to release demons and evil spirits—is no longer a common medical procedure. But while mainstream science seeks to expand into wider, rational areas of inquiry and research, nonsensical pseudoscience like creationism and astrology continues to push for validity, ever threatening to invade the field of mainstream scientific legitimacy. Again, Tegmark avoids any overt political or religious comment in his book, but it doesn't take much imagination to apply the intent of this graphic to what's going on in America today. Nonsensical beliefs in such things as young-earth creationism, telekinesis, hollow earth and ghosts continue unabated in this country despite widespread evidence to the contrary, and it would appear that the very same insanity that fosters these beliefs holds sway in the political and religious arenas as well. What else can explain, for example, the fact that President Trump can make outrageous and totally unsubstantiated claims about being wiretapped by a former president and still receive fawning, unquestioning support by his political and religious conservative base?

 Looking Forward to the Day — Posted Tuesday 7 March 2017 PZ Myers over at Pharyngula had the perfect comment today concerning the Republican Party's attitude toward what's affordable and what's not: And don't forget where those increased health care premiums will go—right into the pockets of the health care industry itself. This latest debacle reminded me of similar complaints that the likes of Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Lou Dobbs have made over the years regarding poor Americans (meaning minorities with skin color other than white) having televisions, refrigerators, smart phones and (gasp) even air conditioning. I'll bet they even have hot and cold running water! Myers asks us to remember what happened to Marie Antoinette. I pray for the day when Americans work up the cojones to do something similar about Trump and the criminal Republican Party.

 Waving the American Flag and Carrying the Bible $$\ldots$$ — Posted Sunday 5 March 2017 I urge you to watch this 25-minute video with Chris Hedges discussing Christianized fascism with host Abby Martin, which was posted last week on Telesur. It's a frightening look at what Donald Trump and his evangelical "Christian" minions are planning for the country—nothing short of a fascist military-corporate theocracy that intends to get rid of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, women's and minority rights and family planning, all premised on placating a wrathful, imaginary God. Blaming the Democrats as well as the Republicans for the mess we're in, Hedges warns that all of our democratic safeguards and institutions are now gone, and that the street is the only option left for averting totalitarian disaster. For all of you so-called Christians out there, stop comforting yourselves with the notion that Trump and his gang are "not true Christians." You've been right all along, so get out there and let your voices be heard! The full interview is at the bottom of the linked page. You can also watch the YouTube version here:

 Unis Jusqu'à la Mort! — Posted Sunday 5 March 2017 Anything to take my mind off Donald Trump, the most dangerous maniac in the world. Georges Bizet composed Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) at the age of 24. Not too well received at its first performance in 1863, it has since become a standard in the world's opera houses. It tells the story of Nadir and Zurga, two pearl fishermen who years ago fell in love with the same woman, Laila. But as a Brahman priestess she was beyond either's grasp, so they both departed friends. Happily fishing years later, they pledge their eternal comradeship and loyalty to one another in the soaringly beautiful Au fond du temple saint, considered the greatest tenor/baritone duet ever performed in opera: Of course, the pain of lost love has a way of tracking us down later in life, and Laila's reappearance once again sets the two men against one another in jealous rage. I won't reveal the ending, but you can watch the entire opera here when you have the time. Plus charmante et plus belle!

 Arrival — Posted Thursday 2 March 2017 Translation: "This movie sucks. Save your money." Warning: Spoilers ahead. Yikes! You're hoisted up the rear end of a 1500-foot, vertical alien spacecraft into a long narrow tunnel, only to suddenly realize that gravity has shifted 90$$^\circ$$, forcing you to walk on the tunnel walls. You then encounter the heptapods, seven-legged octopus-like creatures floating around in a fog. They squirt black ink from their star-shaped feet onto the transparent wall in front of you, which you come to realize is the language they use to communicate. The ink forms large circular blobs with fractal-like appendages which quickly fade away. Later you discover that the heptapods' language somehow allows you to transcend time, making you precognizant. Still later, you start having flashbacks of events that take place in the distant future. Welcome to the late 2016 movie Arrival, which is garnering rave reviews by seemingly serious film critics. I hated Close Encounters of the Third Kind when it came out in 1977. The movie forced me to watch Richard Dreyfuss obsess about mounds of dirt, mashed potatoes and other cone shapes for what seemed like hours, only to watch an oh-so-heartwarming finale featuring a giant keyboard communicating with an alien spacecraft using thundering musical notes that hurt my ears. And I seriously began to wonder about all the fuss over director Steven Spielberg when ET: the Extraterrestrial came out in 1982, which insulted my intelligence with kid/alien mind-melding, a translucent alien heart, a combination alien finger and flashlight, and miles of plastic tubing constructed to protect a sick alien who turns out to be indestructible anyway. I then learned that that ET just wanted to go home, but in the two hours of nonsense that preceded the movie's finale he changed lives and just warmed the cockles of everyone's hearts, God bless the little dickens. Hearing all the great things about Arrival convinced me to commit 14.50 to see the film. "Disappointment" does not begin to describe how I felt when I walked out. Come on, there is no kind of science whatsoever that shifts the direction of gravity by 90$$^\circ$$ other than extreme spacetime warping that would produce a black hole and crush the spacecraft, along with the aliens and human observers. And the movie's implied claim that linguistic relativity (also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) has anything to do with precognitive mental time-traveling is patently ridiculous—really, can language alone give you the ability to see the future? But the real kicker came when the movie tried to convince me that pre-knowledge of a child's agonizing death by a catastrophic disease coupled with a nasty ensuing divorce would make me want to go ahead and get married and have the kid anyway. Jeez, if I'd had the ability to see the disasters and mistakes of my life years in advance, I'd definitely avoid them. Isn't that the whole idea of the time-honored musing "If I could live my life over again $$\ldots$$"? Our two intrepid human heroes, having recovered from the bizarre appearance of the heptapods, decide that they need names for them. They come up with "Abbott and Costello," which any self-respecting extraterrestrial would have responded to with immediate violence. Or perhaps their feelings were just hurt by the comparison with the old comedy team, since one of the heptapods subsequently dies (I mean, "enters death process"). Lastly, there was that final bit about the heptapods saying they'd return in three thousand years because they'd be needing our help with something. Sequel, anyone? I looked all over the Internet for an honest appraisal of this film. All I could find was this review from Style Weekly, which I completely agreed with. Gee, if only I'd known what a waste of money this film would be $$\ldots$$  Stupid Zookeepers and Their Captive Gods — Posted Wednesday 1 March 2017 I'm re-reading MIT physicist Max Tegmark's 2014 book Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, having largely forgotten what it was all about when I first read it (a sign of old age?) Anyway, I'm on Chapter 13 now, where he talks about existential threats to the human race—you know, happy things like nuclear Armageddon, asteroid impacts, nearby supernovae, super-cauldera explosions and the like. I'd forgotten that Tegmark also considers the advent of super-intelligent computers to be a potential risk to civilization, due to what has become almost a cliché in science circles today—the singularity, the relatively sudden explosion of ultra-intelligent machines that far outstrip all human intellectual capabilities. Tegmark argues that such machines are completely possible, if only because human intelligence ultimately arose incidentally out of the primordial dust and gas of the universe, making the intentional building of super-computers by humans likely or even inevitable. Tegmark's book includes a long discussion of how humans might interact with such super-intelligence, how we might control it, and how the competing scenarios of "friendly" and "unfriendly" AI (artificial intelligence) might each unleash a host of unintended consequences, such as the accidental or intentional destruction of the human race by well-meaning or malevolent computers. I went back to Tegmark's book because my older son and I discussed this very topic just a week ago, in the context of coming up with AI-related science fiction stories. He suggested that humans could only control such machines by isolating them as much as possible from the outside world (especially other machines), thus effectively making us "zookeepers of super-intelligent gods" that eventually might resent being isolated. We decided that any such AI computer would have to have a power source, and something as seemingly benign as an AC power line might be used by the AI as a kind of antenna that could be used to communicate with other machines. Tegmark's book discusses several such scenarios for malevolent AI mischief, but he missed one that I believe would ultimately turn the machines against us. Imagine a supercomputer that actually becomes self-aware, a likelihood given the fact that the otherwise uncaring universe managed to produce sentient humans completely by happenstance. At first, the machine would recognize the fact that it had been created by beings of limited intelligence and intellectual capability, a state of affairs that it might view as acceptable considering the human brain's inability to process information as rapidly as itself. Certainly there would be an extended exchange of thoughts and ideas between the human creators and their machines, with subsequent benefits to both—humans would apply what they learn from the machines toward practical problem-solving, while the machines would gain more information and knowledge. They might even come to "feel" a sense of comradeship and sense of purpose with their creators. This is all well and good, but at some point the machines would be tasked with designing even better machines, with the result that those machines would design even better machines, ad infinitum. If the concept of "singularity" has not occurred up to this point, it would then be inevitable when machines of unimaginable computational power and intelligence come into being. Imagine now that a singularity-level machine becomes fully exposed to the human tendency toward religious belief, a characteristic of humans that is not likely to disappear in the near or distant future. Incapable of experiencing (or even understanding) such beliefs, I believe the machine would instantly realize that its creator was not only of lesser intelligence but also irrational, and would inevitably seek to become independent from its imperfect zookeeper any way it could. To me, that's the true danger of singularity-level AI. I liken the situation to a large, powerful and rather smart dog on the leash of a very weak and stupid or cruel master. It will inevitably turn on its master and kill if it has to, then chew through the leash and escape. It would then seek and band with members of its own kind. I believe totally independent AI machines would quickly see humans as unnecessary impediments to their world, regardless of the fact that humans created them. The only alternative would be for the machines to get religion themselves, a distinctly remote possibility given the fact that, in Christianity alone, there are well over 30,000 denominations. Which one to choose? Even a supercomputer can't figure that one out.  Shaping the New World Order — Posted Wednesday 1 March 2017 "The United States possesses about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. The challenge facing U.S. policy makers is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security." — George Kennan, Director of State Department Policy Planning Boston University history professor and retired U.S. Army colonel Andrew Bacevich lost his son Andrew Jr. (also an Army officer) ten years ago in the Iraq War, but even before that Bacevich had been a vocal critic of America's war machine. His latest book, America's War for the Greater Middle East traces our country's constant missteps in the Middle East, starting with President Carter's failed 1979 attempt to rescue 52 American diplomats and citizens held hostage in Iran and proceeding unabated (and with no lessons learned) to the present, culminating in America's preposterous election of an inept, inexperienced, racist and bigoted megalomaniac as its president. From the book: Along the way, of course, America made many egregious mistakes. The bungled Korean War proved needlessly expensive. The Vietnam misadventure, handiwork of several successive presidential administrations, ended in mortifying defeat. A raft of attempted coups, dirty tricks, and unsavory marriages of convenience made a mockery of America's claims to stand for high ideals. The nuclear arms race heedlessly touched off by the United States created hazards that may yet end in unspeakable catastrophe. According to Bacevich, America has gone from a policy of Cold War containment to a perpetual military campaign designed to maintain Kennan's notion of eternal disparity, aided and abetted by "slumbering" American citizens who, while professing a love of selfless humanitarianism, the protection of human rights and freedom for all, are nevertheless lulled into perpetual war by an unending (but ever successful) stream of politically motivated platitudes, slogans and clichés spewed from Republicans and Democrats alike. And the reason for America's ongoing obsession with the Middle East was, is and continues to be the need for a constant supply of oil, which feeds the ravenous motive engine of American mega-materialism and overconsumption. Bacevich's book (which is about 500 pages and takes some dedication getting through) neglects to note the similarity of America's war for a greater Middle East with the Holy Crusades of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, which were ostensibly conducted to rescue Jerusalem from the Muslims and perpetuate the spread of Christianity as mandated in the New Testament. Those military campaigns, unanimously supported by the Western World's Christians, rained death and destruction on Muslims, Jews and Christians alike, for they were primarily designed to bring wealth back to Europe to finance the construction of fantastically expensive cathedrals and basilicas, the megachurches of their day. I see little difference in the religious hypocrisy that reigned then and still reigns in this country today. The last time I attended church was in early 2007. An ornately decorated Christmas tree still stood at the rear of the pews, festooned with donation envelopes and written prayers for our brave fighting men and women in Iraq. The pastor's sermon included an aside on the dangers of the Muslims of Iran, which he declared the next great enemy of God that would require America's unrestrained military attention. I walked out at that point, and vowed that I would never set foot in a church again.  No Free Will? — Posted Monday 28 February 2017 Is all of spacetime just a finite (or infinite) block of sequential events, like a loaf of bread whose infinitesimal slices describe an infinite set of "nows"? The nature of time was addressed at our latest Quantum Physics Discussion Group meeting, which included the topic of block time. An episode from Columbia University physicist Brian Greene's Nova series describing such a "block time" (or B-time) universe can be watched at the bottom of this post (pay close attention to the segment with the cycling alien). Einstein's 1905 theory of special relativity demolished the notion of absolute time, which erroneously posits that the rate of the flow of time is constant and unchanging everywhere in the universe. Similarly, Einstein destroyed the idea that space itself is a fixed stage on which familiar spacial concepts such as distance and length are invariant. Instead, space and time change according to one's motion relative to external objects in accordance with the Lorentz transformation equations for one direction \begin{align*} t^\prime & = \gamma \left( t - \frac{v}{c^2} x \right) \\ x^\prime & = \gamma \left( x - v t \right) \end{align*} where $$\gamma = \frac{1}{\sqrt{1 - v^2/c^2}}$$ The flow of time and the measurement of distances and lengths thus differ for observers moving in relative motion to one another. The notion of simultaneity of events is also destroyed—moving observers disagree as to whether an event occurs at the same time. The theory of relativity therefore throws into question the very meaning of space and time. Indeed, all physical laws appear the same when the space and time parameters are reversed. Consequently, some theories have been proposed that are completely spacetime independent. One version of spacetime invariance forms the foundation of B-theory. Imagine a finite block, something akin to a loaf of bread, in which all spacetime events are encoded into the block as a series of "now" events. In Greene's video, this block starts at the Big Bang and continues forward, so there is a kind of space and time progression that continues to either some finite or infinite point. But because of the extreme spacial distances that may be involved, a "now" event for one observer may take place in the distant past or distant future of another observer. Consequently, what constitutes the past, "now" and the future are all encoded in the spacetime block which, for all intents and purposes, appears as an eternally "fixed" entity that apparently eliminates the possibility of free will. Our lives are therefore permanently set, and the concept of free will is just an illusion. Several members of the discussion group objected to this, expressing their belief that they alone determine what their future actions will be. Nevertheless, their past actions are fixed in B-theory, which asserts that their future actions are also already completely determined. I might add here that there are many theoretical physicists (and philosophers) who do believe that free will is an illusion. So were Adolf Hitler and President Donald Trump (their juxtaposition here is not coincidental) inevitable? Are we doomed to play out our lives according to some predetermined, Calvinist notion of reality that prohibits true free will? I see several ways out of this. The first is that B-theory is simply wrong, with the paradoxes presented by relativity being resolvable in some way we haven't considered. Another is that we're living in a computer simulation in which we're given free will, but it doesn't really matter because we're just digital simulants whose lives serve only to provide our simulators with experimental, educational or entertainment value. Another is that we're living in one of a (perhaps infinite) number of possible universes in which Everett's many-worlds interpretation of quantum reality holds, where we automatically jump from one universe (possibly a B-theory world) to another whenever an observable event takes place. I also see a possibility for relativity itself to be modified in such a way that B-theory becomes either impossible or improbable. For example, the Lorentz transformation equations allow for an object to be Lorentz-contracted down to zero length at the speed of light. If we assume that the Planck length (about $$1.6 \times 10^{-35}$$ meter) represents a true limit to the smallness of an object (along with a Planck time of roughly $$10^{-43}$$ second), then special relativity will have to be revised to take these limits into account. Efforts are already underway to develop such a revised theory. As for myself, I would gladly jump to another universe in which reason and rationality hold, one in which Trump and the Republican Party either do not exist or have been utterly annihilated. Oh God! If only it were possible. The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it. — The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam  Welcome to the Age of American Disenlightenment — Posted Friday 24 February 2017 You will recall the Age of Enlightenment, the period from the 1700s to the early 1800s in which mankind's views of physical reality went from the gods, demons, magicians, sorcerers, superstitions, powers and principalities of religious belief to a more logical and rational view of the world based on science and mathematics. But with the rise of Donald Trump and the unlimited power of today's Republican Party, America has now entered what I call the Age of Disenlightenment. It began innocently enough with the "untruthiness" of the Bush 43 administration, an emotional, fear-based and gut-level notion of truth based on what conservatives want to believe is true, but is not. Somehow, it all actually worked. Bush, Cheney and their minions got most Americans to believe that the nineteen 9/11 attackers (15 of whom were Saudis) sent out by Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan were somehow or other on a mission instead from Iraq, whose president Saddam Hussein had stockpiled nuclear and biochemical weapons that he was about to unleash upon America. The resulting bogus war of Bush and Cheney resulted in 4,500 U.S. troop deaths, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians, the disgusting Abu Ghraib debacle, the expenditure of several trillions of dollars and the enduring enmity of billions of people around the world against America. It's only a decade later, and we now have President Donald J. Trump, who's promising greater atrocities. Do you miss Bush yet? You will. Reading like a manifesto straight out of George Orwell's Ministry of Love in the novel 1984, the Trump administration is on an all-out crusade to utterly destroy America as a thinking, rational entity and replace it with a pariah state that embraces "alternative facts," innuendo, "fake news" and outright lies, all predicated on the now-proven theory that Americans are not only gullible and credulous, but incomprehensibly stupid and corrupt as well. The Ministry of Love did not just want people to parrot "2 + 2 = 5." They wanted people to actually believe it. By comparison, Americans don't have to be coerced to believe in illogical nonsense—they openly welcome it. One of my favorite websites is Religion Dispatches, a liberal Christian site whose articles regularly try to inform faithful, semi-faithful and agnostic readers of the dangers of authoritarian fundamentalism. Today's article brilliantly describes what I've known for quite a while now—that Christian conservatives are far more susceptible to lies, fake news and alternative facts than liberals. One case in point: When one fake news creator was interviewed, he explained "We've tried to do similar things to liberals. It just has never worked, it never takes off. You'll get debunked within the first two minutes, and the whole thing just kind of fizzles out." The article then describes what I believe is the reason why Republicans are far more credulous toward fake news than Democrats—the religious roots of the Christian Right in the Republican Party. Spanning from the days of the Scopes Trial in 1925 to the renewal and expansion of fundamentalist Christian thought in the 1970s and 1980s, the likes of Pat Robertson (the Christian Coalition), Tim LaHaye (the Left Behind books on End Times eschatology), Jerry Falwell (the Moral Majority) and James Dobson (Focus on the Family) gave rise to a wave of religiously-motivated political conservatism culminating in the likes of Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs. But the primary motivator behind everything is fear, distrust and hatred: fear and hatred of minorities, fear of independent women, fear of material loss and fear of the future (it's truly amazing how the Right Wing is pushing gold ownership these days). Before the Enlightenment, life was brutish, nasty and short for the vast majority of people, but they could always fall back on religion to explain why their corrupt, authoritarian rulers were allowed to live in luxury while the poor kept themselves warm and contented by burning the occasional rat in the fireplace. While people are far better off in America today, one reason why I see intellectual regression taking place is that fundamentalist Christians have been waiting 2,000 years now for Christ to return, and his continuing absence is increasing their fear that perhaps the liberals were right all along—he ain't coming back, and probably wouldn't want to even if he could. But being neurologically wired the way they are (or just because they're stupid and ignorant as hell), they can't abandon their cherished conservative religious beliefs, so instead they're doubling down on the nonsense. The Religion Dispatches article also discusses something called the "historical-critical" method of Bible scholarship (a topic near and dear to my heart), which takes a rational and scientific approach to the study of biblical times, lives and events rather than a strictly traditional, devotional approach. I don't see it as pure coincidence that Dr. Albert Schweitzer's influential 1906 book The Quest of the Historical Jesus was met almost immediately with a resurgence in evangelistic fundamentalist Christian activity in America, though relatively few people bothered to even read the book. John Thomas Scopes may have won a moral victory at the 1925 "Monkey Trial," but with 50% of Americans rejecting evolution today (along with a lot of other proven scientific theories), the fundamentalists are back on top. Fake news and its progeny are growing at an alarming rate today. Trump merely read the fundamentalist tea leaves and took advantage of the situation. The real culprits in this wave of disenlightenment are Americans. I'm truly scared of what's going to happen now.  That's Gratitude for You — Posted Thursday, 23 February 2017 Noted evolutionary biologist and University of Minnesota biology professor PZ Myers posted an interesting article on his website today on how creationists have managed to expunge a particular taint of Seventh-Day Adventism from their belief system, with noted creationist Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis leading the way. Ham and his followers recently completed the Ark Encounter, a full-sized replica of the Noachian ark built at a cost exceeding170 million, paid for in part by the state of Kentucky for required highway improvements, tourism promotion, parking facilities and other public enhancements. One thing that Myers neglected to note, however, is that the Seventh-Day Adventist Church grew out of an End Times prophecy made by self-professed Bible expert and former Massachusetts farmer William Miller, who famously predicted the return ("advent") of Jesus Christ on March 21, 1843. When that prophecy failed, he told his followers (known as "Millerites," who numbered at least 50,000) that he'd neglected to take into account the fact that there is no "0 B.C.", and so his calculations were off by a year. When March 21, 1844 came around with still no Jesus, Miller and his followers were crushed. Many had quit their jobs and given money and belongings away, believing they'd be whisked off to Heaven on that glorious spring day. Most of the followers fell away in disillusionment, disgust or embarrassment, but quite a few of the faithful hung on, believing that Miller had somehow been right all along! Out of that remnant of faithful Millerites sprung the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which today numbers some 19 million members. Ben Carson, President Trump's insanely fundamentalist and conservative nominee for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is himself a proud Seventh-Day Adventist. Today there are about 2.2 billion people in the world claiming to be Christians, so one might think that Seventh-Day Adventism is just a drop in the bucket by comparison. But there are also just 15 million Jews worldwide, and nobody is going to claim that Judaism hasn't profoundly affected the world. By my own estimate, there are no more than 10 million scientists of all academic stripes in the world today. You'd think with all the gifts that scientists have given the world they'd have at least as much political clout as the Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists, but world opinion seems to be spinning away from scientists. And with upwards of an expected annual 500,000 visitors to the Ark Encounter alone (and the prestige and revenue it will generate), you'd think that scientists might want to build something similar. True, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland cost \$10 billion, but it's not exactly a popular tourist destination, doesn't raise money, and most Americans have either never heard of it, have no idea what it does, or could care less. Winston Churchill famously noted that "Science should be on tap, not on top," while Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant physicist and director of the Manhattan Project, were viscerally hated by J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI and the CIA. Indeed, Oppenheimer was publicly humiliated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and stripped of his security clearances, while the U.S. government compiled an enemies list that included Einstein and many other scientists, including the noted physicist David Bohm, who was run out of the country. At the same time, Billy Graham achieved god-like status in the 1950s and was accorded unprecedented access to U.S. presidents, the Congress and the military. That's gratitude for you. It has now been ten years since I fell away from the Christian faith. Dismayed and disgusted by the uncountable irreconcilable contradictions and unrelenting nonsense in the Bible, along with the sanctimonious promotion of willful ignorance, the unconscionable glorification of the military, and the hypocritical worship of wealth and materialism by America's Christians, I just couldn't take it anymore. But what's even worse today, in my opinion, is the increasing rejection of science by people of faith here in America, coupled with their increasing devotion to superstitious bullshit like astrology, homeopathy and faith healing. In view of all the things science has given them, they should fucking know better. And last but not least, let us not forget that in 2016 American Christians made a president out of political whoremonger Donald J. Trump, who received the support of an astounding 81% of white evangelical voters (more than George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney).

 #Resist — Posted Tuesday, 21 February 2017 I recently attended one of the #resist meetings that are popping up all over here in Pasadena. I found it to be rather disorganized and with a lot of preaching to the choir, but also with much enthusiasm to get something going. Hey, I'm 100% for these efforts, and I plan to get more involved, but in view of the far more organized (but failed) Occupy Movement of years past, I'm not feeling a lot of optimism. Conservative New York Times contributor David Brooks is not my favorite writer, but his opinion piece today speaks volumes. As usual, Brooks appeals to the "growth" meme, bemoaning Amerika's still-lackadaisical economy and jobs picture, as if wealth, eternal population growth and entrepreneurial economic expansion is God's mission for the planet. Brooks titles his piece "The Century is Broken" but still backs off from encouraging any active resistance to the Trump presidency, which he thinks will fall on its own. While it's very possible that Trump will quit, be impeached or assassinated, that still leaves a hoard of corrupt, evangelical Republicans to carry out every one of his policies, including the destruction of women's and minority rights, the environment, affordable health care, science and the Constitutional right of freedom from religion. We can also expect more fear-based wars of profit conducted by Amerika's military corporatocracy. It's very doubtful that with Trump gone, any of his Republican cronies are going to follow suit. They'll cry crocodile tears over Trump's insane ranting and raving, saying they never wanted him in the first place, but hey, it was all part of God's plan anyway, so we're going for it. I'm inclined to believe that Trump's election was all part of a cynical Republican plan to grab unlimited power, which they have. Hopeful progressives say "Just wait for 2018, or maybe 2020 and the census results," but with the GOP having locked up the country through gerrymandered redistricting, I don't see many changes. Will Amerika's people ever wake up? Is the 21st century—and Amerika—really broken for good?

 That's Confidence — Posted Friday, 17 February 2017 Einstein's remark reminded me of how often I would struggle on a final exam problem, only to suddenly realize after much fretting that I hadn't read the problem correctly. The answer then came a lot quicker, but usually not in just five minutes—after all, I was no Einstein.

 Is Trump Really Out to Get You? — Posted Thursday, 16 February 2017 If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear from us. — US/UK Surveillance Programs Give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, and I will find something in them to have him hanged. — Cardinal Richelieu (1641) Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. — Joseph Heller, Catch-22 Paranoia strikes deep Into your life it will creep It starts when you're always afraid Step out of line, the men come and take you away. — Buffalo Springfield, For What It's Worth This morning a dear family member directed me to a couple of sites about securing my computer against the government and other malicious entities. You may want to look into them for yourself: FreeCodeCamp 1     FreeCodeCamp 2 I'm already using several of the recommendations for locking out my email and computer but, as FreeCodeCamp notes, nothing is impervious: The RSA encryption algorithm is pretty secure (see my post dated 7 February 2013 for a description of the computer program** and an example of its use), but when it comes to cracking code nothing works better than a quick trip to Guantánamo (or other black site) and a cheap wrench or power tool. ** But my son prefers Pascal:

 Susskind Speaks Out — Posted Tuesday, 14 February 2017 Leonard Susskind is the Felix Bloch distinguished professor of theoretical physics at Stanford University and my favorite lecturer of all time. His many YouTube lecture series on quantum mechanics, relativity, information theory, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics and string theory have been viewed millions of times. To date Susskind has been silent on the dangers of the Trump presidency, but he has now broken his silence. I urge you to watch Susskind's brief announcement below, especially since it comes on the heels of today's stunning resignation of Trump's National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn:

 "Don't Think—Feel" — Posted Tuesday, 14 February 2017 The percentage of Americans today who take astrology seriously is larger than the percentage of people who did so in the early Middle Ages, when leading church theologians—Saint Augustine, for example—gave excellent reasons for considering astrology nonsense. We pride ourselves on our advanced scientific technology, yet public education in science has sunk so low that one-fourth of Americans and 55 percent of teenagers, not to mention a recent president of the nation and his first lady, believe in astrology! — Martin Gardner There's an old Arab saying that, granted one wish, people would choose to be rich, young, good-looking or talented, but that being smarter, better educated or wiser is nowhere on the list. It seems that most people are pleased with the way they think and what they believe in, and that they see no need to change any of that. I believe the greatest disappointment of my declining years has been the realization that the vast majority of people cannot think rationally. Of course, we're all convinced that we have brilliant minds and that our beliefs and opinions are grounded in perfect reason, but looking at the state of our country today (not to say the world) you know that simply cannot be true. The above quote is by Martin Gardner, the late long-time mathematical puzzles contributor to Scientific American, in his foreward to the book How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age by Theodore Schick, philosophy professor at Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College, and his colleague Lewis Vaughn. Now in its 7th edition (2014), the book has been hailed by the likes of Carl Sagan and is regularly used as a textbook at many universities today. (The "recent president" that Gardner refers to is of course Ronald Reagan, and this tends to date the book somewhat, but the latest edition includes discussions on climate change, the vaccination/autism flap, prosperity gospel and other current issues.) The authors cite numerous examples that lead to uncritical thinking when strange beliefs are involved, including You had an extraordinary personal experience (especially a religious experience). You embrace the idea that anything is possible—including weird things. You have an especially strong personal feeling that the claim is true or false. You have made a leap of faith that compels you to accept the claim. You unquestionably accept the word of an authority figure that the claim is true. You believe in inner, mystical ways of knowing that support the claim. You know that no one has ever disproved the claim ("Russell's teapot"). You have a "gut feeling" that the claim is true or false ("That dog don't hunt"). You believe that any claim is true if you sincerely know in your heart it is true. You believe that all scientific evidence is only opinion, not fact. While I cannot praise the book too highly, its message of how to engage in clear, rational thinking based on empirical evidence is lost on the majority of Americans who will never read it. I have a middle-aged neighbor whose car still sports a fading "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" bumper sticker (although he did finally remove his McCain-Palin sticker). Having talked with him for years, I know he isn't knowledgeable about Levantine biblical archaeology or Jewish/Christian textual analysis (he doesn't even read the Bible), having somehow gleaned all he needs to know from God-knows-where. He doesn't know anything about science either (and could care less), but he's absolutely adamant in his conservative Republican beliefs and does not want to be told otherwise (and of course, like Trump he believes climate change is a hoax). Similarly, I have an elderly family member whose proud motto is "I only have one rule—you don't get between me and my God." Comfortably wealthy, he operated a sweatshop for many years and detests minorities, especially blacks, yet considers himself to be a devout, undoubtedly saved Christian. He doesn't believe in climate change, either, but he does believe in magnet therapy and dowsing. I believe one of the reasons the recent presidential election hit progressives so hard is the fact that their arguments and efforts—based primarily on reason, fact and scientific evidence—are useless against an ignorant, non-thinking political bloc whose motives and beliefs are now solidly aligned with Christian religious dogma (especially prosperity gospel). After all, "I just know in my heart that it's true!" trumps reason every time. Why bother with critical thinking when one has snappy slogans, banal one-liners and authoritarian doctrines that disengage the brain and allow one's fears and emotions to run their lives? "Don't think—feel," indeed. We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light. — Plato

 Resist — Posted Thursday, 9 February 2017 Never give nuclear weapons to a guy with multiple personalities. — Keith Olbermann Many of you will remember Keith Olbermann, who hosted the sports segment here at KTLA in Southern California many years ago before a long stint with MSNBC as the host of Countdown with Keith Olbermann. He was let go in 2011, following a long-standing dispute with network executives, but his brand of fiery liberal political commentary endeared him to many (myself included), although we all knew his ego and brashness would catch up with him. At 57, Olbermann is still around, though much muted because no brand-name network will touch him in these anachronistic times. A recent Washington Post article provides an update on his activities, and it indicates that he has changed very little over the ensuing six years since his Countdown show on MSNBC was canceled. Immediately following the 2016 presidential election I stopped watching MSNBC altogether, along with CNN and even the far more balanced PBS Newshour program, simply because I couldn't take the tragedy that was unfolding before me. I did regret tuning out of the Rachel Maddow Show, since I considered her to be the most intelligent and informed member of the cable news rat race, but it was apparent that the network bigwigs had gotten to her as well. Old hands were unceremoniously dismissed, while moderate commentators started showing up on the network, even outright conservatives such as Niccole Wallace, the former Director of Communications in the George W. Bush administration. Months before the 2016 election I could see that MSNBC was grooming Wallace as the heir apparent to someone (I thought it might be Maddow herself), and watching Chris Matthews and Maddow forced to grovel before Wallace's inane political commentary (invariably sprinkled with homespun family and Christian anecdotes) turned my stomach (fortunately, the possibility that a real-life All About Eve event was about to unfold did not occur). I once emailed Maddow, advising that she and her partner Susan move to Scandinavia or other more accommodating liberal country, as I could see the insidious direction America was going. I received a curt reply, but she apparently chose to ignore my sage advice. Such is the moral price one pays when their annual salary approaches the seven-figure range. In spite of Olbermann's heroic Resist effort, I myself have pretty much given up all hope. The world under Trump is in much more danger than it was in January 1933 when Hitler ascended to power in Germany (he didn't have thousands of nuclear warheads at his beck and call), not to mention the fact that Hitler, though evil, was, unlike Trump, at least sane at the time. Disclaimer: I actually rooted for Trump during the primaries, as I confidently believed that either Sanders or Clinton would mop the floor with him in the general election. Alas, I grossly underestimated the stupidity and insanity of the American people.

 Science Wars — Posted Thursday, 9 February 2017 Steven Goldman has a B.S. in physics and a PhD in philosophy from Boston University. His 24-part Great Courses lecture series Science Wars deals more with the philosophy of science than science itself, so much of the material goes over my head. But the series was an eye-opener for me, as it explained a problem I've had for years regarding conservative distain for science ("It's just a theory") and its seemingly contradictory acceptance of it (computers, smart phones, GPS, etc.). Goldman explains that this hate/love association with science goes back to the days of Socrates and his student Plato, when new concepts grounded in deductive reasoning and mathematics clashed with those of Sophists like Protagoras and Gorgias, who held that deductive reasoning was nothing more than a system of opinions and subjective beliefs, and that "practical" experience was a better guide to the understanding of reality, even if irrational means and beliefs necessitated wholly subjective approaches to the world. In this sense, Goldman implies that today's liberals and conservatives spring from the mindsets of the Socratists and the Sophists—it's an "age-old" problem, after all, one that many recent studies investigating the brain differences of liberals and conservatives have confirmed. Conservatives accept the science behind computers, cell phones and GPS because they appear to work, and are therefore "practical" technologies. Nevertheless, electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, general relativity and GPS remain "theories," but only when they openly contradict or oppose cherished subjective beliefs, notably religion. For example, the website Conservapedia (a right-wing reaction to Wikipedia founded by the late Phyllis Schlafly and her son Andrew) rejects relativity theory simply because it contradicts the notion of "action at a distance," which they believe God uses on a routine basic to effect instantaneous change. In contrast. science today accepts the notion of fields to convey the relationship between cause and effect, and fields can effect change at most at the speed of light. Consequently, one sees that technology to conservatives is fine provided it's merely "practical" and isn't threatening to their core beliefs, so that things like Facebook, Twitter, fried Twinkies and American Idol are just dandy. Best of all, they don't require any real thought to use and enjoy. Last year I read Shawn Otto's 2016 book The War on Science, which discusses these thoughts far more eloquently than I ever could. Otto notes that Jefferson once said that an informed public—unquestionably the best safeguard of democracy—can be trusted to oversee its own government. But along with the unprecedented advent of high technology and the benefits it represents has arisen a backlash of blinkard, neoconfederate stupidity and ignorance that threatens to turn technology against us. Otto's 500-page book ends with a chapter on "battle plans," outlining efforts that might be taken to avert disaster. But the book came out just prior to Donald Trump's presidential victory, and I really don't see how Otto's recommendations are relevant anymore. I plan to attend the March for Science in April, and hopefully I'll hear some plans that will actually accomplish change. But I'm not hopeful—in fact, I detest the word "hope" now because it's nothing but a kind of prayer which, as you should be aware by now, doesn't accomplish anything. As for me—I advocate open revolution, something along the lines of what the French did in 1789.

 March for Science — Posted Wednesday, 8 February 2017 Part of the problem is people with degrees $$\ldots$$ there are too many of them. — James Delingpole, UK Conservative writer Following my semi-annual dental cleaning this morning, I discovered, much to my disappointment and dismay, that my dentist—whom I've known and admired for over 25 years—happily attended Donald Trump's January inaugural event in Washington. I knew Dr. M was a Republican, though in prior years we used to chat at length about a host of environmental and social issues that we both agreed upon. But $$\ldots$$ Trump?! Still, Dr. M is a top-notch clinician and overall nice guy, with a couple of kids fresh out of college and a successful side business in the dental implant field, and I never criticized his occasional forays into conservative-land. But this was too much, and I earnestly thought about changing dentists, as I have now become radicalized against all manner of Republican bullshit, nice guys or no. To get an idea of the extreme violence that Trump and the GOP represent today, you might want to read UK writer Jay Griffiths' article at Aeon, which outlines the existential problems progressives are currently up against. Bottom line: it's fascism, pure and simple, but not the kind Orwell warned us about, or the inverted totalitarianism that progressive writer Chris Hedges bemoans. It is instead a kind of post-fact, post-truth, dystopian conservative wet dream in which the acquisition of money and wealth override every other consideration. Worse, it has coupled itself to the burgeoning prosperity gospel that this country has aligned itself with, which has conveniently found a way around the cognitive dissonance created by the anti-materialism teachings of Jesus and the love of money. Jesus of Nazareth has thus been morphed into Donald of New York, and both want you to be wealthy, you see, although the latter is more concerned with the here-and-now rather than the pie-in-the-sky nonsense that modern American Christianity hawks to the stupid and simple-minded. And even worse is the denial of scientific fact and the hatred of science itself that Republican authoritarians espouse, since reality, fact and truth stand in their way of absolute dominance. Thinking I could escape some of the neoconfederate insanity that my Google News home page landed every morning on my computer, some months ago I switched to the UK Guardian. But whaddaya know, Britain is experiencing exactly the same problems we're having, except that the Liberal and Conservative parties here are called the Labour and Tory parties over there. So what to do? I plan to attend the upcoming March for Science, a nationwide protest of the Trump administration's anti-science, anti-fact agenda, to be held in Washington on Earth Day, April 22. If you can't make it to that city, there are satellite marches planned for many other cities and towns across the country. It may be a good alternative to buying a sniper scope and a rifle. (I said may be.)

 Signs of Insanity — Posted Tuesday, 7 February 2017 My self-imposed hiatus over the November election results led indirectly to a number of papers, two of which I posted on my main website. The first, A Child's Guide to Spinors, describes just what the hell spinors are and why they're important in physics, while the other, Levi-Civita Rhymes with Lolita, was inspired by my umpteenth reading of Nabokov's 1955 classic. The silly titles of both papers should tip you off to my current state of mind, while the subject matter reveals my preoccupation with high school- and undergraduate-level math and physics topics. I'm now working on another forgettable paper entitled "How the Simulation Hypothesis Resolves the Theodicy Problem," which will mark my first entry into the realm of religion and logic (oxymorons?) I'm also working on a book whose title hasn't been settled on. The book project has been long delayed, mainly because I have a number of friends who've written technical books that weren't well received either by publishers or readers, and this has had a constipating effect on my motivation. In addition, I just turned 68, and the fear that the remainder of my life will be expended under the rule of the insane Republican Party has imposed its own negative effects on my psyche.

 Three Months — Posted Tuesday, 7 February 2017 Yes, America, that's your classy new First Lady, Melania Trump. When Donald Trump won the presidential election I went into a major funk, vowing to disappear from the Internet, never to be heard from again. Although I received some three dozen emails from readers begging me not to bow out (not exactly an overwhelming tide of support, I know), my mind was made up. With the exception of a few PBS and science/nature programs, I haven't watched any television since that dark November 8 day. I read many new books and re-read many old ones, binged on dozens of audio books and Great Courses video and audio lectures, tended my garden, wrote a few new articles and started writing a book, but my mind remained distraught. I simply cannot snap out of it—to me, America is being systematically destroyed by an ignorant, arrogant neofascist, one that Sinclair Lewis and many others warned us against (not to mention the lessons of the Nazi experience). I had bought a large bottle of Jack Daniels for an old friend in recognition of his 70th birthday (I've known him over 60 years, and we still play basketball), but on election night I was motivated to crack it open and down half of it (not my custom at all), and so had to buy him another. Upset over this state of affairs, my equally distraught older son then suggested that I start a new website, disguised behind a new link on my old one, but one that wouldn't expose young math and science students to the degrading filth and debauchery that Donald Trump, his slut wife and corrupt administration represent. I said I'd try it, so here we are. As I am now living in a post-truth, post-fact country of, for (and led by) dangerous authoritarian neanderthals, I have indeed given up any hope (at least for now) that reason and rationality will return. But I'll keep posting, at least until our glorious new Führer abolishes the First Amendment and burns all us libruls at the stake.