The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for February 16th, 2009

Real Scientists vs. Wanna-Be’s

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 16, 2009

I just got finished attending a couple of days of the joint AAPT & AAAS winter meeting in Chicago, and I must say it was an interesting couple of days! It’s always nice to attend these conferences so that one can connect with the wider scientific & teaching community out there.

While I was at the conference, I attended a fascinating series of talks on some of the latest research coming out of FermiLab, the perfect material for a total physics geek like me. The most interesting stuff at that symposium was the work being done at FermiLab on attempts to detect the Higgs boson and even dark matter!

fermilab

Briefly, the Higgs boson (also called the Higgs field) is a fundamental particle of nature which is believed by particle physics theorists to exist “beneath” all other particles. All the other fundamental particles of nature – from leptons to quarks to gluons and photons (plus many more) – interact with the Higgs field in a way which determines the mass of the particle. Those particles which interact more strongly with the Higgs have a higher mass. And the Higgs boson forms the last, big missing link in what is called the Standard Model of particle physics (kind of like a periodic table for the fundamental particles of nature). In order to complete the Standard Model, experimentalists need to find evidence of the Higgs in particle accelerators.

The speaker on the Higgs research openly stated at one point in his talk that if scientists at FermiLab or the Large Hadron Collider couldn’t ever find evidence of the Higgs, then that would be more exciting than if they did find such evidence. This is because if no evidence of the Higgs could ever be found, then it would call into question the entire structure of the Standard Model. This would then, in turn, lead to a new revolution in physics, just as Max Planck’s quantum hypothesis in the early 20th century led to the (then) new field of quantum mechanics.

The next really interesting moment came when I was listening to the scientist trying to detect dark matter at FermiLab. Briefly, of all the matter in the universe, only about 3% of it is what we call standard luminous (or baryonic) matter. Most of the rest, about 85-90%, is so-called dark matter (not to be confused with dark energy) – which is matter that emits no electromagnetic radiation at all. The only manner in which we can detect dark matter is through its gravitational influence upon normal matter. Incidentally, three big lines of evidence converge to convince us that dark matter is a reality – gravitational lensing effects, peculiar behavior of galactic rotation curves, and the motion of galaxies in galactic clusters.

However, for the physicist researching dark matter, this isn’t enough. In order for dark matter to really be established as the real thing, he and others in the scientific community want to find it in the lab. So he’s undertaking a series of bubble chamber experiments at FermiLab in an attempt to directly detect dark matter particles. And all physicists acknowledge that dark matter, as yet, has no place in the Standard Model – so this means the Standard Model only describes about 3% of all the matter in the known universe!

I’m not going to go into any more of the details of these talks, but I just wanted to mention something very important that I noted in them. In both cases, the scientists involved in this cutting-edge research were very clear to point out how little we really knew about these subjects. They also made a big point to note that they were perfectly happy to have their experiments fail to detect the Higgs and dark matter, because that would mean we have to completely rework many of our theories of physics.

Far from being rigid dogmatists, as many inaccurately portray the scientific community, these people displayed what real science is all about – putting your hypothesis on the line and letting the observations & experiments be the final arbiter of what’s right and what’s wrong. Real science continually questions its assumptions.

It has been my experience that the real dogmatists are the pseudoscientific cranks, who are basically wanna-be scientists. They latch onto an idea they think is cool, but in spite of all evidence to the contrary they’ll hold onto these discredited ideas. And, in many cases, after they are unable to offer proof of their ideas, the cranks will attack the scientific community for being “dogmatic” and – sometimes – even accuse it of a conspiracy to hide the “truth”. Worse yet, some pseudoscientists propose ideas which aren’t scientific at all – because they can never be falsified – yet they want these notions to have the elevated status of science anyway. They think that by putting on a lab coat and calling their ideas science, that somehow it magically becomes science!

No amount of woo will ever interest me as much as real science. Even if these attempts to detect the Higgs boson and dark matter fail utterly, we’ll have learned so much in going through the process of scientific exploration that it will have all been worth it. And that’s what makes real science so exciting – we don’t know what nature has in store for us!

In closing this post, I’ll reference the words of a great skeptic & advocate for science, Dr. Phil Plait – astronomer & the president of the JREF – when he said: “The universe is cool enough without making up crap about it!”

Posted in scientific method, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Final Word on Science Funding in the Stimulus

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 16, 2009

It’s been a good week. It seems that all the rabble rousing done over the last couple of weeks concerning science funding in the economic stimulus package has paid off. Our friends over at Science Debate sent me this email…

Thanks to your efforts and those of other individuals and organizations throughout the U.S. science community, science did not lose out in the final negotiations of the stimulus bill, which passed last night and is expected to be signed by President Obama on Monday.

When it became clear last Friday morning that the Senate was intent on cutting science, and planned to zero out new NSF funding entirely, you spoke up loudly, and by the end of the day many of the proposed cuts had been restored. When it seemed likely that science would get the short end in conference negotiations between the very powerful Senate version of the bill and the more desirable science targets in the House version, you spoke up again, and to some observers’ great surprise, the House version of the science targets won out almost completely, and science got an increase even as many other programs were cut.

While the principles of the stimulus package may be argued, it is clear that U.S. science has taken a small but important step toward being restored to its rightful place in the priorities of America. Thank you for your participation and support in that process.

You can view an analysis of the House, amended Senate, and Final versions of science spending in the bill here.

Thank you! As we said when we began this effort, we do not view Science Debate as a legislative advocacy organization, but that this was an exceptional circumstance where a broad grassroots effort could leverage a positive result.

Looking forward, while we will most certainly take exceptional actions like this in the future, we will be adopting your suggestions and concentrating the majority of our focus on the broad goal of continuing to “restore science to its rightful place” in three ways: championing science debates among policymakers and those running for office; combating the erosion of science and science policy in the media; and new efforts to involve young people in science policy discussions. More later.

I count this as a big win for science in the U.S. But as the Science Debate folks said, it was only possible due to the combined efforts of all of us, not just scientists themselves. Please consider getting more involved with the folks over at Science Debate as they continue to hold our policy makers accountable on issues of scientific importance. As you’ve seen, we can make a difference!

Posted in science funding | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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