The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘society’

Why the Skeptical Movement Needs “More Than Men”

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 5, 2012

**Note: for some background you may find reading my previous two posts on this issue to be useful…

Diversity in Skepticism: One White Guy’s Perspective

Note to My Fellow Men at Conferences: Women Don’t Dig Douchebags

********************************

Those of us who have been in the skeptical movement for some time have noticed something very interesting happening of late: the movement is becoming more diverse.  For example, when I attended my first skeptical conference, TAM 4 back in 2006, I noticed that most attendees were white men (I certainly have nothing against white guys, especially since I’m one of them).  By the most recent Amaz!ng Meeting this past summer, a mere five years later, I saw much more diversity, especially in the context of the ratio of men vs. women: about 40% of the TAM 9 attendees were women (while roughly half of the conference speakers were women).

Of course, I see this as a good thing.  But there will be some inevitable growing pains within the movement as the skeptical demographic grows larger.  Evidence of this fact is readily apparent from seeing numerous online arguments (some say flame wars) regarding various diversity issues within the last year or so.  Most of us will remember “Elevatorgate” and the ensuing discussion it set off; then there was the touchy question of how physicist Lawrence Krauss handled a situation regarding a friend’s run-in with the police over questions of inappropriate sexual behavior; and it seems the discussion set of by these (and other) situations shows no signs of abating.

Take, for instance, this recent blog post and related comment thread over at my skeptical colleague Stephanie Zvan’s “Almost Diamonds” blog titled “Dammit, DJ” (tip o’ the hat to Stephanie for letting me know I was invoked in the ensuing comment thread, hence this post).  I won’t go into the details here (read Stephanie’s post for yourself), but I would like to make a few quick, general remarks.

First, while some people within our movement seem to want to plant flags or “take sides”, I urge caution in this regard. I have seen some in the discussion of Stephanie’s post come down “on the DJ [that is, DJ Grothe] side” while others have come down “on the Rebecca [Watson, of Skepchick] side”, with many barbs and arrows slung back and forth.  I think this is a bit silly, folks.  I know both DJ and Rebecca, and I have worked (and partied) with both of them, and I can honestly say that I respect them both not only as skeptical colleagues but as social acquaintances as well.  I also think that both of them make valid and invalid points regarding this whole diversity issue; but I am willing to let them get out there and slug it out, because I view that sort of debate as not only critical, but fundamentally unavoidable, as the skeptical movement grows.  I, for one, am happy to see people such as DJ and Rebecca on the front lines of this argument.

Now, having said all of that, let me get to my second point: that is about the tone of these arguments.  I have seen far too many people act like utter assholes in these kinds of online disputes, to the point of seeing real threatening and insulting language being tossed about quite loosely.  It isn’t all one way (such things rarely are), but some of the most disturbing stuff seems to have been directed at women from men, so since I’m a guy I will briefly address that.

What is it about the Internet that brings out the worst in some people, to the point that they say the most foul and irresponsible things?  Men (and I use that term loosely) who try to use the Internet as a venue for spewing some of the filth that I’ve seen directed at some women are hardly worth the label of “men”, because that label only applies to mature males who are secure in both their manhood and their relationships with others (specifically, in this context, with women).  The douchebags who talk this smack anonymously are simple cowards, because I strongly doubt that most of them would ever dare to speak in that manner directly to a woman’s face in a public setting.  In short, the following picture describes these clowns pretty well…

Which brings me to my final point: the fact that these knuckle-dragging goons feel the need to use such thuggish language and behavior towards women illustrates perfectly well the need for more diversity within skepticism.  This also illustrates the need for more white guys like me to call out our fellow white male skeptics on this sort of bullshit and argue for more diversity.  Thus, I am happy to announce my involvement in a new effort to promote diversity and understanding on these topics via the More Than Men project: a project run by white guys with the purpose of speaking in white-guy speak to other white guys in the hopes that we can “talk to our own” and foster more understanding on these issues.  If you would like, I encourage you to check out the More Than Men website and consider making a contribution (not money, but thoughts) there.

So in closing, let me send a message to my skeptical brothers and sisters out there: guys, don’t be ashamed of who you are, but also understand that there is a profound need to understand things from a non-male, non-white perspective; and if you wish to grow the movement you cannot get around this need.  And ladies, please understand that it really is hard for some guys to gain this understanding of things from a non-male perspective; it takes time, and sometimes we will challenge you on certain points while agreeing on others.  And, quite frankly, on some things some men and women may never be able to see eye-to-eye, but we shouldn’t allow that to stop us from continuing the discussion.

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Diversity in Skepticism: One White Guy’s Perspective

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 8, 2011

Like many within the skeptical community, I have been reading with interest the recent discussion which has been waged (or, should I say, raged?) on the topic of diversity within the skeptical movement.  Apparently, it all goes back to this article – Why White Men Should Refuse to be on Panels of All White Men – which led to this blog post over at Skepchick.  It also seems that there is a bit of a “storm” of controversy swirling as a result of the discussion generated by these articles.  I think Amy Roth, the author of the aforementioned Skepchick article, articulated it well with the following commentary:

What do you think? Are women and minorities just being ridiculous? Are the majority of public panel seats going to white men because they are the authorities on the topics and have the most interesting and valuable things to say? Should the members of minorities politely and quietly wait in the shadows until someone asks us to be on a panel? Should white men in positions of power speak up and refuse to sit in these circumstances? Is this favoritism, racism or ignorance?

So, since I suffer from the delusion that people care what I think, I shall share my thoughts on the matter here.  To begin with, here are a few reasons why I think some might give a rat’s ass what I think about this issue:

1. I am a skeptic, some would say a slightly prominent one (I remain skeptical of this, but whatever).  As such I sometimes appear on discussion panels at skeptical events.

2. I am white (actually, there’s a surprise here – read on), and I am male.

3. I am on the board of the Women Thinking Free Foundation, a skeptical organization dedicated to skepticism in regards to women’s issues.

4. I am a high school and college teacher, and as such I am in a profession which includes (compared to many other professions) a relatively high percentage of women and ethnic minorities.

I think the question of diversity within the skeptical movement is one we, collectively, should be addressing right now (however messily and/or noisily), especially given the demographics of the wider population and related generational issues.  That is, a generation ago when the modern skeptical movement was in its infancy, it was no surprise that the leaders were white men.  At that time in pretty much any walk of life (on the professional level), most leaders tended to be white men – I’m not saying this was right or wrong, I’m simply stating it as a fact.  As time went on, more and more women and ethnic minorities rightly concluded that they could do the work and contribute to society in a positive manner just as much as the standard white male.  Since that time, society has evolved (in a positive way, in my view) on these issues.

Now there are those who think that perhaps the skeptical movement is a bit behind the times in this sense, while there are those who think there is no issue to discuss.  Personally, I find myself agreeing with certain aspects of both these views (the notion that one must be “on one side of the issue or the other” is a false dichotomy, I believe, as such complex issues are not black-and-white).  Allow me to clarify…

I do think that those of us who are beginning to take more of a visible leadership role should be encouraging diversity within the skeptical movement.  I say this for multiple reasons, some which are idealistic and others which are simply pragmatic.  I agree with the idealistic egalitarian notion that all people – without regard to gender, race, etc – should have a fair chance to rise through the ranks and present their viewpoints, because someone from a different ethnic background or with different gender experiences than me will be able to approach various skeptical topics from an angle that I, as a white male, simply cannot do.  Please note that I am not endorsing a woo-filled post-modernist notion that “all views are equally valid”; that’s not what we’re talking about here, folks.  We are all still bound by the idea that there must be some kind of objective reality out there that we can interact with and understand using the tools of critical thinking, science, and skepticism.

What I mean is that I must, as a reasonable skeptic, to be willing to consider that I have an inherently limited perspective on certain topics that is the result of my cultural upbringing.  Thus, on topics related to issues of sexuality, gender, culture, and so on I would do well to interact with those who have a broader and different cultural perspective.  In fact, of the times I have participated in various skeptical panel discussions over the years, I have found the most diverse ones to be the most fruitful.

There’s also a practical side to the issue as well: if we wish to spread the skeptical message effectively, then we need to be able to reach out beyond that stereotypical audience from one generation ago – the white male.  As society has become more diverse, so must the skeptical movement become more diverse in order to keep up and avoid being viewed as an anachronism.  For this reason, because I believe in the broad message of the movement, we must encourage more diversity in terms of attendees to conferences and – yes – for participants in speeches, panels, and workshops.

However, in our desire to become more diverse, I must add a note of caution: this has to do with the surprise that I mentioned about my ethnicity above.  We must be very, very careful about making assumptions and snap judgments regarding the background of, say, potential panelists because we skeptics all fall victim to the same biases as everyone else.  Specifically, I am referring to the question of the ethnicity (or, shall I say, the apparent ethnicity?) of a person.  Case in point: I have identified myself as a “white” guy all throughout this article, and – truth be told – I typically self-identify as white/Caucasian when I fill out paperwork and whatnot.  After all, don’t I look white?…

Well, here’s the surprise: I’m about 1/16 Native American, specifically Choctaw Indian.  But I’m betting that you never would have guessed that about me if I had never told you, right?  I certainly don’t look like what many of us might assume a Native American might look like, and there’s the rub.  We skeptics are humans first, and as such we have all the failings of our fellow humans – including the tendency to make unfounded judgments about people based upon their appearance.  Food for thought, folks.

In closing, I would like to share one more observation on this matter: the fact that the skeptical community appears to be having a lively discussion of this topic is a very good thing.  That is because it speaks to the fact that we are a growing demographic, and as a growing demographic we are pushing beyond the once comfortable boundaries into uncharted territory.  That makes some people a little apprehensive, but personally I welcome this development because as skeptics we should be willing to push the edge, especially when it makes some (and even us) a tad edgy.

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U.S. Public Only Seems to Like “Practical” Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 26, 2010

I just caught this post over at the Woo-Fighters blog, and thought it worth sharing.  The results of these polls give me some reason to hope, but it also shows that those of us in the pro-science community certainly do have our work cut out for us.  Read on…

Science? Only when it’s practical, please.

April 25th, 2010 | Author: Matthew Newton

When the idea of “science” is brought up, most people agree that this so-called science is a good thing. In fact, in a somewhat recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 84% of Americans surveyed believed the science in their lives to have a positive influence on society, with only 6% indicating the opposite. 70% said they believed scientists to have a positive influence on society, which is even more than doctors!

While the magical idea of “what science is to me and not to you thank you very much” sounds preferable to your average consumer of science, the reality behind belief in American scientific progress is a bit more bleak. From the same poll, only 17% of those surveyed believed America to among the “best in the world” when it comes to scientific research, with 49% believing America to have the best scientists in the world. It’s a lot easier to deny an intangible idea, isn’t it?

Three separate Gallup Polls taken between 1990 and 2001 measured public beliefs in various paranormal phenomena. Notably, and in spite of the 84% of Americans putting their faith in science, a large portion in all three time periods (50%) said they believed in Extrasensory Perception (ESP) , with only 21% definitively certain about its nonexistence.

How do Americans, who are so sure of science’s contributions to society, have such a poor misunderstanding of such basic concepts? Principal researcher Heather Ridolfo’s recently published paper entitled “Social Influences on Paranormal Belief: Popular Versus Scientific Support” examined differences in perception of ESP based on both public and scientific opinion. What was found is that while people tend to evaluate the validity of claims based on how many other people support said claims (a cognitive bias known as the Bandwagon Effect), the support of the scientific community (or lack thereof) has no impact on evaluating the validity of claims made about ESP.

From this, the researchers concluded that their finding “may reflect decreasing trust in the institution of science”. Whatever the reason, the romantic idea of science and the reality behind science have a long way to go before they meet.

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Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 1, 2010

I just watched a fascinating video presentation by Sam Harris titled “Science Can Answer Moral Questions” which he gave at the TED Talks this past February.  One of the key questions it addresses is the notion that science & morality (and hence, religion) must, by definition, occupy different spheres of influence.  While I don’t agree with Harris on everything, I certainly think he makes a very compelling argument in this presentation, and I encourage you to watch it.

Hat tip to Phil at Skeptic Money for directing me to this video!

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Science and Postmodernism

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 21, 2009

Just a few days ago, I received an email from a colleague of mine in the English department where I teach. The subject concerned the concept of falsifiability in science. The email read, in part…

I have a dim understanding of Popper’s falsifiability principle from History of Time and Wikipedia. Question: how do the string theorists… “get around” this, or is there something about what they do that renders the principle moot?

Note that there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the scientific process here. One of the hottest new scientific ideas – string theory – is implied to be scientific not because it is falsifiable, but because there must be some “trick to get around it.”

string theory

Nope. Sorry, there’s no trick to getting around it. In order for an idea to be considered scientific, one must be able to propose a way to test it that could potentially falsify it. Without meeting this basic criteria, science it isn’t. Here’s the highlights of my response to my English colleague…

The answer is that string theory meets the “must-have” standard of falsifiability and is thus a valid scientific idea. Falsifiability is the gold-standard: if an idea cannot meet this criteria, science it ain’t.

For more info on this, here are some proposals to, at least in principle, test string theory for validity:
http://www.physorg.com/news10682.html

The difficulty is that we don’t yet have the technology in hand to conduct these tests. Once the Large Hadron Collider comes completely online, we’ll have a better picture of this question. In addition, there are some proposals to use our knowledge of the cosmic background radiation to test out other aspects of string theory. There is the chance that the new Planck Surveyor probe could do just that – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_Surveyor

The problem with string theory now is that it is in a kind of limbo state, much like Einstein’s theory of general relativity from 1915-1919. Einstein had this beautifully elegant mathematical theory, but many scientists refused to give it any validity until it had been tested. Unfortunately, the technology to test GR didn’t exist then, so they had to wait until the solar eclipse of 1919 to test the first predictions of GR. More on that here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_eclipse#1919_observations

This point about falsifiability is one which many pseudoscientists screw up all the time. Many of them think that science is merely a set of cool ideas which The Establishment is defending dogmatically – not so. If you go to any scientific meeting and someone proposes a scientific idea, very quickly someone will demand to know how to test it. And if the person proposing the idea cannot answer that question, they will be given no validity at all. Science is a pretty harsh process when you get down to it, and the people who are toughest on scientists are often their scientific colleagues.

For example, creationists have a real problem here. They insist that “intelligent design” is a scientific concept (because they say it is!) yet they never propose any method at all for even testing it for falsifiability. They’ve had 15-20 years to develop some kind of testable hypothesis, yet all they can come up with are logical fallacies and claims of a conspiracy to cover up The Truth. And so it goes…

The thing that really bothers me about this exchange with my colleague is that we’ve been here before. He and I have collaborated extensively on subjects of science & philosophy, and I have pointed out the principle of falsifiability to him numerous times, yet he still doesn’t seem to get it. It’s not that he’s a dumb guy – far from it, he’s very well educated and I consider him to be pretty intelligent. I think it has more to do with his particular area of philosophical specialty: postmodernism.

One aspect of the postmodernist philosophy which has been way overblown by some of the more vocal postmodernists is the idea of relativism in relation to science. Loosely speaking, it is argued by these people that science is nothing more than a mere cultural phenomenon, one which naturally develops in all societies given enough time. Thus, they say, there is such a thing as “science” that belongs to a specific group – such as “traditional science” as done by the older, white, and male segments of Western society versus the “new science” done by others.

I cannot even begin to point out how screwed up this thinking is – if one studies the history of science, you learn quickly that science was essentially a lucky occurrence. All of the proper conditions existed in Ancient Greece which led to the rise of natural philosophical discourse, which in turn eventually led to the development of modern science. While it is true that anyone can practice science (in this sense, science is most certainly not limited to white, male Westerners), had the conditions not been just right the Greeks would have never started humanity on this path and there would have been no modern science.

**Aside: An excellent book on this topic is Alan Cromer’s Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science. I highly recommend it!

However, some postmodernist discourse on science gets really silly, and this comes through, albeit subtly, in my colleague’s email. It is the sense that science is merely “just another way of thinking” and that it has no real authority to say what the world around us is like. Often, postmodernists will say that science is merely an opinion.

This sounds goofy, but over the last few decades it has become very problematic. That’s because all manner of pseudoscientists & pseudohistorians have seized upon these concepts of postmodernism to promote their woo. If you pay close attention to the arguments of the woo-meisters – whether they be Holocaust deniers, New-Agers, alternative-“medicine” practitioners, or creationists – they will often make public arguments that make the postmodernist plea that science is “just another opinion” and out of fairness their ideas should be given just as much validity as those of the scientific community.

And, sadly, because many aspects of postmodernist thought have been widely disseminated throughout the Western world (where it is only natural to respect freedom of speech & expression), a lot of people are roped into accepting these arguments. The result has, over the last generation or so, been the gradual erosion of the status of science & the scientific community while postmodernist driven woo has been given “equal time”, so to speak.

The problem is particularly bad in many areas of academia. A perfect example of just how stupid the promotion of postmodernist woo-woo has gotten is outlined in an excellent book, Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science.

sokal

Alan Sokal is a hero among many in the skeptical & scientific community for his hilarious debunking of the more extreme aspects of postmodernist anti-science in the mid 1990s via the now famous Sokal Hoax. Fortunately, after the public drubbing that many high-profile postmodernist anti-scientists received once Sokal revealed his deception, they lost a great deal of credibility in many areas of academia.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, Sokal’s excellent high-profile debunking came too late. By the mid 1990s, use of the postmodernist arguments had become widespread by woosters of all stripes. And we are now dealing with the consequences, whether it be having to fight off the “fairness & freedom” arguments of creationists in Texas & Louisiana or dealing with academic colleagues who, due to their embrace of postmodernism, cannot fathom the basics of the scientific method.

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Okay Fine… Happy Groundhog Day

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 3, 2009

What’s a skeptic to do? With all the crazy pseudoscientific woo in the world to deal with, every now and then I just have to give in and go along with it. No, don’t worry, I’m not talking about becoming a fan of uber-douchebag Kevin Trudeau or believer in crystal energy & other New Age weirdness. Rather, I’m referring to some nutty, and kind of fun, traditions that U.S. society follows. I’m talking about Groundhog Day.

groundhog

The story goes like so… since 1886, every February 2nd, a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil (not always the same one since the critters aren’t immortal) comes out of his burrow in Punxsutawney, PA and is expected to react to whether or not he sees his shadow. The legend has it that if he doesn’t see his shadow due to cloudy weather then it means winter is close to an end; however, if ol’ Phil does see his shadow in the sunny weather and, as the story is supposed to go, retreats back into his burrow then winter is to last for about six more weeks.

Now, how a little rodent getting, or not getting, spooked by its shadow is supposed to accurately predict the weather for the next month-and-a-half is beyond me. I recall learning the story as a kid, and I thought to myself “How’s that supposed to work?” I guess I figured that as time went on some responsible adult would tell me how ol’ Phil had such amazing powers of precognition.

Alas, after a few years I, like most children I suppose, figured it out for myself that there wasn’t really anything to it. Of course, despite the silliness of seriously considering that a groundhog can predict the weather, there does seem to be quite a party atmosphere around the event in Punxsutawney, PA every February 2nd. And, as people who know me can tell you, I can appreciate a good party 🙂

But, believe it or not, there actually do seem to be some people who believe the groundhogs know their stuff – no really, I’m not kidding. According to Wikipedia, the GDPs (Groundhog Day Proponents – “believers” sounds just a little too creepy) maintain that the groundhogs get the prediction right somewhere from 75% to 90% of the time! Of course, when stacked up next to climate data from the National Climate Data Center, the real accuracy of the predictions is closer to 39%.

So why does this myth persist? For that matter, why do most myths in our society persist – from Groundhog Day to Santa Claus to the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy? I suppose part of it is because today’s adults were told these stories as children, and – here’s a big part of it – there was a considerable amount of celebration & fun associated with these myths. It is assumed that many, hopefully all, kids will eventually figure out there is nothing to the myth – it’s kind of like a right-of-passage.

There is a lesson here for skeptical parents with children: you can use events like Groundhog Day and such to teach kids about where the line between reality and fantasy lies. Take the opportunity to teach your kids to employ their critical thinking skills at a young age when dealing with such myths. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you take the fun out of the event – enjoy the egg hunt at Easter with your kids, but help them understand that it’s all in fun and that the Easter Bunny isn’t real.

If more parents would teach their kids at a younger age that employing a healthy skepticism & flexing those critical thinking skills is a good thing (how many times did you hear as a kid “Don’t ask questions like that”?), then I think in the long run we’d all be better off for it.

Happy Groundhog Day, everyone!

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Why Science Matters

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 13, 2009

Sometimes I have to deal with this very question from my own students: “Why should I care about science?” It’s a good question which deserves a well-reasoned response.

Science forms a critical part of our society. Many people can understand the importance of science in relation to technological development – such as the creation of new vaccines every year to deal with the annual influenza cycle, for instance. When people can see the direct application of science to their immediate lives, then it is easy to justify the resources necessary to pursue such scientific work. I often like to say that people have no problem with building a better I-pod and the research that goes with it.

I’m not talking so much about building a better I-pod (though they are very cool). I’m talking more about both the process of scientific thinking as well as the pursuit of pure (or theoretical) science.

Think about it – you are reading this blog post on a device that is the direct result of purely theoretical scientific investigation by individuals who had no notion or motivation to create computers or the Internet. Let me give you a little history lesson…

Around the end of the 19th century, many scientists believed that purely theoretical science was nearing its end. That is, they thought that through the process of science we learned all there was to learn – the rest was simply filling in details, or, as one put it, just getting experimental results to more and more decimal places. Throughout the 1800s, the development and rise of science using methodological naturalism as its method yielded astonishing advances in every field – biology, geology/earth science, astronomy, physics, chemistry. I’ll speak specifically about physics, since that is my area of expertise.

The cornerstones of 19th-century physics were classical Newtonian mechanics, Maxwell’s electricity & magnetism, and thermodynamics. Many physicists of the day thought that with these crown jewels of theoretical physics, we’d figured everything out. But they were wrong.

The Rise of Relativity
Around the year 1900, there were two major developments in physics which shattered the (comforting, to some) notion that we’d figured out all of theoretical physics. The first was the dissolution of ether theory – the idea that all motion (including the motion of the Earth) was relative to some absolute frame of reference called the “ether”. The ether was supposed to be some kind of imponderable substance which was postulated to exist throughout all of space. In fact, it was believed that light used the ether as a medium through which to propagate; many scientists disliked the idea that light (commonly understood as an electromagnetic wave) could travel through completely empty space because all waves were believed to have a medium which they had to disturb in order to propagate.

By the late 1800s, two scientists – Albert Michelson and Edward Morley – decided to perform an experiment which would indirectly detect the ether, thus taking it from mere speculation to a firmly established phenomenon. In 1887, they performed their now-famous experiment where they attempted to use a beam of light traveling relative to the Earth’s supposed motion through the ether to detect changes in the speed of the light beam. But they got a surprising result – no matter in which direction they oriented their device (called an interferometer) relative to the direction of Earth’s motion, they got the same result: the speed of light was unchanged. No matter what they did, no matter how many times they ran their experiments, the light beams traveled at the same value: 3×108 meters per second.

This “failed” experiment led to the eventual acceptance that the ether was a fiction.  And not only that, but the speed of light being constant, no matter the relative motion of the observer, led to the foundations of the theory of relativity.  In 1905, Albert Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity, and in 1916 he followed this with his general theory of relativity. You may have heard of general relativity (GR for short), because it is the theory that outlines space & time as woven into a strange fabric known as space-time; in this space-time fabric objects with lots of mass (such as planets, stars, and black holes) warp or dent the fabric. These space-time dents are what Einstein viewed as gravity, and GR now forms our current views on gravitation.

We now use GR to deal with everything from understanding the physics of black holes to dealing with time-delays between ground stations and geosynchronous satellites. Believe it or not, without an understanding of gravity via GR, your GPS receiver wouldn’t work – here’s why not.

Quantum Weirdness
At the beginning of the 20th-century there was another shakeup in the world of physics. This had to do with (among other things) three pesky phenomena the classical physicists of the 19th century were having a hard time explaining: the photoelectric effect, blackbody radiation, and spectral lines. I’ll focus upon blackbody radiation for the purposes of this example, but all three phenomena are explained the same way.

For a long time, scientists knew that when an object heated up it tended to glow. The object would start off feeling warm (which we now know to be infrared radiation), then it would glow red, then orange, and – if it got really hot – white! It was believed that the reason for the white-hot glow of extremely hot objects was due to the emission of all colors of visible light (ROYGBIV) added together – this was confirmed by viewing such objects through a spectrometer. However, there was a big problem – it was believed by the classical physicists that the intensity of the light as a function of wavelength should follow the Rayleigh-Jeans Law (shown below)…

The Rayleigh-Jeans Law as compared to Planck's Formulation of blackbody radiation.

The picture says it all – the data collected from hot objects simply didn’t fit with the classical view of blackbody radiation (this is the “ultraviolet catastrophe” listed above). Physicists were at a loss to explain this contradiction between their theories and observations. Then one day, Max Planck, brought forth a hypothesis which many found to be crazy: Planck proposed that light was not a continuous phenomenon, but instead light was given off in small, discrete bundles of energy called photons. Not only that, he further postulated that the energy of a particular photon of light was directly proportional to its frequency…

E = hf

Planck’s little equation did the trick. It provided a theory which explained the blackbody radiation perfectly, but it rocked the foundations of the physics community. In fact, many people refused to accept the idea, especially when the fuller implications of Planck’s idea (sometimes referred to as the “quantum hypothesis”) were realized.

Over time, many physicists used the new quantum physics to go on to explain all manner of phenomena, and the new theory of quantum mechanics was born. By the 1940s and 50s, quantum mechanics was being used to pave the way for a new kind of technology called computers. And, with the advent of more widespread computer technology – including the desktop computer, the Internet, and the World Wide Web – our society has been changed in ways that no one could have possibly ever predicted, certainly not Max Planck when he was pondering a solution to the ultraviolet catastrophe.

So, the next time you get online, pause for a moment and think about it – the reason you are able to surf the Web on a computer is because over 100 years ago someone was attempting to figure out a purely theoretical problem in physics. The next time you log on, think about

E = hf

In conclusion, I hope this post has given you a better idea of why pure scientific research is useful. It not only helps to address purely theoretical questions of interest to scientists, but the effects upon all of us can be quite profound – from how we view the universe to how our very society functions on a day-to-day basis.

Yes friends, pure science does matter. And don’t you forget it.

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