How to Communicate on the Internet

Let’s say you want to communicate an idea X.

You would do well to simply say “X.”

Also acceptable is “X. Really, just X.”

A slightly riskier strategy, in cases where miscomprehension is especially likely, would be something like “X. This sounds a bit like A, and B, and C, but I’m not saying those. Honestly, just X.” Many people will inevitably start arguing against A, B, and C.

Under no circumstances should you say “You might think Y, but actually X.”

Equally bad, perhaps worse: “Y. Which reminds me of X, which is what I really want to say.”

For examples see the comment sections of the last couple of posts, or indeed any comment section anywhere on the internet.

It is possible these ideas may be of wider applicability in communication situations other than the internet.

(You may think this is just grumping but actually it is science!)

Posted in Humanity, Words | 20 Comments

Does Santa Exist?

There’s a claim out there — one that is about 95% true, as it turns out — that if you pick a Wikipedia article at random, then click on the first (non-trivial) link, and keep clicking on the first link of each subsequent article, you will end up at Philosophy. More specifically, you will end up at a loop that runs through Reality, Existence, Awareness, Consciousness, and Quality (philosophy), as well as Philosophy itself. It’s not hard to see why. These are the Big Issues, concerning the fundamental nature of the universe at a deep level. Almost any inquiry, when pressed to ever-greater levels of precision and abstraction, will get you there.

Does Santa Exist? Take, for example, the straightforward-sounding question “Does Santa Exist?” You might be tempted to say “No” and move on. (Or you might be tempted to say “Yes” and move on, I don’t know — a wide spectrum of folks seem to frequent this blog.) But even to give such a common-sensical answer is to presume some kind of theory of existence (ontology), not to mention a theory of knowledge (epistemology). So we’re allowed to ask “How do you know?” and “What do you really mean by exist?”

These are the questions that underlie an entertaining and thought-provoking new book by Eric Kaplan, called Does Santa Exist?: A Philosophical Investigation. Eric has a resume to be proud of: he is a writer on The Big Bang Theory, and has previously written for Futurama and other shows, but he is also a philosopher, currently finishing his Ph.D. from Berkeley. In the new book, he uses the Santa question as a launching point for a rewarding tour through some knotty philosophical issues. He considers not only a traditional attack on the question, using Logic and the beloved principles of reason, but sideways approaches based on Mysticism as well. (“The Buddha ought to be able to answer our questions about the universe for like ten minutes, and then tell us how to be free of suffering.”) His favorite, though, is the approach based on Comedy, which is able to embrace contradiction in a way that other approaches can’t quite bring themselves to do.

Most people tend to have a pre-existing take on the Santa question. Hence, the book trailer for Does Santa Exist? employs a uniquely appropriate method: Choose-Your-Own-Adventure. Watch and interact, and you will find the answers you seek.

Posted in Humor, Philosophy, Words | 15 Comments

The Evolution of Evolution: Gradualism, or Punctuated Equilibrium?

In some ways I’m glad I’m not an evolutionary biologist, even though the subject matter is undoubtedly fascinating and fundamental. Here in the US, especially, it’s practically impossible to have a level-headed discussion about the nature of evolutionary theory. Biologists are constantly defending themselves against absurd attacks from creationists and intelligent-design advocates. It can wear you down and breed defensiveness, which is not really conducive to carrying on a vigorous discussion about the state of that field.

But such discussions do exist, and are important. Here’s an interesting point/counter-point in Nature, in which respectable scientists argue over the current state of evolutionary theory: is it basically in good shape, simply requiring a natural amount of tweaking and updating over time, or is revolutionary re-thinking called for?

Illustration cichlids from different lakes, by R. Craig Albertson.

Illustration cichlids from different lakes, by R. Craig Albertson.

I’m a complete novice here, so my opinion should count for almost nothing. But from reading the two arguments, I tend to side with the gradualists on this one. As far as I can tell, the revolutionaries make their case by setting up a stripped-down straw-man version of evolution that nobody really believes (nor ever has, going back to Darwin), then proclaiming victory when they show that it’s inadequate, even though nobody disagrees with them. They want, in particular, to emphasize the roles of drift and development and environmental feedback — all of which seem worth emphasizing, but I’ve never heard anyone deny them. (Maybe I’m reading the wrong people.) And they very readily stoop to ad hominem psychoanalysis of their opponents, saying things like this:

Too often, vital discussions descend into acrimony, with accusations of muddle or misrepresentation. Perhaps haunted by the spectre of intelligent design, evolutionary biologists wish to show a united front to those hostile to science. Some might fear that they will receive less funding and recognition if outsiders — such as physiologists or developmental biologists — flood into their field.

Some might fear that, I guess. But I’d rather hear a substantive argument than be told from the start that I shouldn’t listen to those other folks because they’re just afraid of losing their funding. And the substantive arguments do exist. There’s no question that the theory of evolution is something that is constantly upgraded and improved as we better understand the enormous complexity of biological processes.

The gradualists (in terms of theory change, not necessarily in terms of how natural selection operates), by contrast, seem to make good points (again, to my non-expert judgment). Here’s what they say in response to their opponents:

They contend that four phenomena are important evolutionary processes: phenotypic plasticity, niche construction, inclusive inheritance and developmental bias. We could not agree more. We study them ourselves.

But we do not think that these processes deserve such special attention as to merit a new name such as ‘extended evolutionary synthesis’…

The evolutionary phenomena championed by Laland and colleagues are already well integrated into evolutionary biology, where they have long provided useful insights. Indeed, all of these concepts date back to Darwin himself, as exemplified by his analysis of the feedback that occurred as earthworms became adapted to their life in soil…

We invite Laland and colleagues to join us in a more expansive extension, rather than imagining divisions that do not exist.

Those don’t really read like the words of hidebound reactionaries who are unwilling to countenance any kind of change. It seems like a mistake for the revolutionaries to place so much emphasis on how revolutionary they are being, rather than concentrating on the subtle work of figuring out the relative importance of all these different factors to evolution in the real world — the importance of which nobody seems to deny, but the quantification of which is obviously a challenging empirical problem.

Fortunately physicists are never like this! It can be tough to live in a world of pure reason and unadulterated rationality, but someone’s got to do it.

Posted in Science | 28 Comments

Ten Questions for the Philosophy of Cosmology

Last week I spent an enjoyable few days in Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands, for a conference on the Philosophy of Cosmology. The slides for all the talks are now online; videos aren’t up yet, but I understand they are forthcoming.

Stephen Hawking did not actually attend our meeting -- he was at the hotel for a different event. But he stopped by for an informal session on the arrow of time. Photo by Vishnya Maudlin.

Stephen Hawking did not actually attend our meeting — he was at the hotel for a different event. But he stopped by for an informal session on the arrow of time. Photo by Vishnya Maudlin.

It was a thought-provoking meeting, but one of my thoughts was: “We don’t really have a well-defined field called Philosophy of Cosmology.” At least, not yet. Talks were given by philosophers and by cosmologists; the philosophers generally gave good talks on the philosophy of physics, while some of the cosmologists gave solid-but-standard talks on cosmology. Some of the other cosmologists tried their hand at philosophy, and I thought those were generally less successful. Which is to be expected — it’s a sign that we need to do more work to set the foundations for this new subdiscipline.

A big part of defining an area of study is deciding on a set of questions that we all agree are worth thinking about. As a tiny step in that direction, here is my attempt to highlight ten questions — and various sub-questions — that naturally fall under the rubric of Philosophy of Cosmology. They fall under other rubrics as well, of course, as well as featuring significant overlap with each other. So there’s a certain amount of arbitrariness here — suggestions for improvements are welcome.

Here we go:

  1. In what sense, if any, is the universe fine-tuned? When can we say that physical parameters (cosmological constant, scale of electroweak symmetry breaking) or initial conditions are “unnatural”? What sets the appropriate measure with respect to which we judge naturalness of physical and cosmological parameters? Is there an explanation for cosmological coincidences such as the approximate equality between the density of matter and vacuum energy? Does inflation solve these problems, or exacerbate them? What conclusions should we draw from the existence of fine-tuning?
  2. How is the arrow of time related to the special state of the early universe? What is the best way to formulate the past hypothesis (the early universe was in a low entropy state) and the statistical postulate (uniform distribution within macrostates)? Can the early state be explained as a generic feature of dynamical processes, or is it associated with a specific quantum state of the universe, or should it be understood as a separate law of nature? In what way, if any, does the special early state help explain the temporal asymmetries of memory, causality, and quantum measurement?
  3. What is the proper role of the anthropic principle? Can anthropic reasoning be used to make reliable predictions? How do we define the appropriate reference class of observers? Given such a class, is there any reason to think of ourselves as “typical” within it? Does the prediction of freak observers (Boltzmann Brains) count as evidence against a cosmological scenario?
  4. What part should unobservable realms play in cosmological models? Does cosmic evolution naturally generate pocket universes, baby universes, or many branches of the wave function? Are other “universes” part of science if they can never be observed? How do we evaluate such models, and does the traditional process of scientific theory choice need to be adapted to account for non-falsifiable predictions? How confident can we ever be in early-universe scenarios such as inflation?
  5. What is the quantum state of the universe, and how does it evolve? Is there a unique prescription for calculating the wave function of the universe? Under what conditions are different parts of the quantum state “real,” in the sense that observers within them should be counted? What aspects of cosmology depend on competing formulations of quantum mechanics (Everett, dynamical collapse, hidden variables, etc.)? Do quantum fluctuations happen in equilibrium? What role does decoherence play in cosmic evolution? How does do quantum and classical probabilities arise in cosmological predictions? What defines classical histories within the quantum state?
  6. Are space and time emergent or fundamental? Is quantum gravity a theory of quantized spacetime, or is spacetime only an approximation valid in a certain regime? What are the fundamental degrees of freedom? Is there a well-defined Hilbert space for the universe, and what is its dimensionality? Is time evolution fundamental, or does time emerge from correlations within a static state?
  7. What is the role of infinity in cosmology? Can the universe be infinitely big? Are the fundamental laws ultimate discrete? Can there be an essential difference between “infinite” and “really big”? Can the arrow of time be explained if the universe has an infinite amount of room in which to evolve? Are there preferred ways to compare infinitely big subsets of an infinite space of states?
  8. Can the universe have a beginning, or can it be eternal? Does a universe with a first moment require a cause or deeper explanation? Are there reasons why there is something rather than nothing? Can the universe be cyclic, with a consistent arrow of time? Could it be eternal and statistically symmetric around some moment of lowest entropy?
  9. How do physical laws and causality apply to the universe as a whole? Can laws be said to change or evolve? Does the universe as a whole maximize some interesting quantity such as simplicity, goodness, interestingness, or fecundity? Should laws be understood as governing/generative entities, or are they just a convenient way to compactly represent a large number of facts? Is the universe complete in itself, or does it require external factors to sustain it? Do the laws of physics require ultimate explanations, or can they simply be?
  10. How do complex structures and order come into existence and evolve? Is complexity a transient phenomenon that depends on entropy generation? Are there general principles governing physical, biological, and psychological complexity? Is the appearance of life likely or inevitable? Does consciousness play a central role in accounting for the universe?

Chances are very small that anyone else interested in the field, forced at gunpoint to pick the ten biggest questions, would choose exactly these ten. Such are the wild and wooly early days of any field, when the frontier is unexplored and the conventional wisdom has yet to be settled. Feel free to make suggestions.

Posted in Philosophy, Science | 62 Comments

Planck Speaks: Bad News for Primordial Gravitational Waves?

Ever since we all heard the exciting news that the BICEP2 experiment had detected “B-mode” polarization in the cosmic microwave background — just the kind we would expect to be produced by cosmic inflation at a high energy scale — the scientific community has been waiting on pins and needles for some kind of independent confirmation, so that we could stop adding “if it holds up” every time we waxed enthusiastic about the result. And we all knew that there was just such an independent check looming, from the Planck satellite. The need for some kind of check became especially pressing when some cosmologists made a good case that the BICEP2 signal may very well have been dust in our galaxy, rather than gravitational waves from inflation (Mortonson and Seljak; Flauger, Hill, and Spergel).

Now some initial results from Planck are in … and it doesn’t look good for gravitational waves. (Warning: I am not a CMB experimentalist or data analyst, so take the below with a grain of salt, though I tried to stick close to the paper itself.)

Planck intermediate results. XXX. The angular power spectrum of polarized dust emission at intermediate and high Galactic latitudes
Planck Collaboration: R. Adam, et al.

The polarized thermal emission from Galactic dust is the main foreground present in measurements of the polarization of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) at frequencies above 100GHz. We exploit the Planck HFI polarization data from 100 to 353GHz to measure the dust angular power spectra CEE,BBℓ over the range 40<ℓ<600. These will bring new insights into interstellar dust physics and a precise determination of the level of contamination for CMB polarization experiments. We show that statistical properties of the emission can be characterized over large fractions of the sky using Cℓ. For the dust, they are well described by power laws in ℓ with exponents αEE,BB=−2.42±0.02. The amplitudes of the polarization Cℓ vary with the average brightness in a way similar to the intensity ones. The dust polarization frequency dependence is consistent with modified blackbody emission with βd=1.59 and Td=19.6K. We find a systematic ratio between the amplitudes of the Galactic B- and E-modes of 0.5. We show that even in the faintest dust-emitting regions there are no "clean" windows where primordial CMB B-mode polarization could be measured without subtraction of dust emission. Finally, we investigate the level of dust polarization in the BICEP2 experiment field. Extrapolation of the Planck 353GHz data to 150GHz gives a dust power ℓ(ℓ+1)CBBℓ/(2π) of 1.32×10−2μK2CMB over the 40<ℓ<120 range; the statistical uncertainty is ±0.29 and there is an additional uncertainty (+0.28,-0.24) from the extrapolation, both in the same units. This is the same magnitude as reported by BICEP2 over this ℓ range, which highlights the need for assessment of the polarized dust signal. The present uncertainties will be reduced through an ongoing, joint analysis of the Planck and BICEP2 data sets.

We can unpack that a bit, but the upshot is pretty simple: Planck has observed the whole sky, including the BICEP2 region, although not in precisely the same wavelengths. With a bit of extrapolation, however, they can use their data to estimate how big a signal should be generated by dust in our galaxy. The result fits very well with what BICEP2 actually measured. It’s not completely definitive — the Planck paper stresses over and over the need to do more analysis, especially in collaboration with the BICEP2 team — but the simplest interpretation is that BICEP2’s B-modes were caused by local contamination, not by early-universe inflation.

Here’s the Planck sky, color-coded by amount of B-mode polarization generated by dust, with the BICEP2 field indicated at bottom left of the right-hand circle:


Every experiment is different, so the Planck team had to do some work to take their measurements and turn them into a prediction for what BICEP2 should have seen. Here is the sobering result, expressed (roughtly) as the expected amount of B-mode polarization as a function of angular size, with large angles on the left. (Really, the BB correlation function as a function of multipole moment.)


The light-blue rectangles are what Planck actually sees and attributes to dust. The black line is the theoretical prediction for what you would see from gravitational waves with the amplitude claimed by BICEP2. As you see, they match very well. That is: the BICEP2 signal is apparently well-explained by dust.

Of course, just because it could be dust doesn’t mean that it is. As one last check, the Planck team looked at how the amount of signal they saw varied as a function of the frequency of the microwaves they were observing. (BICEP2 was only able to observe at one frequency, 150 GHz.) Here’s the result, compared to a theoretical prediction for what dust should look like:


Again, the data seem to be lining right up with what you would expect from dust.

It’s not completely definitive — but it’s pretty powerful. BICEP2 did indeed observe the signal that they said they observed; but the smart money right now is betting that the signal didn’t come from the early universe. There’s still work to be done, and the universe has plenty of capacity for surprising us, but for the moment we can’t claim to have gathered information from quite as early in the history of the universe as we had hoped.

Posted in arxiv, Science | 55 Comments

How Much Cosmic Inflation Probably Occurred?

Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging, and nothing focuses the science like an unexpected experimental result. The BICEP2 claimed discovery of gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background — although we still don’t know whether it will hold up — has prompted cosmologists to think hard about the possibility that inflation happened at a very high energy scale. The BICEP2 paper has over 600 citations already, or more than 3/day since it was released. And hey, I’m a cosmologist! (At times.) So I am as susceptible to being prompted as anyone.

Cosmic inflation, a period of super-fast accelerated expansion in the early universe, was initially invented to help explain why the universe is so flat and smooth. (Whether this is a good motivation is another issue, one I hope to talk about soon.) In order to address these problems, the universe has to inflate by a sufficiently large amount. In particular, we have to have enough inflation so that the universe expands by a factor of more than 1022, which is about e50. Since physicists think in exponentials and logarithms, we usually just say “inflation needs to last for over 50 e-folds” for short.

So Grant Remmen, a grad student here at Caltech, and I have been considering a pretty obvious question to ask: if we assume that there was cosmic inflation, how much inflation do we actually expect to have occurred? In other words, given a certain inflationary model (some set of fields and potential energies), is it most likely that we get lots and lots of inflation, or would it be more likely to get just a little bit? Everyone who invents inflationary models is careful enough to check that their proposals allow for sufficient inflation, but that’s a bit different from asking whether it’s likely.

The result of our cogitations appeared on arxiv recently:

How Many e-Folds Should We Expect from High-Scale Inflation?
Grant N. Remmen, Sean M. Carroll

We address the issue of how many e-folds we would naturally expect if inflation occurred at an energy scale of order 1016 GeV. We use the canonical measure on trajectories in classical phase space, specialized to the case of flat universes with a single scalar field. While there is no exact analytic expression for the measure, we are able to derive conditions that determine its behavior. For a quadratic potential V(ϕ)=m2ϕ2/2 with m=2×1013 GeV and cutoff at MPl=2.4×1018 GeV, we find an expectation value of 2×1010 e-folds on the set of FRW trajectories. For cosine inflation V(ϕ)=Λ4[1−cos(ϕ/f)] with f=1.5×1019 GeV, we find that the expected total number of e-folds is 50, which would just satisfy the observed requirements of our own Universe; if f is larger, more than 50 e-folds are generically attained. We conclude that one should expect a large amount of inflation in large-field models and more limited inflation in small-field (hilltop) scenarios.

As should be evident, this builds on the previous paper Grant and I wrote about cosmological attractors. We have a technique for finding a measure on the space of cosmological histories, so it is natural to apply that measure to different versions of inflation. The result tells us — at least as far as the classical dynamics of inflation are concerned — how much inflation one would “naturally” expect in a given model.

The results were interesting. For definiteness we looked at two specific simple models: quadratic inflation, where the potential for the inflaton ϕ is simply a parabola, and cosine (or “natural“) inflation, where the potential is — wait for it — a cosine. There are many models one might consider (one recent paper looks at 193 possible versions of inflation), but we weren’t trying to be comprehensive, merely illustrative. And these are two nice examples of two different kinds of potentials: “large-field” models where the potential grows without bound (or at least until you reach the Planck scale), and “small-field” models where the inflaton can sit near the top of a hill.


Think for a moment about how much inflation can occur (rather than “probably does”) in these models. Continue reading

Posted in arxiv, Science | 16 Comments

Cosmological Attractors

I want to tell you about a paper I recently wrote with grad student Grant Remmen, about how much inflation we should expect to have occurred in the early universe. But that paper leans heavily on an earlier one that Grant and I wrote, about phase space and cosmological attractor solutions — one that I never got around to blogging about. So you’re going to hear about that one first! It’s pretty awesome in its own right. (Sadly “cosmological attractors” has nothing at all to do with the hypothetical notion of attractive cosmologists.)

Attractor Solutions in Scalar-Field Cosmology
Grant N. Remmen, Sean M. Carroll

Models of cosmological scalar fields often feature “attractor solutions” to which the system evolves for a wide range of initial conditions. There is some tension between this well-known fact and another well-known fact: Liouville’s theorem forbids true attractor behavior in a Hamiltonian system. In universes with vanishing spatial curvature, the field variables (\phi, \dot\phi) specify the system completely, defining an effective phase space. We investigate whether one can define a unique conserved measure on this effective phase space, showing that it exists for m2φ2 potentials and deriving conditions for its existence in more general theories. We show that apparent attractors are places where this conserved measure diverges in the (\phi, \dot\phi) variables and suggest a physical understanding of attractor behavior that is compatible with Liouville’s theorem.

This paper investigates a well-known phenomenon in inflationary cosmology: the existence of purported “attractor” solutions. There is a bit of lore that says that an inflationary scalar field might start off doing all sorts of things, but will quickly settle down to a preferred kind of evolution, known as the attractor. But that lore is nominally at odds with a mathematical theorem: in classical mechanics, closed systems never have attractor solutions! That’s because “attractor” means “many initial conditions are driven to the same condition,” while Liouville’s theorem says “a set of initial conditions maintains its volume as it evolves.” So what’s going on?

Let’s consider the simplest kind of model: you just have a single scalar field φ, and a potential energy function V(φ), in the context of an expanding universe with no other forms of matter or energy. That fully specifies the model, but then you have to specify the actual trajectory that the field takes as it evolves. Any trajectory is fixed by giving certain initial data in the form of the value of the field φ and its “velocity” \dot\phi. For a very simple potential like V(φ) ~ φ2, the trajectories look like this:


This is the “effective phase space” of the model — in a spatially flat universe (and only there), specifying φ and its velocity uniquely determines a trajectory, shown as the lines on the plot. See the dark lines that start horizontally, then spiral toward the origin? Those are the attractor solutions. Other trajectories (dashed lines) basically zoom right to the attractor, then stick nearby for the rest of their evolution. Physically, the expansion of the universe acts as a kind of friction; away from the attractor the friction is too small to matter, but once you get there friction begins to dominate and the the field rolls very slowly. So the idea is that there aren’t really that many different kinds of possible evolution; a “generic” initial condition will just snap onto the attractor and go from there.

This story seems to be in blatant contradiction with Liouville’s Theorem, which roughly says that there cannot be true attractors, because volumes in phase space (the space of initial conditions, i.e. coordinates and momenta) remain constant under time-evolution. Whereas in the picture above, volumes get squeezed to zero because every trajectory flows to the 1-dimensional attractor, and then of course eventually converges to the origin. But we know that the above plot really does show what the trajectories do, and we also know that Liouville’s theorem is correct and does apply to this situation. Our goal for the paper was to show how everything actually fits together.

Obviously (when you think about it, and know a little bit about phase space), the problem is with the coordinates on the above graph. In particular, \dot\phi might be the “velocity” of the field, but it definitely isn’t its “momentum,” in the strict mathematical sense. The canonical momentum is actually a^3\dot\phi, where a is the scale factor that measures the size of the universe. And the scale factor changes with time, so there is no simple translation between the nice plot we saw above and the “true” phase space — which should, after all, also include the scale factor itself as well as its canonical momentum.

So there are good reasons of convenience to draw the plot above, but it doesn’t really correspond to phase space. As a result, it looks like there are attractors, although there really aren’t — at least not by the strict mathematical definition. It’s just a convenient, though possibly misleading, nomenclature used by cosmologists.

Still, there is something physically relevant about these cosmological attractors (which we will still call “attractors” even if they don’t match the technical definition). If it’s not “trajectories in phase space focus onto them,” what is it? To investigate this, Grant and I turned to a formalism for defining the measure on the space of trajectories (rather than just points in phase space), originally studied by Gibbons, Hawking, and Stewart and further investigated by Heywood Tam and me a couple of years ago.

The interesting thing about the “GHS measure” on the space of trajectories is that it diverges — becomes infinitely big — for cosmologies that are spatially flat. That is, almost all universes are spatially flat — if you were to pick a homogeneous and isotropic cosmology out of a hat, it would have zero spatial curvature with probability unity. (Which means that the flatness problem you were taught as a young cosmologist is just a sad misunderstanding — more about that later in another post.) That’s fine, but it makes it mathematically tricky to study those flat universes, since the measure is infinity there. Heywood and I proposed a way to regulate this infinity to get a finite answer, but that was a mistake on our part — upon further review, our regularization was not invariant under time-evolution, as it should have been.

That left an open problem — what is the correct measure on the space of flat universes? This is what Grant and I tackled, and basically solved. Long story short, we studied the necessary and sufficient conditions for there to be the right kind of measure on the effective phase space shown in the plot above, and argued that such a measure (1) exists, and (2) is apparently unique, at least in the simple case of a quadratic potential (and probably more generally). That is, we basically reverse-engineered the measure from the requirement that Liouville’s theorem be obeyed!

So there is such a measure, but it’s very different from the naïve “graph-paper measure” that one is tempted to use for the effective phase space plotted above. (A temptation to which almost everyone in the field gives in.) Unsurprisingly, the measure blows up on the attractor, and near the origin. That is, what looks like an attractor when you plot it in these coordinates is really a sign that the density of trajectories grows very large there — which is the least surprising thing in the world, really.

At the end of the day, despite the fact that we mildly scold fellow cosmologists for their sloppy use of the word “attractor,” the physical insights connected to this idea go through essentially unaltered. The field and its velocity are the variables that are most readily observable (or describable) by us, and in terms of these variables the apparent attractor behavior is definitely there. The real usefulness of our paper would come when we wanted to actually use the measure we constructed, for example to calculate the expected amount of inflation in a given model — which is what we did in our more recent paper, to be described later.

This paper, by the way, was one from which I took equations for the blackboards in an episode of Bones. It was fun to hear Richard Schiff, famous as Toby from The West Wing, play a physicist who explains his alibi by saying “I was constructing an invariant measure on the phase space of cosmological spacetimes.” 


The episode itself is great, you should watch it if you can. But I warn you — you will cry.

Posted in arxiv, Science | 18 Comments

Norms for Respectful Classroom/Seminar Discussion

David Chalmers is compiling a useful set of guidelines for respectful, constructive, and inclusive philosophical discussion. It makes sense to concentrate on a single field, like philosophy, since customs often vary wildly from one discipline to the other — but there’s really nothing specifically “philosophical” about the list, it could easily be adopted in just about any classroom or seminar environment I can think of. (Online, alas, is another story.)

What immediately strikes me are (1) how nominally unobjectionable all the suggestions are, and (2) how so many of them are routinely violated even in situations that wouldn’t strike us as relatively civil and respectful. Here are some cherry-picked examples from the list:

  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Don’t present objections as flat dismissals (leave open the possibility that there’s a response).
  • Don’t dominate the discussion (partial exception for the speaker here!).
  • Unless you’re speaker, existing questioner, or chair, don’t speak without being called on (limited exceptions for occasional jokes and other very brief interjections, not to be abused).
  • The chair should attempt to balance the discussion among participants, prioritizing those who have not spoken before.
  • Prioritize junior people in calling on questions (modified version: don’t prioritize senior people).

Not that I’m saying we shouldn’t strive to be as respectful as David’s lists suggests — just that we don’t even try, really. How many times have you been in a seminar in which a senior person in the audience interrupted and dominated discussion? I can imagine someone defending that kind of environment, on the grounds that it leads to more fun and feisty give-and-take, and perhaps even a more rapid convergence to the truth. I can testify that I was once at a small workshop — moderated by David Chalmers — where the “hand-and-finger system” was employed, according to which you raise a hand to ask a new question, and a finger to ask a follow-up to someone else’s question, and the chair keeps a list of who is next in the queue. Highly structured, but it actually worked quite well, carving out some space for everyone’s questions to be treated equally, regardless of their natural degree of assertiveness or their social status within the room. (If you’ve ever been at a “Russian” physics seminar, imagine exactly the opposite of that.) I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to judge whether enforcing these norms more actively would create a more hospitable academic environment overall.

David also suggests some related resources:

Any other suggestions? Comments are open, and you don’t have to wait to be called on.

Posted in Academia | 16 Comments

Troublesome Speech and the UIUC Boycott

Self-indulgently long post below. Short version: Steven Salaita, an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech who had been offered and accepted a faculty job at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, had his offer rescinded when the administration discovered that he had posted inflammatory tweets about Israel, such as “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” Many professors in a number of disciplines, without necessarily agreeing with Salaita’s statements, believe strongly that academic norms give him the right to say them without putting his employment in jeopardy, and have organized a boycott of UIUC in response. Alan Sokal of NYU is supporting the boycott, and has written a petition meant specifically for science and engineering faculty, who are welcome to sign if they agree.

Everyone agrees that “free speech” is a good thing. We live in a society where individual differences are supposed to be respected, and we profess admiration for the free market of ideas, where competing claims are discussed and subjected to reasonable critique. (Thinking here of the normative claim that free speech is a good thing, not legalistic issues surrounding the First Amendment and government restrictions.) We also tend to agree that such freedom is not absolute; you don’t have the right to come into my house (or the comment section of my blog) and force me to listen to your new crackpot theory of physics. A newspaper doesn’t have an obligation to print something just because you wrote it. Biology conferences don’t feel any need to give time to young-Earth creationists. In a classroom, teachers don’t have to sit quietly if a student wants to spew blatantly racist invective (and likewise for students while teachers do so).

So there is a line to be drawn, and figuring out where to draw it isn’t an easy task. It’s not hard to defend people’s right to say things we agree with; the hard part is defending speech we disagree with. And some speech, in certain circumstances, really isn’t worth defending — organizations have the right to get rid of employees who are (for example) consistently personally abusive to their fellow workers. The hard part — and it honestly is difficult — is to distinguish between “speech that I disagree with but is worth defending” and “speech that is truly over the line.”

To complicate matters, people who disagree often become — how to put this delicately? — emotional and polemical rather than dispassionate and reasonable. People are very people-ish that way. Consequently, we are often called upon to defend speech that we not only disagree with, but whose tone and connotation we find off-putting or even offensive. Those who would squelch disagreeable speech therefore have an easy out: “I might not agree with what they said, but what I really can’t countenance is the way they said it.” If we really buy the argument that ideas should be free and rational discourse between competing viewpoints is an effective method of discovering truth and wisdom, we have to be especially willing to defend speech that is couched in downright objectionable terms.

As an academic and writer, in close cases I will almost always fall on the side of defending speech even if I disagree with it (or how it is said). Recently several different cases have illustrated just how tricky this is — but in each case I think that the people in question have been unfairly punished for things they have said. Continue reading

Posted in Academia, Humanity | 76 Comments

Should Scientific Progress Affect Religious Beliefs?

Sure it should. Here’s a new video from Closer to Truth, in which I’m chatting briefly with Robert Lawrence Kuhn about the question. “New” in the sense that it was just put on YouTube, although we taped it back in 2011. (Now my formulations would be considerably more sophisticated, given the wisdom that comes with age).

It’s interesting that the “religious beliefs are completely independent of evidence and empirical investigation” meme has enjoyed such success in certain quarters that people express surprise to learn of the existence of theologians and believers who still think we can find evidence for the existence of God in our experience of the world. In reality, there are committed believers (“sophisticated” and otherwise) who feel strongly that we have evidence for God in the same sense that we have evidence for gluons or dark matter — because it’s the best way to make sense of the data — just as there are others who think that our knowledge of God is of a completely different kind, and therefore escapes scientific critique. It’s part of the problem that theism is not well defined.

One can go further than I did in the brief clip above, to argue that any notion of God that can’t be judged on the basis of empirical evidence isn’t much of a notion at all. If God exists but has no effect on the world whatsoever — the actual world we experience could be precisely the same even without God — then there is no reason to believe in it, and indeed one can draw no conclusions whatsoever (about right and wrong, the meaning of life, etc.) from positing it. Many people recognize this, and fall back on the idea that God is in some sense necessary; there is no possible world in which he doesn’t exist. To which the answer is: “No he’s not.” Defenses of God’s status as necessary ultimately come down to some other assertion of a purportedly-inviolable metaphysical principle, which can always simply be denied. (The theist could win such an argument by demonstrating that the naturalist’s beliefs are incoherent in the absence of such principles, but that never actually happens.)

I have more sympathy for theists who do try to ground their belief in evidence, rather than those who insist that evidence is irrelevant. At least they are playing the game in the right way, even if I disagree with their conclusions. Despite what Robert suggests in the clip above, the existence of disagreement among smart people does not imply that there is not a uniquely right answer!

Posted in Philosophy, Religion | 65 Comments