Infinite Monkey Cage

The Infinite Monkey Cage is a British science/entertainment show put on by the dynamic duo of physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince. It exists as a radio program, a podcast, and an occasional live show. There are laughs, a bit of education, and some guests for the hosts to spar with. The popular-science ecosystem is a lot different in the UK than it is here in the US; scientists and science communicators can generally have a much higher profile, and a show like this can really take off.

So it was a great honor for me to appear as one of the guests when the show breezed through LA back in March. It was a terrific event, as you might guess from the other guests: comedian Joe Rogan, TV writer David X. Cohen, and one Eric Idle, who used to play in the Rutles. And now selected bits of the program can be listened to at home, courtesy of this handy podcast link, or directly on iTunes.

infinitemonkeystage

Be sure to check out the other stops on the IMC tour of the US, which included visits to NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco, featuring many friends-of-the-blog along the way.

These guys, of course, are heavy hitters, so you never know who is going to show up at one of these things. Their relationship with Eric Idle goes back quite a ways, and he actually composed and performed a theme song for the show (below). Naturally, since he was on stage in LA, they asked him to do a live version, which was a big hit. And there in the band, performing on ukulele for just that one song, was Jeff Lynne, of the Electric Light Orchestra. Maybe a bit under-utilized in this context, but why not get the best when you can?

Warp Drives and Scientific Reasoning

A bit ago, the news streams were once again abuzz with claims that NASA was investigating amazing space drives that violate the laws of physics. And it’s true! If we grant that “NASA” includes “any person employed by NASA,” and “investigating” is defined as “wasting time and money thinking about.”

I say “again” because it was only a few years ago that news spread about a NASA effort aimed at a warp drive, a way to truly break the speed-of-light limit. Of course there are no realistic scenarios along those lines, so the investigators didn’t have any tangible results to present. Instead, they did the next best thing, releasing an artist’s conception of what a space ship powered by their (wholly imaginary) warp drive would look like. (What remains unclear is how the warpiness of the drive affected the design of their fantasy vessel.)

warpy

The more recent “news” is not actually about warp drive at all. It’s about propellantless space drives — which are, if anything, even less believable than the warp drives. (There is a whole zoo of nomenclature devoted to categorizing all of the non-existent technologies of this general ilk, which I won’t bother to keep straight.) Warp drives at least inspired by some respectable science — Miguel Alcubierre’s energy-condition-violating spacetime. The “propellantless” stuff, on the other hand, just says “Laws of physics? Screw em.”

You may have heard of a little thing called Newton’s Third Law of Motion — for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you want to go forward, you have to push on something or propel something backwards. The plucky NASA engineers in question aren’t hampered by such musty old ideas. As others have pointed out, what they’re proposing is very much like saying that you can sit in your car and start it moving by pushing on the steering wheel.

I’m not going to go through the various claims and attempt to sort out why they’re wrong. I’m not even an engineer! My point is a higher-level one: there is no reason whatsoever why these claims should be given the slightest bit of credence, even by complete non-experts. The fact that so many media outlets (with some happy exceptions) have credulously reported on it is extraordinarily depressing.

Now, this might sound like a shockingly anti-scientific attitude. After all, I certainly haven’t gone through the experimental results carefully. And it’s a bedrock principle of science that all of our theories are fundamentally up for grabs if we collect reliable evidence against them — even one so well-established as conservation of momentum. So isn’t the proper scientific attitude to take a careful look at the data, and wait until more conclusive experiments have been done before passing judgment? (And in the meantime make some artist’s impressions of what our eventual spaceships might look like?)

No. That is not the proper scientific attitude. For a very scientific reason: life is too short.

There is a more important lesson here than any fever dreams about warp drives: how we evaluate scientific claims, especially ones we encounter in the popular media. Not all claims are created equal. This is elementary Bayesian reasoning about beliefs. The probability you should ascribe to a claim is not determined only by the chance that certain evidence would be gathered if that claim were true; it depends also on your prior, the probability you would have attached to the claim before you got the evidence. (I don’t think I’ve ever written a specific explanation of Bayesian reasoning, but it’s being discussed quite a bit in the comments to Don Page’s guest post.)

Think of it this way. A friend says, “I saw a woman riding a bicycle earlier today.” No reason to disbelieve them — probably they did see that. Now imagine the same friend instead had said, “I saw a real live Tyrannosaurus Rex riding a bicycle today.” Are you equally likely to believe them? After all, the evidence you’ve been given in either case is pretty equivalent. But in reality, you’re much more skeptical in the second case, and for good reason — the prior probability you would attach to a T-Rex riding a bicycle in your town is much lower than that for an ordinary human woman riding a bicycle.

The same thing is true for claims about new technology. If someone says, “NASA scientists are planning on sending a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa,” you would have no reason to disbelieve them — that’s just the kind of thing NASA does. If, on the other hand, someone says “NASA scientists are building a space drive that violates Newton’s laws of motion” — you should be rather more skeptical.

Which is not to say you should be absolutely skeptical. It’s worth spending five seconds asking about what kind of evidence for this outlandish claim we have actually been given. I could certainly imagine getting enough evidence to think that momentum wasn’t conserved after all. The kind of thing I would like to see is highly respected scientists, working under exquisitely controlled conditions, doing everything they can to be hard on their own work, subjecting their experiments to intensive peer review, published in refereed journals, and ideally replicated by competing groups that would love to prove them wrong. That’s the kind of thing we got, for example, when the Higgs boson was discovered.

And what do we have for our propellantless space drive? Hmm — not quite that. No refereed publications — indeed, no publications at all. What started the hoopla was an article on a web forum called NASAspaceflight.com. Which sounds kind of respectable, until you notice it isn’t affiliated with NASA in any way. And the evidence that the article points to is — wait for it — a comment on a post on a forum on that very same web site. Admittedly, the comment was written by someone who actually does work for NASA. But, not to put too fine a point on it, lots of people work for NASA. The folks in this particular “Eagleworks” group at Johnson Spaceflight Center are a group of enthusiasts who feel that gumption and a bit of elbow grease might possibly enable them to build spaceships that do things beyond what the laws of physics might naively let you do.

And good for them! Enthusiasm is a virtue. Less virtuous is taking people’s enthusiasm at face value, rather than evaluating claims soberly. The Eagleworks group has succeeded in producing, essentially, nothing at all. Their primary mode of communication seems to be on Facebook. NASA officials, when asked by journalists for comment on the claims they leave on websites, remain silent — they don’t want to have anything to do with the whole mess.

So what we have is a situation where there’s a claim being made that is as extraordinary as it gets — conservation of momentum is being violated. And the evidenced adduced for that claim is, how shall we put it, non-extraordinary. Utterly unconvincing. Not worth a minute’s thought. Let’s get on with our lives.

Unsolicited Advice: Becoming a Science Communicator

Everyone who does science inevitably has “communicating” as part of their job description, even if they’re only communicating with their students and professional colleagues. But many people start down a trajectory of becoming a research scientist, only to discover that it’s the communicating that they are most passionate about. And some of those people might want to take the dramatic step of earning a living doing such communication, whether it’s traditional journalism or something more new-media focused.

So: how does one make the transition from researcher to professional science communicator? Heck if I know. I do a lot of communicating, but it’s not my primary job. You’d be better off looking at this thread from Ed Yong, where he coaxed an impressive number of science writers into telling their origin stories. But lack of expertise has never stopped me from offering advice!

First piece of advice: don’t make the tragic mistake of looking at science communication as a comfortable safety net if academia doesn’t work out. Not only is it an extremely demanding career, but it’s one that is at least as hard as research in terms of actually finding reliable employment — and the career trajectories are far more chancy and unpredictable. There is no tenure for science communicators, and there’s not even a structured path of the form student → postdoc → faculty. Academia’s “up or out” system can be soul-crushing, but so can the “not today, but who knows? Maybe tomorrow!” path to success of the professional writer. It’s great to aspire to being Neil deGrasse Tyson or Mary Roach, but most science communicators don’t reach that level of success, just as most scientists don’t become Marie Curie or Albert Einstein.

Having said all that, here are some tips that might be worth sharing. Continue reading

Particle Fever on iTunes

mza_592945757694281252.227x227-75 The documentary film Particle Fever, directed by Mark Levinson and produced by physicist David Kaplan, opened a while back and has been playing on and off in various big cities. But it’s still been out of reach for many people who don’t happen to be lucky enough to live near a theater enlightened enough to play it. No more!

The movie has just been released on iTunes, so now almost everyone can watch it from the comfort of their own computer. And watch it you should — it’s a fascinating and enlightening glimpse into the world of modern particle physics, focusing on the Large Hadron Collider and the discovery of the Higgs boson. That’s not just my bias talking, either — the film is rated 95% “fresh” on RottenTomatoes.com, which represents an amazingly strong critical consensus. (Full disclosure: I’m not in it, and I had nothing to do with making it.)

Huge kudos to Mark (who went to grad school in physics before becoming a filmmaker) and David (who did a brief stint as an undergraduate film major before switching to physics) for pulling this off. It’s great for the public appreciation of science, but it’s also just an extremely enjoyable movie, no matter what your background is. Watch it with a friend!

Arrrgh Rumors

Today’s hot issue in my favorite corners of the internet (at least, besides “What’s up with Solange?”) is the possibility that the BICEP2 discovery of the signature of gravitational waves in the CMB might not be right after all. At least, that’s the rumor, spread in this case by Adam Falkowski at Résonaances. The claim is that one of the methods used by the BICEP2 team to estimate its foregrounds (polarization induced by the galaxy and other annoying astrophysical stuff, rather than imprinted on the microwave background from early times) relied on a pdf image of data from the Planck satellite, and that image was misinterpreted.

culprit

Is it true? I have no idea. It could be. Or it could be completely inconsequential. (For a very skeptical take, see Sesh Nadathur.) It seems that this was indeed one of the methods used by BICEP2 to estimate foregrounds, but it wasn’t the only one. A big challenge for the collaboration is that BICEP2 only observes in one frequency of microwaves, which makes it very hard to distinguish signals from foregrounds. (Often you can take advantage of the fact that we know the frequency dependence of the CMB, and it’s different from that of the foregrounds — but not if you only measure one frequency.) As excited as we’ve all been about the discovery, it’s important to be cautious, especially when something dramatic has only been found by a single experiment. That’s why most of us have tried hard to include caveats like “if it holds up” every time we wax enthusiastic about what it all means.

However. I have no problem with the blog rumors — it’s great that social media enable scientists to examine and challenge results out in the open, rather than relying on being part of some in-crowd. The problem is when this perfectly normal chit-chat gets elevated to some kind of big news story. To unfairly single someone out, here’s Science NOW, with a headline “Blockbuster Big Bang Result May Fizzle, Rumor Suggests.” The evidence put forward for that fizzling is nothing but the Résonaances blog post, which consists in turn of some anonymous whispers. (Including the idea that “the BICEP team has now admitted to the mistake,” which the team has subsequently strongly denied.)

I would claim that is some bad journalism right there. (Somewhat more nuanced stories appeared at New Scientist and National Geographic.) If a reporter could talk to an actual CMB scientist, who would offer an informed opinion on the record that BICEP2 had made a mistake, that would be well worth reporting (along with the appropriate responses from the BICEP2 team itself). But an unsourced rumor on a blog isn’t news (not even from this blog!). As Peter Coles says, “Rational scepticism is a very good thing. It’s one of the things that makes science what it is. But it all too easily turns into mudslinging.”

We’re having a workshop on the CMB and inflation here at Caltech this weekend, featuring talks from representatives of both BICEP2 and Planck. I was going to wait to talk about this until I actually had some idea of what was going on, which hopefully that workshop will provide. Right now I have no idea what the answer is — I suspect the BICEP2 result is fine, as they did things other than just look at that one pdf file, but I don’t pretend to be an expert, and I’ll quickly change my mind if that’s what the evidence indicates. But other non-experts rely on the media to distinguish between what’s true and what’s merely being gossiped about, and this is an example where they could do a better job.