The “God particle”

Michael Gerson gives the most lucid explanation I have found for what the Higgs boson–a.k.a. the “God particle”–is.  He also explores the implications of the strange fact that mathematics, which is a function of the human mind, can actually predict what things exist in the external world:

Modern physics can explain just about everything, except why anything has mass. The Standard Model of physics, which emerged four decades ago, employs an elegant mathematical formula to account for most of the elemental forces in the universe. It correctly predicted the discovery of various leptons and quarks in the laboratory.

But the equation doesn’t explain gravity. So the Standard Model requires the existence of some other force that seized the massless particles produced by the Big Bang and sucked them into physicality. The detection of Higgs bosons would confirm this theory — which is why scientists are smashing protons into one another in a 17-mile round particle accelerator and picking through the subatomic wreckage.

It will take a few more years for definitive results. But most scientists don’t seem to appreciate the glorious improbability — and philosophic implications — of the entire enterprise.

In 1928, theoretical physicist Paul Dirac combined the mathematical formulas for relativity and quantum mechanics into a single equation and predicted the existence of antimatter. Antimatter was duly discovered in 1932. But why should a mathematical equation — the product of brain chemistry — describe physical reality? It is not self-evident that there should be any correspondence between mathematical formulas and the laws of the universe. Modern physics does not consist of measured phenomena summarized in elegant equations; it consists of elegant equations that predict measured phenomena. This has been called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.” However unreasonable, it led to the construction of the Large Hadron Collider along the border of France and Switzerland, the largest machine ever built by human beings.

Dr. Ard Louis, a young physicist teaching at the University of Oxford, recalls his first encounter with Dirac’s equation. “How can mathematics demand something so fantastical from nature? I was sure it couldn’t be true and spent many hours trying to find a way out. When I finally gave up and saw that there was no way around Dirac’s result, it gave me goose bumps. I remember thinking that even if I never used my years of physics training again, it would have been worth it just to see something so spectacularly beautiful.”

Louis describes a cumulative case for wonder. Not only does the universe unexpectedly correspond to mathematical theories, it is self-organizing — from biology to astrophysics — in unlikely ways. The physical constants of the universe seem finely tuned for the emergence of complexity and life. Slightly modify the strength of gravity, or the chemistry of carbon, or the ratio of the mass of protons and electrons, and biological systems become impossible. The universe-ending Big Crunch comes too soon, or carbon isn’t produced, or suns explode.

The wild improbability of a universe that allows us to be aware of it seems to demand some explanation. This does not require theism. Some physicists favor the theory of the multiverse, in which every possible universe exists simultaneously. If everything happens, it is not surprising that anything happens. But this is not a theory that can be scientifically tested. Other universes, by definition, are not accessible. The multiverse is metaphysics — just as subject to the scientific method as the existence of heaven.

One reasonable alternative — the one advocated by Louis — is theism. It explains a universe finely tuned for life and accessible to human reason. It accounts for the cosmic coincidences. And a theistic universe, unlike the alternatives, also makes sense of free will and moral responsibility.

via The search for the God particle goes beyond mere physics – The Washington Post.

I love that:  “sucked into physicality.”  Also the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.”  Also “Modern physics does not consist of measured phenomena summarized in elegant equations; it consists of elegant equations that predict measured phenomena.”

Intelligent design is not just predicated on one thing or another showing evidence of having been designed by a primal mind.  It seems to me to go much deeper than that.  Mathematics is mind, and that mathematics applies to nature is evidence of a mind behind nature.   Isn’t it?

Can Science explain everything?

From David Wheeler at the Chronicle of Higher Education blog:

There’s a new bully on the intellectual block, shoving scholars around. Lots of them are caving into the threats. The bully’s name is “scientism,” the belief that science has a monopoly on all real knowledge. All other knowledge, scientism asserts, is simply opinion, irrationality, or utter nonsense.

That was the perspective Ian Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offered at an event titled “Can Science Explain Everything?” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week. . . .

Hutchinson, theauthor of Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism, said that science is in the middle of confrontation with religious faith and with many other forms of belief. He is proud of science’s achievements thus far. But he thinks that, in part because of its overwhelming success, members of other disciplines, seeking the authority that science has, try to make themselves out to be scientists. An alternative course, he suggests, would be for scholars such as sociologists and political scientists to firmly declare that they have ways of building knowledge that are simply different from science, not “unscientific.”

Science has two key elements, reproducibility and clarity, Hutchinson said. Reproducibility means essentially that an experiment done in one place by one person can be repeated somewhere else by someone else. Clarity refers to the unambiguous nature of science’s measurements, descriptions, and classifications. History is an example of a discipline that has produced real knowledge that is not scientific knowledge, he said. History at its best is based on facts, but historians cannot reproduce Henry VIII’s exploits to find out if accounts of them are true.

Mr. Hutchinson listed other phenomena that may be “true” but that he believes are outside of science’s scope: the beauty of a sunset, the justice of a verdict, or the terror of a war. Many humans may share similar perceptions of these phenomenon but the basis of those perceptions will lack clarity. “Ambiguity is an intrinsic part of these things,” he said.

Where, exactly, does God fit into this picture? Mr. Hutchinson says that while the universe has physical laws, God may be behind them. Science would be helpless to detect an act of God that violates the laws of physics since it would not be reproducible. Scientists should have no problem being religious, he said.
Enter Lisa Randall, a woman with an astonishing range of achievements from a libretto for an opera to experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, in Geneva. She studies cosmology and theoretical particle physics and is the author of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World.”

While polite in tone, Ms. Randall said the term “scientism” was embarrassing and an act of name calling, at a time when the discussion about tackling the world’s problems needs to be elevated. “It shouldn’t be embarrassing or quaint to be earnest about facts or logic,” she said. And, she added “Why do politicians feel comfortable talking about God and religion and not about science and mathematics?”

Art is important she said, but it ultimately operates through the filter of human perceptions and emotions. Religion, she said, is also a human phenomenon that serves social needs. “If you say it makes me happy or helps me live my life, I’m not going to stop you,” she said.

But, she said, religion is different to different people. Scientists, while they have their petty fights, are ultimately able to create knowledge they can agree on.

In audience questions after the two talks, one person cut to the chase and demanded “yes” or “no” answers to the evening’s challenge: “Can science explain everything?”

“No,” said Mr. Hutchinson.

“We don’t know,” said Ms. Randall.

via Can Science Explain Everything? – Percolator – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

HT:  Jackie

Psychologists admit to bogus research

Social science aspires to the status of natural science, never mind that human beings are not as consistent or predictable as inert matter.  But a new study has found that an alarmingly large percentage of experimental psychologists admit to using questionable, if not bogus, research methods:

Questionable research practices, including testing increasing numbers of participants until a result is found, are the “steroids of scientific competition, artificially enhancing performance”. That’s according to Leslie John and her colleagues who’ve found evidence that such practices are worryingly widespread among US psychologists. The results are currently in press at the journal Psychological Science and they arrive at a time when the psychological community is still reeling from the the fraud of a leading social psychologist in the Netherlands. Psychology is not alone. Previous studies have raised similar concerns about the integrity of medical research.

John’s team quizzed 6,000 academic psychologists in the USA via an anonymous electronic survey about their use of 10 questionable research practices including: failing to report all dependent measures; collecting more data after checking if the results are significant; selectively reporting studies that “worked”; and falsifying data.

As well as declaring their own use of questionable research practices and their defensibility, the participants were also asked to estimate the proportion of other psychologists engaged in those practices, and the proportion of those psychologists who would likely admit to this in a survey.

For the first time in this context, the survey also incorporated an incentive for truth-telling. Some survey respondents were told, truthfully, that a larger charity donation would be made by the researchers if they answered honestly (based on a comparison of a participant’s self-confessed research practices, the average rate of confession, and averaged estimates of such practices by others). Just over two thousand psychologists completed the survey. Comparing psychologists who received the truth incentive vs. those that didn’t showed that it led to higher admission rates.

Averaging across the psychologists’ reports of their own and others’ behaviour, the alarming results suggest that one in ten psychologists has falsified research data, while the majority has: selectively reported studies that “worked” (67 per cent), not reported all dependent measures (74 per cent), continued collecting data to reach a significant result (71 per cent), reported unexpected findings as expected (54 per cent), and excluded data post-hoc (58 per cent). Participants who admitted to more questionable practices tended to claim that they were more defensible. Thirty-five per cent of respondents said they had doubts about the integrity of their own research. Breaking the results down by sub-discipline, relatively higher rates of questionable practice were found among cognitive, neuroscience and social psychologists, with fewer transgressions among clinical psychologists.

via BPS Research Digest: Questionable research practices are rife in psychology, survey suggests.
HT: Joe Carter

Non-creationist critiques of Darwinism

Marquette philosophy professor Howard Kainz reviews two new books in which atheist scholars critique Darwinism:

Surprisingly, two recent books by atheist philosophers of science have joined with ID theorists in the criticism of neo-Darwinism.

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, in What Darwin Got Wrong come at neo-Darwinism from a number of directions. Initially, they draw a comparison with B.F. Skinner’s psychological theory of “operant conditioning,” which attempted to explain changes in human behavior by patterns of stimulus and response. Limitations of that theory have eventually been revealed: it did not take into account internal mechanisms in organisms subjected to external stimuli; and the intention of researchers or subjects affected the results of experiments. Skinner’s behaviorism can be corrected by taking these aspects into account. But no such correction is possible in neo-Darwinism, which has no interest in “the internal organization of creatures . . . (genotypic and ontogenetic structures)” and recognizes no “intentions” in evolutionary processes.

The remaining chapters of their book add qualifications that almost seem like ID arguments: Fibonacci patterns, in which each term is equal to the sum of the two preceding ones, seem to be prior to all evolutionary developments; scaling factors in organisms are multiples of a quarter, not of a third, according to the “one-quarter power law”; computational analysis of nervous systems of organisms show that their “connection economies” are perfect; “cost versus speed” analyses of the respiratory patterns of the song of canaries show the most efficient use of energy; tests of the ratio of foraging honeybees to those staying in the hives show perfect solutions in all situations. There is perfection everywhere. They also offer an example of a type of wasp whose patterns of feeding her young competes with ID theorist Michael Behe’s notion of “irreducible complexity.”

But the major neo-Darwinist problem, they conclude, is that natural selection, in analogy to artificial selection, depends on the existence of a mythical “Mother Nature.” But since there is no Mother Nature, “she is a frail reed for [adaptationists] to lean on. Ditto, the Tooth Fairy; ditto the Great Pumpkin; ditto God. Only agents have minds, and only agents act out of their intentions, and natural selection isn’t an agent.”

Bradley Monton, in Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, in contrast to Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, is not so much concerned with deficiencies in neo-Darwinism, but rather in pointing out unfairness and invalid criticisms of arguments by proponents of ID. Monton maintains he is looking for the truth, wherever it leads.

via Intelligent Design: Atheists to the Rescue | First Things.

Cosmology and the speed of light

We’ve blogged about the discovery of neutrinos that seemed to have traveled faster than light.  As scientists try to replicate and study that event, Joel Aschenbach has a good explanation of what’s at stake if light is not the fastest thing in the universe:

There is logic and beauty in a universe in which space, time, energy and matter are tightly associated with the speed of light. The special status of the speed of light isn’t like an Olympic record, something begging to be broken. Someone could come along who is faster than Usain Bolt, and it wouldn’t change the way we look at the world.

But the speed of light, according to Einstein, is an integral part of the geometry of four-dimensional space-time.

When we discuss the speed of light, we’re not talking about the characteristics of light so much as we’re describing the fabric of the universe. Light speed is the ultimate speed that anything (including things with zero mass, such as light or other electromagnetic radiation) can possibly go.

This also puts a limit on the speed of information, and, as such, helps enforce the fundamental law of causality. There’s an “arrow of time”: Splattered eggs on the kitchen floor don’t reassemble themselves in the shell and leap back onto the countertop.

“The melded nature of space and time is intimately woven with properties of light speed,” Greene says. “The inviolable nature of the speed of light is actually, in Einstein’s hands, talking about the inviolable nature of cause and effect.”

Michael Turner, a University of Chicago physicist, says the universe won’t seem as logical if there are particles that can move faster than light.

“In science we like surprises. We like big surprises. This one is too big to be true,” Turner said. “We really like things that rock the boat and turn us in a new direction, but this one turns the boat upside down and fills it with water.”

via Faster-than-light neutrino poses the ultimate cosmic brain teaser for physicists – The Washington Post.

Perhaps some of you can explain why breaking the cosmic speed limit would undermine cause and effect.  Aschenbach says “that” it would do so, but he doesn’t get into the “hows” and “whys.”

Skeptics find global warming evidence

Often researchers find what they want to find. More persuasive is when researchers find what they do not want to find but report it anyway. A new study of climate change was funded by skeptics of global warming. They took into account the skeptics’ critiques of the methodology and data gathering used by the scientists discredited in the Climategate scandal.  Lo and behold, this new study ended up confirming the earlier research.  Actually, it found slightly higher average temperature increases.  See this report.

So now do you believe in global warming?  If not, what evidence would convince you?

I’ve been skeptical myself, not so much of global warming but of the contention that it is man-made.  Also of the contention that it will prove to be such a big disaster.

Am I reading the chart right, that the rise in temperature over the last century is only 1 degree Celsius?  Is that such a big rise that it would make much of a difference?

But I’m open to correction and enlightenment from my betters.

HT:  Kirk Anderson