There is now an audio book version of Eureka from Audible, read by Neil Hellegers. If you’re a person who likes to listen to books, check it out…
Failure in real science is good – and different from phony controversies
Last March, the BICEP2 collaboration announced that they had used a microwave telescope at the South Pole to detect primordial gravitational waves. These tiny ripples in spacetime would be the first proof of the theory known as “inflation,” an astonishingly rapid expansion of the universe in the instants after the Big Bang.
The result was announced in a paper, a press conference, and a viral video of BICEP2 member Chao-Lin Kuo visiting cosmologist Andrei Linde, one of the inventors of inflation, at his home with a bottle of champagne to celebrate.
Last week, a new paper was released backtracking on last March’s announcement. The BICEP2 team joined with rivals on the European Space Agency’s Planck experiment, and found that their results were contaminated by dust. The signal is not large enough to constitute proof of inflation, so cosmology returns to its prior uncertain state. Rather than revolutionizing our understanding, the BICEP2 result is just the latest in a long line of highly public flops.
Did the hype hurt or help science?
Along with general disappointment, the new announcement has prompted discussion of what, if anything, the BICEP2 team did wrong. Many commentators fault them for over-hyping their results to the mass media before peer review. Some even argue that this has dire consequences – astronomer Marcelo Gleiser says the announcement and revision “harms science because it’s an attack on its integrity,” giving “ammunition” to those who raise doubts about politically charged areas of science.
Looked at another way, though, the BICEP2 story may in fact be ammunition for supporters of science. BICEP2 shows how science is properly done, and makes it easier, not harder, to detect the pseudo-science of attempts to discredit science for political gain.
We tend to think of science as a collection of esoteric information, but science is best understood as a process for figuring out the workings of the universe. Scientists look at the world, think of models to explain their observations, test those models with further observations and experiment, and tell each other the results. This process is familiar and universal, turning up in everything from hidden-object books to sports. More importantly, we can recognize the process even in cases where we don’t understand all the technical details, and use that to distinguish real science from phony controversies.
Refining real science versus phony controversies
Real scientific controversies are widespread and mainstream. The BICEP2 results were publicly challenged within weeks, by other scientists working in the field, who quickly identified dust as a trouble spot. While few of the participants were disinterested—most complaints came from scientists associated with BICEP2’s competitors and theorists who prefer alternatives to inflation—they were active and respected members of the community.
Phony controversies, on the other hand, can usually be traced to a handful of opponents, often outside their fields of expertise. Challenges to the scientific consensus on climate change mostly come from engineers and economists, not working climate scientists, and tend to originate in think tanks and lobbying groups, not university research labs. Fears about vaccines can be traced to a handful of thoroughly debunked studies, and are stoked by politicians and celebrities, not medical researchers.
Real scientific controversies play out in the scientific literature, through papers drawing on many other sources of data. Within months of the original announcement, a detailed re-analysis of the data was posted to the physics arxiv (the online repository physicists and astronomers use to share their results), using multiple alternative models to show how dust could explain the results. Others drew on previous measurements to show that BICEP2’s claims were difficult to reconcile with existing data.
Phony controversies tend to play out in the media, through press releases, stump speeches, and polemical writing reshared via social media. Reliable reports from scientific journals are difficult to find, even after chasing back long chains of references.
And most importantly, real scientific controversies are self-correcting. The final nail in the gravitational-wave coffin was a joint paper by both BICEP2 and Planck, combining their data to settle the question. The end result is professionally embarrassing for scientists involved in the original announcement, but they were at the forefront of the effort to resolve the controversy because for real science reputation is less important than the truth.
Phony controversies, on the other hand, are endless, with proponents clinging stubbornly to the same positions year after year. Even as their sources are discredited, their conclusions remain unchanged, because phony science is less interested in truth than in selling a conclusion.
Rather than weakening the standing of science, then, the BICEP2 saga should serve to enhance it. While few of us can follow all the technical details on which the controversy turns, everyone should be able to follow the broad outlines of the process. By providing a clear example of real science done the right way, the controversy over BICEP2 exposes politically motivated phony controversies as hollow frauds.
Super Bowl athletes are scientists at work
Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman gets called a lot of things. He calls himself the greatest cornerback in the NFL (and Seattle fans tend to agree). Sportswriters and some other players call him a loudmouth and a showboater. Fans of other teams call him a lot of things that shouldn’t see print (even on the internet). One thing you’re not likely to hear anyone on ESPN call Sherman, though, is “scientist.”
And yet, an elite professional athlete like Richard Sherman is, in fact, extremely adept at doing science. Not the white-lab-coat, equations-on-a-blackboard sort of science, but the far older and universal process of observing, making and testing models of the universe.
Science is best understood not as a collection of esoteric knowledge, but a four-step process for figuring out how the universe operates. You look at the world around you, you think about why it might work the way it does, you test that theory with experiments and further observations, then you tell everyone the results. In that sense, there are few activities more ruthlessly scientific than a professional football game.
A cornerback like Sherman is given the assignment of preventing passes to a particular area of the field, but he has to decide the best approach to do that. He does this by making and updating a mental model of the other team — what formation they’re in, what they’ve done in the past — and using it to decide what he should do — which of two players to follow closely, whether to get in position for a tackle or try to intercept a pass. This model is immediately put to the test on the field, and everybody watching sees the results. Then the players line back up and do it again.
This essentially scientific process of making and testing mental models is repeated by every player on the field every play of the game — Tom Brady and the Patriots’ receiving corps will be trying to figure out what Sherman is going to do, and act accordingly. This Sunday’s Super Bowl is one of the largest scientific endeavors you’ll ever see on live television.
We tend not to think of sporting events as scientific for a whole host of reasons, from the speed of the game, which doesn’t seem to allow time for conscious thought, to politics of race and class. As Patricia Fara notes in her Science: A Four Thousand Year History, the arbitrary division between abstract science and practical technology dates back to the time of Archimedes, and even earlier. But a closer examination shows that even something like football, while commonly perceived as brutishly physical, involves an enormous mental component that parallels the process of scientific discovery.
While the look-think-test-tell process is followed in every area of science, the frequent repetition of a football game — a typical NFL game runs to better than 120 plays — finds a great analogue in the science of timekeeping. Measuring time, like playing football, involves constant testing and updating, comparing a model clock to an external standard over and over, and adjusting to keep them synchronized. The end result can be fantastically precise.
The modern standard of time is based on quantum physics — the second is defined as 9,192,631,770 oscillations of a particular frequency of light absorbed by cesium atoms. State-of-the-art atomic clocks start with cesium atoms cooled to a few millionths of a degree above absolute zero, and toss them upward through a microwave cavity. In the cavity, they are illuminated by light from the microwave source that serves as the clock synchronizing their internal state with the lab clock. They fly up above the cavity for a time, then fall back through, interacting with the light a second time. If the frequency of the lab clock matches the atoms’ natural frequency perfectly, all of the atoms will be in a different state when they return to where they began. If the frequency is slightly off, some of the atoms will remain in their original state, and the operators know to adjust the clock frequency.
This process of testing and refinement is repeated about once a second during clock operation, and produces a time signal that would need hundreds of millions of years to gain or lose a single second. That kind of precision is a little excessive for a football game (though some Super Bowls do last a long time), but atomic clocks are essential for the Global Positioning System (GPS), a network of 32 atomic clocks in satellites. Each satellite broadcasts the time, and the delay between signals from different satellites allows the GPS receiver in your car or phone to determine your distance from the satellites. This determines your location on the surface of the Earth to within a couple of meters, about the length of an average NFL play.
Continued improvements in timekeeping technology could improve that resolution, maybe even to a level that could eliminate those annoying arguments about whether the football really crossed the goal line or not.
The exceptional precision of atomic clocks has transformed everyday navigation through GPS. And it works using the same rapid test-and-refinement process that Sunday’s players will, as they constantly assess what’s going on around them on the field and adjust their actions accordingly.
So if you watch the Super Bowl this weekend, appreciate it as not just a display of amazing physical skill, but of science. Richard Sherman, Tom Brady and all the other players succeed not just through their athletic gifts, but by making and testing mental models of their opponents. In the end, the game will go not just to the strongest and the swiftest, but to the very best scientists.
I did an interview with Mark Lynch for the Inquiry podcast. We talked in detail about a bunch of stuff from the “Looking” section of the book that hasn’t come up in other interviews.
(Note: I had some difficulty getting the audio to play properly in Chrome, but it worked fine in other browsers.)
There’s a long excerpt from Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist posted at Medium. This is taken from Chapter 4, and discusses pattern-matching games, astronomy, and citizen science:
While such books may seem like merely an amusing diversion for children, the mental process involved in finding Waldo and his friends in Handford’s elaborate drawings is remarkably sophisticated.
There are multiple web sites and academic papers devoted to computer algorithms for locating Waldo within Handford’s drawings, using a variety of software packages, and these are impressively complex, running to hundreds of lines of code and invoking sophisticated image-processing tools. Child’s play, this is not.
The essential element of these books is pattern matching, looking for a particular arrangement of colors and shapes in the midst of a distracting field. There are numerous more “adult” variations on this game, some of them obvious, like the image-based “hidden object” puzzle games Kate sometimes plays for relaxation, or the classic video game Myst. Other classes of games may not seem directly connected, but use the same pattern-finding tricks, such as solitaire card games like Free Cell (my own go-to time-waster) or colored-blob-matching games like the massively popular Candy Crush. In all of these, the key to the game is spotting a useful pattern within a large collection of visual data. This is a task at which human brains excel, and millions of people do it for fun and relaxation.
The unmatched ability of humans to spot meaningful patterns in visual data is the basis for many scientific discoveries, in all sorts of different fields.
Probably no field has benefitted more from pattern-matching than astronomy, though, with many of the field’s most important and unusual discoveries having their origin in the spotting of an odd pattern.
(This is my favorite of the published excerpts, because I did the edit myself…)
There’s an excerpt from Eureka: discovering Your Inner Scientist in the American Physical Society’s monthly newsletter for December. This takes off from Ernest Rutherford’s (in)famous line deviding science between physics and stamp collecting:
Like a lot of kids, I had a stamp collection for a while. I never collected anything particularly notable, but going through old letters and boxes of stamps from relatives who had had collections was enjoyable in a quiet way. And putting the individual stamps together to make a larger picture was fascinating. I remember an intimidatingly large three-ring binder with spots for every US stamp that had been issued to that point, and the satisfaction of completing a page. My hobby also gave a sense of history outside the collection — for example, seeing all the stamps of the 1893 Columbian Issue commemorating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ famous voyages showed me there was a good deal more to the story than I had heard in grade school.
Beyond the immediate pleasures of building a collection, though, the impulse to collect can be a starting point for science. The most obvious product of collecting hobbies is an array of physical objects, but collecting is also a mental state. Serious collectors develop habits of mind particular to their hobbies — a sort of constant low-level awareness of possible sources of stamps, an ability to spot new specimens, and close observation and knowledge of the fine gradations that separate valuable stamps from worthless bits of colored paper. These habits of mind also serve well in science; the simple act of collecting a diverse array of interesting objects or observations also serves as the starting point for most sciences.
This is drawn from Chapter 1, and the same basic argument is presented in this video:
It seems very appropriate to be writing about the new book in a feature called “The Big Idea,” because I can say without hyperbole that it’s a book about the biggest idea in the history of humanity.
OK, maybe there’s a trace of hyperbole there, but just a little. Eureka is about an idea that is radically transformative on every level from individuals to the entire human species. It’s not an Internet technology, or a particular fact, but a process:
You look at the world around you,
You think about why it might work the way it does,
You test your theory with experiments and further observations, and
You tell everyone you know the results.
This four-step process is the essential core of all of science. More than that, it’s central to just about everything we do. Science leads directly to all the technologies that have allowed a not especially threatening species of hairless plains apes to thoroughly dominate the surface of the planet (for good or ill). More than that, science is central to activities that we do just for fun.
The popular image of scientists is of a tiny, elite (and possibly deranged) minority of people engaged in esoteric pursuits. One of the three most common responses when I tell somebody I’m a physicist is, “You must be really smart. I could never do that.” (The other responses are, “I hated that when I took it in high school/college,” and, “Can you explain string theory to me?” This goes a long way toward explaining why physicists have a reputation as lousy conversationalists.)
While the idea that scientists are uniquely smart and capable is flattering to the vanity of nerds like me, it’s a compliment with an edge. There’s a distracting effect to being called “really smart” in this sense — it sets scientists off as people who think in a way that’s qualitatively different from “normal” people. We’re set off even from other highly educated academics — my faculty colleagues in arts, literature, and social science don’t hear that same “You must be really smart” despite the fact that they’ve generally spent at least as much time acquiring academic credentials as I have. The sort of scholarship they do is seen as just an extension of normal activities, whereas science is seen as alien and incomprehensible.