Sunday, November 16, 2008

Revenge of the Nerds

Yesterday, I spent some hours in a cafe, scribbling on a notepad. Next to me a guy was browsing a shiny brochure. From the corner of my eye I read “So what, you may be asking, do they actually do in that ominous building beside Waterloo Park?” Yeah, I wondered. What do they do there? More interestingly, what do people think we do there?

The guy left behind the brochure on the table, and it turned out to be the fall/winter 2008 issue of “Waterloo Revealed”. They list a website that however is under construction, neither does it seem to be cached, so I indeed hat to retype it (!).

The brochure features an article with “Revenge of the Nerds” by Marc Cameron about Perimeter Institute. The author seems to confuse Quantum Foundations with Quantum Gravity and Quantum Information, but otherwise his writing is a nice laudatio on fundamental research, and PI's outreach and art program:

“Researchers at PI, a self-proclaimed “Independent, non-profit, scientific research and education outreach organization,” operate under the auspices of what many might consider “pure research”. It's the kind of thing that some fear may be going out of style in corporate laboratories and universities: the notion of research for research's sake.

[...]

So what, you may be asking, do they actually do in that ominous building beside Waterloo Park? The research done there in areas like Cosmology, Particle Physics, and Superstring Theory improve our scientific understanding of the universe (once it trickles down from the halls of academe), but they also contribute to the pioneering of new technologies. It's hard to predict how scientific breakthroughs and new theories will impact technological advances, but fundamental discoveries - like Einstein's reckoning of light as a particle - lead to new ways of understanding the basic parts of the physical universe which allows for improvements in quality of life through technology for people everywhere.”

The last sentence suspiciously sounds as if it came from our PR department, but anyway. Einstein of course has to be mentioned when it comes to nerds and theoretical physics. About PI's outreach program Cameron writes:
“While theoretical physics bears the stigma of nerd-dom, PI goes to great length to bring physics to the people through numerous public and education outreach programs. Their (free!) public lecture series is probably the most well-known of PI's offerings to the community [...] The lectures have been televised on Rogers Cable channels in many Ontario markets on the program Celebrating Science, as well as special episodes of TVOntario's Big Ideas. Starting this fall, select PI public lectures will also be airing on Discovery Channel.”

The latter was news to me. But the upshot of the article is this highlighted paragraph:
“Science they say, is the new religion. For certain it's a belief system and a philosophy about life and the rhythms of the universe. When it comes down to it, religion and science are each ways of asking questions about the intangible. If the architecture of the PI building is any indication, Waterloo has its own Cathedral of Theoretical Physics. And, like most Holy sites, they open up their doors to share freely what they have with the scientific layperson, like you or me, not because they'd like to convert us, but because they've found something exciting that maybe, just maybe, could make life a little better for all of us.”

Well. One would have hoped that after all the public outreach the message would have gotten across that science is the very antithesis of a belief system. You'd better call it a 'doubt system'.

The title of the article is btw completely unmotivated. Maybe however it's indeed time for the revenge of the nerds.

28 comments:

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“Maybe however it's indeed time for the revenge of the nerds.”

I would agree whole heartedly as long as the sequel is not entitled “Wrath of The Nerds” for that would be truly onerous :-)

Best,

Phil

Thomas Larsson said...

Revenge of the nerds(1984)

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“One would have hoped that after all the public outreach the message would have gotten across that science is the very antithesis of a belief system. You'd better call it a 'doubt system'.”

I would concur that science is a process where the admission of doubt is paramount to its success, yet more so that it be able to logically relieve it rather then increase it.

“The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.”

-Rene DesCartes [( Discourse on The Method: of Rightly Conducting The Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (1637)]

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

In this context, I want to share this email I just recieved:

"To Quantum Gravity Researchers, The Perimeter Institute, Waterloo

Please accept the offer of Bryan Farnum, Oracle of Truth, to all world leaders, scientists, and people of the world to listen to www.----, Truth Radio Broadcast on Sundays at 8 pm EST. Mr. Farnum will be talking about gravity on the November 16, 2008 broadcast and announced on the previous broadcast "... In the last 100 years there has not been one individual that has been able to tell the truth that I will speak…the level that I will speak about gravity. And it will be the first time it has been done. I ask that you can contact your universities, professors, worldwide, and encourage them to join us next week (Nov 16, 2008)."...."I will be talking about gravity, so that certain scientists can take this information and place, or rather transpose this information, extrapolate what is necessary to create a math equation to describe gravity. And that is the purpose".

Hope you have a chance to listen. The broadcasts are archived on www---- and www.---- Thank you.


(I removed the links, I don't want to advertise this.)

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“Bryan Farnum is an ordinary man with extraordinary gifts granted to him by our Creator in order to help mankind. Bryan has been described as an Oracle of Truth because of his ability to discern all levels of Truth.”

-From his website

Interesting, with the talents he maintains who needs science to begin with? However you attempt to lessen his notoriety has failed as even the unenlightened can manage to find him. That said, I think I’ll pass for I don’t believe I have the wherefore all to come up with the equations he maintains as being so secondary to ones understanding:-)

Best,

Phil

Plato said...

Just when I thought it was getting bad with Stefan's article" Solitons, Crystal and such," his suspicions in relation to LHC and earlier lawsuit, now it has really gone to hell with this.

It seems some would like to appoint by suspicion "categories to parts of society" when the human failings are evident even within that 5% of the related industry. Does not make it okay.

Who is perpetrating the "trust failure" and issues about truth?

Walk a higher road then, and show what it means, then to partake of what one may despise. Admit beyond all else, that you will act like a scientist and refrain from such lowly behaviours and human failings as to "insight a distrust" amongst all of society.

What is that oath you take on becoming a scientist? Is their one? I am sure it does not cover the human failings that we are carrying with us, that we would announce one's action by throwing the first stone, without checking ourself first?

On a brighter note, makes for an interesting story about the decline of science and those doing battle with these evil forces?" :)

Best,

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Plato,

Have you not noticed the rise in pseudo science in recent years or do you simply fail to recognize not only the reasons for its growth yet also what as being its motivation. I am surprised that one who holds the emotive aspect of nature in being so central would appear to doubt such inferences as being true.

Best,

Phil

stefan said...

Hi Plato, Phil,

aeh, sorry, what are you talking about? Am I missing something?

Cheers, Stefan

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Stefan,

I must apologize for straying off topic as what was expressed is more of a philosophical difference then anything else. With things of this nature I should be more mindful to take it elsewhere, like to his own blog perhaps:-)

Best,

Phil

Uncle Al said...

The Perimeter Institute speaks volumes to see what surfaces [usually about c^3kA/4(h-bar)G].

Eric Habegger said...

"Science they say, is the new religion. For certain it's a belief system and a philosophy about life and the rhythms of the universe. When it comes down to it, religion and science are each ways of asking questions about the intangible."

Bee,
I think your quibble about this comment might be lessened if you viewed science more in the way it is really done, rather than the elevated plane many in the science field try to sell it. Science is still done in the old fashioned way with old farts telling the young farts what ideas should be paid attention to and what ideas should not have attention paid. Much of the ideas are based much more on trendiness than on original thinking. String theory anyone? It seems that often dead ends in science persevere for much longer than they ever have a right to just because at a certain point so much time, money, and personal influence and professional stature has already been invested in them.

Science, after all is a human endeavor and is subject to all the human foibles any other human endeavor is, including deluded belief systems.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Eric,

“Science, after all is a human endeavor and is subject to all the human foibles any other human endeavor is, including deluded belief systems.”

Now this is a loaded statement if I’ve ever heard one. The way I would see it is that science is a methodology of reasoning about reality that fortunately was discovered by some humans which exists in its own right with no reason to understand it to be exclusive to our species. The weaknesses you express are however identifiable with humans yet should not be considered as aspects of science per say, yet simply recognized as encumbrances to its proper execution.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Eric,

The difference is that in science the old farts die and the young move on, whereas in religion the old farts become immortal and the young are stuck with thousand year old books. Best,

B.

Eric Habegger said...

Hi Phil,

I agree that human foibles can be seen as a limitation on the otherwise high-minded aspects of the practice of science. But I think it is incorrect, and actually dangerous, to the progress of physics to continually strive to minimize the effect those problems incur.

Without stretching the point too much there ARE principles in religion that do have scientific principles in them, but those scientific principles apply more to the science of social interaction. The principles of openness, tolerance, and of course the golden rule, are all first principles in religion.

And just as humans corrupt those principles in their individual practice of religion they also corrupt the principles involved in the scientific enquiry principle, by accepting the truth of certain ideas without rigorous experimental testing. The idea of accepting a whole framework of scientific ideas without an iota of experimental proof seems to me like the worst form of religion practiced by many people. And it doesn't just apply to string theory, but also to super-partners in SUSY.

It may be that they will be discovered with the LHC. But if past is prologue and they don't discover them I don't doubt they will come up with some excuse. If they do that, as they have done with string theory, then I think the guy on the street will have every excuse to lose respect for those "practicing" science, but not science itself. I will await the results and hope the science community surprises me.

Best,
Eric

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“The difference is that in science the old farts die and the young move on”

“I resemble that remark! :-)
-Moe (one of The Three Stooges)

LOL. I wouldn’t pass this on to any of the tenured professors:-)

Best,

Phil

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Eric,

“then I think the guy on the street will have every excuse to lose respect for those "practicing" science, but not science itself. I will await the results and hope the science community surprises me.”

Do the termss "Red Herring" or "Straw Man" mean anything to you? If not then after revision I would be happy to continue, yet if they do I don’t see the point.

Best,

Phil

Eric Habegger said...

Bee,
Was my post so threatening that it had to be removed. What I was saying was that one should use the same parameters for judging belief whether it is regarding religion or in science. Doing otherwise, as you were doing in your original interpretation, invites criticism.

It seems to me you are being quite unfair in removing my post but not removing Steve's response to it. Again, you are simply inviting criticism by not wielding the administration of your blog fairly.

I would prefer that people were allowed to see both posts than to remove both posts though. Let individuals make their own judgments on whether I was introducing a "straw man" as Steve accused me of. I was just responding on this whole subject to your illogical judgement of the (often) unbiased nature of the accrual of ideas in physics.

Best,
Eric

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Eric,

As far as I can tell Bee didn’t remove any post, although I did remove one of my own due to an error which I corrected. I see no response in regards to my pointing out your logical errors in regards to legitimate debate. Actually, error correction is also a deep principle within science, where nothing is so sacred that it cannot be challenged as to be corrected. If there is any term that’s often used as being misleading it’s when something is referred to as being an “exact science” for in essence that is an oxymoron.

This however is not reason to dismiss all or any of it as being a weakness, rather that it being its greatest strength; one which most religious philosophies not only don’t have, yet rather insist that they shouldn’t permit. As Bee pointed out, science should never be equated with religion and I would insist that most religious philosophies should not be equated with science.

Best,

Phil
P.S. Please take note that my name is not Steve

Bee said...

Hi Eric,

I didn't delete any comment in this thread. I'm about to delete the above spam message though. Also, the comments are identical to those in my inbox, except for one of Phil who apparently corrected a typo. This means if you think one of your comments is missing, you didn't submit it. I have no clue which Steve you are referring to. Best,

B.

changcho said...

"...Science they say, is the new religion. For certain it's a belief system and a philosophy about life and the rhythms of the universe. When it comes down to it, religion and science are each ways of asking questions about the intangible..."

Argh, no! Science is NOT a belief system, and it certainly is NOT about "intangibles"...How could this writer get this so wrong?

On the other hand, I certainly hope that the writer got the part about airing the PI lectures on the Discovery Channel right.

coraifeartaigh said...

The real revenge will be if we ever manage to lose the nerd word. I find it terribly insulting for my students.
It's time scientists stood up to this sort of labeling from the media - for our own sakes, and for the sake of all those young monds that are put off the subject.

Bee said...

I stand to my nerdiness ;-)

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“I stand to my nerdiness ;-)”

I’m with you as it’s only an acronym for Neurologically Enhanced Reasoning Dudes (or Dames) ;-)

Best,

Phil

Neil' said...

Here's something for the World's best nerds to try and sort out: The quantum collapse problem and whether "many-worlds/decoherence" is a suitable or even legitimate (non-fallacious) argument to "explain" it. I say no. There are big thread-for-alls over at Uncertain Principles and Quantum Pontiff (as well as my own blog) about this, and I am in the thick of it. See what you think, and am I right that the pro MW/D argument is fallacious because it's a circular argument, distributes an effectively complete WF amplitude at more than one place, etc.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Neil,

“Here's something for the World's best nerds to try and sort out”

It has already been done and for sometime, that is by David Bohm in 1952. For an overview read Prof. Sheldon Goldstein's
piece in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. However, if one is convinced that QM can only be understood in terms of a single aspect ontology it won’t help much.

Best,

Phil

Neil' said...

Phil, I don't think Bohm's QM is the most-accepted view right now ("pilot waves" are considered clunky by most.) I was criticizing many-worlds and decoherence, what do you think of that?

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Neil,

“Phil, I don't think Bohm's QM is the most-accepted view right now ("pilot waves" are considered clunky by most.) I was criticizing many-worlds and decoherence, what do you think of that?

Clunky, well that is certainly a different criticism then others I’ve come across, yet it is in the same spirit as most, like for instance Einstein complaining it was “cheap”. As I look upon it, when one holds to a single aspect ontology, as to take it seriously, then interpretations like Everette’s, Crammers, Gell-Mann’s and alike become unavoidable and with it concepts like decoherence, collapse and the whole measurement problem in particular. You are then either forced to have little meaning assignable to reality or accept endless versions of it must some how coexist.

So in general over the last few years I have avoided such discussions, for in the main I’ve found them to be not very productive or beneficial. Although foundations on the face of it appears at first as a very straight forward subject for discussion, it turns out not to be due to all the philosophical baggage coupled with assumptions that has since its beginnings been attached to it. The only advice I would thus humbly offer is if you really want to go down this path in earnest is to begin by considering what John Bell meant when he listed the words that he considered should be forbidden in any serious discussion as it relates to such matters as being:

“System, apparatus, microscopic, macroscopic, reversible, irreversible, observable, measurement, for all practical purposes.”

Best,

Phil