Going over the Critique of Cosmos part 1 and a brief review of part 2

Like I said before, Hank Campbell’s had some interesting critiques of the first episode of Cosmos. I thought nearly all of them missed the mark, and to be honest, it seems like he’s being a bit of a science hipster here. I want to go more in depth, and I’ll do that here. Let’s go through his points

1. Venus was not caused by global warming

Let’s look at what Campbell says:  “We have to ask why he thinks Venus is the way it is due to the greenhouse effect — which is another way of saying global warming. Venus is almost 900 degrees Fahrenheit and the clouds are sulfuric acid. Even the most aggressive climate change models and their 20-foot ocean rises don’t predict that for Earth… If this sequel to Cosmos had been made in 1989 the screenwriters of Cosmos would have invoked acid rain on Venus instead of global warming. Regardless, CO2 did not cause the poisonous conditions on Venus; instead, CO2 is an effect of the poisonous conditions on Venus. Invoking the greenhouse effect when talking about Venus is like blaming ocean liners for inventing barnacles.

Okay, but global warming isn’t the same as the greenhouse effect.  If it weren’t for the CO2, SO2, and H2O, Earth’s surface temperature would be significantly lower. That is the definition of the greenhouse effect. More technically, the greenhouse effect is when a gas in an atmosphere can absorb heat radiated from a planet surface, which then redirects some of the heat escaping from the planet back towards the surface. This shift the temperature equilibrium to higher than it would without the greenhosue gas. In an exchange on a follow-up on his website, Science 2.0, Campbell says the real culprit is hydrogen escape. (Note: I’m the “Matt” participating in the comment section.) “On Venus gravity, hydrogen is already light so a lack of gravity causes the water problem to go nuts. No water, CO2 goes crazy – but CO2 did not cause the atmosphere of Venus, Tyson knows it, anyone who knows high school atmospheric science knows it…”

Campbell probably overestimates hydrogen escape by itself. Hydrogen escapes from Earth too (we’re predicted to lose our all water due to hydrogen escape within the next billion years). Also, Venus’ surface gravity is about 90% that of Earth’s, so hydrogen shouldn’t experience that much weaker of a pull to the planet that it does here.  The chain of cause and effect leading to atmospheric changes on Venus doesn’t mean the greenhouse effect doesn’t describe the current temperature, or ever played an effect in the evolution of Venus’ climate. Even planetary scientists describe Venus’ history as the result of a “runaway greenhouse effect”. Once most of Venus’ water was in the atmosphere, it stayed that way because water vapor is also a greenhouse gas and raised the temperature enough to prevent condensation into massive oceans that could have held on to the water longer. (It’s easier to strip hydrogen from molecules in the atmosphere.) This is also why I don’t buy the idea that this segment relates at all to climate change debates. CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas, and this is typically mentioned in modern discussions about methane, and Tyson didn’t actually mention the concentration of CO2 in Venus’ atmosphere. Campbell takes his concern of framing too far here.

2. The Multiverse is Not Science

Campbell: “Any time a scientist begins a sentence with “Many of us suspect,” it is codespeak for “we sit around and discuss it at the bar.”

Why not just let that go as artistic license? When Carl Sagan was filming the originalCosmos program, physicists Alan Guth and Andrei Linde had not even come up with “inflation” for the Big Bang that Tyson mentions casually. Thus, it would not have made it into the original Cosmos as fact. Too much speculation makes the audience wonder if scientists are going to be trusted guides or another version of Dr. Oz and his Miracle Vegetable of the week. Science doesn’t need to toss in speculation to be interesting, because what we know and therefore don’t know is fascinating enough.”

“The multiverse is not science. It is more like an anthropic secular alternative to a divine origin. It’s not science because it can’t be proved or disproved — it’s just postmodernism with some math. And it’s invoked shortly after the introduction where Tyson tells us to test everything.”

I also kind of cringed when Tyson mentioned a multiverse and it even had a visualization with the spaceship of the imagination. But if you pay attention to the language of the episode, you’ll see that the writers were actually being pretty deliberate. Tyson used “suspect” here. But for the rest of the episode, Tyson never describes a scientific theory as anything less than a fact (which is how scientists treat theories). This means Cosmos is not elevating the idea of a multiverse to the level of accepted scientific theory. And it is true that many physicists and cosmologists “suspect” a multiverse.  Also, Campbell seems to only be thinking of a string theory multiverse in his critique. Tyson’s description didn’t specify the “kind” of multiverse, but the description and visualization seemed to suggest one resulting from “chaotic inflation”. That kind of multiverse actually may be testable if we see an “imprint”, and the new gravitational wave measurements suggest chaotic inflation is the inflation model that more closely matches our universe.

3. There is No Sound In Space

Like I said before, there actually isn’t a good defense of this. Tyson wouldn’t accept it in any other show, and I’m surprised he let that happen here.

4. Giordano Bruno Was Not More Important To Science Than Kepler And Galileo

Like I said before “The episode did not claim Bruno was more important than contemporary natural philosophers and empiricists and definitely pointed out that he wasn’t a scientist. Bruno’s ideas, though, do fit in well with the idea of understanding our place in the universe, which was the entire point of the first episode, as stated in like the first five minutes.”

5. The Universe Was Also Not Created in One Year

“On January 1st, we had the Big Bang and on December 31st, I am alive, less than a tiny fraction of a millisecond before midnight. That can’t be right — it took me a whole day just to write this article.

Oh, Cosmos is not being literal? Oddly, a number of religious critics, Tyson included, insist that too many religious people believe the Book of Genesis is taken literally by people who read the Bible. Unless we accept that figurative comparisons help make large ideas manageable, a year is no more accurate than six days — it is instead a completely arbitrary metric invented to show some context for how things evolved.”

Oh my God, seriously? Hank Campbell is trying so hard to not want to be in a culture war that he wound up back in it. First, Tyson is not nearly as involved in the science aspect of the “culture war” as, say, Richard Dawkins. Also, many Americans don’t take the Biblical account of Genesis figuratively. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 46% of Americans think God created humans instantly in their present form within the last 10,000 years.

All these complaints just seem… odd. Like I said, “science hipster” is the best description I can think of. I was surprised to hear Campbell really liked the second episode. I actually liked that episode less. The description of the evolution of the eye seemed like a just-so story  in some steps, and probably would not win over the creationists who argue that “the eye is too complex to have evolved”. I thought the step showing the evolution of the lens seemed HUGE and it wasn’t associated with an organism like most of the other steps were. I feel like it would have been more straightforward to show the variety of eyes in the context of the tree of life, but maybe I say this because I’m not as familiar with evolutionary biology. The visualization of DNA seemed “too busy” at times, and they kept changing schematic representations without explaining it. I get that DNA doesn’t really look as pretty as it does in my old bio textbooks, but I was unsure of what was being represented at times. I thought the comparison of DNA sequences seemed a bit odd without a description of what base pairs are.

The Titan bit also seemed odd. I liked the description of Titan, but didn’t like the idea of the ship of the imagination visiting a hydrothermal vent (or its analogue) there. To me it seemed like the show was saying the hydrocarbon lakes on Titan are as deep as Earth’s oceans, and unless I’m really behind the times, I don’t think we know the depth that much. And we definitely don’t know if there are hydrothermal vents on Titan, and that visualization wasn’t accompanied by Tyson saying we “suspect” or some other phrase that would give it less of a weight than a theory/fact like the multiverse visualization was.

“Cosmos” is allowed to have a narrative

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s sequel/reboot to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, premiered last week on Fox and there’s a multitude of reactions to it. One of the most common negative reactions focuses on the episode’s relatively long segment on Giordano Bruno. If you really want to learn more about Bruno and the various other figures people relate him to and see one of the clearest criticisms and replies to defenses of the show, I suggest you look at the Renaissance Mathematicus’ post on the issue. (And if you want to learn REAL history of science, I highly suggest you check out the rest of his blog.)

A very religious friend posted concerns from Catholic commentators that Cosmos is attacking religion here. I argue that both just seem to be taking offense and ignore Tyson’s actual narration during and around this segment. At no point does Tyson criticize faith. If anything, it’s a critique of institutions which both blog posts seem to also acknowledge by saying that structures and actors in the Church may be bad, but that doesn’t mean Catholicism itself is bad. I’d argue the bigger takeaway is that Bruno thought others’ God was too small.

Several people have asked why mention Bruno at all in the show. Because the entire point of this first episode was to establish the scale of the Universe and our place in it. Bruno was one of the first Western thinkers to propose a Universe where humanity and Earth and the Sun are all small and not particularly unique with respect to the rest of the cosmos. though he was still off on how that actually worked out, as detailed in the Renaissance Mathematicus link above. To Bruno, that had immense philosophical implications and he was willing to die for them (and the host of other heterodox beliefs he held). Why should we just ignore that? Tyson (and Sagan!) are both big on the idea that science can inform metaphysics, and Western culture seems to have a fear that science will leave life without meaning. It seems perfectly reasonable for the show to mention a person whose cosmology inspired a lot of his own religious and spiritual thought. 

Hank Campbell, founder of Science 2.0 and one of the co-authors of Science Left Behind, has different criticisms than most about the first episode, saying “Science is cool. Should we care if it’s accurate?” I want to quickly respond to these points, and I’ll go in more depth later. 

  1. The greenhouse effect is in fact different from the idea of global warming, but the greenhouse effect does play a part in the latter.
  2. I kind of cringed too at the reference to a multiverse but considering the language the episode used, I’d say the phrase “many of us suspect [a multiverse]” was chosen precisely because it isn’t an accepted theory.
  3. The first time I watched the episode, I didn’t notice the external sounds in space separate from the soundtrack. It struck me as kind of funny because Tyson would typically destroy any show that did it. He should be held accountable on his own.
  4. The episode did not claim Bruno was more important than contemporary natural philosophers and empiricists and definitely pointed out that he wasn’t a scientist. Bruno’s ideas, though, do fit in well with the idea of understanding our place in the universe, which was the entire point of the first episode, as stated in like the first five minutes.
  5. The age of the universe as 13.8 billion years old was given multiple times, and the introduction to every major historical landmark on the calendar involved Tyson giving both its date on the calendar and a conversion to how many millions or billions of years ago it actually was.

Catching up with SHIELD: Asgardian Science and a Conflict of Interest

So Agents of SHIELD is semi-regularly back after a break for the Olympics. And evidently another break until April. But the episodes that aired this month were good, and other people are enjoying Agents of SHIELD more now that it seems to have hit its stride. I don’t plan on obsessively following the show on here, but there were some interesting science developments I wanted to talk about.

On a non-science note, Simmons yelling “And all your prostitutes!” to Coulson role-playing her father in T.R.A.C.K.S. may be my favorite line of the show so far.

The more interesting things happened in this last week’s episode “Yes Men” that featured Lady Sif from the Thor movies, and this should all be fairly free of spoilers.

  • When Lady Sif arrives on Earth, Fitz mentions the energy pattern in the atmosphere matches what Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman’s character) saw in New Mexico. Do Fitz or Simmons know that SHIELD basically stole her data and in Thor 2 she was trying to dodge SHIELD while studying other anomalies?
  • Sif is surprised to see Coulson alive. After seeing the Thor: The Dark World, it seems clear that Asgard doesn’t have pure resurrection technology, but her complete surprise here seems to rule out my previous theory that Asgard may have given some tech to SHIELD to help.
  • When Lady Sif gets on the Bus, Coulson tries to show her how to operate the crazy touchable hologram table they have to show the reports on Lorelei’s potential activity. Lady Sif cuts him off immediately and says “it’s primitive technology other realms had ages ago”, definitely reminding viewers that in the MCU, Asgard has incredibly advanced technology compared to what we have on Earth. I actually enjoyed Sif kind of putting us in our place, but it still seems a bit weird she would operate it so easily. Look at how hard some people find it to just switch from Windows to Mac or vice versa, even though that’s the same basic idea. And going backwards to a technology you’re not familiar with can be incredibly frustrating. (In my sophomore physics lab, my partner and I had to use a computer from the 80s because it had the software we needed to operate the particle detector. We spent 15 minutes waiting for the computer to boot up and finally our professor pointed out that the operating system was DOS and we had to type in commands because graphical desktops had not been developed for operating systems yet.)
  • In Sif’s introduction, we hear of a different aspect of Asgardian life. She openly says Lorelei’s power is sorcery and doesn’t give any explanation to how it works, and when asked about why it only affects men, she says they have an “inherent weakness” women do not. So is magic very advanced science/technology or a separate thing? (Thor says science and magic are one and the same in Asgard in the first movie.) Lorelei doesn’t use any tool over the course of the show to control her men. Interestingly, some sort of electronic collar can neutralize her power, so it does seem like aspects of both.
  • The collar that can stop Lorelei’s power is broken. Fitz is asked to fix it. Lady Sif comments that it may be hard because Asgardian metals are different than Earth metals; in particular, they tend to be denser. It fits into the theme of things from Asgard being hardier than things from Earth, but it doesn’t really make sense from a materials science point of view. Yes, this is nitpicky, but how often do materials scientists actually get to critique pop culture errors in their field?

I’ve mentioned in the past that the reason I love SHIELD is because of Fitz and Simmons’ sense of morality as scientists. And there was an interesting conflict this episode between Coulson and Simmons’, but it’s a bit spoilery if you haven’t seen “T.A.H.I.T.I.” yet, so it will be below the cut. Also, this show really needs to quit making things acronyms just for the sake of it.  Continue reading

That Science Survey is More Complicated Than You Think… and it Has Some Good News

The Web has been abuzz with the results of the National Science Foundation’s latest Science and Engineering Indicators report. In particular, people are freaking out over the “Public Knowledge about S&T [Science and Technology]” section that goes over the results of a survey that looks at the Americans’ knowledge of science and technology as well as their perceptions on scientific and technological issues. One of the most popular headlines points out that 26% of American think the Sun goes around the Earth. And that’s… bad. There’s not a really good defense of that.  (Though consider that America had a school dropout rate of over 10% through the 90s to the early 2000s, so that probably explains  a good hunk of that.)

It’s also pointed out that less than half of respondents knew that human beings evolved from earlier animals.  But if the question is rephrased to say “according to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” (emphasis added), 72 percent of respondents answer true. Rephrasing also greatly changes the nature of responses to the Big Bang question. Only 39% answer true to “the universe began with a huge explosion” , but 60% say true to the statement “according to astronomers, the universe began with a huge explosion.” (It’s also worth pointing out that astronomers really wouldn’t call the Big Bang an explosion if they’re being technical.) So yeah, I don’t get why people don’t want to “believe” the science, but I’d give them credit for being familiar with the scientific theory.

I’m also surprised that there isn’t much criticism of the questions being asked. Science education reformers nearly always complain that current science education is too focused on memorization and not being able to apply the scientific process. But nearly all these questions are basically checking to see if a person knows the relevant fact to answer the question. I think the questions are fine, though, as I think they do reflect science literacy. And I tend to think science literacy is more important to the average person.

The other thing most people don’t mention is the comparison between Americans’ performance on the test and that of people in other countries (China, the EU, India, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, and South Korea) doing similar surveys. The EU average actually was even worse than the US on the heliocentrism question (only 66% knew the Earth went around the Sun). The US had the most correct responses to the question about whether all radioactivity is man-made (the correct answer is false). And we were the only country where a majority of respondents knew that electrons were smaller than atoms and that antibiotics cannot kill viruses. As a random, but interesting, aside, Japan was the worst of the rich countries in understanding that the father’s gene determines the sex of a baby and it makes me wonder if the “eating lots of meat while pregnant means you’ll have a boy” myth referenced in some anime really is super common in Japan.

Finally, there is some good news. Even if American’s don’t ace the science literacy questions, they do care about science. Over 70% of Americans say the benefits of scientific research outweigh the harms, and about another 20% say the harms and benefits are about equal. Only Canada, Denmark, Finland, and Norway had more people than the US disagree with the statement that “modern science does more harm than good”. Over 80% of Americans think the federal government should fund basic scientific research, and a third of Americans thought we need to increase science funding. The scientific community is nearly as trusted as the military, just shy of 90% confidence by members of the public. Nearly 90% of Americans think scientists and engineers work for the good of humanity and most disagree with the idea that scientists and engineers are odd or have narrow interests. So even if they might not have the best understanding of science and technology right now, I’m hopeful about Americans in the future. But the narrow reporting on this survey may not help.

A Neat Bit of UVA Engineering History

Consider this an incredibly belated addendum to my musing on what’s in a name in the professions of science and engineering. I pointed out that Purdue calls the academic unit devoted to studying materials a college of Materials Engineering, and doesn’t have science in the name. I learned from the professor I TA under this semester that my department is the reason UVA has a School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Virginia was founded in 1962. Evidently the school was only called the School of Engineering before that. When the MSE department was established, they added “Applied Sciences” (or maybe just the singular, I’m a bit unsure) to reflect the nature of research in the new department. Pretty cool.

Why I Love Agents of SHIELD

So I finally caught up on TV with a post-finals DVR binge and watched the last three episodes of Agents of SHIELD for the fall. And I still love it. I’ve always loved it. Evidently this puts me in a minority on the Internet.

Penny Arcade, why?

Talking to a friend, I realized I love it so much because of one thing: FitzSimmons. Or more accurately, two things: Jemma Simmons and Leo Fitz. (Although others think they are basically one character.)

Why do I love the two characters that other people view ambivalently? Because they’re scientists. Okay, technically Fitz is an engineer, but their roles are very similar in the show. And both scientists and engineers end up using the scientific method, and in their work, Fitz and Simmons use a lot of technology. With Fitz and Simmons, Agents of SHIELD shows science and technology as forces for good, and that’s something we haven’t seen much on TV shows lately. I’m particularly excited by the fact that they’re actually full characters in the show, not recurring lab rats who just dump tech on the protagonists as needed like Q does in James Bond (or Marshall from ALIAS). Also, the things they talk about typically make some kind of sense (I’ve only heard the term “pure energy” once, but “gravitonium” makes no sense whatsoever).

What strikes me as particularly important is that they’re ethical scientists. I realize this sounds like an incredibly low bar, but seriously, this isn’t something we’ve seen on major TV shows lately. People (especially children) tend to be scared of the people they see working in science-related fields on TV. And honestly, I can’t blame them. The entire backstory of LOST and Heroes seemed to be related to mysterious mad science. It is incredibly important to me that Fitz and Simmons comment on how unethical Project Centipede is, and that in the pilot, they angsted over the uncertainty of whether or not they could help Michael Peterson without hurting him.  In the third episode, their favorite professor calls out the villain of the week for hypocrisy in his technological development.

Pretty big spoilers below the jump, if you haven’t been watching the episodes after the winter break.

Continue reading

2013 in review

I hope you enjoyed Nontrivial Problems in 2013 and I hope to have even cooler stuff here over the course of 2014. Thanks for reading!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,400 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 23 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.