If You Think Science is Out of Control, Tesla is a Weird Person to Quote

Dr. Eben Alexander came to UVA last Friday to give a talk. While the name might not sound familiar, you have almost certainly heard of his recent book, Proof of Heaven. The talk seemed to go through many of the ideas and experiences described in the book. One theme that Dr. Alexander seemed to touch on was an idea that science was out of control, both in terms of its assumptions (“radical materialism” leaving no room for meaningful exploration of consciousness) and as a social institution (he mentioned weapons and massive pollution).  Near the end of his speech, he argued that quantum mechanics should disprove reductive materialism because early quantum theorists felt that quantum mechanics agreed with certain mystical/religious ideas (basically arguing for a mystical meaning to the Copenhagen interpretation). And then he quoted Nikola Tesla in some way to support an “expanded” science. (I do not remember the quote, unfortunately, but will post if I find out)

The quantum argument for mysticism is kind of common in fringe science. (Look up “quantum woo” to see common abuses of quantum mechanics) It’s also kind of misleading to mention that early quantum theorists looked into mysticism when the whole history is more complicated than that. And there’s a group of physicists pushing back against any idea of the Copenhagen interpretation.

But what really threw me for a loop was the Tesla quote. It wasn’t the content so much as the fact that Dr. Alexander seemed completely comfortable quoting Tesla despite his previous characterization of modern science. My main description to people after the presentation was “You’re concerned about science making too many weapons, but look up to a man who tried to auction building a death ray to multiple countries?” It also seems to kind of kill the argument for quantum mysticism, when Tesla seemed to think general relativity was too mystical to be scientific (Tesla said saying space has properties would be like saying God has certain properties). Also, although discussion of Tesla seems to pop up a lot in many New Age and mystical circles, the only people who seem comfortable calling Tesla a mystic are the modern mystics, and they are certainly not a disinterested party. And if you’re concerned about the role of science in society, Tesla isn’t really a role model for accountable research since he was basically allowed to do whatever he wanted in Colorado Springs. This might not be a big deal in some research fields, but when you’re studying wireless power transmission, you can end up affecting a large area. And Tesla’s experiments are known to have burnt out transformers in Colorado Springs and caused sparking of metallic objects throughout the town. It’s not that Tesla is a bad person; it’s just that he doesn’t really represent the science Dr. Alexander seems to envision.

Wine Crying Shouldn’t Make You Cry

So I am really jealous of the skill mechanical engineering PhD student Dan Quinn has in making that video. And it’s really informative. (Also, we talked about this in my surface chemistry class a few weeks ago!) Robert Krulwich says we need more people like Quinn and I totally agree. The Atlantic seems to misunderstand the video in two really weird ways, though. First, the description isn’t new. People figured out the cause of tears of wine in the 1850s. Secondly, this really has nothing to do with quality of the wine. The way a wine forms tears is more reflective of the alcohol content than anything else, because the solids you find in wine don’t affect surface tension nearly as much as the alcohol does. It does tell your something about your wine, but not the thing most wine drinkers focus on.

Scientists Still Aren’t Really a Political Bloc

The Atlantic recently published an article in the “but Democrats are anti-science too!” genre that seemed to get really weird in the end. Perhaps this is because author Mischa Fisher is a staffer for Republican Congressman Randall Hultgren of Illinois. Honestly, a lot here isn’t new, and I’ll link to my response to Alex Berezow’s book and interview with reason. The big thing, as I said before, is that we’re not given many numbers about the prevalence of anti-scientific views on the left, especially in comparison to their support by the right (fringe views on chemicals show up in New World order conspiracy theorists on the right and granola groups on the left). The only ones Fisher gives are about evolution and creationism and views of God, and I don’t think most scientists actually fret over that in science policy things.

And that’s where I lose my understanding of Fisher’s piece. He seems to be conflating scientists, secularists/skeptics, and Democrats as whatever best fits the argument he makes in each paragraph. There’s no shortage of scientists writing articles attacking chemophobia and irrational fears of GMOs from groups on the left and attacking any science cuts. Nature wrote a pretty balanced review of science policy during Obama’s first term. And there have been many revolts by scientists against policies the administration has pursued. Most scientists don’t care about your view of God, and many want people to appreciate that science doesn’t have to kill religious faith. The American Association for the Advancement of Science came out against California’s GMO labelling proposal last year.

At the end, Fisher says “there is a second, larger reason why it’s important to keep science bipartisan—and why cheap shots about Republicans and science are dangerous. The politics of the immediate will always trump the politics of the long term.” But that just seems to lump in all scientists as knee-jerk Democrats again, which isn’t true. It also seems hard to argue how most Republican politicians do believe in global warming or care about science funding when the members who rise to positions of influence on science policy don’t believe in these things. See: Rep. HallRep. Rohrabacher, and Rep. Smith on the House science committee. And while Fisher says Obama’s budgets have been harmful to basic science, many Republican politicians don’t seem to understand the point of basic research.

We Can Teach Science Through Anything

NPR recently interviewed The Urban Scientist Dr. Danielle Lee about her science education and outreach efforts using hip hop. And the article seems surprised. But we shouldn’t be. Science is affected by culture and science impacts culture, but at its core, science is a way of understanding the universe. And so, just like other ways of understanding, it can be communicated in multiple ways. We can have operas about particle physics and covers of pop rock talking explaining marine biodiversity. Or, like Dr. Lee, we can incorporate cultural artifacts into science education. That works just as well, since if science is about the way the world works, then we’re bound to find scientific explanations popping up in culture.


Ranting at Grammar Ranters, Continued

I think I could write a blog that is just responses to BuzzFeed articles about grammar pet peeves. Though at least a few more of this Adam’s peeves actually present more of a problem in communication.

  • 1 and 2 both seem legit, but the example for two is so nit-picky it borders on insane. Do you listen to people talk? It does not sound like a spoken version of written English.
  • I’m about to say something drastic: if you hate the split infinitive, you hate English. English, to my knowledge, is the only modern language that actually has two word infinitives. We use the “bare” infinitive without to in ways that many other languages use infinitives. Some linguists actually debate whether we should even count to as being part of the infinitive verb form. Continue reading

Tech Revisionism is Already Happening

An article about the “most ridiculous startup ideas that became successful” has been making the rounds on social media. It amused me, mainly because the “ridiculous” ideas used to summarize each company are more like strained ex post facto descriptions that describe what they currently do, not the starting business model.

  • Facebook was not meant to be another Myspace. It started as a way for college students to communicate with each other (after a very brief life as a “hot or not” thing for Harvard dorms). If you’re a Millenial, ask your parents if they ever looked at Classmates.com. Odds are that they have. Myspace was a public site where 13-year-olds made 90s-esque web profiles that were open to everyone, including 40-year-old men pretending to be 13-year-olds. That Facebook did not require this degree of openness has been part of its success.
  • Dropbox seemed like the first major file transfer program I heard of aside from Google Docs. As this XKCD shows, we’re still desperately working on file transfer and so almost any idea could go. (My current solution is Google Drive)
  • Amazon took off a lot after eBay drew people online. Amazon started around the time of the dot com bubble, so it’s not like investors needed much rationalization before investing in websites. But if you think about it, the basic starting idea kind of makes sense: Amazon could get virtually any book for a customer without wasting money on inventory costs. Also, Amazon hasn’t turned a profit in years because it tries to keep expanding, so maybe we should be wary of calling it a success for now.
  • Virgin was founded not long after the airline industry was deregulated, so the timing isn’t crazy.
  • I know virtually nothing about Mint or Palantir, but the idea of a company being really dependent on defense contracts is actually not uncommon.
  • Craigslist is a classifieds web site in a time when newspaper classifieds are slowly dying. Investing in it seems really reasonable. And actually, it doesn’t seem to be pulling in a lot of venture capital money. The one major outside investor is eBay.
  • iOS isn’t even a company or a standalone product. Why is it on this list?
  • The whole point of Google was that its indexing algorithm was almost completely different than other search engines at the time. Does the author not remember how bad search results were in the 90s? Also, Google grew out of Larry Page’s dissertation, so it’s not like pitching was done before the algorithm existed.
  • Part of PayPal’s appeal is that it’s more secure to give just one website your financial information and use that for purchases than to give your credit card information to a new person every time you make buy something online
  • LinkedIn totally confused me in college, but now I appreciate separating my professional and social networking activities. And evidently lots of companies do use LinkedIn for recruiting since they can sort-of target appropriate people better than random Internet ads.
  • Tesla actually does work with other car companies on some models and does have a goal of providing electric car equipment to other manufacturers to help mainstream electric cars. And considering that it was founded in 2003, its existence predates the cleantech “backlash”.
  • 2/3 of SpaceX is owned by Elon Musk. And SpaceX doesn’t just want to be a commercial NASA (and even if the author finds this really weird, I would invite him to read almost any science fiction talking about space colonization). It plans to do commercial satellite launches as well, which are big business now.
  • Firefox is the work of a free software group. Which is mostly funded by a non-profit (and a company that makes money, but that reinvests nearly all of that into the non-profit).
  • Honestly, the only crazy ideas here seem to be Instagram and Twitter. And people still seem unsure of how those are supposed to make money so maybe we’ll find that their current structures are ridiculous.

Of course, the reason this list is so popular is because people seem to love counterintuitive ideas proving some experts or conventional wisdom wrong. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell applied to entrepreneurship. And just as wrong.