Listen to The Message Podcast on Your Long Trips This Weekend

If you are one of the 46.9 million Americans travelling more than 50 miles this weekend, I have an entertainment recommendation for you. Consider listening to a new (and recently finished) science fiction podcast, The Message. Sorry if you were hoping for the pseudo “Is this actually like Serial?” illusion, but I just don’t care about every edgy series trying to make itself seem better by hiding whether or not it is actually fiction. I’d add that marathoning the series is the best way to go. There’s only eight episodes, and aside from the last one, they’re all about 13 minutes (with a minute of intro each show) so it’s a good way to spend 2 hours while travelling. I will add, that if I attempted to listen to this one week at a time, I probably would have quickly lost interest because there just wasn’t much material in each episode to feel hooked. But listening to it for two hours straight, it actually felt like a decently paced radio play and the characters and plot were all compelling enough to make up for some clunky structure. Seriously, I skipped eating lunch or getting gas on the road for an hour because I was halfway through and didn’t want to interrupt it.

Also, against the Wired piece’s concern, it didn’t seem like a super transparent plug for GE products. Unless some of the scientists they mentioned were affiliated to GE in some way, and even then, I wouldn’t find that obnoxious. The science didn’t always make sense, but it didn’t seem like technobabble. Also, I was pleasantly surprised by what seemed to be the diversity of the science team in the universe of the story – there was even a person (Mod, though I’ve also seen the spelling Maud) who went by non-binary pronouns, and the program’s director made it clear that disrespecting them wouldn’t be tolerated. I would love to talk about it more if other people have listened to it.


Scientists and “Being Smart”, part 2: “Geekery” and What Happened to Technical Knowledge

For the purposes of this article, I’m treating “nerdiness” and “geekiness” as the same thing. If that bothers you, there’s millions of other pages on the Internet that care about this difference. Also, I’m sort of abusing “technical” here, but bear with me.

I loved Chad Orzel’s quote from last time, and I wanted to dissect one part a bit more:

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.

In particular, I wanted to point this out in the context of a sort of backlash against the idea that nerdiness/geekiness should be embraced as some part of science communication. Here’s the thing that bothers me about those pieces: while our society views specialized knowledge of STEM as less cultured than equally specialized knowledge in the humanities, then it will probably always be seen as intrinsically nerdy just to have studied science and engineering. For argument’s sake, I actually do have something in mind based on comparing courses in different departments at Rice and UVA. As an example of some basic idea of specialized scientific knowledge, I’m thinking of a typical sophomore modern physics class that includes a mostly algebra-based introduction to relativity or single variable quantum mechanics. For a roughly equivalent idea of specialized humanities knowledge,  courses at a similar level include a first course on metaphysics in philosophy and English courses focused on single authors. Quote Chaucer at a cocktail party? Congrats, you’re culturally literate! Mention that quantum mechanics is needed to describe any modern digital electronic device or that GPS requires relativistic corrections? I hate to disagree with someone doing work as cool as Tricia Berry, but sorry, you will almost certainly be considered a nerd for knowing that.

Should we care about this? Yes. It’s the same impulse that lets Martin Eve write off science and engineering open access advocates as just some corporatist movement or maybe just useful idiots of some other cultural force, and not some meaningful aspect of how scientists and engineers themselves want to approach the broader culture. And I don’t think this is new. CP Snow wrote about the “two cultures” over 50 years ago, complaining about the increasing division between literary culture and science and technology. I just think that now instead of ignoring scientists, which was what worried Snow, we now laud them in a way removed from mainstream culture by putting it in some geek/nerd offshoot. We see this in media about science. Scientists in movies are almost never full people with rich emotional and social lives, because, as this review of the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game points out, the convention is nearly always that they are more like machines trying to get along with humans. (I also feel sort of justified in this idea when an English PhD at least partially agreed with me when I argued that Bill Gates or Steve Jobs might count as “Renaissance men” today but culture seems uncomfortable applying that label to contemporary people whose original background was primarily technical.)

As I was writing this, I realized this may be a broadening trend that seems to separate technical knowledge in areas outside of science and engineering from their own related fields. Consider the distinction between how people discuss politics and policy. I know they’re not equivalent, but it seems interesting to me that readings of some theorist mainly approached in senior-level political science or philosophy makes you cultured, but trying to use anything beyond intro economics to talk about policy implementation seems to be unquestionably “wonky”. And I say that as someone with virtually no econ or policy training. Heck, Ezra Klein practically owns the idea of being a wonk, and he’s not an economist.

Over winter break, I got the chance to see a friend from high school who is currently working towards a master’s in public administration. We’re both at about similar stages in our graduate programs and we both talked about what we studied. She had her own deep technical knowledge in her field, but she commented that people often didn’t understand the idea of scientific management as a discipline and didn’t seem to appreciate that someone could actually systematically study team hierarchies and suggest better ways to organize. I think part of that is what I touched on in the first part of my rant and Orzel’s idea that people just seem to think of humanistic studies as just “extensions of normal”. But I also think part of that is some cultural lack of interest in, and understanding of, technical knowledge.

I don’t want to fall into some stereotypical scientist trap and write off ideas of fundamental truths or downplay the importance of ethics, culture, and other things generally considered liberal arts or humanistic. I just think that if Snow were writing today, he might say that intellectual seems to be an even narrower category that now no longer recognizes the idea of doing something with that intellect. And that seems like a real problem.

Multiversal Fiction is Getting Dandy, Baby

I’m a bit slow to try to write this under the time crunch of beating the Space Dandy finale that premieres at 12:30 AM, so forgive any typos. But I just want to say I’ve been incredibly impressed by the way ideas of multiple universes have been getting used in fiction lately. True, the idea has been mainstream at least since the Star Trek introduced a “Mirror Universe” in the original series episode “Mirror, Mirror”. But typically they’re never a major part of the plot. Star Trek didn’t touch the Mirror Universe again until the second season of Deep Space Nine. (Although, as books go, I thought the His Dark Materials series was a really interesting take on parallel universes and I read that over a decade ago.)

But Space Dandy and two other recent pieces of on-screen fiction seem like a turning point in treating a multiverse as more fully realized setting, not just a plot device. If you’re fuzzy on the details of most episodes, you might wonder why I think the multiverse is an integral element of Space Dandy since it isn’t explicitly talked about much. But if you think a about how strongly the show seem to try to disrupt its own continuity, it makes a lot more sense if you think of many episodes taking place in their own (mostly parallel) universes. Consider the ways these episodes end:

  • In the very first episode, Dandy, all of the Aloha Oe, and the entire planet they were visiting is destroyed when they try to use a faulty secret weapon. The second episode explicitly mentions that the end of the first episode did happen and admits it gives a weak “handwave” about Dandy, Meow, and QT are still here.
  • In the fourth episode, the entire universe ends up zombified (even the narrator!) and it’s stated to be a kind of paradise. In the fifth episode, we go back to seeing a non-zombie Aloha Oe crew.
  • In the seventh episode, some combination of a bomb reacting with an incredibly questionable fuel supply ends up sending Dandy into the far future.  The episode ends with a confused Dandy landing near a giant statue of himself in the style of a Buddha.
  • In the eighth episode, nothing renders crew of the Aloha Oe permanently incapacitated, but the semi-antagonist Dr. Gel ends up sucked into a black hole. He reappears only a few episodes later, no worse for the wear.
  • In the eleventh episode, the being responsible for wiping the crew’s memories earlier reappears and evidently triggers an intergalactic war between various factions of storage media that seemed to heavily imply major disruption we never see.
  • Episode 14, the second season premiere, has Dandy, Meow, and QT meet dozens of their counterparts from parallel universes, and end up dragging them all to their home universe. This seems to result in weird distortions to their universe, and to fix it, they pull one of the cosmic strings to try to send everyone back to their respective universes. This mostly works, although the narrator’s closing mentions that the Aloha Oe crew with the depressed Dandy and the terrifying Meow and QT have now ended up in the universe of the Dandy, Meow, and QT we have been following.
  • In episode 21, it’s explicitly stated that Dandy has died. But the embodiment of strange purgatory like planet he is on sends his consciousness to a universe where hasn’t died yet.
  • Episode 24 introduces us to Dandy’s ex, Catherine, a being from a 4D universe who left Dandy to date Paul, the ruler of a 2D universe. Part of why Catherine left Dandy is that because he actually isn’t the Dandy she knew. It turns out that the nature of warp travel in Space Dandy is more like switching which universe you’re aware you’re in. While 3D warpers don’t realize it, higher dimensional beings like Catherine can see the different universes and know the difference.
  • Episode 25 has an expert witness explain a bit about the nature of Pyonium, which has come up several times in the series. He mentions that Pyonium can “cross dimensions”. It’s also noted that Dandy shows a Pyonium signal and forensics couldn’t detect his DNA.

It’s the reveal of the 25th episode that  seems especially important. We have been following Dandy and co. across multiple dimensions, and this seems to be a key part of who Dandy is, even if he didn’t know it. And it also explains why he may be so important to the antagonists of the show, who also keep reappearing despite their own canonical deaths or disappearances. But these all seem to be important. I bet the finale (which is just starting) is about to take us across the universes and I hope we’re going to deal with the ramifications of all the dimension-jumping we’ve been doing.

EDIT: Sounds like I may be wrong already. A character has already mentioned that using the Pyonium will help people access multiple universes, but it’s talked about as a way to basically control probabilities by choosing which universe you’re in. I hope they go over this more.

“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.

Simmons, wearing glasses, is seated on the left. Coulson is seated on on the right.  They are on a train and a window shows fields behind them.

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

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

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.