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Thursday 31 March 2016

Not How The Heavens Go

From ClickHole, so chances are she never said that.
Atheism is a subject about which I have Views. If you've even glanced at the sheer length of the post in the link, you might be wondering what the hell more I could possibly have to say on the subject. Well, there is one aspect which I didn't really cover : the supposed conflict between science and religion.

If you take everything literally, then there's a massive conflict between science and religion. The Earth isn't flat, it wasn't constructed in six days, it certainly isn't 6,000 years old, species not even mentioned in religious texts have gone extinct, and there's no real evidence for the soul or an afterlife. The two systems of thought seem like fire and ice : the one cannot permit the other. One takes its knowledge unquestioningly from ancient texts, the other from empirical evidence. Surely the two are completely mutually exclusive !

The problem is that this is a very narrow and simplistic view of both science and religion. True, there are some things that science has established with near-as-dammit certainty and some religious followers dismiss these findings. There is a conflict in some cases. The difficulty here is that you can prove whatever you want to prove with extreme examples, which is why Godwin's Law is a pretty sensible one. But not all religious people are thoughtless minions, and not all scientists are paragons of objectivity. Far from it.

Believing In A Deity Does Not Automatically Make You Unable To Think Rationally

Literally, like, a shitton of scientists and rational thinkers throughout history have also happened to believe in deities. There was Socrates, who loudly and proudly declared that he heard a voice in his head which told him what not to do, and violently declared himself a theist. He also said that the wisest man was the one most aware of his own ignorance, that self-examination was "really the very best thing that a man can do", that wealth does not bring goodness, and that the good of his fellow citizens was more important than his own life. All in all, he was just about the extreme opposite of Ralph Wiggum.

I'm pretty sure no-one's made that comparison before.

Yes, mystical voices can and do tell people to do ridiculous, dangerous things. But consider the possibility that they can also tell people to do entirely sensible things. Doesn't really matter where the voices are coming from.
Then there are actual scientists. I've covered examples of these in the Muslim and Christian worlds before. The pagan Greeks are littered with examples : Anaxagoras, who realised that the Moon shines by reflected light, but also thought the Earth was flat), Leucippus (who came up with the idea of atoms and vacuum), Aristotle (who got just about everything wrong and set back science for about the next thousand years, but at least attempted to analyse things rationally, bless his little cotton socks), Archimedes (a mathematician famous for taking baths and who sunk a Roman battle fleet as a hobby), Eratosthenes (who first measured the circumference of the Earth), to name but a few.

Not that the ancient world was a lost Utopia when science and religion were besties until those nasty Christians (read that link) came along. There were occasional conflicts : Socrates was accused of atheism, which smells like a trumped-up charge, while Anaxagoras was actually sentenced to death for his impiety (specifically the idea that the Sun is a burning rock). He escaped by going to another Greek city, but since there's no particular reason to assume that Lampsacus was a hotbed of atheistic freedoms, it's entirely possible the charges were political. Clearly though there was some conflict, because otherwise the charges could not have been used at all. But it's hardly as though everyone was at each other's throats the whole time. Maybe, overall, it was more like this :

Still, there's also no reason to think that many of those early scientists were secretly atheists. Some were, it's true - but many were not. Anaximander, who has been called the "Father of Cosmology", was certainly influenced by his faith, while Pythagoras' belief in the soul didn't stop him from coming up with a famous equation about triangles. Although it's hard to be certain, it's probable that at least some of these early thinkers were directly motivated by their faith, rather than seeing any kind of conflict between the two.

Arguably, the Celtic world provides even stronger evidence of faith motivating science - albeit more circumstantially. Celtic culture is awash with ritual and superstition, with at least some archaeologists ascribing every petty action to religious beliefs. Yet they were also undoubtedly capable of rational thought and precise astronomical measurements - the alignments of Stongehenge and other neolithic monuments, and more controversially the Coligny Calendar, makes it clear that these people were neither stupid nor devoid of spirituality. Similar examples can be found in ancient EgyptBabylonia, and Mesoamerica (the latter having some of the most bloodthirsty cultures and religions of all time).

Of course, we don't really know if the ancient cultures were really practising anything like modern science. It's entirely possible that they merely wanted precision measurements of astronomical events for ritualistic purposes, and never sought rational explanations for any phenomena. Accurate measurements are an important first step, but we shouldn't get too carried away.

It's to the medieval world, where far more documentation has survived, where we must go to find really clear examples of individual scientists who would be baffled by the modern idea that religion means surrendering all curiosity. To re-iterate, Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa postulated that the Universe should be infinite - not for any rational reason, but purely because he thought it would make God seem even better. Brahe, Kepler, and later Newton were all Christians. And for all his conflict with the Church, Galileo doesn't seem to have had any problems with religion at all.

Ours Is Not To Reason Why

It's the medieval theologians who exemplify why there needn't be a conflict between science and faith. One might think that if one says, "God did it", then one needs no further answers. One might think that this crushes one's curiosity, and that religion is inherently opposed to scientific inquiry. Maybe, one might think, I've only been citing extreme, unusual examples thus far. One should stop talking about oneself in the third person, for starters, and anyway one would be quite wrong. And importantly, my point is only that science and religion aren't always in conflict - whether this is true in general is quite another matter.

The medieval world had an elegant answer that allowed them to have their cake and eat it. God, they said, was indeed the primary cause of all things. But he didn't meddle in the affairs of men directly : he'd invoke some secondary action to do whatever it was he wanted. These secondary effects (plague, lightning, volcanoes, good weather, etc.) could all obey strict physical laws. Make no mistake : you couldn't cheat God. Those secondary effects always did exactly what God wanted - so if you survived a lightning strike, God only wanted you to be taught a lesson.

This meant there was tremendous freedom for the medieval mind to examine how the world worked. Taken to extremes, God could be seen as the reason for all things, but not necessarily the direct cause. It's the difference between asking the questions why and how. That completely avoids the whole "God of the Gaps" problem - the idea that God is always the cause of things we don't understand, which are then invariably revealed by scientific inquiry to require no direct supernatural intervention at all.

It's a bit like saying, "I've got some money in my wallet because I'm going to buy myself a pet porcupine" versus, "I've got some money in my wallet because I've just come from the bank". One tells you the mechanism by which the money found itself in your possession, the other tells you its purpose. Both are true. If someone asked you, "how did you get that money ?" and you said, "because I want a pet porcupine", they'd rightfully shuffle away nervously. But if you said, "because I work hard and have a savings account", that would be acceptable. How and why are sometimes completely different questions.

I promise to feed him every day !
Such an approach diminishes neither science nor religion. Indeed by keeping the two so clearly separated it strengthens both of them. Religious texts have no business in the science classroom, and science texts have no business in theology lessons. By abandoning all physical evidence of God, religion arguably requires an even bigger leap of faith.

Not that this approach is without limits, of course - there's only so much a porcupine is good for. It solves nothing about which is the "right" faith, if such a thing is possible. Nor does it answer anything about why bad things happen. You might still very well ask why God has apparently designed a Universe so that is manifestly unsuitable for us. And that would be a tough question indeed for theologians. Maybe God isn't even a designer, I don't know - I'm not a theist.

Of course, you can get a continuous spectrum of ideas in this approach : from a fat lazy God who exists but does bugger all, to God having direct control over every atom in existence. It's really only toward the extreme "total control" end that science and religion start to unfriend each other on Facebook.

Not Believing In A Deity Does Not Automatically Make You Rational Or A Scientist And It Certainly Doesn't Automatically Make You A Nice Person

Being religious clearly does not equate to being stupid or irrational. But we should also look at the opposite case. Many of those arguing most passionately that religion holds science back are not scientists themselves, yet they seem convinced that they are more rational because they believe deities don't exist.

That is probably the most dangerous fallacy of all. There are all kinds of secular ideologies that can lead to barbarism, not least of which is communism. The Khmer Rouge were explicitly anti-religious and anti-intellecutal, and committed some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. But then, communism in general hasn't really enjoyed a great reputation for creating happy societies. While Marx's views on religion may have been rather more sophisticated, making people into atheists is nowhere near enough to make people better.

Absolutely none of which says that atheists are better or worse as scientists, of course. The point is that if you say, "religious people are bad, they do all these irrational things and stand in the way of science", you are so far wrong it's not even funny. Atheists are just as capable of being stupid as anyone else. It makes exactly as much sense to say, "Stalin was a nasty man, therefore all atheists are evil" as it does to say, "the Crusades weren't very nice, so all religious people are jerks." Citing examples of atheist scientists does not mean that atheism is either better or inherently more rational.

Now, just to be fish-slap-in-the-face clear, if you're thinking that I'm somehow implying that atheism makes you worse, you need a good spanking. Because I'm not - religion doesn't have a monopoly on morality. I am saying that the human condition - our ability to get along with people we disagree with, to build particle accelerators, to massacre people by the million or sacrifice ourselves for others - is infinitely more complex than whether or not someone believes in a deity or thinks the Bible is a good read.

Someone's been a bad atheist.
Just to continue to rub the point home, it's always worth remembering that even some of the very best scientists are capable of stupid mistakes. Hoyle continued to believe in the Steady State long after it was utterly discredited. Einstein, conversely, fudged his equations to make a Steady State possible. He was also no fan of quantum mechanics, despite being one of its founders. Only two years before Einstein's first paper on relativity, Michelson was proclaiming that all the underlying principles of physics had been solved !

And some self-proclaimed atheists really aren't anything of the sort. Instead of supernatural deities, they believe in aliens, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and a host of other powerful entities beyond their control and utterly lacking in sensible evidence. Of course, their faith is utterly different from religious faith, because they have real proof, sheeple...

There's something deep in the human psyche that demands to control other people, or insists that it's under the control of something else. We seem to desperately want to believe that someone is actively "in charge", even if we don't want to think that's a supernatural entity. A willingness to accept one's purposelessness in the face of Creation appears to be rather rare - even those who insist there are no higher powers so often insist that everyone else must accept this "fact" whether they want to or not (let alone whether it would actually make them better people). People are, in short, complicated. I don't know why this is such a hard concept for some people to grasp. You just can't reduce people to their spiritual beliefs.


Religion and science clearly don't have to be in conflict, but sometimes they undeniably are. Those who think that ancient tomes or voices in their head or magical leprechauns can tell them how the world works even when hard evidence says otherwise are likely destined to be cheerleading the protests against teaching evolution, anti-vaccines, insisting the Earth is flat, and that sort of thing. Which is a pretty awful sort of cheerleading, really.

Except... this article claims that there isn't really a "war on science" at all. It quite correctly notes that those opposed to even very robust scientific findings often try and use other scientific results to dispute them. Judging by the responses when I posted this on Google+, I have to say there's probably something in that. While there was a response by a Creationist nutter, there were also responses by two intensely rational people who are skeptical of mainstream scientific ideas. One is sympathetic to UFOs. Another is skeptical of climate change. Both are extremely intelligent human beings, so I hope they managed to bury the hatchet.

That said, if you dispute the findings of science you're being scientific. But if you insist that a conclusion must be wrong because you don't like it - not because science actually says so - then even if you manipulate other science to show that it's wrong, you're not being scientific. If you're not actually declaring war, you're at least perverting the course of science.

Another recent article - which motivated this post as I found it somewhat unsatisfying - has the interesting note that surveys may be "creating Creationists". That is, if your survey questions are over-simplified, you'll miss important nuances about what people really believe, and conclude that things are considerably more black and white than they are :
One 2006 poll conducted by the BBC, for example, asked respondents to say if they believed in atheistic evolution, creationism or intelligent design theory. No option was offered for those believing in God as well as accepting evolution. In this way, such surveys effectively “create creationists” in the way they frame their questions... The problem with this poll is that it tends to imply all people have clear and internally coherent views on the subject.
Similarly, people sometimes say that you can't pick and choose which bits of a religion you want to believe. That is complete nonsense. People do this all the time whether you think they can or not. To take an extreme example, my grandmother called herself a Christian but didn't believe in the afterlife.

And yet while that particular example may be rather silly (it's literally true though, I'm not exaggerating), there's a virtue in picking and choosing. It demonstrates that religious followers are not all blindly unquestioning sheep. Far more complex examples can be found in theology, which would be completely unnecessary if everyone took their religious texts literally. There may be comfort in blind obedience to a set text, but there's no safety - for yourself or anyone else. It would indeed be an absolutely ghoulish world if people followed their religious books to the letter, so why on Earth are you trying to make people do this ? Fortunately, they don't - which, incidentally, also means that it's pointless to judge people by what their books say.

Although occasionally judging them by their hair is permitted.
Galileo was pretty close to the whole notion of God being the reason for the world, not the mechanism, when he said (slightly paraphrasing), "the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go". More than a thousand years earlier, even St Augustine realised that the Bible shouldn't be taken literally in all things. Modern thinkers too have espoused the view that contradictions in the Bible indicate it's not supposed to be a history book. And yet devout atheists continue to act as though all Christians - and by extension all theists - have this utterly ridiculous, uber-simplistic view of the world.

I suppose it may be nice to think that other people are worse as a way of making yourself feel better, but deep down I think we all know who the real enemies are : Nickleback fans. Obviously.

I mean seriously WTF is wrong with these "people".
Science and religion have a far more complicated history than is generally taught, and a far more complex relationship today than is often assumed. Yes, at times there have been some gruelling clashes. And today there are certain extremists who take their holy writ as being literally true, even though this was known to be stupid thousands of years ago. The mistake, however, is to label all religious people in some sort of big homogeneous group. This is as wrong as the European Southern Observatory's repeated claim to be building the world's largest telescope. Err, yeah, optical telescope, but omitting the world "optical" is not a simplification. It's just plain wrong.

Atheists, I totally get your anger at religious fanatics. I'll back you all the way on that. But all religious people ? Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope. Conflict can occur not just because of religious fanatics, but because of scientific fanatics too : my way of looking at the Universe is the only valid one, only scientific knowledge is true. Anything unmeasurable isn't real. Most of the time, there's just no need for this starkly black-and-white view of the world.

When it comes to those who say, "God does everything", the atheists are correct. It's when they step outside the remit of science and try and say that all notions of divinity are definitely wrong and damaging that I have a problem.
Irrationality requires far more than a mere belief in a deity. It requires a subscription to a much larger and more broad-ranging field of thought. You have to surrender your own reasoning and outsource your knowledge to someone or something else, be that a religious textbook or a scientific one. Religion can do this. So can other ideologies. You can be a devout acolyte of science who takes the half-mad theories of some scientists as gospel. But it is not the slightest bit necessary that this happens. As Jesuit astronomer Guy Consolmagno puts its (01:08:40) :
I can't allow my experience to try to determine your life, nor do I, nor have you heard me do that. What I do hear is a description of religion that you guys have rejected that I would reject as well. And if that's what you think religion is, then by all means get rid of it - that's a horrible idea of religion.... A lot of people think religion is what they thought they heard when they were 11.
I suspect that Gauss, Newton, Maxwell,  al-Haytham and Al-Biruni would have shared similar sentiments. Religion and science don't always get along - sometimes through the fault of the religious, and sometimes through the fault of the scientists. Yet it doesn't have to be this way. It is only the peculiarly extreme forms of religion and science ("mine is the one true way") that force a conflict where none need exist.

Monday 28 March 2016

Ask An Astronomer Anything At All About Astronomy (XXI)

More questions.

1) Are rogue stars and planets created by galaxy collisions ?
Star yes, planets no.

2) If we replaced the Sun with another star during a collision with another galaxy, would we all die ?
Yes. Yes we would.

3) Do black holes convert energy into mass ?

4) Why do black holes bend space ?
Black holes hate space and are engaged in an ongoing war to destroy it. They hope that if they bend it enough they'll break it. The reason is that they had a big argument a few billion years ago (something to do with whether or not infinity is a physically meaningful concept) and neither side has yet been able to outwit the other.

5) If space was curved enough could I see the back of my own head ?
Yeah, but just use a mirror, OK ? Seriously, you can pick one up for like £1. Leave space alone.

6) How do we know space is curved ?
Because Science.

7) If a star dies , does it still have the same mass ?
Not usually.

8) If a star becomes a black hole does its mass increase ?
It can if it wants to.

Sunday 27 March 2016

You'll Have Your Eye Out With That

William of Ockham said no such thing. Jodie Foster said it in Contact, but then, Jodie Foster discovered aliens in Contact by using headphones connected to the Very Large Array.  So perhaps we shouldn't take Jodie Foster in Contact as an unimpeachable scientific authority, if such a thing even exists.

What's now called Occam's Razor has been stated in many different ways throughout history and even in the future :

Unfortunately, while "the simplest explanation tends to be the right one" has become much the most popularised version of the Razor it's also, perhaps, the worst version. Like any sharp pointy implement, the Razor is an extremely useful tool but it needs to be properly handled. If you run around with it slashing willy-nilly at complex theories, you will - as mum used to say - have someone's eye out with that.

Alternative phrasings include, but are not limited to :
  • We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible
  • It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer
  • It is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many
  • Plurality must never be posited without necessity
  • Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity
  • Whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities
All of these contain an essence which "the simplest explanation tends to be the right one" does not. That version makes an awfully big assumption about the Universe which is actually self-defeating. Taken to extremes, the simplest explanation for anything is that a wizard did it. Which isn't very helpful.

Though it can be amusing.
There's no particular reason to think that the Universe is simple, because it blatantly isn't. Which is something I've explored before, but it's worth re-iterating. Curved spacetime, the relative simultaneity of events and the mass-energy equivalence are not simpler than the idea of a force which depends only on mass. Or to put it another way, this
... is not simpler than this :

Don't even get me started on what the terms in the first equation mean, because that's the sort of thing which takes a half-dozen undergraduate modules to properly explain. Anyway, simple is a subjective term. If you live your whole life in a cave, the simplest explanation is that the entire Universe is made of rock. If the Universe was really a simple place, there would be just four elements, bacteria wouldn't exist, illness would be caused by an imbalance of four humours, and the less said about quantum theory the better.

Shcrodinger's Cat is alive and very very angry. Until nap time, that is.
Science is the means by which we can test our intuition about the Universe, not necessarily prove it. There's a rather nice science vs. religion debate in which the inestimable Guy Consolmagno says :
"Poetry is a very powerful way of communicating truths that cannot be communicated in the kind of language found in the owner's manual to fix your Volkswagen. The importance of poetry is precisely because it carries you to into a place that ordinary words can no longer carry you."
He's right, of course. But it's also true of science and mathematics as well - they allow you to explore concepts that your feelings alone cannot. Their real strength comes from the ability not to know what's going on, but to test what's going on. This "tends to be the right one" idea, rather than expounding the virtues of the scientific method of examination, actually encourages a deeply prejudiced idea of how the Universe is supposed to behave. The Universe has no compulsion to behave simply at all. It can do whatever the hell it likes, even if that makes not the slightest bit of sense to our infinitesimally small monkey brains. That's why we now think we live in a universe where mass deforms spacetime rather than generating a force.

Not that mathematics isn't without its own poetry, however.
OK, "tends to be the right one" at least says, "tends", allowing for the fact that not all simple explanations are better. But even this isn't really good enough, because simple explanations usually tend to be wrong. This is every bit as true in philosophy and morality as it is in science.

There's another, bigger problem with "the right one". Pretty much all scientific theories get overturned eventually, though sometimes that takes centuries. Supposing that your theory is not merely true but also complete is a dangerous way to fall into the trap of dogmatic thinking. Or, as this rather nice article puts it :
Then there’s the “cognitive fluency” of a statement – essentially, whether it tells a good, coherent story that is simple to imagine. “If something feels smooth and easy to process, then our default is to expect things to be true,” says Newman. This is particularly true if a myth easily fits with our expectations. “It has to be sticky – a nugget or soundbite that links to what you know, and reaffirms your beliefs,” agrees Stephan Lewandowsky at the University of Bristol in the UK, whose work has examined the psychology of climate change deniers.
We should call it Bill's Razor though, because it would sound less pompous.
A simple idea can be seductive - especially if it's consistent with other ideas. A complex idea that goes against existing notions is generally a hard sell, but that's not by itself a reason to discount it. Newton's theory of gravity had astonishing success, but failed to predict the orbit of Mercury quite correctly. One simple explanation was that there was another planet even close to the Sun. The alternative was Einstein's massively more difficult model. But Vulcan was never found, and Einstein eventually won the day.

And yet simplicity has a powerful virtue. Consider the alternative of the most complicated explanation. Ten thousand years ago, one might have said that the Earth is either flat or round. Flat because it just looks flat, and round because things disappear over the horizon. The test of seeing a ship's hull disappear before the mast does wasn't available because no-one had ships large enough to do this. There was really very little reason to suppose the Earth was round, and one huge overwhelming reason to suppose it was flat. Without telescopes and large moveable vehicles, that things disappear over the horizon could easily be dismissed as things looking smaller at larger distances.

Ten thousand years later and the tables have completely turned. Whereas once you'd have had to come up with all manner of crazy explanations for a round Earth, now the opposite is true. Amongst other things, you have to assume that all of NASA and a host of multi-national space organisations are lying and that a huge military force prevents anyone from getting near the edge of the planet. With enough complexity, any explanation - no matter how stupid - can be made to work.

Not for the first or last time will I use the von Neumann quote : "With four free parameters I can fit an elephant; with five I can make him wiggle his trunk." Complicated theories are much harder to test, because the more explanations you can invoke, the more unexpected discoveries you can account for. Which can be used to tremendous comic effect if you're John Cleese.

A key point in the alternative formulations of the Razor that Jodie Foster's misses completely is, "without necessity". If your idea is simple and works, you should, as a rule, prefer it to a more complicated one which also works. Einstein's theory won in part because there was just no way to make Newton's model work at all. Einstein's mathematical nightmare was invoked by necessity, not because he thought it might be good for a laugh.

All things being equal, then, we should prefer simple theories because they're generally easier to test and disprove. Otherwise, like Basil Fawlty's elaborate lies, we can usually contrive some solution to keep a theory alive along after it should have been roasted on a spit and eaten. But when things are not equal, we should prefer the theory that performs best. If a more complex model gets things right that a simple one doesn't, then we have to spit on the simple one in disgust and go for the complicated one instead.

Occam's Razor is not a license to go around slashing theories you don't like because they're complicated. It's more like an electric razor that has those safety guards that prevent you from ripping yourself into a bloody mess - you should try and remove unnecessary body hair, but you wouldn't use it on your scalp. You probably want to keep that hair.... well, mostly.

The Razor should be treated more like a pair of hedge trimmers : used properly and carefully, it's very powerful. Ultimately it's more of a guideline than a rule. In its most concise form it might be phrased as, "prefer simple explanations". "Prefer", of course, does not mean, "insist upon". A slightly more pragmatic version might be, "test the simplest explanation first". The ultimate truth is rarely revealed to us - science is, like topiary, a process of improvement, but rarely sudden breakthroughs. Start with the simple explanations not because they're usually right - that's crazy - but only because they're the easiest to test and falsify.

Of course, the Razor is not the only principle we need to do science, otherwise we would indeed be back to "a wizard did it". But used properly, it's a powerful tool. And if all else fails, one can also use Occam's Laser :

And if that doesn't help, there's always Occam's Taser :

Friday 25 March 2016

Review : The Expanse

What's that you say ? A new show on the Sy Fy channel ? Yes, I'm sure that will have all the wit and sagacity we've come to expect from the network that brought us Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus.

Now, I'm quite a fan of movies by The Asylum, who have honed the art of sheer ridiculousness into something like... well, nothing, really. Because when you're as ridiculous as a tornado full of sharks, the only thing you can be as ridiculous as is yourself.

The Expanse is not like that. Oh my no. This is easily the best thing the network has produced since Battlestar Galactica, and unlike that show it has no small claim to be an actual sci-fi piece instead of a political commentary.

Having heard a lot of hype (but carefully avoiding spoilers) I was rather put out by the angst-ridden tone of the first couple of episodes. I mean what the hell is it with making everything gloomy-doomy these days ? Angsty superheroes are just as bad. Dude, you've got lasers for eyes, enjoy it ! It's the same with giant spaceships. "Oh woe is me, this interstellar voyage is worse than having to crush a puppy with my fists." Can it, losers. I want optimism back again. Yes alright, I suppose Batman is supposed to be full of crippling emotional problems, but there seems to a weird fetish for bleakness porn. MOOOAR BLEAKNESS is the order of the day, it seems. Everything must be bleakity bleakity bleak bleak bleak.


Battlestar Galactica was about the downfall of a highly advanced, seemingly near-utopian society. Stargate Universe was... well it was dreadful, but what it was about was a crew trapped on a far-flung spaceship. But The Expanse is bleak in another way altogether.

Set 200 years in the future, the Solar System has been colonised. The two main powers, Earth and Mars, have grown fat off the products of asteroid mining. Mars has even developed to a level to rival Earth itself. But the residents of the asteroid belt ("belters") are cruelly exploited and oppressed to a level approaching slavery by their more powerful overlords. It's not an exceptional event or an isolated crew : an entire society, millions strong, has been deliberately abused over the course of centuries. And they're not very happy about that. They've even developed something like South African accents as a form of protest, for some reason.

The naturally-angst ridden tone does not sit well with me for a good many reasons. First, we've had more than enough of that sort of thing anyway. Narratively it's just not very interesting. Secondly, it's just transporting contemporary politics into another environment, and there's only so many times you can make that trick work. The fact that the resources of the asteroid belt alone are nearly limitless has apparently had little or no effect of the structure of society - in fact it's apparently made the wealth gap far worse than it is today. I find this both unlikely and uninspiring. Although there's far more to changing society than simple resources, the show doesn't seem to really understand the sheer magnitude of the wealth of the asteroid belt.

There are some other sci-fi oddities - most notably, a near-total lack of artificial intelligence. Besides the scale of the spaceships (which are beautifully epic), most tech feels like it's at most 50 years ahead of current, not 200. They have glass smartphones and some neat cybernetic implants, but that's about it. Oh, and some crude holographics and a natural language interface for computers. There's a complete and very distinct lack of robots - let alone thinking machines - which is all the more surprising given how much better it would be for everyone instead of slavery.

It's understandable that sci-fi so often omits AI and robots, because the consequences are truly beyond imagining. Star Trek had it that true AI is just too difficult to develop; Dune went so far as to have the Butlerian Jihad - a war against the thinking machines (many decades before Terminator came along). Still, given the recent rapid development in those fields, it would be nice to see someone at least try.

Probably the worst plot hole of the show is the focus on the scarcity of water for the belters. They make their living mining ice for rocket fuel (perfectly sensible), but water is somehow more precious than gold. I'm told that the water shortage is a stand-in for more complex plots described in the novel, but it doesn't really help.

Such adaptation problems are seen in other ways. In particular, a large part of the story takes place on the asteroid Ceres. Ceres today is just about large enough to have significant (but very low) gravity, so it's rather nice to see birds flapping around lazily. But then we see a detective threatening to throw someone out of an airlock in the floor. We see him pour whisky and it flows at a jaunty angle, which is not something that happens in a low gravity field. By itself, low gravity just slows things down.

It turns out that this is because Ceres has been spun-up to provide a much higher gravity. Like living in a fairground ride, everyone is walking around inside a giant cylinder. Which explains why the airlocks are on the "floor". The weird whisky pour occurs because of a very strong coriolis effect, which really is what would happen in a spinning habitat.

The problem isn't that they got the science right, it's that they completely failed to explain what the hell is going on to the audience. Until I was told what was happening, I was convinced the scene must have somehow shifted to a spaceship and the writers just forgot to tell me. So I was thinking that their storytelling abilities were considerably worse than they actually are.

Which is not to say that the storytelling abilities are particularly great. They aren't. The plot isn't that complicated, but it's told in a confusing and convoluted way. After the whole ten episodes, I think I can remember the names of two or three characters. Other than that I'm relying on mental labels. "Hat guy", "unimportant sidekick", "I wish I was Grand Moff Tarkin", "angry sinister woman", "nice guy with a beard", and of course "not Jayne". The story they're trying to tell isn't a bad one - it's nothing revolutionary but that's OK - but it feels like it needs another three or four episodes to explain things properly.

Then there are the characters themselves. Meeeeeh. I just don't like any of them. I suppose Angry Sinister Woman is interestingly morally ambiguous, and Hat Guy not only has a hat (which everyone comments on) but also ridiculous hair (which for some reason no-one ever mentions, presumably because of the hat). My word, that's two distinguishing traits - good job team ! Not Jayne is exactly Jayne from Firefly if he wasn't funny. Which describes the rest of the show pretty well too.

At this point you'd be forgiven for thinking I hate the show. I do not. While it has some pretty serious flaws, it's also got a lot going for it. In fact it's almost worth watching for the visuals alone, which are among the best television has to offer. The special effects are genuinely special, and wouldn't look out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster except that the accuracy is orders of magnitude better than anything Hollywood's come up with. Not just the CGI but the attention to detail on the props as well. The cinematography is near perfect - almost as good as War & Peace. In fact as an overall visual treat, I'd have to say this is second to none.

Ceres station. The roof is actually inside the asteroid (towards the centre) while the floor is towards the surface. The reason the clouds look like a bad piece of CGI is because that's exactly what they're supposed to be : part of an artificial environment.
The scientific accuracy also deserves gushing praise. It could very well be the most accurate show ever produced. Ships and stations either have rotational gravity, or artificial gravity produced by acceleration. Scenes with zero-g when the ships aren't accelerating are common, though sometimes they use magnetic boots. The writers understand conservation of momentum and Newton's 3rd law of motion. Ships don't always point in the direction they're travelling. The coriolis effect is visible inside rotating stations. Astronauts don't explode if they're exposed to vacuum for a few seconds. And almost none of this accuracy at any time ever feels like it's made the show worse*.

* The major exception being Ceres, and one occasion where an astronaut opens his helmet to remove something for no apparent reason.

Just about the only element of handwavium I spotted was that ships seem to be accelerating for awfully long periods. This isn't prohibited by the laws of physics, it's just damned hard to do. I can certainly forgive them this, and anyway mimicking low gravity is technically challenging to depict. So not perfect, but as close to perfect as we're ever likely to see in a sci-fi show.

Then there's the plot. Sure, the storytelling isn't great, but the plotline is engaging enough to make this a thoroughly worthy binge watch. Without giving spoilers, it's mostly pure politics - but with just enough of more classical sci-fi elements to make this a genuine piece of science fiction. I would have liked a more rounded-off conclusion to the series though, and the next one isn't coming until 2017.

Here we see Hat Guy in his secret identity as Ridiculous Hair Man being unimpressed at the long break between seasons.

All in all, I'm tempted to label The Expanse as something of a broken masterpiece. It's certainly persuaded me that bleak sci-fi is still worth watching, whereas Interstellar had me thinking that it's had its day. I would still prefer something more optimistic though. And the characters really are just not good enough, frankly. Making people angsty and mopey and morally ambiguous does not automatically make them realistic. Real people tend to be funny and at least some of them are likeable. They're not all different types of assholes.

Technically, the show is an absolute triumph. You won't find a prettier piece of sci-fi in this decade, nor are you likely to find a more accurate show in the last... well, possibly ever. Yet I'd trade that in a heartbeat for some better storytelling. It's not bad, exactly... it just doesn't have anything particularly noteworthy. Which won't stop me from buying the blu-ray box set and, possibly, the novels.

Sunday 20 March 2016

Standing On The Shoulders Of Some Other People Of About Average Height

The Myth Of The Misanthrope

Science in the popular media is largely depicted in a very strange way. Scientists, we are told, are either "baffled" or "solving mysteries". Few scientists really exist in a state of genuine bafflement, at least not for the fraction of time the media would have you believe. Rarely do good scientists, at least, ever think they've definitively solved a problem. In reality it's a fuzzier process, usually just swinging the balance of probability in a different direction rather than proving or disproving anything. Often it's not even clear which way the probability has swung.

Another expression of this very black and white view is that of the lone genius - probably the most enduring public image of scientists. It appeals to us on all sorts of levels, from the psychotic, "they said I was maaaad !" evil genius bent on destruction with his (and it's always a he) neo-magical powers, to the subversive misanthrope who's too radical for mainstream academia. Being chronic loners seems somehow to compensate for the scientist's great intelligence, as though the ability to solve differential equations was in some way perfectly anti-correlated with the ability to hold a conversation.

Like most stereotypes, there's a grain of truth here. But it's only a grain, because while a few lone geniuses certainly do exist, the vast majority of scientists are not (particularly) socially maladjusted weirdos. And they're certainly not staggeringly intelligent for that matter.

Here we see a group of scientists solving veeery tricky mathematical problems using beer pong.
Here we see another bunch of scientists wincing in pain as their favourite theory is disproved.
But, perhaps, only the geniuses tend to be socially maladjusted weirdos. Could be, but I rather doubt it. For example Alan Turing was not the irritable, impossibly arrogant twerp depicted in The Imitation Game  - that's just the character Benedict Cumberbatch prefers to play. Though if you go back to the previous century another pioneer of computing, Charles Babbage, was hardly a party animal. So often did he complain to The Times about street musicians that one of them threw a dead cat at his house.

Breaking the image of the scientist as the misanthropic old white man is important, but it's even more important to break the myth of the infallible genius - and most importantly of all, the lone genius. Never mind the social lives of scientists. What about the idea that science is driven by occasional breakthroughs by lone radical geniuses while mainstream academia works on unimportant, easy problems that don't really advance knowledge ?

It will probably come as no great surprise that the reality just isn't that simple.

Academia Is Not Some Crazy System For The Supression Of Freedom Of Thought, You Berk

Even the word "lecture" is all too often perceived to mean, "shut up".
Lone geniuses do happen, from time to time. But they are never entirely isolated from the larger research culture. In short, no-one is that smart. Even geniuses (evil or otherwise) don't just stand on the shoulders of giants, as Newton put it, they also stand at least as much on the shoulders of the ordinary scientist. The day-to-day business of science is to very slowly chip away at the coalface of knowledge and often get clobbered by great boulders of ugly facts that come smashing down on preferred theories like, well, like great terrible boulders.

Two recent articles are doing the rounds about this, so this seems like a good time for me to add a few comments.

The first is from the Huffington Post and points out, quite correctly, that most revolutionary scientists don't discover things all by themselves. The second is from the excellent Backreaction blog and points out that actually a lot of the time science can consist of individuals thinking in isolation. While this is true, I think it's missing the point entirely.

For once, I'm not going to argue for the middle ground - I strongly prefer the Huffington Post article. There's this very appealing aspect to the notion that a single lone genius can come up with a revolutionary idea and disprove all those stuffy, closed-minded, elitist, ivory-tower eggheads. We like the idea that the supposedly most intelligent (or at least the most qualified) of us can get things wrong. It gives us a license to opt for whatever idea we happen to prefer even if that flies in the face of the available evidence. "Well it's only a theory", they say, or, "would these be the same experts who said the Titanic was unsinkable ?"

Of course, as I have pointed out at length, individual scientists do get things wrong and they do make catastrophic errors even within their own fields of expertise. And yes, on very rare occasions the consensus is overturned and some moron with a seemingly crazy idea is proved right. But it is very rare indeed - perhaps never happens at all - that a single individual is solely responsible for a scientific revolution.

The Huffington Post article rightly gives the example of Einstein. Einstein was no lone genius - he relied on the ideas and discoveries of Maxwell, Poincare, Lorentz and many others. Even the idea of time as a dimension had been around for more than a decade before special relativity came along. Einstein was a genius for tying together disparate strands of thought and understanding how they could apply to the real world, but he was not a free agent of chaos. True, he had a lot of spare time to work in the way he wanted since he wasn't (initially) in academia himself. But relativity simply would not have happened without all the decades of research from all those other, supposedly lesser scientists toiling away in relative obscurity, who are today largely only known to other scientists.

While some people are more intelligent than others, no-one is omniscient. Everyone depends on others to some extent. No man is an island and all that.

Einstein provides a very nice example of the "free to fail" dilemma that besets academia. On the one hand, as a young researcher he had unusual freedom to pursue his own projects as a patent clerk that he wouldn't have had as a university postdoc. The result was the triumphant theory of relativity. On the other hand, with his reputation firmly established he spent decades of his later life attempting an even grander theory. He was equally free to fail... and indeed, he did fail. It is foolish indeed to pretend that it's an easy decision as to how much leeway to give a researcher in pursuing their ideas, and ridiculous to act as though "they should have known better" on those occasions where mistakes were made.

Some more examples. Maxwell's Equations aren't terribly well-known outside the scientific world - despite being essential in understanding electronics - but they are really a set of equations constructed by Ampere, Faraday and Gauss. Maxwell, jolly clever bod though he was, certainly did not come up with the theory of modern electromagnetism all by himself. Similar, the brilliant Faraday - while famously self-taught - was not immune to the previous discoveries of many far less famous scientists. Even the stupendously intelligent Gauss, though he indeed made many important discoveries out of his own sheer genius, did not shun collaborations with other scientists.

What about the other household names ? Darwin certainly didn't work in isolation or learn everything all by himself. Galileo relied on Brahe, Copernicus and others. Though intensely controversial, Hubble has even been accused of outright plagiarism. And Newton, of course, was the very one who coined the phrase, "standing on the shoulders of giants".

Much as the idea of One Man Against The System might have a certain appeal, the reality is far more nuanced. Many areas of research certainly require a basic level of raw problem-solving individual intelligence - but almost none have researchers working in total isolation, cut off from the research of their peers or those who went before them. Yes, there are geniuses, and yes, they make discoveries unique to themselves. But if you don't recognize that those discoveries were also dependent on the smaller actions of legions of other researchers, you're doing a lot of people a great disservice. As Backreaction eloquently puts it :
True, scientists always build on other’s work, and once they’ve built, they must tell their colleagues about it. Communication isn’t only a necessary part of research, it’s also the best way to make sure you’re not fooling yourself. That talking to other people about your problems can be useful is a lesson I first had to learn, but even I eventually learned it.

Lonely But Not Loners (Or At Least Not Losers)

The Backreaction post author claims to disagree with the idea that the loner is a myth, despite emphasising the importance of communication. This had me rather confused until I realised that Backreaction and the Huffington Post are actually talking at cross-purposes : there are two quite different processes at work here. The Backreaction author rightly notes that sometimes the process of science is indeed a lonely one :
Still, there is a stage of research that remains lonely. That phase in which you don’t really know just what you know, when you have an idea but you can’t put into words, a problem so diffuse you’re not sure what the problem is.
Physics isn’t all teamwork and communication skills, it’s not all collaboration and conferences, it’s not all chalk and talk. That’s some of it, but physics is also a lot of reading and a lot of thinking – and sometimes it’s lonely.
There are stages in your research in which you will hit on a problem that no one can help you with. Because that’s what research is all about – finding and solving problems that no one has solved before. And sometimes you will get stuck, annoyed about yourself, frustrated about your own inability to make sense of these equations. You will feel stupid and you will feel lonely and you will feel like nobody can understand you – because nobody can understand you.
This is of course true, but there's nothing here that's incompatible with the Huffington Post article. Which would be absolutely fine if the author hadn't stated that she was in disagreement. You can't really have it both ways. Yes, you can be a lonely scientist. You can even be a socially maladjusted weirdo and do really great science - that's cool too. But you cannot be a truly isolated scientist, and I think that's by far and away the most important point. The crux of the matter is :
But attracting new customers shouldn’t scare away the regulars. We have use for the nerdy loners too... I hope that you, too, find a niche in life where you fit in. And if you want to be left alone, don’t let anyone tell you there is no place for loners in this world any more.
The thing is, the myth of the lone genius isn't about scientists' social skills at all : it's about how the system itself works. No-one is saying you can't be a crazy loner genius if that's what works for you, but plenty of people are saying they've come up with an idea that's "obviously better than anything produced in academia" who can't even spell "academia".

There's absolutely no incompatibility between the idea that some people make discoveries through their own intelligence and the fact that they invariably depend on previous advancements. Rather, the danger of the lone genius myth - the point we should all be fighting - is that having an idea perceived as crazy doesn't mean you're right. Yes, you could be the next Einstein, but unless you took a degree in physics the chances are you're almost certainly not. Yes, in principle great discoveries could be made by people well outside the mainstream or even in another field entirely, but in practise, they're usually not.

The great problem with non-mainstream ideas, amongst other things, is that you can usually find a crazy moron who believes in anything. That when the consensus view changes some lunatic will pipe up and say, "hahah ! I was RIGHT !" does not mean they were responsible for the revolutionary breakthrough. The fact is that there are invariably hordes of crazed lunatics that you can use as a sort of dial-a-theory service. Getting things right due to chance doesn't automatically make their methods or reasoning any more sophisticated - they're still a bunch of deranged nutters.

And even though some particular geniuses have been incredibly important in scientific breakthroughs, we should not forget the importance of collaborations either. Just as Darwin could not have swum to the Galapagos Islands, and Einstein couldn't have developed relativity had all the maths not been in place, so in modern times the Higgs Boson and dark energy could not have been discovered by loners in sheds. Sometimes the individual matters, sometimes the group. It's just far, far too simple to reduce scientific revolutions to the actions exclusively of individuals.


Backreaction, I commend your defence of social loners wholeheartedly. As a staunch introvert myself I have nothing but sympathy for people who don't like talking to other people. It's taken me many years to learn how not to worry myself silly about giving a presentation for days beforehand, let alone actually be entertaining.

But in this case the defence of the loner is completely missing the point. There are two quite different aspects to the lone genius myth. First, we fight the myth of the social loner not because they aren't worthy people, but because they are widely perceived to be the norm (or even the exclusive demographic) in science. If you're a social butterfly, science, it seems, is obviously not for you. Science is for people who end up talking to potted plants at parties, not nightclub-going "cool" people.

Of course it doesn't actually matter one jot if you prefer to spend your evenings moshing out ('cos that's a term, right ?) in a dingy nightclub or reading The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire with a glass of warm milk. But science has the unusual position where the loners are seen as dominant. They don't need defending, so in this peculiar case it's the extroverts who have an image problem. That's why we fight the myth of social loners - to promote an environment suitable for everyone. That does not mean that loners aren't welcome.

Secondly, we fight the myth of the academic lone genius for entirely different reasons : because it undermines academia and the need for collaborative science. Virtually no-one makes a really significant contribution to science without at the very least reading the work of their forebears. People just aren't that smart. It may be nice to think that you can overturn decades of science in an afternoon with no formal training, but you can't. The lone genius myth fuels the fire of those who are convinced scientists are all ivory-tower closed minded snobs.

However, zoologists may well make significant discoveries by studying the actions of their four bears.
Not that academia isn't without its problems, of course. That's fundamentally impossible because it's composed of human beings who have all the same weakness as other human beings. But to view the hallowed halls of academia as entirely conservative, dogmatic places is just wrong. Not for the first or last time will I state it bluntly : if everyone is telling you your idea is nuts, maybe it really is.

Scientists are not exclusively loners nor are they exclusively geniuses. Some of them are indeed loners and some are geniuses, and some are both. But to all intents and purposes, none are truly the lone genius of myth, who tinker away working on some crazy idea without recourse to the works of their peers and predecessors. Even the most cantankerous, antisocial, even misanthropic scientists have to read what others have done. Like it or not, science is a fundamentally collaborative endeavour.