09 January 2009

Dabbling in science

This is my husband's province, but he's brought a few magpie bits to my attention recently.

Great phrase used by Amanda Gefter in the New Scientist:
But to suggest that if this [multiverse] theory doesn't pan out our only other option is a supernatural one is to abandon science itself. Not only is it an unfounded leap of logic, it suggests intelligent design offers as valid an explanation as a cosmological theory does, and lends credence to creationists' mistaken claim that the multiverse was invented to serve as science's get-out-of-God-free card.

The physicist/statistician Lenny Smith (who says upfront that "Man-made climate change is real") interviewed in the same New Scientist issue:

For advancing our understanding, they [climate models] are fundamental. For decision-making, even given their uncertainties, they can help minimise our vulnerability. They are also a source of information about what might plausibly happen - even if they cannot yield probabilities on what will actually happen.

That is fair enough. In the real world we don't usually expect certainty, and don't have much use for averages - but we do need information about plausible risks. When I cross the street, average statistics about cars and how they are driven are of less value to me than the sound of a bus heading my way. Models help us listen for that bus. So let's forget the spurious certainties, and even the spurious probabilities, and concentrate on what matters.

Earlier in the interview, his response to a question on whether one should believe reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was:

Broadly yes - we understand a lot. You have to read the qualifiers carefully, though. In the most recent report, for instance, there is an explicit acknowledgement that the range of simulations in today's models is too narrow. That is, future warming could be greater or less than what is suggested by the diversity between models in the report. It's good that the qualifier is in there, but it is a hell of a qualifier to find on page 797.

A statement by Einstein that I've corroborated via this piece on James Clerk-Maxwell by Duncan Macmillan: http://news.scotsman.com/arts/One-of-the-most-important.4764615.jp

Maxwell inherited the Newtonian view of the world as consisting of matter in space, but he left to us the very different understanding that the universe is shaped by fields of energy unified by a single constant, the speed of light. Einstein was quite clear about Maxwell's status. His field theory, he said, changed our "conception of reality." That is pretty fundamental. Einstein also said famously that as a scientist, he stood not on Newton's shoulders, but on Clerk-Maxwell's.

And finally, the phrase "survival of the fittest" is not Charles Darwin's, nor even T. H. Huxley's, but comes from the work of their contemporary, the philosopher Herbert Spencer, after he had read On the Origin of Species. Darwin then used the term in later editions of his work--despite the fact that Spencer actually endorsed Lamarck's idea of "inheritance of acquired characteristics."

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