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Archive for November, 2006

[Ed.: I started writing this and it turned into gargantupost, so I've broken it into chunks. This is Chunk the First. The others will appear whenever I'm short of ideas.]

So – some languages are more difficult to learn than others. Not intrinsically, mind you – the difficulty is the result of not being familiar with the language family (Teutonic for, say, German or Romance for, say, French). The U.S. State Department has a system for categorising the difficulty of a new language for a native English speaker. It goes:

  1. French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swahili
  2. Bulgarian, Burmese, Greek, Hindi, Persian, Urdu
  3. Amharic, Cambodian, Czech, Finnish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Lao, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese
  4. Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean

The direction of the ordering is evident as soon as one picks up a book in French and a book in Japanese, and decides which is easier; I have no idea how the classification was arrived at. In primary schools in Australia during the late 1980s, there was a rush to study Japanese to prepare for the nation’s impending engagement with Asia, but after the Keating government was foreclosed the wedding was called off; I think everyone learns French and Indonesian now. The positive: we learnt about a culture well outside the continental European orthodoxy of languages taught throughout the 20th century. The negative: after studying Japanese throughout primary school, high school and a semester of University, I don’t speak a foreign language.

(Prof. Friedman says: “Try talking French with someone who studied it in public school”)

This is a bit unacceptable – being monolingual in Europe is like not being toilet-trained. Seriously. Britons are pretty bad offenders here too, so any Australians seeking asylum in the U.K. are sheltered from having to face their inadequacy fully, but this has the downside of allowing ignorance to fester. I worry that whenever I travel to the mainland the Dutch air stewards are making abominably witty multilingual puns at my expense.

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I’m working under a bit of a “late night Ashes watcher” fog but here goes with my first post.

I’m reading a book at the moment called “The Golem: What you should know about Science” by Henry Collins and Trevor Pinch. They tell the story of the early days of relativity, which is somewhat different to the standard story.

According to most popular science books and even undergraduate textbooks, the pre-history of special relativity goes something like this:

If light travels through a medium (the ether) then it should appear to travel faster in certain directions. Picture throwing a pebble in a flowing river. Ripples travelling with the water downstream will move quickly while ripples trying to go upstream will slow down as they fight the current. In 1887, Albert Michelson and Arthur Morley used a clever technique (I won’t go into details) to measure our speed through the ether and found … drum roll … nothing. Which is weird because the Earth rotates around its axis and orbits around the sun so there should be something. An ether wind should be blowing past us, at least at some times of the year.

All were stumped and confused (except for a couple of ad hoc ideas) until Einstein unveiled his special relativity in 1905, which postulates that light always travels at the same speed. Another win for physics!

This is all very neat and tidy, but it isn’t the whole story. As Einstein’s theory gained popularity there was a push to repeat the Michelson-Morley experiment to greater accuracy. Morley teamed up with Dayton Miller in the early 1900’s, and again found no ether wind. In the 1920’s, with the encouragement of Einstein and Lorentz, Miller repeated the experiments at an elevation of 6000 feet, just in case the earth drags the ether along somehow. In September 1924, Miller announced that he had measured an ether wind that was “real and systematic, beyond any further question.” In 1933, Miller wrote an article that argued that the evidence for an ether wind was still strong.

Now, special relativity rests on a much broader experimental basis than just the 1887 experiments of Michelson and Morley. For an excellent article, go to this article on John Baez’s outstanding site. It deals with problems with the Miller experiments as well as a host of other tests. The point, however, is that the standard story that “Michelson-Morley proves relativity” is something of a myth. The problem is not that special relativity is wrong. The problem is that the myth gives the impression that science deals with beyond-a-doubt proof rather than a messy accumulation and interpretation of evidence.

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Good morning world! The following was originally a post made by a user on the RichardDawkins.net forums, followed by my reply. It’s about the public understanding and impressions of science.

MartinSGill
Posted: Tue Oct 24, 2006 11:44 am Reply with quote
Joined: 17 Oct 2006 Posts: 18 Location: London, UK
I have no idea if there is such a thing, but it’s a suitable name for what I’m trying to describe. If the name doesn’t exist yet.. the copyright is mine! RazzSince reading The God Delusion I’ve started to read a lot more stuff generally about the arguments for and against creation. Regardless of which side of the arguement you read, they are (selectively) well written, eloquent and written by people claiming significant scientific credentials.

The point I’m making though has little to do with which side of the arguement you are on, but how you are supposed to draw your conclusions.

There is no way I can read all the books out there on evolution, creationism, or any other subject I might be interested in. Therefore I have to rely on reviews and critiques and other such things to form my opinions. That in turn means I need either trust the person writing his review, and/or be aware of any agenda or whatever they might have.

The Scientific Method is supposed to help sort out the good from the bad, but when you have both sides of an arguement claiming the other side has not applied that method you are once again stuck.

What about the number of people that believe in something? If I went back in time a few hundred years and asked 100 learned men if the earth were flat or round 98 may well say that it was flat Therefore collective wisdom is not always the correct answer.

The Layman’s dilema then is… who do I trust? I cannot read it all. I don’t have the time to learn a subject in depth just to make a decision. I suspect this might well be a reason why so many people just don’t care.

In the end what I choose to believe is influenced by my own existing beliefs, the agenda of the author and the style of the writing. Not really all that satisfying a set of criteria by which to judge the quality or validity of a piece of work.

eggplantbren
Posted: Thu Nov 09, 2006 9:42 am Reply with quote
Joined: 11 Oct 2006 Posts: 38 Location: Sydney, Australia
When I was a child I was the typical protonerd. I loved space and dinosaurs. Of course, this means I read and watched a lot of stuff that would tell me that dinosaurs lived this long ago, etc.
Then, when I was in high school, we had an assignment where we would choose a controversy in biology and give a speech on it. We chose creationism, so I got some Creation magazines from my fundamentalist Nan and started reading them.The things they were saying struck a chord. This probably helped the presentation because I actually believed what I was saying at the time. Anyway, I remember reading in Creation that children are indoctrinated with evolution and long ages as a child. It is simply stated as though it was a fact, or in a storytelling format. In most documentaries and children’s books, people just say “These dinosaurs lived 100 million years ago”, and NEVER mentioned how anyone knew this. So, in a sense, the creation magazine was right.

Most people amongst the general public only get their information on science from sources such as their childhood education and documentaries on TV. It is no wonder that, when a travel show host says some geological feature at a tourist destination is millions of years old, my Nan can scoff. For her, this is how these “facts” are made – someone just says them on TV because they feel like it. And if nobody ever investigates deeply, this is an easy impression to have.

In my opinion, education needs to focus far more on “how do we know that this is true” than “here is a list of things that are true”. While the latter is important, it doesn’t help when you are confronted with what appears to be a debate. When you have Michael Shermer and Kent Hovind both appearing reasonable on stage, and you have never learned “how do we know that fossils are old, or that evolution is true” it is easy to think that really there is no evidence and people just believe whatever they want.

It’s a tragedy to have people thinking like that because it leaves them wide open to believing whatever someone wants to make them believe – as long as they can maintain the appearance of being sensible.

I would urge you that whenever the Big Bang theory or something comes up in a conversation with a nonscientist, and they ask you about it, please do not talk about conclusions from the theory. Start with the observational evidence that provokes the theory in the first place. Hubble’s observations are a good place to start. For this reason the only popular cosmology book worth recommending (in my opinion) is Big Bang by Simon Singh.

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