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Archive for the ‘Physics’ Category

Front Cover of Australian PhysicsMy article “Cosmology Q & A” has been published! It appeared in the magazine Australian Physics, 51 (2014) 42-6 and is reproduced here with permission. After a brief overview of modern cosmology, it (tries to) answer the following questions:

  1. Is space expanding, or are galaxies just moving away from us?
  2. Is everything getting bigger?
  3. Ordinary matter and radiation cause the expansion of the universe to decelerate. But our universe is accelerating! How? What is the universe made of?
  4. Dark Energy? Is that like Dark Matter?
  5. How big is the universe?
  6. How big is the universe really?
  7. If the universe were finite, could I see the back of my own head?
  8. Is space expanding faster than the speed of light?
  9. Are there galaxies moving away from us at more than the speed of light?
  10. Light from distant galaxies is observed to be redshifted. Is this because the expansion of space stretches the wavelength, or because is it a Doppler shift due to the recession of the galaxy?
  11. Does the universe have zero total energy?
  12. Energy is not conserved!? Shouldn’t that send shivers up the spine of any physicist?
  13. The very universe, we are told, began in thermal equilibrium. How did equilibrium establish itself so quickly?
  14. How does the initially smooth universe we see in the CMB become today’s universe of stars and galaxies?

As before, further questions in the comments are always welcome.

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Having had my appetite for the Middle Ages whetted by Edward Grant’s excellent book A History of Natural Philosophy: From the Ancient World to the Nineteenth Century, I recently read Edward Feser’s Aquinas (A Beginner’s Guide). And, on the back of that, his book The Last Superstition. If I ever work out what a formal cause is, I might post a review.

In the meantime, I’ve quite enjoyed some of his blog posts about the philosophical claims of Lawrence Krauss. This is something I’ve blogged about a few times. His most recent post on Krauss contains this marvellous passage.

Krauss asserts:

“[N]othing is a physical concept because it’s the absence of something, and something is a physical concept.”

The trouble with this, of course, is that “something” is not a physical concept. “Something” is what Scholastic philosophers call a transcendental, a notion that applies to every kind of being whatsoever, whether physical or non-physical — to tables and chairs, rocks and trees, animals and people, substances and accidents, numbers, universals, and other abstract objects, souls, angels, and God. Of course, Krauss doesn’t believe in some of these things, but that’s not to the point. Whether or not numbers, universals, souls, angels or God actually exist, none of them would be physical if they existed. But each would still be a “something” if it existed. So the concept of “something” is broader than the concept “physical,” and would remain so even if it turned out that the only things that actually exist are physical.

No atheist philosopher would disagree with me about that much, because it’s really just an obvious conceptual point. But since Krauss and his fans have an extremely tenuous grasp of philosophy — or, indeed, of the obvious — I suppose it is worth adding that even if it were a matter of controversy whether “something” is a physical concept, Krauss’s “argument” here would simply have begged the question against one side of that controversy, rather than refuted it. For obviously, Krauss’s critics would not agree that “something is a physical concept.” Hence, confidently to assert this as a premise intended to convince someone who doesn’t already agree with him is just to commit a textbook fallacy of circular reasoning.

The wood floor guy analogy is pretty awesome, so be sure to have a read.

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The ABC’s opinion pages has posted my introduction to the debate between Lawrence Krauss and William Lane Craig, happening this evening at the Sydney Town Hall. The debate topic is “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. Can science answer the question? Can God? Can anyone? Read on.

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It’s always useful to know a statistics junkie or two. Brendon is our resident Bayesian. Another colleague of mine from Zurich, Ewan Cameron, has recently started Another Astrostatistics Blog. It’s well worth a look.

I’m not a statistics expert, but I’ve had this rant in mind for a while. I’m currently at the “Feeding, Feedback, and Fireworks” conference on Hamilton Island (thanks Astropixie!). There has been some discussion of the problem of reification. In particular, Ray Norris warned that, once a phenomenon is named, we have put it in a box and it is difficult to think outside that box. For example, what was discovered in 1998 was the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. We often call it the discovery of dark energy, but this is perhaps a premature leap from observation to explanation – the acceleration could be being caused by something other than some exotic new form of matter.

There is a broader message here, which I’ll motivate with this very interesting passage from Alfred North Whitehead’s book “Science and the Modern World” (1925):

In a sense, Plato and Pythagoras stand nearer to modern physical science than does Aristotle. The former two were mathematicians, whereas Aristotle was the son of a doctor, though of course he was not thereby ignorant of mathematics. The practical counsel to be derived from Pythagoras is to measure, and thus to express quality in terms of numerically determined quantity. But the biological sciences, then and till our own time, has been overwhelmingly classificatory. Accordingly, Aristotle by his Logic throws the emphasis on classification. The popularity of Aristotelian Logic retarded the advance of physical science throughout the Middle Ages. If only the schoolmen had measured instead of classifying, how much they might have learnt!

… Classification is necessary. But unless you can progress from classification to mathematics, your reasoning will not take you very far.

A similar idea is championed by the biologist and palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould in the essay “Why We Should Not Name Human Races – A Biological View”, which can be found in his book “Ever Since Darwin” (highly recommended). Gould first makes the point that “species” is a good classification in the animal kingdom. It represents a clear division in nature: same species = able to breed fertile offspring. However, the temptation to further divide into subspecies – or races, when the species is humans – should be resisted, since it involves classification where we should be measuring. Species have a (mostly) continuous geographic variability, and so Gould asks:

Shall we artificially partition such a dynamic and continuous pattern into distinct units with formal names? Would it not be better to map this variation objectively without imposing upon it the subjective criteria for formal subdivision that any taxonomist must use in naming subspecies?

Gould gives the example of the English sparrow, introduced to North America in the 1850s. The plot below shows the distribution of the size of male sparrows – dark regions show larger sparrows. Gould notes:

The strong relationship between large size and cold winter climates is obvious. But would we have seen it so clearly if variation had been expressed instead by a set of formal Latin names artificially dividing the continuum?

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I’m going to jump back on one of my favourite high horses. I’ve previously blogged about Lawrence Krauss and his views on the question “why is there something rather than nothing?”. I’ve just finished his book, and he appeared last night on an Australian TV show called Q&A. It was a good panel discussion, but as usual the show invites too many people and tries to discuss too much so there is always too little time. Krauss’ discussions with John Dickson were quite interesting.

I’ll be discussing the book in more detail in future, but listening to Krauss crystallised in my mind why I believe that science in principle cannot explain why anything exists.

Let me clear about one thing before I start. I say all of this as a professional scientist, as a cosmologist. I am in the same field as Krauss. This is not an antiscience rant. I am commenting on my own field.

Firstly, the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” is equivalent to the question “why does anything at all exist?”. However, Krauss et al have decided to creatively redefine nothing (with no mandate from science – more on that in a later post) so that the question becomes more like “why is there a universe rather than a quantum space time foam?”. So I’ll focus on the second formulation, since it is immune to such equivocations.

Here is my argument.
A: The state of physics at any time can be (roughly) summarised by three things.

1. A statement about what the fundamental constituents of physical reality are and what their properties are.
2. A set of mathematical equations describing how these entities change, move, interact and rearrange.
3. A compilation of experimental and observational data.

In short, the stuff, the laws and the data.

B: None of these, and no combination of these, can answer the question “why does anything at all exist?”.

C: Thus physics cannot answer the question “why does anything at all exist?”.

Let’s have a closer look at the premises. I’m echoing here the argument of David Albert in his review of Krauss’ book, which I thoroughly recommend. Albert says,

[W]hat the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all there is for the fundamental laws of nature to be about, insofar as physics has ever been able to imagine, is how that elementary stuff is arranged. (more…)

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Intuitively, there is an optimal mass for a ball being thrown. If it’s too heavy then we won’t be able to give it a large initial speed. Too light, and it will be slowed down very quickly by air resistance. A shot is too heavy, a tennis ball too light.

To calculate the optimal mass for a projectile, we need to have a model for how a thrower accelerates the ball before release. I will make what is perhaps the simplest assumption: the force applied by the throwers arm and the distance over which that force is applied are held constant. This is equivalent to assuming that the thrower will impart a fixed amount of kinetic energy (K) to the ball. Then, the initial speed (v) of the ball varies with the mass (m) as,

v = \sqrt{\frac{2 K}{m}}

K will be fixed using the fiducial case of a cricket ball thrown with initial velocity of 120, 140 and 160 km/h. As before, the launch angle is chosen to maximise the range of the throw for a 1.8m tall thrower.

The plot shows that, as expected, there is a mass which maximises the range of the throw. It is quite close to the actual mass of a cricket ball (0.16 kg, dashed vertical line) and a baseball (0.145 kg), which is a satisfying result. The optimal mass increases slightly with the force applied by the thrower (i.e. the fiducial initial velocity v_0).

Next time: how much easier is it to hit a six (or a home run) at higher altitudes?

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More fun with wind-resistance! (The cricket season starts for me tomorrow. Cracking.)

Last time, I showed a few trajectories of cricket balls (or baseballs) thrown in the presence of wind-resistance. I noted that I had chosen the angle of the throw in order to maximise the range of the throw. This optimal angle changes as the throw speed changes, as shown below.

The first thing to note in that the optimal throwing angle in the absence of wind-resistance is not 45 degrees, because the ball is released from 1.8m above the ground. (It would be 45 degrees if thrown from ground level). The angle is significantly less than 45 degrees at low speeds – maximum range requires a balance between vertical velocity (giving you more air-time) and horizontal velocity (giving you more range). The height of the thrower gives the ball extra air-time for free, so the thrower should use a flatter launch angle when throwing speed is small.

In the presence of wind-resistance, the optimal throwing angle drops below 45 degrees for very fast throws. The second, descending part of the balls trajectory will be slower and steeper than it would be in the absence of wind-resistance, so our thrower should opt for a flatter trajectory to take advantage of the higher velocity of the ball during its ascent.

In short, about 40 degrees should do it. Next time – will making the cricket ball heavier help?

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