Archive for February, 2011

A great post on Dark Matter over at Cosmic Variance by Sean Carroll. It’s also an interesting case study in science in the media, and the problem of the catchy headline.

The most interesting part for me was Sean’s case for MOND being ugly. To my mind, this is enough to rule out MOND even if it explained the data as well as dark matter. It’s more than just Ockham’s razor – nature has taught us to look not just for simplicity, but for elegance and beauty. General relativity, for example, perhaps isn’t particularly simple, but it is beautiful. Beauty in mathematics is one thing, but one of the great pleasures of physics is to bask in the thought: “I can’t believe that this actually describes the universe!”

Beauty in physical theories is such a difficult thing to define, especially to non-physicists. But in this case, MOND has clearly been dealt the wrong end of the ugly stick.


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Nerdy Web Comic Roundup …

I love SMBC.

Also, xkcd and Abstruse Goose. And there are rumours of the return of Perry Bible Fellowship.

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This is the final part of my review of Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True. The first two parts are here and here.

In the final chapter of his book, Coyne tries to allay the fears of those who worry that belief  in evolution will cause society to crumble. I have two major problems with this chapter.

Science and Materialism

The chapter gets off to a bad start:

“Pearcey argues (and many American creationists agree) that all the perceived evils of evolution come from two worldviews that are part of science: naturalism and materialism. Naturalism is the view that the only way to understand our universe is through the scientific method. Materialism is the idea that the only reality is the physical matter of the universe, and that everything else, including thoughts, will, and emotions, comes from physical laws acting on matter. The message of evolution, and all of science, is one of naturalistic materialism … we manage to understand the natural world just fine using reason and materialism. Furthermore, supernatural explanations always mean the end of inquiry: that’s the way God wants it, end of story. Science, on the other hand, is never satisfied: our studies of the universe will continue until we go extinct.” (pg 244-5) (more…)

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Great things of the week …

Here, for your enjoyment, are a few of my favourite things:

Apple’s new Mac Store has been released and it’s fantastic. All it needs is a “wishlist” as in iTunes store.

Mendeley: The sheer volume of papers I read is starting to alarm me. There are about 50 new papers on astroph every day, and I’ll read one or two. That’s several hundred papers a year that I will at least read the abstract, intro and conclusions of. I need some way of remembering what I’ve read – I print them out, but I won’t take all my papers with me if I change jobs, and highlighting is good for the first read but not great for the re-read.

So I’ve started using reference organising software. The main options were Papers (“iTunes for your papers”), Bibdesk and Mendeley. I went with Mendeley because: it runs on mac and linux; Syncing between libraries on different machines is a one-button operation; the library is also backed up on my online Mendeley account; there is a toolbar button for Chrome that can import citations directly from ADS and arxiv; you can make notes on papers; it integrates with bibtex. There are a few bugs with ADS, and it would be nice if it could import a private library from ADS, but all in all it’s working well.

AstroBetter: a blog for professional astronomers. Very useful.

iTunesU Game Theory lectures: I’m half way through a great little series of lectures on game theory. The maths is a bit slow (understandably – it’s not aimed at math students) but it’s very well explained and entertaining. The choices of examples are superb. It helps somewhat that the lecturer sounds (and even looks) a bit like Eric Idle.

Finally, some stupidity. Stories from my childhood would fit nicely into this conversation … and yes, I did get Goldeneye for the Wii for Christmas. Also, this commentary on Angry Birds is hilarious. And this.

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Part 2 of my review of Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True”. The most important point from Part 1 is that I know sweet FA about biology.

My goal in this post is to show that, to the extent that “Why evolution is true” is a critique of intelligent design (ID) and creationism, if fails to aim its criticisms accurately. It is important to note that the book is not, for the most part, a critique. Coyne is mostly interested in presenting the evidence for evolution, and does so very well. But he does offer some criticisms, and it is these that I will be addressing.

1. Define your terms

The first step in any critique must be convincing your opponents that you understand their claims. The most obvious, most direct way to do this is by giving its definition. Coyne never does this. At no point does he take even a paragraph to define what ID is and what its claims are. In the preface, he recalls the tale of Dover. In the introduction, he laments the lack of acceptance of evolution in America. The next time ID is mentioned, Coyne is confidently predicting that intelligent designers would always make organisms that fall into a matchbook-like classification scheme …

2. Prediction is difficult

Coyne presents us with a number of supposed predictions of creationism / ID. Here is an example: (more…)

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