The Difference Between Trees and Rocks

This post is in response to a Flat Earther youtube video entitled “There are no forests on Flat Earth Wake Up.” I won’t link directly to this video because I refuse to help provide it with traffic.

I first happened across a description of this video in an article from The Atlantic. At the time, I sort of sat there and fulminated as I read it. That article in and of itself was not enough to stimulate a response from me because there’s really not much to say. Flat Earth believers are a train wreck of misconception and arrogance. They do not deserve acknowledgement for their ideas except to say that they are not merely wrong, but willfully contrarian to reality.

There is no arguing with a Flat Earther.

Fact is that such a person is so invested in a bad idea that they cannot be dissuaded from it. There are so many things that happen or are happening around you all the time that provide evidence against the flat earth that you need only open your eyes to see them. It takes a willful investment in the avoidance of reality to believe in a flat earth. You can look back at my response to a set of flat earth claims to know my general thoughts.

The video I mentioned above goes a step beyond the usual flat earth nonsense and makes the rather extravagant claim that there used to be forests on earth where the trees are miles tall and that land features like mesas or volcanic plugs like Devil’s Tower are stumps left from these huge trees. And, further, at some point those trees were all toppled and that the ‘man’ has a conspiracy going to cover up that they ever existed. Scientists are apparently actively complicit in hiding ‘the truth’ by distorting findings about fossils.

devils_tower_in_autumn__wyoming

Devil’s Tower is a striking piece of landscape. I’ve seen it for myself and it is visceral and impressive. The structure is sort of biological after a fashion, I will admit. It does look like a tree stump. However, making the claim that an object has a biological form is not the same as claiming the object is biological. Nature has an incredible repertoire of mechanisms for producing complicated patterns that are absolutely not biological.

How was the following pattern constructed?

stripey-weird-thing-nematic014

Tell me what you think this is! I know what it is, but I’m not going to identify it right away. Is it biological? Is this in an art museum? What do you think? More than that, how would you go about figuring out what this is? Think about it while you read.

The video I mentioned above goes on and on about things looking like other things actually being the other thing. That video is an hour and a half of blanket assertion. I admittedly could only stomach about 20 minutes of the video before it became completely clear that I wasn’t about to encounter anything resembling reality at any point along the way. Watching it all the way through is a waste of time… it should chill one to the bone that the number of ‘likes’ on this video is in the hundreds of thousands. Do that many people really get stuck on this topic?

The first thing you’ll note about that video is that the narrator very frequently says “This is bullshit” or “That’s bullshit!” Does an assertion of falsehood uproot a truth? He characterizes claims made by scientists using the words “Contrary to all laws of Physics, Chemistry and Biology.” What are those laws? What does science actually say? How do you know when a scientist is contradicting the ‘laws of science?’ You have to know what the science is, right? He goes on at length showing goofy pictures of apparently inept scientists while attacking the notion of fossilization, that a biological relic can be subsumed into a route of decomposition where the carbon structure is replaced by a long-term silicon structure.

Of course, in order to justify his mile-tall trees, he needs to completely throw out the window basically everything known about geology. His mile-tall trees weren’t actually carbon, but silicon (never mind that his entire treatise started out on the assertion that everything that’s left of these trees is carbon trapped in ice: carbon, silicon, carbon, iron, apparently self-consistency isn’t required in the rarefied atmosphere he inhabits)… and that relics of these huge trees are stumps formed by mesa-like mountains or that fossil trees from petrified forests are actually branches from some huge silicon tree. Early on, he makes the claim that trees produce a constant current of electricity (which is false) and that there was a silicon era (never mind that there is no such thing as silicon based life… that we know of on Earth. And, no, diatoms are not silicon based).

Coming back to Devil’s tower, he spends a huge amount of time claiming that there’s no way the structure of the tower could be naturally occurring without the patterning provided by life because it’s far too regular. If you look closely at the tower, it has this fascinating hexagonal columnar structure that almost looks built rather than deposited.

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As he was marveling at Devil’s Tower and how the structure is inexplicable, I turned him off…

Let’s consider this one particular claim and distinguish how an actual scientist thinks in contrast to the nonsense put forth by this crank. The claim is that there’s no way a non-biological process can produce regular hexagonal column structures of the size seen at Devil’s tower. Claims by geologists that these structures are rock formed from lava are therefore ‘bullshit.’ I do hear scientists use the word ‘bullshit’ once in a while, but here’s the difference. The crank says ‘the structures are too big and too regular, therefore they had to have been made from a tree.’ On the other hand, a scientist would say this: ‘These structures are very big and very regular, I do not accept that they were made without the patterning provided by life, but I would change my mind about this if I could find an example of this kind of structure where I know the patterning is by a non-living process.’

Jumping to the money shot, one obvious candidate is crystallization. This process is well known to make geometrical inorganic shapes and it is understood that it happens spontaneously. Crystallization has a hefty contact to physics, chemistry and biology and there is huge literature of it outside of scientific fields. This is, of course, where gemstones come from. The objects in Devil’s Tower look very much like crystals. Can crystals become that large? Can they bend like the fluting of a tree trunk?

With Devil’s Tower in mind, I went to Google and performed an image search looking for ‘large industrially produced crystals.’ How big can crystals be made? This turned up a company by the name of Cleveland Crystals which produces large crystals:

ccboules

So, first off, crystals can be made that are ‘big.’ How big is big enough? Can it be scaled up without limit? There’s no reason to think not. The website for the company says pretty clearly that there is a correlation between the size of the crystal and the time it took to form.

Now, second, if crystals are ‘made’ by a company, does that mean that nature can’t also make crystals? Certainly a valid question since humans almost certainly caused the structures in the picture above to exist. Maybe nature can’t make them that big.

I therefore did an image search for ‘large natural crystals.’ Which produced this:

crystal11191341899

This is found in a mine in Mexico.

Do I believe that crystals can be big? Clearly they can be. But, are those things in Devil’s Tower crystals?

I then started to search for natural crystals that are hexagonal in cross section that look like rocks:

aqum413-aquamarine-crystal

This is a mineral called aquamarine. One rapidly descends into mineralogy at some point, necessitating at least some cursory respect for geology.

Now, I have big hexagonal crystals. But do they bend like the gentle curvature seen in Devil’s Tower? I mean, crystals are renown for their geometric straightness, so maybe the failure would be if crystals don’t bend.

A quick search gave me this example in Quartz:

curved300

As it turns out, crystal lattices do have the ability to deform their dimensions over long distances.

What I have now is this. There’s a process called ‘crystallization’ which is totally non-living that produces big, patterned objects that can have hexagonal, geometric cross sections that can be slightly bent all while still looking like rock. Crystallization is well known to be spontaneous and to not depend on the presence of life, even if it can occur in a factory. ‘Crystallization’ is a bit of a leap because I was simply fishing for non-living processes that can produce large, geometrically patterned objects. A bundle of crystals could conceivably be piled together into a formation like a tree stump.

So then, is Devil’s Tower a crystal formation? If it’s from a living thing, you should be able to walk over to it and break off a piece to look for biological cells… in reality, if you look at a piece of Devil’s Tower under the microscope, you would find no cells and if you put it into a mass spectrometer, you would find minerals, maybe like the ones above. There is even a testable model for how a structure like Devil’s Tower might form… it would be like a much longer term version of the conditions that happen in the factory at Cleveland Crystals, but just sitting out in the world. You could melt rock of similar chemical composition to Devil’s Tower in a crucible shaped like a tree stump and then set the crucible in conditions that support crystallization. Would it then spontaneously crystallize so that the crystals filled a volume shaped like a stump?

Notice, there are details that can be chased as long as you keep asking logical questions. A scientist will say, “I know this and this and this, but I’m not quite sure about that.”

Here’s the big difference between the scientist and the crank. The crank decided ahead of time that the formation was too *whatever* to have occurred by any means other than his preferred crankery. The scientist may start with a similar idea to the crank, but he’s got to include ‘falsification’ in his process (either directly by his own hand, or by peer review). Falsification is a loop hole that you must always add which gives you some way of being able to change your mind if better evidence or explanations come along. What evidence would I have to find in order to prove this theory wrong? A big part of the scientific method is deliberately trying to knock a theory down, to falsify it. In the case of Devil’s Tower, a crystal forming process might well have created the observed pattern, so the Tower isn’t necessarily a biological product. Since other processes exist which can produce the same outcome, the “huge tree” hypothesis is in immediate jeopardy as one among competing theories –Occam’s razor would give an adequate coup de gras to finish the argument right here since the “huge tree” theory can’t support all the evidence that the full field of geology can throw at it. But, if you’re stubborn and absolutely certain that the Tower is biological in origin, you would have to look and see if it has a biological fabric… if it has no fundamental biological structure, like evidence of cells, then it can’t be a living product and the hypothesis that it’s the stump of some huge tree must be discarded. Eventually, the combined weights of Biology and Geology would crush this fanciful little pet theory.

This may confuse some people. I’m saying that a necessary core of the scientific method is that you must go out and look for evidence that disproves your thesis. With a lot of science, it doesn’t look like this is happening anymore, which is why certain science is called ‘settled.’ The creationist will say “I’m trying to attack a hypothesis: I’m offering evidence that shows that Evolution is wrong.” The Flat Earther who made the video will say “Everything in geology is bullshit: don’t you see all the explanations I’m offering?” Even an antivaxxer will say “If you’re so confident in vaccines, why aren’t you still testing to see if they cause autism?” To many cranks, science looks like this united party who thoughtlessly discards every challenge to the hallowed orthodoxy. If science is based on tearing down accepted theories, why won’t they test my version?

In some ways, certain parts of science take on the aura of a hallowed ground. This is the result of the last generation of active theories weathering all the assaults waged against them… scientists have tried for decades to knock old theories down and offered modifications to strengthen those theories wherever an attack succeeded. As a result, the old theories became the modern theories and their weaknesses vanished. The fights occurring between scientists to falsify modern theories happen at a level above where most of the public and laymen are competent to contribute. You have to pick your fights, and if you’re smart, you understand not to pick a losing fight! In most cases, cranks are not seeing that the relevant fights have already been long since fought. The young earth creationist is typically attacking science where the fight was settled about a hundred years ago: any scientifically justifiable modification to the modern theories that would work better than Darwin’s evolution inevitably still looks too much like evolution to do anything but offend creationist sensibilities, making it a losing fight. The Flat Earther in the video needs literally to throw out the entire geology textbook and the last five hundred years of human history to get to where he has a competent fight, which means he may as well be headbutting a 10 ton granite rock. Antivaxxers are fighting a science that is more recently settled, ten years or twenty years, but settled –at some point, you can’t keep testing a discarded hypothesis. The climatology that global warming deniers question is very fresh and still contains questions, but certain parts are as settled as heliocentricism.

To contribute to science, you must be at the level of the science! Crankery often hinges on not merely willful ignorance, but on someone not understanding the limits of what they understand.

What did you think that pattern was in the mystery picture I posted above? The material depicted is also a kind of crystal, but its a type of cholesteric liquid crystal, meaning that the pattern formed spontaneously and is not biological in nature. Did you guess what it was? How easy is it to look at a pattern and be wrong about what you’re seeing? Human perception is fragile and easily fooled.

EM Drive paper passed Peer Review

Or, why passing peer review doesn’t suddenly mean that a technology is either validated or useful.

I just saw an article in Universe today claiming that a paper on the EM Drive is forthcoming. As you may remember from my previous post, the EM Drive is a piece of crank technology that is The One To Bring Them In and In Darkness Bind Them of the crank technology world. As they all know, it is about to change everything! (Or so they say.)

The device is an assymetrical microwave cavity which will apparently generate thrust when microwaves are injected into it without producing an apparent exhaust stream. The creator, Robert Shawyer, repeatedly invokes a crazy wrong interpretation of Special Relativity in order justify why his doodad works and makes grandiose claims about the capabilities of the device. Guido Fetta, a chemical engineer turned speculative technology wonk, has also jumped out into the public about his grand claims to test the device on a cubesat in orbit soon… Fetta’s description of why his “Cannae Drive” works is somewhat more reasonable than Shawyer’s is, but still a bit iffy…

The Cannae Drive also features an asymmetrical cavity, but is flatter than the EmDrive. According to Fetta, it works by deriving force from a reduced reflection coefficient at one of the device’s end plates, due to imbalances in the Lorentz force (a combination of electric and magnetic force on a point charge due to electromagnetic fields). Nasa Eagleworks, on the other hand, suggests that the Cannae Drive works by the cavity pushing against a “quantum virtual plasma” of particles that shift in and out of existence.

This description is actually not terribly aphysical because it’s essentially describing exactly what happens in a laser. Believe it or not, the NASA description is the crankier version since it seems to be invoking something along the lines of Casimir force. I’m not a huge fan of Eagle Labs because they skirt the ragged edge of being cranky themselves sometimes. (If it all works, I will gladly eat my words.)

I think that the one word that may be useful in this mess is the word “propellantless”… I mention this here because there could actually be a big difference in utility between claiming that the drive is “reactionless” (which is impossible) and “propellantless,” but this comes back to one’s definition of the substance of “propellant.”In the end, if the justification for the drive is simply that you don’t need to take along a huge quantity of reaction mass to make it work and can instead use a nuclear plant to power it, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Still, house needs to be cleaned.

First, the device must be described to work in a way that matches physics. No insane invocations of Special Relativity. This paper coming out is actually a nice first step toward doing just that. Passing Peer Review is a way of saying “Yes, science is being done! We have made measurements by accepted methodology and here are our results!” Which is actually much more impressive than anything that has come out of either Shawyer or Fetta for the last decade.

Making and reporting measurement is really all there is to experimental science: we may not have the interpretation right just yet, but we have numbers that can be compared to everything else in the field. How does the efficiency actually compare to a chemical rocket? Spin the numbers! It is all to show that the methodology is sound and the numbers are honest. And, those numbers will have to ultimately say that momentum and energy are conserved. The device is not… I repeat NOT… a reactionless drive. If it has a propellant, the substance is probably in photons, not gas or plasma like in conventional chemical rockets or ion drives.

The second thing that must happen is that the device should be engineered. The core of engineering is tweaking the physical parameters of the system to optimize the functioning of the device, which requires a model of the behavior… whether you understand the physical rationale behind it or not. Again, this Peer Reviewed paper is a terrific first step because it starts to characterize the actual observed behaviors of the system. If the rumored thrust is actually 1.2 mN/kW, great! A millinewton is a higher thrust than I was estimating in my previous writing, but how big of a powerplant does that require? A nuclear submarine can carry a 500 MW reactor, which would theoretically give hundreds of Newtons of thrust, which is not insignificant at all if the rumored numbers reported by Eagle Labs are true. Now, explain why and begin to tweak the envelop. If it is just a big microwave flashlight, fine, start plugging the physics into that and tell me what the actual performance limits are.

I will admit that my previous post may have been somewhat in error: it may turn out that this research is not a waste of time, but we’ve got to get away from the cranky hopefulness and start figuring out what we’ve actually got so that we can make it better.

Now, I have made something of a shift of stance in my writing of this post. Previously, I flat out called the EM Drive a waste of time. For a very long time it looked like a vanity obsession of a garage crank with delusions of popular fame. As long as it has that air, I won’t have much nice to say. Mutilating physics to build a miracle machine is crankery and there’s way too much of that happening in our world right now. What has changed now is simple: if there is a real, explicable physical phenomenon to measure, steps forward can be taken to find a real thing. It would be nice if there’s a world-altering discovery lurking in here, but that isn’t what we have yet. It really ultimately doesn’t matter to me where the idea came from, whether it came out of somebody’s garage or some rocketry lab… millions of ideas come from everywhere all the time: the point of the science is to sort through and find which observations are actually useful so that we can discard the ones that aren’t.

We’ll at least see if there’s something useful here and hopefully have a real guess about why it works. If the numbers are not reproducible or if there is some huge other way to interpret what has been seen, then it becomes time to discard the EM Drive. I guess that’s kind of the weird thing about frontier science: it always may not survive the meat grinder, no matter the source.