Revoke Shaquille’s Doctorate in Education… he doesn’t deserve it.

We are in a world where truth doesn’t matter.

Read this and weep. These men are apparently the authorities of truth in our world.

Everywhere you look, truth itself is under assault. It doesn’t really matter whether you believe, it really doesn’t matter what you want it to say. Truth is not beholden to human whims. We can’t ultimately change it by manipulating it with cellphone apps. We can’t reinterpret it if we wanted to. One of these days, in however great of importance we hold ourselves, the truth will catch up. And we will deserve what happens to us after that point in time.

“It’s true. The Earth is flat. The Earth is flat. Yes, it is. Listen, there are three ways to manipulate the mind — what you read, what you see and what you hear. In school, first thing they teach us is, ‘Oh, Columbus discovered America,’ but when he got there, there were some fair-skinned people with the long hair smoking on the peace pipes. So, what does that tell you? Columbus didn’t discover America. So, listen, I drive from coast to coast, and this s*** is flat to me. I’m just saying. I drive from Florida to California all the time, and it’s flat to me. I do not go up and down at a 360-degree angle, and all that stuff about gravity, have you looked outside Atlanta lately and seen all these buildings? You mean to tell me that China is under us? China is under us? It’s not. The world is flat.”

This spoken by a man with a public platform and a Doctorate in Education. This is the paragon of teachers!

{Edit: 3-20-17 since I’m thinking better about this now, I will rebut his meaningless points.

First, arguments about whether or not Columbus discovered America are a non-sequitur as to whether or not the Earth is round.

Second, driving coast to coast can tell you very little about the overall roundness of the Earth, especially if you aren’t paying attention to the things that do. The curvature of the earth is extremely small: only about 8 inches per mile. This means that on the scale of feet, the curvature is in thousandths of an inch, so that you can’t measure it to not be flat at the dimensions that a human being can meaningfully experience standing directly on the surface. Can you see the couple feet of curvature at a distance of fifty miles looking off a sky scraper in the middle of Atlanta, or distinguish the deviation from the same direction of ‘up’ of two sky scrapers separated by ten miles? You can’t resolve tens of feet with your eyes at a distance of miles. That said, you actually can see Pikes Peak emerge over the horizon as you come out of Kansas into Colorado, but I suppose you would explain that away by some sort of giant conspiracy theory elevator device. To actually start to directly see the curvature at a meaningful degree with your eyes, you need to be at an altitude of hundreds of thousands of feet above the surface… which you could actually do as somebody with ridiculous wealth.

Third, how would you know that China is not ‘under?’ How would you know where China isn’t when you wouldn’t be able to see that distance along a flat surface no matter which direction you look? Can you explain the phase factor that you pick up to your day that causes your damn jet lag every time your wealthy, ignorant ass travels to places like China? By your logic, you should be able to use your colossal wealth to travel to where the globe of the sun pops out of the plane of the Earth in the east every morning. Hasn’t it once occurred to you that if you’re truly right, you should test a hypothesis first before making an assertion that can be easily shown to be wrong?}

You made a mint of money on the backs of a lot of people who made it possible for you to be internationally known, all because of the truth that they determined for you! You do not respect them, you do not understand the depth of their efforts, you do not know how hard they worked. You do not deserve the soapbox they built for you.

For everyone who values the truth, take a moment to share a little about it. Read other things in my blog to see what else I have to say. I have very little I can say right this second; I’m aghast and I feel the need to cry. My hard work is rendered essentially meaningless by morons like Shaquille O’Neal… men of no particular intellect or real skill dictating what reality ‘actually is’ while having no particular capacity to judge it for themselves.

From a time before cellphone apps and computer graphics manipulation, I leave you with one of the greatest pinnacles of truth ever to be achieved by the human species:


Like it or not, that’s Earth.

If you care to, I ask you to go and hug the scientist or engineer in your life. Tell them that you care about what they do and that you value their hard work. The flame of enlightenment kindled in our world is precious and at dire risk of guttering out.


An open letter to the Shaq:

Dear Shaquille O’Neal,

I’m incredibly dismayed by your use of your public personae to endorse an intellectually bankrupt idea like flat earth conspiracy theories particularly in light of your Doctorate Degree in Education. If you are truly educated, and value truth, you should know that holding this stance devalues the hard work of generations of physicists and engineers and jeopardizes the standing of actual scientific truth in the public arena. The purpose of an educator is to educate, not to misinform… the difference is in whether you spread the truth or not.

There is so much evidence of the round earth available in the world around us without appeal to digital media, the cycle of the seasons, scheduled passages of the moon and the planets, observations of Coriolis forces in the weather patterns and simple ballistics, the capacity to jump in an airplane heading west and continue to head west until you get back to where you started, the passage of satellites and spacecraft visible from the surface of the Earth over our heads, the very existence of GPS available on your goddamn smart phone, to the common shapes of objects like the moon and planets visible through telescopes in the night skies around us, that appeals to flat earth conspiracies show a breathtaking lack of capacity to understand how the world fits together. That it comes from a figure who is ostensibly a force of truth –an educator– is truly deeply hurtful to those of us who developed that truth… modern scientists and engineers.

Since you are so profoundly wealthy, you among all people are singularly in a position to prove to yourself the roundness of our world. I bet you 50 million dollars that I don’t even have and will spend my entire life trying to repay, that you can rent an airliner with an honest pilot of your choice and fly west along a route also of your choice, and come back to the airport you originally departed from without any significant eastward travel. Heck, you can do the same exercise heading north or south if you want. And, if that experiment isn’t enough, use your celebrity to talk to Elon Musk: I hear he’s selling tickets now to rich people for flights around the moon. I bet he would build you a specially-sized two-person-converted-to-one berth in his Dragon capsule to give you a ride high enough to take a look for yourself at the shape of the world, if your eyes are the only thing you’ll believe. If you lose, you pay a 49 million dollar endowment to the University of Colorado Department of Physics for the support of Physics Education –and a million to me for the heartache you caused making a mockery of my education and profession by use of your ill-gotten public soapbox and mindlessly open mouth. Moreover, if you lose, you relinquish your Doctorate and make a public apology for standing for exactly the opposite of what that degree means.


Foolish Physicist
of Poetry in Physics

Edit 4-5-17:

So, Shaq walked back his comments.

O’Neal: “The first part of the theory is, I’m joking, you idiots. That’s the first part of the theory. The second part is, I said jokingly that when I’m in my bus and I drive from Florida to California, which I do every summer, it seems to be flat. When I’m in my plane, and we’re getting ready to land, and I open up the window, and I’m looking at all the land that we’re flying over, it seems to be flat.”

“This world we live in, people take things too seriously, but I’m going to give the people answers to my test,” he said. “Knowing that I’m a funny guy, if something seems controversial or boom, boom, boom, you’ve got to have my funny points on, right? So now, once you have my funny points on, that should eradicate and get rid of all your negative thoughts, right? That’s what you should do when you hear a Shaquille O’Neal statement, OK? You should know that he has funny points right over here, and what did he say? Boom, boom, boom, add the funny points. You either laugh or you don’t laugh, but don’t take me seriously. When I want you to take me seriously, you will know by the tone of my voice that I’m being serious.”

“No, I don’t think that,” O’Neal told Harbinger of a flat Earth. “It was a joke, OK? So know that when Shaquille O’Neal says something, 80 percent of the time I’m being humorous, and it is a joke. And 20 percent of the time, I’m being serious, but when I’m being serious, you’ll know. You want to see me, seriously? See me and Charles Barkley going back and forth on TNT. That’s when I’m mad and when I’m serious. Other than that, you’re not going to get that out of me, so I was just joking people. The Earth is not round, it’s flat. I mean, the Earth is not flat, it’s round.”

One thing that should be added to these statements is this: there are people who are actively spreading misinformation about the state of the world, for instance that the earth is flat. The internet, Youtube, blogs, you name it, has given these people a soapbox that they would not otherwise have. Given that there is a blatant antiscientific thread in the United States which is attacking accepted, settled science as a big cover-up designed to destroy the rights of the everyday man, it is the duty of scientists and educators to take the truth seriously. In a world where Theory of Evolution, Climatology and Vaccine science are all actively politicized, we have to stand up for the truth.

Where real scientists are about studying and doing our work, the antiscientific activists are solely about spreading their belief… they don’t study, they don’t question, they spend their time actively lobbying the government and appealing to legislators, running for and getting onto school boards where they have an opportunity to pick which books are presented to school districts and various places where they can actively undercut what students are told about the truth of the world. They aren’t spending their energy studying, they are spending their energy solely on tinkering with the social mechanisms which provide our society with the next generation of scientists. As such, their efforts are more directed at undercutting the mechanisms that preserve the truth rather than on evaluating the truth… as scientists do. These people can do huge damage to us all. Every screwball coming out of a diploma mill “Quantum University” with a useless, unaccredited ‘PhD’… who goes off to promote woo-bong herbalist healthcare as an alternative to science based medicine, does damage to us all by undercutting what it means to get healthcare and by putting crankery and quackery in all seriousness at the same level as scientific truth when there should be no comparison.

If everybody understood that there is no ‘alternative’ to the truth, joking about what is true would mean something totally different to me. But, we live in a world where ‘alternative facts’ are a real thing and where everyone with a soapbox can say whatever they wish without fear of reprisal. Lying is a protected right! But someone has to stand up for truth. That someone should be scientists and educators. That should include an ‘education doctorate’ like the Shaq. If he were an NBA numbskull without the doctorate, I would care less: Kyrie Irving is a joke. But he isn’t; he’s got a doctorate and he has a responsibility to uphold what that degree means! The only reason humor in irony can work is if it can be clear that one is being ironic instead of serious… and that is never completely clear in this world.

Calculating Molarity part 2: Vaccine structure

I’ve continued to think about this post at Respectful Insolence. You may already have read my previous post on this subject. I had a short conversation with Orac by email about the previous post; he had asked me what I thought about the alterations he made after thinking about my objections. One thing I answered that I thought he might add has sort of stuck with me and I think is worthy of a post of its own. What do you know, two posts in one week! This one may not be tremendously long, but it’s important and it bolsters the thesis written in that post on Respectful Insolence. They are about minimizing the contamination; this is true, but I would actually modify it by saying that you have to know what you’re looking at before you claim it’s a problem.

My previous writing here has been directed at my fellow skeptics and could be used by antivaccine advocates to attack people whose efforts I normally support. I would rather my efforts be focused at the greater good: namely to support vaccines. I don’t write often about my specific research expertise, but I’m mainly a soft matter researcher and I have a great deal of experience with colloids, nanoparticles and liquid crystals. This paper they’re talking about is my cup of tea! More than that, I’ve spent time at the university electron microscopy lab using SEM and elemental analysis in the form of EDS, shooting electron beams at precipitates obtained from colloidal suspensions.

I feel that the strategy of showing that vaccine contaminants are extraordinarily minor and not nearly as large as the antivaccine efforts try to claim is a good effort, but might also be the wrong strategy for tackling this science, particularly when screwing up the math. A part of my reason for feeling this way is that the argument is actually hinging on the existence, or not, of particulate objects in the preparations that the antivaxxers are examining. The paper that Orac (and, in a quotation, Skeptical Raptor) are looking at, is focusing on the spurious occurrence of a small particle content revealed in vaccine samples under SEM examination. The antivaxxers are counting and reporting particles found in SEM, of which they are reporting highly dispersive values: very few in some, many in others. They are also reporting instances where EDS shows unexpected metal content, like gold and others. Here, Orac notes that the particles are typically so few that they should be considered negligible and that’s fair… question is, what is the nature of these particles? And, should we take the antivaxxer EDS results seriously? It seems poor form for me to criticize my fellow skeptics and to not turn my attention against the subject that are analyzing –to allay my own conscience, I have to open my mouth! I therefore spent a bit of time of my own looking at the paper they were analyzing “New Quality-Control Investigations on Vaccines: Micro- and Nanocontamination.” I won’t link to it directly because I have no respect for it.

I’ll deal with the EDS first.


This picture is from

EDS is another spectroscopy technique that is sometimes called electron fluorescence. You shoot an electron beam (or X-ray) at a sample with the deliberate intent of knocking a deep orbital electron out of the atom. A higher energy shell electron will then drop down into the vacant orbital and emit an X-ray at the transition energy between the two orbitals. The spectrometer then detects the emitted X-rays. Because atoms have differing transition energies due to the depth of their shells, you can identify the element based on the X-ray frequencies emitted. A precondition for seeing this X-ray spectrum is that your impinging electron beam must be at sufficiently high energy to knock a deep shell electron up into the continuum, ionizing the atom and that energy might actually be considerable. There is also a confounder in that a lot of atoms have EDS peaks at fairly similar energies, meaning that it can be hard sometimes to distinguish them.

Here is a periodic table containing EDS peaks from Jeol:


Now, when you perform SEM, you spread your sample onto a conductive substrate and observe it in a fair vacuum. To generate an SEM image, the electron beam is rastered in a point across an area in the sample and an off-angle detector detects electron scatter. You’re literally trying to puff electrons up into the space over the sample by bombarding the surface. The substrate is usually conductive in order to replenish ejected electrons. The direction the ejection puff travels depends on the topography of the surface and the off-angle positioning of the detector means that some surfaces face the detector and give bright puffs while surfaces facing away do not. This gives the dimensionality to SEM images. Many SEM samples are sputtered with a layer of gold to improve contrast by introducing a material that is electron dense, but a system with the intent to use EDS would actually be directed at naked samples. With SEM, you always have to remember that the electron beam is intrinsically erosive and damaging. The beam doesn’t just bounce off the surface, it penetrates into the sample to a depth that I’ve heard called the interaction volume. The interaction volume is regulated by the accelerating voltage of the electron beam: higher accelerating voltages means deeper interacting volumes. Crisp SEM images that show clear surface features are usually obtained with low accelerating voltages which limit the interacting volume to only surface features of the sample. SEM images obtained at higher accelerating voltages take on a sort of translucent cast because the beam penetrates into the sample and interacts with an interior volume.

The combination of EDS with SEM is a little tricky. In SEM, EDS gains its excitation from the imaging electron beam of the system. Now, what makes this tricky is that samples like protein antigens in a vaccine are predominantly carbon and have low electron density, making them low contrast. You hit the sample at low accelerating voltages to see surface features. If you try to do EDS, you must hit the sample with electrons at energies sufficient to eject deep orbital electrons: it depends on the depth of that atom’s potential and on which electron is ejected, but atoms like gold can have deeper orbitals than atoms like carbon, meaning larger energies are needed to resolve deeper gold atom orbital transitions. Energies favorable to SEM imaging are sometimes very low compared to the energies needed to hit the EDS ejection energies. When you switch to EDS from imaging, you must be aware that you’re gaining a deeper penetration depth from the larger interaction volume of the beam. If your sample is thin and has low electron density, like carbonaceous biological molecules, you can easily be shooting through the sample and hitting the substrate, whatever that might be.

This can be a serious confounder because you don’t necessarily know where your signal is coming from. In the article commented on by Orac, the authors mention that they’re using an aluminum stub as an SEM mount, but they also talk about aluminum hydroxide and aluminum phosphate. The EDS aluminum signal is sensitive only to the aluminum atoms: you can’t know if the signal is coming from the mount or the sample! How do they know that the phosphate signal isn’t from phosphate buffered saline? That’s a common medical buffer that shows up in vaccine preparation. You can’t know if the material you’re looking at is aluminum phosphate from EDS or SEM.

As I mentioned, you also have to contend with close spacing of EDS peaks: if you look at that periodic table linked above, there’s a lot of overlap. To know gold, for certain, you really need to hit a couple of its EDS peaks to make certain you aren’t misreading the signal (all the peaks you get will have a gaussian width, meaning that you might have a broad signal that covers a number of peaks.) And, at least in the figure presented by Orac, they’re making their calls based on single peak identifications. This in addition to the other potential confounders Orac brought up: exogenous grit and the possibility that they’re reusing their SEM stub for other experiments. How can they be certain they aren’t getting spurious signals?

For EDS, I would be careful about making calls without having some means of independent analysis… like knowing what materials are supposed to be present and possibly hiring out elemental analysis of the sample. Will the gold or zirconium appear in the second analysis? Remember, science depends on being able to reproduce a result… if it was always spurious, a good tale is not being able to make it dance the second time around! Reporting everything doesn’t always mean that you know what you’re looking at. When I was doing EDS more routinely, I had a devil of a time hitting Titanium over Silicon and Gold signals… I knew titanium was present because I put it there, but I had trouble hitting it or ascribing it to specific particles in the SEM image. The EDS would not routinely allow me to reproduce an observation before the sample simply exploded while I was pounding high energy electrons into it.

Referring directly to the crank paper myself and I note that they make some extremely complicated mineral calls in their tables from the EDS data. Again, be aware that EDS is only sensitive to atoms specifically: you can’t know if Aluminum signals are aluminum phosphate or aluminum hydroxide or aluminum from the SEM stub. To know mineral crystals, you need precision ratios of the contents or X-ray diffraction or maybe Raman analysis of the mineral’s crystal lattice.

From their SEM imagery, it looks to me like they’re using a very strong voltage, which is confirmed in their methods section. They claim to be using voltages between 10 kV and 30 kV. These are very high voltages. For good surface resolution of a proteinaceous sample, I restricted myself to around 1 kV to 5 kV and sometimes below 1 kV and found that I was cutting holes through the specimen for much higher than that. Let me actually quote a piece of their methods for sample mounting:

A drop of about 20 microliter of vaccine is released from
the syringe on a 25-mm-diameter cellulose filter (Millipore,
USA), inside a flow cabinet. The filter is then deposited on an
Aluminum stub covered with an adhesive carbon disc.

They put a cellulose filter from Millipore into this SEM. I would have dried directly onto a clean silicon substrate. Here are the appropriate specimen mounts from Ted Pella. Note that the specimen mounts are not cellulose. Cellulose filters are used for a completely different purpose from normal SEM specimen mounts and, really importantly, you can’t efficiently clean a cellulose filter before putting your sample onto it. And, since these filters are actually designed to easily collect dust and grit as a part of their function, it is actually kind of difficult to get crap off of them. Without a control showing that their filters are clean of dust, there’s no way to be certain that this article isn’t actually a long survey examining the dust and foreign crap that can be found impregnating cellulose filters since the SEM acceleration voltages are unquestionably high enough to be cutting through a thin, low contrast biological layer on the top.

I won’t say more about the EDS.

So, I wanted also to address the particulate discussion a bit more directly too.

First off, from the paper directly, there is no real effort at reproduction or control. The source of the particles mentioned could be the carbon adhesive, the cellulose membrane or the vaccine sample. Having thought about it, I personally would bet on that cellulose: you don’t use them this way! They claim to be making preparations in a flow hood to keep dust out, but that doesn’t mean the dust isn’t already on any of the components being brought into the hood.

I stand by my original criticism of Orac’s post that these particles can’t be effectively quantified by molarity: those shown in the paper are all clearly micron scale objects, meaning that they have relatively large mass in and of themselves and constitute significant quantities of material. A better concentration unit for describing them would be mg/mL. I repeat that we don’t know the source of these objects for certain because the experiment is performed without true replication! If the vaccines are the source, the authors should have been able to perform a simple filtration of a vaccine specimen by a 0.22 um or 0.1 um filter and show that this drastically reduces contamination because many of their micrographs are of objects that should not have passed through such a filter… but they did no comparable experiment.

As I’ve been thinking about it, there are a couple potential different particles that could be observed under these conditions. The first is dust, as already detailed. The second possible source is vaccine components, but from a non-contaminating perspective. Orac used a quote by Skeptical Raptor who was rebutting the idea of Aluminum hydroxide being a strong contaminant by again mistaking particles for molecules. I won’t get into his difficulty calculating concentration since it was similar to what happened to Orac, but he was speaking about Aluminum hydroxide being a chemical that is a tiny fraction of a nanogram in a vaccine and therefore much less than environmental exposure to aluminum. I know I probably annoyed Orac with my thoughts about this as I was thinking out loud, but Aluminum hydroxide is not any sort of contaminant in the Cervarix vaccine friend Raptor was talking about: it’s the Adjuvant! Here’s a product insert for a Cervarix vaccine.


In this vaccine, I found that there is approximately 500 ug of Aluminum hydroxide adjuvant added per 0.5 mL vaccine dose. If you look in the Aluminum hydroxide MSDS, there is no LD50 for this compound, no cancinogen warnings and no other special health precautions from chronic exposure –it irritates your eyes from contact, but what doesn’t? It got a 1 as a chemical hazard. Antivaxxers are crazy about being anti-aluminum based upon more decades old information that has since been rebutted, but for all intents and purposes, this material is pretty harmless. One special thing about it is that it’s actually very insoluble unless you drop an acid or a strong base on it, meaning that it should be no surprise if it’s a particulate in a neutral physiological pH vaccine (Ksp = 3×10^-34)! In vaccine design, and I haven’t spent a huge amount of time looking, but the main point of the adjuvant is to cause the antigen to be retained at the site of injection for a prolonged time so that the body can be exposed to it for a longer period. The adjuvant adheres the vaccine antigen and, by being an insoluble particle, it lodges in your tissues upon injection and stays there, holding the antigen with it. I found immunology papers on pubmed calling this establishment of a ‘immune depot’ for stimulating immune cells. Over a prolonged period, the insoluble Ksp will allow this compound to gradually dissolve and release the antigen out of the injection site, but Aluminum hydroxide will never have a very high concentration in the body as a whole: that’s what Ksp says, that the soluble phase of the salt components can be no greater than about 2.4 nM, which is well below established exposure limits recommended in the MSDS of between 30 nM and 100 nM (by my calculation).

But, if you look at vaccine adjuvant under SEM, it will be a colloidal particle with a core of Aluminum in the EDS! You can even see examples of this in the target paper itself: the SEM in figure 1 looks like a colloid fractal (they call it a ‘crystals’, but it looks like a precipitate deposition fractal), and the colloids are probably aluminum hydroxide particles caked with antigen protein (again, EDS can’t distinguish between  aluminum hydroxide mixed with PBS and aluminum phosphate, contrary to what the caption says). And, these colloids are INTENDED TO BE THERE by the manufacture of the vaccine. Note, this is a structure designed into the vaccine to help prolong the immune response.

I’ve been debating the source of the singleton particles that the authors of this paper take many SEM pictures of in the remainder of their work. They are mostly not regular enough to be designed nanoparticles or precipitate colloids and they often look like dust (Orac mentions as much). I’ve been skeptical of the sample preparation practices outlined in the paper: I think adding the cellulose membrane to the sample is asking for trouble. You use substrates in SEM to avoid contaminant issues and to provide surfaces that are easily cleaned prior to use. The cellulose polymer and vaccine antigens are all low contrast… at 30 kV accelerating voltage, the SEM could actually be interacting down into the volume of the filter (as I mentioned above). If this isn’t dust sitting on the filter prior to dropping the vaccine onto it, it might also be dust dropped randomly into the cellulose monomer during the manufacturing process and trapped there while polymerizing the membrane. The filter won’t care about most of this sort of contamination because the polymer will immobilize it. Another possibility, but the paper tests almost no hypotheses for purposes of error checking, so we’ll never know.

Overall, I found that paper incompetent. There’s no reason to take it seriously. I hope that my writing this blog post will help balance the previous post which attacked science advocates for misusing the science.

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.


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?


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.


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:


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:


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:


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:


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.

Flat Earth Swan Dive

There is an article out today that Stanley Kubrick’s daughter spoke out vehemently against the idea that her father, the legend himself, helped NASA fake the moon landings. She called it ‘grotesque.’ I thought it was an elegant response to an insane and stupid idea. You hear that popular culture? The moon landing was not faked. Point a laser at the retroreflector if you don’t believe me. (IIRC, there are also now satellite images from LRO of the original lunar landing sites, but then someone favoring the moon hoax would claim those are doctored)


While I was reading the comments to this article, I stumbled over a flat earther making his/her case. This person laid it out in a bulleted list saying “You have to accept or believe all of these inconsistencies in order to accept that the Earth is round,” and I could not help but write a comment replying to him. Since one of the purposes of this blog is to be a repository for the times I feel compelled to speak up in comment sections, here is an edited copy-paste of my original comment, which responded directly to each bullet point made by the flat earther.

>1. You are traveling 19 miles/second and you feel none of it.

And your point is? You can feel accelerations, not velocities. You can be in a train traveling 300 miles/hour with the shades drawn and not know it.

>2. The Earth is spinning at 1000 miles per hour and you feel none of it.

So? You feel accelerations, not velocities. Further, the only acceleration you feel in the rotation of the Earth is in a similar direction to gravity. Are you good enough to be able to tell the difference between gravity and centrifugal force?

>3. If you could dig a hole right now through the the earth you would eventually hit sky.

So? We have satellites that take pictures of this all the time. That the Earth is round is pretty well documented. Do you think these pictures are all generated only by NASA? I’m sure SpaceX has a couple.


>4. The Earths diameter is 7917 miles which means there is someone standing upside down in relation to you less that 8 thousand miles away right now, yet you are both unaware of it.

So? Would you be aware of someone 8,000 miles away if they were standing next to you instead of below you? I would wager not.

>5. Water can be shown to always find it’s level except on a planetary scale. Which means there is a wall of water 13000 statue of liberty’s high between California and Hawaii and only magical gravity keeps it from flooding the United States mainland.

Now you’re just being stupid. Gravity pulls downward locally, which is a different direction at Hawaii from the direction at Los Angeles. This is the nature of the solution of gravity from a sphere. Toward the center of the sphere!

>6. The nearest star is 25 trillion miles away which is why we never see parallax. Or have to explain parallax.

Parallax has been used to fairly accurately calculate the distance to the moon and the sun. It’s also been used to estimate distances to near stars. Why in the world have you included this point? In fact, the way parallax is used to calculate stellar distances really kind of harpoons your whole argument.

>7. The Chicago Skyline, from the opposite side of lake Michigan 60 miles away, is a mirage as the tallest building there should not be visible behind the earths curve. Yet it has been seen and photographed time and again.

Optical effect. Same thing as the green flash seen at the surface of the ocean when the sun goes down. Light is known to not always travel in straight lines and the conditions when it doesn’t are pretty completely understood. There’s even a name for the kind of mirage that lets you see Chicago from across the great lake: the Superior Mirage. Or, do you actually believe you’re seeing the sky below the road when you see a mirage on a hot day?


>8. The Coriolis effect has no effect on airplanes, yet is said to have an effect on munitions.

Dude, learn something about the Coriolis force. Munitions are unpowered while airplanes can continuously exert an acceleration. Of course Coriolis force must be corrected for to fly an airplane, but the airplane can actively maneuver throughout its flight to compensate.

>9. Firing a gun or cannon east or west will not be helped or hindered by the apparent rotation of 1000 miles/hour which means the Coriolis effect can be selective.

Flat out False: NASA launches rockets toward the east in order to take advantage of the surface velocity of the Earth to help reach orbit with less fuel. Further, Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral were built in Florida in order to place them at the location in the continental United States that gives the greatest rotational kick during the rocket launch (closest to the Equator). They don’t need as big of rockets when they use Coriolis force in this way. You really should bother to learn some physics. It would surprise you to know that the Earth bulges away from spherical by something like 20 miles at the equator because of centrifugal force (How do they know this? GPS, dude.)

Moreover, if you’re using the GPS on your smartphone to travel anywhere, and you are espousing this sort of nonsense, you’re the biggest hypocrite alive.

>10. Gravity is strong enough to keep you and everything you see firmly stuck to the earth, yet birds and insects seem completely unaware as to the 1000 miles/hour rotation and have no trouble over coming gravity.

Bernoulli force, dude. You’re not impressing me. Do you think the wind should somehow be whipping past at 1000 miles/hour, as if the atmosphere was unhinged from the surface of the planet? Again, within the local frame of reference, the only acceleration you feel is along the direction of gravity and you can’t discriminate centrifugal force from gravity without a gravitometer. Further, the atmosphere is fairly tightly bound to the surface of the planet and mostly travels with the Earth as it rotates: in order to see effects of the Coriolis ‘force,’ you need to have a definite velocity and relatively little friction with the atmosphere. An object the size of a bird gets carried along by the atmosphere, which is interacting strongly with the surface on the scale of many miles.

>11. The wobble of the planet tilts sections of the equator to 45 degrees at distances that normally would be occupied by arctic tundra. Yet those same sections never form glaciers.

The tilt of the Earth is not the only factor determining the climate of regions on the surface. We have huge oceans that act as giant circulating heat sinks that move heat to places that might not otherwise receive light. Feel the wind? That moves heat too.

Moreover, the tilt of the earth is only ever 23 degrees from the plane of the ecliptic. This 45 degrees garbage is the full swing from extreme north to extreme south passage of the sun at the apex of the local sky during the solstices. The arctic circle is 66 degrees from the equator and the angular distance between arctic and antarctic circles is about 130 degrees. You have wildly expanded an angle somewhere.

>12. The moon takes the same path through the night sky each night in a 29.5 day cycle yet the shadows cast by moon phases would seem to suggest that the moon is not taking the same path through the night sky each night.

Rotation of the Earth, dude. Did you know that the moon actually travels in a west to east direction around the Earth? I’ll bet you didn’t. As the moon orbits, roughly 1/29th of its orbit around the Earth per day, the time when it rises during the day is displaced by 1/29th of the Earth’s day-long rotation cycle. Why do you think the moon never quite rises at the same time? It rises about 50 minutes later than it did the day before every single day.

>13. The summer solstice and winter equinox should completely flip our high noon and midnight with each 6 month rotation, but does not some how.

This is because you’re misunderstanding something about the travel of the earth around the sun: there is exactly no set period relation between the earth’s rotation and its revolution around the sun. The period of the year is only approximately 365 days… it’s actually 11 minutes and 14 seconds less than 365.25 days. In the case of the Earth, there is no reason to set an integer relationship between the number of rotations the planet makes and how many of those add up to a year. This is why we need leap year. The shift of daylight by the mechanism you’re talking about simply adds into our timing systems, which are totally independent from the period of the solar cycle. We have an agreed-upon ‘day long’ increment that we measure using atomic clocks and then we shift our calendars as necessary to correct for the drift of these ‘day’ increments against the non-integral period of the year.

One thing that does flip by 180 degrees every half year is the star constellations visible in the sky at night. Gee, I wonder why that is…

>14. The South pole has a ceremonial pole and you cannot go past there and are not allowed to visit it. You should never question as to why.

This is kind of an excessively stupid point, even for the quality of points on this list. I don’t understand why you left it freestanding. Don’t ya know: it’s the Man lording it over, keeping you from your right to visit the south pole, whenever you feel the urge to just hop on your skateboard and flip an Ollie.

>15. The oldest treaty in the world is the antarctic treaty of 1959, the same year NASA was started. The treaty prevents anyone from going to Antarctica without government approval from one of the treaty signers.

Something tells me you aren’t that familiar with international politics if you think a treaty signed in 1959 is the oldest in the world. Maybe this treaty exists because the Antarctic is such a difficult place to travel to and live in that it’s hard for anybody to just up and go. Did you ever wonder why it wasn’t until the 20th century that governments even bothered to decide who could lay claim to the Antarctic at all? If it were an issue of walking across the street, maybe you could visit. So, talk to Elon Musk and ask him to build you a hotel. Otherwise, pretty much the only entities that can afford to go and stay in Antarctica and pack in and out the food, water and expendables necessary to survive there are governments. If you use their facilities, you work within their rules.

Yeah, kind of snarky, but what can I say. These people do sometimes bring it out of me.

This sort of comment has a way of riling me up because it is incredibly clear that the person writing it has basically no idea what they’re talking about, yet they are smugly certain that they have the truth of it, as if his little observations should blow my mind. As a general note, if you have a C- to D+ understanding of the world around you, there is usually a passing good chance that anything you think you intuitively know is probably false. Paraphrasing Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nature is under no obligation to humanity to be easily understandable.

The Waste of Time That is the EmDrive

I stumbled over an article yesterday that I found again today in my newsfeed that finally causes me to be willing to spend time writing about something. The article is here.

This article is about a sketchy physics topic that the popular media loves itself something fierce. Namely, the EmDrive.

This device is supposed to be a form of engine that can drive spacecraft faster and more efficiently than current technology otherwise allows. The creator of the EmDrive loves to claim that the device can solve all the world’s ills, from the energy crisis and global warming to the drip under your sink. Never mind that the excessive claims should set everybody’s danger sense a-tingling, it is a device that has persisted past it’s creator’s obvious lack of background in the basic science of physics.

Here’s a description of how the EmDrive is supposed to work as quoted from the article:

How the EmDrive works

The EmDrive is the invention of British scientist Roger Shawyer, who proposed in 1999 that based on the theory of special relativity, electricity converted into microwaves and fired within a closed cone-shaped cavity causes the microwave particles to exert more force on the flat surface at the large end of the cone (i.e. there is less combined particle momentum at the narrow end due to a reduction in group particle velocity), thereby generating thrust.

The general idea here is that you’re injecting microwaves into a hollow cone and allowing them to bounce around. Because the cavity is asymmetrical, the argument goes, they end up breaking symmetry on the pressure they’re exerting and push the cone only in one direction.

In a way, the set-up is almost an exact duplicate of the thought experiment that Einstein used to come up with the equation of E=mc^2, but beyond that, this is actually a flagrant violation of conservation of momentum. You can think about it this way: a guy standing inside a train car pushes against the wall of the train car… no matter what the shape of the inside of the car, the guy walking around never moves the center of mass of himself with the car –even if the car will actually move slightly as he walks back and forth, if the axles of the car and the rails are frictionless. The only way the car can continue to move is if the guy goes running along the car and jumps out the end, thus enabling his center of mass to be decoupled from the car… if he were to keep running, the center of mass of his system and the car would remain at rest, while he and the car must both be moving in order to conserve the net zero momentum they started with as a system. The analogy breaks down because the guy standing on the ground would be able to exert force to stop running. As Christopher Nolan wrote in Interstellar: the only way to go somewhere in space is to leave something behind. As a physicist’s aside, one has to put in a train car analogy at least once in this discussion because Einstein loved trains during his explanations of special relativity (I’m convinced that this is part of why Sheldon Cooper loves trains).

Breaking conservation of momentum is a pathological, ‘do not pass go’ fault that should immediately consign this whole EmDrive concept to the dumpster the same way Avagadro’s number kills Homeopathy. Despite that, the creator of the EmDrive has a ready response:

However, Shawyer claims that following fundamental physics involving the theory of special relativity, the EmDrive does in fact preserve the law of conservation of momentum and energy.

The author’s recourse is “Don’t worry about it, it’s hidden in special relativity!” Having dealt with special relativity and being aware that Einstein used this very thought experiment to prove E=mc^2, I can assure you that violating conservation of momentum is still completely fatal to an argument. Special Relativity isn’t exactly an impassable mountain that breaks conservation rules the way General Relativity does.

Despite all of that, various labs around the world have built EmDrives to test the idea. In the end, this is sort of like continuing to test whether or not autism is caused by vaccination, but okay, fine.

To everyone’s surprise, some of these labs, including Eagle Labs at NASA, have reported tiny tiny thrust. Something smaller than micronewtons IIRC, but still thrust.

And, of course, the cranks go wild! Here it is, the reactionless Cannae drive that will take us to Alpha Centuari by 2035 and Vulcan by 2150.

Now, the fact is that while these labs have reported thrust, we don’t know exactly why it did. Sure, it did, but we need a theory that sits within physics that explains why it did. Rest assured, the reasons given by the drive’s creator are completely bogus, so new explanations are needed. Is it Casimir vacuum pressure? Is it warped spacetime? Is it Calvin’s Universal Transmogrifier? We need to figure it out.

The Finnish physicist in the IBTimes is remarkably conciliatory even if his tacitly favorably worded response is actually just another huge nail into the EmDrive’s already well-built coffin. Here is this physicist’s explanation:

“The EmDrive is an engine like any other engine. It takes in fuel and produces exhaust. The fuel side is easy for everyone to grasp – microwaves are being fed in. The trouble is, we don’t see anything coming out, which is why people think it doesn’t work,” Annila told IBTimes UK.

“So how could something come out that you can’t detect? Well, the photons bounce back and forth inside the metal cavity, and some of them end up going together in the same direction with the same speed, but they are 180 degrees out of phase. Invariably, when travelling together in this out-of-phase configuration, they cancel each other’s electromagnetic field out completely.

“That’s the same as water waves travelling together so that the crest of one wave is exactly at the trough of the other and cancelling each other out. The water does not go away, it’s still there, in the same way the pairs of photons are still there and carrying momentum even though you can’t see them as light.

“If you don’t have electromagnetic properties on the waves as they have cancelled each other out, then they don’t reflect from the cavity walls anymore. Instead they leak out of the cavity. So we have an exhaust – the photons are leaking out pair-wise.”

Whatever else I might think about everything here, this is actually not a bad explanation. Photons have the quality where they can be superpositioned: if you pick two photons headed in the same direction, of the same polarization, with their E-fields 180 degrees out of phase, the Poynting’s vector still exists, allowing them to still carry momentum, but their field oscillations will cancel out. If they are introduced pair-wise in this manner, there’s not a reason to think that they can interact with matter any longer and they could simply slip straight through the confinement of the drive and off into empty space. So, the thrust from the drive would then be generated by the physical asymmetry of the cone allowing photons to pair up and escape easily in one direction, but not in another.

As a slight aside, I think I disagree with the Finnish physicist’s usage of water waves in the example above. The reason is that macroscopic waves in water are not discrete the way photons are. By effecting the continuum of material in water, the displacement of the wave crest from its resting state is what contains the energy of the wave: for small displacements, the momentum is perpendicular to the direction of travel. By adding a second oscillation 180 degrees out of phase, you completely cancel out the energy of the wave… and no wave remains after the fact. I’ve been thinking and I continue to think about whether or not the same is true with photons. I don’t think that it is mainly because photons are quantum mechanical particles and they have a quality of being discrete objects in the sense of their particle-wave duality. Photons contain linear momentum parallel to their direction of travel, while a water wave does not (the momentum is perpendicular to its direction of travel), and two photons caught traveling in the same direction must conserve momentum, regardless of their phase.

Now, I am granting here that there’s a physical explanation for why thrust is being generated, but we’ve slipped into explicable physics. If you stop and think about what we’re talking about, all we’re talking about is a very specialized form of microwave antenna. If you want thrust from momentum carried away by emitted microwaves, this process of pairing up photons so that they become invisible to the walls of the device (and sensors behind the device) is sort of beside the point. Granted, it would not torch anything behind it, this device is not the most efficient way to produce photons in the form of thrust. A flashlight or a laser would be much more efficient at converting power into thrust by doing essentially the same thing.

You could presumbly do an experiment like this one with a lasing cavity using optical light. I would partially-silver the surface of one mirror with a coating that is about a quarter wavelength thick before you hit the actual mirror. It’d be technically challenging since you’re talking about 1/4 micron thicknesses that are the tolerance of the lasing mode, but that’s something that can be attempted. Provided you stay at a condition of optical gain in the cavity modes (not all the photons are canceling) you should be able to test whether the recoil of the laser body due to the emitted radiation is the same as the recoil at the laser light spot. You could probably just set it up as an interferometer with adjustable arms and forget the coating. Again, this would depend on polarizing the emitted light.

Just thinking about it, I can imagine several more ways to test this in an optical setting. Some of them could be quite cheap to do.

Point is that there’s nothing magic about this.

Again, the problem with the EmDrive is that it’s exploiting physics to not do the most efficient thing it could do at its supposed task. If you start tabulating the amounts of power needed to generate thrust that is appreciable by these methods, you’re going to start tripping over conservation of energy somewhere. This not being magical, the amounts of energy needed to do anything are also not magical and will turn into eyepopping numbers when you start demanding that the thrusts the engine can produce are big enough to move masses humans might want to move with it.

I’ve been quite generous here. This is supposing that the explanation the Finnish physicist has supplied is useful over the other potential sources of noise in the experiment –the micronewtons or nanonewtons Eagle labs reported is so tiny that somebody’s breath could have been hitting the side of the experiment.

Scaling this thing up in force is crazily hopeful and would require you to jettison basically the whole design and go with something that does better what this device is actually doing. At some point, it will be time to forget about this EmDrive and relegate it to the wide-eyed, hopeful crankery that it is.

How to learn Quantum Mechanics: not like this!

This particular topic never fails to get my hackles up. At breakfast this morning, I stumbled over an article about Willow Smith. This article linked to a profile on the same person.

Up front, Jaden and Willow Smith have both made their feelings about school well known. They are home schooled and actively decry spending time in the classroom.

The Smith kids are a master course on how to game the media. Every article about them comes off crooning over how smart and otherworldly they are. Jaden Smith opens his mouth and utters endless solipsisms with offhand references to ‘mathematics’ and ‘theoretical physicists’ and the tabloids bend over in awe about his perceived intellectual might. Never mind that for all his talk about ‘math’ and ‘physics’ he has not once pulled out any associated skill in a place where it’s clear that he doing anything but reading Deepak Chopra –which is a really bad way to learn anything about Quantum Mechanics.

When I think of Willow Smith, I will always think of this:

I went to school for one year. It was the best experience but the worst experience. The best experience because I was, like, “Oh, now I know why kids are so depressed.” But it was the worst experience because I was depressed.

Followed closely by this:

maybe even attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) one day. It’s why she hopped on a flight to tour the campus in Cambridge directly after Paris Fashion Week (where she excited a flashing mob of paparazzi with karate kicks at Chanel’s #frontrowonly show—NBD!). “It was nice to be able to talk to female students and professors about science and logic because that’s just such a man’s world,” she notes.

This pair of quotes is separated by a couple years. The first outlines why she won’t stay in school while the second is suggesting that she’s thinking about jumping into the iconic school of STEM education. Does she want to be in school or not? She’s been in school for only a year total in her life and doesn’t like the process, but she wants to jump into MIT??? If you can’t handle the classroom in a normal highschool, you are not only flunking out of a University, but talking about a place like MIT just for the name recognition is a complete joke. To get into MIT and make it meaningful, the bare minimum is not merely a GED, it’s excellent scores on ACT and SAT. You can’t just talk your way through that. Maybe money is enough to open all the doors, but what do you do when the professor has shoved a test in front of you and demanded that you either get an ‘A’ on it or fail? You can’t cry about gender discrimination if you are not capable of handling the task put in front of you… and it sure as hell won’t be a photo shoot with you dressed head to foot in swanky leather.

In the GRE, before heading into graduate school as a physicist, I managed nearly an 800 on my math score. That is not kidding you. To get that number required a meaningful amount of bashing my skull against the wall –I think that most people can probably do it, but it’s not trivial preparing to be able to. There were no solipsisms that I was uttering. I did better than the average on my Physics GREs. The time spent being able to do this would never have allowed for a trip to Paris fashion week; it required months of diligent, focused work! It’s like sharpening a razor blade or learning the form for an Olympic level high jump or learning how to shoot a sniper rifle and being able to hit the bull’s eye every time at two thousand yards. You know how marines get that good? They sit on the firing range all day with their faces glued into the sighting scope, shooting round after round after round. Just buying the gun isn’t enough. You have to work at it really hard and there’s not much time to do other stuff. Getting there leaves you pissing the intellectual equivalent of blood for your efforts –literally dinged and light headed as if you just stood a round against Connor McGregor and got the crap kicked out of you! My first two years in graduate school several times had me in tears. I was dreaming in mathematics and waking up in the middle of the night with the equations swirling around me. You’ve not lived until you’re deriving vector expressions for E-field polarization in light from Maxwell’s equations in your sleep. Breathing the topic, eating it, changes you. I regretted it at the time, but that place where demands are being made that are just beyond where you think you can go really does force you to break your own limits. The reality of physics very rapidly squeezes out anything resembling Osho or Prana energy.

Now, it’s with me forever and not just words. The feeling and the vision are still there along with the addiction of cracking problems apart and seeing where they implode into order.

In truth, there are people in this world who are ‘that’ smart. There is a small chance the Smith kids are among them. I do believe them to be bright, but how bright? Not like you can actually tell something like that from a tabloid interview. I’ve met and interacted with a few of these people, though I wouldn’t qualify myself among them. These people are truly scary because no matter how hard you work, they do better than you on the same test without having seemingly put in the effort. On the other hand, when they talk, it’s clear that they know what they’re talking about… with the Smith kids, it’s endless alliteration and metaphor without any substantial verification of the background. They use the words, but shove them into metaphors as if they have no concept of what the words actually mean. I was completely capable of that myself at that age! I talked endlessly about hypercubes and event horizons when I was seventeen, but ask me now if I truly understood it.

This particular article about Willow Smith drove me to write something on this blog because of this:

Willow sews clothing, hosts underground teachings in quantum mechanics, and is studying how to produce songs from mathematical equations

And in the other article, this:

1. Willow Smith likes to sew.

2. Willow Smith is a self-proclaimed “STEM freak.”

3. Willow Smith chatted with female professors at MIT about science and logic, and might attend school there.

4. Willow Smith’s eyeliner philosophy is “all about emulating the colors you feel inside,” which is probably the best eyeliner philosophy, tbh.

5. This whole interaction between Willow Smith and Siri: “‘I see myself as a — €”hold on, let me ask Siri.’ The teenager whips out her iPhone and speaks into it, drawing stares from tables nearby. ‘Siri, define artisan.’ Everybody’s favorite robotic voice serves up a satisfying definition: Artisan is a worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand. ‘Ah, OK, yes!’ Willow allows. ‘I call myself an artisan.'”

6. Willow Smith is studying how to produce songs from mathematical equations.

7. Willow Smith “hosts underground teachings in quantum mechanics.”

A big portion of what’s written here is about some combination of science, physics and math… having never actually demonstrated a competence at any of these in a public framework! What does it mean ‘hosts underground teachings in quantum mechanics?’ Is she sitting around with a group of her friends learning how to derive Klebsch-Gordon recurrence formulas?  For all that the article applauds her for using the words, there’s zero demonstration of the substance. You can look back at my post about Quantum University to know what I think of that.

I’m all for STEM education in women. I’ve dealt with female physicists who pulled higher scores than me in my quantum classes. I have a deep respect for women in STEM and I know flat out that they are capable of wickedly cool things. Take Emmy Noether, for instance. General Relativity would not be the same as a field without her. The difference here is that Emmy Noether actually did it. She didn’t wear around the aura of doing it, she didn’t abstractly pay lip service to ‘quantum mechanics,’ she produced real mathematical topology results never having once wasted her time singing about it in a recording booth, going on photo shoots for whoever or beaming about Prana energy, Ayurveda or Osho. After they get to the level I’m at, most of these women stop worrying so much about how they dress or what makeup they wear because they simply don’t have the time to spend the effort. I respect them because of the bias they wade against in many fields and it blows me away when they dress just as comfortably as the guys and pull through tests neck-in-neck. They can certainly do what they want with their clothing, but with many of them, it’s clear where they put their budget of energy. Most stop troweling on the eyeliner or lipstick unless they feel like it. Give me a clean-faced, smiling woman in flat, comfortable shoes with a three second pony-tail talking competently about Fourier transforms over this paper-tiger with her photo shoots and nonsensical posing any day. Willow Smith is casting the image of what popular culture wants smart to be… not what it actually is!

This girl could be an incredible benefit to her generation: she could make it cool for girls to do well in engineering type disciplines (if she were actually doing that, of course, which is debatable). She and her brother could make it cool for kids to be science geeks like I was. However, in order to actually accomplish in these fields, you can’t just wear the aura. If you are divided in your path and can’t get behind the idea of sitting in a classroom learning how to tell when you’re wrong, and really being pushed into a territory where almost no one is just ‘comfortable,’ you aren’t making it. Don’t delude yourself, it’s never just the words! Anybody can sound smart.

Much ado is made about them ‘teaching themselves’ in the book of life and how much better that is than the classroom. The problem with self study education (autodidacticism at the extreme), is that it’s hard to learn how to error-check your own thoughts. There are not that many true autodidacts because of that. People don’t easily step outside of themselves to know whether the information they’ve picked up is correct or not. Adding to a library means sometimes knowing when to discard a book. For instance, reading Deepak Chopra is not going to take you anywhere in learning quantum mechanics, but you can’t necessarily know this without some external direction since Chopra actively works to make what he says look like a legitimate truth deserving of as much consideration as what the topic of quantum mechanics actually contains. If you’re spending too much time pondering such chaff, you go nowhere with the things that have substance which take huge amounts of time to understand, like real Quantum Mechanics. And, if you accept what Chopra says as a valid interpretation because of some eastern mystic mentality, you have sabotaged yourself from knowing what real quantum can give you. For something like this type of physics, which contains no close conceptual parallels in our workaday world, without some guidance toward where the field lies, there’s not any reason why anyone can teach themselves to sort out what’s truth from what isn’t.

I think that the path to deep understanding of something like quantum physics is not along the path she’s walking… if she were actually walking it, it wouldn’t be ‘learning how to make songs about mathematical equations’ it would be ‘learning math.’ You can’t go deep or far if you’re divided. Your purpose can’t be distantly around, it has to be directly through. For instance, you can’t really learn quantum if you’re wasting time pretending that Ayurveda contains some kind of equivalent truth. That would have you spending time on the Ayurveda and not on the math. Quantum is a handful all by itself, let me tell you! I wish very much for her to prove me wrong, to prove to me that she has some substance to go with the borrowed legitimacy from using the words ‘quantum’ and ‘math’ to describe half of what she does. If I were invited to one of her ‘underground quantum mechanics teachings’ believe me, I could knock the topic straight and make it real… but I doubt anybody like me is ever invited. Likely, it’s all Ayurveda and Chopra and 2% real quantum.

Prove me wrong, girl! In five years, when you’re 20, after you’ve scraped off the makeup and put away the toys, gotten the GED and dominated the aptitude tests, then spent enough real effort on learning higher math to know what an equation is, we’ll chat again about what you like at MIT.

Math is fun, but you’ve got to really do it!