The sociology of science

In my post on the Planck units yesterday, I referenced the work of C. Alden Mead who, as far as I am aware, was the first to take the idea of the Planck units as having a real physical significance out of the realm of folklore. Interestingly, Mead had considerable trouble getting his paper accepted for publication. When I read his paper, I noticed that it was first submitted in June 1959 and must have had multiple exchanges with referees because a revised version was finally received four years later in August 1963 and then it took another year to appear in print in August 1964. The publication of scientific papers can be slow and take about a year or so if accepted but five years means that he had a lot of trouble with referees and had to fight to get it published.
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The Planck units and their meaning

(Note: I am using some Greek letters and math symbols in this post and HTML can be dicey in how they appear. They look ok to me using the Safari browser on my Mac but if it looks weird to you, let me know in the comments and I will try and tweak the HTML to make it look better.)

In our lives we need to have some system of units for quantities like mass (M), length (L), and time (T). The most common system, used almost everywhere in the world with the US being a notable exception, is the metric system where length is in meters, time is in seconds, and mass is in kilograms. But any such system of units is purely conventional and if we were to make contact with any extra-terrestrials, it is almost certain that they would have a different set of units. But could there be units that are universal?
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Nobel prize in physics given for gravity wave detection

To no one’s surprise, this year’s Nobel prize in physics has been awarded for the detection of gravity waves in September 2015. This was a huge project involving large numbers of experimentalists and theorists because the waves have such a weak signal. It is not unlike the earlier discovery of the Higgs boson in that the final detection was received with relief rather than surprise because both were firmly believed to exist. In the case of the Higgs, the prediction had been made fifty years earlier and with the gravitational waves, it had been made 100 years earlier, as a consequence of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The challenge in both cases was to overcome the immense technical hurdles involved in detecting them.
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Exploiting the credibility of science

As a result of science’s great achievements in giving us reliable and accurate knowledge, it has tremendous credibility. Unfortunately, that increase in credibility has not been matched by a corresponding increase in the public’s awareness of how science acquires that knowledge and the limitations on it. This makes it possible to dazzle people with ‘science’.
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The costs and benefits of prolonging life

I pretty much sit all day, mostly working on the computer or reading. I have done this all my life. I am told that I should exercise more but have not done so, due to a combination of laziness and other factors. I now see a report that says that my daily routine of largely sitting is going to kill me and that occasional walking would not have helped anyway.
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There goes another stereotype

The new iPhone announced yesterday apparently uses some aspects of facial recognition technology, and Edward Snowden says that it is almost certainly going to be abused. China is forging ahead with facial recognition with estimates of up to a billion people’s faces being entered into databases that enable them to be instantly recognized. The applications made possible by this are vast but the privacy implications are also disturbing.
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Changing meaning of words

I have long been interested in the evolution of words as their meanings change and in his book The Scientific Revolution (1996), author Steven Shapin makes some interesting observations and speculations about two words that over time came to mean things almost directly opposite to what they had meant before. One such word is ‘revolution’.
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It’s never the right time to talk about inconvenient truths

Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s choice to head the EPA, is a climate change skeptic of course. After all, his boss has called it a ‘hoax’. When asked whether the back-to-back huge hurricanes Harvey and Irma with Jose in the wings should result in having serious discussions about the impact of climate change and how to mitigate it, he replied:
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Why the Apollo images were so ghostly

The TV images we saw of the Apollo astronauts on the moon had a ghostly, grainy look. That poor quality lent support to the beliefs of some people that the moon landings were faked though the reasoning escapes me. If the video was filmed on a secret Hollywood soundstage by Stanley Kubrick, as some allege, then surely NASA could have shelled out a few extra bucks to make a better quality product? (I never quite understood why people would believe something so bizarre. Why would NASA and the top people in the US government cook up such a story?)
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