Multiple Universes?! Hooey!…

I like hearing about new and interesting ideas within science – they help us to explain our world better…

(And now, I step on my soapbox…)  HOWEVER, I do think some ideas are just plain hooey, because they are less science and more intellectual rationalization for why we can’t explain things at the moment…

Take the Many-Worlds interpretation

In quantum mechanics, particles in the universe are represented by things called wavefunctions.  These wavefunctions describe the probabilities that one would observe a particle in a particular state, for example.  However, once we observe the particle in some state, we observe that state and no others, so the quantum physicists describe this as the “collapse” of the wavefunction.

Describing particles this way turns out to be pretty useful in describing some overall behavior, but it doesn’t explain everything, and this is where the “hooey” starts coming in…

Because quantum physicists can’t understand why this “collapse” happens the way it does, they’ve started to come up with consequences that just plain boggle the mind… 

So, since particles are represented by probabilitistic wavefunctions, then some people in the Many Worlds camp think that these particles exist in all states in different proportions in different universes.  So there’s another you somewhere doing something different than you’re doing now (say, not reading this post…) and still others doing things completely different…

The possibilities are literally endless, and there are serious scientists who believe in this hooey with straight faces…

Here’s a link to a video of David Deutsch.  He’s a Dirac Prize winner and in important contributor to the field of quantum mechanics and quantum computation (a favorite subject of mine…).  However, I just don’t buy into this poppycock of multiple universes – it’s hard enough to figure out what’s going on in our  universe, let alone all the other infinitely possible ones… 

And to invent an infinite number of alternative universes as the reason why we can’t fully explain what’s happening here – well, it just plain ain’t science.

For me, scientific theories are ones that can (1) explain the world and the universe around us, and (2) can be proven wrong when it doesn’t explain what happens in our world.   Theories also provide evidence for their truth with each and every time we observe our world. 

The problem with some theories (Many-Worlds is one, String Theory is another…) is that they can’t be proven wrong, so they just hang around, and scientific debate turns more into philosophy than a quest for what really drives the universe…

OK, off the soapbox…  For now…

Virgin Spaceship Unveiled

Today, Virgin Group’s Richard Branson is unveiling his venture’s first space tourism vehicle, SpaceShipTwo.

The ship’s predecessor, SpaceShipOne, also designed by the aerospace legend Burt Rutan, won the $10 million X Prize, given to the first private spacecraft to fly into suborbital space twice within a 14 day period.

Given the winning and demonstrated design of SpaceShipOne, Branson launched Virgin Galactic to give people the opportunity to visit outer space, for a mere $200,000.

Read more about the unveiling here

The Coolest, Geekiest Stuff for Christmas

Somehow I got on the mailing list for ThinkGeek (probably because, well, I get geeky science magazines like Wired…).  But I found myself thinking that this was the coolest, geekiest stuff I’d ever seen in one place.

For example, I mentioned in another post about the Star Wars Force Trainer, where you can raise a ball with your mind.

But wait, there’s more!…

Tauntaun Sleeping Bag (image from www.thinkgeek.com)

Tauntaun Sleeping Bag (image from www.thinkgeek.com)

How about the Tauntaun Sleeping Bag?  Remember the scene from The Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo finds Luke Skywalker outside on the frozen planet of Hoth.  The sun is going down and they’ll freeze to death if they don’t pitch the shelter…

Well,  the Tauntaun that Han was riding dies from the cold, and, to keep the injured Luke warm, Han uses a lightsaber to open the Tauntuan’s guts (actually, kind of a gross little scene…).  Han then nestles Luke next to the open Tauntaun…

Now, you can keep warm with your own Tauntaun sleeping bag.  It even includes a lightsaber zipper handle, as if you’re opening up the Tauntaun just like Han did!    Quite hilarious…

Clocky Robotic Alarm Clock (image from www.thinkgeek.com)

Clocky Robotic Alarm Clock (image from www.thinkgeek.com)

There’s also Clocky, the alarm clock that forces you to get up – no hitting “Snooze” with this one! 

As soon as the alarm goes off, Clocky start rolling away, and the only way to shut Clocky off is for you to actually get up and turn him off!…

Star Trek Red Shirt - Expendable (image from www.thinkgeek.com)

Star Trek Red Shirt - Expendable (image from www.thinkgeek.com)

The last one that I liked the most was the Star Trek Redshirt T-shirt that says “Expendable”…  Any of us who saw the original Star Trek series (obviously from reruns…) knows that whenever you saw a new actor in an episode that joined the away team to check out a new planet, this guy usually wore the standard red shirt and was the one who ended up dying in the episode.

From the description of the item on ThinkGeek.com:

“In the Star Trek universe, the Red Shirt is the phase-cannon fodder obliterated on screen to alert the audience to the danger of the situation. It’s Roddenberry proclaiming, “We could have just killed one of the characters you cared about!” The Red Shirt is a sci-fi idiom for the anonymous, the expendable, the smoking boots behind a boulder.”

If you need any ideas for cool stuff for your geek friends, I would totally check this out…

First Programmable Quantum Computer

A quick note on one of my favorite new technologies – quantum computers.  Quantum computers are coming into reality, and here’s a story about the world’s first programmable one…

Quantum computers can do a number of things exponentially faster than regular computers, such as searching through unsorted databases and factoring integers (which is useful for codebreaking).  While these applications are pretty limited, there are new algorithms that let quantum computers work on important useful problems…

Use The Force, Luke

Smirking Yoda -

These are probably some of the coolest things I’ve run across in a while, and they all have to do with using your mind to control things…

Now, most of us already use our mind to control things – like our arms and legs, but they’re of course connected to our brain through nerves and our spinal cord.

But, what about things that are not physically connected?  Well, this is where the cool stuff comes in…

In Rome, a group of European scientists say that they’ve successfully connected a robotic hand to a man who lost his arm.  He uses electrodes that are connected to his nervous system to enable him to move the arm using his brain.  Here’s the link to the Associated Press story…

I saw something like this on 60 Minutes a month or so ago, and they had another cool mindtrick technology that they showed off…

Brown University's BrainGate technology (image from www.boston.com)

Brown University's BrainGate technology (image from www.boston.com)

In that article, they showed off some technology that astrophysicist Stephen Hawking (who has ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) uses to communicate with the world.   A technology by scientists at Brown University called BrainGate lets a paralyzed patient focus their brain on certain letters on a computer screen.  When the letter that they are thinking of lights up, they are instructed to use their mind to say “yes, it’s lit up”.  The computer will recognize the difference in brain wave activity when the patient thinks of the letter and when the patient is not, so the computer would then be able to decide that the patient is thinking of, say, the letter “A”.

Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes was really amazed on the broadcast to see this technology in action – allowing people to use their minds to spell out words and sentences (here’s a video link to that article…)

In fact, I think that it’s so cool and important that I’ve asked my wife Stephanie to make sure that if I’m ever paralyzed that we look into using the technology.  I personally couldn’t imagine having my mind being fully active, but also being unable to communicate with anyone.  This seems like such an enabling and freeing technology that I would totally want to grab it if I could…

Star Wars Force Trainer (image from www.starwars.com)

Star Wars Force Trainer (image from www.starwars.com)

The last cool thing actually more a Christmas-related technology, but cool none the less.  It’s the Star Wars Force Trainer (I mean, how cool is that?!…).  With it, you put on a headset which has dry sensors that you apply to your head.  These sensors measure brain waves, such as alpha, beta, and theta waves – basically, different frequencies of brain wave patterns.  When the sensors measure certain patterns, the headset sends a wireless signal to a remote device that turns on a fan that pushes a ball up a cylinder.  The more you concentrate and give off the right brain wave signals, the higher the ball will go. 

So, you’re using your mind (or maybe it’s the Force) to push the ball up the cylinder (here’s a post on how the technology actually works…)

These technologies really make it seem like we’ll be using the Force soon, huh?  As my Smirking Yoda might say, “The Force a very powerful ally it is, mmm?”

Search for Higgs Keeps Going

On Monday, Europe’s Large Hadron Collider set a record by smashing protons together at energies never achieved before.  This energy, 1.18 trillion electronvolts (TeV), beats the previous record of 0.98 TeV in 2001 by America’s Tevatron collider at Fermilab outside of Chicago.

So, you might be asking, why should we care?

Well, to figure out how the universe works, scientists have needed to build incredibly huge proton-smashers to unlock what’s inside of them.  The Large Hadron Collider (or LHC) is buried 300 feet under the border between France and Switzerland and is actually a large circular tunnel that is 17 miles round, used to accelerate protons to near the speed of light.

Physicists have a pretty strong model for what makes up all the stuff in the universe; it’s called the Standard Model (catchy, isn’t it?…). In that model, everything in the universe is made up of atoms. The atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. And the protons and neutrons are made of things called quarks (confused, yet?…)

Well, in addition to these fundamental particles, there are other particles that carry forces, bonding these particles together and pushing others apart. Some of these are called photons, gravitons, and gluons (these actually hold quarks together, like glue…).

So, with other big proton-smasing colliders, like the one at Fermilab, scientists have discovered all of the quarks, including the most illusive one, the so-called top quark, in 1995.  This was pretty tough, because the top quark has a lot of mass, so it requires a lot of energy to bust protons apart to see it.

However, we haven’t discovered all of the other particles, particularly the Higgs boson, which scientists believe is the answer to why particles have mass in the first place.   Discovering the Higgs boson would complete the Standard Model. 

One problem is that the Standard Model doesn’t predict what the mass of the Higgs boson is, so we don’t really know how much energy it would take to observe it.  It’s possible that the LHC still isn’t powerful enough to observe this particle…

Hopefully, the LHC will result in some additional hard evidence to confirm science’s thoeries of the universe.  Let’s see what comes out of it…  For more on the LHC record, you can read about it here or here

American Innovation and Pellet Power

Like I said in an earlier post, I thought this week’s Newsweek had a lot of great stuff…  Here are two articles with a scientific bent that I thought were neat. 

The first article is by Fareed Zakaria, who asks Is America Losing Its Mojo?  Zakaria points to three tidals waves of innovation that made America the world leaders in innovation. 

The first was a wave of deconstruction in Europe in the aftermath of World War II – while Europe spent most of its resources rebuilding to get back to where they were before, America had the opportunity to push ahead with little competition.

The second wave, which was related to the first, was the influx of immigrants that fled Europe and took up residence in America’s universities and research centers.

The third wave came as a result of massive government funding, which led to and created markets for innovations such as the microprocessor, global positioning satellites, and the development of the Internet.

I see Zakaria’s point, but I’m not sure if America’s lead in the innovation space is really dead.  The the creation of the personal computer and the drive to use the Internet (and the software industries that came as a result) were American innovations, were distinct from these three waves, and changed the planet.

But what I did find interesting from this article was the list of great scientists that helped position America as the world’s innovation leader.  Here’s who was listed:

Thomas Edison (1847-1931) – Lightbulbs, phonograph
Henry Ford (1863-1947) – Assembly line
George Washington Carver (c. 1864-1943) – Crop rotation
Orville (1871-1948) and Wilbur (1867-1912) WrightAirplane
Willis Carver (1876-1950) – Air conditioning
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) – Theory of relativity
Charles Richard Drew (1940-50) – Blood bank
J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-67) – Atomic bomb
Jonas Salk (1914-95) – Polio vaccine
Marion Donovan (1917-98) – Disposable diapers
Stephanie Kwolek (1923-  ) – Kevlar
James Watson (1928-  ) – Structure of DNA
Arthur Fry (1931-  ) – Post-its
Sergey Brin (1973-  ) and Larry Page (1973-  ) – Google
Ed Moses (1949-  ) – Nuclear fusion (which is the subject of the next article…)

The second article is by Daniel Lyons (aka Fake Steve Jobs – who hates Jobs, and I posted about his article on the iPhone here…) is on the quest for nuclear fusion power. 

Nuclear fusion is the holy grail of energy, where a small pellet of deuterium and tritium (which are isotopes of hydrogen) hit with big lasers harnesses the energy-making power of the Sun.  The byproduct, as opposed to the radioactive waste of nuclear fission reactors or the greenhouse gases associated with burning fossil fuels, would merely be helium.

From the article, “Fusion proponents claim that 10 gallons of water could produce as much energy as a supertanker of oil.

To the Amateur Scientist in Us

This is a great post by Seth Godin (and in many ways, what I like to point out with my blog posts…). 

Seth is a king of marketing, but here, he points out how many people make bad decisions because they don’t really use any real scientific reasoning to get to a good answer…

And worse, with all the factoids out there, misleading and otherwise, people grab onto this information and think that they are being more rational in their decisionmaking…

Seth uses the flu vaccines, breast cancer screenings, and salmon to speak his message – a worthy read