July 31, 2004

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Ignorance of Physics Department)

*Sigh* Gregg Easterbrook trashes physicist Stephen Hawking:

The New Republic Online: Expert Tease: So Stephen Hawking now says he was completely wrong about black holes--they don't crush reality out of existence, and they aren't doorways to alternate universes.... It would be tempting to say that Hawking was able to become internationally famous while saying kooky things because today physicists have the status once held by medieval priests: People don't challenge their mumbo-jumbo. Or perhaps Hawking was able to get away with saying kooky things because knowledge of science is so poor: Book critics and the television newscasters who interviewed him assumed the mumbo-jumbo must make sense and felt insecure about simply saying, "Time moving in reverse, what claptrap." For years the science community has been quietly uneasy about Hawking's high profile, since he's gotten away with asserting considerable nonsense and then defending himself by waving equations. At least he has finally confessed, and presumably in the future will be more circumspect. Unless time begins to run backward, in which case he's already been circumspect, but will, as he grows younger, start shooting from the hip....

Goes on to ridicule the Big-Bang theory for violating the "common-sense test":

What came before the Big Bang? Cosmologists hate this question, but it's haunting nonetheless. There must have been some prior condition. Big Bang theorists pretty much contend that all the material of the entire universe sprang from a point with no content and no dimensions. "Negative energy" or "vacuum density" and other mumbo-jumbo terms are employed to justify this, but purported explanations of how entire galaxies could emanate from nowhere don't do especially well on the common-sense test. Maybe there was a Big Bang, but until cosmologists can offer some depiction of the prior condition, the line of thought is suspect.

In the process demonstrating that he has no clue about either general relativity or electromagnetism:

That gravity exists is indisputable, and the equations by which it functions have been so precisely refined that NASA can guide space probes moving amid the outer planets. But the what of gravity--how it works--is a total unknown. When the apple falls toward the ground, no force, wave, or other carrier of attraction can be detected operating between the two. Many carriers of various kinds of electromagnetic radiation have been identified, such as the photons that mediate light; whatever mediates gravity continues to defy detection. Einstein speculated that the mass of every object causes space-time to curve, and then less massive objects roll downward on the curvature, and that's where gravity comes from. But wait, even if space is curved by mass, why do objects roll down the curvature--what pulls them? Your guess is as good as the next PhD's.

First, in general relativity objects don't "roll downward" on the curvature. Objects that are not pushed by the strong or the electroweak force move through curved space along that space's "straight lines"--i.e., they follow the shortest distance between any two points--according to the (relativistic version of) Newton's First Law of Motion: a body in uniform motion will continue in uniform motion. Nothing is needed to pull them--unless, of course, you think that it is a deep and profound mystery that your car rolling down the road continues to move when you take your foot off the gas (what pulls it!?).

Second, what are these "many carriers of electromagnetic radiation" other than photons? Photons are electromagnetic radiation. They are the only carriers. There are no other "carriers." And photons don't "mediate" light: they are light.

Third, the reason that physicists can observe--and have observed--individual photons at work is that electromagnetism is a powerful force. (Indeed, our naked eyes are within a couple of orders of magnitude of sensitivity of being able to observe individual photons.) Gravity is, relative to electromagnetism, an extremely weak force, and so its effects are very hard to see in the small. That physicists haven't been able to observe individual quanta of gravity at work is disappointing, but it's not surprising: it's not a reason to think that there's anything wrong with the consensus quantum gravity research program.

Fourth, ever since Newton physics has flunked the common-sense test: Action at a distance? Continued motion without force? Wave/particle dualities? Shrinking yardsticks? Slowing clocks? Event horizons? It's a little late--and it's profoundly stupid--to claim that we shouldn't believe modern (i.e., post-1670) physics because its ideas of the deep structure of physical law aren't in accord with the rules-of-thumb we derive from daily experience. The questions of why there was a Big Bang and what came "before" are deep mysteries that physics may well never be able to solve at all. (If there was a "before": as I understand it, the question "what came before the Big Bang?" may have the same answer as "what spot on the earth's surface is one foot south of the South Pole?") But to claim that there wasn't a Big Bang because the concept doesn't "do especially well on the common-sense test" is simply silly.

Fifth, Hawking. Stephen Hawking is an international celebrity because his life story is so arresting, because his part of the collective work of trying to build a theory of quantum gravity has been important, and because A Brief History of Time is a remarkably good and readable book. Since physicists don't yet have a theory of quantum gravity, most of Hawking's attempts to explore what the consequences of such a theory would be and most of his attempts to build up pieces of that theory will be wrong. That's the way science works. That doesn't make his ideas or other physicists' ideas, even when they're wrong, "mumbo-jumbo" or medieval theology: there are powerful empirical tests that developed physical theories are asked to pass.

There are, across the country, thousands of physicists and other scientists, many of whom can write quite well and have a great knack for making concepts, ideas, theories, and facts clear. Isn't it time to give some of them Gregg Easterbrook's pages in the New Republic?

Posted by DeLong at July 31, 2004 12:47 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

I emailed the New Republic asking them to drop Easterbrook a few days ago, no response yet... The "roll downward" thing jumped out as the most egregious misunderstanding, but if you read to the end of the article, you'll see him talk about the Earth's magnetic poles switching and he bases a few paragraphs on some crank's "doomsday" website -- doomsday is Easterbrook's word. The crank is convinced that the pole switching will occur not over the course of hundreds of years, but in the next few, causing widespread havoc -- among other things, precipitation of biblical proportions. I guess it's natural for Easterbrook to be drawn to that type of guy, as neither has any scientific or academic credential and both are probably just trying to sell a few books, but still...

Posted by: Anno-nymous on July 31, 2004 01:06 PM


Ah, yes, it's ignorant hackwork, but this piece pales in comparison to Easterbunny's articles explaining why the current Administration's hideous environmental policies are actually *much better than they seem*!

As for giving the guy's TNR slot to someone else, forget it, the damage has been done; Gregg's presence on the masthead is only a symptom of a much more serious systemic disease, which began around the time of the late Michael Kelly's editorial tenure. Andrew Sullivan and Marty Peretz should also come in for deserved shares of blame.

As a former paid subscriber of long standing to what was once a respectable journal of opinion and inquiry, I can confirm that today's _The New Likudnik_ is beyond hope of rescue.

Shut it down, blow it up, let other magazines (and now blogs) step in to fill its former role, and hope that history remembers the generally good work done there prior to the early Nineties.

Posted by: marquer on July 31, 2004 01:10 PM


Thank you, Dr. De Long, for this little tidbit from Easterbrook files. I've despised the guy for years, ever since he typed a piece for Newsweek back just before President Clinton's timber summit in which he spouted as gospel a list of pure talking points from the timber industry. When pressed for his sources, Newsweek finally provided citations ... which I dutifully checked out, to the extent possible, at the UC Santa Cruz library. None of them, as it turned out, was on point, and several seemed to bear no relationship whatsoever to Easterbrook's claims.

I cannot understand how this man continues to be published ANYWHERE. When I was first learning the craft of journalism, it was impressed on me -- repeatedly -- that there were certain things that would permanently and absolutely end your career in reputable publications. Yet here we see Easterbrook STILL spouting the most incredible, arrogant, ignorant nonsense ... and with lots of editors still falling over themselves offering to buy more of his dreck.

As for The New Republican: it still, occasionally, contains useful and intelligent articles. But Marquer above is generally right. The magazine is pretty awful these days, and has been for quite a few years. The fact that Peretz has repeatedly hired rightwingers to edit what is supposed to be a moderately liberal magazine tells you pretty much all you need to know. The only way to save TNR would be for a consortium of progressive investors, or someone like George Soros on his own, to buy it and do a thorough housecleaning. I think Marquer is right: forget about it! Give it up. Look elsewhere.

-- Roger Keeling

Posted by: Roger Keeling on July 31, 2004 01:30 PM


When's the last time a famed *priest* repudiated a fundamental tenet of the "faith," only to have all other men and women of the cloth sit back and think, "Hmmm, maybe he's right--we'll have to look into that"?

Posted by: Strange Doctrines on July 31, 2004 01:57 PM


While agreeing with the most of your post, I'd like to take issue with your reference to A Brief History of Time as "a remarkably good and readable book". At the time it came out, I was a physics undergraduate at MIT, and had a fairly decent understanding of some, although not all, of the theories discussed in the book. Uniformly, on the points that I understood independently, Hawking was confusing and unclear. I got the impression that people thought highly of the book because it was awesomely incomprehensible (and short enough that the incomprehensibility didn't get too dull) rather than because it actually taught them anything about physics.

This isn't a slam at Hawking as a physicist, but as a pop-science writer, which is an entirely different and very rare skill.

Posted by: LizardBreath on July 31, 2004 02:02 PM


I don't know much about Peretz personally, but by his effects he must be incredibly malicious and conceited. He's really had an extraordinary effect on American public dialogue (and the Democratic Party) and has left marks everywhere, but (beyond the fact that I disagree with him about most things) it really seems that he is heedless of the destruction he does. Quite a number of his alumni (and present staffers) display severe ethical and professional blemishes.

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson on July 31, 2004 02:04 PM


Wow. Easterbrook has officially broken with science.

If you want to take on Hawking's work you can a) try to find the errors in his work, which is not easy; b) find someone who has had a real physics dispute with Hawking, in which case you will find someone who is certain to have great respect with Hawking; or c) throw out the baby with the bathwater, saying they are all a bunch of fools and I can sit at my computer and demonstrate that to you.

The curious part of this is that the computer is, of course, impossible without modern physics.

As a catholic, I say: would that my church had one iota of the skepticism about itself that science does. Would that my priests constantly, even occasionally looked over their own pronouncements for errors, like Hawking has done.

Ok, Gregg, you are throwing out science (or at least that science which you don't like - oops, that's part of the idea of science - you can't just ignore ideas you don't like!!) What will you replace it with? It's actually a serious question.

This post should haunt Easterbrook for a long time. "I reject the enlightenment" - G. Easterbrook.

"What if we have a president who believes in science so we can unleash the wonders of discovery like stem-cell research..."

Posted by: BoulderDuck on July 31, 2004 02:24 PM


I for one will welcome the New Dark Ages...all this technology mumbo jumbo is a bunch of hogwash!

I'd laugh if it weren't so depressing...

Easterbrook sounds like one of those know-it-none callers on Talk of the Nation's Science Friday...

Posted by: Pat on July 31, 2004 02:43 PM


The American Spectator used to run pieces, not by prominent scientists, but by their columnists purporting to disprove "the" theory of relativity (they didn't specify special or general). Too bad the New Republic is following them into that abyss.

Posted by: son volt on July 31, 2004 02:45 PM


btw, this trope from Easterbrook:

>>> today physicists have the status once held by medieval priests

I first came across in one of Tom Wolfe's recent essays collected in "Hooking Up". In it, Wolfe is talking with some (unnamed) college whiz-kids who assert that physics is turning into theology, but that the real, cutting-edge action is in ... wait for it ... evolutionary psychology.

Posted by: son volt on July 31, 2004 02:54 PM


I'm pretty sure I have read more than once that in fact the human eye can detect the effect of a single photon. It's a long time since I was in school, but it doesn't seem that unlikely.

Posted by: Tim Bray on July 31, 2004 02:57 PM


Whether it's "Kill Bill" or Big Bang, Easterbrook fails miserably.

There needs to be an online "Dump Easterbrook!" petition to TNR ... perhaps someone with their own server will oblige?

Posted by: Anderson on July 31, 2004 03:01 PM


It is my considered opinion, arrived at after many years' observation of the man's typeset product, that Gregg Easterbrook is a pompous ignoramus. He falls squarely into the category of incompetent people who do not realize that they are incompetent.

Posted by: Alex Merz on July 31, 2004 03:33 PM


Not the first time Easterbrook has shown that he
has no clue about physics. My favorite is from
"Long Shot" in the May 2003 Atlantic:

"Most commercial satellites are bound for geostationary orbit, 22,300 miles above the Equator. In this orbit an object hangs the same distance from Earth as Earth is around; the effect is that the satellite moves at a pace matching Earth's rotation, and therefore remains over the same point."

Ouch! One of the reasons (but not the only one)
for canceling my TNR subscription.

Posted by: leusnetsrot on July 31, 2004 03:58 PM


And just after I saw the Simpsons episode last night with the mob of villagers smashing the museum and other scientific institutions. It included the infamous Homer quote, "Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true!" How apropos.
Another place I spend a lot of my online time is the Bad Astronomy Bulletin Board (http://www.badastronomy.com/phpBB/), where we get a lot of this: people so sure that they've figured out the real truth about relativity, even though they never bothered to learn current relativity theory in the first place, and that sort of thing. And it seems that the less they understand, the more certain & arrogant they are.
This cropping up here, though, makes me wonder: I started off as a math & "hard" sciences geek, and started becoming more seriously interested in economics recently. Is Brad mirroring my interests?

Posted by: John Owens on July 31, 2004 04:22 PM


"Wthin a couple of orders of magnitude" is accurate and appriate to the point. IIRC, the detail was in an earlier edition of Stryer, and it's that a single molecle of rhodopsin in a human rod cell will change shape in response to one photon, and at maximum dark adaptation this can cause an action potential in the cell membrane. This is well established at the level of molecules and cells. Whether the visual system as a whole will allow this to register as a conscious sensation is a different question. But two orders of magnitude sounds reasonable.

Posted by: Roger Bigod on July 31, 2004 04:25 PM


The funny thing is, when Easterbrook writes about a topic he knows (say, pro football), he's actually first rate, but about everything else, as others above have noted, he's an idiot. It's quite a combination....

Posted by: howard on July 31, 2004 04:31 PM


LizardBreath - (NB: this is a previous poster's handle, not an insult) Gotta disagree with you on "A Brief History of Time." Hawking explained, in a few pithy paragraphs, what four semesters of University physics failed to - why orbitals are where they are (in the sense that they're anywhere). Just standing waves. That's all.

I felt like marching back to the school I attended (which will remain unnamed), but left before graduating and demanding a refund. Thousands of dollars worth of useless physics classes (why does a Computer Science major need to take Atomic and Nuclear Physics??) bested by an $18 book.

As far as Easterbrook goes, why bother reading that hack? And what makes him think that he's qualified to pass judgement in a field where he doesn't even begin to grasp the issues? TNR would be better without Easterbrook, and dog food would be better without bovine nervous tissue. Doesn't mean that one needs to consume either.

Posted by: LarryB on July 31, 2004 04:45 PM


Apparently, Easterbrook is not aware that many physicists disagreed with Hawking at the time he published his idea, along with the mathematical proof. They offered several different reasons. Uncovering the error that he made was apparently beyond even those who disagreed, but eventually Hawking himself figured it out.

At present, scientists have no idea about what happened before the big bang. It is totally stupid to criticize the theory on that ground. It is like criticizing the theory of evolution because we cannot find a complete fossil history. At present, both theories explain everything we know, and therefore they meet the basic test of science: is the theory useful for making technological advances. When, and to the extent that they fail that test, we will learn something new, and take the new idea as being as close to fact as we humans can handle.

Posted by: masaccio on July 31, 2004 05:02 PM


Other posters have said everything about Easterbrook that I could have, and more. But I do have a quibble.

Objects that are not pushed by the strong or the electroweak force move through curved space along that space's "straight lines"--i.e., they follow the shortest distance between any two points--according to the (relativistic version of) Newton's First Law of Motion: a body in uniform motion will continue in uniform motion. Nothing is needed to pull them--unless, of course, you think that it is a deep and profound mystery that your car rolling down the road continues to move when you take your foot off the gas (what pulls it!?).

But I DO think it is (was) a deep and profound mystery. It used to be one of Feynman's pet examples of the limits of physics.

I say was becase, IIRC, I read in Science that someone has come up with a quantum-theoretic explanation for inertia. Perhaps someone else here can say more; I can't.

As for "what came before the big bang?":

the existance of unexplained primitives (in the logical sense) is not a criticism of physics or anything else; it's trivially true that every explanation must take some things as antecedently clear, or there are no terms in which an explanation can be given. What those things are changes with new knowledge.

Although actually, of course, Easterbrook's complaint is not that there is nothing that can be said about "what came before?", it's that he dosen't like what is said because it dosen't meet his "common sense" test. Such drivel isn't worth spending time on,

Posted by: Jonathan Goldberg on July 31, 2004 05:22 PM


I think a single rod cell can detect a single photon but because of further signal processing in the retina no signal is sent up the optic nerve unless several nearby rod cells fire at once (I don't know how near or in what interval of time).

I think Easterbrook on science is an extreme case of a general phenomenon which I have tried to describe here before (unsuccessfully I think). Normal people don't dare argue with experts about topics on which they are relatively ignorant. Therefore, they are not qualified to be opinion collumnists. Easterbrook doesn't have to write about physics, but he does have to write about a lot of things where more knowledgeable people will catch his mistakes. free floating arrogance is necessary to be able to do his job. Physics nonsense is part of the price.

For a really extreme case try reading Doctors' Delusions by G. Bernard Shaw. One whole book expressing total disagreement with the medical profession which is, I believe, wrong on every single scientific point.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on July 31, 2004 05:29 PM


Wow! Based on most of the comments above, it's good to see that there are at least a few people living who've got it all figured out. And that Easterbrook, what an arrogant ass!

Posted by: Luke Lea on July 31, 2004 06:28 PM


Un-Freaking Believable!

Posted by: SW on July 31, 2004 07:12 PM


"...then defending himself by waving equations."

Yeah, screw Hawking for always defending himself with cold-hard scientific fact ;-)

Posted by: michael on July 31, 2004 07:14 PM


Here's something else Easterbrook doesn't know about: The Middle Ages.

"It would be tempting to say that Hawking was able to become internationally famous while saying kooky things because today physicists have the status once held by medieval priests: People don't challenge their mumbo-jumbo."

Now, I'm just ABD at this point, but I think I still qualify as a medievalist: I've been studying the MA for 5 graduate years so far. Plenty of people -- Jews, for instance, and heretics like the Cathars and the Lollards -- challenged priests. Even some Christians had to be convinced about the Eucharist, the Virgin Birth, and so forth. I have lots and lots of specific examples that I won't bore you with.

We're talking about 1,000 years of history. Claiming to know anything about 1,000 years of history on the basis of prejudice and a few movies makes you: a fool. Easterbrook qualifies.

Posted by: Karl, the Idiot on July 31, 2004 07:17 PM


It's all part of their new image. TNR is planning a name change to 'The New Republican'. Gregg EasterBunny will be the editor-in-chief, and the only topics allowed will be junk science masquerading as "common sense", Joe Liebermann's wisdom of the week, and what the US can learn from the Israeli government about how to confront terrorism. They'll also be the only magazine to get Mallard Fillmore strips a week early.

Posted by: melior on July 31, 2004 07:20 PM


If Salon (bless their hearts) hadn't given me a 6-month extension to my existing TNR sub, I would probably have let it die. There are still writers there I like very much, but this Easterbrook shit is hard to take. And I am still appalled by the Lieberman endorsement....and Marty Peretz's coffee seems to have something strange in it....
There are some problems over there.

Posted by: grishaxxx on July 31, 2004 07:22 PM


“At present, scientists have no idea about what happened before the big bang”

In general relativity as the density of mass goes up, the rate of time for an outside observer goes down in manner similar to the effect of velocity in special relativity. So as you run the universe backward in time on the big bang model, time moves more slowly. Taking the limit as you get to the bang, time stops.

So there was nothing before the big bang. There is one cute gotcha though, its not clear that its meaningfully for the universe to have an outside observer :)

Posted by: Rob Sperry on July 31, 2004 07:28 PM


"A Moment on the Earth" has many fallacies, one every two or three pages.

Posted by: Lee A. on July 31, 2004 07:35 PM


In Easterbrook's defense, he writes really good, really funny football analysis articles.

Posted by: Kimmitt on July 31, 2004 07:52 PM


I'm actually kind of grateful to TNR for publishing this. Now that I've seen Easterbrook write about something I understand at least a little, I know not to trust anything he writes about subjects I'm not as familiar with. And by extension, if this is what the editors of TNR think is well-informed commentary, then I now know better than to pay attention to them on any other subjects. Conservation of attention is always useful.

Posted by: tatere on July 31, 2004 08:09 PM


For some time, Gregg Easterbrook was considered to be a black hole of stupidity, something so incredibly dense with idiocy that he collapsed in on himself. He became a stupidity singularity, an infinitesimally tiny region which sucks mightily all light, reason, and logic into it where it disappears forever without a trace.

However, this theory has recently been reconsidered, as it now appears that occasionally the Easterbrook singularity belches forth some of the material it has sucked in, though in such a mangled, craptacular form that no intelligent being would be able to recognize it.

Posted by: renato on July 31, 2004 08:13 PM


Um, it's worth noting that Easterhack is a major proponent of "intelligent design."

Why TNR allows him to publish crap like this is beyond my ken.

Posted by: praktike on July 31, 2004 08:27 PM


Does anybody have Easterbrook's address? I've got a Dean Drive I want to sell him...

Posted by: pbg on July 31, 2004 08:33 PM


Cool! I didn't know that, as a physicist, I can say anything I want and no one will challenge it. Why, oh why do I continue to bother with that silly old peer review process? This new way will be much easier.

Posted by: johnny rev on July 31, 2004 08:40 PM


There was an article in Scientific American a couple months back (click on my username) about the big bang maybe NOT being the beginning of time. I don't understand the math involved in physics, but the theories are fascinating anyway.

Posted by: NotTheBadAnon on July 31, 2004 08:50 PM


One minor detail; Kip Thorne, who made the bet with Preskill along with Mr. Hawking, is still not convinced that Hawking's original theory is wrong. While my knowledge of physics is limited, I do know that results published by scientists on the level of Hawking, Thorne, and Preskill take quite a bit of effort to verify. I also believe from what I've read that Mr. Hawking didn't formally present his results, he simply stated that he found an error. I suspect he'll follow the time-honored tradition and publish a paper on the subject, at which point his results can be thoroughly examined. At that point, we'll "know" with a greater degree of accuracy whether or not he's right or wrong. Until then it's probably not wise to assume this question has been resolved.

Posted by: Node of Evil on July 31, 2004 08:54 PM


Mega-props to Renato, about six postings up: "For some time, Gregg Easterbrook was considered to be a black hole of stupidity ..." Read the whole thing.

As I've often said, few people go into quantum physics because they can't make it in journalism school.

However, saying that about Easterbrook is unfair to real journalists. He's a couple of orders of magnitude more ignorant, and adds a component of meta-ignorance by being even more ignorant than that of his own ignorance. Did I mention that he's ignorant?

Posted by: Bob Munck on July 31, 2004 09:00 PM


Thank you for experimentally demonstrating that Gregg Easterbrook has his head up his behind.

Posted by: Toast on July 31, 2004 09:14 PM


Physics hasn't become theology, but it certainly has run up against metaphysics. As other poster have pointed out, it has already been centuries since science broke with "common-sense" naive metaphysics. Where has Easterbrook been?

Posted by: PantomimeHorse on July 31, 2004 09:24 PM


Robert, In GB Shaw's defense, any criticism he had of 'surgical' cures for diseases(he had a character in The Doctors' Dilemma who went about cutting out 'nuncial sacs', mocking the trend of surgeons cutting out appendixes that weren't infected) were justified, as up until the 50's or 60's there were surgeons who would cut the descenting mammalian artery in an attempt to do for heart tissue what a bypass operation does today.

Posted by: The Dark Avenger on July 31, 2004 09:33 PM


so long as esterbrook sticks to trivia like physics and cosmolgy i don't care. if he writes about something serious like math, that would be alarming.

Posted by: Eric on July 31, 2004 09:51 PM


Gregg Easterbrook should be asked if the physics describing the behavior of a gyroscope passes the "common-sense test". Push against it in some ways and it moves perpendicular to the applied force.

That's the result of the mathematics (specifically the calculus) that gives us things like the angular momentum vector.

Send Gregg back to college!

Posted by: Quiddity on July 31, 2004 09:53 PM


It might be wise for us to take a few seconds off from dumping on Easterbrook and consider that he was the very first prominent writer to give the Space Shuttle the lambasting it deserved -- in the Washington Monthly in 1980, a year before the thing first flew -- and that virtually every one of his grim predictions about it in that article came true (including the passage in which he pointed out that none of its escape procedures had any applicability at all if one of the solid boosters ruptured).

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on July 31, 2004 10:15 PM


It's like the frog in the frying pan.

You start out small, trying to defend Bush's environmental policies, then before you know it your a full blown crackpot the likes of which are usually found walking muttering to themselves on Telegraph Avenue.

Posted by: Kuas on July 31, 2004 10:28 PM


Bruce, design flaws in the space shuttle are an engineering issue. That he may have been right about the shuttle doesn't make him any less of a crank on other topics.

Judging from his support of intelligent design, he's an all-purpose crank.

It's too bad. I did like the football columns.

Posted by: M. on July 31, 2004 10:41 PM


man, those physicists...next thing you know they'll start talking about imaginary numbers or some such nonsense

Posted by: Jenny on July 31, 2004 11:01 PM


man, those physicists...next thing you know they'll start talking about imaginary numbers or some such nonsense

Posted by: Jenny on July 31, 2004 11:02 PM


Easterbrook misapprehends even the most basic elements of scientific method, evidently preferring macho certitude to cautious circumspection. Generating falsifiable hypotheses, testing them empirically, and ascertaining their consistency with accepted theory--or explaining why they deviate from it--these are the very foundations of science! It is not necessary for any one "high priest" of science to leap-frog flawlessly from one lily-pad of absolute truth to another. Championing a theory that is later disproved can be highly useful in expanding the body of knowledge. And if one is reasonable and gracious in accepting defeat (when and if it comes), there is absolutely no dishonor in "flip-flopping".

Posted by: turbonium on July 31, 2004 11:15 PM


Remembering Issac Asminov.

Posted by: Elaine Supkis on July 31, 2004 11:23 PM


First, thanks to leusnetsrot the quote.
"Most commercial satellites are bound for geostationary orbit, 22,300 miles above the Equator. In this orbit an object hangs the same distance from Earth as Earth is around; the effect is that the satellite moves at a pace matching Earth's rotation, and therefore remains over the same point."

I've read some silly things about geosynchronous satellites (constantly over London, f'rinstance) but *nothing* so wildly convoluted and profoundly wrong in as many ways as that, from facts to analysis to the belief that it somehow explains geosynchronicity! What a good laugh!

And (pardon me if I missed this answer above) it is absolutely meaningless to talk about 'before' the Big Bang (if the BB *is* the right scenario) To paraphrase Stein, "There is no then then."

Posted by: Jerry on August 1, 2004 12:14 AM


Well, look who's talking. Mumbo-jumbo at that. Do these guys have no sense of (self) irony?

Posted by: cm on August 1, 2004 12:55 AM


Apparently Gregg is writing about things he knows nothing about, and staying away from writing about things that get him fired.

I'm trying to figure out if that is an improvement or not.

Posted by: renato on August 1, 2004 01:33 AM


Why is this stupid?

"It would be tempting to say that Hawking was able to become internationally famous while saying kooky things because today physicists have the status once held by medieval priests"

Medieval priests, my dear Gregg, had the force of the Church behind them. If you doubted or questioned them, well, let's just say that everyone expected the Spanish Inquisition, capish?

When was the last time Hawking put someone on the rack for doubting his theories?

What a moron. I wonder what's his next science post?

"These pointy-headed fancy-pants intellectuals are trying to convince us that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Why that doesn't even begin to pass the common-sense test, which as we all know is the basis of the scientific method! I mean, anyone can plainly see that the Sun rises in the east, transits the sky, and sets in the west!"

"And what's this business of light being both a wave and a particle? Flip-floppers! It figures that these ivory-tower intellectuals are trying to have it both ways, just like John Kerry. This kind of moral relativism is what's going to be the downfall of this country!"

Posted by: renato on August 1, 2004 01:42 AM


Excellent post against a foolish article. One question, Professor DeLong says photons are the only form of electromagnetic radiation. But aren't radio signals, which clearly are not borne along photons, electromagnetic radiation? The point, of course, does not detract from the Professor's major thesis, which is that Easterbrook is in way over his head and so ends up looking goofy while attempting to mock those who know more than he does.

Posted by: calvin on August 1, 2004 03:57 AM


This sort of column is the price we pay for the free pass Easterbrook got last year over his Kill Bill/"Eisner and Weinstein are money worshipping Jews" piece.

Posted by: Atticus Finch on August 1, 2004 04:16 AM


Hey Calvin:

Just to clarify...

All electromagnetic radiation (i.e. visible light, infrared light, ultraviolet light, radio waves, microwaves, whatever) is both a wave and a stream of particles. In the sense that it is a stream of particles all electromagnetic radiation is composed of a stream of photons (it is photons, it is not borne on photons). The difference between the different forms lies in differences in their energy, frequency or wavelength: radio waves differ from visible light in their energy, frequency, and wavelength.



Posted by: Kramer on August 1, 2004 04:43 AM


"In Easterbrook's defense, he writes really good, really funny football analysis articles."

I suspect that if we understood football as well as we understand relativity, we'd see that Easterbrook writes nonsense about football, too.

Posted by: rea on August 1, 2004 05:18 AM


There was no big bang. Instead of outward from inward it went inward from inward until freed in that form and upon acting outward via contact has undergone the formation of bodies.

Expect universe around black holes to have massive potential and active energy that is a result of this outflow of matter. Some known measures must exist.

So our entire physics model has to return into physical, intially freed in the field of thought and action that describes it it comes full circle into already observed phenomenae...

We "see" the universe expanding only because it is that scope which takes so much time to disclose on terms relative to our observation?

Or is there a return signal already that seems to indicate waves sent out measrued returned? How can the edge of existence be defined by echo if the boundaries do not "exist" as we know? They go on as a template free of gravitation and the 'hard' galaxies/universe measurable simply fool us into quantitative conclusions.

The universe exists in forms always. But this was the problem- like a music string's fretting the wavelength occurs. In this case it was not fretted consistently so the wavelength was not uniform. Thus a group of random notes/waves canceled and amplified until somehow the FIRST NOTE occurred via chance or even in statistical chaos pattern odds that are measurable.

Upon reaching a consitent wavelength the unison note formed the wave response to give constance and order.From here measurable echo patterns develop. Particle wavelength - chicken/egg comparisons?

This friend is where Jazz meets physics. :) The Blue Note was the audible definiton of God's voice and letting forth of light (the wavelength).

Like a photon the light was not independent of itself of God ( the source enrgy whatever it may be).

It was random notes, the frequency reps finally echoed in the right way and a chorded note occurs that sets the reactions in motion.
* Thanks Miles for the Inspiration

Posted by: Mr.Murder on August 1, 2004 06:40 AM


Assterbroke is an anomaly. His football colums are plagiarisims of fan emails at their best.

His science only makes sense in the world of flat earth physics. The idea is to keep as many people stupid as possible. An ignorance curve whereby we can get away with negligent inquiry.

One of the NFL owners must really like him to get colums on their site. Go figure, a "physician" who can espouse tax cut theory equally asinine.

The best way to bet an Easterbrook prediction is to buck it.

As for Hawking, arguing this theory three years ago and being kicked out for "not knowing" physics or having a degree really fit. Finished Wu Li and brainstormed similar points.

The equal reaction on black holes is just a smaller definition of matter that escapes observation and perhaps being small enough to escape gravity's pull as well. Or somehow inertia of its force conversion frees it. Most likely the former.

There is a physical model-centrifugal whirlpools. Much like particle collision study...inerita and imploded energy(constant critical phases) can perhaps be tapped or defined someday.

Cannot make something from nothing. So the black hole theory of old is null and (fittingly ironic) void.

Can make something smaller from something. The black holes are the constant upon which other matter/force/energy variables can be act upon.

These perhaps become the size to be wave (by our limited scope of understanding) and act upon under influence of other force/energy.

These holes are not truly black are they? Our entire definiton of light depends upon its presence in some degree to the nth...

Nanotechnology is the best physical model we have. The black hole nanotechs matter like a garbage disposal sending it out to react in direct physical fashion. A contradiction- small enough to act independent of gravity, large enough to physically bond on the smallest yet to measure levels.

Posted by: Mr. Murder on August 1, 2004 06:43 AM


Sorry I had to paste post and sent the first half of the rant after the second had cleared... not the Frist time this has happened, realtively speaking.

Posted by: Mr.Murder on August 1, 2004 06:44 AM


I don't know anything much about physics past Newtonian physics that I learned in the usual college courses many years ago. I do know a bit about philosophy and how knowledge is constructed in the academy and in social groups in particular. Although I am not prepared to discuss it here because it would cause an incredibly big argument regarding foundationalism versus social construction, and books upon books have been written on this matter, I would just like to point out that there are competing theories of philosophy which, while in no way attempting to disprove or discard modern physics, which would be folly, at least remove from it its "ultimate knowledge" or "final word" status (which amounts to a "religious" dimension in some people's thinking).

To put it simply, it is quite possible that for any concept to hold meaning--say, for instance, "Big Bang"--you need to have an interpreter capable of interpreting that concept symbolically a particular way, and thus nothing exists without a human interpreter. Or, to put it a little less strongly, and the way I believe, things exists without a human interpreter (it's hard to refute the fossil record, for example, though some zealots attempt to), but no one could ever know what it is. To put it in Kantian terms, we forever know the phenomena but never the noumena. Whatever we measure out there is always measured as relative "to us," and so we can never know its essence, what it would be "without us" measuring.

This point I'm making has very little bearing on the theme of the original article or the discussion that follows, and so I mention it merely in passing. One should not ascribe philosophical dimensions to the sciences such as physics without delving into the metaphysical philosophies behind it, because when you do that, you find that the history of philosophy has been continuing cycle of foundationalism arguing against relativism arguing against empiricism arguing against skepticism, and that the final word is still out in the matter, and probably shall ever be.

Posted by: defib on August 1, 2004 07:06 AM


Toast writes:
> Thank you for experimentally demonstrating that Gregg
> Easterbrook has his head up his behind.

I wonder: does this make Easterbrook a non-orientable surface?

Posted by: JO'N on August 1, 2004 08:27 AM


Just another attack dog for the Right. This article calls into question the very Scientific Method so that Freepers and religious fanatics have yet another comfortable pillow to rest their doubts about science upon.

Something like that.

Posted by: Daddy-O on August 1, 2004 09:00 AM


Easterbrook may be an ass (this thread has beat that line to death), but if his point was that emperor science has no clothes, well, he don't. What passes for astronomy & astrophysics is simply a disgrace. For nearly half a century we have sent probes into space & their findings have invariably confounded everyone. Why? Could it be we don't have a clue what's out there? The Cassini probe is due to report in a few months, from a planet (Saturn) that we've visited before. Its findings are certain to be no less confounding than those of the past. How bad is present astronomy? Worse than you can imagine.

We still think meteorites caused the craters we see on the lunar surface. This theory holds despite three salient facts: that we have actual lunar samples in our possession, that we have actual meteors in our possession & that we have never found a way to combine the two to create what any ten year old can plainly see with a pair of binoculars. Not to mention the only way a meteorite could create a perfectly circular crator is if it impacts at right angles to the surface. As the moon lacks both significant gravity & atmosphere, how many meteorites do you think landed exactly that way? Wanna try it yourself? Get a gun & blast away at some big boulders. See if you can make a crater. Anything remotely resembling a crater.

What's amusing about the big bang theory is that conventional evidence suggests we were at ground zero. The Doppler shift "proves" it. So long as the theory holds that the more sensitive our equipment becomes, the faster things are moving away from us (never moving towards us, never stationary, never anything but fleeing faster & faster away), that theory will be open to obvious ridicule.

Not only are there better theories on the scientific fringes, I've seen better science from the creationist camp. We're paying good money for the Cassini probe. When it comes back with scientific gibberish, will anyone be held accountable?

Posted by: Dave of Maryland on August 1, 2004 09:18 AM


Two side comments:

1. There's been some praise here of Easterbrook's football columns. My sense of these is he writes the same set of columns over and over. At first, one likes them, since they're new and different (whether they're right or not is irrelevant, and no-one cares anyway). But after the third repetition I, at least, outgrabe in despair and gave up.

2. Hawking, in changing his mind, went from a first approximation (assuming the black hole was always there) to a second approximation (integrating over the amplitudes when a black hole is present and the amplitudes when it isn't--the latter represent very low probabilities). The math of the first approximation said information would be lost. Other physicists "felt" that couldn't be true. Hawking followed the math. In the second approximation, which Hawking now says he can compute, the math says information isn't lost. I don't know that this vindicates the other physicists. At some point, someone's going to figure out how to compute a third approximation.

Posted by: jam on August 1, 2004 09:55 AM


“To put it in Kantian terms, we forever know the phenomena but never the noumena. Whatever we measure out there is always measured as relative "to us," and so we can never know its essence, what it would be "without us" measuring.”

The question is why would we want to know what something “essence” is and what it would be “without us?” Say I am interacting with something and it has some property that I can not interact with and that can not affect me or anything I observe. Great! I don't care, by construction it cant possibly impact me or any of my values.

Second point: To exist is to have an identity. An identity is how something thing interact with other things. All descriptions, all properties of existents are how those existents interact with other things (Dirac's electrons acting on themselves not withstanding). When you say something is hard, you are describing how it interacts with something trying to deform it. This is not do to some sad failure on our part to understand the true “noumean” universe. It is because interaction is the fundamental characteristic of existents, nothing else can possibly matter. Existence is Identity and Identity is Interaction.

Posted by: Rob Sperry on August 1, 2004 10:29 AM


Thank you, Brad, for highlighting a real problem with TNR (I stopped subscribing 5 years ago) and our culture in general. You are a good teacher. As any science matures, it becomes less and less comprehensible to a brief “common sense flyby”. Easterbrook has been consistently way off base in every area of science, yet he and Peretz seem to think that he serves some useful purpose. There are some good science writers, but none that I know who write for political journals. Robert Waldman is right on target- Shaw was a very smart man who proved the fallacy of extrapolation: just because you have been right about many everyday issues does not mean that your instincts about science and technology are reliable. As a neuroscientist, I’d say: 1. our culture degrades science and math consistently- if you need math to understand something, you find yourself standing on a separate asteroid, If you want experimental verification of theories, you are ridiculed because you may lose the chance to make money. 2. Beware of evolutionary psychology touted by son volt - its “common sense flyby” appeal makes it as slippery as Haeckel’s ontogeny repeats phylogeny (1/3 true, 2/3 slogan, which is why it's so appealing to advertising people).

When something fits with "common sense," such as emotional intelligence, it's unlikely to be respected 50 years later.

Posted by: anciano on August 1, 2004 11:06 AM


Some people should master classical physics as taught in the average High School before engaging in literary criticism of current theoretical physics - the implications of which damn few people, including most physicists, can grasp easily.

Good one Brad.

Posted by: mark safranski on August 1, 2004 11:09 AM


Now the Kantian discussian is actually more interesting than the cosmology-physics-astronomy discussion, except for the post about mood craters;)

Posted by: Tom Gallagher on August 1, 2004 12:13 PM


I'd second Lizardbreath's remarks on "A Brief History of Time." With an enduring layman's interest in cosmology and quantum physics, I've read most of the popular nonfiction writers on the subject, including Ferris, Greene, Zukav, etc., and Hawking's book is by far the least lucid and effective. ...

Posted by: mikekoshi on August 1, 2004 12:59 PM


Clearly the only way to prove the Big Bang is to reconstruct it in a small experimental setting. To do this, we will need to successfully defeat Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary in 2 years, at which point Martin Peretz will explode, releasing such a massive sum of energy that everyone will have to concede the theory's accuracy.

Posted by: DZ on August 1, 2004 01:09 PM


I just wish to congratulate Dave from MD for penning a piece even more obtusely ignorant of the merest passing knowledge of physics than Easterbrook's screed of utter claptrap. Wether in ernest or in satire that was a feat. Way to go.

Posted by: Tuttle on August 1, 2004 02:24 PM


Well, Dave's email address is dave@astroamerica.com. Apparently he sells astrology books.

Posted by: M. on August 1, 2004 03:09 PM


Actually, while I don't think I'd put it the same way that Dave did, I wouldn't attack him the same way you do, Tuttle. He is right in the regard that we tend to consider our knowledge to be far more accurate than it is. As the whole purpose of science is to further refine itself, and the essence of a scientific breakthrough is to disprove something formerly regarded as gospel, it follows that we really don't, and never will, know what we're talking about. We just keep improving our silly approximations to levels that are more and more useful. I am an indissuadable proponent of science in all its forms, but I am just as much a beleiver that one ought to trust those that seek the truth, and doubt those who find it. That's why Hawking is worth listening to - he's never treated his own work as dogma, only as a pathway to be ascended one step at a time.

Posted by: Mr. Ripzaw on August 1, 2004 03:23 PM


Okay, Tuttle, you tell me how craters were formed. On the moon or any other celestial body. Take as much time as you like. Demonstrate if at all possible. You only need to bash one thing into another. With computer simulations, how hard can that be? Surprisingly, if it's ever been done, I cannot find record of it. Are you aware that lunar soil is devoid of elements that boil away at low temperatures?

We are supposed to accept science uncritically, but why should we? Like police on the witness stand, scientists claim to be objective, truthful & impartial, but in reality they're human like everyone else. A lot of the theoretical side has holes in it. Big, obvious ones, some quite hoary with age, visible to anyone who stands back a bit. Astronomy in particular is shot full of them. I think it's unfair to pick on Hawkins, but science in general needs to clean house.

Posted by: Dave of Maryland on August 1, 2004 03:33 PM


To the editors,

I am sorely disappointed you chose to publish Gregg Easterbrook's anti-intellectual and amateurish "Expert Tease" on TNR online.

"Expert Tease" is laced with appeals to ignorance and arguments by lack of imagination. For example, Easterbrook's use of the "common sense test" to discredit the big bang may also have been used a few hundred years ago by those who opposed a seemingly nonsensical "round-earth theory."

Easterbrook does not understand the scientific theories he is criticizing and clearly made no effort to rectify his ignorance by consulting (or challenging) an expert. This is intellectually dishonest and lazy journalism. Easterbrook (and the editors who publish him) must realize that science is not punditry: the price of admission to scientific debate is a working knowledge of the theories discussed. You do not need to agree with these theories, but you must understand them.

An example of Easterbrook's scientific illiteracy in "Expert Tease" is his assertion that the origins of gravity are a mystery that even Einstein's general relativity cannot explain. He claims the theory's use of curved space and time to explain the force has a fatal flaw: ".. even if space is curved by mass, why do objects roll down the curvature--what pulls them? Your guess is as good as the next PhD's."

Easterbrook has not refuted general relativity; he has merely pointed out the shortcomings of a very poor and misleading approximation of the theory often used by popular science publications. Had Easterbrook bothered to consult one of those "clueless" PhD's she may have told him his understanding of general relativity was wrong; If she had the patience she may have also told him that Einstein's theory does in fact explain the origins of gravity and its predictions have been confirmed by mountains of experimental evidence.
The basics of Einstein's general relativity theory can be explained to the layman without differential geometry and Riemann tensors: if Easterbrook has not bothered to learn the proper explanation or does not understand it, that is his problem and not a fatal flaw in the theory.

I will not support a magazine which considers anti-scientific appeals to ignorance and journalistic incompetence to be worthy of its pages (even electronic ones). Please cancel my subscription and return my most recent payment.

- -Marc Rios

Posted by: marc on August 1, 2004 04:02 PM


Indeed, I sell astrology books. I've nearly finished resetting a book first published in 1647, it's scheduled for October. Research over the last ten years has established that astrology was largely codified by the Greeks & has merely been handed down from one generation to the next. (Much like Euclidian geometry, by the way.) This discovery stunned everyone in the field and we're still trying to comprehend the implications. Since the Greeks were no fools, I've been wondering lately how their cosmic world-view was structured. I'm wondering if it was any better than meteor craters on the moon, sun as a nuclear furnace, comets as dirty snowballs & various other fancies of the modern era.

I was a bright kid, but a malcontent. I got to astrology (and various other disciplines) because, as hard as I tried, the common wisdom that is taught from on high failed to explain reality as I lived it. Sometimes I wish it could. Even the flabby astrology of the 20th century (the one you all know & love) was better. The resurrected version that's already here is positively scary & there's more to come.

Posted by: Dave of Maryland on August 1, 2004 04:04 PM


OK, I stand by what I said before, but Dave, if what you're saying is that astronomy should be thrown out in favor of astrology, then I think you've lost me. I don't dismiss anything out of hand. The universe is too complicated to state, with absolute certainty, that there is no correlation between astrological observations and effects (or to prove any other negative). I can't think of any way those connections would work, but then again there's a lot of things I can't think of.

By the way, what does the abscence of low-boiling-point matter have to do with anything. Wouldn't it have, uh, boiled away?

Posted by: Mr. Ripzaw on August 1, 2004 04:24 PM


TNR is worth it for James Wood. Thank God for LEXIS-NEXIS!

Posted by: Roque on August 1, 2004 05:10 PM


Hello Ripsaw,
I'm not saying anything should be thrown out, but that one should always use his mind & not simply accept what is merely believed to be true.

What's been boiled away on the moon might be of interest. The only decent theory that I ever heard about how lunar craters formed, was through sheer heat. Eg, the entire surface of the moon boiled. (Please note I did not say the heat came from the interior. That would be simple vulcanism.) As anyone who's ever made candy can tell you, boiling will get you lots & lots of perfectly round bubbles. If the lunar surface boiled & the bubbles all burst into craters (or mostly so: there are "mysterious" domes, too), would that produce what we actually see? We got moon rock in the labs somewhere. All we need do is apply heat. Why have we not done this?

Perhaps because the lunar boiling theory was one of many advanced by Immanuel Velikovsky, who was subsequently shouted down & called a kook. As a result, the scientific establishment forbade anyone from touching anything he advocated. Regardless of merit, regardless of logic. In my line of work, stuck on the outside & looking in, I see a lot of this. As a general observation, what cannot be easily demonstrated tends to collect the wooliest thinking. Astrophysics is distinguished in this regard, which is why, however brilliant Mr. Hawkins may be, I simply cannot get interested in whatever he might say. This is not Mr. Hawkins fault, but clearly mine.

Posted by: Dave of Maryland on August 1, 2004 05:29 PM



Out of curiosity, why do you prefer Greek Astrology to Chinese Astrology?

Posted by: Steven Rogers on August 1, 2004 05:55 PM


Hello Steven,
Greek over Chinese as most of Chinese astrology remains the Emperor's own secret, as it has for at least a thousand years. I know precisely two people who know anything about Chinese astrology (both American-born children of Chinese immigrants) & even when it's explained to me, I don't understand a word of it.

Posted by: Dave of Maryland on August 1, 2004 06:03 PM


I've always thought that the idea gravity was a 'weaker' force was tricky considering that we haven't found a quantum for it. It has less effect the the electro-magnetic force inside an atom because the electrical potential difference is so great compared to the mass. Gravity is the greater effect when looking at the Sun and Earth because the mass involved is large, while the electric potential difference is small (both bodies are essentially neutral as a whole). Until you can compare the quanta of electricity to the quanta of gravity in a unified theory I'm not sure how you can figure out which is the 'stronger' force. I suspect thinking of electro-magnetism as the stronger force may be a misleading conception of 'force'

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw on August 2, 2004 12:49 AM


Dave, with an enquiring intellect like yours you should surely be able to pick up some accurate astronomical knowledge. Personally I've been studying astronomy for about thirty years and astrology for about eight, and I can tell you that they are separate fields of endeavor, almost as separate as religion and science. For some folks astrology (which I'd thought originated in Mesopotamia) can be useful as a personal guide, but astronomy is based on reproducible facts that don't care (if I can anthropomorphize) what you think about them, and that includes the microwave anisotropy measurements that are our latest evidence of the Big Bang.

And if you don't understand "the doppler shift" (I believe you're referring to the universal red shift discovered by Hubble that indicates that all galaxies are receding from us), think of the universe as the surface of a balloon being inflated. Spots -- galaxies -- on the surface move further away from each other, but the center of the expansion isn't any one of them, it's at the center of the balloon, which isn't part of the surface.

You're certainly right that science doesn't know everything yet -- those who behave as though it does are just as befuddled as the True Believers of "free markets". But one thing about science is that it can learn more and correct itself. It only took twenty years of controversy for the scientists of the late 18th century to admit that meteorites came from the sky, and though Wegener was ridiculed in the 1930s for suggesting the theory of plate tectonics there is so much evidence for it now that nearly every literate person accepts it as given.

Posted by: Ricky Vandellas on August 2, 2004 05:15 AM


Hello Ricky,
Of course astrology & astronomy are separate. Astrology birthed astronomy (Kepler, Tycho Brahe & many others were astrologers first, Newton had astrology books in his library, etc.), but as in any family spat, there's no reason to listen to your mother forever.

Aside from being a personal guide, astrology can tell you where your lost watch is, and who swiped $20 from your wallet. I don't want to get into astrological comments. Brad doesn't care for them, and this is his site. I would never have brought it up, had not my name been directly tied to it. (My apologies to Prof. DeLong.)

"think of the universe as the surface of a balloon being inflated."

With 30 years study, you should know the surface of the balloon theory won't stand up. First, it's essentially a 2-dimensional theory for a 3-dimensional world. Secondly, the consequences of being somewhere on the surface of the expanding balloon (along with everything else) means that the Doppler shift is directional. At some particular point in the sky (facing outward, away from the center of the balloon), there is no shift at all. Directly opposite that, if we can see through the center of the balloon itself, is the maximum shift, whatever it might be. Objects located between these two poles would gradually be seen to be increasing or decrasing in speed, depending on our point of view.

But this isn't what we see. Through the entire celestial sphere, whenever we increase the sensitivity of our instruments, we uniformly see faster & faster objects. Everywhere, and in every direction. We (the Milky Way galaxy) are therefore at or near the center of the balloon & are not moving at all.

Or it may be that curved space means that we can only see along the surface of the balloon itself. In that case, we have no accleration with distance at all. We have only a uniform rate. Get your balloon out & blow it up, or perhaps we should find a different analogy for big bang. I'm not disputing big bang, only Doppler. If the two are inextricable, I confess ignorance.

OR light may have the peculiar property of degrading over time, until only the red is left. OR there may be some combination of the two, speed plus degradation. OR it may be something else altogether, which means we have exciting discoveries yet ahead.

"one thing about science is that it can learn more and correct itself."

True, but the scientific community, as every other, is made up of individuals & individuals have their own egos to nurse. They also have a lot of received wisdom that never gets a proper airing: Astrology is bunk, craters on the moon were made by meteorites, the sun is a giant glowing coal, etc. The glowing coal theory almost got displaced a century ago with the early electrics, but it was saved at the last minute when a nuclear coal replaced the carbon one. But it's still the same tired theory: The sun is the biggest & hotest thing that we know of.

Every now & then things get rather creaky & some revolutionary comes to sweep everything away & make the world anew. This is a normal outcome & exciting to watch. Martin Luther was the last to do that, the "Age of Enlightenment" was his grandchild. There are those who do not care for our present scientific age, and I have read of those who thought the Renaissance degenerate. There is, in fact, something quite satisfying about the purity of the late Middle Ages (13th century or so), at least, if you weren't one of the luckless ones in or around the Crusades.

Posted by: Dave of Maryland on August 2, 2004 06:34 AM


Quick comment: there is a lot of evidence suggesting that the magnetic poles of the Earth have indeed flipped in the past and that they are in the process of flipping now, however, such flips, according to mainstream scientists who have studied the issue, occur ove the course of thousands and thousands of years.

I read about this in the New York Times' Science section (I've no reason to think the Times' science coverage is as bad as their political coverage).

Posted by: Romdinstler Jones on August 2, 2004 06:56 AM


In Easterbrook's former TNR blog, he once wrote:

"This is why astronauts in orbit aren't truly weightless, rather in "microgravity"--two hundred miles from the surface of the Earth, the tug on them has become slight."

Which shows a complete lack of knowledge of Newtonian gravity, never mind the more esoteric stuff. (The "tug" on them is only about 10% lower than it is on us at the surface; they're in microgravity because they're free-falling, not because they're out of the earth's gravitational field)

Another time he denigrated string theory and its variants with something silly like: why should we have to believe in a dozen extra incomprehensible dimensions? Wouldn't it be simpler to believe in one extra dimension, a supernatural/religious one?

He's a bright, funny guy, but he long ago stopped believing in his own fallibility.

Posted by: steve on August 2, 2004 07:16 AM


Dave, when I was that 10 year old kid you mention (well, somewhere in the 9-12 range) my parents took me to Meteor Crater National Park. The exhibits mentioned some guy who was studying it maybe 100 years earlier. I don't remember the guy's name, but one of the experiments he did was firing a rifle into mud. Oddly enough, the craters turned out circular even though he was firing at an angle.

I said to myself "yeah, right".

A few months later, a dam failed on a heavily silted artificial lake next to my house. The result - no place to swim, and an unbeleivable amount of mud for a kid to play in. I remembered the nonsense about diagonal hits causing round craters, and threw some rocks into the mud.

What the heck?

As long as the rock didn't skip (and the mud was real sticky, so skipping meant a very, very low angle) the craters turned out round. And if I threw the rock hard enough, it didn't even matter much what the shape of the rock was, the crater was round. I have no idea why it works that way, but I saw it myself. If you don't beleive me, try it yourself.

I'm not a professional scientist.

Posted by: Mike on August 2, 2004 08:13 AM


1. The difficulty thus far in confirming string theory with observation yields to a comparison with theology. It is not; its estimation will eventually stand or fall on its correspondence with observed reality and its ability to predict new findings.
2. General relativity has been confirmed to the limits of observation with as much precision as anything, notably in the Hulse-Taylor observations of the binary pulsar. Astrology and Velikovsky, however, are debunked with ridiculous ease. I'll go with Big Al and his descendants, myself.
3. Next year is the 100th anniversary of Einstein's four great papers on relativity, Brownian motion and the photoelectric effect. I hope we have in office a president capable of understanding its significance.

Posted by: Mike on August 2, 2004 08:30 AM


Folks. Folks. Pigs can't be taught to sing, and Velikovskyists can't be taught Newtonian physics, nevermind Einsteinian. Please don't feed the trolls.


Posted by: Doctor Memory on August 2, 2004 08:37 AM


Thanks for those who pointed out that there was no "before" the big bang. In fact, some current theories point to a lack of time at all. (Read Julian Barbour)

Relatedly this reminds me of one of the questions in an "impossible exam" I once saw floating around:

"Describe the Universe. Be both general and specific. Draw on current thinking from astronomy, physics and psychology. Provide at least three examples.

Posted by: Garth on August 2, 2004 08:42 AM


We should give credit where credit is due. Gregg Easterbrook has fallen a bit too much under the spell of Bush administration for my taste, but he earned my respect for a couple of things: his moving defense of gay marriage from the perspective of a practicing Christian (in his now-defunct TNR blog, last November) and, of course, his unchallenged mastery of pro football in TMQ.

Posted by: Ralph Hitchens on August 2, 2004 11:46 AM


Off topic (well, off the original topic), it sure is interesting to see how many people are faulting TNR (full disclosure: I don't particularly care for TNR myself, though for reasons of mere acronymic similarity with NRO, I like to call them "The National Republic", and the reasons have nothing to do with their lack of being The Anti-Republicans) for not being left-Democrat enough.

Thinking that the Bush administration's environmental policies might not be so "hideous", and giving reasons why? Shilling, no doubt? (Easterbrook doesn't need to be a physics guru to de-spin, does he?)

Letting Joe Lieberman (you know, that guy that was going to be Vice President under the Democrat umbrella) speak? Might as well be Republicans!

Learning about countering terrorists from Israel, which has immense experience in that regard? Bad for unnamed reasons!

Do you guys even read this stuff before hitting Post?

Posted by: Sigivald on August 2, 2004 01:52 PM


While agreeing with the most of your post, I'd like to take issue with your reference to A Brief History of Time as "a remarkably good and readable book". At the time it came out, I was a physics undergraduate at MIT, and had a fairly decent understanding of some, although not all, of the theories discussed in the book. Uniformly, on the points that I understood independently, Hawking was confusing and unclear.

I found A Brief History of Time to be very readable. On some points that I understood independently, I found it "confusing and unclear" as any popularization will be.

OTOH, his collection of articles with Penrose, written at a much higher level (The Nature of Space and Time, I think is the one I'm thinking of, its been a while), was almost entirely impenetrable for me.

Posted by: cmdicely on August 2, 2004 03:22 PM


But if Easterbrook wasn't writing, there'd just be another one performing the same role. You, Mr. Sixpack, are just as smart as those egghead academics - and without the pomposity. It sells.

Posted by: hippocopter on August 2, 2004 10:20 PM


Mr. Easterbrook, meet Mr. Leibnitz.

He really should stick to football.

Posted by: Mike Hill on August 3, 2004 09:32 AM


Contrast this with what is regularly published in TNR's counterpart on the other side the National Review (TNR?). Apart from John Derbyshire an excellent popular writer on mathematics most others who choose to write on matters of science can't help but serving out dollops of amusement (unintentionally of course). This articel by Dave Kopel a regular is hard to beat - a self-assured ringing in of the end of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Other gems in the article include a reference to the "architect" Philip Johnson (?) and Reinhold Neibuhr (not Niebuhr!)
Read and laugh!

Posted by: shiva on August 3, 2004 05:41 PM


Strange Doctrines - Two examples spring to mind. That Gay bishop the Episcopalians just named, and Vatican II. Both qualify. If you think that scientific infighting can't be as bad as the Spanish Inquisition, you've clearly never seen a Department Chair defending his priviligies. Once he misses his kill, he is quickly torn apart by the younger wolves of the pack.

Posted by: Gordon on August 11, 2004 04:53 PM


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