Tuesday 21 October 2008

Portrait of a Crackpot

Well, tonight thanks to an unsolicited email to anticrackpot@gmail.com (keep them coming!), I have discovered crackpot gold. Rather, Eric (who does not indicate his last name) is a criminal defense attorney in the US, and did some digging on our favorite anti-LHC crackpot, Walter L. Wagner. It would seem this particular crackpot has something of a hero complex. For the uninitiated, Wagner is behind the Hawaii lawsuit against the LHC (which was recently thrown out of court) as well as the previous lawsuit against the RHIC collider (which was also thrown out).

Before he started his campaign to rid the world of particle colliders, he attempted to rid the world of uranium-glazed tiles in California. Rather than repeat everything Eric has dug up though, let me just refer you to his blog, Return of Radiation Man, where you can read all the details of his dubious education, criminal history, and how many days he spent in California jails (and why).

For some reason, some people still doubt us when thousands of scientists come out and say "this guy is nuts"! Maybe a lawyer saying the same thing will help.

Thanks Eric!

Sunday 28 September 2008

There will be no Bose-Novae at the LHC

As advertised, this blog is intended to debunk unscientific claims, specifically targetting the "LHC disaster" kind of crackpottery. Since I announced the blog, and the email address anticrackpot@gmail.com to collect claims and questions, I've collected some good questions and answered a few in private email, so now let be transfer some of the good questions (and answers) to this blog. (But send more questions!) Some people making these claims, and people reading them are essentially disconnected from the usual mechanisms in physics -- those of journals, the arXiv, peer review, etc. Blogs are a more public and less formal means of communication, which may be more appropriate than journal articles in communicating with non-physicists.

In the next few blog posts, I will go through the claims in this interview article by Alan Gillis. This interview is perhaps one of the biggest fear-mongering pieces out there, and even appeared as "evidence" in the Hawaii and European Court of Human Rights lawsuits against the LHC.

Note that all the claims on that web page are at a substantially less concrete level than the arguments about black holes that have been debunked by several authors. On that page are basically collections of science words, arranged in nonsensical ways, and fear. To non-physicists, I'm sure there's no way to tell that there's no science there, and the whole thing just looks extremely scary. Having had errors in his math and logic pointed out, Rössler is now resorting to making things up, without backing anything up with equations and calculations, as is required in the field of physics. In this article he is clearly being prompted by Gillis, but Rössler has no problem agreeing with his specious doomsday speculation.

Let me start with the claim that a "Bose-Nova" could occur in the liquid Helium at the LHC. I choose this topic because a paper recently appeared on the arXiv which thoroughly debunks this claim (so they've done most of the work for me). As I understand, they wrote this because that topic appeared in both the Hawaii and European Court of Human Rights legal cases. It seems this idea originated with Alan Gillis, and that Rössler would happily agree with any doomsday speculation, because that's just the kind of nice guy he is, and not scientist enough to attempt to critically think about the proposal. While the new arXiv paper by Fairbairn and McElrath contains no equations, it is still quite technical, so let me try to explain their conclusions in more accessible terms. Bear with me, I have to explain several things you may have never heard of for this.

In this specific instance Gillis has taken the words "Bose-Nova" which is a phenomena that can be made to occur in a Bose-Einstein Condensate and noticed that the Helium at the LHC is using is also a kind of Bose condensate, and the word "Nova" which is a big explosion to arrive at a scary-sounding collection of words, combined with a bit of fear of the unknown due to an initially poor understanding of the phenomena. The phenomena is now fully understood -- but you'd have to ask an expert or do a lot of reading to find that out. This is a connection anyone could draw by reading the right popular articles, but science doesn't work by simply putting words together.

A Bose-Nova is a phenomena that was created in the lab in 2001. First one creates a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC), a picture of which is above. This is a new form of matter which occurs at very low temperatures (about 10-7 Kelvin -- very very very close to absolute zero). This temperature is so low that the atoms are moving very slowly (temperature is really a measure of the velocity of constituent atoms). When things move very slowly, they also become very large in a quantum mechanical sense. These atoms become so large that they begin to overlap with each other. When you look at it, you can no longer see individual atoms, but instead you see one big cloud. It's like the atoms have merged into a single quantum object, and in fact a BEC is normally described mathematically as a single quantum field. The existence of this state was predicted by Bose and Einstein in 1924, and in 2001 Cornell, Ketterle and Wieman won the Nobel prize in Physics for creating one. These things are actually really cool, and teach us a lot about quantum mechanics by bringing quantum phenomena which normally occur only at very short distances, to sizes that are big enough to see with the naked eye.

The same year, two of those Nobel prize winners (Cornell and Wieman) made an interesting experiment with their BEC: they caused it to collapse. The experimental setup used to create a BEC also allows them to control the interaction of atoms in the BEC. By using something called a Feshbach resonance, they can make their atoms either attractive or repulsive. They were using 85Rb (Rubidium) which can be both attractive or repulsive. Other atoms such as 7Li (Lithium) are always attractive and cannot be made repulsive (a collapse in Lithium has also been observed). And importantly for this discussion, Helium is always repulsive and cannot be made attractive. If there is no attraction between atoms, there cannot be a collapse.

The collapse occurs because the interaction changes. A BEC with fixed interaction strength is stable. It does not spontaneously collapse. Coffee mugs also do not spontaneously collapse. All their atoms are in a stable bound state in the shape of a coffee mug. So can Helium be made to collapse? Or to put it another way, can I change Helium to be attractive, and thus cause it to collapse? Before answering that, I have to explain how Cornell and Wieman changed the interaction strength of Rubidium.

Cornell and Wieman used something called a "Feshbach resonance". A "resonance" is a large change in interactions. In this particular case it is caused by the existence of a bound state (molecule) and having the temperature be such that the energy of collisions is almost the same as the binding energy of that molecule. Then by applying a magnetic field, the researchers can change the interaction strength by a tiny amount, because of something called the Hyperfine splitting. This is a small interaction between electrons and nuclei. Its discovery was once a major triumph of quantum theory.

So back to Helium. Helium has no nuclear intrinsic angular momentum (zero nuclear spin). Its electrons have no angular momentum. Thus, it has no hyperfine splitting. In other words, applying a magnetic field does not change the interactions of Helium at all. Helium is normally repulsive and cannot be made attractive. It cannot be made to collapse at all. Fairbairn and McElrath go further to explain that even if it did collapse it still can't be dangerous, but that's because they're scientists and just being thorough. It can't collapse in the first place.

So this claim of Gillis & Rössler is completely and totally specious. Any responsible researcher, before making a claim that something will explode like a nuclear bomb, should look up the relevant physics, to see if his idea makes sense. In this case, Rössler or Gillis didn't even take the first step to see how a Bose-Nova works, and if his proposal is even remotely reasonable. The two crackpots in this story reinforce each other, neither checking their facts. It's odd here that the "journalist" originates a crackpot idea, asks it of a crackpot, and of course he agrees. Crackpots are not in the business of proving or disproving things.

Given the above article, I don't think Alan Gillis should be allowed anywhere near the term "journalist", but I think the term "crackpot" certainly applies. A good journalist, when hearing such a dangerous claim, should call up a few more physicists, to see if this guy is a crackpot, or whether this issue has any credibility in the scientific community. Perhaps he should also contact people who have done or mathematically explained Bose-Nova experiments (as Fairbairn and McElrath apparently did -- judging by their acknowledgments they contacted one of the original Bose-Nova experimenters, Elizabeth Donley).

In science, having someone read over your ideas before publication is standard practice. We normally send new papers to a few colleagues we trust, or people known to be experts on the relevant topic, to make sure we haven't made an error. Publishing an incorrect article can be embarrassing or professionally devastating (just ask Pons & Fleischmann of "cold fusion" infamy). Unfortunately it seem Gillis & Rössler are immune from embarrassment, and Rössler never did have any scientific credibility to lose on particle physics, gravity, or BEC's.

Any good science journalist should do this: send your newly penned pop science article to several scientists, unsolicited. We regularly "referee" (peer-review) articles for scientific journals. This is part of our responsibility as scientists. Any scientist would be happy to peer-review your pop science article. Choose scientists who know about the topic, and choose them at random. If you are an editor of a pop science magazine or web site, I strongly recommend that you institute a kind of peer review for your articles. Gillis did not do his due diligence required to call himself a journalist, and has allowed a crackpot to make wild, baseless speculations in public. Worse, he made up a doomsday scenario, and got a crackpot to agree to it. By giving audience to crazy claims, he endangers public understanding of science, the future of scientific research, and even our lives.

Wednesday 24 September 2008

Manslaughter charges for the LHC doomsday plaintiffs and media

As some of you may have read, an Indian teenager committed suicide two weeks ago, due to fears propagated by the media in India that the LHC would cause the end of the world. This unfortunate loss of life was entirely preventable, and I suggest that the parties responsible for her death be brought to justice with manslaughter charges.

In most civilized societies there is a balance between free speech and endangerment. This balance is often known as the "shouting fire in a crowded theater" argument, due originally to US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The argument goes like this: one has a right to say just about anything, to the point that one endangers the lives of others. If one were to shout "fire!" in a crowded theater when there is no fire, the ensuing panic and stampede for the exits would endanger the lives of the theater occupants, and people may be harmed or killed by trampling. Of course if there is actually a fire then shouting "fire!" is of course justified. The creation of unjustified fear is an assault in itself, and causes harm.

The "LHC Doomsday" crowd have done the equivalent of shouting "fire!" with a slight twist. They have not directly claimed the world will end, but instead have demanded that the physics community prove that the world will not end. Of course proving a negative like this is much harder. Try proving that you will not be eaten by a dragon the next time you open your front door. They have demanded that the theater owner prove there is no fire (loudly so that everyone can hear it). This is equivalent to shouting "fire!" in its consequences and the harm created. They have absolutely no evidence that the LHC is dangerous in any way, and never have. They rely instead on unfounded speculations. To believe there is a danger is to misunderstand the difference between an unproven scientific model and a proven scientific theory. I can create models for anything, including spontaneous human combustion and that pink dragons will be created by the LHC and eat the Earth, but this does not mean I should be worried about them. There's a big difference between these models and reality. Not to mention that the "models" are not only erroneous, but violate physical laws as we know them (specifically, Quantum Mechanics, Time Reversal, and Thermodynamics).

Therefore, I suggest that the plaintiffs of the Hawaii court case, Luis Sancho and Walter L. Wagner, the plantiffs of the case in the European Court of Human Rights, represented by Markus Goritschnig and Adrian Hollaender, as well as the "scientists" Ranier Plaga and Otto Rössler be brought up on manslaughter charges. Furthermore, internet cranks such as Alan Gillis, and James Tankersley must be brought up on charges as well, for fanning the flames across the internet and promulgating the fear that led to the girl's death. All these people have endangered the lives of the citizens of Earth, to the extent that they have caused one death now. They must be stopped, and their unjustified claims dismissed before they cause more harm. They must prove that there is an actual danger, or they are shouting "fire!" in a crowded theater when there is none, and endangering all our lives. Unlike the entirely hypothetical unscientific "dangers" they are suing over, the danger they create is present, and has caused real harm.

The media shares a significant portion of the responsibility here as well. By not verifying facts, and not checking that this is an actual scientific issue by corresponding with multiple scientists, they have promulgated this false sense of fear to sell their newspapers and raise their ratings. They too are accessories to manslaughter. If you want to report on science, it is not sufficient to ask one scientist (or two, from opposite viewpoints). This misunderstands the concept of scientific consensus. When the media reports only one opinion, there is no way to tell they have not reported the opinion of a discredited scientist or crazy person, and the public generally does not have the knowledge or resources to discredit scientists. It is the media's responsibility to make this determination to the best of their ability, before they endanger us with their fear. Science is not individual opinions, it is consensus. They did not verify their facts, and are endangering us in their negligence.

If news agencies use fear to sell their product, then they must be held legally accountable for the fear they incite and the endangerment they create. This is tied up in the death of investigative reporting. News agencies have decided to just report "facts" and we're supposed to decide. This is exemplified directly by the FOX news mottos, "we report, you decide" and "fair and balanced". By reporting the fair and balanced story that there might be a fire in the theater, they endanger us, and must be held responsible.

Therefore I further suggest that every newspaper, TV network, and website which falsely claims there is some world-ending danger from the LHC be brought up on manslaughter charges. This information persists in internet archives and is not generally corrected. Therefore the continued existence of these unsubstantiated claims presents a continuing clear and present danger to Earth's citizens and must be corrected before more harm is done.

The LHC has been sadly delayed due to a Helium leak and will not start again until spring, 2009. By then I hope we can clean up this mess, bring the guilty to justice, and have no more deaths when the LHC does turn on next year. May the excitement of discovering what the world is made out of be in the news instead, without every single article mentioning these lawsuits and inciting fear.

I hope some enterprising lawyer in India and elsewhere will take up this cause legally, because the lives of the worlds citizens, and the accuracy of our media are of paramount importance, far beyond this particular issue with the LHC.

I can be contacted at anticrackpot@gmail.com. This is a personal opinion and not an official CERN position.

Monday 15 September 2008

The Physics Futures Market

We (physicists) like to discuss our favorite theories. We like to compare and contrast them. We like to loudly proclaim which ones we think are crap, which ones have a chance at being right, and which ones we're pretty sure are right. This is lunchroom conversation that the public generally isn't privy to. In fact, most people have never heard of the theories we are arguing about.

If you run across a theory, in a news report, web page, blog, or even the arXiv (beware the physics/ section), how is one to know what is crap and what is not? Well first of course, one should visit John Baez' Crackpot Index before believing "the uncertainty principle is untenable!" But what about after that?

Science is built upon consensus. However, the media often portrays scientific issues by presenting two opposing viewpoints. Sometimes, one viewpoint is held by 99.9% of scientists, and the other viewpoint is held by just one guy. The public, unaware of who is the scientist and who is the crackpot here, comes away with the idea that both ideas are reasonable, that there's a real debate, and 50% of the public ends up falling for some idea that is completely false. (For instance, global warming deniers, or that tobacco doesn't cause cancer, or that the LHC somehow presents some kind of danger to the continued existance of mankind) This mode of reporting does a huge disservice to the truth, and truly harms science in particular. At least in America, investigative reporting is all but dead. We're supposed to decide for ourselves now.

Scientific consensus is only reached after a significant amount of time has passed, and the experiments and theories have been absorbed into the minds of the practitioners of science. This consensus is really all the public needs to worry about. Sure we have our internal conflicts and arguments, but it's like seeing how sausage or laws are made. The public doesn't really want to see it, they just want to know what answer we collectively reach at the end.

People opposed to the scientific consensus that one might read about (a.k.a. "Crackpots") often claim that they're misunderstood, or that the scientific "establishment" is out to get them. These claims are ridiculous on their face. Science is incredibly adversarial. If you have a new theory and you can prove that it's correct (or conversely prove some favorite theory is incorrect), you win. Game over, you win. Doesn't matter who you are or how many awards the other side has. We're all looking for the Next Big Thing. And, we will all be excited regardless of what that thing is. But the trick is that you have to show how to prove that your theory is correct. I think this is a point about science that the public in general doesn't get.

So, to the point: which ideas are crap and which ones are good? How's the public to know? And more importantly, how can I tell people in the most definitive terms that I think their theory is crap, without putting up $10,000 for a loss?

In the last couple years, the idea of Prediction Markets has become popular. The idea is that by creating a market, the average "wisdom of the crowd" becomes apparent (and it turns out crowds are actually damn smart). I looked at several, and I propose Inkling Markets for all your physics needs. Thus, I present to you:

This is a "funny money" market in which you will be given $5000 to invest as you see fit upon signing up for a free account. Those of you that want to really put your money where your mouth is are free to explore other sites, but I could not find one that allowed the flexibility to pose arbitrary questions and then bet on it. Most sites are oriented toward sports or political betting.

Place your bets!

Thursday 4 September 2008

The Statistics of Improbable Things

I find myself embroiled in debunking some of the unfounded claims that the LHC will somehow destroy the universe. Perhaps you've heard of this, the argument usually involves Black Holes, Strangelets, or the newest one, Bose-Nova's.

The fundamental logic of these claims is flawed, and let me explain how. Generally these people want some kind of 100% proof that the LHC is safe. Herein lies the flaw. No physical problem can give 100% as an answer. Ever. There is a nonzero probability that you, sitting in that chair, will spontaneously explode before you finish reading this post. There's also a nonzero probability that you will quantum mechanically tunnel (pass straight through) through your chair, find yourself embedded in the center of the earth, and die a horrible death. There's a nonzero probability that the LHC will create dragons, and they will eat everyone. Should you be worried about these things? No. Why?

First, on the kinds of improbable events. There are more of them than real events. A lot more. In principle, I could count all the events that ever occur in the lifetime of the universe. It would be a big number. If I think of individual atomic interactions, there are about 1087 atoms in the universe. Let's assume each undergoes an interaction once per femtosecond (which is about what you expect for electronically bound materials like gasses, liquids, and solids on earth). The lifetime of the universe is about 1010 years, giving me 10119 particle interactions in the universe in its lifetime. Now, if I compute the probability that an atom will tunnel into the floor, and get 10-500, that means that on average, it will never happen during the lifetime of the universe. This, I think, is a reasonable definition of never given that I cannot get 0% or 100% as an answer.

Now how many events didn't happen? Infinitely many. Infinity is bigger than 10119. And this is the reason we cannot compute probability: we do not even know the set of all possible events. Consider if each of those 10119 events didn't happen, and add one more (say, dragons). The set of things that didn't happen is bigger than the set of those that did. The atoms of air in your room didn't undergo a nuclear reaction. You didn't spontaneously combust (though you're not to the end yet!), and dragons didn't eat you. How do I compute the probability of all these things that I've never seen happen? The best I could ever do is 1/(all the things that did happen). No amount of wishful thinking will get me a better answer, no matter how terrifying all those things that don't happen are.

Second, on small numbers. Do you have an intuition about how small 1% is? How about 0.01%? How about 10-500? How about 10-100000? Could you tell the difference between the last two? The last one is the kind of probability I'm talking about in the examples of the last paragraph. Let's make it a bit simpler, let's consider individual atoms, and the assertion that there's a nonzero probability for an atom to tunnel to the center of the earth. The probability of one atom at room temperature to tunnel through another is approximately e-(kinetic energy)/(potential barrier). For room temperatures of ~300 Kelvin and potential barriers of about the binding energy of electrons at 10 eV (I'm being generous), this gives probabilities of 10-10 or so. Now to get to the center of the earth the atom would have to do this millions of times, or (10-10)1000000 = 10-10000000. It'll never happen (using my above definition of "never").

So, back to the issue at hand. What's the probability that something never-before-seen happens today? It's incomputable. I could concievably assign the number 1/(everything that's happened), but given that the number of things that never happen is larger than the number of things that do happen, this tells me that the probability of something happening that never happened before is bigger than 100%! Clearly something is wrong. It doesn't make any sense to assign a probability to events that have never happened. I can't tell you the probability that the LHC will create a black hole, or that dragons will eat you. And, it's impossible to "guarantee" that improbable things won't happen. Should you be worried? No. If you still disagree, read my description of "never" over again.

This is the best we can do. We cannot ask statistics or science to give answers that it cannot give. We can however extrapolate from the set of things we've seen to place limits on the things that don't happen.

Science at its best, is a set of laws based upon the set of things we have observed to happen. The LHC black hole fears are predicated upon throwing out one or more of the laws we have devised from these observations. In particular thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, or time reversal. If I can create a black hole from two protons, why can't a black hole turn into two protons? The consequences of throwing out these pieces of physics are far greater than just black holes, and throwing out quantum and thermo are absolutely not justified by any experiment done so far.

Tuesday 2 September 2008


Welcome to the Physics Anti-Crackpot Blog.

I am a professional theoretical physicist, and recently, there has been more and more attention paid to speculations about science that are simply wrong. a.k.a. Crackpot theories. There are many reasons for this. One is the ease of communication that the internet provides. Another is the highly speculative direction that theoretical physics has taken over the last 20 or so years. More and more often I am approached by people who are misinformed, or I see articles in the press about unscientific things. It is my goal to correct some of these mis-perceptions. There is an accepted channel for new ideas. Write up your idea as clearly as you can, and submit it to a journal for peer review. Anyone can do this. Avoiding this procedure and going to the media, courts, blogs, or forums is a means to hide among people who don't have the training to evaluate your idea. An idea could never be proven in such circles. Come to the experts instead. Submit to a journal.

Historically, physicists have tended to ignore the "crackpots" and obviously-wrong theories because there was little to be gained by addressing them. There always have been, and always will be people with plenty of interest, but lacking the training to make a contribution to physics. Frankly this is sometimes where great advances come. Far-out ideas should not be dismissed without very good reason, or we would never have any new theories or scientific revolutions. Indeed, papers occur regularly by "real" physicists which could easily be classified as crackpot. I might even have written one. I think people with lots of interest should be encouraged. But, they need to realize exactly what science is. When untrained people read scientific articles, it sounds like a lot of gibberish strung together. It must be tempting to string the gibberish together in a slightly different order and claim it as a new idea, and many people do that (in fact, people may have received Ph.D.'s doing exactly that).

But science is not strings of gibberish prose. It is a method of making predictions. Making predictions and testing them is the best method mankind has ever devised to determine what is true. If you have a great new theory, it's exactly as great as the number of new things it predicts, that can be tested. Science is prediction, not explanation. The prediction must be quantitative, and the test must be performable in the near future. Theories which predict never-before-seen catastrophies are just as bad as theories which could only be tested by a particle accelerator bigger than the galaxy.

Of course, a good predictive theory also contains an explanatory description. Nonscientific explanations generally are all explanation and no prediction. Consider the widely held belief from not so long ago that lightning was the hand of God, striking down people who were evil. In hindsight, one can always come up with an explanation for lightning striking someone's house. But this was never predictive. It could never tell who would be striken next (and lightning strikes used to be much more common). This all changed when Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod. Now this was truly predictive -- one can predict that with a good lightning rod on top of a building, it will not be struck by lightning, no matter how evil the activities inside are perceived to be. Of course many people still believe things in the physical world to be decided based on how good or bad they are, depending on their religion, but this never has been, and never will be predictive, and is not science.

Part and parcel of the "making predictions" part of science is falsifiability. A physical theory must be capable of being proven false. Unfortunately, most of theoretical physics nowadays has forgotten this fact, and we routinely play with theories that can be modified to survive any experimental test. Indeed, some physicists think falsifiability is actually a drawback for their pet theory (because then their pet theory may die). But who wants to live their entire lives with a pet theory, and never know if it is actually true? This modern trend in physics has, I believe, emboldened untrained but interested people to espouse their unpredictive pet theories. Theories which are unfalsifiable because we're too terrified to perform an experiment are just as bad as ones which require technology that can't be envisioned anytime in the forseeable future. They're unscientific and should be ignored in favor of theories which can be tested.

There are three types of "crackpot" ideas. The first is from professional physicists with some gap in their knowledge. The second is from interested but uninformed non-physicists. And the third is from people with some minor psychosis, and want to be associated with physicists or be famous. In any of the three cases, the person may be immune to logical argument. Many of the "crackpot" things I read do not have sentences which follow any grammatic structure, much less an argument which follows any logic. These must simply be ignored, because there is no way to use logic to argue with an illogical person. Unfortunately some people have discovered that they can file lawsuits to get attention. I don't think these people are malicious, and probably truly believe that they may save the world. But, they are misinformed and I hope to change that.

The interested but untrained, and professional physicists are the target of this blog (and perhaps anyone who might get caught up in uninformed arguments about the end of the world). Interested people must always be encouraged. They are more capable of understanding what we do than the rest of the public. Sometimes, they follow their interest, enter a Ph.D. program, and make valuable contributions. They may communicate with their friends and family why physics is important and therefore are a valuable asset in communicating with the public and governments. After all, the citizens pay our salaries and they deserve to be kept informed.

I encourage you to ask questions and post comments (thought they will be moderated). If you find a news report, blog post, or even real physics article you think is questionable, email it to me and I'll do my best do debunk or confirm it, or find a colleague who can. Also if you're a physicist (or otherwise sufficiently knowledgable), I welcome unsolicited debunkings for this blog. You can submit things to anticrackpot@gmail.com.