Monday, December 31, 2012

work out the speed of light by making cheese on toast.

source: highlights comments

41:04 - Dara O'Briain works out the speed of light by making cheese on toast.

A microwave travels at the speed of light.

speed of light = frequency x wavelength

6.5cm between hot spots of cheese x 2 = wavelength = 13cm = 0.13metres

frequency (from back of microwave) = 2450 MHz = 2.45 x 109 giga hertz
calculated speed of light = 0.13m x 2.45 x109 = 3.2 x 108 m/s

Actual speed of light is 3.0 x 108 m/s (300,000 km/s=3 x 105 km/s)

Pretty close, eh!

Marcus Brigstocke investigates 'Nothing'


From 17:45s:
Marcus Brigstocke investigates 'Nothing' with Jim Al-Khalili  in Dara O Briain's Science Club:

Einsteins' theory of relativity proved that the aether did not exist. In space there are photons flying about everywhere. Between two electrons there are photons being emitted.

Nothing does not exist (20:34). Empty space is filled with forces (20:51), for example the force of gravity is something which Einstein thought was pulling everything together. We now know that 'vacuum energy' is making the universe expand faster and faster outwards. (21:22).

(NB. One contribution to the vacuum energy are from virtual particles - particle pairs that blink into existence and then annihilate in a timespan too short to observe. They are expected to do this everywhere, throughout the Universe.)

A cloud chamber demonstrates electrons and anti-electrons which have come from outer space (22:30).'

Bob Nichol: 'The universe is accelerating in its expansion'. The expansion is caused by 'dark energy' (24:00) a term for anything that could be causing this expansion - the most favoured explanation is 'vacuum energy'.

[According to a 2003 theory] eventually galaxies will move away from each other faster than the speed of light. (24:39) In about 60 billion years the 'Big Rip' [quintessence in which dark energy destabilises] could occur and space itself might dismantle (it will be the end of the universe - all atoms will be destroyed) (24:44).

Fields permeate empty space:- Electric, magnetic, higgs and gravitational fields. Neutrinos are elementary subatomic particles which pass through us from space. (Janna Levin 25:58s)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Pew Forum: In USA One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation

source and Full pdf Report. My comments in blue.

Some of the religiously unaffiliated (excluding atheists and agnostics) are religious or spiritual in some way, pray each day, feel a deep connection with nature and the earth and are “spiritual” but not “religious”. A mixed bunch!
  • "The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling."
  • "In the last five years alone, the Religiously Unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%)"

  • "This large and growing group of Americans (the religiously unaffiliated) is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives."
  • "many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%) though less than half say they are absolutely certain of God’s existence." ie these are NOT the Atheists & Agnostics. 
  • "More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%)"
  • "more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%)"
  • "one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day" (!!)

  • "The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans – sometimes called the rise of the “nones” – is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones. A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives."

  • "most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor"
  • "typically the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them"
  • "Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics"

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Pew - The Global Religious Landscape - The Religiously Unaffiliated

Source and pdf - Published: The Global Religious Landscape, December 18, 2012


  • one-in-six people around the globe (1.1 billion, or 16%) have no religious affiliation
  • the unaffiliated are the third-largest religious group worldwide, behind Christians and Muslims, and about equal in size to the world’s Catholic population
  • Three-quarters of the religiously unaffiliated (76%) live in the Asia- Pacific region
  • most religiously unaffiliated people (71%) live in countries in which they are the predominant religious group
  • The Religiously Unaffiliated includes atheists, agnostics and people who do not identify with any particular religion in surveys. However, many of the religiously unaffiliated do hold religious or spiritual beliefs.
  • More than six-in-ten (62%) of all religiously unaffiliated people live in one country, China
  • There are six countries where the religiously unaffiliated make up a majority of the population


  • "Pew Forum finds that roughly one-in-six people around the globe (1.1 billion, or 16%) have no religious affiliation. The religiously unaffiliated include atheists, agnostics and people who do not identify with any particular religion in surveys. This makes the unaffiliated the third-largest religious group worldwide, behind Christians and Muslims, and about equal in size to the world’s Catholic population." (source: pdf, pg 9)
  • "Many of the religiously unaffiliated have some religious beliefs. For example, belief in God or a higher power is shared by 7% of Chinese unaffiliated adults, 30% of French unaffiliated adults and 68% of unaffiliated U.S. adults. Some of the unaffiliated also engage in certain kinds of religious practices. For example, 7% of unaffiliated adults in France and 2 7% of those in the United States say they attend religious services at least once a year. And in China, 44% of unaffiliated adults say they have worshiped at a graveside or tomb in the past year. Beliefs and practices of unaffiliated adults in the United States are documented in the Pew Forum’s October 2012 report “ ‘Nones’ on the Rise.” (source: pdf, pg 24)
  • "Three-quarters of the religiously unaffiliated (76%) live in the Asia- Pacific region. The number of religiously unaffiliated people in China alone (about 700 million) is more than twice the total population of the United States." (source: pdf, pg 10)
  • ''most religiously unaffiliated people (71%) live in countries in which they are the predominant religious group. The religiously unaffiliated make up a majority of the population in six countries, of which China is by far the largest. The others are the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hong Kong, Japan and North Korea." (source: pdf, pg 11)
  • "The Religiously Unaffiliated includes atheists, agnostics and people who do not identify with any particular religion in surveys. However, many of the religiously unaffiliated do hold religious or spiritual beliefs. eg Belief in God or a higher power is shared by 7% of unaffiliated Chinese adults, 30% of unaffiliated French adults and 68% of unaffiliated U.S. adults". See Note 6 below (source: pdf, pg 15)
(source: pdf, pg 9)

Religiously Unaffiliated

(source: pdf, pg 12)
Census 2011: 25.1% of England & Wales population are religiously unaffiliated (No religion).
  • There are six countries where the religiously unaffiliated make up a majority of the population: the Czech Republic (76% are religiously unaffiliated), North Korea (71%), Estonia (60%), Japan (57%), Hong Kong (56%) and China (52%). 
  • 16.4% of the total U.S. population was unaffiliated as of 2010. As of 2012, 19.6% of U.S. adults are unaffiliated. (source: pdf, pg 25-26)

(source: pdf, pg 25)

(source: pdf, pg 25)

More than six-in-ten (62%) of all religiously unaffiliated people live in one country, China. The largest populations of the religiously unaffiliated outside China are in Japan (6% of all unaffiliated), the United States (5%), Vietnam (2%) and Russia (2%). (source: pdf, pg 25-26)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

20 questions that atheists need to be able to answer


Answers in blue by Stephen L.

20 questions that atheists need to be able to answer

Here are some puzzling phenomena that every person should try to struggle with, and find the answers.

1.What caused the universe to exist?
1. I don’t know, and I don’t need to know in order to dismiss a poor explanation.

2.What explains the fine tuning of the universe?
2. The anthropic principle.

3.Why is the universe rational?
3. An irrational universe could not sustain its own existence.

4.How did DNA and amino acids arise?
4. Read a book on the subject.

5.Where did the genetic code come from?
5. That’s the same question as 4.

6.How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve?
6. Loaded question. Ignored.

I’m leaving out numbers 7 and 8 because they lack specificity.

9.How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity?
9. Thoughts are electrical impulses. Nothing magical about them.

10.How do we account for self-awareness?
10. It’s an inevitable consequence of increased intelligence.

11.How is free will possible in a material universe?
11. It isn’t.

12.How do we account for conscience?
12. Morality (in the most basic sense) is the effort to minimise the suffering of conscious beings.

13.On what basis can we make moral judgements?
13. It is an epiphenomena of complex neurological activity.

14.Why does suffering matter?
14. Because we don’t like it.

15.Why do human beings matter?
15. Because we like them.

16.Why care about justice?
16. Society can’t function without it. We like society.

17.How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural?
17. Humans are pattern seeking animals. The primitive human who sees a bear through the trees when there isn’t one, will live longer than the one who doesn’t see a bear when there is.

18.How do we know the supernatural does not exist?
18.a. The very term “supernatural” suggests so. 18.b. What we might call supernatural, in the sense that it is beyond our understanding of nature, may or may not exist, but each individual claim of such is incredibly unlikely without evidence.

19.How can we know if there is conscious existence after death?
19. By discovering an aspect of conscience that is not dependant on a physical brain for existence.

20.What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?
20.a. If such an event really happened, its account would not be limited to a poorly written book with a terrible track record on facts. 20.b. The spread of Christianity is attributable to its instatement as the official religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine.

More answer by Stephen L and others here.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Global atheist Convention

source: Facebook

Sam Harris on Death and the Present Moment

source: Thanks Tim Stephenson for sharing.

Draft Transcription of Sam Harris Talk

Sam Harris – Death and the Present Moment
2012 Australian Atheist Conference.. A celebration of reason
Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc (established 1970)
Reality of death is central to religion and its denial to religion. Without death faith based religion would be unthinkable. From the point of view of the faithful, atheism is the mere assertion of death. Atheists appear to be a death cult since we are the only people who admit that death is real. Every other view leaves the question open or asserts that death is an allusion. The good people, the people who believe the right things about an iron age war god, get everything they want after they die. Every thing that is annomoulous or accidental gets sorted out in the end. There is no reasonable likelihood of that happening. The gospel of atheism, The essential news, the good news of Atheism is that nothing happens after death. There is nothing to worry about, nothing to fear. When after you die you are returned to that nothingness you were before you were born. This proposition is very hard to understand. Most people mistake nothing for something. Many have said that my friend Lawrence Krauss does that! In the case of death many people imagine a case of eternal silent darkness which does sound a little boring. But if we are right and nothing happens after death, then every religion every devised, is false. But if we are right and nothing happens after death, then death is not a problem. Life is the problem. The problem is without God and without an eternal existence after death, life appears to be an emergency. It’s a long emergency for many. You can’t help but notice that things are going very wrong in this place. No matter how much fun you are having, a glance at a newspaper, will show you its possible to have no fun at all. Everyone seems to have a run of bad luck in the end. Religion makes sense of these problems: its my karma, my god will mean that I’m so lucky. God wants me to have a new iPad (halleluyuw), not be the ones making the iPad for a few $ a day. To not believe in god means its up to us to make the world a better place. We have barely emerged from centuries of barbarism. Its not a surprise that that there are inequities in this world. Its hard work to climb down from the trees and build a global civilisation when you start with a technology that is made of rock and sticks and fur. This is the project and progress is difficult. If you talk to your ancestor 100 generations ago you’d meet someone who thought that sacrificing their first child was a good way to control the weather. Some of you don’t have to go back that far. You just have to go home for Christmas!
(8.03) Real progress is a very recent phenomena. Religion keeps its foot on the brake. In the USA, still have to argue that women have access to birth control.
8.33 – Abortion. … Child Abuse by Catholic Church … this world will not be a paradise. Cure ageing  itself, upload on Ai, Singularity,
10.32: if you live long enough – you will lose everyone you know. A memory is a thought arising in the present.
12.16: Atheism is a necessary corrective of bad ideas, but it puts nothing in its place. What fills the void is science and art and philosophy. Atheism is just a way of clearing the space for better conversations. The problem we face is convincing majority of humanity to have those better conversations and this is a political problem. It’s a scientific problem, it’s an interpersonal problem, It’s a problem of education. The problem is that most people most of the time are desparate to belive ridiculous ideas for repeatedly emotional reasons. Whilst rarely explicit what they are really worried about is death. When we are arguing about teaching evolution in schools we are really arguing about death. The only reason the religious care about Evolution is that If religion are wrong about origins then they fear they are wrong about our destiny after death. If you say to the religious that they are a fool to not believe in Evolution or a fool to believe the universe is 6000 years old then that gets translated into saying they are a fool to believe that their daughter that died in a car crash is in heaven with god (this is consoling). How can people close to tragedies make sense of that – religion provides an answer to that - but it's an unjustified answer, a bad answer. Grief is not so necessary if you believe in heaven cos you will be re-joined with your daughter in heaven in  a twinkling of an eye. Atheism does not offer real consolation on this point. When you are open to new evidence there is not guarantee that your revisions in your world view are consoling. When you loose Santa Claus what you get in his place is not so much fun.
17.58: most of us do our best not to think about death. But we know we are only a doctors phone call away from being reminded of our own mortality or of those closest to us. Hitch wrote brilliantly about death in is his Vanity Fair articles (go read them). 
20.08. Most people tacitly think they will live on forever. There better be a heaven if we are going to waste our time bickering with our spouses etc etc! Unlike religious people we atheists have a real good reason to make the most of life. To make the most in the present moment. Even if you live to 100 there are not that many days in life. So what is the point in life. Is anything sacred? Does that question make sense? There are ways to live in the present moment. The reality of life is always NOW. This is a liberating truth about the human mind. This is the most important thing to know if you want to be happy in this world.
23.40 The past is a memory it’s a thought arising in the present. The future is merely a thought arising now. What we truly have is this moment .. and this moment.
25.20 I don’t want to stand in front of 4000 atheists and talk about Lao Tzu. Not more information but requires a change of attitude, change in attentiveness in the present moment.
26.01 Consciousness just arrives dependant on the brain, consc indepent of the body. No.
28.59 Conceptual lens
29.50 to 37.10: 7 minute Mindfulness Meditation in the present (you are now all Buddhists!)
41.56 constantly ruminating – you will miss your life. Be in the present. Voice in the head keeps saying things. Conversation that you have with yourself every minute of the day has a cost. Mechanism of self doubt - the fear of death. Hostage to thoughts is not useful. Purpose of life is obvious – we try to create and repair a world that our minds want to be in. We Atheists alone among humanity realise that, religion is a bad way to do that, we have to start a new conversation.
46: Douglas Hofsteder – memory is an emulation of them.
50.20 – 56.30 Question on suffering when can see death in the world. When you are suffering you are lost in thought. Some  things are worth suffering over? If your child dies can you stop suffering if you break the spell of thought? Yes to some degree but its damn hard to do when the bar is set that high when you dealing with the death of someone so close to you. The experience of the 7 minute meditation (I’ve gone on retreats for weeks or months at a time) and in silence for 18 hours a day just did that exercise. It takes a lot of time to realise how much thought is clouding your experience of the present moment. Under current of thought – memory of how much you loved her – buffeted to thoughts, hostage to thoughts. Relief of death and suffering is by bearing down on the present moment,  erodes the pain of the pain. The framing is the issue, it’s the difference between the pain in your arm because you are getting good at lifting weights or the pain of bone cancer. We give a lot of thought to gaining more information or getting healthy. We give very little thought to training the mind, training attention itself. Lot of neuroscientific research on Mindfulness Meditation. Many good things happen when you can just drop your stress and the automaticity of thinking. Just be aware of current moment, the next sensation, the next thought. Experience of flow in the present moment. There is relief to found there but it takes training, a commitment to not merely brooding and thinking. Not discounting the utility of thought.Not discounting the importance of sorting out the world. There is a quiestic bias amongst meditators that I think is completely dysfunctional. We don’t want a culture of people not being engaged and not improving the world. But if there is any kernel of truth in the religions we so deplore and they are just a carnival of errors the truth is it possible to sink into the present moment in such a way to find it sacred and to cease to have a problem. Most of the testimony for this is contaminated with religious bullshit.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Fine Tuning by John Polkinghorne & Lawrence Krauss

Lawrence Krauss refers to the 120 orders of magnitude for Dark Energy error in 'A Universe from Nothing' in the Chapter 'Much Ado about Nothing' pg. 72. It is the 'Cosmological Constant Problem' made explicit by Yakov Zel'dovich in 1967.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?


I've reproduced most of The Atlantic article here ("..." indicates deletions from the article).

The quotes are crabsallover highlights.

APR 23 2012, 3:41 PM ET 377
"I think at some point you need to provoke people. Science is meant to make people uncomfortable."

... (picture)

It is hard to know how our future descendants will regard the little sliver of history that we live in. It is hard to know what events will seem important to them, what the narrative of now will look like to the twenty-fifth century mind. We tend to think of our time as one uniquely shaped by the advance of technology, but more and more I suspect that this will be remembered as an age of cosmology---as the moment when the human mind first internalized the cosmos that gave rise to it. Over the past century, since the discovery that our universe is expanding, science has quietly begun to sketch the structure of the entire cosmos, extending its explanatory powers across a hundred billion galaxies, to the dawn of space and time itself. It is breathtaking to consider how quickly we have come to understand the basics of everything from star formation to galaxy formation to universe formation. And now, equipped with the predictive power of quantum physics, theoretical physicists are beginning to push even further, into new universes and new physics, into controversies once thought to be squarely within the domain of theology or philosophy. 

In January, Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and Director of the Origins Institute at Arizona State University, published A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, a book that, as its title suggests, purports to explain how something---and not just any something, but the entire universe---could have emerged from nothing, the kind of nothing implicated by quantum field theory (crabsallover Wikipedia link). But before attempting to do so, the book first tells the story of modern cosmology, whipping its way through the big bang to microwave background radiation and the discovery of dark energy. It's a story that Krauss is well positioned to tell; in recent years he has emerged as an unusually gifted explainer of astrophysics. One of his lectures has been viewed over a million times on YouTube and his cultural reach extends to some unlikely places---last year Miley Cyrus came under fire when she tweeted a quote from Krauss that some Christians found offensive. Krauss' book quickly became a bestseller, drawing raves from popular atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, the latter of which even compared it to The Origin of Species for the way its final chapters were supposed to finally upend the "last trump card of the theologian." 

By early spring, media coverage of "A Universe From Nothing" seemed to have run its course, but then on March 23rd the New York Times ran a blistering review of the book, written by David Albert, a philosopher of physics from Columbia University. Albert, who has a PhD in theoretical physics, argued that Krauss' "nothing" was in fact a something and did so in uncompromising terms: 

"The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields... they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story."

Because the story of modern cosmology has such deep implications for the way that we humans see ourselves and the universe, it must be told correctly and without exaggeration---in the classroom, in the press and in works of popular science. To see two academics, both versed in theoretical physics, disagreeing so intensely on such a fundamental point is troubling. Not because scientists shouldn't disagree with each other, but because here they're disagreeing about a claim being disseminated to the public as a legitimate scientific discovery. Readers of popular science often assume that what they're reading is backed by a strong consensus. Having recently interviewed Krauss for a different project, I reached out to him to see if he was interested in discussing Albert's criticisms with me. He said that he was, and mentioned that he would be traveling to New York on April 20th to speak at a memorial service for Christopher Hitchens. As it happened, I was also due to be in New York that weekend and so, last Friday, we were able to sit down for the extensive, and at times contentious, conversation that follows. 

I know that you're just coming from Christopher Hitchens' memorial service. How did that go?

Krauss: It was a remarkable event for a remarkable man, and I felt very fortunate to be there. I was invited to give the opening presentation in front of all of these literary figures and dignitaries of various sorts, and so I began the only way I think you can begin, and that's with music from Monty Python. That got me over my initial stage fright and my concern about what to say about someone as extraordinary as Christopher. I was able to talk about a lot of the aspects of Christopher that people may not know about, including the fact that he was fascinated by science. And I also got to talk about what it felt like to be his friend. 

I closed with an anecdote, a true story about the last time I was with him. I was reading the New York Times at his kitchen table, and there was an article about the ongoing effort to keep Catholic students at elite colleges like Yale from losing their faith. The article said something like "faced with Nietzsche, coed dorms, Hitchens, and beer pong, students are likely to stray." There are two really amazing aspects of that. For one, to be so culturally ubiquitous that you can be mentioned in a sentence like that without any further explanation is pretty exceptional. But also to be sandwiched between "Nietzsche" and "beer pong" is an honor that very few of us can ever aspire to. 

I want to start with a general question about the relationship between philosophy and physics. There has been a fair amount of sniping between these two disciplines over the past few years. Why the sudden, public antagonism between philosophy and physics? 

Krauss: That's a good question. I expect it's because physics has encroached on philosophy. Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then "natural philosophy" became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there's a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers. This sense that somehow physicists, because they can't spell the word "philosophy," aren't justified in talking about these things, or haven't thought deeply about them---

Is that really a claim that you see often?

Krauss: It is. Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, "those that can't do, teach, and those that can't teach, teach gym." 

And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it's fairly technical. And so it's really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I'd say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn't.

.... (picture) Lawrence Krauss, author of "A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing"

On that note, you were recently quoted as saying that philosophy "hasn't progressed in two thousand years." But computer science, particularly research into artificial intelligence was to a large degree built on foundational work done by philosophers in logic and other formal languages. And certainly philosophers like John Rawls have been immensely influential in fields like political science and public policy. Do you view those as legitimate achievements?

Krauss: Well, yeah, I mean, look I was being provocative, as I tend to do every now and then in order to get people's attention. There are areas of philosophy that are important, but I think of them as being subsumed by other fields. In the case of descriptive philosophy you have literature or logic, which in my view is really mathematics. Formal logic is mathematics, and there are philosophers like Wittgenstein that are very mathematical, but what they're really doing is mathematics---it's not talking about things that have affected computer science, it's mathematical logic. And again, I think of the interesting work in philosophy as being subsumed by other disciplines like history, literature, and to some extent political science insofar as ethics can be said to fall under that heading. To me what philosophy does best is reflect on knowledge that's generated in other areas. 

I'm not sure that's right. I think that in some cases philosophy actually generates new fields. Computer science is a perfect example. Certainly philosophical work in logic can be said to have been subsumed by computer science, but subsumed might be the wrong word---

Krauss: Well, you name me the philosophers that did key work for computer science; I think of John Von Neumann and other mathematicians, and---

But Bertrand Russell paved the way for Von Neumann.

Krauss: But Bertrand Russell was a mathematician. I mean, he was a philosopher too and he was interested in the philosophical foundations of mathematics, but by the way, when he wrote about the philosophical foundations of mathematics, what did he do? He got it wrong. 

But Einstein got it wrong, too---

Krauss: Sure, but the difference is that scientists are really happy when they get it wrong, because it means that there's more to learn. And look, one can play semantic games, but I think that if you look at the people whose work really pushed the computer revolution from Turing to Von Neumann and, you're right, Bertrand Russell in some general way, I think you'll find it's the mathematicians who had the big impact. And logic can certainly be claimed to be a part of philosophy, but to me the content of logic is mathematical. 

Do you find this same tension between theoretical and empirical physics?

Krauss: Sometimes, but it shouldn't be there. Physics is an empirical science. As a theoretical physicist I can tell you that I recognize that it's the experiment that drives the field, and it's very rare to have it go the other way; Einstein is of course the obvious exception, but even he was guided by observation. It's usually the universe that's surprising us, not the other way around. 
"It's usually the universe that's surpising us, not the other way around."

Moving on to your book "A Universe From Nothing," what did you hope to accomplish when you set out to write it?

Krauss: Every time I write a book, I try and think of a hook. People are interested in science, but they don't always know they're interested in science, and so I try to find a way to get them interested. Teaching and writing, to me, is really just seduction; you go to where people are and you find something that they're interested in and you try and use that to convince them that they should be interested in what you have to say. 

The religious question "why is there something rather than nothing," has been around since people have been around, and now we're actually reaching a point where science is beginning to address that question. And so I figured I could use that question as a way to celebrate the revolutionary changes that we've achieved in refining our picture of the universe. I didn't write the book to attack religion, per se. The purpose of the book is to point out all of these amazing things that we now know about the universe. 

Reading some of the reactions to the book, it seems like you automatically become strident the minute you try to explain something naturally. 

Richard Dawkins wrote the afterword for the book---and I thought it was pretentious at the time, but I just decided to go with it---where he compares the book to The Origin of Species. And of course as a scientific work it doesn't some close to The Origin of Species, which is one of the greatest scientific works ever produced. And I say that as a physicist; I've often argued that Darwin was a greater scientist than Einstein. But there is one similarity between my book and Darwin's---before Darwin life was a miracle; every aspect of life was a miracle, every species was designed, etc. And then what Darwin showed was that simple laws could, in principle, plausibly explain the incredible diversity of life. And while we don't yet know the ultimate origin of life, for most people it's plausible that at some point chemistry became biology. 

What's amazing to me is that we're now at a point where we can plausibly argue that a universe full of stuff came from a very simple beginning, the simplest of all beginnings: nothing. That's been driven by profound revolutions in our understanding of the universe, and that seemed to me to be something worth celebrating, and so what I wanted to do was use this question to get people to face this remarkable universe that we live in. 

... (picture of Socrates and Aristotle)
"Philosophy hasn't progressed in two thousand years."

Your book argues that physics has definitively demonstrated how something can come from nothing. Do you mean that physics has explained how particles can emerge from so-called empty space, or are you making a deeper claim? 

Krauss: I'm making a deeper claim, but at the same time I think you're overstating what I argued. I don't think I argued that physics has definitively shown how something could come from nothing; physics has shown how plausible physical mechanisms might cause this to happen. I try to be intellectually honest in everything that I write, especially about what we know and what we don't know. 

If you're writing for the public, the one thing you can't do is overstate your claim, because people are going to believe you. They see I'm a physicist and so if I say that protons are little pink elephants, people might believe me. And so I try to be very careful and responsible. We don't know how something can come from nothing, but we do know some plausible ways that it might. 

But I am certainly claiming a lot more than just that. 

That it's possible to create particles from no particles is remarkable---that you can do that with impunity, without violating the conservation of energy and all that, is a remarkable thing. The fact that "nothing," namely empty space, is unstable is amazing. But I'll be the first to say that empty space as I'm describing it isn't necessarily nothing, although I will add that it was plenty good enough for Augustine and the people who wrote the Bible. For them an eternal empty void was the definition of nothing, and certainly I show that that kind of nothing ain't nothing anymore.  

But debating physics with Augustine might not be an interesting thing to do in 2012.

Krauss: It might be more interesting than debating some of the moronic philosophers that have written about my book. Given what we know about quantum gravity (crabsallover Wikipedia link), or what we presume about quantum gravity, we know you can create space from where there was no space. And so you've got a situation where there were no particles in space, but also there was no space. That's a lot closer to "nothing." 

But of course then people say that's not "nothing," because you can create something from it. They ask, justifiably, where the laws come from. And the last part of the book argues that we've been driven to this notion---a notion that I don't like---that the laws of physics themselves could be an environmental accident. On that theory, physics itself becomes an environmental science, and the laws of physics come into being when the universe comes into being. And to me that's the last nail in the coffin for "nothingness."

It sounds like you're arguing that 'nothing' is really a quantum vacuum, and that a quantum vacuum is unstable in such a way as to make the production of matter and space inevitable. But a quantum vacuum has properties. For one, it is subject to the equations of quantum field theory. Why should we think of it as nothing?

Krauss: That would be a legitimate argument if that were all I was arguing. By the way it's a nebulous term to say that something is a quantum vacuum in this way. That's another term that these theologians and philosophers have started using because they don't know what the hell it is, but it makes them sound like they know what they're talking about. When I talk about empty space, I am talking about a quantum vacuum, but when I'm talking about no space whatsoever, I don't see how you can call it a quantum vacuum. It's true that I'm applying the laws of quantum mechanics to it, but I'm applying it to nothing, to literally nothing. No space, no time, nothing. There may have been meta-laws that created it, but how you can call that universe that didn't exist "something" is beyond me. When you go to the level of creating space, you have to argue that if there was no space and no time, there wasn't any pre-existing quantum vacuum. That's a later stage. 

Even if you accept this argument that nothing is not nothing, you have to acknowledge that nothing is being used in a philosophical sense. But I don't really give a damn about what "nothing" means to philosophers; I care about the "nothing" of reality. And if the "nothing" of reality is full of stuff, then I'll go with that.
"But I don't really give a damn what "nothing" means to philosophers; I care about the "nothing" of reality."

But I don't have to accept that argument, because space didn't exist in the state I'm talking about, and of course then you'll say that the laws of quantum mechanics existed, and that those are something. But I don't know what laws existed then. In fact, most of the laws of nature didn't exist before the universe was created; they were created along with the universe, at least in the multiverse picture. The forces of nature, the definition of particles---all these things come into existence with the universe, and in a different universe, different forces and different particles might exist. 

We don't yet have the mathematics to describe a multiverse, and so I don't know what laws are fixed. I also don't have a quantum theory of gravity, so I can't tell you for certain how space comes into existence, but to make the argument that a quantum vacuum that has particles is the same as one that doesn't have particles is to not understand field theory. 

I'm not sure that anyone is arguing that they're the same thing--

Krauss: Well, I read a moronic philosopher who did a review of my book in the New York Times (crabsallover link: David Albert in NYT) who somehow said that having particles and no particles is the same thing, and it's not. The quantum state of the universe can change and it's dynamical. He didn't understand that when you apply quantum field theory to a dynamic universe, things change and you can go from one kind of vacuum to another. When you go from no particles to particles, it means something.

I think the problem for me, coming at this as a layperson, is that when you're talking about the explanatory power of science, for every stage where you have a "something,"---even if it's just a wisp of something, or even just a set of laws---there has to be a further question about the origins of that "something." And so when I read the title of your book, I read it as "questions about origins are over."

Krauss: Well, if that hook gets you into the book that's great. But in all seriousness, I never make that claim. In fact, in the preface I tried to be really clear that 

you can keep asking "Why?" forever. At some level there might be ultimate questions that we can't answer, but if we can answer the "How?" questions, we should, because those are the questions that matter. And it may just be an infinite set of questions, but what I point out at the end of the book is that the multiverse may resolve all of those questions. 

From Aristotle's prime mover to the Catholic Church's first cause, we're always driven to the idea of something eternal. If the multiverse really exists, then you could have an infinite object---infinite in time and space as opposed to our universe, which is finite. That may beg the question as to where the multiverse came from, but if it's infinite, it's infinite. You might not be able to answer that final question, and I try to be honest about that in the book. But if you can show how a set of physical mechanisms can bring about our universe, that itself is an amazing thing and it's worth celebrating. I don't ever claim to resolve that infinite regress of why-why-why-why-why; as far as I'm concerned it's turtles all the way down. The multiverse could explain it by being eternal, in the same way that God explains it by being eternal, but there's a huge difference: the multiverse is well motivated and God is just an invention of lazy minds. 

In the past you've spoken quite eloquently about the Multiverse, this idea that our universe might be one of many universes, perhaps an infinite number. In your view does theoretical physics give a convincing account of how such a structure could come to exist?

Krauss: In certain ways, yes---in other ways, no. 

There are a variety of multiverses that people in physics talk about. The most convincing one derives from something called inflation, which we're pretty certain happened because it produces effects that agree with almost everything we can observe. From what we know about particle physics, it seems quite likely that the universe underwent a period of exponential expansion early on. But inflation, insofar as we understand it, never ends---it only ends in certain regions and then those regions become a universe like ours. You can show that in an inflationary universe, you produce a multiverse, you produce an infinite number of causally separated universes over time, and the laws of physics are different in each one. 

There's a real mechanism where you can calculate it. And all of that comes, theoretically, from a very small region of space that becomes infinitely large over time. 

There's a calculable multiverse; it's almost required for inflation---it's very hard to get around it. All the evidence suggests that our universe resulted from a period of inflation, and it's strongly suggestive that well beyond our horizon there are other universes that are being created out of inflation, and that most of the multiverse is still expanding exponentially. 

... (picture)
An artist's rendering of the multiverse.

Is there an empirical frontier for this? How do we observe a multiverse?
Krauss: Right. How do you tell that there's a multiverse if the rest of the universes are outside your causal horizon? It sounds like philosophy. At best. But imagine that we had a fundamental particle theory that explained why there are three generations of fundamental particles, and why the proton is two thousand times heavier than the electron, and why there are four forces of nature, etc. And it also predicted a period of inflation in the early universe, and it predicts everything that we see and you can follow it through the entire evolution of the early universe to see how we got here. Such a theory might, in addition to predicting everything we see, also predict a host of universes that we don't see. If we had such a theory, the accurate predictions it makes about what we can see would also make its predictions about what we can't see extremely likely. And so I could see empirical evidence internal to this universe validating the existence of a multiverse, even if we could never see it directly. 

You have said that your book is meant to describe "the remarkable revolutions that have taken place in our understanding of the universe over the past 50 years--revolutions that should be celebrated as the pinnacle of our intellectual experience." I think that's a worthy project and, like you, I find it lamentable that some of physics' most extraordinary discoveries have yet to fully penetrate our culture. But might it be possible to communicate the beauty of those discoveries without tacking on an assault on previous belief systems, especially when those belief systems aren't necessarily scientific? 

Krauss: Well, yes. I'm sympathetic to your point in one sense, and I've had this debate with Richard Dawkins; I've often said to him that if you want people to listen to you, the best way is not to go up to them and say, "You're stupid." Somehow it doesn't get through. 

It's a fine line and it's hard to tell where to fall on this one. 

What drove me to write this book was this discovery that the nature of "nothing" had changed, that we've discovered that "nothing" is almost everything and that it has properties. That to me is an amazing discovery. So how do I frame that? I frame it in terms of this question about something coming from nothing. And part of that is a reaction to these really pompous theologians who say, "out of nothing, nothing comes," because those are just empty words. I think at some point you need to provoke people. Science is meant to make people uncomfortable. And whether I went too far on one side or another of that line is an interesting question, but I suspect that if I can get people to be upset about that issue, then on some level I've raised awareness of it.

The unfortunate aspect of it is, and I've come to realize this recently, is that some people feel they don't even need to read the book, because they think I've missed the point of the fundamental theological question. But I suspect that those people weren't open to it anyway. 

I think Steven Weinberg said it best when he said that science doesn't make it impossible to believe in God, it just makes it possible to not believe in God. That's a profoundly important point, and to the extent that cosmology is bringing us to a place where we can address those very questions, it's undoubtedly going to make people uncomfortable. 

It was a judgment call on my part and I can't go back on it, so it's hard to know. 

You've developed this wonderful ability to translate difficult scientific concepts into language that can enlighten, and even inspire a layperson. There are people in faith communities who are genuinely curious about physics and cosmology, and your book might be just the thing to quench and multiply that curiosity. But I worry that by framing these discoveries in language that is in some sense borrowed from the culture war, that you run the risk of shrinking the potential audience for them---and that could ultimately be a disservice to the ideas. 

Krauss: Ultimately, it might be. I've gone to these fundamentalist colleges and I've gone to Fox News and it's interesting, the biggest impact I've ever had is when I said, "you don't have to be an atheist to believe in evolution." I've had young kids come up to me and say that affected them deeply. So yes it's nice to point that out, but I actually think that if you read my book I never say that we know all the answers, I say that it's pompous to say that we can't know the answers. And so yeah I think that maybe there will be some people who are craving this stuff and who won't pick up my book because of the way I've framed it, but at the same time I do think that people need to be aware that they can be brave enough to ask the question "Is it possible to understand the universe without God?" And so you're right that I'm going to lose some people, but I'm hoping that at the same time I'll gain some people who are going to be brave enough to come out of the closet and ask that question. And that's what amazes me, that nowadays when you simply ask the question you're told that you're offending people. 

But let me bring that back full circle. You opened this conversation talking about seduction. You're not giving an account of seduction right now. 

Krauss: That's true, but let me take it back full circle to Hitchens. What Christopher had was charm, humor, wit and culture as weapons against nonsense, and in my own small way what I try and do in my books is exactly that. I try and infuse them with humor and culture and that's the seduction part. And in this case the seduction might be causing people to ask, "How can he say that? How can he have the temerity to suggest that it's possible to get something from nothing? Let me see what's wrong with these arguments." If I'd just titled the book "A Marvelous Universe," not as many people would have been attracted to it. But it's hard to know. I'm acutely aware of this seduction problem, and my hope is that what I can do is get people to listen long enough to where I can show some of what's going on, and at the same time make them laugh. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Philosophy of Cosmology - funded by Templeton


John Templeton Foundation (who have a 'supernaturalistic' rather than a 'naturalistic' worldview) is sponsoring a group of philosophers and physicists in an area of study 'philosophy of cosmology'. I was surprised to see Brian Greene amongst the list of physicists receiving funds from Templeton.

The press release states:-

"Philosophy of Cosmology - new field of study

Oxford and Cambridge in partnership with US cluster to establish ‘Philosophy of Cosmology’ as a new field of study. Templeton grant funds initiative at top universities in philosophy

In a new partnership between Oxford and Cambridge, researchers in physics and philosophy Simon Saunders, Joe Silk, and David Wallace at Oxford University, and John Barrow and Jeremy Butterfield at Cambridge, are to join researchers at a cluster of US universities including Columbia University, Yale University, and New York University, to establish the field of philosophy of cosmology as a new branch of philosophy of physics.

The initiative, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, is of three years in duration and will culminate in a major international conference. The enduring impact of the project will be to isolate and clarify the outstanding conceptual problems in the foundations of cosmology, to seed and stimulate future research in the subject, and to define philosophy of cosmology as a new field in its own right, with its own distinctive problems and motivations.

Chief among them, according to Simon Saunders of Oxford University, ‘is the problem of how to compensate for selection effects – of making sense of the so-called ‘anthropic principle’. Even if we knew the structure of the universe, the whole story from beginning to end, what should we expect to see from our particular corner of it? What are the probabilities? And of course that’s what’s relevant to experiments.’ The problem isn’t restricted to the distribution of stars or galaxies; it could extend to the values of supposedly fundamental constants, such as the cosmological constant --- or dark energy, as it is known.

"Explaining the value of the cosmological constant is one of the most critical problems in theoretical physics" says John Barrow, whose book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, co-written with Frank Tipler, set the agenda for anthropic reasoning in cosmology the last two decades. “This problem goes deeper than merely describing the accelerated expansion of the universe: it requires an understanding of the vacuum, how the quantum nature of reality impacts on the universe as a whole, and what probability means when used to evaluate observed properties of the universe.”

The initiative is being made now in part because cosmology has in recent years turned into a spectacularly successful empirical discipline. But there is another reason too.  “One of the key obstacles to progress in understanding the universe as a whole – particularly the early universe -- is the lack of a realist understanding of quantum theory”, says Saunders.  “There are different aspects to the realism problem. One of them is about the nature of reality at the microscopic level; another is about how to apply quantum theory to systems ‘from the inside’ – to so-called closed systems. The latter is called the measurement problem. The universe as a whole is closed in this sense.” How then is it possible to apply quantum theory to cosmology – to obtain a genuinely quantum cosmology? “There has been real progress on that front in the last twenty years” Saunders continues. “That’s where our group and the East Coast group has an edge. We are interested in exploring these questions in quantum theories that are free of the measurement problem. Physicists try to be neutral on these questions, but it’s hard to do that and make sense of quantum cosmology”.

A major component of the Oxford-Cambridge project, like that of the US cluster led by Barry Loewer at Rutgers University, is to establish a community of scholars able to engage with such foundational questions in cosmology. To that end Joe Silk at Oxford, and John Barrow at Cambridge, will host a series of lecture courses, to be given by eminent figures in cosmology. These will be filmed and archived on a website dedicated to providing research materials and teaching resources in cosmology. Another component is related to the ‘PLUS’ e-magazine, associated with the Millennium Mathematics Project at Cambridge University, which will house a series of interviews with leaders in cosmology on key questions in foundations. The three-year project will culminate in a major international conference, and the publication of a volume of papers devoted to the philosophy of cosmology.

The US cluster includes Columbia University, Yale University, New York University, and the University of California at Santa Cruz.  It encompasses nine scholars: Barry Loewer, Dean Zimmerman, Sheldon Goldstein and Roderich Tumulka of Rutgers; David Albert and Brian Greene of Columbia, Tim Maudlin of New York University, Priya Natarajan of Yale, and Joel Primack of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Loewer, Zimmerman, Albert and Maudlin are philosophers; Goldstein and Tumulka, mathematicians; Greene, Natarajan, and Primack, physicists.  The US cluster, like the Oxford-Cambridge partnership, is funded by a $960,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation."