“There are two problems for our species’ survival – nuclear war and environmental catastrophe – and we’re hurtling towards them. Knowingly.” ―Noam Chomsky
Well, another week of science has gone by, here at Starts With A Bang! and everywhere else in the world, and while we’re down one space mission from the start of the week (Cassini), there are still lots of good things on the horizon! We’re just four weeks away from the official release of Treknology, and just a single week away from the new Star Trek series, Discovery, which I’ll be officially reviewing on Forbes. Our Patreon supporters are continuing to make amazing things possible, as not only are we doing podcasts and producing all we’re producing, but we’re going to start taking a new stab at a video miniseries, called (tentatively) FantaSci, about the science behind fantasy and sci-fi tropes, worlds, concepts, and technologies. Have a suggestion? Let’s hear it!
In the meantime, here’s a look back at our stories from the past week:
- How Can A Nation Have Nuclear Power Without The Danger Of Nuclear Weapons? (for Ask Ethan),
- Now is absolutely the time to politicize Hurricane Irma and other natural disasters (and Mostly Mute Monday is now on hiatus),
- Top 6 Discoveries Of Cassini As Its 20-Year Mission Comes To An End,
- A New Record Nears: The World’s Largest Telescope Prepares For Completion,
- Successfully predicting the future requires theoretical science, and
- Proof of ‘God playing dice with the Universe’ found in the Sun’s interior.
That’s not a bad week, and as always, you’ve had quite the diversity of opinions to share. Let’s check it out on our comments of the week!
From eric on the difference between explaining and describing: “We do science to gain information, and then we use that information to do other things; accomplish human social or policy goals. Are there any activities that can be accomplished by ‘explain’ science that can’t be accomplished by ‘describe’ science? Is mere ‘describe science’ unable to cure cancer? Launch satellites?”
I think there is a difference, but I think the examples you note are all carefully chosen to be specifically where the difference is obscured. The difference, to me, in the context of actual problem-solving, is that when you can explain something, you understand the intricacies of how it works so well that when you’re in a somewhat different situation, you can accurately predict what’s going to occur. For a description, you can’t. It’s sort of like the difference between a physical theory of how galaxies rotate (a halo of dark matter distributed around baryonic matter), versus an empirical correlation regarding the relationship between two quantities (e.g., the Tully-Fisher relation). They can both accurately describe the relationship between a galaxy’s luminosity and its velocity dispersion, but only the explanation can allow you to understand other types, morphologies, and classifications of galaxies.
A description is enough to accurately describe the behavior of a particular class of systems; an explanation covers more ground than that.
From John on the true nuclear fear: “A related concern that terrorists can use to spread the FUD they exploit is to add radiation sources (non-weapons grade) to a conventional explosive bomb to make areas unsuitable for people to live.”
I mean, a nuclear weapon in the hands of a single bad actor is one of the worst-case scenarios imaginable. A nuclear device going off in a heavily populated area could kill millions or even tens of millions, cause many trillions of dollars worth of damage, and could contaminate water, air, and land in places for decades or centuries. A single dirty, nuclear bomb has truly horrific potential.
From Elle H.C. on whether nuclear power will be phased out: “I’m not so sure about this. There are plenty of countries planning a phase-out:
“As of 2016, countries including Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, and Portugal have no nuclear power stations and remain opposed to nuclear power. Belgium, Germany, Spain and Switzerland are phasing-out nuclear power. Globally, more nuclear power reactors have closed than opened in recent years but overall capacity has increased.””
There is still a lot of NIMBY fears about nuclear, but until we have either nuclear fusion or high-capacity renewables that can meet humanity’s energy needs, our options are either nuclear power or fossil fuels. While there are a few developed nations that are choosing a combination of renewables and (mostly) fossil fuels, the decision to eschew nuclear for fossil fuels is a losing choice for the environment in the long-term, and does nothing to ameliorate the growth of nuclear among developing nations.
I read your Wikipedia article that you quoted, and I think the phase-out is not as dominant a trend as you want it to be.
From William Later on whether there are significant trends in tropical storms: “Such a clear cut increasing trend.
The graph you’ve presented shows two things: a very noisy effect (there’s more than a factor of 2 in variation between the lightest years and the heaviest), and a slight upward trend with a large uncertainty. That, by the way, is what the climate models predict, and why NOAA makes careful statements to say that we cannot yet robustly detect the slight upward trend, although all the physics at play shows it must exist and the data is consistent with that to within the uncertainties.
But the point about tropical storm strength that I made in the article wasn’t that the overall accumulated energy was increasing, even though it should be. The point also wasn’t that this is the worst year ever, or that every year will be a bad year, or that this hurricane season is a direct result of global warming.
The point was that human activities are affecting the planet in a negative way, that these effects are quantifiable, and that now is the best time to do something about it. There’s so much more going on than your oversimplified “don’t blame climate for this.” Climate is to blame for a lot of long-term trends, like how plants are becoming less nutritious, how coastlines are becoming more vulnerable, or, as Adam Frank noted:
But in the wake of Hurricane Harvey we can now see what climate change is really about. It was never about clever arguments but, instead, something much more elemental: power, money and human suffering.
We know how climate change affects hurricanes. We know what the cost of doing nothing is. It’s long past time to act, but acting now is still vital. I’ve been saying this for a long time and will likely keep saying it until we do something about it. Which may not happen in my lifetime, but you’ve gotta try.
From Sinisa Lazarek on the tech of deep-space missions: “when it comes to technology evolution and time it takes for probes to get to outer planets, we’ll sadly always lag behind. Meaning, what was cutting edge when the probe was made, will always be retro tech by the time it arrives to the destination.”
This is absolutely true, and it’s why the ability to service a space telescope like Hubble was such an incredible boon to science. Think about the images Hubble took in 1995, after the first servicing mission. You know, images like the original Hubble Deep Field.
Now think about what it took with its upgraded cameras more than ten years later. Same optics, mind you, same mirror, same light-gathering power, and almost the same amount of observing time. Yet that better camera technology and computational power sure did make a difference!
We’re talking about three times as many galaxies, greater detail, broader wavelength coverage, deeper redshifts, fainter objects, and much more.
We are entering an era where we’re going to be launching a large number of missions and observatories to the L2 Lagrange point, some 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. The only observatories we’ve ever serviced were less than 1,000 kilometers from our world. If we want to service James Webb, or WFIRST, or any other future missions, we have to develop the capability of not only getting there, but to either get humans there (some four times as far away as any human has ever gone in space) or to program robots with sufficient precision that they can do the servicing automatically. When you’re sending something out into deep space, you’re stuck with the launch-era technology, but when you’re close to home, you can always make it better if you’re willing to invest in doing so.
From Denier on an incredibly cool image from Cassini’s finale: “My favorite pic from Cassini from its ‘Grand Finale’ was this one:
What appears to be a vast number of evenly spaced rings are not individual rings at all. The process that makes this ring appear as it does is the same process that forms the structure in spiral galaxies. The entire ring is a 2 arm spiral wound around and around and around so every other band is just another section of the same continuous spiral arm.”
This is truly incredible, and you can see the density waves bunching up the farther out you go. If you look closely at the lower right of this image, you can also see some vertical ripples which are evidence of a bending wave, which are caused by yet another of Saturn’s moons. Those points of light you see? Those are background stars, seen through the diffuse ice-particles that make up Saturn’s rings. (Which are 99.9% ice, by the way!) Cassini has taught us some truly incredible things, and as is always the case, it’s brought up even more questions that need answering.
My favorite image set from the finale, if you were curious?
This incredible showcase of how Saturn’s ring structure isn’t static, but rather evolves over time. We think of things like orbiting planets and moons and fool ourselves with this vision of the Solar System as unchanging over even long periods of time, but the changes in the rings of Saturn have shown us how naive we truly are when it comes to that point of view. With the exception of a few major static features, normally related to the locations of large moons, Saturn’s rings are ever-evolving.
And the view is fascinating.
From Frank on what imperfections might be present in an open-air telescope: ““The smoothness of the surface will be a ridiculous 7.5 nanometers”
How about dust from air?
I think it should be possible to keep away dust by creating a (negative?) static electric field all around the telescope.”
I know it’s not as impressive as creating a giant static field, but this is part of why it’s so important to have that final coating on the telescope mirror. It’s not like the mirror needs to be polished; that 7.5 nanometer tolerance is good from the moment the mirror comes off the rack. But the coating is what’s so important, both for an additional level of reflectivity and to keep the mirror as pristine as possible. When it does get dusty, that’s degradation at work. The only better option? To go to the most dust-free environment we know of: space. But that’s a little bit pricier, and a little less accessible for servicing.
From Denier arguing against the usefulness of theoretical work in science: ”
when a theoretical model makes failed predictions, that doesn’t necessarily mean the theory is a failure
By your thinking, can anything ever be proven wrong?
As a whole, I think historical observation is far more useful than scientific theory at predicting the future. When cavemen didn’t know what the sun was or that the Earth wasn’t flat, they still knew the sun would come up in the morning.”
First off, yes, theories can be demonstrated to be wrong. “Proven” is the wrong word if we’re being pedantic, because you can always tweak your theory or your model to try and fit the observations a little bit better. Sometimes this is a useful approach! We warn laypeople about “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” or advise them to “chew on the meat and throw away the bones” because quite often, there’s a seed of a brilliant idea embedded in an overall model, theory, or idea that doesn’t pan out.
Copernicus’ theory didn’t work; it was less successful than Ptolemy’s. What do you do? Tweak it and work with it, or abandon it?
The Big Bang didn’t accurately predict the large-scale structure of the Universe, even with the right seed fluctuations. Do you throw it all away? Or do you find the one modification — dark matter — that not only makes it work, but that fixes a whole host of other problems?
What you are describing as “historical observation” is very closely related to the “descriptive” approach to the Universe we were talking about to start off this edition of our comments. Sure, you can use past experience to predict future behavior. But only if you have a successful theory can you do it, you know, in a quantitatively accurate fashion. That’s the difference between a weather forecast and the farmer’s almanac, or a meteorological projection and a groundhog. If you want to be intellectually lazy, relying wholly on historical observations will get you pretty far most of the time. But we can go farther. Let’s all go together!
And I’ll give the last word this week to Frank on the subject of God playing dice with the Universe: “Hidden variable theory seems like a valid counter argument against entanglement at first (like Einstein thought) but if it was true then quantum computers would not work (however we have primitive but working examples of them today).”
There are two things at play that felt “spooky” to Einstein in quantum physics: the notion that nature would be inherently probabilistic rather than deterministic, and that two objects would affect each other in a faster-than-light fashion. The first one is “determinism” and the second one is “locality” (or non-locality). Hidden variables was a way to try and save both; to say that you can have a deterministic Universe where everything was locally connected, by having some behind-the-scenes variables that are responsible for what we perceive as the quantum nature of the Universe.
But that doesn’t work for a variety of reasons that have been demonstrated over the past 55 years or so. And the interior of the Sun is a perfect example; without quantum physics, the Sun wouldn’t shine at all!
What’s remarkable about our theories isn’t how intuitive or simple they are, but how well they describe the Universe that we inhabit. How successful their quantitative predictions are, and what a wide range of phenomena they apply to. There’s nothing else in the Universe quite like the fundamental laws of physics, and perhaps that’s what it was that made me fall in love with the subject all those years ago. It’s a love that countless others have shared throughout history, and that many will continue to share for generations to come. You’re always welcome to share in it with me, and hopefully there will be even more to come in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. See you there!