Monday, November 07, 2011

Science controversies in Physics Today


In the October issue of Physics Today, Steve Sherwood discusses science controversies, past and present. He discusses heliocentrism, relativity, and greenhouses warming. Heliocentrism and relativity had supporters and opponents at the time, and of course both are taken for granted today. Sherwood, who is co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the Univ. of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, makes the analogy to global warming.

Naturally this will infuriate the rejectionists. The publication of the article signals that Physics Today is willing to publish soberly written articles that offend the rejectionists.

This is not the first time that Physics Today has published a timely article, to the great consternation of some physicists. Back in October 1989, during the controversy about Pons and Fleischman's purported discovery of cold fusion, Physics Today reprinted a 1953 article by Irving Langmuir and Robert Hall about "pathological science", including the purported discovery in 1903 of N-rays by the French physicist Rene-Prosper Blondlot.

In the case of cold fusion, Nobel laureate Julian Schwinger became a believer in 1989 and tried to publish articles with his theory of the alleged developments. When his manuscripts were rejected by APS journals, Schwinger resigned in protest from the American Physical Society. This ought to put in perspective the resignation (in September 2011) by Ivar Giaever, who resigned from the American Physical Society in protest of its position on global warming. Giaevar won a Nobel Prize in 1973 for tunneling in semiconductors, a field that is light-years away from climate change. Julian Schwinger was a talented mathematical physicist, but his expertise had nothing to do with Pons and Fleischman's cold fusion experiments.

The take-home lesson: some physicists don't always know as much as they think they do. And this is especially true for Nobel laureates. Nothing is more likely to encourage delusions of omniscience than receipt of a Nobel prize.

And if you think Giaever's beliefs are weird, check out the beliefs of his co-Nobel prize winner, Brian Josephson, who is an enthusiastic believer in parapsychology.

33 comments:

rab said...

There is also an excellent "Science and the Media" report by Steve Corneliussen and the Jon Stewart's 26 Oct "Daily Show". Well worth a read. http://www.physicstoday.org/daily_edition/science_and_the_media/jon_stewart_engages_physics_and_science_with_varied_humor

rab

Gaz said...

Completely off topic, I know, but whatever...

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-11-08/carbon-tax-passes-senate/3652438

John Mashey said...

Giaever was one of the signers of the 2009 APS Petition, .e., about 200 (mostly) physicists (less than 0.5% of the membership, and skewed older, conservative, male.
One of the 6 organizers, Hal Lewis, also had resigned from APS.

People might consider signing up for APS GPC, Topical Group on the Physics of Climate.

Note Austin and Cohen (2 of the 6 drivers of the petition) are also on the organizing committee for GPC.

John Mashey said...

I don't know enough Nobel physicists for a decent sample, but I think many remain very productive and sensible. Arno Penzias is having a good time as a VC @ NEA, and Burt Richter is contributing strongly to energy, energy efficiency and climate, having "retired" from particle physics.

dhogaza said...

Josephson of the junction hmmm ... interesting! A moment in Google shows me that the woo is deep here, as Eli pointed out.

Heh ... "In 2005, Josephson said that "parapsychology should now have become a conventional field of research, and yet parapsychology's claims are still not generally accepted". He compared this situation to that of Alfred Wegener's hypothesis of continental drift, where there was initially great resistance to acceptance despite the strength of the evidence."

Another woo-woo with pseudo-scientific beliefs who doesn't realize that Wegener's mechanism of continental drift bears no resemblance to plate tectonics ...

David B. Benson said...

Murray Gell-Mann's Santa Fe Institute appears to be sliding downhill.

Anonymous said...

Julian Schwinger was Richard Feynmann's great rival - they shared their Nobel with a Japanese physicist (Tomonaga, I think). Pity the sardonic genius from Far Rockaway is not around to tell us what he thinks of it all.

Arno Penzias as head of Bell Labs when Lucent (now Alcatel-Lucent) took over the company I worked for. You do not get to be head of research in a commercial organisation by whinging about hockey sticks been broken. Two other former Bell Labs engineers won the Nobel a couple of years ago for inventing the CCTV camera ... they never shared their opinion on the Yamal proxies.

Gell-Mann at leat attended Stockholm and signed the report of the Nobel Symposium on Climate change last year. While Muller and Curry were at Santa Fe having lunch with Lord Monckton, the real action was elsewhere:

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2011/11/conference-conversations/

Toby

Martin Vermeer said...

> Another woo-woo with pseudo-scientific beliefs who doesn't realize that
> Wegener's mechanism of continental drift bears no resemblance to plate
> tectonics ...

Well that is actually a similarity: there is no known mechanism for paranormal phenomena either...

John Mashey said...

1) Arno is a friend of ours, quite amusing over dinner. (~"Most people get Nobels for things they were looking for, we got one for something we were trying to get rid of".) Before a Computer History Museum dinner, I took him and Gene Amdahl around the exhibits ... but didn't really have to tell them much :-) Arno is a VC @ NEA these days, often doing cleantech, and he doesn't have any doubts about AGW.

2) Then there's Burth Richter, who drove the APS Energy Efficiency study. He "retired" from running SLAC, shifted into climate/energy, and *studied up* before starting to talk about them. As he writes, p. ix of his book (recommended):

"Having a Nobel prize is a great advantage when moving into a new area. ...it is a great door opener." I.e., Nobel laureates can usually get appointments with busy people. :-)

Many Nobelists remain quite active in their own area, but if they move, they study, rather than going off like Giaever.

Anonymous said...


"Having a Nobel prize is a great advantage when moving into a new area. ...it is a great door opener." I.e., Nobel laureates can usually get appointments with busy people. :-)


Reminds me of a "tabloid tv" interview that I saw with Kerry Mullis a number of years ago. The tv spokescritter asked Mullis if his Nobel prize had opened any doors for him.

His response (full Beavis and Butthead mode here): "Yeah -- a lot of *apartment* doors -- huh huh huhhuhhuh huh huh...".

Mullis is another one of those wacky Nobel laureates who wandered off into "lala land", with his HIV denial and whatnot...

Kooiti Masuda said...

Ironically enough, Irving Langmuir's over-confidence about effect and harmlessness of cloud seeding was just what he logically should call "pathological science", according to James Rodger Fleming in his book "Fixing the Sky" http://cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231-14412-4/fixing-the-sky .

Kooiti Masuda said...

Sin-Itiro Tomonaga passed away in 1979. (Incidentally, this "Sin" has a common meaning with "schwing"). I am not sure what he would respond to Schwinger's enthusiasm on cold fusion if he was still alive.

Tomonaga is known to be a thoughtful writer of popular science, though not so prolific as Feynman. In a record of popular lecture posthumously published, Tomonaga recommended not to disturb the universe. He was concerned with the escalation of required energy levels in experimental particle physics, and suggested that there could be more passive ways to understand the universe like geophysicists do. Masatoshi Koshiba, who succeeded in detection of neutrino from a super-nova, mentions Tomonaga's influence to him (though it is just my guess that it is about this aspect).

Russell said...

It has long been axiomatic that there exists no hypothesis so absurd that two Nobel laureates cannot be found to endorse it.

Unfortunately, the prizes in Medicine and Literature for the invention of lobotomy and the poems of Rudyard Kipling say something similar about the Prize Committees.

Jeffrey Davis said...

Russell, why are you slighting the poems of Rudyard Kipling? Hopefully it's merely because you disapprove of his politics. Kipling's poetry isn't on par with Hardy's, but it's far better than its reputation for jingoistic cant. (As for his prose, there aren't many novels better than Kim and Kipling's short stories are top tier, on par with those of Joyce, Hemingway, and Chekhov.)

As Auden wrote (though he later omitted this),

"Time that with this strange excuse/Pardoned Kipling and his views,/And will pardon Paul Claudel,/Pardons him for writing well"

Russell said...

Claudel was farther to the right than a fish fork, but nobody ever accused him of "jingoistic cant" -- his WWII victory ode may have inspired Auden's 1949 Harvard ΠΒΚ exercise, ‘Under Which Lyre: A Reactionary Tract for the Times’. I said poems, not books, as I would no more slight Kipling's juvenalia than Walt Disney's

If cant has become the literary ground state of the Nobel Peace Prize, Stockholm deserves blame for unpardonably rewarding bad PC prose - Fo ain't exactly Eco, is he ?

Where are the Literature and Peace Ig Nobels?

Russell said...

Strike that -I meant knife, with Fo providing fork side symmetry.

Georg Hoffmann said...

Dear Rabbit

who is that on the picture? It's certainly not Steve Sherwood who I know from a couple of confs but it's also not Julian Schwinger, Giaever or Johanson. Puzzled

Cheers Georg

Georg Hoffmann said...

Sorry, I meant Josephson of course.

EliRabett said...

Hi Georg,

It's Rabett Run's favorite Evil Fizicalist John. . .:) Eli, of course, is not evil, although opinions differ

Russell said...

Next time Chris & Roger come to town, I'll try to borrow Steve Gould's skull tongs from the MCZ and report their cranial volumes.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

I agree, some physicists don't know what they're talking about. Please see Michael Mann's fake graph.

Also, there are a lot of rejectionists here, who either outright distort the historical climate record or deny it's existence. Nice cheap shots behind the computer screen though, Eli.

David B. Benson said...

Russell --- Literature and Peace prizes are the whims of the Norwegians.

Anonymous said...


I agree, some physicists don't know what they're talking about. Please see Michael Mann's fake graph.


The deniers' favorite arguments against the "hockey stick" are incompetent on multiple levels.

Example: "Mann's method makes hockey sticks from random noise".

1) When M&M used tree-ring data to "train" their noise-generator, they forgot to subtract out the long-term global-warming signal. Hence the "noise" used to generate "noise hockey-sticks" was strongly contaminated with the global-warming signal (resulting in extremely long correlation times relative to the data length, a big no-no).

2) Even so, the "noise" generated in (1) above produced a much flatter eigenvalue spectrum than the one produced by Mann's tree-ring data. This applied whether or not Mann's "short-centering" method was used. A competent analyst would be able to distinguish noise data from tree-ring data in about 5 seconds simply by looking at the respective eigenvalues.

3) Mann used the SVD method for data-reduction (i.e. "collapse" lots of tree-ring time-series into just a few singular vectors). Apply the SVD to noise, and you won't get much data reduction. That would be obvious to anyone able to grok (2) above. The very fact that Mann's tree-rings could be distilled down to just a very few singular vectors (short-centering or no) should tell any *competent* analyst that Mann's tree-ring data wasn't just random noise, but contained a real temperature signal.

Confusing random noise with tree-ring data is rather like, well, confusing Dr. Jay Cadbury Pizza Home Delivery with a competent data analyst.

Anonymous said...


"M&M used tree-ring data to "train" their noise-generator"


M&M had to train their noise-generator?

With the Cooler Heads Calibrator?

Horatio always just assumed they were born with that talent.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

@Anonymous

Nice 3 point explanation, except you left out why H.H. Lamb's graph was wrong and needed to be altered. 0 points will be awarded. That wasn't even a good spin anonymous, you would never be allowed on the price is right.

Russell said...

David :

My bad on the peaceable Oslo side, but didn't the RSAS in Stockholm just give the Lit prize to Transtormer?

susan said...

Am sending this to twit Phil Anderson, thanks for the update.

Hal Lewis was a bad citizen and they were delighted to see him go.

Anonymous said...


...H.H. Lamb's graph was wrong and needed to be altered.


Well, this proves that you don't have the intellectual firepower for the Pizza Home Delivery business. So from now on, it's "Jay Cadbury Post Hole Digger".

The Lamb illustration from the IPCC FAR was *not* a global (or even a hemispherical) reconstruction. It was a schematic derived from historical temperature information from one small part of England. Someone who has the geographical/navigational skills to deliver pizzas certainly would understand the difference between a small part of England and the entire planet. But apparently you don't. So I've decided to demote you from delivering pizzas to digging post holes.

The fact that deniers are still trotting out that old Lamb central England temperature schematic in an attempt to attack Mann's *global* temperature reconstruction work, in spite of the fact that it is very well understood that Lamb's schematic was in now way intended to be representative of global temperatures, shows how utterly pathetic they are. Attempting to engage them seriously is an utter waste of time and effort; what is called for now is open ridicule and mockery.

--caerbannog the anonybunny (who forgot to sign the previous post)

J Bowers said...

Hey, a rejectionist who actually knew HH Lamb existed :) Oh no, they didn't know his graphic was for Central England only :( Next thing, someone'll be claiming Lamb was the founding director of CRU! Oh...... sorry Jay.

* Extract from pages 171-172 of H. Lamb’s 'Climate, History and the Modern World' 1982.
* Common graphical tricks and the Medieval Warm Period

Anonymous said...

Caerbannog, remember that MBH98 + 99 were not global either, but the whole Northern Hemisphere.

Marco

Anonymous said...

"Nobel Dreams"
-- by Horatio Algeranon

Now that I've won
The nobel prize
I can close
My weary eyes

And speculate
About goofy things
Like global cooling
And moody rings

susan said...

Sad to see string theory getting a populist gloss from PBS. Lubos Motl et al., not even wrong? Feynman seemed right to me on the subject. Pretty but not practical/practicable.

But what do I know? Please don't condemn all aging physicists just because some did or did not earn their Nobels and went off the reservation later. Angels fear to tread and all that.

(Susan Anderson)

Tania said...

Russell --- Literature and Peace prizes are the whims of the Norwegians.