October 31, 2007

Quite a lot of decades actually

I know we've been repeatedly burned by predictions that x many telephone numbers, IP addresses, kilobytes of memory, etc. will be enough to last for y zillion years, and then they suddenly run out after three weeks.  But the BBC's willingness to concede only that "IPv6 will create 340 trillion trillion trillion separate addresses, enough to satisfy demand for decades (sic) to come," seems to take conservatism too far.

October 31, 2007 in Science, Web | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 15, 2006


The newly christened Eris is already doing a fine job of sowing discord, this time amongst the brave defenders of embattled neoconservatism: "Come on! ... [They] were taking a cheap shot at world affairs. Why assume the anti-war vibe? Because of Michael Brown's own statements, coupled with the fact that he is from the California Institute of Technology, located in far west Moonbat country."

(Some debate at the Bad Astronomy Blog as to whether this is satire, but three updates from the original author say he's serious. Bless)

September 15, 2006 in Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The planet that launched a thousand squabbles

BBC News: "The distant world whose discovery prompted leading astronomers to demote Pluto from the rank of 'planet' has now been given its own official name. Having caused so much consternation in the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the object has been called Eris, after the Greek goddess of discord." I love scientists.

September 15, 2006 in Science | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 11, 2006

Cool Earths outside Hot Jupiters

BBC News: "One of every three known planetary systems could harbour Earth-like planets in habitable zones further out than the Hot Jupiters." I wonder what the inhabitants of such a world would see in their sky, what kind of mythologies it would inspire and how it would affect the development of astronomy and philosophy.

September 11, 2006 in Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 26, 2006

Hallucinating Pluto

IAU, 16 August: "The world's astronomers... have concluded two years of work defining the difference between 'planets' and the smaller 'solar system bodies' such as comets and asteroids. If the definition is approved... our Solar System will include 12 planets, with more to come: eight classical planets that dominate the system, three planets in a new and growing category of 'plutons' - Pluto-like objects - and Ceres. Pluto remains a planet and is the prototype for the new category of 'plutons.'"

But wait!

BBC News, 24 August: "Astronomers have voted to strip Pluto of its status as a planet... The International Astronomical Union's (IAU) decision means textbooks will now have to describe a Solar System with just eight major planetary bodies. Pluto, which was discovered in 1930 by the American Clyde Tombaugh, will be referred to as a 'dwarf planet'."

But wait still more!

25 August: "Owen Gingerich... blamed the outcome in large part on a 'revolt' by dynamicists - astronomers who study the motion and gravitational effects of celestial objects. 'In our initial proposal we took the definition of a planet that the planetary geologists would like. The dynamicists felt terribly insulted that we had not consulted with them to get their views. Somehow, there were enough of them to raise a big hue and cry.'"

Those dastardly dynamicists!

Brilliantly, Pluto's defenders are now selling bumper stickers inviting motorists to "Honk if Pluto is still a planet."

Science hasn't been this much fun since Stephen Hawking punched Homer Simpson with a giant mechanical boxing glove.

August 26, 2006 in Science | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 09, 2006

"It's only a theory" strikes again

New York Times (via No Right Turn): "George Deutsch, a presidential appointee in NASA headquarters, told a Web designer working for the agency to add the word 'theory' after every mention of the Big Bang." Pedantic, but not necessarily wrong: after all, scientists refer to even well-tested laws as "theories," as in "theory of gravity" or "theory of relativity."

But read on. Astonishingly, it seems that the presidential appointee's orders were motivated by more than just a desire to conform to the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. (Aside: "Libel Manual"? Am I the only one to whom that sounds wrong? Surely a Libel Manual is what Private Eye issues to each new editor as he assumes the chair?) "The Big Bang is 'not proven fact; it is opinion,' Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, 'It is not NASA's place, nor should it be, to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator.'"

Oh. Considering the amount of money and time NASA has put into sending up satellites like the Hubble Telescope and Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe to collect images of the young universe and echoes of the Big Bang in order to help scientists understand the origin of the universe, it must be disappointing for them to learn at this late stage that they would have been better off sending an intern with a digital camera to Rome to take pictures of the Sistine Chapel, and spending the rest of the budget on Flying Spaghetti Monster merchandise.

But there's good news too. "On Friday evening, repeated queries were made to the White House about how a young presidential appointee with no science background came to be supervising Web presentations on cosmology and interview requests to senior NASA scientists. The only response came from Donald Tighe of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. 'Science is respected and protected and highly valued by the administration,' he said." So that's all right then.

February 9, 2006 in Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 13, 2005

Tinfoil hats

A MIT team investigates the effectiveness of tinfoil hats (via Bruce Schneier): "Among a fringe community of paranoids, aluminum helmets serve as the protective measure of choice against invasive radio signals. We investigate the efficacy of three aluminum helmet designs on a sample group of four individuals."

Two observations:

First, back in my day, the secret world government used to beam signals into our heads using orbital mind control lasers, not boring old radio signals. I suppose tinfoil hats would be a pretty effective defence against lasers -- any OMCL poowerful enough to penetrate a tinfoil hat would probably burn a hole in the paranoid's cranium -- so maybe that's why the government abandoned them, but I have to say I consider this a step down for nefarious conspiracies everywhere.

Second, I'm impressed by the sheer blatancy with which researchers now covet Ig Nobel prizes.

November 13, 2005 in Science | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 11, 2005

Fully scientific

So much for "intelligent design" as a scientific hypothesis rather than Christian creationism in disguise: "A US Christian evangelist has told a Pennsylvania town not to ask for God's help if disaster strikes after it voted against teaching intelligent design."

Actually, we really ought to be thanking Pat Robertson. It's hard to think of anyone else who has done more to damage the cause of fundamentalism in the West.

November 11, 2005 in Science | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

August 10, 2005

It's elephants all the way down

BBC News: "George Bush has... suggested that a theory known as 'intelligent design' should be taught in the classroom."

New Scientist had an excellent if rather apocalyptic article on the subject a few weeks back (subscription required for full article), which prompted an enjoyable letter.

Let us explore the hypothesis, the writer suggested, that complex entities, such as eyes or brains, can only be created through the intervention of an intelligent designer. That designer would have to be considerably more complex than a human being; after all, we are only beginning to stumble into the realm of designing simple living entities, and could certainly never design anything as complex as the human brain. Then how did this complex entity come to be? Did some even more intelligent designer design it?

"You don't fool me, young man. It's designers all the way up!"

August 10, 2005 in Science | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 05, 2003

When infinities attack

Mark Pilgrim writes up Hilbert's hotel, a classic metaphor for the weird stuff that happens when you start dealing with mathematical infinities.

Infinities are my mathematical first love. I read Ian Stewart's "Concepts of Modern Mathematics" at an impressionable age, and the strange antics of the alephs, the sheer elegance of cardinality proofs and the enigmas of the continuum hypothesis and the large cardinals pretty much settled the core of my mathematical interests for the rest of my life.

What I didn't learn about until much later was the equal strangeness of ordinal infinities. Cardinals deal with "how many." If you can map two sets onto each other, by no matter how distorting a mapping, they have the same cardinality. So, as illustrated by the Hilbert hotel, all countable sets get flattened to the same cardinality, aleph-null.

Ordinals, however, are concerned with the order in which you count. So you can have different countable ordinals, and the rules are quite different from cardinals.

In the cardinal world, for example, aleph-null + 1 = aleph-null (moving one guest into Hilbert's hotel). In the ordinal world, 1 + omega = omega, but omega + 1 does not equal omega.

Why is this? Well, look at the three sets and, more importantly, their orders:

omega = { item1, item2, item3... }

1 + omega = { newitem, item1, item2... }

omega + 1 = { item1, item2... newitem }

We can map between 1 + omega and omega in a way that preserves the order structure. We can't do that with omega + 1, because in omega + 1 newitem is after every other item. omega and 1 + omega have no member with that property.

So the omega (ordinal) family offers a much richer view of countable infinities than the cardinal view, where's it's all just aleph-null. You have omega + n, omega + omega, omega * 2 (but not 2 * omega -- that's { a1, b1, a2, b2, ... } which is just the same as omega (I hope I've got that the right way round)), omega * omega, omega ^ omega, omega ^ omega ^ omega ^ ...

... and it's all still countable. In fact if you go far enough you eventually find ordinals not expressible in terms of omega, and they're still countable. The first such ordinal is known as epsilon-0. I guess there is an epsilon-1 and various epsilon-ns and presumably epsilon-omega and eventually an epsilon-epsilon-0. But, like Mark, I find myself tapped out just thinking about it. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable can educate me further.

December 5, 2003 in Science | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack