Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Earn a PhD in TV Astrophysics!

There are a lot of great educational programs on TV these days. Everybody is aware of the kids' stuff like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers et al., though when I was a kid, I particularly enjoyed shows like The Mechanical Universe. This show, for those who don't remember it, was structured to include segments of CalTech's 100-level Physics lectures, but mainly trended down mathematical derivations and a lot of the history leading up to how many "laws" of physics were discovered. When we're all grown up, though, it's easy to look back on it and see it as rather elementary... though seeing some of Jim Blinn's animations of visual derivations of Maxwell's equations, or inverting space-time diagrams even today is striking in its implied significance. Though, that's hardly the reason why I'm now working in the same field as Jim Blinn is. Interestingly enough, that work was done in an era when anything and everything was brand new, and though the majority of new developments nowadays are very incremental in their value and hardly revolutionary in any sense, what he did back then is fundamental enough to be considered pretty elementary today.

Leaving aside the crazy and death-sentence-earning assholery of Ray Comfort, Ken Ham, et al, when you take what the average person knows about evolution, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, biochemistry, and so on... it's most likely to be the kind of stuff they picked up watching random stuff on The Discovery Channel. There is nothing all too wrong with this, but it does beg the question of how closely people really listen. While many of the people who appear on such programs whether it's on Discovery, History, PBS, Science Channel, whatever, are all very capable and skilled scholars in their fields (History Channel's disgusting pandering to cryptozoologists and Ancient Aliens believers notwithstanding), the shows are still pretty much made for the layman or novice in science. What they tell you is more or less true, but not really a complete or thorough picture of how scientists in their respective fields actually understand the pertaining material.

The dark lining to this rainbow is that it makes it easy to make some simple misunderstandings, which ultimately present in the form of burning stupidity.

A common misunderstanding that people have is that the Big Bang is literally a Big Bang.  Well, that's an unfortunate side-effect of its name, which is itself a derogatory term that happened to stick.  The other factor is of course, the sort of broad overarching explanation that is just about at the limit of how well it can be explained in a simple sound bite interview for a 1/2-hour or 1-hour long TV program.  When you try to explain to someone that it is actually an expansion of space-time, and that the singularity is not really "nothing", but rather a range within the formation of space where a number of the assumptions that rest underneath general relativity are not valid (hence why they say "the laws of physics break down"), it is difficult to reconcile that with the way we normally think of space and time.  We don't actually perceive things like relativity or quantum field fluctuations, so it is similarly difficult to accept how people even arrived at such conclusions in the first place.

Still, when you have to explain something like information being smeared across a black hole, while it is true that even the academic literature works in familiar expressions, it is implicitly understood within the context that when speaking of "information" in the quantum mechanical sense, they do not mean the same thing as the bits traveling down your internet connection.  To the layman who does not have that contextual reference point, it's a bit hard for them not to think of it in terms of pictures (most likely of porn) getting smeared and washed out on the event horizon of a black hole.

It is similarly problematic for people to consider evolution as it actually is.  In a generic sense of the word, "evolution" simply means change over time, and in colloquial speech, we separate "evolving" from "devolving" by a qualitative connotation.  Therefore, it is normal for those uneducated in the field to see biological evolution as animals "improving" over time.  This also fits in nicely with our inflated human egos which prefers to think of ourselves as special or superior in some way.  But that is necessarily wrong in this context.  "Improvement", after all, implies that there is some sort of definitive measuring stick, which is simply not the case.  The very idea of natural selection implies that there are a number of conditions that can be optimized that apply within a localized environment, and if the environment itself changes, you also have those conditions as variables themselves.  The reality is more like a plurality of ever-changing measuring sticks.  That change begets more change across populations, is a more correct view.  The further effect of that change is in the form of a diverging pattern by which populations which are separate end up developing changes that are differently biased, until they are ultimately so far apart in accumulated change that they can no longer be considered the same species.  That is a broad overview, but it is something that is not so straightforward to picture because it is just so big picture.  We're all generally good at looking at the small picture, especially when the small picture includes ourselves...  but take a big picture perspective, and it's a great deal more difficult for people to make things add up.  On TV, you might hear biologists talk of transitional forms and the primitive ancestors of modern creatures and it is not something the layman can really picture.  For instance, a common ancestor between an insect and a mammal is not something we can easily imagine...  but the average layman can picture both insects and mammals, so "transitional" ends up implying something in between the two, when in fact it is not linear in this way.  Because of the hierarchical nature of speciation, a common ancestor between an insect and a mammal would basically have traits that are common between insects and mammals (e.g. bilateral symmetry), and not have any of the traits which are different between them (e.g. skeletal structure)...  which actually makes their common ancestor most likely a worm-like creature of some sort.  People who are well-versed in the field of biology understand this, and it is often easy for them to overlook the fact that this is not so obvious to others.

I often get the same comment whenever I talk about programming -- something I've done for well over 25 years...  To this day, I, just as most any programmer would do, still make simple errors on account of copy-paste, typographical errors, etc, and it is also easy to overthink a problem when there is a great deal of experience inducing certain biases in your way of thinking.  But at the same time, I can look at something which is very basic and beginner-level in my mind and forget that for someone exposed to such matters for the first time, it is actually not easy to grasp.  For me as I am right now, it's a piece of cake, but I forget that there was once a time when it was not.  So when I talk about the kind of work I do, it is not always easy to remember that the connection between pandas doing Kung Fu and Einstein's Nobel-Prize-winning work on the photoelectric effect is actually really obscure.  Actually, I doubt it would be all that obvious even to a physicist because being well-versed in physics doesn't mean they know all about computer graphics, though the link could be explained to them in "physics" terms.

So why do I mention all this?  Well, the real issue is not that things aren't thoroughly explained on television, because people aren't meant to get a full depth of understanding of things from television.  The main purpose of science shows on television is to get people interested and have them interested enough to want to search for more details on their own.  This may have been a little more effective in the days when searching for that info meant having to go to the library and looking up some textbooks or even some academic papers.  Nowadays, Wikipedia is an easy source to look up.  But even Wikipedia articles about scientific principles may dive into some areas which are hard to grasp because they can contain a number of mathematical derivations and they will link to several sources and also be associated with other articles which will address finer details, and that makes for a lot of effort.  Because information is so accessible these days, the layman wants something that can be digested in a few minutes...  and there's nothing in science that is like that.

But the common misconceptions about science are exactly like that.  That is exactly why you have people who can be misled by the word "theory."  That is exactly why creationists can talk of things like a "crocoduck" when speaking of transitional forms.  It's exactly why you have people who can say that the Big Bang was a tiny point that held the entire universe that exploded.  And that also makes it easy for the most mind-numbingly stupid apologetics to come forth.  Creationists know that the populace at large only have a very basic understanding of such things, and so when colluding these oversimplified pictures of theories together, you can sufficiently confuse people in order to look as if you've raised a seriously threatening issue.  It is hard not to sigh in agonizing disappointment in humankind when somebody seriously uses a question like "how can an exploding dot make fish appear?" as if it is a worthwhile question to ask.  The reality is that it's a pretty underhanded, but effective technique in formal debate because, even putting aside that the Big Bang is not an exploding point, the question effectively overlooks several trillion steps in the overall process, and makes the demand on the opponent to fill in all of them.

For creationists, knowledge = progress, and progress is bad.  Their God has always existed in the margins of scientific knowledge, so the ideal tactic is to basically make it look as if those margins are really, really wide.  For some John Q. Public on the street, those margins are pretty wide no matter how much you watch educational TV programs....  it's because you don't follow through.  And religious apologists love it.  Your own ignorance is the best weapon religion could ever have.

Don't let your margins be wide.

Learn stuff.