Archive for June, 2008

Why this country needs a viable third party

Posted in Uncategorized on June 29, 2008 by quantummoxie

My sister got married yesterday (and, as a Maine Notary Public, I was the officiant!) and I was chatting with a few of my relatives when the inevitable political discussion arose.  Luckily we’re a big (huge) happy family regardless of politics.  But anyway, in this one particular discussion there was one Ron Paul supporter (me), one Ralph Nader supporter, one Obama supporter, and one McCain supporter (soon to marry the Obama supporter).  But as the conversation was winding down the McCain supporter said that she was socially liberal but fiscally conservative.  Suddenly, the other three of us all jumped in and agreed that we were the same and virtually none of us (except me, perhaps) was entirely happy with our choice of who to support.  The Nader supporter even admitted that being in the aerospace industry he relies on defense contracts for his livelihood which, while not always purely fiscally conservative, was generally reliant on Republican administrations (the McCain supporter is ex-NSA and her grandfather was CIA which explains a lot).

So, in short, you had four people supporting four very different candidates (who essentially represent the four non-centrist portions of the diamond on the World’s Shortest/Smallest Political Quiz) all basically saying they supported the same thing: social liberalism and fiscal conservativism – that is essentially a moderated version of libertarianism.  Unfortunately the Libertarian Party is probably viewed as a little too libertarian for most of these peoples’ tastes and hence, while they seem to philosophically agree, they splinter based on the options left to them.  If the aforementioned political party does not recognize this enormous opportunity to reach out and grab a few of these folks (and I’m not sure Bob Barr is the way to do it since I personally view his hypocritical Clinton-bashing from the ’90’s as big government intrusion) then I think we need a third party.  Unfortunately I don’t see it coming about.  But if there ever was a time for a third party this is it.

On a related note, it turns out I really am a moderate Libertarian as I claim.  I scored a 38 on this particular quiz.  Answer honestly, please, if you take it.  If you score a 160 the aliens are spying on you through your dental fillings.

Truly dangerous thinking

Posted in Uncategorized on June 25, 2008 by quantummoxie

Not long ago, over at Incoherently Scattered Ponderings, my views on standardized testing were referred to as ‘dangerous.’ The context, however, was a (somewhat) friendly intellectual exchange and while there were strong views on both sides, everyone (at least in my opinion) was motivated by rational thought.  The same may not be said about a disturbing trend in science that is witnessing the encroachment of religion in an insidious way.

I was recently invited to attend a conference sponsored by an organization known as the Institute for Advanced Physics, not to be confused with several institutes of a similar-sounding name.  The director (and, from what I can tell, founder) of the institute has excellent credentials and I don’t wish to take away from his legitimate achievements.  Nor do I wish to slight anyone’s spiritual beliefs.  Nonetheless, I take issue with an organization whose mission statement expressly declares its desire to reintroduce philosophical, moral, and spiritual components to science.  While I firmly support dialogue between religion and science,  such dialogue should be of a more scholarly type, much like the recent initiative undertaken by my PhD alma mater, St. Andrews (a university with a long and bloody religious history, I might add).  In addition, I wish to emphatically state that the modern Roman Catholic Church, at least when it comes to physics, has been generally supportive (in fact one of the first to suggest the Big Bang theory was Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Jesuit priest).

My opposition to the IAP does not solely lie with their mission statement, however.  Primarily, it is centered around three particular points.

1. On the front page of their website, they specifically claim that “[l]eading scientists hold, for example, using facts of quantum mechanics, that the world is not there when you’re not looking at it.”  While I can’t say for certain, I do not know of any leading quantum physicist who truly believes that, at least in the way it is implied.  This extremely misleading statement is, of course, a veiled reference to the measurement problem.  Note that in writing this post I have just discovered that IAP director Anthony Rizzi wrote a paper on Bell’s Theorem five years ago that I have not yet had an opportunity to read.  The quality of the paper, however, does not change the fact that the statement on the IAP’s website is misleading at best.

2. They are promoting the use of a new textbook they have written that purports to reintroduce Aristotelean reasoning – a reliance on one’s senses – as a pedagogical tool.  I spend considerable time in my introductory courses showing expressly why Aristotelean thinking has inherent problems (see the Aristotelean thinking test in Six Ideas That Shaped Physics, Unit C: Conservation Laws Constrain Interactions, chapter one, by Thomas A. Moore who, in fact, is an ardent Christian but who realizes that fact shouldn’t affect how he performs his work as a scientist).

3. Rizzi’s statement in an interview that “[m]odern science was not born in China, or in undiscovered North or South America, or anywhere else but Catholic Europe.”  First, this is patently false, particularly in relation to the mathematical foundations of modern science.  See, for example, Roger Cooke’s The History of Mathematics: A Brief Course.  While I don’t always agree with Cooke, his historical scholarship is excellent.  Certainly much of modern science did get its start in predominantly Catholic Europe, but note that, at least in the case of physics, many of the advances were in the post-reformation era and in non-Catholic countries (e.g. Newton, Kepler, Gregory, etc.).  In fact it was Catholic Italy that persecuted Galileo and burned Giordano Bruno at the stake.  Let me reiterate that my last point is not meant as an attack on the Catholic church.  It is simply a statement of historical fact.

In short, it seems the IAP and Rizzi are either surreptitiously or unwittingly attempting to sneak not just religion but specifically Christianity into science (note their Christian Press Kits).  Now that is dangerous since it undermines the very foundation upon which science is built.  In addition they rail against the “subjectivism” of science (see point 1. above) but, while scientists may be subjective sometimes (though they shouldn’t be), science itself is most certainly objective for it cares not what religion, gender, race, nationality, nor even species you are.  The universe is what it is.  Whether or not it was created by a divine being is (despite what many scientists might argue) an open question that will likely never be closed.  But science is interested in how it works, not why it exists or where it came from in the first place.  The latter are the concern of philosophy and theology.

What Russert’s death means to Buffalo

Posted in Uncategorized on June 19, 2008 by quantummoxie

As a brief follow-up to my post about the late Tim Russert, I feel compelled to mention what a loss it is for the community in Western New York.  Buffalo now has no one on the national stage who is as ardent and honest a supporter.  The city has, undeservedly as usual, been taking a beating in the Canadian (particularly Toronto) press after the Bills decided to play a few games there over the next five years.  To read some of what has been written about the city, one might expect, upon visiting, to see nothing but gutted, crumbling buildings wherever one looks.  In fact, Buffalo is one of the most attractive cities I’ve ever seen, with its wide tree-lined boulevards and majestic old homes that are all well-maintained.  Yes there are impoverished neighborhoods, but every city has them and compared to Rochester, Syracuse, Worcester, Albany, or even Manchester where I work, Buffalo is an eden (and gets less snow than pretty much all of those I just mentioned).  Economically, the city is rebounding a bit, building on several strong areas such as biotechnology, cancer research, and natural & historic resources.  In fact, Standard & Poor’s just gave the city a credit rating upgrade.  But without someone to champion it nationally, it seems destined to be the butt of ignorant jokes by people who have never even visited (or whose visits were limited to “just passing through”).  That is why Buffalo is taking Tim Russert’s death so hard.

Requiescat in Pace, Tim Russert, CHS ’68

Posted in Uncategorized on June 13, 2008 by quantummoxie

Very sad news has just reached my ears upon returning home from work. Emmy-winning journalist and author Tim Russert, who was a fellow Canisius High School alumnus and rabid Buffalo Bills fan, died suddenly this afternoon while he was on the job.

I never knew Tim personally, but he was one of the most vocal and open of Buffalo‘s native sons, a city that, despite a metro area of a little over a million people, is one of those places where everyone knows everyone else, so losing Russert is a bit like losing a family member.

Whether you liked him as a journalist or not, he was the type of guy who wore his heart on his sleeve, always talking up his beloved Buffalo Bills (his death has even warranted getting posted to Two Bills Drive and the Bills own website which has also put up a video clip that I can’t seem to link to) and Buffalo itself any chance he got. I read his 2004 book Big Russ and Me, which was a great and often hilarious account of his relationship with his dad and his days growing up in Buffalo. In fact, that book is the source of one of my favorite quotes (that requires a bit of explanation).

When Tim attended CHS, what is now called the Dean of Students was called the Prefect of Discipline and at that time it was John G. Sturm, S.J. (awesome name for the position – and thanks to John C. Haumesser, MD, CHS ’65 for making sure I wrote it the correct way!). Father Sturm was one of those guys who you could have seen playing pro football. In any case, he caught Tim eating between periods in the hall once because Tim had a ravenous appetite. When Sturm caught him, Tim pleaded for mercy due to the fact that he was a freshman and didn’t know any better. Fr. Sturm replied, “Russert, mercy is for God. I deliver justice.”

I suppose I should add I borrowed this post title from the CHS website, but it seemed appropriate.

Rest in peace, Tim Russert

Update: Some good links to a variety of sites can be found here.  Also here.

Update II: Here’s something scary. Tim was apparently doing everything right in terms of his health, according to his doctor, though he knew had the usual cholesterol/heart problems (I say usual because so many of us have these problems, especially those of us from Buffalo, one of the great “eating” cities in America). Nonetheless, these things can be hard to predict and it just goes to show you how much you have to be careful. The doctor said Tim probably could have taken a stress test today and passed. On the other hand, he also added a defibrillator might – and I stress might – have saved him. There’s a reason a lot of places are choosing to keep them around (I believe all the buildings where I work have them).

Update III: More great links and galleries from The Buffalo News.

Post-mortem body cooling in variable environments

Posted in Uncategorized on June 11, 2008 by quantummoxie

In a recent post I noted that the standard post-mortem body cooling method used to estimate time of death (TOD) does not take into account a varying environmental temperature (i.e. it assumes a constant ambient temperature when applying Newton’s Law of Cooling).

Consider the differential equation

\frac{dy}{dx} = -ky.

Suppose we take the difference between the body temperature and the ambient temperature, T-T_\alpha , as being y and the time, t, and being x. Then

\frac{d}{dt} (T-T_\alpha ) = \frac{dT}{dt} - \frac{dT_\alpha }{dt} = -k(T-T_\alpha ).

Since, as I noted, the ambient temperature is usually considered constant, the \frac{dT_\alpha }{dt}
term is eliminated and the usual solution is given.

So I figured I’d take some actual data from the NOAA/NWS website, throw it into Excel, and get a rough estimate of the function T_\alpha (t). The 24-hour data I chose from Sanford, Maine (nearest data to my house) fit a sixth-order polynomial with an R^2 value of 0.977. Since I then had a pretty good function for T_\alpha (t) I simply plugged it (and \frac{dT_\alpha }{dt}) in to the above to obtain a first-order non-homogenous differential equation of the form

\frac{dy}{dx} + y = f(x).

Note that there are k‘s in there but not intuitively distributed. In terms of the variables in this situation, we have

\frac{dT}{dt} + kT = kT_\alpha + \frac{dT_\alpha }{dt}.

In any case, I then plotted this for a 24-hour period assuming the body started out at 98.6º. Unfortunately, the data for T(t) is just nuts. In short, as one of my students noted, it is too strongly coupled to the ambient temperature for this instance. The question is: what’s wrong with the above and what is the correct way to handle this? I really think the solution, if found, will demonstrate that in some instances treating the ambient temperature as a constant results in an incorrect TOD.

I, for one, like Manny being Manny (I’m also opposed to instant replay)

Posted in Uncategorized on June 7, 2008 by quantummoxie

Manny Ramirez takes a lot of flack from the media and I think a lot of it is unnecessary. Yeah, the guy’s a goof and a little absent-minded, but so am I. And I haven’t heard his name mentioned in relation to the steroids scandal yet. He seems to enjoy the game for what it is – a game that’s supposed to be fun for player and fan alike and he makes it fun to watch. His recent fracas with teammate Kevin Youkilis actually demonstrated that pretty clearly. Seems Youk’ was whining about the strike zone a little too much and Manny got tired of it. As someone who hates whiners, I say “Go Manny!” Are the strike zones always perfect? Of course not, but that’s baseball and you live with it. And while we’re on that topic, I am completely opposed to the introduction of instant replay to baseball, something that has been bantered about recently. Arguing with the umpire is a time-honored tradition in baseball. Do we really want to give up the opportunity to see some manager kicking dirt onto home plate, an act of pure, unadulterated spite that is also just plain silly?

More consumer oddities…

Posted in Uncategorized on June 4, 2008 by quantummoxie

Hard-core outdoor power equipment manufacturer Husqvarna now makes a robotic lawnmower that is solar powered and, apparently, includes a theft protection system.  Hmmm…  Apparently it has some sort of pin code lock to protect it.  Too bad I’m so horrible at remembering codes and passwords.

The Pontiff recently posted an interesting video of a guy who turned his Roomba into a Pacman-like device.  Can you imagine what fun you could have if you did the same thing to the robo-mower?  Of course, in that case, it might leave a trail of dismemberment in its path (maybe that’s the security system).

Oh, and apparently, iRobot now sells a robotic gutter cleaner.  Now there’s a great Father’s Day gift.  Too bad my house doesn’t have gutters on it…