My Photo

Salut!

  • Jen-Luc Piquant sez: "They like us! They really like us!"

    "Explains physics to the layperson and specialist alike with abundant historical and cultural references."
    -- Exploratorium ("10 Cool Sites")

    "... polished and humorous..."
    -- Physics World

    "Takes 1 part pop culture, 1 part science, and mixes vigorously with a shakerful of passion."
    -- Typepad (Featured Blog)

    "In this elegantly written blog, stories about science and technology come to life as effortlessly as everyday chatter about politics, celebrities, and vacations."
    -- Fast Company ("The Top 10 Websites You've Never Heard Of")
Blog powered by Typepad
Bookmark and Share

« pop culture pedagogy | Main | the power of the pickle »

Comments

They had to get a professional actor to play the arrogant know-it-all physicist? Surely it would be cheaper to get another physics grad student to do the job! I'd like to think this implies it's easier to feign naivete than arrogance, but then again, I know quite a few students and ex-students who'd love to try, in a good cause.

In all the blogospheric Bleep-bashing, I haven't seen anyone mention this, so I figured I should: Carl Sagan comes down pretty hard on Ramtha in **The Demon-Haunted World** (which is recommended reading anyway, naturally). He gives a fascinating list of questions one could ask a 35,000-year-old Atlantean. We could check out some of the answers scientifically (what was the weather like, and which stars were near the North Celestial Pole?); others would point us towards new knowledge, presuming the questions we can check give us any reason to trust the ones we can't. Just how did that "high technology" of Atlantis work, anyway? Instead, all we get are -- in Sagan's words -- "banal homilies."

Aha, I just found an old Salon article which makes the connection. It's not up for free, but anyway:

http://archive.salon.com/ent/feature/2004/09/16/bleep/index_np.html

I read about Penrose's theories of quantum consciousness when they first came out, and now I have to wonder. . . perhaps consciousness is intrinsically a NON-quantum phenomenon. It seems to me that any machine which passes the Turing Test has to have an awful lot of switches, meaning lots of parts in constant interaction with a noisy environment. Even if the individual switches are small enough that QM is necessary to describe them, the aggregate has to be larger than any "decoherence length" and thus behave in a classical way. If so, why should the elementary switches be required to use quantum weirdness to operate? Divide the system into the smallest chunks possible which still obey classical probability rules (such chunks would be the size of a neuron or smaller), and replace them with little boxes which take the same inputs and spit out the same outputs. You'd then have "functional isomorphism" -- a classical brain operating to produce the same kind of consciousness as the quantum.

It's all doubly conjecture, of course. (-: Still, there is a difference between computers whose parts are just so small that QM has to be taken into account (the kind Feynman theorized about back in the 1980s), and the kind we rapturize over nowadays, which can do things bigger, faster and better than classical circuits, like factoring huge numbers into primes. Who says the stuff inside a nerve cell is of the second kind and not the first, if it is either? Could natural selection feasibly hit upon a design of the second kind? If it is of the second kind, is it sufficiently extreme that we couldn't mimic it with old-style machinery, like the Tinkertoy computer which plays Tic-Tac-Toe? A slow-thinking brain which exhibits consciousness would still be pretty darn impressive.

With a cool laser technology that goes by the name of "optical tweezers", we can move subcellular components around under the microscope. People like to pull on the ends of DNA molecules and see how hard they are to stretch, for example. According to the people I know who work on these things, it's the sort of experimental science where one in five trials might work at all, or one in ten -- but when that one happens, you write up a paper and it magically appears in Nature. I bet one could devise a way to send pulses down the insides of microtubules and test their decoherence properties. . . .

In a serendipitous twist, I just ordered Sagan's "Demon-Haunted World" from Amazon... I'm hoping it will convince Jen-Luc Piquant to ditch the turban and come back down to Cyber-Earth. :) And I confess that I had to bite back a number of tongue-in-cheek questions to ask the psychic woman who approached me, namely about what those higher elements in the periodic table had to say. ("I hate my half-life" might be one such response.)

I do think there are many things physics/science can't yet explain -- human emotion strikes me as being about more than mere biochemistry, for instance. How the brain actually works is largely a mystery to us. Ditto for things like intuition and gut instincts. And I'm intrigued by the notions of quantum consciousness, or a universal wave function, despite some skepticism. I don't think there's anything innately magical or spiritual about any of this, just that science has yet to progress far enough to explain them.

I think the elements who are part of the "island of stability" are a bit more rational than the others, who just fly apart at the slightest provocation. If you ask the transuranic elements about their politics, I think you'll find that berkelium is just to the left of californium, while americium is definitely to the right of francium.

http://www.webelements.com/webelements/elements/text/periodic-table/key.html

Note to self: do not read Blake's comments while sipping Diet Coke, since said comments may cause laughter-induced involuntary spewings. :)

(Laughs out loud)

Thanks, many thanks indeed. I do what I can, and if four years of MIT did anything for me, they taught me that horrible science jokes are both natural and necessary. There's "high magic to low puns", as that jokester Thomas Pynchon says.

Right now, I'm working my pleasurable way through an Alan Sokal essay called "Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?" It addresses, in part, the outright ludicrous claims which have been "justified" with a quantum mumbo-jumbo paint job. Sokal has been accused of know-it-all physicist arrogance a few times himself, though I note that the people doing the accusing are the ones his wonderful prank stung the most, ten years ago.

http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/pseudoscience_rev.pdf


>There must be something about this film that resonates with these good
>people. ... In many respects, What the Bleep is an easy pseudoscientific
>target, and it's tempting to just dismiss it out of hand, while hurling
>snarky sarcasm-darts its way. This may be entertaining when preaching to
>the converted, but such an approach might not be in our best interest when
>it comes to winning others over to our point of view.

Therein lies the rub eh? People get excited about science or what they think is science and it just doesn't feel right to squish that.

I first heard of this film in ...umm, of all places the ... umm, Hooters in Santa Monica CA (best buffalo wings on the West side), where our waitress veritably squealed with delight when I told her I was a physicist. She had just seen it the week before and it had 'seriously freaked her the bleep out'. 'Physics is AWESOME!' she said. She then proceeded to tell me all about it, the poor dear, and knowing the propensity of my mouth to fire off 'snarky sarcasm-darts' I decided all involved (me, her, science in general) were better off with my trap shut.

Yes, it's THOSE people, the ones who have just realized that there is such a thing as physics and it's actually pretty cool -- except along with that, they think it's true that saying mean things to water alters its molecular structure, "and if it does that to water, well, you can imagine what it does to us!" One hates to discourage their nascent interest, but...

You should have seen the first draft of the post... snarky ranting right and left, which I read over, decided it was counter-productive and not what I really wanted to address, and hit "delete." *sigh* There were some great lines, too.

And BTW... yeah right, Peter was at Hooters for "the buffalo wings." And guys only read Playboy for the interviews. :)

I'll remember that the next time I'm in Santa Monica and get the craving for buffalo wings. And the next time I want to read an interview.

Seriously, every fraternity house in America gets a free subscription to Playboy. I bet it's a pretty good investment on the publisher's part. I'd flip through them when they arrived (hey, I'm not made of stone), and on average, there was about one interesting article, one good joke and one funny letter per issue, plus a bunch of uninteresting photos. When the aliens transmit us plans for that wormhole machine and we send through a specimen of masculinity, I suppose I won't be on the boat.

(-;

I think that just shows you have a little more imagination than the average guy. What's that line from the movie "Say Anything"? "Don't be a guy. Anyone can be a guy. Be a man."

My verbal avatar appears to be a wonderful fellow: imaginative, funny and well-informed. This must be the effect of having the "Preview" button and the chance to revise whatever he says. Oh, if only I could tap into a little of his surplus virtue -- if only we could have more in common than our love for chocolate!

People who hang out around here might like "Physics for Future Presidents", a course at UC Berkeley whose materials I just found online:

http://www.muller.lbl.gov/PffP

I found my way to this site via the professor's comments in (what else) a blogoid discussion. He says that other teachers have his permission to use the material in their classes, though naturally he would appreciate notification in such a case.

http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2006/04/13/morley (scroll way down)

That Berkeley course is the one taught by Richard Muller, who trashed "The Physics of Superheroes" book in PHYSICS TODAY. And I in turn excoriated him on this blog for an unfair trashing. :) Coincidence?

I **thought** the name looked familiar. The problem is that there are just too many Mullers, Millers and Muellers for my poor little brain to track any more (and Richard isn't that rare a name either). I heard that in the Screenwriters' Guild, no two members are allowed to have the same name. So, since there was already a "David Cohen", the co-creator of **Futurama** had to become "David X. Cohen". Incidentally, David X. was one of several people on the **Futurama** production team with absurdly advanced degrees in the hard sciences. Happily for all of us with real taste, the density of math jokes per square centimeter of **Futurama** was in consequence absurdly high.

http://www.mathsci.appstate.edu/~sjg/futurama/

I think my favorite moment was when Fry asks the Professor what he is teaching. "The same thing I teach every semester: Mathematics of Quantum Neutrino Fields. I made up the title so that no students would take it!"

Fry writes down, "Mathematics... of wonton... burrito... meals. I'll be there!"

Of course, the same sort of people love to use the mathematical moments in **The Simpsons** for educational purposes too:

http://www.mathsci.appstate.edu/~sjg/simpsonsmath/

All of which just goes to show that science in pop culture can benefit everybody.

"human emotion strikes me as being about more than mere biochemistry"

Why?

"Ditto for things like intuition and gut instincts"

Decisions using fuzzy logic based on apparently insufficient information.

In the novel titled Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis the preacher discovers the explotation potential of the "new age" and happily refers to the movement as "an orgy of the mind". Self-absorption is a common personality characteristic of individuals involved in such nonsense - I make this observation from personal experience, having a wife who talks to space aliens thru a channel (Barbara Marciniak).

The comments to this entry are closed.

Twitter Updates

    follow me on Twitter

    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
    • Hiroshima Bomber
      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
      1/4 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
    • Laser Beam
      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
      7 oz orange juice
      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
      Fill with Sweet and sour
      Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.
    • The Black Hole
      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
      1 oz. Kahlua
      1 oz. vodka
      .5 oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
      .5 oz. dark rum
      .5 oz. Amaretto
      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.