Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Today at ScienceBlogs there are a few posts of interest to science writers:

The Daily Transcript’s post, History and analysis of scientific publishing, comments on a interesting book with an overly long title, In Oldenburg’s Long Shadow: Librarians, Research Scientists, Publishers, and the Control of Scientific Publishing.

Recent posts to Adventures in Ethics and Science discuss science writing.

That first post refers to an old paper with an inflammatory title:

  • P. B. Medawar, Is the scientific paper fraudulent? Yes; it misrepresents scientific thought, Saturday Review, 1 August 1964, pp. 42-43.

The analysis of Medawar’s paper involves some fun philosophy of science – mostly Hemple and Popper on induction and inductivism. Medawar makes a great deal of the way scientific papers represent orthodox norms about scientific thinking, but I doubt researchers think scientific papers are supposed to convey norms of scientific deliberation. Still, I can’t help but think that papers representing scientific thinking would be a lot more fun to read, if only because they would break away from the structure involving:

  1. Introduction
  2. Background
  3. Methods
  4. Results
  5. Discussion

My suspicion is that scientists use this as a crutch, like high school (and university) students who cling to the dreaded 5 paragraph essay because it gives direction without requiring too much thought.

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Welcome Slashdotters, who have been popping by after reading Far Future Will See No Evidence of Universe’s Origin to take a look at my post, In 100 billion years, cosmologists will be very, very wrong. Be sure to follow the link there to the original paper, which is quite readable, and thank the stars for the open access arXive.

While you’re here, you might also be interested in taking a look at the following paper about the Big Bounce, published online in Nature Physics today:

From the paper’s abstract, which is notable for its ‘we can never really know’ conclusions:

Was the Universe before the Big Bang of classical nature, described well by a smooth space–time? Or was it in a highly fluctuating quantum state? This is one of the most basic questions that we may ask once it is accepted that there was something before the Big Bang. Loop quantum gravity applied to isotropic models has shown that the quantum evolution of a wavefunction extends through the Big Bang. Although a general demonstration is still lacking, this may suggest that calculations, and possibly future indirect observations, may allow us to see the Universe as it was before the Big Bang. Here, we analyse an explicit model with a pre-Big Bang era, indicating limitations that would imply that it is practically impossible to answer some of our questions. Assumptions (or prejudice) will remain necessary for knowing the precise state of the Universe, which cannot be fully justified within science itself.

Fascinating. Philosophy of science folks who enjoy cosmological speculations will have fun deconstructing this.

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It seems strange that it is the nature of the universe to put limits on our knowledge of it. Stranger still is the idea that science in the far future might be less effective than present-day science at giving us knowledge of the world.

That is the cost of living in a universe which undergoes large-scale changes. An unpleasant consequence of this is that astronomers in the distant future will be unable to replicate the observations which give us modern cosmology.

This is fodder for very good science fiction. Imagine what it would be like to be a researcher billions of years from now, when the observable universe does not include cosmic background radiation, and when galaxies beyond the Local Group have been red-shifted into invisibility. As far as cosmologists 100 billion years from now are concerned, all that exists is an ‘island universe’ – a local population of merging galaxies populating a static, otherwise empty space.

Dennis Overbye, writing for the New York Times, gives it an appropriate headline: The Universe, Expanding Beyond All Understanding. He is chronicling the work of Lawrence M. Krauss and Robert J. Scherrer, who are about to publish their work in the The Journal of Relativity and Gravitation. (Hat tip to the Frontal Cortex for mention of the NYT article.)

The Times piece is a fun read, but don’t bother about the journal article if you don’t have a subscription. Instead, do what physicists do and check out the paper at arXiv (pronounced ‘archive’), which is like SSRN for the hard sciences. Any physicist worth their salt now self-archives using arXiv – Stephen Hawking has been doing it since 1992 – so it’s a safe guess that luminaries like Krauss and Scherrer do it too. And lo, here it is in all its open access glory…

Fie on thee, dinosaur publishers.

With that plug for OA out of the way, look to the following passage. It sums up the problem faced by future cosmologists:

[I]n a time comparable to the age of the longest lived stars, observers will not be able to perform any observation or experiment that infers either the existence of an expanding universe dominated by a cosmological constant, or that there was a hot Big Bang. Observers will be able to infer a finite age for their island universe, but beyond that cosmology will effectively be over. The static universe, with which cosmology at the turn of the last century began, will have returned with a vengeance.

Here is their conclusion:

[W]e live in a very special time in the evolution of the universe: the time at which we can observationally verify that we live in a very special time in the evolution of the universe!

Around the world, scholars interested in the Anthropic Principle just perked up their ears.

This is a ‘rediscovery’ of sorts. There are two other papers which cover this type of analysis, although Krauss and Scherrer provide the most comprehensive short treatment.

(Both of these appear in Krauss and Scherrer’s bibliography, although it may take some searching. For reasons I don’t understand, physicists and some other science-types don’t think paper titles are important. This defies my intuitions about proper citation, but perhaps it’s just indicative of a disciplinary inability to write useful titles.)

The insight to be gained from this threatens our ideas of scientific progress. Even though science is commonly – and perhaps naively – seen as getting us closer and closer to the truth, we are confronted by the knowledge that the cosmological structure of the universe determines that the future state of scientific knowledge will be worse off than it is now.

Philosophers of science: How do your accounts of scientific progress deal with this problem?
Librarians: You might start thinking about how to store cosmological data for the next 100+ billion years. Acid free paper won’t cut it, so think big. Monumental even. You might need the help of archeologists.

No matter the record, it would doubtless be received with skepticism. Think of the amount of trust future scientists would need to possess if they were to take seriously any surviving arXiv records about the Big Bang, and how empiricists of the time would heap scorn upon them. This is tremendously unsettling, but I’m fascinated by the idea that in the distant future, the Big Bang theory would become akin to Intelligent Design – a theory contradicted by the best evidence.

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