Saturday, April 24, 2010

On space travel and cell phones

My workplace has recently changed our blackberries to the latest model. You know the one I mean. It has GPS, so that I can never use ‘I lost my way’ as an excuse to come late to meetings; it has a built-in camera, so they can always ask me for an on-the-spot proof of my whereabouts; it also has voice recording, which I can’t think of how it may be used. It’s a wonderful (though mostly useless) gadget, but with one major drawback: the keys are so small that I cannot use them. 

Things started falling into place once I realized that the blackberry was issued by Virgin, whose airplanes’ economy class has the smallest leg room. Is it possible that the smallness of Virgin different offerings is not a coincidence, but rather a part in a bigger plan? After all, virgin is one of the most ambitious companies, whose current challenge is to create the first commercial space travel service – a service that will greatly benefit from miniaturization. In other words, is it possible that the picture above is not of a model, but of an actual spacecraft? 

You see, the problem with miniaturization nowadays is not of technology, but of usability. It’s the human interface, rather than technology, that restricts the size of our tools. Just imagine how profitable an airline carrier, a car manufacturer or a cell phone provider could be if we, human, were half our current size or smaller. 

I am sure that for someone like Sir Richard, who does not believe that anything is impossible, shrinking human to support the development of space technology is a worthwhile challenge. Small telephones and airplanes seats are just a step in this direction. 

So when on an airplane, beware of mushrooms and bottles that say ‘drink me’. It may be a trick.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Can you argue science?

Too often I find myself attacked for ‘scientific narrow-mindedness’ by people who feel that they are qualified to create or refute scientific theories they don’t understand. I used to argue and try to explain the scientific viewpoint, but I do it no more. 

Nowadays, whenever someone argues that the universe cannot be that old, that there is zero probability that evolution processes created the diversity of life on earth, that remote planet location impact human behavior, or any other theory, I only ask two questions: 

1. Why is winter colder than summer? 
2. Why is the top of a high mountain colder than its foot, even though it’s closer to the sun? 

Not surprisingly, many of those who feel qualified to discuss advanced scientific theories, are unable to satisfactory answer these simple questions. As any further discussion is likely to be futile, I take my scientific hat off, and quickly resume my role as a ‘civilized’ member of society.

Can you answer these questions?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Fake Science

Science and scientific – are there better words to win an argument and prove how right you are? After all, if something is scientific or based on science it must be true, or so the common wisdom goes. And yet, few words have been more misused and abused – sometimes out of ignorance, but too often intentionally, in a manipulative way. So what does scientific really mean? And how can we, the non experts, know if something is scientific or merely presented as such? 

Let’s for instance, look at an ad for a shampoo claiming that it contains a certain chemical that was scientifically proven to help hair grow (sorry guys, as I am in America where free speech is restricted by corporate litigation, I will not get more specific). To reassure you, the potential buyer, the ad shows a man in a lab coat (smiling, of course) holding the magic potion in a test tube. Doesn’t it make you feel like running to the nearest drugstore to get the shampoo even if you don’t suffer from hair problems? But is this really scientific? If you delved a bit deeper into the research you’d find that although the chemical has been proven to help hair grow (after all, they can’t risk false advertising) it needs to be consumed orally. The shampoo, on the other hand, clearly states that it’s for external use only. 

Profiteering, however, is not the only time that the name of science is abused. Many political, religious and semi religious interest groups present fake-science as science to manipulate opinions and beliefs. Astrology, Intelligent Design and parts of popular financial theory are just the tip of the iceberg. So how can the minority who cares about truth test if what they are told is scientific or merely faked to look so?

As science is about validation and confirmation of theories, a good test is to try to imagine what hypothetical new discoveries may invalidate the so-called scientific claim. If you can’t come up with any, it’s likely that it's not science. 

Let’s take an example. Based on traditional science, the speed of an object depends on the position of the observer that measures this speed. That is, if you throw a ball at 20mph from a moving car, for the person throwing the ball, the speed of the ball will always be 20mph regardless of what direction the ball is thrown. However, to an observer on the road, if the ball is thrown in the direction the car is travelling at 60mph, the speed of the ball will be 80mph (60+20). On the other hand, if the ball is thrown against the direction of the travel, its speed would be only 40mp (60-20). 

This common sense science, also known as Newtonian Mechanic, was held true until an interesting fact was discovered: light does not behave like a ball. That is, for an observer standing on the road, the speed of light ‘thrown’ in the direction of the moving car or against the direction of the travel would always be the same, regardless of how fast the car goes. This single discovery was sufficient to shutter a scientific theory held for over 200 years, and led Einstein to develop the Theory of Relativity – which still holds nowadays. This process of refuting existing 'truths' when new facts are discovered is the main differentiator between science and any other belief system. 

On the other hand, fake-science used to support other beliefs systems is irrefutable. We can't imagine any new discovery that will refute the ‘proofs' for the existence of God, heaven and hell, astrology or Intelligent Design. This irrefutability, of course, is used by followers to ‘prove’ the truth of their beliefs. While this may be the case, it also invalidates their claim that their beliefs and truths are scientific. 

This is the crux of most modern scientific-religious arguments. While believers try to present any ‘not yet known’ in a scientific theory as a proof that the theory is invalid, they also present their irrefutable beliefs (often tautologies) as scientific. They are not. And only proper science education will ensure that we can always tell the difference.