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Posts Tagged ‘Science’

Rocketboom is reporting that scientists have found a way to produce a Star Trek style warp drive. It’s a cute story, but it suffers from having more than one tooth fairy.

Let me explain.

The report appears to be based on this paper, by Richard Obousy and Gerald Cleaver from Baylor university. The idea of a warp drive is to produce a “bubble” of space that moves by distorting spacetime itself, and is therefore not subject to the cosmic speed limit of 300 million meters per second. What the authors have done is to construct a scenario where one could create such a bubble. The idea itself appears to be correct, and is actually quite creative.

For their idea to work, though, 4 things need to happen. First, spacetime needs to have more directions than the 3 space and 1 time dimensions that we currently enjoy, and that these extra dimensions be curled up in a little ball. This idea is far less crazy than it sounds at first. There are good reasons to think they might exist, and many experiments searching for them. That said, it’s still a long shot. (Sean, more or less arbitrarily, puts it at 11%, I think that’s pretty high). Still, basing an idea on a long shot has a long history, and a potential for huge payoffs. After all, the tooth fairy might exist, and she might be interested in your wonderful business plan for second-hand tooth distribution.

The problem is that they still need 3 more things to happen. They need, for technical reasons, the current acceleration of the universe to be due to these extra dimensions; something which is far from certain even if the dimensions do exists. They need a technology that can control the size of the dimensions. And finally, they need a way to generate the enormous amount of energy this would require – they estimate that this is about what would be obtained by converting the mass of Jupiter to energy. Each of those is asking for another tooth fairy. If the payoff is big enough, searching for one tooth fairy might be a very good idea. Looking for more than one that all have to be there…. Well, just don’t get your hopes up.

Note 1: I don’t mean to pick on the authors of this paper. They wrote a very nice paper as a fun exercise, and are certainly aware of everything I talked about here.

Note 2: I learned the “tooth fairy” method of evaluating ideas from Tom LeCompte, a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory.

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Actually, this election it’s still the economy, but that’s no reason to not worry about where the candidates stand on scientific issues. Jennifer Ouellette has combed through statements by both Barak Obama and John McCain and produced a nice summary. She finds pluses and minuses for McCain: e.g. he supports increased funding for alternative energy, R&D tax credits for companies, but at the same time he supports off-shore drilling and makes no mention of the importance of basic research. (Note that a number of the pluses are related to statements on climate change, a stance which is considerably weakened by choosing a running mate who denies that climate change is caused by humans.)

One big problem with getting at all excited about McCain’s science policies is summed up in Ouellette’s opening comment about Obama:

Unfortunately for McCain, the soundest of his science-based policies are also addressed by Barack Obama — in far more detail, and in far more sweeping, forward-thinking ways.

Indeed, go take a look at his website, or his answers to the questions from Science Debate 2008. It seems clear that, for Obama, science and technology are integral parts of the issues that need to be addressed by the president, while for McCain, they’re an afterthought; something he’ll talk about if he has to.

Now, as I said at the top, the economy is much more of an issue than, say, basic science funding. So why is it important that the president understand science issues? One answer is that, while it isn’t the most important issue, it is still important; and that is certainly true. A better answer, though, is that economics is, itself, a science; the dismal science, perhaps, but still a science. Understanding what can and needs to be done about the current economic crisis requires one to use many of the essential pieces of the scientific toolbox: empirical data, modeling, criticism of ones own ideas, attempting (and hopefully failing) to disprove a hypothesis. Obama shows that he understands not just scientific results but also the process through which they are attained. He may or may not be able to turn around the economic problems we’re facing, but from the point of view of this scientist, he has a much better chance than McCain.

As just one example, consider their views on sex-education. From Obama’s website:

Barack Obama is an original co-sponsor of legislation to expand access to contraception, health information and preventive services to help reduce unintended pregnancies. Introduced in January 2007, the Prevention First Act will increase funding for family planning and comprehensive sex education that teaches both abstinence and safe sex methods.

While a statement from the McCain campaign says (I couldn’t find a statement on this issue on McCain’s website):

Senator McCain believes the correct policy for educating young children on this subject is to promote abstinence as the only safe and responsible alternative.

This is despite the fact that such programs have been shown to be ineffective.

Sean Carroll, at Cosmic Variance, sums this up:

I don’t especially enjoy constantly bashing the modern Republican Party and contrasting them unfavorably with Democrats. There certainly is a respectable intellectual case to be made for small-government conservatism, and even if I didn’t agree with all of the particulars, it would be interesting and worthwhile to engage in policy debates from the perspective of mutual intellectual respect. Nor do I especially think that Democratic politicians, as a group, are anything to be that excited about. But at the current moment, the Republicans have so cheerfully given into anti-intellectualism and cultural backwardness that there isn’t much to have a debate about.

So, while it maybe be true that it’s the economy; it’s also true that the economy is the science, stupid.

Note: Another nice collection of information about McCain’s views on science was collected by Thomas Levenson in his post “Does John McCain Hate Science?”.

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