A physicist decries “quantum woo”

You may recall the bizarre “Biocentrism” theory of Dr. Robert Lanza, which I’ve discussed before (here, and here, for instance). I’ve also consulted Official Website Physicist™ Sean Carroll, who pronounced biocentrism pretty much a crock. If you want Lanza’s scholarly explanation of biocentrism (and take a Pepto-Bismol first), read this piece he wrote for The American Scholar (shame on that journal!).

Surprisingly, Lanza is a medical doctor and researcher at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, and has some solid scientific accomplishments under his belt. So it’s hard to understand why he’s fallen sway to a woo-laden theory that assures, us, based on quantum physics and the Mystery of Consciousness, that death is merely a figment of our imagination and that, because of the Observer Phenomenon, life creates the universe.

Biocentrism is a baff-gabbley gemisch of nonsense, and one physicist has gotten fed up with it—and with the practice of many people, like Deepak Chopra, who suborn quantum physics (which they don’t really understand) to sell feel-good philosophy (and merchandise) to the public.

Lanza has repeated his nonsense in an interview/article in the November 14 Daily Mail, and that proved too much for Dr. Phil Moriarty, a physicist at the University of Nottingham.  He’s mad as hell about the quackery-zation of quantum physics, and won’t take it any more. He’s produced an 11.5-minute rant about the misguided uses of quantum mechanics, inspired by Lanza’s theory; and it’s a rant that does this biologist’s heart good. Only a real physicist could take apart a quack like Lanza so well:

That’s how we evolutionists feel about creationism.

And as a reward for exercising your brain by watching that, here’s a 28-second video that features, near the end, just two seconds of the most bizarre locomotion ever seen in a domestic cat (19-21 seconds in).

h/t: Jesper, Su

146 Comments

  1. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Hang on a minute. Weren’t we just told by Roger Highfield that “physics is an example of what a mature scientific discipline should look like, one that does not waste time and energy combating the agenda of science-rejecting creationists”?

    • Gasper Sciacca
      Posted January 23, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Except for the fact that science-rejecting creationists have the ear of our politicians.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 23, 2014 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      Yup, you got it. As this video highlights, even something as seemingly objective as physics has to contend with religious and spiritual misinterpretations. Highfield is clearly mistaken if he thinks evolutionary biologists are somehow doing it wrong and could avoid wasting time and energy combating anti-science agendas if they just got a little more rigorous and mathematical.

      Try googling “mathematical proof of God.” Nothing is sacred. So to speak.

  2. Posted January 23, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Beware of the quantum menace… These words are usually a good sign of woo: quantum, energy, magnetism.

    Maybe it’s because these words seem to represent “magical forces” in the world (of course there’s nothing magical about any of these concepts) and for people who don’t understand science it’s a way to sound sciency while still spreading woo everywhere.

  3. Michael Fisher
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    The pure white pet rodent at 0:22… Was the cat thinking “kill, eat” when she first got onto her hind paws & then couldn’t decide between prey or play?

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted January 23, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      To be, or not to be…

      • js
        Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        To nom, or not to nom. :-)

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

          Always to nom. :-)

    • Richard Bond
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:22 am | Permalink

      It is a hunting move. I had a cat that used exactly this movement to catch a mole, except in his case he used only one hop.

  4. gbjames
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    That cat’s trying to demonstrate quantum spin?

    • gbjames
      Posted January 23, 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      erf… and sub

  5. Merilee
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant rant by Moriarty!

    I read one of those Capra books back in the 70s and was not convinced.

    • Alexander Hellemans
      Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      Well, this is nothing compared to the quantum nonsense on an industrial scale promulgated by the books by Lynne McTaggart and her “Intention Experiment.”

    • ichneumonid
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:48 am | Permalink

      But for the wooists Moriarty is such as an evil sounding name(refer to Sherlock Holmes and the The Goons)…

  6. Brad
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Maybe read up on Koch’s and Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory. It’s also a very consciousness-centric approach. Getting a lot play right now in the scientific community. I’ve heard Dawkins call it credible and Harris call it interesting. Lanza’s ideas are a little out there but they’re not as far out there as you might like to believe.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      The hypothesis then is that the amount of consciousness an entity has is equal to the amount of information processing it can perform.

      Again we’re left with the problem of objectively deciding what kind of information, processing, and subsequently actions, constitutes consciousness.

      Is a brick blowing in the wind showing signs of consciousness?

  7. Michael Fisher
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Video:- HERE IS Phil M. going heavy metal on the Golden Ratio, but it’s not for those who prefer melody to riffs/noise :)

    Details re guitar tuning etc. [I'm off to wash the blood from my ears :) ]

    • Merilee
      Posted January 23, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      Ouch! But the concept is very cool. Love the calipets.

      • Merilee
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

        Make that calipers

  8. Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    That cat must have a ring-tailed lemur in its ancestry.

  9. Allen Linville
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Was the cat the missing link to kangaroos?

  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Loco motion, indeed.

    Playing at being bipedal house owner?

    • Merilee
      Posted January 23, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      The kitty could do the Locomotion to Phil M’s phi “music”.

  11. Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    §

  12. Robert Seidel
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Funny he mentions this quantum Tao book. A while ago, I read the Tao Te King, and was really galled by the foreword, written by Lin Yutang, who claimed exactly this: Materialism is dead, because of quantum. I give you one snippet:

    “The researcher chased matter and lost it in the electron. He chased conciousness, and lost in electrical brain waves. Somewhere in the light quantum the corpusculate [sic] meets the non-corpusculate, confusing and frustrating him, who searches the truth.”

    • Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      The funny thing is that the early daoism (before buddhist influence) is more or less materialist, too. Only if one over-anthropomorphizes “dao” (which is very easy for people to do, particularly if they think that the views are to sound theistic).

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted January 23, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      They’re really branching out.:-)

  13. Diana MacPherson
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    sub

  14. johnnyrodgersmorris
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    The cat was obviously making fun of the way humans walk. lol

  15. Posted January 23, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Well, you can tell by the way the cat uses his walk that he’s a woman’s cat with no time to talk.

    b&

  16. colnago80
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Surprisingly, Lanza is a medical doctor and researcher at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, and has some solid scientific accomplishments under his belt.

    One need only consider the cases of folks like Peter Duesberg, Brian Josephson, J. Allan Hynek, and Linus Pauling to understand that even accomplished scientists can believe nonsense. Lanza is just another example.

  17. colnago80
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    The problem is that, as Richard Feynman and Lawrence Krauss have stated, nobody understands quantum mechanics. Quantum entanglement, the quantum vacuum, and the 2 slit problem are just examples of things in quantum mechanics that just don’t seem to make any sense. Or as Steven Weinberg has been quoted as remarking, “quantum mechanics is a preposterous theory that, unfortunately, appears to be correct”.

    • stuartcoyle
      Posted January 23, 2014 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

      No, the real problem is that people jump from “I don’t understand that” to “it must be (insert magic/woo/god here)”.

      QM is quite understandable. It is just that you have to use mathematics to do that understanding. Our natural languages do not contain the concepts and logic that enable us to use them to communicate QM effectively.

      Also, as Leonard Susskind and others have pointed out, our brains have not evolved to understand easily the world on scales much different to our daily experiences. There is a certain amount of ‘re-wiring’ involved (internalizing some mathematics) in getting a grasp on these things.

      The problem lies not in QM being hard to understand but in the “god/woo of the gaps” mentality that fills voids in understanding with speculation.

      • Posted January 23, 2014 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

        “It is just that you have to use mathematics to do that understanding.”

        I don’t believe that’s true. See <a href="http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/the-edge-question-two-bad-answers-about-evolution/#comment-705905"my comment on another post.

        /@

        • Posted January 23, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

          * HTML fail. Sorry! my comment

        • stuartcoyle
          Posted January 23, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

          Perhaps you are right, I have overstated the case. It may be that mathematics is not a *necessary* thing to understand QM. After all, any good mathematical equation should be shorthand for something that you can describe in English (possibly with insane amounts of verbosity).

          I have not yet come across a good explanations of QM that does not involve at least an equation or two and/or some bad analogies. Then again, all explanations are analogies at first, we go from the known to the new knowledge that way. I will have to read The Fabric of Reality now.

          • Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:39 am | Permalink

            “Fabric Of Reality” has a terrific explanation and advocacy of Many Worlds. Some people need to be more careful, though, in distinguishing between speculative hypotheses at the cutting edge and established theories that make better testable predictions than opposing theories.

        • Darkwhite
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:17 am | Permalink

          I do believe it is true. I would also claim that, to understand Newtonian gravity, you -have- to do the mathematics.

          • Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:06 am | Permalink

            I dont believe thats the case either.

            The essence of Newtonian gravity is that (a) it is universal, that all bodies, in the heavens and on Earth, have mass and attract each other, and (b) the attractive force acts directly between them, is proportional to the product of their masses, inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

            I suppose (b) does require and understanding of those mathematical concepts, but you could give the gist of it without: The force is stronger the bigger either body is and weaker with distance, falling off more and more rapidly with the distance between them. So, no need to *do* the mathematics to *understand* it.

            But (a) was what distinguishes the Newtonian from earlier concepts of gravity, and is thus more important. Particularly, the realisation that gravity could explain planetary motion.

            /@

            • Darkwhite
              Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:47 am | Permalink

              Your (b) is just maths written in English. If you understand proportional, product, inversely and square, in their strict mathematical sense, then you are doing the maths with a crippled formalism.

              As for (a) – yes, you can describe some superficial elements of gravity in words, and it’s enough for people to parrot -that’s gravity- whenever they see stuff falling, but they’ll still have no idea why, say:
              – the Moon and the Earth are pulling at each other, yet stay roughly equidistant
              – the Sun pulls harder on the Earth than the Moon, yet the Moon’s gravity is the dominant cause of tidal motion
              – there are -two- high tides a day
              – it’s possible to calculate an escape velocity for a spaceship, even though the gravitational pull only approaches but never reaches zero as distances grow (*)
              – there is a specific altitude for geo-stationary orbits

              Now, we could of course argue whether that’s necessary for -understanding- gravity, but the ability to readily reason about these sort of questions is, as far as I can see, gated behind understanding the mathematical description.

              For instance, (*) depends on gravity being 1/r^2, which has an upper bound summed from +eps to +inf, and not 1/r, which is divergent.

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:09 am | Permalink

                You can describe the fact that gravity (and other forces) fall off with distance by visualizing the surface area of an expanding balloon. That then also provides an intuitive understanding along the lines of the idea that forces fall off according to the increasing area they are affecting. I think that unless you can explain a formula in a visualisable way, without mathematics, then you probably don’t really understand it and that some scientists could make a much greater effort to avoid ridiculously rigorous mathematical derivations in explanations meant for a wider audience.

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:18 am | Permalink

                Which is why I restated (b) less formally! (I like rococo’s balloon visualisation.)

                Yes, you need to *do* mathematics to *quantify* those things, but not to *understand* them. As I noted re my experience in particle physics, it’s very easy to do the maths *without* understanding what the maths describes.

                /@

              • Darkwhite
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:50 am | Permalink

                None of my bullet points ask for quantification; the one concerning geo-stationary orbits asks why -any- altitude can’t be used for geo-stationary orbit.

                You did restate (b) less formally, but that formulation isn’t strong enough to answer any of the bullet points; maybe the one about the Moon causing tides if you stretch roqoco’s area-of-sphere model.

                Furthermore, the point isn’t that these questions -cannot- be answered in words; the point is that law of gravity and basic calculus is enough to figure out the answers in a few hours – which is my gold standard for actually understanding something.

                At the same time, I -very strongly- doubt that someone with only the general idea that gravity sort of attracts masses, more strongly the bigger the masses and the closer they are, can answer any of the questions without memorizing what someone who does know the math tells them.

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:53 am | Permalink

                Clearly we understand understanding differently.

                /@

            • Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

              The problem is explaining what “force” means, which is not obvious in ordinary language – and even to Newton. Max Jammer’s book on the history is interesting for that reason.

              On the other hand, take classical electrodyanmics. What’s a field? ;)

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink

                Exactly, and what are sheep? Actually, I think vector fields are quite easy to visualise without mathematics and Faraday wasn’t much of a mathematician.

      • colnago80
        Posted January 23, 2014 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, but I’ll go with Feynman, Krauss, and Weinberg here.

        For instance, the 2 slit problem, which was not mentioned in the video, is usually explained by a hand waving argument that the claim that making a measurement to determine which slit the photon went through causes the wave function to collapse and hence we do not observe the photon passing through both slits, as required by the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. This even though the ovserving detectors are placed behind the slits. A number of physicists have found this explanation to be unsatisfactory and have proposed the parallel universe argument. Both, however, are hand waving arguments which amount to saying that it is impossible to observe a photon passing through both slits, even though we claim that an unobserved photon does so. As someone with a PhD in elementary particle physics, I sure as hell don’t understand it.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:26 am | Permalink

          Yeah, but the fact you (and I presume all other physicists) don’t understand that, does not give Mr Lanza a license to make up stories about macroscopic reality. Any more than it proves the existence of God or Nessie.

          • colnago80
            Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:53 am | Permalink

            Agreed.

          • Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

            macroscopic reality is the key

            iirc, quantum refers to very tiny things. And the 11 or so other dimensions are on the order of 10**-30. Hugely miniscule.

            we don’t influence that scale, not directly, without things like the LHC. Cut yourself a molecule from a wedge of cheese or pinch an atom of calcium.

            You’d need some high energy tools not typically found in kitchens to do that and the power of the human mind probably won’t cut the cheese either. there’s no reason to consider the brain capable of influencing the sub-atomic.

        • Darkwhite
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 6:26 am | Permalink

          Always keep in mind that -observe- is short hand for interacting with the QM-system, generally exchanging energy. Given this, it should be expected, not mysterious, that observation affects the outcome of an experiment.

          • Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

            Bunge, Treatise on Basic Philosophy vol 7 pt. 1 has a good table of unsubjectivistically misleading QM terminilogy with the map to the potentially misleading one. I think the page is available in the Google Books preview.

          • colnago80
            Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

            True, it’s pretty hard to “observe” a system without interacting with it.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:28 am | Permalink

              Then there’s the NSA.

  18. Amelia Schuler
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    A little bit of fact, a little bit of technical jargon, and a lot of woo wins the argument as far as those who are predisposed to believe in this stuff. That makes an honest rebuttal frustrating.

    Hats off to Dr. Moriarty and Dr. Carroll for their erudite rebuttals. It’s disheartening that people like Dr. Lanza and Chopra are given so much latitude when neither have published anything in the field that could be tested and verified.

  19. Sastra
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Attempts to link consciousness to physics have been around even before Fritjof Capra and others in the 70’s. I know several elderly woomeisters who speak of speculations from Neils Bohr in tones of reverence, and iirc that was back in the 1950’s. They sincerely believe that science is validating spirituality — and has been doing so for generations.

    The pseudoscientific aspect of their belief quickly becomes apparent though when they try to answer my question:

    “Given that physicists are well-known for their embrace of new discoveries and given how much our understanding of physics has changed over the last 50 years — why hasn’t this physics-spirituality connection become mainstream, generating tons of research, awards, and excitement?”

    The response: Fear. The vast majority of physicists around the world are still personally afraid of how daring and paradigm-shifting this discovery is and have been — for the last 50 freakin’ years — ignoring its implications in a desperate measure to protect their preconceptions. But it’s just around the corner. I’ll see. Any moment now.

    To which I respond: nonsense.

    I’ve also asked if there is any possible time limit where, if these science-finds-spirituality discoveries are STILL fringe at best, they will admit they were wrong. They say yes, but won’t give a number.

    No. It’s like Jesus coming back.

  20. uglicoyote
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Road.

  21. stuartcoyle
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I read the Tao of Physics in my early twenties. I found it interesting and it was one of the things that prompted me to go and study physics.

    After I studied physics I found Capra’s writing no longer interesting.

    • Posted January 23, 2014 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

      Me, too! (Although I was younger.)

      /@

    • Sastra
      Posted January 23, 2014 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

      I once read an article by a physicist which explained that Capra’s entire argument was based on a popular theory of quantum which was later discarded for new and better views. Which means, of course, that the entire “modern-science has caught up with Eastern mysticism” claim must have been wrong.

      Using the changing theories of modern science to confirm your timeless faith is damn risky.

    • Kevin
      Posted January 23, 2014 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

      A lot of young physicists have gone through or at least come across Capra’s work. It is with a glad heart I have forgotten his story and do not think of it as some truth in which to lay the foundation of the rest of my existence, which is sadly, what others who do not move on, end up doing.

    • Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:55 am | Permalink

      Ditto. And it is frustrating that a problem that is so fundamentally interesting is being used as a sop to those who can’t accept their own mortality.

  22. Diana MacPherson
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad scientists take the time out of their busy work to address this woo. It would be amusing, however, to write a faux article that contained all the typical bits of woo and misunderstandings of several fields & see if it could get published in some horrible news outlet.

    I’m also glad that Dr. Moriarty mentioned the misconception that there is no objective measure for colour! I’m so tired of screaming, “wave length!”.

    • Posted January 23, 2014 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

      I do that frequently …

      /@

      • Posted January 23, 2014 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

        So often it hurts, no doubt.

        • Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:05 am | Permalink

          Yes, but let’s not get embroglied in that conversation.

          /@

          • Merilee
            Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

            Embroglied…+1

    • BilBy
      Posted January 23, 2014 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      I think the ‘no objective measure of colour’ thing comes from a garbled knowledge of the fact that different cultures have different ways of ‘perceiving’ colour – hence we get ‘oddities’ like the ‘wine-dark sea’ of Homer, the use of the word ‘glas’ to mean both green and blue in Welsh and Breton (I think), though Welsh also has ‘gwyrdd’ for some kinds of green, and other examples. This is, of course, totally different from a measure of wavelength.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 23, 2014 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

        Colour perception even varies among individuals. My mother calls things orange, that I call yellow all the time. I insist she didn’t learn her colours properly as a child.

        • Posted January 23, 2014 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

          Indeed. Many people see Turquoise as a variant of blue, many others see it as a variant of green – but then, it is a blue-green (or a green-blue) after all.

          I remember reading that human’s perception of colours evolved over the past several thousand years, that the spectrum of their perception expanded.

          Here is a very interesting article:

          http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/hoffman_01_13/

          • stuartcoyle
            Posted January 23, 2014 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

            Colour is complex. We can’t even agree on how to spell the word. :)

            • Posted January 23, 2014 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

              I spell it properly, unlike the Americans. ;)

        • Richard Bond
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:18 am | Permalink

          The X chromosome has two alternative alleles that give rise to two slightly different “blue” cones. Since the brain forms a model of colour from all three kinds of cone, many hues can appear to differ between two people. Woman can even have a mosaic of the two kinds in their eyes: exactly the same effect as produces female-only tortoiseshell cats. This gives rise to a third interpretation of a hue.

          • Posted January 24, 2014 at 6:31 am | Permalink

            This particular super-sensory color perception is, too, reminiscent of another physical condition related to color: tetrachromacy. Most humans are trichromatic, possessing three types of color-sensing cone cells—but an undetermined percentage of women, as well as almost all birds, are tetrachromatic, possessing four receptor types. Tetrachromats perceive a kind of fourth primary color, usually a blue-green, that gives them a heightened ability to distinguish between shades of color, often to the point of distinguishing separate shades where a trichromat will perceive identicality.

            From http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/hoffman_01_13/

            I suspect that I am in that case. I also have such a sharp sense of colour that when I am out shopping, I might find an article of clothing or an accessory which I instantly know is an exact match to one I already possess. I generally purchase it (if I can afford it) and am never wrong with regard to it being the exact same colour and shade of colour to the one I already have.

            • Richard Bond
              Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:34 am | Permalink

              Thank you for highlighting that link again. I started to read it the first time that you did, but got bored before I got to the meat. Silly me!

        • Merilee
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:00 am | Permalink

          Does she call the yellow traffic lights orange? My ex did that, and my daughter picked it up…

          • gbjames
            Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:04 am | Permalink

            You sure he wasn’t referring to the transition point as the lights changed. I often use “orange” that way. IOW, the signal may be yellow as I approach it, but I’m in a hurry… it changes as I pass through the intersection and I rationalize driving through by describing the signal as “orange”.

            • Merilee
              Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

              Like your rationalization:-)

          • Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:12 am | Permalink

            In the UK, its amber.

            /@

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:14 am | Permalink

            Yep, we argue about the yellow of traffic lights regularly!

            • Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

              The yellow/amber/orange lights vary according to the countries in which they are located. Here in Switzerland they are most clearly orange and nobody calls them yellow.

              From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traffic_light

              Traffic lights, also known as traffic signals, traffic lamps, signal lights, stop lights and robots,[1] and also known technically as traffic control signals[2] are signalling devices positioned at road intersections, pedestrian crossings and other locations to control competing flows of traffic. Traffic lights were first installed in 1868 in London[3] and are now used all over the world.

              Traffic lights alternate the right of way accorded to road users by displaying lights of a standard color (red, orange/amber, and green) following a universal color code. In the typical sequence of color phases:

              the green light allows traffic to proceed in the direction denoted, if it is safe to do so

              the orange/amber light denoting prepare to stop short of the intersection, if it is safe to do so

              the red signal prohibits any traffic from proceeding

            • Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

              Also, as amber lies between yellow and orange, it will be perceived as one or the other by many people.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

                Yeah, but it’s still yellow. ;)

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

                For you it is yellow. For many others it is orange. For me it is amber. :)

      • Jo5ef
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:01 am | Permalink

        Seem to recall a suggestion that wine in Homers day often had alkali additives to make it more palatable, but also turn it blue.

        • Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:16 am | Permalink

          What I recall is that ancient Greeks were more focused on the quality of the colour rather than its hue (wavelength). The sky was compared to polished bronze, for example.

          /@

          • Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:33 am | Permalink

            Though not the article that I’d read previously, this seems to provide a well-considered perspective. (It mentions “your” theory en passant.)

            /@

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted January 24, 2014 at 6:06 am | Permalink

            They had tacky tastes. They painted their statuary and columns, etc.

      • Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:06 am | Permalink

        I think the idea is that we can not be certain that we all perceive the same thing when we see a particular colour. For instance, the feelings I get when I see the colour red, might be the feelings you get when you see the colour green. Who knows? I seem to remember Dawkins talking about this when he discusses how insects perceive the colours of flowers in “Greatest Show On Earth”.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

          “Who knows?”

          I think this might be empirically testable, actually. Fire trucks, ambulances, stop signs, danger signals, malfunction indicators, sexy dresses, and so forth are red for a reason: red is the color of spilled blood, and we are hard-wired to respond to it with heightened attention.

          So the idea that person A might react to green the same way person B reacts to red is implausible on the face of it, and probably easily refuted by experiment.

          Whether the qualia of red and green are universal is unanswerable and probably meaningless. But the feelings we get from them are physiological and therefore measurable.

    • Merilee
      Posted January 23, 2014 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

      FOX would welcome your faux article. Is our Sun news still around?

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 23, 2014 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

        Oh yes, the Sun is still around.

        • Merilee
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:04 am | Permalink

          I meant the TV show Sun News…I’m sure the Sun newspaper is extolling the virtues of Mayor Ford’s latest rant in faux Jamaican, no less.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:15 am | Permalink

            I think it is still around because I read something that they booted Ford off their show (that’s how bad he was).

            • Merilee
              Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

              Yeah, i thunk he lasted one show…

    • stuartcoyle
      Posted January 23, 2014 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

      Didn’t Sokal already do the faux article thing?

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 23, 2014 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

        Yeah but that was a burn on post modernism and peer reviewed journals. This would be just a burn on crap media that promotes woo.

        • stuartcoyle
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:14 am | Permalink

          Yes that’s true. I somehow doubt that your average Daily Mail reader could comprehend post-modernist jargon. (and Sokal showed that many post-modernists can’t either.)

    • Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      Permit me to use your post for a bit of pendantic swinging of my own.

      First, monochromatic colors — what would be represented by a single wavelength — are exceedingly rare in human experience. Some (but not all) lasers and LED lights have narrow enough spectral emissions to be considered monochromatic, but that’s about it. Other monochromatic light sources come from electron excitation (fluorescence) of certain substances (like sodium) with filters to isolate just a single peak. There’re also tunable monochromators, which use a broadband (white) light source, a diffraction grating (or a prism), and a slit to let through just a narrow range of the spectrum.

      So, virtually all color perception is not of a wavelength, but rather of a spectral power distribution.

      Next, though there is about as much similarity in color perception from one individual to another as there is in any other aspect of physiology, there is also about as much variation, too. But never mind individual-to-individual variation; your own perception can vary dramatically as well. For an excellent demonstration, the next time you find yourself in full sunlight, close both your eyes, turn your face full on to the Sun (without opening your eyes!), and additionally cover just one eye with your hand. Stay like that for a minute or three, basking in the warmth of the Sun and worshipping its divine light. Then, turn away from the Sun, open and uncover your eyes, and look alternately through each eye. The difference in color perception will be stunning.

      (What’s happening is that the Sun filtered through your closed-but-uncovered eye creates a rather bright red light over your entire field of vision, leading to fatigue of the red receptors of just that eye. Your other eye, though, is fully rested.)

      Cataracts also cause a yellowing of the cornea. People who have had cataract surgery on just a single eye report the vision through the fixed eye as being much bluer than through the eye they’re waiting to be operated on.

      There are experiments that can be done to objectively measure a person’s color perception. A classic one is to show one complex color to one eye only, and give the subject a trio of knobs that adjust the brightness of red, green, and blue lights projected into the vision of the other eye. Within certain variations, everybody fiddles the knobs to the same basic positions.

      That last point leads me to another very important phenomenon: metamerism. For any given perception of color, there are generally many different spectral combinations that will produce said perception. That’s how you can see full color reproduction on your TV or computer monitor though they’re only shining red, green, and blue lights — and how your magazine or photograph or newspaper can again do the same trick, but with blobs of cyan, magenta, and yellow (and black for good measure) ink. Metamarism can get tricky; with reflective objects, the spectrum that reaches the eye is highly dependent on the spectrum of the light source. Shine a red flashlight on a white sheet of paper and the paper looks red. As a result, you can have two objects that look identical under certain lighting conditions but that look radically different under certain other lighting conditions. Note that incandescent bulbs have proportionally much more red light in them than daylight, and fluorescent lights have wacky spiky spectra…and, well, it can be a real challenge for a printer to make a high-quality print that looks acceptable under all reasonable lighting conditions.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        Consider also how our limited rods and cones mean we suck at night vision. So, if we look at the Orion Nebula through a telescope, it looks black & white.

        If we photograph the Orion nebula, we see it in colours. The colours are there and we can replicate them if we have to based on wave lengths but our camera sees them while our eyes/brain do not.

        • Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

          Actually, with a ‘scope with a big enough aperture, you should be able to get it bright enough to see it in color.

          There’s something else at play. It’s very common in photography of all sorts to increase contrast and saturation. As I recall, most astronomical objects that we think of as colorful have very low saturation normally, and whoever was preparing the image for publication “just” grabbed the saturation slider and cranked it up.

          b&

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted January 24, 2014 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

            No, you really can’t. Your eyes just aren’t capable of seeing colour in the dark. Also, if you’re looking at something that is hard to see, it helps to look to the side of it so you aren’t looking at it directly. This too is a rod or cone limitation.

            • Posted January 24, 2014 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

              Hmmm…I’m no expert on optical astronomy, and I’m not sure how I’d run the numbers, but at least some of that doesn’t pass the “sniff” test. Go to a movie theatre, and you can see the projected colors on the screen just fine. It’s a question of how bright the image is reaching your retina, which, in turn, is a question of how many photons are entering your eyeball…which, again, in turn, is going to be a function of the physical aperture of the lens doing the gathering. Ignoring the engineering challenges in construction, I’d like to think that, say, a telescope with a mile-diameter primary optical element should be more than capable of presenting a blindingly-bright image of the Orion nebula to an human-scale eyepiece.

              When I finally work through a couple more projects (or, possibly, before then), I’ll be trying some astrophotography, including of the Orion Nebula. And I should be able to apply the same color reproduction techniques I’ve developed for fine art reproduction to create a “true color” image. If it’s colorful, then I’d be pretty confident that a bright enough ‘scope should be equally colorful. If it’s not colorful, then I’ll be equally confident that the colorful images of it that you see are the result as much of post-processing as anything else.

              (Note: I’m perfectly happy with aggressive post-processing for astronomical images. Our eyes aren’t well equipped to see most of the really interesting features, and transposing the data our instruments gather into forms that we can comprehend is critical to both understanding and appreciation of the heavens. I do think that there’s a bit more room for even more wonder with a little more transparency and hat-tipping to the process and processors that makes all this possible, though.)

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

                The Orion Nebula will look pretty good with the camera but you’ll probably need a tracker so the stars aren’t trails and to make sure the image isn’t blurred during longer exposures.

                I’ve been waiting for decent weather conditions to get pictures of Orion. I have a losmandy g8 mount for my SCT & I have hardly gotten a chance to use it!

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

                No tracker, but that should be okay (though obviously less than ideal). Instead, the plan is to loosely frame whatever objects, take the longest exposure that’s free of artifacts (which is going to be rather short and at high ISO), and keep shooting as fast as the shutter will work while eyeballing the tracking. Then stack them all, letting the computer worry about alignment and the like.

                I figure, if I shoot an insane enough number of frames, the brute force method should work well enough for what I have in mind.

                But…I’ve never seriously done that sort of thing shooting the sky before. I’ve done similar things of artwork, enough to know that, though it works in principle, it can be a real bitch in practice. So, the first few outings will definitely be practice runs.

                The good news is that I’m in a great part of the country for this sort of thing. The Phoenix light dome is pretty huge, but I won’t have to go too terribly far to get somewhere suitable for practicing. And then, just a couple hundred miles to the north, are the best skies in the continental US — the least light pollution, the driest air, the clearest weather, and the thinnest atmosphere. All right on the other side of the San Francisco peaks. And the Grand Canyon itself is 95% as good as the middle-of-nowhere spots!

                Soon…at least, that’s what I keep telling myself….

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

                I did that when I went to Mauna Kea on Big Island. We were up the mountain enough that it was still cold but not way up. I thought my camera had recorded noise but it was all different coloured stars. It looked like crap but it was interesting.

                You may need longer exposures to get colour out of Orion though but who knows, it’s a bright nebula & I’ve only had success with the moon so far.

              • Posted January 24, 2014 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

                That’s the idea of stacking exposures. Stack together ten 1/10s frames and you’ve got the equivalent of a single one-second exposure. Six hundred of them gives you a minute-long exposure. 36,000 of them and you’ve got an hour’s worth…and a metric fuckton of data to crunch.

                That’s where the experimentation is going to come into play. What’s the longest exposure that reliably gives me sharp, streak-free results? What ISO do I need to get the brightest possible image without clipping any pixels? And, now that I’ve got a metric fuckton of data to crunch, how do I crunch it?

                Plus dark frames, light frames, all that stuff….

                Once I figure out all of that without benefit of a tracker, then I’ll also have enough experience to know if that’s the sort of rabbit hole I want to chase with more serious equipment.

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 24, 2014 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

                Usually, I figure all that out then don’t write it down and forget. I used to be able to calculate out everything I needed. Now, I have no clue. I’m lucky to remember how to polar align my scope (but I feel smug that I still manually polar align it – unlike these new fancy scopes that do it for you).

              • Posted January 25, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

                If it makes you feel better, my “alignment” is nothing more than “point in the general direction of whatever you’re trying to see.”

                b&

              • gbjames
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 10:33 am | Permalink

                Speaking of telescopes…

                John Dobson, inventor of the Dobsonian telescope, recently died at age 98. He had a good run.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

                He sure did have a good run! Dobs really democratized telescope ownership too and they remain an affordable way to experience nice, wide angle and good quality observations!

              • Posted January 25, 2014 at 11:13 am | Permalink

                Amen.

                If I have enough success with the 400 f/2.8 to convince me to do that sort of photography “for real,” the telescope I’d wind up getting (or, eventually making) would almost be guaranteed to be a Dobsonian.

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

                Dobs are not good for photography if you want to use them for that. They excel at observation only. It’s a challenge to do through they eyepiece photography as well.

                Schmidt-Cassegrains remain the most affordable all around scope that works well for photography & their prices have come down dramatically.

              • Posted January 25, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

                Good to know — thanks.

                …of course, the other part of the equation is that a 400mm f/2.8 camera lens is a 400 / 2.8 = 143mm (5.6″) refractor with active stabilization. It might be a bit of a challenge to find an affordable ‘scope that’ll outperform the lens…it might make more sense to first build / buy a tracking mount.

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

                They aren’t too hard to build (tracking mounts). Telescope glass is pretty nice though but you’ll pay more for a good mount these days.

              • Posted January 25, 2014 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

                That’s what I remember — that they’re basically clocks, and clock technology is ancient. If I remember right, “barndoor” trackers are especially simple and easy, but only suitable for certain types of tracking.

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

                Yeah, you’ll probably do well trying that out. You’ll get some nice Milky Way pictures and other nice wide angle stuff!

              • gbjames
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

                I gave a pretty nice Schmidt-Cassegrains telescope to my son for his birthday a couple of years ago. It is pretty good. I’d pester him to take me out looking at the sky except that it requires that I stay up past my bed time.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

                I got my old 8″ Mead SCT 16 years ago & in that short time, for the price I paid, you get one with all the whiz bang gadgets! Here is my scope today with it’s upgraded mount.

                The mount ways a ton. I’ve been thinking about getting a small observatory as it would make it easier to view during the winter when the skies are clear & all the cool stuff is out!

              • Posted January 25, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

                Yeah…that’s the biggest problem with astronomy — finding (or making) time in one’s life to upend circadian rhythms.

                It’s even more of a problem with that pesky “day job” thing….

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 25, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

                :( weighs. Honestly, I must have a brain problem with these homophone issues.

              • Posted January 25, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

                Well, at least you’re being honest with yourself that you’re homophonobic. You might not be able to do anything about your instincts, but you should be able to consciously monitor and reign in said instincts….

                b&

    • Posted January 24, 2014 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      Unfortuantely wavelength is only part of the picture when it comes to colour. Only under certain circumstances is there an easy map. For example, one needs certain ranges of background illumination. As I recall by changing that one can provoke huge ranges of different colours from one wavelength. Moreover, a combination of distinct wavelengths can produce a given colour – this is metamerism. A good, state-of-the-art book I enjoyed (though I am no expert) was the volume _Color Ontology and Color Science_, ed. Matthen and Cohen.

      It is unfortunately the case that a lot of physics books oversimplfy here.

  23. Greg Esres
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    I’d love to have an accent like his. What is it, Scottish?

    • Posted January 23, 2014 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

      Irish, as his last name also clearly indicates.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted January 23, 2014 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

        “as his last name also clearly indicates.”

        Last names only tell you where an ancestor might have hailed from.

        • Posted January 24, 2014 at 6:20 am | Permalink

          Coupled with the accent, the name also indicates he is Irish. I did write “also”. Perhaps I was not clear enough or you didn’t get my meaning.

        • Posted January 24, 2014 at 6:23 am | Permalink

          Perhaps I should have written “as his last name confirms”.

      • Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:07 am | Permalink

        He is the Napoleon of physics, so I understand…

        /@

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:32 am | Permalink

          Sherlock reference duly noted…

          (what took y’all so long…? ;)

        • Posted January 24, 2014 at 6:22 am | Permalink

          But his accent clearly is not Corsican!

  24. walkingmap
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Gonna fluff my feathers … I posted Prof. Moriarty’s Sixty Symbol’s Video as a comment on the December 2nd Lanza post. … First and probably the last time I get one up on Prof. Coyne.

  25. Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:19 am | Permalink

    Philip Moriarty’s really outstanding put-down of quantum woo is flawed in just one aspect, his inference that, because the article that he quotes from is in the Daily Mail, that woo is, in general, linked to journalism of right-wing political persuasion. Having plowed through endless such drivel in “The Guardian” Britain’s journal of the “enlightened left” I would happily place a bet that if the pile of woo-based shite from left-wing British newspapers was put on the left side of a set of scales, and the woo based shite from right wing papers was put on the right, the scales would definitely dip down on the left.

    • Chris
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:52 am | Permalink

      I’ve come across liberal and leftie hippies who believe all sorts of weird stuff.

      I think that the difference is more to do with editorial standards then with woo per se.

      • Merilee
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

        Sub

    • gbjames
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 6:03 am | Permalink

      I don’t understand this concept of “left-wing newspapers”. Or perhaps I have a vague memory of something like that… but I’m not sure.

      • Merilee
        Posted January 24, 2014 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        But don’t you know that ALL media is controlled by pointy- headed elite liberal elite intellectuals?? Where’s Spiro Agnew when we need some good alliteratin’

  26. barael
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I’d just like to point out that this video wasn’t actually produced by professor Moriarty but rather by Brady Haran, who produces a number of wonderful science-oritented Youtube channels including Sixty Symbols (physics-oriented, including this video), Numberphile (mathematics), Periodic Videos (chemistry) and Computerphile (computer science).

    Should Professor Ceiling Cat take a moment to browse the substantial catalogue of science videos by Brady, I doubt he’d have any hesitation to recommend them all to the website readership here.

    There is however an alarming lack of biology/evolution oriented channel by Brady Haran! Maybe there’s an opportunity here?

  27. Posted January 26, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on csaemjls.


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