How Science Has Operated

The October 10 edition of the magazine Palladium published an item called The Transformations of Science. The following includes some of my thoughts on what the article stated, relating to the issue of trust in science. In 1660 the Royal Society was formed, and it adopted the motto Nullius in verba, which means take no one’s word for it. This was their version of how science should be carried out: check everything. The article notes that Thomas Hobbes objected, maybe because he was not a member of the Royal Society. Hobbes pointed out that not everyone could make such observations and stated claims should be derived mathematically from axioms. This raised a problem: who was supposed to make the relevant observations and who was supposed to rely on whom? Unstated was another issue: do we require procedures derived from axioms that allows calculations to get the results we need (the epistemic approach), or do we try to understand what is going on (the ontological approach)? This hounds modern quantum mechanics.

None of this produced benefit, however. Back then, science was a curiosity. There was public interest, particularly when the Leyden jar was developed. Apparently, a large number of people would join hands and one would touch the jar, when they would all get an electrical shock. Michael Faraday gave public demonstrations that filled halls and showed phenomena that probably seemed like magic. However, it would not be long before science got too complicated. People might come to see Faraday do some amazing things with electricity, but they would hardly come to watch the manipulation of Maxwell’s partial differential equations.

Nullius in verba implies everything should be re-examined and re-verified. That makes little sense. How many times do you have to check the melting point of benzoic acid? Accordingly, what we have now is settled science. This is the authoritative version, but that brings its own problems. Authority is a powerful resource, and before long politicians saw a point of using it to justify their decisions, and to maintain this, the state supplied money to keep it going. Science made an impact in WW I, and a hugely more important role in WW II. The provision of electrical appliances following Faraday and Maxwell, and the more startling appliances that depend on quantum mechanics, together with the development of modern medicine, have made us dependent on science. The problem with this is how is it “settled”? Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for daring to go against “settled” science. He supported Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, and how could anyone reject the settled conclusion that everything went around Earth? Fortunately for heretics like me, we have now developed a different approach: ignore the heresy.

Sometimes science is either not settled or does not give clean answers. The recent issue of mask-wearing is indicative. Politicians had to make decisions based on limited information. From the scientific view, if we restrict our thoughts solely to the virus, mask wearing cannot do harm (i.e. make viruses more likely to infect) as long as people handle the masks properly, whereas they might do good. They were, however, very unpopular and many people objected because the state made them do something. The reputation of science was also damaged.

We have a similar problem with climate change and the effect of greenhouse gases. The problem is the epistemic approach. You hear comments that the climate varies and the variations are due to “natural causes”. Worse, the population has expanded dramatically based on the availability of cheap energy, and in doing so it has locked in the need for it, at least in the short term. To stop burning fossil fuels today would lead to serious economic problems tomorrow; failure to stop today will lead to catastrophic economic problems for our great grandchildren. But politicians never think past the next election, or at least not sufficiently well to act on those thoughts. The scientists lose face because they cannot predict exactly what will happen. The population, however, cannot understand the concept of partial differential equations and cannot understand the consequences of a number of different effects that sometimes reinforce or sometimes cancel. The so-called Southern Oscillation is an example. The scientists know fine well what the causes are, but putting numbers to them and combining them well into the future is a probabilistic effort.

So, what does this article recommend? The first is a reconciliation between exploratory and authoritative elements. That requires changes in scientific practice and public comprehension. It argues some fields should disclaim authority partly or completely. It even suggests some scientific journals should ban authoritative articles. It suggests some parts of science should be shed off and rarely interact with other parts, thereby preventing premature consensus. It also suggests funding has to be restructured, with exploratory science removed from central funding, where authority and settled science resides.

So, what do I think this means. Feel free to offer your thoughts. I shall add more thoughts in a later post, mainly on the issue of “settled science”.


Ebook Discount

From October 20 – 27, my thriller, The Manganese Dilemma, will be discounted to 99c/99p on Amazon. The Russians did it; everyone is convinced of that. But just exactly what did they do? The curvaceous Svetlana has brought to the West evidence of new super stealth technology. Some believe there is nothing there since their surveillance technology cannot show any evidence of it, but then it is “super stealth” so just maybe . . . Charles Burrowes, a master hacker, is asked to work with Svetlana and validate the technology. Can Burrowes provide what the CIA needs before Russian counterintelligence or a local criminal conspiracy blow the whole operation out of the water? The lives of many CIA agents in Russia will depend on how successful he is. A thriller based on espionage, counter espionage, and old-fashioned crime. Parts of it are set in the Belgorod – Kharkiv region, which is of current interest.

Trees for Carbon Capture, and Subsequent Problems

A little over fifty years ago, a 200 page book called The Limits to Growth was published, and the conclusion was that unless something was done, continued economic and population growth would deplete our resources and lead to global economic collapse around 2070. Around 1990, we predicted that greenhouse gases would turn our planet into something we would not like. So, what have we done? In an organized way, not much. One hazard with problem solving is that focusing on one aspect and fixing that often simply shifts it, and sometimes even makes it worse. Currently, we are obsessed with carbon dioxide, but all we appear to be doing is to complacently pat ourselves on the back because we shall be burning somewhat less Russian gas and oil in the future, oblivious to the fact that the substitute is likely to be coal.

One approach to mitigate global warming involves using biomass for carbon capture and storage (See Nature vol 609, p299 – 305). The authors here note that the adverse effects of climate change on crop yields may reduce the capacity of biomass to do this, as well as threaten food security. There are two approaches to overcoming the potential food shortage: increase agricultural land by using marginal land and cutting down forests, or increase nitrogen fertilizer. Now we see what “shifting the problem” means. If we use marginal land, we still have to increase the use of nitrogen fertilizer. This leads to the production of nitrous oxide gas, and these authors show the production of nitrous oxide would be roughly three times as effective as a greenhouse gas as the saving of carbon dioxide in their model. This is serious. All we have done is to generate a worse problem, to say nothing about the damage done to the environment. We have to leave some land for animals and wild plants.

There is a further issue: nitrogen fertiliser is currently made by reacting natural gas to make hydrogen, so for every tonne of fertilizer we will be making something like a tonne of CO2. Much the same happens if we make hydrogen from coal. Rather interestingly for such a paper, the authors concede they may have over-estimated the problems of food shortages on the grounds that new technology and practices may increase yields.

Suppose we make hydrogen by electrolysing water? Ammonia is currently made by heating nitrogen and hydrogen together at 200 times atmospheric pressure. This is by no means optimal, but higher pressures cost a lot more to construct, and there are increasing problems with corrosion, etc. Hydrogen made by electrolysis is also more expensive, in part because electricity is in demand for other purposes, and worse, electricity is also made at least in part by burning fossil fuels, and only a third of the energy is recovered as electricity. When considering a new use, it is important to not that the most adverse in terms of cost and effectiveness must be considered. Even if there are more friendly ways of getting electricity, you get favourable effects by doing nothing and turning off the adverse supply, so that must be assigned to your new use.

There is, however, an alternative in that electricity can directly reduce nitrogen to nitride in the presence of lithium, and if in the presence of a proton-donating substance (technically an acid, but not as you would probably recognize) you directly make ammonia, with no high pressure. So far, this is basically a laboratory curiosity because the yields and yield rates have been just too small, but there was a recent paper in Nature (vol 609, 722 – 727) which claims good increased efficiency. Since the authors write, “We anticipate that these findings will guide the development of a robust, high-performance process for sustainable ammonia production.” They do not feel they are there yet, but it is encouraging that improvements are being made.

Ammonia would be a useful means of carrying hydrogen for transport uses, but nitrogen fertilizer is important for maintaining food production. So can we reduce the nitrous oxide production? Nitrous oxide is a simple decomposition product of ammonium nitrate, which is the usual fertilizer used, but could we use something else, such as urea? Enzymes do convert urea to ammonium nitrate, but slowly, and maybe more nitrogen would end up in the plants. Would it? We don’t know but we could try finding out. The alternative might be to put lime, or even crushed basalt with the fertilizer. The slightly alkaline nature of these materials would react in part with ammonium nitrate and make metal nitrate salts, which would still be good fertilizer, and ammonia, which hopefully could also be used by plants, but now the degradation to nitrous oxide would stop. Would it? We don’t know for sure, but simple chemistry strongly suggests it would. So does it hurt to do then research and find out? Or do we sit on our backsides and eventually wail when we cannot stop the disaster.

Success! Defence Against Asteroids

Most people will know that about 64 million years ago an asteroid with a diameter of about 10 km struck the Yucatán peninsula and exterminated the dinosaurs, or at least did great damage to them from which they never recovered. The shock-wave probably also initiated the formation of the Deccan Traps, and the unpleasant emission of poisonous gases which would finish off any remaining dinosaurs. The crater is 180 km wide and 20 km deep. That was a very sizeable excavation. Rather wisely, we would like to avoid a similar fate, and the question is, can we do anything about it? NASA thinks so, and they carried out an experiment.

I would be extremely surprised if, five years ago, anyone reading this had heard of Dimorphos. Dimorphos is a small asteroid with dimensions about those of the original Colosseum, i.e.  before vandals, like the Catholic Church took stones away to make their own buildings. By now you will be aware that Dimorphos orbits another larger asteroid called Didymos. What NASA has done was to send a metallic object of dimensions 1.8 x 1.9 x 2.6 meters, of mass 570 kg, and velocity 22,530 km/hr to crash into Dimorphos to slightly slow its orbital speed, which would change its orbital parameters. It would also change then orbital characteristics of the two around the sun. Dimorphos has a “diameter” of about 160 m., Didymos about 780 m. Neither are spherical hence the quotation marks.

This explains why NASA selected Dimorphos for the collision. First, it is not that far from Earth, while the two on their current orbits will not collide with Earth on their current orbits. Being close to Earth, at least when their orbits bring them close, lowers the energy requirement to send an object there. It is also easier to observe what happens hence more accurately determine the consequences. The second reason is that Dimorphos is reasonably small and so if a collision changes its dynamics, we shall be able to see by how much. At first sight you might say that conservation of momentum makes that obvious, but it is actually more difficult to know because it depends on what takes the momentum away after the collision. If it is perfectly inelastic, the object gets “absorbed” by the target which stays intact, then we simply add its relative momentum to that of the target. However, real collisions are seldom inelastic, and it would have been considered important to determine how inelastic. A further possibility is that the asteroid could fragment, and send bits in different directions. Think of Newton’s cradle. You hit one end and the ball stops but another flies off from the other end, and the total stationary mass is the same. NASA would wish to know how well the asteroid held together. A final reason for selecting Dimorphos would be that by being tethered gravitationally to Didymos, it could not go flying off is some unfortunate direction, and eventually collide with Earth. It is interesting that the change of momentum is shared between the two bodies through their gravitational interaction.

So, what happened, apart from the collision. There was another space craft trailing behind: the Italian LICIACube (don’t you like these names? It is an acronym for “Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging Asteroids”, and I guess they were so proud of the shape they had to have “cube” twice!). Anyway, this took a photograph before and after impact, and after impact Dimorphos was surrounded by a shower of material flung up from the asteroid. You could no longer see the asteroid for the cloud of debris. Of course Dimorphos survived, and the good news is we now know that the periodic time of Dimorphos around Didymos has been shortened by 32 minutes. That is a genuine success. (Apparently, initially a change  by as little as 73 seconds would have been considered a success!) Also, very importantly, Dimorphos held together. It is not a loosely bound rubble pile, which would be no surprise to anyone who has read my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”.

This raises another interesting fact. The impact slowed Dimorphos down relative to Didymos, so Dimorphos fell closer to Didymos, and sped up. That is why the periodic time was shortened. The speeding up is because when you lower the potential energy, you bring the objects closer together and thus lower the total energy, but this equals the kinetic energy except the kinetic energy has the opposite sign, so it increases. (It also shortens the path length, which also lowers the periodic time..)

The reason for all this is to develop a planetary protection system. If you know that an asteroid is going to strike Earth, what do you do? The obvious answer is to divert it, but how? The answer NASA has tested is to strike it with a fast-moving small object. But, you might protest, an object like that would not make much of a change in the orbit of a dinosaur killer. The point is, it doesn’t have to. Take a laser light and point it at a screen. Now, give it a gentle nudge so it changes where it impacts. If the screen as a few centimeters away the lateral shift is trivial, but if the screen is a kilometer away, the lateral shift is now significant, and in fact the lateral shift is proportional to the distance. The idea is that if you can catch the asteroid far enough away, the asteroid won’t strike Earth because the lateral shift will be sufficient.

You might protest that asteroids do not travel in a straight line. No, they don’t, and in fact have trajectories that are part of an ellipse. However, this is still a line, and will still shift laterally. The mathematics are a bit more complicated because the asteroid will return to somewhere fairly close to where it was impacted, but if you can nudge it sufficiently far away from Earth it will miss. How big a nudge? That is the question about which this collision was designed to provide us with clues.

If something like Dimorphos struck Earth it would produce a crater about 1.6 km wide and 370 m deep, while the pressure wave would knock buildings over tens of km away. If it struck the centre of London, windows would break all over South-East England. There would be no survivors in central London, but maybe some on the outskirts. This small asteroid would be the equivalent a good-sized hydrogen bomb, and, as you should realize, a much larger asteroid would do far more damage. If you are interested in further information, I have some data and a discussion of such collisions in my ebook noted above.

2022 Nobel Prize in Physics

When I woke up on Wednesday, I heard the Physics prize being announced: it was given for unravelling quantum entanglement, and specifically to Alain Aspect for the first “convincing demonstration of violations of Bell’s Inequalities”. In the unlikely event you recall my posts:  and will realize that I argue he did no such thing. In my ebook “Guidance Waves” I made this point ten years ago.

So, how do these Inequalities work? Basically, to use these inequalities you need measurements on a sequence of a number of equivalent things (in Aspect’s case, photons), where the measurements that can have one of two values (such as pass/fail) are made on the items at three DIFFERENT conditions. Bell illustrated this need for different conditions by washing socks at 25 degrees, 35 degrees and 45 degrees C. What Bell did was to derive a relationship that mixed up the passes and fails from different conditions.

The issue I dispute involves rotational invariance. Each photon is polarized, which means it will go through a filter aligned with its polarization, and not one at right angles to it. In between, there is a probabilistic relation called the Malus Law. So what Aspect did was to pass photons through polarizing filters orients at different angles, and for example a + result was obtained with a filter that started vertical and a fail with a filter that started horizontal. Those configurations were set A. Set B involved rotating a filter clockwise by 22.5 degrees, set C by rotating a filter by 45 degrees. Three joint sets were collected: A+.B-; B+.C-, and A+.C-. These sets have to be different for the inequality to be used.

My objection is simple. Aspect showed that rotating one filter always achieved a constant value, so the source was giving off photons with all polarizations equally. If so, B+.C- is exactly the same as A+.B- except the key parts of the apparatus have been rotated by 22.5 degrees. If the background has no angular preference, it should not matter what angle the action is to it. Thus, if you are playing billiards, you do not have to worry about whether the table is pointing north or east. (If you use that as an excuse for a poor shot, quite rightly you will be put in your place.) This fact that the orientation of how you measure something does not affect the answer unless there is an angular asymmetry is shown by Noether’s theorem, on which all the conservation laws of physics depend. The angular symmetry leads to the conservation of angular momentum, a physical law on which ironically enough Aspect’s experiment depends to get the entanglement, and he then proceeded to ignore it when evaluating the results of his experiment.

Interestingly, if the background has a directional preference, the above argument does not apply. Thus, a compass needle always tries to point north because unlike the billiards example, there is a force that interacts with the needle that comes from the planet’s magnetic field. Now, suppose you employ a polarized source. Now there will be a preferred background direction, and the Aspect experiment does generate sufficient variables. However, calculations show that if you properly count the number of photons and apply the Malus Law, the results shpould comply with Bell’s inequality.

Accordingly, I am in the weird position of having published an argument that shows something in the scientific literature is wrong, nobody has ever found a flaw in my argument, yet the something has been awarded a Nobel Prize. Not many people get into that position. Does that mean that entanglement does not occur? No, it does not. The entanglement is simply a consequence of the law of conservation of angular momentum. There are further consequences of my argument, but they go beyond this post.