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Thursday, Dec 30, 2010
Weyl invented gauge theory
Physics World, September 2007, published this start to an article by a couple of philosophers of science:
String theory under scrutiny

One of the main charges against string theory is that it cannot make specific predictions that may be checked against an experiment. But as Nancy Cartwright and Roman Frigg explain, other criteria should be taken into account too when evaluating scientific research

Ever since antiquity, attempts have been made to reduce an apparently complex re- ality to a few elementary building blocks from which everything else is constructed. This project – now called reductionism – has a long history of failures. One example is the 200-year-long attempt to describe all phys- ical processes in terms of mechanics, such as James Clerk Maxwell’s mechanical mod- els of the electromagnetic field. Another is Hermann Weyl’s failed attempt to unify electromagnetism and gravity in a single theory shortly after Einstein had introduced special relativity.

I think it meant to say, "after Einstein had introduced general relativity."

No, the Maxwell and Weyl theories were not failures. A physics journal should be embarrassed about this.

Hermann Weyl's 1918 paper invented gauge theory as a way of combining electromagnetism with general relativity. He successfully combined it with quantum mechanics in 1929. You can read the details here (with a copy also here), and many other places.

The 1918 paper is famous among physicists because it was published with an appendix written by Einstein arguing that the theory was wrong. Pauli also attacked the 1929 paper, and told Weyl to stick to math.

And yet these two papers were two of the most important papers in 20th century theoretical physics. The ideas in them have become essential to all high-energy physics. They were more important than any papers that Einstein ever wrote. Today's textbooks explain nuclear and electromagnetic interactions in terms of gauge theories.

So how is it that a major physics journal could badmouth a major physics breakthru as a failure? How could they not know that about ten Nobel prizes were given for work in gauge theory, and that Weyl invented gauge theory with these papers?

My explanation is that it is part of the evil of Einstein's influence. Einstein attacked the paper, and everyone assumes that Einstein knows everything. But Einstein was the failure on this subject. He spent the next 35 years of his life trying to do what Weyl did in that 1918 paper, and he never wrote another paper that was even 1% as good as that Weyl paper.

Monday, Dec 27, 2010
Evolving idiocracy
Razib Khan cites evidence that we are slouching toward idiocracy by evolving smaller brains. He also says that some subpopulations are evolving taller, and others shorter.

The North Magnetic Pole is moving from Canada to Siberia.

The 2006 movie was a comedy about how humans are evolving towards stupidity.

Funny how the global warming alarmists are not eager to stop any of these changes.

Update: Brain size is not just correlated with IQ, but with other mental traits as well:

Controlling for age, sex, and whole-brain volume, results from structural magnetic resonance imaging of 116 healthy adults supported our hypotheses for four of the five traits: Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness.

Sunday, Dec 26, 2010
The Danger of Cosmic Genius
An environmentalist site says:
An article entitled “The Danger of Cosmic Genius” appearing in the December 2010 edition of The Atlantic, authored by Kenneth Brower, refers to the brilliant physicist Freeman Dyson, and his “dangerous” skepticism regarding climate change. As Brower puts it, “Among intelligent nonexperts who have weighed in on climate change, Freeman Dyson has become, now that Michael Crichton is dead, perhaps our most prominent global-warming skeptic.”
I previously commented on Dyson's climate views, and pointed out his Kuhnian views on Einstein. He has some other unusual views also, such as on ESP.

Brower says:

For whatever reason, he is emotionally incapable of seeing the true colors of the rampant ingenuity of our species and calculating where our cleverness, as opposed to our wisdom, is taking us.
This sort of mindreading is useless. If Dyson is wrong, then just show how he is wrong.

If you have a Kuhnian view of science, then scientific knowledge is defined by the dominant paradigm, and not by objective reality. That is the problem with both Brower and Dyson.

Saturday, Dec 25, 2010
Obama fails to change science policy
After two years of study, the White House science advisor has announced in 4-page letter that he favors shielding scientists from "inappropriate political influence". Yawn.

In other words, the Obama policy is the same as the Bush policy.

I would have liked to see some more scientific procedures for the scientific advisory panels. The vaccine panels do not have open meetings, do not have clear objectives, do not avoid conflicts of interest, and do not have a diversity of members.

Friday, Dec 24, 2010
Lorentz's assumptions
There is now a complete English translation of Lorentz's 1895 electromagnetism and relativity book. It is modestly titled, "Attempt of a Theory of Electrical and Optical Phenomena in Moving Bodies", but it was good enough to win him the 1902 Nobel Prize in physics.

I previously discussed how this paper is the basis of the Lorentz aether theory, but it really has almost nothing to do with the aether. Wikipedia says:

Einstein identified two fundamental principles, each founded on experience, from which all of Lorentz's electrodynamics follows:

1. that the laws by which physical processes occur are the same with respect to any system of inertial coordinates (the principle of relativity), and
2. that light propagates at an absolute speed of c in terms of any system of inertial coordinates ("principle of the constancy of light“)

Taken together (along with a few other tacit assumptions such as isotropy and homogeneity of space), these two postulates lead uniquely to the mathematics of special relativity. Lorentz and Poincaré had also adopted these same principles, as necessary to achieve their final results, but didn't recognize that they were also sufficient, and hence that they obviated all the other assumptions underlying Lorentz's initial derivations (many of which later turned out to be incorrect [C 4]).

[footnote C4] The three best known examples are (1) the assumption of Maxwell's equations, and (2) the assumptions about finite structure of the electron, and (3) the assumption that all mass was of electromagnetic origin. Maxwell's equations were subsequently found to be invalid and were replaced with quantum electrodynamics, although one particular feature of Maxwell's equations, the invariance of a characteristic speed, has remained. The electron's mass is now regarded as a pointlike particle, and Poincaré already showed in 1905 that it is not possible for all the mass of the electron to be electromagnetic in origin. This is how relativity invalidated the 19th century hopes for basing all of physics on electromagnetism.

It is false to say that Einstein did not need to assume Maxwell's equations, or that Einstein had any better understanding about the sufficiency of assumptions. Einstein explicitly said in 1905 that he was relying on Maxwell's equations for his derivations.

Einstein also assumed that Maxwell's equations hold in both the stationary and moving systems, and in the same form. Lorentz and Poincare did not assume this -- they proved it, based on other assumptions. Einstein's assumptions are much more complex than Lorentz's and Poincare's. Modern textbooks follow Poincare, not Lorentz or Einstein. And those two fundamental principles were not "founded on experience", either. They were based on Lorentz's interpretation of the Michelson–Morley experiment and other experiments.

Thursday, Dec 23, 2010
Out-of-Africa debunked
For 25 years, the evolutionist consensus has been the Out of Africa theory, that we are all descended from a small group of Africans, including the "Mitochondrial Eve", 200K years ago. This was predicted by Darwin and confirmed by DNA, we were told.

Now we learn:

An international team of scientists has identified a previously shadowy human group known as the Denisovans as cousins to Neanderthals who lived in Asia from roughly 400,000 to 50,000 years ago and interbred with the ancestors of today’s inhabitants of New Guinea.
Separate DNA research has shown that we have Neanderthal genes as well. Razib Khan has much more info, and John Hawks has a Denisova genome FAQ.

I am not sure what to make of this, but it seems to be the biggest anthropological discovery in decades. First, I'd like to find out how the evolutionists could have been so wrong.

Wednesday, Dec 22, 2010
Name-calling by string theorist
A prominent string theorist complains about skeptics:
Science sceptics
08 December 2010
From Michael Duff, Abdus Salam Professor of Theoretical Physics, Imperial College London

I enjoyed Milena Wazeck's analysis of the thought processes of those who denied Einstein's relativity (13 November, p 48). Yet it all sounded eerily familiar.

Phrases such as "when people don't like what science tells them, they resort to conspiracy theories, mud-slinging and plausible pseudoscience" and "the increasingly mathematical approach of theoretical physics collided with the then widely held view that science is essentially simple mechanics, comprehensible to every educated layperson" call to mind the modern-day ramshackle alliance between unqualified scientists, the blogosphere and many science journalists when confronted with the academic consensus of superstrings and M-theory as the most promising candidates for unifying gravity with the other forces of nature. These people are quick to cry "this is not science", while themselves resorting to pseudoscientific alternatives.

The letter responds to this:
I discovered (http://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/en/research/projects/DEPT1_Wazeck-GehrckeCollection) that the group opposing relativity was much broader than many historians believed till now, and that their tactics had much in common with those used by creationists and climate-change deniers today. Their reasons for countering relativity were also more complex and varied than is usually thought. Even Einstein misjudged the motivations of many of his opponents.
In this interview, Duff says that M-theory just has two problems, finding a theory and finding an experiment:
What is the greatest challenge at the moment?

I think there are two. One on the theoretical side, and one more on the reality side. The theoretical one is to pin down exactly what M theory is. ... That’s the theoretical challenge: to rigorously pin down what this all-embracing theory really is.

The other challenge is to make contact with experiment.

Any allegedly scientific theory with those two defects is pseudoscience.

Duff likes to align himself with Einstein, and badmouth any skeptic as being a pseudoscientist or like those who refused to accept Einstein's theories. The analogy to relativity is bad. Relativity never had those two challenges, and always had experimental evidence.

Duff once debated string theory, and spent a lot of it attacking his opponent for quotes from a pre-publication draft, even tho the quotes had been changed for publication in the book.

Duff shows how low the theoretical physicists have gotten. He is a big-shot with a high-status job. And yet he is very insecure about the pseudoscientific nature of his own research that he launches into these vague and unsubstantiated attacks on others.

Tuesday, Dec 21, 2010
Four in 10 Americans Believe in Strict Creationism
A new Gallup Poll gave these choices:
Which of the Following Statements Comes Closest to Your Views on the Origin and Development of Human Beings?

1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, 2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process, 3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.

A small minority of Americans hold the "secular evolution" view that humans evolved with no influence from God -- but the number has risen from 9% in 1982 to 16% today. At the same time, the 40% of Americans who hold the "creationist" view that God created humans as is 10,000 years ago is the lowest in Gallup's history of asking this question, and down from a high point of 47% in 1993 and 1999. There has been little change over the years in the percentage holding the "theistic evolution" view that humans evolved under God's guidance.

My problem with this is that the standard evolutionist view is that human beings developed only 50k years ago, not millions of years ago. We split from the Neanderthals in the last 600K years or so, but they are not considered human.

Furthermore, the standard evolutionist dogma is that apes are no less advanced than humans, and that humans did not evolve from from less advanced forms of life. All life forms are equally advanced in that they are adapted to their environments. That is what they say, anyway. In particular, they say that there is no such thing as devolution.

So while answer (2) is supposed to be the scientific answer, it is not really what the leading evolutionary scientists say. If the experts do not agree on these statements, then how can we expect the general public to answer correctly?

Monday, Dec 20, 2010
New value for fine structure constant
The latest value of the fine structure constant has been found in France to be about 1/alpha = 137.035999, with theoretical and experimental errors of about 1e-7. Thus there is eight-digit agreement between theory and experiment.

Some famous physicists have looked for numerological significance of this number, especially when it was thought possible that it was exactly 137.

The fine structure constant is the most fundamental of all the coupling constants. It defines the coupling between electrons and photons. In other words, it defines the interaction between electric charge and the luminiferous aether.

The calculations involve assuming that empty space is not really empty, and that electron-positron pairs are being spontaneously created and annihilated throughout the universe. Even some exotic particles such as muons have such a fleeting existence. Such is the nature of the modern aether. We have no other way to understand electricity to such high precision.

A 2005 SciAm article starts by saying:

When Albert Einstein proposed his special theory of relativity in 1905, he rejected the 19th-century idea that light arises from vibrations of a hypothetical medium, the "ether." Instead, he argued, light waves can travel in vacuo without being supported by any material--;unlike sound waves, which are vibrations of the medium in which they propagate. This feature of special relativity is untouched in the two other pillars of modern physics, general relativity and quantum mechanics. Right up to the present day, all experimental data, on scales ranging from subnuclear to galactic, are successfully explained by these three theories.
This is a very odd description of modern physics. Einstein denied in 1920 that he rejected the aether. Special relativity is a special case of general relativity, and they cannot be seen as two separate theories. Quantum mechanics is not really separate either, as special relativity has been fully incorporated in it to turn it into quantum field theory, as of about 1930. Modern physics says that light cannot travel in a vacuum unless it is supported by a pervasive structure of virtual electrons, muons, and other particles. That is what you get when you combine relativity and quantum mechanics, and there has been no other high-precision understanding of light since about 1950.

The above 8-digit agreement, and similar confirmations of quantum electrodynamics, are among the greatest achievements of modern science. It is simply not possible to get such agreement between theory and experiment if you assume that "light waves can travel in vacuo without being supported by any material". SciAm is decades out of date when it says that.

Sunday, Dec 19, 2010
Astronomer blackballed for Biblical beliefs
The NY Times reports:
In 2007, C. Martin Gaskell, an astronomer at the University of Nebraska, was a leading candidate for a job running an observatory at the University of Kentucky. ... Whether his faith cost him the job and whether certain religious beliefs may legally render people unfit for certain jobs are among the questions raised by the case, Gaskell v. University of Kentucky.

With his faith, Dr. Gaskell, who now works at the University of Texas but has accepted a job in Chile, does embrace views that most of his peers find indefensible. In a 1998 survey, 7.5 percent of physicists and astronomers in the National Academy of Sciences said they believed in God — and many of the believers would still concede that science explains the universe better than a reading of Genesis.

It appears to me that Gaskell also believes that science explains the universe better than Genesis. Here is what he says:
I list, and briefly discuss, some of the main theological interpretational viewpoints of the creation stories in Genesis. It is explained that there are more than just two extreme views on the origin of the universe and that the majority of scientists who are Christians adhere neither to the view that the Bible is irrelevant to the earth's origin (which exponents of atheistic evolution claim) nor the view that God made the earth essentially as it now is in six 24-hour periods about 6000 years ago (the “young earth creationist” position.) ...

What I've sketched above is just a series of possible interpretations of Genesis 1 & 2. The main point that I'd like to get across from doing this is that given that there is a possible scientific explanation of most things, one cannot say “science disproves Genesis”. Another point is that we do not have to take Genesis as something “just theological”. It is quite likely that Genesis is describing physical things that happened in space and time in the history of our universe. ... I personally am not going to be the least bit surprised if someone proves that the age of the universe is outside that “± 0.01” billion year range (for example, if it is only 13 billion years or more than 14 billion years).

My views are more like what Gaskell calls the extreme views of the atheistic evolutionists, but his views are not demonstrably wrong. They are no more wrong than those who believe in extraterrestial life, evaporating black holes, or extra dimensions or universes. He accepts that science determines the age of the universe, not Genesis.

Here is the latest evidence on some of those goofy theories:

The Large Hadron Collider has not yet seen any of the microscopic black holes that inspired numerous scare stories in recent years.

Many theorists actually hope the collider, based near Geneva, Switzerland, will create short-lived, miniature black holes. These would not pose a threat to Earth, but they would provide evidence for hypothetical extra dimensions that might lie beyond the 3D world we normally experience.

Not just scaremongers. The string theorists were predicting mini black holes. I don't see where any of them are being blackballed for being proven wrong.

The University of Kentucky should be embarrassed for this. Not just for practicing religious discrimination, but for making an unscientific rejection of an astronomer's speculations. If Gaskell said something that is demostrably wrong, then his critics should prove it, instead of censoring him. The anti-Genesis astronomers already have 99% of their colleagues on their side, and they should not be threatened by Gaskell.

The godless liberal PZ Myers complains that "Gaskell himself is quite clear that he isn't going to confine himself to talking only about his field". Fellow religion-hater Jerry Coyne complains that mainstream Christians are just as bad as Gaskell.

Saturday, Dec 18, 2010
Climate science regresses
The current AAAS Science magazine has a special on the Insights of the Decade. The accompanying podcast says:
Host – Sophia Cai
So what does the coming decade look like for climate science research, Dick?

News Writer – Richard Kerr
Well, there's going to be another report assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They last came out with an assessment in 2007, made a very big splash. The next one, due I think 2013, could be a difficult report to present to the public; there's a real possibility that as climate scientists get more deeply into the climate system, they get more realistic models, that things are going to get more complicated, and therefore less certain. And so they may be having to present results with more uncertainty that they'd been talking about before, so that should be a challenge. And their last remaining question – just how bad could the warming get? – looks like a very tough nut to crack, and there may be very limited progress on that front.

This is an amazing admission from a leftist journal. Climate science must be the only science that advances by more realistic models and more uncertain results. In every other science, more realistic models reduce the uncertainty in the predictions.

Kerr is saying that new research is going to show that the global warming scare stories are unlikely, and that we are not able to make long term climate predictions nearly as well as our leaders have pretended. Selling the public on the scare stories is going to become more challenging, as the research proves the alarmists wrong.

As noted below, AAAS is a leftist organization. If it were objectively seeking the truth, wherever it might lead, then it would not be complaining that more realistic climate models would soon be available to the public.

Friday, Dec 17, 2010
Conflict between science and religion
Jason Rosenhouse responds to this book on science and religion:
Historians have shown that the Galileo affair, remembered by some as a clash between science and religion, was primarily about the enduring political question of who was authorized to produce and disseminate knowledge. [Thomas Dixon's book]
by saying:
Why was Pope Urban VIII so threatened by Galileo's ideas? Why didn't the church simply laugh at Galileo, and tell him condescendingly to go keep playing with his telescope while the grown-ups talked about more serious things? The reason was that the Pope's authority was based entirely on the idea that he stood in a privileged relation to God, uniquely able to interpret scripture. If someone like Galileo could use science to challenge his claims, then the entire basis for the church's power would be seriously weakened. ...

Young-Earth creationists believe the Bible constitutes a source of evidence that trumps anything a scientist might discover. Furthermore, failure to recognize that fact places your eternal soul in danger.

No, he is completely wrong. Mainstream Christian denominations do not even believe in Young-Earth Creationism (YEC). The minority that do believe in YEC all say that your eternal soul is saved by belief in Jesus, not YEC, as under John 3:16.

At the time of Galileo, the Pope was fighting against the Protestant Reformation, where Martin Luther and others were arguing for more literal interpretations of the Bible. Luther objected to Church theology that was influenced by Aristotelian reason. As a comment says:

To say “The Galileo affair was primarily about religion vs. science” misses that Galileo was as deeply religious as his opponents, that his opponents were motivated by Aristotle's philosophy rather than Biblical literalism, and that the evidence that would eventually show Galileo's heliocentrism to be far superior was not yet available, and some of Galileo's “best arguments” (e.g. from the tides) were wrong, and visibly so, as his opponents noted.
This is correct. Galileo only got into trouble when he started giving theological arguments for heliocentrism that contradicted official Church position. The Church was trying to maintain its authority over theological teachings.

Leftist-atheist-evolutionist Jerry Coyne cites this false Rittenhouse argument to prove that there can be no accommodation between science and religion. But the Galileo trial proves no such thing.

Coyne spends most of his energy promoting his idea of science, and how it disproves religion and it is based on false premises.

I am not arguing that there is no conflict between science and religion. There is. A famous and influential 11th century Islamic theology book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, said:

our opponent claims that the agent of the burning is the fire exclusively ... This we deny, saying: The agent of the burning is God ... Indeed, the philosophers have no other proof than the observation of the occurrence of the burning, when there is contact with fire, but observation proves only a simultaneity, not a causation, and, in reality, there is no other cause but God.
This is the sort of thinking that made Islam hostile to science. The Islamic world did some great science until these anti-science attitudes took over.
Biology journal invites evolution controversy
Leftist-atheist-evolutionist Jerry Coyne praises Behe’s new paper on the observation of evolutionary mutations. But he is unhappy about the inferences that others have drawn, and blames Behe's motivations:
This distortion is hardly news, of course -— I’m completely confident that Behe not only expected it, but approves of it -— but I feel compelled to highlight it once again. ... So typical of these clowns to ignore the insuperable problems with extending Behe’s limited conclusions to evolution as a whole.  But I’m absolutely sure that Behe intended his paper to be distorted in this way.
The same journal with Behe's paper also has a paper attacking his earlier work as pseudoscience. The paper complains about the motives of the advocates of the Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC), and says that they keep "moving the goalposts". Eg, it says:
As was apparent from its conception, the rapid success of the IDC movement was never driven by its arguments but by its religious ideology, which was epitomized in the so-called Wedge document of IDC’s home base, the Discovery Institute (Forrest and Gross, 2007b).
I think that it is funny how these evolutionists devote so much energy in mindreading Behe and others, and in using name-calling attacks. Behe says that he is not a creationist, and that he believes that we descended from apes. I see no reason to doubt Behe's sincerity. Even if he does have some religious motivations, a real scientist would address what he actually says, and not the religion of someone quoting him.

It is strange for a biology journal to publish one scientific article by Behe, and then in the same issue accuse him of pseudoscience because he was moving the goalposts by making slight changes to a technical definition.

Update: Behe replies to Coyne. Behe responds to the substantive comments, and ignores the ad hominem attacks. I don't know who is right, but Behe is certainly more rational and professional than Coyne.

Wednesday, Dec 15, 2010
Fake scientist joins geology board
War On Science activist Chris Mooney was appointed to a geology board. Since he is a non-scientist known mainly for leftist partisan political opinions about science-related issues, he is criticized in the comments above, and here.

I have previously criticized the Mooney war on Science here and here. He is an atheist, but he is a proponent of using Christians to support his leftist-evolutionist causes.

This is another example of a previouly-scientific organization putting politics ahead of science. The next time it puts out a statement on global warming or some such issue, I will have to assume that it is driven by politics, not science.

Monday, Dec 13, 2010
Einstein and GPS
Physics professor (of relativity) Clifford M. Will explains the need for relativity in GPS:
But in a relativistic world, things are not simple. The satellite clocks are moving at 14,000 km/hr in orbits that circle the Earth twice per day, much faster than clocks on the surface of the Earth, and Einstein's theory of special relativity says that rapidly moving clocks tick more slowly, by about seven microseconds (millionths of a second) per day.

Also, the orbiting clocks are 20,000 km above the Earth, and experience gravity that is four times weaker than that on the ground. Einstein's general relativity theory says that gravity curves space and time, resulting in a tendency for the orbiting clocks to tick slightly faster, by about 45 microseconds per day. The net result is that time on a GPS satellite clock advances faster than a clock on the ground by about 38 microseconds per day.

To determine its location, the GPS receiver uses the time at which each signal from a satellite was emitted, as determined by the on-board atomic clock and encoded into the signal, together the with speed of light, to calculate the distance between itself and the satellites it communicated with. The orbit of each satellite is known accurately. Given enough satellites, it is a simple problem in Euclidean geometry to compute the receiver's precise location, both in space and time. To achieve a navigation accuracy of 15 meters, time throughout the GPS system must be known to an accuracy of 50 nanoseconds, which simply corresponds to the time required for light to travel 15 meters.

But at 38 microseconds per day, the relativistic offset in the rates of the satellite clocks is so large that, if left uncompensated, it would cause navigational errors that accumulate faster than 10 km per day! GPS accounts for relativity by electronically adjusting the rates of the satellite clocks, and by building mathematical corrections into the computer chips which solve for the user's location. Without the proper application of relativity, GPS would fail in its navigational functions within about 2 minutes.

This is correct. Light travels at a speed a one foot per nanosecond. So the clocks on the space satellites must be accurate to one nanosecond in order to get one foot accuracy on the ground. They are accurate to about 40 nanoseconds, so we get about 40-foot accuracy on the ground.

But the space clocks run faster than Earth clocks, accumulating what would be errors of about 40 microseconds per day, ie, 40,000 nanoseconds per day. That would give an error of about 40,000 feet (ie, several miles) after one day of space clocks getting de-synchronized.

Everyone who tells this story gives the impression that we could never have had GPS without Einstein. But the story does not show that at all. If we knew nothing about relativity, the GPS engineers still would have recalibrated the clocks after launching them into space. They would have been mystified as to why the space clocks needed a 38 millisecond per day adjustment, but they would have done it anyway. No one would have seen the several mile long errors that Will describes. There would be a bunch of silly papers about how maybe cosmic rays were slowing down atomic clocks, but we would still have a GPS system.

Einstein said in 1905 that moving clocks slow down, but that was not new. It had already been part of Lorentz's theory years earlier. He may have been the first to say that gravity slows down clocks in his 1908 paper. His argument was that gravitational acceleration is just like other forms of acceleration, so gravity will affect clocks just like accelerated motion.

The Newtonian mechanics had already said that such accelerations were the same, and the Hungarian physicist Loránd Eötvös published a pretty good experimental confirmation in 1908. Nevertheless, Einstein is credited with being the first to apply this idea to the slowing of clocks. The effect was not observable until the invention of electronic clocks and artificial satellites, about 50 years later.

I previously mentioned Will here and here. Will has a lecture on Einstein here.

Will is a big Einstein idolizer, and wrote this in 2005:

A hundred years ago, Einstein laid the foundation for a revolution in our conception of time and space, matter and energy. In his remarkable 1905 paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” [1], and the follow-up note “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend upon its Energy-Content?” [2], he established what we now call special relativity as one of the two pillars on which virtually all of physics of the 20th century would be built (the other pillar being quantum mechanics). ...

Strangely, although general relativity had its crucial successes, such as the bending of starlight and the explanation of the advance of Mercury’s perihelion, special relativity was not so fortunate. Indeed, many scholars believe that a lack of direct experimental support for special relativity in the years immediately following 1905 played a role in the decision to award Einstein’s 1921 Nobel Prize, not for relativity, but for one of his other 1905 “miracle” papers, the photoelectric effect, which did have direct confirmation in the laboratory.

No, that is not the correct explanation for Einstein not getting a relativity prize. There was a lot more experimental support for special relativity than general relativity. The mass increase with velocity was predicted in 1899 by Lorentz, and observed in 1901. But Einstein could not be credited with this, because he did not write anything on the subject until 1905.

Will is using some tricky language when he says, "lack of direct experimental support for special relativity in the years immediately following 1905". The most dramatic experimental confirmations of special relativity were the Michelson-Morley and relativistic mass experiments, and those were before 1905 and before Einstein. They confirmed special relativity as much as the 1919 eclipse confirmed general relativity. Einstein did not get the Nobel prize for relativity because the consensus was that he did not invent relativity.

Sometimes people say that general relativity was tested, and not special relativity. Tom Bethell argues:

Most people know little about relativity theory, but we recognize that it was highly influential and that Einstein's theory somehow rewrote the laws of physics. It is divided into two parts, the special theory (1905) and the more difficult general theory (1916). The generally accepted view is that the special theory has been proven over and over again, while the general theory perhaps can be questioned and retested. In Beckmann's theory, this is more or less reversed. The general theory gives the right answers but by a complicated and roundabout route. Meanwhile a simpler path lay at hand. But the special theory may have to be discarded because the logical consequences of its postulates do not correspond to experimental results.
This is nonsense, of course. Special relativity is the infinitesimal version of general relativity. There is much more evidence for the special theory.

There is also a myth that Einstein discovered relativity with pure thought, and without paying any attention to experiment. He himself promoted this myth in his later life, and others cite this argument in order to undermine the scientific method. In fact, the discovery of relativity was directly designed to explain experiments.

Sunday, Dec 12, 2010
Faulty Nobel physics prize
I previously commented that last year's Nobel physics prize went to wrong guys. See also Controversy raised about 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Now there is a similar problem with this year's prize. Nature magazine reports:

A high-profile graphene researcher has written to the Nobel prize committee for physics, objecting to errors in its explanation of this year's prize. The award was given to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of Manchester University, UK, for their work on graphene, a two-dimensional carbon structure that has huge potential in the field of electronics.
There are, of course, many other Nobel Prize controversies.

Saturday, Dec 11, 2010
Leftists took over scholarly organizations
Daniel Sarewitz writes in Slate:
A Pew Research Center Poll from July 2009 showed that only around 6 percent of U.S. scientists are Republicans; 55 percent are Democrats, 32 percent are independent, and the rest "don't know" their affiliation.

This immense imbalance has political consequences. When President Obama appears Wednesday on Discovery Channel's Mythbusters (9 p.m. ET), he will be there not just to encourage youngsters to do their science homework but also to reinforce the idea that Democrats are the party of science and rationality.

Not exactly. The poll was not of scientists but of members of the left-wing organziation American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). They are the ones who just pubished the bogus claims about arsenic-based extraterrestrial life, and their editorial opinions are always left-wing. Leftists are also the ones who have just taken over the major American anthropology organization in order to drive out the scientists.

Pres. Obama's appearance on Mythbusters was remarkably silly. He just asked them to redo a previous experiment on whether Sun-reflecting mirrors could be used as a defensive military weapon. He added no new ideas, and they just did the same experiment and got the same results. What was the point? I really doubt that it convinced anyone that Democrats were scientific and rational.

My guess is that Obama's choice of topic was intended as propaganda that the Strategic Defense Initiative would not work.

Support for Einstein is largely driven by leftist politics. He was an avowed socialist, Communist fellow-traveler, and Stalinist apologist.

Ideally, the politics of a scientist should be irrelevant. They should be seekers of truth, wherever that leads. But you do not see that among the leading leftist advocates of evolution, global warming, stem cells, conservation, etc.

Friday, Dec 10, 2010
Anthropology abandons science
The NY Times reports:
Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan. ...

He [Peter Peregrine] attributed what he viewed as an attack on science to two influences within anthropology. One is that of so-called critical anthropologists, who see anthropology as an arm of colonialism and therefore something that should be done away with. The other is the postmodernist critique of the authority of science. “Much of this is like creationism in that it is based on the rejection of rational argument and thought,” he said.

Here is the old statement, supporting the advance of science. On anthropologist says:
They are happy not to be held to a high standard of rigor in their research and writing and pleased to be judged by the more open-ended and subjective standards of humanistic research.
Many academic soft science departments suffer from this split between the scientific and the anti-science. The unscientific ones just hate it when they get proved wrong, over and over. The problem is especially bad in anthropology because it studies people. Politically correct academics tend to get excited when you talk about human biodiversity, and give scientific data to back up observed differences.

Leftist-atheist-evolutionist Jerry Coyne responds to The Truth Wears Off, where Jonah Lehrer explains The Mysterious Decline Effect:

I tend to agree with Lehrer about studies in my own field of evolutionary biology. Almost no findings are replicated, there’s a premium on publishing positive results, and, unlike some other areas, findings in evolutionary biology don’t necessarily build on each other: workers usually don’t have to repeat other people’s work as a basis for their own. ...

In many fields, especially physics, chemistry, and molecular biology, workers regularly repeat the results of others, since progress in their own work demands it. ...

Lehrer, like Gould in his book The Mismeasure of Man, has done a service by pointing out that scientists are humans after all, and that their drive for reputation -— and other nonscientific issues -— can affect what they produce or perceive as “truth.” But it’s a mistake to imply that all scientific truth is simply a choice among explanations that aren’t very well supported.  We must remember that scientific “truth” means “the best provisional explanation, but one so compelling that you’d have to be a fool not to accept it.”  Truth, then, while always provisional, is not necessarily evanescent.  To the degree that Lehrer implies otherwise, his article is deeply damaging to science.

Coyne is actually one of the more scientific evolutionists. He is willing to criticize the work of others when he thinks that it is correct, and he tries to limit his arguments to what the data actually prove. But he also show how evolutionists devalue science as anthropologists do. To them, Truth is just what they and their elite buddies say is the truth. To that end, they have to carry on a campaign of ridicule in order to convince the public that other views are foolish. That is why you see arguments for mainstream anthropology, evolution, global warming, etc. that are not based on any hard science, but rather ad hominem attacks on those not conforming to the supposed consensus of the elites.

Real scientists use data and logic to back up their arguments.

It is telling that Coyne relies on The Mismeasure of Man for his view of science. That book has been discredited. It promotes entirely false ideas based on ad hominem attacks on the supposedly sloppy work of scientists a century ago, while ignoring recent experiments that replicated the older work. The book was extremely popular among leftist academics for political reasons, not scientific reasons. The book was an inspiration to those anthropologists who want to disassociate themselves from science.

Gould was the world's most famous evolutionist. The scathing criticisms of his book were published in peer reviewed scientific journals, and he never attempted to rebut them. He was an embarrassment to science. His followers are the one who are deeply damaging to science.

Thursday, Dec 09, 2010
The Truth Wears Off
Jonah Lehrer writes (copy here) in the New Yorker:
Is there something wrong with the scientific method?

The test of replicability, as it’s known, is the foundation of modern research. It’s a safeguard for the creep of subjectivity. But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts are losing their truth. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology. ...

Mentions John Ioannidis. In the late nineteen-nineties, neuroscientist John Crabbe investigated the impact of unknown chance events on the test of replicability. The disturbing implication of his study is that a lot of extraordinary scientific data is nothing but noise. This suggests that the decline effect is actually a decline of illusion. Many scientific theories continue to be considered true even after failing numerous experimental tests. The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything.

He acts as if the truth-wears-off effect is analogous to the placebo effect, where sugar pills appear to improve medical conditions. The truth-wears-off effect keeps good science papers from being replicated.

No, there is nothing wrong with the scientific method. There is something wrong with the way the soft sciences are preoccupied with p-values as being the main criterion for publication.

Wednesday, Dec 08, 2010
More on bogus alien life claims
I criticized the recent NASA claims for the possibility of extraterrestial arsenic-based life. It was one of the most heavily hyped scientific papers promoting space alien life in years. Carl Zimmer writes in Slate that others have now made sharper criticisms, and the authors are refusing to respond:
As soon Redfield started to read the paper, she was shocked. "I was outraged at how bad the science was," she told me. ...

That was about as positive as the critics could get. "This paper should not have been published," said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado. ...

I asked two of the authors of the study if they wanted to respond to the criticism of their paper. Both politely declined by email.

"We cannot indiscriminately wade into a media forum for debate at this time," declared senior author Ronald Oremland of the U.S. Geological Survey. "If we are wrong, then other scientists should be motivated to reproduce our findings. If we are right (and I am strongly convinced that we are) our competitors will agree and help to advance our understanding of this phenomenon. I am eager for them to do so."

"Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated," wrote Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. "The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner."

The proper way to engage in a scientific discourse? What she did do was to issue exaggerated and misleading press releases, and to give friendly press interviews such this NRP Science Friday interview where her claims went unchallenged.

I have no respect for scientists who refuse to respond to public criticisms. Any real scientist would either defend a published paper, or withdraw it. Instead these authors are hiding behind nameless faceless editors.

NASA and the leftist-atheist-evolutionists would very much like to demonstrate the possibility of life in outer space. NASA would get more funding, and the others consider any such evidence as an endorsement of their worldview. As a result, a lot of bogus arguments are used.

Update: Zimmer has posted responses. Some are scathing. And even if the microbes are really using arsenic, there are very good reasons for believing that other planets will have a lot more phosphorus than arsenic, so the experiment has nothing to do with extraterrestrial life. See also Scientists poke holes in NASA’s arsenic-eating microbe discovery.

Tuesday, Dec 07, 2010
Wrong scientific beliefs
The Edge asks this question of various experts:
The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods. Can you name your favorite example and for extra credit why it was believed to be true?
Other answers are here and here.

The answers are disappointing. Some people seem to have funny ideas about what it means for a scientific idea to be proved wrong. Here is a bad answer:

Caloric, phlogiston, and ether immediately come to mind, but I'm particularly fond one consequence of Aristotelian mechanics: the assertion that there is no such thing as a vacuum.
These theories were improved, but they are not really wrong. A lot of useful scientific work came out of those theories. All theories get improved. The question calls for examples of theories which are dead wrong.

Actually, the question is confused, because the flat earth and geocentric world are not good examples of wrong scientific beliefs.

Here is a much better answer:

1. Stress theory of ulcers — it turns out they are due to infection with Heliobacter pylori. Barry Marshall won Nobel Prize for that.

2. Continental drift was proposed in the 1920-30s by Alfred Wegner, but was totally dismissed until the 1960s when it ushered in plate tectonics.

3. Conventional belief was the eye evolved many, many times. Then they discovered the PAX genes that regulate eyes and are found throughout the animal kingdom — eyes evolved ONCE.

4. Geoffrey St. Hillare was a French scientist who had a theory that invertebrates and vertebrates shared a common body plan. He was widely dismissed until the HOX genes were discovered.

Nothing good ever came out of that stress theory of ulcers. People suffered useless psychobabble when they could have been cured with antibiotics. Likewise, Wegener was right about continental drift, and nearly everyone else was wrong.

The final answer is from someone who was brainwashed with anti-science in grad school:

My favorite example is about science itself. For the longest time scientists didn't believe that their own discipline followed rules, per se, but then Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper and, my favorite, Paul Feyerabend showed how science was sociology, was prone to enthusiasms, fashions, and dogma, and so on. It was one of the most important realizations of my doctoral program.
He got that Ph.D. in the economics of technology, whatever that is.

I wonder how so many people can fail to grasp the simple point that science is all about proving hypotheses true or false. It is not just sociology and fashion. Even grade school kids learn about the scientific method.

Kuhn and Popper based some of their (different) philosophies on faulty accounts of the history of relativity. I post here about relativity to correct some of those errors.

Physicist Lee Smolin wrote:

Perhaps the most embarrassing example from 20th Century physics of a false but widely held belief was the claim that von Neumann had proved in his 1930 text book on the mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics that hidden variables theories are impossible. These would be theories that give a complete description of individual systems rather than the statistical view of ensembles described by quantum mechanics. In fact de Broglie had written down a hidden variables theory in 1926 but abandoned work on it because of von Neumann's theorem. For the next two decades no one worked on hidden variables theories.

In the early 1950's David Bohm reinvented de Broglie's theory. When his paper was rejected because von Neumann proved what he claimed impossible, he read and easily found a fallacy in the von Neumann's reasoning. Indeed, there had been at least one paper pointing out the fallacy in the 1930s that was ignored. The result was that progress on hidden variables theories in general, and de Broglie and Bohm's theory in particular, was delayed by several decades.

Whether or not von Neumann's reasoning is convincing, the impossibility of a sensible hidden variable theory was proved by Bell's theorem and subsequent experiments validating quantum mechanics.

Physicist David Deutsch writes:

Surely the most extreme example is the existence of a force of gravity. ... Since 1915 we have known the true explanation, namely that when you hold your arm out horizontally, and think you are feeling it being pulled downwards by a force of gravity, the only force you are actually feeling is the upward force exerted by your own muscles in order to keep your arm accelerating continuously away from a straight path in spacetime.
You might think that Deutsch is making a joke, but he wrote a whole book, The Fabric of Reality, where he explains more fantastic ideas from physics.

From a psychologist:

The psychologist Tania Lombrozo has shown that even Harvard undergraduates who endorse evolution consistently interpret evolutionary claims in a teleological rather than mechanistic way (eg giraffes try to reach the high leaves and so develop longer necks). And we have shown that six year olds develop a notion of fully autonomous "free will" that is notoriously difficult to overturn.
Wow. There are fully grown intelligent adults who also believe in free will.
In the 17th century, that led skeptics to scoff at Newton's theory of gravity. Proper science was supposed to map how matter pushes against matter to cause various effects. Yet in this theory there was no physical contact, just spooky action at a distance. Almost a century after Newton, rival theories of gravity were still being proposed to remedy this defect.

Similarly, many scientists (including Newton) long theorized about aether, the substance that carries light, in part because, well, if light arrives, it must be borne by something.

Similarly? Those views, action-at-a-distance and aether theory, were opposite alternatives. Those who believed in the aether theory justified it by arguments against action-at-a-distance, and those who believed in the action-at-a-distance theory justified it by arguments against the aether.

It is also odd to say that rivals were still trying to correct Newton a century later. As Deutsch explains above, they corrected him 250 years later with general relativity.

Some of the more commonly heard false theories are the extreme views of the nature versus nurture debate. In psychology, it is nativism v tabula rasa (blank slate).

For decades, theoretical physicists have promoted various unified field theories which were disproved by the failure to find proton decay.

Physics textbooks in my lifetime were also proved wrong by the discovery of neutrino mass.

Someone found a cure for phantom limb pain 15 years ago, but apparently physicians have trouble accepting it, and continue to prescribe useless painkillers instead.

I guess scientists have a long way to go when it comes to convincing people that hypotheses are right or wrong.

Monday, Dec 06, 2010
New Bush-hater movie
There is a new movie, Fair Game, about Valerie Plame, and a Wash. Post editorial attacks it:
The movie portrays Mr. Wilson as a whistle-blower who debunked a Bush administration claim that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from the African country of Niger. In fact, an investigation by the Senate intelligence committee found that Mr. Wilson's reporting did not affect the intelligence community's view on the matter, and an official British investigation found that President George W. Bush's statement in a State of the Union address that Britain believed that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger was well-founded.

"Fair Game" also resells the couple's story that Ms. Plame's exposure was the result of a White House conspiracy. A lengthy and wasteful investigation by a special prosecutor found no such conspiracy - but it did confirm that the prime source of a newspaper column identifying Ms. Plame was a State Department official, not a White House political operative.

Funny how the editorial just refers to itself as "a newspaper". The newspaper is most famous for relying on leaks from unnamed govt officials, so I guess that it is sensitive to the accusation that it is being manipulated for political purposes.

The Plame story was never the scandal that it was supposed to be. Scooter Libby was convicted of lying to the feds by claiming to have lied to Tim Russert about what he knew about Plame. Libby said that he denied knowing about Plame and the CIA to Russert, and Russert testified that Plame was not discussed. I don't know why anyone would care about that, as it did not result in any classified info being leaked or any stories being printed. I have discussed the Libby case before, such as here and here.

Sunday, Dec 05, 2010
Atheist bus signs
The Vancouver Canada Sun reports (also here):
The atheist group behind last year's controversial bus ads suggesting "there's probably no God" is rolling out a provocative new set of posters on buses across the country that places Allah beside Bigfoot and Christ beside psychics.

The new posters bear the slogan: "Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence" with "Allah, Bigfoot, UFOs, Homeopathy, Zeus, Psychics, Christ" listed below.

They will hit Toronto streetcars in January, pending final approval from the Toronto Transit Commission, said Justin Trottier, national executive director of the Centre for Inquiry, an atheist organization.

These atheist groups seem to like bus signs. Their web site, www.extraordinary-claims.com, attacks various pseudo-scientific beliefs, and includes this attack on geocentrism:
Modern Geocentrism is a belief mostly held by religious groups adhering to the Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) that Earth is the center of the universe while the Sun and the rest of the solar-system fully revolve (as a static assembly) around it in one day. Geocentrics believe the stars are closer to us than current measurements indicate and that they are embedded in a rigid substrate called the aether. The aether with the stars is supposedly also rotating around the earth in a sidereal day. ...

Much of physics, such as the theory of general relativity, would have to be discarded if we were to apply the geocentric model to the universe.

No, geocentric models do not contradict relativity. In fact the site links to the Bad Astronomer, who explains that there is no such contradiction:
I have two things to say that might surprise you: first, geocentrism is a valid frame of reference, and second, heliocentrism is not any more or less correct.

Surprise! Of course, the details are important.

Look, I’m human: I say "The Sun rose in the east today", and not "the rotation of the Earth relative to the rest of the Universe carried me around to a geometric vantage point where the horizon as seen from my location dropped below the Sun’s apparent position in space." To us, sitting here on the surface of a planet, geocentrism is a perfectly valid frame of reference. Heck, astronomers use it all the time to point our telescopes. We map the sky using a projected latitude and longitude, and we talk about things rising and setting. That’s not only natural, but a very easy way to do those sorts of things. In that case, thinking geocentrically makes sense.

However, as soon as you want to send a space probe to another planet, geocentrism becomes cumbersome. In that case, it’s far easier to use the Sun as the center of the Universe and measure the rotating and revolving Earth as just another planet. The math works out better, and in fact it makes more common sense. ...

So geocentrism is valid, but so is every other frame. This is the very basis of relativity! One of the guiding principles used by Einstein in formulating it is that there is no One True Frame. If there were, the Universe would behave very, very differently.

In other words, geocentrism is not wrong; it is just sometimes inconvenient.

I am all in favor of scientific skepticism, but I don't see these bus signs convincing any Christians because (1) they believe that the message of the Gospels is extraordinary, (2) they want skepticism about alternative mystical ideas that undermine Christianity, and (3) they do not reject their core beliefs because they are inconvenient.

Christianity tolerates dissenting views. You will not see these bus signs in a Mohammedan country.

Saturday, Dec 04, 2010
The sorry state of psychology science
There is a split among psychologists between those who try to be scientific, and those who don't. The split is particularly apparent in court testimony.

Psychologist Bram Fridhandler defends the use of unscientific court testimony in this paper:

ABSTRACT. In response to statements that child custody evalua- tions violate the accepted definition of science in psychology and are therefore unethical in their current form, the evolving definition of science in psychology and the position of the American Psychological Association on evidence-based practice are reviewed. ...

Thomas Kuhn’s influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn, 1962), fundamentally critiquing the positivist model of scien- tific activity, became influential in psychology, giving voice to the growing uncertainty about the adequacy of the positivist model. Building on Kuhn’s analysis, psychologists discerned the operation of sociological processes of power and influence within their field, a fundamental violation of the positivist assumption of an objective, ‘‘data-driven’’ process. Gergen’s (1973) critical argument questioning social psychology’s claim to scientific status in view of the historically shifting, culturally contingent nature of its subject matter galvanized these doubts and hastened the dissolution of the previous consensus. Sigmund Koch, who chronicled the history of psychology in a monu- mental study, became increasingly dismayed by its overemphasis of positivism, ultimately driving him to the conclusion that ‘‘much of psychological history can be seen as a form of scientistic role- playing’’ with far too little genuine knowledge to show for many years of research (Koch, 1981, p. 257). Prominent observers called on psychology to recognize that ‘‘in recent decades, a virtual Copernican Revolution has taken place in the philosophy of science, a radical change that has profound implications for the human sciences’’ (Manicas & Secord, 1983, p. 399).

Currently, the definition of science in academic psychology can best be described as pluralistic. Empirical evidence remains central to the endeavor, and data-gathering and analytic strategies have, if anything, become more elaborate in recent decades. However, the range of acceptable research designs has broadened considerably. Controlled experiments no longer hold pride of place and, corre- spondingly, methods such as correlational techniques, naturalistic studies, and systematic qualitative observation are in wide use. For example, a perusal of recent articles in the Annual Review of Psychology (e.g., Tyler, 2006) reveals wide methodological variety. The relationship between theory and research is also more fluid than it was in the early period of the field.

Kuhn's book was actually only about the hard sciences like physics, and not the soft sciences like psychology. When confronted with silly arguments like the above, he would deny that he is a Kuhnian.

Fridhandler is correct that Kuhn's book did influence a lot of academic philosophers and others that science was not really scientific. This trend allowed other sloppy pseudo-scientists to pretend that there is no meaningful definition of science, that flawed methodologies are acceptable if practiced by others, and that the theory is too fluid to actually say that anyone's work is wrong. Anyone who does not agree can just be ridiculed as someone not accepting the Copernican Revolution.

I have posted dozens of messages on this blog explaining what is wrong with this Kuhnian thinking. No good has ever come from it. Kuhn denies that science has progressively found better and better explanations of an objective reality, and portrays the history of science as a bunch of paradigm shifts in which scientists jump from one theory to another as if they were clothing fashions.

Those who credit Einstein for relativity nearly always rely on Kuhnian arguments, as in this Dyson example.

People like Fridhandler are doing real harm to real people with this bogus analysis. I plan to detail some of that damage later.

Friday, Dec 03, 2010
Finding a microbe that uses arsenic
This NASA announcement got a lot of press:
Scientists said Thursday that they had trained a bacterium to eat and grow on a diet of arsenic, in place of phosphorus — one of six elements considered essential for life — opening up the possibility that organisms could exist elsewhere in the universe or even here on Earth using biochemical powers we have not yet dared to dream about. ...

Phosphorus is one of six chemical elements that have long been thought to be essential for all Life As We Know It. The others are carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulfur. ...

By labeling the arsenic with radioactivity, the researchers were able to conclude that arsenic atoms had taken up position in the microbe’s DNA as well as in other molecules within it. Dr. Joyce, however, said that the experimenters had yet to provide a “smoking gun” that there was arsenic in the backbone of working DNA.

So how does this relate to extraterrestial life? Are there planets with a lot of arsenic and no phosphorus? No, there are not. The abundances of these elements are determined by the nuclear physics of supernova explosions. Those six chemical elements are on every rocky planet, as they formed from the debris of such explosions. There is no planet with arsenic but not phosphorus. The paper does not show that phosphorus is unneeded anyway. Nothing here makes E.T. life more likely.

Others are also skeptical. The paper itself ends with:

We report the discovery of an unusual microbe, strain GFAJ-1, that exceptionally can vary the elemental composition of its basic biomolecules by substituting As for P. How arsenic insinuates itself into the structure of biomolecules is unclear, and the mechanisms by which such molecules operate are unknown.
So some microbes were poisoned with arsenic, and the surprise is that they did not die as rapidly as other microbes poisoned with arsenic. That's all.

Here is some WSJ hype:

"This will fundamentally change our definition of life and how we look for it," said astrobiologist Pamela Conrad at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "This is a huge deal."

Their finding comes as the hunt for Earth-like planets accelerates. With 22 space-based observatories and 100 ground telescopes, researchers are scanning tens of thousands of stars for evidence of a planet that could support life like that on Earth.

But it also admits:
The researchers weren't able to entirely eliminate all traces of phosphorus, leaving open the possibility that these bacteria were still eking out their existence in a normal way, the researchers said. "There does seem to be a low level of impurity," Dr. Wolfe-Simon said.
It was known that arsenic could substitute for phosphorus. That is why arsenic is poisonous. They have not proved much.

Update: There is more scathing criticism here:

And the paper simply does not include the controls to show that arsenate has been taken up as part of the DNA. All the other claims in the press accounts of the discovery -- for example, the idea that the organisms could substitute arsenate for phosphate in ATP -- were complete fiction.

Wednesday, Dec 01, 2010
Claiming that Kepler killed Tycho
John Tierney writes on the effort to find how Tycho died:
What killed him? At the time of Tycho’s death, in 1601, the blame fell on his failure to relieve himself while drinking profusely at the banquet, supposedly injuring his bladder and making him unable to urinate. (Danes still sometimes invoke Tycho when they explain their need to excuse themselves during a meal.) Later medical experts discounted that and said some kind of kidney problem was more likely. ...

As an assistant living at Tycho’s home, Kepler had access to toxic mercury compounds in Tycho’s alchemical lab and could have poisoned him at the time of the banquet, the Gilders write. When Tycho began to recover 10 days later, they reason, Kepler could have administered a second dose because he was one of the few people at the home who saw Tycho the evening before his death.

A devoutly religious scholar may not sound like a good candidate for murderer, but the Gilders argue that Kepler was an unhappy, temperamental zealot. In an astrological self-analysis, he described his “eagerness for trickery” and his plots against his “enemies,” and said he was under the influence of Mars’s “rage-provoking force.” In his furious arguments with Tycho, he called himself an “uncontrollable spirit” and once told a friend that he felt like attacking Tycho with a sword.

Kepler resented Tycho’s higher status and, above all, his refusal to allow access to the full log of observations, including the records of Mars’s movements that Kepler considered essential to demonstrate the validity of his own model of the universe. Kepler tried several schemes to see Tycho’s data — to sneakily “wrest his riches away,” as Kepler put it — but Tycho resisted and forced Kepler to keep working on calculations aimed at supporting the Tychonic cosmology.

“Kepler’s ambition was to prove his vision of the divine architecture of God’s universe,” Mr. Gilder says in an interview. “Every time he feels Tycho is getting in the way, he blows up at him. Is it plausible that Kepler would kill for a vision? I look around the world and see it happening all the time. Kepler had felt himself despised and outcast his whole life. This would make him famous.”

This seems very unlikely to me. Tycho had a gold nose from losing his real nose in a duel. Maybe he got mercury poisoning from his nose.

The Tycho-Kepler collaboration was surely the greatest collaboration in the history of astronomy, if not all of science. Their contributions to astronomy were vastly greater than those of others of that era, including Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton.