In the old days scientists were considered to be individuals who were curious about the world around them. They wanted to find out how it worked, and what laws determined its behavior. They wanted to use this knowledge to make predictions, and develop technologies that could improve the situation of humankind. It was acknowledged that scientist were interested in discovering the truth. However, the social discourse in our society regarding some scientific fields that are perceived to be relevant for the culture wars has changed this view. One area where this has been very visible is global warming.
There are scores of climate change skeptics who regularly pound news or social media outlets with commentary posts and videos against the notion that our planet is warming, and that humans are responsible for it. These people will not believe anyone who argues the opposite: not even one of their own! Such was the case of Dr. Richard Muller, a global warming skeptic, who decided to perform a study to check the evidence for himself. He assembled a star team of scientists (including one who won the Nobel Prize), obtained the funding, and performed the study. Dr. Muller and his team found that global warming is real, that it correlates with carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and that human activity is very likely to be the cause. Needless to say that his results were not accepted by his fellow deniers!
However, the discourse of global warming deniers goes beyond the mere rejection of the facts. What we are seeing is that scientists working in the climate field are often portrayed by many climate skeptics at best as compliant sheep who follow the consensus in the field, or at worst as despicable individuals that skew, modify, or falsify data to serve special interests, enrich themselves, gain access to funding, or promote liberal or socialist ideologies. These climate skeptics believe that if you are a scientist who agrees with the premise of global warming, then you must have some ulterior motive other than the truth, and this colors all they do.
Consider the so called Climategate. In 2009 the e-mail correspondence of climate scientists at the University of East Anglia was obtained by hackers who went on to select and publish several e-mails that they claimed proved that climate scientists were manipulating data to create the impression that the world is warming. The released e-mails were pounced upon by some news (and not so news) outlets and paraded through the news cycle as proof of the conspiracy. The scandal led to investigations conducted by independent universities, committees, panels, agencies and foundations. They found the e-mails had been taken out of context and or misinterpreted by the hackers, and the scientists were cleared of wrongdoing. What had happened?
Think of all the e-mails you’ve written in the past few years. Now think about someone who really doesn’t think highly of you and your beliefs. Now imagine that this person gains access to your past e-mails and pores over them trying to put together a narrative guided by their biases. I can guarantee you that, even if your e-mails contain nothing truly objectionable, this person will be able to piece together a narrative that will portray you in a less than flattering light. This is precisely what happened with the Climategate e-mails. The e-mails dealt with very technical and complex topics in an informal way, as you would expect from individuals highly knowledgeable in their field communicating and bouncing ideas off each other. The hackers did not have the scientific expertise or access to the context of the e-mails and they ended up creating a conspiracy where none existed. If the hackers and those who spread their message had paused and given scientists the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they would have avoided the debacle, but the mantra seems to be that a scientist who agrees with global warming by definition is up to no good.
Despite being demonstrated to be wrong again and again, global warming skeptics and their supporters have been very successful at convincing a significant proportion of the American people that global warming is bogus. How is this possible?
I believe that part of the answer lies in the fact that several possible solutions to climate change involve initiatives (e.g. reducing emission from fossil fuels), and entities (e.g. government) which many people view with suspicion. These suspicions have been purposefully stoked by powerful corporate interests that want to preserve the status quo and by organizations with social and political agendas. In essence these corporations and organizations have successfully sold snake oil to millions of individuals who, when they see scientists talk about climate change, they see the government imposing on them and taking away their jobs and their freedoms.
So what are scientists to do? Perform more research? Generate more data? Attempt to educate people? Give more lectures? Continue confronting the skeptics and rebutting their arguments?
A climate scientist, Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, has an interesting suggestion. She claims that refusal to accept climate change nowadays by many people has more to do with identity and ideology than with data and facts, therefore arguing over data and facts with these people is not only futile but in fact may be counterproductive. Instead she suggests that scientists should select groups of individuals with whom they share a common value, engage with them at a personal level, explain how climate change will affect their shared value, and offer solutions they can implement.
I don’t know if she is right, but her approach is a breath of fresh air in the otherwise virulent debate taking place in social media and over the airwaves. Dr. Hayhoe has produced a series of short videos entitled “Global Weirding” including the one in referenced in the link in the paragraph above where she discusses the reality of climate change and what we can do about it.
The image of a 5-year average (2005-2009) global temperature change relative to the 1951-1980 mean temperature was produced by scientists at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is in the public domain. The clip from Dr. Katharine Hayhoe’s Global Weirding video, “If I just explain the facts, they'll get it, right?”, is displayed here under the legal doctrine of Fair Use as described on Section 107 of the Copyright Act.
Many people feel…well…“different”. They somehow believe that “something” is guiding them, edging them on to a future of significance. And this belief is reinforced by their life history. Maybe they narrowly avoided getting killed in an accident or in a situation of conflict, and maybe even not once but several times. Maybe they got a remarkable job, or a position, or a promotion that they thought they had no chance of getting. Maybe they surprised themselves by achieving something that many others could not achieve. They suspect that there is more than luck involved in their achievements or near misses. Clearly some greater force (call it Providence, fate, or whatever) has chosen them and is protecting them in order for them to fulfil something in the future. There are many examples of such individuals.
Consider one of the most dramatic examples, Winston Churchill, who was Prime Minister of Great Britain during one of the most difficult periods in its history. From childhood to adulthood he survived so many diseases, accidents, and wartime situations that could have ended his life, that he developed the belief that he had been chosen for great things. This was seemingly proven true when Churchill, against nearly insurmountable odds, led Britain to victory during World War II.
Could Churchill’s survival have been due to chance, or is there a deity, or force, or entity that protects and propels some individuals to overcome adversity and guide their people in times of trouble? This is not a scientific question, but we can certainly consider whether this proposition has some internal consistency.
Consider the diametrical opposite of Winston Churchill, Adolph Hitler. He not only survived four years of military service during the First World War, but he also survived many assassination attempts and persevered against all odds to become Chancellor of Germany. As did Winston Churchill, Hitler believed he had been chosen by providence to achieve great things, however, the world considers him today the epitome of evil; a deranged tyrant responsible directly and indirectly for the death of millions.
How is the miraculous survival of Churchill any different from that of Hitler? If one is not fortuitous, it is hard to argue that the other is. To preserve the consistency of the proposal that a deity, force, or entity chooses, protects, and propels some individuals towards good things in times of trouble, you would have to accept that there are also deities, forces, or entities that choose, protect, and propel individuals towards bad things. So, you are left with arguing that history is some sort of grand dueling ground of deities, forces, or entities, and we are the pawns.
There is, of course, a simpler explanation: chance. There are countless individuals on this planet that face extremely trying circumstances and perish in the process or are physically and/or psychologically scarred for life. A certain proportion of these individuals survive and go on to lead average lives. A smaller proportion develops the notion that their survival and success is somehow dictated by a higher power, and this factor may become a driving force behind the choices they make in life (both good and bad). Finally, out of this last group of individuals a select few find themselves in the right place at the right time, and have the smarts, the talent, and the character to propel them to positions of power where they can influence the lives of millions of people.
These are the really scary ones.
When you develop the notion that you are being guided by a higher power, there is the temptation to not listen to opposing views and to see all those that oppose you as standing in the way of the fulfillment of your rightful preordained destiny. You may here be tempted to argue that you would choose Churchill over Hitler any day of the week, nonetheless consider this: in this post I presented Churchill and Hitler as polar opposites, but the truth is far more complicated. Churchill participated in, promoted, and sanctioned many despicable colonial and imperial activities of the British Empire, and he held dismal opinions of non-white cultures and individuals. In the real world, boundaries are blurry things.
Science has found that our brains are programed to look for patterns, and we often can’t avoid making sense of the swirling reality around us by interpreting it within the context of our personal history and beliefs. Most of us may rationally understand the role of chance if we flip a coin ten times and obtain ten heads, but surviving ten assassination attempts is something that we may interpret in a vastly different way. Such is the complexity of the human mind, but still we must try. So please, next time that sensation of feeling special, of being chosen, of being destined for great things comes along, do humanity a favor and read a little about probability.
Churchill picture by Yousuf Karsh used here under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license. Hitler Picture, copyright by
The title of this post is a reworking of a philosophical argument originally formulated to address the possibility that things don’t exist unless they are perceived. The statement in its reformulated form posits a scientific question regarding the nature of perception.
In this post I will be writing about the very basic first order perception of reality that is relayed to us through our senses, not the complex cultural, social, emotional, psychological, and many other -al aspects of human perception. Many people would like to think that our perception of the world around us is a complete and true representation of reality. However, scientists have studied the phenomenon of perception for many years and they have come up with some amazing findings.
We perceive the reality that surrounds us through our senses. These traditionally have included sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. On top of these we have additional senses such as the ability to perceive heat or cold, the ability to perceive noxious stimuli (pain), and the ability to perceive acceleration and balance, among others. Each of these senses detects aspects of the world around or inside us and is associated with certain receptors in our body. Despite all that you may have read in sensationalist publications, no claim of extrasensory perception (ESP) has ever been validated. To perceive an aspect of reality, we need to have a receptor in our bodies that will detect it, and one of the consequences of this is that if we don’t have said receptor, we will not perceive it.
From studying other organisms in our planet we have learned that their perception of reality is different from ours. For example, a human, a dog, a cat, a bird, a snake, and a butterfly can look at the same image and perceive it different ways. And this example only covers the sense of sight. Part of the reason this is the case is that other living things have receptors that we lack. Many snakes can “see” heat emission in great detail, which allows them to identify a prey or a predator in absolute darkness. Various organisms, including species of insects, birds, fish, and mollusks, can detect ultraviolet light. Migratory birds and other animals can detect magnetic fields, which allow them to navigate accurately following the Earth’s magnetic field on long treks. Sharks, rays, and skates, and other species can detect weak electric fields, a sense that they use to communicate or detect prey. Insects such as locusts and bees can see polarized light and use it for navigation. Some species of shrimp can detect ionizing radiation.
The above examples point to the existence of hidden aspects of reality that are beyond our experience, and indicate that our perception of reality is not complete. It must be acknowledged, however, that we have been able to compensate for our limitations with our intellect. We can build devices such as infrared or polarized light glasses, compasses, Geiger counters, and other type of detectors that can allow us to perceive or at least measure and exploit these hidden realities. In fact, we have gone beyond that and developed devices capable of perceiving realities that no other life form in our planet can perceive such as imaging the inner structures of our bodies and cells, or detecting gravitational waves produced by colliding black holes.
But, even if our perception of reality is not complete, isn’t what we do perceive an accurate representation of said reality? Our brain utilizes the information relayed by our senses to form a representation of the reality around us; however, this representation is not necessarily true. Everyone, for example, has seen the spokes of the wheel in a moving vehicle slow down, become stationary, and even begin spinning in the opposite direction. There are situations in which our senses can fool us, and many such illusions have been catalogued and even used in art. However, it can be argued that, despite these exceptions, in the majority of cases our perception of reality must be essentially true; otherwise life would not be possible.
There is no question that our perception of reality must correlate with reality enough to make life possible. However, this does not mean that our perception has to be a true representation of said reality. Scientists have performed simulations pitting true (veridical) perceptions of reality against utilitarian ones where not all aspects of reality are perceived, but rather just those that make life possible with the least expenditure of energy. In these simulations, the utilitarian perceptions won out in the long term. To understand this concept, consider your computer screen. You have a number of files that show up as icons of a certain shape, color, and pattern. This utilitarian representation of computer files allows for you to efficiently interact with the computer mechanisms that make the creation, editing, archiving, and deleting of files possible, but the actual physical (veridical) reality of what a computer file looks like is nowhere near anything visualized as a desktop icon. Thus we and other living things may be wired to perceive reality in such a similar functional way that stresses utility over veracity.
Now that we have seen that not only our perception of reality is incomplete, but that there is also not a one to one correspondence between our perception and reality or even an overriding reason why it should be accurate, we are ready to answer the question presented in the title of this post.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
When the tree hits the ground it will give rise to compression waves which will propagate through the air and the ground startling nearby wildlife. But if by “sound” we mean the unique perception by our species of these waves, then the surprising answer is: no!
Photograph by the author.
The center of mass is a very interesting concept. The center of mass of an object is a point in the object where its average mass is located. At this point the mass of the object on one side of the center of mass equals the mass of the object on the other side, so in principle the center of mass of an object is also its point of equilibrium. In other words, if you could place the object on top of a pivot at its center of mass, it would balance perfectly. The center of mass of symmetrical objects such as a bowling ball is at its center. However, the center of mass of an object such as a broom (an asymmetrical object) is on a section of the handle closest to the brush. The principle of the center of mass is a useful one in physics as it simplifies calculations regarding the trajectory of objects in space, and it has also been used in the arts to achieve great displays of balance.
For today’s post I will focus on a very interesting property regarding the center of mass, and this is that the center of mass of an object can lie outside the object! Consider an object like a donut. The center of mass of a donut lies exactly in its middle, in other words in thin air! The same happens with the center of mass of other objects like boomerangs. Not only can the center of mass lie outside of an object, it can also shift if the object experiences changes in the distribution of its mass. Case in point: the human body. Many of the movements you perform on a regular basis such as lifting your arms, leaning, kneeling, sitting etc. change the center of mass of your body. In fact, some movements such as bending over can bring the center of mass outside your body. This property was instrumental for Dick Fosbury to obtain a medal at the 1968 Mexican Olympics in the high jump competition, and it changed forever the jumping style athletes use in this discipline.
Back in 1963 when Dick Fosbury was in high school, most athletes performed the high jump employing jumping techniques like the straddle or the western roll that involved the center of mass of the body passing over the bar. Not being particularly successful with these techniques, Forsbudy experimented with different ways of jumping over the bar. One day he tried jumping over the bar facing away from it and bending his body into an arch as he passed over the bar. Not only did he clear the bar effortlessly, but he stunned himself by improving his personal record by 6 inches that same day! Over the next few years, as he transitioned from high school to college, Fosbury kept on training and improving his newly discovered technique which by then was being dubbed the Fosbury Flop. Even though Fosbury managed to gain a slot in the United States high jump team that was to compete in the 1968 Olympic in Mexico, his style of jumping was still considered a curiosity. But that soon changed.
Pitted against opponents that employed the traditional straddle methods, Fosbury performed impeccably in one jump after another and cleared the bar in his first attempt every single time. Finally, when the bar was raised to 2.20 meters only 3 jumpers succeeded: Fosbury, his teammate Ed Caruthers, and a soviet jumper, Valentin Gavrilov. Gavrilov failed to clear the bar when it was raised to 2.22 meters whereas Fosburry and Caruthers succeeded and went on to attempt to clear the bar at 2.24 meters, which at the time was an Olympic record height. Whereas Caruthers failed in his attempt, Fosbury sailed over the bar to win the gold medal.
In subsequent years only one jumper, Vladimir Yashchenko from the Soviet Union in the in the 1978 Olympics, succeeded in breaking a record using the straddle technique. The Fosbury Flop spread like wildfire throughout the sport of high jumping and was improved upon by many athletes. Today it is used universally and the record holder is Cuba’s Javier Sotomayor with an impressive 2.45 meters.
So what is so remarkable about the Fosbury Flop technique?
When Dick Fosbury devised this high-jumping style, he unknowingly exploited the ability of the human body to displace its center of mass towards the outside. In the physics of the high-jump, the launch speed that the jumper achieves when they jump will determine how far their center of mass can be propelled in the air. By bending the body backwards into an arch as it goes over the bar, the center of mass of the body goes below the bar as opposed to above the bar as happens with other techniques. This allows the athlete using the Fosbury Flop to spend less energy to achieve a given height and gives them an edge over athletes employing other jumping techniques.
Thus Dick Fosbury’s win at the 1968 Mexican Olympics was not only a truly out of body gold medal (at least as far as the center of mass is concerned), but also an example of how exploiting scientific principles can improve athletic performance.
Image by AlanSiegrist used under an Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.