Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

Some Observations on College Guides and Their Usefulness

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

In the past year or so I have been doing quite a bit of reading and research on undergraduate programs, student life, admissions procedures, and financial aid policies at different colleges (mainly in the Northeast), as my son, now a high school senior, has prepared to apply and then actually applied to a number of them. In truth, my son has only spent a small fraction of the time that I have in such preparatory research, since he has a pretty good idea where he wants to go and where he can get in. Happily, the school he most wants to attend is also one he can almost certainly get into. Even more fortunately, it is our State university, so it is also the most affordable of those he’s considered, and, depending on what offers of financial aid he should receive, possibly the only affordable one.

Some of my son’s classmates applied to our State university for early action, got accepted by early December, and didn’t have to worry about applying elsewhere. That procedure has a lot to be said for it. Nonetheless, based on his school counselor’s recommendation and our feeling that it’s a good idea to have more options, our son has applied to a number of colleges in our area. I should add that these are schools both he and his parents agree might conceivably become the top choice once an acceptance letter (and sufficient financial aid package) made it a definite option. He was not shy about rejecting outright several of our suggestions, and not always for any obvious reason. My wife has sometimes gotten the feeling that her suggesting a school gives it the kiss of death. It’s definitely true that his knowing that a favorite high school teacher attended a certain school raises that college’s acceptability quotient considerably, which is actually not bad reasoning.

In our effort to learn more about colleges we already knew were of interest and to discover new ones that might be worth considering, we utilized a few of the numerous college guides that are available. I thought sharing my observations on some of the leading college guides and how they compare might be useful for others about to embark on the same journey of college choice. Note that I said “observations”–I’m not making thorough reviews.

The first college guide we bought was the Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges: Northeast (also available for other sections of the country). Its listing is quite complete and contains basic facts about all the schools, grouped by State, including the editors’ evaluation of how “selective” each one is. The Barron’s guide also has a section where schools are grouped by selectivity, which can be useful both in identifying schools to investigate further and in sorting them into “reach”, “match”, and “safety” categories. Among the facts this guide includes, and which any guide will have, are the application deadlines, SAT/ACT test submission requirements, percentage of applicants admitted, and percentage of those admitted actually enrolling. Of course, all of the guides have some kind of summary of what the schools most popular majors are and what the students are like, including the percentage of those enrolling who were in their high school class’s top 10%, etc. for each school. Breakdowns along ethnic and public vs private school lines are usually provided. Barron’s had all of these standard data and more information about the programs offered, student housing, campus security, etc.

College guides generally include some report of the SAT (and/or ACT) scores of enrolling students. Typically this is given as the range in which the middle 50% of the students lie. The Barron’s guide had SAT scores broken down further, by 100-point range, so if you’d like to know what percentage of students at a given school scored, say, over 700 on the Math SAT, you can find it there. This finer-grained reporting can be useful in seeing how your student stacks up, which should help in evaluating not only the potential for admission but for “merit-based” financial aid.

One thing to note in gauging the competition for spots in a school is that the test scores of applicants will almost surely differ from those of enrolling students due to two factors. First, the students who were not accepted will presumably on average have lower scores than those accepted. Perhaps less obviously, the scores of those admitted are, for all but the most competitive schools, going to be on average higher than the average for those actually enrolling. Some high scorers will have applied to the school as a “safety school,” and will enroll elsewhere unless their more favored options all reject them. Still, being able to compare one’s SAT scores to those of a given school’s students seems useful.

All of the information in the Barron’s guide was actually quite helpful for someone just starting the college search and selection process. One important fact it revealed to us was just how expensive all of the private schools are, from top to bottom. We experienced substantial “sticker shock” in our college search: the total cost of attending a State university outside of one’s own State turns out to be about 70% of what one would pay for a private school (roughly $35,000 as opposed to $50,000!).

The next book we bought was The Best 366 Colleges (latest edition has 368) by the Princeton Review. There were probably at least 250 schools in this book that I wouldn’t have been able to place on such a list with any confidence. A surprisingly large number of these were small schools I had never even heard of. I’m afraid there was also some blind prejudice involved in my failure to know what schools would be found in the group of the “best.” I would never have guessed that the University of Tulsa was a really good school, for example, my hazy impression of Tulsa having been formed by some ancient movie poster featuring oil wells. I noted with some gratification that a number of the small private schools included were ones I had first encountered when a physics professor had purchased my modern physics teaching software OnScreen Particle Physics.

The Princeton Review guide is one of several books that attempt to give a more in-depth picture of what a student’s life is like at different colleges. It uses student questionnaires to gather data on many aspects of college life, both academic and social. Obviously these evaluations are subjective, but that’s not a bad thing to the extent that measuring student satisfaction and perception is the goal. The reliance on student surveys could leave the process vulnerable to  a concerted effort to slant certain evaluations in a particular direction, however. The Princeton surveys are done on a three-year cycle with about a third of the whole batch resurveyed each year. An amusing feature of the Princeton guide is its compilation of the top twenty schools in many categories—relating to academics, bureaucracy, social life, and campus environment—based on the student questionnaire responses. Looking for a party school? The Princeton Review may be able to help.

The third guide that we utilized was the Fiske Guide to Colleges 2009. While the Barron’s guide was all-inclusive, the Princeton Review and Fiske guides restricted themselves to the “best” three hundred something schools. Finally, I couldn’t resist buying the US News (USN) America’s Best Colleges, which is actually very complete at least in its listings of four-year colleges. The USN guide is the one that gives an overall rank to schools in various institutional categories: National Universities, Liberal Arts Colleges, etc. Its most subjective feature is the peer rating of faculties. Student opinion is not consulted, but the USN rankings take into account some hard numbers, such as percentage of freshman returning for second year and, of course, SAT scores of enrolled students. Naturally, USN doesn’t reveal the secret formula they use in turning these factors into a single number that determines a school’s national ranking. USN also has useful summary information on all the four-year colleges in the country.

We’ve been using last year’s Princeton Review guide, but it seems the text of the college descriptions has not changed for any of the schools I scanned for differences. There are now 368 in all in the new edition, which I’ve only seen online. What has been revised is the top-twenty lists, which could change if only some schools re-evaluated things. How consistent are they from year to year? Not as consistent as Princeton’s claims of remarkably stable ratings would lead one to believe.

Northeastern University, located in Boston, is an interesting case to consider both for highlighting the very subjective nature of the ratings and the lack of consensus among guides and for hints that some ratings (supposedly based on student surveys) may be manipulable. Fiske, or whoever wrote the Northeastern review for the Fiske guide, clearly does not think very highly of Northeastern. In fact, he rates its academics so low (a 2 out of 5), one wonders how it made it into the book. I only saw ten other included schools (out of the more than 300) with a rating that low.  But over in the Princeton Review (based on student surveys), Northeastern has a respectable 79 (out of 100) academic rating, which, for example, according to Princeton, is somewhat better than the University of Illinois, pegged at 74 by Princeton, but given a highest rating 5 by Fiske. Who’s right? The question really doesn’t have much meaning, since there is no actual number for a college’s academic rating, but such differences point out that relying on a single source may not be a reliable way to gauge even a school’s reputation.

When we look at the US News ratings, we find Northeastern ranked number 96 among “national universities” in the USA and with a peer-based faculty rating of 2.9 (out of 5—Harvard is 4.9), while Illinois comes in nationally at number 40 and with a faculty rating of 4.0). So in addition to wondering what Fiske has against Northeastern, we have to consider that Princeton may be underestimating Illinois. But USN doesn’t incorporate student opinion of their professors into the rating. Fiske says he does. Princeton definitely does. I just noticed that Caltech was tied with Northeastern in the Academic rating last year in the Princeton guide due to Caltech students’ putting their professors at number 3 on the “Professors Get Low Marks” list. Caltech’s Academic rating jumped up 10 points to 88 this year, despite its holding on to the third place in that bad professors’ category. Perhaps Princeton changed the weighting to de-emphasize student opinion; perhaps after some complaints by Caltech.

Princeton acknowledges that they allow schools to contest rankings they perceive to be unfair. There is no way to know how those things are settled; nor, of course, is there any reporting of when a change has resulted from a college administration complaint. Princeton notes that some schools refuse to participate in the student surveys. Though there don’t seem to many colleges at all that are currently opting out, Princeton wouldn’t want that number to start rising, especially among elite schools. Fiske gives CalTech a 5 academic rating, and USN has them with a 4.6 peer rating of faculty (and number 6 overall in the National University category). Of course there is a a difference between being a highly regarded scientist in one’s field and being a good teacher. Are Caltech professors really that bad as teachers? Is there a language problem? Could Caltech students be blaming their professors for the students’ own shortcomings in handling a very difficult curriculum? I don’t know, but the academic ratings definitely seems to be a case where the Princeton Review differs from Fiske and USN, due to its giving more weight to professors’ teaching ability and their availability.

One of the ill-defined but definitely interesting factors that both the Fiske and Princeton Review guides attempt to rate is the “quality of life” (QL) at the various colleges, and there are clear differences of opinion. Not only does Fiske rank Northeastern low in academics, he gives it a 2 for QL. Princeton, however, gives Northeastern a well above average QL rating of 83. I think this must be partly due to a bias against urban schools by Fiske. Boston College and Boston University get a 93 and 81, respectively, from Princeton; but Fiske gives them just OK 3 ratings. Fiske loves the University of Vermont and he certainly makes it sound appealing: “The size is manageable, Burlington is a fabulous college town, and Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains are on your doorstep.” He gives it a 5 for QL, while Princeton says Vermont is right there with Northeastern with an 83. UNH, a small-town school, gets a 4 for QL from Fiske, but only 68 from Princeton. NYU gets a Princeton 87 versus a Fiske 3, so it seems the Princeton-urban and Fiske-nonurban preference holds. Of course, the Princeton results are supposedly based mainly on student surveys and the Fiske ones less so, which seems to me to be saying that students like urban campuses better than Fiske does. It seems clear that it is the locale that causes Northeastern students to rate their experience so highly. Their responses put Northeastern at number 11 for “Great College Towns,” up from 15 a year ago.

A really big jump occurred for Northeastern University in the category of Best Career/Job Placement Services, where they came from out of nowhere to be number 1 in the latest edition. Has there really been that big a turnaround in those services in the past three years? Possibly, but mightn’t there have been a little encouragement by the school administration for students to highlight an area that Northeastern should shine in, given its co-op plan? I know nothing about it, but I can’t help wondering. Or perhaps some students took the initiative to help boost their school’s standing by organizing a campaign to get people to praise the Job Placement Office in their survey. There’s no way to know, but also no way to prevent it. I note that Northeastern has been touting their first-place Princeton Review finish in their recruiting letters this year.

There is also a self-consistency problem in the Princeton Review ratings. For example, The College of the Holy Cross gets a high (93) rating for Financial Aid, yet ranks number 16 (up from number 17) in student dissatisfaction with their aid. This isn’t strictly speaking a logical contradiction except that the 93 rating is supposed to be based on student reports as well as school reports. Is there something misleading in the school report, or is there something different about Holy Cross students? Can it be that only a relatively small minority are so dissatisfied with their aid as to make a big point of it but that this group still outnumbers those at most other schools wanting to raise it as a major issue? We’d need to know more of the details on how the ratings and rankings are arrived at to answer that question. It’s just another indication that it would be a mistake to make too much out of any one rating.

My wife and I have been rather dismayed that all of the schools our son has applied to have the notation “Lots of beer drinking” in the margin of the Princeton review. All but one also add “Hard liquor is popular.” It’s almost as if we were deliberately looking for hard-drinking schools, which is far from the case. I think we may have been a bit negligent on this issue, as I now see schools without the alcoholic notations exist, though not all that many in the Northeast.

An interesting case of an overall negative trend in the Princeton top-twenty rankings from one year to the next is the University of New Hampshire (UNH). In the 2008-9 edition they were number 7 in the “Party School” category, so it’s good (from a parent’s standpoint) that they’ve dropped a bit to number 11. They have, however, moved up from 4 to 3 in the “Lots of Beer” list, and they now appear as number 20 for “Reefer Madness,” while being “unranked” the previous year. Is there some sort of rivalry building with the University of Vermont on this cannabis-loving category? UVM had already staked out a place near the top (number 4) in the category. UNH is now number 5 for “Homogeneous Student Population” (up from 9) and has maintained its position at number 4 in “Little Race/Class Interaction.” To make matters worse they check in at number 6 in “Town-Gown Relations are Strained,” which wasn’t mentioned the previous year.

Those changes could be just due to changed perceptions or some particular incident (for the strained relations) probably. New this year at UNH is high dissatisfaction with professors: number 18 for “Professors Get Low Marks” and number 14 for “Least Accessible Professors.” Maybe this is just a statistical fluctuation from only somewhat lower, but invisible to the list, ratings last year. Or could a few students at UNH be trying to put heat on the school by organizing a campaign to give the faculty bad grades in the Princeton survey? How many would it take really? We aren’t given figures on how many students participate in the surveys for each school. Given that the Princeton surveys are done on a three-year cycle with about a third of the whole batch resurveyed each year, fluctuations could be due to new answers from the school’s students or from changes by students at other schools. Given some fairly big changes with UNH, I’d say they must have been resurveyed. Otherwise, how could the jump from off the list to number 6 in strained community relations have occurred?

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has seen one major improvement (from the parent’s standpoint). It went from number 4 in “Students Never Study” to not being in the top 20. The list still exists (Florida took the top spot), so there must have been a decided change at UMass in the last three years, assuming the disappearance from the top twenty is due to resurveying. For all I know the campus newspaper published an editorial urging students not to make UMass look bad by saying they hardly ever studied. How would I know? How would the Princeton Review know? On another positive note, UMass has dropped out of the top twenty for “Long Lines and Red Tape,” where they held down the 17th position a year ago. The students at UMass are nonetheless (perhaps because of increased study time) even more unhappy than before—up to number 18 (from 20) in the “Least Happy Students” category. The campus isn’t looking any better, at least in the students’ eyes: UMass has moved up from 12 to 8 on the “Least Beautiful Campus” list. The students (now that they’ve had to start studying?) are showing their dissatisfaction with professor accessibility, coming in at number 17 for “Least Accessible Professors.”

That should be enough to show everyone that college guide evaluations are not gospel, don’t always share consensus, and are possibly subject to gaming by schools or organized groups of students. While I wasted way too much time on reading them, I know I learned a good deal too. I started writing this several weeks ago before much had happened in the way of college admission decisions and financial aid offers, and I’ve left everything about those matters in the future tense. I may have more to say later about the whole process of applying for admission and financial aid and deciding what to do.

Dante’s Heavenly Vision and the Physics of the Proton

Friday, March 13th, 2009

This piece may appear to many readers (that is, I imagine it might if there were many readers) to be an exercise better suited for a medieval theologian, an effort which most people today would deem a waste of mental energy spent elaborating a dubious odd abstraction having no relationship to the real world. Nonetheless, I am going to report my observation of interesting parallels between the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, as envisioned by the great medieval poet Dante Alighieri in his Paradiso, and the picture modern physics presents of the fundamental nuclear particle called the proton. Structuralists may take some pleasure in seeing an unexpected example of the human mind’s convergence on certain images for representing conjectured interactions between entities which are not directly observable by means of our senses. Of course, the theoretical picture of the proton is based on objective experimental data and is in no sense arbitrary, though it may be incomplete; while theological consensus is that the Trinity can be known by revelation only.

First let us briefly review some important facts about protons. Protons are the electrically charged particles that, along with the electrically neutral particles of slightly higher mass, the neutrons, make up the nuclei of atoms, in which almost all of the atomic mass is concentrated. The number of protons in an atom’s nucleus determines how many electrons the atom has—the same number—and from this everything about the atom follows.

Given the laws of physics that govern the electrons in the atom, the mere number of protons in the nucleus determines the chemical properties of the atom of which it is a part. For example, the nucleus of the hydrogen atom consists of a single proton. Hydrogen thus has one electron; and, by virtue of that fact, two hydrogen atoms love to join with oxygen to make that extraordinary chemical compound that Life requires—water. Helium, on the other hand, has two protons in its nucleus and thus two electrons; it won’t combine with anything else. These are the two simplest elements, but their examples suffice to illustrate how definitive the number of protons in the nucleus is for establishing atomic properties.

Electrons can and do exist separately from nuclei and are freely exchanged among them. Protons do not spontaneously join together to form nuclei here on Earth. All atomic nuclei, except for that of hydrogen, which formed shortly after the Big Bang, and that of helium, much of which formed during a short time where conditions in the early universe resembled those in a star’s interior, have to be made in the furnace of the stars. Most of the matter of the universe (the normal matter, anyway, not the “dark” matter) is still in the form of the first-made element, hydrogen. The number of protons in the universe is estimated to be around 1079!

Born from the Big Bang, protons seem destined to last as long as the universe. All the other heavy particles (baryons), such as the neutron, are unstable and subject to decay into lighter particles. A free neutron (not bound in an atomic nucleus) will on the average last only around fifteen minutes before decaying into a proton, an electron, and an ultralight particle called the antineutrino.

Although theories have been put forth in which the proton would also decay, no one has ever observed proton decay, and not for want of carrying out experiments deep below the Earth’s surface that specifically look for such events. According to experiment, the lower limit on the average lifetime of the proton is around 1034 years! Considering that this is about 1024 times greater than the age of the universe, I’m comfortable calling protons as “eternal” as matter can be.

In summary, protons, which may be totally stable, make up most of the normal matter of the universe and by their mere number in the atomic nucleus determine the chemical properties of atomic elements. All of the complex chemical reactions that take place in the universe, though they involve most directly the electrons of the atoms, ultimately trace down to the number of protons in the nuclei of the atoms involved.

Now let us move from science to theology. One of the features of Christianity that sets it apart from the other major monotheistic religions—Islam and Judaism—is its peculiar notion of the Trinity, that somehow God, although one and indivisible, is also three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, traditionally). The idea of one God in three persons is different from that of multiple independent gods and goddesses in polytheistic religions, although Islam holds that Christianity is polytheistic because of the Trinity belief.

Now I want to consider Dante’s attempt to convey through poetry the mysterious concept of the Holy Trinity, which in his faith was a certainty. On reading the final canto of Dante’s Paradiso recently, I came across an image that immediately reminded me of something else I’d thought of before: the conceptual similarities between our scientific description of the proton and the Triune God; only now a particular detail of Dante’s description of what he had seen made the similarity appear stronger than I had realized before.

Near the end of his time in Heaven (Paradiso) Dante was finally empowered to behold God, his ability to comprehend mysteries directly by sight alone having been enabled by Divine grace. Here is the Singleton translation of lines 115-120 of Canto XXXIII of Paradiso.

“Within the profound and shining subsistence of the lofty Light appeared to me three circles of three colors and one magnitude; and one seemed reflected by the other, as rainbow by rainbow, and the third seemed fire breathed forth equally from the one and the other.”

This is far from being a clear picture, and Dante had said beforehand that description—even distinct memory—of what he had  beheld was impossible. But I was struck this time by how much Dante’s word-painting resembles our own nebulous physical picture of the proton. The essentials of Dante’s vision were three equally sized circles (or spheres) of three colors and two distinguishable types, with some sort of continual interaction occurring among the circles. The image of the rainbows reflected in each other, with each circle yet of a different color, seems to my mind to be saying that the colors are changing, but in a co-ordinated way. I might add that Dante’s original description of God was as a point of blindingly bright white light.

Why does this vision of Dante’s make me think of the proton? Modern physics has discovered that the proton has within it three particles, whose existence a theoretical physicist had predicted and named quarks years before they were first experimentally observed. Two of the quarks in the proton are identical and are called “up” quarks. The other is a “down” quark. In this context, the terms up and down have no meaning except as a way of distinguishing the two types of quark. No directionality is implied by the names. Up and down are examples of what physicists call quark “flavor,” and of course there is nothing related to the sense of taste implied by the name flavor; it’s just a conventional way to designate this particular quantum number or characteristic.

Now, by probing the proton with high-energy particle collisions we can “see” that the quarks are inside the proton, but there is no way to observe an individual free quark, due to the peculiar nature of the force between quarks, which, contrary to the action of other known forces, actually gets stronger as the quarks are separated further from each other, making it impossible to pull or knock a single quark free from its mates. It is possible to break up a proton with a high-energy collision, but only by making new quark combinations, never in a way that makes a single quark visible.

Thus nature seems to present us with a stable and indivisible proton consisting of three quarks, two of which are identical, but no one of which can be seen apart from its union with the other two. What I hadn’t realized before re-reading Dante was that Catholic theology viewed the Holy Spirit as different in some way from the Father and the Son. The Son was “begotten” by the Father, whatever that might mean, and the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the two other Persons, whatever that means. Thus in Dante’s vision two of the “circles” seemed reflected by each other, these being identified by commentators as the Father and the Son of the Trinity. For me it seems natural to mentally map this pair to the two up quarks. Dante clearly sees the third circle as being distinguishable from the other two, and this third circle would correspond to the down quark in my whimsical analogy.

Can we go further? There is more to the quark picture of the proton than the quark flavors. The quarks all have another quantum characteristic which physicists, for want of a better term, have called “color,” though, of course, without any real connection to what we mean by color in the world we perceive directly. The proton as a whole is colorless, however, meaning that proton states must be made up of one “red” quark, one “blue” one, and one “green” one, which taken together make for a colorless proton. However, the colors are not fixed on any given quark. The quarks are continually exchanging particles called “gluons” between each other. These gluons carry color, so that each quark is changing color continually, but always in a way so that there is one red, one green, and one blue quark at any time. This color exchange is the source of the force that binds the quarks together. I invite the reader to judge the extent to which Dante’s description resembles the picture of quarks held together through color exchange.

Do the similarities between Dante’s poetic vision of the Christian doctrine of the Triune God and our modern, well-established theory of the tri-quark proton amount to more than a curious historical coincidence? Does this analogy go beyond the merely amusing to the deeply significant?

Of course not.

It can’t, can it?


How could it not?

But that’s crazy.

Isn’t it?

Frederick Copleston, S.J., in the second volume of his superb work, A History of Philosophy, says in summarizing a fundamental teaching of the preeminent medieval theologian-philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas, that God “creates the world as a finite imitation of His divine essence.” One aspect of this is that we human beings with our power of reason and our ability to appreciate beauty and to discern good are created “in God’s image,” as Genesis says. But can this finite imitation of God’s essence also be be seen in the most fundamental parts of the physical universe?

As one who has come to recognize God’s existence, but who has not embraced Christianity fully, partly because of the difficulty in affirming belief in “revealed truths” such as God’s Three Persons, I can’t help wondering if the protons of the universe (all the multitude of protons!) are not so many messages in bottles thrown into the sea of the cosmos, just waiting to be read once their language had been mastered: “Yes, doubting Scientist, here is a coherent image of the Trinity. Ponder my depths and believe.”

More Searchers Arriving at a Place They Never Imagined

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

I’ve been traveling and otherwise occupied a lot lately, so I’ve really fallen behind my one post a week goal for this blog. I don’t have anything very substantial to post today, but I would like to share some more of the possibly amusing or interesting Google search strings that have brought visitors here.

As I noted before, the most striking thing revealed by an examination of the search strings (of words) people use in Google is how many people approach Google as some sort of artificially intelligent being one can ask questions of, as though of a person. This seems especially to be the case when they have medical concerns (at least pet medical concerns). My post Last Days of Chestnut, Guinea Pig gets a visit or two almost every day, usually from people with a guinea pig they are worried about.

The search strings are sometimes of the hopeless (but Google-appropriate) “how to euthanize a guinea pig” sort, but an extreme example of one treating Google as an online veterinarian (and a psychic one at that) was “My guinea pig has not eaten today and he has a cold. What is up?” In the same vein was: “my son has squeezed our guinea pig will it be ok”.

I used the first of those mentioned above to do my own Google search, and—low and behold—my post came up fifth from the top. Here’s what Google returned for it (word matches in bold):

On-Screen Scientist » Blog Archive » Last Days of Chestnut, Guinea Pig
May 25, 2008 … Our guinea pig, Chestnut, is dying. He will probably be dead before I …. Hopefully the vet is open today. 11:00 am. He’s not, but the … My wife has been felled by the same cold I have presumably, … I say to the intake woman, who is looking at me quizzically, “He hasn’t eaten anything in days. …

Since Google just looks for word matches and doesn’t try to make sense of it all, it came up with a good match, although, except for the “He hasn’t eaten” part, the matched words (today, my, cold) weren’t relevant.

For the second string Google brings up my post third from the top thusly:

On-Screen Scientist » Blog Archive » Last Days of Chestnut, Guinea Pig
May 25, 2008 … Our guinea pig, Chestnut, is dying. He will probably be dead before I …. OK, it’s now the morning of the next day. … He didn’t drink water that was squeezed into his mouth this time, as though reflexes aren’t even working. … Chestnut has been buried in the back yard. My son arrived back from …

Thus, there was a hit on nine out of eleven words (and Google probably ignored “it” and “be” as too common)! Yet the circumstances are totally different, except for the shared anxiety about a guinea pig.

It seems to me that there is sufficient text in the Google excerpts above to have shown the searchers that my post was not what they were looking for, but they came anyway, either through blind clicking or just because it was obvious my post dealt with a dying guinea pig, which was a subject on their mind.

The search string “guinea pig isplaying dead after popcorning” brought someone here too. I hope the “playing dead” wasn’t wishful thinking, if the searcher was referring to his  or her own animal. I had never heard of guinea pigs playing dead (possums, yes), but Google finds a YouTube video (which I haven’t watched) claiming to show this phenomenon. Another ask-the-vet type string was “do antibiotics make guinea pigs tired”. This was a good match by Google’s standards, since my post contains all the words, though, of course, no answer to the question. I also fear that that animal was suffering from something worse than antibiotic side effects.

So it goes. People with sick animals or sick computers go online to look for help, and some of them end up in this out-of-the-way spot. I see several people arriving here daily with MacBook overheating problems (or worries) of one kind or another, which shows it is a real problem, though I suppose not a sufficiently serious one for Apple to deal with publicly. The computer users with problems typically have a better idea of how Google works than the guinea pig owners; they just put in a string of keywords for their searches.

Many other search matches must be the result of coincidence, though it’s not always obvious how. The string “black bean death lottery cycling club” leads Google to put my post Times I Might Have Died as number one on the candidate list, since it contains all the words except “cycling” and “club” (though it does deal with my early bicycle riding). It’s unlikely my post was what the searcher had in mind, but whatever it was, it must not be on the world-wide web, for nothing shows up containing that very specific collection of words.

It may well have been a job hunter that searched for “physics phd fbi”; but, whoever it was, found the following as number eight on Google’s list:

On-Screen Scientist » Blog Archive » Why Gamble? Hire a Physicist.
I should add that when a physics professor called Ron about hiring me several months … what hourly rate I should get as a new Physics PhD (or near-PhD, whichever it was). …. My Appointment with the FBI and a Long-Delayed Connection …

A somewhat interesting point here is that “Physics PhD” was found in the text of the indicated blog post, while “FBI” appeared in the sidebar listing of the titles of recent posts, so even if the person had been looking for my FBI appointment post he wouldn’t have gotten to it directly. Something to keep in mind when searching.

What was the searcher for “trees shame” after, I wonder? I’d like to think it was someone who’d read my post A Painful Christmas Blessing and wanted to come back to it or to direct someone else to it; and my post does come in at number seven in the Google list, but there’s nothing definitive about the two words and no way to know what the intent was. Still, as in all these cases, the searcher did come here, or I wouldn’t know about it.

My post about exchanges with commenters on an atheist blog, Conversations in the Clubhouse of Truly Smart People, has also brought a few people here via Google searches with other purposes. I feel bad about not having advice for those who seem to be seeking it: for example the one searching on “what smart people say in conversations” and the one searching for “smart things to say in conversations”; young people, I hope. Then, there was the one possibly looking for confirmation of his own observation that it’s best to “never let people know how smart you truly are.” I’m taking that to mean that it’s better to play dumb a little, but it could mean never let them find out how dumb you truly are, which has aways been my concern.

I’ve been at this blogging for almost a year now. Thanks to all who have read and especially to those who have written to me (email address towards upper right) these past months.

What Brings You Here?

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

I thought I’d share with you some observations which I’ve found interesting or amusing about how people arrive at this obscure corner of the blogosphere. People come to this blog by different paths. Some visitors have been here before and check back now and then, whether looking for something new or browsing through older posts. Some come using a link made by another blogger, and others will come via a link I’ve embedded in a comment that I’ve made on another blog. A few will come as a result of an email I’ve sent them, having noticed some overlap of interests. Some days a big majority of visitors arrive courtesy of Google search results, although other search engines play a role; and such search-initiated visits are always a substantial fraction of the total.

How do I know where people are coming from? When anyone visits a site, some information about the visit gets logged, such as the web page from which the visitor just came, if there was one. I use a WordPress plugin that tallies some of this information, and Google Feedburner does much the same, adding counts of which browsers people are using and the top few cities (but not States) people have come from. Since my total visitor count is low, most of the cities listed have only one representative on a given day, and I’m not sure what determines which ones get listed. The countries in which the cities are located are indicated by national flags, and it’s quite gratifying to see on the list a number of flags I can’t even identify. Because of ongoing worldwide interest in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and peoples’ fears about it, a significant percentage of the visitors Feedburner shows are from foreign countries, sometimes more than half. The US flag by a city is not sufficient to identify the State of many cities with certainty because of all the multiple examples of city names. I was recently surprised to see a U.S. city called Wasilli listed, for which I would never have been able to guess the State a short while back, but now feel pretty sure of.

The search terms people use to find their way here are generally the most interesting data collected about visits. In all the examples that follow I am keeping the original spelling (frequently misspelling) found in the search terms. Many people, evidently overestimating Google’s artificial IQ, seem not to know that it looks for word matches; they write out questions such as (one of my favorites): “why are smart people never understood in conversation[?]” Through word matching, that search naturally brought the frustrated conversationalist to my post Conversations in the Clubhouse of Truly Smart People, which comes second from the top in the Google search. I know the feeling, pal, but I’m afraid my post didn’t help you. Another visitor to the same post was searching for the answer to the question “are the smart people religious or atheist[?]”. I don’t know if he was helped or not. I’ve noted that having the word “scientist” in the very name of the blog increases the likelihood of ridiculous matches to search terms.

Sometimes the Google search terms used make it seem very likely that a visitor was either returning to see a post again or was following someone else’s recommendation to track it down. I’ve recently seen a few visitors (or perhaps the same one repeatedly) that came here as the result of a Google search on “the perfect italian woman,” which happens to be the title of one my earlier posts. Unless Richard Dawkins has decided my notion of the clubhouse of truly smart people was too good an idea not to implement for his atheist buddies, the Google search on “richard dawkins clubhouse,” which turns up the Clubhouse post referred to in the previous paragraph as number one, must fit into the category of a search made in order to return to a previously read post. I’m guessing that “scientist rest in peace,” which turns up my post Ronnie Knox, Rest in Peace in fifth Google position for obvious reasons of word matching and was used by a couple of visitors in the space of a week, also belongs to this class of returns or pass-alongs, but there’s no way to be sure. Ronnie Knox, by the way, with additional words such as “UCLA”, “quarterback”, and “football” brings in a steady trickle of visitors, so I feel the blog is providing a service to those wondering whatever happened to the guy.

I was amused to see that one visitor had arrived here due to a search for “professor otto rossler+crazy.” Now I never came right out and said Rössler (one of the LHC end-of-the-worlders) was crazy by explicitly using that word; but I did point out some evidence that his grip on reality seems quite tenuous. I see that as I write On-Screen Scientist » Otto Rössler is the third listing in Google for that particular combination of words. It ranks so high because the word “crazy” does appear in this quote from Rössler himself about his “Lampsacus” web page: “This is the most crazy homepage ever written.” It seems a source of pride to him, and he does play the role of the mad scientist—sixty-eight-year-old hippie dreamer out to save the world variety—rather well. Rössler and his co-troublemaker Rainer Plaga (though their LHC doomsday scenarios are mutually exclusive) bring in more Google-based traffic than even the hot MacBook Pro post, but they are usually of the plain “Rainer Plaga LHC” type.

Even searches based on false premises—e.g., “large hadron collider in texas cancelled due to religion,” which gives the wrong name for the Superconducting Super Collider and the wrong reason for its cancellation—can lead to a real web page through word matching, and my page referencing the LHC tag turns up fifth in Google since it mentions both the LHC and the SSC and its cancellation.

One of strangest Google searches I’ve seen to point to this blog is “example of left-bound manuscript about personality, fitness and health.” That seems such a bizarre stretch that it makes me wonder if that person doesn’t have some way of obfuscating his actual search string, or if perhaps Feedburner had a minor seizure at just the right time to misdirect someone else’s results to mine. What was the person who searched using “How to write a letter asking for a chemical as gift from a scientist?” planning to do, and where did that person get the idea that the answer could be found on the internet? Whatever link Google found to this blog must have been buried very deeply in the list; but since none of the ones above it would have had the answer either, might as well keep trying, the visitor must have thought.

Among those visitors least satisfied was probably the one who was pointed here by a Google search on “realistic ‘gender switch.’” Hoping perhaps for a detailed before-and-after display, he or she no doubt arrived here because of my discussion of Proust’s inadequate depiction of Albertine in the post Reading Proust for the Last Time—only to find no pictures at all. Another bound to have been disappointed was the visitor led to my post Times I Might Have Died by a search for “Russian scientiest hit by a car died and came back to life.” Sounds as though I must have missed something big, but I can’t keep up with everything.

The aforementioned post The Perfect Italian Woman has been a magnet for people following false leads. The post fails to answer the question “why are european women perfect[?]” posed a few weeks ago by a visitor. It sheds no light on who might be the “most beatiful scientis woman.” Nor does it offer photos of “beautiful young italian women.” Unless “where to meet women in torino” was one of those searches by someone trying to get back to the post, I’m afraid a lonely searcher found nothing of value, unless he was really starting from scratch, and a story from twenty-five years ago could help. If you haven’t read the post, then you can’t appreciate the irony of having the search on “how to approach an italian woman” lead to it.

My post Last Days of Chestnut, Guinea Pig has brought visitors via painfully sad Google searches such as “rotting guinea pig foot,” “guinea pig end of life signs,” “guinea pig whimpering meaning,” “how to put a guinea pig out of misery humanly,” and “how far down to bury dead guinea pig.” I can try to dispel the sad thoughts engendered by those search terms by contemplating the absurdity of coming to the post via the Google search on “what scientist know about the pig.”

Let me close with a Google link from a search conducted by a none-too-literate and somewhat confused student (presumably), a match probably due to my dubious use of “thank yous” as the way to convey the idea of saying “thank you” multiple times in posts in which I wanted to acknowledge other bloggers. Anyway, the search was on “how is history yous in math.” I can’t say it’s funny exactly, but solving the puzzle of what the “yous” meant and then considering the idea of history being used in math just set something ringing in a funny part of my brain. It’s at least a clear reminder that the internet cannot be a substitute for “old-fashioned” education.

Large Hadron Collider: What’s the Risk?

Monday, September 8th, 2008

On September 10, 2008 the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research) is scheduled to reach another major milestone: the first injection of a proton beam into one channel of its enormous circular accelerator (27 kilometer circumference) astride the border between Switzerland and France near Geneva. Actual collisions of the two counter-circulating proton beams won’t occur until October 21.

The rather modestly named LHC, designed to shed light on some of the most fundamental questions about matter, including why matter has mass, is already one of the greatest technological achievements in history, just to have attained operability, no matter what discoveries it leads to. The matter-of-fact name was perhaps deliberately chosen so as not to raise comparisons with the ill-fated Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), whose name sounded a bit like an amusement park ride, and which was canceled by the US Congress in 1993 after billions of dollars had already been spent on it and cost overruns had made it a popular target; especially as a project in Texas started during a Republican administration. However, both in terms of the superconducting magnets required for its operation and the ultra high energy proton collisions it will produce, the LHC is by rights an SSC, albeit with only about a third the center-of-mass collision energy of what the one in the US was supposed to achieve.

The LHC project has not only managed to keep sufficient money coming in from various European governments to continue its construction over the last ten years; it has also been successfully dealing with a new threat to its operation, one which the SSC never had to contend with: the end-of-the-worlders. Although I wasn’t aware of it until a couple of months ago, there has been an effort going on for quite some time to halt, through legal intervention, the starting up of the LHC. This real-life drama resembles the movie scenario I imagined years ago and sketched in my post Dangerous Experiments, which I made before learning of the efforts to stop the LHC.

As the start of LHC experiments has drawn nearer, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of people coming to this blog from Google searches related to the safety of the LHC, led here by links to an earlier post I made about it. It’s obvious that the stop-the-LHC campaign has succeeded in giving a good number of people the false idea that legions of alarmed “scientists” are trying to halt the LHC experiments. I hope this post will show just how farcical (and already routed) this army of (two) scientists opposed to the LHC is, thus helping to allay fears of an LHC-induced catastrophe.

The supposed danger of the LHC is based on the idea that high-energy collisions of the LHC proton beams might result in the production of microscopic black holes or hypothetical particles called strangelets and magnetic monopoles, which could, it is advanced, interact catastrophically with normal matter.

In contrast to my movie scenario, in this real-life drama the persons first raising the challenge to the experiment were not the ones who made the speculative calculations pointing to the possible production of the exotic objects (and who, it must be noted, saw no danger in them), but rather a couple of characters who had already tried unsuccessfully to halt the start of another accelerator experiment (Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory) some ten years ago, based on similar doomsday predictions, and who seem to specialize in imagining ways upcoming accelerator experiments might trigger massive destruction.

Since that other experiment whose safety they challenged has been running without the least hint of trouble for eight years, these would-be scientific Ralph Naders are, one would think, in danger of acquiring a reputation as “wolf-criers.” However, just because there wasn’t a wolf last time, doesn’t mean there is not one now, does it? Not logically, no. But let’s see some tracks or something.

Let it first be noted that there aren’t any particle physicists raising an alarm; not a one. The physics of microscopic black hole production is very speculative at this point and involves the existence of extra unobserved dimensions to the universe. While seeing them would thus be very exciting from the theoretical standpoint, the chance that any such objects would start gobbling up the world is nil, given that if such things can be produced in the LHC, they are being produced all the time by cosmic rays striking the Earth, and the Earth is still here. The same argument applies to all of the other potential exotic products. This is the CERN argument, but what of the scientists on the other side?

Since those making the original alarm cry (a “former nuclear safety officer” with an undergraduate biology degree, who sometimes claims to be a “nuclear physicist,” and a “science writer”) don’t really have sufficient credentials to impress many people on such issues, all of the recent anti-LHC propaganda has touted the concerns of two German scientists, who at least know how to write a paper full of equations.

Their doomsday predictions, however, are based on mutually exclusive scenarios, a point which the anti-LHC folks don’t mention, as it might make it seem they were saying “We’re not sure why it’s dangerous, but we’re just sure it is.” Though the anti-LHC web sites all refer to the “growing list” of scientists opposed to the tests, it pretty well comes down to a couple of men who have never worked in the relevant fields of physics; and the list of two shows no sign of growth.

CERN physicists and others have answered the arguments of the alarmists in a way that I find totally convincing. However, how can a non-scientist decide which scientists to believe? If the science is so clear why isn’t there unanimity? The first point I want to make is that, given the many thousands of scientists in the world, it is possible to round up a couple for almost any crazy idea. I recently came across a chemistry professor’s academic web page devoted entirely to the idea that the WTC towers had been destroyed by planted explosives rather than the airplanes full of jet fuel that slammed into them. And of course, who can forget the Berkeley professor who actively promotes the idea that the diseases and death brought on by AIDS has nothing to do with the AIDS virus (mere coincidence, unproven), but are instead due to drugs, including the very ones used to treat AIDS.

Still, given that there is a difference of opinion on such an important matter (even if it’s two without proven expertise against everybody with it); and given that the vast majority of us lack the training, education, and experience to judge the matter directly ourselves, it seems to me that an examination of the credentials, and to some extent the personalities, of the alarm sounders is warranted. The final decision for me is based on the categorical and definitive nature of the rejection of the alarmists’ claimed results by true experts in the relevant fields, but for those with less trust in expert authority a consideration of these other factors may carry some weight.

I can’t claim to know the motivation of these scientific opponents of the LHC, but the fact that the two “real scientists” turned up to oppose the LHC basically at the last minute, only as it was ramping up for its start, and after the efforts to stop it had already gotten lots of media attention, cannot help but raise the suspicion that the desire for celebrity, whether consciously acknowledged or not, played an important role in their decision to make some quick (and half-baked, as it turns out) calculations that support the idea that the LHC experiments are extremely dangerous and to go public with them as part of a legal action trying to stop the LHC.

The chance to be in the limelight (possibly even to be mentioned on this blog!) by becoming an important figure in a controversy that is already getting a lot of media attention has to be a major temptation to some. I imagine that each of the anti-LHC scientist pair (though their results are in conflict) believes his own results are correct or at least might be correct. Neither has said he was “sure” his calculations and speculations were correct, just that they could be right, so that the LHC should not start on schedule. They’re covered, right? Let us briefly consider their credentials and histories, neither of which inspire confidence.

An anti-LHC website, in referring to one of the eleventh-hour alarmists, includes the phrase “German Astrophysicist Dr. Rainer Plaga concludes in his August 10, 2008 paper…,” which sounds pretty impressive. This online “paper,” however, turns out to be a “preprint” with the notation at the bottom of the first page “submitted to Elsevier,” which is not very enlightening to me, as Elsevier is a very large publishing house with many scientific journals and academic science books on its lists. In any case, it is not at this point a peer-reviewed publication, nor is it likely ever to be one. Plaga once worked at the Max-Planck-Institut für Physik in Munich, but now appears to be at the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) in Bonn, presumably no longer engaged in astrophysics, except perhaps on his own time.

Plaga’s personal web page ( bears this motto (from Karl Popper): “If you think you finally solved a problem, everything is lost.” This could be interpreted in various ways, I suppose, but given some of the other items on his page, I think it may refer to Plaga’s own propensity to advance theoretical results that he later has to retract after errors have been detected.

He chronicles one such evolution on the subject of neutrino theory. Just to quote a few phrases there: “Even though the issue discussed below seemed ‘very clear’ to me in 2002, it was not.” He had already told of his initial mistakes on the same topic:

“At that time I was absolutely sure I understood this issue quite well. In spite of this after posing me some questions she said: ‘You know what Rainer, I feel you do not really understand this deeply.’ I became a bit angry: ‘No, *you* are too dumb to understand.’ A few days later I came back to her and said: ‘I am sorry: you were right, I did not understand it at all.’”

And further:

”In 1996 I wrote a manuscript about this issue that came to the conclusion that neutrinos are Weyl particles… This  paper was wrong. In 2001 after countless further discussions I submitted a  correction.”

Plaga displays an admirable ability to acknowledge and correct past mistakes; however that does not seem to have had any effect on his willingness to advance new results with the utmost confidence, even when, or perhaps especially when, he encounters great skepticism or outright rejection from experts in the field.

Uh-oh. Now I’m reading a sad story about the treatment of Plaga’s theory of cosmic ray origins. Here we see Plaga raising the notion of fraud and conspiracy to uphold the prevailing theory he has challenged (technical details not important for this discussion):

“Since the work of Plaga and Dar mentioned below, not a single novel approach to the problem of the origin of low-energy cosmic rays (a problem of the century!) has been published. This seems almost surrealistic to me. In 2002 a paper by Enomoto et al. appeared in Nature … This paper is at the very verge of fraud, because its claims are in direct contradiction with facts given in the papers quoted by the authors. My  manuscript from June 2002 pointing this out was refused by Nature, thus avoiding to inform its readership of a complete failure of its editorial procedures.  Coresponsible for this desperate attempt to fabricate evidence in favour of the prevailing wisdom was [name omitted by this blogger as irrelevant]…”

Farther down, a passage makes one wonder if Plaga may not have become persona non grata in his research community, or at least to the editors of Nature. He writes (technical details again not important):

“The fact that this strong polarization was predicted in a paper from 1994 by G.Shaviv and A.Dar was not mentioned in the discovery paper by Nature. A Communications arising submitted by me in July 2003 to set the record straight was refused by Nature via an automatic junk mail delivered to me. A polite request for a brief statement explaining the rationale for avoiding to correct a seriously imbalanced report was never answered.”

I invite the interested reader to investigate more of Dr. Plaga’s web site. There he publishes the harshly critical comments about a paper he submitted (again on cosmic ray origins) made by scientists chosen to judge its fitness for publication. Plaga presents these peer review criticisms as allowing “interesting insight into the psychology of average researchers when faced with new ideas.” But the reviewers fault him, not for attempting to overthrow prevailing theory, but for doing it in a thoroughly inadequate way. The key fact is that Plaga sees himself as a superior intellect, whose theories are rejected because they are too revolutionary for ordinary minds. This history may be taken into account when looking at his latest attempt to make a name for himself.

Rather than casting doubt on the very existence of Hawking radiation as a means of rapidly evaporating microscopic black holes, which has been the main alarmist approach, Plaga asserts that everyone has greatly underestimated its danger. Plaga speculates that the Hawking radiation from a microscopic black hole is suppressed until a certain mass has been attained, at which point the amount of energy released in Hawking radiation may equal that of a large thermonuclear bomb, thus endangering at least the vicinity of CERN if not all of Europe and the world. I am very optimistic that Dr. Plaga will once again, and happily I think this time, have to acknowledge that he has made another error, once the LHC has run safely for a year or so. Or perhaps much sooner.

Plaga’s current “reviewers” (Giddings and Mangano  of UC Santa Barbara and CERN, respectively) have already spoken, and they have detected a glaring error in his work on LHC dangers. Even assuming Plaga were right about the delayed onset of Hawking radiation, he overestimates it by a factor of 1023! That’s getting into Avagadro number territory.

I can’t help feeling a little bad for Plaga, but one has to recognize one’s limitations. Maybe Plaga’s humiliation, an unavoidable secondary effect of CERN’s need to publicly respond to his claims, through having the Giddings and Mangana analysis of his paper posted online will serve as a cautionary tale for those who feel tempted to jump into a controversy without sufficient thought or expertise. Perhaps Plaga will withdraw his objections. Whether or not he does, I expect we shall continue to see references to Plaga’s work, as though it remained fully worthy of respect and cause for grave concern, on the anti-LHC websites.

What about the other supposed big scientific gun of LHC alarmism? The “LHC Facts” blog describes him thusly: “To date, Dr. Otto E. Rössler is the most notable scientist to have the courage to speak out about the potential dangers of running the CERN Large Hadron Collider.”

“To date?” What are they waiting for? Isn’t it getting late? “Courage?” Is there something that these hypothetical scientists who share Rössler’s view fear even more than the end of the world? Or could it be that every last scientist wanting to wave a red flag has already surfaced?

Rössler turns out to be quite a strange fellow. He is an MD who stayed in academia, moved into biochemistry, and then made a name in the relatively new field of chaos theory. He seems to think of himself as a visionary, having founded a new field of physics called “endophysics,” which is supposed to take into account the observer’s inner state. Or something like that. Have you heard of it? Neither had I.

Recently, at the age of sixty-eight, Rössler, despite having no particle physics or blackhole physics credentials, announced that he had found important new results, alarmingly relevant to the destructive potential of microscopic black holes in LHC proton-proton collisions. Rössler variously estimates the likelihood of such blackhole production  by LHC as being from 10% to 50% though he appears to have pulled these numbers out of a hat.

What’s more, he has calculated that any stable, electrically neutral, microscopic black hole created in the collider (which, according to his theory, they all would in fact be) would destroy the earth in a mere four years (or rather well before that since the four years is for the Earth to have become the size of a marble) instead of the millions of years, which other “doomsday” predictors have estimated. This is due to two results he claims to have obtained: no Hawking radiation at all and a nonlinear growth (just a hunch of his, it seems) of the black holes, so that they become “planet eaters” in a short time. Even without external discrediting, it’s obviously impossible that both Plaga and Rössler could be right.

According to the English text on another web site I encountered, which includes a video interview in German, which I unfortunately don’t speak, Rössler has a solution to the LHC danger. Move the LHC to the Moon! It would only cost about three times as much as to do it on Earth, according to his calculations.

OK, this makes it pretty clear the guy does not have a firm grasp on reality. I’m sure he is a nice man, and he looks very kindly in the video, but, as I viewed his smiling face, this thought came into my mind: “I wonder what the German word is for wacky tabacky.”

Rössler says he has submitted his LHC-alarm paper “simultaneously to Science, Nature and Z. Naturforsch. to get the best criticism of the world, with the publishing rights going to the one who accepts first.” These being three of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, Rössler is either making a joke within a paper supposedly written to stop the destruction of the world or demonstrating further divorcement from reality.

Can he seriously be thinking any journal at all would publish a paper that dissolves into a “street ballad” (which contains mysterious references to his being barred from his classroom and carried away by plainclothes police) and then goes on to talk about taking ten billion dollars from CERN to fund something called Lampsacus referred to in the ballad? I wasn’t sufficiently motivated to try to figure out exactly what Lampsacus is, but online searching revealed it to be some kind of internet community (I think) that Rössler has proposed. Here are a couple of quotes from Rössler on the Lampsacus web page. “So far, of course, Lampsacus does not exist and has no money….This is the most crazy homepage ever written.” Lots of craziness here for sure. Having absorbed that information, I can’t help wondering if his entry into the controversy may not have been a ploy by Rössler to publicize, if not finance, his pet imaginary project.

Back in the real world, a couple of real experts in the field of general relativity, at CERN’s request, have already examined Rössler’s work (the “scholarly” version with the mathematical details, not the one with the smiley faces and Lampsacus street ballad) and noted fundamental errors of understanding, essentially branding it the work of a novice who hasn’t mastered the basics of the theory. They say that he is trying to revive the flattened road-kill of an old conjecture, long since disproved by incontestable experimental evidence. I believe them: this is science. Since Rössler’s whole argument rests on an already disproved conjecture (which even he acknowledges must be erroneous!), I am willing to bet the planet on the falsity of his alarm cry. I don’t believe that the laws of the universe are capricious: once disproved, disproved for good. Beyond that, Rössler even committed further errors in attempting to apply the bad idea.

So, it is clear that CERN has had to devote quite a lot of time, money, and effort in answering safety questions raised by incompetent people. What is the proper way to respond to situations like these? Should physicists be required to go through the details of every claim someone without previous standing in the field comes up with in order to proceed with a new experiment at the frontier of knowledge?

I know from experience, and I imagine most physicists will know what I’m talking about, that there are many crackpots in the world who think they have found holes in Einstein’s work etc. and who are always eager to show their findings to any real physicist they encounter. Now, Plaga and Rössler obviously have a greater command of mathematics than the algebra-challenged dreamers I’ve encountered, but the same psychological phenomenon, the desire to do something great and overturn the existing scientific order, seems to extend to some scientists.

I think CERN has taken the right approach. However much a waste of time it may seem, the safety issues have to be addressed for maintaining public confidence, but also, I think, as a model for future behavior. Perhaps some experiment in the future really will be deemed too risky, as we start delving deeper into the structure of space-time and possibly hidden dimensions. Should even a small subset of actual researchers in a relevant field believe there to be a danger, then caution, diligence, and delay would be in order.

To summarize where matters stand with regards to LHC’s safety: really only a couple of men who are capable of putting their objections to the LHC experiments forward in a form that roughly follows that of a standard scientific presentation have done so; and their calculations and arguments have been judged slap-down wrong on very basic grounds with which no one with expertise in the relevant fields could quarrel.

A couple of gnats have flown into a bug zapper. And this is the best that the opposition to LHC has been able to come up with. All of the other potential dangerous scenarios anyone has been able to dream up, however implausible, have also been shown not to be of concern because of the failure to observe such effects already in nature as a result of naturally occurring cosmic ray events. The CERN page on LHC safety ( has all the debunking papers online for pdf download or viewing.

Having done the research to write this piece, I’m now less tolerant of this whole anti-LHC stunt than I was before. Of course, it is reassuring to see just how empty the arguments for the catastrophe scenarios are. But mixed with that is the frustration of recognizing that a couple of cynical publicity seekers (or possibly fortune seekers) along with a couple of incompetent scientists (one of them very eccentric, to put it mildly) with a desire to be in the limelight have been able to cause so much trouble for CERN, and consequently the advancement of science. Now I’m seeing stories of physicists involved in the LHC getting death threats, which is a natural result of the dishonest fear-mongering tactics of the anti-LHC group. I hope the security of CERN is really good.

Once again, hats off to CERN for remaining calm in the face of provocation, even as the opposition continues to trumpet thoroughly annihilated arguments against the LHC. As an American, I’d like to congratulate the European science community and governments for being able to bring the LHC to completion after we here in the USA were unable to sustain our effort on the SSC. Everyone who seeks to know more about how this beautiful universe works must be grateful. Best of luck to all involved!

Conversations in the Clubhouse of Truly Smart People

Monday, August 11th, 2008

The title of this post alludes to the first few paragraphs of another I made recently (July 21, 2008): “On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism.” Briefly put, I there compared becoming an atheist during my high school years to joining an imaginary elite society I’d glimpsed through reading Bertrand Russell and other such thinkers: The Club of Truly Smart People.

Now, back in those ancient days of my youth, there was no internet (no personal computers even) to provide access to and communication with the whole world. Living as I did in Dallas County, Texas, I really had no contact with other atheists or agnostics, known to me as such, until I went away to college. Well, I had at least one friend whom I think I had pretty well convinced of the irrationality of religion (God forgive me), but there was certainly no organized and open community of atheists. It was partly the ideal and semi-underground quality of membership in the imaginary club that gave it so much prestige in my mind. I should add that I did not wish for this to be a permanent condition. I looked forward to meeting others who shared my views and hoped that I would live to see progress toward the dispelling of the religious superstition that somehow still lived on in peoples’ minds.

I viewed religion and racial prejudice and discrimination in pretty much the same way, and even as being closely tied together, since I knew so many people who believed both in God and racial segregation, which was manifestly unjust in practice. This was pre-Civil-Rights-Law Texas, which was an apartheid society with oppressive government-enforced separation of races, basically an insane world view that it’s hard even to conceive of now.

As so often happens, I’m seeing things more clearly as I write about them. That connection in my mind between racism and religion was no doubt one of the factors that pushed religion into the category of being too unacceptably backward for further consideration. At the same time, I would have acknowledged that my personal rejection of racism was mainly based on the clear teachings of Christianity. I might note that my inability to come up with a satisfactory non-religious source for ethics and morality remained a problem for me until my conversion.

These times are very different. Partly, I’m sure, as a defensive response to Biblical literalists’ efforts to force inclusion of “Creation Science” in school textbooks and the perceived growth of the “Religious Right” as a political force, something of an antireligious movement has come into being that goes well beyond defense of science teaching or support for legal abortion. The number of atheistic and antireligious books appearing in recent years certainly far exceeds anything I’ve seen in decades past. Of course the internet and the blog phenomenon have made it easy for like-minded people to communicate and congregate virtually online, and atheists have taken advantage of the opportunity.

I recently did a little web surfing through atheist-oriented websites. Although my club analogy for smokers and atheists was fanciful, atheism as a sort of club (atheists strongly object to its being called a religion) actually makes a good deal of sense these days, at least for those who publicly define themselves as atheists and join together to promote and defend their views. It’s worth noting that the people that frequent atheist blogs and web sites are probably no more typical of atheists than the regulars on the Sons of Sam Horn web site are of average Red Sox fans, to take an example close to my home. From what I’ve observed, online atheists probably would agree that their society of non-believers does amount to The Club of Truly Smart People. Let this not be taken to mean that there are not, for example, Christian circles that view themselves as The Club of the Truly Saved People.

One thing I discovered in my surfing is that the atheists’ club now has an official emblem, a red letter A (get it?) that bloggers can post on their web pages to indicate their club membership. The show-the-A push is part of a campaign, evidently led by Richard Dawkins (a quote of whose I critiqued in my previous post), to have atheists “come out” as such. Dawkins apparently sees a commercial opportunity in atheism, since he has a web site that sells not only his books but tee shirts bearing the atheist logo and worn in the ads by nice-looking female models. I know it’s just me, but I was reminded of the cover of my old paperback copy of 1984 which featured a woman with an Anti-Sex League tee shirt.

One of the atheist blogs I encountered was called The Friendly Atheist. Its then most recent post asked readers to respond to the question “What Christian Arguments Could Use a Good, Short Answers?” This was taken by most of the commenters to call for humorous responses. Perhaps it was the blog’s name that invited me to post in the comments section the following off-topic entry:

July 22, 2008 at 9:29 am

Since this is the “Friendly” Atheist site, I dare to write here as a former atheist, current friendly theist. I’d just like to remind everyone that the question of God’s existence is really the most important one we have to answer, since it determines whether or not we find purpose in the universe. There is not really a competition between atheists and theists. There are arguments for God that involve no references to scripture of any kind. I invite you to read my post On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism for something about my personal experience.

I can see now that this was a bit like coming into the club house and telling the club members to stop horsing around and get serious about leaving the club to join its big rival. I wouldn’t have done it on a normal day, but I was still in the frame of mind in which the writing of my piece had left me.

The deed was done. How would they respond? I had already seen that someone had taken issue with one of the suggested anti-Christian retorts by defending (in a less than optimal way) the historicity of Jesus. He had been challenged and even ridiculed for his assertion by several commenters, but hadn’t really been abused, so I assumed that forays into the blog comment section by theists (assuming that commenter was one) were not forbidden, and were perhaps even welcome if only as a way of sharpening arguments and displaying them before other blog readers.

The full back and forth that went on between me and the other commenters can be found at Although their screen names (presumably identical to their actual names in some cases) can be seen there, and the comment section of a blog is in the nature of a public forum, I still feel more comfortable quoting commenters with the designation Commenter A etc. since they didn’t envision their comments appearing here.

The first response that I got (from Commenter A of course) explicitly welcomed me, then followed with

I am wondering if you’re going to keep posting here, or if you’re doing a one-or-two-off post. (I tend to get deep into conversations with new posters who have provocative questions… then they leave!)

There followed several paragraphs, mainly attacking the notion that purpose in the universe was a meaningful idea and pointing out unsupported assumptions (in the view of Commenter A) that I had made relating to the idea of purpose. He closed with

I won’t join a church full of people who are sure until I’m sure as well.

Have you evidence?

It was only as the discussion went on that I came to realize (I’m pretty sure that I’m right) that Commenter A was not just being confrontational, which is how it had seemed, but was genuinely if naively hoping to obtain such convincing evidence. His machinegunner’s approach to firing off questions and rebuttals to supposed arguments made it pretty clear why earlier theists had left before he was satisfied though.

Commenter B came on to say that she(?) had read my “blog/essay” but still had a question:

…what made you become a theist? was it because your previous ‘worldview’ (as an atheist) carried with it “the burden of purposeless mortality”? is that the main reason?

I ask because, although your blog post/essay is quite lengthy, you never really seem to touch on the specifics of what led to your ‘conversion’.

Now, in my blog post, which Commenter B said she’d read, I had explicitly said that my personal story would have to wait for another time. I could have left it at that, but given Commenter B’s friendly, even complimentary, tone, combined with my posted comment having called forth a number of responses, I felt I probably owed them a brief account, which I provided. I don’t know if it was a good idea or not, as it evidently deflected some of them from considering the main message of my blog post, which was whether they were open to any sort of evidence for God’s existence, toward making a quick decision about whether this bare outline of my spiritual trajectory presented a convincing argument for theism.

The commenters at the Friendly Atheist blog were going to view things in terms of arguments in any case, as this excerpt from the response of Commenter C to my blog post illustrates:

You then go on to quote a few major modern atheists and discuss them. Badly, judging by the few segments I could bother to read. I was personally interested in your own spiritual journey (I already quit smoking a couple of years ago).

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t just the sheer massive length of the post that put me off. But your arguments, such as they are, mostly fit nicely into Daniel Florien’s hundreds of proofs. I commend them to you as a resource. You could have saved us both some time by simply annotating which ones you were using.

Well, let’s skip over the rather unfriendly tone; since I did after all step into the clubhouse uninvited. The part that is very typical is the reference to my “arguments” (“such as they were,” but there weren’t any!) and how there’s nothing new in them. Is Commenter C really looking for a novel argument after centuries of disputation? Perhaps, but I think he is mainly out to display his worthiness for continued membership in the Club of Truly Smart People by being able to categorize arguments for theism and refute them by mere reference.

At the same time, of course, this ability to label an argument and toss it into the already-refuted pile, also serves as a way to avoid actually considering any arguments for God’s existence, for there are not going to be any new ones. Commenter C was not alone in this; virtually all of the commenters classified arguments by name (when they didn’t suggest going to a list, as this one did.) And yet that “personally interested in your own spiritual journey” seems to be genuine, so perhaps there is another truly disappointed reader.

Commenter C closes by quoting two sentences from my blog post and commenting on them.

Final observation:

[Quoting my blog post] “Are you truly open to revelation? The best way to become open to it must be through prayer, but few are the atheists who would start from that point.”

I think I’ll let that stand as emblematic of your arguments.

I’m not sure what Commenter C thought I was arguing for in that passage or whether he understood the point I was making, which I think should have been clear from the context. Anyone that wants to can go to near the end of my blog post and find the relevant section, which was mainly devoted to asking the atheist reader to seriously consider what, if anything, would truly constitute evidence for God. The quoted passage about prayer and revelation was addressed only to anyone that might feel direct revelation to be the only satisfactory evidence. It was meant to point out the inherent contradiction in that approach since prayer (a plausible minimal condition—nothing said about a guarantee—for its success) was not something a convinced atheist would usually be open to. The whole point was to remove that approach from consideration.

Everyone that mentioned the passage about prayer took it to mean that I was recommending something I thought they wouldn’t accept, and therefore leaving them without a prayer, so to speak. My inability to get my point across (judging from the responses, anyway) was very frustrating, but probably had as much to do with their mind-set and expectations as my expository skill.

Commenter A returned to have his say on the same quote about prayer, which he probably had seen only as quoted out of context:

To put it short and snappy: I prayed. Nothing happened. I’ve tried it several times, in several ways described by believers as the way to get certain results. When they failed, others told me I did it wrong. Must I repeat this attempt with each and every ‘god’ and ‘conception of God’ believed in by thousands of generations of humanity?

Because if you excuse me, I’ve got some living to do before I die. I’ll leave the chasing of ghosts to the Ghostbusters.

I’d say that the experience of Commenter A points to the need for trying another approach, but I feel the disappointment; and his desire for knowledge of God is apparent. I also wonder if there were really “believers” that told him that a specific way of praying would lead to “certain results.” I’m not doubting his word, just hoping there was a misunderstanding.

It seemed to be a bit disconcerting to some of the current members of The Club to encounter a former member that had not only resigned from membership but had, so to speak, joined the rival club. They responded in various ways to this puzzling phenomenon.

Commenter D in particular questioned my veracity. He wasn’t at all sure that I really had ever been a member:

After looking into Lee Strobel and his “Half-Case For Christ”, I am pretty skeptical of people who claim to be former atheists.

Others (let’s start with Commenter E) thought the club was clearly better off without me, as I had never belonged in it in the first place, not having the guts for it:

You wanted comfort, and there was none, so you switched beliefs to one that comforted you. Okay, so you’re weak. I can understand that, but don’t use it as an argument for theism.

Or (Commenter E again) sufficient breadth of intellect:

Dude, it’s clear to me that you never thought through your atheism. You were just young, arrogant, and ignorant. You are a narrow thinker; probably good for a work-a-day physicist, but not for someone tackling a subject like the existence of god.

Well, my being young and immature when I first became an atheist was one of the main points of my original blog post. As I lived, matured, and thought more, over decades, I finally was able to break free (with God’s help, I believe) from the mind-set that admits no possibility of the spiritual. But that hardly conveys all that went on, which I have pretty well committed to describing through this blog in more detail. Of course I have my own opinion about what constitutes narrow thinking—and arrogance, for that matter.

Commenter F expressed sentiments similar to the ones above on the inadequacy of my education and manliness to sustain my club membership:

…It just seems as though you were not an educated atheist back when you still were. I will wholeheartedly agree with you that the Universe is a wonderful place; I’ll even admit that I once thought as you do, and am still tempted to explain all this wonder by believing in something that I wish to be true, but is likely not. I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone knows yet, just how all this works as it does. We may never crack the code, but that’s no reason to start dreaming up gods to make us sleep better at night.…I say, use your brain like a man (sorry women). Some things are difficult to accept–so what, do we just avoid them and prefer comforting beliefs, shut our eyes and whistle past the graveyard?

The interesting thing about the excerpt from Commenter F just quoted is that it acknowledges that the absence of God is difficult to accept, that God’s existence is something to wish for. It was this implicit longing for God that I was trying to point out (in my blog post) in the writings of Weinberg and Dawkins. I believe this is a universal longing innate in all thinking creatures because we are creatures of God. This very longing is in itself a reason seriously to consider God’s existence. I say this knowing it is the kind of quantum-tunneling statement (metaphorically speaking) that escapes the classical confines of the proof-demanding atheist.

Commenter F speculated that it was a genetic defect that had caused me to drop out of the club:

You were bothered by a Universe with no purpose, and now you feel better. Same old things. Reading your words makes me consider again the idea that propensity to believe in religions may be genetic.

Commenter A seemed to become increasingly troubled by my continuing to respond to comments, though he was the one that had initially expressed the hope that I not leave after only a couple of posts.

Treat us like human beings here. Don’t come here to chortle “ho ho ho, I once thought as you did, ho ho ho” and tell us where we’ve got it all wrong.

I’m not sure what your goals here are. If they are conversation, you’re failing. If they are conversion, you’re failing. If they are to convince us that you’re a deep thinker, you’re failing.

So why are you here? Is it to make yourself feel superior by dangling some meat over the edge of the dinner table to see if the dogs jump?

It’s almost as though Commenter A thinks I am taunting him by withholding some secret key to enlightenment, or pretending to do so. The interested reader can go to the full comments to see how little my words justified this kind of response. I wish Commenter A well in his spiritual quest, though I don’t think I have much more to contribute to it at this point. However, I invite him or anyone else interested in a more private conversation to email me.

Having been rebuked several times by the “friendlies” over the length of my posts, I think I will not get into our dialog, for now at least. I assume the whole comment section is still available for those that are interested.

I don’t regret having had the conversation “in the clubhouse,” though I don’t plan to make a habit of it. I’ll let my readers judge how well the excerpts of comments I’ve quoted (and the full set) fit in with the notion of some atheists’ seeing themselves as constituting The Club of Truly Smart People. Though most commenters had trouble suppressing their scorn for this turncoat and some didn’t try, I don’t hold it against them. Comment sections do not bring out the best in people for a number of reasons.

I detect in some of the comments disappointment or even resentment that I had no new and irrefutable argument or scientific evidence for God’s existence. I can only repeat that I claim no new evidence, even as I urge everyone to examine seriously and deeply all the circumstantial evidence in this ultimate mystery. I totally reject the idea, expressed by a number of commenters, that we choose whether to believe in God. We do, however, choose whether to strive for an open mind and what kind of evidence to consider. I again recommend the Polkinghorne book Belief in God in an Age of Science as a possible starting point.

I’m planning to take a break from metaphysical questions, but sometimes they are hard to escape, so we’ll see how it goes. That Michael Phelps can really swim, can’t he?

A Short Visit to Commentland

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

About ten days ago I came across an article in the site’s cosmiclog section about the issuing of a safety report by CERN, the major European high-energy particle physics experiment facility, located in Geneva. The report was meant to answer concerns raised about possible catastrophic consequences of operating the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which, after years of construction, is about to commence operation this summer.

The safety report is an interesting document, not only for its content, but also for the reason for its production, which was objections, including law suits, raised by private individuals based on some otherwise obscure speculations by a few theoretical physicists about novel particles and microscopic objects that might be produced in proton collisions at the never-before-attained (in the lab) energies of the LHC.

I was particularly interested in the topic because it followed in rough outline a movie scenario I had imagined around thirty years ago. That scenario, which was sketched in an earlier post called Dangerous Experiments, was based on a physics graduate student’s having determined that high-energy experiments about to be conducted in a new particle accelerator would destroy the universe.

I am working on a note about the issues, which I aim to post here in a few days. In the meantime, however, I am going to present some observations on the comments posted online about the cosmiclog article, since I found the comments themselves to be interesting for what they said about the commenters, who to some degree must represent people that read science news posted online.

First, I should mention that this was a moderated comment section. All comments had to be read and approved by a moderator before they were posted. This procedure aims to eliminate spam as well as personally abusive comments, examples of which anyone that has read unmoderated comment sections will have encountered. Published comments are the “normal” non-commercial responses to the article. I even contributed a few comments myself.

I have gone through the comments trying to assign them all to categories. This was obviously a subjective and rather arbitrary process. I present the results of this exercise below in the hopes they may be of interest. Some comments fall into more than one category and, in a couple of obvious cases, a category is a subcategory of a more inclusive one. There were 156 comments in all, and I list them by categories below with the most numerous examples first.

Note that there were a few comments that I placed in the category of organized opposition, meaning that I thought those comments were from people already committed to opposition and who were there to rally people to their cause. Where noted, certain categories (e.g., Skepticism about scientists’ competence or objectivity) do not include the comments deemed part of the organized opposition.

A few comments may have fallen through the cracks, as I had a few categories of one comment only that I dropped and whose exemplars may not have appeared elsewhere. This was a laborious undertaking I won’t repeat for a while, so I hope someone will find it amusing if not enlightening.

The categories and numbers in each follow.

Comments containing statement or clear inference that LHC experiments are a real gamble, whether deemed worth taking or not (organized oppositon excluded): 17

Comments mentioning religion and/or the Bible in some way: 16

Humorously intended end-of-world comments: 15

Comments containing negative opinion or portrayal of physicists: 12

Comments containing blatant physics errors or nonsensical physics statements: 10

Uncategorizable useless comments: 10

Comments making erroneous, inadequate, or unclear attempts to correct physics mistakes in other comments: 10

Comments expressing skepticism about scientists’ competence or objectivity (organized opposition excluded): 10

Casual or humorous comments about desirability of mini black hole: 9

Comments containing antireligious statements: 8

Comments using physical arguments of CERN safety report to reject danger: 8

Comments expressing the idea that progress is more important than the potential danger without estimating the danger: 7

Comments referring to the Mayan calendar: 8

Comments expressing concern about specific points in CERN report (organized opposition excluded): 6

Comments with a reference to fiction or poetry: 6

Comments expressing belief that danger is minimal without specifically referring to the report: 5

Comments used to make an unrelated political point: 5

Comments attacking report by apparent organized opposition: 5

Comments attacking funding for particle physics per se: 5

Comments containing defense of physicists: 5

Comments largely concerned with criticizing many previous comments: 5

Comments adequately correcting physics mistakes: 4

Humorously voiced regret that no black hole or end of the world: 4

Comments stating or implying that physicists carried out experiments or tests they thought potentially catastrophic in the past: 4

Comments raising “overlooked” dangers of LHC: 3

Comments rebuking others for misunderstanding Mayan calendar: 3

Comments supporting the LHC experiments from a religious standpoint: 3

Comments expressing view that LHC catastrophe would be a great way to go: 2

Comments expressing view that if it’s the end, so what?: 2

Comments wondering whether any of the commenters are competent to judge: 2

Comment using Bible to reject idea that LHC will directly bring about the end of the world: 1

Ironic or sincere appreciation expressed for an erroneous comment: 1

Sarcastic expresson of approval of a previous comment: 1

Comment questioning non-scientist judge’s competence to decide queston: 1

Comment supporting use of non-scientist judge: 1

Irrelevant musing on the end of the world: 1

Misanthropic outpouring: 1

Oblique reference to attempt to stop experiments by force: 1

Call to arrest and jail those pushing the project: 1

Comment promising this blog post: 1

One of the most striking things in the comments was how very few were the commenters that showed much physics knowledge. Of course, many of them didn’t pretend to know physics, and I wouldn’t advocate limiting comments to people knowledgeable in physics. After all, if the doomsday scenario were correct, we would all perish. I do have a problem with people who pretend to physics knowledge they obviously don’t have though. Some of those who took upon themselves the task of educating their ignorant fellow commenters unfortunately demonstrated only a misguided self-assurance and the ability to throw around terms like “general relativity” without physical understanding.

I only made one comment dealing with an erroneous physics statement (two billiard balls with equal and opposite velocities were said to come to a dead stop upon colliding), and it turned out to be one that a few others corrected. There were just too many erroneous or fuzzy statements. It would have been too much work to correct them all, and when comments don’t really make much sense in the first place it’s hard know what to say except this is gibberish. I suspect such comments are meant mainly to impress, and they usually don’t have an obvious point that needs to be taken on. But I shouldn’t speculate too much on the motivation.

It’s obvious that a substantial percentage of the commenters saw an opportunity to display their wit; and, given the democratic nature of the forum, there was no high standard imposed on the level of humor attained. Some people post a comment without reading all that have already been posted, so very similar comments appear multiple times. This accounts for the repeated comments of the “Great! I can use a miniblack hole to vacuum the house!” type, as well as the multiple corrections of the erroneous statement about the billiard ball collision.

As might have been expected, I suppose, given the end-of-the-world theme, there were a number of short, humorously intended comments of the “Oh no! We’re doomed!” type. I didn’t note a single one that said this was an obvious fulfilling of a Biblical prediction, but there was a good bit of discussion of the Mayan calendar, which is due either to start a new cycle or to bring our world to an end, depending evidently on your interpretation, sometime in 2012. There was one commenter who felt sure the LHC could not directly bring about the end foretold in Revelations since other necessary events had not yet occurred, but he left open the possibility that it could be the start of a domino effect, which in any event did not worry the securely saved writer, who asked if other readers were as confident of where they would spend eternity.

One of the supposed dangers of the LHC operation is the creation of mini black holes, which might in time gobble up the Earth. The mini black hole idea sparked a number of humorously meant comments about how handy these might be for waste disposal etc. Well, for a while anyway.

There were a few misanthropic comments of the “Good, this will eliminate a blight from the universe,” sort. And there were political references to our government’s propensity to wage war etc.

At a certain point people involved in the campaign to stop the experiments seem to have gotten wind of the discussion going on, and a small flurry of comments highly critical of the report as a whitewash and with links to anti-LHC websites appeared. I think I may have let a couple of earlier comments of this type slip through the filtering, but that’s not a big deal.

I was surprised at the number of people that accepted the notion that running the experiments was a serious gamble, but one worth taking for the sake of progress, sometimes based on the anticipation of unlikely future applications that might result from knowledge gained by the LHC experiments.

Of course there were those who thought it was a gamble not worth taking, including some that saw it as just another example to add to earlier ones in which physicists had risked destroying the world through reckless experiments or tests, the atomic and hydrogen bomb tests usually being cited.

One commenter (anticipating the call by NASA’s James Hansen to arrest oil company executives for fostering doubt about anthropogenic global warming) maintained that anyone pushing the project forward should be arrested and jailed.

I would recommend to CERN that they have people monitoring online science news forums such as cosmiclog and googling away to see when the issue of LHC safety is being discussed online, in order to minimize the number of uncontested erroneous statements. The anti-LHC folks are obviously on the job, if their arrival in this observation forum is typical.

I’m not sure what I expected, but going through these comments was a bit disheartening for me. Maybe comment sections become dominated by people who like seeing their comments on the screen, which ends up discouraging those with something more of substance to say from commenting. I know I quickly saw the erroneous physics statements—not to mention the irrelevant posts on the commenters’ favorite topics of religion or anti-religion—start to swarm like gnats, and a swarm of gnats is something you want to get away from.

Presidential Sport

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

This is not going to become a habit, I hope, and it is not political commentary per se, just some general advice, drawing on specific examples, to all Presidential candidates about not trying to seem something you’re not. Well, let me back off from that: running for President is mainly about seeming something you’re not. But still, you have to choose a realistic man or woman of the people image for yourself. Otherwise, you may be found out in a way that damages your chances of being elected.

There are just too many reporters, cameras, and, now, bloggers around to think you can keep much secret. Things get found out these days. If you’re going to engage in what some hair-splitting, old-fashioned types may consider “sexual relations” with a young intern, be ready for the embarrassing details to be printed in full in the NY Times and posted on the internet. The public wants to know I guess, though I didn’t. If you didn’t really come under sniper fire in Bosnia on a trip with many witnesses, don’t expect your assertion that you did will go unchallenged. In my mind, the mere running for President requires either courage or ignorance of its inherent danger (see my recent post), so why make up stories?

Today I’m mainly talking about trying to present an image of yourself as a sports fan or recreational athlete when in fact you don’t care about sports or don’t engage in them. We have certainly had some athletic Presidents. Lincoln was reputed to be a powerful wrestler. Teddy Roosevelt was the extreme case of an overachiever in the manly arts. Ike played football, and I first encountered the word “atheist” as a kid when Eisenhower jokingly defined it as someone who doesn’t care who wins the Notre Dame vs. SMU football game. (Don’t worry if you don’t get it.) Jerry Ford played football (too often without a helmet according to LBJ). Washington excelled at tree chopping and dollar tossing in his youth, or so they used to say.

JFK, despite debilitating health problems, was able to project an image of manly fitness because it had been true in his earlier days and exposing Presidential weaknesses wasn’t given such a high priority in his day. FDR obviously wasn’t an athlete, but he didn’t pretend to be, and he managed to appear much less physically handicapped than he actually was, something that would be difficult to achieve today. Speaking of FDR, I’ll bet Senator Obama envies his ability to flaunt his cigarettes in a holder that became iconic. Every era demands new sacrifices.

In recent years at least, it seems that candidates have striven more to give the appearance of being avid sports fans, probably because sports have become more and more important with the expansion of the sports media. Sports nuts are probably a significant segment of the population, if not, strictly speaking, a voting bloc. Nixon was truly interested in sports, I recall. So much for the idea that that’s a reliable indicator of a successful Presidency, but he did get elected twice.

Our current President also seems to follow sports with genuine interest. He owned a major league baseball team. He can throw ceremonial first pitches all the way from the pitcher’s mound to home plate with some authority, a major step up from the weak short tosses from the stands of not so long ago. So why then would John Kerry have tried to go up against the other guy’s strength in an area where he, Kerry, had a weakness? Maybe throwing back a shot of whiskey à la Hillary Clinton recently would have been a better idea; though, against a recovering alcoholic who’d been on the wagon for years, it could have seemed a bit like hitting below the belt.

In any case, Kerry definitely sought to portray himself as a sports fan, including a fan of NASCAR racing, but with results that worked against him I think. Representing Massachusetts in the Senate, Kerry no doubt had been told it’s important to be a big Red Sox fan. But when he started talking about Manny Ortez (probably a running together of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz), it only seemed he was trying to remember lines, not speaking from true interest. And about 99.9% of Red Sox fans were going to see that. Yet he doesn’t seem to learn. He avowed that his favorite Sox player when he was a kid was Eddie Yost, who never played a game for Boston. There was an Eddie Yost, all right, who played for the Washington Senators, so Kerry may have truly remembered hearing the guy’s name. He may even be remembering something about him. Kerry said that the thing he really liked about Yost was that he walked a lot. Not hit homeruns or stole bases, but walked! This was not a normal kid baseball fan he was describing.

Kerry was following in the footsteps of the Senior Senator from Massachusetts with his mangling of ballplayers’ names. Ted Kennedy was somehow prompted to refer to the homerun hitters then challenging Roger Maris’s record as “Sammy Suser and Mike McGwire” (at a time when the names of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were everywhere). Of course, what he really said was Sammy Susa and Mike McGwire. That extra “r” is just something people from Boston add before a following vowel, in this case the “and.” Think of JFK’s “Cubar” if you’re old enough.

In this Presidential season, Mitt Romney tried to recover from his exaggerated tales of being a lifelong hunter by making jokes about mounting gopher head trophies, which I have to admit is kind of funny. But you don’t have to be a hunter to say you don’t want to take hunters’ guns away, so better not overdo it in the first place. Romney spent a lot of money on his campaign, but seems to have come across as a phony to a lot of voters. The hunting fib couldn’t have helped.

Generally speaking, unless you can pull it off, as Hillary did in showing she was “one of the guys” when she downed the shot of whiskey, don’t attempt man-of-the-people feats. I doubt that hers was a spur-of-the-moment decision and it may have been born of desperation, but it could turn out to have been a brilliant move. How many percentage points was that shot worth? She must have practiced that one, but others have jumped in without thorough preparation.

President Jimmy Carter famously collapsed on camera while jogging during his term of office, which did not convey the image of vigor and stamina he was no doubt hoping for. Carter also became a figure of ridicule when he talked of having to beat off with a boat oar the repeated attacks of an aquatic rabbit that kept swimming toward his boat. The “Killer Rabbit” episode certainly has colored my image of him ever since. Maybe it was a rabid rabbit that really was dangerous or a drowning rabbit that should have been rescued instead of bashed, but it just seems ludicrous in the telling. Better to have kept the rabbit story inside the family. Perhaps that unfortunate encounter with the wild kingdom was enough to sink Carter against Reagan, who by the way got his start as a play-by-play baseball radio announcer using fake crowd noise and bat cracks for time-delayed broadcasts based on telegraphed reports coming in to the station.

Then there were the painful-to-look-at pictures of Kerry trying to catch a football as though it were the first one he’d ever had thrown to him, something to be warded off like an attacking hawk at Fenway Park. Whose idea was that? Why football anyway? Well, the Kennedy Presidential clan used to play touch football, so that might have entered into it. And JFK (the original) liked to sail of course, which may explain Kerry’s windsurfing. But windsurfing doesn’t convey mastery the way posing at the tiller of a sailboat does.

If you’ve never engaged in an activity before, better not do it for the first time with press coverage. As a case in point, if you’ve never bowled before in your life, don’t bowl in front of the television cameras the way Obama did. If you bowl a 37, just say you were under 100 unless you’ve foolishly let the press keep score. People might relate to a guy bowling under 100, but 37 is so low that it casts doubt on your basic physical co-ordination or performance under pressure. Most people who have bowled probably won’t remember having bowled a score that low. If you see you’re on your way to a 37, and the press is keeping score, better quit early. You can say it’s that old bullriding injury acting up or something. Is bowling a requirement for being President? No—so don’t act like it is by doing it in public, unless you can bowl at least, say, 150.

I would also recommend that, if you are as weak in an area as your opponent is, be careful how you ridicule him or her. Cheney could pile on Kerry about referring to Lambeau Field as Lambert Field, but Senator Obama’s talking about Hillary out there in the duck blind like “Annie Oakley with her six shooter” didn’t really work. It hinted at ignorance of both duck hunting, where shotguns are preferred, and Annie Oakley, who was famous for her rifle shooting. Associating Hillary Clinton with Annie Oakley in any way probably wasn’t a good idea, as Annie excelled at something usually thought of as a masculine activity, and who knows what might stick in the voter’s mind.

Looking to the fall, consider that John McCain really is a sports fan. This is neither good nor bad as far as I can see, unless taken to extremes. McCain will no doubt reveal some foibles of his own, but his opponent would be well advised not to try to match him in sports acumen or enthusiasm, because exposure as a phony, even in an unimportant area can tip the scales for some people. McCain really did get shot at too.

The Candidates: Reckless, Fatalistic, Uninformed, Optimistic, or Heroic?

Saturday, April 12th, 2008

Think of a dream job—one with a lot of power and prestige and a private jet, if that’s what you’d like. Now imagine that there was one little drawback: about a 15% chance you would die as the result of a violent assault sometime during your first few years on the job, and that in fact you could be shot dead within your first four months of work, as a previous holder of the position had been. Would that make you pause before submitting your résumé?

Gee, I would have thought Mafia dons had better security than that, you may be saying to yourself. What is this job? Well, being a Mafia prosecutor in Italy has been an even more dangerous job than the one I’m thinking of, but the job I have in mind is plenty dangerous, is only open to US citizens, and carries a lot more power and prestige; so much power and prestige, in fact, that despite the inherent danger, a goodly number of risk-taking people, both men and women, can’t resist seeking the job, even devoting months and millions trying to attain it. The job of which I write is, of course, the Presidency of the United States of America.

Starting with and including Abraham Lincoln, twenty-seven men have held the office of President of the United States, and four of them have been assassinated. So during that time, 14.8% of US Presidents have been killed on the job, all well before their first five years in office, one (Garfield) less than four months into his term. This is a dangerous job! Starting with Lincoln may seem unfair, but I would argue that the first successful assassination (coming at the end of a civil war) changed the game, and made it more likely that others would follow.

The toll could easily have been higher. Ronald Reagan survived a bullet fired into a lung, and a woman shot at President Ford but missed because a man in the crowd grabbed her arm at the last second. Our current President was lucky that a grenade thrown toward him during a foreign trip to Tbilisi, Georgia failed to explode. Harry Truman was the target of two Puerto Rican nationalists in 1950, but the gunmen were shot before they could get to him; one attacker and a White House guard died in the gun battle. In 1994, a man sprayed bullets in the direction of a group of men on the White House lawn, which he erroneously thought included President Clinton, who was inside. Franklin Roosevelt was a target of bullets shortly before his first inauguration, in an attack by a lone gunman which killed the mayor of Chicago and wounded four others; crowd intervention probably saved the President-elect as in the Ford case. Other plans and stalkings have been uncovered, while others have no doubt gone undetected.

You don’t even have to be elected to be a target, nor are you necessarily safe after leaving office. Three candidates for the presidency have also been shot. Candidate George Wallace was paralyzed as a result of a bullet wound, and Robert Kennedy was shot to death. Teddy Roosevelt survived a bullet to the chest after he had left office and while he was campaigning to return to the White House. Saddam Hussein plotted to kill the first President Bush a few months after he left office, but Kuwait security intercepted the would-be car bombers.

To put it in perspective, let’s compare the risk of being President of the US with some other hazardous jobs, first looking at some regular jobs. The overall job fatality rate due to accidents and assaults for all American workers is about four per 100,000 each year, for a 0.004% chance of being killed on the job. Starting with Lincoln’s first inauguration and counting up to the present, the annual fatality rate through assassination for US Presidents is 2.7%, which says that a President’s risk of being killed on the job is around 700 times that of today’s average US worker! The average US worker has about a 0.08% chance of being killed on the job in a twenty-year period.

For the years 2001-6 an average of 43% of on-the-job deaths resulted from transportation accidents. Driving is kind of dangerous, which we knew, but that is quite a high percentage and points out how relatively safe most jobs are. We think of mining as a dangerous profession, and it is about 6.5 times more dangerous than the average job, but the odds of being killed in mining are around 0.5% in a twenty-year-period. Being President is over a hundred times more likely to get you killed than mining in an average year.

For the general population, 10% of on-the-job deaths are due to violent assaults, which seems strikingly high. But since there have been no accidental deaths of Presidents in office, for them the rate is 100%. Put together, driving accidents and assaults account for over half of the on-the-job deaths in the US.

The figures vary a bit from year to year, but the three professions that are regularly in the top three for death rates on the job are fishing, logging, and flying (which includes small planes like cropdusters), each having an annual job fatality rate of roughly 0.1%. Thus the Presidential annual fatality average is twenty-seven times that for he most hazardous normal jobs. Over a twenty year career, a fisherman’s chance of dying from an accident or drowning on the job is about 2%. This is high, but, perhaps surprisingly, nothing compared to the historical risk a President of the US faces while in office for only a few years.

What about the hazards of serving in the US military in Iraq? It goes without saying that some in the military are much more exposed to danger than others, depending on their respective roles. So keep in mind that the figure used here is an average over all military personnel without considering what percentage of them are in relatively safe areas and not regularly involved in combat patrols and assaults. Even remembering that, it still seems counterintuitive that, on average a President is at substantially greater risk of being killed than the average serviceman in Iraq.

Consider the following. In a relatively “hot” period in Iraq (when appreciably more casualties were being sustained than now) from September 18, 2006 to February 4, 2007, the calculated annual death rate for American troops was 7.5 per 1,000 (Bird and Fairweather, 2007, abstract online). Thus a high estimate for the likelihood of dying on the job in Iraq (including non-combat accidents) within a year was 0.75%; which, from the fatality standpoint, is about 7.5 times more dangerous than logging. But the military fatality rate is only 28% of the Presidential one.

Roughly 80% of the military deaths in Iraq have been due to hostile action, with the rest being comparable to “normal” deaths on the job, such as helicopter crashes not due to enemy fire, etc. Take away the hostile action, and serving in Iraq is still about 50% more likely to kill you than logging or fishing in the USA. Over a sustained five-year-period the likelihood of being killed in combat in Iraq for the average serviceman would be something like 3%, while a President has a 15% chance of being killed by hostile action while in office.

However, the odds of suffering a non-fatal wound are over seven times as great as being killed for a soldier in Iraq, while Presidents have been more likely to be killed than wounded. Only Reagan was wounded and survived while in office. The risk of bodily harm, including non-fatal wounds, is then greater for the average serviceman in Iraq than for the President.

None of this comparing of averages over time is meant to suggest that the stress level and hardships of living in a foreign land with many hostile locals, while far from loved ones, eating army rations, possibly being shot at every day, seeing others around you being killed and wounded, and perhaps suffering horrible but non-fatal wounds yourself, are at all comparable to the daily life of luxury in the perceived security of twenty-four-hour Secret Service protection in the White House.

To put that average fatality rate for US servicemen in better perspective, let’s consider the battle of Fallujah in November 2004, which saw very intense house-to-house combat against well-prepared insurgents by US Marines and Army units. Some 6,000 assault troops lost about 50 killed in the ten days of heaviest fighting in Operation al-Fajr. Projecting that brief intensity of combat to an annual rate, would give a fatality rate forty times higher than the figure we have used for the average. More realistically, a Marine that went through the equivalent of a dozen Fallujah’s would be at a 10% risk of being killed.

Considered as occupations, US serviceman in Iraq and US President differ in a crucial way: the President’s uniqueness. A substantial portion of the military personnel are not regularly exposed to the same level of risk as troops venturing into enemy-held areas; and, even for the soldiers most at risk, an individual soldier is just one in the crowd, and chance will play a major role in whether he or someone next to him or fifty miles away from him is the one that dies from an IED explosion or sniper’s bullet, while the President is unique and a target himself just by virtue of his office. Other wars have of course had much higher military fatality rates, and future ones may as well, but the fact remains that the Commander-in-Chief is, by reasonable estimates, at substantially greater risk of being killed than the average serviceman or servicewoman in Iraq, though the risk to the President at any given time is even more invisible and unknowable.

Finally, let’s consider astronauts. Being an astronaut is not a safe job, as we have seen in spectacular fashion a couple of times. So far the career fatality rate has been something under 4%, in the sense that about that percentage of space travelers have died. Some have made multiple trips into space (when the danger peaks, of course) and all have had to train for years before the first flight, but this number can serve as a rough estimate of the likelihood of dying on the job in a career that is measured in a relatively few years, which makes it a good comparison with that dream job I mentioned in the first paragraph. On average, the danger is comparable to serving in Iraq, and it is much safer to be an astronaut than a President. The difference is that the period of greatest risk is obvious for the astronaut, while the secret actions of a Lee Harvey Oswald remain hidden until the final bloody deed itself.

Of course, the assassination probabilities I’ve been using are subject to the objection that it is really impossible to judge the relative dangers for different eras in terms of the overall threat, the level of security, and the likelihood of surviving a gunshot wound. Reagan survived being shot. Would Garfield and McKinley have survived if they had had the same level of medical care? Perhaps one or both would have. But we are dealing with a small sample size, and a slight deviation in the path of the bullet that punctured Reagan’s lung could have proved fatal also.

What if we start counting with George Washington instead of Lincoln? That reduces the assassination rate for Presidents to just under 10%. Looking at only the last fifty years, also gives a fatality rate of 10%. These numbers, though below 15%, still show the Presidency to be a lot more dangerous than all of the other professions we’ve considered, military service in Iraq included.

The constant historical background is that there will always be a certain number of mentally unbalanced people that will contemplate killing the President, whoever he or she may be, and some will eventually act on their obsessions with some possibility of success in our open society. And from time to time an individual or small group will also seek to rise out of their obscurity by performing a mighty deed, supposedly in the service of a noble cause they identify with (Secession, Anarchy, Defense of Cuba, whatever). War and Peace readers, think of Pierre, “L’russe Besuhof.”

What’s new in our times is an organized movement, rooted in religious fanaticism, that glorifies martyrdom in the service of killing. This fact alone, without the prior US history of assassinations, would be enough to make us anxious, especially when we think of the recent killing of Benazar Bhutto. Given the number of attempts by the “usual suspects” on the lives of Presidents and Presidential candidates since the Kennedy assassination, it seems clear that our Presidents, and we as a nation, have been lucky that there has not been a Presidential assassination in over forty-five years.

Of course, security measures have been increased. You can’t drive by or fly over the White House anymore, for example. But, at the risk of sounding overly fatalistic, I’ll guess that the country will have to deal with a Presidential assassination again sometime within the lifetime of most of us.

It’s like the big earthquake that we know is going to hit California or the asteroid that’s going to slam into the Earth one of these centuries unless we’ve figured out how to deflect it by the time it comes. I think it’s more likely that we’ll be able to deflect an asteroid than foil every assassination attempt. All we can do is hope that a combination of enhanced security, dumb luck, or providential protection continues to keep our Presidents safe; and, if we are in a crowd near a President, be alert and ready to wrest the gun from a would-be killer, as others have done in the past.

Retired astronaut Rick Hauck candidly said in 2003, after the second Space Shuttle disaster, that if he had known how high the fatality risk of space flight was, he probably wouldn’t have chosen to be an astronaut. I wonder if the presidential aspirants actually do the calculations? Michelle Obama has reportedly voiced concern for her husband’s safety, supposing there to be an increased danger due the special historical circumstances of his candidacy, but all candidates and their spouses must take the danger into account. Some may feel they are the darlings of fortune—the temptation to think that would certainly be great for anyone close to becoming President—and never give it much thought, but it must still have some place in the back of their minds.

I wonder if thoughts of assassination haven’t influenced the decisions of reflective men like Mario Cuomo, who decided not to seek the Presidency that so many thought could be his. This is mere speculation and would not be a judgment against anyone of whom I knew it to be true. To run for President, one would have to decide whether one could live and function well with the knowledge that, not only might each day be one’s last, which we are all theoretically aware of, but that the end might be due to murder, which is much less likely for those of us who are not Presidents.

Without overlooking their sometimes grievous faults or the degree to which blind ambition may motivate them, let us give those who serve as President some gratitude and respect for the courage they show in seeking and holding the office, as we also pray for each President’s safety.

Dangerous Experiments

Monday, March 3rd, 2008

Years ago, I had an idea for a movie, the premise of which was that a physics graduate student had discovered that an imminent particle physics experiment was going to destroy the universe. The student had written a computer program to predict what sort of new particle physics events would occur when the next super duper particle accelerator, now nearing completion after years of construction, came on line. The shocking result, checked and rechecked, which his program gave was that with the anticipated beam densities and energies and with the particles involved, a reaction would occur which would trigger the equivalent of a new Big Bang, annihilating the existing universe. Never mind how that singular result would have been presented by a program whose author had no reason to anticipate such an outcome; this is movie science.

Of course, no one would believe a mere graduate student (maybe a little bit of a hippie), especially not the scientists whose careers and future Nobel prizes were at stake, nor the politicians who would have to admit they had squandered a few billion dollars. You get the picture. The hero and his girlfriend try everything to stop the experiment from taking place, finally turning to a personal last-ditch attempt at outright sabotage. Nevertheless, after numerous exciting escapes from security guards etc., they are ultimately foiled. And of course this happens in a way that allows them to watch helplessly as the dreaded experiment finally commences.

The particle accelerator revs up (with impressive sounds and indicator lights), the beam energy gauge rises, the maximum beam energy is reached, a switch is turned to bring about the catastrophic collisions in the particle event detector, and… Nothing spectacular happens. Hero and girlfriend, unable to believe their good fortune, laugh and hug, on realizing they and the universe have survived. There must have been a bug in the program after all. Or maybe the theory was wrong.

That’s not a very satisfying ending I’ll admit, and I hereby give permission to anyone that wants it to take the idea, modify it as desired, and sell it to Hollywood.

Oddly enough, the world now finds itself in a situation that in some ways resembles my movie scenario, though with important differences. Instead of a lone graduate student, we now have the overwhelming majority of climate researchers telling us that their computer program predicts the end of the world as we know it. The “crackpots” in this case are the ones that cast doubt on the prediction.

Both the supposed catastrophe-inducing experiment (continued release of green house gases into the atmosphere at the current or an increasing rate) and the catastrophe itself (runaway global warming and all the bad things that happen when polar ice caps melt etc.) are gradual and cumulative over years, instead of sudden, as in my movie. The movie at least had a quick way to find out who was right.

Since the number of people deeply interested in the results of particle physics experiments is sadly but truly quite low, all it would have taken to stop the experiment in my movie was to get the governments involved to agree to dismantle the accelerator and bury it, much as happened to the ill-fated Texas Supercollider. Substantially curbing green house emissions, however, will require major modifications to the way the world currently works, and will likely call for real sacrifices by billions of people, at least in the short run.

I’m not willing to say the attempt should not be made; but my guess is that it’s not going to happen, at least not as quickly as the most alarmist predictions would require. So, like it or not, we will probably be in the position of the main characters in my movie, after all else has failed, fatalistically waiting to experience the results of the experiment, only in slow motion, and perhaps passing the anxiety on to our descendants.

As regards the ending of the movie compared to the real-world script: based on my experience with complex computer models, people’s tendency to place too much confidence in their results, and my guess at the current level of scientific understanding of world climate, I don’t think it is crazy to hope—note that I said “crazy” and “hope”—that the ending of the world’s current drama, foolhardy though it may be, will be as happy for future generations as my movie’s was for its main characters.

However that turns out, unless climate modification becomes a branch of practical engineering (and how do you test whether something works in advance?), there is good reason to believe that the future will see major natural climate changes, most likely of the ice age type. That is, unless we have lucked out on those with our unnatural warming.