Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Two Cultures are Better than One

I have been asked to read this document in preparation for a meeting of the School Research Committee. It would be cruel to ask you to do so as well, but if you want to, please go ahead. It is basically a proposal for muddling the 'Two Cultures' back together in a porridge by structuring humanities studies around 'evolutionary theory' and stressing that 'evolutionary theory' is a 'form of narrative that functions within its social and historical context'.

I assert that:

Inappropriately mixing poorly-thought-out ideas from biology with the humanities gave us the First World War, the Second World War, and the Holocaust.

Inappropriately mixing poorly-thought-out ideas from the humanities with biology gave us the only comparable man-made catastrophe of the second half of the 20th century, the famine associated with Mao's 'Great Leap Forward'.

Let's not go there.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Things I don’t understand: The ‘Collapse’ of the Wavefunction

(NB: Let it not be supposed that the long delay since I last wrote something headed ‘Things I don’t understand’ means that there are not many, many, many, many other things that I don’t understand.)

In chemistry, the results of quantum mechanics that we are interested in are spectra. Whether these are lines in the ultraviolet/visible region corresponding to transitions between electronic states, or lines in the infrared region corresponding to transitions between vibrational states, or lines in the microwave region corresponding to transitions between rotational states, they are all transitions between energy states which are quite nicely defined.

We cannot ‘observe’ a chemical system in a particular state. We do not make a ‘measurement’ to see what state it is in. What we observe, what we measure, is its transition from one state to another. It seems entirely useless, as well as nonsensical, to say that a particular molecule was not in its first excited vibrational state until we hit it with a photon to give an anti-Stokes Raman peak.

In fact I am really quite vague about what sort of experiment you would do, in the traditional orthodox quantum mechanical sense, to measure the state of a system in such a way that its wavefunction ‘collapses’.

I don’t like the ugly discontinuity that the ‘collapse’ of a wavefunction introduces to quantum theory.

I don’t like the appearance of a privileged status for an ‘observer’ it introduces.

I especially don’t like the whole elaborate mass of New Age piffle that has been erected on this privileged status, a mass which has infected and compromised the otherwise splendid ouevre of Greg Egan, for instance.

A while ago I first came across de Broglie’s pilot-wave theory, and was impressed in my naive chemist’s way by the straightforward way it cut through the paradoxicality of the two-slit experiment. I wanted to know how this model had been developed since de Broglie cast it aside, and how the ‘collapse of the wavefunction’ looked in the pilot wave model. I couldn’t find anything then, because I didn’t know enough to look for the ‘de Broglie-Bohm’ model.

Apparently the collapse of the wavefunction is not a problem in the de Broglie-Bohm model. So it is non-local. Big deal. Every 1s hydrogen orbital wavefunction we tell our first year students about has a non-zero value at every point in the universe (though Excel, bless its heart, says with 15 digit precision that it is zero more than about a nanometre away from the nucleus). Better non-locality than mystical Copenhagen interpretation waffle about an ‘observer’, or worse yet, the deeply dippy ‘Many Worlds’ interpretation.

But why the de Broglie-Bohm model doesn’t get into trouble with the wavefunction collapsing- that’s something I don’t yet understand.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Down to four out of six

This letter, to The Australian's Higher Education Supplement, didn't get published either. So here it is:

I was saddened to read Barry Brook's endorsement of the cry 'Don't feed the troll!' If you are in the business of science education, you should treat every comment on your blog as a legitimate inquiry from a seeker-after-truth and respond politely. If your science is good, it will be obvious to your other readers if their response is to "sidestep valid critiques and ignore counter-evidence". If your science is good, it also doesn't matter how many times you repeat yourself. You will be improving the delivery of your message all the time.

It doesn't do any good to call people who disagree with you names ("sceptics, denialists, contrarians, delayers or delusionists" ... "cut of the same anti-intellectual cloth") or accuse them of being on the take ("Groups with vested interests in business as usual..."). If you are trying to communicate with those who are not already in your camp, such ad hominem attacks are worse than useless.

I thought it was unfortunate that an article entitled 'Science must prevail' contained no actual science. A calm 622 words outlining the physical mechanism of the Greenhouse Effect and the observational evidence for anthropogenic global warming would have been a much better use of space.

Best regards,

Chris Fellows

Monday, June 9, 2008


I heard this on the radio this morning.

I direct your attention to this fragment in particular:

...you can creep along just using the electric motor which is great, you have zero emissions...

Well, no, if you creep along just using the electric motor, eventually you will run out and stop moving. From my vague understanding of how these things work, you need to run the gasoline engine to charge up the batteries.

I worry how much these sort of fuel-efficient vehicles are affected by what we might call the 'low-calorie pretzel' effect. The diet snack food has fewer calories, so you eat more of it. You are already 'doing the right thing' by driving your gee-whiz environment-friendly car, so you take it on trips where a person with a vehicle which is more expensive to run might walk, bike, or use public transport to save money...

Thursday, June 5, 2008

We are our most valuable resource

The monthly publication of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Chemistry in Australia, has just printed my reply to an article they reprinted from Chemical and Engineering News a few months ago. It is not on the Web, and I don't have the scanner attached at the moment, but this is what I said:

Just felt compelled to write in response to the reprinted article by Rudy Baum, ‘Too many people?’, in ‘Your say’.

I grew up in the desert of Arizona, and I too have been saddened to see that landscape submerged under urban sprawl. I have no doubt that rising global temperatures will shift Earth’s arid bands further from the equator, making Victorian rangelands and many other environments more marginal for agriculture. I mourn every species lost as we humans have spread across the arid landscapes of America and Australia with our livestock and feral animals.

However, I think there is no evidence whatsoever that we need a ‘new economic paradigm’. In my lifetime, I have seen our current economic paradigm deliver incredible benefits to the peoples of Asia, and more and more countries reach a standard of living where responsible environmental management can become a duty, rather than an unaffordable luxury. As standards of living rise, population growth rates fall. In Europe today I understand only Albania and Iceland have birth rates above replacement level. Even countries like Iran are rapidly nearing zero population growth. At some point in the next fifty years, on current trends, world population growth is going to stop. This will be long before we reach the limits of the carrying capacity of the Earth. Long before we even come close.

The suburbs of Phoenix may be ugly, but the density of population in the Arizona deserts is less than historical population densities in many Asian deserts. Furthermore, population density need not correlate directly with environmental degradation. Those suburbanites are not grazing goats in the desert. They are not collecting firewood there. I confidently venture that they are using much less water per capita than Australian suburbanites are. You would need thousands of them to make the same impact as one irrigated cotton farm- cotton farms like the ones that used to line the highway between Tucson and Phoenix, and which were all gone the last time I was there.

Not long ago I visited another desert landscape rapidly being covered by urban sprawl, in Dubai. I didn’t find it depressing. I found it exhilarating, and was filled with wonder at the capacity of human beings to create, to build, to adapt. As we humans change the world, we adapt to the changes we make. The richer we are, and the better-educated we are, the better we adapt.

There is no need to run around calling for a new economic paradigm. Why should anyone listen to us, anyway? We have no special expertise in social engineering. If we want to change the world, let us do it in the time-honoured way that scientists have been changing the world for centuries: by figuring out interesting things about the universe that can be used to solve technical problems. There are cost-neutral or cost-saving actions that we can take to reduce the waste associated with our economic system by orders of magnitude. All that is required is that we continue to think imaginatively, and in an evidence-based way.

I guess what I am trying to say can be summed up in the words: ‘half full, not half empty’. Even the shift in the arid bands further from the equator is very far from being an unmitigated catastrophe - when was the last time you heard about drought in the Sahel?

(Why was there a reprinted editorial from Chemical & Engineering News in ‘Your say’, anyway? Don’t we have any opinions of our own, making it necessary for us to import American ones? I at least have been a naturalised Australian since 1996.)

Best regards,

Chris Fellows MRACI

Unsafe at any speed

Our Chancellor has said:

'UNE is lagging behind all other Australian Universities in one area – it is the most dependent on Federal Government grants. I perceive this as a high risk – and one that must be quickly addressed by opening up and attracting other sources of funding, particularly in the areas of research and development, from sources other than the Federal government.'

It has always been true that 'he who pays the piper calls the tune'.

But given that the piper must be paid by someone, what entity should do so?

I think it is obvious that it should be the entity that most shares the values of and is most accountable to those listening to the tune. An ancient and venerable private university ought perhaps to be funded by rich alumni. A Catholic university ought to be funded by the Catholic Church. And a public university ought to be funded by the voters.

For a regional university, the obvious source of funding which will be accountable to stakeholders will be the State Government. For a university with pretensions to national importance, the Federal Government is just as good. It is not 'high risk' for a public university to be funded by the Government. The public sector is, rightly or wrongly, cushioned against the slings and arrows of the market. This is why the economy of a city like Canberra is so placid and stable compared to the economy of a city like Cairns. And public funding cannot be withheld or redirected on ideological or economic grounds with the same ease as other sources of funding- because ultimately, the State and Federal Governments are accountable to the electorate.

It is high risk for a public University to receive a large proportion of its funding from:

* Corporations which are accountable ultimately to institutional shareholders overseas, rather than the Australian electorate.

* Overseas fee-paying students whose numbers will wax and wane with the vagaries of the market and the whims of foreign governments.

Parenthetically, I am one of those staff members who have no confidence in the Chancellor. He is not properly carrying out the task he was appointed to do (for instance, he has attended only 13 of the last 24 graduation ceremonies) and instead he is trying to do a job he was not appointed to do, subverting the authority of the Vice-Chancellor. He should go. Now.