Is The Universe Expanding?

Library of Congress image, catalog no. Lamb 2272


This is the first — and probably last — in a series, Ask The Celestial Monochord, where readers get the answers they deserve, given that they asked The Celestial Monochord. A reader writes (without asking anything at all):

Just wanted to let you know about an article in the Sept.-Oct. 2007 issue of "American Scientist," p. 383: "Modern Cosmology: Science or Folktale?" by Michael J. Disney. I found it interesting because it agrees with my view that current theories do not form a stable paradigm, or, as I've said to people (who disbelieve me, of course), "In 20-40 years, the universe will no longer be expanding." I have no idea, of course, what theory will take its place.
Well ... you're probably crackers, although I haven't read the article. I did take a few classes in the philosophy of science in grad school, though, so my crackers have something your crackers haven't got — a diploma, as Professor Marvel would say.

I see at least two ways that old ideas are abandoned in science. One happened to cold fusion. The idea is interesting for a little while, but sooner or later it just turns out to be BS, and is chucked overboard. You seem to be saying that will happen to universal expansion, and if so, I bet you're wrong.

There's another way, and there, you're almost certainly right. I think of the "spiral nebulae." They were noticed and listed and described alongside all the other fuzzy patches in the sky. Once it was realized that they were "island universes," like our own Milky Way except millions of light years away, they increasingly got called galaxies, but the full transition in both terminology and mental image took decades.

Then galaxies were thought of as nice patches of stars interspersed with some dust and gas. But as time went on, they came to be thought of as dense areas of dark matter, with stars and gas and dust just "floating on top." Today, a galaxy is no more stars and interstellar clouds than a pint of Guinness is bubbles. Probably, professional astronomers and younger amateur enthusiasts have trouble thinking about galaxies any other way.

It takes a historian of science to go back and try to recover exactly what people meant when they said "galaxy" in, say, 1970. A historian who shows that these "galaxies" have been abandoned might be widely regarded as a nit-picking dilettante among professional astronomers — a judgment that would have its own merits and limitations.

In any case, my point is that some scientific ideas suddenly go extinct, while the rest evolve into new ideas without most people really noticing. I bet universal expansion and the "big bang" (a term already used more in the company of cameras and microphones than other scientists) will meet the latter fate — as will almost everything in science. And that's one of the things that recommends science as a way of making sense of the world — its thinking simply grows up in response to new information.


Sidewalk Fulgurite


While taking a walk two weekends ago, a strange scar on the sidewalk caught my eye at Colfax and 24th in Minneapolis.

The scar was something like 3 meters long and in about 5 segments, each about 2 cm deep and up to about 5 cm wide. It was as if a steamshovel had been carelessly dragged along the sidewalk. But the scar was strangely branched. It was hard to imagine what kind of tool could have carved it, even intentionally.


On closer examination, I found the edges of the scar almost completely encrusted with black glass, some of which was easy to pick loose. (The photos below were taken the following weekend, when the scar was filled with organic rubbish.)



It took me ten minutes of standing around staring at the sidewalk — sometimes peering at it very closely on my hands and knees (much to the puzzlement of passersby) — to convince myself that this was created by lightning. It's fulgurite. Whatever made it not only dug a small trench in a municipal sidewalk, it also burned the sand in the sidewalk's concrete into glass.

The scar is immediately below an ordinary city powerline pole, and I can't completely discount the possibility that the scar was created by a downed powerline. I did poorly in the electricity sections of my college physics classes, but my sense is that there's a number of problems with a powerline origin for the scar — not the least of which is that powerlines just don't have the juice to do the job. More likely, the pole attracted the lightning.

Fulgurite is usually found on sand beaches, and online photos of it make it look a little like coral. I think the loose quality of sand eases lightning's path and allows for the dramatically-shaped objects usually associated with fulgurite. Sidewalk fulgurite is not unheard of, as this PDF reprint of a 1947 article in Rocks and Minerals attests.


Community Radio


t-shirt designed by Saelee Oh

available from Lemonade Maid


Yesterday, on my morning commute, I was listening to KFAI, a community radio station in Minneapolis — not the local NPR station, mind you, but a real hippy-blues Hmong-issues reggae-ass CD-skipping community station.

The show was The FUBAR Omniverse, which is hosted by someone named Blanche and often features spacy art-house Brian Eno ambient I-don't-know-what. But yesterday, being the week of the pledge drive, Blanche was reminiscing about old times.

She recalled the time, many years ago, that she played a 17th-century whaling sea shanty on the radio. She immediately got an angry phone call from a concerned listener who objected that The FUBAR Omniverse was "encouraging whaling." Blanche wondered aloud whether the governments of Japan and Norway were listening to The FUBAR Omniverse ... and if so, what the ominous consequences might be.

In fairness, I do recall, around that time, the Mississippi River down by the Federal Building being mobbed with frenzied KFAI listener-members waving make-shift harpoons, their eyes wild with blubber-lust. They must've heard that song.

And so, anyway ... before we get our first nastygram, The Celestial Monochord strongly supports buying CD's of sea shanties, being nice to whales, and giving money to community radio.


Redwood Trees and Chia Pets


My wife Jenny and I were mentioned in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday.

See, on Christmas morning we were in a Walgreens in San Francisco near Union Square. Jenny was in some aisle looking for certain personal items, and to pass the time I strolled into the toy aisle. Not having had any coffee to speak of, I stared blankly at the Chia Pets and I let my mind wander.

We were about to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to see the Muir Woods with its towering redwoods. So staring at the Chia Pets, I began to think about redwoods and an astonishing article I'd read last February in the New Yorker. In it, Richard Preston wrote about a biologist named Steve Sillett who climbs and studies the titanic redwoods of Northern California:

In 1995, Sillett ... began to explore the old-growth redwood canopy ... The general opinion among biologists at the time was that the redwood canopy was a so-called "redwood desert" that contained not much more than the branches of redwood trees. Instead, Sillett discovered a lost world above Northern California.

... There are hanging gardens of ferns, in masses that Sillett calls fern mats. The fern mats can weigh tons when they are saturated with rainwater ... Layers of earth, called canopy soil, accumulate over the centuries on wide limbs ... and support a variety of animal and plant life. In the crown of a giant redwood named Fangorn, Sillett found a layer of canopy soil that is three feet deep ...

Old redwood trees are infested with thickets of huckleberry bushes. In the fall, Sillett and his colleagues stop and rest inside huckleberry thickets, hundreds of feet above the ground, and gorge on the berries. He and his students have also taken censuses of other shrubs growing in the redwood canopy: currant bushes, elderberry bushes, and salmonberry bushes, which occasionally put out fruit, too. Sillett has discovered small trees - wild bonsai - in the canopy. The species include California bay laurel trees, western hemlocks, Douglas firs, and tan oaks. Sillett once found an eight-foot Sitka spruce growing on the limb of a giant redwood.
So, staring at the Chia Pets, I thought about plants growing in soil, but not in the ground. Redwoods are like Chia Pets, I thought. I vaguely wondered how that soil got up there in the canopy of the redwoods, until I remembered that soil is basically broken-down plants — if you have living things up in the canopy, why not dead things, and therefore soil?

Just then, somebody interrupted my train of thought with an "Excuse me." It was Steve Rubenstein, a staff writer for the Chronicle. He explained that he was doing a story on something like last-minute Christmas shoppers, and he wondered if he could ask me what I was doing in the toy aisle of Walgreens on Christmas morning.

I couldn't very well tell him about the redwoods and the Sitka spruce tree growing 35 stories above the ground. So I told him I was sorry — that I wished I was doing last-minute Christmas shopping so he could get his story, but the fact was that I was "literally just staring." When I said I was waiting for my wife, he got really interested, hoping that maybe she was doing last-minute Christmas shopping.

Just then, Jenny appeared, looking for me, with those personal items in hand. This was one of her occasional bad dreams and it had actually come true. Here she is at Walgreens buying personal items and she's confronted by a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle — and he really wants to know exactly what she's doing at Walgreens!

Anyway, here's how our part of the story appeared, on page B3 of the San Francisco Chronicle for Monday 26 December 2005:

A few places were doggedly open for business, including most Walgreens drugstores, where hardly anyone was buying drugs and where Christmas stuff was already half off, and Christmas day still had most of Christmas still to run.

Kurt Gegenhuber, a visitor from Minneapolis, had his eye on a Chia pet — the pottery that turns into an animal-shaped shrub that people seem to buy at Christmas and no other time. He gazed fondly at a Chia elephant until his wife, Jennifer, wandered along and common sense returned. The elephant went back on the shelf.

"He already got his Christmas gift — a CD player and some discs,'' Jennifer said.
It's amusing that, as we spoke to the reporter, we slightly misrepresented what we were doing in the Walgreens. He, in turn, considerably simplified what we told him in order to make it fit the story. And I suppose there may be some minor details that I'm leaving out of the present account, just to make a better blog post. That's journalism, kid.


Darwin and Relativism

In a recent NPR segment on religious anti-Darwinism, a young person-of-faith declared that evolution could never be finally, completely proven, whereas Creationism has already been completely proven — "because the Creator," she explained, "is in my heart."

Of course, I puzzled over how this could be understood as proof. What if something else — Darwin, maybe, or perhaps The Destroyer — is in MY heart? Or what if her "heart" changes and she loses faith? How then are we supposed to decide how the biological world came to be the way it is? It would seem that proof based on "hearts" leaves us standing on awfully shaky ground.

The religious opponents of evolution frequently accuse evolution of encouraging "relativism," although I've never heard an explanation of just what this means, as if it were self-evident. It's not self-evident. Science has an awfully firm bedrock foundation for its knowledge — the world, the physical universe, the empirical field. Science changes its mind about things more often than, say, the Vatican because its understanding of the universe deepens and expands, and because it openly corrects its mistakes.

How is science somehow more "relative" than other forms of knowledge, particularly those based on faith (that is, "the heart")? Although Christianity has The Bible (actually, a wide variety of Bibles) to turn to for continuity, it's difficult to see that Biblical study has brought great consistency to Christian thought, either between sects or within a given sect over time. To base belief (that is, what one holds to be the case), on what amounts to culture and desire is relativism so extreme as to make me dizzy.

On July 9th, I had to re-read a paragraph on the front page of the New York Times three or four times.

It was in an article about an editorial written by the archbishop of Vienna, a close confidant of Pope Benedict XVI, in which he asserted, in essence, that Darwinian evolution is not true, and belief in it might not be compatible with Catholic faith. This assertion was apparently encouraged by Benedict, in a betrayal of Pope John Paul II's general friendliness to evolution and science.

What made me stop and re-read, over and over, was the NYTimes article's seventh paragraph, which reads, in its entirety:

Darwinian evolution is the foundation of modern biology. While researchers may debate details of how the mechanism of evolution plays out, there is no credible scientific challenge to the underlying theory.
What's so startling is that these facts were printed in an American newspaper as facts. Most news venues would cut this paragraph on the grounds that "sounds" biased. But it only sounds biased because the facts it contains ordinarily go unreported, or are reported only as the assertions of an expert who is, in turn, contradicted by an opposing expert.

So American journalism has its own trouble with relativism in its tendency to "seem" objective while actually measuring that objectivity by its appearance. It would be better to BE objective regardless of appearance — as the New York Times has done in this case — or even to be openly biased. To be both biased and to pretend to offer objective journalism results in a relativism unlike anything Darwin would have tolerated.

Families of Trees

Leaf shapes (don't have much to do with families of trees)

After five years of working for a professional society of plant biologists, I am finally educating myself about plants. My mother-in-law gave me The Golden Field Guide to Trees of North America. It is an excellent book, and I've spent many hours staring at the 1950's-era color drawings of trees, leaves, fruits, bark, etc.

I'm struck by the "families" of trees. You may know about the classification systems for living things — the basic level being species, such as the oregon crab apple (Malus fusca) or the Biltmore crab apple (Malus glabrata). The next highest level is genus, such as apple (Malus), ash (Sorbus), and hawthorn (Crataegus) — each having various species within them. Genus and species has always made sense to me.

The next level up (that is, the first of the "higher taxa"), the families, has always been something of a mystery to me — although I've heard of some families and I've even seen them mentioned in articles I've worked on for a living, it hasn't mattered to me what family a living thing belongs to. Now I get it, thanks to a very small amount of study.

When you say a tree belongs to the family Rosaceae, you mean it's part of a sprawling, dizzyingly varied, historically pivotal family of plants that includes more than 3,000 species and dozens of genuses, including the roses we get on Valentines Day, all apples, cherries, plums, pears, almonds, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, ashes, hawthorns, and more.

When you say a tree belongs to the family Platanaceae, you mean it's a sycamore, also known as a plane tree. The family contains only one genus (Platanus) and about six species.

Now I understand that when one biologist says that such-and-such is in this-or-that family, this may be hugely significant information to an informed listener. This confirms the assertion (of the movie Animal House) that "Knowledge is Good."

Einstein Takes A Test

Bohr Einstein
Niels Bohr and Einstein think about it

In physics, there are often different equations for the same phenomenon, but you can usually do a little algebra and show that the different equations actually come from the same source. This is considered good and normal.

So, it's a lot more than a bit embarrassing that the two most important ideas in modern physics — quantum mechanics, which are used to describe teeny tiny things, and General Relativity, which is used to describe big-ass things — have no connection at all. They don't match. To go from one to the other, you have to close one book, put it away, and open another.

For example, Einstein showed that gravity is really just geometry. Mass warps space, and so objects tend to slide down the geometrical warps that other objects create, moving closer together. When we look at this, it looks like gravitational attraction. Unfortunately, quantum mechanics thinks of gravity as an effect generated when masses pass little particles back and forth between them. These ideas are no more compatible to physicists than they are to me or you.

Generally, the conflict can just be ignored, but in certain cases, the two worlds collide. When you want to talk about teeny tiny spaces with HUGE gravitational fields — like black holes, or the Big Bang — you're in real trouble. You need physics that hasn't been invented yet — you need "quantum gravity" or a "Grand Unified Theory". People are working on some interesting ideas (like string theory) in trying to develop this new physics, but it's not clear whether anyone is on the right track or not.

Check your local bookstore for a good article in the July 2005 Sky and Telescope, describing experiments designed to help break the log jam. In terms of the margin of error, quantum mechanics has been confirmed with a lot more precision than General Relativity has. If Einstein's work could be confirmed way, way down to the umpteenth digit, and if this work revealed some difficulties with the theory, it might help unravel the curtain separating the physics of the very large and the very small. Astronomy is at the forefront of the effort, hence the article in Sky and Telescope.

Philosophy of Science, Part 2 of 2

I got to meet a philosphy of science hero of mine, Joseph Rouse, and talk with him at length. At the end of the conversation, I asked him to sign my copy of one of his books. For a moment, he looked very puzzled — apparently, philosophers of science do not regularly have fans who ask to have their books signed. Once he got the idea, though, he seemed to relish the opportunity.

A minor point in that book keeps coming back to me. Imagine, if you will, that you and a friend are walking along and happen upon two people who are having an argument.

One is insisting, "Snow is white."
The other insists, "Snow is NOT white."

I don't know why — maybe they're artists, or meteorologists, or, maybe ... zoologists?

Anyway, you and your friend are philospophers of science. You eavesdrop for a while and then get into your own argument.

You insist, "The statement 'snow is white' is true."
Your friend insists, "The statement 'snow is white' is false."

Now ... the question is, what are you two philosophers contributing to this debate that the two orginal debaters could not contribute on their own? Unless you're very much more careful, the answer is: Diddly Squat.

The problem has to do with what philosophers can do for (or do about) science without either becoming scientists on the one hand or, on the other, being totally irrelevent. If you want to debate whether quarks "really exist," or whether scientist's conclusions really follow from the evidence they've gathered, you are likely to repeat the same arguments scientists themselves debate very regularly and with a much better command of the complications involved than philosophers usually enjoy.

Thinking about this deeply left me finally agreeing that science — if well done — is something I ultimately trust to answer its own questions. It also left me feeling that I should leave the question of the value of the philosophy of science to others.

Philosophy of Science, Part 1 of 2

I studied a lot of philosophy of science in grad school, and I'm very glad I did — it deepened the way I understand a lot of things that are very important to me personally. Still, looking back, most of the big questions I thought I was grappling with then no longer seem important to me, and ring a bit hollow. But two details do seem to keep coming back to me ... and if they keep following me around, they must matter somehow.

We spent a lot of time talking about how much the stuff scientists talk about are "social constructs" — stories scientists tell each other as a group of folk that make up a culture — and how much they're something else having more to do with the universe they study.

Always, during these discussions, some guy or other would get rather aggressive and try to prove that "things exist" by banging his fists on desks, kicking chairs, thumping his chest like an ape, etc.

Eventually, it became clear to me that whether or not desks are, in fact, hard is rarely a question that real scientists debate for very long. More typically, they debate things like, say, how to reconcile two experiments that give different answers for the precise magnitude of dark energy, or whether a certain experiment in a particle accelator really did create a certain particle for a miniscule moment, thereby implying some new form of energy field, and so on. There's no need for philosophers of science to go around slapping themselves. The real questions are much more subtle.

You can draw whatever Moral of the Story you please. I suppose one lesson is that the most vivid, dramatic, immediately impressive arguments are very often not correct.

Thanks go to "The Bottom Line: The Rhetoric of Reality Demonstrations" by Ashmore, Edwards and Potter, in Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology.

The Revolution Will Not Be Heavenly

Today, I bought a copy of Nicolaus Copernicus' book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in an edition edited by Stephen Hawking. The original 1543 book helped inspire people to give up the idea that the Earth was the center of the Universe, and that the Earth circles the Sun, not visa versa.

As I understand it, the change was such a shock and so deeply altered the way people saw the hierarchy of things, in both the heavens and on Earth, that for centuries, whenever people talked about similar upheavals, they would call them another Revolutions, meaning Copernicus' book. After a while, the association of the term with the book got forgotten — hence the word "revolution".

Trouble is, in the original title, De revolutionibus orbium colestium, the word means "spinning around and around in circles," as in, "the going around of the celestial orbs." So the root word of "revolution" is not "revolt," it's "revolve" — to wind up exactly where you started and have to do it all over again.

And all too often, that's how revolutions have gone, at least outside of science. You wind up with the same cast of characters, at best, and you have to stage another revolution, over and over and over.

I swear, the fact that this is Tax Day is PURE COINCIDENCE!

World's Largest Banjo?

Biggest banjo
I know what you've been thinking: "When is he gunna tell me about the world's biggest banjo?"

Well, unreliable sources claim that an object in Branson, Missouri is the World's Largest Banjo, but I doubt it's a real banjo. To qualify as a true banjo, you need vibrating strings and you need these vibrations to be transmitted to a membrane via a bridge for the purpose of amplification. A website describing Branson's disturbing monstrosity makes me suspect that what they have there is a mere sculpture of a banjo:

Largest banjo
"The neck holding five fiber optic strings is 47-feet long. A true replica of a collectible Gibson banjo, the huge fiberglass shell has a sturdy frame of over 3,000 pounds of steel."

Perhaps Gibson's factory in the Opry Mills Mall in Nashville (top) holds the record instead. The search continues ... By the way, see Cecilia Conway's book for an extensive analytical treatment of the features that constitute the essence of a banjo.

Sundogs and Sweet Angles

Sundogs (and Sun)

Astronomy has always been my first love, so people sometimes ask me what causes sundogs, rings around the sun or moon, light pillars, etc. I used to say, "Uh, it's ice crystals." That seemed to satisfy most people. But when I read the book "Rainbows, Halos, and Glories," I learned what it really meant — how, exactly, ice crystals cause the various spots, arcs and rings you see in the sky from time to time. Suddenly the whole sky really came alive for me all over again.

Sundogs are the colorful spots you sometimes see on either side of the sun:

  Sundog                Sun                Sundog

       *                      O                      *
______________________________________ horizon

They're caused by ice crystals shaped like hexagonal plates — like thick-ish stop signs, miniaturized. These little hex plates fall through the air with their faces parallel to the ground. So, picture billions of tiny quarters made of ice, all falling either "heads" or "tails", not standing on the edge.

As they fall, the sun reflects off their faces and edges, and also passes through them making prismic colors (or not), depending on the angle of the sun and the angle from which you view them. There's one particular angle that's really sweet — an angle at which the sunlight passes horizontally right into the edge, along the plate's face, and with the plate rotated "just so". At that angle, the ice crystal passes a nice rainbow through itself.

Towards a certain direction in the sky, all the crystals that happen to be in this orientation "light up" that part of the sky. The direction works out to be about 22 degrees to the left and right of the sun:

     *         22deg         O         22deg         *

It turns out that various other angles are also "sweet" for different reasons. And ice crystals can have different shapes — for example, hexagonal cylinders, like pencils — which, in turn, creates a huge variety of wild arcs and rings and spots, which you can see if you are both lucky and alert.

Visit Les Crowley's beautiful site on Atmospheric Optics or read "Rainbows, Halos, and Glories."