Sandy Claus was coming to town

The precautions against superstorm Sandy worked because the US government FEMA listened to a European computer forecast, not its own.

We need something seasonable to cheer us up, not contemplating Republicans in Congress, narcotics, guns, gun apologists, and – far the worst – the faces of small children. So let’s take a short trip down memory lane to your friendly ex-hurricane:

Tropical storm Sandy at midnight on 28 October

Source: NASA via The Telegraph, approximate scale bar added by me

Where is the silver lining? Two actually. The first is the fact that Sandy was about the smallest storm still large enough to shift public and élite opinion on the reality, now, of climate breakdown. If you pay attention to the plague of frogs, you just may escape the cull of the firstborn. The second is much less widely known outside the weather forecasting trade, and a reminder of just how important it is. Continue reading “Sandy Claus was coming to town”

Higgs and Spinoza

A speculation about quantum fields and consciousness.

Warning: amateur Sunday philosophising ahead!

The media reports of CERN’s experimental confirmation of the Higgs hypothesis have framed it as all about the particle not the field. The particle is incredibly rare: CERN made half-a-dozen by smashing nuclei together at energies not seen elsewhere in the universe since the first moments of the Big Bang and they decayed in trillionths of second. The same may have happened in Klingon accelerators, but that doesn’t affect my point.

The thing that’s there all the time and everywhere is the Higgs field, described as a molasses that slows down some everyday elementary particles – the fermions (protons, neutrons, electrons), giving them mass, and leaves bosons (photons) alone to zip around weightless. (Corrections welcome. The “slowing down” is presumably a loose metaphor, as there’s no such thing as absolute motion, and a proton stationary in some inertial frame would still have mass.) All particles are oscillations in quantum fields; the Higgs particle is a rare oscillation in the Higgs field, which spends its working aeon giving mass to fermions.

Which brings me to consciousness. Philosophers bash their heads against a brick wall by asking what it is. Beyond “you know it when you have it”, the project does not seem to advance. “Qualia” is just a pretentious label for “WTF, unsolved problem”. The most fruitful current line of inquiry is “how does consciousness come about in the brain? What is its the neurological correlate?” That looks soluble in principle by ordinary scientific methods. But there’s another question, the way the schoolmen and Descartes looked at it: “what stuff can be conscious?” Technically, of what substance is consciousness the accident or attribute?

There are two options, and neither is appealing. Dualists say consciousness is an attribute of mind-stuff. This can be conceived as a soul-sized packet – I have one, you have another, Fido may have one -, or pantheistically as a single universal mind.

  • Objection 1: the mind-stuff has never been observed. But then, neither has the Higgs field, which we are now invited to believe in; this has also only been inferred indirectly, by a long chain of inference and related observations. Not conclusive.
  • Objection 2: how can the mind-stuff be causally affected by matter, for instance by a photon striking a receptor in the eye and generating an electrical signal in the brain? Matter must have some mysterious property enabling it to give rise to conscious experience. Dualism does not solve the problem to which it’s supposed to be an answer, which is the implausibility of matter being conscious.

Materialists say that it’s the matter that’s conscious, stupid, and laugh at the myth of “ghosts in the machine”. However that commits them to a strange view of matter. The physical properties of all instances of an elementary particle are identical. But some, a tiny proportion, support consciousness, by mechanisms not yet elucidated but, it is assumed, following the standard models of natural law. So all elementary particles (or possibly all particles of a particular common type; it may be the electrons or the protons) are consciousness-capable. If not, the materialist answer to the “what substance?” question is handwaving.

The natural physical mechanism for this would be, it seems to me, another invisible universal quantum field. [Update: see comment by John Casey below.] The rarity of the consciousness interaction is not a decisive objection. Conscious brains are much rarer in the universe than similar-sized lumps of rock, but much more common than Higgs particles.

So materialists should line up with Spinoza. The universe as a whole supports mind, and in a sense is mind.

Thank you, class, for your attention, You may now return to documenting the failings of the presidential candidates.

Baruch Spinoza 3-in-1

Image credit. The Warhol stuff has no hidden meaning and doesn’t actually jibe with Spinoza’s rigorous monism, but it’s pretty.

Quantum field theory explains SCOTUS Decision on Health Reform

A Feynman diagram explanation of the Supreme Court

Last week the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Ex ante, legal scholars across the political spectrum considered this a straightforward case. ACA (including its individual mandate) is obviously constitutional based on seventy years of established precedent. After Supreme Court oral argument, however, it was apparent that things would be much closer.

As it turned out, the Court upheld ACA, but also imposed novel constraints on the federal government’s powers through the commerce clause. More mysteriously, Roberts apparently wrote both the majority opinion and much of the dissent Roberts also took a few potshots at academic economists:

“To an economist, perhaps, there is no difference between activity and inactivity; both have measurable economic effects on commerce. But the distinction between doing something and doing nothing would not have been lost on the Framers, who were ‘practical statesmen,’ not meta­physical philosophers…..”

Ironically, Roberts himself resembled no one so much as meta-physical philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard would write under a pseudonym to savagely review his own works.

You may be confused by all this. Fortunately, this week’s apparent discovery of the Higgs Boson brings clarity to the situation. Once again, the formalism of quantum field theory brings clarity to hitherto unexplainable developments in public policy.


The Feynman diagram conceals some of intricate calculations.  But the intuition is clear.

The key step is the Roberts-Roberts particle interaction. A Roberts- particle interacts through the logical contradiction annihilation operator to become a Roberts+. Then, one billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second later, this interaction then produces spontaneous pair creation of a Breyer+ and a Scalia-, shown above. To simplify the mathematics, it’s sometimes useful to consider the Scalia particle to be a Breyer moving backwards in time.

Conservation principles lead many scientists to theorize the emission of a taxino particle, which is essentially massless by the hardship exemption theorem. Experts differ regarding whether this particle has been experimentally observed.

Distinguishing Facts and Values in Public Policy Debates

At The Incidental Economist, I write about how the role of scientific evidence in public policy making is often misunderstood and misrepresented. That essay in turn stems from a BMJ article (partly gated) co-authored with Dr. Peter Piot, the founding Director of the UN Office on AIDS, in which we discuss how science is essential to good policy making, but can’t make critical decisions about priorities and morals for us.

It is thus facile to say that public policy makers should just “do what the science says”. Science doesn’t tell us to do anything. As Mark Kleiman once quipped, if your data “suggest” things to do, you should seek psychiatric help. Science is there to give us information, and the rest of how we run society is down to voting, values and political debate, which is at it should be in a democracy.

UPDATE: For a great take on these issues in drug policy, see this post by Alejandro Hope.

Home energy conservation Cliff’s notes

Some comments on an earlier post suggest this would be useful to set out.


The energy required to keep your house warm in heating season is exactly the energy lost through the exterior walls, windows, doors, roof, and up the chimney if you have one.  Period.  First lesson: cut that loss. Weatherstrip, get storm windows, close windows, close the shades at night, insulate, close the damper (or the whole fireplace; a fire in an open fireplace actually cools your house by inhaling warm air and blowing it up the flue), etc.   These losses are about proportional to the temperature difference between inside and out, so if you turn down your thermostat at night, when you’re not at home, and even when you are  (put on a sweater), you are absolutely ahead.  You already know to do those things, but most people underinvest in them. You can save a lot of money and do the planet a big favor by just keeping heat in your house better. Second lesson: live in a smaller house, or an apartment building with living units on the other side of some of the walls and the ceiling.

This lost energy is replaced in several ways.  The first way is stuff you do for other reasons, like people and pets in the house metabolizing food, lighting , and operating your various appliances.  You can pick up a fair amount of free energy from the sun through your windows if you attend to the shades and drapes. All the electricity used by all your devices turns into heat; they are 100% efficient space heaters from the plug onwards.  The light from a light bulb too; it turns into heat when it’s absorbed by whatever it hits.   All this is usually not enough, so you have the second way: a furnace or boiler to make up the difference, and a thermostat to make this happen automatically (recall first lesson: turn it down).  Every time you turn off a light bulb, you are turning on your heating system. Continue reading “Home energy conservation Cliff’s notes”

Doing the right thing for the wrong reason

At my company (less in my unit of it), teaching is basically treated as a tax you have to pay to do your research, and faculty are hired and promoted for research and encouraged to avoid this tax where possible; indeed, one of our principal recruitment gestures is a reduced teaching load for the first couple of years. “Load”?  I’m not going to further review the evidence for this summary here; I’m comfortable with the simple version. Its spirit is pervasive, in the details of our promotion and tenure practice (which are greatly at variance from official statements of policy and even from the formal rules that are supposed to govern it) and in the resources of all kinds invested in increasing student learning.

Hard on the heels of my plaint about science teaching generally, our teaching listserv just circulated an article from the belly of the super-competitive big-time science beast in the ASCB newsletter. David Botstein makes a series of good arguments, and I love hearing the case that we are not at the production possibility frontier of teaching and research from someone in his shoes. I think what he says about the complementarity of research and teaching is mostly correct.

But without disagreeing with his claims, this line of argument sort of makes me reach for my revolver, as I do when someone says we should have arts in the schools ‘because music helps kids learn math’, or have a symphony orchestra ‘because it’s good for economic development’.  These arguments are (i) very risky; if it turned out that a dollar spent on another hour of (or better) math class increased math learning more than a dollar spent teaching violin, as is probably true, would that mean art is not worth doing? (ii) just wrong: art is not about learning math, it’s about art being worth doing and having for its own unique payoffs.

Teaching is costly in time and effort, and hard to do well.  It’s worth it, so we should have a lot as we should of anything that’s a good deal. But its purpose, professor, is not advancing your research career (even if it has some payoff of that type), nor about its intrinsic non-research rewards for you. Teaching is about advancing the learning of students, including students who are not in college or even grad school to become you. What if the time required to teach a course would advance my research even more if I spent it in the lab and not on the course; wouldn’t Botstein either have to say, “OK, lose the teaching”, or fall back on reach up for a much higher-level version of his case?

This article has lots of useful insight, but justifying teaching by its peripheral benefits to research is an unnecessary concession to careerism. Teaching doesn’t have to be free of research cost to be worth doing well; the world would probably be better off if all the students in universities this year learned 10% more of everything (an easy target, the way we operate now) and only 85% of the research got done, even if that’s what it took.  It would be enormously better off if 5% of our research effort were invested in improving learning, because the learning payoff would be way more than 5% given the infinitesimal base (of effort) we’re starting from.

What we don’t know that sometimes won’t hurt us

Kevin Drum channels Brad DeLong to recall a Calvin and Hobbes sequence in which Calvin’s dad reassures him that it’s colder in the winter because the earth is farther from the sun then than in the summer. Kevin asks for a survey to find out how many people believe that.  As it happens, a small survey was performed a decade or so ago and it turns out that 21 out of 23 graduating Harvard seniors, alumni and faculty do. Ask your friends, it is to weep.  It’s the lede for an unforgettable investigation of why our science teaching doesn’t work, available here (just click on the VoD button in the lower right).

Our science teaching doesn’t work because we teach science as a sort of catechetical stream of truths that students memorize to repeat on exams, but trowel lightly over stuff they already know that is wrong. You can read all about it on the research page at the PhET project.  Because a lot of it makes no difference in daily life (most people can live just fine thinking the earth is flat), this crust of learning flakes off quickly.  Not understanding the seasons is one of the very striking examples of this, and another is the explanation, recited by people who have seen a paper airplane in action (flat wings) and an airplane flying upside down (at least in movies), that an airplane flies because its wings are rounded on top and flat on the bottom (plus some stuff with Bernoulli’s equation).  (Amazingly, even PhET has, among its wonderful teaching simulations,  the wrong model of aerodynamic lift!)

Unfortunately, a real model of lift involves some very hairy differential equations.  If you calculate the pressure difference between the top and bottom of a conventional wing from Bernoulli’s equation, and the implied velocity difference, you do not get the lift on a unit length of wing; you get a meaningless number. The simple model allows something that looks a lot like science (it has an actual quadratic equation!), but this teaching convenience requires students to build a wall between what they know to be true from real observation and what’s expected on the exam.

Very few people have occasion to intervene in aeronautic design or planetary motion, but there’s a lot more science, like heat transfer in and out of your house, that can hurt you if you don’t really get it, and still more, like climate science, that will hurt all of us if we go on voting in profound ignorance.  Teaching science like religion is a practice embedded both in the curriculum and the pedagogy, not to mention how easy it is to test without, like, having to find out whether any actual learning has occurred.


As Government Science Funding Wanes, Pharma’s Power Grows

Professor Robert Rosenheck presented his blockbuster findings on long-acting risperidone at Stanford Psychiatry Grand Rounds this week. The injectable version of this anti-psychotic medication was heavily marketed as superior to its oral, less expensive cousins. The sticker price of $7,000/year was promised to be worth it because patients would need to be hospitalized far less frequently while on long-acting risperidone. The manufacturer raked in billions of dollars, much of it from the public purse.

But as Bob’s randomized trial in New England Journal of Medicine shows, none of the claims about this drug were true. Fortunately, Bob decided to launch his trial while federal research dollars were more plentiful than they are today. With the current withered state of federal medical research, pharmaceutical industry-funded studies are often the only source of information about whether a medication is effective and cost-effective.

And even when the government can support a study, it is today sometimes dependent on the manufacturer to donate the medication. In the case of the long-acting risperidone study, which was started 5 years ago, the donation was valuable but not critical (something like a half a million dollars within a ten million dollar federal budget). Today, the federal government budget available for such a study would be less, potentially leaving the researchers dependent on the manufacturer’s donation in order to conduct the trial. This is even moreso the case with recent biologic therapies that cost many times as much as long-acting risperidone.

Why does this matter? If the government approaches a manufacturer of an expensive drug about a study of whether an approved medication is no better than a generic drug or may be harmful to particular groups of patients, the manufacturer has economic veto power. The manufacturer can say, in effect, you can’t afford to do this study without a donation of our medication, and we won’t give it for any study that might harm our market share. On the other hand, if you want to compare the medication to one of our new alternative medications (all of which have more years left under patent protection), why then of course we’d make a public-spirited donation to the scientific endeavor.

Three x ten to the tenth cm/sec: It’s not just a good idea. It’s the Law.

The first FTL-neutrino joke.

The latest report from CERN is almost certainly wrong. (See headline.)

Still, imagine if it turned out to be right …

We don’t allow neutrinos in here, said the bartender.

A faster-than-light neutrino walks into a bar.