Monday, December 31, 2007

The universe in a test-tube

Whilst many people will tonight attempt to find their universe at the bottom of a glass, it appears that condensed matter scientists will be attempting to find it at the bottom of a test-tube.

Making a late entry into the 'most ludicrous claim made a scientist during the year' competition, is Richard Haley, who claims that, from an analogy between the theoretical representation of superfluid helium-3 and a certain way of theoretically representing space-time, by obtaining a superfluid state of helium-3 in a test-tube, "in effect, we have made a universe in a test tube."

Helium-3 in a superfluid state is a Bose-Einstein condensate. The significance of this is that the helium-3 nuclei are fermions, whereas Bose-Einstein condensates can only be formed by collections of bosons. To form a superfluid state, it is necessary, at very low temperatures, for pairs of helium-3 nuclei to become correlated, in a manner analogous to Cooper pairs of electrons in superconductivity. Each such pair of helium-3 nuclei form a boson, thereby enabling the formation of a Bose-Einstein condensate.

Now, the metric tensor used to represent space-time can, reputedly, be built from two copies of a fermionic coframe field. Hence, there is an analogy between this and a bosonic condensate built from Cooper pairs of helium-3 atoms.

"Consequently," claims Haley, "the superfluid can be used to simulate particle and cosmic phenomena; black holes, cosmic strings and the Big Bang for instance."

I don't know enough about condensed matter physics to assess this claim. However, I do know that aerodynamicists working with scale-models in wind-tunnels often find it extremely difficult to reliably infer conclusions that apply on full length scales. And in this case, one has more than merely a formal analogy, one is working with exactly the same medium, (namely airflow over an 3-dimensional object), about which one is attempting to infer conclusions.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Opinions on Lewis Hamilton

Max Mosley: "There is always somebody new. If it wasn't him, it would be either [Nico] Rosberg or [Robert] Kubica or one of the other new stars, a [Sebastian] Vettel, would suddenly be the big one. So I think there is a tendency to exaggerate the importance of Lewis Hamilton."

Bernie Ecclestone: "He has been a real breath of fresh air and has resurrected F1. I have been in motor racing longer than I care to remember, but I have never seen anyone like him. He has been nothing short of a miracle worker. We lost a big hero in Michael Schumacher, but in Lewis we have another. But for him I'm not sure where the sport would be heading."

Stirling Moss: "He is a very impressive young man, the most impressive young driver I've seen in a long while...I have been connected with motor racing for 60 years now and he is certainly the best breath of fresh air we've had."

Mario Andretti: "He's a rare, rare talent. A rookie like this comes around once in a generation. You just try to step back and appreciate it."

Emerson Fittipaldi: "He's in a zone of calm and comfort like a veteran of ten years; his personality, the way he approaches the sport. I'm very impressed."

Frank Williams: "I thought after we got rid of Michael [Schumacher], 'Now we've got a chance again.' But then another superhuman turns up. Michael was many things, but he was also a very, very simple human. Hamilton is a different character I think, but purely in terms of calibre and quality of skill, what I'm seeing so early in this man's career is remarkable...I cry he's not in a Williams, but I rejoice for F1. I really do."

Jackie Stewart: "I think he is the brightest star to have entered F1 - ever!"

Battle at Kruger

This, apparently, is the most popular Youtube video clip of the year, viewed on 21 million occasions. Which means, I guess, that it's rather redundant posting it here.

In psychological terms, I suspect that the popularity of the clip resides in the fact that we are vicariously enacting human scenarios through such confrontations in the wilderness. As you watch, it is difficult not to become emotionally involved. The course of events follows a type of Disney-esque scenario: little fella falls into peril, then falls into apparently deeper peril as another predator arrives on the scene; meanwhile, unknown to him, his parent/guardian is mounting a heroic rescue bid...

Friday, December 28, 2007

Gervais meets the Archbishop

Here's an interesting, but rather poorly-lit encounter between Ricky Gervais and the Archbishop of Canterbury, on Simon Mayo's Radio 5 programme. Mayo makes the perceptive observation that whilst Gervais detects an atheist undercurrent in The Simpsons, the Archbishop detects a spiritual undercurrent. The thing about The Simpsons is that it's such a large body of work, and one in which the pros and cons of so many different perspectives are presented, that people do tend to find what they're looking for within it. As a consequence, people with diametrically opposite beliefs are capable of finding verification for their own approach to life within The Simpsons.

The term 'spiritual' is very popular in religious circles, precisely because of its ambiguity. Many people, like Gervais, take 'spiritual issues' to mean moral or emotional issues, but religious people are fond of taking it to mean a diluted version of religious issues. Whilst many people in the secular West may be repelled by religion, they may be more susceptible to 'spiritual issues', which is presumably why so many religious programmes on television now purport to address spiritual issues, rather than religion itself. Hook them with the spiritual issues, and then suck them into religion, seems to be the strategy.

Note also that when the Archbishop tries to suggest that forgiveness makes you a Christian, Gervais is quick to correct him, pointing out that you need forgiveness to be a Christian, but forgiveness doesn't make you a Christian. It's the difference between a sufficient and a necessary condition, a distinction with which a philosophy graduate such as Gervais will be more than familiar.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Dawkins to seek martyrdom?

Richard Dawkins, it seems, has developed something of a death-wish. The great Dawk is currently constructing The Mayflower II, and, when sea-worthy next year, will embark on the perilous journey down the Thames to Reading, before taking a train to Heathrow and crossing the Atlantic on a 747. Once there, he will begin a lecture tour of the American Bible Belt and Midwest.

Despite Dawkins's forthright brand of atheism, American religious leaders have already welcomed Dawkins's plans. The Reverend David Cox, of the First Southern Methodist Church, Charleston, South Carolina said: "[Dawkins] is a tool of Satan, of the AntiChrist, it sounds to me. All God-fearing people will be opposed to an atheist touring."

Seriously, Richard: don't go, you'll be assassinated! Religious zealots in the American Bible Belt are as ignorant and intolerant as their compatriots in the Middle-East. Not unless you have some clever, Obi Wan Kenobi plan, to become more powerful in death than you could possibly be alive...

E.O.Wilson on religion

The persistently interesting Bryan Appleyard writes a nice article on biologist E.O.Wilson in today's Sunday Times. The article ostensibly concerns Wilson's intriguing group-selection theories. However, at the end of the article Wilson attempts to defend religion on the following basis:

"Humans have an innate tendency to form religious belief. It has a lot of beneficial influences. It helps people adjust to their mortality and it binds communities tightly together."

The first claim, that religion helps people to deal with mortality, requires considerable evidence to substantiate it. Many religious people seem, on the contrary, to spend their lives in a state of anxiety about their mortality, precisely because they are religious, and precisely because they fear that God will pass judgement on their lives, and potentially dispatch them to Hell, or abandon them in some sort of limbo. The religious concept of sin condemns countless millions to guilt-ridden lives, which hardly seems like a good way of enabling people to deal with their mortality.

Wilson's second claim, that religion binds communities together, is certainly correct, and well-substantiated. Unfortunately, communities tightly bound together also tend to regard outsiders and other communities as enemies, hence religion contributes to the amount of suffering in the world by exacerbating the violent and war-like capabilities of humanity.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Is time slowing down?

Jose Senovilla suggests that the reason why the expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating is that time is slowing down, prior to a geometrical 'signature-change' in which the existing time dimension becomes another spatial dimension.

Senovilla's idea is expressed in terms of braneworld cosmology, but the basic idea can be explained more simply. Suppose that the geometry of a 4-dimensional universe is specified in terms of the following metric tensor field:

f(t)dt2 + g

where g is the Riemannian (spatial) geometry on a 3-dimensional manifold. Suppose that the coordinate t ranges from - ∞ to + ∞.

If f(t) is negative everywhere, say f(t) = -1, then t is a timelike coordinate everywhere, and the universe has one temporal dimension everywhere. However, suppose that f(t) is only negative for t < 0, and suppose that it approaches 0 at t = 0, and becomes positive for t > 0. In this case, t is a timelike coordinate for t < 0, but a spacelike coordinate for t > 0. In that region of the universe in which t < 0, there are 3 spatial dimensions, and 1 temporal dimension. In that region of the universe in which t > 0, there are 4 spatial dimensions, and no temporal dimension. The signature change hypersurface which divides the two regions, is the set of points for which t = 0.

Now, an observer is represented in general relativity by a timelike curve γ, and the 'proper time' which lapses for an observer is represented by the integral along the timelike curve, ∫t √(|< γ',γ' >|) dt. One can detect the approach of a signature-change hypersurface because f(t) becomes smaller and smaller, with the consequence that the proper time which lapses along timelike curves becomes smaller and smaller. This is most clearly seen in the case of those timelike curves in which the spatial coordinates are fixed, and the lapse of proper time is therefore ∫t √(|<∂t,∂t>|) dt = ∫t √(|f(t)|) dt.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Who should direct The Hobbit?

Christmas without a Peter Jackson film has become something of a hollow experience. There was, therefore, some good news this week when it was announced that Jackson's company, Wingnut Films, will be producing a film version of The Hobbit, to be released in two parts in 2010 and 2011. However, somewhat inexplicably, it seems that the directorial/screenplay partnership of Jackson, his partner Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, so successful with The Lord of the Rings films, will not be re-united for The Hobbit. Jackson claims that their current schedule would not enable them to meet a 2010/2011 release date, and he suggests that fans would not be prepared to wait any longer. The timing, however, perhaps has more to do with cashflow exigencies at MGM and New Line Cinema than a concern for the preferences of fans.

The current names being touted for the directorial role are Sam Raimi and Guillermo del Toro. Of these two, del Toro would be the better choice. Raimi is best-known for the Spiderman films, which are derivative, predictable, and lacking in technical ingenuity. Del Toro, however, is an imaginative director, capable of serious fantasy such as Pan's Labyrinth, or flamboyantly popular material such as Blade and Hellboy. Raimi would direct something resembling the films of the Harry Potter/Philip Pullman novels; del Toro would give The Hobbit the type of 'edge' which Jackson imparted to The Lord of the Rings.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


McCabism is proud to unveil Toss, the new fragrance for men and women.

You're the star of your own film, the centre of your own universe, the protagonist in your own novel. See yourself as you imagine yourself.

When passion turns to loathing, and relationship turns to property, there's only one perfume this Christmas, and that's Toss. Available at Harrods, Lidl, Aldi, and Londis.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Star of Bethlehem

Frank Tipler argues that the Star of Bethlehem was, most probably, a supernova in the Andromeda galaxy.

Gazing skywards on a clear night, the stars appear to be speckled across the inner surface of an inverted bowl. This is one hemisphere of what astronomers call the celestial sphere. To understand some of the terminology in Tipler's article, note that declination and right ascension are the names for the equatorial system of coordinates upon the celestial sphere. In this system, the intersection of the plane of the Earth's equator with the celestial sphere determines a great circle on the celestial sphere called the celestial equator. Right ascension (R.A.) provides a coordinate upon the celestial equator, starting at the vernal equinox (see below) and running Eastward. Declination specifies the angular distance North or South of the celestial equator.

To define the vernal equinox, one first needs to introduce the ecliptic. The ecliptic is the great circle which the Sun traces upon the celestial sphere due to the Earth’s annual orbit around the Sun. It can also be thought of as the intersection of the Earth’s orbital plane with the celestial sphere. Because the Earth’s axis, and therefore its equator, are inclined at approximately 23 deg to the orbital plane, the celestial equator is inclined at the same angle to the ecliptic. Now, the ecliptic intersects the celestial equator at two points: the vernal equinox and the autumnal equinox. The vernal equinox is the point of intersection of the ecliptic and the celestial equator at which the Sun moves from the Southern celestial hemisphere into the Northern celestial hemisphere.

Tipler asserts that "The Star of Bethlehem is a star. It is not a planet, or a comet, or a conjunction between two or more planets, or an occultation of Jupiter by the Moon. I shall assume that the Star of Bethlehem was an actual point of light fixed on the celestial sphere. Second, I am going to assume that the Matthean expression 'stood over' means exactly that. The star went through the zenith at Bethlehem...the Star was there, in the sky, directly above the Magi, at the time of their visit to the baby Jesus...Since the latitude of Bethlehem is 31 deg 43' north, the declination of the Star in the first decade B.C. (the range of estimates of Jesus' birth year) must have been 31 deg 43' N.

"Setting Babylon as the zero of longitude and identifying it with the zero of R.A. would give the R.A. of the Star of Bethlehem as 23h 23m in 5 B.C...This position in the first decade B.C. is far away from the galactic plane (the likely location of a galactic nova/supernova), but it is very close to the Andromeda Galaxy, whose center in 5 B.C. was 30 deg 13' [declination], 23h 1m [right ascension]. The galactic halo of the Andromeda Galaxy would have definitely included the declination of the zenith of Bethlehem. The R.A. of the Andromeda Galaxy would correspond to a position in the Mediterranean Sea, but the nearest large city with the indicated declination/latitude is Jerusalem, the city to which the Magi first traveled. The nearest small city is Jaffa, the main port of Palestine, and in Greek mythology, the home city of Andromeda, princess of Jaffa. Any astronomer of the first decade B.C. would immediately associate an event in the constellation Andromeda with Palestine. Our system of constellations is essentially that of Ptolemy, which can be traced back at least to Eudoxus of Cnidus (c. 350 B.C.) (through the poet Aratus), before the Seleucid period of Greek rule over Babylon. Astronomical techniques at the time were sufficiently accurate to allow observers to determine that a star’s declination was at the zenith of a given location to within a minute of arc, or within a nautical mile, using a dioptra and plumb bob. A supernova in M31 could indeed have 'stood over' Bethlehem."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas again

Each year, around this time, I find myself urging forth the passage of time, so that the working year may end, and the Christmas festivities may ensue. Once the festivities have begun, I then find myself, each year, urging forth the passage of time, so that the festivities may end, and the normal routine of life resume.

It's all a long cry from the days of Space Lego on Christmas Day. Those were proper Christmases. The excitement of opening, building, and playing with Space Lego was simply sans pareil. Just magic. Then came ZX Spectrum computer games on Christmas Day. 'R: Tape Loading Error' is indelibly etched upon my brain-stem for perpetuity. (Whomever deemed that audio cassette players had the fidelity to act as data-loading devices, is, most probably, currently residing in a country with no UK extradition treaty). Eventually, however, when the games could be gently encouraged to load, monumental achievements such as Mike Singleton's Lords of Midnight defined the very texture of Christmas, and denied the use of the television to other stakeholders. And then came the book years: glossy Autocourse annuals, burnished with breathtaking photography, and burning with lambent text.

Do those Christmases past still exist? Is every detail of every event still sitting there, fixed in the crystalline lattice of the past, merely inaccessible to those who inhabit the present? There are basically three positions in the philosophy of time: the whole 4-dimensional space-time of the universe exists, the passage of time is merely a subjective experience, and the future exists just as surely as the past and present; all of the past and the present exist, but the future is only potential, and the passage of time selectively transforms future potentialities into actualities, hence the totality of existence is growing, like a bath filling with tapwater; only the present exists, and the past is merely a fading ember of our memories.

The transformation of our mundane urban surroundings into a sparkling, tinsellated, multi-coloured spree of illumination, still excites me, but the poignancy and regret grows also with each passing year.

The weather forecast

Fuck me, it's cold! Expect it to remain fucking cold for the rest of the week.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Nigel Roebuck

Nigel Roebuck, one of the greatest Grand Prix journalists of all time, retires from Autosport this week, after more than 30 years writing for the magazine. In recent years, Autosport started an internet feature called 'Ask Nigel', where Roebuck would answer readers' questions. Anyway, in late 2003, Juan Pablo Montoya's Williams was in serious danger of overhauling Michael Schumacher's Ferrari for the World Championship. After the Hungarian Grand Prix, Ferrari protested the Michelin tyres which Williams, amongst other teams, were running, and the FIA upheld their protest. This severely disrupted Williams and Michelin's preparation for the coming races, unsettled Montoya, and the championship slipped beyond their grasp. This prompted my question to Nigel Roebuck, and his sublime response.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Peace by Christmas?

It seems that a grovelling apology from McLaren, and a commitment not to develop certain systems, has finally ended Formula One's espionage saga. The McLaren statement reads:

"To avoid even the possibility of Ferrari information influencing our performance during 2008, McLaren has offered a set of detailed undertakings to the FIA which will impose a moratorium on development in relation to three separate systems.

"McLaren wish to make a public apology to the FIA, Ferrari, the Formula One community and to Formula One fans throughout the world and offer their assurance that changes are now being made which will ensure that nothing comparable to what has taken place will ever happen again. McLaren have also agreed to pay the costs incurred by the FIA for their investigation."

One trusts, then, that in the coming days, Renault will issue a similar apology to McLaren, the Formula One community, and Formula One fans throughout the world, and will undertake not to develop their shock absorbers, fuel system, mass damper and seamless shift transmission, given that such development work could clearly have been influenced by the confidential McLaren information which they were in unauthorised possession of.

The FIA have published a redacted version of their recent report on the development of McLaren's 2008 car. The report demonstrates, as McLaren concede, that the information supplied by Ferrari employee, Nigel Stepney, propagated more widely through McLaren's engineering staff than they previously acknowledged. However, the report fails to establish whether the developments which McLaren planned to introduce arose from public domain information, or from information which they would not have had without the assistance of Mr Stepney. McLaren have, for example, undertaken not to use CO2 gas in their tyres, despite the fact that every other team will, presumably, be availing itself of CO2 next season!

The FIA suggest, with cynical sanctimony, that McLaren engineers in possession of information which, let us remember, they did not seek, but were given, should have refrained from using that information, and should instead have informed Ferrari and the FIA of the presence of the 'mole' within the Ferrari organisation. The last time I checked, Formula One was a competitive, engineering-based sport, in which teams identify how other teams have obtained a performance advantage, and then copy them.

Anyway, let us hope that this proves to be the end of the matter. Let us also hope that the sport can be administered, at some time in the near future, in a consistent and impartial manner.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

John Gray and Straw Dogs

John Gray's Straw Dogs is an attack upon the purported faith which supports modern secular liberal humanism. Gray's book is important, for it is the source for many of the anti-humanistic mantras uttered by contemporary religious apologists. Gray's primary target is the belief in the possibility of human progress, hence the attraction of his ideas to those who believe that human suffering is a penance we must serve to atone for 'original sin'.

Gray's definition of humanism can be found on page 4 of Straw Dogs:

"Humanism can mean many things, but for us it means belief in progress. To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals."

Unfortunately, however, this is not the definition of humanism, but the definition of transhumanism. Humanism is the belief in the possibility of human progress, whilst transhumanism is the belief in the possibility that humans can transcend their animal nature. Gray's entire book, then, is founded upon a mis-understanding of what humanism is.

Moreover, humanism should not be conflated with utopianism. The unattainability of a human social and political utopia does not entail the impossibility of human progress. If progress is defined to be the reduction of human suffering, then progress is undeniably possible. Consider as a simple example the invention of anaesthetic. If one accepts that it is better for medical surgery to be performed with, rather than without anaesthetic, then one must accept that a society makes progress when it first conducts medical surgery under anaesthetic.

Gray's opinions on progress, however, are confused and contradictory. On p4 he states: "in the world shown to us by Darwin, there is nothing that can be called progress," whilst on p155 he states: "anaesthetic dentistry is an unmixed blessing. So are clean water and flush toilets. Progress is a fact. Even so, faith in progress is a superstition...Improvements in government and society are...real, but they are temporary. Not only can they be lost, they are sure to be."

Humanism, however, does not assert that progress is certain or irreversible. Humanism merely holds that: (i) human progress is possible; and (ii) human progress should be pursued. Most humanists are all too aware of the possibility of regress, and the difficulty of achieving progress. And, whilst there is no guarantee of progress, contra Gray there is also no guarantee of eventual regression.

The arguments expounded by Gray in Straw Dogs are washed, tumble-dried, and hung on the washing line again in Black Mass, which received the following withering review from the philosopher AC Grayling:

In order to establish that secular Whiggish Enlightenment-derived aspirations are the child of Christianity, Gray begins by calling any view or outlook a “religion”. Everything is a religion: Torquemada’s Catholicism, the pluralism and empiricism of 18th-century philosophers, liberalism, Stalinism. He speaks of “secular religion” and “political religion”. This empties the word “religion” of any meaning, making it a neutral portmanteau expression like “view” or “outlook”. He can therefore premise a gigantic fallacy of equivocation, and assimilate secular Enlightenment values to the Christian “narrative” of reformation aimed at bringing about a golden age.

For starters this misreads Christianity, for which truths are eternal and the narrative is a very short story indeed (obey, get to heaven; disobey, do not get to heaven); but more to the point, it utterly misreads the secular view. The secular view is a true narrative of incremental improvement in the human condition through education and political action. Gray thinks that such a view must of necessity be utopian, as if everyone simplistically thought that making things better (in dentistry, in the rule of law, in child health, in international mechanisms for reducing conflict, and so forth for many things) absolutely had to be aimed at realising an ideal golden age to have any meaning. But it does not: trying to make things better is not the same as believing that they can be made perfect. That is a point Gray completely fails to grasp, and it vitiates his case. Since that is so, the point bears repeating: meliorism is not perfectibilism.

But in making a nonsense of the word “religion” Gray blurs and blends just where important distinctions are required. A religion is a view which essentially premises commitment to belief in the existence of supernatural agencies in the universe, almost always conceived as having intentions and expectations regarding human beings. Such is the myth derived from humankind’s infancy, a myth that survives for both institutional and psychological reasons, largely to the detriment of human affairs. Most religions, especially if given the chance, share the totalitarian impulses of Stalinism and Nazism (think Torquemada and the Taliban) for a simple reason: all such are monolithic ideologies demanding subservience to a supposed ideal, on pain of punishment for non-conformity.

Now let us ask whether secular Enlightenment values of pluralism, democracy, the rule of independently and impartially administered law, freedom of thought, enquiry and expression, and liberty of the individual conform to the model of a monolithic ideology such as Catholicism, Islam or Stalinism. Let us further ask how Gray imagines that these values are direct inheritances from Christianity – the Christianity of the Inquisition, which burned to death any who sought to assert just such values. Indeed, the history of the modern European and Europe-derived world is precisely the history of liberation from the hegemony of Christianity. I shall be so bold as to refer the reader to the case for this claim in my forthcoming (Autumn 2007) full-length discussion of it, Towards the Light.

As to the weary old canard about the 20th-century totalitarianisms: it astonishes me how those who should know better can fail to see them as quintessentially counter-Enlightenment projects, and ones which the rest of the Enlightenment-derived world would not put up with and therefore defeated: Nazism in 17 years and Soviet communism in 70. They were counter-Enlightenment projects because they rejected the idea of pluralism and its concomitant liberties of thought and the person, and in the time-honoured unEnlightened way forcibly demanded submission to a monolithic ideal. They even used the forms and techniques of religion, from the notion of thought-crime to the embalming of saints in mausoleums (Lenin and Mao, like any number of saints and their relics, invite pilgrimage to their glass cases). Totalitarianism is not about progress but stasis; it is not about realising a golden age but coercively sustaining the myth of one. This indeed is the lineament of religion: it is the opposite of secular progressivism.

Most of what was achieved in the history of the West from the 16th century onwards – most notably science and the realisation of the values listed above – was wrested from the bitter reactionary grip of religion inch by painful and frequently bloody inch. How can Gray so far ignore this bald fact of history as to make the modern secular West the inheritor of the ideals and aspirations of what it fought so hard to free itself from (and is still bedevilled by)? His accordingly is a bizarre fantasy-version of history. In the face of the central heating that warms him, the modern dentistry that allows him to chew his peanuts, the computer he writes his strange books on and the aeroplanes he travels in, he asserts that “progress is a myth”. But perhaps he does not mean to call material progress a myth, but rather alleged progress in the political condition of a large portion of mankind. Does he thus mean that the movement from feudal baronies to universal suffrage and independent judiciaries is not progress? If it is not, what is it? Regress?

Gordon Murray and hot baths

The coolest man in the human noosphere is surely Gordon Murray. Murray designed a series of beautiful and innovative Formula 1 cars in the 1970s and 1980s, and then proceeded to design both the McLaren F1 road car, and the Mercedes SLR. Interviewed in this month's Motorsport magazine, Murray reveals that "I'm unusual for an engineer in that I went to art school when I was 13. I still do a bit of drawing and painting, and I love styling. I couldn't bring myself to make an ugly car."

Murray (seen here on the right of Niki Lauda) is the most relaxed of individuals, and during his years in Formula 1 could typically be seen sporting a T-shirt, jeans and rock-star sunglasses. He also put together a rock band in the 1980s: "I play guitar and drums, both very badly...we'd have a jam session that would last all weekend. Leo Sayer sang with us for a bit, and George Harrison played with us one night. We had a lot of fun"

Murray introduced the idea of strategic pit-stops into modern Formula 1, and the genesis of this idea confirms my own long-held bathing beliefs:

"It started as a hot bath idea. I used to have a lot of good ideas after a hot bath. Apparently there's a physical reason for this, there's a channel in your spine that opens up in the heat and increases the blood supply to the brain. I knew how much the tyres used to go off. And I'd learned from running the cars light in qualifying that the weight of one litre of fuel cost around one hundredth of a second in lap times. So I lay in the bath doing the maths.

"The clever thing wasn't having the idea, it was developing all the stuff that went into it. That's the bit I love. Throw me a series of connected problems and I've got to find a way to make everything work together. In this case it was, how do you change the tyres quickly, how do you put the fuel in quickly, and how do you avoid losing pace going back out on cold tyres? We videoed the mechanics changing tyres, analysed it frame by frame, and I redesigned the hubs, bearing carriers, threads, nuts and wheel guns, with a device to retain the nuts. And I put titanium on-board air jacks on the car...Tyre warmers didn't exist then, so I made an oven, a big thing like the Tardis, with temperature probes and hot air circulating through four tyres. Then we did the fuel kit. Nowadays it all has to be done at atmospheric pressure, so it's pretty slow. But there were no rules about it then, so I designed a twin-barrel fuel system running at 4 bar. The damper barrel fed the fuel barrel and the fuel barrel fed the car, and we could push in 35 gallons in 3.5 seconds. Which is like an explosion, believe me.

"With the refuelling we had one guy on one side of the car opening the breather, one on the other putting in the fuel. Big heavy hoses over their shoulders. If the breather's not on when the fuel guy opens the pressure, the car disintegrates. Four bar inside a carbon and aluminium monocoque, you wouldn't find the pieces. So I designed all sorts of mechanical interlocks inside the tank and it all got really complicated, castellations and cams and Geneva mechanisms. And I looked at it and thought, on a racing car it's going to vibrate; one day it's going to fail to work and the car's going to explode. No more Brabham [the team for which Murray worked], no more pitlane, maybe no more F1. I studied the videos again, and I realised that during a stop the breather guy and the fuel guy would be facing each other each side of the roll hoop with their noses about four inches apart. So I scrapped the interlocks and I got the two of them together and I said to the breather guy, 'When you approach the car with your hose, you're looking down to where you've got to lock the hose on, so don't look up until it's on.' And I said to the fuel guy, 'Don't turn on the fuel until he looks up at you and you see the whites of his eyes four inches away.' So that's what they did, and it worked."

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Lawrence Krauss and the Casimir effect II

A couple of days ago, I wrote about Lawrence Krauss's article in Physics World. At that time, the article referred to

...the Casimir force that pushes apart metal plates brought very close together.

I pointed out in my post that the effects typically referred to as the Casimir effect, are examples of an attractive force between a pair of parallel plates. I now note with amusement that the text of the on-line version has been changed to read:

..the Casimir force that draws together metal plates brought very close to one another.

I'm impressed! However, the original version is preserved for posterity in the printed copy of Physics World.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Alternative biochemical life

This month's Scientific American contains an article by Paul Davies on the possibility that life may have arisen on multiple independent occasions upon the surface of the Earth. A nice summary is provided of the biochemical differences which might exist between life forms of independent origin:
  • "Large biological molecules possess a definite handedness: although the atoms in a molecule can be configured into two mirror-image orientations—left-handed or right-handed—molecules must possess compatible chirality to assemble into more complex structures. In known life-forms, the amino acids—the building blocks of proteins—are left-handed, whereas the sugars are right-handed and DNA is a right-handed double helix. The laws of chemistry, however, are blind to left and right, so if life started again from scratch, there would be a 50–50 chance that its building blocks would be molecules of the opposite handedness. Shadow life could in principle be biochemically almost identical to known life but made of mirror-image molecules. Such mirror life would not compete directly with known life, nor could the two forms swap genes, because the relevant molecules would not be interchangeable."
  • "Another possibility is that shadow life might share the same general biochemistry with familiar life but employ a different suite of amino acids or nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA)...chemists can synthesize many other amino acids that are not present in known organisms...Some of these unfamiliar amino acids might make suitable building blocks for alternative forms of life."
  • "Another popular conjecture concerns the basic chemical elements that make up the vital parts of known organisms: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus. Would life be possible if a different element were substituted for one of these five? Phosphorus is problematic for life in some ways. It is relatively rare and would not have existed in abundance in readily accessible, soluble form under the conditions that prevailed during the early history of Earth. Felisa Wolfe-Simon, formerly at Arizona State University and now at Harvard University, has hypothesized that arsenic can successfully fill the role of phosphorus for living organisms and would have offered distinct chemical advantages in ancient environments."
  • "Some astrobiologists have speculated about the possibility of life arising from silicon compounds instead of carbon compounds." [Carbon, like silicon, possesses four valence electrons, enabling it to form rings and chains which form the backbone of biological molecules.]

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Lawrence Krauss and the Casimir effect

The December issue of Physics World contains a number of features on dark energy, including this ludicrous piece by Lawrence Krauss. Consider the following statements made by Krauss:

Quantum mechanics, combined with relativity, implies that empty space is full of a wild brew of virtual particles that pop in and out of existence so quickly that we cannot directly detect them. Nevertheless, these particles leave a measurable imprint on everything from the spacing between atomic energy levels to the Casimir force that pushes apart metal plates brought very close together.

One might expect these virtual particles to contribute an energy to empty space, which would result in an identical term to Einstein's original cosmological constant that would lead to universal repulsion and hence an accelerating universe. This form of 'vacuum energy' is gravitationally repulsive because it possesses a negative pressure that is equal and opposite in magnitude to its energy density. In other words, the ratio of the pressure to the energy density — called the 'equation of state' parameter, w — has a value of –1.

This is factually incorrect in a very straightforward fashion: whilst there will be a repulsive force between a concentric pair of spheres, those effects which have typically been considered to be Casimir effects, are examples of an attractive force between a pair of parallel metal plates! The editor of Physics World might have wished to check previous articles on the Casimir effect within his own journal to verify this type of thing, but I guess he must have been otherwise engaged on this occasion.

Theory predicts that the vacuum expectation value for the energy density of the electromagnetic field, will not only be non-zero between the plates, but will be negative. Thus, it is believed by some that the Casimir effect demonstrates the physical existence of negative energy, at least on small scales. This is exactly why the Casimir effect was invoked as a mechanism for holding open wormholes in space, given that the latter require negative energy densities. The vacuum fluctuations between a pair of metal plates do indeed suggest an equation of state with a parameter of w =-1, but in the case of plates which are attracted together, this implies a positive pressure and a negative energy. This is the exact opposite of the conclusion which Krauss attempts to establish, that vacuum energy repels things due to the presence of negative pressure.

Krauss then proceeds to express some doubt that we can ever establish that dark energy is a cosmological constant. His argument is, once again, quite bizarre:

The only way we can determine from observations that dark energy is not a cosmological constant is to somehow measure its equation of state parameter, w, and find that it is not, or was not, equal to –1. If the measured value is indistinguishable from –1 within experimental uncertainties, then we have not learned anything at all because dark energy could either be a cosmological constant or something else less (or more) exotic that behaved very much like it.

If one applied this criterion generally in science, then one would have to conclude that the predicted value of a quantity could never be verified because, well, there are always some error bars associated with the measurement. On the contrary, if a theoretical hypothesis predicts a certain value for some quantity, and the value of that quantity is subsequently measured to agree with the predicted value to within, say, two multiples of the standard deviation due to measurement uncertainties, then one can say that: (i) the prediction has been verified, and (ii) the probability that the hypothesis is true has been considerably increased, in accordance with Bayes' theorem. Of course, if there is an alternative theory, which predicts a similar value for the quantity, then the measured value doesn't enable one to discriminate between the two theories. But, in the case of dark energy, there is, as yet, no theory of any 'exotic' something that behaves like the cosmological constant.

It was Krauss, of course, who suggested a couple of weeks ago that mankind may have reduced the life-expectancy of the universe...

Monday, December 03, 2007


Unbeknown to most, there is a secret cadre of benighted engineers who have, over the past decades, invented a new engineering discipline with no name. This new discipline is called Mis-engineering. The purpose of this highly distributed covert conspiracy, is the deliberate under-fulfillment of engineering potential, in order to satisfy moral, financial, or political objectives. The manifestations of this perverted underground include the following:

  • The Amazon Search engine. The purpose of this is not to enable you to find the product you seek, but to generate a list of products which you must browse through before finding your intended quarry. En route, a significant proportion of customers will have their interest piqued by other items, which they will then choose to buy. It is the internet equivalent of forcing supermarket customers to walk past all the other food in a shop before they reach the bread and milk.
  • Predictive text's Christian ignorance of slang taboo.
  • Impaired road-junction visibility. People are not to be trusted in making judgements on the road, so hedges and barriers are deliberately engineered to prohibit road-users from spotting vehicles coming from the left or right approaching a junction. Vehicles must come to a stop, and the road-user must then, and only then, observe the traffic coming from either side.
  • Famously, the interminable walk from an aircraft arrival gate to the luggage conveyor belt. The speed of delivery processes are not to be improved; rather, new methods for distracting people from the waiting are to be devised.
  • Traffic lights which change according to fixed timing, and not the presence of cars. Traffic must be brought to a stop at traffic lights; a flowing stream of cars must be broken into bunches.