Saturday, 30 July 2011

A Virtual Tour of the Anne Frank House

I have visited the Anne Frank House twice, the first time in 1991, the second in late 1995 when I was living in Amsterdam. It is well worth taking a virtual tour of the Anne Frank House.

The Secret Annex Online allows visitors to explore the front of the house and the secret annex as it was then, and hear stories that explain in greater depth what happened there.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Atlas of Living Australia

The Atlas of Living Australia makes biodiversity information more accessible and useable online. You can explore your area and then click on share to contribute your own observations or photos.

Mobile learning kits are being developed for the Victorian school syllabus by Museum Victoria for incorporation into school assignments. Observations collected are uploaded into a central database where they can be analysed as a classroom exercise or sent on to be used by researchers as part of the ClimateWatch program.

It would be excellent to extend this initiative to all Australian schools.

Related to this is Leafsnap, which can identify (NE USA) trees from a photograph of a leaf. The idea of creating DNA ‘barcodes’ to allow researchers to quickly identify species and to find new species, which can also provide information on evolutionary pathways and biodiversity, is very interesting.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Paralysed by fear and embracing uncertainty

This afternoon I attended Professor Sergio Starkstein's talk entitled Paralysed by fear and embracing uncertainty. The talk was somewhat interesting, with nice quotes and readings such as Carpe Diem.

In question time it came up that Starkstein rejected the theory of Evolution. There was insufficient time to probe further, and he was vague in answering questions about this, but I was left wondering about the reasons for his rejection.

Apart from Dawkin's powerful and coherent defence of Darwin, it reminded me to record a link to 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense by John Rennie (Editor, Scientific American). Perhaps Darwin's "theory" should be re-named Darwin's Law of Evolution, which would avoid some of the silly objections raised by creationists.

de Broglie-Bohm interpretation of quantum theory

I am currently reading more about the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation of quantum theory. Robert A.J. Matthews in Facts versus Factions: The use and abuse of subjectivity in scientific research, writes:
During the 1950s, Pauli together with the charismatic and influential theorist Robert Oppenheimer succeeded in stifling discussion of the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation of quantum theory by a combination of spurious arguments and subjective criticism. After being told that supposedly knock-out arguments against the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation were invalid, Oppenheimer is alleged to have remarked that “Well...we’ll just have to ignore it” (quoted in Matthews 1992 p 146); ironically, Oppenheimer went on to write a book whose central thesis was the need for an open mind in science (Oppenheimer 1955).
The recent paper by Kocsis, et al. (2011) on Observing the Average Trajectories of Single Photons in a Two-Slit Interferometer—highlighted as the secret life of photons revealed in Physics World (see also Catching sight of the elusive wave function)—is most interesting (and not to be confused with Abstruse Goose's The Secret Lives of Photons).

The correspondence between the single-particle two-slit trajectories to those in Philippidis et al. (1979) and Holland and Philippidis (2003) appear to be striking confirmation of the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation of quantum mechanics (even though they are dismissed by Mohrhoff). See also the bio of Basil Hiley in wikipedia.

A brief literature search led me to Dipole Moment Noise in the Hydrogen Atom in the Bohm Quantum-Mechanical Theory by Redington, Widom and Srivastava who write:
In the Bohm theory of quantum mechanics, particles move in well-defined paths. The probability distribution (at a single time) is exactly what would be computed from the Schrödinger equation. Here we consider two-time probabilities in the Bohm theory, and compute dipole moment fluctuation spectra for the hydrogen atom. The resulting dipole fluctuations differ from those which can be obtained from conventional quantum mechanics.
My view of de Broglie-Bohm was that it was “equivalent” to the Schrödinger equation. However, my thinking changed after reading the following section of On the Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, Fock (1957) (my emphasis added):
What are the features of quantum mechanics that do not allow us to interpret them in a classical spirit and consider the wave function as a distributed field similar to the classical one? Discarding for a while some more deep epistemological arguments one can indicate some formal reasons contradicting this interpretation. First, in the case of a complex system consisting of several particles the wave function depends not only on three coordinates, but on all degrees of freedom of the system. It is a function of a point of a multidimensional configuration space and not of a real physical space. Second, in quantum mechanics the canonical transformations analogous to the Fourier transformation are allowed and all transformed functions obtained in this way describe the same state and are equivalent to the original wave function expressed in terms of the coordinates. And it is not only the absolute value squared of the original function that has a physical meaning, but the squared absolute values of the transformed functions as well. Third, the many body problem (in particular the problem of several identical particles) has in quantum mechanics some features that do not allow us to reduce this problem either to the problem of several disjoint particles or to formulate it as a field problem in the ordinary three-dimensional space. Hence if a complex system possesses a wave function then it is impossible to assign wave functions to single particles. Moreover, in the case of identical particles satisfying the Pauli principle there exists a quantum interaction of a special kind irreducible to a force interaction in the ordinary three-dimensional space. Another kind of interaction that is also irreducible to the classical one exists between particles described by symmetric wave functions. Finally, not only for the case of identical particles but for a single particle as well the wave function does not always exist and does not always change according to the Schrödinger equation; under certain conditions it simply disappears or gets replaced by another one (the so-called reduction of a wavelet, see §11). It is obvious that such “momentary change” does not agree with the notion of a field. 
The described features of quantum mechanics make in advance inconsistent all attempts to interpret the wave function in the classical spirit.
Clearly I will have to do some more reading and analysis...


On Fact and Fraud

Millikan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 1923 for his work on the elementary charge of electricity and on the photoelectric effect. The book On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science by David Goodstein includes a Chapter titled In the Matter of Robert Andrews Millikan, which makes interesting reading.

It is worth quoting Robert A.J. Matthews from Facts versus Factions: The use and abuse of subjectivity in scientific research, in Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle (Ed: Morris, J.) (Oxford : Butterworth) 247-282 (2000). On Millikan:
In a now-famous study, the physicist and historian Gerald Holton examined the log-books for Millikan’s experiments with the electron, and revealed that he repeatedly rejected data that he deemed “unacceptable” (Holton 1978).
However, it is also clear that Millikan had another powerful motivation for using all means to obtain a convincing determination of the electronic charge: he was in a race against another researcher, Felix Ehrenhaft at the University of Vienna. Ehrenhaft had obtained similar results to those of Millikan, but they were interspersed with much lower values that suggested that the electron was not, in fact, the fundamental unit of charge. Millikan had no such doubts, published his results, and went on to win the Nobel Prize.
Millikan’s “remarkable ability” to scent out the correct answer was clearly not as great as his apologists would have us believe. Rather more remarkable is Millikan’s ability, almost half a century after his death, to evade recognition as an insouciant scientific fraudster who won the Nobel Prize by deception [Millikan’s cavalier attitude towards scientific research is further evidenced by his dealings with his young assistant Harvey Fletcher over authorship of the key papers on the properties of the electron (Fletcher 1982) and his role in early cosmic ray studies (Crease & Mann 1996, p 150-155)]
The dangers of the injudicious use of subjective criteria is further highlighted by the aftermath of Millikan’s experiments. In the decades following his work and Nobel Prize, other investigators made determinations of the electronic charge. The values they obtained show a curious trend, creeping further and further away from Millikan’s ‘canonical’ value, until finally settling down at the modern figure with which, as we have seen, it is wholly incompatible. Why was this figure not reached sooner? The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman has given the answer in his own inimitable style (Feynman 1988, p 382):
It’s apparent that people did things like this: when they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something was wrong – and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off.
On Pauli:
Experimental science is not alone in being vulnerable to abuses of subjective criteria; theoretical advances can and have been gravely affected as well. Some of the most egregious examples centre on the influence of the brilliant but notoriously arrogant theorist Wolfgang Pauli, whose dismissive opinions of the work of a number of theoreticians led to their being denied credit for major scientific discoveries in elementary particle physics. For example, the discovery of the key quantum-theoretic concept of spin is widely ascribed to Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit. However, it was first put forward by the young American theorist Ralph Kronig, who was persuaded not to publish after being ridiculed by Pauli and informed that while “very clever”, the concept of spin “Of course has nothing to do with reality” (quoted in Pais 1991 p 244). Caustic ad hominem remarks by Pauli similarly led to the Swiss theorist Ernst Stueckelberg failing to publish his exchange model of the strong nuclear force; Yukawa subsequently published essentially identical ideas, and won the 1949 Nobel Prize for Physics. (Stueckelberg’s work on renormalisation of quantum electrodynamics met a similar fate, being later duplicated by three other theorists who went on to win the 1965 Nobel Prize for physics (Crease & Mann 1996, p 142-3)).

Eat, play, cycle

It is interesting to read about the city in which you live. Eat, play, cycle featured many of my favourite activities:
  • Cycling beside the Swan River, with a nice photo of the old Swan Brewery and Perth city skyline
  • Kings Park with 400ha of natural bushland and stunning city views. I did not know that it became Australia's first park to be designated for public use in 1872 and is the largest inner-city park in the world!
  • Having a pale ale at the Little Creatures brewery
  • Catching a show at the Perth International Arts Festival (launched in 1953 and the longest-running annual international multi-arts festival in the southern hemisphere). Watching a movie in Somerville's "Cathedral of Trees" outdoor cinema, was not mentioned

Bicycle Helmet Laws

The latest issue of Bicycling Western Australia (BWA) Members eNews had a feature on The Helmet Debate. This article originally appeared in The Age as Helmet law makes nonsense of bike hire scheme in 2010—so one should be able to check whether Mr Rubbo got fined $146 for his protest ride. Also, there is no mention in the BWA article of the cheap helmet scheme whereby cyclists can buy helmets for $5 and, if they choose, recycle and receive $3 cash back.

D.L. Robinson from the Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit at the University of New England, Armidale has been a long-term critic of the effectiveness of Australia's compulsory helmet laws. His work is often cited by opponents of such laws so it is worth quoting from Bicycle helmet use four years after the introduction of helmet legislation in Alberta, Canada, a recent authoritative study:
Bicycle-related head injuries caused nearly 15% of all pediatric trauma deaths in Ontario in 1993 (Spence et al., 1993). Approximately 20% of cyclist emergency department visits are for head injuries (Thompson et al., 1996) though head injuries make up 75% of bicyclists fatalities (Rowe et al., 1995). Based on a Cochrane review, helmets provide 63–88% reduction in the risk of head, brain and severe brain injury and 65% reduction in risk of upper and mid facial injury for bicyclists of all ages (Thompson et al., 1999). Results of another systematic review revealed that helmets reduce the risk of head and brain injury between 58% and 73% and facial injuries by 47% (Attewell et al., 2001).
As I wrote last year:
To civil libertarians: I am happy for cyclists not to wear helmets as long as I don't have to pay for long-term hospitalisation due to head injuries. Having had more than one crash where my helmet has saved me from a serious head injury, I know what I'm talking about.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Dutch East India Company

In late 1995 I spent 3 months visiting CWI (Centrum voor Wiskunde en Informatica) in Amsterdam. I rented an apartment in Eerste Leeghwaterstraat, which was parallel to Czaar Peterstraat, on an island devoted to ship building. This historical connection led me to research the history of the world dominance of the Dutch East India Company, the world's first mega-corporation. As it states in Wikipedia:
The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC in Dutch, literally "United East Indian Company") was a chartered company established in 1602, when the States-General of the Netherlands granted it a 21-year monopoly to carry out colonial activities in Asia. It was the first multinational corporation in the world and the first company to issue stock. It was also arguably the world's first megacorporation, possessing quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, coin money, and establish colonies.

Nine Things That Will Disappear in My Lifetime

The original post (possibly Things we've known that are on the way out), has gone viral:
  1. The Post Office
  2. Get ready to imagine a world without the post office. They are so deeply in financial trouble that there is probably no way to sustain it long term. E-mail, Fed Ex, and UPS have just about wiped out the minimum revenue needed to keep the post office alive. Most of your mail every day is junk mail and bills.
    My comment: Post Offices in Australia have morphed into something else, still providing mailboxes, but doing banking, and processing applications for passports, Working with Children ...
  3. The Check
  4. Britain is already laying the groundwork to do away with checks by 2018. It costs the financial system billions of dollars a year to process cheque. Plastic cards and online transactions will lead to the eventual demise of the cheque. This plays right into the death of the post office. If you never paid your bills by mail and never received them by mail, the post office would absolutely go out of business.
    My comment: This always amuses me. In the US, up until quite recently, cancelled checks were returned to you. In Australia, this practice stopped decades ago.
  5. The Newspaper
  6. The younger generation simply doesn't read the newspaper. They certainly don't subscribe to a daily delivered print edition. That may go the way of the milkman and the laundry man. As for reading the paper online, get ready to pay for it. The rise in mobile Internet devices and e-readers has caused all the newspaper and magazine publishers to form an alliance. They have met with Apple, Amazon, and the major cell phone companies to develop a model for paid subscription services.
    My comment: Maybe / maybe not.
  7. The Book
  8. You say you will never give up the physical book that you hold in your hand and turn the literal pages. I said the same thing about downloading music from iTunes. I wanted my hard copy CD. But I quickly changed my mind when I discovered that I could get albums for half the price without ever leaving home to get the latest music. The same thing will happen with books. You can browse a bookstore online and even read a preview chapter before you buy. And the price is less than half that of a real book. And think of the convenience! Once you start flicking your fingers on the screen instead of the book, you find that you are lost in the story, can't wait to see what happens next, and you forget that you're holding a gadget instead of a book.
    My comment: I buy ebooks and books. Some things are still better when printed out. Art and photography.
  9. The Land Line Telephone
  10. Unless you have a large family and make a lot of local calls, you don't need it anymore. Most people keep it simply because they've always had it. But you are paying double charges for that extra service. All the cell phone companies will let you call customers using the same cell provider for no charge against your minutes
    My comment: Australia is behind here. Telstra makes it difficult to drop landlines by providing discounts that depend upon having a landline. Having said that, I've just got rid of our landline ...
  11. Music
  12. This is one of the saddest parts of the change story. The music industry is dying a slow death. Not just because of illegal downloading. It's the lack of innovative new music being given a chance to get to the people who would like to hear it. Greed and corruption is the problem. The record labels and the radio conglomerates are simply self-destructing. Over 40% of the music purchased today is "catalog items," meaning traditional music that the public is familiar with. Older established artists. This is also true on the live concert circuit. To explore this fascinating and disturbing topic further, check out the book, "Appetite for Self-Destruction" by Steve Knopper, and the video documentary, "Before the Music Dies."
    My comment: The fact that the industry is dying does not concern me. I still buy music I like, including new music, and there's plenty of good new music out there.
  13. Television
  14. Revenues to the networks are down dramatically. Not just because of the economy. People are watching TV and movies streamed from their computers. And they're playing games and doing lots of other things that take up the time that used to be spent watching TV. Prime time shows have degenerated down to lower than the lowest common denominator. Cable rates are skyrocketing and commercials run about every 4 minutes and 30 seconds. I say good riddance to most of it. It's time for the cable companies to be put out of our misery. Let the people choose what they want to watch online and through Netflix.
    My comment: Since TV in Australia went digital, the changes have been dramatic. We can now watch what we want, when we want it.
  15. The "Things" That You Own
  16. Many of the very possessions that we used to own are still in our lives, but we may not actually own them in the future. They may simply reside in "the cloud." Today your computer has a hard drive and you store your pictures, music, movies, and documents. Your software is on a CD or DVD, and you can always re-install it if need be. But all of that is changing. Apple, Microsoft, and Google are all finishing up their latest "cloud services." That means that when you turn on a computer, the Internet will be built into the operating system. So, Windows, Google, and the Mac OS will be tied straight into the Internet. If you click an icon, it will open something in the Internet cloud. If you save something, it will be saved to the cloud. And you may pay a monthly subscription fee to the cloud provider. In this virtual world, you can access your music or your books, or your whatever from any laptop or handheld device. That's the good news. But, will you actually own any of this "stuff" or will it all be able to disappear at any moment in a big "Poof?" Will most of the things in our lives be disposable and whimsical? It makes you want to run to the closet and pull out that photo album, grab a book from the shelf, or open up a CD case and pull out the insert.
  17. Privacy
  18. If there ever was a concept that we can look back on nostalgically, it would be privacy. That's gone. It's been gone for a long time anyway. There are cameras on the street, in most of the buildings, and even built into your computer and cell phone. But you can be sure that 24/7, "They" know who you are and where you are, right down to the GPS coordinates, and the Google Street View. If you buy something, your habit is put into a zillion profiles, and your ads will change to reflect those habits. And "They" will try to get you to buy something else. Again and again.
All we will have that can't be changed are memories.

My comment: What about Total Recall?

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Quantum Crackpot Randi Challenge

I found Sascha Vongehr's Official Quantum Crackpot Randi Challenge most interesting. However, the sample program presented by Vongehr, which uses Mathematica, is not that well written and would be easy to improve.

Vongehr's blog on Disproving Local Realism and his comments on Joy Christian are worth a read.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Free energy generator?

Ludwig (Lu) Brits and Victor (John) Christie of Lutec Australia PL have been awarded a patent for their “Free Energy Generator”. As their technology would be a perpetuum mobile it cannot work. Patent offices do not care for the truth of the claims made by the applicants. But to the public, the “inventors” behave as if the patent has verified their claims. For an interesting commentary, read Lutec - all the energy that you can eat.

Deservingly, Lutec won the Australian Skeptics Bent Spoon award in 2001 for their “Free Energy Generator”. Amusing aside: the 2010 Bent Spoon winner was the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) for its draft science curriculum!

It is amusing to watch the evolution of the Lutec website. The current website is rather bare, with no links; instead there is a picture of what looks to be a primitive washing machine connected to bank of light bulbs, and the statement “Please note - as of 25 June 2010, this Website is undergoing reconstruction. We thank you for your patience.” For the “theory” behind the system one has to go back in time, using WayBackMachine, where one can view earlier prototypes and find out where the extra electrical energy comes from:

It’s not EXTRA energy, it is actually newly produced! And it comes from the interaction between the MAGNET’S natural magnetic attraction and natural magnetic repulsion causing the MOTION and the MAGNETISM in the coils then producing the new ELECTRICAL energy, just as Mr Faraday said it would.
I could not be bothered ranking Lutec on John Baez's Crackpot Index—I'm sure they'd do well—but they certainly get points for each word in capital letters.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Family Jewels

I took the family to the AC/DC Family Jewels exhibition at the West Australian Museum on Sunday. Some nice stuff on display, including several letters and postcards. I had to tell my kids a story about my connection to AC/DC, which I don't think they believed:

In 1975 Nick Andronis helped me get a Saturday morning job at KITSETS, an electronic parts store in Wellington Street Perth (I can't find anything about this company on the web). The manager, did light-shows for bands visiting Perth and had some connection to Status Quo—he gave me some free tickets, which made me popular at school. For one light show in September 1975, at the now defunct Sandgroper Hotel in Leederville, some extra hands were needed, and the manager asked me to come along. Somewhat surprisingly, for a midweek concert at a pub, my parents said ok. And so there I was, a wide-eyed 14 year old, stage right at the Sandgroper, helping working the lights for Bon Scott and AC/DC. Three things that I clearly recall:
  • Bon was wearing a leather waistcoat, but nothing else on top;
  • The drummer had his broken hand or arm in a plaster cast; 
  • I still have two unmatched drumsticks from this performance, souvenired at the end of the show.

Study says technology could transform society

flip phillips tweeted a link to a piece entitled study says technology could transform society, published in the New York Times in 1982. This is the year I first sent and received email on a micro-vax computer, bought by the Physics Department to run Stephen Wolfram's SMP computer algebra system. Substitute the internet for teletext and videotex and it is impressive how much predicted by the Institute for the Future has come to pass. Here are two of the (revised) predictions:
[The internet will] create opportunities for individuals to exercise much greater choice over the information available to them. Individuals may be able to use [the internet] to create their own newspapers, design their own curricula, compile their own consumer guides.
[The internet] might mean the end of the twoparty system, as networks of voters band together to support a variety of slates—maybe hundreds of them.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

ERA rankings

The article Dropping ERA rankings 'correct decision': Ellen Hazelkorn includes some rather silly statements:
According to Professor Hazelkorn, best known for her work on global university rankings, there are serious doubts about the role of journals in academic culture.
Perhaps in non-scientific disciplines ...
Although there were relatively few complaints about rankings being wrongly assigned, they were bitter and persistent, arguably distracting from an exercise that on the whole had been judged effective and worthwhile by higher education leaders in Australia.
Indeed, it could be argued that the soaring number of journals is a response to the increasing complexity of knowledge.
To some extent this is true.
This proliferation might be an acknowledgment that there were many legitimate ways of thinking or could be a reaction to the perception that journals were closed shops to contrary viewpoints or methodologies.
No. The principal reasons for this proliferation are:
  • publishers see money in new journals;
  • one publisher wants to get market-share from another;
  • the number of academics is increasing, especially in China and India, and they all desire to have their research published;
  • the ease of web and electronic publication;
  • University libraries are often forced into subscribing to a suite of journals from a publisher.
Rowbotham writes:
Another problem was an over-reliance on peer review to measure research impact.
Impact is perceived simply as that which is read within the academic community rather than impact on society.
No. Impact is measured by how the research affects the discipline.
Many articles are published, but how many actually have beneficial value for society?
A good question, but not relevant to the original topic.
Assessment should go beyond simply reviewing what one academic has written and another has read.
Obviously true!
Today, policy-makers and the wider society want to know how the research can be used to solve major societal and global challenges.
Yes, but this has almost nothing to do with peer review of journal articles, which is still the best mechanism for determining the quality of research.

The real problem is with the quality and consistency of peer review.

US Studies Centre chief operating officer Sean Gallagher wrote in last week's HES that
With such strategic importance placed on interdisciplinary research by the world's best universities, along with society's heavy expectations, the pressure will increase on global university rankings to measure a university's IDR performance alongside its disciplinary output.
So, come up with a universally agreed way to measure this, and it will be measured.


Artifactory sounds interesting. I couldn't attend the SymbioticA seminar, but I will try to attend one of their recurring events, such as the classic computing appreciation night.

York Films of England

Following on from the coverage of the Tour de France each night, SBS is showing one of York Films of England excellent shorts on the cosmos.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011