31 December 2005

Grabbing the plasma by the horns

This “electric cosmos” stuff seems to be characterised by people who are well tired of beating about in the bush, and I quote:

In today’s world many people characterize themselves as being “scientists”.

Only those who always carefully follow the “scientific method” are deserving of that title.

The Scientific Method

Scientists are distinguishable from artists, poets, musicians, and others in that they use what is known as “the scientific method”. It is not that “inspiration” or “the muse” is not valuable in science, it is — but it is not the starting point of what we call science. In the process called the scientific method1 a true scientist will:

  • Observe nature — carefully record what is seen.
  • Seek patterns in the observed data — put numbers on the data — fit equations to those numbers.
  • Generalize those equations into a word description of the process — this is a hypothesis.
  • Carry out experiments and/or gather independent data to see how well the hypothesis predicts future observations and results. This is called “closing the loop” on your hypothesis.
  • Reject, or modify the hypothesis if the experiments show it falls short of success in these predictions.
  • Only after the results of several experiments have been successfully predicted by the hypothesis, can it be called a theory.

If two different theories predict a given phenomenon equally well, the simpler theory is probably the best one. This principle is called Occam’s Razor.

Theories can never be proven to be correct — some other mechanism entirely may be the cause of the observed data. New data can come in tomorrow. But theories can be disproved if they fail to predict the outcomes of additional experiments. Such theories are termed to be falsified.

Sometimes the scientific method as described above is called the empirical method.

Not satisfied with that much rubbing of feathers the wrong way, he goes on to quote Brian Josephson:

If the going gets bad in an argument one can always call upon the universal mantra ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof’, to extricate oneself from further discussion, or the need to think.

He then goes on to say many... fairly uncomplementary things about the usefulness of redshifts as a measure of distance.

crab nebula imaged by chandra xray scope

Stars and galaxies can look so much more interesting at odd wavelengths like xrays and radio.

crab in the visual spectrum

Compare the Crab nebula in Xray above (thanks Chandra) and visible light (thanks Hubble).

I threw in the photo of the Cat’s Eye Nebula below mainly because it looks cool; but although they don’t cite it, it has all of the features that the electric cosmos dudes seem to like:

Cat's Eye Nebula

Oh, and happy 2006... and also apologies if your culture’s year doesn’t end about now or isn’t a special number. Ain’t it amazing how simple life used to be?

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