How to end the flat earth argument

Apparently people still think that the earth is flat despite an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary. This stuff is all over social media, and it infuriates me to no end because we’ve known that the earth was a sphere for thousands of years, and if ancient man could figure that shit out then I would expect that someone who has access to satellite photography would also be able to figure it out. But alas, people are ignorant as fuck and thus we have the flat earth theory. Everyone’s favorite astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, recently had to respond to an NBA star commenting that the earth is flat.

I had an exchange with someone on Instagram earlier today. Someone I follow posted something showing how the earth was curved, not flat. Well, cue the “woke” enlightened folk. So I asked how a flat planet could form in the presence of gravity. Well, apparently gravity is also a conspiracy. Here’s the response I got:

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See, guys, there’s no such thing as gravity because density! Duh. And no, I’m not blurring anyone’s name out on here because if you’re stupid enough to think the earth is flat and gravity isn’t real you deserve to be called out. And yes, I also realize that you all have my Instagram handle now.

But here’s why I asked about gravity.

I wanted to think of a proof or a thought experiment I could give a flat earther to get them to realize that they’re wrong. And I think I came up with one. And it all hinges on gravity. In order for a flat planet to form, gravity either 1) needs to not exist, or 2) not behave according to our current models. My response to good ol’ Jonathan there was this:

“There’s a very easy way to prove whether or not gravity is real. Pick an object, any old object will do. Next, find a place you can drop it from–a second story window, a tree, a rooftop–it doesn’t matter. Now, if you know the mass of the object and the height from which you’re dropping it from, then it’s a matter of simple math. Calculate the time it would take the object to reach the ground 1) by using the standard model of gravity and the equation time = √(2d/g) and 2) by substituting the value of g for literally anything else–like the formula for density. Then drop the object and compare the times to those given by your two equations.”

That’s really something any middle school student should be able to do. The response I got?

…total crickets. Nobody had a response. None of the flat earth geniuses, to nobody’s surprise, derived a new form of math to describe acceleration and motion that didn’t use gravity.

Because you can believe that the government lies to us about the shape of the earth and the ISS and moon landing are faked by NASA, but there’s one thing that doesn’t lie–GODDAMN MATH.

But just the fact that this needs to be explained to people is incredibly disheartening. It speaks to a broken education system. It speaks to a culture steeped in paranoia. It speaks to a political system wherein people are encouraged to openly deny evidence. People are so quick to latch onto conspiracy, but they can’t see that the way to to truly keep someone ignorant is to make them question observable, measurable, testable, repeatable evidence. THAT’S how you keep someone in ignorance. And the fact that this is happening speaks volumes about our social and political state.

So if you ever run into a flat earther, give them this proof and see what happens. My guess it that cognitive dissonance will be so great that their head will explode.

Anyone can be a scientist

After a somewhat lengthy absence from blogging (I just didn’t have anything to say–sue me :P), I thought I would return by talking about a subject that is near and dear to me: science.

I love science. That’s not exactly a secret on this blog. Science is a way to learn about the world and universe around us, about ourselves, about where we came from and how we got here–all kinds of wonderful things. And one of the greatest things about science is its uniformity. Anyone, anywhere can “do” science.

But increasingly it seems to me that in the modern world we don’t treat science that way. We don’t treat it as something that anyone can do. All human beings are naturally curious, and hard-wired to ask questions and seek answers. But the system has shifted now to one of academics, which in my opinion doesn’t benefit anyone and may even be detrimental to science.

What exactly am I talking about? I’m glad you asked. The way modern science has been set up is that you aren’t really a scientist unless you have a PhD, and only those with a PhD do “real” research and experimentation.

Certainly, those with a PhD have a better chance of securing funding. But does pigeonholing science into this ivory tower sort of thing ignore that basic tenant of science–it’s uniformity? I would argue that it does.

These thoughts were born after reading some recent news stories. There’s the high school student who created a new test for pancreatic cancer. And then there’s the undergraduate student who proved a 60 year old theory about the earth’s magnetosphere. You know who else didn’t have a degree? Michael Faraday. James Clerk Maxwell wrote his first scientific paper at age 14, and although he received a formal education, by all accounts did a good chunk of his study and research at home. If you go back further in history, many of the greatest discoveries were made by people with little formal training, but keen minds. Astronomer William Herschel didn’t have a degree, and he discovered Uranus and that sunlight contained infrared radiation. Ben Franklin didn’t have any degrees. A more current example, Robert Evans is a minister in Australia with a degree in history and a passion for astronomy who has visually discovered 42 supernovae (which is a record).

And that’s what I think bugs me the most about the current system. Yes, people like the ones I mentioned above are probably exceptional minds. But it doesn’t take an exceptional mind to be a good scientist. I realize that may sound counter-intuitive, but you don’t need to be a genius to understand what science is, how it works, and how to apply it. You simply need to be curious and know how to apply logic and the scientific method to your endeavors.

I think that a lot of people have questions or ideas that, if pursued scientifically, could yield interesting and fruitful results. One of the greatest weapons of discovery and innovation is diversity–a wealth of different competing ideas is more likely to lead to the truth than a select few people pursing much narrower avenues. And by forcing people to travel down a lengthy and often expensive academic path in order to practice science, I can’t help but feel that we’re losing that diversity, and we’re turning a lot of people who would make contributions to science away from the field.

And I’m sure that the high school student and the undergraduate student in the previous examples are going to be strongly encouraged to pursue advanced degrees. But is that really necessary? Sure, they’ll receive some great mentoring, but do the extra letters after their name somehow make the things they’ve already discovered more real? No, of course not. Would it somehow make them more brilliant? Doubtful. They’re naturally curious and inventive. So beyond the mentoring, I have to wonder what forcing these people further into an academic system really accomplishes, especially in light of all that they’ve accomplished already.

I guess this is my rallying call to the masses. Don’t think that just because you didn’t get an advanced degree that science is beyond you, and that you can’t contribute to it. Don’t think that you need 10+ years of advanced postgraduate education and formal training and a fancy lab at Harvard to do a scientific experiment. Get a library card and start reading. Take classes at your local community college. Buy a telescope and set it up in your backyard. Create a little lab in your garage. Be a pioneer, like so many who have come before you.

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What if…

I’ve been reading A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss (I left the book in my office, though, so I won’t be finishing it this weekend and posting about it). As I was reading it the other day, I had a sudden thought. It’s more poetry than science, but I think it’s still fun to imagine.

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That’s what happens in the LHC, or Large Hadron Collider, when two particles accelerated close to the speed of light smash into each other. The very purpose of this whole machine is to better understand how our universe was made by recreating conditions similar to those at the beginning of the universe (or at least the universe as we know it). So if we’re recreating the conditions of the big bang and all of those elementary particles, what if…

…every time we did this we were creating a new universe?

I know it sounds fanciful, but we’re essentially creating a bunch of little big bang approximations in the LHC. What if each one of those resulted in a tiny universe? Sure, they only exist for a brief flicker of time–but that’s our time. Time in that new tiny universe might behave differently. Perhaps what amounts to only a fraction of a nanosecond for us amounts to trillions of years in the tiny universe. Perhaps in that one fraction of time for us, entire galaxies and civilizations are born and ponder their own existence and then fade away. Perhaps our own universe and our own big bang are merely the products of a similar experiment happening in another universe. Maybe our entire existence is data to some scientist in another universe.

Income inequality and physics

I was watching Robert Reich’s film Inequality For All on Netflix the other night, and something he said particularly stood out for me. But first, a little context.

Reich worked as Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton. He was a Rhodes Scholar and has a background in law and economics. A good deal of the movie focuses on what happens to an economy when too much of the wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands (hint: the periods of greatest wealth concentration were in 1927 and 2007).

Everyone–liberal or conservative–will acknowledge that inequality is inevitable, especially under capitalism. Capitalism doesn’t work without inequality. The central question of the film is how much inequality is good? At what point does inequality begin to hinder an economy? Reich goes on the talk about the virtuous cycle and vicious cycle and how different levels of inequality play into them. But there was something else that he said, something that particularly resonated with me. The biggest point that Reich made in the film was this: wealth isn’t a bad thing, it’s how people abuse it that should concern us.

What is meant by this? Well, quite frankly, that the more money you have, the bigger political say you have. Recent SCOTUS rulings are obliterating democracy. Citizens United is a prime example. There’s too much money in politics. And it’s not just conservative money–there’s liberal money as well. But the overwhelming point of all of this is to say that there are groups, individuals, who can pretty much undermine every vote you make by whipping out their checkbook. How does that even remotely resemble a functional democracy? The short answer is that it doesn’t. The theme here is that there’s nothing at all bad about wealth–but it shouldn’t play a role in politics (at least not to the extent that it currently is).

Let’s add a little more flavor to this conversation. Most people who dislike Reich and his ilk will be quick to talk about the American Dream and economic mobility and the like. You know that old, “If you work hard enough, you, too, can make it and strike it big!” mantra that people like to spout off. And yes, there are a few exceptions of people doing this. A few. By and large, upward mobility will remain relatively stagnant, and most of the new wealth generated in this country will go to the upper 1%. Why is that? Because there are literally two economies in this country.

And no, I’m not speaking philosophically here. People who follow this blog will know that I don’t believe that there is anything scientific about economics–economics presumes that people will act rationally, but people act irrationally all the time, therefore any potential scientific value in economics flies out the window. However, I read something recently that piqued my interest. A new field called econophysics is emerging that attempts to scientifically explain the economy using concepts found in physics. So what do these scientists have to say about income inequality and the two economies?

You can think of an economy as particles of gas. Just like the motion of gas particles is random, so too are economic transactions. In this model, you can think of money as energy. If you consider the energy distribution of gas molecules at any random moment in time, you’ll find that a very few have very high energy, a very few have super low energy, and the vast majority are in between. Sound familiar? It’s basically your upper, lower, and middle economic classes. If all of this sounds a little fantastic, consider the following graphs:

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The first graph is the energy distribution of gas particles. The second graph is income distribution in the US. Similar shapes, right? Yes, except for that weird tail on the high end of the income distribution graph, which represents approximately the top 3% of all earners. Why does income distribution match energy distribution so closely except for that one part? Because there are two inequalities that can be represented by two different functions.

There’s a normal or natural inequality that exists within all systems (remember, inequality in and of itself is not a bad thing, as even Reich will point out). This can be represented by an exponential function and it’s what causes the shape of the gas particle graph. However, there is also abnormal or unnatural inequality, and it’s represented by a powers function, which is what’s giving the income graph that tail at the end. But why are there two different functions to explain the graph?

Quite simply it’s because there are two sources of income or wealth in the economy. For  97% of this country–the percentage that follows the gas particle energy distribution–income is in real dollars or some other form of tangible wealth. But for the upper 3%, income is derived from essentially non-existent sources, like the stock market. This introduces a greater amount of variability into that upper 3%. At the same time, however, it also means different things for growth. If you’re paid in real dollars, your income is limited to the amount of money that physically exists in the real world. However, if your wealth is derived from a non-physical source–like the stock market–the growth potential is unlimited.

And this is exactly why most of the new income or wealth generated in this country goes to that top 3%. The Dow Jones and other financial markets have never done better and continue to grow and grow. Think about the economic recovery after our latest crash. Unemployment continued to grow and then stay stagnant, even as the stock market set new record highs. Average household income remains stagnant while the top 3% or 1% continues to grow unfettered. Econophysics explains why this happens beautifully.

So what does econophysics have to do with Reich and his film? Well, econophysics suggest that just as in any natural system, economic inequality is inescapable. And Reich seems to echo that sentiment, especially under the auspices of capitalism. Reich argues that although inequality is natural, too much of it will hinder an economy. But moreover, greater and greater wealth concentration will erode democracy. Econophysics explains why such disparities happens in mathematical terms. For a quick introduction to econophysics, click here.

*Edit: this post has been updated because I realized I violated my own “no politics” rule.