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Comment Re:Disappointing prize (Score 2) 58

Alfred Nobel's will says that his estate should fund 'prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind'. He lived in an age when physics was the study of the fundamental problems facing engineers of his day. Look at the careers of Kelvin or Helmholtz or Maxwell to see how closely tied these areas were. (Kelvin built transatlantic telegraph equipment, Maxwell developed color photography and studied bridge design, Helmholtz worked on physiology and thermodynamics inspired by applied science). I suspect the distance between modern fundamental particle physics and practical benefits to humanity might seem very foreign to Nobel were he alive to see it.

My concern is not actually for a subfield of physics. Applied research is often better funded than traditional reductionist physics. My concern is for physics as a discipline, and for the career path our brightest young aspiring physicists are directed down. We are at a cross-roads. Either physics will be the search for ever more fundamental models of the constituents of matter that become ever more irrelevant, and all the useful work will be done by people who call themselves something else. Or physics will become the application of quantitative models to fundamental problems in wide areas of science, and much of modern science will become ever more indistinguishable from applied physics. In the former case physics drifts into obscurity. In the latter case, physics strengthens its place as the central and fundamental science.

Comment Re:Disappointing prize (Score 1) 58

By dominate I mean 2 of the last 3 prizes and a fraction of recent prizes that is far larger than the fraction of physicists that work on high energy physics. (I count 6 out of 21 prizes since 1995 in high energy physics, or 28% to a community that is something like 15% of the American Physical Society). We simply haven't figured out how to recognize the more important contributions in less reductionist and more applied areas of physics. Last year's prize for semiconductor LED breakthroughs was a step in the right direction. But going back to neutrinos so quickly reflects the prize committee doesn't really get it.

Comment Disappointing prize (Score 0, Troll) 58

It is disappointing to see the high energy physicists continue to dominate the nobel prize. Since the 1930s, anyone who discovers some new quirk about some fundamental particle gets the prize. Nevermind the fact that the discovered particle properties steadily become less and less relevant to anything that affects humans in any practical way. When Chadwick discovered the Neutron, that deserved a Nobel Prize. In many ways it was the beginning of nuclear physics. Neutrino mass was a nice puzzle. They (partly) solved it. Good work. But who cares? The future of physics is either to become solvers of interesting but irrelevant puzzles (which will be funded at the level that society funds other impractical but fascinating fields like poetry or classical music), or to become solvers of fundamental quantitative problems in materials science, environmental science, engineering, biology, and computational science that society needs solved. The overwhelming majority of actual physicists have already realized this fact and moved to work on relevant problems. But the nobel prize committee is stuck on the old path to irrelevance. The physiology prize is given to scientists who developed cures for parasitic diseases that affects many people while the physics prize goes to the discovery of a property of particles that can only be indirectly measured with massive detector. And we wonder why physics seems uninteresting to the next generation?

Comment Re:The 19th and 20th century will stand out (Score 1) 191

I recommend you read the history more carefully. In 1900 the best scientists knew that they did not understand what matter was or why it had such strange spectra (Kelvin even spent quite a bit of effort trying to develop vortex descriptions of atoms.) They knew that they didn't know where the sun's energy came from. They knew that they knew almost nothing about how cells worked. But surprisingly, it turns out that they already did know most of what we currently think is important to teach to engineering students. There is no quantum mechanics or relativity in mechanical or civil engineering curricula, and it is a tiny part of EE and chemical engineering curricula. Even something on the order of half of introductory chemistry would be familiar to a chemist in 1900. Michaelson said "The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered" in 1903, and you would have a very difficult time today making the argument that he was wrong. Engineers use classical physics and empirical materials science much much more than they use the quantum physics discovered this century.

Now fast forward to 2015. The anomalous experiments we have involve dark matter on the scale of galaxies and dark energy on the scale of the visible universe. What part of our solar system is not described adequately enough by the standard model and general relativity that you have reason to expect it will allow new technology? What do you expect the lifetime of particles beyond the standard model to be? (The Higgs Boson lifetime is 10^-22 s and I don't know of any technology that uses particles with lifetimes shorter than muons with lifetime of 10^-6 s.) There will be major breakthrough in science and technology in the future. Much of it will be in understanding and designing complex systems. But practical engineering is going to be done using things whose fundamental constituents are adequately described by the standard model and general relativity. It is simply wishful thinking based on a faith in progress that makes people so certain that fundamental science is going to keep revolutionizing our lives the way it did in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Comment The 19th and 20th century will stand out (Score 1) 191

When we look back from the year 5000, the years between 1800 and 1980 will stand out as the time period during which we figured out the main fundamental science to understand how the world around us works. We are not at the end of particle physics. There will be lots more to learn from higher energy and higher luminocity colliders, as well as studies of extremely high energy cosmic rays and astronomical data. But even if a bunch of new particles with masses in the TeV range are found, they won't change the models we use to describe materials, biology, planet formation, or neuroscience. Particle physics may make new discoveries or may turn cold, it is hard to say, but you can be essentially certain that it will not be practically useful.

Comment Re:Wrong! (Score 2) 485

I think the recent estimates say that habitable planets are quite plentiful. You are right that we have only found a few of them, but from the sensitivity of our search and the number we have found, we can estimate the total number, and it is very large, likely billions or tens of billions, maybe more. ( The difference between the real world and Star Trek is that they can travel to a large fraction of the galaxy in a lifetime while there are no stars except the sun within 10000 years of earth at current spacecraft speeds.

Comment Re:Part of the social media bubble? (Score 3, Informative) 307

Yes, it is a new era. About Amazon: they are seriously competing with Netflix, Apple, the cable companies and others to control the new media distribution system. Many of us that have used Amazon Prime just fell into instant video subscriptions and it is a low cost alternative that might beat out Netflix if they stumble again. It is going to take time for culture to evolve to effective use video on demand. We are at a moment of very rapid change in technological possibilities but people haven't figured out how to use the new possibilities effectively.

Comment A Root Cause (Score 1) 307

At the root of this is the notion that television is entertainment that is separate from life. It has always been an empty paradigm, and for decades thoughtful and ambitious people have avoided that kind of television. But while we were stuck with a broadcast model, it was the only option that could attract a large enough audience at a specific time to work economically. Now, with content on demand, it is possible for television content to be selected so that it is much more useful and relevant to people's lives. So that Kids programming can be chosen to match the developmental stage and educational goals for a child at a specific time. And dramas can be chosen to match the interests and psychology of a viewer. What we haven't yet figured out how to do is how to produce quality programming at the high volumes this model requires and we also haven't yet figured out how to index the content to allow new content to connect effectively with viewers. We are still stuck with a ratings system that is based on the old broadcast model rather than rewarding shows that effectively connect with a niche audience over many years.

Comment Identifying the unknown inspires students (Score 3, Interesting) 237

When the instructor effectively places the material they are presenting in a larger framework including unknowns, it is often quite inspiring. Textbooks in mathematics and physics are the worst in this regard. They try to paint their presentation as the complete story on the subject and that leaves students bored. Even just a little bit of explaining the complex problems that are being sidestepped by the way the course material was chosen can greatly enliven a course. Even better, the students come out with an understanding of where the methods they learned will work and where they will not.

Comment Re:We've been here before (Score 1) 262

No, you are pretty precisely wrong. Elon and Gates made their fortunes in the software business but don't work in exactly the niche of AI. Exactly the same as Einstein worked in relativity and a bit in quantum mechanics, not nuclear physics. While AI and nuclear explosions are totally different, the level of understanding of the possibilities comparing now to 1939 is not all that different. At least you give no reasons beyond personal incredulity for the claim that there is no feasible way for this to happen in the next century.

The comparison to the risk of atmospheric fire is also precisely wrong. That was brought up as a possibility in the 1940s. The experts evaluated it, and concluded it was extremely low probability. Strong AI on the other hand is estimated by many experts to be very likely over the next century. ( ) The main question is whether it will be a threat.

It is the next century or two that Musk, Gates, and others are warning of. And it is quite short sighted to dismiss the threat with 'there is no feasible way for this to happen' right now.

Comment We've been here before (Score 2) 262

It has happened before that the smartest people in the world warn that technological advances may present major new weapons and threats. Last time it was Einstein and Szilard in 1939 warning that nuclear weapons might be possible. The letter to Roosevelt was three years before anyone had even built a nuclear reactor and 6 years before the first nuclear explosion. Nuclear bombs could easily have been labelled a "problem that probably does not exist." And if someone could destroy the planet, what could you do about it anyway? The US took the warning seriously and ensured that the free world and not a totalitarian dictator was the first capable of obliterating its opponents.

This time Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking are warning that superintelligence may make human intelligence obsolete. And they are dismissed because we haven't yet made human level intelligence and because if we did we couldn't do anything about it. If it is Musk, Gates, and Hawking vs Edward Geist, the smart money has to be with the geniuses. But if you look at the arguments, you see you don't even have to rely on their reputation. The argument is hands down won by the observation that human level artificial intelligence is an existential risk. Even if it is only 1% likely to happen in the next 500 years, we need to have a plan for how to deal with it. The root of the problem is that the capabilities of AI are expanding much faster than human capabilities can expand, so it is quite possible that we will lose our place as the dominant intellect on the planet. And that changes everything.

Comment Re:Blimey (Score 2) 518

The problem is that the explanations that we can get our hands on are so obviously problematic. Take the simple Newtonian mechanics diagram in the original post. They seem to be implying that the radiation pressure on the front of the cavity is larger than the radiation pressure on the back. That is fine. If that is the case, then there is a transfer of momentum to the radiation field. Where does this momentum go? If it goes out the back, then this is a simple and well understood phenomena that isn't powerful enough to propel a rocket. Any flashlight is a EM drive...photons out the back, momentum away from the light beam. It is just not an efficient way to turn energy into momentum. But they are claiming that some net momentum is produced without any photons out the back. And that is simply impossible without overturning Noether's theorem or establishing a way for space-time to be inhomogeneous on the scale of the spacecraft. It is really easy to get stray and reproducible momentum sources (see the Pioneer anomaly). It is much much harder to replace well established fundamental physics that is derived from principles as simple as the homogeneity of space.

Comment Re:Blimey (Score 5, Insightful) 518

Which is exactly why this should be presented as a breakthrough in physics with the standards of verification and publication used in physics rather than announced as a way to propel rockets. Using the standards of a breakthrough in physics, they have an anomalous experiment. Now they need to replicate it under more idealized conditions and then we'll evaluate whether to give them a Nobel Prize. Almost certainly this anomalous experiment will turn out to be an experimental error or misinterpretation since the theory of conservation of momentum they are claiming to violate is so extremely well corroborated.

Comment Re:In other words... (Score 4, Insightful) 327

Indeed, presentation tools can't compensate for poor skills in creating or giving presentations. Do people remember before powerpoint? At the scientific conferences I attended, as often as not people were throwing unreadable transparencies onto the project at a rate significantly faster than anyone in the audience except their collaborators could comprehend the concepts. Now they just flip through readable but incomprehensible power-point slides. It's the humans you have to fix, not the technology.

Comment Re:This again? (Score 1) 480

It is very hard to believe that they are going to send a propulsion system into space without a clear understanding of how it works. They claim that they have a device that violates very basic physics. They shouldn't be thinking about space flight at all. They should be asking the best experimentalists in RF cavities to collaborate with them to win the Nobel prize that will be given to anyone who shows a human scale object that violates the known laws of physics. It would be easily the most important discovery of the last 50 years. But for that same reason, it is 99.9% likely to be a misinterpretation of their experimental results.

Don't sweat it -- it's only ones and zeros. -- P. Skelly