Saturday, December 21, 2013

Geocentrism and the Three Sillies

The Three Sillies illustrated by Arthur Rackham, as found on Project Gutenberg.

Every once in a while, I come across the claim by some well-intentioned Catholic that Sacred Tradition demands that we adopt a geocentric model.  I'm not really sure what drives this kind of misconception; it may be an honest mistake about what the point of Church Teaching is, or it may be the same kind of thrill with being one of the few "in the know" that has led me to compare cryptozoology with pagan mystery religions.  Periodically these claims are disposed of by Catholic apologists, and it is not my intention to deal with the whole issue here.

Instead, I would like to deal with a more subtle argument that is occasionally tossed out by geocentrists.  Many of them have enough education to know that Einstein's General Theory of Relativity allows us to correctly describe the mechanics of the universe using essentially any coordinate system, including coordinate systems in which the Earth is non-rotating, stationary, and at the center.  Nature is satisfied with such a coordinate system.  If that coordinate system is as good as any other, surely preference should be given to the one used by the Church Fathers?

Of course, this misses the fact that Relativity specifically denies that the idea of a center is physically meaningful, and it is only physically meaningful distinctions that are in dispute.  No one will deny that the Earth is the center of the baseball universe, for example.  But is it true that just because it is possible to make correct physical descriptions in any coordinate system, no coordinate system can be said to be "better" than another?

The answers to a surprising number of basic questions can be found in folk tales. The one of relevance here is an English folk tale called, "The Three Sillies".  Please read the whole story, but the passage that most pertains to this case is as follows.

And the inn was so full that he had to share a room with another traveler. Now his room-fellow proved quite a pleasant fellow, and they forgathered, and each slept well in his bed.
But next morning, when they were dressing, what does the stranger do but carefully hang his breeches on the knobs of the tallboy!
"What are you doing?" asks young squire.
"I'm putting on my breeches," says the stranger; and with that he goes to the other end of the room, takes a little run, and tried to jump into the breeches.
But he didn't succeed, so he took another run and another try, and another and another and another, until he got quite hot and flustered, as the old woman had got over her cow that wouldn't go up the ladder. And all the time young squire was laughing fit to split, for never in his life did he see anything so comical.
Then the stranger stopped a while and mopped his face with his handkerchief, for he was all in a sweat. "It's very well laughing," says he, "but breeches are the most awkwardest things to get into that ever were. It takes me the best part of an hour every morning before I get them on. How do you manage yours?"
Then young squire showed him, as well as he could for laughing, how to put on his breeches, and the stranger was ever so grateful and said he never should have thought of that way.
"So that," quoth young squire to himself, "is a second bigger silly."
Although the stranger managed to eventually get his pants on each morning, the reader (or listener) is supposed to understand immediately that this is the wrong way to put on pants. 

What the geocentrists would have us do is just as silly.  Most mechanics does not really require Relativity; usually Newton's Laws are sufficient, and they can be taught to students with no more math than algebra and trigonometry.  

An example would be the trajectory of a satellite in a circular polar orbit.  For this, we can choose a coordinate system in which the Earth is stationary, but we still need to allow the Earth to rotate under the satellite.  Everything is easy to explain; the satellite is in uniform circular motion, and its centripetal force is supplied by gravity as specified by Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation.  

If we maintain that the Earth does not rotate, though, the eastward rotation of the Earth will have to be explained as a westward force on the satellite, a force that varies with latitude and is hard to justify in simple terms.  The real justification comes from a relativistic phenomenon called frame-dragging, in which the motion of a massive body "drags" the inertial reference frame with it.  In sane coordinate systems, this is hard to measure except near a massive, exotic object like a black hole or neutron star.  A very sensitive experiment, Gravity Probe B, was required to see this effect from the rotation of the Earth.  To calculate the relativistic forces from first principles requires coupled partial differential equations of tensors -- higher math than most people will ever see, let alone master.

The final answers for what will be observed are, of course, identical, just as the final result of putting on their pants was identical for the young man and the stranger.  Just as trying to jump into the pants is the wrong way to put on pants, though, the geocentric approach is the wrong way to do physics.  To top it off, the people with the attachment to the geocentric model always prove to have never even attempted to solve physics problems in what they insist is the uniquely correct way.

Gravity Probe B Confirms the Existence of Gravitomagnetism

Friday, December 20, 2013

What Do Neon Slugs Tell Us About Bigfoot?

Nothing, really.  How could any reasonable person expect them to?

Some fans of cryptozoology, though, think otherwise.

Mount Kaputar in Australia is apparently a kind of snail paradise, serving as home to a number of rare species of snails and slugs with little predation from vertebrates.  New Guinea may have its birds of paradise, but Mount Kaputar has the slugs of paradise -- large, hot pink slugs.  (Sexual selection drives the colors, patterns, and displays of the birds of paradise, but the reason for the hot pink color is not yet known.)  Until recently, these were thought to be just a variant of the red triangle slug, but careful morphological and genetic studies now indicate that these slugs should be grouped under a new species name.

Although this has nothing obvious to do with cryptozoology, it was reported on cryptozoology web sites (to which I will not here link), usually with the "therefore ..." unstated -- until, predictably, one of the regulars filled in what the take-home message was supposed to be:
You can have something like that crawling around, suddenly Bigfoot ain’t so farfetched, eh?
A statement like that isn't just pseudoscientific; it's pseudorational.  It's pseudoscientific because it seems intended to be the same kind of statement as when biologists say that, based on what we have discovered so far, probably around 90% of all species remain undescribed, whereas in fact, the writer's confidence that Bigfoot is a real, corporeal animal has no relationship whatsoever to science.

First a caveat regarding the word "species".  Sadly, determining what constitutes a species is not at all as straightforward as it seemed in my elementary school textbooks.  Those books said that two animals are of different species if they cannot produce offspring with each other or if, as with a horse and donkey producing a mule, the offspring is always infertile.  That is not really something that paleontologists can usually confirm or deny, though, so they have tended to create new species names whenever the differences seemed large enough to justify it -- in the process creating far too many species names, since sometimes two pieces of animals (for example, heads and legs) would be found separately and assigned different species, or juveniles would be mistaken to be different species than the adults, or the differences between males and females would be mistaken for the differences between different species.  Even when genetic information is available, though, the meaning of "species" has changed, as is clear when we are told that most of us are hybrids of two or three "species" of humans -- Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and for many, the Denisovans.  (Even this is messed up, since according to taxonomic convention, Carl Linnaeus is the "type specimen" of Homo sapiens, meaning the species is defined by him.  Because he was a European, though, he must have had some Neanderthal ancestry, if the genetics studies are correct.)  In many cases, species boundaries are fuzzy, indistinct, and ultimately dependent on the varying criteria used to set them.
What can we infer from the discovery that the bright pink slugs of Mount Kaputar are a different species?  Extrapolations can be constructed on the basis of a "sample space".  A sample space has to be a collection of genuine possibilities, of which the observed cases can be said to be a typical sample.  For example, the trans-Neptunian object Sedna is near the limits of modern telescopes even when it is closest to the sun (at about 76 times the earth-sun distance), but it follows a very eccentric orbit.  Kepler's 2nd Law insures that Sedna is most often near its farthest point from the sun -- 937 times as far away as earth is.  Our sample space would consist of all possible numbers (consistent with current observations, that is) of Sedna-like objects at random locations on their orbits.  If Sedna is unique, we have been remarkably lucky to catch it in the brief period it is close enough to the sun for us to see.  It is much more likely that there are dozens, maybe even hundreds, of Sedna-like objects orbiting the sun.

What would be a corresponding sample space for these slugs?  As with the case of Sedna, it would have to be built of a population of possibilities that are related to the discovery about the slugs, so how would the discovery be described?
  • The existence of the pink slugs had been known already; in that sense they were not a new discovery at all.  
  • They are obviously somewhat different in appearance than red triangle slugs, but not so different in coloration or size to be obviously a different species.   
  • It could not have been "ethno-known" that they are a different species from red triangle slugs, since "species", with all its caveats and technicalities, does not entirely correspond to any concept outside modern biology.
  • The slugs are restricted to a remote, relatively inaccessible, and geographically limited range.
  • This was an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, change for science.  That's not an insult -- almost all science is that way -- but it serves to put the discovery into context.
Reasonable inferences, then, would include the following.
  • Genetic studies will show that other isolated populations of invertebrates with no visible differences are in fact different species.  (This happens all the time.)
  • Genetic studies will show that other isolated populations of land animals with no visible differences are in fact different species.  (Again, this is common.  It happened just recently with crocodiles, even though their populations do not appear to be as completely isolated.)
Every time the sample space is expanded, though, the inferences become less useful.  We're approaching the season of predictions for 2014, so we can take an example from the kinds of predictions psychics make. 

  • An actor who played a central character in MASH will die in 2014.  This has a very small "sample space", making it an interesting prediction.  It might well come true, but probably has no more than a 10% chance of coming true at random.
  • An actor who played a character on at least one episode of MASH will die in 2014.  This includes many more actors, so it is easier for this to come true. However, the implications of this for Alan Alda aren't quite so scary.
  • An actor who played a character on TV during the 1970's or 1980's will die.  It would be something like a miracle if this did not happen.  It's a prediction so safe as to be utterly useless.

Now let's look at the characteristics of a discovery of Bigfoot.
  • The mere existence of Bigfoot is not recognized by science at all.
  • Anything that could be called a "Bigfoot" would be obviously different from any animal known to have ever existed.  It would be larger and heavier than known human relatives like Paranthropus, and with different feet.  No other ape is known to be fully bipedal, including Gigantopithecus.
  • It is claimed that Bigfoot is ethno-known, on the basis of both modern alleged sightings and American Indian folklore.
  • Alleged Bigfoot sightings come from every U.S. state other than Hawaii and several of the Canadian provinces.  Depending on whether cryptids like the Almas, Yeti, and Yowie are considered the same thing as Bigfoot, this range might be extended to cover much of the world.
  • The verified discovery of a real Bigfoot would be a revolutionary discovery for (at least) primatology, evolutionary biology, and anthropology.  It would easily be worth a Nobel Prize.
In order to expand the sample space to include the discovery of Bigfoot, the sample space would have to include the addition of a new species of any land animal, important or unimportant, known or unknown, obviously different of visually indistinguishable, with a range of any size whatsoever.  With a sample space that big, only thing that can be said is that new species of animals remain unnamed, a fact as indisputable as that someone who has appeared on TV will die in the next 12 months.  The implications of this for the existence of Bigfoot, though, are even less than the implications of "an actor will die" for Alan Alda.