Saturday, January 17, 2015

Sh*T Stephen Hawking Says

Courtesy: XKCD

Andrew Leon's blog Strange Pegs features his review of The Theory Of Everything, which apparently tells pretty much nothing about Stephen Hawking and so is just about as boring as I imagined it would be.

I am not sure how I feel about Stephen Hawking; as I commented to Andrew, I read A Brief History of Time back when I used to read more science books, and I of course hear about Stephen Hawking doing stuff all the time because there are (judging by media coverage) only three scientists alive in the world today: Stephen Hawking, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye The Science Guy.

I (and you and nobody really) am not in a position to judge Stephen Hawking's intelligence. I take for granted that he's a smart guy. What I am in a position to judge, though, is whether Stephen Hawking is doing science anymore, or doing what most 'scientists' seem to do, which is mis-state scientific things for hype and publicity purposes.  While I am sure that many problems with 'scientific' reporting are that the reports are oversimplified or under-reported, without fact-checking, for example, I think at least part of the problem is when scientists play into that by saying things that have little to no scientific basis.

This isn't a new thing with me; my opposition to velociraptors (never existed!) and Drake's Equation, among other 'scientific' claims, are pretty well-known to anyone who has read this blog for more than a year.  (Here is where I talked about how Drake's equation isn't, at all, a long time ago.) This isn't just me being a curmudgeon or spoilsport (like Neil DeGrasse Tyson is. FOR GOD'S SAKE JUST LET PEOPLE HAVE FUN TYSON!), but me worrying that catering to the popular is reducing the science.

After commenting on Andrew's blog, I started thinking about the things I've heard Stephen Hawking has said over the years.  This is, after all, a scientist so revered that a movie about him was just made, and titled after what is the most profound quest science has right now.  Is Hawking deserving of such accolades?  To find out, I did a Google search for things Hawking has said recently. And here are those things:

Hawking warned that aliens with interstellar capabilities could possibly harness the entire energy of a star to make a wormhole in space, and then reach Earth, taking our resources and killing us all before moving on. That was on his TV show. It's not clear if Hawking discussed the science of wormholes or how circling a star with mirrors would work to capture and channel the energy, even theoretically, but he DID make people think about alien invasions, right?

Hawking also said we need to abandon Earth, or at least colonize other planets -- because we're definitely going to destroy this one and cannot sustain it at all.  Hawking said that events like the Cuban Missile Crisis are going to increase in frequency.  Remember how many nuclear showdowns there have been in the past 50 years? There's like one a day now, right?  Hawking also forgets that in the recent past it was predicted we would run out of oil and never be able to cultivate enough food to feed 7 billion people. I'm not saying we shouldn't work on colonizing other planets (if those aliens don't get there first!), but ignoring human scientific advances in every single field except space exploration seems... unscientific.

Hawking has also said that artificial intelligence will end humanity, when robots end up learning to self-replicate, which he feared they would be able to do faster and more efficiently than we can.  Granted, it takes about 13-18 years to 'manufacture' a human who can fight reasonably effectively, but where are the robots going to get all the resources to build an army of robots that quickly? Last time I checked, metal bodies weren't growing on trees.  Hawking's claims on this subject more or less were paraphrases of The Matrix, only 10 years later (he warned robots might block out the sun, which of course is what we tried to do to stop The Matrix.)

Just before a new book of his came out, Hawking announced that efforts to discover the "God Particle," the Higgs Boson, could destroy the universe! As described in his upcoming book! And then in said book you learn that the possibility of this actually happening is exceedingly small and not worth worrying about! And by "exceedingly small" he meant that in order to create a Higgs Boson which would destroy the universe you'd actually need a particle accelerator bigger than the entire planet Earth! Which of course doesn't exist! But still, read his book!

It is possible of course that even scientists get drawn by the allure of popularity and money, and abandon pure science for headline-grabbing (and movie biopic-generating) statements that favor hyperbole over nuance.  Possible, and sad, for people who actually favor science, and who think real science is more than just NOMADIC ALIENS JOIN FORCES WITH SUPERINTELLIGENT MACHINES TO DESTROY EARTH WITH HIGGS BOSONS.

HEY IF YOU ARE INTERESTED this is the topic of a short story called Quantum Everything, which is available in my book Just Exactly How Life Looks.  There's also a story about cowboys in there. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

This is what all of human civilization has been building towards.

I walked on the treadmill the other day and burned 110 calories.
I was just sitting down to start working on a book I've been writing -- don't get too excited, it's a litigation guide to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which I'm sure will someday be made into a movie starring Vince Vaughn -- and I paused to read some stuff over on GawkerEtc.  That's when my world came crashing to a halt because I learned something existed. I saw this headline:

Ben & Jerry's Just Released Cookie Butter Core Ice Cream

which of course had all the major items in it needed to make me click on it.  Keep in mind that I haven't even read the news yet today. For all I know we are at war.  For all I know we are at war but it's not important because that hole in the sun that just opened up is sucking us in and the world be incinerated before noon.  For all I know... you get the point.

Keep in mind, also, that I was supposed to start working, but I saw that headline, and had to click on it and then learned that, yep, 99% of the information I would ever need as a human adult was contained in that headline.

The missing 1% remained to be confirmed, though, because I did not yet know exactly what "cookie butter" was, but my worst fears/most fevered imaginings were confirmed when I read:

For those of you who have never had cookie butter, it's a spread composed of mashed up cookies, and as unbelievable as this is going to sound, it's actually better than that description implies. 

Now, I am a guy who knows food. Just the other day, I had a bologna-hamburger that was delicious, and I pioneered the concept of "24 Hours Of Pizza." But today, I bow down to the genius who thought of mashing up cookies into a spread.  Screw jetpacks. We've made it as a civilization.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Here's Something I Didn't Know 10 Minutes Ago

In other news, Mr F helped me do the dishes tonight!

You know how in certain movies, cartoons, etc., old-timey stores are called ye olde etc?  Did you ever wonder why that is?

It's because of a letter that no longer exists.  That letter is thorn, and it looks like this:


thorn was originally a letter in the English alphabet and was used for the th sound. When typesetters began using European types early on, though, there was no Þ in the sets, so they began using y instead. At the same time, lazy scribes (oh, those lazy scribes!) began writing the letter more like a sort of y crossed with a p, and eventually that caught on, as did simply using t and h to spell out the sound t and h make when put together.

This meant that the word the, which would've been written Þe, for a while at least, began to be written and typeset as ye.  It was always pronounced as "the," at least until we as English speakers forgot entirely about the existence of the letter thorn.

But your keyboard can still make Þ, if you want.  Just hold down the alt key and press (on the number keypad) 0 2 2 2 .  Thorn will appear by magic, and then you might (as I did) wonder about why it is that modern computers can so easily create a letter that dropped out of common usage 615 years ago.