Chemistry re-written… again!

A while back, I asked whether creationists had ever gone after chemistry as much as they try (and fail) to tackle biology and physics. Yes, came the unfortunate answer – and lead me to doing a quick write-up on it.

To cut it as short as I can, Artem Oganov and co. from Stony Brook University managed to make some unusual sodium chloride compounds. NaCl is common table salt, and is a classic example of how an ionic solid is created, and stabilised, by transferring one electron from where there’s an excess (in sodium) to where it’s needed (in chlorine) because that gives them 8 electrons each – the “octet rule”. Oganov’s team, however, managed to make a lot of new and strange combinations that should, on the face of it, violate this neat little principle – such as Na3Cl, Na3Cl2 and NaCl3.

To chemists, this was cool but mostly unsurprising. Solid state structures aren’t exactly known for following such arcane rules on covalency. Sodium metal itself, for instance, violates a strict and literal interpretation of the octet rule by being made purely of atoms with apparently 1 valance electron each. But to the popular press (driven by a rather naughty university press office, IMHO), this was chemistry “overturned”. A fundamental rule had been violated, chemistry must be rewritten, everything we know is wrong… and so, up steps the Discovery Institute, who declared “If chemistry is wrong, then so could evolution!

Fast forward a few years, and Oganov has done it again, and gone one better. He’s made solid state compounds of helium. Helium – the last bastion of noble gases, since xenon and krypton (and even argon, now) have known compounds.  Absurdly high pressures are needed, of course, to get helium to form a solid state structure, but the data support the compound’s existence. As with the sodium chloride, this used an evolutionary algorithm coupled to some theoretical predictions to find a structure that should, in theory, be possible before then going ahead and making the thing!

A rewrite of chemistry is needed, again, declares some of the press articles on it.

Then again, maybe not. Helium compounds are quite well known, and even a trimer of helium is known to exist at ridonkulously low temperatures where van der Waals forces will hold it together more strongly than heat can tear it apart. It’s just a case of finding the conditions where these compounds will be stable, and sufficient heat and pressure will overcome most energy barriers eventually – the activation energy to convert graphite into diamond is immense, yet natural or synthetic diamonds can still be made if we shove sufficient energy into it.

So, as before, it’s not that textbooks need re-written. The textbooks were probably wrong to start with…

Actually, not even that. I don’t recall a textbook that says all of this is outright impossible, just that it doesn’t happen easily, or in ambient conditions, with just any old reactants. Which, despite Oganov’s fantastic work, still remains shockingly true and is highly unlikely to be overturned any time… ever.

Anyway… the final question – do I want to go through the Discovery Institute looking for them misrepresenting this story?

Every argument I ever see on the internet…

A: “Gloobs are the worst, they’re wrong.”

B: “But it isn’t a Gloob, it fargles.”

A: “You’re wrong, it is a Gloob, because Gloob’s bargle.”

B: “But it fargles, so it isn’t a Gloob by definition. And that’s fine.”

A: “No, it’s a Gloob. The definition includes how it bargles. And bargling is bad because Gloobs do it.”

B: “Then it’s fine because it’s not a Gloob. So it’s good.”

A: “But bargling is a bad.”

B: “Yes, bargling is bad, but it’s not a Gloob so it’s okay, it’s good.”

A: “Even though it bargles?”

B: “No, it fargles.”

A: “What’s fargle got to do with it?”

B: “Because it fargles.”

A: “Yes, I know it fargles, but it’s a Gloob.”

B: “But it’s not a Gloob.”

A: “Yes it is. So it’s bad.”

B: “But it fargles.”

A: “I think you find it bargles.”

B: “But that doesn’t make it a Gloob.”

Confused? Follow that? Possibly not. In fact, I hope not – because honest-to-fuck, people, this is what reading most of your crap sounds like to me. Well, not your crap, other peoples’ crap because you’re an intelligent rational being, and everyone else is an unenlightened sheep, QED.

“But it’s racist!” “No it isn’t!”, “It’s sexist!” “It’s not sexist!!!”…really, it’s inanity personified. You’re not fighting over what something is, you’re fighting over what to call it. And what’s more, you want to call it something because that controls what you can do with it and what you’re allowed to think about it afterward.

Okay, fine, let’s add in actual example since the above comes across as abstract nonsense.

Is an unborn baby a “life”?

“YES! And YES some more!” screams the pro-life crowd… and I’ll stick to and pick this one apart because the pro-choice argument mostly doesn’t make the identical but opposite argument of “no”.

When the pro-life crowd argue that a fetus is a “life”, they don’t care about that question. “Life” is an arbitrary concept, it separates the inanimate world of objects that we can’t eat and can’t eat us from the objects that we can eat or could eat us – and when examined in more rigorous detail, it repeatedly fails to find any real edge to it, the fuzzes away to nothing, as a continued spectrum. At no single point does “not-life” become “life” – because life is a process, not an event. Whether something “is” or “isn’t” life has little relevance to reality, only our social responses to it. Anyway, I don’t want to unpack this any further – if you disagree with this assessment, go ahead and assume that you’re just plain and simply wrong, it’ll save time later.

Instead, the question pro-life crowd are really asking is “should we be allowed to abort that pregnancy?” They want the answer to that to be a resounding “no” – but they don’t want to just come out and admit to that. Gods forbid, that might require some self-reflection.

The answer to abortion question is the reason they want the “is it a life?” question answered. Because it lets them treat abortion one way, rather than another – in other words, this is their motivation for the answer to be “yes” or “no”. The problem of whether someone is motivated toward one answer or another taints the question with an ulterior motive. In this case, and many others, it stops anyone realising the objective truth: the question is nonsensical.

(And not least it’s problematic for any pro-choice proponent who buys into this narrative and is forced to haphazardly argue the opposite. This makes it a very effective rhetorical strategy on the pro-life side. The only option open to refuting it is to clumsily go along with it and argue that the answer is “no”, or pick it back to the bare bones and convince them of the irrelevance of the question. The latter just isn’t going to happen ever.)

What about a different track… is something sexist?

Well, the thing itself is the thing itself, that’s not going to change. But if we get to slap the “sexist” label on it, it’s Bad. If we don’t, well, we can safely let it continue.

So, a woman working in a recruitment agency spots a man’s CV, and then throws it immediately into the discard pile because “why would a man want that job?”

“Sexist!!” cry one side. “She actively discriminated against someone because of their gender, that’s sexist by definition.”

“Not sexist!!” cries the other. “That doesn’t have a systematic bias against men as a class because sexism by definition requires power.”

Well, duh. It fargles and it bargles. But it’s only bad if we call it a Gloob. And Gloobs fargle, but they also don’t bargle, by definition, what are we to make of something that does both or neither?

Ultimately, these arguments are as absurd as arguing whether a blue ball is a round object xor a blue object.

For And Against Article 50 – What I’ve Seen So Far

There have been speeches presented in Parliament recently based around whether MPs should vote for an Act of Parliament to trigger the Article 50 process with the EU – and so start the process of leaving it. That Parliament should have this decision is a democratic and legal no-brainer, only opposed by complete idiots who have been suckered in by fascist newspapers. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but it’s as fair an assessment as I can muster.

So, what are the for/against arguments?

Based on some of the speeches and comments I’ve read so far, the arguments basically boil down to the following:

Arguments for MPs to vote against an Act of Parliament to invoke Article 50 Arguments for MPs to vote for an Act of Parliament to invoke Article 50
  • Consider the rights, views and future of 15 million people too young to vote
  • Consider the rights and views of 72% of the population that didn’t vote for this
  • Consider long term strategic stability of the country over the short-term points scoring of the government
  • Consider the lack of a strong democratic mandate from a supermajority for a major constitutional change
  • Consider that the Leave campaign on the referendum was built on many lies
  • Consider the number of people voting Leave only as a protest vote and have since changed their mind
  • Consider a lack of clear communication and planning from HM Government on the details of leaving the EU
  • Consider the lack of trained negotiators in order to continue the 2-year Article 50 process
  • Consider the effect of the US election on the world, leaving us only with a proto-fascist to trade with
  • Consider economic changes since June, including the strength of the pound
  • There was a vote, so shut up!

Pretty conclusive in favour of leaving hard and fast, I suppose.

Here’s an image version if you’d like, since apparently JPEG is now the standard format for communicating text.

bregsit

Piers Morgan’s self-emasculation

I don’t frequently comment on “current events” because by the time there’s enough information out there to make an informed decision they’re no longer current.

But here’s one observation regarding the last day or so of Pier’s Morgan’s triggered-snowflake meltdown over women invading his safe space…

Piers Morgan 12 hours ago:

morgan_1

I’m planning a ‘Men’s March’ to protest at [sic] the creeping global emasculation of my gender by rabid feminists. Who’s with me?

Piers Morgan 1 hour ago:

morgan_2

Given 127k more people now follow me than you, I’d pip down, [Lord Sugar]

Yeah… about that. Dude, if you’re getting into a petty spat with Alan Sugar about who has more Twitter followers, it’s not the ‘rabid feminists’ that are making you feel emasculated.

What You Need To Understand About Fake News

You think it’s that people literally believe the facts — but these stories are really a measure of how they believe.


I’ll try to make this one quick… Let’s look at some comments selected from below an article from the Snopes.com Facebook page:

incredulous

The general message, when it comes to extreme and obvious hoaxes, is that many people are utterly incredulous that others might believe blatant nonsense. They’re right to be incredulous, of course, given how blatantly absurd some stories are. But this isn’t the take-home message from these fake stories. Far more importantly, with relatively few notable exceptions, I don’t think people literally believe “fake” news.

To consider if people actually believe them would miss the point, and miss some vital lessons that we could learn from these stories. So instead, we have to treat “fake” news more as fable, or as metaphor. It should be treated as something that is quasi-mythological that speaks to what people believe or, more accurately, what they hold as prejudices.

To illustrate, I’m going to mostly focus on the crap that makes its way around the Lefty-Liberal-o-sphere. You know, the stuff we share around our echo chamber when we’re not plotting to turn half the planet into a Safe Space, convert everyone to enforced homosexuality, or replace Capitalism with Islam.

For instance, just today, I read the story that Dylann Roof has been sentenced to death. Yes, that’s true, and not fake, and is a genuine real news event that did happen. Yet, I decided to remark to someone that he was either going to get executed or given a position in Trump’s cabinet.

Ha! “Lol” as the kool kids say.

Do I literally believe that?

Do I literally believe that a mass murderer would be given a position under the President of the United States? Of course not! That’s absolutely absurd in the highest degree. It’s nonsense – because we all know that, really, he’ll get a pardon and then a half-hour slot on TheBlaze, instead.

Okay, okay… I’ll break with character for a moment and pray to any god that will listen that those two remarks don’t end up on Snopes. No, I don’t literally believe either of those statements. But I said it anyway, not so much as a joke as such, but as a wider comment on the situation that we live in.

Those two remarks do speak to me and what I think. I look around and see a world where if you’re the wrong skin tone you get years or decades behind bars for having weed on you, but if you’re a different skin tone you can avoid jail time for causing multiple deaths – and there are just too many cases to link to of white, wealthy athletes happily getting rape charges dropped because, well, what the fuck do you think the reason is. It’s a rhetorical exaggeration (and evidence of my dire levels of cynicism) for me to say that a mass murderer may well get a promotion out of their racially-motivated hate crime when the rest of those leaders being parachuted into positions of power seem to be racist assholes up may well applaud Roof’s actions or sympathise with him. But it’s absolutely not literal, and I don’t believe it, and it’s not even a case of “Oh, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did happen, lol!!” because I would be surprised and horrified. It is a simple, exaggerated fable.

Today, when we all woke up to the “news” that Donald Trump has been caught on camera doing some harmless watersports with some Russian hookers in Moscow, did we really believe it?

Really?

I hope not. But regardless, it speaks to our prejudices. We look around and we see a world where Trump probably curries favour with Putin, so some dirt on him would be largely unsurprising. We look around and see the potential for corruption (in all politicians, to be fair) and assume this sort of tape or something of its ilk must exist – if not specifically based around hookers and urine. This latest allegation is a fable of “what if?”; what if it were true? What if it was another politician? What if it already has happened and is being used for blackmail? Would we be surprised? Would we have seen it coming? And so on.

(We could use it as a fable to show public moralising over reasonably harmless as presumably consensual sex acts, while remaining silent over harmful and non-consensual ones, but that’s another post entirely and I’d argue it’s a largely academic one so long as this story is as-close-as-philosophically-possible-to-definitely false. It’s also yet another post entirely to discuss it in terms of how it speaks to our fears that our dirty little secrets will get out and society will harshly and needlessly judge us for them.)

In most respects, it’s not too dissimilar a situation to the, absolutely not true I should add, story of David Cameron getting piggy with it at Oxford. Do we literally believe it? No. But that story spoke to us about our distrust of the ruling classes, their clubs, and their unfathomable privilege. Anyone with a strong bias against David Cameron and the culture he came from may well consider it believable, but not necessarily believe it, but above all it would be a fable of how they see the wealthy ruling class of Britain. They see them as living in a world where such acts are “japes”, that it can be covered up and used as revenge and blackmail in their dodgy dealings, and the myth, the story, the fable vocalises those fears better than any description. It’s possibly even a better description of those feelings than even a true story.

As a result, you need to look at false news and its spread not as merely disinformation. A false meme isn’t going around that could easily be displaced with the truth. After all, people don’t readily alter their opinions based on new evidence – they’ll just warp their reasoning around the new evidence to keep it. So simply providing the real story won’t help – because that assumes the problem stems from whether people believe it or not, when it doesn’t stem from that at all.

Fake news, then, should be considered more as a barometer for peoples prejudices and prior biases. It should be used to judge how they think the world works, or at least how they think it should work. Fake news tells us who people fear and why, and what they find most pertinent to be scared of. It shows us what they wish was true about the worst parts of society, and what they want to project on to them whether it be due to fear or anger.

Or, maybe, I’m entirely wrong and people are just gullible idiots. And I don’t know which of those two options is worse…


Addendum: I just want to append a quick rant here. While I’m happy the idea of “fake news” is now going a bit mainstream and precipitating a near-global conversation, I want to point out that skeptics and rationalists have been saying this for years, if not decades, if not centuries. This isn’t some “I did it before it was cool” argument, it’s because each time we were shouted down as irrelevant killjoys. “What’s the harm!” you’d hear people cry. “But let them believe what they want!” Well, here we fucking are. Years of letting people get away with living in their own version of reality has brought us to this. Lies upon lies upon lies have been built over mounds of bullshit formed on foundations of utter bollocks and now we might get to see some unfortunate consequences as people have built entire universes out of shit and nonsense so large, so inter-connected, so impervious to reason, that they are literally impossible to shift. Thanks for that, you stupid fucks.

More Or Less Organised Thoughts on New Sherlock…

sherlock

A year ago I knocked up something of a review on the Sherlock Christmas Special. Re-reading that post is, so far, the only link I have to what actually went on in that episode since I recall the ending being so dire that I’ve just never got around to re-watching it and have no real intention of doing so again. Apparently I insisted that I enjoyed the first half.

So, as there’s a new series, at last, and as it has developed a bit of discussion about how it’s trying to be James Bond, how Moffat and Gatiss are over-using their one-shot jokes again and again, and how its substituting a once witty and true adaptation of Conan Doyale’s original for senseless action, I thought I’d offer my two cents again. Thankfully, this is far shorter than last time:

As long as they stay out of the Mind Palace and stop running around pretending to be the Matrix or fucking Inception, I’ll be happy.

Biggest Movie Mistakes About Science II

Part 1


Based on a few suggestions, here are three more super-common mistakes film and television make when talking about science. As before, this isn’t some super-boring piece about factual errors that mistakes pedantry for intelligence – it’s about portraying science, and scientists, incorrectly and unrealistically.

After all, sci-fi with invisible lasers and perfectly silent spaceships would just suck.


You’re Constantly on the “Edge” of Your Big Breakthrough

In Movies and TV:

“I can’t leave now, I’m on the verge of a breakthrough!!” shouts the plucky young scientist. They hit keys and tap out code. The scratch their head and stare at a blackboard. Suddenly, the realisation strikes – they knew they just had to stare and scratch for a few more seconds. There! I’ve discovered it – the Osminium TetramethylBromaldehyde! They just had to find this mystery ingredient and add it to their 95% complete formula and now they can build their trans-dimensional portal array!

The Reality:

Science works in two ways.

Firstly, it’s a slow, steady, well-planned slog through the motions. You know what you have to do. You know how you’re going to collect your data. You know a handful of potential results could happen and what those signify – you just need the evidence to say one way or the other.

Or, secondly, you can do something and it unexpectedly slaps you in the face, causing you to casually swear and have a protracted shouting match with your supervisor while you then slowly migrate into doing exactly what the paragraph above states.

But there’s no real sense of being on the verge of a sudden breakthrough. Unfortunately, science doesn’t work like that. Your breakthroughs come after a lot of applied effort, or they come by accident – slightly unpredictably and serendipitously. But no matter how complex the task, you’ll find you always know what sort of solution you want. Even at the hard-core bleeding edge of physics, we know what grand unified theories of everything should look like – we know what we need to do to get there. It just requires the work and the time.

The Worst Offender: Every Comic Book Villain Ever

ant-man

I can recommend the excellent James Kakalios book The Physics of Superheroes. While also using superheroes to explain concepts in physics and mechanics, Kakalios is also fond of pointing out how almost every other character seems to have worked out the exact workings of their shrink ray, or their death ray, or their super-plague, or their warp drive… except for one key, missing ingredient. They just need that one breakthrough and the last piece of the puzzle! They just don’t know what it is!! But then they find it, and boom origin story!


Science Is One Discipline

In Movies and TV:

General Sharpe: “We’ve collected the world’s top scientists for this project. Your expertise in this will-”

Scientist A: “Wait, what? Top scientists? In what field.”

General Sharpe: “Well, science. Obviously.”

Scientist B: “For what project?”

General Sharpe: “For this top-secret project to fend off an alien attack.”

Scientist A: “Hang on, I do nuclear physics – I work on fusion projects trying to increase the efficiency of those reactions from purely theoretical computer simulations.”

Scientist C: “I research influenza vaccine efficiency. I mostly work in statistical analysis.”

Scientist B: “I work in reactions catalysed by palladium. Occasionally I use platinum.”

General Sharpe: “But.. you’re scientists, right? You science the best. Like… you can develop a super-weapon to take down the alien mothership in the next five days, right?”

Scientist C: “Jesus H. Christ…”

Scientist A: “We’re so fucking doomed.”

Scientist B: “I suppose we could just lob stuff at it…?”

The Reality:

Science is broad. So broad, in fact, that there’s even an entire branch of philosophy dedicated to even defining it. It is, quite literally, impossible to specialise in everything. You can gain the broadest appreciation of as much of it as possible, but at the end of the day if you can find someone who can consider themselves as an expert on quantum mechanics, they’re unlikely to have the same expertise in general relativity – let alone a more distant subject like geology or biology. And the end of the day, you’re very broadly a “scientist” – but before that you’re a biologist, or a zoologist, or a chemist, or a geologist.

You can certainly learn the grammar of another discipline reasonably quickly. I can hold my end of the conversation with someone doing high-detail studies of the ring currents and magnetic fields within charge-separated potentially-aromatic cyclic chemical systems – but by heck I’m not going to be publishing a paper on that any time soon. I’ve got even less chance of making a chance discovery in nuclear physics, or plate tectonics or – in fact, let’s be honest here, even those two things right there are incredibly broad fields and I have no idea how deep the sub-divisions go.

Worst Offender: The Day The Earth Stood Still

barnhardt

Many, many examples to choose from (including every “whacky inventor” ever) but in this case I’m going to go with my gut and choose Barnhardt from The Day The Earth Stood Still. I’m still not quite sure what he’s supposed to be a professor of, really. There seems to be some astro-something involved, but he’s still pretty much the archetype for Generic B-Movie Scientist that seems to just be a… scientist.

The script/exchange from the above section basically sums up the first half hour of the 2008 remake, at which point I switched over declaring “contrary to popular belief, Keanu Reeves is not the problem with this film”.


It’s All About The IQ

In Movies and TV:

Your smart character comes on screen. Within a second he’s hacked into the super-computer using nothing but string and some tape. Ten seconds after that he’s NLP’d his way into the pants of the Hot Assistant. He’s then hypnotised a guard to get out of the prison. And finally he’s cured cancer in a rapid montage of test-tubes, Gilson pipettes and rotovaps – all in a day’s work. Now he’s off to bang the Hot Assistant, but it’ll be meaningless sex because he has no emotion.

It’s all because he’s got an IQ of 225 – the highest since Einstein, no less. So special, in fact, that they wheel him around in a glass box like the Pope when he’s not busy doing high-IQ things like reading at super-speed, drawing things from memory or banging the Hot Assistant in increasingly shallow and meaningless ways.

The Reality:

If you’re writing a fictional character who’s super-smart, you invariably have to write someone more intelligent than you. It shouldn’t take too long to realise this is pretty difficult. You effectively have to pass something like the Turing Test – you’re an inferior machine that needs to simulate a higher intelligence well enough for it to pass in conversation. Luckily, that conversation is with people probably less smart than you. So most writers will take the lazy way out and, if they don’t hold multiple doctorates, provide the character with a huge IQ.

The thing with IQ, though, is that it doesn’t really measure anything in particular… except IQ. In principle it measures your logical and spatial reasoning skills with an increasingly abstract and bizarre series of tests. BUT, and it’s a big BUT – contrary to popular belief it is possible to study for them and improve your score. When you get used to seeing logical patterns and can pick up where to look for keys and primers in the puzzles, you get better at the test, and get a better score. It certainly doesn’t mean you get smarter in a broader sense.

IQ does have its use, though. It’s a statistical proxy for intelligence across a population – hence adjusting for age and the Flynn effect. Arguably, yes, scientists will score highly. But that’s usually less to do with because scientist, and more because college-educated middle-class white male I’m sorry to say.

And when you can understand that, you’ll know why it’s pretty much useless when levelled at a single person, and be able to politely snigger when someone brags “135, BTW”.

Worst Offender: Hornet… Viper… Tarantula… Scorpion, that’s what it’s called!

scorpion-plane

The lead character has an IQ of 197. This should immediate elicit laughter from anyone who even remotely knows anything about the subject of the intelligence quotient. Yes, yes, it’s “based on” a real person with a claimed score of 197, but the response to that story should remain the same for much the same reasons.

The plan depicted in the screenshot above, where they drive under a plane to get a back-up of some software by lowering down an ethernet cable from the front landing gear and hooking it up to a laptop operated by a waitress in a sportscar, however, isn’t based on a real person or event. Because that makes no sense to anyone with an IQ. Not an IQ over something, just anyone with one.