SN Prime | March 18, 2013 | Vol. 3, No. 11
Time after time, physicists have tried to explain time. Many claim to have succeeded. But they haven’t. Otherwise everybody would quit trying to explain it all over again.
One of the most recent such efforts comes from the mathematician/cosmologist George F.R. Ellis. He thinks solving the time mystery involves figuring out the difference between the past and the future.
That’s not as obvious as it sounds. Physical laws governing motion make no distinction between future and past. Equations describing the scattering of billiard balls on a pool...
SN Prime | March 11, 2013 | Vol. 3, No. 10
Depending on your age, the word troll might evoke a nasty creature who lives under a bridge — or a nasty creature who posts inflammatory comments online. The former, found mostly in Scandinavian folktales, is typically a dim-witted beast, not inclined to help humans. The latter (judgment on wits aside) is also rarely considered helpful. But new research suggests a more nefarious role for these postmodern trolls: Their uncivil, rancorous remarks can influence how readers perceive science.
Social scientists have long studied how and whether ...
SN Prime | March 4, 2013 | Vol. 3, No. 9
Chicken Little is right. The sky is falling.
The million-plus people living in Chelyabinsk, Russia, got that message on February 15, when a space rock some 17 meters across detonated over their homes. People rushed to the windows in wonderment as a blaze of light arced through the sky; seconds later many of them got a face full of glass shards. It was the most damaging cosmic collision since 1908, when an even bigger asteroid chunk blew up over Siberia. (In an era before YouTube and dashboard cameras, it was weeks before tales trickled out of reindeer...
SN Prime | February 11, 2013 | Vol. 3, No. 6
Science is not a democracy. Nature’s laws
are not subject to the whims of popular vote.
A scientific theory succeeds by providing logical explanations for puzzling phenomena and
making correct predictions about the outcomes of new experiments. It doesn’t matter how many scientists believed in the theory beforehand
(or even afterward, for that matter).
In fact, revolutionary new theories are seldom very popular. As Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory, once noted, sometimes a theory doesn’t get widely accepted until its oppon...
SN Prime | February 4, 2013 | Vol. 3, No. 5
Movie studios love awards season. Winning one of the glittery statuettes that are annually bestowed upon those in the biz can provide a hefty box office boost. But if you are going to put money on which movies will sell the most tickets in the long run, accolades from critics and peers aren’t a very good crystal ball. When it comes to predicting box office success, it turns out that the little people really do matter.
Hollywood’s conventional wisdom says a picture’s success depends on intrinsic qualities like a big-name star, a struggling-he...
SN Prime | January 28, 2013 | Vol. 3, No. 4
People talk a lot about speeding up drug development. But for some problems, they should also focus on speeding up the drugs. For brain disorders like depression, the medicines prescribed by doctors can take weeks or months to kick in. (And even after the long wait, the number of people who experience complete turnarounds is surprisingly low.)
The idea that a disorder — even a complicated brain disorder — can be quickly reversed isn’t so outrageous. We have drugs that bring down high blood pressure within minutes, shrink inflamed ai...
SN Prime | January 21, 2013 | Vol. 3, No. 4
For all the deference to “laws” of nature that supposedly govern everything that happens, the truth is that randomness rules the world.
Everywhere you look, randomness is at work, in all the processes described by the mathematics of probability. The temperature of the air and the capriciousness of the weather all depend on random collisions of molecules. Computers operate on the principles of information theory, which is rooted in quantifying probabilities. Time rushes onward and disorder replaces order by virtue of the probabilistic secon...
SN Prime | January 14, 2013 | Vol. 3, No. 2
Sometimes a little shake-up is exactly what scientists need to make a major breakthrough. Other times it can send them to jail.
Six Italian researchers and one government official have each been sentenced to six years in prison for their role in communicating — or failing to communicate — seismic risks in L’Aquila, Italy. That beautiful medieval town was devastated by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in the wee hours of April 6, 2009. More than 300 people died; the aftershocks reverberated not only across Italy but also throughout the ...
SN Prime | January 7, 2013 | Vol. 3, No. 1
Medicare could waste billions of dollars, bankrupt small businesses and leave seniors without crucial medical equipment, some economists warn, with a new auction-based purchasing plan that ignores mathematical principles of competitive bidding.
The new plan began with an apparently good idea: Medicare has started buying durable medical equipment like oxygen tanks and wheelchairs through a competitive bidding process rather than through fixed prices influenced by industry lobbying. In theory, this could save the government a big chunk of the $14 bi...
SN Prime | December 10, 2012 | Vol. 2, No. 45
In olden days, before the Star Trek holodeck and movies like TRON and The Matrix, philosophers used to wonder whether life was but a dream. Nowadays they’re more concerned that reality could be just a computer simulation.
Sure, that’s not very likely. But you can’t rule out the possibility. Computers simulate all sorts of things, and some scientists have seriously suggested that nature’s supposedly rock-solid reality is really just some smart alien teenager’s science fair project.
Most people respond to that suggestion with a shrug....