Here are a few more vignettes from the big conference.
A fellow named Mark Matthews gave a presentation arguing that the Earth was located at or near the center of the universe. Most of the talk was given over to a discussion of the so-called “Fingers of God.”
According to the ever-useful Wikipedia:
Fingers of God is an effect in observational cosmology that causes clusters of galaxies to be elongated in redshift space, with an axis of elongation pointed toward the observer. It is caused by a Doppler shift associated with the peculiar velocities of galaxies in a cluster. The large velocities that lead to this effect are associated with the gravity of the cluster by means of the virial theorem; they change the observed redshifts of the galaxies in the cluster. The deviation from the Hubble’s law relationship between distance and redshift is altered, and this leads to inaccurate distance measurements.
See the original for numerous links.
Matthews had a different take. He presented one of those pie-chart diagrams that show the location of various galaxies as viewed from Earth based on redshift data and Hubble’s Law. Quite a few of these galaxies are seen to arrange themselves in straight lines. Remarkable! Surely this needs a special explanation.
Option one, as he told the story, was that nonsense about redshifts I presented a moment ago. Option two was that this is some sort of divine signature indicating the Earth really is at the center of the universe. (He had two other arguments as well, one based on the relative positions of gamma ray bursts and galaxies, the other involving the cosmic microwave background radiation. These were squeezed in quickly at the end, and I had trouble following his argument.)
I had never heard of the Fingers of God prior to this talk, but there was clearly something fishy in what Matthews was saying. If the enormous number of galaxies we can see from Earth are placed randomly around the sky, then it is inevitable that some of them will line-up when viewed from Earth. So it simply couldn’t be that astronomers were looking at dots on a chart and were so impressed that a few of them lined up that they went and fashioned elaborate explanations for it. Indeed, that impression is borne out by the Wikipedia article. That various optical illusions can occur in using redshift data to plot clusters of galaxies in which different galaxies are moving at different speeds relative to the Earth is a simple fact of physics. The Fingers of God is just the name given to one such illusion. So when Matthews titled one of the sections of his paper “The Fingers of God are all Pointing at Earth,” he was merely expressing a tautology.
During the Q and A I said the following:
Regarding these fingers of God, I think you’re reading meaning into things that don’t really have any meaning. What you’re doing is taking a map of where these galaxies are and you’re noting various clumps and various irregularities in where the galaxies are placed, and you’re trying to infer patterns in those clumps. But clumping like that is the hallmark of a random process. If the galaxies are placed randomly in the sky, clumping is what you expect. If we observed that the galaxies were evenly distributed from our perspective, that would be evidence of design. When you see this clumping, that’s just what happens naturally when you place things randomly. You had a very revealing diagram where you said let’s take away most of these galaxies and the ones that remain kind of look like these little fingers pointing at us. But here again an astronomer in a different galaxy could do precisely the same argument. And I think this is just exactly the same kind of reasoning that led people to think there was something significant in constellations. Oh that group of stars looks a little like a bear and that one looks like a big dipper, but there wasn’t really a pattern there, they were reading into that. And I think that’s all you’re doing.
At this point a person standing near me suggested it was like a Rorschach test, and I agreed that was a good analogy.
This is where things got interesting.
The audience was not amused by my remarks. Various people kept telling me to look again at the diagram, quite a few of the galaxies really were lined up! I replied that I was not denying that the clulmps were real, I was merely questioning their significance.
Matthews joined the party by pointing to the fingers and saying that you can see them, plain as day. They weren’t an illusion. I pointed out that constellations weren’t an illusion either. I also pointed out that you could pick out other spots on the diagram where an astronomer might notice little lines of galaxies as well. There was a lot of crosstalk.
Now for the punchline. We had been asked to state our name before asking our question. Matthews, frustrated by his inability to convince me of his magnificent argument said:
Jason is a well-known guy on the internet, he’s working against us. Even secular cosmologists acknowledge these features and acknowledge that they are pointing towards Earth.
Genuinely surprised I said, “You’ve heard of me?”
But just when, one more time, I thought I’d have a good story to tell about standing up to creationist ignorance, something happened to make me change my view. You see, two questioners later came this:
I agree with you [he said, pointing at me]. The fingers of God have been around a long time. This is actually quite an old map. This is redshift space that is being converted to real space using some Hubble parameter. So in actual fact you can not say that’s real space. It’s not. It’s redshift space. And the finger of God effect that you can see there, that occurs all over the whole sky, in clusters. And it’s very easy to understand. If you have a spherical cluster of galaxies, and you add a dispersion velocity to that cluster, that simply means that cluster is in dynamic equilibrium. So any individual galaxy within the cluster has an orbit around its mutual center of gravity. So the cluster itself is in expansion with the Hubble flow, the center of mass of the cluster has a genuine cosmological redshift, that any individual component in the cluster has a random velocity component with respect to the center of mass of the cluster. Redshift only allows you to see the radial component of a real space component…in other words the velocity component of any individual galaxy within the cluster you’ll only see the line of sight velocity component. Do you understand what I am saying? If it’s moving completely tangentially to the line of sight you will see no Doppler effect from that motion. You’ll only get the cosmological redshift of the cluster.
At first I thought I had found a kindred spirit. Turned out, though, that this was John Hartnett, who writes books with titles like, Dismantling the Big Bang: God’s Universe Rediscovered. He was speaking later in the conference on the topic “Starlight, Time and the New Physics.” He had written a book with the same title, offering a novel explanation for the problem of distant starlight in a young universe. Thankful for the support, I went and bought this latter book. Never managed to get an autograph, though.
Matthews himself made a point of coming up to me later, and we talked a bit. We never did reach a meeting of the minds, alas.
Physics was a popular topic at the big conference. The first talk I attended was given by Ed Boudreaux, who, as an emeirtus professor of chemistry from the University of New Orleans was one of the few speakers to have serious academic credentials. He gave a fairly staid talk arguing for using toroidal particles, as opposed to point particles, in quantum mechanical theorizing. Boudreaux himself was pretty mild-mannered, but during the Q and A a fellow whose work had been cited during the talk got up to fill in a few details.
This fellow told us in no uncertain terms that quantum mechanics was a false theory since it was based on the assumption of point particles. Maxwell’s equations, sadly, suffered from the same deficiency. Two audience members, Hartnett being one of them, gave him a proper reaming for this. Starting from a pretty dull talk, it ended up being a riveting Q and A.
Actually, though, I was more interested in the following talk. A fellow named Gerald Brown wanted to gauge how scientists respond to novel scientific theories. So he took the outre model of quantum mechanics presented in the Boudreaux talk and devised a web based tutorial to introduce people to it. He sent the tutorial and a survey to various representatives of mainstream high-energy physics, as well as to people from the group Common Sense Science. I had never heard of these folks, and I am certainly no expert on quantum mechanics, but their website gives off unambiguous crank vibes.
Anyway, the basic findings of the survey were that the mainstream folks wanted nothing to do with this, while the CSS folks were more interested. The only reason I’m telling you about any of this is to show you the following amusing slide
Of course, in creation-land this sort of thing is taken as clear evidence of dogmatic closed-mindedness.
Ta ta for now. One more installment to go and then I will have to find some new blog fodder!