Pharyngula

Great Science Questions

Seed has started this thing they’re calling “Ask a Science Blogger,” in which we’re supposed to take provocative questions and answer them here. You know, like those ice-breaking party games, supposed to get the social bonding thing going, foster unity, etc. Only thing is, they don’t quite get the idea yet—they’re asking the science bloggers to come up with questions to ask the science bloggers. “What’s that?” I say, “why not cut out the middleman and not ask the questions that nobody’s asking that we’re being asked to answer? Saves time.”

That’s too mean-spirited, so let’s turn it around in true weblogging fashion and ask you, the loyal readers, to invent the questions that we’ll ask the bloggers that they might then answer. These will then get passed up the corporate food chain, filtered and processed, and come back down to us in a little game of telephone. You know, you’ll ask some great question like “How does a pycnogonid eat an opisthobranch?” and the question of the week will be “How do pygmies greet the opposite rank?” and we’ll all sit here baffled. It will be great Science.

To prime the pump, here are a few questions that I thought would be fun.

  1. What’s your favorite body part, and where did you get it?
  2. How to address the help: EYE-gor or EEE-gor?
  3. How does science help you in the bedroom?
  4. Mad scientist movies: which ones get it right, and which are a kind of wishful ideal?
  5. What mutation do you wish you had?
  6. …maybe we could hybridize questions 3 and 5…
  7. What music puts you in the mood for a little lab work?
  8. When making chimeras, which manimal is best avoided?

I’m sure you can come up with much better ones. If you don’t feel like asking questions, there’s nothing stopping you from answering them!

Comments

  1. #1 dorkafork
    May 16, 2006

    Uh, yeah, I just have 2 questions.
    What is the Law?
    And, uh, are we not men?

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    May 16, 2006

    Compare and contrast Good Will Hunting and Real Genius. For extra credit, illustrate with references to WarGames.

  3. #3 Bronze Dog
    May 16, 2006

    In Megaman Powered Up, how do you get past that last set of dropping platforms in Gutsman stage on Medium difficulty level? (New Style mode)

    *reads a translation phrasebook*

    “Do you waa… Do you waaant to go beck to my place? Bouncy, bouncy.”

    What is the question to life, the universe, and everything?

    Did you bring me any presents?

  4. #4 John Pieret
    May 16, 2006

    What do you have to say to keep Gort from destroying the Earth? And why can’t anyone spell “Myearhz”?

  5. #5 James
    May 16, 2006

    When a cell starts to divide, how are chromosomes pulled apart… what triggers it, how do they move and what determines which way they get pulled to?

  6. #6 Karey
    May 16, 2006

    I’ll answer #7. I have those ‘sounds of nature’ tracks meant for sleep therapy, on my ipod. My favorites are the songbirds and the frogs/crickets. Makes me feel like I’m pipetting in the middle of the woods. Makes not having so much as a window in the lab more bearable.

  7. #7 trixie
    May 16, 2006

    How do you explain PYGMIES + DWARVES????!!!!

    (I can’t believe no one’s submitted that question yet…)

  8. #8 Bronze Dog
    May 16, 2006

    (I can’t believe no one’s submitted that question yet…)

    So obvious I missed it. Kind of getting old for me, too.

  9. #9 shyster
    May 16, 2006

    My son is a math geek and he can’t help me. There are math symbols for “approaching” infinity. Well, if you can approach it, it must be a point and you should be able to get there. How, and what will I see when I get there? What is on the other side. Same question with the “universe” — It’s a physical object and should have a boundary. What is one step beyond the edge?

  10. #10 James Killus
    May 16, 2006

    First, I have to supply an answer to which Mad Scientist movie got it right: Real Genius, with Val Kilmer.

    My question would be: does knowing optics spoil a rainbow, or, more generally, is there anything in your life that is made less interesting (wonderous, captivating, fun) because you are a scientist?

  11. #11 Bronze Dog
    May 16, 2006

    Same question with the “universe” — It’s a physical object and should have a boundary. What is one step beyond the edge?

    I’ll go ahead and get this one: The universe is like an old “wrap-around” videogame: When you go off the edge of the screen, you come out on the other side of the screen. Except there isn’t really a screen: Any “edge” you make up in 3D space is arbitrary.

    This part might take a little stretch of your imagination. (I recommend Sphereland: A Sequel to Flatland): All of our 3D space is the “edge” of the universe, like the 2D skin of a balloon. The center is outside our space (in the center of the balloon, not a part of the skin)

    Or at least, that’s how it comes across to me.

    Anyway, back to silly questions.

    Why are borogoves mimsy?

  12. #12 Steviepinhead
    May 16, 2006

    Are we not men?

    No, dorkafork, some of us are Pinheads.

    Why that is, exactly, would be a good question for science to tackle though. Maybe not the very next, highest-priority one, but still…

  13. #13 Dendroica
    May 16, 2006

    Does the Second Law of Thermodynamics explain the existence of creationists?

  14. #14 ulg
    May 16, 2006

    is there anything in your life that is made less interesting (wonderous, captivating, fun) because you are a scientist

    Even a modest knowledge of science (much less actually being a Real Scientist(tm)) will make movies, novels, New York Times articles, and policy-maker’s decisions seem either frustratingly ignorant or hilariously stupid.

  15. #15 Oggutho
    May 16, 2006

    I have a few questions.

    1) Prior to the big bang all of the mass of the universe existed as a singularity. If the instant before the big bang is taken as t=0 and entropy is considered to be increasing from this point how is it that the big bang even happened? Time dilates in the presence of mass and the entirety of all mass should be a massive gravity well. Is all the mass in the universe insufficient to lower the Lorentz factor to 0 or were the laws of the universe so different at that time that this was not an issue? With no delta t I don’t see how a delta S would mathematically cause a change. I have never had this adequately explained for me and the issue has confused me for years.

    2) Are viruses alive? (Personally I say no but the person I share an office with disagrees with me.)

    3) Why don’t human males have a baculum? How does this effect the Argumentum ad Baculum?

    4) When Jesus rose from the dead what type of undead did he come back as?

  16. #16 dogscratcher
    May 16, 2006

    dorkafork:
    “What is the Law?”

    Don’t spill blood!

  17. #17 ekzept
    May 16, 2006

    okay, i’ll be a killjoy and try to ask a serious biological question.

    popular science falls all over the role of DNA in genetic inheritance, to the point of identifying the individual organism with the information in their DNA. this is emphasized over and over in shows like CSI.

    yet, during embryonic development, it seems the availability of resources and perhaps just chance the coding contained in DNA might be expressed in different ways accordingly.

    so, my first serious question is, How much does the DNA in a fertilized ovum determine how the resulting organism will look and how they will behave?

    my second serious question is, Since we never find organized nucleic acids, DNA or RNA, apart from its container, a cell or at least a protein sheath, how much of what is an organism lies in the nucleic acids, and how much is in the plasm?

  18. #18 Charlie Wagner
    May 16, 2006

    Paul wrote:

    “I’m sure you can come up with much better ones.”

    Two questions have always puzzled me:

    1. Do chikens have lips?
    2. How deep must the snow be before you can no longer dance?

  19. #19 ArtK
    May 16, 2006

    BronzeDog… borogroves aren’t usually mimsy. That’s why Carrol had to comment on it at the time.

  20. #20 Mark Paris
    May 16, 2006

    Actually, knowing what makes a rainbow or parhelia makes seeing them more thrilling to me because it’s wonderful to be able to look at a phenomenon occuring at a distance and to know the condition of the atmosphere at that location simply by observing the behavior of light.

  21. #21 The Science Pundit
    May 16, 2006

    Why are Earth and Titan the only bodies in our Solar system with Nitrogen atmospheres?

  22. #22 Nymphalidae
    May 16, 2006

    EEE-gor is the correct Russian pronounciation.

  23. #23 FrumiousB
    May 16, 2006

    Borogroves are always a little mimsy around brillig. The sound of the mome raths outgrabing really grates on them.

  24. #24 Jethro Gulner
    May 16, 2006

    “There are math symbols for “approaching” infinity. Well, if you can approach it, it must be a point and you should be able to get there.” Infinity is not a point, it’s more like the mathematical equivalent of “thataway”. So you travel in the direction of “thataway” but you never reach it because it’s always “thataway”

  25. #25 Nymphalidae
    May 16, 2006

    Why do entomologists tend to live longer than people in other professions?

    Oggutho, Jesus was obviously a zombie. He certainly wasn’t a litch. And since he still had his wounds we can be pretty sure he was animated and not resurrected ūüėČ

  26. #26 Bronze Dog
    May 16, 2006

    How many Ioun stones would it take for a demilich to have concealment?

    Who would win in a fight between Vash the Stampede and Kenshin Himura?

    Can Abraham Lincoln be defeated by a ninja pirate wielding Febreeze?

    Red Mage won’t answer, so I need to ask the next best person. ūüėČ

    Kind of curious about that Nitrogen thing, myself.

  27. #27 Davis
    May 16, 2006

    There are math symbols for “approaching” infinity. Well, if you can approach it, it must be a point and you should be able to get there. How, and what will I see when I get there?

    I’m going to be a geek and answer a question that probably wasn’t looking to be answered…

    Actually, there are lots of ways of answering this. I’m assuming you’re thinking of limits of functions at infinity, which has a precise meaning — it means that you can get within some specified (arbitrarily small, but not zero) distance of the limit value by looking at sufficiently large inputs (larger than some number N).

    There are all sorts of fun ways to actually reach infinity, though. Projective geometry is one approach; “one point compactifications” (look into a topology book for details) is another way. Both basically involve wrapping your space into a ball.

  28. #28 Tara Mobley
    May 16, 2006

    Uh, yeah, I just have 2 questions.
    What is the Law?
    And, uh, are we not men?

    -dorkafork

    The answers to those are:

    No spill blood.
    and
    We are devo!

    A question of my own:
    Do you have a collection of regular polyhedrons with numbered sides?

  29. #29 K8
    May 16, 2006

    “Are we not men?”

    No. Some of us are women.

    And as for the music that makes me groove to my labwork, it’s Bjork.

  30. #30 ulg
    May 16, 2006

    2) Are viruses alive? (Personally I say no but the person I share an office with disagrees with me.)

    Viruses are undead. If you disagree with me, you’ll die of AIDS.

    3) Why don’t human males have a baculum?

    God took Adam’s baculum and created Eve out it. Don’t believe me? Count a man’s ribs. He’s got the same number of ribs as a woman. Therefor, God must have made Eve out of some other bone. Since there’s no Hebrew word for baculum, the ancient Hebrew scribes wrote down ‘rib’ instead.
    Besides, the Easter Bunny doesn’t have a baculum either. If the Easter Bunny doesn’t need one, what makes you think you need one?

    How does this effect the Argumentum ad Baculum?

    It makes the Argumentum ad Baculum logically impotent.

    4) When Jesus rose from the dead what type of undead did he come back as?

    Jesus created undead under his own control (e.g. Lazarus), is still ‘alive’ thousands of years later, used other powerful magics (e.g. creation of loaves and fish, walked on water, etc), and continues to mind-control hundreds of millions to this day.
    I’d say he’s a Lich, or maybe a Vampire.

  31. #31 ekzept
    May 16, 2006

    Oggutho, Jesus was obviously a zombie. He certainly wasn’t a litch.

    um, i believe you meant lich, not litch. but, then, hey, maybe Mary Magdelene had some fetishes.

  32. #32 fruktkake
    May 16, 2006

    “The center is outside our space”

    Now my head is … numb..

  33. #33 Fred J
    May 16, 2006

    Was Jesus a Turner?

    Is Dubyah a Down?

    Is Dembski with him?

    Is PZ a clown?

  34. #34 Fred J
    May 16, 2006

    ..dn’t knw wh ths stpd ste s dng ths t m..
    Cm n PZ, . ws jst kddng.

  35. #35 Carlie
    May 16, 2006

    How would the world be different if no one had ever invented the concept of zero?

  36. #36 Azkyroth
    May 16, 2006

    How do we get “science news” reporters to stop pretending that gender differences are entirely due to a simplistic interaction of hormones with the brain? It’s an irritating trend; it reminds me of that “four humors” thing.

    Actually, what I really want to know is why people equate “natural” with desirable? And is this, as I suspect, a factor in the tendency of many laypersons I’ve met to treat ingrained or instinctive behaviors and attitudes as a kind of ROM (many people I’ve met apparently operate on the assumption that “natural” or “inherent” behavior cannot or should not be modified by learning, regardless of whether it contributes to or undermines an optimal outcome of a given scenario)?

  37. #37 archgoon
    May 16, 2006

    Tara inquired

    Do you have a collection of regular polyhedrons with numbered sides?

    This, although clever, may allow PZ an escape if he is (or was) a whitewolf or MERP player. Since these systems rely entirely on the d10, he could cheerfully say “no”.

    Though this actually leads me to my question:

    When constructing a die shape, you want all die faces to be
    equally likely (and also have the result face in an unambigious direction). Thus, can we construct a classification scheme for all dice based upon their symmetries?

  38. #38 shyster
    May 16, 2006

    “ll of our 3D space is the “edge” of the universe, like the 2D skin of a balloon. The center is outside our space (in the center of the balloon, not a part of the skin)”

    Now I understand and all this time I thought I was stupid.
    “Thataway” is not answer to the infinity question. “Approaching” usually means you get closer. My son said — not so with math because English and math are not compatable. He then told me that you can fractionalize (my word) the distance between the numbers 1 (one) and 2 (two) so that, counting each fraction you never get to two. The mathematical distance between one and two is infinity — wad up wid dat?

  39. #39 wintermute23
    May 16, 2006

    What were the first 8 plans from outer space like?

    Why do so many creationists say “I don’t believe we came from dirt, therefore Genesis 2:7 must be literally true?

    Can science explain why ninjas are so awesome?

  40. #40 RavenT
    May 16, 2006

    Shyster, you might like Mathematics and the Imagination, by Kasner and Newman. I’ve always liked their treatment of infinity.

  41. #41 Zarquon
    May 16, 2006

    How many roads must a man walk down?

    What is the air-speed of an unladen swallow (African or European, take your pick)?

    What is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything?

  42. #42 George Cauldron
    May 16, 2006

    How about this:

    What would chairs look like if our legs bent backwards?

  43. #43 Azkyroth
    May 16, 2006

    *wonders how long it’ll take someone to suggest “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”*

  44. #44 hemlok
    May 16, 2006

    Hi PZ. I know, you’ve told me before, Physics is not your bailiwick, but here’s my questions:

    1. In light of Electroweak symmetry breaking, please explain the behavior of gravity at the Planck length.

    2. Just what, exactly, is the functional or philosophical difference between String Theory and Intelligent Design? Hint: Neither make testable predictions or are falsifiable…

    mikey

  45. #45 Torbjörn Larsson
    May 16, 2006

    Q: That we have a finite entropy is a good argument why theories where choosen vacuum states has lower degrees of freedom, like string theory, is preferable over “quantum foam descriptions”. But since there are several kinds of entropy, one could perhaps envision one where the vacuum state entropy is baselined out. How do we really know that the vacuum state is simple?

    And now for some answers, they are fun too:
    “There are math symbols for “approaching” infinity. Well, if you can approach it, it must be a point and you should be able to get there. How, and what will I see when I get there? What is on the other side.”

    Some mathematical entities (or their physical embodiments) are ambigious or context dependent, such as the meaning and behaviour of infinities and the related concept of singularities. Infinities are typically added on as some way to “reach infinity”.

    They behaves in some ways differently from the underlaying mathematical object. (Real number line +oo + 1 = + oo, for example.) In cases of plane geometry, complex analysis or topology there is actually “a point at infinity” since you can wrap your plane around a ball (see Davis space wrapping) and you find this point opposite of origo.

    Warning: I’m not a mathematician, so the details are most likely wrong. Hopefully the measure of those details approaches zero. No guarantees, though.

    “Same question with the “universe” — It’s a physical object and should have a boundary. What is one step beyond the edge?”

    There is no boundary. Well, in some cosmologies the start (the bigbang singularity) and/or the end (infinite time) are boundaries, but in general they don’t have to be. General relativity (which doesn’t apply to the bigbang singularity) is a selfcontained effective field theory. So the gravitational fields used in this description are also a selfcontained description. It gives a picture without any external physical boundaries or any ‘beyond’. There is no ‘space’ to embed the spacetime of our universe in.

    “Prior to the big bang all of the mass of the universe existed as a singularity. If the instant before the big bang is taken as t=0 and entropy is considered to be increasing from this point how is it that the big bang even happened?”

    The simplest explanation to these questions is the newer theories where bigbang is embedded in a larger infinite time universe. There are a number of those theories, the endless inflation multiverse and the ekpyrotic (colliding brane) universe are probably the most known. The endless inflation multiverse may be slightly favored by the latest WMAP microwave background measurements. Bigbangs starts new universes by wormholes from old ones. It happens whenever the vacuum state fluctuations are large enough in the particular inflation model.

    Entropy may be a problem for these descriptions as you say. However no quantum gravity theory exists to explain the bigbang start of a new universe. Similarly different types of entropy for different physical situations are studied. For an explicit solution to the problems of entropy and the arrow of time, see Sean Carroll et al timereversal invariant cosmology. (Introduction and links in the “The Arrow of Time” post at http://preposterousuniverse.blogspot.com/2004_10_01_preposterousuniverse_archive.html )

    “Time dilates in the presence of mass and the entirety of all mass should be a massive gravity well. Is all the mass in the universe insufficient to lower the Lorentz factor to 0 or were the laws of the universe so different at that time that this was not an issue?”

    Nobody knows. Physicists seem to think we must have a quantum gravitation theory to even begin to describe the bigbang singularity reasonable well.

    “Are viruses alive?”

    “Life” is hard to define, but viruses lacks some usual aspects (metabolism). I used to think of sick organisms (like virusinfected) as ones that are more complex than nonsick (new behaviours, sometimes external invading organisms) so a philosophical answer I had was that the system animals + viruses were as alive as animals.

    Now Pharyngula has posts that explains viruses might not initally or always be RNA or DNA let loose, since some looks most like simplified organisms. Maybe the idea that they are alive when it counts (for replication) is valid. OTOH it would cover prions too, which isn’t necessary what people like to see as “alive”.

    “Why are Earth and Titan the only bodies in our Solar system with Nitrogen atmospheres?”

    I don’t have a good answer for that, but I note that Venus has double the amount of nitrogen as Earth (while CO2 dominates) and that Mars has a sizable amount too (a tenth of CO2), so I would include those in the question too.

  46. #46 Carlie
    May 16, 2006

    How much secondary xylem would a Marmota jettison, if such a thing were indeed possible?

  47. #47 Virge
    May 16, 2006

    PhaWRONGula (Ratty) asks:

    The floor has been opened, and so
    It’s time we got on with the show:
    Which is more sorry–
    Behe, or Horrie?
    The peanut crowd’s dying to know.

  48. #48 Greco
    May 16, 2006

    “Why are Earth and Titan the only bodies in our Solar system with Nitrogen atmospheres?”

    Creationist answer: God did it!

    It certainly makes life a lot easier.

    Now, a serious one: is Hobbes a stuffed toy or a real fierce tiger?

  49. #49 Mike Fox
    May 16, 2006

    “Can science explain why ninjas are so awesome?” — wintermute23

    Sort of. Science can explain why you think ninjas are so awesome:

    http://www.thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/i/i_04/i_04_cr/i_04_cr_peu/i_04_cr_peu.htm

    —————-

    My question for all you Mr. Science-Heads out there: What happens in schizophrenics who have schizophrenic episodes induced by gluten and or casin? For example, does gluten effect a certain receptor in the mesocortical circuit? Which one?

    Mrs., Ms., Miss, or Madam Science-Heads could answer, too. Really any Science-Head. Except Powder Blue colored Science-Heads; they freak me out.

    Mike Fox

  50. #50 Nyarlathotep
    May 16, 2006

    Here`s my question:
    I recently saw a video of a crow that was trying to get some grubs out of an old, pockmarked log. It couldn`t reach the grubs with its beak alone, so it proceeded to choose a small branch from a nearby bush, snap it off, and use it to lever the grubs out of the holes that they were in to eat them. Another crow actually used its beak to snip a thick leaf to the appropriate size and shape to do the same. Seeing this got me thinking about tool-making in non-human animals. I usually heard it said that besides humans, chimpanzees are the only animals that make tools, but it seems that these crows do the same. They manipulate their environment in such a way as to satisfy their basic needs. They`re actually doing the very thing that chimps do when they fish for termites, so in what way can it be consistently claimed that only humans and chimps are tool-makers, or is that not really contended? I also began to think further that if these birds using sticks to lever out prey constituted tool-making, then why not using sticks to make nests? Or beavers using logs to make dams? These structures are necessary for survival/child-rearing purposes, so aren`t they also using tools? What do you think about the distinction of tool-making, and what do you think about how what we might (possibly inappropriately) claim about the correlation between tool-making/using and higher intelligence?

    Thanks.

  51. #51 Torbjörn Larsson
    May 16, 2006

    Some more answers:

    “The center is outside our space (in the center of the balloon, not a part of the skin)”

    I’m not sure what and if that means anything. There is no ‘outside’ and ‘center’ of our universe.

    “The mathematical distance between one and two is infinity — wad up wid dat?”

    Um, no. There is an infinite number of algoritmic steps or segments or points for the real line that covers a distance between A and B. One must separate the limes (approach process) from the distance measured. What is amazing is that one can add up an infinite number of segments and get a finite answer. That is way cool! The first time, and the second time, and …

    “In light of Electroweak symmetry breaking, please explain the behavior of gravity at the Planck length.”

    Is that even a question? String phycisists insists that all interactions and particles must be accounted for in the description of quantum gravity that is needed to explain physics at Plank scales, including the electroweak interaction. Maybe that is an answer for you?

    “Just what, exactly, is the functional or philosophical difference between String Theory and Intelligent Design? Hint: Neither make testable predictions or are falsifiable…”

    Um, no. String theory is functionally constrained and makes plenty of predictions, many falsifiable. Some of them are compatibility tests with old (einstein action, flat space, renormalization) and new (AdS/CFT holography, gravitons, curved space, tachyons) physics. Some are Planck scale predictions and not immediately practically testable.

    For a model independent falsifiable prediction that are in progress of testing, see Jacques Distler http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/~distler/blog/archives/000808.html#more .

    This makes one IMHO less concerned about nonfalsifiable smaller parts of string theory, like an anthropic selected landscape of vacua.

    While ID isn’t even a fully usable hypotheses without an acting agent, IC is nonfalsifiable, and SCI is a nonstarter.

  52. #52 Torbjörn Larsson
    May 16, 2006

    “String phycisists insists that all interactions and particles must be accounted for in the description of quantum gravity that is needed to explain physics at Plank scales, including the electroweak interaction.”

    That was unclear. I meant “String phycisists insists that all interactions and particles, including the electroweak interaction, must be accounted for in the description of quantum gravity that is needed to explain physics at Plank scales.”

  53. #53 roystgnr
    May 16, 2006

    “Thataway” is not answer to the infinity question. “Approaching” usually means you get closer. My son said — not so with math because English and math are not compatable.

    Your son is right. There are quite a few words (compact, normal, space, open/closed come to mind) that have mathematical meanings which only loosely match their English meanings.

    He then told me that you can fractionalize (my word) the distance between the numbers 1 (one) and 2 (two) so that, counting each fraction you never get to two. The mathematical distance between one and two is infinity — wad up wid dat?

    The mathematical distance between one and two is one in the Euclidean (i.e. the usual) metric, and it’s never infinite by the definition of a metric (which is what mathematicans usually mean by distance). The number of points between one and two is infinite, but that’s a different question.

  54. #54 ColinB
    May 16, 2006

    I just wanna know where it will all end!

    Oh, and can someone tell me about the mutant dandelions in my lawn? I have several plants with about 10 flowerheads all sitting on top of one ENORMOUS tube stalk. It’s kinda spooky!

    Colin

  55. #55 George
    May 16, 2006

    As a non-scientist, I have always wanted to know why there something rather than nothing, and whether it is possible to say there is a “place” beyond the know universe where nothing exists. Is there non-universe? And are these answerable questions?

  56. #56 Azkyroth
    May 16, 2006

    I recently saw a video of a crow that was trying to get some grubs out of an old, pockmarked log. It couldn`t reach the grubs with its beak alone, so it proceeded to choose a small branch from a nearby bush, snap it off, and use it to lever the grubs out of the holes that they were in to eat them. Another crow actually used its beak to snip a thick leaf to the appropriate size and shape to do the same. Seeing this got me thinking about tool-making in non-human animals. I usually heard it said that besides humans, chimpanzees are the only animals that make tools, but it seems that these crows do the same.

    Substantial evidence exists that crows are as intelligent as chimpanzees, and there are numerous examples of that, such as crows placing nuts in front of car wheels at stoplights so the cars will crack them open. Incidentally, one species of crow (New Caledonian, I believe) is distinguished as the only nonhuman species to spontaneously make tools out of objects not normally found in its environment (a piece of wire in this case. Do a search on “Betty” and “crow”).

  57. #57 woofsterNY
    May 17, 2006

    ORGASM QUESTION (a “guy” question, obviously):

    Considering that orgasm involves the momentary firing of probably no more than a few grams of nerve tissue (ounces of contractile tissue?), how is it that we devote major portions of our lives to setting up situations in which THAT tiny scrap will fire off? How can we be such puppets to this little snippet of us? What is the mechanism by which it proves to be SO reinforcing over such a broad spectrum of our behavior?

  58. #58 thwaite
    May 17, 2006

    Regarding clever crows, Nyarlathotep wrote: …What do you think about the distinction of tool-making, and what do you think about how what we might (possibly inappropriately) claim about the correlation between tool-making/using and higher intelligence?

    Some answers:

    * tool-making is no longer “the” criterion of intelligence, nor presumed to have driven the evolution of intelligence(s) – that’s an old perspective from the 1950’s. We thought we were so clever then just to be making widgets and splitting atoms. Now we know the real payoffs for reproductive success are in social manipulations, influencing attention structures & jealousies. So ethologists and all paid attention to social animals & find that complex sociality correlates at least as well with their general ‘intelligence’. For us humans, plausible seductive stories have been presented for the evolution of our hyper-specializations for sociality: Geoffrey Miller’s THE MATING MIND is a delicious read and not incredible. It invokes Darwin’s other theory, sexual selection, more than natural selection. (And sorry, PZ, it wouldn’t seem to apply to cephalopods & such, though cuttlefish colorations certainly look like sexually-selected social cues don’t they?)

    * Corvids (crows) and parrots are intensely social and (coincidentally?) smarter than the average bird. Check out Alex the parrot (African grey) and friends at Pepperberg’s site, alexFoundation.org – it links to videos they did for Scientific American Frontiers which demo the birds impressive cognitive categories and communication skills (not language but complex, with much more than stimulus/response associations).

  59. #59 Nyarlathotep
    May 17, 2006

    Thanks Azkyroth and thwaite, I’ll be looking more into those references you mentioned.

  60. #60 thwaite
    May 17, 2006

    Wondered woofsterNY about orgasm: how is it that we devote major portions of our lives to setting up situations in which THAT tiny scrap will fire off? How can we be such puppets to this little snippet of us?

    Short form answer: the “how” question will have differing physiology for differing species, but it’s a sure bet some such physiology will be there and be preemptive given the evolutionary imperative for “why”: reproductive success, the ultimate measure of evolution.

    Long form answers:
    1998, Jared Diamond, Why Is Sex Fun?: The Evolution of Human Sexuality

    ~2002, O. Judson, Sex Advice for All Creation

    And men’s orgasms aren’t so mysterious as women’s (still):
    2005, E. Lloyd, The Case of the Female Orgasm

  61. #61 lytefoot
    May 17, 2006

    How would the world be different if no one had ever invented the concept of zero?

    Megaman X would be heterosexual.

  62. #62 Fred the Hun
    May 17, 2006

    Do you have a collection of regular polyhedrons with numbered sides?

    I’ve always fanatasized about gambling with a pair of loaded icosahedrons in Vegas. Granted it’s sort of a platonic fantasy.

  63. #63 RickD
    May 17, 2006

    woofsterNY

    It’s kinda sad that you think that’s a “guy” question. And that so many people probably agree with that framing. Suggest you read up on the female orgasm.

  64. #64 Molly, NYC
    May 17, 2006

    Why is a 6-lb baby bigger than a 6-lb pot roast?

    How long do you have to study chemistry before you stop thinking of krypton primarily as something to do with Superman?

  65. #65 NelC
    May 17, 2006

    ‘Are we not men?’ We are Devo!

    Maybe a bit old-school for this crowd, but it seemed to fit….

  66. #66 Caledonian
    May 17, 2006

    As a non-scientist, I have always wanted to know why there something rather than nothing,

    Because ‘nothing’ doesn’t ask questions.

    and whether it is possible to say there is a “place” beyond the known universe

    Well, certainly we can say it. We can also be well-justified in saying that there is more to the universe than what we know of it.

    where nothing exists.
    That’s the beauty of it — nothing doesn’t exist.
    Is there non-universe?

    ‘Is’ is not a concept that really applies to non-universe, not from our perspective. Neither existence nor nonexistence are meaningful when applied to hypothetical entities outside of our universe.

  67. #67 James Wynne
    May 17, 2006

    Regarding crows and use of tools, a while back I watched two crows fighting over a bit of food. When one of them seemed to have gotten the best of it, the other flew off, only to return after a minute or so carrying an empty soda can, holding on to it by the opening in the top. He proceeded to bonk his antagonist over the head with it. So not only do crows use tools, at least one of them apparently had the capacity to use them as weapons.

  68. #68 lunartalks
    May 17, 2006

    What music puts you in the mood for a little lab work?

    Eine Kleine Labmusik.

  69. #69 Carlie
    May 17, 2006

    Colin – we have those dandelions too! They’re all over my campus. I thought they were some pesticide-caused mutant. Now I’m even more curious about them.

  70. #70 DrNathaniel
    May 17, 2006

    Just what, exactly, is the functional or philosophical difference between String Theory and Intelligent Design? Hint: Neither make testable predictions or are falsifiable…

    mikey

    String theorists get more publicatons accepted.

    (Grumble grumble second postdoc grumble stupid theorists grumble eat mac and cheese for the rest of my life grumble)

  71. #71 Bronze Dog
    May 17, 2006

    Just what, exactly, is the functional or philosophical difference between String Theory and Intelligent Design? Hint: Neither make testable predictions or are falsifiable…

    I don’t know much about string theory, but if I had to guess: They might be able to figure out a way to falsify string theory, someday.

    But that’s only speaking from my armchair.

  72. #72 Keith Douglas
    May 17, 2006

    shyster: The universe is not an object, it is an aggregate (think of a heap of coins, or something like that that are loosely coupled). Hence it might not have an edge if it is either (a) at least unbounded in size or (b) not flat so it bends back on itself [loosely speaking] – think of the surface of a sphere by way of analogy: it is finite in size, but has no edge.

    Oggutho: Singularities are properties of equations. Whence they are propperties of our descriptions of reality, not reality itself. In fact, finding a singularity in an equation used to help describe reality should tell us to look for an alternative explanation that subsumes that case without the singularity; (some) physicists are doing just that.

    archgoon: The d4, d6, d8, d12 and d20 correspond to the so-called “platonic solids”, which are the only regular polyhedra (I think that’s the correct term). The other dice are irregular, and hence, I think, unfair. (I forget how.)

    Greco: The answer to your question is quite simple.

    Yes.

    George: The simplest answer to your questions are as follows – No, there couldn’t have been nothing. (I.e. you’re being bewitched by language, as Wittgenstein says.) Assuming spatiotemporal relationism, which I think is correct, then no, where there is no matter (in the broad sense) there is nothing at all. (Note, though, that matter in the broad sense includes fields, some of which may never reach exactly 0 field strength, in which case eventually matter fills literally everywhere.) Finally, there’s no non-universe since the most useful definition of universe is “everything that exists.” If you use the sloppy meaning of “local hubble volume”, then it is likely there are others, so that could count.

    My recent science question got answered by PZ on another thread (the one about the glucose meters). Let’s see if I can think of some more:

    Is there a better understanding of “chemical stability” than “stable molecules are those I can put in bottles”? (Which is how my father – a chemist by training – put it.)

    Why is the Turing machine model used as the way to understand computation, given that any real computer is actually closer in structure to a finite automaton due to its finite memory? (I’ve actually been working on this one.)

    What are better law statements to axiomatize real economic behaviour than the usual neoclassical ones or what not?

    Is that recently investigated tribe really in possession of a non-Chomskian language? If so, how?

    Could we learn a language further up on the arithmetic hierarchy than our existing languages?

    Why does ethanol act as a “social lubricant” and could one synthesize a compound has that effect and does not have the other noxious effects?

  73. #73 Norman Costa
    May 17, 2006

    My question concerns the speed of light. According to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, the speed of light is constant as measured by any observer, regardless of the relative position and speed of the observer compared to any other observer. My question concerns whether the constant speed of light is determined to be a descriptive property of light, or is there an explanation of WHY it must be so? With the speed of light being a constant to any observer, we find that time and or distance can vary in duration or length. But, can we say WHY it must be so, other than simply restating how the formulas work in a descriptive sense?

  74. #74 mythusmage
    May 17, 2006

    Why is the Universe full of stuff?

    Because the Universe is squished.

    What’s beyond the edge of the Universe?

    An 8th grade science class.

    What determines the speed of light?

    The fact photons can’t get out of second gear.

    Why is there air?

    Because the day before He started the project God invented the bean burrito.

  75. #75 HP
    May 17, 2006

    Mad scientist movies: which ones get it right,

    – Dr. Logan in Day of the Dead – madness is the only sane response to an insane world

    The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant (1971 – Bruce Dern, on a shitload of drugs, plays a character loosely inspired by Dr. Robert White. Not a good movie by any stretch, but Dern’s take on the mad scientist character is really unique.)

    The Ape (1940, Boris Karloff – the references to painful polio treatments ground this unjustly maligned little poverty-row picture in frightening reality. I really think that the modern myth of the mad scientist was born in the screams that came out of polio wards and TB sanitariums.)

    and which are a kind of wishful ideal?

    – Bela Lugosi as Dr. Paul Carruthers in The Devil Bat – “Here, try some of this aftershave lotion! Just put it right here, on the tender part of your neck.”

    Metropolis – the birth of the cinema archetype

    Dr. Strangelove – Metropolis guy meets Werner von Braun

    – Dr. Praetorius in Bride of Frankenstein – Although, technically, Praetorius was more of an alchemist than a scientist.

    – Peter Cushing in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed – My favorite of the Hammer Frankensteins. Cushing plays the Dr as a complete psychopath with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

    Just a few favorites off the top of my head.

  76. #76 Martha
    May 17, 2006

    What’s the difference between a duck?

  77. #77 Torbjörn Larsson
    May 17, 2006

    Keith asks:

    “Why is the Turing machine model used as the way to understand computation, given that any real computer is actually closer in structure to a finite automaton due to its finite memory? (I’ve actually been working on this one.)”

    Quick guess would be that it is easier to analyse and that real computers approach Turing if needed. (Memory reuse, hard drives.)

    “Why does ethanol act as a “social lubricant” and could one synthesize a compound has that effect and does not have the other noxious effects?”

    First part, IIRC ethanol affects cell membrane openings, thus nerve cells. Second part, we don’t know Star Trek chemistry yet, unfortunately, so I’m guessing any similar chemicals are likely to have similar other effects.

  78. #78 Torbjörn Larsson
    May 17, 2006

    Norman asks:

    “My question concerns whether the constant speed of light is determined to be a descriptive property of light, or is there an explanation of WHY it must be so?”

    Newtons mechanics applies for Galilean invariant systems. The laws of physics are the same in all inertial (uniform-velocity) frames of reference. There is no absolute coordinate system. (Newton himself thought so, but it is not necessary.)

    Special relativity applies for Lorentz invariant (covariant) systems. The laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames of reference moving relative to each other.

    General relativity applies for general covariant systems. The laws of physics are same form in all coordinate systems (accelerated or not).

    When one figures Lorentz invariance out, one sees that space and time gets mixed into spacetime. Lorentz invariant spacetime has causality. That means that signals must have a maximum, finite and constant velocity. That velocity is the speed of light.

    Causality and covariance are among the most basic physical principles we know. This forces the constant speed of light.

    “With the speed of light being a constant to any observer, we find that time and or distance can vary in duration or length. But, can we say WHY it must be so, other than simply restating how the formulas work in a descriptive sense?”

    This is also forced from causality and covariance.

  79. #79 CCP
    May 17, 2006

    ooh! ooh!! Martha! I know that one!!

    A: One leg’s both the same!

    (for extra points, at what show(s) did Bob Weir tell that one from the stage?)

    And–ooh!!–more on tool-making crows!:
    The New Caledonian guys are famous for it (Gavin Hint’s stuff, mostly), but regular plain old American crows make and use tools too! Check out:

    Caffrey, C. 2000. Tool modification and use by an American Crow. Wilson Bulletin 112(2): 283-284.

    Caffrey, C. 2001. Goal-directed use of objects by American Crows. Wilson Bulletin 13(1): 114-115.

    and this review, available in pdf:
    http://www.biology.mcgill.ca/faculty/lefebvre/articles/Lefebvre_et_al_2002.pdf

    -CCP

  80. #80 CCP
    May 17, 2006

    yeah, that’s Gavin HUnt…

  81. #81 Martha
    May 17, 2006

    Aha, CCP, but is it farther to school or by bus?

  82. #82 Norman Costa
    May 17, 2006

    Torbjörn Larsson:

    Thanks for the explanation on the constant speed of light. I can’t say I grasp it all, but it seems to me, from your post, that it is a deduced, descriptive property of the physical world. It is a deduced, descriptive, and experimentally supported property that makes other principles work harmoniously in the Einsteinian view of the physical world. So it seems to me that the WHY of it is not a way to approach an understanding of it. I remember going through the Lorenz transformation formulas a long time ago. I understood it in terms of, “this is the way the formulas work out” if we assume a constant speed of light. Or am I way off base?

  83. #83 v.botkin
    May 17, 2006

    Torbjörn Larsson wrote:

    “String phycisists insists that all interactions and particles, including the electroweak interaction, must be accounted for in the description of quantum gravity that is needed to explain physics at Plank scales.”

    This is not something that string physicists in particular would say; this is something that anyone who understands quantum field theory should say.

  84. #84 James Killus
    May 17, 2006

    Interesting, I heard the answer to “what is the difference between a duck” from my father, who answered, “it has two legs and a tail besides.” Since my father was older than Bruce Weir, he has priority.

    Triton also has a nitrogen atmosphere, at least locally, as there have been nitrogen geysers observed on its surface. It is too cold for there to be much N2 pressure, but there is no doubt some steady state nitrogen vapor pressure there.

    Nitrous oxide (N2O) has many of the same social lubricant effects of ethanol, with few of the “noxious effects.” However, if you mistake N2O for NO2, you will experience NOxious effects, and that is the worst air geek joke I’ve ever told.

    Also, if one is dispensing N2O at a party, it is an excellent tradition to require the partyers to ask for it with a lung full of helium.

    Note: there are long term effects of overexposure to N2O, primarily due to B12 deficiency, so supplements are often recommended for anaesthesiologists.

  85. #85 Blake Stacey
    May 17, 2006

    Keith asks:

    “Why does ethanol act as a “social lubricant” and could one synthesize a compound has that effect and does not have the other noxious effects?”

    In some circles, gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) is known as “the alternative to ethanol without a hangover”. It is synthesized by mixing gamma-butyrolactone (GBL) with sodium hydroxide. The preponderance of medical evidence indicates that used by itself, GHB is a relatively safe intoxicant. Mixing it with alcohol puts you on the short list for a Darwin Award.

  86. #86 Torbjörn Larsson
    May 17, 2006

    Norman says:

    “It is a deduced, descriptive, and experimentally supported property that makes other principles work harmoniously in the Einsteinian view of the physical world.”

    I think that is correct.

    v says:

    “This is not something that string physicists in particular would say; this is something that anyone who understands quantum field theory should say.”

    Perhaps, except some quantum gravity attempts like loop quantum gravity seems to forget that, they think they can add the rest later. I mentioned the main attempt, yes.

    James says:
    “Nitrous oxide (N2O) has many of the same social lubricant effects of ethanol, with few of the “noxious effects.””

    Oh, so I guessed wrong.

    “However, if you mistake N2O for NO2, you will experience NOxious effects, and that is the worst air geek joke I’ve ever told.”

    Oh, and NO is a natural shortlived signal substance. Lots of activity here.

    Blake says:

    “In some circles, gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) is known as “the alternative to ethanol without a hangover”.

    New party tricks, exactly the type of questions science should answer first!

  87. #87 Blake Stacey
    May 17, 2006

    I forgot to say that mixing GHB in someone else’s alcoholic drink makes you a bastard fit for the more sadistic tortures of Hell’s inner circles. And since I’ve never believed in Hell, it looks like such bastards deserve to get their punishment here on Earth. But when you run the numbers, when you compare the possible harms and the potential liberties, such a “rationale” for making GHB a Schedule I illegal drug reveals its true nature as propaganda.

    A young woman I know took a rape-prevention course a few years ago, and they had the obligatory session on “date-rape drugs.” Midway through the presentation, the instructor said, “Next we come to GHB, which is a colorless, odorless and tasteless chemical—”

    At which point, the young woman fell out of her chair, gut-laughing. She’d taken “G” many times, you see, recreationally, and she knew that it tastes horrible. I suppose a particularly potent alcoholic beverage might mask the “organic saltiness” which is GHB’s reputed flavor, but then again I always found alcoholic beverages to taste vile by themselves.

    This brings me to a question. When used properly—i.e., not stupidly and not with ethanol—GHB is more safe than vodka. So is marijuana, and so is LSD. (Bill Hicks reminds you to test your theory that you can fly by jumping from the ground first, before going up any buildings.) If drug laws were consistent, LSD would not be illegal: we’d have rules against driving under its influence and using it in certain sections of restaurants. Or, taking the other extreme as our standpoint, tobacco and alcohol would be so much more illegal than GHB is today that the mind boggles for a comparison. We’d have to control booze as strictly as we do, say, weapons-grade plutonium.

    This is not strictly a science question, but I’d like a blogger’s take on it anyway: what would a drug policy which reflects medical facts instead of fear-mongering propaganda actually look like?

    Disclaimer: just because I drop the three-letter acronyms for a few substances doesn’t mean that I have ever tried them or know where you can get them, so don’t bother asking, even if you do need relief after grading all those exams.

  88. #88 Mike Fox
    May 17, 2006

    One I have wondered for a while: Given that heat is movment, and the speed of light is the maximum speed, what is the maximum temprature? I assume it would be of some sort of quark, since all other matter wouldn’t be able to handle the heat.

    Mike Fox

  89. #89 George Cauldron
    May 17, 2006

    Is that recently investigated tribe really in possession of a non-Chomskian language? If so, how?

    Easy! Chomsky got it wrong!

  90. #90 lytefoot
    May 18, 2006

    The d4, d6, d8, d12 and d20 correspond to the so-called “platonic solids”, which are the only regular polyhedra (I think that’s the correct term). The other dice are irregular, and hence, I think, unfair. (I forget how.)

    I fear I must demur on your diagnosis of unfairness in irregular polyhedra. You see, the mathematical constraints for regularity are quite strong: each face must be isomorphic to each other face, each vertex to each other vertex, and each edge to each other edge. However, in dice, we are only concerned with the behavior of the faces. So, on dice such as the d10, the d24, or the d30, which fail to be regular in the mathematical sense, we still find that that the faces are isomorphic to one another, and so the dice are fair. (Slight digression: does anyone own a d24? Have you ever used it? Have you used it to randomly generate sequences of Greek letters? How many Geek Points is this worth?)

    The dice that are open to argument are the d100, the d5, and the d7. (d5 here refers to the die which takes the form of a triangular prism with numbered flats and corners, not the d10 which is numbered to have two faces marked with each number 1 – 5.) While these dice are engineered and balanced so that each face has a numeric probability of appearing which approaches equality (so that, for example, you wouldn’t notice the unevenness of probability in a normal gamer’s lifetime), it’s impossible to arrange that they be mathematically equal. Can we consider these dice fair?

    Also open to debate is the use of electronic random number generation. Assuming that no member of the group has reverse-engineered the random number generator so as to know the outcome of a given “roll”, can a (known) deterministic electronic random number generator be considered equivalent to a (presumably) deterministic physical random number generator? (If one assumes that quantum variation has negligable effect on the results of die rolls, then a die throw is deterministic, just unpredictable. Like weather.)

    Heh, how’s that for a geeky discussion of dice?

  91. #91 Nyarlathotep
    May 18, 2006

    Another question, if anyone is still frequenting this thread. I`m reading a book (“Physics and Philosophy”) by Sir James Jeans right now, and he`s talking about how many of the claims of the Rationalists have been disproven by modern science. One example of which is Descartes`s claim that “the sum of the three angles of a triangle is 180 deg.” Jeans says that this must be amended to, “The sum of the three angles of a triangle is 180 deg., so long as the triangle is not of astronomical size.” Can anyone clear up for my how and why a triangle of “astronomical size” differs in this respect from one of common size?
    Thanks again.

  92. #92 lytefoot
    May 18, 2006

    The sum of the interior angles of a triangle being 180 degrees is equivalent to Euclid’s Fifth postulate (which is commonly stated as, “Through a given point there is exactly one line parallel to a given line.”). It turns out that Euclid’s Fifth postulate corresponds to a universe of zero curviture, which in turn corresponds to a universe of a very precise mass. It is presently believed that the universe does not have this very precise mass, and so has nonzero curviture. Whether this curviture is positive or negative turns out to have a great deal of influence on the universe’s eventual long-term behavior, whether it will continue to expand indefinately or will ultimately collapse. I’m not a physicist, so I don’t understand enough to go into any more detail here.

    Both negations of Euclid’s Fifth postulate are consistent (“There exist no parallel lines” and “Through a given point thee are at least two distinct lines parallel to a given line”) turn out to be consistent with the other rules of geometry, and (if we assume we’re only looking at a small scale) with observation (after all, we’re fairly short on lines of infinite extent in our day-to-day world). The former negation gives a geometric system called ‘Ecliptic’ or ‘Spherical’ geometry, in which the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is always greater than 180 degrees, aproaching 270 as the triangle grows sufficiently large. The latter gives rise to a system called ‘Hyperbolic’ geometry, in which the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is always less than 180 degrees, approaching zero as the triangle grows sufficiently small.

    Your author, however, is incorrect in his observation in two points. First, if we accept that the universe has nonzero curviture, then no triangle has the sum of its interior angle being 180 degrees. It’s simply that, for triangles of a smaller than astronomical scale, we can’t measure the discrepency from 180 degrees. To an engineer, that difference doesn’t matter; but to a mathematician, it’s vital.

    Second, in saying that Descartes is incorrect in that statement, he fails to realize what Descartes meant by a “triangle”. Descartes wasn’t referring to any actual, particular triangle; he was referring to a mathematical abstract, the figure formed by connecting three noncolinear points in a Euclidean plane. (If I recall correctly, this statement was made while Descartes was deconstructing the universe with doubt; Even when I’m dreaming, he said, or words to this effect, 2+2=4, and a square has four sides, and the sum of the angles of a triangle is 180 degrees.) He was referring to what can be deduced by the rational mind as opposed to what can be observed. So, even if the space of the Universe is not Euclidean (as seems likely), this is merely a coincidence of observation, not a matter of deduction.

  93. #93 Torbjörn Larsson
    May 18, 2006

    Blake asks:

    “what would a drug policy which reflects medical facts instead of fear-mongering propaganda actually look like?”

    I don’t know enough about drugs to be definitive. (I though GHB were always dangerous, for example.) I can give you my take however, it is an interetsing question for sure.

    Smoke tobacco kills most people and harms innocent bystanders – prison for having tobacco or smoking. (Chew tobacco is not harmless anyway – nicotine breaks down the bones.)

    Marijuana et cetera is not harmless – it lingers in the body and there are research that says these drugs do damage. Some medical uses – todays policies adjusted for the medical uses.

    Alcohol is by itself and especially in red wine beneficiary (in right amounts) but is a problem too – todays policies adjusted for the health benefits.

    Mike asks:
    “what is the maximum temprature”

    This requires a broad answer. Temperature is a measure related to the average kinetic energy of particles. So we can look at the temperature of any particles.

    I’m not a particle phycisist, so this will be pure speculation. I think what happens is that when an individual particles total energy (inclduing its rest mass) becomes comparable to the Planck mass, its Compton wavelength becomes comparable to the Planck length.

    Then a black hole should appear even for an individual particle, with the black hole’s Schwarzschild radius comparable to the Planck length. If so, this would give you the maximum possible temperature (and an energy cutoff).

    There are complications. All bodies gives off radiation when heated, and conversely there are temperatures associated with radiation. But if there are a maximum particle temperature, or anyway if you insist that the real temperature must be associated with particles that has recieved said radiation, you will end up with the same answer. (And perhaps the particle nature associated with all field interactions also gives the above cutoff. It would include gravitational fields, so it would be consistent. Arrgh! I do need to study quantum field theory soon.)

    lytefoot says:
    “even if the space of the Universe is not Euclidean (as seems likely)”

    Again, no expert, but inflation after the bigbang as confirmed by the latest WMAP measurements drove the universe to be nearly flat.

  94. #94 Keith Douglas
    May 18, 2006

    Norman Costa: There is some evidence that every particle moves at c but interacts differently with different media and so gets “slowed down” appropriately, much like light appears to in a medium.

    lytefoot: Hm, the thing is I am not sure the faces on a d10 are isomorphic. I thought they came in two types for some reason. (Microscopically, of course.) As for the d5, d7, d24 and d30, I’ve only actually seen the latter so have no comment. The d100 (which I own) is extremely unfair. I think there are numbers I have never rolled on it, even during the time I investigated it pseudostatistically.

    As for Descartes, BTW, as far as I can tell he would have thought both Triangle (the idea) and any triangle in nature which happened to be perfect (which may be none – dunno, but in principle one could make one) would have the same properties. I haven’t read Jeans’ book, but the interesting argument for a weak form of rationalism involve equality, as Plato noted. (Where do we get our idea of equality?)

  95. #95 Paul W.
    May 18, 2006

    Why is the Turing machine model used as the way to understand computation, given that any real computer is actually closer in structure to a finite automaton due to its finite memory?

    My initial stab:

    Because a finite automaton doesn’t give a concise description of the structure of the computation. (Or possible evolving computations.) It’s like explaining billiards in terms of the motion of molecules—that just doesn’t capture the notions of pool balls, collisions between balls, getting a ball in a pocket. It’s too low-level a description to even describe the high-level regularites in question, even if it could be used to predict them by brutal low-level simulation. (Which would still beg the question of what a pool ball is—you’d have to have a way to intepret the simulation results by picking the poolballs out from all the data about molecules.)

    I used to use a FORTH interpreter with a fixed 100-element control stack. It implemented FORTH exactly except that if subroutine calls got nested more than 100 deep, it would flake out completely and do very rude and unFORTHish things. Within its various limitations like stack depth, was well described as an implementation of FORTH. Outside that, the underlying finitenesses showed up with a vengeance.

    In that case, it’s easy to understand something like Chomsky’s competence/performance distinction. The FORTH interpreter clearly implements FORTH up to a point—within its implementation-specific bounds, there is no more concise (correct) description of its behavior than the definition of FORTH, and any other description is missing something. (Or adding way, way too much redundant detail.)

    This looks something like the embedding of Newtonian physics within relativistic physics, with the caveat that it’s only an approximation, and one that breaks down when things move really fast or space is significantly curved. It’s different, though, because the description is exact within the implementation-specific bounds, and beyond those it’s conversely just wrong. You don’t get that neat distinction in most areas of science, where the high-level laws are often approximations everywhere and the boundaries of their “region of applicability” may be very messy.

    Of course, our whole multiverse may be one inconceivably vast finite-state machine, and maybe we could in principle write down the whole transition diagram if we had a bigger universe to do it in. Maybe we could simulate it exactly the most fundamental particle level, if we had a big enough and fast enough quantum computer in that universe, and build a graph of all actual interactions.

    That, in itself, wouldn’t be very interesting or useful. What’s interesting is not the mass of detail about all possible particle interactions, or even all actual particle interactions. The more interesting question is what is the shape of that enormous graph—what higher-level regularities does it embody? And the more “useful” questions could only be answered in terms of those higher-level regularities, which would allow me to do things like (say) picking out me within those interacting particles and understanding the high-level events (e.g., life, love, death) that will happen to me.

  96. #96 boojieboy
    May 18, 2006

    did somebody call my name?

  97. #97 lytefoot
    May 18, 2006

    Hm, the thing is I am not sure the faces on a d10 are isomorphic. I thought they came in two types for some reason.

    They are. (I’ve spent considerable time convincing my players of this, heh.) Play with them for a while, you’ll see it. (That isn’t a proof, but I’m feeling lazy, I just finished exams.) Interestingly, the particular angles on the faces aren’t actually special–nor are they universal, different brands use different angles. It seens to be an aesthetic decision.

    Again, no expert, but inflation after the bigbang as confirmed by the latest WMAP measurements drove the universe to be nearly flat.

    I’m no expert in astrophysics either, of course… but from a mathematical standpoint, nearly flat and flat are completely different, just like zero and nearly zero are completely different. (In a truly flat universe, traingles of arbitrary size will have the sum of their interior angles 180 degrees. In a hyperbolic universe of infinite extent, you’ll always be able to find a triangle a triangle with arbitrarily small sum of interior angles.) This is one of those places, like probability, where there’s a big difference between ‘zero’ and simply ‘very small’.

    If the universe is flat, that’s really interesting. Considering that “flat” is a very precise state, it suggests that there’s something special about a flat universe; something about the nature of universes that forces them to be flat. I might be reading too much into it, of course–any Astrophysicists have thoughts on that front?

  98. #98 Ra
    January 16, 2008

    Why is it when we put salt on a ice then put a thread on it,when you lift it up the ice would lift too?

  99. #99 melanie
    February 21, 2008

    Can anyone tell me why the drug “Thyroxine” is considered NON-POLAR when it’s molecular structure is clearly POLAR?

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