Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Communications of legitimate physics ideas

In physics, there are principly two means of communicating one's ideas to others in the field. The first and most common means is via publishing one's work in a peer-reviewed journal. The other is via a presentation at one of the many conferences/workshops held throughout the world. I will discuss the former.

For a physicist, there are three most prestigous journals for one's work to be published: Nature, Science, and Physical Review Letters. These journals not only require that the work submitted to be of significant importance and quality, but also have wide-ranging impact beyond just a small, specialized area. This is especially true for Nature and Science where both journals tend to only publish papers that will have a high impact value.

It means that getting one's work to be published in one of these three journals is not that easy. Nature and Science have editors that are actively involved in weeding out all the submitted papers. My guess is that between 50% to 60% of all papers submitted to these two journals never made it past the editors. These editors sometime consult ranking physicists in the appropriate fields to see if a submitted paper has enough of an impact for it to continue to the next stage. Of the remaining papers that did get through and went on to be reviewed by selected referees (typically 2 or 3 referees for each paper), only about less than half that actually got approved for publication. This process is similar for Physical Review Letters, except the editors tend to be more liberal in letting the papers go to the refereeing stage (they still weed out the obvious quackeries, which from what I gather, they receive almost everyday). However, the referees are as strict and demanding as those for Nature and Science.

Why are these three journals that prestigous? First of all, because everyone in the field knows how difficult it is to have a paper published in those journals, it means that having one is a sign of accomplishments. Many funding agencies look favorably if someone has work appearing in these high-impact journals. Secondly, these journals have their own public relations people that advertize and produce press releases of select papers in their journals. This makes some work widely known and cited both within the field and in the public media. Having one's work published in one of these journals is a sign of very high achievement.

If those three are what I consider to be the top tier journals, the next in line would be the Physical Review series of journals (i.e. Physical Review A,B,C,D, and E), the Journal of Applied Physics series and Applied Physics Letters. It needs to be emphasized here that just because these journals are of a lower tier than the first three, it doesn't mean they are of any less importance or less impact. Often, the Physical Review journals serve to expand the work published in the Physical Review Letters (PRL), since PRL has a limit of 4 typeset pages for each paper. Other than certain specialized sections, the Physical Review journals have no length limitations. The papers published here also tend to be more specialized for people working in a particular field, i.e. it doesn't have that "wide-ranging" impact that Nature, Science, and PRL require.

The next tier of journals would include European Physical Review, Journal of Physics series, Europhysics Letters, and Physica journal series. Again, there have been very important papers being published in these journals, even though in terms of prestige, they are not typically considered as high-impact journals.

The level of refereeing also tends to be commensurate with the prestige of the journals. One tends to see a more liberal refereeing for a lower tier journal, and maybe each submitted paper might have only one referee, as opposed to 2,3, and up to 5 referees for papers submitted to Science, Nature, or PRL.

To end this, here's a very sobering fact. Since the establishement of peer-reviewed journals in the scientific field (let's say since 1900), there have been NO instances of any work or ideas making a significant contribution fo the body of knowledge in physics that have not appeared in a peer-reviewed publication. Now think about this for a second. If you have a discovery, theory, ideas, etc., and you have not or unable to have it accepted and published in a peer-reviewed journal, you have an ABSOLUTE ZERO chance of having any impact or contributing to the body of knowledge in physics. PERIOD! This is what the history of science has shown. It means that if one only has one's theory appearing on some website and/or discussion areas, and these are the ONLY avenue for such an idea to see the light of day, there is a 100% chance that such an idea will go nowhere, do nothing, and will disappear into obscure-land. Having one's work appearing in a peer-reviewed journal is a NECESSARY criteria, although not a necessary AND sufficient criteria, for having any impact and making a contribution to physics.


Monday, September 20, 2004

Imagination without knowledge is Ignorance waiting to happen - Part 3

This is more of ignorance of the workings of physics. Most quacks and crackpots like to imagine that physicists are determined to save the status quo of physics ideas, and that they are stuck with what they know and were taught, and very unwilling to work "outside the box". Their biggest "evidence" that they like to point out is that each time they try to come up with their brilliant ideas, some physicists will always try to shoot them down and show why they will not work, etc. This, they argue, stifle creativity, something physicists do not have and unwilling to envoke.

It is unfortunately that such effort in "creativity" is not accompanied by knowledge and, more importantely, logical thinking. There are two major points that can easily trump over such criticism against physicists:

1. If the argument is true, then there is no explanation for the accumulation and the expanding of the horizon of knowledge that we have observed. There are NUMEROUS things that we know of now that we did not know of before. There are many new phenomena that we have either discovered, or can now be accurately described. The fact that the boundaries of our knowledge of the physical world continues to expand is a clear contradiction to the false argument that physicists are only interested in upholding current ideas.

2. Practicing physicists, by definition, study things that either are new, have no current explanation/description, are not completely understood, or beyond the realm of validity of current ideas. This fact is always a surprise to most quacks. We do not study things that are already well-verified! Try getting a research funding to verify Newton's Law under terrestrial condition! Physicists study things that are simply beyond what is known and understood! This is where creativity and imagination come into play. Physicists have to call upon those qualities almost every day in studying complex and difficult ideas and phenomena. However, to know what is new and unexplained, one has to first make sure one knows what is known and understood! Without that, one would not know what is new even if it comes up and bites on one's rear end.

This naturally brings us to an often-used argument made by quacks, that "revolutionary" ideas such as those by Einstein would have been rejected and opposed, very much like the opposition their "theories" are facing. This argument reveals the ignorance and fallacy of how things run in physics and science in general.

While new ideas by Einstein and Planck were initially challenged (as well they should for anyone proposing wildly different and new ideas), it should be pointed out that both of them were proposing ideas not based on ignorance of the subject matter, a fact that is often ignored by quacks. Both Einstein and Planck were masters of the subject. In fact one has to know intimately classical physics to be able to know what was wrong with it. Einstein had to know classical electrodynamics very well (not just from reading a pop-science book) to know how and why it isn't invariant under a galilean transformation. Planck had to know classical statistics very well to know why the Blackbody radiation just simply didn't fit the theoretical description. These are not something one can comprehend simply based on a superficial knowledge of physics.

While physicists at that time were skeptical and critical of both ideas, no one ever argued that Einstein and Planck were putting out their theories based on ignorance of the physics at that time. The same cannot be said with a lot of quackeries found all over the internet.


Monday, September 13, 2004

Imagination without knowledge is Ignorance waiting to happen - Part 2

In this part, it is certainly ignorance gone wild.

One of my pet peeve is people who barely know enough physics, but then do not feel the slightest bit of hesitation in using it for their own agenda. They see no problem at all in extending their ignorance into other areas without realizing the hysterical and illogical consequences. Of course, some people give them credit for having a wonderful imagination and cite that often-bastardized Einstein's quote.

One such example is the ongoing assault on The Theory of Evolution. Now keep in mind that this is NOT an essay on the validity of either the Theory of Evolution or Creationism/Intelligent Design (ID) (that would require a completely separate diatribe on my part). What I will do is look at two particular arguments that have often been used against Evolution by advocates of ID. These two arguments have a direct connection to physics. This is clearly a strong reason why the Evolution versus ID affects all of science and not just biological sciences.

1. Evolution is only a THEORY.

This stems from the pedestrian usage of the word "theory", meaning to nothing more than an educated guess, if that. It implies that a scientific "theory" is nothing better, not verified, or still not accepted. Again, nothing more than an educated guess.

This argument reveals the ignorance of how the word "theory" is used in science, and especially in physics. There are two broad dichotomy of the nature of scientific studies - experimental and theoretical. Experimental involves experiment! This includes data collection, analysis, phenomenological models, etc. Theoretical, on the other hand, involves either phenomenalogical models of experiments (same as experimental), or theoretical extension of preexisting ideas via ab initio derivation. So a theory is a mathematical/logical description of an idea.

Furthermore, saying something is just a theory somehow implies that a theory can "graduate" into a law or a principle. This of course is absurd. Laws, theories, principles, etc., are all the same. Each may have varying degree of certainty or varification, but it doesn't mean one is better than the other, or that they evolve into one another.

To attack Evolution by saying it is "just a theory" is also an attack on BCS Theory of Superconductivity, Quantum Field Theory, Band Theory of Solids, etc, etc. If one is aware of how successful those physics theories are, one would never make such an idiotic argument. So this is an example of an argument made based on ignorance.

2. Evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Already, this is something that affects physicists, because inadvertently, our area is being dragged directly into this battle.

The argument comes from the apparent understanding of two things: (i) life beings are "ordered" structure and (ii) 2nd Law of Thermodynamics reflects an increase in entropy or, to put it crudely, disorder.

Now, I will not go into detail why to equate entropy with disorder is inaccurate (that will be saved for another time). So let's assume that both (i) and (ii) are correct. ID advocates point to the fact that if Evolution did happen, it implies a trend towards order of our Earth system. Random distribution of atoms and molecules in primovial Earth somehow form ordered and more sophisticated congrlomeration that eventually form life forms. Thus, the earth went from disorder to order. This clearly violates the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and thus, is not very likely. So evolution cannot be the explanation for life.

Again, such an argument is being made without an understanding of the 2nd Law, or even basic thermodynamics in the first place. The 2nd Law clearly states that in an ISOLATED SYSTEM (no energy or any kind going in and out), entropy cannot decrease. The earth is certainly NOT an isolated system. In fact, the earth DEPENDS predominantely on one source of external energy - the sun! So even if we consider the most simplified system, we have to consider the sun and the earth as the complete isolated system, not just the earth alone. Within this system, there is nothing to prevent one part of the system to have a lower entropy with time (example: carnot cycle). Thus, even if the earth does really have a lowering of entropy, this certainly does not violate Thermodynamics' 2nd Law.

One would be surprised that, even when this is already explained in several articles and books, that there are still numerous websites supporting creationism/ID that still carry this argument (do a google search if you don't believe me). Either the authors are not aware of how ridiculous such an argument is, or they are hoping that the reader are not aware of it, or not good in simply thermodynamics. This isn't a stretch of imagination because the general public do not have any significant understanding of basic thermodynamics principles and thus, can easily be fooled into thinking that physics has made evolution impossible! It costs nothing to perpetuate the lie.

These two examples, unfortunately, are just the few that illustrates how ignorance can lead to often serious consequences, either socially, politically, or otherwise. If one is going to use something as the foundation for an argument or an idea, it is illogical and irrational to not properly determine that one has something beyond just a superficial idea of it.


Monday, September 06, 2004

Imagination without knowledge is ignorance waiting to happen - Part 1

Having been on the 'net for a very long time, I get asked often to look at some rather outrageous claims being made by a lot people, many of them in need of serious psychiatric help. This one is a doozy from quite a few years ago.

A guy had a coil of wire stuffed into a cylinder (I think a brass cylinder). The two ends of the wire stuck out on the opposite ends of the cylinder. The cylinder was suspended from the ceiling by some cables. He then connected a heating element to the end of the wire at the bottom of the cylinder. The moment he turned on the heating element, he started time. He has a thermocouple of some kind monitoring the temperature at the other end of the wire. As soon as the temperature had risen by 50 C (I don't quite remember the exact number so I made this up), he stopped time. Call this Time A.

Next, he connected the heating element to the top end of the wire. He repeated the experiment, this time monitoring the temperature of the bottom end of the wire till the temperature has changed by 50 C also. Call this Time B.

He noticed that Time A is shorter than Time B. He said that this means that the heat in the conductor can travel faster upwards than downwards. His conclusion was that he has discovered an anti-gravity effect, and that there was an anti-gravity component to heat. [Honest! This is what was said! You can't make up idiotic statements like this!]

This is where having just a little knowledge can result in something hysterical. Anyone who has studied physics can immediately see two very obvious problems (there may be more) with this interpretation:

1. Convection. The inside of the cylinder is at atmospheric pressure and not in some level of a decent vacuum. So by heating from below, a heat convention can easily carry some of the heat upwards, thus heating the top end faster.

2. Cooling gradient. This is the more important aspect. I asked this person (yeah, I actually made contact with him) if he waiting for the wire to cool down back to room temperature before he did the 2nd part of the experiment. He said, no, he continued right on. This means that he had no clue that the rate of heat loss depends on the temperature gradient of an object with its surrounding. Heating an object in air from 20 C to 70 C is not the same as heating it from 50C to 100 C, even though the temperature change is identical. As the temperature of the object increases, the temperature difference between it and the surrounding also increases, and so will the rate of heat loss. This is straight-forward law of cooling. So of course he would take longer to heat the 2nd part since he is starting off at a higher temperature!

We teach physics majors all the things that are known and can already be explained, NOT because we want them to be able to mimic and repeat all of them when they become physicists. We teach them those things so that they will KNOW when they encounter something new and unexplained. You cannot know what you are observing or discovering is new if you don't already have a clear idea of what are known and can already be explained! This person that I just described lacked the knowledge to know that what he thought was "new" can, in fact, be explained quite simply based on existing ideas. He certainly had a vivid imagination, but it is nothing more than mere ignorance of the knowledge he did not have.


Wednesday, September 01, 2004

The most influential physicist.

If you ask a bunch of people on who is the most influential physicist of, let's say, since the beginning of 1900, you would get the usual answers: Einstein, Feynman, Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac, etc... all the big names. However, consider this: there is only ONE person who has won the Nobel Prize for Physics twice; this person is a co-inventor of the most important device that is now the foundation of our modern society that we use everyday; and this person is not on that list above.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce you to John Bardeen!

(Who? WHO?)

In my book, John Bardeen is the physicist that has the MOST direct influence on all of our lives. His first Nobel Prize was awarded for the invention of the transistor along with William Shockley and Walter Brattain. To say that the transistor has revolutionized our world would be almost an understatement, unless one has no clue what a transistor is and why it is useful.

That invention alone would have been sufficient to put him at the top of this list, but nooooo.... His second Nobel Prize in Physics pushed him way over the top. He is the "B" in the BCS Theory of Superconductivity, along with Leon Cooper and Robert Shrieffer. The BCS theory is considered to be one of the most successful and highly verified theories in all of physics. Till 1986, it was thought that the BCS theory has explained everything there is to know about all of superconductivity. However, the significance of the BCS theory goes way beyond just explaining a single phenomena. It marked one of the earliest sucesses of the application of quantum field theory in the emerging field that is now known as condensed matter physics. This sparked further refinement of the field theoretic methods in the study of materials, something that we now are reaping the rewards from. So the impact of this theory transcends beyond just what it describes.

But why isn't he more well known?

He is one of those rare breed of physicist that isn't eccentric, is not loud, profoundly understated, and intensely private. While the general public may not even know of his existence, those of us in physics, and especially in condensed matter physics, have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for him as a person, and his body of work.

I highly recommend the biography of Bardeen written by Lillian Hoddeson, Daitch Vicki, Vicki Daitch titled "True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen" (National Academies Press, 2002). This could be the most fascinating and important person that you have never known.