Inaccessible Wikipedia science articles as inclusionism

I thought this criticism by Ars Technica of the woeful state of Wikipedia’s science articles was mostly off the mark. (HN Comments.) The author framed it as a conflict between laymen and specialists, claiming that scientific articles are targeted at specialists at the expense of laymen, with lots of jargon, etc. I eagerly agree with him that there are lots of terrible science articles, and that some technical articles could use better context and introductory bits. But I think this is largely a problem of not having enough skilled science writers rather than a purposeful choice between laymen and specialists. Due to the curse of knowledge the specialists literally do not understand what is and isn’t accessible to laymen; they see through the jargon like the matrix. And the laymen do not get in their gut how many true technical dependencies there really are, that unless you understand topics X and Y, topic Z is pretty much useless. They assume that all this jargon is used by the specialists either because they are too lazy to translate, or are purposefully constructing barriers to entry. I empathize with skilled science writers (which are unfortunately rare), because their best articles often go unnoticed as both laymen and scientists read them and shrug “Yea, that’s pretty clear. Was that really so hard?”.

The examples used in the editorial, like “Rabi oscillation“, are the sort of scientifically deep topics, with many dependencies, that one will never be able to write more than a few layman-accessible sentences about. If you don’t know what a Hilbert space is, there’s just not that much to say about Rabi oscillations.… [continue reading]

Links for December 2015

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PI accepting 2016 master’s student applications

Perimeter Institute runs a pretty great and unusual 1-year master’s program called Perimeter Scholars International.PSI…ha!a   If you’re in your last year as an undergrad, I strongly advise you (seriously) to consider applying. Your choice of grad school is 80% of the selection power determining your thesis topic, and that topic places very strong constraints on your entire academic career. The more your choice is informed by actual physics knowledge (rather than the apparent impressiveness of professors and institutions), the better. An additional year at a new institution taking classes with new teachers can really help.

(Older academics can advertise this to students by printing out this poster.)

Here’s the blurb:

Each year, Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics recruits approximately 30 exceptional science graduates for an immersive, 10-month physics boot camp: Perimeter Scholars International (PSI). This unique Master’s program seeks not only students with stellar undergraduate physics track records, but also those with diverse backgrounds, collaborative spirit, creativity, and other attributes that will set them apart as future innovators.

Features of the program include:

  • All student costs (tuition and living) are covered, removing financial and/or geographical barriers to entry
    Students learn from world-leading theoretical physicists – resident Perimeter researchers and visiting scientists – within the inspiring environment of Perimeter Institute.
  • Collaboration is valued over competition; deep understanding and creativity are valued over rote learning and examination.
  • PSI recruits worldwide: 85 percent of students come from outside of Canada.
  • PSI takes calculated risks, seeking extraordinary talent who may have non-traditional academic backgrounds but have demonstrated exceptional scientific aptitude.

PSI is now accepting applications for the class of 2016/17. Applications are due by February 1, 2016.

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Robert Zubrin’s reasoning on space exploration

[Just shooting from the hip here, for fun.]

I think we should send humans to Mars, but I don’t really think it’s possible to justify it as an instrumental means of achieving other more concrete goals. (I just take it as an intrinsic goal.) But here is Robert Zubrin making the best instrumental case I’ve heard.

My biggest criticism is that not finding evidence of life on Mars does not imply life is extraordinarily rare, because there are other options besides easy-starting life (with the great filter somewhere after) and extremely-hard-starting life. If you think it’s possible that there’s a filter strong enough to prevent single-cell life from developing interstellar travelI’m skeptical. When it comes to estimating extremely unlikely events, with multiple independent unlikely steps that all need to happen quickly, the development of the first replicator seems to require vastly more steps than relatively simple things like sexual reproduction. The only thing that makes me uncertain is the possibility that there are extremely simple replicators that resemble nothing like minimal cells, and there is a relatively natural progression to minimal cells that simply isn’t large enough to leave fossils. I would love to update on this if you know something I’m not thinking of.a  , then it’s still very possible that single-cell life is hard-enough to start that we wouldn’t expect to find it on Mars, yet is still relatively common in the galaxy. Indeed, it’s easy (assuming a strong late filter) to imagine that life is easy to start with liquid water plus X, where X is a relative common planetary condition that just has never existed on Mars.

That said, Zubrin’s argument is better than I was expecting, and I agree that getting a quasi-definitive answer on whether there was ever life on Mars — even with my strong prior against it — is probably the best new evidence we are likely to collect for a very long time with regard to the prevalence of life in the universe.… [continue reading]

My talk on dark matter decoherence detection

I gave a talk recently on Itay’s and my latests results for detecting dark matter through the decoherence it induces in matter interferometers.

[Download MP4]If you ever have problems finding the direct download link for videos on PI’s website (they are sometimes missing), this Firefox extension seems to do the trick.a  

Relevant paper on the diffusion SQL is here: . The main dark matter paper is still a work in progress.


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  1. If you ever have problems finding the direct download link for videos on PI’s website (they are sometimes missing), this Firefox extension seems to do the trick.
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Abstracts for October-November 2015

  • (H/t Sabine.) The contraction has been happening for quite some time:

    maximum c.o.m. energy has drastically slowed down since the early 1990’s and the lepton colliders even went backwards in energy to study rare processes…Moreover, the number of the colliding beam facilities in operation has dropped from 9 two decades ago to 5 now…

  • Possibly relevant to set selection problem or, more specifically, what are the quasiclassical degrees of freedom?

    This is one of the rare papersThe first place I can remember reading this distinction coming up clearly is the dispute over Zurek and Paz’s Hyperion example.a   where I’ve seen someone clearly point out these two conceptually distinct but tightly related explanation for classicality:

    In our everyday life, to experience macrorealism it is usually sufficient to employ a certain type of decoherence (where the system is isolated [4] and only at the times of measurement the environment
    makes a premeasurement on the apparatus [5]) or the restriction of coarse-grained measurements [6–9].

    I don’t think these explanations are actually in tension, in the sense that the more one applies the less it is necessary, to understand the emergence of classicality, to appeal to the other. More precisely, I think these are currently both “underspecified” explanations, and that a complete precise understanding will be expressible in either language by making certain terms in those languages more exact.

    One can talk about decoherence of the system by an environment, but then one needs to answer: What are systems? What are the environments? Alternatively, one can talk about certain preferred variables that can only be followed in a coarse-grained manner, but then one needs to answer: What are the variables?

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Links for November 2015

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Comments on Myrvold’s Taj Mahal

Last week I saw an excellent talk by philosopher Wayne Myrvold.

(Download MP4 video here.)

The topic was well-defined, and of reasonable scope. The theorem is easily and commonly misunderstood. And Wayne’s talk served to dissolve the confusion around it, by unpacking the theorem into a handful of pieces so that you could quickly see where the rub was. I would that all philosophy of physics were so well done.

Here are the key points as I saw them:

  • The vacuum state in QFTs, even non-interacting ones, is entangled over arbitrary distances (albeit by exponentially small amounts). You can think of this as every two space-like separated regions of spacetime sharing extremely diluted Bell pairs.
  • Likewise, by virtue of its non-local nature, the vacuum contains non-zero (but stupendously tiny) overlap with all localized states. If you were able to perform a “Taj-Mahal measurement” on a region R, which ask the Yes-or-No question “Is there a Taj Mahal in R?”, you always have a non-zero (but stupendously tiny) chance of getting “Yes” and finding a Taj Mahal.
  • This non-locality arises directly from requiring the exact spectral condition, i.e., that the Hamiltonian is bounded from below. This is because the spectral condition is a global statement about modes in spacetime. It asserts that allowed states have overlap only with the positive part of the mass shell.
  • This is very analogous to the way that analytic functions are determined by their behavior in an arbitrarily small open patch of the complex plane.
  • This theorem says that some local operator, when acting on the vacuum, can produce the Taj-Mahal in a distant, space-like separated region of space-time.
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