Rev Dr Dr Prof David Wilkinson, Principal of St John's College Durham 
Monday, 26 September, 2011, 07:44 AM - Science, Wilkinson
Rating 5 out of 5 (Extraordinarily platitudinous)

The OPERA experiment at CERN seems to have detected neutrinos travelling slightly faster than the speed of light. If true then this will overturn one of the foundations of physics, Einstein's Theory of Relativity. One physicist has even promised to eat his boxer shorts live on TV if it turns out to be true.

But this is how science works. We perform experiments, gather data, consolidate the data using theory, make predictions and do the whole cycle over and over again. Theory is developed using skill, judgement and intuition. Which is exactly like faith, isn't it? Michael Polanyi as good as said so. He was a Christian you know?

So what about the Invisible Magic Friend? Well, science is no good at telling you about the Invisible Magic Friend because he's invisible and magic. Theologians explore invisible magic things in exactly the same way as scientists do with visible not-magic things, apart from not doing experiments, not collecting data, not having to restrict our theories to being consistent with the data (because there isn't any), but in every other respect it's exactly the same.

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I Don't Understand Quantum Field Theory - Part I 
Sunday, 25 September, 2011, 10:40 AM - Science, Not TFTD
It's not for the want of trying. Over the past couple of years I've purchased the following shelf full of books on the subject.

I was able to read a couple of chapters of most of them before getting lost. In some I barely managed a couple of pages. This is despite the fact that they all have their followers on Amazon who assured me that this was the book for beginners. The writing was simple, clear, direct and accessible to anyone with even the flimsiest of familiarity with basic physics. Only a completely dumb idiot could fail to understand the subject after reading this book.

I have managed to (nearly) finish one of them: Gauge Theories in Particle Physics, Volume I by Aitchison and Hey. It's taken me over a year. I've compiled a collection of notes almost as big as the book itself. One chapter alone took me over four months to get through, largely because I realised I had to reread the start of the book, and the relevant sections from several other books as well. As if that wasn't embarrassing enough, the title of the chapter begins with the word "Elementary." The authors are at pains to point out that Vol I is the easy bit and that things get much harder in Vol II.

So, partly to show off, partly to organise my thoughts and partly to pass on what little I've learned, I thought I'd try writing some of this stuff down on this blog. If I write anything that seems to contradict what real physicists say, then believe the real physicist.

17 comments ( 738 views )   |  permalink   |   ( 3 / 362 )

Rev Dr Dr Prof David Wilkinson, Principal of St John's College Durham 
Monday, 19 September, 2011, 07:11 AM - Science, Wilkinson
Rating 4 out of 5 (Highly platitudinous)

The planet Kepler 16b orbits two suns, just like George Lucas predicted in Star Wars. It makes you wonder whether there's intellegient life somewhere up in space.

Hundreds of extra-solar planets have been found now, many be the Kepler space telescope. When their atmospheres have been examined we'll be able to tell whether some of them might support life. What effect will this have on religion?

Absolutely none is the answer. We'll go on saying exactly the same stuff as we've always done. You see, the Invisible Magic Friend didn't make the universe just for our benefit. Christians don't believe that. No Christian has ever said that. The Christian Church has always believed in extra-solar planets and has always been very nice to anyone who wanted to talk about them.

You can trust me on this. I started out as an astrophysicist you know, before abandoning it for the far more interesting career as a theologian. Kepler was a Christian himself, which just goes to show how right Christianity must be, although he also believed in astrology, which is wrong, so you can ignore that belief.

15 comments ( 1326 views )   |  permalink   |   ( 3.4 / 318 )

The Fallacy of Fine Tuning 
Sunday, 14 August, 2011, 07:28 AM - Science, Not TFTD
I've just finished reading Victor Stenger's The Fallacy of Fine Tuning. I've never felt comfortable with fine tuning arguments, but I've always lacked sufficient knowledge to argue against them. Stenger's book brings all the claims of fine tuning together and systematically demolishes them one by one.

Stenger repeatedly points out that he does not have to disprove claims of fine tuning. The burden of proof is on those who claim that the universe has been miraculously fine tuned. All he has to do is present plausible scientific explanations. He does this in the case of various cosmological parameters and parameters from particle physics, using well established physics and without the need to resort to fanciful speculation.

The book includes a nice description of what Stenger calls "point of view invariance". Both General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory are grounded in the principle that the laws of physics should look the same to every observer. Any universe that has the same basic symmetries will have the same forces of nature which will behave in essentially the same way. (See my separate discussion on field theory.) This makes the book a handy and concise summary of the standard models of particle physics and cosmology.

Most physical constants are completely arbitrary and serve only to define the units of measurement. Only dimensionless measures can truly be compared. The only way to construct a dimensionless measure for gravity is to include an arbitrary mass - by convention the proton mass. This leads to the often repeated claim that gravity is unusually weak. Yet, if you use the simplest mass that can be constructed from fundamental constants, the Planck mass, gravity comes out over a hundred times stronger than electromagnetism! The result you get depends entirely on the masses and charges you use to do the comparison. What needs to be explained is not the weakness of gravity, but the small masses of protons and neutrons - something that Stenger immediately shows are well within the ranges expected by current physical models. Again, this will be true in any universe with the same basic symmetries.

In cosmology, Stenger catches both William Lane Craig and Dinesh D'Souza quote mining. They quote from Hawking's "A Brief History of Time", arguing that the expansion rate of the universe is finely tuned. Neither bother to mention that Hawking explains why it has such a precise value just a few pages later (it's because of cosmic inflation).

Stenger addresses the problem of how the universe's entropy (i.e. disorder) can be continually increasing. This suggests that it started in a highly ordered state. He shows how it can begin in a state of maximum entropy, and remain in a state of maximum entropy, while still permitting local order to form. He even has time to make the point that, if the universe started in a state of total chaos, it remembers nothing from the past - including the intentions of its creator.

One of his most powerful methods in the book is to recognise that many of the parameters of nature are inter-related. By altering two or more simultaneously, it is possible to model a wide variety of universes capable of supporting long lived stars and the heavy element synthesis required for complex chemistry. Indeed, he varied these parameters randomly over many orders of magnitude and still managed to simulate a surprisingly high percentage of universes with the claimed necessary conditions for life.

And so it goes on, with one claim of fine tuning after another being repeatedly shredded.

Finally, the book includes a Bayesian argument that points out that a universe friendly to life is evidence for a naturally occurring universe, not for one created by a deity. This is such a nice argument that I'm going to cover it in detail in a subsequent post.

The book is aimed at a general readership, with the appropriate mathematical arguments safely confined to inset boxes. That being said, there are rather a lot of those inset boxes and the more mathematics and physics the reader understands, the more they will learn from this text. As Stenger himself says, "anyone with sufficient knowledge to write authoritatively on fine-tuning should have no trouble following my mathematical arguments."
3 comments ( 1119 views )   |  permalink   |   ( 3 / 366 )

So long, Space Shuttle 
Thursday, 21 July, 2011, 12:54 PM - Science, Not TFTD

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Rev Dr Dr Prof David Wilkinson, Principal of St John's College Durham  
Monday, 13 June, 2011, 07:21 AM - Science, Wilkinson
Rating 4 out of 5 (Highly platitudinous)

Today, the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunisation will ask for 2.3billion to help save the lives of 4 million children a year.

This is science doing good things, but what is science really for? Francis Bacon thought it was to give us power over nature, but Bacon also thought it could be used to relieve suffering. That's because he was a Christian. If he hadn't been a Christian he probably wouldn't have bothered with the second bit. Thankfully he was a Christian, and could be bothered with the second bit, and that's why many scientists today want to do good things.

Science is a gift from the Invisible Magic Friend. I love science. That's why I gave it up to do theology. The Big Book of Magic Stuff is just full of tips on using inductive reasoning, experimental method, empirical verification of theory, and falsifiability, with its inspirational commands like, "Don't eat from the tree of knowledge or you'll all die." Jesus himself spent a great deal of his time healing people. Pay no attention to that woman the other week who said healing the sick was just a hobby for Jesus. It was really important.

As Jesus said over and over again, "I can't emphasise enough the importance of the scientific method. All ideas, no matter how much authority their authors claim, must be continually tested and verified. This is really important people. You won't believe what you'll be able to do if you just embrace this one simple notion."

So, as you see, science was invented by the Invisible Magic Friend because he is so compassionate that he wanted us to find cures for all the diseases he'd invented. For various reasons he just didn't want to give it to us for the first few thousand years.

12 comments ( 1194 views )   |  permalink   |   ( 3 / 236 )

Who says physicists can't rap? 
Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 06:32 AM - Science, Not TFTD


The experiment Mitch Benn was referring to is explained here. It's a variant on the classic experiment where single photons of light are fired through a double slit. Despite the fact that photons arrive one at a time at their destination, they still gradually build up an interference pattern.

| .
light source --> | .
| .
double .
slit interference

If you try to observe the photons as they go through one or both of the two slits, the interference pattern is destroyed. This new variant on the experiment sets up four calcite filters at different distances after the double slit. Photons in a definite polarization state and with a definite wavelength (and therefore definite momentum magnitude) are then fired at the double slit. The photons hit the filters at different angles. This means their distance through the filters vary and, due to the properties of the calcite filters, alters their polarization by an amount proportional to the length of their path through the filter.

By measuring the proportion of photons that get through each filter at each point, they can determine the average polarization at each point, and therefore the average angle the photons are travelling at. They thus have the average direction and magnitude of momentum at each point and can construct some really pretty graphs of the photon paths as they build up the interference pattern.

Quantum Mechanics says that you can't measure the position and momentum of a single particle simultaneously, but that's not what's happening here. The experiment is measuring the average properties of a whole bunch of particles, which Quantum Mechanics definitely allows. One of the reasons the experiment is causing a bit of a fuss, is the striking similarity between the paths they have sketched and the theoretical paths predicted by Bohm's hidden variable theory of Quantum Mechanics.

This is only what I could get from the scienceblogs post. I don't have access to academic journals any more. I'd very much like to see the original paper if someone could send me a copy.

Mustn't forget today's stunning Astronomy Picture of the Day.
7 comments ( 990 views )   |  permalink   |   ( 3 / 247 )

Shaikh Abdal Hakim Murad, Muslim Chaplain at the University of Cambridge  
Wednesday, 27 April, 2011, 07:19 AM - Science, Murad
Rating 5 out of 5 (Extraordinarily platitudinous)

A leaked memo suggests that the Higgs boson might have been found - the so-called "god" particle. You do realise that we European taxpayers are paying billions for this, don't you?

My first contact with the Large Hadron Collider, was when a Muslim physicist approached me with a vital question.

"Oh wise one, is it permitted for me to work on the Large Hadron Collider. You see it is possible it might create a black hole that will destroy the entire observable universe.

[Ed - either he wasn't a very good physicist, or, rather more likely, the good Shaik misunderstood him]

After deep study of the Quantum Field Theory of Gravity, I was able to determine that the Koran did not mention working on a Large Hadron Collider that might create a black hole that will destroy the entire observable universe and therefore he was permitted to conduct his research.

"Oh thank you oh wise one," he replied. "It is thanks to such wisdom as yours that science prospers so well in Islamic lands today."

There is a widespread misunderstanding among the theologically naive. They seem to think that, just because science keeps discovering how things work, that this somehow makes the Invisible Magic Friend less necessary. Science is all well and good. I'm a big fan of science, really, but in the real world, theology is much more complex and sophisticated than that. I would explain more but i doubt if you would understand the subtlety involved.

The discovery of the Higgs does not explain why anything exists at all, does it? So as you can see, so long as there is one gap left, there is still plenty of room for the invisible Magic Friend to fill it. Nor does it explain why we are here. There must be a reason and no amount of physicists with their "calculations" and advanced arithmetic will ever answer that.

These are questions that are so much deeper and higher and mysteriouser than those poor old scientists can address. Ultimately, this is why theology is so much more important than science.

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Campaign Against DHMO 
Friday, 22 April, 2011, 06:15 AM - Science, Not TFTD
Many of you will have seen the pharygula link to the Guardian piece concerning Real Water.

In the interests of informing my readership about the dangers of plain tap water, I would like to point you all to the campaign against Dihydrogen Monoxide. Remember, knowledge is power.
7 comments ( 781 views )   |  permalink   |   ( 3 / 500 )

Rev Canon Dr Alan Billings 
Monday, 11 April, 2011, 07:31 AM - Education, Science, Billings
Rating 5 out of 5 (Extraordinarily platitudinous)

Martin Rees, who in case you haven't heard of him, is the Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society, has been criticised for accepting this year's Templeton Prize. He has won the prize for his exceptional contribution to spirituality. Rees was asked why, as an atheist, he went to church.

"Well it's all part of tradition you see. We really do have the most splendid choir at Trinity, rated one of the best in the world and the chapel itself is very pretty. The clergy always dress up in the most splendid robes and sometimes they spread a lot of smoke around, which really adds to the atmosphere."

I think we can all see that Prof Rees is a most deserving winner given such an exceptional contribution to spirituality. His understanding of theology is clearly profound.

This is where so many of the shrill, loud and really not very attractive atheists get it all wrong. They keep wanting it all to make some sort of sense. It is, in fact, idle ritual, completely devoid of any real meaning. Once you grasp this essential reality, that it's just a community social occasion that makes no claims about anything in particular, many people are able to relax and enjoy the ambience that so many of our parish churches provide.

The Church really comes into its own at times of great joy or sadness. On the day when we commit ourselves to a future with our partner, or say goodbye to a loved one, what better way to do so than with a meaningless ritual conducted by a man in a dress.

Then we come to morality. Now there is, of course, no question that atheists can be just as moral as more holy people. No doubt about it. Hardly worth mentioning, but the Big Book of Magic Stuff Part II, is just full of stories about how to be moral that atheists don't learn about. This is why it is so important to send your children to Church schools. Naturally you will have to become a devout Christian to do this, but that is a small price to pay so that we can brainwash introduce your children to the great traditions of the Church of England.

Once children have gotten used to all the pointless readings, strange hymns fully of empty words, and people talking vacuous nonsense, they will be fully prepared for a life that will continue to be enriched by paid clergy. Who knows, maybe one of your children will one day accept 1 million for making an exceptional contribution to spirituality.

3 comments ( 291 views )   |  permalink   |   ( 3 / 468 )

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