Part II: Mass of the Death Star in Episode IV

This is the second in a two part post where I calculate the size and mass respectively of the Death Star in Episode IV (DS1).  Estimating the mass will inform discussion about the power source of the station and other energy considerations.

Part II: Mass of DS1

As argued in Part I, I assert that the diameter of DS1 is approximately 60 km based on a self-consistent scale analysis of the station plan schematics as shown during the briefing prior to the Battle of Yavin.

A “realistic” upper limit for the mass is set if the 60 km volume of DS1 was filled with the densest (real, stable) element currently known.  This is osmium with a mass density of 2.2E4 kilograms per cubic meter.  This places the mass at 2.5E18 kg with a surface gravity of 0.05g.  A filling fraction of 10% would then place a “realistic” estimate of the upper limit at 2.5E17 kg.  Other analyses have made similar assessments using futuristic materials with some volume filling-fraction, also putting the mass somewhere around 10^18 kg assuming a radius of 160 km.

In this mass analysis, using information from the available footage from the Battle of Yavin, I find a DS1 mass of roughly 2.8E23 kg, about million times the mass of a “realistic” approximation  Any supporting superstructure would be a small perturbation on this number.  This implies a surface gravity of an astounding 448g.  To account for this, my conclusion is that DS1 has a 40 m radius sphere of (contained) quark-gluon plasma or a 55 m radius quantity of neutronium at its core.  Such materials, if converted to useful energy with an efficiency of 0.1%, would be ample to 1) provide the 2.21E32 J/shot of energy required to destroy a planet as well as 2) serve as a power source for sub-light propulsion.


The approach here uses the information available in the schematics shown during the briefing.  The briefing displays a simulation of the battle along the trench to the exhaust port.  Again, as shown in Part I of this post, the simulation scale is self-consistent with other scales in both the schematic and the actual battle footage.  As shown in Figure 1, the proton torpedo is launched into projectile motion only under the influence of gravity.  It appears to be at rest with respect to the x-wing as it climbs at an angle of about 25 degrees.

Figure 1

Figure 2

From the previous scale analysis in Part I, the distance from the port, d, and height, h, above the the port can be estimated.  They are approximately equal, h = d = 21 meters. The length of the x-wing is L = 12.5 m.  After deployment, the trajectory slightly rises and then falls into the exhaust port as shown in Figure 2.  A straightforward projectile motion calculation gives the formula for the necessary downward acceleration to follow the trajectory of an object under these conditions

a=\frac{2 V_{0}^2}{d}(\frac{h}{d}+\tan{\theta})\cos^2{\theta}\ \ \ \ (1)

Where t is the launch angle and Vo is the initial horizontal velocity of the projectile.  If we assume for simplicity that the angle \theta = 0 degrees and h = d, the formula simplifies to

a=\frac{2 V_{0}^2}{d}\ \ \ \ (2).

From the surface gravity, the mass of can be obtained, assuming Newtonian gravity,

M=\frac{a R^2}{G}\ \ \ \ (3).

Here G = 1.67E-11 Nm/kg, the gravitational constant.  For a bombing run, let’s assume the initial speed of the projectile to be the speed of the x-wing coming down the trench.  To estimate the speed, v, of the x-wing, information from the on-board battle computers is used.  In Part I, the length of the trench leading to the exhaust port was estimated to be about x = 4.7 kilometers.  On the battle computers, the number display coincidentally starts counting down from the range of about 47000 (units not displayed).  However, from this connection I will assume that the battle computers are measuring the distance to the launch point in decimeters.  From three battle computer approach edits, shown in Clip 1 below, and using the real time length of the different edits, the speed of an x-wing along the trench is estimated to be about 214 meters/second (481 miles/hour).  This is close to the cruising speed of a typical airliner — exceptionally fast given the operating conditions, but not unphysical.  This gives a realistic 22 seconds for an x-wing to travel down the trench on a bombing run.

Using this speed and the other information, this places the surface gravity of DS1 at about 448 g (where g is the acceleration due to gravity on the surface of the earth).  DS1 would have to have a corresponding mass of 2.4E23 kg to be consistent with this.

However, it is clear that considerable liberty was taken in the above analysis and perhaps too much credibility was given to the battle simulation alone, which does not entirely match the dynamics show in the footage of the battle. Upon inspection of the footage, the proton torpedoes are clearly launched with thrust of their own at a speed greater than that of the x-wing.  A reasonable estimate might put v (torpedo) to be roughly twice the cruising speed of the x-wing.  Moreover, the torpedoes are obviously not launched a mere d = 21 meters from the port (although h = 21 is plausible), rather sufficiently far such that the port is just out of sight in the clip.  Finally, the torpedoes enter the port at an awkward angle and appear to be “sucked in.”  One might argue that there could be a heat seeking capability in the torpedo.  However, this seems unlikely.  If this were the case, then it greatly dilutes the narrative of the battle, which strongly indicates not only that the shot was very difficult but that it required the power of the Force to really be successful.  Clearly, “heat seeking missiles along with the power of the Force” is a less satisfying message.  Indeed, some have speculated that the shot could only have been made by Space Wizards.  These scenarios, and other realistic permutations, are in tension with the simulation shown in the briefing.  Based on different adjustments of the parameters v (torpedo), h, d, and th, one can tune the value of the surface gravity and mass to be just about anything.

However, if we attempt to be consistent with the battle footage, we might assume again that t=0 degrees while d = 210 m, and v (torpedo) = 2 v (x-wing) for propulsion.  The speed of the x-wing can remain the same as before at 214 m/s.  Even with this, the surface gravity will be 18g.  This still leads to a mass over 10000 times larger than the mass of a realistic superstructure.  In this case, a ball of neutronium 18 m in radius could still be contained in the center to account for this mass.

Nevertheless, my analysis is based on the following premise: the simulation indicates that the rebel analysts at least believed, based on the best information available, that a dead drop of a proton torpedo into the port, only under the influence of DS1’s gravity, was at least possible at d = h = 21 meters at the cruising speed of an x-wing flying along the trench under fire nap-of-the-earth.  Any dynamics that occurred in real time under battle conditions would ultimately need to be consistent with this.

The large intrinsic surface acceleration may seem problematic (consider tidal forces or other substantial technological complications).  However, as demonstrated repeatedly in the Star Wars universe, there already exists exquisite technology to manipulate gravity and create the appropriate artificial gravity conditions to accommodate human activities (e.g. within DS1, the x-wings, etc.) under a very wide range of activities (e.g. acceleration to hyperspace, rapid maneuvering of spacecraft, artificial gravity within spacecraft at arbitrary angles, etc.).


Implications for such a large mass.  

One hypothesis that would explain such a large mass would be to assume DS1 had, at its core, a substantial quantity of localized neutrinoium or quark-gluon plasma contained as an energy source.  Such a source with high energy density could be used for the purposes of powering a weapon capable of destroying a planet, as an energy source for propulsion, and other support activities.  For example, the destiny of neutronium is about 4E17 kilograms per cubic meter and a quark-gluon plasma is about 1E18 kilograms per cubic meter.  Specifically, a contained sphere of neutronium at the center of the death star of radius 55 meters would account for the calculated mass and surface gravity of DS1.

It has been estimated that approximately 2.4E32 joules of energy would be required to destroy an earth-sized planet.  If 6.7 cubic meters of neutronium (e.g. a sphere of radius 1.88 m) could be converted to useful energy with an efficiency of 0.1%, this would be sufficient to destroy a planet (assuming the supporting technology was in place).  This is using the formula

\Delta E=\epsilon\Delta m c^2\ \ \ \ (4)

where \Delta E is the useful energy extracted from a mass \Delta m with efficiency \epsilon.  The mass is converted to a volume using the density of the material.

By using the work-energy theorem, the energy required to accelerate DS1 to an arbitrary speed can be estimated.  Assuming the possibility for relativistic motion, it can be shown (left as an exerise for the reader) that the volume V of fuel of density \rho required to accelerate an object of mass M to a light-speed fraction \beta at efficiency \epsilon is given by

V=\frac{1}{\sqrt{1-\beta^2}}\left(\frac{M}{\epsilon\rho}\right)\ \ \ \ (5).

This does not account for the loss of mass as the fuel is used, so represents an upper limit.  For example, to accelerate DS1 with M = 2.4E23 kg from rest to 0.1% the speed of light (0.001 c) would require about 296 cubic meters of neutronium (a sphere of radius 4.1 m).

From this, one concludes that the propulsion system may be the largest energy consideration rather than the primary weapon.  For example, consider DS1 enters our solar system from hyperspace (whose energetics are not considered here) and found itself near the orbit of mars.  It would take two days for it to travel to earth at 0.001 c.


Part I: Size of the Death Star in Episode IV

This is the first in a two part post where I calculate the size and mass respectively of the Death Star in Episode IV (DS1).  At the end of Part II I will discuss thoughts about the energy source of DS1.

Part I: Size of DS1

Conventional wisdom from multiple sources places the size of DS1 to about 100-160 km in diameter.  Based on an analysis of the station’s plans acquired by the Rebels, I estimate that the diameter of DS1 is 60 kilometers, not 100 km to 160 km.  To bolster the case, this scale is compared to other scales for self-consistency, such as the width of the trench leading to the exhaust port in the Battle of Yavin. Part II of the post will focus on the mass of DS1 using related methods.

To estimate the size of DS1, I will begin with the given length scale of the exhaust port w = 2 m.  This information was provided in the briefing prior to the Battle of Yavin where the battle strategy and DS1 schematics are presented.  This scale, when applied to Figure 1, is consistent with the accepted length of an x-wing L = 12.5 m.  I assume that the x-wing has an equal wingspan (there does not seem to be consistent values available).  I am also assuming that the “small, one-man fighter” referred to in the briefing is an x-wing, not a y-wing.  The x-wing is a smaller, newer model than the y-wing and it is natural to take that as the template.  The self-consistent length scales of w and L will establish the length calibration for the rest of the analysis.

Figure 1: A close up view of the exhaust port chamber during final phase of the bombing run.  The port width is given as w = 2 m.  The length of the x-wing is L = 12.5 m.  The forward hole, of length l, is then determined to be about 10 m.

From this, I extract the length of the smaller forward hole in Figure 1 to be approximately l = 10 m.

Figure 2: As the plans zoom out, a larger view of the exhaust port chamber of width t = 186 m.  The first hole is shown with width l = 10 m.  The scale of width l was determined based on information in Figure 1.  The width of t was determined based on the scale of l.

Using l as a calibration, this establishes the exhaust port chamber in Figure 2 to be approximately t = 186 m.

In Figure 3a and Figure 3b, circles of different radii were overlaid on the battle plans until a good match for the radius was established.  Care was taken to have the sphere’s osculate the given curvature and to center the radial line down the exhaust conduit.  From here, the size of the exhaust port chamber, of width t, was used as a calibration to approximate the diameter of DS1 as D = 60 km (red).  Several other circles are show in Figure 3 to demonstrate that this estimation is sensible: 160 km (purple), 100 km (black), and 30 km (blue).  It is clear that a diameter of 160 km is definitely not consistent with station’s schematics.  A diameter of 100 km is not wildly off, but is clearly systematically large across the range over the given arc length.  30 km is clearly too small.

While a diameter of 60 km may seem modest in comparison to the previously estimated 100 km to 160 km range, an appropriately scaled image of New York City is overlaid in Figure 4 to illustrate the magnitude of this systems in real-world terms; even a sphere of 60 km (red) is an obscenely large space station, considering this is only the diameter — more than adequate to remain consistentwith existing canon.  The size of the main ring of the LHC (8.6 km) is overlaid in light blue, also for scale.

Figure 3a (to the right of the exhaust port chamber): As the plans zoom out further, the exhaust port chamber of width t = 186 m is shown with the curvature of DS1 (the square blob is the proton torpedo that has entered the port).  The scale of t was determined based on information in Figure 2.  Several circles with calibrated diameters based on the scales set in Figures 1 and 2 are shown.  The 60 km diameter circle in red is arguably the best match to the curvature.  Care was taken to match the point of contact of the circles to a common central location along the radial port.

Figure 3b (to the left of the exhaust port chamber): The same idea as Figure 3a.  The 60 km diameter is still arguably the best match, although is a little shy on this side. The 100 km diameter, the next best candidate, is shooting higher than the 60 km is shooting low. Since an exact mathematical fit wasn’t performed, the expected radius is probably a bit higher than 60 km, but significantly lower than 100 km.



Figure 4: A 60 km diameter circle in red (with yellow diameter indicator) shown overlaid on a Google Earth image of the greater New York City region.  The blue ring is an overlay of the scale of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (about 8.5 km in diameter) — note the blue ring is not a scaled representation of the main weapon!  The main message here is that a 60 km station, although smaller than the accepted 100-150 km, is still freakin’ HUGE.  At this scale, there is only a rather modest indication of the massive urban infrastructure associated with New York City.

As another check on self-consistency, the diameter D is then used to calibrate the successive zooms on the station schematics, as shown in Figures 5 and 6.  The length B = 10 km is the width of the zoom patch from Figure 5, X = 4.7 km is the length of the trench run, and b = 134 m is the width of one trench sector. From Figure 6, the width of the trench is estimated to be b’ = 60 m, able to accommodate roughly five x-wing fighters lined wingtip-to-wingtip.  This indicates that the zoom factor is about 1000x in the briefing.

Figure 7 is a busy plot.  It overlays several accurately scaled images over the 60 m trench, shown with two parallel red lines, to reinforce plausibility.  Starting from the top: an airport runway with a 737 ready for takeoff (wingspan 34 m); a 100 m-wide yellow calibration line; a 60 m-wide yellow calibration line; the widths of an x-wing (green, Wx = 12.5 m, where I’ve assumed the wingspan is about the same as the length — there does not seem to be a consensus online; I’ve seen the value quoted to be 10.9 m, but it isn’t well-sourced) and tie fighter (red, 6.34 m); and a scaled image from footage of two x-wings flying in formation, with a yellow 60 m calibration line as well as a calibrated green arrow placed over the nearer one to indicate 12.5 m.  As predicted, about five x-wings could fit across based on the still image.  Also from this, the depth of the trench is estimated to also be 60 m.  The scales are all quite reasonable and consistent. It is worth noting that if the station were 100 km, the next possible sensible fit to the arc length in Figure 3, the width of the trench would be about 100 m, twice the current scale.  This would not be consistent with either the visuals from the battle footage or the airport runway scales.

In short, while there is certainly worthy critique of this work, I argue that, after a reasonably careful analysis of the stolen plans for DS1, all scales paint a self-consistent picture that the diameter of DS1 is very close to 60 km.

Figure 5: A zoom-out of DS1 in the briefing based on the stolen battle plans.  D = 60 km is the diameter and B = 10 km is the width of the patch in the region of interest near the exhaust port.

Figure 6: A zoom in in the region of interest patch near the exhaust port channel (see Figure 5) with B = 10 km.  the channel itself is about X = 4.7 km long.  The width of the channel is about b = 134 m.  Inset is a further zoom of the insertion point along the channel.  Width of the channel itself is about b’ = 60 m.

Figure 7: A zoom of the insertion point along the channel for the bombing run.  Several elements are overplayed for a sense of scale and for consistency comparisons.  The red parallel lines represent the left and right edges of the channel.  From the top of the figure is a 737 with a wing span of 34 m.  The 737 is on a runway (at SFO).  Down from the 737 is a  yellow line that represents 100 m.  This would be the width of the channel if D = 100 km, which is clearly much too large based on the battle plans.  The next horizontal yellow arrow is the 60 m width based on the scales assumed with D = 60 m.  Next down, embedded in the vertical lines of the runway: a green block representing the width of an x-wing and a red block representing the width of a tie fighter.  Finally, at the bottom is a shot from the battle footage.  It has been scaled so the edges of the walls match the width of the channel (shown as a horizontal yellow arrow).  The width of the near x-wing is shown with a green horizontal arrow, which matches the expected scale of an x-wing.


How Do I Learn New Things?

As an educator, I confront the two questions daily in the context of higher education:

  • how do students learn?
  • what is the role of teachers in the learning process?

There is a vast literature on this and entire academic fields of study devoted to these two questions.

Putting aside this ocean of work done by trained professionals, here I’d like to reflect on how I believe I learn new things.  It is an ongoing project for me to apply this to my own teaching.  However, this isn’t about my teaching style, but a meditation on my own internal modes of learning.

The main bullet points would be:

  • I have to want to learn and be engaged
  • I have to have a simple conceptual foothold to get me started
  • I need to see lots of examples, practice them myself, and obtain rapid feedback
  • I need to have some modest stress
  • I need to apply the learning repeatedly over long periods
  • I need to accept that sustained learning requires multiple exposures
  • I have to memorize key ideas and concepts
  • I need to develop an internal model

I have to want to learn a topic.

Learning a new thing I want to learn can be challenging.  However, it is perhaps not surprising that learning a new thing I don’t want to learn is really, really hard.  My strategy: If there is a topic that I’m being “forced” to learn (e.g. some kind of required training), I pretend I want to learn it.  Like many undergraduates, I had to take many classes (usually General Education courses) that I really didn’t want to take.  But once enrolled and attending, I made every effort to try and learn the new topic as if I wanted to learn it.  This shift in attitude made all the difference in my enjoyment of the course and my ability to learn the content.  Eventually, the sentiment becomes genuine and one really does want to learn the new topic.  This happened to me during an American History class in my senior year of college.  I ended up having to take it based on the GE options available.  But I kicked into this mode I described and really ended up enjoying it.  Another more recent example are these State-mandated sexual harassment sensitivity trainings we must do every couple years.  They aren’t exactly convenient to do and can be much longer to take than you expect.  It is natural to start resenting them.  However, by popping into my “pretend like I want to learn this” mode, they actually become quite interesting and informative.

I have to be engaged in the learning process.

Engagement strategies come in several forms for me:

  • Paying attention
  • Taking copious notes and drawing pictures
  • Making connections between ideas and to things I already know
  • Asking questions
  • Reviewing and repeating the content
  • Memorizing key elements

Here’s one strategy I use.  I don’t just asking questions as they come up, but actually actively think of questions to ask.  That is, even if I don’t think I have questions I still think of some to ask and write them all down in my notes with a “Q*” (circled) in the margin.  By doing this, with feedback, I learn what a “good” question is for a given topic and what a “silly” question is.  The idea that “there is no such thing as a bad question” is simply incorrect.  There are “good” questions and “bad” questions.  However, part of learning a new topic is to learn what the good and bad questions are.  This means asking lots of bad questions.  A better way of turning around that education trope would be “you will ask bad questions when you are learning something new, and that’s ok, even encouraged.”  To a point.  There is a pivot where asking lots questions becomes an attention-seeking exercise and wastes other people’s time, particularly in a classroom setting.  So there is a balance.  Sometimes just writing the question down and seeing if the education process answers it naturally is the best thing.

In contrast to some common active learning activities in modern pedagogy, I don’t usually benefit from talking to others who are also learning the topic (e.g. peer instruction, think-pair-share, etc.).  That activity is helpful for morale (e.g. realizing others are confused too), but it doesn’t seem to help with my learning.  What tends to happen is that we reinforce each others’ misconceptions and walk away thinking we know more than we do.  It can also reinforce a sense that “we are all confused, so the instructor must be screwing up.”  Talking with an instructor directly is a different matter and that can be very helpful.

I have to find an intellectual or conceptual foothold in the topic.

I have to get an early confidence boost by feeling like I understand one little, tiny thing then building on it.  My own strategy is finding analogies with things I already understand, but this has to be done delicately.  One bad analogy can set the learning process back.  This tiny thing is often a weird, special case of some concept.   What works as a foothold for me isn’t always easy to anticipate.   Frequently, it is an example that an expert would almost feel bad presenting because it doesn’t portray the entire picture and is too simplified.  It might even be something an instructor would regard as so self-evident as to not even be worth mentioning.  It can be a vapor-thin analogy or some very simple way to appreciate some concept.  It can sometimes be in the form of understanding the cultural landscape of a topic: “experts think of this idea in this way,” providing a heuristic, bird’s eye view of the concept.  Connecting back to the memorization and repetition theme above, it can mean simply knowing what some new vocabulary word means and how to use it in a sentence!  Yes, that basic!

With a foothold, even if somewhat trivial, the seeds of understanding start to bloom. Note: One can’t stick to the simple, heuristic version forever, but a foothold is essential for me to start.

I have to see a lot of examples then be able to try it myself with rapid feedback.

Coupled to the foothold is the well-crafted example.  My strategy is to seek such examples.  A few completely worked examples that build in complexity are really important to me as I learn new things.  It can take a rather abstract idea and solidify it very quickly.  Yes, the understanding gleaned from an example may be superficial by the standards of an expert, but for me-as-the-student these baby steps are super important.  After seeing a few examples, I need to try it myself then get instant feedback about how I did.  This procedure of seeing a well-crafted example, trying it myself, then getting feedback basically needs to be repeated in some form or another.

I have to have a learning context that has the right balance between stress and leisure.

If my motivation to learn is entirely carefree and leisurely, I’ve found my ability to learn is softened quite a bit.  I might be entertained, but I won’t really learn anything.  My strategy is to come up with a reason to learn something.  Sometimes this isn’t hard because I legitimately have to learn something.  However, even just having a certain personal drive to learn something new can be sufficient to motivate — but there has to be some intensity to the experience, even if internally (“artificially”) generated.  But too much stress is a serious problem.  If I feel that I “must” learn it, feel like I’m having to cram for some reason, or that a lot is at stake for some reason, my own thinking gets very clouded and the whole learning process gets damped.

I have to repeat and practice the modest skills I’ve built over a long period of time.

I can’t really learn something on first exposure. For me, sustainable learning and mastery is iterative.  I pretty much have to apply any new knowledge I learn on a regular basis to retain it.  The old “use it or lose it” platitude is basically true.  This isn’t really a surprise.  As a younger student, the half life of knowledge was longer.  However, I think the fact remains that having to use what I learn allows me to retain the “I learned this” status.

Of course, the motivation for learning something new might not be to use it indefinitely.  Having learned something, even in the short term, as a form of entertainment, can be rewarding.  However, having learned something once, just reviewing it can be easy and lets me get back in the groove. Going back to the intellectual foothold point above: these footholds can serve as reentry points.  They are like those little mnemonic boxes people use in their minds;  they are little pointers to topics, rather than the topics themselves.  With a simple conceptual trigger, a wide infrastructure of the original learning can reopen.

I have to (gasp) memorize stuff.

This is considered blasphemy in my field, but to learn something new I have to memorize a lot of patterns and repeatedly use them until I don’t have to think about them.  This is so certain words and patterns become integrated with my thinking and are no longer some external thing I have to keep looking up, which slows things down.  Even if I understand the concepts, having to stop and lookup/review “what does this symbol mean again?”  is very distracting and bogs down ongoing mastery.  This might include formulas, constants, vocabulary, graphics, sounds, etc.  The memorization need not be active, but it might need to be at first.  Yes, I can understand the concept of something without memorizing anything.  But, sadly, just understanding the concept isn’t usually good enough to actually apply something I’m trying to learn.  This flies in the face of the basic philosophy of my own field of study!  Concepts rein supreme!  In fact, it may even fly in the face of actual studies.  But I have a hard time giving this up.  I’m not saying that memorizing is the same as deep learning or “true understanding.” But it is essential for me if I want want to make progress and apply newfound knowledge.

I understand the concept of chess pretty intuitively, but could I really play it competently without knowing (without hesitation!) how the pieces move at a glance?  No way.  But make no mistake, just knowing how the pieces move isn’t mastery either.  However, it is a necessary condition for mastery.

Without memorizing stuff, the learning process can evaporate quickly.  As topics become more advanced beyond just the inspirational introduction, the information builds on itself.  Without simply knowing what the words mean, it all becomes a firehose of vocabulary.  If you want to think like an expert in that field, you have to know what the words and ideas actually are without hesitation.

It is easy to dismiss memorization and repetition as a pathetic crutch for the intellectually weak — this is easy to say if you already have the important things memorized!  But if you are just learning something new, having a few key ideas memorized and internalized (ideas that you might not yet understand) can make the learning go so much faster.

Memorization isn’t understanding, but it can make the process of understanding so much easier!

I have to build an internal model.

This is really the culmination of all of the above.  Eventually, the processes above align with my brain and I reach a certain level of mastery and learning.  I have attained an internal way of thinking of it that maps directly onto the reality of the topic.  It is difficult to describe an “internal model.”  It is neurological.  Internally, it is qualitative and part of my qualia.  Some set of ideas, words, concepts, applications, etc. that seemed unfamiliar are now familiar and can be applied to new things.  It is a curious effect.  The words and symbols that meant nothing last week now have some internal substance that can be manipulated in a meaningful way.  It is quite satisfying.  My ultimate test to see if I’ve learned a topic is to see if I can apply it to something new.  More frequently than not, I’m disappointed in my inability to do so at a level I would like.  It is humbling, but a nice check.  Learning and mastery are ongoing experiences, usually lifelong, and it should be no surprise that innovations and creative problem solving don’t come quickly.

So, that’s a very rough outline about how I tend to learn things.  I’ve certainly forgot many other factors.  Also, I’ve probably overstated and understated some of the ones above.  In any case, hopefully I’ve left you with some food for thought: how do YOU learn new things?

Solve Any Number Sequence Problem (Cheap Shot)

Number sequence puzzles are a problem solving staple. There are obvious ones, obscure ones, and famous ones like the Fibonacci sequence. I assert that given a few numbers (say 5 or 6) in a sequence and asked to identify “what is the next number?” there is a way to solve it that won’t generally involve the intended solution, but will nevertheless aways be right.  But it is sort of cheating. No, take that back. It is cheating.

The trick is to find the (first appearance of the) sequence you seek in the digits of pi or any other transcendental number like e, phi, or pick your favorite.  You can then read off the remaining digits using some convenient grouping to fill out the sequence to arbitrarily large values of necessary.  Frequently, unless you have pi memorized to hundreds of thousands, millions, even billions of digits, this will require a program or online resource of some kind to find the sequence in the digits of pi.

Let’s do some examples.  Take a few number series puzzles from dailybrainteaser one of many such fun puzzle sites:

What is the next number in this series?
6, 14, 36, 98, 276, ?

First, we look for the pattern 6143698276 in pi using, The Pi-Search Page, or Irrational Numbers Search Engine.  The former does a fast, as you type, search over the first 200 million digits while the later does a deeper search out to 2 billion digits (these are just a couple of many sites available).  As any small child can see, 6143698276 appears at the 1,962,082,153th digit of pi.  A few of the digits after that look like: 614369827631848334.  One can then casually claim something like: “the next number in the sequence 6, 14, 36, 98, 276 is 318 where 318 is (obviously) the next three digits after 6143698276 starting at the 1,962,082,153th digit of pi.  Bam!”  Mike drop.  No argument.

As the given sequence gets longer, the less likely one will find the sequence in a transcendental search engine assuming such numbers are essentially a random distribution.  For example, the sequence 6143698276 doesn’t occur in the first two billion digits of e or sqrt(2).

Here’s another:

What Comes next in sequence
1 , 4 , 5 , 6 , 7 , 9 , 11 ?

This one’s easy because it is relatively short.  The pattern 14567911 appears at the 64,362,285th digit of pi.  The few digits after it are 1456791122892. So, with great confidence, you can say “the sequence is obviously 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11, 22.”  Repeat argument above.  End conversation awkwardly.

I appreciate this is quite gimmick-y.  One can invent any number of arbitrary solutions to these sequence puzzles.  Even for this approach, there will be multiple perfectly correct solutions, even just using pi alone.  For example, in our second example above, 14567911 appears an infinite number of times in pi.   Puzzles of this kind optimally involve a very specific elegant solution that uses your Puzzler.  Nevertheless, this approach is amusing for the first couple times, lets you get your geek out, and can at least temporarily distract family and friends while you really try to solve the puzzle.

Teaching Philosphy

Force Density

I was recently promoted to full Professor of Physics at Cal Poly.  I joke that, nearly 50, I’ve finally grown up and got a real job.  This was roughly a thirty year project from starting my freshman year as a physics major at San Jose State in 1986, through my masters degree, through my Ph.D. at UC Davis, through three postdocs, through a tenure-track probationary period at Cal Poly, through a tenured Associate Professor position, until finally as a full Professor in the fall of 2016 at Cal Poly.

In my case for promotion, I had to submit a teaching philosophy, which I would like to share here.  The ideas in it are not new; I don’t claim to have invented them.  Moreover, they are not cited because, in some ways, they are rather ordinary, blending into the background mythology of teaching culture.  However, I feel that the particular personal way I have presented the ideas is perhaps worth sharing.  The essence can be summarized as this: “Like I began, I have applied my own teaching principles to my own journey in learning how to teach.”

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

In my nine years at Cal Poly, I feel I’ve grown as a teacher and mentor. However, this newfound wisdom also makes me question my own growth; I now know how little I know whereas, when I started, I thought I had it all figured out. As someone not formally educated in Education, here are some of the things I’ve learned.

I believe education is important, but its success and purpose are difficult to quantify.

I believe education is important, but its success and purpose are difficult to quantify.  In education, success and purpose can become a tautological exercise where one begins defining accomplishments in terms of what one is accomplishing. This is not unlike adding items you have already completed on a to-do list then immediately checking them off to feel productive. There are many sensible metrics of education effectiveness, but most are of a specialized nature or difficult to identify. Like Heisenberg’s celebrated Uncertainty Principle, it seems that the more specific a metric of one educational success is, the more uncertain is its ability to measure another aspect of success. In my own teaching and mentoring in physics, this abiguity has driven me to reflect on the purpose of our curriculum and focus on what we want to achieve and how to measure it. Nevertheless, I believe that education generates understanding of the world, removes ignorance, and allows us to face the future with courage and dignity.

Education generates understanding of the world, removes ignorance, and allows us to face the future with courage and dignity.

But setting aside abstract philosophies of education, my conclusion is that a successful education is one where a student discovers their own definition of success and develops the skills to pursue it.  My particular specialty is physics, but I’m also human. If I facilitate this process by providing some skills and focus though my physics and my humanity, both in and outside the classroom, then I have been a successful teacher and mentor. I have helped guide many students through the struggles of the technical, day-to-day details of coursework, mentored them as they find their career path, and consoled them in their struggle to find out who they are as a person.

A successful education is one where a student discovers their own definition of success and develops the skills to pursue it.

Helping physics students find their own definition of success and finding the corresponding skill set to accomplish this has been challenging for me. But it is a challenge I have committed my life to and embrace with aplomb. In physics, one of the biggest barriers to promoting student success is also one of its greatest strengths: physics is both very generalized and yet fundamental by nature. Physics involves scientific ideas spanning about 30 orders of magnitude in space and time – from the quantum world to the cosmos and everything in between. It is a daunting task to prioritize these ideas for undergraduates and generate practical skills while also imparting rigor, problem solving, and deep understanding of fundamental concepts about the nature of reality. In my own work, I continue to experiment with different teaching styles and techniques, but have settled into what might be called the “traditional method” of lecturing enthusiastically at a board with chalk, asking them questions in class, giving regular exams and quizzes with quick feedback, and being available to students in and out of class, either online or in person. This path has allowed me to optimize my own ability to convey to students my enthusiasm for physics and to coach them in a positive, constructive way through the learning process. Feedback from students indicate they genuinely appreciate this.

Being satisfied and fulfilled as an teacher is a critical part of the student’s success and learning process.

Being satisfied and fulfilled as an teacher is a critical part of the student’s success and learning process. An empowered instructor is one who feels they are making a difference. An instructor driven far outside their comfort zone will not facilitate student success. If an instructor’s enthusiasm is suppressed, both instructor and student will suffer. Nevertheless, a teacher should be flexible and encouraged to experiment with different teaching methods while innovating, but they should also settle into a style that is most comfortable for them without becoming complacent or without compromising intellectual integrity. Because I’ve found my comfort zone, this also creates a positive learning environment for the students. They trust me to guide them on the intellectual journey because of the friendly confidence I try to convey.

The future will always require good teachers to engage and inspire students face-to-face.

The future will always require good teachers to engage and inspire students face-to-face.  In my option, teaching and learning cannot be completely emulated with computer algorithms, online courses, or simply reading about a topic at home. Yes, all of those things can augment a learning experience but, until the invention of neural implants, which instantly inject knowledge, experience, and mastery directly into the human brain, interaction with a human teacher is necessary for deep learning. While I do add some elements of technology to my courses and mentoring, I try to learn everyone’s name and treat them as a coach would treat a team: we are all in it together and let’s try to win this game together. In this context, it gives me a chance to connect more with students inside and outside the classroom and give them very personalized feedback. Grades are not given as an authoritative effort to control, rather a genuine source of assessment that helps them improve their mastery. I aim to allow students to make mistakes and learn from them without feeling like they are a failure.

A teacher gives a student a foothold into a complex topic and helps them initiate the learning process.

A teacher gives a student a foothold into a complex topic and helps them initiate the learning process. A subject like physics is overwhelming – to try and learn it from scratch without guidance would be an intimidating undertaking. Without this foothold, developing skills in physics would be quite challenging. But, like with any project, it is best to master it in small, digestible chunks. The teacher is one who has made the journey through the material and can break the material into the right-sized pieces. I try to take the perspective of the student, remembering what is like not to know something, and then convey the concepts that allowed me to make the transition to an expert. I reenforce this by giving many content-rich homework and content-rich take home exams in addition to challenging in-class exams.

A teacher can facilitate learning and guide the process, but cannot be responsible for it.

A teacher can facilitate learning and guide the process, but cannot be responsible for it.  A topic cannot be mastered in a single course. It takes repeated exposure to a topic over many years to begin to develop a meaningful understanding of something new. Learning a topic is a complicated undertaking. How much one has learned may not be realized for weeks, months, or even years after being exposed to it. Sometimes learning happens actively and voluntarily, but it even happens passively and involuntarily. To ask students right after a course “how much did you learn” is a meaningless question. Most instructors learn new things about material they have been teaching for decades. Given the students are the least qualified to assess their own learning, how could students possibly know how much they learned after a course if they have no baseline to compare it to? The adage “the more you know, the more you know how little you know” applies here. Similarly, akin to the Dunning-Kruger effect, “the less you know, the less you know how little you know.” This latter effect tends to breed overconfidence. A good teacher gives students a sense of a bigger world of knowledge, generating some self doubt, but without squelching enthusiasm to explore it further.

One role of a teacher is to, without sacrificing rigor, promote student satisfaction and to inspire students to learn more about a topic for the rest of their lives.

 One role of a teacher is to, without sacrificing rigor, promote student satisfaction and to inspire students to learn more about a topic for the rest of their lives.  In some ways, I value student satisfaction and the inspiration to continue their intellectual journey more than the content itself. In this respect, I try and provide the student with an educational Experience rather than just another class.

So, like I began, I have applied my own teaching principles to my own journey in learning how to teach.  By doing so, I have learned how little I knew. I have defined my own success and pursued the skills to attain it. I have taken initiative in generating and expanding my own learning process. Without compromising rigor, I have also found satisfaction in the experience of teaching, inspiring me to continue learning about it the rest of my life. This experience, I hope, makes a difference to my students and allows them to find their own successful paths.

Wednesday Mourning

Even after just over two weeks, I’m still not in an emotional or intellectual state of mind to discuss the details of the 2016 presidential election.  I’m profoundly angry and disappointed, even depressed, with the outcome Tuesday, November 8, 2016. The world feels like a darker place. If I’m feeling the way I do, I can only imagine how others, who have much more at stake than I do, must feel.

Regarding any discussion of the election in my personal life, I shut every casual family conversation down.  Every hallway discussion at work.  Every Sunday morning pundit.   I can’t listen to any tabloid media at all on any topic: no Huffington Post;  no Facebook feeds;  no clever memes;  no MSNBC;  no CNN;  no SNL; no John Oliver; no Steven Colbert; no FOX, no political comedy.  You get the picture.  Also, in an act of awfulness, I cut out any other reputable political news sources except for actual useful, hard information coming from the likes of NPR, NYT, and the Washington Post.  In all cases, no opinions or speculation perpetuated by the punditocracy are allowed.  I can’t.  It all seems so transparently stupid now.

If I seem out of touch, forgive me. If Hawaii has already seceded and Alaska was invaded by Iceland, I’m probably a month behind these developments. If a recount or unfaithful elector made Jill Stein president, I’m probably too consumed with teaching my courses to care.  I currently rely on my wife to tell me if we nuke Canada or make Bill Cosby the Secretary of Education, otherwise I’m out.  Some have told me this decoupling is irresponsible.  They are right. Dear colleagues: yes, I will join the fight again.  But I can’t do it now. Not yet.  I need to mourn.

Come January 2021, I can only hope President Obama will be sworn into office as the first female black president.

Science Lies? Tales from the Science Illuminati

I’m a physics professor at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA.  Recently I came tWriting on dooro work early to find my office door decorated with the word “LIES” written in a childish scrawl across a “I Support Science” Darwin Fish sticker I have in the window of my office door.  The graffito, written with a red whiteboard marker, was probably composed by a student the evening before while studying in the building.  It was a minor annoyance to remove it because it was written on the frosted matte side of the window that wasn’t really meant to be used as a whiteboard.  I notified my Chair and my Dean of the situation.  They were sympathetic and obviously found the vandalism inappropriate.

I think it bothered me for all the right reasons.  I’m reminded that campus climate is not exactly universally friendly toward certain scientific principles that happen to be in tension with people’s religion.  That’s not good.  It makes me uncomfortable.  But in addition to the message, what makes me feel strange is the willingness to deface a professor’s door at all.  Even if someone wrote “cool!” across the fish, it would feel weird.  Who does that?

But, I was also able to dismiss it for all the right reasons. When the best argument someone can muster against evolution is an anonymous “LIES” scribbled on a physics professor’s door in the middle of the night,  it betrays a lazy and crippling intellectual weakness.  The feeble anonymous assertion “LIES” seems a cowardly gasp.   It’s a spontaneous act by a creationist that un-coyly says “I strongly disagree with you.”  But it is weird language. A lie is a deliberate act to deceive.  It implies evolution is like a conspiracy perpetuated by the Science Illuminati.  It would be the kind of anti-establishment graffiti someone would see in the 70s.  Naturally, I know exactly what it means to write “LIES” across an “I Support Science” Darwin Fish.  It is obvious.   However, the word choice is funny.  I think what they really meant was “WRONG.”

Some peers have shrugged off the defacement with a “kids will be kids” attitude: “Yes, it’s inappropriate, but you sort of had it coming with that provocative sticker.”  It is a sad state of affairs when passively declaring support for one of the most evidence-based theoretical frameworks in all of science is considered “provocative.”  The most support I’ve received is from the students in my department.  They were genuinely shocked at the event and were actually concerned about me, unambiguously condemning the action.  One student wrote me a very touching email making it clear that he and the other students stood behind me.  Although an unfortunate context, that part really did make me feel greatly supported.  It is a privilege to work with such colleagues.

Now back to sacrificing another Schrödinger’s Goat in my weekly ritual to actively perpetuate my sinister New World Order Parameter.

Gray Hair Issue in A Rose For Emily

A Rose for Emily is a classic short story by William Faulkner.  There are spoilers here, so if you haven’t read it, I suggest doing so before proceeding.  It is a fun, quick read.  If you want, you can read the plot summary on the Wikipedia page.  I will identify the plot points I think are important for my analysis, but will assume the reader is familiar with the story.


Some technical observations

The story has many layers to it, technical, literary, and symbolic.  For example, on a technical level, Faulkner mostly uses the interesting first person plural point of view.  That is, the story is narrated abstractly by “the town” that refers to itself as “we,” yet using the tone as if it were an individual.  That is, “we” thinks of itself as a single person.  Perhaps this is meant to imply that a single person from the town is telling the story as an old yarn for a passerby on behalf of the rest?  But we are never told who this narrator is or what their actual role is in the story.  They seem to be in on every detail of the plot in an omniscient way that no single person could realistically know.  In any case, this point of view does add a layer of abstraction (for me, anyway).

Another technical twist is how Faulkner really gets us turned around with the timeline.  This type of non-linear plot seems natural in the telling (as if it were told from the collective memory of the entire town).  In fact, the timeline has even been analyzed by computer algorithms to find inconsistencies.

Summary and question

The story is about a woman who killed her lover years ago and has been sleeping with his dead body.  Early in the story it is obvious she killed someone.  Eventually the reader can figure out it is Homer Barron, her lover.  The climax is the realization she has been sleeping with the body.

My question is: how recently had she slept with the body?  My assumption, since I first read the story as a youngster, was that she had been sleeping in that bed with him right up until her death.  But that isn’t consistent with the information in the story.  My conclusion:  Although she died when she was seventy-four, she must have stopped sleeping with the body when she was in her mid-thrities.  What is my reasoning?

A little preamble

Most of the time in the story, Faulkner is just playing with us.  He wants the the reader to believe the town folks are just daft and couldn’t figure out there was a body in the house and that she killed someone (or was about to, depending on where we are on timeline).  Later, when it is mentioned that Homer Barron vanished, we as the reader think we have it all figured out.  You could see that coming from a mile away!  How very clever we are!  In fact, you start to question the competence of Faulkner because it looks like he’s is going to end with a softball murder mystery.  Sure the writing is pretty like poetry, but couldn’t he have had a better, less cliche, plot? 

You start to question the competence of Faulkner because it looks like he’s is going to end with a softball murder mystery.

The clues and my case

The cracks of my established assumptions start in Section V after she dies:

“Already we knew that there was one room in that region above stairs which no one had seen in forty years, and which would have to be forced”

The key terms are “no one had seen in forty years” and “had to be forced.”  Taken literally, “no one” includes her.  That the door had to be forced emphasizes the door wasn’t just locked, but stuck because of neglect.  Also, there is no mention of a key.  If Faulkner wanted to emphasize that she could have, in principle, been in the room over the intervening forty ears, he only needed to add the adjective “locked” to “door.”  But he didn’t. Then they bust it down.  Since she died at seventy-four, going forty years back, she had to be about thirty-four since being in that room.

When they bust into the room they find the body of Homer Barron on a decrepit bed.  The piece finishes with the famous climax:

“Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.

Yikes!  It isn’t a murder mystery at all.  We realize that we were supposed to figure out early in the story that she murdered him.  It was a ploy to lead us into a false sense of security.  No, the mystery isn’t that she just murdered him, but had been sleeping with him, perhaps even engaging in necrophilia.  Ew!

Right before the climax, we get a description of the pillow:

 “and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.”

Notice that the second pillow, with the iron gray hair, was as dusty as the room. I assert it also hasn’t been used for forty years.  Indeed, these are the exact words one would use to describe a pillow that hadn’t been used in decades.

All this implies she not only had to be about thrirty-four when she was last in the room, but it was also implies that this was the last time she slept with the body.

Timeline of gray hair development?

Earlier in Section III, he states

“‘I want some poison,’ she said to the druggist. She was over thirty…”

So she must kill Homer when she is older than thirty.

In Section IV Faulkner describes the evolution of her gray hair and the passage of time:

“When we next saw Miss Emily, she had grown fat and her hair was turning gray. During the next few years it grew grayer and grayer until it attained an even pepper-and-salt iron-gray, when it ceased turning. Up to the day of her death at seventy-four it was still that vigorous iron-gray…”

The paragraph prior describes the period time right after her lover, Homer Barron, disappears.  Then “some time” passes.  Then they “next saw Miss Emily” and her hair is graying and turns grayer and grayer over the next “few years” and it seems to saturate to iron gray at this time.  Then she does the china-painting when she was about forty, presumably when her hair was already saturated gray.  Then there is an extended period when they don’t see her.  When she dies at age seventy-four, she still has the iron gray hair.

 It makes you wonder if her early graying had something to do with the stresses of engaging in necrophilia.

So, the timeline of the gray hair on the pillow (as I now interpret it) goes something like this:

  1. “Over thirty:” kills Homer with arsenic, hides the body in the house (smell had to start around here, right?)
  2. Early-thrities: the town folk next see her again, hair turning gray
  3. Mid-thirties: “the next few years” hair turns grayer and grayer, saturating in an iron gray color
  4. “About forty:” Starts china-painting, hair already iron gray
  5. Mid-Sixties: they try and collect taxes, “vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty years before about the smell”
  6. Forties through seventies: seen occasionally in the window
  7. Seventy-four: she dies, room is busted open after being closed for forty years, iron-gray hair is next to pillow, bringing us to somewhere around (3) when she last left the iron-gray hair.

Anyway, this is very different from my image of her sleeping with the body up to the age of seventy-four.  The story implies that she last slept with the body as a woman around age thirty-four, leaving the iron-gray strand on the pillow.  After that, she sealed the room for forty years before her secret was discovered by the towns people after she died.

It makes you wonder if her early graying had something to do with the stresses of engaging in necrophilia.

Wrap up

Perhaps all this theory is well known amongst Faulkner scholars and high school English teachers, but I had fun teasing out these clues.

I think I have made a pretty good case, based on the text itself, that she hadn’t slept with the body for about forty years before her death. I’m not sure “if” or “how” this changes any of the story’s message.  Perhaps it implies she herself stopped clinging to the past long ago, but was still willing to let it fester in the sad recesses of her mind.

If you assume she had been sleeping the body until her death, you have to add extra information not provided: perhaps there was a key, perhaps the towns folk kicked up dust and it landed on the pillow, perhaps she lay softly enough on the pillow to not disturb the dust, perhaps by “no one” it means “no one but her.”

Faulkner was more about symbology of the Old South than murder mysteries.  My observations may highlight unimportant details that aren’t important for the basic message.  Still, if my hypothesis holds together, I have another question: why did she stop sleeping with the body when she was thirty four?

Observations of Cal Poly SLO Veritas Forum 2016, “Can Science Explain Everything”

The Veritas Forum ullresented a discussion entitled “Can Science Explain Everything” held at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo (California) on January 27, 2016.  Although it is an independent entity, is appears to be closely related to Cru Central Coast.  Cru is a national Christian organization that typically operates in and around college campuses.  It was formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ.  I’m not sure if there is a formal relationship between Cru and Veritas, but they appear closely connected in our area.  Because the two seemed so entangled, I will probably not be consistent with my language in identifying the components of the event that are associated with each organization.

The following commentary is primarily about this specific event, with some references to recent ones at Cal Poly, and not The Veritas Forum nor Cru in general.

In case you don’t wan to read the whole TL;DR thing, my personal position on the event:

Summary: my observations of the event

The meeting was enjoyable, but bigger than I expected.  Both sides were provocative, entertaining, and articulate. However, the question was loaded and had many unstated major premises.  There was asymmetry between the profile of their speaker compared to ours.  The speakers talked past each other because most terms being used were not well defined.  The question itself should have been “Can Subjective Experiences be Described Objectively.”  But this is an entirely different talk that could be completely secular in nature, diving deep into formal philosophy.

Summary: my answer to the question “Can Science Explain Everything?”

Science can, in principle, and provisionally explain things that can be explained.  It cannot explain things that are not explainable.  However, (at least) one twist: you don’t know in advance what can and can’t be explained, nor what fraction of explainable things are known. The best we can do is, as observations arise, assume something is explainable and move forward with tests and more observations.  If something appears unexplainable then we should still try to figure it out, living with any mystery or uncertainty.  Never declare anything unexplainable, this is a privileged assertion that is unavailable by definition.  My advice?  Avoid filling mysteries with oddly specific answers.  Learn to live with mystery and assume everything can be figured out in principle.  If you find an explanation, treat that as a provisional placeholder — one that can be ejected when better evidence and information come along.

Avoid filling mysteries with oddly specific answers.  Learn to live with mystery and assume everything can be figured out in principle.  

Full(er) report

The Veritas Forum is a yearly event on the Cal Poly campus that aims to faciliate dialog between the Christian worldview and other views, typically those traditionally in tension with Christianity like atheism or secularism.  The Veritas Form is a regular event across Cru-active campuses around the United States, Canada, and some European countries.

The speaker for Cru was Ian Hutchinson, an engineering professor at MIT who specializes in plasma physics.  He is an outspoken advocate of the Christian religion and is keenly interested in the interplay between religion and science.  He focuses primarily on deflating scientism.

Representing the atheist view was Paul Rinzler, a Cal Poly professor in the music department. He is on the board of directors of Atheists United San Luis Obispo and is also the co-avisor of the Cal Poly student club AHA (Alliance for Happy Atheists).  I am the primary faculty advisor for AHA and have been for about five years.  I have been contacted in the past about being the atheist representative for Veritas.  I have politely declined.  However, in the past I have recommended Pete Schwartz from the Cal Poly physics department as well as Ken Brown from Cal Poly’s philosophy department.  Both Pete and Ken participated in 2014 and 2015 respectively.  This year, I was invited to participate in a faculty Q&A held on the Thursday afterward (I was not able to attend because of other time commitments).  I should note that AHA is a very small student club with perhaps 15-20 members. 

Science can provisionally explain things that can be explained.  It cannot explain things that are not explainable.  However, you don’t know in advance what can and can’t be explained, nor what fraction of explainable things are known. 

I had the pleasure of having dinner the evening of the event with Paul and Ian, along with student representatives from AHA, Veritas, and Cru (both the local reps and some regional reps) .  Even one of my colleagues from the physics department, who is involved in Veritas (and/or Cru?), was also at dinner.  I didn’t expect to see her, but it was fun.

First, before getting into my concerns and observations about the event, I would like to make it clear that I found found the individuals in Cru (and/or Veritas?) as well as Ian, to be very pleasant and friendly.  We had much in common and had some very nice discussions about side topics peripheral to the main religious theme of the Forum: music, physics, culture, work, “small world” social connections, and so on.  My critique and observations are not judgements of the individuals.  They are a passionate, hardworking group that profoundly believe in what they are doing.  When I was an undergraduate, I regularly participated (as an atheist!) in a Christian Youth Group circa 1989.  I made some great friends who I keep in touch with to this day.  There was real camaraderie, honest discussion, and genuine respect amongst us all.  It was primarily a social group.  The emphasis was on love in the form of philia, brotherly love.  They were very accepting and I really have fond memories of that period of my life.  However, there was a part of the group’s activities that focused on what is referred to as agape.  This is a kind of spiritual love between an individual and god (in this case the Christian god). I couldn’t easily relate to this.  Naturally, for a bunch of high school and undergraduates, there was plenty of eros to go around as well.

Anyway, Cru and the associated student participants and attendees (going beyond the Cru leadership) reminded me very much of this experience I had in Youth Group.  In fact, their attitudes and personalities felt very natural and comfortable to me for this very reason.  I found their friendliness continuous and I actually wanted to spend time with them as individuals.  Again, this is largely due to my very positive experiences in the Youth Group where I never felt judged as an atheist, but rather accepted as a person.

That said, I have concerns about the event and its content I feel compelled to discuss here.

Despite appearing very open and named Veritas (“truth”), there is a fundamental dishonesty to the entire event.  This dishonestly is not necessarily a conscious one on the part of the organizers, although there is certainly a marketing angle that certainly must drive this at higher corporate levels. The Veritas Forum aims to host an honest intellectual discussion between opposing views.  They seem to genuinely want to have a serious conversation about the topics they propose.

Why do I think it may be dishonest?


First, some context.  Cru is not a small organization.  Cru and The Veritas Forum bring considerable resources to the event.  They are very professional and it is a well-oiled machine.  This is no smalltime operation.  They aim to present themselves as a TED-style or Intelligence^2 experience.  They effortlessly filled the 1200-set Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly (PAC), offering free attendance.  They had a full compliment of ushers provided by Cal Poly and had access to all the resources available to the venue.  This use of the PAC is very, very expensive.  And, this was not the first show on the speaker’s agenda.  He had just come from two other Veritas events in the past two days in other states.  Frankly, I had no idea what I was getting into.

Now, this would not be a bad thing by itself.  In fact, it could easily be viewed as a good thing. They bring fairly high profile speakers from their camp.   They are the Lawrence Krausses, the Sam Harrises, and the Michael Shermers of their world: medium level celebrities who have books published and who do many, many speaking engagements on the topics being discussed.  In other words, they are refined professionals with considerable experience in public discussions on the topics of interest.  They have their talking points and messages keenly refined.  Moreover, they have “heard it all.”  They are performers who know how to work their audience.  They know exactly what to expect.

Again, why is this bad?

However, at least for our events, they do not have high profile atheist speakers.  They select, in coordination with AHA,  someone locally or on campus to speak for the atheists, usually seeking a local scientist.   This might seem very fair, even generous.  In fact, a certain part of me does think it is cool. Perhaps it is.  It gives local personalities, largely unknown, a chance to shine a bit and give some public exposure to AHA.  But, as I mentioned above, AHA is a ragtag student club on campus with perhaps 10-20 undergraduate members.  That said, we were billed as number two amongst the event’s sponsors, after Veritas itself but before ASI (Associated Students Incorporated — the main corporate representation of students on campus independent of, but strongly tied to, the university).  ASI is basically in charge of managing the event via the student clubs and facilities.  They are the formal interface between external entertaiment and the university, which generally disassociates itself from specific events.

But, upon reflection, there is something very odd about these practices.  The local intellectuals are not usually plugged into the main issues being discussed and are not accustomed to speaking about these issues in a public way.  Unless trained in the style of the arguments that are made, it doesn’t help if you are a scientist or not, even for scientific topics.  Basically, the whole affair is, intentionally or not, biased strongly toward Veritas while, superficially, seeming fair.  Also, while it may seem generous to put AHA on the same footing as ASI and Veritas, we essentially did nothing.  We were made to feel welcome, allowed to set up a booth, wined and dined, allowed to select a representative, but never had any input into the logistics of the event or how it would be run.  In short, we were way out of our league.  One is left with the vague sense that the purpose of AHA is really to lend credibility to the event.  By placing an atheist club on campus on the same footing as Veritas itself, it gives the perception that the discussion is totally symmetric.  Unless you are familiar with both Veritas and AHA, the asymmetry would not be apparent at all.  Little would you know that AHA, with an operating budget of about $300, has a hard time filling a small classroom once a quarter for a group meeting.  Depending on the club leadership year-to-year, we may not be organized enough to make T-shirts, never mind organize any events with international forum sponsors.

I vacillate between my thoughts on this.  On one hand it seems very warm, open, and generous to allow the local “opposition,” no matter how modest, to participate and be billed as equals.  But another part of me feels uncomfortable with the idea.  However, if I’m honest, I’d be upset if they didn’t coordinate with us, given the topics being discussed.  I guess I can’t really have it both ways, which is why I’m admitting that I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it.

It is this discomfort that has demotivated me from participating in the past.  The irony is that historically I have been viewing these events in a backwards way.  I was seeing Veritas as a fringe group whose views I didn’t want to dignify.  They were on footing with the rare-earther, the flat-earthers, or other minority extremists.  I imagined that Veritas was a local operation, a student club.  I didn’t want to lend my “gravitas” as a physics professor to such an event and lend credibility to their arguments.  However, this is, in some sense, backwards.  Their view is the status quo.  They are huge.  It is them lending gravitas to us.  WE are the small players here.  If anything, we are the ones who should be advertising our association with THEM.  But, in their world, our names to lend some marketing credibility.  They can say “atheist organization AHA was involved” or “we had distinguished Dr. YYZ, professor of science XYZ discuss ABC with our Dr. ZZY.”

Event Title

The title of this forum was quite curious.  “Can Science Explain Everything?” seems an interesting and promising line of discussion.  It certainly got my attention, getting me thinking about it right away, which seems like a good thing, right?  But it is like a leading poll question that hasn’t been vetted properly.  It (unconsciously) primes an answer.  

“Is There A Blue Gnome Eating a Yeti in Oregon?”  Such a question implies the existence of blue gnomes, the existence of yetis, that said gnomes have the possibility of eating said yetis, and that they both have a chance of being in Oregon.  Not one of those major premises has been established, but the question itself implies that they have been.

Or implies that it is even a good question to ask.  It isn’t a neutral title and places science in a defensive position.  The title has more than a few major unstated premises.  For example, has science actually ever claimed to be able to explain everything? Indeed, can you really refer to science as an entity? Science.  It isn’t itself a worldview rather a procedure (however, see my equivocation discussion below).  Why not frame it as “Can Religion Explain Everything?” or “Can Christianity Explain Everything?”  The very asking of a question in this context implies it is a good question to ask: “How Many Radians Can Actually Dance on the Head of a Pin?”, “Is There A Blue Gnome Eating a Yeti in Oregon?”  Such a question implies the existence of blue gnomes, the existence of yetis, that said gnomes have the possibility of eating said yetis, and that they both have a chance of being in Oregon.  Not one of those major premises has been established, but the question itself implies that they have been.

Equivocation of Vocabulary

I think equivocation was a big problem at this event (and this isn’t by any means unique to Veritas but is common practice in all events of this forum-y kind).  Terms were used inconsistently during the discussion, sometimes sentence-by-sentence by a single speaker: “science,” “explain,” “everything,” “god,” “religion,” “faith,” “Christianity,” “belief,” “know” (e.g. epistemology), “morality,” “meaning,” “love,” “genius,” and so on.  This made things very, very confusing.  I had to constantly fill in my own definition of what those terms meant, as did every other listener.  Yes, I understand you can’t define every word every time you use it;  that clearly would not work. But it seems like you should define some core ones central to the discussion. By allowing everyone to fill in the blank, one couldn’t help but be biased and hear what you wanted to hear.  Paul at least attempted to make this point: we need to define terms so we know what we are both talking about.  His point was that, if you are just having a subjective experience in your head and sharing it as such, it was fine to leave it fuzzy.   But if two people are having an objective discussion, How can this happen if we aren’t using terms the same way? It is the old chess vs. checkers problem: you are about to place your opponent in a knight fork when suddenly they start jumping your pieces and say “king me.”  If you aren’t playing the same game, how can you possibly begin? This line of critique was often dismissed, usually respectfully, as attempting to quantify the unquantifiable or to deconstruct the undeconstructable.  But most of these terms were not used in an arbitrary way, but rather in a very specific way that alluded to a specific definition.  I think one of the most important problems was a tendency to conflate “science” with “scientism,” as if they were the same thing.  Most scientists don’t equate scientism with science.  Most don’t know what scientism is, but I’m guessing many scientists would lean in the direction of scientism.  Scientism is basically the tendency to put “faith in science,” and that it can, in essence, explain everything.  It is science transformed into a blind belief system.  You see some of this creeping into popular culture.  The meme-machine I Fucking Love Science (IFLS) is basically in this category.  Yes, many of the things IFLS promotes are very neat, inspiring, and, sometimes, mind blowing.  But it is a scientism honeypot.  True Believers flock to it en mass.  It goes beyond just popularizing science, which is basically a good think (e.g. Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson).  IFLS takes an attitude that is just a little immature while being unapologetically zealous. Nevertheless, scientism is an cultural entity — an opinion — while science itself is a process or method.  If you know the difference, it is very confusing when the terms are used interchangeably.   If you don’t know the difference, it can really distort the discussion.

What it was really about

Let me conclude with an opinion about the content of the discussion. The most frustrating part of the event, which I can’t really blame Veritas for, is that the discussion danced around its core question.  Although they framed the question in a provocative way, the discussion really had nothing to do with religion nor science.  The real question was: “can you objectively describe a subjective experience.”  Although I’m no expert, this is a well known problem that comes up when discussing the philosophical nature of consciousness (and artificial intelligence), even in a purely secular context.

For example, the term “qualia” is used to describe the internal subjective sensation of being self-aware.  Through the integrated experience of your brain, your senses, and other internal mental process, you feel a “real me,” independent of the body, actively engaged in the world.  It is the Cartesian theater and homunculus: a typical modern person might describe being self aware as a vague sensation of a “little me” watching your experience on a big movie screen in you head directly behind your eyes.  Of course, this isn’t really the way it works.

When you subscribe to the secular worldview (which I do) there is the trope: “the mind is what the brain does.” You will usually concede that it is not clear how to objectively describe qualia — an apparently pure subjective experience.  You can measure brain function, make neural maps, measure neurotransmitter levels, and so on — make all the objective measurements you want — but the subjective experience of being aware seems to be always behind a veil.  If you were to make a machine that had all of the objective elements of what a conscious being had, you would still not be able to establish it had qualia, even if it were to describe the sensation directly to you.  Indeed, this happens every day: you also assume other people have qualia.  People certainly act like they have a similar qualia as you do — and there is perhaps good, intuitive reasons to believe it — but it isn’t something that seems to be able to be quantified based on our current abilities and imaginations.

So, the question remains: can we know something exists even if it can be described objectively?  Ian’s answer is “yes” and it applies to, amongst many things,  “love” and “faith in the existence of god.”  He would call this “a different kind of knowledge.”  For a secular person, the equivalent would be that we “know” from personal experience that qualia exists (“I think therefore I am” sorts of lines).  Nevertheless, such a subjective experience seems to elude objective description.  So, in some sense, topics like this drive home the point that we secular atheists have to be careful.  We can’t, on one hand, say that qualia is a subjective experience that we know exists (i.e. is a form of knowledge) while dismissing other subjective experiences as mere products of the brain.  Perhaps there is a “different kind of knowledge” beyond objective knowledge.

Well, not so fast.

Can science explain everything?  We need to define some terms.

Science: its a tool that can map out the consistent structure and patterns of our reality through systematic hypothesis testing and strict evidence-based refinement of these hypotheses.  Remove the culture and opinion-driven scientism from the argument.  In science as I have defined it, knowledge is always provisional.  It is subject to change if new tests or new evidence develops for new ideas. Scientific knowledge can change based on evidence and systematic testing.   This is in contrast to faith-based knowledge, which is the acceptance of an idea without systematically testable evidence.  It is a Belief.

Explainable: this is when a claim is systematically testable enough that a consistent model can be developed through one or more lines of evidence.  This model should be able predict new testable things and fit well into established knowledge of formerly explainable things.  Under these conditions, the claim can be provisionally “explained” subject to ongoing testing and evidence.  When multiple lines of evidence support a claim under some well defined set of physical conditions, we might call this a Law or a Theory.

Everything: Well, its everything.  Vast swaths of everything include many strange things beyond our ability to process.  In our context “everything” can be bundled into “explained,” “unexplained,” “unexplainable,” and a host of categories we don’t even know exist.  In each of the cases, we can break explainability into “known” and “unknown.”  This is going to get very Rumsfeld-ian, so forgive me.  Basically, there are

  1. explainable things we are working on, but don’t know if they are explainable
  2. explainable things we are working, but suspect are explainable
  3. various categories of explainable things we aren’t working on
  4. unexplainable things we are working on, but don’t know they are unexplainable
  5. explainable things we don’t know exist
  6. unexplainable things we don’t know exist

In addition, we can’t know a priori if something is explainable or not.  To twist the dagger even further, we never know if something is unexplainable.  Basically, we observe things, try to test them with science and build lines of evidence and models of consistency.  If this observation turns out to be in the unexplainable category, we will never know it.  We can give up trying to explain it (but that might mean it is explainable but we gave up too early).  Or it can mean that it is genuinely unexplainable.  Both results look the same.  If it can be explained, it will be with science (albeit with provisional knowledge at each phase).

Summary: my observations of the event

The meeting was enjoyable, but bigger than I expected.  Both sides were provocative, entertaining, and articulate. However, the question was loaded and had many unstated major premises.  There was asymmetry between the profile of their speaker compared to ours.  The speakers talked past each other because most terms being used were not well defined.

Summary: my answer to the question “Can Science Explain Everything?”

Science can, in principle, and provisionally explain things that can be explained.  It cannot explain things that are not explainable.  However, (at least) one twist: you don’t know in advance what can and can’t be explained, nor what fraction of explainable things are known. The best we can do is, as observations arise, assume something is explainable and move forward with tests and more observations.  If something appears unexplainable then we should still try to figure it out, living with any mystery or uncertainty.  Never declare anything unexplainable, this is a privileged assertion that is unavailable by definition.  My advice?  Avoid filling mysteries with oddly specific answers.  Learn to live with mystery and assume everything can be figured out in principle.  If you find an explanation, treat that as a provisional placeholder — one that can be ejected when better evidence and information come along.




The Best Nest


The Best Nest by P.D. Eastman


The classic children’s book The Best Nest by children’s author P.D. Eastman, published in 1968, is one of the books that really sticks with me from my childhood.

I recall my mom reading it to me when I was about four or five. I’ve read it to my kids for years and my four-year-olds particularly adore it. It is the simple story of how a mama and papa bird go through a series of misadventures in an effort to find a new home, only to discover that their original home was really the best one after all. We find out at the end that the mama bird was ready to lay an egg and the whole effort was driven by her motherly instinct to find a safe space for her baby. It is sappy, and reinforces certain gender stereotypes, but is ultimately good-natured. While simple, it does follow the classic hero’s journey. After hardship and adventure, you find your way back to where you started as changed person (or bird, in this case), now wiser to the ways of the world (like not to nest in bell towers). When we got it for my kids years ago, I had instant flashbacks with the artwork, recalling fixations I’d had with certain details that, as an adult, I would never have noticed: the way the straw stuck out in their mouths, the particular hat the mama bird wore, the particular angle and character of the rain that came down on the papa bird at the end. All of it jumped out again.



The church in the town featured in The Best Nest

One of the big turning points in the story is when the birds find this wonderful space for their nest. It is huge. It has all sorts of great views of the area. The mother bird thinks it is the best place. However, we, the reader, know that something will go terribly wrong: the space is really a bell tower for a church. The papa bird goes out to find new materials for their nest while the mama sets up shop. Well, sure enough, a funky beatnik proto-hippy guy named Mr. Parker, comes to the church and rings the hell out of that bell like he has no other outlet for his life’s frustrations.  The guy clearly loves his job. The papa bird comes back to find the place littered with bird feathers and no mama bird. He fears the worst and goes on a quest to find her.

Oberlander R.D. #1 Waldoboro, Ma...

Oberlander, R.D. #1, Waldoboro, Ma…

Before they find the bell tower, they look in other places for a new nest. One of the potential nests is a mailbox. Now, as I mentioned, as a kid I had particular fixations in details I would never had seen as an adult; conversely, in reading it to my children, I also found details I would never have found as a kid.  For example, one of the reasons they decided not to pick the mailbox is that, while they were checking it out, a mailman comes by and puts some mail into the mailbox.  Definitely not an ideal space for a pair of birds.

However, the piece of mail has an address on it (upside down in the text of the book):

R.D. #1
Waldoboro, Ma…
Circa 2016, there is indeed an [Old] Road 1 in Waldoboro, Maine.  There is also an Oberlander family name that appears in that town’s older records.  That’s sort of neat.  Naturally, using Google Streeview, I wandered around to see if I could find the church where the bell tower was.  While not definitive, I have two candidates.  Sure, these churches are pretty generic shapes for the area.  Nevertheless, with a specific town to focus on, you can be pretty sure it must be one of two churches, or a composite, that P.D. used as a template.  He could have also just made something up from memory or imagination.
The first one, Broad Bay Congregational Church, has the correct weathervane, the correct three-window structure, a circular region in the middle, and an obvious bell tower.  It also has a front that is roughly consistent with the drawing, although obviously updated (e.g. it has two windows on each side of the door).
Waldoboro Broad Bay Congregational Church, 941 Main St, Waldoboro, Maine)

Waldoboro Broad Bay Congregational Church 941 Main St, Waldoboro, Maine

The second one, Waldoboro United Methodist Church, also has the three window configuration in the side, has similar slats near the bell tower as the drawing in the story (the slats were one of the weirdly specific things I fixated on as a child), and a pointy tower that resembles the one in the drawing.  But it does not have the right window configuration, the weathervane, nor the circular slats.
Waldoboro United Methodist Church (side view), 85 Friendship Street (Route 220), Waldoboro, Maine)

Waldoboro United Methodist Church (side view) 85 Friendship Street (Route 220), Waldoboro, Maine

Waldoboro United Methodist Church (front view), 85 Friendship Street (Route 220), Waldoboro, Maine.

Waldoboro United Methodist Church (front view), 85 Friendship Street (Route 220), Waldoboro, Maine.

My hunch is that the first one, Broad Bay Congregational Church, is the one in the story.  I suspect that during the time since P.D. Eastman wrote the story (circa 1968),  it has had a few upgrades.
But, as I said earlier, these are very common generic “Protestant-style” East Coast churches.  The story might have nothing to do with these specific churches.
Anyway, I had fun with this little distraction.  If anyone knows more about this Easter egg planted by P.D. Eastman, about any connection he may have had to the Waldoboro region, or the reason he might have picked “Oberlander” for the recipient of the letter on R.D #1, I’d love to hear about it.