Friday, August 28, 2009

Scientists, Eccentrics, Cranks and Crackpots

General scientific community
Most of the scientific community approach science in an incremental fashion, building heavily on previous work. Most scientific models start out very simple. However, the real world is more complex and as measurements and mathematical techniques improve, the model must be refined to handle some of these details.

As an example, consider the two-body gravitational problem. The two-body problem can be modified to include the gravitational effects of more 'small' objects through perturbation analysis. If you want to consider many objects of about similar masses, you must solve the N-body problem which must be computed by numerical methods as there is no simple formula solution like the two-body problem. Most scientists spend their time not developing new models, but refining existing models and solution methods to handle more realistic situations.

Scientific eccentrics often examine unconventional ideas, but don't become attached to them if they don't match up with observations or experiments. I've found papers published in professional journals where researchers have examined many of the ideas claimed by the cranks but the paper were mostly demonstrations of why that particular idea doesn't work. A number of very successful scientists do this, they look at lots of ideas, but only hang onto the ones that work. The downside of this is that the ideas that failed still tend to get fans among the cranks and crackpots.

Other eccentrics will examine unconventional ideas, but become a little more attached to them even after they are found to have serious disagreements with observations and experiments. However, they continue to explore and revise their theories. They actually try to follow good scientific methodologies, dumping aspects of their theories that don't work and going back to the drawing board. Many of them support unconventional ideas because they regard the dominant paradigm as somehow 'unsatisfying'. Such sentiments generally suggest an emotional rather than intellectual or evidence-based belief.

Cranks and crackpots
The cranks and crackpots examine unconventional ideas, but become strongly attached to them. Any error in their analysis, even basic errors that can be easily demonstrated, are not acknowledged. In the rare case where they do provide a reasonably testable scientific model, the one successful prediction it might make, in their minds, outweighs the dozens of predictions where it fails.

The cranks rarely use good scientific methodologies, instead claiming 'logic', or the 'obvious' interpretation of some data-driven image or movie is the basis for their knowledge. They make extreme claims about how their theories explain every observation, yet it is difficult to impossible to get these theories into a form that others can do calculations which can be compared to actual measurements. The theories of cranks and crackpots flunk the important scientific test of reproducibility. Their theories are often only supported by a tiny set of cherry-picked, anecdotal, events extracted from a much larger body of contrary evidence.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Cosmos In Your Pocket: Expanded & Revised

I've just posted a major revision to my paper, “The Cosmos In Your Pocket: How Cosmological Science Became Earth Technology. I.” (arXiv: 0710.0671) to the Cornell pre-print server. This is a major update on the way to finding a journal suitable for peer review.

Note that I am currently scheduled to present on this paper in the science track program at DragonCon on Labor Day weekend.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The REAL Electric Universe

Many EU advocates try to claim that astrophysics ignores the effects of electric fields and currents as possible drivers of astrophysical phenomena. Once they do this, EU advocates try to hijack the discoveries of legitimate researchers, claiming success for their theories with any mention of currents in mainstream astrophysics. Yet electric currents and fields are discussed throughout the professional astrophysical literature, predating much of the Electric Universe.

Unfortunately, astronomy has become so specialized that there are a lot of professional astronomers who don't know about these mechanisms. Maybe they need a little refresher course in this topic to prevent them from making grossly inaccurate statements about the role of electric fields in cosmic processes.

Pannekoek-Rosseland Field:
This mechanism of charge separation and resulting electric field generation was first recognized back in the 1920s. Gravitational stratification of plasma gives light electrons a larger scale height than heavy ions. This generates a weak charge separation and small electric field, forming a structure similar to a weak double layer. The presence of dust can significantly strengthen the field. There are a number of astrophysical environments where this process is believed to act:
  • solar atmosphere and out into the solar wind
  • planetary ionospheres. This configuration contributes to the Birkeland currents identified in planetary magnetospheres.
  • galactic disk 'atmospheres'
  • possible source of seed fields for stellar dynamo processes
Offset Rotating Magnetic Dipoles:
A dipole magnet at rest just produces a magnetic field. But if the dipole is rotated and the magnetic axis of the dipole is tilted from the rotation axis, the magnetic field at any point near the magnet changes, which by Maxwell's equations, produces an electric field. Because Maxwell's equations are Lorentz invariant, the easiest way to find the values of this electric field is to transform the magnetic dipole into a rotating coordinate system. This system is a popular demonstration of how to treat relativity in rotating coordinate systems and dates back to the 1930s. Here's some areas in the astrophysical literature where this process is important:
  • Pulsars: The strong magnetic fields of fast-rotating neutron stars (~10^10 gauss) generate very strong electric fields in the charged plasma environment around them.
  • Ionospheric & Magnetospheric physics. This configuration is another contribution to the Birkeland currents identified in planetary magnetospheres.

Charge-separation by radiation pressure: Photons interact with electrons more strongly than protons and can accelerate electrons away.
  • Driver of stellar winds. In the stellar wind outflow, the electrons will get an extra boost outward due to momentum transfer by scattering from the outflowing photons.
  • Gamma-ray bursts: High-energy photons can create a charge separation in the interstellar medium (ISM)

Black Hole Electrodynamics

When ionized plasma accretes on a black hole, the external observer never sees the material cross the event horizon. Instead, the material forms a thin layer of hot plasma just outside the event horizon. This layer acts like a conducting metal shell around the object. Seeded with even small magnetic fields from the accretion disk, this configuration can generate powerful electric fields through induction. Much of this research was summarized in the book Black Holes: The Membrane Pardigm by Thorne, Price & MacDonald. 1986

Sunspot and active region processes. Some of these currents may initially be generated by the Pannekoek-Rosseland field.

All these mechanisms create the charge separations and currents using energy from other processes, usually gravity. The charge-separation itself is not the original energy process but can create non-thermal distributions of charged particles.

By the way, did you know that reputable scientists did research on cosmologies with net charge? I'll add that to my idea list for future blog posts.

I've collected a fairly extensive citation list for all these processes and plan to write more on them later. However, if I've missed any of the fundamental processes or other sites where we believe they operate, feel free to contact me by email or post a comment here. Comments will be favored if they include citations to the actual professional literature (no vanity journals!).

In one recent e-mail discussion, a correspondent claimed that EU advocates use all of these processes. However, aside from an indirect reference in Thornhill (2007) (Thornhill references a paper at mentions the Pannekoek-Rosseland field), I have found none. I would be interested to discover if EU advocates use such processes as the offset dipole or charge separation by radiation pressure. Considering how much of this early work was done by astronomers, it would suggest that the EU advocates knew they were making false statements when claiming astronomers ignore electric processes. Reports of citations in EU literature (title, author, and page number) which mentions any of the processes described above are welcome as well.

W. Thornhill. The Z-Pinch Morphology of Supernova 1987A and Electric Stars. IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science, 35:832–844, August 2007. doi: 10.1109/TPS.2007.895423

Saturday, August 15, 2009

"Critique of Some New Setterfield Material"

Barry Setterfield is a Young-Universe biblical creationist who claims that the universe is young but appears old because the speed of light was significantly higher in the past.

Like many other advocates of crank astronomy, Setterfield tries to integrate William Tifft's claims of quantized extragalactic redshifts and now aspects of plasma cosmology and the electric universe to make a static (non-expanding) universe.

My occasional collaborator, physicist Jerry Jellison, has released an update that addresses some of Barry Setterfield's more recent claims dealing with atomic structure and the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Jerry points out a number of Setterfield's math and physics errors, many so fundamental that they could be caught by any student competent in high-school physics. Jerry notes how many of Setterfield's claims are getting even more confused and self-contradictory.

“Critique of Some New Setterfield Material” by G. P. Jellison


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Video: "Sentinels of the Heliosphere"

I've written a number of posts on this blog dealing with Electric Universe (EU) advocates claims that the Sun and stars are powered externally by giant cosmic electric currents.

Electric Cosmos: The Solar Resistor Model
Electric Cosmos: The Solar Capacitor Model. I. II. III.

In these articles, I've often written about how our satellites around the Solar System see no evidence of the currents needed to power the Sun by this mechanism.

But just where are all those satellites?

Now the Scientific Visualization Studio at NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center has produced a video tour of the NASA fleet of spacecraft patrolling the region around our Sun. Note that this production does not include all of the satellites. It is focused primarily on those operated by the NASA Heliophysics Division that have been operating over the past two years. It does not include Pioneer 10 or 11, nor the Ulysses mission which was recently shut down.

Link to narrated version on NASA Podcast link & SVS
Link to older unnarrated version

So with all these satellites out there, why can't they detect the alleged intense flux of Sunward-bound electrons needed to power the Electric Sun?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Electric Universe & Creationism

I've received a number of complaints from the Electric Universe (EU) advocates complaining about my comparing them to creationists. I've written a little about this before in my rebuttal to Donald Scott's The Electric Sky, describing my original motivations for getting involved with EU (See "The Electric Sky: Short-circuited"). I moved into examination of EU claims after young-universe creationist, Barry Setterfield, began referencing Don Scott's book, The Electric Sky.

Barry Setterfield is not the only supporter of electric universe claims who is a creationist, as one can discover with some simple searches, such as
The TalkOrigins web site, a repository of material from the USENET group, even has an FAQ on Catastrophism and other material related to the claims of Immanuel Velikovsky, who might be considered the precursor to the Electric Universe movement (see Velikovsky's Ghost Returns at

Some EU advocates express incredible hatred for creationists (see this JREF Forum thread). The EU attitude is almost ideological/theological in its fervor, though I have yet to receive similar sentiments against EU from the creationists community. But there are obviously a number of EU advocates who are creationists.

Are the creationists drawn to EU because it is more satisfying as anti-Big Bang cosmology? Considering what a large fraction of US population (as much as 50% by some surveys, see "Reading the Polls on Evolution and Creationism" at the Pew Research Center) support some variant of Young-Earth Creationism, the EU community's attitude might be alienating a large fraction of those who buy their books. Perhaps the atheist EU advocates are uncomfortable about Big Bang cosmology because it does have theological implications for them? Perhaps they are uncomfortable in their atheism?

Regardless of their complaints, EU will never be able to escape an association with various flavors of creationism. Here's a few reasons why.

The Cosmology Statement
EU advocates like to promote the 'Cosmology Statement' ( This list started as an complaint by advocates of various non-Big Bang cosmologies, predominantly steady-state and plasma cosmologies. If you examine the list of signees, you will notice that a number are creationists of various stripes, or have their own cosmology to promote.

Spin, Spin, Spin
Creationists often 'spin' the science to match their interpretation. Any science news story saying some cosmological phenomena is 'younger' than previously believed, can become much younger in creationist reporting. EU advocates spin any mention of a current or electric field in magnetospheric physics or astrophysics gets labeled a success for their theory. (I'm preparing a list of the many references to electric currents and fields in historic mainstream astrophysics papers is in preparation, evidence of just how much electromagnetism influenced astronomy.)

Like creationists, the EU advocates rarely reference the actual scientific paper, but instead reference a press release. Many science press releases are 'dumbed down' for a more general audience. The guideline in the US is that scientific press releases should be readable by a person with an 8th grade education. This means a lot of details of the real science are lost in the press release. Examination of the actual research paper often reveals the weakness of the paper's support for an EU or YEC interpretation.

Anomaly Mining
EU advocates tap many of the same astronomical 'anomalies' as creationists. Here's a few that I've encountered: General solar neutrino shortage. Solar neutrinos vs. helioseismology (the 160 minute oscillation), Halton Arp's 'discordant' redshifts. William Tifft's 'quantized' redshifts. Related to anomaly mining, they often tap very old experiments that have long since been superceded by better experimental and observational technologies.

No Objectively Testable Models
Like creationism, EU advocates like to use the terminology of science, but not the methodology of science. Many of their explanations lack even the ability to be subjected to rigorous objective testing. Scientific explanations, often called 'models' are presented in a mathematical form where others can examine and actually use to predict other characteristics which can then be tested by more experiments or observations. Scientific models spell out the processes included in a form where the known laws of physics and mathematics can be applied to explore predictions.

Attempts to get details on such models from EU advocates are met with stonewalling and excuses. Attempts to apply even basic known physical principles, such as conservation of energy and Maxwell's equations, to the Electric Sun model, quickly generate predictions which have HUGE disagreements with observations (see many of my Electric Sun posts).

In this area, there are a number of creationists who actually 'get it' when it comes to the need to produce mathematical models that can generate testable predictions that can be compared to observation (John Hartnett, Russ Humphreys, etc.). While their models have other problems, they exhibit a better understanding of scientific methodology.

The Standards of Science
EU and creationists try to distinguish science used in engineering or for developing products from the science used in astrophysics, when they are in fact the same. Don Scott tries to emphasise experimentalism over theory (except for when the experimental results conflict with his ideas). Creationist Ken Ham tried to make a distinction between 'Operational' or 'Real' science' from 'Origins' science. See "Technology from Cosmology, or 'Can Creation Science Do That?'"

Like ID advocates, EU wants to lower the standards of science sufficient for their claims to qualify. And like ID, such a lower standard admits a whole realm of other pseudoscience such as astrology (link).

Reliance on Invisible Agents
While creationists invoke an unseen diety, EU advocates invoke unnamed 'nonlinearities' or 'dark currents' as solutions to problems in their own astrophysical claims, as if these processes are a mystical power like a diety. EU advocates apparently use these claims of non-linearities as excuses for not developing mathematical models, despite the fact that science regularly develops good predictions from non-linear models.

Psychological Tactics
When confronted with problems in their own models or other implications that they have no rote answer memorized, they like to change topics, claiming the NEW topic is the really important issue. Alternatively, they will try to produce a huge 'laundry list' of topics or problems to which no one could respond without an extensive amount of time & effort. For an example of this, take a look at the comments in posts of March 2009. In creationists circles, this type of overloading is commonly known as the Gish Gallop.

EU advocates & creationists like to complain about being ignored by the scientific community. Then they complain when we pay attention and poke holes in their claims, crying they are being attacked! (Reference: just read some of the comments in the March 2009 posts.) I wish they could make up their minds! But I suspect their real concern is the possible negative impact widely distributed refutations of their claims might have on their book sales or speaking honoraria.

Adoption of Religous Symbolism
You just have to look at the websites connected to EU advocacy to see the heavy symbolism from Greco-Roman mythology (see "Thunderbolts of the Gods"). Some EU advocates posting on other forums even adopt variants of these mythological characters as their pseudonyms.

To keep this post short, I refrained from including a lot of references in the examples above. Instead, I will start pointing out the connections and comparisons when addressing specific topics.

Update: January 28, 2014: Fixed broken links

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Science and Belief Systems

Note: I've been a little occupied with family issues the past few weeks, which has hindered my posts to this blog. I hope to catch up on some posts over the next few weeks before having to take some time for semi-professional travel. More on that as the details get nailed down.

Several comments in other threads of this blog (link) seem to focus not on the accuracy of the science, but on the belief system of the advocate. Some EU advocates say that anyone opposed to creationism (or in favor of atheism) should be opposed to the Big Bang cosmology because Georges Lemaitre, the first proposer of the Big Bang model, was a priest. I get similar comments from some creationists who view the same Big Bang cosmology as an atheistic model and therefore support some version of Electric Universe.

Such beliefs demonstrate a clear misunderstanding of how science works. Successful science makes predictions which agree with observations or experiments. If a given model meshes with someone's philosophical/theological beliefs, that generally has no bearing on the science itself. (A caveat to this is the occasional possibility where the researcher might claim their theory comes from divine inspiration. History has taught the scientific community that such claims are generally suspect.)

Whether a technology works or not depends on how reliably the underlying science has been applied (consciously or unconsciously) by the designer/builder, not on the belief system of the builder or user. Numerous scientists throughout history made significant contributions to science but had other beliefs that today seem, at the very least, inconsistent with their scientific achievements. Johannes Kepler practiced astrology, but that practice did not damage his analysis of the motions of planets on which his Three Laws of planetary motion are based.

I wonder, do EU advocates avoid getting an MRI because Raymond Damadian, one of the developers, was a creationist? I don't. The fact that Damadian might have believed some nonsense outside his area of expertise seemed to have no bearing on his implementation of the science in developing the technology.

In the long run, the science that succeeds is the science that works, regardless of other beliefs of original discoverer. The best demonstration of that is the fact that science makes technologies that work independent of the belief system of the user. Your cell phone or computer works the same whether you are Christian, Muslim, or atheist.

There is a name for science that depends on the belief system of the practitioner - MAGIC.