Sunday, September 29, 2013

Pseudo-Science Land...

One of the blaring characteristics common among pseudosciences is they cannot meet the more rigorous standards of legitimate science.  For physical sciences, this rigor is usually represented by the ability to produce mathematical models which generate numerical values that we can compare to experiments or observations.  Once a theory reaches this level of reliability, it can have engineering applications because you can try new ideas mathematically before undergoing the expense of actual construction.

In legitimate science, a successful theory is one that is
  1. consistent with established physical principles and,
  2. can be modeled mathematically to within some reasonable limit of observational or experimental error.
This latter characteristic is especially important when migrating a principle from leading edge science to established science, to engineering practice. 

It is also the component which pseudo-scientists almost consistently avoid.

We send spacecraft to distant reaches of the solar system using the same mathematical theories that were letting us predict the positions of planets to high precision three hundred years before.  The precision was so good, that an error of a few thousand kilometers after a five billion mile voyage for the Pioneer missions was cause for concern (Wikipedia: Pioneer Anomaly).  In spite of claims of alternate explanations by numerous cranks in support of their particular theory, not one of which produced a testable numerical model, the issue has been pretty much resolved without the need of new physics.

When someone claims to have a better theory, especially in the physical sciences, but cannot provide any model with which one can compute numerical values which can be compared to actual measurements, it should set off alarms that they might be a crank.
  • Geocentrists don't explicitly show their computations for planetary positions or for spacecraft trajectories (assuming they aren't claiming that spaceflight is a hoax) (see An Exploration of the Lagrange Points).
  • Relativity deniers don't compute the relativistic corrections in the GPS system.  Some will outright deny the differences exist.  Others will claim that they exist, but are not due to relativity (see Relativity Denial: A response to more comments about GPS).  The latter occasionally choose to dream up some 'correction factor' which exists for ill-specified reasons other than relativity. 
  • Electric Sun supporters don't compute the speed and density of the solar wind or solar magnetic field required for their claimed power source for the Sun.  This information is vital for the safety of astronauts or sending probes to previously unexplored regions of the solar system (see "Death by Electric Universe" articles at Challenges for Electric Universe 'Theorists').
  • and a host of other claims...
The standing question for these pseudo-scientists is, if they cannot demonstrate how their techniques are computed to the same precision of the mainstream explanation, what happens if we do teach their 'science' as true?  How will we define precision trajectories in space or adequately shield the satellites and astronauts from dangerous radiation in the far reaches of the solar system?  How will we get adequate positioning information without including relativistic corrections?

The cranks do everything they can to evade answering these questions.

A Pseudo-Science Future?

But it raises a more serious question about pseudo-sciences.  Every year, many people die due to acceptance of some health or medically-related pseudo-science (see "What's the Harm?").  Imagine a nation where claims such as the Geocentrists, or Electric Universe, or other pseudo-physical science were actually forced to be accepted science.  In our modern world, that is the only way such a thing could happen, through some kind of legal or totalitarian intervention, as occurred with Lysenkoism (Wikipedia) and Deutsch Physik (Wikipedia). 

In such a nation, would/could they have a space program?

How would the operators of such a program determine the trajectories of any missions, since the trajectory tells you the forces you must deal with and how much fuel you'd need?

How would the operators of the program set the specifications for radiation shielding for the missions?  That determines how much mass you must launch your mission and eventually ties back to how much fuel you need.

The proponents of these crank claims never seem to answer these questions, or they try some evasion like using the mainstream science answers to these questions as 'rules of thumb' for such a program (note that with this approach, any success depends on either luck, or someone else working out the solution first).  Such science, and consequently the engineering, and subsequent economic benefits, will always trail behind those who know the real science and can solve the problems first.

The laws of physics work the same for everyone, whether you believe them or not.  If you know and understand them, it can give you an advantage over those who do not.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Electric Universe: A Short Summary of How It Fails

I decided to use a comment that appeared on a rather ancient post (Electric Universe: Plasma Physics for Fun AND Profit!) to be the basis of this weeks post, providing another excuse to generate yet another summary of the failings of EU 'theory', hopefully a little shorter than Challenges for Electric Universe 'Theorists'.  The original comment is here and reproduced below, with the original typos/spelling errors/etc..
A answer to to you, Tom Bridgman, about how you compared "Dark Matter", "Electric Plasma Currents"...

That we don't have radio-telescope good enough to observe potential low voltage currents in space. Even if intergalactic and interstellar currents exists. Invicible plasma currents are not mystical. They exist between the sun and the earth, between saturn and Io and have been proven to exist in laboratories.
A nother thing is that the EU theory isn't based on plasma currentes trough space, but a comparison between lab tested plasma formations and observed space phenomenon, which led to the conclusion that interpgalactic and interstellar currents should exist. It is not ad hoc to asume that electric currents exist, neither would it make sence if most of the currents between stars and galaxies would have been vicible to the naked eye.
Dark Matter, in the other hand, is from start pure invention. There are no predictions for dark matter, it is not even based on anything known to exist. It is just supose to have similar properties as gravity, though it apears to create filnamentary structures between galaxies and between stars. Dark matter is unquestionably pseudoscience.
You could claim that EU is pseudoscience, but not on the base that the theory postulates electric currents, which are invicible to use (at least for now).
Thanks :D
The commenter does not seem to understand the range of observational capability which exists in modern astronomy, going so far as claiming that astronomy is limited to mere 'naked eye' observation!  This is a common misunderstanding among Electric Universe (EU) 'theorists', whose understanding of science seems to be limited to pre-space flight, even pre-1900 understanding of science! 

The commenter also seems to confuse Electric Universe (EU) and Plasma Cosmology (PC) claims with the well-established cosmic plasma physics which has been under study by astronomers and physicists for many decades.  These groups routinely check astronomical observations against laboratory experiments and computer models (see Electric Universe: Plasma Modeling vs. 'Mystic Plasma' and others in the plasma modeling series).  This work is based on far more than just the 'look' of something matching between a lab experiment and in the cosmos.  In the laboratory we require a bunch of equipment to build these plasma configurations.  What plays the role of this equipment in nature?   That is a question that EU 'theorists' evade, but which real astronomers and astrophysicists must answer  (see Electric Universe: Making Electric Fields).  EU 'theorists' routinely try to highjack the discoveries in this area as support for their claims of stars, comets, and galaxies, etc. actually being powered by external electric currents.  For EU, any mention of an electric environment is automatically evidence for their claims.

The commenter also claims that voltages are too low to be detectable, when we have been detecting them for decades.  But if they are claiming that the voltages are too low to detect things like electrically-powered stars and galaxies, then they are wrong.  To accommodate electrically-powered stars and galaxies depends on the total power in the driving voltage and current.  The power in these currents must be greater than stars and galaxies (and MUCH greater if a given current can power multiple stars), so these currents will emit radiation, much like an antenna.  We have many full-sky surveys across many wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation from radio to gamma-rays that can detect these emissions.  Even Tony Peratt and Eric Lerner have computed the microwave emission of these claimed currents in an attempt to explain the microwave background.  They found that these currents, if they existed, would be very detectable in the microwave band with present day technologies.  But we do not see current streams connecting stars or galaxies in any of these surveys.
We do see cosmic electric currents driven by other processes  but they are nowhere near the power, nor configuration, needed to power stars and/or galaxies by this mechanism.
EU 'theorists have yet to describe any power source for their system of star- and galaxy-powering currents.  Where are these batteries and/or generators hiding and what powers them?  EU 'theorists' take known particles, like electrons and protons, and attach near-mystical properties to them to make them hide in ways that are not observed in the laboratory.  This is a bigger problem for EU than Dark Matter and Dark Energy are for mainstream astronomy.
EU 'theorists' ignore the fact that the particle environment needed to power an electric sun would be deadly to astronauts and satellites, as documented in my "Death by Electric Universe" series linked below.  The challenge still stands for EU theorists to predict the intensity of the particle environment using THEIR solar model for the upcoming 'Solar Probe' mission (Wikipedia).
The fact is that NO ONE who actually designs and builds spacecraft to visit previously unexplored regions of the solar system and needs to understand the solar radiation environment, use any EU "Electric Sun" model because EU 'theorists' have provided no model that actually matches the solar environment where we have explored.

When you want an electrical configuration built for your industrial facility, a satellite, or even your home, and you hire an electrical engineer, that electrical engineer is EXPECTED to be able to tell you the power requirements and other characteristics of the configuration they design, not in a hand-wavy wishy-washy way, but with actual numbers that you can use.  If they could not, you would be right in questioning their competence.  Yet EU 'theorists' routinely build these configurations for the cosmos and can't, or won't, answer these basic questions. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Links of Interest

Some of these links are a getting a bit dated, but may still be of interest...

Do Solar Flares Cause Earthquakes?

Ryan Milligan at The Sun Today blog has written an article on the claim that solar flares can cause earthquakes.  Check out his analysis of the problem: The Sun Today: Do solar flares cause earthquakes?

ScienceBlogs: Does Dark Matter affect the motion of the Solar System?  

I especially like the author's story about how HE actually examined this problem utilizing many of the techniques for examining questions that I like to explore in this blog.  Also note the graphic comparing some of the galaxy surveys with the Millennium cosmology simulation (Wikipedia).  If you didn't know it was a simulation, could you distinguish it from the actual datasets presented?

NASA's Massive Free E-Book Collection

NASA has made available a number of books on the history of space exploration and aeronautics.   There are a number of documents on the history of the organization, as well as the history and science of aeronautics.

Celestial Billiards for Space Travel

Ever wonder how the flight dynamicists at NASA and ESA develop some of the complex trajectories which can take a satellite from Earth to some distant location (like Jupiter or Saturn) using gravity assists?  They're currently developed guided by some rules-of-thumb which are refined with detailed n-body simulations.  But Artificial Intelligence systems (AI) are catching up in this capability.
Slashdot: Evolution of AI Interplanetary Trajectories Reaches Human-Competitive Levels

'Dark Lightning' Does Not Mean 'Undetectable'

While they call it 'Dark Lightning' because it isn't detectable in visible light, the particles behind this are still detectable by other means.
Slashdot: "Dark Lightning" Could Expose Airline Passengers To Radiation

Conspiracy Polling

And if you want some detailed numbers on just how many people in the U.S. believe weird stuff...
Public Policy Polling: Conspiracy Theory Poll Results

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Death by Electric Universe: Current vs. Voltage

I've often noted that various pseudo-scientific beliefs tote along other scientific misconceptions, some of which can be very harmful to the advocate or others.  There is even an entire web site chronicling the stories of the consequences of scientific misconceptions (What's the

I recently encountered another such misconception that warranted a more detailed explanation.  When a human body is exposed to charged particles, what is more fatal, the voltage or the current?

An electric universe supporter claimed that high current is needed to make exposure to charged particles fatal and that high voltages cannot be fatal. 

More specifically, I was making the point that in a space plasma in a region across an electric potential of 600 million volts (specifically in reference to the heliophysics environment claimed by Michael Mozina), the resulting radiation exposure will be quickly fatal.  Some Electric Universe supporters want to get around this problem with their model by claiming that only a high current can kill.

So what kills a person in an encounter with charged particles - high voltage or high current? 

The true answer is - both.  For what kills is determined by how much power is injected into the body by the charged particles and how those particles disrupt the body tissues.  This is dependent on current AND voltage.  At household voltages of tens to thousands of volts, a high current, at least 0.1 amps, is needed.  At 600 million volts, much less current needed.

So let's do the calculation that any radiation safety engineer should be able to do...

Doin' the Math…

We start with the technical definition of the unit of radiation exposure, the rad (Wikipedia: Rad (unit)):

1 rad = 0.01 Joules absorbed by 1 kg of mass

A fatal dose is 300 rads in one hour = 3 sieverts.  This is the low-end, whole-body dose, where a large portion of those exposed (but still less than 50%) can expect to die.  Above this threshold, the chance of fatality rises.

If it takes a minimum of 300 rads in one hour (3600 seconds) to be fatal, just how many electrons does it take with energies of 600 MeV?  How much current?

Consider electrons accelerated through a potential of 600 million volts.  For convenience, physicists define a unit of energy called the electron volt (eV), which is the kinetic energy of an electron moving through an electric potential of 1 volt (Wikipedia).  At 600 million volts, the electron has an energy of 600,000,000 eV or 600 MeV.  Converted to MKS units, this is an energy per electron of

600 MeV = 600e6 V * 1.609e-19 Coulombs = 9.7e-11 Joules

so we'll need a lot of electrons to inject a significant amount of energy into the human body.  Next, let's examine the radiation levels where we should be concerned.  The equation for the total accumulated dose is

dosage = energy flux * (target area/target mass)* time

As in the earlier exercises (see Death by Electric Universe.  Radiation Exposure Revisited), we'll assume the irradiated area of the human body is about 1 square meter (area = 1 m^2) with a mass of about 70 kilograms (mass = 7e4 gm).

600 MeV electrons are extremely relativistic, so their speed can be assumed to be essentially the speed of light.  However, if we're clever and do the algebra first, we won't need this information.  For simplicity, we'll let the particles be mono-energetic (all particles have exactly the same energy).  If we want to use a distribution of particles, we'd replace many of the simple multiplicative products with integrals (Wikipedia).  With this simplification, the energy flux becomes the product of the particle energy times the density of particles times their speed, so the dosage can also be written as:

dosage = (energy per particle * particle density * particle speed) 
               * (target area / target mass) * time

So let's be clever, and recognize that many of the components in this equation also exist in the definition of an electric current.

current = particle density * particle speed * target area 
               * charge per particle

which yields the amount of charge passing through a surface per unit of time.  We can re-write this to solve for:

particle density * particle speed * target area 
       = (current / charge per particle )

With this information, we can re-write the equation for dosage as:

dosage = energy per particle * (current / charge per particle) 
              * time / target mass

which we can then solve for the current:

current = dosage * target mass 
        * charge per particle / energy per particle / exposure time

To convert to rads, a unit of radiation dosage (Wikipedia), we divide MeV/gm by 62.4e6. 

current = dosage (rads) * mass * charge / energy  / time
        =  (300 rads) * (62.4e6 MeV/gm/rad) * (7e4 gm) * (1.6e-19 C) / (600 MeV) / (3600 s)
        = 9.7e-11 C/s
        = 9.7e-11 amps

which corresponds to (9.7e-11 C/s) / 1.6e-19 C = 6e8 electrons/s - about 60 million electrons per second.  This is an incredibly low current, yet it corresponds to a radiation dosage that can be fatal.

Using the definition of rad, we could also approach the problem from a slightly different direction by first computing the total energy deposition required for a fata dose.

300 rads * (0.01 J/kg/rad) * 70 kg = 210 J

Then the current can be derived from the same power = current * voltage of standard electromagnetism:

current = energy / time / voltage
        = 210 Joules / 3600s / 600e6 volts
        = 9.7e-11 amps

So if at 600 million volts, it takes such a tiny amount of current to kill, the next obvious question is, Why or How?

Kill Differently…

The two different extremes of particle energy kill differently.  

An electrical jolt direct to vital organ, say the heart, can kill instantly (or resuscitate).  On medical shows, you commonly hear defibrillators being charged to 400 watt-seconds = 400 Joules of power.  Amazingly small.  Most home coffeemakers use more in one second.

But if not directed at vital organ...

Currents of about 0.1 amp can kill at household voltage levels (a few tens to a few thousand volts).  Current at low voltage kills by disrupting the signal transfers of chemical ions in the nervous system to vital organs such as the heart.  At higher voltages, tissue damage can occur by resistive heating of tissue, such as boiling the water in tissue cells.  Under these conditions, death can occur quickly.

In the case of high-voltage particles, even at low current, death results from direct ionization of atoms in the body, which disrupts cell division and other biochemical processes.  Many of the atoms in the human body ionize at energies less than 20 electron volts.  An electron coming in with a total energy of 600 million electron volts can ionize a LOT of atoms before it is slowed to a safe energy.  This type of radiation exposure doesn't kill instantly, but damages cellular mechanisms to the point they cannot recover. The human body is always regenerating - incorporating ingested food into energy or new cells (fat?).  If that process is corrupted, illness or death results.

The Next Round of Electric Universe Excuses?

Perhaps the Electric Universe supporters and other cranks who advocate this notion think the electron current in a wire is composed of different 'stuff' than the electrons that pervade the space environment? 

These questions were actually asked, and answered, in the early part of the 1900s.  Numerous experiments have demonstrated that the electrons that carry the current in a wire are the exact same type of particle as the 'beta rays' emitted from atomic nuclei as part of a decay process and the electrons in the atom.  The only difference between them is how they get their energy, and how much energy they get.  This conceptual disconnect seems to be part of the pre-1900 science mentality prevalent among many pseudo-sciences.

Another popular evasion used in the pseudo-science community is that the mainstream workers are lying or part of a conspiracy to cover-up the facts.  So EU supporters might claim that reactor and radiation engineers are lying when they report these values as fatal radiation doses.  Hopefully, if an Electric Universe supporter wants to test this, they will put their own lives on the line, not like so many other pseudoscientists who readily let others take the risk for their ignorance… (see Fake bomb detector conman jailed for 10 years)

Electric Universe.  A dangerous ignorance…

Exercises for the Reader

  1. At an electron energy of 600 MeV, how many rads would correspond to an electron current of 0.1 amps?
  2. Using the definition of the rad above, derive the 62.4MeV/gm/rad conversion factor using dimensional analysis (I actually get a slightly different value).


Update September 2, 2013:  Fixed minor typo in last equation.  Should be 'energy', not 'power'