A Challenge to Flat Earthers

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2f/Flat_earth.png

Is the Earth round? Most people say yes, obviously. But a growing (or at least growing in loudness) number on the internet say no. Flat Earthers are (or seem to be) real, and they seem to have an answer to every argument that we are living on a spinning globe.

But shouldn’t it be obvious that the Earth is round, you ask? How do you explain the sunrise and sunset or time zones if Earth is flat? What about ships disappearing over the horizon? But Flat Earthers will say it’s refraction*—light bending through the atmosphere makes things appear to vanish over the horizon. What about the circular shadow of the Earth during a lunar eclipse? Most of them say Earth is a circular disk, so it can still cast a circular shadow (even though there are lots of other problems like that).

Fine, but there are quantitative experiments that can be done to measure the curvature of the Earth, aren’t there? Eratosthenes’ shadows and so forth. Surveying equipment over the ocean or flat stretches of water. Taking a photo from a high-altitude balloon or actual space. But no. Conspiracies, conceptual errors, and camera artifacts, they say. These things are all difficult for the average layperson to measure, and it’s hard to account for all the complications when you do. (Camera distortions are very real, especially over wide angles.)

However, I thought of an idea. It wasn’t even about proving Earth is round at first; I was just wondering if I could see the curvature of the Earth. But I realized it applies here, and it’s something that I haven’t seen in my admittedly limited reading on the subject.

So here is my Flat Earth Challenge. This is an experiment that you personally can do with nothing but a smartphone, a ruler, and a window seat on a commercial airliner: Take a photo of the horizon from the plane and measure the curvature. I tried to do this myself during my trip to Iceland a few months ago, but I wasn’t able to get a window seat during daylight, so I couldn’t get a good shot. I’ll try it again the next time I fly. (If there are any fellow astrophysicists reading who are going to the AAS, try it on your flight to Hawaii.)

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Movie Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/af/Star_Wars_The_Rise_of_Skywalker_poster.jpg

Well, here it is: the end* of the Star Wars saga. Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is the completion of the nine-film series George Lucas originally promised us in 1978. It took 41 years, selling the series to Disney, a lot of noise over The Last Jedi, and some false starts of spin-offs to do it…but they finally did it.

Sadly, The Rise of Skywalker hasn’t received the hype that The Force Awakens did in 2015. Reality has ensued in the intervening years, and Disney has not been able to put up the consistent quality and build-up of interest that it did with Avengers: Endgame earlier this year. However, this is still one of the biggest events for one of the most beloved science fiction franchises of all time.

And…I wasn’t impressed. My rating is 3 out of 5.

No spoilers here, or not much you couldn’t guess from the trailer. Frankly, this movie felt more like Star Wars fanfiction than actual Star Wars. Without getting into details, it was rushed and choppy almost the whole way through, up until the final battle. There were gratuitous cameos that didn’t really add anything to the plot. There were feats of technology that ignored the established lore. There were new Force powers that were way beyond anything we’ve seen before to the point of breaking my suspension of disbelief. And an awful lot of time was spent trying to fix the mistakes (or “mistakes”) of The Last Jedi (a few of which caused more problems).

Then, on top of all that, it was a classic case of trying to do too much, and in this case, it wasn’t really needed. This wasn’t based on an especially long book or something. It was all, “we have to go to this place and then this other place to find this person and then do this other thing” when several of those could have been cut out to simplify the plot. (And all in an alarmingly short space of in-story time.) I don’t have the time or space here to break it down scene by scene and compare it with the other films, but I think they were trying to do a lot more than the others—easily two movies’ worth.

Okay, there were a couple things I did really like. There were little references to the past mistakes of the franchise as a whole (not just The Last Jedi) like the First Order learning from the “single point of failure” mistakes of the past. The final battle in general was pretty good. And most especially, one theme I really liked in The Last Jedi, the theme of empowering the people, paid off really well in The Rise of Skywalker, although it still could have been explored in a lot more depth.


Star Wars really is an impressive achievement. It had two exceptionally good movies back in the 1970s, and those two movies have carried the franchise to being the second-highest grossing film series of all time (behind only the Marvel Cinematic Universe). True, it had one other truly excellent film, The Force Awakens, but it was kind of a rip-off of the original. Return of the Jedi was only pretty good. Attack of the Clones is arguably underrated (except for “I don’t like sand.”) And personally, I loved The Last Jedi, but it was really a love it or hate it kind of film. Unfortunately, The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t improve that score.

I’ve argued before that the best thing for Star Wars as a franchise would be to strip everything back to the original trilogy and film the best of the novels, starting from Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy. In other words, create a “Star Wars Cinematic Universe” building on what is now Star Wars Legends (formerly the Expanded Universe).

After seeing The Rise of Skywalker, I still wish Disney would do that, if they do anything. They have the formula. They have proven and time-tested material to use. And they could do a lot better than what they’ve done with the sequel trilogy.

But for now, that’s all she wrote. May the Force be with you.

*Until the Mouse says otherwise.

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Cosmology in the 1980s: The Dark Matter Flowchart

Last week, I wrote about Jim Peebles of Princeton receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics for his body of work in cosmology. However, there’s another cosmology-related essay I’ve been wanting to write for a long time.

The Dark Matter Flowchart is a humorous flowchart (think like an XKCD comic) created by three Princeton grad students and one researcher circa 1986. It described the state of the field of cosmology at the time in hilarious fashion, and a depressingly large amount of it is still relevant today.

I first saw the Flowchart on the wall of the grad student lounge at Princeton, and I’ve been wanting to update it or at least annotate it ever since. I finally took the time to draw up a more legible version and explain all of the references contained within.

Special thanks to Dr. David Weinberg and Dr. Barbara Ryden for answering my questions about the Flowchart. My new version is below, and you can read my essay annotating it here.

Click to enlarge.
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Jim Peebles: Co-Winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics

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Jim Peebles in 2010. Credit: Juan Diego Soler via Wikipedia.

Today is one of the most important days of the year in my line of work: the Nobel Prize award ceremony. The Nobel Peace Prize probably gets the most attention (good and bad) of the six prizes from the public, but Physics is probably the next most notable—though maybe I’m biased. I wanted to highlight it, though, because one of the recipients, James Peebles, hails from my own graduate school, Princeton. (See the Nobel Foundation’s write-up here.)

I do feel like the Physics Prize highlights the most fundamental discoveries about the universe compared with the others. This year’s Chemistry Prize was awarded for the invention of the lithium-ion battery, which admittedly is a big deal, but the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded “for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.” I’m sure that’s also important, but it’s not an attention-grabbing headline. The Economics Prize was awarded “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.” Also very important. Also one of the least interesting headlines imaginable in our sensation-driven media world. And Literature? I’m sure Peter Handke is worthy, but writing in a particular language (any language, though English is the least disadvantaged) means it isn’t going to resonate with as many people.

So, bottom line, the Nobel Prize in Physics is a big deal. However, I thought the way they awarded it this year was odd. Looking at past laureates, it’s not completely unprecedented, but it’s definitely very unusual.

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Frozen II’s Worrying Embrace of Pseudoscience

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/af/Frozen_2_soundtrack.png

I wrote in my review that I thought Frozen II was a very well-made movie. However, there was one thing in the story that I strongly disliked and even found inappropriate for children in a weird way. (Not in the ways you’re probably thinking—don’t worry.) This was the repeated (and plot-relevant) assertion that “water has memory.” So let me say it right now:

Water does not have memory.

I feel like I need to say that loud and clear because this notion of “water memory” plays word for word into the pseudoscience of homeopathy, and homeopathy is a very pernicious form of alternative medicine that is especially annoying to scientists and science enthusiasts because it has zero scientific basis.

And it may seem silly to criticize a children’s movie for this—especially a fantasy movie—and to be clear, the use of the phrase in the story has nothing to do with homeopathy. However, the big problem with homeopathy and a lot of other alternative medicine is that it often prevents people from seeking out proven treatments, which can even lead to lives lost in severe cases (not to mention promoting scientific ignorance). And because of that, I felt very uncomfortable about the talking points of homeopathy (even though it’s just the talking points and not homeopathy itself) being given a platform as large as this.


Okay, so what am I talking about? What is homeopathy, and how did Disney stumble into such a troubling mistake? (And I do think it was a mistake and not something more purposeful.)

Homeopathy, at least in modern times, involves mixing a small amount of a substance that may or may not be harmful, but purports to have therapeutic effects, with a large amounts of water. This mixture gets diluted again and again with more water until there are no molecules of the original “medicine” left in it.

How does this make sense? Homeopaths literally claim that “water has memory.” That is, they claim water molecules retain some pattern of the other molecules they had in them before, but have now been diluted away…a pattern that somehow retains the purported beneficial effects of the treatment without any of the harmful effects…and doesn’t carry any of the effects of pollution, animal waste, dirt, and whatever else it’s had in it.

This, simply put, makes no sense. The fact is, there is nothing in the laws of physics that remotely supports the idea that water has memory, and if someone, somehow managed to come up with a repeatable experiment that proved it did, we wouldn’t have a clue how to explain it. The “faster than light neutrinos” debacle would be a drop in the bucket (no pun intended) compared with how outrageously against physics-as-we-know-it “water memory” is.*


Frozen II does not use the notion of water memory in this sense, but the fact remains that it is a major plot point of the story, and I find that troubling. And I’m not the only one. It hasn’t gotten a lot of play online, but it did receive attention from someone who works at Disney himself.

I initially considered the possibility that the writers at Disney didn’t know about any of this. The details of homeopathy aren’t exactly common knowledge. But the actual story is more interesting. Disney insider Ross Blocher has a podcast called Oh No Ross and Carrie in which he discussed this very issue. (See here at about the 20-minute mark.) Blocher says he made a serious push against including the line “water has memory” in the script, saying that it is “a phrase people use to sell a lot of sham products.”

And the writers did pay attention to him. In response to Blocher’s letter, they gave Olaf an additional line to the effect of, “Many experts dispute it, but I know it’s true,” to try to hedge a bit.**

The problem is that in my mind, this actually made things worse because that is also something homeopaths love to say to their skeptics. “It’s disputed by experts” is more often a way to weasel out of being debunked than an honest caveat. It may have hedged their assertion, but it also made them sound even more like the people they should be distancing themselves from. The fact that Olaf presents it as a “fun fact” alongside other actual scientific facts is another red flag.

Unfortunately, water having memory was such an important part of the story that it would be difficult to work around, but it could be done. Maybe magic has memory instead. Or maybe the spirits are helping direct Elsa to do what needs to be done (that would make her final act at the end more “miraculous,” anyway). I just wish Disney had put in more effort to fix this problem when it was brought to their attention.

*Okay, yes, there is a weird quantum sense in which everything has memory, not just water, but if everything has memory, then there’s nothing special about homeopathic treatments in particular, and the point still stands.

**Granted, they also included a joke about water remembering passing through the bodies of animals and that being kind of gross. That really does distance themselves from homeopaths somewhat, but I think the other problems still outweigh it.

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Movie Review: Frozen II

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/4f/Frozen_2_poster.jpg

Okay, I would have posted this review a week ago, but my computer actually died while I was at the movie, and I had to get a new one. But for those of you who haven’t gotten around to seeing Frozen II yet, here’s my review of the film.

As an aspiring children’s writer myself, I try to review the new Disney and Pixar movies as they come out, although I don’t always find the time. I couldn’t really pass up Frozen II, though, just for its sheer box office power. I actually watched the original Frozen for the first time earlier that same day, so it was fresh in my mind, and on the whole, I think Frozen II is a little bit better. Neither one is perfect—maybe not quite living up to the hype—but I appreciate good storytelling, and Frozen II definitely qualifies as good storytelling.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.


However, I want to caution that there is one thing I strongly disliked about it, and I want to get it out of the way here:

Water does not have memory in real life.

I don’t want to get into this now because it would be a distraction from what I really want to talk about, but it feels uncomfortably like Disney was promoting the pseudoscience of homeopathy, which I do not approve of. I can tell you all about that in the next post, though.


So, anyway, Frozen II is set three years after the events of the original Frozen, Disney’s smash hit that broke all records for an animated movie six years of real time ago.

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The Mystery of the Big Bang Theory

There’s a problem with the Big Bang theory.

No, I’m not suggesting the Big Bang theory is wrong. There are a few scientists who dispute it*, but this post isn’t about that. And it isn’t about the TV show either.** This is about the growing mystery in the field of cosmology about the expansion rate of the universe—and, by extension, the age of the universe. I mentioned two weeks ago that cosmologists have figured out a new way to measure this expansion, but does this method solve the mystery, or only deepen it?

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The Transit of Mercury Is Tomorrow

A photo of the transit of Mercury in 2016. Mercury is the round dot slightly to the lower left of center. The fuzzy, irregular dots are sunspots. Credit: Elijah Matthews (Wikipedia).

Hmm…what to write about? I finished my series on evolution…I have a couple other things I’m working on, but they aren’t ready yet…what’s in the news? Oh, there’s a transit of Mercury tomorrow. I guess that’s the biggest science news of the week.

Okay, so, it is pretty interesting. You see, Mercury’s orbit is such that it crosses the Sun as seen from Earth about thirteen times every hundred years. That’s once every seven and a half years on average, but there’s a lot of randomness involved.

Actually, no, it’s the exact opposite of random. We can predict Mercury’s orbit centuries in advance. The point is that the time between transits varies a lot because the orbits align in different ways from one year to the next. It turns out the next transit of Mercury is thirteen years from now in 2032. (The last one was just three years ago in 2016.) So see it before it’s gone, I guess. Here in the D.C. area, it will begin at 7:36 AM Eastern Time and end at 1:04 PM. That will vary a little depending on your location, as Earth passes through Mercury’s “shadow,” but that will only be by a couple minutes.

To be honest, I wasn’t that enthused about making a post on this. Personally, I find the story about how astronomers in Spain figured out a new way to measure the expansion of the universe (and they still can’t get the various methods to agree with each other) to be much more interesting. (Maybe next post.) The transit of Mercury isn’t so exciting because while it’s notable, it’s actually rather difficult to observe. Even if you kept your dark eclipse glasses from two years ago, you almost certainly won’t be able to see. I could just barely see the transit of Venus back in 2012 with my “naked” eyes (which were really eclipse-glassed eyes, just without a solar telescope), and Venus looks five times as big as Mercury on the disk of the Sun. The transit of Mercury will be pretty much invisible with the equipment most people have at home.

(Warning: everyone knows don’t look at the Sun, etc., etc., but the important thing to remember is: Don’t look at the Sun through binoculars or a telescope without a dark filter on the front end. Eclipse glasses will not work that way and might melt or do other bad things to your eyes.)

So how can you see the transit of Mercury? Well, the simplest way would be to seek out your local astronomy club. Most such clubs will probably be running some kind of event for it. If they’re not, or if you don’t have an astronomy club in your area…I don’t really know. You can try to make a pinhole projector—and you don’t need a cardboard box to do that. You can just project from one sheet of paper onto another one—but it’s the same problem: I don’t know if you’d be able to see it on an image that small.

Or, maybe the simplest option of all in this day and age: you can watch it online.

Happy observing, and I wish you clear skies.

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The Evolution Debate: Creationist Rhetoric

I’ve pretty much gone through the arguments against evolution I planned to debunk in my various posts. (See the first post in this series here.) To be sure, there’s a lot more material out there, but I’ve addressed the specific things I wanted. If you want to learn more about the science, I recommend the Talk Origins Index, which addresses many more creationist claims in great detail.

However, I have a little more I want to say about the rhetoric used by creationists in these debates because they have a definite tendency to mock, belittle, or dismiss evolutionists and their positions. And yes, the meanness can definitely happen on both sides. I’ve written before about Kent Hovind and Aron Ra insulting each other in their debate last year. But this post particularly focuses on the creationist side. Granted, these aren’t actual arguments against evolution. At most, they’re spurious attacks on the attitude of evolutionists, but the point is, they’re distractions from the substance of the debate and generally tend to make creationists look foolish. So let’s take a look at some of them.

“Evolutionists say…” OR Evolutionism says…”

This first one is kind of a weird case. Many evolutionists complain about it not being a valid term, but I’ve been using it myself because…how else are you going to label the theory’s proponents conveniently? And I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that. Many scientists will try to depersonalize it to something like “evolution says” to try to make it clear that it’s the theory itself saying that—the actual science and not just people. But when you’re talking about how people talk in a debate, like I am, you have to talk about the people.

Thus, I’ve been using “evolutionists” in this series because it’s a succinct way of referencing people who are on the opposite side of the creationism argument, and really, there’s no other word that works. It’s not “scientists” because plenty of laypeople both understand and accept evolution. It’s not “nonbelievers” because lots of Christians believe in evolution. It’s not “naturalists” for the same reason. It’s certainly not “Darwinists” because Darwin isn’t remotely the whole story anymore. “Evolution believers” might be closer, but that’s too clunky. “Evolutionists” is an easy shorthand, but it can mask the fact that evolution is not a belief system. It’s a scientific theory, and yes, that’s a bit of a trite cliche itself, but it references the fact that it is something qualitatively different from faith—that evolution stands on a well-substantiated body of objective evidence whereas true faith neither wants nor needs this. That’s not to say either one is deficient, rather that it doesn’t make sense to compare them in that way.

Anyway, this has turned into a tangent. My point is that I’m actually okay with the creationist term “evolutionism.” It’s just that you have to be careful that it doesn’t distort the audience’s understanding of what evolution is.

“Evidences for Creation”

This is a pure distraction, and many evolutionists just gloss over it, but I find it hard to ignore…Why do creationists keep using “evidences” as a plural of “evidence”?! Yes, it’s sometimes used in technical contexts. Yes, it’s attested in Shakespeare and all that. The fact remains that in modern English, “evidence” is a perfectly good plural of “evidence,” and you almost never see it with the ‘s’ except in Christian apologetics. It’s Christianese, and it’s risking turning off non-Christians before you ever get to the substance of your argument. It may be valid English, but using it is going to make you look unprofessional when there are more widely-used alternatives.

“Were you there?” AND Historical science

Both of these things say that we can’t know for sure what happened in the past because we personally weren’t there to witness it, nor was any other reliable source (except God as the author of the Bible). The problem is, this isn’t an argument. It’s a thought-terminating cliche. It’s something you can say that prevents you from having to address the merits of an argument without actually refuting it. It doesn’t sound convincing; it just sounds flippant.

(Okay, yes, this is basically what God said to Job. See above about the difference between science and faith. There is absolutely a place for the theological debate, but it should not be conflated with the scientific one.)

Now, the “proper” use of a term like “historical science” is to say, “We don’t have proof that X happened because no one was around to see it, so we only really have circumstantial evidence to go on.” This is theoretically fine, but at this point, it should be a debate between two sides about who has the objectively stronger evidence, and you can read several of my earlier posts to see how that goes.

I think there’s a simpler solution, though. This rhetoric is why several of my Questions for Creationists begin with the words, “Regardless of whether it actually happened…” Against creationists, I believe it’s often more defensible to ask whether evolution could happen, because it avoids this cliche, but is still very much up for debate.

Millions of years

This cliche, maybe even more than “Were you there?” is perhaps the most derisive of the creationists’ rhetoric. Kent Hovind especially likes to says “millions of years” in a mocking tone as if it’s too ridiculous to be worth addressing, but I think it embodies a lot of the problems of the creationist attitude. Yes, at its root, it’s down to Biblical literalism straight-up, but I feel like there’s an attitude built up around it by the notion that so much of science is wrong and biased against religion, and Hovind’s mocking tone is part of that.

For the particular cliche of “millions of years,” part of it is that it’s an easy shorthand for everything they see as contradicting the creationist narrative. You don’t have to explain what millions of years means for most people to understand it, where you might need to for other aspects of evolution. It’s a simple matter of one side saying Earth is thousands of years old and the other side saying it’s millions or billions of years old, and only one of them can be right.

However, another part of it is an attitude of “Isn’t thousands of years enough for you? That’s a really long time.” And there is some truth to this. It’s the same sentiment by which we say, “If we’re alone in the universe, it seems like an awful waste of space.” The thing is, we’ve already got millions of light-years. Most creationists accept those huge distances because we can measure them in the present (sort of), and, you know—distance light travels in a year, anyone? Millions of years is kind of obvious if you accept that.

However, the biggest issue for me is when Hovind seems to criticize evolutionists for using “millions of years” as a buzzword to sound impressive or convincing or just plain smarter. Personally, I feel like this is an insult to scientists on a deeper level—an emotional level rather than just an intellectual one. The reason is that in my experience, we say “millions of years” in awestruck tones not as a rhetorical point, but because we want other people to share in our wonder at the vastness of the universe. The fact is, thousands of years isn’t enough for us! But this isn’t a bug; it’s a feature, when we can imagine so much greater

I could go on more about this, but I don’t want to get too heavy-handed about it. Instead, I will skip to the final word in this series—another question, of sorts—for which I will defer to the late, great Carl Sagan in Pale Blue Dot, who makes this point far better than I could:

“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed’? Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

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The Evolution Debate: Thermodynamics

Yes, this really is relevant. Credit: JJ Harrison (Wikipedia).

I’m moving away from the main thrust of the creation-evolution debate in biology and geology to a topic that is still mentioned a lot, but is much more physics oriented: thermodynamics.

One of the best ways that creationists could disprove evolution is not some new piece of scientific evidence, but rather if they found some contradiction that made it impossible even in principle. And in fact, many of them think they have found one:

“The Second Law of Thermodynamics disproves evolution.”

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