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13 more things that dont make sense
September 7, 2009 7:32 PM   Subscribe

13 more things that don't make sense from the New Scientist. The original 13. Previously.
posted by shothotbot (57 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Of course, most mefites have already solved half of these from their armchairs.
posted by hermitosis at 7:39 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


They need to add one more thing to their list - an article that exists only as a table of contents to 13 more articles. I love racking up page views for the New Scientist!
posted by msbutah at 7:45 PM on September 7, 2009


I love that there is still mystery in the universe.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 7:46 PM on September 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


Why is that things that don't make sense always come in thirteens?
posted by Edward L at 7:49 PM on September 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


What about Dane Cook? Has the scientific community even addressed that one?
posted by bstreep at 7:52 PM on September 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


#11 was solved this week.
posted by furtive at 7:53 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Missing the chewbacca tag.
posted by rokusan at 7:55 PM on September 7, 2009


~*let the explanation to one of these lead to warp drive within my life time. pleaseohplease*~
posted by EatTheWeak at 7:56 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Who are things coming along on the first 13? Any solutions to those?
posted by Kattullus at 7:59 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


New Scientist? Really?
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:05 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well duh! This why I place my faith in The Lord.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 8:06 PM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Morgellons? Morgellons? Oy.
posted by mendel at 8:06 PM on September 7, 2009


Yeah, the inclusion of Morgellons on that list really puts the tabloid into the magazine. Is there a good popular science magazine that doesn't pander?
posted by fatbird at 8:09 PM on September 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


#14: Why an article that can be presented perfectly well on one page is stretched out to 5, as in the original 13 link.
posted by Doohickie at 8:15 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


No, your mother is holographic projection.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:23 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


#15: Women.
posted by clearly at 8:40 PM on September 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


#16: Men.
posted by crossoverman at 8:46 PM on September 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


I've always thought of Dark Matter as the cosmologist's God of the Gaps.

Equation not working the way you planned? Just toss a pinch of Dark Matter and blammo! Now it works!
posted by Acromion at 8:49 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Acromion: "toss a pinch of Dark Matter and blammo! Now it works!"

BAM! Average size universe.
posted by idiopath at 9:02 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


things that don't make sense

And another thing-- what's the deal with airline food?
posted by dersins at 9:05 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


dersins: "what's the deal with airline food?"

But the exciting thing is that because we don't understand what the deal is with airline food, that gives us a hint that there is a new principle for understanding what the deal is with stuff that may be within our reach. Perhaps even a new type of have-you-ever-noticed particle, bringing us one step closer to a grand unified theory of AMIRITE.
posted by idiopath at 9:09 PM on September 7, 2009 [8 favorites]


I've always thought of Dark Matter as the cosmologist's God of the Gaps.

Last I read, "Dark Matter" was just a catch-all term for the matter in galaxies that doesn't produce light, or isn't close enough to a star to be illuminated. This includes asteroids in interstellar space, gas clouds, and any number of other miscellaneous debris items.
posted by Electrius at 9:15 PM on September 7, 2009


Electrius: "just a catch-all term for the matter in galaxies that doesn't produce light"

Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems that when something is difficult or impossible to practically measure, it becomes a convenient fudge variable that will get moved around to make the measurable variables make sense, in order to avoid having to throw out all the work you have put into a theory.
posted by idiopath at 9:24 PM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Cosmology has always fascinated me and I wish I understood it more.

But the further I have delved into the philosophy of science, the more and more I have become skeptical of science as a description of the universe actually "as it is." Cosmology seems to be straining itself as it predicts less and less with its Standard Model. More anomalies are accumulating.

I wish I could be more eloquent in my explanation of this . . . but it is difficult for me to even wrap my own brain around it. Perhaps someone here could phrase it better than I.

The universe seems to operate on its systems and logic but our attempts to decode and systematize ultimately must be filtered through human experience and language. There is a disconnect between the pure system of the universe and our attempts to describe it. Something is getting lost in translation.

I guess you could say I used to have an enlightenment view of science, but the more I delved into the philosophy and history of science, I was sold hard onto a more postmodern view.

Again, I'm hoping someone can get the gist of what I am trying to say and phrase it more eloquently than I can.
posted by Acromion at 9:49 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Dark Matter" is an acknowledged theory. We're not entirely sure what it is, or if there really is such a thing, it's just something that our current models predict is there. It's just a part of better models.

The whole "scientists think they're so smart, but this thing they sort of conditionally believe in is SOOO DUMB" thing is silly.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:58 PM on September 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems that when something is difficult or impossible to practically measure, it becomes a convenient fudge variable that will get moved around to make the measurable variables make sense, in order to avoid having to throw out all the work you have put into a theory.

Just curious . . . have you ever read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn? According to him, scientists do this all the time while their current theories aren't working the way they are supposed to. Finally, enough people lose faith in the current model and discard it for something that explains the anomalies better. This is called a paradigm shift.
posted by Acromion at 10:00 PM on September 7, 2009


Is quantum mechanics messing with your memory?
posted by homunculus at 10:01 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not quite, Electricus — at least not to my understanding. Dark means really, absolutely dark in the electromagnetic spectrum: not that it doesn't shine, or can't reflect light, but that it doesn't appear to be ordinary baryonic matter at all, at least as we currently understand it. Gas clouds, for example, glow in the infrared, even cool ones; asteroids can be seen via occlusion and gravitational interaction; X-ray astronomy is revealing even more cosmic phenomena that don't appear under visible light.

Dark matter appears to be very different stuff. It slows the rotation of galaxies, for example, but also supplies structure to them: dark matter scaffolding (original paywall Nature paper summary, popular press coverage). The last I heard the actual stuff of dark matter was still being debated, broken broadly into two camps with wonderful acronymns: WIMPs and MACHOs.

It does appear that, like Einstein's cosmological constant, what started out as a fudge factor to explain observed data is uncomfortably, unsettlingly, and measurably real. While the goal of science might be to put things in tidy little conceptual boxes, real progress is made on the edge cases, the "Huh, that's odd" phenomena... which includes the weird dust bunnies of the cosmos.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 10:10 PM on September 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


The MACHO theory says that dark matter is ordinary baryonic matter, in the manner of interstellar debris. However, as the Wikipedia article notes, there isn't enough matter in the universe for MACHO theory to account for the entire dark-matter effect, so some of it must come from as-yet-unidentified non-baryonic matter. My mistake.
posted by Electrius at 10:18 PM on September 7, 2009


"Dark Matter" is an acknowledged theory. We're not entirely sure what it is, or if there really is such a thing, it's just something that our current models predict is there. It's just a part of better models.

But from what I understand if Dark Matter doesn't actually exist, then it means there is something fundamentally wrong with the Standard Model. So I can understand why people would call it a fudge variable . . . because:

A.) It was postulated after our current theory of gravity failed to predict anomalies in cosmic background radiation

B.) No one has detected it and no one really knows what it is. Hence it is more of a "placeholder"

C.) It supposedly makes up 3/4 of the universe.

So from what I understand of the issue, (A) our basic theories of physics are waaaay off, or (B) The universe is largely made up of something that has a lot of mass but isn't detectable or hasn't been detected yet. It is likely to be either of these two.


The whole "scientists think they're so smart, but this thing they sort of conditionally believe in is SOOO DUMB" thing is silly.

I wasn't aware of this meme that exists only in your head, but thank you for alerting me.
Those gosh durnd sciectinsts thinkin they rite all the dam time with their Leptards and Botoxes!
posted by Acromion at 10:21 PM on September 7, 2009


Pope Guilty: "The whole "scientists think they're so smart, but this thing they sort of conditionally believe in is SOOO DUMB" thing is silly."

Hey I believe in all sorts of things conditionally that I don't directly witness because they help me make sense of things. I hope you don't think I am being condescending about dark matter. I actually know next to nothing about dark matter, but from what little I know about how reasoning tends to work, things you cannot measure that have to be there can work as loopholes and we are best off having as few of them as possible. When I said it becomes a convenient fudge variable I would probably have been better off saying it readily becomes one.

My undereducated inference is that it's like shrinkage in retail: you cannot balance the books if you do not allow for it, and it is not evidence of a crime being committed, but if someone is ripping you off it is probably hidden in the shrinkage (do correct me if I am off track here).
posted by idiopath at 10:38 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I fully expected taters to be on this list. New Scientist, you disappoint me.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:04 PM on September 7, 2009


Given the anomalies accumulating in the Standard Model, I feel it only fair to introduce alternative theories into the science curriculum in American schools. Allow me to explain my model of Intelligent Magic...
posted by Ritchie at 12:01 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems that when something is difficult or impossible to practically measure, it becomes a convenient fudge variable that will get moved around to make the measurable variables make sense, in order to avoid having to throw out all the work you have put into a theory."
OK, except
* GR is one very successful theory to throw out casually, and you need to replace it with something better
* It wouldn't be completely unexpected to find particles that act like dark matter - we have a few candidates from particle physics theories that might fit the bill, and we already have one kind of dark matter regularly detected - just the wrong kind.
You also don't really gain much in simplicity by adding weird gravity rather than weird particles. Or to put it another way, where in the equations describing gravity should you add weirdness to fix things? In the gravity bit or in the mass distribution bit? It's not obvious at first sight which, but it currently looks like fiddling with the mass distribution works best, especially when you have to wrestle with the Bullet Cluster and MACS J0025.4-1222.
Also, historically, convenient fudges do sometimes turn out to be real - like the neutrino, a convenient fudge to preserve theories that conserve energy and momentum.
posted by edd at 2:13 AM on September 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


And how come Pioneer gets to make a second appearance?
posted by edd at 2:16 AM on September 8, 2009


"I would like to propose that dark matter has a texture similar to putty. I am deducting this from the way we seem to be able to use it to plug any shape or size of hole in a theory."

Ha!
posted by twine42 at 2:28 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was intrigued by a throwaway mention in the older "13 Things" article about a natural nuclear reactor...

And wow! How have I never heard of this before?
posted by WidgetAlley at 3:03 AM on September 8, 2009


#11 was solved this week. [referring to magnetic monopoles]

Not exactly, even though I did shout like a lunatic and annoy my wife when I read that headline a couple days ago. The monopoles that were, perhaps, developed this week are nano-scale structures whose magnetic moment is unbalanced. However, the scientists themselves, in their actual paper, are more hesitant to call them monopoles than the pop articles. And many people are refusing to call them monopoles at all.

The unbalanced magnetic moments are only unbalanced if viewed at certain scales. Essentially, at the end of each nanotube, they observed a "defect" with an unbalanced magnetic moment. A sort of virtual monopole. If you looked at a different scale, however, the monopoles are balanced out by an opposite monopole at the other end of the nanotube. To paraphrase a witty redditor, "It turns out monopoles are twice as abundant as we expected. Every time you find a north monopole, there's a south monopole just a short distance away."

Also, this particular experiment is not especially unique. There have been other "monopoles" found in condensed matter states. All of these experiments have been conducted at damn-near absolute zero (.2K, I believe, was the most recent one). You get all sorts of weird effects in condensed matter. It's illustrative, certainly, but not revolutionary or particularly useful.

Furthermore, the monopole that would explain quantization of charge is a particle with an unbalanced magnetic moment. We have electrons and protons, each of which have an unbalanced electric charge. Analogously, the real monopole would be some sort of a particle that acted only as a north pole or as a south pole. So far, we've seen nothing like that.
posted by Netzapper at 3:29 AM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Bloop? Simple. In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming. And sometimes, he farts in his sleep.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:59 AM on September 8, 2009 [6 favorites]


What always bugged me about dark matter as an explanation before was that the distribution roughly matched that of baryonic matter - so if we were simply not seeing all (most!) of the baryonic matter in the universe, or if there was some long-distance stronger-than-inverse-square component to gravity that wasn't in our theories, then that would be it, and dark matter would go on the shelf next to Vulcan and the luminiferous ether.

But dark matter has gotten a bit more palpable. Tweaks to Newton pretty much just made gravity end up stronger on galactic/cosmological scales, but it's another matter to see an invisible gravitational source keep moving after the only visible mass in the region was suddenly decelerated.
posted by roystgnr at 6:14 AM on September 8, 2009


Of course there is the idea that reality isn't real.
posted by Xoebe at 6:47 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, they were right: none of these things make any sense to me.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 6:52 AM on September 8, 2009


EatTheWeak: ~*let the explanation to one of these lead to warp drive within my life time. pleaseohplease*~

I'll take transporters, thank you very much. I don't know what's out there, but I sure as shit know that I'd like to have lunch in Paris, not Chicago.
posted by tzikeh at 7:10 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


A science magazine that doesn't pander or suck [most of the time]: Science News. Just like everything else, it used to be much better -- but it's still readable.

PS: #11 has not been solved.
posted by phliar at 1:42 PM on September 8, 2009


Acromion: ...I have become skeptical of science as a description of the universe actually "as it is."

At least in physics, there is no "as it is" -- there is no scorekeeper that tells you that you won. All we humans do -- all we can do -- is come up with better and better models that fit the observed behaviour of the universe. ("Heavy things fall downwards" fits the observed behaviour of gravity; Newton's theory of gravitation fits the universe better; Einstein's general relativity fits it even better.)

For the life sciences we can say (philosophically, at least) that there is a "truth" that we don't yet know but that some day we might; you can't say that about physics/chemistry.
posted by phliar at 1:54 PM on September 8, 2009


I have become skeptical of science as a description of the universe actually "as it is."

It's as we know it.
posted by rokusan at 2:01 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have become skeptical of science as a description of the universe actually "as it is."


Luckily, since your model of understanding "Science" is inaccurate, you're able to drop it in favor of a more precise predictive description. That's the magic of Science!
posted by FatherDagon at 3:07 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mmmm. Convenient fudge.
posted by The World Famous at 3:18 PM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Luckily, since your model of understanding "Science" is inaccurate, you're able to drop it in favor of a more precise predictive description. That's the magic of Science!

Well, I think I have a pretty good idea of what science is, given that I have studied the sciences extensively, work in a scientific field, have done scientific research, and have read extensively into the philosophy and history of science. But perhaps I am wrong.

Enlighten me. What is your definition of science?
posted by Acromion at 7:06 PM on September 8, 2009


At least in physics, there is no "as it is" -- there is no scorekeeper that tells you that you won. All we humans do -- all we can do -- is come up with better and better models that fit the observed behaviour of the universe.

So do you think that reality is ontologically independent of our conceptual schemes? :)
posted by Acromion at 7:44 PM on September 8, 2009


Mmmm. Convenient fudge.

Recipe, please?
posted by rokusan at 8:10 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Recipe, please?

LOL!
posted by Acromion at 7:16 AM on September 9, 2009


Well, I think I have a pretty good idea of what science is, given that I have studied the sciences extensively, work in a scientific field, have done scientific research, and have read extensively into the philosophy and history of science.

So you got that far and didn't figure out that science never says "This is absolutely, definitively it" but rather says "This is what best fits the facts as we know them and has, as far as we can determine, the greatest predictive potential"? Because nobody who's got even a cursory understanding of the philosophy of science would say "I have become skeptical of science as a description of the universe actually "as it is."" That's not even wrong- it simply misses the entire thrust of the philosophy of science. You're not so much swinging and missing as you are standing on a football field in a batter's helmet with the baseball bat on your shoulder and congratulating yourself on your slam dunk.

So do you think that reality is ontologically independent of our conceptual schemes?

I'll believe it isn't when you can demonstrate a conceptual scheme which can cause Force to not equal Mass time Acceleration, or make the human lung not an organic device for moving oxygen in and out of the body, or make water be comprised of something other than hydrogen and oxygen. The universe, as far as anyone can tell, goes on regardless of what we think. Reality is what doesn't go away when you ignore it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:21 AM on September 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Recipe, please?

The secret ingredient is dark chocolate.
posted by The World Famous at 11:00 AM on September 9, 2009


So you got that far and didn't figure out that science never says "This is absolutely, definitively it" but rather says "This is what best fits the facts as we know them and has, as far as we can determine, the greatest predictive potential"? Because nobody who's got even a cursory understanding of the philosophy of science would say "I have become skeptical of science as a description of the universe actually "as it is.""

Its shocking how wrong you are. It makes me wonder if you have the faintest clue of what you are talking about.

There are many people who would say that the goal of science describe is to describe "the truth" of how the universe works. No one would say we are there, but there definitely are those who believe that the scientific method can eventually lead us to a perfect explanation of the laws of reality. This is called scientific realism. It is belief that science is a system of truth telling.

The viewpoint that science is useful for only for its predictive potential, but not as a means to absolute truth is called instrumentalism. There are those who believe that science can lead us to perfect predictions but not perfect explanations as to why phenomenon are occurring. This is what your view of science is, and it is also the belief I held for quite some time.

Then there are those who don't even believe completely in the predictive power of science. Humans will fail at coming up with theories that are perfectly predictive due to the fact that we must work within paradigms, or perceptual schema, that are inherently limiting.

I'll believe it isn't when you can demonstrate a conceptual scheme which can cause Force to not equal Mass time Acceleration

Sure. . . not sure if you got the update, but F=MA doesn't work on a quantum level or at speeds approaching the speed of light. Therefore, it is not a universal law, and it is not at all how the universe works. It is a useful equation that describes the relationship between three chosen variables that we deal with on a human, macro level. But when it comes to explaining or even predicting how the vast majority of reality operates - sorry it doesn't work at all.

You could invoke an entirely different set of theories - quantum physics - to describe the rest of the universe, but even those theories are incompatible with the way gravity works. And as you can read from post, even the speed of light as a constant is being called into question.

When you get to "the bottom" of science, you will find a lot of assumptions that are just taken for granted. For instance, what is a particle and what is a wave? Is a partice really a discreet "thing" or have we just defined it as such? What exactly is mass?

The universe, as far as anyone can tell, goes on regardless of what we think. Reality is what doesn't go away when you ignore it.

There are those who argue, quite convincingly, that the concept of existence doesn't make sense without a conscious observer.

You're not so much swinging and missing as you are standing on a football field in a batter's helmet with the baseball bat on your shoulder and congratulating yourself on your slam dunk.

ZING! But seriously man . . . there's no need to be an ass. We are just having a discussion here.
posted by Acromion at 2:30 PM on September 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


The lesson here: Be careful. That person you are accusing of being stupid might just be smart in a way that you don't even understand.
posted by The World Famous at 2:56 PM on September 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Taking your terms, Acromion:

I've noticed that the favor of instrumentalism or scientific realism depends greatly on the disciplines studied. Physics seems to be full of instrumentalists, because, as you say, at some point you get down to the bottom of the available theory and there are lots of things that emerge from the math, are observed in reality, and yet have really several equivalent explanations in the community, viz the Copehhagen interpretation versus the hidden variable people (of all flavors) versus the quantum universal entanglement people etc. Even the uncertainty principle is pretty friggin' unsettling.

On the other hand, talk to a geologist or a biologist, and you're more likely to get a scientific realist. I think this is because, for these people, if you try hard enough for long enough, you can eventually watch the thing you're studying happen. Or you can at least look at a record of it. The world can be ordered if you don't have to stare the quantum right in the face every day. I'm not saying that these folks are ignorant of physics, only that they aren't experimentally bumping into it every day.

For myself, I'm precisely one of those people who argue that there's not much of a definition of existence without an observer--although what constitutes an observer is rather unresolved. I'm almost a solipsist, in fact.
posted by Netzapper at 5:39 PM on September 9, 2009


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