Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On Stupid Names and Poorly-Understood Statistics

Let's get one thing right out of the way: the "God particle" is a stupid, nearly nonsensical name for it. It's called the Higgs boson, and that's all I'm going to say about stupid names.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Walking Through Walls (Sort Of) at ScienceNOW

A long while ago, I taught a summer camp class called "How to Walk Through Walls." It was a physics class that culminated in the idea that matter is really made of waves of probability, and these waves could in principle transport through barriers — that is, you could in theory walk, metaphorically speaking, through a wall.

Well, you can't, but a team in Finland has proposed observing the effect, called quantum tunneling, in a mechanical system. That's something no one's done before, and if they succeed, it will be really, really cool.

Read the story here.

Monday, November 21, 2011

200 Words or Less: Newton's Third Law

Don’t worry too much when that schoolyard bully shoves you — according to Newton’s third law, you’ve already shoved back.

The law — for every reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction — really means that when one thing pushes on another, the second one pushes back just as hard in exactly the opposite direction.

It's easy to see what the third law is all about. Grab a friend and head to a skating rink. Once on the ice, stand next to your friend and gently push. She’ll go in the direction you pushed her, but you’ll go in the opposite direction. That's because when you pushed your friend, she pushed on you, too.

Now think about this: when you jump up in the air, you push on the ground, just like you pushed your friend. That means two things: it's the earth pushing on you that tosses you in the air, and you're pushing on the earth, making it move, if only a little bit.

Now, if the earth isn't immovable, can it be the center of the universe? The third law says "no," and along with other insights, it began to permanently undermine the idea of an earth-centered universe.

Bonus experiment! It doesn't fit in 200 words or less, but you can also feel Newton's third law. Grab your friend again, get a basketball, and pass it between you. Pay attention to what you feel on your hands — pressure. That's the force of the ball pushing on you when you pass it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Newton's First Law — in 200 Words or Less

Reading my recent post about gravity the other day, it occurred to me that it might be fun to go back and do some basic science— in 200 words or less. Part exercise for me, part shot of science espresso for you. Today, Newton's first law.

It’s a humble but profound statement: objects in a state of uniform motion tend to remain in that state unless an external force acts on them. In plain English, Newton’s first law means that if you throw a baseball, it will go in a straight line at constant speed forever unless something pushes or pulls on it.

Of course, wind resistance and gravity are always pushing and pulling, so baseballs never go in straight lines at constant speed. To see the first law in action, find an ice rink or an air hockey table, and toss a puck along it. It’ll go straight at fairly constant speed for a while — longer, anyway, than a baseball would.

Why is the first law important? People once thought objects tended to stay motionless, so you had to push to keep them moving. They missed what’s obvious today: it’s friction that slows things down. Without friction, gravity, and other forces, things like hockey pucks and baseballs would keep moving forever.

Newton’s first law challenges us to think of all the forces involved, like friction and gravity. By doing that, it opens the door to a deeper, farther-reaching understanding of the physical world.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

How Gravity Works

Some time ago, I promised an explanation of how gravity works — in particular, how general relativity, Einstein's theory of gravity, works. Today I'm going to deliver. This one's a little mind bending, so definitely ask questions if you're confused. I like questions. Questions are cool.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Brain Regions, Errors of Logic, and Willie Horton

Though the past few decades have yielded a wealth of information about how the brain works, there is much that remains mysterious. It therefore came as a surprise to many a neuroscientist when the hallowed New York Times published an editorial by "marketing expert" Martin Lindstrom claiming that we loved our iPhones in much the same way we love our families and our dogs.

Monday, July 4, 2011

More political knowledge in the news...

...plus a hint about why it matters. A new Gallup poll indicates that about 80 percent of Americans have some roughly correct idea of why July 4th is significant in American history. Scroll down to some of the demographics for a bit of a surprise regarding men, women, whites, and blacks.

Bonus: about as many Americans as Germans or British people know that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Happy 4th, everybody! Now please don't burn the country down.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Nathan Answers Questions: What About Manipulation?

Over on Facebook, reader Jonathan Wang asks,

"…how about cases where politicians or interest groups deliberately misrepresent the facts?"

It's a good question with a number of facets. Three issues come to mind immediately: framing, media priming, and the many ways in which people either ignore or fail to use new information that could correct false beliefs.

Here's a quick overview, with some examples. Well, we'll see about quick, but there will be examples.

Friday, June 17, 2011

People Are Ignorant. Big Deal...Right?

In my previous three posts, I wrote about the fact that people generally don't know much about politics, though there is variance, and I wrote about why people know what they know. Basically, learning about politics takes effort, so people only know the things that are the easiest to learn about, which isn't much.

Okay, so people don't know much about politics, and we have some idea why. Today and next time, I'll look at whether it actually matters. In particular, I'll look at whether individuals and societies can make good decisions in spite of their ignorance. Roughly, there are three arguments:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why People Know What They Know About Politics

In my two previous posts, I looked at what people know about politics, and I looked a bit at who knows what about politics. The general theme is that people don't know very much overall, but there's variation—people know more about some things than others, and some people know more than others.

Today, I want to look at why people know what they know, and fortunately we've already seen some hints at the explanation. For example, we've seen that more people know about high-profile issues than about others. Putting that together with everything else we've seen so far suggests a fairly simple explanation for why people don't know that much about politics: it's actually kind of hard to follow, and most people have better things—or at least more pleasant things—to do than think about the awful state of the economy or whether gay people should be allowed to marry each other.

Monday, June 6, 2011

One other thing about what people know…

One of the things I didn't mention last time is that people tend to forget the issues and the politicians of yesterday, and that at least partially accounts for Americans' lack of political knowledge. Apropos, former Senator Rick Santorum, who lost his seat in a 17 point loss in 2006 — which, I should point out, is an unusual loss and an unusually huge landslide — is running for President.

Santorum used to be a Republican superstar. Today, according to Pew, fewer than half of Republican-leaning voters even know who he is.

You can read about Santorum's announcement here.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Look at What People Know About Politics, Part 2: What We Know and Who Knows It.

Last time, I wrote about what Americans and others know about politics. Before I get to discussing why people don't know much about politics—and whether it even matters—let's take a closer look at how much people know, whether it's changed over time, and who knows what. I'll also look a bit at whether the measures of political knowledge people use are actually that useful.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Look at What People Know About Politics, Part I

What with the recent debate in the United States over the federal budget—and whether to cut funding to the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—I got thinking again about how much Americans and other people know about politics. (Naturally, this is also a nice way to come back to the 'blog after a lengthy, research-induced hiatus.)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Organization in the News

I've now written a couple times about how policy changes and the importance of political organization and why it's hard to come by. In yesterdays's New York Times, columnist Bob Herbert points out Lewis Powell's advice—in 1971, to business leaders—to, among other things, organize. Herbert rights about the importance of organization in the context of labor unions. An interesting column and one you might like to read, which you can do here.

Thanks to Chris Mathieson for drawing my attention to this.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Fire Alarms, "Gasland," and How Policy Changes

Yesterday morning I watched Josh Fox's documentary Gasland and it got me thinking about something that I've been meaning to write about for a while: how and when Congress changes laws and, in particular, laws affecting things like environmental and financial regulation. The basic ideas of this topic are actually among the least complicated I've discussed here at Nathan Explains Science, so this will be (mercifully?) short.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Metaphors and Crime at ScienceNOW

I have a brief story up at ScienceNOW on how the metaphors others use to describe crime affects how we think about dealing with crime. This is part of a broader research program — both on the authors' part and on the part of the political science, communications, and psychology fields — focusing on how subtle changes in language affect how we think about all manner of things.

In fact, I've written on this before, when I wrote about Teenie Matlock and Caitlin Fausey's research on the effects of grammar on electability. Caitlin, who I knew when we were grad students at Stanford, was a student of Lera Boroditsky, one of the authors of the crime and metaphors paper — but, like I said, lots of people are interested in this stuff.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Babies Make Brains et al at Scientific American Mind

A quick note to tell you I've got two stories in the latest (March/April) Scientific American Mind, on newsstands now. Seriously. I picked mine up yesterday at the newsstand on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

But for you youngins, check the stories out here: A New Mom's Changing Brain and Accent Trumps Appearance.

Fun fact: yes, that narcissism story under "Head Lines" is the same one I wrote about last Fall.

Happy reading!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Brief Note on the Myth of the Astrophysical Vacuum Cleaner

I've done some reporting on physics but have yet to write about my favorite science topic, gravity, here on the 'blog. Today, I want to tell you a little bit about something I know a fair bit about, black holes.

Monday, January 31, 2011

More shamelessness on behalf of others.

Apparently it's quick update/shout out week(s?) here at Nathan Explains Science. I wanted to draw your attention to biologist Jon Wilkins's blog, Lost in Transcription, where it is Egypt week. Jon is a poet in addition to being a biologist — he's far more interesting than me — and has spent some time on the evolutionary biology of cooperation (I believe...) as well as the poetry of Langston Hughes, one of my favorites from high school. Please take a minute to check him out.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mimicry might make you more liberal at ScienceNOW

I have to tell you that this is not the best study I've reported on—the sample and effect sizes are small—but the result is nonetheless kind of interesting. Here's the idea: people unconsciously mimic each other, and there's evidence that makes people more empathetic and, in particular, more likely to think of themselves in terms of their relationships with other people rather than in terms of their own traits. That, in turn, has been connected to more liberal ideology. Hence this experiment, which suggests a connection between the sort of social cues implicit in mimicking someone (unconsciously) and voting for, in the US, Democrats.



Thursday, January 27, 2011

Of Fish and Behavioral Models of Voting

No, those two aren't actually related, except for the fact that it's plug day here at Nathan Explains Science.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Grammar in the Real/Political World

My friend, the illustrious John Bullock of the Yale University Political Science Department, points this observation out. I can't vouch for the blog or its content, but it is intriguing.

Readers may, with bemused curiosity, recall that one of my first stories was on grammar and perceptions of political figures. The story is here.

Stay tuned for a post on physics: how gravity really works!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Fielding Reader Questions: Is It All Rigged?

After two weeks of holidays and actual scientific research (hush now!), I thought it time I answer an important and surprisingly interesting question in political science: is everything rigged? (Thanks to reader Tom Mesirow and others for asking the question.) To answer this question, we need to spend some taking that question apart a little bit. When we say rigged, I think what we mean is something like "are the corporations/labor unions/American Medical Association/NPR in control of politics?"