The patron saint of cranks and charlatans

I can’t remember who it was who referred to Galileo that way. Ted Cruz, the right-wing US senator, presidential candidate, and one-time Ivy League super-elitist has invoked the protection of this saint to defend his position on climate change, in opposition to the overwhelming consensus of the experts:

Today the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-earthers. You know it used to be: ‘It is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat.’ And this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.

This is standard crank-Galileo stuff, impressive for the number of misconceptions it builds into such a small space. Of course, Galileo’s critics didn’t think the Earth is flat. It was certainly not “accepted scientific wisdom” in his day. (Beyond any theoretical or cultural understanding, it was nearly a century since Portuguese sailors had circumnavigated the globe.) Galileo was not dismissed by the scientific experts of his day. His theories and discoveries were controversial, but he was generally acclaimed by scientific authorities. He was punished for contradicting the Church’s entrenched philosophical commitments, by a panel that, while not completely devoid of expertise in astronomy and Aristotelian physics, was chosen for its institutional commitment to the Church. It’s not really the most felicitous comparison for a climate-change denier to bring up.

Logical fallacies aside — “They laughed at the Wright brothers. They also laughed at the Marx brothers.” — there aren’t many cases of new ideas being dismissed as ridiculous by the scientific community, and later proved right. There is often entrenched conservative resistance (as there should be) to radical new ideas, but almost never is a single thinker so far beyond everyone else that his ideas don’t elicit significant support. Perhaps the best exception is Alfred Wegener, with his obviously crackpot theory of continental drift. For some reason Galileo, who was very much respected and mainstream, gets called into service to defend the crazies, and not Wegener. I imagine that Cruz’s backers would be almost as uncomfortable with plate tectonics as they are with evolution, if they knew anything about it. At that point the USGS would be banned from using plate tectonics to predict earthquakes.

In any case, Wegener wasn’t sitting in a Senate office reading Heritage Foundation talking points; he learned everything that was known about geophysics (which wasn’t much at the time) conducting expeditions to Greenland to collect evidence.

Hippie science

There are two books I’ve read sort of recently, From Counterculture to Cyberculture by Fred Turner and How the Hippies Saved Physics by David Kaiser, that supplement each other as a picture of how antimaterialistic culture of the SF Bay area in the late 1960s through mid-1970s produced a lot of nonsense, but also hugely important new impulses in hard technical fields. Silicon Valley grew out of an ethos of DIY back-to-the-earth-ism (hence the “Homebrew Computer Club”), while the Fundamental Fysiks Group at Lawrence Berkeley Lab, took the energy of enthusiasm for parapsychology and mysticism, and channeled it into revival of an inquisitive style of physics that rediscovered entanglement and Bell’s Theorem, and laid the groundwork for quantum cryptography and quantum information science.

Einstein and the Quantum

I just saw an ad (in Blackwell’s Books) for a book titled Einstein and the Quantum, with a text that began

Einstein himself famously rejected quantum mechanics with his God does not play dice theory…

Putting aside the fact that “God does not play dice with the universe” is a quip, not a theory, I’m fascinated by this extreme statement of a calumny on Einstein that I knew as standard when I first learned about quantum mechanics from popular science in the 1970s, that the old man, despite his revolutionary past (and he was only in his late 40s) simply lacked the intellectual flexibility to keep up, rejected the new science, and was proved wrong by the march of progress.

In fact, that famous remark (from a 1926 letter to Max Born) acknowledged up front that the emerging probabilistic view of quantum mechanics was proving very useful. He simply rejected the willingness to deny a micro-level interpretation. (And the so-called Copenhagen “Interpretation” of quantum mechanics is really an anti-interpretation, a programmatic refusal to interpret. For more comments on the pedagogical function, see here.) The fact that this approach went from strength to strength as a calculating tool does not mean that its interpretive framework, the one that said that probabilities are the fundamental objects and there is no use going deeper, has been proved, any more than the success of Maxwell’s equations proved the existence of molecular vortices in the luminiferous aether. In particular, proponents of the Copenhagen Interpretation have tended to ignore the fact that they are helping themselves to a supposedly primitive concept, probability, that is actually complex, strange, and sorely in need of physical foundations.

Certainly one powerful strain of modern work on the foundations of physics — in particular, the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics (cf. David Wallace’s The Emergent Multiverse) also rejects the notion that there is some randomness at the core of quantum mechanics, and takes as a point of departure the entanglement theory first proposed in the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen thought experiment.

* Einstein wrote, “Die Theorie liefert viel, aber dem Geheimnis des Alten bringt sie uns kaum näher. Jedenfalls bin ich überzeugt, daß der nicht würfelt.“ Literally: “The theory gives us much, but it hardly brings us nearer to the Ancient One’s secret. In any case, I am convinced that he does not throw dice.”