Saturday, 20 June 2015

Lynch mobs, real and imagined

Today, of all days, with the horrible massacre in the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston fresh in our minds, The Times published an article in which the folks who mocked Tim Hunt on the #distractinglysexy hashtag were referred to as a "lynch mob."  (I think; it's not clear who, exactly, the lynch mob is meant to be; perhaps the editors of Nature, who ran an editorial urging that all involved in science condemn Hunt's comments, are to be counted as part of the mob, as well.)

Hunt is a retired scientist who was asked by University College London to resign from an honorary position that carries no salary.   He has also resigned from the Royal Society's awards committee, though he remains a Fellow of the Royal Society, despite what Boris Johnson might think.  And though he claimed "I'm finished," in a plea for pity in The Guardian , it seems to me that, if he chose to, he could continue doing what he has been doing in the five years since his retirement, that is, public outreach for science.  If, tomorrow, he issued a statement announcing that he's seen the error of his ways and offered to partner with some organization promoting the position of women in science (e.g. the WISE campaign), people would eat that up, I think.  Or, if he wanted to do a lecture tour picturing himself as victim of Political Correctness, there are organizations that would eat that up, too.

He has not been lynched.  He hasn't even been sacked, in any serious sense of the word.  Being sacked, for most people, would mean loss of livelihood.  He has been mocked, and UCL has acted to distance himself from his remarks, after Hunt himself made it clear that he wasn't going to do so. And what he's doing these days, as reported in the Guardian today, is relaxing and looking forward to watching Wimbledon.

Shall we recall what lynching is?

Lynch mobs murdered people, mostly African Americans, brutally, and left their bodies hanging on trees as a warming to others that it could happen to them. A few months ago the nonprofit organization Equal Justice Initiative released a report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.   The report documents nearly 4,000 lynchings in the southern United States between 1877 and 1950, and "makes the case that lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation."

The massacre in Charleston reminds us that the hatred that fueled lynch mobs is still alive.

Although the title of the Times article is "Eight Nobel scientists condemn ‘lynch mob’," it's not clear which, if any, of the scientists mentioned in it used the phrase "lynch mob."  The phrase doesn't, unless I've missed it, appear in the body of the article.  I hope that the scientists who are quoted in that article will step up to distance themselves from that characterization.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Einstein liked Quantum Mechanics

“In my opinion, this theory [quantum mechanics] contains without doubt a piece of the ultimate truth.“ Einstein, in 1931.

“Quantum Mechanics represents an important and in some sense even conclusive advance in physical knowledge.” Einstein, in 1948.

Follow-up to my blog post last month about the EPR paper, in which I griped about a pet peeve of mine, the persistent myth that Einstein disliked (sometimes it is said that he hated) quantum mechanics. Einstein disagreed with Bohr and Heisenberg and others about the conclusions one should draw from the success of quantum theory, and he disliked the Copenhagen philosophy (or philosophies), but that’s not the same as disliking quantum mechanics. All the evidence I know of indicates that he appreciated as much, or more, as anyone else what a significant advance in physics the theory was.

It is true that one can find some negative comments in some letters. For example, one finds, in a letter to Ehrenfest, in January 1927, “My heart does not warm to Schrödingerei—it is uncausal and altogether too primitive” (quoted by Fine 1986, p. 27). But to put this in perspective, this is mild compared to Heisenberg’s comment on Schrödinger: “The more I reflect on the physical content of Schrödinger’s theory, the more disgusting [abscheulich] I find it” (letter to Pauli, June 8 1926, in Pauli 1979, letter 136). 

In his Dialectica article (1948), Einstein wrote, “Quantum Mechanics represents an important and in some sense even conclusive advance in physical knowledge.” But perhaps this was a public pronouncement hiding private loathing?

One place to look for Einstein’s sincere attitude is in his recommendations for Nobel Prizes. These were confidential, to be seen only by the Nobel Prize committee, and they were influential; as we shall see below, the committee took Einstein’s recommendations very seriously. So, we can assume that Einstein is recommending for honours only the people that he really thinks deserve the honours. Abraham Pais, Einstein’s biographer, was given permission to see Einstein’s letters to the Nobel prize committee, and he reports what he found in an appendix of his biography, ‘Subtle is the Lord…’

Let us confine our attention to the recommendations made after the crucial period 1925-1927, which saw the genesis of quantum mechanics as we know it, primarily at the hands of Heisenberg and Schrödinger. Let us focus on his recommendations for theoretical physics, putting aside recommendations for experimental work and his numerous recommendations for Peace Prizes.

In 1928 he recommended that the prize be awarded either to de Broglie, Davisson, and Germer, for the proposal of electron waves and its experimental verification, or to Heisenberg and Schrödinger jointly. Other possibilities he floated were a prize to be shared between de Broglie and Schrödinger, for wave mechanics, or one to Heisenberg, Born, and Jordan, for matrix mechanics.The 1929 prize went to de Broglie.

In 1931 he recommended individual prizes for Schrödinger and Heisenberg. In his letter, he wrote,

“In my opinion, this theory contains without doubt a piece of the ultimate truth. The achievements of both men are independent of each other and so significant that it would not be appropriate to divide a Nobel prize between them.”

There was no prize awarded in 1931. In 1932 Einstein’s recommendation was a prize for Schrödinger. In 1932 the prize was awarded to Heisenberg, and in 1933, jointly to Schrödinger and Dirac.

His next recommendation for theoretical physics was in 1945, for Pauli, and in 1945 Pauli got his Nobel prize, for the exclusion principle.

And that’s it, in terms of recommendations for prizes in theoretical physics, after 1927. Once quantum mechanics existed, Einstein, in his recommendations for Nobel prizes in theoretical physics, had no other concern than to honour its founders.


Einstein, Albert (1948). Quanten-mechanik und wirklichkeit. Dialectica 2, 320–324. 

Fine, Arthur (1986). The Shaky Game: Einstein, Realism, and the Quantum Theory. University of Chicago Press.

Pais, Abraham (1982). ‘Subtle is the Lord…’: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein. Oxford University Press.

Pauli, Wolfgang (1979).  Wissenschaftlicher Briefwechsel mit Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, u.a./Wolfgang Pauli, Scientific Correspondence with Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, a.o.  A. Hermann, K. v. Meyenn, and V.F. Weisskopf, eds.  Springer.

Friday, 5 June 2015

CSHPS resolution

Though I wasn't there, I have heard from Lesley Cormack, president of the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science, that the topic of federal scientists' freedom to communicate was discussed at the Annual General Meeting on Sunday, May 31st, and that the Society has passed the following motion:

Moved: The Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science endorses the principle of the federal scientists freedom to communicate, and reaffirms the centrality of the ability of scientists to communicate for the advancement of science.

Kudos to CSHPS for standing up for science!!

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Guest post: From Siege to Partnership, by Heather Douglas

CBC Radio's Ideas is running a three-part series , Science Under Siege , which airs  Wednesday–Friday this week.  Heather Douglas, Waterloo Chair in Science and Society, worked with the producer, Mary Lynk, on this series, and has graciously provided a commentary on the series.  Further information about the series can be found here.

Science Under Siege airs June 3, 4, 5, 9-10 PM, CBC Radio One.

 Science is under siege in contemporary society—from the muzzling of scientists, to the cutting of basic research, to a general neglect of the nature of, and importance of, science. Yet science is central to both our daily life and our ideals for rational human endeavors. These ideals undergird our political system (our belief that our societies should be democratic) and our educational system (our belief that an informed and capable citizenry is essential for democratic governance). How can we move from science under siege to a better relationship between science and the public?

The first step is to understand the nature of science. As noted in the program, science is essentially an inductive process, a process that builds understanding of the world from pieces of evidence and continually tests that understanding against new evidence. The inductive nature of science means that science always has some uncertainty—we may discover that our current theories are wrong tomorrow. But this endemic uncertainty provides science with its strength. Because scientific claims are always open to future disproof, and because scientists operate in a culture that fosters criticism, scientific claims are robust.

In order to support robust science, we must have open scientific communities (such that anyone can be trained to join them), open scientific communication (so that ideas can be scrutinized and critiqued), and open forums for debate (such as journals, conferences, and websites). That such social conditions are at the heart of science must be understood and supported by the public if science is to survive.

Further, the openness of science creates opportunities for engagement between scientists and the public. Such engagement can be through communication of findings. It can be through participation of citizens in evidence gathering. It can also be through raising of concerns about what research is done, how it is done, and whether the evidence (never complete) is sufficient for a claim.

These latter questions mean that social and ethical values are always relevant to science, and may be part of the public’s engagement with science. The public can ask whether it is wise to pursue certain lines of research over other lines of research. Scientists’ understanding about what is feasible (or not), and what might be gleaned from different lines of inquiry are of course important. But public concerns are legitimate reasons to move research in different directions.

The public can also have legitimate concerns about how research is done. The public can raise questions about the moral acceptability of some experiments, and not just for human subjects but also for animal subjects or research that involves ecological risks. The public can also be concerned that research done in a narrow private interest can be distorted—either through the scope of the project or through distortion of evidence—violating basic scientific integrity, which at its heart is about respecting the evidence.

Finally, even when the public thinks the right research has been done, and in a good way, the public may still find the available evidence insufficient. The public can have concerns about making a claim prematurely, or rejecting a claim for too long, and thus assess the available evidence differently than some scientists.

Although social and ethical values are thus central to the relationship between science and the public, they should not override the available evidence. Skeptics should always be able to say what evidence would convince them. If they cannot, their belief is not based on science, but rather on ideology, and they should stop pretending otherwise. Science is not just about searching for flaws (no evidence is perfect), but also about figuring out what the best current take on the evidence is. We should expect each other to be able to articulate what evidence would be convincing, and so improve our public discourse about science.

Finally, we should embrace the spirit of experimentation, not just with policy avenues, but with social structures to bring the public and experts together. There are many ways to bring the public into conversation with science, to rebuild the relationship, to allow for critical discussion and an airing of concerns. Such ways must be built on a common understanding of what science is and what it can achieve, as well as its limits. But with this shared understanding, the ways of collaboration open to us are as varied as our cultures, institutions, and imaginations.

Scientists will always have special expertise, and this will pose problems for democratic systems. But the challenge need not be insurmountable; expertise should not be obscure and remote. With a better understanding of each other, and of the legitimate avenues for discussion and debate between science and the public, scientists and the public can build a new partnership.