Houston Mega-Dome?

Discovery Mega-Builders: Houston Dome. Click image to explore features.

Discovery Mega-Builders: Houston Dome?

Tonight, the Discovery channel had an interesting “Mega-Builders” segment. You can also watch the segment on their web video.

Mega Engineering
Dome Over Houston

Houston is in peril. The country’s fourth most populous city faces heat, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. Only a radical engineering solution will save the city: a massive dome, 1,500 feet high and a mile in diameter, would protect the city.

Despite understandable initial skepticism, the idea has some merit. Building on Buckminster Fuller’s established concepts for the geodesic dome, Discovery advances the idea that a dome over the financial district of Houston could save billions of dollars in hurricane damage, create climate control, minimize the extremes of Gulf weather and humidity, reduce heating and air conditioning costs, and generally reduce the stress of downtown existence.

The technology is not all there, but it’s close. Continue reading

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Justification for Colliders

I read an informative and entertaining article on the Large Hadron Collider in, of all places, the May 14 New Yorker. The article did an exceptional job of explaining to the layperson the LHC project (the 7 trillion electron volt machine scheduled for completion in Cern this October), including the mechanics of its operation, hoped for results, and the underlying theoretical physics. It even did a creditable job of presenting a mercifully brief, high level outline of string theory, if that is possible. The article is Crash Course by Elizabeth Kolbert, linked here, as, happily, it’s available online at the moment.

But I found the motivation for this posting in a remarkable quotation Continue reading

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It Ain’t Proof Until The Fat Lady Sings

The February Sky and Telescope had an interesting commentary by Editor-In-Chief Richard Tresch Fienborg. It concerned logical and factual assertions of the form “more proof uncovered.” Examples:

NASA: “direct proof” of dark matter

NY Times: “strongest proof yet” of water flow on Mars

We are so deadened to political and media misuse of the concept of “proof” that it is a shame we often don’t pick up on it when the conceptual abuse occurs in the scientific community. You don’t see this coming from the scientists actually making the scientific discoveries. You see it from the political and press flacks trying to leverage the event for maximum spin.

The NASA statement at least makes some sense: it implies observational proof, as opposed to armchaired hypothesis and “theory”.

Fienborg correctly quarrels with those who would demote “theory” to the status of an unproven and somewhat arbitrary hunch or guess – as religious literalists would have us do with the “theory” of evolution, global warming and so forth: there’s no proof; it’s just your opinion, which is no better than my opinion. As Fienborg points out, a theory is invalidated when contradicted by even one set of facts or principles.

So, why make a big deal out of the misuse of “proof”? Are we just bickering about semantics?

A “fact”, asks Fienborg: is it the assertion of the trusted authority figures, or something that can be verified independently by multiple observers? The answer you get determines whether it’s “my preacher told me that it’s so” or “I can demonstrate this myself with my backyard telescope.”

Most of us can see almost intuitively how the differences in the two approaches can determine which way the world heads from here.

As a kid in college, I read Hannah Arendt’s classic “Totalitarianism” which, among many notable accomplishments, dissected in frightening detail the semantics and propaganda used to mobilize Hitler’s Germany. It was tough sledding, but I never forgot those lessons.

This just reminds us all that if the concepts are popularly demolished upon which we rely so heavily to do good science, and indeed to live in freedom, then it scarcely matters how good a grasp we ourselves have of those ideas. Bereft of a common language to communicate them, we are just as effectively censored into silence as if the old propaganda polizei held the button to the microphone.

If it’s “proof”, “stronger proof” invalidates the whole concept. Yes, NASA requires a much more complex checklist of conditions that must be satisfied, than I required to tune my ’84 Bronco (back in the days when you could tune your own engine). Proof still doesn’t come in degrees of certitude, or household vs. industrial strengths. It’s either proven or it ain’t.

You only get to hear the fat lady sing once, if at all. You can fool some people some of the time, but you can’t fool the fat lady.

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