A creationist textbook's description of "atheistic evolutionism"

(via Boing Boing) Can we just talk for a minute about the ridiculous notion that "You can't get something from nothing"?  Few things annoy me more about the 'origin of the universe' argument.

How many people, religious or not, have direct experience of what it's like when there isn't anything?  None, right?  Because there has never been a time when there hasn't been stuff, but there were people around to observe it.  We've got no idea what nothing is like.

I hate the argument that stuff just can't pop into being.  For all we know, the only reason stuff doesn't just pop into being now is because there's already other stuff in the way.  As far as I can tell, in fact, that's what's going on with Hawking radiation, where the absolute nothingness created around the black hole makes space for particle-antiparticle pairs to form, one end being sucked into the black hole and the other shooting out into space as new stuff.

We do this a lot in human thinking:  we assume that, because we have intimate experience of one state, we can draw conclusions about a state that we describe as being opposite to it.  Absence is not the mirror-reflection of presence.  We don't know how nothingness behaves just because we know how stuff behaves.

That is all.

New kinds of matter and magnetism

(via Reddit) ExtremeTech.com reports on the discovery of a new state of matter, Quantum Spin Liquid (QSL), and a new kind of magnetism.

The existence of QSLs has been theorized since 1987, but until now no one has succeeded in actually finding one. In MIT’s case, the researchers spent 10 months growing a tiny sliver of herbertsmithite (pictured above) — a material that was suspected to be a QSL, but which had never been properly investigated. (Bonus points if you can guess who herbertsmithite is named after.) Using neutron scattering [...] the researchers found that the herbertsmithite was indeed a QSL.

Moving forward, Lee says that the discovery of QSLs could lead to advances in data storage [...,] and communications (long-range entanglement). [Young] Lee also seems to think that QSLs could lead us towards higher-temperature superconductors — i.e. materials that superconduct under relatively normal conditions, rather than -200C.

Really, though, the most exciting thing about quantum spin liquids is that they’re completely new, and thus we ultimately have no idea how they might eventually affect our world.

Lately it seems like there's cool new quantum science coming out roughly every week.  More likely, I just notice it more now that the Higgs is found and the spell of ambiguity surrounding quantum physics is broken -- as I wrote on Particle Day earlier this year, "I never really believed they were going to find it.  I had this weird sense of pessimistic determinism about the whole thing, because up to that point, everything about chemistry and physics that was known, as far as I knew, was known long before I was born."

Now, rather than feeling like science is basically cooked, and we're just pushing up against a wall of inscrutability, I feel like our understanding of the universe is exploding forward every day.  It's pretty cool.  And I'm grateful.

Happy Particle Day!

I remember when the Large Hadron Collider was first going online, and there were all sorts of horrible theories about what was going to happen.  People thought the world was going to end.  When it kept breaking, I heard at least one source theorize that the Higgs Boson was traveling back in time to thwart attempts to prove its existence. I'm starting to realize, now, that I never really believed they were going to find it.  I had this weird sense of pessimistic determinism about the whole thing, because up to that point, everything about chemistry and physics that was known, as far as I knew, was known long before I was born.  Newtonian physics had been around since, like, Newton.  Quantum physics had been around at least long enough for Einstein to think it was a load of crap.

Then, when I found out how close we were getting, I thought we were going to just end up ruling it out-- not finding the Higgs so much that it stopped being reasonable to think the Higgs existed.  We'd find out that we were even further behind than we thought we were, that the standard model just isn't accurate.

So, it's kind of a big deal to me that we found the Higgs Boson -- or, a Higgs-like particle.  It turns out that on a very fundamental level of the structure of the universe, we're already right.  We're right, and we've been right since the 1970's.

Reuters has a great article about the discovery, the best one I've read today.  It describes, among other things, the response of theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, 83 years old, at the announcement.

Clearly overwhelmed, his eyes welling up, Higgs told the symposium of fellow researchers: "It is an incredible thing that it has happened in my lifetime." [...]

"It is very satisfying," Higgs told Reuters. "For me personally it's just the confirmation of something I did 48 years ago[.]" [...]

"I had no expectation that I would still be alive when it happened[.]" [...]

"For physics, in one way, it is the end of an era in that it completes the Standard Model[.]"

The Higgs-like particle has been demonstrated to a degree of certainty known as Five Sigma, which means the likelihood that the discovery is a fluke is less than 1 in 3,500,000 (3 and a half million) -- accounting for 99.99997% of the data.

Now, the most interesting stuff is still yet to come -- now that we know (to a certainty beyond reasonable doubt) that the particle is there, does it do everything we need the Higgs to do?  Some of the scientists are saying yes, others are saying maybe.  Oliver Buchmueller, a CERN physicist, told Reuters:

If I were a betting man, I would bet that it is the Higgs. But we can't say that definitely yet. It is very much a smoking duck that walks and quacks like the Higgs. But we now have to open it up and look inside before we can say that it is indeed the Higgs.