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Re: PHYS-L Digest - 6 Aug 2004 to 7 Aug 2004 (#2004-225)

On 7-Aug-04, Bill wrote:

Leigh Palmer <palmer@SFU.CA> wrote:

"It was not clear from Bill's posting where the science left off and
the fiction began in his "Dark Visitor" story. If it was intended
that the discovery of Pluto was achieved because of supposed
unattributed perturbations in Neptune's orbit, that is not the case.

Bill’s reply to Leigh:

SUMMARY: I don’t agree, but even if planetary perturbations and
Lowell’s predictions had nothing to do with Pluto’s discovery, I would
still shamelessly exploit this widely held belief. Also without shame,
the large headline of my Drexel University newspaper article
(reproduced at ) intentionally has an extremely
vulgar interpretation, in the hope that students will cut it out, tell
others about it, etc.

Before I make my answers to Bill's thoughtful disagreement, perhaps I
should welcome him to the group. It sounds like his age, background and
credentials are similar to my own, and it is good to have another
colleague to whom I can relate well.

Perhaps I should have expanded a bit. What I meant was that it was
unclear *to me* where the science left off and the fiction began, and I
believe that it would be unclear to Bill's intended readers. While this
is a standard way to introduce science fiction, it does often lead to
the propagation of myths, as I believe it has done in this case. (1)

That article tells the same early-universe physics given below and
explains how large stars form black holes, etc. but its vulgar title
is why it may attract Dark Visitor’s target readers (people not
currently interested in science.) The Asian challenge (outlined in my
original post) is so strong that substantially more science students
must recruited.

What "Asian challenge"? What is being challenged? Here in Canada we
have many excellent students of Asian ethnicity, more of them than
their proportion in the population. I think it is no different in the
USA, judging by casual observation on my visits to the Cal campus. So
what? Is that a bad thing? (2)

I recognize that you were referring to the increasing success of
foreigners, particularly Asians, in the sciences. Seeing that as a
challenge is chauvinistic, even though you give lip service to your
admiration. We should recognize that there are many more of "them" than
there are of "us". If it happens that the USA no longer produces the
majority of the world's scientific discoveries is that really a bad
thing? I would say that it is a development in which the USA should
take considerable pride.

It can be argued the rapid progress of science in Asia (and Europe) was
achieved largely because of the enlightened, humane generosity of the
USA in the aftermath of World War II. In my years at Cal (1955-1966) I
noted that many of my professors were not native born citizens of the
USA. I believe that it is likely that an enlightened, humane
immigration policy at the time of Hitler's persecution of Jews in
Europe led directly to the supremacy of USA science in the years during
and after the war. I believe the acceptance of refugee scientists by
the USA may ultimately have ended the war with Japan. That the nuclear
bomb was followed by the enlightened, humane government of Douglas
Macarthur, is one of those triumphs of USA foreign affairs of which we
should be proud. If one wishes to observe that it led directly to the
success of the Japanese optical and electronic industry that is, in my
view, justified. Viewing it as a challenge, however, is unjustified. I
would argue that the USA is still the most technologically advanced and
imaginative society in the world, if, perhaps, it has slipped a bit
lately in its enlightened humanity in foreign relations.

I do share Bill's concern over restrictive immigration policies that
discourage excellent students, who want to do so, from studying in the
USA. That would be extremely short sighted. I once saw an article
treating the amazing number of officials and leaders of foreign
governments who had received degrees in the USA. I cannot think of a
better way of exporting our values than by instructing the world's best
and brightest. We win whether they stay or return to their native
lands. (4)

I return to the topic of Pluto's discovery. Bill said:

DETAILS: I give two brief quotes (From hits 4 & 6 of a Google search
on: Pluto + Discovery) to support my view about Pluto’s discovery:

(1)"The story of Pluto's discovery begins with Percival Lowell. ...
Lowell founded an observatory and funded three separate searches for
the mysterious "Planet X." ..."


True. He founded Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ, in 1894, for the
purpose of finding Panet X. Pluto was discovered there by Clyde
Tombaugh in 1930, long after Lowell's death. The supposed perturbations
of Neptune's orbit played no role at all in that discovery. Not only
was Pluto incapable of perturbing Neptune's orbit within observable
limits, no perturbations are known which cannot be understood as
attributable to the known planets. That is the significance of Charles
Kowal's work with Stillman Drake.

(2)"In January 1929 Clyde W Tombaugh ... joined the staff at
Flagstaff, with the task of finding Planet X. ... The mass of Pluto is
now known accurately since a satellite Charon has been discovered.
Pluto's mass is 0.002 Earth masses, while Lowell required Planet X to
have seven Earth masses to produce the effects on the other planets.
The mystery remains as to how Lowell was able to predict the orbit so
accurately. ..."


'Taint no mystery. He didn't accurately predict anything of the sort.
The web is a great place to find myths reinforced. (The URL has gone to
404 land, mercifully.)

I don’t really think a small black hole passed our solar in the late
1920s and perturbed Neptune, nor that one will pass in 2008 and throw
Earth into an ice age, as Dark Visitor suggests. I used improbable,
but physical possible, events to scare my target readers, hoping to
awaken an interest in physics. I exploited the fact that early
universe was denser; typical stars were larger, often formed in pairs,
aged rapidly, and produced several generations of paired black holes
before our sun was even born. I also exploited the common belief that
Lowell observed perturbations and predicted Pluto’s location. (As
additional proof, note that Pluto’s symbol in the 1930s is a
superposition of the letters P&L.) Percival Lowell was lucky - Dark
Visitor gives a short proof, which non-technical high-school students
can follow, that Earth moves the sun 6.5 times more than Pluto can
move Neptune, even when they are at their minimum separation (17AU).
All this in an effort to make an ice age
beginning in 2008 seem plausible, and to provide a scary vehicle to
explain some astrophysics and climate mechanisms, without teaching in
the conventional style. (Dark Visitor is a recruiting tool. – my
target reader is smart, but currently has no interest in science.)

I recognized that at this point the story was into the science fiction
part. I think that if you had used the discovery of Neptune rather than
Pluto as your premise it would have been better, since that was

With regard to other science / fiction in Dark Visitor:

I believe I have been accurate (usually – see next paragraph) with
physical facts; however, speculations, which may be wrong, are
included. For example, in view of the above early-universe facts, Dark
Visitor speculates: "that there may be more small, stellar-core,
black-hole pairs than all the current stars." It also notes that there
are more stars than grains of sand on Earth’s beaches, but this is
plagiarized. (More efforts to make it plausible that the second black
hole of a pair is arriving in 2008.) I would be interested if others
think "more paired black holes than stars" is reasonable as this is an
original speculation.

It is certainly reasonable in good science fiction. I will note that
core collapse supernovae (from which stellar core black holes
originate) are thought typically to implode asymmetrically, ejecting
neutrinos and other particles anisotropically. In this process they
acquire sufficient momentum that any previous binary partners are left
behind. There are a few known black holes in binaries, of course, and
pairs of black holes are thought to exist.

The "usually" above is necessary because I intentionally placed some
physics errors in Dark Visitor, which I call "Easter Eggs." One
resembles a typographical error, but most are plausible false
statements in sections where the physics gets boring (to my target
reader). I did this, against my better nature and without shame,
because the book often gives brief digests and then encourages the
reader to skip the longer sections that follow. Skipping all of
Chapter 10 during the first reading is strongly recommended. (I don’t
want to lose my target reader in astronomical coordinate system

To my taste the fewer physics errors, the better. The frequent
gratuitous disregard of physics seen in Star Dreck has always bothered
me. I don't like it at all. Departures from adherence to physical laws
should require of the reader a minimum of suspension of belief
consistent with main plot objectives.

Dark Visitor has a postscript that gives hints about most, but not
all, of these Easter Eggs to encourage a second, more detailed
reading. It offers the "World Class Egg Hunter" certificate for anyone
finding five or more Easter Eggs. If there are unintentional errors in
Dark Visitor, they are (of course) just "Easter Eggs" for which I gave
no hints.

; ^ )

In addition to the postscript hints, the Easter Eggs usually
contradict more detailed discussion elsewhere in Dark Visitor. An
example of a "plausible false statement" is the back-cover statement:
"The dark visitor will never be seen in telescopes because black holes
do not reflect sun light." This is explicitly contradicted in the text
by a discussion of Hawking’s radiation. This Easter Egg also is
contradicted by the fact that, when closer (currently the dark visitor
is 130AU from the sun), in-falling solar wind may become denser and
luminous - a "mini-quasar" effect. Easter Eggs may encourage students
to carry the book around on campus, exposing it to others. (Some may
do this to fill idle moments by searching for hidden Easter Eggs.)

Black holes can, in principle, be seen in telescopes due to their
gravitational effect on the light from background stars (gravitational
lensing). Bill Unruh and I once made a movie simulating the appearance
of a black hole to the operator of a spaceship in orbit around the
hole. We used a 10,000 solar mass black hole, and a one minute period
circular orbit. The hole "looks" pretty spectacular. Part of the movie
was used in a BBC "Horizons" program on Stephen Hawking. Hawking
recommended the movie to the producers as the best depiction of a black
hole that he had seen. Bill and I split an honorarium of US$50. At
about the same time that we made the movie, Walt Disney produced a
feature film called "The Black Hole". We worried that, with his
resources, Disney would outdo us. He didn't. His black hole depiction
was utterly science fictitious, if more colorful than ours. (The movie
was, deservedly, a flop, but Walt probably made more than the US$100
that BBC paid to Bill and me.)

Asian pressure (more than 15 times US production of science degree
graduates) has made me completely shameless in my recruiting efforts.
Do your part. Sponsor a science fair, egg dropping contest, etc. Get
the English teachers to require a science fiction story that does not
violate any physics. (Your physics students can read for errors.) Help
the coach / biology teacher measure nerve conduction speeds, reaction
times. etc. - anything for reaching out to the general student.
Organize to get textbook companies to offer prizes / awards. Teaching
students already interested in science is no longer enough!

I think that most of these things are worthy activities without the
motivation you suggest, the exception being science fairs. (3)

Sincerely, Bill

I never doubted that for a minute. I will probably not read your book
unless I have to do so. As I said, I have an aversion to some science
friction, and since I retired I have become even lazier.



(1) The most dramatic case of this I know is the invention of the Flat
Earth myth through the writings of Antoinne-Jean Letronne and
Washington Irving. See "Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern
Historians" by Jeffrey Burton Russell. (Or simply Google "Inventing the
Flat Earth". I read the book before there was a web. It was more
difficult to propagate myths before there was a web.)

(2) Have you noticed the diminishing number of white native born
workers in the very highly paid jobs of the National Basketball
Association? Is this a challenge to anyone?

(3) I was once the chairman of the Vancouver Regional Science Fair, and
I was involved with it for several years. The competition is
ill-conceived, restricted as it is to an absurd set of rules. I have
many other criticisms of them, but I will note that many of the best
competitors were Asian and/or female, few of whom were really motivated
toward science. Many did become physicians and lawyers, however. I
rather think they were misled about the nature of science by their
teachers ("the scientific method" etc.) and by the enthusiasm devoted
to ill-conceived science fairs. Some who previously had felt called to
science may even have been turned away by science fairs. Science fairs
are another topic, however.

(4) Canada has been more accepting of these students in recent years.