Sunday, August 24, 2008

Intellegent Design's Worst Nightmare

The following concerns a question in a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen:

"Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper with a barometer."

One student replied:

"You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building."

This highly original answer so incensed the examiner that the student was failed immediately. The student appealed on the grounds that his answer was indisputably correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case.

The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics. To resolve the problem it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to provide a verbal answer that showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics.

For five minutes the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought. The arbiter reminded him that time was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn't make up his mind which to use. On being advised to hurry up the student replied as follows:

"Firstly, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the ground. The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 0.5g x t squared. But bad luck on the barometer."

"Or if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper's shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper."

"But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height is worked out by the difference in the gravitational restoring force T =2 pi sqr root (l /g)."

"Or if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easier to walk up it and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, then add them up."

"If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building."

"But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor's door and say to him 'If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this skyscraper'."

The student was Niels Bohr, the first Dane to win the Nobel Prize for physics.

Dr. Bohr had interesting friends, here he is with Albert Einstein, Brussles 1930

Dr. Bohr with Werner Heisenberg, probably Copenhagen late 1930s.

Now what, you may well ask, does this have to do with Intelligent Design, AKA Creationism? The funny thing is Evolution may be the best understood and most extensively tested of all the major scientific theorems. Things like gravity are far less understood, or proven. But if Creationists get all huffy over Evolution, its only because they've never heard of Bohr's little baby, Quantum Mechanics. This is a far more subversive idea. Even a casual understanding (all I can muster), throws the entire deterministic universe (that includes God's will BTW), out the window. It so irritated Einstein, he said "God does not play dice with the universe". And he didn't even believe in God. The best I can do in a few sentences is to say that Quantum Mechanics explains there is no there there. Matter is not shiny little billiard balls flying around in Newtonian perfection. Matter is fungible. It hardly makes sense to describe it as being a particular thing in a particular place. In any case, you can't say "this is an electron, and can be found at the following location, exhibiting the following characteristics". The best you can do is devise a set of probabilities about what it is and where you can find it. Matter is not hard irreducible bits, its a cloud of probabilities. Heiseberg took it farther by pointing out that the act of measuring certain characteristics of the electron precluded knowledge of other characteristics. The uncertainty theorum. So much for absoloute knowledge of anything. The day someone from the creationist camp figures that out, they're heads will blow up like the fembots in Austin Powers.