January 26, 2001

Computer problems, a Nobel Laureate reneges, more magnetic shoes, the metric system, and ...

It's remarkable. Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson, who seems to believe in just about everything mystical or paranormal, has apparently vanished from the face of the Earth. This is a photo of what he looks like, in case you catch a glimpse of him. If you do, please notify the American Physical Society, who are looking to hear from him, as am I.

Several years ago, Josephson challenged the American Physical Society to scientifically test the claims of biochemist Jacques Benveniste regarding his wonderful discoveries in the art of homeopathy. The APS immediately accepted, and offered to pay all costs of such tests. I chimed in, offering the JREF million-dollar prize to Josepson — or Benveniste — if the tests proved positive. My gesture was refused energetically, since these were real scientists who disdained to be associated with a mere trickster such as myself. Regardless. I sat back and waited. So did the APS.

Nothing. Zilch. Zero. Rien. Nada. Not a gesture was made by either Josephson or Benveniste since that time, even though the latter had officially announced breathtaking developments in the homeopathy research he was doing, all of which would have certainly satisfied the APS — and me — had it been demonstrated. Brian Josephson has either vanished a la Judge Crater, or he is uncharacteristically shy and silent for other reasons. Could it be that the claims are invalid, that neither of these professors can sustain their declarations?

I will add that Jacques Benveniste has the distinction of being the only person ever to be twice awarded the Harvard Ignobel Prize (for bad science). So far, Josephson has won only honors.

Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist who wrote "A Brief History of Time," addressed an overflow crowd in New Delhi, India, recently. In my opinion, he gave a poor response to a question about astrology, poor because it allows the ignorant to fortify their fallacious opinions about what science really is. "The reason most scientists don't believe in astrology," Hawking said, "is because it is not consistent with our theories that have been tested by experiment." Well, quantum physics was not consistent with theories in place when relativity was developed, but quantum physics is quite correct. Hawkins, working from his approach to astrology, would not have agreed with quantum physics, either, I believe. The germ theory of infection was laughed at by authorities of the day because it was "not consistent" with the current thought of the day, either, but it was shown to be true. I think Hawking could have been better understood if he had said that the reason most scientists don't believe in astrology is, aside from the fact that it is based on irrational premises and is by nature incredible, because it does not pass any simple scientific test, and in fact it fails any test spectacularly. His statement gives believers the opportunity to scoff at the "arrogance" and the "smugness" of those who demand supporting evidence before embracing a charming notion.

A reader tells me that he saw a line of "magnetic shoes" for sale, but they weren't made by Florsheim as far as he could tell. They were sold in the Discovery Channel store and appeared to be made by them! He was surprised to find the "scientific" TV channel making cynical profits this way. But at least their advertising was fairly tame, he reports:

They say "Some believe that these magnets have healing properties," and other statements in couched Weasel Words (TM). I find less and less of genuine discoveries on the Discovery Channel and much less learning on the Learning Channel. We need a Quackery Channel and a Pseudoscience Channel, perhaps?

Another reader differs sharply with my promotion of the metric system of measurement. He states that the decimal system applies equally well and with equal ease, to either system. Well, I don't think so. Try calculating 10% of 6 feet, 5 inches, then of 133 pounds, 11 ounces. A tad easier when you take 10% of 193 cm. and of 60.6 kilograms (60,639 grams). And, says our critic:

If the metric system offered any advantage of substance in engineering or commerce, it would certainly have been universally, voluntarily adopted in the US a long time ago. Money talks.

I suggest that religious convictions talk even louder. The reluctance of lawgivers to push conversion to the metric system is due mainly of these three objections by the fundamentalist lobby:

It was embraced and put into operation by people who were at best deists — but non-Christians — the French revolutionaries. They were also criminals who overthrew the God-centered government. And, the English system of yards, pounds, and acres is more compatible with Biblical measurements such as cubits. So there!

Add to these, the inertia to changing an old way of thinking, and you have a stubborn refusal in the USA to get with the rest of the world. As if using a thermometer that shows freezing of water at 32 degrees and boiling of water at 212 degrees, rather than zero and 100, were not enough to prove that we are soaring forward into the 17th century....

Consider this brief sampler of confusion: there are 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard, 5.5 yards in a rod, 40 rods in a furlong, 8 furlongs in a statute mile — but 9.2 in a nautical mile. A British "imperial" gallon is 1.20095 U.S. gallons, and a British "imperial" yard is .999997 U.S. yards. And an acre is 43,560 square feet. The English currency was a nightmare when I first encountered it. There were farthings, pennies, oxfords, crowns, florins, shillings, guineas, and pounds, among other divisions. There were 20 shillings in a pound (but 21 in a guinea!), and 12 pence in a shilling. This all changed in 1971 when the U.K. went to decimal currency — admittedly with much outcry and wailing from the citizenry — and began conversion in other respects to the Système Internationale (SI). Way back in 1790, rather than take on the British monetary horror, the U.S. Congress wisely decided on a decimal currency for the new nation, but stayed with the old standards in other systems, and we've been dealing with this medieval mess ever since, even though Congress declared thirty years ago that we would have, within ten years, a metric nation. Incredible! Even Japan, which had essentially no participation with the rest of the world until the Meiji emperor brought them out of isolation, adopted the SI in 1868!

My correspondent remarked:

It is interesting to note that the nations which use the metric system have generally had it imposed upon them by a central government, and I think that we can agree that central government is seldom, if ever, the best arbiter of what is best in matters of science.

But scientists, internationally, have adopted this convenient, practical, logical, decimal system without having been ordered to, by any governmental agency. In my opinion, the governments that officially adopted the metric system acted in a rational manner. Concludes my reader:

The essence of the skeptical approach, it seems to me, is to observe dispassionately, and let the facts drive the outcome — not prejudgements and subjective opinions. By all means, promote metric measure if you feel that it is the easiest way to achieve the apparently-desirable goal of broader standardization — but not on the basis that it is somehow a "better" system of measure.

I think that the SI is better, yes, but not because I have a preference of centimeters over inches, or of grams over grains. I do have a strong preference for convenience, efficiency, simplicity, and universality. That is why I have provided this brief commentary. Education and understanding are furthered by embracing a common language, and at the JREF we are dedicated to such matters. The SI is a language standard, and we believe it should be adopted worldwide.

The "easy" puzzle last week wasn't as easy as I thought! Rob Beeston was the first to come up with the correct answer: one trip, upstairs, and it's done. The ratio of correct to incorrect answers was about one to two! There are even two variations on the method for finding out which switch operates the light bulb upstairs! First variation: you switch on "A" and leave it on for a few minutes. Then you quickly switch it back off as you switch on "B" and sprint for the stairs. If you find that the light is on, you know that "B" was the right switch. If the light is off, you feel it. If it's cold, then "C" is the operating switch. If it's hot — but off — then "A" is the correct one. Second way: you switch on both "A" and "B", leave them on for a few minutes, then switch off "A" and dash for the stairs. Same conclusions.... Several readers offered that turning on all three switches would make sure that the bulb upstairs was lit, but that wasn't my purpose. And many had very complicated ways of running up and down those stairs, indeed.

The disk-crash demon (pictured here for reference) attacked me last week. Those of you who tuned in early to the page caught an error in the "drilled sphere" puzzle. I had written that we accepted "36 cubic inches" as a correct answer, and that had to be changed rapidly to "36 pi cubic inches." My regular computer was demon-bombed at the time I sent the page to fearless Jeff the Webmaster, and I was on the laptop. Bad excuse, but all I've got....

Because of my major technical problems this week with the computer, I don't have the means to offer a new puzzle to you. Apologies. I expect to be up-and-running again in regular form, next week.....