Creationists at Michigan State

Science reports that a creationist group will hold a workshop tomorrow at Michigan State. Among the various topics of discussion are why evolution is false, why the Big Bang is false, and how evolution leads to Hitler. There are even talks attacking the work of several professors. The conference is also advertising debates between MSU professors and their speakers, even though those professors apparently have no intention of showing up. The conference is sponsored through a student group, although one of the professors notes that the planning seems to all come from an outside group. The dishonest advertising using professors’ names to attract attendees ought to lead to some sort of sanctions against the group. Regardless of actual student involvement, their sponsorship of the event means that the school should be able to hold them accountable for the advertising.

Needless to say, this is quite embarrassing for the Michigan State science community. The setting and student sponsorship are an obvious attempt to lend the creationist group the appearance of legitimacy, using the name of a research university to attack that university’s mission. The school has stated that it won’t try to do anything to shut down the workshop, although the apparent lack of student control might give them a justification for doing so. There are a few courses of action that people can take. They can pack the room with a hostile crowd and then walk out in the middle, leaving an empty room, or stay and grill them with difficult questions. At this point, the beliefs of most prominent creationists are impervious to logic or evidence, so the latter probably won’t work. Another option is to do what the APS does with crackpots: let them give their talks but ignore them so that only a handful of diehard supporters even show up.

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Giants Win World Series

The San Francisco Giants just beat the Kansas City Royals to win the World Series in 7 games. I didn’t have a preferred team in this series, but I would imagine the loss is pretty devastating to Royals fans since their team hasn’t been doing well for decades while the Giants have already won some recent World Series.

New IceCube Oscillations Result

IceCube has a new preprint out today on a measurement of the neutrino oscillation parameters \Delta m^2_{32} and \sin^2\theta_{23}. While IceCube’s main goal is to study very high energy cosmic ray neutrinos, it is also able to measure atmospheric neutrinos, created in showers from cosmic rays interacting with the atmosphere. To search for oscillations of atmospheric neutrinos, an experiment typically looks for the disappearance of muon neutrinos (i.e. look for fewer muon neutrinos than expected in a model without oscillations compared to other flavors).

IceCube gets results consistent with other measurements. While IceCube is not the most precise experiment for these parameters and thus won’t have much of an effect on the global average, it is interesting that it is now approximately as precise as some dedicated neutrino oscillation experiments.

Bassist Jack Bruce Dies

You may have heard that rock bassist Jack Bruce died a couple days ago. He was most famous for his role in the legendary trio Cream, playing alongside Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton. Cream was where Clapton did some of his best work and I think was the band that made him famous in the US. It was also well before Clapton got boring. Jack Bruce was an important part of the band, doing much of the singing and playing varied and inventive basslines. He was much more than a generic bass player playing the root of each chord, as we often see today.

Here are some of my favorite Cream songs in no particular order:

  1. We’re Going Wrong
  2. White Room
  3. Tales of Brave Ulysses
  4. Those Were the Days

On the Density of Dark Matter

I haven’t had a physics post in a few weeks, so here’s another one on dark matter.

When trying to find evidence for dark matter or trying to understand its effects on the universe, it is often necessary to have some sort of estimate of its density. The most directly measurable form of the density is the mass density (or energy density, but these are the same if the dark matter is nonrelativistic). The number density is important in understanding things like even rates for interactions of particle dark matter, but typically we use a mass density estimate and then report measurements as a function of particle mass.

There are also two types of relevant density measurements: the average density throughout the whole universe and the local density in some region of interest.

The Average Dark Matter Density

The average dark matter density throughout the whole universe can be determined from cosmological measurements, such as studies of the CMB. This density is most important in trying to understand the evolution of the universe. The presence of dark matter changes the gravitational forces felt by the photon-baryon fluid making up the universe prior to the epoch of recombination. This changes the properties of oscillations of that fluid, allowing the effects of dark matter to be seen in the shape of the CMB power spectrum. These measurements tell us that the overall dark matter density is around 1/4 of the critical density (where the universe is flat). The critical density is incredibly tiny compared to what we’re used to: of order 10 GeV per cubic meter.

The Local Dark Matter Density

Much of the evidence for dark matter comes from different ways to try to measure the local dark matter density in some region of space. The motion of objects in a gravitationally bound system lets us estimate the gravitation potential as a function of position, which in turn lets us map out the energy density of the system. Gravitational lensing lets us measure the strength of gravity acting on photons, which also lets us do the same. One density of particular interest to us is the local dark matter density at the position of Earth. Knowledge of this is necessary if we wish to measure dark matter interactions in detectors. Careful measurements of the motion of star systems within the Milky Way tell us that the local density at Earth should be around 0.3 GeV/cm3. This is orders of magnitude higher than the average density of dark matter in the whole universe but is still a very small number. This is only a fraction of an atom per cubic centimeter.

More Hiking in Boulder

Earlier today, Columbia football lost its 17th game in a row and yet another consecutive homecoming game. I couldn’t go so instead I went hiking in Chautauqua Park in Boulder. Today was unusually warm (reportedly actually record-setting), so it was probably the last really nice weekend day to go hiking this fall. It’s also the last weekend before daylight savings time ends and probably one of the last before the trees all lose their leaves, so it’s a good time to go hiking. There were quite a few people out today since the weather was so nice.

I ended up going up the Chautauqua trail and then down the Bluebell-Baird trail to the Mesa trail. I followed the Mesa trail almost to where it meets the Skunk Canyon trail before I turned around. Instead of following the same path back, I took the Flatirons Loop instead of the Bluebell-Baird trail. That was much rockier than I expected but overall the hike wasn’t too difficult. I ended up doing around 9 km of actual hiking.

UNC Releases Report on Academic Fraud Investigation

The University of North Carolina has finally released its report on its long-standing investigation into fraudulent classes offered through the African-American Studies department, and it’s pretty damning. The school offered fake classes to thousands of students – nearly half of them athletes – and gave them A’s and B’s for almost no work or in some cases, literally no work. It was orchestrated largely by an administrative assistant who also changed bad grades without the knowledge of professors. Additionally, the department chair knew so it wasn’t just a rogue admin. This was all done with the full knowledge and complicity of the athletics department, which pushed students, particularly in football and basketball, into these classes. The athletics department was even concerned that these classes would disappear when the administrator retired and pressured the department to keep going.

It also turns out that the classes involved were both fake independent studies and fake lectures. Some non-athletes who signed up for classes were actually interested and were thus denied the opportunity to learn about those subjects. However, as such a huge number of students were involved, many students already knew that the classes were fraudulent and took them just for the free boost to their GPA. Fraternities were particularly involved. The report also makes it clear that much of the department’s faculty were totally unaware of what was going on and, to the extent that they were aware, were furious. That a formerly-segregated public university in the south would end up with these fake classes in the African American studies department is particularly appalling. This casts doubt on the legitimacy of everyone in the department even though it is also clear that there are plenty of real classes available as well – while the athletes were nearly half of the students in the fake classes, they were less than 10% of students in normal classes in that department.

Deadspin has a copy of the report if you want to read the whole thing.

While UNC will obviously need to continue to take action to correct these problems, the massive scale of this fraud also calls for intervention by outside parties. The accrediting body, SACS, needs to do a serious investigation, as thousands of students potentially received degrees that they did not earn. The federal and state governments should investigate any fraudulent use of government funds to pay for all of this. Finally, because the cooperation of the athletics department was an instrumental part in this whole saga, the NCAA needs to get involved. If anything called for the implementation of the NCAA’s “death penalty” it would be this kind of behavior (well, either this or covering up crimes to protect a team’s reputation). I would suggest that the entire athletics department be banned from NCAA competition for at least a year, all records from the affected teams for the 18 years in which these classes were offered be erased, and all wins forfeited.