Cargo Cult Science

(corrected the cargo cult story–I didn’t remember it quite right)

Every physics student gets some variation of the cautionary tale called Cargo Cult Science. Supposedly a tribe of South Pacific Islanders wanted US planes flying overhead in World War II times to continue to land after the war, and embarked on a project to build an airstrip and airplanes. They were very careful to observe every detail (their eyes were superb and planes flew a lot lower than they do now). They constructed replicas of planes and other airstrip functions from wood and whatever other materials they had on the island, but were disappointed and didn’t understand why their models didn’t attract US planes to come back to their (fake) airstrip. There are several points to draw from this, but it is frequently used to illustrate bad science even when done with good intentions. I’ve been thinking about how much of my thinking is just cargo cult science, and given the amount of thinking I do whether I’m wasting a lot of mental energy that could be spent a lot better elsewhere. Part of me says I don’t care–I’m trying to be honest and not portray any of it as anything other than an amateur physicist doing some thinking and reading. I don’t care if anything comes out of it–it’s just fun for me to think about and see if I can figure out some of these puzzles. I could go play computer games, but those are contrived with no real puzzles to solve. Physics has many, many real puzzles where we don’t even know if they can be solved. Just like Guitar Hero–you can play the fake instrument really well, or you can play a real instrument really well, they both take a lot of time and the only issue is whether you get more pleasure out of a contrived environment or the uncertainties of a real environment. And–a computer assisted guitar with fake buttons still produces an entertaining musical experience, so at what point does fake become real? I’ve had many posts with this type of thinking frequently here.

In the same way, I’ve gotten a lot of pleasure out of my thinking about Twist Rings, and even the thought process of trying to determine how much of it is Cargo Cult science–bad science. Let’s look at what those South Pacific Islanders did that was so bad–physics professors use Cargo Cult as a bludgeon to tell students, do your homework, study and understand all of known the theory rather than get just enough knowledge to make a crackpot theory that is hopelessly out of touch with reality. I think there’s at least two other more important morals from this story though, which makes me think that Cargo Cult Science is really more about how much observation is needed before an accurate and usable model can be created–and how do you know when you have the knowledge needed to create the model with sufficient accuracy. If you observe, but ignore previous observations and studies because they don’t line up with a theory you’ve constructed, OK, you are heading down the path of bad science. But the Cargo Cult Science islanders didn’t do that–they did the best they could with what they knew. Maybe they even used remarkable ingenuity in creating a shiny metal like surface for the planes, or windows, and so on. They were only guilty of not having sufficient knowledge to actually make their airstrip useful and the planes fly. Most importantly, they didn’t know that they didn’t know enough, and so they proceeded with their project. Now look at “real” physicist, and an amateur physicist. As an amateur physicist, I know I’m not dealing with a full deck–there are areas where I haven’t done my homework. I think that’s true of real physicists as well–they will say “that’s not my area of specialty” and avoid making claims there. I, however am making claims in an area where I know I haven’t done all my homework, and therein lies the danger. I try to caveat my claims by just saying these are ideas that make sense to me, and try to follow them through–but I think my nagging feeling that I am indulging in Cargo Cult Science is justified. So, if I’m honest and want to do the right thing, it’s my responsibility to do my homework and do more study of the existing knowledge–but then I run into the problem of “oh what a grind that will be, what’s the fun in that!”. In addition, I have a full time job, and an unrelated non-work area of study that consumes my free time–so I have to consciously choose how deep to make my study of “real” physics, versus how much time I spend elaborating on my pet theory. It’s a compromise for me that gets some level of real study periodically vs thinking about field twists and how they might solve some real-life puzzles in physics.

And, speaking of real-life puzzles, my last post raised a whole pile of questions. There are four that occupied much of my time in the last couple of weeks:

a: QFT says electromagnetic fields are composites of photons (real and virtual). What makes a field electrostatic versus magnetic, and why do they interchange depending on the frame of reference? What is the difference when you zoom in to see what the individual photons are doing that makes a field have magnetic or electrostatic properties? In theory is it possible to have a one photon electrostatic field or a one photon magnetic field? If so, what’s the difference between those two photons? If not, if field type is dependent on composite behavior of photons, once again I ask–how is this composite behavior different for electrostatic fields versus magnetic fields–and more importantly, why does the composite behavior change just because we’ve changed the frame of reference velocity? Essentially I am asking how do two field types emerge from one or more exchange particles?

b: Photons have momentum but only in a frame of reference other than their own. What is this momentum, and why are magnetic field properties coupling to it?

c: If field twists are the foundation of photons, could magnetic versus electrostatic properties emerge depending on the axis of the twist relative to the propagation direction of the photon? If so, does that mean the twist is actually moving, or is a twist just a relative passing of a property from one static element to the next (the car seat mat made of balls that I used as an analogy in a previous post). If it’s just a relative passing of a property, how can motion of a frame of reference induce the presence of a magnetic field since nothing is moving?

d: Are field twists point entities (timelike only) or are they spacelike, extended entities at a given point in time?

Yow. Those are puzzles. I think I’ll go play a computer game where I know there are answers…


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