Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Light waves, the ether, and stoned wallabies

In yesterday's post, I scoffed at the tendency of some people to jump to a supernatural answers when there is a perfectly reasonable natural answer at hand.  In particular, I made reference to the foolishness surrounding crop circles, which are variously attributed to alien intelligences, evil spirits, and "plasma vortexes."

Note that my disdain for supernatural solutions doesn't mean that all natural solutions are created equal, nor that a given natural solution is necessarily correct.  Witness, for example, the article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in June 2009, brought to my attention yesterday by a former student of mine, which attributes crop circles to Tasmanian wallabies on dope.  (To prove that I am not making this up, read the entire article here.)

If you'd prefer the condensed version, the article tells the story of the Tasmanian poppy farms that supply half of the legally-produced opium in the world (used in making morphine, codeine, and other medically useful opiate drugs).  Given its capacity for being stolen, and either used illegally or sold, security around poppy farms is pretty high, which is why it came as some surprise when crop circles started showing up in poppy fields.

The reason for bringing all this up is that one person has proposed a solution to the Tasmanian crop circle problem, and it has nothing to do with aliens.  Lara Giddings, attorney general for the state of Tasmania, blames the phenomenon on stoned wallabies.

"The one interesting bit that I found recently in one of my briefs on the poppy industry was that we have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting as high as a kite and going around in circles," Giddings said, in a parliamentary hearing.  "Then they crash.  We see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high."

My first reaction was, "You're kidding, right?"  But Giddings was apparently completely serious.  She thinks that crop circles in poppy fields are really being caused by wallabies eating poppy plants and then jumping around in circles.

Now, I will state up front that I couldn't find any photographs of the Tasmanian crop circles, and that I don't know what caused them.  But if they're really what we've come to call crop circles -- arrays of sharp-edged geometric shapes -- then I will bet my next month's salary that they weren't caused by a drugged wallaby hopping about.

So to clarify my assertion from yesterday; just because I think that supernatural answers are wrong doesn't mean that I think that every natural answer has to be right.

And it doesn't even have to be that far-fetched, either.  Even the scientists are sometimes off base, because let's face it -- nature can be pretty weird, sometimes.  Consider the interesting case of the ether.

When it was discovered in the 18th and 19th centuries that light had a lot of wave-like properties, a natural question to ask was, "what is waving?"  Waves have to travel in a medium -- a wave is a regular disturbance in some substance or another.  (This is why in science fiction movies, when a spaceship blows up, and you hear "BOOM," someone didn't pay attention in physics class -- because space, being generally devoid of matter, would have no medium through which sound waves could propagate.  Explosions in space would be completely silent.)

So scientists naturally wondered what medium light was traveling in -- i.e. in a light wave, what is "waving?"  Since light, unlike sound, travels just fine in a vacuum, there must be something there through which the wave is passing.  Pretty logical, right?  Scientists decided that there was a medium that simply couldn't be detected with the equipment they had, and named this medium "ether."

So, for decades, "ether" was a scientific fact -- until the nifty little Michelson-Morley experiment happened, disproving the existence of the ether, and set the stage for Einstein to explain what was actually happening -- and for Schrödinger to finally pronounce that what was waving was a probability field.  (And if that sounds a little too close to Douglas Adams' "Infinite Improbability Drive" to be possible, allow me to say that it strikes me that way, too, and yet it's been experimentally supported every which way from Sunday.)

Nature can be bizarre, weird, counterintuitive.  However, it does act in a regular fashion, which is why the scientific method works.  The bottom line, as always, is:  show me the goods.  If you think you have an explanation for something, provide hard evidence.  That is the strength of science; everyone, and every theory, is held up to the gold standards of evidence and replicability.  If you want me to believe in something -- the ether, light being a probability wave, or stoned wallabies causing crop circles -- you better have something better up your sleeve than "because I'm the attorney general, and I said so."

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