Bad Fundies! Chabad takes on Science.

Someone sent me another stupid Jewish article. It’s still not the
wonderful relativity denial that I lost, but it’s pretty delicious as
stupidity goes. This time it comes from Chabad. For those who aren’t
familiar with it, Chabad is a Chasidic organization, which originally
formed around people following a very famous Rabbi from the town of
Lubav after he emigrated to the US. Chabad grew into a very large
fundamentalist organization that is very devoted to what they call
outreach. (I call it proselytization.)

Anyway – on to the article: “Are Science and Religion a Contradiction?”. Large swaths of it are just rehashes
of standard fundamentalist crap – indistinguishable from the kinds of
rubbish we routinely hear from the various Christian fundies, but with
a bit of low-budget hebrew mixed in. For example:

In the 19th Century it was the prevailing view of scientists and
modernists that human reason was infallible in “scientific” deductions
and that sciences such as physics, chemistry, mathematics etc., were
absolute truth, that is to say, not merely accepted truths but
absolute. Speaking in Jewish terms this meant the establishment of a
new idolatry, not of wood and stone, but the worship of the
contemporary sciences and philosophies.

In fact, in the face of dogmatic and deterministic views of
science prevailing at that time, a whole apologetic literature was
created by well-meaning religious advocates and certain rabbis who saw
no other way of preserving Torah heritage in their “enlightened”
communities except through tenuous and spurious reinterpretations of
certain passages in the Torah in order to accommodate them to the
prevailing world outlook. No doubt they knew inwardly that they were
suggesting interpretations in Torah which were at variance with Torat
Emet, but at least they felt they had no alternative.

See, it’s just another version of the old “science is a religion” shtick. No better than the dreck you’ll find on, say, James Dobson’s website.

Of course, if all that they did was rehash the same-old christian dreck, there’d be no good reason to waste my time writing about this
meshugas. But they’ve got a few unique touches that are worth a moment or two.

We can start off by pointing out a really silly example of my credo: the worst math is no math:

In the 20th Century, however, and especially in recent
decades, science has finally come out of its medieval wrappings and
the whole complexion of science has changed. The assumed immutability
of the so-called scientific laws and the concept of absolutism in
science in general have been abrogated and the contrary view is now
held, known as the “Principle of Indeterminism”. Nothing any more is
certain in science but only relative or probable, and scientific
findings are now presented with considerable reservation and with
limited and temporary validity, likely to be replaced at any time by a
more advanced theory.

Most scientists have accepted this principle of uncertainty – enunciated by Werner Heisenberg in 1927 – as being intrinsic to the whole universe. The 19th Century dogmatic, mechanistic and deterministic attitude to science is gone. The modern scientist no longer expects to find truth in science. The current and universally accepted view is that science must reconcile itself to the idea that, whatever progress it makes, it will always deal with probabilities, not with certainties or absolutes.

They try to use the Heisenberg uncertainty principle as a lever to
knock down the whole of science. But the uncertainty principle isn’t
just a bundle of words saying that “nothing is certain”. It’s a very
precise mathematical statement of what can be measured in a meaningful
way. For example, Wikipedia’s statement of the uncertainty principle
is that for any particle, the root-mean-square difference between the
particle’s position from the mean of its possible quantum
states, times the root-mean-square difference between the particle’s
momentum and its mean momentum in its possible quantum states
can never be smaller than a small multiple of Planck’s constant.

Now, I just said that as a bunch of words. But those words aren’t
fuzzy newage “nothing is certain” babble. They’re a rendering of something very precise as language. They’re math. The uncertainty principle is, at its core, a mathematical statement. It’s
value towards understanding the world comes from its mathematical nature: it states something precise, in a way that could never be done without mathematics. You can make meaningful and precise inferences from it. For example, since the product of the RMS differences between position and momentum can’t be smaller than a fixed constant, that means that if you can nail down the momentum very precisely – meaning that you know the particle’s velocity very precisely – then you can’t possible determine the
particle’s position very precisely, because as you make the momentum
RMS difference smaller, the position RMS difference must grow by the same measure.

(And that doesn’t even bother to touch on their misrepresentation of how science works, but that’s a silly rehash of some standard rubbish.)

Ok. Moving on….

Let us give two examples of the metamorphosis of scientific discovery. There is a verse in Ecclesiastes 1:4, “The earth stands forever”, that seems to suggest that the earth stands still and the sun revolves around the earth. This presentation was entirely acceptable in the early common era, especially when, in the second century, Ptolemy perfected Aristotle’s construction of how the sun and the planets revolve around the earth in circular orbits with additional rotation around certain points on these orbits.

That view was adopted by all scientists and especially amongst religious clergy who viewed the earth as the centre of the universe. About 1,500 years later Nicholas Copernicus made a revolution in astronomy by describing the earth as going around the sun. Suddenly this new scientific discovery threw all religious belief into disarray. Even today in most schools children are taught that the earth revolves around the sun and that this is a fact proven by science. To suggest otherwise is considered unscientific.

However such education is prejudiced since Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity eliminated the idea of absolute space and absolute movement. According to Einstein, science in principle cannot decide whether the earth stands still and the sun revolves around it, or vice versa. In The Philosophy of Time by Hans Reichenbach, a disciple of Einstein, he demonstrates that all the following concepts are clearly shown possible from a scientific point of view:

  1. The earth stands still and the sun revolves around it,
  2. The sun stands still and the earth revolves around it,
  3. Both are revolving around a certain point. There is no way to prove which of the above is correct or preferable.

For practical purposes it is simpler to calculate astronomical events if we assume that the sun is standing still and the earth is moving around it. Copernicus’ main motive was to make calculation easier but this is not good enough reason to ascribe “truth” to this concept. To dismiss the Biblical verse that suggests that the earth stands still is wholly unscientific.

Again, they’re taking a mathematical statement, and trying to
understand it without the math – and as a result, they’re getting
it wrong.

Relativity, loosely described, says that there is no preferred universal reference frame. It does not say that there’s no difference between the earth revolving around the sun and the sun revolving around the earth.

In fact, relativity has some trouble with accelerated reference frames. There was some long-lasting worry that there was a flaw
in relativity because there are observable differences
between certain frames of reference – like a reference frame that
doesn’t account for its acceleration.

You can build a reference frame in which the sun revolves around the earth, and where relativity works. But you can’t do that without it being an accelerated frame. And if you have an acceleration, then you’re not stationary. If you try to treat earth as absolutely stationary, there are observations that can prove that it’s accelerating.

Next, we get an attempt to argue about the age of the earth. The
idea is that they want to make the observations that we use to
predict the age of the universe seem uncertain. They assemble an explicitly mathematical argument to justify it:

Let us now inspect more closely the methods scientists have employed to discover the age of the universe. Science has two general methods of inference:

  • The method of interpolation (as distinguished from
    extrapolation), whereby, knowing the reaction under two extremes, we
    attempt to infer what the reaction might be at any point between the
  • The method of extrapolation, whereby inferences are made beyond a known range, on the basis of certain variables within the known range. For example, suppose we know the variables of a certain element within a temperature range of 0 to 100 and, on the basis of this, we estimate what the reaction might be at 101, 200 or 2,000.

Of the two methods, the second is clearly the more uncertain. Moreover, the uncertainty increases with the distance away from the known range and with the decrease of this range. Thus, if the known range is between 0 and 100, our inference at 101 has a greater probability that at 1,001.

Let us note at once that all speculation regarding the origin and age of the world comes within the second and weaker method. The weakness becomes more apparent if we bear in mind that a generalisation inferred from a known consequent to an unknown antecedent is more speculative than an inference from an antecedent to consequent as can be demonstrated very simply.

Four divided by two equals two. Here the antecedent is represented by the divided and divisor, and the consequent by the quotient. Knowing the antecedent in this case gives us one possible result – the quotient – number two.

However, if we only know the end result, namely the number two, and we ask ourselves how can we arrive at the number two, the answer permits several possibilities, arrived at by different methods: 1 + 1 = 2, 4 – 2 = 2, 1 x 2 = 2, 4 ÷ 2 = 2. Note that if other numbers come into play the number of possibilities giving us the same result is infinite (since 5 – 3 = 2, 6 – 4 = 2 etc., ad infinitum.)

Add to this another difficulty which is prevalent in all methods of deduction: Conclusions based on certain known data, when extended to unknown areas, can only have validity on the assumption of “everything else being equal”, that is to say, on an identity of prevailing conditions and their action and counter-action upon each other. If we cannot be sure that the variations or changes would bear at least a close relationship to the existing variables in degree, if we cannot be sure that the changes would bear any resemblance in kind, if, furthermore, we cannot be sure that there were not other factors involved – such conclusions of inferences are absolutely valueless!

This hole argument (it’s a hole argument because it’s an argument built around a hole, get it? oh, never mind) is almost
correct. If you had one set of observations, dependent
on multiple variables, you could wind up thinking that you had identified a single factor – where actually you had identified a
factor that was a function of multiple inputs – not a constant at all.

That’s why, in science, we like to have multiple independent
observations. In the case of the age of the universe, we have
a huge number of independent things which all point to the same
age. Starbirths. Supernovas. Redshifts. Gravitational lensing.
On and on, there are so many different independent observations
that allow us to calculate a minimum age of the universe. They all
agree, and none of them are remotely consistent with a 6,000 year old universe.

Similarly, we have observed relationships between different
basic constants. Heisenberg uncertainty relates to Planck’s constant. The basic masses of particles relate to the basic forces. The strengths of the basic forces relates to the speed of light. It all ties together. You can’t change one without changing the others. Change the speed of light, and everything else changes. Matter
no longer works – atoms as we recognize them could no longer exist. Change one, and it all changes. And yet, we observe clear
signs of suns that operate on hydrogen fusion in galaxies that
are separated from us by astonishing distances. And yet every
observation – every observation is that things work
the same way a billion billion miles away, a billion years ago, as
they do here and now.

Of course, none of this can prove that God didn’t create the universe this way 6,000 years ago. But, as we usually point out
when confronted with this sort of argument, we also can’t prove
that the universe wasn’t created by the flying spaghetti monster
last tuesday.

Now, the way that they use that rotten argument is a more
perfect demonstration of how utterly clueless they are about
what science actually says than anyone could possibly predict.

We may now summarise the weaknesses of so-called scientific theories regarding the origin and age of the universe:

1. These theories have been advanced on the basis of observable data during a relatively short period of time of only a number of decades; at any rate, not more than a couple of centuries.

See above: we may only have been observing the data for a couple of centuries, but the data consists of information spanning billions of years, and if the uniformity assumption weren’t valid, the distant galaxies that we can see wouldn’t be able to exist.

2. On the basis of such a relatively small range of known (though, by no means, perfectly known) data, scientists venture to build theories by the weak method of extrapolation, and from the consequent to the antecedent, extending to, according to them, millions and billions of years!

There’s nothing weak about extrapolation, provided a sufficient
quantity of data, and some means of independent verification. When multiple extrapolations from independent data all point at the same thing, there’s nothing weak about the conclusion.

3. In advancing such theories they blithely disregard factors universally admitted by all scientists, namely that in the initial period of the “birth” of the universe, conditions of temperature, atmospheric pressure, radioactivity, and a host of other catalystic factors, were totally different from those existing in the present state of the universe.

And the stupidity really kicks in.

Yeah, the atmospheric pressure at the beginning of the universe
was different! Talk about a meaningless statement. We’re talking about the origin of the universe – when matter was being created. There was no atmosphere to have a pressure.

And radioactivity! Don’t forget the radioactivity.

Except, of course, that radioactivity means something specific. Radioactivity is energy released from the decay of atoms. There were no atoms to start – and then after there were atoms, it was a hell of a long time before there were any atoms large enough to be radioactive.

What they meant was radiation, not radioactivity. But they don’t know the difference. And to them, because they don’t understand what this stuff means, and they
don’t understand the actual mathematical statements which describe our understanding of the early conditions of the universe, they’re left doing the equivalent of wandering through a maze in the dark. Radiation, to them, is something almost magical. It’s
mysterious, incomprehensible, something outside the realm of the ordinary. But radiation isn’t some magical unknown thing. It’s electromagnetic energy – which behaves in very specific ways,
which can be described using mathematics. It’s not just some
magical background fuzz that exists independently of everything else: it’s an intrinsic part of the universe as we understand it. And its behavior is well understood and predictable – to the limits of what
predictable means in our universe.

To make things worse for them, radiation didn’t meaningfully exist in those initial moments. In the ultra-high energy
environment of the first few moments of the big bang, the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces hadn’t separated yet, and so nothing that we would recognize as radiation could be said to exist.

The things that they’re throwing up as insurmountable barriers – things that they claim we can’t possible know – are exactly the things that scientists study. Cosmologists studying the big bang have developed some amazingly elegant and precise testable theories about the conditions immediately after the big bang – which necessarily include some very precise predictions of what the energy environment was like at that time. In fact, we’ve been watching some very exciting news on that front as the LHC gets ready to be turned on!

4. The consensus of scientific opinion is that there must have been many radioactive elements in the initial stage which now no longer exist, or exist only in minimal quantities; some of them elements the catalystic potency of which is known even in minimal doses.

Now they’re just making stuff up. That statement is, to put
it mildly, a pile of wretched bullshit that bears no resemblance to anything that anyone with a clue would call science. They just made it up, whole cloth.

5. The formation of the world, if we are to accept these theories, began with a process of colligation (binding together) of single atoms, or the components of the atom, and their conglomeration and consolidation, involving totally unknown processes and variables.

Again, they’re demonstrating their cluelessness. It’s not totally unknown processes. If you can only look at informal prose descriptions
of the science, then it might seem that way. But if you actually look
at the real theories – they’re chock full of math. And what that
math does is make things precise. We don’t understand everything
yet, obviously. But we’ve got some very strong handles on it – and they’re precise, mathematical statements. If you look at the math,
you can see what we know, and what we don’t. But they can’t understand the math, and they don’t understand why they
should. So they play word games, and think that they’re doing something profound – when in fact, they’re just making idiots of themselves.

This is only about half-way into this mess of a document, but
I’ll stop here. The rest is just senseless regurgitations of the
usual christian fundamentalist rubbish arguments against evolution.

0 thoughts on “Bad Fundies! Chabad takes on Science.

  1. Daniel Litt

    I’m a little bit surprised by some of the reactionary claims you make here; in some cases, it seems that you are purposefully misinterpreting what Chabad is claiming. Of course, I agree with you on most of the later stuff, which is ludicrous, and on the entertaining misinterpretation of Heisenberg Uncertainty, but some of the points you mention early on are not too far off the truth.
    I’ll only address a couple places where I think your post makes these mistakes. You claim that the first excerpt you give is the usual “science as religion” idiocy. With the exception of the word “dogmatic,” I don’t see anything to back this up. Instead, I read this passage as a complaint against Reform and Conservative congregations in which Rabbis try to reconcile biblical passages with science. While I obviously don’t share this objection, it doesn’t seem irrational–it’s simply a matter of personal preference. From a secular point of view at least, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why trying to reconcile science with religion is better than simply presenting the religion nakedly. In both cases, the relatively silly aspects of religion remain.
    Your second excerpt, with the exception of the idiotic misstatement of Heisenberg Uncertainty, is in principle *correct*. First, from a History of Science point of view, this document is correct in saying that science became signifcantly less dogmatic over the course of the 19th century and into the 20th. In particular, you’ll find a good deal of dogmatism towards Newtonian mechanics, e.g. Pope’s:
    Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night
    God said:”Let Newton be!” and all was light.
    Second, the document makes the *very* important point that science deals with probabilities, and not certainties. Theories admit falsification, but not proof. In particular, the point about extrapolation is correct in the sense that all we know about the beginning of the universe (and, in general, about all measurement) are some confidence intervals and statistical estimates. So, certainly, all data points to the universe being between 6 and 7 orders of magnitude older than the Torah claims. But if Chabad’s priors weren’t that the universe was 6000 years old, I would consider their argument about extrapolation to be quite reasonable. Despite your claim about the strength of evidence in favor of current estimates, various revisions of priors give quite large error bars on this estimate–see, for example, Wikipedia, or: Francesco de Bernardis; A. Melchiorri, L. Verde, R. Jimenez. “The Cosmic Neutrino Background and the age of the Universe”.
    Of course, most of the claims in the article are pretty silly, and the conclusion (which you don’t excerpt) that science will converge to Torahic claims is especially unlikely.

  2. TomS

    A couple of thoughts, for what they’re worth:
    If someone makes the “relativity” argument to say that it’s the same, whether the earth is moving or the sun is moving, doesn’t this mean that they’re saving the Scriptures from being wrong for saying that the earth is fixed, only to end up saying that the Scriptures are meaningless when they say that?
    In my (quite limited) understanding of relativity, it isn’t possible to have the whole earth fixed. You could say that one particular point on the surface of the earth (or maybe the center of the earth) fixed, and the whole universe moving around that point. But that would havee the rest of the earth in motion (relative to that fixed point). Even on a simplistic understanding of General Relativity, you can’t have a completely stationary earth. (Corrections appreciated.)

  3. Daniel Litt

    Re: TomS
    Insofar as the earth is a rigid body, one could have a reference frame in which the Earth isn’t moving. For example, the reference frame associated with you, as an object, would work. Of course, the earth isn’t actually rigid, but it’s reasonably close.
    Actually, I forgot to address a rather interesting point on relativity above. You claim that there are observations that can determine if a frame is accelerating. This is *false*; in fact, it doesn’t really mean anything. An accelerating frame is indistinguishable from one being acted on by gravity (locally). So one can certainly treat the earth as being absolutely stationary–it just seems to be acted on by some mysterious force. This is not really a problem; I think that it is inaccurate to say that relativity has a problem with “accelerating” frames.
    So again, Chabad seems to be somewhat reasonable in this respect, if only by sheer luck.

  4. Stephen Wells

    @Daniel Litt: You can’t possibly claim that it’s false that you can determine if your frame is inertial or not. There’s no anywhere-near-inertial frame in which the earth is stationary and the sun goes round it.

  5. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    In an accelerated frame of reference, if you don’t account for the acceleration, then you get an apparent *difference* in the speed of light viewed from different directions! The only way to get rid of that is to replace the acceleration with a large gravity well – but that would also have visible effects. Without either a very strong gravitational field separate from earth, or an acceleration on the earth, you can’t produce a valid stationary-earth frame of reference. And our observations don’t appear to be consistent with either one.

  6. Uncle Al

    (physical reality) – (empirical reality) = faith
    Three orthogonal laser ring gyroscopes empirically end the argument about who is accelerating.
    (pi)^4 + (pi)^5 = Lim (1 + 1/n)^6n for n -> infinity
    (pi)^4 + (pi)^5 = [Sum (1/n!)]^6 for n=0 -> n=infinity
    are false by 1.767×10^(-5) (or 4.381×10^(-8) relative). Are they true enough? No, they are false. Any other answer eventually results in empirical contradiction. The universe does not tolerate paradox.
    Religion is limiting either mystic (Eastern Orthodox Catholicism – batcrap crazy but entertaining) or cites Aristotelian logic (batcrap crazy and often bloody). As with Tommy Aquinas reaching the necessary conclusions or Euclid trying to deep ocean navigate, logic is not enough if founding postulates are sour. The disportionate fraction of Jewish Nobel Laureates suggests the framework is fruitful independent of its contents.
    OTOH, there is a vicious irreconcilable divide amongst Hasids about whether black or white socks are proper. Go figure.

  7. Daniel Litt

    Re: 4 and 5
    We agree–the difference is semantic. I said:
    An accelerating frame is indistinguishable from one being acted on by gravity (locally).
    Indistinguishable means they. are. the. same.
    So why are you trying to distinguish them? A non-inertial reference frame is a non-inertial reference frame.
    #4: I didn’t say you couldn’t tell the difference between an inertial and a non-inertial frame. I said you can’t tell the difference between an accelerating and a non-accelerating frame. There’s a difference.

  8. Daniel Litt

    Rereading–#4: Nowhere did I claim that such a frame would be inertial. In fact, I was pretty explicit that it wouldn’t be, in the second paragraph.

  9. eddie

    I think this pedantry about inertial frames is missing the point.
    The earth is just one of a number of planets that go around the sun. Making the maths more elegant is just a consequence of recognising our place in the solar system.

  10. crf

    Much of the Bible does not reconcile with what science demonstrates about the universe. Trying to use science to serve a particular religious view, based on the prior belief that God exists and the Bible is the inerrant word of God, does favours to neither religion nor science, because what is now being done can no longer be called science. Science rejects, at its very core, supernatural assumptions.
    Larry Moran has a number of good posts on how religious scholars attempt to reconcile religion and science, bastardizing both in tragi-comic fashion.

  11. Paul Murray

    “You claim that there are observations that can determine if a frame is accelerating. This is *false*; in fact, it doesn’t really mean anything. An accelerating frame is indistinguishable from one being acted on by gravity (locally).”
    Well, we are not talking about a local frame when we are talking about the whole of the earth. Linear acellerations can be dealt with with a mysterious “gravity” force, but a rotating frame is something else again. How are you going to – with this “gravity” stuff – duplicate the corollis forces?
    Maybe gravity has epicycles.

  12. Paul Murray

    And having a fixed frame of reference for the earth makes it awkward explaining the tides. If the earth was fixed in place and them moon goes around the earth once every 29/30ths of a day, we’d expect to see one tidal bulge where the moon puls the oceans towards itself, not also one on the opposite side.

  13. mickkelly

    Concerning the absolute/stationary reference frame:

    The idea, that one can find a reference frame that is not moving is a no-go from the start, because not moving always means not moving relative to something else. This makes the “non moving” more a definition, somehow a theological question.
    One can certainly try to find such a frame by adding criteria (such as the shape of the formula describing the motions of a body in the coordinates of a reference frame), but the additional criteria are always somehow arbitrary (e.g. why should we not view the coriolis force as a real force, since we can measure and describe it).

    By the way, the notion often found in the public discussions that Einsteins SRT introduced the concept of relative reference frames as equal (under specified conditions) is not true. Classical (Newton) mechanics is to the most part not tied to apsolute space (the aether concept for light propagation an exception).

    So, IMHO, any reference frame declared as “not moving” is an arbitrary choice. Yes, assuming the earth revolves around the sun (and the sun around the center of the galaxy, …) makes the formulas much simpler than assuming the earth is not moving, but even the demand of a simpler formula is a practical one (like Occams razor) not one you can assign an absolute truth value to (if there is such a thing).

    Yust my 2 cents

  14. Jud

    MarkCC, you’ll be thrilled to know that (years ago) a large Israeli kashrut certification organization refused to continue providing a hechsher for a brand of yogurt that was doing Jurassic Park publicity tie-ins in its labelling. No dinosaurs in Genesis and all that.

  15. Arno

    As Einsteins Special Relativity Theory (SRT) explains: linear (or: inertial = not accelerated) movement is relative. When one object moves linearily towards another it could just as well be the other way around.
    But movement of a planet around it’s star is an eliptic movement which obviously is *not* linear: it requires acceleration towards the star to move in an elipse around it. Therefore one can not regard (the center of) the earth as a stationary reference frame because that would not be an inertial reference frame.

  16. Daniel Litt

    #13 is correct–#15, you’re missing the point. Obviously this frame isn’t inertial. But it’s still a frame. Again, our diagreement is semantic–I’m suggesting a weird frame with all these arbitrary forces, which is certainly not simple, but it’s still a frame.
    I find the objections to this frame to be somewhat hilarious, for the simple reason that in the frames in which all of you live (as long as you’re sitting still), the earth is stationary. If anyone lives in a frame where the sun is *not* revolving around the earth, I’d be interested in meeting him.
    And yes, “gravity has epicycles” in this frame.

  17. Valhar2000

    Kook wrote:

    The consensus of scientific opinion is that there must have been many radioactive elements in the initial stage which now no longer exist, or exist only in minimal quantities; some of them elements the catalystic potency of which is known even in minimal doses.

    Mark CC wrote:

    Now they’re just making stuff up. That statement is, to put it mildly, a pile of wretched bullshit that bears no resemblance to anything that anyone with a clue would call science. They just made it up, whole cloth.

    I don’t think their making this up whole cloth. I think this may result from a confusion between the origin of the entire Universe and the origin of the Earth. When the Earth was young, there were indeed much larger quantities of heavy radioactive elements than there are now.
    I think their ideas are just so muddle-headed they can’t meaningfully distinguish between the formations of the Universe, a Galaxy, a star and a planet. Much like christian creationists think that Cosmology, Abiogenesis and Natural Selection are all “Evolution”, so they constantly mix tidbits from each field when they talk their rubbish.

  18. mickkelly

    Nr. 15:

    As Einsteins Special Relativity Theory (SRT) explains: linear (or: inertial = not accelerated) movement is relative. When one object moves linearily towards another it could just as well be the other way around.

    While what you said is true in SRT, it is also true in classical mechanics except for the propagation of light (which was assumed to be tied to a “fixed” aether).
    In classical mechanics (as understood back in the day) two objects with fixed relative motion (I think that’s what you meant by moves linearily) are equal in respect to decide which one is really moving, EXCEPT it was held this could be decided using the aether, but that of course was never successfully put to use :-).

    The additional bit of SRT is not that all inertial reference frames are equal (meaning none is special), but that the velocity of a (specific) light ray is the same in all those frames which leads to a non Galilean coordinate transformation (Lorentz).

    Nr. 16:
    I think we are on the same page …

    What ya think?

  19. Stephen Wells

    @16: There is and can be no “frame in which you live.” Your trajectory through spacetime exists as a sequence of events in ALL frames. I think you meant that in a frame in which I am locally stationary, the earth is generally close to stationary too.
    Using terms like “the frame in which you live” raises a host of conceptual difficulties for no good reason; for example you can give students the impression that you’re only allowed to use frames in which something’s stationary, which is wrong.

  20. TomS

    @Daniel Litt #16:

    I find the objections to this frame to be somewhat hilarious, for the simple reason that in the frames in which all of you live (as long as you’re sitting still), the earth is stationary.

    There are frames in which each one of us sit, but is there one frame in which all of us sit?
    I am reminded of the “Concave hollow earths” (see the Wikipedia article on “Hollow earth”). Is there a frame in which the interior of the earth and the exterior of the earth are reversed? Does this mean that it’s just fine to speak of us living inside the hollow earth?

  21. mufi

    Hey, the traditional/Orthodox doctrine of Torah min ha-Shamayim (literally, “Torah from Heaven”; roughly, “Divine Writ”) is safe from modern-scientific criticism — so long as one is comfortable with the theological implications of a deity who speaks from a human point-of-view (or better yet, from the points-of-view of multiple human authors who lived in or around Israel between the 12th and 6th centuries BCE). But I think it’s safe to say that most Orthodox Jews (not to mention other biblical fundamentalists) are *not* comfortable with these implications — otherwise, they wouldn’t read so much modern knowledge (however poor or distorted it is) into their sacred texts.
    For an illustration of such “reading in”, I recommend the works (e.g. The Hidden Face of God) of Hebrew Bible scholar Richard Elliot Friedman, which explain how some Orthodox apologists (like Gerald Schroeder) either ignore or are just oblivious to the ancient Near Eastern cosmology that’s actually alluded to in Genesis and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. (Simply put: picture a flat disc of earth enclosed in a hard dome which protects us from water above and below — that is, except for when Yahweh releases the waters during the Flood.)
    Having said that, as incredible as Chabad’s recent attempt at apologetics is (i.e. if we focus only on their poor representation of modern science, as opposed to that of the biblical text), it would actually be more consistent if it defended a position similar to that of the Flat Earth Society (e.g. But, after nearly two-thousand years of evolution in rabbinic exegesis (a form of evolution which they also largely deny, as they attribute much of it to Moses), the Chabadniks probably aren’t even aware of how far their analysis already strays from the plain meaning of the Torah.

  22. Anonymous

    A postscript to #21: Now that I’ve denounced Chabad’s treatment of both Torah and science (the former would likely cause them more offense), I’d just like to say the following:
    For a warm davenen (prayer) experience, particularly on a Fri. night or Sat. morning Shabbos (sabbath), I highly recommend visiting (at least once) a local Chabad shul (synagogue) or chapel. Back in my religious-exploratory period, I always found the people very welcoming (at least if you’re a Jew, or want to become one) and the service enchanting — especially when followed by a kiddush (after-service meal or snack) that includes a shot or two of schnapps or vodka. (Chabadniks are known to party.)
    The less you understand of the Hebrew liturgy or the d’var torah (sermon), the better. 🙂

  23. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    That’s true *only if* you’re a man or a woman who doesn’t mind the terrible way that Chasidic Judaism treats women. A dear friend of mine was once thrown out of a Chabad house after being personally invited, because she wanted to wear her Tallit. Not on the mens side of the mechitzah, not ostentatiously, but just wearing it. That was completely unacceptable to them, and their much-vaunted hospitality went *right* out the window.

  24. Shawn Smith

    If you consider the Earth “frame” as stationary, then it seems that it’s not just the sun (Sol) that’s circling the Earth every 24 hours, but all the stars and galaxies, too. I must be horribly misunderstanding the whole concept, because it seems to me that the speed they would have to be moving in order to circle the Earth in 24 hours would be many orders of magnitude faster than the speed of light. Is that truly the case? Or is it that assuming a stationary Earth provides very different measurements of the distances to objects outside the solar system?

  25. Shawn Smith

    Your second guess is correct–the speeds measured in your frame would be less than that of light. That said, it’s perfectly OK for the *relative* speeds of two objects to be measured as greater than the speed of light from a frame in which neither is stationary. For example, if I’m on the earth, and there’s a spaceship going past me at .9c, and another going past at -.9c, then their relative speed is indeed measured to be 1.8c, by definition.

  26. Anonymous

    In response to #24:
    Having lived a significant part of my life as an Orthodox Jew, I mean it when I say that I do not recommend Orthodox Judaism (hasidic or otherwise), neither as a worldview nor as a normal way of life.
    Having said that, my earlier recommendation that one experience a Chabad service at least once in one’s lifetime assumes a (commonsensical) willingness to *temporarily* do things their way while in attendance (a la “When in Rome…”).
    If, however, one has a bone to pick with them, or cannot bear to observe some silly but harmless gender-specific ritual norms for an hour or two, then forget about it. It’s their house and they reserve the right to toss you out if you openly disrespect their rules [which are by no means progressive, of course, but I think a word like “terrible” does not apply very well to rituals like donning talliyot (prayer shawls), which are no less silly when observed in an egalitarian fashion].

  27. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    It’s easy to talk about how something is a “harmless gender-specific ritual norm” when you’re not the one being affected by it.
    One of the things that that I’ve heard from more than one
    female Jewish friend is that Chabad is very warm and welcoming to *men*. A man can walk into Chabad on any friday night, and be welcomed with open arms. Even someone like me, who’s an outspoken critic of them, can walk in, be critical, and still be treated warmly. But for a woman, Chabad is very different. If you’re not willing to shut up, be quiet, do what you’re told, and be totally obedient to the point of obsequiousness, the vaunted Chabad hospitality will disappear very quickly.
    I’ll be honest – I’ve been disruptive at a Chabad house. In college, I was very active in Hillel, as a reconstructionist Jew. And Chabad invited us to Shabbat one evening. When we were invited, I was very open about the fact that I was uncomfortable about the way they did things, and the Rutgers Chabad Rabbi *specifically* said that that was OK, and that I was still welcome even if I provoked some debate during the course of the evening, as long as I was respectful about it. And I did. It wasn’t a huge thing, but there were things that disturbed me, and I didn’t hide it, and we had a spirited discussion in the middle of the Shabbat evening service. I think it’s absolutely fair to say that I disrupted that service. (My grandfather had recently died, and I was saying Kaddish for him. They didn’t approve of my saying Kaddish for a grandfather; they kept arguing that if he had living children saying Kaddish for him that it was unacceptable for me to do it – that it was an affront to my uncle and a curse to my father for me to do it.)
    That was OK with them.
    But in the case of my friend (which occured while I was in grad school at the University of Delaware), she wasn’t trying to change the way they conducted the service. She wasn’t trying to cross the mechitzah. She wasn’t demanding to be counted in a minyan. She wasn’t trying to lead the service. She wasn’t insisting on changing any aspect of the service. She wasn’t trying to pick a bone with them. She wasn’t being disruptive. And she didn’t seek them out: she was an *invited* guest. And she was being respectful of their rules. But putting on a tallit – not making a show of it, not demanding that it be recognized, not causing a disruption – just putting it on by herself and sitting down in the service – was enough to provoke them.
    Getting thrown out of a gathering to which you were invited, for the “crime” of doing something private and unobtrusive, is, I think, fairly characterized as a terrible experience.

  28. Anonymous

    To #30:
    Fine, so you have some negative anecdotes to report about Chabad, and I have some positive ones. (I also have some negative ones, but they’re not so much directed at Chabad as at Orthodox Judaism, in general.) I’ve summarized mine as a modest recommendation to others to give one a try (admittedly, they’re not all identical), along with an important caveat not to get hooked. Good davenen does not excuse bad religion or bad (gender) politics — but it’s still good davenen (and my wife agrees, btw).
    But I suspect that we part ways as far as etiquette is concerned. I take for granted that a host reserves the right to reconsider any invitation to a guest and/or request that a guest leave (as politely as possible, I hope) if that guest’s behavior offends them. (Suddenly, Borat comes to mind.) By contrast, it seems that you believe that your friend has a right to wear whatever she wants wherever she wants, no matter how that act affects her hosts. (Admittedly, it’s silly to get all worked up over a tallit, but such is the Orthodox world that I left behind.) In fact, that’s not the case – not legally and not even in terms of common sense — no matter how strongly we oppose Chabad’s views on gender roles.
    Clearly, Chabad is not for you or for your friend — not even once — perhaps no Orthodox synagogue is. I know that I’m in no hurry to get back to one.
    Shabbat Shalom,

  29. SLC

    Re Shawn Smith
    “For example, if I’m on the earth, and there’s a spaceship going past me at .9c, and another going past at -.9c, then their relative speed is indeed measured to be 1.8c, by definition.”
    Not true. The relative speed between them in STR is less then c; velocities in STR do not add numerically.
    Actually, the argument here about frames of reference is irrelevant. The fact is that the motions of the planets in the solar system are described by Newtonian physics to a very high degree of accuracy. Relativistic effects are so small that they are treated by perturbation theory. Thus the notion that the Sun revolves around the Earth is complete nonsense because the Suns’ mass is some 200,000 times he mass of the Earth. A little like the tail wagging the elephant.

  30. Daniel Litt

    That is simply false. Relative velocity is not velocity, though the two happen to coincide if the comparison is made to something stationary in the frame you’re looking at. This is, again, a purely definitional issue.

  31. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Late to the party, but FWIW:
    The major howler is that these apologists doesn’t understand theories. They argue inter- or extrapolation instead of testing of predictions. Facts (and theories) are belabored by uncertainties, but as opposed to philosophical “truths” they are verifiable and ultimately robust.
    The post is essentially correct. But I note that theories aren’t just assemblages of data, prediction and testing of the proposed mechanisms makes them stronger than a mere accumulation of individual interdependent facts.
    A note on Heisenberg’s principle is that it is derived, not fundamental, while OTOH loss of quantum information in decoherence to a classical state is a more fundamental process of the discussed kind.
    And a nitpick on radioactivity and primordial nucleosynthesis is that it ranged up to lithium, so some radioactive elements like tritium existed early on. (And were therefore participating in the test of big bang cosmology and its age estimate that those element ratios confer.)
    @ mickkelly, #13:

    Classical (Newton) mechanics is to the most part not tied to apsolute space

    My immediate reaction too.

  32. Yoel

    Wow, that talit story is INCREDIBLE! Especially in light of the fact that it explicitly says in Sefer HaChinuch that if one sees a woman putting on talit and tefillin one should not attempt to interfere with her (The book gives the example of someone’s wife who put on tefillin, and he made no attempt to stop her; and during history there are been a few famous Jewish women who also practiced this, unquestionably for the correct motives). For many reasons, women are not required to do this (for men it is required, for women it is voluntary and optional) and generally for many reasons (suituable for discussion with a real Torah scholar in a different fourm) it is not the custom of Torah observant women to put on Talit and Tefillin even though it *is* *not* against Torah law for them to do so. I am not suggesting that Jewish women should take on this practice, just saying that a full discussion is getting outside the purview of this forum.
    As a note: I would recommend strongly against saying anything negative to a woman who put on tefillin or talit; especially in public; if only for the hurt feelings it will cause. Maybe everyone should learn more about all the issues involved in this and then hope people can be mature about it.


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