Category Archives: Science

Simon Singh versus… the chiropractors?

British science writer Simon Singh has a special place of respect here at Casting Out Nines for his outstanding  crypto survey The Code Book and for personally helping my upper-level topics students get their hands on a copy back in 2003. One usually associates him with high-quality intellectual discourse on science and its impact on society. So I thought I was not fully awake this morning when I read this in his email newsletter:

As some of you may have heard, I am being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. I cannot say much at the moment, but I will return to the subject in due course. In the meantime, thanks for the emails of support and the various blogs backing my position. I have not had time to reply – as you can imagine, I am fairly busy at the moment – but the support is much appreciated.

Huh? Well, evidently, Singh wrote an editorial in The Guardian called “Beware the Spinal Tap” critical of the scientific legitimacy of chiropractic medicine. That article is no longer at The Guardian, but others have reprinted, and the full article is here. Here’s a snippet:

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.[…]

I will leave you with one message for Chiropractic Awareness Week – if spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

I can see how the BCA would find this sort of thing objectionable, but how about, you know, just objecting to it rather than suing the pants off of the person who wrote it?

And don’t these chiropractors realize that going after Singh in such a public way is only going to increase the propagation of his article and ideas exponentially (witness this blog post)? Sheesh.

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Filed under Free speech, Science

Algebra meets astrophysics

Abstract algebra and astrophysics don’t have much to do with each other, right? Well, perhaps not, after all. Here’s a story about the results from a researcher in gravitational lensing being used to prove an extension of the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra to rational harmonic functions. Snippet:

In 2004, [mathematicians Dmitry Khavinson and Genevra Neumann] proved that for one simple class of rational harmonic functions, there could never be more than 5n – 5 solutions. But they couldn’t prove that this was the tightest possible limit; the true limit could have been lower.

It turned out that Khavinson and Neumann were working on the same problem as [astrophysicist Sun Hong Rhie]. To calculate the position of images in a gravitational lens, you must solve an equation containing a rational harmonic function.

When mathematician Jeff Rabin of the University of California, San Diego, US, pointed out a preprint describing Rhie’s work, the two pieces fell into place. Rhie’s lens completes the mathematicians’ proof, and their work confirms her conjecture. So 5n – 5 is the true upper limit for lensed images.

“This kind of exchange of ideas between math and physics is important to both fields,” Rabin told New Scientist.

Indeed, and very cool. The paper that Khavinson and Neumann wrote, with an update that addresses the relevance of Rhie’s result on gravitational lensing, is here.


Filed under Math, Science

How big is 10 to the 20th?

Here’s a great illustration from George Gamow’s classic book One Two Three… Infinity which shows two things: just how big 10^{20} really is, when thought of as a scaling factor; and also the power of a good illustration to drive home a point about math or science. The picture shows a normal-sized astronomer observing the Milky Way galaxy when shrunk down by a factor of 10^{20}

That’s a big number, folks. 

Gamow’s book is one of several on my summer reading list, and there’s a reason it’s a classic. In particular, it’s chock full of cool illustrations like this that convey more information about a science concept than an hour’s worth of lecturing. 


Filed under Geekhood, Math, Science

Two random items for Monday

I’ve been enjoying Quintessence of Dust, the blog of Calvin College biologist Stephen Matheson, quite a lot lately. It’s a high-level but clearly-written excursion through all sorts of issues in biology — including evolution, though not from the stance you might be used to coming from a Christian.

Anyway, two cool things from this blog today:

  • This incredible optical illusion, attached to a neuroscience-related article explaining how it works and how it relates to the brain’s processes of interpreting visual information. I agree with Matheson’s remark: “If you have built your worldview around the perfection of your sensory input, you might want to skip this one.”
  • This online biology textbook from an Arzona community college. I don’t have a print copy of a biology textbook to compare it with, and can scarcely remember enough biology from college to know how even to make such a comparison, but it certainly looks complete and well-done. And I have a thing for free textbooks.

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Filed under Science, Teaching, Textbooks