Reaction to waves 
I'm late in posting about the discovery of gravity waves, which was announced with much fanfare over a week ago. The New Yorker and the Telegraph have nice write-ups.

The Telegraph headline claims that "this announcement is the scientific highlight of the decade", but everybody said the same thing about the discovery of the Higgs boson. The article written by astronomer Martin Rees acknowledges this. He writes, "This detection is indeed a big deal: one of the great discoveries of the decade - up there with the detection of the Higgs particle, which caused huge razzmatazz two years ago."

I heard Harry Collins give a talk years ago when the LIGO project was just starting, so the news is interesting as an update to that. The positive result occurred earlier than expected, so it's a pleasant surprise for the researchers.

But for someone who hadn't been following the research closely - for me - the result didn't come as a surprise. Theory predicted gravity waves, scientists were persistently refining detectors, and gravity waves were eventually observed. The technical accomplishment and precision is impressive, but the result doesn't pull back the curtain on any cosmic secrets that hadn't been anticipated.

The recent suggestion that there might be a ninth planet out beyond the Kuiper Belt was more of a surprise. And I'm more interested in seeing how the project to observe it turns out. I don't know which result to expect, so I look forward to seeing the evidence accumulate.

Of course, the existence or non-existence of a planet in our solar system is just a local, contingent fact. The existence of the Higgs boson and gravity waves are (perhaps) about the fabric of everything. I suppose that these are billed as the grand discoveries of the decade because of that.

Partly just as a matter of temperament, I'm not dazzled by fundamentality. The theory which predicts the Higgs boson and the theory which predicts gravity waves don't sit too well together.[1] So, despite the observations, we can't simply take both to be confirmed. But if we observe another planet in the outer solar system, it will be a thing which exists. Without fretting about fundamental ontology, planets are things.

[1] For a nice non-technical discussion of this, see this recent article by Lawrence Krauss.

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Nine again, fine again, jiggety jig? 
There's news that there may be a ninth planet after all. It is posited by Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin to explain the skewed orbits of otherwise inexplicable dwarf planets like Sedna, out beyond the Kuiper Belt. Several such objects have orbits skewed off in the same direction, and modelling suggests that this wouldn't occur without some massive thing skewing them.

Regardless of what you might think about the vexed word "planet", this is exciting. And it underscores that there is scientific value to thinking about the class of things which gravitationally dominate their orbit in a solar system. Whether we use the word "planet" to label that class, it's a natural kind and we need some word for it.

It's also worth mentioning that this might just be a mistaken conjecture. The posited object needs to be spotted with a telescope and observed for a while.

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Seasonal notes 
It's late December, which means that it is time to mark the end of the year with silly blog traditions.

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Pop, pop science 
The science news that my friends link to on Facebook is a mixed bag. Some of it's interesting, but lots of it is either junk or uncritical hype around new results.

There's some great science stuff on YouTube, however.

One great series is the Periodic Table of Videos, filmed by Brady Haran and hosted by Martyn Poliakoff. In addition to interesting tidbits of chemsitry, they put together a playlist which provides a guide to all the elements. Although I've been a fan for a while, this post was prompted by a recent video in which Sir Poliakoff expressed what philosophers would call realism about the periodic table. "What we're interested in is what nature is like," he says, "not how easy it is to draw."

While I'm at it, I'll also recommend Smarter Every Day. The host, Destin Sandlin, is an engineer who does some simple experiments but also finds experts on cool things to interview. His ecclectic interests include archery, animals, space, and what stuff looks like in slow motion. From his most recent video, I learned about devil facial tumor disease and the plight of the Tasmanian devil. Some YouTube slow-motion videos are just staged to be as spectacular, but Destin sets them up to illustrate the process he's filming; his video about tatooing, for example.

A few students from my summer course commented that they'd have preferred to have videos rather than so much reading. Although I don't think that I could use these videos to accomplish anything I use texts for, I do wonder if I could use them to warm students to a topic or get them to reflect on the popularization of science.

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Janet at Forbes 
Janet Stemwedel is now a contributor at Forbes on topics of ethics and the social structure of science.

Janet started her blog "Adventures in Ethics and Science" back in 2005. It moved to the professional Science Blogs network and then to Scientopia. Her blog "Doing Good Science" ran at Scientific American until they changed the editorial vision for their blog network at the end of last year.

2005 was an auspicious year to begin a philosophy blog. *ahem* And her previous blogs had cool banners.

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