the human race has one really effective weapon

Hunter Pence swinging the bat

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One Swing, Three Hits

Being a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I’m disappointed to see them miss out on two consecutive World Series appearances in a row. But this video, from game 7 of the NLCS, is too amazing not to share. It clearly shows Hunter Pence swinging his bat once, but hitting the ball three times:

Hunter Pence's amazing swing
Alan M. Nathan, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign explains the physics behind what he calls Pence’s “triple double”:

Meanwhile, because of momentum conservation, the bat slows down considerably after the initial impact but continues to move forward. The post-impact speed of the bat at the initial impact point is a little bit smaller than the speed of the ball. However, the barrel of the bat is moving faster than the initial impact point, although its motion is fairly complicated, since it is both rotating and vibrating. The barrel eventually catches up with the ball (remember, the ball is moving slowly) and impacts it a second time.

There’s lots more after the link, including video of Troy Tulowitski doing basically the same thing. Professor Nathan speculates that this might be a perfectly normal occurrence in baseball, but since the cameras capable of capturing it are only now making their way into baseball stadiums, we’ve not been able to see it until now.

Amazing as it is, I’m still hoping for a Tigers victory.

the death of socrates


Describing Reality: Philosophy vs. Science

The difference between scientific and philosophical explanations is something I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last couple of years. The popularity of authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens is partially responsible, but I’m also interested in the limits of scientific and philosophic inquiry. Is it possible for neuroscience to tell us something about free will that philosophy can’t? Do the laws of physics tell us more about reality than the study of language or metaphysics?

To answer these questions, we might first ask what philosophical inquiry does that’s different from scientific inquiry. To that end, I’d like to point everyone to The Partially Examined Life—one of the best podcasts on the Internet and a great place to explore different philosophical ideas. Anyone that hasn’t checked it out should change that now.

About this time last year, Wes Alwan wrote a small essay called What Is a Philosophical Explanation? Sounds like a simple enough question, but appearances can be deceiving. Wes does a great job of distinguishing between philosophical explanation and scientific investigation, which is helpful if you’re wondering whether, for instance, physics can tell us more about human behavior than theology. His remarks about conceptual clarity are especially helpful:

In the case of the scientific model the phenomena are clear: Bohr’s atomic model, for instance, explains the frequencies of light produced by hydrogen gas after it has been heated and subsequently loses energy during cooling. The phenomena being explained are not themselves conceptually unclear: if we were unclear as working scientists about what “emissions spectrums” meant or looked like, we’d have to clear that up in order to do our work successfully…

Further: when we develop an atomic theory, we do not have to query atoms about what spectra they’re giving off and wait for them to report back to us; nor do we have to know what it’s like to be an atom or give off spectra. The situation is radically different for psychology and philosophy. My concept “light” does not implicate me in it to the same degree as my concept “sadness.” If I had to get another human being to understand the former, our joint attention to a few cases would be sufficient. But in the case of sadness, pointing to someone crying, or crying myself, would not in itself be a demonstration unless the person to whom I were demonstrating it a) had already experienced sadness and b) knew how to interpret the outward behaviors of others in terms of that experience (i.e., to empathize).

I’ve been meaning to link to this forever, but now that I’m thinking about the difference between science and philosophy, and specifically about the proper limits of the sciences, it is especially relevant. This idea of being “implicated in a concept” applies, I think, to the test I posted about a few days ago, in which scientists hope to discover whether or not the universe is in fact a simulation. Built into that question are all kinds of concepts—like consciousness, reality, and simulation—that may or may not be describable via mathematical means. And yet, I encounter this belief again and again, that science—especially math and physics—gets us closer to reality than, for instance, philosophy or religion. I don’t doubt the value of science, but I do wonder at its application and misuse.

I’ll be writing more about this, but I wanted to get these initial thoughts on the page, and to point everyone to one of my favorite websites. I encourage everyone to check it out.

Rene Descartes


Weird Science: Testing Brains in Vats

I don’t know how seriously other scientists will take this, but according to this article at, physicists at the University of Bonn believe they can develop a test that will accurately measure whether or not we are a bunch of brains in a vat. Or just one one brain in a vat. The test would depend upon our understanding of something called quantum chromodynamics, a field of study concerned with the way elementary particles are bound together by different forces.

Anyone with a thorough understanding of high energy physics can check the paper out on the arXiv website. If you can make anything of it, please don’t be afraid to leave a comment. In the meantime, I have to wonder at the idea that this is testable at all. As the article notes,

… any conclusions resulting from such work would be limited by the possibility that everything we think we understand about quantum chromodynamics, or simulations for that matter, could be flawed.

The data this test would return would have to be checked against a simulation, unless I’m missing an important fact and there’s something else to check the data against. If that’s the case, we run into the same problem everybody else has run into when pondering this question: how do I know my experiences or my data adequately represent whatever “reality” is “out there?” And if the answer is something like “we have mathematical models that tells us what we should find,” how do we test whether those mathematical models are accurate or reliable?

If all I’ve experienced is this thing that we’re calling a simulation, what can I know about an existence that isn’t a simulation? These are pretty elementary philosophical questions—but none of them have been answered, which is why this article had me raising my eyebrows.

The conceptual setup here is another reason I’m skeptical. It’s not that I don’t understand the concepts (I think I do to a small degree), it’s that I don’t think they’re very clear. That may be the article’s fault more than the scientist’s, but I’m still left wondering how they’d get around some pretty fundamental problems. For instance, what are the simulations they are using simulations of? If I devise a simulation for reality that demands particular results, and then I find that those results match what I see in reality, why should I conclude that reality is a simulation? Why not conclude the opposite and say that I’ve devised a very good simulation of what’s “real?” I get the feeling a lot of this could be cleared up by someone who understands the kinds of simulations they’re talking about, but until I can get a grasp on that, I’m left to wonder.

There’s also a problem of consciousness. My existence is so caught up in the concepts of reality and simulation that I can’t imagine a way to untangle the two. What I mean is that the idea of simulation only seems meaningful from a conscious subject’s point of view. Is it possible this test somehow accounts for consciousness? Is it even possible to think about the difference between reality and simulation without a clear sense of what a conscious subject is?

I know I’m jumping all over the place, but this little article brought up all sorts of questions, and I haven’t thought about these kinds of problems in a long time. As it stands, I can’t help but be skeptical. Not about my existence, but about that test.