Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Adumbration

The Adumbration lumbered in the distance, outline clouded by horizon's haze.

"What is it?" the countryside cried, "What will it mean?" the elders worried.

Its dusty gray obscuring more and more into the clear blue sky, the Adumbration loomed.

"What should we feel?" the townspeople asked, "Every man think for himself!" the scattering elite replied.

Indiscernible, nearly there but not yet here, almost not yet a thing unto itself, the Adumbration rust the land.

"We must know if we are to go on!" the people plead, "We can't really tell." duly unspoken.

Coming still, roiling yet becalmed, ephemeral but always, the Adumbration was unseemly.

"We will distract ourselves with seeking" some said, "We will distract ourselves with providing." said some.

Almost invisible the Adumbration stayed.

"Now we are certain!" proclaimed the everyman. "Now we are content." thought his mind.

The Adumbration continued.

Friday, June 25, 2010

What would happen to me if I fell into a Black Hole?

A Black Hole
It's safe to say you wouldn't survive the trip, so stay on this side of the Event Horizon if you ever want to be seen again.

Black Holes are massive objects occupying a tiny volume in space. When a super-massive star (many times larger than the Sun) stops sustaining enough nuclear fusion at its core to support its size, its mass may collapse into itself and form a Black Hole, sucking in everything around it. Our Milky Way galaxy spirals around a super-massive Black Hole at its center.

Since nothing can escape from the incredible gravitational pull of a Black Hole (even light itself), scientists can only speculate on what would happen to a person falling into a Black Hole. However, it does seem evident that the crushing gravity would not be kind to your body. Soon after passing the Event Horizon, the point of no return, your body's atomic structure would be ripped apart. The parts of your body closer to the singularity experience a stronger gravitational pull than the parts of your body further away from the singularity. This "tidal gravity" creates a differential gravitational pull on your body that literally stretches you out as you fall in. Alas, the rack of space-time is unforgiving to even the most pliant mind, and ultimately it's impossible to keep yourself together.

Interestingly, getting sucked into a Black Hole doesn't necessarily mean all trace of you is permanently erased. Physicist Stephen Hawking recently theorized that Black Holes emit minute amounts of radiation energy, like quantum information signatures of the stuff pulled in. So-called "Hawking Radiation" retains the information characteristics of the stuff that the Black Hole gobbled up; if a carbon atom gets sucked into the Black Hole, eventually the energy equivalent of a carbon atom will spew back out as Hawking Radiation. The information of the universe is conserved. So, at least in quantum theory, you could be reconstituted bit-by-bit if an outside observer were able to interpret Hawking Radiation and piece you together.

Cosmologist Ted Bunn's Black Hole FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) offers many expanded answers:

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Simpsons Paradox

Consider the following cartoonish thought experiment:

Homer and Lenny get into a week-long grudge match at the nuclear power plant over which of the two can eat more donuts. They decide to settle it once and for all in a weekend donut-eating contest: each of them gets 100 donuts, whoever eats more by the end of the weekend wins.

Lenny secretly knows Homer will be able to out-eat him, but he also knows something about statistics that he's hoping Homer doesn't. Lenny suggests, and Homer agrees, that Lisa will be in charge of moderating the match to keep things fair.

Lisa will buy 100 donuts each morning and divide the 100 donuts into two boxes, one for Homer and one for Lenny. After setting the two boxes out for the day, Lisa will return periodically to mark the percentage of each box's donuts that have been eaten. In this way Homer and Lenny know how they're faring against each other and each can adjust their eating behavior over the day to try and keep up with the other.

Here's how it goes down:
    1. On Saturday, Homer eats more of his box of donuts than Lenny eats of his box of donuts.
    2. On Sunday, Homer eats more of his box of donuts than Lenny eats of his box of donuts.
    3. On Monday, Homer is shocked to find that Lenny has won in the final tally by over a dozen donuts!

    Wait, how did that happen? Lenny didn't cheat and Lisa didn't divide them unfairly; each got the opportunity to eat 100 donuts. So why didn't Homer win when the percentages always showed him in the lead? Lisa divided each daily allotment of 100 donuts into a box of 90 donuts and a box of 10 donuts. Lenny won by weighting.

    Simpson's Paradox, as explained by a singingbanana:

    Why is Simpson's Paradox important to remember in the real world? As mentioned in the video above, direct percentage comparisons of weighted data is a risk in any field using statistical analysis, especially the social sciences. Failing to consider the meaning of statistical percentage comparisons can lead to less favorable outcomes given seemingly favorable supporting data. If you want your doctor to pick the best medicine (Drug A) for you, you'd better hope he gets the proper recommendation from the groups running the statistical analysis first. Otherwise you may get worse medication despite the availability of a more effective alternative, and neither you nor your doctor will be the wiser.

    Statistical analysis is an important way to get a holistic understanding of phenomena, but interpreting test results isn't as easy as it looks; sometimes you miss the holes staring you right in the face.

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