Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Bases, Part 2: Principles

Not morals, principles. The things that establish relationships between ideas, objects, observed phenomena, etc.

If you learn about principles, you have a ready way to determine if what you are watching is fact or fiction. If you've been shocked at the amount of learning you have to do to understand something you might take for granted, like DNA or the JPEG 2000 standard, well, that's understandable. But the people who figured this stuff out couldn't forget fundamental principles, and so, neither should you.

One thing to look out for: these are not subject to personal opinion. If you think so, check yourself and start over.

Some, but by no means all of these principles are:
1) At least 4 fundamental forces work on matter and energy all the time: gravitation, magnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Look them up; magnetism, especially, isn't what you might think.

2) Conservation of mass and energy; a little-observed correlation of Einstein's famous equation is that it is only true if the sum of matter and energy in the Universe is a constant, and for short periods of time such as you might observe, there isn't much to contradict this idea.

3) Demonstrated by Newton's laws.

4) Cause and effect.

5) The inflexibility of definitions. You don't get to call something a "soul molecule" without showing your work. You can find a standard for a Bohr magnetron at the NIST's Web site - which means somebody actually uses that thing on a regular basis - but the point is that definitions enforce logical rigor. That is the only way you can produce useful results.

6) Statistics. This is one thing people shy away from, because their only experience with stats is when someone lies to them. You can get a toehold on what statistics really are with a couple of simple observations.
Zero (never happens) and One (always happens) are rare. One is so rare that it practically means the event predicted already happened.
Every stat has a domain. If I told you that the probability of Hank Aaron hitting a home run in Williams-Brice stadium was zero, that's because it's a football field. So you have to establish what the domain is when someone cites a statistic.
The word random is an absolute. Commonly, it is used for things that are just unpredictable, like the lottery - but notice something here: the lottery has a domain, within which the result always appears. The lottery is NOT random!

7) All measurements have uncertainty factors. This is repugnant to those who prefer everything explained to them in nice neat packages, but the world is not that way. Get used to it.

I'll add to this later. Some principles are really obscure, and I have to figure out how to explain them.