Tycho Brahe Heat-1X: successful launch of danish spacecraft!

June 3, 2011

– Our mission is very simple. We are working towards launching a human being into space.

Today at 16:31 (GMT+1) , the two danish amateur rocket scientists Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen (founders of the non-profit organization Copenhagen Suborbitals) successfully launched their first standing-room-only spacecraft Tycho Brahe Heat-1X, named after the danish astronomer. The rocket reached a height of about 2.8 km. The rocket was launched after the first attempt on sept. 5 2010, which failed.

Congratulations from here!

Interview: New Scientist


Unparticles, Unpolitics, and Their Possible Signatures

December 11, 2007

“Unparticles” and “unpolitics” are two seemingly unrelated concepts which you might never have heard about before, so let me start by explaining the first one.

So, what is an “unparticle”? In particle physics it has recently been suggested by Howard Georgi, that there exists “stuff” which cannot be thought of as particles:

Unparticle Physics 

but nevertheless could be observed at the LHC accelerator in CERN, due to start in 2008. He calls this stuff “unparticles”. This is an intriguing and controversial idea, since our world seems to be well-described in terms of particles.

The idea of unparticles comes from the principle of scale invariance, meaning that the physics of a system remains the same regardless of a change of length (or equivalently energy). Such a scale transformation looks like x -> x’ = (e^s) x. A theory of particles can only be scale invariant if the particles have zero mass and charge: A scale transformation multiplies the mass with a rescaling factor raised to the mass dimension. The standard model of particle physics is surely not scale invariant; the photon, for example, is massless, but its charge is non-zero. However, it is possible that there is another sector of the standard model, the “unparticles”, which interacts so weakly with the known particles of the standard model that they have not been observed; and which is exactly scale-invariant. It is difficult to describe the detailed physics of such a sector, but important characteristics at low energy can be derived from scale invariance. One important consequence is that unparticle stuff will look in the detector like a non-integer number of invisible particles. For example, it could happen that 3/7 particles were missing in the detector. Such an observation would be a very clear sign of something interesting going on!

While you might need a 2 billion EUR detector like LHC to discover unparticles, “unpolitics” is easy to recognize. But, what is “unpolitics”?

While following the general election in Denmark in Nov this year, I thought that a new term, unpolitics, should apply to one of the parties, called New Alliance (Ny Alliance). However, I later realized that such a term already existed, but used as meaning “apolitical”, or “not being concerned with politics”. This is not exactly how I am going to define it. 

 Ny Alliance (New Alliance) is a danish political party which was founded in May 2007 by Naser Khader and two others. Naser was a member of the Social Liberals Party, but wanted to counter the influence of the right-wing and xenophobic Danish People’s Party. At first, this project gave New Alliance a lot of momentum, and early opinion polls indicated that they could secure 12 out of 179 seats in the Parliament. In the November election they only managed to get 5 seats, and a times it was uncertain if they would be able to be represented at all. Why was this so? One of the main reason, I think, is that New Alliance is a typical representative of what I will call “unpolitics”.

Unpolitics is “stuff” in the world of politics, which is represented by political persons, but which not really can be thought of as politics. In unpolitics, the most important elements are often popular persons, but with no, or just very few, really new ideas. One idea of New Alliance was to reduce the income tax to 40%; a member even suggested that the 40% could be experimentally implemented on Denmark’s third-largest island. This proposal was quickly abandoned. Another idea is free food for school children. New Alliance has been notoriously slow in formulating a detailed party program. When asked about concrete political questions, the typical answer was that such an answer could not be given, since they represented a “new” approach towards danish politics. Their main reason of existence just being to counter the influence of another party. In reality this did not happen. 

Therefore, a possible signature of unpolitics is this. Unpolitics is scale invariant: at every scale – large and small – you don’t find any “stuff” of politics, just popular persons.

References: Howard Georgi’s two papers on unparticles, hep-ph/0703260, and 0704.2457 [hep-ph]

More Dangerous Pseudo-Science?

December 19, 2005

Updated on 04/09/2008: link to video added.

Note: Updated on 02/22/2006. I just recently received an email from S. Ventegodt, claiming that some of my comments below are wrong. I have no intend of writing anything which is plain wrong or misleading and therefore I’m reviewing his complains. Things which at this point have been corrected/made more precise are typed in bold-face.

It seems that the Danish holistic physician Søren Ventegodt “finally” is getting some attention in Denmark these days. Some articles in the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet (as well as other newspapers, such as Berlingske Tidende and Politiken) describe his rather “alternative” treatments of various disorders – such as psychological trauma, mostly in women.

It would not be fair for me to judge whether the stories described in the links above are actually true or not, so I’ll let you judge for yourself. Most likely, future will tell. Instead I’ll talk about his Quality of Life Research Center in Copenhagen – and of which Dr. Ventegodt is the director (he is also responsible for a Research Clinic for Holistic Medicine in Copenhagen).

Their main claim to fame is described as follows:

The Quality of Life Center at the State University Hospital generated grants, publicity with research and discussions among the professionals leading to the claim that quality of life was significant for health and disease.

and further,

However, if a substantial part of diseases is caused by a low quality of life, we can all prevent a lot of disease and operate as our own physicians, if we make a personal effort and work to improve our quality of life. A series of investigations showed that this was indeed possible. This view of the role of personal responsibility for illness and health would naturally lead to a radical re-consideration of the role of the physician and also influence our society.

Such statements are typical for people practicing “holistic” medicine in its most extreme form; quite generally they feel that “invasive” treatments, such as drugs or surgery should only be used as a last resort. The holistic view on diseases naturally leads to the emphasis on the role of personal responsibility for illness. Tell this again to somebody suffering from Alzheimer’s, melanoma, diabetes mellitus, polio, rabies or even AIDS.

More generally, “holistic medicine” is based on the observation that many factors affect a persons health, such as genetics, nutrition, stress, family relationships, living and working conditions. As it stands, this statement is of course rather trivial; I guess most traditionally trained doctors agree with this – the important point is to found out which factors are important, how important they eventually are, and which factors are – in the long run – basically of little relevance. Practitioners of holistic medicine have not been able in any way to quantify which of the above factors are relevant and which are not. Even though the idea of a holistic approach to health is as old as medicine itself, the same can be said to be true for the idea of an astrology-based explanation for your specific personality, your future possibilities and so on. Its marginally admirable that practitioners of holistic medicine attempt to obtain a more “complete” view of a patients health and general condition, but for somebody suffering from AIDS or cancer it might not help much asking them about their childhood, family relations and so on.

Another view articulated by The Quality of Life Center is:

There is a general consensus that many of the diseases that plague the Western world (which are not the result of external factors such as starvation, micro-organisms, infection or genetic defects) are lifestyle related and as such, preventable through lifestyle changes.

[I must admit, that there is something I really do not understand here; why do they classify genetic defects as an “external factor”? It is well-known, that one human cell contains around 30-40.000 genes and since genetic instructions are so complicated many mistakes can occur – and many of these errors can lead to diseases. Of course, some diseases can be caused by pathogens, which is what they must be talking about here. But it might also surprise them, that such diseases as bulimia and anorexia nervosa, which traditionally are viewed as simple emotional disorders caused by childhood conditions, low self-esteem and so on, actually could prove to be auto-immune diseases.]

More generally, I would like to know which diseases are really caused by the way we think about and perceive life? Only those as: depression? Psychosis? High blood pressure? Or even coronary hearth disease? How did the researchers at the Quality of Life Center show that a disease like cancer even in a single case was actually “caused” by the way people think? (Even though the progression of a specific disease can be much affected by external factors such as the loss or death of a spouse). Or were their results just a consequence of the trivial observation that the way people think is largely determined by certain distributions of a large number of chemicals of the brain, such as serotonin, which therefore in some cases is determined by genetic factors which again can appear together with certain diseases? Or did they actually observe something completely opposite of what they thought they observed – that the way people think is in many ways affected by which physical diseases they might suffer from? Did they follow like 1-10.000 patients for a period of years in something remotely close to a double-blind study with specific differences in their view of life – possibly both their own and in general – and later determined which “factors” caused which diseases?

It seems, this is what they claim to have been doing:

However there is more to Western culture and lifestyle than these factors [excessive use of alcohol, tobacco, a high-fat diet etc.] and if we only focus on them we can risk overlooking others. We refer to other large parts of our life, for instance the way we think about and perceive life (our life attitudes, our perception of reality and our quality of life) and the degree of happiness we experience through the different dimensions of our existence. These factors or dimensions can now, to some degree, be isolated and examined. The medical sociologist Aaron Antonovsky (1923-1994) from the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ben Gurion University in Beer-Sheva, who developed the salutogenic model of health and illness, discussed the dimension, “sense of coherence”, that is closely related to the dimension of “life meaning”, as perhaps the deepest and most important dimension of quality of life. Typically, the clinician or researcher, when attempting to reveal a connection between health and a certain factor, sides with only one of the possible dimensions stated above. A simple, one-dimensional hypothesis is then postulated, like for instance that cholesterol is harmful to circulation. Cholesterol levels are then measured, manipulated and ensuing changes to circulatory function monitored. The subsequent result may show a significant, though small connection, which supports the initial hypothesis and in turn becomes the basis for implementing preventive measures, like a change of diet. The multi-factorial dimension is therefore often overlooked.

A simple questionnaire based survey performed by the Quality of Life Center in the early 1990’s concluded, that:

…preventable diseases could be more effectively handled through a concentrated effort to improve quality of life rather than through an approach that focus solely on the factors that are traditionally seen to reflect an unhealthy life style.

Virtually all of Dr.Ventegodt’s findings have been published in a journal called the Scientific World Journal (48 out of 53 original articles according to his own CV). This journal is in no way comparable to peer-reviewed journals like Nature or The New England Journal of Medicine (the five remaining original articles were published in: Danish Medical Journal, Eur J Surg, Arch Sex Behaviour, Child Care Health Dev and Int. J. Adolesc. Med. Health), just to mention a few. Papers are accepted upon payment of some unknown amount of money, which immediately makes you think that the scientific value of such articles is comparable to that of commercials during the Super Bowl. (If any well-known and respected journals accepted Dr. Ventegodt’s findings please inform me about this by sending an email to: kasperolsen [AT] yahoo [dOT] com).

About the stories reported in the newspapers as mentioned above it’s now even more interesting to read some of the last comments at the homepage of the Quality of Life Center:

We believe that the trained physician today has three medical toolboxes: the manual medicine (traditional), the bio-medicine (with drugs and pharmacology) and the consciousness-based medicine (scientific, holistic medicine). What is extremely interesting is that most diseases can be alleviated with all three sets of medical tools, but only the bio-medical toolset is highly expensive. The physician, using his hands and his consciousness to improve the health of the patient by mobilizing hidden resources in the patient can use his skills in any cultural setting, rich or poor.

Patients “treated” by the controversial methods described in the media should know if this is in any way true, or if it is just another example of dangerous pseudo-science?

(S. Ventegodt has asked me to tell my readers that he has been cleared for the accusations of being guilty of wrongdoing. However, concerning the case discussed in the media, 1) I’ve not said that Ventegodt is guilty of wrongdoing but rather this is for others to decide and 2) since I’ve not said this, it is not my job to clear him for suspicion and 3) I’ve not really discussed the case in question above, but rather made some critical remarks about the research performed at the Quality of Life Center and 4) finally – and most importantly – since Ventegodt still cannot practice as a physician, since his authorisation has been taken from him (the question about whether it should be returned, will be determined in court) it would be plain wrong of me to say that he has been completely cleared for suspicion.)

Added link to a “consultation” with Ventegodt, see here.