Occam’s Razor and Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword

It’s well established that in science we can use Occam’s Razor to decide which is the most likely explanation, that between competing hypotheses that one that requires the lowest number of assumptions should be preferred.

Newton’s flaming laser sword is a philosophical razor coined by Mike Alder in an essay entitled “Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword, Or: Why Mathematicians and Scientists don’t like Philosophy but do it anyway” . To summarise the position that “what cannot be settled by experiment is not worth debating”. It was published in Philosophy Now in May/June 2004. The razor is humorously named after Isaac Newton, as it is inspired by Newtonian thought, Mike characterised this sword as being “much sharper and more dangerous than Occam’s Razor”.

Newton's Flaming Laser Sword

Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword

Newton’s flaming laser sword sounds very useful. It slices, it dices… it might be suggested that such a sword could cut away too much, and prevent one from taking a position on politics or religion. That’s not really true, it would prevent one ever being able to make religious explanations or do other special pleading and claim it was science. In the field of politics it may leave one asking for evidence to support particular political judgements. I don’t think those are bad outcomes. Mike Adler suggests that the flaming sword is a useful tool against Platonic philosophers, who may ask one to engage in an older type of game, than the one usually played by modern science and mathematics.

Anyway, this leaves the question, has anyone every seen Occam’s razor or Newton’s Flaming laser sword? I think we need to mount an investigation as to were these useful historical artefacts have been left.

Download a Flaming Laser Sword from the internet archive (PDF)

I think Newton would be a good suggestion for the next Cambridge scientist movie, although some have already been made such as “Isaac Newton the last magician” (2013) and the 2010 movie “The Invention of Calculus”

Frequently bought Bayesian Statistics books…

Frequently Bought Bayesian Books

Frequently Bought Bayesian Books

This leaves the question, which books were bought using Bayes’ theorem rather than using the frequentist approach?

Modelling Climate Successfully by Time Travel?

I saw on phys.org website new that Monckton et al have published a paper “Why models run hot: results from an irreducibly simple climate model” about climate modelling, and why previous models ‘run hot’.

Monkton etal Climate Model

Monckton et al Climate Model

As seen in their figure 6, their model matches very well with the observations. One strange thing to me, is that they have observations of the temperature change until the year 2050, although currently the start of 2015. Does this mean that Monckton et al are able to get information from the future, maybe they have a time machine? It seems more likely that they made a serious mistake in the presentation of their results. Since this paper should have been subject to much scrutiny before publishing (given the controversy of the subject) it seems probable to me that the figure purposefully misleads the reader.

As can reported at skeptical science, in 2012, Christopher Monckton has been using this graph for some time. It seems that the error is to compare data from two different periods of time. The graph presented in the recent paper is less carefully presented than the version used in a 2012 presentation. If we look at the old graph we can understand that the data is not from the future, it’s actually the previous trend.


Credibility gap

Monckton’s credibility gap

They also suggest a parallel with another UK time travelling Lord, could it be that Christopher Monckton is  a Time Lord?



Use of science-babble in No Highway in the Sky

In No Highway in the Sky some science babble is used to explain the nature of fatigue. The explanation given depends on quantum mechanics and the metal becoming crystallised. It seems this science babble is used to avoid any controversy about the actual mechanism of fatigue. Since the author was an aircraft designer he could easy have become familiar with the contemporaneous explanation. Since the details are a topic of enquiry, inserting something outlandish is probably a very clever thing to do, it prevents inserting information which will mislead specialists and it doesn’t spoil the story for anyone else.

James Stewart in No Highway in the Sky

James Stewart in No Highway in the Sky


The outlandish explanation also fits well with the main characters fascination with topics such as the  mathematics of the ancient pyramids, part of the plot is that those with higher authority attempt to discredit him as a nut. They don’t want to believe there is a problem with the planes.


There is deeper point which is interesting to explore — it’s not necessary for the mechanism of fatigue to be known to have a predictive theory. It would be quite possible to predict the fatigue failure from the assumption that there is some form of damage accumulation. The mention of quantum mechanics probably means the hero was familiar with the statistics of stochastic effects. Another plot point in the story is that the damage to the material cannot be seen by observation, so that inspection of the aircraft puts the main characters explanation into doubt.


The failure of an aircraft by fatigue occurs by nucleation and growth of a crack. Since aluminium can be quite a tough material the size of the crack which can be tolerated before failure can be very large. Modern aircraft can be designed so that cracks can be detected by routine inspection before they reach a size which would cause failure.

1 month’s free access to “Materials Science and Technology”

Maney publishing have made Materials Science and Technology to be their Journal of the month — if you sign up you can access the journal and back issues (from 1985 onwards) for the whole of November.

We also have access to all the publications of the Royal Society for the whole of November Royal society celebrate open access week.

So the question is, which papers should we be reading from MST/ Phil Mag/ Proceedings of the Royal Society during November?

Quantum Pain

You can see a video of Jim Al-Khalili’s presentation at the Royal Society, were he is discussed the relations between Quantum mechanics and biology. (Does nature use Quantum mechanics — of course).

I thought of a simple demonstration that shows that Quantum mechanics applies to biological specimens, even seemingly complex ones. The example involves the quantum behaviour of pain. If a child falls over and it is being watched by it’s parents then it will feel pain and cry. If no one is watching, there will be no pain and the child will just carry on.

I thought there was a V-sauce on youtube about pain… but I seem to have imagined it.

Here is a TED-X talk Lorimer Moseley (at Adelaide)

‘Scientist’ jailed for faking results

BBC report about scientist jailed for faking results. Steven Eaton from Cambridgeshire was convicted in March 2013 under the 1999 Good Laboratory Practice Regulations. The court heard that while working at the Edinburgh branch of US based pharmaceutical firm Aptuit in 2009, Mr Eaton manipulated experimental results, so that a drug would proceed to human trails.

Mr Eaton was convicted by Sheriff Michael O’Grady QC, and received the maximum possible sentence of three months, the Sheriff said his powers were inadequate for this case, and a longer sentence would be justified. Mr Eaton’s defence lawyer, claimed his client did not benefit financially from the fraud, as he was only making £35,000 per year.

Mr Eaton was reported by his employers after they became suspicious and reported him to the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.

Story with generic science pictures can be found also at these sites: