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Enrico Fonda on "Creative Turbulence: from Leonardo Da Vinci to Quantum Vortices" - Lecture Recap

Report by Russ Dobler on June 25, 2016 event.

When NYU post-doc Enrico Fonda fired up the fog machine on June 25, it wasn’t to commemorate Mötley Crüe’s final performance, or to prepare for the following day’s Pride Parade. It was for science! 

The fluid dynamics physicist shined a laser through the haze he created at the New York City Skeptics lecture at Baruch College to demonstrate the concept of turbulent flow. You might think of turbulence as just that thing that causes white knuckles on bumpy airplane rides, but it also happens to be one of the worst-understood phenomena in all of physics.

“It’s not that there were not enough smart people working on the problem,” Fonda said of the history of turbulence research. Even Nobel laureates Werner Heisenberg and Richard Feynman tried to tackle turbulence and failed. It led mathematician Horace Lamb to famously remark,

"I am an old man now, and when I die and go to heaven there are two matters on which I hope for enlightenment. One is quantum electrodynamics, and the other is the turbulent motion of fluids. And about the former I am rather optimistic.”

Turbulence is a seemingly simple idea – the description of how things like air and water flow when not tightly constrained. It’s apparently governed by some well-known mathematics, like the Euler and Navier-Stokes equations, and it surrounds us every day – not just on airplanes, but even in the way perfume is wafted across a room, Fonda said. Yet the enormous amount of data needed to precisely predict any given turbulent flow makes it more difficult to get a handle on then even more elusive things like the Higgs boson, creating a phenomenon that Fonda says is “more complicated than chaos.”

“Still, it’s not clear exactly how water flows in a pipe, to this day,” Fonda said.

Turbulence is so mysterious that the people who currently work on it can’t even agree what its biggest unanswered question even is. Is it really how to predict the phenomenology from the equations, or should we concentrate on more practical things, like how to reduce drag on vehicles or increase mixing in solutions? Do you even need to understand the equations for that, or would a model suffice? Is it more important to understand how dependent turbulence is on initial conditions, or how it transitions from simpler, laminar flow later on?

And how did Vincent van Gogh get it so right in “Starry Night”? 

The occasionally psychotic painter, who committed suicide in 1890, had an intuitive grasp of turbulent flow, claims physicist Jose Luis Aragón. Aragón says the swirling patterns of light and dark in the famous piece align well with what’s predicted in real-life Kolmogorov scaling, a law that wasn’t developed until the 1940s. The result seems significant, as Edvard Munch’s iconic “The Scream,” with superficially similar swirl patterns, couldn’t pass the same test. Other creators have used geometry in their work, too, like sculptor Anish Kapoor and stained-glass artist Harry Clarke, but Fonda now wants to take things a step further.

“We organized a project that pairs scientist with artists,” Fonda said of his effort to build research results into new artwork from the ground up. The Physics of Art exhibition debuts at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works facility this fall, and will feature, among others, the work of electronic artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, who has a bachelor’s degree in physical chemistry.

Fonda’s helped create some beautiful imagery himself, as part of the team that was able to directly observe the Kelvin waves of quantum turbulence for the first time. Check out a description and video here, and check back with New York City Skeptics for more info on “The Physics of Art” as it’s announced. 


Lecture: Ben Goldacre on "Bad Trials"

When: Monday, July 18, 2016 @ 7:00 PM 
Where: Baruch Performing Arts Center, 17 Lexington Ave., Room 306 (The "Skylight Room")

Randomised controlled trials are supposed to be the gold standard, the most "fair tests" of which intervention works best. But sometimes, through cunning or incompetence, trials can be biased by design: so that they overstate the benefits, and hide the side effects. This talk is a greatest hits of bad trial design; in the hands of the enemy, it is a manual for deceit; in the hands of the good, it is vital self-defence.

Ben Goldacre is a doctor, best-selling author, academic and campaigner. His work focuses on uses and misuses of science and statistics by journalists, politicians, drug companies and quacks. His book Bad Science reached #1 in the UK non-fiction charts and has sold over half a million copies worldwide. He has published extensively in all major newspapers and various academic journals, and appears regularly on radio and TV from Newsnight to QI. He has written government papers and reports on evidence based policy, founded a successful global campaign for research transparency, and currently works as an academic in the University of Oxford, where he runs the EBMdataLab building live data tools to make science and medicine better, like OpenPrescribing and OpenTrials. His blog is at and he is @bengoldacre on twitter.

NYCS tries to keep their lectures free and open to the public, but it does cost money to produce the events. Please consider donating to NYCSkeptics or becoming a member. Suggested donation for this talk is $10.

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Lecture: Enrico Fonda on "Creative Turbulence: from Leonardo Da Vinci to Quantum Vortices"

When: Saturday, June 25, 2016 @ 2:00 PM 
Where: Baruch Performing Arts Center, 17 Lexington Ave., Room 306 (The "Skylight Room")

Turbulence is referred to as the last great unsolved problem of classical physics. Fundamental questions posed by Leonardo Da Vinci about the origin, evolution and decay of the turbulent motion are still unanswered. We provide an overview of this fascinating topic considering its relationships with art, going through the work of Van Gogh and Pollock, and arriving to the latest developments in the field, such as quantum turbulence.

Enrico FondaBio: Enrico Fonda is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Physics at NYU. He is interested in cryogenic fluid mechanics in classical and quantum fluids, turbulence, flow visualization, fluid dynamics demonstrations, and the interactions between art and science. Enrico performed his doctoral work at the Institute for Research in Electronic and Applied Physics at the University of Maryland, and received his PhD in fluid dynamics and his master in theoretical physics from the University of Trieste, Italy.

NYCS tries to keep their lectures free and open to the public, but it does cost money to produce the events. Please consider donating to NYCSkeptics or becoming a member. Suggested donation for this talk is $10.

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Reasonable New York Summer Solstice Party

New York City Skeptics is a member of Reasonable New York.

About Reasonable New York

"Reasonable New York is a consortium of local reason-based organizations and people working together to increase awareness of secular-minded movements throughout the New York metropolitan area. We aim to inform New Yorkers that there is a community of people who share a rational basis for their worldviews, who attend intellectual public lectures, enjoy philosophy discussions, engage in public advocacy, and socialize."

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NECSS 2016

NECSS 2016 will take place the weekend of May 12-15, 2016 in and around FIT’s Manhattan campus.

This year our keynote address will be given by Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology Richard Wiseman! He will be joined by world-renowned science communicator Bill Nye “The Science Guy,” the full Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe “Rogues,” and over two-dozen other speakers, panelists, and workshop leaders for 2016’s best celebration of science and skepticism.

 Additional speakers include:

The full NECSS speaker lineup is available here, and stay tuned for future speaker announcements — we’re not done yet!


The SGU Extravaganza

George Hrab and the SGU once again bring their hit stage show to NECSS! Special guest star Bill Nye joins the Novellas, Evan Bernstein, Cara Santa Maria (and a surprise or two!) for a celebration of science, skepticism, and everything geeky! Best of all, tickets are open to the general public; conference registration is not required to attend!

  • Date: Friday May 13
  • Time: 7:30PM
  • $15 NECSS attendees / $25 general public
  • Location: Haft Auditorium, 227 W. 27th St., NY, NY 10001


The Broad Street Score

For over twenty years George Hrab has been writing songs about science, skepticism, love, life, loss, and interesting animals. The Broad Street Score is a newly created retrospective arranged for string quartet and voice featuring these very songs. With brand new orchestrations by Veikko Rihu and Slau Halatyn, the song-cycle covers such varied subjects from the ridiculousness of pining for the “Good Ol’ Days” and questioning whether or not heaven would be boring, to the grief non-believers deal with after a loss…and even includes the subject of how great the TV show Mission Impossible was. Featuring George’s trademark humor, wit, and lyrical dexterity, The Broad Street Score is an unique musical experience not to be missed.

  • Date: Thursday, May 12
  • Time: 7:30PM
  • $15 NECSS attendees / $25 general public
  • Location: Katie Murphy Amphitheatre, 227 W. 27th St., NY, NY 10001


The Rap Guide to Religion

Recently nominated for a Drama Desk Award in the category “Unique Theatrical Experience,” The Rap Guide to Religion is a new species of theatre, part hip-hop concert, part stand up comedy, and part TED Talk, exploring one of the most heated subjects of our age. Taking a scientific approach, Canadian hip-hop artist Baba Brinkman performs faith-illuminating songs inspired by the best of evolutionary and cognitive science, seeking the natural origins of our supernatural beliefs.

  • Date: Sunday, May 15
  • Time: 8:00PM (NEW TIME)
  • Free for attendees / $25 general public
  • Location: Haft Auditorium, 227 W. 27th St., NY, NY 10001

Maria Konnikova has a Bridge to Sell Us in “The Confidence Game”

Report by Russ Dobler on January 13, 2016 event.

“No PowerPoint today,” said New York Times bestselling author and former NECSS speaker Maria Konnikova as she introduced the lecture on her latest book, The Confidence Game:  Why We Fall for It … Every Time.  “So you guys are actually going to be part of the story here,” she said. As the combined members of the New York City Skeptics and the Jolly Thirteen Club of New York and New Jersey would find out on this January 13, that’s not always something you want.

Al Capone found out the hard way. Konnikova, who has a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University and has contributed to The New Yorker and The Atlantic, among other publications, said the famous gangster fell prey to her favorite con in history, at the hands of one of the all-time great hucksters, Victor Lustig. Instead of simply taking the $50,000 Capone gave him, with the promise twice that amount would be returned in two months, Lustig stuck the cash in a safe deposit box and later gave it back, lying that the supposed investment hadn’t worked out how he expected. Capone, knowing something about shady characters, had expected Lustig to run away with his money, and was prepared to have restitution beaten out of him. Instead, stunned by his honesty, “Scarface” duked the conniver five grand to help him get back on his feet.

“Vick, satisfied with himself, left,” Konnikova said. “Because that had been the scam all along.”

“What is it about what he did that made Al Capone give him the money?” Konnikova asked. “He appealed to Capone’s vanity,” she said. And the more confident you are in being able to judge someone’s character, the more likely you are to get hustled.

“You guys are the best marks there are,” Konnikova told the audience of skeptics. “One of the strong biases that allows con artists to keep going is that we are better than everyone else at everything, including judging character,” she said. For that reason, Konnikova explained, con artists themselves also make for great patsies. I guess you can bullshit a bullshitter.

Take Oscar Hartzell, whose tale Konnikova tells in The Confidence Game. Hartzell invented what was essentially the first Nigerian prince email scam, convincing people they could grab part of deceased explorer Francis Drake’s fortune if they’d pony up some legal fees to free it from the English court system. Hartzell ended up giving a significant portion of his ill-gotten gains to a phony psychic, who, after seeing how fat the pigeon really was, went ahead and blackmailed the master con artist, threatening to expose his hustle if he didn’t pay up. 

“Which once again just goes to show every single person can be conned,” Konnikova said. “There is no amount of skepticism that can actually protect you against this.”

Ferdinand Waldo Demara even conned his own biographer! “The Great Impostor,” played by Tony Curtis in a film of the same name, fired several potential candidates before settling on Robert Crichton, who Demara got to pay for his education and buy him a ranch, on top of portraying Demara as almost a hero in the story of his life. The glowing account stands in stark contrast to the documentation of the deaths Demara caused, not to mention his less-than-pure interest in young boys. 

If it all makes you think that trying to foil conmen is a futile task, Konnikova agrees. “Ultimately, I don’t think it’s possible to arm yourself against them,” she said. “I’m sure that even though I’ve written this book, I will be conned in the future.”

But maybe that’s not such a terrible thing. Konnikova referenced studies that suggest more trusting societies are typically better off, and proposed that victims might feel better when hoaxers take advantage of their hardwired instincts if they remind themselves about the truth of falling for scams. 

“It doesn’t make me greedy, it doesn’t make me stupid, it doesn’t make me dishonest,” she said. “It just makes me human.”

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