Wednesday, July 30, 2008

This summer's fashion in origin of life theories is - diamonds!

Well, diamonds go with everything. And what would summer be without another brand new theory of the origin of life? So far, I have heard at least fifty (soup, stew, pizza, sulphur, clay ... ) - now diamonds.

Yes, the latest is that diamonds are a swirl's best friend, as Robert Roy Britt notes in "Diamonds May Have Jump-Started Life on Earth" (Fox News, July 28, 2008):

When primitive molecules landed on the surface of these hydrogenated diamonds in the atmosphere of early Earth, a few billion years ago, the resulting reaction may have been sufficient enough to generate more complex organic molecules that eventually gave rise to life, the researchers say.

[ ... ]

The new research does not conclusively determine how life began, but it lends support to one possible way.

Well, here are a few other possible ways, as per recent stories:

Could life on Earth be much older than supposed? (700 million years older?)

"Sci-fi writer reminds us that life from outer space is not life from Roswell" (= an extraterrestrial origin of life is a respectable hypothesis)

"Origin of life a perfect circularity" (Even the concept can be difficult to define.)

"Why the origin of life is such a difficult problem" (because the many theories are in fundamental conflict with each other)

"Origin of life: Tangled skein continues to tangle"

Oh, and let's not forget "Talking to origin of life scientists: Like giving a bobcat a prostate exam?"
It's nobody's fault. Origin of life probably isn't a solvable problem.

Remember, even if someone creates life in a lab, that does not prove life started that way - only that that way is possible. It is somewhat like the Crown prosecutor showing that the defendant "might have" committed the murder. That won't get the defendant convicted; it only means that the trial continues. (If the prosecutor cannot show that the defendant's guilt is at least possible, the trial must end.)

Extraterrestrials: Younger astronomers less likely to believe than older ones?

Science writer Fred Heeren noted in "Home Alone in the Universe" (First Things, March 2002) that there may be a generation gap between astronomers in terms of their expectations of finding advanced alien civilizations - and the gap is growing in the wrong directn for ET believers.

Recalling Robert Jastrow's optimism in the 1990s,

“I think that mankind is on the threshold of entering a larger, cosmic community,” he told me during a visit to his home and then to California’s Mt. Wilson Observatories, where he serves as Director. His words carried a kind of ecclesiastical authority, seeming to reverberate from the seven-story dome above him, the observatory he calls a “cathedral dedicated to mankind’s quest for understanding of the Cosmos.” Less loftily, he added, simply, “We’ll be hearing from those guys soon.”
he contrasts it with today's more sobered view:

Other astronomers belonging to Robert Jastrow’s generation recall the same kind of enthusiasm, but new concerns have since dampened it. “I used to rather enjoy thinking that the early civilizations would have set up an intercommunicating system,” said Senior Astronomer Emeritus Eric Carlson of Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. “Maybe laser beams or something full of information about all the other civilizations in the past history of the galaxy, and that this is all circulating around from star to star around the galaxy, and all we have to do is tap into it.”

The actual likelihood that we’ll hear back from anyone that close, of course, depends upon just how densely packed our galaxy is with civilizations—and upon how long those civilizations last. Today Eric Carlson frets about what might happen to any civilization in the course of a 10-billion-year-old galaxy. What will be left of human culture in a billion years, or even a million? “I tend to get this sense of a galaxy as being sort of like a garden,” says Carlson. “You have the early spring flowers, and then you have the late spring flowers and so on, and you have life with consciousness springing up here and there for a while. And whether it’s ever in contact at the same time, I just don’t know.”

The next generation of cosmologists might still say that the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations is “extremely likely,” as cosmologist George Smoot (Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories) told me. “But I think the chances of there being life near to us is pretty low,” he cautioned, “and whether there’s life in our own galaxy, besides ourselves, I don’t know.”
He also points out something I mentioned in an earlier post - popular culture is impervious to the reduced expectations:

Incredibly, infatuation with extraterrestrials actually increased in the last decade. The Rockford Files became The X-Files. Mob-fighting “Untouchables” turned into alien-fighting “Men in Black,” also spun into a children’s cartoon series. The biggest hit in late night radio is a national show frequently featuring firsthand witnesses talking about their close encounters with aliens or their spacecraft.

For some people, real life is apparently taking too long to catch up to their media-led expectations—and they aren’t going to wait any longer. During the 1990s, psychologists estimated that 900,000 people claimed to have been abducted by aliens in the U.S. alone, and the trend was increasing.
I think Heeren is right about the aliens being an ersatz religion, one that makes no demands and rewards any amount of gullibility. He also quotes Jastrow as saying, oddly,

“When we make contact with them, it will be a transforming event,” he says. “I do not know how the Judeo-Christian tradition will react to this development, because the concept that there exist beings superior to us in this universe, not only technically, but perhaps spiritually and morally, will take some rethinking, I think, of the classic doctrines of western religion.”
Huh? What does Jastrow think angels are supposed to be in the traditional culture?

See also:

So what if fossil bacteria are found on Mars? Polls show many Americans expect Star Trek!

Some scientists hope that the aliens are NOT out there!

Increase in UFO sitings in Canada - what's behind that?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Universe: Dinesh d'Souza debates Richard Dawkins

The debate was hosted by Riz Khan on Al-Jazeera and that was probably the only reason it even happened, given how unwilling Dawkins has been to debate D'Souza. The latter writes,
The show went well and despite the format, the issues were engaged. (If you’d like to see the interviews they are now posted on YouTube.) I argued that it is reasonable to ask scientifically about the cause of the universe. Effects require causes, so what is the cause for which the universe is the effect? It seems unreasonable in the extreme to say that even though nature had a beginning, somehow nature is the cause of itself. So God is the name we give to the supernatural being that is the cause of nature as a whole.

In his segment that followed, Dawkins responded this way: "This leaves open the question of where did the creator come from?" Since the creator is this "great big complicated thing," what good does it do to invoke one complex thing to explain another? "If you postulate a designer you haven't explained anything." Basically what Dawkins is saying is that there is no point in using complex explanation A to account for complex phenomenon B if you cannot account for A.
But who said God was complicated? God has always been presented as a unity. Even a child would understand this.

In the Christian tradition, God is presented as a Person (actually Three Persons in One). But all complexities enfold into a unity. In the same way, your friend may be a complex person but you perceive that person as a unity, not as a bundle of complexities.

I think that Dawkins would be smart to retire. It's all just not working any more for atheistic materialism.

Some scientists hope that the aliens are NOT out there!

Enrico Fermi's "napkin" question is "Why do they never write? Never phone?"

In Technology Review (May/June 2008), Where Are They? [freewall], troubled genius Nick Bostrom offers a fretful hope, "Why I hope the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing":

... it seems unlikely that the galaxy is teeming with intelligent life and that the reason we haven’t seen any of them is that they all confine themselves to their home planets. Now, it is possible to concoct scenarios in which the universe is swarming with advanced civilizations every one of which chooses to keep itself well hidden from our view. Maybe there is a secret society of advanced civilizations that know about us but have decided not to contact us until we’re mature enough to be admitted into their club. Perhaps they’re observing us, like animals in a zoo. I don’t see how we can conclusively rule out this possibility. But I will set it aside for the remainder of this essay in order to concentrate what to me appears to be more plausible answers to Fermi’s question.

Look, many women have asked Fermi's question in a variety of much humbler circumstances. If you exist, you may be a part of the solution in a given case. So go do that and decrease the number of such questions.

The rest of us would like to concentrate on questions where existence rather than decency is in doubt.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Increase in UFO sightings in Canada ... ?

Tiffany Crawford (Canwest News Service July 18, 2008) reports,
Canadians in four provinces reported seeing a record number of unidentified flying objects in 2007, according to an annual report released by a Winnipeg-based non-profit organization that has recorded UFO sightings since 1989.

The UFOlogy Research Institute, which compiles data from sources including Transport Canada and the Department of National Defence, said researchers examined 836 alleged UFO sightings in 2007, an increase of almost 12 per cent over 2006.
Does this prove Canucks are Ca-nuts? Well, maybe. But not necessarily.

In the wake of National Geographic's Extraterrestrial and increased funding for pursuit of extraterrestrial life, no doubt many more amateurs are anxious to help.

And the more people look up at the night sky, the more strange things will be discovered - or anyway believed in.

Note: Kind readers have written to advise me that "sitings" should be "sightings." The kind readers are right but right, but for search and link reasons, I cannot change it in the link code, only in the hedder.

All existence is the expression of wisdom

Recently, I have been reading the books of physicist Gerald Schroeder, who appeared in the Expelled documentary. Here's the opening paragraph of his The Hidden Face of God: Science reveals the ultimate truth:
A single consciousness, an all-encompassing wisdom, pervades the universe. The discoveries of science, those that search the quantum nature of subatomic matter, those that explore the molecular complexity of biology, and those that probe the brain/mind interface, have moved us to the brink of a startling realization: all existence is the expression of this wisdom. In the laboratories we experience it as information first physically articulated as energy and then condensed into the form of matter. Every particle, every being, from atom to human, appears to have within it a level of information, of conscious wisdom. The puzzle I confront in this book is this: where does this arise? There is no hint of it in the laws of nature that govern the interactions among the basic particles that compose all matter. The information just appears as a given, with no causal agent evident, as if it were an intrinsic facet of nature.

The concept that there might be an attribute as nonphysical as information or wisdom at the heart of existence in no way denigrates the physical aspects of our lives. Denial of the pleasures and wonder of our bodies would be a sad misreading of the nature of existence. The accomplishments of a science based on materialism have given us physical comforts, invented lifesaving medicines, sent people to the moon. The oft-quoted statement, "not by bread alone does a human live" (Deut. 8:3), lets us know that there are two crucial aspects to our lives, one of which is bread, physical satisfaction. The other parameter is an underlying universal wisdom. There's no competition here between the spiritual and the material. The two are complementary, as in the root "to complete."
I think he is on to something. We will make no further progress until we incorporate information/wisdom.

Here is my review of Schroeder's earlier book, The Science of God:.

So what if fossil bacteria are found on Mars? Polls show many Americans expect Star Trek!

Marc Kaufman informs us in "Search for Alien Life Gains New Impetus" (Washington Post, July 20, 2008) that
Few believe that the discovery of extraterrestrial life is imminent. However, just as scientists long theorized that there were planets orbiting other stars -- but could not prove it until new technologies and insights broke the field wide open -- many astrobiologists now see their job as to develop new ways to search for the life they are sure is out there.

The most intensive effort at the moment is focused on Mars, where NASA's robotic lander Phoenix is digging up soil and ice in search of organic material. The automated lab has excited scientists by finding many of the nutrients needed for life, although it has not found anything that was, or is, living. Also, photos and other data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter produced dramatic new evidence this month that the planet was once home to vast lakes, flowing rivers and a variety of other wet environments that had the potential to support life
Of course, there is much talk of the implications of finding life on other planets but

To some, debating the implications of discovering extraterrestrial life is premature at best, because -- all UFO "sightings" aside -- none has ever been found.
"Premature?" No, it's passe!

For one thing, as Kaufman's reference to UFOs points up, many people already believe that advanced ET civilizations exist and are even trying to contact us.

In a 2005 poll, two-thirds of Americans believe life exists on other planets and of these, eight out of ten think that alien civilizations are more advanced than ours. In other words, whatever the effect on public attitudes of finding life on other planets would be, that effect has already happened.

Why does that matter? Because the oft-heard claim that finding extraterrestrial life would be a world-changing science discovery is off side.

In reality, it would only confirm what people already believe - in the absence of any actual evidence - that They are out there.
The photo, from NASA, shows ancient fossil bacteria.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A journalist tries to understand a jealous god - materialist science

After reading American journalist Pam Winnick's A Jealous God (Nelson, 2005), I informed her that I wish I had written it.

The rest of my review is here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Talking to origin of life scientists: Like giving a bobcat a prostate exam?

While I am here, Pamela Winnick (quoted here) also directs my attention to columnist Fred Reed's difficulty getting straight answers about the origin of life
One seasoned journalist humorously recounted his many attempts to wrest this admission from scientists he had interviewed. His experience with their word-sputtering defenses has been shared with many other journalists who likewise have been stared down with silent accusations.

"It was like giving a bobcat a prostate exam" " wrote Fred Reed in "The Metaphysics of Evolution",
They told me I was a crank, implied over and over that I was a Creationist, said that I was an enemy of science (someone who asks for evidence is an enemy of science). They said that I was trying to pull down modern biology (if you ask questions about an aspect of biology, you want to pull down biology). They told me I didn't know anything (that's why I was asking questions), and that I was a mere journalist (the validity of a question depends on its source rather than its content).

But they didn't answer the questions. They ducked and dodged and evaded. After thirty years in journalism, I know ducking and dodging when I see it. It was like cross-examining hostile witnesses. I tried to force the issue, pointing out that the available answers were "Yes," "No," "I don't know," or "The question is not legitimate," followed by any desired discussion. Still no straight answer. They would neither tell me of what the early oceans consisted, nor admit that they didn't know.

This is the behavior not of scientists, but of advocates, of True Believers. I used to think that science was about asking questions, not about defending things you didn't really know. Religion, I thought, was the other way around. I guess I was wrong.
. Yes, exactly. Just when one wants information, one is greeted with demands for professions of faith.

I had the same problem recently with a Darwinian who asked whether I "accept" common descent - in the same way as a tract evangelist might ask if I "accept" Jesus Christ. I wonder if they'll start banging on doors next ...

Agnostic mathematician: God is in the discoveries, not in the gaps (assuming he exists)

This comment, from Logan Gage's review of David Berlinski's The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, encapsulates why there is an intelligent design controversy:
Intellectuals often separate God and Science like fighting schoolchildren into "non-overlapping magesteria," to use Stephen Jay Gould's nomenclature. They say arguing that God (or more generally, an intelligence) is the best explanation for certain features of nature -- as intelligent design scientists do -- is a mistake. For the more nature is explained, the more this "God of the Gaps" vanishes. If God overlaps with the realm of physical reality, He is vulnerable to meddling scientists. He should stick to the safe spiritual-ethical dimension.

But has the last century confirmed this zero-sum thinking? The argument, says Berlinski, unjustifiably assumes all gaps will be filled. "Western science has proceeded by filling gaps, but in filling them, it has created gaps all over again," he writes. "Anomalies have grown great because understanding has improved." Physical theories "have enlarged and not diminished our sense of the sublime" and mysteriousness of life. How does the mystifying, unpredictable realm of subatomic particles produce breathing, thinking, worshiping creatures? We know one thing for sure: Dawkins doesn't know. But he'd rather accept an infinity of universes than a single God.

[ ... ]

This is a book in -- but not of -- our times. It is profoundly honest about the nature of human knowledge. It is postmodern without being cynical. Perhaps only an agnostic can renew science's humility without undermining its quest for truth.
My own review, "Berlinski, the Devil, and the Long Spoon", is here.

Carl Sagan and celebrity cosmology: Was he the best cosmology could do?

I am reading - and reviewing - American journalist Pam Winnick's A Jealous God (Nelson, 2005). She writes, among other things, about celebrity cosmologist Carl Sagan - and it is illuminating, for reasons Sagan enthusiasts might not wish it to be:

He was a handsome man, tall and casually dressed, more poet than scientist. As he walked alongside the ocean with its crashing waves, the breeze blowing back his hair, he was very much the Romantic poet - John Keats or William Blake - contemplating the wonder of the universe.

"There is a tingling in the spine," he said, ""and a faint sensation as though falling from a great height .... ""

For his role in the thirteen-part series that ran on consecutive Sundays from September until Christmas of 1980, Carl Sagan, already wealthy beyond imagination, received a hefty $2 million advance. A collaboration between Carl Sagan Productions and Los Angeles station KCET, Cosmos was the most expensive and glitzy production in the history of public television, ... Filmed in forty locations in twelve countries, the production's $8 million budget rivaled that of many movies from that era.

Sagan's subsequent book, The Cosmos, was read by 500 million people in sixty countries and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for seventy weeks, the most popular science book ever. The video cassette and DVD versions of the series remain widely available.

A foundation operated in his name after his death [in 1996] continues to market his products.

Like Inherit the Wind before it, the Cosmos television series, which won both a Peabody and Emmy (along with many other awards), helped shape the public's perception of science - while also perpetuating the supremacy of science over religion.
But Sagan's colleagues did not think of him as his public did. He was denied tenure at Harvard and in 1992 he was denied membership in the National Academy of Sciences. His colleagues may have been motivated by jealousy but the reality is that his main achievements were better recognized by Hollywood than by science. (Pp. 155-57)
After describing the way in which Sagan promoted his pet political causes, Winnick notes,

As he explains the origins of the universe in each episode, Sagan continuously - and gratuitously - sprinkles his narrative with the words "accident" and "random," descriptions that guard against any inference of the divine. To the more "naive," including the millions of Americans of faith, it might have been equally valid to ponder the beginnings of the universe and rejoice not in the "accident" of existence, but in its miracle.

While randomness is the very stalwart of neo-Darwinism, the concept of a universe created by chance alone is also a judgment call, a philosophy that wears the tenuous mask of science. Indeed, the words "accident," "chance," and "random" - all of them gratuitous - reveal far more about the narrator's own fear of God than they do about he nature of the universe.
As a friend likes to say, beware, beware, there's a God out there ...

An archive of Sagan's writings is here. It is clearly a rival religion. Behave as if in church.

See also:

So where are all Sagan's space aliens?, Guardian science writer asks

Dissing St. Carl in his own church

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Berlinski: Creation of everything out of nothing - a clinical level of self-delusion?

In The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, agnostic mathematician David Berlinski offers, with regard to the idea that everything came into being from nothing (creation ex nihilo), without any God:
Oxford's Peter Atkins has attempted to address this issue. "If we are to be honest," he argues, "then we have to accept that science will be able to claim complete success only if it achieves what many might think impossible: accounting for the emergence of everything from absolutely nothing." Atkins does not seem to recognize that when the human mind encounters the thesis that something has emerged from nothing, it is not encountering a question to which any coherent answer exists. His confidence that a scientific answer must nonetheless be forthcoming needs to be assessed in other terms, possibly those involving clinical self-delusion." (p. 95-96)
I'm not worried about self-delusion as much as the mumbo-jumbo that may ensue.

And what if the Large Hadron Collider doesn't find the Higgs boson ... ?

I missed this one earlier: Mark Henderson, London Times Science editor's article (April 8, 2008), profiling Peter Higgs (who argued for the existence of the Higgs boson, a particle with mass and little else that explains why other particles have mass) offers,
The mysterious boson postulated by Professor Higgs, of the University of Edinburgh, has become so fundamental to physics that it is often nicknamed the “God particle”. After more than 40 years of research, and billions of pounds, scientists have yet to prove that it is real. But Professor Higgs, 78, now believes the search is nearly over.
But does it exist?
A new atom-smasher that will be switched on near Geneva later this year is virtually guaranteed to find it, he said. It is even possible that the critical evidence already exists, in data from an American experiment in Illinois that has yet to be analysed fully.
He is talking, of course, about the Large Hadron Collider.
The Higgs boson is hard to detect because it is hypothesised to exist only at very high energies, which last existed in nature in the moments after the Big Bang, hence the need for an atom smasher.
If they find the boson, many think Higgs a shoo-in for the Nobel. And if they don't, he muses,
I no longer understand what I think I understand.
The last time I heard that, a philosopher was talking.

Well, at a cost of 2.6 billion British lbs. the Collider had better turn up something interesting. Given the stakes, the great temptation would be to see things that aren't there. But we will know soon.

Note: The article also mentions 70 million lbs in cuts to particle physics in Britain, which could be why world's best known physicist Stephen Hawking, now at Cambridge, was recently heard threatening to move to Canada.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Philosopher: God is not dead, and physics arguments are one of the reasons

In a ground-breaking article in Christianity Today, philosopher William Lane Craig takes to task the recent spate of shallow village-atheist books because

New Atheism lacks intellectual muscle. It is blissfully ignorant of the revolution that has taken place in Anglo-American philosophy. It reflects the scientism of a bygone generation rather than the contemporary intellectual scene.
Interestingly, arguments from physics play a key role in Craig's view, for example the kalam cosmological argument:

This version of the argument has a rich Islamic heritage. Stuart Hackett, David Oderberg, Mark Nowacki, and I have defended the kalam argument. Its formulation is simple:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Premise (1) certainly seems more plausibly true than its denial. The idea that things can pop into being without a cause is worse than magic. Nonetheless, it's remarkable how many nontheists, under the force of the evidence for premise (2), have denied (1) rather than acquiesce in the argument's conclusion.

Atheists have traditionally denied (2) in favor of an eternal universe. But there are good reasons, both philosophical and scientific, to doubt that the universe had no beginning. Philosophically, the idea of an infinite past seems absurd. If the universe never had a beginning, then the number of past events in the history of the universe is infinite. Not only is this a very paradoxical idea, but it also raises the problem: How could the present event ever arrive if an infinite number of prior events had to elapse first?

Moreover, a remarkable series of discoveries in astronomy and astrophysics over the last century has breathed new life into the kalam argument. We now have fairly strong evidence that the universe is not eternal in the past, but had an absolute beginning about 13.7 billion years ago in a cataclysmic event known as the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is so amazing because it represents the origin of the universe from literally nothing. For all matter and energy, even physical space and time themselves, came into being at the Big Bang. While some cosmologists have tried to craft alternative theories aimed at avoiding this absolute beginning, none of these theories have commended themselves to the scientific community.

In fact, in 2003 cosmologists Arvind Borde, Alan Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin were able to prove that any universe that is, on average, in a state of cosmic expansion cannot be eternal in the past but must have had an absolute beginning. According to Vilenkin, "Cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning." It follows then that there must be a transcendent cause that brought the universe into being, a cause that, as we have seen, is plausibly timeless, spaceless, immaterial, and personal.
Or else ... there are a zillion flopped universes out there, and all your nightmares are alive and are coming to get you ... [!!!]

To protect yourself, immediately invoke O'Leary's Protocol:
1. If it sounds nuts, assume it is.
2. Lay off the beer.
3. Cork the Kickin' Ass hot sauce.
4. When in doubt, doubt.
5. And if it sounds unbelievable, don't believe it.
6. Rinse face. Repeat, as needed, especially 2. and 3. ...
7. Pray. If God is trying to get your attention, don't argue, listen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Stephen Hawking, miffed over science funding cuts, to move to Ontario, Canada?

According to Chris Wattie, in the National Post (July 15, 2008), Hawking is looking seriously at the offer to move to Canada after attacking the British government for cuts to scientific funding he has called "disastrous."
Dr. Stephen Hawking, the award-winning author of A Brief History of Time, is reportedly considering leaving Britain's Cambridge University, after almost 50 years of ground-breaking work there on theoretical physics, in favour of the Perimeter Institute, founded by the Canadian owners of high-tech firm Research in Motion Ltd.
Others deny it, and I'm calling it a hot weather story for now ... Anyway, send this out on your Blackberries ...

(Note: The image is from NASA.)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Water? On the moon? And what else?

Was there always water on the moon?
In a paper published in the July 10 issue of the journal Nature, the team, led by Alberto Saal, assistant professor of geological sciences at Brown, believes that the water was contained in magmas erupted from fire fountains onto the surface of the Moon more than 3 billion years ago. About 95 percent of the water vapor from the magma was lost to space during this eruptive “degassing,” the team estimates. But traces of water vapor may have drifted toward the cold poles of the Moon, where they may remain as ice in permanently shadowed craters.

NASA plans to send its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter later this year to search for evidence of water ice at the Moon’s south pole. If water is found, the researchers may have figured out the origin.
And if there was water on the moon, who knows what else we might find?

(Note: The image of the volcanic glasses collected by the Apollo 15 space mission is from NASA. Apparently. Saal's team's analysis detected water.)

Political correctness stumbles on science: "Black hole" to be a banned word now?

Yes, amazingly, a race hustling ruckus actually developed recently in the United States (where else?) around the astronomy term "black hole".

Generally, a black hole is thought to be the final fate of a very massive star that collapses on itself, sucking up even light (hence the name). Because the hole destroys all the information it ingests, the term "black hole" often suits a junkpile office or a useless bureaucracy.

(In defense of junkpile offices and useless bureaucracies, let me state up front that they destroy information at a rate that is only fifteen to three hundred times as fast as an intrastellar black hole out in space ... )

Here's columnist Jonah Goldberg's explanation of the nutty Dallas County controversy.

Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield found himself guilty of talking while white. He observed that the bureaucracy "has become a black hole" for lost paperwork.

Fellow Commissioner John Wiley Price took great offense, shouting, "Excuse me!" That office, the black commissioner explained, has become a "white hole."

Seizing on the outrage, Judge Thomas Jones demanded that Mayfield apologize for the "racially insensitive analogy," in the words of the Dallas Morning News' City Hall Blog.

[ ... ]

Call me nostalgic, but there was a time when this sort of stupidity actually generated controversy. Remember the Washington, D.C., official who used the word "niggardly" correctly in a sentence only to lose his job? That at least generated debate.

But these days, stories like this vomit forth daily and, for the most part, we roll our eyes, chuckle a bit and shrug them off.

Obviously, there's something to be said for ignoring the childish grievance-peddling that motivates so much of this nonsense. But the simple fact is that ignoring political correctness has done remarkably little to combat it. Meanwhile, people who make a big deal about it are often cast as the disgruntled obsessive ones.

The only people allowed to take political correctness seriously are the writers for "South Park," "Family Guy," "The Simpsons" and the like. Of course, they take it seriously because it's their bread and butter to mock the absurd pieties of daily life. But nearly everywhere else, the rule of thumb is that we should either defer to this stuff or quietly ignore it.
I think where science terminology is concerned, the thumb should be pointed straight up ...

The grievance mongers should go back to investigating "bad" words in modernist literature written by people who empty the Scrabble bag from different positions when they need to write something - and hope that whatever turns up is usable.

Here's more and still more if anyone cares.

(Note: The "black hole"image is from NASA.)

Earth to Mercury: We love you, don't quit. Read the note, smell the flowers .... please forgive us ...

Another blogger, JJS P Eng of Evolution Engineered, writes, in answer to my question, is there any actual use for the planet Mercury?
To provide one possible answer, perhaps Mercury is there to increase our understanding of how the solar system and universe works and thereby employing many talented nerds astronomers to gather data and interpret. Granted, there is no physical law that demands Mercury be there, but there it be, so I sez let's examine it and learn from it.
Well, that works for me quite well, actually. It is much like Guillermo Gonzalez's thoughts about the eclipse of the sun when the moon fits so neatly over it - almost as if that was done to help science:

The narrator then introduces dramatic footage of a total eclipse of the sun in North India in 1995, including bystander reactions (clearly, they had not expected the sky to become so dark).

Astronomer Gonzalez enthuses about the event and introduces a surprising fact, well known to astronomers for hundreds of years, but not to many others: The distance of the Earth from the moon and sun happens to be exactly right for key astronomical observations of the sun during an eclipse (400 times bigger but 400 times further away). Of course, the exact position of Earth and the relationship of Earth to our sun and moon are also critical for unrelated biological reasons. Gonzalez sees that as evidence that humans were meant to explore the universe.

Of course, that also implies that God leaves us free to choose whether we want to do science or not.

I mean, if we prefer to run around stark naked during eclipses, killing pigs and screaming that the world is ending, ending, ending, fine. We stay ignorant and we don't know what we don't know. People who can do nothing more than predict eclipses suddenly assume great power, even though apparently it is a simple trick if you know any astronomy and keep good notes.

We won't even notice that nothing important happened during the eclipse that wasn't due to freakouts.

If we take the opportunity to study the solar spectrum, fine too. But then we also need philosophy as well as science, so that we do not lose our way. It is amazing how much freedom God actually gives us, within moral restraints.

Note: I have added Evolution Engineered to "Never a Dull Moment" at left. Fewer dull moments for all!

(Note: The image is from NASA Worldbook.)

Outlaw journalist David Warren disparages Extraterrestrials- and WHERE is the Canadian Human Rights Commission?

Where, I ask you?

What do we pay taxes for if not to watch our neighbours destroyed if someone, somewhere is offended by their ideas?

All the Canadian Commission needs to do is classify aliens as humans (just as Spain has granted "human" rights to apes), and they can sure go after Warren, usually of the Ottawa Citizen, but here writing in the Sunday Spectator ("Abducted by aliens", May 18, 2008) words that are "likely" to expose the extraterrestrials to hatred and contempt (that's the word the law uses):

The group I intend to slur today are the Extraterrestrials. I’m not sure how the courts will interpret “hate-speech” and “hate-thought” towards this group, which is not yet specifically protected under any of Canada’s awkwardly-worded “rights” codes. Arguably, any attack on Extraterrestrials could be taken as personal attacks on members, former members, outriders and hangers-on of the HRCs themselves, and therefore provoke the next round of vexatious lawsuits.

Still, if Canada is to recover free speech and freedom of the press, journalists will have to be brave and bold, and I’m prepared, like a Boy Scout, to do my bit. I don’t care what the personal consequences to me -- they can sue me, they can throw me in prison (I’ve already been hauled before the Ontario Press Council by one of these trolls, for writing disparagingly about Islamist terrorists) -- but I’m going to speak out. I’m going to tell you exactly what I think about Extraterrestrials.

I think they don’t exist. (And what could be more demeaning!)

While I acknowledge the belief that highly intelligent, super-evolved beings must inhabit other planets -- if not in this galaxy, then surely in some others -- is dear to the post-Christian “liberal” mind, my own views are old-fashioned, sceptical, and Catholic.

These are dangerous views, as I discovered this week, when I lapsed into email exchanges first with a fairly sane, sensible, Darwinian atheist in Texas, and then with several more strident correspondents from the Darwinian camp. I had no idea, until I provoked them, just how powerfully the desire to believe in “little green men” can animate the thinking of minds bereft of sound religion, and/or common sense.

But while their arguments struck me as simpleton, and ludicrous, I could nevertheless reformulate them into something vaguely plausible. Consider:

[ ... ]

And pray for me, that I don’t get abducted by the aliens up here in Canada.

We can but hope.

The image, from Wiki COmmons, shows extraterrestrials looking really, really in need of a big bureaucracy to come to their rescue.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Will the rarity of the element lithium endanger the Big Bang theory?

Matthew Chalmers has a story in New Scientist (07 July 2008), "Lithium: The hole in the big bang theory", which addresses the problem the early forged light element lithium may present for the Big Bang theory (paywall). In this 2007 PhysicsWorld article, "Testing the elements of the Big Bang", Kenneth Nollett explains that most of the elements with which we are familiar (oxygen, calcium, carbon) were forged inside stars long after the Big Bang. However,

One big exception is hydrogen: almost all hydrogen nuclei are protons that emerged from the Big Bang almost 14 billion years ago. Another is light nuclei such as deuterium and lithium, which were produced in a process called Big Bang nucleosynthesis that occurred when the universe was only a few minutes old.

The nucleosynthesis, in which the other light elements, including lithium and helium, originated, is thought to have lasted only a few minutes. So why a problem?

Recent measurements of the cosmic background radiation, which reveals the universe as it was when atoms formed about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, and of the large-scale distribution of galaxies have greatly increased the precision of cosmological data. So far it seems that the observed primordial abundances – particularly those of lithium – do not quite tally with BBN theory. The goal now is to bring BBN into line with the new precision of cosmology, and to improve our understanding of the astrophysical environments where the primordial abundances are observed.

BBN predicts that there are 4.7 × 10–10 lithium-7 atoms for every hydrogen atom, while the Spite-plateau stars contain only about 1.4 × 10–10. Several explanations for this discrepancy have been proposed, but no-one knows the right answer. Either some important physical process is missing from BBN theory, some astrophysical mechanism destroys large amounts of lithium-7 after BBN, or there is something is wrong with our interpretation of stellar spectra.
Lithium, of course, is much better known to the public than its rarity would suggest because of its fabled role in the treatment of mental illness.

(Note: The chart is from NASA's "Universe 101.")

Spacetime more like simple stir fry than elaborate wedding cake?

In "Using Causality to Solve the Puzzle of Quantum Spacetime" (Scientific American Magazine, June 25, 2008), Jerzy Jurkiewicz, Renate Loll and Jan Ambjorn propose, as an alternative to superstring theory, "A new approach to the decades-old problem of quantum gravity goes back to basics and shows how the building blocks of space and time pull themselves together":

... if we think of empty spacetime as some immaterial substance, consisting of a very large number of minute, structureless pieces, and if we then let these microscopic building blocks interact with one another according to simple rules dictated by gravity and quantum theory, they will spontaneously arrange themselves into a whole that in many ways looks like the observed universe. It is similar to the way that molecules assemble themselves into crystalline or amorphous solids.

Spacetime, then, might be more like a simple stir fry than an elaborate wedding cake. Moreover, unlike other approaches to quantum gravity our recipe is very robust. When we vary the details in our simulations, the result hardly changes. This robustness gives reason to believe we are on the right track. If the outcome were sensitive to where we put down each piece of this enormous ensemble, we could generate an enormous number of baroque shapes, each a priori equally likely to occur-so we would lose all explanatory power for why the universe turned out as it did.

Similar mechanisms of self-assembly and self-organization occur across physics, biology and other fields of science. A beautiful example is the behavior of large flocks of birds, such as European starlings. Individual birds interact only with a small number of nearby birds; no leader tells them what to do. Yet the flock still forms and moves as a whole. The flock possesses collective, or emergent, properties that are not obvious in each bird's behavior.
It seems to me that they are leaving something out. The flock emerges because the birds already exist. If we had to start by producing the birds out of nothing, the whole business might take a bit longer. Well, we shall see.

Note: The image is copyright to and courtesy of

Monday, July 7, 2008

Could life on Earth be much older than supposed?

A team of researchers based at the Curtin University of Technology near Perth, Australia, believe they have evidence that life may have begun 700 million years earlier than traditionally assumed. According to their July 3, 2008 announcement,

The 4.2 billion year old diamonds found trapped inside the Jack Hills zircon crystals are the oldest-known samples of Earth’s carbon. The Curtin led team’s discovery of very high concentrations of carbon 12, or “light carbon” within these crystals is remarkable as it is a feature usually associated with organic life.

[ ... ]

Evidence for ancient life stretches back in time to at least 3.5 billion years ago, in the form of single-celled organisms that did not require oxygen. The discovery of light carbon in the Jack Hills crystals raises the question – did a simple life form exist on Earth 700 million years earlier than previously thought?
According to geologist team leader Alexander Nemchin,
The discovery challenges our fundamental understanding of processes active in the early history of the Earth. It suggests that life may well have appeared on Earth long before the period of heavy-meteorite bombardment believed by some to have initiated the emergence of life on Earth.
Alternatively, light carbon doesn't necessarily signal life.

If life really appeared on Earth long before heavy meteor bombardment, theories that involve any kind of gradual Darwinian process for the origin of life are pretty much dead. We are then left with either an extraterrestrial origin of life or an origin coded into the formation of Earth itself - an intelligent design hypothesis.
Note: This is a NASA image of the Jack Hills.

Does Mercury really need to exist?

A pile of interesting new findings from the planet Mercury:

One of the most exciting results announced in Science involves Mercury's magnetic field. Until Mariner 10 discovered Mercury's magnetic field in the 1970s, Earth was the only other terrestrial planet known to have a global magnetic field. Earth's magnetism is generated by the planet's churning hot, liquid-iron core via a mechanism called a magnetic dynamo. Researchers have been puzzled by Mercury's field because its iron core was supposed to have cooled long ago and stopped generating magnetism. Some researchers have thought that the field may have been a relic of the past, frozen in the outer crust.

MESSENGER data suggest otherwise: Mercury's field appears to be generated by an active dynamo in the planet's core. It is not a relic.

Another significant scientific surprise involves Mercury's magnetosphere--the bubble of magnetism surrounding the planet. Thomas Zurbuchen of the University of Michigan explains: "Mercury's magnetosphere is full of many [kinds of charged particles], both atomic and molecular. What is in some sense a 'Mercury plasma nebula' is far richer in complexity and makeup than the Io plasma torus in the Jupiter system." The composition of the nebula doesn't match that of the solar wind, leading researchers to conclude "that this material came from the planet's surface. This observation means that this flyby got the first-ever look at surface composition."
And many more mercurial findings.

Does the planet Mercury need to exist? - I mean in the business sense. Does it do anything? Or is it like those souvenir shells that persist forever on the mantelpiece? They have no use, but that's not the same thing as saying that they are not there for a reason. There is a difference between use and reason.

Question: If Mercury disappeared, who would notice? Who would care?

David Warren -further on Frank Tipler ...

Fellow Toronto-based hack, David Warren, comments on Frank Tipler,

Tipler, of course, is dismissed as a madman in the academy, & goes out of his way to play the part, but I think the science types would find his recently-published Physics of Christianity (& his preceding Physics of Immortality, & the Anthropic Cosmological Principle before that) worth reading. He has a very sound & earthy grasp of the logical framework, in everything he is saying, & is remarkably well-informed about a number of scientific & sub-scientific issues, in fields beyond his own.

Moreover, stripped of the glitz of "proving the gospels through science," he is making a very interesting &, I now think, plausible assertion. Namely, that in quantizing Einstein's gravity theory in 1962(?), Richard Feynman & Steven Weinberg unknowingly solved the problem of quantum gravity. They themselves dismissed the possibility they had done so only because the implications of their discoveries included singularities. As Tipler argues, the singularities are real, & the implications are rejected only because they point to a direct, physical, proof of the existence of God.

His general approach is, to my mind, pretty Catholic. He holds that God's will is immutable & consistent, & must be, or we have no assurance He might change His Mind about the resurrection of the dead. Miracles Tipler accepts, but insists that while they may be surprising, they can in no case contradict God's own physical laws. God wouldn't do that. A large part of Tipler's Physics of Christianity buke is in fact devoted to showing how various Christian miracles could have been performed -- by God -- WITHIN the parameters of immutable physical laws. Needless to say the very attempt to do so drives his colleagues in the physics departments round the twist. And yet they do still acknowledge he is a very great physicist.

Tipler insists that demonstrating this is necessary to upholding the consistency of Faith with Reason. Eccentric, but very earnest, & in his methods, extremely clever. No one has, to my knowledge, yet caught him out in a physics error.
Well, I know of physics colleagues who are Christians who consider Tipler a whackjob, but like Warren and Bryan Appleyard, I view him sympathetically, in this sense: I almost understand why his quest feels important to him. I just can't get my head around the aesthetics of his universe.

Call for Papers: "First International Conference on the Evolution and Development of the Universe."

As a friend explains, they are seeking cosmologists, physicists, astrobiologists, theoretical and evo-devo biologists, complexity, systems and hierarchy theorists, philosophers, and other scholars who wish to explore and critique hypotheses of evolution and development at universal and subsystem scales:
Evo Devo Universe is a global scholarly research community interested in quasi-organic models of the universe. We are seeking cosmologists, physicists, astrobiologists, theoretical and evo-devo biologists, complexity, systems and hierarchy theorists, philosophers, and other scholars who wish to explore and critique hypotheses of evolution and development at universal and subsystem scales.

Their first international conference on these topics will be occurring in Paris, France on 8-9 October, 2008. Their first deadline for abstract and paper proposal submission is July 30th, 2008. Go here for more.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Morning coffee: Mathematicians vs. physicists

From David Berlinski's New York Sun review of David Ruelle's Mathematician's Brain:

When physicists write books for the general public, they write about black holes, dark matter, or strings that wriggle like mad. The universe is their subject. Mathematicians write about mathematics and what it all means. Their subject is their subject.

[ ... ]

If "The Mathematician's Brain" does not answer the questions it poses, this is because no other book has answered these questions either. The book's value lies in Mr. Ruelle's description of the curious inner life of mathematicians. Their subject is very difficult. It requires unusual gifts. Physicists may disguise the triviality of their results by bustling about in large research groups. Mathematicians work alone. They are professionally naked.

As a result, many mathematicians have unstable personalities. ...

Why does this remind me of the spherical cow joke?

The USDA once wanted to make cows produce milk faster, to improve the dairy industry. So, they decided to consult the foremost biologists and recombinant DNA technicians to build them a better cow. They assembled this team of great scientists, and gave them unlimited funding. They requested rare chemicals, weird bacteria, tons of quarantine equipment, there was a horrible typhus epidemic they started by accident, and, 2 years later, they came back with the "new, improved cow." It had a milk production improvement of 2% over the original.

They then tried with the greatest Nobel Prize winning chemists around. They worked for six months, and, after requisitioning tons of chemical equipment, and poisoning half the small town in Colorado where they were working with a toxic cloud from one of their experiments, they got a 5% improvement in milk output.

The physicists tried for a year, and, after ten thousand cows were subjected to radiation therapy, they got a 1% improvement in output.

Finally, in desperation, they turned to the mathematicians. The foremost mathematician of his time offered to help them with the problem. Upon hearing the problem, he told the delegation that they could come back in the morning and he would have solved the problem. In the morning, they came back, and he handed them a piece of paper with the computations for the new, 300% improved milk cow.

The plans began: "A Proof of the Attainability of Increased Milk Output from Bovines: Consider a spherical cow......"

- credit for this version of the joke: Hat tip

(Note: The cow is from Light and Matter.)

Friday, July 4, 2008

Why is the cosmological argument for the existence of God important?

I've been rereading David Berlinski's The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (for a review I am writing), and happened on this:
It is one thing to deny that there is a God; it is quite another to deny that the universe has a cause. What remains, if the universe does have a cause, is the gap between what brought the universe into existence and traditional conceptions of the deity. This is no trivial matter. Nonetheless, the cosmological argument succeeds in displacing the burden of proof from its starting point (Is there a God?) to a place much later in the argument (Is it right and proper to think that the cause of the universe is God? ) (p. 64)

Also, on physicists' response to the Big Bang: After Penzias's famous comments,

Physicists quickly came to their senses, They discovered elaborate reasons to avoid the obvious, not least of which, the fact that the obvious was obvious. For more than a century, physicists had taken a manful pride i the fact that theirs was a discipline that celebrated the weird, the bizarre, the unexpected, the mind-bending, and the recondite. Here was a connection that any intellectual primitive could at once grasp: The universe had a beginning, thus something must have caused it to begin. Where would physics be, physicists asked themselves, if we had paid the slightest attention to the obvious." Philosophers helped by asserting that a beginning wasn't really a "beginning" But observation and theory met in the Big Bang and would not go away.

"Perhaps the best argument in favor of the thesis that the Big Bang supports theism," the astrophysicist Christopher Isham has observed, "is the obvious unease with which it is greeted by some atheist physicists. At times this has led to scientific ideas, such as continuous creation or an oscillating universe, being advanced with a tenacity which so exceeds their intrinsic worth that one can only suspect the operation of psychological forces lying very much deeper than the usual academic desire of a theorist to support his or her theory." (P. 81)
And more. But now get your own copy. I am not spending the rest of the summer typing!

Here's the review:

Introduction:Berlinski, the devil, and the long spoon
Part One: Taking the measure of the new religion of science
Part Two: Materialism conflicts with evidence more than theism does
Part Three: Evolutionary psychology - the saints' legends of scientism
Part Four: The duty Berlinski never accepted

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Large Hadron Collider: And what if, $3 billion later, they don't find the God particle?

Well, it turns out, that actually doesn't matter so much. Read on:

"A 27-kilometer underground loop of magnets will soon go to work on the universe's deepest mysteries" announces a March 31 (2008) article in Newsweek by William Underhill: The $3 billion collider, housed in a tunnel on the French-Swiss border, is an attempt to reproduce the conditions just after the Big Bang (about 14 billion years ago). Specifically, the collider crew is looking for a particle that no one has ever found, a Higgs boson, sometimes called the God particle, which explains why other particles have the weights they do. As Cosmos Magazine explains,

It is believed to be the last missing piece to the puzzle of the so-called Standard Model – the 20 fundamental forces and particles that, in various permutations and combinations, account for everything around us – light, magnetism, gravity and all forms of matter.
And what if they don't ever find it? Well, according to Newsweek,

It's entirely possible that after all this money and effort the collider's detectors will find no trace of the Higgs boson. That would still make the project worthwhile, researchers say. It would indicate beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Standard Model, the basis of modern physics, requires a radical rethinking.
You can see why from what follows:

A central mystery is the supposed existence of invisible "dark matter," and its counterpart "dark energy," a strange force that seems to accelerate the expansion of the universe. Although together the dark pair make up for 96 percent of the universe, scientists know next to nothing about them—only their gravitational effects. Those grand collisions may produce undiscovered particles that account for both. The collider might also reveal yet another set of particles, the "superpartners," needed to bolster the case for String Theory, a "theory of everything" that proposes the existence of six extra dimensions and a universe constructed of tiny vibrating strings.
But string theory has recently been attacked as not even wrong. In other words, it is all highly controversial at present. ANd not a good time for Inquisitions.

Design vs. chance: If extra-terrestrials designed a planet, could we know it was intelligently designed?

In The Design Matrix: A Consilience of Clues, Mike Gene discusses a 2005 paper by Luc Arnold of the Observatory of Haute-Provence in France, in The Astrophysical Journal.

p. 194 Arnold explains his idea thus:

... considering that artificial planet-size bodies may exist around other stars, and that such objects always transit in front of their parent star for a given remote observer, we may thus have an opportunity to detect and even characterize them by the transit method, assuming these transits are distinguishable from a simple planetary transit. These objects could be planet-size structures built by advanced civilizations, like very lightweight solar sails or giant very low density structures may be specially built for the purpose of interstellar communication by transit. (P. 194)
Arnold argues that non-spherical artificial objects such as triangles and other exotic shapes each have a specific transit lightcurve, so alien design would be detectible in principle.

Gene is a bit dubious about how soon to expect this revelation, pointing out that "we are still looking for evidence that microbes exist on other planets," never mind aliens capable of designing, say, a planetary bundt pan.*

Mike Gene's basic point, of course, is that one need not know "who" a designer is in order to detect design, and he cites Arnold because Arnold apparently doesn't think so either.

Gene also observes in the Chapter Notes (Note 3) that France is the home of the Raelians. Mi-i-ike! Do keep in mind, if you are an American, that the United States is the home of Roswell.

Here is Arnold's citation and abstract:

"Transit Lightcurve Signatures of Artificial Objects." Astrophysical Journal, 627:534-539.)

The forthcoming space missions, able to detect Earth-like planets by the transit method, will a fortiori also be able to detect the transit of artificial planet-size objects. Multiple artificial objects would produce lightcurves easily distinguishable from natural transits. If only one artificial object transits, detecting its artificial nature becomes more difficult. We discuss the case of three different objects (triangle, 2-screen, louver-like 6-screen) and show that they have a transit lightcurve distinguishable from the transit of natural planets, either spherical or oblate, although an ambiguity with the transit of a ringed planet exists in some cases. We show that transits, especially in the case of multiple artificial objects, could be used for the emission of attention-getting signals, with a sky coverage comparable to the laser pulse method. The large number of expected planets (several hundreds) to be discovered by the transit method by next space missions will allow to test these ideas.
*Yes, the bundt-pan design would so be handy, when you need your planet to section easily into structures with flat sides and curved tops ....

(Note: The image is an artifcial planet concept from The Infinity Society.)

Can reincarnation save Schrodinger's cat?

Reincarnation can indeed save Schrödinger's cat, reports Zeeya Merali in Nature News (July 2, 2008).

The "cat" is a 1935 thought experiment intended to illustrate the superposition of two states in quantum theory - that is, both states exist until a measurement is attempted, which forces one or other to prevail (live cat or dead cat).

According to WhatIs,

We place a living cat into a steel chamber, along with a device containing a vial of hydrocyanic acid. There is, in the chamber, a very small amount of a radioactive substance. If even a single atom of the substance decays during the test period, a relay mechanism will trip a hammer, which will, in turn, break the vial and kill the cat. The observer cannot know whether or not an atom of the substance has decayed, and consequently, cannot know whether the vial has been broken, the hydrocyanic acid released, and the cat killed. Since we cannot know, the cat is both dead and alive according to quantum law, in a superposition of states. It is only when we break open the box and learn the condition of the cat that the superposition is lost, and the cat becomes one or the other (dead or alive). This situation is sometimes called quantum indeterminacy or the observer's paradox : the observation or measurement itself affects an outcome, so that the outcome as such does not exist unless the measurement is made. (That is, there is no single outcome unless it is observed.)


Now, Nadav Katz at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleagues have performed an experiment in which they pull a quantum state back from the brink of collapse, 'uncollapsing' it and returning it to its unobserved state. Effectively, they have peeked at Schrodinger's cat in its box, but saved it from near-certain death (N. Katz et al.

To physicists raised on the textbook Copenhagen interpretation, any notion of uncollapsing a quantum state seems “astonishing”, says Markus Büttiker, a quantum physicist at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. “On opening the box, Schrödinger's cat is either dead or alive — there is no in between.”

However, a more recent interpretation of quantum mechanics, 'decoherence theory', suggests that collapse does not occur instantaneously. Instead it plays out gradually as the quantum system slowly interacts with its environment (see Nature 453, 22–25; 2008). In 2006, Alexander Korotkov of the University of California, Riverside, and Andrew Jordan, of the University of Rochester in New York, proposed that this may leave open a time period in which experimenters could intervene to halt the collapse (A. N. Korotkov & A. N. Jordan Phys. Rev. Lett. 97, 166805; 2006). They provided blueprints for an experiment to test the idea, which Katz, Korotkov and their colleagues have now done.
Well, if quantum collapse does not occur instantaneously, maybe events are not as certain as many have thought.

Indeed, I wonder if quantum physicists will end up proving CS Lewis's concept in The Great Divorce, where
[B]oth good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all their earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in the town, but all their life on Earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it’, not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say ‘Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven’, and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell’. And both will speak truly.” (The Great Divorce, pg. 69)
Actually, I think that the process begins in this life, once you have a few decades under your belt. So even if you don't believe in eternal life, you can still cash in some of those coupons right now.

Save the cat, but get her spayed. And do read The Great Divorce.

(Note: The image of Schrodinger's cat is from SDLY in China.)

Origin of life: Does the uncertainty principle rule out nanotechnology?

Mike Gene, "a controversial and respected voice in the debate on Intelligent Design"*, notes in The Design Matrix that the machinery inside the cells of our bodies shows that quantum physics does not rule out nanotechnology, as skeptics have sometimes claimed:
"Every proposed advance in technology is met with skepticism. Skeptics once claimed that nanotechnology was doomed to failure because such small machines are unworkable. The problem, they often cited, was quantum physics. In quantum physics, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle states that particles cannot be located in any exact position for any length of time. Essentially, matter becomes too fuzzy at such small scales and machines can only function efficiently without fuzz. The nanotechnologistst responded that the skeptics' interpretation of the Uncertainty Principle was mistaken. More importantly, the nanotechnologists pointed to the existence of machines already at work inside the cell. They pointed out that since machines already exist inside the cell, the skeptic's argument is plainly refuted. " (p. 104)
And he adds,
In the words of Rita Colwell, the director of the National Science Foundation, 'Life is nanotechnology that works.' (P. 105)
* from the book jacket. And no, I don't know who he is either, and if I did I wouldn't tell you. See the Expelled movie if you need to know why.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

From the "missing the point" diaries: Anthropic topic? Or anthropic flopic?

Many people have argued that there is no special significance to the fact that the parameters of our universe seem just right for life to come into existence. I think they are whistling down the wind.

Suggesting that Andrew Jaffe might be asking vacuous questions in his review of the new book by cosmologist Paul Davies (The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life?) for Physics World, Uhlrich Mohrhoff, editor of AntiMatters and blogger at Koantum Matters, comments:
We don’t need a proximate cause of life separate from the laws of physics. What we need is a cause of the whole shebang. What is largely unknown (or else ignored) is that the only possible explanation of the ultimate physical theory — assuming that such a theory can be found — is teleological. Since “fundamental” doesn’t have a comparative, a theory is either fundamental or it is not. If it is not fundamental, then there is a fundamental theory that can explain it. If it is fundamental, then it can explain (in principle) everything else and therefore cannot (in principle) be explained by anything else — except by finding a reason why it has the particular form that it does.

The fundamental theoretical framework of contemporary physics is quantum theory, and there is an utterly simple teleological reason why this has the particular form that it does: without it stable material objects could not exist. In other words, the existence of objects that

* have spatial extent (they “occupy space”),
* are composed of a (large but) finite number of objects without spatial extent (particles that do not “occupy space”),
* and are stable (they neither explode nor collapse as soon as they are created)

requires the fundamental theoretical framework of contemporary physics to be what it is.

Read the rest for yourself! And Happy Canada Day!