Saturday, May 31, 2008

Mars water too salty to support life ...

According to ScienceDaily,
Together with co-authors Andrew H. Knoll and Scott M. McLennan, Tosca analyzed salt deposits in four-billion-year-old Martian rock explored by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, and by orbiting spacecraft. It was the Mars Rover whose reports back to Earth stoked excitement over water on the ancient surface of the Red Planet.

The new analysis suggests that even billions of years ago, when there was unquestionably some water on Mars, its salinity commonly exceeded the levels in which terrestrial life can arise, survive, or thrive.

Of course, if the life forms had a biology entirely unknown on Earth (which they don't rule out) ...

But actually, you know, all that salt is doubtless from astrobiologists crying over the news. Bet you didn't know that astrobiologists are highly emotional types.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Coffee break question: Why are the space aliens always supposed to have superior technology?

Here is Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence's (SETI's) explanation for why any civilization we do encounter should be more advanced than ours, by Douglas Vacoch, director of SETI's Interstellar Message Composition:

Before we answer that question, we must acknowledge that any extraterrestrials we make contact with may well be thousands or millions of years more advanced than we are. Why do SETI scientists assume this? Because for our search to succeed, it needs to be true.

If the galaxy is populated only by young civilizations that have the capacity for interstellar communication for only a few decades before they destroy themselves or simply lose interest in making contact with other worlds, then we will effectively be isolated, alone in the universe. If other civilizations transmit evidence of their existence for only a few decades – the length of time that humans have been capable of interstellar communication – and then they lose the interest or ability to make contact, it's extremely unlikely that the precise time they are transmitting and the time that we are listening will coincide. On a galactic scale, where time is measured in billions of years, it is extremely unlikely that these two "blips" would happen at the same time. This would be as unlikely as two fireflies each lighting up once, at exactly the same time, during the course of a long, dark night. The chance that both would flash on simultaneously is virtually zero; it's more likely their flashes would be separated by minutes or hours. So too is it unlikely that two short-lived civilizations that had evolved independently of one another would come into being at almost precisely the same time in the fourteen billion year history of our galaxy.

If we hear from a distant civilization, on purely statistical grounds it's very likely they will be our elders.

But is this a leftover memory of the European invasion of North America? The Europeans had guns and exotic diseases and the Native Americans didn't. Hence history.

But what if SETI's extraterrestrials eventually crash land on Earth because of a mixup between two rival groups of scientists, one of which was using Imperialoid measurements and the other was using Metricosis measurements?

Hey, don't tell me it never happens.

Exoplanets: Will intelligence be common or rare?

In "Intelligence: A Rare Cosmic Commodity", John D. Ruley profiles the views of Professor Andrew Watson who argues in Astrobiology that intelligent life on the exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than the sun) is likely to be rare. Watson, who studied under James Lovelock (of the Gaia hypothesis), estimates,
the overall probability that intelligent life will evolve as the product of the probabilities of each of the necessary steps. In his model, the probability of each evolutionary step occurring in any given epoch is 10 percent or less, so the total probability that intelligent life will emerge is quite low (less than 0.01 percent over 4 billion years). Even if intelligent life eventually emerges, the model suggests its persistence will be relatively short by comparison to the lifespan of the planet on which it developed.

Given that we only know about life or intelligent life right here where we live just now, I think some of this would be better as fiction than non-fiction, but it is interesting to hear about anyway.

Quantum mechanics: Could cosmic microwave background show that it is wrong?

Might quantum mechanics be just plain wrong? That would eliminate much angst and inconvenience for surviving Einstein supporters.

According to "Observations of the cosmic microwave background might deal blow to theory" by Zeeya Merali

The question of whether quantum mechanics is correct could soon be settled by observing the sky — and there are already tantalizing hints that the theory could be wrong.

Antony Valentini, a physicist at Imperial College, London, wanted to devise a test that could separate quantum mechanics from one of its closest rivals — a theory called bohmian mechanics.
The article is behind a paywall, but go here, here, and here for comments that give you the sense of it.

Basically, the hope is that, by analyzing the cosmic microwave background, researchers could see whether the hot and cold spots are distributed in the way quantum mechanics predicts or bohmian mechanics predicts.

Of course, even if quantum mechanics doesn't always hold, that doesn't show that it isn't usually correct.

Chuckle of the day: What lies beyond the observable universe?

Is it this? And that's all? (hat tip Uhlrich Mohrhoff)

Letter: Multiverses are nonsense but so is much contemporary physics

Uhlrich Mohrhoff, editor of Anti-Matters, who reviewed The Spiritual Brain, writes regarding multiverses:

I don't think it's a good idea to attack the multiverse idea. Of course I agree with you that the idea is pure nonsense, whether it refers (i) to the many-worlds interpretation (whose adherents are too stupid to distinguish possibility from actuality), (ii) to the attempt to ward off cosmological design implications, or (iii) to the "landscape" of string theory (which is neither a theory nor even wrong).

The reason why I don't think it's a good idea is that it seems to suggest that everything else is fine with physics. Nothing could be further from the truth. A wholesale attack on the very foundations of contemporary physics is in order.

I like to quote the philosopher of science Dennis Dieks (who is also editor of the prestigious journal Studies in History and Foundations of Modern Physics):

Most physicists have no clear conception of the interpretation of their most basic theory, quantum mechanics. They are largely unaware of the exact nature of the problems in giving a detailed and consistent account of the physical meaning of the theory; and if they are aware, they often don’t care very much. Only very small numbers of researchers have given serious thought to the interpretational problems of quantum mechanics, and have expressed more or less detailed points of view. As can perhaps be expected from the statistics of small numbers, the diversity of opinion is large. Very different ideas have been put forward, none of them supported by great numbers of physicists...

The difficulty of developing a convincing interpretation of quantum mechanics can easily be understood. First, the rigorous results which have been achieved preponderantly have a negative character: they are “no-go theorems”. No-go theorems show the impossibility of certain interpretations, but do not themselves provide a new interpretation. For example, Bell’s theorem demonstrates that a “local” theory in which physical objects possess well-defined properties is not possible. More generally, the outcome of foundational work in the last couple of decades has been that interpretations which try to accommodate classical intuitions are impossible, on the grounds that theories that incorporate such intuitions necessarily lead to empirical predictions which are at variance with the quantum mechanical predictions. However, this is a negative result that only provides us with a starting-point for what really has to be done: something conceptually new has to be found, different from what we are familiar with. It is’ clear that this constructive task is a particularly difficult one, in which huge barriers (partly of a psychological nature) have to be overcome...

The physics community thus does not possess a definite notion of what to do with the problems in the interpretation of quantum mechanics, and even is in the unclear about the exact nature of these problems. It operates with a “common sense” interpretation which basically is wrong (and of which one knows that it is wrong)...

Both the empirical success of the theory and the difficulty of beating sense into it have found expression in Michio Kaku's statement that "of all the theories proposed in this [the 20th] century, the silliest is quantum theory.... The only thing quantum theory has going for it is that it is unquestionably correct."

Paradoxes and bewilderment only occur if one wonders about how the calculated and predicted experimental outcomes can be realized by natural processes...

The fact that interpretational problems do not receive much serious professional attention does not appear to be a coincidence. It seems related to the very nature of empirical science, in which empirical success is the ultimate goal and interpretation has at least “officially” the status of handmaiden...

The paradox is that unofficially… physicists have quite outspoken opinions about the general ideas of most interpretations.

For a longer excerpt see this blog post. The complete article has appeared in AntiMatters.

The Nobel winning physicist Frank Wilczek illustrates this schizophrenia by writing, in one and the same article, that quantum fields are the "ur-stuff" and that "we can only require — and generally we only obtain — sensible, finite answers when we ask questions that have direct, operational meaning."

The first thing one needs to know about the fundamental theoretical framework of contemporary physics is that it is a computational tool — a bunch of algorithms that allow us to calculate the probabilities of the possible outcomes of measurements on the basis of actual measurement outcomes. From this irreducible core of the theory two different lines of inquiry proceed — a fruitful one and a red herring. The former analyzes the quantum-mechanical probability assignments — the theory's only testable aspect — in different experimental situations. This is what causes the consternation, for while the implications of these assignments make perfect sense in a spiritual context, they make indeed no sense within a materialistic framework of thought. And as you well know, the name of the game of science is to "save the materialistic appearances."

The second line of inquiry — the red herring — is a desperate attempt to do just this, save the materialistic appearances. There is general agreement among physicists that the Standard Model and General Relativity are effective theories, i.e., they give the right predictions at empirically accessible scales, but they are not the real McCoy, for that would have to be correct at all scales of length. What they don't seem to realize is that their search for the real McCoy is doomed to failure, for if we follow the fruitful line of inquiry, we find that the world is not differentiated "all the way down": if we conceptually partition the world into smaller and smaller regions, there comes a point beyond which the distinctions we make between regions do not correspond to anything in the actual world. They exist solely in our heads. There can be no theory that is correct at all scales of length.

It is intriguing that this point is virtually incomprehensible to most theoretical physicists, who only seem to understand mathematical formulas, while it is readily grasped by someone like the singer/songwriter Stephin Merrit , who in an interview with Pitchfork said:

I just read online a few weeks ago, the Pondicherry Interpretation. It's the physics...attitude of Ulrich Mohrhoff, who happens to teach in Pondicherry India. The Pondicherry Interpretation is startlingly original to me. So I said to myself, "my god, there's a new way of thinking about the world!" The basic idea is that the time-space continuum only goes down so small. And beyond that, measuring is essentially meaningless.

What is alarming is that the Standard Model and General Relativity can be deduced from utterly weak assumptions. Alarming, that is, to materialist scientists, who fancy themselves to be omniscient "in principle" — to know (or be in a position to know) the furniture of the universe and the laws by which that is governed. Quantum mechanics presupposes measurements, and I have shown (at any rate, made it eminently plausible) that the existence of measurements presupposes the validity of the Standard Model and General Relativity.

This means that all well-established theories are essentially tautological — except for one thing: their validity is guaranteed provided that things that have spatial extent are composed of things that lack spatial extent. This is the sole nontrivial input and the only real mystery: why are "ordinary things" — things that "occupy space" — made of things that don't (such as quarks and leptons)?

Here too there is an answer. I won't go into it except to say that it is based on spiritual knowledge or experience, and that it cannot possibly be arrived at by the limited methods of science.

Interesting. As an artsie, I can easily understand the concept of pushing measurements down below a level at which they would be meaningful.

For example, the word "inbox" can be subdivided into "in" + "box" but if you try to subdivide it into five letters i-n-b-o-x, you have a smaller division that doesn't mean much. (Yes, of course, we could go into the etymology, as in "where does the word 'box' come from", but then we are looking for antecedent words, not necessarily the exact words themselves.) And, if you tried dividing the letters themselves, well ... that's the stuff of jigsaw puzzles.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Other universes: Why the materialist needs an infinite number of them

Geoff Robinson of "Faith, Beer, and other things that interest Geoff blog" is not impressed with multiverse theories. He comments,
I've been thinking two things about multiverses. Irreducible complexity stands in the way of multiverses working with biology even if it explains the physics. Also, part of the transcendental argument for God (TAG) includes the problem of induction. In other words, laws of physics need a law-giver otherwise you have laws hanging in mid-air. Multiverses do not solve this.
I'm not sure about the irreducible complexity part, Geoff. I suppose if there were infinite numbers of universes, some would contain irreducible complexity, and our current set of laws would be one of infinite possibilities. There might be infinite universes just like ours that do not contain life and infinite numbers that do.

In other words, many universes can solve the fine-tuning problem (why is our universe apparently exquisitely fine-tuned for life to come into existence?) only if there is an arbitrarily large number of universes and all but a few of them have flopped.

Millions of fine-tuned universes with different laws from ours would imply a cosmic creator of universes who never fails. A few flopped universes would imply a less-perfect creator who produced a few flops before producing the blockbuster.

So to rule out God, the materialist needs infinite universes, most of which have flopped, and a few of which accidentally succeeded. A tall order, considering that we only know about one universe now.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Study: Sun not special - therefore alien life should be common?

New Scientist's Hazel Muir tells us (May 22, 2008), reporting on recent research: "Sun's properties not 'fine-tuned' for life", adding
The finding adds weight to the idea that alien life should be common throughout the universe.

I am not sure how one can add "weight" to an idea, but never mind. Re the sun:
With his ANU colleague José Robles and others, Lineweaver has now analysed 11 features of the Sun that might affect its ability to have habitable planets. They included its mass, age, rotation speed and orbital distance from the centre of the Milky Way.

Then they compared these with well-measured statistics for other stars to answer the question – overall, does the Sun stand out from the crowd any more than some other randomly chosen star would?

The Sun did stand out in two ways: it is more massive than 95% of nearby stars and its orbit around the centre of our galaxy is more circular than those of 93% of nearby stars.

This research (in press at Astrophysical Journal) contradicts Guillermo Gonzalez's "privileged planet" hypothesis concerning the sun, so I asked him about it:
Lineweaver concludes that even though the Sun is obviously exceptional in two properties he considers (mass and Galactic orbit -- both of which I have pointed out in previous papers), it is not exceptional when you consider it in the context of 11 properties. Of course, this is not the correct conclusion. Not only is the Sun exceptional in these two properties (and probably one or two others), there are good reasons to believe that the Sun's mass and Galactic orbit need to be close to their actual values for life.

It's not clear whether Muir thinks that the alien life that should be common throughout the universe would be intelligent, complex (but perhaps not intelligent), or simple.

Lineweaver's approach is reminiscent of Carl Sagan's Copernican Principle (there must be lots of Them out there by definition, because otherwise, we would be unique). And - to judge from the Top 10 admittedly "controversial" pieces of evidence for extraterrestrial life accumulated so far (September 4, 2006) - the New Scientist staff can survive on regular infusions of hope.

One underlying assumption is that life will evolve under favourable conditions. The doctrine of the common ancestry of life on Earth would seem to suggest, however, that even where conditions are favourable, it is hardly a common event.

Also: Science and ethics: When the devil offered a no strings research post.

Nature's IQ: Intelligent design from a Hindu perspective

Science journalist warns against the "institutionalised idolatry of science"

Expelled film pre-trashed by United Kludgies of Canada (Trashing a film you haven't seen is way less work.)

Is everything determined by forces over which we have no control?

On Jane Goodall, apes, human uniqueness, and God

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Does time's one-way street prove that other universes exist?

In a recent article in Scientific American, "Does the arrow of time run backward in other universes?" (May 21, 2008), Sean M. Carroll proposed that the multiverse may explain why time only runs forward, never backward, a puzzle that clearly irritates him and other cosmologists:
The universe does not look right. That may seem like a strange thing to say, given that cosmologists have very little standard for comparison. How do we know what the universe is supposed to look like? Nevertheless, over the years we have developed a strong intuition for what counts as "natural"-and the universe we see does not qualify.
So ...
If the observable universe were all that existed, it would be nearly impossible to account for the arrow of time in a natural way. But if the universe around us is a tiny piece of a much larger picture, new possibilities present themselves. We can conceive of our bit of universe as just one piece of the puzzle, part of the tendency of the larger system to increase its entropy without limit in the very far past and the very far future. To paraphrase physicist Edward Tryon, the big bang is easier to understand if it is not the beginning of everything but just one of those things that happens from time to time.

One does not need to be a cosmologist to sense the difficulty with this form of reasoning. If we have only one example of a popkin, without any basis for comparison to another popkin - that is known to actually exist - it is difficult to justify the intuition that the popkin doesn't "look right."

If we inflate our intuition that the popkin doesn't look right into an argument for the existence of Popkin World - most of whose popkins look different - it is a tribute to our imagination. But only evidence would make such a proposition real. And then we must be careful that we are not seeing only what we believe.

Carroll identifies some problems with the concept of an inflationary early universe:
The inflationary paradigm has been very successful in many ways. Its predictions of slight deviations from perfect uniformity agree with observations of density variations in the universe. As an explanation for time asymmetry, however, cosmologists increasingly consider it a bit of a cheat, for reasons that Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford and others have emphasized. For the process to work as desired, the ultradense dark energy had to begin in a very specific configuration. In fact, its entropy had to be fantastically smaller than the entropy of the hot, dense gas into which it decayed. That implies inflation has not really solved anything: it “explains” a state of unusually low entropy (a hot, dense, uniform gas) by invoking a prior state of even lower entropy (a smooth patch of space dominated by ultradense dark energy). It simply pushes the puzzle back a step: Why did inflation ever happen?
So the problem commonly called fine-tuning (here called "a very specific configuration") remains.

Note: A popkin? Well, if you know what it is, you are doing better than me.

I tried to explain the concept of time running backwards to some kids a while back, via a jingle, here.

The Day Time Went Backwards

Kitty broke the teapot,

She knocked it off the sill;

Stacey found the pieces just

As time stood still.

Time rolled backwards;

The teapot gathered up

And fit itself together

And poured itself a cup.

Weeks run backwards

But the strangest thing we saw

Is, Kitty’s just a kitten now,

A-wailing for her ma.
(c) Denyse O'Leary 2000

Friday, May 23, 2008

Coming soon to a clear blue sky near you ...

Serious posts again tomorrow, but must share this new visual mayhem - flogos:

According to Paul Greenberg (May 22, 2008), an "Invasion of the Flogos" is imminent. Maybe Klingons would be preferable:

("Look, up in the sky, it's a ... logo cloud.") The things are called Flogos, and are the latest way to advertise, says their inventor. A former magician, he's developed a machine that sends foamy clouds as big as four feet across into the air, which can assume any shape the advertiser desires.

Next month the air above Walt Disney World in Orlando is due to be covered with Flogos shaped like Mickey Mouse. In the future you could follow a trail of Toyotas or Schwinns or longneck bottles of Bud to wherever they're sold. The sky's the limit, literally.

Imagine waking up on the beach one morning to find the sky filled with the kind of ads you went on vacation to escape. The Disneyfication of the world proceeds apace as a faux enchantment supplants the real kind that Nature provides.
Someone tell me this isn't true.

When I was young, I tried to think up the ugliest, most visually distracting high tech invention. I came up with the idea of genetically engineering plants so that the flower petals would display as brand logos (Esso, Kellogg's Raisin Bran, Maxwell House).

I thought if I could think up something that awful, it wouldn't really happen. Silly me.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Just up at Colliding Universes

All things are possible through the scientist who postulates very large numbers? Especially unimaginable things, I am sure.

Settled science chronicles: Reader disses "best science" boilerplate

Life could be just plain rare but not unique in the universe

Catholic Cardinal: Multiverse theory an "abdication of human intelligence"?

All things are possible through the scientist who postulates very large numbers?

Vox Day, a Christian libertarian opinion columnist and author of The Irrational Atheist has this to say recently (January 28, 2008) about Richard Dawkins's embrace of multiverse theory (a delusion bigger than God?):
Dawkins visits the wreckage of his train of thought, pours lighter fluid over it and sets it on fire by bringing up the multiverse concept, an utterly non-scientific theory invented solely to get around the problem of the anthropic principle. ... Those indisposed to accept the anthropic principle attempt to get around the massive improbability problem it presents by imagining that there are billions and billions of universes, for all things are possible through the scientist who postulates very large numbers. Only by postulating a potentially infinite number of universes can our wildly improbable universe become mathematically probable. Of course, there are no signs of any of these other universes, nor did science ever take the idea of parallel universes seriously until the alternative was accepting the apparent evidence for a universal designer. But not only is multiverse theory every bit as unfalsifiable and untestable as the God Hypothesis, it is demonstrably more improbable. If we accept Dawkins's naked assertion that a universal designer is more complex than the one known universe, a designer is probably less complex than any two universes and infinitely less complex than an infinity of them. ...
Of course, one way of simplifying a problem is to make it so complex as to be beyond any possible solution. That's not satisfactory, but it does have a certain grandness about it.

Settled science chronicles: "Best science" boilerplate

Reader James Barham, currently struggling with a thesis, writes,
I just wanted to mention, a propos of "settled science," that I have long been irritated by the phrase "our best science" that one encounters everywhere nowadays, and have thought that someone ought to write an article or book entitled: "When our best science is just not good enough" . . .
I agree with James about the expression "our best science" because if one asked, "Who got your second best?" - well, it would turn out that absolutely no one had. And so ...

And of course, settled science is science gathering dust, I suppose, along with the people who huddle around it.

Life could be just plain rare but not unique in universe, reader suggests

In response to some comments from fellow Toronto journalist David Warren, which I posted at "Life on Mars? Yes, when the Mars Hilton Convention Centre finally opens", reader Eric Anderson kindly writes to say,
I thought I would mention one item that jumped out at me on your Colliding Universes blog (I couldn't see a way to comment there, so I apologize if I missed the link). Specifically, your colleague, David Warren, is quoted as saying "Sentient life must either be extremely common in the universe, or absolutely unique to Earth."

I don't know if this issue will be part of your Colliding Universes book, but I just wanted to flag it because Mr. Warren's view is a false dichotomy and is not a winning position to take. Specifically, assuming that there is a Designer responsible for designing life in the universe, it is entirely possible that there would be other life outside Earth, but that it would not be "extremely common." Indeed, if the Privileged Planet hypothesis is correct, Earthlike habitats are rare, but not need not be "absolutely unique." As a result, if there are a small number of privileged locations for life in the universe, it is very possible that life would be in existence in these locations -- making life somewhat rare, but not absolutely unique to Earth. Incidentally, although I wouldn't support such a view, this same situation for life is also possible under a naturalistic scenario that combines a "life evolves easily" view with a "but it has to be just the right conditions" view.

Anyway, enough on that. I think Mr. Warren may be bringing a philosophical position to the table in the dichotomy he creates, so just wanted to point that out.

Well, I suppose that everyone brings a philosophical point of view to a discussion of this sort. When it comes to life in the universe, we now have a sample of exactly one type of instance. A study with one subject. Just the sort of situation well suited to philosophy.

Note: If, like Eric (he did ask), you want to know why you can't comment, go here and read the last part of the post, "Why no Comments box?"

As I said there,
Yes, I know it sounds loopy - loopier than a barrel of multiverses - but you can
read all about it here and in a growing number of other places as well, including the Free Mark Steyn blog. It is NOT a joke. Currently, our national police (the Mounties) are investigating the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
I did not create Canada's "human rights" mess. I do not support it. It humiliates every decent Canadian. Above all, I am not making this stuff up. The Mounties really are investigating the "human rights" commissions, and with good reason, and yes, the Commissions are totally backed by Stephen Harper's "Conservative" government (though not by all its MPs). If reform happens, I will offer a combox again.

Catholic Cardinal: Multiverse theory an "abdication of human intelligence"?

Just now, I am writing a review of Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith, by Christoph, Cardinal Schoenborn (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007).

Schoenborn was the Cardinal who made waves back in July 2005 with an op-ed in The New York Times, in which he made clear that the Catholic Church will resist being transformed into a gaggle of dhimmis for Darwin.

What I hadn't noted at the time was that he referred directly to multiverse theory as another aspect of the "abdication of human intelligence":
Now at the beginning of the 21st century, faced with scientific claims like neo-Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science, the Catholic Church will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of "chance and necessity" are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.

"... invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science ... " Strong words those. A far cry from telling thinking Catholics that good little angels say the rosary with Mother Angelica ...

PS: Apologies to anyone annoyed yesterday by my effort to make the hedders green, rersulting in visible formatting codes. It's not easy being green.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hello, and welcome to Colliding Universes!

First, if you just want to read some stories and don't care why I started this blog, here are links to stories I have already posted:

A friend fondly recalls physicist John Wheeler

Life on Mars?: Yes, when the Mars Hilton Convention Centre finally opens

Sure as the law of gravity, you say? Okay then, better check the refund policy ...

Stuff I have written elsewhere on the bleeping multiverse, for which the multiverse (Inc.) is suing me for defamation ... But not to worry, the writ went to zillions of wrong universes.

Now ...

What is this blog about?

As noted top left, I want to write a book with a physicist that explains why the multiverse - the idea that there is an infinity of flopped universes out there - is a crock. (He would say the idea is "deeply problematic.")

Some publishers - mine in particular - think that no one would be interested because everyone who could care less knows that the multiverse is a crock, dreamed up to avoid confronting the significance of the fact that our universe is exquisitely fine-tuned for life.

I disagree, because I have noticed that the concept is becoming quite mainstream, as this abstract for a recent talk by Neil Turok at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics shows:
The evidence that the universe emerged 14 billion years ago from an event called \'the big bang\' is overwhelming. Yet the cause of this event remains deeply mysterious. In the conventional picture, the \'initial singularity\' is unexplained. It is simply assumed that the universe somehow sprang into existence full of \'inflationary\' energy, blowing up the universe into the large, smooth state we observe today. While this picture is in excellent agreement with current observations, it is both contrived and incomplete, leading us to suspect that it is not the final word. In this lecture, the standard inflationary picture will be contrasted with a new view of the initial singularity suggested by string and M-theory, in which the bang is a far more normal, albeit violent, event which occurred in a pre-existing universe. According to the new picture, a cyclical model of the universe becomes feasible in which one bang is followed by another, in a potentially endless series of cosmic cycles. The presentation will also review exciting recent theoretical developments and forthcoming observational tests which could distinguish between the rival inflationary and cyclical hypotheses.
What mainstreams the multiverse is the prospect of getting tested. But that raises the question - if a fair test shows that there is no multiverse, what about our own universe's exquisite fine-tuning?

I contend that a vast and exceptionally brilliant market out there would love to read a book by a physicist explaining why this is a deeply problematic idea, co-written by a person whose language level is stuck at "crock."

So, thank you for patronizing this blog. You are helping me win the argument with a publisher. (The physicist is too busy to blog, but he thanks you all the same. The physics ideas are all his.)

Our book will - in some ways - resemble The Spiritual Brain, which I co-authored with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard (Harper One 2007) , explaining why materialist neuroscience is a crock.

In what ways will it resemble The Spiritual Brain?

It will be fun and funny as well as hopeful and illuminating.

In what ways will it not resemble The Spiritual Brain?

It will use lots of examples, anecdotes, and illustrations from science fiction, for inventive but accurate explanations. The Spiritual Brain mostly uses other interesting stuff.

My other blogs

The Mindful Hack supports The Spiritual Brain, and non-materialist neuroscience generally.

The Post-Darwinist supports By Design or by Chance?, detailing events in the exploding intelligent design controversy.

Heck, you can even be mad about - or enjoy - my first book, Faith@Science: Why science needs faith in the 21st century (Winnipeg: J. Gordon Shillingford, 2001):

Why no Comments box?

I'd love to allow Comments, but have had to stop, owing to problems with the "human rights commissions" in Canada, who have taken to prowling the Internet. Bizarre incidents involving comboxes have resulted in the blog owner getting charged with a human rights offense - both expensive and embarrassing.

Yes, I know it sounds loopy - loopier than a barrel of multiverses - but you can read all about it here and in a growing number of other places as well, including the Free Mark Steyn blog. It is NOT a joke. Currently, our national police (the Mounties) are investigating the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Honestly, I don't know how things will turn out. A certain sort of middle-aged person is currently a growing power in the land in Canada - a leftover, real or imaginary, from the "flower power" Trudeau era - for whom traditional civil liberties are an impediment to the icebound utopia of their dreams
where never is heard
an insensitive word
and the therapy goes on all day

If it becomes safe again for a Canadian who is willing to entertain controversial ideas to allow Comments, I will. In the meantime, it is simply too much of a risk and time sink, and I can only offer my apologies for what internationally known Canadian columnist Mark Steyn, himself charged and certain of conviction, increasingly calls the "deranged Dominion."

A friend recalls physicist John Wheeler ...

A.J. Meyer fondly remembers John Wheeler, who coined the term "black hole", who died recently at age 96. He offers the following anecdote:
About twenty years ago, I sent out numerous drafts of a paper I had been working on for commentary.

One of the conundrums that I dealt with in the paper, was the failure of black hole thermodynamics to correspond to the Third Law.

One of the kindest replies came from Professor John Wheeler in a telephone conversation. Wheeler said that my solution to the conundrum was good, and said, in effect, "In all my thirty or so years of black hole research, it has never occurred to me to incorporate the area of the inner event horizon as a measure of negative entropy. How did you think of it?" Recalling how Irwin Schrödinger answered when he was asked how he came up with his famous wave equation, I replied in all sincerity "To quote Schrödinger, 'it came from God'.''

As far as I know, Wheeler, was always an honest seeker of truth and one of the most humble of physicists, who as a group are not known for their humility. He will be missed.
Here's a part of Meyer's work on the Third Law solution.

Life on Mars? Yes, when the Mars Hilton Convention Centre finally opens

Well, Phoenix lands on Mars on Sunday at 68 degrees north, well away from previous sites, to take samples of soil and underground ice.

Here is an artist's conception of the landing, courtesy of NASA.

One can't help wondering if the Vatican astronomer, Fr. Funes - who mused recently that there might well be space aliens - timed his musings to coincide with the Phoenix touchdown.
NASA's aims are, of course, more modest than a SETI alien search - ultra-modest, in fact:
One research goal is to assess whether conditions at the site ever have been favorable for microbial life. The composition and texture of soil above the ice could give clues to whether the ice ever melts in response to long-term climate cycles. Another important question is whether the scooped-up samples contain carbon-based chemicals that are potential building blocks and food for life itself.
These aims are so modest that at least one of them is likely to be met, which is ideal both for future funding and speculation about life elsewhere in the universe.

My fellow journalist and parishioner David Warren has been thinking a lot about the basic issue: Are we alone?
Sentient life must either be extremely common in the universe, or absolutely unique to Earth. The latter is plausible only because we observe it. "No biological life in any form at all" is the easy statistical likelihood, given the apparent age & size of the universe. Not in this universe, & not in any of the next quadrillion or so similar universes, if we want to keep rolling the dice.

There is a school of (bad) reasoning which tries to get around this by arguing there must be some probability barrier or "Great Filter" that causes any species that reaches the human level to become extinct a moment later in geological time.

This won't work. For we should then expect a (large) number of earth-like or alternatively habitable environments to have at least produced earth-level radio or other detectable technology which we could read when the signals reach us even if they perished X years ago.

He also believes,
Still, many people would rather entertain aliens in flying saucers than God, so they'll keep bashing their heads against that probability wall until they die.

Of course, Phoenix could just crash and burn, too, as NASA prudently warns,
"This is not a trip to grandma's house. Putting a spacecraft safely on Mars is hard and risky," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Internationally, fewer than half of all attempts to land on Mars have succeeded."

But the Mars Society (whose acknowledged goal is "ever more aggressive government funded Mars exploration programs around the world") is ecstatic:
"This is a very exciting mission," said Mars Society Executive Director Chris Carberry. "Phoenix will tell us a great deal about water on Mars, including whether it is readily accessible today as ice within the Martian soil. Additionally, if successful, Phoenix will demonstrate the many benefits of NASA collaboration with academia and the private sector, including improved cost efficiency and innovative new design concepts."

Did I mention the Mars Hilton Convention Centre? Well, in the end, who cares if we find life on Mars - can't we just bring our own?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

It's sure as the law of gravity, you say? Well, check the refund policy ...

In "Newton, Einstein Lost in Space?" Robert Lee Hotz has some fun with the idea that Newton and Einstein might have been wrong about gravity. Russian-born astrophysicist Slava Turyshev, working at Jet Propulsion laboratory, noted the "Pioneer anomaly",
Beyond the edge of the solar system, something has gradually dragged two of America's oldest space probes -- Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 -- a quarter-million miles off course. Astrophysicists have struggled 15 years in vain to identify the infinitesimal force at play.
It's just a tiny anomaly, but radio wave physicist John Anderson, also of JPL, who does not overlook small deviations,
monitored the trajectories six years before calling attention to the matter. "I'm a little like an accountant," Dr. Anderson said. "We have Newton's theory and Einstein's theory, and when you apply them to something like this -- and it doesn't add up -- it bothers me."
Does it mean anything? We don't know yet. But Turyshev hints,
"We would expect the two spacecraft to follow Newton's law of gravity," Dr. Turyshev said, "but they in fact fail to confirm Newton's law. If Newton is wrong, Einstein is wrong too."
For now, I will put my cash on the dead white males being right about gravity and similar stuff (it's what they do best). Still, I can't help quoting from The Spiritual Brain, re anomalies:
In science, small, persistent effects cannot be ignored. Sometimes they force a revision of major paradigms. For example, Lord Kelvin remarked in 1900 that there were just “two little dark clouds” on the horizon of Newtonian classical physics of the day, namely, Michelson and Morley’s measurements of the velocity of light and the phenomenon of blackbody radiation. Kelvin was certain that these troubling little clouds would be blown away shortly.149 Yet all of modern physics—relativity and quantum mechanics—derives from these two little dark clouds. (P. 173)
This feature is brought to you by the Settled Science News Channel. (I owe the term ""settled science" to my hack friend David Warren.)

Stuff I have already written on the bleeping multiverse, for which It, (Inc.) is suing me ...

So don't you bother.

Anyway, nothing is urgent. The writ went to zillions of wrong universes and will not be back here for, like, billions of years. I guess I have time to compose a reply.

Here are the articles for which I am charged:

Why science without God destroys itself: Because the alternative idea of a multiverse is a step into magic, that's why.

Here's my review of Frank Tipler's multiverse theories, which I treat with some affection because they are just bizarre enough to be fun - unlike the superserious duds I skewer.

Jewish physicist Gerald Schroeder's look at the Science of God, including slams at the multiverse (which it was his JOB to support, no less, at one time!). Hey, how does it feel to be wiser now?

The large hadron collider: Gateway to other universes, or just another wicked-sass toy?

God is a cosmic computer? Yes, the universe looks fixed, but that doesn't mean that a god fixed it, says cosmologist Paul Davies, in a Guardian article, so titled. He dismisses both intelligent design and the idea that there are zillions of flopped universes: Davies is good at exploring all possible and impossible options. Good for cosmology, I guess, but I would NOT want him organizing the staff picnic.

My review of a film promoting the multiverse theory: What the Bleep Do We Know?: Well, somehow, I don't think we know this bleep, anyway , and here's why.

Also, why the bleep did they go and wreck it all? Sequels are the devil's dirty sox, surely?