Thursday, June 26, 2008

Universe arranged like nautilus shell on a large scale?

Well, would you prefer it had been arranged like a losing hand in poker?

A recent report by Amanda Gefter in New Scientist, "Galaxy map hints at fractal universe" (June 25, 2008) suggests that matter in our universe may be arranged in fractals, like the shell of a nautilus:
Is the matter in the universe arranged in a fractal pattern? A new study of nearly a million galaxies suggests it is – though there are no well-accepted theories to explain why that would be so.

And therefore,
Many cosmologists find fault with their analysis, largely because a fractal matter distribution out to such huge scales undermines the standard model of cosmology. According to the accepted story of cosmic evolution, there simply hasn't been enough time since the big bang nearly 14 billion years ago for gravity to build up such large structures.

What's more, the assumption that the distribution is homogeneous has allowed cosmologists to model the universe fairly simply using Einstein's theory of general relativity – which relates the shape of space to the distribution of matter.
Well then, it just can't be true, can it?

Score one for Eugene Wigner's "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics":

... the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it.
By "rational" explanation, Wigner may mean an explanation that appeals to causes (chaos, an unexplained further regress, et cetera) that are ultimately irrational in themselves.

It tells us something about our underlying assumptions that laws that actually work are not considered a rational explanation.

At one time - before the principal project in science had been to disprove the idea that an intelligence underlies the universe - the discovery of such laws would be satisfying rather than problematic. They would be considered the obvious rational explanation rather than a challenge to rational explanation.

Well, the universe is what it is - and if it is governed by intelligently framed laws, so much the worse for those whose science can't absorb that.
(Note: The image is from Sea Life Gifts, one of those fine places I should not see unless my charge card has been mislaid.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Serious push to find more exoplanets

Pretty safe prediction: We will hear more about dozens of planets that orbit stars other than our sun. At least if this May 8 (2008) presser from NASA is any indication:

You know the planets of our solar system, each a unique world with its own distinctive appearance, size, and chemistry. Mars, with its bitter-cold, rusty red sands; Venus, a fiery world shrouded in thick clouds of sulfuric acid; sideways Uranus and its strange vertical rings. The variety is breathtaking.

Now imagine the variety that must exist in hundreds of solar systems. There may be worlds out there that make Venus seem hospitable and Uranus positively upright. Only 20 years ago, astronomers were unsure whether any such worlds existed beyond our own solar system. Now, they've found more than 280 of them, each with its own planetary "personality," each a fascinating example of what a world can be.
I wish people would quit calling these exoplanets "worlds" when no one has even remotely suggested that there might be any life there - cept what we send or bring.

What we normally mean by a "world" includes intelligent beings. You know, "Shakespeare's world" or "Nefertiti's world" or even "Sherlock Holmes's world" or, at worst, the "dinosaurs' world."

The perceiver of a world is in at least one sense its creator. I would rather not lose that concept.

A researchers hold out little hope, apparently, that the planets they will find are well suited to life. Still, we wait with interest ... And the graphic above, by artist T. Riecken, is pretty neat.

Water inferred on Mars

According to a recent report,

Dice-size crumbs of bright material have vanished from inside a trench where they were photographed by NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander four days ago, convincing scientists that the material was frozen water that vaporized after digging exposed it.

"It must be ice," said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson. "These little clumps completely disappearing over the course of a few days, that is perfect evidence that it's ice. There had been some question whether the bright material was salt. Salt can't do that."
No indeed. Poolside, we often call for more ice, but rarely for more salt. Watch with interest!

Coffee break: For the definitive picture of water on Mars, go here.

Coffee break: Scientist discovers two alternative universes

I am completely envious and I, like, totally admit it. This guy Steve Burri (one of the fellows in this picture) is way better than me when it comes to sending up goofy "zillions of universes" cosmology:

The scientists and researchers employed in my secret basement laboratory are quite an ecclectic bunch. We have staff that wash their hands and brush their teeth after every thought as well as those whose superstitions will not allow them to change their underwear until the completion of their research project. We have committed Christians as well as atheists who should be committed. We have cool, but mostly we have nerd. One biochemist's 5 year old was visiting and after talking to several researchers said to her dad, "Daddy, these guys make even Todd and Lance seem cool." Her dad just shook his head and said, "Sweetie, you have never met Todd or Lance, have you?" That little girl has the cutest giggle.

Perhaps the most unusual character in our lab is Alfred the Atheist, one of our physicists. He's a Landscaper of the String Theory clan. Alfred is always spewing equations about which no one else has a clue. Nobody is ever sure if he really knows what he is talking about. Our only evidence on these matters occurs when he does calculations on his super computer. Often after a result is obtained, his computer smacks itself on its monitor with its own mouse and exclaims, "Boo-yah! My hard drive just had an orgasm!" Then it has a smoke.

Alfred has long been determined to calculate and describe the nature of other universes in the Landscape. (Some say that he hasn't changed underwear in 3 years; others claim he goes 'commando.') He declares that he wants to prove beyond all question that God doesn't exist. His computer now has a 2 pack-a-day habit.
And it gets better when "Alfred", sort of, discovers something ...

I can only get over this fit of envy by writing another book.
Hey, I have been a book editor most of my adult life. I know books. I know them well.
The excellent Burris, pictured above, maybe don't.
Yes, book writing is indeed a dying art, and I'll die with it but ... not yet.
I will write one more book. Meanwhile, enjoy Steve Burri's spoof, and don't blame me if you are one Offended bunny ... I, as it happens, do NOT care ...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Well now, and what of Berlinski's Devils?

I am currently reviewing mathematician David Berlinski's The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. I will post a link to the review, when I am finished, but just this for now:

The book seems to have been written primarily to deflate vast, windy claims, to strike a blow against the crass, dim stupidities currently hawked in the name of "science."

"Like democracy or justice, science is a word exhausted by its examples. We have been vouchsafed four powerful and profound scientific theories since the great scientific revolution of the West was set in motion in the svententh century - Newtonian mechanics, James Clerk Maxwell's theory of the electromagnetic field, special and general relativity, and quantum mechanics. These are isolated miracles, great mountain peaks surrounded by a range of low, furry foothills. The theories that we possess are "magnificent, profound, difficult, sometimes phenomenally accurate," as the distinguished mathematician Roger Penrose has observed, but as he at once adds, they also comprise a "tantalizingly inconsistent scheme of things.

These splendid artifacts of the human imagination have made the world more mysterious than it ever was. We know better than we did what we do not know and have not grasped We do not know how the universe began. We do not know why it is there. Charles Darwin talked speculatively of life emerging from a "warm little pond." The pond is gone. We have little idea how life emerged, and cannot with assurance say that it did. We cannot reconcile our understanding of the human mind with any trivial theory about the manner in which the brain functions. Beyond the trivial, we have no other theories. We can say nothing of interest about the human soul. We do not know what impels us to right conduct or where the form of the good is found." (xii-xiii)
Berlinski does not claim to have answers, and certainly not a fevered cause to promote (except the ongoing life of the mind). He is willing to live with uncertainty. There, of course, he differs from hundreds of comparative mediocrities, proclaiming junk ideas like "meme theory" or "the selfish gene" - and assuring us that our sense that these theories are implausible is fully accounted for because our brains have not evolved in such a way as to find them plausible.

No, I suppose they have not. And that is surely something to be grateful for. Who on earth would want a brain that found these theories plausible?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Who reads popular books on cosmology? Well, almost everyone who actually reads, it seems

But it can be hard to convince publishers of that fact. Says Lucy Hawking (yes, daughter of Stephen) in the Sunday Times (June 14, 2008), reflecting on the popularity of good science writing with the book-buying public:
Possibilities for disaster were clearly on the mind of the publishers who offered my father Stephen Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, a contract without an advance for his first popular book, A Brief History of Time. Published in the end by a different house, the book went on to defy all those who thought the public would not be interested in a work explaining the advances of modern physics in terms anyone could understand.

A Brief History of Time became a runaway bestseller in more than 40 languages, spent 224 weeks on the bestseller list and celebrates its 20th anniversary - still in print - this week. It is another great work in which a scientist's imagination has played a key role.
Meanwhile, Lucy Hawking and her father have written a book, George's Secret Key to the Universe, aimed primarily at children. An excerpt is available at the site.

So who cares abut cosmology?
Lots of people do not read much of anything. Recently, someone solemnly apprised me that he thought that Mario Beauregard's and my book, The Spiritual Brain would be "difficult" and he had warned a bunch of people about that. Gee, thanks, fella.

Actually, The Spiritual Brain is pitched to the reading level of a typical Canadian daily newspaper, so it was all I could do to keep from snapping,
Yes, it's difficult - if your regular reading is the bubble gum funnies.
Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut ...

But many people do read, and as Lucy Hawking's article shows, cosmology - well written - is a perennial favourite. Adults who read popular science should not be presumed to have only the level of sophistication of the last year in which they formally studied science. Many people learn a lot on the job or through private reading, and those who do enjoy a challenge.

Teacher: Big ideas without science methods are blank cheque

Recently, I responded to Brian Greene's suggestion that science teachers should teach the big ideas in science, to get students interested. My point was that without a grasp of the underlying principles and fact base, the big ideas in science will not be distinguishable from big ideas in science fiction. A physics teacher kindly writes to comment:

A few thoughts here:

1. The small details in Science are what actually makes up the big picture. Scientific knowledge is like a jigsaw puzzle made up of many small interlocking pieces. One cannot intelligently embrace a large idea, e.g., the Big Bang, without first comprehending the many little ideas that built up to it. Otherwise one is signing a blank cheque.

2. Science is much more an epistemology than a body of knowledge. The goal of science teaching is to get students to think this way: recognise a problem, formulate hypotheses which can be tested experimentally, design and carry out experiments which test one variable at a time, repeat experiments for clarity of results, and draw conclusions from those results to modify or validate the hypotheses. That's the scientific method, limited in scope but powerful in application.

3. Unless one has undergone the discipline of thinking through the steps of the method, one has no idea how much certainty one can place in the various pieces of the puzzle. I have a great deal of confidence in some aspects of modern cosmology because I know the experimental basis for them; an example of this would be the tri-hydrogen reaction. On the other hand, some aspects are almost pure speculation (gravitons, for example) and I can hold onto them very lightly. The speculation is necessary, not only because the human mind wants to see the whole picture even when a puzzle piece is missing, but also because the missing pieces provide a locus for new experimentation.

Signing a blank cheque? That reminds me of the spectacular claim in the May 2003 SciAm article by Max Tegmark that

Cosmologists infer the presence of Level II parallel universes by scrutinizing the properties of our universe. These properties, including the strength of the forces of nature and the number of observable space and time dimensions, were established by random processes during the birth of our universe. Yet they have exactly the values that sustain life. That suggests the existence of other universes with other values.
Now, talk about a blank cheque! Our universe looks fine-tuned so there must be a zillion flops out there.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Science teaching: The peril in the big questions

Physicist Brian Greene urges a soldier in Iraq, "Put a little science in your life"in a recent New York Times article (June 1, 2008).

The soldier had written him to say that

in that hostile and lonely environment, a book I’d written had become a kind of lifeline. As the book is about science — one that traces physicists’ search for nature’s deepest laws — the soldier’s letter might strike you as, well, odd.

But it’s not. Rather, it speaks to the powerful role science can play in giving life context and meaning.
Greene feels that the way science is taught today robs it of that context and meaning. Students, he says, are taught the technical details, in the belief that they must master A before moving on to B. But, he believes,

In fact, many students I’ve spoken to have little sense of the big questions those technical details collectively try to answer: Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How does the brain give rise to consciousness? Like a music curriculum that requires its students to practice scales while rarely if ever inspiring them by playing the great masterpieces, this way of teaching science squanders the chance to make students sit up in their chairs and say, “Wow, that’s science?”
Okay, but here's the problem, Brian: Wow. That's NOT science.

If I understand Big Bang cosmology (the accepted view) correctly, the universe didn't come "from" anywhere. There was no From to come from.

True, many current cosmologists are flirting with time before the Big Bang, but that's for young science geniuses, not for the average student, who - when hearing far-flung theories - won't be able to distinguish science from science fiction. Nor can I, in many cases.

Look, half the time, teachers can't get across basic concepts of gravity, like why objects fall into orbit around the Earth. The reason that speculations about time before the Big Bang would interest students is precisely because they distract from the main classroom business of becoming familiar with non-intuitive information and trying to grasp counterintuitive concepts at a much lower level.

And with respect to the origin of life, not only does no one know how life originated, it may never be possible to find out. The best we can really do is construct a model via intelligent design. Then we can only say, it might have happened this way.

Of course, we could then go on to enforce, as a dogma that it did happen this way and declare the problem solved. Presumably, to judge from his other comments, Dr. Greene would not want that outcome. But I bet many others do, because it enables them to declare a problem that is likely unsolveable solved.

And with respect to - for example - how the brain gives rise to consciousness (a key topic of The Spiritual Brain), current neuroscience is wedded to an unworkable approach as a matter of materialist dogma. Again, one unworkable model may briefly triumph and become a dogma, justifying the forays of its fanatics into the persecution of dissenters.

Hello? Did someone mention Darwinian evolution? No, Greene wisely doesn't. What I thought was him mentioning Darwinian evolution was just another Darwin mob thundering by, trundling an increasingly shabby Icon of the Peacock's Tail.

Essentially, Greene means well but science teachers can only do what he wants by turning science into a sort of religion. The new religion may inspire people, of course, but - especially in science - the devil lurks in the details. In this case, the details that will not be properly learned, which are necessary for proper evaluation of the claims made.
Note: The image above is NASA's all-sky map frm the COBE Explorer.

Friday, June 20, 2008

You heard it here first, or last, or anyway here: The universe is a donut

Yeah. A donut. We learned the truth at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, or else ... somewhere else. Here's the free donut:
The idea that the universe is finite and relatively small, rather than infinitely large, first became popular in 2003, when cosmologists noticed unexpected patterns in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – the relic radiation left behind by the Big Bang.

- from Zeeya Merali's "Doughnut-shaped Universe bites back", Nature News (28 May 2008)
The hole is the copy behind the paywall (premium content). Sorry. There are quite a few comments though, including,
I believe the universe IS donut shaped. That's because the closest 'other' universe is shaped like a giant cup of hot coffee - and we're headed straight for it.

25 May, 2008 Posted by: Arfy Warfy
I haven't heard much more than Homer Simpson jokes about this one, and I am still trying to catch up with the surfer dude who solved the riddle of the universe last November.

P.S.: I realize that this illustration is Earth as a donut, but look, we must start somewhere.

Could God live in an infinite sea of universes? Depends ...

Toronto journalist David Warren notes, in Crisis magazine, that the multiverse concept is compatible with Christianity in the sense that God could make many universes if he wished. But all would be rationally ordered (though not necessarily ordered as we would wish), and follow knowable laws. He recounts,

There was a famous controversy between Fr Georges LemaƮtre, the Belgian priest who first presented the "hypothesis of the primaeval atom," and Pope Pius XII, who leapt upon the idea as evidence that science had proved God. LemaƮtre warned the Pope not to put his faith in transient empirical science.

Among those taking Pope Pius's side of this controversy is the great living American physicist, Frank Tipler. His recent book, The Physics of Christianity (Doubleday) is the latest of three (The Physics of Immortality, 1994, and before that, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, 1986, co-written with John Barrow) in which he develops the notion that a candid view of quantum mechanics enables us to hypothesize not only an Alpha but an Omega point to our actual universe, and further requires the existence of a finite but large number of parallel, "multiple universes" pointing towards a third singularity, completing the set. (Three-in-one and one-in-three.)

I leave the interested reader to struggle with his contentions alone. What most interests me in Prof Tipler's works are not his worldly interpretations of physical theory, but his core argument. For he is saying (apparently, along with Galileo) that our universe (or "multiverse") must be all of one piece, and that all of the (often extraordinary) claims of the Christian religion can be made compatible with unchanging and knowable physical laws.
I've always had a soft spot for Christian physicist Tipler. I don't get his point of view at all, for reasons explained here, but I agree with Bryan Appleyard that he is a good head, even if somewhat askew.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"Privileged planet" astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez: Dissing St. Carl in his own church

My Deprogram column in just-published Salvo 5 deals with "privileged planet" astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, who discovered, at Iowa State University that when atheism goes head-to-head with science in a politically correct environment, atheism wins hands down:

The Privileged Planet takes on the assertion of popular-astronomy saint Carl Sagan that Earth is merely a “pale blue dot”—both insignificant and wholly unremarkable. It clearly explains Sagan’s arguments for such, and then provides overwhelming evidence that they are false. Gonzalez thought that in doing so, his film was merely setting the science record straight.

But no. For the secular elite, Gonzalez—a Christian—is a dangerous heretic. He was dissing St. Carl in his own church, the Smithsonian. To the elite, “religion” is okay if you just stupid-holler for Jesus. But it is dangerous if you provide evidence against materialism.

It certainly proved so for him. Despite an excellent publication record, he was denied tenure.

For me, the telling feature of this story is ... the steady stream of mediocrities who write to me and demand that I recognize that Gonzalez does not deserve tenure.

As a journalist, I try to be evenhanded, but I struggle with a profound distaste for these people. ... Their vicious comments are their odious legacy, whereas Gonzalez’s research is his.
Gonzalez is also featured in the Expelled film, and, from my mailbox today, in a podcast on Intelligent Design: the Future in which he talks about Sagan's

Copernican Principle and his latest research on extrasolar planets. Is our place in the universe special or purposeful? Listen in as Dr. Gonzalez answers that question and shares his future research plans.
He is now at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

Will the cosmic multiverse Landscape ensure the triumph of intelligent design?

Recently, I read string theorist Leonard Susskind's The Cosmic Landscape (Little, Brown & Co., 2005), so it was fun to hear him explain why his Landscape idea alarms many physicists,
I have been accused of advocating an extremely dangerous idea.

According to some people, the "Landscape" idea will eventually ensure that the forces of intelligent design (and other unscientific religious ideas) will triumph over true science. From one of my most distinguished colleagues:

From a political, cultural point of view, it's not that these arguments are religious but that they denude us from our historical strength in opposing religion.

Others have expressed the fear that my ideas, and those of my friends, will lead to the end of science (methinks they overestimate me). One physicist calls it "millennial madness."
The Landscape (note the upper case), in his words, is an "enormous space of possibilities, whose multiplicity may exceed ten to the 500 power," essentially a multiverse.

This was part of a 2006 "What is your dangerous idea?" schtick at The Edge. Susskind answers the obvious question:
Why is it that so many physicists find these ideas alarming? Well, they do threaten physicists' fondest hope, the hope that some extraordinarily beautiful mathematical principle will be discovered: a principle that would completely and uniquely explain every detail of the laws of particle physics (and therefore nuclear, atomic, and chemical physics). The enormous Landscape of Possibilities inherent in our best theory seems to dash that hope.

What further worries many physicists is that the Landscape may be so rich that almost anything can be found: any combination of physical constants, particle masses, etc. This, they fear, would eliminate the predictive power of physics. Environmental facts are nothing more than environmental facts. They worry that if everything is possible, there will be no way to falsify the theory — or, more to the point, no way to confirm it. Is the danger real? We shall see.
Actually, most of the 2006 Edgy ideas were not dangerous at all, just goofy and probably wrong.

As it happens, according to other cosmologists, string theory is unravelling and coming unstrung.

According to SFGATE, hardly averse to new or wonky ideas (better together, actually), announced breathlessly in 2005:
The most celebrated theory in modern physics faces increasing attacks from skeptics who fear it has lured a generation of researchers down an intellectual dead end.
and ...
skeptics suggest it's the latest sign of how string theorists, sometimes called "superstringers," try to colorfully camouflage the theory's flaws, like "a 50-year-old woman wearing way too much lipstick," jokes Robert B. Laughlin, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Stanford. "People have been changing string theory in wild ways because it has never worked."

Already, the split over string theory has caused tensions at some of the nation's university physics departments. "The physics department at Stanford effectively fissioned over this issue," said Laughlin, now on sabbatical in South Korea. "I think string theory is textbook 'post-modernism' (and) fueled by irresponsible expenditures of money."
Okay, well, let's have another look at intelligent design. The government never funded it - a sure point in its favour in this environment.

On the other hand, should string theorists wait for rescue by the Large Hadron Collider (gateway to other universes)?

By the way, does anyone know what happened to that surfer dude who was supposed to have solved the riddle of the universe last November? If so, e-mail me at

Monday, June 16, 2008

Murchison meteorite claimed to hold genetic materials ... well, maybe

In "Aussie rocks may hold key to life on earth", the Sydney Morning Herald advises us that "Scientists have found DNA molecules in a meteorite that landed Down Under":

GENETIC material from outer space found in a meteorite in Australia may have played a key role in the origin of life on Earth, a study to be published tomorrow has found.

European and US scientists have proved for the first time two bits of genetic coding, called nucleobases, contained in the meteor fragment, are truly extraterrestrial.

Previous studies had suggested the space rocks, which landed near Murchison, Victoria, in 1969, might have been contaminated on impact.

The two molecules identified, uracil and xanthine, "are present in our DNA and RNA", said lead author Zita Martins, a researcher at Imperial College London.

An interesting characteristic of pop science media, is that you only find out what is seriously wrong with one theory about the origin of life when the article is promoting a different one. So we read,
Competing theories suggest nucleobases were synthesised closer to home, but Dr Martins said the atmospheric conditions of early Earth would have rendered that process difficult or impossible.
Shoot that guy. He is some kind of creationist, isn't he, just like the Big Bang fundies.

A biology major friend informs me that to call uracil "genetic material" is like calling silica "computer material". Uracil is one of many small molecules found in RNA, a molecular complex that transfers the genetic information from DNA to proteins. Another friend advises that in life forms xanthine is a metabolic intermediate involved in the breaking down of purine nucleotides (not in building them up).

Of course, at the end, the punch line is offered to co-author Mark Sephton, of Imperial College, London:
"As more and more of life's raw materials are discovered in objects from space, the possibility of life springing forth wherever the right chemistry is present becomes more likely."

Well, not exactly. Given that we do not know how life originated, we can't really calculate the odds of it happening more than once.

Hope springs eternal. Sure, I wish that "they" were really out there too, but if "they" never return my calls, well ... at a certain point, long passed ...

By the way, another friend points to Stanley Miller's paper on RNA:
Stanley L. Miller*
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0506
Accepted May 8, 1998.

High-temperature origin-of-life theories require that the components of the first genetic material are stable. We therefore have measured the half-lives for the decomposition of the nucleobases. They have been found to be short on the geologic time scale. At 100°C, the growth temperatures of the hyperthermophiles, the half-lives are too short to allow for the adequate accumulation of these compounds (t1/2 for A and G ≈ 1 yr; U = 12 yr; C = 19 days). Therefore, unless the origin of life took place extremely rapidly (<100 yr), we conclude that a high-temperature origin of life may be possible, but it cannot involve adenine, uracil, guanine, or cytosine. The rates of hydrolysis at 100°C also suggest that an ocean-boiling asteroid impact would reset the prebiotic clock, requiring prebiotic synthetic processes to begin again. At 0°C, A, U, G, and T appear to be sufficiently stable (t1/2 ≥ 106 yr) to be involved in a low-temperature origin of life. However, the lack of stability of cytosine at 0°C (t1/2 = 17,000 yr) raises the possibility that the GC base pair may not have been used in the first genetic material unless life arose quickly (<106 yr) after a sterilization event. A two-letter code or an alternative base pair may have been used instead.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The butterfly effect: Totally wrong? Not even wrong? Not even a butterfly?

Science journalist Peter Dizikes explains in the Boston Globe (June 8, 2008) how the public gets the famous "butterfly effect" "totally wrong":

The name stems from Lorenz's suggestion that a massive storm might have its roots in the faraway flapping of a tiny butterfly's wings.

Translated into mass culture, the butterfly effect has become a metaphor for the existence of seemingly insignificant moments that alter history and shape destinies. Typically unrecognized at first, they create threads of cause and effect that appear obvious in retrospect, changing the course of a human life or rippling through the global economy.

Dizikes reminds us of The Butterfly Effect (2004) and Robert Redford's Havana, where suddenly mathwise Robert Redford informs Lena Olin, "A butterfly can flutter its wings over a flower in China and cause a hurricane in the Caribbean. They can even calculate the odds."

But, he says, the late MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz really meant the opposite:
The larger meaning of the butterfly effect is not that we can readily track such connections, but that we can't. To claim a butterfly's wings can cause a storm, after all, is to raise the question: How can we definitively say what caused any storm, if it could be something as slight as a butterfly? Lorenz's work gives us a fresh way to think about cause and effect, but does not offer easy answers.
He closes, "Science helps us understand the universe, but as Lorenz showed, it sometimes does so by revealing the limits of our understanding."

Preach it, brother. But a daisy drooping on the mountainside will virally market the opposite message across the globe. For one thing, many people would rather have a wrong understanding than a limited one. And after all, you can make a movie out of the butterfly myth and all you can make out of the correction is a theory in science. At least so far ...

Monday, June 9, 2008

Coffee break: First image of water on Mars ...

Well, what did you expect? Little green men? Now get back to work already, okay?

PS: This was forwarded to me. It might be an Astronomy Picture of the Day, or might not. If it is a copyright violation, tell Huff, Huff, and Puff to let me know at and I will take it down. Goodness knows, the idea is obvious enough, and maybe the recent Expelled ruling in favour of the filmmakers will protect me for now.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Will the life found on Mars be the scuzz from somebody's shirt collar?

Here Eric Hand for Nature News explains:
“We will see organics, for sure, because we’re bringing them,” says Aaron Zent, a mission scientist from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. Likely contaminants include skin flakes, dead microbes and volatile lubricants. “The problem with an instrument so sensitive is all you detect is your own schmutz,” says Zent.

[ ... ]

The $420 million Phoenix mission, by comparison, is low-budget, built from parts recycled from a cancelled mission — the Mars Surveyor Lander — that had been kept in a warehouse – and how much dust those parts gathered is a worry. “We’re doing a quick and dirty organic analysis,” says TEGA lead scientist William Boynton, of the University of Arizona in Tucson. “We’re kind of doing it on a shoestring.” ("'Dandruff' could contaminate Phoenix landing site" June 6, 2008)
and here Ewen Callaway weighs in for New Scientist, revealing that despite NASA's war on bacteria (to prevent spacecraft contaminating extraterrestrial environments),
Among the bacteria in the assembly room were bugs able to tolerate heat, cold, and salt. One particularly resilient bug called Bacillus pumilus can withstand doses of UV light that kill nearly all other life.

"This is the hardiest organism we have ever isolated," says Parag Vaishampayan, a microbiologist at JPL, who presented the findings this week at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Boston, Massachusetts.

- "Could microbes on Phoenix survive on Mars?" (June 6, 2008)

Nice to know. If the space aliens ever invade, pumilus could be our secret weapon.

The hardihood of some bacteria can either demonstrate that life should be common in the universe or that after 4 billion years, bacteria have found a piece of just about every type of action on Earth - whether or not they have ever existed or ever could exist anywhere else.

We shall see.

Humanity killing the universe?

You mean, we are responsible not only for the death of the passenger pigeon, but the whole shebang?

And here we thought global warming was a problem. Who would have realized that humanity is shortening" the universe's life? That's American physicists Lawrence Krauss and James Dent's theory, anyway, as explained by Roger Highfield, Britain's Telegraph's science editor (21/11/2007),
The damaging allegations are made by Profs Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and James Dent of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, who suggest that by making this observation [of dark energy] in 1998 we may have determined that the cosmos is in a state when it was more likely to end. "Incredible as it seems, our detection of the dark energy may provide evidence that the universe will ultimately decay," says Prof Krauss.

"The intriguing question is this," Prof Krauss told the Telegraph. "If we attempt to apply quantum mechanics to the universe as a whole, and if our present state is unstable, then what sets the clock that governs decay?

"Once we determine our current state by observations, have we effectively determined that the clock is not running at late times? If so, as incredible as it may seem, our detection of dark energy may imply both an unstable universe and a short life expectancy."

And here I thought the universe was way older and more immense and more steady than us.

Actually, I get the distinct feeling from Roger Highfield's account that he does not take the Krauss-Dent theory with the seriousness that its authors might hope. Read it and see if you agree with me.

Hints of a time before the big bang? Or of reaching for a story?

Does our universe contain hints of a time before the Big Bang?, based on the cosmic microwave background?:
Although this microwave background is mostly smooth, the Cobe satellite in 1992 discovered small fluctuations that were believed to be the seeds from which the galaxy clusters we see in today's Universe grew.

Dr Adrienne Erickcek, and colleagues from the California Institute for Technology (Caltech), now believes these fluctuations contain hints that our Universe "bubbled off" from a previous one.

Their data comes from Nasa's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), which has been studying the CMB since its launch in 2001.
Apparently, on one side of the sky, the cosmic microwave background fluctuations are 10% stronger than on the other.
Sean Carroll conceded that this might just be a coincidence, but pointed out that a natural explanation for this discrepancy would be if it represented a structure inherited from our universe's parent.
The problem to solve, according to the BBC News article, "Hints of 'time before Big Bang" by Chris Lintott (Co-presenter, BBC Sky At Night, St Louis, US) is the fact that time runs in only one direction - forward - but other forces in nature can be reversed. Conventionally, the second law of thermodynamics is held responsible. But, says Prof. Sean Carroll (California Institute of Technology), cosmologists should broaden their horizons.

An American physicist friend insists that this is all "horse puckey", and I suspect he is right. Any time something can be reasonably explained as just "a coincidence", one might perhaps best explain it that way.

Friday, June 6, 2008

"Did you imagine that science was a disinterested pursuit of truth? Well, ... "

Your latest dose of David Berlinski: Well, no, you don't have to read it, but ...
Questions about the parameters and laws of physics form a single insistent question in thought: Why are things as they are when what they are seems anything but arbitrary?

One answer is obvious. It is the one that theologians have always offered: The universe looks like a put-up job because it is a put-up job. That this answer is obvious is no reason to think it false. Nonetheless, the answer that common sense might suggest is deficient in one respect: It is emotionally unacceptable because a universe that looks like a put-up job puts off a great many physicists.
They have thus made every effort to find an alternative. Did you imagine that science was a disinterested pursuit of truth?

Well, you were wrong.

From The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (P. 112)

Yes, of course Berlinski is on YouTube. Don't write to me to complain. It's fine with me. But whatever you do, don't show this to Darwin Boy if there's a fire code in place.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

"Now remind me again why we needed this multiverse theory in the first place?"

Physicist Rob Sheldon writes,

I have a blog where I ramble far too long on these things, and an academic web site, back when the WWW was academic.

So all that by way of introduction to your plea for a physicist to discuss multi-verses. I'm sorely tempted to recite Lewis Carroll's "Walrus and the Carpenter", where we could discuss
"ships and sealing wax, cabbages and kings.
Why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings."

But if I can't interest you in horticulture and paparazzi, perhaps I can be compelled to discuss porcine cosmology.

This is my brief answer to multiverse theory:

a) Suppose everything that the multiverse people say is right, including their mangling of the language.

b) Now suppose one of those gadzillion universes (I mean multiverses) has a very smart, self-assembling computer-life that has converted a galaxy or two into a giant brain. Obviously, since there are an infinite number of universes, this isn't a hard thing to imagine at all for a TV addict, and something that obviously perfect would be even more perfect if it existed, therefore it has to exist....

c) Now suppose that since the existence of these multiverses is as plain as the nose on your face to every intelligent astrophysicist, that this super-intelligence knows about your existence too, and knows how to communicate across multiverses. (It's a quantum thing, so don't argue with
me, besides, I told you that it was more intelligent than you.)

d) So, like, it's trying to convince you that it exists, and you're so overwhelmed by its intelligence that to you it appears to be God.

Ergo, multiverses prove that God exists and has a plan for your universe.

Now, remind me again why we needed this multiverse theory in the first place?

Denyse replies: We needed the multiverse theory because if we wanted to have a learned congress abut the universe we would be asked to narrow our topic a bit, right? The nice thing about the multiverse is that since absolutely everything is true, there is no such need.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

But then maybe the entire universe is just a wave function . . .

Stephen Hawking has tried his hand at designing a design-free universe, as well. In A Brief History of Time, he suggests:

So long as the universe had a beginning, we would suppose it had a creator (the cosmological argument). But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?

How can the universe both be finite and have no boundary? To make this work, Hawking relies on imaginary time, rather than real time. Chemists sometimes use the concept of time measured in imaginary numbers, such as the square root of minus 2, in order to solve equations. He pictures the universe in imaginary time as being like a wave, with no one point that is the beginning. The problem here is the reality check. When chemists use imaginary time to solve equations, they always have to convert back to real values. Once we get back to real time, the universe does have a beginning.

Hawking acknowledges this, saying that “when one goes back to the real time in which we live, however, there will still appear to be singularities.” In other words, a beginning. He suggests:

In real time, the universe has a beginning and an end at singularities that form a boundary to space-time and at which the laws of science break down. But in imaginary time, there are no singularities or boundaries. So maybe what we call imaginary time is really more basic, and what we call real is just an idea that we invent to help us describe what we think the universe is like.

So … what we call real is “just an idea we invent”? That is a leap of faith, a very different leap of faith from the belief that there is a God whose existence guarantees that what we observe in science experiments, however strange, is real and is happening. Which leap makes more sense for science?

From By Design or by Chance?, page 37.

Multiverse theory: Replacing the Big Fix with the Sure Thing?

In 1982, astronomer Fred Hoyle, an atheist, famously said
A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with the chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.
Beyond question? Perhaps, but not beyond imagination. What if there are many flopped universes? Or, whether there are or not, people are prepared to believe that they exist.

That may be true today, irrespective of evidence, mathematician David Berlinski suggests. In The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, Berlinski implies that one reason for the attraction of multiverse or many universes theory, sometimes called the "Landscape", as in his comments below, is that it suits a local, modern mindset so perfectly: The idea that everything is really true somewhere "has been current in every college classroom for at least fifty years. It arises spontaneously in discussion, like soap bubbles in water." (P. 123)

He goes on to say,
The Landscape ... is all-purpose in its intent. It works no matter the theory. And it works by means of the simple principle that by multiplying universes, the Landscape dissolves improbabilities. To the question What are the odds? the landscape provides the invigorating answer that it hardly matters. If the fine-structure constant has in our universe one value, in some other universe it has another value. Given sufficiently many universes, things improbable in one must from the perspective of them all appear certain.

The same reasoning applies to questions about the laws of nature. Why is Newton's universal law of gravitation true? No need to ask. In another universe, it is not.

The Big Fix has by this maneuver been supplanted by the Sure Thing. (p. 124)
Indeed, that's precisely the problem. Atheists wanted to eliminate God by implying that our universe is not special. But do they risk eliminating science instead? After all, science consists in saying what is specifically true and what is not. But if everything is true eventually somewhere, why do science? Certainly not to develop a final theory or anything like that.

Neutrino - advised by media consultant to remain elusive ...

The Ghost Particle is airing tonight on PBS, featuring, of course, the neutrino:
In this program, NOVA probes the secret ingredient of the cosmos: swarms of invisible particles that fill every cubic inch of space and just may explain how the universe was created. Trillions of ghostly neutrinos move through our bodies every second without us noticing a thing. Yet without them the sun wouldn't shine and the elements that make up our world wouldn't exist. This program explores the 70-year struggle so far to understand the most elusive of all elementary particles, the neutrino.

Narrated by British actor Juliet Stevenson, "The Ghost Particle" is the story of a discovery that altered scientists' understanding of what the universe is made of and how it was first formed. NOVA accompanies scientists into the laboratory, revealing astonishing footage of bizarre experiments. Computer animation brings to life the neutrino particle, which is at once invisible and yet utterly essential to all life.

A physicist friend used to work in the SNO program, tracking neutrinos in a mine in Sudbury, Ontario (Canada) that houses a neutrino detector. He liked to say that the physicists were doing the sun's bookkeeping.

Now that the neutrino has been found to have mass, perhaps we should not think of it as a ghost, but rather as a scrawny celebrity, "hiding" to attract attention?

Hello, God: This is the Big Bang. Okay, look, I done it. What do I do NOW?

From David Berlinski's The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions,

Those who believe in God and those who do not may resolve their differences by agreeing to say nothing. There is nonetheless a striking point at which Big Bang cosmology and traditional theological claims intersect. The universe has not proceeded from the everlasting to the everlasting. The cosmological beginning may be obscure, but the universe is finite in time. This is something that until the twentieth century was not known. When it became known, it astonished the community of physicists - and everyone else. If nothing else, the facts of Big Bang cosmology indicate that one objection to the argument that Thomas Aquinas offered is empirically unfounded: Causes in nature do come to an end. If science has shown that God does not exist, it has not been by appealing to Big Bang cosmology. The hypothesis of God's existence and the facts of contemporary cosmology are consistent. p. 80
Of course, science (I assume that Berlinski means by science here, physics) has not shown that God does not exist but likely the opposite. That's probably why so many atheists - when they weren't looking to alternative universes - looked to neuroscience to save their belief system, as Mario Beauregard and I discuss in The Spiritual Brain. If anything, the human brain (the most complex item in the known universe) has pretty much fried their unpalatable system and served it on stale toast. See, for example,
Materialists start to come to grips with global failure, but materialism dies hard,
"Neural Buddhists, Christians, and the Mud that failed", and
Neural Buddhism: Do neurons get reincarnated?

on why all that isn't working any more.

I will be reviewing Berlinski's book this summer (when the bench arbour is finally both warm and dry), and will link to the review.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Newton: Does every genius need a tincture of crackpot?

An excerpt from Christopher Hitchens' effusion of praise for Isaac Newton, "Flaws of Gravity" in Vanity Fair online (April 14, 2008):
Newton spent much of his time dwelling in a self-generated fog of superstition and crankery. He believed in the lost art of alchemy, whereby base metals can be transmuted into gold, and the surviving locks of his hair show heavy traces of lead and mercury in his system, suggesting that he experimented upon himself in this fashion, too. (That would also help explain the fires in his room, since alchemists had to keep a furnace going at all times for their mad schemes.) Not content with the narrow views of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life, he thought that there was a kind of universal semen in the cosmos, and that the glowing tails of the comets he tracked through the sky contained replenishing matter vital for life on Earth. He was a religious crackpot who, according to Ackroyd, considered Catholics to be “offspring of the Whore of Rome.” He was also consumed by arcane readings of the book of Revelation and obsessed with the actual measurements of the Temple of Solomon. Newton elected to write his already difficult Principia Mathematica in Latin, boasting that this would make it even less accessible to the vulgar. He is still revered in the little world of esoteric and conspiratorial mania, featuring as a member of “the Priory of Sion” in The Da Vinci Code. And secularists and rationalists conspire, too, in their way, to keep his mythic reputation alive.

I knew there was some reason I liked Newton so much. He did nothing by halves, and that included crackpottery. It's good of Hitch to remind us, while reviewing Peter Ackroyd's brief Newton biography.