Saturday, August 23, 2008

Major media, imagining themselves sober, think there are many universes, not just double vision

Sometimes it seems hard to believe, but the idea that there are zillions of universes out there is not, for some people, merely the Drunkard's Excuse (= in another universe, I was sober, did not meet that woman, she is not infanticipating ....) Mmmm, yeah.

Anyway, here is CalTech's Sean Carroll's latest, in a puffball interview with the LA Times (June 28, 2008):

LA Times: The universe is more than what we see?

Carroll: The reason why you are not surprised when you open a deck of cards and it's in perfect order is not because it's just easy and natural to find it in perfect order, it's because the deck of cards is not a closed system. It came from a bigger system in which there is a card factory somewhere that arranged it. So I think there is a previous universe somewhere that made us and we came out.

We're part of a bigger structure.

LA Times: Are you saying that our universe came from some other universe?

Carroll: Right. It came from a bigger space-time that we don't observe. Our universe came from a tiny little bit of a larger high-entropy space.

I'm not saying this is true; I'm saying this is an idea worth thinking about.

LA Times: You're saying that in some universes there could be a person like you drinking coffee, but out of a blue cup rather than a red one.

Carroll: If our local, observable universe is embedded in a larger structure, a multiverse, then there's other places in this larger structure that have denizens in them that call their local environs the universe. And conditions in those other places could be very different. Or they could be pretty similar to what we have here.
Or they could just not exist.

Why do so few journalists have the guts to just ask why, apart from the need to "bet against" God (which Carroll admits is an issue at the end of the article), physicists are remotely considering this stuff?

Friend Casey Luskin (yes, yes, an evil Disco) notes that NewsWeek seems to be buying this brand uncritically too.

Too bad. There would be way more fun sending it all up than listening to these physics nerds as if they were prophets.

PS: If you see the image above you are, like, lost in a sea of cosmos. (Hint: That's the name of the flower.)

Flatland: Helping us think about the dimensions of our universe

A while back, a friend mentioned to me "Flatland (1884), a romance of many dimensions" - a book that is precisely what it claims - an attempt to understand what a two-dimensional world would be like.

It is worth thinking about when we are asked to consider that there may be more than three dimensions of space.

Well, in part at least. Author Edwin A. Abbott (1838-1926) clearly intended quite a lot of social commentary as well.

Of course, the subject of two-dimensional thinking - or even one-dimensional thinking - obviously suggests a chance for an author to condemn short-sighted social policy. But still, in addition to his two-dimensional world, Abbott also offers us a geometrical glimpse into a one-dimensional world, dominated inevitably by a supreme egotist. Needless to say, it is not a very interesting or promising place.

Having read this short book, available on line, I think it is a good way to understand dimensions. It may help us grasp what additional dimensions in our own universe would be like (assuming there are any).

For example, Abbott makes the two-dimensional Flatlander in his story confront his three-dimensional companion,
But, just as there was the realm of Flatland, though that poor puny Lineland Monarch could neither turn to left nor right to discern it, and just as there was close at hand, and touching my frame, the land of Three Dimensions, though I, blind senseless wretch, had no power to touch it, no eye in my interior to discern it, so of a surety there is a Fourth Dimension, which my Lord perceives with the inner eye of thought. And that it must exist my Lord himself has taught me. Or can he have forgotten what he himself imparted to his servant?

In One Dimension, did not a moving Point produce a Line with two terminal points?

In Two Dimensions, did not a moving Line produce a Square with four terminal points?

In Three Dimensions, did not a moving Square produce - did not this eye of mine behold it - that blessed Being, a Cube, with eight terminal points?

And in Four Dimensions shall not a moving Cube - alas, for Analogy, and alas for the Progress of Truth, if it be not so - shall not, I say, the motion of a divine Cube result in a still more divine Organization with sixteen terminal points?

Behold the infallible confirmation of the Series, 2, 4, 8, 16: is not this a Geometrical Progression?
Well, in the story, the three-dimensional human being obviously enjoys his superiority and can simply not easily confront that idea.

Go here to buy the book, with Ian Stewart's notes. Most readers will benefit from the notes, I expect.

Science fiction mag discovers intelligent design theory

Dave Springer noted recently at Uncommon Descent that after 40 years, Analog Magazine had finally tackled intelligent design:
What I found really amazing about this was that this is the first time, to the best of my knowledge, that Analog has published any fact OR fiction article which explicitly uses the phrase “Intelligent Design” (capitalized no less). What a delightful breath of fresh air. The editor must have felt like he was letting Pandora out of her box. Let’s hope there’s much more to come.
I bet they chicken out. Plenty of time to prove me wrong though.

Springer has also expressed doubts about string theory as the saviour of the no-design universe: Apparently, a physicist has estimated that there are now 10^500 possible solutions to a popular version of string theory.
A few years ago, there were only a few and none produced a universe like ours. If any of the rest do, how would we know?
10^500 is a, like, big number to hunt through.

Cue space aliens: You guys are up next, just after Richard Dawkins. Relax, fellas, he believes in you now.

This just in: A kind reader (wrf3) [?] has just written to say:
It has been a long time since I've read an SF mag so I'm not as up on the genre as I used to be, but I do read the Years Best SF anthology edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. In the twelfth of the series, published in 2007, there is the short story Applied Mathematical Theology by the respected author and scientist Gregory Benford, who is professor emeritus of physics at UC Irvine. The very short story was first published in Nature and tells of finding a non-random pattern buried in the cosmic microwave background. It's ID through and through, even though the term doesn't appear in the story.

I would have thought that the publication of this, especially in Nature, would have been picked up at Uncommon Descent, Colliding Universes, or The ID Update, but I never saw it and 30 seconds with Google didn't turn up much.
Ah well, we are all volunteers, and sneak the time to do this, so we can not troll the Net as we might. Now back to work.

Weird news from far-off galaxies ...

Rachel Courtland at New Scientist reports that "Bloating galaxies confound astronomers" (19 August 2008).
Astronomers continue to puzzle over the recent discovery of a strange population of dense, compact galaxies that existed in the early universe but are nowhere to be seen today. They suspect the galaxies somehow puffed up into the bloated behemoths we see around us, but new research shortens the timescale during which this mysterious swelling could have happened.
The problem seems to be that no one knows how they could have puffed up as quickly as they apparently have, if our galaxies are normal.
Various explanations have been proposed for why nearby galaxies are "bloated" compared to these faroff compact ones, but none accounts for all of the observations.
That sounds promising, actually. Let's hope for new discoveries about our universe as a result.

Astronomers assume that the universe increased in space as well as time since the Big Bang and that nothing travels faster than light. Therefore, the light that is reaching us now from these distant galaxies started there 10 billion years ago, about 3.7 million years after the Big Bang. That means we are looking at them as they were then, not as they are now. So if we see that one of the galaxies was very compact, that means it was very compact back then. It may not even exist any mor for all we know.

This might feel weird to us, in these days of instant messaging, but ironically our ancestors might understand better than we do. Centuries ago, it took up to a year to receive a letter from India or China. So you could be hearing from a person who had actually died in the meantime (but you might not find that out until months or years later). Astronomy of the far reaches of our universe is still like that. And unless someone invents faster-than-light (FTL) travel or messaging, it always will be.

Thus, the question is, assuming that the universe is pretty much the same in all directions (yes, that's another assumption astronomers make), the question is, what happened to the compact galaxies around us, and how did it happen?

Here's the abstract.

(Note: The image is from NASA ESA Hubble, of the use of on galaxy for a gravitational telescope to see galaxies 13 billion light years away.)

Big Bang exploded? Seriously, is there room for reasonable skepticism about the Big Bang?

Agnostic retired Australian political science prof Hiram Caton has been tackling the huge industry of pious legends and ridiculous reverence around Charles Darwin.

I also happened to mention to him the frothier bits of speculation about the multiverse, and he replied,

Your comments and criticisms of the 'multiverse' speculation are well taken; basically it's gibberish. That peer review journals publish this stuff is a stark statement of the fallibility of scientists. Admittedly, the atheist do-gooders have a problem with the prevailing Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe: it looks like creation ex nihilo! The theory was first advanced by Father Georges Lamaitre in 1927 and was endrosed by Pope Pius XI in 1952. So Dawkins types understandably find it a bit embarrassing.

But, he notes,

There's an alternative to the Big Bang--the steady state theory, for which there's extensive empirical evidence. The steady state is rather more amenable to their position than the Big Bang, yet as far as I know they never discuss it. Maybe they don't know about it.
Steady State theory (= the universe has always existed) was - as Stephen Hawking pointed out, a good theory. For one thing it could be falsified by evidence, and the official story is that it was (see below). That compares pretty favourably with the many mere speculations that seem to dominate cosmological discussions these days.

Here's Caton's page on Steady State theory. He grumbles, "NASA's more ideology infected than the American Medical Association, which is pretty far gone."

Come to think of it, agnostic mathematician David Berlinski has also published a skeptical look at Big Bang theory.

Berlinski is skeptical of a lot of cosmology these days. Here is one of his comments from his interview with The Observer's Ron Rosenbaum (June 7, 1998)

Speaking of the knee-jerk acceptance by trade book publishers of every faddish cosmological theory in the aftermath of Stephen Hawking's success with A Brief History of Time , he said, "A lot of stuff that gets into print is simply nonsensical. Alan Guth's derivation of something from nothing [in The Inflationary Universe ] is simply incandescent horseshit . Don't tell me you're deriving something from nothing when it's transparently obvious to any mathematician that this is incandescent nonsense."
Yes, it's old, but Berlinski's recent The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions enlarges on the theme.

Like most traditional Christians, I am partial to Big Bang theory because it backs up a theist's intuitions about the universe. one evangelistic ministry aimed at the science-minded, for example, uses the Big Bang is a central apologetic device. But that is precisely the reason people like me need to stay in touch with reasonable skepticism about it.

Here's a bit of what I wrote about it in By Design or by Chance?:

The story goes that Hoyle and two other physicists, Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold, went out one night in Cambridge in1946 to see a horror movie. It was one of those movies with a circular plot so the final scene is the same as the opening scene. Later that night, over glasses of brandy in Bondi’s apartment, the physicists were inspired to wonder if the universe is really like that movie. The end is just replaced by the beginning, over and over again.

In 1948, in a bold move, they proposed a new theory, the Steady State universe. They began by noting that the best evidence for the Big Bang is the fact that the universe is expanding. Most scientists assume that the universe is expanding from its own origin in a single point, as LemaƮtre had said.

However, Hoyle’s team argued, suppose the universe is expanding a little bit at a time, from everywhere at once? Perhaps hydrogen atoms, the simplest ones, can come into existence all by themselves by spontaneous generation. Just a few here and there, maybe one particle per cubic kilometre per year.9 It would add up, they said. The galaxies move apart because the new atoms shove other matter aside, and create an expanding—but still eternal—universe.

So . . . not with a Bang, but with a whimper, the universe leaks into existence.

Such a small whimper of creation eludes strict bookkeeping. To sticklers who demanded to know where all the individual newborn hydrogen atoms were coming from, the Steady State physicists replied with a question of their own: Is spontaneous creation of single atoms a bigger mystery than a Big Bang, according to which the whole universe comes into existence suddenly from nothing? So on either side there is a mystery. But which mystery is the real one?

And which is just a good plot device for a science fiction movie? That was the question they were posing.
Much later:

The Envelope, Please . . .

In the study that tested the two theories, the Big Bang predicted the correct amount of helium—about 25 percent—but the Steady State was way off.

In Hoyle’s own words:

Our results, together with further developments by William Fowler, Robert Wagoner and myself, became what even to this day is pretty well the strongest evidence for the big bang, particularly as the arguments were produced by members of what was seen as the steady state camp.

That did not stop Hoyle, who stubbornly continued to search for a No Bang theory to the end of his life. Most scientists respected him for his stubbornness, as was evident in the many eulogies written at the time of his death in 2001.17 Because he needed to find a source for atoms other than the Big Bang, he ended up doing important research on the way in which heavier elements are produced inside stars.
Find out the real reasons why there is an intelligent design controversy and why it doesn't and can't just go away:

Monday, August 18, 2008

Just up at The Mindful Hack

Brain: How much does brainpower matter to success? Some surprising answers, only one of which matters much

Neuroscience: Yes, we do think while we are asleep. And we solve problems too.

Neurotheology: Bad neurology and bad theology?

Consciousness: So familiar and yet so puzzling ...

Friday, August 15, 2008

Coffee! Coffee! The number 137 has its own Web page?


Yep. Its own Web page. In fact, several.

One thing about journalism, you learn something new every day.

I've been reading Robert Paster's New Physics and the Mind, in which he writes,
The number 137 has near-Kabbalistic meaning for some physicists.

Kabbalah is Jewish mystic interpretation, which includes numerologic aspects.

Max Born, an early quantum physicist and winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize in physics, wrote a 1936 paper "The Mysterious Number 137."

The number represents the fine structure constant, a fundamental parameter of physics, relating electromagnetic force strength to spacetime quanta.(P. 163)
Brent Nelson further advises at PhysLink,
The importance of the constant is that it measures the strength of the electromagnetic interaction. It is precisely because the constant is so small (i.e. 1/137 as opposed to 1/3 or 5 or 100...) that quantum electrodynamics (QED) works so amazingly well as a quantum theory of electromagnetism. It means that when we go to calculate simple processes, such as two electrons scattering off one another through the exchange of photons, we only need to consider the simple case of one photon exchange - every additional photon you consider is less important by a factor of 1/137. This is why theorists have been so successful at making incredibly accurate predictions using QED. By contrast, the equivalent 'fine-structure' constant for he theory of strong interactions (quantum chromodynamics or QCD) is just about 1 at laboratory energy scales. This makes calculating things in QCD much, much more involved.
137 is a prime number, of course, and numerologists offer further odd facts about it.

I am tempted to go on to 138, but I bet there isn't that much to know. See, I was right.

By the way, here's an excerpt from New Physics and the Mind.

Origin of life: Random origin of life was exploded by 1970s discovery - who didn't get the memo?

Recently, I've been reading Gerald Schroeder's The Hidden Face of God. Discussing the origin of life, he writes,
Until the mid-1970s, the accepted wisdom was that the origin of this organization that we refer to as life was the result of chance random reaction among atoms, gradually combining, one chance occurrence building upon another over eons of time until self-replication and then mutation produced the first biological cell. Three billion years were thought to have passed between the formation of liquid water on the formerly molten earth and the appearance of the first forms of life. ...

Two to three billion years was available for randomness to do its work. "Given so much time the [seemingly] impossible becomes the possible, the possible probable and the probable virtually certain. One had only to wait. Time itself [and the random reactions able to occur within those eons of time] performs the miracles." So wrote George Wald, professor of biology at Harvard University and Nobel laureate. The article appeared in the August 1954 issue of Scientific American, the most widely read science journal worldwide, the Broadway of scientific literature.

This speculation over life's origins has within it an important lesson: not to confuse accepted wisdom with revealed fact.

In the mid-1970s came the seminal discovery of Elso Barghoorn. He, like Wald, was at Harvard. Barghoorn assumed correctly that the first forms of life would be small, microbial in size. Using a scanning electron microscope, a tool able to identify minute shapes imperceptible to microscopes that probe images with visible light, Barghoorn searched the surfaces of polished slabs of stone taken from the oldest of rocks able to bear fossils. To the amazement of the scientific community, fossils of fully developed bacteria were found in rocks 3.6 billion years old. Further evidence based on fractionation between the light and heavy isotopes of carbon, a fractionation found in living organisms, indicated the origins of cellular life at close to 3,.8 billion years before the present, the same period in which liquid water first formed on Earth.

Overnight, the fantasy of billions of years of random reactions in warm little ponds brimming with fecund chemicals leading to life, evaporated. Elso Barghoorn had discovered a most perplexing fact: life, the most complexly organized system of atoms known in the universe, popped into being in the blink of a geological eye. (pp. 50-51)
Despite that, there are still people out there who believe that a random swish of chemicals is the origin of life. It's a cultural thing, I suppose. They need to believe that is true even if it can't be. It fits with the decor and the lifestyle, perhaps?

Yes, Schroeder appeared in Expelled. Book highly recommended.

(Note: Stephen E. Jones gives Wald's comment with in-line references:
"... since the origin of life belongs in the category of at-least-once phenomena, time is on its side. However improbable we regard this event, or any of the steps which it involves, given enough time it will almost certainly happen at least once ... The time with which we have to deal is of the order of two billion years. ... Time is in fact the hero of the plot. Given so much time, the `impossible' becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait: time itself performs the miracles" (Wald, G., "The Origin of Life," Scientific American, Vol. 191, No. 2, August 1954, pp.47-48)

Astronomer argues that we can test whether Earth is fine-tuned as a science lab

At the new Biologic Institute blog, Grove City astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez argues that Earth's unique position as a science lab is related to its fine-tuning for intelligent life. Here's a snippet:

... since the universe is constantly changing, how does its observability change over its history? In short, it offers a relatively brief window of opportunity for doing cosmology, and we happen to find ourselves in that window. In the future, galaxies will be farther apart; Classical Cepheids (an important type of standard candle) will be less common; and the CBR will be fainter as a result of the continuing expansion of the universe. When the universe is a few times its present age, the evidence of the Big Bang will no longer be available for observation. With this realization in mind, Abraham Loeb recently wrote, “The accelerating universe makes the study of cosmology a transient episode… ” [3].

Not only is this the best period in history for doing cosmology, it also seems to be the only period that can sustain living, breathing cosmologists. The early universe was a much more dangerous place, and in the future Sun-like stars and the geologically important radioisotopes will be rarer, both important requirements for intelligent life. So, it seems that the best time for observing is also the best time for observers!

But why should this be so? It isn’t easy to explain this in terms of mere coincidence because, on top of explaining why the universe seems set up for life, we now need to explain why it seems set up for discovery. The simple solution, of course, is the obvious one—that the universe was designed both for intelligent life and for discovery.

Is this idea testable?

I think it is. For instance, if additional examples of the link between life and discovery are found, this will strengthen the thesis, as would additional evidence for known examples. On the other hand, if additional study weakens the examples we have described, or shows them to be wrongly interpreted, then the thesis is weakened.
Read the rest at Biologic Institute. Carl Sagan, wherever you are, check your e-mail.

(Note: The image is from Reasons to Believe.)

This is Gonzalez's book, which expands on the theme:

Our unique solar system is less probable than our universe? - a reader writes

Reader Chris Beling offers some thoughts in response to philosopher William Lane Craig's view that millions of universes (the multiverse) are incompatible with the naturalism (materialism) the theory tries to save:
This argument for William Lane Craig's is very interesting and stimulating. Two points that come to mind however:

[1] I am doubtful if the probability "of our universe's low entropy condition obtaining by chance alone are on the order of 1:10^(10^123)" is the same thing as the probability of getting all the fundamental universal constants fine-tuned for our universe - which astronomers such as Hugh Ross put at around 1:10^50 [sorry the number may not be up-dated]. I think this distinction needs to be clarified.

[2] I am not sure how much muster this argument has against naturalism:

Based on Penrose the probability of a universe by chance is 1:10^(10^123) - a naturalist, due to lack of specific scientific theory on how universes are formed (universe generators), can easily speculate on as much probabilistic resource as he/she wishes - for example 10^(10^123) universes (or an uncountable number of universes). Alternatively he/she could say - we just got lucky [single shot thinking]

With regard to the Solar System, however, things are different. The probability of a solar system popping into existence by chance 1:10^(10^60). Things are different here because the naturalist is limited to our known universe - where there certainly are not 10^(10^60) settings for such an event to take place [10^80 is the number of fundamental particles in the universe]. I would think he/she could argue against solar systems popping up out of nowhere just based on this fact alone. Alternatively he/she could just say - we didn't get lucky [again single shot thinking].

A naturalist would thus have a valid explanation (based on the multiverse premise) for why we don't see solar systems popping up from random assemblies of particles?
Lost in the cosmos, are you? The photo is from my front garden in Toronto, where cosmos self-seed.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Multiverse incompatible with naturalism (materialism)?

Just as extraterrestrial life is a key theme of the grand narrative of atheistic materialism, infinite universes (the multiverse) is fast becoming another. One hears it more and more - it props up theses that would otherwise be entirely dismissable, and in turn it is propped up by the tiniest whiff of possibility. A friend points me to philosopher William Lane Craig's justifiably skeptical response:

Roger Penrose of Oxford University has calculated that the odds of our universe’s low entropy condition obtaining by chance alone are on the order of 1:1010(123), an inconceivable number. If our universe were but one member of a multiverse of randomly ordered worlds, then it is vastly more probable that we should be observing a much smaller universe. For example, the odds of our solar system’s being formed instantly by the random collision of particles is about 1:1010(60), a vast number, but inconceivably smaller than 1010(123). (Penrose calls it “utter chicken feed” by comparison [The Road to Reality (Knopf, 2005), pp. 762-5]). Or again, if our universe is but one member of a multiverse, then we ought to be observing highly extraordinary events, like horses’ popping into and out of existence by random collisions, or perpetual motion machines, since these are vastly more probable than all of nature’s constants and quantities’ falling by chance into the virtually infinitesimal life-permitting range. Observable universes like those strange worlds are simply much more plenteous in the ensemble of universes than worlds like ours and, therefore, ought to be observed by us if the universe were but a random member of a multiverse of worlds. Since we do not have such observations, that fact strongly disconfirms the multiverse hypothesis. On naturalism, at least, it is therefore highly probable that there is no multiverse.

So naturalism both needs it, and disconfirms it? Well then, contrary to the grand narrative, neither naturalism nor the multiverse is true or well-founded.

Extraterrestrial life: Are media "hypocritical" or just not able to change their story at this point?

Regarding the discovery of perchlorate on Mars - bad news for finding life there - a friend draws my attention to this comment in an August 4 AP press release,
"Scientists say the Phoenix spacecraft has found a substance in the Martian soil that might be detrimental to possible life. ... NASA is investigating whether the substance could have gotten there by contamination."
and comments,
Funny how the press never reports NASA studying whether life-friendly substances are the result of "contamination."
My friend thinks this is hypocrisy - but it isn't exactly. Many journalists have a grand story to tell, and any deviations must be treated as a minor plot inconvenience. The grand story goes like this:

- We find life on Mars
- That proves there is life - and lots of intelligent life - throughout the galaxy
- That in turn proves life got started on earth by chance
- That in turn proves that all religions except atheistic materialism are sentimental gush (standard newsroom wisdom)

In this dreamlab, the cameras zoom in on an amiable Francis Collins type who points out that you can still believe, of course. In other words, he tells the world loud and clear that it is not illegal to be an idiot.

The legacy mainstream media who front this stuff will probably go under (for unrelated reasons) before anyone notices that their grand narrative is falling apart and has become about as plausible as daytime TV drama. But ... it is very difficult to change a grand narrative in mid-flow, and most show no sign of even trying.

Here are some difficulties the storyteller journalist who did try would encounter:

- we find perchlorate on Mars (which, we are told, does not rule out life, though it makes life less likely). This is just the sort of unexpected finding that must be played down, not up, because it doesn't fit into the grand narrative. Excuses and forlorn hopes that would be questioned elsewhere will be readily accepted here.

- That proves there is perchlorate - and lots of intelligent perchlorate-based life - throughout the galaxy! Huh? No, wait! Send that one back to rewrite ... we're not quite ready for that yet ....

- That in turn proves life got started on earth by chance (How? If abundant life shows that life got started by chance, what would rare life imply? Oh wait, we better not let logic be our strong point.)

- That in turn proves that all religions except atheistic materialism are sentimental gush (standard newsroom wisdom - reaffirm that, but subtly!)

So, if they do get hold of Collins, they will pump him with a well-worn theme and tack away from specifics.

Grand narratives are altered when a civilization's philosophy changes. When nature merely fails to confirm the expectations of the philosophy, narrative byways are offered instead (= perchlorate doesn't really mean there's not likely to be life).

It's all fun to watch.

See also: Perchlorate on Mars? Neither good nor bad (but actually bad) for life?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Perchlorate on Mars - neither good nor bad (but actually bad) for life?

So now we know what that recent hot weather story was all about- the weak oxidant perchlorate found on Mars.
Researchers spoke in response to news reports claiming the discovery had damaged the prospects for life on Mars. The mission team had wanted to perform further checks on the finding before reporting it, but said the news reports prompted them to speak out now.

[ ... ]

If confirmed, the result is exciting, Hecht said, “because different types of perchlorate salts have interesting properties that may bear on the way things work on Mars if—and that’s a big ‘if ’—the results from our two teaspoons of soil are representative of all of Mars,” or at least much of it.
I bet Hecht wishes it had been a fossil bacterium. So do we all.

See also: Big Mars announcement in the works, and still bigger rumours

Rare? Solar systems like ours are rare?

In that case, does our stock go up? On the other hand, it will be hard to get replacement parts.

Also, do we risk being tagged by the Galactic Historical Board, so we are not allowed to make any changes. Getting rid of the smallpox virus? The malaria parasite? Forbidden, if we are a rare historical artifact.

Carl Sagan, check your e-mail. According to Jeff Hecht, in New Scientist,

Our solar system is a Goldilocks among planetary systems. Conditions have to be just right for a disc of dust and gas to coalesce into such a set of neatly ordered planets, a new computer model suggests.

Similar planetary systems are likely to be a minority in the galaxy, says model developer Edward Thommes of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Even so, if only 1% of the Milky Way's hundreds of billions of stars have a terrestrial planet with a stable orbit in the habitable zone, the Earth could have plenty of company.
Honestly? I think computer models are basically race tracks without the horses.

Here's the abstract:
Science 8 August 2008:
Vol. 321. no. 5890, pp. 814 - 817
Prev Table of Contents Next

Reports Gas Disks to Gas Giants: Simulating the Birth of Planetary Systems
Edward W. Thommes,1,2* Soko Matsumura,2 Frederic A. Rasio2
The ensemble of now more than 250 discovered planetary systems displays a wide range of masses, orbits and, in multiple systems, dynamical interactions. These represent the end point of a complex sequence of events, wherein an entire protostellar disk converts itself into a small number of planetary bodies. Here, we present self-consistent numerical simulations of this process, which produce results in agreement with some of the key trends observed in the properties of the exoplanets. Analogs to our own solar system do not appear to be common, originating from disks near the boundary between barren and (giant) planet-forming.

1 University of Guelph,
Guelph, ON N1G 2W1, Canada.
2 Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
60208, USA.
See also:

Serious push to find more exoplanets

Exoplanets: Will intelligence be common or rare?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The black hole: Does it or doesn't it destroy information?

Here John Johnson Jr. interviews Stanford's Leonard Susskind, whose claim to fame is that he is Stephen "black hole" Hawking's nemesis (Los Angeles Times. July 26, 2008). Susskind has printed Hawking's letter conceding that information is not necessarily lost in a black hole:
I was a particle physicist when I was invited to an event at Werner Erhard's house in 1981. Erhard [founder of the est self-awareness movement] admired scientists and liked to listen to them debate. At one of his events, I met Stephen Hawking. Stephen discovered an amazing fact, which is that black holes evaporate. It's like a puddle of water out in the sun.
Susskind thinks that was wrong.
It violates one of the fundamental principles of physics, which says nothing is ever lost completely. You may say, "How can you say information isn't lost? I can erase information on my computer." But every time a bit of information is erased, we know it doesn't disappear. It goes out into the environment. It may be horribly scrambled and confused, but it never really gets lost. It's just converted into a different form.
I am not sure what that means. If information is horribly scrambled and confused, it isn't just converted to a different form, it can be basically lost.

If I told you that my late cat's name was &*&^^%**!, how would that help you figure out what the cat's name was, without any regular encoding/decoding system in place?

Something about all this doesn't make sense, and I am not surprised to learn that Susskind is one of many anti-intelligent design folk who would love to believe there is a zillion universes (so absolutely anything could be true about our universe and it wouldn't prove anything, right?):
Since the early 1980s, some cosmologists have argued that multiple universes could have formed during a period of cosmic inflation that preceded the Big Bang. More recently, string theorists have calculated that there could be 10 [to the]500 universes, which is more than the number of atoms in our observable Universe. Under these circumstances, it becomes more reasonable to assume that several would turn out like ours. It’s like getting zillions and zillions of darts to throw at the dart board, Susskind says. “Surely, a large number of them are going to wind up in the target zone.” And of course, we exist in our particular Universe because we couldn’t exist anywhere else. It’s an intriguing idea with just one problem, says Gross: “It’s impossible to disprove.” Because our Universe is, almost by definition, everything we can observe, there are no apparent measurements that would confirm whether we exist within a cosmic landscape of multiple universes, or if ours is the only one. And because we can’t falsify the idea, Gross says, it isn’t science. (Geoff Brumfiel, "Outrageous Fortune," Nature, Vol 439:10-12 (January 5, 2006).)

[ ... ]

Susskind, too, finds it “deeply, deeply troubling” that there’s no way to test the principle. But he is not yet ready to rule it out completely. “It would be very foolish to throw away the right answer on the basis that it doesn’t conform to some criteria for what is or isn’t science,” he says. (Geoff Brumfiel, "Outrageous Fortune," Nature, Vol 439:10-12 (January 5, 2006)
Notice he says that about the multiverse, but not about intelligent design of our universe - for which we have evidence.

Note: I seem to recall a Canadian physicist once telling m that Hawking had admitted the same thing to him too. Maybe he should have got a letter ...

Monday, August 4, 2008

New information about the origin of our universe ...

Here, beside the coffee pot ...

What Big Bang theory and Thomas Aquinas's proof of God have in common

Still reading Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker's Answering the New Atheism (Emmaus Road, 2008). They note that three of Thomas Aquinas's proofs of God's existence make exactly the same assumption as the 20th century scientists who inferred that if one played the present state of our universe backward, one would come to a point outside of space or time or the laws of nature - a singularity - and that this point must either be a cause or else have a cause because the universe cannot come from nothing:
"Since we see that everything in nature is contingent (St. Thomas's third proof), then something non-contingent will ultimately have to ground the contingent," is the same kind of reasoning as "Since the universe is expanding, then it must have arisen from an infinitely dense 'point'" (p. 69)
Richard Dawkins attacks Thomas's proofs of God, they say, without seeming to understand the underlying point, that nature must have a cause that lies outside it. They conclude,
If St. Thomas is wrong in using this kind of proof, then Dawkins must likewise reject the kind of reasoning that led to the revelation of the Big Bang. In each case, because of the way nature is, we find that we must have a "terminator" (to use Dawkins' inapt word), something that is other than nature as we know it, and that exists as a cause of nature as we know it. Furthermore, St. Thomas adds, in each of the proofs, something like, "This all men speak of as God," and not "This is God." The reason for this is important: there is asignificant difference between knowing that there must be such a cause, and identifying who or what the cause is. (p. 69)
But let's keep in mind here that the Big Bang was a very unpopular theory with atheists and was accepted only under duress ...

See also: Chance - you mean, it isn't really a "thing"?

(Note: The image of the opening of Aquinas's great work, Summa Theologiae, is from Wikimedia Commons.)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Origin of life: There must be life out there! vs. There can't be life out there!

Robert Deyes provides a helpful summary of the see-saw between the belief that life must exist on other planets (inevitablists) and that it cannot (impossiblists):
'Life, Life Everywhere' was the title of a 1996 article in Scientific American that focused on the crucial question of whether the origins of life were truly an inevitable consequence of some fundamental natural tendency in the universe towards great complexity (Ref 2). From our modern stand point, it was really Fred Hoyle that challenged this 'inevitablist' school by proclaiming vehemently that, "the emergence of a living cell from an inanimate chemical soup is about as likely as the assembly of a 747 by a whirlwind passing through a junkyard" (Ref 2). So the modern 'improbabilist' was born, taking on the contrasting inevitabilist view in a head to head intellectual battle. While the inevitabilists used the sudden appearance of the cell almost 3.85 billion years ago (Ref 3) as evidence of life's inevitability, improbabilists such as the late Francis Crick proposed that life was unlikely to have arisen on earth and must have been seeded from outer space (Ref 2). After all if life were truly a rare phenomenon, space transportation networks would have been required to spread it around hospitable planets.
Hmmm. The middle ground between inevitable and impossible is about as solid as the middle of a Lifesaver.

Big Mars announcement in the works ... and still bigger rumours

This from Universe Today:

It would appear that the US President has been briefed by Phoenix scientists about the discovery of something more "provocative" than the discovery of water existing on the Martian surface. This news comes just as the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) confirmed experimental evidence for the existence of water in the Mars regolith on Thursday. Whilst NASA scientists are not claiming that life once existed on the Red Planet's surface, new data appears to indicate the "potential for life" more conclusively than the TEGA water results. Apparently these new results are being kept under wraps until further, more detailed analysis can be carried out, but we are assured that this announcement will be huge…

[ ... ]

The MECA instrument had already made the landmark discovery that Mars "soil" was much like the soil more familiar on Earth. This finding prompted scientists to indicate that the minerals and pH levels in the regolith could support some terrestrial plants, indicating this would be useful for future Mars settlers.
but this from Wired:
Late last night, @MarsPhoenix (aka Veronica McGregor, a NASA employee) responded to the story, via the mission's Twitter account.

"Heard about the recent news reports implying I may have found Martian life. Those reports are incorrect," she Tweeted. "Reports claiming there was a White House briefing are also untrue and incorrect."

Covault implies that a test in which Earth water was mixed with Martian soil is the cause of the excitement. Mars Phoenix scientists have repeatedly stated that the lander doesn't have the tools to directly detect life.
Go here to read space industry speculation.

I am calling it another hot weather story for now. Remember, it's August. The story would have to make more sense in October.

Origin of life: Intelligent design theory and creating life in the lab

Over at Uncommon Descent, I responded to a commenter who thinksthat the ability to create artificial life would somehow prove that life got started on Earth by chance. I don't agree, and here is why:
... producing life in the lab is by definition not naturalistic, because the life designer is providing all the input in terms of selected chemicals, interactions, temperature, et cetera.

It would prove that life can be created on Earth by an intelligent non-divine designer.

That isn’t certain as yet - hence the number of great scientists who have flirted with panspermia.

We would never know if that was the path life actually took, or if any such path could occur by accident.
The commenter thought that I was "clinging on to" some human being involved, and I replied,
... "cling onto ’some human was involved’”? But that is a given if a human creates life in the lab!

If I understand what you are saying, you mean that if life could be created by human design in a lab, it could happen by natural selection on the early Earth too.

I don’t know that that follows at all.

For one thing, we may never be sure of conditions on the early Earth.

A real danger is that we will assume that they must have been like what happened in the lab because we made it work that way.

Not necessarily a valid inference, and maybe a dead end for future science!

The only thing that the creation of artificial life in the lab would show is that the level of design need not be God-like.

Failure to create life in the lab does not demonstrate the reverse, but suggests it (On the other hand, we might not have got the method right … ).

For the record, I believe it more likely that scientists will create life in the lab than that they will definitively show what happened on early Earth.

That is because it is easier to solve a present-day problem when you are allowed to use any method that works than it is to retrace a series of steps without much reliable information.

Here’s something to think about: We never see life getting started from nothing. It is always passed on from a previous instance of life.

That shows that starting life is very difficult - though obviously not impossible!

The commenter then suggested helpfully that we limit ourselves to the conditions on the early Earth. But agian,
..., if we do not know for sure what happened at the origin of life, how can we reasonably limit ourselves to those conditions?

Given the low probabilities of life’s origin, “likely” won’t cut it.

Actually, I think the whole OoL project a waste of time for precisely that reason.

If life (in the sense in which we normally use the term*) is created in a lab, that shows that intelligent (but non-divine) design can create life.

That’s all it shows.

The vulnerable theory, if someone wants to advance it, is that intelligence at the human level cannot create life.

ID says that a design input is required, and that is not refuted by lab life. Quite the contrary.

I should perhaps add that I think lab life unlikely. But not as unlikely as discovering exactly what happened at the origin of life.

PS: the assumption that the intelligence required to create life must - by its very nature - be a divine intelligence is additional to the design inference, so far as I can see.

Replying to another commenter,
I would consider a design hypothesis falsified if we saw life regularly arising from scratch under all sorts of conditions - provided we were certain that there was no underlying design in the universe that created that outcome.

Otherwise, how would we know?

But we never see life arising, and so far no one has created it in the lab.

So any claim that life can arise by chance alone, in accord with the presumed laws of the universe, is a claim based purely on faith at present.

I find surreal the fact that such a claim is considered “science” but any contrary assertion is considered “religion”.

I think a chance origin of life extremely unlikely in this universe, from what I have read, and also doubt that anything like life will soon be created in the lab.

But if it is, I would say it is a victory for design, not chance. After all, the creators only have the design. They do not have the chance.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Do intelligent design theorists have any predictions about finding life on other planets?

Reader Randy writes me to say,
Given the hooplah over ice being found on Mars, Titan and other places, I wonder if any of the ID guys have come out with predictions that we will not find ancient lifeforms trapped there? Expelled and other venues make much hay out of the odds for randomly chaining amino acids into enzymes and then proteins, and "The Privileged Planet" for the seemingly unique position Earth is in for having life. If those numbers are anything like accurate it would seem absolutely safe money to bet that the next planet over never managed hitting that jackpot. So is anyone using ID to make just that prediction?

One could easily postulate a designer who liked creating life on many planets and thus get around this if extinct life is found on one or both or many planets or moons, but then what is the point in making such a fuss about the odds, if the designer routinely flaunts them?
I offered to start a discussion on it at Uncommon Descent (and will), but replied on my own account:
Strictly speaking, I don't know that ID predicts that life cannot be found elsewhere than on Earth. For all we know, life actually got started on Mars and came to Earth.

ID would predict that random chaining of molecules will not produce life for the same reason that scattering Scrabble pieces will not produce a novel. In both cases, design is required to arrive at a specific target.

That said, a designer might very well produce life on different planets for the same reasons as a novelist might write different novels.

But we usually find that works by a given novelist in a specific genre have key similarities. William Faulkner's novels are easily distinguishable from those of Ernest Hemingway.

So an ID theorist would probably expect to see that life on other planets shares many characteristics with life on Earth - that is, there will be a similarity of themes and styles (assuming there is only one intelligence involved, but most theists will assume that of course).
See also:

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

Water? On the moon? And what else?

Water inferred on Mars
Note: The image of ice on Mars is from NASA.

How important did people think Earth was before Copernicus and Carl Sagan came along and set us straight?

The so-called Copernican revolution was a big theme of Carl Sagan's (= Copernicus showed us that we were not important after all, and Earth is just a "pale blue dot").

A friend points me to mid-twentieth century Brit R. G. Collingwood's accurate assessment of what nonsense that is!:
It is commonly said that its effect was to diminish the importance of the earth in the scheme of things and to teach man that he is only a microscopic parasite on a small speck of cool matter revolving around one of the minor stars. This is an idea both philosophically foolish and historically false. Philosophically foolish, because no philosophical problem, whether connected with the universe, or with man, or the relation between them, is at all affected by considering the relative amount of space they occupy: historically false because the littleness of man in the world has been a familiar theme of reflection. Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae, which has been called the most widely read book of the Middle Ages, contains the following words:

“Thou hast learnt from the astronomical proofs that the whole earth compared with the universe is no greater than a point, that is, compared with the sphere of the heavens, it may only be thought of as having no size at all. Then, of this tiny corner, it is only one-quarter that, according to Ptolemy, is habitable to living things. Take away from this quarter the seas, marshes, and other desert places, and the space left for man hardly even deserves the name of infinitesimal” (Book ii, Prosa vii).

Every educated European for a thousand years before Copernicus knew that passage, and Copernicus had no need to risk condemnation for heresy in order to repeat its substance.

- R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature, Clarendon Press, 1945
My friend writes, "For the record, “a thousand years before Copernicus” is 1500 years before Carl Sagan." Well, yes, but Boethius did not live in the age of spin, and Carl Sagan did. So Sagan's Hollywood continues the spin.

And it spins constantly. We must make a determined effort to get off.

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

(Note: The image is from Library of Congress: An Illustrated Guide to European Collections. It is a manuscript of Boethius.)

Friday, August 1, 2008

Chance - you mean, it isn't really a "thing"?

I've just got hold of Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker's Answering the New Atheism (Emmaus Road, 2008), which is a lot of fun. I will have more to say later when I have read more, but this for now: On the "new atheists' insistence that it can all happen by chance, they reply
"But who is this god Chance? How can it be such a powerful cause, so powerful that it can replace the need for a living, acting, intelligent Creator God? As Aristotle long ago pointed out to the materialist of his day - who likewise worshiped at te altar of Chance - chance isn't really a cause because it isn't really a thing. There is the chance of something happening, but the "of" is all important because that tells you what really exists and defines what you can possibly mean by chance. Yet even here, chance isn't a thing. " (p. 21)
Lottery losers, listen. Put the money back in your pocket.

Buy. Groceries. Pay. Rent. Forget. Chance.

Life does not defeat chaos, but outwits by wisdom (or information)

Life beat the odds of chaos over cosmos, but not by defeating the second law of thermodynamics. Nothing does that. Life wins by outwitting the second law. The chemistry of a biological cell is the same as the chemistry that forms sodium chloride. One set of rules for all. But unlike sodium chloride, which follows the rules by rote, life has somehow gotten hold of wisdom, of information, that taught it to take energy from its environment, to concentrate that energy, and with it to build and maintain the meaningful complexity of the biological cell.
- From Gerald Schroeder's Hidden Face of God, p. 59.