Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Origin of life: Oldest Earth rocks may show signs of life, in which case, ...

In "Team finds Earth's 'oldest rocks'" (BBC News, September 26, 2008) James Morgan reports:

Writing in Science journal, a team reports finding that a sample of Nuvvuagittuq greenstone is 250 million years older than any rocks known.

It may even hold evidence of activity by ancient life forms.
Geologist Don Francis and graduate student Jonathan O'Neil of McGill University in Montreal have found an ancient greenstone ("faux amphibolite") which may be the oldest rock known.

The rock was dated to between 3.8 and 4.28 billion years ago. "4.28 billion is the figure I favour," says Francis. It is not surprising that he favours the latter date, since it would make his find about 250 million years older than the second oldest one, the Acasta Gneiss in Canada's Northwest Territories, dated at 4.03 billion years old.

But now what's this about life? Well, honestly, right now, it's mostly imagination. The greenstone shows a banded iron formation of magnetite and quartz also found in rock around deep sea hydrothermal vents. Many think that these vents hosted early life on earth.
"These ribbons could imply that 4.3 billion years ago, Earth had an ocean, with hydrothermal circulation," said Francis.

"Now, some people believe that to make precipitation work, you also need bacteria.

"If that were true, then this would be the oldest evidence of life.

"But if I were to say that, people would yell and scream and say that there is no hard evidence."
O'Neil adds,
We know that probably the right environment was there for life to be on the Earth -- so liquid water and all it takes to have life. Now was there life? This is a big question mark"
Actually, the geologists are probably safe. People are pretty open to speculation around the origin of life. But let us say that their wildest dreams come true an they do find hard evidence of life in these rocks. In that case, life started on Earth almost immediately after the planet cooled (in geological terms, that is). If so, then life clearly did not originate via a long slow random swish of chemicals, as we have been encouraged to believe.

Francis and O'Neil had been looking for clues on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay in northern Quebec about the Earth's mantle from 3.8 billion years ago when they found the outcrop of the Nuvvuagittuq greenstone belt. It was dated at the Carnegie Institution of Washington by measuring the isotopes of neodymium and samarium, rare elements that decay at a known rate.

Here are some other "oldest rocks" stories, and some photos put up by Professor Francis.

See also

Origin of life: Positive evidence of intelligent design?

Origin of life: But is being greedy enough?

Origin of life: Ah, that "just so happens" intermediate series of chemical steps

Why should the search for Darwin's "warm little puddle" be publicly funded?

Galactic habitable zone not unique, computer sim suggests

A new theory, based on computer simulations, questions whether life-bearing planets really need a galactic habitable zone (GHZ) such as the one Earth occupies (a zone that protects the planet from the usual harshness of space).

Modelling the idea that our sun might be an "immigrant star" from another part of the galaxy, Rok Roskar of the University of Washington and colleagues argue,

"Our view of the extent of the habitable zone is based in part on the idea that certain chemical elements necessary for life are available in some parts of a galaxy's disk but not others," said Rok Roskar, a doctoral student in astronomy at the University of Washington.

"If stars migrate, then that zone can't be a stationary place."

If the idea of habitable zone doesn't hold up, it would change scientists' understanding of just where, and how, life could evolve in a galaxy, he said.
However, they qualify,

"Our simulated galaxy is very idealized in the formation of the disk, but we believe it is indicative of the formation of a Milky Way-type of galaxy," he said. "In a way, studying the Milky Way is the hardest thing to do because we're inside it and we can't see it all. We can't say for sure that the sun had this type of migration."
In other words, under ideal conditions, there might be more than one type of galactic habitable zone.

Or else perhaps the zone should be thought of as a checklist of necessary conditions rather than a specific place ...

See also:

Does our solar system occupy a unique position in the universe or just an ordinary one?

Rare? Solar systems like ours are rare?

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

Serious push to find more exoplanets

Exoplanets: Will intelligence be common or rare?

Note: The image is from NASA, and is an artist's conception of the Milky Way.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Hail, ceaseless complexity? Or maybe Fail, ceaseless complexity?

In "Hail, ceaseless complexity, (Philadephia Enquirer, Sep. 28, 2008), Henry Gee, senior editor of Nature Magazine, mocks reviews Stuart Kauffman's Reinventing the Sacred (Basic Books, May 2008), an effort to make complexity theory supplement the information gaps in the origin of life. Gee writes,
Kauffman's reasoning is, in the main, faultless. It falls down, however, in two places. The first is his proposal that consciousness is based on the quantum mechanical properties of cellular substructures. Some recent work does show that certain proteins, in the dense milieu of cells, can manipulate electrons Santa-fashion, keeping all quantum possibilities open for as long as possible.

This idea is fascinating, but Kauffman appears to speak as if such properties were confined to neurons in the brain. Nowhere does he explain why they should not exist in other kinds of cell - a flaw that exposes him to accusations of arguing that brain cells are somehow exceptional. By the same token, he dismisses, out of hand, the idea that "mind" might be an emergent property of the trillion-fold interconnectedness of billions of neurons - a casual swipe that goes against everything else he says in the book about complex systems.

The second failure is the whole God business. The concluding chapters are more readable than the rest (in a book that is often an eye-watering challenge to read), but they degenerate into a repetitive mantra in which Kauffman says that the "ceaseless complexity" of the world, while not being evidence for a Creator God, should somehow be "symbolic" of God, or, at least, of something "sacred." He cannot prove this logically, he says; he can only try to persuade us.

This appeal to a kind of primitive pantheism is both sincere and charming, but in the end it is simply more special pleading. The fact is that in Kauffman's scheme, God is unnecessary, even if reductionism fails, so in the end one wonders about the point of preserving a sense of God.
Gee's review makes clear that one cannot be a half-hearted materialist, as Kauffman and all his followers want to be. If you really believe in the materialist magic of self-organizing complexity, then you do not believe in God, or for that matter, in the mind or free will.

Henry Gee's review makes that clear, though it fails to elucidate Kauffman's theory in any detail. (But in fairness, I could not do it either.)

Here's the book: Reinventing the Sacred (Basic Books, May 2008)

See also: Now, if all those the butterflies would just appear out of nowhere. ...

Time is the only true mystery?

A friend sends me this, a new clock developed by John Taylor - not a computer gneraton but a true mechanical clock, that offers a different way of showing time. My friend says that it demonstrates that time time is the only true mystery:

See also: Do you have time to hear about some new theories of time?

Like clouds in our coffee ... all these other universes ...

In Darwinian Universes And Colliding Branes: Eschewing A Cosmic Singularity, Access Research Network correspondent Robert Deyes comments on cosmologist Lee Smolin's "Darwinian universe" theory:
Cosmologist Lee Smolin has developed his own Multiverse theory conjecturing that within the confines of black holes, there might be other universes forming and expanding just like our own that would never be visible to us because of the limited horizon of black holes (their gravitational pull is so strong that even visible light cannot escape) (Ref 4). Smolin's ideas would certainly make good science fiction. Universes that originate from explosions that are hidden from sight in black holes make a backdrop for a great story in which intelligent beings such as us are oblivious to the origin of their cosmos, believing it to be in some way unique (Ref 4, p.89). With so many universes spawning from black holes, Smolin argues, it becomes more probable that at least one of them will have laws of physics that are fine-tuned for the formation of stars, planetary systems and eventually life. Or does it?

Smolin's idea of universe progeny spawning from black holes within parent universes bears striking similarities to the evolutionary tree of common descent that Darwin provided as the sole picture in 'The Origin Of Species'. According to Smolin, as universes 'improve' their ability to generate more stars and thereby produce more black holes, 'fitter' universes will swamp out those that are less finely tuned, have fewer stars and therefore produce less progeny (Ref 4, p.90-100). Given time, enough universes will have produced enough stars to generate enough black holes to produce more progeny universes with life-supporting, physical parameters such as our own.

But what is to say that fine-tuning will necessarily improve to the phenomenal level that we find in the laws of physics that under gird our own cosmos? Smolin's theory relies on the early parent universe going through expansion-collapse cycles before it becomes 'fit' enough to produce stars and consequently black holes for its progeny to form (Ref 4, p.97). For such a cosmos, the mechanical energy needed for expansion-collapse would eventually decay just as a ball bouncing on a living room floor would eventually stop bouncing. Such observations are consistent with the second law of thermodynamics. So for Smolin's parent universes to generate progeny, they would have to get fit before the bouncing energy ran out.

Oddly enough Smolin's theory also suffers from a lack of testability and falsifiability. We have no way of testing whether or not a host of universes and other worlds actually exist behind black holes.

About all that, I said, in By Design or by Chance?:
All these universes popping up in the clouds in our coffee, in the torment of a black hole, in the futility of an escaped balloon—their existence guarantees that our universe is a product of chance. If only they would exist . . . if only they would exist . . .

See also: Major media, imagining themselves sober, think there are many universes, not just double vision.

The Big Bang exploded; seriously, is there room for reasonable skepticism about the Big Bang?

Could God live in an infinite sea of universes? It depends.

Will thecosmic multiverse landscape ensure the triumph of intelligent design?

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

Multiverse theory: Replacing the big fix with the sure thing?

Mathematics: 46th Mersenne prime number found

The 46th known Mersenne prime number has been found. It is 13 million digits long. How large is that? According to Julie Rehmeyer at Science News (September 28, 2008), its size is mind-boggling:
With nearly 13 million digits, it makes the number of atoms in the known universe seem negligible, a mere 80 digits.
So we are here in the realm of numbers much bigger than the real world.

Note: Prime number = numbers like three, seven, 11, 29, and 31, which can be divided only by two whole positive numbers: themselves and one. Primes are common in the first few hundred digits of natural numbers, but get rarer the higher you go. In the very large numbers, there are vast "prime deserts" where finding another one may take years even with modern computing equipment. The UCLA team has discovered 8 Mersenne primes, using spare computing power.

Mersenne primes, as noted on Fox News (and elsewhere), are named after their discoverer, 17th century French mathematician Marin Mersenne. They
... are expressed as 2P-1, or two to the power of "P" minus one. P is itself a prime number. For the new prime, P is 43,112,609.
This method of expressing the number means that it does not need to be written out. Mersenne primes are the easiest type to find using computing power, though they tend to be quite large.

Here is the "Great Internet Prime Search's" (prime searchers') news page, where they explain how they will divide the $100 000 prize that the Electronic Frontier Foundation is giving them for their find.

Here's a lot more about primes.

See also:

Morning coffee: Mathematicians vs. physicists

Universe shaped like a nautilus shell on a large scale, it seems

(Note: The image is of Pere Marin Mersenne from the Laboratoire Marin Mersenne. )

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Origin of life: Positive evidence of intelligent design?

In The Design Matrix: A Consilience of Clues, the pseudonymous Mike Gene comments,
The fact that DNA contains encoded information in the form of a one-dimensional linear string of symbols is very suggestive positive evidence for Intelligent Design behind the fabric of life. If we set aside life for the moment, then every other example of a sequence of characters representing convention is because of Intelligent Design. If a sequence of dots and dashes, or zeroes and ones, or scribbles, encodes something, we rationally infer an intelligent cause ultimately behind the existence of that sequence. In fact, this is often perceived as a working assumption behind SETI, the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence. To detect intelligence, SETI might eventually find a sequence of signals that appears to encode something, In striking contrast, geologists do not look for a sequence of characters that encode the formation of mountains or cause volcanoes to erupt. Nor do meteorologists look for a sequence of characters that encode the formation of rain or hurricanes. Nor do chemists look for a sequence of characters that encode the formation of crystals or gases. If every other example of encoded information points to Intelligent Design, and encoded information in science is specific to life, it is reasonable to follow this lead and make the same tentative inference for the ultimate origin of genetic information and life itself.
The alternative theory is that the genetic code is a "frozen accident" - it just happened and then it got stuck that way through self-replication because living things came to depend on it.

It is remarkable to live in a time when many otherwise intelligent people are seriously willing to entertain such an idea.

Origin of life: The "billion billion" planets solution?

In Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins’ Case Against God, Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker comment on Richard Dawkins’s approach to the question of whether life could have originated by chance. Accusing him of "selective confusion of the possible and the impossible when it suits his purposes" amounting to "intellectual slight-of-hand", they say ,

According to Dawkins, we can safely estimate that there are, somewhere in the vast universe, a "billion billion" planets that would be suitable for life. He then supposes what he takes to be long odds of one in a billion of life arising by chance (although he really doesn't mean life, but merely "the spontaneous arising of something equivalent to DNA.") Well then, concludes Dawkins, "even with such absurdly long odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets - of which Earth, of course, is one." This is such a surprising conclusion, Dawkins remarks, "I'll say it again. If the odds of life originating spontaneously on a planet were a billion to one against, nevertheless that stupefyingly improbable event would still happen on a billion planets."
They reply,

It is such a surprising conclusion precisely because it doesn't follow. The entire argument is faulty. ... he assumes without argument that the spontaneous assembly of DNA is like getting a perfectdeal in bridge rather than being like tossing a perfect cardhouse in a hurricane. That is what he would have to prove rather than assume.

The real question, the prior question, is one of possibility and impossibility, not greater or lesser probability. If tossing a perfect cardhouse in a hurricane is impossible cause the cards would keep blowing away, then it wouldn't become possible by adding into the calculation a billion billion available planets, or even a trillion trillion.
In fact, the "one in a billion" odds Dawkins gives are ridiculously low and there is no particularly good reason to believe that a billion planets are well suited to life.

What are one in a billion odds? Well,

- according to the British Civil Aviation Authority, the post-2001 Concorde has a one in a billion chance of crashing.

- "A blonde hair found in the van of the man accused of killing schoolgirl Sarah Payne had a billion-to-one chance of not being hers, a jury has been told."

- There was said to be a one in a billion chance that brothers Thomas and Julius Jones "from a town of fewer than 6,000 residents both start in the N.F.L. at running back and play against each other on Thanksgiving." (This one was worked out by an expert, whose assistance was requested by Greg Bishop.)

But all this stuff happens in a universe where the vast sea of metabolisms that we call life already exists in great numbers. We can't assign anything like these relatively high probabilities to a purely accidental origin of life. The odds against that are comparatively astronomical, whatever Richard Dawkins may hope.

By the way, I highly recommend Hahn and Wiker's book.

Big physics could end up putting physicists out of a job?

A physicist friend writes to say, regarding the current Large Hadron Collider experiments, aimed at finding the "God particle",

Perhaps it should be pointed out that many high energy physicists are quite worried about their future as a discipline. The physics of today's particle experiments test theory of the 1960s - which has led to an exodus of theorists from this research discipline.

It will be a big accomplishment if they find the Higgs boson, but this has been part of the standard model of particle physics for some time. The really interesting thing they are hoping for is sometime new - there hasn't been anything unexpected in experimental particle physics for a long time. If something unexpected in this new energy range isn't found, it is quite possible that many physics departments across the globe will ramp down the experimental particle physics programs.

As it is, all of the possibly-interesting physics has been exported to Switzerland - there has been much talk here about a post-accelerator era.
See also:

Will it be a disaster for physics if the Higgs boson is the ONLY thing the Large Hadron Collider finds?

Mass: Is the Higgs boson the "stuff" of all that stuff we call matter?

Will it be a disaster for physics if the Higgs boson is the ONLY thing the Large Hadron Collider finds?

Physicist Stephen Barr, author of Student's Guide to Natural Science, thinks so. At First Things's On the Square, he writes,
Some people say that the LHC will discover something called the Higgs particle. It almost surely will, but if that is all it discovers, it will be a huge disappointment and in fact a disaster for physics. It is (almost) certain that the Higgs particle is there. That in itself is no big deal.
But here's the big deal:
What people really are hoping to see at the LHC is evidence of these new kinds of matter predicted by supersymmetry. Until recently, most theorists probably thought that the chances were much greater than 50 percent that the supersymmetry solution of the Higgs problem is correct, and that evidence for it would be seen at the LHC. Some doubts are creeping in, however.

First of all, theories based on the supersymmetry idea are not without serious difficulties. But what has made the doubts increase in many physicist’s minds recently (including many top physicists) is the possibility that the Higgs puzzle may be explained anthropically rather than by supersymmetry. If we live in a multiverse, it is possible that, in different places in the multiverse, the Higgs field has different strengths. In most places it might have its natural strength. But in rare places it may happen to have the much smaller value that it has where we are. And—it can be argued convincingly—only in those rare places can there be life. We see a strangely small value of the Higgs field, because we are living in a highly atypical part of the multiverse, namely a part where the Higgs field has a value that allows life to exist.

By "multiverse", I gather that Barr does not mean "many universes" but rather that in our universe, conditions may be very different in one region than in another.

Most scientists have assumed that the universe is much the same everywhere, but that is an assumption, not a finding.

If indeed, the conditions in our region might be specialized to allow life, I suppose that would be another instance of fine tuning of the universe for life.

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

Mass: Is the Higgs boson the "stuff" of all that stuff we call matter?

Over at BreakPoint, Regis Nicoll offers, in "Cracking the Cosmic Code" (9/12/2008) that the Large Hadron Collider (which aims to discover the fundamental nature of our universe), a clear summary of some of the questions and possibilities, for example,

Matter is the stuff of everyday common experience. Trees, rocks, flesh, planets and stars are all made of matter. Matter, in turn, is comprised of quarks, electrons and neutrinos—distinguished from other particle types by their mass.

Commonly associated with weight, mass is the measure of an object’s resistance to an applied force. But two questions that have plagued researchers are “What gives an object its mass?” and “Why do some particles (like electrons) have mass, and others (like photons) do not?”

String theorists propose that mass is a byproduct of the tension and vibration patterns of Planck-sized strings. String theory skeptics think otherwise.

In 1964 physicist Peter Higgs conjectured that mass was caused by an invisible field that pervades the entire universe. Comprised of what were later dubbed “Higgs particles,” this field can be thought of as a kind of cosmic molasses that preferentially inhibits the motion of certain particle types. Because of its ubiquity and its importance to the standard model of physics, many pundits refer to Higgs as the “God Particle.”

As it turns out, the energy of the LHC is sufficiently large to detect the Higgs if, indeed, it exists. Thus, of all the mysteries that the LHC is hoped to solve, verification of Higgs is the most promising.
Robert Paster points out in New Physics and the Mind that one function of the Higgs boson, asuming it exists, is to resolve the fact that we actually have two different concepts of what mass is, inertial and gravitational:
Inertial mass is the quality of an object that relates force to acceleration. ... Divide force by acceleration, and you've determined the object's mass.

Separately, we have a completely different understanding of mass: mass tells us how heavy an object is, how much "stuff" it contains. And how large an effect (gravitational pull) it will have pullng on another object. Not how resistant it is to being put into motion. Not how much force is behind it once it is in motion. But how heavy it is. (pp. 149-50)
It would be more convenient, he suggests, if Higgs's elementary particle gives matter its mass.

Given that the Higgs is an elementary particle, we are not to ask, I gather, what gives it it's mass - that's just how things are.

See also:

"Large Hadron Collider: Experiments underway"

"No escape from philosophy through equations"

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

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

Friday, September 12, 2008

Why some self-proclaimed skeptics need a universal swivel joint in their necks ...

Previous to the twentieth century and the building of telescopes that can clearly see galaxies beyond the outer limits of the Milky Way, scientists and philosophers tended to complain that the universe was far too small to be the work of God. While acknowledging that the existence of the universe implied some kind of cosmic Creator, these researchers deduced that the Creator could not be very big or strong.

[ ... ]

The arrival of the twenty-first century and telescopes powerful enough to help us see back in time ... even as far aback as the initial moments of cosmic existence, has prompted a very different kind of complaint from scientists and skeptics. The universe as now measured appears absurdly too large to serve merely as humanity's home. Skeptics insist that a Creator, especially the biblical Creator, wouldn't make unnecessary matter and space or waste creative effort. (P. 20) - From Hugh Ross's Why the Universe Is the
Way It Is (Baker, 2008).

Ross heads up Reasons to Believe, an Christian apologetics ministry aimed at scientists, based in Pasadena, California.

Origin of life: But is being greedy enough?

A recent article in Nature by Katharine Sanderson suggests that "Greedy molecules could be behind the emergence of life" because an "Artificial system shows how a molecular soup could be exploited by a single self-replicating complex."
Douglas Philp, a chemist at the University of St Andrews, UK, has previously shown that a molecule made of two halves that recognise and bind to one another can then act as a template for its own replication1. Along with his colleague Jan Sadownik, he has now discovered that this template molecule can drive its own formation in a bigger pool of many more reactants, quickly taking over the processes in that pool and dominating the system so that almost no other products have a chance to form.

This kind of self-replicating system has been proposed as an explanation to how complex molecules such as DNA could have formed, ultimately triggering the emergence of life. Artificial versions of these systems, however, have remained elusive.
This, Philp says, "... shows that you can bring order from chaos."

Yes you can - but only over a limited range. And the fundamental problem we tend to run into is that further instances of order become astronomically less probable.

For example, if I dump the Scrabble letters, the ones face up can probably form some words. But if I must form a specific sentence - for example, "You better all move your cars because I can see the parking hornet from my window," my chances are very much lower. Origin of life is far more like that than it is like finding some letters that will form words.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Large Hadron Collider: Experiments underway

A friend writes to say that the protons have completed the first circuit of the Large Hadron Collider:
By next month, the LHC should be running at more than 10 times the energy used today, though it will not reach its maximum energy of 14 teraelectronvolts until next year. The first experiments that could discover new physics, as opposed to showing the detectors are working, could start in the late autumn.

The first scientific discoveries could well concern supersymmetry, the theory that all particles have twins known as "sparticles". The search for the Higgs boson -- the so-called "God particle" that is believed to give matter its mass -- will take longer, with no results expected until late next year or the year after.
My friend wonders how this will affect local energy use. I will advise him to check his bill for mysterious extra charges.

In fact, everyone, check your energy bill for mysterious extra charges! Energy companies are not to be trusted blindly. You could be paying for the Large Hadron Collider - or the large heated pool next door.

See also:

"No escape from philosophy through equations"

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

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

Podcast: The argument for design in cosmology

[Discovery Institute] CSC Research Director Bruce Gordon speaks with Casey Luskin about the evidence for cosmic fine-tuning. With this technical discussion, Dr. Gordon explains some of theoretical and mathematical problems with attempts to dodge the evidence for cosmic fine-tuning such as the “multiverse” hypothesis and string theory. Dr. Gordon explains that, in the end, these objections to cosmic design amount to thinly veiled materialist philosophy that are rife with logical contradictions and a fundamental in ability to explain why something, rather than “absolute nothing,” exists.

For “absolute nothing” go here.

See also:

“Does our solar system occupy a unique position in the universe, or just an ordinary one?”

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

The truth hurts ... and it can leave you seeing stars, too ...

My profile of astronomer and ID theorist Guillermo Gonzalez has been posted at Salvo:
I first met Guillermo Gonzalez in a hotel coffee shop in June 2005, the morning after the Smithsonian screening of The Privileged Planet. This controversial film, based on Gonzalez’s book of the same name (co-authored with Jay Richards), advances the view that the Earth is one lucky planet in terms of sustaining life, as well as unusually well-located for exploring our galaxy.

Gonzalez is quite appreciative of this latter quality. Apart from his recent marriage, exploring the galaxy pretty much sums up his life. After all, it was not long after arriving in the United States as a young Cuban refugee that he first discovered astronomy. “People who are into astronomy get into it very early,” he likes to explain. “It’s such a beautiful science.”

Gonzalez had more than an interest in astronomy; he had a gift. He quickly became a recognized expert in exoplanets—planets that orbit stars other than our sun. He published paper after paper, never realizing how much he was hated at Iowa State University—based solely on The Privileged Planet.

Why is this film so controversial?
Read the rest here.

Subscribe to Salvo if you would like a culture and science mag that assumes you have a mind, not just a collection of buzzing neurons.

The nothingness of nothing ... as seen by scientists, philosophers, and others

Have you ever participated in a conversation like this?

He: Are you doing anything just now?

Me: (thinking) I bet he wants help cleaning the pond .... (speaking) Oh, yes, I am really, really busy ... I’m, um ... um ... well, it’s not like I’m doing nothing!

What does nothing mean? Astronomer Hugh Ross, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is (Baker, 2008). points out that scientists, theologians, and philosophers define nothing differently. It can mean “a complete lack of:

1. Matter;
2. Matter and energy;
3. Matter, energy, and the three big cosmic space dimensions (length, width and height);
4. Matter, energy, and all the cosmic space dimensions (including the six tiny space dimensions implied by string theories)
5. Matter, energy, and all the cosmic space and time dimensions;
6. Matter, energy, cosmic space and time dimensions, and created nonphysical entities;
7. Matter, energy, cosmic space and time dimensions, created nonphysical entities, and other dimensions of space and time;
8. Matter, energy, cosmic space and time dimensions, crated nonphysical entities, and other dimensions or realms-spatial, temporal, or otherwise; or
9. Anything and everything real, created or otherwise.
And he asks,

So what kind of nothingness did the universe come from? According to the space-time theorems of general relativity, not from the first five or possibly six kinds on this list. In other words, the universe could not possibly have arisen fro matter, energy, and/or any of the space-time dimensions associated with them, either existing or previously existing. The reason number 6 remains open to debate is that, depending on one’s theological/philosophical perspective, created nonphysical entities may or may not be endowed with the ability to create space-time dimensions.

The space-time theorems also eliminate option number 9. The universe of matter, energy, space, and time is, in itself, an effect. Every effect is generated by a cause. Absolute nothingness - the complete lack of anything and everything - cannot be a cause or causal agent. That is ruled out by definition and also by observation. If absolute nothingness could spontaneously produce something, scientists would see new somethings arising everywhere. Instead, they see the consistent operation of the first law of thermodynamics, which says the total amount of matter and energy within the universe can neither be increased nor decreased.” (p. 130-131)
Clearly, it is so much "top think tank" trouble to just be doing nothing, that one may as well be doing something, even cleaning the pond.

(Ross heads up Reasons to Believe, an Christian apologetics ministry aimed at scientists, based in Pasadena, California.)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Physics: No escape from philosophy through equations?

From a recent Nature editorial "Cool philosophies: High-energy physicists should not gloss over fundamental conundrums" (4 September 2008):
When physicists, struggling to put across a difficult concept to a lay audience, say (or more probably just think): "Oh, if only I could show you the equations, you would understand," this is not what they really mean. Rather, they mean: "You would understand at the same level as I understand." That is, at the level of mathematical formalism. This is not to imply that physicists hide blindly behind the maths (although some probably do), but that they might not acknowledge or even recognize that the mathematics shields them from genuine conceptual questions.

There is a tendency to wave these questions away as semantic or philosophical, as though such issues by definition cannot be serious. The founders of quantum theory knew otherwise, although some of their dilemmas have still not been resolved. As the philosopher Moritz Schlick said: "It is the mark of the greatest scientific minds that they think out every question they take up right to the end, and the end of every question lies in philosophy."
Which raises some interesting questions, sparked by the comment quoted in an earlier post:
It is almost as if our universe were fine-tuned to start out far from equilibrium so it could possess an arrow of time. But to a physicist, invoking fine-tuning is akin to saying “a miracle occurred.” For Carroll, the challenge was finding a process that would explain the universe’s low entropy naturally, without any appeal to incredible coincidence or (worse) to a miracle.
Is the goal to take the question "right up to the end" as per the Nature editorial or is it to develop a solution that does not involve incredible coincidence, miracle, or fine-tuning?

If the latter, then an inelegant solution, constantly in conflict with evidence, must be preferred to an elegant one that involves any of these elements. That is not only a philosophical question, it is a value choice.

Perhaps sensing something of the kind, the Nature editors go on to suggest that symmetry may not be such an important principle in physics after all:
At the pragmatic level, symmetry has been an immensely fertile tool, and it underpins the notion of a Higgs mechanism for mass. But there is no rigorous justification for relying on it, and it is possible that the LHC might point the way to a new physics that discards it as a ruling principle.
Is the point is that the Large Hadron Collider might not find evidence for the Higgs boson (the God particle), in which case, they may well say, with Peter Higgs,
I no longer understand what I think I understand.
Not to worry, Dr. Higgs. In the Introduction to The Spiritual Brain, Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I said, about neuroscience, "This is a time for exploration, not dogma." You could dust it off for physics too.

See also:

"Why should the search for Darwin's "warm little puddle" be publicly funded?" (= Is it a faith-based quest to find a solution that isn't there?)"

"And what if the Large Hadron Collider doesn't find the God particle (= the Higgs boson)?"

Does our solar system occupy a unique position in the universe, or just an ordinary one?

In Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, astronomer Hugh Ross explains,
The solar system holds a special position in the Milky Way, close to (but not exactly at) the co-rotation distance - the one distance from the core where stars orbit the galaxy at the same rate as its spiral arm structure does. A star or planetary system located at the co-rotation distance and between two spiral arms would seemingly remain at that safe place. However, stars and planetary systems exactly at the co-rotation distance would experience a "mean motion resonance," repeated gravitational "kicks" exerted by the galactic arm structure. Such kicks would send the star and its possible planetary system flying out of the habitable zone.

Earth's solar system is located just inside the co-rotation distance. So it is safe from the mean motion resonance. Because the solar system revolves around the galactic center only slightly faster than the galactic arm structure, it crosses the spiral arms only one about every billion years. The last spiral arm crossing occurred 560 to 600 million years ago (just before the Cambrian explosion, when complex animals first came on the scene), so Earth currently resides in the safest possible position).

This protected location is truly exceptional. Not all spiral galaxies are like the Milky Way. In the vast majority, the co-rotation distance and the habitable zone fail to overlap. Not only is there a match for the Milky Way Galaxy, but also the best possible place for a newly forming planetary system to accumulate all the heavy elements and long-lived radioactive isotopes requires for advanced life happens to lie just inside the co-rotation distance." (pp. 68-70)

See also:

"Aussie PM: Cosmic order proves God exists"

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

Extraterrestrials: Several million UFO reports later ... the state of the question

Recently, I have been reading Hugh Ross's Why the Universe Is the Way It Is (Baker, 2008) (which I will review). Ross heads up Reasons to Believe, an Christian apologetics ministry aimed at scientists, based in Pasadena, California. He notes,

After 60 years of investigation into several million UFO reports, researchers have concluded that 90 to 99 percent of all UFO sightings are, in fact, IFOs. Identifiable flying objects include natural phenomena, human-made (often experimental) aircraft, pranksters' hoaxes, and psychological phenomena. Of the remaining 1 to 10 percent, scientists have found no credible evidence (such as crash debris or physical artifacts) indicating that these sightings involve physical craft, with or without beings on board.

The publication of the Condon Report on Project Blue Book in 1969 did little, if anything, to quell public speculation about alien visitors, which continues unabated. However, subsequent rigorous interdisciplinary studies yave yielded sufficient data to demonstrate that at least some of the residual (still unidentified 1-10 percent) UFOs are real and yet not tangible, or physical, in nature. They may be categorized as occult or nonphysical manifestations. (P. 59)

In other words, we have no idea what they are, but we don't know a reason to think they are Drake and Sagan's extraterrestrial intelligences.

One thing I find really interesting is that, contrary to a carefuly cultivated stereotype, it is the theists and non-materialists who are the skeptics, while materialists indulge in theories that erase space and time, and multiply universes ad lib.

See also:

Younger astronomers less likely to believe than older ones?

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

Some scientists hope that the aliens are NOT out there!

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

Sunday, September 7, 2008

More demolition teams trying to blow up the Big Bang

Recently, I was looking at non-Big Bang theories, and here Discover Magazine (March 25, 2008) offers three of them, including cyclic universe, the multiverse, and the non-existence of time.

This gives you a sense of it:
It is almost as if our universe were fine-tuned to start out far from equilibrium so it could possess an arrow of time. But to a physicist, invoking fine-tuning is akin to saying “a miracle occurred.” For Carroll, the challenge was finding a process that would explain the universe’s low entropy naturally, without any appeal to incredible coincidence or (worse) to a miracle.
But, if ony by coincidence,
For each of the alternatives to the Big Bang, it is easier to demonstrate the appeal of the idea than to prove that it is correct. Steinhardt and Turok’s cyclic cosmology can account for critical pieces of evidence usually cited to support the Big Bang, but the experiments that could put it over the top are decades away. Carroll’s model of the multiverse depends on a speculative interpretation of inflationary cosmology, which is itself only loosely verified.

Barbour stands at the farthest extreme. He has no way to test his concept of Platonia. The power of his ideas rests heavily on the beauty of their formulation and on their capacity to unify physics. “What we are working out now is simple and coherent,” Barbour says, “and because of that I believe it is showing us something fundamental.”

The payoff that Barbour offers is not just a mathematical solution but a philosophical one. In place of all the conflicting notions about the Big Bang and what came before, he offers a way out. He proposes letting go of the past—of the whole idea of the past—and living fully, happily, in the Now.

In one model, each round of existence stretches a trillion years. By that reckoning, our universe is still in its infancy.
Oh well, then ... plenty of time for new theories - assuming time really exists (but some theorists say it doesn't, right?).

See also:

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

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

Do you have time to hear about some new theories ... of time?

I missed this item by Roger Highfield from Britain's Telegraph (February 24, 2008), "The new theories that are killing time" - some truly unusual theories of time are now on offer:

Quantum theory says that energy comes in tiny, indivisible chunks, called quanta. There is also a "quantum of time", the smallest measurement of time with any meaning, equal to a second divided by a huge number - one followed by 43 zeroes (this represents the length of time a photon moving at light speed takes to travel the smallest meaningful distance).

This could be the smallest unit of time possible, and thus of that blend of space and time, spacetime. By this reasoning there is no continuous flow of time, but rather spacetime moments running like grains of sand through an hourglass.

Not all are convinced, however.

"Some theorists think that there are 'atoms of spacetime' but I strongly think this is wrong," says Dr Nima Arkani-Hamed of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. "I think everyone would agree that spacetime itself is on the chopping block, but it will be replaced in my view by something infinitely more interesting than 'atoms of spacetime'."
Well other ideas include "Time will come to an end", "There is more than one kind of time," and "Time does not exist."

Well, we all know that psychologically there is more than one kind of time - waiting in line and watching a good film are two completely different experiences as far as time is concerned.

Anyway, no matter what the theory, when it's time to move on, ... we move on.

See also:

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

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

Now, if the butterflies would just appear out of nowhere ....

Reading complexity theorist Stu Kauffman's piece over at The Edge, "Breaking the Galilean Spell", in support of his new book Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, I certainly see what science journalist John Horgan is getting at when he expresses skepticism of complexity theorists because they have "failed to deliver on any of their promises."
At least, I think I see. Kauffman wants to stop being a reductionist, but he doesn't want to stop being a materialist.
Reductionism is inadequate reductionism. Even major physicists now doubt its full legitimacy. Biology and its evolution cannot be reduced to physics alone but stand in their own right. Life, and with it agency, came naturally to exist in the universe. With agency came values, meaning, and doing, all of which are as real in the universe as particles in motion. "Real" here has a particular meaning: while life, agency, value, and doing presumably have physical explanations in any specific organism, the evolutionary emergence of these cannot be derived from or reduced to physics alone. Thus, life, agency, value, and doing are real in the universe. This stance is called emergence. Weinberg notwithstanding, there are explanatory arrows in the universe that do not point downward. A couple in love walking along the banks of the Seine are, in real fact, a couple in love walking along the banks of the Seine, not mere particles in motion. More, all this came to exist without our need to call upon a Creator God.
Something is missing here, ... and what is missing is magic. That is, if we want mind to come from mud, we need either God or magic. Kauffman doesn't want God and he hopes that "emergence" is the magic that just sort of happens.

Well then, I always find myself asking, why isn't life, and all kinds of stuff, spontaneously emerging all around us? It should be, if Kauffman is right, but it never is.

That said, I read his earlier book and enjoyed it. I just didn't believe it.

Chaos theorists stumped by butterfly effect?

In an interesting piece at Search Magazine (March 1, 2008*), science journalist John Horgan reflects:
When I began writing about science twenty-six years ago, I believed in what Vannevar Bush, founder of the National Science Foundation, called "the endless frontier" of science. I started questioning that myth in the late 1980s, when physicists like Stephen Hawking declared they were on the verge of a "final theory" that would solve all their field's outstanding mysteries.
Horgan, unfortunately for himself, drew the reasonable conclusion in The End of Science in 1996 that if we have discovered everything, there is nothing left to be discovered. Big Science was not amused, of course, but he stood his ground.

For example, in the recent piece, he noted,
The physicist and Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin grants that we might have reached "the end of reductionism," which identifies the basic particles and forces underpinning the physical realm. Nevertheless, he insists that scientists can discover profound new laws by investigating complex, emergent phenomena, which cannot be understood in terms of their individual components.

Laughlin is merely recycling rhetoric from the fields of chaos and complexity, which are so similar that I lump them under a single term, chaoplexity. Chaoplexologists argue that advances in computation and mathematics will soon make fields like economics, ecology, and climatology as rigorous and predictive as nuclear physics.

The chaoplexologists have failed to deliver on any of their promises. One reason is the notorious butterfly effect. To predict the course of a chaotic system, such as a climate, ecology, or economy, you must determine its initial conditions with infinite precision, which is of course impossible. The butterfly effect limits both prediction and explanation, and it suggests that many of chaoplexologists' grand goals cannot be achieved.
*The magazine was then called "Science and Spirit."


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

"End of science? Or end of materialism"?

(Note: The image is from Natural Resources Canada's Butterflies of Canada, and shows a Common Buckeye.)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Solar system: Ours is special, researchers say

At The Future of Things, thanks to Shalhevet Bar-Asher, we read:
Research conducted by a team of North American scientist shows our solar system is special, contrary to the accepted theory that it is an average planetary system. Using computer simulations to follow the development of planets, it was shown that very specific conditions are needed for a proto-stellar disk to evolve into a solar system-like planetary system. The simulations show that in most cases either no planets are created, or planets are formed and then migrate towards the disk center and acquire highly elliptical orbits.
I've heard lots of information along these lines and hope to present more.

Here's the paper on the Archiv Web site, published in Science.

Meanwhile, check out the seething combox at the Future of Things site. Some people do NOT like the idea that design is a factor in our universe. They prefer to think that everything just happened somehow - you know, the way housework gets done even though no one but Big Sis is at home ... but everyone knows that BVig Sis is "lazy," so the housework must have evolved itself done.

But their preferences are not fast-breaking news or anything. Their preferences are the local superstitions one must learn to live with. Superstitions, after all, are not supplanted overnight.

Aussie PM: Cosmic order proves God exists

In the Sydney Morning Herald (August 29, 2008), the new Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd is quoted as saying,
... the ordered nature of the cosmos convinces him of the existence of God.

Mr Rudd, a regularly practising Anglican, was on Friday asked on Fairfax Radio in Brisbane to give his single biggest argument in favour of the existence of God.

"As you know I'm a believer and I've never pretended not to be and I respect those who have no religious belief - it's a free country," Mr Rudd said.

"For me, it's ultimately the order of the cosmos or what I describe as the creation.

"You can't simply have, in my own judgment, creation simply being a random event because it is so inherently ordered, and the fact that the natural environment is being ordered where it can properly coexist over time.
Well, based on what I have read, there's a guy whose head has found the right orientation to his shoulders.

Denis Alexander, check your e-mail.

Origin of life: Ah, that "just so happens" series of intermediate chemical steps ...

A friend writes to say,

I was in DC earlier this year and snapped this shot of the OOL display in the Smithsonian. I got a chuckle....The top caption reads: "

"No one knows how life arose from non-living matter, but most scientists think it happened through a series of intermediate, chemical steps, rather than all at once."

Of course, the glaring thing is that the entire display is BLANK, so I guess that means we're called to be imaginative.
Yes, friend! The randomly firing buzz of neurons in your brain that generates the illusion of your mind can generate imaginative cooperation, and a host of other things as well. SO dream on!
Of course, the display could also have triggered academic warfare or vandalized by an unenlightened person or ... I sense research grants in the works ....
Actually, it is a good thing if we admit that we do not know the things we do not know. Half the trouble today is caused by people who say they do know (but they don't).
What they really have is strong opinions - today, usually, in favour of materialism - but they don't have credible information. And the two do easily get confused.

Physicist realizes that there is more to nature than materialist atheism can explain

Recently, Bob Estes kindly wrote to say,
I just came across your blogs. What a treasure trove! I don't know if I'll agree with everything there, not being Catholic or even a fully confirmed Christian of any sort yet, but there's a lot to read (not to mention the books).

Anyway, I'm a physicist who was a materialist/atheist for about forty years until the very evidence of the world forced me to start reconsidering, which then led to a dramatic conversion to theism—not deism as in the Flew case, as there was a personal encounter that took me beyond that.

I've written some about the topics on my blog. Relevant posts would include "On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism, which is my pondering why I stayed stuck for so long in an immature view of the world, and a follow-on about exchanges with some commenters at an atheist's blog, Conversations in the Clubhouse of Truly Smart People. Since the first post I mentioned most have had some reference to God, actually.

Personally, I see no problem in life being a totally natural phenomenon, given that the universe has been created for it to happen.

I'm not sure what your view is yet; but I'm sure we agree that the idea that evolution makes an explanation of ultimate origins unnecessary is pathetic.
Bob, like many thoughtful people, you have way more questions than I have answers!

However, here are a couple of thoughts:

1. Don't worry that you will be put off by something I may say because you are not a Christian or a Catholic. The distinct positions of Christianity - and of the Catholic Church within Christianity - do not turn on the things we observe in nature, animate or inanimate, but rather on human nature. For example, Paul writes, in anguish,
18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[a] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22For in my inner being I delight in God's law; 23but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. (Romans 7: 18-23, NIV)
As we all realize, Paul's problem is not one that neutrons or magpies have. They follow the laws they can recognize but we don't follow the laws we can recognize. That requires an explanation - one that we cannot derive from studying them. They can't do it but we can. That is, by the way, the central error of "evolutionary psychology." The most important things we need to know about humans are precisely the things that differentiate us from magpies, moles, voles, rats, spider monkeys, chimps, and so forth.

2. Re theism vs. deism: Most deeply spiritual people have had personal experiences that confirm their belief that something beyond the material here and now governs this universe.

For example, many scholarly pow-wows have been held about whether remarkable healings described in the Bible really occurred. I find, by experience, that people who are awakened to the spiritual dimension of their own existence through a remarkable healing simply do not give the view that it "can't happen" much consideration. Presumably, they consider themselves living refutations of that view.

How such healings happen, we do not always know, but the explanation, when available, will not be merely reductionist. And, as Mario Beauregard and I pointed out recently in The Spiritual Brain, this is a time for exploration, not dogma.

3. Re life being "a totally natural phenomenon": That's okay with me. But we need to ask, what is the nature of nature? What does nature include? What does it exclude? If nature is "all that exists" then by definition, all explanations must be naturalistic. Otherwise, we do not have an explanation.

Now, the available evidence does not point to life getting started by a random swish of chemicals, because life got started so soon after the planet cooled that something else was likely involved. This need not be divine intervention or a miracle. It could be an unrolling of a previously coded event.

Consider, for example, the robotic vehicles on Mars. How would an observer who did not know about Earth's space program account for them? Considerable time might be wasted coming up with a naturalistic (= random) explanation when 30 seconds of accurate explanation would set the investigator straight.

Today's top post at Este's Onscreen Scientist blog is about animal suffering and the nature of the universe.

He makes the reasonable point that
Without denying the truth of animal suffering, I usually just try to put it out of my mind and avoid it. I eat meat. I love to eat meat, I might even say; though I do it without thinking about what I am eating or how it came to be on my plate. This is a rather unnatural situation. Until very recently the slaughter of animals was not hidden, so almost all people were either involved in it or witnesses to it. I even killed some chickens at my grandparents’ as a boy, and the image brought to my mind by the expression “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” is vivid and rather disturbing.

We can also note that there is a wide gap between the hunter and the non-hunter in the industrialized world.
Off the top of my head, I can comment on only a couple of points here:

- death, as such, is only a problem to humans. Only humans know that we all must die. I am not saying that other life forms do not care about their emotional losses, but they are not likely to abstract death, as such, to a general proposition.

- suffering is only possible for those creatures that have the type of nervous system that enables an idea of "self," related to the suffering body and to the time spent suffering. From what I have seen and heard of insects, for example, I doubt that insects have any such sense. Please understand, I am not advocating cruelty to any form of life; I am simply saying that we need to be clear about the fact that the badly burned child probably suffers indescribably more than the cockroach that was partly charred in the same fire.

Also, Bob: We share a life experience in common! When I was a small child - a half century ago and more - on the O'Leary farm near Avonlea, Saskatchewan, I sometimes watched as Grandma O'Leary expertly whipped off the head of a hen that had stopped laying. That hen, of course, was the main course of our dinner.

On the whole, I do not think that Grandma's hens would have survived longer or more comfortably, left to themselves on the open prairie, than they did in her coop. Quite the reverse, to judge from my father's recollections of night-time coyote attacks. So I doubt that any wrong was done to the hens.

Anyway, welcome aboard, and great to hear from you!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Rehabilitating the idea of creation - Big Bang Cosmology

Recently, I have suggested rehabilitating the idea of creation, because the Big Bang is essentially a creationist theory. A friend writes to say:

Just a couple of observations if I may please?

1. I agree that The Big Bang is a "creationist theory". However, it is probable that one day it will be superseded. We must be careful not to lean too heavily on the current paradigm. When I meet with Reasons to Believe, for example, because of the over-arching weight they attach to Big Bang Cosmology, I warn that their apologetic may be in trouble fifty years from now. The Big Bang is something of a reigning paradigm. I mean, it's a protected sphere and access to the best telescopes are restricted to Big Bang Cosmologists - unbelievers not allowed. Yes, it's the dominant game in town, but it's not the only evidence-based game in town - see Halton Arp, for example.

And of course we have the shocking case of Guillermo Gonzalez - see your own Colliding Universes, June 18th 2008 !

[From Denyse: Sure. But in fairness, Gonzalez wasn't Expelled for doubting the Big Bang, but for suggesting that Earth is in a highly favourable location for science, rather than just being an accidental dot somewhere. What Gonzalez says is unquestionably true, but it also offends the pious atheist astronomer because it amounts to dissing St. Carl Sagan in his own Church of Astronomy. ]

2. Staying with Big Bang Cosmology, the enormous problem has to be "Where did all the energy ( the bang!) come from?" I continually marvel at the tiny amounts of Nuclear material required to do almost incalculable explosive damage - consider Hiroshima. How is it that such small masses of material contain such vast potential energy? And where did the whole lot come from in the first place?

Well, that's the big question, I guess ... how did the rabbit get into the Hat?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Introduction: Why should the search for Darwin's "warm little puddle" be publicly funded?

I have no objection to origin of life research, but then I have no objection to the search for the Lost Atlantis either. To the extent, however, that a quest seems primarily religious in character, the case for public funding must be constructed on public grounds. And that must begin with an examination of the faith under discussion.

1. Origin of life - the Genesis of a new religion?

2. Was origin of life ever mainly a science quest in the first place?

3. The sacred mysteries of the prebiotic soup

4. So should the established religion seeking the origin of life be disestablished? There is an alternative ...

1. Origin of life - the Genesis of a new religion?

I first became interested in origin of life while helping to develop a textbook chapter on the subject a couple of years ago. It struck me as a classic "cold case," like the identity of Jack the Ripper. Interesting, sure, but ultimately unresolvable.

In August 2005, Harvard University announced a multidisciplinary project to discover the origin of life (OoL), complete with $1 million annual funding and top-flight facilities.

"My expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention," Harvard chemistry professor David R. Liu told media. Yet descriptives such as "daunting," "mystifying," and "profound and unsolved problem" festooned the Boston Globe's in-depth report, casting an unexpected shadow across Dr. Liu's optimism. Why?

Well, for one thing, science has been here before. In 1877, embryologist Ernst Haeckel said of his own origins theory, "With this single argument the mystery of the universe is explained, the Deity is annulled and a new era of infinite knowledge is ushered in." Much has been learned since Haeckel's day, but not the origin of life. The sheer enormity of the question is much clearer now than then, so the authors and pioneers of the new faith, far from marching through the desert to the Promised Land, are still stuck on the first verse - like a poet who can't find a rhyme for "silver."

Next: 2. Was origin of life ever mainly a science quest in the first place?