Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: Primordial soup sent back to kitchen?

We are told, “New Research Rejects 80-Year Theory of 'Primordial Soup' as the Origin of Life”:
ScienceDaily (Feb. 3, 2010) - For 80 years it has been accepted that early life began in a 'primordial soup' of organic molecules before evolving out of the oceans millions of years later. Today the 'soup' theory has been over turned in a pioneering paper in BioEssays which claims it was the Earth's chemical energy, from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, which kick-started early life.

"Textbooks have it that life arose from organic soup and that the first cells grew by fermenting these organics to generate energy in the form of ATP. We provide a new perspective on why that old and familiar view won't work at all," said team leader Dr Nick lane from University College London. "We present the alternative that life arose from gases (H2, CO2, N2, and H2S) and that the energy for first life came from harnessing geochemical gradients created by mother Earth at a special kind of deep-sea hydrothermal vent -- one that is riddled with tiny interconnected compartments or pores."

[ ... ]

"Despite bioenergetic and thermodynamic failings the 80-year-old concept of primordial soup remains central to mainstream thinking on the origin of life," said senior author, William Martin, an evolutionary biologist from the Insitute of Botany III in Düsseldorf. "But soup has no capacity for producing the energy vital for life."
So, soup is mainstream but produces no energy? Well, at least it is now safe to say that. Thankfully, the undersea smokers are hot. The soup isn’t.

Origin of life: O he of simple faith

I was impressed by the studies made after the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helen's in Washington State, which destroyed all life for many kilometres around. Within a remarkably short time, nasty hot, evil-looking pools around the volcano were teeming with life in the form of bacteria and blue green algae. These are exactly the kinds of organisms that we know from the earliest records of life on Earth. The necessary original formula must have been one of chemistry and heat in a watery environment.

- D. V. Ager, The New Catastrophism: The Importance of the Rare Event in Geological History, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge UK, 1993, p. 149.
It really does take a lot of faith to think that the most ancient organisms could just appear in the same way that existing organisms spill into a new territory, taking advantage of the fact that the more complex organisms that usually constrain their activities, are temporarily absent.

If “chemistry and heat in a watery environment” were the solution to the origin of life, life would be popping up from nothing far more often than it does.

Hat tip: Stephen E. Jones.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Change your wall charts, chemistry teachers, ...

Atomic Weights of 10 Elements on Periodic Table About to Make an Historic Change

ScienceDaily (Dec. 16, 2010) — For the first time in history, a change will be made to the atomic weights of some elements listed on the Periodic table of the chemical elements posted on walls of chemistry classrooms and on the inside covers of chemistry textbooks worldwide.

For more, go here. Free IUPAC .pdf report here.

Origin of life: At least one swish of chemicals must win the lottery ...

Friend Stephen E. Jones was reading The Origin of Life by Paul Davies (2003) and came up with this nice paragraph:
Many investigators feel uneasy about stating in public that the origin of life is a mystery, even though behind closed doors they freely admit that they are baffled. There seems to be two reasons for their unease. Firstly, they feel it opens the door to religious fundamentalists and their god-of-the-gaps pseudo-explanations. Secondly, they worry that a frank admission of ignorance will undermine funding, especially for the search for life in space.

- Paul Davies, The Origin of Life, Penguin Books, London, 2003, p. xxiv
He comments,
An interpretation of this is that origin of life researchers don't tell in public that they are in a crisis, because if they did so, they would give ammunition to Intelligent Design and lose a great deal of money ...

They are die-hard materialists in both senses.
Actually, most people would probably cheer them on if they did find the origin of life, but the reason it is a mystery is their unwillingness to consider whether some features are best explained by design. They want chance to do the legwork, which is somewhat like wanting to get rich on one lottery ticket win.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Do you have to be an American liberal to believe in extraterrestrials?

Yes, folks, I thought this was Hoax News at work too.

But Michael Medved reports,
These clashing opinions on extraterrestrials amount to more than a trivial split on an arcane topic; they connect, in fact, both logically and emotionally to big conflicts over worldview, culture, politics and America’s role in history.

In Colorado, these conflicts erupted in a recent battle over a proposed Denver commission to investigate visitations from alien life forms. Initiative 300 won enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in November 2010 but lost in a landslide, with conservatives leading the derision of the “ET Initiative,” as a loony waste of taxpayer money. The chief support for “greater transparency” regarding sightings and encounters came from the city’s Bohemian left, with advocates proudly citing the interest in flying saucers from liberal icons like Jimmy Carter and John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff.

Polls show that Americans remain closely divided on attitudes toward extraterrestrials, with a 2008 Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll reporting 56% who believe it is “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that intelligent life has developed in other worlds. Self-described Democrats (according to the same survey) are far more likely to say they have personally seen “visitors from another world” than are their Republican counterparts, who remain distinctly skeptical.

For more, go here.
A most interesting discussion follows.

Of course the Initiative is a waste of money! If the ETs really wanted to talk to us ... well, like I always advise, in matters of the heart: If he’s there and if he cares, he’ll phone. He knows you want to hear from him. So, if you don’t ...

By the way, I hope it’s not true that Jimmy Carter spent a lot of time thinking about ... flying saucers?? ... when he was president. Didn’t he have, like, “issues” to address? I recall something about the Ayatollah Khomeini holding American hostages back then ... Ring a bell?

For more stories on extraterrestrials, go here.

Note: This sounds kind of preachy,but it is important to distinguish between "space aliens" as above, and the possibility of primitive life on other planets. The latter is a question on which information from science has  a bearing; the former an article of faith, based on other beliefs.

More from the “and then rain just sort of fell” thesis on the origin of life

Stephen E. Jones  has noted,

Using information theory, astrophysicist Edward Argyle calculated the probability that a single organism arose on the early Earth by chance. Argyle concluded: “It would seem impossible for the prebiotic Earth to have generated more than about 200 bits of information, an amount that falls short of the 6 million bits in E. coli by a factor of 30,000.”

- Edward Argyle, “Chance and the Origin of Life”, Extraterrestrials – Where Are They?
Cambridge University Press, 199, p. 131.

Photo: Stromatolites, fossils of some of the earliest known life forms, US government, public domain

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

More coffee!! And news that is, happily, of no consequence to anyone ...

Major storm on Saturn in progress:
Space Weather News for Dec. 28, 2011

BIG STORM ON SATURN: Got a telescope for Christmas? Point it at Saturn. A giant storm even brighter than Saturn's rings is raging through the planet's cloudtops. Amateur images and sky maps are featured on today's edition of

GEOMAGNETIC STORM IN PROGRESS: At the time this alert is being written (mid-day UT on Dec. 28), a polar geomagnetic storm is in progress (Kindex=5). Observers report electric currents in the ground and intensifying Northern Lights over Scandinavia. High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras:.

Extraterrestrial life Life is simple All ya gotta do is ...

The simplest known organism which is capable of independent existence includes about 100 different genes. For each of 100 different specific genes to be formed spontaneously (in 10 billion years) the probability is 2 raised to the power of -100 raised to the power of 100 (or one chance in 10 followed by 3,000 zeroes). For them to be formed at the same time, and in close proximity, the probability is much lower.”

- Michael Hart, "Atmospheric Evolution, the Drake Equation and DNA: Sparse Life in an Infinite Universe" Extraterrestrials – Where Are They? (Cambridge University Press, 1995 pp. 222-223)

Oh wait, let me check my notes.

For other extraterrestrial life stories, go here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

No satellite hookup needed for this show, if the sky is clear

NASA Science News for Dec. 17, 2010

Northern winter is beginning in a special way. On Dec. 21st, the winter solstice, a lunar eclipse will be visible across all of North America.
The luster will be a bit "off" on Dec. 21st, the first day of northern winter, when the full Moon passes almost dead-center through Earth's shadow. For 72 minutes of eerie totality, an amber light will play across the snows of North America, throwing landscapes into an unusual state of ruddy shadow.
The eclipse begins on Tuesday morning, Dec. 21st, at 1:33 am EST (Monday, Dec. 20th, at 10:33 pm PST). At that time, Earth's shadow will appear as a dark-red bite at the edge of the lunar disk. It takes about an hour for the "bite" to expand and swallow the entire Moon. Totality commences at 02:41 am EST (11:41 pm PST) and lasts for 72 minutes.
If you're planning to dash out for only one quick look - it is December, after all - choose this moment: 03:17 am EST (17 minutes past midnight PST). That's when the Moon will be in deepest shadow, displaying the most fantastic shades of coppery red.

FULL STORY here. And here's the lunar eclipse photo gallery.

Entertain children the old-fashioned way. Don't buy them something. Show them a wonder that belongs to everyone. Then give the money to children's education in developing countries.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Hawking and Mlodinow: Firing God and hiring the multiverse

British physicist David Tyler comments:

Stephen Hawking has achieved the status of 'celebrity scientist'. He writes books that sell well and has both presented and performed in television series.

His latest book, The Grand Design, co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow, has been reviewed widely by both popular press and scientific journals. According to Michael Turner, who wrote the Nature review, these authors:

"offer a brief but thrilling account of some of the boldest ideas in physics - including M-theory and the multiverse - and what these have to say about our existence and the nature of the Universe."

The media appeared to be stimulated primarily by the claim that physics has made God redundant. "God is unnecessary, science can explain the universe without the need for a creator" (BBC News), "Why God Did Not Create the Universe. There is a sound scientific explanation for the making of our world - no gods required." (Wall Street Journal). The Guardian responded by conducting a poll among its readers, asking the question:

"Is physicist Stephen Hawking right that physics, not God, created the universe?" This theme is also picked out in the Nature review: "No miracle in the Multiverse". Some might find the argument to be artificially polarised - for did not the pioneers of science link the existence of laws of nature with the reality of a supreme Lawgiver? More recent research has unearthed evidence for the "fine-tuning" of the Cosmos, so the evidences of design have become more prominent with time. Hawking and Mlodinow recognise this when they write:

"Newton believed that our strangely habitable solar system did not "arise out of chaos by the mere laws of nature." Instead, he maintained that the order in the universe was "created by God at first and conserved by him to this Day in the same state and condition." The discovery recently of the extreme fine-tuning of so many laws of nature could lead some back to the idea that this grand design is the work of some grand Designer."

This brings us to the heart of the argument presented by Hawking and Mlodinow: they are endorsing M-theory and the Multiverse cosmological model. This is how Turner puts it:

"In searching for the holy grail, Hawking and others pinned their hopes first on super-gravity and then on string theory. Both are now seen as different regimes of a grander mathematical framework called M-theory, where M is yet to be determined - is it master, miracle or mirage? M-theory unifies gravity with the other fundamental forces (weak and strong nuclear and electromagnetism), predicts seven additional dimensions of space and suggests that space and time might be emergent phenomena rather than fundamental. It is exciting and important, but much of it remains to be explored."

For more, go here.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Vid: The prequel to the Big Bang?

A friend points to a popular overview of current ideas in theoretical physics on pre-Big Bang cosmology, check out "What Happened Before the Big Bang?" a recent episode of the BBC's Horizon series.

It's on YouTube in six parts, featuring Michio Kaku, Neil Turok, Lee Smolin, Andre Linde, Roger Penrose, and Laura Mersini-Hougton

What do you think? Is this science or wishful thinking?

To comment, go here.

See also:

More demolition teams trying to blow up the Big Bang

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

For Roger Penrose: "When I say it, it's science; when he says it, it'sreligion!

For Lee Smolin: Can the laws of physics evolve?


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

For Neil Turok: So Stephen Hawking is coming to Canada, sort of

Friday, October 29, 2010

Theory of Everything: Putting failure to find such a theory to good use

Sure. Why waste a failure?

In "The imperfect universe: Goodbye, theory of everything" (New Scientist, 10 May 2010, Magazine issue 2759), Marcelo Gleiser mourns,
FIFTEEN years ago, I was a physicist hard at work hunting for a theory of nature that would unify the very big and the very small. There was good reason to hope. The great and the good were committed. Even Einstein, who recognised that our understanding of reality is necessarily incomplete, had spent the last 20 years of his life searching for a unified field theory that would describe the two main forces we see acting around us - gravity and electromagnetism - as manifestations of a single force. For him, such a mathematical theory represented the purest and most elegant expression of nature and the highest achievement of the human intellect.

Fifty-five years after Einstein's death, the hunt for this elusive unified field theory continues. To physicist Stephen Hawking and many others, finding the "theory of everything" would be equivalent to knowing the "mind of God". The metaphor is ...
subject to you buying an online subscription to New Scientist.

Maybe it's worth it. I mean, so rich a source of authentic pop culture rebranded as science, how can you resist? If you want to know what politicians and pundits fund and defend and why they do, read NS - on someone else's dime, to be sure.

Why is a theory about the Theory of Everything so important? As soon as you think you've worked everything out, it all changes again. Personally, I'd rather have a sound theory of something in particular.

Gleiser argues, says endorser Stuart Kauffman,
... that there is a profound link in Western science between monotheism and the scientific search for a Theory of Everything. He argues persuasively that we must give up this dream. This may augur a profound transformation in our understanding of the world.”

—Stuart Kauffman, Fellow of the Royal Society, Canada, Author of Reinventing the Sacred

Oh, I see now. Failure to find a theory of everything is repackaged as a reason to give up monotheism. And what if a theory of everything had indeed been found? ... why, wouldn't that be a reason to give up monotheism too?

So, really ...

I can't develop a Theory of Everything because no way could I hope to explain why these people don't get the reason the public doesn't take them seriously. Thus, mine wouldn't be a Theory of Everything.

Comments? Go to Uncommon Descent to comment.

(Note: Also, re Gleiser, back in 2005 he was into the "Who designed the designer?" schtick - as if any series could not just end, as a road ends in a highway.)

Extraterrestrials: They're not there, but they must be !

Extraterrestrials: They're not there, but they must be !

Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, reviews Paul Davies's latest book, The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence/Are We Alone In The Universe? , which argues that we should expand the hunt for intelligent life:

McKay considers why we should look closer to home — perhaps even in our DNA.
Although supporting the current quest, Davies recommends bold and sometimes bizarre avenues of exploration. For example, if migratory Galactic civilizations passed this way some time ago, they might have posted an alien message in our DNA or depleted our region of the Universe of some resource, such as (undiscovered) magnetic monopoles. Perhaps they left a device in the Solar System as a calling card, and are patiently waiting for us to discover and activate it. There are many places to look, many ways to expand the search.

Davies devotes pages to what will happen if a signal is received and how we should respond. Most readers will find these questions remote and hypothetical — not least because once a signal is received, events are likely to be quickly taken out of the hands of the astronomers.

The greatest joy of The Eerie Silence is the ending, in which Davies gives his own perspective. He splits his personality into three: scientist, philosopher and human. As a scientist, he is sceptical that we will detect extraterrestrial life, yet he finds that possibility plausible as a philosopher and longs for it to be true as a human. Read at least this page, even if you do not have time for the rest of this excellent book.

- Chris McKay, Is there anybody out there? (Nature, 464, 34 (4 March 2010) doi:10.1038/464034a)
Why does all this remind my of a woman wittering alone at home by the telephone (Why doesn't he call? Why doesn't he text?) waiting for a familiar knock on the door and checking her e-mail every two minutes. No one can cure anyone else of this romantic disorder just by talking sense to them. Usually, women cure themselves when they are ready by asking a simple question: What would happen if I just forgot about him and lived my life and was happy?

Well, he's already forgotten her, so ....

But she, at least, knew for sure that he existed.

So, now, what's the matter with Paul Davies? SETI? Why can't they just let go?

And don't tell me that this is all just about finding bacteria on another planet. That's like the lonely, pacing woman claiming she's really only worried about him. Sure.

Comments? To comment,go to Uncommon Descent.

Here's more on extraterrestrial life:

Extraterrestrials: The recent pilgrimage to Darwin's shrine

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?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Multiverse: Recent studies suggest that some alternative universes "may not be so inhospitable" - assuming they exist

In "Looking for Life in the Multiverse: Universes with different physical laws might still be habitable" Scientific American Magazine (December 16, 2009) By Alejandro Jenkins and Gilad Perez make clear what is and is not accepted in science (as they understand it) and why:
The laws of physics-and in particular the constants of nature that enter into those laws, such as the strengths of the fundamental forces-might therefore seem finely tuned to make our existence possible. Short of invoking a supernatural explanation, which would be by definition outside the scope of science, a number of physicists and cosmologists began in the1970s to try solving the puzzle by hypothesizing that our universe is just one of many existing universes, each with its own laws. According to this"anthropic" reasoning, we might just occupy the rare universe where the right conditions happen to have come together to make life possible. Amazingly, the prevailing theory in modern cosmology, which emerged in the1980s, suggests that such "parallel universes" may really exist-in fact, that a multitude of universes would incessantly pop out of a primordial vacuum the way ours did in the big bang. Our universe would be but one of many pocket universes within a wider expanse called the multiverse. In the overwhelming majority of those universes, the laws of physics might not allow the formation of matter as we know it or of galaxies, stars, planets and life. But given the sheer number of possibilities, nature would have had a good chance to get the "right" set of laws at least once. Our recent studies, however, suggest that some of these other universes-assuming they exist-may not be so inhospitable after all. Remarkably, we have found examples of alternative values of the fundamental constants, and thus of alternative sets of physical laws, that might still lead to very interesting worlds and perhaps to life. The basic idea is to change one aspect of the laws of nature and then make compensatory changes to other aspects.

Our work did not address the most serious fine-tuning problem in theoretical physics: the smallness of the "cosmological constant," thanks to which our universe neither recollapsed into nothingness a fraction of a second after the big bang, nor was ripped part by an exponentially accelerating expansion. Nevertheless, the examples of alternative, potentially habitable universes raise interesting questions and motivate further research into how unique our own universe might be.
Well, the supernatural may be "outside the scope of science," but universes whose existence is not demonstrated, which are imagined principally to get out of a jam with the evidence from this universe, are reasonably doubted, despite thought experiments. The tentative tone here is well justified. It should be used more often.

See other multiverse and fine tuning stories:


Cosmology: If you needn't worry about paying the rent Friday, you can worry about this stuff

Cosmology: Science's leader in things that don't make sense

Cosmology: Crisis of the month: gravitation

Cosmology: Multiverse - getting comfortable with a zillion of everything that is unique.

Cosmology: I seem to have yanked particle physicist Lawrence Krauss's chain

Cosmology: Wow. It takes guts to wage warwith Stephen Hawking. He appeared in Star Trek

Cosmology: Arguments against flatness (plus exposing sloppy science writing)

Cosmology: If the universe has free will, where do I go to file a claim for damages?

Fine tuning:

New podcasts on fine tuning of the universe

Also: Gravity doesn't make sense? Hold on to that thought!

Multiverse: Getting comfortable with a zillion of everything that is unique?

Can the laws of physics evolve?

Like clouds in our coffee, all these other universes

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 the cosmic 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?

American Physical Society reacts to physicist Hal Lewis's accusation: APA "...has accepted corruption as the norm"

You'll recall Hal Lewis, 67-year veteran of the American Physical Society, whose departing comments included,
As recently as thirty-five years ago, when I chaired the first APS study of a contentious social/scientific issue, The Reactor Safety Study, though there were zealots aplenty on the outside there was no hint of inordinate pressure on us as physicists. We were therefore able to produce what I believe was and is an honest appraisal of the situation at that time. We were further enabled by the presence of an oversight committee consisting of Pief Panofsky, Vicki Weisskopf, and Hans Bethe, all towering physicists beyond reproach. I was proud of what we did in a charged atmosphere. In the end the oversight committee, in its report to the APS President, noted the complete independence in which we did the job, and predicted that the report would be attacked from both sides. What greater tribute could there be?

How different it is now. The giants no longer walk the earth, and the money flood has become the raison d'être of much physics research, the vital sustenance of much more, and it provides the support for untold numbers of professional jobs. For reasons that will soon become clear my former pride at being an APS Fellow all these years has been turned into shame, and I am forced, with no pleasure at all, to offer you my resignation from the Society.
His concern that money was now driving the research agenda could be well-founded - money has that effect.

Now APS has replied:
... relatively few APS members conduct climate change research, and therefore the vast majority of the Society’s members derive no personal benefit from such research support.

On the matter of global climate change, APS notes that virtually all reputable scientists agree with the following observations:

•Carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere due to human activity;
•Carbon dioxide is an excellent infrared absorber, and therefore, its increasing presence in the atmosphere contributes to global warming; and
•The dwell time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is hundreds of years.

On these matters, APS judges the science to be quite clear. However, APS continues to recognize that climate models are far from adequate, and the extent of global warming and climatic disruptions produced by sustained increases in atmospheric carbon loading remain uncertain. In light of the significant settled aspects of the science, APS totally rejects Dr. Lewis’ claim that global warming is a “scam” and a “pseudoscientific fraud.”
Excuse me. I have now morphed from concerned to confused. If "APS continues to recognize that climate models are far from adequate, and the extent of global warming and climatic disruptions produced by sustained increases in atmospheric carbon loading remain uncertain," what exactly is "settled" about the science? I doubt anyone disputes the basic properties of carbon dioxide, as such. The question is, how much does it matter? That unsettled part is what most people, facing big, legislated lifestyle changes, care about.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Exoplanets: The planet with 100% life has 0% existence?

A recent news story featured an astronomer whose personal feelings about the chances for life on a recently discovered planet orbiting a star other than our sun were - 100%:
Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent," said Steven Vogt, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, during a press briefing today.

"I have almost no doubt about it.”
He might have done with a few doubts about planet Gliese 581 g, which has a 37-day orbit around a dim, red dwarf star. The
latest story is that other astronomers can’t establish that Gliese exists.
Two weeks after one team of astronomers announced finding the habitable planet Gliese 581 g, another team says it can find no evidence of the world in its data.

Last month, a team of astronomers announced the discovery of the first alien world that could host life on its surface. Now a second team can find no evidence of the planet, casting doubt on its existence.

[ ... ]

But it might be too early to claim a definitive detection. A second team of astronomers have looked for signals of Gliese 581 g in their own data and failed to find it.

"We easily recover the four previously announced planets, "b", "c", "d", and "e". However, we do not see any evidence for a fifth planet in an orbit of 37 days," says Francesco Pepe of the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland. He presented the results on Monday at an International Astronomical Union symposium in Turin, Italy.

Although the Geneva team cannot find evidence for the new planet, they cannot exclude the possibility that Gleise 581 g exists. "We are not trying to prove the nonexistence of a planet," Pepe says. "It's really difficult to prove that something does not exist. We are just saying we do not see a significant signal that is really different from noise."

- Rachel Courtland, "First life-friendly exoplanet may not exist", 1(3 October 2010)
Well, as we, and they, all know, one cannot prove that a physical thing really does not exist. One simply reaches the point where one considers its existence too improbable to spend more time looking.

If Gliese is not found, the episode will demonstrate one important thing: Many people badly need to believe in life on other planets, and many more people are eager to hear them tell about it. The legendary caution of science stands no chance against the onslaught of such yearnings.

See also Exoplanets: The recent pilgrimage to Darwin's shrine.

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?

100 per cent chance newly discovered planet has life

How do we know? Faith in faith alone, the astronomer explained:
"Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent," said Steven Vogt, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, during a press briefing today.

"I have almost no doubt about it."
Well, that settles it, I guess.

James M. Kushiner points out, at Mere Comments blog, re "Odds of Life on Nearby Planet '100 Percent,' Astronomer Says":
Did you hear about the astronomer, who said, get this, that the odds of life on nearby planet are 100 Percent? What was he thinking? What do astronomers know about biological life, and, besides, if the odds are 100 percent, then there are no odds--at least if I go to Arlington Race Track and find a horse that has a 100 percent chance of winning, they probably won't be taking bets on him. No odds there.

[ ... ]

I am not saying this planet could not support life. I am just wondering what are the chances that any given astronomer would peg a planet with so many unknowns or uncertainties with a probability of having life on it at 100 percent? Of course, if a news story is in play with a possible headline, I'd up those chances considerably, whatever they are.

If you want to read science, don't read the news.
Read more here. Kushiner is editor of the science and popular culture mag Salvo, pictured above.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Science fiction author asks, why are atheists who write space operas supposed to know best whether God exists?

Lawyer Hal G.P. Colebatch observes, re atheist science fiction:
A magazine I frequently write for (not this one) recently published a review of a book of essays advocating atheism. The reviewer pointed out with some enthusiasm that a large number of the contributors were science-fiction writers.

This left me somewhat nonplussed. I publish a good deal of science fiction myself, I have also read quite a lot of it, and I am quite unable to see why writing it should be held to particularly qualify anyone to answer the question of whether or not there is a God.

I don't know if it is an actual requirement for the job, but certainly a number of astronauts are believers and Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, is a lay preacher.

I would be inclined to take their feelings about Cosmology with more respect than those of even the best-published science-fiction writer. (The American Spectator, 10.7.10)
Well, at least the astronauts have been there. It’s not just the Saucer City Chronicles all over again.

I tend to be wary of all genre fiction, and am delighted by examples of non-convention bound writing that prove me too pessimistic. But I’d be curious to know why atheists are attracted to science fiction (not necessarily with happy results, by any means), and why there is so little good science fiction out there from a theistic perspective. Any thoughts? Go to Uncommon Descent to comment.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Physicist resigns from American Physical Society, after 67 years, and scorches earth

Hal Lewis* reminisces for Society president, Curtis G. Callan, Jr. of Princeton University, charging:

When I first joined the American Physical Society sixty-seven years ago it was much smaller, much gentler, and as yet uncorrupted by the money flood (a threat against which Dwight Eisenhower warned a half-century ago). Indeed, the choice of physics as a profession was then a guarantor of a life of poverty and abstinence---it was World War II that changed all that. The prospect of worldly gain drove few physicists. As recently as thirty-five years ago, when I chaired the first APS study of a contentious social/scientific issue, The Reactor Safety Study, though there were zealots aplenty on the outside there was no hint of inordinate pressure on us as physicists. We were therefore able to produce what I believe was and is an honest appraisal of the situation at that time. We were further enabled by the presence of an oversight committee consisting of Pief Panofsky, Vicki Weisskopf, and Hans Bethe, all towering physicists beyond reproach. I was proud of what we did in a charged atmosphere. In the end the oversight committee, in its report to the APS President, noted the complete independence in which we did the job, and predicted that the report would be attacked from both sides. What greater tribute could there be?

How different it is now. The giants no longer walk the earth, and the money flood has become the raison d'être of much physics research, the vital sustenance of much more, and it provides the support for untold numbers of professional jobs. For reasons that will soon become clear my former pride at being an APS Fellow all these years has been turned into shame, and I am forced, with no pleasure at all, to offer you my resignation from the Society.

Lewis is motivated by the Climategate attempt at censorship of dissenting views on manmade global warming:

It was a fraud on a scale I have never seen, and I lack the words to describe its enormity. Effect on the APS position: none. None at all. This is not science; other forces are at work.

The really big scandal, in my view, is that Climategate wasn’t treated as a scandal, just business as usual.

But now, what say you physicists among us: Were the good old days really better? Has love of money been the root of all evil? Go to Uncommon Descent to comment.

*bio: Emeritus Professor of Physics, University of California, Santa Barbara, former Chairman; Former member Defense Science Board, chmn of Technology panel; Chairman DSB study on Nuclear Winter; Former member Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards; Former member, President's Nuclear Safety Oversight Committee; Chairman APS study on Nuclear Reactor Safety Chairman Risk Assessment Review Group; Co-founder and former Chairman of JASON; Former member USAF Scientific Advisory Board; Served in US Navy in WW II; books: Technological Risk (about, surprise, technological risk) and Why Flip a Coin (about decision making)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Note to readers

Because I am writing a book, I probably will not be blogging much before December, but expect to see me then, if not before. I did post some new material today. To keep up with my writing, go to Uncommon Descent - Denyse

End of the world news: Most recent update

End of the world news: Most recent update

We are told by Howard Falcon-Lang, science reporter for BBC news, that the fate of the universe is now revealed by the galactic lens and that the universe will expand forever (19 August 2010):
Knowing the distribution of dark energy tells astronomers that the Universe will continue to get bigger indefinitely.

Eventually it will become a cold, dead wasteland with a temperature approaching what scientists term "absolute zero".

Professor Priyamvada Natarajan of Yale University, a leading cosmologist and co-author of this study, said that the findings finally proved "exactly what the fate of the Universe will be".
Hmmm. I thought that pulpit-splintering, Bible-whacking fundamentalists had settled that one along time ago. And I give about as much credit to each view.

Also, don't miss this: "Tantalizing Clues as to Why Matter Prevails in the Universe: Surprisingly Large Matter/antimatter Asymmetry Discovered" from Science News Daily:
A large collaboration of physicists working at the Fermilab Tevatron particle collider has discovered evidence of an explanation for the prevalence of matter over antimatter in the universe. They found that colliding protons in their experiment produced short-lived B meson particles that almost immediately broke down into debris that included slightly more matter than antimatter. The two types of matter annihilate each other, so most of the material coming from these sorts of decays would disappear, leaving an excess of regular matter behind. This sort of matter/antimatter asymmetry accounts for the fact that just about all the material in the universe is made of the normal matter we're familiar with.
Which doubtless explains the absence of really unusual events in my neck of the woods.

So this is a family photo of the whole world? Wow!

Here is a photograph of Earth and its moon, taken from a distance of 114 million miles, by the U.S. spacecraft Messenger, headed out to orbit Mercury.

Coffee!!: You're lucky enough if you even find the other sock anyway ....

In "Is quantum theory weird enough for the real world?", Richard Webb explains why we might need a new theory of quantum mechanics:
In our day-to-day world, we are accustomed to the idea that two events are unlikely to be correlated unless there is a clear connection of cause and effect. Pulling a red sock onto my right foot in no way ensures that my left foot will also be clad in red - unless I purposely reach into the drawer for another red sock. In 1964, John Bell of the CERN particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, described the degree of correlation that classical theories allow. Bell's result relied on two concepts: realism and locality.

Realism amounts to saying that the properties of an object exist prior to, and independent of, measurement. In the classical world, that second sock in my drawer is red regardless of whether or not I "measure" its state by looking at it. Locality is the assumption that these properties are independent of any remote influence.

In the quantum world, these are dangerous assumptions. "It turns out that either one or both of Bell's principles must be wrong," says Brukner. If quantum effects were visible in our everyday world, I might well find that my pulling on a red sock leads to the colour of the sock left in my drawer automatically changing to red.

[ ... ]

A world with this degree of interconnection would be weird indeed. I might find that by selecting a red sock from my drawer in the morning, I had predetermined the colour not just of my other sock, but that of my shirt, underpants and of the bus I ride to work.

( - New Scientist 23 August 2010)
The only time this ever happens in the macro world, in my own life experience, is if someone is fool enough to put dyed clothes in the javel water bleach wash. If you like white, buy it off the rack.

More quantum stories here.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

No boundaries? Or no possibility?

A friend commented on Stephen Hawking's "no boundary" proposal:
The no boundary proposal means that one can picture the origin of the universe as being like the formation of bubbles of steam in boiling water. Quantum fluctuations lead to the spontaneous creation of tiny universes out of nothing.
My friend points out that it is not really 'out of nothing' as Hawking states. Quantum fluctuations require some sort of space-time and energy, even if they different from our own. So we've only traded one problem (get rid of the idea of a beginning) for another (what caused the space-time and energy that gave rise to the tiny universes?).

Basically, something isn't nothing. And nothing comes of nothing.

By the way, here are some varying definitions of "nothing", as seen by a physicist.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Stephen Hawking: Either Star Trek or we are doomed

Here, famous physicist Stephen Hawking writes,
It's time to abandon Earth, warned the world's most famous theoretical physicist.

In an interview with website Big Think , Stephen Hawking warned that the long-term future of the planet is in outer space.

"It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn't have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet," he said.

"I see great dangers for the human race," Hawking said. "There have been a number of times in the past when its survival has been a question of touch and go. (Fox News, 2010/08/09)
Well, here's what I see. I see that Stephen Hawking needs a cup of tea, a warm blanket, and a nap.

How am I supposed to mediate between, say, Eric Pianka (too many people are dooming us) and Hawking's view that we won't survive unless we move to another planet?

From anything I know, we'd be best to forget the lot of them.

The fact that insane regimes have nuclear arms is certainly a problem, but it is a solvable one.

We used to solve it in the past by not letting them have them.

PS: Hawking actually appeared on Star Trek. Maybe that is why I thought of it.

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Coffee!!: Favourite local quote from yesterday, on ETs

By Gleaner here at Rob Sheldon’s story on extraterrestrials:
If for some reasons the aliens are actually interested in us, I think they are probably already here, and given a certain level of technology, if would probably be easy to hide from us, even on a daily basis.

Yes, I should think so. Termites do it all the time. So do the rats at a nearby dumpster. (That’s why the rule of thumb is, for every rat you happen to spot, there are a dozen.)

Now, what I’d be interested to know is, the ETs never phone, they never write. Why do we assume they exist?

Most of the reasons I have heard are based on attitudes, values, and beliefs, not science.

For example, why can’t we be alone in the universe? Maybe we just are. One can interpret that fact in various ways.

The least plausible explanation I hear is that we can’t be alone because that would imply we are special. Why? If we don’t know why there isn’t anyone else out there, it’s a meaningless assumption, unless our tradition of thought offers other lines of reasoning as well.

Suppose I am out hiking in the far north, and the proposition is put to me that I cannot be the only human being within a hundred kilometre radius. I protest that that is impossible. “They” must be out there.

As a matter of fact, in Canada’s far north, it is quite possible that I am indeed the only human being currently within a hundred kilometre radius, and there is no They there.

Of course, it would be boring if there are no ETs. But we can’t rule it out. There are no other high intellect creatures on our own planet, despite overblown claims made for great apes.

Well, to riff off Marlene Dietrich, I don’t want to be alone, but must be prepared to get used to it, if it is true.