Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Blog on hold till November 30

Because I am writing a book and working for a living, I have regretfully decided that the only time management solution is to put this blog on hold until November 30, 2011.

I thank all regular readers and occasional donors.

Always glad to share a good read and thoughts thereon. The blog search box at the top left will give you access to all past stories.

I will still be blogging at Access Research Network (bottom row of headlines), Salvo, and Uncommon Descent.

Good luck to all in the happy hunting ground of materialist nonsense that so much pop science has become.

Exoplanets expert thinks intelligent beings rare in galaxy

Here,'s Mike Wall interviews astronomer Geoff Marcy on "Life on other planets?" (2/1/2011):
Leading expert weighs in

Marcy has had a hand in finding more alien planets than anyone else. He helped spot 70 of the first 100. He also found the first multiplanet system around a sun-like star, and he discovered the first planet that transits — or passes in front of — its star from our perspective on Earth

[ ... ] Our solar system is so young, compared to the universe. And the universe is so big. So there's been lots of time and opportunity for advanced civilizations to get started, and to try to contact us. Some people think that the fact that we seemingly haven't been contacted means that we may well bealone in the universe.

Marcy: Well, you have to fold it in. The absence of an intelligent radio or television wave from any advanced civilization represents one indication, not a proof, that maybe habitable planets that sustain Darwinian evolution for a billion years —maybe they're rare. Maybe. What do you reckon? Do you have a gut feeling about this?

Marcy: I do. If I had to bet — and this is now beyond science — I would say that intelligent, technological critters are rare in the Milky Way galaxy. The evidence mounts. We Homo sapiens didn't arise until some quirk of environment on the East African savannah — so quirky that the hominid paleontologists still can't tell us why the australopithecines somehow evolved big brains and had dexterity that could play piano concertos, and things that make no real honest sense in terms of Darwinian evolution.
The whole is worth reading. He thinks $billion should do the trick.

New atheism, civil rights, and Martin Gaskell

Here's Richard Dawkins, as a friend puts it, "coming out ... as a religious bigot" in analyzing the Martin Gaskell case ("potentially evangelical" astronomer settles for $100K):
The University of Kentucky has caved in and agreed a settlement, out of court, with the allegedly creationist astronomer Martin Gaskell. ...

[ ... ]

If Martin were not so superbly qualified, so breathtakingly above the other applicants in background and experience, then our decision would be much simpler. We could easily choose another applicant, and we could content ourselves with the idea that Martin's religious beliefs played little role in our decision. However, this is not the case. As it is, no objective observer could possibly believe that we excluded Martin on any basis other than religious...
A smoking gun, it would seem, ...

- Should employers be blind to private beliefs? (Jan 24, 2011)
He then goes on to make a case for discriminating against job applicants on the basis of religious beliefs (other than atheism).

Curious thing about the new atheists: One thing they'll sure get rid of is civil liberties as commonly understood.

I was giving a talk at a church recently, and the adult education leader told me that many older churchgoers worried about whether their children and grandchildren would have jobs. They remember a more sane and tolerant society, but don't know how to get back there. I hate having to tell them that the answer begins with losing all interest in the question of whether people think they are nice. They could end up being just nice enough to make sure their grandchildren can't get jobs unless they disown them. (Historically, that has happened before.)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Scientist? Take the peer review pressure off at the Journal of Universal Rejection

Here the Journal promises to save you masses of bother by guaranteeing to just reject your submission up front:
The founding principle of the Journal of Universal Rejection (JofUR) is rejection. Universal rejection. That is to say, all submissions, regardless of quality, will be rejected. Despite that apparent drawback, here are a number of reasons you may choose to submit to the JofUR:

You can send your manuscript here without suffering waves of anxiety regarding the eventual fate of your submission. You know with 100% certainty that it will not be accepted for publication.

There are no page-fees.

You may claim to have submitted to the most prestigious journal (judged by acceptance rate).

The JofUR is one-of-a-kind. Merely submitting work to it may be considered a badge of honor.

You retain complete rights to your work, and are free to resubmit to other journals even before our review process is complete.

Decisions are often (though not always) rendered within hours of submission
There. Now you can go back to trying to find that elusive particle of dark matter. Then, Nobel assured, fame and fortune in sight, you can publish in the Journal of Fizzics if you want to.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Hostility to life is norm for exoplanets, senior astrophysicist says

Artist's conception of  Kepler-10b, NASA
In “Kepler-10b - The first extrasolar system rocky planet”, British physicist David Tyler notes,
The presumption that there are millions of Earth-like planets in habitable zones is based on theory that is not supported by evidence. This point has recently been made by Howard Smith, a senior astrophysicist at Harvard. He has made the claim that "we are alone in the universe" after an analysis of the 500 planets discovered so far showed all were hostile to life.

"Dr Smith said the extreme conditions found so far on planets discovered outside out Solar System are likely to be the norm, and that the hospitable conditions on Earth could be unique.
"We have found that most other planets and solar systems are wildly different from our own. They are very hostile to life as we know it," he said."
never mind rare Earths, there aren’t any spare Earths, period. Better take care of the one we got.

Telic Thoughts weighs in on Coppedge case

Bradford for Telic Thoughts comments on the Coppedge case:
Another issue merits attention. Coppedge is not merely a creationist, he is a Christian version of one. There are Muslim creationists and creationists of other non-conventional religious persuasions when assessed by American cultural norms. That group falls within a different category within the tortured minds of PC advocates. We need to practice diversity when dealing with them. Understanding. Tolerance. The contradiction is nauseating but perhaps explainable.
Oh, but this is common, Bradford. In Canada, for example, anti-Semitism isn’t tolerated - except when it is Islamist anti-Semitism. The political motivation is obvious: Islamists, like leftists, restrict intellectual freedom, so they are useful to the left. (Though, in fairness, many bystanders here are starting to wake up, led by courageous younger Jews.)

PC is a very successful strategy of the new hard left. Tolerance means nothing more than what the NHL choose to tolerate, in the process of limiting free or thoughtful inquiry. As Theodore Dalrymple has pointed out, PC's real value is forcing most people to lie. They are morally ashamed of themselves for succumbing so readily to making cowardice a virtue, make nervous little jokes, and blame anyone who expressed honest opinions for bringing the storm on themselves.

Bradford offers,
IDists have been tagged as wedge practitioners by critics. But the dubious charge never had substance. If some IDists did have a wedge strategy in mind they were clearly ineffectual. Take notes from the pros. PCers are experts at wedging.
Yes, the political correctness thugs assume, as do most humans, that everyone thinks as they do. If PC enforcers turn any institution they take over into a stinkpot of closed, mediocre minds, it goes without saying that everyone else must want to do the same, but they got there first.

Smart on the Telic guys’ part to take an interest, because they are next. In a PC environment, even asking questions, other than the prescribed ones leading to the approved answers, is a sure sign that you are trouble.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

What if scientism had to pay its own bills?

Here's commentator David Klinghoffer's comments on the purging of astronomers Gaskell and Gonzalez and NASA mission specialist David Coppedge, among others, for doubting the Central Dogma of biology:
For years I've collected accounts of scientists who voiced doubts about Darwin and ended up paying a high price. In February, the University of Kentucky will defend itself in court in a discrimination case brought by astronomer Martin Gaskell, now at the University of Texas. He argues convincingly that he was turned down to direct Kentucky's observatory because of remarks on his personal website noting reservations about Darwinian theory and an openness to intelligent design.

Gaskell's attorneys present records of email traffic among the faculty search committee. Professors falsely tarred Gaskell as a "creationist" while a lone astrophysicist on the committee protested that Gaskell stood to be rejected "despite his qualifications that stand far above those of any other applicant."

The case resembles another at Iowa State University. Astrophysicist Guillermo Gonzalez was refused tenure, despite a spectacular research publication record, because of a book he co-authored arguing that earthly life is no cosmic accident. Again, email traffic told the tale. The department chairman had instructed faculty that intelligent design was a litmus test for tenure, "disqualify[ing] him from serving as a science educator."

[ ... ]

This year, a top-level computer specialist on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Cassini mission to Saturn, David Coppedge, sued JPL for discrimination after being demoted for circulating among colleagues a couple of DVDs favoring intelligent design.

- "'Science Says' Is Now Just Another Special Interest Claim" (Human Events, January 6, 2011) January 30, 2011
Interestingly, Gaskell ($100, 000 settlement) and Gonzalez (new observatory) didn't do so badly out of it, and one hopes Coppedge will also land on his feet.

The key thing to see here, in my view, is that the scientism lobby can't hope to both treat science as their private game park and expect public funding. Or can they? Let's see what the Coppedge case brings.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Cassini flies past fizzy ocean on Saturnian moon


Cassini found the little moon busily puffing plumes of water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds out through fissures (now known as "tiger stripes") in its frozen carapace. Mimas, a nearby moon about the same size, was as dead as researchers expected, but Enceladus was precociously active.

Many researchers viewed the icy jets as proof of a large subterranean body of water. Near-surface pockets of liquid water with temperatures near 32o F could explain the watery plumes. But there were problems with this theory. For one thing, where was the salt? In 2009 Cassini's cosmic dust analyzer located the missing salt – in a surprising place.

"It wasn't in the plume gasses where we'd been looking for it," says Matson. "Instead, sodium and potassium salts and carbonates were locked up in the plumes' icy particles.* And the source of these substances has to be an ocean. Stuff dissolved in an ocean is similar to the contents of these grains."

The latest Cassini observations presented another intriguing discovery: thermal measurements revealed fissures with temperatures as high as -120o Fahrenheit (190 Kelvin).
More heat out there than we think could mean a lot of things.

(This was Coppedge's project, of course.)

Friday, January 28, 2011

So what will you do when they come for you?

David Coppedge
Nathan Black reports for Christian Post "Intelligent Design Proponent Fired from NASA Lab" (Jan. 26 2011).
David Coppedge is an information technology specialist and system administrator on JPL’s international Cassini mission to Saturn, the most ambitious interplanetary exploration ever launched. A division of California Institute of Technology, JPL operates under a contract with the federal space agency. Coppedge held the title of “Team Lead” System Administrator on the mission until his supervisors demoted and humiliated him for advancing ideas that superiors labeled “unwelcome” and “disruptive.”
He favoured intelligent design and talked about it, and one superior didn't like that.

There was no workplace policy that forbid discussing private opinions at work, and claims that Coppedge harassed fellow employees proved unsubstantiated.

Here's columnist David Klinghoffer on the case:
What did Coppedge do to get himself in trouble? He occasionally chatted with interested colleagues about the scientific case for intelligent design, he passed around a couple of pro-ID DVDs, which made good sense since JPL's officially defined mission includes the exploration of questions relating to the origin and development of life on earth and elsewhere. His supervisor severely chastised him for this, humiliated and demoted him.

Now he's been fired. JPL claims it was a cost-cutting measure. ... The truth will emerge when Coppedge's lawsuit comes to trial, but the appearance here certainly suggests a final strike at Mr. Coppedge for his offense of introducing fresh ideas to co-workers.
In the light of this case and the recent, similar Martin Gaskell case, one hardly knows what to make of doubt that Ben Stein was right. There is an Expelled factor. Today, you can doubt anything except Darwin, and you must contrive not to know about or speak of the growing mass of evidence that contradicts the stuff government forces students to learn in tax-funded schools.

But there is no freedom for adults either, it turns out. Darwinism today has nothing to do with the science and everything to do with protecting the cultural status of an icon that has given government everything from compulsory sterilization to scientific racism to ... the right of tax-funded institutions like JPL to run inquisitions powered by devotion to that icon.

Sadly, Klinghoffer writes,
It's bad enough when private universities clamp down on the free exchange of ideas. But public institutions have often seemed to be the worst offenders of all in this respect, and that is something taxpayers have every right to protest.
Klinghoffer suggests that Americans phone: 202-358-1010 or e-mail Charles Bolden, Yet will they?

I've covered ID stories for about a decade now, and on the way, I learned something interesting: What is keeping Darwinism alive right now is not evidence; the evidence is leaning sharply against Darwin's "information for free" mechanism.

What keeps Darwinism alive is the awful passivity of the taxpayers who doubt it, yet continue to fund its long, persecutory march through the institutions.

Christians are the worst, incidentally.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Galaxies produced in "cosmic blink of an eye"?

Adam Mann reports at Nature News (26 January 2011) that "Oldest galaxy is lone ranger: Discovery of the most distant known object hints at empty early Universe." (26 January 2011)

Astronomers have glimpsed the most distant galaxy ever detected — a lone object 13.2 billion light years from Earth. The discovery implies that the fledgling Universe was emptier than was previously imagined.

[ ... ]

The near-barrenness of this epoch stands in contrast to a period roughly 650 million years after the Big Bang, in which the team has found around 60 galaxies.

The results suggest that in fewer than 200 million years — a cosmic blink of an eye — large galaxies rapidly built up from smaller ones, and the rate of star formation increased tenfold. "It's telling us that there is a very dramatic change taking place at this time period," says Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a co-author of the paper.

The sparseness of galaxies raises a mystery.
It's almost as if a blueprint was unfolding, but no ... Actually, it would be interesting of some design-oriented and non-design-oriented astronomers made sealed predictions abut this stuff and see who is closer to the mark.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

4% solution: Ultimate Copernican revolution is “We’re different”?

In “The challenge of the great cosmic unknowns” ( New Scientist 24 January 2011),
Dan Falk reviews Richard Panek’s The 4% Universe: Dark matter, dark energy, and the race to discover the rest of reality:
As he nears the present day, Panek weaves together two separate yet closely related storylines. In the first, he takes us to sophisticated laboratories around the world where researchers are trying to isolate particles of dark matter. Their best guess is that dark matter is made of WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles), which were created at the time of the big bang and are now fiendishly difficult to detect.

In the second storyline, we join the hunt for dark energy, which began in the late 1990s when two teams of researchers studying distant supernova explosions reached a stunning conclusion: that the expansion of the universe is not slowing down, but speeding up.
The Amazon site features an interview with Panek:
Q: Sounds like science is a pretty straightforward process of discovery and follow-up.

Panek: Straightforward, maybe. Pretty, no. As I show in The Four Percent Universe, the discoveries involved a lot of behind-the-scenes rivalries that sometimes turned ugly—rivalries that continue to this day. But in a way, these rivalries have been good for the science. When scientists who would like nothing more than to prove one another wrong wind up agreeing on a weird result, their peers can’t help but take the result seriously. Astronomers hate to say it—they’re as superstitious as anyone else, and they think they’ll jinx their chances—but there are Nobel Prizes at stake here.

Q: So this is real. Astronomers actually believe that 96 percent of the universe is "missing"?

Panek: Yes. They call it the ultimate Copernican revolution. Not only are we not at the center of the universe, we’re not even made of the same stuff as the vast majority of the universe.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

New proposed explanation for the double slit experiment

In "Which-way detector unlocks some mystery of the double-slit experiment" (January 21, 2011),
Lisa Zyga reports at Physorg:
- One of the greatest puzzles of the double-slit experiment – and quantum physics in general – is why electrons seem to act differently when being observed.

[ ... ]

Overall, the results suggest that the type of scattering an electron undergoes determines the mark it leaves on the back wall, and that a detector at one of the slits can change the type of scattering. The physicists concluded that, while elastically scattered electrons can cause an interference pattern, the inelastically scattered electrons do not contribute to the interference process.
A friend writes, "Not sure this trumps the Copenhagen Interpretation and Schrodinger's Cat, but interesting for QM physics buffs."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Tethering the drifting balloons of imaginative cosmology ...

Claus Beisbart asks, "Can we justifiably assume the Cosmological Principle in order to break model underdetermination in cosmology?"

(I think he means something like this: Many proposed models of the universe today begin by assuming that basic observations so far are untrustworthy for other parts of the universe or multiverse - which justifies a number of theories that would otherwise be considered entertainment, not science. He hopes to use the Cosmological Principle as a ground rule.

The Cosmological Principle holds that
isotropy for all observers (all places in the Universe) implies homogeneity for all observers. ... A corollary to the cosmological principle is that the laws of physics are universal.

In other words, if it looks the same in all directions, that's because it really is the same, and the known laws of physics apply elsewhere in the universe.

Beisbart's Abstract
If cosmology is to obtain knowledge about the whole universe, it faces an underdetermination problem: Alternative space-time models are compatible with our evidence. The problem can be avoided though, if there are good reasons to adopt the Cosmological Principle (CP), because, assuming the principle, one can confine oneself to the small class of homogeneous and isotropic space-time models. The aim of this paper is to ask whether there are good reasons to adopt the Cosmological Principle in order to avoid underdetermination in cosmology. Various strategies to justify the CP are examined. For instance, arguments to the effect that the truth of the CP follows generically from a large set of initial conditions; an inference to the best explanation; and an inductive strategy are assessed. I conclude that a convincing justification of the CP has not yet been established, but this claim is contingent on a number of results that may have to be revised in the future.

A friend comments, "This is a very good article. The author also has done some work in
cosmology with Buchert, so he is a reliable guide in physics as well as philosophy."

Christian cosmologist says universe not fine-tuned for life: A response

Here's Rob Sheldon again, on the recent paper by Christian cosmologist Don Page on why our universe is not fine-tuned for life:
a) "fine-tuning" is in the eye of the beholder. All Page demonstrates is that his eye is different than yours. Hence the only real question is whether "fine-tuning" exists at all, not what its magnitude is. If it does exist, no matter what its size, then the universe is "special", "indeterminate", and "not necessarily so". So "fine-tuning" is a scientist's placeholder for a philosopher's contingency.

b) "Optimality" is in the mind of the beholder, depending on what the beholder knows. The "optimum" shape for a human is a sphere, if we are trying to achieve 98.6F on a planet that averages 40F. Obviously, we've left a lot out of our calculations, and equally obviously, we will never know if we left out some crucial factor. Thus we never know if our "optimum" solution is global (contains all relevant factors) or local (misses some). Drawing global (e.g., theological) conclusions from some local guess is sheer hubris, and should be laughed to derision.

c) Lambda =10^-122 Planck units means that the observations are only about 122 orders of magnitude off from what theoretical physics would estimate for this number (the Planck units.)

Let that soak in for a moment. Dembski's universal probability bound is 150 orders of magnitude, only slightly greater than this number. The 10^122 ratio of theory/observed has been called the biggest unsolved problem in physics.

It is also orders of magnitude smaller than typical error bars on other physical constants. So distinguishing it from 0.0 is more an article of faith than of science. Therefore making conclusions about revelation (what God did as observed by science) using theology (how God should work as assumed from theory) may be a fine thing for seminarians, but makes lousy science.

I'm on a hobby horse here, but putting assumptions in our method that turn out to determine our conclusions is a no-no that should invalidate a science paper. One of the many ways that peer-review has failed, is that logical nonsense doesn't get flagged any more. Science should be inductive, not deductive, and when our conclusions are contained in our assumptions, we're being deductive.

For Page to conclude that lambda =/= 0, he had to assume a model with Lambda in it to start with. Einstein inserted Lambda to get a steady state universe, and removed it when Lemaitre's expanding universe was shown to be a simpler solution. It has been reinserted to (a) explain a small anomaly with Type Ia supernovae intensities and (b) solve a "flatness" contingency problem. So if we invented it to solve the metaphysical contingency problem [and I purposely discount (a)], we cannot therefore claim that its observed existence solves the contingency problem.

d) The baryon density, which is the middle term of this deductive syllogism that goes from cosmological constant to contingency, is itself another controversial subject. The cosmological constant is all about dark energy, baryon density is all about dark matter, while "fine tuning" is all about contingent creation. Page has managed to combine the three most controversial subjects in cosmology into a logical syllogism and claim some sort of deductive power. This ought to be scientifically humorous.

The more uncertainty we add into model, the more certain our specific model must be wrong (the ratio of actual solutions/possible solutions --> 0). The fact that global warming models do not include clouds, cosmic rays, precipitation, past climate or repeatability does not mean that climate change is inevitable and deniers are being dogmatic. So also the fact that dark energy assumptions change dark matter assumptions which affect contingency assumptions should tell us our conclusions are woefully uncertain and most probably wrong.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

So, did the 1976 NASA mission find evidence of life on Mars? Has anybody?

Friend Rob Sheldon writes,
First of all, the 1976 Viking lander did NOT find organics on Mars. This is not just because the mass-spectrometer they flew was 3 orders of magnitude too insensitive to find organics from either the Atacama desert or the dry valleys of Antarctica, but also because sulfur poisoned the palladium foil that was intended to concentrate the organics for analysis.

The labelled-release experiment of Gil Levin, however, did find evidence of bacterial metabolism. You can read the papers on his website: It was tested against soils in Antarctica and Atacama, and in both cases found microbes unlike Carl Sagan's mass spectrometer. Carl ran interference and made sure Gil's work didn't get published, but I've told that story elsewhere.

But being a mass spectrometer, and being designed for low-molecular weight gases, Sagan did NOT find perchlorates in the soil either. They would have seen them had they been there. They would have seen the chlorine too--it has an unmistakeable signature. And it would sorta have explained Levin's data because the perchlorate would have oxidized the organics to produce CO2. But they didn't see it. Nothing. Nada, despite there being good explanation if it had existed.

So Carl Sagan argued for super-metallo-peroxides. Why? Because they would produce hydrogen peroxide when water was added, which presumably would evolve carbon dioxide as measured in Gil Levin's experiment without leaving a telltale signature in the mass spec. This theory persisted despite not finding any hydrogen peroxide in the atmosphere which the chemistry required.

So once again. The results of Viking were no organics due to insensitivity and poisoning, and certainly no perchlorates.

Fast forward 32 years to 2008, and we have the Phoenix lander that decided NOT to use mass spectroscopy, but wet chemistry to determine the makeup of Mars soil. In my mind, I can't find a single reason why this is a better measurement. It's less sensitive, less accurate, less general, less power-efficient, less lightweight, less robust, etc. But nothing in the Mars program makes sense without understanding the politics, so I just assume there was someone who had the ear of a congressman. Well, in order to prep the spacecraft for detecting organics, they had to remove finger prints (or as my mechanical engineer used to say, fried chicken grease) from the satellite. How did they do this? Why, with a perchlorate wash of course.

Do you suppose...Nah, the team reported, it couldn't possibly be contamination. Why, it agreed with the Viking results!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Arguments for multiverse mutually exclusive?

Some of us have long wondered when it would become more generally apparent that most "multiverse" stuff is really just playing games around theories. Maybe now?

In Nature (19 January 2011), "George Ellis reminds us that Brian Greene's beguiling book on parallel worlds is more theory than fact.

The book is The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos (Allen Lane: 2011), and Ellis comments,
... Greene's nine types of multiverse are as follows. First, if space extends forever, an infinite number of domains similar to ours might lie beyond the part of the Universe that we can see. Second, some versions of inflationary theory — the idea that the newborn Universe had a fleeting period of super-fast accelerating expansion — predict the existence of innumerable other universes, with different characteristics from our own. Third, string theory, the pre-eminent theory of quantum gravity, suggests that our Universe might be one of many four-dimensional 'braneworlds' floating in a higher-dimensional space-time.

This option is developed further in the fourth and fifth proposals, which involve cyclic universes, or variations on physical parameters that are possible in the string-theory landscape. The sixth is a quantum mechanics idea that many worlds simultaneously exist as branches of the wave function of the Universe. The seventh suggests that the Universe is a holographic projection. The eighth states that we live in one of a set of artificial universes created as simulations on a super-advanced computer. The ninth argues that it is a philosophical necessity that every possible universe must be realized somewhere, in “the grandest of all multiverses”.

By presenting this plethora of theories, Greene gives the impression that the multiverse is on a sound scientific footing, but these nine arguments are mutually exclusive.
Yes but, in a multiverse, "mutually exclusive" is meaningless by definition.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

More from the “They Thought the Earth Was Flat” file ...

antikythera, main hub (Wiki Commons)
Here we learn,
A mechanical instrument made from bronze and wood in ancient Greece was a calendar for predicting solar eclipses and the dates of the Olympic Games, scientists have discovered.

X-ray analysis of the device, known as the Antikythera Mechanism, has revealed that it marked the timing of sporting events around Greece – including at Olympia. It was made in the 2nd century BC. The device was found by sponge divers in 1900 off the island of Antikythera.

[ ... ]

The mechanism ran on a complicated set of dials and bronze gears and was decorated with elaborate but indiscernible inscriptions.

- Steve Connor, "Ancient device was used to predict solar eclipses and Olympic dates", Belfast Telegraph (26 November 2010). Read more.
Did you know?: They didn’t know where babies come from either.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Breaking, breaking: University of Kentucky Pays “potentially evangelical” astronomer $100, 000 settlement

University of Kentucky Pays $100,000+ to Settle Gaskell Discrimination Lawsuit

According to news articles, the University of Kentucky (UK) has settled the discrimination lawsuit filed against it by Martin Gaskell, an astronomer who was denied a job due to his perceived doubts about neo-Darwinian evolution. The case was scheduled to go to trial on February 8th, but today counsel for both sides filed a joint motion to dismiss the case pursuant to the settlement. According to the Associated Press:

The university has agreed to pay $125,000 to Martin Gaskell in exchange for Gaskell dropping a federal religious discrimination suit. Gaskell claimed he was passed over to be director of UK's MacAdam Student Observatory in 2007 because of his religion and statements that were perceived to be critical of evolution.

Court exhibits showed Gaskell was a top candidate, but some professors called him "something close to a creationist" and "potentially evangelical" in e-mails.

Gaskell was represented by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which said:

"The standard of suspicion -- rightly described as a 'McCarthyism of the Left' by one UK professor -- applied by some to Gaskell because of his religious writings and statements should have no place in universities of all places," Manion added. "The ease with which some of the people involved in this process were willing to tar Gaskell with the labels of 'scientific creationist,' 'evolution-basher,' and other pejoratives based on half-remembered hearsay and extremely selective reading of his non-professional writings was truly disturbing to witness. We can only hope that this case will send a message throughout academia that religious intolerance is just as unlawful as other forms of prejudice and bias."
For more, go here.

Interesting: In general, the astronomers haven’t done too badly out of the Darwin troll attacks. Guillermo Gonzalez got a new observatory and Martin Gaskell got a nice (unintended) ssendoff.

Will the University of Kentucky be adding the cost of Darwin troll maintenance to their budget soon?

To be fine tuned for life, the universe should have been tuned differently?

At Slashdot “News for Nerds.Stuff that Matters” we learn:
eldavojohn writes
"A common argument one might encounter in intelligent design or the arduous process of resolving science with religion is that the physical constants of our world are fine tuned for life by some creator or designer. A University of Alberta theoretical physicist claims quite the opposite when it comes to the cosmological constant. His paper says that our ever expanding universe has a positive cosmological constant and he explains that the optimum cosmological constant for maximizing the chances of life in the universe would be slightly negative: 'any positive value of the constant would tend to decrease the fraction of matter that forms into galaxies, reducing the amount available for life. Therefore the measured value of the cosmological constant, which is positive, is evidence against the idea that the constants have been fine-tuned for life.'" [Links at site.]
Well, when we find a good many of Stephen Hawking’s other universes, we can see whether any are negatively constanted, and if so, whether they have more life.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Word on the street: The clock did SO start at the Big Bang!

Here Edwin Cartlidge reports,
Our view of the early Universe may be full of mysterious circles — and even triangles — but that doesn't mean we're seeing evidence of events that took place before the Big Bang. So says a trio of papers taking aim at a recent claim that concentric rings of uniform temperature within the cosmic microwave background — the radiation left over from the Big Bang — might, in fact, be the signatures of black holes colliding in a previous cosmic 'aeon' that existed before our Universe.

[ ... ]

Penrose, however, thinks that the Universe's great uniformity instead originates from before the Big Bang, from the tail end of a previous aeon that saw the Universe expand to become infinitely large and very smooth. That aeon in turn was born in a Big Bang that emerged from the end of a still earlier aeon, and so on, creating a potentially infinite cycle with no beginning and no end.

Now Gurzadyan and Penrose's idea is being challenged by three independent studies, all posted on the arXiv server within the past few days, by Ingunn Wehus and Hans Kristian Eriksen of the University of Oslo2; Adam Moss, Douglas Scott and James Zibin of the University of British Columbia3 in Vancouver, Canada; and Amir Hajian of the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto, Ontario4.

- “No evidence of time before Big Bang: Latest research deflates the idea that the Universe cycles for eternity.” Nature News (10 December 2010)
Sounds like bash Roger (“eternally cycling universe”) Penrose”time again (he’s fronting the view they oppose, that things happened before the Big Bang).

Best guess: Penrose gets all the press because the pop sci public needs new universes.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Why cosmologists should avoid being armchair philosophers

Is it just my imagination or a recent development that reviewers of books like Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design are starting to ask some hard questions about materialist science parading as philosophy or theology?
Michael Turner, for Nature,says the 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.” Turner continues: “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?
When they’re riffing off C. S. Lewis’s question about Jesus, “lunatic, liar, or Lord?” you can be sure they’re not taking you seriously.

Plus, The Economist sniffed,
It is hard to evaluate their case against recent philosophy, because the only subsequent mention of it, after the announcement of its death, is, rather oddly, an approving reference to a philosopher’s analysis of the concept of a law of nature, which, they say, “is a more subtle question than one may at first think.” There are actually rather a lot of questions that are more subtle than the authors think. It soon becomes evident that Professor Hawking and Mr Mlodinow regard a philosophical problem as something you knock off over a quick cup of tea after you have run out of Sudoku puzzles.
Yes indeed. One can’t trash philosophy and then expect to score points by employing it.

Origin of life: “If pigs could fly” chemistry slammed

A rabbi friend reminds me of the late Leslie Orgel, origin of life pioneer, who seems to have been well aware of the difficulties his materialist constraints created.

Responding to Shapiro's harsh criticism of the “RNA first” theory and his proposal of the “metabolism first” scenario as a more likely approach to a naturalistic origin of life:
Theories of the origin of life based on metabolic cycles cannot be justified by the inadequacy of competing theories: they must stand on their offered by supporters of geneticist or metabolist scenarios that are dependant on "if pigs could fly" hypothetical chemistry are unlikely to help."

Coffee!! Early modern scientists had fun!

Spain-based writer Chris Wright notes in “Measuring hell: Was modern physics born in the Inferno?” (Boston Globe, January 9, 2011):
Given his devotion to empirical fact, it seems odd to think that Galileo's most important ideas might have their roots not in the real world, but in a fictional one. But that's the argument that Mount Holyoke College physics professor Mark Peterson has been developing for the past several years: specifically, that one of Galileo's crucial contributions to physics came from measuring the hell of Dante's Inferno. Or rather, from disproving its measurements.
Okay, but Dante was writing an epic, for which Inferno was the first big backdrop. Like modern sci fi filmmakers, he fuzzed the physics a bit.

So? Hell is a spiritual reality, but staging a drama that includes characters touring hell, Dante’s gotta make a scene. Like I told Larry Krauss, who was grousing recently about Trek physics, people don’t go to big box office to learn physics, and in Dante’s day, they didn’t read epics for that either.

But  wasn’t a waste of time:
Debating the mechanics of the Inferno might sound like intellectual horseplay, the 16th-century equivalent of MIT cafeteria debates about the viability of "Star Trek" teleporters. But there was more to the lectures than this. The insights Galileo gleaned from analyzing Dante's measurements in fact anticipated a vital principle of structural engineering. By asserting that you cannot create a giant Lucifer by super-sizing the model of a man - that increasing an object's magnitude would create a whole new set of structural and material imperatives - Galileo was paving the way for the construction of everything from ocean liners to skyscrapers to Macy's parade floats.

Typically, historians have dismissed these lectures as an inventive but relatively unimportant flourish on Galileo's part, a mere prelude to his subsequent theories concerning so-called scaling laws. But Peterson sees the lectures as being central to the Italian's greatest contributions to the history of thought. In applying mathematical models to Dante's hell, he argues, Galileo was laying the groundwork for what would become theoretical physics. "This was not just a clever entertainment," he says, "but something deeper, something closer to the mystery of what made the Scientific Revolution."
More coffee.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Antimatter in the air on a stormy day?

Artist's conception of antimatter in storm (NASA)

NASA Science News for Jan. 11, 2011suggests that "thunderstorms may be making antimatter:
Scientists using NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have detected beams of antimatter produced above thunderstorms on Earth, a phenomenon never seen before.

Scientists think the antimatter particles were formed inside thunderstorms in a terrestrial gamma-ray flash (TGF) associated with lightning. It is estimated that about 500 TGFs occur daily worldwide, but most go undetected.

"These signals are the first direct evidence that thunderstorms make antimatter particle beams," said Michael Briggs, a member of Fermi's Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) team at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). He presented the findings Monday, during a news briefing at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.

[ ... ]

The GBM has detected gamma rays with energies of 511,000 electron volts, a signal indicating an electron has met its antimatter counterpart, a positron.
In which case, it is annihilated. Experimental physicists recently created 38 antihydrogen particles and preserved them for 1/10 second; here's how they kept them from mutual annihilation in a matter-based environment.

Of course, capturing one in the wild ...

Origin of life: Simple cells inevitable?

A friend flags Nick Lane's "Chance or Necessity?: Bioenergetics and the Probability of Life" (Journal of Cosmology, August 2010, Vol 10, 3286-3304, suggesting that it represents a significant step in the history of origin of life research. Lane thinks bacteria would "naturally" emerge on wet, rocky planets, but that more complex life forms are a matter of chance.

Lane pin his hopes on "white smokers", that is, alkaline hydrothermal vent systems, of which he writes,
... alkaline hydrothermal vent systems should be seen as not merely the most promising setting for the origin of life, but as the only model that makes the emergence of life look like a probable and deterministic outcome of geology, geochemistry and thermodynamics (Table 1). Alkaline vents are electrochemical reactors that provide integrity, concentration, catalysis, replication and a suitable environment for selection. It is hard to imagine life not emerging in such a system, especially if one pictures the oceanic crust as host to practically contiguous vent systems, as might indeed have been the case (Russell and Arndt, 2005). One could even imagine a natural selection of vents, in which life emerges from the system with the best balance of H2, flow and catalysis, perhaps going on to infect nearby systems.
The abstract reads,
Abstract: The emergence of life is probable on any wet, rocky planet. Serpentinization gives rise to alkaline hydrothermal vents that form: (i) simple organics; (ii) catalysts that direct primordial metabolism (iii) micropores with cell-like properties; and (iv) proton gradients equivalent to the proton-motive force. Thermodynamic constraints dictate that all anaerobic chemolithotrophic cells must depend on chemiosmotic coupling, explaining the near-universal use of proton gradients today. But proton gradients also limit the evolutionary potential of prokaryotes. Only a rare and stochastic event, an endosymbiosis between prokaryotes, permitted the evolution of morphologically complex life on Earth, as only such an endosymbiosis made it possible for chemiosmotic coupling to be controlled by multiple small genome outposts across a wide area of internal membranes. This leap in bioenergetic capacity in turn enabled the expansion in cell volume and genome size characteristic of eukaryotes. The origin of life and evolution of prokaryotes is therefore deterministic and probable (necessity), while the evolution of more complex eukaryotic life is stochastic and improbable (chance). These bioenergetic principles are likely to apply throughout the universe.
I'm not sure why my friend thinks this is so significant. Didn't it used to be black smokers? But the good thing about this particular theory is that Lane spells it out clearly enough that we can know if it is not demonstrable. None of the usual mights and maybes for him.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Jathink? Guy says materialism "not the most viable philosophy", and keeps job!

Computational physicist Vlatko Vedral reviews Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregersen's new collection of essays at in "An inordinate fondness for bits" (Jan 11, 2011). In Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics (Cambridge University Press 2010), he says,
Each article explores the hypothesis that information is at the root of everything. And I mean everything – from atoms to, perhaps, a deity.
Well, that last'll get attention.

Hmmm. Are the contributors trying to mock the intelligent design guys, but they lost the plot somewhere? Well,
The collection starts with historical essays by philosopher of science Ernan McMullin and philosopher-theologian Philip Clayton, who write about materialism (the worldview that states that the only thing that really exists is matter and that all other phenomena are just interactions between different pieces of matter) and its receding hold on philosophy. The stage being set, Davies and fellow physicist Seth Lloyd then present a physics perspective on information. Davies is without a doubt one of the best popular-science writers in the world, and his article demonstrates why. In it, he explains why, in light of modern physics discoveries, materialism is not the most viable philosophy. Lloyd then expands on this idea by introducing the notion that the universe is a giant information-processing device. This is a view that has emerged from my own field of research – quantum computation – and Lloyd is one of its most prominent advocates.
Hold that thought. Materialism is "not the most viable philosophy"?

Well, why did Baptist U Baylor shut down Dembski and Gordon's Polanyi Center in 2002 for sponsoring a conference where lots of learned folk said substantially the same thing? Why was it big time heresy among ... the Baptists when atheist Vedral is okay with it?

Alas, theo-weirdness soon kicks in:

Origin of life: How will we know we arrived if we don't know where "arrived" is?

Microbial mats at Yellowstone, US Parks
Via Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. at Physorg, we learn,
Biologists have been unable to agree on a definition of the complex phenomenon known as "life." In a special collection of essays in Astrobiology, a peer-reviewed journal from Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., leaders in the fields of philosophy, science, and molecular evolution present a variety of perspectives on defining life.

Here are two representative ones:

Antonio Lazcano, National Autonomous University of Mexico, and colleagues present an historical perspective of the many definitions of life put forth over the years and why they have been unsatisfactory, in the essay, "The Definition of Life: A Brief History of an Elusive Scientific Endeavor."

Steven Benner, Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution and The Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology (Gainesville, FL), explores the various definitions of life popular in the astrobiology community and how each is connected to a "theory of life." In the essay "Defining Life," Benner describes how chemical structures capable of Darwinian evolution might be useful as universal biosignatures.
See also this:
In the search for life beyond Earth, we should not expect to find life forms we're familiar with. Determining whether something completely alien is 'alive' could be a challenge, so a universal definition of life is needed. Biologists have yet to agree on a definition, but a new theory attempts to provide a solution.
Why does all this remind me of an episode of The Twilight Zone?, where people go over and over things, but ...

Friday, January 14, 2011

Exoplanets: Aren't we at risk of running out of gee whiz adjectives?

From "Rocky exoplanet milestone in hunt for Earth-like worlds" (Jason Palmer, BBC News, 10 January 11), we learn,
Astronomers have discovered the smallest planet outside our Solar System, and the first that is undoubtedly rocky like Earth.

Measurements of unprecedented precision have shown that the planet, Kepler 10b, has a diameter 1.4 times that of Earth, and a mass 4.6 times higher.

However, because it orbits its host star so closely, the planet could not harbour life.

The discovery has been hailed as "among the most profound in human history".
One can't help wondering why, actually. Well, because
"We want to know if we're alone in the galaxy, simply put - and this is one link in the chain toward getting to that objective.

"First we need to know if planets that could potentially harbour life are common, and we don't know if that's true - that's what Kepler is aiming to do."
Okay, but can we please leave the "most profounds" (the phrase is used twice in a short report) out for now?

Otherwise, what phrases will we haveleft when we find an extrasolar planet that can host life?

While we are at it, the phrase "a planetary missing link", used in the story, doesn't really work. If the conv-
NASA artist's conception of Kepler 10b
entional explanation of planet formation is correct, Kepler 10b isn't a long-sought link between one planet and another. And if we do find a planet that harbours life, it won't be a link either - any more than Earth is a "link" between Venus and Mars.

A friend writes to say,
We had total failure at finding Earth-like planets that might support our Darwinian assumption (and massive expenditure) that we are not unique in the universe. But now we've found something other than a giant-gas planet so we are less discouraged than before. But it turned out to be a solid chunk of iron at 1300 degrees orbiting a few solar radii above the star, so it isn't what we were looking for, which is discouraging again. But we'll call it "rocky" anyway and maybe our luck will return.
One hopes so. A summer planet would be nice. But not that one.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Influential atheist cosmologists, and why they might not matter

On a recent list of the 25 most influential atheists, three key cosmologists come up.

# 5 Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking is one of the world’s great theoretical physicists. His trade-press book A Brief History of Time took the world by storm in the late 1980s. In it he raised the prospect of a self-creating universe, which he has since developed at length. The theme he keeps pounding is the extraneousness of the God hypothesis.
Wrote a bit about him. With his new take on M-theory, he is now mainly famous for staying famous. But that’s still pretty famous.

# 9 Steven Weinberg

The premier living Nobel laureate physicist, Steven Weinberg is one of the great scientists of our time. He is also a remarkably good writer, as demonstrated in his popular books on physics, which advance an atheistic view of the universe. According to him, science’s greatest cultural achievement is to eradicate religion.
Never tracked him much. His “pointless” universe seems like too much religion in science class to me (and he now admits it was a foolish thing to say).

He’s right. Just because he has religion on the brain ... Don’t bet on his fellow atheists making an issue out of whether other religions get equal treatment with his in tax-funded schools.

# 11 Lawrence Krauss
When the television networks need a well-credentialed and well-spoken scientist to discuss the relation between science and religion, Lawrence Krauss is their man.* A physicist with solid credentials as well as a ready pen, who has written a string of successful popular science books, Krauss has effectively used this platform to promote atheism.

Clashed with him, actually. I disagreed that sci fi film makers created a big problem by using unrealistic physics. Hello? That’s why it’s called science fiction.

Well you should have heard him in response ...

(*Now that sounds to me like damning with faint praise, but I digress.)

It all raises an interesting question: What would cosmology look like if there wasn’t an obsessive need to come up with a cosmology that bypasses a beginning, which suggests an argument for the existence of God?

Today’s cosmology strikes me as a carnival of improbable ideas festooned with equations.

Look, when  physicists concentrate on physics, I don’t know near enough to critique it. These guys make my job easy, that’s for sure. With luck, I'll get a book out of it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sugars for life: About face! Left turn!

A friend observes this item from Science News Daily,
ScienceDaily (Jan. 7, 2011) — Certain molecules do exist in two forms which are symmetrical mirror images of each other: they are known as chiral molecules. On Earth, the chiral molecules of life, especially amino acids and sugars, exist in only one form, either left-handed or right-handed. Why is it that life has initially chosen one form over the other? [ ... ]

…has for the first time obtained an excess of left-handed molecules (and then an excess of right-handedones) under conditions that reproduce those found in interstellar space. This result therefore supports the hypothesis that the asymmetry of biological molecules on Earth has a cosmic origin.

[ ... ]

The excess, which was over 1.3%, is comparable to that measured in primitive meteorites. The researchers thus succeeded in producing, under interstellar conditions, asymmetrical molecules of life from a mixture that did not contain chiral substances. This is the first time that a scenario that explains the origin of this asymmetry has been demonstrated using an experiment that reproduces an entirely natural synthesis.
My friend sniffs, “the production of a small (1.3%) excess of one over the other ( and then the opposite result) is a crowning achievement in a field where any success of any kind is a towering feat.”

Caution is needed. One can get 1.3% in almost any direction, at least once, before the wheels fall off.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Past life forms on a moon of Saturn?

Jonathan Amos reported for BBC News on an ice volcano on one of Saturn’s moons (“Ice volcano' identified on Saturn's moon Titan”, 14 December 2010):
Scientists think they now have the best evidence yet for an ice volcano on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

The Cassini probe has spotted a 1,500m-high mountain with a deep pit in it, and what looks like a flow of material on the surrounding surface.

The new feature, which has been dubbed "The Rose", was seen with the probe's radar and infrared instruments.

Rose volcano on Titan, NASA
Titan has long been speculated to have cryovolcanoes but its hazy atmosphere makes all observations very difficult.

Researchers are now wondering how active this mountain might be, and what sort of lava it could spew.

"Much of Titan's outer material is water-ice and ammonia, and so that's certainly one possible material that could melt at low temperatures and flow on the surface," explained Dr Randy Kirk, a Cassini radar team-member from the US Geological Survey (USGS).
Some of us kept wondering where the “life on Titan” hook would come in, and a friend spotted it here, at the very end:
Might cryo-lavas have dredged up indications of fossils or chemical remains of sub-surface life?
Well, maybe, but then space aliens might have used our DNA to hide messages too ...

One so much wishes that all the research would pay off soon, that some evidence of life elsewhere would actually be found. Primitive life would, in my view, be rather more interesting than the “Take me to your leader” crowd of science fiction.

Notice to extraterrestrials: We have enough politicians and others who know how to run the world here already. Why not take some home with you as souvenirs?

Before the Big Bang: Loop quantum gravity?

Big Bang,Wikimedia Commons

In “The Birth of Time: Quantum Loops Describe the Evolution of the Universe” (ScienceDaily, Dec. 17, 2010), we learn
What was the Big Bang and what happened before it? Scientists from the Faculty of Physics, University of Warsaw have attempted to answer the question. Within the framework of loop quantum gravity they have put forward a new theoretical model, which might prove useful for validating hypotheses about events prior to the Big Bang. This achievement is one of the few models describing the full Einstein's theory and not merely its greatly simplified version.
The model invokes quantum loop gravity:
The real answer to the mystery of the Big Bang lies in a unified quantum theory of matter and gravity. One attempt at developing such a theory is loop quantum gravity (LQG). The theory holds that space is weaved from one-dimensional threads. "It is just like in the case of a fabric -- although it is seemingly smooth from a distance, it becomes evident at close quarters that it consists of a network of fibres," describes Wojciech Kaminski, MSc from FUW. Such space would constitute a fine fabric - an area of a square centimetre would consists of 10^66 threads.
Question: If unified quantum theory is the real answer to the mystery of the Big Bang, won’t it end up being the next mystery? Of course, that will hardly be bad for the people who developed the theory.

It’s a bit difficult to picture a one-dimensional string, but we keep trying.

Cosmology’s little wars: what’s a universe or two, or many?

Cosmic microwave background - the battleground
Some friends were talking about a recent story in Technology Review’s Physics ArXiv blog, “Astronomers Find First Evidence Of Other Universes” (12/13/2010).

The idea is that astronomers have found evidence that our cosmos was "bruised" in collisions with other universes:
Last month, Roger Penrose at the University of Oxford and Vahe Gurzadyan at Yerevan State University in Armenia announced that they had found patterns of concentric circles in the cosmic microwave background, the echo of the Big Bang.

This, they say, is exactly what you'd expect if the universe were eternally cyclical. By that, they mean that each cycle ends with a big bang that starts the next cycle. In this model, the universe is a kind of cosmic Russian Doll, with all previous universes contained within the current one.

That's an extraordinary discovery: evidence of something that occurred before the (conventional) Big Bang.

Today, another group says they've found something else in the echo of the Big Bang. These guys start with a different model of the universe called eternal inflation. In this way of thinking, the universe we see is merely a bubble in a much larger cosmos. This cosmos is filled with other bubbles, all of which are other universes where the laws of physics may be dramatically different to ours.
Tentative evidence for the latter proposition is said to have been found in the cosmic microwave background, though it might, researchers admit, be just a trick of the eye.

Indeed, for so momentous a discovery (evidence of other universes?), it attracted little attention.

Astrophysicist friend Rob Sheldon comments:
Penrose and Gurzadyan found these circles in the microwave background radiation (CMB) and attribute them to things that happened before the Big Bang (a time before time), using it to disprove inflation universe models. Well that got the inflation guys unhappy, who are, after all, the majority of cosmologists. So some young guy without a reputation to defend decides to take them on and claim that these circles are proof of inflation in a multiverse (a space beyond space), claiming instead that this disproves Penrose.

Neither Penrose's "aeons" require circles, nor multiverse "D-branes" require circles, so you're seeing a lot of post-facto theorizing here, ...
Yes, one had begun to wonder about that. The research is here.

Go here, here, and here for other responses, and here for Gurzadyan and Penrose’s response.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Coffee!! Flat earth award

Satan trapped in the ice at the centre of Earth, Wiki Commons 
I wonder if, some time, we could give out a flat earth award for people who heedlessly state that "In the Middle Ages, people thought the Earth was flat."

Maybe we could call it the Eratosthenes Award, after the 3rd century BCE Greek who estimated the circumference of Earth:
He knew the approximate distance between Syene [Aswan] and Alexandria, as measured by camel-powered trade caravans. He then measured the angle of the shadow in Alexandria on the solstice. By taking the angle of the shadow (7̊12') and dividing it into the 360 degrees of a circle (360 divided by 7.2 yields 50), Eratosthenes could then multiply the distance between Alexandria and Syene by 50 to determine the circumference.

Remarkably, Eratosthenes (approx 276-194 BCE) determined the circumference to be 25,000 miles, just 100 miles over the actual circumference at the equator (24,901 miles). While Eratosthenes made mathematical errors in his caculations, these fortunately canceled each other out and yielded an amazingly accurate answer. - Geography
Now, the spherical nature of Earth became so much a part of popular culture that when Dante (1265-1321 CE) wrote the most famous poem of the period, the Divine Comedy, he put Hell inside Earth - a convenient location for the worst place in the universe because Earth was considered second worst - the heaviest place, to which everything fell.

I can't decide what the award should be, but maybe someone will donate toward a work of historical fiction - a bodice ripper, perhaps, with lots of castles and shining armour. Fact-based books would be wasted on the recipient.

Coffee!! I get more mail: Extraterrestrials and the super-rich

A friend reminds me of cosmologist Paul Davies' essay, "Is Anybody Out There?" (April 10, 2010), which provides some interesting information on funding patterns for SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence:
Most of the funding today comes from private donations through the SETI Institute, a private nonprofit founded in 1984 in Mountain View, Calif. The jewel in its crown is the Allen Telescope Array, a $35 million dedicated network of 42 small dishes in northern California, with about $30 million of the funding contributed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The goal is to ultimately increase the network to 350 dishes. Donors on other projects have included David Packard and Bill Hewlett (co-founders of Hewlett-Packard) and Gordon Moore (co-founder of Intel).
The US government hasn't funded SETI since 1993. Davies offers imaginative ways for the super-rich to look for aliens:
On purely statistical grounds any visitation is likely to have been a very long time ago. To pluck a figure out of midair, imagine that an alien expedition passed our way 100 million years ago. Would any traces remain?

Not many. However, some remnants might still persist. Buried nuclear waste could be detectable even after billions of years. Large-scale mineral exploitation such as quarrying leaves distinctive scars that, in the case of Earth, would eventually become obscured by overlying strata but would still show up in geological surveys. Space probes parked in orbit round the sun might lie dormant yet intact for an immense period of time. Scientists could look for such hallmarks of alien technology on Earth and the moon, in near space, on Mars and among the asteroids.
Davies' (not entirely serious, I suspect) suggestions, intriguing as they are, still remind me - I must admit - of a woman doing Internet searches on an ex-boyfriend and turning up accidentally at gatherings and restaurants he has sometimes frequented. And the reality is that, if he had died in the meantime, she might not even be one of the people that anyone would think to notify. So she could be haunting a ghost, to say nothing of haunting her own real life.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Philosopher responds to Hawking's "philosophy is dead" claim"

Here (John Haldane, "Philosophy Lives", First Things, January 2011)
What is meant by talking about many universes? It might mean unobservable regions of the universe—the one spatio-temporal-causal continuum—or, although this is much harder to make sense of, entirely distinct cosmic setups, wholly discontinuous with the universe we inhabit. The first possibility fails to serve Hawking and Mlodinow’s purpose. Any evidence we could have for these distant regions would necessarily be evidence for situations exhibiting the same orderliness whose existence seemed to call for explanation.

The second possibility—that there are many universes, entirely distinct realities, wholly discontinuous and sharing no common elements—fails also. There can be no empirical evidence in support of the hypothesis, nor could it be derived as a necessary condition of the possible existence and character of the only universe of which we have or could have scientific knowledge.

Hawking and Mlodinow write that the “multiverse idea is not a notion invented to account for the miracle of fine tuning.” Whether or not it was invented as such, its deployment in this context appears ad hoc, introduced only to avoid the conclusion that the general regularities and particular fine-tuning are due to the agency of a creator.

The basic components of the material universe and the forces operating on them exhibit properties of stability and regularity that invite explanation—the more so given the narrow band within which they have to lie in order for there to be intelligent animals able to investigate and reflect on the conditions of their own existence. Science cannot provide an ultimate explanation of order.

As Hawking and Mlodinow occasionally seem to recognize, far from philosophy being dead, having been killed by science, the deepest arguments in this area are not scientific but philosophical. And if the philosophical reasoning runs in the direction I have suggested, it is not only philosophy but also natural theology that is alive and ready to bury its latest would-be undertakers.

I get mail: Wallace on Mars's canals

A friend writes to say that Darwin's co-theorist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) argued strongly for a theistic version of the anthropic principle in his Man's Place in the Universe (1904) anticipating the excellent book by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards The Privileged Planet by precisely 100 years. Interestingly, Wallace argued vehemently in 1907 against Percival Lowell (1855-1916). Wallace insisted that the "canals" [on Mars] were the product of fissures created over long periods of time.

But then, Lowell was seeing science fiction and Wallace was seeing nature. It matters.

Lowell's canals concept, Wikimedia Commons

2010: Scientists on God: Wit vs. insight

Cleaning out last year’s files, I note where a friend directs me to Herman Wouk on Richard Feynman, here. Friend comments,
Feynman was brilliant, no question, but his quote regarding the "size of the stage" seems illogical, and his remark that calculus is the language of God appears to be simultaneously faux-profound and very likely insincere.
There’s a lot of that about these days. Smart people can sound profound when they’re talking rot, and Feynman seems to have had moments like that:
THE physicist Richard Feynman said, "It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvellous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil - which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama."
. Also,
This formidable fellow walked out of the building with me, and said as we were parting: "Do you know calculus?" I admitted that I didn't. "You had better learn it," he said. "It's the language God talks."
Well, as for Feynman’s stage, we’d better see how much is backdrop and how much is Central Casting before we decide.

While we are here, genome mapper Francis Collins insists that the genome, not calculus, is The Language of God. Who’s right? They both are. God is the author of language and speaks all of them, as needed.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

From the “What Is Life?” coffee club: What isn’t life

From Timothy Kusky, Encyclopedia of Earth and Space Science (New York: Facts on File, 2010), 384:
Complex organic molecules including amino acids do not constitute life. After the simple amino acids form, it is no easy task to combine them into larger molecules and complex molecules necessary for life. These need additional stimuli, such as hot acidic water, or ultraviolet radiation, or perhaps lightning. A mechanism for initiating the ability for molecules to transmit information so that they can replicate themselves is also necessary. One idea is that this may have first been done on the surfaces of clay minerals, such as those found in some submarine hot spring environments such as those along the mid-ocean ridges. Somehow, in the early Precambrian, life emerged from these complex organic molecules and simple amino acids, but the origin of life remains one of life's biggest mysteries.
Now, if only people would quit definitively solving the problems every two weeks, we might actually start learning something.

(Note: Encyclopedia can be downloaded for free.)

Hawking’s Grand Design: See, one icon is ALLOWED to diss another

Good thing, too.

After the breathless praise we’ve heard so far, The Economist review of Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow,’s The Grand Design is hardly the birthday cake I’d come to expect:
The problem is not that the book is technically rigorous—like “A Brief History of Time”, it has no formulae—but because whenever the going threatens to get tough, the authors retreat into hand-waving, and move briskly on to the next awe-inspiring notion. Anyone who can follow their closing paragraphs on the relation between negative gravitational energy and the creation of the universe probably knows it all already. This is physics by sound-bite.

[ ... ]

The main novelty in “The Grand Design” is the authors’ application of a way of interpreting quantum mechanics, derived from the ideas of the late Richard Feynman, to the universe as a whole. According to this way of thinking, “the universe does not have just a single existence or history, but rather every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously.” The authors also assert that the world’s past did not unfold of its own accord, but that “we create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.” They say that these surprising ideas have passed every experimental test to which they have been put, but that is misleading in a way that is unfortunately typical of the authors. It is the bare bones of quantum mechanics that have proved to be consistent with what is presently known of the subatomic world. The authors’ interpretations and extrapolations of it have not been subjected to any decisive tests, and it is not clear that they ever could be.

Once upon a time it was the province of philosophy to propose ambitious and outlandish theories in advance of any concrete evidence for them. Perhaps science, as Professor Hawking and Mr Mlodinow practice it in their airier moments, has indeed changed places with philosophy, though probably not quite in the way that they think.
What chance mathematician David Berlinski wrote this?