Class Warfare Blog

May 30, 2017

If the Universe Is So Vast, Where Is Everybody?

Filed under: Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:29 am
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The question in the title is a variant of “Are we alone?” Are there other sentient life forms in our galaxy? Enquiring minds want to know.

This post is prompted by a review of a new book (ALIENS: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, edited and with an introduction by Jim Al-Khalili).  I have not read the book and do not intend to. The reason? The discussion is premature.

One of the powers of human minds is to imagine (possibly the greatest of human powers) but it has a gigantic flaw: garbage in, garbage out. If our imagination has little to no data to work on we come up with quite fallacious outcomes. This is how we got demons and gods and unicorns and leprechauns.

So, what evidence do we have regarding the universe? We have optical and EMR evidence for the existence of billion upon billions of stars in our galaxy and billions upon billions of galaxies in our universe. But realize we have not known this for long. One hundred years ago, we knew that the Milky Way was a manifestation of other stars in our “neighborhood” but we though that that represented the totality our universe, too. We had observed fuzzy spots in those star fields but hadn’t acquired the evidence to recognize them as other galaxies. And while we had speculated that many of those stars would have planets about them, we had no direct evidence that was so until quite recently. The first actual planet circling another star was identified in … wait for it … 1992. So, we have been aware that there are other planets “out there” for all of 25 years. We have subsequently identified hundreds of others.

Do we have any evidence that life exists on those planets? No, but we do not have any evidence that life does not exist either. At this point, we are not yet ready to make those discoveries (although we are close).

The question in the title implies that since there are so many stars, there must also be unbelievably large numbers of planets, and if life is not an isolated accident, or divine bit of magic, occurring here and only here, then where are those other peoples? There is a mistake embedded in this question though, leading to flights of imagination fueled only by fairy dust. The universe is indeed vast, but the primary constituent of our universe is empty space, aka nothing. The next closest star to us is about four light years away from us. To go there to get direct evidence of what exists there, we would have to travel for four years at the speed of light. Since the fastest speed ever achieved by a man-made object is about 25 miles per second, and the speed of light is about 186,000 miles per second, at that speed (as an average), a trip to Alpha Centauri would take a bit under 35,000 years. If we could get their magically and then sent data back to Earth, it would take four years to get here and when it arrived the information would be four years old.

The universe is unimaginably vast, but this is also misleading because it is also vast in time. A civilization could have arisen around Alpha Centauri, to the point that it was capable of building spacecraft capable of very high speeds who could have made the trip in under 20 years, let’s say. But if this occurred 100,000 years ago, there wouldn’t have been anyone here to notice. (That doesn’t stop the imagination, of course, … Ancient Aliens!)

The universe is vast in time as well as space. In order to generate a signal that we could interpret as synthetic instead of natural, that civilization would have to exist within a small radius in space and time. If it is over 100 years out of phase with us now, we wouldn’t have a chance of detecting it. So, 100 years in time is our bubble. How many years has the universe been around? That number is 14,000,000,000 years, roughly. Our “time” as a species capable of detecting another sentient species in our vicinity is therefore about 0.0000025% of the time that has occurred to now. Considering that our spatial bubble is roughly 100 light years wide and the universe is roughly 28,000,000,000 light years wide, we have in out neighborhood, 0.0000012% of the universe’s space. Consequently, we have a combined fraction of the universe’s space and time of  3 x 10–14%. In other words, 99.99999 … 9999% of the universe is outside of our purview, either existing in the past or so far away as to be unattainable.

Something you need to know. Those extra-solar planet hunters … when they “find” evidence of yet another such planet, if that planet is, say, 540 light years away, when the light gets to us it is showing us what was going on 540 years ago. Even if there were a planet with a civilization what could produce radio waves or some such we could detect, that information is 540 years old. What is to say what will happen to us in the next 540 years? Right now our prospects of existing that long do not look good. At the rate we are shitting in our own food bowl, we might not have much of a civilization to be found by aliens.

April 25, 2017

Wrestling the Unconscious (and Losing)

Filed under: Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:44 am
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In a review of an author’s first nonfiction piece (Cormac McCarthy Explains the Unconscious by Nick Romeo, April 22, 2017) in The New Yorker magazine, we are treated to a review of a serious attempt to address the unconscious mind by someone immersed in language, Cormac McCarthy.

I have yet to read the original article (I will) but a number of comments by the reviewer struck me and I will comment on them. here are three paragraphs snatched from that review:

“His title references a famous eureka moment in the history of science: after years of thought and research, the nineteenth-century German chemist August Kekulé claimed that he hit upon the ring-like structure of the benzene molecule after he dreamed of a snake eating its own tail. McCarthy calls this ‘the Kekulé Problem’ because it’s unclear why the unconscious supplied a non-linguistic solution to the puzzle of the molecule’s configuration. Since the unconscious would have to understand language to grasp the problem in the first place, why wouldn’t it furnish a solution in the same medium? McCarthy generalizes the quandary, asking, ‘Why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.’

“His answer—which, he says, appeared in a sort of Kekulé moment of its own, as a sudden epiphany while he was emptying the trash one morning—is that the unconscious is ‘just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so. Habits of two million years duration are hard to break.’ The description of the unconscious as ‘not happy’ with language—as, in fact, ‘loathe to speak to us’—is not an isolated lapse into intentional language: throughout the essay, McCarthy personifies the unconscious as an ancient and inscrutable agent with its own desires and talents.

“McCarthy knows that some of this might sound eccentric. After declaring that the unconscious labors ‘under a moral compulsion to educate us,’ he inserts a parenthetical anticipating a dubious reader. ‘(Moral compulsion? Is he serious?).’ McCarthy doesn’t think the unconscious is interested in micromanaging our affairs, but he does seem to seriously believe that it has a broad interest in our wellbeing. The unconscious, he writes, ‘wants to give guidance to your life in general, but it doesn’t care what toothpaste you use.’”

I tend to agree that the subconscious abilities of our brains eschew the use of words and numbers. But studies do show that there is some understanding of things expressed in words and numbers by our unconscious.

McCarthy’s fixation on “Since the unconscious would have to understand language to grasp the problem in the first place, why wouldn’t it furnish a solution in the same medium?” is misplaced, however. For one Kekulé was investigating the behavior of the chemical compound benzene specifically with regard to the shape of its molecules. So, his problem was geometric and not verbal. (We can forgive McCarthy this misunderstanding as its logic is probably of interest only to chemists.) So, basically the subconscious offered up a spatial option for a spatial problem.

Next, the image of a snake biting its tail is an archetype one can find embedded in cultures all over the world. Actually believing that snakes bite their tales and then roll around as a form of locomotion was taking things a bit too far, but this image is common enough that we have a term for it: ouroboros (see image).

May the circle be unbroken, by and …

And what McCarthy and more scientific researchers seem to ignore, possibly because it may be an insoluble problem, is how many times this image comes up in our dreams (day or night) and which then is rapidly forgotten. In my callow youth I kept a dream log. I learned a few things from it, namely that dreams are mostly rubbish, outtakes from a cornucopia of images we have stored, but also that they take almost no time to deliver. One time I remember falling asleep looking at a bedside clock and then having this very long, convoluted dream that switched locales so fast as to be breath taking. I then woke up with a start to see than only about five minutes of real time had elapsed. These dream episodes happen several times a night and the only ones we seem to remember are the last ones, which fade rapidly unless some effort is made to reinforce them. I no longer reinforce them, so I remember dreams 1-2 times per year at most.

So, consider the thousands of dreams I have had over the last year that have been forgotten. Since they seem to be snippets of images already stored in memory, I suppose they haven’t been forgotten, but there was nothing “new” about them as they were mishmashes of old images. Kekulé was struggling mightily with a problem involving the shape of a molecule and in the ongoing slideshow that was his dreams, an ouroboros pops up and this is latched onto by his conscious mind. He takes that and runs with it.

Did his subconscious really “solve” his problem for him? Is our conscious mind “under a moral compulsion to educate us?” Or is it just throwing up a slide show of images because your conscious mind has been engrossed in that topic? Or does the conscious mind filter out all of the rubbish and sift out the images because we are interested in something like at the moment?

The answers are: we do not know, we do not know (but highly doubt our subconscious has a morality), we do not know, and we do not know. The speculations of philosophers, authors, neuroscientists and the like are all grist for the mill but we still do not know the answers to those questions and their like. We are just beginning to find out. We now know that the subconscious processes of our brains use the same circuitry for the same purposes as do our conscious minds (the visual cortex for processing and storing images, the auditory cortex for processing and storing sounds, etc.). That seemed logical to assume, but now we know.

Since so much of our lives is governed by subconscious mental processing (a majority I believe) it is high time we learned more about it.

October 27, 2016

Good Science, Bad Science

This link is to a blog post that shows one aspect of our public health science that went wrong and is still not fixed (The Calorie Debacle). “Public science” is science mixed with politics. A very obvious example of this is the so-called “food pyramids” (USDA Nutrition Guides) we were shown as children. These were basic guides as to what to eat to be healthy. They were also heavily politicized by food industry lobbies. So, a governmental committee of scientists would come up with guidelines and then during a “review” stage bureaucrats would be pushed and shoved by lobbies to make changes, often substantial ones. An easy example is “dairy products.” No mammal “needs” dairy products after they have been weaned. But these nutrition guides always contained a substantial recommendation regarding the consumption of dairy products. Why? Well, the dairy industry was very powerful and the science was weak.usda_-_basic_7_food_groups

“The truth of the matter is we do not know what should be eaten to maintain good health.”

The truth of the matter is we do not know what should be eaten to maintain good health other than food recently prepared from fresh ingredients is generally healthier than processed foods. We also know that a wide variety of foods tends to be healthier than a very narrow diet (Morgan Spurlock’s movie Super Size Me being an example of what happens to someone who confines their diet).

We are primed to learn from stories and those of us who are overweight (including me) are attracted to quick weight loss schemes because they are: a) easy, and b) fast. They are also ineffective. These “schemes” are sold through the telling of stories. I am bombarded by Internet ads for weight loss schemes and they are larded (a carefully chosen word) with “before and after” photos of real people who have lost weight under the scheme. But the same is true for all of the other schemes and if they all “work” why is there an obesity epidemic? If you answer that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” you are falling into the “blame the victim” trap. People were exercising more and eating according to the guidelines (less fat, more vegetables, etc.) like crazy as our body weights spiraled out of control. We are now starting to realize our errors and correct our mistakes, but standing in the way of more rapid progress are our “friends” in the food lobbies.

If you want a detailed source of what went wrong in the public health recommendations regarding diet, read “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taube.

October 24, 2016

Is Scripture Divinely Inspired?

Filed under: Religion — Steve Ruis @ 10:57 am
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I have been away on vacation for the last two weeks, which I hope explains my silence. While I was gone, I wrote the following. Steve

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Every religion with some sort of written record claims that their written records, or at least some of them, are divinely inspired. In many cases those words were claimed to have been delivered by revelation and others dictated by angels (Joseph Smith, Mohammad, etc.) so, are these actually divinely inspired? I will make some old and new arguments that they are not.

The simple and obvious reason that these texts cannot be divinely inspired comes from the fact that there is not any universal understanding of these texts. I would expect words chosen by a god to be perfectly clear and, even if translated into other languages, would remain perfectly clear. I would also expect a being who had the power to create a universe or world to be concise as to how he/she wanted his creations to behave. Instead, we are treated to irrelevant stories lacking moral messages we expect from even the simplest children’s stories. For example, in the Old Testament at one point King David gets on Yahweh’s bad side and to punish him Yahweh creates a plague that kills tens of thousands of David’s subjects. And the moral of the story is … what? Apparently Yahweh may kill your ass because he is pissed off with one of your associates. Many of the stories in the Jewish and Christian Bibles seem designed to convince the reader of the authenticity of the texts being read or to convince the reader to follow the precepts provided therein. A god’s words would carry that weight by themselves, no?

And all of the scriptures in the Abrahamic religions are rife with contradictions, obvious bad edits, etc. In the case of Islam as well as the others, the original transcriptions of the original texts have been lost. A god’s words couldn’t be obfuscated or lost or changed in any way if that god had any real power over his/her message. No?

And what are these messages? If they are a code of conduct, I would expect something closer to Hammurabi’s code, a set of laws and punishments for violating them. The “laws” that are to be found in Christian Bibles seem to be ignored by most Christians, converting those laws into recommendations or suggestions rather than requirements. Got an unruly teenager who gives you lip, stone him to death. The scripture couldn’t be more clear. Yet, teenagers getting stoned has an entirely different meaning today. If scriptures are not sets of instructions about how to behave toward one another, what are they for?

My second argument is based upon a fabulous book I am reading (The Beginning of Infinity, by David Deutsch, a physicist). In this book the author argues for Karl Popper’s viewpoint that the only way new knowledge can be created is through “conjecture and criticism.” This is basically the scientific method (the actual one, not the bullshit one proffered in school science textbooks). A conjecture is an attempt at an explanation for why something is the way it is, in science we call this an hypothesis. Then such conjectures are exposed to criticisms, in science this is by word and experiment (If this were true, then if I do this, the response would be….). In reality all experiments are suggested by such conjectures. When such “tests” are “passed” repeatedly, scientists stop testing those hypotheses and they become settled science (settled, not “proven”).

Dr. Deutsch’s point (one of many) is that if you withhold criticism, you cannot generate new knowledge and without new knowledge you cannot solve new or even old problems. In most religions one is not allowed to criticize scripture. Scripture is defined as being correct and inviolable. If you do not understand something, then you are wrong, not the scripture.

A consequence of forbidding criticism is there will be no new knowledge. This is 2016. If we go back one hundred years to 1916 and count all of the advances made by science, a human endeavor that requires open communication and open criticism, with religion we find that science has provided: broadcast radio, broadcast TV, antibiotics, the Green Revolution, space travel, communications satellites, synthetic drugs, synthetic fabrics, robotic surgeries, medical imaging, amazing new construction materials (carbon fiber, etc.), and on and on. And religion? Nothing. No real, new, or helpful knowledge has been created and it seems much of the material has become dated, seeming to no longer apply (don’t eat shellfish or pork or meat on Fridays, for example).

Not all of the products of science over the least 100 years have been good: nuclear and chemical weapons, electronic spying, chemical waste products, air and water pollution, and climate change aren’t exactly benefits. But Dr. Deutsch’s position is that problems are inevitable and solutions to those problems generally come from new knowledge, and new knowledge cannot be predicted it can only be pursued and discovered. Imagine what would have happened if the Bubonic Plague hadn’t happened until after antibiotics were invented. Problems will always be with us and the only way through them is “conjecture and criticism” on a large scale. So, Republican politicians denial of climate change or any other scientific reality, for example, is just another form of shutting down discussion/criticism and is self-defeating. Certainly the widespread conservative opposition to the Enlightenment, which has given the world its first large dose of the ability to criticize, is at best anti-progress and worst suicidal.

Scripture is supposed to be above criticism, but is it? All of the evidence says it is not. There are theological seminaries devoted to figuring out what it means (shouldn’t it be obvious?). Christianity alone has tens of thousands of sects, each existing because of a perceived difference it has with all of the others (based upon what?). The others have similar segments. New “churches” such as prosperity churches are popping up all over the place making new arguments based upon old scripture. If this is not discussion/criticism producing “new knowledge” then what is it?

Basically this fact alone tells us that it is not divinely inspired. Scriptures are subject to interpretation by scholars and Imams and whoever wants to spin those words in a new direction. In other words, scripture is not above criticism, and new knowledge is being created (“God wants you to be prosperous!”), so “god’s words” are apparently insufficient, which makes them not a god’s words.

* * *

Yes, this is a  blog focused on class warfare (and, boy, are we losing) but I also write on religion as it is a tool used in the war against the betterment of all human beings.

 

September 22, 2016

Sure, We Can Trust Big Oil!

Last night I saw a TV commercial that, I presume, ran locally that was made by an Illinois-based petroleum industry organization. It started with acknowledging the ever louder call to “leave fossil fuels in the ground,” and tried to counter that with pointing to all of the good things petroleum is converted into: fertilizers, life saving pharmaceuticals, plastics and fibers, fire retardants, etc. Then of course, the plea pivoted on to “you wouldn’t want to put all of those things at risk would you?”

Apparently, these sort of “those are nice kneecaps you got there; it’d be a shame if sumpin’ were to happen to them” threats are considered common and effective now. This is also a straw man argument. The call to leave fossil fuels “in the ground” is due to the wholesale burning of those fuels to power moving vehicles and to be converted into electricity, the primary uses that result in carbon dioxide being injected into the atmosphere far faster than nature can deal with it, thus causing the conditions leading to climate change/global warming. No one is criticizing any of the wonderful things that can be manufactured from fossil fuels.

Of course, the commercial has calming music and pictures of farm machines reaping golden grain, smiling children and parents, etc. for the same reason factory farms still use bucolic pictures of Amish farms in their advertising, so I guess we shouldn’t hold that against them.

If one were to look critically at the, say, petrochemical industry, the industry that converts petroleum from out of the ground into “petrochemicals” other than gasoline, diesel, and other fuels, I guarantee you that there is much to find that we would dislike in the way of pollution, but these are small potatoes compared to the impact of the wide-spread, large scale combustion of fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, and natural gas) in our motors and stationary engines. This is not only causing global climate changes faster that we can adjust for them, but is also wasteful in that petroleum burnt can’t be converted into all of the wonderful things the commercial commented on.

Their argument will boomerang if that is the only one they have and it is the only valid one, even though they will mention all of the jobs in their industry that will be “lost” if a “leave it in the ground” policy were to be implemented. But, just like all of the other U.S. workers who have been “displaced” by corporate and government actions, those people will have to find other things to do. Whining about the loss of good paying jobs when the job description is “destroying the biosphere your children will need to survive” is a bit disingenuous, especially when so many other U.S. workers have been gleefully thrown under the corporate bus, just for a better bottom line.

Like the Wells Fargo accounts scandal, these continuing issues completely undermine the Conservatives’ campaign to “remove burdensome government regulations to unleash the power of U.S. corporations.” Clearly that is the last thing we want to do for the segment of our society which willingly does things on a daily basis to poison our environment, disrupt our financial systems catastrophically, and cheat their own customers, all governed by a need to “improve the bottom line.”

September 18, 2016

Pascal’s Wager and Climate Change

Filed under: Politics,Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 9:38 am
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A common tool of religious apologists is Pascal’s Wager, which is basically the claim that believing in God is the safest approach to reality because if you are wrong, there is no penalty and if you are right, then the rewards are tremendous. None of this applies, of course, if you “bet” that God does not exist.

This, obviously, has nothing to do with God and everything to do with human beings and risk management. I have commented before that the “risk” has been created by said god and hence Pascal’s Wager is merely part of the scam. It is not an argument in favor of god, it is an argument in favor of belief in a god whether He exists or not.

Having said all of that, Pascal was using his reasoning faculty when he proposed the idea of the “wager,” and, if this applies to something as profound as to whether to believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful supernatural being, should it also not apply to belief in, say, climate change? It is an obvious correlation that “strong religious faith” and disbelief in climate change are linked in this country. Did not the Christian/Jewish god provide the Earth for us to dominate? Would God allow His Creation (man) the power to destroy His Creation (the biosphere) that supports human and other life? Doubt about their religion is unacceptable but doubt about science, which often challenges their religion, well, that is actively cultivated from the pulpits of U.S. churches. So, if the religious are going to doubt anything, it is science.

So, let us apply Pascal’s Wager to the idea of climate change. If we believe in climate change as being man-made and, hence, capable of being rectified by the actions of men, and we are right, then we may survive to live on. If we are wrong, and there is no such thing as climate change, then we have lost little. If on the other hand, we disbelieve in climate change and we are wrong, we doom the future of humanity. If we are right, then there is nothing lost. Clearly the wager favors belief.

There is another dimension of this argument, if we believe climate change is man-made and we act upon it, but none of the man-made “causes” we suspected seem to have any effect when we rectify them, then there is a consequence, we have wasted time and effort on a non-solution. But this is not a net negative. By doing that experiment, we may discover what the real causes are and then have a leg up in solving them. If we do not even attempt the experiment, then we not only won’t find out if we are right, but we will not find the underlying causes of the effect. Basically, if climate change is real and not a “hoax” as so many claim, we are better off pretending that it is real and acting upon it.

The reason this is so important is we cannot afford the experiment we are now running, the experiment of changing our climate from one that supports human life to something else, something which is likely, very likely, to be less beneficial. It is not as if it is the case that if our experiment in climate change challenges our ability to survive, there isn’t a back-up Earth we can retreat to lick our wounds and learn from our mistakes. If we are wrong about climate change being “unreal” we may pay a penalty that is beyond our worst nightmares.

To solve this problem, just requires a little belief, but time is running out as the experiment is running and has been running for decades.

 

September 13, 2016

These Are My People and I Feel Shame

In the NY Times yesterday an op-ed piece ran highlighting one of my pet peeves: the over focus on dietary fat in human health issues (How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat by Anahad O’Connor, Sept. 12, 2016). Specifically, the article is about how the sugar industry bribed health scientists to publish false reports on the role of fat and sugar in human health. Here are just a couple of excerpts:

The sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead, newly released historical documents show.

The internal sugar industry documents, recently discovered by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.

“’They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,’ said Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at U.C.S.F. and an author of the JAMA paper.

The documents show that a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease. The studies used in the review were handpicked by the sugar group, and the article, which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat.”

And this isn’t a “that was just back then” issue, it is still with us.

Last year, an article in The New York Times revealed that Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, had provided millions of dollars in funding to researchers who sought to play down the link between sugary drinks and obesity. In June, The Associated Press reported that candy makers were funding studies that claimed that children who eat candy tend to weigh less than those who do not.

Scientists are quite ordinary people so I do not expect them to be free from corruption, but accepting cash for publishing shoddy, misleading papers strikes to the core of the scientific mission, especially in the arena of human health.

We have politicians working overtime trying to reduce people’s confidence in politics, climate science, and in public health issues, all to make themselves more money. Now significant corruption within the scientific community is undermining any remaining trust that citizens might have regarding the findings of scientists.

These are my people (once a scientist, always a scientist) and I feel shame.

May 15, 2014

The World According to Rubio . . .

According to Senator Marco Rubio (R Florida) there is a 100% scientific consensus that life begins at conception.

This is a fascinating claim from a scientific ignoramus. Consider if this were true. You could immediately claim an extra deduction on your income taxes. You could ask your fetus to get a job, support him- or herself, and maybe charge for room and board. (Talk about a taker!) I know of no agreed upon scientific definition of “life” so a 100% consensus on it beginning in a long train of human reproductory events (injection of sperm, egg fertilization, zygote development,  … , birth, suckling, … , etc.) in any particular place is beyond comprehension. We have a “legal” definition (or rather definitions) of when life “begins” to avoid the potential absurdities associated with the birth of a child. When a child is born, it is either dead or alive. If it is alive, it is accorded privileges (but not full privileges) as a citizen. A definition of life beginning at conception would be a legal nightmare. What rights would the little beastie be accorded? I believe the Senator would insist upon the right not to be aborted. For anything else he cares not.

He also cares not about truth or reality and is willing to lie, cheat, and steal to become President. Interesting process we have here, the one where we ask our political candidates to prove their worthiness to lead . . . by not understanding important science topics like climate change, conception and birth, etc. yet still having “firm” and often bizarre beliefs on those topics.

April 22, 2014

Poll Shows Lack of Public Support for “The Big Bang”

Aw, c’mon, pollsters. This is stupid. A recent Associated Press (AP)-GfK poll came up with the following two responses (among others):

“The universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang.” 51% of the respondents answered with: “Not too/Not at All Confident” that this statement is true.

“The universe is so complex, there must be a supreme being guiding its creation.” 54% of the respondents answered that they were Extremely/Very Confident that this statement is true.

According to many in the commenting class these responses say a lot about Americans. But they don’t really say what. I am not so timid.

The Big Bang Theory is a relatively young theory and if an adult were not a fan of popular science programming on TV, just where would they acquire any information about what that theory was and whether it were true? The vast majority of Americans are not in a position to access or evaluate the data supporting this theory. So, for Americans to believe that “the universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang” would require an act of faith, faith that many scientists believe it to be so, which must make it so.

On the other hand, many, many Americans are brought up in schools, in churches, and summer camps, and colleges wherein the message is repeated over and over that “in the beginning, God created, etc.” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that phrase, but it is a very large number. You can also see this reinforced on TV programs, even on “science” channels.

So, what would you expect ordinary people to believe?

Is there any serious discussion of the contrast between these two “messages?” Does anyone ever ask why the phrase “in the beginning” is used when clearly God is already there? Does anyone ever ask why God addresses no one in particular and uses the word “us” when he creates Adam and Eve? There is no public discourse on the contrast between these two opposing memes, so is it any surprise that the message hammered home over and over and over is the one people favor?

It is somewhat dismaying, though, to hear the trite comments fostered by creationist apologists coming from educated people. For example, in the AP story they say:

Jorge Delarosa, a 39-year-old architect from Bridgewater, N.J., pointed to a warm 2012 without a winter and said, “I feel the change. There must be a reason.” But when it came to Earth’s beginnings 4.5 billion years ago, he has doubts simply because “I wasn’t there.”

Did anyone ask the gentlemen about his belief in “in the beginning, God created, etc?” I do believe he could also state that he wasn’t there either.

Until there is some rational discourse in this country, those with the best marketing will dominate public opinion. It seems to be true in our politics and it is certainly true in our religions.

April 13, 2014

What Cosmos Got Wrong, Part 2

Filed under: Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:05 pm
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If you read my original post “What Cosmos Got Wrong Last Night,” you will know that I objected to their graphics department’s depictions of atoms. They showed electrons having flaming tails in orbits around atoms which is just wrong. I won’t repeat that objection as I had no expectation that that would have been fixed in this latest episode. Those episodes have been “in the can” for weeks I am sure. So, again in this episode atoms are depicted as being roughly spherical with a translucent outer membrane within which electrons spin in orbits around the nucleus. They look a little like fish or frog’s eggs, albeit with sparkly bits whizzing around inside. There is no membrane. There is no outer surface. There are no orbits. Enough said.

What they got wrong that was new was their depictions of atomic nuclei. I don’t blame them so much as most school books get this wrong (still!) possibly because they are just copying schoolbook diagrams in previous books. The big mistake was depicting atomic nuclei as bunches of separate particles. In one case they had roseate proton bubbles mixed in with blue neutron bubbles, both jiggling nicely. The only problem with this depiction is … wait for it … there are no protons and no neutrons in atomic nuclei. But, but, sputter, we were told…! Yes, I know, but people don’t always use their words well. You see, atomic nuclei are not made “of” protons and neutrons, they are made “from” protons and neutrons.

“… there are no protons and no neutrons in atomic nuclei. But, but, sputter, we were told…!”

Atomic nuclei are made in stars (the furnaces of creation). Ordinary stars make the elements up to iron on the periodic table and the elements past iron on that table are made when super massive stars explode as supernovae. These nuclei are made by a process called nuclear fusion in which the word “fusion” is meant to imply the elementary particles are melted together to make new ones. In our sun, right now, hydrogen is being fused together to make helium nuclei. The helium nuclei are made by fusing two protons and two neutrons together to make a new single particle. That particle, the helium nucleus, has all of the charge of the four particles it is made “from” but not quite all of the mass. Some of the mass of the four particles was converted into energy in the fusion process (which is why physicists are trying to harness this process to produce energy). And this is where Einstein’s famous equation comes in: E = mc2. The energy made when that mass is converted is equal to the amount of mass multiplied by a very large number (the speed of light) twice! That tells you that a tiny amount of mass will make a large amount of energy.

Now, it is important to note, that the helium nucleus this created is not massive enough to break apart into two protons and two neutrons. This is the only reason this nucleus is stable. People think that the “protons in that nucleus repel one another and the neutrons help them by keeping them apart.” That’s a nice description for fourth graders, but not for adults. The real reason is that there are no protons any more, they were destroyed when they were fused together with the other particles, there is but a single particle of a 2+ charge. There are no particles to separate or to repel each other.

Just to make the story complete; as helium and hydrogen are fused into heavier and heavier elements (lithium, carbon, … , up to iron) energy is given off, but in ever diminishing amounts. As the amounts of energy diminish, the gravity of the star crushes it into a smaller and smaller space. This is why stars “die.” And only in the mindboggling massively energetic explosions of supernovae are the other elements made as they can only be made with an input of energy, quite a bit of it.

The other thing Cosmos got wrong last night was a comment made by NDT about the 10 million year journey of a photon created in the center of the Sun to make is way out of the Sun to radiate off into space, and even maybe get intercept by a planet (most of the light, almost all of it, misses any planet and keeps on going). In describing this process he stated that photons bounce off of atoms ricocheting in a random fashion, so are immensely slowed. Actually in the center of the Sun, there are no atoms. There is so much energy available that the electrons are so energetic that no nucleus can hold them. I mentioned in that prior post that electrons bound to atoms have only certain energies that they can possess (why is a mystery). And electrons can only absorb photons that have energies corresponding to two of their “allowed” energy states; otherwise the photon just keeps rolling. What I didn’t tell you is that unbound electrons can absorb any amount of energy a photon has. So NDT’s newly created solar photon is not bouncing off of “atoms” but is being absorbed by electrons (and even nuclei) and then recreated a short time later with its direction of travel made random. I do not know how one could tell if the photon absorbed and the photo created are the same photon, but I’d have to guess not. (If you can’t tell them apart, then the point is moot as they all are identical, save for the amount of energy involved.) How electrons are able to do this is somewhat of a mystery. But if you magically were able to wiggle an electron fast enough you could create light that way. The reason I say the photon absorbed and the photon released later are not the same is because there are naturally occurring minerals that absorb light and release it minutes or even hours later (They can even convert ultraviolet light into visible light and look quite spooky under “black light.”) During the time the light is stored, those photons do not materially exist, their kinetic energy having been converted into potential energy.

In summation, I am finding the new Cosmos series quite delightful and “must see” TV and I hope grade schools up through colleges will play this series for every student coming through. I just wish they had been a little more accurate in some of their depictions because, as you know, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

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