Thursday, January 29, 2009

Which scientists really made a big difference?

Physicist friend David Snoke writes to say:
As I have been studying physics over the past decades, I conclude the following are the real towering geniuses:


Each gave us entirely new paradigms in the context of beautiful math, with intuitive leaps that were quickly confirmed by experiment.

Various names get tossed about in regard to quantum mechanics, but most of them actually added more obfuscation and bad philosophy than clarification. Dirac is the one who gave us all the basics of the modern quantum mechanical field theory. If his ideas had come sooner we might not have all the bad new-agey philosophy of QM we have now.
Snoke has, of course, been the target - due to the Behe, Snoke paper, of many yapping Darwinist packs because of the type of thing you will encounter here and here for links to ridiculous hagiography of the old Brit toff - along with appropriate antidotes to splitting a gut laughing at the fact that anyone could actually, really believe this stuff!

To me, the really big scandal is that, even though Behe and Snoke are both committed Christians, the "ASA list" - the "official" US organization of Christians in science is dedicated to hearing any scandal whatever against people who think that the universe shows evidence of intelligent design.

No. It doesn't make sense to me either. I believe that that organization needs a pretty thorough housecleaning.
Note: Thanks to all patient readers, and especially to any generous PayPal donors. Due to the illness of a relative, I have simply not been able to post as often as I would have preferred.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Universe: Old-fashioned TV static is signal from deeps of time?

Apparently so.

Here's a cool site from the University of Toronto. It features stuff like:
These days astronomers aren't just picking up signals from a time shortly after the universe began – they're creating maps of those signals to answer some of our deepest questions about the cosmos.

An old-fashioned TV with rabbit ears is designed to pick up very high frequency radio waves. When the TV is tuned to a channel for which there is no nearby broadcaster, the screen shows a lot of static. The static – also known as noise – is caused by random radio waves coming towards the TV from various manmade and natural sources, including deep space.

In the 1960's, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, two researchers at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, began searching for sources of static for the purpose of improving satellite communication. They were searching in the "microwave" part of the radio spectrum, which lies at a somewhat higher frequency than a typical TV receives. What they discovered was that no matter where in the sky they pointed their special antenna it always picked up some microwave noise that could not be accounted for. Astrophysicists eventually realized that this noise was a predicted side effect of the birth of the universe billions of years ago.
Just remember that when deciding how to dispose of Grandpa's old TV in an environmentally friendly manner.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Mars TV: Oh, you knew this had to come, didn't you?

Never look at Mars the same way again? Well, check it out and see.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Titan: Why the Huygens probe probably won't - sadly - tell us much

In "World's Most Advanced Inter-planetary Probe Meets Biology's Greatest Conundrum," Robert Deyes discusses the Huygens probe of the Saturnian moon Titan, aimed at discovering how life came to exist on Earth:

And yet while the initial photographs of Titan had unveiled a methane sea complete with its own islands and coastline (Ref 16), we were still a long way from obtaining even a sketch of how life might have arisen on our own planet. Rather than being a 'golden spike' event as biologists Christopher Wills and Jeffrey Bada might have hoped for, in which primordialists and evolutionists finally united the animate with the inanimate world (Ref 17) , the landing of the Huygens probe served only to widen the chasm between simple organic compounds and complex biotic polymers. After all, the methane lakes, canals and open seas on Titan that had initially generated so much euphoria, provided no clues as to how the simplest biochemical processes might have arisen or even as to how a primitive membrane, needed to separate such processes from the damaging and disruptive forces of the surrounding environment (Ref 18), might have been formed.
And anyway,

Natural selection needs something to select, something that is already functional. To appeal to chance as an alternative and to thereby assume that the random assembly of nucleotides and amino acids could generate functional strings of information-rich code is to appeal to the miraculous.

Even before Huygens landed, astrobiologists were adamant that whatever was found on the surface of Titan it would not be "life as we know it" (Ref 21). Such a statement should not be allowed to steer us away from the fundamental conundrum of life's origins- that is, how the genetic instructions that form the blueprint for the existence of every organism on earth simply emerged. Science journalist Denyse O'Leary sent a cautionary note to those eager to formulate an answer, warning of "the risk of seeing things that are not really there, because we want them to be there so badly" (Ref 22). We should take stock of O'Leary's words and follow the evidence wherever it leads. That applies as much to origin-of-life studies as it does to any other field of science.
Deyes is kind to quote me as he has. The main thing to see here is that finding life on another planet (or moon) may - or may not - shed light on how life came to exist on Earth. Of course we would love to know, and rightly so. But there is a genuine danger of reading too much into the things we do find.

Big Bang: God found guilty of existing due to Big Bang evidence?

Frank Turek writes that the Big Bang is evidence for God:

When I debated atheist Christopher Hitchens recently, one of the eight arguments I offered for God’s existence was the creation of this supremely fine-tuned universe out of nothing. I spoke of the five main lines of scientific evidence—denoted by the acronym SURGE—that point to the definite beginning of the space-time continuum. They are: The Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Expanding Universe, the Radiation Afterglow from the Big Bang Explosion, the Great galaxy seeds in the Radiation Afterglow, and Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

While I don’t have space to unpack this evidence here (see
I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist), it all points to the fact that the universe began from literally nothing physical or temporal. Once there was no time, no space, and no matter and then it all banged into existence out of nothing with great precision.

The evidence led astronomer Dr. Robert Jastrow—who until his recent death was the director of the Mount Wilson observatory once led by Edwin Hubble—to author a book called God and the Astronomers.

More here.

Hat tip to the Binks at Free Mark Steyn - your one stop shop for intellectual freedom in Canada.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Design in the universe: All you people need is help with ignoring the elephant

A friend sends me these quotations from Leonard Susskind's book, The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design:

"Let me be up front and state my own prejudices right here. I thoroughly believe that real science requires explanations that do not involve supernatural agents. I believe that the eye evolved by Darwinian mechanisms. Furthermore, I believe that physicists and cosmologists must also find a natural explanation of our world, including the amazing lucky accidents that conspired to make our own existence possible." (Page xi)

"In the past most physicists (including me) have chosen to ignore the elephant--even to deny its existence. ... Evidence has been accumulating for an explanation of the 'illusion of intelligent design' that depends only on the principles of physics, mathematics, and the laws of large numbers. " (Page xi)

"On one side are the people who are convinced that the world must have been created or designed by an intelligent agent with a benevolent purpose. On the other side are the hard-nosed, scientific types who feel certain that the universe is the product of impersonal, disinterested laws of physics, mathematics, and probability--a world without a purpose, so to speak. By the first group, I don't mean the biblical literalists who believe the world was created six thousand years ago and are ready to fight about it. I am talking about thoughtful, intelligent people who look around at the world and have a hard time believing that it was just dumb luck that made the world so accommodating to human beings. I don't think these people are being stupid; they have a real point." (Page 6)

"Unlike the debate between 'Darwin's Bulldog' Thomas Huxley and [Samuel] Wilberforce, the present argument is not between science and religion but between two warring factions of science--those who believe, on one hand, that the laws of nature are determined by mathematical relations, which by mere chance happen to allow life, and those who believe that the Laws of Physics have, in some way, been determined by the requirement that intelligent life be possible." (Page 6-7)
Of course, one possible explanation - assuming we are allowed to consider it - is that the elephant really is there.

Mars red but not dead?

Here's physicist David Tyler's view of the current announcement about methane on Mars:
The quest for life on Mars is unabated. There is a hunger for news: even finding water is heralded as a major find - it is a though water is half-way to finding living things! Today, The Sun newspaper published a story with the headline: "Nasa reveals life on Mars" and the tagline: "ALIEN bugs are responsible for strong plumes of methane gas detected on Mars, it was claimed tonight." This story would be big news, if it were true. However, the journalism exhibited here does not convey the research findings at all well.

For several years, it has been known that methane is a component of the Martian atmosphere, and it is also known that this situation is not stable. There are various mechanisms for removing the methane and so there must be a mechanism for renewing the gas. The research paper reports on observed releases of methane, confirming that these occur and also carrying the implication that oxidising agents in the crustal materials is a bif factor in methane degradation.

The research does not reveal the source of this methane. This is left open in the research paper: it could be linked to microbial life, but it could be geochemical. "Thus, the presence of significant methane would require recent release from sub-surface reservoirs; the ultimate origin of this methane is uncertain, but it could be abiotic or biotic." and: "Both geochemical and biological origins have been explored, but no consensus has emerged".
Go here for more.

Quantum theory and popular culture: Hit job on - of all people - Paul Dirac?

In his review for The Sunday Times (January 11, 2009) of a new book on the life of quantum physicist Paul Dirac, The Strangest Man: the Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius The Strangest Man: the Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius by Graham Farmelo of the Science Museum of London, John Carey begins by noting that Paul Dirac was the greatest British physicist since Newton:
In the 1920s and 1930s, together with Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger and Pauli, he opened up the field of quantum physics, changing the course of science. In 1933, aged 31, he became the youngest theoretician to win a Nobel prize.

However, according to Farmelo, the reason there was no biography of Dirac until now is that he was

pathologically silent and retiring, and as a thinker he was unintelligible except to mathematicians. Even his fellow physicists complained that he worked in a deliberately mystifying private language. For his part, he insisted that the quantum world could not be expressed in words or imagined. To draw its picture would be “like a blind man sensing a snowflake. One touch and it's gone”. Its beauty revealed itself only in mathematical formulae.
Actually about the quantum world, Dirac is certainly right, and certainly not the only person to think so. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says, "the real difficulty in understanding quantum mechanics lies in coming to grips with their implications — physical, metaphysical, and epistemological."

It is not Dirac's fault if he didn't make the non-materialist implications of quantum physics acceptable to materialists. Materialists have been trying to tame it for about seventy years now, I guess. Not only have they not succeeded, but the disaster has spread to neuroscience.

Farmelo argues that Dirac suffered from autism. As a layperson, I am suspicious of psychological diagnoses of the dead, even from professionals - and the review certainly implies that the book is gossipy, which discourages me from changing my mind on the subject.

"But the tittle-tattle of Dirac's daily life is ultimately irrelevant," Carey tells us, after offering an unexpected shower of same. But then we learn something very interesting:

What does come across, surprisingly, is how far Dirac's methods seem like those of an imaginative writer. His ideas came as intuitions. They were not derived from experimental observation, but from contemplation of pure mathematics. His discovery of antimatter followed this pattern. He deduced from his equations that if electrons exist, anti-electrons must exist also, though nobody had ever observed one. The universe, he suggested, was composed of equal parts of matter and antimatter, and though, for some unknown reason, human experience is confined almost entirely to matter, there may be parts of the universe made of antimatter. Most physicists greeted this with derision. Yet within months an experimenter at Caltech had photographed a positron or anti-electron; nowadays, Farmelo points out, particle accelerators generate billions of anti-electrons and anti-protons daily for use in industry and medicine, where positron emission tomography allows doctors to see inside patients' brains and hearts.
I have long supposed that a proper realignment of science would realign sciences and arts in precisely this way.

Anyway, physicist friend A. J. Meyer, who calls the Sunday Times article a "crass hit job" has given me permission to post his opinion:

I got to know knew Dirac & his wife Manci through Behram Kursunoglu's Coral Gables Conferences. They were sort of a "Maggie & Jigs" couple. Manci was [Nobelist] Eugene Wigner's sister. She would storm into meetings asking:"Where is that idiot?"

Dirac told a mutual friend that Manci always called him an idiot. Manci was not shy, during one meeting she walked across the room to lecture me about my pipe.

I really liked Dirac, and he certainly wasn't taciturn when he talked about physics. He just didn't like small talk.

Dirac was extremely frugal with words, but nevertheless he maximized their information content.

One day, I gave a presentation on "Primatons" -- the ultimate granularity of space-time. After the talk, I asked him for his opinion - Dirac answered: "You are out on a limb."

I then asked him: "Are you going to saw it off?"

He replied: "No."

I have a hunch that Dirac's economical use of words was carried over from his well founded belief that if the mathematics that described a physics theory wasn't beautiful - simple & elegant, then the theory was probably false.

At the very last Coral Gables Conference, at which I heard Dirac speak, he stressed the importance of beautiful mathematics and how distressing it was that the younger generation of physicist had a lack of rigour and were using slipshod mathematics in their work. One younger physicist then asked: "How do you define 'beautiful mathematics'?" Dirac replied: "If you have to ask that question, then you are in the wrong business."
Ah yes. Perhaps much of the problem with science today is that many of its practitioners are in the wrong business.

The Darwinists should, for example, be writing fiction, along the lines of "goo = zoo = you = poo, purely by accident!", for example.

Oh wait. They do.

They don't call it fiction, because fiction readers are moderately discerning. They market it as science, because nowadays any nonsense marketed as science sells.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Extraterrestrial life: NASA says could be life on Mars - or could be rocks

There is an interesting debate unfolding over at Uncommon Descent about NASA's announcement yesterday that methane gas on Mars may signal early life. Dave Scot makes a prediction based on intelligent design but Granville Sewell urges caution about NASA's supposed find ... we've been here before.

The most likely explanation for life on Mars is contamination between Earth and Mars, though that says nothing about ultimate origins. Hoyle, an atheist wh later became an agnostic, believed it was intelligent design.

One thing to keep in mind is that NASA not only wants but needs to see life. We are in the midst of a financial meltdown in which people are losing their homes and jobs, the price of food is rising across the globe, and the expensive Mideast conflict rages on. NASA is an expensive operation. If Mars were doubted to have life, that could impact its budget.

Here's NASA's release: "The Red Planet is not a Dead Planet":
Methane -- four atoms of hydrogen bound to a carbon atom - is the main component of natural gas on Earth. It is of interest to astrobiologists because much of Earth's methane come from living organisms digesting their nutrients. However, life is not required to produce the gas. Other purely geological processes, like oxidation of iron, also release methane. "Right now, we don't have enough information to tell if biology or geology -- or both -- is producing the methane on Mars," said Mumma. "But it does tell us that the planet is still alive, at least in a geologic sense. It's as if Mars is challenging us, saying, hey, find out what this means."
Find out what this means, and don't cut the budget!

The release finishes with "Whatever future research reveals - biology or geology - one thing is already clear: Mars is not so dead, after all."

Equating life to rocks is, at the very least, a most unusual interpretation of not being "dead." Having not definitely found life in the rocks of Mars, they now imply that life, rocks, it's all the same. People in this state of mind should be heard with patience ... but also with prudence.

Here's Fuz Rana's view, giving reasons why the methane is more likely geochemical than biological in origin.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Science fiction: What if God resigned? What would change?

Here's the latest online short story from Australian Jason Rennie's online Science Fiction and Philosophy shop: "Epilogue" by British author Paul S. Jenkins, free in a number of formats, about the day God decides to resign:
“Let me summarise my proposed course of action. Soon after the end of this broadcast, and of those transmitted to other countries, I shall be vacating my position as overseer of the world, indeed of the universe. I shall be going you-know-not-where, never to return. It will be as if I had never existed, a state of affairs which correlates quite closely with the views held by a significant proportion of you.

“The result of this action will be to render some specific questions irrelevant: Did the universe have a creator? Does mankind have free will? What is the meaning of life?
You can discuss the story there as well. Is it true, for instance, that free will requires the exisitence of God? Free will is, for example, foundational to Buddhism, but God is not.

Also, Rennie is look for Sydneyside actors to help produce Steve Fuller's play about the day Lincoln and Darwin appear on a talk show. Go here for more details.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Science fiction: Remake of Day the Earth Stood Still supports Rare Earth hypothesis?

Keith Paterson, a fellow Torontonian, who reminds me that we met at the local lit fest The Word on the Street, writes to say,
Being familiar with your blogs, it seems that you are, like myself a science fiction fan. So I thought you might be interested to hear how ID concepts are finding their way into popular entertainment.

This week I saw the new remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Now I am a big fan of the original 1951 version and I own it on DVD.

Being a big fan I was sceptical about the remake because it just didn’t need remaking! Would you remake Casablanca? (Although I am sure somewhere in Hollywood someone is thinking about it.)


Still, even though I didn’t want to like the new version, it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. Maybe not a glowing endorsement, but I found in spite of myself I couldn’t dislike it and Keanu was not bad in his role as Klaatu. There is a time and a place for wooden acting and this was one of them. However unless I missed it, no one in the movie says the classic line, “Klaatu Barada Nikto”. So that’s disappointing.

The Christian allusions aren’t as strong in this version as in the original. In the original, Klaatu the alien messenger descends from the heavens offering the gift of healing and bearing a message for the world that could mean either salvation or destruction. He is killed by small minded authorities but is resurrected a short time later; he delivers his final message of peace to the world before ascending back into the heavens. Oh and his cover name while walking among the humans? Mr Carpenter.

In the new movie he is just Klaatu, he walks on water, he doesn’t need resurrecting but he does resurrect someone else and his message is not so much one of salvation or destruction as a warning of impending destruction. In the first movie, intelligent space-faring civilizations of the cosmos warned humanity that if they didn’t give up our war-like ways they would cleanse the Earth of us. They could ignore us before we had nukes but now we were a threat to everyone. In the new movie the intelligent space-faring nations are alarmed at the environmental damage we are wreaking on Earth. Klaatu is kind of an alien Al Gore (“An Inconvenient Alien?”). More on that later.

The ID influence comes in at a few points through the movie. First when Earth scientists are examining the shell coating Klaatu’s body when he first arrives. They realize it is placental tissue, a “bio-engineered space suit”. The doctor played by Jennifer Conolly says that this “makes sense, considering that placenta is a life-support system”. Which of course is how someone with a design perspective would look at placenta.

Next up is Gort, remember Gort? The giant, super cool silver robot that protects Klaatu’s flying saucer the original. In this movie he is computer generated, which is a shame. In the new movie someone in the military asks if it is a machine or a living thing. The scientists reply that it is both and neither. They say that they are calling it G.O.R.T which is an acronym for Genetically Organized Robotic Technology. (I know: groan.) So GORT at least is intelligently designed.

Finally and to me most startling is the appearance in the movie of the Rare Earth hypothesis. As I mentioned, in the original Klaatu says that the advanced alien civilizations can no longer afford to ignore us because our nuclear technology makes us a threat to them all. That threat reflected the times the original movie was made in, just 6 years after Hiroshima. In this movie the aliens want to wipe us off the Earth for environmental reasons. The Earth is dying and humans are killing it. Klaatu says (this is an exact quote); “There are only a handful of planets in the Cosmos that are capable of supporting complex life. This one, can’t be allowed to perish.”

Well knock me down with a feather! That is the Rare Earth hypothesis to a letter! Usually as you know you have in science fiction a Star Trek style universe where planets capable of supporting complex life (M class planets) are a dime a dozen and the Universe is just filled to bursting with civilizations and species that look just like us save for the bumps on their foreheads. Presumably, evolution “finds” the same answers on those planets (or budgetary considerations limit costume and makeup options!) Now I’ve got lots of love for Star Trek but it is kind of refreshing to have a movie where a key ID concept makes its appearance. Now I’d love to see a movie that works in the Privileged Planet hypothesis!
Re a movie based on Guillermo Gonzalez's Privileged Planet hypothesis ... Barbara Nicolosi, you got mail. One of your students should be interested.

The Rare Earth hypothesis does not directly support design as a feature of our universe. Life could be rare in an undesigned universe. However, in terms of popular culture, the fact is that anti-design folk like Carl Sagan used the argument that Earth-like planets could happen "just naturally" as support for their views*. The fact that that is not likely must necessarily count against their status in the museum and science class culture, as Greater Prophets who must be listened to with awe and respect. Not that anyone would dare admit it just now.

*And, curiously, when Sagan wrote his own novel, and later film Contact, it is based explicitly on a design hypothesis, the designers being space aliens.

Origin of life: What can the Saturnian moon Titan tell us?

Today is the anniversary of the landing of the Huygens probe of Saturn's moon Titan, part of the most ambitious and expensive space probe ever mounted. The object has been to verify the extent to which Titan's atmosphere might resemble that of early Earth, and therefore provide clues as to the origin of life:
Among the measurements sent back to Earth were air temperature, pressure, composition and wind speed sampled at points ranging from the top of Titan's atmosphere to the ground. The temperature of the landing site itself was minus 291 degrees F. A "penetrometer" on the bottom of the probe poked into the ground. The soil, it found, has the consistency of wet sand or clay and is covered by a thin crust ... of something. Scientists are still analyzing all these data.
It turns out that there may have been water ice on Titan, but, given that the planet averages minus 178 degrees Celsius, no one supposes that life will actually be found there.

The willingness to spend so much on such an enterprise speaks to a deep desire to know our origins. It's a glorious enterprise, but there is a danger in all such enterprises - the risk of seeing things that are not really there, because we want them to be there so badly.

In the end, the scientific value of the mission will depend on whether - if Titan does not turn out to be a useful source of information, after all - researchers can simply accept that.

Two thousand year old computer rebooted - and you thought YOU had to wait long for tech service?

In "World's First Computer Rebuilt, Rebooted After 2,000 Years", Charlie Sorrel reports (Wired, December 16, 2008),
A dictionary-size assemblage of 37 interlocking dials crafted with the precision and complexity of a 19th-century Swiss clock, the Antikythera mechanism was used for modeling and predicting the movements of the heavenly bodies as well as the dates and locations of upcoming Olympic games.

The original 81 shards of the Antikythera were recovered from under the sea (near the Greek island of Antikythera) in 1902, rusted and clumped together in a nearly indecipherable mass. Scientists dated it to 150 B.C. Such craftsmanship wouldn't be seen for another 1,000 years — but its purpose was a mystery for decades.
A replica has been created that is said to work perfectly:

See also here for more.

People often wonder why ancient Greece's technology was so largely lost. The main reason is, in the centuries following the collapse of Rome, Europe - which might have been expected to retain the technology - was fragmented and under constant siege from pirates and bandits, who destroyed irreplaceable manuscripts. In fact, as Thomas Cahill explains in How the Irish Saved Civilization,
Not only did Irish monks and scribes maintain the very record of Western civilization -- copying manuscripts of Greek and Latin writers, both pagan and Christian, while libraries and learning on the continent were forever lost ... [so that when] the seeds of culture were replanted on the European continent, it was from Ireland that they were germinated.
The main thing to see here is not where the manuscripts were, but where they weren't. For many centuries, most people simply did not have access to things like antikythera or the writings that were anchored its civilization. Gradually, by the early Middle Ages, national governments started to win the fight against bandits and pirates, at which point universities became possible.