Category: Science

Belief in Special Creation is Not a Harmless ‘Difference of Opinion’

It probably doesn’t surprise you that less than half of Americans believe in evolution by natural selection. (According to this piece, it’s actually 48%, with much smaller percentages of conservatives accepting what has long been accepted science.)

By way of comparison, only 9-17% of UK residents believe creationism is the correct explanation for human life. Similar numbers, though trending somewhat lower, prevail elsewhere in Europe. (For a detailed analysis of the state of this belief situation in 2006, check out this piece.)

Until recently, I’ve dismissed these ignorant-by-choice citizens on the grounds that it’s basically harmless whether or not they buy into evolution, unlike the colossal worldwide and nearly universal damage that is being caused by their scientific cousins, the climate change deniers.

I think I was wrong.

If you believe that a God (who is only accessible through a specific spiritual path) created everything in the Universe — or at least on Earth — specially and individually, then you believe that mankind is unique and that it stands at the pinnacle of that creation. By creating a completely fictional disconnect between mankind and the entirety of remaining creation, you remove from homo sapiens any obligation to nurture, care for or even care about any other animal or plant life on the planet. This makes you believe you live outside the ecosystem that is planet Earth. In that name of that superiority you can justify slaughter, deprivation of habitat, extinction, enslavement and other abuse of fellow creatures of all varieties.

Creationists_ReadOneBookToon450OBut it is even more dangerous than those observations would indicate. If you are the result of an act of special creation by God, what of those who are different from you in your own race (by which I mean humanity, not ethnicity)? Are they also equal and superior? Broad evidence fails to support that hoped-for observation. Western Europeans who invaded and colonized North America slaughtered millions of natives who had lived on the land with various degrees of peacefulness for many centuries before their arrival, all in the name of superiority and by demonizing and declaring savages those who stood in the way of their expansionism, to which they felt Divinely entitled.

Do American conservative Evangelicals and Republicans believe, e.g., that all Muslims were also specially created by God? That we are all part of one humanity under God? Again, broad evidence suggests the contrary. The same may be said, of course, of those fanatics who form the lunatic fringe of any religious grouping.

A belief in special creation is completely incompatible with a belief in our inherent and Divine Oneness as a species. And, as I’ve written many, many times over the past decade or two, until we grasp and integrate our Oneness, we cannot solve the myriad of problems we face as humanity, problems which transcend national, cultural, racial and religious borders. Resisting Oneness is another insidious effect of the belief in special creation.

It really is essential that we begin working together as humans to eradicate this unfounded mythological belief. So much good will derive from such efforts.

High-Energy Physics on the Tabletop? Sign Me Up!

The announcement yesterday of a highly successful, ultra-small linear particle accelerator caught my attention. According to this piece on ElectronicWeekly.com, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab have accelerated electrons to 4.25GeV over 90mm. For comparison purposes, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center achieved 50GeV electron beams with traditional technology, but they needed a linear accelerator two miles long.

A tabletop linear accelerator would presumably allow at least some amateur scientists to work on the deepest secrets of the Universe, searching for evidence of the beginning of time, what happened just before the Big Bang (or was there a “before the Big Bang?”). Quantum scientists and cosmologists would be able to unlock many secrets that today require large spaces and prohibitively expensive equipment.

One of the things that is necessary for citizen science to flourish is to get the size, weight, cost and complexity of key tools — like the particle accelerator — down to manageable ranges. The more interested and specially trained or educated citizens who might well be capable of huge breakthroughs are not confined to the ranks of the super-rich. Just as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is tapping into the unused CPU cycles of tens of thousands of ordinary people’s computers to look for appropriate patterns in signals being received on Earth every second, so cosmology may be able to tap into a similar network if the price, size and accessibility of linear accelerator technology gets a boost.

As a lifelong amateur scientist and s-f fan, I’d love to get my hands on a tabletop linear accelerator. I hope I live to see that possibility come to fruition.

 

Orion Passes First Orbital Flight Test With…As It Were…Flying Colors

The NASA spacecraft designed to handle the first manned mission to Mars underwent its first high-orbit test today and passed it with flying colors. Orion traveled 3,600 miles from Earth during the test, marking the first time since the Apollo 17 moon mission in 1972 that a vehicle designed to carry humans went beyond low Earth orbit.

This is very exciting work even though its fruition is still a long way off. I’d love to live to see it carry out its ultimate objective of taking Earthlings to Mars. That’s the stuff of the real science fiction I devoured as a teen and young adult and have remained interested in, more or less continuously, my whole life.

There are a number of intermediate missions for Orion before she transports Homo sapiens to the Red Planet, of course. It’s an ambitious plan in some ways, though critics have objected that it’s too slow-paced and modest to be worthy of the mission’s multi-hundred-billion-dollar price tag.

But Orion has already begun to restore America’s — and humanity’s — passionate dream of reaching the stars. As NASA spokesman Rob Navias said during live commentary on the perfect test flight, “America has driven a golden spike as it crosses a bridge into the future.” The analogy to the completion of the east-west rail lines in the Frontier West is not lost. During this mission, most of the system’s mission-critical components were thoroughly tested and gigabytes of valuable data gathered for analysis. While this mission was unmanned, it was still a vital first step, resulting in the successful test of something like 55% of the total technology package needed for manned flight operations.

With an anti-science Congress peering blindly into its myoposcope, and grim economic reality at every turn, it’s not clear that NASA will be able to line up the funding it needs for the entire Orion program. Right now, the next flight for the mission isn’t scheduled until 2017 at the earliest and probably won’t happen before 2018. Not because of science limitations but because spending money in space is still a difficult sell despite the billions of dollars in commercial value spun off from previous space efforts.

It is, however, encouraging that the NASA exploration budget that finances Orion is one of the few non-defense budget accounts for which House Republicans have proposed an increase from President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2015 request.

I recognize the problem and I appreciate it. But I think the answer lies not in pruning back space projects but in fostering cooperative undertakings with other space agencies, particularly the European Space Agency (ESA) which is enjoying huge success with the Rosetta mission. We have long since passed the time when nationalistic interests should hold sway in the exploration of space; these need to be Earth missions, humanity-owned-and-operated. I’ve long thought that creating a functional unit of the United Nations to carry out space exploration would go a long way toward addressing a number of issues plaguing national programs. But I expect that’s just another one of my personal windmills.

Meanwhile, I say, “Go, Orion!” and turn my eyes once again skyward if only to dream of the time in the 2030s when Earthlings set foot on the mysterious planet that has held such fascination for science-fiction writers and fans for a century or more.

When the Facts Are Against You… Conservative “Debate” in Modern Politics

The first rule of the practice of law says, “When the facts are against you, argue the law. When the law is against you, call your opponent names.”

In World War II, Nazi Propaganda Chief Joseph Goebbels famously said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

I imagine the conservatives in this country have perhaps too many lawyers in their ranks. They seem unable, when faced with facts that contradict their ideology, to respond in any way other than to shout the same lies more loudly. And those who aren’t lawyers are apparently ideological propagandists. (I’m not making a Nazi comparison here; he just happens to be the source of the quotation.)

In his New York Times column today, Paul Krugman points out that:

Conservatives want you to believe that while the goals of public programs on health, energy and more may be laudable, experience shows that such programs are doomed to failure. Don’t believe them. Yes, sometimes government officials, being human, get things wrong. But we’re actually surrounded by examples of government success, which they don’t want you to notice.

In that column, he points out several examples of this prevaricating government bashing by conservatives, whose agenda is only served when Americans believe government cannot and does not work:

Solyndra. This is a non-scandal scandal perpetrated by the GOP. Any time anyone — government or private individual or company — invests in future technologies, they’re going to bet wrong from time to time. As Krugman points out, if they don’t, they’re not taking sufficient risks to move the marker. Overall, the program of which Solyndra was the sole significant loss is earning a present profit for taxpayers of $5 billion. Why aren’t conservatives — who are profit-driven — touting this? Because it was a Democratic Party idea. No other reason.

Affordable Care Act. The conservatives dig up, often falsify and then proclaim from the rooftop outlier failure anecdotes while completely ignoring the underlying factsFact: 10 million previously uninsured Americans now have some health coverage. Fact: average premium increases — which conservatives point to as horrendously bad news (“We thought they were going to save money!”) — are well below historical average increases. Fact. Obama Administration policies — many enacted in spite of the supposedly fiscal conservatives — have brought the national debt to pre-crisis levels as a percentage of GDP all the while Republicans have been screaming about deficits running rampant.

Science research. Conservatives have made an annual tradition of finding odd-sounding scientific research projects and singling them out for ridicule without the first understanding of anything scientific. Quite apart from their obstinate refusal to look at any science on climate change — and indeed, considering their oft-repeated observations that they are not scientists (a fact of which we need no reminder given their 18th Century ignorance) — they are in the way of important research. One example is a study of how memes form and are spread, which is incredibly important in, among other arenas, the battle against terrorist tactics. But the GOP holds up this study as an example of leftist programs designed to censor or interfere with conservative speech!

Over the years, I’ve learned that it is not possible to win a debate with someone who is willing to lie or distort facts. When conservatives do this at the top of their voice, they drown out debate and obstruct progress of any kind for which their opponents could be congratulated.

Scientists “Very Confident” Philae Will Reawaken

The ingenious last-ditch effort space scientists made as the short-life battery on the Philae comet lander expired yesterday may have paid off, according to mission experts.

By rotating one of the solar panel arms on the satellite 125 degrees, they believe they have given the lander a good chance of having its batteries recharged as it approaches the sun, perhaps in the spring.  While the lander has already transmitted a huge amount of data that scientists are already busily sifting, a reawakened Philae would be a large burst of good news for the Rosetta mission of the European Space Agency.

When Philae landed on Wednesday morning (Pacific time), a system of harpoons designed to anchor it to the comet’s microgravity surface failed to deploy. As a result, the lander bounced twice and ended up in a shadowed area. Without the sun being able to strike the solar panels, the onboard batteries failed after about a day of data transmission.

Overall, the Rosetta/Philae mission still ranks as a huge success and it has another year or more to go. Rosetta remains in close orbit around the comet and plans to accompany 67P as it approaches the sun.

 

Philae, Stuck in the Shadows, Goes Silent

There is much disappointment in the world of space science today as comet lander Philae has bounced off the surface of Comet 67P twice and landed in a shadowed spot. As a result, its solar panels are not gathering new sunlight and its batteries are dying. This has cut a hoped-for 64-hour live transmission portion of the mission.

The overall Rosetta mission should still be considered a success, albeit a qualified one. The Rosetta rocket, now playing the role (as it has for several months) or orbiter around 67P, will continue most of the important observations and experiments the mission was designed to carry out. We will still no a huge amount more about comets — and the origins of the Universe — than we did before Rosetta launched 10 years ago.

Still, the failure of the lander’s harpoons to deploy and of its stabilizing rocket are surely a source of much sadness at the European Space Agency (ESA). Settling the lander on the comet surface and securing it there were two of the main — and always most challenging — aspects of the mission. From an engineering perspective, the disappointment must be palpable.

There is still a faint glimmer of hope that the mission can be salvaged. Before its batteries faded, mission scientists rotated the Philae landing craft about 125 degrees in an effort to expose more of one of its solar panels to incoming light. We won’t know for a few days if that tactic worked sufficiently to enable mission managers to arouse Philae and move it to a more sunny location on 67P’s surface.

Even with this glitch, this is the most exciting space mission in my lifetime and I remain excited to follow the results of the Rosetta orbiter as it gathers data about this ancient ball of ice and fire that may help us unlock the secrets of how our universe came into being.

 

Rosetta, Philae and Humanity

In my Utopian view, the world would be governed — at least in certain respects — by a single governmental organization. There are so many problems and concerns that don’t recognize national borders that it seems to me that for humanity not only to survive but to thrive in the long term, such a vehicle will ultimately become necessary. I have no illusions that it will happen in my lifetime…or perhaps in 20 more lifetimes. But I expect that, assuming humanity doesn’t self-destruct (an eventuality that seems more likely all the time), some formation of a single world government or NGO will become a reality out of sheer necessity.

The Baha’i Faith, I recently learned, teaches one world government as a tenet of its belief system. It has already established the framework for such an institution, which meets for annual conferences in the Haifa region of Israel.

European Space Agency Logo

European Space Agency (ESA) Logo

Being a teacher of Oneness as Fundamental Principle, I am greatly encouraged whenever international projects achieve great successes, so it is not surprising that I am thrilled at the current success of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission and particularly its landing yesterday of a small exploratory vehicle on the surface of the Comet 67P, the first ever such undertaking in human history. I’ve written about that event here, and here in the last couple of days.

Not only is it encouraging that it was ESA and not NASA that pulled this off, the whole EU concept that is behind the ESA is of great interest to me. American Exceptionalism,an extreme form of nationalism which is once again in vogue in some U.S. political circles, is one of the great obstacles to world peace. All forms of nationalism are, of course, but when a nation sees itself as the ultimate pinnacle of global power it takes on a cloak of authority it certainly lacks from the perspective of human history.

So it is especially delightful to me that the ESA — with which NASA partnered but in a fairly secondary role — pulled off this amazing, unparalleled feat.

 

Rosetta, Philae and SETI: Are We Alone?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in the question of whether we are — or can reasonably expect to be — alone in the vastness of the Cosmos. (The story of how I got interested in extraterrestrial intelligence is far too long to ask you to read it as part of this post. I’ve related it in another post for those who know me well and/or are just curious.)

Today’s news prompts me to ask how the Rosetta/Philae mission plays into — and may help answer — that question.

In ancient history, there are two artifacts that have contributed to unlocking the meanings of Egyptian hieroglyphics and it is certainly no coincidence that the two spacecraft involved in today’s stupendous space science news draw their names from those artifacts.

Replica of the Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone Replica

The Rosetta Stone is probably well enough known that I don’t need to spend much time explaining it. Check out this Wikipedia article, which appears to be fairly complete and accurate.

Discovered in 1801 in Rosetta on the Nile Delta in Egypt, the stone contains an inscription of a decree written in three different languages: Ancient Egyptian, Demotic and Ancient Greek. Because it contains the same text in all three languages, it enabled linguists to unlock the meanings of thousands of Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

The other half of this historical story and of the ESA comet-study mission, Philae, is a two-island grouping in Lake Nasser, also in Egypt. It was the site of an ancient Egyptian temple complex featuring a structure devoted to the worship of Isis. An obelisk found on the smaller but culturally richer of the two islands that comprise Philae also contributed greatly to the translation and understanding of the Egyptian written symbol-language. This obelisk, discovered in 1815, contained two texts, one in Egyptian and one in Ancient Greek, and although unlike the Rosetta Stone, the two passages aren’t parallel, there is some common content between them. The translator Jean-François Champollion,one of two principal translators of the Rosetta Stone, credited this Obelisk with assisting him in the process.

All of this simply demonstrates the nod ESA scientists gave to the possible role of their Rosetta mission in helping to unlock deeper mysteries of the Cosmos as they designed and executed this amazing feat.

Scientists may discover, for example, that the specific ratios of various elements in the content of the Comet 67P differ from those found so far on Earth or on asteroids or Mars or the Moon. This might tell us a great deal about the origins of the Universe. That information could also lead to a deeper understanding of the initiation and development of life, perhaps even in non-carbon-based forms. As the comet nears the Sun over the next year or so, it will spew gases in larger and larger streams and quantities. Analysis of these gases is a big part of the Philae mission’s instrumentation. Philae is equipped with small ovens in which some of these gases and the minute particulates they are thought to contain will be evaporated further and analyzed.

Much of my excitement about this mission stems from the crucial differences between asteroids, on which we have conducted considerable previous study, and comets, where Rosetta/Philae is a pioneer.

Scientists think that most comets were formed outside our Solar System while most asteroids were formed in an orbital region between Mars and Jupiter within our Solar System. This means that comets have the potential to bring us far stranger and more interesting information which may help us determine whether Earth and the Solar System are similar to or quite different from other places in the Universe. Chemically, the two are quite different as well as comets consist largely of ice and gas, with constantly changing rocky surfaces while asteroids are just rocks that change very little over time. Studying 67P may give us greater insights into the role of change and energy in the Cosmos.

Ultimately, if we are going to learn much about the possibility of life on other planets, those planets are going to be most likely found outside the Solar System. This means that comets hold out much greater promise of useful and insightful information than do asteroids.

To get a better  understanding of the important differences between comets and asteroids, this colorful and easy-to-understand NASA guide may prove helpful.

For an interesting perspective on this subject,plus a fascinating update on the current state of things at the SETI Institute, check out this piece by the scientist who heads that institute, David Black.

How I Got Interested in ETI

(NOTE: This was originally part of my post on the November 2014 European Space Agency Rosetta/Philae mission. After reading it, I decided it was far too detailed for what most people who might be interested in that piece would want to know. So I broke it into this separate autobiographical sketch. If you read it and are interested, then you might want to check out the post of which it was originally a part.)

It was 1962. I was about to graduate from high school at the somewhat unusually young age of 17 years, 3 months. I was viewed by friends, teachers and family as something of a genius, a bit too old to be a prodigy but pretty damn smart nonetheless. I never saw myself quite in that light but I did know I was good at thinking, problem-solving and writing. That year, my high school had it first-ever National Merit Scholarship finalists and I was one of the three. When we were being interviewed for the local paper, the reporter asked all of us what our career aspirations were.

I had long since decided I wanted to be a xenobiologist (a word you still can’t find on Dictionary.com, though its root, xenobiology is defined there). I had never heard the word; nor did I know anyone who was then interested in the “field”. But I knew I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering what life forms on other planets might look like and how it might come into existence and what it might do all day. I reasoned that if such life forms were based on other elements than carbon, “life” might have to be redefined. And if that were the case, then “life” might well exist in billions of places in the universe.

You’re probably too young to remember, but in October 1957, the demon Soviet Union “won” the race to space with the launch of Sputnik. The United States launched its first satellite, Explorer I, in January of the following year but in the intervening period, the Soviets launched a second satellite, Sputnik 2. (A bit of irony there; “Sputnik” translates to Satellite 1″, so Sputnik 2 translates to “Satellite 1 2”.)

Less than five years later, there I was, a life-long sci-fi buff, author of a dozen or so short stories in the genre in my own right, having built my first computer (a pegboard-and-metal-clip-and-light-bulb contraption that a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena helped me with when I was a member of the local Explorer Scouts). I was the de facto leader of a group of about 12 precocious science fiction fans who held the position that s-f was the best predictor of science, and probably always would be.

So, back to the interview. When the reporter asked me what I wanted to be, I said, “xenobiologist.” She couldn’t understand. She asked me to spell it. She asked me to explain it. The more I tried, the more tongue-tied I became. After a couple of minutes of this — my fellow scholarship finalists snickering at my dilemma — I decided to switch tactics. “Actually, I’m just joking with you. I really want to be a lawyer.”

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief at the return to familiarity and we concluded the interview.

The next day when the story came out in the newspaper, my father was absolutely furious at me. “They’re giving science scholarships out like water, you idiot!” he literally screamed at me over dinner. “You could write your ticket to any science university in the country…hell, in the WORLD…and you say you want to be another dime-a-dozen lawyer? How the hell do you expect me to afford college now?”

I hadn’t thought about that. But in that sequence of events, my interest in xeniobiology died a quiet death. (A grade of “F” in my first-semester chemistry class at the University of Michigan didn’t help.) Looking back, I gave up on my inexplicable dream in those few weeks and nothing has been the same since. (Not that I’d change my life for any of that now, but there were times in the 1960’s and 1970’s when I sure regretted that pressured choice.)