Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Earth Day

April 22, 2017

Today is Earth Day and what better way to celebrate than to recall the predictions of the first Earth Day back in 1970. Here is a list, courtesy of Freedom Works.

  1. “Civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.”  — Harvard biologist George Wald
  2. “We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation.” — Washington University biologist Barry Commoner
  3. “Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.”New York Times editorial
  4. “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” — Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich
  5. “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born… [By 1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.” — Paul Ehrlich
  6. “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” — Denis Hayes, Chief organizer for Earth Day
  7. “Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions…. By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.” — North Texas State University professor Peter Gunter
  8. “In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution… by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.” — Life magazine
  9. “At the present rate of nitrogen buildup, it’s only a matter of time before light will be filtered out of the atmosphere and none of our land will be usable.” — Ecologist Kenneth Watt
  10. “Air pollution…is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.” — Paul Ehrlich
  11. “By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate… that there won’t be any more crude oil. You’ll drive up to the pump and say, ‘Fill ‘er up, buddy,’ and he’ll say, ‘I am very sorry, there isn’t any.'” — Ecologist Kenneth Watt
  12. “[One] theory assumes that the earth’s cloud cover will continue to thicken as more dust, fumes, and water vapor are belched into the atmosphere by industrial smokestacks and jet planes. Screened from the sun’s heat, the planet will cool, the water vapor will fall and freeze, and a new Ice Age will be born.”Newsweek magazine
  13. “The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.” — Kenneth Watt

For more information about these predictions, read this article from way back in 2000 in Reason.com. 

I grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s and heard these sorts of doomsday predictions all the time. I was young and foolish enough to believe them. I sincerely thought that the world of my future would be an overpopulated, polluted dystopia. As I got older, I happened to notice that none of these gloomy predictions seemed to be coming true. We were not all starving to death or choking on pollution. There was still enough gasoline to fill up our tanks and the price, adjusted for inflation, seemed to be constant. That didn’t stop the doomsday predictions. You might think that the people making these predictions would be relieved that none of them came true. Some them might even admit that they were wrong and try to find out where they erred. No, the predictions kept on coming. Now it is global warming/climate change that is going to destroy the world. Somehow, doomsday keeps getting put off. It is always ten to twenty years in the future.

This is one of the reasons I am skeptical about just about everything the environmentalists claim. I have a working memory and I remember very well the failed predictions that they have made. Since they have been wrong so many times before, why should I start believing them now? At some point you have to consider that they are either mistaken or lying.

Now, you can argue that the stricter pollution control laws enacted since that first Earth Day have prevented the dystopian future that had been predicted. That is undoubtedly true. Advancing technology has also helped. More efficient machines mean less pollution. The Green Revolution has helped to feed billions who would otherwise have starved. But, that also kind of proves my point, at least about predicting the future. People do not just stand by passively as the world falls apart around them. They take action to fix things. This is why future dystopias are never very accurate glimpses of the future. If the world is indeed warming, then people will take action to ameliorate any ill effects caused by changing climates. There is no reason to worry the future and every reason to be optimistic. And remember, we humans do not have the last word on what is going to happen to this world. That is the prerogative of the One who created it.

The Nativity According to Matthew

December 21, 2016
The Adoration of the Magi (circa 1305) by Giot...

The Adoration of the Magi

 

Matthew begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus. I’ll skip the genealogy and go straight to his account of Jesus’s birth.

 

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yetdid not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” (Matthew 1:18-2:20)

 

Most people think that the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem involved the murder of hundreds or thousands of innocents. Remember, though, that Bethlehem was a small village in this time with a likely population of a few hundred. It is doubtful that more than half a dozen children were killed, not enough to make it into any other sources we have for Herod’s rule. Herod was certainly ruthless enough to order such a massacre. He had no trouble killing members of his own family if he thought they threatened his rule. In fact, Herod being an Idumean (or Edomite) and not a Jew, was a foreigner and so was as despised by many Judeans as a Roman governor would have been. If he had heard that there was a potential rival to his throne, even a child, that the Jews might rally around, he would have wasted no time in disposing of that rival.

 

The word Magi usually refers to Zoroastrian priests. In Greco-Roman usage the term Magi had connotations of magicians or sorcerers, exotic figures from distant lands. It is not clear just who the Magi in the Gospel actually were. They may indeed have been Zoroastrians. The references to the Star of Bethlehem suggest that they may have been astrologers. The Babylonians had a reputation for being skilled in astrology and magic so the Magi may have come from Mesopotamia. They may also have been Jewish since they were seeking for a king of the Jews. The fact that they were unfamiliar with the prophets may prove that they were Gentiles. The number of the Magi is not given in the Gospel. The reason that three are usually pictured  is that there were three gifts; gold, frankincense,and myrrh.

 

It is also not clear just what the Star of Bethlehem actually was. There have been several theories presented, but none of them are entirely satisfactory. The star might have been a supernova, perhaps in a nearby galaxy. There is no way to know for certain since any supernova remnant so far away would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to detect. It might also have been a comet. This is rather unlikely. Although a comet would behave much as the star is said to behave, hanging in the sky over a certain location for several nights, comets were universally perceived as being harbingers of disaster in ancient, and not so ancient, times. The most likely explanation is a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. The astronomer Kepler discovered that there was indeed such a conjunction in the year 7 BC. The following year there was another conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This might have been very impressive to the Magi. It may also be that the Star was a supernatural phenomenon and one that cannot be studied today. Whatever the truth of the matter is, I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas.

 

 

 

Piltdown Man

December 19, 2016

The intellectual process of developing theories and hypotheses based on observations and experiments and checking those hypotheses with further experiments and observations that we refer to as science has proven itself to be the best tool human beings have ever developed for understanding and making use of the world around us. This process is not an easy one, however.  Not only is it a lot of work to conduct the necessary experiments and interpret the results, but the process demands a  rigorous honesty that does not come easily to anyone. Most people are less interested in discovering the truth than in being proven right, and there is always a tendency to consider only the evidence that confirms existing ideas and ignore the evidence against them. As Dr. Richard Feynmann put it in his lecture about cargo cult science:

It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.  For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them.  You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it.  If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.  There is also a more subtle problem.  When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

The problem is that this level of integrity is almost contrary to human nature. There is a great temptation to cheat, particularly when the rewards of fame and fortune are present.

One of the most famous instances of scientific cheating is Piltdown Man. Piltdown Man was a hypothetical “missing link” between human and ape discovered by an amatuer paleontologist Charles Dawson at the Piltdown gravel quarry in 1912. Dawson stated that workmen at the quarry had discovered skull fragments which they had given to him. Dawson had been able to reconstruct the skull with these fragments and other pieces that he had found at Piltdown. The resulting skull had a roughly human cranium, although only two thirds the size of a modern human brain, but an ape-like jaw with large canines. Clearly this was the remains of a creature caught midway in the transition between human and ape, the missing link of the chain of evolution.

Charles Dawson

Charles Dawson

At first, there was some skepticism about Dawson’s find. The canines seemed too large for the jaw and the whole thing seemed to be just a little too neat a combination of human and ape. Then, Dawson found another skull about two miles away. It might be possible for a human skull and ape jaw to have somehow been put together once and fossilized . Surely that couldn’t happen twice. Piltdown Man was accepted as a legitimate ancestor to homo sapiens.

 

Piltdown Man

Piltdown Man

 

At the time of Piltdown Man’s discovery, relatively little was known about the details of how humans evolved from their apelike ancestors. Over the years, more early human fossils were discovered and much more was learned about how humans became human. As the missing pieces were fitted together, it became increasingly obvious that Piltdown Man didn’t fit in. Paleontologists began to suspect that Piltdown Man was either an aberration, perhaps a mutation of some sort, of a hoax. In 1953, the question was definitely settled. Piltdown was shown to be a hoax. Piltdown Man was actually a rather crude forgery. The skull was that of a medieval man with a small head. The jaw was from an orangutan and the canines were the teeth of a chimpanzee.

The only remaining question was whether Charles Dawson was the forger or whether he was merely an innocent dupe. Dawson was the obvious suspect, but there were others associated with the discovery of Piltdown Man, who might have been able to perpetrate such a hoax, notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame, and the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Recent research, however, has indicated that Charles Dawson was indeed the forger. He actually had something of a history of perpetrating such hoaxes and was well known for his skill at making unexpected archaeological finds, invariably later discovered to be forgeries.

Why did it take so long to expose Piltdown Man? The forgery was not very sophisticated and the discoverer had a reputation for not being particularly honest. To be fair, a space of forty years between the discovery and the exposure is not an unreasonable amount of time considering how much was discovered about human development in that time. Still, one might have expected more skepticism to be shown, especially considering how important the find seemed to be at the time. It seems as if everyone involved in the research involving Piltdown Man showed a disregard for the sort of scientific integrity that Dr. Feynman was talking about. For years no one seemed to want to consider the increasing evidence that Piltdown Man wasn’t real.

I think that was the problem. Piltdown Man was exactly what most paleontologists were expecting. At the time of his discovery, the general consensus was that human beings developed large brains first, while retaining a more apelike physiology such as a large jaw and lack of bipedalism. Only later, they believed did humans began to walk erect and to develop a flatter, more human face. It was also generally believed that human beings developed somewhere in Eurasia, Perhaps even in Germany, where Neanderthal Man had been discovered not long before, or in England. There was a certain amount of nationalistic pride in being the area where humanity began. It is not that surprising, then, that British paleontologists were the least likely to be skeptical about Piltdown Man.

In any event, these assumptions that Piltdown Man seemed to confirm have proven to be wrong. Primitive humans, such as the Australopithecus (Lucy)  began to walk erect on two feet long before developing larger brains, and the human race arose in Africa, almost the opposite of what was generally believed. I wonder how much these widely held but wrong assumptions held back the science of paleontology.

I also wonder how many other Piltdown Mans there are out there that are holding back the progress of science. I don’t mean hoaxes or forgeries necessarily, though that is a greater problem is science than many realized, but ideas and theories that are held to be settled science but aren’t. I wonder how much that everyone “knows” to be true and so not worth questioning, are not true, and how long it will take before anyone thinks to question it.

Atomic Hard Drive

August 16, 2016

It is easy to become depressed about the state of the world right now. We have what are probably the worst two candidates running for president in this election. The whole world seems to be falling apart and terrorist attacks are starting to become a daily occurrence in Europe and America and our leaders express confusion over their motives; obviously Islam has nothing to do with the Islamic State. The economy seems to be stagnant with the 1% getting ever richer and the rest of us struggling to keep in place.

But this kind of thinking is misleading. We do have problems, yet in so many ways, life in the twenty-first century is better than it has ever been. Our lives are far more comfortable in almost every material sense than those of the people who lived a century ago, thanks to the enormous progress we have made in science and technology. The day-to-day bad news, which tends to depress us, is really a distraction from all the amazing discoveries and inventions that will be changing our lives over the rest of the century.

Here’s a story I read in the Wall Street Journal about one of these discoveries.

By manipulating the interactions between individual atoms, scientists report they have created a device that can pack hundreds of times more information per square inch than the best currently available data-storage technologies.

The working prototype is part of a decades-long attempt to shrink electronics down to the atomic level, a feat scientists believe would allow them to store information much more efficiently, in less space and more cheaply. By comparison, tech companies today build warehouse-sized data centers to store the billions of photos, videos and posts consumers upload to the internet daily. Corporations including International Business Machines Corp. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. also have explored research to reduce such space needs.

The so-called atomic-scale memory, described in a paper published on Monday in the scientific journal Nature Nanotechnology, can hold one kilobyte, the equivalent of roughly a paragraph of text.

It may not sound “very impressive,” said Franz Himpsel, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who wasn’t involved in the study. But “I would call it a breakthrough.”

Most previous attempts at encoding information with atoms, including his own, managed roughly one byte, Dr. Himpsel said. And data could be stored only once. To store new information, the “disk” had to be re-formatted, like CD-Rs popular in the ’90s.

With the new device, “we can rewrite it as often as we like,” said Sander Otte, an experimental physicist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and the lead author on the new paper.

They can actually arrange individual atoms. When I was growing up, no one had ever seen an atom. They were too small to be imaged, even by electron microscopes. Scientists did not invent the scanning tunneling microscope, which allows individual atoms to be “seen” and manipulated until the 1980’s.

Scanning tunnelling microscope

Scanning tunnelling microscope

To build their prototype, the scientists peppered a flat copper bed with about 60,000 chlorine atoms scattered at random, purposely leaving roughly 8,000 empty spaces among them. A mapping algorithm guided the tiny, copper-coated tip of a high-tech microscope to gently pull each chlorine atom to a predetermined location, creating a precise arrangement of atoms and neighboring “holes.”

The team also crafted a language for their device. The stored information is encoded in the patterns of holes between atoms. The atom-tugging needle reads them as ones and zeros, turning them into regular binary code.

The researchers marked up the grid with instructions that cued the software where it should direct the needle to write and read data. For instance, a three-hole diagonal line marked the end of a file.

They still have a lot of work to do before our computers come equipped with an atomic hard drive.

Writing the initial data to the device took about a week, though the rewriting process takes just a few hours, Dr. Otte said.

“It’s automated, so it’s 10 times faster than previous examples,” said Christopher Lutz, a staff scientist at IBM Research-Almaden in San Jose, Calif. Still, “this is very exploratory. It’s important not to see this one-kilobyte memory result as something that can be taken directly to a product.”

Reading the stored data is much too slow to have practical applications soon. Plus, the device is stable for only a few hours at extremely low temperatures. To be competitive with today’s hard drives, the memory would have to persist for years and work in warmer temperatures, said Victor Zhirnov, chief scientist at the Semiconductor Research Corp., a research consortium based in Durham, N.C.

When Dr. Otte’s team took the memory out of the extremely low-temperature environment in which it was built and stored, the information it held was lost. Next, his team will explore other metal surfaces as well as elements similar to, but heavier than, chlorine, to see if that improves the device’s stability.

But, maybe it will happen sooner than we think.

We truly live in a brave new world. If only we stop ourselves from messing everything up.

Basidium

July 8, 2016

My favorite books when I was in the fifth and sixth grades were the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron. These books were published back in the 1950’s and so were a little before my time, but fortunately the school library didn’t have a lot of new books. I must have checked out each of the books hundreds of times.

The Mushroom Planet, Basidium, was Earth’s second moon, a small asteroid orbiting just 50,000 miles away. Although only an asteroid, Basidium is made of a dense substance called Brumblium so it is able to retain an atmosphere and support life. The predominant form of life on Basidium is various forms of mosses and fungi, particularly tree sized mushrooms, hence the name Mushroom Planet. Even the inhabitants of Basidium are mushroom people, though they are humanoid in appearance.

Mushroom People

Mushroom People

Because Basidium is made of Brumblium, it cannot be detected by telescope without a special filter invented by Tyco M. Bass, himself a member of a race of terrestrial Mushroom people called the Mycetians, descendants of Basidiumites who perhaps travelled to Earth in the form of spores. In “the first book, “The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet“, Mr. Bass, with the help of his two young friends David Topman and Chuck Masterson builds a spaceship for the two boys to travel to Basidium and save the natives from a threat to their existence. In later books in the series, Chuck and Dave return to Basidium with a stowaway, meet Tyco Bass’s cousin Theo, and have other adventures.

Tyco Bass

It was a bit silly, I suppose, and the science is woefully out of date, but I really enjoyed reading them and always wished that I could meet Mr. Bass and travel to the Mushroom Planet. For that matter, I still like the books today, though I haven’t actually read them for many years. Too bad there isn’t really a second moon orbiting the Earth, or is there? According to this article in phys.org, maybe there is at least a “quasi-moon”.

A small asteroid has been discovered in an orbit around the sun that keeps it as a constant companion of Earth, and it will remain so for centuries to come.

As it orbits the , this new asteroid, designated 2016 HO3, appears to circle around Earth as well. It is too distant to be considered a true satellite of our planet, but it is the best and most stable example to date of a near-Earth companion, or “quasi-satellite.”

“Since 2016 HO3 loops around our planet, but never ventures very far away as we both go around the sun, we refer to it as a quasi-satellite of Earth,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “One other asteroid—2003 YN107—followed a similar orbital pattern for a while over 10 years ago, but it has since departed our vicinity. This new asteroid is much more locked onto us. Our calculations indicate 2016 HO3 has been a stable quasi-satellite of Earth for almost a century, and it will continue to follow this pattern as Earth’s companion for centuries to come.”

In its yearly trek around the sun, asteroid 2016 HO3 spends about half of the time closer to the sun than Earth and passes ahead of our planet, and about half of the time farther away, causing it to fall behind. Its orbit is also tilted a little, causing it to bob up and then down once each year through Earth’s orbital plane. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a game of leap frog with Earth that will last for hundreds of years.

The asteroid’s orbit also undergoes a slow, back-and-forth twist over multiple decades. “The asteroid’s loops around Earth drift a little ahead or behind from year to year, but when they drift too far forward or backward, Earth’s gravity is just strong enough to reverse the drift and hold onto the asteroid so that it never wanders farther away than about 100 times the distance of the moon,” said Chodas. “The same effect also prevents the asteroid from approaching much closer than about 38 times the distance of the moon. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a little dance with Earth.”

Asteroid 2016 HO3 was first spotted on April 27, 2016, by the Pan-STARRS 1 asteroid survey telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii, operated by the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy and funded by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The size of this object has not yet been firmly established, but it is likely larger than 120 feet (40 meters) and smaller than 300 feet (100 meters).

There is no indications that there are any mushroom people in HO3. Too bad. I guess I won’t be meeting the Great Ta, the king of Basidium and his foolish wise men, Mebe and Oru.

Great Ta and his wise men

Great Ta and his wise men

Growing Crops on Mars

June 27, 2016

We may have already a taken a step towards the colonization of Mars. Any colony on Mars whether a permanent settlement or a long-term scientific research expedition will have to be largely self-sufficient because of the long travel time from Earth. At the very least, humans living on Mars for any great length of time will have to be able to get food and water on Mars, if possible. Obviously, given Mars’s thin atmosphere, it will not be possible to plant fields of crops out in the open, but it may be possible to create domed habitations in which vegetables can be grown. This would be a lot easier if Martian soil could be used or modified since bringing soil from Earth, or hydroponic equipment would likely be prohibitively expensive.

Mars

It is not clear whether terrestrial plants can grow in Martian soil, given the lack of organic matter and different chemical composition. There is some encouraging news from The Netherlands in this article in phys.org.

Dutch scientists said Thursday crops of four vegetables and cereals grown on soil similar to that on Mars have been found safe to eat, amid plans for the first manned mission to the planet.

Abundant harvests of radishes, peas, rye and tomatoes all grown on the soil were found to contain “no dangerous levels” of heavy metals, said the team from Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

“These remarkable results are very promising,” said senior ecologist Wieger Wamelink.

“We can actually eat the radishes, peas, rye and tomatoes, and I am very curious what they will taste like.”

Future Mars settlers will have to take food supplies with them and then plant crops in order to survive.

So using soil developed by NASA to resemble that of the red planet, the university has been experimenting since 2013 and has managed to raise 10 crops.

But uncertainty remains about whether they would absorb the high levels of heavy metals such cadmium, copper and lead, present in Mars soil.

Further tests are now needed on the remaining six crops, including potatoes, in research which is being backed by a crowd-funding campaign.

NASA plans a manned trip to Mars within the next 10 to 15 years or so, and similar projects are also being pursued by US billionaire Elon Musk and the Dutch company Mars One, tentatively aiming to set up human colonies on the Red Planet.

The Mars One project has backed the Wageningen experiments and is currently undertaking a third selection to whittle down the remaining 100 candidates hoping to be among their astronauts to 40.

“It’s important to test as many crops as possible, to make sure that settlers on Mars have access to a broad variety of different food sources,” said Wamelink.

When I read the headline, I thought that they had grown the vegetables and grains in actual Martian soil samples and I was a little disappointed to learn that the soil used was Earth soil made to simulate Martian soil. It does show that it is at least possible to use Martian soil, though I think it would be better to obtain actual Martian soil to be sure. No matter how well designed our probes are, there is always a possibility that we have overlooked something that could be only be discovered by human beings in laboratories on Earth.

If the members of a Martian expedition do grow their own food, they will need to bring along bacteria from Earth to add the necessary organic components to make the soil more Earth-like. Such bacteria could be genetically modified to flourish in Martian conditions. No form of terrestrial life can survive on the surface of Mars, at present, the thin atmosphere cannot shield the surface from deadly ultraviolet radiation, but there is no reason Terran life couldn’t survive underground. Conditions wouldn’t that much worse than in Antarctica. This bacteria, adapted for Mars could be the first step in terraforming Mars for human habitation.

So, when can I leave for Mars?

One of these days, I'd like to look out my window and see this.

One of these days, I’d like to look out my window and see this.

Living in God’s Matrix

June 22, 2016

Physicist Michio Kaku has come to believe that we live in a universe designed by some sort of intelligence, God for lack of a better word, at least according to this article by Mark Ellis in Godreports, which I found via this post by Walter Hudson at PJMedia.

I wish I knew what those equations meant.

I wish I knew what those equations meant.

Theoretical physicist, futurist, and bestselling author Michio Kaku has developed a theory that points to the existence of God using string theory.

String theory assumes that seemingly specific material particles are actually “vibrational states.”

His view about intelligent design has riled the scientific community because Dr. Kaku is considered one of its most respected and prominent voices. He is the co-creator of string field theory, a branch of string theory.

“I have concluded that we are in a world made by rules created by an intelligence,” he stated, according to the Geophilosophical Association of Anthropological and Cultural Studies.

“I have concluded that we are in a world made by rules created by an intelligence,” he stated, according to the Geophilosophical Association of Anthropological and Cultural Studies.

Dr. Kaku has continued Einstein’s search for a “Theory of Everything,” seeking to unify the four fundamental forces of the universe—the strong force, the weak force, gravity and electromagnetism.

The very purpose of physics, says Kaku is “to find an equation … which will allow us to unify all the forces of nature and allow us to read the mind of God.”

Because string theory may provide a unified description of gravity and particle physics, it is considered a candidate for a Theory of Everything.

To reach his conclusions about intelligence behind the universe, Dr. Kaku made use of what he calls “primitive semi-radius tachyons.”

A tachyon is a particle that always moves faster than light. Many physicists believe such particles cannot exist because they are not consistent with the known laws of physics.

As noted by Einstein and others, special relativity implies that faster-than-light particles, if they existed, could be used to communicate backwards in time.

Dr. Kaku used a technology created in 2005 that allowed him to analyze the behavior of matter at the subatomic scale, relying on a primitive tachyon semi-radius.

When he observed the behavior of these tachyons in several experiments, he concluded that humans live in a “matrix,” a world governed by laws and principles conceived by an intelligent architect.

“I have concluded that we are in a world made by rules created by an intelligence, not unlike a favorite computer game, but of course, more complex and unthinkable,” he said.

“By analyzing the behavior of matter at the subatomic scale affected by the semi tachyon pitch radius, what we call chance no longer makes sense, because we are in a universe governed by established rules and not determined by universal chances plane.

Dr. Michio Kaku seems to be moving into the Intelligent Design camp, at least in so far as he believes that the order and established rules that we observe in the universe imply a mind behind the material reality. This is more of a Deist, or Theist, concept of divinity than the traditional Judeo-Christian God. The idea that the reality we know is some kind of simulation by an ultra-advanced computer is another explanation for the apparent order and logic we see in the universe which has gained a sort of vogue lately. Perhaps the two explanations, intelligent design, and computer simulation are the same, since an intelligence that can create a simulation of the entire universe might be a god to the people living in the simulation. For all we know, any player of a game like the Sims is a god to the sims in the game, if the sims had intelligence and free will.

The problem with these sorts of speculations is that they cannot be considered scientific explanations or hypotheses because there is no way to prove or disprove the ideas. We only know the one universe we are living in and have no way, at present, of learning about any other universes. We have no way compare our, possibly designed or simulated, universe with one that has not been designed or is not a computer simulation. This matter belongs properly to metaphysics rather than to physics and while Dr. Kaku’s views on string theory ought to be respected as belonging to an expert in the field, in his views on whether God or an Intelligence Designer or Programmer is ultimately behind the world he studies, he shares with the rest of us a common ignorance. On these matters, we cannot know truths with the same certainty we know about the behavior of atoms. We can only have faith.

 

A Maze of Stars

May 23, 2016

I found A Maze of Stars by John Brunner to be an intriguing and slightly unusual book. The book does not seem to read like a novel with a continuous story from beginning to end, so much as a series of short stories or vignettes. The story takes place in the Arm of Stars, the last section of our galaxy to be colonized by humanity. A vast sentient Ship was built to travel along the Arm of Stars, seeding each habitable planet with the colonists who chose to settle there. After its great mission was complete, the Ship was supposed to stand by and monitor the progress of the colonies and rescue any population that was in danger.

Maze of Stars

Such was the plan. Instead the Ship found itself to be cast back and forth through time, compelled to retrace its journey along the Arm of Stars again and again centuries after the settlement of the Arm, observing but not contacting like an interstellar Flying Dutchman. At the end of each journey, the Ship travels through time again, emerging at the first planet it visited at a seemingly random time. In A Maze of Stars, the Ship finds itself at the earliest of its voyages, only 500 years after it seeded the colonies. The Ship travels from planet to planet with some knowledge of each planet’s future history, though there is much that remains hidden from the Ship. Some of the colonies have been successful, with a few even beginning to build star ships of their own. Many more are surviving with difficulty and more than a few are failures, the colonists destroyed by the hostile conditions of the planet they colonised. The Ship can recognise that some apparent successes will falter and fail, while some failures will recover. Occasionally, the Ship is able to exploit a loophole in its programming and take along a passenger on its travels. By the time the Ship reaches the end of its path, it learns why it was built and why it is sentenced to retrace its path again and again.

There is one issue raised by A Maze of Stars that I have not seen anywhere else in science fiction or nonfictional speculations about colonizing extra-terrestrial worlds. No life form on Earth either as an individual or a species exists in isolation. Every type of plant or animal lives in a complex ecosystem, composed of not just the obvious predators and sources of food, but also on a microscopic level with the bacteria than live around us and within us. Every form of life on Earth is to some extent depended on a vast web of interactions that are not always well understood. What would happen if some organisms are removed from that web and transplanted to a world with its own native lifeforms? Would the newcomers compete with the native life. Would alien organisms be toxic to creatures from Earth? What about the ecosystem of bacteria that each of us carries around with us and helps with our digestion? Could we maintain the proper balance in an alien world? Scientists have also recently learned that it is possible for DNA to be transferred between different species by viruses, and that these transfers have helped the process of evolution along. What if human colonists pick up alien DNA? Will they be able to remain human. The attempts of the various colonists to protect themselves against  and adjust to the alien environments they have found themselves in is an important backdrop to the story of each planet the Ship visits and is a major factor in the success or failure of each colony, and the questions raised about the future of human development make the book worth reading.

 

 

Racism and Intelligence

April 26, 2016

I wish that I could say that I was much surprised  by this article in the Christian Science Monitor titled The Surprising Relationship between Intelligence and Racism, but while the results of the survey mentioned were somewhat interesting, the conclusions drawn by the the author are entirely predictable. Smart people do not seem to be as overtly racist as less intelligent people, because they are better at hiding their racism.

Are smart people less racist than their less-intelligent peers?

That was the question asked in a new study that examined the relationship between verbal intelligence and attitudes on race and racial policies.

The findings may surprise some: While people who score higher on intelligence tests are less likely to hold racist stereotypes (such as imagining that people of another race are lazy or unintelligent), they’re no more likely to support government policies that aim to reduce racial inequality. For example, while 95 percent of study participants who scored higher on the intelligence test said that black and white children should attend the same schools, only 22 percent support school-busing programs.

By highlighting the disconnect between Americans’ attitudes on race and their support for policies that remediate inequality, the study, published in the Oxford University Press, may reveal how deeply entrenched certain forms of racism actually are in society.

For Lori Brown, professor of sociology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., the findings aren’t surprising because race is a complex issue that involves more than intellect.

“Prejudice involves what we believe to be true, affective feelings [like] likes and dislikes,” and instinctive needs, whereby “some people ‘need’ to be prejudiced [because] they feel so bad about themselves it makes them feel better to hate others,” Prof. Brown explains. “So, better educated or ‘smart’ people may know facts but may still not like people who are different.”

For the study, Geoffrey Wodtke, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, examined three decades of data from the General Social Survey, which has periodically measured Americans’ attitudes on a wide range of topics since 1972. The survey includes a short vocabulary test, considered to be a good indicator of verbal intelligence. Prof. Wodtke isolated the results of some 45,000 Caucasians and compared their verbal intelligence with their attitudes on race.

He found that the group that scored higher on the test were less likely to hold racist beliefs than their lower-performing counterparts. For example, among those who did well on the verbal test, 29 percent said blacks were lazy and 13 percent said they were unintelligent. By contrast, among those who performed poorly on the intelligence test, 46 percent described blacks as lazy and 23 described them as unintelligent.

 

The conclusion that Wodtke draws is that both the high and low scorers on the tests may have racist attitudes, but the high scorers “are simply more sophisticated racists.”

Why are whites judged to be more intelligent than their peers – who research has shown, are more likely to support liberal politics and policies – no more likely to support policies designed to improve racial equality?

Racism is defined as:

1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usu. involving the idea that one’s own race is superior.
2. a policy, system of government, etc., based on such a doctrine.
3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.
In other words, racism is the belief that race matters most in human affairs and that what you are, in terms of race, is more important that who you are as an individual. A person who believes that Blacks are inherently inferior in intelligence than Whites is a racist. A person who believes that Blacks should be held in an inferior place in society is a racist. However, a person who is opposed to “policies designed to improve racial equality” is not a racist just because they oppose such policies. One may agree with the idea that racism is a bad thing, but believe that policies designed to improve racial equality are not an effective means of reducing racism, and by promoting division and race consciousness, may actually make the problem worse. In any case, if the goal is to create a color blind society in which race doesn’t matter, making race matter more is a strange way to go about it
You see the rhetorical trick that is being played here. The writers are defining racism not only as an overt belief that a certain race is superior to another, but also as opposition to policies that they suppose fight racism. In this way, they do not have to defend the policies they seem to favor, but can simply label any opposition as based on racism.
The article concludes:

The findings reveal how entrenched some forms of racism and white privilege are in society, says Wodtke.

“More intelligent members of the dominant group are just better at legitimizing and protecting their privileged position than less intelligent members. In modern America, where blacks are mobilized to challenge racial inequality, this means that intelligent whites say – and may in fact truly believe – all the right things about racial equality in principle, but they just don’t actually do anything that would eliminate the privileges to which they have become accustomed,” he said in a statement.

“In many cases, they have become so accustomed to these privileges that they become ‘invisible,’ and any effort to point these privileges out or to eliminate them strikes intelligent whites as a grave injustice.”

People on the left are emotionally invested int he idea that America is an irredeemably racist country, as if they are caught in some time warp in which George Wallace is forever standing on the courthouse steps shouting, “Segregation forever!!!”. We have made considerable progress in race relations since those days. Racism of the old kind is all but extinct in our public discourse. Certainly there are prejudiced people still around, and many Blacks do not have all the opportunities they should, but the fact that we have to search for invisible White privilege says something about the vast changes in society over the last few decades. In the good old days, the privileges that Whites held over Blacks was obvious to everyone, and few believe that it should be otherwise. Liberals are always talking about having a great discussion on race, by which they mean they get to hector the rest of us and call us racists, but I think that the best thing we could do for race relations would be to stop talking about race and just try to be good to one another.  At least we should stop wasting time and money on worthless studies like this one.

Beware the Ides of March

March 15, 2016

That is what a soothsayer says to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play. Caesar had reason to be wary of that particular date since that was the day the conspirators planned to assassinate him. Caesar ignored the warning, either out of fatalism or foolhardiness, and his assassination began the course of events that led to the rise of his grand-nephew Augustus and the end of the Roman Republic.

But what are the ides anyway? The Roman calendar was somewhat complicated and was reformed several times in the history of the Republic, until Julius Caesar straighten things out with his Julian calendar. Originally, the Roman calendar seems to have been a lunar calendar with the months corresponding to the lunar cycle. Thus each month began with the New Moon. The Romans did not count days from the beginning of the month, as we do, but instead counted before and after certain key days perhaps corresponding with the phases of the moon. The first day of the month corresponding with the new moon was called the Kalends, from which our word calendar is derived. The ides of the month was the day in the middle of the month, corresponding to the full moon. The ides was either on the thirteenth or fifteenth day depending on whether the month was a long or short one. The nones was eight days before the ides and corresponds to the half moon or first quarter. I would think that they would also make the third quarter of the moon one of the special days but it doesn’t seem to have been.

The day before the kalends, nones, or ides was referred to as the pridie, or the day before in Latin. So, yesterday, March 14, was pridie ides March. Other dates were simply counted back from the nearest reference day. So March 12 would be the the fourth day, ( the reference days were counted) before the ides of March, or a.d. (ante diem) IV id March. March 2 was six days before the nones or a. d VI non. March 25 would be 8 days before the kalends of April, or a. d. VIII kal. This seems to be a rather cumbersome system, having to remember how many days between the kalends and ides, etc, but I suppose the Romans were used to it, and maybe it wasn’t much worse than having to remember which months have thirty or thirty-one days. I’m glad we don’t do that though.

In any case, today is the Ides of March, so if you happen to be Julius Caesar, watch out.


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