Archive for January, 2009

Life in solar system

January 29, 2009

Wired has recently compiled a list of possible places to look for life elsewhere in our solar system. Useful for thinking about the next space missions to be planned. The list includes Enceladus (6th largest moon of Saturn), Europa (a moon of Jupiter and the 6th largest moon in the solar system), Mars (a strong contender with its methane bursts), Titan (largest moon of Saturn), and Io (a Jovian moon that has an atmosphere). I’m not sure I would have included Io in this list as it is such a long shot, but if one wanted to pick at least 5, sure, why not?

Interestingly, the radiation from Jupiter’s magnetosphere that makes prospects for Io seem so bleak may be good news for Europa. As charged particles and ions traverse the ice on Europa, evidence shows that some interesting chemistry may occur. Chemistry that may have interesting implications on getting life started.

Europa has long been a favorite target destination of mine. Most unfortunately, JIMO, JPL’s Icy Moons Project was cancelled, last I heard. A bitter disappointment. As the new administration starts to shape direction for further U.S. involvement in space, there are 3 projects that should be on the table. Solar powered satellites (a prototype at least), a trip to Mars to establish whether or not there is life, and the resurrection of the Icy Moons Project (or something bigger) to further explore Europa.

A strawman’s call to action!

January 28, 2009

Another little article came across from the feeds from the McCook Daily Gazette which was truly amazing. The writer, Sam Elridge constructed a strawman which constructed a strawman. First, he suggested that colleges will soon, if not already have courses in atheism. That would be a rather short class. First 5 minutes; “No evidence for any gods. Class dismissed.”. Now I could see a class in humanism as being somewhat more substantial. In any case, the name for his chosen strawman is Prof. Churchkiller, an atheist professor seeking to explain why Christians aren’t really a danger since they don’t really believe what they claim. The whole piece is really meant to be a rallying article to get Christians to rise up, and, well, I don’t know, usher in a theocracy? As evidence of this lack of Christian belief, he has Prof. Strawman Churchkiller state:

Want proof? Consider what I just told you about God. If Christians really believed in a God of this Power and Consequence, a God capable of being individually involved, intimately, with the six billion persons of Earth, I’d think they’d act differently. For example, God proclaims that children are God’s gifts to mankind. Would Christians who really believed in this MIGHTY of a God, stand by an let Abortionists kill fifty million of these “gifts”?

Must be why in the Old Testament, this God causes and orders the deaths of countless numbers of his “gifts”. But that aside, has Mr. Elridge been paying attention at all to modern politics? Abortion is a litmus test issue for many fundamentalist Christians. What is he really advocating, civil war over this? The secular response is that at early stages of pregnancy, the embryo has no nervous system. Thus, there is no suffering involved to the embryo. This is the starting point for a basis of a calm rational discussion concerning abortion that requires no supernatural claims for justification. As a society consisting of multiple belief (or non) systems, governed by a secular government, that is the correct approach. If one is a Christian believing that abortion is wrong in a number of cases, don’t have an abortion in those cases.

He also writes this:

We Atheists saw to it that their God was tossed out of our schools on His ear, and did the Christians rise up? I have already talked about abortion and how defeated the Christians are in that area. We have almost got the work place declared off limits to Christians, remember, “keep it in the church.” Certainly talk of God is not allowed anywhere in colleges, and I don’t know of a single pornography fight that Christians have won lately.

Well, yes, many Christians did complain bitterly about taking prayer out of schools. We still have “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance. Further, if talk of God is not allowed in the colleges, how does Elridge have Prof. Strawman Churchkiller talking about God? Teachers and administrators can not be seen as officially endorsing any religion, Christian, Hindu, Wiccan, Islam, or whatever. One can, of course, have (and I have even taken) comparative religion classes in college. Students can talk about their own particular religion all they want. There are Bible clubs in school. At my own place of work, for a while several of the Christians were meeting for Bible study during lunch, so no, the work place is nowhere near being off limits to Christians, nor is anyone advocating this. I am not sure what pornography fights he may be thinking of, but I can’t help but remember the incredibly disproportionate response to the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction”.

Shortly after we have:

Many Christians today are consumed, as most of us, with the cares of life. They don’t want to take the time to learn about their Faith, or to act on their Faith. It was their own Jesus who said: “you must be willing to give up all, for My sake and the Gospel.” Who is willing to give up all nowadays? I may support my atheist ideals wholeheartedly, but, am I willing to take a bullet in the head for Atheism right now at this moment? A Christian, a Christian who believes, would take that bullet, for their God.

Am I willing to “take a bullet” for atheism? For the idea that there is no God? That would seem counterproductive. However, I am willing to fight for, and take a bullet if necessary, for the cause of liberty, freedom of speech and of, or from, religion.

So, it seems to me that either 1) Elridge has not been paying attention to how vociferous Christians are in the country, or 2) he is trying to advocate for stronger measures.

Some of the comments to this story were pretty good. But I was particularly amused by someone called G5. Getting off track a bit (and we’ll follow him for fun), he writes:

When I was a child science books had Gravity described as forces generated by the rotation of the earth. Of course that was nonsense, because the rotation of the earth works against gravity forces.

More recently, during the 19th century, it was discovered that electrons were negatively charged particles. That meant that electrons flowed from negative to positive. (Positive particles, Protons, are 1840 times larger than electrons.) Prior to that, all the books and schematic diagrams had electricity flowing from positive to negative.

I’m not sure what books G5 was reading as a child, but if what he said was correct, the books were blatantly wrong, and would have been known to be wrong even at the time he read them. Gravity has never been described by scientists as being generated by the rotation of the earth. It was described by Newton as a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance between 2 objects and proportional to the product of the masses, but never dependent on the rotation of a body. A body will have a gravitational force associated with it whether or not it is rotating. Of course, now we know that it is caused by a (in simple terms) bending of space time, via general relativity.

Second, he is correct about the current and charge flow bit. Except the convention is still to show current as flowing from positive to negative, making some fun confusion for beginning students. Of course, sometimes there is positive charge flow. In the world of semiconductors, when an electron moves from one vacant atomic orbit to another, it looks like a positively charged hole moving in the opposite direction. One can use the Hall effect to determine what sign the charge carrier is in a given material. The Hall effect takes advantage of the fact that the force on a moving charged particle in a magnetic field is proportional to the charge of the particle, its velocity, and the strength of the magnetic field. The direction of the force is perpendicular to the velocity of the particle and the magnetic field. So, the direction the particle is going to take will depend on the sign of the charge of the particle and you can use this to find out what the sign is. Now if you take one type of material (say a positive charge carrier .. a current of holes, usually called a p type) and sandwich it between the other type (n type of negatively charged carriers), you’ve made a transistor. Cool stuff.

The same old design arguments

January 26, 2009

Flitting across my feeds, over at what appears to be yet another conservative web site, I was treated to the ill founded ramblings of a certain Phil Harris. He says that he does have a strong interest in science, and for this I commend him. I wish him success in his explorations of scientific understanding. Unfortunately, he seems to have not yet mastered some basic critical thinking. I also recommend he actually learn some biology. His arguments are those which have been endlessly refuted in too many sources to be enumerated here. That people keeping making the same arguments, the basic refutations of which are too easily found with even the most casual investigation, shows an unwillingness to step outside their bubble to examine the evidence and counter arguments.

He writes:

Who am I, and why am I here?

It is a question that Richard Dawkins and other rejectionists can never answer through the scientific method; although, they claim all mysteries of the Universe would surely be unraveled given enough time and study. In a rather perverse twist, it is those who believe that life continues that are assured to know all there is to know, while those who reject life beyond death will simply evaporate, along with the composite chemicals that give the illusion of self, knowledge, and consciousness.

Who he is an incredibly complex carbon based sentient lifeform descended from primate ancestors we share in common with modern day primates. This lineage goes back several billion years to before multicellular organisms arose. Furthermore, I would imagine he fulfills several other societal roles. This is an incredibly rich legacy. I fail to see how invoking any supernatural entity adds any depth. Why is he here? I am not sure why the question is even valid. Purpose is what you make of it. We have the power to create our own purpose. Adding a god to the mix does nothing.

Further, I’m not sure that Dawkins and others would claim that everything that can be learned will be given enough time and study. We keep learning more, to be sure, and fitting more pieces to the puzzle. It is not clear to me when anybody will ever be able to claim that the puzzle is complete. We must also remember that scientific theories are “true” on a provisional basis. Experiments must always be performed to test theory and you never know when some unexpected result may force modifications to a theory, or even overthrow it. Further, his notion that those who reject an afterlife will simply evaporate away is somewhat strange in context. In the highly unlikely case of an afterlife in any objective sense, I fail to see why those of us who see no evidence for one now would simply not be able to take part in it. Even most fundamentalists think we atheists will spend eternity enjoying the pleasure of each others company in hell. Or something like that.

Well, he goes on. For example:

It is amazing to realize that such an incredible chemical accident occurred on a planet that hangs in an orbit so precisely tuned distance-wise to the Sun. How fortunate that this same planet includes physical systems of weather and climate that insure fresh water cycles in such a way to support life of all types.

What would be more incredible is if our planet was more too far away from the sun for our kind of life to exist, and yet, here were are. It would simply be amazing if we were living on the sun without any alterations to our physical composition. I don’t see why it is so hard to understand that the reason the planet seems so finely tuned for our kind of life, is because these are the conditions for which our kind of life evolved. If there were different conditions, it would possibly be a different kind of life. We still, so far, have only a sample size of one in comparing planet biosphere evolution pathways. We haven’t even ruled out life on other bodies in our own solar system yet.

Finally:

This clump of self-aware chemical compounds will continue to believe that there is more to the story of life and the Universe, than an unbridled, unstoppable run of chemical reactions. In fact, until Richard Dawkins can demonstrate the acquired ability to mix up a batch of molecules and produce a single blade of grass that is eager to join the evolutionary process, then I will take by faith that God does exist.

Nobody thinks one can mix a bunch of chemicals and have grass pop out. That sounds suspiciously like how a creationist would think. Grass itself is the result of painstaking years of evolution in the plant world (not that the division between plants and animals is always so clear, so I understand). He is talking about the earliest chemical evolution which was the precursor of life on this planet. In fact, this is an active area of research (a 1999 sample of the sorts of this type of research can be found here, more here (concerning how life may have started between layers of mica), and more discussion at the inevitable wiki. One of the factors that makes this a hard problem is that we don’t really know for certain all the precise variables that were in play when it happened. We can make some good educated guesses and probably get reasonably close. We may even succeed reproducing a scenario with an entirely different set of variables than the ones that actually started things off here.

His main argument is that life is very complex and we don’t understand how it came about, so there must be a god to give us all meaning. This is incredibly faulty reasoning. Again, not understanding how life came to be, and especially not understanding evolution, does in no way constitute positive evidence for a god. It is only evidence that it is a hard problem to solve in the one case, and evidence of not even trying to understand basic biology in the other.

Spaceflight and evolution

January 25, 2009

There was an interesting article at Space.com concerning whether or not our expanding into space should be a series of incremental steps or be done in sweeping bold moves. This is analogous (and overlaps) the debate on whether or not space exploration should be done by machines or humans. I am of the opinion that this should not be an “either or” question. Let’s do both. Keep an ongoing background of steady incremental moves occasionally punctuated by something big. Globally, we have the resources. For the U.S., all the money going into Iraq, part of our bloated defense budget, and all the waste are resources we can use. Robotics and AI development will increase how much and how quickly we can obtain information about extraterrestrial locales using only machines and continued human exploration will continue to inspire (an excellent feedback loop) and present new challenges from which we can learn. Each can provide feedback to the other.

One question for many would be, why bother expanding our presence off the Earth? Yes, there are resources in space (asteroid mining, etc.), but the costs of getting there do, for the present, outweigh those benefits. As Arthur C. Clark, and lately Stephen Hawking Earth is only one fragile basket in which we are keeping all our eggs at present. If we (or our evolved descendants) are to survive long term, we need to get out of this gravity well. According to Hawking from the previously linked article:

“Robotic missions are much cheaper and may provide more scientific information, but they don’t catch the public imagination in the same way, and they don’t spread the human race into space, which I’m arguing should be our long-term strategy,” Hawking said. “If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

We Homo Sapiens have evolved to be short term thinkers. Where do we get the next meal? Where do we sleep without getting eaten? Going beyond possible evolutionary pressures: When do I plant the wheat? What policies will get results that will get me reelected in 4 years? It is time to collectively move to the next level. Otherwise, the long term will be here and our descendants will not have the background and infrastructure in place to do what needs to be done to survive.

Now what I thought the originally linked article was going to discuss was possible directions of human evolution if we were to become a space faring species. The title of the article, “Human Spaceflight Should Drive Evolution” seems to have been derived from a quote by Dr. Kai Multhaup, a physicist working at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster in Germany.

“Human spaceflight is not just about science,” says Multhaup. “I see it as a driver for evolution. We are an exploratory species, and when we have the technology to go somewhere, we do. It’s about culture and the human desire to evolve and expand, and to protect ourselves against catastrophes which can erase life on planets and end civilizations.”

In principle, I agree with him, but one must also remember that the human exploration which did occur in the past was driven by economic gains. Space must provide economic gains to provide the impetus. One way for this to occur and to help with our energy needs on Earth is the use of solar powered satellites, an idea I think the Obama administration should be pursuing with more vigor. One of the pieces which could help to make this viable would be permanent maintenance space stations. This would be a bold move establishing a more lasting foothold in space and helping immensely with our energy needs here on Earth. It would simultaneously be an incremental step as we start climbing out of this gravity well.

How does this tie in with evolution? I imagine that a large permanent facility would largely mimic Earth conditions so that a space environment would probably have little effect on the reproductive success of humans in terms of adaptive traits, neglecting radiation effects for the moment (a well built station will try to minimize radiation exposure). But what if the conditions were slightly different (more weighlessness, etc.)? Going back to thinking long term, there could be an interesting experiment to try, using mammals to try to approximate us as closely as possible. Keep in mind that I’m not a biologist, so I’m just thinking out loud here. Have rat colony (in careful isolation, of course) on the space station. Keep it supplied with food or whatever it needs to survive and keep the colony alive without interfering with breeding patterns for 100-200 years. Rats can have grandkids in a matter of months, so 100 years would be time for about 3600 generations (assuming 3 generations in 1 month for simplicity. As a physicist, not a biologist, I’ll also assume the rats are spherical.). I’m assuming this might be enough to detect some evolutionary changes. As we have seen evolution in lizards in about 30-40 years, it should probably work. Keep a parallel experiment running on Earth for control, using the exact foods, etc. Observe how they are starting to diverge. This may provide some clues as to what directions we humans may take, should we ever become the space faring species I think we must.

Of course, this assumes that we will be able to have such a long lasting station and that we would be able to keep an experiment running on this time scale. If we can achieve enough economic success and prosperity to think in terms of such long range goals, I think we’ll be well on our way.

Obama and the unbelievers

January 23, 2009

There’s been a bit of buzz concerning Obama’s referral to the “unbelievers” in his inaugural speech. Accusations include that this comes across as a negative term, that something like “free thinker” should have been used instead, and so on. So, at the risk of get buried in semantics, I figured it might be worthwhile to ponder this for a bit.

First, by itself, the term “unbeliever” means nothing. Most of us don’t believe in something. Christians don’t believe in Lakshmi or Ganesha. Muslims don’t believe that Jesus is the son of God. Nobody believes in Russell’s teapot (at least nobody’s admitting it yet). But Obama, in speaking to a predominately Christian audience, refers to a number of theistic beliefs and then includes nonbelievers. It is clear from the context that he means atheists or agnostics.

Is non or un-believer a negative term? It is in the sense that it is a negation of a belief in something. Beyond that is cultural context. Here in the U.S., unbeliever would probably carry the same weight of negativity that atheist does (Not that I think this is a good thing. I don’t.). Many of us atheists see atheism in a positive light and may see the term as implying a certain sense of rationality and humanism, in a way that simply not believing in something does not. For most Americans not actively involved in these religious/atheist debates, this implication may not exist (But it is an association that we would like to make mainstream, I’m sure.). That is beyond the definition of atheism, to be sure, but we all have word connotations derived from our experience. Even knowing that there are irrational atheists.

So saying someone is an unbeliever doesn’t really say what the person is for. Free thinker? Humanist? I would say that in some sense Obama is also a humanist and free thinker. He is also a believer, of the Christian variety. Would atheist have been better? My first inclination is yes, due to my own positive connotations of the word (not shared by most of my fellow citizens). But, then should he have distinguished atheists from agnostics, perhaps even giving a nod to Deists?

In the end, the speech was not about distinguishing between religious types or various flavors of “nonbeliever”, but a call for inclusiveness. To specifically include people who do not share in the various theistic beliefs that he or the majority of Americans share is a welcome relief. That governing should not be based on religious principles but on ideas that can be rationally reached and mutually agreed upon by reasonable people. I think we can probably all agree on that ideal.

Isaiah, Zebulun, and a great light

January 22, 2009

Here we go kids, another Jesus prophecy. It is kind of like shooting dead fish in a barrel, but since some actually think these prophecies actually work, we’ll plunge ahead. Matthew seems to be pretty prophecy referral dense, so it doesn’t take long to come to the next one in Matthew 4:15. The context is Jesus just tempted by the devil and John the Baptist got arrested. So, the story has Jesus leaving Nazareth and dwelling in Capernaum by the sea. Starting with Matthew 3:13:

…and leaving Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphatali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“The land of Zebulun and the land
of Naptali
toward the sea, across the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles -
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region
and shadow of death
light has dawned.”

Sounds good, dawning of light taking away the shadow of death and all. Very poetic. What does Isaiah say? Just for fun, let’s include more context, eh? Starting with Isaiah 9:1:

But there will be no gloom for her that was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naptali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep
darkness
on them has light shined.
Thou hast multiplied the nation,
thou hast increased its joy;
they rejoice before thee
as with joy at the harvest,
as men rejoice when they divide
the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
thou has broken as on the day
of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government will be upon his shoulder,
and his name will be called
“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of
Peace.”
Of the increase of his government
and of peace there will be no end,
upon the throne of David and over
his kingdom
to establish it, and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and for ever more.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

So what else is going on here, besides giving Handel some verses for the Messiah? In the previous verse, he was giving Ahaz the Immanuel sign about which I wrote previously. Now Immanuel is born and he’s talking about Assyria taking over Samaria and Damascus and God is going to hide his face from Jacob (symbolic for Israel) and there will gloom and anguish. But the land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be fine this time. Boots and clothing from the soldiers wil be used as fuel. That’s essentially it. As for the “unto us a son is given” aspect, this seems to almost work if you want to see it that way. It may seem a mystery that Matthew doesn’t grab this one, unless of course there was a well established tradition for a different interpretation. In fact Jewish tradition holds that it was King Hezekiah to which the “child is born” aspect refers (see here), not any future Messiah hundreds of years hence. Some discussion on this may be found here and here as well. This shows how translation problems (and comma insertions) along with a change in tense shows that this prophecy was used incorrectly by Christians.

There are some Christian objections to this claim, and claim that the Jewish scholars are misinterpreting their own scripture. At the very least, this shows the “prophecy” is ambiguous at best. Within it are no further clues to corroborate anything about the life of Jesus. Further, read in context, it certainly looks like the whole thing is framed with the context of an actual physical war, which a certain king is going to help win. It doesn’t sound anything like what is claimed for Jesus’ ministry.

So if you already are convinced that this is a prophecy of Jesus, chances are these arguments will not persuade you. But neither are they at all persuasive to someone you are trying convince. As all the other prophecies so far have been easily demolished, if you’re left with only this one, you are on pretty shaky ground.

More in this series.

Science experiments for creationists

January 21, 2009

Over at Pharyngula, it was noted that there was to be a Creationist Science Fair. In the comments, I offered one suggestion that students could do for an experiment, which I’ll touch on here in a bit. But one experiment does not a science fair make. Since, in their web site, they claim to, unlike other educators, “teach the scientific method”, I thought it might be nice to offer a list of experiments to help them out. I have not heard of any creation scientists doing any experiments after all, so this may be a way to prod them a bit. One of the first experiments we here about, of course is in Genesis 30 (the one I commented on). From the Skeptics Annotated Bible we read:

30:35 And he removed that day the he goats that were ringstraked and spotted, and all the she goats that were speckled and spotted, and every one that had some white in it, and all the brown among the sheep, and gave them into the hand of his sons.
30:36 And he set three days’ journey betwixt himself and Jacob: and Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flocks.
30:37 And Jacob took him rods of green poplar, and of the hazel and chesnut tree; and pilled white strakes in them, and made the white appear which was in the rods. (30:37-39)
30:38 And he set the rods which he had pilled before the flocks in the gutters in the watering troughs when the flocks came to drink, that they should conceive when they came to drink.
30:39 And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle ringstraked, speckled, and spotted.

This is just begging for the experiment to be done. After all, one aspect of the scientific method (which they claim to be the only ones teaching) is reproducibility. As I noted in the comments earlier, the Bible does not give us the distribution or standard deviations of speckled or spotted cattle, so there is a chance to add to data to help our understanding of how viewing striped poles while conceiving effects heritable traits. Is this how zebras are made? I wonder if you could make striped people?

Now, the leg count experiment. From Leviticus:

Yet these may ye eat of every flying creeping thing that goeth upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth;
11:22 Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.
11:23 But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you.

So, collect insects, at least 100 or so, but 1000 would be a better test. They should be different types of insects, of course and scientifically classified as such. They could include such animals as flies, butterflies, moths, bees, a praying mantis, etc. Count the legs on each. Compute standard deviations and graph the results. Compare with the biblical claim of 4 legs to verify it.

This next experiment I call The Koala Bear March, is a little less doable, and I’m not so sure it would work, let alone that it would be instructional for students. But, if successful, it could remove one of the many many problems with the whole global flood. This is to reproduce and verify immigration patterns in the immediate post global Deluge period. Take one female and one male koala bear. Start them off near the top of Mt. Ararat and observe how they make their way from a mountain in Turkey to Australia. Since all vegetation had been killed in the flood and there are now no indigenous populations of eucalyptus trees between Turkey and Australia, it is likely that was no food for the koalas during this immigration. Of course, this would be an expensive undertaking, but I’m sure that funding could be found and the results put into a documentary form for the science fair project. There could even be a publication in there.

So, that is all I can think of at the moment (perhaps something to verify a hare chewing the cud?). It certainly isn’t easy to find experiments based on Bible stories as much of them were one shot deals. Feel free to come up with a few. But I did find another site with 4 suggested creationist experiments. Let’s have a quick look.

For the first experiment, the student blows air over a feather to see an uplift. This is to demonstrate how birds can fly. What is their conclusion?

You now have a working model of how a feather aids flight. When the air moves over the feather, in the normal position, it will lift upward.

The instructions to form a bird’s feather are found in their DNA. This information is different from genetic information which forms fingernails on people or scales on snakes. Feathers are extremely complex. For a great Science project research and discuss the extreme complexity of the feather’s structure, various types of fliers (birds, insects, mammals, reptiles); the DNA Code Barrier; and the mathematical impossibility of these different kinds of flying motions “evolving” by random chance.

Talk about intelligent design!!

Wow. So from the fact that feathers help a bird to fly, we conclude that there is a mathematical impossibility that it could have evolved by random chance. Wonderful. How one gets from feather aerodynamics to calculating mathematical probabilities in evolution (pure random chance is, of course, not the claim made in evolutionary theory) is not quite clearly spelled out, but I’m sure they did their homework on it. I wonder if they’ll mention that velociraptors had feathers?

Next, we dissolve an egg shell so that we have a “live model”, if you will, of a cell. O.K. I’m not sure what actual knowledge or aspect of the application of the scientific method this demonstrates, but sure. Since they are the only ones teaching the scientific method, I’m sure they got that thought out.

The third experiment is to create fossils, just how they were made in the flood. Wrong conclusions as well, but I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to explore.

The last experiment is pretty good, but could have been better. They freeze water and have it bust through a container to show volume expansion. It could have been better. Hypothesize that ice is less dense to explain the fact that it floats in water. Less dense means more volume for the same mass, by definition of density. So, design an experiment to test this. Design the experiment to actually measure by how much the water expands. Of course, then they ruin it. Instead of having kids wonder, research and explore how water got those properties (perhaps by suggesting further experiments. I guess it sort of depends on the grade level here I guess. But one could dig into the molecular structure at an advanced level), they invoke design. See, water expands when it freezes and that is necessary for life. Of course, that’s why it was designed that way by a designer. Clear as water. Well, mud anyway.

Now, of course, we can point and laugh at the creationist antics and silliness. But this is the type of standards we will eventually sink to if intelligent design/creationism is wedged into schools via so-called “academic freedom” bills, which incidentally seem to always single out evolution as one of the “controversial” subjects. The real victims here are the children. I’m sure there will be some who pull themselves up out of the mire of dogmatic and muddled thinking. But the potential of many more bright minds stands to be squandered, their potential opportunities to contribute to scientific progress gone.

Gone with the wind like that impossible feather.

Inauguration day

January 20, 2009

With a sigh of relief, we bid adieu to the Bush administration. I just saw in the office here the inauguration of our new President, Barack Obama. So, it seemed to me appropriate to jot down a few thoughts here concerning the inauguration and some hopes, wishes, and expectations for the next 4 years.

First, the inauguration was somewhat tainted by the magical incantations of Rick Warren. I don’t think we should be in the habit of invoking magic in trying to run a government, especially when not everybody in the country accepts the same type of incantations. But then, we expected that to happen. There was also the “So help me God” bit at the end of the oath which is still kind of annoying. Again expected. There was at least acknowledgment in Obama’s speech that not all in our country are Christians and that there are even unbelievers. There was even a nod towards putting science in higher regard. Nice. I agree with him that the question is not one of big or small government, but the more pragmatic question of what works.

In spite of the high hopes that seem to be sweeping our country, I think it prudent to keep expectations low. After all, we do have huge problems with the economy and two ongoing wars at present. Of course, when Bush was elected President 8 years ago, my thoughts were, “The country is strong. How much damage can one guy do?”. Was I ever mistaken! I hope that perhaps I am underestimating again the changes one guy can make. Although this time, changes for the better.

Hopes? I do have hopes, but tempered with the realism that probably not everything I hope for can happen all at once, or maybe not to the extant I would like. I hope we will see religious influence diminish in the political sphere. Realistically, I know this will not happen overnight, but Obama has indicated an understanding that common agreement must be sought. Not dictations from dogmatic religious fundamentalists. My hope and expectation is for incremental improvements in the economy over the next 3 years. I realize that not all of this can be placed on Barack’s shoulders, just as not all of the problems we face now can be placed at the feet of Bush. But I hope prudent policies pursued by the new President will provide some guide towards improvement. I hope to see the Presidential office used as a bully pulpit in the pursuit of cleaner and alternative energy sources, in addition to policy changes to effect the types of changes to go in the right direction. Policies should be pursued to pragmatically help our environment. I expect our world standing will improve in some measure.

It would be good to see a type of variable gas tax, about which I discussed earlier, to give more federal support to mass transit and infrastructure, which can also lead to more job creation. Finally bring a close to the Iraq war within the next 1-2 years and bring our troops home. Close Guantanamano and allow legal due process to those that have been held there. Reverse the unconstitutional whittling away of civil liberties that have been pursued by Bush. Give a high priority to education to ensure that the future will have knowledgeable American populace with the critical thinking skills necessary to continue our system of self governance and technological and economic competitiveness on a global scale. Let decisions be based on evidence informed by robust scientific thinking, not ideological pursuits.

If you have any expectations for the next 4 years, feel free to discuss.

The blue legacy

January 19, 2009
Coral reef gleaned from google.

Coral reef gleaned from Google.

Well, we’ve come down to the last day of Bush’s Reign of Incompetence. I don’t know about you, but I’ll have a small little party at the house to celebrate. Eight years of misdirection, secrecy, lies, and extremely bad choices. But there was one glimmer of hope. At least one pearl amidst the muck. The Decider’s decision to set aside 3 large national monuments in the Pacific ocean. I’ve blogged about this upcoming decision before. It is great news that this has been signed into law.

There are quite a few environmentalists who state that this does not make for the the years of neglect and outright havoc wreaked by this administration on the environment. Very true. But it is, at least, something positive on which we can build. Something perhaps that Obama can use. In fact, not too long ago, a plea went out asking Obama to stop eating fish. He really could use the Presidency as a bully pulpit to call attention to the plight of our oceans and to effect changes to reverse the course of destruction of the oceanic environment.

I know you’re wondering what you can do to leverage these beginning steps towards preserving a blue legacy and to have healthy oceans. One of the simplest things of course is to minimize use of plastic and to recycle otherwise. The oceans are full of the stuff, also discussed here. The other is to minimize the amount of fish you eat and to use the Marine Steward Ship as a resource into deciding what fish to eat that are coming from sustainable fisheries. Be sure to check for the MSC blue label when buying fish.

Fish are a healthy source of protein (when not laced with all the pollutants we’ve dumped in the oceans, of course), but if we’ve killed them all off, that’s not going to be very helpful. I hope we’ll see some more leadership from Obama in this area. I realize that he’s got a lot on his plate and am realistic about just how much he can accomplish, but the power of the bully pulpit to influence public thinking is something he could do right now.

Einstein on the history channel

January 18, 2009

Tonight at 10:00 P.M. Pacific Time (at least in my frame of reference), the the History Channel will feature the story of Albert Einstein. It was already shown on Nov. 17th, but I didn’t have time to watch it then. If, like me, you missed it, be sure to catch it this time around as will I.

You may recall that in 1905, Einstein had somewhat productive year as per published papers. Five of them in fact. They ranged from introducing the concept of special relativity, to explaining the photoelectric effect and Brownian motion. Of course, special relativity fundamentally changed how we view space and time and how one must take care of how such things are measured. In spite of changing how we view reality at a fundamental level with relativity, he received the Nobel Prize for explaining the photoelectric effect. This merely had the effect of laying some of the foundations for all quantum mechanics.

Of course, the special theory of relativity worked for inertial frames. Frames of reference that moved at a constant velocity relative to each other. Think of a car moving at a constant velocity of 60 mph relative to the ground. An observer on the ground measuring phenomena in the car, and an observer in the car measuring the same phenomena will agree on the laws of physics. If the person in a car throws a ball at 5 mph towards the front of the car, he’ll measure the ball’s speed as 5 mph, but the observer on the ground will measure it as 65 mph. That makes sense. But there are 4 equations called Maxwell’s equations which describe all electromagnetism. Embedded in these equations is the speed of light. The startling implication is that the speed of light in a vacuum is part of “physical law” and so both observers must agree on its value. The resolution of this problem leads to the special theory of relativity.

Interestingly enough, not only must space and time coordinates transform, but carrying this forward leads to equations which describe how velocities, and momenta transform. This leads into how forces transform. Following the force transformation give an interesting result. Two charges at rest with respect to each other have only an electrostatic force between them. But if they are in a reference frame moving with constant velocity respect to another, the other observer sees a modified electric force and another force dependent on the velocity of one of the charges. This turns out to be due to a magnetic field. So relativity provides a link between electricity and magnetism. Following, this one can see how electric and magnetic fields transform into each other in different frames of reference. How exactly this works may be a bit nonintuitive, but I hope to find some time into making that into a posting one of these days. Of course, if you want to jump way ahead, check out the wiki. The stuff on electromagnetism is a bit more mathematically formal than how I intend to discuss later, if I ever get around to it. But I hope the average person can take away something.

Of course, what interested Einstein afterward, was how to extend this to noninertial reference frames. This lead to the general theory of relativity which relates a gravitational field to noninertial frames and shows show space can curve and time dilation effects are observed in the presence of gravitational fields. That’s a can of worms for a completely different post.

Truly one of the greats of the 20th century.


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