Posts Tagged ‘science’

This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

Douglas Adams hit that particular nail squarely on the head. We concern ourselves overwhelmingly with money. Who has it, how much of it, and most of all how can I can my hands on more of it?

To be honest, I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Simply by living in this society, we agree to participate in a sick game where money is the means of keeping score and most of the time the players who start out with the best hand will stay that way. But they are the ones who dictate the game rules, they are the ones who decide when and how the next hand will be played, forcing the rest of us to compete on their turf.

But the truth is, we have made massive advances in science and technology, advances which should and could make it possible for us all to have enough food, shelter, electricity and water without having to scrape together the pennies in between the couch cushions. We have the ability to move beyond the polluting and dwindling fuels of yesteryear. We have the imagination and insight to take great leaps forward in educating the next generation and caring for the last one.

Playing the Money Game stops us from doing it. For so long as we are playing by the rules of the moneyed elite, we will be serving their interests in preserving the status quo.

If we weren’t forcing ourselves to play the game, we could abolish poverty, hunger and homelessness from these United States for eternity. We could become the shining beacon of liberty which we currently only pretend to be.

Think about that the next time you play Monopoly.

The true wealth of this nation – of every nation – is held in its ideas. The true power of this nation – of every nation – is held in its people. The true justice of this nation – of every nation – is held in its compassion.

What can you do to break out of the Money Game?

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I am proud of my national identity. I am English by birth, and also American by citizenship. I experience the same moment of delirious elation as many others when England’s soccer team scores a goal, the same heartbreak when the team subsequently suffers the ignominy of being eliminated from the World Cup in a penalty shoot-out. I experience immense pride and satisfaction when it is an American who wins a Nobel or a Pulitzer Prize.

But do I believe that England or America is ‘better’ than another nation? Are we morally or culturally or intellectually superior to the Iranians, or the Japanese, or the Congolese?

My answer to this is a resounding “NO!”, for Humanity is not comprised of nations, or of religions. We are people, each and every one of us, none more ‘human’ than another. America can – and often does – make a case for superiority based on its military muscle or its financial strength, but that doesn’t make David Brennan from Little Rock any more an exemplar of the species than Hidetoshi Yamagata from Sapporo or Abdul ibn-Aziz al-Rashid from Riyadh.

I am also white, male and heterosexual. Does this mean that I am more deserving of any form of recognition or respect than someone who might be black, or female, or gay? Again, “NO!”. Not in the slightest. Each of us is a shining jewel to be treasured and cherished, equally able to contribute to the betterment of our species as a whole.

It seems unfathomable to me that any subset of Humanity is considered ‘lesser’ than another in this day and age. In America, women have made immense strides toward equality over the hundred years since being granted rights which men had long taken for granted, and yet are still often perceived as inferior by some. Similarly, black Americans have made significant progress over the last half century, but still feel the sting of the ethnic divide. The LGBT community is even now struggling for many of the same rights for which women and African-Americans fought for so long. How is it possible that in the twenty-first century we are still discriminating between members of our own species?

This is not to say, however, that these differences do not matter. They matter immensely. Your gender, you ethnic and religious identity, your national origin and your sexuality are all parts of the recipe which makes you uniquely you, worthy of being celebrated. These traits may afford you a degree of insight which the prevalent majority may lack. Coupled with your intelligence, your creativity and your education, these all put you in a unique position to contribute something of immeasurable value to all seven billion of us, and I for one will celebrate alongside you as you do it.

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Today, the White House is hosting a science fair, inviting competition winners in math, science, engineering and technology from schools around America.

While this of course makes for excellent press at a time when Democrats sorely need this, it also underscores a commitment to putting his ideals into practice. It is not enough to say that America must improve its educational curriculum in math and science – it needs to be made real.

As Obama put it recently, if the NCAA championship winners get to come to the White House, so should the best scientists and mathematicians in schools.

And yes, that’s Adam Savage from Mythbusters up there with him. The President will be ON MYTHBUSTERS next month, which is simply awesome.

Obviously you can’t fix a war and a recession with quick publicity blasts like this, else he’d have had those squared away within the first week of his presidency, but it’s nice to see that the “smaller” things aren’t being forgotten about. Long after Obama leaves office, the kids who will benefit from his support may be in a position to avoid another war and/or recession because of what they learned.

Plus, of course, it’s nice to have a President who would rather blow shit up on Mythbusters than, say, in the Middle East.

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The physicist Enrico Fermi once said “Where is everybody?” – specifically asking why, if the universe is filled with civilizations, we have yet to confirm or even detect their presence in any reliable fashion.

I’ve given the ‘Fermi Paradox’ a lot of thought over the last few years, and ironically the best answer I can come up with owes more to Star Trek than to astrophysics.

In the eighth Star Trek movie, First Contact, the human race is first contacted by another spacefaring civilization when we are finally at the point of developing faster-than-light (FTL) travel (in this case, warp drive). Indeed, until we have such a thing, any kind of cultural intercourse we could have with any extraterrestrial civilization would be one-sided. The ability to venture forth into the black in search of new horizons and new life is a necessary step to becoming part of any interplanetary community.

On a deeper level, it seems to me that the ability to build such a wonder would require a unification of purpose between the various races of humankind, since no single nation is likely to have the resources to build and operate a space station and interstellar vehicles by itself. Thus far, we have yet to advance sufficiently as to effect such unification. We engage in petty squabbles over post-tribal god-images, we scrape and claw at each other over abstract numbers which provide a mass illusion of wealth, we divide ourselves against each other over ideological differences which would be dwarfed by our unity of reason if only we allowed ourselves to see the latter.

Were you a member of a hypothetical alien race, would you look upon us as a species worthy of moving into the neighborhood?

In all likelihood, the first impulse we would experience upon contact with intelligent extraterrestrials would be to try to destroy them out of fear.

Is it any wonder that we have heard nothing?

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Since the dawn of time, humankind has felt that, despite a lack of incontrovertible, tangible evidence, there is a higher power at work in the world. Whether we name it God or Gaia or the collective unconscious or any of countless other names, most of us believe in something greater than ourselves. For the purposes of this post, in the interests of avoiding unnecessary circumlocution, I shall call it God.

For millennia, God has nourished us, guided us, taught us. We have not always listened – far from it! – but that presence has touched most of our lives across the eons.

It strikes me, however, that the nature of God’s guidance may have changed. The title of this post would suggest negativity, but please bear with me and you will see that this is not the case.

Historically, the nature of God’s gifts was simply that of adding something good into our lives – a fruitful harvest, a child or spouse, a favorable environment in which to sell our goods and services. We have had a space, and God has filled it.

And yet…

juxtaposed plus and minus signs

There have always been a select few among us who simply saw the world in a different light than most. These people had the imagination and the drive to create something new. For these few, God needed only provide the space, and allow THEM to be the ones to fill it.

From ancient times through the Renaissance and down to the present, the number of these people have grown exponentially. In a sign, perhaps, of God’s changing philosophy, or his view that Man has become worthy of greater things, more and more of us are in a position to be able to fill the spaces, if only God will grant them.

This is true not only of technological innovation, but of great change within ourselves.

I’ve heard people talking about God sending them trials to test their faith, and I think more people are failing those tests than realize it.

When God sends a Southern Baptist family a gay son, this is His gift. The test is not to stand fast against what has been given, to try to cure it, or – worse still – to cast the child out. The family’s test is to grow within themselves, to grow the capacity to love and to understand a facet of the world that is beyond their  knowing.

When God sends an earthquake to a country woefully unprepared for it, perhaps this too is a gift, though one tempered with individual tragedy. The test in this case is not to cling to a belief that the afflicted people have somehow sinned beyond redemption but to bring the rest of us together, to allow us to show our generosity of spirit and our greater community.

If you believe – whatever you believe in – define your faith rather than letting it define you. Examine the hits you have taken and see the opportunities to fill the holes in your understanding. Really look at a person outside your race, gender, class, sexuality or religion, and see the person, the human being.

You probably won’t surprise God, but you may well please Him. And you may yet surprise yourself.

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(Inspired by questions posed by Catastrophe Jones in her LiveJournal, and adapted from my subsequent comments.)

We live in a world very much a victim of its own societal norms, often ostracizing or punishing those who deviate from the same. And yet, we understand so little about the brain hardware and psyche software that surely any attempts to assert exactly what goes on in there must be taken with a giant salt lick.

What IS sanity, really?

Given that the very definition of ‘sanity’ must be a state within an arbitrary level of deviation from an arbitrary norm, it stands to reason that the people with the most ‘middling’ psychological state will also be those who most strongly conform to the societal standards – as such, the people most likely to opt for mainstream art, music and fashion, since they are precisely the people to whom it is marketed. They are the ones most likely to enjoy reality television, most likely to hold moderate opinions in matters of politics and religion.

Of course, sanity is hardly a line on a chart, nor even a region of a scatter plot. Different forms of deviation from the arbitrary norm are invariably going to manifest in one of three forms – a concordant form, in which the esthetic and lifestyle choices follow the pattern of supposed “deviation” (hence the more radical movements which dot our history); a discordant form, in which it fights against the “deviation” (as evidenced by the pathological need for conformity displayed by some individuals); and an anarchic form, in which it bears no relation to the “deviation”.

The polarization of psychological ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ is inherently destructive, both for those who try to push against their ‘weird’ element and be normal or indeed those who revel in nonconformity and thus try to accentuate that ‘weird’ element at the expense of normal. That second example is the reason we see the subculture and counterculture groups we do, and also the reason for the ironic fact that within any given subculture or counterculture there is just as much conformity as outside it. If you don’t believe me, hang out at Hot Topic for an hour or so. Ultimately, the only way to break free of either trap is to be oneself, and not give a flying fuck about where you fall on any arbitrary spectrum.

Breaking out of this societally imposed reality tunnel also sheds some light on discussion of both religion and magic; I believe that there has long been a mindset whereby people lump together everything they don’t understand and call it magic, as though having a label for it somehow makes it fit more easily into their limited worldview. Other people, for perhaps an even longer time, have been doing the same thing but instead labeling it ‘God’. Some have had the lamentable notion of putting the things they like under one label and the things they don’t under the other, leading to a plethora of tragedies throughout history.

I feel this view is generally decreasing – science, though in some ways still in its infancy compared to magic/religion, has shown that many phenomena do in fact have a rational explanation, hitherto undiscovered. There may indeed be a supreme entity, or at least higher entities, behind some of the weirder shit that goes on – goodness knows evolutionary theory tends to start gibbering when faced with the platypus – but we are more aware than we once were of the “magic” of magnetic fields and nitrogen cycles and dielectric gaps and the other scientific things which make the world as awesome as it is.

In practice, though, every answer brings with it at least two further questions – often “why” and “how”. Modern magic is more about making the “why” be your own will and the “how” be your knowledge. As such, just as you suggest, the wonder is lost. Here’s the thing, though – when you as a magician are becoming the how and why of any given phenomenon, you aren’t using the phenomenon so much as supplanting it. Perhaps when you take yourself back out of the equation, you do so with a better understanding of what kind of forces are conspiring to cause the phenomenon when you’re not there. This is science, magic, religion, all rolled into one tasty meta-burrito.

Now, part of the reason magic rushes in where science fears to tread is that magic will not restrict itself to the phenomena which make sense – magic can work against the logical thread of physics just as well as it can work with it, or in its own way (concordant, discordant, anarchic – notice a theme?). However, working with the forces supplied by Nature is inevitably easier than working against them, and requires a greater exercise of will. It also requires sufficient cognitive flexibility as to be able to sustain belief in the desired outcome rather than in the assertions of science. This cognitive flexibility is, of course, antithetical to standard definitions of ‘sanity’.

I have proposed a number of times, and continue to suggest, that all entities capable of cognition are indeed part of a greater whole, wherein each of these individual instances of psyche is a vector in a massive reality matrix. The sum total of said matrix is the observable reality of which we all speak, and in which we all interact. Because we retain our individual mental set, we are able to disagree on many matters, especially when it comes to such complex vectors as morality, but we are nonetheless joined by this matrix. Magic – and indeed miracle, for the religious – is what occurs when one such psyche is endowed with sufficient will as to allow its vector to exert greater influence on the mathematical whole of the reality matrix. This influence leads to an observable phenomenon which, once observed, is then believed by others, and therefore leads to a paradigm shift in observable reality as more and more individual psyches also incorporate it into their own mental sets.

(It should be noted that this approach calls for some sort of baseline; an n-dimensional reality matrix does not hop into being all on its own. There may be a small but fundamental set of “core” laws of physics which underlie all of this. It may be the will of God, or of the planet itself, or of another still-unknown agency.)

This form of influence by will has become more difficult to bring forth in the modern era precisely because we are all so interconnected in other ways. A magician in the 1500s only had to exert sufficient will to overcome the mental sets of those nearby in order to accomplish many of his or her works, whereas a 21st century magician must be able to exert so much will into the matrix as to be able to overcome a great many more mental sets.

This is also true of our emotional states and desires – more than simply the interaction of id and superego, we have each other’s mental sets to contend with, and that causes struggle as we seek a way to match our individual state to that of another person without disturbing the surrounding whole enough that anything becomes unbalanced. The Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is therefore perhaps better expressed as “you get out of the reality matrix what you put into the reality matrix” – if your movements within it are helpful to another, then they will generally be more inclined to return the favor. If you are instead obstructive to another, there will likely be strife in both directions. Ergo, it is logical to make your contribution as positive as can be, or at least not harmful (concordant or anarchic rather than discordant).

It also seems to me that the summed vectors of individual psyches can have profound effects. If you and I both find that the sum of our contributions is positive (not numerically but in terms of appeal), this is then a scientific basis for friendship, or even love. If we find the sum negative, we will be predisposed to mutual antipathy. And if one of us finds it positive and the other not, therein lies the potential for frustration and heartbreak such as that of unrequited love. But enough of sadness.

I would love to hear feedback on this, as the notion of the reality matrix has been kicking around in my head for a few years now.

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Ask someone to picture a famous scientist and they will probably conjure up the wild-haired mental image of Albert Einstein. Perhaps second only to him, and no less iconic, would be this man:

In 1963, Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s Disease – and given two or three years to live. Instead, as is well known, he beat the odds, found ways to communicate despite his disability and went on to become one of the greatest theoretical physicists of this or any era.

His book A Brief History of Time sold millions of copies and is widely regarded as a near-perfect balance of scientific concept and simple explanation. I would be willing to bet that a great many younger readers of this book were influenced by its words to turn their minds to science; at the very least, one young reader was. I already found science ‘interesting’, but it was Hawking who put it firmly into ‘fascinating’ territory.

Today, Cambridge University released a statement to say that Hawking is very ill and is being cared for at one of the city’s hospitals.

If you’re inclined to say prayers, please spare one for this phenomenal human being. And even if you’re not, perhaps it wouldn’t go amiss just this once.

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I’m just about sick of this evolution vs. creation debate that seems to pop up every few decades when the writers of educational policy have nothing better to do (or want to divert attention from their continued inability to stop fucking things up).

There is room for both in the world, and in the textbook.

Generally, given the choice between conjecture and evidence, I’ll go with the side that shows evidence. Which is customarily the side of science and technology rather than faith and dogma. I am willing to concede, however, that I don’t have the whole story, and that science is not infallible.


In the beginning the Universe was created. This fact in and of itself has pissed a number of people off, and either George Bush or Osama bin Laden is probably looking for a reason to make war on it.

Was it created by God, or gods? Was it created from concentrated energy by a humongous kablooie? We may never know.

Here’s something to consider. Who is to say that the aforementioned humongous kablooie was random? Perhaps the Big Bang itself was itself ‘intelligent design’. It certainly strikes me as a convenient way to create a great deal of matter very fast.

Evolution, in and of itself, has been scientifically proven. It does happen. The fact of it still being called a theory is no different than the fact that some textbooks still refer to gravity that way. It’s not even all that much of a stretch to deduce the concept of evolution and the notion of the survival of the fittest from Mendel’s first few breeding experiments with garden vegetables. Ultimately, Darwin was not so stupid as to publish his findings unless there was something pretty solid to back them up.

It has not, however, been conclusively proven that we, Homo sapiens sapiens, evolved from anything. However, given our physical resemblance to Homo erectus, whose existence is also known to be fact, it seems at least feasible.

Perhaps evolution was actually a part of a greater plan. When God (or gods, though for simplicity I shall henceforth use the singular) decided that all things should come to be, perhaps it was His (or Her, but again I shall use the conventional phrasing) desire, His wish, that the world move on, beyond the original boundaries of its design. He would thus have created the laws of nature (including evolution) and the laws of physics (including those governing the formation of planets) as a framework within which this growth could occur.

We all know of the Missing Link in evolution – the piece of the puzzle that would supposedly connect us to earlier, less sophisticated primates, if only we could find it. Perhaps we didn’t actually evolve from them the same way everything else evolved. Perhaps God did put us here in place of other primate species which were dying out. He may have wished to see progress sooner, and thus introduced mankind into his design once everything else was in motion, which would be in keeping with the Biblical assertion that we were created last.

In the same vein, it is possible, ludicrous though it sounds, that the reason for the famous Missing Link is that some more advanced race from another planet chose to cross their own genetic strain with that of early humans, giving rise to an altogether new species – us. The Book of Genesis could simply have been their means of rationalizing it.

The creationists have a tough job here, since they not only have to prove the existence of God but prove that He created humans rather than having them evolve. It is very hard to unequivocally prove the existence of an intangible divine entity.

“God exists, for it is written in this Book.”
“How do we know that we can trust what is written in the Book?”
“The Book is the word of God.”

The circular reasoning takes us nowhere, and yet it is all but impossible for many of us to deny the existence of a greater Being of some sort. Many people, myself included, look in awe at the wonders of nature and find it hard to believe that all of this was created by random chance. We look at the unfathomably complex human body and can’t quite tell ourselves that this grew from a few molecules in some primordial muck.

I have moved away somewhat from actual educational policy. My own view is guided by my number one educational principle: that a student should always be free to ask questions, to find his or her own answers. This is progress. Two billion children learning to regurgitate accepted truths is not education, it is stagnation.

I have no objection to the teaching of creationism in schools per se; I do not, however, want to see the teaching of evolution suffer for it. An underlying problem of teaching creationism is the notion of separating Church and State, which I believe to be a good idea. I do not think, though, that too much religion is being introduced if the textbook simply says that “many people believe that the world, and human beings, were created by a God, as detailed in the Bible, Qu’ran and other sacred texts” and encourages students to consider all possibilities.

I think it best to avoid working with certain other discrepancies unless the student wishes to undertake research on it. For example: the creation happening in seven days versus billions of years, the Earth only being 6000 years old and the 13,000-year-old archeological evidence of cities. I myself attempted to pick out flaws in both sides when I was a young boy. My principal argument against the Creation story back then amounted to “Hey, where did Cain get a wife from?” I also learned of the Missing Link at around the same age.

So I don’t know which is true, or which parts of each are true. I only know that we don’t have all the answers yet, and we won’t get them unless we make sure the next generation knows that the answers are still waiting to be found. Throwing accusations and crying heresy will not help either side of this debate, because it’s a debate that doesn’t need sides. It needs open-mindedness from all parties.

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