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Archive for the ‘Science Friday’ Category

The day before yesterday, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the Lent season. Like many other important days in the Christian calendar, its significance is best understood in the context of the seasonal changes of Europe.

Just as Christmas falls shortly after the shortest day of the southern solstice (winter solstice in the north), and thus the birth of Christ is associated with rebirth; thus Easter falls after the first full moon following the vernal equinox, and marks the fulfillment of the promise of Christmas. Which leaves us with the Lent period, the forty days preceding Easter. What, you might ask, does it symbolize?

Lent is a period of preparation — of prayer, penitence, self-denial — and it does, like the other two, have agricultural associations, to the period when food stored during the autumn is beginning to run out, what gardeners call the hungry gap. The day before Ash Wednesday, Shrove Tuesday (or Mardi Gras in French), is thus traditionally the last day for frivolities before people buckle down for the period of semi-fasting, so much that the name “Mardi Gras” often refers to the entire Carnival season, instead of the day itself.

We are blessed to live in a world where, for most people in developed and emerging countries, food scarcity is no longer a perennial issue (though that’s not the case as late as 19th century Sweden, which led to the interesting discovery of epigenetics. Genes aren’t everything, as it turns out). And yet, too many of us assume that therefore the reverse is true: that there is no scarcity of anything — some because of a blind faith in divine providence, and some a similarly blind faith in technological progress.

Our excesses already have measurable impacts, some of which are more severe than others. We caused ozone depletion, though to humanity’s credit the countries of the world managed to coöperate to rectify the problem. Our food supply is increasingly dominated by large agribusiness companies — Food, Inc. is a terrifying reminder of how far gone we are, with practices that torture animals, poison our land and food supply, and where GM contamination results in the victim being prosecuted for intellectual property violations, rather than the companies and the lack of proper regulation of GM use. And our carbon-burning lifestyle is causing our climate to get increasingly more erratic over the years.

We could use the transition from Mardi Gras to Ash Wednesday to contemplate a change in our lifestyle. Turn off that lightbulb when you leave the room. Set your electronic devices to sleep when inactive, and turn them off if you won’t be using them for a while. Don’t make symbolic changes that actually damage the environment more — such as turning in a decent used car for a new one that gets only slightly better mileage — but learn to drive more efficiently, and use public transport whenever possible. Eat less meat (especially those from large meat-packers), and avoid fast-food joints, who collectively created the demand for large meatpackers and thus the unhealthy industrialization of animal farming.

Some of these changes are costly, and will remain costly as long as government incentives favor our current agricultural regime. There were critical responses to the UU World’s call,  Thanksgiving 2008, to switch to organic turkey. We cannot be holier-than-thou in our effort to better ourselves, and must realize that for the poorer among us, the budget simply is not there. But we can act. By buying the right kinds of produce, thus sending the right signal to food producers and supermarkets (even Wal-mart is paying attention now). By writing our Congressperson or MP. By donating healthy food to soup kitchens and orphanages. By, if you’re Jamie Cullum, teaching people healthy cooking, and reforming prison diets.

And it’s not all about food, though, as Napoleon once said, an army marches on its stomach. Today marks the birthdays of Svante Arrhenius, the Swedish chemist who discovered electrolysis (1903 Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and formulator of the greenhouse law still in use today:

if the quantity of carbonic acid increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression.

ΔF = α ln(C/C0)

Fittingly, the discovery of electrolysis leads to the fuel cell, which might or might not form part of the solution in our impending transportation switch away from carbon-based fuels.

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The Lent season is almost upon us.  For us Christians, it is a call for introspection — we need to question what we believe in, as well as how we believe — how does being a Christian make me a better person, you might ask. The bible enjoins us to be the salt of the earth, but remember that salt is also the instrument the Romans used to lay waste to Carthage.

The Old Testament’s beginning is steeped in mythology — from the account of the creation, all the way to the stories about the early patriarchs (see a 1995 Time article for an introduction, and also Asimov’s excellent Guide to the Bible). The historical accounts in the Books of Kings and the Chronicles are certainly exaggerated — just as the book of Genesis underpopulates the earth, the historical books certainly describes an overpopulated Levant in which hundreds of thousands die at each battle. The final books are considered apocryphal by most Christians, starting from St. Jerome’s Vulgate translation to Latin.

We are called to humility in the practice of our faith. Subverting science teaching in public schools is not part of it, let alone falsely claiming persecution while in fact persecuting a family that brought this abuse to attention, in the end driving them out of town. As written in Exodus 20.16:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour

As Jesus himself instructed, in Matthew 22.21:

Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesars; and unto God the things that are Gods

Religion (as opposed to faith) corrupts itself as it gets mixed up with temporal affairs — we have the right, and in fact, responsibility — to act out of our moral concerns, but at the same time, having a near-sighted literalist belief, combined with the hubris of acting on G-d’s behalf, is surely un-Christian. The adage that power corrupts (and absolute power corrupts absolutely), sadly has been reinforced by examples too many times, and all too often, by people who think of themselves as righteous Christians.

At the same time, the acceptance that certain books may not be what they are on a surface level, actually opens our eyes to their deeper truths. Like Aesop’s fables, biblical writings do not have to be factually true to be instructive. One case in point is the Prayer of Manasseh, which calls us to penitence. It is almost certainly not written by Manasseh himself, yet we, as sinners, readily identify with its message despite the misattribution. Read more about the wonderful history of this prayer here.

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Yesterday marked the 24th anniversary of the tragic Challenger disaster, bringing an end to starry-eyed dreams of cheap access to space. It is not the first, nor the last, tragedy in the history of the world’s several space programs, and we, rightly, salute the elite cadre who goes into space, fully aware of the risks involved.

In truth, the design of the space shuttle was a flawed compromise [astronautix.com] from the very beginning, a fact belatedly acknowledged by NASA, which is now retiring the remaining three orbiters. Still, we can thank this venerable design for launching the Hubble Space Telescope as well as the International Space Station, among others.

Inquisitiveness is not a trait unique to Homo sapiens. Other animals exhibit curiosity and ability to learn. Wild chimpanzees actually learn how to make tools — and pass the skill down as part of their culture. What is unique to us, at least among the extant species, is our language skill. Language, in turns, enable the construction of our modern society, with its advancements in culture, science and technology.

There is a legitimate concern that our scientific and technological prowess is increasing at a pace that outstrip the evolution of public morality and legal constraints; at the most extreme, this is expressed by denunciations of “godless science”. Yet the bible itself, while certainly not a science textbook, and not meant as such, is not anti-science either. As written in Genesis 2.19 (RSV, from Oremus):

So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

This is long before Carolus Linnaeus’ foundation of modern taxonomy. Naturally, life is messier than this narrative portrayal, and it’s not as if our entire body of knowledge has been codified before our ancestors’ purported exile from a mythical Garden of Eden.

In the long entangled history of religion and science, two of the major conflicts occur in the fields of astronomy (Copernicus, Galileo et al.) and biology (Darwin et al.). In case of astronomy, we have a rather ironical situation in which the church set itself up as the defender of the outdated, overcomplicated geocentric model — developed by Greek philosophers and decidedly non-Christian — against the more accurate heliocentric model, developed by scientists who are at pains to reiterate their loyalty to the church’s religious teaching (as opposed to scientific meddling).

In truth, religion and cosmology has a lot in common. If we accept the distinction between religious and other emotions [Jacob Needleman, Religion Dispatches], then it’s hard to find, as a body, a group of people as suffused with religious awe, wonder, and humility at the Creation, as astronomers and cosmologists, regardless of religious affiliation (or lack thereof).

Whether we see ourselves as God’s agents on earth, or see our consciousness as an emergent behavior, and our purpose in spreading consciousness across the universe, a set of biblical passages seem to apply:

Genesis 9.7And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.

Genesis 11.1-9 (The Tower of Babel)

While the first reading might be construed to tie us down to this earth, it should be emphasized that biblical authors hardly know any other material place. The tower story could then be seen as an allegorical warning, against putting all our eggs in this one earthly basket. We have a responsibility to be stewards of the earth, but part of our responsibilities, both to ourselves and other earthly creatures, and mother earth itself, is surely to keep our ecological footprint at a sustainable level, and to exploit raw materials available in lifeless worlds. A well-funded space program is essential, regardless of past setbacks. And then it will be as said in Genesis 32.12:

Yet you have said, “I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.” ’

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Our third instalment of Science Friday celebrates the birthday of Pierre Gassendi, born on this day, 418 years ago, in Champtercier, near Digne, in France.

Gassendi, a Doctor of Theology, made significant contributions to the fields of both philosophy and science. For more details on his life, I recommend his Wikipedia entry, and for his philosophy, his entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Far be it for me to attempt to outdo the two excellent sources above; instead, I’d just like to highlight his work reconciling Epicurian atomism with Christianity, and placing the spiritual above the material:

Indeed, insofar as Gassendi considers pleasure to be a materially-realized phenomenon, he shares Hobbes’s view of the morally correct as something that can be defined in physical terms. However, according to Gassendi and the lessons he draws from his Epicurean and Stoic sources, any spirtually-related pleasure trumps any materially-related one (O II 710a-b). The truest pleasures—hence goods—are defined along the lines of Epicurean ataraxia (attainment of tranquility) and Christian virtues, including in particular love of God, and friendship and good will among persons. The guarantee of our ability to seek tranquility or fulfill these virtues is our free intellectual judgment (libertas). Such a freedom consists in the ability of our intellects to choose between good and evil, and this is turn yields our capacity for volition, or free will (O II 821b-822b).

Fisher, Saul, “Pierre Gassendi”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

In our current time, all too often religion and science does not see eye to eye. Science is not taught sufficiently in our public schools, and too many people of faith, even among the leadership, persist in advocating outdated tenets that so obviously contradict modern scientific discoveries, that it is inevitable that scientists are more likely than the average person to be atheists.

This cleavage is dangerous, and indeed, as demonstrated by Gassendi and others, not even necessary. We should all honor the past, certainly, but not idolize a non-existent, illusory religious nirvana. For is that not idolatry itself?

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149 years ago to this day, US patent #31128 was issued to Elisha Otis for “improvement in hoisting apparatus”, i.e. the steam-powered safety elevator.

The elevator is to go on to revolutionize city planning: after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the city’s downtown was rebuilt in a more systematic way that better made use of scarce land; once electricity becomes available, thus making elevators more practical, skyscrapers started being built all over town. To this day, Chicago architect bureaus dominate the market for skyscrapers.

It should be noted that the idea of skyscraper is age-old: while the modern, structural definition dates the first skyscraper back to 1870, tall urban towers certainly exist: Roman insulae reach more than 10 stories, and the taller of the two Towers of Bologna reach 97m. And the Old Testament, of course, contains the myth of the Tower of Babel.

We must be careful not to interpret this myth literally, as some fundamentalists did after 9/11: to claim, as these people are wont to do, that the tragedy was divine retribution for our hubris and pride would be, apart from being self-righteously judgemental and insensitive, providing moral justification for terrorism. Likewise, invoking divine wrath for Carribean hurricanes (such as devastated New Orleans, Cuba, Haiti) is a cop-out: the (disproportionately poor) victims are blamed for supposed moral degeneracy, whereas it was actually the more well-to-do, all over the world, who contributed to the severity of modern-day hurricanes by pumping so much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that the oceans are warming up.

Which brings us to a full circle: having been created in God’s image (Gen 1.26), we are called upon to be the steward of God’s Creation. And that requires responsibility, humility, even, in the way we use up the earth’s resources.

Skyscrapers certainly has a role to play in urban planning: coupled with efficient public transportation systems, they allow for high-density cities, reducing urban sprawl and therefore our environmental footprint. But the recent trend, starting with Malaysia’s Petronas Twin Towers, of skyscrapers being built as status symbols, without sufficient consideration for transportation problems.

The Dubai skyscrapers, of which Burj Khalifa is the latest incarnation, demonstrate this charge. Dubai is a city built around cars and air-conditioners, with nary an eye to sustainability: crossing the road, for example, often requires lengthy detours — in the desert heat. The city epitomizes the worst side of capitalism: a now-burst construction bubble, badly treated migrant workers, and obnoxious luxury catering to the global nouveau riche. This, even though the official story is that Dubai, oil-poor by Gulf standards, is trying to wean itself off the black gold and morphing itself into a business hub! Contrast this with the neighboring Abu Dhabi’s sustainable Masdar project.

The bible is a rich source of allegories, and the point of allegories, including this one, is to impart moral lessons that ought to change our behaviors. And the moral of the Tower of Babel is that we bring disaster to ourselves if development is not balanced with conservation. If we continue building Towers of Babel (of various kinds, not all of them buildings), we’re condemning ourselves to our own Flood — though, in our imperfect world, it’s going to be the poorest and least powerful among us who, as usual, will be bearing the brunt of rising sea levels — small island communities, low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, and the billions of people, mostly in the Third World, who will be affected by water shortage.

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Today’s our very first Science Friday column, warmly dedicated to the British theoretical physicist, cosmologist and ALS sufferer Stephen William Hawking, who celebrates his 68th birthday this very day.

Professor Hawking, a Fellow of Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College, was until recently the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Like his US counterpart, the late Carl Sagan, he did much to popularize science, most notably with his best-selling A Brief History of Time

In a way, the choice of Hawking is an apt one: like Charles Darwin, he denies being an atheist (though his ex-wife attributed such views to him). Both men’s work — Darwin on natural selection, Hawking on cosmology — could be perceived to be anti-religious, although I will argue that they only repudiate literalist interpretations of many faiths’ holy books.

Hawking is a prolific author, and I would be doing him a disservice if I were to attempt to summarize his work. I’d instead point you to his archive of public lectures and academic publications. His works on singularity and on the origin of the universe are well known, so today I would just highlight a more esoteric part: what Hawking has to say on multiverses.

The battle between religion and science has for centuries revolve, partly, around the particularity of human existence. Copernicus and Galileo encountered stiff opposition from the Roman church for promoting a cosmology in which the earth is not the center of the universe; likewise, modern astronomy seemed to suggest, until quite recently, that our star is a rather pedestrian one, in a provincial corner of a fairly typical galaxy.

Balanced against that is the discovery that support for life is actually quite tenuous: if the key physical constants were to differ by small amounts, life as we know it would not have been able to develop. Recent work has shown that more drastic modifications might actually yield a life-supporting universe, but at the same time affirm that a key constant, the Hubble constant, still appears to be peculiarly finely tuned.

If our universe is the only one that exists, the very fact that we are here to observe it might suggest that it was put in place so that intelligent life might evolve, and depending on how unique our solar system is in the universe, us humans potentially occupy a lofty, if indeed lonely, position.

The many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics, however, points to the existence of multiple worlds, indeed, multiverses. In this interpretation, every possible outcome of every event exists in its own “world”. And here’s where the Hawking connection comes in: he stated that if we assume that quantum theory applies to all reality, then the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics is trivially true.

And if our current universe branches off into virtually endless universes, depending on the outcomes of quantum events, then it certainly makes the idea of other universes with altogether different physical laws less exotic, in fact, quite plausible.

But what’s the religious significance of all this, especially for us Christians? Modern cosmogony is quite speculative up to 10^-12 seconds after the Big Bang, and certainly quiet on what took place before that. A God that is outside of space and time, preexisting before our universe was created, certainly is not incompatible with science, and if such Divinity were to set up the ground rules in such a way as to give rise to humanity, then (S)He is worthy of worship indeed. Even divine intervention after the early phase of the universe, by subtly influencing key people, is possible; I tend towards a non-Hegelian view of history, in which things do not unfold through historical necessity, but that the right person at the right time could influence its course. We cannot disprove the existence of a Creator; we cannot prove it either, but that is why it’s called faith, not fact.

The MWI is actually more troubling: if everything that could happen, actually happens, then where does it leave free will? We are simply pawns, then, having the illusion of making choices in our lives whereas it might just be that we experience making the choice that led to the subset of the multiverse in which we experienced the effect of the choice.

Would the more deterministic Copenhagen interpretation, infamously criticized by Einstein “I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice”, be more reconcilable? After all, perhaps God does not actually throw dice, but subtly guide a probabilistic universe so that at key moments, the dice is actually loaded? Such a universe, familiar to readers of Asimov’s Foundation series, could indeed preserve room for maneuver.

That being said, one lesson we ought to learn, after millennia of religious people putting faith-based theory before scientific evidence, and thus hindering our common scientific progress, is not to interfere as experts in their field continue to improve our understanding of our earth, and indeed our universe. The bible is not a science textbook, and the Church is changed for the better overtime it adjusts itself to scientific discovery instead of fighting it.

Evolution vs Creationism: Anecdotes

One only needs a bare minimum acquaintance with modern cosmology to realize that the cosmology of any faith in the world — at least, faiths that predate modern science — cannot be taken literally. The order of creation according to Genesis certainly does not correspond with our modern understanding — it was very geocentric, with the world *and* plants created before the sun and the stars. This, as opposed to what we know from science, that the elements we find on earth are the byproducts of nuclear fusion in the first generation of stars; that planets are formed from the leftovers of stellar formation; and that the early earth is hot and dry, with water only deposited later, from comets.

And then there is the matter of age; According to Young Earth creationists, for instance, the world is not older than 10,000 years (The error bar between different creationists’ posited age of the earth is much larger than the difference between various predictions made by physicists, which, over time, converge happily to a rather tight range). Their literalist reading of the Old Testament led them to attempt to subvert the scientific process: because they insist on the literal truth of the Bible’s materialist claims, thus inserting the Divine into our everyday space and time, they have to discredit scientific methodology that threaten their precarious position.

Barely a month after Copenhagen, I cannot help but note that attempts by YECs to “prove” the existence of a global Biblical Flood actually ended up demonstrating, in stark terms, the runaway effect of pumping the atmosphere full of greenhouse gases (as we are doing now, and as big agro and big oil want us to continue doing).

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