Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

A movie review by my reader and occasional guest blogger, Jean Claude Volgo:

The film Agora deals with the life and times of Hypatia of Alexandria, arguably the most illustrious woman in the history of Greek science.  The scant historical accounts of her life dwell on the gruesome death she is reported to have suffered in the hands of a Christian mob.  Yet this part of her story (tragic as it is) is less compelling than her reputation as a leading mathematician and astronomer at the twilight of ancient pagan culture.

A beacon of the Hellenistic Age, Alexandria in the late C4th was becoming the epicenter of escalating social tensions between various religious factions vying for political power. The authority of an impartial Roman governor was under constant challenge by Jews and Christians.  Yet in spite of the political turmoil, Greek science flourished in the Library of Alexandria under the mathematician, Theon.  Hypatia, his daughter, would have been well versed in Geometry and Astronomy under her father’s tutelage.  To understand how she became memorialized as a Martyr of Science, we need to step back to an earlier period.

Greek Astronomy was based on a geostatic and geocentric cosmology.  A complex system of interlocking circles had been proposed by Ptolemy (c. 150 AD) to explain what seemed to be erratic planetary orbits.  The system was designed to preserve the Greek geometric ideal of  uniform circular motion.  Although generally accepted, this astronomical model was weighed down by its unwieldy complexity.  Could Hypatia have raised doubts about the Ptolemaic system?  This is the intriguing question underlying a pivotal theme in Agora. The film speculates that Hypatia toyed with a simpler heliocentric model and may have even proposed elliptic orbits for the planets (a theory in keeping with her own publicized study on conic sections).  Furthermore, we know that she was schooled in Neoplatonism, which assigned a prominent role to the Sun in a universe guided by intelligent design.  In short,  could Hypatia — an avowed Neoplatonist — have been perplexed by the incongruity between Ptolemy’s inelegant theory and her own ideal image of a heliocentric system?

Agora is a courageous film: intellectually, for its bold imaginative leap; visually, for the meticulous depiction of ancient multicultural Alexandria with its famed Library.  Rachel Weisz is an intrepid Hypatia, unmoved by ardent suitors, and defying a superstitious mob. The film dramatizes the clash between pagans, Christians, and Jews.  Amenábar deserves credit for his unapologetic exposure of the savage horde that brought down the Library of Alexandria and extinguished the life of one of its most celebrated luminaries.

Agora broke box office records in Spain, but failed to get wide distribution in the USA.


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I have never seen a total solar eclipse. As we are preparing for our trip to Montana and Idaho to be there in the path of totality on August 21 in Idaho Falls, I came across this video that describes the experience. Now I am getting excited.

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The name Al Gore is synonymous with Climate Change (capitalized on purpose). Gore started a popular uprising more than ten years ago with the movie An Inconvenient Truth and with this sequel he continues his fight.

He has been vilified by deniers and the far right lobby in the United States, and he has suffered setback after setback in his mission to get the message out.

Living in the United States in the age of Trump and the dumbing down of America, we tend to forget that we are pretty unique in the world. Americans make up less than 5% of the world’s population, and the far right is a small, albeit powerful slice of that 5%, but they seem to be the loudest criers. Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accord. This makes no sense. 95% percent of the people of the world are scratching their heads.

I know people all over the world, Europeans, South Africans, Japanese, Brazilians, Indians, to name just a few. And I could not name a single one of them who would be what we call in the United States a climate denier. Denying climate change seems to be a uniquely American malaise.

Al Gore has the work cut out for himself in this country, and I am grateful for his leadership and tenacity.

You don’t have to “believe” in climate change to watch An Inconvenient Sequel and learn from it. The movie is full of facts and astonishing imagery about how our world has been changing and is continuing to change.

The most important experience for me, however, was as I walked out of the movie, stunned, but inspired. We have got this. There is no stopping that movement. People have turned their backs on coal and oil, no matter what the coal and oil lobby, and our own government, that is supposed to protect us, tells us. People are installing solar energy systems at an ever escalating pace. Solar will be cheaper and easier to use. Coal and oil will be inconvenient, and the planet will heal.

This didn’t happen by accident. This happened because of the tireless leadership of thousands of people, one of which is Al Gore.

Oh, no, we’re not done yet with the fight, far from it. But oh, yes, we will choose to take the baton so we can march toward a better world.

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Our sun has a diameter of about 1.3 million kilometers and it’s about 150 million kilometers away. Let’s say we shrink the size of the sun down to the size of a human red blood cell. That’s about 7 micrometers. It would be a really, really tiny speck, not visible with the human eye. If the sun were that small, the entire solar system would have a diameter of about 5 centimeters, about the size of a tangerine. However, the solar system isn’t really a ball, like a tangerine. All the planets orbit around the sun on one plane. So it would be better to describe the solar system as a thin disk the size of a tangerine. Even that’s not a good description. In the center is the sun, with 99.9 percent of all the mass in the solar system. Remember, the sun is the size of a red blood cell. You can’t even see it. The eight major planets are fantastically smaller still. And those eight planets make up the tangerine-sized disk.

Enough about the solar system and tangerines. Now that we have a sense for the solar system made that small, how far away do you think the nearest star system is? That would be Alpha and Proxima Centauri, which is about 4.3 light years away from here.

The answer is 219 meters. That’s a little bit more than the length of two football fields. Ok, let’s picture that. The sun is an invisible speck the size of a red blood cell with the solar system the size of a tangerine. Then the nearest star and its planets is another tangerine more than two football fields away. Just imagine the massive amount of empty space in all directions, left, right, forward, back, up down of empty space, and then another tangerine-sized star system.

Now let’s visualize the nearest stars to our sun. It turns out that there are only about 77 stars within a sphere of 33 light years diameter around the sun. There are a few prominent stars among those 77, like Alpha Centauri, Sirius and Procyon, the brightest of the bunch. Many of the 77 are not even visible with the naked eye. Regardless, those are the 77 nearest stars. How big do you think a 33 light year bubble around us would be, if our solar system were the size of a tangerine? It would be about 1,680 meters. That just a bit more than a mile. So picture a bubble a mile across in all directions, with the solar system in the center, the size of a tangerine. Inside of that one-mile bubble in space, there are only 77 other star systems, 77 tangerines, floating around. And that’s our close neighborhood of only 16.5 light years on all directions.

Our Milky Way Galaxy is a disk of about 100 billion stars. The disk has a rough diameter of 100,000 light years. If our solar system is the size of a tangerine, then the Milky Way is about 5,000 kilometers across (or about 3,000 miles), or roughly the size of the continental United States. So picture yourself walking around the country and encountering these little solar system disks of 5 centimeters across spaced out every two football fields in all directions, and you get a sense of how wide open and empty our galaxy is.

And that’s just ours. Recent estimates are that there may be a trillion, that’s a million million, galaxies in our universe.

The world is a very large and very empty place.


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China has a government that makes up its mind to do something, and boom, it gets it done.

For instance, China has more high speed rail than the entire rest of the world combined. China is currently building almost twice as much high speed rail as the entire rest of the world combined. The United States is ranked along with tiny countries like Belgium, Austria, Taiwan and Uzbekistan in its installed base. Greece, yes, Greece is building more high speed rail than the United States (see more details here).

Another example is quantum research. Here is an example of China’s advance in teleportation. They succeeded in teleporting an object from earth to orbit.

In the United States, we are vilifying scientists in many areas of study for reasons that are incomprehensible to me. For instance, our government is squelching research in stem cell technology because of a religiously guided notion of what an embryo is. Our government is systematically shutting down climate research because some members of that government are financially supported by corporations that might lose some of their profits if the public realized the damage they are doing. The White House let all its people in the science office go.

China has an active space program. The last time the United States launched humans into space was July 8, 2011. That’s over SIX YEARS ago. We rely on Russia to launch our astronauts. On October 17, 2016, China launched its sixth manned space mission. They are rapidly becoming a space superpower all on their own. They don’t need the Russians to launch their astronauts.

I am not a friend of China, its policies, and its government. I am just an observer. 50 years from now, China will be the undisputed superpower in the world. The U.S. will look like a crumbling nation, with shoddy infrastructure (we already have that, I agree with Trump on that). We will have to import all technology from other countries. All goods sold at Walmart and Amazon will be made in China. We will be busy praying to hold the waters back in Florida, Louisiana, Boston and New York City.

China is moving ahead of us rapidly and we don’t even notice. Our leaders are on a reverse course, ceding scientific, political, moral and ethical leadership to other nations. We’re supposedly busy making our nation great again, while we apparently are fixated on building useless walls (which the Chinese did many centuries ago), keeping out immigrants because we’re afraid they might kill us, and spending enormous money ($700 billion) on weapons so other countries can’t come and take our stuff.

The way I see it, if we keep going like this – and not very long – there won’t be much here that others will want to come and get. We’re sending our money overseas, for oil, for cars, for TVs and for food, and the countries overseas like it that way.

Never in the history of this country has our leadership been on such a wrong, misguided and self-destructive course.

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The full title of the book is:

Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Aliens are little grey humanoids with big heads, large black eyes, slit mouths, and sometimes they speak English. Or are they?

I have always been of the opinion that we are in no way prepared for a meeting with actual aliens, if they exist.

Homo sapiens has been on the planet for about 200,000 years. Recent discoveries have moved it up to about 300,000 years, yet to be confirmed. Bottlenose dolphins have been around for about 15 million years, and I actually believe they are just as smart was we are, they just haven’t become toolmakers, because they evolved in an environment that does not require shelter, and where food floats by them so they didn’t need to develop agriculture to survive. But I digress.

Dolphins are alien intelligences, and they have lived next to us for the duration of our entire existence. The ancient Romans talked about dolphins and interactions with them. Yet, with advanced computer technologies, translation software, and decades of research into dolphin language, we still haven’t communicated yet.

Because communication with aliens is very hard.

If real aliens landed on earth, we earthlings couldn’t do a thing with them other than look at them. And they would look at us, marvel at our “intelligence” like we marvel about the intelligence of octopuses (or dolphins) and that’s where it would end.

Aliens is a collection of scientific essays about aliens and an excellent reference work. It analyzes the origin of life on earth, how life could have developed (or not developed) on other worlds, the likelihood of that having occurred, and the odds of us ever meeting another civilization.

If you have ever wondered if we are alone, read Aliens and you will marvel and be inspired.

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Other Minds – The Octopus, the Sea,

and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

When we think of intelligent animals, we think of whales, specifically dolphins, apes, elephants, dogs, crows and parrots. I have written much about this subject, and you can find the posts by selecting Animal Intelligence from the categories dropdown on the right.

We generally do not think of octopuses as intelligent. However, octopuses, as well at cuttlefish and squid, commonly classified as cephalopods, are highly intelligent animals.

Peter Godfrey-Smith, the author of Other Minds, is a distinguished philosopher of science and a skilled scuba diver, who started studying octopuses in the process of thinking about consciousness in humans and in animals.

Other Minds tells the story of how animal life first started on earth, and how the invertebrates started splitting off from the vertebrates some 500 to 600 million years ago. As it turns out, cephalopods are invertebrates, and all other intelligent animals are vertebrates, including humans. The common ancestor of both humans and octopuses are small flat wormlike creatures that lived over 500 million years ago. As a result, an octopus is about as different from a human as you can get, and still have two eyes – and a mind.

Godfrey-Smith illustrates many astonishing examples of octopus intelligence and it becomes quite clear that, yes, they are really bright, and yes, they are very alien, very different from us. He says that the closest we are likely ever to come to meeting an alien intelligent being is going to the aquarium and watching an octopus.

I searched and found a few astonishing videos. The first one is of an octopus escaping from a ship’s deck. Since an octopus has no hard parts, no bones, no shells, he can squeeze himself through a hole as small as his eyeball, his hardest part. The video below demonstrates that.

Octopuses can also learn to use tools and solve complex problems. Here is an example of an octopus opening a jar into which it has been placed.

There are other examples that show how an octopus can open a jar from the outside to get to the prey locked inside.

I am highly interested in animal intelligence and alien intelligence, so this book turned out to be a treasure trove of information and great anecdotes and stories. I learned much about the evolution of life on earth, and the development of intelligence and consciousness. If you have similar interests, this is a book you must read.

The author is trying to be factual, and the book is therefore more of a text book than an entertainment book, which makes it somewhat challenging to read.

But I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I am sure I’ll refer to it in the future.

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Representatives from scientific organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, said during a press conference Wednesday that decades of federal funding cuts for research, scientific misinformation, and world-wide attacks on the free exchange of ideas were drivers for the movement.

— Wall Street Journal

As demonstrators in over 500 locations around the world marched in support of science yesterday, I am again reminded how our current government is working really hard at making America dumb again. It’s almost like they don’t realize that without science, there would be no drugs, no medical care, no cars, airplanes, computers, cellphones, videos, Google, YouTube, iPhones, Netflix, and most of the stuff we buy at Costco.

There seems to be a strong anti-science message, covered by deliberate misinformation and obfuscation, distributed by our government, including DeVos, Pruitt and, of course, triggered by Trump, and supported by some of our Congressmen and Senators.

We forget that this is not happening in China, and Germany, and Japan, and many other countries. So while we’re caught up in whining about experimenting with embryonic tissue in this country, China is advancing with human cloning experiments. We’re cutting the funding of NASA to the point where we do not have any ability to put humans into and out of orbit, Russia has had the monopoly on that, and China is the only other nation that has the ability to launch humans into space. While we’re spreading misinformation about vaccines, Chinese scientists are making advances. While we’re promoting and pushing coal, “clean coal” to quote the president, European nations are rapidly converting their entire electricity grids to renewable sources, and Asian nations are at the lead of research in this field. China is on pace to become the global leader in implementation of renewable energy.

If we want to make America great, we need to drive education in science and all the related areas. Within just a few years of such an effort, we’d see a renaissance of scientific activity in this country.

Yet, we shut down initiative and funding for organizations that work on cloning, we pretend that global warming is a hoax, and by doing so, we’re pushing the edge of scientific research and activity to other countries. Our current administration is actively squelching research and gagging scientists whose findings it does not politically agree with. That’s how you drive scientists to work in other countries.

In our schools, we’re more concerned with reintroduction of prayer than we are of science. We’re obfuscating science with religious drivel and pseudoscience. This is diverting the attention of our children from what really matters to what religion and government wants them to be concerned with. Religion has always been on the side of stalling scientific advance. Galileo is an example. Darwin is an example. Most climate scientists today are examples.

It will not be long before we have to buy all our renewable energy technology from China, and our ability to grow replacement organs, and get vaccines, and drugs, and reproductive controls, all need to be purchased from foreign sources.

It does not sound to me like we’re making America great. It sounds to me like we’re making it dumb.

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Here is my kind of project.

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Here is the newest robot from Boston Dynamics.

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In the early 1960s, the Russians had a little head start in the race to space. NASA was still young, and its engineers used slide rules, pencils and vellum to do its designs. And humans were the “computers” who had to figure out the math.

Hidden Figures tells the story of three brilliant African-American women who worked at NASA. Each one of them with her own special skill, each with her own drive and motivation. But in those days, blacks were not allowed to use the same toilets or coffee pots as whites. The odds were against them.

This movie tells the story of what it was like behind the scenes at NASA. We all know that it was John Glenn who was the first American to orbit the earth. What we didn’t know was that up to a few days before his launch they didn’t really know how to calculate the trajectory to get him back safely to earth.

In a time when racism seems to be back on the rise and gender equality is questioned again, Hidden Figures shows us what it was like to live under such conditions. But the human spirit rises, like the rockets of old rose.

As I walked out of the theater I could not think of a single thing wrong with this film. It just felt really good.

Rating - Three Stars

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Source: Skeptical Science

The worldwide consensus that the current global warming is anthropogenic approaches 100% as the expertise in climate science rises.

In English: The more a person knows about climate science, the more they believe it’s man-made.

Trump’s assignee to transition the EPA to the new administration is Myron Ebell, a climate change denier. Ebell has no scientific experience at all. He graduated from Colorado College with a B.A. in philosophy and obtained an M.Sc. in political theory from the London School of Economics. This makes him a politician by education, and that’s what he has done all his life.

I put a dot for him on this chart. He has no professional experience with climate science.  Not surprisingly, and consistent with the graph, knowing nothing about climate science, he ends up on the bottom as a denier. There is nothing wrong with that. Most people don’t.

However, this is the “best and brightest” President-elect Trump came up with to head the transition of the EPA, a highly science-heavy organization. That’s like making the clerk in the butcher shop in your local supermarket the Surgeon General. After all, he knows what a T-bone steak is. Meat.

I wonder what kind of respect Ebell will garner from the staff in the EPA?

This appointment does not make Trump look like he is serious. During the campaign, he signaled that actual expertise does not really matter, as long as you have good advisers. But if the advisers themselves do not have any expertise, things will not end well.

The emperor has no clothes.

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The Religious Argument

I have been fortunate that I was able to cast off the shackles and blinders of religion very early in life. I am not religious or spiritual in any way. I have always called myself a non-combative atheist, and I am convinced that mindset has served me well.

According to Wikipedia:

The Pew Religious Landscape survey reported that as of 2014, 22.8% of the U.S. population is religiously unaffiliated, atheists made up 3.1% and agnostics made up 4% of the U.S. population. The 2014 General Social Survey reported that 21% of American had no religion with 3% being atheist and 5% being agnostic.

So being part of only 3% of solid atheists mean that 29 out of 30 of my friends, associates and people I run into on a daily basis are more or much more religious than I.

As a result, I have a lot of religious friends. Some very old, good friends. I have friends who are pastors, youth pastors, and even a Catholic priest. In serious late-night discussions with religious friends, one of the most common points that eventually comes up is:

What if you are wrong?

They argue that their belief in a God protects them from eternal hellfire. While I, who does not have such an insurance policy, am exposed. Let’s say with both die. If there is a God, the priest presumably goes to heaven. If there isn’t, he’s just dead and nothing mattered anyway. But on the off-chance that there is a God, he has an insurance policy. He is covered.

But I don’t have that coverage. If there is a God, he says I’ll go to eternal hell. If there is no God, I’ll be just as dead and nothing mattered anyway.

I know that is why many religious people hang on to religion. Just in case.

The Climate Change Argument

The American public has been led to believe that “climate change is a hoax.” Our populace has just elected a government that officially, and in all levels of the executive and legislative branches, supports this argument.

The vast majority of all climate scientists in the world disagree with this reasoning. Our CO2 levels at 400 PPM in the Antarctic are now higher than they have been in 4 million years. In a hundred and fifty years of burning coal and oil we have created a hockey stick of CO2 levels in the atmosphere in the blink of an eye from a planet’s perspective. But this argument I am making here is not about the science. I’ll leave that to the thousands of scientist much better qualified than I am. I just need to state that I am utterly convinced that we’re seriously messing with the balances of chemistry in our atmosphere, and we will need to pay a dear price for that in the not too distant future.

Our illustrious American politicians tell us that it’s all a hoax. Never mind that we are the largest polluters in the world as a country. Never mind that the second and third largest polluters, China and India respectively, basically agree with the seriousness of climate change. Never mind that China is now cleaning up their act as rapidly as they can (which requires another post eventually to discuss). Never mind that 195 nations all came together and agreed that this is a serious problem and crafted the Paris climate agreement.

Our government, empowered by the electorate, is now preparing to get out of the Paris climate agreement. Trump’s position is: We’re not allowing UN bureaucrats to have the power to spend American tax dollars. By itself, that argument makes sense. UN bureaucrats should not get to spend American tax dollars. However, the consequences of just tearing up the agreement are severe.

What if they are wrong?

Say for the sake of argument that climate change really were a hoax. These CO2 levels of 400 and more in our air are just a natural spike, and humanity has nothing to do with it, and can do nothing to change it. The weather will change whether we like it or not.

In a hundred years, no matter what we do, we’ll still be here, with our Manhattan real estate, with our Miami beaches, happily ever after.

Then it will not have mattered.

But on the other side, if human activity actually does affect the climate adversely, and the hockey stick graphs are going to get worse, we will have serious consequences to deal with as a species. The human food chain in the oceans will be disrupted. Agriculture will be severely hindered. Real estate will disappear and many of the lowlands around the country will be under water.

Seriously, we’re willing to play this game – for MONEY?

Ignoring climate change now is like killing the last rooster and chicken, who have been laying eggs for us every day, so we can have ONE LUNCH.

We’re risking our children’s welfare and taking away their right to the pursuit of happiness so we can burn some more oil and coal, so some people can have jobs? Seriously?

What if we are wrong?


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Opponents of evolution often argue that we didn’t evolve from “monkeys” but rather that God designed us.

Science, however, shows many examples where evolution came up with rather poor designs. I highlighted one of  them in my post a few years ago where I compared the “design” of external laptop batteries to the “design” of mammalian testicles, using human ones as the example. A designer would never lay out testicles like mammals have them now, particularly with the vas deferens looping over the ureter.

Another example of misguided evolution is the laryngeal nerve, that controls our voice box among other things. In all mammals, this nerve goes from the brain all the way down to the heart, loops around a major artery and comes back up to the voice box. This makes no sense in humans. In giraffes, it is the most ridiculous display where rather than going two inches from the bottom of the brain to the larynx, it reaches more than six feet down the neck, around the artery, and back up the neck another six feet.

The video by Richard Dawson below shows this in a dissected giraffe.

For those of us that can’t stomach the fact that humans and modern apes have a common primate ancestor, this will be even more disturbing. It shows clear evidence that humans (and giraffes, and apes, and rats, and elephants, and whales – you get the idea) all come originally from a common ancestor fish.

Yes, fish. That’s where the laryngeal nerve started, as a connection between the brain and the gills.

Evolution is not intelligent. It has no planning or foresight. It supports and propagates the solution that survives better than any competing solutions.

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Milky Way 1

Astronomers have just recently come to the conclusion that there are two trillion more galaxies in the universe than previously thought. We used to think there were 100 billion galaxies.

Our own galaxy, which is a pretty unremarkable one, is estimated to have about 400 billion stars.

Let’s just say there is only ONE intelligent civilization in every galaxy that is active and alive today. Just one. That would make it two trillion civilizations.

There are about 7.5 billion human beings on earth.

That means that there are 266 intelligent CIVILIZATIONS in the universe for every human being alive – right now.

This is beyond what I can fathom.

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