Sunday, February 27, 2011

Look for me, Mom, I'll be there ...

" ... Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I'll be there
Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin' hand
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you'll see me.""

The Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen

100,000 strong in Wisconsin and huge groups across the country protesting the Wisconsin governor's (and by extension the Republican Party) attempt to bust public unions. No matter what they say, it's not about the budget. It's about the rich of one party (Koch brothers and the Republicans) breaking up the biggest funding source of the other party (unions and the Democrats). Remove their funding and the ability of the common man to organize and you will have a self-perpetuating Republican majority that can't be stopped.

But, maybe ... just maybe, the Republicans shot their load too soon. Underestimating the resolve of 14 brave state senators and countless people across the country that make up the backbone of the working class (teachers, firemen, cops and your average private union worker).

Those that are trying to sell you "liberty" and "freedom" are encouraging the exact opposite ... a government funded and dictated to by a small group of huge corporations whose goal this week may be fiscal in nature. But next week, when they have effective control, it will be the removing of environmental and civil rights protections.

We have a choice.

"Let the workers organize. Let the toilers assemble. Let their crystallized voice proclaim their injustices and demand their privileges. Let all thoughtful citizens sustain them, for the future of Labor is the future of America." -- John L. Lewis(President of the UMWA from 1920-1960)

Friday, February 18, 2011

2011 VNSA Used Book Sale

Finds from our yearly trek to the VNSA Used Book Sale:

Anathem by Neal Stephenson
The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach
River of Gods by Ian McDonald
Singularity's Ring by Paul Melko
The Forge of God by Greg Bear
Ender in Exile by Orson Scott Card
Earthman Come Home by James Blish (1955 1st Ed.)

Science Non-Fiction

"Dragons of Eden", "Cosmic Connection", "Billions and Billions ..." all by Carl Sagan
Black Holes and Baby Universes ... by Stephen Hawking
Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes by Alex Vilenkin
Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Singh
The Origin of Humankind by Richard Leakey
Darwin's Dangerous Idea:  Evolution and the Meanings of Life by Daniel Dennett

The Third Chimpazee ... by Jared Diamond

General Non-Fiction

Amazing Grace:  The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation by Jonathan Kozol

May Man Prevail? by Erich Fromm
Selected Papers of Bertrand Russell ... by Bertrand Russell
The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson
The Great Unraveling ... by Paul Krugman

"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them" -- Ray Bradbury

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

ASU Origins Great Debate: What is life?

I was lucky enough to have attended the ASU Origins Great Debate: What is Life? at Arizona State University's Gammage Auditorium (a great venue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) this past Saturday. Fittingly, February 12th is Charles Darwin's birthday. I had a great seat, front row off to the side a bit.

Project director Lawrence Krauss (theoretical physicist and famous author) spoke for about 10 minutes introducing each of the panelists: noted atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Nobel Prize winning chemist Sidney Altman, Nobel Prize winning Lee Hartwell, NASA planetary scientist Chris McKay, theoretical physicist and author Paul Davies, and Biologist and entrepreneur J. Craig Venter. The debate began with each of the 6 panelists speaking for 5 to 10 minutes on their own, ostensibly to define what life meant in their opinion. Each of them took a different tact, predictably. Some said what differentiates life from something inanimate. Other explained how you would look for life.

Richard Dawkins spoke first, defining life it as that which can not only reproduce but also pass along its genetic code. Altman followed Dawkins and did not differentiate significantly from his definition. The next speaker, Lee Hartwell,a physician by profession, was perhaps the most out of place. His expertise is in cancer research and he was obviously intelligent but, self-admittedly, he did not have particular insight to this subject.

McKay was next and was perhaps my favorite of the speakers. The area at NASA which he works on pertains to looking for life on other planets (and moons). He spoke on several criteria that they look for to try and detect life but the most interesting to me was in how life affects other things on a planet. The geology and weather of Earth are completely different because of the existence of life. Oxygen wouldn't exist without plant life. Geologic characteristics such as fossil fuels and limestone would not exist without organic life. Maybe because of my education (aerospace engineering) and childhood dream to be an astronaut, McKay spoke to a lot of my aspirations.

Davies talked about the fact that life that would not necessarily be the carbon-based forms we know of. He even went out on a limb and said that non-carbon-based life would be discovered on Earth within 10 years. The study that was released last year was misinterpreted to have indicated that such life had already been found. Rather, the study indicated that a life form was found that scientists were able to substitute phosphorus for arsenic and it adapted. It's still significant in that it shows that life doesn't have to be carbon-based but nothing like this has been found natively.

The last to speak was Venter and he didn't really try to define what life was but seemed more intent on talking about how he was going to create artificial life. The relationship between Venter and the other scientists here is much like it is anywhere else ... contentious. He does not hide his disdain for theoretical scientists. If you can't experiment with something in the lab, it's not worthy of Venter. Research for knowledge's sake is not really his modus operandi but rather will it give him publicity. I don't want it to sound like I'm completely down on Venter. I'm not. People like him definitely have a place and I do believe his research is going to lead to advancements in curing of diseases. But he needs to be tempered by others lest he turn into a modern Dr. Frankenstein. Venter, for those that don't already know, was the first to map the human genome.

The event ended with a round-table between the panelists and Krauss. Nothing earth-shattering was revealed except for the general disdain that Venter has for regular scientists and they for him. Krauss brought up artificial intelligence to get the others take on whether that is life. It was his belief that that A.I. is the future of the human race. With no real concerted effort to advance space exploration, the problems of population growth and depleted resources are going to make our own planet unlivable in less time than some would believe (or blindly hope).

The amount of people attending what one would expect to be a dry scientific forum among erudite crusty professors with primarily British accents gives one hope that our youth value things other than reality TV and mysticism. This was not a talk about religion but it is hard for any discussion on science or the nature of life to not address that elephant in the room. When discussing the age of the Earth, Krauss made a joke about those states that lean towards the Creationist view of the age of the planet. And judging by the thunderous applause for his joke, I'd suspect that there was not a single soul in attendance with the belief that the Earth is 6,000 years old.

The real rock star of the panel, Dawkins, attracts adulation that seems incongruous for a distinctly middle-age Oxford type. And, I'm not making this up, I am convinced that several attractive young ladies in dresses and high-heels in the front row were Dawkins groupies. They even ducked out of the talk a few minutes early to assure themselves a spot near the front of the line to get their books signed. I would have liked to have gotten my book signed as well, but by the time I got out, his line was about 500 deep. We're not talking about Peyton Manning or Derek Jeter here. We're talking about an atheist evolutionary biologist. I settled for getting Lawrence Krauss' autograph and he was exceedingly gracious, talking to me a for a bit, shaking my hand and personalizing his signature.

I figure I'll get another shot at Dawkins as he's already been to ASU Origins symposiums at least three times and seems to be a friend of Krauss. My seat was on the side of the stage where Dawkins was and when he stepped to the podium, he was no more than 10 feet from me. Pretty heady stuff for an evolution and atheist nerd like myself.

I find it gratifying to go to places where smart people speak honestly and politely disagree on some points when necessary but agree on larger ones. Most importantly:
- the need for rational thought
- the need for math and science education
- the need to honestly address the issues of our planet
- to have our investigations and research lead us where they may instead of having a result pre-ordained and fit the facts to it

I'm looking forward to more of the ASU Origins events and plan on attending the next one in April, ASU Origins Project 2011 Science & Culture Festival.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Life Looks for Life - Carl Sagan

Life Looks for Life - Carl Sagan. Best viewed at YouTube at 720p.

"It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." -– Carl Sagan

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Just Because Something's Unexplained Doesn't Mean It's Supernatural

Before you say something is out of this world, first make sure that it is not in this world
By Michael Shermer

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the brilliant author of the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes detective stories, which celebrated the triumph of reason and logic over superstition and magical thinking. Unfortunately, the Scottish physician-turned-writer did not apply his creation’s cognitive skills when it came to the blossoming spiritualism movement of the early 1900s: he fell blindly for the crude hoax of the Cottingley Fairies photographs and regularly attended séances to make contact with family members who had died in the First World War, especially his son Kingsley. Perhaps fittingly, Conan Doyle’s fame brought him into company with the greatest magician of his age, Harry Houdini, who did not suffer fakes gladly.

In the spring of 1922 Conan Doyle visited Houdini in his New York City home, whereupon the magician set out to demonstrate that slate writing—a favorite method among mediums for receiving messages from the dead, who allegedly moved a piece of chalk across a slate—­could be done by perfectly prosaic means. Houdini had Conan Doyle hang a slate from anywhere in the room so that it was free to swing in space. He presented the author with four cork balls, asking him to pick one and cut it open to prove that it had not been altered. He then had Conan Doyle pick another ball and dip it into a well of white ink. While it was soaking, Houdini asked his visitor to go down the street in any direction, take out a piece of paper and pencil, write a question or a sentence, put it back in his pocket and return to the house. Conan Doyle complied, scribbling, “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin,” a riddle from the Bible’s book of Daniel, meaning, “It has been counted and counted, weighed and divided.”
How appropriate, for what happened next defied explanation, at least in Conan Doyle’s mind. Houdini had him scoop up the ink-soaked ball in a spoon and place it against the slate, where it momentarily stuck before slowly rolling across the face, spelling out “M,” “e,” “n,” “e,” and so forth until the entire phrase was completed, at which point the ball dropped to the ground. According to William Kalush and Larry Sloman in their 2006 biography The Secret Life of Houdini (Atria Books), the Master Mystifier then dealt Conan Doyle the lesson that he—and by implication anyone impressed by such mysteries—needed to hear:

Sir Arthur, I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion ... I won’t tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery. I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along these lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily “supernatural,” or the work of “spirits,” just because you cannot explain them....

Lamentably, Sir Arthur continued to believe that Houdini had psychic powers and spiritual connections that he employed in his famous escapes.

This problem is called the argument from ignorance (“it must be true because it has not been proven false”) or sometimes the argument from personal incredulity (“because I cannot imagine a natural explanation, there cannot be one”). Such fallacious reasoning comes up so often in my encounters with believers that I conclude it must be a product of a brain unsatisfied with doubt; as nature abhors a vacuum, so, too, does the brain abhor no explanation. It therefore fills in one, no matter how unlikely. Thus do normal anomalies become paranormal, natural phenomena become supernatural, unidentified flying objects become extraterrestrial spacecraft and chance events become conspiracies.

Houdini’s principle states that just because something is unexplained does not mean that it is paranormal, supernatural, extraterrestrial or conspiratorial. Before you say something is out of this world, first make sure that it is not in this world, for science is grounded in naturalism, not supernaturalism, paranormalism or any other unnecessarily complicated explanations.

The particular anecdote may be irrelevant, but noted skeptic Shermer's conclusion,

"This problem is called the argument from ignorance (“it must be true because it has not been proven false”) or sometimes the argument from personal incredulity (“because I cannot imagine a natural explanation, there cannot be one”). Such fallacious reasoning ... must be a product of a brain unsatisfied with doubt; as nature abhors a vacuum, so, too, does the brain abhor no explanation. It therefore fills in one, no matter how unlikely ..."

certainly is not. While most would take this to be aimed at religion (and it certainly is), it can also be applied to conspiracy theorists, new agers, UFO nuts, ghosts chasers, etc.

Any advanced race that would ever come to Earth would have technology and knowledge that would seem indistinguishable from magic to us. But that doesn't mean it is magic. Shermer focuses on points I've always tried to make here. Most notably, doubt is not a bad thing. Get over your own mental prejudices. Just because we can't explain something doesn't mean it is supernatural (or divine). It just means that we don't have the tools to understand it yet. And that's not a discouraging thing ... that's an exciting thing. It means that there is always more to learn.