Monthly Archives: June 2011
You had a health scare and spent time in hospital in 2009. What, if anything, do you fear about death?
I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.
What are the things you find most beautiful in science?
Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations. Examples include the double helix in biology, and the fundamental equations of physics.
There are a handful of people on this planet that will be missed forever. Carl Sagan is one of them, and here’s why:
His ability to captivate millions of people, to imbue in his audience a love of science, reason, and philosophy, and to explain the universe in simple, understandable terms is just magnificent. He is also the best person I know to have attended the University of Chicago.
When reason and logic meet Christianity, this is what you get.
I’ve met and heard of people like John Spong many many times. They flood academic circles like the University of Chicago (and its Divinity School, for example).
It’s quite interesting that the religious people who have the most common sense are the people who stray farthest from their holy books. But this is what we need more of, not less. People like John Spong are much less likely to waste our time by doing things like teaching pseudoscience in public schools, trampling over the separation of church and state, kicking atheists out of the community, preaching the insane idea of salvation by faith, making nutty Rapture predictions, telling kids knowledge about God’s opinion on sex, aiding God’s intervention in the Middle Eastern real estate market, preaching misogyny and intolerance, claiming that your DNA can change if you believe in Jesus, etc. etc.
Christopher Hitchens once asked, “is there even a society that could not be helped with a dose of secularism, reason, and/or Enlightenment?”
There are people who merely have bigoted views, and there are people who go out of their way to spread their bigoted views “What Would You Do” style.
Of the latter group, I can’t guarantee that they’ll be religious, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t inspired by Cosmos or The God Delusion. Consider two recent cases.
Taylor Campione and Kelsi Culpepper were watching a Twins game in Minneapolis’ Target Stadium. Then the following happened.
Culpepper stopped to go to the restroom and gave Campione a little kiss. Then, Culpepper said a security guard came up to her.
“I saw you kissing that girl, you can’t do that,” the guard said.
Campione told the guard, she could kiss whoever she wanted to, the guard allegedly replied, “Well, we don’t play grab a** here.”
Campione told Culpepper, who then confronted the guard and said, “I don’t understand what’s wrong with kissing my girlfriend.”
They said the guard replied, “Well here in the stadium, we adhere to the 10 Commandments.“
Another similar incident happened at a public pool in Kentucky, when two gay men just wanted to swim.
… they were at first ridiculed then told to leave by the staff at the Pavilion, a public swimming pool funded by tax dollars.
When pressed for a reason for barring them from using the pool, the two men were told that the Bible justified banning gays from sharing public pools.
“My staff asked the Pavilion staff why the men were being asked to leave, and they were informed that ‘gay people’ weren’t allowed to swim here,” Perkins said.
When the pool employee was informed that what he was doing was discrimination and was illegal, he responded that ordering the two men to leave was in the Bible, and so he could do it.
I guess it isn’t too surprising that What Would You Do is so politically correct that they won’t have their actors actually act like typical gay-bashers and refer to the Bible. We as a society only address the symptoms and not the root of the problem.
In his book The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins discusses the appearance of design.
Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.
In the context of evolution, the appearance of design makes sense. But I want to explore an area of geometry and mathematics that relates simple algorithms to beautiful appearances of design.
Welcome to the world of fractals. This is a world where I can draw a bounded snowflake that has a boundary of infinite length. It’s a world of paradox, a world where it doesn’t matter how big you are, because you won’t notice the difference when you zoom in. It’s a world of infinity, a world of endless iteration. More importantly, it’s a world of simplicity in terms of beginnings, and stunning beauty and complexity in terms of ends.
The Koch snowflake shows how simple the rules are for fractals to be constructed. One starts with an equilateral triangle. The next iteration involves the union with another triangle, which forms triangles on the periphery. Now we union the smaller triangles with rotated versions of themselves, which forms even smaller triangles on the periphery, and so on…
The resulting snowflake is not only aestheticallly pleasing, but it can also be shown to have infinite length.
The most iconic figure of fractal geometry, however, is the Mandelbrot Set.
Few people know or understand how simple the rules are that define this set. Formally, the M-set consists of all the elements C in the complex plane such that the iteration Z_n+1 = (Z_n)^2 + C is bounded, starting with Z_o = (0,0).
Computers can calculate by repeating the iteration over and over for different values of C to see if the norm of Z_n goes toward infinity.
The resulting graph of the M-set is mesmerizing. It’s a set that features very complicated arrangements of symmetry and self-similarity.
The more beautiful renditions of the M-set are created by assigning colors to values that allow Z_n to diverge, depending on the speed of divergence. As we can see below, there are all kinds of intricate “designs” in these renditions. There are seahorses and islands, shells and spirals, peninsulas and antennas.
So what can computer generated graphics show about nature, evolution, and biology life? Do fractals have any useful function besides being “beautiful”?
1) Fractals allow things that work on a large scale to be reproduced on a smaller scale (or maybe vice versa). The heart pumps blood to larger blood vessels, which branch out to smaller vessels, to smaller capillaries, and so on, and each branching pattern mimics the level above it. No designer had to use his intelligence to think about each step along the way. No God had to draw a blueprint of the location of every tiny blood vessel. Fractals allow simple patterns that work to be expanded and repeated into smaller, more intricate settings without any need to think about them, without any design.
2) Fractals are nearly ubiquitous in nature; they are found in places ranging from snowflakes and seashells to leaves and mountains.
3) Fractals are optimal for many purposes. For example, it was proven mathematically that the self-similarity of fractals allowed them to serve as the one and only optimal solution for antenna design. The fact that so many living things have fractal qualities also suggests that natural selection favored the advantages that fractals gave to certain species.
Of course, the creationists are really looking for trouble here. They look at the word “infinity” and not only do they think “intelligent design”, they think Yahweh, Jesus, and one version of one book in particular.
And they trip all over their watchmaker-design argument. After all, everything that is complex and specified must have a clear designer, right? And what do they say when we can’t find a designer for such things as fractals?
Their conjectured unknowable and untouchable god was, in fact, the very knowable Judeo-Christian God of Creation. And His methods actually express themselves as geometry. But it is a geometry that the Greeks could scarcely have imagined.
Just assert and assert and assert the superiority of your God and your One True Religion over and over again.
Let’s give them a round of applause.
“The longstanding view, as summarized by the philosopher Immanuel Kant that, ‘without Man, the whole of Creation would be a mere wilderness, a thing in vain, and have no final end’ is revealed to be self-indulgent folly.”
If there’s fifteen minutes of conversation that captures the common religious desperation to reconcile man-made fairy tales with objective scientific truths, it is the conversation PZ Myers had last week with Muslims in Dublin.
These are people who approached PZ at first with a vomiting of philosophical bullshit, using fuzzy First Cause arguments and nonsense like “occam’s razor must be uncaused, therefore it must be eternal.” And then, after being pressed for any kind of evidence for their theistic god, the Muslims turned to pseudoscientific embryology and a very odd understanding of why mountains exist, as detailed in the video above. After the event, the same group also talked to Richard Dawkins, and explained to him that evolution can’t be true because it is a “noncomplementary paradigm” with physics.
It is quite sad to see people so hopelessly devoted to their beliefs that they’ll twist and turn meaningless garble in religious books and claim that these words are in fact scientific truths that could have only come from revelation (like from some illiterate dude in a desert, for example). PZ is right that these same tricks are used by Christian and Jewish scholars. And PZ is even more right when he notes that comparing the Qur’an or other holy books to actual science is equating crude understandings of the universe with detailed and verifiable scientific evidence.
For example, how many times have Christians come up to you and said that the Genesis account is amazing because it predicted that the Universe had a beginning? It’s quite insulting to science, really. They purposely leave out one inconvenient truth: pretty much everything else in Genesis is completely wrong. Not just troubling or hard-to-read. Just dead wrong. It’s quite sad, therefore, that there’s another manufactured scientific controversy on Christianity Today. Apparently in Christian fairy-land, they still aren’t sure whether Adam or Eve actually existed, and that’s why there’s a scientific “search” for the historical Adam and Eve.
Give us a break, Christians. Just like there is no controversy about the fact that living things evolved or that the earth revolves around the sun, there is no controversy about this question of human origins either. It’s just another religious attempt to confuse people and to make it appear like their beliefs have a possibility of being true. UChicago’s Jerry Coyne delivers the point.
Genetic data show no evidence of any human bottleneck as small as two people: there are simply too many different kinds of genes around for that to be true. There may have been a couple of “bottlenecks” (reduced population sizes) in the history of our species, but the smallest one not involving recent colonization is a bottleneck of roughly 10,000-15,000 individuals that occurred between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. That’s as small a population as our ancestors had, and—note—it’s not two individuals.
There’s a real parallel between these manufactured Christian controversies and the “embryological” Muslims. All are so convinced that their beliefs must be true and must be rooted in reality that they’ll go to any length, however intellectually dishonest, to gain temporary credibility. And when science actually does reach its limits and says, “there’s more to be discovered,” religion steps in and tries to fill in the gaps.
But notice the pattern. Religion, after initially attacking science by flinging false controversies and pseudoscience all over the place, then hijacks the later discoveries of science and claim them as its own. They’ll never win, of course, because they’ll always be followers and pirates and copycats, not leaders. As Isaac Asimov brilliantly said, science stands alone.
Don’t tell me, then, that those clever Eastern (Celtic, African, Greek, or even Biblical) sages have spoken of something that sounds like the big bang or like endless expansion. That’s idle speculation.
Show me where those sages worked out the isotropic radio wave background, or the red-shifts in galactic spectra, which alone support those conclusions on anything more than mere assertion.
You can’t. Science stands alone!
And so this post ends with the inspirational quote above, as well as the following advice: If I were a person of faith, I would just call it “faith” and not bother with science or evidence.
Imagine if Bernie Madoff was running an event that attracted hundreds of investors (let’s say atheist investors) to watch his presentation and buy his new financial products with cheer and enthusiasm. That’s the “WTF” feeling I got when I watched this video from the Center for Inquiry.
If there’s anything “faith” does, it makes people irrationally trust the most vile scammers and frauds in the world.
Peter Popoff, in case you don’t know, is a faith healer. James Randi and company infiltrated his shows in the past and discovered radio transmissions (from his wife) that broadcast the information of the people he was healing (names, address, etc.). When these transmissions were shown on national TV, Peter Popoff career died down for a while.
But now he is back, asking for money from people who believe that it is possible to communicate directly with an invisible supernatural being that cares about what you think.
It’s been a long week, and I have a million things I want to write about.
First up: update on Damon Fowler, the recently-graduated high schooler who was kicked out of his community and his house for challenging an illegal school-sponsored prayer.
Greta Christina wrote a long post with all the important details about his situation and the response of the secular community. This passage struck me the most.
But when Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community stepped up. It provided compassion. It demanded justice. It offered emotional support. It offered practical support. It opened its wallets. It made it unassailably clear to Damon Fowler that he was not alone: that although his school, his community, even his parents, had all turned their backs on him, atheists would take care of him, as best they could, until he could take care of himself. It made it clear that, even though he no longer had a home in Bastrop, he had a home in this movement. When Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community proved itself to be a real community.
Reflections like the one above don’t just make me feel warm and fuzzy; they make me proud to be part of this movement.
I’ve been thinking about this movement lately, and I realize that the road doesn’t stop here. There’s a lot more to be done. There will be more troubles ahead. We’ll face misunderstanding, ignorance, and outright hatred.
But we have to remember to never ever give into the belief that only religious communities can provide real support and comfort. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that there are some things that others can provide that we can’t.