science

16
Aug

The Future That Is Now

Image of Supercar, from the Wikipedia entry on the kids' show by that name.This is the future, and we're living it now. But . . . 

What you are about to read is a follow up to my earlier post surrounding Neil deGrass Tyson's "How much would you pay for the Universe?" video. Many of us really do live in what, as a child, I would have imagined as a pretty cool world, even if I didn't have a flying car. Speaking of flying cars, as a private pilot, I can honestly say that until self-driving cars (self-flying?) are mandated by law, I'm really kind of glad that flying cars aren't everywhere.

However, as cool as my world of computers and gadgets and Higgs bosons and deciphered genomes and etc, etc, etc is, I miss our collective thirst for adventure. We're more about gadgets than discovery. I had my first computer back in the late 70s and progressed through the school's IBM mainframe to my Commodore Pet, TRS-80, Vic20, Commodore 64, IBM PC, and PCs of many incarnations to my current collection of notebooks, tablets, ebook readers, and smartphones, scattered about my house and car so I can look something up from whatever room I happen to be in.

I love all that stuff. I have a Wii, a PS3, and I had an Atari 2600 as well as one of the original Pong consoles.

But it's all just faster, shinier, and (lucky for me) progressively cheaper tech incarnations of the same old ideas. We, as a species, seem to be pushing inwards and using up what we have here rather than reaching out. Space exploration takes a kind of wild thirst for adventure that we collectively seem to be missing. We're stagnant, waiting to see how much thinner or faster the next iWhatever will be.  And we're not just stagnant, we've become timid and insular as a species, looking to the next financial quarter rather than the next quarter century.

There's a very real anti-science movement out there, fueled by fundamentalists of all stripes. Stupidity and ignorance expressed in 15 second sound-bites is rewarded while scientists and secularists are viewed with disdain and distrust. You can say, "This [ insert project here ] is an affront to God. What we need is more people in pews and less wasted dollars on science." in 15 seconds. Explaining the benefits of space exploration takes a little more time.

I want to see us break through all that, forging ahead despite these negative pressures, but research and exploration on a grand scale requires a massive buy-in from the public. Sure, these may just be the "Dim Ages" (as opposed to the Dark Ages) and we may come out of this in another hundred or two-hundred years, but I don't want to wait that long. I want to know we can do it again (walk on other worlds) and I want my children to experience that sense of wonder and excitement, just as I did.

On July 20, 1969, when I was only nine years old, humans landed on the moon. Human beings boarded a rocket and flew more than 340,000 kilometers to another world! We were pushing the boundaries of our tiny planet and reaching out, however tentatively, to the stars. Right now, in 2012, my oldest son in 8 years old and NASA doesn't even have its own reusable spacecraft. The moon seems as far away as it ever did, and as excited as I am about Curiosity's landing on Mars, we haven't progressed beyond simple rovers. 

We used to be a people poised on the edge of space and now we're Earthbound, tied down by our petty wars and small imaginations. I want a world where my sons can share in the wonder of exploring worlds beyond this one, of reaching out into the universe . . . just a little father than the generation before mine did, more than 40 years ago. 
 
Back then, we stretched our wings and tugged at starlight. How did our dreams become so small?

I've never stopped dreaming.

07
Aug

NASA Lands Car-Size Rover Beside Martian Mountain

Awe-inspiring . . . spectacular . . . glorious! Let's see where Curiosity will take us.

01
Aug

Music was better in the sixties, man.

I have personally argued that the 1970s represents the most important decade in music history, specifically rock music, but music in general.

I will argue that topic passionately but, unlike this article from Discover Magazine, I don't have the science to back me up. 

19
Apr

CTA-102 - Getting The Science Wrong Musically

Is anybody out there?

That's a question, I wager, that humans have been asking (in some form) for as long as they've looked up into the night sky.

In 1963, a Soviet astrophysicist by the name of Nikolai Semenovich Kardashev, then the deputy director of the Russian Space Research Institute was doing research as part of the Soviet's first ever search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He directed the search in a part of the sky where his team picked up what a signal from a strong radio source in the heavens. They named it CTA-102. Kardashev was convinced they had discovered transmissions from an incredibly advanced extraterrestrial civilization. He was so convinced, in fact, that he called a press conference to let the world know about his findings.

Unfortunately, CTA-102 was not a signal from an advanced civilization but the electromagnetic signature of what we now call a quasar, a so-called quasi-stellar object. CTA-102 was the first quasar ever discovered. Sure, it wasn't an alien radio signal, but it was extremely cool nonetheless, one of the wondrous discoveries awaiting us in the far reaches of space.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, while the excitement of this discovery was yet to be dampened, The American rock band known as The Byrds recorded a song calling to the non-existent civilization purportedly transmitting from CTA-102. Enjoy!

18
Apr

We want to talk to you about God

A few minutes ago (it's just after 11:00 am on this Wednesday morning, April 18, 2012), I had two very nice ladies come to the door to talk to me about god, the bible, and our place in the universe. They asked me how I was marking this time after the celebration of the lord's resurrection. I explained that I was an atheist and we proceeded to chat for about 10 minutes as they tried to convince me that the universe must have a designer, etc. They asked me how long I had been an atheist and what caused me to abandon my belief in god and his son. I assured them that I simply did not believe that there is such a being as god, or gods for that matter, and that religion was a colossal waste of time.

How then did all this come about, they asked, gesturing to the world around us. I gave a two minute history of the creation of the universe at the time of the Big Bang, the subsequent creation of heavier elements in the death of stars billions of years ago, the eventual collapse of particles into our planet, and the slow, four and a half billion year evolutionary road to us having this discussion.

The older woman, a well spoken elderly lady, had all the classic creationist arguments to science down pat; all wrong, but consistent on message. She tried her best to insert god into the 'gaps' of our scientific knowledge; always a bad idea since the gaps are always getting filled as we know more and more about our world and the laws that govern our universe.

"Don't you feel that there has to be a designer?"

No, I don't. Evolution is a fact.

"So you believe that we came from monkeys."

No, of course not. Monkeys and humans are descended from a common ancestor.

"But evolution says that things get better."

It doesn't necessarily get better. Not all evolutionary changes are good. Good or bad doesn't enter into it and no designer is required for the process to take place.

"You accept that a car is created." Of course. "But if you just leave a car alone, it doesn't evolve. It just decays and rusts and that isn't good."

It isn't bad either. When that tree over there dies, it decays, goes back into the soil and provides nutrients for the life that grows from it.

"So you don't believe in good or evil then?" she asked.

I have no trouble with the concept of good and evil, I explained.

"Then how do you explain the good that people do if it's isn't inspired by god?"

People will be good with or without god. People will be bad in the same way, but they can do terrible things in the name of a god in which they truly believe. Religion, in that way, is responsible for more death, destruction, and horror, than any other force or concept in human history.

At this point, the younger of the two, a middle aged woman who is probably close to my own age, starts flipping through the bible she is holding. The answers aren't there, I assured her. And yes, I had read it. All of it.

"Then you missed a lot of it," she said. "How do you explain the wisdom of the words."

She tried to explain that the answers were in that book she was holding, as 'directed' by god. I explained the fallacy of that belief. It's just a book, I told her, cobbled together over centuries by a variety of people and from a number of different faiths. It only looks like a single volume in that it's pressed between two covers. Much of it is fiction and the parts that aren't are innacurate at best. It's worthless as a guide for life in today's world.  I think I hurt her feelings. She said that I was insulting her. I assured her that no insult was intended, that it was just a book, and that she was free to make fun of or insult any of the hundreds of books in my house. 

We ended with the younger woman asking if there was some reason, some badness in my childhood, that made me 'hate god'. I explained that time, education, and experience had all gone to assure me there simply was no reason for believing in such a being. 

The younger explained that they were here trying to make the world a better place, and here was I was attacking their belief, angry at their being here. "If you don't want to talk to us," she began. If I hadn't wanted to talk to you, I would have sent you on your way as soon as I had noticed the book you were holding. They were very nice, I assured them, and I enjoyed the discussion.

The elderly woman, however, was unflappable, and did her best to address and counter all my arguments as I offered them. It didn't work. In the end, we wished each other a lovely day and they went on their ways.

Times like this, I wish I could hear the discussion that followed our parting.

19
Jan

Sanitized For Your Protection

Over the next few days, visitors will be treated to some changes. The first, and fairly obvious change, is that I've changed the look. In point of fact, I have completely reloaded the old "Marcel Gagné, Writer and Free Thinker at Large" site so that it's modern, up to date, and basically doesn't give me errors because I'm still paying for some experimental site work I did years ago that didn't quite work out. So the look will hopefully be something you enjoy as well. Then, there's content.

The first problem with content is that migrating comments was somewhat more difficult than migrating my blog and various articles from the site. Meaning that a lot of older comments may be gone forever (for this, I apologize but if you really need to check on what you said, I've kept a copy of the old site, locked in its last incarnation, at old.marcelgagne.com. Now, given that this is my personal Website, I feel that I can talk about whatever my little heart desires. And I do. A lot of the content has to do with Linux, Free and Open Source Software, a subject on which I am rather passionate, having written six books and several hundred articles for several different magazines.

But I also write about other things . . . 

These 'other things' include, but are not limited to, current events, science, politics, publishing, religion, atheism, and whatever else catches my attention including videos of little children facing off against Darth Vader. On some of these topics, most notably religion and politics, I may offend some of you. I consider this a good thing. Not because I like to offend people, but because it means I wrote about a subject that stirred something in you that you may not have wanted stirred, something that might be of value if you choose to explore the reasons why it offended you. This is all open to interpretation, much of it by you, the reader.  

All that said, I accept that you may not be coming to read my stuff because you want to hear me talk politics but because you want to learn or read about Linux and Free and Open Source software. To that end, I will from this moment on, post all Linux and FOSS stories to my Cooking With Linux site as well as here. If you just want the Linux/FOSS stuff without the extraneous attitude on other topics, stick with Cooking With Linux. Be warned, however, that I do occasionally include wine reviews on that site.

Hey, I'm only going to sanitize so much here.

02
Dec

Intelligent Design's Inferiority Complex

Bad ideas never die. Not without a fight. Like a disease causing bacteria or virus, they are occasionally defeated by Herculean measures, sometimes requiring that the host suffer extensive (but hopefully not fatal) damage or pain in an effort to rid the body of the invader. Sadly, as anyone who has battled serious illness, such as a cancer, the disease does occasionally return to battle anew. Even when the enemy has been defeated, you can never take for granted that it has been permanently eradicated.

So it is with Intelligent Design, or ID. In case you've been away in some place far more enlightened than this little blue-green planet of ours, Intelligent Design is an attempt by the superstitious and fearful to make the creation myth sound more scientific, thereby giving the old fable a sheen of reason.

You have to feel a special kind of pity, or sadness, for the proponents of intelligent design. Somewhere deep inside, they understand that their creation myths are, in today's world, nothing more than childish stories meant for a less enlightened age. So they try to wrap their fables and fairy tales in the scientific equivalent of the Emperor's new clothes. Nothing to see from a scientific perspective but Intelligent Design certainly sounds better than trying to pretend that the universe was created in six days and that a talking snake got the first man and woman thrown out of their all expenses paid five star resort. 

Burdened as they are with a huge weight of low self-esteem, courtesy of their religion, they look for a way to make their faith appear somewhat more modern and relevant in a world where science boldly explores and uncovers age-old mysteries, shedding light into the dark corners of ignorance. Religion, the offspring of ignorance, recoils like a vampyre exposed to sunlight. Intelligent Design seeks to protect this mystic child by suggesting that its existence is entirely compatible with science. 

Intelligent Design says, "science doesn't have all the answers" which is absolutely true. They point to the gaps in our knowledge of life, the universe, and everything, then ask, "how does your science explain these gaps?" They, of course, have an answer, but they don't call him God. That would be playing their hand too early. Instead they propose an "intelligence" that, here and there, tweaked and directed the universe, setting about the engine of creation that gave rise to us. If they can convince you that this intelligence is likely, they might suggest that you give him a name. Like God. Just as a placeholder, mind you.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest to you that the people advocating ID are probably less than honest, even with themselves. Some are, so they say, willing to talk about the Big Bang with the idea that God himself started the whole process, with the endgame being us, of course. What if he just started the universe knowing that someday, we would show up? That would be acceptable as well to a few in the ID crowd. But take note, it's always about them. About us.

Let's pretend for a moment that the universe was in fact created by some intelligence way back even before the Triassic was fashionable. Before the Earth and even our sun was a glimmer in the Milky Way's eye. This intelligence does its work and BANG, the universe is born. Fast forward 14 billion(ish) years and here we are. Do we then accept that this multi-billion year intelligence is somehow worthy of our worship?

Pretend again that this intelligence works for some other intelligence. Is this an acceptable stand-in for God? Do we worship him? Now pretend that this intelligence works for the equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider project and that, in the course of his work, creates a number of universes that blink into existence for a split second, tantalizingly close enough for this intelligence to measure. Then, through the strange nuances of the quantum, these universes retire to their own version of space time, beginning the cycle of creation, birth, death, and evolution, for billions of years until some other intelligence starts to wonder where they came from. Is this technician God? Do we worship him?

The short anwser is no. For a god to be worthy of worship, he has to care about you, and perhaps more importantly, you specifically. It's never about God. It's about the person who feels less than fulfilled if he or she can't imagine some universe and time-spanning being caring deeply about their lowly position in the vastness of space-time.

Belief in God or Intelligent Design, is a rather sad but socially acceptable and supported form of low self-esteem. It's a sanctioned inferiority complex.

Except that you shouldn't feel down. You and I are the products of billions of years of cosmic evolution. In a very real sense, it's even more miraculous to think that you and I are here to discuss these ideas without the need for some father figure in the sky who created us. We have our own mothers and fathers and they had theirs. Life, along with the power to question its origins, is glorious enough without making up stories about a non-existent creator.

And if there was some lab technician in some other universe many billions of years ago who was responsible for getting things going. I'm thankful for your crazy experiment.

But I won't worship you.

21
Jan

We will restore science to its rightful place . . .

Allow me to once more use that word, historic. Yesterday was indeed an historic day as Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States of America. Watching from Canada, where there was never much love for Dubya and his policies, there is much hope for the future under the new President. And a great deal more cautious optimism. During the noontime celebrations, I was busy feeding my son his lunch, so I caught the show later that evening. Even distanced by the sound bites and analysis of the nightly news, it was still powerful to watch.

Comments

Subscribe to RSS - science