Showing posts with label science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science. Show all posts

09 May 2016

That can't be right!

The truth is not always intuitive or obvious. Claims and counterclaims abound in our day, many of them helped along by the rapid spread of ideas on the internet. But false ideas are often very dangerous.

I'm thinking of ideas like creationism, a young Earth, vaccines causing autism, the denial of climate change, and many others like them.

It's been a while since I posted regularly on this blog, but I'm going to try to get back to it. Some of the  posts might examine one or other of these ideas. But at the root of all them lies a common issue - are we going to begin with the evidence? The alternative is to begin with a position and seek to justify it by finding evidence to support it. But to see the universe as it truly is we must begin with the evidence and argue from that. Often, this will lead us to ask more questions. This is the scientific way.

What we must not do is begin with a preferred view of the way things are and sift the evidence, gathering anything that supports our starting position and ignoring whatever seems to go against it.

I can assure you of one thing. If, as a society, we ignore the evidence, eventually our decisions will come back to bite us. It's happened before; here's one cautionary tale.

Lysenkoism - Jean Baptiste Lamarck was a distinguished French scientist working in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He developed an early theory of evolution and thought that organisms could inherit acquired features from their parents. This was a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence available in his day. But later evidence showed it was incorrect.

In the 1930s a form of Lamarckism was adopted in the Soviet Union. It was called Lysenkoism (after the Soviet scientist Trofim Lysenko). Based on his work to improve crop yields, his theories were approved by Stalin and laws were made to outlaw opposing theories. But the opposing theories were correct (inheritance and evolution as we understand them today).

How did this mistake come back to bite the Soviet Union? To put it as simply as possible, crops failed and people went hungry, biology and agriculture in western capitalist nations forged ahead, while Soviet biology and agriculture stagnated. Eventually Lysenko's ideas were discredited.

The moral of the story is this. Let's not ignore evidence and let's not pick and choose evidence to support our pre-existing ideas. If we do, the consequences may be very severe.

24 November 2015

Science and religion

I've written on this topic before, but I want to write again following a meeting last night arranged in Cambridge by the Faraday Institute. It was their annual reception and the first time I have taken part in a meeting. I plan to go to some of the public lectures as well.

The Faraday Institute Website
The Faraday Institute Website
The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion was created ten years ago to facilitate study and
discussion about science and religion.

It has an interdisciplinary, academic research program, but it also offers courses, lectures, seminars and conferences. Much of the material is online, available free of charge.

Last night's meeting began with something to eat and drink and a chance to circulate and chat. Then we heard Sir Colin John Humphreys, a physicist and Director of Research at Cambridge University, speaking on aspects of life as both a scientist and a Christian. He reminded us that it's important to read the Bible and pray.

Finally we had group discussions. Groups had been chosen so that people with similar scientific interests were gathered together. so my group was broadly biological.

The discussion was very helpful. We talked about the questions that people ask us, we discussed how to approach conversations rationally and non-confrontationally (being confrontational is a particular weakness of mine). And we considered the difficulties of a busy career in science and finding time for Christian actvities in the midst of it all. I was able to point out the dangers of dualism in our lives and how it's not about the proportion of our time that we spend on this activity or that, but whether we are kind to the person working beside us. In other words, do we reveal the fruit of the Spirit in every part of life; Christian ways of being and living should fill all that we do.

We heard about the opportunities the Faraday Institute has in British schools, answering questions that most concern young people. Our group's moderator was Lizzie Coyle who is the Institute's Youth and Schools Outreach Officer; she told us that the commonest questions she hears include  'Why is there so much suffering in the world', and the usual questions about evolution.

It was a great evening and I met some really good people. I would like to revisit the work of the Faraday Institute again on this blog; perhaps next time I can introduce some of the good thinking from lectures and seminars.

Useful link - The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion

16 October 2013

Sciencism and religiology

Sciencism and religiology do not exist for very good reasons. Neither would be an appropriate endeavour, both would be doomed to failure. It's necessary to use faith for religion and the scientific method for science. Any attempt to swap these methods would be extremely foolish.

Science and religion
Science and religion
Near the end of my previous post I asked two questions, "Why is there no widespread science of 'religiology'?" and "Why is there no widespread religion of 'sciencism'?"

I'd like to consider these questions now, and we'll start with the second one.

Why is there no widespread religion of 'sciencism'? - All religions involve believing something without tangible evidence and this is called "faith". I should be clear about what I mean by "evidence". Evidence is used in a court of law to help the jury decide whether or not a person is guilty of a particular crime. This is the same kind of evidence required in science to establish whether an assumption (called an hypothesis) is wrong.

Suppose there has been a murder or a theft. The evidence that a crime has been committed is always clear, there is a body or a missing piece of property. But the evidence that the suspect was responsible is often harder to find. It might depend on discovering fingerprints or a weapon and there may be counter-evidence. Perhaps the accused has an alibi.

Science is based on clear and reproducible methods of making observations, creating hypotheses, testing them and rejecting whatever can be proved to be wrong. In some ways this is similar to a court of law. Over a period of time, often decades, if an hypothesis has still not been disproved it may be regarded as a theory, that is, an assumption that seems sturdy and has survived every attempt to prove it wrong.

That's how science works (by means of abundant evidence from observation and experiment). Because of this there is nothing to believe, science is not a matter of faith, so there can be no religious aspect to science. The religion of sciencism doesn't exist because it is a contradiction in terms. Some people might "put their faith in science" in the sense that they expect it to explain everything leaving no room for religion. But that is a dangerous point of view.

There are areas that science does not and cannot investigate. For example, the idea that there is a Creator who brought the universe into being cannot be investigated. We can observe the universe as it is today and we can draw conclusions about its state close to the beginning. But "before the beginning" makes no sense and is open to speculation and to faith, but not to experiment or measurement.

Why is there no widespread science of 'religiology'? - Let's be clear what we mean. We can use some of science's methods to study religion, but not all of them. It is possible to count or estimate the number of people who adhere to a particular faith, their geographic distribution can be studied, so can their ethnic make-up.

However, this is not enough to make a true science. Certain elements are there, but others are missing. Studies like these are part of the so-called "social sciences".  They share careful observation and hypothesis with science, but they sometimes lack the testability by experiment that is also necessary.

Suppose you form a hypothesis, perhaps that some kind of god figure is essential in a fully functioning human society, or that any god must be a feature of human imagination and cannot be real. How do you test that? What experiment can you do to disprove hypotheses of that kind?

There is no science of religiology because religion is not susceptible to the scientific method. And that turns out to be the same reason there is no religion of sciencism. (There is, however, a Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Perhaps this goes against the argument I am making and might be evidence that my hypothesis is faulty.)

What can we conclude? - The only sensible conclusion to draw is that we need different sets of tools for the two domains, scientific tools based on observation and experiment for science and religious tools based on faith for religion.

This is why it is incorrect to claim that evolution is as much a matter of faith as creationism. Evolution is evidence-based, creationism is faith-based. We need to use the correct tools. The creationists are right about creation and wrong about evolution. Richard Dawkins is right about evolution and wrong about creation. The two camps cannot communicate because they are using different languages.

You cannot dismiss science by claiming that faith is required. You cannot dismiss religion by claiming the scientific method is required. Both stances are equally incorrect, both are equally foolish, and both miss the point.


Questions:

  • Why do you suppose there is so much heat and so little light in the debate?
  • Do science and religion threaten one another in some way?
  • Do they deal with two different parts of the human experience?
  • If so, why can't we all just accept that?

See also:

11 October 2013

Understanding science and technology

Truth is truth, and we have to deal with that, even if it seems terribly inconvenient. In particular, scientific facts are truth in the sense that they are demonstrable (by the scientific method) and effective (because they lead to technology that works).

George Boole
George Boole
Denying something that is a well-established theory and has stood years, decades or even centuries of attempts to disprove it is, well, foolish. Yet this is often what believers do (of all faiths) when faced with a scientific finding that seems to contradict articles of their faith.

And the technologies that work for us every day include some that demonstrate the effectiveness of those disputed scientific findings.

Some examples - The science around evolution, for example, underpins some effective technologies in plant and animal breeding, agriculture and medicine.

The science of geology explains the ancient origin of rocks and the movement of the continents but also underpins the petroleum and mineral extraction industries.

And the hotly disputed science around climate change is providing predictive technologies that are already showing their worth in longer term forecasting. Although this is not a religious argument per se, it is being argued in similar ways to the conflict over evolution.

Some of the earlier science/religion debates that were once high profile are now long-forgotten. Few people would argue today that the Catholic church was correct and Galileo wrong about the earth not being at the centre of everything.

Accepting science and religion - And here's something else that's interesting. Why are certain scientific ideas argued against so vehemently while others attract little or no attention? For example, Joshua 10:12-13 tells us that the sun and moon stood still in the sky. Yet this is not leading to a mass denial of angular momentum, classical mechanics or orbital mechanics which clearly show such a thing to be impossible.

Can we not accept that science attempts to describe and explain the physical universe while religion attempts to describe and explain the spiritual realm? The physical universe is known and understood by observation, experiment, and careful thought. The spiritual realm is known and understood by revelation. Why should science and religion be seen as in conflict? Science deals with that which is provable, religion deals with that which is not.

(The photo shows George Boole, who developed the mathematics for processing values of true and false. His work underpins some of the theoretical aspects of modern computing.)


Questions:

  • Is it helpful to keep science and religion separate in our minds?
  • Why is there no widespread science of "religiology"?
  • Why is there no widespread religion of "sciencism"?
  • Does it make sense to begin with a conclusion and then look for supporting evidence? In a court of law? In science? In religion?

See also:

04 March 2013

Penzias, Wilson and some noise

The universe, Part 5
< From the beginning to atoms | Series index | No later items >

Penzias and Wilson discovered an unknown microwave signal that turned out to be evidence for the origin of the universe. The story involves inconvenient pigeon droppings and more than a little serendipity. It ends with a Nobel Prize for physics and fame.

The Holmdel Horn Antenna
In part 4 of the series we saw how the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) provides the earliest visible image of structure in the universe.

This time we're going to follow the curious story of its accidental detection by Penzias and Wilson.

The Holmdel microwave antenna in the image is at Bell Labs in New Jersey and was built in 1959 for early radio experiments with the Echo satellites (reflective balloons in earth orbit).

The horn antenna was being used by Arno Penzias and Bob Wilson in 1964. They were building sensitive, low noise, microwave radio receivers for use with the Echo satellites and had a serious problem with unexplained radio noise. They ruled out several possible causes, including a build-up of pigeon droppings in the horn, but nothing they could think of seemed to reduce the frustrating noise. Eventually they concluded it was not noise, but a genuine signal from an unknown source.

The noise explained - Another physicist, Robert Dicke had been searching for a signal just like the one that had caused Arno and Penzias so much trouble. Dicke had failed in his search but he heard about Penzias and Wilson's results and recognised it as relic light from the early universe, the elusive CMBR! The Penzias and Wilson paper and another by Dicke and three others were published together in July 1965. There's a lot more about this story in the book 'Genesis of the Big Bang' by Ralph A Alpher and Robert Herman who remembered the events well.

This is an interesting example of the way science progresses. Dicke, like George Gamow before him, had predicted the CMBR based on cosmological theory. Now that it had been found, the credibility of the theory was greatly strengthened.

Dicke was soon able to observe the CMBR himself, and later the COBE satellite would observe it in much greater detail, finding small irregularities in temperature. These too had been theoretically predicted.

When experimental results bear out theoretical predictions like this, scientists can be confident the theory is on track and more likely to be reliable.

WMAP, Planck and other instruments have refined the detail still further and strongly support the current Standard Model of Cosmology known as the Lambda-CDM Model..

Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1978 for their discovery.


Questions: 
  • Which interests you the most, the science itself or personal stories like this one?
  • Can you imagine the amount of dedicated effort involved in doing science?
  • Do you sense the determined search for truth in the hearts of dedicated scientists?

See also: 


< From the beginning to atoms | Series index | No later items >

10 February 2013

Sixteen years climate myth

For some decades there have been constant disputes between climate scientists and those who deny that humanity is causing global temperatures to increase. This article presents a video made by Skeptical Science to show that one of the more recent claims by the deniers is wrong.

The Skeptical Science website
Skeptical Science is dedicated to debunking arguments that deny burning fossil fuels causes climate change.

One of these arguments is that there has been no detectable warming during the last sixteen years and Skeptical Science made a video (below) to show why this is false. It's well worth watching whatever your views on the science.

More detail about the 16-year claim is available on the Skeptical Science website.

No room for doubt - The temperature trends are very clear and the rate of fossil fuel burning is still rising year on year. Some countries are reducing their output already, but most are not. It's already far too late to prevent serious effects, but these will become even worse if we just carry on as we are.

Global warming sceptics have repeatedly clutched at every straw they can. Again and again they have attempted to find fault with the measurements, the reasoning or the conclusions and every time the scientists have show that the sceptics are the ones with the faulty reasoning. The 16-years argument is one of the most recent of these insubstantial straws.



Take a look at Skeptical Science's website for more information on all aspects of the data and discussions. It's also worth referring to the Wikipedia article on the continuing controversy. The great majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is happening and is caused by human activity.

Questions:

  • Who will best understand global warming data, professional climate scientists or the media?
  • Climate warming may be severe, is it wiser to make cuts or just carry on as usual?
  • Are there simple things you could do to reduce your own, personal energy use?

See also:

22 January 2013

From the beginning to atoms

The universe, Part 4
< In the beginningSeries index | Penzias, Wilson and some noise >

The universe grows larger, cooler and more complex at astonishing speed until it's a few minutes old. Further change is much slower and less dramatic. Fundamental forces and particles are generated, hydrogen and helium are formed and light is released.

The cosmic microwave background radiation
The first few minutes of the universe's existence see a huge increase in volume and a dramatic reduction in temperature. Gravity, light, and atomic forces separate from one another. And finally matter comes into existence in the form of hydrogen and helium nuclei and electrons.

More fundamentally we could say that the universe evolves from a simple, evenly distributed beginning and generates greater and greater complexities confined to smaller and smaller volumes as it expands. We'll explore this concept in a later post.

In Part 3 we discussed the beginning but also understood that we can't directly understand or observe it. A good theory of quantum gravity might help, but we don't have one yet.

So how near the beginning can we claim to have any real understanding? The answer is back to 10-43 of a second. If you want to see that as an ordinary fraction you would need to write 1 at the top with 1 followed by 43 zeroes at the bottom. So we understand the universe (in some sense) back to a very, very tiny part of a second.

What exactly do we know from that very early time?

Gravity and inflation - For one thing, gravity and the other fundamental forces may have all been of equal strength at first, with gravity separating out at 10-43 seconds. There is theoretical support for this. After gravity separated to become the very mild force it is today, the universe entered a time of extremely rapid expansion known as inflation.

This is not just something scientists have dreamed up; the observed properties of the universe can only be explained by such a rapid inflation during which it became unimaginably larger in a tiny, tiny fraction of a second. Before inflation the universe was smaller than a sub atomic particle. Inflation ended between 10-33 and 10-32 seconds, but by this time the universe was spacious (perhaps as large as a football) and packed with elementary particles that still exist in our own time - quarks, antiquarks and gluons.

How do we know all this? There are three important things that constrain what is possible.

  • Theory - Based on what we know of the later universe, theory rules out most hypotheses about the earliest eras. Only an early universe similar to what is described above could have resulted in what we see today.
  • Cosmology - Observations suggest a great deal. The cosmic background radiation (shown above) and the distribution of galaxy clusters, for example, can only be explained by inflation.
  • High energy physics experiments - By creating high energies in particle accelerators we can observe the properties and behaviour of particles in a similar state to these early phases of the universe.

Here's one more thing about inflation. If, as many think, our universe began as a quantum fluctuation, then without inflation it would have been the most transient of fluctuations and the universe would have been snuffed out almost immediately while it was still very tiny.

The electroweak epoch - The next stage in the evolution of the universe involved the strong nuclear force separating from the remaining two fundamental forces. Like the earlier events, this too happened at a very early time, around 10-34 seconds. More particles were able to condense out of the soup of energy at this stage, W bosons, Z bosons and Higgs Bosons became common. These are particles that can be generated in our most powerful accelerators today, so we are able to study them and understand them reasonably well.

The universe continued to expand and cool so that by 10-12 seconds bosons could no longer be created. 10-12 seconds is also called a picosecond (one quadrillionth of a second). Lasers with pulses as short as a picosecond are used for cutting and shaping materials, in medicine, and for removing tatoos. It's still a very brief time, but meaningful enough for real life use. Light travels just 0.3 mm in this time.

The quark, hadron and lepton epochs - The universe continued to expand and cool. After it was a picosecond old the electromagnetic and weak forces separated and the universe at this time was full of a dense quark-gluon plasma.

By the end of this epoch at around a microsecond old (one millionth of a second), the universe was cool enough that the quarks could combine to form protons, neutrons and their anti-particles. At an age of about one second the universe was cool enough for particles and anti-particles to annihilate, leaving a small excess of protons and neutrons.

As the universe expanded and cooled further and aged to about ten seconds, electrons and other leptons were also able to annihilate with their anti-particles leaving a small excess of mostly protons, neutrons, electrons, and photons.

Over the next few minutes conditions cooled to a point where atomic nuclei could form, mostly deuterium and helium with a little lithium. At this point the universe contained these nuclei, protons, electrons, and photons. After a further 380 000 years of cooling and expansion the protons and other nuclei combined with the electrons to form hydrogen and helium atoms (and some lithium atoms). This allowed the photons to move freely (the cosmic microwave background radiation), space became transparent and the earliest structures formed. These structures were simply volumes of slightly varying density and temperature. They are the first things we can 'see' directly and are shown in the illustration at the top of the article.

From this point on the universe becomes more and more recognisable to us, albeit still far hotter and denser than today. We will be able to see the rest of the story much more in terms of astronomy.


Questions: 
  • Are you surprised at the amount of change that took place in the first second?
  • Is the creation of the universe more complex than you had imagined?
  • How do you feel about a universe that started this way?

See also: 


< In the beginning | Series index | Penzias, Wilson and some noise >

07 January 2013

The climate in 2012 and 2013

Global warming is real and is coming to a country near you. In fact it's coming everywhere and the effects will be very serious. Here's a report on some of the main points as discussed in a recent series of New Zealand radio shows. What can you do about it? Try to make more people aware of the facts.

A frosty scene in EnglandA series of ten minute slots in a New Zealand radio show provide a useful climate update. Listen to Glenn Williams discussing the climate with Gareth Renowden.

They review some of the worst weather events in 2012 including Hurricane Sandy, and look to the coming year for hints of what to expect next.

The stunning lack of official action to reduce our impact on climate also gets a mention.

We're now in a place where we must expect a severely changed planet, perhaps four or even six degrees celsius warmer than it is right now. Carbon dioxide levels are continuing to rise and are likely to top 400 ppm in 2013. The consequences involve considerable sea level rises, ocean acidification, serious ocean ecosystem damage and further loss of Arctic sea ice.

My own conclusion is that we are doing nowhere near enough to limit our carbon dioxide output at a time when the pace of change is proving to be far faster than we expected just a few years ago.

There's much more detail about all these matters at the Skeptical Science website.

Oh, and if you don't live in New Zealand don't think you don't need to listen. You do. You really, really do. We all need to listen.

Questions:

  • Is there anything you can do to help make more people aware of the facts?
  • What do you think will happen if we do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
  • On present showing, do you think humans are looking after the Earth well?

See also:

06 January 2013

How does science work?

The universe, Part 2
< Introducing the universeSeries index | In the beginning >

We need to understand the basis upon which science operates and justifies its findings. Without this basis we would be unable to understand and describe the universe in any meaningful way. We see that science has a rigorous method and underpins reliable technology.

The famous Miller-Urey experimentBefore we look at the story of the universe, there's some groundwork we need to put in place. In the previous part I explained why I wanted to embark on this project and why I thought I'm suited to it. But this time I want to address science itself.

How do we know science works? Why should we accept its claims, for the universe or for anything else?

There are two lines of argument that should encourage us to accept the ability of science to produce valid conclusions. One is theoretical and is based on how science works. The other is practical and looks for evidence that science has worked.

How does science work? - At its most basic, science is pretty straightforward. It's really just good observation, making a best guess as to what might account for the observation, devising an experiment to test the guess, and then either rejecting the guess because it failed or making a new guess and trying again.

When a guess (science calls it an hypothesis) has been tested for a prolonged period of time and has passed every single test thrown at it, we become convinced it really is correct and then science calls it a theory. And we're not talking about ten tests, or a hundred. It may take fifty years or more of serious effort before a theory is widely accepted.

The words 'observation', 'hypothesis', 'experiment' and 'theory' are scientific jargon and should not be taken to have their everyday meanings. In the area of science they have precise definitions that we must keep in mind if we want to understand scientific debate and writing. 'Theory' in particular is commonly misunderstood.

(That is a simplified description of science, for a more thorough version read the Wikipedia article on the scientific method.)

The image above is a diagram of the apparatus used in the famous Milley-Urey experiment. This experiment disproved the hypothesis that organic chemicals could not form naturally in early planetary atmospheres.

So what does science look like in practice? - An example will help.

Let's say we notice that grass doesn't grow well underneath mature trees. That's an observation.

We might guess that grass doesn't like to be covered in dead leaves. That's an hypothesis.

We decide to grow grass in pots and then cover some of the pots with dead leaves gathered from the woods. That's an experiment.

We let the experiment run for some time and then come to look at the results. All the grass is still growing happily. So it looks as if the hypothesis was wrong, there must be some other reason that grass doesn't grow under trees. The hypothesis can't become a theory because we've shown it was wrong.

Suppose instead that we had guessed that grass needs plenty of light to grow. This time we'd find we couldn't disprove the guess. We might do dozens of different experiments and find grass always dies if it doesn't get plenty of light. We could now make a theory - 'grass needs plenty of light to grow'.

We can now say that grass almost certainly needs plenty of light to grow, and dead leaves definitely don't prevent it from growing. That's an advance in scientific knowledge.

Because of the way science works there is little room for argument. A single negative result kills an hypothesis stone dead. Hypotheses become reliable theories when they have passed many unsuccessful challenges. For example general relativity, evolution, quantum mechanics and electro-magnetism are regarded as theories. They have very, very high likelihoods of being correct and long histories of passing experimental tests.

Technology stands on the shoulders of science - Technology also gives us great confidence in the results of science. Technology often depends on the results of scientific understanding in order to make something useful or to make it more efficiently. If the underlying science was wrong, the technology based on it would fail.

The fact that technology works as well as it does is strong, additional evidence that the scientific method produces reliable and correct results. We are surrounded by proof that science is trustworthy. Cars, ships, computers, TV sets, radio communications, plastics, medicines, heart pacemakers, electricity, fridges, washing machines, microwaves, air conditioning, central heating, felt pens, emulsion paint, rubber, plant and animal breeding - all these technologies and many, many more depend on the reliability of science.

There are also examples of technology that failed because it was not based on sound science. The best example is plant breeding in the Soviet Union during the cold war. It was based on Lysenkoism, a falsified theory of inheritance.

If we can be sure science is reliable and produces correct results, then we can also be confident about what it tells us about the universe.

Questions:
  • If science is purely well-tested observation, on what grounds can we question it?
  • The nature of the universe makes technology possible, what can we conclude from that?
  • Can you imagine a world in which there were no underlying rules?

See also:



< Introducing the universeSeries index | In the beginning >

03 January 2013

The universe - INDEX

(See indexes on other topics)

This is the index page for a major series on the story of the universe. I'll be adding sections from time to time and provide links to all the parts below.

Where does it begin and end?I would like to attempt a major project in which I'll do my best to describe and explain the universe as we understand it in 2012 and 2013. The first part of the series is an introduction and explains why and how I am doing this.

The list below will expand as fresh parts are written. It's a story with no beginning as we cannot currently investigate the state of the universe right at the start (assuming 'the start' has any rational meaning for the universe). And it's a story with no end because it seems unlikely that the universe will have an ending in the sense of ceasing to exist.

Besides, time itself might be seen as part of the universe. In that case we would be talking about the beginning and end of time. What would that mean?

One of the truly astonishing things about the universe is that it contains tiny blobs of matter (us) that are capable, in some sense, of comprehending it. This should seem far more extraordinary than it does to most people most of the time.

Here's the list of parts so far.
  1. Introducing the universe - Why am I attempting this project?
  2. How does science work? - So, why should we accept the claims of science?
  3. In the beginning - Even time and space began at the beginning.
  4. From the beginning to atoms - Forces and particles condense from energy
  5. Penzias, Wilson and some noise - How the cosmic background was found.

Questions:

  • Do 'beginning' and 'end' in science and in religion refer to the same thing?
  • Scientific and religious - do they overlap or conflict or are they distinct?
  • What lies beyond the universe? How could we know?

See also:

11 December 2012

Introducing the universe

The universe, Part 1
< No earlier items | Series index | How does science work? >

This is the first post in a series on the story of the universe, insofar as we know it in the first eighth of the twenty-first century. In this introduction I provide a little background about my reasons for tackling this subject and my own training and experience in science.

The Hubble extreme deep field view
I have a new project, and this post is the very first part of it. What I'd like to attempt is a sweeping review of the development of the entire universe, from the earliest moments right up to the present. It goes without saying that this is a rather ambitious task.

Why would I want to do this? - There are several reasons. One is the current battle of ideas between science on the one hand and people who think they know better on the other. And here I include creationists, the detractors of the evidence for global warming, deniers of human causes of global warming, those who are anxious about the side effects of inoculations and all sorts of other groups denying that scientific understanding of this or that topic is correct. I'll refer to these disparate groups as deniers and disbelievers (DDs).

DDs have a variety of reasons for their views. Some are genuinely concerned that science has a wrong view that is dangerous or harmful. Others may have some kind of hidden agenda. DDs of both kinds can be extraordinarily resistant to logical argument. Some (a small minority) can be manipulative and a few have been abusive.

Another reason is simply to share what are to me profound and amazing truths about the nature of existence. When you see something astonishing and beautiful, don't you want to share it with others?

Fun along the way - I have a scientific background (I was a professional biologist for many years) and I enjoy explaining things. I don't know a whole lot about fields other than my specialist area of biology, but I do have a science education and I possess the basic tools needed to understand scientific arguments and the principles by which science progresses.

I expect we can have a lot of fun along the way. Get ready for some amazing images and videos. Prepare to meet some extraordinary characters. And don't be surprised if some of the things we see are truly beautiful and awe inspiring - that's the way the universe is. To see some of these now, click on the photo of distant galaxies for a more detailed view, and take a look at the scale of the universe, an interactive journey up and down from the scale of our normal environment.

Not all my blog posts will be devoted to this journey of discovery. They'll be interspersed with much else besides - all the other topics I've posted on in the past. But every so often I plan to slip in another post in this series on the story of the universe. I'll link the posts together so you can easily browse back and forth between them, and there's an index to help you jump straight to a particular topic.

Questions:

  • Broadly speaking, is your inclination to trust or distrust science and scientists?
  • Do you find the natural world beautiful, perplexing, and thought provoking?
  • In your opinion, does the existence of the universe demand an ultimate cause?
  • If not, would you say it's enough to assume that there is no cause?

See also:


< No earlier itemsSeries index | How does science work? >

19 November 2012

Other species in heaven

Is heaven a place to which we go after this life is over? If so, who gets to go, just humans? We take a look at our closest relatives and ponder where to draw the line between human and not human. If drawing a line is impractical, might there be something wrong with our understanding of the nature of heaven?

Reconstructed Neanderthals
Here's an interesting idea, something I haven't seen discussed before. If it has been, I missed it.

(Note: If you are a creationist you may not like what follows. The article is not intended to be provocative but you might prefer not to read the rest.)

Many believers in Jesus would say that heaven is a specific place to which we go after this life is over (assuming we have faith in Christ as Lord and Saviour). And many of those same people would also say that only people go to heaven - in other words there will be no cats, dogs, snakes, pigeons or earwigs in heaven.

There are many reasons for thinking heaven may not be exactly what we imagine it to be. But let's leave that aside for the moment and accept that it's a place for retired saints, and animals are not allowed.

The big question is this... Where do we draw the line between humans and non humans?

I hope we can all agree that the major races of people are indeed all human. Negroid, Asiatic, Caucasian, North American Indian and all the rest. Broad divisions and minor differences, we are all one species, Homo sapiens. If we can't agree that - we are in trouble!

Various species - Modern humans are the only species remaining today, but other types of  hominin (human-like primates) existed in the past.

Modern humans - Fossil evidence suggests that modern humans (Homo sapiens) have been around now for perhaps 200 000 years, and most definitely for at least 50 000 years by which time our ancestors were showing evidence of modern human behaviour.

But other fascinating fossil and sub-fossil discoveries have been made, some of them rather recently.

Red Deer Cave People - These may or may not be a different species from us. They lived until 11 500 years ago in China. Research is continuing but attempts to recover DNA have so far failed and other evidence is not yet conclusive. They are known to have used fire and cooked deer meat.

Flores man - This species (Homo floresiensis) was very small and is only known from the Indonesian island of Flores. The most recent specimens date to only 12 000 years ago. They were also toolmakers like us, stone tools have been found with their remains.

Denisovans were recently discovered (2008). They are known from a few minor bone remains in a Siberian cave. DNA analysis shows clearly that they are related to Neanderthals and interbred to some extent with the people who populated the Pacific islands. They survived until about 41 000 years ago and had a common ancestor with both modern humans and neanderthals around a million years ago.

Neanderthals - Quite similar to us, Neanderthals have been known from skeletal remains for many years. They are sometimes regarded as a separate species from us (Homo neanderthalensis) or sometimes as a subspecies (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis). Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia from 600 000 until 30 000 years ago or perhaps even as recently as 25 000 years ago.

Neanderthals seem to have had behaviour strikingly similar to our own. They probably had language, they made tools, wore clothes, hunted large animals (even the giant mammoths), they wore jewellery, cared for invalids, used fire, painted cave walls and observed rituals for the dead.

Genetic evidence shows that there was limited interbreeding between our ancestors and Neanderthals.

Homo erectus - This hominin may have been the ancestor of  Homo sapiens (us), Homo neanderthalensis and the other groups listed above. They lived from 1.8 million until at least 300 000 years ago and may have remained even longer, perhaps overlapping with us and certainly with Neanderthals. Homo erectus lived in Africa, Europe and Asia, made stone tools, and ate meat as part of a mixed diet.

Homo ergaster - Another possible ancestor, perhaps of Homo erectus as well as the other groups, Homo ergaster lived in Africa from 1.8 million years ago. These ancestors, too, had an advanced stone tool culture.

Overlapping species - It seems that several different hominins were living on the Earth at the same time although we are now the only remaining kind. If we assume that sapiens, floresiensis, denisovans, and neanderthalensis are different species (as many scientistists do), then we have at least four species co-existing. We might even add the Red Deer Cave people which would make five. In many cases there was overlap in geographical range as well, and there was a modest amount of interbreeding between modern humans and both Denisovans and Neanderthals.

The question then arises whether all four (or five) will be present in heaven. Of course, it's possible to argue that all these groups are subspecies of Homo sapiens. In that case we might call them all 'human' and the 'heaven problem' might seem less of an issue. But many scientists studying these groups would say that they are different species of human.

The ancestor species, Homo erectus and Homo ergaster, are also usually regarded as human and it's just possible that a population of erectus remained recently enough to have overlapped with us. Will erectus be present in heaven? How about ergaster?

The question, as I mentioned, is where to draw the line. So in case you haven't drawn that line yet, let's continue along our family tree and see what comes before Homo ergaster.

Earlier hominid ancestors - The ancestor of Homo ergaster, Homo habilis, was another tool user living from 2.33 to 1.4 million years ago. With long arms and a brain only half the size of modern humans, we can be certain habilis was a distinct species. This early hominin died out long before our own species developed.

An earlier genus of hominin, Australopithecus gave rise to the early Homo line. They are represented by several species living between 4 and 2 million years ago. They walked upright, their brains were around a third of the size of ours. They used simple tools (as do chimpanzees and gorillas).

Chimpanzee and australopithecine lines separated around 5.4 to 6.3 million years ago (possibly earlier). Sahelanthropus may perhaps represent a late common ancestor. It has a brain size about a quarter of ours, more or less the same as a modern chimp.

The sub-family Homininae includes humans, chimpanzees and gorillas.

The family Hominidae includes the Homininae as well as orangutans which split off from them some 12 million years ago.

Simians include all the Old World monkeys and apes (the Hominidae and gibbons) as well as the New World monkeys.

The order Primates includes the Simians and the Prosimians (lemurs, lorises, bushbabies, and tarsiers). The order developed about 85 million years ago from ancestors that were early tree-dwelling mammals.

The Euarchontoglires superorder includes primates as well as rodents, lagomorphs, treeshrews, and colugos. Yes, rats are our distant cousins.

The Eutheria (placental mammals) include Euarchontoglires and all other mammals apart from non-placental types such as the monotremes and the marsupials. The group has it's origins at least 160 million years ago.

Where do we draw that line? - So now that tricky question again. Where do we draw the line? Which (if any) of these creatures will we find in heaven? It's not so easy, is it? Most believers might say modern humans are in and chimpanzees are out. But what about Neanderthals, what about Australopithecus?

Creationists will see the entire argument as foolish. Their view is that all extant species were created as they now are and Homo sapiens is distinct and special. But 150 years ago some would have excluded Negroid peoples as somehow 'sub-human'. They were useful as slaves but would have no place in heaven. Mercifully such views have been swept away, but we should not forget that opinions of that kind were taken perfectly seriously not so long ago.

Non-believers will accept the biology but have no place for the idea of heaven. For them, too, there is no problem.

But setting aside non-believers and Creationists, what do those in the middle think (non-Creationist believers)?

Could it be that there is nothing wrong with the biological understanding of species and evolution, but there is instead something wrong with our idea of what heaven is? We'll take a look at that next time.

Questions:

  • People used to talk about 'missing links' in the fossil record. The record for human development is much more complete now. Do you think missing links are still an issue?
  • If humans evolved from earlier ancestors, where would you draw the line between human and pre-human?
  • If life evolved, does that render faith impossible? If so, how?
  • How do you understand the creation passages in Genesis? Is a literal view plausible? Is a literal view necessary?
  • What is heaven?

See also:

16 October 2012

Debating science and faith

Science and faith sometimes appear to be at war. But is that inevitable? A conference in Switzerland is examining these issues and draws together influential scientists, theologians and philosophers.

The Whirlpool Galaxy
A conference is underway as I write, a conference with a difference. The whole affair is very refreshing and encouraging and exciting.

It brings together influential scientists, theologians and philosophers to discuss the nature of science and faith, and focusses on the Big Bang theory and the discovery of the Higgs boson.

The conference is being held in Switzerland and is called 'The Big Bang and the interfaces of knowledge: towards a common language?' The aim is to explore questions around the interface between science and faith and whether a common framework of knowledge might be possible.

You can download the programme as a PDF file (165 kB) or read brief details online from the website of the organisers, Wilton Park in collaboration with CERN in Geneva. There's also a very useful BBC News article about the conference 'Big Bang and religion mixed in Cern debate'.

22 August 2012

Science and faith - again

How do science and faith stack up against one another as ways of knowing the truth? Science provides truth about the physical universe while faith provides truth about spiritual things. Is there any overlap?

Sarewitz article in Nature
Nature has just published a short article entitled 'Sometimes science must give way to religion' by the atheist and scientist, Daniel Sarawitz.

In it, he argues that there are scientific concepts we cannot really understand except mathematically. He offers the Higgs field as an example.

This field provides other fundamental particles with their mass, preventing them from travelling at the speed of light. The famous Higgs particle is associated with the field, and is the evidence that such a field does, indeed, exist.

03 August 2012

Curiosity reaches Mars

NASA's next attempt to land a rover on Mars will be made on 6th August. It's going to be a scary process but if it's successful the results will soon begin to stream home from Curiosity on the floor of Gale Crater.

Three generations of Mars rovers
In a few days time, at 05:31 UT on August 6th, NASA will attempt a landing on Mars. The Curiosity rover is the size of a small car and weighs nearly a tonne. The objective is to gently place it on the ground inside Gale Crater.

The image shows NASA staff with engineering versions of Curiosity (the large rover on the right) and two earlier generations, Opportunity on the left and little Sojourner at the bottom.

The journey from the top of the Martian atmosphere to the ground will take about seven minutes. During this time, the spacecraft has to decelerate from nearly 6 kilometres per second to zero and leave the rover in the right place and undamaged.

You can see how this is intended to work 1n the NASA video 'The Challenges of Getting to Mars'.

It may not work out well, although I hope and expect that it will. If so, we're in for a treat as the rover begins its prime mission, exploring the interior of Gale Crater in detail and looking for signs that the conditions might once have been suitable for life.

14 March 2012

Mike Morrell on evolution

Can we discuss and debate any topic with grace and love and without fighting with one another? If not, does it matter? Here are some thoughts about that in connection with evolution.

Mike Morrell on evolutionMike Morrell's post 'Evolution & the Two Trees in the Garden' is thought provoking. It's a long post and it covers a range of topics, but I want to draw particular attention to his thoughts on evolution.

There is no doubt (in my mind) that it is important for those of us who follow Yahshua to be honest in our opinions and to allow one another to have different views.

For myself I can say that as a scientist and a biologist I cannot dismiss evolution. It happened and continues to happen today, of that I am absolutely sure. Evolution explains the range of plants and animals and other forms of life in the world today and also in the past.

07 January 2012

Science and faith

Can I have faith and accept science too? Is that an unreasonable position to hold? Recent discussions on Jesus Creed have provoked me to write on this topic again.

Tiffany window, 'Science and Religion'I've posted about this before (Apr 2010, May 2010), but a recent item on Jesus Creed brought the topic back to mind. And then I came across this earlier post where there was a more fundamental discussion and a useful reference to an article by Dr EB Davis, 'Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective'.

It's not surprising that the debate continues, there are strongly held opinions on both sides. There is also quite a bit of mutual misunderstanding. Personally, however, I continue to see no conflict between  my acceptance of science as a wonderful tool for better understanding the universe and my acceptance of a spiritual dimension that transcends the universe.

It seems obvious to me that if there is a creator he would necessarily exist outside and beyond everything that he created. How could it be otherwise?

31 December 2011

Systems of measurement

Everyone is familiar with measuring things, but two American authors have taken systems of measurement to what might be a logical conclusion. Their paper is a good read for anyone with a little science background.

Measuring devices
When we think of measurement most of us think of rulers, tape measures, kitchen and bathroom scales, filling up with petrol or how much paint to buy to redecorate the lounge. And it's true - all of these things involve measurement.

But when we talk about a system of measurement we are referring to a coherent, complete and consistent set of defined units that will allow us to measure anything. The best known system of measurement is the SI standard that has been officially adopted by every nation apart from the USA, Liberia and Myanmar. Amongst older systems of measurement the CGS, Imperial and Avoirdupois (mass units only) are some of the best known. And historically there have been many systems going way back to ancient Babylonian times and before.

19 October 2010

SCIENCE - 500 planets

Not that long ago (pre 1994) we only knew of nine planets, and one of those has been demoted to dwarf planet status. Today we know of nearly 500!

An artist's impression of an exoplanet systemThe reason for the huge increase is that astronomers are discovering planets around stars other than our own Sun using several techniques.

Sometimes this can be done by accurate measurements of the parent star's brightness. If a planet orbiting the star happens to pass in front of it, it will block part of the light and the dip can be measured and timed.

Another method involves tracking the position of a star very accurately. If it wobbles to and fro ever so slightly this is evidence of a smaller object in orbit around it - a planet or a faint companion star.

More recently it's become possible to image some of these planets directly by detecting the light they reflect from their parent star. This is pretty tricky, but just about doable using current telescopes. Of course we can't see any details, the planetary image is essentially a highly blurred point source. But it's still a very impressive feat of technology.

'Discover' magazine's website presents a gallery of these images, with good explanations in terms most people will understand. It's well worth a look.

The number of exoplanets will continue to rise and will soon pass the 500 mark. And one day, with better telescopes, it may even become possible to see some basic detail on some of these planets. But that is probably a long, long way off.

See also: Fomalhaut b

04 October 2010

SCIENCE - The biggest collisions

We all know what happens when two objects collide, don't we? It depends on the speed of collision and the nature of the objects. Two balls of dough will stick together, billiard balls will bounce apart, slowly moving cars will stop one another, fast moving cars will crumple.

The bullet cluster collisionAt some of the largest scales imaginable colliding galaxies pass through one another in a shape-distorting ballet that takes tens of millions of years. Where there were once two spiral galaxies, eventually there will be a single elliptical galaxy. To understand this process it becomes necessary to take into account the presence of dark matter in and around the two galaxies as well as the collisions of gas and the gravitational interactions of countless stars.

But what happens at an even larger scale? What happens when clusters of galaxies collide?

To understand this process more clearly, scientists at three prestigious labs in the USA have run a very large, very complex computer simulation. It took a long time to create and run the model, but you can watch the results in a movie that takes less than three and a half minutes.

What are you watching? First you will see the dark matter interactions, then the mixing of the intergalactic gas, and finally the combination. I should mention that what you see is a series of stop-start movies. In each one some interaction is shown, then the movement stops while the stationary scene is rotated to give you a better view and help you visualise the shapes, then the action moves on again.



For more information about the simulation and what you are seeing, visit Ian O'Neill's article on Discovery News.

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