Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Taking Science on Faith - nutty responds to a physisict

SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?

When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance. The laws were treated as “given” — imprinted on the universe like a maker’s mark at the moment of cosmic birth — and fixed forevermore. Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.

Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.

Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.

Although scientists have long had an inclination to shrug aside such questions concerning the source of the laws of physics, the mood has now shifted considerably. Part of the reason is the growing acceptance that the emergence of life in the universe, and hence the existence of observers like ourselves, depends rather sensitively on the form of the laws. If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.

A second reason that the laws of physics have now been brought within the scope of scientific inquiry is the realization that what we long regarded as absolute and universal laws might not be truly fundamental at all, but more like local bylaws. They could vary from place to place on a mega-cosmic scale. A God’s-eye view might reveal a vast patchwork quilt of universes, each with its own distinctive set of bylaws. In this “multiverse,” life will arise only in those patches with bio-friendly bylaws, so it is no surprise that we find ourselves in a Goldilocks universe — one that is just right for life. We have selected it by our very existence.

The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

Paul Davies is the director of Beyond, a research center at Arizona State University, and the author of “Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life.”

e-mail to Paul Davies (nutty's response)

re: an amateur astronomer responding to your new york times article

Taking Science on Faith – a star is born…


as an amateur astronomer, I may not enjoy the powerful scientific intellect that you are renowned for. I'm not even a scientist, but I am an interested reader, and I take issue with your Op-Ed piece in the New York Times: Taking Science on Faith.

You begin by formulating an argument conveniently omitting any reference to quantum mechanics (science’s single most successful scientific theory). Why so?, because the very nature of quantum mechanics appears at direct odds with any “immutable laws” argument i.e. probabilistic as opposed to deterministic. In any case, where in the literature does it state that scientific laws are immutable? Find me a document that has prevented Paul Davies from improving upon or overturning any of Newton’s or Einstein’s Laws.

I think the use of such language here is highly questionable. Do you care to answer what NASA’s Gravity B Probe is doing in space if it is not testing Einstein’s “immutable laws”? Didn’t Einstein himself give the world a new way of thinking about space and time? Last time I checked, we still haven’t ‘abandoned’ Newton’s laws of gravity. What immutable laws are you talking about? Correct me if I’m wrong, Mr. Davies, but Isn’t science supposed to disprove, not prove?

You take the word ‘faith’ and apply it equally to both science and religion, disregarding the fact that science is based on observation and methodology, and the historical record is available for anyone to examine. Where is the faith you speak of in these records?

While I agree that in principle the laws of physics can be seen to be taken on ‘faith’, do you not lessen the impact of the argument by reducing the power of science as if faith in it were of somehow equal value, that faith in science’s laws itself merited the same intellectual discipline that theology deserves from faith in its origins.

This is very sweeping, safely typing away on your computer operating on the principles of quantum mechanics. Less than a thousand years ago, the world of mathematics was viewed as the work of the devil, faith then meant religious struggle, protestants strived to create ‘pure’ Christianity, and rebelled against the Catholic church with its papal doctrines. Men and women sought after god, one way or another. They believed. Oh yes, they also had the torturous (sic) inquisition… if you wish to hold up ‘faith’ in science’s laws to those of religion in both hands and pretend they are the same, that’s up to you. I personally give one a lot more intellectual weight than the other. I find it strange that this view is written in an Op-Ed article. Exactly who is this written for?

“Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity?”

While it may be without ‘reason’ to suggest that it is absurd is mystifying. What exactly is so absurd about the physical laws that are the key to understanding Doppler shift for instance? Are they any more absurd than the fundamental tools you would use to learn a new language? The motive for learning the language is ours, of course.

Interestingly, while I agree that both religion and science were indeed founded on faith, you discuss the hypothetical possibility that we might live in a “multiverse”. I’m curious as to why take the reader from immutable laws to hypothetical possibilities in an argument supposedly dealing with what’s wrong with science adopting the faith-based strategy?

“physical law is a theological one in the first place” sorry Mr. Davies, but if new physical processes are discovered, and if by some 'miraculous' means a new physical laws can be written when the Large Hadron Collider begins operating, I doubt very much that that those laws will be theological, even if the so-called God Particle (Higgs boson) is discovered.

“until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.” Why so? If we have arrived at a modern limit to our present understanding because of limits to available technology, I’d like to know what is so wrong. I think it wrong to write scientists off so incredibly early given the fact that we’ve only had pocket calculators available for some 30 years…

Faith. The crux of your argument. Take the story of Jesus, and the Star of Bethlehem. Told to us by the unknown author of the Gospel of Matthew. It recounts wise men coming from the east to Jerusalem after seeing a remarkable star, then finding a newborn king by following the star to his humble birthplace. The Star of Bethlehem “goes before them” and stops “over where the child was,”…you know the rest. No independent report of such a sky event exists. The story was written not by a contemporary but by an apologist about 100 years – more than a human lifetime – after the fact. Scientifically, any search for an astronomical Star of Bethlehem is fatally flawed, based in part on the text of Matthew in its original language. An honest look shows that not only do all astronomical explanations fail to fit the story, but the historical reliability of the tale itself is simply too low to take as fact.

The problems then are overwhelming. The Gospel narratives of Jesus’ infancy contradict each other, no account of the star exists elsewhere, the tale was written a lifetime or more later by an apologist familiar with the miracle-birth stories at the time. As such, a believer can simply bury their heads in biblical sand and view the Star as a local miracle that the magi alone could see. A historian can only regard the tale as fictional or at least not investigable, and to astronomers – it is a star we’re talking about, astronomy is irrelevant. We are completely unable to match any such event with the records.

And THIS, Mr Davies, is what you are comparing science to? Keep this in mind as you enter the stores playing their endless (how many times must I hear this) christmas music from now on until after December 25th. Perhaps a different word might have triggered a less heated response.

Children (especially in the United States) are systematically taught (from a very early, impressionable age) that there is somehow a higher kind of knowledge which comes from faith, which comes from revelation, which comes from scripture, which comes from tradition, and that it is the equal if not the superior of knowledge that comes from real (scientific) evidence.

I was reminded of this at a thanksgiving dinner. As a newly-wed atheist, I sat there, listening to a mother prompt her child, among others: “is there anyone who wants to give thanks to god?” she asked at the dinner table. I resisted my deepest urge to respond with an arsenal of ‘reason’. After all, I was the odd one out; the new addition to the family. Sometimes diplomacy is the best policy if not the best intellectual device.


Teacher charged over teddy row

...cartoons? teddy bears? just about anything you can think of.

religion rears it's ugly head again. it's so fucking unreasonable. oh no. you can't criticise it.

it's the 21st century! if you want to go back to living in the dark ages, give up what the world of science has given humanity, and let those who want to think and express themselves without fear of repression do so.

isn't freedom of speech central to any definition of a truly modern world?

i'm so offended, i shall now name my footlong, turkey breast, subway sandwich 'Muhammad'.

...mmm...nice with spicy mustard.

T-Mobile ends cycling sponsorship

T-Mobile is to end sponsorship of its cycling team after a succession of doping scandals.

...manufacturers of pink lycra are said to be devastated by the news.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Redskins Star Sean Taylor Dies After Shooting

MIAMI (AP) Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor has died, a day after he was shot at home, said family friend Richard Sharpstein.

He said Taylor's father called him around 5:30 a.m. to tell him the news.

''His father called and said he was with Christ and he cried and thanked me,'' said Sharpstein, Taylor's former lawyer. ''It's a tremendously sad and unnecessary event. He was a wonderful, humble, talented young man, and had a huge life in front of him. Obviously God had other plans.''

...Taylor was also fined at least seven times for late hits, uniform violations and other infractions over his first three seasons, including a $17,000 penalty for spitting in the face of Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman during a playoff game in January 2006.

sorry about his death, but as for the religious stuff; i'm not buying.

...yeah, for someone who liked to hit people as hard as possible, exactly what is he going to be doing on sundays from now on? singing hymns? watching that doddery lunatic pat robertson instead of his mates play football? sure...

why when anyone dies do we automatically proclaim that they go to heaven? cemeterys don't have any headstones that suggest the other place. i mean they can't all be up there, given that sunday after bloody sunday, churches tell their congregations that everyone's a sinner. repent, repent, find jesus. ask god for forgiveness. then when you've found him, you can spend the rest of your life worshipping him. only then he will forgive you.

FOR WHAT!? being normal, like everyone else?

i'm just a normal bloke. i don't need anyone worshipping me. so why would god, the so-called creator of the universe need his little experiment on earth to worship him? if i went to a therapist and told them i needed people to worship me, do you think they would classify me as being insecure?

oh and one other thing. i know i'm going to die. no heaven, or hell for nutty. just decomposition.

and isn't it big of god to dangle the promise of everlasting life to us 'mere' mortals, given that he himself never has to face death...

"God is always in control," Pedro Taylor later told reporters. "We have no control of life or death ... we thank Him for all 24 years of having Sean here. I know it sounds short, but that's His will and it was done."

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Blair feared faith 'nutter' label

Tony Blair avoided talking about his religious views while in office for fear of being labelled "a nutter", the former prime minister has revealed.

"For me having faith was an important part of being able to do that," he said.

But while it was commonplace in the US and elsewhere for politicians to talk about their religious convictions, he added, "you talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think you're a nutter".

... how to drag the honourable name of 'nutter' to the lowest depths.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Direct quote from the just published REAGAN DIARIES

The entry is dated May 17, 1986.

‘A moment I’ve been dreading. George brought his ne’re-do-well son around this morning and asked me to find the kid a job. Not the political one who lives in Florida. The one who hangs around here all the time looking shiftless. This so-called kid is already almost 40 and has never had a real job. Maybe I’ll call Kinsley over at The New Republic and see if they’ll hire him as a contributing editor or something. That looks like easy work.’

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Thursday, November 15, 2007

comet holmes

managed to get an image of comet holmes from pennsylvania this past weekend before it disappears for good.

in the end i wasn't able to stack multiple images to get a better image as i tried , but at least i got a shot in.

click on image for a better view.

details: canon 30D with william optics 66mm refractor piggybacked onto 8" SCT telescope. 5 seconds at iso1600.

update: comet holmes is now the largest object in the solar system...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

intelligent design vs evolution

anyone see last night's nova/pbs program about intelligent design and the teaching of it alongside evolution in science classes in dover schools?

one doesn't exactly have to be a rocket scientist to see that intelligent design is but creationism in different clothes. i particularly loved the draft document they showed supplied as a supporting draft to the book themselves that condemns them

see the discovery institute's (very reasonable...) response to the program: must be a typo. should read

philip johnson, the father of intelligent design:

How do you explain our genetic relatedness with chimpanzees?

Johnson: There is a relatedness. But what does it mean? Say we have almost 99 percent of our genes in common with chimpanzees. We also have at least 25 percent of our genes in common with bananas. There are these commonalities that exist throughout life. Do they point to a common evolutionary process or a common creator? That is the question for interpretation.

The genes are going to win when people ask me about that great degree of similarity between human genes and chimpanzee genes. I answer that genes must not be anywhere near as important as we have been led to believe. If there were that great a commonality between chimps and humans, it ought to be relatively easy to breed chimps and come up with a human being, or by genetic engineering to change a chimp into a human. We ought to see humans occasionally being born to chimps or perhaps chimps born into human families.

... i repeat: "genes must not be anywhere near as important as we have been led to believe."

draw your own conclusions, and next time you go to the doctor, ask him just how important genes are with respect to causing congenital diseases and disorders.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Sunday, November 11, 2007

took some images of the comet.

daisy & i went up to see her folks in pennslyvania this friday eve, and came back today. took the telescopes, so i could get a good look at comet holmes. it looked huge in the big 'scope.

also set the camera up and took some shots (through the little telescope), which i'll work on tomorrow and put an image up on the blog of the comet.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

our magnetic earth

The World Digital Magnetic Anomaly Map (WDMAM) shows the variation in strength of the magnetic field after the Earth's dipole field has been removed. Earth's dipole field is generated by circulating electric currents in the planet's metal core. It varies from 35,000 nanoTesla (nT) at the Equator to 70,000 nT at the poles.

...that's way better than a bar magnet, & some iron filings sprinkled on a piece of paper in science class.

Friday, November 02, 2007