Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Free Energy and the Meaning of Life

Free Energy and the Meaning of Life

When we think about the “meaning of life,” we tend to conjure ideas such as love, or self-actualization, or justice, or human progress. It’s an anthropocentric view; try to convince blue-green algae that self-actualization is some sort of virtue. Let’s ask instead why “life,” as a biological concept, actually exists. That is to say: we know that entropy increases as the universe evolves. But why, on the road from the simple and low-entropy early universe to the simple and high-entropy late universe, do we pass through our present era of marvelous complexity and organization, culminating in the intricate chemical reactions we know as life?

Yesterday’s book club post referred to a somewhat-whimsical vision of Maxwell’s Demon as a paradigm for life. The Demon takes in free energy and uses it to maintain a separation between hot and cold sides of a box of gas — a sustained departure from thermal equilibrium. But what if we reversed the story? Instead of thinking that the Demon takes advantage free energy to help advance its nefarious anti-thermodynamic agenda, what if we imagine that the free energy is simply using the Demon — that is, the out-of-equilibrium configurations labeled “life” — for its own pro-thermodynamic purposes?

...there’s useful energy, and useless energy. When you burn gasoline in your car engine, the amount of energy doesn’t really change; some of it gets converted into the motion of your car, while some gets dissipated into useless forms such as noise, heat, and exhaust, increasing entropy along the way. That’s why it’s helpful to invent the concept of “free energy” to keep track of how much energy is actually available for doing useful work, like accelerating a car. Roughly speaking, the free energy is the total energy minus entropy times temperature, so free energy is used up as entropy increases.

Because the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that entropy increases, the history of the universe is the story of dissipation of free energy. Energy wants to be converted from useful forms to useless forms. But it might not happen automatically; sometimes a configuration with excess free energy can last a long time before something comes along to nudge it into a higher-entropy form.

2010 in photos (part 1 of 3) - The Big Picture -

2010 in photos (part 1 of 3) - The Big Picture -

How Science Changed Our World

Chapter 8: The Indelible Stamp of our Lowly Origin

Are Humans Evolving Less Brain Matter? | The Atlantic Wire

Are Humans Evolving to Be Dumber? | The Atlantic Wire

According to a new report in Discover Magazine, the human brain, which has expanded for most of our biological history, has begun to shrink. Kathleen McAuliffe writes that, according to new research, "Over the past 20,000 years, the average volume of the human male brain has decreased from 1,500 cubic centimeters to 1,350 cc, losing a chunk the size of a tennis ball. The female brain has shrunk by about the same proportion." And that shrinking appears to still be happening on an evolutionary scale.
So why haven't you heard about this yet? Discover Magazine's McAuliffe thinks it may have something to do with the fact that scientists--at least the few who have stumbled onto this trend--don't really have an explanation yet. "As I soon discover, only a tight-knit circle of paleontologists seem to be in on the secret, and even they seem a bit muddled about the matter. Their theories as to why the human brain is shrinking are all over the map," she writes.

At the Discover Magazine blog, Razib Khan lays out the two biggest theories:

Roughly, some think we’re getting less intelligent, while others believe that the brain is reorganizing its structure and development. Remember that the brain uses about ~20% of our caloric intake. It’s a metabolically expensive organ.

So it's possible that human brains are merely becoming more efficient. But it's also possible, according to paleoneurologists, that we really are evolving to be dumber. As studious observers of the U.S. Congress, we at the Atlantic Wire certainly find that theory plausible.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Unearthing Prehistoric Tumors, and Debate

Often thought of as a modern disease, cancer has always been with us. Where scientists disagree is on how much it has been amplified by the sweet and bitter fruits of civilization.

As scientists continue to investigate...cancer is not entirely civilization’s fault. In the normal course of life a creature’s cells must be constantly dividing — millions of times a second. Sometimes something will go wrong.

“Cancer is an inevitability the moment you create complex multicellular organisms and give the individual cells the license to proliferate,” said Dr. Weinberg of the Whitehead Institute. “It is simply a consequence of increasing entropy, increasing disorder.”

He was not being fatalistic. Over the ages bodies have evolved formidable barriers to keep rebellious cells in line. Quitting smoking, losing weight, eating healthier diets and taking other preventive measures can stave off cancer for decades. Until we die of something else.

“If we lived long enough,” Dr. Weinberg observed, “sooner or later we all would get cancer.”


Discovery News : Discovery Channel

Discovery News : Discovery Channel

"The story of Neanderthal extinction is one of the most intriguing in all of human evolution," author Simon Underdown told Discovery News. "Why did a large-brained, intelligent hominid that shared so many traits with us disappear?"

To resolve that question, Underdown, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, studied a well-documented tribal group, the Fore of Papua New Guinea, who practiced ritualistic cannibalism.

Gory evidence uncovered in a French cave in 1999 revealed Neanderthals likely practiced cannibalism. The 100,000-120,000 year-old bones discovered at the cave site of Moula-Guercy near the west bank of the Rhone river suggested a group of Neanderthals defleshed the bones of at least six other individuals and then broke the bones apart with a hammerstone and anvil to remove the marrow and brains.

Companies Flush With Cash - Newsweek

Companies Flush With Cash - Newsweek

The recession has been over in most countries for more than a year now, and as economists continue to decipher how and why this downturn differed from others, an interesting anomaly has emerged. While nations like the United States, Great Britain, and Japan are saddled with debt, companies in the U.S. and Europe have more than $1.5 trillion sitting on their respective balance sheets. In normal times, this abundance of cash would be good for the economy, as companies would invest, expand capacity, and create jobs. And indeed, over the next year, analysts say there may be a slight uptick in spending as cash-heavy firms turn to mergers and acquisitions, dividend payments, capital expenditures, and a variety of job-creating investments, particularly in high-growth countries such as China, India, and Brazil.

Tenacious DNA

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christopher Hitchens Closing Remarks

Dacey on Death and Skepticism

James Boswell no doubt hoped for some sort of coerced reversal when he sat down to interview an ailing David Hume on July 7, 1776. What he found was the great skeptic smiling at death. Hume amiably told him that he had entertained no religious belief since he began reading Locke and Clarke, that the ethics of every religion is bad, and that when he hears that a man is religious he concludes that he is a rascal. Searching for a scoop, Boswell pressed Hume on what lay beyond the grave. Hume responded that “it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever” and that the prospect of his personal annihilation gave him no anxiety.

In August, Adam Smith wrote to a mutual friend of Hume’s, Alexander Wedderburn, “[p]oor David Hume is dying very fast, but with great cheerfulness and good humour and with more real resignation to the necessary course of things, than any whining Christian ever dyed with pretended resignation to the will of God.” Although they were going to lose a friend, Smith observed, at least he would die “as a man of sense ought to.”

Philosopher Austin Dacey

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Finger Points to New Type of Human - ScienceNOW

Finger Points to New Type of Human - ScienceNOW

Observing the Multiverse (Guest Post)

Observing the Multiverse (Guest Post)

The idea that there might be other universes is taken quite seriously in high energy physics and cosmology these days. This is mainly due to the fact that the laws of physics, and the various “fundamental” constants appearing in them, could have been otherwise. More technically worded, there is no unique vacuum in theories of high energy physics that involve spontaneous symmetry breaking, extra dimensions, or supersymmetry. Having a bunch of vacua around is interesting, but to what extent are they actually realized in nature? Surprisingly, when a spacetime region undergoing inflation is metastable, there are cases when all of the vacua in a theory can be realized in different places and at different times. This phenomenon is known as eternal inflation. In an inflating universe, if a region is in a metastable vacuum, bubbles containing different vacua will form. These bubbles then expand, and eat into the original vacuum. However, if the space between bubbles is expanding fast enough, they never merge completely. There is always more volume to convert into different vacua through bubble formation, and the original vacuum never disappears: inflation becomes eternal. In the theory of eternal inflation, our entire observable universe resides inside one of these bubbles. Other bubbles will contain other universes. In this precise sense, many theories of high energy physics seem to predict the existence of other universes.

In the past four years, a few groups have tried to understand if it is possible to confront this radical picture of a “multiverse” with observation. The idea is to look for signatures of a collision between another bubble universe and our own. Even though the outside eternally inflating spacetime prevents all bubbles from merging, there will be many collisions between bubbles. How many we are even in principle able to see depends in detail on the underlying theory, and given the proliferation of theories, there is no concrete prediction.

Currently, the best information about the primordial universe comes from the cosmic microwave background (CMB). A collision will produce inhomogeneities in the early stages of cosmology inside our bubble, which are then imprinted as temperature and polarization fluctuations of the CMB. One can look for these fingerprints of a bubble collision in data from the WMAP or Planck satellites.

Most of the previous work has been to establish a proof of concept that observable bubble collisions can exist, and that there are theories which predict that we expect to see them; many of the details remain to be worked out. There are however a number of generic signatures of bubble collisions that we used to guide our search. Since a collision affects only a portion of our bubble interior, and because the colliding bubbles are nearly spherical, the signal is confined to a disc on the CMB sky (imagine two merging soap bubbles; the intersection is a ring). The effect of the collision inside the disc is very broad because it has been stretched by inflation. In addition, there might be a jump in the temperature at the boundary of the disc (although the magnitude and sharpness of such a jump has yet to be worked out in detail).

Cosmic Perspective - "the fuel of interest to the fire of genius"

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Best Space Discoveries of 2010: Nat Geo News's Most Popular

Best Space Discoveries of 2010: Nat Geo News's Most Popular

The Human Brain - Evolutionary Patchwork (Dr. Linden)

Elizabeth Edwards' Brave Message

Elizabeth Edwards' Brave Message

When I arrived, Elizabeth told me that cancer had essentially freed her to say whatever the hell she wanted. Then she proved it, by questioning the one thing all presidential candidates and their spouses must embrace—religious faith:. “I’m not praying for God to save me from cancer. God will enlighten me when the time comes. And if I've done the right thing, I will be enlightened. And if I believe, I'll be saved. And that's all he promises me.” But did she believe? Here she went further than any public figure this side of Christopher Hitchens.

“I had to think about a God who would not save my son. Wade was—and I have lots of evidence; it's not just his mother saying it—a gentle and good boy. He reached out to people who were misfits and outcasts all the time. He could not stand for people to say nasty things about other people; he just didn't want it. For a 16-year-old boy, he was really extraordinary in this regard. I wish I could take credit for it, but I can't. You'd think that if God was going to protect somebody, he'd protect that boy. But not only did he not protect him, the wind blew him from the road. The hand of God blew him from the road. So I had to think, "What kind of God do I have that doesn't intervene—in fact, may even participate—in the death of this good boy?"

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Jonathan Franzen Quote

Jonathan Franzen, The Art of Fiction

On The Corrections:

The fear out of which that book was written was that new materialism of the brain, which has given us drugs to change our personalities, and the materialism of consumer culture, which provides endless distractions and encourages the endless pursuit of more goods, were both antithetical to the project of literature, which is to connect with that which is unchanging and unchangeable, the tragic dimension of life.

Pictures: 14 Rarest and Weirdest Mammal Species Named

Pictures: 14 Rarest and Weirdest Mammal Species Named

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Rome & Jerusalem - Hybrid Ideas Culture

Matt Ridley speaks about how ideas have sex and the mating of these ideas create hybrid ideas that have cultural consequences. In history the expansion of Roman power and influence into Jewish Culture in Palestine allowed for an exchange and mating of cultural ideas that led to very consequential hybrids. One powerful hybrid being the religion of Christianity and the rise of Monotheism globally. It was Roman authority, Jewish mysticism and pagan mystery occults that gave birth to Christianity. It was Roman Crucifixion, A Jewish Jesus and Pagan familiarity with divine humans that were ingredients to a soup that would set much of human history on a certain trajectory. The Divine Augustus a Son of God would be replaced in some 300 years with the Divine Jesus the Son of God. It was a hybrid of Rome & Jerusalem and carried with it a hybrid theology from paganism and Judaism. The idea of God as Trinity (3 Gods who are 1) is a mix of pagan Monotheism. A hybrid idea of cultural consequence.
Without the mating of Rome and Jerusalem there would be no Christianity. It is clearly nourished by human history and not set apart from it.

Even logistically without the infrastructure of the Roman Empire it would have been impossible for Christianity and the Apostle Paul’s message to spread to the extent it did. The genius of the formation of early Christianity was to take Roman punishment and humiliation as the spiritual and theological significance of their movement and thereby turning death into life and tragedy into a triumph. It was a brilliant form of populism. It was a story that touched the masses where many lived lives of hardship compared to the ruling Roman elite. Jesus was a god of the people not of the state. Not until Christianity became popular in the Roman world and it became politically expedient for the Emperor Constantine to use this religion to solidify his power and unify the empire. In doing so Constantine gave another blow to Hellenism (which had a fatal turn of events many years before in the Maccadean Revolt 166 BC) and now through Roman power gave rise to the Monotheistic State. An idea from Jerusalem to Rome that birthed a new era of political Monotheism that would not be challenged until the historical currents of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Extreme Places in the Solar System

The Language of the Gods

"I fear that we will never rid ourselves of God so long as we still believe in grammar."

Human language is the justification of the gods. What can be stated orally or written down can obfuscate reason and reality. The Religions that dominate most of the world have a book. It is written down and thus it must be true! IF it can be spoken it is so. This is the power of human can override reality by just a sound and a symbol. No matter the tyranny of the actual the sound and the symbol drive deep in human psyche. No matter how much suffering, death, natural explanations, diversity of opinion, scientific progress and critical thought the religious apologist can say "God is..." who can resist the sound and the symbol? The problem of evil is solved with a simple sound and symbol. "God has his is the best of all possible worlds." Ah what justification! Without human language the gods would not exist. The gods are mortal. When the human species goes extinct what symbol or sound will justify the gods? Who shall defend the faith with no human voice? Humans that justify Gods do so because the Gods justify them. I hear and see the sound and symbol "God created man" and in that Man created God. The creation of the Gods is the hubris of humanity.

Michel de Montaigne Quotes

"Man is always inclined to regard the small circle in which he lives as the center of the world and to make his particular, private life the standard of the universe and to make his particular, private life the standard of the universe. But he must give up this vain pretense, this petty provincial way of thinking and judging."

"The greater part of the world's troubles are due to questions of grammar."

"Even on the highest throne in the world, we are still sitting on our ass."

"Democritus and Heraclitus were two philosophers, of whom the first, finding the condition of man vain and ridiculous, never went out in public but with a mocking and laughing face; whereas Heraclitus, having pity and compassion on this same condition of ours, wore a face perpetually sad, and eyes filled with tears. I prefer the first humor; not because it is pleasanter to laugh than to weep, but because it is more disdainful, and condemns us more than the other; and it seems to me that we can never be despised as much as we deserve. Pity and commiseration are mingled with some esteem for the thing we pity; the things we laugh at we consider worthless. I do not think there is as much unhappiness in us as vanity, nor as much malice as stupidity. We are not so full of evil as of inanity; we are not as wretched as we are worthless."

"To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death... We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere."

"To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave."

Michel de Montaigne

Hitchens Quote

"I want you to consider emancipating yourself from the idea that you selfishly are the sole object of all the wonders of the cosmos and of nature"

Christopher Hitchens speaking before Christian youth in Texas. (Dembski Debate)

In our own image: Why we treat things like people - life - 29 November 2010 - New Scientist

In our own image: Why we treat things like people - life - 29 November 2010 - New Scientist

Aronra: My afterthoughts on the Hitchens-Dembski debate

Friday, December 3, 2010

Tyson, Krauss, & Harris-Science Education & Critical Thinking

Palin's Mind-Numbing Populism

Palin's Mind-Numbing Populism

Palin's continued criticism and Joe Miller attitude toward the media should concern anyone who understands the Constitutional importance of a free press.
George Mason, the father of Virginia's bill of rights wrote,

"the Freedom of the Press is one of the greatest Bulwarks of Liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic Governments."

Palin talks about the Constitution and American greatness but she has no understanding that the things she shows contempt for are enshrined within the Constitution. A United States with no religious test and a free press is something she continues to fight against.

She likes the shallow waters where she thinks the majority splashes around in.
Once again her mind-numbing populism attacking the intellectual. Her lack of curiosity and cognitive work is a source of pride for her because she is betting that the majority are as shallow as herself. Palin does not believe in American exceptionalism she believes Americans are unexceptional and will fall for her anti-intellectual tribalism.

The TFC on the BoE pt1

Public & Private Myth

"The myth is the public domain and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group. If it isn't, you've got a long adventure in the dark forest ahead of you."

Joseph Campbell

The Public Myth is that man is made in the image of God and that animals are made in the image of man. But the reality is that man created God and man is made in the image of the animals who are evolutionary relatives.

Visions of the Universe: Stars to Microbes

Early universe recreated in LHC was superhot liquid - physics-math - 25 November 2010 - New Scientist

Early universe recreated in LHC was superhot liquid - physics-math - 25 November 2010 - New Scientist

Weird Creatures From the Deep

Weird Creatures From the Deep

NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical

NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical

Space Pictures This Week: Towering Cloud, Moon Geysers

Space Pictures This Week: Towering Cloud, Moon Geysers

Animal IQs

Animal IQs