Sunday, August 28, 2011

Universe: Journey from Earth to the Edge of the Cosmos

"There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be."
Douglas Adams

"A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
Albert Einstein

Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. I have read and heard many attempts at a systematic account of it, from materialism and theosophy to the Christian system or that of Kant, and I have always felt that they were much too simple. I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy. That is the reason why I have no philosophy myself, and must be my excuse for dreaming. John Burden Sanderson Haldane (1892-1964) English geneticist. Possible Worlds and other Essays (1927) "Possible Worlds".

Extreme Places in the Solar System

The universe is a mighty big place, but there is no shortage of amazement right here in our celestial neighborhood. From Venus's searing surface temperatures, hot enough to melt lead, to Jupiter's Great Red Spot, a storm that has been raging for hundreds of years, to the cryovolcanoes of the Saturnian moon Enceladus, the solar system boasts plenty of extreme locales.

That is the thrust of a new book, The 50 Most Extreme Places in Our Solar System (Harvard University Press), which serves as a kind of photo-illustrated guidebook for the planets—along with their accompanying moons and rings—that surround the sun. The book's authors, David Baker of Austin College and Todd Ratcliff of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, acknowledge that they use the term "places" loosely: Some of the 50 entries are specific events, such as the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs on Earth, and some are long-term phenomena, such as plate tectonics.

"What are the lessons to be learned from this journey of the mind [through the universe]? That humans are emotionally fragile, perennially gullible, hopelessly ignorant masters of an insignificantly small speck in the cosmos. Have a nice day."

Death By Black Hole, Neil deGrasse Tyson

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Paintings that breathe

Alexa Meade takes three-dimensional objects—mostly people—and paints over them in such a way that they look like two-dimensional paintings. Then she photographs them. When you examine the resulting artworks, it’s hard to know what’s really going on.

In some of her photographs, Meade leaves remnants of unpainted reality—placing her subject against blades of grass, for example, or among astonished onlookers. In others, she paints over everything—not just the model, but also the background and the props. If you look at these latter, entirely masked images without being familiar with Meade’s work, you might not suspect that there are living, breathing, humans under the brushstrokes. (Source:

Her work is currently on display at the Irvine Contemporary gallery in Washington, D.C.

Cosmic Perspective

"It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil - which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama. "
Feynman, 1959 Interview (From Genius by James Gleick)

Religious apologists who put humans at the center of this Universe and the Cosmic Drama are like little children throwing ice cubes at the Sun. The arrogance, impotence, and absurdity. It looks like something to us but it is insignificant to the Sun. Language is a source of our unique ingenuity but it is also a source of our ridiculous and absurd self-aggrandizement.

"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.

Bad Superstitious Explanations for Natural Events

At its core the religious impulse is a bad superstitious explanation for natural events.

Even after the enlightenment and the progress of modern science large portions of society still wallow in this primitive superstition of bad explanations on natural events. Superstitious pattern seeking mammals indeed.
Why did the volcano erupt? God was angry. Why did the earth shake? God did it for some reason or another. It is a combination of human solipsism, ignorance, and human impotence in the face of overwhelming natural events.

I would hope human beings could respond to solipsism with greater perspective, to ignorance with knowledge, and to impotence with stoicism and human solidarity.

Glenn Beck called Hurricane Irene a "blessing" on his Friday radio show, saying it would teach people to be prepared for disasters.
"If you've waited [until now], this hurricane is a blessing," he said. "It is God reminding you, as was the earthquake last're not in control." (Source:HuffingtonPost)

Televangelist Pat Robertson suggested Wednesday that cracks in the Washington Monument caused by the August 23 earthquake could be a sign from God, and the natural disaster “means that we’re closer to the coming of the Lord.”

To explain the rare east coast quake, Robertson pointed to the Biblical prophecy of the end of the world, which claims there could be potential devastation from natural disasters leading up to Jesus' return to Earth.

On his television show, "The 700 Club," Robertson said:

"I don't want to get weird on this, so please take it for what it's worth, but it seems to me the Washington Monument is a symbol of America's power. It has been the symbol of our great nation, we look at that monument and we say this is one nation under God. Now there's a crack in it."

"Is that a sign from the Lord? Is that something that has significance, or is it just the result of an earthquake?" Robertson asked his viewers. (Source:Huffingtonpost)

Friday, August 19, 2011

I Am the Satellite - Bryan Steeksma

"If we spend time in it [the vast spaces of nature], they may help us to accept more graciously the great, unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust."
(Alain de Botton)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Neil deGrasse Tyson - We Stopped Dreaming

Richard Feynman-"The same thrill, the same awe and mystery, comes again and again when we look at any question deeply enough. With more knowledge comes a deeper, more wonderful mystery, luring one on to penetrate deeper still. Never concerned that the answer may prove disappointing, with pleasure and confidence we turn over each new stone to find unimagined strangeness leading on to more wonderful questions and mysteries - certainly a grand adventure! "

Carl Sagan-"Everybody starts out as a scientist." Every child has the scientist's sense of wonder and awe. Too often we discourage this curiosity and wonder.

"It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge."

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing."

Albert Einstein

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
-Sir Isaac Newton

Crashing the Tea Party: Would you like some Theocracy with your tea?

Crashing the Tea Party NY Times

GIVEN how much sway the Tea Party has among Republicans in Congress and those seeking the Republican presidential nomination, one might think the Tea Party is redefining mainstream American politics.

But in fact the Tea Party is increasingly swimming against the tide of public opinion: among most Americans, even before the furor over the debt limit, its brand was becoming toxic. To embrace the Tea Party carries great political risk for Republicans, but perhaps not for the reason you might think.

Polls show that disapproval of the Tea Party is climbing. In April 2010, a New York Times/CBS News survey found that 18 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of it, 21 percent had a favorable opinion and 46 percent had not heard enough. Now, 14 months later, Tea Party supporters have slipped to 20 percent, while their opponents have more than doubled, to 40 percent.

Of course, politicians of all stripes are not faring well among the public these days. But in data we have recently collected, the Tea Party ranks lower than any of the 23 other groups we asked about — lower than both Republicans and Democrats. It is even less popular than much maligned groups like “atheists” and “Muslims.” Interestingly, one group that approaches it in unpopularity is the Christian Right.

The strange thing is that over the last five years, Americans have moved in an economically conservative direction: they are more likely to favor smaller government, to oppose redistribution of income and to favor private charities over government to aid the poor. While none of these opinions are held by a majority of Americans, the trends would seem to favor the Tea Party. So why are its negatives so high? To find out, we need to examine what kinds of people actually support it.

Beginning in 2006 we interviewed a representative sample of 3,000 Americans as part of our continuing research into national political attitudes, and we returned to interview many of the same people again this summer. As a result, we can look at what people told us, long before there was a Tea Party, to predict who would become a Tea Party supporter five years later. We can also account for multiple influences simultaneously — isolating the impact of one factor while holding others constant.

Our analysis casts doubt on the Tea Party’s “origin story.” Early on, Tea Partiers were often described as nonpartisan political neophytes. Actually, the Tea Party’s supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born, and were more likely than others to have contacted government officials. In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today.

What’s more, contrary to some accounts, the Tea Party is not a creature of the Great Recession. Many Americans have suffered in the last four years, but they are no more likely than anyone else to support the Tea Party. And while the public image of the Tea Party focuses on a desire to shrink government, concern over big government is hardly the only or even the most important predictor of Tea Party support among voters.

So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.

More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.

This inclination among the Tea Party faithful to mix religion and politics explains their support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Their appeal to Tea Partiers lies less in what they say about the budget or taxes, and more in their overt use of religious language and imagery, including Mrs. Bachmann’s lengthy prayers at campaign stops and Mr. Perry’s prayer rally in Houston.

Yet it is precisely this infusion of religion into politics that most Americans increasingly oppose. While over the last five years Americans have become slightly more conservative economically, they have swung even further in opposition to mingling religion and politics. It thus makes sense that the Tea Party ranks alongside the Christian Right in unpopularity.

Pictured above,Richard Lee, Ralph Reed, Glenn Beck, John Hagee, David Barton, Jim Garlow, Tom Mullins, and Professor Robert George.

On everything but the size of government, Tea Party supporters are increasingly out of step with most Americans, even many Republicans. Indeed, at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, today’s Tea Party parallels the anti-Vietnam War movement which rallied behind George S. McGovern in 1972. The McGovernite activists brought energy, but also stridency, to the Democratic Party — repelling moderate voters and damaging the Democratic brand for a generation. By embracing the Tea Party, Republicans risk repeating history.

David E. Campbell, an associate professor of political science at Notre Dame, and Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard, are the authors of “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.”

Monday, August 15, 2011

First life: The search for the first replicator - life - 15 August 2011 - New Scientist

First life: The search for the first replicator - life - 15 August 2011 - New Scientist

4 BILLION years before present: the surface of a newly formed planet around a medium-sized star is beginning to cool down. It's a violent place, bombarded by meteorites and riven by volcanic eruptions, with an atmosphere full of toxic gases. But almost as soon as water begins to form pools and oceans on its surface, something extraordinary happens. A molecule, or perhaps a set of molecules, capable of replicating itself arises.

This was the dawn of evolution. Once the first self-replicating entities appeared, natural selection kicked in, favouring any offspring with variations that made them better at replicating themselves. Soon the first simple cells appeared. The rest is prehistory.

Billions of years later, some of the descendants of those first cells evolved into organisms intelligent enough to wonder what their very earliest ancestor was like. What molecule started it all?

As far back as the 1960s, a few of those intelligent organisms began to suspect that the first self-replicating molecules were made of RNA, a close cousin of DNA. This idea has always had a huge problem, though - there was no known way by which RNA molecules could have formed on the primordial Earth. And if RNA molecules couldn't form spontaneously, how could self-replicating RNA molecules arise? Did some other replicator come first? If so, what was it? The answer is finally beginning to emerge.

When biologists first started to ponder how life arose, the question seemed baffling. In all organisms alive today, the hard work is done by proteins. Proteins can twist and fold into a wild diversity of shapes, so they can do just about anything, including acting as enzymes, substances that catalyse a huge range of chemical reactions. However, the information needed to make proteins is stored in DNA molecules. You can't make new proteins without DNA, and you can't make new DNA without proteins. So which came first, proteins or DNA?

The discovery in the 1960s that RNA could fold like a protein, albeit not into such complex structures, suggested an answer. If RNA could catalyse reactions as well as storing information, some RNA molecules might be capable of making more RNA molecules. And if that was the case, RNA replicators would have had no need for proteins. They could do everything themselves.

It was an appealing idea, but at the time it was complete speculation. No one had shown that RNA could catalyse reactions like protein enzymes. It was not until 1982, after decades of searching, that an RNA enzyme was finally discovered. Thomas Cech of the University of Colorado in Boulder found it in Tetrahymena thermophila, a bizarre single-celled animal with seven sexes (Science, vol 231, p 4737).

After that the floodgates opened. People discovered ever more RNA enzymes in living organisms and created new ones in their labs. RNA might be not be as good for storing information as DNA, being less stable, nor as versatile as proteins, but it was turning out to be a molecular jack of all trades. This was a huge boost to the idea that the first life consisted of RNA molecules that catalysed the production of more RNA molecules - "the RNA world", as Harvard chemist Walter Gilbert dubbed it 25 years ago (Nature, vol 319, p 618).

These RNA replicators may even have had sex. The RNA enzyme Cech discovered did not just catalyse any old reaction. It was a short section of RNA that could cut itself out of a longer chain. Reversing the reaction would add RNA to chains, meaning RNA replicators might have been able to swap bits with other RNA molecules. This ability would greatly accelerate evolution, because innovations made by separate lineages of replicators could be brought together in one lineage.

Andrew Sullivan DailyBeast: Adam And Eve Did Not Literally Exist. Period.

Studying the human genome has disproven the possibility that we sprang from two people:

Karl Giberson - who taught physics at Eastern Nazarene College until his views became too uncomfortable in Christian academia - says Protestants who question Adam and Eve are akin to Galileo in the 1600s, who defied Catholic Church doctrine by stating that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa. Galileo was condemned by the church, and it took more than three centuries for the Vatican to express regret at its error.

"When you ignore science, you end up with egg on your face," Giberson says. "The Catholic Church has had an awful lot of egg on its face for centuries because of Galileo. And Protestants would do very well to look at that and to learn from it."

The backlash from the literalists has been intense:

Harlow, who like Schneider has tenure and considers himself a committed Christian, said that the backlash reflects the views of fundamentalists within the Reformed denomination, not what most people think. "I work in the mainstream of Biblical scholarship, and we believe that the early chapters of Genesis are divinely inspired stories which imagine the human condition and creation of the world. Their intent is to make theological statements. They weren't written to provide geological or biological information," Harlow said. "My college freshmen seem to be able to handle this, but fundamentalists get all bent out of shape over this."

But the evangelicals are not the only ones hoisted by, er, truth. John Farrell notes a particularly tough Catholic problem:

The Catholic Church indeed of all the Christian churches faces a particular quandary. The Council of Trent is quite explicit on the topic. Catholics are required to believe not only that Adam is the single father of the human race, but that Original Sin is passed on by physical generation from him to the entire human race. It’s not something symbolic or allegorical (although it is regarded as ultimately mysterious). The First Vatican Council reiterated the doctrine, as did Pope Pius XII in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis.

For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

Catholic apologists who point to Pope John Paul II’s 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences as evidence of the Church’s acceptance of evolution often fail to notice that the late Pope completely passed over the question of monogenism, and indeed never did discuss the problem that genetics poses to the doctrine.

So much innovative and imaginative and faithful responses to modern science's revelations are required by the Church. Now more than ever. And yet the fundamental response by today's reactionary Vatican is mere silence or denial. In my view, that is a fundamental abdication of responsibility.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Narrative of Science and its potential to inspire

Society needs Scientific Storytellers who can inspire young minds to greatness in thought and discovery. Science Education suffers in America because there lacks an early and interesting interdisciplinary approach to explain the origins and evolution of the Universe. Science education in public schools is failing to connect the dots and lacks the grand Cosmic story that fuels the flames of genius. We need more classes and more teachers who are able to present the greatest story in the Universe. From the big bang to big brains. Cosmic evolution and Earth life evolution need to be explained in a way that gives young minds a more expansive perspective in this life.

"Telling a story is one of the most persuasive means of communication...How we persuade is how we deliver and tell our story to the jury. Storytelling is the most basic means of communication." -Gerry Spence, renowned Trial Attorney

When a culture teaches its young that religious mythology is truth and that modern science is a conspiracy of lies then that culture will breed a generation of dogmatic stagnation not fluid exploration.

Atheist in a Fox Hole (Political Christianity, Fox News, Atheist Minority)

From Andrew Sullivan Daily Beast Blogger:

Blair Scott, a spokesman for the American Atheists, Inc., was subjected to over 8,000 death threats and other violent rhetoric after appearing on Fox News. Some examples: