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on electrickery, part 2 – the beginnings

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William Gilbert, author of De Magnete, 1600

Canto: So let’s now start at the beginning. What we now call electricity, or even electromagnetism, has been observed and questioned since antiquity. People would’ve wondered about lightning and electrostatic shocks and so forth.

Jacinta: And by an electrostatic shock, you mean the sort we get sometimes when we touch a metal door handle? How does that work, and why do we call it electrostatic?

Canto: Well we could do a whole post on static electricity, and maybe we should, but it happens when electrons – excess electrons if you like – move from your hand to the conductive metal. This is a kind of electrical discharge. For it to have happened you need to have built up electric charge in your body. Static electricity is charge that builds up through contact with clothing, carpet etc. It’s called static because it has nowhere to go unless it comes into contact with a positive conductor.

Jacinta: Yes and it’s more common on dry days, because water molecules in the atmosphere help to dissipate electrons, reducing the charge in your body.

Canto: So the action of your shoes when walking on carpet – and rubber soles are worst for this – creates a transfer of electrons, as does rubbing a plastic rod with wooden cloth. In fact amber, a plastic-like tree resin, was called ‘elektron’ in ancient Greek. It was noticed in those days that jewellery made from amber often stuck to clothing, like a magnet, causing much wonderment no doubt.

Jacinta: But there’s this idea of ‘earthing’, can you explain that?

Canto: It’s not an idea, it’s a thing. It’s also called grounding, though probably earthing is better because it refers to the physical/electrical properties of the Earth. I can’t go into too much detail on this, its complexity is way above my head, but generally earthing an electrical current means dissipating it for safety purposes – though the Earth can also be used as an electrical conductor, if a rather unreliable one. I won’t go any further as I’m sure to get it wrong if I haven’t already.

Jacinta: Okay, so looking at the ‘modern’ history of our understanding of electricity and magnetism, Elizabethan England might be a good place to start. In the 1570s mathematically minded seamen and navigators such as William Borough and Robert Norman were noting certain magnetic properties of the Earth, and Norman worked out a way of measuring magnetic inclination in 1581. That’s the angle made with the horizon, which can be positive or negative depending on position. It all has to do with the Earth’s magnetic field lines, which don’t run parallel to the surface. Norman’s work was a major inspiration for William Gilbert, physician to Elizabeth I and a tireless experimenter, who published De Magnete (On the Magnet – the short title) in 1600. He rightly concluded that the Earth was itself a magnet, and correctly proposed that it had an iron core. He was the first to use the term ‘electric force’, through studying the electrostatic properties of amber.

Canto: Yes, Gilbert’s work was a milestone in modern physics, greatly influencing Kepler and Galileo. He collected under one head just about everything that was known about magnetism at the time, though he considered it a separate phenomenon from electricity. Easier for me to talk in these historical terms than in physics terms, where I get lost in the complexities within a few sentences.

Jacinta: I know the feeling, but here’s a relatively simple explanation of earthing/grounding from a ‘physics stack exchange’ which I hope is accurate:

Grounding a charged rod means neutralizing that rod. If the rod contains excess positive charge, once grounded the electrons from the ground neutralize the positive charge on the rod. If the rod is having an excess of negative charge, the excess charge flows to the ground. So the ground behaves like an infinite reservoir of electrons.

So the ground’s a sink for electrons but also a source of them.

Canto: Okay, so if we go the historical route we should mention a Chinese savant of the 11th century, Shen Kuo, who wrote about magnetism, compasses and navigation. Chinese navigators were regularly using the lodestone in the 12th century. But moving into the European renaissance, the great mathematician and polymath Gerolamo Cardano can’t be passed by. He was one of the era’s true originals, and he wrote about electricity and magnetism in the mid-16th century, describing them as separate entities.

Jacinta: But William Gilbert’s experiments advanced our knowledge much further. He found that heat and moisture negatively affected the ‘electrification’ of materials, of which there were many besides amber. Still, progress in this era, when idle curiosity was frowned upon, was slow, and nothing much else happened in the field until the work of Otto von Guericke and Robert Boyle in the mid-17th century. They were both interested particularly in the properties, electrical and otherwise, of vacuums.

Canto: But the electrical properties of vacuum tubes weren’t really explored until well into the 18th century. Certain practical developments had occurred though. The ‘electrostatic machine’ was first developed, in primitive form, by von Guericke, and improved throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but they were often seen as little more than a sparky curiosity. There were some theoretical postulations about electrics and non-electrics, including a duel-fluid theory, all of which anticipated the concept of conductors and insulators. Breakthroughs occurred in the 1740s with the invention of the Leyden Jar, and with experiments in electrical signalling. For example, an ingenious experiment of 1746, conducted by Jean-Antoine Nollet, which connected 200 monks by wires to form a 1.6 kilometre circle, showed that the speed of electrical transmission was very high! Experiments in ‘electrotherapy’ were also carried out on plants, with mixed results.

Jacinta: And in the US, from around this time, Benjamin Franklin carried out his experiments with lightning and kites, and he’s generally credited with the idea of positive to negative electrical flow, though theories of what electricity actually is remained vague. But it seems that Franklin’s fame provided impetus to the field. Franklin’s experiments connected lightning and electricity once and for all, though similar work, both experimental and theoretical, was being conducted in France, England and elsewhere.

Canto: Yes, there’s a giant roll-call of eighteenth century researchers and investigators – among them Luigi Galvani, Jean Jallabert, John Canton, Ebenezer Kinnersley, Giovanni Beccaria, Joseph Priestley, Mathias Bose, Franz Aepinus, Henry Cavendish, Charles-Augustin Coulomb and Alessandro Volta, who progressed our understanding of electrical and magnetic phenomena, so that modern concepts like electric potential, charge, capacitance, current and the like, were being formalised by the end of that century.

Jacinta: Yes, for example Coulomb discovered, or published, a very important inverse-square law in 1784, which I don’t have the wherewithal to put here mathematically, but it states that:

The magnitude of the electrostatic force of attraction between two point charges is directly proportional to the product of the magnitudes of charges and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

This law was an essential first step in the theory of electromagnetism, and it was anticipated by other researchers, including Priestley, Aepinus and Cavendish.

get it?

Canto: And Volta produced the first electric battery, which he demonstrated before Napoleon at the beginning of the 19th century.

Jacinta: And of course this led to further experimentation – almost impossible to trace the different pathways and directions opened up. In England, Humphrey Davy and later Faraday conducted experiments in electrochemistry, and Davy invented the first form of electric light in 1809. Scientists, mathematicians, experimenters and inventors of the early nineteenth century who made valuable contributions include Hans Christian Orsted, Andre-Marie Ampere, Georg Simon Ohm and Joseph Henry, though there were many others. Probably the most important experimenter of the period, in both electricity and magnetism, was Michael Faraday, though his knowledge of mathematics was very limited. It was James Clerk Maxwell, one of the century’s most gifted mathematicians, who was able to use Faraday’s findings into mathematical equations, and more importantly, to conceive of the relationship between electricity, magnetism and light in a profoundly different way, to some extent anticipating the work of Einstein.

Canto: And we should leave it there, because we really hardly know what we’re talking about.

Jacinta: Too right – my reading up on this stuff brings my own ignorance to mind with the force of a very large electrostatic discharge….

now try these..

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Written by stewart henderson

October 22, 2017 at 10:09 am

who really discovered this land?

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a chart of early human migrations – and discoveries – based on mitochondrial DNA

I recently heard some rather absurd but unsurprising remarks by the conservative commentator Georgina Downer, defending an inscription on a statue of Captain Cook which states that he was the discoverer of Australia. Downer claimed that this is patently, unarguably true, since he was the first person to map the country (or part of it).

But let me be quite precise about the issue. The statue has the inscription: “discovered this territory 1770”. Unfortunately I can’t find video online of Downer’s words, but I’m pretty sure I got the gist of it: to her it was obviously true that Cook was the country’s discoverer – because he mapped it.

As a teacher of English and a person interested in linguistics and the meanings of words, let me just take a look at the verb ‘discover’. A quick googling brings up these two most pertinent meanings: find unexpectedly or during a search; be the first to find or observe. Three other less relevant meanings are given, but of course none of them mention mapping or anything like it. It would certainly be a shocker if mapping was mentioned, in defining the discovery of a territory. Having said that, ‘discover’ is ambiguous in this context. We can be enticed by adverts to discover the Greek Islands, or the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef. This is in line with one of the other definitions, which now maybe seems more relevant: be the first to recognize the potential of (or in this case the more personal to recognise the potential (or beauty) of something for the first time. That’s my own definition, but I think it’s generally acceptable). In this sense it would be fair to say Cook discovered Australia in 1770, but then it would also be fair to say my parents discovered Australia in 1962, when they first arrived here, just as I discovered David Bowie as a sixteen-year-old in 1972. Clearly that’s not the sense of ‘discovered’ intended by the inscription, or by Downer.

But before I continue down that rabbit-hole, let’s look at the inscription’s other keyword. The word ‘territory’ is a little ambiguous here. The statue is in Sidney’s Hyde Park – does the discovery refer to the whole of Australia, the territory in the neighbourhood of the statue, or the part of Australia that Cook mapped (less than a quarter of the country’s coastline, and none of the interior)? Dictionaries won’t be of much help here, so I’ll just hope to be on safe territory in assuming the whole kit and caboodle is intended, i.e. the land now known as Australia.

Downer’s comments added a tiny wind to the storm of controversy raised by the respected Aboriginal journalist and commentator Stan Grant. I find his essays (linked below) on the subject of our history and monuments to be thought-provoking and valuable. What he writes about the hubris of colonising Europeans in earlier centuries is undoubtedly true, though we only see it in hindsight, for what would my attitude have been as a good citizen of Europe from the 16th through to the 19th century?

But I’m not, I’m a more or less global citizen of the 21st century, painfully aware of the thoughtless arrogance of the terra nullius idea and the white colonisation system of the past, not confined of course to this territory. That’s not to say that I can put myself into the minds of those whose ancestors have been in this land for tens of thousands of years, when they read the above-mentioned controversial inscription. I can, though, see clearly that what happened in 1788 was a land-grab, as I’ve already written here and here, and I well understand why two High Court justices have described the consequent dispossession as ‘a legacy of unutterable shame’. So it amazes me that people like Downer can be so cavalier in claiming that Cook’s ‘discovery’ was unarguable. Cook did not discover this territory. The human who did discover it, that first person, will never be known to us. That discovery was made long long before records were kept. It was certainly a momentous discovery, though, for it brought many people to this vast territory, which may then have been very different from the parched land we know today. They spread throughout its vast extent, adapted to and interpreted its varied and changing climate and landscapes, created homes and tools and songs and stories and rituals and languages and knowledge, and endured here – more than endured – for some 60,000 years.

Cook was a very important, indeed decisive figure in Australian history, and he should be remembered as such, but not as the discoverer of this territory. As the cliché goes, if we don’t know our history we’ll be doomed to repeat it.

References

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-25/stan-grant-captain-cook-indigenous-culture-statues-history/8843172

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-23/stan-grant:-damaging-myth-captain-cook-discovered-australia/8833536

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-18/america-tears-down-its-racist-history-we-ignore-ours-stan-grant/8821662

Written by stewart henderson

August 30, 2017 at 9:01 am

who’s being stupid here?

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Conservative MP Christian Porter thinks Aboriginal people should stop being stupid and crazy

Interesting that the Federal Minister of Social Security, one Christian Porter, when asked about the move by more local councils to no longer hold citizenship ceremonies on January 26, dismissed them all as nutty and stupid. Considering that the majority of Aboriginal Australians consider that day as a day of mourning for what they’ve lost, this is tantamount to calling those Aboriginal Australians nutty and stupid. But then, these people are in a minority in Australia, so presumably Porter feels safe in insulting them. I’m hopeful that there will be a backlash against this sort of inadvertent and lazy racism.

So the Darebin City Council, which adjoins the Yarra Council in Melbourne, has just announced that it too will boycott January 26 as a special day. To be consistent, the Feds will have to strip that council of its citizenship-bestowing function. And so on.

In this interesting article by James Purtill, written some six months ago, it’s pointed out that 1988, the bicentenary of the British land-grab, marked one of the biggest marches ever seen in Sidney. Since then, the issue has waxed and waned but has never gone away. These moves by local councils will bring the issue out in the open again, making it less easy to dismiss the many people who have reservations about this date as nut-jobs. The debate needs to be civil and respectful, but to me it’s a no-brainer. The date needs to change.

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 22, 2017 at 10:48 am

nationalism, memes and the ANZAC legend

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Canto: Okay, I get livid when I hear the unquestioning and unquestioned pap spoken about the Anzacs, year in year out, and when I hear primary teachers talking about their passion for Anzac Day, and teaching it to impressionable young children. Not sure how they will teach it, but when such remarks are followed by a middle-aged woman knitting poppy rosettes and saying ‘after all, if it wasn’t for them [the Anzacs] we would’t be here’, I’m filled with rage and despair about the distortions of history to suit some kind of nationalist pride and sentimentality.

Jacinta: Yes, that sort of thing leads to innocent, impressionable young children parroting the meme ‘they died so we could be free’.

Canto: Or in this case the even more absurd ‘they died so that we could exist’…

Jacinta: On the other hand, to be fair, many young people go off to Anzac Cove to commemorate their actual grand-fathers or great-great uncles who died there, and they’re captivated by their story of sacrifice.

Canto: Yes, and this memory should be kept, but for the right, evidence-based reasons. What did these young men sacrifice themselves for, really?

Jacinta: Well as we know, the reasons for the so-called Great War were mightily complex, but we can fairly quickly rule out that there was ever a threat to Australia’s freedom or existence. Of course it’s hard to imagine what would have happened if the Central Powers had won.

Canto: Well it’s hard to imagine them actually winning, but say this led to an invasion of Britain. Impossible to imagine this lasting for long, what with the growing involvement of the US. Of course the US wasn’t then the power it later became, but there’s little chance it would’ve fallen to the Central Powers, and it was growing stronger all the time, and as the natural ally of its fellow English-speaking nation, it would’ve made life tough for Britain’s occupiers, until some solution or treaty came about. Whatever happened, Australia would surely not have been in the frame.

Jacinta: Britain’s empire might’ve been weakened more quickly than it eventually was due to the anti-colonisation movement of the twentieth century. And of course another consequence of the Central Powers’ victory, however partial, might’ve been the failure or non-existence of Nazism…

Canto: Yes, though with the popularity of eugenics in the early twentieth century, master-race ideology, so endemic in Japan, would still have killed off masses of people.

Jacinta: In any case your point still holds true. Those young men sacrificed themselves for the British Empire, in its battle against a wannabe Germanic Empire, in a war largely confined to Europe.

Canto: But really in order to understand the mind-set of the young men who went to war in those days, you have to look more to social history. There was a naive enthusiasm for the adventure of war in those days, with western nations being generally much more patriarchal, with all the negative qualities entailed in that woeful term.

Jacinta: True, and that War That Didn’t End All Wars should, I agree, be best remembered as marking the beginning of the end of that war-delighting patriarchy that, in that instance, saw the needless death of millions, soldiers who went happily adventuring without fully realising that the massive industrialisation of the previous decades would make mincemeat out of so many of them. I’ve just been reading and watching videos of that war so as not to make an idiot of myself, and what I’ve found is a bunch of nations or soi-disant empires battling to maintain or regain or establish their machismo credentials in the year 1914. With no side willing to give quarter, and no independent mechanisms of negotiation, it all quickly degenerated into an abysmal conflict that no particular party could be blamed for causing or not preventing.

Canto: And some six million men were just waiting to get stuck in, an unprecedented situation. And what happened next was also unprecedented, a level of carnage never seen before in human history. The Battle of the Frontiers, as it was called, saw well over half a million casualties, within a month of the outbreak.

Jacinta: And so it went, carnage upon carnage, with the Gallipoli campaign – unbearable heat, flies, sickness and failure – being just one disaster among many. Of course it infamously settled into a war of attrition for some time, and how jolly it must’ve been for the allies to hear that they would inevitably be the victors, since the Central Powers would run out of cannon fodder first. It was all in the maths. War is fucked, and that particular war is massively illustrative of that fact. So stop, all teachers who want to tell the story of the heroic Anzacs to our impressionable children. I’m not saying they weren’t brave and heroic. I’m not saying they didn’t do their best under the most horrendous conditions. I’m certainly not saying their experience in fighting for the mother country was without value. They lived their time, within the confines and ideology of their time, as we all do. They played their part fully, in terms of what was expected of them in that time. They did their best. And it’s probably fair to say their commanders, and those above them, the major war strategists, also did their best, which no doubt in some cases was better than others. Even so, with all that, we have to be honest and clear-sighted and say they didn’t die, or have their lives forever damaged, so that we could be free. That’s sheer nonsense. They died so that a British Empire could maintain its ascendency, for a time, over a German one.

Canto: Or in the case of the French and the Russians, who suffered humungous casualties, they died due to the treaty entanglements of the time, and their overlords’ obvious concerns about the rise of Germany.

Jacinta: So all this pathos about the Anzacs really needs to be tweaked, just a wee bit. I don’t want to say they died in vain, but the fact is, they were there, at Gallipoli, in those rotten stinking conditions, in harm’s way, because of decisions made above their heads. That wasn’t their fault, and I’m reluctant, too, to blame the commanders, who also lived true to their times. Perhaps we should just be commemorating the fact that we no longer live in those macho, authoritarian times, and that we need to always find a better way forward than warfare.

Written by stewart henderson

August 21, 2017 at 10:56 pm

local councils, Australia Day and federal bullying

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It’s all ours boys, from sea to flamin sea. Forget those damn Yanks, our Empire’s just beginning!

Recently a local council, the Yarra City Council, which covers a large portion of the eastern and north-eastern inner suburbs of Melbourne, opted to stop holding citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day, January 26, because of local sensibilities. It has posted the details of its decision, and the reasons for it, online. I find those reasons unexceptionable, but then I’m not a nationalist, I prefer to take an internationalist, humanist view on such issues. So I’ve never celebrated Australia Day, any more than I would celebrate the national day of any other country I happened to land up in, though I relish local customs, cuisines etc.

I have of course noticed, having lived in this country for over fifty years, that Australia Day has become controversial in recent years, for good reason. I happen to be reasonably knowedgable about the date, having read a bit of Australian history and having, over many years, taught the history of that date – Cook’s mapping of Australia’s east coast, the reasons for sending out the first fleet, the arrival in Port Jackson, the planting of the flag, and Britain’s obviously questionable claim to sovereignty – to NESB students in a number of community centres – the very places, sometimes, where citizenship ceremonies were carried out.

It seems clear to me that this date for celebrating Australian nationhood, which really only started to become controversial in the eighties, will eventually be changed. Until it is, controversy will grow. The Yarra Council decision is another move in that controversy, and it won’t be the last. It would be great if this change happened sooner rather than later, to nip the acrimony in the bud, but I doubt that will happen. The Federal Government has used what powers it has to prevent Yarra Council from holding citizenship ceremonies, arguing that the council has politicised the day. However, the controversy that has grown up over the date has always been a political one. Yarra Council’s decision was political, just as was the response of the Feds. On January 26 1788 a Union Jack was raised at Sydney Harbour, and all the land extending to the north, the south, and the west – some 7,692,000 square kilometres, though its extent was completely unknown at the time – was claimed as the possession of Britain, in spite of its clearly being already inhabited. If that wasn’t a political decision, what was it?

The Assistant Minister for Immigration, Alex Hawke, has spoken for the Feds on this matter. Their argument is that citizenship itself has been politicised by Yarra Council’s decision:

“The code is there to make sure that councils don’t do these sorts of things. We don’t want citizenship ceremonies being used as a political argument for anybody’s political advancement one way or the other.

“It’s our role to uphold the code. We warned them not to do this or we would have to cancel their ability to do it, and I regret that they’ve done it.”

The code being referred to here is the Citizenship Ceremonies Code. The Yarra City Mayor, Amanda Stone, believes the council’s decision isn’t in breach of it. This may or may not be so, but this isn’t really the point. The chosen date for celebrating Australia day commemorates a highly political event, which can never be wished away. Marking this day as the most appropriate day for immigrants to become Australians valorises the date, and the event – essentially a land-grab – even more. So it seems odd, to me, that a decision not to promote this land-grab as representative of the much-touted Australian ‘fair go’, should be worthy of criticism, let alone condemnation and punishment.

Generally the Federal polllies’ response to all this has been confused and disappointing. Our PM has said this, according to the ABC:

“An attack on Australia Day is a repudiation of the values the day celebrates: freedom, a fair go, mateship and diversity”

Turnbull knows well enough, though, that the council’s decision isn’t an attack on the concept of Australia Day. It’s a recognition that the date is unacceptable to many people – precisely because that date itself repudiates the values of freedom and fair play, in a very obvious way. Turnbull isn’t stupid, he’s just doing what he’s done so many times of late, making politically expedient noises to maintain the support of his mostly more conservative colleagues.

The Labor leader Bill Shorten’s half-and-half response is also typically political. Here’s how the ABC reports it:

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was also critical of the move.

“Reconciliation is more about changing hearts and minds than it is about moving public holidays,” Mr Shorten said.

“But, of course, if we look at national days important in the history of this country, there is March 1 1901, when the Australian parliament, the Australian nation came into being.”

In other words, ‘reconciliation is about nothing so trivial as the dates of public holidays but, hey, maybe March 1 should be our Australia Day’. Caspar Milquetoast would have been proud of that one.

We’re just at the beginning of this tussle, and the end, I think, is inevitable. Yarra Council isn’t the first to make this decision. The Fremantle Council did the same in December last year, but was bullied into backing down by the Feds. The Yarra Council seems more firm in its resolve, and obviously other councils will follow in due course. The Turnbull government will fall at the next election, and this will encourage more council action and more public debate on the issue. It’ll be interesting to observe how long it all takes…

Written by stewart henderson

August 19, 2017 at 5:51 pm

the strange world of the self-described ‘open-minded’ – part one

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my copy - a stimulating and fun read, great fodder for closed-minded types, come moi

my copy – a stimulating and fun read, great fodder for closed-minded types, comme moi

I’ve just had my first ever conversation with someone who at least appears to be sceptical of the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969 – and, I can only suppose, the five subsequent successful moon landings. Altogether, twelve men walked on the moon between 20 July 1969 and December 10 1972, when the crew members of Apollo 17 left the moon’s surface. Or so the story goes.

This conversation began when I said that perhaps the most exciting world event I’ve experienced was that first moon landing, watching Neil Armstrong possibly muffing the lines about one small step for a man, and marvelling that it could be televised. I was asked how I knew that it really happened. How could I be so sure?

Of course I had no immediate answer. Like any normal person, I have no immediate, or easy, answer to a billion questions that might be put to me. We take most things on trust, otherwise it would be a very very painstaking existence. I didn’t mention that, only a few months before, I’d read Phil Plait’s excellent book Bad Astronomy, subtitled Misconceptions and misuses revealed, from astrology to the moon landing ‘hoax’. Plait is a professional astronomer who maintains the Bad Astronomy blog and he’s much better equipped to handle issues astronomical than I am, but I suppose I could’ve made a fair fist of countering this person’s doubts if I hadn’t been so flabbergasted. As I said, I’d never actually met someone who doubted these events before. In any case I don’t think the person was in any mood to listen to me.

Only one reason for these doubts was offered. How could the lunar module have taken off from the moon’s surface? Of course I couldn’t answer, never having been an aeronautical engineer employed by NASA, or even a lay person nerdy enough to be up on such matters, but I did say that the moon’s minimal gravity would presumably make a take-off less problematic than, say, a rocket launch from Mother Earth, and this was readily agreed to. I should also add that the difficulties, whatever they might be, of relaunching the relatively lightweight lunar modules – don’t forget there were six of them – didn’t feature in Plait’s list of problems identified by moon landing skeptics which lead them to believe that the whole Apollo adventure was a grand hoax.

So, no further evidence was proffered in support of the hoax thesis. And let’s be quite clear, the claim, or suggestion, that the six moon landings didn’t occur, must of necessity be a suggestion that there was a grand hoax, a conspiracy to defraud the general public, one involving tens of thousands of individuals, all of whom have apparently maintained this fraud over the past 50 years. A fraud perpetrated by whom, exactly?

My conversation with my adversary was cut short by a third person, thankfully, but after the third person’s departure I was asked this question, or something like it: Are you prepared to be open-minded enough to entertain the possibility that the moon landing didn’t happen, or are you completely closed-minded on the issue?

Another way of putting this would be: Why aren’t you as open-minded as I am?

So it’s this question that I need to reflect on.

I’ve been reading science magazines on an almost daily basis for the past thirty-five years. Why?

But it didn’t start with science. When I was kid, I loved to read my parents’ encyclopaedias. I would mostly read history, learning all about the English kings and queens and the battles and intrigues, etc, but basically I would stop at any article that took my fancy – Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, Isaac Newton as well as Hitler, Ivan the Terrible and Cardinal Richelieu. Again, why? I suppose it was curiosity. I wanted to know about stuff. And I don’t think it was a desire to show off my knowledge, or not entirely. I didn’t have anyone to show off to – though I’m sure I wished that I had. In any case, this hunger to find things out, to learn about my world – it can hardly be associated with closed-mindedness.

The point is, it’s not science that’s interesting, it’s the world. And the big questions. The question – How did I come to be who and where I am?  – quickly becomes – How did life itself come to be? – and that extends out to – How did matter come to be? The big bang doesn’t seem to explain it adequately, but that doesn’t lead me to imagine that scientists are trying to trick us. I understand, from a lifetime of reading, that the big bang theory is mathematically sound and rigorous, and I also know that I’m far from alone in doubting that the big bang explains life, the universe and everything. Astrophysicists, like other scientists, are a curious and sceptical lot and no ‘ultimate explanation’ is likely to satisfy them. The excitement of science is that it always raises more questions than answers, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, and we have human ingenuity to thank for that, as we’re the creators of science, the most amazing tool we’ve ever developed.

But let me return to open-mindedness and closed-mindedness. During the conversation described above, it was suggested that the USA simply didn’t have the technology to land people on the moon in the sixties. So, ok, I forgot this one: two reasons put forward – 1, the USA didn’t have the technological nous; 2, the modules couldn’t take off from the moon (later acknowledged to be not so much of an issue). I pretty well knew this first reason to be false. Of course I’ve read, over the years, about the Apollo missions, the rivalry with the USSR, the hero-worship of Yuri Gagarin and so forth. I’ve also absorbed, in my reading, much about spaceflight and scientific and technological development over the years. Of course, I’ve forgotten most of it, and that’s normal, because that’s how our brains work – something I’ve also read a lot about! Even the most brilliant scientists are unlikely to be knowledgeable outside their own often narrow fields, because neurons that fire together wire together, and it’s really hands-on work that gets those neurons firing.

But here’s an interesting point. I have in front of me the latest issue of Cosmos magazine, issue 75. I haven’t read it yet, but I will do. On my shelves are the previous 74 issues, each of which I’ve read, from cover to cover. I’ve also read more than a hundred issues of the excellent British mag, New Scientist. The first science mag I ever read was the monthly Scientific American, which I consumed with great eagerness for several years in the eighties, and I still buy their special issues sometimes. Again, the details of most of this reading are long forgotten, though of course I learned a great deal about scientific methods and the scientific mind-set. The interesting point, though, is this. In none of these magazines, and in none of the books, blogs and podcasts I’ve consumed in about forty years of interest in matters scientific, have I ever read the claim, put forward seriously, that the moon landings were faked. Never. I’m not counting of course, books like Bad Astronomy and podcasts like the magnificent Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, in which such claims are comprehensively debunked.

The SGU podcast - a great source for exciting science developments, criticism of science reporting, and debunking of pseudo-science

The SGU podcast – a great source for exciting science developments, criticism of science reporting, and debunking of pseudo-science

Scientists are a skeptical and largely independent lot, no doubt about it, and I’ve stated many times that scepticism and curiosity are the twin pillars of all scientific enquiry. So the idea that scientists could be persuaded, or cowed into participating in a conspiracy (at whose instigation?) to hoodwink the public about these landings is – well let’s just call it mildly implausible.

But of course, it could explain the US government’s massive deficit. That’s it! All those billions spent on hush money to astronauts, engineers, technicians (or were they all just actors?), not to mention nosey reporters, science writers and assorted geeks – thank god fatty Frump is here to make America great again and lift the lid on this sordid scenario, like the great crusader against fake news that he is.

But for now let’s leave the conspiracy aspect of this matter aside, and return to the question of whether these moon landings could ever have occurred in the late sixties and early seventies. I have to say, when it was put to me, during this conversation, that the technology of the time wasn’t up to putting people on the moon, my immediate mental response was to turn this statement into a question. Was the technology of the time up to it? And this question then turns into a research project. In other words, let’s find out, let’s do the research. Yay! That way, we’ll learn lots of interesting things about aeronautics and rocket fuel and gravitational constraints and astronaut training etc, etc – only to forget most of it after a few years. Yet, with all due respect, I’m quite sure my ‘adversary’ in this matter would never consider engaging in such a research project. She would prefer to remain ‘open-minded’. And if you believe that the whole Apollo project was faked, why not believe that all that’s been written about it before and since has been faked too? Why believe that the Russians managed to get an astronaut into orbit in the early sixties? Why believe that the whole Sputnik enterprise was anything but complete fakery? Why believe anything that any scientist ever says? Such radical ‘skepticism’ eliminates the need to do any research on anything.

But I’m not so open-minded as that, so in my dogmatic and doctrinaire fashion I will do some – very limited – research on that very exciting early period in the history of space exploration. I’ll report on it next time.

Written by stewart henderson

February 25, 2017 at 12:34 pm

ten negatory claims about same-sex marriage

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percentages of those favouring same-sex marriage (in the US) over twenty-odd years – one of the fastest changes in public opinion in human history

What are the arguments against same-sex marriage? That’s a question I’m asking myself as I hear that conservatives want public money to run a campaign against it if Australia holds a plebiscite – which I’m not particularly in favour of, but at least it makes me reconsider the ‘no’ arguments. Presumably they’d be along the same lines as those of the TFP (tradition, family, property) organisation of the USA, but Australia as a nation is less religiously fixated than the USA, so the weak arguments found on the TFP website would seem even weaker to people over here. But let’s run through their 10 arguments just for fun. You can read them in full on the website if you’ve nothing better to do.

1. It is not marriage.

The claim here is that you can’t just redefine marriage to suit changing situations. ‘Marriage has always been x’, (x usually being identified as a ‘covenant between a man, a woman and god’ or some such thing). The response is, we can and always have done. Marriage is a human invention, and like all inventions we can modify it to suit our needs. A table is a human invention, and it can be a chess table, a bedside table, a coffee table, a dining table or a conference table, and none of these uses threatens the meaning of the word ‘table’. Marriage is ours to define and use as we wish, and historically we’ve done just that, with polygynous marriages, which have been commonplace, polyandrous marriages (much rarer) and other more or less formal arrangements, such as handfasting and morganatic and common-law marriages. Of course, marriage has rarely been recognised between individuals of the same sex, though same-sex unions, some of them highly ritualised and contractualised, have had a long history. But the reason for this is obvious – throughout history, homosexuals have been tortured and executed for their feelings and practices. The history of exclusive male-female marriage coincides with the history of homosexual persecution. The two histories are not unrelated, they’re completely entwined.

2. It violates natural law.

WTF is natural law, you might ask. A TFP fiction apparently. Their website says: Being rooted in human nature, it [natural law] is universal and immutable. But human nature is neither of these things. It’s diverse and evolving, socially as well as genetically. Marriage and child-rearing arrangements vary massively around the globe, with varying results, but it seems clear from voluminous research that children benefit most from close bonding with one or two significant others, together with a wider circle of potential carers and mentors. It’s notable that when this organisation lays down the ‘law’ on matters of marriage, sexuality and families it cites no scientific research of any kind – its only quotes are from the Bible.

3. It always denies children either a father and a mother.

Leaving aside the fact that there are often no children involved, this argument relies on the assumption that a father and a mother are indispensable to the proper rearing of children. Research reported on in Science Daily found that ‘children raised by two same-gender parents do as well on average as children raised by two different-gender parents. This is obviously inconsistent with the widespread claim that children must be raised by a mother and a father to do well’.  Melvin Konner in his 2015 book Women after all puts it this way: ‘One of the most impressive discoveries of the last decade in child development research is that when babies of either sex are adopted by lesbian or gay couples – and this has been studied very extensively and carefully – the main way the resulting children differ from controls raised with a father and mother is that they turn out to be less homophobic.’ Of course, this is exactly what organisations like TFP are afraid of, as promotion of homophobia is what they’re all about.

4. It Validates and Promotes the Homosexual Lifestyle

And that’s precisely what it aims to do. Of course TFP argues, or rather states without argument, that this would ‘weaken public morality’. Humanists would argue precisely the opposite, that such validation is long overdue, and would strengthen a morality based on the recognition of the fundamental humanity and value of diverse individuals.

5. It Turns a Moral Wrong into a Civil Right

In its discussion of this reason to oppose same-sex marriage, TFP again refers to its bogus ‘natural law’. Same-sex marriage (always in inverted commas on its website ) is opposed to nature, according to TFP. Again this is stated rather than argued, but as I’ve often pointed out, bonobos, our closest living relatives, engage in homosexual acts on a regular basis. Of course, they don’t marry, because marriage isn’t natural, it’s a human construction, and mostly a quite usefiul one, though not necessary for child-rearing, or for permanent monogamous relationships. Further to this, researchers have observed homosexual acts in between 500 and 1500 non-human species, so it seems to be natural enough.

6. It Does Not Create a Family but a Naturally Sterile Union

Again TFP makes ad nauseum use of the word ‘nature’ to give credit to its views. But the fact that same-sex couples can’t have offspring without outside help isn’t a reason to debar them from a union that serves multiple purposes. Moreover, it’s quite reasonable for homosexual males or females to feel that they would make good parents, and to yearn to be parents, and there is no reason why this should yearning should be opposed, if the opportunity to parent a child arises. Adopted children are often brought up in loving and happy environments, and succeed accordingly.

7. It Defeats the State’s Purpose of Benefiting Marriage. 

It’s hardly for the TFP or any other organisation to tell us what the State’s purpose is regarding marriage. Most advanced states provide benefits for children, regardless of the marital status of the mother. This is very important, considering the large number of single-parent (mostly female) families we have today. The state also doesn’t distinguish between marriage and de facto relationships when it dispenses benefits. The TFP is obviously out of date on this one.

8. It Imposes Its Acceptance on All Society

States are legalising same-sex marriage around the western world under public pressure. Here in Australia, where same-sex marriage hasn’t yet been legalised, polls have indicated that same-sex marriage is clearly acceptable to the majority. Where it is up to courts to decide, as occurred recently in the USA, the process is too complex to cover here, but it’s clear that the public’s attitude to same-sex marriage in every advanced or developed nation has undergone a seismic shift in a relatively short period – the last ten years or so.

9. It Is the Cutting Edge of the Sexual Revolution

Vive la révolution. Of course, TFP presents the slippery slope argument – paedophilia, bestiality and the like – so hurtful and offensive to the LGBT community. Again, there’s never any presentation of evidence or research, every proposition is presented as self-evident. It’s a profoundly anti-intellectual document.

10. It Offends God

This is, of course, presented as the main argument. Biblical quotes are given, including one in which their god’s mass immolation of ‘sodomites’ is celebrated. I don’t really see much point in questioning the supposedly offended feelings of a supposedly all-perfect, all-powerful invisible undetectable being. It’s all a fairly nasty fantasy.

There’s nothing more to say, and as an intellectual exercise this was probably a waste of time, as people who believe the above guff aren’t listening much. Any critical responses to their 10 propositions on the TFP website will be promptly deleted. There’s definitely no fun to be had with these guys. Their absolute certainty, and their inability and unwillingness to argue cogently or to examine evidence is a very disturbing sign, and a clear indication that they’re fuelled entirely by emotion. A passionate fear of change and difference. It all tends to reinforce the arguments against holding a plebiscite, in which, in Australia, people of this sort would actually be funded to give voice to their certainties with all the indignation of righteousness. They would be ruthless about their targets, and being patriarchal  – because preserving extreme patriarchy is what this is all about at base – they would be violent in their language and tactics. The best way to muzzle them would be to resolve this in parliament as soon as possible.

Written by stewart henderson

September 21, 2016 at 12:25 pm