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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

matriarchy – surely it couldn’t be worse than patriarchy?

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In one of the international English classes I occasionally teach, we have an opportunity for debate. Here’s a debate topic I’ve thought up but haven’t yet tried out: If 90 to 99% of the world’s business and political leaders were female, instead of male as they are today, would the world be a better place to live in?

It’s not a question that’ll find a definitive answer in the foreseeable future, but my strong view is that the world would be better.

Why? I’m not entirely convinced that women are the gentler sex, and I’m very wary of succumbing to a facile view of women as inherently more calm, co-operative and conciliatory, but I think that on balance, or statistically, they’re more risk averse, less impulsive, and, yes, more group-oriented. Whether such tendencies are natural or nurtured, I’m not at all sure. It’s a question I intend to investigate.

So to stimulate myself in pursuing the subject of patriarchy and its obverse I’m reading Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy, a rather optimistically-titled book by an American doctor and teacher, Melvin Konner. It’s one of many sources of information I hope to access in the future. It argues that there are fundamental differences between males and females, and that females are the superior gender. I’m not sure about the ‘fundamentals’, or categorical differences, but I agree that the current differences can and probably should be interpreted in terms of female superiority. Certainly, given the needs and responsibilities of humanity in this time, woman appear to have more of the goods than males for facing the future. After all, if we look back at the last 6000 or so years of human history, it’s dominated by male warfare, and if we look at today’s most violent and brutish cultures, they’re clearly the most patriarchal.

Of course if you believe that women and men are fundamentally different, as Konner does, then it becomes straightforward to argue for women being in control, because it’s highly unlikely, indeed impossible I’d say, that these fundamentally different genders are precisely equal in value. And given the devastation and suffering that men have caused over the period of what we call ‘human civilisation’, and given that women are the (mostly) loving mothers of all of us, it seems obvious that, if there is a fundamental difference, women’s qualities are of more value.

On the other hand if you’re a bit more skeptical about fundamental differences, as I am, and you suspect that the idea that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is as applicable to women as it is to men, you’ll feel rather more uncertain about a profoundly matriarchal society. And yet…

I draw some inspiration for the benefits of matriarchy from the closest living relatives of homo sapiens. There are two of them. The line that led to us split off from the line that led to chimps and bonobos around 6 million years ago. Chimps and bonobos split from their common ancestor much more recently, perhaps only a little over a million years ago, so they’re both equally related to us. Chimps and bonobos look very very alike, which is presumably why bonobos were only recognised as a separate species in the 1930s – quite extraordinary for such a physically large animal. But of course bonobo and chimp societies are very very different, and vive la différence. I’ve written about bonobo society before, here and here, but can’t get enough of a good thing, so I’ll look more closely at that society in the next few posts.

I think I'd rather be a bonobo

I think I’d rather be a bonobo

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by stewart henderson

August 25, 2016 at 10:55 pm

Earth before life: more skeptico-romantic chitchat

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The early Earth - more cracks than facade?

The early Earth – more cracks than facade?

Canto: So we’ve talked all too briefly about Earth’s probable formation and how its moon was formed some fifty million years later, and I’m not sure whether I want to go back further in time to try to answer some big questions about the solar system in general or the solar nebula, or forward to consider how life emerged from inanimate matter on this seething-hot, volatile planetary surface…

Jacinta: Well since we’re the blind leading the blind, it doesn’t much matter which direction we go. Let’s choose life.

Canto: Okay, but we’ll have a way to travel before we get there.

Jacinta: Well most of us learned at school that the Earth has a crust, a mantle and a core, and that the core is of iron and it’s really hot down there, and the crust is formed of plates that move around and go under each other, and that the atmosphere above the crust consists of layers, like the stratosphere and the ionosphere, and the atmosphere around us is around three-quarters nitrogen and a quarter oxygen with traces of other gases, and if it wasn’t like that we wouldn’t be here. But it wasn’t anything like that when the first life appeared.

Canto: Yes, it was very different, and it seems there’s more that we don’t know about the period between 4.5 and 4 billion BP than there is that we do know, if you know what I mean.

Jacinta: BP?

Canto: Before the Present. I got that from the excellent Stuff You Should Know podcast, and I’m going to use it from now on.

Jacinta: D’accord. So yes, we know that the early Earth was incredibly hot, reaching temperatures of 2000 celsius or more, but there’s also evidence from ancient amphibolite rocks and banded iron formations that there was water on the Earth, and plenty of it, 4.3 billion years ago. Which suggests an extraordinarily fast cooling down period, and where did all that water come from?

Canto: Yes I think we really need to look at this period, or what we know of it, to try and make sense of it, because it doesn’t quite make sense to me. A hot magma world, melted fom the inside out, but also bombarded from the outside by meteorites, then after the bombardment suddenly cooling from the outside in, and flowing with water. All in a couple of hundred million years?

Really?

Really?

Jacinta: That’s a long time actually. We’re hoping to live for a hundred years for some strange reason – a two millionth of our time-frame, if we’re very lucky.

Canto: Well it’s all relative, but where did this water come from? Some say it must’ve come from space, because that’s all that happened, meteors from out there crashing into here. Where else could it come from?

 

Jacinta: How do you trap water here when the surface temperature is so high? Water boils at 100c, right?

Canto: Under ‘normal’ atmospheric pressure. The early Earth was anything but normal.

Jacinta: Anyway it just doesn’t seem possible to get so much water from rocks crashing into us. There’s another alternative – the water was already here. So the original bits and pieces that formed the Earth – carbonaceous chondrites or whatever – contained water and this water somehow made its way to the surface.

Canto: Somehow. Leaving aside the rising-to-the-surface problem, carbon-rich chondrites are found in asteroids today, and they have apparently a similar water-plus-impurities ratio to our oceanic water, and that’s obviously very suggestive.

Jacinta: Yes and the isotopic ratios pretty well match, but they don’t for comets. Scientists have been able to measure the isotopic ratios in comets such as Halley and Hale-Bopp, and they don’t have anything like the proportions found in our oceans. I’m talking heavy water here, deuterium, but also protium which is another isotope of hydrogen.

Canto: NASA also launched a spacecraft, Deep Impact, to probe the constituents of a comet, Tempel1, and the results were negatory for its candidature as feeder of the Earth’s water, had it ever landed here, but of course not nugatory for astronomical research generally. But then, what comet is ever typical? Anyway, there’s a just-so story, sort of, that I watched on video recently, which explained the oceans, sort of. It told us that the planetesimals that created the Earth contained water locked inside, and that years of later volcanic activity released that water to the surface as steam, which condensed in the cool upper atmosphere and fell as rain. And the rain it rainèd every day.

Jacinta: So the Bible was right then?

Canto: More than forty days and nights – thousands of years, they claimed. But that made up only half the world’s oceans. The rest came from comets, they said. Now that seems unlikely, but replace comets with the right sorts of asteroids, and the recipe still works.

Jacinta: Well here’s another story, which is meant to explain how that heat-creating heavy bombardment came to an end.  The Earth’s bombarded surface was extremely hot, melting everything, even the rocks, and in this state the heavier elements such as iron sank to the centre, forming our core, which was vital in protecting us from the notorious solar wind – that incredibly strong force that has blown away the atmosphere of Mars.

Canto: Yeah, they say it kind of magnetised the Earth, and that was like a shield of steel.

Jacinta: Aka the magnetosphere, but I’m afraid that electromagnetism was a subject that transformed me into a gibbering mass of incomprehension at school.

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Canto: I can’t say I understand it myself, but the magnetosphere works to almost perfectly preserve our atmosphere. We do lose a percentage to the solar wind every year but it’s so tiny that it’s not a problem. Another anthropic circumstance that proves the existence of God.

Jacinta: Hallelujah. So did this magnetosphere form before or after the formation of the moon?

Canto: God knows.

Jacinta: Goddess.

Canto: Sorry princess.

Jacinta: Princess, goddess, actress, countess, diminutives. They diminish.

Canto: Seamstress.

Jacinta: Temptress.

Canto: Watercress. Anyway it probably happened around the same time. The great crash that probably created the moon has been nicely computer-simulated by Robin Canup of the Southwest Research Institute – it’s well worth a look. The theory goes that this great glancing blow tilted the Earth and gave us our seasons, probably vital to life as we know and love it.

Jacinta: Yes but it would’ve heated up the planet even more, so I’m interested in the problem of the shift from this to our amphibolite rocks under water from nearly 4.3 billion years ago. Where the eff did that water come from? It steamed up from beneath the surface? Not likely. And from asteroids? Really?

Canto: Possibly. But according to this excellent Naked Science video, the best-preserved meteorites ever recovered came from a landfall in British Columbia in 2000. And when they investigated this meteorite material they found that it was made up of 20% water by weight, and that’s pretty significant…

Jacinta: Because water isn’t dense like rock is it, so that sounds like a lot of water. We’re learning a lot from this video, such as that meteorites don’t cause great fireballs or anything like that, because they’ve been tumbling about in cold space for eons, and their entry into the Earth’s atmosphere only heats up a few millimetres of the outer surface, and then only for a very brief period, so they pretty well instantly go cold again.

Canto: Right and maybe that explains something else; that a heavy bombardment of these big wet boulders – and apparently they’ve found that the further they are from us, the more water they contain – would’ve cooled the planet.

Jacinta: Interesting idea, which I’m sure someone’s thought of and maybe even computer modelled. Certainly it would help to explain the apparent speed with which the oceans were formed. So… I’m not really convinced, but in lieu of a better explanation I’ll take it on trust that the oceans were created in little more than a million years or so by a hailstorm of asteroids, together with water steamed up from below the surface. So now we have a somewhat cooler Earth, ready at last for some kind of life, but not as we experience it.

Canto: Right, we’re talking about an atmosphere containing virtually no oxygen. Made up mostly of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane.

Jacinta: And how do they know that? I’ve also heard hydrogen sulphide mentioned.

Canto: Yeah, upwellings from volcanic activity I believe.

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Jacinta: So the stage is set for some sort of proto-life, with RNA or some precursor. And so the fun begins, if it hasn’t already.

Canto: Indeed it does. So that’s what we’ll be exploring next. I’ve even heard some researchers claim that water isn’t necessary for basic life to get started. Now there’s heresy for you.

Jacinta: That’s the fun of heresy these days, you don’t get burned alive for it, no more than a bit of gentle ribbing. I’m looking forward to the next post.

Written by stewart henderson

July 21, 2016 at 9:34 pm

How on earth? A chat about origins.

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one impression of our proto-sun and solar nebula

one impression of our proto-sun and solar nebula

Jacinta: I’d like to know how we got in this position.

Canto: What position?

Jacinta: Here, on Earth.

Canto: We?

Jacinta: Humans.

Canto: That’s a very long story, which I suspect nobody’s really qualified to tell. But maybe we can report on the best speculations. First, in order to understand how we got here we have to understand how the Earth got here.

Jacinta: And so on, infinitely regressing. So let’s just start with the Earth.

Canto: Needless to say we don’t know all the details and there are doubtless competing theories, and new data is being regularly uncovered, but it obviously has to do with how our entire solar system was formed.

Jacinta: I’ve heard that all the heavy metals like iron and whatnot are forged within stars, like when they go supernova, but our star hasn’t done that, all it seems to produce is light, yet Earth is full of heavy elements. I really don’t get it.

Canto: I recall reading years ago a theory that the Earth was formed from an accretion of planetesimals, little planets…

Jacinta: Planettes?

Canto: Yes, but how those little things came into being themselves I’m not sure.

Jacinta: Well we have lots of rocky bits and bobs called asteroids floating about in the solar system…

Canto: Yes, but not randomly. there’s a whole big asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars, where they’re coralled, sort of.

Jacinta: But comets are different, they seem to have their individual eccentric orbits.

Canto: I suppose the point is that they also have heavy elements, and how were those elements formed?

Jacinta: Heat and pressure, I’m guessing, so things must’ve been hugely different in earlier times.

Canto: Well, this BBC site gives us some of the latest speculations. They reckon that the Earth probably formed from planetesimals, so that’s still the best hypothesis it seems, though it’s very light on details:

The Earth is thought to have been formed about 4.6 billion years ago by collisions in the giant disc-shaped cloud of material that also formed the Sun. Gravity slowly gathered this gas and dust together into clumps that became asteroids and small early planets called planetesimals.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s extremely vague. How do they know there was a disc-shaped cloud here? How can they investigate that far back?

Canto: Well don’t forget that looking out over huge distances means looking back in time.

Jacinta: Yes but a huge distance away isn’t here. Is it?

Canto: Well it might be here then.

Jacinta: Effing Einstein. But they’re also searching for extra data on the past, like checking out meteorites, which might contain material older than anything on Earth. Can they reliably date material that’s say, 5 billion years old? The Earth’s only about 4.5 billion years old, right?

Canto: I think 4.6 billion, give or take a few minutes. About a third of the age of the universe. And here’s the thing, we’ve dated all the meteorites and asteroids we can get to and they’re all round the same age, within a narrow range of a few hundred million years. So our date for the beginnings of the solar system is the oldest date for these floating and landing rocks, which is also our date for the Earth, about 4.6 billion.

Jacinta: So is our dating system completely accurate, and what by the way are carbonaceous chondrites?

Canto: Well, yes, radioactive decay provides a very accurate clock, and these meteorites have radioactive material in them, just as the core of our planet does. All the evidence so far suggests that things happened very quickly, in terms of accretion and formation of planets, once all this heavy and radioactive material was created. Carbonaceous chondrites are a type of meteorite. They’re amongst the oldest meteorites but relatively rare – they make up less than 5% of our meteorites. I mean the ones that land here. Why do you ask?

Jacinta: I’ve heard about them as being somehow important for research, and maybe dating?

Canto: Well there are different types of C chondrites as they’re called, and some of them, most interesting to us of course, are rich in organic compounds and water. This fact apparently shows that they haven’t been subjected to high temperatures, unlike for example the early Earth. But let me return to that BBC quote above. The theory goes that a supernova explosion, or maybe more than one, created all the heavy elements we have now – iron, carbon, silver, gold, uranium and all the rest, heat and pressure as you say, and these elements swirled around but were gravitationally attracted to a centre, which evolved into our sun. This was the spinning disc-shaped cloud mentioned above, known as the solar nebula.

Jacinta: Would you call that a theory, or a hypothesis, or wild desperate speculation?

Canto: I’d call it ‘the best we can do at the present moment’. But be patient, it’s a great time to be young in astronomy today. What we need is data, data, data, and we’re just starting to collect more data than we can rightly deal with on planets within and especially outside our solar system. Kepler’s just the beginning, girlie.

Jacinta: Je suis tout à fait d’accord, boyo. I think many of the astrophysicists are looking forward to having their cherished models swept aside by all the new telescopes and spectroscopes and what else and the data they spew back to Earth.

Canto: Uhh, well anyway let’s get back to our ‘best scenario for the moment’ scenario. So you have all this matter spinning around and the force of gravity causes accretion. It’s a messy scenario actually because everything’s moving at different velocities and angular momentums if that’s a thing, upwards, forwards, sideways down, and sometimes there’s accretion, sometimes fragmentation, but overall the movement is towards coalescence due to gravity. Particles grow to the size of monuments and then different sized planetesimals, fewer and bigger and farther between. And the smaller, gaseous elements are swept out by the solar wind into the great beyond, where they accrete into gas giants.

Jacinta: Right, but isn’t the data from Kepler and elsewhere already starting to play havoc with this scenario? Gas giants within spitting distance of their suns and the like?

Canto: Well, you need liquid to spit, but maybe you have a point, but I think it’s wise not to be too distracted by exoplanets and their systems at this stage. I think we need to find an internally coherent and consistent account of our own system.

Jacinta: What about the Juno probe, will that help?

Canto: Well I’m sure it will help us learn more about gas giants, but let’s just focus on the Earth now.

Jacinta: Okay, stay focussed.

Canto: These larger planetesimals became bigger gravitational attractors, each accumulating matter until we had four rocky planets in different, sufficiently distant orbits around their sun.

Jacinta: Oh yes, and what about the moons? Why didn’t they coalesce as neatly as all the other minor rocky bits?

Canto: Mmmm, well there’s nothing neat about all this, but mmmm…

Jacinta: How many moons are there?

Canto: For the inner planets? Only three, ours and two for Mars. So the question is, how come some of those rocks, or at least three, didn’t get stuck to the bigger rocks i.e. planets, via gravity, but instead started circling those planets, also due to gravity.

Jacinta: Yes, which might be the same question as why do the planets orbit around this massive gravitational attractor, the sun, instead of getting sucked into it, like what happens with those supermassive supersucking black holes?

Canto: Well first let me talk about our moon, because the most currently accepted theory about how our moon came into existence might surprise you.

Jacinta: It was a lot closer to the Earth at the beginning, wasn’t it? So it’s slowly spiralling away from us?

schematic of tial forces affecting moon's orbit and earth's rotation

schematic of tidal forces affecting moon’s orbit and earth’s rotation

Canto: Yes. Tidal forces. The moon’s tidally locked to the Earth, it’s the same face she shows us always, but let’s keep on track, it was formed in the very early days, when things were still very chaotic. A pretty large planetesimal, or planetoid, slammed into Earth, which was somewhat smaller then, and it stuck to it and coalesced with it – the Earth was pretty-well molten in those days – and a lot of debris was thrown out into space, but this debris didn’t quite escape Earth’s gravitational field, instead it coalesced to form our moon. This theory was first put forward a few decades ago, after moon rocks brought back from the Apollo missions were found to be younger than the oldest Earth rocks, and composed of much the same stuff, which came as a great surprise. But now the theory is well accepted, as it accounts for a number of other factors in the relationship between the two bodies.

the hypothesised Thea impact, which enlarged the Earth and created the Moon

the hypothesised Thea impact, which enlarged the Earth and created the Moon

Jacinta: Okay, so is that it on how the Earth was formed?

Canto: Well, yes, but the bigger question is your original one – how did we get here. And that means we have to look at how life got started here. Because we’re only up to about 4.5 billion years ago – with the moon being formed about 50 million years after the Earth. And at that point the Earth was like a sea of hot magma, hot from all the collisions on the surface, and hot from the radiation bursting out from its core. Hardly great conditions for life.

Jacinta: Well there might’ve been life, but not as we know it boyo.

Canto: I’m skeptical, but we’ll talk about that next time.

Some sources:

on the relation between moon and earth

formation of the moon

the solar nebula theory and its problems

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 19, 2016 at 8:45 am

Gypsies, heroes and the Austro-Hungarian Empire

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The liberty statue, Buda, viewed from over the river. Known to locals as the bottle opener

The liberty statue, Buda, viewed from over the river. Known to locals as the bottle opener

The Romani or Romany or Gypsies originally hailed from northern India it’s believed, and their overall population seems nigh-impossible to determine given uncertainties about heritage – gypsiness can no more be measured by DNA than Australianess. It’s estimated for example that there are between about 600,000 and 2 million Roma (another moniker) in Romania (no relation), and the figures are even stretchier for the USA, an apparently favourite destination in recent times. A people with no country and no desire for one, the ultimate internationalists. This sense of not belonging, of camp life and lightness on the ground, that’s attractive, but the inwardness, the apparent indifference to those not of their own, to the world of progress and development, that’s not quite repellant but unnerving – a challenge to renovation, modernity and the primacy of the individual. Where do I stand on these people with a reputation for scavenging and thieving, but also proof against the lure of property, investment and accumulation? I stand for diversity, I think, but there’s more. Since I was young I’ve felt and mostly enjoyed a sense of rootlessness, and a home of my own, supposedly the aspiration of every right-thinking Australian, has never been on my agenda. And as for being Australian, I only became one officially to get a passport to travel, and to return to where I have work waiting for me. So much for my gypsy traits, but the big difference is that I’m not an inward-facing ethnic-group member, more an outward-facing solitary, who admittedly enjoys the advantages of being loosely affiliated with a dominant culture.

Enough about me, back to Heroes’ Square where we wandered around in one group among many listening to our tour guide touching lightly on the soi-disant heroes of the nation, and particularly King Istvan (Stephen) I, the first Christian king, and so obviously the first real king, of Hungary, or the Magyars, or whatever. He was crowned, or anointed or whatever by the pope in 1000, and we gathered around a very macho central column atop of which was perched the Archangel Gabriel holding in one hand Stephen’s crown and in the other the apostolic cross, ‘saint’ Stephen’s symbol. He became a saint by converting to Christianity apparently, and thereby making his subjects Christians instanter.

Heroes’ Square is on the flat Pest side of the river, and we next travelled over to the hill-sown Buda side. The two sides only came to form one city in 1873, but now, according to Daily Cruiser, it’s seen as the queen of the Danube, a city that embraces the river with its many bridges. In the distance are I think the Carpathians. I love these European names from my reading youth and my fantasies, and this is where my story so differs from Wallace’s, apart from every other detail, because this was a European river cruise not a journey into the heart of a Bermuda-triangular darkness of Americana, and Europe’s a kind of mind-numbingly interesting place to scratch the surface of.

Buda is the upscale side of the river, and it’s geographically more impressive, though the Pest side has the university, the national museum and such, and seems to be a more lively cafe-arts hub. We crossed one of the bridges to Buda while our guide regaled us about the Emperor Franz Josef and his beautiful melancholic spouse. This was the first of a series of tales and mentions of FJ’s interminable reign by our various guides through the Austro-Hungarian region, and I wondered, here in a mildly crumbling Budapest, whether it made them feel still nostalgically proud to have been at the heart of a relatively recent Austro-Hungarian Empire. But our current guide seemed also heartwarmed in informing us that FJ never cared for Budapest, nor Budapest for him, so it was also the first mention of a series of local-national tensions among the denizens around these river courses, tensions that probably went back to the Thirty Years’ War and beyond, stuff I was intrigued by but keen to dismiss.

Franz Josef, emperor of Austria, king of Hungary, Bohemia as a molto-privileged youth

Franz Josef, emperor of Austria, king of Hungary, Bohemia as a molto-privileged youth

Written by stewart henderson

June 7, 2016 at 8:57 am

why are our brains shrinking?

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my own brain, squeezed of alcohol

my own brain, squeezed of alcohol

Jacinta: So you know that the average human brain mass, or is it volume, has reduced by  – is it 15%, I can’t remember – over the past 20,000 years or so, right? And there’s this theory that it’s somehow related to domestication, because the same thing has happened to domesticated animals…

Canto: How so..?

Jacinta: Well, we don’t know how so, we just know it’s happened.

Canto: How do we know this? Who says?

Jacinta: Well I’ve heard about it from a few sources but most recently from Bruce Hood, the well-known psychologist and skeptic who was talking on the SGU about a recent book of his, The Domesticated Brain. 

Canto: So the idea is that humans have somehow domesticated themselves, in the same way that they’ve domesticated other species, with a corresponding decrease in brain mass in all these species, which signifies – what?

Jacinta: Well it raises questions, dunnit? What’s going on?

Canto: It doesn’t signify dumbing down though – I read in Pinker’s big book about our better angels that our average IQ is rising in quite regular and exemplary fashion.

Jacinta: Yes, the Flynn effect. Though of course what IQ measures has always been controversial. And they do reckon size isn’t the main thing. I mean look at all those small critters that display so many smarts. For example, rats, octopuses and corvids (that’s to say crows, ravens and some magpies). They all seem to be fast learners, within their limited spheres, and very adaptable. But getting back to the human brain, it seems to be something known mainly to palaeontologists, who have a variety of theories about it, including the ‘we’re getting dumber’ theory, but I’m not convinced by that one. It seems more likely that our brains are getting more organised, requiring less mass.

Canto: So this has happened only in the last 20,000 years?

Jacinta: Or perhaps even less – between 10 and 20 thousand.

Canto: Isn’t that a phenomenally short time for such a substantial change?

Jacinta: I really don’t know. They say it might be partly related to a decrease in overall body size, so that the brain to body ratio remains much the same.

Canto: A decrease in body size? What about the obesity epidemic? And I remember way back when I was a kid reading about how we’d been getting taller with each generation since the Great Depression – or was it the Industrial Revolution? Anyway our improved diet, our era of relative abundance, has led to a change in height, and presumably in mass, in only a few generations.

Jacinta: So now you’re saying that substantial changes can occur in a few generations, let alone 10,000 years?

Canto: Uhhh, yeah, okay, but I wasn’t talking about brain size.

Jacinta: Well why not brain size? Anyway, although there have been those recent changes, at least in the west, the story goes that the planet has warmed since the last ice age, favouring less bulky bodies, less fat storage, more gracile frames.

Canto: So what about domestication, why has this led to decreased brain sizes?

Jacinta: Well this is very complex of course…

Canto: I can think of a reason, though it might not be called domestication, more like socialisation, and outsourcing. You can see it in very recent times, with smart phones – it’s even become an already-stale joke, you know phones are getting smarter so we’re getting dumber. But then we always tend to exaggerate the short-term and the present against the longer view. And yet…. I was on the tram the other night, sitting across from this couple, locked into their phone screens, I mean really locked in, earplugs attached, heads bent, utterly fixated on their little screens, completely oblivious, of each other as well as of the outside world. I was reading a book myself, but I became distracted by my irritation with these characters, while wondering why I should be irritated. It just went on so long, this locked-in state. I leaned forward. I waved my hand in front of their bowed heads. I wanted to tell them that the tram had rattled past all the stations and was heading out to sea…

Jacinta: There are some problems with the whole argument. How do we know that domesticated animals have smaller brains? Domesticated cats have a wide range of brain sizes no doubt, but what wild cats are you comparing them with? Even more so with dogs and their immense varieties. Okay they’re descended from wolves so you compare a wolf brain with its modern doggy-wolfy counterpart, but who’s going to agree on type specimens?

Canto: So you brought the subject up just to dismiss it as a load of rubbish?

Jacinta: Well if we shelve the domestication hypothesis for the moment – I’m not dismissing it entirely – we might consider other reasons why human brains are shrinking – if they are.

Canto: So you’re not convinced that they are?

Jacinta: Well let’s be sceptical until we find some solid evidence. In this Scientific American site, from November 2014, palaeontologist Chris Stringer states that ‘skeletal evidence from every inhabited continent’ suggests – only suggests – that our brains have become smaller in the past 10 to 20 thousand years. No references are given, but the article assumes this is a fact. This piece from Discovery channel or something, which dates back to 2010, relies in part on the work of another palaeontologist, John Hawks, whose website we link to here. Hawks also talks about a bucketload of evidence, but again no references. The original research papers would likely be behind a paywall anyway, and barely intelligible to my dilettante brain….

Canto: Your diminishing brain.

Jacinta: Okay I’m prepared to believe Hawks about our incredible shrinking brains, but is domestication the cause, and what exactly is domestication anyway? Hawks doesn’t go with the domestication hypothesis. In fact the Discovery article usefully covers a number of alternative hypotheses, and of course the shrinking may be due to a combo. In fact that’s more than likely.

Canto: So what’s Hawks’ hypothesis, since we’re supposedly admirers of his?

Jacinta: Well Hawks decided to look more closely at this brain contraction – which is interesting because I was thinking along the same lines as he was, i.e. has it been a uniform contraction, or was there a sudden, quick development, followed by a stagnant period, as you would expect?

Canto: Anyway isn’t brain organisation more important than brain mass? Sorry to interrupt, but haven’t we already established that?

Jacinta: We haven’t established anything, we’re just effing dilettantes remember. Hawks started looking at more recent data, over the past 4000 years or so, to see if he could detect any difference in the encephalisation quotient (EQ) – the ratio of brain volume to body mass – over that time. He found that indeed there has. The picture is complicated, but overall there has been a reduction in the brain compared to the body. His explanation for this though is quite different. He reckons that a series of mutations over recent history have resulted in the brain producing more out of less…

Canto: Right, just as a series of modifications have allowed us to produce smaller but more powerful and fuel-efficient cars.

Jacinta: Uhh, yeah, something like that.

Canto: But we know what those modifications were, we can name them. Can we name the mutations?

Jacinta: Clever question, but we know about cars, we built them and they’ve only been around for a bit more than a century. We know vastly less about the brain and we’re still getting our heads around natural selection, give us a break. Hawks points out that it’s a rule about population genetics well-known in principle to Darwin, that the larger the population the more numerous the mutations, and there was a surge in the human population back when agriculture was developed and large settlements began to form. So a number of brain-related mutations led to streamlining and, as you suggest, fuel efficiency.

Canto: But isn’t this compatible with the domestication hypothesis? I imagine that, if there really is a brain reduction for domesticated animals, it’s because they don’t have to rely on their brains so much for survival, and we don’t either, the collective has sort of magically taken care of it through farming and infrastructure and supermarkets.

Jacinta: Yes but they all have their own complicated networks and issues we have to wrap our brains around. The domestication hypothesis is really about aggression apparently. The argument goes that all animals under domestication become more varied in size, coloration and general build, with a tendency to become more gracile over all. Selection against aggression, according to the primatologist Richard Wrangham, favours a slowly developing brain – one that is, in a sense, in a perpetually juvenile state (think of cute cat and dog videos). Of course, all this assumes that juvenile brains are less aggressive than adult brains, which some might see as a dubious assumption.

Canto: Yes, think of school bullying, Lord of the Flies, youth gangs, the adolescent tendency to extremes…

Jacinta: Well, both Wrangham and Hood offer a particularly interesting example of ‘super-fast’ domestication to illustrate their hypothesis:

In 1958 the Russian geneticist Dmitri Belyaev started raising silver foxes in captivity, initially selecting to breed only the animals that were the slowest to snarl when a human approached their cage. After about 12 generations, the animals evidenced the first appearance of physical traits associated with domestication, notably a white patch on the forehead. Their tameness increased over time, and a few generations later they were much more like domesticated dogs. They had developed smaller skeletons, white spots on their fur, floppy ears, and curlier tails; their craniums had also changed shape, resulting in less sexual dimorphism, and they had lower levels of aggression overall.

Now, how does this relate to juvenilism? Well, in the wild, offspring grow up quickly and have to fend for themselves, which requires a certain ruthless degree of aggression. Cats and dogs, yes, they abandon their offspring soon enough, but those offspring continue to be tutored, tamed, domesticated under their human owners. We hear a lot about school bullying and gangs of youths, but they’re actually the exception rather than the rule, or a last ditch rebellion against the domestication pressure that’s exerted by the whole of society, and they’ll either succumb to that pressure or end up in jail, or worse. It’s a bit like the Freudian concept of sublimation, you channel your aggressive energies into creativity, competitive problem-solving, sports achievements and the like.

Canto: So you’re in favour of the domestication hypothesis?

Jacinta: Well, I’m not against it. It sounds plausible to me. Human domestication, or self-domestication if you want to call it that, is a social-contract sort of thing. You agree to outsource and comply with certain arrangements – laws, government, taxation and so forth, in return for certain benefits in terms of security and resources. So you don’t have to fend for yourself. And that affects the brain, obviously. Though it might not be the whole story.

Written by stewart henderson

April 15, 2016 at 8:42 am