Friday, February 28, 2014

Eli Lake is Not Very Bright

A couple of days ago, Eli Lake assured us that Putin, despite his maneuvers, would not not invade Ukraine. My reaction at the time was, to borrow from Hermione, "What an idiot!" Not because I thought it was particularly likely that Putin would invade, but because I thought it was particularly stupid for a supposed intelligence insider to publicly make such a claim, and even stupider for his supposed sources to tell him such a thing.

No sooner published than Putin deploys troops strategically in Crimea.

Lake's rejoinder? Oh my gosh, US spies were wrong!

On Thursday night, the best assessment from the U.S. intelligence community—and for that matter most experts observing events in Ukraine—was that Vladimir Putin’s military would not invade Ukraine. Less than 24 hours later, however, there are reports from the ground of Russian troops pushing into the Ukrainian province of Crimea. It’s hardly a full-blown invasion. But it’s not quite the picture U.S. analysts were painting just a day before.

It's not as if Lake and his idiot sources had sent him an engraved invitation or anything. Not quite, but close.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

SETI vs. SETL

Several decades of listening for signs that somebody out there is try to talk to us have come up empty. There are a lot of theories as to why that might be so, starting from the obvious possibility that civilizations able to communicate with us don't exist. On the other hand, they might have been observing us for a while and concluded that we are too violent or boring to be worth talking to. Or maybe we are some cosmic nature preserve/zoo. Or our name hasn't yet come up for a membership vote in the Galactic club.

In any case the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) no longer looks that promising. A lot of people think that we should now settle for SETL - the Search for Extraterrestrial Life. For one things, the prospects are looking up - not that we have found any hints, but we have new tools that allow us to look in some plausible places and a raft of plausible places to look, both inside the solar system and beyond.

Within the Solar System Mars is not quite yet confirmed to be a dead planet and several icy worlds appear to have liquid water cores that conceivably support life. Thousands of planets have been discovered beyond the Solar System, and it seems clear that the Galaxy has billions of them. Many of them may well be capable of sustaining life.

Of course we won't be able to get up close and personal with any of them anytime soon, if ever, but our remote sensing tools could well be capable of detecting biosignatures in the near future. Any kind of detailed information about ET life would almost certainly clarify the deepest mystery in biology - how life evolved from non-living matter.

Smarter

We are rapidly gaining skill in genetic manipulation. In addition to such high priority goals as creating better athletes and prettier people, what are the prospects for smarter and healthier people? Steve Hsu has some thoughts and quotes on the former:

.. I think there is good evidence that existing genetic variants in the human population (i.e., alleles affecting intelligence that are found today in the collective world population, but not necessarily in a single person) can be combined to produce a phenotype which is far beyond anything yet seen in human history. This would not surprise an animal or plant breeder — experiments on corn, cows, chickens, drosophila, etc. have shifted population means by many standard deviations (e.g., +30 SD in the case of corn).

... I think we already have some hints in this direction. Take the case of John von Neumann, widely regarded as one of the greatest intellects in the 20th century, and a famous polymath. He made fundamental contributions in mathematics, physics, nuclear weapons research, computer architecture, game theory and automata theory.

In addition to his abstract reasoning ability, von Neumann had formidable powers of mental calculation and a photographic memory. In my opinion, genotypes exist that correspond to phenotypes as far beyond von Neumann as he was beyond a normal human.

I have known a great many intelligent people in my life. I knew Planck, von Laue and Heisenberg. Paul Dirac was my brother in law; Leo Szilard and Edward Teller have been among my closest friends; and Albert Einstein was a good friend, too. But none of them had a mind as quick and acute as Jansci [John] von Neumann. I have often remarked this in the presence of those men and no one ever disputed me. – Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner

You know, Herb, how much faster I am in thinking than you are. That is how much faster von Neumann is compared to me. – Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi to his former PhD student Herb Anderson.

One of his remarkable abilities was his power of absolute recall. As far as I could tell, von Neumann was able on once reading a book or article to quote it back verbatim; moreover, he could do it years later without hesitation. He could also translate it at no diminution in speed from its original language into English. On one occasion I tested his ability by asking him to tell me how The Tale of Two Cities started. Whereupon, without any pause, he immediately began to recite the first chapter and continued until asked to stop after about ten or fifteen minutes. – Herman Goldstine, mathematician and computer pioneer.

I always thought Von Neumann’s brain indicated that he was from another species, an evolution beyond man. – Nobel Laureate Hans A. Bethe.

Such skills, if real, would certainly change the character of the human race.

Re-Creation

The revival of extinct dinosaurs was the key idea in Michael Crichton's fantastically successful book and movie franchise Jurassic Park. We don't seem likely to be able to do that in real life any time soon, or perhaps ever, but it happens that active efforts to reverse more recent extinctions are not only plausible but underway. The advantage of these more recent extinctions is that we have a good chance of recovering their actual genetic code. The NY Times magazine has a nice story on the efforts underway here.

Brand became obsessed with the idea. Reviving an extinct species was exactly the kind of ambitious, interdisciplinary and slightly loopy project that appealed to him. Three weeks after his conversation with Flannery, Brand sent an email to Church and the biologist Edward O. Wilson:

Reconstructing the the DNA code of an extinct species is actually the easy part. The harder part is fabricating, editing, and achieving the reproduction of the actual physical DNA and a an egg cell from which the animal can be grown.

It should not escape our notice that the techniques developed in this quest would be readily adapted to creating modified versions of people.

Good Advice from the Ala Carte Menu

In the comments to the previous post, rrtucci points out that that when a researcher needs to know something, he/she doesn't read chapters 1-8 to get to something that's needed from chapter 20, but just goes directly to 20. Now I'm no researcher in astrophysics, but I'm also not a complete stranger to many aspects of physics. Anyway, I noticed myself making exactly that kind of mistake in trying to understand some some aspects of stellar function.

That is to say, I opened some astrophysics books and repeatedly found myself falling asleep somewhere in the first chapter or two when some aspects of transforming from from one spherical coordinate system to another, or some other such point irrelevant to my quest was being explained. I attributed this failure to persevere to senile loss of concentration, but stupidity would have been closer to the mark.

So I turned to the chapter on the point in question and found that it wasn't hard at all to understand.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Breakfast at the Ritz

On occasion I read the postings of formerly obscure expert on the history of refrigeration, who got his 15 minutes and then some when he published an anti-MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) tirade. His latest is entitled Higher education is not available à la carte. To which I say, WTF not? When I go to my local breakfast shop, they usually don't tell me that the tomatoes are a group requirement, and that I have to eat them whether I like it or not.

Professor Rees, PhD, RE:

But rip faculty research out of the equation and the quality of the entire product will suffer. Take me, for instance. I teach a research methods class for both undergrads and graduate students. Don’t you think I’ll do that better if I actually have time to do research? More importantly, if Duke students are willing to pay $60,000/year to have access to faculty who do actual research, what does this tell you about the quality of higher education at an institution where professors don’t have time to do any research at all?

So does that mean that students are the ones who should have to pay for the research? I suppose somebody does, but the real beneficiaries, if any, of such research is really society as a whole. Maybe it should pick up the tab.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Teapot Dome

Warren Harding was elected President in 1920 and appointed Albert Fall, Senator from the eight year-old State of New Mexico, as Secretary of the Interior. Fall wrested control of the supposed Naval Oil reserves from the Navy (Naval Officers objecting were posted to remote locations) and leased them to a couple of oil men in return for enormous bribes by the standards of the day. Harding died as the scandal widened, and Fall went to prison. Harry Sinclair, of Sinclair Oil, one of the bribe payers, did a brief jail term for contempt of Congress, but none of the bribe payers was convicted of their part in the actual crime. The money for the bribes, it turned out, had also come from the Federal government's coffers. Republicans like Fall were not the only recipients of bribes - so were some prominent Democrats, including the early front runner for the Presidential nomination.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Can't Wait for ORO?

The human addiction to egregious nonsense seems to be in no danger of waning - waxing seems more like it. Worse, the urge to persecute, prosecute and worse in the name of that nonsense seems to be on an upward trend.

Maybe the arrival of Our Robot Overlords will be an improvement.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Oil Takes Center Stage

By 1910 Germany had become the industrial powerhouse of Europe. It's interior lines and extensive railroad system also gave it crucial advantages in any potential conflict. What it didn't have was the extensive system of overseas colonies possessed by Britain and France, and it lusted after them. Since at that point, most of the colonizable world was already in one pocket or another, that meant grabbing colonies others already controlled. The biggest obstacle was the British fleet, so Germany set about building its own.

At that point, oil had already become one of the worlds most valuable commercial commodities, used for lamps, motorcars, and numerous other things, but the British fleet ran on coal, and armies moved by rail, horse, and on foot. When Germany made some crude intimations of a move toward Africa, the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, was quick to recognize the threat, and embarked on an ambitious program to build oil powered battleships: faster, longer ranged, and more easily refueled.

World War I led to explosive development of the internal combustion engine and especially its applications: not only ships, but motorcars, motorcycles, airplanes, and the tank. The ability of the Allies to deny Germany access to oil, while protecting its own sources of oil from the US, Indonesia, Persia and other sources proved crucial to victory.

By the end of the war, oil had moved to center stage of both world economy and world strategy. Obtaining sufficient oil became the central thrust of international strategy.

Jeans Length

Jeans is the name. Sir James Jeans.

What determines the size of the structures that we see in the universe? Stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and the cosmic filaments? A very prominent role is played by Jeans length (or Jeans mass, or Jeans criterion).

Suppose we have a cloud of some kind of self-gravitating matter. This cloud will tend to contract under its own gravity unless some other force - pressure - prevents it. Two numbers turn out to be central: the free fall time, or the time takes for the gravitational attraction to pull the cloud together and time it takes a sound wave to cross the cloud. If the free fall time is less, the cloud will collapse before pressure has a chance to present organized resistance. In practice, this means that clouds smaller than the Jeans size (free fall time greater than time for sound to cross the cloud) won't contract.

In the early universe, the speed of sound is nearly that of light, so that the Jeans size is comparable to the cosmic horizon size. After the universe cools enough for atoms to form by recombination of positive and negative charged particles, the Jeans size plummets abruptly, by many orders of magnitude. Consequently, the largest scale features fragment into much smaller contracting pieces of a trillion solar masses or less - galaxies. Larger structures become fragmented into clusters or superclusters of galaxies.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Casualties

Two hundred years ago, 4 out of every 10 children everywhere died before reaching the age of 5. These numbers were likely collected mainly from advanced countries, but it would not be improbable that the death rate was even higher in nations with endemic tropical diseases. At present, it is only 2.2 out of 1000 in Luxembourg. Other rich countries, and many others are in the single digits (US, 7.1/1000).

Survival has improved everywhere, but there are huge contrasts: Japan is at 3, China 14, and the fifty percent richer Botswana at 53. India is at 56, Pakistan 86, and Sierra Leone trails everyone with 182. Unsurprisingly, there is a very strong correlation with per capita GDP, but countries like Cuba and Sri Lanka outperform their GDP while the US is a significant underperformer.

Hindutva

Wendy Doniger characterizes her fervent opponents as Hindutva or Hindu fundamentalists.

The original. Wikipedia. A critic.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Wendy versus the Hindus

The Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think…Throughout the Mahabharata ... Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviors such as war....

That alleged quote - Doniger claims to have been misquoted - was borrowed from an anti-Wendy Doniger diatribe that Arun linked to. I don't recall having heard of Doniger before fundamentalist Hindus managed to get her history of The Hindus banned and "pulped" in India, but it seems that she is a prominent religious scholar and student of Indian religion at the University of Chicago. It seems that she has been attacked, verbally and physically, by her opponents, whom she describes as Hindu fundamentalists or Hindutva (and here). I remain unclear on precisely what they object to, but it seems to involve not only "quotes" like the above but also alleged sexualization of Hindu literature.

As for the quote above, I don't know anything about the work in question, but it's certainly nothing that would surprise anyone who has read the Hebrew Bible or Greek literature. That sort of thing is pretty much the modus operandi of gods everywhere. Their stock in trade has often been goading human beings into murderous and self-destructive behaviors.

People really resent it when someone pokes holes in their imagined realities, as scholars of every religion often find out. A nation is an imagined reality as much as it is some lines on a map, and making a nation of India presents some severe challenges. Despite its ancient civilization it has a long history of political disunity and a vast diversity of languages, religions and cultures, as well being subjected to repeated foreign invasions and empires.

So far as I can tell, Hindutva seeks to create that unity out a Hinduism and a historical narrative - a historical narrative that rejects many "Western" interpretations of the past. Such history in the service of ideology often contains important elements of myth - for example, the insistence of many Indian scholars that the conventional interpretations of the Indo-European language diaspora must be wrong.

The Winter Olympics Are (Mostly) Excruciatingly Boring


If scientists were to compile the world's most boring sports to watch, the Winter Olympics would be a good place to start.  Ben Blatt makes the case for Bobsled as the worst sport ever here, but it has plenty of competition.  One problem is that in so many of the winter sports, competition is purely against the clock, so that there is little feel for competition.  Even those that feature group competition, like cross country ski racing, mostly consist of watching a bunch of guys skiing together for an hour or so before a few seconds of scramble for the finish line.

Ski jumping has a certain esthetic appeal, but scoring is obscure and most of the tension comes from wondering which damn fool will break himself/herself first.  Some of the newer ski acrobatics events are more watchable, but once again, scoring is a black art.

Time Scales of Global Warming


My friend the AGW skeptic likes to argue that the last decade and a half or so has seen about 25% of the CO2 increase since pre-industrial times, but that the same period has seen little or no increase in temperature.  Even if we don't quibble about the latter point the argument is not a good one, because the time scale is just too short, mainly because the oceans have immense thermal inertia.

If my math is right, the oceans have a heat capacity of about 4 x 10^24 J/K.  The Earth absorbs something like 2 x 10^17 W from the Sun, scarfing up roughly one part in 2 billion of the big light bulb's total output, or 6.3 x 10^24 J/yr.  So even if every bit of that went into warming up the ocean, its temperature increase would only be about 1.5 K per year.  Of course almost all that absorbed energy is reradiated back into space (all of it over the long term).  A temporary heating due to an increase in greenhouse gases might drive a radiative forcing on the order of half a W/m^2.  Increasing the temperature of the ocean, even just the first few hundred meters, takes a long time.

Meanwhile, the natural dynamics of the oceans shuffles amounts of heat in and out (that are tiny for it, but not for the atmosphere) in poorly understood fashion, meaning that a decade or two is just too short of a time to expect a direct response of global temperatures to changes in radiative forcing. Based on the historical record of both CO2 and temperature, such dynamics superimpose a multidecadal noise signal on the warming trend.

Friday, February 14, 2014

On Second Thought


Tom Perkins, the super rich guy who thinks that there is a Kristallnacht threat to his fellow zillionaires, may be nuts, but you have to admit that he is doing his part to make the idea more attractive - he now thinks that rich people should get more votes.

Matthew Yglesias, also the free market capitalist, thinks it might be a good idea to let the rich buy votes on the open market. 

If you cut out the middle man and just let the Koch brothers offer to buy votes on an open market then at least some money would flow to poor people. Right now we know that legislators completely ignore the views of low-income people when deciding how to vote on issues and mostly just do what rich people want. Letting people buy and sell votes would thus redistribute some income without necessarily changing policy dynamics very much.
I'm afraid I don't think that's such a good idea.  The Roman Republic ended a bit like that: the rich bought votes like crazy and they got their money back with great interest from the public treasury.

Astrobiology and SETI


The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a bit like String Theory - a theory without any  experimental evidence - or, more precisely, with only negative experimental evidence.  When SETI was first proposed, it was far from clear that we would ever have any tools to learn about extraterrestrial biology if it wasn't smart enough to talk back at us.  That's no longer the case, and consequently a lot of attention has been turned to the more basic question of extraterrestrial life.  Since it seem likely that extraterrestrial life would have to precede extraterrestrial intelligence, maybe we should think about that problem first.  That's the subject of astrobiology - another science that still lacks a subject.

Suppose we take a look at a modified form of the first few terms of the Drake Equation, first developed for SETI, but look just at those concerned with the development of life.  When the equation was first written down, a big question was what fraction of stars had planets, and what fraction of those planets were habitable.  We now know that a very large fraction of stars (perhaps most) have planets, and it seems likely that many of them will be at least in the habitable zone of their star.  Other uncertainties abound.  Is there liquid water?  Does a planet need a big moon like Earth has?  Is a Jupiter needed to collect and disperse threatening asteroids?

The monster in the closet is the probability of life developing on an otherwise habitable planet.  Here we have exactly one data point - Earth.  We have increasingly detailed and plausible speculations about how life developed here, but huge and hard to bridge gaps remain.

There seem to be at least several locations in the solar system that have, or recently had, liquid water: Mars, Europa, and Enceladus.  Moreover, new soon to be launched instruments, promise at least some capability to identify signatures of life on extrasolar planets.


Harmless Nonsense?


William Saletan opines that creationism is merely harmless nonsense:

But Nye came with a bigger agenda. He wanted to convince the viewing audience that creationism was a threat to science, technology, and prosperity. At this, he failed. Creationism, as presented by Ham and his colleagues, is a compartmentalized myth. It doesn’t prevent its adherents from functioning as ordinary people or as scientists...
...
You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life. That doesn’t mean we should teach creationism in schools or pretend it’s a scientific theory. But it does mean we can live with it as a compartmentalized fetish. Believe whatever you want to about monkeys, Noah, and the Garden of Eden. Just don’t let it mess with your day job.
The problem with Saletan's analysis is that creationism isn't really just a "compartmentalized fetish" in his words.  It's a world view, an imagined reality, to use a Harari phrase.  Yes, creationists can function pretty well in society, and as long as want to maintain that in the privacy of their own minds, they can be pretty functional in most situations.

But they don't.  They have repeatedly used their political influence to impose their views in a wide variety of social contexts, from teaching creationism in schools, to gay civil rights, to global warming. Even if creationism is the only aspect of this constellation they adopt, and it rarely is, there is a long history of creationist efforts to control the teaching of biology in the schools.

Even more dangerous, in my view, is the attempt to create (or recreate) a world where faith trumps evidence.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Reacting


Not everybody is happy with the way the world is changing.  Kansas is in the process of legalizing discrimination against gay people.  Meanwhile, on more or less the other side of the planet, a kerfuffle has erupted in India over a University of Chicago professor's historical look at Hinduism.  It seems that some took offense at Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus, and complained effectively enough to cause her Indian publisher, Penguin India, to withdraw the book and promise to destroy or "pulp" all copies.

This has caused a certain amount of outrage among Indian liberals and authors and other defenders of a free press everywhere.  Since I'm a sucker for controversy, I looked up the reviews on Amazon.  There were a number of good ones, but a very large number of one star (negative) reviews, almost all short and many nasty.  Several one star reviewers admitted not having read the book.

Naturally, pirated editions are exploding, and she seems certain of a large Indian readership - even though she won't get a share of the profits.

UPDATE: Just caught an update with the author on NPR.  It seems that her sales in India -and elsewhere- are soaring, via Kindle, and apparently there is no law against the publisher sending books from New York.  I guess there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Smarts, Don' It?


Tyler Cowen asks the question:  "Are Natural Scientists Smarter?"

“There is sound evidence of a negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity and between intelligence and political extremism,” reads the paper, which examines existing data on academic scientists’ IQs by field, and on religious beliefs and political extremism among science professors in the U.S. and Britain. (An abstract of the paper is available here.) “Therefore the most probable reason behind elite social scientists being more religious than are elite physical scientists is that social scientists are less intelligent.”
The paper, written by Edward Dutton, adjunct professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Oulu, in Finland, and Richard Lynn, a retired professor of psychology from the University of Ulster, in Northern Ireland, who is known for his work on race and IQ, continues: “Intelligence is also a factor in interdisciplinary differences in political extremism, [with] physicists, who have high IQs, being among the least extreme and lower-IQ scholars being among the most extreme.”
- See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/02/are-natural-scientists-smarter.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+marginalrevolution%2Ffeed+%28Marginal+Revolution%29#sthash.Kc3bY6mm.dpuf

As a physicist, I would like to say Duh!, but then I remember some spectacularly extreme and extremely dumb examples.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Rage Against the (Koch) Machine


The Koch brothers are pouring big bucks into Louisiana to defeat Medicaid expansion.  My suggestion for Democrats,  lots of ads that sound like:

Why are two billionaire brothers from out of State spending big money to keep you from having health insurance?  Hint: they aren't doing it for your health.

Human Rights as an Unnatural Construct


For most (all?) of human history the major selection pressure on humans has been competition from other humans.  Combine this fact with the need for humans to cooperate and certain tensions are sure to arise.  Fundamentally, we need to be able to cooperate with some in order to deal with competition from others.  Many cultures have some version of the following:

Me against my brother.  My brother and I against my cousins.  My cousins and I against the clan.  My clan and I against the other clans...
Societies invent lots of rules that are intended to regulate in group competition, but the need to compete against other societies has dictated different set of rules for outsiders and insiders.  The rise of chiefdoms, kingdoms, and empires required gradual expansion of the in group, even while setting up internal hierarchies with special privileges.  In one sense, the notion of universal human rights is a culmination of the gradual expansion of the in groups, but in another, it is a contradiction of the very imperatives that drove us to these elaborate cooperative enterprises: the need to compete with other humans.  It also erodes cooperation by exalting individuality at its expense.

It's my guess that human rights can only be made universal if the necessary social constructs can be implemented to establish complementary parameters for individuality and cooperation.  That means, for example, that toleration cannot be a one way street.

Friday, February 07, 2014

What an Idiot!


It seems that I just signed up for another Astro course, this one from Princeton: Imagining Other Earths.  More imagined realities!

Planetology with an astrobiological emphasis.  I don't expect to finish them all.

Hmmm


Djorgovski just blew through the solutions of the Friedman Equation for matter dominated, radiation dominated, and lambda dominated cases in about 5 minutes flat.  OK, so now I am reminded of how the slow kids felt back in Freshman math class.

Oh well.

Human Rights and Cultural Imperialism


Despite certain precedents in many cultures, the notion of human rights is essentially a modern one, growing out of 18th Century European thought.  Central to it is the notion of natural rights, that are supposed to be inherent in being human.  Some aspects appear to have been inspired by some of the evils of colonialism, especially in Spanish America, where the contrast between the official motive of the conquistadors and their behavior was noted and reported by the missionaries accompanying them.

Probably the most important propellant was the rise of the Merchant class, and their push to attain and displace the privileges of the feudal orders.  It is an interesting case study in how an imagined reality gains force and wrests itself from the control of its creators.  Once one starts declaring inalienable human rights endowed by the creator, it get harder to say except for you.  So rights that started out being really just for wealthy Western European males gradually leaked out to slaves, colonial subjects and women.

Such notions played a key role in de-colonialization, both as inspiration for the colonized and reproach to the colonizers.  Ironically enough, they may also have been one of the most potent instruments of cultural imperialism wielded by the West.  Of course the West still earns plenty of reproach for failing to live up to its ideals, but these notions of human rights, especially in their most general forms, are profoundly hostile to many deep indigenous cultural traditions.

I doubt that we have much idea where this struggle is going to end up, here or elsewhere, but certainly the US and Europe have already been utterly transformed.  That's probably true also in some of the most Europeanized former colonies.

Learnin' MOOC Style


I'm currently taking three MOOC courses, plus doing some Spanish.  The MOOCs all have an Astro flavor: Astrobiology from Edinburg, Relativistic Astro from Cornell, and Galaxies and Cosmology from Caltech.  The first two might be a bit easy, the last maybe too hard - actually I have probably already flunked since I started a few weeks late, and some deadlines have already passed.

I had tried the G&C once before and dropped out.  It looks much better prepared this time.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Neural Substrates of Thought and Behavior


Patricia S. Churchland was on Stephen Colbert's show the other day, flogging her forthcoming book:
Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves .  Among other things, she told Stephen that his brain was rather like that of a mouse, and that he didn't have a soul.  I recall reading her book Neurophilosophy back when I was a student of artificial intelligence.  It had a nice discussion of the fundamentals or neuroscience, some confused thoughts on relativity, and the first use of the word "consilience" that I recall.

She and her husband Paul Churchland are exponents of a school of philosophy called "eliminative materialism".  I have only a slight clue as to what that means, but I am generally sympathetic to the notion that our thoughts and behaviors have neural substrates.  They apparently go a bit further and argue that "folk psychology" with its theories of  mind, belief, and sensation is an obsolete theory about unreal objects, like the geocentric universe or phlogiston.  I might be more interested except for my conviction that philosophy is an obsolete science about unreal objects.

In any case, she argues that things like morality are derived from our evolution as social animals, and that empathy, bonding, and similar social behaviors are implemented in and dependent on neuropharmaceutical constructs.  I'm down with that.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Really Deep Waters: Life in the Solar System


It seems that the hottest prospects for extraterrestrial life in the solar system may be two icy moons, Jupiter's Europa and Saturn's Enceladus.  Both appear to be covered by an icy surface that seems to recycle itself fairly frequently.  Both appear to be heated by tidal forces due to their gas giant mother planets and other moons.  It's at least plausible that there is an ocean of liquid water under all that ice.

Enceladus made a big push for the number one spot by spouting some vapor plumes near its South Pole.  The Cassini probe was able to fly through the plume and measure water vapor, carbon compounds and other cool and suggestive stuff.  Of course Cassini wasn't actually designed for that kind of work so the most fascinating organic clues lie beyond our reach - for now.

Europa is a bit larger than Earth's Moon, but Enceladus is tiny, only 500 or so in diameter.

When Galaxies Collide


Even though there is a whole lot of empty out there in the universe, matter likes to stick together, and most galaxies are found in small to very large groups. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of the two big spiral galaxies in our Local Group, a collection of about 50 mostly much smaller galaxies. Many other galaxies belong to giant clusters that contain up to thousands of individual galaxies. The galaxies in both types of groupings are close enough together that collisions are far from rare. Our galaxy, for example, probably collided with a much smaller galaxy some 100 millions years ago or so, and expected to collide with Andromeda, the other biggie in the local group, in 3.5 billion years. Such collisions were doubtless much more common in the early universe and modern galaxies probably formed from such collisions - the original galaxies 10 billion years ago seem to have been much smaller, for example.

So how big a deal is such a collision? Even in galaxies, stars are far apart, and some calculations suggest that direct collisions of stars would be a one in a trillion event, assuming a stellar cross section of around (10^6 km)^2. Of course much less close approaches would still be hugely disruptive to planetary systems. Any approach closer than a couple of hundred astronomical units - a billion fold increase in cross section - would be pretty disruptive.

The real collisional action, though, is in the interstellar gas, which ranges in density from 1-10^4 molecules/cm^3. That's still pretty empty, even in the higher ranges. Even in one of those 10^4 mol/cm^3 molecular clouds the mean free path for a molecule is 10 million km or so. Seems like a lot, but galaxies are tens of billions of times that in dimension, so essentially every molecule will collide, usually billions of times, and at velocities of up to a million km/hr. This will produce violent shock waves. These shock wave will compress the gas, setting off a furious burst of star formations, many of which will be type O and B supergiants, destined for short violent lives and Supernova endings.

The big picture, though, is gravitational disruption of the galaxy system. Huge number of stars have their orbits violently disrupted, are dragged out of their galaxy, or hurled into intergalactic space. Of course our own personal planet will have been long fried and possibly swallowed by our by then red giant star.

Here is a simulation of such a collision:


If you want a simulation more specific to our personal situation, this simulation of the forthcoming collision is based on detailed information, including the fairly recently measure proper motion of the Andromeda galaxy - which was necessary to see that the collision will not be a glancing one.  The third sort of big (1/10) our size Triangulum galaxy has a walk on part.


We probably don't need to worry about it though - our planet will have long been  incinerated by the by then red giant version of the Sun - at any rate, we have a few billion years to get our affairs in order - for the galaxy collision, that is  probably ony a few hundred million for the Sun to start serious cooking.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

CRISPR Critters

The tools in the genetic engineer's toolbox are not invented by humans, but discovered. We get them all from those master genetic engineers, our bacterial friends. The newest and shiniest of these is the so-called CRISPR-Cas system. Bacteria use it as a sort of immune system, but its potency comes from its ability to do rather selective gene editing.

This system has now been used to do some selective editing on monkey genes. More details from Steve Hsu here.

Getting this system to work in a primate is a strong clue that it could also work for humans. In a decade or two it might well be possible for parents to have their offspring edited and revised for deleterious genes and maybe for looks, IQ, athletic ability and height to mention just a few.

Last Days of the Roman Republic

We all recall - OK, maybe I don't quite really - how the last decades of the Roman Republic saw repeated convulsions as various families of the oligarchy competed for dominance, culminating in famous plays by Shakespeare and Shaw. Crassus got whacked by the Parthians, Pompey by Caesar, and Caesar - but that's another Shakespeare play. And that was the end of the Republic, after Octavian, Caesar's adopted son, whacked his erstwhile ally Antony, and made himself emperor.

Somehow, now that the 2016 election is starting to look like another Clinton-Bush rematch, the atmosphere feels grimly familiar.