Atheism, the final frontier

The BBC has recognized outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins as their 2006 Person of the Year. That made me think of the original Star Trek.

When writing about the appeal of the original Star Trek it has become de rigeur to cite its optimistic vision for the future — in which war, racial strife, etc. have been overcome — especially since it appeared during the turbulence of the 1960’s. But I think the real answer is something deeper and more essential.

First, a digression. In The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the Baron, that lovable spinner of fantastical tall tales, is opposed by “The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson,” a literal-minded and distinctly unlovable bureaucrat who prizes order and rationality over the creative chaos of the Baron’s world. The film depicts rationality robbing the world of adventure and romance.

American pop culture has always been hard on men of reason, who usually come off as amoral, insensitive, clumsy, narrow-minded, unpoetic, socially inept, or downright mad. Dreamers, lovers, men of action — they are the heroes, and anyone employing logic is a mere detractor if not an out-and-out villain.

In the popular imagination, the intellect is suspect. Thinkers in general, and scientists in particular, are a haughty elite, the priests and guardians of an occult sect with its own impenetrable apocrypha and incomprehensible dialects. They set themselves up as authorities on various subjects and make pronouncements based on arcane knowledge that are never to be trusted, because there’s always a contradictory pronouncement just around the corner.

But in reality, what can be more democratic than science? It’s the ultimate leveler; anyone can be an authority. Science isn’t a particular collection of knowledge or a particular place or particular people. Science is a method, famously encapsulated by Richard Feynman as: “1. Make a guess. 2. See if you’re wrong.” Anyone who thinks according to these rules, and follows fearlessly where the reasoning leads, is a scientist.

If democracy is the founding principle of America, science and rationality are its true religion. They are the bedrock on which its political and industrial institutions are built, even at times when science seems temporarily discredited by the prevailing political fashions of the day.

Yet, even as science is central to the American experience, it gets short shrift in popular culture. Often marginalized, occasionally trashed, seldom if ever was it celebrated properly — until Star Trek. The accomplishment of Star Trek, and the true source of its enduring appeal, was its portrayal of a future in which rationality does not kill adventure and romance but creates them, satisfying the unmet need of Americans to see their society validated — or, as one like-minded fan commented recently,

It isn’t Star Trek’s “optimism” that made it great. It’s the idea that in the future the Carl Sagans of the universe will be in charge and successfully run society on the principles of secular humanism and science while the George Bush and Dick Cheneys of the universe are Klingons. Star Trek is about the promise of a new Enlightenment […]

As a champion of romantic rationality and a lifelong Star Trek fan I am encouraged by the selection of Dawkins as BBC’s Person of the Year. Atheism has always been the belief-that-dares-not-speak-its-name. Even at the height of the Age of Reason, Thomas Jefferson, whom we might recognize as an atheist, called himself a Deist. But this news about Dawkins, and other harbingers (here, here, and here), suggest that atheism is coming out of the closet in a big way, which can only happen in an environment favorable to rationality. Can it be that the recent wave of anti-intellectualism in the Western world finally crested, crashed on the jagged rocks of the reality-based community, and is now receding?

That would be good news for the back-to-its-roots Star Trek movie now in development.

Quick thought about creationism and evolution

Let’s see if I’ve got this straight. God:

  • can create the heavens and the earth;
  • can create every kind of plant and animal;
  • can create a man, then take his rib and make it into a woman;
  • can get so pissed off at his own creations that he drowns nearly all of them;
  • can cause people who formerly shared a common language no longer to understand one another;
  • can plant evidence throughout the natural world to mislead us into believing the earth is billions of years old;
  • absolutely cannot create an ecological system that continually refines itself through mutation, competition, and heredity.

OK, got it.

What Carl Sagan means to me

Yesterday I blogged about my 11th-grade math teacher, Mr. Arrigo, one of my greatest teachers ever. But any list of my greatest teachers must include Carl Sagan, even though he wasn’t “my” teacher any more than he was everyone else’s in the whole world.

Sagan’s famous Tonight Show appearances happened right around the time I was old enough to stay up and see them. Early on I remember being annoyed by his criticisms of Star Wars (to wit: that spaceships don’t make whooshing noises in space, that Chewbacca deserved a medal at the end too, etc). But then my mom, who I think had a bit of a crush on him, urged me to read Broca’s Brain, and I was hooked on his brand of science education.

Then came Cosmos, which was eagerly anticipated in our household. We counted down to its premiere for weeks. When it finally aired, the cheesy new-age music and Sagan’s, er, limited acting abilities — the camera lingered forever on what was supposed to be his awestruck face as he sailed through the universe in his kinda lame “ship of the imagination” — left us at first unenthused. But then came his story of Eratosthenes and I got another one of those emotional learning moments that I wrote about yesterday. The following is from Cosmos, the companion book to the PBS series:

[Eratosthenes] was the director of the great library of Alexandria, where one day he read in a papyrus book that in the southern frontier outpost of Syene, near the first cataract of the Nile, at noon on June 21 vertical sticks cast no shadows. On the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, as the hours crept toward midday, the shadows of temple columns grew shorter. At noon, they were gone. A reflection of the Sun could be seen in the water at the bottom of a deep well. The Sun was directly overhead. […]

Eratosthenes asked himself how, at the same moment, a stick in Syene could cast no shadow and a stick in Alexandria, far to the north, could cast a pronounced shadow. […]

The only possible answer, he saw, was that the surface of the Earth is curved. Not only that: the greater the curvature, the greater the difference in shadow lengths. […] For the observed difference in the shadow lengths, the distance between Alexandria and Syene had to be about seven degrees along the circumference of the Earth [which] is something like one-fiftieth of three hundred and sixty degrees, the full circumference of the Earth. Eratosthenes knew that the distance between Alexandria and Syene was approximately 800 kilometers, because he hired a man to pace it out. Eight hundred kilometers times 50 is 40,000 kilometers: so that must be the circumference of the Earth.

This is the right answer. Eratosthenes’ only tools were sticks, eyes, feet, and brains, plus a taste for experiment. With them he deduced the circumference of the Earth with an error of only a few percent […] He was the first person accurately to measure the size of a planet.

In the TV show, when Sagan said matter-of-factly, “This is the right answer,” I got a lump in my throat. At once I was propelled farther down the paths of learning, teaching, science, and, of course, Carl Sagan fanhood.

It is more than just a shame that Sagan died before his time of a rare disease, ten years ago today. (This blog post is participating in a Carl Sagan “blog-a-thon” to commemorate the occasion.) There is no doubt that if he were alive today, he would never have permitted science to be debased by politics to the extent that it has in recent years. Sagan knew that we ignore science at our peril and excelled at conveying that message. He saved the world once before, by popularizing the nuclear winter theory of the aftermath of even small nuclear wars, assuring those insane enough to consider such wars that they could never avoid spelling their own doom as well as their enemy’s. Who will take up his mantle and bring the Promethean fire of science back to light a world darkened by his absence?

What brings you here?

Herewith, a selection of search-engine queries that resulted in hits on this blog, according to my server logs.

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The nature of reality, part 2: Dimensions

In part 1 of this occasional series (well, it’s a series now), I wrote:

It’s as if I decided to write an elaborate computer program to simulate a universe, complete with its own laws of nature and its own intelligent life. In time those beings might figure out all the rules of their universe, but what chance would they ever have of guessing what I’m like, or the nature of the computing hardware in which they are abstractions? The copper and silicon and tiny electrical charges of which they’re really composed would appear nowhere at all inside the simulation. The rules by which their universe operates would bear no resemblance to the rules of the programming language in which I expressed them.

Nevertheless, physicists (human ones) are making attempts at guessing at the nature of the computing hardware in which our reality is an abstraction (if we can agree to think about it that way for now). One of the more well-known guesses is a very complicated idea called string theory. Famously it declares that our universe is not merely three-dimensional, it’s actually ten-dimensional. The hell?

To understand what ten-dimensional space can possibly mean, and how it jibes with the universe-is-just-a-computer-program metaphor, let’s first make sure we understand three-dimensional space.

What does it mean to say that space is three-dimensional? Put simply, it means that three numbers are necessary to identify your location — for example, latitude, longitude, and altitude. Two numbers won’t do it.

It also means that three numbers are sufficient to identify your location (if you choose the right three). You don’t need more. You could tell someone, “I’m at the corner of 34th Street and 5th Avenue on the 57th floor where the ZIP code is 10118 and there are 28 days left before my next birthday,” but some of those numbers will be redundant and/or irrelevant for locating purposes.

Finally, the three numbers that are necessary and sufficient for locating you are also independent of each other. You can change your latitude without changing your altitude. You can change your longitude without changing your latitude. You can change your altitude without changing your latitude or your longitude. (For that you probably need a helicopter. Or to be plummeting out of the sky.) Of course you can also change the numbers together in any combination — e.g., changing both your latitude and longitude at the same time by going northwest instead of due north or due west. You can, but the point is that you don’t have to.

Back to ten-dimensional space. If our space is really ten-dimensional, like string theorists say it is, wouldn’t that mean that three numbers don’t suffice to describe our position? Well, yes, it would; we’d need ten numbers. But this contradicts our everyday experience, which tells us that three numbers really do suffice.

String theorists counter this by saying that seven of the ten dimensions are really really small. The hell? Small dimensions? Isn’t a dimension the same as a direction? (E.g., north/south; east/west; up/down.) How can a direction be small?

To understand what a small dimension is, let’s switch to computer programming for a moment. A big part of programming is modeling objects, which means representing something in terms of numbers and other kinds of digital data. Suppose, for instance, that I’m writing a weather-predicting program and that among the things I need to model is a cloud. What are the essential properties of a cloud that my program would have to model?

  • Its height above the ground;
  • Its latitude and longitude;
  • Its volume (how big it is);
  • Its moisture content (thin and wispy, or dense and puffy?);
  • Its temperature;
  • Its electrical charge (for predicting lightning);
  • Size change: currently growing, shrinking, or stable.

(Disclaimer: I’m no meteorologist, I don’t really know how you’d model a cloud in software, but this looks good for our purposes.)

A cloud’s latitude and longitude can vary enormously — the cloud can be situated over any point on earth! But its height above the ground can range only from 0 to a few miles. And its “size change” property can contain only one of three values. If you think of each of these properties as a dimension, then it’s easy to see how latitude and longitude are “big” dimensions, height is smaller, and “size change” is really tiny.

What? You can’t think of those properties as dimensions? Why not? Each one is arguably necessary for describing the cloud; collectively they are sufficient for describing the cloud (let’s assume); and each property is independent of the others, able to vary on its own. As we agreed earlier, those are the requirements for calling something a dimension. So by that definition, this cloud is eight-dimensional.

Even so, if you omitted the smaller dimensions — the ones that can’t vary much, such as “size change” and “temperature,” say — you’d still know a lot about the cloud. You’d have a six-dimensional approximation to what’s really an eight-dimensional object. Most of what you usually need to know about a cloud can be discerned from that approximation — where the cloud is, roughly what it looks like, and so on. There are some things that would be harder to predict about it, such as whether it will rain on you and whether flying through it will cause ice to form on your wings. A fuller description of the cloud would make those things clearer. But you can still do a lot with just six of those eight dimensions.

That’s my analogy to ten-dimensional space, where seven of the dimensions are really small. The three big dimensions are enough to describe everything in our ordinary experience, but there are details of reality that only become clear when you add in the others. (That’s assuming that space is ten-dimensional — string theory is just an unproven hypothesis, after all, and other competing theories have other things to say about the number of dimensions we inhabit.)

If string theory’s right, and if our universe really is running as a simulation inside some sort of computer — two enormous “ifs” — then the cosmic computer programmer who invented our universe found it necessary to use ten numbers to model the position of each fundamental particle. That ten-dimensional machinery gives rise to what we perceive as three-dimensional reality. That’s not such a strange thought, after all. Haven’t you ever used three-dimensional machinery to create a two-dimensional reality?


Last week we discovered that our aged dog Alex had tapeworms! The vet gave her a dose of praziquantel, which cures the infestation in a single dose by dissolving the buggers.

Tapeworms are pretty interesting once you get past the ick factor. You get them by ingesting them or their eggs. They attach to the lining of your gut and absorb nutrients from the food you’ve eaten. Since they reside in a stream of predigested food, they need no mouth or digestive system of their own! Apart from robbing you of some of the nutrients you should be getting, you can have a tapeworm and never know it. But in worse infestations you can become seriously malnourished or suffer intestinal blockages. Tapeworms can grow to dozens of feet in length.

We have no way of knowing how bad Alex’s infestation was or how long she had it. However, days after she took the medicine, she is noticeably sturdier on her old legs. She has been just skin and bones for many months, but we put it down to her advanced age and decreased appetite. Could it have actually been due to tapeworms? It’s too soon to know whether she will recover noticeable amounts of muscle mass, but when I walked her yesterday we went to the fourth house down, then crossed the street and returned on the other side. We haven’t taken that route for months! And it’s about twice as long as the longest of her more recent walks.

Vampire lesbian girl scouts

Today my friend Greg had his birthday party. Andrea and I were responsible for decorations, which took the form of helium balloons and a collection of six different cakes painstakingly hand-decorated by us to depict Greg’s life.

One of the cakes commemorated an episode from when Greg and I and a few other friends worked together at a technology startup some years ago. For some reason the subject of lesbian-vampire fiction had come up. We guys all endorsed the genre — what’s not to love? — but none so heartily as Greg, who was promptly branded the resident lesbian-vampire fancier.

On a separate occasion Greg evinced what we playfully regarded as an unwholesome interest in girl scouts. So during one discussion of the technology we were developing — which among other things permitted users to find the overlaps between separate searches of one’s e-mail — we imagined that one such search that Greg might perform would be to find the overlap between “girl scouts” and “lesbians” and “vampires.”

Not long after that some of us found Greg crashed out on the couch after an all-night programming session. He was smiling in his sleep, and the consensus was that he was dreaming about vampire lesbian girl scouts. Hence a cutout of this drawing by yours truly gracing one of his cakes.

Speaking of helium balloons: some time ago it occurred to me that (a) when helium escapes from a balloon or elsewhere, it must float straight up to the top of the atmosphere where it is effectively unretrievable, and (b) being a “noble” gas, new helium cannot be produced via chemical reactions, only nuclear ones, such as during hydrogen fusion, which is prohibitively expensive. Ergo there must be a limited supply of helium on earth and we are using it up. This deduction turned out to be exactly right, and in fact we may have no more than a couple of decades before helium becomes too scarce and costly for whimsical uses like party balloons or talking in a chipmunk voice, alas.

Cats cause war

The single-cell parasite Toxoplasma gondii is remarkable. It can only reproduce in cats, so it has evolved the ability to control the minds of rats. That’s right, rats. When a cat poops and a rat eats it, any T. gondii that the rat ingests go to work on the little rat brain, suppressing its normal levels of caution and making it act more fearlessly — in fact the rat may specifically seek out areas that a cat has marked with its urine. This makes it easier for the rat to be caught and eaten by a cat! …Where the T. gondii can then reproduce and begin the cycle anew.

T. gondii can live in people, too; it just can’t reproduce in us. About a third of all Americans are infected with this parasite. Some weeks ago my work friend CJ highlighted in her blog some new research suggesting that T. gondii affects human personalities too, not just rodent personalities, and it does so in a gender-specific way. She writes:

Here’s what it does to men:

  • makes men appear more macho
  • makes men stupider
  • makes men fear uncertainty
  • makes men fear novelty
  • lowers men’s “superego strength” (disregards rules, expedient, shortened attention span, less responsible).

I.e. Toxoplasma Gondii turns men into neo-conservatives.

Now comes this item via BoingBoing:

A common cat parasite that can easily infect humans causes women to give birth to more boys than girls.

…and as I remember once reading, studies have shown that a too-high ratio of boys (in a certain age range, 15-35 I seem to recall) predisposes societies to war.

So thanks for nothing, cats. I always suspected you were the enemy, now I’m sure. Of course I can’t be certain whether that’s my own opinion or whether I’m under the control of a dog parasite from Alex.

Name the moon!

I subscribe to Yahoo!’s Ask Yahoo! daily e-mail newsletter. Yesterday’s question was, “Does our moon have a name other than ‘the moon’?” In short the answer is no.

We like the moon, and we like to name things we like, such as my kids, Jonah and Archer, and my car, the Nimble Imp. So let’s name the moon. And let’s give it a name that will stand the test of time. In thirty thousand years, when spacefaring humans rediscover a long-abandoned Earth, they’ll hardly be inclined to call our moon “the moon”; it’ll be just one of millions they will have catalogued. If we don’t want our distant descendants calling it something like “SZCG-78513/12,” it’s up to us to give it a memorable name that will survive into editions of the future Encyclopedia Galactica.

Obvious names like “Luna” are out, as are off-the-wall names like “Ferdinand” and obscure pop-culture references like “Ouspenskaya.”

While we’re at it, might as well name our sun (“Sol” never did it for me) and our solar system. Here are my slightly overblown suggestions:

Moon Desolatus
Sun Oriri
Solar system Copernica

The nature of reality, part 1: God

This is the first in a planned series of posts about the nature of reality.

Several months ago when creationism vs. evolution was in the news a lot, I got into an e-mail debate with a creationist. For this first post in the series I will reproduce part of a message I wrote in that debate.

Why can’t you accept the fact that there was an Intelligent Designer of the Earth, since it is so so very intricate and works so so very well?

[Because] we can explain most of the observable world without invoking God. Those things that we can’t presently explain seem no different in kind from other mysteries that science manages to solve sooner or later.

When I say we don’t need God to explain the observable world, I’m talking about the kind of God that I think most westerners conceive of: an omnipotent, anthropomorphic superbeing guiding the growth of every flower and the design of every perfect snowflake. Well, I understand water crystallization and plant metabolism well enough that I believe they can run perfectly well on “automatic.”

It is at the extreme lower end of our understanding of reality — the level of quarks, leptons, and bosons — that I begin to admit the possibility of a creator. Here’s why.

Once upon a time, humans knew about many, many substances. Eventually they learned that that multitude of substances arises from a somewhat smaller multitude of molecules. Then it was discovered that the many, many molecules that exist can all be explained by a mere few dozen different atoms. Why a few dozen? Turns out it’s all due to just three particles — protons, neutrons, and electrons — combining in a few dozen ways. Simplicity giving rise to complexity.

Go deeper than that and the picture gets more complicated again. Quarks, mesons, photons, gluons, etc., etc., and their many crazy interactions. It’s a huge mess — complexity giving rise to simplicity giving rise to complexity? — but it’s still all very mechanistic, requiring no divine intervention to operate.

Sure there are parts we still don’t understand, which technically does leave room for the Hand of God to be at work, but eventually I think we’ll explain everything we can observe, and I think we’ll again see great simplicity as the basis of the design of the universe. My money is on the ideas in Loop Quantum Gravity: that all of reality — space, time, matter, energy, and the laws that govern them — arises out of pure geometry. Topological loops and tangles on the sub-Planck scale. That’s nothing more than a guess on my part.

But whether or not LQG is right, or string theory is, or some other theory that comes along, it still seems that there can never be a “bottom” to the explanation of reality. If spacetime is nothing but mathematical foam, or minuscule vibrating strings, or turtles all the way down — in short, if we can answer “what is the universe” — then there will still be the question “why is the universe?” Sooner or later we’ll tame the particle zoo of the standard model of physics, I’m sure, but it seems unlikely we can ever uncover the root cause of reality. When we finally have in our hands the mathematical equations describing it all, we still won’t know: why did those equations manifest into something we can experience?

It’s as if I decided to write an elaborate computer program to simulate a universe, complete with its own laws of nature and its own intelligent life. In time those beings might figure out all the rules of their universe, but what chance would they ever have of guessing what I’m like, or the nature of the computing hardware in which they are abstractions? The copper and silicon and tiny electrical charges of which they’re really composed would appear nowhere at all inside the simulation. The rules by which their universe operates would bear no resemblance to the rules of the programming language in which I expressed them.

Yes, I know I’m starting to sound stoned. Maybe I’m way past “starting.” My point is this: I do not think science can answer the big “why.” Philosophy — or, if you prefer, theology (at this level they’re both the same) — can, perhaps. There is room for God here, and it’s not the “God of the gaps,” the one who’s required to explain mysterious phenomena (lightning, flowers, snowflakes) temporarily until we understand them better, and who’s constantly getting demoted by science. It’s not the human-centric God who sculpts a landscape or cares whether I watch my neighbor undress or obliterates entire villages by fiat because of some unknowable plan. The God I have in mind may have designed the very topology of cosmic spin-foam (or whatever), setting in motion an entire automatic universe, not a mere flower. This God really is unknowable, not to mention impossibly remote, completely abstract, irrelevant to ordinary human affairs — but also vastly more grand in a cosmic sense than the great-and-terrible-Oz version of God.