Showing posts with label Science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Science. Show all posts

Sunday, February 18, 2024

VooDoo Horticulture

I used to spend time with this lady from New Orleans, whom everyone called VooDoo.  I should have taken that as a warning, but I didn't.  Besides her brown eyes and her magical elven voice, my main purpose for keeping her around was that she was a professional horticulturalist and could identify any plant or tree I pointed to.  I tested her skills quite often.  She might have just been making up names for plants, but I believe she was pretty earnest and most likely very accurate.

She eventually discovered my ulterior motive (or she got a better offer) and invited me to no longer spend afternoons and evenings with her.  That left me with no way to identify plants and trees afield, but it left me with a desire to know what they were.  

For many years, I gave up on my quest and wistfully lamented losing my infinite font of knowledge about plants.  Then, the latest generation of smartphones came out, and a friend told me about an application called "Picture This" that could identify any plant and give you care guidelines for it.  For about six dollars, I could once again know the name of any plant I looked at without having to worry about the capricious nature of brown-eyed girls from New Orleans or anyone who even their dearest friends called VooDoo.


Saturday, February 10, 2024

Whale Discovered in Reservoir

Reprinted from Clarion Ledger
Jackson MS April 19, 1962

Ancient Bones Give View Of Past To Digging Crew 

Workers digging at the Pearl River Reservoir took a journey through time Wednesday when St-feet of fossil bones, described as everything from dinosaur to whale vertebrae were uncovered by earth-moving machinery. The bones were discovered between 8 and 9 a.m., when a piece of machinery lifted the top dirt off of the fossil. Shovels were then used to avoid damage, and the area was roped off. Digging continued in hopes of finding the head of the fossil but as yet it has not been discovered. Plans were being made to place loose dirt or boards over the bones to keep them in good condition until a geologist can examine them.

Dr. R. R. Piddy, geologist at Millsaps has been contacted and will study the bones Thursday morning, according to workmen. Workmen on the scene were mildly excited over the find, with much speculation as to what it was, but said in their type of work, they are constantly watching for remains of prehistoric animals. A guard at the Reservoir, Carey Alridge, viewing the fossil, neatly summed up the situation by saying, "Preached to me all my life that our ancestors had more back bone than we do looks like that might be right.


Geologists Identify Fossils As Back Of Ancient Whale (Earlier Story On Page 2A)
By VAN SAVELL Associated Press Staff Writer

Geologists identified a series of fossilized bones found on the Pearl River Reservoir construction site Wednesday as the back vertebrae of a 40-million-year-old "Basilosaurus" or whale. "The find is not uncommon," said William H. Moore, a member of the Mississippi Geological Survey team. "But, the condition is peculiar with its vertebrae almost completely intact." Moort described the ancient whale a member of the "Zeugledon" family as nearly Identical to the present-day giant ocean mammal, except for its sharp head. A bulldozer operator unearthed the unfamiliar charcoal object about 9 a.m.

Wednesday. Ross Grimes of Carthage, crew supervisor, stopped work completely when he realized what had been uncovered. , The geology team described the whale as about 35 feet long with weight between eight and 10 tons. Vertebrae sections near the real end of the fossil were 17 inches in length and about 40 inches in circumference. A white bone described as part of a rib was 22 inches long and broken on both ends.

After lengthy investigations, Moore told the Associated Press the whale "apparently sank to  the bottom of the sea and turned over on its back. "You see, the vertebrae is upside down and the rib cage points skyward." He described the peculiarities of the find, apparently rare elsewhere but common in the "Yazoo Clay" found in the area.

"The animal is almost completely intact, and with patient work, we might uncover it in the same condition," Moore said. "Apparently, the ground conditions caused the bones to turn to charcoal instead of the normal lime, causing the hardness of the object." Moore said a conference with Survey Commission officials would reveal whether attempts would be made by Mississippi to preserve the whale. "If we don't have the money," he said, "then we'll have to turn to some college geology department for the work." The fossils were found about eight feet underground and scattered over a 60-foot area, except for the 35-foot long connected vertebrae section..

Fossil On Display Ms Museum of Natural History

Friday, February 2, 2024

Jackie Gleason UFO Shocker!

Because of my varied (almost haphazard) range of interests, I often run into autodidactic people.  That's a fancy phrase we use to describe someone self-taught.  Academics like to make simple things seem more complex, using Latin or Greek words to describe things when English words work just fine.  Once you figure out the rules, it's a fun game, and it filters out the uninitiated.

Autodidacts are cool because they're so interested in a subject that they taught themselves rather than seeking a master.  Sometimes, they don't function well in an academic setting.  It's said that was true of William Faulkner, who couldn't manage to stay in college, so he taught himself.  That's often given as an explanation of why he uses so many five-dollar words in his prose.  Some people say it's so nobody will accuse him of not being educated, which he wasn't; at least he wasn't educated by the traditional route.

Sometimes, people become autodidact because the things they're interested in aren't taught anywhere.  These can be my favorite people.  People who are fascinated by UFOs, cryptozoology, ghosts, time travelers, and more have to be autodidactics because these things aren't taught at any college.  Jackie Gleason was one of the world's first UFO enthusiasts.  His passion led him to collect a remarkably complete literature library on the subject.  He even built a house shaped like a flying saucer.  In his will, he left his massive collection of UFO materials to the University of Miami, where it exists today, even though they still don't teach any courses on UFOs.  

Covid brought out a lot of hidden autodidacts who taught themselves immunobiology to justify not getting vaccinated.  That illustrated the downside of autodidactism; sometimes, they came to the wrong conclusion.  The same thing happens with climate-change deniers, experts on who really killed JFK, and 9/11 hoaxers.  They're all autodidacts, although sometimes I wish they'd listen to reason.

The internet was the greatest possible gift for autodidacts.  Research that took hours and days in the public library can be done on your phone before you get out of bed in the morning.  The more serious internet sleuths make accounts on Wikipedia where they use their hard-earned special knowledge to refine the topics that relate to their expertise.  

I am an autodidact.  There are no college courses on movie robots or stop-motion dinosaurs, so I strike out on my own. It's important that you keep learning your whole life and never quit.  There's no excuse now that so much human knowledge is available on your telephone or tablet.  With the internet, there's an infinite variety of ways you can publish your findings.  Start with Reddit, then maybe start a blog.  You don't have to be published in an academic journal to get your ideas out in the world.  

Sunday, January 21, 2024

What I'm Reading: The Question of God

 Next week, I'm beginning to read "The Question of God" by  Armand Nicholi.  The book is a series of fictional conversations between CS Lews and Sigmund Freud.  

Armand M. Nicholi Jr. is a Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor.  The novel discusses the difficult and painful relationships that both Freud and Lewis suffered and how their experiences in life might have shaped their concept of God.  Both, having survived World War I, were said to suffer PTSD for the rest of their lives.  The book takes place shorter after Freud was diagnosed with cancer, but before he took his own life and before Lewis adopted children who were war orphans that became models for the children in the Narnia series of books.

The book was interpreted as a play by Mark St. Germain, which in turn was made into a film directed by Matthew Brown, starring Anthony Hopkins as Freud and Matthew Goode as Lewis.  Hopkins played Lewis in the 1993 film, "Shadowlands."

The Question of God by Armand Nicholi on sale at Amazon

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Earth's Ill Fated Sister

We take the word “myth” to mean something this isn’t true.  “Is he Man or Myth?” “Unicorns are Mythological.”  This is a very superficial and inadequate understanding of the word.  Myths are stories we tell to explain very complicated and nuanced things that are nevertheless very important.  “Where do we come from?”  “Why are we here?”  “What is Justice?”  “What makes Greeks different from Persians?”  “What does it mean that we have one God and the Egyptians have many gods?”  

These stories have to be true, even if they’re not factual.  Truth and fact are not the same thing.  Factually it is not true that a great fish swallowed Jonah.  In truth, there are great and grave consequences for not following God’s plan for your life.  Hera may not have factually assigned twelve impossible labors for Heracles, but in truth, some men spend their entire lives and perform incredible feats to redeem themselves.  It’s unlikely there was ever a man like Heracles, but the myth of Heracles is true of all men.

From the beginning, the Greeks had a burning, passionate curiosity about the world.  They also were blessed with a very descriptive language which they used to create the most remarkable myths to tell the truths of the world, even if they lacked the scientific knowledge to discover the facts of the world.  To explain how the world began, the Greeks created the myth of Gaea and Uranus.  They had 12 children called Titans: Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Cronus,  Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, and Tethys.

The titan Theia was the mother of Selene, the goddess of the moon, and it’s here that our story begins.

As the universe began to slow from creation and cool from the event that began it, pools of matter, mostly hydrogen, began forming in the new fabric of what we call space.  This matter, all matter causes a warp in the fabric of space; this warp draws bits of matter to other bits of matter.  

Imagine the surface of a trampoline.  In one spot on the trampoline, you place a heavy watermelon.  The mass of the watermelon warps the surface of the trampoline.  Now place an egg on another part of the trampoline and a cantaloupe on another.  The egg distorts the surface of the trampoline too, but not very much; so does the cantaloupe, which warps it much more.  Because the egg deforms the trampoline's surface less, it is drawn to the warp of the cantaloupe.  Once the egg and the cantaloupe are together, they are both drawn to the deformation in space caused by the watermelon. Soon, the egg, the cantaloup, and the watermelon all occupy the same deformation in the trampoline's surface.  

This is what happened at the beginning of the universe.  As matter began to come together, it created a deformation in space and time.  As more matter comes together, the deformation becomes larger, attracting even more matter to it.  Eventually, enough hydrogen is trying to press itself into the same instance of time and space that the matter begins to compress. The space between atoms gets smaller and smaller as the compression gets greater and greater, and eventually, the mass reaches a critical point. This ball of hydrogen ignites and explodes, creating a star, in this case, a star we call Sol, our sun.

In the explosion that created Sol, some of the matter from the original mass is ejected out with great force but is held in the gravitational pull of the new star, so the forces trying to fling this matter out into space work against the pull of gravity, and all this matter begins to spin around the new star.

At first, this matter was a flat disk, but lumps began forming in it over time.  The largest lumps become the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. Smaller lumps contain less gas and more compressed rocky matter, and they form the other planets and the rocky inner planets, including Earth.

In the third orbit around the sun were two masses, one called Earth and one called Theia, because of her future role.  Both planets were still white hot from creation.  They burned across the sky, expelling their energy out into the coldness of space.  Theia was much smaller than Earth, about the size of Mars, and for millions of years, it held a stable spot in orbit around the sun, but eventually, the gravitational attraction of Jupiter and Saturn caused Theia’s orbit to spiral, and once it spiraled enough to escape its Lagrange point of stability and put it on a collision course with earth.  

Earth and Theia were molten and unformed at this point, but their rocky core had already formed.  Theia didn’t collide with Earth head-on, but more of a glancing blow.  The force of the collision made most of the molten rocky core of Theia join with the Earth's molten rocky core, which is why the Earth has a core much larger than the other rocky planets.  

Some of Theia’s matter was flung out into space and became part of what we now call the asteroid belt.  Parts of Theia and parts of Earth were pushed to the side of Earth, far enough away to collapse into their own body rather than fly out into space or collapse back into Earth.  

Within hours gravitational forces formed this molten matter into a globe, much smaller than the Earth, and forever locked in orbit around it.  The planet Theia gave birth to our moon in much the same way that the Titan Theia gave birth to Selene.

Ancient Greeks didn’t have access to the type of physics or the computers necessary to calculate how the collision of Earth with a previously unknown sister planet might form the moon, but they understood the causality of things and created a myth to tell the truth of the moon’s origin, even if they had no way to know the facts.  Even my essay is more myth than science because I skipped over huge volumes of physics and computational mathematics, but it doesn’t make what I wrote any less true.


Friday, August 11, 2023

Troop Zero

 Mckenna Grace is one of the most popular actors under twenty working today.  She has produced at least one major role per year since she was eleven, with Ghostbusters and Young Sheldon being the most famous so far.  Hopefully, she’ll escape the dreaded child star syndrome because I really do enjoy her work.  She plays nerds, particularly science nerds.  While typecasting is never good for an actor, the type of roles she plays can mean a lot to awkward kids dealing with some of the same issues.

The Voyager Space Craft, launched in 1977, did something no other mission in any of the terrestrial space programs did before.  It openly made an effort, no matter how futile, to communicate with intelligent life outside of Earth.  This was the very first time any governmental program admitted to the possibility that we are not alone.

The purpose of Voyager 1 and 2 was to conduct near fly-bys of our gas giant neighbors, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus, and send back photographic and radiometric data.  Since the devices would continue to function as they left the solar system, physicist Carl Sagan suggested affixing a message to the spaceships in case some distant intelligent life encounter them.

A committee led by Sagan developed the idea that they could make disks to affix to the spacecraft, made of solid gold so it never corroded, with mathematical principles and a map to our solar system on one side and the other side a phonograph, with messages from earth.  One of these messages being a recording of a child (Carl Sagan’s Son) saying, “Hello from the Children Of Earth.”

Playwright Lucy Alibar, most famous for “Beasts of The Southern Wild” and “Where the Crawdad Sings,” wrote a play in 2010 called “ Christmas and Jubilee Behold The Meteor Shower.” which became the basis for the film Troop Zero, which she adapted for the screen.  

In it, Christmas Flint, thirteen years old, spends most of 1976 missing her recently passed mother while living with her earnest but unsuccessful father in a trailer park in Wiggley, Georgia.  Christmas is played by Mckenna Grace.  Christmas spends every night staring at the stars in the Milky Way, hoping for some sign of alien life, believing that her mother is with them, out in space.

A man from NASA comes to her school to announce that a recording to go on the Voyager record will be recorded using the voices of whoever wins the Birdy Scout (Girl Scout) Jamboree in the Spring.  The actual recording was made by Sagan’s young son, a year younger than me, but that’s not important to the movie.   

Obsessed with space and science and the idea of communicating with aliens, Christmas is determined to win the Jamboree and have her voice be the one going out into the universe to welcome the aliens and (she believes) her mother’s spirit.  

Being a socially awkward misfit and living in the trailers, the Birdy Scout troop laughs at Christmas when she says she wants to join.  Undaunted, Christmas gets a copy of the Birdy Scout handbook from the library (her favorite place) and learns that if she can get four more girls to join and an adult sponsor, she can make her own troop to compete in the Birdy Scout Jamboree.

Christmas gathers together other misfit girls living in the trailers and asks her father’s seldom-paid secretary Rayleen (played by Viola Davis), to be the troop's den mother sponsor.   When she approaches the school principal who sponsors the main Birdy Scout Troop that rejected Christmas, she’s resistant to the idea but can’t find anything in the rule book to prevent Christmas from having her own troop.  As rude as the girls in the main Birdy Troop, Miss Massy assigns the new troop the number zero and admits them into Birdy Scouts.  If the members of Troop Zero can earn one merit badge each, then they qualify to enter the Jamboree, where Christmas hopes to win a spot on the Voyager record.

The next two acts of the film follow the misfit members of Troop Zero as they each find the thing that makes them special and uses that to earn their merit badge, despite the efforts of the other girls to prevent it, including constantly calling Christmas a “bed wetter” which she denies, even though she has been having problems with incontinence when she gets nervous since her mother died.

Coming of Age stories are usually a version of Campbell’s monomyth where the hero finds their special ability through a series of mentors, tests, and challenges.  Alibar follows that pattern here pretty closely, with the Viola Davis providing the meeting with the mentor in the narrative.  The scene in the belly of the whale takes place when Christmas is determined to win her wilderness survival badge.

I was attracted to watch this film because the trailer had a shot of the Voyager record, which I recognized.  The fate of the Voyager spacecraft is the subject of a fair amount of science fiction stories, including the first Star Trek film.   

This essentially is a story about misfits finding their place, not a story about science, but there’s enough science in it to keep me interested.  The end of the story has Christmas looking out into space during the Perseid Meteor Shower of 1976, which was exceptionally vivid, with between six and twelve meteors crossing the night sky per hour.  I know this because I was thirteen years old in 1976, sitting in the backyard of my mother’s house, watching the meteors and wondering about aliens.   

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer

 I saw Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer at the Capri Theater and dined on the fried catfish plate that was delicious and finished with the apple cobbler.  In a lifetime of going to movies, the Capri offers the nicest, most complete experience yet.  Even better than when I saw Silent Running and Escape From The Planet of the Apes there.

I’ve always felt a great deal of existential tension about the work of J. Robert Oppenheimer.  As a teenager, I read that a 13-year-old boy built a working atomic bomb for a science fair project.  It was even the subject of an episode of Barney Miller.  I took this to mean that I should learn to build one.  Along the way, I learned that the story about the 13-year-old boy was greatly exaggerated.  He lacked not only the plutonium but also the shaped-charged explosives to make his model work.  

The segments of a California orange inspired Oppenheimer’s team to create shaped charged explosives in such a way that it created an implosion into a small container of plutonium with sufficient force to break apart the atomic bonds in the plutonium.  They made a bomb powerful enough to use the fingers of God to split apart the basic structure of the universe, making an even bigger bomb.

My knowledge of this never settled well with me.  To excise it, I made a folded paper model of Fatman and Littleboy; the devices dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  There’s a sequence in Nolan’s film where they crate up Fatman and Littleboy and drive them away on the back of trucks, leaving Los Alamos, through Jornada del Muerto, in correspondingly large and small crates, out of the laboratory out into the history books: fame and Infamy.  Seeing them, I thought: “Hello, old friend.”

I’ve made excruciatingly detailed scale models of these devices in folded paper, then destroyed them when it began to concern me that keeping them around was an imperfect reflection of my mental state.  Maybe it was.  When I met some of the worst people I’ve ever known on the internet, I imported those files into Blender and made a .obj file out of them, which I then imported into a virtual world filled with truly objectionable people.  I’m not sure what my point was other than to say this exists, and you exist, and I can’t really break it down further than that.

There have been several films about the creation of the bomb; this one goes from Oppenheimer’s early years in Europe through the trinity device test and ends with Oppeheimer’s confrontation with the McCarthy era insanity.

Like many turn-of-the-century Jews, Oppenheimer once entertained the possibility that communism might provide his people with the safe and beneficial environment they desperately wanted.  You saw this sort of worker’s philosophy working its way through art and literature, and science in an era when men believed in the concept of a better world.  Many intellectuals saw the Russian experience with communism as a deformation of the optimism felt in the early worker’s movement.  Oppenheimer, like many turn-of-the-century Jews, felt a great sense of betrayal when Russian communism became what it became.  

There have been many historical investigations into Oppenheimer’s history with communism, and no one has ever been able to come up with more than that.  Like many intellectuals, he would be criticized for his involvement in the Spanish Civil War and the communists there.  There was a strong sense of antisemitism in the McCarthy era persecution of pre-war communists.  In the theater where I saw the movie, a woman cackled anytime communists were mentioned.  I’m not sure what that portends, but it’s been my observation that the communist witch hunts have returned.  

Nolan used his trademark cinematic style to portray the guilt Oppenheimer felt about what his creation became.  This was clearly the strongest of all the themes explored in the film.  The effect is really very strong in a Dolby-enabled theater.  I doubt it will have the same emotional impact on a home system.

Clearly, Barbie will be the most successful film this year.  Oppenheimer might be the most important.  Like a lot of important films, some people won’t enjoy it.  The intensity of it becomes a different sort of entertainment from what some people pursue.  Murphy as Oppenheimer and Downey as Strauss are standouts.  Much has been said about the performance of Florence Pugh and Tom Conti as Einstein.

It’s a movie about people much smarter than anyone you know discussing the basic structure of the universe and how to unlock the awesome destructive forces of God himself.  The sequence covering the trinity test itself comes at the end of the third act.  It’s powerful and effective at putting you into that scene, that moment in human development.

In the bible, it talks about God’s power to smite entire cultures, and he did. Before Oppenheimer, that ability was reserved for God.  Based on the book, The American Prometheus, Oppenheimer stole the fire from Olympus and gave it to men.   I’ve never lived in a world where this power didn’t exist.  The year before I was born, the Russians sent missiles with atomic weapons to the island nation of Cuba.  Mississippi was well within striking distance.  

As a physicist, Oppenheimer pondered the death of stars; as a leader, he gave us the means to bring about the death of humanity.  Only a physicist could do that.  

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Moonwatcher and Oppenheimer

In the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C Clarke introduces the character of Moonwatcher, a proto-human and the alpha male in a tribe of ape-men who are in conflict with another tribe of ape-men over access to a water source.  A fight for survival.

In filming this section of the book, Stanley Kubrick used the same actors and the same ape-men costumes to represent both Moonwatcher's tribe and their enemies.  Moongzer's mask was different, more articulate, and more detailed than the others, but all the other masks were taken from the same mold.  Kubrick calculated (correctly) that by having the actors play double roles, both as the protagonists and the antagonists, it would look like he was using more ape-men than he actually was.  

Despite Kubrick's clever means of filming the sequence, Clarke had a different point in mind.  Clarke wanted to show that these proto-humans were extremely similar genetically; what tiny differences there were made them mortal enemies, and extrapolating that point out tens of thousands of years, Moonwatcher's tapir bone weapon used to kill his enemy becomes a satellite loaded with thermo-nuclear weapons, pointed at earth.   There are minute genetic differences between us and the Russians, and yet we stand (as we actually did stand at the time of the film) moments away from destroying each other.  Moonwatcher is both Kennedy and Khrushchev.

Although we see a leopard kill and eat one of Moonwatcher's tribemates, the real threat, the difference between extending his genetic material and oblivion, was the other ape-men.  

A principal theme of the 1960s was xenophobia on many levels.  Arabs hate the Jews.  Russians hate the Americans, whites hate the blacks, and North Koreans hate the South Koreans; all genetically very similar, but all are perceived as a mortal threat by their counterpoint.  In 1967, when Kubrick and Clarke were making 2001, in Mississippi, some white men in a truck set bombs in the office of Perry Nussbaum in the Beth Israel synagog in Jackson.  After tens of thousands of years, ape-men were still willing to kill each other over access to water they could have shared.

Clarke was a very prolific writer.  Much more prolific than I.  Of all his works, 2001 remains his most famous by far.  It's hard to say if it's a hopeful work or not because the aliens make us take the next evolutionary step even though we still have death pointed at each other.  He discussed the matter further in 2010, but not that many people read it, and even fewer saw the movie.

This weekend, when Oppenheimer comes to Jackson, I'll see it at the Capri.  I'll also spend some of the time thinking about Arthur C Clarke and Moonwatcher.  We can't seem to escape what he said about us.  

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Darwin's Reputation and Dark Matter

Critics of Darwin like to say "evolution is only a theory", which is true, but misleading. Evolution is a theory as opposed to a hypothesis, but there's a heck of a lot of work which substantiates the theory.

I've seen supporters of Darwin who come back saying a theory is the "highest form of scientific thought", which isn't true, but is more accurate.

The highest form of scientific thought is a law. Laws are theories worked out to a point where we can model them mathematically and use these models to accurately predict outcomes. That's the difference between Newton's Laws and Darwin's theory. Evolution will probably never become a law. There are too many variables and too many aspects of the process we don't understand to ever become a law.

People generally credit Darwin with the idea of evolution, but the concept that life changes gradually over time from one form to another predates Darwin by some four thousand years. That concept on the formation of life is actually contemporary to the creation story in Genesis, although from another culture.

What Darwin brought to the table was this idea of Natural Selection as a mechanism to drive evolution. Darwin saw random chance as the initial movement in Natural Selection which is how he ran afoul of religious people. Had he said God motivated natural selection, the religious community probably would have embraced him.

Natural selection is a pretty solid concept and comes pretty close to something we could model mathematically. The aspect of random chance creates a problem though. The problem is time. Just relying on random chance in conjunction with natural selection, there hasn't been enough time since life began on earth to explain the variety of life forms we see now.

There has to be some other force or forces acting on evolution besides random chance and natural selection. I'm not saying it has to be an intelligent force (there's simply no evidence for that) but there has to be something, and if we knew what that something was we probably could develop mathematical models for evolution.

Even though there's no evidence for it, I happen to believe there is some sort of intelligent force driving evolution. It's probably not a kind of intelligence we currently understand though, which would prevent us from finding any evidence for it. It might be something much closer to the Greek concept of universal forms rather than the Abrahamic concept of God.

If you have trouble believing there are layers to evolution that are still invisible to us, consider this: science is only now becoming faintly aware of what they're calling Dark Matter and Dark Energy which we still have no way of measuring or perceiving but can only deduce its existence mathematically.

It'd be one thing if dark matter and dark energy were rare and distantly removed from us, but if current thinking is to be believed, dark matter and dark energy are far more common in the universe than the matter and energy we know. The idea that the most common elements of the universe are completely invisible to us and undetectable by us should really change your perspective on the very nature of reality itself.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy -- Shakespeare; Hamlet Act 1,

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Illusion of Justice and the Reality of Forgiveness

Have you ever considered how much we spend on the concept of justice?

All over the world, hundreds of thousands are in prisons. Maybe even millions. We pass around lawsuits like Christmas cards and the people: police, lawyers, judges, clerks, wardens, secretaries, guards, bondsmen, on and on, every country has an army of people all trying to find justice.

And the armies. How many wars have we fought seeking justice? All of them? How many died fighting wars for justice? How much property destroyed? How many wounded inside and out?

The thing is: for all we've done to find justice, but have we ever done it? Even once? Did we even come close? Or, was it all just vengeance?

Tom and Ben get in a fight and Tom shoots Ben in the head. Whatever happens in the future, however wrong and illogical his thinking was, in that moment Tom thought he was justified in doing what he did. Only now Ben is dead, and whatever was happening between the two of them, now it's a matter for us all.

Justice is the one thing we can't have here. Justice would be to turn back time and make Ben no longer dead and have these men resolve their differences without injury. Because we can't go back, because we can't undo what was done, justice is something we'll never have.

Because we want only this justice we can't have, our mind slips back into the most primitive parts of our brain and brings forth the only answer we've ever known: revenge. "You killed him so now we'll kill you".

It's not justice. We had one dead person, now we have two. Even if we don't kill Tom, we have one dead person and another in prison or some other punishment we devise to satisfy this craving for revenge. That's not justice though, that's just two suffering people.

Jesus offers us an alternative. Instead of vengeance, he offers us redemption, mercy and forgiveness. You don't have to believe in Jesus to see this though. Logic will tell you these are superior choices.

No matter how much the beastly side of our brain screams out for it, logic tells us that punishment doesn't cancel out any transgression. You can't undo what's been done.

Justice is an illusion. We can never have it. Forgiveness though, forgiveness is real and available to us all.

Some of you may think, it's easy for me to talk about forgiveness because I've never been transgressed against. You're wrong. I've been sinned against many, many times and I've sinned many, many times as well.

This is hard. It goes against human nature to forgive, our nature cries out for revenge and only revenge. We're not bound to our nature though. We can transcend beyond it, if we choose to.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

There's Something Strange in Loch Ness

Filmmakers for the History Channel's MonsterQuest recently discovered something totally unexpected in Scotland's famous Loch Ness.

Using remote operated vehicles to film underwater, Mike O’Brien of Louisiana-based SeaTrepid LLC was hoping to find evidence of the Loch Ness Monster when his cameras showed something else...

Golf balls, thousands and thousands of golf balls.

Besides mysterious lake monsters, Scotland is famous as the birth place of golf. Apparently locals and tourists have been using Loch Ness as a driving range for some time now and evidence of their activity is building up on the lake's bottom.

Although the monster can probably handle it, there is some concern for other life in the lake as golf balls can emit toxins as they deteriorate. Even though the ecology is somewhat fragile, there is no plan to retrieve the golf balls yet because they're in a part of the lake that's too deep to use regular scuba equipment.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

More Amazing Elephant Info

Asian and African Elephants (image source: wikipedia)
It's Not A Nose
An elephants trunk is really its upper lip. It's tusks are teeth. Scientist believe elephants are so amazingly intelligent because of the hundreds of muscles and thousands of nerves it takes to operate their trunk, all connected to parts of their really large brain.

Although still wild animals, many scientist believe Asian elephants are really semi-domesticated since humans have trained them for work for thousands of years. The only thing that keeps them from being fully domesticated is the size and unpredictability of the males makes domestic breeding so difficult.

Horton Hears a What?
Using their remarkable large ears and low frequency vocal sounds, inaudible to humans, elephants communicate with each over many miles.

World Travelers
Although their range is now limited to small areas of Asia and Africa, elephants once lived all over Africa, Europe, Asia and North America and their yearly migration routes stretched from Greenland to Equatorial Africa.

Prehistoric man used to follow the elephant herds, much like Native Americans used to follow the buffalo herds, hunting them for food, skins and even using their bones and tusks to build their homes. Some scientists suggest following the elephant herds explains how humans migrated from Africa to Europe, Asia and North America.

Girl Power
Elephant herds are all females and juvenile males. The lead elephant is called the "matriarch" and the secondary elephants under her are called "aunties".

Adult male elephants live solitary lives and only seek out females when they enter their musth stage. The musth cycle begins when male elephants pick up the scent of ovulating females using their amazing trunks. The smell triggers a massive injection of testosterone into their blood stream, making them much, much more aggressive. A bull elephant in musth emits a thick, sticky, fluid from their temporal lobes leaving a dark stain.

No Good Reason to Kill an Elephant
Although poaching is still the leading cause of death among elephants, the only commercially viable parts of the elephant are their tusks (which are carved into useless decorative items) and the hairs on their tails (which are woven into bracelets and rings, said to bring good luck). The rest of the elephant's massive body is left to rot after poachers take the tusks and tail hairs.

More Information about Elephants at Wikipedia
More Information about Elephant Preservation at the World Wildlife Fund

Amazing Elephant and Dog Friendship

This is one of the most remarkable stories I've seen in a while.

Link: You Tube

Tarra the elephant's page at the Elephant Sanctuary website.

Besides her unusual friendship with a dog, Tarra is also an accomplished painter

Read more about the relationship between Tarra and Bella: Link

Monday, March 9, 2009

Google Knows I'm Bald

As you've probably noticed, I've been experimenting with advertising on my blog.

It's not making much money, but that wasn't the point. I wanted to experiment and educate myself on this business of online advertising since I believe that's where the web and the world is headed.

The ads that interest me the most are the Google AdWords. The premise is that it reads your blog and then presents the most appropriate ads based on your content. That idea fascinates me. If I write a blog entry about two-headed zebras, then AdWords will pick ads for people who are interested in two-headed zebras (if there are any).

I've been monitoring the ads and so far it's been pretty cool. It's not always perfectly accurate though. Sometimes I might write an article about how the lawyers involved in the Dickie Scruggs scandal all suck, and AdWords will serve ads for people looking for cheap lawyers in Mississippi or I'll write about the president dealing with the economic crisis and it'll serve ads for schemes on how you can get in on all this stimulus money.

A couple of weeks ago, I started noticing AdWords serving more and more ads about hair loss and baldness cures. Now, I am bald, but I've never actually written about being bald. I looked over my old posts just to make sure.

Where were these ads coming from? At first it was a real mystery, then I started to look over the whole site and I noticed that, even though I've never written about being bald, on every page was my little profile picture that, sure enough, showed my shiny head in all its glory.

I can't find any confirmation that google is using images to gather information for their AdWords program, but it's the only way I can figure they would serve these ads. Google does have technology where computers can read images though. If you use google image search, it has a program that can look at pictures and filter out the ones that might be nude or depicting sex acts, so maybe they can read my picture and tell I'm bald.

It's a little intimidating to think computers might be that sophisticated, but it's pretty cool too. It's not artificial intelligence yet, but it gives you an idea of how people might use artificial intelligence in the future.

Friday, March 6, 2009

James Randi and Anti-Religion

Recently James Randi posted a video questioning the validity of some archaeological research currently going on in Nazareth with regards to sites mentioned in the bible. Randi uses this as a platform to call the whole bible into question. While I agree with him that a lot of this "archeology" into biblical sites is questionable, I can't agree with making the jump from that to a general dismissal of religion.

In the video, Randi demonstrates a pretty developed knowledge of the bible, a knowledge greater than what you see in most Christians, yet he strongly maintains he doesn't believe any of it, so much so, that the wants you not to believe it either.

What would motivate someone to learn so much about something they don't believe in? James Randi professes he has no religion, but I would suggest his religion is anti-religion. He is both priest and evangelist for anti-religion and that's what motivates him to learn so much about the bible.

People have such a strong desire for religion that they maintain it, even if their religion is anti-religion and whatever human trait motivates Christians to try and gain converts also motivates Randi to seek converts to his belief system.

This desire to convert people to our own point of view isn't limited to religion. You see it in sports, politics, art and pretty much every other aspect of human activity. It is ubiquitous. We say it doesn't matter if other people think the way we think, but clearly it does, even if it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Historically, a great deal of suffering has gone into this idea of making people believe what we believe. We'll fight wars to push our beliefs and gladly torture those who disagree with us. Atheists like Randi claim to be enlightened and advanced, but really they're doing exactly the same thing they criticize believers for.

I worry that atheists like Randi are motivated by the belief that we know everything and what we don't know isn't worth believing in. The fallacy of that philosophy is actually much more evident than the fallacies they want to point out about religion, but they'll never see it.

If we can't trust the religious not to make unfounded archeological claims to support their beliefs, can we really be all that sure to trust the anti-religious won't do the same? If so, who can we trust for a genuinely objective opinion on these matters?

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Evolution and the Obama Chimp

Even though they've issued an apology, people are still simmering over the New York Post's Obama-Chimp cartoon.

It's offensive, we're told, because there's a history of people comparing Africans to apes and monkeys. What people may not realize is that it wasn't just random rednecks making this comparison, but legitimate anthropologists as well.

It started with Darwin's theory of evolution. People theorized that African apes evolved into African humans, who evolved into European humans, making African people more closely related to apes than Europeans.

There's two problems with that theory, both arising from a basic misunderstanding of how evolution works. First, evolution never operated with the development of European humans as an ultimate goal, that's just our own vanity pushing its way into the theory.

Secondly, evolution isn't linear. It starts from a pretty identifiable point, but then grows from that point into an ever expanding sphere of chain-reaction consequence. African apes are further into the sphere than humans, but African and European humans are more-or-less on the same level emanating from that point.

In other words, we're equally related to apes. You could say they are our grandparents, but African and European humans are cousins. Examining the three at a genetic level yields basically the same conclusion.

Stephen Jay Gould's most significant scientific work was probably his theory of punctuated equilibrium, but many will remember him most for his later work deconstructing the history of using race in evolutionary studies.

Most people don't spend much time considering the nuances of the evolutionary model and most white people spend very little time considering the influence of race and racism on it and the consequences.

I suspect this is how Sean Delonas came to draw the Obama-chimp cartoon in the first place. He might have had "comparing black people to monkeys is bad" stored somewhere in his brain, but he didn't consider the thought often enough for it to surface when he drew the cartoon, so he stepped in it big time.

There are going to be lots of land mines like this for people criticizing Obama over the next few years, because the experience of racism is so different for white people than it is for black people. I think we're just going to have to get used to it though, because it's unreasonable to expect people to lay off criticizing the current president, just because he's black. If it's any consolation to black people, it'll take an awful lot of racist comments to balance out the fact that the president himself is black, at the end of the day, he's still president.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Getting The News Online in 1981

I'm a news junkie, and I get most of my news online.

For the moment, you can access just about any newspaper, magazine, television or radio station in the world through the web. Using RSS feeds I aggregate the news I read most often and access it through a program called a news reader. (I use Google's version, but there are many others.)

So what, Boyd? The whole world gets their news that way now. This is true, but I've been getting much of my news online for almost thirty years now.

It all started in the 1980's when I joined Compuserve. Compuserve wasn't the first online service I'd used, but it was the first to offer and AP news feed. They also experimented with including other online news services.

Below is a 1981 television report on the early stages of Compuserve's news services

The services available on Compuserve expanded quickly as modem and PC technology evolved. Below is a 1991 TV ad for Compuserve

So for those of you who are just now learning all you can do online, welcome to the party! We've been around for almost 30 years now.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

World's Largest Snake

Scientists have uncovered the fossilized remains of the largest snake that ever lived.

In life Titanoboa cerrejonensis was some forty-three feet long and possibly weighed as much as 2,500 lbs. (that's a big snake)

It lived in South America some sixty million years ago and probably lived mostly in the water.

Artist's Conception of Titanoboa

Read more at Live Science and Popular Science

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Just when you thought it was safe to get high...

The Journal of Psychiatric Research last month published a study suggesting that chronic use of marijuana among teens can lead to "abnormalities in areas of the brain that interconnect brain regions involved in memory, attention, decision-making, language and executive functioning skills."

I've long supported the legalization of marijuana use in the United States, but I've never been naive enough to believe the claims that its use is benign. Nothing that has as significant an effect on brain activity as marijuana's "high" will just go away and not leave a mark.

Read more about the study on The Live Science Blog or read the entire study by Manzar Ashtari at the Archives of General Psychiatry website.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Science of Thought

Scientists think a lot about thought, but what they've come up with so far seems to ask more questions than it answers.

Emerging is a body of theory suggesting that the brain has four distinct functions. I'll list them in order of how much we seem to understand about each.

Perception is the flow of information as raw data from our sense organs to the brain. We know that data flows from our organs to the brain through nerves allowing us to "tap into" those transmissions, giving us a pretty clear picture of what's going on. Scientists can even trace data flowing through the optic nerve to re-create the image our eyes send to our brain, (although not very well). Scientists understand enough about this function to create working artificial eyes.

Thought itself seems to be the interaction between different parts of the brain. We may know more about thought than other brain functions because technology allows us to make images of thought as it happens.

While nobody has legitimately been able to use science to "read" thoughts yet, we can see pretty clear patterns of activity within the brain based on what the subject is doing or thinking about. We're also pretty good about tracking the effect of damaging or disabling particular parts of the brain on the activity of thought.

Memory we know a lot less about. Some say memory is entirely electrical, some say it's electro-chemical, almost nobody believes it's entirely chemical anymore. Some believe memory is the interaction between clusters of brain cells, but there is study showing that individual brain cells might be capable of holding memory by themselves.

Invariably, when scientists write about or think about memory in the brain, they tend to relate it to memory as we know it in computers. I often wonder if that paradigm isn't holding us back. It's entirely possible that memory in the brain is nothing at all like memory in computers, which might explain why we've made far fewer advances in artificial intelligence than we thought we would by now.

Consciousness we know the least about. We think that consciousness is the merger of perception, thought and memory, but it might be something completely different. Although you'll never get scientists to admit it, at this point along the way, religion tells us about as much about consciousness as science does.

There's a growing number of scientists who draw a relationship between consciousness and quantum physics. If this is true, then the intelligence in "intelligent design" might be our own. If it's true that consciousness creates reality on some quantum level then that changes everything we ever thought about everything.

Image: Leonardo Da Vinci sketch-study of the brain

Official Ted Lasso