Category Archives: Science

Size Matters (Or Does It?) A Discussion of Hubris

All things are relative. When we say something is large, for instance, the obvious question is “compared to what”? Indeed this is going to be a discussion of scale.
Man has created gigantic buildings:

Burj

 

Huge ships:

allureoftheseaVast cities:

city

So these things and many others are quite large, compared to other building or ships or cities. But how large are they really, when compared to other things? Indeed, how large is everything on earth when compared to everything in space?

earth1Earth. The only planet we really know, or will ever know. It is quite literally the center of our universe. We know of course that is metaphorical, and we really aren’t the center of anything, don’t we? Not always. How “large”are we in the universal scheme of things?

earth2

Next to our moon, we’re pretty substantial, but we know that. How do we stack up against everything else in the cosmos?

earthplanetsLooks a little different, doesn’t it? Just lining us up against the other planets in our solar system gives us some relative size. Since we don’t count Pluto any longer, this is earth in the group of four smaller planets versus four quite large ones. Click on any image for a better look.

As far as even our own solar system, we’re a pretty puny planet. Not much to speak of.  But take a look at all the planets compared to our sun:

earthsun

Notice how we’ve shrunken to a little dot? Take a good look. We’re about to disappear altogether as the scale increases.

eatharcturus

Click to expand this photo. Take a look at the tiny little dot on the bottom right. That’s our sun. Think the big star in the photo(Betelgeuse) is big? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

earthbetelgeuse

 

And finally:

earthcanismajoris

Compared to the star Canis Majoris, our sun and our entire solar system just disapear.

We could go on and on, with increasingly larger and further entities, but here’s my point: In the scheme of things, in the larger universe, we are nothing.  As a practical matter on the metaphysical scale, we don’t even exist. We are far smaller than the smallest grain of sand in the cosmic universe. This is but a small part of the universe in a photo from the Hubble telescope:

hubble deep field

Man is the only creature on earth possessing arrogance. Fill with hubris, the self pride of his own invention. No other creatures walks the planet believing they are the most important. No other creature believes it can control not only it’s own environment, but other environments as well.

Some believe we can control the climate when we cannot even predict the weather accurately more than a few days in the future – hubris. We are blessed with intelligence and abilities, but we  let arrogance and conceit turn these gifts into a sense of super power; that we can change and control the forces of nature. We cannot. We are man, only man, and we live on this planet at the whim of forces far beyond our limited imaginiations.

We might do well to understand that we are only passengers on this great ship we call earth. We control nothing, we can change nothing. To put it in the venacular, we really need to get over ourselves.

Tom Wolfe coined the phrase “masters of the universe” referring to the lions of Wall Street, but perhaps Shakespeare describes the hubris of man better in Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason,
how infinite in faculties, in form and moving,
how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension,
how like a god!

Pandemic

The first case of the Ebola virus just turned up September 30th in Dallas. A passenger from Liberia got on a plane, flew directly to Dallas, and brought this incurable disease with him.

For the record, there are besides Dallas, daily flights from Liberia to Houston, Detroit, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Miami and Washington DC. This is just Liberia, not all the other West African countries with the disease. Many, many more flights coming in every day.

Apparently there is no airport screening either in Liberia or the US of people in the early stages of the disease who do not yet present with flu-like symptoms. This is exactly what happened when a man flew to Dallas on September 20,  and presented himself at a Dallas hospital on September 28 with full-blown Ebola. As of this writing he is reported as “critically ill”.

The Ebola Virus (EBOV) causes “a severe and often fatal  hemorrhagic fever in humans and other mammals”. Hmorrhagic fever (VHF) is desribed like this: “All types of VHF are characterized by fever and bleeding disorders and all can progress to high fever, shock and death in many cases”.

The virus, first discovered in 1976, comes from the Ebola River area, located on the Democratic  Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in Africa. It was once also known as Zaire Virus and Marburg Virus.

ebola

The virus is a nasty looking little critter, but some of the effects on humans are far more ghastly, so much so I won’t post any pictures. Look them up if you want. Suffice it to be said, contracting Ebola and dying from it is a real nasty way to go.

There is no cure.

To date, there is no proven cure for this disease, only prevention.

But wait, there’s more:

Yahoo News 9/30/14:

Rare respiratory virus, paralysis spreads among US kids: Washington (AFP) – An unusual respiratory virus has sickened more than 400 children across the United States, and the emergence of sudden paralysis in some Colorado youths is sparking concern among doctors.The nationwide outbreak of enterovirus D68 — which can cause wheezing and coughing — coincided with the hospitalization of nine children due to limb weakness in Colorado since early August, and officials are investigating if there is any link between the two.

Enterovirus EV-D68 cases confirmed in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut :   A rare, potentially severe respiratory virus that has sickened children in more than a dozen states has surfaced in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, health officials said late on Wednesday.

Now connect the dots…

Associated Press 9/30/14:

SCHOOLS SCRAMBLE TO HELP TEENS WHO CROSSED BORDER FRANKFORD, Del. (AP) — American schools are scrambling to provide services to the large number of children and teenagers who crossed the border alone in recent months.Unaccompanied minors who made up the summer spike at the border have moved to communities of all sizes, in nearly every state

 REFUGEE PLAN SET UP FOR CENTRAL AMERICAN MINORS : WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is initiating a program to give refugee status to some young people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in response to the influx of unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Do we see a pattern here? For the last several months, illegal aliens have been pouring across our Southern border with a wink and a nod and a look the other way from the Administration. More than a wink, the federal government has actually relocated thousands of childen from Central America into virtually every US state. Now a mystery virus is breaking out all over the country. Several non-major-media websites have written stories about Border Patrol and other front line government officials trying to blow the whistle that these aliens are coming in with virtually no concern about what diseases they may be bringing with them. In the rush to “settle” them throughout the country, only cursory attention has been paid to the health issues these people may have.

Update (10/3/14)

The status of these two viruses is very fluid and changing rapidly. News item today indicates that the Polio-like symptoms (limb weakness and paralysis) could possibly be associated with EV-D68. The plot thickens. It’s disturbing to even hear the word Polio today. There hasn’t been a case of Polio in the United States since 1979, thanks to the Salk/Sabin vaccines.  However, Polio still exists (and is spreading) in the Middle East and….wait for it….Africa.

We are a “welcoming” and “inclusive” country today. We invite “refugees” and “dreamers” from all parts of the world. We take them in and they fan out through all fifty states.

But do we health screen all these newcomers? —- Ahh, no we don’t. So they are coming in from all directions, and they just might be bringing more than their suitcases with them.

 

The Fermi Paradox

space

I’ve always been interested in space,  and I’ve written about it here on these pages. I get a sense of wonder just looking up to the night sky. I once owned a dinky 3 inch refractor telescope and my son and I would look at the stars. Unfortunately, light polution being what it is in my neck of the woods, there’s not much to see. But it’s out there….it’s really out there.

I read a few articles recently on something called the Fermi Paradox. It goes something like this:

When we look up into a sky filled with stars, all we’re really seeing is our closest neighboring stars. That’s all that are visible to the naked eye. We can see less than one percent of the stars in our own galaxy (the Milky Way)!

Now, lets try some numbers: In our galaxy alone, there are 100-400 billion stars! In the observable universe, there are over 100-400 billion galaxies! That means there are  500 quintillion( 500,000,000,000,000,000,000) stars in our observable universe.  Observable meaning those we can see with our best deep-space telescopes. There’s more beyond that, we just can’t see it.

Now it gets a little tricky, so bear with me.  If only one percent of these stars had earth-like planets, there would be over 100 billion-billion earth like planets.

As one article I read suggested, try it this way: There are 100 earth-like planets in the universe for every grain of sand on earth! Yeah that’s right. Every grain of sand (think of all the beaches), every grain=100 earth like planets!

earth

Go ahead, wrap your brain around that one. It’s really impossible to do. I can’t even imagine counting the grains of sand in one bucket.

So here’s where it gets interesting. If only one percent of those earth-like planets developed life, and if only one percent of that life ever evolved to what we would call intelligent life, there would be ten million intelligent civilizations in the universe!

If there are that many intelligent civilizations, where the hell are they? Why aren’t they visiting us? Or have they?  Here’s more of the paradox:

scully

If there are other intelligent beings out there, and if they could come to visit us, they would be far more advanced then we are. Not just a little more but vastly more. Any beings capable of interstellar travel are not just thousands of years ahead of us, but maybe millions of years. There are a number of different scenarios about them:

1. They may have been here and gone: Advanced civilizations could be millions of years ahead of us and may have stopped by earth thousands of years ago, found nothing interesting, and went on their way. There’s lots of universe to explore.

2. There are galactic colonies, but they are so far away we have no idea that they exist.

3. Advanced civilizations are aware of us, but we are of no more interest to them than insects.

4. There’s lots of activity out there, but our technology is too primative to understand it.

5. There is no one out there more advanced than us.

6. They are there, but the government is covering it up.

The notions and theories go on and on, but you get the idea. We’re not going to get into flying saucers and so forth here (maybe some other time). My real reason for writing this was that I’m pretty flabergasted at the size of the universe and can’t help but wonder what it’s all about. We are soooo miniscule, so nothing by comparison. And yet we often think we know it all.

If you want to learn more about this, there’s plenty online. By the way, Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist, came up with this originally, around 1950.

Maybe when we’re feeling smug and superior, we might be well served to take a look out there, and get some perspective.

I was going to skip the flying saucer part, but here’s a good one:

 

 truth

 

Space

My wife and I recently saw the movie Gravity  in 3D. It was good, not great, but good. The 3D effects were also good, although I think they have been overhyped. Then again any movie starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney is likely to be Hollywood overhyped.

By coincidence, I happened across a video on Youtube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jHsq36_NTU

The video shows that our old notions of the planets in our solar system lazily rotating around the sun is actually not correct. This is how we’ve been taught  to see it: solarsystem1

The thing is, that’s not how it really looks. This is how it looks:

solarsysystem2 In this version, the sun is charging through space like a comet at 70,000 miles per hour, dragging all the planets twirling behind it by the force of gravity. The result is we actually move in a helix-like motion, not unlike a strand of DNA.

solarsystem3

I thought this was pretty interesting, but I’m a bit of a space geek. But that’s not what I’m really writing about here. It seems we’ve lost interest in things. Space just happens to be one of them, but I’m trying to use it to make my point.

When I was a kid, outer space was pretty much a mystery to the layman. Aside from the obligatory science lessons in school about the solar system (see first picture above), and the really cheesy science fiction movie, the stars were just something to gaze at from time to time. Oh sure, we learned to identify the North Star and the Big Dipper in Boy Scouts, but they were just connect-the-dots points of light. Then came Sputnik.

In 1957, the Soviets launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik. For the first time ever there was an object flying over us in space orbit that had been created by man. The game was on. In 1958 President Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) The same legislation created the Advance Projects Research Agency (ARPA) which started the notion of the Internet, but that’s another story.

Generally speaking, Americans didn’t cotton to the idea of the “Ruskies” flying a space vehicle over our heads every ninety minutes or so. It could be seen with the naked eye, and after the novelty wore off, people began clamoring that the Soviets were ahead of us in space, and we were still locked on the ground with their little bright light flying over giving us the proverbial finger about sixteen times a day.

Thus began the “space race” between us and the Soviets, and a decade of growing public interest in all things space. We went from satellites to manned missions, reaching a finale when the US became the first country to put a man on the moon in 1969.

It was an interesting and exciting time. We learned about rockets and propulsion, gravity and re-entry vehicles. We learned about the “sling-shot” method to launch a vehicle into space. We, the collective “we” learned a lot. Kids took a new interest in science, parents bought model rockets for their children. We learned new vocabulary words.  Most importantly, we discovered a national unity, a purpose. Man could do great things; we could even leave this planet if we chose.

We landed on the moon, six times to be precise. Technology advanced by leaps and bounds. Everything from high-tech plastics to lasers to the first major uses of the computer came about as a result of the space program. We talked about going farther; Mars, colonies in space. There seemed to be no limits.

And then it fizzled. I think it started with a “been there, done that” attitude that began creeping in. Further space exploration began to look too expensive. There were other priorities. Sure, we had the Space Shuttle, unmanned space probes, and we landed robots on Mars, but it wasn’t the same. The public interest drifted away from space, replaced with only a series of space monster movies like Alien which suggested space was an evil place where we did not want to travel. Even current movies like Gravity  suggest disaster and chaos in space.

solarsystem4

All this brings me to my point: When we lost interest in space, we lost something else. It seems that desire to reach for the stars is gone in our society. We have turned inward, focus on trivia, and stopped dreaming. My freshmen college students can’t even name the planets, much less exhibit any knowledge of space. Things we knew when we were fifteen are Greek to the current generation.

How do we lose things we once knew? How do we drift off course, more interested in self-esteem and self-enjoyment than seeking challenges and reaching for the stars?

I don’t have an answer, but it is troubling. The space program brought us technology advancments beyond imagination, including the Internet, which offers endless possibilities for knowledge and growth. But it seems we’d rather use social media, more interested in Facebook  and Twitter  than exploring the Internet like the greatest library of all time.

The age of space exploration was a good time, for all of us. We thought outside of our own little worlds. We thought of possibilities. We dreamed dreams. Now it seems those days are over, and we are the worse off for it.

Evolution

darwin

I recently got into a mini-debate on Facebook regarding evolution. The debate was Darwin versus the various Christian or Biblical versions of creation. I’m not a particularly religious person, and I’m not even sure this is a post for this website, but I thought the exercise might be good for my old brain.

Today the notion of “God” creating the universe and everything in it is often considered passe. More than that, it seems popular to infer that those who subscribe to the Biblical concepts of man’s origins are at best ignorant, and at worst…well at worst maybe too stupid to live.

“Science” seems to rule this discussion.  “The Origin of the Species” written by Charles Darwin and published in 1959 is the “bible” of the science believers. I am not smart enough nor educated well enough to completely understand Darwin’s work, but as a practical measure, it seems to make sense. Certainly it seems easier to buy into Darwin’s theory than the notion that God made the earth and everything on it in seven days. But is it really easier? Is it really “different” than the Biblical version?

First, let’s despense with the idea that the “days” in the Bible were actually days.  Time frames that were possibly millions of years long are difficult enough for anyone in the modern world to comprehend. During Biblical times, it was probably incomprehensibe. Could we not however simply entertain the idea that one “day” in the Bible actually could have been thousands of years? Or even millions for that matter? Current thinking places the age of the earth at around 4.5 billion years. Dividing this by six (on the seventh day God rested),  we get each “day” being about 750 million years long.  That many million is almost impossible to grasp as it is, much less billions of years. Why not just call each of these time periods “days” and make it easier to understand. It’s a metaphor folks, a rhetorical figure of speech that makes the blindingly complex a bit easier to comprehend.

So if the only difference between Bible believers and science believers is a time frame, what is the big hang-up? A time frame metaphor hardly seems worthy of any sort of serious debate. You say tomatoe I say tomato.

But there’s more to it, isn’t there? Much more. The real issue isn’t about how long the planet took to cool and evolve, or even the specifics of how that may have happened. The real argument is why it happened. that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Did we just evolve as a random group of molecules from a firey “big bang” to the structured planet we are today? Or, was there something or Someone behind it? Are we a result of “intelligent design”?

I find it interesting that today all but the strongest religionists shy away form saying things like “God created man”. Today, in keeping with polictical correctness, we can only  enter the discussion by meekly referring to intelligent design, whatever that is. Even suggesting that however, seems to raise eyebrows among the enlightened. Surely anyone who even suggests we evolved by design rather than happerstance must be a little foggy brained at best.

So then, if we were not created deliberately by a supreme being, how did we get here? The most common alternative to creationism theory I’ve heard is that we just “sort of happened”.  In other words, some random collection of neutrons, protons and other tons all just came together somehow and created life. All life on earth is nothing more than a freak occurance, an accident for lack of a better word.

Here’s my problem with that:  First, if we are an accidental happening, it seems unlikely that this randomness happened elsewhere. Our species — our evolved species is unique in the universe. If there are any other “accidents” out there, they probably are nothing like us. So we may be alone, but that’s not the big point to me.

If we have evolved from this cosmic accident, life has no meaning. There was no plan making us, so we are no different than anything else in that life cycle. We are no different than a snake or a bird or an insect. We are a lifeform that simply “happened” If we’re “different” than the others, that’s only because we see ourselves as different, not that we really are.

Beyond that, if we are an accidental occurance on an accidental planet, life and death have no meaning. Before we were born we did not exist, and after we die we do not exist. Gone. Nothing, zero, zilch. Any meaning we give to life is nothing more than something we have simply rationalized. There is no Supreme Being, there is no Heaven, there is no Hell, there is only nothing. Human beings are just like a bug that gets stepped on — gone and not only forgotten, but never even noticed.

If we are simply accidental, then moral structures should be optional. To be sure, they seem to be so with some people, but the notion of laws and rules based on moral codes does not apply. After all, where did most of our laws and codes come from? “Thou shalt not kill”, “Thou shalt not steal”, etc and so forth. These all came from religions, all of which believe in some Higher Authority. If could be argued that without these laws and rules there would be chaos, and probably so. But the question is not whether or not these are good things, but rather where these concepts came from. Did they just happen accidently as well? Or were they given to man from someone else; someone who is not man?

earth

Check out this picture. Beautiful, isn’t it? Of all the planets known to man, earth is surely the most beautiful. All alone in our visible space, we sit, blue and green and gorgeous.

mars

Mars? Not so much. A pretty bleak and desolate rock.

venus

 Venus too. Wouldn’t want to live there.

io

And Jupiter’s moon Io –  forget about it.

The point is this. The planet that is beautiful, even from deep in space, is earth — the accident? All that randomness created this beautiful planet, which just happens to be the only one with life on it. Wow – what a miracle. No wait, can’t be a miracle, as that implies outside forces. Must be just a super cool accident.

Attempting to sum this up before it meanders any further, I think this: When we get old, we start to think more directly about topics such as life and death. I think younger people avoid these thoughts and rightly so. Life has too much living in it to think about it ending. But when we realize we have a far shorter future than a past, such things come to mind.

Dying and just being “gone” does not appeal to me.  I think the idea that we just “end” and go no place else is too shallow a thought. No believing in an afterlife requires nothing. We don’t have to worry if we have been just or unjust, fair or unfair, good or evil. None of that matters, because there is nothing after this. Believing in an afterlife, Heaven or Hell, or anything else requires an accounting. It requires us to reflect on the good and bad we have done. It requires some sort of reconcilliation to set things right.

So in the end, I’m pretty satisfied that we are no accident. I can’t say I know anything about the Creator, other than the fact I believe He exists. In that respect, I’m trying to do my own sort of reconciling these days.

eye