Archive for the ‘Astronomy’ Category
Listening to a BBC podcast recently it seemed that the experts were agonising about the nature of time. But isn’t time just our way of describing change? Not a thing in and of itself but rather a description of real things going from one state to another?
Perhaps I’ve missed a trick somewhere along the way. If so, enlighten me.
I picked up Feynman’s 1964 book, Six Easy Pieces the other day. It has been released as part of a new collection of reprints from Penguin that sell for just NZ$12.95 each and, at that price, I’ll read just about anything.
And what a pleasant surprise!
This is a book about physics which would be enough to put most people off right from the start but it has a few things going for it. Firstly, it’s a pretty thin book (only 138 pages) which, combined with the word ‘easy’ in the title, reassures you that even if you’ve bitten off more than you can chew at least it will all be over in short order. Secondly, it’s written by the late Richard Feynman who, by all accounts was one of the smartest physicists of recent time as well as a damn fine artist and bongo player to boot.
The book is aimed at people who, like me, have a high school understanding of physics but little else. But I’m sure that whether you only vaguely understand that our world is made of atoms or you daydream about quantum entanglement, you’ll find this an entertaining and enlightening read.
As the title suggests, the book is broken into six chapters, each derived from lectures he gave at Caltech. The first, Atoms in Motion for me was perhaps the most staggering. It neatly explains how atoms work and how these workings relate to everything from heat to chemical structures and even why ice expands when cold while just about everything else contracts. Second is Basic Physics which gives a brief history of our understanding of the way the universe works and introduces an enormously useful analogy of science being like observers of a celestial chess game where we begin to notice patterns and rules but are nowhere near able to actually play the game ourselves because every once in a while we observe something completely left-field the equivalent of castling. Third is The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences where we see that the behaviour of atoms helps to explain the behaviour of chemicals which helps to explain the behaviour of rocks and living things. Fourth is Conservation of Energy which gets pretty mathematical but explains the relationship between the law and most (all?) of the equations that underpin physics as well as showing why the recently popular claims of free energy simply can’t happen. Fifth is The Theory of Gravitation which, after explaining the history behind our discoveries ends up concluding that we still have no idea what gravity is. And sixth and finally, the moment everyone waits for, Quantum Behaviour. Feynman walks us through analogies of experiments with particles and waves and then goes on to show that, at the level of the atom, nothing behaves like we expect it to. He shows that the maths is reliable but that we just can’t reconcile it with our natural understanding of the physical world. But all throughout the book he has been highlighting just how much we don’t know and this somehow turns my potential despair at quantum behaviour into a kind of exciting challenge that we can still make headway but that we might have to rely a little less on intuition and more on the evidence provided by experimentation.
In summary, if you spot the rack of bright orange books in your local bookstore, keep an eye out for this one and grab it if you can. It’ll only take a moment out of your life and, if you are only ever going to read one book about physics, this is definitely the book you should read. (I also managed to pick up Pinker’s The Language Instinct from the same collection too – that’s next on my list after I finish Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale and Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel).
Dawkins’ series The Genius of Charles Darwin is currently showing on the History Channel on Sky here in NZ. Omitted from the series was this insightful interview with Father George Coyne on the subjects of evolution, cosmology, science and faith.
Prior to 2005 I was reading mostly the kind of books that make the Whitcoulls Top 100 list along with the occasional classic by the likes of Dostoevsky, Hardy and others. And, of course, Iain [M] Banks whenever a new book came out.
In early 2005 a friend recommended Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. It was this simple book that, to my great surprise, allowed me to clearly see the fact that my view of reality didn’t match what we can observe of the universe around us. Subconsciously I’d been aware of this fact but had managed to ignore it for 14 years or so. I decided that I would be better off with truth rather than a comforting fantasy and decided to investigate further. I watched a lot of documentaries, visited a lot of websites (and blogs) and talked with a lot of interesting people. I also read a lot of books – here are the ones that have influenced me the most over the last three years:
The Bible – Various Authors
The Mind of God – Paul Davies
A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
E=mc2 – David Bodanis
Deep Simplicity – John Gribbin
Pale Blue Dot – Carl Sagan
The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins
Climbing Mount Improbable – Richard Dawkins
The Origin of Species – Charles Darwin
The Demon-Haunted World – Carl Sagan
The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins
Letter to a Christian Nation – Sam Harris
The Richness of Life – Stephen J Gould
The Creation – E O Wilson
The End of Faith – Sam Harris
Various Writings – Thomas Paine
Breaking the Spell – Daniel Dennett
Why People Believe Weird Things – Michael Shermer
God is not Great – Christopher Hitchens
Infidel – Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Freakonomics – Levitt & Dubner
The Blank Slate – Steven Pinker
Consciousness, An Introduction – Susan Blackmore
And I have the following books waiting to be read:
Guns, Germs and Steel – Jared Diamond
How The Mind Works – Steven Pinker
The Ancestor’s Tale – Richard Dawkins
Freedom Evolves – Daniel Dennett
I’m not sure where I’ll go to from here but I feel I’ve done the topics of religion, superstition and pseudoscience to death. Evolution, cosmology and the workings of the mind still fascinate me so I’ll probably carry on down that path for a while.
In 1973 the BBC released a TV documentary series in 13 episodes by mathematician Jacob Bronowski called The Ascent Of Man. 35 years later I purchased it as a DVD box set on the recommendation of a fellow science documentary aficionado.
It’s extremely good! And I’m not just saying that in the context of the era in which it was produced. Sure, some of the music grates on the nerves and some of the graphics don’t compare to what we are capable of these days but overall it’s got a depth that is often missing from the kind of documentaries found on the Discovery Channel. Actually, I take back my comment about the music; it features music from Meddle – my second-favourite Pink Floyd album – which, for me, redeems a multitude of musical sins.
Bronowski is thoughtful, poetic and very deliberate in every sentence. He gives you the feeling that he is treating you, the viewer, as an equal throughout and he conveys a sense of awe that is impossible to resist.
Most moving for me was a scene where Bronowski is visiting a Nazi concentration camp where many of his relatives were murdered. According to the interview with Attenborough in the bonus material the entire scene was spontaneous and filmed in a single take:
Bronowski died a year later of a heart attack at the age of 66.
In celebration of the World Youth Day in Sydney and of the recent “Academic Freedom” law changes in Louisiana I’d like to present Galileo Galilei’s confession for the “absurd and philosophically false” notion that “the earth is not the center of the world, nor immovable, but that it moves”:
I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei of Florence, aged 70 years, tried personally by this court, and kneeling before You, the most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals, Inquisitors-General throughout the Christian Republic against heretical depravity, having before my eyes the Most Holy Gospels, and laying on them my own hands; I swear that I have always believed, I believe now, and with God’s help I will in future believe all which the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church doth hold, preach, and teach.
But since I, after having been admonished by this Holy Office entirely to abandon the false opinion that the Sun was the centre of the universe and immoveable, and that the Earth was not the centre of the same and that it moved, and that I was neither to hold, defend, nor teach in any manner whatever, either orally or in writing, the said false doctrine; and after having received a notification that the said doctrine is contrary to Holy Writ, I did write and cause to be printed a book in which I treat of the said already condemned doctrine, and bring forward arguments of much efficacy in its favour, without arriving at any solution: I have been judged vehemently suspected of heresy, that is, of having held and believed that the Sun is the centre of the universe and immoveable, and that the Earth is not the centre of the same, and that it does move.
Nevertheless, wishing to remove from the minds of your Eminences and all faithful Christians this vehement suspicion reasonably conceived against me, I abjure with sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I curse and detest the said errors and heresies, and generally all and every error and sect contrary to the Holy Catholic Church. And I swear that for the future I will neither say nor assert in speaking or writing such things as may bring upon me similar suspicion; and if I know any heretic, or one suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor and Ordinary of the place in which I may be.
I also swear and promise to adopt and observe entirely all the penances which have been or may be by this Holy Office imposed on me. And if I contravene any of these said promises, protests, or oaths, (which God forbid!) I submit myself to all the pains and penalties which by the Sacred Canons and other Decrees general and particular are against such offenders imposed and promulgated. So help me God and the Holy Gospels, which I touch with my own hands.
I Galileo Galilei aforesaid have abjured, sworn, and promised, and hold myself bound as above; and in token of the truth, with my own hand have subscribed the present schedule of my abjuration, and have recited it word by word. In Rome, at the Convent della Minerva, this 22nd day of June, 1633.
I, GALILEO GALILEI, have abjured as above, with my own hand.
The Cosmological Argument has a number of variations but I will only deal with the one employed by William Lane Craig in his recent debate with Bill Cooke.
Here is a transcript of Craig’s version of the cosmological argument:
So, why does the universe exist instead of just nothing? Where did it come from? There must have been a cause which brought the universe into being.
We can summarise our argument thus far as follows:
1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause
2. The universe began to exist
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause
Now, as the cause of time and space, this being must be an uncaused, timeless, spaceless, immaterial being of unfathomable power.
Moreover, it must be personal as well.
Why? Because this cause must be beyond space and time therefore it cannot be physical or material.
Now there are only two kinds of things that fit that description; either abstract objects like numbers or else an intelligent, un-bodied mind.
But abstract objects can’t cause anything and therefore it follows that the cause of the universe is a transcendent, personal mind.
The big bang is based on the observation that we can see that everything in the observable universe is moving away from everything else which would lead to the conclusion that, if you wound the clock back, things would inevitably be closer together. A lot closer together. With this hypothesis in mind many different disciplines in science attempted to see if the predictions formed by this hypothesis would turn out to be true. And so far they’ve found overwhelming evidence to support the claim.
Clever people in clever coats are able to model the initial conditions of the universe and show that specific transformations probably happened at specific times and that, to the best of our knowledge, the universe as we know it is 13.73 billion years old give or take about 130 million years. So far no one has found a way to gather any information beyond this point and so questions as to what happened before then (which might actually be a non-valid question as we established in the post on infinity) are speculative at best. No one knows.
Now let’s address Craig’s main arguments.
He uses a simple logical proposition-proposition-conclusion to show that the universe must be caused and then, on that conclusion, goes on to show that this cause-er must be God.
Logical conclusions work when the preceding propositions are sound. And it’s the propositions that cause Craig’s argument to fall short. Without sound propositions your conclusion – no matter how appealing it sounds – has no foundation.
We know that the universe does some very strange things at the scale of the very big and the very small. Quantum physics has taught us that things can be in two places at once. No one understands why or how but we can observe it time and time again. I can imagine a similar argument to Craig’s one here where one of the propositions is “1. Nothing can be in two places at once.”. This would have been a perfectly common sense argument only a few years ago but now we have to take a step back and concede that not everything in the universe conforms to the everyday properties we observe as humans.
We live in a “middle earth” where we have a fairly good grasp on how things interact with each other at our level but we lack the ability to make head or tail of what happens outside of the zone we’ve evolved to understand. At the moment, at least.
In short, the answer to Craig’s first two propositions is “we don’t know” and that appealing to common sense at the same time as positing a supernatural and outside-of-space-and-time cause seems to be a bit of a double-standard. If God is allowed to be an uncaused-cause then why not just move the peg back one step and posit that the universe is allowed to be an uncaused-cause? At least we can observe that the universe exists.
As discussed in my previous post there are lots of interesting explanations for how the universe may have possibly come about and for the properties of time (and therefore causality) but no one knows yet what really happened. And it’s quite possible that we may never know.
The rest of Craig’s arguments shouldn’t need to be discussed because his propositions have already been shown to have fallen short of establishing a need for a God as an ultimate cause but they’re quite funny so I’ll briefly cover them.
He then goes on to make some crazy leaps and hops to try to give this ultimate cause a God-like personality. “Moreover, it must be personal as well”, what? I can see what he’s trying to do here by tying forcing a false dichotomy on us of having to choose between numbers or a mind but he’s either woefully behind on his understanding of developments in neuroscience or he’s being deliberately disingenuous.
One of the last bastions of dualism is in the question of the mind. And this is kind of understandable because it certainly feels like “we” are somehow disembodied. That our essence is somehow more than can be cooked up using meat and chemicals alone. But the more we learn about the workings of the mind in humans and observe traits we thought were unique to humans in other species the more it’s looking like dualism is to neuroscience as Thor is to thunder; a shortcut and an economical way of explaining things but not to be taken seriously.
Even assuming that there must be a cause and forcing us to choose between numbers or a mind as the cause I’d have to contend that there is more compelling arguments currently for numbers (i.e. mathematics) as the driving force behind the universe than of a disembodied mind.
Craig’s goal was to show that the concept of God is not a delusion and the cosmological argument doesn’t add any weight (either for or against) here. If you are already convinced that God exists you’ll like the grand-sounding scientific words and the nice 1, 2, 3 steps but you’ll be no nearer the truth with this argument. It’s built on false propositions, gives you false choices, is inconsistent in its appeals for common sense and ignores just about all recent scientific discoveries.
If God doesn’t exist then belief in God is a delusion and if God exists then belief is not a delusion. Craig’s argument adds nothing to this question and if Cooke had bothered to engage at all neither would his. I suspect that the answer to the moot is the same as “Is the invisible pink unicorn a delusion?”. You can’t prove it either way and it’s one of a billion possible but meaningless questions.
God seems to exist only where evidence is hard to find. When a naturalistic explanation is found the next generation of believers will take the science on board and scoff at their ignorant predecessors for believing that God was explanation for lightening, conception, creation (and, now, evolution) or our minds. Perhaps one day God will need to be moved on from his current position at the start of the universe but I think it’s a pretty safe place for him in the meantime. If you are happy to live with that then good for you but stop just making stuff up and pretending it’s real. I’ll await more evidence.
(For another take on Craig’s arguments take a look at Ian’s blog).
While I’m waiting for the YouTube videos to be posted so I can get my facts straight with regard to the debate between William Lane Craig and Bill Cooke I thought I might address the issue of the concept of infinity.
Craig introduced the cosmological argument with the notion of infinity and the fact that atheists will argue that the universe is infinite. I’d just like to put my atheistic hand up at this point and say that I’d tend to go with the ‘finite universe’ personally at this stage. I know people (both theists and atheists) who fall on either side of this argument and so this assertion was a little disappointing. This was posited right before he moved on to the Big Bang so perhaps it was an attempt to portray atheists as non-scientific.
The fact of the matter is no one knows whether the universe is infinite or not. Get used to this phrase because I’m probably going to use it a few times over the next few entries. There is stuff we don’t know; the more we find out the more we realise just how little we really do know. Making up explanations may feel satisfying but it’s not going to get us any closer to the truth.
Back to the issue of infinity. Craig argues that the concept of infinity is an absurdity in terms of logic because, for example, if you minus four from infinity you are left with infinity. And I tend to agree in principle. But there is a problem with how he’s come to this conclusion because he’s used a finite number in relation to an infinite one.
Because whenever we talk about infinity we refer to it in finite units (like time or numbers or oranges) we think that because we can just add or subtract one more as we might do in the real world that it logically follows that we could continue to do so if we had unlimited time, numbers or oranges. Which might be a bit of a circular reasoning because we’re giving ourselves infinity to prove that infinity exists.
Another angle is that if infinity in relation to time is defined as “for the full extent of time” and time can in fact be created then it would also be reasonable to define infinity as from the creation of time to its destruction.
Einstein came up with some theories where mass is equivalent to energy (and vice-versa… I can cope with this one) and – head-hurtingly – where time is equivalent to space (and vice-versa… aaaarrgh! What?!). I don’t even know what to make of this so if anyone has a succinct way of explaining the concept of “spacetime” please feel free to enlighten me.
Hawking has a nice little analogy about the limits of a dimension which I’ll see if I can completely mungle:
If a two-dimensional critter were sliding around on the face of our planet and were asked what’s south of New Zealand it would list Stewart Island (technically incorrect but we’ll leave it be because it’s just a two-dimensional critter) and then Antarctica and, finally, the South Pole. We can almost sense its outrage and confusion when we tell them they can’t go any further south than the South Pole but the fact is, within these dimensions there really is no “South of the South Pole”. Now shift the question up a dimension or two. When I ask you what happened before World War 2 you will list a number of events that occur back in time along the time axis (i.e. just like the “south” axis) until you get to a point where time starts or comes into being. Yes, we are outraged and confused when we are told that there is no such thing as “before time” because everywhere we look we can see a before, a cause. But the truth is that you can’t continue to use the word “before” once we’ve hit this point.
I don’t know if analogies that include the concept of dimensions are any more valid than the keep-adding-an-orange ones. Perhaps our concept of “dimensions” are just another way our minds have to package information about the real world in an attempt to comprehend it.
I don’t know if time unfolded out of the beginning of the universe but as incomprehensible as it seems to me I can see from the example of my two-dimensional critter that my incomprehension doesn’t necessarily make the idea wrong.
For me, the concept of infinity is either:
- A trick of the mind that doesn’t ever map against reality. Perhaps our mind can conceive of infinity because our mind is self-referencing.
- A way of describing the extent of a dimension (like “south” or “before”) that can actually have a start and an end.
- That the universe is, in fact, infinite and that my mind is incapable of comprehending it beyond describing it in terms of finite units.
- Something else altogether… [insert your reasoning here].
For the sake of argument I’m more than happy to go with Craig on this one; the universe is finite. (Until I see further evidence – always a good disclaimer to add to questions of this nature).
A couple of weeks ago I purchased Carl Sagan’s 1979 TV series, Cosmos on DVD. Actually, it aired in 1980 but was filmed in 1979 and 1979 sounds way cooler than 1980.
It totally rocks!
Sure, he’s wearing beige and, sure, there has been progress in astronomy since the series was produced but I found myself learning plenty of new stuff with every episode. (Did you know that Eratosthenes calculated the earth’s circumference to within a margin of 5-10% back in 240BCE?).
What I love about the scientific method is that when done properly you present the facts as best you know them but remain open to future discoveries and you also disclose known weaknesses. In this series at the end of many of the episodes Sagan appears (looking greyer) with a “10 years later update” and very little of the original content needed revision. The only bit that stands out is that in one of the episodes he presents some of the experiments showing the creation of organic molecules in the laboratory and 10 years later added that they now believe it’s likely that the organic molecules may have formed in the icy bodies of comets.
Also, this was produced at a very uncertain time when the threat of all-out nuclear war seemed quite possible and many of his comments about the future of the human race are bracketed with “if we don’t destroy ourselves first”.
This series is a brilliant way to get an excellent perspective on our place in history and in the universe. It’s factual, balanced and remarkably well-produced. They even managed to avoid the temptation to use the snazzy synthesised music of the era (or is that ‘error’?) and instead opted for tasteful classical music.
Sagan had a very broad understanding of our universe and had a knack for presenting it in an extremely digestible way. With that understanding came an enthusiasm that remains contagious even after his death.
If you come across this series in your video store or for sale in a shop I’d encourage you to do yourself a favour and pick it up. And if you know me (this includes Dale, Ken, Frank and Jack), give me a yell if you want to borrow it and I’ll get it to you.