Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Otherwise, It'd Stop.

I was recently introduced to an article by Carlos Cunha called “The Myth of Infallible Science.” It’s easy to spot these bullshit “Well, science doesn’t know everything, therefore god” arguments from a mile off, but for funsies, I gave it a read. And thanks to the magic of the intertubes, you can too. (In case that link is no longer working:
He makes the mistake, very quickly, of bringing up the time when people thought that the Earth was flat. I love this story, because it’s one the best, most accessible stories on why science kicks so much ass. Let’s imagine a person living thousands of years ago who thinks the Earth is flat. Is she accurate? If we phrase this question as “yes/no” then, no, she’s not accurate. However, what if we asked, “How accurate is she?” Well, she’s about 99.9874% right.

Huh? How the hell can you say that the Earth is flat and still be mostly right? It’s pretty easy, so get ready for a “Hey kids, try this at home” moment. Look as far as you can into the horizon. Does that shit look curvy to you? No sir, that motherfucker be flat. In fact, the Earth curves about 8 inches for every mile. That's one inch downward for every 7,290 "flat" inches. So imagine looking a mile down an empty stretch of road and being able to see a Stretch Armstrong doll. The curvature of the Earth is extremely subtle, about 0.0126% subtle, actually.

So, our hypothetical person who thinks the Earth is flat is not 100% accurate, but she is completely correct in her thinking that the Earth is flat. She has used all the known methods of observations (in this case, her eyes) and has drawn the logical conclusion: the Earth is flat because it looks that way. Cunha is correct in stating that science is responsible for claiming that the Earth is flat. But he has neglected to mention that this actually damn good science. Had someone came along and said, “The Earth is round,” but could provide no evidence of it, he’s technically correct, but this is shitty science and nobody would take him seriously. The person who thinks the Earth is flat has observable, repeatable evidence, even if that evidence is “Just look at it, jackass,” so this is good science.

Of course, we got a little bit better and stated that the Earth was a sphere. Then we got a little bit better and stated that the Earth was a spherical obloid. Then we got a minuscule amount better and stated that the Earth is…some sort of shape that I believe doesn’t have a name, but always seems to include the word “pear-shaped”. And even that probably isn’t the end of the line. We will most likely revise that even more in the future. Anyway, there are two conclusions to be drawn here. The people who thought that the Earth was flat did not have their positions reversed, but instead revised. Remember, on the surface of the Earth, there are many, many more horizontal inches than there are vertical inches. We can say that science tends to make statements more accurate. Another point, one that I think that should have been very simple to grasp for a New York Times writer, is that science is based on evidence. When the evidence suggests that the Earth is flat, you have no choice but to go with that. If not, you’re just guessing.

And that’s another point I wish to make. Science is not infallible, sure, but guessing is just a big fucking rubbish heap. There have been a vast, vast number of bad guesses, and if you don’t use science, if you don’t follow the evidence, you’re left thinking that the world sits on the back of a turtle, or thousands of years ago the world was covered in a sphere of ice, or that Noah hung out with dinosaurs. In other words, science isn’t perfect, but she’s by far the best we got.

He brings up dark matter, which is actually not such a bad thing for his argument as the flat Earth thing. (I've even talked about dark matter before, and why it's a strange thing to think about.) Dark matter has only been indirectly observed. That is, nobody's ever seen anything from it besides the force it exerts on other objects (in this case, galaxies.) Personally, I think there are not enough reasons to declare that dark matter is real. However, it's still solid science, based on evidence and not guessing. So consider it like thinking the Earth is flat. Are we accurate in explaining this phenomenon? Probably not. Actually, most definitely not. However, we're correct in this line of thinking, because we have a theory that is in line with all observations. Give it a couple years and we're going to figure out something cool about galaxies that should change our minds about dark matter.

I hate to keep flagellating this deceased equine, but let's talk about the quote from Erik Verlinde that "Gravity doesn't exist." Now, at the time of this writing, I don't know what he's been working on to make him say this, but I can make a couple of good assumptions. First, Cunha is using this quote out of context to make it sound like scientists don't know anything. Oh shit, gravity doesn't exist, ergo everything we know is wrong. Cats and dogs living together, etc.. It's bullshit and anyone can see it. Second, I have a very good guess that Verlinde is referring to the force of gravity. It's not actually news that the force of gravity has been called into question, that is, the assertion that gravity is just a fundamental property of things, in the way that positively charged hair attracts to a negatively charged balloon. There's something called the Grand Unified Theory, which states that 3 of the 4 forces of nature are, in fact, the same force and the remaining, gravity, is some sort of loser oddball. There is also the theory of gravitons, which states that gravity is just the interaction between these particles and not really a force.

However, whether it's a force or a particle or the higgs boson or fairies, there is definitely something going on when an apple drops from a tree and hits the ground. Whatever is going on, we understand the rules well enough to put a man on the moon and a robot on Mars. A motherfucking robot on motherfucking Mars. And where how did we understand all these rules. Well, god gave them to us, bestowing the scientific knowledge that only a god can understand and sharing them with us in Genesis, Chapter 30. Oh, wait. That didn't happen. Turns out it was motherfucking science.

The mention about dinosaur bones reminds about some sort of point Cunha was trying to make about evolution. He says that usually these arguments come from Tea Partiers and creationists, and I agree. I’m not sure how you felt about yourself before you wrote this article, Cunha, but congrats, you’re in the company of these dumbasses now.

Anyway, he says that Darwin can't provide an adequate explanation of why some animals practice mimicry, looking like other animals. He's right, Darwin never really explained this, but then he overestimated humanity's intelligence and didn't think that she should have wasted everyone's precious time on something that I have literally taught a classroom of five-year-olds. Look, I even simplified into a little HTML-embraced graph for you:

Things that don't die ----> Things that have babies

Things that die ------X

Ok, it's a beautiful chart, I know, but dammit, Warzala, what does it mean? Well, let's break it down piece by piece. The first part says "things that don't die." Unfortunately, I have just hypocubed the situation by using a complex a phrase. I should have went with "Alive Stuff" to help you out more. Anyway, if a delicious animal looks like a scary animal, it doesn't die (it is now "Alive Stuff") and has a baby, which, through a series of chemical events that would be easiest explained by when you notice that your fucking parents fucking look like you, the baby now looks like a scary animal.

But let's go onto the second part of the graph, but this time with real world examples. I recently learned that the Atlas Butterfly can have wings that look like snakes. This protected it for enough moments for it to have a very special moment with a lady butterfly and then they made the sex and babies and so on and so forth. Now, let's say that at some point in the distant past, we had a butterfly with pattern on its wings, but instead of a snake, it now looks like a BLT. I think you'll agree that we don't see many BLTflies these days, and for good reason.

When people like you bring up dumbass arguments like these, it's usually because they have failed one too many middle school biology classes, and have a hard time understanding how a butterfly "randomly" looks like a snake. I'll try another method. It's like a game of roulette. For argument's sake, let's say you randomly place your chips on a number to place your bet. I say "for argument's sake" because there are only 27 numbers on a roulette wheel, and you might favor a particular one. In your sake, it would be your IQ. Anyway, the bet is placed randomly and the ball lands randomly, but can you say that one "randomly" wins, like money just gets thrown at people for no reason? Not quite. You have randomly acquired a benefit (the number you bet on) in a situation (the number the ball landed on), and, through the rules of the game, have won (sex).

I liked my old chart, but looking at how simple this point is and wondering how you could have possibly misunderstood it, I would like to modify it:

Things that don't die ----> Things that have babies

Things that die ------X

Things that didn't die, but should -----> Carlos Cunha

Moving on, to the most annoying part of the article.

At the end, he states that science can't answer two questions: "What is our purpose?" and "Why is there something instead of nothing?" This annoys me right off the bat because it's rhetorically inconsistent. Why did you spend an article talking about "Science thought X, but it's really Y," just to ask these two questions? Not only did they have nothing to do with everything else you wrote, but now I have to waste more of my (admittedly worthless) time arguing over them.

There's an important note I'd like to make, but I'll make it at the end. Let's instead talk about what does it mean that science can't answer these two questions. Actually, I would like to know, what does it mean if science can't tell me why there's something instead of nothing? Does that mean that science is completely broken? That means the laptop I'm typing on will stop working because it can't tell me what my purpose is? All airliners will plummet from the sky. Sorry Timmy, I know you were really looking forward to that insulin, but I don't know the purpose of your insulin, so...

Dear Carlos Cunha, you probably didn't catch onto the fact that I was being sarcastic during most of that last paragraph, so I'll answer my own question: nothing. Nothing will happen if science can't answer these questions. Everything will keep on working as it always has, despite douchefucks like you spreading your retardation to the far reaches of the pear-shaped Earth. We are still playing by the rules of the game by using science, and not knowing our purpose or why there's something instead of nothing will not change that.

Furthermore, just because something had an answer to this question does not necessarily make it a good one. If I say, "There is something instead of nothing because Zues/Allah/Yahweh/Whatever made it," is that satisfactory? What does that tell us, and how could you prove it? The reason that science is awesome is because it doesn't claim to know everything and because it tries to. It uses evidence instead of dumb guesses and claims that can't be refuted to learn about the way things work and keep gaining accuracy in its assertions. Saying, "There is something because of nothing because god made it so," is just a place-filler, and a boring one at that.

The most important point that I wish to make about these questions is this: They are dumb questions. Take "Why is there something instead of nothing?" It's easy to point out how pointless it is to ask this by trying to ask the reverse, "Why is there nothing instead of something?" If god is so smart, why make any empty space in the universe at all? BAM! Religion is broken! You're welcome, Hitchens.

I think a big problem is that people don't understand that the universe does not have feelings on the matter. For some reason, we tend to qualify "something" as being better than "nothing" but truly, Mother Nature does not give a fuck if there's something there or not. The thing's "purpose" is to do what the rules say it should do. If there is something there, then it will do X. If there is nothing there, it will do Y. That's all there is to it.

I'll make one final point before putting this idiot article into its moron bed. Let's say you see a rock on a beach. You wouldn't ask, "What is the purpose of this rock?" but instead "What can I do with this rock? What are its capabilities?" I want you to remember this example next time you try to ask about humanity's purpose.

This article has already crossed the 2,000 word mark, and my blood pressure cannot rise anymore without killing me, so goodnight.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Science Be My Shepherd: Introduction

Pretend for a moment that you don't know anything about science. Forget everything you've learned from grade school until this very moment. You know nothing about how your body works or germs or what foods to eat. You're clueless about the migratory habits of sea turtles, because even the information in Finding Nemo is too complex for you. You have no idea that the world is an oblate spheroid, and why would you? Shit looks pretty flat to me.

Now, take a look at the sun (carefully.) Can you tell me what it is? Of course not, since you know nothing about science. But then, it's got to be something right? There can't just be this huge ball...or circle...of something up there in the....something...without a reason. So go ahead and take a guess. Taking a guess is alright. It's better than alright, actually, this is how science gets started. Sometimes though, after taking a guess, people have this pesky question "why?" that pops up afterward and then they can't answer it. So they take another guess and make a whole narrative around their first guess. This story is called a myth.

So let's try it, remembering that we have no prior scientific knowledge. See what you come up with. To me, it looks similar to an eye, but it moves across the sky like a bird. So maybe it's the pupil of a gigantic dragon, the sky being its iris. Perhaps it is a ball of fire being thrown over the entire world by two giants in a slow, one-sided game of catch. Or is it the burning passion of a lover perpetually chasing her desire, the moon, only allowed to meet every eclipse. I could play this game forever, thinking of hundreds of different scenarios, and you could too.

There are two things to take away from this thought experiment of explaining the sun. The first is that each individual person can come up with many widely varying stories to explain anything they don't understand, and if we have large groups of people, there would be a vast multitude of myths, ranging in disparity. The second is that without any scientific knowledge or tools to make observations, there would be no way to determine if one was right. Since each culture, past and present, has had a large number of scientifically illiterate people, we can safely assume that there were many, many myths, and that the vast majority of those myths have died out.

So then how does one story come to dominate within a culture? Without science, we have no way of determining if a myth is true and therefore better, yet one myth out of many becomes the myth for a culture. How did one person's story for the sun become the story for his or her entire civilization? I believe* this happens as a coordination of three factors, probably occurring in this order.

One factor is that the myth must be in agreement, or least, more agreement, with the scientific knowledge available at the time. That is, you will have a better chance at establishing your myth if the two giants in your story are throwing a ball of fire instead of a cube of ice. It is more believable that the dragon is flying instead of burrowing underground. This also means that if scientific knowledge advances enough to show that the myth couldn't possibly be true, it gets abandoned or altered. If we find out that the sun is not made of fire, for example, and we know that it's made of plasma, then we either say that the giants were throwing plasma the whole time, or we just scrap the whole thing.

Second, the myth must be widespread, of course, so it requires public appeal. So, the story has to be cool. For example, my made-up story about the lover chasing the moon should resonate with everyone at least a little bit -- we have all felt like we were in pursuit of someone or something we will never catch. But a story that wouldn't resonate with you would be if I suggest that the sun is a wolf, trying to eat the moon, which is personified by a small child. When eclipses occur, this is the wolf succeeding in eating the baby. It's a disgusting, despicable story, and no one would opt for this one over the lover myth.

To use an example from real mythology, the ancient Chinese explained the sun as a phoenix. Long ago, there were ten of these birds and they would rotate out who gets to be the sun each day. It's a pretty sweet system, especially since we all know that phoenixes are lazy. Well, one day they decide to all go joyriding at once, so they take off at dawn and see what kind of trouble they can get into. As it turns out, one sun is enough for Earth, so when it got nine extra ones, it got all kinds of fucked up. In steps the personification of justice and archery skill, deciding that these silly little monster birds need to be learned a lesson. So, thok, thok, thok, he shoots nine of the birds. (Also, thok, thok, thok, thok, thok, thok.) After this, we have one phoenix left who is our current and only sun. To me, this story is considerably cooler than the three that I made up, so if someone relayed this to me, and again, bearing in mind I have no scientific knowledge, I would probably choose the bird story.

Third, for a myth to become the myth in a culture, it must be accepted by authority. It doesn't matter if authority hands down the myth or if authority accepts the myth after it becomes widespread. So, if there are many myths floating around in one culture, the one that is accepted by authority is the establishment myth, while everything else is the deviation from the norm (generally speaking.) Consider how the ancient Chinese would regard an ancient Greek in their midst. Both myths are equally valid (or, I should say, invalid) but the Greek will look like a weirdo for thinking that the sun is a chariot instead of a bird.

But then, there is a shortcut to succeeding in all three conditions, a shortcut that is better adapted to staying in control than just regular myths. I am referring to the religious myth. Just put the words "a god" or the word "god" into a myth and it conquers any nontheistic myth while rapidly becoming widespread.

Take our first condition about a myth dominating in a society: relative scientific accuracy. When dealing with gods of presumably omnipotent powers, anything is possible. One need merely offer the excuse "god did it," and no explanation is necessary as to how it matches up with current scientific understanding. When offering a god as a reason for anything, one can even claim the direct opposite of what is known by science. Don't believe me? Visit a creation museum. (Or, don't, actually.) Or, hell, you don't even need to do that, since some Christians believe that water is magic.

Religious myths shortcut the second condition of widespread appeal and acceptance by utilizing a reward/punishment system. The phoenix in China for example, doesn't really give a fuck if you believe in him or not. He's a bird. He's got bird problems revolving around bird business to worry about. But when a god steps into the picture, they are always excessively prone to flattery and extremely sensitive to people not paying any attention to them. You know, like a toddler. Anyway, let's take Helios, driver of the chariot of the sun in Greek religious myth. Helios actually cared about what people did and thought of him, and as a result, there was at least one cult surrounding him (with a big-ass statue to go with it.) It was a grave offense to deny or displease Helios, and was both naturally and supernaturally punishable. Anaxagoras, who lived in ancient Greece and was so fucking smart that he knew who "Anaxagoras" was, suggested that the sun was not a god named Helios or an extremely bright chariot, but instead a flaming ball of metal bigger than Peloponnese. He was sentenced to death.** Imagine how bad it would have been if he suggested that the Sun was a millions times larger than the Earth.

Religious myth can shortcut to authoritative acceptance in two ways. Leaders are always looking for magical ways to maintain or increase their rule (both in ancient times and recently.) It only makes sense to ask whatever supernatural force was popular at the time for help. Additionally, the appeal to secular authority wasn't necessary for the religious followers. It's an easy choice, really. Do you want a king or a god? So, if a leader didn't believe in your religion, it was unimportant because they were not even a god*** And there was even the creation of new authority in the forms of clergy, shamans, medicine men and...did I forget any? Whatever. They're all the same.

So, we have all these good reasons that religious myth should dominate any culture. But then, that isn't how it works now, is it? I don't put any virgins in my volcano when it's not raining. When I eat the heart of a duck, I don't gain his strength. I'm guessing you don't put blood on your door to keep angels of death out.

You may think that you're not being particularly smart when you think that putting a virgin in a volcano is a useless (and wasteful!) practice, but you actually are. In fact, by my calculations, you are smarter than 99% of all of the people that ever lived (Note: this is not real math.) You also probably don't even know how the computer you're reading this on works. I don't. I'm pressing a few keys on a keyboard that I don't understand, which goes through a computer I don't understand, which displays letters on a monitor I don't understand. The only thing I really get here is the letters, and even those are a little bit hazy sometimes. (I'm looking at you, lowercase L and capital I.) My point is, even though most of us don't understand how a computer works, we're pretty well convinced that it isn't magic. And it would be hard to make us believe that it was.

We're living in a significantly more scientific age than at any other point in history. Recently, I taught a science lesson to five-year-olds about the size and temperature of the sun. They are suddenly smarter than Anaxagoras was 2,000 years ago, and Anaxagoras was smarter than all the humans that lived for 198,000 years before him. These kids can barely not soil themselves with urine and they know more about the sun than the geniuses in ancient Greece.

And even though we're doing amazing things, and we are, there is still some room for improvement. In the words of Richard Feynman: "Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers: you are reduced to hearing not a song or a poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age."

The world is still captivated by myths. I don't sing songs and I don't write poems, but I want to explain and show that science is more captivating than religion, science is more enlightening than religion, science is more exhilarating than religion, and, most importantly, science is cool.

The title of this series of articles is "Science Be My Shepherd" and here's what I want to do:
  • I want to educate about science. This includes you, reader, but it also includes me. I learn more about things when I'm forced to explain it publicly, under scrutiny, and I have to learn enough about it to make it simple enough for your average internet user to understand. But I also want everyone to know about all the cool shit that exists in the universe.
  • I want to show how far we've come. Like I said earlier, my five-year-old students are suddenly geniuses as far as the ancient Greeks were concerned, who thought that the Sun was just a bunch of fiery horses. This is amazing, and I hope you realize it.
  • There is a huge discrepancy between what religions claim and what actually exists. If the universe was actually how the holy books say it is, it would be a significantly more boring place. It also should help show that myths like these are not divinely inspired, as they would not be so blatantly far off from the truth.
  • I remember a time when being an atheist was frightening, scary, and desolate. It was before I knew or understand how beautiful everything around me was, even the smallest things. I would love to show the incipient atheist what's really going on, and how amazing it is.

Of course, there are also some things that I will not be doing. They are as follows:
  • Sadly, no debates on whether or not religion is true or false in these articles. This just isn't the place for those things; that is not what I wish to accomplish here.
  • There probably won't be discussion on the morality of either religion or morality. I want to compare the awesome of science to the awesome of religion, and not what people should be doing.
  • I'm not trying to de-convert anybody to atheism. Again, this just isn't the place.
  • I'm not saying that people who believe religious myths are stupid. Technically, I am typing all this out, so it doesn't require me to say anything.
Each new article in the series will take a topic and compare the religious myth surrounding it with the current scientific understanding of that topic. I'm not a scientist, and I'm only barely smart enough to be called a "layperson": This is both a warning and a plea. I might represent something, even though I'm going to try damn hard not to, and also, if anyone sees an error in my articles (which will most likely be mathematical) please, I beg of you, let me know so I can fix it. If I do a decent enough job of explaining it, it should be apparent that science is clearly where all the cool things are happening, not with silly stories about guys on chariots.

* - Seriously, I'm just guessing here. I don't think it's a bad guess, but a guess nonetheless. I would love to hear alternative possibilities though.

** - To be fair, he got pardoned.

*** - Usually they were not a god. Sometimes they were.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sky Dragons, Part...Nothing

I wanted to finish this piece, but, the entire week was too busy. Life happens.

Next week.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sky Dragons, Part 2 - The Darkest Part of Nothing

Stick your arm straight to your side, like half a bird. Now, swing it around in front of you, like half a superman. Unless you did this wrong, or you don't have any arms, your hand should have moved much faster than your shoulder. In the same amount of time, your fingertips moved much farther than your elbow, and your elbow moved faster than your shoulder. If you had recreated this in 360 degrees, this is a lot how a planet rotates, with the outside moving faster than the inside.

This is, however, the opposite of the way a planet revolves. Assuming that most of the mess in a planetary system is in the center, planets closer to the center move faster than planets further out. Sorry. There's no cool arm trick to go with this one.

Think about it this way. Mercury is the fastest planet, going about 48 km/s. Venus is slower than Mercury, Earth is slower than Venus, and so on, until we get to Neptune, which goes only (only!) 5.5 km/s. Remember those certain types of donation boxes, where you put a quarter into a slot, then watch it “circle the drain” until it fell into a hole in the middle. The analogy isn't perfect, but it helps. The quarter (a planet) circles the gravitational hole (the sun) faster and faster the closer it is to the middle. Eventually, it's just a metallic blur dropping into a hold to feed starving children in the middle of the sun (or something.)

But that's the solar system, let's go bigger and talk about the entire galaxy.

Just like the solar system, the Milky Way is mostly flat. It is (as far as we know) 100,000 lightyears across and usually 2,000 ly “tall” with a 6,000 ly “tall” bulge in the middle. (Think of it like a crumbled-up fruit roll up sitting on top of a spread-out fruit-by-the-foot.) So, (as far as we know!) most of the mass in the galaxy is concentrated in the center, just like the solar system. And, all the stuff in the galaxy revolves around the middle, just like the solar system, except that it's a lot faster, and gets up to speeds like 230,000 km/s.

But here's the problem, the sun does pretty much what it's supposed to, but nothing else does. Everything else is moving around the center of the galaxy, but it's either too fast or too slow, depending on how far away it is from the center of the galaxy. Actually, things move a little bit faster than they should further away from the center, so it's more like the half-bird/half-superman trick, instead of the quarter circling the drain.

But it's not even that “clean” of a problem. Overall, stuff is moving not even close to the speeds they should. For example, an object 50,000 ly away from the center (at the edge of the galaxy) should according to the rules of “quarter motion donation” moving at a speed of 100,000 km/s. Turns out, it's going about 2.5 times as fast as that. For comparison sake, if the Earth did this, we would move at 74 km/s (much faster than Mercury) and have a year only 146 days long. The stuff towards the middle should be moving cartoonishly fast, but instead, is nowhere close to as fast it should be. They move at about 230,000 km/s (remember, Mercury moves over 9 times as fast as Neptune). This is the modern-day Neptune/Uranus wiggle problem and the Mercury perihelion problem.

So how should we approach this problem? Well, first and foremost, is our data and observations correct? Do we correctly see stuff further out than the galaxy moving fast than some of the stuff closer to it? Let's assume that our observations are correct and this is actually what we're seeing.

The next thing we do is apply the Neptune method, that is, apply old theories to make predictions about observations to be made in the future. And the old theory states that there should be a lot of mass outside of the galaxy.

How much mass? Well, remember that the stuff inside the galaxy is behaving nowhere near how it should; it is not a little wiggle. So it's going to take a lot of mass to set it right.

The hypotheses differ on how much mass, but they all agree on a lot. Some say five times as much, but for that extra wow-factor, we're going with the liberal estimate that there is nine times as much mass on the outside of the galaxy as there is on the inside. That's like saying that when you see Uranus move a little bit, it's not Neptune, but instead is nine more suns.

So, alright, we have now mathed our way into figuring out what we're looking for, where is it, and how much of it there is. Now, all we have to do is point our peepers into the right direction and say, “aha,” right? But, just like Vulcan, we don't see it. This is where dark matter comes in.

The idea is that the reason we haven't seen all this matter (nine times the amount of all matter in the galaxy, if you recall) is because it can't be seen. It emits no radiation whatsoever, so the name “Dark Matter” is actually a misnomer, as it would, theoretically, be invisible. If you were holding a lump of it in your hand, it would feel heavy (perhaps even very, very heavy) but have no temperature and you could see right there it. That's right. Dark Matter does absolutely nothing except conveniently solve this problem that astronomers have.

Here, I would like to take a moment to explain a few things. For one, I have done my absolute best to explain everything as best as I can, while still keeping things relatively simple. There is some more evidence for dark matter (and dark energy) that I have left out, because it's not important to the point I'm making (next week). For two, I'm not saying for certain that dark matter doesn't exist or that it can't exist.

What I'm saying, at this point, is that we need to look at the most likely scenario of what's going on, which may very well be that only 10% of everything in the universe can be seen. (There is some pretty strange shit in the universe, so this one wouldn't surprise me.) Or, it could be something else completely different (like the Mercury deal.)

I'll be continuing and concluding this series next week, as well as answering the question, “Why the fuck did you waste my time talking about Neptune and dark matter?”

Some Cool ThingsIII

"Our shouting is louder than our actions,
Our swords are taller than us,
This is our tragedy."
-Nizar Qabbani, from "Footnotes to the Book of Setback"

Gleen Greenwald, talk to us again about motive in terrorists, an idea that I hope is sinking in with my readers (Hi Mom!)
Jay Rosen on why the media suck-diddily-ucks and a quick suggestion for how to fix it.
Leonard Pitts Jr. on Obama's election and Reid's comments about Obama's election.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sky Dragons, Part One - No Butt Jokes

For most of human existence, we had no idea where Mercury really was.

Sure, we could look up at the sun and say, “thataway,” but beyond that, we were pretty much in the dark, literally. If you, for example, tried to draw a picture of Mercury as it appears in space, you would almost certainly be wrong or impossibly lucky.

The reason this happened for most of the time, was that we didn't really have a good system for determining where Mercury was, or would be, at any point in time. As a result, for quite a long time, we weren't even close; we thought it was going in a big circle around Earth, which was a cute idea.

By degrees, we got a little bit better. Copernicus figured out that Mercury wasn't really revolving around us, but instead the Sun. Newton learned (part of!) the system that governs how these planets move and for a short while, we kicked so much ass at astronomy.

"How much ass was trashed, Zala?” you ask. I would love to tell you. In 1781, we discovered Uranus telescopically. That is, we looked at it and said, “Oh. There's a planet there.” Pretty much the same thing happened with most of the other planets. About 40 years after we discovered Uranus, we noticed that it had an awkward kind of wiggle to it. Like Bill Cosby's jowls when he's talking about pudding. It was never “lost” but also never exactly where it should be. This is where the story gets cool (but only if you like math.)

In 1845, a very French person with the very French name of Urbain LeVerrier stood up and said, “Step aside. I'mma gonna math it up in this bitch.” (Translated directly from French.) He looked at a couple numbers...a couple hundred numbers...and hypothesized that there should be a planet beyond Uranus that was pulling on it gravitationally, making it wiggle. And, I hate to ruin the surprise for everyone, but he was right. Using proper observations, math, and good ole' fashioned French elbow grease, LeVerrier predicted the orbit and size of Neptune without ever observing it directly. (Chances are very good he was a virgin.)

I wish that my math skill was adroit enough to explain exactly how hard it was to find Neptune by seeing how much it pulled on Uranus, or even how small the pull was, but it's not. I can, however, explain it in simple terms and let you decide for yourself how hard it was: the sun is 19,764 times more massive than Neptune, yet LeVerrier found Neptune's pull on Uranus. That is how much we kicked ass in the 19th century.

Then, the 20th century came and things got screwy. Already there was a small problem with the orbit of Mercury. You should, if your elementary school was worth a damn, know that the orbits of the planets are not circular, they're elliptical, meaning sometimes they are closer to the sun than at other times. (Note: This is not what causes the seasons.) The earth, for example, is 147 million kilometers away from the sun sometimes, and moves back to the 152 million kilometer point ever year. With Mercury, the problem was not the distance from the sun, but the position in its orbit when it was the closest was inconsistent with Newton's laws by a small amount.

(In case you didn't understand that last sentence, imagine Mercury as the minute hand on a clock. It should be at its closest at 12:00, but instead it was closest at 12:05, to oversimplify and exaggerate the situation.)

When I say that this was a small problem, I mean it was a small problem The discrepancy between where Mercury should be at its closest point and where it was at its closest point was off by 1 degree...8,000 years in the future. In other words, every year, Mercury's point where it was closest to the sun was off by 0.00011944 of a degree. It is something that like this that you think would make an astronomer shrug and say, “Enh. Close enough.”

But not LeVerrier, oh no. Fresh off his stint of saying, “Dude, remember the time I predicted Neptune. Yeah. I totally called that shit,” for many, many years, he stood up, announced that he would once again math it up, and predicted that another planet existed between Mercury and the Sun. He even went so far as to name it Vulcan. The whole thing would have been awesome if it weren't total crap. Enter Einstein.

Einstein comes onto the scene and basically says, “Gravity: Ur doin it wrong.” And then he rofled.

I won't explain, at this time, how Einstein changed the way we think about gravity, but it's enough for now to say that he did. The rules completely changed, and in the new set of rules, Mercury was doing exactly what it should. So what is the lesson that we take away from LeVerrier's story? He encountered, pretty much, the exact same problem, twice, and approached it the exact same way, twice, but he was only right once. As Homer Simpson would say, “The lesson is, never try.”

Not quite. And this shows the two different ways that new science introduced. With Neptune, LeVerrier used existing theories to make predictions about observations. With Mercury, Einstein used correct observations to make new theories.

More on this in Part Two

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Some Cool Things II

"The joys os possession I have never felt very acutely. I find it hard to think of myself as the owner of anything. But I do tend to slip into the role of guardian and protector of the unloved and unlovable, of what other people disdain or spurn."
-JM Coetzee "Diary of a Bad Year"

The Dump
Pictures from the protests in Iran
Some more pictures from Afghanistan, something completely absent in US media, to my knowledge.
If I keep posting articles about this, will it make a difference?
Uganda and more Uganda
More on airstriking civilians (spoiler: it is bad.)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Martyrdom, Missing the Goddamn Point

This post occurred with very little forethought. As a result, the end product is a little messy. You have been warned (and probably didn't care.)

Something that I've always found very...curious is the way religious people will argue amongst themselves. It's interesting to see, and impossible to understand.
Take a quick trip down memory lane. Do you remember in 2002 when everyone was joking about how the terrorists thought they would have 72 (or 74 or 76) virgins when they entered heaven. It was hard to avoid comments like these and ever since then, people know exactly one (1) fact about Islam. Keep in mind that jokes about the virgins in heaven came from people who believe that cutting off the end of their dick and dipping babies in water will get them into heaven. Oh, those silly terrorists!
Another argument that I love to overhear is who has it the worst. When it comes to being religious, nothing says "legitmate" more than persecution.
Especially after Christmas, when I know that people said some dumb shit back in the States about Christians being persecuted for celebrating Christmas instead I'll be honest with you, this is another argument I don't understand. But for some reason, it's cool to point out how big your religion is, how popular it is, how it came directly from god himself, but that it is liable to collapse if people don't say Merry Christmas.
But, that's the argument itself, what I don't get is why this is so lauded over. I'd like to think (I'd love to think) that at most times, I have a handle on at least the general concept of what other people think when it comes to their behavior. (Full disclosure: Not true.) However, when it comes to this one, I don't get it at all. I don't see the benefit of knowing that people of your religion, growing up in places completely different from your own, have died. I don't get why religious people seem to almost celebrate these things, letting everyone know how much it sucks to be them.

Malaysian churches fire-bombed as 'Allah' row escalates

This is, the next "my religion is better cos we die the most" argument, so I would like to circumvent it as quickly as possible, in two ways.
First, one thing that I hate hearing from people is how bad "our" group has it when someone dies, because it's so close to being a conscious, genuine concern for the loss of human life, but falls tragically short. Suddenly, the thousands of people who die around the world every day for stupid reasons are not nearly as important as this one group of people, who are being becoming martyrs. I think that the people with moral integrity regard one life as being equal to another, regardless of how similar they may be to your nationality, ethnicity or religion. It seems so simple I can't even explain that any further than I already have.
Secondly, letting everyone know about how people of your religion have died have misunderstood why they died. Yes, it is true that people die because they are of a certain religion, but I would argue that is much closer to the truth to say that they died because they were not somebody else's religion. Had Malaysians died in this church bombing, it would be only in part because they were Christian, but mainly because they were not Muslim.
It is for this reason that whenever I hear theists telling me about how members of their religion have died that I can't help but think they just gave me another good reason to argue that there should be no religion in the world.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Some Cool Things

"The parable, in sense, amounts to this:
The honey of heaven may or may not come,
But that of Earth both comes and goes at once."
-Wallace Stevens, "The Monocle of Mon Ocle"
The Dump


I had slept in the other morning, by about 5 hours. It was more like a hibernation, since I was conserving my food rations (My dishes were dirty.) The heat for the water was, of course, not working in the morning, so I didn't step outside until 2 in the afternoon.
I dressed for January in Taiwan. Two jackets and gloves. The day was not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was much warmer than I expected, and traffic was nearly nil. My plan to drink coffee and write in a warm cafe was abandoned. I picked up a snack and a bottle of ice coffee and started driving, putting the gloves in the trunk and rolling up my sleeves.
My neighborhood is interesting in that it is no more than 10 minutes from the mountains, but is inside the city and with none of the qualities of a suburb. I pass the huge technology compounds on the way up, and then there's nothing but valleys and green.
I was surprised to learn that oranges grow in the winter here. I should have bought some. Coming around any given corner while going through the mountains, one will stumble an orange grove, sometimes with trees so overburdened with fruit, its branches are flirting with the ground. After my scooter broke down and I pissed on the side of the road, a family on bicycles passed me and gave me one. Unsurprisingly, it was as dense as stone and cold inside. I ate it as I watched the smaller birds playing in the high grass just before I went to go home.
I had spotted the family before the scooter broke. They were going uphill and not really enjoying it. I passed them at one of the higher points on the road, and parked to enjoy the view. They had stopped for a break at the place I was planning to sit and write, and they looked happy there. Rather than bother them, I got back on the scooter, which at this point would not start. The bottle of ice coffee made me want to piss.
Perhaps, I told myself, perhaps it just needs to cool. The roads are steep and I was driving for a long time. Besides, I could probably walk half a kilometer and see the river and write, away from happy families that don't wish to bothered with foreign assholes.
The roads on the mountains are circumscribed in that there are only three things that surround them: trees, walls, and cliffs. One doesn't consider these things unless there is a full bladder situation. Somehow, I found a short wall, jumpable, enclosed and hidden from the road by bamboo. After relieving myself on the trees, I realized that I was standing very close to a concrete walkway, leading in the direction of the lake.
I stopped to pick some of the purple, yellow, orange, red bursts of flowers that grew on this walkway. The place was tightly surrounded, so the citrus smell they gave off was enticing and warranted closer examination. I have also yet to reconcile the fact that I was smelling bright flowers in January, while the bees were loving them.
The break in the trees was what made me stop. I could see the lake. The path in front of me veered to the left, and its endpoint obstructed by trees, I romanticized an abandoned shack overlooking the water. I stepped forward, or maybe only shifted my weight and heard the rustling in the bushes to my right side. Animal? Bird? I stepped back to see what I had disturbed.
If I had startled something, I never saw it, but my attention was immediately focused on the spiderweb spanning the width of the path in front of me. Did I touch it just enough to move the branches, but not enough to get it all over me? It certainly looked less than pristine. I checked my clothes for unbidden guests.
Spiders are not my favorite member of the animal kingdom. In fact, they are one of the biggest fears I have. (Above them is flying and commitment. Below them is everything else, residing on a relatively equal plane.) It was enough to make me stop moving and very assiduously look around me. I heard bee wings. Were they coming from a previous unseen section? (No. Toying with the fauna on the forest floor.) I was still chary to step through the web, and knew I would feel better knowing what my arachnid foe looked like. My eyes scrutinized every strand before me, hoping to see my enemy.
When relating stories about insects, it becomes so effortless to exaggerate. The shock of discovering something grotesque multiples its mass in the mind's eye, for one. And for two, nobody really cares about insect stories unless they're gigantic insect stories. (The centipede corpse I unwittingly fished from a drain, mid-shower, has grown an inch for every year the story is told.) To me, I was Frodo in this equation, facing certain doom from the Spider Queen Shelob. As close to reality as I can describe it, the body was two of my fingers, with a wingspan of less than my outstretched (feminine) hand, and yellow joints on the legs. (Yellow joints! What biological purpose could an adaptation like this serve, save for the terror of fresh human prey? It was here that I had my first doubts about evolution and decided that it must be the dark lord guiding the growth of living beings.)
The remarkable thing about this day was not the weight of my eight-legged agitator, but that we so nearly ended embracing on another. One step forward and we would become a ten-legged unholy union, one in which this yellow-jointed fiend would love to see me dead in. (No doubt!) Vowing to, for once, not tempt fate, and allowing for the possibility that my romantic, empty shack overlooking the Taiwanese lake was home to monstrosities such as this, I turned heel and departed my secret walkway. I told myself that this would make a charming children's story, told in rhyming couplets, and ending in a spider-human friendship. I pictured the spider having an adorable accent and big cute eyes, but only because I could think of no other revenge to take upon him.