September 24, 2017

Review: Denying Science by John Grant.

On Sale Now!

Ever wonder why smart people believe in dumb things? And we’re not talking the latest drivel about whose in rehab trending on Google or Yahoo, but how folks miss out on what should be basic scientific knowledge needed to interact in modern society, such as the Earth going around the Sun, man and dinosaurs occupying different epochs, CO2’s role as a greenhouse gas… [Read more...]

Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene.

Out now from Viking Press!

Out now from Viking Press!

 

   This week, we journey into the realm of the neurological here at Astroguyz. Don’t worry; like we do with everything in life, this one will have a cosmic twist… 

Our ability to read is a fundamental mystery of our brain and how we’re wired. Think about it; (pun intended) we’ve been human for millions of years, but only had written language for the last few thousand. Evolution and natural selection seldom work on such short time scales; obviously, our brain has learned to co-opt some of the pre-existing skills towards the ability to communicate and decipher language. But just how does the brain perform this lengthy interpretive act? [Read more...]

Review: 2010: The Year we Make Contact.

2010: The year we make contact. Original movie poster. (Credit: MGM).
2010: The year we make contact. Original movie poster. (Credit: MGM).
 

This week, we here at Astroguyz are going retro with our review. Way back in my pre-historic high school days (like, 1984), my friend and I went to see 2010: The Year We Make Contact  in our local theater. At the time, the actual year seemed unimaginably distant, a far future that we would never actually, well, live in… Well, 2010 is now here. So jJust how well does the movie stack up to reality? Of course, 2010 was the hugely successful sequel to Arthur C. Clarke  and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which dealt with space travel, artificial and alien intelligence, and the next step in human evolution. The concept was based loosely on the Clarke original short story The Sentinel, and the concept was that an alien intelligence played a hand in human evolution and had placed artifact(s) in the solar system that we would only discover when we were sophisticated enough to find them. Similar themes are further developed in Clarke’s outstanding Childhood’s End. In 2010, the film picks up nine years after the original mission of Discovery One, as a joint US and Soviet expedition is sent to salvage the site. The Jupiter system had yet to be reconnoitered by the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft when 2001 was made; 2010, however, incorporated images and data that by the 80’s were known.  The first movie also departed from the book, in that the final action sequence originally revolved around Saturn and its bizarre moon, Iapetus; the book 2010 centers, like the movie, around the Jovian system; the movie leaves out, however, the side plot of the Chinese landing on Europa.

The joint crew of the Alexei Leonov dock with Discovery, which is now coated with sulfur and spinning lazily above the surface of Io. 2010 is much more politically charged than 2001; it, like Ben Bova’s Millennium and Larry Niven’s Footfall  are very much a product of the end of the Cold War era and seem somewhat dated by today’s standards. It’s as if the world expected the Cold War standoff to be a natural state of affairs, ad infinitum. A cool nod to Clarke and Kubrick to this effect can be briefly seen in the flick, as both are depicted on a Time magazine news cover!

Of course, we’ve yet to reach Jupiter via manned spaceflight, or get back out of Low Earth Orbit, for that matter. We do have a continuous manned presence in space via the International Space Station, but the now defunct TWA has yet to offer commercial flights to the Moon. Of course, some things have come to pass; the average IPad now dwarfs the intelligence of HAL9000, and nearly everything is made of plastic… in fact, it’s amusing to see the scene with Dr Heywood Floyd on the beach, with what looks to be a mini Apple IIE  as what was envisioned as the ultimate in computing portability…. and of course, 2010, like most science fiction, totally missed cell phones, the Internet and the rise of Twitter which was just around the corner.  (Interesting side note: pay special close attention to the video monitors in both movies; 2001 made use of flat screen projection, while 2010 saw a reversion back to CRTs!)

Of course, both flicks predicted the rise of “video-phones” which we now have via webcams… like much technology; however, this didn’t take into account the human factor. People like the perceived anonymity that phones, cars, and comment boxes such as those that grace this site provide them; most only converse via teleconferencing when only absolutely necessary.

The brave new world of Io as seen by the Galileo space probe. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

 The film climaxes with an extraordinary event; the collapse of Jupiter to form a new sun in our solar system. Of course, whatever super-advanced intelligence performed this feat didn’t do it for our benefit, although it does avert a super power confrontation. As per consultations for 2001 with Dr Carl Sagan, alien intelligence is implied, but never seen. This saves both flicks from a perceived campiness that plagues much of Sci-Fi. “I was glad to see that some of my suggestions were taken to heart,” Carl was quoted in saying upon review of 2001. While stunning, just how a relatively low mass object such as Jupiter could sustain a fusion reaction even after ignition isn’t addressed, but I doubt the Europans care as they are now suddenly the mystery aliens’ favorite sons…

Do catch 2010 if you haven’t had an opportunity to do so; it’s currently up for instant viewing on Netflix. And to see how the drama ultimately plays out, be sure to read Clarke’s two additional novels in the saga, 2061 and the somewhat anti-climatic 3001. The future is may be now, as the calendar reads 2010… any Vegas odds on when we’ll make contact?

The bizzare world of Iapetus, the original setting for 2001. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed; A Review.

This one will be a tough one for us here at Astroguyz to review; faithful followers of our blog already know our stance on this issue. We’ll make every attempt to be as even-handed as possible and not hurt too many feelings.  Recent court rulings threw Intelligent Design (ID) out of the classroom. And yet the debate persists and continues to pop up world wide; should ID be taught along side of Evolution?

[Read more...]

Election 08′; What About the Science?

Ok, this week, Astroguyz will get political. I promise not to bludgeon my fans with it like the rest of popular media.

We here at Astroguyz decided to do this piece not just to jump on the election year band wagon, but as an effort to educate ourselves. Frequently, we hear much talk about Iraq and the economy during an election, but little about science. [Read more...]

Evolution versus Creationism; is There a Common Ground?

Evolution, like capital punishment or gun control, is one of those dirty issues that tends to polarize people. The very word “evolution” conjures up images of apes turning into men and atheists with hidden agendas. Creationism, like wise, brings up ideas of book burnings and backwoods fundamentalists. Both lead toward opposite ends of the perceived spectrum; you’re either totally in one camp or the other. No middle ground exists. Any consenting towards the other side is seen as “giving in” and letting them get their collective “foot in the door”. Soon, it is reasoned, we’ll all be godless pagans or a theocratic dictatorship.
Reality, I’ve always found, lies somewhere in the gray middle. Not all scientific theories are comforting, but then again science never promises such. Perhaps life on Earth really is a random fluctuation of an infinite norm and there is no frame of reference in which we can ask the really big questions such as “why are we here?” though I doubt science in of itself can ever prove or disprove that. It is also true that there is a definite spiritual component to mankind that we can never truly deny. A universe of simple hydrogen atoms didn’t have to become this complex. Perhaps there is an afterlife; I would prefer not knowing. Kind of like the American Indian belief in the “great unknown”. I haven’t seen any secular reason to believe that any particular religious franchise has a corner market on things.
This polarization can also have disastrous consequences. Denying knowledge accumulated by scientists is causing America to lose its competitive edge. Its as if there are gaps in our knowledge, areas posted “do not enter” in our intellects. In the early 20th century, the Soviet Union sought to sensor Mendelian genetics because it did not fall in line with communist credo of material dialecticism. The result; the Soviet Union severely began to lag behind the world in crop production. America now faces the same challenge; if we don’t come to grips with the issues posed by evolution and stem cell research, other countries will (or will have had?) passed us by. The future may not belong to he who has the bullets and bombs, but the information and knowledge.
So, what does all this have to do with astronomy? Evolution dovetails with the topic of the big bang and cosmology, which in turn fall at odds with biblical literalism; some do not find comfort in a universe more than 6,000 years old. Evolution and astronomy also tie in to exo(or astro) biology, itself an emergent science. It we do discover aliens, be they microbes or demi-gods, it will surely trigger an instant re-write of both evolution and creation. Thus far, we have a biosphere of exactly one to draw conclusions from.
But who is to say that evolution isn’t just a tool that a creator uses and operates by? Who is to say the conflicts in time-lines aren’t metaphorical? As science gains ever more knowledge, a “God of the gaps” emerges. Granted, the circular logic used in most religious dogmas guarantee that they’ll never be conclusively proven or disproven. “Proof denies faith,” becomes the battle cry, and causes many a scientist to turn from public discourse on the topic. Carl Sagan noted that it’s hard to verify the “dragon in the garage” hypothesis if every time you devise a test to detect him, a reason it will fail is discovered.
A “proof” of creationism reared its head recently that I’d like to illustrate. The rare Parrot Orchid of Thailand has the uncanny appearance of, well, a miniature parrot! How one might ask, could such a thing occur if no creator was evoked?

First, remember that evolution is basically the function of two forces; death and time. Lets say that millions of years ago (flowering plants appeared right after the Jurassic Era), an orchid emerged via random mutation that vaguely had the markings of a parrot. Now most mutations are detrimental, and only very occasionally does one emerge that is beneficial. But in this case, the markings prove attractive to a key pollinator; the jungle parrot. The genetic message is clear; the more you look like a parrot, the more likely you are to pollinate and spread your own genes. Orchids that do not attract pollinators leave no offspring. Eventually, a genetic arms race ensues; orchids are slowly shaped via occasional beneficial mutations to look more attractive to parrots.
Of course, flowers are not men; the issue of apes evolving into modern man is a bit more sensitive. To be sure, modern day chimps are not our ancestors; species that gave way to homo sapiens are long gone. In any event, most people confuse Darwin’s Origin of Species with a later work, the Ascent of Man. Darwin, far from having an “Atheist’s agenda” was actually an Anglican minister. Sometimes the truth hurts, although I fail to see that evolution, understood properly, cheapens life or makes reality any more bleak. If anything, I see only the sweet preciousness of the small sliver of time and space we now occupy.