The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Saturday, March 3, 2018
Current Affairs ... Science ... Society ...

When I was a kid growing up in the 1960’s, and even in the early 1970’s during my college years, the American space exploration program and its lead agency, NASA, was a really formidable institution. After all the exploding military rockets of the 1950’s, NASA managed to safely get men into orbit, and then on to the moon. They shot up plenty of orbiting satellites doing all sorts of cool things, along with interplanetary exploration probes out to Mars and Venus, even Jupiter and Saturn. And they were coming up with uses for space that had more immediate benefits, such as communication satellites providing instant phone, radio and TV signals across the globe, along with improved weather observation. And of course, there was the critical national security need to spy on our enemies with a celestial eye-in-the-sky, so that we could end our risky surveillance flights (remember the Cold War hub-bub over the Gary Powers U-2 shoot-down over Russia in 1960). NASA back then was something for Americans to be really proud of.

And yet, as the 70’s became the 80’s and 90’s, and then a new Century was born, NASA lost its luster. The Space Shuttle seemed like an interesting step, but it didn’t really go anywhere; it couldn’t get out of low earth orbit and head for the moon or points beyond. In 1970, you would have expected that by 1988 and 1998, the Shuttle would be a bit-part actor in a bigger play involving long-range missions to the nearest planets and asteroids. But that just didn’t happen. The Shuttle helped give us the International Space Station, which has done a lot of good stuff; but ISS Freedom was not the staging base for missions (manned and unmanned) to far-off destinations, as we were promised when we were children. And then of course there were the two lost Shuttles. NASA had clearly fallen from grace.

And today, NASA doesn’t even have the Shuttle. It still has a fairly robust planetary exploration portfolio, including several soft-landing robotic missions to Mars, and a recent probe that made a close pass to Pluto. Its biggest public success over the past generation was probably the Hubble telescope satellite. The Hubble returned all kinds of deep-space images of galaxies, space clouds and clusters, which amazed and intrigued so many people.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:17 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, December 3, 2017
Brain / Mind ... Science ...

I haven’t said much lately on one of my favorite topics, i.e. the nature of human consciousness. That’s because lately, there hasn’t been much new to say. I try to keep up with new developments in thinking about consciousness (thinking on the academic level, not the “woo-woo” stuff), but to be honest, most of what I see in the science press these days is just a rehash of arguments and positions that were available 10 years ago. It seems to me as though the understanding of consciousness by scientists and philosophers is in a holding pattern, like airplanes circling around above a fogged-in airport.

The neuroscientists keep trying to chip away at the problem with their experiments and empirical findings. I recently saw an article about a recent empirical study that seemed to support the theory that consciousness is “epi-phenomenal”, i.e. it doesn’t affect human behavior. It’s sort of a side-show, because the sub-conscious is where the real decisions are made, outside the light of awareness, in a computer-like fashion. The article is called What If Consciousness Doesn’t Drive the Mind?, by UCL Psychology Professor David A Oakley and Cardiff Neuropsychology Professor Peter Halligan. The study in question involves detailed brain activity scans comparing volitional movements of the arm with non-volitional and hypnotically induced movements.

What I found most interesting about the article was the following section title and paragraph:

What’s the point?

If the experience of consciousness does not confer any particular advantage, it’s not clear what its purpose is. But as a passive accompaniment to non-conscious processes, we don’t think that the phenomena of personal awareness has a purpose, in much the same way that rainbows do not. Rainbows simply result from the reflection, refraction and dispersion of sunlight through water droplets – none of which serves any particular purpose.

I found this to be an ironic example of where scientific reductionism can lead us. I.e., both consciousness and rainbows don’t have any purpose. But wait – most anyone with feelings who has viewed a rainbow can tell you  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:15 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, October 7, 2017
Philosophy ... Science ...

Between any two pure states there exists a reversible transformation. If one requires the transformation from the last axiom to be continuous, one separates quantum theory from the classical probabilistic one.

This is an interesting quote from an article about “Quantum Theory and Beyond”, and is found on the arXiv repository. “Continuous transformation” may seem like trivia to most people, but a big question about the universe and reality lies behind it. And that question is this: is reality discreet, digital and mosaic-like, as quantum physics implies (recall that the “quantum” in quantum physics is a set fixed unit of transaction, no lower value is possible)? Or is reality continuous — which requires infinity, given that you need an infinity of numbers to properly describe any variable in the state of a continuous system, and the number of different possible states of that system are also infinite.

So, is there infinity in the world? Does physics require or at least hint at the presence of infinity? Recall that I had previously discussed whether reality is ultimately cubist or continuous, about 11 years ago. If physics does require infinity (e.g., the inflation paradigm in cosmology has certain versions that require “eternal inflation” with an infinite number of universes), that could have some interesting metaphysical and even spiritual implications.

Or, by contrast, is the world just some arrangement of building blocks which you can’t break into, mosaic chips that you cannot see inside, cannot know what goes on within (sort of like a black hole), there cannot be any interact with smaller chips of the basic mosaic piece? Black holes suggest that this might be true (i.e., the theoretically infinite “singularity” within the black hole is completely cloaked from the universe, and might as well be thought to not exist, just as the “inner divisions” of a quanta are ultimately irrelevant). If so, then perhaps the boffins will eventually be the masters of the universe, since there is ultimately a limited number of things to know — perhaps that number is still quite staggering, but in theory anyway, it might ultimately be investigated and somehow understood. If that is true, this would be the end of metaphysics.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:08 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Outer Space ... Science ... Society ...

Nor will any vicious beast go up on it;
These will not be found there.
Isa 35:9 (NASB)

There’s an interesting article in the May 2017 edition of Scientific American that might interest those of you who are “dog people”. The title of the article is “How to Build a Dog“. No, it’s not that scientists are now so far advanced with DNA manipulation and life incubation techniques that they can custom-design a dog, and then use CRISPR, stem cell activation and artificial incubation technology to grow that customized dog in a lab. No, we haven’t gotten to the point where you can custom order your next dog, mixing and matching features as if selecting from a Chinese restaurant menu, Say, for example a miniature German Shepard with long, fold-over ears, a fuzzy tail, and shaggy white fur with brown patches.

The SciAm article is really about foxes. A number of biologists and naturalists over the years have tried to take foxes from the wild and teach them how to live with human beings. These attempts have generally failed; foxes just have too much “wildness” inside of them. However, one long-term scientific experiment based in Siberia actually has been quite successful in creating a different kind of fox, one that is similar to your average run-of-the-mill pet dog. This experiment was begun in the 1950s at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics at Novosibirsk by a Russian geneticist named Dmitry K. Belyaev. The SciAm article was written by Lydmila Trut, who started working for Dr. Belyaev in 1958 as an intern, and took over the project following Belyaev’s death in 1985. Dr. Trut gained her doctorate in evolutionary genetics and now at age 83, continues to direct the domesticated fox program in Novosibirsk.

The program was quite successful. The SciAm article describes the looks and behavior of their current generations of foxes (and provides pictures), and the parallels with dogs are quite amazing. These foxes like being around people, they want to be petted and have their bellies rubbed; they wag their tails and follow  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:06 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, March 16, 2017
Outer Space ... Science ...

One of the biggest trends in astronomy in the modern era (say since 1950) has been the decreasing reliance on visible light, and the increased reliance on waves that we can’t see, to observe the cosmos. Our ground observatories and now our in-space observatories look more and more at X-rays, radio signals, ultraviolet rays, infrared radiation, microwaves, and high-energy gamma rays in order to figure out “what’s out there”, and what is it doing.

Over the past century, humankind has come a long, long way in what it knows about the cosmos, including how it started and how it’s probably going to wind up A lot of that was made possible by all of the information gathered through these various non-visible observation techniques. Even more will be learned in the near future as our scientists figure out how to detect “gravitational waves“. Those can help us to learn a lot about exotic stuff like black holes and neutron stars and maybe “cosmic strings”. Oh, another cutting-edge technique — observing neutrino particles from space!

Since 2001, the radio astronomers have had an interesting mystery on their hands. They have occasionally recorded very brief but very powerful radio signals coming from beyond the Milky Way. They call these “fast radio bursts“. Since they come from so far, far away, beyond anything that can be observed with regular visible light, the origin of these bursts are not apparent. Different astronomers have different theories on this, but  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:45 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Outer Space ... Science ... Society ...

There are a lot of differing opinions today among astrobiologists and planetary specialists as to whether life is common in the universe, and how many intelligent and sentient life-forms (like humans) are out there in the heavens. On the one hand, paleontologists, biologists and geoscientists have found over the past twenty years or so that life forms can flourish in very harsh environments, places with little or no light or oxygen and very cold or very hot temperatures, even places with relatively high exposure to ultraviolet or radioactive radiation. Of course, most of these life forms aren’t much more than very simple one-celled germ-like things. But they are alive.

Furthermore, the accelerating pace of exoplanet research and discoveries have allowed the detection of a rapidly increasing number of planets whirling around far-distant stars. Our scientists have learned how to distinguish rocky Earth-like planets from “gas bags” like Jupiter and Saturn, and in a few years they might even be able to detect whether these planets have an atmosphere, and what kinds of gasses are in that atmosphere. The boffins are obviously very interested in finding out how many “second Earths” are out there, rocky planets of near-Earth size orbiting a bright but stable star at a distance where liquid water could exist and where a favorable atmosphere could form. Again, we are still some years away from being able to pinpoint such stars and planets, but thus far, a large number of candidates have emerged.

So, given that life can form even under very tough conditions, and given that “habitable zone” planets may relatively common in the cosmos, many scientists are coming to believe in a “cosmic life imperative” in the Universe. But recall that all of this was “on the one hand”. On that other hand is the increasing realization that  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:49 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, October 23, 2016
Politics ... Science ...

It looks like America will not wake up this November 9th to the prospect that Donald J. Trump will be its next President. [Nov 9, 2016: OUCH!!] But Trump is not the kind who will just fade as the political sun sets over them, as with Mitt Romney, Bob Dole and Al Gore. So a lot of pundits have been discussing where Trump goes next. Most seem to agree that if Trump can’t be President of the US, he will then try to become the President of a Trump TV Network.

Joe Klein just posted a good article in Time Magazine which outlines the rationale for a post-election Trump TV network, and what it will look like. It will probably be a combination of politics, reality TV and extreme fighting. Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and Laura Ingram will no doubt be a big part of it. I’ve been listening to Hannity’s radio talk show on my way home from work for the past year or so, and it became clear to me by the third or fourth month that Hannity is more of an an entertainer than a legitimate news reporter or a political analyst, despite his current pretensions with Fox News.

As Klein cogently observes

Trump’s campaign orbit–a ridiculous political operation–looks far more plausible as a communications company: Steve Bannon of Breitbart, Roger Ailes and Roger Stone . . . We’ve been heading this way for a long time: a fusion of politics and entertainment, a political party that’s also a network that’s also a reality-TV show.

Well Joe, remember that  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:56 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, September 11, 2016
Current Affairs ... Science ...

I’m in the mood for another science post right now, so . . . what to talk about? OK, maybe space exploration. NASA had a good rocket launch this past Thursday of the OSIRIS-REx spaceprobe, which hopes to fly out to a big asteroid called Bennu and grab a small sample of rock or dust or whatever from its surface. If all goes well, OSIRIS-REx will return this sample to earth in 7 years. It will take OSIRIS-REx about 2 years to reach the asteroid, which orbits the Sun in the space between the Earth and Mars.

It takes a long time for spaceprobes to get anywhere in the Solar System. We don’t have rockets big enough to launch a probe with all the heavy-weight scientific do-dads that you want it to have, and at the same time give it enough fuel to keep on accelerating towards its intended destination. Most long-distance probes, including OSIRIS-REx, have to loop back towards the Earth over the first few months of its flight so as to get a “fly-by” boost from the Earth’s own gravity. This is in ingenious way to get the speed needed to sling a spacecraft out of the Earth’s neighborhood, but it sure makes the flight take a long time.

NASA and other nations and organizations concerned with sending space missions across the Solar System would love to have a light-weight method of continually accelerating a spacecraft after we launch it into space, so long as it doesn’t use much power and thus won’t take up a lot of room and weight for extra fuel or batteries. Even if the thrust amount was tiny, so long as it was continual it would gradually build up speed in the probe, faster than a loopy fly-by could do. You could cut off a number of months, maybe even more than a year, from a mission like OSIRIS-REx, if you could tack such a device on it (again, so long as it didn’t significantly add to the size and weight of the spaceprobe).

That’s why there has been so much buzz in the last few weeks amidst the space-heads and with interested physicists in general, regarding a possible way of doing exactly what I just described. The new “device” is generally know as “EM Drive“. The more precise name is “radio frequency resonant cavity thruster“. I’m not going to try to explain precisely what this is and how it supposedly works, but it has to do with microwave generation, using the same kind of “magnetron” that’s inside the microwave oven right there in your kitchen.

Your own microwave oven creates  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:05 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Science ... Zen ...

Way back when I was in high school and college, I took a handful of courses on chemistry. And I thought they were generally interesting, although to really understand chemistry and get a good grade, you had to put in the time and get your mind up to speed on a lot of different scientific concepts. And then figure out how they interact and come together in making up the raw materials that form the world around us. That’s chemistry — pretty neat, and the labs can be fun, but still a lot of work.

I don’t have much need to understand chemistry in my old age, but once in a blue moon I might still come across a factoid or two that renews the bond that I once felt for the subject of chemistry (recall that a big part of chemistry involves how the “bonds” between atoms and molecules work . . . so yeah, this is a rather feeble attempt at humor on my part). I’m still an “eternal student” and I still watch or listen to the recorded courses offered by The Teaching Company; right now I’m half way through “The Origins of Life” by Professor Robert Hazen. I thought that this course would be a sleeper, but Dr. Hazen makes the subject surprisingly interesting. His enthusiasm for the work and research that he does in the scientific field of how living things work and how they got started eons ago really comes through. (Here’s a 1-hour You Tube freebie from Hazen on this topic; so I’m not shilling for TTC here, but if they’d like to make me an offer . . . [SMILE])

In Dr. Hazen’s enthusiastic quest to help eternal students like myself learn more about how living cells may have first formed back when the earth was young, he has to tell us about the most important chemicals that make life on earth possible. And one of the top 3 chemicals for that is water — agua, good old H2O. (Carbon is certainly also in the triumvirate, and the third member could be iron — which is what makes your blood red and  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:35 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Current Affairs ... Science ... Technology ...

I regularly peruse the Real Clear Science web site and usually open up two or three articles from their latest daily list of interesting science articles. A frequent theme of the articles that the RCS editors select for their list regards “how the world could/might/will end”. If you are in a gloomy mood, then you can find examples of such articles here and here and here and here and here.

A few days ago, the RCS daily list included an article from the Science20 web site entitled “Could Anything Make Humans Extinct In the Near Future?” The author (Robert Walker, an inventor and computer geek) reviews more than fifteen possible candidates, including climate change, a comet or asteroid strike, pandemics, overpopulation, runaway nanotechnology, nuclear war, etc. According to Walker, the human race is pretty hard to kill. Many of the candidate “extinction events” could severely reduce our numbers and would probably end civilization as we now know it; but somewhere on the planet, a band of humans would mostly likely live on despite all the calamity.

(FOOTNOTE, strangely enough, Walker did not consider an H-Bomb “Doomsday Machine” like the one in the movie Doctor Strangelove. But then again, in that movie, the good Doctor himself came up with a way to save humankind with a scheme to send small groups to live in caves for the next 25 years. So perhaps Dr. Strangelove was just another example of how hard it is to totally eradicate the human species.)

Overall, Walker seems pretty optimistic that the homo sapiens species is quite robust and thus is not headed for extinction in the foreseeable future. However, there is one thing that does seem to scare him. And if  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:30 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
To blog is human, to read someone's blog, divine
NEED TO WRITE ME? eternalstudent404 (thing above the 2) gmail (thing under the >) com - THE SIDEBAR - ABOUT ME - PHOTOS - RSS FEED - Atom
Church of the Churchless
Clear Mountain Zendo, Montclair
Fr. James S. Behrens, Monastery Photoblog
Of Particular Significance, Dr. Strassler's Physics Blog
My Cousin's 'Third Generation Family'
Weather Willy, NY Metro Area Weather Analysis
Spunkykitty's new Bunny Hopscotch; an indefatigable Aspie artist and now scolar!

Powered by WordPress