The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
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
Saturday, March 26, 2016
Philosophy ... Science ...

In my recent blog essay on “Meaning and the Universe“, I concluded that the ultimate meaning of the Universe and the ultimate reason why it exists is “relationship”. I didn’t elaborate on precisely what I meant by “relationship”, or why I thought that it might be the ultimate and most fundamental character of the Universe. My friend Mary wrote a response asking that I elaborate on this. She said that she generally favors the idea and noted that most scientists don’t seem particularly interested in pondering the nature of relationship within the workings of the physical world. Mary noted perhaps one exception, the 20th Century Jesuit biologist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Bottom line, Mary asked for “further elaboration of [my] tho’t on this topic”.

OK, Mary, thanks for asking!! I can’t say that I’ve fully thought this out and that I am ready to write and defend a thesis on it. But your question did inspire me to do some more work on what has basically been just a rough, intuitive notion rattling around in the back of my head, something that seems to have developed over time from the various readings and study efforts that I have invested into scientific and philosophic topics. Footnote, I’m going to try to discuss “relationship” without mentioning the word “love”, even though there is a strong and obvious link between the two. Many people equate love and relationship, and “love makes the world go round”, so doesn’t that prove it? Well, maybe it does in one sense, but I’d like to take a more generalized, abstracted and careful look at the notion of relationship and how it relates to “being, in general”. But by the same token, I don’t want to get bogged down in the swamp of relational ontology and Martin Heidegger’s turgid discussions of “being” and “dasein”.

Actually, I can’t pin the “relationship notion” on any one topic or any particular set of facts or ideas from science. Roughly speaking, it seems to be the one thing that survives after applying the acid wash of critical philosophical reasoning and empirical scientific study to the “longings within” that we conscious creatures often have, longings for meaning and purpose in an existential sense. I.e., it seems to me to be the one thing that survives after you apply the standard atheist/positivist toolkit to debunk religious miracles, historical myths regarding  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:47 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, March 20, 2016
Philosophy ... Science ... Spirituality ...

Long, long ago, humans trying to find their meaning in the greater order of things could take comfort in the Church-approved notion that the earth was the center of the cosmos. Copernicus and Galileo finally saw through that bit of wishful thinking, but for a few more centuries, the universe still seemed like a relatively cozy place. Only around 80 or 90 years ago did cosmologists figure out that the universe was vastly larger than anything we had previously imagined. The thousands of stars visible in the night sky turned out to only be a fraction of those in our Milky Way galaxy, and our Milky Way turned out to be but one of over one hundred-billion galaxies. And yet, at the same time, the universe turned out to be incredibly empty. All of the amazing things like stars and planets and galaxies were separated by huge, incomprehensible distances.

Our mythological sense of time turned out to be way off the mark too. The Bible deals in hundreds and thousands of years, but the universe turns out to be around 14 billion years old. Human-kind, and even the most elementary forms of life on earth, have occupied but a tiny fraction of that.

So, does the vastness of the cosmos prove that humans are basically meaningless on a universal scale, and that universe is obviously absent of an involved, intelligent and caring creator?

Many modern cosmologists embrace or are generally sympathetic with this viewpoint. For instance, physicist Steven Weinberg  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:11 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, January 21, 2016
Science ...

Ever since June, 2013 I’ve been discussing a possible new kind of fundamental particle that helps make to make up the universe, something that physicists call the “axion”. In a way, I am trying to anticipate the next big break-through in particle physics, something that you could perhaps look at as the next “Higgs particle” in terms of its impact on science and cosmology — and public understanding of all that stuff.

As you recall, the Higgs boson became a ’cause celebre’ in science a few years ago after the Large Hadron Collider in Europe had finally assembled conclusive proof that the little things actually exist. Many scientists had suspected that Higgs actually existed for many years before they were finally discovered (especially by the scientist who the particle was named after, i.e. Peter Higgs). The function by which they are most widely remembered by the public is the capacity to give certain kinds of particle the quality of having mass, i.e. that which causes them to accelerate gradually and resist sudden impulse when subjected to a mechanical force. Mass also allows a particle to be greatly influenced by gravity (although any particle with some sort of energy, be it mass or non-mass energy, will be affected by gravity). But they solve other problems too involving  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:03 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
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