In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


The Hitch List

I attended the 2011 Texas Freethought Convention in Houston this weekend, and while I was not able to spend as much time gathering viewpoints as I might have liked, I did attend the awards banquet in which noted writer and activist Christopher Hitchens was awarded the Richard Dawkins Award for  outstanding contributions to freethought.

Whatever you may think of the views and positions of these two men, they are both unquestionably among the most erudite and gifted writers of our age, and it was a privilege to see them both speak. More than that, it was a wonderful illustration of the civility and compassion to which humanity aspires, and so seldom attains.

Mr. Hitchens, who has not been able to make a public appearance for some time due to his on-going cancer treatment, was most eloquent and giving in his willingness to entertain questions even in his obviously and admittedly weakened state. At one point, a little girl asked him what authors he would suggest for her education, and he told her that he would be happy to meet with her mother and write down some recommendations.

I was planning to sneak out and get home to the babysitter, but when I left the hall I found Mr. Hitchens sitting down with the little girl and her mother.

He sat and talked to them for about ten minutes. It was very sweet. After he left for his car, I asked the mother if she would send me the list, which she very graciously agreed to do, and so here it is, from his notes and their conversation:

The Magic of Reality- Dawkins
Greek and Roman myths- especially those complied by Robert Graves
Other satirical works ( Montesquieu, Voltaire)
David Hume
Dickens- all, but especially a Tale of Two Cities
Ayaan Hirsi Ali- especially the beginning of Infidel where she speaks about her childhood
P.G. Wodehouse "just for a bit of fun" especially "Sunset at Blandings."

She promised to revise it with more details from the conversation when she gets home, and if she does, I will share it with you.

I will say that I do not agree with Mr. Hitchens in many regards. It is difficult, after seeing him speak, not to suspect that this may be in error. His is a formidable mind and talent, and the whole experience put me rather in mind of Franklin’s letter to a  nephew in which he gives his recommendations for a leaned man.

A most moving evening.



Mrs Crumpacker sent me a link to her very movig account of the evening.

P.Z.Myers on Combating Pseudoscience

I had the opportunity today to ask noted biologist and anti-creationism lecturer P.Z.Myers his opinion on the oft-repeated position that credentialed scientists should not confront creationists and other self-appointed science deniers on the theory that doing so only lends these people a facade of undeserved legitimacy.

He protested that this only applies to debate, and that it is the act of appearing on a stage with these people that creates an appearance of equality. Of course, if more of the population has a basic scientific education—that is to say, a basic understanding of the world they inhabit–then it would be the quality of ideas rather than the appearance of authority that would sway them—and there would be no creationists.

Was Einstein Wrong?

Physisists at CERN have spent 2 years trying to discover what went wrong. Neutrinos fired about 400 miles through the earth appears to have arived 60 nano seconds too fast — faster than the speed of light!

Aside from this startling result, the Neutrinos appeared to travel faster than the speed they were accelerated to. That’s actually far more intriguing, and it ultimately may point the way to an explanation. One such possibility is that some sort of stimulated emission is going on, that by interacting through the weak nuclear force, neutrinos are triggering neutrino emission a little ahead of where they are, and that little lead adds up. Since we know that the spatial position of a quanta is (to us at least) a probability function, and we know (from Young’s dual slit experiments) that these wave functions can interact across space, such a phenomenon is not unlikely. It would be cool, and it might allow information to travel a tiny, tiny, tiny bit faster than light, but it would not exactly overturn relativity.

Other possibilities:
1. Neutrino flux from the sun is interfering with the CERN beam.
2. The motion of the solar system is skewing the measurement (they probably already ruled that out)
3. As yet unidentified instrumentation problems.
4. Something is consistently disturbing the probability function all along the line.
5. Something neither I, nor anyone at CERN can even imagine. And that would really be cool.

We will see. Results like these are why we do partical physics.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

A forum that I frequent has polls and a neat little demographic feature that lets you see how different people answer a given question. Recently, the following demographic breakdown caught my eye:

This was a question about whether the wealthy engage in class welfare, so you might reasonably expect a shift in opinion based on education. Sample size is 41. Here, the actual answers aren’t as interesting as the distribution. With educational attainment, diversity of opinion increases.

I often argue that the truth is nearly always more nuanced than political polemic can accommodate. If we accept the notion that, on average, increased education correlates with increased knowledge of the world, then this supports my thesis.

Unfortunately, it also supports what the pundits and politices know so well–oversimplification sells.

What Would Jesus Think?

Continuing our theme of contrary conclusions from the same data, I recently ran across an interesting online debate between a Christian and a skeptic over the meaning of a passage from the book of Mark.

In Mark 7:7-8, Jesus tells the Pharisees that the washing of hands before eating is “the tradition of men”, not “the commandment of God”. He says that a man is “defiled” not by what he puts in his mouth (dirty hands) but by what comes out of his body (godly, actions). To modern ears, this seems like a rather mixed metephor,  because in 7:18-19 he specifically says “whatever thing entereth into the man, it cannot defile him, Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats”.

The skeptic paraphrased it this way:

“Got that? Eating filth does not make you a bad person because food cannot reach your heart…and because it will only be pooped out with the rest of the filth anyway.”

The Christian had, of course, been arguing for the traditional interpretation, the spiritual lesson of admonishment to follow God’s law over the traditions of man, and therefore to follow Jesus. This was, after all, long before germ theory, when the heart was held to be the seat of reason, and when both illness and insanity were widely viewed as the work of demonic forces. So it makes sense that someone living in that age would confound spiritual and physical “defilement” in this way.

But of course, as the skeptic points out, Jesus is claiming to be or to speak for the creator who knows everything and is not limited by the ignorance of the Iron Age. Surely, having warned his people against eating pork (a carrier of parasites) he would not so blithely dismiss gastronomic hygiene. And further, while on the subject, wouldn’t he have taken a moment to admonish his followers against eating improperly stored grain (with its incumbent risk or ergo-induced-lunacy, which due to further misunderstanding of the mind, was a cause of cruel execution all the way up to the enlightenment)? No. He wouldn’t, the skeptic asserts, because he was a man living in the Iron Age and, like Moses before him, had no access to any divine wisdom that might have raised him above the ignorance of the age.

Of course, none of these passages appear in any copies of Mark older than about 390AD anyway, so no one really knows what Jesus did or did not say. Perhaps he taught a course in pathogenic mycology at the local extension office and it’s all just gotten lost in translation.

Equity in Wealth

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that maurauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory…You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God Bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” Elizabeth Warren

This is not a political blog; it’s a blog about reason. I am not Republican. I am not a Democrat. I have voted for both. I have an MBA and know a little about economic theory.

Captialism works. Government should indeed be very sparing in interposing itself into markets. But as the robber barons taught us, unrestrained capitalism is at least as inefficient and corrupting as unrestrained socialism. There are those who wish us to see a simple, direct, and inverse correlation between taxation and prosperity. Reality is more nuanced. A wealthy man will spend just as much, and invest almost as much, whether he is taxed at 1% or 90%. A poor man CANNOT.

Yes, all things being equal, taxation reduces the money available for spending and reduces marginal return. But all things are not equal. And anyone trying to elicit your vote on the basis of this argument without considering elasticity is a propagandist who is not after your interests, but his own.

Laptop Lifts

It’s 11pm. Do you know where the feet off your netbook are?

When the engineers scaled down from laptops to netbooks, they forgot to account for scaling of the glue surface on the foot pads. You can use any adhesive known to science, they’ll fall off. Laptop lifts solve the problem.

I Know What I Know

Watch the following in its entirety before reading further.

In debates over belief, people often assert “I know what I know, and you can’t tell me I don’t”.

But do you? I–personally–have heard this odd sort of skepticism used to defend gnostic faith in phenomena as diverse as God, ghosts, UFOs, groundwater pollution, and Chupacabra. Don’t get me wrong, I am not asserting that any of these beliefs were wrong—but they were unfounded, at least on the grounds given.

Given what we now know about the functioning of the brain, it is clear that all experience is an illusion, or more accurately, a simulacrum, a shadow of meaning woven together from what the brain thinks is important. The video illustrates this in a fun way (concentrate on counting passes and you may miss the gorilla) but it’s much deeper than that. Right now, part of what you think you see is faked by your brain to cover the rather large blind spots in your field of view. A good portion of the peripheral vision you actually DO see is never consciously accessible, but IS available to help you avoid stumbling in the dark. Based on these revelations, can you really be sure of anything you observe?

The answer, flatly, is “no”, but returning to our theme of contradictory views, what are we to make of this new understanding? Some will assert that, since we cannot trust our observations, we cannot trust science to reveal the truth, since it is ultimately based on observation. But we have no other source of information except for observation. If you believe in God, you do so because you read of him in scripture, because you were told of him, because you intuit his existence, or because he speaks to you or makes himself known to you. These are all observations. All start with electrochemical potentiations within the brain, all are subject to comprehensible bias and distortion.

Given that the brain is clearly hardwired to find patterns and look for boogiemen, what are we to make of perceptions of ghosts or icons burned into toast or the cloud I recently saw, clearly “flipping the bird” at the one area of town that has gotten rain all summer long? And given our fear and our foibles, how are we to evaluate our experience of God or other intangibles against the claims of others?

Ultimately, the answer can only be careful observation. Call it science, call it prayer, or call it existential metaphysics. “Knowledge” not tested against the measuring stick of reality is sure to be mistaken, and prophets claiming knowledge “beyond measuring” are invariably false.

The theological implication, of course, is that belief in the truth should neither require nor admit of faith, and this runs in stark contrast to what many people have been taught. Still, we should not be bothered by this. God understands. He made us this way.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever

This is a wonderful illustration or how different groups can see common wisdom in radically different views.

This euphonious aphorism was recently used in a TED lecture and immortalized by Symphony of Science and YouTube. Usually atributed to Gandhi (the Mahatma) , it actually goes back at least to Saint Isidore of Seville (c. 560 – 636 in FPA Book of Quotations (1952) by Franklin Pierce Adams).

To rationalists, it is a fundamental truism, reminding us that our existence is precious and fleeting and made wonderful by rational inquiry and understanding. But to Isodore, who was perhaps the last of the ancient Christian philosophers, it was an equally fundamental truism meaning the exact opposite, that mortal life is an affliction, rendered endurable by piety and study of the scripture in preparation for eternity.

Both are right, even though both cannot be right, and handhi and Mohammed, who actually said very similar things, were just Johnny come lately.

Incidentally, the attribution to Ghandi is probably due more than anything to popular awareness (Isodore is not well known), illustrating yet another truth—opinion does not grow more correct with popularity.


50 Years Since Apollo

​​Uplifting space adventure with a

foreword by Astronaut Stanley G. Love