Thursday, February 28, 2013

Non Habemus Papam

Habemus Papam Emeritus. 

Adopt a cardinal!  And pray for His Holiness Benedict XVI!

If Al Haig were still around, at least we'd know who is in charge.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Unbelievers Misunderstanding Christian Attitudes About the Body

A little earlier I was looking for a quick overview of some of the writings of St. Hildegard von Bingen and found this.  It actually is helpful, but it seriously misunderstands Christianity, going so far as to say, "The vision thus supplies one possible answer to a question that must arise among all theists who denigrate the body...."  True, Christians mistrust the body when it comes to making important decisions, but we don't despise the body.  Do you despise your 4-year old because you do not allow him to drive the car?  But not only did St. Hildegard never regard herself as a "theist" (an odd modern invention designed to exaggerate the importance of atheists), but any moderately serious Christian knows that Christianity takes the value of the body for granted.
For the body also is not one member, but many. If the foot should say, because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?  And if the ear should say, because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were the eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God hath set the members every one of them in the body as it hath pleased him. And if they all were one member, where would be the body?  But now there are many members indeed, yet one body.  And the eye cannot say to the hand: I need not thy help; nor again the head to the feet: I have no need of you. Yea, much more those that seem to be the more feeble members of the body, are more necessary.  And such as we think to be the less honourable members of the body, about these we put more abundant honour; and those that are our uncomely parts, have more abundant comeliness.  But our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, giving to that which wanted the more abundant honour, that there might be no schism in the body; but the members might be mutually careful one for another.  And if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it; or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.
 -- 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 
 For no man ever hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the church.
-- Ephesians 5:29 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Sirius, the Dogstar

Canis Major & Minor & Lepus

Sirius is, of course, interesting in many ways.  

The Egyptians associated it with Isis and used its appearance to start their calendar and time the annual flooding of the Nile.  

People used to think that during the summer, when the sun and Sirius are in the sky together, the combined brightness of the two makes it hotter.  (Nice idea, but the fact that Sirius cannot be seen during the day shows how much dimmer than the sun it is, as seen from Earth.)  Because Sirius is the "Dog Star", these hot days are called the "dog days". 

Then there is the story of the Dogon, who supposedly knew of the existence of the white dwarf Sirius B, which is invisible to the naked eye.  This is often presented as "evidence" that they were in contact with the Nommo, aliens from that very star system!  Unsurprisingly, there are problems with this claim.

That's not why I love this star so much, though.  I took a course in introductory astronomy in the 10th grade through a local community college, and part of this course required us to learn to recognize the constellations and bright stars, both in the sky and on maps.  I really dove into this part, especially since I remembered how constellations were used to navigate and pass on stories.  

On a typical night, I would spend at least a couple of hours outside looking at the stars.  The sky was dark when the moon wasn't near full, and it gradually became apparent that meteors are not at all uncommon.  On one foggy night (a few years later, when I was home from university), there were red and green lights that at first looked like they might be from boats on the canal, only they didn't converge on the horizon.  After all other possibilities were eliminated, it was clear that these were the Northern Lights -- at thirty degrees north latitude!  My mother and I drove onto the newly constructed bridge; from its highest point (about 70 feet above ground level), the lights could be seen to be independent of anything happening on the land below.   The upshot of all this was that I became quite familiar with the stars, even coming to feel that they were friends.

By 11th grade I had decided to enter college as an "early admission" student, at least if I could do it on scholarship.  As with a lot of things I've done, the main reason was to prove (to myself, at least) that I really could do it.  So right about this time of year, I found myself visiting the University of Alabama to compete for a fellowship through the Computer-Based Honors Program.  My mother drove me up to Tuscaloosa and stayed in a hotel, but I spent the night in Byrd Hall, then home of the Mallet Assembly and the cheapest dorm on campus.  I had not thought to bring sheets or a pillow, but I didn't really need them; I slept in my coat with the next day's clothes as a pillow.  Still, I was somewhat overwhelmed and lonely as I looked out the window -- where I saw an unmistakable bright star, mostly blue-white but with flashes of every other color, come to keep me company.

Since then I've been much farther from home -- two and a half months in Denmark, a year in Japan, a year and a half in Germany, then Maryland, Texas, and now West Virginia.  I've had nights that were much colder, more uncomfortable, and lonelier by far than that night in Tuscaloosa.  Throughout all these changes and difficulties, I have always found it comforting to see the same moon and same stars.  Especially Sirius.

Monday, February 11, 2013

AI for the Evolution of Languages

There's an interesting article at New Scientist about a machine-learning algorithm that can be used to recreate the sounds of extinct ancestor languages.  That, of course, is very cool, if intrinsically hard to verify.

I would be interested, though, in whether the algorithm could work the other way.  Given the languages of today, including some reasonable guesses about how they will mix in the future (based on trade, population, etc.), can reasonable extrapolations be made for how a language will evolve into the future?  This could be tested, for example by taking the languages of 1750 or A.D. 1000 and trying to recreate modern English.

As far as I know, all attempts to extrapolate the language of the future have been either outrageously vague (as with the Eloi of H.G. Wells), more a statement of philosophy than an extrapolation of philology (1984), the haphazard introduction of a few words, or (more commonly, e.g. Star Trek) ignored altogether.  The language of 2313 should be mostly comprehensible, but nevertheless weird-sounding to us, as our speech would be to an English speaker from 1713.

Of course, if the resulting science fiction is wildly popular, it might very well alter the evolution of the language, either in a self-fulfilling or (more likely) self-frustrating way.

Music Selection

After today's stunning announcement, I find myself drawn to Dvorak's Stabat Mater -- one of my very favorite pieces of music anyhow, and very appropriate for the upcoming season of Lent.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

XKCD On Perpetual Motion

XKCD has this right, both as an Internet phenomenon and regarding the alarming degree of scientific ignorance out there in the public.

An example relevant to thermodynamics:  About a decade ago, I was given the task of dealing with an enterprising young man who had designed and built a device that he thought would in fact be a perpetual motion machine.  It would use permanent magnets (he was very insistent that these were very powerful permanent magnets) at the end of the four spokes of a wheel; on each spoke the north pole faced outward.  It was housed in a box that had four similar magnets with the north poles facing inward.  As the wheel spun, it would first have to fight the repulsion of the magnets, then get a "kick" once the magnets passed their closest approach.  The clever part of his plan was to use movable superconducting doors to shield the magnets (via the Meissner effect) from each other on approach.  That way, he reasoned, they would not repel each other on approach, but they would repel each other when moving away, so the wheel would spin faster and faster and could be used to do work.

I hate to admit it, but at first I was not sure exactly where the flaw in his plan lay; I knew, though, that this even violates the First Law of Thermodynamics.  Eventually I realized that the doors would be repelled from a region of strong field, so closing them would use up the energy gained from the kick.  This repulsion is exactly why a magnet can be made to levitate over a superconductor; as the magnet and superconductor approach each other, the repulsion gets stronger, until (for a light, strong magnet) it equals the weight of the magnet.

Unsurprisingly, the young man did not respond well to this.  He really did think he had an idea for a perpetual motion machine, and he refused to believe otherwise.  In the end I had to tell him to go ahead and build his device, which might be a good learning experience, but not to be disappointed if it doesn't work.  I never heard from him again, so I don't know if he built it or not.

I'll give just one more example in this post.  

I grew up attending Faith Christian School, which was run by Faith Bible Church -- which church we also attended after Overstreet Bible Church, which was closer, decided to cancel church one Sunday because that day would be Christmas(!!!).  Both the churches and the school bought into a childish, "young Earth" creationism and a love-hate attitude towards science, so I wasn't very surprised when some acquaintances at Immanuel Baptist Church in Wiesbaden, Germany started a conversation with, "Being a scientist must really help your faith."  

The truth of the matter is that science has very little to do with faith one way or the other.  I suppose scientists are more likely to think critically about everything, including religious matters, but the conclusions reached by scientists vary just as widely as those reached by the population as a whole.  This is to be expected; no scientific experiment tests the existence of God, after all, but only more mundane things, such as the existence and nature of the mislabeled "God particle", the Higgs boson. A scientist might at most be better equipped to see a surprising amount of beauty in the universe, but such arguments are inevitably only suggestive, not conclusive.

Back to Wiesbaden.  It turned out my acquaintances were trying to show their comprehension of physics by pulling out the argument that the Second Law of Thermodynamics forbids the evolution of more complex forms of life from simpler forms.  As further evidence of the Second Law, they cited the fact that the rotation of the earth is slowing down over the millenia (and longer, but they would not accept longer periods of time).

Notice a few things here.

  1. The understanding of the Second Law is at the level of "cowboy philosophy" -- "As time goes on, things just get messier and messier."  My acquaintances can't be blamed too much for this; most general science textbooks describe the Second Law like a quote by Will Rogers.  What most people, my acquaintances included, do not understand is that entropy is precisely quantifiable, just like energy or temperature, and that it has units, J/K.
  2. There is an implicit belief that a ball that is not rotating is "more disordered" than the same ball when it is stationary.  This seems to be based on the everyday experience of watches and clocks winding down.  It was the same kind of observation -- that moving things tend to move unless a force on them is maintained -- that lay at the heart of Aristotle's flawed physics. Certainly everyone is taught that Aristotle's physics was wrong; it's a standard part of the attempt to ridicule the Catholic Church for the whole Galileo business, but clearly many people are not learning how Aristotle's physics is wrong.  (The reason things tend to slow down and stop is due to dissipative forces like friction and drag.)
  3. In fact, entropy has to do with how many different ways something can be re-arranged without making a noticeable difference.  If the object in discussion is a solid ball with a fixed center, the only things that can be changed are its orientation, the pole around which it rotates, and the speed of its rotation.  If these are all precisely defined, as is typical in elementary mechanics, the entropy is zero, regardless of the orientation and rotation.
  4. I explained all this, together with the real reason the earth's rotation is slowing down.  The real reason involves the tides and the transfer of both energy and angular momentum from the spinning earth to the orbiting moon.  It's actually pretty neat how this works, and it does ultimately involve the Second Law of Thermodynamics, because heat generated from the action of the tides is radiated into space and lost to the earth-moon system.  Since this did not support their idea, though, my acquaintances did not care.
  5. Finally, I pointed out that if the Second Law actually prohibited increased biological complexity, it would prevent not only evolution but also the growth and development of an individual organism.  An acorn could never grow into an oak if the Second Law meant what they thought.  I was told that the Second Law did not apply to an acorn, since "It is God's will for it to grow into an oak."  There's really not much one can say to such pigheadedness.

Monday, February 4, 2013

That Dirty Little Coward That Shot Mr. Howard

That, of course, is how the song remembers Robert Ford, who shot Jesse James in the back of the head.

Robert Ford spent the rest of his life trying to capitalize on the fame of being the man who killed Jesse James.  It's hard not to suspect that a twisted thought of the same kind must have been behind the murder of Chris Kyle, the sniper credited with the most kills in US history.  It also brings to mind the standard Western plot in which a young, unknown challenger brings down a famous gunslinger, only to find that his new fame has made him the target of all the other ambitious young punks.

This, no doubt, is a part of what Jesus meant when He said, "All that take the sword shall perish with the sword."  It is, after all, simply a statement of fact which is supported by experience, although exceptions certainly abound.  After all, it is no coincidence that Yamamoto, George Custer, and Stonewall Jackson were all killed in military actions; they were military men, and, from a purely secular viewpoint, the odds will catch up with you one day.

Since many obviously have trouble reading the words in front of them, it's also worth pointing out that Jesus did not use the subjunctive mood.  He did not say, "All that take the sword should perish with the sword;" He did not say that this was something they deserved or had coming, nor that they were innocent and pure as the driven snow.  He merely said that this is something that would happen -- much as if He had said, "All that keep bees shall be stung by bees."

Well, some of us have to keep bees, or none of us would have honey, to say nothing of the crops pollinated by domesticated bees. Some likewise have to take the sword:  "For he is God's minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God's minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil."  In the case of St. Peter, though, it was God's will that he live by the cross and die by the cross -- quite literally, since he was crucified upside down.

All this shows that the background to Ron Paul's recent tweet was not quite as simplistic as many make it out to be.  It is of course possible that Ron Paul's understanding was equally simplistic, and one way or the other it was an unnecessary and ill-timed remark.  It's startling, though, that so many are willing to ignore Christ in an attempt to honor Chris.