Science Feed

A Monster

Our new house is on the water, and I now have the privilege of watching the sun set over Mobile Bay every evening. I was doing so one day a week or so ago, standing on the front porch. I only caught the last moments before the sun went below the horizon, but frequently that's when the real spectacle begins, and goes on for twenty minutes or more. I stood there until it was almost fully dark, and I was about to go in when something odd in the water caught my eye.

Like almost every house on the bay, ours has a pier. I don't know exactly how long it is but it's over two hundred feet. Out a bit past the end of it, between our neighbor's pier and ours, there was a weird thrashing in the water. And when I say "weird" I mean to suggest some of the old connotations of the word, those which made Shakespeare call the witches who helped to doom Macbeth "the weird sisters." 

There was something not right about what I was seeing. It was not any of the normal disturbances of the water. In the bay one often sees mullet leap out of the water, sometimes travelling several feet before they fall back. One sees gulls swoop down and snatch something out of the water, or try to; there's a quick and shallow splash, and they spring away. Hunting pelicans, big heavy birds with a wingspan of four or five feet, climb, hang, then drop like bombs with a noisy splash on whatever they have seen, going well under water. And when they surface they often sit for a few moments or more, perhaps enjoying their catch. Getting back into the air again seems to be a lot of work for them. Now and then there are diving ducks, marvelously slick and cool swimmers and divers; they hardly disturb the surface at all. 

And then there are the dolphins, with their well-known arcing plunge, dorsal fins out of the water in a way that momentarily spooks anyone who's ever seen a movie about sharks. And once in a long while one might see something that looks at a glance like a floating log, but is too low in the water and has a couple of rounded knobs at one end: an alligator, its eyes a little higher than the rest of it. Mobile Bay is an estuary, and though the river delta which empties into it is full of alligators, I saw only a few over the span of the thirty years that we lived in our old house. It was roughly ten miles south of the delta, and now we are another ten miles down. So I may never see an alligator here; the Gulf of Mexico is only a few miles away, and the water is saltier than suits the gator. 

This was none of those things. It was a slow clumsy flopping and thrashing along the surface of the water, almost a hopping movement. But there is nothing that normally hops on the surface of the water. For a few moments I felt a creeping uneasiness. For a few moments I felt I was seeing some unknown and perhaps menacing form of life. I'm not sure whether the word "monster" actually entered my mind or not, but what I felt was something like what I imagine one might feel on spying an actual sea monster. As much as I love being near the water, I also have, at times, a trace of primitive fear of it, the fear that Job implies when he praises God for confining the sea to its limits: "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further." And whatever I was seeing touched that nerve.

I walked out to the water's edge and soon realized what the thing was: a bird, apparently injured, trying to swim with its wings. It was like a person doing the breast stroke, that absurd method of swimming which seems designed for maximum inefficiency. The poor bird thrashed at the water with its wings and was propelled forward for a foot or two, paused, then thrashed again. It was moving parallel to the shore, and up the bay, which is to say more or less northeasterly, away from the Gulf. 

Then the more-strange began. I was standing on the bulkhead, at the foot of the pier. The bird got a little past the end of our pier, then made an abrupt hard right turn and headed toward me. I stood there and waited for him--I will call him "him" because that's what my wife always does with any wild creature unless its sex is obvious (even when, as with a spider, it may be inaccurate) and I rather like that, and because I soon had a sort of relationship with him which the use of "it" would seem to disrespect.

I stepped out onto the rocks and concrete rubble which constitute the bulk of the bulkhead. The bird continued toward me. I sat down on the rocks. He came to them and very slowly struggled up a few feet over the rocks until I could reach him. I picked him up. He offered no resistance and did not seem alarmed. I took him to the porch, where there was enough light to get a good look at him. 

He was a seabird, a tern, not very large. He was hopelessly, and without human assistance fatally, entangled in some kind of very fine, very strong, pale green nylon (or other synthetic) thread. I thought at first it was fishing line, but I've never seen any fishing line so extremely fine. Some kind of net, perhaps? I don't know. But everything except his wings--his webbed feet, his long pointed beak--was immobilized. He could not properly swim, and he could not open his beak, and so could not eat. I don't know why he could not fly but I suspect that he had at one time been able to, but had completely exhausted himself, so that one flap every ten seconds or so was all he could manage, enough to keep him hopping along the surface of the water but not enough to get him airborne. The thread was also tightly looped around his neck, deep within the feathers, which may have been doing further harm. 

I called for someone to bring me a pair of scissors, and together we spent ten minutes or so snipping away at the thread. The bird remained still and unresisting, though he did manage one squawk of fear or outrage after his bill was freed and he could do so. When we had finished, I set him on a piling by the water, from which he immediately fell. But, feet now free, he paddled over to the sandy shore of the vacant lot next door, stepped out of and away from the water, and settled down onto the sand. 

I offered him a bit of bread and a bit of tuna (they eat fish, don't they?). But he was not interested. He just sat there perfectly still. So I left him there. An hour later I checked on him and he was still there, but at my approach he got up and walked into the water. An hour or so after that I checked on him and he was gone: on his wings, I hope. 

Now, maybe this means nothing. Yes, it was an odd incident. But purely naturalistic explanations are ready to hand and plausible. He had been struggling for God knows how long and come God knows how far. Perhaps initially he had been able to fly, but, unable to eat or free himself, he had gradually become so exhausted that the thrashing breast stroke, wingbeats a couple of seconds apart, was absolutely all he could do. And the exhaustion would certainly explain the docility. 

I'm a natural skeptic and not one to turn quickly to supernatural or even merely providential explanations for phenomena that might suggest them; in fact I probably err on the skeptical side, probably more reluctant than required by strict adherence reason to see the hand of God at work. Physical causality and coincidence can explain almost everything if you want them to.

But as I listen to the interior voice that would explain away this incident I keep being stopped by that hard right turn. That is an accurate description: it was as direct a ninety-degree turn as you would make to turn right at an intersection. The bird turned right and came straight toward me. Considering that it had miles of water in which to decide--by whatever means a bird decides--to head toward shore, the fact that it did so when it was directly opposite me is at minimum a very striking coincidence. And it only did so when I had come out to get a better look at it. And it came straight toward me, in contradiction to the normal behavior of wild things, in which fear and flight are the instinctive responses to the human, not hesitating even when it was only a few feet away, climbing out of the water and struggling over the rocks directly to me. 

It was as if in that extremity the bird's natural barrier broke down. He was going to die if he were not freed from the thread that bound him. And somehow he saw in me the possibility of help, and came to me, against his normal instincts, as the only alternative to death.

I am one of those people, those perhaps somewhat ridiculous people, who are disturbed almost to the point of nihilism by the pain of the world. I'm a little ashamed of this, because my own circumstances are quite comfortable. Get a grip on yourself, I say to myself. But Dante's picture of the love that moves the stars seems untenable in the face of the suffering that happens at every moment of time on this planet. There is nothing in what we can see that plausibly suggests that the cycle of birth, pleasure, pain, and death is less than an absolute rule for all creatures in all places at all times, or that there is any reason for it beyond whatever immediate circumstance produces it, or that any of it has any meaning independent of the subjective experience of the creature.

This bird's approach to me, and my ability to help, was for me a moment when something else shone through material cause and effect. It was a bit of evidence that although all of creation "groaneth and travaileth" there is something beyond, a justification for believing that the promise of redemption and healing is not a fantasy. "Coincidence" is not an adequate word for the force that brought bound and helpless suffering together with mercy and a pair of scissors. 

The word "monster" shares an etymology with words like "demonstrate": Latin words rooted in the basic concept of to show, to point out. The direct ancestor of "monster" diverged early on to mean specifically a strange and uncanny thing, often serving as a warning or omen. But though all monsters startle, the message they bring is not always bad, at least if we have properly understood it, and anyway is almost always one we need to hear.

"Monstrance" comes from the same root. 

TernAs best I can determine, he is of the species known as the Royal Tern. 

Fun With Statistics

Which is more likely, that you will be killed by lightning or that you will be killed by an asteroid striking the earth?

As you have no doubt guessed, it's something of a trick question, with the obvious answer being wrong. It has to do with the probability of the event compared to the probability that it will kill you. The probability of my being struck by lightning is, obviously, much higher than the probability of an asteroid striking the earth. However, if the latter should happen, millions or billions will be killed, including me. So when you turn the statistical crank, apparently the odds are worse (for the individual) with the asteroid. 

Someone has actually worked out the math. Obviously some assumptions have to be made about the likelihood of a killer asteroid strike, but his seem to be reasonable. He comes up with a 1 in 700,000 chance of death by asteroid, whereas 1 in 1,000,000 seems to be a generally accepted rough value for being struck by lightning. And since most people who are struck by lightning survive (I did not know that until yesterday), the odds against death by lightning are even greater. And they vary a lot depending on where you live. 

And here's an interesting list of the top ten asteroid strikes in the history of the planet. Notice that the two most recent were roughly 35 million years ago, while the others are separated by tens or hundreds of millions of years.

If you had survived the Popagia strike of 35.7 million years ago, you might have thought with relief "Well, we should have at least another twenty million years before this happens again." Imagine your dismay when the Chesapeake Bay strike shows up almost immediately, only .7 million years later. I think that's another statistical misconception, similar to the one that makes a gambler think that he's due for a win after a string of losses. 

These speculations follow from a Facebook discussion about this meme:


I call it temporal distancing and it's my chosen strategy for avoiding death by asteroid.

Man Bites Nuclear Dog

Finland's Greens Now Fully Behind Nuclear Power

I don't think I've ever written a post about climate change here. I don't post all that much about political and social issues anyway, but still, it's mildly surprising that in all the years (eighteen!) I've had this blog  I've never written a post specifically about it, considering how much attention it gets. I've mentioned it here and there, but as far as I can tell only in passing. Part of the reason, the major part I guess, is that I don't take it all that seriously.

As a threat, I mean. I'm willing to believe that it's happening, and to believe that industrialism, the automobile, and so forth are causing it, or at least contributing to it. I'm willing to believe it because many people who know a lot about the climate tell me so. And I'm willing to believe that the rising temperature will or at least may cause problems. I say "may" because there is such a blatantly tendentious (to put it mildly) effort to link any problem, especially but not necessarily if it includes weather or any aspect of the natural world, to climate change. Maybe some of those are valid, maybe not, but the political intention is so obvious that it invites skepticism--practically requires it.

But I'm unwilling to believe that climate change is going to make the planet uninhabitable, or result in the deaths of some large percentage of the human population with the survivors becoming hunter-gatherers, or have any of the other world-ending or otherwise massively catastrophic consequences that are predicted. 

I don't mean just that I reserve judgment, or am somewhat skeptical, but that I actively disbelieve it. One reason is that these predictions, like the attribution of existing phenomena, have an obvious political motivation. Another is that many of them seem implausible, predicting consequences that seem far in excess of the predicted rises in temperature. But the biggest reason is that the environmentalists and others who are loudest in their alarms do not appear to truly believe what they are saying. Maybe they're purposely exaggerating for effect, as political crusaders generally do, not apparently having absorbed the lesson of the boy who cried wolf. 

It's not only because so many of the crusaders are hypocritical--owning multiple enormous homes, jetting to climate conferences, and all that. Yes, it's hypocritical, but hypocrites we will always have with us. The biggest reason is that for the most part they don't allow a place for nuclear power in mitigating the problem. Compared to fossil fuels, especially from the point of view of climate change concerns, nuclear power has some major benefits. I won't bother reproducing the arguments on that score, as they are easily found all over the net. 

Obviously it has significant dangers, too. But to rule it out entirely, and put all your hope on the unlikely prospect that wind and solar power can replace fossil fuels anytime soon, only indicates that you don't really believe that the danger is as great as you are saying. If there's an 18-wheeler coming straight at you, and your only alternatives are to go into the ditch or have a head-on collision which will certainly kill you, you don't say "The ditch is not an option. Much too dangerous."

It's good to see at least one environmentalist group be realistic on this point. I get the impression that a not-insignificant number of young people are being driven into terrified despair by the wild alarmism of many. Poor Greta Thunberg is blaming the wrong people for stealing her childhood. 


The Cosmological Just-So Story

From an anonymous commenter at Neoneocon's blog: 

Multiple universes is the physicist’s version of stacking turtles on the backs of turtles.

See this if you don't get the turtle reference--of course "turtles all the way down" has a Wikipedia entry. And see this for a Wikipedia tour of various multiple universe theories. I've never understood how this could possibly be anything other than speculation, forever beyond the reach of physical investigation.

I think the commenter I'm quoting had in mind the invocation of multiple universes as a way out of the quandaries posed by the "anthropic principle"--the idea that many aspects of the universe as we know it are so finely tuned to support life, and not just physical life but sentient life as well, as to defy probability and raise suspicions of a designer at work. Some people of course do not like that idea at all. 

That's what I have in mind in quoting him, anyway. The Wikipedia article suggests that there are other and more important reasons, arrived at by inference from known physical principles, for hypothesizing that there are multiple universes. That's not something I would presume to have an opinon on, but it does strike me that from the theistic point of view there is no reason why there couldn't be other universes--in whatever sense we might use the word "universe." The Wikipedia article also seems to imply that not all the theorists in this area are using the word in the same way.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Life

This was mentioned in a weekly Friday Reflection from Touchstone. I had no idea the search had begun so early: 

It began in concept as early as 1896 when Nikola Tesla suggested wireless electrical transmission to contact Martians. In 1899, he thought he had detected a signal from Mars—so he was listening. In 1924, an attempt to listen for Martians from the U. S. Naval Observatory was assisted by Admiral Eberle, chief of Naval Operations: a “National Radio Silence Day” was promoted with radios going silent for five minutes on the hour for 36 hours while a radio receiver in a dirigible floating 1.9 miles up listened for signals.

Personally I am of the opinion that if there are forms of life of a sort with which we could communicate, there is almost no possibility that we will ever know it. Everybody is familiar with the dogma asserted in favor of extraterrestrial life in general: that since there are [very very large number] of stars in the universe, it is so probable as to be all but certain that there will be life of the sort we would recognize as such, and that among those living things there will be some which we would recognize as being like us in having speech and intelligence. 

The proponents of this idea, who usually present it as obvious, and even scientific, don't always mention the materialist and evolutionist axiom that underlies it: that life and consciousness are the products of chance working on matter. If you make that assumption, then it's reasonable to say that given enough stars and enough time, enough planets will form and develop in ways that can support life that enough of these will actually somehow give birth to life, and that enough of these life forms will evolve into intelligent beings that we will probably encounter them. It is all but certain, in this view, that they are out there, and highly probable that they will eventually contact us, or vice versa (or, of course, that this has already happened).  

But if that axiom is not true, the conclusions are in doubt. If chance alone working on a whole heck of a lot of matter is not in fact the explanation for the existence of life and consciousness, then the only reasonable answer to the question "Does intelligent extraterrestrial life exist?" is "We do not know. And moreover we currently have no way of knowing." For my part, I'm firmly, even passionately, agnostic on the question--passionate because the materialist axiom is so little questioned, or even noticed.. 

If materialism as a philosophy is not the correct explanation of the world, then "scientific" pronouncements about extraterrestrial life are only speculation with no solid scientific value. I would argue further that the fact that the materialistic explanation of non-material phenomena such as human consciousness seems more plausible to most people in our time is a mere cultural prejudice. (I don't mean, of course, materialistic explanations for everyday material phenomena. If you're going to study the operations of the physical world, it would be unreasonable not to assume that material effects are produced by material causes. Simple experience and common sense tell us that that is the normal way of things.)

There's another big problem with the whole attempt to detect such life by any means we know. No one seems to believe that any nearby star systems have much potential for supporting life. And if there is life on a system 1,000 light years away, any evidence we receive would only tell us that there was life there 1,000 years ago. And our galaxy is estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000 light years across. We are not likely to have a very interesting relationship with life forms with whom the exchange Hello. How are you?We're fine. How are you? would take multiple thousands of years. 

And travel across those distances? Well, it's easy to say "warp drive" or "hyperspace" or the more currently favored "wormhole," but these are just words that play the role in science fiction that magic plays in folk tales. The Millenium Falcon and a magic carpet are two instances of the same class of thing. I think I'm correct in saying that even the theoretical possibility of faster-than-light travel is vague, and that no technology implementing it can really even be imagined now--imagined as an actual engineering project, I mean. 

Sure, all that could be proven mistaken and irrelevant tomorrow by some utterly unknown and unforeseen scientific breakthrough. But "you can't prove it will never be possible" is not a scientific position. I really don't have an opinion on whether there are other sentient material beings on other planets, but I do think it's unlikely that we'll ever meet them. 

Now, the possibility of an entirely new order of being in which the spaces and distances we know do not limit us in the way that they now do is another matter entirely. But no possible technology can ever get us there. 

Dark 2

Well. I don't really know what to make of this, and am not at all sure I should recommend it to others. But I think I will anyway. Because, whatever my reservations, I was thoroughly fascinated by it. One big warning, though: the story does not end, just as it did not end with series 1. There isn't even the sort of resolution with a few loose threads that satisfies the desire for an ending while pointing the way to a sequel. According to Wikipedia the third season is to be the last one, so I'm hoping that means the developers actually planned a coherent three-season plot which will have a reasonable ending.

The story only becomes more complex in series 2, and I have major doubts as to whether it makes sense. The pseudo-science makes even less sense than before: opening a barrel of nuclear waste might make those in the immediate vicinity pretty sick, but I really don't think there's any danger of it disrupting the very fabric of space-time. And the use of wormholes to serve as the equivalent of magic in sci-fi has gotten tiresome.

But the complex and confusing plot line is anchored by elemental human drama: parents, children, love, death, misunderstanding, mistakes, separation and reconciliation. Not really all that much of that last one, though, at this point. 

The contradictions inherent in the whole idea of time travel are handled more imaginatively here than in time-travel stories I've encountered. However, that seems to be a confession of ignorance on my part: suspecting that something called "the bootstrap paradox" was not invented by the writers of this series, I searched for it, and found that it goes back at least to a 1941 short story by Robert A. Heinlein. The basic idea is presented in the show as this: you take an object back in time and leave it there. So it exists in the present because it existed in the past. But since it was only in the past because you took it there, it was never created. At any rate, the movements in time are so many and so complex in Dark that the result is either a brilliant juggling act or a big mess. Either way, it's awfully well done--well-acted, well-written, well-produced.

Actually I'm concerned that something that happened in the last minute or so of this season may seal the "big mess" verdict. I'll find out when I watch series 3.

My Career in Information Technology...

...would have been far more interesting if malfunctioning computers would always shoot out noisy sparks, flames, and smoke. Like they do in that TV series I mentioned, Another Life

Even though my wife and I had officially abandoned it, I watched another episode and a half by myself because I really wanted to find out what those aliens were like and what they were up to. But I actually laughed out loud at a couple of not-at-all-meant-to-be funny things. So okay, I give up.

I mostly agree with this review at Some funny comments, too: "Entitled Millenials In Space." And:

Is there something elitist living inside me that I found the crew members unworthy of anything other than maybe stints on The Real World? 

I think "The Real World" is a "reality" series. I've only seen a few episodes of any of those, but the comparison occurred to me, too. Bratty young people engaged in heavy and extremely self-centered emotional dramatics. As another commenter mentions, it's hard to believe these twits would ever have been entrusted with any sort of important duty, let alone manning a spacecraft on The Most Important Mission In Human History.

Why am I even bothering to write this? I guess because I was disposed to like the show, and can't quite believe that it's this bad. It's material for a future Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode.

I am certainly not a scientist, or an engineer, and obviously you have to overlook, if not accept, a certain amount of miraculous future technology in most sci-fi. But this show seemed to me to grossly abuse its privilege. Unlike Star Wars-style space opera, it isn't content just to invoke "warp drive" (or whatever) and have the spaceship travel light years. Too much of it is directly based on applications of scientific or technological pixie dust to create and resolve crises. As best I can recall, this is pretty close to an actual bit:

"We don't have enough oxygen to survive much longer! What are we going to do?!?"

"I don't know...", "Oh my God," etc.

[a few seconds of brow-furrowing]

"Wait--there's a rogue moon ahead. We can mine captive oxygen from its caves!"