Archive for September 2005

Just How Alone Are We Anyway?

September 30, 2005

Well, if we can’t find some other intelligent life form out there, it’s not for want of trying, anyway.

There’s been fabulous, almost unbelievable advances made in telescopes, instrumentation and data collection in the past 25 years. Ah, yes. They told me that observing planets directly would not be possible in my life time.

Are We Alone?

September 28, 2005

Mark Shea writes a great blog. However, I’m having difficulty linking to a specific post. Try this link and scroll down to the post that begins Dan Darling writes:. It’s well worth the read.

Mr. Shea starts to address the question of life in the universe, and it’s implications for Catholicism. I am not learned enough to speak authoritatively about the theology, but I can speak to the astronomy.

There’s been a running discussion (well, sometimes full fledged drag-’em-out fight, actually) for about 20 years about an idea that has become known as ‘The Anthropic Principle’. In short, the idea, as put forth by John Barrow and Frank Tipler in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986, Oxford University Press), is that:

1) The universe as we know it is defined by a surprisingly small number of fundamental constants, like the speed of light, and the ratio between the strengths of the nuclear and electro-magnetic forces.
2) Varying any of these few fundamental constants inevitably creates conditions in which our existence seems very, very improbable (or indeed, impossible). In fact, it is not much of a stretch to say that when any of these fundamental constants are hypothetically changed by very small amounts, the existence of anything that we might recognize as intelligent life becomes problematical. The conditions for intelligence, (like, the conditions that underlay the ability to transfer information from point a to point b) sometimes do not exist in such universes.
3) The first two observations put severe constraints on the details of the universe that we find ourselves in. We simply would not exists – could not exist – in universes that are much different that the one we have (for surprisingly small values of the word ‘much’!).

What does this say about the abundance of life in the universe? Well, not much by itself. But it does point out that the universe is exquisitely in tune with – well, us. Does this mean that the universe is not constructed to be so hospitable with other intelligent creatures? No, but taken to it’s logical conclusion, the Anthropic Principle does seem to bestow on the human animal some special status, not given to other creatures, should they ever be found.

And that, my friends, is anathema to many, I dare say most, scientists. This is because of their training and a 500 year long history of science that begins with the assumption that we are explicitly not in any special or privileged position in the universe (this is the Copernican assumption of mediocrity). It’s been a fruitful assumption, and this starting point has led to an understanding of many things. But it is, after all, an assumption that may or may not be necessary to the science. Likewise, it’s an assumption that may not be true at all. It hasn’t been demonstrated either way, yet.

But keep watching closely. The history of physics in the 20th century, starting with the Copenhagan (many worlds) interpretation of quantum physics, seems to lean towards the idea that we are indeed in an oddly privileged position, especially as observers (and even more especially as intelligent observers).

Now be aware. Many if not most scientists contend that anything like this Anthropic Principle is NOT SCIENCE. It’s a bit like paramecium in a pond looking around, saying that the pond is so in-tune with their existence that the whole universe must be just like that pond, and further, must have been created just for them.

Well, yes, but then where is this place beyond the pond that shows us the rest of the universe isn’t ‘our’ place? Is that a proper question to ask of astronomers? (A: You betcha).
And where, then are the other creatures? Are they so far away that we just haven’t heard them yet, despite SITI?
And by the way – just how large does the universe have to be to support just us? Are these proper questions?

Intelligent Design

September 28, 2005

This topic is inevitable. I’ve started a post on Intelligent Design, but, being a firm believer that ‘if you can’t explain it in 25 words or less, you don’t understand it’, I’ve yet to make the post manageable. It’s a beast.

It’s not that I’m particularly un-opinionated on this topic; I’m not. I just discovered a great urge to tread lightly as soon as the post was started.
Bill Buckley writes not so much on Intelligent Design, but on the taboo manifested on Dartmouth’s campus by the discussion.

M. Scott Peck

September 28, 2005

M. Scott Peck, the author of the The Road Less Traveled, has passed away.
Although I am very confused about the way his thoughts evolved during the last few years of his life (there have been reports of dalliances with Mormonism and confessions of infidelity), his books have been a major influence in my life, especially The Road Less Traveled, which begins with the famous line “Life is difficult.” His writing was one of the reasons I returned to the Church.

Grading the Reporters

September 26, 2005

How many died in the New Orleans Superdome in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina? Would you guess thousands? Several Hundred? Two hundred (as was reported to the LA National Guard)? I would have been shocked two weeks ago to find that the final number is six, but today I am not surprised. So what’s up with the reporters anyway? I think I agree with Roger L. Simon; the reporting has been part of an ongoing attempt to embarrass the Bush Administration.

Update: More from Michelle Malkin. I do believe that there’s an ongoing scandal with the way the Katrina aftermath was handled, but the finger is pointing at the press. It’s apparent that “Rathergate” is not the end (and probably not the beginning) of what used to be known as yellow journalism, and I fear that my generation was misled by Vietnam and Watergate to trust reporters much more than was warranted.

Space Elevator

September 26, 2005

This could be exciting, or it could just be science fiction.
Rand Simberg thinks that we have a little further to go (presumably, before the concept is useful).
Arthur C. Clarke, interviewed in the Times of London:

In 1969, the giant multistage rocket, discarded piecemeal after a single mission, was the only way of doing the job. That the job should be done was a political decision, made by a handful of men. (I have only recently learnt that Wernher von Braun used my The Exploration of Space (1952) to convince President Kennedy that it was possible to go to the Moon.) As William Sims Bainbridge pointed out, space travel is a technological mutation that should not really have arrived until the 21st century. But thanks to the ambition and genius of von Braun and Sergei Korolev, and their influence upon individuals as disparate as Kennedy and Khrushchev, the Moon — like the South Pole — was reached half a century ahead of time. If Nasa resumes lunar missions by 2018, that timing would be just about right: it will be only a year short of the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s famous “one small step”. But banking on solid rocket boosters to escape from Earth, as being planned, will not represent a big technological advance over the Apollo missions. Even if the spacecraft are reusable, it will still cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to launch every kilogram into space. I think the rocket has as much future in space as dog sleds in serious Antarctic exploration. Of course, it is the only thing we have at the moment, so we must make the best use of it.

But I would urge Nasa to keep investing at least a small proportion of its substantial budget in supporting the research and development of alternatives to rockets. There is at least one idea that may ultimately make space transport cheap and affordable to ordinary people: the space elevator. . . .

As its most enthusiastic promoter, I am often asked when I think the first space elevator might be built. My answer has always been: about 50 years after everyone has stopped laughing. Maybe I should now revise it to 25 years.

(hat tip to Instapundit).

Where the Boys Aren’t

September 25, 2005

USA Today reports in an unsigned article that

Currently, 135 women receive bachelor’s degrees for every 100 men. That gender imbalance will widen in the coming years, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Education.

The article goes on to ask “What went wrong?” Pardon me? I resist the temptation to ask where they’ve been for the past 30 years. It appears that the nation of boys who are hurting — sad, afraid, angry, and silent has entered college.

Ann Althouse blogged just this week that many college educated women plan to stay home with their children. This may indeed be a good thing, but it also denotes opportunities that just aren’t there for young men. After all, men will leave campus as much in debt as women, statistically speaking. I expect that they would look for ways to address that debt. Wouldn’t you?

Sigh. I was going to write a screed decrying the feminist movement and the subsequent destruction of the university system in this country for men. But that’s unfair. The university is not a place for most men. It never was, nor was it meant to be. In the past 30 years, however, there has been an attempt to make the university a place for women. As an example, see this, from the Women’s Sports Foundation”

No law has meant more to women in sport than Title IX. With regard to collegiate educational opportunities for females, leveling the playing field has meant $372 million a year in college athletic scholarship funding and varsity sport opportunities for over 150,000 women. At the high school level, Title IX has provided the chance to play varsity sports for millions of high school girls. One of every 2.5 high school girls now participate in high school varsity sports (compared to 1 in 27 in 1972). This law has had a profound impact.

I was surprised to find this stat. From The NCAA Financial Aid web site, there were a total of 7665 women’s basketball scholarships awarded in 2005, and a total of 7061 men’s basketball scholarships. There were 1193 wrestling scholarships offered.

I doubt that Title IX or even the dissolution of many male sports teams on campuses across the nation (except those that generate revenue for the women’s sports), is the reason that men have abandoned the campuses, but it doesn’t help. I think there is a deeper problem here. Academia does not know what a college education is for. Academia has no idea what being an educated man means. Defining an education as mere job training while simultaneously handing the student a huge debt does not inspire someone who feels the need or has the ambition to enter the job market now, and offers little to someone who seeks more.