Archive for December 2007

Living Forever – Or Darn Close To It

December 31, 2007

There’s an interesting discussion at The Volokh Conspiracy about the ramifications of radical life extension. That’s the now unthinkable proposition that the human life expectancy can be raised indefinitely.

When dieing at age 65 is “dieing young”, would living to be 100, or 150 be enough for you? Small potatoes. Think what it would be like to expect to live to be 750, or even 1000, as set in Biblical precedent. If you could be healthy and youthful all that time, could you think of it as a good thing TM? Or like me, do you perceive problems with this scenario?

There’s so much packed into this discussion, which started with Aubrey De Grey’s conjectures at the Cato Institute, it’s hard not to get sidetracked into sub-discussions that are unimportant to the main discussion.

Ahhhh! You see, that’s the problem. There are no side discussions that are unimportant to the main discussion here. They’re all important. Is it really feasible that we could live that long, healthy? What about the population problem? Would childbirth become a crime (or at least, a bad thing TM) in this hypothetical world? Would dictators rule for hundreds of years, the way Castro has ruled for decades – or is this a red herring? Indeed, could change and innovation happen at all when the best minds become inevitably ossified, or at least, much better able to defend themselves from new concepts? And by the way, if we expected to live to be 750 years old, wouldn’t premature accidental death become our overwhelming obsession? Would any of this matter, if you could live that long?

Wouldn’t we all welcome death after we’ve had our fill of life on this third rock from the Sun?

I truly don’t know. I know that, as a Catholic, I don’t fear death, and see eternal afterlife as a situation where all the contradictions of eternal life in this world are resolved.

But life can be sweet. Very, very sweet. And maybe that’s so precisely because we know it ends. How much then is enough? With great relief, I recall that it’s not for me to decide. Not at all.

Owe It To Buffalo

December 30, 2007

My Bills did not make the playoffs this year. It’s a hard row to hoe when you’re in the in the same division as the New England Patriots these days. That means you’re automatically fighting for one of two wild card slots in a conference that sports the Colts, the Steelers, and the Jaguars – the table stakes are 10 games in the win column, minimum. Not easy to do in the AFC.

But the Washington Redskins made it, in high style, crushing the Cowboys when many called the Dallas team the best in the NFC. Their last loss (to Buffalo, as it happens) was just after the sad loss of their best defensive player, Sean Taylor. To them, congratulations.

Like loyal Buffalo fans, we’ll just quietly note that the ‘Skins defensive coach, Gregg Williams, was Buffalo’s head coach just three years ago. And that Todd Collins played for Buffalo in better days. And oh – yeah we still remember that Ron McDole came from Western New York too (but that was a loooooonnnnngggg time ago). Ahem.

Bills fans leave 2007 with the same cry they shout so many seasons…

Just Wait Until Next Year!

It’s True, It’s True

December 28, 2007

The experiences of an astronomer are immortalized on YouTube (of course).

Hat tip to Jon at Angry Astronomer.

What I’m curious about is why so many astronomers are 1) such good musicians, and, as I know from personal experience, 2) so good at parody. It’s a wonderment.

Where Have All The Sunspots Gone?

December 26, 2007

Gone to solar minima everyone
This view from SOHO on 12/26/07 shows a blank solar disk. Cool. Not completely unusual, just mostly. There was the Maunder Minimum, of course.

The possible absence of sunspots for some 70 years in the 17th century was first pointed out by the Spörer (1887) using the extensive compilation of data by Wolf (1856, 1868). Spörer’s work was summarized by Maunder (1890, 1894), who commented, following Clerke (1894), that this dearth of sunspots apparently coincided with an absence of terrestrial aurorae. We now know that aurorae are caused by sub-atomic particles emitted by the Sun during releases of magnetic energy which often accompany sunspots. To supplement Spörer’s use of Wolf’s data, Maunder quotes the editor of Philosophical Transactions describing the observation of a sunspot in 1671 by Cassini in Paris with the comment that it was the first seen for many years. Much later, Maunder (1922) found a note by Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, describing a sunspot seen at Greenwich in 1684, in which Flamsteed says that it is the first he had seen since 1674. Flamsteed made several other references to this spot and to his solar observations in general in his correspondence, the definitive edition of which is now nearing completion (Flamsteed 1995). Maunder also took evidence from Herschel (1801), who had referred to Lalande’s (1792) L’Astronomie in which detailed evidence relating to the absence of sunspots in the latter part of the 17th, and early 18th century was cited.

This mpeg of the solar disk for the last two weeks shows that there is one or two good sized groups on the “other side” of the sun.

Hey! Is that the dark side? The one that comes out at night???

Ohhhh – I’ll stop. I’ll be enjoying a few days off, and back with news from the intersection of religion and science (with some personal stuff thrown in for fun) before you know it.

A Christmas Village

December 24, 2007

Every year I enjoy putting together a Christmas Village for my model railroad. I’m not much of a modeler, but it is fun to do, and it never fails to put me into the Christmas spirit.

This is the village circa 2007, twinkling lights and everything. Yes, it’s just a simple oval, but simplicity is the point, after all.

And the village is much more Candy-land like in the light of the flash.

So I hope you too found the spirit of the season, my friends.

Merry Christmas.

The Assumption of Mediocrity

December 24, 2007

I have a preference for staying out of the science vs. religion battles these days, mostly because both sets of combatants in this particular war have exhibited a tendency to talk from the other’s turf, where they have no particular expertise. My own particular history puts me squarely in the middle ground between these two camps. From this perspective, if I judge the scientists (not science, mind you) to be the losers, it’s primarily because they’ve made this particular transgression more than the theologians of late.

Not what they taught you in “history” class you say? Don’t be surprised. As Stephen Sondheim said in “West Side Story”, you’re just a victim (of bad teaching, in this case).

One of the biggest problems scientists face is the problem of reviewing previous results. It doesn’t pay. In academia, in government and in business, new results might pay, but checking something that “everyone” regards already as established fact, well, that’s just a chore. That in and of itself is not the problem for science. Remembering what is fact and what is assumption, is.

Copernicus, it is said, moved us away from the center of the universe. Yeah – as if mankind thought he was the center of all things prior to that. In actuality, moving the earth from the center of the solar system to a mere object orbiting the sun does make the math one heck of a lot easier when it comes to predicting planetary positions. Don’t forget, though, that the idea that we are not in a privileged position when it comes to the universe, is just an assumption. It’s gotten us a good bit further down the road to truth, perhaps, but it is just an assumption.

But what if it’s wrong?

Gonzalez has called his view – that Earth’s position in the universe was designed in such a way that we can explore it – a “privileged planet” hypothesis – hence the name of the book.

These are not new ideas in themselves. Similar ideas have been explored in Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee’s Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe.

However, the showing of the Privileged Planet film at the Smithsonian amid much controversy in June 2005 probably drew unfavourable attention to Gonzalez, as did the popular book and DVD themselves. The Smithsonian was the late Carl Sagan’s territory, and it must be said that Privileged Planet explicitly denies the doctrine of St. Carl and all his faithful followers, that Earth is merely a pale blue dot lost in the cosmos.

Not even close, says Gonzalez; we could not be better placed if we had hired consultants. Possibly worse.

Gonzalez has paid a price for this heresy.

Gonzalez is best known for being denied tenure in May 2007 at ISU on account of his sympathies with intelligent design. The recent disclosure of the e-mail trail made clear that his sympathies with intelligent design were the reason for the denial, though some claim that he had also failed unwritten rules.

HT to Uncommon Descent.

And Just In Time For Christmas

December 23, 2007

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair converts to Roman Catholicism.

His wife and four children are RC.

From Austrialia:

Mr Blair formally left the Church of England to become a Catholic in a ceremony on Friday, after deciding long ago that it would be wisest to wait until he left office instead of giving modern Britain its first Catholic PM.

One of the obvious flashpoints for a Catholic prime minister would be the PM’s role in selecting senior bishops of the Church of England. Mr Blair appointed Rowan Williams as the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, and there would have been complaints from many Anglicans if that choice had been made by a Catholic.

Why does the NYT imply that there is less than welcome acceptance of this from “the Church”?

In June, after meeting Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, Mr. Blair met with the papal secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and accounts by Vatican officials said the cardinal laid out the church’s objections to some of the Blair government’s legislation in uncompromising terms.

Among some Catholics in Britain, there have been questions about how Mr. Blair, who has described himself as an “ecumenical Christian,” could meet the standards normally set for converts.

“St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus would pale into insignificance by comparison,” John Smeaton, director of Britain’s Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said in an interview published earlier this month in The Spectator, a weekly journal popular among conservatives. “We need to hear a full repudiation from him. Without one, having Blair as a Catholic is like having a vegetarian in a meat-eating club. It simply does not make sense”

I. Don’t. Think. So. To paraphrase The Church Lady, “Could it be… um… THE WAR?”