There’s Miracles, And Then There’s Miracles

The stories in our narratives
Grow stranger in re-telling—
Man, you should have seen the fish that got away!
And a parent’s tale of family lore
Can often be compelling—
You’d have seen it, if you hadn’t slept that day!
They promote a faith in fantasy
They should, perhaps, be quelling
So they see their child’s thinking led astray
But it seems to serve a purpose:
It’s the Catholic faith they’re selling
So a miracle’s a miracle, ok? [Read more...]

Unexpected Science: Sixth Grade Edition

Lionfish live in the ocean
Little Lauren gets a notion:
Might they live in rivers, too?
Would they thrive in brackish water?
Lauren, ichthyologist’s daughter,
Knows just what to do

Slowly starts desalination
Learns some brand-new information
Of which we’re now aware
New understanding’s always great
So, never underestimate
The sixth-grade science fair!

Via NPR, new information from a young scientist–a sixth grade science project demonstrates that invasive lionfish would be able to survive in brackish river water, widening the range of potentially threatened ecosystems.

“Scientists were doing plenty of tests on them, but they just always assumed they were in the ocean,” Lauren, now 13, tells NPR’s Kelly McEvers. “So I was like, ‘Well, hey guys, what about the river?’ ”

In the beginning, she wanted to conduct her test by placing the lionfish in cages at different points in the river, but she had to simplify the project.

“It was just a small, sixth-grade project, and I really didn’t have all the tools necessary,” she says. Her dad, who has a Ph.D. in fish ecology, suggested that she put the fish in tanks instead.

Now, there are a lot of problems with science fairs, and frankly, Lauren’s very good research points out some of them–for instance, the odds of any random kid from her class having access to six different aquarium tanks (and the equipment needed to maintain them) are remote. This sort of science fair shows the role privilege can play.

But it also shows that a great question, and an elegant test of the answer, can sometimes come from unexpected places. Reminds me a bit of Emily Rosa. And we should not be surprised in the least when kids’ science fair ideas are influenced by what they have grown up listening to around the dinner table.

Vials Labeled “Variola” Found. Could Have Been Worse.

Unless you are from Brazil, the scariest news today may have been the discovery of forgotten, unsecured, vials labeled “variola” (smallpox, to you and me) in an NIH lab.

Hey, at least it was labeled! I’ve been cleaning out my office these past weeks, and if that NIH lab had been anything like my office, the detritus of decades would still be present, but virtually none of it would have been labeled.

One small unlabeled vial
Sitting there, forgotten
One small unlabeled vial
Lurking in the lab
It might be dehydrated spores
Of a weaponized fungus
Just waiting for wars
It might be a virulent pox
An assistant mistakenly
Left in a box
It might be a deadly disease
That could devastate countries
As quick as you please
It might be a parasite fluke
Or an isotope ready
To power a nuke
It might be some chemical goo
That can turn your cheeks’ roses
To cyanide blue
It might be a germ that’s evolved
So an antibiotic’s
A problem that’s solved
It might be the ultimate cure
Unless we uncap it,
We can’t know for sure…
There’s little more frightening, no denial,
Than one small unknown, unlabeled vial

With sincere apologies to everyone’s favorite Uncle Shelby, who did all the heavy lifting.

Tornado Warnings, Now And Then

It was just the other morning
When we heard the weather warning
And we tried to drag the pets downstairs, for shelter from the storm
I remembered, with a chortle,
I was young once, and immortal,
And defied the nearing twisters, playing Frisbee by the dorm
Ah, but real life can be frightening—
I’ve since lost someone to lightning—
So I run inside from thunder, though of course I know the odds
And I’m thankful to the science
Where it’s safe to put reliance
How much better than to fear we’re at the mercy of the gods

But… Will They Accept Verses?

The new journal Science, Religion, and Culture is announcing a special issue focusing on “Atheism, Secularity, and Science”. It suggests the following topics:

• Identifying and outlining Lakatosian research programmes in current atheism and secularity research – their advantages and limitations.
• Philosophy of science critiques of current research on atheism and secularity.
• Conceptualizing types of atheism and secularity.
• Atheism and secularity’s role in the separation of church and state around the world.
• Can atheism or secularity be understood without juxtaposition to theism or religion?
• The role of activism in atheist and secular communities.
• An examination of the rise of Sunday Assemblies or, ‘atheist churches’.
• Developing/advancing ‘secular studies’.
• Developing a comparative terminology for studying atheism and theism together.
• Can atheists be ‘spiritual’?
• Atheism and the rise of the Internet.
• Atheism and ‘analytic thinking’.
• New atheism’ and Scientism.
• Atheism, health, and wellbeing.
• Why are the majority of elite scientists ‘atheists’?
• Why are scientists in general less religious than the average person?
• Atheism, a next step in human evolution?
• Identity politics in Western atheism.
• Atheism, secularism, and children.
• Atheism, secularism, and Transhumanism.
• Science, an ‘alternative to religion’ for atheists?
• Explaining atheism in the cognitive science of religion.

Thing is, I think I have written verses on the vast majority of these topics.

Anyway, they require the “full name of the author”, and I doubt they would accept “Cuttlefish”, so once again, mollusk can’t buy a break in the vertebrate world. Entries are due by December 31st, for those of you willing to play by their rules.

Unexpected Good News On The Cuttlefish Front

I have written before with bad news from Point Lowly, Spencer Gulf, in South Australia. That was from 2011; in 2012 the news was even worse, and last year things looked grim indeed.

Unexpectedly, this year, the numbers are up again!

Hundreds of giant Australian cuttlefish have swum into breeding grounds at the top of Spencer Gulf in South Australia, reversing a worrying decline of recent years.

It’s not a return to previously normal levels, but it’s the right direction. There has been federal support for cuttlefish research in the area over the past couple of years; I hope people were looking at the right variables to learn from this. These are beautiful creatures, and an amazing gathering. I still hope to visit some day… and I would hate to be the only cuttlefish showing up for the party.

Cuttlecap tip to Kylie, of course!

When Physicists Study Consciousness….

I’m looking for the fountain that will grant eternal youth;
It is said to be in Florida—I’ll take that as the truth—
Expert minds are in agreement (which is never quite the case)
That the Florida peninsula has got to be the place

Now, for centuries, they’ve mapped it, using all the latest tools
And each current generation made the former look like fools
As they upped the resolution of their pictures and their maps,
With the hope they’d find the fountain! Well, eventually… perhaps.

Now with satellites to help them, they have measured to the inch
So it’s just a case of looking—and it ought to be a cinch—
They’ve got all the best equipment, which they’ve pointed all around
So they ought to find it shortly, if there’s something to be found

And the experts are excited, knowing something’s got to give
If they have to strain the data through a quantum-level sieve
And they’re driven to distraction, and they’re pulling out their hair
Cos they’re reaching the conclusion that the fountain… isn’t there.

I’m looking for the correlates of consciousness itself
And it must reduce to physics, say the books upon my shelf
Expert minds are in agreement, past the need to quite explain
That the correlates of consciousness arise within the brain…

Via pbs.org (please please please tell me this is not going to be the topic of a NOVA program!), the news that Physicists Say Consciousness Might Be a State of Matter. Although, actually, it’s one physicist–Max Tegmark, from MIT, writing Consciousness as a State of Matter (pdf), the latest in the attempts to somehow connect consciousness and quantum physics. Spoiler: he’s wrong.

I don’t pretend to understand his whole paper–so how do I know he’s wrong? He starts out wrong well before he gets to the parts that make my eyes glaze over. He assumes mysteries that are not actual mysteries, and looks for explanations many orders of magnitude smaller than what is needed. Even if his notions had any relevance, they are so far down the explanatory chain that they are meaningless (just as an explanation of how an internal combustion engine works does not tell you how to drive from Chicago to New Orleans).

Seriously, the questions of consciousness are made far more difficult (indeed, impossible) than they actually are, because we are presupposing things that simply are not so. Tegmark lists the qualities of “perceptronium” (substance that is subjectively self-aware–and I am not making it up), and the thing is, these are not the qualities of our own conscious experience! If I specified a car that had a perfect crash test rating, 100+ miles per gallon, acceleration and handling to match a high-end formula one car, made of 100% recycled parts, and a price tag that allowed me to buy one for each member of the family, that might well be an ideal car, but it is in no sense a real one. Tegmark’s consciousness has little or nothing to do with human consciousness.

A brilliant expert, speaking outside of an area of expertise, is… just a person.

I have visited this topic a few times before, including the best comment thread in the history of the internets (not just the post–you have to read the comments!)–commenter “thoughts” argues in favor of a view not that far from Tegmark’s; commenter “Phunicular” and I argue in favor of … reality.

“A Greater Fool Than The Atheist”

There’s fools and then, there’s greater fools
Like those who went to fancy schools
For silly stuff like Kepler’s rules
And other science stuff

The planetary hows and whys
Show God at work—that’s no surprise.
You need to back your case with lies?
The bible is enough

So my aggregator threw a site at me I had not seen before. It put me in mind of arguments I have not heard since grade school (about which, more below). It began by slapping two groups with the same bible verse (how economical!):

In the Bible, Psalm 53:1 says “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: there is none that doeth good”. We last spoke of the willful blindness of the atheist, who refuses to acknowledge his Creator. They believe in the ridiculous concept of evolution, which has no explanation for the beginning of life, and how fruits, nuts, vegetables, vitamins, minerals, and herbs for our health were provided. As foolish as the atheist may be, there is a group that’s even more foolish: they are the Muslims.

So, yeah, we’re fools. This guy is gonna teach us.

Let’s start with the Moon, for it is what the Muslims worship. It is the largest relative satellite in the solar system. From when the renewed Moon (lower crescent) is sighted in Jerusalem, to the next sighting of the renewed Moon, is about 29.53+ days. During the months of October to March, the Moon is closer to the Earth, and has a shorter (smaller) orbit around the Earth.
During April to October, the Moon is farther away from the Earth, and has a longer (larger) orbit around the Earth, and increases its velocity. It does this in order to remain in sync with the Earth’s distance from the Sun,maintaining its apparent equal size with the Sun, as viewed from Earth. The Atheist thinks that happened by random chance. [italics mine]

No, the atheist thinks what you just said is not true. It reminds me a bit of a bit of God-evidence I heard as a small child. We could trust the Genesis account of Eden, you know, because of biology; it is a medical fact that men have one fewer ribs than do women.

Now, this was easily checkable, thought not so much for a pre-internet kid. Encyclopedias did not actually outright say that men and women had the same number of ribs (because their writers evidently never considered the possibility that someone might actually need that bit of information spelled out for them!), and the claim was verified by at least one teacher (who, in hindsight, I can see was more religious than scientific in background)

And Mr. Cummings’s claim about the moon’s orbit is likewise wrong. Not only is it wrong, it actually contradicts observations that had been made since well before Christianity began. The moon and stars were important; they were carefully observed. The moon was larger and smaller, the planets moved, sometimes apparently slowing down and speeding up, even moving backward (as observed by us, anyway–thus “mars in retrograde”–a claim that the moon goes faster the further it is from earth would not be made based on the observed moon. Rather, the attempt to have the moon prove God’s existence has actually forced us (well, Mr. Cummings, anyway) to actively ignore evidence and make shit up.

My comment there, just in case…

Mr Cummings, you might want to check your science.

Any satellite (including the moon) in its elliptical orbit does not move faster when it is at its apogee (furthest distance); its fastest speed is actually at its perigee (closest distance). This is, you will note, the exact opposite of what you claim here. So… which is wrong? Science, or you?

You might also want to take a look at the beautiful phenomenon of the annular eclipse, in comparison to the total eclipse. The sun and moon do not, as you claim, maintain an apparent equal size, but vary enough for a spectacular variation in eclipses, depending on whether the sun or the moon appears larger (for annular and total eclipses, respectively). Again, you will note, this is the exact opposite of what you have written here. Will you change your claim? Or will you deny the evidence of the very sun and moon themselves?

If I cannot trust you to speak the truth about these simple, obvious things, why on earth should I trust you on anything else? For instance, it is easy to check your “I have been told” story about Obama (http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/weddingring.asp). If you are so gullible when the evidence is easy to see, is there something about 2,000-year-old information that somehow makes it *more* reliable?

If I sound harsh or impolite here, please understand, I am responding to a post that A) calls me a fool, and B) does so based on clearly false information, which C) is very easily checkable.

The title of the post is The Truth of Genesis: The Muslim Is A Greater Fool Than The Atheist – Part 1B No, really.

Two days late to be an April Fools Day joke.