This universe is either eternally cyclical, or one of many

Scientists have been examining data from scans of the cosmic background radiation for a while now, and separate groups of them have over the past few months, alternately, discovered concentric circles pointing toward cyclicality, and found bruises where universes would have jostled against one another, that point toward M-theory. From The Physics arXiv Blog:

Last month, Roger Penrose at the University of Oxford and Vahe Gurzadyan at Yerevan State University in Armenia announced that they had found patterns of concentric circles in the cosmic microwave background, the echo of the Big Bang.

This, they say, is exactly what you’d expect if the universe were eternally cyclical. By that, they mean that each cycle ends with a big bang that starts the next cycle. In this model, the universe is a kind of cosmic Russian Doll, with all previous universes contained within the current one.

That’s an extraordinary discovery: evidence of something that occurred before the (conventional) Big Bang.

Today, another group says they’ve found something else in the echo of the Big Bang. These guys start with a different model of the universe called eternal inflation. In this way of thinking, the universe we see is merely a bubble in a much larger cosmos. This cosmos is filled with other bubbles, all of which are other universes where the laws of physics may be dramatically different to ours.

These bubbles probably had a violent past, jostling together and leaving “cosmic bruises” where they touched. If so, these bruises ought to be visible today in the cosmic microwave background.

I don’t throw in with either theory, as either one would be really cool. The discovery of bruises is more recent, though, so it’s at least the one I’ll be thinking more about for the foreseeable future. One way or another, scientists will have a bigger dataset to play with, when the Planck mission starts returning some data. I was very pleased to note that arXiv points out themselves: ‘these effects could easily be a trick of the eye. As Feeney and co acknowledge: “it is rather easy to fifind [sic] all sorts of statistically unlikely properties in a large dataset like the CMB.” ‘

Whether they’re a trick of the eye or not, almost doesn’t matter. What we’re doing is looking at the evidence, and developing hypotheses and ways to test these hypotheses. This pursuit of knowledge is fundamentally what defines us as a species. Stuff like this makes me happy.

There’s no such thing as “Sex By Surprise”.

As I mentioned in the Wikonspiracy post a few days ago, I recently got into a knock-down drag-out fight on Facebook. I don’t want to expose you to blog drama, but it involved me falling prey to one of my weaknesses — assuming that people who act like they have an ulterior motive for repeatedly asking a question that gets repeatedly answered satisfactorily, actually DO have an ulterior motive. It also involved the repeated assertion that Julian Assange was accused of “sex by surprise”, rather than any actual rape charges, and despite several links stating otherwise, it took one specific link stating that the charges were read out in court to finally get my sparring partner to apparently realize (though not admit, mind you) that line of argumentation to be specious. It also ended with me being called a lying sack of dog shit. In front of a number of people I would like to count as my regular readers.

That notwithstanding, despite the conversation going that way (and not, certainly, in any direction wherein the participants were inclined to dialogue), I can’t help but continue to think that people who claim the charge against Julian Assange was “sex by surprise”, are just trying to pull something.
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Liar, lunatic, lord, or other L-words

I was mulling over on my drive to work the other day, the C S Lewis trilemma about Jesus’ divinity. Yes, that’s the kind of thing I think about while in transit, when the classic rock station isn’t holding my interest. It struck me that when people offer a limited set of options as though they are the only options, they almost always exclude options that are devastating to their general argument, and this was probably the case here as well. This is a “false dilemma” or “excluded middle” fallacy. Lewis offers exactly three options as though they are the only ones — that Jesus either intentionally lied about being God, was a lunatic and thought he was God but wasn’t, or was actually God.

Lewis’ argument runs that anyone claiming to be Lord either is, is mad, or is lying; and that since these latter two options are logically incompatible with the idea that Jesus was a great moral teacher, and that it is generally accepted that he was, then Jesus must have been Lord. The thought emerged fully formed in my mind: what if Jesus didn’t exist at all, and was pure legend? Or if he existed, much like Jason of the Argonauts, but his stories had accumulated millenia of apocryphal cruft? The option had an L-word right in the name — “legend” — so I was naturally quite pleased with myself and my big pulsing brain.
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Some of my older atheism/science posts you probably haven’t read

Judging mostly by the pageview count, that is.

One of my first posts on atheism, Life, the universe, and everything (or, I’m An Atheist And So Can You!):

The universe *is* finite. We (by which I mean scientists, the guys on whose shoulders I’m trying to stand) are pretty sure it started as an infinitessimally tiny, infinitessimally dense speck containing all the matter that exists in this universe (picture the end result of a “giant” black hole having eaten *everything there is*), and something happened to cause it to explode violently enough to eject all of that matter outward.

If you say “God did it”, you’re still thinking like a deist. Remember, you’re an atheist now, so play along. I’ll get to your thought on that matter in a moment.

Now, the fact that the universe is finite — there’s only so much matter in the universe, and it all got thrown outward by a violent explosion — means there’s a limit to the universe. Yes, the word finite implies this, but I have to stress this point. There’s a limit to the universe. I don’t know what happens if we were to fly out past this limit — past the point where the furthest star in the furthest galaxy got flung billions of light-years away from here. Maybe you’ll basically expand the definition as to what the limit is, and the universe will contain every star plus you way out stretching the edge of the bubble just by flying out past that border. Maybe you’ll hit something and get bounced back. Maybe you’ll wrap around to the other side. Maybe there’s a whole lot of emptiness for a very, very long time, then eventually a big glass wall.

Why is it so difficult to “come out” as an atheist?

Well, for starters, not believing in gods and devils and ghosts and psychic powers and healing crystals and homeopathy on merely the word of some person who has little or no real evidence for their claims is an extraordinarily liberating feeling. The fact that I don’t feel the need to thank God for my every blessing or pray to God to ask him to fix my every trivial problem frees up a lot of my precious time to actually enjoy my blessings and do something about my problems. It also means I can recognize a chain of cause and effect in advance, and either correctly attribute the good fortune that comes my way to the little nudges I can give them, or do something preemptive about the bad things before they escalate. And it means that I can wholeheartedly embrace the true study of reality as it is, the scientific endeavour to expand human knowledge. If there’s one thing I believe in, it’s the scientific method.

The “screen resolution” of the universe

What, then, are quarks made of? Does this basic unit have a predefined grid that it has to fit onto? Is movement of everything determined on this grid, however infinitessimally small that grid might be? If so, then the time it takes for that basic unit to move from X=4 to X=5 could very well be the basic unit of time of the universe, one “CPU clock tick” in this computer simulation we call existence. That would imply that the speed of light, which is the fastest that light can travel in a vacuum, might be the absolute fastest that every most basic unit of matter can travel through space — e.g., that every single clock tick the matter is moving one grid point. Which might mean that faster-than-light travel is impossible. Or, we could learn that it’s possible to move two grids each tick, or three, or a hundred. Once we know the most basic unit that exists in this universe, and the most basic unit of time, and the most basic unit of space, then all the doors to understanding the universe will be unlocked, and it will just be a matter of walking through them all, and in the right order so as to actually figure out how this universe works, what its rules are, and how (if it’s even possible) to bend its rules.

Wishful thinking

I’m an agnostic atheist. I believe this universe is comprehensible, given enough time and directed efforts, and I believe (like Sagan) that we are this universe’s way of knowing itself. There is nothing spiritual about that fact — we don’t know how many universes there are, or what rules they run on, or whether life is possible in all of them, but the anthropic principle says we wouldn’t be here to observe and worry about the universe if this universe were not capable of sustaining us, so who’s to say there’s anything special about us except that we live in a multiverse of very, VERY large numbers, so multiple such occurrences were bound to happen? And who’s to say that our understanding of reality is anything close to perfect, and that there is no possibility for as-yet-unexplained phenomena?

Religion as mental parasite

Imagine a healthy human mind — not the brain, but that thing that the theists commonly call the soul, the consciousness that is contingent on the proper functioning of that brain. That mind has several properties built up by the structure of the brain over long aeons of evolution: the capacity for rational thought, a sympathy for other like minds that sometimes extends beyond our species by process of anthropomorphism, an ability to create mental images of people based on mere descriptions of them, a willingness to accept authority, an ability to detect (or, more often, suspect) agency behind something that may have no agency at all. Like all other evolved traits, what might be useful in one respect can also be detrimental in another. In other words, because we were not immaculately designed, our minds, the product of the physical brain, has vulnerabilities. Our mental programming has, shall we say, bugs.

If that’s not enough reading to make up for my recent inattention, I don’t know what could be.

Antihydrogen: tiny atom, HUGE F’N DEAL

CERN physicists have done something heretofore outside the grasp of humankind — creating and trapping antimatter. This is a big deal, because catching antimatter and keeping it without it annihilating whatever you’re trapping it with is hard as hell. It’s also a big deal because antimatter is one of physics’ largest mysteries, way out on the very fuzziest of fuzzy boundaries of human knowledge. It’s such a big deal in my estimation, in fact, that when I found out that humankind had managed to leap this hurdle, the most eloquent and comprehensible words out of my mouth for the next half hour were — and I quote — “HOLY FUCKING SHIT.” I’m still buzzing over the news — because this IS huge. It means we might be able to figure out why there’s something rather than nothing in this anthropic universe.

Too late, Ackbar. We have the rebel scum in our clutches.

You see, in the beginning, this universe was seeded from a set of initial conditions that resulted in a good deal of both matter and antimatter. However, the balance was not perfect — some fundamental aspect of the physics of quarks tipped the scales ever so slightly toward matter — and while well over 99% of the matter that was generated from the Big Bang self-annihilated, the remnants became the universe we see today.

Our understanding of the process of the Big Bang — though we know it probably happened, given all the evidence pointing that way — is fairly limited. Since nobody was around to see it (and really, nobody COULD, as time and space mean nothing outside the context of the event itself), we have only the evidence we see today with which to extrapolate how the quantum soup turned into matter, or why matter won the showdown. That is, except we managed to replicate some of the conditions of the initial spark via the LHC and its “little bang”, and we’ve only just now figured out a way to even begin investigating why matter won out over antimatter in this iteration of the universe.

The really amazing thing about this experiment is not that it created some small quantity of antihydrogen. We’ve actually created a good deal of antimatter in the past, but it tends to explode when it touches… well, anything. This quantity of antihydrogen, however, was successfully suspended in an electric field such that we can theoretically study it in the same manner that we study hydrogen. Hydrogen is the smallest, simplest element, and is the most well-studied and well-understood. Antihydrogen is therefore the perfect candidate for study, not only because it’s the simplest to create, but because we can more easily compare its physical properties to its counterpart.

Not that the creation process is at all simple. From The Economist:

Coaxing hot and bothered antiprotons and positrons to couple is quite a task. The magnetic traps employed to hold the antihydrogen are only strong enough to confine it if it is colder than around half a degree above absolute zero. The antiprotons themselves, which are produced by smashing regular protons into a piece of iridium, are around 100 billion times more energetic than this. Several stages of cooling are needed to slow them down before they can be trapped, forming a matchstick-sized cloud of around 30,000 particles. The positrons, produced by the decay of radioactive sodium, are cooled into a similarly sized cloud of around 1m particles and held in a neighbouring trap.

The antiprotons are then pushed into the same trap as the positrons and left to mingle for a second or so. In that time some of the particles get together and form antihydrogen. Next, an electrical field is used to kick out any remaining positrons and antiprotons. The electrically neutral antihydrogen atoms are left behind.

To test whether any antihydrogen was actually formed and captured in their trap, the ALPHA team turned off its trapping magnet. The antihydrogen was then free to wander towards the walls, and thus annihilation. The detectors duly observed 38 bursts of energy which the team concluded came from antihydrogen atoms hitting the wall of the trap.

We are investigating the fundamental nature of our universe, and we are meeting with great success at every turn. To put this leap into perspective, Homo sapiens has existed on this planet for, at absolute most, 200,000 years. Compared to the age of the Earth, or, say, the age of the universe itself, we practically climbed down out of the trees yesterday. Humans have existed for, at best, 0.0000015% of the lifespan of this universe. Our sun will continue to burn in a life-sustaining manner for another five billion years — or 25,000 times as long as we’ve existed in our present, sapient state. Life will be sustainable in this universe for, at worst, another 25 billion years thereafter.

Can you imagine what else we can achieve, if we can manage to stay alive long enough?

Original paper available here.

Update on Avaaz petition vs Sun TV aka ‘Fox News North’

Just received this via e-mail, having subscribed to the Avaaz petition against Stephen Harper’s attempt to force Sun TV, the propaganda wing of the Conservative party, on all cable users. This is the infamous “Fox News North” station about which Harper commiserated with Murdoch et al.

Dear amazing Avaaz community across Canada,

Kory Teneycke, PM Harper’s former spin doctor, resigned in disgrace last week as head of “Fox News North”, citing our campaign. Sun media threw everything at us but Canadians didn’t back down. We’re winning, but we’re not done. “Fox News North” still wants the government to force cable companies to include them in our cable packages. Let’s finish the job and rally thousands of voices asking the CRTC to stand up to “Fox News North”:

We’ve got them on the run! When 80,000 of us signed a petition refusing to be forced to pay for “Fox News North” (aka SunTV) on our cable bills, the Sun media empire threw everything they had at us – smear pieces in their newspapers, threatened lawsuits, and SunTV frontman Kory Teneycke even admitted insider knowledge of a criminal sabotage of our petition!

But Canadians didn’t back down – we donated over $110,000 to meet the legal threats, conveyed our concerns in the media on several news shows, and demanded a criminal investigation into the sabotage of our campaign. And it’s working! Kory Teneycke, PM Harper’s former spin doctor, resigned in disgrace last week as head of Fox News North, citing our campaign and admitting he had “debased the debate”.

This isn’t over. Teneycke was replaced by yet another conservative Prime Minister’s spin doctor and “Fox News North” still wants the government to force cable companies to include them in our cable packages. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) will make the decision and their deadline is approaching — let’s send a flood of public messages directly asking the CRTC to enforce its own policies, and deny a government handout to boost the crony-propaganda and smear journalism of “Fox News North”:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/crtc_no_handouts/?vl

Teneycke’s resignation came 24 hours after we requested a criminal investigation into the sabotage of our petition. But his spin suggested it was attempt to cleanse “Fox News North” (aka Sun TV) of its reputation for crony journalism and smear tactics. That reputation was immediately upheld, however, as Sun Media just replaced Teneycke with Luc Lavoie, who was Brian Mulroney’s spin doctor and left office amid questions about a $300,000 corruption scandal.

The smears in Sun-Media’s echo chamber are that Avaaz is all Americans (why would they care about this issue?!), that our petition is fraudulent or signed by Americans, that we’re a front group for billionaire George Soros, that we’re pro-censorship, and a half-dozen other ridiculous untruths. Canadian author and national treasure Margaret Atwood has responded with an Op-Ed answering smears against both her and Avaaz in Sun Newspapers. (see links at bottom of email — also see Avaaz director Ricken Patel debate Kory Teneycke on the CBC).

This kind of crony-media and it’s smearing and often hateful tactics is undermining democracy in many countries by offering it’s propaganda services in return for political favours. We have just 10 days left to get a tidal wave of public comments into the CRTC asking for this toxic new network to be denied a special government favour to fund their launch. Click below to send a message directly to the CRTC:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/crtc_no_handouts/?vl

Since Teneycke’s resignation, Avaaz has been flooded with messages from Canadians brimming with enthusiasm and optimism for what we can accomplish together. Together we’re taking on one of the country’s largest and most unscrupulous media empires, and we’re winning. Just imagine what’s possible for the future.

With hope and excitement,
Ricken, Emma, Laryn and the whole Avaaz team.

Margaret Atwood’s Op-Ed in the Sun:
http://www.torontosun.com/comment/columnists/2010/09/17/15388296.html

Ricken discuses Teneycke’s departure LIVE on CBC:
http://www.cbc.ca/video/#/News/Featured_Videos/ID=1592304620

Ricken debates Kory Teneycke LIVE on CBC:
http://www.cbc.ca/video/#/News/Featured_Videos/ID=1582123926


Support the Avaaz community! We’re entirely funded by donations and receive no money from governments or corporations. Our dedicated team ensures even the smallest contributions go a long way — donate here.

Thought you might like to know.

Suicide Prevention Day

Folks, you might like to know that today is World Suicide Prevention Day. As part of the activity, you’re encouraged to light a candle at 8pm and put it in a window in memory of survivors and those we’ve lost. That kind of token awareness-raising is well and good, but I’d personally strongly encourage you to support your local suicide prevention hotlines, do whatever you can to limit access to the more common means of suicide, or even just pass the word along on your blogs.

Most suicides can be prevented. It’s not always a matter of needing to “see the signs”, as none of us are trained psychologists; however, knowing that the best mitigating practices involve public health measures and evidence-based prevention initiatives, we can make inroads. The ways to make such inroads, is through both science, and politics. If you can raise political awareness that this needs addressing, wonderful. And if you can produce studies and increase the body of human knowledge with regard to how and why suicides occur, and how to prevent them, so much the better. Knowledge is power; forewarned is forearmed.

As George Hrab says, “everything alive will die someday”. But why seek to hasten it? This life is the only one you get. Suck the marrow out of it.

What would happen if astrology were suddenly proven true?

Yakaru of Spirituality Is No Excuse wrote up an interesting thought-experiment — what might happen if astrology started to produce scientifically verified, empirically validated results? His answer: not what the astrologers might hope.

The first repercussions

* Newspaper astrologers would find the rug being pulled out from under them. Mainstream astrologers would gloatingly remind them that they’ve been saying all along that it isn’t proper astrology, rather it just provides skeptics with an “easy target”.

* People would realise that the daily astrology column is completely pointless, and newspapers would apologetically let their highly paid astrologers go back to the dole office. Planetary positions would be incorporated in the weather forecast.

* Chinese, Mayan, Tibetan, Arab and Vedic astrologers would all be devastated by the news that their astrology has now been definitively shown to be wrong and would be out of a job. Or they would be desperately trying to square their system with the triumphant one.

Some might try to ascertain that they are all “right in their own way”, but this won’t work. If that were the case, we would quickly have landed back at the current situation, where a random system is as good as classical astronomy.

Standards for evidence would now be let loose in the previously harmonious profession. And that would cause further problems.

I mentioned such a possibility in one of my comments on the gigantic astrology debunking thread, regarding what a boon to humanity the empirical verification, testing and winnowing-out of the correct interpretation of the heavens might be. I was hoping Robert Currey or some other astrologer might take the bait and agree, as frankly, this would mean well over 90% of the astrologers out there would be, ultimately, wrong. Most of their interpretations would be bunk, the vast majority of the astrologers would be cast to the wayside, and only one true set of effects could be scientifically verified and validated. That knowledge would become part of the body of human knowledge; software would be written to provide correct interpretations without the need for a “trained astrologer” to interpret the results. It would change the world of astrology from a priest-class set of authority figures, to a scientific, precise, measurable one that can be correctly interpreted.

The only assumption you need to make, to understand that the world of astrology would not survive such empirical validation, is the assumption that this universe has a specific set of principles under which it operates; that it “works one way”, and that only one interpretation of the facts is correct. Then their whole house of cards falls apart.

Hanny and the Mystery of the Voorwerp

Jodi and I aren’t at Dragon*Con geeking it up with all our intertube bretheren, but apparently our names are. At CONvergence, we took part in several panels (there’s even photographic proof of the back of my and Kelly’s heads!) with Kelly McCullough, author of the WebMage series and all-around stand-up guy, the enthusiastic and incredibly sweet Dr. Pamela L. Gay, and the immensely knowledgeable Bill Keel, discussing how to go about turning the discovery and investigation of Hanny’s Voorwerp into a web comic in order to provide a manner of outreach, bringing the obvious human interest aspects of the story to the public. As it turns out, by doing so, we volunteered to help co-author the web comic. Not that I wasn’t absolutely honoured by the fact!

So we wrote several of the pages’ dialogue to help shoulder some of the burden, then Kelly gave them all a going-over to ensure we were all “on the same page”, so to speak. And for what minimal amount of effort we put in, we got a co-writing credit on the front page of the comic. This of course means that, because it was just unveiled at Dragon*Con, we’re there in spirit.

The comic is free to download right here, though you should really consider purchasing a real copy for a mere $5 US + tax and shipping to help defray their costs for publication and commissioning the artwork. Which, by the way, is absolutely beautiful.

For the minimal amount of effort we feel like we’ve actually contributed to this process, I’m proud to have been included. I truly feel that every little contribution to the cause of scientific outreach is worthwhile, no matter how my humility keeps me from taking any sort of credit.

The Universe Cares Not for Us

You’d think with a post title like that, the post behind it would be completely devoid of hope, inspiration, or forward-thinking. You’d think the combative theists’ claims that atheism leads to nihilism are well-founded. You’d think that atheism equals giving up on humanity.

You’d be wrong.

In a rather flippant final paragraph I wrote:

“We need to look at humanity to see how to fix it, not to look skyward and pray for intervention, or worse, the end of days. And I really do think we can do this; we have the knowledge, we have the means, let’s make this thing work for all of us.”

I really think this future is possible. And there are several important things I think we need to understand before we can achieve the kind of future we want to see. Keep in mind this is not everything, but these are the things I see as key to the way humanity survives into the future. And it will not be easy. Each and every one of us has to undergo a psychological change in understanding for this to happen. I am not suggesting any kind of manifesto for the future, as I do not have all the answers. But I see this as a starting point, and we have to start somewhere.

What follows in Atheist Climber’s post is a series of paragraphs identifying humanity’s failure to look out for ourselves, and how to rectify that fact. It is eloquent, it is soaring, and it expresses faith in humankind’s innate value and ability to overcome all obstacles, even those self-imposed by previous short-sightedness. Nobody’s going to come save us in our hour of need. Nobody, that is, but ourselves.

It’s for that reason that I am a science booster, primarily and without reservation. Science will save us, or doom us all, depending on the better natures of who wields it. There are no deities, no father figures to look out for us. Time we grow up and take responsibility for our own fates.