Science and the big questions

Chemist Peter Atkins writes that it is only science that can answer real big questions, as opposed to invented ones such as Why are we here? What are the attributes of the soul?.

They are not real questions, because they are not based on evidence. Thus, as there is no evidence for the Universe having a purpose, there is no point in trying to establish its purpose or to explore the consequences of that purported purpose. As there is no evidence for the existence of a soul (except in a metaphorical sense), there is no point in spending time wondering what the properties of that soul might be should the concept ever be substantiated. Most questions of this class are a waste of time; and because they are not open to rational discourse, at worst they are resolved only by resort to the sword, the bomb or the flame.

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Views on sex work change in a positive direction

Sometimes, especially in reactionary times like the one we are living in in the US at this moment when social progress seems to be in retreat under a determined assault from Donald Trump and his Republican party and supporters, it is easy to become discouraged. At such times, I remind myself that major social changes on race and gender and sexuality have been achieved in my own lifetime and these are irreversible because they involve changes in social attitudes.

Natasha Lennard reports on another area in which a major change has been quietly occurring and that is with the move to decriminalize sex work.
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Update on the impeachment proceedings

I have not been writing much about the impeachment trial in the US senate because I view it as political theater with a predetermined outcome since Trump and the Republicans are working together to make sure that no new information comes out, no witnesses are called, and no new documentary evidence presented, so that they can vote on acquittal as quickly as possible. All the posturing by a few Republican senators that they might vote to call witnesses is just that, posturing, so that they can pretend to be thoughtful people rather than hacks and craven Trump toadies.
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How big oil exploits the legal system to intimidate critics

Sharon Lerner details the story of how the oil company Chevron is using the US legal system to hit back against a US lawyer Steven Donziger who won a big environmental case against them in Ecuador brought by the indigenous people there whose land had been massively contaminated by the oil giant.

LAST AUGUST, DURING the second-hottest year on record, while the fires in the Amazon rainforest were raging, the ice sheet in Greenland was melting, and Greta Thunberg was being greeted by adoring crowds across the U.S., something else happened that was of great relevance to the climate movement: An attorney who has been battling Chevron for more than a decade over environmental devastation in South America was put on house arrest.

Few news outlets covered the detention of Steven Donziger, who won a multibillion-dollar judgment in Ecuador against Chevron over the massive contamination in the Lago Agrio region and has been fighting on behalf of Indigenous people and farmers there for more than 25 years.
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More academics behaving really badly

A shocking news report reveals that federal authorities have leveled charges about how Charles M. Lieber, the chair of the chemistry department at Harvard University, engaged in extraordinary acts of academic malfeasance of a financial nature.

Court documents allege Mr Lieber, who has worked as the head investigator at the Lieber Research Group at Harvard University, received more than $15m (£11.5m) in grants from the US National Institute of Health and the US Department of Defence.

Recipients of these grants have to disclose any conflicts of interest, including financial support from foreign governments or organisations.

However in 2011, allegedly without Harvard’s knowledge, Mr Lieber joined Wuhan University of Technology in China as a scientist.
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The anti-Sanders campaign tries to gain traction

The Democratic National Committee is kicking its anti-Sanders program into high gear. Kevin Gosztola writes that its chair Tom Perez has announced the membership of the nominating committee at the party convention this July and has stacked it with the usual suspects, consisting of people involved in torture cover-ups, Russia fear-mongering, and lobbyist glad-handling, apartheid Israel operatives, regime-change experts who defend the corporate order, Wall Street bankers, corporate lobbyists, and free trade fanatics, and those associated with the notorious John Podesta whose emails in 2016 revealed the extent of his anti-Sanders hate where he argued that Sanders needed to “ground to a pulp” and asked “where should we stick the knife in?”
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TV Review: Good Omens (2019) (No spoilers)

This six-part mini-series based on the book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is superb. The 1990 book of the same name is very good but this TV adaptation is even better. It definitely benefits from being made into a miniseries that lasted a total of nearly six hours, rather that a shorter feature film. It enabled the screenwriter Gaiman and the director to provide a much richer texture to an already complex story. The series is available on HBO which I do not subscribe to but I happened to be staying at my daughter’s place and they do subscribe so I took the chance to watch it. I can strongly recommend it. In fact, I plan on seeing it again because the dialogue and acting are so good that it is the kind of thing that benefits from a second viewing, where one picks up on gags that one missed the first time around.

The story is based on the impending Armageddon that will climax in a major battle between the forces of Good and Evil that will be triggered by the Antichrist, who is boy named Adam, soon after his 11th birthday. The TV series expands the roles of Aziraphale (an angel) and Crowley (a demon). Aziraphale was the angel guarding the gate of the Garden of Eden who took pity on the banished Adam and Eve and even gave them his flaming sword to protect them from the wild creatures they would encounter in the hostile world outside. Crowley initially appears in the form of the serpent who tempted Eve. The angel and demon are supposed to be on opposite sides in the war but over thousands of years of crossing paths at various major events in human history have developed a sort of friendship that is grudging at first but becomes stronger when they realize that they both do not see the point of destroying the Earth and all its inhabitants and decide to try and thwart the grand plan. This puts them in the bad books of their two organizations, who try to pull them back into line.
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