Thursday, July 24, 2014

Be A Primate for the Climate

This post was originally written on Facebook by me in response to a dear friend who was responding to a forward of a Salon.com interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson which I posted. This friend, who is a good and decent man who I’ve known all my life and consider a “brother from a different mother," is somewhat skeptical about human caused climate change.

To answer your question is simple and deGrasse Tyson did so in the article. First, let me say that your (and all) skepticism is healthy. That, in part, pushes and challenges science to study and make claims based on the scientific method. And yes there are some, although it is a minority, of scientists who do not think humans are impacting climate. [added for this post: There are also scientists who think the world is 6,000 years old and deny evolution – that doesn’t give their ideas merit or make them reasonable or facts].

So I don't know the exact percentage, but let's say for argument that human impact on climate is between 20-80%. Where 20% represents low and 80% high human impact on the global climate.

I'd say either way that these numbers are irrelevant in some ways. But that doesn't mean we humans, who are faced with a global problem, should ignore the problem.

We all agree that the climate is changing. We all agree that the climate has changed for 4.5 billion years and will continue to do so long after we’re gone. But I personally refuse to accept, and this is an ethical choice on my part, that humans can't intervene on the back end of what nature and humans are doing on the front end.

That's what Tyson is saying when he suggests that climate change deniers are basically defeatists. Clearly if you throw your hands up and say "well it’s nature and that's climate change is happening so let's not do anything about it” [for this post] is a defeatist response.

That's like saying, "Well polio (or any disease) is really bad but it happens in nature so don't create a vaccine." But if you think of humans trying to fix as best we can changes to the climate as a vaccine to help us survive you get a totally different perspective [added: on climate change science and the call by scientists and others to do something about it]

I will also grant you that there are extremists on several sides who don’t know science and make claims that are drastic and unrealistic (Like ignoring or dismissing the issue totally or on the other extreme where everyone goes back to farming, there are no cars and we all live in 12x12 boxes). I like my steak like I like my car and home just like the next guy.

So be curious sure, but when collective science expresses an agreed statement based on evidence I tend to accept it. But like in every human endeavor science changes although you won't see anyone putting the earth at the center of the solar system. That was Tyson's other point. Some things are universally accepted based on observation, testing and evidence. [They are challenged by better science and not personal opinion – philosophy no matter its value is not science].

Climate change is occurring but the biggest political, economic and social issue is what do we humans do about it. I say we can and should do many things for our survival or our only home (the Earth) will be a dust bowl. It will not be able to support human life and that's not good for humans.

So we’re primates with big brains and a consciousness. And I conclude that we can do things to stop the climate's deterioration. That's not only good business to be inventive but in the process and long run it will save our civilization and remind us all that our creativity is perhaps our most humbling human trait.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Particle Fever: A Reality Rather Than a Metaphor for Science Discovery

Science smashes two things equally well - Atoms and Convention."
-Dr. David I. Orenstein



Dr. Peter Higgs

This is not a film review of the documentary Particle Fever.  Our good friend and occasional guest writer for this site, Dr. Tyson Gill, contributed an excellent review of the film back in March of this year.

This is more of a personal reaction to watching the film. Each time getting more excited then the last because it offers an opportunity to see really smart people uncover deep insights concerning the natural mechanics of our universe. There are few modern documentary films which adequately show scientists working collaboratively and with such collective vision and conviction.

Sadly and all too frequently in the popular media scientists are either shown as being "mad" with nefarious anti-humanistic goals or they are written and performed to look like social misfits. In both cases these characterizations misguide the general public into thinking that scientists and those who want to explore and learn science are either unable or unwilling to bond with "real people."

But there are rays of hope. For instance, 2010's The Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog shows archeologists and a collaborative team of scientists trying to preserve some of humankind's earliest cave art. Also in 2010, Jane's Journey, a documentary biography of primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall showed how scientists are indeed kind, gentle and committed to peace. And 2013's The Unbelievers showed Larry Krauss and Richard Dawkins barnstorming the world in their individual and collective efforts to teach science and the importance of reason so that through these twin concepts (outside of religious faith) we can come together as a species and explore all the possibilities our harnessed brains and human empathy can imagine.

But the film Particle Fever actually stands out as a hallmark both as an artistic endeavor and statement about the important goals of science. We see scientists as real-life people who at their core seem very happy and connected. They also appear intense as they work in their careers to discover new knowledge and wisdom. This film should be used as a recruitment tool for students studying the hard sciences.

The film recounts the efforts of an international collection of top scientists (physicists, engineers and mathematicians mostly) all working at CERN. They're filmed in one-on-one interviews and at other times in large control rooms filled with people readying machines and equipment to smash atoms together to generate a Higgs field. To create in a lab scientifically what nature does on a grand scale - cause the formation of a Higgs particle.

They say there is no such thing as an overnight success and in particle physics that is certainly true as well. In 1993, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that was being built in Texas (United States) was de-funded by Congress. This blunder showed an infinite lack of wisdom and courage on the part of elected representatives and thus left the gigantic machine half built and in the process squandered taxpayer money by not completing the complex.

But it was our friends in Europe, specifically at CERN, who saw an opportunity to do what Congress with their lack of vision, interest or understanding could do. That was fund and build an LHC to prove or disprove ideas about the nature of matter and the laws of physics. And with this ownership comes notoriety, invention, patents and commerce that at best makes the United States a third string player. Can you imagine, a nation founded in part to bring new ideas and machines to market will be a consumer of but not the inventor of opportunity that will come from these scientific experiments and discoveries. 

In the film we meet men and women from Iran, the EU, and even (yes) some Americans who worked on the CERN project. We also meet groups of scientists from different theoretical camps within physics as well. All betting that if the Higgs particle could be replicated that its existence would validate their ideas and thus consequently falsify the other faction's theories. However these rivalries are not violent. They take place and form the basis of testing and seeking a more advanced rational (rather than metaphysical) truth than the one which we currently hold as valid with regard to the universe's structure and existence.

You get the fly on the wall view of the mundane; the attempts to start the machine and watch failure as equipment overheats and new dates for tests lead to postponements. But then you see valiant efforts to mange through these tribulations and watch as the scientists use their  brain power and technical skills. At same time they check and recheck equations, work with complex machines and other associated technology as they ready to apply their work and verify decades of research and theory regarding the essential nature of our universe.

And like any good movie the viewer can expect a sequel. That's because the experiment verified the existence of the Higgs particle but did not answer the other major question. That question being is this a stable universe or is it a chaotic one. Depending on the mass of the Higgs particle that answer would have come based on its atomic weight. But since the particle weighed almost in the middle of the two values needed to answer the question it remains unanswered. That is at least for another two years since the CERN machine needs downtime for equipment upgrades which will then smash atoms harder and faster. This, the physicists hope, will actually settle the theoretical debate once and for all.

That is until we think of better ways to use science to further unlock the boundaries of nature still closed to our grasp.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Is the Observable Universe Also a Pale Blue Dot?

Carl Sagan called the Earth “The Pale Blue Dot.” and the famous photo of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft confirmed that our planet is a simple lonely celestial body in our solar system. But for those of us down here it is also an elegantly beautiful world full of biological and human-made diversity. Dr. Sagan would boast that this is the only home any of us will ever know. That we exist on an unremarkable distant planet orbiting a half-used sun in a backwater of a galactic spiral arm. We are also a planet which is also teaming with life and of this life we humans, as a single species of evolved primate, remain just one of many outcomes of natural selection and this biological diversity.

Dr. Sagan was also fond of saying that our planet floats like a mode of dust as we compare its size and place in our solar system and galaxy. But perhaps it isn’t just that our tiny planet is floating like a mode of dust in both space and time. Perhaps it is also our entire universe, this immense 14.6 billion year structure in which our small Earth is just one of billions of planets circulating around one of billions of distant suns.

If our solar system is as dramatically small, this will mean that the scientific tools we’re currently using to judge subjective concepts like “big” and “little” have to be recalibrated.  This also means that we should continue to scientifically investigate, if only theoretically, the possibility that our universe no matter how large or small is like our Earth. That is as Earth is to our universe in size, so could our universe be just as small when compared to multiverses or naturally organized solar system-like structures in other spaces, times and dimensions.



This whole discussion about the size, place and importance of our universe came up recently (thank you Francesca) via a genteel discussion while walking home from - of all places - my local Starbucks. So I consider writing a post about the universe as being perfect since the closest I can ever get to the stars will be the coffee house on every corner of Manhattan.

It follows that if our universe isn’t that spectacular after all, although I am certainly awestruck being so tiny in comparison, we may find that how it came into existence is equally less extraordinary. Especially since its very existence is bound by the laws of nature as observed and governed by our physics and mathematics.

That being the case it is entirely possible that not only can something come from nothing, but also as Larry Krauss so elegantly puts it in his book A Universe from Nothing, there really isn’t “nothing” after all. Even the spaces between the space are actually teaming with forms of energy (think quantum mechanics here) which pop into and out of existence in an instant. Which leads us to the realization that knowing the natural world in concrete terms is a better way to understand just how “something” comes not from nothing, but how something comes from everything.

Now as Einstein and Spinoza agreed, this view of nature allows us to accept the mechanics of the natural world in such a way that knowing how it operates is perhaps the highest form of connectivity to its laws and to each other. There is no better truth than the truth we gain from rationally examining our surroundings and building a collective set of human knowledge and wisdom about the ontological, epistemological and operational aspects of nature.

This is of course an alternative to religious doctrine which in some cases demands and states with blind certainty that our universe no more than 6,000 years old. Equally audacious and slave-like is idea that even if one accepts concepts like multiverses, evolution and the natural mechanics of space-time, the placement of an invisible non-evidenced divine creator at the start is frankly ludicrous. Especially since the Big Bang as it is known may not have been a "start" at all but just a common occurrence somewhere in and at some point of space-time.

As our post-Starbucks discussion petered out, as I conclude discussions like this need a Higgs-Boson amount of energy to continue between lay astronomers, I went back to my Frappuccino.  But we each kept stargazing as we’re both delighted and humbled by our place in nature. In fact just think that in an uncaring and random universe here we are as a species looking up and challenging the universe to reveal secrets for which we humans still only estimate are possibly true.

Just the idea of discovery is a human construct and a human conceit. These laws of nature and natural processes have existed both long before we evolved and before our universe exploded into existence. This means there is too much to learn in our lifetime to ever know everything. And that I conclude is absolutely wonderful!

This also means that it is the human birthright to continue exploring the unknown and to re-verify the known. Science and knowledge are the twin gifts that offers every succeeding generation the ability to know more about reality and the natural world than previous generations only dreamed.

And not knowing makes life worth living because you never know what will be uncovered tomorrow.  It also makes any holy book, theology, metaphysics, religious ritual, and prayer a pale ghost compared to the wisdom we gain from understanding the physical reality of our world and universe. We should each embrace and explore these mysteries and wonders and not fear the unknown or claim a divine being or their representatives on Earth exclusive access to knowledge.

After all, the world is not flat, it is older that 6,000 years, evolution occurs on it and it is known not to be the center of our solar system. Thanks to science such ignorance is left to the faithful to claim and ponder.