Showing posts with label Neil deGrasse Tyson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Neil deGrasse Tyson. Show all posts

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 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.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

COSMOS: Exciting All of Us to Seek True Wisdom

"To believe in a universe as young as six or seven thousand years old is to extinguish the light from most of the galaxy, not to mention the light from all the 100 billion other galaxies in the observable universe." - Cosmos Narrator Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Our Hero,
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson
It's been reported online and in print that the Creation Museum/Answers in Genesis/Ken Ham wants equal time with Neil deGrasse Tyson (NdT) on the COSMOS: A Space Time Odyssey reboot. I imagine that the intense pressure creationists are feeling about being left out of the secular, accurate and free science show must be driving them BONKERS (very unscientific label). Why? Because their 6,000-year-view of the age of the universe, god-directed evolution and theology-based science really negates current actual knowledge of...well...what real science tells us about the 13.8 billion year age of the universe, the randomness of biological evolution and religion-free science.

In the latest COSMOS episode, NdT momentarily takes on but also very directly addresses and refutes the idea that the entire universe is just 6,000 or 7,000 years old as a small minority of evangelical creation scientists claim. How do we know the true age of Earth and the universe? We have many science tools to use, but outside of what geology, biology and fossils tell us, it is what astrophysical science can explain and then reveal that is so amazingly beautiful.  

Because we know, can calculate and then measure the speed of light, something that is constant throughout the Cosmos, we can see way past the Crab Nebula (about 6,000 light years away), and thus see way further back into space-time. Also, as Tyson points out, the Hubble telescope can actually "see" all the way back to the most distant light of the first stars created after the big bang. This light is measured at close to 13.8 billion years. Isn't it wonderful what we humans can know and learn because we use our minds to critically explore and then explain reality.

NdT noted that if the whole universe were just 6,500 years old, that only a very small percentage of our galaxy could then be seen, let alone none of the other galaxies or the rest of the known universe. Such science and logic is delightful and reaffirming for the minds that accept these facts, but for doubters it must be unnerving and explosive to not only find their dogma so openly challenged but because this great science is on FOX television stations, real and actual science can be circulated and shared freely to anyone who tunes in to watch. 

Of course NdT and the producers of COSMOS will not nor should they give any time to the fringe science that is creationism.  That would simply raise its value and sadly for some uninformed minds, make creation science appear equal to real science.  But these are not two sides of one coin because there is no coin here. There is real science and then there is not real science. So it's not that creation science is "less" scientific, it is that creation science just isn't science period.

And it is not just the majority of scientists or those of us who accept and who also trust the scientific method that feel this way. When put on trial, the United States court system has found creationism and Intelligent Design to be a form of theology-based science and as such a violation of the First Amendment which separates State and Church.

Secular humanism, which trusts science as equally and empathetically trusts humans to do the right thing, is a direct threat to anyone who accepts a worldview that requires faith to inform their ideas and actions.  Even non-evangelical faiths such as what can be considered left-of-center Catholicism views secular humanism as dangerous to the firm structure of their religion. In fact, at the same time these "missions of mercy" are feeding the poor, aiding the sick and offering shelter and clothing they are also actively indoctrinating the needy into a very particular theology. Free is NEVER free.

Our Hero,
Dr. Carl Sagan
And it is not that science cannot be challenged. Theories and concepts are being reviewed all the time and when better ones are discovered they are overturned with little public fanfare (excluding the Higgs-Boson and poor dethroned Pluto). That's because the scientific method represents the healthiest way humans can observe and then question reality. Because that's the way real science works, it is not static and it is founded on inquiry, doubt and the questioning of authority.The complete opposite of creationism and Intelligent Design theology.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Cosmos: Evolution of a Series

So we are now two episodes into the new Cosmos reboot, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I cannot remember a time when I scheduled my life around the airing of a television program like I have with these episodes so far.  The science is honest, brilliant and sits firmly in post-modernity. The computer graphics and discussion are clear and the host, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, shows himself to be humble, clever and by taking Carl Sagan’s baton, also a popularizer of science, science education and scientific inquiry.

Clearly a Photoshop Image:
Tyson and Sagan
Produced by Seth MacFarlane (yes, that’s Family Guy’s MacFarlane) and Ann Druyan, Sagan’s wife and collaborator on the original series, the reboot offers lay people entrĂ©e into what best can be described as a smorgasbord of science history and modern science facts.  Indeed, Carl Sagan would be proud of the new series and while it took 34 years (the first “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” aired in 1980) to update, we can see that science has not been sleeping during this time but instead has further enlivened our understanding of nature and humanity’s place in nature.

Of course, I will now sully this brief review by pointing out that our friends from the Creation Museum have gone on record saying the new series amounts to a farce and science indoctrination because the content ignores the Creationist point-of-view. This view holds that the Earth is just 6,000 years old and was divinely created by a very specific god.

While democracy allows for these ideas and the free speech to broadcast them, democracy equally also allows us to ignore and challenge creationist and intelligent design lies and the people who perpetuate such intellectual flatulence.

But let’s end this post on a high note. A note that would make Carl Sagan proud and which allows us to own our human dignity with all fellow humans, even if we fundamentally disagree with their notions about life. Science teaches us to be humble in what is known and equally what is unknown concerning the natural world. For these reasons as we explore our planet and begin to rise to the stars, let us as Sagan had said on many occasions be ready and capable for this challenge by setting worthy goals for all of humanity.

I can think of few better ways to improve this planet then by gaining a clearer understanding of who we are as a species and how we fit into the universe. The more we allow ourselves to question and the more we learn from such inquiry the closer to peace, justice and humanistic secular freedom we will all become.  

Thursday, December 27, 2012

On First Contact and the Implications for Humanity

One day soon and perhaps before the end of this decade cosmologists around the globe will assist in the ultimate scientific pursuit of locating a planet like Earth. A planet outside our solar system which will not only be capable of sustaining organic life, but will actually have some form of life on its surface. Several pretenders to the throne have already been assessed, so while these celestial objects may be light years away in terms of distance, our science is certain that such bodies do exist based on data, mathematics, physics and biology.

Upon discovering life off-Earth, science will finally have the extraterrestrial evidence to show that stories of supernatural creation are inherently wrong. Although skeptics and scientists alike already accept evolution, there are sizable populations on our planet who cling to the idea that we are special and are made in the image of a creator. But how can humans be special when there are billions of planets with the potential for life and many will have intelligent beings that will look nothing like humans.  Based on the universe’s size and density the probability of intelligent extraterrestrial life is astounding.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is fond of using the metaphor of going to the beach and scooping up some ocean water into a cup to try and catch a whale. Clearly, the sample size is too small and the ocean too big, yet we know whales exist. I think that this is a perfect way to say the same thing about our search for life in the cosmos. So far, based on our limited human technology and the fact that we’ve just begun to look in earnest at the cosmos, that we’ve only reached the edge of the cosmic shore in our search for life on other planets.

But when contact is finally made, my assumption is that sophisticated theologians will just move their philosophical chess pieces and say that all life in the cosmos is just part of their very specific god’s plan. They’ll say this without evidence of course and at the same time they’ll need to run much quicker on their theology treadmill as science will continue to show that the need for a creator is without question unneeded and unnecessary to explain life. Such contact will also show that special creation and intelligent design are false and that deities are not real, except for those who create gods out of whole cloth and to those who follow such charlatans.

When thinking about the probability of life on other worlds I am reminded of cosmologist and planetary scientist Geoff Marcy’s wonderfully Saganesque-like recent comment:

"We humans will look up into the night sky, much as we gaze across a large ocean, we will know that the cosmic ocean contains islands and continents by the billions, able to support both primitive life and entire civilizations."

So what do we know now about the liklihood of life on other planets? Scientists estimate based on the evidence they’ve collected that there are several hundred potential habital worlds outside our solar system. And as Carl Sagan was so fond of noting, and I’m paraphrasing, there are at least several hundred billion stars in the universe and at least fifty billion planets in orbit around those stars. If we assume just one in ten can sustain life as we know it (or don’t know it), then that means there are at least five billion planets which may have life on them right now. Some will just sustain microbes but others will have advanced civilizations much greater than our own. We should be elated and humbled by that very notion.

If we are ready technologically to find extraterrestrial life, I conclude that we’re also ready philosophically and emotionally to find life and make contact. It is nice to know that for however many people there are who wish to delude themselves with religious faith, that there are more and more people rejecting the idea of theology and faith. Worldwide, secularism, religious non-affiliation and full non-faith are each growing and actually rise to #3, right after Christianity and Islam in terms of the number of people who philosophically apply non-belief as an acceptable way to be in, act and view the world.

In retrospect, it is only the fact that for many of us for so long we thought we were alone in our secular humanist ideas that kept the non-theist movement from growing. We are now a global movement and religious institutions are fighting back politically. But they can’t win. They can’t win because their most fundamental ideas are baseless and require no facts or evidence for their justifications. They are ancient ways of being in the world which frankly are not required at this stage in our human journey. Religious faith is a barrier to truth and it only adds layers of ignorant complexity where none is needed.

Religion and myth-making spirituality will never completely go away because they are each part of our human history, imagination and psychology. But how we think about faith will change post first-contact. Perhaps just as we view the retired gods or gods from other cultures as simple metaphors, so too will we eventually see the gods who some claim an affinity for today as equally part of this same great fiction.

Post first-contact I think many of our species will stop thinking in religious absolutes as the idea of faith as a positive will neither stand or fall based on its value. It will just exist based on one’s religious affiliation and the meaning each person puts into their faith. So if we see faith in less meaningful ways and also void its virtue the more people will reject it as a needful way to think, be or act.

Transporting our faiths to other worlds will be like spreading a virus. Ultimately and unless one can actually show proof of god, I can think of no good reason to either assume or hope for one or any god to exist. Perhaps that will be the most important benefit to humanity that first-contact will bring. The expulsion of a spiritual vestige which has done more harm than good; has caused more pain and suffering and has deeply fractured humanity for generations in the story of mankind.

So look forward to first contact. Providing those who visit us or who we choose visit do not treat us like the religious European imperialists of the 15th through 20th centuries upon their arrival to North and South America; Africa and other places where native peoples were exploited and decimated, we will begin a new human journey more fulfilling than any of us could have been imagined. 

That day will be upon us soon and we just may shout hallelujah – but most probably communication between species and civilizations off of Earth will either be in binary code or mathematics.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The God of the Gaps is an Ever Shrinking Deity

I still find it fascinating how some people in power, especially politicians (Romney, et al), those in the media (Bill O’Reilly) or business people (Templeton), still hold dearly many supernatural beliefs as a cause for both life and morality. When they speak on the topic of evolution; cosmic or biological and the mechanics of science, even tough they don’t know science and frequently don’t understand or twist it, their views remain respected by those who vote, listen or watch these grand pontificators.

Their most challenging stance always seem to fall back on an old favorite of evolution deniers. Basically its the “God of gaps” argument. That is, if science can’t tell us what this is or how it operates, that proves god must have done it because it is too complicated.  Or as an extension, “this is too difficult to understand (actually its just the person’s inability to understand and not everyone else’s), but we’ll extrapolate that it’s a miracle, leave it alone, not study the phenomenon, and also for good measure we’ll all agree that god did it."

Can you imagine if we accepted the God of the gaps religious argument as valid? What that would mean for us today?  We just wouldn’t have sciences of astronomy, or biology, or physics, nor would be have sufficient math to engineer pretty much everything physical in our lives outside of the body (and if you have any artificial implant, then inside the body as well). We wouldn’t know the age of the universe or our planet, how the tides work, how species evolved. We could also forget modern medicine since we’d be praying for healing and placing leaches on our bodies for cures.

Sadly, as an anthropologist, I cannot convey nor do I think that I can do an adequate job describing cosmological evolution and the physics of life. For that I strongly recommend you read the works of Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

But as someone who dearly loves anthropology and fossil life, I can provide a perspective on what we’ve gained from studying geological formations and the lives of animals  which existed hundreds of millions of year before our appearance as a species some 200,000 years ago. 

We know from studying geology that the planet is not static and that there have been five major mass extinctions in Earth's history. At the end Ordovician (~445 Ma); approximately 12% of families, or 65% of species became extinct. In the late Devonian (~365 Ma); another 14% of families, and 72% of existing species disappeared. The Permian extinction (~250 Ma) lost of known 52 % families and 90% of the existing species. At the end of the Triassic (~210 Ma); about 12% of families and 65% species were lost. Finally, in the late Cretaceous (65 Ma) more than 11% families and 62% species were wiped out. This last extinction leads to the end of the dinosaurs and allowed mammals to flourish.

But if we look at what was going on during these geologic periods we find so much fascinating evidence for the naturally occurring processes of atomic, molecular and biologic life. We know that as the Earth cooled that the oldest known fossils are at least 2.5 billion years old. They came into existence as the planet transitioned to an oxygen atmosphere and by 1.6 BYA we have the origin of the eukaryotes (celled animals).

In the Cambrian period we discover in the fossil record that trilobites and mollusks have flourished. In the Ordovician Brachiopods explode; by the mid-Paleozoic spore-based and vascular plants are found on land. In the late Ordovician invertebrates have moved to land. In the Silurian we have fossil scorpions, spiders, mites, and wingless insects.

The Carboniferous is know as the “Age of the Amphibians” and in the Permian, where sponges, corals, algae thrive, the great dying of this period leads to the Age of Reptiles of the Mesozoic. Also in the Mesozoic we find ferns and conifers; winged insects like dragonflies have evolved. In this period the Thecodonts, who will give rise to all Saurischian & Ornithischian dinosaurs, are living on land.  And this brief history only takes us till about 225 million years BPE. It doesn't include the meteor strike that hit the Earth 65 MYA, killing off the dinosaurs and allowing mammals to flourish and birds to evolve.

So how do we know this story so well?  Aside from chemistry and the gathering of mtDNA and other biologics, we have the fossils.  Fossils are the epithets of the extinct, the almost living tombstones of the dead, they are the thumbprint on the skyscraper.

There are four distinct forms of fossilization. They are body fossils, trace fossils, imprints, and encapsulation. Body fossils include bones, teeth, claws, eggs, embryos, skin, muscles, tendons, organs, blood vessels and petrified remains. Trace fossils show evidence of the existence of a species, but without their body. Trace fossils include tracks, footprints, feces, nests, and borrows. Imprints show the outline or detailed features of a species, sort of like a flower pressing or or photograph. Finally, fossil encapsulation includes species trapped in amber, tar or frozen in ice.

With all the evidence mounting and with all we know about the natural world, it should come as no surprise that the “god of the gaps” argument is more futile, if not less intense as it is talked about by its proponents.  Postulating such ideas really does not show intelligence but a form of ignorance. 

It is a desperate act by increasing desperate people who need to have some mythic all-powerful invisible father figure in their lives to direct their knowledge and morality.  But don’t be angry, feel joy and speak out and freely by  knowing that what you gain though fact-based evidence and science is real and true and what those who need theism requires a disconnection from reality on many levels.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Return of "Cosmos"

There was some exciting combined science and media news in August which is important to share with both the blog's American and International audience. 

In August, the FOX network announced a reboot of the Cosmos series which originally aired in 1980, and which was hosted by Carl Sagan.  The new series, with the same name, but slightly different sub-title is scheduled to air in 2013. It will be hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson,

I'm including a brief chart of the important specs of each program

Cosmos: The Past and the Future

The Original
The Re-Boot
Cosmos: A Personal Journey
Cosmos: A Time-Space Odyssey
Carl Sagan
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Air Date
September 1980
Number of  Episodes
8.3 Million
Gregory Andorfer/Bob McCain
Ann Druyan/ Seth McFarlane
Run Time
60 minutes
60 minutes
All episodes available for free on
First airing will be on FOX and then on the Nat’l Geographic Channel

This is part of the New York Times article (online version) which first appeared on 8/5/11. 
August 5, 2011
‘Family Guy’ Creator Part of ‘Cosmos’ Update
“Cosmos,” the 1980 documentary mini-series that encouraged a generation of viewers to contemplate the origins of the universe and their place in it, and made an unlikely television personality out of the astronomer Carl Sagan, is poised to return to terrestrial airwaves. Only this time the starship is being steered by a pilot whose identity you might not surmise even if you had billions and billions of guesses.
On Friday the Fox network is to announce that it has ordered a 13-episode series, “Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey,” expected to be broadcast in 2013. As part of a creative team that includes Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and a collaborator on the original “Cosmos,” one of the executive producers is Seth MacFarlane, the creator, producer, co-star and animating spirit of “Family Guy,” the bawdy and irreverent Fox cartoon sitcom.
Yet behind a comic sensibility that is sometimes provocative and sometimes puerile, Mr. MacFarlane is a committed fan of the first “Cosmos” who laments a modern society that he says has lost its fascination with science.
“We’re obsessed with angels and vampires and whatnot,” Mr. MacFarlane, 37, said in a telephone interview, “when there are many more exciting and very real and much more spectacular things to be excited about, that are right in our own planetary backyard.”
When the original “Cosmos” (subtitled “A Personal Voyage”) was first shown on PBS from September to December 1980, it was a watershed moment for science-themed television programming. Sagan’s look at existence at its most massive and microscopic, accompanied by a contemplative score by the Greek composer Vangelis, were eventually viewed by 400 million people in 60 countries, making it public television’s most-watched short-form series until the Ken Burns documentary “The Civil War.”