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Not so fast! July 27, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Cosmology.
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Ok, now I usually don’t use this blog to talk about my beliefs (I subscribe to no religious doctrine and am not an atheist), but there are some things I need to say.

I follow Phil Plait’s very informative blog, Bad Astronomy. Recently he linked to this post in Jennifer Ouellette’s blog, Twisted Physics.

In her post In Praise of Insignificance, Jennifer Ouellette says: “If one embraces an atheist worldview, it necessarily requires embracing, even celebrating, one’s insignificance. It’s a tall order, I know, when one is accustomed to being the center of attention.”

Centre of whose attention, may I ask? Are we not still the centre of attention? If we’re not, what is?

It’s a mistake to assume that with atheism comes insignificance. How insignificant are we if everything is “just this,” where the “this” is infinitely amazing? We are the beholders, the consciousnesses. We define our own existences (at least more than free-falling balls of dirty ice do, ie perceive that we define our own existences), make decisions and answer to no one. That’s exactly as significant as you think it is.

The word “significance” loses its meaning when used to describe atheist cosmology. In the atheist universe, nothing signifies anything; at least not in the way that human existence signifies God’s love for creation in Christian belief, or that committing a sin signifies a rejecting of God’s freely-given love.

I find it frustrating when people ooh and aah to great length, sermonizing about our tiny existences. Come on! Are we seriously still having this conversation? The idea itself is old-fashioned. Scale goes on and on in both directions, leaving us somewhere in the middle, just like everything else. On the earth a grain of sand is small, in the universe a galaxy is small. There may be an infinite number of full-sized universes. Let’s stop patting each other on the back for reminding each other that the cosmos is huge.

That being said, I still love a good night sky!

Some atheists argue that they don’t believe in a God because there is no evidence to back up this belief.

This is problematic in two ways. First of all, both atheists and religious believers like to choose their own field of engagement. The atheists say that there is no scientific evidence for God, and the religious say that the evidence is right there in their own canon. Both systems are essentially self-referential.

Second, the claim that there is no evidence for intelligent design (and I do not mean the “Christian” version of Intelligent Design that they say should be taught in science classes; that’s a whole other argument) only really works if God is a separate entity from the universe. St Augustine tackled this question in his Confessions, when he contested the dualism of the tangible and spiritual levels of existence. If we say that God is not separate from the universe but instead that the universe is a facet of God and that the ongoing process of creation is the unfolding will of God, then I’d say that in all the richness of the universe(s), through all dimensions, in all space, all time, and on every scale, there is certainly still plenty of room for believing that we are part of something infinitely greater than ourselves that is intrinsically good, supremely intelligent, and of which our own bodies and minds are simple derivatives.

It’s the same old Socratic chestnut: We don’t know, and those who say they know, know less. I say we try for less self-justification and self-congratulation, and more reasonable, tolerant discussion.


Two Apollo astronauts say manned missions to Mars should be next July 16, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Nasa, Space, The Future.
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Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post. In it, he says that instead of concentrating on putting people back on the Moon, we should be trying to set up a permanent colony on Mars.

He says another race to the moon is a dead end: “While the lunar surface can be used to develop advanced technologies, it is a poor location for homesteading. The moon is a lifeless, barren world, its stark desolation matched by its hostility to all living things. And replaying the glory days of Apollo will not advance the cause of American space leadership or inspire the support and enthusiasm of the public and the next generation of space explorers.”

In support of manned missions to Mars, he says: “Climate change on a vast scale has reshaped Mars. With Earth in the throes of its own climate evolution, human outposts on Mars could be a virtual laboratory to study these vast planetary changes. And the best way to study Mars is with the two hands, eyes and ears of a geologist, first at a moon orbiting Mars and then on the Red Planet’s surface.”

At the same time, astronaut Mike Collins, command module pilot for Apollo 11, (who remained in the part of the craft that orbited the moon while the others walked on the surface) released a series of questions and answers on the Nasa website.

In it, Mr Collins also speaks out for at least one mission to Mars, if not to establish a permanent colony.

In answer to the question of what next, he says: “I hope Mars. It was my favourite planet as a kid and still is. As celestial bodies go, the moon is not a particularly interesting place, but Mars is. It is the closest thing to a sister planet that we have found so far. I worry that at NASA’s creeping pace, with the emphasis on returning to the moon, Mars may be receding into the distance. That’s about all I have to say.”

It’s encouraging to see the big guys coming out and speaking their minds in support of sending people to Mars. I hope they still have the influence they deserve.

During the Apollo era humanity was looking forward to a future of space exploration and human expansion into the solar system and beyond.

The day before the Apollo capsule splashed down into the Pacific Ocean, Buzz radioed: “We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown.”

Now, that vision seems to have faded away. On one hand, robotic exploration has advanced in giant leaps (to borrow a phrase). On the other, no human has gone further than a few hundred miles away from Earth since the Apollo missions. The Moon is an average of about 239,000 miles away.

Maybe Buzz has a good point. A permanent colony on Mars would be able to carry out experiments and maybe missions of its own, given time. I’ve recently begun to think that robotic exploration of Europa, Titan and Enceladus should be the priority, but Buzz’s article has me thinking again about Mars.

After all, we’re still a one-world species. All the eggs, one big blue basket.

I’ll leave you with this. Most people think of the pre-launch countdown as “ten, nine, eight…” but did you know it actually begins 43 hours before liftoff? Read the breakdown in this article from nasa.gov.

Discussions on global warming and manned space flight, Sahara solar power July 9, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Climate Change, Technology, The Future.
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Two interesting discussions to point out today.
First, RealClimate has a brief article about the G8 countries agreeing to try to avoid anything more than two degrees of global warming. The comments vary from hopeful to sceptical and all the way out to cynical.
Second, space scientist Wes Huntress posted an article on The Space Review giving advice about the future of manned space exploration. It’s well worth a read, and the discussion in the comments section is enlightening.
The debate surrounding the future of manned spaceflight is an tricky one, especially as robotic technology gets cheaper and more powerful (see this awesome photo). I would love to see humans land on Mars in my lifetime, but I have a hard time coming up with rational arguments for sending them. Personally, I think we should be looking at the moons of Saturn and Jupiter (specifically Europa, Titan and Enceladus) for signs of life. These would be robotic missions, and I would hate to see them postponed in favour of human missions.
Is human space exploration only considered because of its public appeal, or its space-cowboy, Apollo-era sense of adventure? Is there anything wrong with that? I’d like to see your arguments for human spaceflight if you’ve got any.

There could be some good news coming for supporters of solar power: an article at the Economist says a meeting will take place on July 13 to drum up support for enormous solar power stations to be built in the Sahara. The meeting will be hosted by Munich Re, which has invited 20 other big companies including Siemens and Deutsche Bank.
It would be a hugely expensive project, but would aim to supply %15 of Europe’s power in 2050 as well as most of North Africa’s.

I hadn’t thought about power as a potential export from Africa before. Could generating and exporting power boost the economies of developing nations?

Finally, check out this story about blind people learning to “see” with echolocation! I had no idea!