Archive for: August, 2009

Sedalia, MI makes Christians look bad

[T-Shirt Image]

You've probably seen this if you follow the science blogosphere at all. The Smith-Cotton High School in Sedalia, MI has done a forced recall on T-shirts made for their band. Why? Because the T-shirt riffed on the classic "primate turning into human" motif used as a symbol for evolution.

Parents got all upset about this— the shirt didn't even promote evolution, it just referred to it. I can't help but wonder if parents in similarly backward and ignorant communities might object to iconography of Greek mythology on shirts related to sports teams named appropriately? Or, are they smart enough there to recognize that just because somebody used a very recognizable image, it doesn't mean that it's true? Asserting that the Greek gods are real is, of course, anathema to a strict interpretation of Fundamentalist Christianity, just like evolution.

And, of course, there's also the fact that evolution is real. That there was such an uproar that the school had to repossess the shirts really just makes Christians in America look backward, ignorant, and in denial of reality. It gives fuel to the fire of those who would argue that being religious is inconsistent with accepting modern science— for, assuredly, religion is the reason why many Americans refuse to accept modern science. Those who are small-minded and knee-jerk in their reactions to things that challenge their interpretation of their religion go nuts when a school "associates itself" with Evolution. And, in so doing, it makes it harder for those of us who are trying to remind the world that religion doesn't necessarily lead to bad science. It's just extreme wingnut religion that does.

The principal of the school repossessed the shirts claiming that the law required the school to remain neutral on the subject of religion. This is, of course, complete bullshit, because the shirt didn't say anything about religion at all. There is a difference between saying anything about religion, and doing something that might offend some religious sensibilities. This argument he makes is essentially the "politically correct" argument. Yes, usually one associates "politically correct oversensitivity" with political forces on the left, but the truth is that this behavior can come from either side of the political spectrum; it's just a matter of which sensibilities they are oversensitive to.

Rejection of Evolution is just as obsolete a religious concept as is the geocentric Solar System. That something like half of the USA doesn't agree with this doesn't make it any less true. If we're going to object to iconography associated with Evolution, we really ought also to reject to any iconography that suggests the planets orbit the Sun.

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"Big Bang" : A terrible name for a great theory [from the archives]

Aug 21 2009 Published by under Cosmology, Physics & Astronomy, Science

[This was originally posted in June of 2006 on an earlier incarnation of this blog that's no longer available. It was collected in "The Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs 2006" I'm reposting it here so that it will again be available to the broader net.]

Perhaps, from a marketing point of view, "Big Bang" is a great name. It's short, it's punchy, it evokes memorable images, and it's easy to remember. But, marketing is something I really don't understand; as we all know, it's easy to fear what we don't understand (particularly when it has a huge amount of control over us and the world around us), and to hate what we fear, and as such I'm very convinced in my opinion that Marketing is Evil.

So why is the Big Bang a terrible name? Because the name itself evokes and supports many misconceptions about the theory. Read on for my musings on the matter.

The Big Bang was not an explosion.

The name suggests an explosion: some point that blew up, and everything outside it is now rushing away from it due to the force of the explosion. It's an analogy that does provide some useful intuition (without Dark Energy, the Universe is expanding because of the left over expansion that started way back when and hasn't been stopped by gravity), but there are a lot of problems with it. Most notably, galaxies are not in fact flying away from each other! A much more modern way to look at it, and a way that matches the mathematics that physicists and astronomers really use when they work with the model of the expanding Universe, is that galaxies (except for little local motions) are pretty much fixed, but space itself expands. Galaxies get farther apart from each other because, as space expands, there's more space between them. (Note that the galaxies themselves are not expanding; they are held together by their own forces.) An analogy is rising raisin bread: the bread expands, and the raisins get farther apart, but the raisins aren't moving through the bread. Another analogy would be pennies pasted on the surface of a balloon.

[Addendum added 2009-08-21: there is some debate in the astronomical community as to whether "galaxies flying apart" or "space expands" is a better qualitative description of the mathematics of the Big Bang. Obviously, I'm in the "space expands" camp. I'll write more about this in a later post.]

The Universe didn't all start from one point.

Sometimes you will hear people say this. The classical Big Bang model (but see below) has an initial singularity; at that beginning, any two points which are separated by a finite distance now were separated by zero distance. That sure seems like things begin at an initial point. It is, however, much better to say that the initial singularity is a point where our models break down, and that all we can really say is that densities in the extremely early universe, just "after" the "bang", were extremely high. The problem with thinking of it all starting from a point is that it suggests that there is a center that everything is rushing away from. In fact, however, the Big Bang happened everywhere. If you must think about it as that point, that point has itself expanded to the whole infinite Universe... and we, right here, are within that point, as is a distant galaxy a billion light-years away. In the Big Bang theory, the Universe has no center. Any point is as good as any other, and indeed, an observer looking from any point would see things around her as if she were at the center of the expansion! Which leads me to the T-shirt I want to have made one day. On the front: "Yes, in fact, I am at the center of the Universe!..." ; on the back: "...but so are you."

We know little or nothing about the moment of "Bang" itself.

This is perhaps the most egregious. The Big Bang theory is tremendously successful, tremendously well supported by observations, yet... the thing that the theory is named after is something that the theory as it exists right now really can't address. Sad, huh? What the Big Bang theory tells us is that the Universe evolved from a hot and dense state to what we have now. There are various different epochs we have been able to probe using different techniques, and the whole picture hangs together very well using these very different techniques. Right now, we have the expansion of the Universe. At a moment a few hundred thousand years after the "beginning", we have the cosmic microwave background observed by the WMAP satellite and large numbers of other ground, balloon-borne, and space experiments. A few minutes after the Big Bang, we have the time when the Universe was so hot and dense that nuclear reactions routinely happened, at which the primordial elements were created... in proportions that match what we observe. And, finally, a tiny fraction of a second after the beginning, we have Inflation, which isn't as well supported as those other bits, but which does explain a lot and even has stood up to one test from recent WMAP results. (Indeed, many people, myself included, are attracted to the notion of calling the end of Inflation "the beginning", as subtracting that tiny fraction of a second from any later epoch won't make any difference in the time we quote, and to talk about things before that you need Physics we don't know how to do.)

All those different epochs, tied together by one expanding Universe theory that started from an extremely hot and dense state, all supported by a vast array of different observations. Pretty cool.

But.

The classical Big Bang-- what you get if you just look at the Universe with Einstein's General Relativity, ignoring Quantum Mechanics-- gives a well-defined "beginning", that time we call t=0 and measure all the other times from. That beginning is the singularity, where things diverge, where densities go infinite. "What caused it" is something we don't even know how to address (unless you're a string theorist talking about branes, but that's a whole nuther issue).

The problem is, the classical Big Bang ignores Quantum Mechanics, which is a bad idea: Quantum Mechanics is another extremely well-supported theory in Physics we know to be right. It's the theory of the very small (speaking very roughly). At some time a tiny fraction after the moment of the classical Big Bang, the Universe got large enough that it became reasonable to do your Quantum Mechanics (e.g. for the nuclear reactions a few minutes after the beginning) without worrying about gravity, and to do General Relativity (which describes gravity) without worrying about Quantum Mechanics. However, before that moment, you have to worry about both at once. Here's the rub: the two theories don't work together. At the moment, we don't have a working theory that can handle gravity and quantum mechanics at the same time, although the string theorists keep telling us that they're working on it.

What the previous paragraph says is that our extremely successful physical theories are incapable of predicting what happened during the first tiny time interval after the moment of the classical big bang. Indeed, if you think about it in reverse-- start now and go back in time-- we reach an early period before which we can say almost nothing. We can go back through the present day expansion, through the epoch when galaxies first formed, through the epoch when the Universe was a plasma and the Cosmic Microwave Background was emitted, through the epoch when the elements formed, through the epoch when quarks and gluons were all mushed about in one big continuous mess, to Inflation... but we can't go before that.

We don't know what happened before that. Was there even a "t=0" beginning? Dunno. Was there really a singularity? Dunno. What happened before Inflation? Dunno. What was the deal with the actual Big Bang itself? Dunno.

Kind of sad that this extremely successful, extremely well-tested theory, a theory so good that we can call it right and true, doesn't really address the moment it seems to be named after.

That's why, marketing reasons aside, Big Bang is a terrible name for that theory. But I sure as hell can't come up with a better name that doesn't violate all sorts of marketing, so I guess we're stuck with it.

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My message to creationist Christians about faith and science

Aug 10 2009 Published by under Science & Religion

You can still accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, while accepting all of the wonderful things that modern science has taught us about our Universe.

I know there are many Christians out there who believe in Biblical inerrancy— that it is the literal word of God, and that each and every word must be literally true. What I want to convince you is that you can take a broader view without losing what is essential about being Christian. You need not abandon your faith in order to accept Evolution or the Big Bang, but you will need to think about it in certain ways.

The wonder and beauty of our Universe is amazing. And, by this, I'm not just referring to the tremendously beautiful images we've seen come out of astronomy. Rather, I'm referring to the beauty that is inherent in what all fields of science have discovered. The fact that we can understand how natural processes work, that we can make predictions about them and learn about things that happened millions of years ago, is astonishing. Science is a creative human endeavor, the greatest works of which are on par with Beethoven's 9th symphony. Indeed, that there are harmonies intrinsically pleasing in music is in fact the result of one of the observations of science— that mathematics is the language that seems to describe the mechanisms of the natural world. Musical pitches come in resonances as a result of the mathematics of wave mechanics. Similarly, the fundamental things about our world that we know to be true are beautiful when understood. That protons, neutrons, and electrons can combine together in ways not just to produce the fascinating and complicated things that we call atoms, but can on larger scales produce elephants and trees and waterfalls, is mind-boggling. What's even more amazing is that we can understand how all of this works through science, and through science we can come to more deeply appreciate the beauty of our Universe.

There are some things science has taught us that make clear that all of the Bible cannot be read as literal history. Humans as a species evolved from earlier species, as did all other species present on Earth today. The Universe is billions of years old, several times older than the 4.5 billion years that is the age of our Solar System. Evolution and the Big Bang are two of the main things that creationists object to. Yet, they are lynch pins of their scientific fields, biology and astronomy respectively, without which much of the rest of the field doesn't make sense. Everyday experience— be it modern medicine, or the unmanned spacecraft we've sent through the Solar System— indicates that these fields are on to something, for we've been able to use them to great effect.  It just doesn't make sense to throw out these lynchpins, and then, by necessity, much of the rest of those fields.

However, just because the Bible cannot all be literally true does not mean that it cannot be true. Before the wedding of a good friend of mine, the Episcopal minister told a parable about Biblical literalism. He said that, suppose after they've been married a few years, Mike gets home from work before Margo, and is tremendously moved watching a very beautiful sunset. When Margo comes home, Mike wants to convey this to her. Does he say, "because cross-section for scattering of light is higher at shorter wavelengths, a greater fraction of longer wavelength light was transmitted through the atmosphere, allowing a preferentially red hue to reach the clouds overhead"? No... that doesn't really convey how he was moved by the sunset. Rather he says, "The sky was on fire!" Does he literally mean that there was a runaway exothermic process of Oxygen combining with other molecules in the sky above? No! And, yet, the latter statement better conveys what he is really trying to say than does the factually true statement.

Jesus himself taught in parables. Humans frequently learn and pass on understanding through stories, and we frequently are able to internalize and relate to lessons when they are taught in the form of stories. As such, there is truth in many of the Bible stories that we know from modern science cannot be literally true. If you think about it, the Bible becomes more interesting, and indeed worthy of greater thought, if you realize that the divinely inspired Word of God need not be a mere dictation of historical events, but rather are stories that we are meant to think about and learn from, and to bring new things to as we come to understand more about our Universe.

You can find some prominent science bloggers who will assert that it is not consistent both to fully accept modern science, and to hold religious faith. They are wrong. Science addresses the mechanisms of the natural world. It is true that in the past, when we didn't understand the natural world as we do today, we used religion to explain how some things happened. Today, however, science has proven to be the process whereby we can understand how the world works. But science does not provide meaning. This is why I am asking you, if you are a creationist, to please consider that your faith can remain an important part of your life, even if you cast away the need to deny things that humanity knows to be true as a result of the efforts of modern science.

Did God create the Universe in seven 24-hour days? No. Did God create humans in their current form from nothing? No. But neither of these need reduce in any way the role of God the Creator, once we understand that God is ineffable, that God is something that works and exists in a way that humans cannot fully understand. It appears that we can fully understand the workings of nature. We don't, but every year we know more. Personally, I think it greatly reduces the role of God as Creator to say that his role was simply to will things into existence. That's such a mechanistic feat. To consider that to be what is meant by God's Creation undermines the mystery of God. It makes God no more than a video game programmer, who wills into existence the worlds of games by tapping away on a computer keyboard for a while, and then lets them go on their way.

I have to admit that I don't fully understand myself what I believe to be God's role as Creator— but then again, why should humans expect to fully understand any aspect of God? God's Creation is something that is ongoing. It's not God reaching in and pushing things about here and there, making things happen like a software programmer debugging his code. Rather, God's Will is a desire for the Universe, a way that would seek to have things become better. Science has given us a view of the Universe that experimentally works, and that view does not include a supernatural entity coming in and deliberately making conscious and directed changes. On the other hand, it's very clear that there are natural conscious entities making changes all the time— us. And, when those changes are for the better, might they not, at least sometimes, be divinely inspired— whatever that really means? To me, the miracle of God's Creation is both just the possibility and potential inherent in the Universe that may come to pass as a result of natural means, and the actions of conscious beings when they seek to make the world a better and more beautiful place. Whether God is the "condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever" (to quote Terry Eagleton), or whether it is an integral property of conscious thinking beings, I don't know, but I do know that God is more than a dude with a flowing white beard who makes stuff sometimes.

In summary, the Universe is an amazing and inspiring place. There is so much elegant beauty in the scientific truths known as Evolution and the Big Bang. There is so much wonder in our world and in our Universe, that it is sad to reject those on the basis of a particular reading of the Bible. You can fully accept God the Father and Jesus the Savior without having to reject these things humans have come to learn about the natural world. I'm asking you to take a broader view of Christianity, to be able to understand the Bible as holding truths that need not always be simplistic literal accounting of events. To seek to further understand the Universe is a wonderful calling. It is not necessary then to hide the light of that understanding under a bushel when it requires us to think more deeply about our faith!

(Afterward: I'm going to be fairly strict moderating the comment thread of this post. I do not want atheists who feel the need to denigrate religion commenting here; this post is not for you. The goal of this post is not to argue in the debate about whether or not it's OK to be both religious and scientific; I personally consider that issue settled, but will continue to address it in other posts. Rather, the target audience of this post is the religious, and in particular creationists, in an attempt in a small way to show how I see Christianity being able to accept the modern scientific world-view.)

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This morning in Second Life : Comets Crashing Into Jupiter

I'll be giving a public-outreach astronomy talk as part of MICA this morning at 10AM PDT in Second Life entitled "Comets Crashing Into Jupiter".

cometcrash.jpg

A few weeks ago, an amateur astronomer spotted a scar on Jupiter, which was later confirmed to be the result of an impact of a comet fragment with the giant planet. This is not the first time we've observed comets smacking into Jupiter; in 1994, comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 collided with Jupiter after having been torn into several fragmets by an earlier pass with the planet, leaving scars on Jupiter over the course of a week. In this talk, I'll describe the gravitational interactions that lead to these comet collisions, as well as what we may be able to learn about Jupiter as a result of these collisions.

To keep track of what popular talks are upcoming in MICA, see our Upcoming Public Events Page.

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