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Skeptic's Guide

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“… there are many reasons why you might not understand [an explanation of a scientific theory] … Finally, there is this possibility: after I tell you something, you just can’t believe it. You can’t accept it. You don’t like it. A little screen comes down and you don’t listen anymore. I’m going to describe to you how Nature is – and if you don’t like it, that’s going to get in the way of your understanding it. It’s a problem that [scientists] have learned to deal with: they’ve learned to realize that whether they like a theory or they don’t like a theory is not the essential question. Rather, it is whether or not the theory gives predictions that agree with experiment. It is not a question of whether a theory is philosophically delightful, or easy to understand, or perfectly reasonable from the point of view of common sense. [A scientific theory] describes Nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it agrees fully with experiment. So I hope you can accept Nature as She is – absurd.

“I’m going to have fun telling you about this absurdity, because I find it delightful. Please don’t turn yourself off because you can’t believe Nature is so strange. Just hear me all out, and I hope you’ll be as delighted as I am when we’re through.”

~Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988)
…from the introductory lecture on quantum mechanics reproduced in QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Feynman 1985).

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“It is a natural human impulse to think of evolution as a long chain of improvements; of a never-ending advance towards largeness and complexity – in a word, towards us.

“We flatter ourselves.” ~Bill Bryson

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I was listening to the audio edition of Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” wherein the author discusses how one of the more common occurrences in the history of  life is that of species extinction. Very few species last a very long time. If fact, he points out, it is shown that the more complex a species, the quicker they go extinct.  That, in turn, got me thinking of something related.

Stephen Jay Gould and friend ...

Sometime back I was listening to Terry Gross’ “Fresh Air” on NPR. They were replaying an interview with evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who had recently passed after a long struggle with cancer. During that interview, Gould discussed varying aspects of the Theory of Punctuated Equilibrium, which he developed with Niles Eldredge (as well as talking a little about his love of baseball, as I recall – he was quite the knowledgeable fan, and his books of essays are peppered with thoughtful observations of the game).

During the interview he got around to talking about where homo sapiens fits into the grand scheme of Evolution. Essentially, one of the interesting conceits of science in regard to Evolution in general, and Darwin’s proposals for its functioning in particular, is the perception that Man represents some sort of pinnacle of evolutionary development. (One can’t help note the parallel with the religious concept/projection of man being “created” in God’s image, a rather anthropomorphic element of the psychology of religion.) The idea of Gradualism, Gould felt, completely misrepresented what Darwin had observed. (For gradualism, think of those progressive illustrations that portray the evolution of man from a slouching, shambling creature to the upright, handsome devil he thinks he has become, and you see it in its most simplistic presentation.)

Gould offered that evolution was a development of fits and starts, a reaction to sudden changes in the biological status quo. (In keeping with Darwin’s observation’s of the variety of evolutionary changes witnessed on the Galapogos in the same species.) He pointed out that the most powerful evolutionary stories were not those of the singular complex flora or fauna that we mistakenly perceive as the height of evolutionary development of a species, but instead tales of diverse creatures like bats and rodents that blossomed into multiple evolutionary variations on the original theme. He felt that the most successful species were the ones that continued to adapt and diversify, not rarify into a few or even one branch of flora or fuana, like man and his simian cousins.

Finally, he suggested that homo sapiens and his cousins are not pinnacles of evolutionary development but, at best, twigs on the tree of life – not just man, but primates in general. Happy accidents (for us) of evolutionary change, that for all intents and purposes are in a perilous position from an evolutionarily perspective, particularly when compared to “lesser” animals like beetles and rats and even cockroaches in all their diversity.

Rather humbling, that…

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Postscript

Bacteria ‘R’ Us, by Valerie Brown

Killer summation:

… it is clear that bacteria are not what the general run of humans thought they were, and neither are humans. Bacteria are the sine qua non for life, and the architects of the complexity humans claim for a throne. The grand story of human exceptionalism — the idea that humans are separate from and superior to everything else in the biosphere — has taken a terminal blow from the new knowledge about bacteria. Whether humanity decides to sanctify them in some way or merely admire them and learn what they’re really doing, there’s no going back. And if there’s any hope of rebalancing the chemistry of a biosphere deranged in two short centuries by humans, it very likely lies in peaceful coexistence with the seemingly brilliant, deceptively simple life-forms comprising the domain Bacteria.

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Dreamtime

Morning. High tide. You can’t hear anything over the sound of the waves.

The hounds decide to take a walk. I follow, taking the opportunity to work out the kinks in my bones and muscles left by the night-time cold. The sky overhead is gray, thick with featureless clouds, and there’s a chill wind blowing in off the sea. The waves are active, thundering on the surf, the oily-looking water surging up the sand, leaving a dirty-brown line of foam behind to mark the limit of its reach.

Here and there a body has washed ashore, and the living clump about, attending to the deceased. Dark pup trots over to one assemblage, Li’l blonde pup in tow, sniffing things out, here and there, both being petted absently by the congregates. They tire of the routine quickly, the odor emanating from the bodies too much of a downer so early in the day. He knows the smell; it’s as old as the idea of him. The yellow pup, more animated of the two, lets lose a few barks, then quiets down, head hanging, looking sad. He knows there are endings everywhere this day; he prefers not to think about them.

We climb the sandstone cliffs to get away from the death, carefully picking our way along eroding paths, making our way to the top. Once there, I stop to catch my breath, gazing out over the turbulent surf. A couple of the unlucky ships are still visible, caught on rocks, their bottoms ripped out, their masts down, slowly disintegrating under the relentless pounding of the waves. I fancy I think I see some movement on one of the twisted hulks, survivors, still alive, or else ocean-born predators, feasting on the unfortunate. I look down to the dark pup, now squatting at my side, taking a dump. He looks back, his expression “Yeah, so what do you want me to do about it?” He finishes his business, sniffs things out, then moves off, chasing after the blonde pup.

“Nothing,” I whisper after him with a resigned smile.

“Nothing…”

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“Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded – here and there, now and then – are all the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

“This is known as “bad luck”. “

– Robert A. Heinlein

Scientists are smart and clever people.

They have to be. Unlike almost any other profession you can name, if you are going to be a good scientist, you really can’t take any short cuts. This is particularly true of Physicists. As a lawyer of my acquaintance once remarked, physicists are the smartest guys in the room. They just are.

“Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting.”

-Ernest Rutherford

So where does that arrogant certitude come from?

Carl Sagan outlines what it takes to study quantum mechanics:

“Imagine you seriously want to understand what quantum mechanics is about. There are mathematical underpinnings that you must first acquire, mastery of each mathematical subdiscipline leading you to the threshold of the next. In turn you must learn arithmetic, Euclidian geometry, high school algebra, differential and integral calculus, ordinary and partial differential equations, vector calculus, certain special functions of mathematical physics, matrix algebra, and group theory. For most physics students, this might occupy them from, say, third grade to graduate school – roughly 15 years. Such a course of study does not involve learning any quantum mechanics, but merely establishing the mathematical framework required to approach it deeply.”
~Antiscience
, from The Demon-Haunted World

Okay, so 15 years to get to the point where you start tackling quantum mechanics. 15 years to become a good enough physicist to tackle the heart of physics – quantum theory.

So why are we here, on the beach, talking physicists?

Endings.

Let me explain.

Sagan again, discussing understanding Quantum Mechanics:

“The job of the popularizer of science, trying to get across the idea of quantum mechanics to a general audience that has not gone through these initiation rites, is daunting. Indeed, there are no successful popularizations of quantum mechanics in my opinion – partly for this reason. These mathematical complexities are compounded by the fact that quantum theory is so resolutely counterintuitive. Common sense is almost useless in approaching it. It’s no good, Richard Feynman once said, asking why it IS that way. No one knows why it is that way. That’s just the way it is.”

~Antiscience

So how do we – you and me – confirm things?

Predictions:

“The answer is that even if we cannot understand it, we can verify that quantum mechanics works. We can compare the qualitative predictions of quantum theory with the measured wavelengths of spectral lines of the chemical elements, the behavior of semiconductors and liquid, microprocessors, which kinds of molecules form from their constituent atoms, the existence and properties of white dwarf stars, what happens in masers and lasers, and which materials are susceptible to which kinds of magnetism. We don’t have to understand the theory to see what it predicts. We don’t have to be accomplished physicists to read what the experiments reveal. In every one of these instances – and in many others – the predictions of quantum mechanics are strikingly, and to high accuracy, confirmed.”

~Antiscience

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“Physicists are the smartest guys in the room.”

I was waiting in line to see The Dark Knight a couple of years back in Union Station (Washington D.C.) with an intellectual property litigator I am acquainted with, a senior partner of a large, international law firm. We’d had dinner in the micro-brewery in the building adjacent to Union Station and after, with the taste of burgers and bitter ale still fresh, made out way into and down stairs to the underground movie complex. (So totally the cool place to see a Batman movie, underground, just a suggestion of dank and cool on the humid July day, rough rock walls with the dullest sheen of moisture adding to the ambiance, like really being in the Bat Cave to see the damn flick). Killing time as we waited, we chatted about this and that and the conversation wandered to science. We were discussing different science disciplines and when the subject of physics came up, he uttered those words with a tone of finality that made it clear there was no argument as far as he was concerned.

Suffice to say I agree.

Physicists ARE the smartest guys in the room.

When we think of physics, the likelihood is the first thing to come to mind are images of Einstein, the atomic bomb, the symbol for the atom, E=MC2. We think of astronomy (astrophysics), nuclear theory, relativity, the Big Bang …

But physics casts a much wider net.

More and more, you can’t do ANY science without at least a conversant grasp of physics. Why? Because no matter what field you can come up with in the sciences, physics have become an integral part of the research done to examine it. In paleontology or geology, for example, dating techniques grounded in physics are necessary to unlocking understandings of the age of things. Similarly, biophysics is the study of physics in living systems. Chaos theory, fluid dynamics, electronics, geophysics, acoustics, light, cosmology, cryophysics (low-temperature physics), crystallography, nanotechnology … it’s everywhere in science.

Here’s another field that relies heavily on the science of physics:

Climatology.

The study of climate.

Not the study of weather.

The study of climate, the thing that makes weather.

One of the more fallacious arguments promoted by Creationists and AGW Denialists (and there were MANY fallacious arguments) was that science gets things wrong all the time. To support this contention, they often cite examples like the Piltdown Man as “proof” … ignoring the fact that, in the end, it was scientists that exposed the frauds.

Science get things wrong, yes. But science also provides that best tool for correcting its own mistakes. There is nothing like scientific inquiry in human experience that comes close to its track record for getting things right.

Nothing.

So I want to take a moment to discuss something that serves as a classic example of science getting things wrong, and why this example underscores why science gets things right.

In the first chapter of “Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe”, Simon Singh does a bang-up job explaining the history of the science of astronomy. In particular, he very clearly explains how science works as an observational tool, the rules it adheres to, the dependence upon hard evidence and careful observation to validate or discard theories of the way things behave in nature. He discusses the scientific evidence that fueled the discussion and debates over whether the Steady State or the Big Bang model of the universe was the more valid theory, and as he does so, he walks you through the process of discovery.

For the purposes of this discussion, though, I’m going to concentrate on the other example he uses to discuss the operation of the scientific method – Geocentrism v. Heliocentrism

Singh lays out how the Heliocentric model evolved from hypothesis to theory, and illustrates why even though Copernicus’ model made excellent sense in terms of proposing a superior and simpler alternative to Geocentrism, Heliocentrism did not fully demonstrate it had replaced the previous model until long after Copernicus died because contemporary astronomers were unable to confirm certain aspects of Venus’ and Mercury’s orbits. Even though the idea of the Heliocentric cosmos seemed more straightforward and compelling, more correct, there were still missing final confirming proofs – because the instruments to get that proof didn’t yet exist. In short, there was room for doubt, but it is important to understand that doubt was largely academic – the theory had shown itself to have validity, enough so that those that followed increasingly worked from the assumption that a Heliocentric Cosmos was the most likely model, even though the inner planet observations had not been confirmed.

That’s what theories come down to: the most likely answer based on the data available. And when better, verifiable answers come along, the previous answers are tossed on the scrap heap of science. This is how physics works, how biology works, how any science works. Theories are never 100% perfect – there are gaps, problems with getting data and observations. These “problems” are often latched onto by opponents to an idea out of context and proportion to their actual import, like the Piltdown Man example noted above. The exposure of that error did nothing to invalidate the Theory of Evolution – it simply eliminated an area of inquiry. The theory remains the most powerful (and only) real explanation of the progress of life through time. It is such a powerful idea that most legitimate tests of its predictions lead to a strengthening of the overall theory, contributing new understandings. It serves as the foundation of modern biology, of modern medicine and medical research. Whenever you are treated as a patient, the fact of evolution informs to some degree your treatment. But the Theory of Evolution hasn’t answered all of the questions it poses, and may never be able to to the satisfaction of its detractors in the Creationist community, not because the science is wrong, but because it undermines the dogma that informs what Creationists want to believe.

But we’ll get into this curious disconnect with more detail later; we’re wandering in different, if related, territory …

Winter

I am reminded of a story – possibly apocryphal, though it is supposed to originate with Robert McNamara – relating to the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is said that the Joint Chiefs of Staff approached President Kennedy with a proposal (amongst several) to detonate a couple of nuclear warheads on or above the island of Cuba in order to quickly end the standoff, reassuring him that the CIA was positive that the Russians had not placed any nuclear warheads in Cuba yet. But when the Soviet State collapsed and we were allowed access to the Soviet archives from that era it was discovered that the Russians in fact had somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 warheads in-country, some or all targeted on major cities in the U.S. The scary part is Kennedy gave the proposal to nuke Cuba serious consideration. Needless to say, had he followed through, the thing he longed to prevent – a nuclear exchange that would have been unstoppable once started – would probably have occurred, and with it, the nuclear winter that would have settled upon the planet.

Nuclear Winter. Now there’s a wild theory – who’d a’thunk it? Heck, it wasn’t a hypothesis in the 60s – it was something that came up decades later. Even then, it met with resistance. The discussion on how scientifically “valid” the nuclear winter hypothesis is can be likened to the dairy farmer worrying how he’s going to get the next morning’s shipment to market if the barn containing his milk cows has burned down, killing the livestock. As we’re learning, even a nuclear exchange of the limited magnitude expected could do such significant damage to the biosphere that it really wouldn’t matter a great deal if the climate would have somehow remained unaffected.

The danger isn’t limited to nuclear-induced climate change; there’s also the potential damage a handful of modern cities might cause with all their stored toxins in the form of plastics and chemicals and so forth, burning unchecked into the atmosphere, combined with the radiation that would accompany these poisons on the winds. It’s the potential of millions of dead and decaying corpses breeding fresh plagues. It is the instant famine that will grip regions of the planet and the likely secondary wars over what is left of resources. The effect on our world would be both immediate and long-term, making the burning of Kuwait’s oil fields look like a campfire by comparison.

The Four Horseman would have a field day beyond comprehension.

The true value of the Nuclear Winter hypothesis in terms of public policy – regardless of its long-term viability as science – may be that it opened a lot of eyes and got people to think about the implications of a nuclear exchange in a way other arguments against nuclear war seemingly did not. Then again, maybe not: there was no significant change in nuclear policy. But it shook the public out of a complacency that had settled in its collective consciousness after the stressed-out duck-and-cover 50s and early 60s

Perhaps it comes down to perspective; armchair disagreements of what really would have happened in the aftermath when the actual event would have been so obviously apocalyptic can only make me wonder if people who do discuss this stuff grasp on a visceral level what the heck they think they are talking about. In short, had the nuclear exchange happened, the climate six months down the road would have probably been extremely low on one’s list of priorities – were an individual unfortunate enough to have survived.

Science is a wonderful tool for analyzing and understanding a problem, for explaining how things work; but while it is full of gee-whiz-bang excitement that makes laymen such as myself sit up and pay attention, too many of its proponents get so caught up with nitpicking the details that they lose sight of communicating the bigger picture. Bluntly put, you miss the understanding that sometimes you need to reach out and grab hold of the public by its collective short hairs and give a serious tug to get their attention.

Maybe this is our biggest impediment to working up AGW responses (in addition to addressing the obfuscators, neo-skeptics and denialists): there is no immediacy to this threat, no sense of our being intimately involved in a way that will have a short-term world-changing effect (because this isn’t about short-term problems), no ability to see things from a global perspective, no way to imagine or communicate the idea that every time you start your car’s engine or run the air conditioner you are taking aim at your future with growing detrimental – and quite possible mortal – consequences.

Coming up: Dark Puppy agendas …

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We live in a privileged time. I’ve touched on this before. I have been reminded of this understanding again by the news Congress members were all but assaulted on their way to Congress. Racist epitaphs were thrown, legislators were spit on, and the U.S. as a people took another giant step backwards in more ways than I could likely quantify.

WTF?

Yeah, we’re supposed to be the home of the free and the land of the brave, but that doesn’t translate into a license to behave like a racist, homophobic moron. Unfortunately, this is what things have come to, this discussion of Health Care … and beyond it … birth certificates … and legitimacy … and socialism …. and everything else that really seems code for racism: the mob rules, the mad mob, driven by fear and rage and powerlessness because the world they thought they knew and were secure in is gone and the one they are really living in is passing them by. Wounded animals lash out; it makes perfect sense that there are a lot of crazed white folk out there, people who think they’ve lived to see the arrival of the antichrist in the person of Barrack Obama.

This is an ongoing, worrying development …

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At this writing the final fate of the Health Care Plan is yet to be called. My hope is it succeeds. I could probably say a lot about the forces arrayed against it, but at this point, if you are a decent thoughtful human being, I don’t think there is anything more I can add to the conversation you don’t understand. This hasn’t been a debate, just an exercise in empire fail.

Too many people don’t seem to understand. We spent the last 30 years largely accelerating the process of borrowing against the future. The last decade has seen that pace engage hyperdrive … and the day we would eventually have to pay for this short-sidedness? It came two years ago. We’ve been in recovery mode ever since.

So what does that mean for health care? Aside from the fact that this has been a long overdue idea, overdue even when Nixon and Kennedy tried to make it happen, an important component has entered the equation: what’s happened to the economy may linger for a long, long time. And in this time and place in our history one of the most important cushions we could possibly have as a people is the assurance that no matter WHAT happened, we would have access to health care that would hopefully give us a fighting chance during our personal hard times.

Health care that guaranteed no discrimination based on pre-existing conditions would also mean job migration, probably new businesses, innovation. Why? Consider how many people stay with a job primarily because of health care concerns, in particular those of the chronic and/or pre-existing variety. Guaranteed coverage could open new opportunities they couldn’t otherwise explore. How this would benefit the U.S. is fairly obvious. We live in a time where we need the pot of innovation stirred, we need new businesses, which contribute to job growth. In the rough times ahead, this is a no brainer.

People complaining about abortion piss me off, btw. I had to get that in. If anything, as someone mentioned in recent days, this thing has the potential to be one of the most significant pro-life victories ever handed to that crowd … by a room full of liberals who are opposed to to ANY restrictions to a woman’s rightful choice to decide her fate. Why? Guaranteed access to health care, to pre-natal health care would be a strong incentive to make the choice to carry a child to term. This is the direction pro-life should want to gravitate to in order to consider their movement legitimate; failure to do so at best shows these folks to be cynical to something they avow is a supreme priority, at worst purely hypocritical, using pro-life as little more than a tool to push a social agenda.

Public health would benefit. In an era where we face fresh threats from old enemies like TB and other now-antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteriological infection, not to mention new viruses that keep popping up, the idea that everyone having access to health care might aid in quickly identifying threats to public health – as well as keeping the general state of health in an improved status simply, again, by guaranteeing people can see doctors long before a disease or illness enters the realm of catastrophic illness. Health care for all means, invariably, better health for the population over all.

Finally, it is, pure and simple, the right thing to do. If we can maintain garrisons of soldiers and airmen in Europe and Asia, if we can send men and material to two wars, if we can pay money to countries like Israel and Egypt and Pakistan, if we can provide corporate welfare hand over fist to soulless businesses who’ve never sacrificed a child to war, never had to struggle with individual hardship of the kind regularly endured by a more than significant number of Americans … then we can afford this bill.

I repeat:

We can afford this Health bill.

Any argument to the contrary based on money has no cachet in this light.

None.

So what are you left with?

The moral argument?

What’s moral about arguing your fellow countrymen, many of them people who have made sacrifices that others can enjoy the freedoms we take oh so too much for granted, be kept from access to decent health care?

It is in our self-interest, both practically, and morally, to see this thing passed.

Just my two cents.

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One last thought …

I worry for our President, whatever the outcome.

These are dark times, darker, perhaps, than maybe we realize …

… I’ll shut up now …

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… except …

I’ve been away for a while; going to probably be away for a time to come, so what happens to the Dark Puppy here or the Urgent ta-tas over on Pandora will have to wait a few weeks. Tempest, my first series of books, is done except for tinkering and tuning. For perspective, the three installments therein clock in at just under 300 pages (word count: 177,000 & change). What’s going on now, after starts and stops, distractions, editing, launching two blogs … I’m finishing the last leg of Ronin Cycle, a half dozen chapters in various stages of completion. Currently that six-part narrative is 830 + pages down, maybe 60-80 pages left. My hope is to finish by the middle of next month, as a birthday present to myself.

I’m on a roll, living that part of the writing thing that makes it fun. The story is done in my head, the outline of what’s left to write fairly well sketched … the details and the characters’ actions work themselves out organically, and the sequences flow. It’s neat … I don’t need to think about it … I’m just writing things as they happen. … And I don’t have to write in sequence – whatever aspect most tickles my fancy is the part I working on right now. Yesterday I wrote the ending. Today, a little bit of this, and then back to complete a battle of mythic character …

Go with what speaks loudest…

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UPDATE

Okay, it passed. It still needs to have the Senate agree to the changes, but that appears to be a done deal. All the same, I’m half holding my breath.

RE: My concern echoed above for the President.

There’s a lot of anger out there – uninformed and thoughtless for the most part, but anger all the same. Interesting days ahead.

Regardless, as I noted elsewhere, one of my greatest wishes has come true. We have a real statesman as President.

Been a long time …

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Time to wander afield…

There is a talking point often bandied about that no matter the problem, we’ll develop the tech to get ourselves out of the fix. You see this coming from so-called Global Warming “Skeptics” in particular who, when confronted with inconvenient evidence that underscores the underlying factual basis that supports Anthropomorphic Global Warming (AGW) and the parallel problems associated with the phenomena, simply fall back on the argument that regardless of what will happen, we will “tech our way” out of our predicaments.

And it would seem there is an element of truth to this off-cited claim. A classic example is the counter to Malthusian arguments that population will exceed our capacity to feed ourselves in that we’ve found more efficient ways to grow and produce food in the past decades. This is partially true – we have done just that – increased agricultural and food production worldwide, but with emphasis on the past tense. In truth, the agricultural fix was a stopgap; in recent years agricultural production has plateaued, and in places it has fallen off – witness China’s grain collapse and the resultant forays by that country into the world grain market to supplement its falling production to the detriment of other, poorer countries. For more details, go here.

Cutting to the chase, the argument we can tech our way out of any problem is pure bullshit. There are no guarantees we can develop the techology necessary to do so. Here’s an example of what I mean, not necessarily of tech development, but of science, which invariably underscores tech: in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, the author remarks that physicist C.P. Snow observed Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity was inevitable, a “theory waiting to happen”; had Einstein not been around, someone else would have likely come up with it within five years of Einstein’s publication in 1905. But the General Theory of Relativity? Had Einstein not been there, we might still be waiting for someone to come up with it. Why? Special Relativity built on knowledge that was already there; General Relativity was an unprecedented leap. Put another way, you cannot predict the unpredictable.

So what does that mean in terms of real-life problems?

Consider:

Antibiotics were hailed as a major medical breakthrough that was going to improve health tremendously. Now, decades later, we’re faced with the very real concern of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from overuse/misuse of the very “breakthrough” that was going to cure our ills. Why? We left evolution out of the equation, and while there are some intriguing proposals for addressing this problem, nothing definite is available yet.

Plastics were going to make our lives easier; now our world is overrun with them to the point where we find traces of plastic on literally every level of the food chain. (For details, check out Alan Wiesman’s The World Without Us, Chpt. 9, pp. 140-161 – but don’t eat any sea food prior to reading – you might become ill.) There is absolutely no solution on the horizon for this problem.

Fission-driven nuclear power was supposed to a stepping stone on our way to fusion, but decades after this claim was made (by many of the same people who proposed using nuclear devices to create a second Panama Canal in the 1950s – weren’t we lucky they didn’t follow through on that bit of brilliance?) fusion seems as far away as ever and in the meantime the remains of the fission power plants have left numerous, virtually indelible scars upon the topography and in the biology of the planet – and with no truly secure way of storing the waste generated by this power source – and we’re discussing expanding their use!

Oil was going to (and did!) reduce the expenditure of energy to provide energy on a huge scale and allowed our civilization to make the technological leap forward that made much of what we take for granted in our modern lives possible. But now, well over 150 years into the age of oil, its effects can be traced everywhere on the planet and within the biosphere in terms of toxins that pollute our water, food and air. And, of course, we have the discharge of CO2, a disturbing byproduct that may change forever the manner in which humanity will be able to exist on this planet.

My point, of course, is the fallacy of saying “we’ll develop technologies to deal with the problem” ignores the understanding that the implementation of technology is often about trade-offs: to gain an advantage/comfort/relief, what disadvantage/pain/loss must we be willing to accept? This is a question we must constantly ask ourselves moving forward, because when you really look at the problem we face as a species, it is not solely about Global Warming/Climate Change. AGW is a symptom of a much larger problem, albeit a symptom of something that has all the characteristics of a malady that could cause us great, even mortal harm in the long run. What we’re really discussing is an issue of sustainability in the face of a global population that not only exceeds the planet’s carrying capacity, but which is fouling its own nest.

Don’t get me wrong. If you read what I write here, you already know I am not a Luddite by any stretch: I love technology; I derive benefits aplenty from it both at home and at work. Technology has saved the lives of people close to me, and I believe it is our only hope at working our way out of this mess. But there is a world of difference, IMHO, between understanding the benefits derived from technology, and blithely believing that whatever happens, we’ll ‘tech’ our way out of it. There are no guarantees this will happen. If you believe otherwise, I would recommend you revisit the claims made at the 1938 World’s Fair in New York regarding what the world would be like 50 years later.

But understanding the fallacy of the “new tech” hand-wave gives a better perspective of the true magnitude of the problems we face as a species. Technology is not the sole answer, but instead an important component; it is something that must be directed and applied in concert with an effort to reverse a series of trends that are slowly but inexorably instituting changes on a global scale that will likely cause huge – if not insurmountable – problems for our descendants. Problems like loss of biodiversity, overfishing, pollution of all kinds, deterioration of wetlands, overpopulation, to name a but a handful. (And I will stress again, in the case of all of these problems, AGW is a parallel issue, something that acts as an accelerant to deep-rooted problems that have to be addressed if global civilization is to have a chance to survive into the next century). If we do get control of this, technology is going to be at the forefront of doing so. But we can’t be Pollyannas and think it will be the magic bullet that will slay the monster we’ve created.

Believing otherwise is, in many ways, a recipe for disaster.

* Ironically, efforts to “tech our way out” of the potential problems we are facing are being stymied by many of the interests involved in blocking efforts to address the growing problem of climate change. Alternative energies often face roadblocks that have nothing to do with technological innovation, but instead legislative and financial maneuverings aimed at hampering growth of those technologies in favor of business as usual – i.e.: preserving the current carbon-based profit model. Example: in California, PG&E is currently promoting a proposition in the upcoming election that would limit the ability of local governments to explore alternatives to energy provided by the main power grid!

UPDATE: Shortly after putting this piece up, I stumbled across an article on Wired’s site: Red Menace: Stop the Ug99 Fungus Before Its Spores Bring Starvation. Ug99 is a wheat rust. It invades wheat, takes over its metabolism and siphons off its nutrients. 50 years ago, a forebear to this fungus was threatening the world’s wheat supply. After many years, scientists were able to develop strains of wheat that resisted the fungus, part of the Green Revolution that supposedly made Malthus’ predictions of collapse moot.

According to the article, wheat provides a third of the world’s calories. (Note, wheat not only feeds us, but livestock upon which we depend upon for food, as well.) China and India rely heavily upon this food source. And while this problem is currently limited to the African and Asian continents, that is no guarantee it can’t hit the U.S. All that would be necessary to do so is one spore.

Just one. That’s how fragile the system of calorie production we depend upon really is. This is not to say it can’t be beat. As the Wired article discusses, scientists are hard at work looking for an antidote, a rust-resistant strain they can breed into the world’s whet crops. But if there’s anything to be learned here, evolution is an implacable foe.

One final note: Afghanistan and Pakistan rely heavily upon wheat to feed its peoples. Without food, any hope of stabilizing the Afghanistan situation is out of the question.

And Pakistan has nukes…

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Dreamtime …

The bonfire burns, its light brilliant in the ebon night, brightening the sand to dazzling whiteness, revealing the hull of the nearly finished boat we’ve been helping build. The three of us have moved back from the flames and intense heat, laying on a bedroll tucked in to a depression on the side of a high dune. Up and down the visible length of the beach are more fires, small earth-bound suns on a starless night.

We lay there, in the sand, soft breeze washing over us, listening.

We can hear the crackle and roar of the fire.

We can hear the sounds of the waves washing the shore.

We can also hear the desperate cries of the people still alive out there in the darkness, trying to swim to shore, or clinging to wreckage or some barren rock.  There were fewer and fewer coming ashore as sunset approached.

Li’l blonde puppy found us a week ago. He’s decided his job is keeping the dark puppy company. Had no idea what he was in for’ He’s curled up in the crook of my arm now, sleeping, his slumber fitful, unhappy. Someone screams in the distance and he moans, flailing his paws. The other, the dark pup, lifts his head at the human sound, stares into the distant night, looking like he sees, like he actually sees whoever it is was screaming. Maybe he knew her; he acquainted himself with everyone on our segment of the beach. His eyebrows drop and he softly whines. A moment longer and then he lowers himself, resting his head my stomach, his snout pointed at me now. He blinks once and sighs through his nostrils, the sound long and resigned, then closes his eyes.

Ten ships set out.

There were still three left when their sails disappeared below the horizon. The dark pup watched it all, never making a sound. Ships crashing on rocks, swamped by rogue waves, it didn’t matter. He sat on his rock, li’l blonde puppy sitting beside him, wanting to leave … but he stayed. We all did. We couldn’t not watch.

The beach is all there is. No going back.

Going back was never an option …

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“I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.”

From The Optimism of Uncertainty, Howard Zinn

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Dusting Memories

I recently had what I call a Tony Perkins moment. No, nothing involving motels, showers, chef knives, desiccated mommies or spurting chocolate syrup.

It’s like this: a few years back my former wife and I (she’s the sweet lady Reg stowed away with to get to Antarctica) were cleaning house one crisp Spring morning. Now, the apartment we lived in overflowed with books and electronics and art and knick-knacks and stuffed puppies and critters, making it a very warm, cluttery place, even on this cool day in the South Bay. And so, pausing in the middle of one task or another I happened to look up and around at all these things, all this stuff we’d accumulated, and for no particular reason I can recall, I was reminded of a movie, of a scene in a movie featuring Perkins and Donna Anderson. It was a simple, almost boring domestic scene as he makes tea for her and prepares to go to work. Anderson seems normal, nothing out of the ordinary, if a touch distracted, and Perkins seems similarly in place. But there is a look to him or, more specifically, there is a manner of the way Perkins seems to be looking at things that came back to my imperfect memory of the scene. Later on in the movie, of course, it becomes clear why he has this air about him, this way of taking things in. And then again, maybe I was projecting the subtext of his actions on him.

But it was the effect, the underlying sense of the impending, that impressed.

So on that fresh Spring morning, conjured by this scene in the theatre of my memory, I sort of felt the sense of how Perkins’ character saw things, understood that look at the world. This recognition channeled and inhabited my being, becoming something akin to the overused cliché regarding the sensation of someone walking on my grave, if you will.

More important, that was the moment I understood and, more important, accepted something that was becoming obvious, and inevitable.

=======

I think I sorta had a sense of things early on. Maybe it was all those stories I read by Andre Norton about life after the end and survival after a collapse … or the prospect of no survival. Star Man’s Son, (retitled Daybreak, 2250 AD), The Stars Are Ours, the aforementioned Star Rangers (The Last Planet), Lord of Thunder, Galactic Derelict, Sea Siege, Dark Piper … all good, hard SciFi with a common element: the plot device of a failed or failing ancient civilization, or humans dealing with the prospect of the loss of modern civilization.

At 14, I picked up Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and pretty much read it over the course of a day.

After, I lay awake nights, thinking of endings.

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Reading

I don’t know where the reading started, where it came from, not really. Probably the comic books, with wanting to know what the heroes were saying in the word balloons. But I always was a reader. From the age of 7 through 11, every Saturday, my father would drive into town with me, drop me off at the library,  run errands and then go hit a bar. Sometimes – when I was really lucky – he’d leave me there for until late afternoon.

Being in the cozy basement of that old, small-town library was like living in heaven. If I have one regret, it is that I do not have my daughter’s talent for reading books at breakneck speed. I had to take my time. But I read. I read and read and read. I read books about anything and everything, stories about ponies on Islands off the Carolina Coast, about surviving in the American wilderness in the dead of freezing winter during the time of the Revolution, murder mysteries in sunken gardens in South Africa, books about planes, trains and automobiles, short story collections of the macabre and horrific (Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery was my Bible – I read it over and over and over, never tiring of it).

And then there was war, a subject near and dear to most boys’ hearts. I read all I could find to read about war. Anything and everything. Toward the end of that magical time I inhaled Churchill’s history of the Second World War. I knew all there was to know about the American Navy up to and including World War II. I was thoroughly fascinated as only a pre-adolescent boy could be.

And then I found Welles and Verne. I read The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine,  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and was utterly captivated by the adventure … and then I read The Mysterious Island, a story that was to me at the time the grandest adventure imaginable, and remember being stunned and amazed to learn that Captain Nemo was alive, and was responsible for the existence of the island. (The concept of a character living on past the conclusion of one story to unexpectedly reappear in a second in such a fashion stuck me as incredible!)

Again, though, more endings. Nemo apparently perished and his story ended, a dream of the future lost to the uncaring whims of fate and nature, and I was, in a sense, deeply saddened. Verne’s submariner had come to represent so many things to me that I didn’t have the words or concepts at the time to articulate: the potential of science for man; the mystery of human existence; the deep longing for what is good as a counterpoint to the inevitable darkness of mankind’s nature.

Dad was in the Air Force, in SAC – Strategic Air Command – and during my so-called formative years were planted the memory of military alerts broadcast on TV and radio, of seeing him get in uniform and report for duty. The Cuban Missile Crisis: we had no real idea of what was happening, but there was no escaping something huge and potentially dangerous to everything alive was occurring.

And then, in 1968, at 14, I read On the Beach.

“… what makes On the Beach nevertheless one of the most compelling accounts of nuclear war ever written is its almost unique insistence that everyone–without exception–is going to die. Shute directly addresses the most primal fears of the human race, which has spent most of its history denying or compensating for the fact of personal death … For once, there are no distractions: no invading aliens, no super-fallout shelters to protect the protagonists, no struggle back from a dreadful but exciting postwar barbarism. There are simply a man and a woman reaching the agonizing decision to kill their only child in its crib and commit suicide as the rest of the human race expires around them.
Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, Paul Brians

At 14, given what I’d already lived through, I was no stranger to imagined endings. At the same time, fed by my science fiction reading, I had a strong sense of the value of the world, the potential for what we could be … and then this book sort of brought it all together for me.

But life goes on and eventually the effect of Shute’s novel faded. I joined the Army when I turned 18. While there, I ended up aiming nuclear weapons at the Soviets. You might say I was in my element, though you would miss the irony of the situation if you did. Dunno what I was targeting, but I was in Germany and I could guess … and I soon realized it really didn’t matter; I knew what would happen if the decision were made to use those missiles. My mates used to laugh about how we were such an obvious and easy target that, if a war ever started, we were high on the list of people who would disappear in the first minutes.

To myself I would sometimes think “And we’d be only the first.”

Years came and went and in the fiction I continued to read endings played out: Lucifer’s Hammer, Swan Song, The Stand … all were enthralling, high-octane reads – all apocalyptic fiction. But they never had the effect of On the Beach for me. Maybe I was jaded by my experiences, adulthood, blah, blah, blah. Maybe having lived in the modern world for so long with the concept of the apocalyptic immediacy of nuclear war burned my generation out to the idea. It was all so much of the same, the lingering aspect of annihilation, year after year … and I had a life to live.

But in 1990, I read David Brin’s Earth* and something sparked and I started thinking about endings again. I had a baby daughter, and as I was pushing the threshold of 40, the future was less of an abstract to me.

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Quick Fails

We think in terms of quick fails.

In ancient times a city falls, its men are put to the sword, goods snatched, women raped and sold into slavery. The final drama plays out over a few days or weeks (in John Norwich’ History of Byzantium, he notes during all the religious wars that marked the evolution of the Western and Eastern churches there was the quaint custom that once a city falls, there followed a 72-hour period of sacking, including the requisite raping and pillaging, after which the survivors were more or less allowed to pick up the pieces). Of course, in modern times we are more concerned about plagues, atomic devices, 3-day wars, rogue superpowers rolling over countries they don’t like … that sort of thing …

But what we really need to look at here, really discuss, is the history. The history that gets us to that point where a trigger gets pulled and the shit hits the fan. Earlier, for example, I noted the last century’s wars started in 1914 and lasted 75 years. Of course, we were taught there were two big wars and a bunch of little ones. But this is wrong, because  what we’re really dealing with is a series of connected events and decisions that perpetuated the global conflict. Moreover, it could be argued this war started earlier, perhaps when the HMS Dreadnought, an entirely new weapons system – the modern, big gun battleship – came into being in 1906, triggering the arms race that led to the war. Or you could go back further, identifying events, conflicts, brush wars dating back to Napoleon … or the conflict between the European powers over the new world … and when you think about it, you can trace events back to before the transcribing of the Old Testament or the writing of the Athenian Constitution.

The point (an obvious one, of course) is that 1) everything we do was affected by what came before and 2) it takes a long time for these events to unfold – which, in turn, makes them extremely difficult to impossible to stop once everything is set in motion.

In history, everything is connected. A city is sacked, yes, but only after a torturous series of events, many offering the potential for the city to remain unharmed, having played out over months and years and decades and centuries. Actions taken influence actions to come. The true bookends to historical events are more likely akin to the Dreadnaught example I cited above, which tipped a balance of power that in turn moved the world closer and closer to what would become an inevitable, near century-long war that saw different powers emerge and fall, finishing with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which in turn marked the end of one era while heralding this new one we find ourselves in.

Another example, perhaps a tad less defined in terms of starting points, is the Industrial Revolution.

Which brings us full circle to endings.

… and physics …

Next: A Dark Puppy explains Dark Matters.

* It should be noted that in Earth Brin made predictions of the planet’s future for the 50 years that followed publication, many of which that have panned out with unsettling accuracy…

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