Two views of life on Earth

I’m struck by the wildly diverse views of life on Earth held by two books I’ve been reading lately. This is something that should strike any reader of religious scripture the moment he or she ventures out into the world of scientific literature. The two views of our place in the universe couldn’t be more different. The first is from the Qur’an:

“Have you not observed how God causes water to descend from the sky, making it flow as springs on the ground, then through it causes crops of diverse colors to sprout forth, then the crops dry out and you see them yellowing, then He turns all into stubble?” (trans. T. Khalidi)

The passage from the Qur’an is milder, less hectoring in tone than others I’ve mentioned on this blog. Don’t let that fool you. It’s buttressed by the same repetitive threats of hellfire and eternal pain for the unbeliever. You never have to go more than a paragraph from where you are to find them. In the Qur’an, there is a familiar omnipotent, benevolent (well, not really) and omniscient being who gets very offended when his little creations don’t blindly submit to his greatness. The fact that they don’t actually have to do anything in particular, behave in any particularly righteous way, abstain from noxious behaviour is telling here. It seems all that is expected of them is faith. That appears to me to be the entirety of the Qur’anic message. If you don’t have faith, if you live a perfectly good life by any other standard but deny the revelation of this book, you are destined for an eternity of punishment. And if you do have faith, and you happen as well to be a murderer, a liar and philanderer you will be rewarded with delectable fruits in heaven. The second is from Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot:

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The contrast here is clear enough. 

Rita Levi-Montalcini turns 102

The oldest living Nobel laureate.

From Jewdayo:

The oldest living Nobel laureate, Rita Levi-Montalcini, was born in Turin, Italy on this date in 1909. She did her award-winning work at Washington University in St. Louis, MO in the late 1940s, isolating the nerve growth factor, which plays a key role in the growth and homeostasis of nerve cells. The discovery earned the 1986 Nobel Award in physiology/medicine for her and Dr. Stanley Cohen. Levi-Montalcini had become a doctor in the 1930s after witnessing the death from cancer of a close friend, but the rise of Italian fascism forced her to conduct her research in a home laboratory (in both Italy and France) until the end of World War II. She was appointed Senator for Life in Italy’s senate in 2001, and periodically takes part in the chamber’s deliberations expressing progressive views, which has fetched many attacks on her as both a leftist and a Jew from right-wing bloggers and politicians. Her autobiography, In Praise of Imperfection, was published in 1988.

“I tell young people: Do not think of yourself, think of others. Think of the future that awaits you, think about what you can do and do not fear anything.” -Rita Levi-Montalcini

Scale of the universe

Here is a totally awesome interactive scale model of the universe. It really helps you visualize the so-big-it’s-unthinkable and the so-small-it’s-beyond-our-power-to-comprehend. We here on this planet are so small and yet so big. It’s actually kinda weird when you think about it. But not so weird it implies the need for supernatural causes.

I’m going to make a point of using the word “yoctometer” in a conversation, though – just so I can tell someone to go check this out. (Click on image, then use the slide rule to pan in and out.)

The curious case of Shermer vs. Armstrong

Searching for skeptical responses to astrology, I came across this video entitled Vedic Astrology: Michael Shermer vs. Jeffrey Armstrong. The video is a clip (not a whole episode) from Exploring the Unknown. In the clip Armstrong, a “Vedic astrologer” – after assuring us that Vedic astrology is the only “scientific” astrology out there – appears to “read” a group of people with nothing other than the date, time and place of their birth, and their gender.

Armstrong got a 77% overall result. So does this validate Vedic astrology?

There is a long thread on James Randi’s website dedicated to Armstrong vs. Shermer. Most of the commenters are skeptical of the clip, mainly because Shermer doesn’t get his two minutes to explain the seemingly overwhelming success of Armstrong’s powers. Mostly people seem interested in Shermer’s silence. Why didn’t he promptly and clearly debunk his astrological debunker? Was Shermer a defeated skeptic after all?

Shermer pops up midway through the thread, in an email response attributed to him. We can probably assume these are Shermer’s words, because Randi’s site would have probably taken them down had they been exposed as a fabrication.

Here is meta-Shermer:

“The short story is this: we ran out of time at the end of the filming day to conduct any more experiments with Armstrong. I protested that it was going to make it look like he was successful, but to no avail as I did not have final authority over what was produced for the show, Exploring the Unknown, and so I just hoped that in the editing process it would be cut in a way that dealt with that problem, but it wasn’t and I couldn’t do anything about it, so it aired and no one noticed back then (in 2000), but someone posted the clip you reference and now we’re dealing with the fallout from it. It is an unfortunate reality of the series that I didn’t have enough control over the production and filming process. You can post this explanation if you like.


“My memory on what we were trying to do that day of filming is a little vague, but if I recall correctly there was to be another stage of the experiment where Armstrong had to match his astrological readings with the profiles of a group of new subjects, and then have them do the same, picking out their reading from a batch he produced, and then compare them. But we ran out of time. Here’s how it works in the film/television industry: camera crews are unionized and have strict rules about working only so many hours in a day, after which they get paid double time and even triple time, need a certain number of breaks in the day, etc. Our budget for that show required that we were done by 5pm, and we simply ran out of time and the producer called the shoot over, and there was nothing I could do about it. Very frustrating.”

If you’re interested, watch the video and judge for yourself. But keep in mind that if Vedic astrology really is all Jeffrey Armstrong and his commenter trolls crack it up to be, then why hasn’t it been more widely embraced by the scientific community? Or, why hasn’t it been embraced at all? Is he a lone rogue scientist, a modern-day Copernicus, a Galileo who will be vindicated long after those who ridicule him are forgotten, their memory scattered by the winds of time?

I doubt it. Armstrong and his visionary cronies are on the outer rings of science, the fringe. To penetrate the inner core of accepted scientific knowledge, Vedic astrology would have to amass mountainous proof of its validity and its ability to stand up to ceaseless testing and prove itself compatible with the existing body of scientific knowledge. Anything less than this, no matter how many lucky hits he brings home (who couldn’t get a few hits just by taking a stab in the dark?) means that astrology – Vedic or otherwise – is destined to remain on the outer limits along with mind-reading, tarot cards, Bible codes and legion other curios of the human intellect.

Or is Vedic astrology, like Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, a game-changer?

Harun Yahya (2)

Somehow a number of Yahya apologists have found my little post and commented. One comment in particular I found interesting:

Author probabley (sic) confused with the evolution theory. Getting hair longer, growing fingernail or kids getting taller, is not the purpose of evolution theory. This is quite normal natural process and within the same speciey (sic). Evolution theory says, one speciey (sic)transform into antoher (sic!). For example, Fish became corodile (sic), human was animal or monkey.

Well, I never wrote that growing fingernails and long hair were the be-all and end-all of evolution. And humans are animals. I don’t even claim to completely understand the underlying mechanisms of evolution, just as I don’t understand exactly how gravity works, or medicine. I’m not a biologist. But when a guy like Harun Yahya sends his lavish “Atlas of Creation” to real scientists like Richard Dawkins, it’s a laughable affront to the scientific community and those of us who appreciate what science is all about.

Everything evolves, all the time, from the animal body to the cosmos itself. Nothing is fixed in our universe. Once this is grasped, evolution from one species to the next (where does one species end and another begin anyway?) is not such a great leap. Of course, if you think God or Allah created Adam from scratch and pulled Eve from his rib then you might find yourself in great difficulty accepting the basic principle of evolution.

A suggestion to my Turkish readers (now that I have so many): I am delighted that you are so thirsty for knowledge of the real world. Harun Yahya is not your friend. He will teach you nothing about science. For that you must lose your fear of atheism, Darwin, Dawkins and all the rest. There never was any such thing  as a crocoduck or a fronkey. This is not what evolution is about. A wide world of discovery awaits you. If you should lose your faith and become atheists, well, you might just enjoy the intellectual freedom you get from it.

Here Comes the Sun

Here comes the sun.
Life is meaningless

“…inevitably, as the Sun switches over to helium fusion, it will become so hot as to boil away Earth’s oceans and smite the life it spawned there. The ten-fold temperature increase required to burn helium will see the hotter sun turn red, and swell in size until it swallows up the planets Mercury and Venus, and melts the surface of the Earth. One hundred million years later, when the sun has reduced more helium to carbon to carbon ash, it will shrug off its outer layers and dispatch them past Pluto. A larger star could resort to carbon burning at this point, but our Sun, a relatively small star by the standards of the universe, will be unable to do so. Instead, it will smolder as an ember, and shed a fading light on the charred cinder where God once walked among men. This dim future, however, lies so far ahead as to allow the descendants of Adam and Noah ample time to find another home.” (Dava Sobel, The Planets, 2005)

This blows the Book of Revelation out of the water. Religious folks have been waiting impatiently for the end of the  world for thousands of years. They have devised the comforts of heaven (and the volcanic cruelties of hell) and the bizarre concept of Judgement Day out of these same fears. Now we have far more reliable methods than prophecy for knowing our past and reading our future. The results are getting clearer, and they are staggering: on the positive side, our planet will endure well beyond our lifetime and that of our next thousand generations (the same cannot be said for our species); on the negative side, our Sun will eventually explode and wipe out every recognizable remnant of our solar system.

If life really is meaningless, why not enjoy it and be nice?