Manned Mission to Mars or Gigantic Space Telescopes?

Which would be more exciting to happen in  your lifetime:  humans landing on Mars, or discovering life on a planet in another star system?  If we were willing to spend the money, and some big money at that, we could explore Mars, or we could build gigantic space-based telescopes to hunt for life on other planets orbiting nearby stars.  In our lifetime the Hubble telescope greatly expanded our vision of reality.  Then the Kepler telescope discovered thousands of exoplanets, letting us know that planets are common.  Building a very large space telescope would allow us to detect what’s in the atmospheres of those planets, including chemicals that indicate life, or even intelligent life.

Growing up in the 1960s with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs I was crazy for manned space exploration, but over the course of the last several decades I’ve been more thrilled with the rewards of robotic missions to Mars, missions to the rest of the solar system, and especially by space telescopes.  NASA has two upcoming spaced based telescopes that I’m trilled to see launched, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).  And ESA has plans for CHEOPS.

If you pay attention to space news, you’ll know that there are many people out there with different goals for space exploration.  Some want to go back to the Moon, others to Mars, some to asteroids, and many want to build fantastic space based observatories.  You can divide them into two groups – those who want manned missions, and those who want robot missions.  I’d prefer both, but what if we don’t have the money for both?  What gets the most bang for our bucks?

Manned missions are exciting and let us feel like we’re progressing towards greater heights of civilization and accomplishment.  Robot missions expand our awareness of reality at a much faster pace than we’ve ever imagined.  However, I feel that manned missions without the goal of permanent colonization doesn’t offer that much for our money.  If we went to Mars to build a new home for humans, to spread our eggs to another basket, then it would be worth all the money we could throw at the project.  If we only send a few people there over a period of decades and then stop, then I’d rather put all our money into robotic missions, especially gigantic space based telescopes that hunt for life in other stellar systems, and giant SETI projects.

If I’m lucky I might live another quarter century and I’d really like to know that we’re not alone in this universe before I die.  Sure, I’d love to know we could send people to Mars and back, but that’s not as exciting as knowing that life, and especially intelligent life exists somewhere besides Earth.  As a lifelong science fiction reader I’ve always felt that to be true, but I’d like to have proof.

Now that the economy is improving, that so many billionaires are starting private space programs, and Thomas Piketty is creating a movement that proves higher taxes would improve capitalism, we might have more money for space exploration, both manned and robotic.  Like I said, it would be great to finance both kinds of missions.  However, if I got to vote, I’d campaign for building a gigantic space based telescope, something far bigger than anything on the drawing boards at the moment.

I have no idea how big will be big enough.  Would building telescopes with kilometer size apertures on the far side of the Moon or out in L5 orbits do the job, or would it take building several large space telescopes positioned around the solar system to create a gigantic hyper-telescope interferometer array?

The trouble with all this is most citizens of the world do not care about science or spending such vast sums of money to learn more about reality.  That’s a shame because spending big bucks gets us big knowledge.  If we had spent the trillion dollars we spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on giant space telescopes we’d know if we were alone or not in the universe.  Or we could have a K-12 and higher education school system that would have produced vast armies of scientists and dazzling inventors and make us far more richer.  Money spent on science pays off more than money invested anywhere else.  It’s a shame we’d rather invest so heavily in war, and other forms of self-destruction.

I wish our species was smarter.

JWH – 7/16/14

A Documentary a Day Keeps the Psychiatrist Away

Most people are put off by documentaries and nonfiction books because they fear they will be educational, especially the mind-numbing kind of education they were exposed to when sentenced to 13 years of hard learning back in their K-12 prison days.  And yes, many documentaries and nonfiction books are as painful as classes back in high school.  However, and I mean a really big however, some documentaries and nonfiction books are mind blowing far out fun and entertaining – if you get off on learning about new things about this world and reality.  A good documentary should educate, but a wonderful documentary will entertain, and a great documentary will inspire.

As I have gotten older, I have become jaded to normal television entertainment.  It takes Breaking Bad quality to make me watch fictionalized television shows, so to fill up my old TV watching time I’ve turned to documentaries.  I’ve discovered if I can find the right documentaries I’m far more entertained than by watching 98% of fictional television shows.  More than that, I’ve discovered that watching a great documentary is uplifting for my mood, even if it’s about a depressing topic.  And the best documentaries inspire me with hope.  Documentaries can be elixirs for the soul.

For instance, last night I watched Touching the Wild on PBS Nature, about Joe Hutto spending seven years with Wyoming mule deer.  It took Hutto over two years of patiently following a herd of mule deer daily before they accepted him.  Eventually, he got to know them so individually that he named them.

Touching the Wild is about more than making friends with wild animals.  It’s an extremely profound philosophical work, about existence and death, about mind, language and intelligence.  One of the things that I’ve been learning from all of these documentaries is science is discovering that that animals are much closer to us mentally than we ever wanted to believe.  We are not God’s chosen creature.  We have no right to claim dominion over all the other creatures of this planet.  Nor can we claim our intelligence makes us superior. 

I am not a religious man, but this film was Biblical in its impact.  Strangely, I had seen Noah this weekend, and it makes you wonder if there was a creator, if he wouldn’t despise humans and want to wipe us out.  Christians babble on endlessly about being saved from sin, but I think it’s a childish cop-out to want to be forgiven.  We need to stop sinning to atone for our sins.  Watching Touching the Wild is like walking in Eden, we can blame the serpent all we want, but it is humans that are destroying paradise.

I was going to write this essay by listing dozens of great documentaries I’ve seen lately, but that would be too wordy I think.  I think instead I should tell you how to find great documentaries.  The highest qualities documentaries on TV are on PBS.  The next best source is streaming Netflix.  For instance I showed my friend Olivia Samsara yesterday that’s from Netflix.  She was blown away.

Cable TV has a lot of channels with documentaries and nonfiction shows, but most of its crap.  Sorry, but it’s true.  Some of it’s okay, but be careful.  The History Channel has such great potential, and sometimes it even has good shows, but all too often it has suspect information.  I wish it was peer reviewed by actually historians.  It would be great if actual Ph.D. historians had a chance to evaluate their documentaries in follow-up shows, because it would be enlightening to teach folks how they are being misinformed.  The History Channel has some good shows among the schlock, like The Universe, but they aren’t as well made as the science shows on PBS.  They tend to endlessly repeat the same animations and information.  Fox has redeemed it’s news division with Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a 13 episode series currently appearing on Sunday nights, that would make Carl Sagan choke up with pride for his protégé Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Like I said, PBS is where it’s at, when we’re talking about documentaries on regular television.  Currently Wednesday nights are called Think Wednesday, that start with Nature and NOVA, and follow up a three part series called Your Inner Fish, based on Neil Shubin’s book of the same name.  Your Inner Fish should give creationists apoplexy and intelligence designers their worst nightmares, but for people who understand evolution it’s a thing of beauty.  If only Darwin could have lived to see it.

NOVA has been running a series on animal intelligence and last night show was about dogs.  Anyone who loves dogs should watch it, especially if you’ve wondered why your favorite pet knows when you are coming home.  By the way, if you have a Roku, get the PBS channel, and you can watch these shows if you missed them.  The Roku PBS Channel keeps current shows around for a few weeks like Hulu.

Throughout the week, PBS has fabulous documentaries.  Just take a chance and try some of them out.  They cover every subject you can think of, and more than you can’t.

The variety of documentaries at Netflix streaming is practically endless.  New ones appear faster than I can keep up.  If you add one to your queue, Netflix will recommend ten more on the same topic.  Often when I add one documentary, I’ll end up adding eight or ten because Netflix is good recommending more that fit my tastes.  And if you aren’t a documentary junky, you’ll be surprised by how many documentaries are being made each year.   Just look at four music documentaries I recently watched.  The variety of all documentaries makes the word diverse quaint.

I’m not much of a traveler, so documentaries are my lazy-ass way of traveling the world.  I’m also on the shy side, so documentaries let me meet people I never would in real life.  But you have to be careful, some documentary film makers are very persuasive, and it’s easy to be convinced into believing bullshit.  We’re so used to fiction, that we accept what we see on TV.  That’s bad.  Being educated can be thrilling, and it doesn’t have to be boring.

What you really want, is to be inspired.  And sometimes you’ll find inspiration in the strangest places.  I’m not into fashion, but I found the documentary on Bill Cunningham, a fashion photographer for the New York Times, who is in his eighties and rides a bike around Manhattan, as very inspirational.  That’s the best thing about documentaries – seeing stories about people who stand out in their effort to achieve their ambitions.  Quite often I watch shows about people that overcome so many obstacles that aren’t in my way and still do things I only dream about.  They make me want to be a better person.

If I’m feeling blue and watch an inspiring documentary, my mind and soul will be uplifted.  If I’m feeling tired and watch a great documentary, I’ll be energized.  There’s more to TV than cop shows and sitcoms, and before reality shows, there were documentaries – shows about the real reality.

JWH – 4/17/14

The Science of Faith


I am writing this in response to attacks on the TV show Cosmos by religious believers.  Cosmos represents a litmus test about the public’s understanding of science.  The series represents an overview of what science has learned in the last four hundred years.  Despite all the efforts of modern secular education, I think many of the ideas presented in Cosmos are new to a majority of the public.  Science and technology succeed in our society without the majority of the population even understanding it.

Cosmos represents a good consensus of what science knows about reality, and yet it is often in conflict with many people’s personal beliefs about how reality works because of their religious education.  Whether they accept it or not, science is in direct conflict with religion.


Religion is wildly popular  because people want to believe.  People want to believe because of psychological needs.  Religion is 100% hope for certain fantasies to be true.  Believers validate their beliefs by getting other people to share their hopes.  But, what if the faithful applied the rigor of philosophy and the discipline of science to their religion?  Truth about reality is revealed not through our personal desires, but through what works for all people.

Why are there so many different religions, sects, creeds, beliefs if they are true?  They can’t all be true.  Why is there little consensus among believers, and much contention and hatred?  Religious wars are infamous for their cruelty.  Now the faithful feel under siege by science.  And some even invent pseudo-sciences to defend their beliefs.  If their beliefs were an actual feature of reality wouldn’t they be universal and testable?

Instead of attacking science, or making up fake science, the faithful should apply science to their beliefs.  First, they should find the core beliefs they all share and develop a consensus as to what is true about God or gods.  Anything your religion believes that all the other religions don’t, should be immediately crossed off the list of things that are probably true.  If something is universally true, it should be universally believed by all people.  False beliefs can be infinite because we can imagine anything, but universal truths should be finite because reality only works one way.  What are the universal truths in religious beliefs?  If a religious concept doesn’t apply to all humans on Earth, or even all aliens on every planet in the multiverse, then it should be doubted.

Science works by seeking such universal truths, and this is why the faithful feel under attack.  Not only does science work in a consistent manner, with a fantastic track record, but it’s truth works the same for Americans and Chinese, for Russians and Iranians.  Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus can barely agree on anything amongst themselves, much less with other religions.  If the religious really want to prove themselves, they need to band together and make one religion.  The obvious reason why religion is false is because there are too many of them.

If you are a firm believer in any metaphysical concept, you have to consider it a desire on your part unless you can find consensus with others.  That’s why religious people are so big on converting new recruits.  Getting someone else to believe like you do, validates your own fantasies.  If you really want to believe in something that’s true outside of your head, you need to be more scientific.  Any belief you hold that isn’t shared by a majority of the other seven billion people on this planet should be considered suspect.  Science succeeds because it’s under constant suspect.  Ideas have to taking a beating and keep on ticking – by everyone.

Even if six billion believers get together and form an absolute consensus on Laws of Religious Concepts, it won’t necessarily mean these beliefs are true without additional proof.  If the consensus is there is one God and that God listens to everyone’s prayers, then you need to test this hypothesis.  Let’s say every day six billion people all pray for the same unique thing each day.  If the prayers are answered repeatedly over years, then you can assume your theory is correct.  If it is not, you will have to alter your theory to there is a God but he doesn’t listen to people.  You will need to find a way to test this hypothesis.

However, even without scientific proof, the beliefs of the faithful can never be considered real unless they find more consensus.  Religious minded people would help their cause if they sought agreement rather than constantly splintering into smaller groups.  You can’t beat science by altering the rules of science.  You can’t beat science by lying about it.  You can’t beat science by putting your head into the sand.

I can think of two beliefs that a majority of religious believers might embrace.  One, there is a creator.  Two, the Golden Rule.  And those two might still cause a lot of arguments.  But beyond that, there is little agreement among the faithful.  Which to me, means there’s little reason to believe them.

Instead of attacking science, the religious should embrace each other.  You can’t elevate religion by undermining science.  Religions have always succeeded by war – by killing the unbelievers.  If you want to prove your religion is true, prove what you believe, not what everyone else believes is false.  Science succeeds because it proves what’s true, what works.

My challenge to the faithful, start proving your beliefs work universally.  I’ll consider the first step towards that proof when all religions become one.

JWH – 4/7/14

Who Is Watching Us If There Is No God?

One of the prime appeals of religion is a father figure who watches over everyone and everything.  I’m a lifelong atheist, so I don’t think about a personal God who listens and watches over me.  Yet, I know that the faithful need a higher power they feel is watching over them.  That desire to be noticed is very important to most people.  People cling to the concept of God for just a few reasons despite all the endless varieties of religions and their verbose theologies.  They don’t want to die, they want to be protected, they want someone to always care about them, and they want divine justice.

Last night I watched TB Silent Killer on the PBS documentary series Frontline.  This incredibly intense show on drug resistant tuberculosis in Africa was very hard to see, but I think very important not to miss.  Follow the link to watch the show.  It answers my question:  Who is watching us if there is no God?  We have to watch each other, either personally, or by films like this, or on the news, or by any other form of journalism, and even by the Internet and smartphones.  People have always wanted a God to watch over us, but as we evolve and learn about the scientific nature of reality, it’s obvious there is no father figure watching us 24×7.

What people want is to be saved from death and suffering.  The people in TB Silent Killer suffered greatly for months and years, and often died.  They felt no one was watching, that no one cared, and most importantly, no one would rescue them from their fates.  And they hated the unfairness that they were sick when others were not.  It wasn’t a just reality to them.  Watch this film to see how deeply you care, and contemplate possible answers.

As a self-aware species, and as we become enlightened and realize there is no magic in the sky, we have to learn how to create substitutes for all those hopes we put into God.  We really do want a superior being that cares for every sparrow that falls from a tree.  I can understand that desire.  I believe the human race has to become its own father figure.  We have to care for everyone else on Earth, and for all the animals too.  We have to learn to answer each other’s prayers.


At end end of the show they asked each person what hope they had.  Most of the people were waiting for death, for after years of suffering, their hope of being rescued was long gone.  But the little girl they featured, Nokubheka, said she wanted people to invent safe pills that would cure TB.  She had been taking highly toxic medicines for months.  And she was right.  The way to answer her prayer is for science to find a cure for TB.  That should be something everyone wants because TB is airborne and it’s fast becoming drug resistant.  The show teaches about MDR TB (multi-drug-resistant TB) and XDR TB (extensively drug-resistant TB).  Remember how AIDS began in Africa, well it was a hard to spread retrovirus.  TB is very easy to spread, and it’s airborne.  You don’t have to have sex with the infected to catch it, just stand near them.  Yes, you should watch this show.  You should care.

While watching the show I also wondered how else we could help these people, or anyone that suffers a horrible disease like them.  All the victims in this documentary talked about being lonely, afraid, isolated, and bored.  Because of their contagion, they have to be isolated, but I wondered if they would have been happier if they had the Internet or smartphones.  Maybe a charity could be created that provides a social network for the sick and dying – one that would create a sense of being watched and cared for.  Call it The Sparrow.  It might even be a substitute for the desire to have a caring father figure watch over them.

When it comes down to it, we can plead for magic from an invisible being, or we can answer our own prayers with our own real abilities.

JWH – 3/26/14

The Theological Implications of the Multiverse

Because of recent research in gravity waves and inflation, the theory of the multiverse moves further toward reality.  While creationists are still fighting for equal time to oppose the 1859 theory of evolution, science has gone on to discover endless other aspects of reality that counter the Biblical view.  I don’t know why creationists focus so exclusively on evolution when millions of other scientific discoveries are also thorns in their theological sides.

When humanity thought the Earth was the center of everything, contained within the celestial spheres, it was possible to imagine our reality being constructed by a super being, especially if you believed the whole thing was only 6,000 years old.  Even then it was an extremely far out idea to buy.  After the sun was moved to the center of the universe, and Earth was just the third planet, it became a lot harder to imagine a God that could create the solar system with some kind of magic spell.  For a long while after that, we assumed all of reality was the Milky Way galaxy.

As reality got bigger, it got harder to imagine a single being creating it.  But still, reality was manageable with just a billion stars.  Then Edwin Hubble came along and showed us reality is composed of billions of galaxies.  How can any theology handle a reality that big?

If we live in a multiverse, it might not be billions of universes, but an infinity of them.  Or there might be another layer, so there are billions of multiverses in a megaverse.  It seems science can’t find any end to large or small, nor a beginning of time.  This has got to wipe out all ancient theological theories.  It’s time to start over.  Reality is too big for any kind of God, and we’re too small for any kind of special consideration.

Humanity needs to start over and throw out all theology and come up with a new working hypothesis about our place in reality.  Instead of thinking of ourselves as the crown of creation, we need see ourselves closer to an intelligent virus that accidently came about through random evolution with no  higher being watching.  Seen from orbiting telescopes, humans are little smudges that have infected this planet.  We’re quite deadly, killing off most of the other life forms on Earth.

We have a decision to make.  Shall we take responsibility for our actions?  There is no God judging us.  We only judge ourselves.  And it might not even be possible for our species to become fully conscious of its actions and act.  We might breed ourselves out of existence.  It should be pretty obvious to all by now that no God will intercede.  We will not be punished if we don’t act, nor will we be rewarded if we do.  We merely can choose to act.  We can preserve ourselves, other species, and the planet Earth – for a while. 

Nothing last forever in the multiverse.

Please read.

JWH – 3/24/14

More Science, Less Fiction

As a lifelong science fiction reader I’ve always had an on again, off again relationship with science, but now that I’m retired I’m thinking about a deeper commitment.  Science fiction inspires a kind of love for science that’s not very realistic.  Science fiction is a marijuana high of smoking science, and is about as scientific as two dopers discussing theories of reality.  Science fiction is a good gateway drug to science, but sooner or later you have to move on to the harder stuff – physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics.

Most folks today have little knowledge of science, and most of those who do, have a Newtonian model of reality in their heads.  The hard to intuit relativity of space-time, and the bizarre quantum world is beyond all but a few to incorporate into their seeing of how things work.  We truly live in a science fictional world, where a little bit of science creates a lot of fiction. 

Back in the 1950s and 1960s when I was growing up, science fiction was about the future, but our lives in the 21st century present are very science fictional.  We live in times described by Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Growing up reading science fiction gave me a view of the future that’s turned out to be wrong.  Before I die, I’d like to assemble another view of the future, to imagine what things will be like after I die.  But this time, hopefully, I want to install a more realistic science.  We can’t predict the future, but we can shoot down a lot of crap ideas.  I’d like to die with a reasonable idea of what my brief visit to reality was all about.

I read about 52 books a year, or on average, one a week.  I’d like to be more systematic about reading science books, but I don’t want to give up reading other kinds of books.  Actually, I don’t want to create any rigid rules to live by at all – anything I feel obligated to do, I won’t.  But lately, I’ve been reading a lot of great popular science books and I realize to better understand what I’m reading will require some applied effort.

For example, I’m currently listening to Time Reborn by Lee Smolin, and he mentions reading Einstein’s original papers from 1905 as a young student.  Smolin says they are quite easy to understand, far better than most science papers, and they set the standard for science papers in their clarity of thought.  I’ve always assumed they could only be read by genius level scientists.  It just so happens I have a copy of Einstein’s Miraculous Year:  Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics.  Now, I’m torn.  Should I stop reading Time Reborn and read Einstein?


Smolin makes it sound like reading Einstein’s original work is the foundation of all his scientific thinking.  This makes me think instead of reading the latest popular science books I should instead be reading older ones.  I’ve always dismissed science books older than a few years as being past their expiration date.  Maybe this is a false assumption. 

When I bought Our Mathematical Universe, I read an interesting reader review at Amazon where Michael Birman said:

Years of reading science books have produced a personal pantheon of the finest I’ve ever come across. There are several aspects of Tegmark’s book that have placed it amongst the three finest popular science books I’ve ever read. The other two books are Albert Einstein and Leopold Infield’s The Evolution of Physics and Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy (Commonwealth Fund Book Program). The first book, The Evolution of Physics, is still the clearest exposition of classical and (relatively) modern physics ever written, despite its age. It remains the most authoritative, concise and profound discussion of the source of Einstein’s world-shattering ideas, and has never been surpassed as a book written by a great scientist for a popular audience. Kip Thorne’s book combines personal reminiscence and scientific exposition with an elegance and depth that makes it my choice as the finest modern popularized science book. Thorne proved that you can write about science in an engaging manner without sacrificing either intelligence or necessary relevant technical detail.

You guessed it, I ordered those two books too.  So just starting two new books has gotten me to buy three old books.  The trouble with reading current physics books is they are often so ethereal that I don’t know if I’m learning science or reading science fiction.  For the last many years, I’ve been constantly drawn back to the 19th century in literature and history, so I’m thinking I might need to return to that century to study science.  I need to learn the physics that led up to Einstein.


Then there’s the whole gnarly issue of math.  My math abilities are slight.  How far can I really understand science without math?  I’ve bought a bunch of math history books, and a Great Course on the history of mathematics.  Part of my retirement benefits is getting to take two free courses a semester, and there are many online math courses.  If I wanted to, I could study math again.  And I might.  Although I wonder at making such an effort in my retirement years when I seem to be forgetting faster than I’m remembering.

Reading Einstein (I’ve already started) does make you think about the physical world differently.  To understand time in the way Smolin is talking about it in Time Reborn will take a lot of contemplation.  More and more I realize the value of Einstein’s thought experiments.

In the modern world we’re easily fooled by pre-digested knowledge we get from television.  The new Cosmos might look dazzling, but to understand it requires ignoring the frenetic CGI dazzle and returning to a slow Amish like simplicity of thought.  Just doing the math to model 13.8 billion years on a generic 365 day calendar is enlightening. 

I’ve read lately, but I’ve forgotten where, that if the most complex science can’t be explained to the average person without mathematics then that science isn’t really understood by the scientists either.  I’d like to believe that.  I’d like to believe I can understand science even if I can’t prove it mathematically.  But I shouldn’t give up on studying math either.  What I need to do is go back to the beginning and learn math historically, and progress forward through time.  Start with the Babylonians, and then the Greeks, and see if learning math in the order it was discovered will help me see a mathematical reality.

Growing up in a gee-whiz era of science and technology makes it hard to tell science from fiction.  Even the science books I read, and the science documentaries I watch, are full of fiction, even though they are factual in intent.  If I don’t comprehend what they say correctly, then I create mental fictions to explain what I think I see.  Science fiction novels that I’ve always loved to read, took science concepts and intentionally made wild fiction out of science.  Such hopeful expectations from science fiction has corrupted my mind about science.  I now need to rethink both science and science fiction.

I’ve been a life-long atheist, and been skeptical of religion, mysticism, the metaphysical and paranormal, thinking instead that science is the only valid course to understanding reality.  But the more I study science, the more I feel the need to be skeptical of my own knowledge of science.  It’s very easy to fool oneself.  Eye witnesses are notorious unreliable, and we tend to feel that other people can be tricked and not us – that what we see is real.  But isn’t that another fiction?

How much do you know could you prove?  Can you really prove the Earth orbits the Sun?  Humanity has discovered a lot of scientific knowledge in the last four hundred years, but how much could you prove yourself?  Being told something is true doesn’t mean you understand why its true.

Even if science fiction didn’t exist, we still live in a science fictional world, not because of rocketships and robots, but because we fictionalize science, we fictionalize what we’re told is true, we fictionalize everything we don’t know, and even the things we do.

JWH 3/14/14  

A Choice of Two Creation Stories: Cosmos v. The Book of Genesis

Although the new documentary series Cosmos is a science show, it can also be seen as a creation myth.  It tells how the universe was created and how people came about.  This puts it in direct competition with all other creation myths, such as The Book of GenesisCosmos represents the creation myth of 2014.  Trying to find a date for when the Book of Genesis was written is very hard.  We don’t know when or who wrote it, but there is great speculation, both by scholars and the faithful.  Unfortunately the faithful have come up with endless theories to when The Book of Genesis was written and by who.  Some of them are very creative, but they are all self-serving, in that they are meant to validate a particular view of religion.  Let’s just say The Book of Genesis was orally created thousands of years ago, before written language, before history, before science, before philosophy, before most every kind of systematic form of learning that we know today.


My point here, is we’re constantly creating stories to explain reality and our origins.  Three thousand years from now, the science of Cosmos will seem quaint – maybe as quaint as The Book of Genesis seems to most educated people today.  And maybe there will be a small segment of the population that clings to the ideas of Cosmos 2014 because it rationalizes some idea we treasure now but is rejected in the future.

Young Earth Creationism is the idea that reality has only existed for about 6,000 years and any suggestion that anything is older is a challenge to their theory.  Basically, these believers do everything possible to rationalize that The Book of Genesis is literally true, even though its full of internal inconsistencies.  They believe Moses wrote the first five books of The Bible around 1445 BC, even though Moses is a character that comes generations later.  They’ve even come up with an idea of how Moses could have done this, The Tablet Theory.

Cosmos is based on science, and science claims to be based on directly studying reality.  Because science is logical to most people, people with opposing creation myths like the young Earth creationists, now attempted to be scientific.  Sadly, their pseudo science is pathetic.  Both sides will reject the myth label, and insist their story is the actual explanation of how reality works.  That puts them into direct competition for the hearts and minds of citizens of the Earth.

Trying to understand how many Americans believe young Earth creationism is hard, but here is one study, “How many Americans actually believe the earth is only 6,000 years old?”  Tony Ortega estimates this is around 31 million.

The new Cosmos will be seen in 170 countries in 45 languages, but how many people will accept it as the best possible current creation story is hard to calculate.   Neil deGrasse Tyson is the new Moses of science, and he claims the universe is 13.8 billion years old, and instead of structuring his story around 6 days, uses an analogy of the 365 day calendar to picture how 13.8 billion years would unfold.  The image is our modern world since the Renaissance would fit into the very last second of that imaginary year is just bind blowing!  One year has  31,536,000 seconds, so this creation myth is quite complex. 

The Book of Genesis, a single chapter in one book, and is merely a few thousand words.  To understand those 13.8 billion years Cosmos covers you’ll need to read hundreds of books just to get the basic ideas how how things works, and thousands of books to get a fairly accurate picture.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t at least one scholarly book for each of those 31,536,000 representational seconds.  Maybe the faithful prefer The Bible for their explanation of reality because it’s requires reading only one book.

For most people, watching the whole series of Cosmos will only be educational in the vaguest sense.  Fundamentally, it will just be another creation story to accept or reject unless they study more science books to dig into the details.  I’ve often wondered just how many science books an average person had to read before they could claim they have a decent sense of scientific understanding.  To get some idea of the variety of science books available, read Gary’s Book Reviews at

Fans of the new Cosmos after finishing the series could read ten of the best popular science books on cosmology and still not understand much.  It’s a shame that K-12 schooling isn’t structured so children end up recreating the classic experiments of science.  Educating a scientific mind might be beyond reading books – it might require a series of AH HAH! moments of doing actual experiments.

Cosmos is a magnificent television show, but it’s only a beginning.  I’m sure the producers only expect it to inspire rather than teach.  It is Glenda telling Dorothy that the Yellow Brick Road exists, and viewers need to follow it to discover the real meaning of science.

The Great Books of Science

Encyclopedia Britannica has Great Books of the Western World – 60 volumes of the most influential writing in history.  This set was inspired by the 1909 idea of Harvard University and their Harvard Classics.  Which is also imagined in Harold Bloom’s Western Canon.  What we need now is The Great Books of Science series.  It doesn’t have to be an actual publication, but a constantly updated list of the best 100 books to read to understand science.  Science books get dated quickly, so the list needs to be constantly monitored and revised.  The editorial board needs to be scientists, or at least popular science writers of great experience.  Here are some attempts of coming up with such a list of science books.

As you can see, I didn’t find that many lists, so it’s a great project waiting to happen.  There’s many more lists of great science fiction books than science books, which is sad.  I love science fiction, but shouldn’t real science be more popular?

JWH – 3/13/14

We Can See Far, But Can We See Forever?

Why is there something rather than nothing?  The people who work hardest to answer that question are called physicists.  Physics is the study of the very large and very small.  The study of physics looks in four directions:  expanding out to the large, shrinking in to the small, looking back in time, and looking forward in time.

We can see far, but can we ever see an end to any of these directions?  Does time have a beginning, or end?  What is the largest object in existence, what is the smallest?  During our lifetimes, especially if you are older, how far we see in any of those directions has gotten further and further, and yet we see no sign of an end anywhere or anywhen.  Whenever we detect smaller particles, theorists come out and suggest they might be composed of even smaller particles.  Before 1929 the universe was the size of the Milky Way galaxy, now it’s billions of galaxies, and scientists are speculating about a multiverse – a reality of endless universes, each a bubble in a sea of infinity.  When there was just one universe, many scientists wondered if the Big Bang was the beginning of time, and the final expansion or contraction, the end.  If there are multiverses, time might have no beginning or end.

Scientists currently have instruments to see so far, and no further – telescopes and particle accelerators.  Beyond those limits lies speculation and conjecture.  Long ago, during the time of classical Greece, there were men who speculated that everything was made of atoms, and that the stars were suns.  It took many centuries before we could prove those speculations.  Today we live in a time when we speculate on strings and the multiverse, whether they will be proven to be true will take time and a lot of money.  Building machines that see farther are very expensive.

The question is:  Can we see forever?  Can we know the ultimate truth?  Can we ever answer:  Why is there something rather than nothing?  How can there be a creator if “creation” is infinite?  To tell children that God created everything is like saying the Tooth Fairy left money under the pillow or that a man in a red suit left presents under the tree.

Back in the times we now think of mythic, people were told if they could see into the minds of gods they would go mad.  That human minds would burn out with too much knowledge, too much truth.  Is that why people prefer religion over physics?  Recently Oprah Winfrey challenged swimmer Diana Nyad that a person can’t be in awe of existence and be an atheist.  The trouble is no matter how much awe Winfrey can feel, it’s only the smallest fraction imaginable over what science can teach us.  And what science can show is is tiny compared to the theoretical size of reality.  But from where we can see, science owns awe, and the religious are blind and cannot see.

We can all see far, but we can’t see forever.  The question you must ask yourself, do you want to see further?  If you are happy living in the fantasy of a Santa Claus like answer, that’s fine, but don’t talk about the awe of existence.  Learn some physics and math to understand how far you are looking before you claim too see far.  The best tool for the average person to do this is The Power of Ten, the classic film from 1977.

A more modern and stunningly beautiful web site is Scale of the Universe.


This is just a start.  Watching it once won’t do.  You have to really study it.  Powers of ten is a wonderful concept to understand the size and magnitude of reality.  Powers of tens work both ways.  Humans are at the 1 meter level, or 100.  101 is ten meters, 102 is 100 meters.  Just beyond 107 gets to the level of the whole earth.  But we can also go small with the negative powers of 10.  At beyond 10-9 we’re at the size of an atom.  I’m going to borrow some images from “The Rise and Fall of Supersymmetry” at ScienceBlogs to help illustrate.


To “see” the very small requires what used to be called an atom smasher, but are now called particle accelerators.  The most famous one at the moment is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).  It requires tremendous amounts of energy to see small.  Here’s another graph using the powers of ten, but this time using energy, to show how much energy it takes to see small.  You can click on both pictures to get larger versions.


If you haven’t studied much physics this might not make sense, but between these two tables it indicates how far small we can see, and how much energy it will take to see to the edge of what we’ve speculated about.  About the middle of each chart is the edge of the known universe of the small.  We know there’s much further to see, but we don’t have the tools to see further – at the moment.  And when I say “see” we don’t see directly, but detect.

To understand this better I recommend reading The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin.  It’s a rigorous attack on string theory, but it’s also an explanation of how science works, and about the limits of what we can see now via detection, and what we speculate is beyond the edge of the known universe.  Smolin worries that we’re in an era of mostly speculation and not enough actual detection.  And here is where the title of this essay comes into play.

We can see far, and hopefully we can see further, but it will be expensive.  But ultimately, how far can we see?  Is there a limit to science and what it can detect?  The LHC is huge and costs a lot of money.  The LHC was supposed to be a big step up from the Fermilab collider, but if you look at the energy chart, it’s just one magnitude.

The thing is people inhabit a level of perception of around 10-3  to 103.  Astronomers might be concerned with 107 through 1027, but few other people.  Many scientists, including medical researchers are concerned with the range of 10-3 to 10-9, only particle physicists want to explore smaller.  For people who live in the 100 to 103 range, religion is an easy answer, but not a correct one.  If you want to know the whole truth, you have to study the known universe, roughly  10-24 to 1027, and beyond, as we speculate and explore further.  That’s a lot of territory.

Maybe next century we’ll be speculating that reality is 10-100 to 10100 in scope, but at some point, being just humans on Earth, we’ll come to an end of how far we can see.  We might be getting close to that limit now, and just don’t know it, or it might be we’re getting to the limit of what we can afford to see.  Our lives are limited in scope.  Our lives do have a beginning of time and an end.  It’s amazing that humans can see so far, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty, our well known living space is 10-7 to 107 meters in scale.  That’s our environment, which offers an almost unlimited possibilities, which could last for billions of years.  It’s a damn shame we’re using it all up so fast, and trashing everything.  Now that’s something to be in awe of Miss Winfrey.

JWH – 2/24/14

How To Become an Atheist?

Many of my atheist friends like to argue with religious people.  I don’t.  As long as people don’t try to make their religious beliefs into laws, and turn this country into a theocracy, I don’t care what they believe.  However, I find it very intriguing how some atheists believe they can enlighten the faithful with science, as if new and better explanations of reality will supplant myth driven memes.  I’m not sure it works that way.  Think of a meme as virus of thoughts and knowledge.  Concepts – memes – have a powerful life of their own.  They infect our brains in ways beyond logical understanding.


My theory is you have to go further into religion to find your way out.  Religious beliefs are deep-seated memes acquired in our formative years.  These memes are ancient and deeply routed in our culture.  It requires some serious soul searching to deprogram oneself.  I suppose some people might argue with an atheist or read Richard Dawkins and abruptly change their mind, but I’m not sure it’s a significant number.  Personally, I think most people are indifferent or only mildly accepting of religious beliefs.  They aren’t philosophical, and life after death isn’t that important to them one way or another.  It’s the true believer we’re really talking about. But true believers are hard wired to accept what they are taught as a child and won’t give up their ingrained beliefs easily.  Religion promises two things that science can’t, purpose and immortality.  True believers would rather have a purpose driven life with the promise of heaven, than the truth and death.

Converting true believers to evidence based thinking is probably a near impossible task.  I’m not actually interested in working at it, but as a philosophical problem of how to reprogram the mind, it’s a fascinating puzzle.  My hypothesis for my atheist friends is to suggest a different approach.  Instead of teaching science, teach religion.  Here’s what I would suggest that might work better.  Advise your God obsessed friends to:

Read the Bible

As a teen one of the most powerful deprogramming tools I discovered for myself was reading The Bible.  Start at the beginning and read it like a book.  Later in life I started listening to audiobook editions, and they are very powerful tools for revealing the book’s secrets.  The Bible is a very weird book.  It’s obvious written by many people, and for many reasons.  While reading it, constantly ask:  Who wrote this part?  Who did they write it for?  Why?  What did they hope to achieve?  Don’t just whiz past all the words and stories.  Think about their purpose.  Remember they were written 2,000-3,000 years ago, and they were first told as oral stories, not written, to people who were not literate, who had no concept of science, philosophy, history, medicine, mathematics, etc.  The Old Testament is fascinating because it’s obviously more of a book about social management than a textbook for spiritual education.  It’s about a history of people becoming a nation, about rulers inspiring a sense of history and social cohesion, and a means to justify the ownership of a piece of land.

The New Testament is totally different.  It’s a history of how Christianity started, but told from side of the winners.  Christianity had a myriad of forms in the first century.  Just reading The New Testament without historical supplements, it’s easy to spot that Paul is imposing his will on how people will conceive of Christianity.  Through his attacks on other proto-Christians we see there was many differences of opinions.

Study the Bible as History

Start with studying how The Bible has been translated into English many times over the last four hundred years.  That’s very fascinating.  Then study different approaches to modern translations – literal versus lyrical approaches.  Bart Ehrman was a fundamentalist believer until he went to divinity school to study The Bible in its original languages.  Ehrman is not an atheist, but his scholarly studies of how The Bible was put together has changed his beliefs.  I highly recommend reading his books.  Ehrman is also a specialists on early Christian sects and the battle for orthodoxy.  Be sure and study Gnosticism.  Elaine Pagels is a good writer for this.

Study the Gospels in a horizontal fashion.  They often retell stories about the same events but with different facts.  Learn how to put the various stories in chronological order to see when various belief memes arose.  Many cherished Christian beliefs were added long after Jesus died, and deal with concepts he never spoke about.  Read The Five Gospels created at The Jesus Seminar.

There are literally millions of books on religion, try to find the ones that use a scholarly historical approach, rather than speculation and interpretation books.

After studying The Bible itself, start studying history and anthropology of Biblical times.  Learn to overlay stories in The Bible with real history.  Study the cultures that existed concurrent to Israel and see how they saw events The Bible.

Study Other Religions

Going ecumenical is a great way to undermine your own parochial beliefs.  Start attending a variety of Christian churches and compare their specific doctrines.  Attend and study Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim religious services and holy books.  Start reading about everyone’s saviors and saints.  Study the origins of religions before monotheism.  Gods and religions existed for thousands and thousands of years before anything in The Bible was even thought about.   Karen Armstrong is a writer I like that explores the origins of religion.  Study Joseph Campbell, for myths and mythology.  I learned Buddhism from Alan Watts and Hinduism from Ram Dass, but I’m sure there are more comprehensive scholars have emerged since way back then.


I’m not sure how much is involved with getting people to change their minds about cherish beliefs and desires.  I’m a lifelong science fiction fan, who believes in many science fiction memes that I acquired early in childhood and have clung to my entire life.  Science undermines my beliefs too, and I hate to give them up.

However, it’s my theory that more knowledge about our cherished beliefs will change them faster than learning about other ways of thinking, or just being told they are wrong.  Over the decades I’ve actually studied faster-than-light travel, robotics, interplanetary travel, interstellar travel, colonizing the Moon and Mars, and many other science fictional memes, and it has been learning the limits of these concepts that has changed my mind.  Sure, it meant learning more science, but it took time for me to live with my cherished beliefs to understand how they wouldn’t work.

JWH – 1/22/14

Project Nim (2011)–How Much Are Animals Like Us?

Project Nim is a biographical documentary about Nim Chimpsky (1973-2000), a rather famous chimpanzee, cruelly stolen from his mother, and who was taught sign language while growing up living in a family home with human children.  Sadly, and very painful to watch, Nim is taken from his human family, first to be cared for by graduate assistants who loved him, and then tragically after the experiment was over, to live in cages at various primate facilities around the country.  The documentary is both inspiring and heart breaking. 

We learn how human a chimpanzee can be, and how inhuman humans can be. 

The hero of this story, the human apes should measure us by, Nim’s friend with the biggest heart, is Bob Ingersoll, who worked tirelessly to rescue Nim, and to a minor degree offers some release for the suffering viewer – not a happy ending, but something.  I tell you this not to spoil the ending, but hopefully convince the kind of people who avoid any film where an animal might suffer to give it a try.

I highly recommend seeing this film is you can handle the animal cruelty and suffering.  And if you’re the sensitive type that can’t, I still recommend trying, because it will inspire you to fight even harder against animal cruelty.  I can understand that you don’t want to suffer too, but turning a blind eye is no help.   Even if you can’t watch the film, please visit the Nonhuman Rights Project.

Imagine being raised by a large loving family of privilege, given everything thing you needed and more, with lots of love, a fantastic education, and then being sent to prison, spending long stretches in solitary, always hoping you could return to the good life.  The documentary gives plenty of evidence that Nim remembered.  The documentary gives plenty of evidence that Nim is a truly sensitive being that knows far more than just being a dumb animal.  He should have hated all humans, but he didn’t. 

[Some YouTube uploaders promise the entire film – but I got it from Netflix.]

I think all pet owners who have loved their furry children have wished “If only they could speak.”  Project Nim is about an experiment where scientists try to teach a chimpanzee American Sign Language (ASL).  The success of this project, to this day, is uncertain and controversial.  Many of Nim’s handlers believed he could sign, including simple sentences, and even made up his own signs.  Herbert S. Terrace, the project leader, eventually concluded that Nim was not using language, but could sign with very limited ability.

Chimpanzees are cute when little, but dangerous when grown, so they make very difficult subjects for life long experiments.  The tragedy of Nim’s wretched existence was sort of like Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, he had a brief period of being much more aware of things, and then a fall from paradise into abject boredom of caged life with no intellectual stimulation.  Herbert Terrace should have foreseen the cruelty he was putting Nim through, and the defects of his experiment.  To me the obvious place to conduct such experiments is in the wild, in natural habitats of chimpanzees, and not American suburbs.   

I’m curious if any researcher has worked with wild chimps and gorillas to teach them sign language.  If apes were capable of using sign language it’s ability would persist, spread from ape to ape, and be passed on from generation to generation.  I need to research if any work has been done like that.  The article “Great ape language” at Wikipedia doesn’t mention such research, and its conclusions are rather pessimistic.

Part of the controversy is trying to define what language is, and the critics of ape language experiments think it’s more complicated than what apes can handle.  However, I think it’s obvious they are capable of a proto-language.  Many animals have ways to communicate warnings, but this isn’t the same as a grammatical language.  Terrace is quoted at Wikipedia as saying Nim’s longest sentence was “Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you.”  We’ve all had pets that communicated specific wants with no words.  And as far as anyone knows, maybe Nim thought each and every hand sign he was making was a kind of hope that expressed “I want to eat that orange!”

Last month  the Nonhuman Rights Project tried to get legal person status for chimpanzees but failed.  I consider them a new kind of animal rights movement, and eventually they will prevail.  Back in 1947, Robert A. Heinlein wrote a story “Jerry Was A Man” about such a court case happening in a science fiction story.  Heinlein’s imagined future is now our present.  The basis of the tale was to convince a court that Jerry, an old circus chimp, was human, and thus deserved human rights.  Now there is a position between animal rights and human rights, which I think is well named with nonhuman rights.  We have to recognized that some animals are self-aware, have a kind of consciousness that is close to ours that we can empathize with, even if they lack our language ability, that should not suffer at our hands. 

Animals with certain levels of consciousness need a legal status.  If such a legal status had existed back in the 1970s, the experiment with Nim would never have taken place.  Nor would all the apes now being used in medical research.  Our research facilities, zoos, lives of exotic pets, circuses, animal attractions, would all have to be redesigned for their level of awareness.  I don’t know how far down the tree of life from the human branch this compassion would stretch, but it might be many branches below us.

I discovered the Project Kim documentary from an article in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013,  “The Last Distinction?” by Benjamin Hale from Harper’s Magazine.  Unfortunately, Harper’s is not generous with full text of copyrighted material.  The whole Best American volume is worth owning and reading though.  In fact, the next article in the book is “Talk to Me” by Tim Zimmerman.  That article is about communicating with dolphins in the wild.

As a plug for the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013 here’s some of the articles that are still online to read.  This gives you a sample of what the whole book is like, which is wonderful.

If you read only one, read “False Idyll” by J. R. MacKinnon.

JWH – 1/10/14


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