Posts Tagged ‘universe’


Two posts in a row where I’m just referencing someone else’s cool graphic. Well, I’m focusing on other creative things you don’t get to read. (No great loss, don’t worry.)



I think I’m a little way beyond the Hofstadter point, but probably not that far. Scoring a few hundred milliSagans isn’t too shabby, though.

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Tomorrow, September 10th 2008, the Large Hadron Collider will be switched on.

More precisely, tomorrow a beam of particles will (we hope) be circulated throughout the entire collider for the first time. The first particle beams were initiated about a month ago, to calibrate the whole mechanism to an accuracy of under a billionth of a second. It’ll be another month or so before the first “high-energy” collisions take place, when individual protons (of which your body contains around ten billion billion billion) will be accelerated to over 99.9999% of the speed of light, and then smashed into each other.

To do this requires over 1,600 magnets, and about 96 tonnes of liquid helium to keep them less than two degrees above absolute zero. Once the protons are at top speed, they can traverse the 17-mile circumference of the collider over ten thousand times in a second. They also weigh 7,000 times more (or, rather, have a mass 7,000 times greater) and perceive time itself 7,000 times slower (inasmuch as a proton can “perceive” anything) than if they were just sitting still, due to some freaky Einsteinian shit.

When these two particles, each about one millionth of one millionth of a millimetre across, smash into each other, some unfathomably clever people will peer closely at what happens, and use the information they gather to work out things like what makes stuff have gravity, how many dimensions of space there really are, and what the universe was like 13.7 billion years ago or so, around a trillionth of a second after every piece of matter in existence was concentrated in an infinitely dense point.

Fucking hell.

I was planning the bulk of this entry to be a rant about people who think the world’s about to end, but I can’t be bothered. Every day for the last couple of weeks, a dozen or so people have been finding my entry Nostradamus Potter and the Deathly Hadron Collider. The search terms “nostradamus all should leave geneva”, “10 september 2008 black hole nostradamus”, “swiss collider nostradamos”, “nostradamus prediction on lhc”, and several others, all very similar, have led people there just today. But I’m much more interested and mind-boggled by the facts about what this machine is, and what it can do. And there’s no conceivable threat based on any actual scientific ideas. I think the people who’ve built this damn thing actually understand how it works, and what it’s going to do, a little more clearly than the people whose protests amount to “Science is scary!” and “Did someone say black holes? Oh noes!” and “But what if they’re wrong?!?”

It seems like a threat because the unknown is scary, and apparently very very small things are scary too. Talk about nanotechnology, and it’s hard to go long without making the mental leap to the idea of tiny robots getting out of control, turning everything into tiny copies of themselves, or some such. It’s an effective horror trope, but worrying about the whole planet being destroyed because you’ve heard someone mention something about black holes (which is as complex as most people’s worries get) is about as useful as using disposable surgical gloves to take your laptop to be disinfected with bleach because it has a virus. Smarter people than me have explained this. Also, Brian Cox thinks you’re a twat. This cartoon is about as likely. You can all stop threatening to kill the scientists who are orders of magnitude cleverer than you and trying to figure out how the Universe works now.

To infer the existence of the Higgs boson would be an awfully big adventure.

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So, a few days ago (and what a lively and exciting few days they’ve been), I blogged a piece about atheism, arguing that I think it can, usefully and validly, be labelled as a belief system, or worldview. (I’m not a sufficiently cunning linguist to really differentiate between these two.) The ensuing debate in the comments got really quite intense and involved, which was great, but it didn’t always feel entirely constructive or benevolent, which was less great. I didn’t feel the need to get all moderator-y on anyone’s ass (though I relish the day when I will have to be wrathful and authoritative), but not everyone had quite got the hang of the idea of respecting other people, even if you don’t respect their ideas. I’ll get plenty contemptuous and snarky about things I’m writing about, but in personal interactions, I think it’s worth maintaining at least a pretense of civility, in the face of all but the most hateful views. There was more hostility erupting in that thread than I felt was called for, and although I’m not going to be banning anyone, I can see how that sort of thing might reach the point where it’s just not fun for people to engage any more.

Anyway: I’m going to try and clear up some of the points from that thread which remained unclarified, most of which stemmed from discussion on a couple of recent posts over at Eric‘s own blog. Feel free to discuss further below, but let’s all play nicely together.

Eric requested that I…

…explain, atheistically, why our entire sense experience tells us that nature is uniform and why we trust that nature WILL BE uniform in order to use science.

By “nature is uniform”, we’re referring (I believe) to the fact that the fundamental physical laws of the universe apply constantly, are the same in all situations, and will remain the same at all times – or at least, it appears so. The second part of the question, why we trust that nature will continue to be uniform, seems easy to answer – we trust it precisely because it appears to have always been the case. Every observation ever made is consistent with the idea that the gravitational constant has precisely the same value wherever you measure it, and will have the same value again tomorrow. But it is additionally asserted that “no other worldview besides the Christian worldview can account for the uniformity of nature“.

So, I have a few things to say about that.

First of all, atheism doesn’t need to account for something like the uniformity of nature, necessarily. It’s okay for there to be gaps in our knowledge, and open questions not yet fully resolved. Any objection to a godless worldview is an assertion that you can better account for what we observe in the world by assuming the existence of a god, than by any other means. A simplified version of the argument might run, “Nature appears uniform; a worldview without a god cannot explain why this would be the case; therefore it is rational to believe that a god exists”.

But some centuries ago, people were reasoning along the lines of, “Lightning keeps occuring; a worldview without an angry god casting down thunderbolts from Mount Olympus cannot explain why this would be the case; therefore it is rational to believe that Zeus exists”. This may have been the most reasonable way to think, given the information available at the time, but in fact Zeus wasn’t the only thing that could explain the lightning – the universe just had more to it than people were then aware of.

Personally, I don’t accept the premise that the apparent uniformity of nature totally undermines a godless worldview (which, incidentally, isn’t so hopelessly dependent on “randomness” as Eric would suggest, sometimes five times in a paragraph). If you want to posit an underlying hypothesis, then that’s fine, even if that theory involves a god – but there’s going to have to be more to it than simply, “This idea says that God made nature uniform”. The rest’s going to have to stand up to some serious testing of its explanatory and predictive power as well, and if it doesn’t fit the data at least as well as the null hypothesis (no god), then it’s as good as useless.

Someone may at this point take a deist position. There might simply be a fundamental difference of opinion here, at which their judgment is different from mine: “Nope, I think that the existence of the universe and the constancy of the natural laws do imply that there is some sort of divinity out there which at least set things in motion, even if I don’t conclude from this that it’s likely to be any kind of a personal god.” And this is okay, and there’s not much I can do to argue with it. To be honest, I’m only just on my side of the fence on this point myself.

But that’s not as far as some people go. Eric, for example, is espousing the Christian worldview in particular, and God as described in the Bible, as being the only one that can satisfactorily explain things, and this is where all that talk about civility and respect up there could go straight out the window if I’m not careful, because it seems an utterly hopeless argument, biased to the extreme by his own ideology.

Although I can sort of understand the deist position, anything as vague as the uniformity of nature, or the existence of the universe, could only really be said to suggest the existence of some inspecific divine power – if you want to start trying to pin down which, if any, of the popular notions of God to go for, you’d need to get down to finer details. Well, unless you’re this guy. Eric, why is Jesus a more likely bet than Odin?

Let’s say you were arguing with someone who believed that Odin (the norse god of Thor) created the universe. All you’d have to do is point out that Odin (if I remember correctly) isn’t all powerful (based on the Norse religious texts or myths) and therefore couldn’t create the universe in which he dwells, and that person’s argument falls apart.

Wow, so the Norse religion (in which Odin was the father of Thor, which is possibly what you meant) is easily proved to be entirely untenable and inconsistent, and yet nobody noticed that for all the centuries he was worshipped? It’s a shame you weren’t around to point this out to them sooner. Except, as far as I can tell, Odin essentially created the world when he and his brothers killed the frost giant Ymir, and his flesh became the Earth. This was in Ginnungagap, you see, the “vast, primordial void that existed prior to the creation of the manifest universe”.

There’s probably more nuance to the tale than what I’ve gleaned so far from Wikipedia, but it all seems very neatly internally consistent, and rather attractively poetic. Odin doesn’t need to be omnipotent, he just needs to be able to kill a frost giant, and with perhaps a few tweaks it’s entirely plausible that a story which explains such mysteries as “the uniformity of nature” could be put together from Norse mythology.

Yes, this is very, very tenuous. Obviously I don’t believe that this is any more than a story put together by a primitive culture to explain what they experienced as best they could. But compare this with the suggested Bible passages which supposedly make Christianity so much more credible a source:

Colossians 1:16-17: For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

Hebrews 1:3: And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,

That’s it, apparently. Eric’s whole point is that no other explanation is even asserted, in any other mythology, for such things as the uniformity of nature, but Christianity can completely explain it all, on the basis of these passages. I really can’t get my head around the kind of skewed perspective that makes this look convincing. What differentiates this from any other self-aggrandisement attributed to any other god in any mythology you care to choose? And how liberally do you have to be interpreting these passages to find any mention of uniformity, anywhere? Is the constancy of the laws of thermodynamics really what’s indicated by “in Him all things hold together”? You might as well read it as a reference to the strong nuclear force, and claim that the Bible predicted quantum theory. I’ve read crazier things.

Supposedly it makes all the difference that Allah never claimed to have created the Universe uniformly. Well, try Qur’an 29:61:

And if thou wert to ask them: Who created the heavens and the earth, and constrained the sun and the moon (to their appointed work) ? they would say: Allah.

See? “And constrained the sun and the moon“, clearly referring to setting the laws of motion in play, and the physical underpinnings of the universe that allow all the celestial bodies to maintain the orbits they do. Islam has totally got the uniformity of nature covered.

This is getting far too long, and probably diverged from my intended trajectory, and I want to hurry up and post it and go to bed, and I’ll probably have to come back and clarify some stuff tomorrow before this is any kind of a complete argument. But it’s hard, because we’re at the point where I struggle to even articulate a position beyond “Oh, come on“. It seems utterly asinine. Especially when you factor in all the many, many, many other things that the Christian worldview entirely fails to explain satisfactorily without some major wriggling and twisting about, starting with why the universe seems to be about 13.7 billion years old. But this is just an invitation to get diverted onto a whole other line of questioning about the evidence in favour of various scientific notions that contradict the Bible which, though important, aren’t really directly related to the interesting points of theory that we were discussing before I forgot what we were saying and just rabbited on for nearly two thousand sodding words.

Bleh. I’ll just post this for now and maybe hack it about tomorrow into something more coherent, or at least succinct. But Eric, honestly, I apprecate your willingness to debate seriously and openly, and your general restraint from becoming abusive or unpleasant, and some of the stuff you’ve encouraged me to think about regarding my own position… but man, you are so way off on this one. And I haven’t even got started on this strange theme of atheists “stealing” Christian ideas, as if things like “purpose” and “hope” and “free will” and “uniformity of nature” are concepts patented by Jesus, never heard of before the Old Testament, and which are entirely alien to any culture not closely familiar with the Bible (palpably untrue even looking only at the present day).

Sleep now. Make sense later.

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Some random wordpress tag-hopping yesterday introduced me to this guy, whose post “Good News For Atheists” was intriguing for obvious reasons. I thought maybe I’d won a speedboat or something, but it turns out he was just referring to Kent Hovind’s $250,000 Offer.

If you’re not familiar with Kent, he’s really quite a guy. And in a completely unrelated sidenote, have you seen this YouTube video? It’s pretty funny. This is all getting a bit link-heavy, but I think I’m done now.

So Kent has this offer of $250,000 on the table, according to my new WordPress buddy there, for anyone who can “prove scientifically that the universe came into existence by evolution”. Which should give some hint as to this guy’s level of understanding straight away, because the theory of evolution has nothing to do with how the universe came into existence. The Big Bang – currently our best set of ideas on the beginnings of our universe – occurred around ten billion years or so before the first instances of Darwinian evolution that we’re aware of (i.e. those among the first forms of life on this planet several billion years ago).

I was initially planning to start off by saying that this guy’s even misunderstanding Krazy Kreationist Kent’s own point, but no, it turns out that Kent’s just as clueless as the rest of them. “Evolution is presented in our public school textbooks,” he tells us, “as a process that:” – and then lists five things that evolution is apparently asserted to do, four of which have not a goddamn thing to do with evolution. Evolutionary biologists do not concern themselves with how time, space, and matter came into existence, or with the formation of stars and galaxies. What the fuck has any of that got to do with genetic heritability of physical traits?

It’s clear, yet again, that many of the vocal opponents to evolution don’t have a clue what it is they’re against. They just group all these ungodly-sounding notions together into one big scary concept of Science, and imagine there to be one all-encompassing atheistic idea driving all the non-Christians of the world, which hates Jesus and says that evolution did everything and God is rubbish. Apparently it’s too much of a struggle to understand that there are numerous different fields of research involved here, and biology is an utterly separate study from cosmology, or astronomy, or geology, or physics, or thermodynamics, or whatever else Kent’s talking about.

He even lists what he admits are “six different and unrelated meanings to the word ‘evolution'”, but is either insisting on grouping them together anyway, or is asserting that that’s what scientists are doing, I’m not quite clear. But apparently the non-biological subjects, like the creation of matter and the formation of stars are being “smuggled in” under the general heading of evolution “when no one is watching”. Which is just a bizarre thing to say.

I’ve never picked up a US school textbook in my life, but I’m willing to bet money that nowhere do any of them imply that the Big Bang theory should be assumed to be true because microevolution has been observed. They’re entirely different things, and the evidence for each one of them has come from entirely different places, by different people, with different interests, at different times. This is like me wondering why there’s no mention in the Bible of Moses feeding five thousand people while on the ark with Noah. This is like going to Mexico, handing some water to the first guy we find who spells his name Jesus, and expecting him to turn it to wine.

And actually, he goes off the rails even before any of that, with an even more funamdental misunderstanding of how science works. “Evolution has been acclaimed as being the only process capable of causing the observed phenomena,” Kent also says. Well, maybe it has, but only by a) idiots, or b) people who need to choose their words more carefully. Science isn’t about saying “It definitely happened our way”, or “Our conclusions cannot possibly be mistaken”. Religion makes claims like that all the time, but if you’re saying that about science, You’re Doing It Wrong. Science makes observations, formulates hypotheses and theories, and the explanations it provides are what seems most likely based on the available evidence. The theory of evolution is what it is because it’s what stands up to inspection better than anything else yet proposed.

And that’s what’s fundamentally bullshit about this whole offer, of course. Kent’s constantly using phrases like “only possible way”, “indisputable fact”, in ways that reinforce the ludicrous idea that evolution needs to totally disprove God to have any value. Nobody can prove that the “only possible way” I typed up this article was with my fingers, and I defy you to find any “empirical evidence” which says I wasn’t using my feet the whole time. Maybe you could measure the size of the keys on my keyboard and that of my toes, and test my pedal dexterity in some way – as well as thinking for a moment about my proven track record of laziness, and how unlikely it is that I’d go to that much trouble just to make one fairly lame point – but none of that would prove anything. And yet, there’s really no point in arguing that the possibility should be taken seriously, or considered at all.

It’s quite easy for Kent to set the goalposts so that they’re impossible to reach, but they’re also uninteresting to reach. Scientists don’t care whether they can reach his ridiculous standards and meet his ill-informed demands, because they’re doing science, which doesn’t need to work like that. We’re quite happy with the level of empirical evidence, rigorous theory-testing, and substantial “proof” (for a certain, understood value of the term) that science has achieved, and continues to achieve. But thanks for playing, Kent. Enjoy your fail.

Oh, and permit me a brief post-script snark at the first of his “answers to some commonly asked questions”:

The offer is legitimate. A wealthy friend of mine has the money in the bank. If the conditions of the offer are met, the money will be paid out immediately. My word is good.

Kent Hovind is currently serving a ten-year jail term for 58 tax offenses. But on this particular matter of financial integrity, you totally have his word.

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