Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The argument from First Cause

When I first started to read about atheism, in Dawkins' great work, The God Delusion, I found one of the arguments against god as a creator to be a little unconvincing.  I thought about it again and again, read it in different forms gradually seeing the power of the argument, and now I fully 'buy into' the idea.

The argument goes that invoking god as the creator of the universe does not actually solve the problem of creation, because in order to create a universe as complex as the one we observe, this deity would have to be at least as complex as our universe.  Thus he would have had to have been created too, and the problem becomes recursive, with no solution in sight.

This is not a lame argument backed 'only by scientists' who are sometimes accused of not thinking deeply enough on the important subjects.  (I feel a post on that topic to be imminent!)  This argument of the creator god being recursive is supported by some of our greatest philosophers too.  See the end of this post for more detail.

The question arose again recently when my friend and regular commenter, Hilary posed the question in a slightly different way.

"How come scientists often harp on about it being illogical for there to be a God because He Himself would have to have been created, yet are quite happy with the origins of life and of the Universe to have come from nowhere?"

This adds a slightly different spin, and it actually touches on two different topics.

First the creation of the universe might be explained by the multiverse theory.  Quantum mechanics would allow this type of creation - especially of a universe like ours that appears to have exactly zero energy.  I'm strangely uninterested in this although I know that many people have strong views.  For me - suffice to say that is is perfectly possible that the universe came about this way.  Call me a deist if you like, but that would be mis-representing the situation.

As for the origins of life - that is an entirely different and more interesting topic (for me, personally).  I'm not sure why someone with a physical sciences degree should latterly find the biological sciences so exciting.  I think it probably comes down to the genomics revolution that we are experiencing in our own lifetimes.  This is the biological equivalent of the periodic table being developed, with the search for all the elements.  The last two decades have converted the biological sciences from what appeared (to me as a school-boy) to be a systematical cataloguing process into a brand new exciting science.  New discoveries every week make the biological sciences such a fertile ground for learning, whereas in physics and chemistry we wait for a long time to hear really exciting snippets of news.

To attempt to answer Hilary's question, it all comes down to complexity.  The earliest life forms must have been very very simple self-replicating forms - hardly beings that were able to create a whole universe from nothing.

The process of evolution has turned those simple forms into much more complex creatures that we see around us today.

So there really is not a dilemma here.

Finally, to prove that it is not just scientists and other shallow thinkers who have considered the problem of 'First Cause', I can do no better than to quote one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, Bertrand Russell.  In his essay - "Why I am not a Christian" he wrote:

The First Cause Argument

Perhaps the simplest and easiest to understand is the argument of the First Cause. It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God. That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality that it used to have; but apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity. I may say that when I was a young man, and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: "My father taught me that the question, Who made me? cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question, Who made God?" That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant, and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

BBC's surprising views on copyright!

Following the topic of the performance of the BBC, as mentioned yesterday, you can see that I am not alone in my criticisms.

IPKat, on her blog, has brought an interesting item to our attention.  This is another case of double standards, courtesy of the official purveyor of propaganda for the UK Government (and by proxy for the Church of England).  Speaking on the topic of copyright she says:

The issue has become topical recently owing to an official complaint made by Mr Andy Mabbett to the BBC, claiming that in its coverage of rioting in Tottenham on 6 August 2011 the BBC may have infringed copyright by using photographs from Twitter without permission of the authors and without properly attributing them. The first response by the BBC was a rather surprising statement that:
'Twitter is a social network platform which is available to most people who have a computer and therefore any content on it is not subject to the same copyright laws as it is already in the public domain. The BBC is aware of copyright issues and is careful to abide by these laws'.
The parts of this post that are in italics are - I regret - used without permission.  However, I think IPKat will appreciate the link and the expression of solidarity, and I trust that this taster will lead you to go to her site to read more.

Read more of the wisdom of IPKat.

I particularly liked her interpretation of the copyright laws to the copying of BBC TV programmes.  Some of those programmes are actually quite good and it might be nice to keep a copy!

Monday, 29 August 2011

For a secular Europe (London 17th Sept)

If you live in England and read this blog I hope you will seriously consider joining this event in London on 17th September 2011.  (I'm giving you nearly three weeks advance notice!) 

Last September, the Protest the Pope March was a great day out for a great cause, and I expect that this one will be just as good.  These points come from the web site for the Secular Europe Campaign:

We promote:
  • freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech
  • women’s equality and reproductive rights
  • equal rights for LGBT people in all the European Union
  • a secular Europe – democratic, peaceful, open and just, immune to the clandestine influence of privileged religious (or other) organisations
  • one law for all, no religious exemptions from the law
  • state neutrality in matters of religion and belief
We oppose:
  • the privileged status of the churches under Article 17 of the TFEU (Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union)
  • the special status of the Vatican in the United Nations
  • state-funded faith schools
  • the economic privilege and political influence of the Vatican

The reporting of last year's event did betray the bias of the UK media in a typical way.  On the same day the pope was holding mass in Hyde Park and the organisers said that 80,000 people had attended.  The biased BBC of course reported this as fact, in an evening news programme, devoting about 15 minutes of air time to the event.

Meanwhile the peaceful protest march was attended by quite a few people as well, including a good many Roman Catholics who disagreed with the doctrines of their church.  At the end of the march it filled Whitehall for several hundred metres blocking all the traffic and limiting access to Downing Street.

The BBC reported this in a subtly different way.  For a start they generously devoted a whole 20 or 30 second slot to it, and they said:

"The organisers claim that about 20,000 people attended, but the police were unable to confirm this".  

That is what passes for balanced reporting from the UK Government's official purveyor of propaganda.  The police probably knew exactly how many were there (and maybe could have given the BBC the mobile phone numbers, e-mail and postal addresses of most of us).  No doubt was shed about the number of pilgrims attending mass, but the BBC indulged in the age old trick of 'poisoning the well' when reporting the march.

I'm looking forward to being there on September 17th.  Maybe I will have chance to meet you!

p.s.  Did you notice that in the background of the first photograph you can see the Athenaeum Hotel, with one of Patrick Blanc's famous and beautiful 'Living Walls'.  Maybe I will do another post about these soon.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Kangaroos - the final evidence against Noah?

Concluding the mini-series on the myth of the flood . . .  

Taking the bible literally - as we all do of course - the kangaroos must have been rescued by Noah.

That's a bit unfortunate for Noah really, because as evidence goes, they seem to be a final nail in his coffin.  They are such a dead-giveaway that the whole story can't be true. Creationists jump through so many hoops to find explanations that it is quite amusing (and yet strangely unsettling at the same time).

Aside from the difficulty that Noah would have had collecting them (as I think there is little to suggest that they were originally indigenous to the Middle East), when he released them they seem to have found their way back to Australia and nowhere else on earth. 

You might argue that the original two roos managed to get there and had their offspring when they arrived, but I don't think this idea hangs together.  How long does it take a pair of animals to get half way round the world on foot?  Presumably reproduction was also quite a high priority for them, as they only had one lifetime to start off a new species and didn't have time to waste.  They must have started making babies as soon as they could.  Then we seem to have to assume that no baby kangaroos got lost along the way to Australia, which seems a little unlikely.

There are, of course, similar instances of other unique and distinctive animals in remote parts of the world, but the kangaroos seem to be as good an example as any.  Some creationists would have you believe that they floated there on rafts of vegetation (which god neglects to mention in the bible).  Others claim that the continents only moved apart after the flood.

This picture seems to be an example of two possible explanations of kangaroo migration.  Both appear to be equally deluded.  Haven't the continents moved fast?  And yet they have now nearly slowed to a standstill!

Do we have a better explanation?  Yes certainly!  The fact of evolution explains how all the species spread and developed, how convergence ensures that predators tend to have similar features all over the world, herbivores have other common features (different from the predators) etc.  We don't need to have incredible tales of single pairs of animals surviving on rafts of floating vegetation for long enough to get from continent to continent.

This is the last post (for now) in the series exploring ideas around the myth of Noah and the flood.  I could go on - but you would probably beg me to stop now if you had the chance.  When I originally mooted the idea of such a series to some friends they seemed surprised that there was so much to say on the topic.

Back to some other topics now, but I can't leave the topic of Noah without a brief mention of rainbows.  These might not be god's promise not to send another flood, but they are fascinating things in themselves.  Some time soon I will write a post on some interesting aspects of the physics of rainbows - I'll try not to reproduce the basics but concentrate on the fun aspects.  (Thanks to this site for the photo above - which demonstrates several features that help me to spot that it is almost certainly not a fake.)

Related posts:
Noah - invented to scare the kids
Was the flood the only way?
2 by 2 - but not only 2 of each
Where is all Noah's water now?
Was the Ark big enough?Evidence in the geology - cliffs and varves
Noah's aquaria?
Noah in Islam
Rafts of Baramins
Before Noah came Gilgamesh

Before Noah came Gilgamesh

Continuing the mini-series on the myth of the flood . . . 

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest written stories, and it predates the Old Testament significantly.  Gilgamesh was almost certainly a real man, King of Uruk in about 2500BC.  He is said to have been buried in a surprising place, under the bed of the River Euphrates, which was temporarily diverted for the purpose.

In this short and quite charming tale, (find a copy of the full text here) you find all the ingredients of a great story.  It  includes themes that (oddly?) are also to be found in the bible.  Gilgamesh gets to fight almost invincible creatures, outsmarts his enemies, make alliances with unlikely characters, conducts heroic quests, searches for eternal life, finds it and then loses it to a cunning serpent.

If you wonder how Lord of the Rings was inspired I suspect that you will find some ideas here.  Tolkein must have been aware of Gilgamesh and he took some aspects of a nice short story and turned them into a seemingly interminable work of literature.  (You might notice that I am not exactly a fan of Tolkein - sorry!)

But the main reason why I mention Gilgamesh today is the account of the flood.  Just before revealing the secret of eternal life to Gilgamesh, the man-become-god Utnapishtim tells him the story of the flood, and how it had been sent by the gods because they could no longer stand the clamour from all the people in the world.  One of these gods, Ea, came to the rescue and tipped Utnapishtim off (in the usual way in a dream) that the waters were coming.  (Does this sound familiar?)  Utnapishtim had just enough time to make a boat - surprisingly a square boat with an area of about one acre.  He says:

I loaded into her all that I had of gold and of living things, my family, my kin, the beast of the field both wild and tame, and all the craftsmen. I sent them on board . . . entered the boat and battened her down.

And after only 7 days of rain, the rest of creation had been destroyed and a little while later the boat ran aground on a convenient mountain top and stayed there.  Utnapishtim then went through the routine of sending out a dove, (which came back) followed by a swallow (which also returned) and then a raven.  When the raven didn't return he knew it was safe to abandon ship.

So much of this story sounds familiar doesn't it.  This is another example of why the Old Testament really mustn't be taken too literally.   The story of the flood is just one of those truly ancient myths handed down through the generations, and like all good stories it was too good to waste.  Rather than bother with the real origins of the myth the whole thing gets attributed to Yahweh.  After all, who was going to complain about breach of copyright?

Those who have been following Something Surprising for a little while might remember two other similar situations that I have described.  Ancient stories seem to have a habit of getting incorporated into newer holy texts..
Here are links to them anyway:
A family of Old Testament gods?
Historical Jesus?

Coming very soon:  Kangaroos - the final evidence against Noah?

Small (and condescending) note: Feel free to leave your comments so that others can join in and make fun of them.  I'm pretty sure that I will get messages telling me that I don't understand the culture of the region at the time of the Old Testament, and that just because this story is older than the Old Testament it doesn't mean that the Old Testament is not true. 

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Rafts of Baramins

Continuing the mini-series on the myth of the flood . . . 

First of all, what is a 'baramin'?  According to some creationists, the baramins are the 'created kinds' of animal that were on the ark.  The study of the taxonomy of these 'kinds of creatures is called baraminology, and people really waste their lives trying to demonstrated that this is a better explanation of the world of living things than evolution.

From the 'kinds' that were released after the flood, all the other species apparently evolved rather rapidly into the animals that share the world with us today.

Watching Revelation TV last weekend (which I sometimes do as a for a laugh - or possibly demonstrating a slightly masochistic tendency) I heard an American gentleman earnestly explaining that the dinosaurs actually were taken onto the ark and that he could prove it.

He explained that although nearly 600 species of dinosaur have already been identified and named, there were actually only 58 'kinds' of dinosaur and that the others were formed from them (during the last few thousand years, just before they became extinct of course).  Also there was plenty of room for them on the ark as Noah was careful to select juveniles which were only half a metre to one metre long.  (It was one of the best laughs I have had for a while.)

Creationists have a theory to explain how the animals got to all the continents of the world after the flood.  Rather than simply inferring that the flood was relatively localised, they postulate the idea of rafts of floating vegetation, left over from the devastation of the flood.  Apparently animals managed to survive for months as the cross the oceans to colonise distant parts of the world.  As they were travelling, the carnivores managed not to eat the others, and apparently none of them got thirsty.

Sigh - what people believe!

Not many more posts to go, on the topic of the flood.  Tomorrow I will muse on the distribution of the animals to the far 'corners' of the earth and then mention a story even more ancient than that of Noah.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Noah in Islam

Continuing the mini-series on the myth of the flood . . . 

Most of my readers will not be surprised to hear that Noah (or Nuh) is regarded as a prophet of Islam and there is a whole chapter in the qu'ran about him. 

Naturally the qu'ran disagrees with the bible on many important details.  For one thing the flood didn't inundate the whole world at all in the muslim version of the story, but only the region where Noah and his people lived.  Secondly, because there were no trees in the area Noah had to plant them and wait for them to grow, then using the timber to build the ark.

The local nature of the flood relieved Noah of a lot of responsibility so he only had to rescue the animals that were already in his care.  That also solves the problems of the spread of animals around the world after the flood, and indeed the difficulty of housing all the animals in the world for a year.  He was also permitted to save 76 other people who had submitted to god, but one of his sons perished.

It is not often that you will hear me supporting islam, but on this occasion, (choosing between two impossible stories about the same bronze age myth) it appears to me that the qu'ranic version is the less ridiculous in most ways!

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Noah's aquaria?

Continuing the mini-series on the myth of the flood . . . 

Did Noah rescue the fish?

This might seem like a silly question.  Fish can swim can't they?  Why would they be affected by the flood?

Very few fish can survive in both fresh water and salt water.  Salmon and sea trout are examples of the minority that can tolerate a variety of conditions.  But put a shark in a lake and it will die.  Put a pike in the sea and it will not last long either.

The question is, 'was the flood water salty or not'?  Obviously if all the water came from rain it was pure and and 'fresh'.  At least it would have diluted the saltiness of the sea.  Possibly (in this ridiculous thought experiment) all the water ended up 'brackish' and therefore not suiting either the fish of the seas or of the rivers and lakes.

So in the best case Noah should have rescued either the fish that like salt water or those that like fresh water.  In the case of brackishness he should have rescued both, storing them in some absurd aquaria inside the ark to protect them from the water outside.

As an aside, speaking of ridiculous aquaria . . .

Back to Noah . . .

Maybe Islam is right after all.  It would solve the problem if, as taught  by Islamic scholars, fresh water and salt water do not mix.  Then the fish could choose to stay in water of the type that suited them.  More on Islam in the next post of the series.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Evidence in the geology - cliffs and varves

Continuing the mini-series on the myth of the flood . . . 

Geologists have search in vain throughout the centuries for evidence of the flood and so far not only have they drawn a blank but they have also found strong evidence against the idea of a single great world-wide flood just a few thousand years ago.

Creationists argue against the science to try to explain these findings in a way that supports their ridiculous story of the literal truth of the Old Testament, but the more they say the more it is obvious that they are clutching at straws.

To paraphrase what a creationist (a nice creationist) told me recently, layered rocks containing fossils can't be 'evidence' of evolution!  They can't be what they seem to be - millions of annual layers - that would make the world look very old!  
Just a minute . . . it actually is very old (at least compared with what the bible says).

Let's take the evidence of the Green River varves as an example.  Wikipedia says:

The Green River Formation is an Eocene geologic formation that records the sedimentation in a group of intermountain lakes. The sediments are deposited in very fine layers, a dark layer during the growing season and a light-hue inorganic layer in winter. Each pair of layers is called a varve and represents one year. The sediments of the Green River Formation present a continuous record of six million years. The mean thickness of a varve here is 0.18 mm, with a minimum thickness of 0.014 mm and maximum of 9.8 mm.  

England's famous White Cliffs of Dover also represent evidence of a sedimentary structure formed over a period of about 40 million years.   They represent the edge of a 400m thick layer of chalk which stretches across the British Isles to the Antrim coast in Northern Ireland.

Creationists oppose both of these examples, partly on the basis that they prove that the world is over 6000 years old.  

In the former case they suggest that the layers might have been created by individual waves, so instead of representing millions of years of annual cycles they were formed much more quickly.  (Naturally we see structures like this forming all around us all the time don't we?)  In the latter case they say that all this calcium (agreed to be the leftover bony structures from tiny creatures) was the result of a series of 'blooms' of plankton.  I even saw one treatise on the topic claim that it 'only' needed a 500m thick layer of plankton in the sea to produce such a deposit.  (I think that was the whole of the oceans, and somehow the deposits swirled around and landed at Dover.)  They even had an implausible excuse to explain why it was not relevant that the life-forms in the top few metres would completely block out the light from the layers underneath.  Let's just say that I didn't find it convincing.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Will go extinct?

Just a brief thought with #libya in mind.

With the demise of the current regime in Libya, what will happen to all the internet domains with .ly in their urls?

Hootsuite's '' short urls are not the only ones that will be affected.  Let's hope that the demise of a despotic regime in northern Africa doesn't bring the internet to its knees.

I fear that people on knees in that area are likely to be bowing in one direction - namely towards Mecca!

I don't defer to the authorities in Mecca!  (You might have guessed that.)

p.s.  Added 25th Aug . . .  @hootsuite_help kindly sent me a message: "@plasma_engineer In addition to, HootSuite also offers We assure you that owl-themed URLs will not go extinct. ^CT"  

That's a relief!  :)

Hootsuite is a good service and I recommend it highly!

Was the Ark big enough?

Continuing the mini-series on the myth of the flood . . . 

There was news earlier this year that a Dutch man, Johann Huibers, had arranged for a full-sized replica of the ark to be built.  He wanted to put it on a barge and moor it on the River Thames in London close to the sites that will be used for the Olympic games in 2012.  Apparently the dimensions that he took represented the largest of the several interpretations of the size of the cubit, as nobody is quite sure how big a cubit really was.

The first thing that comes to mind is that if his replica can't float on its own (as it is built on a pontoon) then it is possible that such a vessel would be considered a bit risky as the repository of all the future life on earth.  If the new ark can't make it to London on its own then it hardly deserves the space that might yet be allocated to it.

How big would it need to be anyway?

Quoting again from some tweets from @RosaRubicondior:

Noah's Ark would have needed space and food for 9-10,000 mammals ranging from elephants to pygmy shrews.

Noah's Ark would have needed space and food for 1 million beetles, most of which are predators.

Noah's Ark would have needed space and food for 18-20,000 birds ranging from ostriches to humming birds.

I wonder whether Rosa had made a serious study of the pseudo-science of baraminology before using these numbers.  (More on that in a few days time.)  Whether or not these numbers are actually true and however large the vessel, it seems inconceivable that Noah and his family would be able to:
  • find all these animals and catch them
  • collect the specialised food for the creatures (some of which would naturally eat each other)
  • feed them and clean out their stalls for 10 months
  • release them in the right order so that they did not eat each other (and anyway what did the carnivores eat immediately after the flood)
On top of that, it is now well known - and apparently not revealed by god at the time of Noah - that a single pair of any species is not enough to preserve a species.  Much more genetic diversity is required to overcome problems of in-breeding in a small population.

Let's face it.  Taking this story as the literal truth is a non-starter if you actually think about it rationally.  It is even quite difficult to see the place of this story if you take it figuratively.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Where is all Noah's water now?

Continuing the mini-series on the myth of the flood . . .

Since they knew nothing at all about science, didn't realise that the world was not flat, didn't have a concept of basic ideas like conservation of mass, why would anyone question where all the water came from and where it went to. Remember that at the time of Noah the wheel hadn't even been invented!  Something so trivial in the modern world would have seemed like a miracle to the wisest people of the time.

If you know no science and can't explain things rationally you just make a story and the great 'ju ju' in the sky makes things happen miraculously.  Your deity actually become more powerful if he has to do these things that nobody can explain. 

There is no point in me calculating the volume of water needed to flood the earth to a depth greater than the tops of the highest mountains, but it is clear that it wasn't there on earth just waiting to be rained down.  Its not even physically possible that god had stored up a 'mountain' of water somewhere (temporarily suspending the law of gravity until he needed it). 

Some speculate in desperation to find a 'rational' explanation.  Using knowledge that the world is not flat - knowledge that the ancients did not have - they suggest that a sphere of water was somehow suspended in orbit around the earth.  They claim that god made it rain down. There are some obvious physical flaws to this hypothesis.  For a start, orbital mechanics would make it difficult to describe how the water was kept up there.  There is no way that the water could have been stable in a spherical shape as any net rotation would stretch it out into a disc like Saturn's rings.  And nobody seems to have reported that you could see this water, or that the stars were obscured by the pre-flood water.  After all, the clouds are pretty good at hiding the stars from anyone on the ground and they clearly don't contain enough water at any one time for such a flood.  Aside from that, water in the vacuum of space would freeze into ice.  Nobody suggests that the flood was caused by snow, or that it got more than usually chilly while Noah was on his voyage.

Furthermore, where did the water all go after the flood?  It didn't just run off the edge of the flat world.  It is not hidden away under the earth's surface.  It hasn't gone back up into orbit either.  I think we would have noticed.  You can only invoke 'special pleading' again as an explanation.  God just took it away.

Let's face it - the flood was not possible on these grounds alone, unless (as I mentioned in an earlier post) it described a local inundation of water which appeared to wipe out the 'known' world of ancient times.  This explanation might be rational and reasonable if there happened to be any evidence for it. 

The creation of the Black Sea is one such possibility.  If the sea water broke through from the Mediterranean through the Bosporus then of course the level of water in the Black Sea could have risen quite suddenly.  (But of course this hypothesis is open to different interpretations.)  Indeed evidence may have been discovered off the Turkish coast for pre-flood civilisations and a flooded coastline as much as 100m under the current surface level.  Some claim that there has been a repeated cycle of flow backwards and forwards through the Bosporus throughout history, but that this particular change can be dated to around 6000 BCE.

However, if this Black Sea Hypothesis is adopted as an explanation for the flood, why did the bible not describe is as a wall or water, or as the waters suddenly rising?  Why go to all the drama of 150 days of rain?  It god couldn't tell the difference between these when he revealed the story then he's not much of a god.

I will leave you with one further thought from my online friend @RosaRubicondior who tweeted:

"How did the olive tree survive under salt water and how was it growing on top of a mountain?"

Sunday, 21 August 2011

2 by 2 - but not only 2 of each

Continuing the mini-series on the myth of the flood . . . 

The animals went in two by two.  We all know that from our childhood songs and rhymes.  But did they?

Last year I was at a village quiz evening, and one of the questions was

"How many animals of each type did Moses take onto the ark?"

Its a good trick question - and the old ones really are the best.  Try it out on some people you know and see how many fail to notice that Moses wasn't actually involved.  But after the end of the quiz I was chatting with the vicar and I speculated that even if the question had been about Noah instead of Moses most people would not have got the answer right.  He looked puzzled and asked what I meant. 

So I referred him to the story in Genesis - a story that we all think we know very well.  But when you read it again it suggests rather strongly (in its internal string of inconsistencies) that the 'ritually unclean' animals should be gathered in pairs, but that seven pairs of the 'ritually clean' should be saved.

Noah quickly sacrificed some of them after the end of the flood, so I suppose he needed a few spares to keep him going for a while.

So that leaves me some questions.  Were the dinosaurs ritually clean or not?  What about unicorns?

Was the flood the only way?

Continuing the mini-series on the myth of the flood . . . 

Omnipotent god created the world in 6 days, and being omniscient he knew exactly how things would pan out for his creation.  In spite of that, he gave Adam and Eve free-will and thus gave them the impression that they could only blame themselves for the terrible things that happened in the world.  Since in those times even the wisest people on earth knew less about science than an average primary school child knows today they had no option but to invent stories of creator gods and as the stories were told time and time again they became more powerful.  How did they know that the stories were true?  They just did.  Everyone knew it. 

Let's assume for a moment that there was really a god behind the creation (even though the logic does not support the idea if you think about it carefully, as somehow the creator must have been created).  This all-powerful creator of the world somehow made an error in his plans and humanity lost its way and started worshiping other (even more false) gods.  (See this previous mini-series, A family of Old Testament gods? for other thoughts on that).  People forgot to be subservient to the god who had revealed to them that he had made them.  They got worse and worse and the creator did nothing to nip things in the bud, even though clearly he could have found a way to create a few natural disasters to frighten them back onto the right track.

No - foresight having failed him - this loving creator eventually could see no other way out of the problem than to wipe out most of creation and start again.  Presumably, having put a lot of effort into creating the world he did not want to start again with the whole day and night business, and he skipped the creation of the land and the seas.  I suppose they were good enough to recycle, whereas (Jesus not having been invented yet) the redemption of humanity was beyond the imagination.

On the other hand you could speculate that this loving god actually intended things to happen this way.

Or thirdly - maybe there wasn't a loving god at all and the flood myths are just a vestige of a local disaster which wiped out a few villages or perhaps a city somewhere near the home of the originator of the story, and you know how stories get amplified and exaggerations creep in over the weeks, months, years and ages.  (Incidentally this idea of a localised deluge is more in tune with the version of the story in the qu'ran, and indeed of the Epic of Gilgamesh.  More on those later.)

So assuming that there is some truth in the flood myths, the conclusions can only be that
  • god was not there;
  • god was careless enough to allow things to get to a state where he needed to send a flood; 
  • god deliberately and malevolently set things up so that it was inevitable that he would destroy most of mankind.  
Whichever way you look at it, there can only be one reason to consider worshiping this monstrous deity who made the flood happen - and that is that you are frightened that he will do something like this again

I will leave you with one further thought from my online friend @RosaRubicondior who tweeted:

"If we're all descended from Noah, what are the odds that only one group of descendants remembered the Ark, the flood & Noah's name?"

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Noah - invented to scare the kids?

This is the first in a mini-series looking at the story of Noah in the Old Testament of the bible and the qu'ran.  Anyone growing up in an area dominated by one of the Abrahamic religions can hardy have escaped learning this story as a young child.

How sweet, Noah built a big boat and carefully saved two of each kind of animal and looked after them until the flood subsided.  Our young minds did not stop to consider whether the story was true - or even whether it could have possibly been true.

But now, looking on with adult eyes, with less credulous eyes, and (coincidentally) with atheist eyes, I can write about a week's worth of somewhat surprising blog posts on the topic without becoming repetitive.

I'll start off with a brief look at why some children find the story frightening if they have been interested enough to think about the beginning of the story carefully.  I believe it was Marcus Brigstock who told the tale of a conversation with his young son.  When he gently introduced the idea that 'Daddy doesn't really believe in God' his son was horrified and frightened.  "But Daddy, you have to believe in god or he will send another flood to kill us all!"

A bright kid.  I don't know how old he is now, but I'm sure that even he might be surprised by some of the other thoughts about the myth of the flood, concentrating on the version about Noah, but straying into other mythology from Old Testament times and earlier.  There are so many questions to be asked about this story, about the omniscience of god, about the physics of the flood, and about evolution or creation since that time.

One of the consequences for me is that Genesis again appears to be plagiarised from earlier stories, casting doubt about whether any of the words of the bible were revealed by god.  The more you examine the stories of the bible the more you wonder whether there is a shred of truth that can be believed.  Only the logical fallacy of 'special pleading' enables you to choose parts that seem more believable than the others.

Check back every day for the next installment (although I will probably interleave other topics too).

And . . . in case you were worried like Brigstock junior . . . try to remember the rainbow that god sent as his promise not to do it again.  But did he really mean it?  Or did he have his fingers crossed behind his back while he was saying it?  The picture of the Rainbow Warrior sunk in a harbour in New Zealand seems strangely representative of the state of Noah's ark - sunk and hopeless after a legendary career.

Related posts:
Was the flood the only way?
2 by 2 - but not only 2 of each
Where is all Noah's water now?
Was the Ark big enough?Evidence in the geology - cliffs and varves
Noah's aquaria?
Noah in Islam
Rafts of Baramins
Before Noah came Gilgamesh
Kangaroos - the final evidence against Noah?

Friday, 19 August 2011

The Invisible Pink Unicorn

Like the FSM, the Invisible Pink Unicorn (IPU) is the goddess of a parody religion intended to satirise theistic religions.

Paradoxically she is both invisible and pink.  She represents the arbitrary way that theistic beliefs are often formulated to explain things that are not really there.

I'm sure we can all think of the ways that our favorite religions make use of the shifting sands of a language to make the impossible and irrational appear to be perfectly comprehensible - at least until you start to think about them in different ways.

Was it John Maynard Keynes who said:

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

He wasn't actually talking about religion at the time, but his words of wisdom apply outside the field of economics.  For me, the facts changed about the time I read "The God Delusion".  Thank you Richard Dawkins.


Having had a break from criticising religion for a couple of weeks, this post suggests a gentle change of tack.  Come back soon for a series of posts examining surprising aspects of the story of Noah's Ark.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Betrayed by Fair Trade (and by ISO9001?)

Listening to a programme about the 'Fair Trade' mark on some of the products on the shelves in our shops, I was disappointed to hear that my skepticism is not entirely unfounded.

Fair Trade, for those who live outside the UK, is a label that a manufacturer can apply to their product to indicate that they have paid more than an agreed minimum amount to the original producer of the product.  It is supposed to guarantee that people in third-world countries are not being exploited for the benefit of multi-billion dollar corporations.  (Note that I don't mention the benefit of the consumer as I think that is rarely a consideration.)

Of course I have long suspected that this mark is more of a marketing ploy than a real guarantee of ethical behaviour.  To be perfectly honest, given the choice of a Fair Trade product or another it is likely that I would go for the other, perhaps not even considering the price difference.  But that is just an example of me being deliberately contrary I suppose.

But today I was hearing about a coffee company that was using the Fair Trade label.  This required them (at the time) to pay a guaranteed minimum price of $1500 per tonne.  They also pay a small percentage to develop the community in the areas supplying the product.  This sounds all well and good until you hear that the actually market value at the time was $3000 per tonne.    What does the Fair Trade scheme actually add to the equation?  Precisely nothing at all!

This reminds me of my former professional work as Quality Manager in a high-technology company.  Fortunately I have now escaped from that direct line of work but like almost all of us I am still affected by the scourge of the international quality standard, IS0 9001.  I have always felt that the process of getting registered for this standard is a little bit too incestuous and much too easy.  (Believe me - it really was easy even though we only paid lip service to many of the clauses of the standard!)

You, the 'customer' of the third-party registration body pay them to come and 'beat you up' a little bit - but not TOO much.  If they beat you up too much then they lose a customer, so it is not in their interests to apply the standards too ruthlessly.  On the other hand they have to demonstrate their professional competence to their own registering body, who they in turn have to pay for their services.  The circle starts again.

To me, the Fair Trade mark and the ISO9001 symbol are valueless icons of the era where we are not so much market-led, as led by marketing.

I know it is not quite as simple as that - but life is never simple!  One thing that is simple is the correlation between new initiatives and legislation with opportunities for value-less consulting businesses.  Another  is the anti-correlation with value for money.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Governmentium - the heaviest element

Isn't it interesting to realise that you can work with people for years without really knowing about their sense of humour or that they sometimes demonstrate a skill for skepticism (even bordering on cynicism).  Cynicism is of course not welcome on this blog, but I think it is safe to take the risk of re-publishing something that one of my colleagues sent to me this week - with a few tiny modifications.  I remember it from a few years ago but enjoyed seeing it again.

Oh course I should point out that I hardly recognise any of the features from the organisation where I work - but to be perfectly honest, I can't.


A major research institution has recently announced the discovery of the heaviest element yet known to science, and observed that plentiful amounts of it can be found all around us.

The new element has recently been named 'Governmentium'.  Governmentium (Gv) has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons, and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312.

These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons. Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert. However, it can be detected, because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A minute amount of Governmentium can cause a reaction that would normally take less than a second to take over four weeks to complete.

Governmentium has a normal half-life of 4 years; it does not decay, but instead undergoes a reorganisation in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Governmentium's mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganisation will cause more morons to become neutrons, forming iso-dopes.

This characteristic of moron promotion leads some scientists to believe that Governmentium is formed whenever morons reach a critical concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as Critical Morass.

When catalysed with money, Governmentium becomes Administratium - an element which absorbs just as much energy as Governmentium since it has half as many peons but twice as many morons.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Helium-3. The precious little sister of helium-4.

As I mentioned the other day in a post A skeptic's guide to helium (which became much too long), helium comes in two forms, namely helium-3 and helium-4, the latter being the common one.  These two forms are called isotopes.  Many elements have two or more isotopes, and although the word isotope is commonly used to describe something radioactive, that is not what it actually means at all.  Both types of helium are completely stable and neither is radioactive.

As an aside, carbon is an element that has several different isotopes.  Anyone who has an interest in history or archeology, and most other people in the western world, will have heard of radio-carbon dating.  In this case the carbon has a stable isotope (carbon-12) and other unstable isotopes which decay to the stable form.  I won't go into the details but just mention it so that you realise you have heard of the concept.

Helium-3 naturally occurs at about 1 part per million in normal sources of helium, but it is not commercially viable to separate it out.  Instead, it is usually man-made as a by-product in nuclear reactors.  Early in the cold war the strategic value of this special gas was realised because helium-3 plays an important role in the workings of some nuclear weapons.  Fortunately it has some peaceful uses too.  As an example, the two forms of helium can be used together in a machine called a 'dilution refrigerator' to produce ultra low temperatures (a few milli-kelvin) for various research purposes.  I think it has also recently found a new use in the newer scanners used in airports.

When I started working with the low temperature refrigerators which rely on it as their coolant, this rare form of helium gas used to cost about £500 per litre of gas (at normal atmospheric pressure).  Gradually through the 1990s the price dropped, and it is not a coincidence that this happened after the end of the cold-war.  Both super-powers had decommissioned a LOT of warheads.  They were keen to sell off their stockpiles for peaceful purposes and pocket some cash.  Prices bottomed out at about US $100 per litre.  A bargain!

Things were all well and good until about 2 years ago when reserves suddenly dried up.  It became virtually impossible to buy helium-3 at any price, and this makes it exceptionally difficult for the physics community.  Not only do the ultra-low temperature physicists need it to produce the temperatures that they require, but the ultra-high temperature physicists use some of it in nuclear fusion experiments too.

However, you look at it, helium-3 still has a strategic value today - albeit a peaceful value this time.

Monday, 15 August 2011


I just heard on BBC Radio 4's morning news programme yet another report on the riots that England suffered last week.  I have resisted the temptation to blog about them until now but one comment in today's report outraged me enough that I have to break my silence.

Asked why the riots were confined to England, a Glasgow interviewee said:

"We just don't think like that!"

Worse than that, the interviewer did not challenge this outrageous claim, which is effectively a racist slur of the type that the English can (and should) never get away with.  So I challenge it here and now.

It might be a surprise to someone in an isolated community - one that is after all isolated from much of the rest of Scotland too - to realise that almost all the English 'don't think like that' either.

Not wishing in any way to stand up for the idiots rioting in England, I wonder whether there is any connection at all with the way that the UK government is treating them, and them alone.  It is not an excuse in any way, but English students are singled out in UK to pay punitive charges for higher education, while their counterparts in other regions of the UK are supported very considerably.  Who supports them?  English tax payers like me!  Meanwhile my own children will have to suffer the consequences of this discrimination.

Furthermore, the next time that Celtic and Rangers meet for their local bi-annual sectarian war we will see how self-righteous the people of Glasgow think.  Very little of England would tolerate such religious hatred.  (Perhaps this is where we are going wrong.)

I know that these points of view are not unanimous in Scotland but they are at the very least highly prevalent.

Has anyone asked the English whether they would like to impose choose independence for Scotland?  The English are, after all, footing the bill for the union while uniquely not having their own parliament where they can express their views.  Many people might like to level the playing field - even those who have the honour of a degree from a Scottish university like me.

I think the result of such a referendum in England might be quite a surprisingly rousing YES!

Personally I would also favour independence for London.  Maybe that would be a better option than breaking up the rest of the union!

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Skeptics Guide to helium

Listening, as I do every week without fail, to the excellent and entertaining Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, I was reminded of my opinion that they really need to recruit someone who has a better familiarity with the physical sciences and engineering.  Whenever they talk about medicine, evolution and the mind, their words seem to make sense to me.  Of course I speak as a non-specialist in those topics, but still I have read enough on to be able to make a judgment that they are talking with authority.

They are also quite expert on the topic of logical fallacies and can spot one a mile away.  In honour of that I created my one page of Delusional Logic a few months ago.  (I have no doubt that the SGU panel could find gaps in my logic on that if they saw it.)

But this week's brief mention (episode 317) on the topic of helium was somewhat jumbled and confused.  First they concluded (2:09) that we must make helium, and that we "pretty much have to, as there is not a lot of natural helium around".  Later (3:42) they said that "we don't have a way to make it chemically.  We separate it from the air" - which was immediately corrected to "from the natural gas - right?"  Then they mentioned that the price was kept low for strategic reasons because the US government wanted to reduce its stockpile.

So - OK nobody can be a specialist at everything and they can be forgiven quite easily.  Besides that, their longer article about anti-matter in the Van Allen belts was fascinating and well researched.  However, for those who might be interested, let's set a few facts straight about helium.

Let's address the last item first.  The (US) Helium Privatization Act of 1996 was aimed to reduce the US government stockpile in a planned way without disrupting the market too much.  You can read about it in this 1996 CRS Report - The Federal Helium Program: The Reaction Over An Inert Gas.  The purpose of the act was actually  to offer the stockpile for sale at a price slightly above market value in order to release it slowly onto the market.  Helium is not especially cheap.  At wholesale prices, weight for weight liquid helium is worth about as much as a good malt whisky in the shops.  In smaller quantities you would expect to pay 5 times as much.  However you buy it, the storage vessels for helium are much more expensive than whisky bottles.  We use vacuum-insulated dewar flasks for liquid and high pressure metal bottles for gas.

Before describing where helium is actually sourced, let's examine a bit about its properties.

Helium is the second lightest of all the elements.  It has atomic number 2 (meaning that its nuclei contain 2 protons each).  Helium has two isotopes, namely helium-4 (the common form who's nuclei include 2 neutrons in addition to the protons) and helium-3 (the rarer form which occurs at about one part per million in common sources of helium-4, containing a single neutron).  Being from the family of inert gases (along with Neon, Argon and others) helium does not react with any other elements to form compounds. 

The nucleus of a helium-4 atom is created either by fusing hydrogen atoms together (as in the process that powers the sun and stars) or in the radioactive decay of larger atomic nuclei.  In radioactive decay a helium ion is ejected from the decaying nucleus as an 'alpha particle'.  It was the confirmation of the nature of alpha particles by Ernest Rutherford in 1908 that triggered the topic on the SGU, and they got this aspect quite correct.

Alpha particles get neutralised as they interact with other matter around them.  They 'steal' two spare electrons from the surroundings, and the alpha and its two captive electrons become very stable in their new form as a helium atom.  These atoms are so stable that it is very difficult to break them up at all.  It is the extremely high stability of the configuration of their electrons that prevents them from forming chemical compounds. 

Now we can see why we can't make helium chemically.  It is a physical process involving no chemistry whatever.  We do have processes that can be used to make helium (nuclear fusion being one) but we can't do it economically.  Therefore we have to 'find' helium and to 'mine' it.  Separating it from the air is an option, but its far too expensive to do that because it is only present at a few parts per million.

The place we find it is indeed in natural gas which comes from geological structures that have been successful at capturing the hydrocarbons that we use as fuel.  By accident these domed structures capture any gas that is created underneath them, and that includes the helium gas that is created by radioactive (alpha) decay in the rocks.  Helium can make up 20% or more of the natural gas that is extracted from the ground, and since it is totally chemically inert it is actually a nuisance to the companies who want to sell fuel.  They have to separate it out before they sell the gas.

As it happens, it is quite easy to do this because helium is the liquid with the lowest boiling point of all.  It is a liquid only at a temperature 4.2 degrees celsius above absolute zero.  Natural gas (methane) is easily liquefied at a much higher temperature and it is then readily shipped in liquid form.  This means that it is not a great inconvenience to have to carry out this process, but it is an inconvenience to have to capture the unliquefied helium and sell it.  It is much easier to vent it into the air where it is wasted.

Why does this matter?  What do we use it for?  In our everyday lives we see it used mainly to inflate party balloons.  We also know that deep sea divers use it with oxygen as the gas that they breath.  They do this because it is so inert.  Nitrogen becomes very toxic to humans if the pressure is very high, and divers suffer from nitrogen narcosis if they breath normal air.  But a mixture of oxygen and helium has no such effect. 

Surely we wouldn't care if there was no helium.  We just have to do without balloons and deep sea divers.

Well, not so fast!  Next time you hear about someone having an MRI scan in a hospital, think helium.  The superconducting magnet at the heart of the scanner is cooled by liquid helium.  Nothing else is cold enough to make the magnet work.  Without helium, cost-effective high-resolution MRI would be nearly impossible.  Modern MRI scanner magnets recycle their helium and lose very little of it, but they do need to be topped up in some cases.

Moving to more esoteric devices, we only understand the physics of semi-conductors so well because we can study their behaviour at ultra low temperatures.  Low temperatures simplify the picture by removing most of the thermal 'noise', making it possible to carry out sensitive measurements of the behaviour of electrons in semi-conductors.  To get to those low temperatures (perhaps just a few thousandths of a degree above absolute zero) we need helium - in fact both types of liquid helium together.

Looking to the future, we are slowly developing machines to harness the power of nuclear fusion.  The current large international project, ITER, is being built in the south of France and it will come into operation in about 10 years.  It will use huge superconducting magnets to control the hot plasma which is at over 100 million degrees.  Many experts are actually worried that we will finally learn how to use nuclear fusion as a commercially viable energy source just at the time that we run out of helium.  Although the fusion reaction actually produces helium, a commercial sized reactor would only make about 500kg per year - barely enough to replace losses from the cryogenic systems that cool the magnets.

Enough about helium for now.  Don't let my blog post put you off listening to a podcast that is one of the best around.  Try the Skeptics Guide to the Universe for yourself.

Coming soon: Helium-3. The precious little sister of helium-4.

p.s.  The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe Podcast #318 - Aug 17 2011 did a pretty good job of clearing up some of the points above. 

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Makes you want to dance!

Do you know how people practice sky-diving?  In today's world they can go to a vertical wind tunnel where the floor is made of mesh and the air is blown up through the floor fast enough to blow you upwards.

So - you might think that is all there is to it, but just watch this video.

I watched it four times and it made me smile. The music made me smile too.  You can see the obvious exuberance of one of the performers as he walks away at the end. 

(Thanks to a tweet from @RichardWiseman)

Friday, 12 August 2011

Ghost hunting gems

I didn't blog about another Oxford Skeptics in the Pub event earlier in the year, but yesterday's post about Trystan Swale reminded me that I had taken some notes when Hayley Stevens came to speak about "I'm a ghost hunter - get me out of here!"  Hayley is co-fonder and host of the Righteous Indignation podcast with Trystan Swale.

She described some of the equipment used by paranormal investigators and had great fun pointing out that whether or not the equipment reveals anything at all, there is no evidence of any connection with ghostly happenings.

The 'ghost box'.  These are actually a hand held transistor radio with a scanning mode.  (AM and FM operation).  You are advised not to raise the aerial (perhaps just in case it picks up actual recognisable radio stations?).  These ghost boxes are sometimes used to detect 'electronic voice phenomena' (EVP), in which the voices are not heard at the time by observers, but appear on recordings that are later played back.

'EMF meters' - strangely seem to be calibrated in gauss - and hence they are not picking up EMF (as in electro-motive force - which is measured in volts)  but magnetic flux.  EMF in this case seems to stand for 'electro-magnetic field'.  However, as a physicist I'm not quite sure where the 'electro' bit comes in as gauss is a magnetic unit, not electric, and of flux, not field.  The typical range of operation is 1 to 10 milli-gauss which is much less than the earth's natural field.  They usually have an variable tone audible output too, and by sweeping them around a room they can be made to make sounds even in areas which had previously been surveyed and shown not to have a measurable signal.  It seems that these boxes are commonly implicated in deliberate fraudulent activities by 'paranormal investigators' who want to 'show' that there is something there.

Trigger objects - investigators often use coins or crucifixes or objects/areas sprinkled with talcum powder to observe whether they have been interfered with.

Green laser with a beam splitter  - which creates a network of beams around a room, making it possible to see any object moving through the room.

Orbs - a well known optical phenomenon that has been known to photographers since the earliest days.  Spots of light are produced by items that are in a field of view but not in focus, often highlighted by flash photography.  Apparently it is 'known' in the paranormal community that each orb represents a ghost.  It is not known exactly how they know this.

Scrying - a technique where the observer sits in front of a mirror in a room that is barely illuminated.  Water is poured down the mirror and it apparently produces surprising results, even to us skeptics.

Table tipping - a common way to make it appear that there is some paranormal activity in the room.  Everyone puts their hands on the table and movements in the table get amplified by the well studied ideo-motor effect.

Another good evening.  It was good to see the range of technological toys that are wielded by the ghost-hunters and to hear some stories from a skeptical ex-hunter.

Paula Kirby on Rick Perry's day of prayer

Rick Perry is Governor of Texas and is tipped to be a future President.  He recently managed to convince the courts that it was not unconstitutional for him to act in his capacity as governor, to arrange robo-calls into people's homes inviting them to join him in a day of prayer.  You can hear his supplications via Richard and it is enough to put you off your food.

The claim by the FFRF failed to prevent what appears to be an infringement of the US first amendment.  (But what would I know?  I'm only English.)

In her usual incisive way, (English) Paula Kirby's response in the Washington Post's On Faith blog included:

What responsible driver, seeing a multiple pile-up on the road ahead, responds by taking his hands off the steering wheel? Yet this is precisely what Rick Perry would have the United States of America do. 


Crises require cool heads, clear thinking, expertise and the deepest possible commitment to rational thinking. To claim that they actually require us to throw ourselves on the mercy of a mythical deity is a cop-out - and a disgracefully irresponsible cop-out at that. Making supplications to a magic friend is not any way for the leader of a modern, civilized, developed nation to proceed.

Read the rest . . .

Its worth it!

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Pseudo-ostension in southern England

Trystan Swale spoke at the Oxford Skeptics in the Pub event on 10th August.  The topic of the talk was crop circles.  And it was very entertaining to hear the tales of a circle maker himself.

Recovering from a mental illness that has prevented him for a while from presenting the Righteous Indignation podcast that he founded, he related a lot of interesting anecdotes and factoids.  While admitting that circle making is effectively vandalism, he noted that the circle makers tend to keep the 'ear to the ground' (ha ha) and they know which farmers are most likely to object to their activities.  Apparently a few large Wiltshire farmers seem to bask in the notoriety of their land as crop circle territory.  Still, the makers go to some lengths to avoid being spotted at work.

Many people wonder how they can work in the dark, but it seems that after half an hour outside on a dark night it becomes relatively easy to see what you are doing.  By the time that the crops are ripening they become light enough in colour that you can easily see what you are doing.

He covered some of the history of circle making and then showed some good examples of patterns and indicated have they were set out.  Six fold geometry is favoured because equilateral triangles around a centre point mark the positions that define the patterns.  (In other words, a chord of the same length as the radius of a circle marks out positions 60 degrees apart.  However, other formations, e.g. with five or seven fold symmetry have been made to demonstrate that it is not necessary to invoke alien origins.

It seems that there are about 12 people actively involved in circle making in the UK this year (down from about 20 in 2010), with the majority of circles being in the 'Marlborough Triangle' (which stretches from Swindon in the north to Stonehenge in the south).  When asked how many people it takes to create a formation, he gave an example of the 409 circle created at Milk Hill in 2001 by a team of 12 people.

He got a laugh by mentioning that in the mid 90s there was a bit of a flap about whether it is safe to eat wheat and barley from inside a circle and he went on to describe some of the common 'proofs' used to show that the circles are not man-made after all.  Sometimes the nodes on the stems of the crop are 'blown' as they are bent but not always.  He explained that the fluid in the stems has to go somewhere as the stem is compressed.  It happens particularly to formations made late in the season, or in crops that have been over-fertilised.

He explained that the famous video of circles being created at a site called Oliver's Castle was in fact an elaborate fake that was made in conjunction with the circle makers.  (But then again - he would claim that - he's a circle maker!) But this video agrees with him albeit invoking a slightly different explanation (and I have very little doubt myself).  Note the common six-fold symmetry in this formation.

He also explained about the symbiosis between the circle makers and their circles and with the people who are taken in by their work.  The makers seem careful not to claim an alien connection but also they take care not to deny it too much.  Pseudo-ostension is the term for a process that involves a hoax in which the perpetrator enacts a legend.

All in all - an entertaining evening for all of us!  Thanks Trystan.

Related posts:
'Out' Crop Formation
Cornucopia for Cereologists
Income from crop formations  
Where are the formations?
Japanese Rice Art 
Crop formations in trees
Wallabies on opium make crop circles!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Leviathan - or whale?

Was Job's Leviathan a whale?  The beauty of the poetry of chapter 41 of the book of Job in the Old Testament is almost unsurpassed.

7    Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears?
8    Lay thine hand upon him, remember the battle, do no more.
9    Behold, the hope of him is in vain: shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him?
10    None is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me?
11    Who hath prevented me, that I should repay him? whatsoever is under the whole heaven is mine.
12    I will not conceal his parts, nor his power, nor his comely proportion.
13    Who can discover the face of his garment? or who can come to him with his double bridle?
14    Who can open the doors of his face? his teeth are terrible round about.
15    His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal.

[Interrupting the poetry, here is one reason why this might not be describing a whale.  Scales?]

19    Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out.
20    Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron.
21    His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth.

In many ways you can see how this description describes the world's greatest predator, the sperm whale.  'Smoke' from the nostrils so adequately describes the way that they exhale after a long deep dive, where a cloud of water droplets could easily give the impression of fire breathing. 

Let's forgive the author for the sparks of verse 19 and the flames in verse 21.  They are artists licence - just like a lot of other passages in the bible I think!

Related post: Carpenter Fish

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Carpenter Fish

Having just seen a great (UK) Channel 4 documentary about sperm whales, in which one of the unfortunate animals was stranded, starved to death, on a beach in Kent, I was reminded of the majesty of these creatures - the world's largest predators.  So little is known about them, but what is known is not just surprising but absolutely amazing!

For one thing, they emit a sound louder than that of any other living creature.  They use a specialised cavity in their heads to focus and reflect a loud 'click' which is generated by an organ known as the 'monkey lips'.  This click can be as loud as 200dB which is thousands of times louder than the volume that would cause pain to us humans and can be heard from 60km (40 miles) away. So loud are these sounds that in the days of sail, people would hear them from inside their ships and compare their sound to that of someone hammering a nail into wood.  Hence the term 'carpenter fish' was in common use long before people realised that the sounds were made by sperm whales - not fish at all.

These sounds are not like the the beautiful songs of the humpbacks.  They are clicks of varying frequency used like sonar to locate and hunt their prey - giant squid. As the whale nears it victim the frequency of the clicks increases to improve the whale's accuracy in locating its meal.

More on the Acoustic World of the Sperm Whale can be found here.

Of course the long and intractable story of Moby Dick by Herman Melville describes one man's obsession with a sperm whale.  I found it very difficult to reach the end of that book, but was much more fascinated by a factual book about the true-life version of Captain Ahab.  'In the Heart of the Sea' by Nathaniel Philbrick made the story much more readable.  The first half of the book about the Whaleship Essex described the technology of whaling in a fascinating way.  It revealed how the island of Nantucket relied on whaling to support itself, and how the island was governed to nurture their industry.  The second half was more harrowing but also educational as it described the privations of the men who had to attempt to survive in an open boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I should say that I am not in favour of commercial whaling.  At least in the time of Captain Ahab the whale had a bit more of a sporting chance than in these days of mechanised slaughter.

The substance 'ambergris' (also known as 'floating gold') comes from sperm whales too.  It is the residue of the beaks of squid, and for some reason it accumulates into hard lumps with a musty aroma.

It is surprising that the world's most expensive perfumes contain something from a sperm whale's rectum, but it appears that this substance has an amazing ability to retain a fragrance.

How on earth did anyone discover that?

Related post:  Stop the Bloody Whaling

Monday, 8 August 2011

Funny cows!

Two surprising cattle items today! 

The first was kindly supplied to me by @pruthvii1991, courtesy of his Facebook friend Sanjay Swami - thanks to both.  It show a cow that has learned how to operate a hand pump to quench its thirst.  Clever!

The other, taken by John Gay, came up on the blog of The Erratic Photographer.

I wonder how much it costs to park a cow for an hour.  I'm sure of one thing - it would cost a lot more now than it cost when this photo was taken.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Bee wearing

The Chinese bee wearing championship has just taken place as you can see on the BBC news web site.

The trick is to 'wear' as many bees as possible, with only a pair of shorts as protection.  Apparently the world record is 39.5 kg.  That must be tiring.  I wonder what you do if you feel the need to take the weight off your feet while wearing the bees.  Presumably they do not like to be sat on, and would show their 'appreciation' in the customary way.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Swimming on Mars

Getting over the demise of the space shuttle and American manned space flight, this video from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory shows liquid flowing on the surface of the red planet.  Measurements of the temperature in the region shown in these images suggests that the flowing liquid will be water - probably salty water.

Obviously this raises questions about the possibility of life on another planet again.  Life is found everywhere on earth but so far nowhere else in the universe.  There are strong contenders for the possibility of life on some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn where it seems likely that there are oceans of liquid water under thick layers of surface ice.  However, Mars is more like a smaller sister of the earth and it is a lot closer.  These water flows would seem to be a great place to start to look for life.

What would be the implications of finding life on Mars?  It is interesting to speculate how it would affect the views of religious people.  I suspect that very few would have their faith rocked by the revelation that the earth is not unique after all and that life has been formed elsewhere.  No doubt some would claim that their god put it there, although it is not obvious why he would bother to do that if the universe was created for man.

Consider a couple of other options.    Imagine if we found life on Mars and found that it had something like DNA in its cells.  If this DNA was totally different to that found in all living organisms on earth then we would have some great data about the likelihood of abiogenesis in any place where the ingredients of life were available.

On the other hand if we found that the martian life forms shared some features of their DNA with terran life that would be fascinating too.  That might support the hypothesis of panspermia.  Life might have been seeded on earth from a passing comet, and if that has happened then perhaps it has been seeded on other bodies in the solar system.  In many ways I think this would be the more interesting possibility even though it might not inform us so much about the chance of life in other solar systems.

All we need now is a new mission to Mars to search for life.  A manned mission would be best because humans are so much quicker at gathering information than robots.  (I have heard that we might be a factor of 10,000 better at it.)  But in these times of austerity I fear that there is little prospect of that.

It will be a little while before anyone gets chance to swim in the waters of Mars.  Never mind - the water would be pretty chilly anyway!

Multiverse agnostic

I read on a forum somewhere - it is not important where - a christian argument that they seemed to consider to be proof that atheism is wrong.  The basis of the discussion was the Discovery Channel programme featuring Stephen Hawking who uses cosmological arguments against the existence of god(s).  The argument against Hawking was somewhat rambling, but the only new approach that I spotted among the tired 'evidences' was the following:

Now, let us assume that the multiverse exists and that, presumably, our universe originates as one of many in this multiverse. One cannot prove the multiverse exists, is that correct? Likewise, one cannot prove that God exists.

So if it is proper for atheists to believe that a multiverse exists, then it is proper for others to believe that God exists.

Fine - believe whatever you like.  But it all falls down if you are agnostic about the possibility of there being multiverses out there (or in here, or wherever such multiverses might be found).  As far as I can tell there is no way that the multiverse hypothesis will be proven in my lifetime or indeed in yours and I honestly don't even find if very exciting to speculate about it.  The cosmology of what we can see is fascinating to me, but beyond that the speculation and mathematical beauty leaves me cold.

The odd thing is that I don't feel a need to explain how the universe came into being.  The fact that it could exist seems increasingly to be understood by physics, For example, it seems that there is a net energy of zero in the universe, and so in a sense nothing has been created from nothing.

The fact that it seems to be fine tuned is also not very interesting.  It just is.  If it wasn't then we wouldn't be speculating about the topic.

However, the situation is not helped in any way by invoking a supernatural figure to explain creation.  If such a figure existed, how would you explain his existence?  How was he created?