Wednesday, 31 October 2012

'Made-up' festivals?

Earlier this year, an Australian bishop called Forsyth said:

"Halloween is a made up festival about death, Easter is a real world festival about life."

Hmm.  Really?  What is wrong with this statement?

Well when you think about it almost all of it is questionable.

One might argue that Halloween was made up, but when you think about it, that invention happened a very long time ago.  Halloween is based on the pagan festivals of Samhain and Beltaine if I remember correctly.  It far pre-dates Christianity.  If we are being pedantic, it isn't really about death.  It might be about the dead, but that is different.  One would expect a bishop to be less semantically challenged than that.

On the other hand, the only basis for evidence of the truth of Easter is the mutually contradictory evidence of the books of the bible (and arguably the way that present day Christians just know things to be true by revelation).

In other words, Easter is just a 'made up festival about death' too.  So what is the difference?

Should I go on about how Christianity's festivals are all coincident with earlier pagan festivals?  I could point out that their origins are all questionable.

Maybe I could ask whether the day after Halloween, All Saints Day, is also a made up festival about the dead (and perhaps even their deaths).

To cap it all, certain Polish bishops have been claiming that celebrating Halloween is actually dangerous.  Archbishop Andrzej Dziega warned that Halloween was behind a "culture of death".

"This kind of fun, tempting children like candy, also poses the real possibility of great spiritual damage, even destroying spiritual life," and that "irresponsible and anti-Christian fun" introduced young people to a "world of darkness, including devils, vampires and demons" in the name of "fun".

So . . . its time to make up your minds.  Is it a made-up festival or is it a real-life world of darkness?

It can't be both.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Determinism and chaos

I have been listening to a talk recorded at Portsmouth Skeptics in the Pub, and published via the Skepticule podcast.  It was Jonathan Pearce talking about free will and determinism.  He counted how many of the audience might be convinced that we do not have free will at the beginning and the answer was around two thirds.  This had changed by the end.  I'm not going to recount his talk, but just talk about the things that have always bothered me about determinism.

Determinists argue that the whole of the future is determined - albeit not necessary pre-determined by a specific entity.  As such they try to convince us that we don't really have free will.  They often use masses of 'evidence' to convince us - and it doesn't convince me.

The evidence comes from the interpretation of results of experiments which seem to show that (for example) our muscles prepare for movement before our minds decide to make the movement.  At first sight these ideas seem compelling, but then you realise that the results are open to interpretation in more ways than one.

Seemingly 'unconscious' actions only suggest that there is no central 'me' who acts like a CPU in a computer.  However, when you consider that our inner awareness is clearly highly distributed through the brain, and that the brain functions fast enough for delays not to be noticeable in everyday life, you realise that evolution did rather a good job.

Worse still, I can't believe that determinists have such a naive view about the predictability of the future state of the universe.  I see this on several levels:
  • Even on the basis of a truly complete knowledge of the state of every particle and of all the energy in the universe, they miss an important point - namely chaos.  Chaos theory acknowledges that even the tiniest deviations from what can (in principle) be measured, will lead to a fundamental unpredictability.  It is unavoidable.  Increasing the power of your computer only delays the moment of unpredictability.
  • Moving into the quantum physics regime (and in this case I am not using the quantum physics metaphor to prove anything, but to question something) they neglect (or deliberately misunderstand and ignore) Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.  You just can't know everything about the universe as it is just now.  Whether we really understand quantum mechanics or not, it has shown itself to be much better in the predictions business than the philosophy of determinism.  I know where I would put my money on this argument.
  • This is not even to mention quantum fluctuations . . . particles and their anti-particles being created spontaneously from a quantum vacuum.
So let's face it.  The future is not actually determined by the present state of the universe except that it is like weather forecasting.  We can fairly reasonably predict trends for the near future, and we can see a final end to the universe as a huge expanse of cold darkness.  But the details get more hazy as the future unfolds.

My free will to publish this post - or not - can't seriously be questioned.

. . . and Pearce's talk was very interesting, even if (Note: IF) his own views are entirely fallacious! For a philosopher that is not an insult but a challenge.

Small note:  Listen to the podcast to see how the opinions had changed by the end of his talk.  I suspect that he was not expecting the reaction of an audience of skeptics!

Monday, 29 October 2012

Fusion fuels 4 - Electrolysis of heavy water

This is part of a series examining how the fuels for a fusion reactor are likely to be obtained.  In part 1, I described the Isotopes of hydrogen and named them.  In part 2, Mining deuterium, we saw how deuterium can be extracted from ordinary water, and brought up to a concentration of 20 to 25%, and in part 3 we saw how it can be 'vacuum distilled' to produce 'heavy water' with a purity of 99% deuterium (and a 1% impurity of protium).  This liquid now has to be turned into deuterium gas by a process called electrolysis.

In chemistry or physics lessons at school you might have electrolysed water.  You probably added a bit of salt to the water so that it conducts electricity, put two electrodes into the water, and connected one end of a battery to each electrode.  You would have seen bubbles rising from the two electrodes and you might remember that one electrode produces bubbles of hydrogen and the other produces bubbles of oxygen.  Collecting the bubbles in a test tube, you probably enjoyed igniting the gas and hearing a loud pop.

In doing that, you are releasing the chemical energy of the hydrogen as it recombines with oxygen and becomes water again.  Hydrogen contains quite a lot of chemical energy, and this is why it is being considered as an alternative, carbon-free, fuel for cars.  But hydrogen contains massively more energy than this if you can release its physical energy by fusing its atoms together to turn them into helium.  This is the power source of the sun and stars.  The heavy form of hydrogen, called deuterium, will be even better for that because it fuses more easily.  Stars contain almost no deuterium at all.  As soon as a deuterium atom is created it fuses with another almost immediately.  This is why we want it as a fuel for fusion reactors.

If we carry out this electrolysis process on the 'heavy water' that we have made by the processes of isotopic exchange and vacuum distillation, we find that something useful happens.  Remember that we want to get rid of the protium and keep the deuterium.

Fortunately, they do not electrolyse at the same rate as each other. 

Unfortunately, as with vacuum distillation, the protium is more easily produced than the deuterium!

But knowing this, you can remove the protium first to leave a higher concentration of deuterium in the water, and then choose when the deuterium concentration is high enough to start collecting it.

Concentrations of 99.9% can be reached by this method.  This is high enough for fusion reactors to use.

At last we have one half of the fuel we need for fusion.  The other half is potentially a little less complicated except for the problem that it is still a little more conceptual. 

Next time I will cover the production of tritium before returning to discuss the energy balance of the production of deuterium.  Is it really worth spending all this energy to make the fuel for fusion?  I hope to convince you that the answer is an emphatic YES!

Next time:  Fusion Fuels part 5 - Tritium

Other articles in this series:

Fusion Fuels: Part 1 - The isotopes of hydrogen
Fusion Fuels: Part 2 - 'Mining' deuterium.
Fusion Fuels part 3 - Making 'heavy water'

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Things Christians say, part 37: Something from nothing?

A weekly series of responses to the things Christians say to atheists, based on the video reproduced here on 30th January 2012.  The aim is to tackle one every weekend, to give both a moderate, polite response to each question ('Piano'), followed by a more forceful rebuttal of the same question ('Forte'). 

It doesn't make any sense - you're saying that something came from nothing?


Interestingly, it is now quite well established that the things that we perceive as 'something' are rather precisely balanced by anti-somethings.  I'm not talking about matter and anti-matter, but something a little more subtle.

Matter and energy are closely related.  Mass doesn't come in negative quantities but believe it or not energy does.  And it turns out that the negative energy in the universe is rather accurately equal to the positive energy (which includes the energy that is tied up in matter.

In other words, our obvious somethings can indeed come from nothing.

Sometimes common sense doesn't work as our intuitions predict, but that doesn't mean that we are wrong.  Try going on a children's roundabout and throwing a ball to someone on the other side and see whether you can work out how the flight path of the ball makes sense.  With a bit of practise you would find that it did.  You have to do the same thing in physics.

This might be quite tricky physics that is not obvious to the ordinary reader - not that any of my readers are ordinary.    But I have much more trouble with theological arguments about the Trinity than I do about something coming from nothing.

Read some Lawrence Krauss.  You might enjoy it.



It doesn't make sense.  You're saying that God is three and yet one.

Where do arguments like that get us?

Anyway, wherever all the 'somethings' in the universe came from, you still have all your work in front of you to demonstrate that it was your particular God was involved.

Last episode: Faith is evidence of things unseen
Next week:  Aw - that's sad.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Backing Maryam's One Law

Maryam Namazie represents the organisation One Law for All and she founded the Council for ex-Muslims of Britain which reaches its 5th anniversary this year.

Her talk 'Sharia Law Sex Apartheid and Secularism' was the best of the day, last month at the National Secular Society's 2012 conference in London on 22nd September.  The following is not intended as an accurate transcript of her speech which is available as an MP3 download from the Pod Delusion Extra site, but I tried to capture the essence of her words as she was speaking.  Hopefully I can say enough to get you interested in listening to her speech.

She began by stating that 'sharia is the code of death and despair'.  People will use any excuse to defend it.  In Iran, 130 separate offences are punishable by death.  A court based on the bible or Torah would be just as bad, but at least in the UK we don't have either of those.  [Sadly the same can't be said of sharia courts.]

In sharia, a woman's word is worth half a man's.  It has been explained that this is because 'if one forgets, the other can remind her'!  This comment is apparently 'not derogatory', but 'the secret of woman's nature'.

You will often be faced with comments like “I have a Muslim friend who says that sharia is not as bad as you say

She urged everyone in the audience to question these statements and if you are accused of islamophobia continue to question other aspects.
  • How can you tolerate the news that a sharia judge recently said that "calling it rape IS the act of aggression".
  • How can you defend that child marriages are positively sanctioned by sharia.  It is estimated that there were 30 of them in Islington alone in 2010, with girls as young as 9 married to older men.
  • While you may be happy to promote it for another, would you like it for yourself?
  • By what right can parasitic immans to deem what is acceptable and what is not for other free people?
Question those who use the language of human rights to excuse and promote barbarity.

Even if there is a right to religion, remember that rights are rarely absolute.  Muslims are hiding behind claims to rights and choice in order to excuse blatant misogyny.

Islamism and sharia have killed a generation.  Under an inquisition there is no personal religion.  When religion is sponsored by the state it is no longer a matter of belief but of political power.  Islamist scholars choose to resort to abuse and violence and as if they have a right to speak for others.  But . . .

You have got to read more than one book if you want to call yourself a scholar.” -- Richard Dawkins

Islamists claim that secular family law is biased against Muslim people, but by saying that they really mean that it is biased against Muslim men

There is a surprising difference between the way that sharia is seen in different countries.  In Iran the debate is not framed as part of islamophobia, but apostasy instead. 

In a climate where society is forcing people into submission she says 'bravo Charlie Hebdo'.  Is it true that cartoons are unhelpful?  No!  Criticising Islam and islamism is not prejudice.  The countless humans who are living under sharia are the victims of prejudice.

Echoing the comments of other speakers of the day, she said that the controversial movie 'Innocence of Muslims' produced by members of the US Christian far right is “just a very very bad film”.   These Christians are just as bad as those who promote sharia.

But the issue is not  about religion but about political power.

We must be brave-- Salman Rushdie.

In Islam the individual has no rights and no dignity.  Most religions have been restrained by freethinking activity over hundreds of years but this one has not. 

This statement was greeted with a standing ovation.  The questions and answers were interesting too.  Listen to the mp3 file for yourself.

And if you ever get the chance to witness Maryam at work, don't miss it!

Friday, 26 October 2012

2 billion year old nuclear reactor

You might be as surprised as I was to learn that the remains of a 2 billion year old nuclear reactor has been found.  This is not recent news, and no, it is not evidence of a visit by aliens. 

This reactor was created naturally.

The evidence was found in Gabon, in Africa, by French nuclear scientists in 1972.  Although it is the only case that has yet been found, the phenomenon had been predicted as early as 1956.

In that area there are naturally-occurring deposits of uranium, and in a few places it is concentrated enough to reach the critical mass that is needed to start a self-sustaining chain reaction.  But it is not as simple as that.  Nuclear chain reactions will only work properly if you can control the behaviour of the neutrons.  As a uranium atoms split, they spit out high energy neutrons.  High energy neutrons like this might hit another uranium atom but they effectively bounce off without making that atom split.  The reaction is not sustained.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the trick to make the reaction work properly is to slow down the neutrons.  When slow neutrons hit another atom they are more likely to provoke it to split, producing more neutrons and propagating the reaction.  So how do you slow down a neutron? 

You use water, (or something containing a lot of hydrogen).  You can think of it like this.  If you imagine the neutron as a table tennis (ping pong) ball  bouncing off a large steel ball, you would expect it to bounce back at almost the same speed and have no effect on the steel ball.  However, if it hit another light ball like itself, it might impart as much as half its energy to the other, and slow down in the process.  Neutrons and hydrogen nuclei have almost exactly the same mass, so the neutrons bounce around between the nuclei, slowing down more with each collision.

In this natural nuclear reactor, ground water managed to seep in and slow enough neutrons to get a chain reaction going.  That reaction created heat and turned the water into steam, driving it out and stopping the reaction again until the temperature dropped enough for the water to run back in.

It is calculated that this would turn into a continuous cycle just three hours in length until the uranium was all consumed.

That's pretty surprising, isn't it!

Small note:  You can read more detail here.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Discoveroids best effort last month

A friend of mine received the following solicitation (for cash), presumably on the basis that he is sometimes an outspoken critic of so called Intelligent Design and creationism.  I include comments [in dark green, in these square brackets] for those who know what eukaryotes are, and to be ignored by those who don't care because their particular religious cleric tells them that they don't need to know more than the 'clerics' do.

I humbly suggest that you laugh at their claims and read the note at the end.

Dear ************:

Textbooks and teachers stop teaching myths about evolution when the mainstream media admit textbooks are wrong ... don't they?
Not if the data challenges Darwinian evolution. 

"'Junk DNA' concept debunked by new analysis of human genome" hollered the Washington Post on September 5th [proof by media??] just as many kids were sitting down to science textbooks that claimed otherwise. And yet, one popular high school biology textbook claims “In eukaryotes, the vast majority of DNA has no apparent function.”  (Douglas J. Futuyma, Evolution, Sinauer)  [and does it, and if so, does it help your creationist cause in any way anyway?]

In other words most of your DNA is just worthless junk.  Junk DNA has long been trumpeted as a major piece of evidence proving Darwin's theory of unguided evolution.
What other false evidence claiming to prove evolution are your kids being exposed to? [. . . as opposed to the false evidence that Jesus existed I presume?]
  • Inclusion of Haeckel's long-refuted embryo drawings, which overstate the similarities among vertebrate embryos in the early stages of vertebrate development. [I never remember claiming anything about Haeckel's embryos and don't remember it being used by anyone else - this argument passed its sell-by date a few decades ago!  It only gets dragged back up by creationists.]

  • Retelling outdated myths about the Miller-Urey experiment and the origin of life and wrongly telling students the experiment correctly simulated gases present on the early earth. [That experiment was the best guess at the time. Now it isn't. So what?  How do negative results prove anything for creationism anyway?]

  • Overstating the evidence for biochemical evolution by claiming biologists have evolutionary explanations, when they don't. [How to generate a claim from nothing - if this is the third best you can do you should give up now!]

The evidence challenging evolution is beginning to outweigh the evidence that supports it.  But will your kids learn about that in their science classes?  Unfortunately, probably not.

To help parents understand all the aspects of the debate over Darwinian evolution and intelligent design we created a free 28 page e-booklet A Parent’s Guide to Intelligent Design: Resources to help you and your children understand the debate between Darwinian evolution and intelligent design.

Will you help us distribute this digital booklet to as many parents as possible around the country?  

We need your help to raise $10,000 for a web advertising campaign letting parents know about this important free resource, and to print hardcopy booklets to hand out at events we conduct at schools, universities and churches.  With your help we can get this digital booklet into the hands of thousands of parents around the country.  Please donate now to support our campaign to help educate students, and parents.

Thank you for your support.


Janine Dixon

Educational Outreach Coordinator
Center for Science & Culture
Discovery Institute
PS: Donations of $25 or more will receive a printed copy of the "Parent's Guide to Intelligent Design" and $100 or more will get you a free book or DVD from a wide selection of science related products.  Please donate today and help us reach our goal.

This is my donation! 

For those who might be confused by this post, the term Discoveroids refers to the people who staff the Discovery Institute, which heralds the alleged 'theory' (but really not even a good hypothesis) of 'Intelligent Design'.  Yes, the term Discoveroids is indeed intended to be pejorative.  

If you woud like to know more about the amazing revelations of The Discovery Institute, and the source of the terminology, I can only recommend this blog, The Sensuous Curmudgeon.  Happy reading Casey Luskin!

Incidentally, you can get the booklet here if you like.  I have deliberately not made it a hyperlink.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Malala for Nobel Prize

A petition has been started to attempt to nominate the brave Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the cowardly Taliban recently.  Her crime was to protest against the closure of girls schools in Pakistan!

Malala Yasufzai- should be nominated for a Nobel Prize
Malala Yasufzai- should be nominated for a Nobel Prize

As an ex-muslim friend said to be at lunch time today, if the Taliban are so scared of a little girl it shows a lot about them.  What cowards!  What bullies!  Surely we all have to stand up to them in our own small ways.

I've signed this petition at

Have you?

Why not?  It will only take you 2 minutes.  Read more about it here.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

When did God invent the Trinity?

Christian Churches (in general) have a strange concept of a single God who exists as three parts, all equal and all divine.

Sometimes they even argue that Jesus influenced the progress of history through Old Testament times.  They do this when it seems necessary to rationalise the inconsistencies in the flow of history.  They try to make it seem that things defying the normal concepts of cause and effect are still consistent with some sort of truth.  I feel that this is intellectually dishonest and logically parsimonious, but let us set that aside for now.

Let us think about the question of the origin of the Trinity.  Where did this concept come from?  It sounds like a silly and trivial question.  Surely it is in the bible.  Or is it?

The Old Testament certainly seems not to mention the idea that God is in three parts.  It is not that it doesn't mention the host of heaven, a possible wife and concepts of a hierarchy of gods in heaven.  These ideas are found in profusion, especially in the early books.  But God himself never reveals to his chosen people that he has a split personality.  His son never gets a mention and the Holy Spirit is only present in other vague terminology, such as the will of God.  Neither of God's alter-egos really gets a look in for many centuries, and within Judaism nothing has changed to this very day.

If he really is a trinitarian God, wouldn't you think that he might have let something slip to his chosen people to that effect? 

So presumably the New Testament reveals something about it?  Well - you might expect this, but it is generally held that there is only one verse that might refer to the trinity.  This verse comes in one of the lesser books which has a somewhat unknown provenance.  The First Epistle of John might have been written by someone called John, but it is very unlikely to have been one of the significant Johns.  In this letter, there is one verse which says (in one translation):

There are three in heaven that bear witness . . . these three are one.  --  1 John 5: 7

But when you look at this in context, (and another translation) what does it mean?  Not much, I suggest!

7    For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
8    And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.
9    If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son.

Now try to tell me that this is the best way to reveal the surprising fact that God is in three parts, and you will have trouble convincing me.  Something as important as this needs to be set out in much clearer words, not in flowery metaphor in an obscure letter written by an unknown author.

The apostle John opens his account of the life of Jesus Christ with this declaration: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made . . ."

So that is clear too?  Beautiful prose, full of rhetorical devices, but it makes no sense unless you chose to claim that "the word" means Jesus.

Theophilus of Antioch, 170 CE first used the Greek word for Trinity.  Over a century later, in 325, the First Council of Nicaea established the doctrine of the Trinity as orthodoxy and adopted the Nicene Creed, which described Christ as "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father".

This isn't a biblical truth, it is just 4th Century Athanasian doctrine that happened to prevail over another point of view - namely that of Arius!

Arius held that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were three separate essences or substances and that the Son and Spirit derived their divinity from the Father, were created in time, and were inferior to the Godhead.  Arianism was largely condemned to the annals of history at the Council of Nicaea (325), although a few sects still follow this point of view, including the Jehovah's Witnesses.

So, having started out with the assumption that the whole business of the Trinity was easy to interpret, I conclude that there is no end to the lengths theologians will go to to 'prove' a point, and that there is little to suggest a biblical basis.  The trinity was not invented by God at all, not explained by God in the bible and in fact it is a logically dubious invention of men.

Since I have grave doubts about the actual existence of an historical Jesus, due to the paucity of non-biblical evidence for any of the history of his life, I wonder why anyone would waste so much of their lives inventing doctrines like this. 

Indeed, why do I waste my time even thinking about it?

The answer for me is related to a search for truth.  For theologians I doubt they have such pure motives.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Fusion Fuels 3 - Making 'heavy water'

This is part of a series examining how the fuels for a fusion reactor are likely to be obtained.  In part 1 I described the Isotopes of hydrogen and named them.  In part 2, Mining deuterium, we saw how deuterium can be extracted from ordinary water, and brought up to a concentration of 20 to 25%.

In order to get the water to higher concentrations, a process called 'vacuum distillation' is often adopted.  That is the subject of this post.

Water that contains almost all deuterium and almost no protium is often called 'heavy water'.  You might remember that the 1965 movie "Heroes of Telemark" was a dramatisation of the true story of the destruction of a German heavy water plant in occupied Norway during the second world war.  This was necessary because heavy water is useful in some of the techniques used to produce enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.  (As it turned out, German technology was not going in quite the right direction, but that was not known at the time.)

However, heavy water is also a source of the deuterium that is needed for the entirely peaceful and environmentally friendly fusion reactors of the near future, and it is only for this reason that I care about it enough to write this series.

In the last instalment, we reached the point where we have water with 20 to 25% deuterium atoms and the remainder still containing protium.  You might remember that I explained in part 1 that some lakes around the world (which have no rivers flowing out of them) have slightly higher concentrations of deuterium than 'ordinary' water.  This is because water molecules containing deuterium evaporate slightly less easily than water molecules containing protium.

Now you might be able to imagine a method of using this process on an industrial scale.  If you study the physics of the evaporation of water, you find that you can choose the right conditions of temperature and pressure where the H2O evaporates preferentially and leaves the HDO and D2O behind.  In fact it turns out that the best conditions for this are at a temperature slightly above the freezing point of water, and in rather a good vacuum. 

In an ideal world you would like to be able to evaporate the product that you want to keep in preference to the waste product.  After all, the whisky industry in Scotland makes its living by doing exactly this 'distillation'.  They warm a dilute mixture of alcohol in water and the alcohol evaporates preferentially.  The liquid that is distilled contains more alcohol and less water.  They usually repeat this distillation a few times in order to concentrate the alcohol further, taking the product from the first distillation and putting it through the process again and again to increase the purity. 

Unfortunately, in making heavy water the opposite is true.  The part that evaporates first is the part that you want to 'throw away' although in practise it will still contain much more deuterium than most of the water in the world.  It will not be discarded but returned to an earlier stage in the process.

The water that is left behind will be a bit more concentrated than it was before the H2O was distilled away, and the last water to evaporate will be the most concentrated in deuterium.  Of course the whole process has no clear cut off points where all the H has been removed, leaving all the D behind.  But an iterative approach can yield higher and higher concentrations of deuterium and, in practise, a concentration of 99% can be achieved.  This might be good enough for most applications of heavy water. 

As a fusion fuel, a slightly better concentration might be preferred.

Fortunately the next stage in the process helps further.  It is in this stage that the heavy water is converted into deuterium gas, by a process known as electrolysis.  This gas is one half of the fuel we need for fusion.

More next time: Fusion fuels 4 - Electrolysis of heavy water

Other articles in this series:
Fusion Fuels: Part 1 - The isotopes of hydrogen
Fusion Fuels: Part 2 - 'Mining' deuterium.
Fusion Fuels part 5 - Tritium

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Things Christians say, part 35: Faith is evidence of things unseen.

A weekly series of responses to the things Christians say to atheists, based on the video reproduced here on 30th January 2012.  The aim is to tackle one every weekend, to give both a moderate, polite response to each question ('Piano'), followed by a more forceful rebuttal of the same question ('Forte'). 

Faith is evidence of things unseen.


We know that there are many things in the universe that are unseen.  X-rays, dark matter, electric fields, love, and envy all fit that description.

We know these things because we do have real evidence for them, on the basis of logical criteria that anyone can apply.  These observations and measurements are independent of the views of the observer.  Anyone with a logical mind and enough training in the detailed disciplines can achieve the same results repeatably.

Can the same be said of any faith based position?  I suggest not.  If you go into any detail at all about any faith-based claim, I think you will find it difficult to find any two people who 'know' exactly the same things about the universe on the basis of faith alone.



In one sense you are right.  Faith is evidence of workings of the brain.  You have to hope that your brain and its inner workings remain unseen.

In no other sense does the argument that faith is evidence for anything at all make logical sense.

There are books about this sort of thing, and unlike the bible these books are logically coherent.   They are (at least) much more self-consistent than the bible or any other holy book.

I recommend you to go to Amazon and look for The Believing Brain by Michael Schermer, which I reviewed here, in The Believable Michael Schermer.

Last episode: Well, why don't you try praying?
Next week: It doesn't make any sense - you're saying that something came from nothing?

England's Canals - Oxford

I'm seriously considering buying a boat to explore the rivers and canals of England.  Fortunately I have friends who share this interest.  On a short trip on the Oxford Canal yesterday this autumnal glory delighted me.

Reflections on the Oxford Canal
Reflections on the Oxford Canal

Apparently calm and tranquil thoughts should have been foremost in my mind as soon as I got on-board.  But when the owner of the boat jumped off to get the next lock ready, leaving me in charge, I reminded him that he hadn't shown me where the brakes were.

Fortunately, native wit and physics came to the rescue, (but I still haven't worked out how to reverse into a parking slot).

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Early one morning . . .

Driving a little South of my home in southern England this autumn morning, this was the view that greeted me near Marlborough.  You can see the morning mist, with islands of higher ground emerging.

Vale of Pewsey, this autumn morning. Misty England.
Vale of Pewsey, this autumn morning.

Isn't it amazing what a beautiful world we have without need for a god to create it?

No more global blasphemy law

Today, just a topic taken from the newsletter of the National Secular Society.  This on one of two posts this evening.  If you like these you should consider subscribing to the newsletter (here) and even joining the NSS.

Islamic bloc abandons plans for global blasphemy law at UN

The Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation has revealed that it has abandoned plans to introduce a global blasphemy law through the United Nations.

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said his 57-nation body would not try again for United Nations support to ban insults to religion, saying that Western opposition — particularly from the USA and Europe — made the prospect of success very remote.

"We could not convince them," said the Turkish head of the 57-member organisation which had tried from 1998 until 2011 to get a United Nations-backed ban on blasphemy. "The European countries don't vote with us, the United States doesn't vote with us."

Western countries see the publication of such images and materials as a matter of free speech.

The campaign for a worldwide ban on "religious defamation" was revived after the posting of the Innocence of Muslims video on YouTube. Twenty-five people have been killed during protests over the video. Ihsanoglu told a conference in Istanbul at the weekend that the OIC had failed to win a ban at the United Nations and would not revive its long diplomatic campaign for one.

Asked about recent media reports that the OIC wanted to resume the campaign for a blasphemy ban, he said: "I never said this and I know this will never happen. The OIC respects freedom of expression but sees anti-Islam videos and cartoons as an abuse of this freedom that Western countries should sanction through their own blasphemy or hate crime laws."

President Barack Obama condemned the video but made a staunch defence of free speech. Responding at the United Nations last month to the Muslim protests against the US he said: "The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech – the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy," he said.

Meanwhile, a key proposal by Tunisia's ruling Islamist party to outlaw blasphemy in the new constitution, which stoked fears of creeping Islamisation, is to be dropped from the final text, Assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar has told reporters.

The agreement to drop the clause follows negotiations between the three parties in the ruling coalition and must still be approved by the committees drafting the constitution, which Jaafar said would be debated by parliament next month.

The move came after President Moncef Marzouki warned that radical Islamist militants pose a "great danger" to the Maghreb region, and following a wave of violent attacks — blamed on Salafists — on targets ranging from works of art to the US embassy.

"There will certainly be no criminalisation," Jaafar, the 72-year-old speaker of the National Constituent Assembly, told the AFP news agency. "That is not because we have agreed to (allow) attacks on the sacred, but because the sacred is something very, very difficult to define. Its boundaries are blurred and one could interpret it in one way or another, in an exaggerated way," he added.

The draft constitution still ensures sharia law will be implemented.

See also:
Why a constitution is a bad place for a blasphemy law
Turkish pianist goes on trial for blasphemy

Friday, 19 October 2012

Calling for a Halal ban!

Today, just a topic taken from the newsletter of the National Secular Society.  This on one of two posts this evening.  If you like these you should consider subscribing to the newsletter (here) and even joining the NSS.

NSS calls on Government to end religious exemption from animal welfare laws

The National Secular Society has called on the Government to end the religious exemption to animal welfare legislation that permits animals to be slaughtered without stunning.

Non-stun slaughter is permitted in the UK despite a recommendation by the Government's own advisory body, the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), that the practice should be banned.

The scientific consensus is clear that it is more humane to stun an animal prior to slaughter than not to do so. An end to the exemption that permits non-stun slaughter is supported by the EU's Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW), The Federation of Veterinarians of Europe, The British Veterinary Association, The RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming, amongst others.

In its response to a DEFRA consultation on Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing, the NSS has urged the Government to adopt new stricter national rules to prohibit non-stun slaughter. Until such time as the exemption is removed, the NSS has called for the mandatory labelling of meat and meat products derived from animals killed by non-stun slaughter methods.

The exemption for religious slaughter restricts meat slaughtered by the Shechita method to Jews and by some Halal methods to Muslims. However, the Scottish Government has recently admitted that this targeting of supply has not been enforced. As a result, meat from non-stun slaughter routinely enters the general food chain.

Stephen Evans, Campaigns Manager at the National Secular Society said: "Permitting meat from religious slaughter methods to enter the general food chain is not only ethically unacceptable, it is also unlawful. "  

As long as the Government insists on granting privilege to religious groups, permitting slaughter methods that cause unnecessary pain, suffering and distress, it has a duty to ensure that no more animals are slaughtered under the exemption than is absolutely necessary to meet religious demand. Labelling would at least ensure people who wish to avoid meat from religious slaughter are able to do so. At present, unwitting consumers are subsidising the religious slaughter industry and that is simply unacceptable."

New domestic regulations will be laid before Parliament at the end of 2012 to implement and enforce European Council Regulation (EC) 1099/2009 on the protection of animals at the time of killing. While this regulation allows religious slaughter to continue, individual member states can impose stricter rules in relation to religious slaughter and can refuse to exempt religious slaughter from pre-stunning regulations.

To take part in the consultation or find out more click here.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Abrogated sharia

Has sharia been abrogated by civilised nations?

I need to explain a few concepts for those who do not know the terms before suggesting an answer to this.

You might know that the qu'ran is not read and understood in the same way as the bible.  Biblical inconsistencies seem to be used as an opportunity for the bible to prove whatever you want to prove, and biblical scholars tie each other in logical knots.

But this is not such an easy option in Islam.  Wherever early (more peaceful) and later (jihad-laden) sura disagree, the later one takes precedence.  The earlier verses are then said to be 'abrogated' and they are only quoted by people who don't know better, or people who are indulging in taqiyya.

It is claimed that nearly 40% of the qu'ran is abrogated, even if there is not unanimous agreement about which 40% it is.   Presumably Islamic 'scholars' use that as a negotiating opportunity, but at least you can see the concept.  Abrogation means that it has been replaced by something newer.

So now lets apply this idea to the law.  Sharia law is based on the ideas of the middle ages.  At that time all Western countries had laws too, and over the centuries those laws have developed into what we have today.  Thank goodness for progress in human rights!

Common sense suggests that the same should have applied to sharia law in Islamic countries too, and in many of them it has.  However, in a few countries that have not yet been penetrated by concepts of human rights, unaltered sharia is still in everyday use.  Shame on the rulers of those countries for that.  Whatever you think of their religion, they should be criticised for depriving their populations of the basic rights that we all deserve.  It is not a question of their rights to be Islamic but a question of whether Islamic clerics have the right to impose their standards on others.  Ask yourself whether you would want it for yourself.  [No I thought not.]

This is why secularism is so obviously the right thing to aim for.  It guarantees freedom of religion for those who want it, and freedom from religion for those who do not.

That sharia still exists at all is regrettable for the people living in strongly Islamic countries, but it has no bearing on us in the fortunate parts of the world.

As far as we are concerned, sharia is clearly and completely abrogated and has been replaced but an imperfect but better legal framework.  Why should we tolerate sharia in our countries at all?

I say "One Law for All!"

Small note:  Thank you to a Portuguese colleague for the idea behind this post!

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Christianity's Albatross

You have to ask yourself, what is the point of arguing over the contents of the Old Testament of the bible when its meaning is so shrouded in mystery.  I ask this for several reasons.

What could be gained by a detailed study of the bible in English when people are still arguing about the correct translations of any words.  Yes - they really do.  Any time you have a point which makes the bible look internally inconsistent, some scholar will tell you that it is because you are using the wrong interpretation of the original meaning of the text (when in fact they must know that it is simply because the text was written down by bronze age peasants who knew nothing of science).

So perhaps you should go back to the original Greek or Hebrew?  There are several problems with that.  First it is not possible for the average educated person to do this, so we are all left in the hands of the 'experts' to translate it into our own language.  Second - even the alleged experts won't agree with each other.  Knowing what a word means in an ancient document is obviously difficult, when it might have been copied inaccurately, misspelled or even misused originally.

Whatever choice you select, you are still left with the observation that the whole bible is not self-consistent and even where it appears to be successfully prophetic we can't say for certain that the New Testament stories were not written to fit the prophecies post hoc.  In fact due to the way the New Testament is written, it hoists itself by its own petard.  Phrases such as "this came to pass in order to fulfil . . ." are dead giveaways that the New Testament writer wants to point out the clever bits of his story and he thinks that his audience might not know the Old Testament well enough to notice for themselves..

All in all, Marcion's approach to the Old Testament was a pragmatic one.  Christianity would be founded on much more reasonable assumptions if Marcionites had won the arguments.  He taught that the Old Testament god was not the same as the Christian god.  Had more people agreed with him, Christianity might not have been burdened with the ancient teachings.

On top of that, wouldn't you expect omniscient and omnipotent God to have made the message clearer in the first place, and easier to translate for future use?  If his message is mired in these complications then how are mere mortals expected to understand it anyway.

The bronze age Old Testament hangs around the neck of Christianity like the albatross round the neck of the Ancient Mariner.

Small note:  By coincidence today's post by Rosa Rubicondior is on a similar topic.  Read What God Thinks Of Disabled People.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Words Google doesn't know

There can't be very many words that the almost omnipotent and omniscient Google doesn't know - or so you would assume.

But I have noticed that some of the terms that I commonly use when blogging on Google's own (admirable) product, Blogger, are not known to Google's own spelling checker (and yes, blogging is one of them, as are blog, blogspot and Blogger).

Amazingly, Google is another, whether used as a verb or a noun.  It doesn't discriminate only against itself and its own product, Youtube.  One of its great rivals Facebook is also flagged as an error, as are well known internet memes such as Wikipedia, Skype and Reddit.

Technical terms such as rss, podcast, homeopathy, do not pass the test but perhaps that is understandable.  Surprisingly neither do skeptic nor skepticism (which in the spirit of modern language are increasingly spelt this way in UK English).  I can accept that it does not like words coming from other languages, such as qu'ran, kitman and taqiyyah, but the common word offensive also gets flagged, with the strange and surely non-existent alternative of 'offencive' being offered!

It can be forgiven for noticing people's names like Dawkins.

But there is one case where it should definitely be congratulated!  It objects to Skepchick, and I have to say that I can only agree with it.  I object to that horrible name too.

Its just wrong!

You might have noticed some related posts:
Paula Kirby on feminism in 'the movement'
The Watson inconsistency and the real outrage!

Small note for the sake of completeness.  I use the English (UK) setting, and my claims are correct on the day of writing.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Fusion Fuels part 2 - 'Mining' deuterium.

Last week, in Fusion Fuels: Part 1 - The isotopes of hydrogen, I described the three isotopes of hydrogen and why we might need them as fuel when we finally develop a fusion reactor on earth.  If deuterium and tritium are foreseen to be the fuels for fusion, where do we get deuterium?

Deuterium exists in all the water that you ever see anywhere.  On average in Standard Mean Ocean Water (SMOW) there is one deuterium atom for every 6400 hydrogen atoms, so although it is somewhat dilute it is not particularly rare.  In some places on earth you can find water that is slightly enriched in deuterium - with perhaps double the concentration.

Browsing around the internet you can find claims that the Dead Sea is one of these areas.  Lake Tangyanika is another.  These claims are plausible.  The one thing in common between these places is that they have rivers and streams running into them, but no river running out of them.  Water only leaves them by evaporation and the vapour evaporating from a water surface tends to be richer in the light isotope, protium, than in the heavier deuterium.  Therefore the water left behind in closed bodies of water is likely to be slightly enriched in deuterium.  The water might reach double the concentration of normal water, but no better than that. 

You might also find claims that the water in the deepest ocean trenches is enriched in deuterium.  One could propose that this is because the 'heavy water' sinks to the bottom of the ocean and collects there.  For now I am going to resist the temptation to address this topic very much, because I am very skeptical about it.  In fact the only evidence that I have ever found about the deuterium concentration in deep ocean water suggests that the claim is unfounded.

In order to obtain pure deuterium, water has to be processed in a variety of ways.  There is no single process that produces pure deuterium from ordinary water in one step.  In fact it is usually achieved by three distinct and sequential processes.  The first is designed to concentrate the deuterium to between 20 and 30% in water and the others to increase the concentration further and to generate deuterium gas from this 'heavy water'.

The initial stages are usually achieved by a technique known as 'isotopic exchange'.  The three different hydrogen isotopes very easily swap places with each other in molecules.  Hydrogen, deuterium and tritium are chemically and physically equivalent in most situations, and a water molecule containing two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom can easily become one that contains a hydrogen, a deuterium and an oxygen.  The forms of water that can be produced in the presence of H and D are H2O, HDO, D2O.  If tritium is included in the equation, three other forms can be produced, specifically HTO, DTO, T2O.  Tritium doesn't exist for long in nature so let's ignore it for now. 

So it is not very inaccurate to say that all the water you have ever seen or drunk, or washed or swum in was almost all H2O, but that one molecule in 6400 was HDO.  There is so little D2O in nature that we need not worry at all about the health hazards associated with drinking pure heavy water. 

If we want to increase the concentration of D in the water and to make significant amounts of D2O, we have to 'trick it', and one way to do that is to use another molecule containing hydrogen.  Hydrogen sulphide (H2S) and ammonia (NH3) are both commonly used but for simplicity I will just describe the use of the former of these two. 

Less than 100 years ago, two people spotted that if you bubble hydrogen sulphide through hot water (say 130 degrees celsius, at high pressure to prevent it boiling), the deuterium can be made to jump from the HDO molecules into the H2S to make HDS. They also noticed that in colder water (say 30 degrees celsius) the deuterium tends to jump the other way to make HDO or D2O.  They carefully explored how this property changed as they varied the temperature and the end result was the Geib-Spevack (GS) process. The process was industrialised by a North American company called Girdler, and no doubt there was ill feeling about admitting that the inventors were German at the time, because the company quietly made sure that it mutated the apparent meaning of 'GS' to 'Girlder Sulfide'.  In the English-speaking parts of the world, that name has prevailed.  (Although I know a lot of Germans, none of them have admitted to me that they know about industrial processes to separate deuterium so I can't confirm what they call it.)

Girdler Sulphide process (annotated in Greek) but still useful to and English speaking audience wanting to understand how heavywater is produced
GS process (annotated in Greek) but still useful
to an English speaking audience (from here)

By circulating the hydrogen sulfide through hot and cold water continuously, you can deplete the deuterium from the hot water and concentrate it in the cold water.  This sounds easy enough, and you might think it could be engineered properly to ensure that it doesn't take a huge amount of energy, but there are a few practical difficulties.  For a start, hydrogen sulphide is toxic, so you have to be very careful with it.  (Ammonia is not much better by the way.)  Secondly, the physics only works for you until the concentration of deuterium reaches about 30% (limit), and for most practical purposes not much more than 20%.  After that you can wait as long as you like, but you won't improve it further.

Still - looking at it positively, you have concentrated the deuterium from 155 parts per million to more that one part in five.  That's not a bad start!

To go further than this, you have to change tactics and use a process known as vacuum distillation to do what nature does in the lakes I mentioned earlier - but to do it better.

More next time.  Fusion Fuels part 3 - Making 'heavy water'

Other articles in this series:

Fusion Fuels: Part 1 - The isotopes of hydrogen
Fusion fuels 4 - Electrolysis of heavy water
Fusion Fuels part 5 - Tritium

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Crystal balls

I'm thinking of buying a boat to explore England's inland waterways.  Not a little plastic tub, not a gin palace, but an English narrow-boat.  Most of them are 6 feet 10 inches wide, and they tend to be up to 70 feet long.

I went to look at two of them today and I haven't really decided whether to pursue either.  But in the search I came across some great people and this sign on a boat neighbouring one that I was viewing.  It made me smile.

Eerily inaccurate crustal-ball readings - narrowboat, narrow-boat, England, canals, Kennet and Avon.
Eerily inaccurate crustal-ball readings

Or maybe they really live up to their claim!

I could do with some way to see the future.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Nonsense from C S Lewis

These surprising things come not from a man who is alleged to be a poor thinker, as theists often say of Richard Dawkins - unfairly in my opinion.

No - these surprising words come from C S Lewis.

“You will never know how much you believe something until it is a matter of life and death.” “If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.” – God in the Dock, page 52.

“One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find out what reality is like, simply for the sake of knowing. When that desire is completely quenched in anyone, I think he has become something less than human.” – God in the Dock, page 108.

Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself. – The Problem of Pain

"Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning. . ." – Mere Christianity

"Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable." – Mere Christianity

"A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere -- 'Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,' as Herbert says, 'fine nets and stratagems.' God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous." – Surprised by Joy

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? - Mere Christianity

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic -- on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. – Mere Christianity, pages 40-41.

"You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England." – Surprised by Joy

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. – Is Theology Poetry?

Now who is the poor thinker?

Friday, 12 October 2012

A test for your atheism.

I've been wondering for a while whether there is a really good test of one's degree of atheism, and recently a few things had brought me to a tentative conclusion.

I would like to suggest that our attitude to death might be the final give-away.  I don't just mean death in general, but specifically our own mortality.

Of course there is a broad spectrum of hopes and beliefs, and in a short blog post I can only speak in very general terms.  I think is possible to narrow down our attitudes to four main points of view and I'll try to place these on Richard Dawkins' spectrum of beliefs. (From page 50 of The God Delusion; 1 is a strong theist, and 7 is a strong atheist.)

1/  You know that there is a heaven and you are confident that you will get there because even if you are not perfect, you are repentant and you know in your heart that this is true.

3/  You don't think about it often, but when you do you are pretty sure that there is an afterlife and you fear that you might go to hell and suffer eternal torment.  You don't fear this quite enough to change all your life decisions, but it does nag at you.  But still . . . there is always time to mend your ways and to repent later.  (Or is there?)

5/  You don't think about it often, but when you do, you still have a lingering sense that you have a spirit or soul, and you would like it to live on after your mortal life is over.  You want this in some unspecific spiritual sense, since you don't really believe in the gods that others worship.  However, you are still horrified at the concept of your own mortality.

7/  You know that there is no 'hope' of an afterlife and find this viewpoint to be quite soothing - even therapeutic.  After the highs and lows of a life lived well (or badly) you will neither be subjected to the continuous joy of paradise (which must get boring eventually) nor to the eternal torments of hell.  After death there will be perfect peace and your entire being will cease to be.  And you really don't mind!  You think "when I'm gone, don't grieve for me, but look after the people who loved me".

Now I know that the words are slightly skewed towards what I might call 'Christian atheism'.  By that I mean the kind of atheist who has rejected the idea of the Christian God and ignores even the existence of the other options.   However, I think it might work for Muslims if the words were changed a little, and for other religions to varying degrees.  In the case of Buddhists this scale tests something other than atheism, since they are all atheists, but I think a Buddhist apostate could aspire to reach 7, with practice.

Religions clearly foster the human desire for an afterlife.  It is one thing that almost all of them have in common.  Indeed the afterlife might be the carrier of the virus of religion.

If I score 7, does that mean that I'm not enjoying my life enough?  What do you think?

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Latest on Atheism+ ... Matt Dillahunty's rare error

This video by noelplum99 seems to me to be a fair assessment of the latest news about Atheism+.  Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience has been banned after trying to help the Atheism+ movement to appear reasonable.

Their true colours have been nailed to the mast though.  They're not impressive are they!

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Einstein the agnostic

Should we agree with Einstein's reported words?

"From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist.... I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our being." **

Clearly he had a view about religions but had much more important things on his mind, and I'm glad that he did.

But whether his opinions about the actions of others as outspoken atheists matter at all is another thing.

Personally I recognise his point of view but do not agree with all of it.  I think people should be more outspoken when faced with supernatural claims.  After all, the religious don't keep quite about their opinions, so why should we?

Christopher Hitchens' interjected cries of "Shame on you" in a debate (I think this one) with a rabbi were much more appropriate than Daniel Dennett's natural politeness.

Sometimes you should not tolerate nonsense!

Small note.  **The context of this fragment of a letter was a letter to Guy H. Raner Jr, July 2, 1945, responding to a rumor that a Jesuit priest had caused Einstein to convert from atheism; quoted by Michael R. Gilmore in Skeptic, Vol. 5, No. 2.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Art or graffiti?

Seeing a sign like this one in Paris, one might wonder whether this is art or graffiti.

If graffiti, then it has been executed very carefully.  If art, I think it is rather amusing.

Beautiful Heavy Ice

Searching for pictures for my series about Fusion Fuels, this beautiful photograph came to my attention.

Heavy-water ice cubes sink in ordinary water (left). - deuterium - heavy water
Heavy-water ice cubes sink in ordinary water (left).

Here is the source.  They don't explain (as far as I can see) what is happening here.   Both glasses contain cold water, and the glass on the right has an ordinary ice cube floating in it, just as you would expect.

But the ice cube in the left glass is frozen 'heavy water' - deuterium oxide.  As you can see, it is heavy.

Just WOW!

p.s.  If I'm right, that was an expensive photograph!

Monday, 8 October 2012

Fusion Fuels: Part 1 - The isotopes of hydrogen

Believe it or not, I am sometimes asked a question that most people would never have thought of:

"Where do you get your deuterium from?

The reason that I am asked this unusual question is that my 'day-job' is in the field of nuclear fusion research - fusion being the safe form of nuclear - the one that can't run away.

You might ask "What is deuterium?"  So, let's start from the basics and then cover the rest of the process in a series of other posts. 

The simplest type of atom on the periodic table is normally known to you and me as 'hydrogen'.  Its nucleus contains one proton and nothing else.  A single electron accompanies that simplest-possible nucleus to make a hydrogen atom.

We know hydrogen in its gaseous form as the light gas that filled the magnificent but ill-fated German airship Hindenberg, which crashed in flames in the 1930s.  We also find hydrogen in water, in natural gas (methane) and in all organic molecules that go to make up life.  Hydrogen is the fuel of the whole universe.  Stars 'burn' it in their nuclear fires to make heavier elements.  It might even become a conventional fuel that will be burnt to generate energy in the future, but only if a few of its inconvenient features can be overcome by good engineering.  (As a gas, if it is mixed with air it tends to be extremely explosive.  It is also very good at escaping from containers used to store it. Clearly these are potential inconveniences.)

This common form of hydrogen is sometimes known to scientists as 'protium'.  This term is used to distinguish it unambiguously from its heavier sister, 'deuterium'.  Deuterium atoms contain a single proton, but their nuclei also contain a neutron, making them roughly twice as heavy as protium.  Add a single electron and you get a stable atom called deuterium.  When two different types of atom vary only in the number of neutrons, we call them 'isotopes'.  That doesn't mean that they are radioactive, even though science fiction and the popular press tend to use the term for something that is.  In fact both protium and deuterium are stable in nature, and both can correctly be called 'hydrogen' because they are both hydrogen isotopes.

isotopes of hydrogen - protium, deuterium and tritium
Hydrogen (protium), deuterium and tritium

There is a third isotope of hydrogen which contains two neutrons.  It is still quite stable, but slowly over time it decays, turning itself into the lighter isotope of helium, known as helium 3, and emitting a beta particle.  If you start off with 100 tritium atoms and simply wait for about 12 years . . . half of them will have turned into helium 3.  After a further 12 years half of the remainder will have decayed . . . and so on.  Therefore you don't find much tritium in nature, even though small amounts of it are created by natural processes in the upper atmosphere.

Fusion of protium powers the sun as I mentioned earlier, because the sun produces conditions of high pressure and reasonably high temperature that are suitable to fuse ordinary hydrogen. But if we want fusion to be the power source of the future on earth (where we can't easily develop very high pressures, and don't have anything like as much volume as the sun) we would need much higher temperatures than the sun produces.  The sun gets away with being relatively cold because it only burns its hydrogen very slowly.  A cubic metre of the sun produces only about as much energy as a cubic metre of a compost heap (on average).  We should be quite happy that the sun works so slowly, because otherwise it could have burned up all its protium a long time ago, and life on earth would have ceased to exist before humans evolved.

In order to get an efficient enough reaction in fusion reactors on earth - to develop a 'sun on the earth' - we know from experiments that it will be easier to fuse the two heavy isotopes of hydrogen; namely deuterium and tritium, instead of protium.  We can use these fuels to produce fusion even now, with 'small' machines built in the 1980s and 1990s, but they are only big enough to produce tens of megawatts.  It works, but not yet well enough.  However, a large international technical project called ITER aims to achieve a power of around 500MW in the mid 2020s, to demonstrate fusion on the scale needed for a power station.

So - where do we get deuterium?

Read the rest of the series: 
Fusion Fuels: Part 2 - 'Mining' deuterium.
Fusion Fuels part 3 - Making 'heavy water'
Fusion fuels 4 - Electrolysis of heavy water
Fusion Fuels part 5 - Tritium

Small note:  The glib answer to the original question is "Out of a high pressure gas bottle delivered to us by our supplier".  That would be accurate and true, but not altogether in keeping with the spirit of the question.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

A'arm a sa'a'rntist - Republican claims!

. . . but after all - Senator Broun is a scientist - isn't he?  Oh?  Are there opposing views on that topic?

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Hamza's Innocence!

Hamza Al-Masri, otherwise known as Abu Hamza, is now innocent again - at least temporarily!

At least that is, he is formally innocent but I can't imagine him remaining in that state for very long.  It seems rather likely that he will soon be proven guilty in a court in USA.  America knows how to administer justice in a more swift and permanent way than wishy-washy Europe.

Hamza off to America - from The Mirror
Hamza off to America - from The Mirror

. . . and the British tax payer is rid of Abu Hamza once and for all!  Smiles all round then!

The Osama bin Laden case last year showed the difference between the New and Old World's justice systems last year.   Bin Laden's swift dispatch might not have been universally popular, but at least it was more effective than the way that Europe is currently entertaining Mladic, as I wrote in this post last year - Mladic - worse than bin Laden!

Will Europe ever get this right?

To finish on a lighter note, I came across this parody news article this week.  Hamza lands Panto role

Friday, 5 October 2012

Characteristically Muse - no sign of entropy yet!

Have I mentioned before that my daughter converted me?

No - not to religion!

She introduced me to the rock band Muse and I have bought all their albums and enjoyed them.  So the new album has been on pre-order with Amazon for a few weeks and it arrived yesterday.  After listening to it four times I think it might be their best (although obviously it is a bit early to say that).

Muse - The 2nd Law

The 2nd Law has characteristic features of the music of Muse.  Exciting harmonies, melodies, bass and vocals (even if the words make little sense, but who cares about that).  They are like one of the good old rock bands and definitely should be compared with Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Queen . . . and all the best of the rest.  Like all the best they have a certain characteristic sound.  Like all the best, some of their songs are better than others, and the recent Olympics accident was not a high point in their career.  Fortunately it isn't on The 2nd Law.  That is a very good start!

What should you expect from this album?  Good robust, harmonic, bassy rock.  Sounds of Queen as aficionados might also predict, particularly in the track called Panic Attack, and the introduction to Explorers.  And a short track called Prelude which (in my opinion) subtly introduces another new generation to the beautiful melodies of Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto (2nd movement).  It was known as Eric Carmen's 'All by Myself' to the youths of the 70s, or Celine Dion's version of the same song from the mid 90s.

Explorers is also an obvious hit, as are Big Freeze and Follow Me, whereas Animals might be one of the classic album tracks that we will all love for years to come.

I also notice sounds that will appeal to fans of Madonna (and I don't use that comparison pejoratively), particularly in the tracks called Madness and 2nd Law Unsustainable.

Muse is defying the Second Law of Thermodynamics very well.  [For those of you who care, this is because it is not a closed system.  Physics is still safe!]

Keep up the good work chaps!
You're keeping entropy at bay!

Small note: Look up the Second Law of Thermodynamics on Wikipedia.  There is a bit of physics in most of their albums.  

Another note: it would be great to hear Muse attempt a version of 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

A helicopter in a piano shop

Walking through Versailles (near Paris) late one evening last week, I saw someone standing stiffly in a well lit piano showroom.  The shop was closed at the time, but on looking more carefully I was surprised to see what he was doing.

Flying between the beautiful new instruments was a radio controlled helicopter, impressively controlled.  I didn't dare to take a photo ( or at least I didn't think the resulting image would have been of high enough quality anyway).

Quelle surprise!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Hamza's Health

As the criminal 'Abu Hamza', as Hamza Al-Masri is generally known, makes one last attempt to avoid being extradited to USA, he is claiming poor mental health as a justification for remaining in the UK.

Hamza Al Masri - will he get off the hook this time?

There are several things to say about that.

Firstly, I don't think most of us want him.  It is better that he is in jail than wandering free stirring up hatred, but I think he could be better looked after in another country which knows haw to treat its criminals appropriately.

Secondly, what is new about his state of mind?  I would say it was a bit late to make such a claim.  Surely it has been clear for decades that he is borderline psychopathic.  That's why he is currently serving a 7 year jail sentence in UK.  So why would this claim get him off the hook this time?  (Did you spot what I did there?) 

Here is yet another example of an Islamist trying to claim rights of free speech and access to the rule of law purely in order to justify his own aims - namely to bring about a political system in which he can deny those very same rights to other people.

For too many years, the UK government has allowed him to play silly legal games, costing the UK tax payer millions and drumming up supporters who believe that he has been ill-treated.

In the spirit of fairness, equality and free speech, I would say that it is exactly the right time to let a suspected terrorist and kidnapper have a chance to demonstrate his innocence.  This time let's see him try it in another country, the other side of the Atlantic.

I think he will find it a little harder to play silly legal games with American law.

Of course the term Abu literally means father.  I don't like Christian leaders claiming to be my father, and I can't say I like it any better from Islamic 'clerics'. 

I'm glad my own father wasn't like any of them!

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Valley of the shadow of death

Not an anti-religious comment today, but I'd just like to show you two old photos, arguably the oldest surviving war photos.  These were taken during the Crimean War in 1855, by a little known photographer, Roger Fenton.

Both views are remarkable in that they show a completely lifeless scene resulting from a war which claimed the lives of half a million men.

Roger Fenton's iconic 1855 photo of the 'Valley of the Shadow of Death' Crimea
Roger Fenton's iconic 1855 photo of the
'Valley of the Shadow of Death'

Click on the photo above to enlarge it.  You will realise quite soon that the spherical objects scattered across the whole scene are canon balls.  But which was taken first?

Roger Fenton's iconic 1855 photo of the 'Valley of the Shadow of Death' Crimea with canon balls placed on the road.
Roger Fenton's iconic 1855 photo of the
'Valley of the Shadow of Death' with canon balls placed in the road.

Opinions differ, but the fact that some of the rocks in the bottom left corner of the pictures have fallen down the slope a little suggests that they were disturbed as Fenton and his assistants collected canon balls to place on the road.

Does this matter at all?  Not really.  After all, there are so many of them that the ones in the dip at the edge of the road must have been cleared from the road earlier.

Monday, 1 October 2012

In-Seine lovers

If you jump into the river in Paris, are you in-Seine?

So goes the old joke.  (If you are not a geographer, you may want to Google to find out the name of the river flowing through Paris . . . or read on.)

Here is a photo from Pont de l'Archevêché bridge in Paris, looking toward the island which hosts the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Archeveche Bridge in Paris - padlocks for lovers.
Pont de l'Archevêché in Paris - padlocks for lovers.
Thousands of lovers from all over the world, have secured padlocks to the bridge, before throwing the key into the River Seine (pronounced 'sane').

Padlocks on the Archeveche Bridge in Paris
Padlocks on the Archevêché Bridge in Paris

Surprisingly romantic!  These have only appeared during the last two years or so.  The original favoured Paris spot was the Pont des Arts, but overnight the tokens mysteriously disappeared one night in May 2010.

Apparently it's not only the authorities who expressed doubts about the attractiveness of this feature in the middle of the city.  From time to time a dejected ex-lover has been seen desperately hacking at a padlock with a pair of pliers.

Good luck with the pliers.  Call an engineer (with a pair of bolt croppers)!