Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Eclipsing Dimness

The other morning on Breakfast TV, they had an item about the recent total solar eclipse which lasted for over 6 minutes at totality, and was visible from India and China.

Well, that was fine, that was interesting, that was OK. However, what I did not find to be OK was the patronising way they then introduced some woman astronomer to explain to the dim-witted uneducated masses just what an eclipse is and how it happens.

She produced a small torch and a coin, and then aligning the beam of the torch into the camera lens to simulate the sun, then held a small coin in front of it to simulate the moon. What I found really bemusing by all this was that this was during normal adult viewing hours, but the way the item was presented it might as well have been children's TV. I found it extremely patronising and irritating to think that the programme makers felt they needed to get a professional astronomer on to explain to the public such a simple (this is definitely NOT rocket science) thing! But then maybe they have a point. Maybe your average British person on the street really is so uneducated and lacking in any kind of appreciation of anything outside the realms of Coronation Street or “Now” magazine, that they really do need to be treated like imbeciles.

I didn't watch children's TV but suspect that the event might have been reported on in a more adult way as this is the sort of thing children should be taught about and probably, for the most part know about already. I first learned about eclipses when I was 7 years old. It was my teacher, Miss Clissold (I'll never forget her) who taught us all about it in a very interesting and simple manner without the need to bring in a professional astronomer or the need to resort to torches and coins to demonstrate such a simple phenomenon. We all understood it without a problem, and then moved on...............

Actually, thinking about it, the Breakfast TV presenters might have been better to have employed a 7 year old - he or she would probably have done a better job in a less patronising way!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Creationist Stupidity

The other night I was watching a particularly annoying programme late at night on one of the Christian religious channels. The program was about why life was created by God, and not evolved through the process of evolution by natural selection, which, incidentally, is so well proven, it is beyond doubt. Now, if you think I am being arrogant in making that statement, then that's okay, because its okay to be arrogant when you are right! What was annoying about this programme was that it claimed to be scientific, and it was anything but!! This should not be surprising because where fundamentalist religion is concerned, its adherents would not know what constituted science if it came up and hit them in the face.

The programme took the form of a gormless presenter interviewing a so-called expert in the cloud cuckoo-land realm of creationism. Our “expert” looked like he had just returned from planting some spuds in his garden, clad in green and talking in a tone of such serious gravitas that many a village idiot might actually have been fooled into thinking he knew what he was talking about!

When I switched over and discovered this wonderful programme, they were sat there discussing carrots, and how the carrot would not know how to develop in the ground without the information already being there in the carrot and how it is dependant upon the green bits above the soil to get the energy for it to do its stuff. Gosh – we don't know how that could come about by evolution – there MUST be a god!! Not only that, but how do plants know which sort of energy to utilise? Well, that couldn't happen by evolution – there MUST be a god who created all this!! And all the while, our gormless presenter didn't challenge once a single thing this so called expert spouted forth in all his unthinking non-logic of stupidity. Our presenter just agreed with everything he said, nodding his head in all the right places with an inane stupid grin plastered over his dim-witted face.

What was even more annoying, this green clad clown kept poking criticism at evolution by natural selection in the complete comfort of there being no one there to defend against his claims! If Professor Richard Dawkins had been there, he would have ripped this guy to shreds and exposed him for the unscientific, illogical, non-reasoning twit that he was! Its very easy to spout forth and pretend to be scientific when there is no one to challenge you – and there is the rub. Science advances by being challenged all along the way. Once we have a hypothesis and tested it to its limits with all the scepticism we can muster – and if it survives all that and still stands up, then we can say that on the balance of probabilities our hypothesis is most likely fact. The religionists don't bother testing anything. They just make sweeping statements gleaned from some “enlightened” understanding of some Iron-Age text, dress it up in the trappings of academia and call it scientific – poppycock and balderdash!

Finally, this guy's Pièce de résistance came with the claim that the reason we have beauty in nature – i.e. beautiful girls, butterflies, flowers etc., has nothing to do with survival and natural selection – I will not bore you with his arguments, they were pathetic – is because god, in his infinite wisdom loves beauty. Of course, what he conveniently forgot to explain is why this same god has seemingly been pleased to have created so many butt-ugly women, and other objects of ugliness in the natural realm. I'm so glad I'm not some “Ugly Betty” because I would, at least on the basis of this “expert's” wisdom, have to spend my life in the assured knowledge that someone up there had it in for me. Better not go out in a storm – bound to get struck by lightning!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Dropping in

Today was a special day at RAF Wyton. It was Families Day – the one day in the year when everyone (well, at least those that can get away from the office) can get out and have some fun with lots of attractions to stimulate the senses.

Today was very hit and miss with the weather. It was hot and sunny. It was black and thundery. It was bucketing down with rain. Then it was sunny again. It was a good job a lot of the attractions were in the hanger.

I took my camera along perchance to snap something half decent, mainly on the aviation front. The world’s only flying Vulcan was meant to be making an appearance, but the story goes that it flew yesterday and damaged its undercarriage on landing, hence no chance of picturing it today.

The one aerial event I did see was the RAF Falcons parachute display team dropping in on us. They got the jump in by the skin of their teeth. As they were coming down out the grey, the clouds around were like those in Cecil B De Mills’ film “The Ten Commandments” in the scene where the Red Sea is parted.

Almost as soon as they landed, the wind blew a gale, the heavens opened and everyone was rushing into the hanger. The photo here is one I got about one minute before they touched Terra Firma.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ten Thousand Years

My brother has challenged me to write a posting about what I think the future will be like in ten thousand years time. This is delving into the realm of futurology. Well, I have an O level in biology and an A level in sociology, but nothing except my imagination in futurology, which, I guess is about the most anyone has.

Of course, anybody with half a brain cell will know that trying to foretell anything so far off is actually totally impossible. Given the amount of change in human society and particularly technology over the past one hundred years, it is hard enough to try and guess what things will be like in another hundred years, let alone ten thousand. I read somewhere some time ago that society transforms itself every fifty years. Well, writing as one who can remember the year 1959, I reckon this is near the mark as life today is totally different to what it was then. Of course, we share a lot of the same basic technology as then, but it is so much more sophisticated and refined than fifty years ago, that much of it has changed and advanced almost beyond recognition. We had computers in 1959 – which filled a building and a fraction of the computing power of the laptop which I am using to type this posting. Moving forward into the future, I believe it will be advances in computing which will be the main driver of technological advance, as well as quantum physics, molecular biology, the development of nanotechnology and the development of non-carbon based energy sources. The question is, where will these advances lead us to in the distant future - after a further two hundred transformations?

In trying to answer the question, I could say just about anything, as it is as unlikely that I could predict that far into the future as it is as likely that a thoughtful cave dweller could have predicted the internet. And, of course, no one who reads this today will know if I am right or not as we will all be dead in a small fraction of the time from now to ten thousand years hence. Even so, in posting this on the internet as I am doing, it may be that these words will still be floating around the info sphere in some ten thousand years and some person or entity will uncover and absorb it into their consciousness.

Impossible though the challenge might be, I am going, nonetheless, to give it my best shot, so here goes!

There are so many variables which will affect our future survival. Will we be hit by another comet like the one which wiped out the dinosaurs? Will our environment be all but destroyed by out of control global warming? Will we turn away from rationality and sink into another dark age fuelled by ignorance, superstition and oppressive religion? Will we destroy ourselves through a nuclear holocaust or through the use of some other as yet unimagined weapon of mass destruction? In short, will we survive long enough to have a future?

I think most of us in the west think of the future mostly in terms of technological and scientific advance. This is but one side of the coin. The other side is human relationships. Mankind is essentially a social animal, and tragically war-like. If we are to survive, then relationships are the most critical factor because if we can't get on with each other as a species, then we will, without a doubt destroy ourselves. But we will for the purpose of this posting, suppose that we manage to subdue the worst aspects of our nature and continue to develop our science and technology into the far distant future.

It goes without saying that the conquest of space will be one of the biggest aspects of our future. However, I am going to assume that we will not be able to travel faster than light because it takes an infinite amount of energy to propel a single atom to that speed. However, as we learn more about the laws of physics, and learn to exploit new energy sources, the problem of faster than light travel might be side stepped by the ability to bend, expand and contract space itself for our own purposes. Given enough energy (though for faster than light travel no amount is enough), you could imagine a kind of “warp” travel whereby a spaceship creates a force field where the space to the front of it is shrunk and the space behind is expanded thus propelling it at seemingly faster than light speeds throughout the cosmos. This would not so much be a kind of movement through space but more a disappearance at one point in space and a reappearance at another. The popular physicist Michio Kaku envisages a future ability to bend space back upon itself, create a “wormhole” and travel through it to reappear perhaps thousands or even millions of light years from the start point – or even in another universe in a parallel dimension.

This is all fine and dandy, but from whence comes the truly astronomical quantities of energy to allow such possibilities? Well, one answer might be in harnessing the energy of space-time itself, and this energy is called “zero-point” energy. We now know that there really is no such thing as empty space. Einstein showed that both space and time are intertwined and are inseparable from each other. At the quantum level, space is made up of a kind of bubbling soup with strange particles popping into existence and then destructing in a constant boiling broth. This space-time matrix is an energy source so powerful that if we could harvest it then all our energy needs would be banished for ever giving us a virtually unlimited energy supply for whatever kind or size of project we care to embark upon. However, how to release this zero point energy is the holy grail. Ten thousand years is probably enough time to overcome these problems and develop the technologies if what we believe we know today turns out to hold water in the future. However, I do have a kind of feeling that if we do manage to access this esoteric energy, then the exploitation of black holes will probably have something to do with it.

Given that we are talking about such a vast distance into the future, then I believe that the most fundamental change will come about as we learn to engineer our own physiology. The impetus for this comes from two directions. One is the desire to live longer – preferably indefinitely. The other is to overcome disease and suffering, and have perfect bodies. I believe that we will gradually replace our bodies with artificial bodies which will give us virtual indestructibility and an indefinite life span. In many ways, we can see the beginnings of this process today. I have a hearing aid to overcome my high tone deafness. When I wear it, my hearing is better than it was before I had the problem. I have some reading glasses. I also have prescription sun glasses for when I am driving. Moving up a level or two, we have people with ear implants. We have people with retina implants. We have people with artificial hearts. We have people with artificial arms and legs. I have even seen a spot on some science programme about the development of artificial blood.

I think it is clear where I am going with this. Given that all these technologies will continue to advance, there must come a point, probably not that far into the future where these artificial organs will be better, more durable and efficient than the real thing. Imagine having artificial legs which enable you to run at 60 miles per hour. Imagine having an ear implant which gives you the ability to hear at much higher and lower frequencies than normal ears. Imagine having artificial eyes which enable you to see into the infra-red and the ultra-violet, as well as being able to zoom in and see the sort of details you would normally need a powerful telescope to see, not to mention the ability to see the microscopic world normally only visible through a microscope. I believe all these things are perfectly within the realms of possibility. Further, it will not just be disabled or injured people who will benefit from these technologies, but anyone who wants to, and can afford to. It will become a lifestyle choice.

However, this is only the beginning. Eventually whole body replacements will be available, where the only part of the biological you which will be present will be the brain. Once we reach this stage, and if we can find ways to regenerate dying and dead brain cells, then life spans of hundreds or even thousands of years may well be possible. Of course, there is no reason why our re-engineered bodies should take on the familiar morphology of our natural bodies. Don't forget, we will be a deep-space faring civilization, and so it makes sense that our bodies are adapted to the different environments of the worlds on which we find ourselves. We will develop bodies which can survive and thrive in all kinds of environments, from the vacuum of the Moon, the frozen methane wastelands of Titan, the tenuous and frozen landscapes, mountains and valleys of Mars – all without the need for a space suit. We talk today about teraforming other planets to make them habitable for ourselves, but turning that upon its head, I would suggest we will adapt ourselves to inhabit these worlds just as they are.

Eventually, the ultimate step of replacing the brain itself might be taken. Given that the most mysterious aspect of human life is consciousness, unless we can understand exactly from whence it comes, and how it springs into being, then the ability to replace the brain while at the same time retaining our human nature will not be possible. However, if we take into account the development of nanotechnology where many scientists confidently predict that we will be able to inject nano-robots into the blood stream to track down and destroy harmful bacteria, viruses, cancerous cells, etc., then it is only a short leap to imagine nano-machines which can build new artificial cells and graft them into the living matrix as the original cells age and die. In this way, the brain itself could be gradually transformed into an artificial organ while retaining the consciousness which makes us human.

Once we have reached this stage, and probably a long way before it, we will no longer be reliant upon traditional meat and vegetable based food as we are today. It has to be remembered, that while we might love all our culinary delights, the reason we eat food at all is primarily to replace dead and dying tissue, and to provide an energy source to power the muscles of the body. Of course, as we make the transition to non-biological life forms we will start to utilise a whole range of energy sources and new technologies to do the same job. The days of the farm and the abattoir are numbered.

So here we are, ten thousand years hence, and changed beyond recognition from what we are today. We are virtually indestructible, with super senses, memories and reasoning abilities. Our abode will be out there in the depths of space, exploring other worlds around distant suns. It may well be, that we shall be so sophisticated that life forms on other worlds will never know of our presence. We will be able to blend in and remain invisible to the frustrated alien astronomers with their own SETI projects reaching out in the vain hope of finding they are not alone.

Of course, we must remember that we are human, and our abilities, intelligence and longevity are only a small part of our nature. We are social creatures craving love, sensitivity and companionship, not to mention our love of art, music, and all those things which stimulate the senses and make life worth living. I believe the answer to these cravings will be internalised in that we will be able to experience pretty much whatever we like just by willing it. Within each of us will be a kind if inner holo-deck within which we can inhabit at will. This will come about with the additional abilities engendered into our brains as we develop, and redevelop them. The scenarios we imagine will seem so real that they will be indistinguishable from the real thing. We may find ourselves inhabiting a kind of “Matrix” type virtual world which we will switch in and out of at will. This does not mean that all our relationships will be purely imaginary. We will still fall in love and form close bondings with other individuals as well as share information and work in close harmony with others.

New people will be created artificially in artificial wombs in baby making factories, though the babies themselves will be brains which will be implanted directly into their android bodies where they will grow, mature, and be replaced with artificial neural networks cell by cell. There is also no reason why individuals should not be able to change their bodies. It might be more appropriate to be able to fly, so a bird like body might be just the job. It might, on the other hand be needful to be able to live under water, so fish like bodies might be the order of the day.

Clearly, if only a fraction of what I am suggesting comes to be, it is clear that our future is totally alien compared to anything we experience today.

In the far distant future, we may well come across other worlds and find other life forms not realising that they are divergent forms of ourselves, which in the dim past had branched off from ourselves and gone their own way. We will find the long sought after aliens in our own progeny.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Time after Time

Thirty eight years ago, following a tour of a lifetime with the RAF in Singapore and finding myself on leave – and bored - in my home town of Potters Bar, I was lost for something to do. The solution, I decided, was to arm myself with my trusty Pentax Spotmatic camera, get on my bike and carry out a photographic survey of the town and it's environs.

Now, photography is a magical tool because it gives us a means of making direct comparisons of places over the passing of time. Whenever a photograph is taken, a recording of an instant of time is laid down, not just an image. Thus, since the invention of photography in the early nineteenth century, we have the most valuable tool imaginable, short of a time machine, for going back and seeing what things were like in times past. I have often thought how different things would have been if photography had been invented a couple of thousand years ago – or more. How different our perceptions of the past would be! Instead of “artists impressions” and archaeologists’’ reconstructions we would be able to see the real thing in all its authentic detail. Many things which are a mystery now, would instead be as clear as day.

When I was riding about on my bike and taking those seemingly mundane photographs all those years ago, I never dreamed of how fascinating I would find those same shots in later life, not to mention the part of the jigsaw of the history of the town they would become. Things which I had long forgotten were suddenly thrust back into sharp relief. Green fields where cows once grazed near my childhood home are now a housing estate. The junior school, so much a part of my formative years has disappeared in the wake of yet another housing development. The shops I once frequented have changed ownership – or closed down altogether. My favourite pub is now replaced by luxury flats. Ford Cortinas have been replaced by Ford Focuses. Even so, many things are still there now as they were then. Give it another thirty eight years…..

Making a record of the familiar places of today, can be a very satisfying and constructive thing to do. As well as getting out and about in the fresh air, it forces one to take that little bit more interest in the world about you. Your view the world alters in that the all too familiar takes on a new perspective. You become more conscious of the changes going on in the environment over time. Once a building is knocked down, it is gone forever. If for this reason alone, it makes sense to photograph it for posterity and the enrichment of future generations.

The photos shown here depict Potters Bar station as it was in 1971, and how it is today. Spot the difference.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Natural Living

There is a frank and robust conversation going on in my extended family about whether or not medical research should be carried out and whether we should try and cure diseases. The logic goes something like this:

Given that we came about as a result of evolution - the survival of the fittest – natural selection – then it follows that diseases are part of this process. Take cancer, for instance. This disease has been around since the time of the dinosaurs (I don't know this, I'm just repeating what I heard), and it's function is to reduce the population. Trying to cure diseases goes against nature, and we should live our lives without worrying about such things, and allow nature to take it's course. We are naturally evolved creatures and should therefore live within nature. To do otherwise is unnatural.

I now want to carry out a thought experiment. The parameters within which we shall consider whether something is “natural” or not is that if something is manufactured then it is not part of nature. Under this criteria, we therefore began to depart from living naturally when we created the first primitive stone tools – assuming they were stone of course! From there on in, we applied innovation and imagination and our tools became more elaborate and elegant as time went by. The image I have in mind is the brilliant “jump-cut” in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” where the man-ape “Moon Watcher” having realised he can use a hog's femur bone as a weapon to defeat his enemies, throws the bone in the air in a moment of triumph. The camera follows the bone up into the air and as it falls to earth the scene jumps to an orbiting weapon of mass destruction.

If we now think about what most people think of as the “natural” world we are looking at the world apart from Man. Thus, all the plants, animals etc. are all part of the natural landscape, part of it, live within it – all perfectly natural. However, there are some animals which have developed primitive tools, much the same as we did in our early pre-human existence. Given that these tools have been “manufactured” by the animal concerned, then the animal has departed from living “naturally” – it has entered the realm of technology, albeit at a very primitive level. Even so, as these tools have been developed by creatures other than man who inhabit the “natural world”, then all their activities and technological advances are inside the natural realm.

We now move a million years into the future and we find that one of these species of animals has gone on to develop auto mobiles, aircraft and weapons of mass destruction. They are also carrying out medical research, have a health service and extending their life expectancy as a result. However, as we still exist but are now so advanced that we are no longer recognisable as human beings, but have altered our physiology and become god-like, we look down on these now technologically advanced animals and regard all their advances as being perfectly natural. They must be so, because they are not human and therefore part of the natural order of things.

I think it is clear where I am going with this. There is, in my view at least, no distinction between the natural and the unnatural. We are all the products of nature, and evolution has dictated that it is in our nature to be technological. Therefore, all our cities, transport systems, health services etc.... are all part of nature precisely because it is within our nature to be like this. So, to reject medical intervention and medical research in the belief that it is against nature is a delusion. Also, let us not forget that we can only do anything within the laws of nature because everything we do is subject to those laws. Physics, chemistry, quantum physics are all part of the natural realm, and nothing we can do is permissible outside of their enabling. We might have a higher level of consciousness than the rest of the animal kingdom, but all our endeavours both now and into the distant future are part of our natural evolution – and that's only natural!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Blank Uncertainty on the Page of Life

Until I started typing – a few moments ago – I was staring at a blank OpenOffice page on my laptop. Now, it is no longer blank because I am typing on it.

Mao Tse Tung, one of the most evil people who has ever lived, once commented along the lines that the Chinese people were like a blank sheet of paper with endless possibilities. Of course, being an evil megalomaniac, it would be he who would decide what should be written on the blank sheet. What he wrote was misery, starvation and death for millions of his countrymen.

Enough of Mao. He is not the point. I'm not really sure what the point is. I think that what I might possibly be driving at is that whenever you wake up in the morning, you are in effect presented with a blank page in which an infinity of things are possible. You never actually know what lies ahead. You might think you do. You might know of a number of things which are scheduled to happen on that particular day, but you can never be sure how they are going to work out – because there is an infinite number of possibilities. In this respect, life is a game of chance.

There is therefore no reason to despair, and every reason to despair. Because of the random nature of the fall of events, there is a sense in which we can sit back and look at the passing of each day as a kind of observer. I am observing what I am writing at the moment. I do not know what I am going to write next. I didn't know I was going to write that which I have just written.

I might plan to do things. I might go to work in the morning with a number of things on my mind to be accomplished on that day. It rarely happens that I achieve everything I set out to do. This is not my fault. It is because of the random injection of serendipity which imposes itself upon the day. To really come close to drawing on the sheet of blank paper the things you really want, you have to be ruthlessly focussed, and try and bat away all the distractions. Sometimes you might appear to be a bit rude and abrupt, as you try and pull yourself out of conversations which, while they might be fully justified in themselves, are nevertheless blocking the way to you doing the very things you know you should be doing. And then the phone rings, and its all change again. You never saw that one coming.

This evening I went Ten Pin Bowling. I planned to score high and win my games. However, I only won one of the three games I played and was the worst player in our team tonight. Last week was the reverse. I got one of my highest scores ever. I suppose all I could say was that I knew I was going to bowl some games, but had no idea how the games would turn out.

That, in a nutshell is life.