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An Upcoming Apocalypse

March 31, 2017 2 comments

Recently I have been contemplating the possibility of an upcoming apocalypse. Why is that, you may ask. Well, there are several factors: first, there is the current political situation in the world, where regressive and extreme politics seem to be becoming popular; second, I have recently re-read a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel called “Earth Abides”; and third, I just listened to a podcast about the collapse of bronze age civilisation.

By apocalypse I don’t mean anything religious or Biblical, or course, and I don’t mean the world will be totally destroyed, or the Universe will end, or anything that extreme. I just mean a major collapse of the current civilisation and, hopefully, it’s replacement with something better. So maybe apocalypses can actually be good.

There have certainly been situations in the past where dominant civilisations have fallen after a period of stagnation and regressive thinking. We might look around the world today and see similar changes towards more inward thinking and conservative policies. Maybe these are early signs of an approaching apocalypse.

In Earth Abides (a novel written in 1949, but still quite relevant even though it does show a few anachronisms and other signs of being dated) most humans are wiped out by a virus. The few survivors band together into small groups and try to survive in various ways. The story is told in the third person and involves the events experienced by the main protagonist, Isherwood Williams (known as “Ish” – a rather symbolic name).

Initially Ish tries to maintain the old civilisation by teaching the children to read, and by planning to have his most intelligent son, Joey, learn about the old world and its technologies. But the lessons become increasingly pointless and when Joey dies in an epidemic he has to abandon that path. Eventually, as the old technologies, such as power and water, fail the tribe reverts to a more primitive lifestyle and the most useful skill he teaches them is how to make a bow for hunting.

But it seems that the new, simpler culture might not be such a bad thing, because the new members of the tribe (those born after the great disaster) are arguably happier than most of the people were before.

It’s a work of fiction, of course, and not too much should be extrapolated from it, but it does provide a useful perspective on what the actual benefits of society really are.

Apocalypses have been common in the past, although they tended to be localised, simply because global interaction between regions wasn’t possible. So societal collapse has ranged from Rome to Maya to Angkor Wat. The Maya are an interesting parallel to the story in Earth Abides. They abandoned their great cities and returned to a village-based lifestyle after a huge population collapse. No one seems entirely sure why.

According to the podcast on the bronze age, the causes of that collapse were quite complex and probably included an excessively intricate and dependent trading network (especially for tin), major natural disasters (especially earthquakes and drought), and attacks by foreign invaders. It would probably have been possible to survive any one of these influences, but not them all.

So let’s put it all together. Clearly we have an excessively complex trading network today. If one part was interrupted (like oil from the Middle East) it would cause a major collapse in society as a whole. We have natural disasters becoming more devastating as a result of climate change. And attacks from “outside forces” could be from a number of sources, including terrorism, which is a more symbolic than real threat, but maybe even more influential because of that.

At the end of the Bronze Age the interruption of trading in tin caused alternatives to be considered. Tin was used to make bronze, so alternative materials, especially iron, had to be used instead. In fact iron was much better than bronze and the iron age resulted. So one collapse lead to something new and better. Unfortunately many societies suffered a dark age of several decades to centuries between the two.

Maybe it takes destruction and darkness before creation and light can result. We might hope that we are more aware of these factors today and that we can abandon our “bronze age” – which is paralleled by the carbon fuel (oil, coal, etc) age today – and move to an “iron age” – modern renewable energy sources. But there is increasing evidence that this might not actually happen.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. We could easily transform our society to a much better one any time we wanted to, but that probably won’t happen until the current one becomes totally unworkable. It’s just much easier to continue with the status quo. In Earth Abides the tribe just broke into an abandoned store and retrieved cans when they needed food. They didn’t need to do anything harder than that. But the cans couldn’t last forever. They never do.

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What is Reality?

March 21, 2017 Leave a comment

You are probably reading this post on a computer, tablet, or phone with a graphical user interface. You click or tap an icon and something happens. You probably think of that icon as having some meaning, some functionality, some deeper purpose. But, of course, the icon is just a representation for the code that the device is running. Under the surface the nature of reality is vastly more complex and doesn’t bear the slightest relationship to the graphical elements you interact with.

There’s nothing too controversial in that statement, but what if the whole universe could be looked at in a similar way? In a recent podcast I heard an interview with Donald Hoffman, the professor of cognitive science at the University of California. He claims that our models of reality are just that: models. He also claims that mathematical modelling indicates tha the chance that our models are accurate is precisely zero.

There are all sorts of problems with this perspective, of course.

First, there is solipsism which tells us that the only thing we can know for sure is that we, as an individual, exist. If we didn’t then we couldn’t have the thought about existence, but the reality of anything else could be seen as a delusion. Ultimately I think this is totally undebatable. There is no way to prove that what I sense is real and not a delusion.

While I must accept this idea as being ultimately true I also have to reject on the basis that it is ultimately pointless. If solipsism is true then pursuing ideas or understanding of anything is futile. So our whole basis of reality relies on something which can’t be shown to be true, but has to be accepted anyway, just to make any sense of the world at all. That’s kind of awkward!

Then there is the fact that the same claims of zero accuracy of models of the world surely apply to his models of models of the world. So, if our models of reality are inaccurate does that not mean that the models we devise to study those models are also inaccurate?

And if the models of models are inaccurate does that mean there is a chance that the models themselves, aren’t? We really can’t know for sure.

I would also ask what does “zero accuracy” mean. If we get past solipsism and assume that there is a reality that we can access in some way, even if it isn’t perfect, how close to reality do we have to be to maintain some claim of accuracy?

And the idea of zero accuracy is surely absurd because our models of reality allow us to function predictably. I can tap keys on my computer and have words appear on the screen. That involves so much understanding of reality that it is deceptive to suggest that there is zero accuracy involved. There must be a degree of accuracy sufficient to allow a predictable outcome, at the level of my fingers making contact with the keys all the way down to the quantum effects working within the transistors in the computer’s processor.

So if my perception of reality does resemble the icon metaphor on a computer then it must be a really good metaphor that represents the underlying truth quite well.

There are areas where we have good reason to believe our models are quite inaccurate, though. Quantum physics seems to provide an example of where incredibly precise results can be gained but the underlying theory requires apparently weird and unlikely rationalisations, like the many worlds hypothesis.

So, maybe there are situations where the icons are no longer sufficient and maybe we never will see the underlying code.

The Internet is Best!

March 17, 2017 Leave a comment

I hear a lot of debate about whether the internet is making us dumb, uninformed, or more close-minded. The problems with a lot of these debates are these: first, saying the internet has resulted in the same outcome for everyone is too simplistic; second, these opinions are usually offered with no justification other than it is just “common sense” or “obvious”; and third, whatever the deficiencies of the internet, is it better or worse than not having an internet?

There is no doubt that some people could be said to be more dumb as the result of their internet use. By “dumb” I mean being badly informed (believing things which are unlikely to be true) or not knowing basic information at all, and by “internet use” I mean all internet services people use to gather information: web sites, blogs, news services, email newsletters, podcasts, videos, etc.

How can this happen when information is so ubiquitous? Well information isn’t knowledge, or at least it isn’t necessarily truth, and it certainly isn’t always useful. It is like the study (which was unreplicated so should be viewed with some suspicion) showing that people who watch Fox News are worse informed about news than people who watch no news at all.

That study demonstrates three interesting points: first, people can be given information but gather no useful knowledge as a result; second, non-internet sources can be just as bad a source as the internet itself; and third, this study (being unreplicated and politically loaded) might itself be an example of an information source which is potentially misleading.

So clearly any information source can potentially make people dumber. Before the internet people might have been made dumber by reading printed political newsletters, or watching trashy TV, or by listening to a single opinion at the dinner table, or by reading just one type of book.

And some people will mis-use information sources where others will gain a lot by using the same source. Some will get dumber while others get a lot smarter by using the same sources.

And (despite the Fox News study above) if the alternative to having an information source which can be mis-used is having no information source at all, then I think taking the flawed source is the best option.

Anecdotes should be used with extreme caution, but I’m going to provide some anyway, because this is a blog, not a scientific paper. I’m going to say why I think the internet is a good thing from my own, personal perspective.

I’m interested in everything. I don’t have a truly deep knowledge about anything but I like to think I have a better than average knowledge about most things. My hero amongst Greek philosophers is Eratosthenes, who was sometimes known as “Beta”. This was because he was second best at everything (beta is the second letter in the Greek alphabet which I can recite in full, by the way).

The internet is a great way to learn a moderate amount about many things. Actually, it’s also a great way to learn a lot about one thing too, as long as you are careful about your sources, and it is a great way to learn nothing about everything.

I work in a university and I get into many discussions with people who are experts in a wide range of different subjects. Obviously I cannot match an expert’s knowledge about their precise area but I seem to be able to at least have a sensible discussion, and ask meaningful questions.

For example, in recent times I have discussed the political situation in the US, early American punk bands, the use of drones and digital photography in marine science, social science study design, the history of Apple computers, and probably many others I can’t recall right now.

I hate not knowing things, so when I hear a new word, or a new idea, I immediately Google it on my phone. Later, when I have time, I retrieve that search on my tablet or computer and read a bit more about it. I did this recently with the Gibbard-Satterhwaite Theorem (a mathematical theorem which involves the fairness of voting systems) which was mentioned in a podcast I was listening to.

Last night I was randomly browsing YouTube and came across some videos of extreme engines being started and run. I’ve never seen so much flame and smoke, and heard so much awesome noise. But now I know a bit about big and unusual engine designs!

The videos only ran for 5 or 10 minutes each (I watched 3) so you might say they were quite superficial. A proper TV documentary on big engines would probably have lasted an hour and had far more detail, as well as having a more credible source, but even if a documentary like that exists, would I have seen it? Would I have had an hour free? What would have made me seek out such an odd topic?

The great thing about the internet is not necessarily the depth of its information but just how much there is. I could have watched hundreds of movies on big engines if I had the time. And there are more technical, detailed, mathematical treatments of those subjects if I want them. But the key point is that I would probably know nothing about the subject if the internet didn’t exist.

Here’s a few other topics I have got interested in thanks to YouTube: maths (the numberphile series is excellent), debating religion (I’m a sucker for an atheist experience video, or anything by Christopher Hitchens), darts (who knew the sport of darts could be so dramatic?), snooker (because that’s what happens after darts), Russian jet fighters, Formula 1 engines, classic British comedy (Fawlty Towers, Father Ted, etc).

What would I do if I wasn’t doing that? Watching conventional TV maybe? Now what were my options there: a local “current affairs” program with the intellectual level of an orangutan (with apologies to our great ape cousins), some frivolous reality TV nonsense, a really un-funny American sitcom? Whatever faults the internet has, it sure is a lot better than any of that!

Cultural Superiority

March 9, 2017 Leave a comment

Is it OK to say that some cultures are better than others? Or are they all the same? Many people would say that we should treat all cultures the same and give them all equal respect, but I can’t agree. And even if I did, is that what we are doing?

If different cultures differ in their strengths and weaknesses then it should be OK to say that – at least from certain perspectives, if not overall – some are better than others. And if I think one culture is better then why shouldn’t I be a strong proponent for that culture as long as I do it in a reasonable way?

And if we have to treat all cultures as if they are equal (even though clearly they aren’t) how far should that extend? Should the culture of Nazi Germany (with apologies for invoking Godwin’s Law) be treated as an equal to those which were less violent and authoritarian at the time? Most people – even those who say that all cultures should be treated equally – would say no.

I’m now going to make a case for Western culture being the best. I should probably explain what I mean by this term, especially since it might not match the official definition. I see it as beginning with the ancient Greeks; then onto the Romans; being spread across the world by the British, Spanish, and other empires; and now being maintained primarily by the US. So the dominant culture in countries would be part of it today: USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Spain, etc.

Along with the political path I outlined above there is a clear religious path as well, which of course is Christianity. That religion is becoming less important today in the modern countries it helped to create, but there is no doubt it was an important component in the past.

I fully recognise the faults in Western culture. It is too controlled by corporate capitalism, it tends to use superior military and economic influence to further its own agenda while harming others, and a lot of western art (music, movies, etc) has become trivialised.

But Western culture has a lot going for it too. Most of the great scientific, political, and philosophical achievements came from it. And yes, I fully recognise that Chinese, Islamic, Indian, and other cultures have also made contributions (early astronomy, algebra, etc) but those are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Some people might also say that Western culture has lost its connection with the natural world, that it has lost its spirituality, that it seeks to dominate rather than live with nature. There is a certain amount of truth in these claims, but nowhere near as much as the people making them think, because the truth is that all cultures are guilty of this to varying extents, and it is just the success and technical abilities of Western society which has allowed it to go further.

There are undoubtedly aspects of other societies which are superior to those of Western culture, and which aspects are considered important is partly subjective. So if someone wants to present the idea that another culture is better then that is fine, let’s have a discussion about that. But don’t pretend that the subject should be forbidden as a subject of debate.

In fact it’s worse than that, because it is OK to make claims about “other” or “minority” or “indigenous” cultures being superior but the same can never be said about the dominant culture (which is usually Western). So the debate sort of happens but it’s like there’s only one team debating. The team supporting Western culture must remain silent except when it comes to agreeing with their opposition.

Maybe the whole idea of comparing cultures is a bad one. Because so much of the evaluation of value is subjective, maybe no meaningful conclusion can ever be reached. But I don’t think so.

Recently a new group was set up at a New Zealand university which was formed to celebrate European culture. It had to shut down before it really got started because of threats of violence against its members, claims of racism and white supremacism, and just general condemnation based on the most superficial evidence.

At the same university are many other groups celebrating Maori, Chinese, and Pacific culture, and these are not just OK, they are strongly encouraged. But a European group is somehow different.

If that group had formed and started encouraging racist behaviour against non-Europeans I would say then close it down, just like I would demand that any other group should be shut down if it did the same thing. But it was like the idea cannot even be allowed to exist. That the celebration of the most dominant, progressive, scientifically and technologically advanced culture the world has ever seen just cannot be allowed.

When members of “other” cultures are distanced from their history and principles it usually results in bad societal outcomes. The same happens when members of the dominant culture are similarly repressed.

Look around the world today and it becomes obvious very quickly that people are getting really sick of the politically correct nonsense they are subjected to. They are sick of having to celebrate someone else’s culture while having to be embarrassed about their own. They are sick of cultural debates based on what is considered politically appropriate rather than what is true. They are sick of being part of a culture which has delivered more good to the world than any other but not being able to celebrate that fact.

Like any group, they can only be pushed so far before they react.

The ironic thing is that the more the “PC brigade” try to push their agenda the more people will push back against it. They probably won’t be allowed to do that publicly but the resentment is still there and manifests itself in many ways, such as when voting.

And the end result of that is unlikely to be truly beneficial to anyone. So let’s just give everyone a fair deal to celebrate who they are, and forget about the meaningless labels like racist, Neonazi, and white supremacist. Because that’s not what we have now (except in a few minority cases) but if we continue down this path, that’s what we will get a lot more of.

Do It Yourself

March 3, 2017 Leave a comment

I was going to post this comment as part of an anti-creationist rant but I realised that there was so much to it that I really needed to post it as a separate item. The issue I wanted to tackle was how many believers in mysticism base their beliefs on revealed sources, such as holy books, but the same criticism could be made against “rational” people, like myself, because I also use sources (such as science books, Wikipedia, etc).

So basically what I wanted to do was to show that anyone can discover significant things about the real world by themselves without relying on any information from existing sources, and that they can show anyone how to do the same observation/experiment which would prove their point beyond any reasonable doubt.

I decided to choose the age of the universe as a suitable subject, because it was a controversial subject (there are many young Earth creationists), and it was relatively easy to test. Of course, as I intimated above, it got more complex than I imagined. However, here is my proof – which anyone with a bit of time and a small budget can follow – that the universe, and therefore the Earth, is much older than the 6000 years the young Earth creationists claim.

I could start by trying to establish the age of the oldest things I know of. I could use biology, archaeology, chemistry or physics here, but I know a bit more about astronomy, so let’s use that.

We know the light from stars travels through space at the speed of light. If the stars are far enough away that the light took more than 6000 years to get here then the universe must be more than 6000 years old, so creationism is wrong. I know there are some possible objections to these initial assumptions but let’s leave those aside for now.

First, how fast is the speed of light? Can I figure this out for myself or do I need to take it on trust (some would say faith) from a book? Well it is actually quite easy to figure this out because we can use a highly regular event at a known distance to calculate the time it took for light to reach us. The most obvious choice is timings of Jupiter’s moons.

The moons of Jupiter (there are 4 big ones) take precise times to complete an orbit. I can figure that time out by just watching Jupiter for a few weeks. But we would expect a delay in the times because the light from an event (like a Moon going in front of or behind Jupiter) will take a while to reach us.

Conveniently, the distance from the Earth to Jupiter varies because some times the Earth and Jupiter are on the same side of the Sun, and others the opposite side. So when they are on the same side the distance from the Earth is the radius of Jupiter’s orbit minus the radius of the Earth’s, and when they are on opposite sides it is the radius of Jupiter’s orbit PLUS the radius of the Earth’s. Note that the size of Jupiters orbit doesn’t matter because the difference is just double the size of the Earth’s (in fact it is double the radius, or the diameter).

So now we need to know the size of the Earth’s orbit. How would we do that? There is a technique called parallax which requires no previous assumptions, it is just simple geometry. If you observe the position of an object from two locations the angle to the object will vary.

It’s simple to demonstrate… Hold your finger up in from of your eyes and look at it through one eye and then the other. The apparent position against a distant background wall will change. Move your finger closer and the change will be bigger. If you measure that change you can calculate the distance to your finger with some simple maths.

In astronomy we can do the same thing, except for distant objects the change is small… really small. And we also need two observing locations a large distance apart (the further apart they are, the bigger the change is and therefore the easier it is to measure). Either side of the Earth is OK for close objects, like the Moon (a mere 384000 kilometers away) but for stars (the closest is 42 trillion kilometers away) we need something more. Usually astronomers use the Earth on either side of its orbit (a distance of 300 million kilometers) so the two observations will be 6 months apart.

So getting back to our experiment. You might think we could measure the distance to a star, or a planet like Jupiter, or the Sun using this technique but it’s not quite so simple because the effect is so small. What we do instead is measure the distance to the Moon (which is close) using parallax from two widely separated parts on the Earth. I admit this needs a collaborator on the other side of the Earth, so it involves more than just one individual person, but the principle is the same.

Once we know that it can be used to measure other distances. For example, if we measure the angle between the Moon and Sun when the Earth-Moon-Sun angle is a right angle we can use trigonometry to get the distance to the Sun. It’s not easy because the angle is very close to 90 degrees (the Earth-Sun side of the triangle is much longer than the Earth-Moon side) but it can be done.

So now we know the difference in distance between the Earth and Jupiter in the two situations I mentioned at the start of this post. If we carefully measure the difference in time between the timings of Jupiter’s Moons from Earth when Earth is on either side of its orbit we get a difference of about 16 minutes. So light is taking half of that time to travel from the Sun to the Earth. We know that distance from the previous geometric calculations, so we know the speed of light.

Note that none of this is open to any reasonable criticism. It is simple, makes no assumptions which can fairly be questioned, and anyone can do it without relying on existing knowledge. Note that if you want to derive the basic trig calculations that is fairly easy too, but few people would argue about those.

So the Sun is 8 light minutes away meaning the light we see from the Sun left it 8 minutes ago. We are seeing the Sun literally as it was 8 minutes in the past. This means it must have existed 8 minutes in the past. But who cares? Well this is interesting but looking at more distant objects – those not just light minutes away but light years, thousands of light years, millions of light years away say more about the true age of the Universe.

So we can use this idea in reverse. Above we calculated a distance based on a time difference and the speed of light. Now we will calculate a time based on distance and the speed of light. If a star is 10,000 light years away the light left it 10,000 years ago, so it existed 10,000 years ago, so the universe is at least 10,000 years old.

There is only one direct method to calculate distance and that is parallax. But even from opposite sides of the Earth’s orbit – a baseline of 300 million kilometers – parallax angles are ridiculously small. But with a moderate size telescope (one which many amateurs could afford), and careful observation, they can be measured. The parallax angle of the closest star is about 800 milliarcseconds, or 0.01 degrees. That gives an angle which is the equivalent of the width of a small coin about 5 kilometers away.

Do this observation, then a simple calculation, and the nearest star turns out to be 40 trillion kilometers (4 light years) away. When we see that star we see it as it was 4 years ago. In that time the star could have gone out or been swallowed by a black hole (very unlikely) and we wouldn’t know.

The greatest distance so far detected using parallax is 10,000 light years, but that was with the Hubble Space Telescope, so that is beyond the direct experience of the average person! However note that using this direct, uncontroversial technique, the universe is already at least 10,000 years old, making young Earth creationism impossible.

Another rather obvious consequence of these distance measures is that stars are like our Sun. So if we know how bright stars are we can compare that with how bright they appear to be and get a distance approximation. If a star looks really dim it must be at a great distance. The problem is, of course, that stars vary greatly in brightness and we can’t assume they are all the same brightness as the Sun.

There is another feature of stars which even an amateur can make use of though – that is the spectrum. Examining the spectrum can show what type of star produced the light. The amateur observer can even calibrate his measurements using common chemicals in a lab. The chemicals in the star are the same and give the same signatures (approximately, at least).

So knowing the type of star gives an approximation of the brightness and that can be used to get the distance. The most distant star visible to the naked eye is 16,000 light years away. This would be bright enough to get a spectrum in a telescope, determine the type of star, and estimate the distance. Of course, it would be hit and miss trying to find a distant star to study (because we’re not supposed to use any information already published) but enough persistence would pay off eventually.

There are objects in the sky called globular clusters. These are collections of a few hundred thousand to a few million stars, quite close together. To the naked eye they look like a fuzzy patch but through a small telescope they can be seen to be made of individual stars. A simple calculation based on their apparent brightness shows they are tens of thousands of light years away. A similar technique can be applied to galaxies but these give distances of millions of light years.

In addition, an amateur with a fairly advanced telescope and the latest digital photography equipment – all of which is available at a price many people could afford – could do the investigation of red-shifts originally done by Edwin Hubble over 100 years ago.

A red shift is the shift in the spectrum of an object caused by its movement away from us. As I said above, the spectra of common chemicals can be tested in the lab and compared with the spectrum seen from astronomical objects. As objects get more distant they are found to be moving away more quickly and have higher red shifts. So looking at a red shift gives an approximate measure of distance.

This technique can only be used for really distant objects, like galaxies, so it is a bit more challenging for an amateur, but it will give results of millions to billions of light years, meaning the objects are at least millions or billions of years old.

There are some possible objections to everything I have discussed above. First, maybe the speed of light was much faster in the past meaning that the light could have travelled the vast distances in less time than assumed, meaning the universe could still be just 6000 years old.

Second, the light from the objects could have been created in transit. So a galaxy could have been created 2 million years ago but its light could also be created already travelled 99% of the way to the Earth.

Finally, maybe there is a supernatural explanation that cannot be explained through science or logic, or maybe all of the evidence above is just the malicious work of the devil trying to lead us all astray.

The second and third objections aren’t generally supported, even by most creationists, because they imply that nothing we see can be trusted, and God is not usually thought to be deliberately misleading.

The first one isn’t totally ridiculous though, and there is some serious science suggesting the speed of light might have been faster in the past. But do the calculations and that speed would have to be ridiculously fast – millions of times faster than it is now. If it was changing at that rate then we would see changes over recorded history. So that claim could also be checked by anyone who was prepared to dig into old sources for timings of eclipses, the length of the day, etc.

Astronomy is an interesting science because so much of it is still do-able by amateurs. Follow the steps above and not only will you get a perspective on some of the greatest work done in the past, but you will also make for yourself a truly fundamental discovery about the universe: that it is really old.

It requires no faith in authority, no reference to trusted texts, and no unfounded assumptions. It just involves a few years of dedicated observation and study. I admit I haven’t done all of this myself, but it’s good to know I could if I wanted to.