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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Bait and Switch: A Science Fiction Story

Rod Elliot knew this was going to be like no day he had ever lived before. He asked himself: can it really be that today I'm going to meet my twin brother – the twin brother I've never seen before?

It had been an astonishing surprise. He had received an email with a link to a youtube.com video. When he clicked on the link, he saw a video showing a man named Lou who looked just Rod himself.

In the video Lou told the incredible story that Lou and Rod had been born as twins, but that Lou had been stolen from the hospital by a baby robber who took advantage of lax hospital security. Thirty years later the woman had confessed what happened, Lou said. Ever since then, Lou said, he had been searching to find the twin brother he had never seen. At first Rod refused to believe the story, but then he slowly realized it might be true.

What was also strange were the conditions Lou set for the two of them meeting. Lou said that he could only meet Rod if Rod wrote up a thirty-page story of his life. Lou said that he was involved with a scientist, who wanted to take advantage of the unique opportunity presented by two twins separated at birth. The scientist wanted to compare the life stories of Lou and Rod, to try and figure out how much of a person's interests and life choices are genetically determined.

So Rod wrote up his life story, and asked Lou by email where they could meet. Lou told Rod to come to an office on the 40th floor of an office building. At the appointed time, Rod rode the elevator up to the 40th floor, wondering how much like him Lou would turn out to be. 

The doors of the elevator opened, and Rod looked ahead. There ahead of him was a mirror image of himself.

You must be my twin brother,” said Rod. “It's great to see you!”

Rod, I've been waiting for this for so long,” said Lou. “Come into my office, so we can talk.”

Lou and Rod talked for nearly an hour. Eventually, Lou had a request.

Hey Rod, you know what would be cool?” said Lou. “Why don't you log into your Facebook account, and let me see your friends. Just so we can check whether we have similar types of friends.”

Rod did as Lou requested, and then Rod asked if Lou would do the same.

That won't be necessary,” said Lou coldly. “I think I have everything I need now.”

What do you mean?” asked Rod.

I have everything I need for the identity replacement,” said Lou.

The identity replacement?” said Rod.

Yes, I'm going to take over your life," said Lou. "I'm the new Rod Elliot. You didn't believe that story about me being your twin separated at birth, did you? No, my dear Rod, it's something much different. You see I am not one of your kind. I am a member of an alien race that has come to conquer your planet.”

An alien race?” asked Rod in a skeptical tone.

Yes,” said Lou. “We have the power to reorganize and transfigure the matter that makes up our bodies. We plan to conquer your world through a process of gradual replacement. Our plan is to replace more and more of your kind with our replacements. Then, once we control a sufficient number of levers of power in your society, our ships will arrive in force. We will be able to take over your planet, aided by the replacements we have put in place, who will act as a kind of fifth column, helping to undermine your defenses from within.”

But you couldn't possibly replace me,” said Rod. “People would be able to figure out that something was wrong. You don't speak like me, and you don't know the people I know.”

In this little sesssion here, you have given me all I need to replace you,” said Lou. “I have recorded our hour-long conversation, which will be enough for me to imitate your voice. You have given me a thirty-page biography of yourself, which I will memorize. When you logged into your Facebook account using my computer, your password was captured by a keystroke logger on my machine. So now I can find out all about all of your friends. By investigating their Facebook pages, I will learn all I need to know in order for me to seem knowledgeable about them. So I should be able to pass myself off as Rod Elliot with little difficulty. “

Rod finally started to look as if he believed the story. But then Lou smiled broadly.

Got you, dude!” said Lou. “You didn't believe any of that BS, did you? I was just pulling your leg.”

Sheesh, you almost had me going there,” said Rod, feeling relieved. “That was quite a tale.”

I have some work to do, so why don't we wrap this up,” said Lou. “Let's meet again next week. I'll walk you to the elevator.” 
 
Rod said goodbye, and walked into the elevator. He pressed the button for the lobby floor. But the elevator didn't move.

On the other side of the elevator doors, Lou pressed a special button above the regular Up/Down buttons. The left side of the elevator floor slid away, disappearing. Then the right side of the elevator floor slid away, disappearing. Lou heard a horrible shriek which dwindled away into silence. He didn't hear the crushing thud as Rod's body reached its final destination 40 floors below.

Lou took out a handheld device and pressed a button.

Tell the guys in the basement that another body has plunged into the basement body bin,” said Lou. “Have them take out the house keys and wallet, and bring them up to me on the 40th floor.”

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Stubbornly Denying the Evidence For Cosmic Fitness

Recently I read two books that touched upon the issue of cosmic fine-tuning, a question that I have often written about on this blog. One excellent book is the rather poorly titled book “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith” by Stephen M. Barr, a physics professor at the University of Delaware (which doesn't at all brush away religious thinking as an ancient relic, despite the title). In that book there is an interesting discussion of “anthropic coincidences” that are necessary for our existence. One example given is that of a parameter called v. On pages 126-127 the book makes these interesting comments:

The long technical name of the parameter v is “the vacuum expectation value of the Higgs field.”....The value of v is a great puzzle to particle theorists; in fact, it is one of the central puzzles of physics. What is puzzling is that in reasonably simple theories v seems to want to come out to be, not 1, but a number like 1017, i.e, 100,000,000,000,000,000...As far as the possibility of life emerging in our universe is concerned, it would be a disaster for v to be 100,000,000,000,000,000. It would also be a disaster if it were 100,000,000,000,000, or if it were 100,000,000, or if it were 100,000, or if it were 100. Indeed, it would be a disaster if it were 10, or 5, or even 1.5. It would probably be a disaster if v were even slightly different from the value it happens to have in the real world.

So nature “hit the bullseye,” a very distant bullseye, it would seem. This is only one of many astonishing “coincidences” required for our existence. Barr lists seven other such cases, one of which is even more dramatic: the fine-tuning of the cosmological constant. As Barr puts it on page 130 of his book:

In order for life to be possible, then, it appears that the cosmological constant, whether it is positive or negative, must be extremely close to zero – in fact, it must be zero to at least 120 decimal places. This is one of the most precise fine-tunings in all of physics.

To their credit, modern cosmologists and physicists have been very open and candid about discussing such “coincidences.” I could easily fill up a longish blog post doing nothing but quoting all of the physicists and cosmologists who have remarked on how remarkably fit-for-life or seemingly fine-tuned our universe seems to be. But there is one exception. Physicist Marcelo Gleiser will have none of this thinking. On page 232 of his book A Tear at the Edge of Creation, Gleiser stubbornly says, “There is absolutely no evidence that our Universe is fit for life.”

If I didn't know that some physicists make enormously silly assertions about infinities of parallel universes, and ask you to believe there are an infinite number of copies of yourself, I might call the previous statement by Gleiser the silliest thing I have ever heard from a physicist. It's a statement that would only make sense if you were a robot scanning a biologically lifeless universe.

Glesier provides no real scientific statements or references to back up his weird claim that there "is absolutely no evidence that our Universe is fit for life.” He merely gives a little armchair reasoning that does not hold up to scrutiny. 

First, Gleiser attempts to persuade us that someone reasoning that the universe is fit for life is like someone coming into a library and concluding that all of the books were made for him, or that all of the books were made for English-speaking readers like himself. But this analogy isn't appropriate, and doesn't correspond to the type of reasoning made by those who point out the ways in which the universe is fine-tuned for life.

Let's imagine a scale of claims ranging from the very specific to the very general.
  1. Things are arranged in a way that benefits (or makes possible) me in particular.
  2. Things are arranged in a way that benefits (or makes possible) people who speak my language.
  3. Things are arranged in a way that benefits (or makes possible) humans in general.
  4. Things are arranged in a way that benefits (or makes possible) carbon-based life forms.
  5. Things are arranged in a way that benefits (or makes possible) some type of life, rather than preventing any type of life.
Gleiser is suggesting that those who say that the universe is remarkably fit for life are like people who make the first assertion, or possibly the second assertion. But they are not. Almost all claims of cosmic fitness or cosmic-fine tuning involve claims like the last of these claims, claims that are extremely general and cannot be attacked on a basis of assuming an intention too specific. So Gleiser's library analogy isn't fair, and doesn't back up his claim. It's particularly weak for Gleiser to be using a library analogy to try to back up a claim of cosmic non-fitness for life (as a library consists of manufactured objects that were designed for a specific purpose).

Gleiser then goes on to give this reasoning:

For a clever fish, water is “just right” for it to swim in. Had it been too cold, it would freeze; too hot, it would boil. Surely the water temperature had to be just right for the fish to exist. “I'm very important. My existence cannot be an accident,” the proud fish would conclude. Well, he is not important...The ocean temperature is not being controlled with the purpose of making it possible for life to exist.

This reasoning does nothing to establish Gleiser's strange claim that there “is absolutely no evidence that our Universe is fit for life.” In his fish analogy he is talking about a particular organism that is adapted to a particular local parameter (the water temperature); cold-water fish are adapted to cold water, and warm water fish are adapted to warm water. But none of the main “anthropic coincidences” mentioned in discussions of cosmic fitness involve merely local conveniences, nor do any of them involve things to which the human organism or earthly life has adapted itself to. Instead, they involve things that are prerequisites for any type of life at all – and most of them involve things that are prerequisites for any type of universe with stable solid matter and stable stars. So Gleiser's little fish analogy falls flat. Again, the analogy has no relevance to the typical discussions of physics and cosmic fitness.

Gleiser then gives this reasoning:

Think of the billions, probably trillions, of barren worlds in our galaxy alone. I can't read the message “just right” for life written in so many dead worlds.

This makes no sense at all. Since planets can have different distances from a star, there will inevitably be some planets that are barren because they are too cold or too hot. But the existence of such planets does nothing to discredit a claim of cosmic fitness for life, particularly since some of these “barren” planets (such as Jupiter) help indirectly to allow life to flourish (if Jupiter didn't exist, our planet would get hit by too many comets and asteroids, many of which are diverted by Jupiter's gravity). “Fitness for life” simply means having the characteristics that allow life to exist, not some much more extravagant claim such as “designed in a way that results in 100% of available planets bearing life.”

Finally, Gleiser lamely asks: “If the constants of nature are so fit for life, why is life so difficult to find?” The answer is: it isn't, and it's all around us. As for looking for extraterrestrial life, we've just begun to do that, and we still haven't spent the money needed to make a very serious effort in that regard (as spending on SETI has been “peanuts” compared to what was spent on big physics projects such as the Large Hadron Collider) .

Gleiser's reasoning on this topic is without merit, and I smell a very stubborn denialism in his claim that “there is absolutely no evidence that our Universe is fit for life.” Quite to the contrary, many modern physicists and cosmologists have admitted that there is abundant evidence that the universe is astonishingly fit for life.  Read here for more about this topic.

cosmic jackpot
Only some of the lucky "coincidences" needed for life's existence

Friday, May 15, 2015

Tricks of the Ace UFO Debunkers

People keep seeing UFOs. According to this report, more than 1000 UFOs were seen in 2014 in Canada alone. But just as there are many UFO sightings, there are many web pages and web posts that aim to debunk UFO sightings. In case you might like to write one or read one yourself, I will let you know some of the top tricks of the ace UFO skeptics.

Technique #1: Total denial

The technique of total denial is a mindless technique that is often surprisingly effective. It works like this: no matter how much evidence has accumulated to suggest that some phenomenon is real, you simply declare that no such evidence exists. This technique is often shamelessly used by deniers of ESP. Ignoring thousands of published accounts supporting such a phenomenon, as well as more than 80 years of laboratory experiments, many producing extremely convincing results, a skeptic will just flatly state: there is no evidence whatsoever for ESP. The main advantage of this technique is that it can be effective if used as a sound bite. Rather than taking the time to dispute some mountain of evidence for something, which is unlikely to be very convincing, you can simply claim there is not the slightest bit of such evidence. This type of total denial is not at all fair, honest, or candid, but it often works well.

Technique #2: Under-reporting

This technique is widely used by modern skeptics. It works like this: given a very specific account of some paranormal phenomenon, the skeptic describes that phenomenon in a watered-down way, a way designed to make it as easy as possible to assert that the report is due to some known natural causes.

Here is an example of this technique in action. In the famous Enfield poltergeist case, one of many astonishing incidents was when Daily Mirror photographer Graham Morris reported Lego toy bricks flying around very fast in a room. Here is how Morris reported the incident in a newspaper account dated September 10, 1977 (very soon after the event):

When I went into the living room I saw toy bricks flying through the air. One of them hit me on the head. Nobody seemed to be throwing them. They were coming at the speed of bullets.

In the same case, a constable saw a chair rising up half an inch off the floor and mysteriously moving 3.5 or 4 feet. She checked the chair for wires, did a marble test, and found nothing that could explain the movement of the chair. The account can be found at 2:08 in the video here.

 But when this incident is described by a skeptic trying to debunk it, these compelling details are omitted. The skeptic describes Lego blocks flying about, without mentioning them moving as fast as bullets, and without mentioning the witness saying no one was throwing them. The skeptic mentions the constable seeing the chair moving, but makes no mention of how far it moved, and does not mention that the constable checked that there were no wires attached. Carefully censoring out these compelling details, the skeptic then proceeds to argue that it was all caused by some little girls playing tricks, a theory that makes no sense in light of the details that have been censored out.

Below are some hypothetical examples of under-reporting, as a skeptical debunker might use.

Original account Under-reporting of the account by a skeptic
I saw a transparent ghost who looked exactly like my father,” she said. “It even wore my father's favorite sports T-shirt.” She reported seeing something that she associated with her father.
I had a vision of my mother getting hit by a green car,” she said. “That same day I found she did get killed by a green car.” She thought of her mother on the same day she died, before hearing of her death.
I saw some weird flying saucer hovering over my field,” he said. “I looked at the field, and saw a gigantic crop circle.” He noticed something abnormal in his field, and he concluded that some UFO had something to do with it.

Technique #3: The smorgasbord

This is a kind of “everything but the kitchen sink” technique used by skeptics when they don't have a good explanation for something. The smorgasbord technique consists of listing a wide variety of possible explanations, in hopes that quantity will make up for a lack of quality. For example, some one trying to explain a ghost sighting may say that it is caused by “mist, a hallucination, fraud, mold spores, drug use, hysteria, memory confabulation, vision problems, or an optical illusion.” None of these actually work very well to explain a ghost sighting, but when you make a long list a list of possible explanations, it often sounds impressive.

Technique #4: Attack the witnesses, through accusations or insinuations

This is one of the favorite techniques of modern skeptics, one that they often ruthlessly apply. The idea is to disqualify or discredit the witness to some paranormal phenomenon. One crude application of the technique is to accuse a witness of being a fraud or someone who is hallucinating. Or, being a little more subtle, the skeptic may try to insinuate that the witness is some zealot or enthusiast whose account cannot be trusted because it reflects some emotional state of the witness. If all fails, the skeptic tries to insinuate that the witness is crooked, confused, crazed or “carried away” by some emotion.

Now let's look at an example of how these techniques might be used. Below is a hypothetical account of a UFO sighting.



Now here is a typical way in which a modern skeptic may try to debunk such a report.

UFO debunking

I can identify some of the sleazy tricks used in the debunking above. One trick is under-reporting (technique number 2 discussed above). The original report discussed compelling details such as a giant flying disk, as well a sighting by more than 40 witnesses. But these compelling details are censored from the skeptic's account of the incident. A sighting of a giant disk seen by 40 witnesses is under-reported, described as merely “seeing something in the sky he couldn't explain,” and described as if it was seen by only two witnesses. 
 
Another trick used is the smorgasbord technique (technique #3 discussed above). Lacking any good explanation for the reported sighting, the skeptic throws out a wide assortment of possible explanations, without explaining how any one of them can plausibly explain the sighting in question.

Still another trick used is the “attack the witnesses” technique (technique #4 discussed above). Apparently lacking any good basis for discrediting Ellerton as a witness, the writer makes a crude attempt to suggest that Ellerton's report cannot be trusted because he is religious. Think that skeptics rarely engage in attacks this crude? Try reading wikipedia.com, where this is done frequently.

The final trick used is the “total denial” technique, in which the writer brushes away six decades of inexplicable UFO reports by asserting that there is “no evidence whatsoever” that UFOs exist.

This UFO report and its skeptical rebuttal are hypothetical, but the argumentative techniques described here are really used, and used abundantly. Beware of them.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Why You May Not Watch More Than 2% of a Manned Mars Mission

A few days ago this blog had a post called Mars Peril, a science fiction story that dramatized the danger of cosmic rays in a manned mission to Mars. But there may be an even greater danger to a Mars mission: the danger that it simply won't be very viable entertainment.

Some purists will immediately ask: what difference does it make how entertaining a Mars mission is? But entertainment has always been a very large part of the purpose of manned space exploration, although not a very commonly acknowledged purpose. Realistically, one of the top three reasons we do space exploration is because of its entertainment value. Other top reasons include national prestige and satisfying the funding desires of an entrenched bureaucracy, so that its employees don't have to get other jobs. Science is basically a distant fourth in manned space exploration.

It seems that space travel had the highest entertainment “bang for the buck” in the early days of the Mercury program. When the first astronauts were sent into space, space travel was pretty much “the greatest show on Earth.” Part of the reason was that it didn't have much competition. There were no personal computers or internet, and the television shows of the early 1960's were something of a vast wasteland. So when the first men were launched into space in the earlier 1960's, it seemed every American was gripped by the spectacle. It was the perfect recipe for mass entertainment: extreme danger (no one knew whether the first manned rockets would blow up on the launching pad) ; short missions lasting less than a day (too short a time for watchers to get bored); and opportunities for photos that no one had ever seen before.

There was also great excitement during Apollo 11, the first mission in which astronauts walked on the moon. But then a strange thing happened. People began to get very bored with the Apollo missions. With the exception of Apollo 13 (which never landed on the moon, facing an explosion that nearly killed its astronauts), the rest of the moon missions seemed rather boring to the average American. The TV ratings plummeted. Very soon Americans were screaming at their TV screens: dammit, not another moonwalker on my TV, I wanted to match my soap operas and quiz shows today.

What can we expect regarding the entertainment value of a Mars mission? Based on what happened during the Apollo missions, and other factors I will explain, I think that the average person may not watch television coverage of a manned Mars mission for more than about 2% of the days that it operates.

Surely the TV ratings will be very high when the astronauts first blast off into space. But then the astronauts will go on a long, dull trip to Mars that may take between 3 months and 9 months. Almost no one will tune in to see the astronauts during this time, just as almost no one watches the astronauts in the International Space Station.

The TV ratings will rise again when the astronauts go into orbit around Mars, and land on the planet. The first exploration of the Mars surface will no doubt be watched by hundreds of millions. But I predict that the TV ratings will then plunge. People will quickly grow bored by watching astronauts walk around on the surface of Mars, just as quickly as they grew bored by the sight of astronauts walking around on the surface of the moon. One of the reasons is quite obvious: the surface of Mars simply isn't very interesting, as it lacks any visible form of life.

As for the long return mission to Earth, that will be an even worse TV ratings disaster than the trip from Earth to Mars. There will be a spike in the TV ratings when the astronauts finally return to Earth. So let us imagine a 6-month trip to Mars, with two months of exploration, and a 6-month return. That would be 425 days. The average American would probably only pay close attention on five of these days: when the astronauts leave Earth, when they first enter into orbit around Mars, when they land on Mars, when they first walk around on the surface, and when they return to Earth. Even if you allow three additional days for watching astronauts walk around on the surface, it would only amount to 8 watching days out of 425, or only 2% of the total mission.


Part of the problem will be competition. Ask yourself: why do you not go to the NASA web site, and watch live web cams of the astronauts in the International Space Station? Part of the reason is: when you have free time, there are 500 other things you can do, some of which are a lot more entertaining. You have a choice between watching hundreds of cable TV channels, or viewing thousands of fascinating web sites. Or you can play any of thousands of exciting interactive games on your gaming console. It's so much different from the days of the first manned space missions. Back then the average person only got three TV channels, and the three TV networks took over the airwaves during the space missions. So during a space mission in the early 1960's, your choices for entertainment were something like (1) read a book; (2) play a board game; (3) listen to a phonograph record; or (4) watch the space mission on TV. But now if you follow a space mission on TV or on the web, you are choosing only one of thousands of exciting entertainment choices. Given this competition, the entertainment value of a manned space mission dwindles.

By the time a manned space mission to Mars takes off, the entertainment competition will be even greater. Just to give you a taste of coming attractions, according to this New Yorker story, game developers are working on a title called No Man's Sky which will supposedly let virtual travelers “explore eighteen quintillion full-featured planets.” By the time a manned Mars mission launches, there will probably be a first-class virtual reality system used by millions of people. Even 99% of space enthusiasts may prefer to “walk around” virtual life-bearing planets using virtual reality headsets, rather than just watching astronauts walk around a planet with no visible signs of life.

It may be argued that a certain percentage will always prefer to observe reality rather than virtual reality. But even in the “real science” department, a manned mission to Mars will face stiff competition. By the time such a mission launches, the James Webb Telescope will be in business, offering breathtaking new images of deep space every day. There will also be countless other exciting scientific breakthroughs, if anything remotely close to the “singularity” occurs. Such breakthroughs may include finding life on planets revolving around other stars. We can imagine a science enthusiast checking the science news while astronauts are exploring Mars. Such a person might give merely a glance to the Mars results, and spend 95% of his science reading time looking at scientific discoveries far more interesting than the exploration of a planet with no visible life.

Some might argue that people will be fascinated by the exploration elements of a Mars mission, by the “finding what's over the next hill” element of it. But the exploration of a particular area of Mars is unlikely to have many visual surprises. The surface of Mars has already been thoroughly radar-mapped and photo-mapped. You can download “terrain files” that allow you to virtually fly over any part of the surface of Mars. So we pretty much know what astronauts are going to find when they explore some particular area. We can imagine people saying they don't even want to watch the live TV coverage of a Mars mission because they have already “been there, done that” using their virtual reality system.

In short, a manned Mars mission may be a “bust” in terms of entertainment value. So we must probably look for some other rationale that might justify such a mission. Future unmanned exploration might provide such a rationale, if some exciting new discovery were to be found on the Mars surface. But if we don't find anything terribly interesting in the next ten or 15 years, then the overall human reaction to a manned Mars mission may be something like a giant yawn. Such a problem might be reduced if some innovative approach was taken to spice up a Mars mission, to increase the human interest element. There's got to be a more interesting agenda for a Mars mission than just “look around and pick up rocks.”