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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Loeb's Strange SETI Scheme to Search Sea for Spooky Specks

Claims about meteor CNEOS 2014-01-08 are an example of the press repeating unverified and rather far-fetched claims in a matter-of-fact way that are not justified by any observations.  The claim made is that meteor CNEOS 2014-01-08 came from interstellar space and plunged into the ocean off the coast of Papua New Guinea in 2014.  That is a very extraordinary claim, not made about any other meteor that has struck our planet. Virtually all meteors are believed to simply originate from other places in the solar system, or from the Oort Cloud believed to exist on the outer fringes of our solar system. 

The first two people to make such a claim were the astronomers Abraham Loeb and Amir Siraj, who made the claim in a 2022 preprint paper entitled "The 2019 Discovery of a Meteor of Interstellar Origin." When I search for the topic of CNEOS 2014-01-08 on the Cornell physics paper server, I find that 8 out of 9 papers mentioning it were written by Abraham Loeb and Amir Siraj. The "2019 Discovery of a Meteor of Interstellar Origin" was just another example of scientists claiming something as fact which had not yet been shown to be even likely.

The data from a CNEOS database indicated the CNEOS 2014-01-08 meteor had a speed of about 44 kilometers per second before exploding or burning up high above the Pacific Ocean. Supposedly the trajectory of the object suggested it might have traveled in space as fast as 60 kilometers per second. Such speeds are not all that unusual. Meteors commonly strike the Earth with similar velocities. A web site states, "Meteoroids enter Earth’s atmosphere at speeds typically of 12-40 km/s relative to the Earth." 

A Scientific American story in 2019 ("Did a Meteor from Another Star Strike Earth in 2014?") strikes a good critical tone. The story has a subtitle of "Questionable data cloud the potential discovery of the first known interstellar fireball." We read this:

"Weiss says, the claim that this particular space rock was interstellar is problematic. 'The meteor catalog that [Loeb and Siraj] used does not report uncertainties on the incoming velocity,' he notes. 'These uncertainties need to be quantified before this meteor can be accepted as interstellar.'  That is also the view of Paul Chodas, the CNEOS catalog’s manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 'We at CNEOS simply post the fireball data that is reported to us; we have no information on the uncertainties,' he says... Loeb and Siraj’s 'quite extraordinary' and “highly speculative” claim, he says, 'is based on just a few numbers that are likely highly uncertain.' ”

Later in the Scientific American article we read a NASA official (Lindley Johnson) saying that the CNEOS database has estimates of speed and directionality as kind of an afterthought, in hopes that some people might find such estimates helpful in searching for meteorites (the physical remains of a meteor).  He says that using those estimates to infer where a meteor came from was "already stretching the credence in the data beyond anything really scientifically valid."  We read the official complaining like this:

"Johnson says, 'Now [Loeb and Siraj] want to speculate based on such tenuous data that some could be interstellar objects? That really stretches the credibility past the breaking point for me.' ”

But the science news press is now doing what they do all the time: speaking as if tenuous speculations are facts. Recently we see quite a few stories matter-of-factly referring to CNEOS 2014-01-08 as an object of interstellar origin, despite the lack of any convincing evidence for such a claim. In a paper in August 2022 Abraham Loeb claims that "the U.S. Department of Defense has since verified that 'the velocity estimate reported to NASA is sufficiently accurate to indicate an interstellar trajectory,' making the object the first detected interstellar object and the first detected interstellar meteor."  No, so sketchy and imprecise a statement does not at all make CNEOS 2014-01-08 "the first detected interstellar meteor." 

The statement quoted is from a document shown here. The document is a memo written by John E. Shaw who merely states that "Dr. Mozer confirmed that the velocity estimate reported to NASA is sufficiently accurate to indicate an interstellar trajectory." Such a statement is not a government confirmation that CNEOS 2014-01-08 came from another solar system. We still don't know how high the estimate uncertainties are here. We are merely reading a Shaw reporting a vaguely worded opinion of a Mozer, without getting any numerical specifics. When Person X gives a sentence vaguely summarizing the opinion of Person Y that may have been nagged out of him by Person Z and may have involved some secret satellite, without any specific numbers being mentioned, that isn't science. Science is well-replicated precise results involving publicly available data. 

In the paper mentioned above Loeb is proposing a very expensive mission to retrieve what he thinks will be no more than .1 millimeter-sized specks of this meteor. Specks that size can only be seen by someone squinting. We read this:

"Our plan is to mobilize a ship with a magnetic sled deployed using a long line winch. We will be operating approximately ∼ 300 km north of Manus Island. The team will consist of seven sled operators, plus the scientific team. The goal of the expedition is to recover ∼ 0.1 mm size fragments from the meteorite that exploded over the Bismarck sea in 2014. The recovered fragments will be carefully analyzed and will be shared with the global scientific community. We will tow a sled mounted with magnets, cameras and lights on the ocean floor inside of a 10 km ×10 km search box."

Why is Loeb proposing so expensive a mission to look for tiny specks in the sea? He seems to have got the idea that maybe CNEOS 2014-01-08 was an extraterrestrial spaceship that burned up in the atmosphere. Such an idea is ludicrous. A civilization capable of  launching missions between solar systems would have god-like technological powers. The idea that such a mission would come all the way from some other solar system, reach our planet, and then explode in our atmosphere is a very absurd idea. It's much more far-fetched than thinking that the US would launch a Mars lander that exploded in the atmosphere of Mars before it even landed on Mars. 

In a universe that is about 13 billion years old, there is no reason we can think of why intelligent life would appear in two different solar systems at roughly the same time in the same ten-parsec part of a galaxy. People who theorize about extraterrestrial civilizations frequently tell us that if some extraterrestrial civilization existed, it would probably be very many thousands or millions of years more advanced than our civilization. It is hardly credible to believe that so advanced a civilization would launch interstellar missions that would explode in the atmosphere of a planet after the mission arrived after a very long  interstellar voyage.  Exploding in the atmosphere is the behavior of natural meteors, not interstellar spaceships. 

If such a mission as proposed by Loeb were to find such just-barely-visible sea specks, there would be no way to even identify that they were fragments of the CNEOS 2014-01-08 meteor, and no way to verify that this meteor came from another solar system.

I can think of hundreds of scientific efforts that could spend the cost of such a mission in ways that would have a much higher chance of discovering something important. The most "bang for the buck" way that scientists can spend money to shed light on the mysterious is to simply have someone write up and publish a long honest review of the tons of important observations that most physical scientists have senselessly ignored. The second most "bang for the buck" way for scientists to spend money is by doing simple easy-to-run experiments of a type our materialist scientists refuse to perform, because they are afraid of discovering things they don't want to learn about. Loeb's scheme is one of the least "bang for the buck" proposals I have ever heard of. Very few or no one will ever be persuaded that barely visible specks dredged from the sea are evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. 

Pitching this project in an email quoted here, Loeb says that the sea speck search project "could confirm the interstellar origin of this meteor independent of its speed based on its composition being different from solar system objects."  That makes it sound like he isn't actually sure the object is of interstellar origin, and needs to try to confirm such a suspicion.  But it makes no sense at all to think that you could determine the interstellar origin of a meteor by dredging up highly scattered specks of material only a tenth of a millimeter in size. There would be no way to tell which of those specks came from the meteor.  And since no one has ever analyzed the composition of an interstellar meteor or interstellar spaceship, there would be no way to reliably judge that some specks had the characteristic composition of an interstellar meteor or interstellar spaceship. Loeb's sea speck search scheme makes no sense at all.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Cosmologists Hauling Heavy Speculative Baggage Sure Are Not Reductionists

The "Big Think" site at www.bigthink.com is a materialist propaganda site. The Big Think site likes to have philosophical essays such as a recent essay arguing that life on Earth has no purpose (one that absurdly offers the extinction of dinosaurs as its main evidence). The site is at least good for a few laughs, such as when we come to a page claiming in big bold letters that its articles (often very poorly reasoned essays) are written by "the world's greatest thinkers." Sometimes the site has essays that are unintentionally hilarious. An example is a recent essay by cosmologist Ethan Siegel, one entitled "Yes, the Universe really is 100% reductionist in nature."

Your first chuckle should come after considering that title. Reductionism is a tendency in philosophy or science to try to explain complex things only by appealing to simpler things. A philosopher or scientist can be a reductionist, but a universe cannot be. Claiming that the universe is reductionist is as laughable an error as claiming that the universe is atheist, theistic or agnostic.

Your second chuckle should come after reading Siegel's bad definition of reductionism. He states, "This simple idea — that all phenomena in the Universe are fundamentally physical phenomena — is known as reductionism." That is not a correct definition of reductionism. The claim that all phenomena in the Universe are fundamentally physical phenomena would be one way of definining materialism, a particular philosophical doctrine. Reductionism is not a philosophical doctrine, but merely a kind of strategy or tendency when dealing with scientific or philosophical questions: the tendency to try to explain complex realities by appealing to known simpler realities. 

But your biggest chuckle in reading the essay should come from reading Ethan Siegel try to sound like he supports reductionism. For many years Siegel and many other cosmologists have been operating in a way that is the exact opposite of reductionism. 

Reductionism involves trying to explain some complex reality by appealing only to a much simpler reality or much simpler realities. An example of reductionism is when neuroscientists try to explain human mental phenomena by saying they are caused only by chemical activity in the brain. You can write a kind of generic schema for reductionism (using algebraic placeholders) by saying that reductionism involves claiming that complex realilty X can be explained by a much simpler known reality Y (or maybe much simpler known realities Y and Z, or maybe much simpler known realities Y1, Y2, Z1 and Z2). 

What has gone on in cosmology and theoretical physics during Siegel's career is the opposite of reductionism. Some of the main events were these:

(1) After pondering a nice simple Big Bang as the origin of the universe, cosmologists were very bothered that this mysterious event seemed to require extraordinarily precise fine-tuning at the very beginning, with the expansion rate being fine-tuned to one part in ten to the fiftieth power.  Cosmologists responded by creating a theory called "cosmic inflation" that postulated an exponential expansion in the universe's first instant. Before long, they found that the theory didn't work in its simple initial form. Cosmologists then began advocating multiverse versions of the cosmic inflation theory, which postulated innumerable unobservable universes, or innumerable unobservable events like the Big Bang. This was all the opposite of reductionism. Reductionism is when you try to explain some complex reality by saying it is explained by known simpler realities. When you try to explain some complex reality by speculating that there exists some other vastly more complicated unobserved reality, that is the opposite of reductionism. 

(2) Finding that galaxies do not seem to rotate at the observed rates given only the amount of matter observed, cosmologists invented a theory of dark matter, speculating that dark matter makes up most of the matter in the universe. The dark matter theory required all kinds of very specific speculations about the distribution of dark matter, such as the claim that galaxies are surrounded by halos of invisible dark matter. Speculating about unproven unobserved realities is not reductionism, but the opposite of reductionism. Reductionism is when you try to explain a complex reality by appealing to observed  simpler realities. 

(3) Finding that the universe does not seem to expand at the rate predicted by theory, cosmologists invented a theory of dark energy, speculating that dark energy makes up most of the mass-energy in the universe. Just as dark matter has never been observed, dark energy has never been observed. Speculating about unproven unobserved realities is not reductionism, but the opposite of reductionism. Reductionism is when you try to explain a complex reality by appealing to observed  simpler realities. 

Throughout his career, Ethan Siegel has been an enthusiastic pitchman for the theory of cosmic inflation, the theory of dark matter and the theory of dark energy. Nowhere on the Internet can you find a more dogmatic and partisan apostle of these speculative theories, all of which involve the opposite of reductionism. So now Ethan Siegel is trying to make it sound like he favors reductionism? That's hilarious. 

It is also very funny when Siegel evokes this principle: "The fact that 'There exists this phenomenon that lies beyond my ability to make robust predictions about' is never to be construed as evidence in favor of 'This phenomenon requires additional laws, rules, substances, or interactions beyond what’s presently known.' ” For many years Siegel has been a dogmatic pitchman for the now-floundering theory of dark matter, which very much involved postulating a never-observed substance beyond what's presently known.

Siegel has very often spoke as if dark matter is fact, and has repeatedly made misstatements claiming that the theory of dark matter is well-established. It's becoming increasingly clear that he has misspoke on this topic. For example:

(1) A recent news story entitled "No trace of dark matter halos" quotes a scientist saying that "the number of publications showing incompatibilities between observations and the dark matter paradigm just keeps increasing every year."

(2) There recently appeared another science article with a headline of "Dark Matter Doesn't Exist."  That article (by an astrophysics professor) says there are multiple observations showing that dark matter cannot exist. The article says, "We need to scientifically understand why the dark-matter based model, being the most falsified physical theory in the history of humankind, continues to be religiously believed to be true by the vast majority of the modern, highly-educated scientists." This suggests all those dark matter stories we have read for so many years were just ivory tower tall tales. 

Scientist specialists such as cosmologists and cognitive neuroscientists are members of  belief communities involving very strong groupthink tendencies, in which "follow the herd" is the supreme rule. In such communities (resembling little sects) the members follow speech customs when they keep parroting dubious unproven claims, regardless of how much evidence has accumulated against such claims.  

After describing a doctrine of materialism, incorrectly referring to that as "reductionism," Siegel ignorantly states this: "There is no evidence for the existence of any phenomena that falls outside of what reductionism is capable of explaining." There is a mountain of evidence for very many phenomena that fall outside of what reductionism is capable of explaining, much of it undisputed biology and psychology such as ordinary mental capabilities, and much of it in experiments and human observational reports that materialists such as Siegel refuse to study.  A person who makes a statement as dead wrong as the one I just quoted will tend to be either a very big liar or a non-scholar of human mental phenomena.  Since Siegel has never shown the slightest sign of being a scholar of human mental phenomena in any of the many essays of his I have read, I will assume he is a non-scholar of human mental phenomena. 

But when Siegel ignores his own frequent explanatory appeals to never-observed dark matter (involving no discovered particle) to explain galaxy behavior, and also ignores his own frequent explanatory appeals to a never-observed dark energy (involving no discovered particle), and also ignores his own frequent explanatory appeals to a never-observed "inflaton field" force, and states that "the combination of the known particles that make up the Universe and the four fundamental forces through which they interact has been sufficient to explain, from atomic to stellar scales and beyond, everything we’ve ever encountered in this Universe," we have a statement that is both dead wrong and extremely inconsistent with its author's frequent statements. After reading so huge a misstatement, refuted by endless facts and observations I list in the post here and the dozens of posts here, you may stop laughing and simply cringe. 

The runaway boastful hubris of such claims matches the runaway boastful hubris of the large-type boldface claim on the Big Think site that its authors are "the world's greatest thinkers." An exponential expansion in the first instant of the universe is doubtful, but it sometimes sounds like there's been an exponential expansion of the egos and boasts of some scientists.   Meanwhile with each passing year humans discover and observe more and more huge mysteries and spooky anomalies and glaring defects of prevailing explanations and not-yet-materially-explained fine-tuned biological complexity and hierarchical organization that all make such boasts sound ever more hollow. 

dumb professor

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The "Ministry of Materialism" Keeps Giving Us Untrue News About the Origin of Life

A substantial case can be made that a particular belief system marketed as "science" is itself a religion or a religious position or a faith-based ideology. The particular belief system I refer to is what we may call Darwinist materialism. Below is one way to describe the tenets of this creed:
  1. "Earthly biology can be explained entirely by naturalistic explanations such as natural selection and random mutations."
  2. "The human mind can be explained entirely by brain activity."
  3. "Charles Darwin provided some brilliant insight that eliminated the need to postulate any design or purpose in nature."
  4. "Life appeared on our planet purely because of lucky random combinations of chemicals."
  5. "Everything is pretty-well explained by science professors who assume there is just matter and energy; so there's no need to believe in anything like souls, spirits, or the paranormal."
Although constantly marketed and branded simply as “science,” Darwinist materialism seems to involve a very large element of faith. In particular, it has never been proven that any one complex visible organism or any of its organs or appendages or cell types has ever appeared mainly because of natural selection, or natural selection and random mutations. We can imagine no mathematically credible scenario under which natural selection could invent the very many types of fine-tuned protein molecules upon which life depends, each of which typically consists of hundreds of parts that must be well-arranged in a very specific way for the protein molecule to be functional.  In the scientific paper here, a Harvard scientist says, "A wide variety of protein structures exist in nature, however the evolutionary origins of this panoply of proteins remain unknown."

The average protein molecule has a length of about 375 amino acids, and getting an arrangement of such amino acids by chance to produce the functionality of the protein molecule requires an arrangement with a chance likelihood of less than about 1 in 10 to the two-hundredth power (even if you assume only about half of the amino acid sequence has to match the actual sequence of amino acids in the protein for a functional protein molecule to exist). It would seem such molecules cannot appear through any gradually rewarded "each step yields a benefit" kind of process, because half-versions or quarter-versions of such molecules are useless. Yet Darwinist materialism wishes us to accept natural selection as an explanation for most or almost all the wonders of biology. Since there seems to be a very large element of faith here, it would seem that we should at least be calling Darwinist materialism a kind of faith-based ideology.

But would it be correct to go even farther, and brand Darwinist materialism as a kind of religion? A supporter of such a belief system would immediately dismiss such an idea as an absurdity. He would vigorously argue: religion is some belief in God, and Darwinist materialism does not entail that.

But such a definition of “religion” is too narrow. Let's consider Eastern religions. These include Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. There are certainly major forms of each of these religions that do not require any belief in a deity. One can be either an atheist or a theist, and still follow either Taoism, Confucianism, or Buddhism. In a religion such as Buddhism, there are some sects that pray to some entity that might be called a deity or the equivalent of a deity, but there are other sects that do not do that. Consider also a modern American religion such as Scientology. Again we have a religion which does not have any belief in a deity at the core of its teachings. As a Scientologist, you can be either an atheist or a theist.

It seems, therefore, that defining religion as some belief in a deity or some system of worship is too narrow a definition of the word “religion.” Scholars have offered many conflicting definitions of “religion,” some of which are too narrow to cover some of the known religions such as Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. We need a definition that seems to cover almost all cases of religious belief.  One such definition was given by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. He defined a religion as " a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic." 

Here is another rather similar definition: we can define a religion as  a set of beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality and life, or a recommended way of living, typically stemming from the teachings of an authority, along with norms, ethics, rituals, roles or social organizations that may arise from such beliefs. This definition covers Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Scientology, religions which stem from authority figures such as Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, the writers of the Bible, Lao-Tzu, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, and L. Ron Hubbard. Interestingly, using the same definition of religion, it seems we should also classify Darwinist materialism as a religion. It is a fundamental way of looking at the nature of life, stemming from the teachings of an authority figure (Charles Darwin).

The creed of Darwinist materialism is not propagated by any organization calling itself a church. But it is propagated by a large social infrastructure dedicated to preaching the tenets of Darwinist materialism. Such an infrastructure consists of people such as professors, PhD's, credulous science journalists, editors, web site owners, book publishers, university officials and high school biology teachers. What term would be appropriate to describe such as infrastructure?

It would not be unfair to refer to such an infrastructure as the Ministry of Materialism.  Two of several definitions that the Merriam-Webster dictionary gives us for "ministry" are below:
  • the body of ministers of religion : CLERGY
  • a person or thing through which something is accomplished AGENCYINSTRUMENTALITY
Given that the agents professing the stealth religion of Darwinist materialism very much act like clergy by dogmatically professing unproven belief tenets, it seems fair enough to refer to such agents as part of a Ministry of Materialism. The diagram below gives a crude sketch of such a power structure, which is far more complicated than the diagram suggests.  Key players in the power structure include the so-called skeptics mentioned at the bottom right, who do their best to suppress the reporting and studying of thousands of observations that conflict with the materialist worldview, while gaslighting, disparaging and defaming those who report or mention such observations. In psychology analysis of groupthink conformity, such agents are called "mindguards." 

materialism power structure

In the past century one of the most notorious tendencies of such a Ministry of Materialism has been to pass off untrue news about the scientifically groundless idea of abiogenesis, news stories falsely suggesting that scientific activity is doing something to substantiate this scientifically unfounded claim. Abiogenesis is the idea that life can arise from non-life. Everything we know about the complexity and amount of organization in living things argues against this idea. Even the simplest living thing is a cell that requires hundred of different types of protein molecules to exist and reproduce. Each of those types of protein molecules is a separate complex invention as unlikely to arise by chance as a well-written 100-word paragraph from a random arrangement of shells and pebbles and seaweed at a seashore.

There are no experiments supporting the idea of abiogenesis. No one has ever produced a living thing from any experiment realistically simulating lifeless early Earth conditions. No one has ever produced a functional protein molecule (one of the building blocks of one-celled life) from any experiment realistically simulating early Earth conditions. No one has ever even produced one of the building blocks of the building blocks of one-celled life (an amino acid) from any experiment realistically simulating early Earth conditions. The Miller-Urey experiment which produced some amino acids was not a realistic simulation of early Earth conditions, for reasons discussed in my post here.

The latest bit of untrue news in the long, long series of very misleading news stories about the origin of life coming from the Ministry of Materialism is a story that had the headline "New 'Origin of Life' Chemical Reactions Discovered" on the Neuroscience News site (a frequent purveyor of untrue headlines about brain research), and had the headline "Scientists discover new 'origins of life' chemical reactions" on the site phys.org, and had the same headline on the SciTechDaily.com site. No, scientists did not discover any chemical reactions producing life from non-life. Scientists also did not-discover any chemical reactions producing a protein molecule, one of the building blocks of one-celled life. 

Did scientists at least run some experiment that produced a mere amino acid (one of the building blocks of the building blocks of one-celled life) in any experiment simulating early Earth conditions? No, not even that was done. The scientific paper makes no such claim. The abstract of the paper insinuates that some amino acids may have been produced, but makes no claim at all to have produced any amino acids through any experiment simulating early Earth conditions. 

It's almost always the same when scientists studying life's origin insinuate that they've produced some chemical without claiming to have simulated early Earth conditions. Almost invariably upon reading the paper, you will find that the chemical was produced in some modern lab, using a variety of modern scientific equipment such as glass beakers, test tubes and fancy electronic equipment, and using a variety of purposeful interventions by chemists trying to produce a particular result.  Such work does nothing to make it more likely that life would have naturally arisen from non-life on the early Earth.

The source of the news stories mentioned above was a Scripps Research press release that was carelessly parroted word-for-word on July 29 by various news sites. In the original press release  we had this untrue statement: "Now, scientists at Scripps Research have discovered a new set of chemical reactions that use cyanide, ammonia and carbon dioxide—all thought to be common on the early earth—to generate amino acids and nucleic acids, the building blocks of proteins and DNA."  The scientific paper ("Prebiotic synthesis of α-amino acids and orotate from α-ketoacids potentiates transition to extant metabolic pathways") did not actually claim to have produced a nucleic acid, and does not mention any nucleic acids. And rather than nucleic acids being building blocks of DNA, DNA is instead a type of nucleic acid.  

If a nucleic acid (an RNA or DNA molecule) was produced by some chemists trying to simulate the origin of life in conditions like the early Earth, it would be the scientific achievement of the decade, and we cannot imagine that scientists making so monumental a discovery would fail to mention  it in both the abstract and the title of their paper. Obviously no such nucleic acid was produced by the research described in the above paper. 

The original version of the press release has given us an inaccurate statement sounding as if the writer did not even understand the difference between a nucleotide and a nucleic acid.  But we should not be surprised. University and institutional press releases on scientific topics are routinely written by press office copywriters with little understanding of the very complex topics being discussed. In such press offices there is often an "it's fine just as long you made it sound like a breakthrough" attitude. Very many scientists condone outrageous press-release misstatements about their research in a "wink and a nod" kind of way, aware that such inaccurate hype will help achieve the goal that to them is paramount: the goal of increasing paper citations.  

dishonest press release

The news stories that arose about July 29, 2022 from the Scripps Research press release were more "origins of life" untrue  news. No "origin of life" chemical reactions were discovered or produced. No nucleic acids were produced. Nothing has been done to realistically simulate the early Earth. Nothing has been done to substantiate claims of abiogenesis.  This is just the latest in 70+ years of untrue news about origin of life research which we have got from the Ministry of Materialism. The kind of "assistant priests" of that ministry (including workers at various "science news" sites) pass on word-for-word whatever nonsensical press releases promote the cherished tenets of the professor priesthood, no matter how self-contradictory or groundless or bogus-sounding the claims are.  

On the day I read the stories above (July 29, 2022), I sent an email to the press office at Scripps Research, suggesting that they had incorrectly claimed in their press release that nucleic acids were produced, making a claim not matching any claim in the scientific  paper the press release discussed. Below is the full text of my email:

"I  am puzzled by a claim in your recent press release below.


The press release makes an untrue claim that 'scientists at Scripps Research have discovered a new set of chemical reactions that use cyanide, ammonia and carbon dioxide—all thought to be common on the early earth—to generate amino acids and nucleic acids, the building blocks of proteins and DNA.'

But the abstract of the paper makes no actual claim to have produced nucleic acids. And nucleic acids are not building blocks of DNA. DNA and RNA are types of nucleic acids.

Later, your press release above states that in the 'process of studying their chemical soup, Krishnamurthy’s group discovered that a byproduct of the same reaction is orotate, a precursor to nucleotides that make up DNA and RNA.' Nucleotides are mere building blocks of DNA and RNA. If a mere precursor to such building blocks was discovered, there would be a vast difference between that and producing a nucleic acid.  Claiming that you produced a nucleic acid when you merely produced orotate would be like claiming you wrote a textbook when you merely planted a tree (a precursor to paper, one of the building blocks of textbooks).  

It would seem that your press release is making a sensational-sounding but very much untrue claim that nucleic acids were produced."
Now, I must give a little salute to the good folks at Scripps Research. They did not at all ignore my email. On Tuesday August 2, 2022 I received an email back from the press office of Scripps Research stating exactly this:

"Dear Mr. Mahin,


Thanks very much for bringing this to our attention. We have corrected it in the press release (subtitle and first paragraph).




Scripps Communications Office."

Now, when I look at the press release on the web site of Scripps Research, I see a change. The press release originally stated the following:

inaccurate press release

Now the press release has a correction. The erroneous reference to "nucleic acids" has been replaced with a reference to "orotic acid." So now the press release says, "Now, scientists at Scripps Research have discovered a new set of chemical reactions that use cyanide, ammonia and carbon dioxide—all thought to be common on the early earth—to generate amino acids and orotic acid, the building blocks of proteins and DNA."  In the original version of the press release (repeated in so many news stories), that sentence said "nucleic acids" where it now says "orotic acid." 

It is good that Scripps Research made that correction (apparently because of the email I sent them). But there are still several problems:

(1) The internet is now littered with many a "science news story" that repeated the original erroneous claims about nucleic acids being produced, and such stories have not been updated merely because the Scripps Research press release was updated. So the internet still has many an erroneous story incorrectly claiming that nucleic acids were produced in orgins-of-life research. 

(2) The Scripps Research press release (and the news stories based on it) still contain the misleading claim that "origins of life" chemical reactions were discovered.  The not-very-impressive results of the experiments were not at all "origins of life" chemical reactions, and produced neither a functional protein molecule nor a nucleic acid (DNA or RNA).  
(3) The revised Scripps Research press release now claims that orotic acid is a building block of proteins or DNA, and orotic acid is not a building block of either. 

(4) The revised Scripps Research press release still contains the boastful PR hype claim by an assistant professor claiming, "We’ve come up with a new paradigm to explain this shift from prebiotic to biotic chemistry," something that was not actually done. 

(5) The revised Scripps Research press release still advances the groundless idea that before life existed there was a "primordial soup." No experiments realistically simulating the early Earth have ever produced any such "primordial soup," and the Miller-Urey experiment was not any such experiment, for reasons discussed hereThere is no geological, astronomical or meteorological reason for thinking that amino acids existed in anything other than negligible amounts before life existed, and there is no evidential basis for believing that there ever existed any such thing as a prebiotic "primordial soup" that was rich in either the building blocks of proteins (amino acids) or the building blocks of DNA (nucleotides). 

But let's at least give one cheer (not three cheers) to an example where science journalism turned out to be at least a little bit self-correcting, thanks to some good person at Scripps Research who reads his emails carefully. 

Friday, August 5, 2022

Cosmological Natural Selection Theory Gets Even More Falsified

Scientists have long been bothered by why the physical conditions, laws and fundamental constants of the universe seem to be so fine-tuned to allow the existence of planets such as ours and living beings such as us. On page 235 of his book Chaos and Harmony, a University of Virginia professor of astronomy (Trinh Xuan Thuan) stated this:

"The evolution of the cosmos is determined by initial conditions (such as the initial rate of expansion and the initial mass of matter), as well as by fifteen or so numbers called physical constants (such as the speed of the light and the mass of the electron). We have by now measured these physical constants with extremely high precision, but we have failed to come up with any theory explaining why they have their particular values. One of the most surprising discoveries of modern cosmology is the realization that the initial conditions and physical constants of the universe had to be adjusted with exquisite precision if they are to allow the emergence of conscious observers. This realization is referred to as the 'anthropic principle'...Change the initial conditions and physical constants ever so slightly, and the universe would be empty and sterile; we would not be around to discuss it. The precision of this fine-tuning is nothing short of stunning. The initial rate of expansion of the universe, to take just one example, had to have been tweaked to a precision comparable to that of an archer trying to land an arrow in a 1-square-centimeter target located on the fringes of the universe, 15 billion light years away!"

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."

It would be very hard to overestimate how thoroughly all major objects in our universe depend upon the fundamental constants being just right. It is not merely that the existence of extremely organized things such as mammals depends on a fine-tuning of fundamental constants. It is also that the existence of objects such as stars and planets depend on such a fine-tuning.  On pages 64-65 of his book "The Symbiotic Universe," astronomer George Greenstein (a professor emeritus at Amherst College) said this about the equality of the proton and electron charges (which have precisely the same absolute value): 

"Relatively small things like stones, people, and the like would fly apart if the two charges differed by as little as one part in 100 billion. Large structures like the Earth and the Sun require for their existence a yet more perfect balance of one part in a billion billion." 

In fact, experiments do indicate that the charge of the proton and the electron match to eighteen decimal places. Because of the dependency of stars on a very delicate fine-tuning of fundamental constants, you can state it this way: a random universe would be both lifeless and lightless. 

In an attempt to explain such things, physicist Lee Smolin has long advanced a groundless theory he calls  cosmological natural selection, one that no one seems to advance other than himself. It's a theory of a cyclical universe in which the laws of the universe change in each cycle.

 In his book Time Reborn, Smolin describes the theory as follows:

"The basic hypothesis of cosmological natural selection is that universes reproduce by the creation of new universes inside black holes. Our universe is thus a descendant of another universe, born in one of its black holes, and every black hole in our universe is the seed of a new universe. This is a scenario within which we can apply the principles of natural selection."

Smolin claims to have a theory of how the physics of the universe could evolve through natural selection. But how on earth can we get anything like natural selection out of the idea of new universes being created by the formation of black holes? Smolin gave the following strained reasoning: (1) he claimed that the physics that favors a habitable universe are similar to the physics that favor the production of black holes; (2) he claimed that a new universe produced by a black hole might have slightly different physics from its parent universe; (3) he claimed that random variations in physics that would tend to produce universes that produce more black holes would cause such universes to produce more offspring (more universes); (4) he claims that as a result of this “increased reproduction rate” of some types of universes, we therefore would gradually see the evolution of physical laws and constants that tend to favor the appearance of life and also the production of black holes.

The speculations described above hinge upon the linchpin claim that a new universe can be produced from the collapse of a huge star to form a black hole. Some analysts let Smolin get away with making this claim, but there is no reason why that should be done. The idea that a new universe can be produced from the collapse of a black hole is a complete fantasy, with no basis in fact. We have no observations to support such a theory. Nor is there any physics or mathematics to support such a theory. There is no way to write an equation in which you put a new universe on the right side of an equal sign. 

The idea of universes being produced from black holes is a very silly one. A typical black hole arises from the collapse of a star with only only a few solar masses. A universe like ours has a mass-energy of at least 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 solar masses. Claiming a new universe can arise from a black hole is like claiming a planet can arise from a grain of sand. 

Smolin claimed that one advantage of his theory of cosmological natural selection is that it makes a falsifiable prediction. In a 2004 paper (page 38) he lists one such prediction:

There is at least one example of a falsifiable theory satisfying these conditions, which is cosmological natural selection. Among the properties ...that make the theory falsifiable is that the upper mass limit of neutron stars is less than 1.6 solar masses. This and other predictions of CNS have yet to be falsified, but they could easily be by observations in progress.”

But by now this prediction has proven to be incorrect. In September 2019 a science news story reported on observations of one of the most massive neutron star ever found. We are told, “The researchers, members of the NANOGrav Physics Frontiers Center, discovered that a rapidly rotating millisecond pulsar, called J0740+6620, is the most massive neutron star ever measured, packing 2.17 times the mass of our Sun into a sphere only 30 kilometers across.” A 2021 story lists the mass of this neutron star as 2.14 solar masses. 

Last week in our science news we had the headline of "Black Widow Pulsar Sets Mass Record." A Sky and Telescope story dated July 28 tells us this: 

"The pulsar PSR J0952-0607, which is some 20,000 light-years away in the constellation Sextans, already holds the title of second-fastest-known rotator, spinning around its axis 707 times per second. Now, it has also shattered the record for most massive neutron star known, weighing in at 2.35 solar masses."

 A CNN story last week confirms; it states, "The PSR J0952-0607 star is 2.35 times the mass of the sun." Below we see an artist's depiction of a neutron star. 

Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

So Smolin told us that the cosmological natural selection theory would be falsified if any neutron stars were found to be more massive than 1.6 solar masses, and by now it has been found that one neutron star has 2.14 solar masses and another has 2.35 solar masses. Given last week's announcement that the neutron star PSR J0952-0607 has 2.35 times the mass of the sun, we can consider the cosmological natural selection theory to be even more falsified than it previously was. 

But alas, in the world of science it is sadly true that theories keep living on in the speech of scientists long after they have been falsified, kind of like the zombies of bad movies that keep walking about even after they have been killed. Some of the main theories claimed to be "scientific fact" seem to be theories of this type. 

In the past week we had two other science new stories throwing cold water in the face of theorists:

(1) A news story entitled "No trace of dark matter halos" quotes a scientist saying that *the number of publications showing incompatibilities between observations and the dark matter paradigm just keeps increasing every year."
(2) Another article reports that some cosmological model trying to speculate about an eternal cyclical universe falls flat, and actually requires a beginning of the universe.