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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Faulty Conclusion of a Gloomy Cosmic Study

A recent scientific paper concluded that life can only exist in about 10% of galaxies. But that conclusion is not warranted from either the facts or reasoning discussed in that paper.

The paper (by Tsvi Piran and Raul Jiminez) was entitled “On the role of GRBs on life extinction in the universe,” and the title referred to gamma-ray bursts. Gamma ray bursts are tremendously strong bursts of gamma rays, the most intense type of radiation. Astronomers detect about one gamma ray burst a day, all from outside our galaxy. A satellite found that these bursts come equally from all directions of the sky, which indicates that they are coming from distant sources outside of our galaxy. The nearest detected gamma ray burst was about 100 million light years away, hundreds of times the length of our galaxy.

Being a very powerful form of energy, gamma ray bursts have probably been a significant trouble maker for the evolution of life in the universe. But how big an effect have they had? Estimating that requires that we estimate two huge unknowns: the rate at which planets get zapped by gamma rays, and the degree to which such radiation bursts might wipe out all or most of the life on a planet.

How Much of a Threat to Life Would Gamma Ray Bursts Be?

First, let us look at the biological effects of different intensities of gamma ray bursts. Following the paper of Piran and Jiminez, we can distinguish between a gamma ray burst that strikes a planet with an energy of 100 kilojoules per square meter (which I'll call for convenience a “class 100” burst), and a burst that strikes a planet with an energy of 1000 kilojoules per square meter (which I'll call for convenience a “class 1000” burst).

Piran and Jiminez say that the “class 100 burst” would cause a 91% depletion of the ozone layer, and that a “class 1000” burst would “wipe out nearly the whole atmosphere.” Piran and Jiminez did not do any independent calculations or research to reach the latter conclusion, because that would involve atmospheric science, which is not their field of study. To support this claim that the “class 1000” burst would “wipe out nearly the whole atmosphere,” they say they are “following Thomas,” and cite two papers by Brian C. Thomas and others, one here, and the other here.

But, in fact, this seems to be a faulty reference, a case of claiming that a scientific paper says something that it doesn't actually say. I examined these two papers by Brian C. Thomas and the rest, and I could find no statement that a gamma ray burst of the “class 1000” type (with an energy of 1000 kilojoules per square meter) would wipe out almost the whole atmosphere. To the contrary, on page 11 of the paper “Gamma-Ray Burst and the Earth: Exploration of Atmospheric, Biological, Climatic, and Biogeochemical Effects,” the authors say this: “Our model is probably not capable of correctly handling the chemistry, heating, and transport for a burst of much higher fluence than 100 kJ m2 [kilojoules per square meter].” That's a level of energy ten times less than the “class 1000” case.

The paper by Thomas and the rest discusses mainly lesser effects such as ozone depletion, and says that the ozone depletion would only last for a decade. The paper also makes clear that the ozone depletion would only be globally catastrophic in the worst way if the gamma ray burst occurred over the equator. Their paper says:

Note that for polar bursts, even in the long term, effects are isolated to the respective hemisphere. Similarly, even for bursts at 45 the opposite hemisphere experiences much less intense effects.

These points are not trivial to the matter being discussed here (whether gamma ray bursts make only 10% of galaxies habitable), because the case of Piran and Jiminez depend heavily on this claim that a “class 1000” burst would “wipe out nearly the whole atmosphere.” In fact, they do not supply any citation or research that backs up such a claim, which is not actually stated by the papers they cite.

I may also note that any galaxy would have plenty of planets or moons that could take the “class 1000” gamma ray hits with relatively little harm. Examples of such places would include planets with thicker atmospheres (which could afford to lose a large fraction of the original ozone and oxygen), and life-bearing moons rotating gas giants, which might be entirely shielded from gamma ray bursts by the gas giants they rotated around. There would also be many planets that would have an inclination or tilt that would result in the gamma ray burst not striking in the equatorial region but in some other region where much less damage would be done. Also, many planets would be protected by dust clouds lying between the planets and the gamma ray bursts.

Cosmic dust (the dark brown bands) tends to block gamma rays

What about the less lethal “class 100” gamma ray bursts? They would have the effect of removing some of the ozone layer in an atmosphere, which would temporarily increase the amount of ultraviolet radiation. The paper by Thomas and others says that this ozone depletion would only last for about a decade. That would be a setback for the evolution of life, but there is no reason to think that it would wipe out even 100 million years of evolutionary progress. Such a “class 100” gamma ray burst might cause a mass extinction, causing many species to become extinct. But such an event would still very probably leave many advanced species surviving. In fact, these “class 100” gamma ray bursts have little relevance to whether a galaxy is habitable.

How Often Would the “Class 1000” Bursts Occur?

Now, let's look at how often these events would occur. On page 5 of their paper, Piran and Jiminez say, “In total 90, 40 and 5% of the exoplanets in the MW would be exposed to a fluence of 10, 100, and 1000 kJ/m2 from GRBs within a period of 1 Gyr.” Here MW refers to the Milky Way galaxy, 100 refers to the “class 100” gamma ray bursts previously discussed, 1000 refers to the “class 1000” gamma ray bursts previously discussed, and 1Gyr refers to a period of a billion years. These numbers are guesses, since we don't really know for sure what causes gamma ray bursts.

These numbers are not particularly gloomy from the standpoint of the prospects of the evolution of life. According to these numbers, there is a chance of only 5% per billion years that a particular planet in our galaxy would get the “really bad” type of “class 1000” gamma ray burst during a billion year period. There would be a 40% chance of a planet in our galaxy getting a “fairly bad” blast from a “class 100” gamma ray burst, but such a blast would be unlikely to set back evolution on that planet by very much.

Let's also remember that Thomas and the others make clear (in the previously cited paper) that gamma ray bursts are only really devastating if they occur over the equator of the planet, and the chances are 80% that such a blast would not occur over the equator of any particular planet. That means the chance of a planet getting zapped really bad by gamma rays is not the 5% per billion years that Piran and Jiminez cite, but an actual net effective chance of only 1% per billion years.

Also, since different solar systems have different planes of inclination, and different planets have different tilts, even the worst type of gamma ray burst would never wipe out life throughout all the planets in a large fraction of a galaxy, because only some of those planets would experience the gamma ray burst above their equators.

Given also the fact (as I discussed before) that Piran and Jiminez have only a faulty reference to back up their insinuation that the “class 1000” gamma ray burst would wipe out most of the atmosphere of a planet, overall these conclusions fail to back up any conclusion that gamma ray bursts are an overwhelming obstruction to the evolution of life in this galaxy or any other large galaxy.

So given that Piran and Jiminez state in the abstract of their paper the gloomy conclusion that “life can exist in only ~10% of galaxies,” how do they justify that conclusion? Very simply, they don't. Oddly, this conclusion is made in their abstract at the beginning of their paper, but is never actually derived or deduced or mentioned in the body of their paper (which violates the rule that abstracts are only supposed to summarize conclusions made and justified in the paper). In their last paragraph, their paper merely says, “We have found that GRBs and in particular LGRBs are life threatening in a large part of the Milky Way as well as in many other locations in the Universe.” But that's a much, much weaker conclusion than the claim that such gamma ray bursts are such a big factor that that they prevent life in 90% of the universe's galaxies.

There is actually no basis for such a claim. Given the wide variety of different habitats that life could have (such as a planet with a thick atmosphere or a moon shielded from gamma rays by the gas giant it orbits or a planet protected by cosmic dust clouds), given the lack of any scientific papers showing that typical gamma ray bursts will wipe out a planet's atmosphere, given the quick recovery time of a decade following ozone depletion by a gamma ray burst, and given only about a 20% chance of a particular gamma ray burst occurring over any particular planet's equator, we have no good basis for concluding that any substantial fraction of the universe's larger galaxies cannot evolve life because of gamma ray bursts. 

Trackback: http://arxiv.org/trackback/1409.2506 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Best Way to Make One-Way Mars Colonization Work

Believe it or not, there is actually a web site on which you can sign up to become a Mars colonist. The web site is the Mars One website at http://www.mars-one.com. Looking at the front page, it's easy to be drawn in by the sales pitch. The site includes the following enticing slogans:

The whole world will watch and experience this journey. We are all explorers. Everyone, including you, can participate in space exploration. This can be your mission to Mars!

But there's one little detail they don't tell you about until you delve deep inside the web site. Those who qualify may get a ticket to Mars. But it's a one-way ticket. I did not see this fact clearly mentioned on the web site until I reached a “Technical Feasibility” page, where it mentions, “Absence of a return mission reduces the mission infrastructure radically.”

I think there is a huge potential problem with sending regular Earth residents to Mars on a one-way mission. The problem is that when they get to Mars, they may experience the ultimate case of “homesickness.”

Imagine you are a young man or woman who makes the long journey to Mars. At first, you are all flush with idealistic enthusiasm. When you first venture into space, you say to yourself something like this:

So this is it. Space – the final frontier! I have left Earth, the cradle of the mind, and ventured out into the vast ocean that is the cosmos. I am a modern day Odysseus. Next stop: the red planet Mars! What an intoxicating adventure!

But after you get to Mars, and settle into your little tiny space habitat, or your underground Mars cave, you start thinking more and more about the planet you have left behind forever. All of the things that you had on Earth (but took for granted) now become more and more precious-seeming to you. You remember being able to run through a field for as long as you want, feeling the sunlight on your skin, without wearing some spacesuit, and without always worrying that your oxygen supply will run out. You remember how great it was to sit on a beach and hear the waves and smell the fresh ocean air. You remember how wonderful it was to hike through a forest filled with a thousand types of life. You remember the smell of the pine trees as you walked through that forest. You remember the joy of plunging into the fresh water of a clear pond. You remember the fun of walking down the bustling streets of a city you had never visited before. And you realize that these and many other similar pleasures are all things you will never, ever be able to experience again.

Quickly, you grow sick of Mars, and think to yourself: get me the hell out of here. But there is no way for that to happen. You are stuck for the rest of your life in some place you no longer want to be, longing for the sensual pleasures of your birth planet.

We can only imagine what psychological ruin will come from such mental torments – possibly enough to cause the whole Mars mission to fail. Is there some way to avoid this?

One way would be to have a perfect virtual reality system – perhaps something like the holodeck system depicted on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Perhaps if there is some way for astronauts to be given a virtual reality system that makes it just like being on Earth, then astronauts who left Earth forever wouldn't get so homesick. But I doubt the technology for such a system will be ready in the time frame imagined by the Mars One project.

There is perhaps a better approach, which is to postpone a one-way Mars colonization mission until decades into the future. Before trying to colonize Mars, we could set up orbiting space colonies with hundreds or thousands of inhabitants, many of whom would be born in the colonies. Then the crew for a one-way Mars colonization mission would be made up of people who had been born in such colonies, and who had never lived on Earth.

Such space colonies could be rotated to produce artificial gravity by centrifugal force, a gravity that matches the lower gravity on Mars. From the time they were born in such orbiting space colonies, children could be conditioned to think of Earth as an unappealing place to live. 

space colony poster
  A poster at a future space colony (click to expand)

If inhabitants of such a space colony were to set off to Mars on a one-way colonization mission, they would not have the “homesickness for Earth” problem, because they would have never lived on Earth in the first place. People would not yearn and long to return to a place they had never been to in the first place. Such space colonists might actually be perfectly happy on Mars, which might give them more room to move around than they might have on their cramped little orbiting space colony.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Croesus Chamber: A Science Fiction Story

Harold pressed a button on his desk, saying, “Send in the first person.” A man in a blue suit entered Harold's office.

“I have a sensational business deal to discuss with you,” said the man. “We have a very tasty new type of candy that will make billions for you. The only drawback is that one time in a thousand it will give a child a little bit of indigestion.”

“Why I would never be involved in something that might occasionally cause a child indigestion, no matter how many billions I made,” thundered Harold indignantly. “Get out of my office right now,” he demanded, pointing to the exit.

Harold pressed a button on his desk, saying, “Send in the next person.” A young woman entered.

“I came to you because you're one of the richest men in the world,” said the sobbing young woman. “The problem my family faces is the worst nightmare of every mother and father. But I thought to myself, if there's anyone in the world who can solve my ghastly problem, it's you.”

“Tell me all about it,” said Harold.

“My husband and I have had seven children,” explained the woman. “The doctors have told us that due to an extremely rare genetic defect shared by both me and my husband, all of our children will die before reaching the age of 15. Is there something you can do to help us?”

“There certainly is,” said Harold. “I am going to write a check for 50 million dollars. This will fund a team of the best doctors who will work night and day to solve your problem. I'm sure with a crash program funded by this check, a medical solution to your problem can be found.”

“Thank you so much!” said the woman, sobbing. “You're the most generous man in the world.”

Harold pressed a button on his desk, saying, “Send in the next person.” A middle-aged man entered.

“Tell me your name, and tell what I can do for you,” said Harold.

“My name is David Fallon,” said the man. “I'm sure you've heard about the hard times San Francisco has been experiencing for years. After the devastating earthquake, they never rebuilt the city properly. It's been a nightmare for the children. They don't have any proper schools to go to. They go to schools in ruined buildings, and as soon as they get out, the children go to beg on the street, or they go into gangs that steal money from adults.”

“I'm sure I can fix that,” said Harold. “I am going to write you a check for 500 million dollars. Use that to build the best schools money can buy. You should have a lot left over to fund some after-school programs.”

“You're an angel of mercy!” said the man, and he left.

Harold again pressed a button on his desk, saying, “Send in the next person.” A man with gray hair entered.

“What can I do for you?” asked Harold.

“I come seeking assistance for the people of Bangladesh,” said the man. “Ever since global warming got worse, and the sea levels started to rise, the life of the people in Bangladesh has been a watery hell. Every few months there's a flood that destroys their homes. Millions of them are starving and homeless. Is there anything you can do?”

“Why there certainly is,” said Harold. “I am going to write you a check right now for twenty billion dollars. I want you to use that money to relocate the entire population to higher ground. Make sure that nice dry houses are built for all of these people.”

“The gratitude of the people of Bangladesh is boundless,” said the man.

Yes, this is very satisfying, thought Harold. This makes me feel much better, he thought. But somewhere down inside himself he knew that it was all just an illusion.

None of his visitors really existed. He was in a room that could generate holographic illusions. He could sit on the chair behind the desk, and a computer could generate a series of visitors, who would look just like real people coming to meet him. Harold would write the checks, and give them to the holographic visitors, but he would not really be giving away any of his money.

Harold never really give away any of his money, one of the biggest fortunes in the world. He had become incredibly rich by doing what was right for his bank account, not what was morally right. He had started out investing heavily in cigarette companies. Then he started a company which sold self-driving cars. He made billions of dollars of profit when self-driving cars were very popular, before people realized that they caused a lot more fatal accidents than cars driven by people.

Then Harold started another company that created robot policemen. The robots put policemen out of work, and the robots didn't work right, meaning that many innocent civilians were shot by accident. But Harold made a fortune selling the robots, before people wised up as to how poorly they worked.

Then Harold invested in a biotech company that promised to turn back the clock, and reverse aging. Its product was bought by many millions, giving Harold billions of dollars in profits. Harold knew all along the product gave people cancer, but Harold sold all his shares before that fact became public.

Sometimes Harold would feel bad when he thought of all the suffering that his greed had caused. At times such as that, he would come to his holographic chamber, and press some buttons. Then a random series of computer-generated visitors would come, most of them asking for huge donations. Harold would write the checks, as if he was giving them whatever they wanted. Somewhere inside him, he knew it was an illusion and a charade, but nonetheless it always made Harold feel a little better, just as if he was someone with real moral feelings.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Homosexuality Hard to Explain Using Darwinian Orthodoxy

Under the thinking encouraged by many a modern materialist, almost everything about us can be explained by evolution and our genes. But there are difficulties in such thinking, one of which is properly accounting for the widespread existence of homosexuality.

Darwinism is centered around the idea that evolution slowly increases the prevalence of traits which tend to increase an organism's likelihood to survive until reproduction (and also the likelihood of the organism's reproduction). So suppose there were two genes in different organisms of a species, one which caused very strong sexual interest, and another which caused complete lack of sexual interest. According to conventional evolutionary theory, the first gene would cause more reproduction, which would cause the gene to become more and more common (all other things being equal), as the gene was inherited more and more often; but the second gene would cause less reproduction, which would cause the gene to become less and less common, because the gene would be inherited much less frequently.

How, then, can we account for homosexuality using such principles? Surveys indicate that between about 2% and 6% of the population are gay or bisexual. Given that very many gay people would never answer “Yes” when asked if they are gay, the actual percentage may be even higher.

Today homosexuality is generally believed to be an inherent tendency, not a choice; so under Darwinian conventions we have little choice but to assume that homosexuality has a strong genetic component. It has been estimated that homosexuals reproduce at only 20 percent of the rate that heterosexuals reproduce. It would seem that a straightforward calculation using Darwinian conventions lead us to the conclusion that homosexuality should have died out long ago. Whatever genetic basis might be behind homosexuality should have become less and less common, because of the vastly lower reproduction rate of homosexuals. It would seem, therefore, that homosexuality shouldn't exist, at least not in its current prevalence of perhaps 5% of the population.

Biologist J.B.S. Haldane imagined a case in which 99.9 percent of the population had one gene, and only .1 percent of the population had a second gene. If there was some reason why the second gene was 1% more likely to be inherited, then within 4000 generations, things would completely switch around so that 99.9 percent of the people would end up with the second gene, and only .1 percent would end up with the first gene. The example illustrates how strongly evolution tends to get rid of genes that are less likely to be passed on to descendants.

So how can we account for homosexuality under conventional Darwinian assumptions? Some theories have been suggested, but they haven't been very convincing. In this article evolutionary biologist David P. Barash discusses some possibilities for explaining this paradox, but he just doesn't seem to be able to get to first base.

Barash first mentions “kin selection” as a possibility, saying of homosexuals “perhaps they are able to help their relatives rear offspring, to the ultimate evolutionary benefit of any homosexuality-promoting genes present in those children.” That's very speculative, and Barash gives no evidence to support it, except mentioning some tiny Samoan gay group which he claims “lavish attention upon their nieces and nephews.”

Then Barash mentions a “social prestige” theory, claiming that gay men became priests or shamans, and that “perhaps the additional social prestige conveyed to their heterosexual relatives might give a reproductive boost to those relatives, and thereby to any shared genes carrying a predisposition toward homosexuality.” But Barash admits that this idea is “lacking in empirical support,” which means there is no evidence for it.

Another theory for the survival of homosexuality is that it had something to do with what is called group selection. As Barash puts it, “Although the great majority of biologists maintain that natural selection occurs at the level of individuals and their genes rather than groups, it is at least possible that human beings are an exception; that groups containing homosexuals might have done better than groups composed entirely of straights.” Judging from that wording, it doesn't sound like that theory is on solid ground, since it contradicts an assumption made by the “great majority” of biologists.

Barash also mentions a “balanced polymorphism” explanation, saying “the possibility cannot be excluded.” Again, not a solid speculation, since no evidence is provided. He also mentions the possibility of “sexually antagonistic selection,” but says there is “no evidence for this idea.”

So while Barash mentions quite a few possibilities, he gives the reader no confidence at all that evolutionary biologists have any good explanation for why homosexuality has not died out because of evolutionary factors. Barash has nothing but strained speculations, and the only evidence he claims to have is a thin and dubious claim involving some tiny group in the distant islands of Samoa – a country with a total population of only about 200,000.

It would therefore seem that the large-scale existence of homosexuality is a significant problem for Darwinian orthodoxy. In fact, as I explained in this essay, Darwinian orthodoxy has quite a few difficulties accounting for numerous aspects of humanity, such as our abilities for math, language, philosophy, introspection, and tendencies such as spirituality, aesthetic appreciation, and altruism, most of which don't do much good from a “survival of genes” evolutionary standpoint. It would seem that while Darwinian concepts are a valuable contribution that explain a great deal, Darwinism may be seriously oversold as some kind of “this explains everything” theory to account for human nature.

These are hard to explain using only Darwinism

Could any unorthodox thinking lead us to other possibilities that might account for homosexuality?

I know of one unorthodox hypothesis about the cause of homosexuality. The hypothesis goes like this: (1) some people alive on Earth have had previous earthly lives; (2) a male homosexual is typically someone who was previously reincarnated as a female; (3) that person is attracted to males because of a residual attraction to males carried over from a previous life as a female. The only evidence for this hypothesis is the evidence for reincarnation, which may be much stronger than many people think, due to the research of Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia.

Another unorthodox hypothesis is the hypothesis that a large part of the blueprint or schema for a human being is stored outside of a person's DNA. I explained this idea in my previous post entitled “Half of the Blueprint for You May Be Stored Outside Your Cells,” in which I pointed out the curious fact that the species of plant known as rice is believed to have 38,000 genes, but humans (almost infinitely more complicated) are believed to have only 23,000 genes. In that post I summarized this idea as follows:

Genes are a very important determinant of human nature. But as they are merely recipes for making proteins, we cannot at all explain all the exquisite features of human nature by assuming that the secrets of human nature are all stored in merely 23,000 genes. There may well be some completely undiscovered information storehouse that also is crucial in determining human nature – an unknown noncellular “dark genome.” When a human body and a full human mind comes into existence, it may require information from cellular genes and this mysterious noncellular“dark genome.”

If there is some kind of “dark genome” that might help to explain human nature, homosexuality could be an aspect of that, perhaps some permutation of human nature stored among various other permutations in that “dark genome” (here “dark” simply means currently undiscovered). This “dark genome” or “second genome” might be unrelated to reproduction rates, so within such an information storehouse the continued existence of traits related to homosexuality might be plausible enough.

Another unorthodox idea, which no doubt will infuriate some fundamentalists, is that homosexuality has been deliberately included as part of the human mixture by a higher power, who wants homosexuality to exist so that it can one day be a significant brake on out-of-control overpopulation.

These ideas are admittedly speculative – but no more speculative than the totally speculative musings of Professor Barash, who seemed “lost at sea” when trying to give an orthodox Darwinian explanation for why homosexuality still is widespread.

Postscript: According to the book Dataclysm: Who We Are by Christian Rudder, a Google researcher has reported that 5 percent of porn searches are for gay porn, and that such a percentage is consistent from state to state in the US. This data tends to back up both the idea that homosexuality is inherent, rather than something largely chosen (given the local drawbacks of "choosing to be gay" in some US states such as North Dakota and Mississippi); and it also suggests a relatively high gay population (5% rather than just 2%). Such data tends to accentuate the explanatory problem mentioned in this post. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Scientist's Faulty Theory of Truth

In the last chapter of his book The Truth of Science: Physical Theories and Reality, emeritus professor of physics Roger G. Newton advances a theory of truth. (I will call Mr. Newton by his first name to avoid confusion with the famous physicist named Newton.) Roger advances a coherence theory of truth. In general, such a theory maintains that truth is whatever fits in or meshes with other things that are regarded as true. Roger puts it this way on page 207 of his book: “The most important criterion for ascertaining the truth of a statement is its coherence with a network of assertions that are also regarded as true.”

But there is a potent criticism that can be made against such a theory. Many claimed truths can be fit in with some system of assumptions about what is true, but do not fit in with some other system of assumptions about what is true. So a coherence theory of truth would seem to imply that such claimed truths are both true and false, which doesn't make sense. For example, reincarnation fits in well with a network of assertions made by the average Hindu, but does not fit in with a network of assertions made by Western materialists. So according to a coherence theory of truth, it would seem that assertions of reincarnation or past lives are both true and false.

What Roger clearly wants you to believe is that the real acid test for truth is that it fit in not just with a network of assertions made by some group, but by Western physicists such as himself. He basically seems to be saying that truth is whatever fits in with what him and physicists like him tend to believe to be true.

One problem with such an approach is that modern physical science and scientific opinion is not a monolithic coherent “network of assertions,” all nice and harmonious and factual. Quantum mechanics does not agree with general relativity. Some physicists believe passionately that string theory is the reality behind everything, while many other physicists reject the theory as baseless. Some physicists support the idea of a multiverse or ideas of parallel universes. Other physicists reject such ideas with scorn. There is a great deal of disagreement about different matters. So how can “fitting in with what physicists think” be the acid test for truth, when there is so much disagreement among the physicists themselves?

Roger takes his coherence theory to some imprudent extremes. On the same page in which he makes the key assertion that “the most important criterion for ascertaining the truth of a statement is its coherence with a network of assertions that are also regarded as true,” Roger uses this theory as a justification for rejecting evidence of the paranormal without even examining it: “Researchers justifiably refuse to listen to these claims, to examine them or refute them in detail, because they are incoherent with the rest of our scientific knowledge.” The problems with this attitude are many. First, there is no way in which one could intelligently judge that a particular claim was “incoherent with the rest of our scientific knowledge” without examining the claim in detail, which Roger encourages researchers not to do.

Secondly, it is not obvious that most paranormal claims are “incoherent with the rest of our scientific knowledge.” What is or is not “incoherent with scientific knowledge” is a very debatable, subjective matter. It is, in fact, not at all obvious that most of the more common paranormal claims are actually incompatible with any known laws of nature, as I argue here. What Roger encourages people to do is to ignore classes of observations, not on any objective basis, put purely on the very subjective judgment of whether or not such observations are “incoherent with scientific knowledge,” a type of judgment that might be highly influenced by sociological and psychological factors, and our prejudices and biases.

Roger also almost seems to imply that when you have a choice between believing the testimony of your own senses and fitting in with a “network of assertions” advanced by authorities, you should ignore the testimony of your senses. I say this because he cites the case of a psychologist who claims to have seen a celebrity in his office long after the celebrity's death. “This is not how a scientist arrives at truth,” intones Roger with disapproval. So if you see something with your own two eyes, and you've never had a hallucination before, you should ignore that, because it conflicts with your expectations, and doesn't “fit in with the system” that has been dogmatically taught by authorities? Wrong. Observations should be king, regardless of whether they clash with your expectations.

Roger's “coherence test” for truth seems to be a type of reality filter, with the unfortunate outcome illustrated in the diagram below:

Roger considers for an instant the possibility that “a startling, discordant fact, long ignored by 'the establishment,' may someday be discovered, producing a new paradigm with its own coherence.” But he immediately rejects such a possibility, by arguing that “the body of scientific knowledge, however, is by now so large that this scenario is extremely unlikely.” This is smug intellectual complacency that is very unwarranted. From a cosmic standpoint, what we know is very, very small compared to what we don't know. We know of only a few planets in a vast universe which may have trillions of inhabited planets, and we still don't understand some of the most basic questions involving the origin of the universe, the origin of cosmic structure, the origin of life, and the origin of consciousness. We are puzzled by a thousand mysteries of time, space, and Mind that we haven't figured out. An extraterrestrial species might look at us as we might look at little children playing at the sea shore, trying to figure out the ocean from the waves and the shells. Looked at from such a perspective, our knowledge of things is very fragmentary and very small, not “so large” as Roger argues. So the “new paradigm” scenario Roger mentions is very plausible, not “extremely unlikely” as Roger argues.

One problem with Roger's approach is that only part of the “network of assertions” made by modern physicists is actually fact. There is also a great deal of theory being asserted, much of it wild and speculative (physicists these days love to advance all kinds of extremely weird theories). Then there are also quite a few assertions that come under the category of “widely held assumptions” that have no direct scientific support, such as claims that the universe is entirely random, or claims that all consciousness can be explained by brain activity (no one has ever published a scientific paper proving either assumption). It is a nightmare to sort out which parts of the modern scientist's “network of assertions” is fact, which is theory, and which is personal opinion advanced more out of a sociological kind of peer group conformity than scientific necessity. So how could “coherence” with such a network of assertions be a reliable basis for judging truth – particularly since “coherence” is a vague, wooly, subjective term, incapable of being objectively measured, without any of the precision that scientists like to have?

It's easy to imagine examples that show that a coherence theory of truth doesn't work. Let us imagine that some astronomical analysis software has a bug, and because of the bug a scientist who is analyzing a distant solar system concludes mistakenly that such a solar system has an Earth-sized planet. Then let us imagine that a second scientist in another country uses the same buggy software to analyze that distant solar system, and therefore draws the same incorrect conclusion that such a solar system has an Earth-sized planet. According to a coherence theory of truth, the second scientist must have stated a true assertion – because his assertion not only has excellent coherence with other scientists finding Earth-sized planets, but also good coherence with the previous scientist concluding that there was an Earth-sized planet at the particular distant solar system the second scientist analyzed. But, in fact, the second scientist has not made a true conclusion, because there is no Earth-sized planet in that particular solar system.

There is a much better and simpler theory of truth than Roger's. It is called the correspondence theory of truth. According to that theory, an assertion is true simply if it corresponds to a factual reality. So even if the entire world thinks that a particular celebrity is dead, if I assert that this celebrity is alive and well and in Chicago, and that celebrity is alive and well in Chicago, then my statement is true; otherwise it's false. The truth or falsity of my statement in no way depends on whether it agrees or disagrees with a “network of assertions” being made across the world and the Internet.

Roger takes a weak poke at this correspondence theory of truth, claiming that it does not work well with universal statements of truth such as “matter is made up of atoms and molecules.” This is not at all correct. In this particular case, the correspondence theory of truth says that such an assertion is true if matter is actually made of atoms and molecules, and false if matter is not made up of atoms and molecules. That works just fine.

The correspondence theory of truth is a far more sensible theory of truth than the coherence theory of truth advanced by Roger. When it comes to the truth of a matter, what matters is facts, reality, and observations, not fitting in with the assumptions and taboos of revered authorities, whether academic or ecclesiastical.

Postscript: I criticize here merely one part of Mr. Newton's book, a work which makes many sound and valid points. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Moving Orb Seen on Mars in These 6 NASA Photos

The YouTube source Paranormal Crucible has discovered an astonishing anomaly on Mars that was shown on a video made by that source. Rather than linking to that video (and leaving you with that same old “did someone fake a video on youtube.com ” question), in this post I will look directly at the source NASA photos that were used to make that video. Looking at the original NASA source photos, it does indeed seem that some anomalous moving orb has been detected on Mars.

The video put up by Paranormal Crucible failed to give the vital information about which Martian day the anomaly was detected. But they did have a link to one of the original NASA photos, and in the URL of that link I was able to find the Martian day number. The day number is Sol 527, which corresponds to January 29, 2014.

The set of photos showing the moving orb was taken by one of the Front Hazard Avoidance Cameras (“front hazcams”) on the Curiosity rover. Images from that camera can be found at this url.

To find the images for a particular Martian day, you merely need to scroll down to a particular day number, using the listbox shown at the top left of the page. When we click on the row for Sol 527, we come to this NASA page showing images taken by the Front Hazard Avoidance Cameras on Sol 527. The photos I will reproduce from that page were taken over a span of about 15 minutes.

The third image in the list is here. Below is a crop of this image starting at horizontal pixel 474 and vertical pixel 133, with a width of 142 and a height of 102:

Mars moving orb
Notice the little white ball in the bottom right quarter of the photo.

The fourth image in the list is here. Below is a crop of this image starting at horizontal pixel 474 and vertical pixel 133, with a width of 142 and a height of 102 (the same numbers used for the previous crop):

Mars moving orb
Notice that the little white ball has moved a little to the left.

The fifth image of the list is here. Below is a crop of this image starting at horizontal pixel 474 and vertical pixel 133, with a width of 142 and a height of 102 (the same numbers used for the previous crop):

Mars moving orb

The sixth image of the list is here. Below is a crop of this image starting at horizontal pixel 474 and vertical pixel 133, with a width of 142 and a height of 102 (the same numbers used for the previous crop):

Mars moving orb

The camera moved a little bit, so it's not exactly the same area as before, but it's close enough that you can detect that the little white ball has moved from the previous photo.

The seventh image of the list is here. Below is a crop of this image starting at horizontal pixel 474 and vertical pixel 133, with a width of 142 and a height of 102 (the same numbers used for the previous crop):

Mars moving orb

The orb is now in the bottom right quarter of the image above. The eighth image of the list is here. Below is a crop of this image starting at horizontal pixel 474 and vertical pixel 133, with a width of 142 and a height of 103 (the same numbers used for the previous crop, except 1 pixel greater on the height):

Mars moving orb

Again we see the orb in the bottom right part of the image above. By the time we get to image 11 in the series of photos taken at this location, there is no more sign of the orb.

The following color-coded visual illustrates how the position of the orb changed between the third photo in the series and the eighth photo of the series. The third and fourth photos were taken at the same time (with a Left camera and a Right camera being a little bit apart from each other). The fifth and sixth photos were also taken at the same time, as were the seventh and eighth photos.

The images on this NASA page for Sol 527 are listed in reverse chronological order. The orb apparently moved from the area shown by the blue circle and the red circle, then moved to the area shown by the green circle and purple circle, then moved to the area shown by the pink circle and the orange circle.

How can we explain this series of photographs? A few months ago when people pointed out a pair of photos that seemed to show a mysterious light on the Mars horizon on two consecutive days, NASA tried to explain the anomaly by saying it was a cosmic ray, or light reflecting from a rock. Does either explanation work here?

The cosmic ray explanation is perhaps a good explanation for a strange little blip shown on one particular photograph on one particular day. A cosmic ray is a little particle coming from deep in space, that arrives in a random location at a particular time, with the location and time being completely unpredictable. But we cannot account for a light seeming to move around at a particular location on the same day, in at least six consecutive photographs of Mars, by imagining that is caused by cosmic rays. Cosmic rays absolutely do not cluster or clump together at some particular location and time; they appear spread out at random places and times. In order for you to have all of these little orb photos being due to cosmic rays, you would have to have at least three cosmic ray hits during different moments of the same fifteen minutes in the same little spot of six consecutive photographs, with it all being a gigantic coincidence. That would require a coincidence comparable to you coincidentally guessing correctly the telephone numbers of three different people you met at the same time.

We also cannot account for the apparently moving orb by imagining that it was caused by a rock reflection. A rock with a reflecting surface might cause a little blip of light at one spot in the photograph, but that rock would not move around within a particular area of the photo. Could it be that rapid winds blew around a rock to different positions? No, winds that high would have created a dust storm that would have left many signs in this photo that are not observed; there were no such heavy winds when these photos were taken. 

Could the orb be the result of a camera glitch? No, because two different cameras (the Left and Right cameras) have both shown the orb and that it is moving. So, for example,  we cannot plausibly say that "dead pixels" are causing the orb's appearance. You might see a few empty pixels in the photos taken by one of the two cameras, but you would not coincidentally see a "dead pixel area" that matched in two different cameras, particularly given that most of the other images on this page for Sol 527 do not show any such orb or "dead pixel" area.  

I don't have any explanation for this mysterious Martian orb. I can merely point out that it looks very similar to what has been observed on our planet countless times. Since the introduction of the digital flash camera about twenty years ago, people all across the world have been seeing unexplained circular
anomalies in their photographs. Such anomalies are normally called orbs.

But isn't dust the explanation for such orbs, as skeptics have claimed? No, dust can't explain the more unusual orbs that have appeared in photographs (as I argue here). The reason why a dust explanation doesn't work is that many photographs have shown orbs that are either too big to be dust, too bright to be dust, too colorful to be dust, too fast-moving to be too dust, too frequently observed to be dust, or too surrounded by clean air to be dust (with many photographs having two or three of these conditions at the same time).

If you try to create dust orbs in your photos, it normally takes quite a while and involves raising heavy dust; and then you'll end up with little, pale brown or gray circles that aren't very colorful or bright, and not more than about 5% of the photo width. That does nothing to explain what many photographers have repeatedly photographed: big bright orbs that sometimes appear as wide as 18% of the photo width, which are often in a single bright color such as orange, yellow, or pink, and which often show strong signs of moving quickly – which dust never does unless there are fast winds. Since dust settles quickly, it only works as a possible explanation for orb photos taken in dusty conditions, but 95% of the more interesting orbs that have appeared in earthly photos have not been taken in such conditions (and many have been taken in very clean air).

We have no idea what the explanation for orbs is, and orbs may or may not have any relation to extraterrestrials or anything spiritual such as life after death. But given the very large number of unexplained appearances of orbs in earthly photographs, I am not surprised to learn than an orb was apparently moving around on the planet Mars.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

“Interstellar” Mis-sold as Scientifically Realistic

Part of the selling of the new film Interstellar is the pitch that it is a scientifically realistic science fiction movie, including a book called The Science of Interstellar. The Smithsonian web site bought this pitch hook, line, and sinker, and had an article entitled, Why Interstellar Belongs in the Pantheon of the Best “Realistic” Science Fiction Films. Interstellar is a reasonably entertaining movie, if you can get past the difficulty of following the plot when the main actor keeps talking in a twangy mumble. But Interstellar is not realistic science fiction.

Realistic science fiction is based on scientific facts and projected technological developments that can be reasonably inferred from known technological trends. An example of realistic scientific fiction is the movie Deep Impact, which dealt with a comet colliding with planet Earth. Since comets are a scientifically established reality which we know periodically travel around in the solar system, it was not too far-fetched for the film to depict a comet colliding with our planet. There is a small chance that something like that may happen in the next million years.

But what is Interstellar based on? The plot all revolves around the idea of a spacetime wormhole. Science fiction writers like wormholes because with a wormhole you can have a plot line in which astronauts are instantaneously transported from one solar system to another. A wormhole is a hypothetical tunnel between two different points in space, which might allow instantaneous transportation between the two points. If that sounds far out, it is. There is no evidence at all that wormholes exist or can be created in a way that would make interstellar travel easier. Scientists have not even done any “proof of concept” experiment in which some tiny particle was transported from one place to another by traveling through a wormhole.

What does science actually tell us about interstellar travel? Its real message is that interstellar travel is in all likelihood something that can only be very slow, requiring a long time. We know that the distance between stars is so great that it takes light almost five years to travel from one sun to the nearest star. We also know that no spaceship can be accelerated to a speed greater than the speed of light, because that would violate Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity. That means the minimum time to travel from one star to the nearest star is going to be about five years. But that's only if you can travel at the speed of light. There are engineering reasons why it's more likely that no spaceship could travel more than half as fast as that, which leaves you a travel time of over a decade to go one from star to the nearest star.

Wormholes are a conceptual way of completely turning this reality on it head. Instead of having a universe in which interstellar travel is very slow, the idea of wormholes gives the science fiction writer a universe in which heroes can zip around the universe as effortlessly as a New York City commuter would zip around to different parts of Manhattan by using the subway. But for the moment, transporting astronauts through wormholes is science-related fantasy, not realistic science fiction.

Besides the complete lack of observational evidence for their existence, there is reason to believe that wormholes which allow rapid instantaneous travel do not exist and cannot be created. One reason is that if such things did exist or could be created, then interstellar travel would presumably be very easy, and Earth would probably be receiving visitors from all over the galaxy. If wormholes could be created, we would expect that we might have received many interstellar visitors. Almost the only way we can overcome the “where's everybody” issue known as Fermi's Paradox is to reject the speculative idea of wormholes, and assume that interstellar travel is very slow, taking many years for even trips between one star and nearby stars.

From what little we can infer about what wormholes might be like if they existed, we can assume that if a wormhole existed, some incredible technology would be needed to travel through one without getting killed. Traveling through a wormhole would presumably be like nuzzling right up to a black hole – you would be right on the edge of fantastically vast forces that could instantly twist a sun or a planet into a pretzel.

One can perhaps imagine some incredibly advanced extraterrestrial spaceship that travels through wormholes, some spaceship using a technology millions of years more advanced than ours. But in Interstellar, human astronauts travel through a wormhole using an ordinary spaceship built by a version of NASA that is operating in secret (on a “last legs” type of Earth at a time in which humans are living in houses and driving cars that look like today's houses and cars). That stretches credulity, but it gets even worse later in the movie, when a character travels through a wormhole all by himself, without even having a spaceship. That's scientifically realistic science fiction? The same character also ends up bouncing around through time like a ping pong ball on a ping pong table, which isn't terribly realistic.

Let's compare Interstellar to another movie in regard to scientific realism. The other movie is The Wizard of Oz. Both involve characters being transported to distant places by means of exotic things that can be described in scientific language. In Interstellar the transportation occurs by means of a wormhole, something that has never been observed. In The Wizard of Oz the transportation occurs by means of a tornado, a known natural phenomenon that has been observed many times by scientists. So which movie is more scientifically realistic in its central premise? The Wizard of Oz, not Interstellar.

Dorothy's tornado: more scientifically realistic than "Interstellar"

Saturday, November 8, 2014

New Experiment Fails to Explain the “Third Man Factor”

In 2009 we saw the appearance of John Geiger's interesting book The Third Man Factor. Geiger compiled quite a few cases of people in great danger who felt an extraordinary feeling that an unseen person was present, a person urging them to make the extraordinary effort needed to survive.

The most common type of person experiencing such a feeling seemed to be an adventurer or explorer in great danger of dying. One such person was James Sevigny, who reported that when he was in deep trouble when exploring the Canadian Rockies, an unseen presence began mentally communicating all kinds of instructions, apparently through something like telepathy. When Stephanie Schwabe got into trouble during an underwater cave dive, and was panicking, she felt an unseen presence telling her to calm down. During a dire part of Ernest Shackleton's epic struggle for survival in the Antarctic (one of the most interesting adventure stories in history), Shackleton and two other men (Crean and Worsley) sensed (according to their later reports) that they had a feeling that there was an unseen person marching with them. In 1933 when British explorer Frank Smythe almost became the first man to climb the top of Mount Everest, he reported an extremely strong sense of a helpful unseen companion as he trudged through perilous terrain.

Geiger also reported that this “third man factor” can occur in cases not involving adventurers. One such case was Ron DiFrancesco, who tried to descend a stairwell in the doomed World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, only to find his path blocked by smoke, fire, and wreckage. DiFrancesco reported that an unseen presence suddenly addressed him by name and gave him encouragement to make the enormous effort to survive the crisis. He even reported that some unseen person “lifted me up” and guided him down the damaged stairs, to safety. Finally, improbably, he made his way to safety, becoming the last office worker to make it out of the South Tower before it collapsed.

Some scientists have created an experiment designed to explain away this “feeling of an unseen presence.” But due to the poor design of the experiment, it fails to do any such thing.

The research was done by Olaf Blanke and his team in Switzerland. The first part of their research involved studying people with epilepsy and other motor-related problems, people who had reported feelings of an unseen presence. Blanke claims to have found common brain lesions in such people. But such research does nothing to explain the type of incidents described in The Third Man Factor, which mainly involve ordinary, healthy people without brain lesions, and largely involve people with superb motor-related skills – quite the opposite of people with motor-related problems.

The second part of the research done by Blanke was a weird experiment using robots. Seventeen subjects were blindfolded and linked up in some strange way with robots, in some “master slave” arrangement. In some cases the robots provided tactile feedback. Blanke reports that under such conditions quite a few of the subjects reported a “feeling of presence” rather like someone standing behind them – a hardly surprising result for a blindfolded person who is hooked up with a nearby robot as shown in the photo below.

The weird experiment (Credit: Alain Herzog/EPFL)

A press release reporting on this research (reproduced here) has tried to suggest that this research is some kind of explanation for the “third man factor” described by Geiger. Such a suggestion is unfounded. Blanke's research does nothing at all to explain the feeling of telepathic communication reported in the accounts collected by Geiger. Moreover, Blanke's research does not even explain the basic sense of an unseen presence reported in such accounts. Why? Simply because such accounts were given by people who were nowhere near robots, but Blanke's experiments only involve people who are hooked right up to robots.

What Blanke's experiments show is merely that when you blindfold people and hook them up to robots, they may have a feeling that somebody is nearby. That's a very trivial finding, which doesn't really explain anything.

I can only imagine the deliberations that might have gone on when they were thinking up Blanke's experiments. Perhaps it went something like this:

Scientist 1: Let's try to debunk that “third man factor” reported in Geiger's book. We'll trail a mile behind some mountain climbers climbing way up some peak of 20,000 feet. We'll carry along some big heavy MRI scanner, a generator, and some gas for the generator. Then if the mountain climbers get into trouble and report that “third man factor” thing--a mysterious sense of an unseen presence--we'll rush over to them, scan their brains with the MRI, and show that it's just due to some brain state.

Scientist 2: No, no. Too much work. Let's just stay warm and comfy, stay indoors, and play around with some robots. 

If Blanke's goal was actually trying to explain the “third man factor” reported in Geiger's book, then Blanke's experimental approach was both lazy and lacking in good sense. Also, Blanke's paper has a misleading title. It's called “Neurological and Robot-Controlled Induction of an Apparition.” An apparition is defined as seeing something; for example, the Merriam Webster online dictionary defines an apparition as “a ghostly figure,” while the first online Google definition is “a ghost or ghostlike image of a person.” A mere “sense that someone is there” by blindfolded people hooked up to a robot is not an apparition. Blanke hasn't actually produced an apparition by hooking people up to a robot, so the title of his paper is inaccurate.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How Elections Might Work in an Improved Future Republic

We have just finished another cycle in the very diseased system known as the American political system. By and large the winners were those with the most money, the most insider cronies, and the most corporate connections. One can have little hope that this sick system will get better anytime soon. But perhaps one can have a little fun imagining this: how might elections work in some future republic (here or in another continent) with a much fairer political system? Below are some characteristics that such elections might have.

Characteristic 1: Seats in Congress would be exactly proportional to population, so that any two areas of the republic with the same population would have the same degree of representation in the government.

The United States government does not have this characteristic. There are two houses of Congress, and in one of those houses (the Senate), each of the 50 U.S states elects two senators. But the tiny states of Rhode Island and Delaware get to elect the same number of senators (two) as the huge states of California and Texas.

What this means is that under the US constitution, residents of California and Texas are basically second-class citizens with a lower degree of representation, and residents of little Rhode Island and Delaware are specially privileged citizens with a higher degree of representation.

So let us imagine that in our future republic, there is only one house of Congress, and that congressional election districts are divided in such a way so that each has roughly the same population. This means that geographically speaking, each citizen of the republic gets equal representation in Congress.

Characteristic 2: Congressional representatives would serve a single term of 4 years, with 50% of their terms expiring every two years.

The designers of the US constitution imagined that if congressional representatives in the House of Representatives did not look out for the average man, they would soon be tossed out by the voters. The founding fathers failed to anticipate our current political landscape, in which it typically happens that representatives who do not well serve the common man continue to be re-elected year after year, because they have spent much of their time in office courting crony connections and raising money from the rich and corporations.

The best way for a future republic to avoid this problem would be to limit every congressional representative to a single term. The whole concept of re-election would be abolished. Congressional representatives would focus on passing good laws, rather than spending half of their time doing things related to their re-election, such as seeking political donations from fat cats.

It might be argued that you need congressional representatives who have been around a long time, to help handle all the intricacies of legislation. But the fine details of government could be delegated to bureaucracies to keep things simple enough so that people recruited from other occupations could serve as congressional representatives. There is no reason why a Congress needs to be passing bills with thousands of pages, when most of these details can be decided by appointed bureaucrats. With a system under which half of Congress was replaced every two years, there would always be “old timers” around with two years experience, who could “show the ropes” to new representatives.

Characteristic 3: A system would exist making sure that Congress consisted of persons from each major occupation, with the makeup of Congress mirroring the number of people in those occupations. Such a system would issue people invitations to make a fully funded run for office for a single term, with the invitations being randomly generated by lottery from particular occupational classes.

The United States Congress has way too many lawyers and professional politicians. When almost all of its members are used to earning large incomes each year, one can hardly expect Congress to look after average people very well. One way to remedy that would be to have a system that guarantees that Congress consists of people drawn from the general public, with each major occupational class getting equal representation.

This could be accomplished by a system in which a lottery is used to issue invitations to make a fully funded run for Congress. The invitations would be issued in such a way so that major occupational classes got an equal number of invitations. For example, if 10% of the people in the republic were information workers, then 10% of the invitations issued would go to information workers; and if 5% of the people in the republic were farmers, then 5% of the invitations would go to farmers. The invitation system and funding would be paid for by taxes.

Under this invitation system, you might, for example, be working as a restaurant chef, and you might one day be surprised to get an official government invitation inviting you to make a fully funded run for Congress. You would be told that your name had been randomly selected from a list of those in your occupation. You would know that there would be only a few other competitors for the congressional seat you could run for, because only a few other people would get such an invitation to run for that particular congressional seat.

The invitations issued would be adjusted so that the population of Congress always mirrored the occupational background of the general republic. So, for example, if 5% of the population were farmers, and farmers tended to lose elections or decline an invitation to make a fully funded run for Congress, then there would be a temporary increase in the number of invitations to farmers to make a fully funded run for Congress (so in one year the number of invitations might exceed their percentage in the population). Eventually things would balance out, and Congress would well reflect the occupational percentages of the general public.

The best result of this system would be that Congress would be made up almost entirely of the common people, and would be far more likely to pass laws favoring the common people. This would be a great improvement over our current system of government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

Some will say: come on, you couldn't have a system in which crucial decisions on people's futures are made by randomly selected citizens from all walks of life. But we already have one such system which works well: the jury system.

Characteristic 4: Instead of the current system where there is rarely more than 2 viable candidates for an office, there would be 5 fully-funded randomly selected candidates for each congressional seat.

How many times have you anticipated voting, and thought to yourself: none of the above. This problem could be partially eliminated by a system like the one described previously, a system that would guarantee that there would be five fully funded candidates for each Congressional seat.

Assuming that half of the people are conservative, and half are liberal, a random lottery invitation system would have only about 1 chance in 32 of producing a slate of all liberals or all conservatives in a particular voting district. This would probably be better than under the current system, where your odds of having no real choice in a particular congressional district is probably greater than 1 in 32 (since so many Democrats are barely distinguishable from Republicans, and many seats are uncontested).

Characteristic 5: Only those who had received the randomly generated invitations could run for Congress.

Under such a rule, it would not be possible for a rich ambitious person to appear on the ballot for Congress because he had used his own funds to gather a sufficient number of signatures supporting his candidacy. There would be no way for the rich to buy their way into Congress.

Characteristic 6: There would be an “instant runoff” system of voting wherein you list a first, second, and third choice.

Our current system of voting creates many strange paradoxes, and the evil of “strategic voting,” in which you often end up voting for someone other than the person you prefer most. In a race with three contestants, when going to vote, you may favor candidate X; but you may worry that if you vote for candidate X you will help throw the election to candidate Y (who is in a tight battle with candidate Z, who you like a little more than Candidate Y). So you end up voting for candidate Z, who is not really the person you want to win. Such strange effects can be eliminated by an “instant runoff” system in which you specify a first choice choice, a second choice, and a third choice. In this case you would specify candidate X as your first choice, and candidate Z as your second choice. You would not worry that your vote would have the effect of being a vote for candidate Y, because under the instant runoff system if candidate X loses, you have not enhanced the chances of candidate Y winning.

An "instant runoff" ballot for voting

Characteristic 7: A president of the republic would be directly elected, without anything like the electoral college.

The “instant runoff” system would be used to elect a president of the republic, with the winner being whoever got the most total points. By avoiding any electoral college system, there would be no possibility of any candidate losing the election to another candidate who got more popular support, due to some electoral fluke such as occurred in 2000 when Gore lost to Bush even though Gore got more votes nationwide.

Characteristic 8: Anyone would be able to vote without any prior registration.

It is absurd that under our current system people are barred from voting because they didn't remember to register weeks earlier. Such a system effectively rules out large fractions of the populations from voting.

It is easy to imagine advanced technology that could make this possible. There could, for example, be a retina scanner or fingerprint scanner that would upload to a national database. If anyone tried to vote twice on the same day, a computerized system would immediately prevent the second attempt to vote.

Characteristic 9: The voting age would be lowered to age 16.

We currently put our lives (and the lives of our children) in the hands of teenagers of age 16, by allowing them to get driver's licenses. But we do not allow the same people to merely vote. Anyone old enough to drive is old enough to vote.

Characteristic 10: Political contributions by corporations would be forbidden, and contributions by individuals would be limited to a small amount.

To prevent corporations from having influence over elections to favor their selfish ends, in our fairer future republic it would be illegal for a corporation to make contributions to anyone's election campaign. There would also be a limit on how much any individual could contribute during a particular election, a limit such as 100 dollars. This would prevent rich people from heavily influencing elections for the sake of their own selfish ends.