This week, we talk with DJ Grothe, President of the James Randi Educational Foundation. We discuss freethought, scientific skepticism, and social justice activism.
You may also download the podcast file here.
Posted on 04 February 2014.
This week, we talk with DJ Grothe, President of the James Randi Educational Foundation. We discuss freethought, scientific skepticism, and social justice activism.
You may also download the podcast file here.
Posted on 21 January 2014.
This week, for Conversations for a Cause, we talk with Russell Blackford, philosopher and co-author of 50 Great Myths About Atheism. We talk with him about misconceptions about atheism. Then, we discuss his views on theology and the ethics of human enhancement.
Conversations for a Cause is a series of interviews with celebrity freethinkers, part of an online donation drive to support ongoing Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) relief and rehabilitation efforts.
You may also download the podcast file here.
Posted on 21 January 2014.
This week, for Conversations for a Cause, we talk with Russell Blackford, philosopher and co-author of 50 Great Myths About Atheism. We talk with him about misconceptions about atheism. Then, we discuss his views on theology and the ethics of human enhancement.
You may also download the episode file here.
Posted on 01 December 2013.
This is the first in a series of interviews with celebrity freethinkers, part of an online donation drive to support ongoing Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) relief and rehabilitation efforts.
(You may also download the podcast file here.)
Red: Good morning, Mr. Dennett!
Red: Hello, am I coming out clear?
Dennett: Yep, very clear
Red: Ok, so like I said, thank you so much for participating in this benefit webathon that we’re doing for the relief effort that’s ongoing right now. And so let’s get to it so that we can talk about many things. Our organisation is a freethought organisation and one of the things that keeps coming up in our discussions is whether a freethinker or a skeptic or someone who claims to be a critical thinker necessarily has to be an atheist or a materialist. Like, can they be honest and maintain a theist’s position?
Dennett: Well, I suppose it must be possible in some regard because I know a lot of people who are very intelligent and are very sincere and intellectually honest in every way and in every other regard and they still somehow manage to at least profess some theistic beliefs. I always have my doubts about how much advantage they’re taking of a metaphoric interpretation of what they say. I often suspect that they’re deceiving themselves. But it seems like a rather mild form of self-deception if that’s what it is and maybe we should just give them the advantage of the doubt and say ok, I don’t know how you do it, but apparently it’s possible.
Red: So you think it’s kind of a belief in belief as you have mentioned several times.
Dennett: Well, it’s certainly belief in belief. That is to say for one reason or another, they’ve decided that believing in god is a really good thing. It’s something they aspire to, and if you aspire to something, sometimes it helps to claim you’ve already achieved it. As the Alcoholics Anonymous slogan says, “fake it til you make it”. And that sounds a little crass, but when it works, it works.
Red: And speaking of that, there are people who actually say they believe, but they do not. Like you did a 2010 study on this, on preachers who are still preachers but are no longer believers. Can you tell us a bit about the findings of that study?
Dennett: Yes, in fact we’ve just done wrapping up the second phase. The book should be out before Christmas.
Red: Great. We look forward to reading that. Can you give us some spoilers? Of course we’ll be getting the book when it’s out – the connection is… it’s back, but there’s a problem with the call Hold on while we try to get the call back. – Ok, sorry about that, our call was dropped for some reason.
Dennett: Ok let’s see, I guess we’re back now.
Red: So, can you give us some spoilers about your upcoming book?
Dennett: Well, we’ve got several dozen more preachers that Linda’s interviewed. They had different stories and we’ve, also ended (?) a bit to talk to for instance seminary professors who teach the students, cause a lot of the dynamic of falling out of faith and becoming a non-believing preacher starts in the seminary and I think it’s a very moving book, actually and fascinating. There are so many ways that people find themselves drifting imperceptibly, always with good intentions into a real situation where they’re stuck in the hope then no longer believing.
Red: Yeah, I’m sure their stories are quite fascinating I’ve read about people like Dan Barker and John Loftus who have lost their faith and have now sorta become like preachers for the other side, like champions of atheists and non-belief. Can you tell us, of course there’s a trend of atheist churches. Have you heard of that? What do you think of that new trend?
Dennett: Well, I guess I applaud the idea, but I doubt it’s gonna work. I think we do have the need, a real pressing need especially in the United States for good alternatives, good institutional community alternatives to churches without the supernaturalism, without the irrationalism, just good community spirited groups which is what churches have been very often in the past and people who have wanted to form groups of that sort are wise to adopt as many of the design features of religion that they should bear in some regards because those are time tested design elements that have proven their worth over the centuries, so music, unison, don’t call it prayer, but reciting in unison, standing and saying gets the heart pumping a little. These are all good things and f we can enlist them, I don’t see why you can’t, really. I mean, we have weddings and funerals and commencement ceremonies, graduation ceremonies that work as rituals. I think rituals are a perfectly fine idea. The trick is a lot of people that you want in these organisations are really averse to rituals.
Red: Yeah I have a similar experience here whenever you mention something vaguely or remotely like the church, freethinkers would be against it and of course there are some people who think that there is nothing about religion that you can use. Like these are the self-professed militant atheists or sometimes they call themselves anti-theists, even. And there has recently been a backlash against this kind of militant or more aggressive type of atheism and do you think that that kind of way of promoting scepticism has already run its course that it’s maybe time for a more compassionate and friendly kind of scepticism?
Dennett: It may be. But I tend to think that we’re still in the period when we wanna have different strokes for different folks. There’s some people that need that pail of cold water in the face that militant atheism offers. And we wanna make sure that we address the religious people on all fronts. But actually, yes. I’ve been saying recently that I think the corner has been turned that we should take seriously the fact that it really hurts to give up your religion. If you see your children falling away from the traditions you grew up with and this is something that has meant something to you all your life, this is a very painful period. And we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we will be liked by people for being the bearers of this bad news that their religion is crumbling. So I think that compassion is called for, yes.
Red: Definitely and speaking of a change of approach or a more compassionate approach, the new Roman Catholic pope has been getting a lot of positive press even from sceptics. Even from atheists or people who are really critical of organized religion. What do you think of this guy?
Dennett: Well, the Machiavellian answer was given, in effect, by Richard Dawkins who a year or two ago, when we were wondering whether Ratzinger should resign, we hope not. Because he thought that a rigid conservative like that was just the man to bring the church to its knees. So in one regard, we might rather wish to have a more unbending and unlovable pope because it would continue to drive people away from the Roman Catholic Church. Now, Francis is obviously deeply intent on preventing that from happening. And bringing the wanderers back into the church and probably having some significant success, although it’s very interesting to see the church hierarchy is getting very very resistant to this. There’s been a lot of quite surprisingly public backlash against the new pope which must be quite something for him to contemplate.
Red: Yes, and in our group, there are still people who are Catholics and they are progressive Catholics which is why they’re part of a freethinking organisation and they are hoping that pope Francis is finally the person to usher in progressive change into the church. With your experience and knowing the cultural basis that the RC is founded on, do you think that there is still hope for meaningful change in the RC, or do you think that the change in the RC will just be cosmetic?
Dennett: I think that what’s likely to happen is the church changes cosmetically too slowly to preserve itself. I think right now, we’re in a very chaotic period where all religions are gonna have to change dramatically or they’re going to go extinct. And they can go extinct very fast. There’s remarkably little momentum, I think, in any church in spite of the fact that it has a tremendous portfolio of money and thousands and thousands of churches and all these rituals and offices. If people start abandoning the church, it can fall apart very fast. And I have said that I think the religions are gonna change more in the next 10 or 20 years than it did in the last century. And it did change more in the last century than it did in the last two millennia. And the accelerated change brought about by the new transparency of information is really striking. No church has yet to figure out how to deal with that.
Red; Yes, and you mention that you think that religion will change in a very rapid way. What do you think the direction is gonna be? I read some people speculate that in the future, religion will probably go in the way of humanism, or secularism. So do you think that that is correct?
Dennett: Well, it’s hard to say. Let’s look at some of the candidates. In the US, the mega churches, and some of them are actually having troubles now are drawing people away from the evangelical and fundamentalist churches and drawing them into these glittering new mega churches. And their recipe seems to be they’re basically country clubs and day care centres and they have yoga classes and lots of parking and swimming pools and trips around the world, and they have services with lots of soft rock music. And they go out of their way to avoid being very churchy. And basically as long as you are one with Jesus, then whatever you believe is right. But what does that mean? Well, whatever you like is what it means.
Red: So yeah, religions are of course not created equal. Some have survived better than others and of course that says nothing about how ethical or how good a religion it is. But as a humanist or a sceptic, of all the religions that you have surveyed, which would you consider the most ethical? Like if there were only a few religions remaining, what would you prefer it to be?
Dennett: Well, that’s a hard one, actually. Because in part through this study that Linda and I have done, I’ve come to appreciate more the personal costs to the clergy of the ultra-liberal religions where the clergy are basically required to speak in metaphors but not admit it. Because there’s a sorta double-speak there. The old folks in the church hear the preacher and they think the preacher is speaking literally. The young folks understand that this is all metaphor and this creates a sort of systematic dishonesty within the church that can be smothered for generations, but this can be one of the real difficulties that the churches face whereas the literal conservative churches mean what they say and when someone falls away from that, they fall hard. And so ethical… Well, you know the Unitarians are a pretty well established organisation; doesn’t appeal to everybody, but they certainly are ethical and doing good works is right at the top of their list and I find that attractive.
Red: And aside from the Unitarians, people who lose sight of religion, they tend to go through this phase where they say I’m not religious, I’m spiritual. What is your take on this?
Dennett: My take on it is benign neglect and tolerance. I’m not gonna hound somebody who says that. I don’t think they know what they mean by spiritual but they’re well-meaning. They think they mean something good and probably they do. They mean that they’re serious that they want their life to mean something; mean something ethical. If that’s what they mean, then I’m all for spirituality. But for some of them it just means adopting a sort of gullible new age enthusiasm for almost anything that comes along.
Red: Yes, and of course there are those who do not turn spiritual and actually cling to their religion as hard as they can. And it’s something that we actually take in this country especially in times of calamity, like with Typhoon Yolanda and of course statistically, where there is poverty and existential insecurity, religion tends to thrive. Do you think that it’s right for sceptics to criticise that kind of thinking in a time like this or when is the right time, or is there a right time?
Dennett: Yes. Very important point. The statistics on this are just overpowering. It’s precisely where people are worse off, where they are most insecure where poverty reigns, where states are on the edge of being failed states. This is where religion thrives and I can see exactly why it thrives. People are desperate and they need something to cling to and it’s their source of hope. And as soon as times get better, they start wandering away from the church. This is something that Calvin noted and he realised the other sort of paradox: the very Calvinistic virtues that he was teaching in Switzerland. When they succeeded, the parishioners became less interested in their church. They didn’t have to be as dependent on the church. And I think that for the same reason we would never advise somebody, a sceptic, to try to talk someone in the last days of their life, to talk them out of their religion. That’s just cruel. Their fantasy may help them and it doesn’t hurt anybody. And if right now, in the terrible straits that people are in in the Philippines, I think that anything that encourages them to help the person next to them and not think of the person next to them as competing for that last scrap of food or that last bit of shelter, but instead, anything that will encourage mutual aid and cooperation and a sense of hope, don’t extinguish that. Let it go. We can reflect once people are well-fed and housed. We can reflect on what it all means. But not right now. Not until we get them in better shape.
Red: So it’s one thing to say that we shouldn’t criticize religion so much because people need it. Another kind of thing that’s happening here right now, there’s this anti-critical meme going around that’s saying that we shouldn’t be critical of the government, you shouldn’t be critical of people trying to help or even use blatant lies to inspire others. What do you think of this? What about the critics who think that criticism is a valuable thing by itself? And who are afraid that being uncritical at this time will let those people who deserve critical at this time go?
Dennett: I think this is actually a tough question, a tough issue. Suppose that you were living in a state that was on the edge of becoming a failed state; about to collapse into economic chaos and political chaos. And suppose that you knew some facts about the government which if you wrote about them in your newspaper would pretty well guarantee the collapse of the state. Meanwhile, suppose that there are investors that are just about ready to invest in improvements and there’s a whole lot of help that’s on the way, but it will evaporate overnight if you blow the whistle. I mean I think we can tell that story and put the details in such a way that one will have to think very hard about how much buttoning my lip, how much silence can I justify if that silence will or might preserve and improve a situation? But of course the trouble is it’s almost impossible to make those judgements in an informed way. You’re taking a chance; there’s always going to be these scoundrels who will leap into that silence and take advantage of it. So, it’s a hard one. But you do have to recognise that you might be risking just the utter collapse and sometimes you might be thinking “well utter collapse with truth is better than hanging on with our fingernails to a lie”. That may be true, but once a state fails, it’s very very hard to put it back in order. We’ve seen this around the world. When you see a failed state, it seems just about impossible to recover any sense of security and trust in the country.
Red: I’d like to talk more about the idea of that, failed states. But first let’s talk about cultural evolution. You mentioned the idea of cultural fleas, like these memes that are passed on but aren’t necessarily beneficial, like do you think that religion is a cultural flea, or what are cultural fleas that peeve you in particular?
Dennett: Yes, I feel that culture as containing a lot of elements; not all cultural elements that are basically well perceived as symbiotic creatures. They are, they’re like fleas and mice and rats and cockroaches. They have evolved to thrive in human company, but they don’t do us any good, but they’re so hard to eradicate. And malicious gossip, crazy folk beliefs that are harmful, racist attitudes, hazing traditions in organisations where the initiation rites are mean and cruel and demeaning. There’s a few examples right there and some religious rituals that don’t do anyone any good, but they’re very good at prolonging themselves. They survive like the common cold because they can.
Red: Of course you’re talking about these cultural fleas, these memes, right? But memes are used in a different sense, like most people are more familiar with internet memes. Like in the Philippines, being often called the social media capital of the world, we get a lot of things on social media such as memes and all these things. What do you think of this social media like do you think that it’s something that will dramatically change society or culture for the better or is it something that could go both ways?
Dennett: It could go both ways. First of all, let me say something about internet memes and software memes. The word has been appropriated, meme is not in a way a bad thing but since these are clearly intelligently designed, like people intently trying to make a viral video or to make a viral slogan; so that the source of these is not the memetic source that Dawkins was talking about this is not mindless bottom up Darwinian evolution, this is intelligent design of memes, which is why we’re intelligent designers.
Red: But we exist!
Dennett: We exist and we’re not that intelligent, but we’re more intelligent than in the early days of cultural evolution, so if we talk about those as memes, then we have to abandon what is perhaps their defining feature which is that they are created and designed and improved by differential selection and not by clever designers. But then, what about social media? What kind of change is that going to achieve? I think some good and some bad. I think that the fact that social media have expanded our world so that the whole world is my village and geographic distance is no barrier anymore. That has many positives, now that aside, it also has a negative and that is that we don’t know our neighbours. And we have people who are turning their back on their neighbourhood and devoting themselves to living in cyberspace. And I think that’s not only unfortunate, but I think that’s actually very dangerous. I think that if, for instance, the internet were to collapse, as it could, people have become so dependent on it that they would panic. And this would be a very nasty world. That would be a very nasty thing.
Red: I can certainly agree that people would panic if the internet collapsed. So you mentioned intelligent design and I am very thankful that creationism is not such a problem in this country; however, dogmatism is. And it’s what’s kept progress in the social justice arena quite stalled. Like for example, we have this reproductive health law that cannot be implemented because of religious opposition. Now these religious people who oppose this contraceptive law, they’ve wizened up and they’ve evolved somehow and they’re now using science on their side. They’re citing these supposed scientific experts who say “Hey, we have just as much science and evidence and logic on our side.” Now it becomes a battle of who has the better scientist, who to cite. What do you think about this problem?
Dennett: First of all, I wanna know who on earth are the scientists that are on the other side? And what are their credentials? Are there any of them that have any important posts in any lab or scientific institution?
Red: They do not, actually. And the problem is that the scientific literacy here is not so high so there really needs to be more information on how to be sure of your scientific sources.
Dennett: Yeah, this is one of the side effects/ by products of the democratization of the communication world which is unfortunate. Because there was a certain amount of quality control in the somewhat authoritarian or bureaucratic pecking order that scientists, well, if you’re a scientist at MIT, or CalTech or Oxford, that’s one thing. And if you’re a scientist at East Poland (?) junior college, it’s something else but the opinions of the least educated, least accomplished scientists can now be trumpeted just as widely as the opinions of the very best experts in the field. That’s a real problem.
Red: And you of course agree that critical thinking is a very important thing to have. You wrote a book called Intuition Pumps. How do you think we can increase the value put on critical thinking in such a conservative and religious culture such as ours?
Dennett: Good question. I don’t have any fast recipes. I’ve got a few ideas. I would think that it might be possible to create little dramas and what medium or form they would take, I don’t know where there’s this solution to a problem which requires a little critical thinking in a surprising way. And the hero is—and maybe the whole audience can see “Oh if you just put on your sceptical glasses, you’ll see what you have to do to get out of this problem” and it might enliven the appreciation of critical thinking if you had some children who were at first teased or belittled for their being sceptics, and then they save the day in one or another, that might help.
Red: Yeah, another idea or problem that has been brought up with this whole weather disaster that’s been happening in the Philippines is how capitalism has somehow caused or accelerated global warming. And a lot of people are thinking that maybe we should challenge the idea of capitalism, celebrities like Russell Brand have even gone viral with that speech he did. And what do you think about this? About how capitalism can somehow evolve into something quite different?
Dennett: Well, I haven’t heard about Russell Brand’s speech, now I’m curious. Seems to me like he’s a rather unlikely spokesman for that considering what capitalism has brought to him. But never mind that. He might have had a valuable change of heart. He is an intelligent man in many regards. I think that we really did learn in the late 20th century that plant economies just don’t work. And it doesn’t work for rather deep reasons. So some forms of capitalism tempered and modified and partially controlled, I think, you gotta have it. For instance, let’s take seriously, the wonderful effects of micro-financing in the 3rd world. This is a great movement, bringing micro-financing around the world, and mainly to women, and of course that’s capitalism, but it’s improving a lot of women and it’s improving the health and safety and welfare of people all over the world. The thing is, to prevent the excesses of capitalism and that is a scary thing because the multinational corporations are now in some regards operating with impunity that is states are having a hard time controlling them. And that’s definitely worrying.
Red: You used anarchy as an analogy for how the brain actually works and you speculated that the human creativity was possible because of that kind of organization. Now I was wondering if you thought that translated into the real world? That if we had such a system, it would greatly accelerate the kind of human society that we could have? What are your thoughts on this? The possibility of a real world application of the analogy that you used for the brain
Dennett: Oh I think that’s actually pretty obvious. If you look at very rigidly, hierarchically, controlled societies, creativity is hard to find. *laughs* I mean, the point that tempers that is that I think all really creative artists recognize that constraints are important for creativity. A lot of the greatest arts for instance was done under commission by a church or a state; where a very specific artistic task, a theme, “this is for the glorification of the king” or “this is to commemorate the battle of such” and these were often not particularly inspiring commissions. But the fact that they, the artist, had to work with that framework, they had to come up with something wonderful inside that straightjacket led to some of the greatest strokes of creativity ever. So constraint is not a bad thing for creativity; it’s just too much constraint which is the problem.
Red: Ok and of course I know that anarchy is something that this group of people would not want to happen. I am talking about objectivists, the Ayn Rand kind of objectivists. In our group, I, in particular, personally have some difficulty conversing or discussing or debating with two kinds of people, objectivists and post-modernists. So they’re on opposite sides of the spectrum; one is so certain the other says there can be no certainty whatsoever. What’s your take on this?
Dennett: *laughs* I think the right idea is to put them all in a room and let them fight it out. They deserve each other.
Red: *laughs* Well, thank you for that. I’ll see if that can be arranged.
Dennett: Yeah, work for it. It’s good. *laughs*
Red: *laughs* So but as philosophies, how valid do you think those stances actually are?
Dennett: Not at all. I think they’re threadbare and incoherent and actually socially pernicious.
Red: *laughs* Well thank you for that. That made me laugh and happy inside. So one last question from me before I bring the discussion to the wider audience online and in this room. Recently, I’ve read another skeptical writer, Guy Harrison. He wrote about how skepticism should be a sort of social advocacy. It kinda reminds me of the work of William Clifford in Ethics of Belief when he said that we have an ethical duty to spread skepticism because if people aren’t skeptical, it’s not good for society. So do you think that people like us who have this critical thinking, freethinkers of all sorts, have the ethical responsibility to let others, teach others, influence others to think skeptically as well?
Dennett: Oh yes absolutely. Absolutely, of course. I think that’s one of our primary obligations. Absolutely.
Red: Yeah of course a lot of atheists, they start out just being pissed off at religion. They feel that they’ve been duped. But I feel personally that they have to go beyond that and to look to social justice causes. Do you agree with this kind of thinking?
Dennett: Well, I certainly think that what freethinking groups, humanists, atheists, what all these groups should do, is not just sit around badmouthing religion but do good works. For instance, what you’re doing right now is exactly the right thing to be doing because you are helping your fellow citizens in a time of crisis. You’re dropping everything and coming to their aid and you’re doing it under the banner of freethought and I think it’s very important that we do that because my own impression of how people in the United States, particularly say in the Bible Belt, the reason the churches are so strong there is that young people looking around and thinking they want to be good. They wanna have good lives. They wanna do good things. The only groups that they see doing good things in organizations are the churches. So they figured that what they have to do to have a good life, to be good. We wanna show “No, no, no, we have the muscle, we have the organization. We have the team spirit. We can do good things too.”
Posted on 22 November 2013.
If I may venture why our country is in such a dire state, it is because we have a huge lack of leaders who are technologists. Just look at our current crop of leaders: we have mostly lawyers, actors, celebrities and even ex-convicts (as well as convicts-to-be). How our government is run reflects this quite accurately. Go to almost any government office and see.
You will see “lawyers” who make you go around in circles and who burden you with a lot of procedures and requirements to follow. You will see “actors” pretending to work but are actually playing Candy Crush or chatting with their officemates — and yes, this happens even in relief operations in Tacloban as related by a volunteer through her facebook account where she says, “It breaks my heart seeing bottled waters outside the warehouse spread like garbage, rice grains scattered like no one cares, relief boxes literally being dumped by trucks without thinking that whatever inside maybe damage, reliefs outside the warehouse soaked in the rains, and you DSWD staff at the warehouse spending your day talking/chatting/seating while there are a lot of things need to be done ASAP”).
You will see “celebrities” who want to take credit for work done by others, who want their faces and names stamped on projects funded by people’s money. And of course, there are always the ex-convicts and convicts-to-be who are very good at finding ways to line their own pockets.
For the past few years, and particularly in the last decade alone, technologists have been at the forefront of changing how people act, interact and live — and their impact is felt not just in their locality but all over the world. How many people are now dependent on Google, Facebook and Twitter? How many billions and trillions of transactions take place using the internet, cellphones and tablets?
It is clear that the leader of the future, who will have the most influence and impact, should be a technologist. The leader himself may not be a scientist or an engineer per se, but he must have the heart of one. He must be keenly interested in technology and what it can do. Because above all else, a technologist wants only one thing: to solve problems.
And boy, do we have a ton of problems in our country.
How can technology solve our problems? Let me give 3 examples.
Posted on 15 November 2013.
This week we talk about the conspiracy theory that microwaves were used to generate the devastating Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). Then, we discuss when it’s okay to criticize in times of crisis.
Join us on our live webshow on November 16, 2013. 10 AM to 8 PM (GMT +8). Help raise funds for relief efforts for victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan.
You may also download the podcast file here.
Posted on 30 August 2013.
In recent posts on Facebook and Twitter, the social media accounts of the ABS-CBN show Hiwaga asked the following question: “Ayon sa teorya ni Charles Darwin, nagmula ang mga tao sa unggoy… kaya maari bang bumalik uli tayo dito? (According to the theory of Charles Darwin, humans came from monkeys… so is it possible that we will go back to being monkeys?)”
This leading question, even if not representative of the entire content of the episode, is still reprehensible for its sensationalism of the theory of evolution, a sensationalism that can contribute to worsening the public’s misapprehension of Darwin’s theory. However, given the new show’s track record so far, it is likely that the people in charge of the show, including host Atom Araullo, will make monkeys out of themselves in their treatment of the monkeys-to-men question.
In this article, I will start by fleshing out my criticism of the post on Darwin’s theory, then I will go on to criticize the very spirit of shows like Hiwaga. I will extend this criticism to cover all forms of superstition, pseudoscience, and sloppy science in Philippine TV. Finally I will appeal to the show’s host Atom Araullo, who is an alumnus of Philippine Science High School and the University of the Philippines, an applied physics graduate, and an activist, to find it in his conscience to leave the program and criticize it publicly.
Of Monkeys and Men
So what about monkeys and men? According to the theory of evolution, apes, including humans, share a recent common ancestor with modern monkeys. Careful comparison of bones and body structure, as well as analyses of genes and biomolecules, helped establish the phylogenetic tree (a sort of family tree of species) of apes and monkeys. The tree below showing the relatedness of apes (like chimps, gorillas, and humans) and monkeys (like the Philippine macaque) explain why they have many similarities and important differences.
Does this say we come from monkeys? Sinasabi ba nito na nanggaling tayo sa unggoy? No and yes. What this says is that apes and monkeys share a fairly recent common ancestor. The last ancestor shared by the Old World monkeys and apes lived a bit more than 20 million years ago (mya). This ancestor probably looked more like modern monkeys than like apes, and if it were still alive today we would probably call it a monkey. In other words, we humans descended from monkey-like ancestors that lived more than 20 mya. But we did not come from modern monkeys or chimpanzees; the fellow shown in the picture below is a relative of ours, not an ancestor nor a “primitive” form of human.
Why is this issue of the exact relationship between monkey and man so important as to lead me to criticize the post on Hiwaga’s social media accounts? Here’s why the theory of evolution is important.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, independently discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace, explains the origin of diversity in the living world. It tells us that all living organisms on Earth are related, but by different degrees. The modern version of the theory of evolution can also explain many aspects of living things, such as why many plants have colorful flowers, why certain bacteria produce very potent toxins, and why animals behave in certain ways.
The theory of evolution is important because we and the flora and fauna we depend on are products of evolution; to understand ourselves and the organisms around us, a correct understanding of evolution is necessary. To provide a concrete example, the rice we eat is a product of artificial selection, a process very similar to natural selection, and some genetic engineering. The recent attacks on ‘golden rice’ research in the Philippines is partly due to a serious lack of understanding about how artificial and natural selection work.
Evolution also affects us not just in geological time but also in real time. The critters that plague our farms and the viruses and bacteria that make us sick undergo evolution within our lifetimes. Failure to grasp the effects of evolution on the scale of a few years can lead to unscientific and dangerous positions such as being against vaccines.
In addition to the direct importance of understanding evolution, sensational simplifications contribute greatly to the spread of misunderstandings such as that embodied by statements like “So why are there still monkeys around if we came from monkeys?” Science sensationalism also gives fodder to anti-scientific movements like creationism.
These are but a few reasons why the theory of evolution is important, and why its sensationalism by Hiwaga and other media outlets deserves criticism. I understand that the journalistic intention behind the post is to catch people’s attentions using a language familiar to them, thereby increasing the probability that they will watch the show. That is no excuse for sensationalism. I just hope that the people behind the show, especially its host Atom Araullo, will redeem themselves during the episode itself. And this show needs a lot of redeeming, as we will soon see.
Superstition and Sloppy Science
Several studies have shown that the science and math aptitudes of most Filipino students are dismal. It does not help that the few science-related shows on TV exhibit sloppy thinking in their explanation of scientific concepts. Kim Atienza’s Matanglawin is a good example of this, but since using it as an example is too easy, let me use another. This clip from the GMA show iBilib demonstrates the fact that water and oil do not mix. Host Chris Tiu shows the viewers how the hydrophobic properties of oil can be use to make a “dagat in a bottle”. The show’s aim of making science accessible to Filipino kids is admirable. Unfortunately, the show, at least to me, lacks the philosophical dimension necessary to make students interested in science and not just in the tinkering of household stuff. Spectacular and cute phenomena are a great way to pique kids’ interest, but the focus should not be on the spectacle. The wow factor must simply be a means to get kids to be curious, skeptical, and scientific. If Bill Nye can make a science program just with these specifications, then I believe iBilib must do it too.
My beef with iBilib and similarly sloppy science programs like Kim Atienza’s Matanglawin, however, is with its frequent use of sloppy or even erroneous scientific explanations of the phenomena. The clip showing the sea-in-a-bottle demonstration is just one of the many instances where Tiu throws a sloppy or erroneous explanation at the curious people who watch his show. In the clip, the host is wrong in saying that oil and water do not mix because of their different densities. Water and alcohol mix even if their densities are different. Fresh water and saltwater also mix even though the latter is slightly denser than the former. If a science show claims things that can be contradicted by kids’ experiences, what will that tell the young viewers about science’s role in describing nature?
To Chris Tiu: Density is the reason why the oil layer is above the water layer, but it does not explain why water and oil do not mix. The actual explanation of non-mixing is more subtle and marvelous. Next time, double check and triple check your script before you say it in front of an entire nation of admiring young viewers. This is not the only instance in which you relayed wrong information to those kids. You owe them an apology and you need to make amends.
And now back to Atom Auraullo and Hiwaga. If Chris Tiu in iBilib frequently exhibits haphazard thinking, Atom in Hiwaga is mostly just peddling superstition and pseudoscience on Philippine TV. The woo starts from the very title of the program. I’m already worried about the title of iBilib, because it seems to imply that science is a matter of belief. So you can imagine my reaction when I heard that there was another show entitled Hiwaga, a Filipino word that means “mystery”. When I saw promotional videos of the TV program, my worries about it were confirmed. In this episode of the show, for example, Atom interviews an “expert” on Feng Shui. In another episode, Araullo discusses so-called out of body experiences and “astral projections”. Still another episode entertains the possibility of premonitions.
Hiwaga is unfortunately just the latest incarnation in a long series of shows and segments on Philippine TV clearly capitalizing on Filipino supernatural and unscientific beliefs. Shows like Rated K hosted by Korina Sanchez and Kapuso Mo Jessica Soho are just a few of the other programs that ride the sensational wave of superstition and pseudoscience. The use of “umano” and “daw” in the reporting of supernatural claims rarely help, as these program hosts regularly fail to amply discuss the lack of scientific merits of the claims they report. In the end, these shows’ ‘di umanos just remind us of Pontius Pilate. What these umanos and daws effectively do is to allow the TV programs to throw mountains of claptrap into the viewing public while absolving the show runners of the guilt of misinformation. Well, I’m sorry Korina and Jessica, what you and many other journalists are doing is still misinformation. Why? Because the discussions on the value of skepticism in your shows are frequently inadequate, sometimes even watered down by closing messages that go along the along the lines of “let’s be open minded about these things” or “science does not know everything and life is full of mysteries woooo…” Your umanos and daws do not absolve you.
To the writers, researchers, producers, and hosts of TV programs that promote superstition among Filipinos, I ask you to rethink your values. I believe I don’t need to preach the importance of science and the dangers of superstition and pseudoscience to the lot of you, you should know it by now. Hence, let me just remind you that your aim is to inform the Filipino people, not befuddle them. You should never sacrifice the truth in the name of higher ratings. I understand that most Filipinos are ignorant and superstitious, and that a show about superstition will appeal to them more than a show about skepticism. But you should give them programs that they need, not programs they want.
A Request to Atom Araullo
As promised in the start of this article, I will end my piece by making an appeal to Atom Araullo’s better judgment.
As a good-looking Pisay and UP alumnus working in media, you have great powers. Your responsibilities are therefore equally great, and chief among these is your responsibility of informing the public on correct ways of thinking about the world. As a science graduate, an activist, and a reporter, your duty to seek, fight for, and relay the truth demands that you rethink your role in the show. Try educating the writers and executives of the program on the proper ways of reporting supernatural claims. The local superstitions and ghost stories you tackle in the show are excellent entry points into critical thinking, skepticism, and scientific reasoning, and you should use them as such. Intriguing questions that the Filipino public can relate to are excellent in catching their attention, but since your subject matter is very sensitive, the writers should be very careful with the wording of your script. You should not forget to stress the value of skeptical inquiry and the importance of demanding extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.
Finally, if those writers, researchers, and executives cannot be convinced, I appeal to your better judgment as a person to please leave that show and criticize it publicly.
Pecier C. Decierdo
Science Advocacy Director
Posted on 29 August 2013.
The world of quantum mechanics is strange, that much is true. Quantum theory paints a world where tiny particles can get entangled over cosmic distances, where teleportation is possible, where uncertainty is not simply a product of experimental imperfections but is fundamental in nature, and where vacuum is a seething broth of virtual particles popping in and out of existence from nothingness.
Unfortunately, the strangeness of the quantum world has been grossly abused either by those who do not understand quantum mechanics, or those who wish to benefit from this lack of understanding. Merchants who sell crystals claimed to have “healing quantum vibrations”, writers like Deepak Chopra who preach about the mind’s power in influencing events via “quantum consciousness”, and proponents of farming methods based on “quantum agriculture” are just a few examples in the long list of people who peddle quantum quackery. In fact, most of these charlatans altogether forgo trying to understand what quantum theory is about. For them, the word ‘quantum’ is a shroud of mystery, a veil of ignorance behind which lie phenomena forever beyond the reach of scientific scrutiny. These people not only spread bad science, they spread a value that is antithetical to learning. In other words, they promote a mindset that is anti-scientific. This is why we cannot cut these guys any slack.
How do we distinguish quantum quackery from genuine studies in quantum theory? In an interview with NBC News science editor Alan Boyle, physicist Lawrence Krauss gave a few tips in detecting quantum quackery. What follows are some additional quick guides to quantum baloney detection.
Rule of thumb #1: Quantum quacks rarely, if at all, refer to the basic principles of quantum physics.
Quantum theory involves a lot of laws, equations, and principles, although some of these are so basic and fundamental to the field that they are referred to in almost all discussions. A good example would be the concept of the wave function. The wave function is a mathematical entity that contains everything we know about the particle, like its energy or the probability of finding it somewhere in space. When something uses the word “quantum” but does not depend on the concept of a wave function or a similarly fundamental quantum concept, it probably has nothing to do with quantum theory.
Rule of thumb #2: Quantum quacks misapply the weirdness of quantum phenomena at the wrong scale.
Soccer balls, unlike electrons, don’t diffract if you make them pass through slits. And unlike a small particle, you cannot walk through a solid wall by continuously bumping against it. There is no real-world Platform 9 ¾.
Quantum mechanics, being our best theory of matter and forces to date, governs the behaviors of electrons and soccer balls alike. However, even though the laws of physics don’t change across different scales, their manifestations do. This is true even in classical physics, and is the reason why you can’t have ants as big as elephants, or why the physics of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is all wrong (because, you know, square-cube law). The predictions of quantum theory agree with classical mechanics in the scale of the everyday, a scale that includes soccer balls, fruits, and vegetables. You cannot treat a tomato as both particle and wave, and you cannot treat crops as if they are “entangled” with the the stars.
Rule of thumb #3: Quantum quacks love making vague statements that, upon close inspection, actually mean nothing.
The Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator drives this point humorously.
Science, as opposed to pseudoscience, is distinguished by the precision of its language. We want scientific statements to be precise because we want to know how we can prove them wrong. In other words, we want to know if they can be falsified, and how, which brings us to the next rule of thumb.
Rule of thumb #4: Quantum quackery does not make falsifiable claims, which is an indication that it is in fact pseudoscience.
Quantum physics, being a science, makes claims that can be proven wrong by experimentation. That is something you cannot say about “quantum consciousness”. More importantly, the claims of quantum physics can be compared against measurements obtained through experimentation. This brings us to the next red flag of quantum quackery.
Rule of thumb #5:Quantum quacks don’t make quantitative predictions.
Quantum mechanics, like most of modern physics, is heavily mathematical. The point of all this math is to be able to make predictions that come in the form of measurable quantities. This is important because a quantitative prediction is the best form of falsifiable claim.
Rule of thumb #6: Like most peddlers of woo-woo, quantum quacks confuse criticism with persecution, and thus hate being criticized.
But science thrives because of skepticism and criticism. Like all scientific paradigms, quantum theory has passed the scrutiny and very high standards of the scientific community (and it has done so with flying colors). Also, like all scientific principles, you can convince yourself that it is true by performing your own experiments and calculations. And you can do this without fooling yourself or others. You cannot say the same about fields like, say, quantum agriculture.
tl;dr: People who use quantum jargon to make their woo-woo sound legitimate fail to understand that the quantum world, though weird by the standards of classical physics, is lawful. Quantum phenomena may be baffling, but they’re not magical. So when anything involves magical thinking, it’s probably pseudoscience.
Posted in ScienceComments (3)
Posted on 23 April 2013.
It’s that time again – the time for your weekly science updates. This is Lab Letters. Let’s go!
Hello doggie! An example of an evolved soft robot, showing natural-looking body structure and gait. The red and green blocks represent muscle-like materials. (Not shown: dark blue blocks represent bone, light blue blocks represent soft support/tissue) (source: Cheney, MacCurdy, Clune, & Lipson, Cornell/University of Wyoming)
Studying the evolution of a species can get tricky. There’s a lot of observing, measuring, cataloguing, sample collecting, testing, and waiting – especially for organisms that take a long time to mature. So a team of engineers at Cornell University in New York presumably just said, “Y’know what, evolutionary biology? We’ll just build our own organisms! With cubes and stuff!” That’s exactly what they did. Using a compositional pattern-producing network (CPPN), they built up block shaped robots consisting of 4 types of materials: bone, tissue, and two types of muscles. Then they laid down one rule: faster robots have more offspring. Then they let the simulation run. Here’s what happened:
So far, I’ve been able to make out a galloping sofa and a drunk goat. What do you see?
It’s alive! (1) Orysza sativa variety IR56 grown on normal soil (2) IR56 grown on salty soil (3) Oryza coarctata grown on salty soil (4) IR56 and O. coarctata’s first and second generation offspring, grown on salty soil. IRRI scientists hope to make this supercrop available to farmers in 4 to 5 years. (source: Jena/irri.org)
Don’t you just hate it when the Assyrian army marches into your city, burns your houses, kills your babies, enslaves you and your buddies, and then, just to make sure you’re completely screwed over, salts your land so that nothing can ever grow again? Well! Those Assyrians shouldn’t be so smug! The International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños has announced the successful production of a rice strain that can tolerate high amounts of salt in the soil. This new strain capable of tolerating twice as much salt as its predecessor was made by crossing two very genetically different rice species. The exotic wild rice O. coarctata can tolerate salt levels comparable to seawater, but isn’t edible. Meanwhile, O. sativa variety IR56 is a cultivated and edible species. Sounds easy? Out of 34,000 crosses, only three embryos were rescued, and only one embryo actually started growing.
The most massively useful thing an astronaut can have
Commander Chris Hadfield of the International Space Station has been busy showing us Earth-bound humans how astronauts live (eat, exercise, sleep, cry, pee) in space. In this video, he performs a simple experiment: what happens when you wring a wet towel in space?
The experiment was actually conceptualized by two grade 10 students in Nova Scotia, Canada, using items that are readily available in the ship.
Happy Earth Day! Here’s a picture showing the Earth, as seen from outer space. That there is the reusable Dragon spacecraft docked to the International Space Station.
That’s it for today, see you next time here on FF Lab Letters!
Posted in ScienceComments (0)
Posted on 14 May 2012.
I often facepalm hard whenever I see news outlets try to present “balanced views” on their programs. Usually they pit expert and scientific opinion (by giving them 5 minutes) vs the views of the Average Joe (and giving them the rest of the program), and then ask the viewers to “decide for themselves”, as if all opinions are of equal merit.
Unfair as it may sound, not all opinions are equal. When you want to build a house, do you ask a random guy on the street, or do you ask an architect? How about when you’re sick? Or need to have a contract checked? Do you ask the experts or do you ask random people?
It’s called “False Balance”. It may sound good and egalitarian, but giving airtime to those who have very little understanding about a specific subject is a great disservice to the rest of us. Not all views and opinions are valid, and some are more valid than others.
When Fox News (surprise!) gives moon landing hoaxers or anti-vaccination nutjobs a platform to spread their inanity, it gives them false credibility as an equal and valid opinion. When Larry King gives UFO conspiracy theorists airtime, the general public will likely perceive that both sides have equal merit.
I’m sorry to say, Andy, that when I read “Middle Ground”, I saw False Balance written all over it. Inadvertently or not, you used False Balance as a crutch to support theistic views while appearing to be “neutral”. The fact is, your views fall squarely into the Theist side.
I’d like to take a few minutes to point out where I disagree.
But if atheism is defined as “ the rejection of belief in the existence of deities“, I don’t think I’m quite there yet. So far, the atheism that I have seen is first and foremost, a rejection of the Christian deity (or the Christian definition of god as portrayed in the Bible). So far also, most of the atheists that I know who are actively espousing their non-belief come from some sort of Christian background. I do not know of any prominent atheist who started out as a muslim, a jew, a hindu, or a druid.
Atheism, in the broadest sense, is simply “a lack of belief in deities”. It’s not necessarily a “rejection” of belief in deities. Newborn babies are technically atheists, because they are incapable of forming a belief in deities. They can’t reject what they can’t even conceive of yet. There’s a simple question you can ask to determine if someone is an atheist. Just ask them: “Do you believe in the existence of a supernatural deity?”. If one cannot answer “Yes”, then one is an atheist.
Andy, I find it quite disingenuous of you to lump us all as just “Atheists” as if that word alone is enough to describe us all. You can only glean one thing when a person says that he/she is an atheist: That the person does not believe in deities. That’s it. Atheism says nothing about my personal beliefs, wants, hopes, and dreams. It says nothing about my attitudes towards other people. It says nothing about my views about myself and the world we live in.
Most atheists (not all mind you!) are skeptics, humanists, naturalists, secularists or a combination of them. It is from this point of view that I am responding to this article of yours.
My friend, the biggest reason most atheists you know come from a Christian background is because you live in a country that is predominantly Christian. The second reason is probably because you haven’t done much research on atheists and atheism. Maybe that’s why you’ve never heard of Salman Rushdie, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or Sanal Edamaruku. (Atheist Jews are a dime a dozen, if you care to do the research)
Because of this, most atheists speak out on issues that involve rejecting the Christian god and Christianity. Once that is done, this disbelief in god is expanded in a less hostile fashion to other religions (Islam is probably next in line in terms of getting atheist flak).
“Less hostile fashion”? How so? I am just as critical of Islam as I am of Christianity or any other religion that wishes to force itself upon all of us. It’s just that we almost never hear about non-Christian fundies here in our country.
However, just because an atheist has written off the existence of the Christian god does not automatically mean that there is no god of any sort. What is “god” after all, but just a word people use to represent and define some unknown higher power? People have tried to define this god by using words such as creator, source, omniscient and omnipotent. They have tried to characterize this god by attributes such as loving, kind, just, merciful, and so on. But these are just words,
I agree with much of what you say here…
and I believe in the possibility of a being that exists beyond these words.
…but I’d have to ask for proof here. Just because it’s “possible” doesn’t mean we should entertain it, much less assume it to be real, especially when facts and evidence point the other way. It’s much more possible that a ten meter asteroid would suddenly crash on your head right now, but will you bet on it? Will you hide in a bunker for the rest of your life just because it’s “possible”?
There is a lovely zen saying that goes, “When the sage points to the moon, the idiot looks at the finger.” The words and concepts we have for god are just parts of the finger pointing to something possibly out there, possibly greater than ourselves.
Lovely quote Andy, but we have proof that the moon exists. We have no proof that gods exist. Your analogy fails in this regard.
I cannot explain it other than saying that there is a feeling, an inner sense of something more profound than words can express.
Then what is the difference between your inner sense and the inner sense that tells Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc that THEIR religion is real? What makes your inner sense more valid than theirs? Because that is EXACTLY the same thing they will tell you about THEIR beliefs. It’s EXACTLY what they will use to say why YOU’RE wrong, and THEY’RE right.
You see, that is the reason why we atheists do not believe in gods. There is no evidence other than anecdotes. And the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data.
When Christians and atheists fight over doctrines and belief systems, it is like watching them fight over the pointing finger. It is briefly amusing and I won’t deny deriving a bit of satisfaction seeing my former belief questioned. However, this can’t go on forever. If we keep fighting over the finger, we will never get to see the moon.
Again, this presupposes that there IS actually a god of some sort. I suppose you feel a bit smug and superior watching us “fight over doctrines and belief systems”, but we atheists/agnostics don’t fight over doctrine and dogma. We fight against it.
For the atheists, ask yourselves whether it is possible to have a being higher than yourself. This being does not necessarily have to love you, nor listen to your prayers, nor conform to ANY concept of god that we currently have. If you think about the universe and what we yet don’t know about it, you’d have to at least consider the possibility of such a being, else you would be as close-minded as the fundamentalist you so despise.
You’re working under the assumption that all atheists ” believe there is no god”. The truth is, the vast majority of us only “disbelieve in gods”. Even the so-called militant atheists such as Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens allow for the small possibility that there might be a god. We realize we don’t know everything, unlike many devout believers.
And what do you mean by “being higher than ourselves”? In terms of what? Technology? Physical or mental capability? I think it is likely that aliens exist somewhere in the universe (and no, I don’t believe they’ve visited us already). Maybe they have greater technology, or greater mental and physical abilities, but they’d still be governed by the laws of nature. Also remember, we call ourselves A-THEISTS,not A-ALIENISTS. If you broaden your definition of “god” so much that you include mortal beings from other star systems, then you have rendered the term “god” meaningless.
As for your suggestion that we open our minds to the possibility that there might be a god, we’ve already done that. Give us solid proof of your god, and we’ll believe. However, worshiping him/her/it is another matter and I assure you, a far more difficult one to get us to do.
I believe in a middle ground, a place of mutual respect, where acceptance triumphs over bigotry, and where love triumphs over fear. After all, if we humans don’t get our act together, who will do it for us?
And so we go back to my original point. What you’re espousing is False Balance. In the Science vs Religion debate, one is supported by facts, reason, and evidence, and the other is backed by dogma, faith, and ideology. There is NO BALANCE there.
No my friend, yours is not the middle ground. Yours is the ground that enables the theist to make ridiculous claims without fear of backlash because it gives religious opinion equal weight vs scientific fact. Yours is the ground that enables extremists to commit horrible acts because it minimizes the efforts made by saner heads to expose extremism for what it is. Yours is the ground that enables Creationists to scream “teach the controversy“, “teach both sides”, and “evolution is just a theory” and actually be taken seriously. Yours is the ground that is smugly amused and snickers equally at both the side that brought us modern technology, medicine, and the Green Revolution and the side that upholds bigotry, fear, and blind obedience.
No, the middle ground isn’t yours. The middle ground is atheism/agnosticism/secularism. You are free to believe whatever you want so long as you do not force it upon everyone else. The only reason we are vocal and sometimes angry is because religion repeatedly tries to force itself upon our daily lives, when we just want to be left alone. If religion did not impinge upon our freedoms, you wouldn’t hear from us about it at all.
And no, the enemy of Theism isn’t Atheism. The enemy of Theism is Theism itself. What greater enemy does a religion have than other competing religions? Nothing incites a mob better than telling them that “Our God wants them destroyed”.
Besides, since when has religion ever fought for “mutual respect”, “acceptance over bigotry”, and “love over fear”? Slavery, misogyny, bigotry, infanticide, genocide and all the other evils of the world are espoused in the Holy Scriptures. The Bible is being used today to block the Reproductive Health Bill in our country (and the Quran used to justify misogyny in Islamic countries) the same way it was used back then in the United States to try to keep slavery legal.
In the words of UK Labour MP Jamie Reed:
“Seven years as an MP. Still waiting for a Christian to send me a letter on child poverty. Plenty on homosexuality and abortion.“
So go on, be amused as we atheists/agnostics/secularists fight against dogma and ideology, but if you really want “mutual respect”, “acceptance over bigotry”, and “love over fear”, I invite you to check out Humanism (not necessarily atheism) as a position, instead of your imaginary Middle Ground.
Posted on 07 May 2012.
The Biggest Sucker
So, do you want to suck big time? What I mean is, do you want to be a black hole? You’re in luck, because this guide will teach you some of the basic tricks on how to be one of the biggest suckers in the universe!
But before we turn our attention to actually becoming a black hole, let us first start with the fundamentals. Let’s begin by talking about what two blokes named Newton and Einstein said about this thing called ‘gravity’.
Why I Am Attracted To You
Legend tells us that a fellow named Isaac Newton was inspired to formulate his theory of gravity when he saw an apple falling (not very far) from the tree. The truth of this story is not that important; what’s important is that Newton’s supposed observation made him realize that the same force that made the apple fall towards the ground also made the Moon go around the Earth! In fact, this is the same force that keeps the planets in orbit around the Sun, and that keeps the Sun and all the other stars of the Milky Way Galaxy in orbit around the galactic center (which is probably home to a gigantic black hole, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).
As a matter of fact, Newton said that everything in the universe that has mass pulls towards it every other thing that has mass. In short, everything with mass attracts everything else with mass! This means that I am attracted to you, gravitationally speaking. After all, you and I both have mass. And yes, you are attracted to me too (gravitationally, of course, and perhaps otherwise). And yes, there’s also mutual (gravitational) attraction between myself and this nearby bottle of wine, and between myself and the binary star Sirius 8.3 light years away.
Yes, I know, Newton’s idea sounds loony, to say the least. But, like most crazy-sounding ideas in physics, it comes with an equation that has proven effective for centuries. This equation is:
F = (G *mA*mB)÷d2
Here, F stands for the strength of the gravitational attraction between two objects A and B. On the other side of the equation, mA stands for the mass of A while mB stands for the mass of B; d stands for the distance between A and B and, finally, G is a number called the universal gravitational constant. We’ll get back to G later. For now, what’s important is that the equation above was proven true for hundreds of years after Newton wrote it down. More importantly, Newton’s simple equation explained so many different things, like why gravity is weaker on the Moon than on Earth, why the planets move around the Sun in elliptical orbits, and why angry birds shot from a sling follow a parabolic path.
But then the question arises: why don’t we feel our mutual (gravitational) attraction? If you have mass and I have mass and what Newton said is true, then where’s the love? The explanation lies with the number G in the equation above. The thing about G is that it’s a pretty small number. As a matter of fact, it is given by
G = 0.00000000006673 N m2/kg2,
which is miniscule indeed. Because G is so small, the strength of gravitational attraction between everyday things and between ordinary people (i.e. people aside from yo mama) is negligible. Let me give a specific example to illustrate this point. Say, person A has a mass of 50 kg and person B, who stands 1.0 meters away, has a mass of 60 kg. According to Newton’s equation above, the force of (gravitational) attraction between A and B is given by
F = ( 0.00000000006673 N m2/kg2)*(50 kg)*(60 kg)÷(1.0 m)2
With a little help from a scientific calculator, the answer comes out to be around 0.0000002 newtons. (‘Newton’ is the measure of force in the same way that ‘meter’ is the measure of length.) An ant’s bite is many, many times stronger than 0.0000002 newtons.
To feel the strength of gravity, you need a really massive object like the Earth. For example, a person with mass 60 kg is attracted to the Earth with a force of around 600 newtons. If you want to know just how strong 600 newtons is, try lifting a 60-kg person.
Newton’s equation for the strength of gravity stands as one of the greatest achievements of any human mind. But there’s a tiny problem with Newton’s theory of gravity. Although it knows how gravity behaves, it doesn’t explain why there’s gravity at all. Why should everything with mass attract every other thing with mass? Why should the Earth pull us towards it? To these questions, Newton’s theory had no answer. We had to wait for some other bloke named Albert Einstein to supply us the answer.
Messy Hair, Neat Mind
Nearly two hundred years after Newton’s revolutionary theory of gravity, a Swiss patent clerk named Albert Einstein made the equally revolutionary theory that basically states that space and time should not be treated as distinct entities but should be united in an entity called ‘spacetime’. This theory is called the special theory of relativity, and it is where the world’s most famous equation, E = mc2, comes from. What Einstein’s famous equation basically says is that mass (m) can be converted to energy (E). The quantity c is the speed of light, which is a little more than 1 billion kilometers per hour (nearly 300 million meters per second).
Central to special relativity, as the theory is also called, is the fact that nothing with mass can travel through space faster than the speed of light. In other words, the speed of light is the speed limit of the universe. Only light can go as fast as 1 billion kph, and no signal can go faster.
However, Einstein has not yet solved the riddle of gravity in his special theory of relativity. He had to struggle for 10 more years before he finally come up with his general theory of relativity, which stands as one of the finest products of human thought. In general relativity, as it is also called, Einstein explained that gravity is the curvature of space and time (that is, of spacetime). Massive objects, Einstein explains, warp the fabric of space and time around them, and this warping is what we observe and experience as gravity. So yes, spacetime has curves too, and everyone is attracted to these.
The example is best illustrated by imagining a horizontally flat bed sheet that is held tout. Think of this bed sheet as the fabric of spacetime. When it is empty, spacetime is flat. When you place small things on this flat fabric, they stay where they are – there is no gravity. Next, imagine placing a bowling ball on the fabric. Notice how the bowling ball changes the shape of the fabric so that now, if you place small things on the fabric, they ‘gravitate’ towards the bowling ball – the bowling ball pulls the small objects toward it, which is basically what gravity is all about!
Now, Off To Black Holes!
Now that we know what gravity is (it’s the curvature of spacetime) and that it gets stronger as objects become more massive, we are almost ready to study the requirements that we must pass to become a full fledged black hole. But before we do, let us first look at some of the distinguishing characteristics of black holes.
When one fellow going by the name Karl Schwarzschild tried to solve Einstein’s equations, he noted that one solution described an object with very peculiar properties. One of the more amazing properties of this object is that it had a gravitational force so strong you need to travel faster than light just to escape its pull. But remember that nothing can go faster than light. Not even light could go faster than light! This means that when something gets too close to this object, they get sucked in and there is no escaping. Not even light can escape it! For this reason, such hypothetical object came to be called ‘black holes’. They’re called ‘black’ because they suck even light. And they are the universe’s biggest suckers! They suck everything from subatomic particles to stars.
The Standard Procedure
We are now ready to answer the question: how does one become a black hole? Well, here’s how.
1. Be a star. And don’t be just any star, but be a really massive one. A star like our Sun won’t do. To be safe, be a star that is around 20 times more massive than our Sun.
2. Die. Living stars are happily glowing orbs of plasma. That’s not what we want to be. We want to be black holes, and to be one you must be a dead star.
3. Furthermore, aspiring black holes like ourselves must follow the proper procedures when dying, which are listed as follows:
a. When you’re old, be a red supergiant. Red supergiants are among the biggest stars in the universe.
b. After becoming a supergiant, be a supernova. Supernovae are really bright explosions; they occur when a massive star reaches the end of its life. How many stars are there in a typical galaxy? Around billions. Even if you combine the brightness of all of these stars, a supernova is brighter still.
c. Don’t be a neutron star. Many big stars retire to become neutron stars. But neutron stars don’t suck. Instead, they are just very dense (like most people). In fact, neutron stars can be so dense that a glass full of neutron star can be heavier than a skyscraper!
d. If you followed procedures a, b and c when dying, then congratulations, you are now a black hole! Go suck away at the universe.
The Short Cut
Let’s face it, not all of us can be stars. Luckily, there’s a short cut one can follow to be a black hole. Even better, it can be expressed in one sentence.
Be very, very dense.
But recall that density is a measure of how compact an object is. To be dense is to have a lot of mass packed in a very small volume. Mathematically, density is mass divided by volume.
To be as dense as a black hole, you must do either of the following:
1. Be really massive. However, you must do this without getting bigger. If you gain as much volume as mass, that won’t increase your density. How massive? If you are a person 5’ 7” tall, you must increase your mass to 1.6 million billion billion kilograms. That’s about 27 times the mass of the Earth. Good luck with that!
2. Here’s another option: compress yourself to a very small ball. For a person who masses 55.0 kg, you’ll be a black hole if you are compressed to a ball of radius 0.000000000000000000000000082 meters. That’s actually a lot smaller than a hydrogen atom. Again, good luck with that.
3. The easiest way to be a black hole is to be massive and small at the same time. Consider the Earth. It’s a pretty massive thing, isn’t it? Well, to make it a black hole, you simply have to compress it to a ball with radius 8.8 millimeters. The radius 8.8 millimeters is called the Schwarzschild radius of the Earth. If you compress anything to a ball the size of its Schwarzschild radius, it becomes a singularity – in other words, a black hole. The Schwarzschild radius of a 55-kg person is 0.000000000000000000000000082 meters while that of the Sun is about 3 kilometers.
Here are additional guidelines on how to be a happy, sucky black hole.
1. Rip space and time. Black holes are singularities. Singularities are regions in space and time where the curvature of spacetime becomes infinite. Using our fabric analogy earlier, black holes are regions where the fabric of space and time has a rip.
2. Don’t be naked. There is a hypothesis called ‘Cosmic Censorship’ that says that naked singularities don’t exist (with the possible exception of the Big Bang singularity, which partly explains its name). Singularities, according to this hypothesis, are always “concealed” by an event horizon, so that they are not visible to the rest of the universe. The event horizon of a black hole is the “surface of no return.” Since nothing that goes through the event horizon ever goes out, this means that anything that happens inside the event horizon will remain unknown to the rest of the universe.
3. Be hairless; black holes have no hair. What this means is that black holes have very few features. To describe a black hole, you just need to know its mass, its electric charge and how fast it rotates. If you have two black holes with the same mass, electric charge and speed of rotation, then you have no way to distinguish one from the other.
4. Be very disorderly. In physics, disorder is measured by a quantity called entropy. A very messy room has a high entropy while an organized room has low entropy. According to a principle called the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the entropy of an isolated system has a very strong tendency to increase with time. That is why you have to exert a lot of effort to keep you room neat and tidy but you don’t need to exert any effort at all to put it in disarray. Now, black holes are known to have very high entropy. As a matter of fact, they’re among the most disorderly things in the universe!
How do we know that black holes are very disorderly? It has something to do with the fact that disorderly systems are easy to describe. For example, how do you make a disorderly room? Just throw stuff around the place! How do you stack a random deck of cards? Just place any card on top of another without fussing which card is which. Orderly systems, on the other hand, are really difficult to describe. How do you fix a room to make it orderly? You have to put everything in its right place — the couch goes here, the table goes there, this painting is to be hanged here, and so on. How do you stack a deck where the cards arranged in increasing order? You have to put the aces first, then the ones next, then the twos after them, and so on.
Now, remember that black holes are hairless, which means that black holes are really easy to describe, which means they are very disorderly.
So there, your very own guide to be a major sucker. I hope that helped a lot in your aspirations to be one of the universe’s most curious objects. Now it’s time for you to go away from me — I don’t want to be sucked in just yet.
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Posted on 20 April 2012.
The Silver Bullet. The Magic Pill. The Cure For What Ails Ya. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a miracle drug that could instantly cure us of whatever illness we might have? “Colds? Muscle pain? TB? Gonorrhea? Cancer? Pop this pill and call me in the morning.”
Sadly, no such thing exists (yet). The human body is an extremely complicated piece of machinery (Needlessly complicated in fact, that’s why it’s improbable that we’re intelligently designed, ok creationists?), and drugs that have a beneficial effect on one part of your body will likely have a detrimental effect on another part of your body. No single drug will have a beneficial effect on your ENTIRE body, unless you consider death to be beneficial.
However, there are many people who swear by such miracle cures. Pretty much all of them fall into the category known as “Alternative Medicine”.
Alternative medicine has always existed, in one form or another, throughout human history. The principles have roughly stayed the same: “All maladies are caused by some sort of imbalance in our *insert magical, unmeasureable, undetectable energy/life force here*, and the cure is *insert modality here*.”
The thing is, they only became “alternative” after the dawn of science-based medicine. Our ancestors used all sorts of “treatments” and “remedies” for every ailment, from the mundane (leaves, flowers, ground up animal parts, etc) to the outright bizarre (spells, incantations, faith healing, etc).
But we can’t really blame our ancestors because back then, our knowledge base was pretty limited. In fact, as recently as the 1860′s, bloodletting was a pretty common treatment for a lot of ailments. Even something as simple as handwashing was seen as “ungentlemanly” by doctors and surgeons, no less.
But in this day and age of advanced scientific knowledge, near instant communications, fast transport and travel, fantastic technologies, and the incredible exchange of ideas afforded to us by the internet, there really isn’t much of an excuse to believe in Supplements, Complementary and Alternative Medicine (or SCAM, for short)…
…or is there?
Let’s try to analyze this question:
“If SCAM is bunk, then why is it so popular?”
I think it boils down to a few factors:
1. Confirmation bias:
Most people who use SCAM fall under one of two categories:
a. Those who already believe in them;
b. and those who are willing to try them either because of lack of finances, or because conventional medicine didn’t work for them.
Both these types almost always fall victim to confirmation bias. So what is confirmation bias?
Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true. As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way.
The first type already expects the SCAM modality to work, so they feel better after using it. The second type is desperate for something to work, and is therefore primed to believe that it is actually working.
2. The body heals itself (most of the time):
If you’re like the vast majority of people in the civilized world, you won’t go see your doctor until your fever/cold/cough/ache is at it’s worst. Also, a significant portion of that population goes to a SCAM practitioner, instead of a real doctor.
The thing is, if we are reasonably healthy, our bodies are quite capable of fighting off most illnesses. And since we go see these SCAM practitioners at the peak of our illness, any treatment they perform (or don’t perform) is almost guaranteed to “cure” you. Thus, giving the illusion that the homeopath, naturopath, reiki master, acupuncturist, chiropractor, touch therapist, etc. is the real deal.
Now I’m sure some SCAM proponent is saying ” AHA! So you’re admitting that those who go to real doctors also have this phenomenon going for them!”
Well yes, to a certain degree. You see, the placebo effect applies even to real medicine. So you get an actual benefit, PLUS the placebo effect. This is also the reason why in science, we have this thing called the “randomized, double blinded, controlled clinical trials” to separate the placebo effect from true efficacy, something no SCAM practitioner does.
3. Personal anecdotes trump impersonal data every single time:
We love hearing stories, especially stories delivered with conviction by a satisfied SCAM victim customer. Let’s face it: Hearing a feelgood story about how some miracle product cured a person of his/her cancer is far more compelling than some boring study written on a piece of paper by anonymous scientists from thousand of miles away. This is one of the big reasons why practically every form of SCAM relies on testimonials from satisfied
4. It feels good and is easy to understand:
Every successful SCAM modality is also very simple to understand. No technical knowledge is required. There’s no scary sounding drugs or hyper-complicated machinery to intimidate you. From vague and simple explanations of adjusting/restoring the balance of chi in your body to replenishing vibrational energy/bioenergy/life energy, just about anyone can understand it. Many SCAM modalities also incorporate soothing music, comfortable couches or beds, massages, and dim lighting to help a victim customer relax. As you might guess, a relaxed victim customer is more likely to report positive results.
And because of all of the above, many of us are quite eager to accept that these SCAM modalities work, despite the low quality of evidence that supports them. As I have mentioned before, most SCAM practitioners rely on testimonials and anecdotal evidence. They also love to cite poorly made studies, many of which are performed by themselves, and published in “pee-reviewed” (that’s not a typo) medical journals, which were made just to promote SCAMs.
5. Conspiracy theorists vs “Big Pharma”:
There is a general notion among the public that “Big Pharma” is out to get them and that Big Pharma is in bed with Big Bad Government to keep us sick in order to keep selling drugs. Many SCAM practitioners love to incite this particular fear and paranoia into potential victims customers. It’s easy to target “Big Pharma” as evil, because it’s seen as one single entity. Few people realize that in order for this “Big Pharma Conspiracy” to exist, everyone from the pharmaceutical companies’ top management to government officials, to doctors, to nurses, med techs, researchers, down to the clerks and support staff HAVE to be involved in the conspiracy. Few people stop to think that these people are human too, with their own friends and loved ones that they would like to keep free from illness.
Now, do I think pharmaceutical companies are benevolent and have only our wellbeing and best interests at heart? Of course not. As with any other business, the three main objectives of pharmaceutical companies are 1.) profit, 2.) Profit, and 3.) PROFIT. Given the choice of cutting costs and saving money vs spending a fortune on efficacy and safety trials, I’m pretty sure which path the pharmaceutical executives would rather take.
But this is why the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world. The FDA keeps a close eye on them. These companies spend billions upon billions of dollars on R&D, efficacy trials, and safety trials. They have to, otherwise they won’t have a product to sell. This is also why most real medicine costs a lot. In fact, the rules and regulations are so stringent that roughly 85% to 90% of the drugs being tested never get past the first and second phase of clinical trials. It is also interesting to note that Big Pharma actually PREFERS these super stringent rules and regulations that cost a lot of money, because it discourages startup competition, leaving only the big boys with fat wallets.
And no, the FDA is not perfect. Many defective products have still passed through it’s screening process. Some would say that this is unacceptable and the FDA sucks, but that would be like saying that Kobe Bryant is bad at free throw shooting because he only makes 84% of them. Also, once a defect is discovered (even relatively minor ones), it is immediately pulled out.
Compare and contrast with SCAM, which few people realize is ALSO a multi-billion dollar industry. The SCAM industry has a ridiculous reputation for being “all natural” (as if that means anything) and somehow “more caring and more personal”. We need to realize that these people also have profit as their primary motive. Otherwise, they wouldn’t charge for their treatments. The worst part is, this industry is NOT regulated at all. For an industry that frequently promises to “wash away the toxins”, many of their products have been found to contain hazardous materials.
We, as consumers, need to be more skeptical of fantastic claims. This is the only way we can weed out bad products from the good ones. As with almost every thing we encounter in life, it’s useful to always remember this adage:
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Posted on 07 April 2012.
“But It’ s The Solar System!”
In keeping with the spirit of Year of the Solar System, I am going to write about two of my latest obsessions in one post: the Solar System and the BBC series Sherlock.
Let me start by saying that I am a big fan of Sherlock. (And, in case you’re wondering: yes, the homoeroticism is one of my favorite aspects of the series.) After having said that, I will now proceed to criticize a view of science encouraged by Arthur Conan Doyle’s character. In other words, I am going to argue why Sherlock should give a damn about the Solar System.
In Doyle’s Sherlock novel A Study in Scarlet, Dr. John Watson was surprised to discover that Sherlock Holmes does not know, nor does he care, that the Earth revolves around the Sun. In Watson’s own words, Holmes’s knowledge about astronomy, among other things, was “next to nothing.” Holmes’s lack of knowledge about the Copernican theory is especially surprising given that he knows so much about things like the appearance of different kinds of cigar ash.
In the novel, Holmes defended his cluelessness about astronomy by likening his mind to an attic with limited space. He said that he couldn’t be bothered to remember useless trivia that have no relevance to his work as a detective. After all, knowing what different kinds of ash look like helped him solve a case, but knowing that the Sun is the center of the Solar System did not. In the BBC series, Sherlock’s defense went like this, “Oh hell, what does the solar system matter? So we go round the sun. If we went round the moon or round and round the garden like a teddy bear it wouldn’t make any difference. All that matters to me is the work. Without it my brain rots.”
To this, all that Watson could retort was, “But it’s the Solar System!” I wonder why this line by Watson is not as popular as it should be.
Given that Sherlock Holmes probably has Asperger syndrome (the BBC Sherlock describes himself to be a “high functioning sociopath”), maybe we can forgive him for knowing so many trivial things but not knowing that the Earth revolves around the Sun. This should not, however, be used by people who want an excuse for skipping out on their basic science.
More importantly, Sherlock’s apathy towards fundamental scientific concepts betrays a deep misunderstanding of the structure of science. Let us look at two of the most glaring deficiencies in Sherlock’s conception of science, which are (a) his unfamiliarity with the principle of consilience and (b) his lack of appreciation for the principle of parsimony.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines consilience as the “linking together of principles from different disciplines especially when forming a comprehensive theory.” The word has been around for some time now, although it recently regained currency thanks to E.O. Wilson’s wonderful book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998).
Although the dictionary definition is useful in its rigidity, I would like to use Wilson’s subtitle, ‘the unity of knowledge’, as my definition of consilience. Although this definition is rather vague, it’s just what I need to illustrate why Sherlock should give a damn about the Solar System.
I respect Sherlock’s view that one should not waste one’s brainpower on useless trivia. The basic concepts of science, however, are not useless trivia for the reason that there is a unity of knowledge in science. In other words, scientific theories cannot be treated in isolation of each other. If you do not understand how the Solar System behaves, then your understanding of gravity will be limited. If you have a limited grasp of how gravity works, then you easily end up believing a lot of wrong things, like how the positions of the planets at the time of your birth determine your destiny.
While a lot of scientific facts are better left to the specialists, there is a set of fundamental scientific concepts that every educated person should know because they are connected in countless ways to our daily life. Let’s call such scientific concepts keystone concepts. Keystone concepts are concepts one must comprehend in order to formulate a consistent theory of the world. And one needs a consistent theory of the world in order to make the correct decisions when necessary. (“Should I buy a cheap plot of land near the Marikina Fault Line?” “Are genetically modified crops bad for me?” “Should I vote for a politician who denies global warming?”)
The Copernican theory is a splendid example of a keystone concept. Sherlock, who is a detective, should know better that the Copernican theory is intimately linked with the theory of gravity, which in turn dictates how bullets behave when fired from the barrel of a gun; planetary astronomy, as it should be clear to anyone who understands science, cannot be separated from ballistics.
Other examples of keystone concepts in science are the atomic theory, the theory of evolution by natural selection and the germ theory of diseases.
What I find beautiful about scientific consilience is the fact that you do not need to memorize so many scientific facts in order to have a full grasp of the world around you. Like Sherlock, I believe that remembering so many facts that have no relevance to your life is wasteful and counterproductive. However, because there is consilience in science, knowing that the Earth goes round the Sun is not an isolated fact but should be part of a web knowledge that informs our view of the world.
Furthermore, consilience makes it easier to take in new facts because learning something new does not involve remembering it by rote. Rather, because of the unity of knowledge, new facts about the world can be easily incorporated into our worldview. Hence, knowing the keystone concepts of science such as the theory of evolution helps us save on brainpower rather than waste it. We can state this fact in another way: keystone concepts help us organize our knowledge in such a way that makes acquisition of new information easy. To use Holmes’s attic analogy in Scarlet, being familiar with the keystone concepts help us tidy up that attic that is our mind so that it becomes easier for us to decide which piece of information is truly useless and which is helpful.
As a matter of fact, in the BBC series, Watson gets the last laugh when Sherlock discovers that in order to solve the mystery, a little background knowledge on astronomy is helpful after all.
In dismissing the Copernican theory as useless trivia, Sherlock fails to grasp another principle of science called parsimony.
As it is usually presented, parsimony describes the simplicity of an explanation. The most parsimonious explanation is one that explains the most with the fewest assumptions. Closely linked with the principle of parsimony is the famous Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor says that in choosing between competing logically consistent explanations, one must choose the simplest explanation.
The parsimony I want to talk about in relation to Sherlock and the Solar System, however, is the simplicity that comes in accepting a scientific worldview.
The world around us is exploding with an almost endless parade of seemingly unrelated phenomena. However, if one has a scientific view of things, one discovers that beneath all this complexity is an underlying simplicity (a phrase I got from Jong Atmosfera).
Take the heliocentric model of the Solar System. In this model, the Sun is the center of the Solar System and the planets, along with asteroids and comets, revolve around it. This model of the Solar System beautifully, and simply, explains so many things that are relevant to our daily lives. For example, combined with the fact that the Earth’s axis is tilted, it explains why we have seasons. It also explains why we have tides, why our Moon has many phases, why the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and why a year is approximately 365 days long. Our knowledge of how the Earth goes round the Sun also helps us adjust our calendars accordingly so that we can better order our lives around the passage of the seasons.
On a more romantic but still scientific level, knowing how our Solar System is configured gives us clues to our origins, which in turn tell us a lot about who we are. It is our knowledge of our cosmic neighborhood that enabled us to surmise the fact that we are in truth made of stardust, and that we are products of more than 4 billion years of evolution on a lonely piece of rock that floats in the vastness of space. Far from being mere romantic knowledge, such realizations provide us with powerful insights into human nature. If natural selection operating on a bunch of stardust produced us, then what does that say of us? If we want to control our destiny as an individual and as a species, we must know the answer to this very important question.
And if Sherlock wants to read people like books, it would certainly help him to know where humans figure in the grand scheme of the cosmos.
Why You Should Give A Damn About The Solar System
Yes, you can live a full life without bothering to know the first thing about the Solar System. However, I hope I have convinced you that life is simply so much better knowing the Earth goes round the Sun. And it certainly is a lot less boring.
Posted on 05 April 2012.
Year of the Solar System
Happy Year of the Solar System! The planets are so happy to greet you they decided to move too close to each other just so that they could fit in a family portrait to show you. Also, so as not to dwarf their smaller siblings, the giants of the family had to move a lot farther from the camera.
Shown below is a more candid family portrait. Here, the planets are shown in their correct size relationships.
But how far are the planets with respect to each other? When I taught high school astronomy two years ago, I tried to draw a Solar System that’s to scale on our classroom’s white board. Good luck to me! I ended up either trying hard to include Jupiter in my drawing or attempting to carefully draw the crammed orbits of the inner planets just so that they’re distinguishable from each other. In the end, I used a number of steps to illustrate the relative distances of the planets to each other. (“If the Sun were here, then Mercury would be so and so paces away.”)
Before we go to the relative distances involved in our cosmic neighborhood, let us first have a word about the units we use to measure the Solar System.
Measuring the Solar System
The average distance of the Earth from the Sun is about 150 million kilometers. If you could fly to the Sun in a spacecraft that travels at three times the speed of sound, it would still take you more than 5 years to get there! So that we don’t have to be inconvenienced by humongous numbers in describing distances within the Solar System, astronomers invented the astronomical unit (AU). 1 astronomical unit is equal to 150 million kilometers, the average distance of the Earth from the Sun.
How Many Steps from the Sun?
Using the astronomical units, the distances of the planets from the Sun can be written in convenient, sizable numbers. These numbers are shown in the table below.
|Planet||Average orbital radius (AU)|
The second column is labeled average orbital radius because a planet’s average distance from the Sun is indeed the (average) radius of its orbit.
Now, let us make our mini Solar System. Imagine the Sun to be where you are right now. (Better yet, imagine you are the Sun.) If you take 4 steps from your current position, you’d get to where Mercury is. To get to Venus, you have to take 7 steps from where you are, while you need to take 10 steps to get to the Earth. Meanwhile, you need to take a good 15 steps to get to Mars’ obit. So far, so good.
But wait, notice that to get to Jupiter, you need to take no less than 52 steps! Jupiter, it turns out, is more than three times as far from the Sun (that’s you) as Mars is. Why is there so much empty space in between Mars and Jupiter?
Well, as most of us know, the space between Mars and Jupiter is far from empty. Rather, the space is populated by a swarm of rocks called the asteroid belt. Some of the asteroids are so large they are considered dwarf planets. Many scientists think that they are rock fragments that failed to coalesce into a planet during the Solar System’s formation because of the constant gravitational tug of neighboring Jupiter.
But don’t imagine the asteroid belt to be a densely clustered group of flying rocks. Although the asteroids number by the hundreds of thousands, there’s plenty of space for them to distribute themselves in.
Now let’s go back to our walk through of the Solar System. We learned that if the Earth is 10 paces from the Sun, then Jupiter is 52. Meanwhile, Saturn would be 96 paces from the Sun. Saturn is nearly ten times as far from the Sun as the Earth is! About twice as far out, at 192 paces, is Uranus. (No, I will not make a Uranus joke). Neptune, the farthest planet (yes, get over it), is 301 steps from the Sun.
As I am writing this, I am in a room whose biggest dimension is around a hundred steps (that’s “how far” Saturn is from the Sun). When I place textbook on one corner of this room (the “Sun corner”), I can hardly see it from the opposite corner (the “Saturn corner”). However, from the Sun corner, the positions of Mercury (4 steps), Venus (7 steps), Earth (10 steps) and Mars (15 steps) are literally within spitting distance. I highly doubt it if I can spit as far as the orbit of Jupiter (52 steps).
The Ends of the Solar System
Don’t worry, I did not forget about Pluto. Just because astronomers do not consider it a major planet anymore doesn’t mean I stopped loving it.
Before we “walk to” Pluto, let me first get this out: nothing “happened” to Pluto. No, it did not become a moon of Neptune. It did not even shrink. Above all, it did not become a star!
If you’re wondering why I had to say this, good for you. Many people – and I mean many – believe that something happened to Pluto to deserve its “demotion” from being a major planet to being a dwarf planet. And yes, some people think it became a star. (Well, in a sense, it became a ‘star’. But you know what I mean.)
I think the misunderstanding surrounding Pluto’s planethood (or stardom) reveals the natural human tendency to be essentialists. In other words, most people still think that to be a planet, one must have the essence of a planet – one must possess planetness. That truth, however, is that ‘planet’ is just another word for ‘biggish object orbiting a star’. In this case, the star is our Sun. And we get to decide how big is big. The problem with Pluto is not just that it’s really small, it’s that we found at least one other object orbiting the Sun that’s bigger than Pluto. That object is Eris, named after the goddess of discord and strife. Along with Pluto, Eris is part of the Kuiper Belt, a second belt of rocks orbiting the Sun. Most of the Kuiper Belt lies beyond the orbit of Neptune. Other members of the Kuiper Belt have names like Sedna, Xena (the warrior princess), Makemake and Haumea.
Now, let’s go back to our walk through. Recall that in our mini Solar System, you are the Sun. 10 steps away is the Earth, 52 steps is Jupiter and 301 steps is Neptune. Pluto is, on average, 395 steps from you. The Kuiper Belt starts at around 300 paces. To get to where Eris is, you have to walk 1,000 steps from where you are. If you think the Solar System ends there, then you couldn’t be more wrong. The Oort Cloud, a hypothetical body of rocks and comets, is no less than two thousand times farther from the Sun as the Earth is. That means that if the Earth is 10 steps from you, then the Oort Cloud is 20,000 steps away! Some astronomers even think that the heliopause, which could be thought of as the outer boundary of the Solar System, is no less than 500,000 steps away. The inner planets are indeed in the innermost part of the Solar System.
That concludes our overview of the vast dimensions in our own cosmic neighborhood. I hope the “walk through” inspired you to make a mini Solar System in your own backyard. And I hope that the next time you look up to the heavens, you will see the grandeur that held thrall all the great minds throughout the ages.
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