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My first ever demotivational poster attempt, on the incompatibility of science and religion. I give it my full blessing to go viral (click to embiggen).

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a little bit late to join the bandwagon but here goes nothing:

http://www.formspring.me/uygarpolat

The review of The Greatest Show on Earth, The Evidence For Evolution by Richard Dawkins. This was submitted as a take-home assignment for a philosophy course entitled “Darwin & Philosophy.” It got a 9 out of 10, with the following criticism from the instructor (paraphrased): “You could have inquired further into the philosophical aspects of Dawkins’ ideas and supplemented them with your own.” Citations omitted, some corrections made.

“If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law” says American philosopher Daniel Dennett, who is also a good friend of Richard Dawkins. Since it was first published in November 1859, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has passed every scientific test it has encountered with flying colors. It has proven to possess immense explanatory power in biology, so much so that Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the founding fathers of modern evolutionary synthesis, have aptly proclaimed that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Indeed, without the hindsight of evolution, facts of life were merely collected data, unexplained and unconnected. With the hindsight of evolution all those facts could be understood and explained by a robust mechanism. (This demarcation is reminiscent of the difference of Einstein’s theory of gravity with that of Newton’s. In Newton’s theory, nobody knew how gravity affected things; it just did. In Einstein’s theory, however, a field permeated otherwise empty spacetime that was bent in the presence of energy and that’s how bodies were affected by gravity. In other words Einstein explained gravity where Newton only described it. Likewise, the fact of life is explained with the arrival of Charles Darwin). That robust mechanism, namely natural selection, not only provided a general framework in which scientists could understand hitherto puzzling adaptations and diversity, it is also one of the simplest of all scientific ideas: the organisms with what it takes to reproduce and flourish, outreproduces and outflourishes those who do not. Simple as it may be, Darwin’s idea of natural selection is, as Dennett continues with his quote, “not just a wonderful scientific idea. It is a dangerous idea.” That seems like a fair observation, given the never ending controversy since 1859. But just what is it that makes evolution by natural selection such a dangerous idea?

The alarming nature of the answer (or rather, answers) to that question lies in the very heart of why Richard Dawkins wrote The Greatest Show on Earth, The Evidence for Evolution (its working subtitle was “The Only Game in Town”). Right from the beginning Dawkins makes it clear why this book is necessary. He quotes recent opinion polls regarding the acceptance of evolution and the figures are very much depressing. In USA, more than 40 percent of the population deny that humans evolved from other animals. The figures are equally worrisome in Turkey, where only 27 percent of the population accept the proposition that “human beings, as we know them, develop from earlier species of animals.” Dawkins doesn’t cite other Muslim countries, but argues that their figures cannot be better than that of Turkey’s. He seems to be implying that at least some of the opposition to evolution is stemming from religious convictions. And it’s not hard to see why he would think that. Historically the most vocal critics of evolution have often been religiously inclined. Today this is almost exclusively the case; if you find someone who doubts evolution, it is safe to assume that he/she is not an atheist than to assume otherwise.

But even though Dawkins is known for his unwavering and uncompromising atheistic stance, he doesn’t go as far as to put all the blame on religion. He cites another poll, which “pathetically consoles” him. According to this second poll, 19 percent of the British population believe that it takes one month for the Earth to go around the sun. Given the lack of religious underpinning of this shocking finding, he, as an evolutionist, is “consoled” by this result because it seems to imply that there is a general ignorance of science per se, not just a religiously motivated denial and ignorance of evolutionary biology. Presumably that’s one of the reasons why he delves straight into explaining what science is and how it works. As the subtitle of the book suggest, the main aim of this well-written book is to show the relevant evidence for evolution, without being sidetracked by the social or political perception of evolution. In due course, without a single critisicm of religion (“it’s another T-shirt” he says), which indeed may be the main cause of scientific ignorance, he soldiers on to dismantle what exactly a theory is and how it differs from the everyday usage of the word. And he does that with an analogy.

Given that a good case can be made that the ignorance of evolution pales into insignificance when compared to the ignorance of mathematics, it is a remarkably courageous move on Dawkins’ part to develop his theme with a mathematical analogy to explain what a theory is. It runs the risk of shutting down even the sympathetic but mathematically uninitiated reader, but Dawkins seems to pull through. He coins the term “theorum” to contrast with a mathematical theorem. Theorems are provable, he says. And once they are proven, they are true forever. But theorums, results that have been subjected to scientific scrutiny and unambiguously survived, are not, even in principle, provable. And that’s because science does not prove anything but fails to disprove things. Even a theorum like “the world is round” cannot be proven to be true to the satisfaction of a mathematician, but it doesn’t follow from this that treating the world as not round is reasonable. It has been shown to be true with several lines of corroborating evidence and today every rational lay person on Earth agrees with this (barring some unhelpful philosophers). This is a useful distinction because much of the heat evolution is receiving stems from the erroneous claim that it is only a theory and not, say, a law or a fact. By explicitly stating that, strictly speaking, nothing in science, not even Earth being round, is proven or a fact, he is shaking the already shaky ground beneath the creationists. He quotes the different dictionary meanings of the words like “theory” and “fact” and discusses the comparative meanings of them at length. By doing this he lures the reader into thinking that something is wrong with this particular criticism, that it is just a confusion of categories. If earth being round is a fact, Dawkins implicitly argues, than so is evolution. That’s a particularly clever move for beginning a book about the evidence of a theory, for after this point sinks in, it becomes crystal clear to the open-minded reader that if evidence is there for evolution, it’s true, regardless of the almost derogatory word “theory” being attached to it. And the rest of the book is dedicated to accumulate all the evidence in favor of evolution.

Dawkins’ admiration for his hero, Charles Darwin, runs deep and thus, perhaps not surprisingly, he follows Darwin’s footsteps right from the start of the book; he explains natural selection by comparing it to artificial selection. This is precisely how Darwin demolished the barrier in the minds of his Victorian readers regarding the immutability of species. The message in Darwin was pretty straightforward; if humans could transform domestic breeds so drastically by choosing who reproduces and who doesn’t, why shouldn’t nature do the same, over much longer periods of time? Wouldn’t nature’s selection eventually produce different species? It was, and still is, therefore of essential importance to enumerate the effects of artificial selection so that a proper analogy can be established with natural selection. Just like Darwin, Dawkins chooses his battles and focuses on a few species to demonstrate the power of artificial selection. He documents the immense variety among dogs, cows and cabbages. He sums up the basic rules of thumb of artificial selection in order to ease the reader into accepting natural selection (he calls it the primrose path): a selecting agent, a barrier to breeding of different varieties, breeding certain types of properties within varieties. But unlike Darwin, he has a particularly cute novelty at his disposal: computers. Dawkins, it turns out, is somewhat of a computer geek. He mentions the computer program he compiled years ago, named Blind Watchmaker, which simulates artificial selection on two dimensional computers screen of the entities he charmingly calls “biomorphs.” In each generation you breed biomorphs for a certain characteristic you have in mind and the end result after very few generations is tantalizingly similar to what you had originally in mind. Another clever move, for not only he at once wins the hearts and minds (or, perhaps most importantly, ears) of his younger readers, he also conveys the point that if even in such a rudimentary embryology you achieve these stunning results (and they are stunning), what nature can achieve in eons must be orders of magnitude more complex and impressive.

The remaining chapters are dedicated to document the proper evidence for evolution. These parts are, central and interesting though they may be, anticlimactic from a philosophical point of view. He cites almost all the lines of evidence for evolution by piling all sorts of data from different branches of sciences to make the case that the central claims of Darwin, namely common descent and natural selection, are correct. He tells us about clocks that scientists use to measure the age of things; tree rings, radioactive clocks, molecular clocks. He tells us about the evolution of humans and addresses the infamous missing link problem in human evolution and tells us how scientist show that this is no longer a problem. He tells us about the transitional forms in the fossil record, a requisite for evolution to be true, documenting the immense variety of them. He tells us about how history is written all over us, not just all over humans, but all over living things as such and how it only makes sense if all living things are linked with a common ancestor. He tells us about the direct observations of evolution, particularly about a strain of bacteria that acquired a new trait in slightly more than 20 years. He tells us about perhaps the most convincing line of evidence of them all, molecular evidence, and shows us how it can singlehandedly “prove” that evolution is a theorum. He cites one data after another and walks through the reader to show how they hang together to paint a certain picture of the living world. Once he has done that, the conclusions that follow from them seem inescapable (hence, philosophically uninteresting). At no point in the argument you feel lost or cheated by a slight of hand; just like Darwin’s evolution, Dawkins’ book depend heavily on a gradual progress. He never assumes anything as given and elaborates about everything in every single turn. And by the time you reach the end of it you are left with a feeling of grasping the simplicity of the evidence for evolution, which is apt given the simplicity of the idea of natural selection.

In order to sum up his book, Dawkins utterly unleashes his artistic license and dissects Darwin’s immortal concluding paragraph of The Origin of Species, which deserves to be quoted in its entirety:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

This paragraph has a Biblical ring to biologists, it epitomizes the revolution that Darwin inflicted on our societies, it marks the culmination point of Darwinian way of thinking. Dawkins names each of the segments of his book’s final chapter with a phrase from that paragraph in order to make points that are not necessarily about the evidence for evolution. This chapter, which is called “There is grandeur in this view of life” would best be regarded as somewhat distinct from the dominant narrative of the book. He makes points about God, origin of life, perpetual motion machines, physical laws etc. He even invokes some sort of an anthropic principle for why we see green wherever we look. He seem to be rewarding the reader who bore with him thus far. In other words, he tries to end with a high note (in fact the process starts with the penultimate chapter). It is a classic Dawkinsian move, which presumably is intended to wet the appetite of the reader to go out and read more. “If you liked this, there is plenty of this out there. Just go ahead and give them a try” seems to be the subliminal message. But would they? Would the reader, after such an overdose of in-your-face kind of science, which is sometimes explicitly assumed to be at odds with religion, go out and inquire further? That is the question I would like to tackle before wrapping up.

It has to be said that Dawkins does not pull punches. He often has harsh words against people who deny evolution. For instance, he says that the people who think the world is less than ten thousand years old are “deluded to the point of perversity”. He pays little or no attention to what the consequences of that utterance may be. He is the kind of person who cares about what’s right, rather than how people would react upon hearing that truth? This may seem like an unfortunate character trait in author that purports to “convert” people to evolution. “Who in the United States will read Dawkins’ new book (or ones like it) and have any sort of epiphany, or change his or her mind?” ask science writers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, presumably rhetorically. After all, would a creationist continue to read the book after that comment? Can one really hope to convince people by insulting them? This is a very widespread criticism against the book that it must be addressed in a review.

Firstly, when Dawkins does insult people’s cherished beliefs, he is often right. Young earth creationists are deluded to the point of perversity, given the true age of our world. They are wrong by many orders of magnitude and if the culprit of this massive delusion was something other than religion nobody would accuse Dawkins of being strident or offensive. If, say, the adherers of geocentric view of cosmology was as vocal and tax-exempt as the adherers of young earth creationism, we would all be outraged, we would defend people who oppose the geocentric view, we would urge people to get a hold of reality. Religion is peculiarly exempt from criticism and that is mainly why people react so strongly at even a hint of Dawkins’ opposition, even though he is right in what he says. In the age of political correctness and multiculturalism, there is something exhilaratingly noble about someone who would take none of it.

Secondly, he doesn’t go on insulting people throughout the book, as the critics suggest. As already mentioned, right from the get go he makes it explicit that he is not after religion. He only draws certain religious conclusions when addressing the claims of the adherents of religious doctrines, like the claims of intelligent design, which is necessary to address the misinformation put forward by certain religious people. It’s not a head on assault to religion.

Thirdly, we should refrain from assuming that the world is divided into two types of people; evolution-doubters (history-deniers, as Dawkins calls them) who, at the very first feeling of cognitive dissonance would shun evolution, and the choir, whom Dawkins is preaching. In other words, excluding the middle is a fallacy. No doubt there a lot of people out there that are on the fence about science, who have not thought about such mattes one way or another in their lives and would come to change their minds once they are exposed to hardcore facts (with a proper narrative, obviously).

Fourthly, and this is my personal favorite, as of now there is not a shred evidence that an in-your-face attitude regarding science is not helpful, that it is turning people away from science. This argument is always in the form of a gut feeling, the critics just know that Dawkins is hurting the scientific cause by doing what he is doing. The question “who would listen to your insults?” is almost always rhetorical; it is assumed that the answer is obviously “not religious folks”. Well, argument from gut feelings is one of the lowest forms of evidence in science and the charge is all the more ironic once you remember the credentials of its adherents. And in any case, many people’s gut feeling says just the opposite; they believe that a good case can be made that being vocal and uncompromising in these issues are better in the long run. Dawkins’ website, for instance, is brimming with such people, many of whom were in fact “converted” by Dawkins, so they know where they are coming from; they were once the very people that the critics claim do not exist. There is a growing community on the internet who are fed up with wishy-washy ways approaching the problem that would also agree. They may be right, or they may be wrong. The point is that there is, of course, always going to be scientifically uninitiated people who would distance themselves from the Dawkinsian approach because of his rhetoric (notwithstanding the claim that this is a rather condescending view, as some argue, to accuse people of saying, in effect, “I don’t like what you’re saying, so I won’t listen”), but there are also many people who wouldn’t. Once being one of the latter, I resent the insinuation that my (former, admittedly) view point is irrelevant. And until relevant evidence comes up that shows that he is doing a disservice to society (a very hard thing to quantify, of course), we should avoid rash conclusions.

In conclusion, The Greatest Show on Earth is a well-written book but that is somewhat of a truism, for Dawkins seems incapable of writing a bad book; this is his tenth good book. But it is also not a polemical book, contrary to what the critics would have you believe. It does not pollute its central message by messing with religious sensitivities. It focuses almost exclusively on the science of evolution and lays out all the lines of evidence for it, without assuming any prior knowledge on the part of the reader. In due course, we learn what science does, how it does what it does, and what are the scientific implications of its findings. We do not just learn the evidence for evolution, but also the importance of evidence in science. His feeling of awe is apparent throughout the book and dripping from the pages; he is celebrating life and its diversity. We are led, step by step, with due diligence, following the food steps of Charles Darwin, to conclude that

[e]volution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution is at least as strong as the evidence for the Holocaust, even allowing for eye witnesses to the Holocaust. It is the plain truth that we are cousins of chimpanzees, somewhat more distant cousins of monkeys, more distant cousins still of aardvarks and manatees, yet more distant cousins of bananas and turnips . . . continue the list as long as desired.

And we are lucky to have such an eloquent proponent of the greatest show on earth, the only game in town.

Nowadays Arizona State University is hosting a symposium called the ‘Origins‘. It has been going on since the 2nd of this month and will end today. As you will find if you check the list of speakers, the meeting was highly prestigious, perhaps too prestigious, and the quality of the discussions were phenomenal. I learned a lot about some of the leading ideas on cosmology and string theory. But since I was made aware of this symposium just a few days back, I was able to watch only a handful of discussions. Yeah, that’s the other thing, you can actually watch the whole debates live online, for free: here.

For instance, shortly (in like a few minutes, 21.45 CET) you can watch Richard Dawkins, Craig Venter and Lawrance Krauss debate about…well who knows what. This is a great way to end the symposium. So aren’t you lucky that I’ll also be liveblogging the whole event over here as soon as it starts? I realize that’s a very short notice, but anything is better than no notice, right? Feel free to join in. I don’t expect to have any online followers (of my liveblog, that is. I wouldn’t follow me too, if there was a live transmission of the event that I’m liveblogging about) but you can always read what I wrote even when the meeting is over. So, here we go [in brackets are my comments]…

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23.37 Transmission is showing indications of starting. Soothing music being played. I have a headache, though. Not helping.

23.39 Updates take longer than can be afforded in a liveblog. Wonder if that’s gonna be a problem. Perhaps I should update en masse.

23.41 Also I’ll not hesitate to butcher the English language as I go along. Gotta choose your battles, I say. 3 minutes.

23.44 Switched to IE for better handling. Google Chrome is nice, but IE feels better right now.

23.53 Still not started. Did I get the time wrong? Come to think of it, I just googled “Arizona time” to convert the local time. Arizona State University cannot not be in Arizona, cannot it?

23.56 Soothing music feels like anything but soothing. BTW, this thing is supposed to last for 3 hours. Buckle up.

00.00 All right, here we go. Krauss is the moderator, apparently.

00.03 No wait! He just spoke for a while (basically thanked the audience) and went off stage and some lady is doing the introductions.

00.05 Note to self: Stop being hasty when liveblogging: Krauss is back.

00.06 Oh dear, he just introduced Paul Davies (physicist) and went off stage. Davies is introducing Dawkins, talking about his resumé.

00.07 Dawkins is on, somewhat underdressed. Talking to Davies. Where the hell is Venter?

00.08 Davies asks for a 1 minute summary of Darwin’s theory. Dawkins begins by apologising for his attire. Answer: That’s why we exist, why we are here. Descent with modificiation, change over generations, branching of pedigrees via Natural Selection was Darwin’s point.

00.10 Q: If Darwin was alive, what could we tell him? A: Genetics. The one thing Darwin got wrong. Modern genetics became modern by 1) Mendel 2) Watson&Crick. Modern genetics is thoroughly digital, Darwin thought it was blending. Nat. Sel. wouldn’t work if it was blending. Particulate digitial inheritance is more like it. That way we can determine definite ancestries.

00.12 Q: If Darwin was so off regarding genetics, how was he spot on regarding everything else? A: He was mathematically illiterate, he was a naturalist. He formed tunnel vision to solve problems. The journey of Beagle helped. He had a huge [number of] correspondences.

00.14 Q: Science is not just a body of wisdom, it is an ongoing process. What are the hot topics on evolutionary theory? What in 10 years? A: First, the origin of life. Second, exact tree of life. Huge amount of work going on for that. Digital genetics is huge help. Today you can’t get away with being non-mathematical. Darwin wouldn’t get a grant today (joke).

00.17 Q: What are the practical applications of evolutionary theory? A: Much of agriculture [artificial selecetion], bacteria resistance.

00.18 Q: Life seems magical. Stupid atoms create all this complexity. Physicists have underlying maths for their fields. Will there be a time when biologist write laws like physics? A: Darwinian selection is kind of fundamental. Whatever an organism is doing, they are doing the one same thing: maximizing gene propagation. I can’t imagine a formula for the ‘cell’, though.

00.21 Q: Darwin himsef refused to speculate on the origin of life. What do you think? A: Once nat. sel. gets going, the rest is easy. But the key first step is some form of hereditary material. DNA is too complicated for this, a precursor must have existed. Much simpler system of heredity. That’s the the Catch-22 of life: DNA is both too complex and too simple. [see RNA world]

00.24 Q: Was the origin of life likely or unlikely? A: Interesting Q. Another way to put it “are there other life forms on the universe?” If it was likely, universe should be teeming with life. My feeling: I don’t know, both possibilities are interesting. If we are unique, origin of life must have been too improbable thus our experiments are doomed to fail. I don’t think that is the case, though.

00.28 Q: Are we on the verge of making life on the lab? That’s not gonna tell us about “our” origin, is it? A: Right. I ask chemists to come up with alternative biochemistries. Can we dispense with proteins, nucleic acids, both? Catch 22 is this: DNA is a replicator. Protein acts as a executive branch, it builds bodies. Proteins can assume literally 3D shapes, they coil up. And that is determined by amino acids, which are 1D. And they are determined by DNA. It is translated by a simple look up dictionary. It forms 20 aminoacids, which coils up to make up proteins. And that catalyzes 1 particular chemical reaction.

Every cell will have different enzymes activating particular activities. Protein’s role of catalyst and DNA’s role of replicator must both be present in a cell for it to sustain life. That’s the catch-22 problem of the origin of life. See, again, RNA World.

00.33 Q: Everything starts with 1D genetic material. Can it start with 2D? A: 2 is possible, 3 is not. Reading out is a problem. DNA is transcribed into RNA, and RNA is translated on to something equivalent of a tapereader. Now 2D genome could work: you could scan it. Not 3D though, how could you ever scan it?

00.35 Q: When life gets going, is it inevitable to have intellegent life? Your intuition? A: Maybe, maybe not. Week empirical evidence, that we are not visited, suggests that it is unlikely. Fermi paradox: where is everybody? Radio waves of aliens should have reached us by now. Universe is large, maybe too large to ever make contact.

00.38 Q: Natural selection is blind, cannot look ahead. Nature tends to stick with the innovations that work. Can nature converge on intelligence? A: Intermediate stages must be beneficial for the organisms, natural selection is blind. But brains overrule that and see ahead, once they become big enough. Then a whole new kind of evolution gets going.

What features on earth have evolved many times, that’s interesting to ponder. For instance, eyes have evolved over 40 times on earth. Intelligence seems to have evolved only once, ditto language. That doesn’t rule out other planets, but it may mean that it is dificult to discover.

00.43 Q: Lamarck was wrong, but can Lamarckian evolution be the case on other planets? A: No. A theory of evolution must explain adapation. Inheritance of acquired characteristics cannot explain adaptation. Because the subtlety of an eye cannot be improved by using more of your eye, a lens doesn’t get clearer that way. Wheras with Darwinian principles, anything, no matter how detailed how cryptic how concealed from the outside, natural selection will act upon it and improve it. Lamarckism is just not good enough.

00.47 5 minutes mark. Questions from the audience. Q: On religion. Don’t you think the way you make your points is offensive? A: Davies dismisses it on grounds of being irrelevant.

00.48 Q: Your views on LUCA? A: The Last Universal Common Ancestor is the ancestor of all “extant” living beings, not the first alive organism. Every living being use the same genetic code, barring one or two tiny exceptions. That suggests a LUCA. But there may have been different origins of life. Davies is working on that.

00.50 Q: What if we found that intelligent aliens are ignoring us for not being clever enough? A: Interesting, nothing to add.

00.51 Last Q: Comment on epigenetics. A: It’s trendy, sometimes regarded as tantamount to Lamarckism, that’s wrong.

00.52 Adjourned. Dawkins went off stage. Davies is introducing Craig Venter.

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Craig Venter owns the first company to sequence the human genome.

00.55 He’s on. This one is not in a discussion format, Venter is making a speech. Starts with a slide titled “Big Questions”.

00.57 What is life? Can we digitize it? How extensive is it?

00.58 First genome sequenced in 1995. A few years ago complete human genome was sequenced.

00.58 There are 6.5-9 billion variants in our species but only 1-2 percent diversity among us (I might have gotten that wrong)

00.59 Talking too fast, I miss Dawkins.

01.03 Basically talking about how diverse life actually is. It is diverse, take my word for it. I’ll try to catch up when he moves on to the next topic.

01.08 Nope, his speech seems heavily dependent on what he talked about earlier.

01.18 Not only that, it also requires considerable amount of prior knowledge on genetics. Sorry to be of little help.

01.27 Yep, this speech is a lost cause. Not awfully difficult but impossible to liveblog. And it ended. Q&A time. Let’s see how that’ll go.

01.28 Q: Do you use fractal codes for your sequences [what?], secondly, tell us about the ethical aspects. A: Bioethics is pretty knew. First question unanswered.

01.30 Q: Comment on unintended effects of your applications. A: It is critical not to release synthetic organisms to nature.

01.32 Q: What kind of new technics have you created? A: Davies: Read the book. Venter: New math algortihms to sequence DNA in large scales.

01.34 Adjourned. Intermission, till 01.50. Coming up next: Lawrance Krauss. He talks even faster! I need a drink.

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01.49 I love Krauss, he is a great science popularizer and communicator. Check another one of his discussions with Dawkins here. Davies is introducing him.

01.54 Also in a speech format, oh boy. Evidently he is going to talk about the eventual fate of universe.

01.56 Einstein discovered special&general relativity. That was a static kind of universe. That was the scientific wisdom of his day. [shows stars on screen]. Gravity should cause stars to collapse. That was a problem. Einstein [thought that he] solved that problem [shows an equation on the screen that reads “left hand side = right hand side”] left: curvature, right: energy and momentum.

01.58 To prevent collapse Einstein added a constant to the left hand side: cosmological constant. But that didn’t solve the problem. Because the universe turned out not to be static after all. So you don’t need a repulsive force to prevent collapse. That is said to be his grandest blunder.

02.00 But someone else convinced the world of it: Edwin Hubble. He made many discoveries, like the expanding universe. He watched the galaxies, catalouged many of them. If you look at other galaxies, you see that they are moving away from us. So we must be at the center of the universe, right? No. This is true for every observer in the universe [explains graphically], things also move away from them as a function of distance. 3 times away, 3 times faster it moves away from them.

02.02  That changed everything, it even had religious repercussions. Universe had to have a begining: turned out to be 13.7 billion years.

02.03 How do we know that the universe is expanding? First, we measure the speed of the galaxies: Doppler effect accounts for that. But that is easy. Hard part is to measure the distance. [Shows Hubble’s original data]. His data shows the earth to be something like 1.37 billion years old. That’s wrong by a factor of 10.

02.06 We measure distances with something called “standard candle” [graphic].  When a star explodes (when it becomes a supernova) we can determine its intrinsic brightness and thus its distance. A remarkable discovery. Now the factor of uncertainty is reduced to %10 from 1o.

02.08 So Einstein’s equation is rewritten (left-right). And it represents a new form of energy. What type of stuff can account for that energy. The answer is: nothing.

02.09 If you remove eeeeeverything from space, there is still energy there. In Quantum Mechanics empty space isn’t empty.There are virtual particles. How do you see them? Indirectly. The proporties of atoms change [shows a picture of the inside of an atom. wow.]

02.11 So we can calculate the energy of empty space. And when we calculate that, the answer is: a gazillion times larger than all the energy in the universe. That’s the worst prediction in physics. But the answer should have been zero, because symmetries of nature can cancel this number out.

02.13 Now the question becomes what actually is the energy of empty space? We go out and try to measure it. Long story short [his remarks, not mine] we can weigh the universe.

02.14 Our universe can be open, closed or flat. In a closed universe, the universe should recolapse. In open, it should keep expanding. Within the last 10 years we have weighed the universe.

02.15 [Shows galaxies] Lots of galaxies. They like to hang out in clusters. So if we can weigh clusters, we can understand the total weight of the universe. How do we do that?

02.16 Einstein tells us light will bend in the presence of gravity. And we can use that to weigh the universe [shows image]. Most of the stuff in this cluster is between the galaxies. That is a definite proof of dark matter. [see also bullet cluster and here for a detailed explanation of the rationale of this method]

02.18 Dark matter is not like ordinary matter. It’s everywhere, but we don’t detect it.

02.19 Intrduces omega. And that indicates an open universe. But that cannot be, because the big bang creation can only imply a flat universe.

02.19 So how do we actually measure the geometry of the universe?

02.20 Introduces non-Euclidian geometry. Pays lip service to the mathematicians that first thought of this concept. That’s how our universe actually is, non-Euclidian.

02.22 Moves on to Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. When we look to stars, we look back in time. So if we look far enough, we should see the Big Bang. But we can’t, because beyond some point the universe is opaque. Microwaves come from all sides of the sky uniformly, and that’s the proof of the Big Bang.

02.24 Talks about the specifics of the measurements of the geometry of the universe. Is it open, closed or flat? The answer: the universe is flat [still non-Euclidian. Not to be confused.], just like theorists have thought. Talks first about COBE and then WMAP.

02.26 But if it is flat, %70 of the energy is missing. Where is it? It can be in empty space. [That’s reminiscent of Einstein’s idea]. That fits the data.

02.29 That is a crazy, insane, unbelievable picture of the universe. Universe is made of %5 ordinary matter [you and I and everything ever detected in any experiment], %25 dark matter, %70 dark energy. You are cosmically insignificant. So much for the idea that universe was made with us in mind.

02.31 So what in future? It’ll be different than we thought it would be. This is the brief history of time: the universe is expanding, the energy of empty space is constant [doesn’t diminish as a function of volume].

02.32 Talks about the anthropic principle, why is the universe the way it is?

02.32 Can there be other consistence forms of physics? We don’t know. Why is the universe fine tuned for life? Anthropic principle: we hade to be in a universe that is fined tuned for life.

02.34 If dark energy persists, the universe will speed up. And in far future observers will see only a single galaxy and come up with a totally wrong picture of the universe. That’s poetic.

02.35 To sum up, you are cosmically insignificant and the future is miserable. But it is interesting, much more interesting than fairy tales.  [shows a picture of the Earth] This is a pale blue dot and we live on it. Even though the future is bleak, we should enjoy our brief journey and keep exploring. That’s what science is all about.

02.36 Q&A. Q: Isn’t an expanding baloon a false analogy for the expanding universe? A: It is. That’s why I didn’t use it. A baloon expands into space, the universe doesn’t expand into anything. Better anology is infinitely long bed sheet that is being stretched.

02.39 Q: Given the lack of experimental data, is string theory wishful thinking? A: I don’t think so [accompanied with a long reply].

02.41 Adjourned. Next: Panel discussion with Baruch Blumberg, Walter Gilbert, Sheldon Glashow, David Gross, John Mather, Frank Wilczek. Wow, I’m tempted to stay, but I guess I should call it a night. That was fun, must do it again.

Do we have a word in English to the effect “totally having the very same things in mind while writing the article about understanding science, but there was no way I could express my points as eloquently. I mean, dude!” Well, we should. So I humbly nominate the word ‘to yong’ for that purpose, after ScienceBlogs blogger Ed Yong with his site Not Exactly Rocket Science, as I felt very much yonged (smoothest transition from coinage to the loss of scare quotes ever) after reading his recent article, what’s science’s rightful place? That’s a question put forward by the same ScienceBlogs in the form of The Rightful Place Project, in response to Obama’s inaugural address and his promise to ‘restore science to its rightful place’. A scientifically inclined politician, it turns out, is not contradiction in terms.. Who knew?

But where is this rightful place? Yong’s answer to that in his article is very much in the spirit of what I wrote, and then some. He distinguishes principles of science from the details of science and he argues that the former is deeply essential to our progress while the latter is important but incidental. To cope with the picture of reality put forward by science, we have to be affiliated by its methods. We have to learn the value of evidence and reason, we have to learn to think in statistical terms, we have to internalize the ability to change our minds if it’s due. And scientific approach takes these concepts pretty much as given. So acquaintance with these principles, he argues, is much more important than acquaintance with its epiphenomenal and fleeting details. His point is aptly summarised with this: “But underneath all of the detail lie some basic principles that science is built upon and these, I feel, ought to be more mainstream than they perhaps are.” which is precisely my point. Free inquiry, rational deductions from observed data, disrespect to authority, unyielding dedication to facts, wherever they may lead us; a society lacking these notions is bound to lose sight of what it truly means to be human. And, he further argues, as I too argued in my post, it’s not that we are incapable of getting these notions up and running, it’s not that critical thinking is an acquired taste for us, they are second nature to us in the vast majority of the things we do. Their application is what makes us human: to seek causal patterns and evalute them in a way that makes optimum explanatory sense. “The principles are a way of thinking, whether people think about it or not, and they are everywhere.” And their proper application is what’s going to make us a better society. Scientists are simply better equiped in using them than you and I, but our difference is not a qualitative one.

We happen to have a word for critically examining the nature at large: science. But we may as well not have, because that word denotes nothing more than “the long history of learning how to not fool ourselves”, as the physicist Richard Feynman used to say. Science is simply the enhancement and purification of that mental appetite we humans, by our species’ very definition (remember? Sapiens?), all along have sought to fulfill. And not fooling ourselves was always the point of this ball game, wasn’t it?

 

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If trees could philosophise, surely some of them would ask, ‘If a massive star goes supernova and no plant was ever in its future light cone to use the light in photosynthesis, does it emit light?’ Oh the substrate neutrality of idiocy, how could I live without you?

$1000 for a complete genome sequence! Wow, where do I sign up? More to the point, when can I sign up? Today you can get a full genome analysis for about $100.000. A wee bit too expensive for my blood. I wonder when it will be feasible for officious science geeks like myself.. Dawkins thinks it won’t be later than 2050. Hmm, I might just live to see it. It would be cool to be in league with the likes of Steven Pinker. Not to mention the euphoria that you’ll feel from reading the transcription and interpretation of your ultimate material make up, the full recipe of your bodily machinery. Talk about a holy book!

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