Monday, April 30, 2012

Aliens Galore

As science progresses in the quest to map the stars, the galaxies and all of the knowable universe, it appears that one aspect of "crackpot science" can be discarded. It is not a crackpot idea to believe that aliens could exist in myriad planetary systems in countless numbers.

Fermi's Paradox still applies, such that "Where are they?" is still a vexing question.

Some people on this planet assume that other lifeforms have been here already. If so, and I cannot prove that they have not, they are very good at keeping the evidence confusing. The work of governments cannot uncover their intentions, nor can theologians nor anyone at all. Notwithstanding the many books and huge number of believers, the evidence is always such that I, myself, am never able to see it.

I would not doubt that aliens exist out there in the billions of locations able to support life. What fraction of those locations actually do support life, I have no idea. What fraction of that life is able to evolve to a point where it could relate to us as we ponder the universe, I have no idea. Yet it is not a crackpot idea at all.

I think the main answer to "Where are they?" is: They are trying like heck to get places all around them, but the energy it takes is just too expensive. There is plenty of material, all sorts of atoms and energy all around their home star systems that take away any need to blast off for forsaken places like Earth to forage. Unless they can travel for thousands of years, frozen in stasis, regenerating as breeders on generation ships, or using technology beyond the most bizarre imaginations of scientists on Earth -- then there is just no cheap way to get here.

Imagine that you are allowed to vote for a tax -- the proceeds of the tax will allow you and your family to be blasted off into space for some location 2000 light years away, and it will use the greatest technology we have and only take 20,000 years to get there. Are you going to pay that tax? Even if it would only take 2000 years you would say no. That is a crackpot idea, and you will not pay. Who would trust the government to make star ships capable of lasting that long when we can't even keep our closest space craft in orbit more than a couple decades without massively expensive upkeep. No one will be able to service some star ship that is half way to a place 2000 light years away.

It is unlikely that aliens will think much differently about time and space than we do. Conjecture that they could jump across dimensions, shortcutting the time problem, is only a that -- a guess. We can think of no way to cross dimensions even with quarks or leptons or what have you, even for a second, let alone an entire star ship full of passengers.

Of course, given that some alien culture could be far beyond us in technology, perhaps they can think of ways that we are unaware of yet. Perhaps there are jumps and warps in space-time. Perhaps time is just an illusion that humans use for processing the information in our environment. Yes, but this, too, is just a conjecture. And the lonely prospect that, so far, no tourism cruises from other planets ever stops by Earth is a clue -- that maybe it is not so easy, regardless of how long a civilization might last.

Of course I have no proof that aliens are non-existent. That is not a scientifically valid statement, anyway. It would only possible to disprove a theory that aliens exist if it were possible to visit each and every location in space and time and then take a look. But the same could be said for Red Smurfs. I could look for Red Smurfs until I am blue in the face (ahem) and never know if they exist or not.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Elitism in Reality

There are many forms of mistakes. Some are made in grammar or spelling, of which I am guilty. Some are made while explaining something, and getting it wrong. And some are made in an never ending cascade of mistakes, of which we are all composed  because of natural selection.

It doesn't matter whether you believe in evolution or creationism or whatever else, because reality is what it is regardless of what you or I believe (except in a kind of silly world where we all invent our own little reality with no regard to others). Reality is a harsh master and cares little for our wishes.

I have read many scientific journals pertaining to cosmology, physics (6 kinds!) and many others dealing with psychology, computer science and chemistry. All of them suffer from one form or another of elitism. Especially in the formation of language and names for various entities.

It used to be that only priests or scribes could read the holy scriptures. This was true for thousands of years, since the majority of people could not read and those who could were not allowed to be taught to read the holy symbols. These symbols have survived to the present day in some cryptic religions, whereas Roman Catholics finally dispensed with the Latin mass some years ago.

However, in the realm of science, things have only gotten worse. 

Every time a new law of physics is formulated, and especially whenever a new force or particle is discovered, one or more new symbols are used to represent those entities in math equations. Much of the time they are Greek symbols, although I would imagine that we are running out of those very quickly, so that a Capital Greek and Small Greek pair must be used for some. 

It is understandable for mathematics to reduce all information down to its smallest formal representation, since there is often a massive amount of noting, scribbling and conjuring that must go on during the solving of great mathematical puzzles. 

Personally, even though I use mathematics everyday and must symbolically express all my work just the same as any other mathematician, except that I use computers rather than note pads for all work. This means that I must use a great number of other symbols unrelated to math itself but to the language used to describe math to computers. It is enough to drive me crazy.

 For instance:

// returns the absolute value when dividing the square of x by y
int yfunc(int xpar,int ypar)
    int tpar = xpar*xpar; 
    if (tpar<0) tpar= -tpar; 

Any C programmer will know what that means. But if I tried to describe that to a child it would whoosh right over their head. In fact most people are unwilling to sit long enough to a long winded description of what that means. A C programmer can also find a fault in the program, but it is subtle enough that often it will go unnoticed until a computer actually runs the code.

Now, if instead of a few lines of code for a computer, imagine that was an entire book full of equations attempting to describe all the chemical and subatomic interactions comprising a fish, including all the activities in its brain and other organs. The book would be thicker than any book I could physically lift.

Any general theory of a fish might actually be written in a much smaller book, however it might attempt to simplify the work by modeling aspects of the fishes brain as black boxes of signal processing  elements. This is much like modeling the sun as a giant fusion reaction turning hydrogen into helium. Indeed the sun is doing that, however the sun also is contaminated with nearly every kind of element that exists, which complicates the physical process of fusion.

A general fish is also not a specific fish which may have been exposed to mercury or a host of other toxins in its life. It is also not describing the entire process of a fish from the creation and fertilization of an egg to its death by old age (a rare form of death for a fish.) Even describing the DNA of a fish is difficult, and no one that I know of has actually described the entire process by which the DNA is transcribed like a computer program or cake recipe into a living fish.

So the complexity of science transcends the complexity of our actual ability to think about the implications. The symbols are too many, the categories of science are too varied, and the laws of physics are too fraught with footnotes (such as 1. we don't really each and every law of physics) . So like priest in ancient tribes, our scientists today must learn to speak in grey-goo-speak, to the point where not every scientist can really understand the entirety of what other scientists are saying.

To be fair, the "simple" world of philosophy and religion, given to a smaller set of books for guidance, did not always result in universal agreement. All one has to do is read the very first chapter in the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, and get confused. None of those statements makes sense on their own, so that everyone reads into them whatever cultural ideas that accompany them. "Let there be light!" is very much like "The Big Bang!" to a cosmologist. Yet, in the "real" Big Bang, so far as we can tell, there was no light until sometime after the bang itself, when matter was able to form and photons of certain frequencies could be radiated.

But, at least for most stories in religious texts, they can be explained to people of all ages and intellectual capabilities. You cannot explain everything to children until their minds have developed to a certain point, and for some people, born with abnormalities or injury, their brains may not ever be capable. But so long as there is some priest or witch doctor around to read the words of the ancients, they can be told as stories that people can usually relate to.

Exceptions to this can arise, such as in the Book of Revelation. That text suddenly bursts forth with all kinds of symbolic and descriptive mutations. Who can relate to a beast with ten heads? It has been explained that a book such as that was written in a kind of code when Christianity was being hunted down like a rogue elephant during the last stages of the Roman Empire. So, OK. There are sometimes codes and symbols used in non-scientific ways, and they have been used throughout history.

In almost every case, the symbols are used to further some kind of elitism. Maybe this is unavoidable.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Attack of the Preachers

Today I was woken by loud knocking on the door. Thinking perhaps there was someone trying to deliver something or that had some proper business to be here, I rushed to get dressed enough to run downstairs and answer the door.

I was two men with Bibles. I did not even have my glasses, so I could only see blurry faces and certainly could not read anything, but I did try to be polite, as is my habit. I said, "before you say anything, I have to tell you that I am absolutely not religious and there is nothing that anyone, including Jesus himself, could do or say that will change that."

This, of course, did nothing to dissuade them. They hear that almost everywhere. The main guy (who was larger) began by saying, "we are not here to sell anything or to get you to join anything. We just want to discuss the Bible."

I sighed, of course, but allowed the conversation to progress. When asked what I thought about the events of the world, I merely answered, "I am a scientist. I observe and take notice of novel events, trends of nature, that sort of thing. I do not take comfort in anything the Bible says, unfortunately."

"So, then," one went on, "you believe in the Big Bang?"

"Not exactly. Perhaps many Big Bangs, in an infinite or at least indefinite time frame there may have been innumerable such events," I replied.

"But isn't that like a singularity, such as the 'In the Beginning, Let there be light!' verse in Genesis?"

"Not exactly...  a singularity would have to be a single, unexplainable event. In an eternal Universe, with multiple Big Bangs (or Little Bangs, what have you...) there would still be singularities, but the prime singularity would be: 'How does ANYTHING AT ALL exist, including Gods or self-igniting universes, virtual particles in a vacuum, etc.'"

I will not go on, mainly because the entire conversation seemed to go into circles, which made me doubt whether my politeness was a virtue. I listened to a few more arguments, eg. the Bible somehow refers to the expansion of space, etc. until I just said, "Well, then go ahead and believe as you wish. It will not change anything. The world will become a dystopia, our grandchildren will live in squalor, if at all, and God, the almighty creator of this mess, will do nothing about it."

I was not speaking angrily, you must know, only in a matter-of-fact manner. Eventually they realized that, although I might be the rare person that engages them in conversation, nothing was going to improve their positions. So they left. 

Thereupon I shuffled back into the house, got some coffee, sat down to my computer, meandered the Internet, read news articles (which involves so much soul crushing bad stuff it is pathetic) and then decided to write an entry about my insipid experience in this blog.  The only thing that might be valuable in this story is that some people can stimulate your thinking to such a degree that it destroys any hope that they could ever convert you.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Death of the Death Penalty

In Norway, the Anders Breivik trial has entered a few days worth of fascist blather into the court's records, into the world's news reports, and can never result in true justice for the 77 people killed by that white supremacist psychopath. 

There are lesser men in the USA, killing only one or two people, who have gotten the death penalty and had it actually carried out. There are serial killers who have killed dozens of people who have only life terms, although sometimes their lives in prison are not long -- even criminals have limits to what behavior they can accept from their cellmates.

There are wars all around the world, mass murderers who ache to use "WMDs" of whatever kind to inflict their hatred or sense of "justice" on their enemies. The 9-11 bombings by Islamists seems little more than sheer murder when carried out against some 3000 people who had no dog in the fight. In addition to a few actual soldiers or politicians in the Pentagon, thousands of uninvolved men, women and children were mercilessly slaughtered in the "name of Allah", whatever that is supposed to mean. 

In response, in the dozen years since, as is our habit our soldiers have employed ever more deadly weapons to kill the enemy, or at least their Islamist protectors. Although I am not aware of any single attack by our own forces which has killed 3000 people at once, there have been thousands of equally innocent men, women and children killed via the massive air campaigns, artillery bombardments, machine guns, mines, and so forth, that our soldiers use to seek and destroy the "terrorists".

I am not a pacifist in the strictest sense, whereby I would rather die than lift a finger in defense of my home. That seems untenable in a world where violence has molded every creature that exists. Yet I would like to reserve warfare to those situations which truly deserve it. If there is some existential threat to our home due to hordes of maniacal religious extremists building terror weapons as fast as they can, well then by all means put them down with whatever weapons are necessary (within reason). 

I am very glad we were able to "take out" Osama Bin Laden, and only hope that many others like him are also similarly disposed. Yet I am not happy to kill children and women whom many of those like Bin Laden surround themselves with.

A person sitting in an air conditioned room at a computer terminal can pilot one or more UAVs over any place on Earth and guide highly destructive bombs into the enemy's bathroom windows. If those bombs kill innocents, as often happens, that is considered a mere side effect of combat. It is not immediately considered a crime. However that same act can be repeated time and again, where some small number of terrorists are taken out for every larger number of innocent bystanders. At some point the "mere side effect" becomes a criminal event -- certainly not of any higher morality than the tactics of a terrorist.

So, for a country who wages war on this kind of scale, as we do, then the capital punishment of our own criminals does not seem any worse, and seems even a more humane thing in comparison. Whereas we might (usually) prove the guilt of the executed prisoner, we do not always prove the guilt of those killed with rockets or bombs from UAVs. For a criminal like Anders Breivik, whose murders cannot be considered anything but ghastly, the Norwegian system of weak punishments is puzzling to those in the USA. I can understand that puzzlement.

Yet, our country is not Norway. They are the ones who decided their laws, however strange they may seem to us. If they decide that prisoners should never be executed, regardless of the heinous nature of their crimes, then so be it. Many states of the USA also refuse to use capital punishment, for the very same reasons as Norway. Yet most of our states have far more severe prison terms, such as life without parole, ninety nine years plus one day, and even multiple hundred years (just to make damn sure they don't get out, no way, no how.) 

The criminal Jeffrey Dahmer was a cannibalistic sexual predator in the USA who murdered many young men in hideous ways. Of course he was given a harsh, life-without-parole prison sentence. But not too long into that sentence he was killed by another inmate. So much for leniency or "liberal elitism". If we were truly liberal elites we would have provided round the clock guards to prevent such an outcome.

I know very little about the Norwegian prison system, nor how one is protected from violence or other barbaric events in their prisons. It could be that such a person, hated by so many in that country, would be considered some kind of celebrity amongst other inmates. I have no idea. But I'll bet that the brutality of his crimes, especially those against helpless children trapped on an island, will insure that he is kept caged like a psychopath for his entire remaining life, one way or another.

I do think that, like Norway, the USA might eventually eliminate death penalties. If my own family member were murdered in some heinous manner, then there is no way I would want such a criminal to go free, and I might wish to kill them myself in revenge. But unless the laws can give me that right, then no one should have the right. Allowing the state to merely administer some dreamy injection as a trade for brutally torturing and murdering children does not seem like equity. Nothing the state could do would ever bring justice to families whose children's lives have been snuffed. 

The USA has laws against "cruel and unusual" punishments, which conjures images of impalement, burning, mutilation, crucifixion and other horrible manners of execution. There is no "eye for an eye" justice here, unless one carries it out themselves. There are soldiers who do such things, and prison inmates that obviously do such things, and our TV and movie screens abound with cops or other agents administering such forms of justice. It seems to be a human psychological need to assure that equal measures are somehow invoked for those who are wronged.

Yet, unless you can kill somebody 77 times, there is no such equal measure, in Norway or in any other place. Like Nero, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Vlad and so many others, mass murderers can never be punished adequately. The families of those 77 in Norway can only try to live their lives some other way, and banish the memory of their loved one's murderer from their minds. If that is even possible.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

LSD and Post-Utopian Delusion

I am a bright person, so everyone tells me that knows me, however I never thought I was very special as a child. I stumbled through life in a haphazard way, tripped by my completely uneducated mother, beaten by a father who never realized that booze was destroying everything in his own life.

I eventually tried a drug, LSD, at the age of 18, still in the US Navy at the time. Whereupon I could suddenly read writing on the walls (literally), I could also look into my own mind as if it were a kind of library of my life. I closed the books as soon as I opened them. The stories were not happy, the pages were covered with darkness and ignorance.

But the LSD opened up other windows into life that I'd never considered before. Maybe there really was some kind of God of the universe. Before that I was simply an atheist. Yet, logically, I knew that belief in a God of anything was merely a choice to avoid saying "I don't know."

From within my own mind there flowed a jumble of images, some hideous, some gloriously beautiful. All of them were unique to me, never seen before. The world was different from that point forward. I was living in a kind of far future science fiction world like someone from the year 10,000 AD.

It scared me, sometimes. The LSD was not always as pure as the first times. Sometimes it was not fun, nor pretty. But every time, in some way or another, it was an educational, eye opening event.

I am too old now to even consider trying that kind of drug. There are many kinds of modern replacements, and some old fashioned ones. The mushrooms and other natural forms of hallucinogens were sometimes the best, although they could also seem rather sickening. DMT was very short lived, STP (whatever that was) was very awful and long lasting. The stuff kids use today seems very dangerous, even the weed is too strong.

I miss those days, though. I miss being young enough to take LSD and go on a hike in the woods, appreciating the intricate web of nature like no other times. I would take LSD and enjoy time with a girl, sometimes enjoying things somewhat too much.

Anyway, the days of LSD are probably long behind me, except that -- if on the day I die that I could somehow know it was my last day -- and I would like to do LSD, maybe some Xanax as well. It would be a nice journey out of this amazing life to the frightening prospect of complete blankness.