Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Numeracy instruction

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, mathematics, mathematical thinking, instruction, learning methods

When I saw A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra) by Barbara Oakley, PhD, I was intrigued. The main title was in the form of a cutesy equation, which I supposed was the editor's conceit. Having read the book, I am not so sure.

Dr. Oakley knows what she is talking about, because she began as a math-phobic, but learned to love it. Throughout the book she has 1-page items by people with a similar background, who now are comfortable with mathematics, at one level or another.

The book is a breezily-written compendium of learning techniques and tips gathered into 18 chapters. It is not intended to be taken in wholesale. Different people learn in different ways, and in many cases, a single chapter, or even one point in a chapter, can unlock the math potential for someone. But I wonder…

At a certain level, to be human is to be mathematically adept at some level. Very young children, asked to choose one of two piles of coins, will pick the one that is spread out rather than a neat stack of the same number of coins. They equate spatial area with quantity, and don't realize that the two piles are equivalent. But, I suspect they have not yet learned to count, and it takes this further level of sophistication before they have the mental equipment to fairly evaluate the two piles.

I think that is analogous to an experience I had at about age 12. Someone had showed me a few Algebra equations. I saw something like 10x=5 and wondered, "How can that be?" I thought the "x" was supposed to represent a digit, like the stuff on the left would be a number from 100 to 109. So I thought something else had to be going on. This caused quite a delay in my getting the point when I began Algebra class later that year. But I think, a month or so into the school year, when it all began to "click", that my brain had simply grown up enough to have the right tools for doing algebra.

We all do a certain amount of calculation. Most of us can quickly evaluate the change we're given at the store (if we used cash). People who bowl soon learn to keep score without writing down their calculations. When we drive (without a GPS), and we see "Chicago, 95 miles", we check the odometer, note what it shows, and can then glance at it later and know how many miles we still have to go. Many times, we can even be told a "problem" like this:
John and Mary ride bicycles toward each other at 5 mph, from 1 mile apart. Their pet bird, which flies 20 mph, flies back and forth from one to the other until they meet. How far does the bird fly?
Most of us, by age 10 or so, can figure that John and Mary each ride half a mile, because they are going the same speed. The bird flies four times as fast as either of them, so its total flight is two miles. This kind of "figuring" is actually algebra, without the equations. In fact, it would take me longer to write down the equations for solving this using "traditional" algebra, than it did to write the two sentences above. What is funny is when someone tries to tackle the problem as a series of flights of decreasing length by the bird. The equations to get that to work are gnarly!

So every one of us has some amount of math built in. Standard equipment. But that "some amount" varies a great deal from person to person. Not everyone can learn algebra, no matter how it is taught nor how hard they try. But most can, and by "most" I mean "more than half but not a great deal more". Some kids who had no trouble with algebra never, ever get the point of Trigonometry. My senior year of high school, we got done with the ordinary curriculum for the year a few days early, so the teacher did an experiment. He got out a few copies of a basic text in Calculus and taught it to us. In just a couple of weeks, I learned enough Calc so that I pretty much breezed through the Calc 101 course the next year in college, which used that same textbook!

I was a working mathematician, at a certain level, for decades. But there are branches of math that have never made sense to me, and others that I can puzzle out with desperate levels of effort. I had to take Differential Equations three times to pass it. I'm still not comfortable with it, but the explanation of how to use it takes only two pages in my old CRC Handbook of Chemistry & Physics, and actually contains most of what one needs to do nearly any Diff Eq problem!

And so it goes. Each human brain has a certain mathematical limit. With luck, we might grow mathematically to our full potential, but it is time consuming. Most of us never need all that stuff. But we also grow into certain abilities over time. Just as the brain doesn't finish emotional maturation until about age 25, it must be true that certain math circuits only get set up at certain ages. It may be that the ten years between my second and my third try at learning Diff Eq made more difference in my ability, than the exposure I'd had during the first two attempts.

With all that in mind, I find no sense in delving into what Dr. Oakley has to say. The book is a fantastic resource. Someone who needs encouragement and help in how to learn math and science will do well to read the book quickly, then return to read over certain sections with more care: those sections that seemed to make the most sense the first time through. The first two chapters will be helpful to everyone. As for the others, while the author attempts to make them generally applicable, each will actually be best suited to people with a certain kind of mind, one way or another.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The view from the Piedmont

kw: book reviews, essays, philosophy, semiotics

A friend gave me an old paperback copy of Travels in Hyperreality by Umberto Eco. He is one of those authors about whom I have heard a little, but really knew nothing more than his name. That made the reading a bit of an adventure.

Chapters 1, 7, and 8 are long essays in the form of extended travelogues. The other five chapters are collections of shorter essays, republished from newspaper columns, dating from the late 1960s to 1980. All were translated by William Weaver.

There was a certain sameness about the second and later chapters, once I could stand back and view them all. Though they are diverse in subject, they are all the views of a skeptical intellectual who revels in digging into less-traveled corners of this or that concept. Chapter one, from which the book gets its title, stands alone as a travelogue in two senses: physical travel experienced as cultural and conceptual travel. It soon becomes clear that "hyperreality" refers to the United States of America, and most specifically to the breadth of cultural milieus that form a different kind of national map. None of them can be found "across the pond". This is probably as true today as it was 40-50 years ago, even though Europe is getting populated with McDonalds joints, Disneylands, and so forth.

There is just something about certain places that you can say, as certain advertisements in the US have it, "Often imitated, never duplicated." Such places need but one name. In Europe, they are usually great capitals: Rome, Paris, London, Oslo, Berlin, and so forth. In the U.S., some are great cities: Chicago, Las Vegas, New York, New Orleans; but some are more regional: SoCal, The Valley, 'Bama, The Rockies, or Down East. (To be fair, Europe also has regional memes: The Loire Valley, Tuscany, the Alps…)

Eco delved into certain of these, but his interest was conceptual landscapes, which frequently transcended the geographic. Thus, he begins by exploring "Fortresses of Solitude", modeled in his telling on Superman's lair, because of the American penchant for greatly expanding the meaning of "Museum" far beyond the way the word is used elsewhere. Starting with the Lyndon B Johnson Library with its hyper-eclectic gathering of artifacts, including a full-size, detailed replica of the Oval Office (but brighter and shinier), he passes through several similar establishments sporting full-size replicas of this or that building or collection thereof, and winds up at a replica Colonial farm, complete with livestock…or as close as the proprietors could come to a replica, what with changes in farm animals over the past 3-4 centuries. I found myself wondering what he'd have thought of the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, the 175-room mansion of Henry F. du Pont, which is primarily composed of entire salons—walls, ceilings, floors, windows, furniture, art and all—bought from other mansion-builders who'd fallen on hard times all across America.

Then he dwells upon wax museums that go beyond the "statuary" genre of Madame Tussaud's, and this country has a great many of them. Wax replicas of people are one thing. Some of the items are replicas of works of art, such as one of Michaelangelo's David, but colored as the statue might once have been, and perhaps as David was in life. Is that more than a replica, or less?

In another turn, he starts with Wm. R. Hearst's "Castle" in San Simeon, remarking at length upon its confused mix of artifact and artifice, the real and the fake, the old and the new and the new-but-looks-old. He touches on other such American castles, and again, I was wondering what he'd have thought of the "summer cottages" in Newport, Rhode Island, where the Vanderbilt's and others escaped the oppressive summers of their "real" homes in the Carolinas. After contrasting these various kinds of "museums" with the Forest Lawn Cemetery's exhibits, he gets to the real meat of his essay, the real homes of hyperreality, the amusement parks. Quite simply, American entrepreneurs have turned the notion of a "house of amusement" inside-out, first with Disneyland, in California, and on a scale 150 times larger in Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World (and Mr. Disney meant it), yet not only the "Disneys", but also Knott's Berry Farm, the various Universal Studios properties, and sundry other places, all fitting the moniker "theme park". Why, my former favorite Mojave Desert destination, Calico Ghost Town, is well on its way to becoming a theme park, though its current admission fee is only 1/10 what it costs to visit a Disney for a day (but then, you can experience all that Calico has to offer in a day. Disney World? Not even close).

Nothing is off limits to the American amusement machine, it seems. Eco samples the religious fare; one of the "church celebrities" he saw must have been Kathryn Kulhman, by the description: she was a walking, talking, one-woman circus if ever there was one. And his conclusion of it all? That Americans must love fakery better than the genuine, for we certainly consume enough of it. And that's what hyperreality means, after all, not just a fake but an enhanced fake, a fake "on steroids", a fake that is a great deal more enjoyable than the original.

After all that, the rest of the book is "merely" brilliant. I gradually realized that Eco is a European intellectual with a capital I. The titles of the chapters and essays are elliptical, on purpose. If I get started commenting in detail, the foregoing will be a tenth of what comes after. I think instead I'll give it a rest, and say that Eco peers here, there and everywhere, and always has something to say that is at least interesting and thought-provoking, and is often useful.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Steampunk and Gaslight in the 21st Century

kw: book reviews, science fiction, science fantasy, mysteries, cryogenics

From a distance, one simply sees a misshapen, though symmetric, skull. Once the book is in hand, the details resolve into a pair of men in tall hats flanking a pair of trees, a row of fenced tombstones, and a small, solitary female figure in the background. This cover art, coupled with the placement of Unseemly Science by Rod Duncan in the "Sci-Fi/Fantasy" shelving, promised a thorough mix of genres, and indeed, it proved a delightful mix.

Another detail in the cover art is more subtle. Upon a lengthy look, the scene is found to be snowy, with mountain shadows behind. The author's writing is similarly subtle. It took a good while for me to realize that the ice itself was the core around which the mystery resolved. Yet if I reveal more than that, it will be an "unseemly spoiler".

The milieu is of more immediate interest. The book is set in an early 21st Century England with a distinctly 19th Century flavor. Armistice in 1819 after a civil war has split the country along a line through the Midlands that divides Leicester into North and South halves. To the south is Kingdom, centered on London, and to the north is a Republic, centered on Carlisle. The former British Empire is now popularly called the Gas-Lit Empire. Most nations of the world have invested great power in the International Patent Office.

Unlike the familiar patent authorities of modern nations, which exist to facilitate technology, the Patent Office enforces the Great Accord, which primarily limits technology to innovations that can be shown to "protect and insure the wellbeing of the common man." One area considered practically exempt from their oversight is medical innovation, based on the risky notion that any medical advance must be beneficial. I'd guess they forgot Dr. Mengele.

The protagonist is Elizabeth Barnabus, a fugitive from the Kingdom living in the Republic. Her backstory is told in a former book by Duncan, The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter. Upon becoming pubescent and lovely, she'd been "acquired" by a certain nobleman as a plaything (mistress), but escaped and ran northward. She lives by her wits, a kind of female Sherlock Holmes, aided by her skills in disguise. Being tall and less shapely than one might expect, she is adept at taking on a male persona and doing business as her brother when a man's work is needed. Her "brother" has been asked to look into apparent theft of ice, which is produced in large amounts in the Welsh mountains by poor families of ice farmers, and transported southward where it is kept frozen by large, inefficient cooling machinery.

Chapters in this book are headed by quotes from two as-yet unwritten books, The Bullet-Catcher's Handbook and From Revolution. The latter is stated in a glossary as a mix of writings reaching back to the Federalist Papers. I am intrigued by the titling of carnival illusionists as bullet-catchers. Having seen on a Mythbusters episode that catching a bullet with one's teeth is quite impossible, no matter how much powder you remove from the shell, I understand that the carnival illusion is one of the most skillful.

Male writers cannot totally pull off writing in a female voice. Mr. Duncan does as well as any I've read, but the very familial sense I had reading it indicated that the character of Ms Barnabus is more male-like than a female writer would have made her. I suppose the author might protest that her frequent forays into a male world, disguised as a man, make her rather mannish in general. Perhaps. She is, nonetheless, a very engaging doubly-secret detective; doubly so in that she must do her work in secret, females being forbidden from doing business in the Republic.

Dramatic tension is amplified when the Republican government takes up a bill that would enact an extradition treaty with the Kingdom. Though the Republic has tolerated numerous fugitives from the Kingdom, "proper folk" (meaning mainly those with "jobs" few of us would call "gainful employment") look askance at such immigrants, and they intend to legislate them out of existence. Most will be forcibly returned to the Kingdom, finding themselves on a rapid course to the tight end of a noose. The author has done a delightful job of rendering the above ingredients into a gripping tale of multiple betrayals and surprising heroics.

I'm in the process of scaring up a copy of the earlier book. This one ends with sufficient closure that, while one knows the author plans another volume (or more), the book is a unit unto itself. One thing is clear. If she can, Ms Barnabus means to bring about the downfall of the Patent Office. My wager'd be on that being the subject of a successor volume.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Exploring the quantum boundary

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, quantum mechanics, quantum theory, popular treatments

When I was about ten, I was disappointed in a picture I'd taken. I had been too far from the person I was "shooting", so he looked like no more than a couple of dots. Having recently learned about enlargements, I suggested getting the middle of the picture enlarged. My father remarked that the photo shop charges a lot for enlargements. Then I suggested putting it under my microscope and taking another picture, then getting that printed—I'd already been setting up a clumsy rig with a tripod holding Dad's camera at the eyepiece and making photos of the cells in thin-sliced carrots and leaves. He said I could try, but it would be very blurry, then explained about the grain in the print and in the negative. I looked, and sure enough, even at 25X the film grain made the picture look like it was printed on sand.

The next year he and I made a small telescope (I still use it), and I learned about diffraction and the magnification limit of an optical system. I realized, even if the film and print grain were a hundred times smaller, and even if the optics of the camera were flawless, diffraction would limit how much I could enlarge the final image.

This is an illustration of the Rayleigh criterion for resolving star images in a telescope. I downloaded it from the Angular Resolution article in Wikipedia. The upper section shows that the Airy Disks of the two stars are fully separated. The Airy Disk is everything inside the first dark ring (first null). The lowest section shows serious overlap, and the middle section shows the Rayleigh criterion, at which point the first null of one Airy Disk passes through the center of the other. This is the accepted resolution limit of a telescope system, or indeed, any optical system, including the eye.

What causes this pattern? It results from the interaction of light from a distant point source (or multiple sources) passing through a circular aperture. Just by the way, if you should get the notion to make a telescope with a rectangular aperture, under high magnification you'll get a diffraction pattern more like this:

Such diffraction patterns, I realized one day, are a visible manifestation of quantum-mechanical effects. If you could solve the Schrödinger Wave Equation for this system, the square of its solution would look like this image. In the SWE, the solution is in complex space, and represents probabilities, while the square of the complex probability at any point is the intensity of, for example, a beam of light or electrons, as it is spread through space by diffraction. One characteristic of the SWE is that, while there will frequently be numerous nulls, or zeroes, in the solution, there is no greatest angle or maximum distance beyond which its solution is always zero. This is why even huge telescopes such as the 10m diameter Keck telescopes in Hawaii still have a diffraction pattern once all other aberrations are accounted for (the atmosphere is a much bigger light scatterer "down here", though).

So, think of it. The yellow-green light that our eyes are most sensitive to has a wavelength of 0.55µ, or 550 nm. That's pretty small, about 1/1800 mm. And, even if we are comfortable with photons, the minimal packets of light, we think of them as having a similar "size". But diffraction patterns show us that a photon can somehow "sense" the entire aperture as it "chooses" by how much to change its direction of travel. A certain experiment that has been done with both photons and electrons proves it:

  • Set up a very, very light-tight box with a dimmable light source at one end, a sheet with a hole in it about midway, and either a sheet of film or an array of sensitive detectors (e.g. a digital camera sensor) at the opposite end.
  • Let's assume the light source is accompanied by a lens system that makes a uniform beam larger in diameter than the hole in the sheet.
  • Set the "brightness" of the light source such that there will very seldom be more than one photon inside the box at any one time. That's pretty dim!
    • A 550 nm photon has an energy of 2.254 eV.
    • A 1 mw yellow-green laser set to that wavelength (you can do that with dye lasers) emits 2.77 quadrillion photons per second.
    • Light traverses a 1-meter box in about 3 ns.
    • The 1 mw laser thus emits 8.3 million photons in those 3 ns.
    • Thus you must dim the beam by a factor of more than 8 million. That is 23 f/stops, or an ND of 6.9. Two pieces of #9 welding glass is about right.
  • Close the box, turn on the light, and wait about 3 hours.
  • Develop or download the resulting image. It will have the same diffraction pattern as if you'd left off the filters and shot a picture in 1/1000 sec.

The experiment has been done many times, usually using a two-slit setup. Either way, it shows that both a photon and an electron somehow "self-interfere" as they are influenced by everything along the way from emitter to "final resting place."

All the above serves to get my mind in gear to write about The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty By Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber. The authors, professors at Stony Brook University, aim to demonstrate that "quantum stuff" keeps things from either collapsing or flying apart. That we owe our lives to it. Dr. Goldhaber, in particular, draws upon classroom experience, for he teaches a course that uses optics to introduce quantum mechanics.

The book is filled with mini-histories and mini-biographies of the "physics greats" of a century ago who wrestled with the findings of phenomena that revealed that Newtonian mechanics are not up to the task of explaining all the little stuff that underlies our everyday experience. Optical diffraction is just one such phenomenon. If there were no diffraction, you could put a really powerful eyepiece on an ordinary pair of binoculars and see to the end of the universe...if your eyes were sensitive to really, really dim light (telescopes are big mainly to collect more light; high resolution is also good, but is secondary in many cases).

Einstein imagined riding a beam of light from emitter to absorber. Nowhere have I read an explanation that, from the photon's point of view, nothing happens at all. The special theory of relativity, with length compression by Lorentz contraction, and time dilation, only applies to non-photons, and in particular, particles with mass. If you take Lorentz contraction and time dilation to their limits at v=c, the photon travels no distance at all, and does so in zero time. So there is nothing to experience! From a photon's point of view, the entire universe has zero size and time has no meaning; the big bang may as well never have happened!

What if we step back a tiny bit, and imagine the neutrinos that arrived in 1987, heralding the core collapse of an immense star in the Large Magellanic Cloud, Supernova 1987a (SN1987a). I haven't read any analysis of their apparent velocity, but it must have been only the tiniest whisker slower than c. Neutrinos do have some mass, perhaps a few billionths of the mass of an electron, so they tend to have near-c velocities. It is likely that the "clock" of those neutrinos registered only a few minutes during their journey of 187,000 light years, and the distance seemed at most a few hundreds or thousands of kilometers. Now, that is relativistic.

What did Einstein and Planck and Heisenberg do that got everyone (among physicists) all in a dither for the first half of the Twentieth Century? First, Planck applied a minimum limit to the "packets" of energy radiating from a heated object, in order to combine two competing, and incompatible, mathematical models of "black body radiation" into a single formula. Einstein later showed a simpler derivation of that formula. But at first, physicists just thought of it all as a mathematical trick. In between, Einstein had described a good theory of the photoelectric effect, which seemed to require that light be in finite packets, that we now call photons.

Photons are usually small in terms of the energy they convey. As mentioned above, the yellow-green color seen at 550 nm wavelength is carried by photons with an energy of 2.254 eV (electron-Volts). An eV is a 6 billionth-billionths of a joule, and a 1-watt current is defined as one joule per second. But molecules are also small, and the energies that underlie their structure are similarly small. UVb radiation from the sun, just half the wavelength, and thus twice the energy, of "550 nm yellow-green", breaks chemical bonds in your skin, causing damage that can lead to cancer. So use sunscreen! (The middle of the UVb band is close to 275 nm, with a photon energy near 4.5 eV; more than enough to knock a carbon-carbon bond for a loop.)

Book after book is filled with the stories of the founders and discoverers of quantum physics. This book puts it all into a context that the authors call the Quantum Moment. They use the word "moment" the way a historian uses "era". From 1687 until 1927, the Newtonian Moment dominated about 240 years of physics discovery. Once a critical mass of physicists had to accept that quantum phenomena were real, not just mathematical tricks, the Quantum Moment arrived. The stories of the epic battle between Bohr, who formulated the Copenhagen Interpretation, and Einstein, whose work stimulated Bohr and others, but from which Einstein then recoiled, is told here with more feeling and clarity than any other I've read.

Scientists have an emotional bond with their science. For many of them, it is their church, which they defend as keenly as any ardent fundamental Christian defends his church's theology. In the Newtonian Moment, phenomena whose initial state could be perfectly described were thought to be perfectly predictable. The math might be gnarly, but it could, in principle, be done. Quantum theory, and then quantum mechanics, blow by blow cracked open this notion and showed it to be a fantasy.

This is not just the problem of imperfect knowledge, rounding errors, or the need to simplify your equations to make them solvable. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is not just a description of the way a measurement apparatus "kicks" a particle when you are measuring its location or velocity. What is Uncertain is not your measurement, but the actual location and velocity of the particle itself, at least according to Bohr. One implication of this with more recent application is the "no-quantum-cloning" principle, which makes certain applications of quantum computing impossible. However, they also make it very possible to create unbreakable cryptographic codes, which has the governments of the world (or their equivalents of our NSA and CIA) all-aquiver.

Then there's the cat. The authors give us the luscious details of Schrödinger's Cat satire, which he proposed as a slap against the notion of an "observer". Bohr and others needed some instruction from optics: every quantum particle is sensitive to, very literally, everything in the universe. All at once, and with no apparent limitation set by c. Heck, half the time, the cat is the only observer that matters. The other half, the cat is dead, and it ceases to matter to him. But, the authors point out, the air in the box is an "observer": the exchange of oxygen, water and carbon dioxide around a breathing cat are quite different from those near a dead one. So all we can say from outside the box with the cat in it, is that we can't decide the status of the cat without looking inside. We just need to remember that the term "observer" is very squishy.

I recall reading that even a pitched baseball has a "wavelength", according to the deBroglie formula. It is really tiny, only a few thousand times larger than the Planck limit of 10-35 cm, in fact. That means the deBroglie wavelength of a jet aircraft is much, much smaller than the Planck limit, which is why "real world" phenomena are easily treated as continuous for practical matters.

But the Cat, and the Uncertainly limit, show that the boundary between quantum and "classical" worlds is hard to pin down. Since that is the core of the Copenhagen Interpretation, it is seen to be weak at best, and in the eyes of some physicists, simply wrong. But there is no well-attested competing theory.

We must remember that the theories and mathematics of quantum "stuff" describe lots of "what" and a little bit of "how". They tell us nothing about "why". We don't know why there is a Pauli Exclusion Principle, that two electrons, and two only, can coexist in an atomic "s" shell, but only if they have opposite spins (and that "spin" is oddly different from the way a top spins). But we do know, that if it were not so, atoms would collapse in a blast of brightness, almost immediately, and the universe would collapse back into a reverse of the big bang, all at once and everywhere.

One scientist's work is not mentioned in this book, probably because he wasn't directly involved in the quantum revolution. But his work is pertinent in another way. Kurt Gödel formulated his Incompleteness Theorems in 1931, early in the Quantum Moment. Together, they show that no mathematical system can "solve" every problem that can be stated using its postulates, and that no mathematical system can be used to describe its own limitations. For example, there are rather simple polynomials that can be formulated using Algebra, but can only be solved using Complex Analysis. Even weirder if you know only Algebra, the simple formula X²=1 has two answers (1 and -1), but we tend to think that Xⁿ=-1 has only the answer -1 when n is odd, and is "imaginary" when n is even. But in Complex analysis, when n=3, for example, there are three answers, two of them involving an "imaginary" part.

At present, then, science has three boundaries to infinite exploration:

  • Heisenberg Uncertainty. You can't know everything to infinite precision.
  • Schrödinger Undecidability: You can't predict quantum phenomena on a particle-by-particle basis. Even if you could escape the Uncertainty Principle, you couldn't do anything of great use with the results (which would fill all the computers in the known universe, just describing a helium atom to sufficient precision).
  • Gödel Incompleteness: You can't solve most of the questions being asked in the framework of quantum mechanics, not now, not ever, using the methods of quantum mechanics. QM appears to be the most Gödelian of mathematical systems, in that it asks so few questions that can be answered!

For scientists who grew up in the Newtonian Moment, it is like finding out that your church has no roof, and the rain and raccoons are getting in and taking over the place. No wonder Einstein was upset! We are in the Quantum Moment, nearly 90 years into it, and it may be another century or two before a new Moment supersedes it. Get used to it.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Stuff our brain makes up

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, neuroscience, hallucination

To hallucinate is to be human…and, perhaps, to be any creature with a mind. As we read in Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks, a great many stresses and neurological disorders can lead to sensing (any of the "5 senses" may be involved) things that aren't there, but for many of us, so can a great many rather prosaic matters. For example, many people are like me: almost any time I can close my eyes and I will either see things—including persons—or hear voices that aren't there. Particularly when I am sleepy, these phantasms can be quite detailed: I'll either see entire scenes being enacted or hear entire conversations (though I can seldom understand the words), or music, and sometimes sight and sound go together. Also when I am sleepy or tired, I don't necessarily have to close my eyes to hallucinate. It is likely that these kinds of things happen at times for most of us. (I was once asked why I rarely listen to music. I replied that I have a sound track running almost all the time.)

Hallucinations could be considered both a travelogue and a catalog of hallucinatory perceptions. Dr. Sacks has migraine auras; he has experimented with sundry drugs; he has suffered griefs and stresses that led to several hallucinatory episodes. While many disease syndromes, from high fevers to Parkinsonism, lead to hallucinations, I was particularly interested in the more "normal" cases. It seems that the brain's pattern matching and recognition systems easily go into overdrive, as many of us experience when we look at clouds and see all kinds of fantasies. Static images get "over-recognized" rather easily. I have a painting of a seascape, with waves and rocks; one of the rocks one day looked just like a jaguar's head to me, and I can't see it any other way now. But we also experience things for which there is no apparent external trigger. Perhaps it is the lack of a trigger that triggers them, such as closing one's eyes.

By the way, the author mentions tinnitus, or "ringing in the ears" as a kind of hallucination caused by damage to the inner ear, and the brain hallucinates the sounds it is not receiving from the organ. This may be so in some cases, but certainly not all. I have low-level tinnitus, which gets louder if a pull my head back a certain distance. An audiologist used a tiny microphone in my ear to listen in, and said that pulling my head back changed the shape of the middle ear, which amplified the sound. The cause is the damaged hair cells vibrating in response to random noise (Brownian motion), not being damped as is normally the case. The inner ear may be a super-regenerative amplifier, which I'll discuss in a moment.

It may be that the only time most of us are free of hallucinations is when we are in a most ordinary state, not bored, not over-engaged, just "doing something" that fits well within our comfort zone, mentally and emotionally. I like the concept of the comfort zone, particularly in this context. Its boundary may be quite firm for some of us, and rather more nuanced for others. In my case, I think of the boundary as a wide zone of gradually increasing stress, and throughout most of this range any shift can release a mild hallucination of some sort. Thus the tendency to hallucinate in this "normal" way follows a sort of spectrum.

I think of a mechanical/electronic example. A kind of radio receiver, used in older CB radios, is "super-regenerative". It has three circuits in its detector portion. One is an extra-sensitive amplifier that will oscillate and almost blow itself out when any signal of the right frequency appears, including noise. It has extremely high positive feedback, but the key is that it "pops" faster the stronger the input signal. The second is a squelch circuit that allows the amplifier to "go crazy" for about 1/20,000th of a second, then very briefly cuts its power. The amount of squelch can be set by the operator. The third measures the maximum level achieved during each tiny time slice, and turns that series of measurements into an audio signal. So you can think of a hallucinating brain as a super-regenerative receiver with the squelch set too low.

A characteristic of most hallucinations is that you know it. A hallucination taken as real is a delusion. One question raised a few times in the book is whether the human tendency to religious faith is based entirely on hallucinations. Of course, to a total rationalist, all religion is delusional. But total rationalists are quite rare. According to Julian Jaynes (see The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind), half our brain informed the other half of its sensings and learnings via hallucinations that were thought to embody the voices or appearances of deities. Further evolution caused these two functions to become better integrated. Some say the tendency to generate divine apparitions and voices are a remainder of the bicameral mind, leading to every form of religious experience. I personally think that is an over-interpretation, and that there really is a God, but I'll forego theology in this review.

Hallucinations of all kinds are a class of experience that stands alongside dreams and imagination. They resemble dreams but can be much more detailed. Some dreams can be directed; this is called lucid dreaming. Hallucinations can't be directed, and usually play out as though the hallucinator is a spectator in someone else's theater. Imagination is nearly always directed but typically lacks the apparent veracity of a hallucination. We imagine something and may even speak of "seeing it in the mind's eye", but it doesn't appear to project into the world outside the way a hallucination does. Hallucination is also related to synesthesia, and perhaps this is its closest cousin. A synesthete might see colors attached to musical notes or printed numbers or letters; or to be able to taste the sound of certain words or songs.

But hallucination is more than mixed perception. It is perception without a perceived object, a result that is quite different from the stimulus that might produce it. For example, in a healthy person, grief can trigger the sight and/or sound of the lost loved one. This kind of hallucination is most directly related to a perceived object, or the memory of one. But the "sleepy-time" hallucinations I have aren't based on any proximal object, nor memory, except, I suppose, my general fund of memories about prior events. Thus, they might be waking dreams, though they differ from dreams during sleep, which are usually accompanied by a feeling of purpose. Hallucinations are typically purposeless.

I had a great time reading an earlier book by Oliver Sacks (reviewed in May). Hallucinations was a bit harder to read through. The writing is often more analytical, written at a higher level, and perhaps a bit more detailed at times than I had tolerance for. However, I don't want to commit the error of the king who told Mozart, "There are too many notes." Mozart rightly replied (so it is reported), "Majesty, which notes should have been left out?" This book can be read with profit by anyone, and will provide particular comfort to those who may be seeing or hearing "things", and fear they are crazy. No, you aren't crazy if you know your hallucination from what is really "out there". Or, if you are crazy, then so are we all.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Walk on the wild side - on Main Street

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, wildlife, cities

Do children still sing "Skip to my Lou"? One verse repeats, "Pigs in the parlor/What'll I do?". Other verses mention flies in the buttermilk, a cat in the cream jar, and a couple of birds. If you want to get creative, verses could be added about coyotes or deer in the back yard, cottontails in the corncrib, and if you were in Cape Town, baboons in the kitchen.

Most people in the cities tend to think of the city as a pretty sterile place, inhabited only by humans and their pets, maybe with pigeons and sparrows around, and a few pests such as flies thrown in. Tristan Donovan is here to tell us there is more to cities than we might imagine, in Feral Cities: Adventures with Animals in the Urban Jungle.

Much of the book contains stories about animals, not just in suburban areas and city fringes, but right in the middle of our cities around the world: Boars in Berlin, Coyotes in Chicago, the resident Cougar in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, a flock of Parrots in Brooklyn, Baboons breaking into homes in Cape Town, and the finding by researchers in Raleigh that every home is host to at least 100 species of insects and spiders.

Why should there be animals in our cities? By making cities comfortable for humans, we have made them comfortable for a multitude of opportunistic animals. In the U.S., northern cities are warmer, sometimes as much as 10°F and even more. Further south, many spaces are air conditioned, so an overheated jaybird in Tucson might make its way into the local WalMart to cool off. Cities in dry places are wetter, and homes in wet places are drier, than their surroundings. Snakes have been found with half their bodies hanging into a hot tub on a cool night, occasionally diverting a human romantic encounter from its intended course. And there is food everywhere, everywhere! Raccoons raiding garbage cans. Crows and gulls picking at road kill. Rats in the storm sewers, eating our refuse and being hunted by snakes and coyotes and wildcats. To a bobcat a rat's intended purpose is turning our crap into his lunch.

Biologists have compared animals in cities with their rural counterparts, and have found that many species are more abundant, better fed and live longer in a city than in the countryside. Why wouldn't there be animals in our cities?

I really like the turn taken in the last couple of chapters. We ought to be making our cities more friendly to species we like. For most people, a little time spent watching rabbits or otters is calming. My wife was quite delighted one day to report seeing a deer "pronking" down our street outside our hedge. A few endangered species are actually doing better in cities than in their "native" habitat. The Peregrine Falcons nesting on window ledges in skyscrapers come to mind (Bookmark the DuPont FalconCam and take a look beginning next March; just now I see only feathers in the nest).

Many doctrinaire environmentalists might shudder at the thought of making our cities into better habitat for beneficial or endangered animals. To them, cities are Evil and part of the probem; there's no way they can be part of the solution. But face it, cities are here to stay. They presently encumber only 2% of the land area, but that is growing, and their impact is greater than you might think. A certain parrot species is found in greater numbers in certain southwestern U.S. cities than in its entire home range in Mexico. They go where the living is better!

And suppose we were to succeed in creating cities in which nothing could live except humans and a short list of "approved" human pets. Then what? Should inner city kids—and their parents—be deprived of the sight of a blue jay, cardinal or indigo bunting? Should they be doomed never to see a living rabbit or raccoon? Should the endangered parrots of the U.S. southwest be "repatriated" to a "native" habitat that is getting too degraded to support them?

I don't like flies in my home, so I welcome the spiders that live here. There are at least 10 species that I've found. Only when a spider gets too big and is found crawling on the bed do I evict her. Our yard hosts rabbits and squirrels, so I do have to put small-mesh fencing around the garden, and we hope for the occasional visit by a fox to keep their numbers in check (she comes through every couple of years). We see deer droppings under the apple tree in the fall. As long as I don't corner a deer and get clipped by those front hooves, I'm happy to have one bed down there occasionally. We're planting a greater variety of flowers to draw butterflies, but avoiding the "butterfly bush" which is too concentrated and becomes a praying mantis colony beneath which one finds piles of butterfly wings! When I find a robin nest in the hedge, that section goes an extra month without being clipped until the chicks fledge. We let wasps nest in the louvers of the attic vents, but not in areas where children might play. Wasps are great predators of the insects I don't want to encounter. We encourage dragonflies, which keep the mosquito population down. A local hawk "tends to" the various little mammals such as mice and voles.

I appreciate the biologists who agree with Mr. Donovan, and are working to make our cities better for human-animal coexistence. Of course we don't want rats everywhere, but the best exterminators are Maine Coon cats, not poison baits that kill so many other animals as a byproduct, and make rat bodies poisonous to house cats and wild cats. With proper education we can even learn to live with coyotes in our midst...and we aren't going to see those exterminated anytime soon, anyway! Nearby New Jersey residents need to learn to think like bears so they don't attract them where they don't want them, but do attract them where they do want them. We need to face it, humans are part of nature. Let's open up to seeing "who else" shares our cities.

A very education and refreshing book.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Grand-daddy of ancient master myths

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, investigations, Atlantis

Ah, the Good Old Days. Like many "golden agers" I tend to dote on the past. I rather obsessively gather old family photos, the older the better, and scan them or re-photograph whole album and scrapbook pages. But I'm not totally in thrall to allure of a past seen through rose-colored spectacles. There are some periods, including a near-decade, that I'd rather not have gone through, thank you very much. I still think of one period as "the lost years."

I think myself more level-headed than most folks, and I know I am less deluded about supposed glories of past times than a great many. For some, supposed historical greatness has become a religion. In the Watchman Index of Cults and Religions, more than 1,400 groups are described, usually very briefly. Among these, in particular, 393 (more than a quarter) are "New Age", relying on an eclectic mix of ancient "Eastern Wisdom" beliefs and whatever is new about alternative healing whether of body or mind. There are also a couple dozen that focus more specifically on "Ancient Master" beliefs. Those that don't trace these Masters to Tibet, mostly trace them to Atlantis.

Freelance investigator Mark Adams caught the Atlantis bug several years ago, and did his best to track down the most credible (! of a mostly incredible group) leading figures among fans of Atlantis. Right away we can set aside flying saucers, stories of aircars and Star Trek-level technology existing on an enormous, mysterious island some 10,000 years ago. He has done an excellent job of gathering the evidence most likely to be level-headed, and written of his journey/pilgrimage in Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City.

The book has 29 chapters and a Preface, and focuses first on finding the "best" witnesses, then on visiting a handful of candidate locations that might have either been Atlantis, or given rise to the story Plato wrote 2,400 years ago. As Plato wrote, using another's voice, his ancestor Solon visited Egypt about 600 BCE and was told of an ancient and powerful city/continent that was destroyed in a day by a great cataclysm, 9,000 years earlier. The most important facts we can glean are:

  • Atlantis was "beyond the Pillars of Hercules", probably referring to the Strait of Gibraltar, and thus most likely in the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Mediterranean Sea, though some argue strongly that the Pillars were further east.
  • Atlantis warred with ancient Athens and other Mediterranean city-states until its destruction 9,600 years ago. Nobody has shown that Athens was anything close to a city at that time.
  • The catastrophe was both an earthquake and great flood, followed by the land mostly sinking under the sea. This is often interpreted as an earthquake and tsumani, but others think of a comet or asteroid impact somewhat less devastating than the one that eliminated the dinosaurs.

The most reasoned voice in the whole matter is that of Tony O'Connell, of atlantipedia.ie (in Ireland). Adams mentions several others, most of whom he visited and interviewed. There are several candidate sites for a genuinely sunken city or civilization, without resorting to an Australia-sized continent a few hundred miles west of Spain. Cadiz, Spain is one of two located on the Spanish coast, places that clearly suffered a tsunami or something similar, that washed lots of land into the sea, which is one way to interpret "sunken". Another is in Morocco, though it lies a bit too far uphill. The most likely to me is Thera/Santorini, some 85 miles (140 km) north of Crete, which exploded in about 1600BCE. What is left is less than half the original island, a crescent surrounding a drowned crater with a little volcanic cone near its center, now called Santorini.

It is helpful at this point to consider the "other ring of fire", the Mediterranean area. First focus attention on the Triple Junction at Afar, where the Red Sea, the East African Rift, and the Gulf of Aden intersect. This is a tectonic spreading center. The colors on the map indicate spreading in RED, transform faulting in GREEN, and convergence in BLUE. The MAUVE color represents ambiguity in the direction of motion. The little numbers show plate movement, in mm/yr, relative to Africa, which has probably been relatively motionless and is used as a reference. The image is from this article by Catherine Ross. The greatest relative motion is the convergence that is shrinking the Mediterranean Sea by 3.7 cm/year, or about a meter each 27 years (That Sea is some 2.4 m narrower than when I was born, around 8 feet). This is quite similar to the convergence off/under Japan that led to the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami.

The Mediterranean Sea is thus a hotbed of tectonic activity, making earthquakes and floods frequent enough to have spawned numerous disaster legends, without the help of comets. Some may recall the great earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska in 1964. There, a large chunk of land was pushed up about 20 feet (over 6 m) and another section sank an equal amount. You can have an earthquake of similar size along the blue trace above, about every three centuries. That is lots of time for multiple disasters to enter the collective consciousness and be conflated into a story that Plato could recount, with little or no embellishment, as a cautionary tale to attach to his Republic. There have been several comparable disasters since the time of Plato, including Thera.

Did Plato believe the Atlantis tale was true? It is hard to psychologize a great thinker face-to-face, much less so at a 2,400-year remove. Whether he believed it or not, he must have hoped his audience would believe enough of it to amend their ways. Instead, things may have improved in a technological way, but have, if anything, gotten worse in the realm of politics and political wisdom. Those who now take the Atlantis story seriously tend to go much too far, over-interpreting Plato's morality tale into an over-hyped depiction of a golden age even better, perhaps, than Eden.

I suppose I could also have titled this post "Nostalgia on Steroids".

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Does Nature care that we want to save it?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, nature, biodiversity, invasive species

I lived on Lake Erie through most of the 1960's. During my high school years I worked at Cedar Point in the summertime. When we moved to Ohio I recall being told that the "sewage treatment system" for Cleveland was a series of pipes five miles long that took raw sewage out into Lake Erie. We took a boat tour on the Cuyahoga River to see all the bridges and buildings and how cargo vessels had to negotiate turn after turn to get to the docks. It seems they were continually spilling bilge and oil as they did so. The oil and sludge on top of the river was about four inches thick. We learned after we moved away that the river caught fire in 1969.

Lake Erie was effectively dead in those years. Oh, there were a few kinds of fish that could tolerate the pollution, mostly carp and other kinds that weren't worth catching to eat. We were warned not to swim when there was a north wind: sewage would blow ashore. The water was gray, and if you put your hand more than half a foot down you couldn't see it. One of my teachers liked to SCUBA dive in a "deeper" part of the western lake: the western quarter of Lake Erie is usually only six feet deep (less than 2m), but in a few areas it gets 20-30 feet deep, yet there are "reefs", or shallow spots that come near the surface, but they aren't visible in the murky water. In class one day he told us of being "down there" and hearing a loud crunch. He ascended and found that a yacht had run aground on a reef. He helped the old fellow get loose. The next day's newspaper had a little notice that the president of the Rocky River Yacht Club had been helped by a local teacher after "his yacht struck a submerged object." He laughed and told us, "That submerged object was the bottom of the lake!"

Fast forward twenty years. In 1988 a few specimens of a little freshwater clam from Russia called a Zebra Mussel were found in Lake Erie. Soon they were everywhere, covering the bottom, clogging drains and other equipment, and basically wreaking havoc. The little ZM's were also accused of driving the native species of lake shellfish and algae and some finfish nearly to extinction. Actually, looking back, it is clear that those declining natives were on the way out and would have succumbed before the mid-1990's, but something happened to the lake first. Zebra Mussels, as all mussels and clams, are filter feeders. ZM's happen to tolerate pollution better than almost any other freshwater bivalve. In their quest for plankton (tiny water creatures like amoebas and diatoms), each animal filters a quart of water daily. It takes out not only the plankton but many organic pollution particles also (like raw sewage - yum!). Multiply by a few tens of billions: the whole lake was getting filtered through the ZM's every week or two.

In a few years the water was noticeably clearer. The last time I saw the lake, you could see to the bottom in six feet of water, and I was told visibility is 20 feet or more in most of the lake. Cleaner water meant the native clams and mussels got healthier and staged a comeback, including those thought to be extinct. More algae now grow there because light penetrates farther. The nearly extinct lake sturgeon is rebounding. Sturgeons eat mussels, and seem to relish the ZM's. So do a few other kinds of fish such as smallmouth bass. Lake Erie is alive again. All due to a "dangerous invasive alien" that had the entire environmental movement in a tizzy for decades.

The new book by journalist Fred Pearce, The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature's Salvation, is full of such stories. I cribbed a few of the details above from his account, which is based on the published record. He also writes of the Guanacaste trees, the national tree of Costa Rica, which was on the verge of extinction. Its seeds need to pass through the gut of a large mammal and be partially digested to germinate, but all large mammals had been extirpated—by humans—and the trees only existed because humans had been planting the seeds. Some would grow if their shell rotted enough after planting. Seeds left lying on the ground just piled up like so many rocks. An ecologist puzzling over what to do suggested introducing horses to the area, and it worked. That fellow saved a beloved tree from extinction, but paradoxically earned himself the hatred of multitudes of doctrinaire "environmentalists.

Pearce writes of the forests of Puerto Rico, restoring themselves on land that was abandoned after plantations of sugar (and other crops) went bust. But they are not restoring themselves with the tree species that grew there before; those cannot tolerate soil changed by a few centuries of plantation cultivation. No, "alien"tree species that had been introduced or otherwise appeared in Puerto Rico over the generations, and were growing here and there, spread quickly over the disturbed land and created a new kind of forest. Later some native species were able to return also. To an untrained eye, it looks the same as the fragments of "original" forest elsewhere on the island.

To be fair, Pearce also tells of places that have suffered after certain alien species arrived. Seafarers that arrive anywhere seem always to have rats along. Some rats grasp the opportunity to go ashore. On occasion, havoc results, and they eat everything in sight, including the eggs and young of many native species. There have indeed been extinctions of endemic species on some islands and other restricted areas. Colonial America is a prime example, and one species that was nearly extincted in Virginia was the colonists, after the rats they had inadvertently allowed ashore ate through their grain stores!

Whether carried by humans or not, species have a way of getting around. As described by Alan de Queiroz in The Monkey's Journey (reviewed here), long-distance dispersal by all kinds of unlikely species happens over and over again. Of course, things that fly or float travel better than more sedentary critters, but one need look no farther than Hawaii for an example: the archipelago has many endemic species of both plant and animal, species that evolved there, and it has never been in contact with a continent, nor even closer than a couple of thousand miles. All the endemics of Hawaii are descended from animals and plants that traveled, or were taken, long distances.

Think about this: Every time a new species arrived in Hawaii and began to reproduce there, it was an "invasive alien" species. By the time the Polynesians, now Hawaiians, had been there a few dozen generations, and the first Europeans arrived, what looked like primeval forest to the Europeans was about half consisting of species the Polynesians brought with them. Since then, more and more aliens have arrived. Some, such as the giant African tree snail, are doing damage. Most have just found a way to fit into the existing ecology, have done little or no harm, and have actually enriched Hawaiian biodiversity.

This introduces a major theme of The New Wild. "Alien" does not mean "Evil". It all depends. Even seemingly evil aliens, such as the Zebra Mussel, can do good in the end. ZM's are now part of the ecology of the Great Lakes whether we like it or not. To eradicate them now would cost a great deal more than it would have cost us, by purely technological means, to clean up Lake Erie, and we couldn't even afford that! The "evil invaders" cleaned it up, but not quite for free: industries do have the cost of cleaning mussel shells off their water intake pipes and other submerged equipment.

There's a nature center we visit from time to time. On a guided tour the ranger moaned about their problems with Multiflora Roses. I guess they were originally transplanted there to start briar patches where there had been none. As it happens, Multiflora can tolerate the pollution and drought associated with the way the land had been left before the nature center was set up. Native roses from the area cannot. But now, Multiflora is considered an "invasive alien" and they are trying to root out all the rose bushes. They can't do it. It is a Hydra problem (harking to the Hydra of Hercules). If you dig out a rose bush, you leave disturbed soil behind, and Multiflora just love disturbed soil. Rose hips or fragments of root left behind typically engender several new bushes where there had been only one. One step forward, four steps back!

So what is the New Wild? It is best understood by contrast to the Old Wild, a world of wild places untouched by humans. Old-growth forests. Pristine landscapes. Primeval territories that actually have not existed for tens of thousands of years. The Old Wild exists only in our imaginations. The New Wild is a new understanding of how nature works on lands that vary from little-managed to extensively-managed to wholly cultivated, in all of which nature does what nature always does.

"Nature" is a mythical embodiment of the myriad environments and their living denizens. We think of the "forest primeval", such as the deep woods of Maine referred to by Longfellow in Evangeline, as a virgin product of nature. Humans have been in Maine, as they have been throughout the Americas, for at least 13,000 years. The Maine forests in the 1400's may have been less heavily managed than the maize-farming areas along the Delaware River, but managed they were, for the rather modest timber needs of the Penobscot people. Without people, what would the forest have been like? There is no way to know.

We do know that the forests of the northern 2/3 of North America, even those that have been little used by Euro-Americans since 1492, are substantially different now than before, because of a much-beloved (by most) group of alien species: earthworms. The silent-treading natives of legend and lore had something going for them that is seldom found now, a thick layer of moldering leaves on the forest floor. Wherever there is water enough for fallen leaves to remain a bit moist, they are soon consumed by earthworms. But this was not so from about 15,000 years ago until the 1600's when Europeans brought European earthworms ashore. This was usually not deliberate; worms came in the soil around the roots of plants brought by the colonists. Native North American earthworm species are found only in the southern half of the U.S. and further south; the northern half of the country was scraped clean of its entire biosphere by glaciers, and the native worms travel too slowly to have re-colonized the north in only 10,000 years. Earthworms are one of the most successful groups of invasive alien species. We are better off for them.

A second theme of the book is that current environmental dogma, that it is best to root out and exterminate all alien invaders, is usually wrong-headed. He gives numerous examples that show how "invasions" usually increase overall biodiversity of the invaded landscape; how the supposed extinctions the aliens are accused of causing were usually already accomplished by the time of the invasion; and how the ZM is but one example of a much-feared alien species that turned out to be a blessing in disguise and actually contributed to the overall health of the environment.

There is one metaphor that Charles Darwin used, which we must do away with: Nature as 10,000 tightly-hammered wedges. He wrote of inter-species competition as the removal of one wedge so a different one could fit in. This is not so. Take careful note: THIS IS NOT SO. Rather than many wedges tightly filling all space, think of Nature as a field with many plants growing, yet not all the ground is covered (even in a well-fertilized lawn you can see dirt between the blades). Perhaps there are 100 species of plants in this field. Cast in some seeds of another 100 species and wait a year. Then count the species growing there. Not all of the new seeds will have done well, and you may find only 75 of the 100 new species has taken root. And the original 100? You may not find every one of the original 100 species, but chances are, they are all there if you examine all the field carefully.

I recall taking a young man from Beijing on a field trip in 1984. It was only in 1980 that Chinese students were first permitted to study in American universities, so he was one of the early ones. He was a real city boy. We drove from Rapid City, SD to Billings, MT, the northern way, along US 212 through Custer National Forest (it ought to be named for Crazy Horse, IMHO) and two Indian Reservations. He saw cattle for the first time (beeves are also a hugely successful invasive species in America). Later he saw pronghorn antelopes among the cattle. I told him what they were, and he asked, "Don't they fight?" I replied that there was grass enough for both, plus the pronghorn would eat cacti and many kinds of wildflowers that beef cattle prefer not to eat. So although a state like Wyoming or Montana might have more beeves than humans, the native ungulates have not been driven to extinction. Had we passed through the national forest at dusk, we'd probably have also seen deer.

A few of the examples in the book have numbers, and they show how the usual result of multiple invasions is for species diversity to increase by 50% to 100%, both of plants and animals. An "ecology" is not a finely-tuned instrument, nor a finite collection of tightly-packed wedges, but a more fluid situation. Adding dozens or even hundreds of new species is unlikely (except on a few very small islands) to result in the extinction of any endemic species, and the new species fit in, forming a new assemblage that works as well, or often better, than before. Nature is not static. Left entirely alone, things change continually, and new species arrive while existing ones die away, from any particular patch of ground. Change is the only constant!

I've rattled on long enough. The New Wild is not quite a call to arms on behalf of a new understanding of the environment, but it is intended to open eyes to a new way of seeing nature. It is unlikely to change the minds of the old guard with their idée fixe of exterminating all alien species. It represents a growing understanding, which I hope will prevail quickly (and more quickly as that old guard retires and passes on). People tend to jump to conclusions. Influential people jump just as quickly as everyone else, which makes them dangerous. Remember the adage, "Haste makes waste." I add to it, "A sense of urgency is the Devil's tool." Y'gotta think things through. Fred Pearce has given us a book full of reasons for thinking through our environmental premises.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Anatomy without all the dissection

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, nature, illustrations

I sometimes wish I'd have kept up the drawing I did as a child. A lack of eye-hand coordination meant quick drawings weren't accurate, and to draw a good likeness of anything was much too time-consuming. I sometimes marvel at the drawing skills of naturalists, pre-eminently Roger Tory Peterson, whose Field Guide series sets a very high standard for nature illustrating. Nature Anatomy: The Curious Parts & Pieces of the Natural World, written and illustrated by Julia Rothman is not quite a field guide, so much as an enthusiast's collection of nature arcana, illustrated in a more cartoonish style.

The "anatomy" is primarily external, no dissecting knife needed. This illustration of the parts of a flower from page 62, and a cutaway of Earth on pages 14-15, are about as "deep" as it gets.


Many more pages are devoted to catalogs of interesting specimens from every natural realm, at least for critters and plants larger than an inch or so. There is a good illustration of the various kinds of feathers on a bird, and one of the external anatomy of a typical insect, using an ant. This page of butterflies of interest to the author is typical.

A book such as this is not intended to convey lots of knowledge. Indeed, if you add up the words, they amount to a small chapter. Rather, it introduces the reader/viewer to all the breadth of living things. Quite an enjoyable book.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Foremost Zoologist writes about Botany

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, botany, love of plants, exhortation

Jane Goodall is one of my favorite people. Her discoveries about chimpanzees turned primatology and anthropology on its head, not just once but several times. Even more, her tireless quest to drive world leaders and citizens to a better balance with nature continues to touch a chord in me and in many.

One might ask, what is a Zoologist doing writing about plants? For every animal you study, you must study its relationships, not only within its species but with other animal species such as prey or predators, and nearly always with the plants in its environment. Even a pure carnivore such as a big cat uses plants for concealment, for bedding and so forth. And now that biology has turned more and more to the study of trophic cascades (If you have never seen this video about Yellowstone, stop and watch it now!), every life is seen to depend on plants, and every life, particularly of keystone species, affects the life cycles of plants in its environment.

Dr. Goodall is a writer of rare skill, and for this and a few other recent books she has teamed up with Gail Hudson to produce a volume that matches the best 19th Century writing, Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder From the World of Plants. The book is one part her historical and lyrical paean to the plants and their landscapes that she has loved in her long life, one part historical and social survey, and one part (or two!) hortatory essays that exhort us all to take better care of a biosphere the human race is rapidly driving to ruin. Her voice is lyrical without being maudlin, high and clear without being shrill.

Anyone who has lived more than 25-30 years, and has not seen substantial changes in nearly every landscape with which they are familiar, must have lived a cloistered prisoner all those years. I visited Suguaro National Park nearly 50 years ago, when it looked a lot like the image on the left in this montage:

On the right, in 1910, the difference is shocking. Look particularly in the background, where the mountain foothills are being covered with creeping suburbs near Tucson, Arizona (Photo montage from this article by Betty Mason in Wired).

Her message boils down to something simple: "Hey, World, please, please slow down and think more long-term. You billionaires don't need another billion or ten billion quite that fast, and people's needs can be taken care of without destroying everything around them until ultimately they and you will also suffer destruction."

I don't think there is anything I could add to that. Rather, I'll take a side note, and answer some who might know me well, how conservative I am, and say, "Huh?" Did you know that the root of "Conservative" is the word "Conserve"? Did you know that the national park system was begun by Conservatives? Strangely, Theodore Roosevelt is being called a Progressive in recent biographies and documentaries, but he sure wasn't thought of as a "progressive" a century ago or so! He's just being called that because today's neo-progressives can't imagine that someone with conservative values would do the things he did. A true conservative is not a short-term thinker, but a strategic thinker. Trouble is, there just are too darn few of them left to be found in national and international politics. A conservative who is not an environmentalist (a true environmentalist, not a fuzzy-headed tree-hugger), cannot honestly claim the title Conservative.

'Nuff said. Read the book.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Some leading ladies of science

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, short biographies, women, science

My parents knew who Hedy Lamarr was; she starred in more than 20 American films in the 1940s and 1950s, after being a film star in Europe beginning in 1930. They didn't know she held the patent for spread-spectrum radio, a critical technology for secure communications. I learned of it in the 1960s after her work was declassified.

What other women of science did I learn of? Naturally, my mother had the books by Irene Joliot-Curie, so I knew of Madame Curie and her nearly-forgotten husband Pierre, and or Irene herself. Working only the memory banks here (Boy! Am I tempted to rely on Google…):

  • Being a computer programmer for 40 years, it is a slam dunk that I'd know about Admiral Grace Hopper, a founder of the COBOL language, who is credited with changing our word for a machine error from "glitch" to "bug"…and pasted the wayward moth into her notebook.
  • And of course, Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first computer program, for Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, a machine that is a whole lot easier to emulate in software than to actually build of brass gears and ratchets.
  • Being a DuPont-er, I knew of Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar®. Wish I'd had the chance to meet her while she was still at the company.
  • I have met Ellen Kullman, current CEO of DuPont, who began as a mechanical engineer.
  • I read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, and later a few of her essays.
  • I read of "jumping genes" in a popular article by Barbara McClintock, and later the monographs in which she reported her work.
  • Emmy Noether, honored by Alfred Einstein for cracking the math needed for his general theory of relativity.
  • Florence Nightingale, who used statistics to show that battlefield hospitals were a hundred times as deadly as enemy bullets, and reformed nursing practice as a result.
  • Lise Meitner, a physicist on a par with Bohr and Heisenberg.
  • Rosalind Franklin, who would be the discoverer of the Double Helix if she hadn't been undercut by her boss.
  • Lynn Margulis, who first explained how complex eukaryotic cells developed from collaborations among simpler prokaryotic cells (known today as bacteria).
  • Sylvia Earle, in my opinion the most innovative practicing oceanographer.
  • Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut.
  • Teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died aboard the Challenger when it blew up.
  • Primatologist Jane Goodall, whose most recent book will be reviewed here in a few days.
  • Primatologist Dian Fossey, who did for gorillas what Goodall did for chimps.

That's 16, and I could probably dig deeper, but time won't allow. With the help of good library work, Rachel Swaby has gathered biographical material for 52 of the best women scientists for her book Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science—and the World. In her introduction she explains why she included only deceased women, so three people on my list above could not have appeared, though I wish she'd included Fossey. She also explains that the incredible fame of Marie Curie made it rather moot to include her, though she did include her daughter Irene.

Thus we learn of Alice Ball, who concocted the first practical, injectable serum of chaulmoogra oil to treat leprosy; Emilie de Chatelet (sorry I left off the accents), who translated Newton's Principia into French, and wrote a commentary about the same size; Annie Jump Cannon, who practically created the Henry Draper Catalog of Stellar Spectra by classifying nearly 400,000 stars, also pretty much creating the classification criteria as she went; and Marie Tharp, whose work resurrected the theory of continental drift that is now called Plate Tectonics. I guess I could add Tharp above as a 17th; I read articles she wrote with Bruce Heezen in 1970.

It was enjoyable reading, but I think I'd have been more pleased were the book a third longer. Many of the mini-biographies are barely two pages, and the style would suit Joe Friday ("Just the facts, please."). It is a good beginning towards restoring a historical imbalance in science reporting. It wouldn't be a bad idea for a copy of this book to make its way into every middle school girl's backpack.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The specialness of islands

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, islands, cycads

Perception may not be reality, but it certainly feels that way. We go through life contentedly thinking other people are a lot like us. The growth from naivete to sophistication is largely involved in learning the ways we differ from others, and how to effectively cope with that. When we say someone "sees things differently", we usually mean understanding, not a different kind of physical vision. But among people who are not entirely blind, one man in twelve, and one woman in about 250, sees the world around as having different colors than those seen by most of us.

This illustration from 1895 is an attempt to show people with "normal" color vision the effects of a few kinds of color blindness. A truer depiction would have both flags II and III with brown stripes, just of differing contrast, and flags IV and V would be blurrier, because the blue-blind and total monochromats have much lower acuity of vision. Note that in flag IV the star field is black rather than blue.

I once studied color vision for 50 of my colleagues using printed color wheels, asking them to name the colors at certain angles, marked around the margin of the wheel. I tracked down a few folks who were color blind also, because the aim was to produce color maps for geologists that everyone could use with equal ease, and many geologists are color blind. As it happened, the results were somewhat confounded by the printing process, which used three colored inks. These are easier to distinguish from one another even by people with the usual, red-green, kinds of color blindness. Thus, we had  more flexibility using map colors than we'd originally expected.

What do we mean by red-green color blindness? It is actually of two varieties. The formal terms are protanopia and deuteranopia, based on the numbers 1 and 2. "1" refers to the red-sensitive cone cell (R cone), and "2" refers to the green-sensitive cone cell (G cone). However, the sensitivity curves of these two kinds of cells overlap quite a lot.

As seen in this diagram, the R cone and G cone have very similar sensitivity curves, just shifted from one another. It is somewhat surprising that the B cone has such a low sensitivity. In normal daylight, there is a lot of blue light, so it doesn't need a lot of sensitivity. In low light, such as the light of a full moon, for humans at least, the rod cells begin to work as the cones lose effectiveness. Rods are also blue-sensitive, though sort of between G cones and B cones. This is why moonlit scenes appear bluish. The most sensitive vision cells active under moonlight are blue-sensitive.

If either the R cones or G cones are missing or inactive, red, yellow and green shades can be distinguished from blues, but not from each other. The main difference is that the deepest reds appear totally dark to a protanope, while there is a blue-green region of the spectrum that is hard for a deuteranope to see. But because both conditions make the person unable to distinguish red from green, both are called red-green color blindness.

If none of the cones are present, or are not active, a person has only "night vision", with only the rods working. This is the primary type of achromatopsia, or total color blindness. The word is composed of "achromat", meaning "no color" and "opsia", referring to the eye. According to an old estimate, about one person in 30,000 has this condition, and it occurs in more men much more than women. Apparently, all kinds of color anomaly and color blindness are X-linked, so it is quite rare for a woman to have the same anomalous gene on both X chromosomes.

Because the "day vision" system isn't working, and rod cells typically bleach out entirely in bright light and stop working, achromatopes are day-blind or very sensitive to bright light, and cannot function in daylight without strong filters over their eyes. There are other unfortunate characteristics of the syndrome, such as nystagmus (rapid and unusual movement of the eyes), which may be side effects of the day-blindness.

Oliver Sacks, a polymath who almost incidentally is a neurologist, became fascinated upon learning of a pair of islands in the south Pacific, where more than 5% of the people are achromatopes. In the local language the condition is called maskun, meaning "not see", because of their day-blindness. They can function well enough in lower light, so they can do certain kinds of work. They are well accepted in their communities. Dr. Sacks and two others, one a scientist named Knut Nordby who is an achromatope, visited Pingelap and Pohnpei to study the phenomenon, and to bring dark glasses and other vision aids to people that have been coping without them. Their travels and work are described in a delightful way in Sacks's book The Island of the Colorblind, bound together with Cycad Island in the volume I read.

Both books explore the way island populations tend to concentrate certain characteristics. When you have a small population that has little or no contact with others, the statistics of gene-shuffling through the generations can exaggerate some conditions. In the case of Pingelap, a disastrous typhoon and following famine killed all but 20 people residing there, and fear of disease kept people from neighboring islands from visiting for more than a generation. One of those 20 carried the gene for achromatopsia, and inbreeding brought it into expression, as mentioned, to an incidence of about 5%. The numbers of those with maskun would be greater if it were not hard for them to find marriage partners.

The presence of Dr. Nordby was crucial to getting the people to talk willingly about their condition, and to help the research team gather useful genealogical data. The largest nearby island, Pohnpei, has a valley populated by immigrants from Pingelap, and a similar incidence of maskun. The team also went there to help those they could, and study the condition further.

Color blindness of this kind is trouble enough, but it doesn't kill you. A different medical condition is found on Guam, as Dr. Sacks tells us in Cycad Island. A slow, progressive disease called lytico-bodig in the local language has been endemic there for several generations. In the lytico form it resembles ALS, most famously afflicting Dr. Stephen Hawking, and earlier called Lou Gehrig's Disease, for that ballplayer died from it. The bodig form is more like Parkinson's Disease, leading to rigidity and paralysis, and is often accompanied by dementia. One sufferer cheerfully told Dr. Sacks, "Come back soon. I won't remember you, so I'll have the pleasure of getting to know you all over again."

Much of the latter book details a series of frustrated efforts over the years to determine what causes lytico-bodig. No final conclusion is offered, but the language strongly hints that the best hypothesis is poisoning of people who are genetically susceptible, in two different ways, to certain chemicals in the resin of cycads. The residents of Guam enjoy certain foods they prepare from cycad seed pods and other parts of the plant. They go to great lengths to detoxify them, because untreated, a small amount can kill. It seems to be like Japanese fugu, the puffer-fish, which an expert chef can prepare so it is safe to eat, if a bit "tingly", but several people are badly injured or killed each year from eating fugu. On Guam, cycad preparation is carried out with various levels of diligence. Also, a local fruit bat eats cycad fruits, and something that concentrates in its flesh can be damaging to the people, who enjoy bat meals.

It is stated that nobody born after 1952 suffers from lytico-bodig. This is probably because of changes in diet. Cycads are eaten much less now, and the fruit bat is seldom eaten because it is getting very scarce. Thus, a resident scientist named John Steele, who has studied the disease and befriended its sufferers for half his life, may find that the disease vanishes before he is able to prove its source. This is scientifically frustrating, but socially, it is a great relief.

Dr. Sacks's interests are wide-ranging, and I find he has five other books in print. Guess I'll track them down.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A well loved river in these parts

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, rivers, americana, culture, history, north american history

A friend thought it might be time that I learned more about the loveliest river in this area, so he gave me The Brandywine by Henry Seidel Canby, a book in the series "Rivers of America", edited primarily by Stephen Vincent Benét. The book was originally published in 1941; I read a paperback edition of 1969. The pen illustrations within are by Andrew Wyeth, and include sketch versions of paintings I've seen in the Brandywine River Museum and the Sanderson Museum. I live within a couple of miles of the Brandywine River, and I cross it via one bridge or another several times weekly. I also spend hours at a time along its banks in the gunpowder yards, so I guess it is high time!

Dr. Canby was born along the Brandywine in 1878, and though he spent many years as a professor at Yale, he returned to Wilmington frequently. We see through him this small, though significant river as it was between 75 and 130 years ago. Through both personal knowledge and wide reading he can trace the history and culture of the area as none other. In his childhood, though mills for making flour, textiles and gunpowder abounded, much of the Brandywine was still in a rather unspoiled state.

The forbidding geology had a lot to do with this; it was easier to build roads around the middle gorge than to try to cross it. If I recall correctly, Canby wrote that there were seven bridges crossing the river between Forks of the Brandywine in Pennsylvania and its confluence with the Christina River in Wilmington, a linear distance of about 14.5 miles, but more than 20 river miles. In that distance it descends more than 210 feet, a slope that averages roughly 10 feet per mile, but in the middle reaches it drops 33-34 feet per mile, making it one of the most favorable mill streams in the middle Atlantic region. It also means that what Canby calls "the gorge of the Brandywine" has some of the steepest terrain in northern Delaware and southern Chester County, Pennsylvania.

The author writes of the river as a lover of his beloved. He quotes other writers at some length, sometimes deploring their over-sentimentality, though he reflects it himself, just in the more restrained manner of a Yalie in all his dignity. It is a river worthy of much sentiment! During the days on which I volunteer in the yards at the Hagley Museum, situated in the steepest part of the gorge, I find the idle times are anything but onerous, being filled with visual delights backdropped by the rustle and grumble of the river.

It would not do justice to the book to simply catalog its 14 chapters. They are quite comprehensive. Rather, three items struck my fancy. Firstly, that the iconic "log cabin" was introduced by settlers along the Brandywine in the late 1600's, but did not spread beyond the area until nearly 1800. Elsewhere, and earlier here also, the vertical-log palisade was used where defense was needed, and various sorts of European structures otherwise, though they were usually quite unsuitable, particularly when badly constructed (the usual case). A log cabin is much easier for non-professionals to build into a sound and minimally drafty dwelling. Had Abraham Lincoln been born 5 or 10 years earlier, he would not have been born in a log cabin!

Secondly, there were no "Indian wars" along the river. Violent relations with native peoples were practically unknown here, and the great wars of legend took place many miles to the west and mainly after the Civil War. The Lenape and other "Delaware Indians" did find themselves exploited, but tended to complain through legal channels, and when they'd had enough most of them moved elsewhere of their own accord, primarily because of failure of the shad runs rather than violence. Nobody at the time understood clearly that all the mill dams were choking off the migration of the shad.

Thirdly, as already mentioned, in 1940 there were but 7 bridges along the lower Brandywine, and much of the river was comparatively unspoiled. Today fishermen are advised not to eat fish caught in the Brandywine anywhere south of the Forks, and by my count the bridges number 23: 17 road bridges, 3 foot bridges (one half collapsed) and 3 railroad trestles. There are also 9 mill dams still in existence, though only the 3 at Hagley are still in use to keep millraces filled. Compared to many mid-Atlantic rivers, though, the Brandywine still has significant unspoiled stretches. The existence of Brandywine Creek State Park protects one stretch of nearly 5 miles, and Hagley has kept another mile or so in a condition similar to that of 1921 when the mills closed.

I didn't yet  mention the Battle of the Brandywine, George Washington's failed attempt to keep the British from taking Philadelphia. Several good books about the battle had been published by 1940, so Canby gives a well-attested sketch of the engagements, but designedly leaves the details to others. The view from miles above: neither commander knew the area, nor had anyone with good local knowledge on staff; the farmers thereabouts were Quakers and were determined to help neither side of the conflict; scouts sent hither and yon brought conflicting reports; and the British were luckier in finding fords north of the Forks about which Washington was ignorant (as they also had been a day earlier), so they could flank the Colonials and get ahead of them. Thus, the British wintered in Philadelphia and the Colonial army in Valley Forge.

There is much, much more to the book, though it is less than 300 pages. To learn more of the river's geography, history of settlement, business growth, literature and art, and its role in American industrialization, you'll find this book a valuable and very entertaining resource.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The folly of evangelical anti-theism

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, polemics, science, religion, faith, pseudoscience

The human ape is a religious animal. It is part of our evolutionary heritage and we cannot escape it. Given that we must, by our nature, dedicate ourselves to something, what shall that something be?

To be religious does not require belief in God or a god or gods. Buddhism, for example, says nothing about the existence of any deity. Taoism at best only hints that some kind of god may be behind the scenes; that "Tao" might be personalized.

Mathematician Amir D. Aczel writes about a book a year, and his offering for 2014 is Why Science Does Not Disprove God. Several debates and discussions about science and religion in which he participated provided the initial fodder for writing the book. While he makes it clear he does not believe in the Lord God described by a literalist reading of the Bible, he is sympathetic to religion and even favorable.

The thesis of the book is simple: It is a misuse of science and scientific methods when the New Atheists use them to claim, not only that there is no God, but that there cannot be any kind of god. Who are the New Atheists? In order according to noise level, chiefly Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence M. Krauss, Christopher Hitchens (deceased), and Sam Harris. While atheism has long been with us, what is comparatively new is the evangelical tone of at least these five (although evangelical atheism is not particularly new, as an apparent conflict in the 1760's between Leonard Euler and Denis Diderot illustrates).

Even more to the point: The past couple of decades have been marred by increasingly shrill denouncements of Western and Judaeo-Christian institutions by extremist Islamic clerics. Over the same period, Dawkins and others have become equally shrill in their anti-religious campaign. The language of Dawkins in particular is just as inflammatory as any fatwa by a shrieking Imam. (BTW, this is me speaking; Dr. Aczel is too gentlemanly to point this out.)

Anti-theist claims are many and complex. The book tackles the most serious abuses of science by these "scientific" atheists in twelve chapters; three other chapters limn the history of the relationship of religion and science, and deal with more general matters. Along the way, Dr. Aczel shows how the New Atheists have grossly misused archaeology, cosmology, mathematics, probability, evolutionary theory, and the philosophy of science. Put it all together, and what do you have? A new religion based on pseudo-science, whose adherents are just as fervent, even rabid, as the most bigoted Bible-thumper (and, sad to say, there are all to many of those).

Scientists tend to overstate the power of science. The best scientists are humble and humbly grateful that science works as well as it does in so many realms. Unfortunately, they are a minority; most are simply "science workers", getting results and publishing as often as possible without giving much thought to the philosophy of science. Even more unfortunately, those "best" are outnumbered by those who arrogate divine powers to science, expecting all questions to be answered, if only we gather enough evidence, theorize deeply enough, and perhaps one day craft a "Theory of Everything."

Dr. Aczel demonstrates that such claims are overblown. He invokes the following:

  • The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle demonstrates that it is impossible to know with perfect accuracy both the position and the energy of a particle. Accuracy can be very, very good, but there are limits beyond which it will forever be impossible to measure. Even more, the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics states that even in the absence of measurement, the precise path a particle will take has an irreducible amount of uncertainty. Diffraction in optical systems is evidence of this.
  • Chaos Theory describes nonlinear systems (those in which the ongoing process influences itself) that are hypersensitive to initial conditions. In practical terms, when such systems are described mathematically, the equations cannot be solved in what we call "closed form". The simplest such system is the gravitational Three-Body Problem. Certain special cases have been mathematically solved, but it has been proven (in the mathematical sense) that the general case cannot be solved. Numerical (computer) simulations can be crafted over a limited span of time and space, but they are always dogged by the accumulation of rounding errors, until those dominate the result, and you are no longer simulating the system you began with. Even in "linear" systems (those with no feedback), successive iterations of a computer simulation still accumulate rounding errors, and special methods must be used if you need to test the magnitude of those accumulated errors. That greatly increases the computational cost of such simulations. And wouldn't you know it: Nature presents very few linear systems.
  • The Schrödinger Wave Equation and other work by Edwin Schrödinger show that "things can go where you think they can't", and the poor cat of his paradox, being both dead and alive, actually illustrates our inability to know in detail the fate of any quantum event. By the way, I count the cat as an observer: it knows whether the cyanide got released, before the "official observer" opens the box to look.
  • The Incompleteness Theorem of Kurt Gödel shows that it is possible to ask questions that cannot be answered using the mathematical (or "formal") system in which the question was asked. For example, formal logic is full of paradoxes that require one to step outside the system to elucidate. A famous example is the Barber of Seville: He shaves all men in Seville who do not shave themselves. Who shaves the Barber? Of course, the question has no answer in the system as set up. But if we bring the matter into the real world, we find that, of course, the Barber is bearded and is not shaved at all. The false premise of the paradox is that all men in Seville are clean-shaven.

The anti-Theists have formed a new church. You could call it a religion without any of the benefits. Of course, I agree that religious motivations have led to great abuses. For political reasons, couched as religion but really in a land grab, a Medieval Pope wrote a death warrant for the entire population of a province (or was it 3 provinces?) in France. Some 3 million persons were to be slaughtered. This was not carried out. Anti-Theists invoke the Crusades. Again, the motives were a mixture of religion and politics; for political gain the leaders incited religious fervor in ignorant knights and peasants. In fact, the terrible abuses of the history of Christianity in Europe and the Near East can just as well be invoked to prove that politics are evil…and they are!

But let us not forget the greatest slaughters of history. Do the names Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong mean anything to you? Atheists one and all, responsible for the deaths of tens of millions or, in the case of Mao, more than 100 million. Compared to any of these four (and a couple of others), the Pope mentioned above was a piker, even had his order been carried out.

But we must remember that today's New Atheists claim the mantle science. Dr. Aczel has shown that at best they skew their science, and more frequently they abuse it all out of recognition. To put it baldly, the New Atheists, today's anti-Theists, are charlatans.

What does God think of this? The first six verses of Psalm 2 provide a clue:

Why do the nations conspire
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
    against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains
    and throw off their shackles.”

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
    the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
    and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
“I have installed my king
    on Zion, my holy mountain.”