Saturday, June 30, 2007

Don't miss Saturn and Venus!

Tonight and tomorrow night, June 30th and July 1st, Saturn and
Venus will share the same patch of sky.
If you have a telescope or binoculars, with a magnification of 50x or less you;ll be able to see Venus' crescent and Saturn's rings in the same field of view. It should be spectacular! Don't miss it!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Evolution in the Times

The New York Times today devotes it's entire Science section to evolution - and not a creationist nut in sight! It's a good read, and should send those folks over at the Discovery Institute into a frenzy, although I'm sure they'll be able to quote-mine as usual.

One of the things I find most interesting is that the science continues to evolve (pun intended!). As new discoveries come to light, the theory is constantly being refined and updated, and old ideas are tossed aside if they don't fit the facts - see this article for an example. This is, obviously, the complete opposite of creationism.

Friday, June 22, 2007

More Hitchens

Pharyngula points out a new interview with Christopher Hitchens, by Simon Mayo if the BBC. As usual, Hitchens is eloquent in his answers.

It also points up the huge difference between the soundbite style of interviewing here in the US, and a more reasoned, longer-form, debate style of interviewing that is more common in the UK. No screaming and shouting here.

Check it out while it's still available.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

God of the Gaps

I was browsing yesterday, and one thing really stood out for me. Yesterday was just a random day, but many of the stories dealt with areas where science is understanding more and more aspects of how the brain works - the last refuge of God in the form of the "soul". Here's a couple of stories:

  • Brain's inertial navigation system pinpointed - Researchers have discovered a sophisticated neural computer, buried deep in the cerebellum, that performs inertial navigation calculations to figure out a person’s movement through space.
  • Zeroing in on the brain's speech receiver - A particular resonance pattern in the brain’s auditory processing region appears to be key to its ability to discriminate speech, researchers have found. They found that the inherent rhythm of neural activity called “theta band” specifically reacts to spoken sentences by changing its phase. The researchers also noted that the natural oscillation of this frequency provides further evidence that the brain samples speech segments about the length of a syllable.
My point here is that science progresses, and as more research is done, and more understanding is gained, there are fewer and fewer places for religion to hide. There's no need for God in creation anymore, and now there's no need for God in the brain or soul either. The gaps are getting smaller all the time. Speaking of evolution - new discoveries there too yesterday:
  • Dinos' demise spurred rise of the mammals, new fossil suggests - A fossil discovered in the Gobi Desert has unlocked the most emphatic evidence to date that the mass extinction of the dinosaurs helped placental mammals -- of which Homo sapiens is a member -- become masters of the planet.
  • Surprising origin of cell's internal highways - Scientists have long thought that microtubules, part of the microscopic scaffolding that the cell uses to move things around in order to hold its shape and divide, originated from a tiny structure near the nucleus, called the centrosome.
And this is just a couple of stories for one day, on one website. Multiply this by all the peer-reviewed science journals, and extrapolate to a year or more, and the weight of evidence becomes overwhelming. There's no need for God.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Satanic Verses, indeed.

So, Salman Rushdie (he of The Satanic Verses, amongst other works) has been awarded a knighthood in the UK. Rather predictably, the religious loonies are having a field day with this news. From the Guardian:

The award of a knighthood to the author Salman Rushdie justifies suicide attacks, a Pakistani government minister said today.

"This is an occasion for the 1.5 billion Muslims to look at the seriousness of this decision," Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, religious affairs minister, told the Pakistani parliament in Islamabad. "The west is accusing Muslims of extremism and terrorism. If someone exploded a bomb on his body he would be right to do so unless the British government apologises and withdraws the 'sir' title."

So, let me make sure I got this right: Muslims are seen as terrorists by a large part of the world, so, in order to make clear that this isn't so, they're advocating blowing people up?


And, just for those Americans who may be feeling all righteous about this, if Pat Robertson were running things here, it wouldn't be very different. We'd just be burning witches and gays instead.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Science and Religion in America

I found an interesting post over at Marginal Utility last week, dissecting data from the General Social Survey about belief in science among Americans. In the post, scientific knowledge is broken down by religion, on a range of "controversial" (in the sense that deniers don't want to believe the evidence) scientific subjects. For example, here's the one on evolution:What it clearly shows is that as religious belief become less fundamentalist, scientific understanding grows. Much of this may be due to the lower schooling standards in the parts of the country where fundamentalist protestantism is ascendant, and it points up the growing divide in the U.S. regarding science and reason on one hand, and religion on the other.
As an aside, I recently saw a review of an interesting new book "Deer Hunting with Jesus" by Joe Bageant:

From the Amazon review:

After thirty years spent scratching together a middle-class life out of a “dirt-poor” childhood, Joe Bageant moved back to his hometown of Winchester, Virginia, where he realized that his family and neighbors were the very people who carried George W. Bush to victory. That was ironic, because Winchester, like countless American small towns, is fast becoming the bedrock of a permanent underclass. Two in five of the people in his old neighborhood do not have high school diplomas. Nearly everyone over fifty has serious health problems, and many have no health care. Credit ratings are low or nonexistent, and alcohol, overeating, and Jesus are the preferred avenues of escape.
I think that description applies here - poor families with no education and no future are the backbone of the fundamentalist faith, so it's no surprise to see results like these.

Even more astounding, only 40% of fundamentalist protestants believe the Earth orbits the sun in one year. That's less than half. Frankly, I think this may invalidate most of the rest of the data, because even for those with no religious affiliation, the numbers are only around 60%, which clearly indicates to me that most Americans are unqualified to answer questions on any scientific topic. It does however seem to me that on the whole, those people categorized as having no religious affiliation, or those who are jewish or catholic, are more highly educated and open to scientific reason than fundamentalist protestants.

Friday, June 15, 2007

I've been away....

Sorry that there hasn't been much activity here in the last couple of weeks - I've been away on business in Orlando. I know, I know, it's a hard job, but someone's got to do it :-) I should be back on a full blogging schedule next week.

Meanwhile, for those who may have missed it, the Canadian Formula 1 Grand Prix in Montreal last week end was incredible, to say the least. Here's just a sample - Robert Kubica's BMW exploding into millions of tiny pieces.

The amazing thing? He walked away with a sprained ankle, and will race this weekend at Indy. Don't miss it!

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Religious Tests...

According to the Constitution of the United States, Article VI, section 3 states that: religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
It doesn't seem like it though, does it? - especially when the Republican candidates were asked about their religious beliefs again in their debate last night. A few quotes (from CNN):
"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth,"
"A person either believes that God created the process or believes that it was an accident and that it just happened all on its own."
"If anybody wants to believe that they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it."
That's from Mike Huckabee, a baptist minister, so it's about what we'd expect. He follows up with a claim that his ignorance of science isn't a problem though:
"I'm not planning on writing the curriculum for an eighth-grade science book. I'm asking for the opportunity to be president of the United States."
Exactly. If he doesn't believe, or want to believe, the scientific consensus on evolution, what will he believe the scientific consensus on? Global warming? gravity? I don't think we want someone in the oval office who doesn't listen to reason. We know how that works out.
McCain wasn't much better. He was backpedaling so fast on evolution, his legs must hurt:
"I admire [Huckabee's] description, because I hold that view. There's no doubt in my mind that the hand of God was in what we are today. And I do believe that we are unique, and [I] believe that God loves us."
With all the god-love going on in this debate, and in the Democrat's forum on faith, values and poverty you have to wonder what office they're all running for - Pope?

Only in America. In the UK, Tony Blair has acknowledged his deep faith, but has never, as far as I know, highlighted it in a campaign or as part of public policy debates. That's how it should be.

Why are we discussing belief in magic sky fairies when we should be addressing issues of far greater national importance?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007


NASA's MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) mission to Mercury flies by Venus late this afternoon.

MESSENGER will fly within about 210 miles of the surface of the Venus, and get a gravity kick toward its ultimate destination, Mercury. As it flies past, the probe will begin a carefully planned sequence of science observations that are designed to practice activities planned seven months later at the first flyby of Mercury.

MESSENGER has been on a long flight to Mercury. One of NASA's low cost missions to the planets, the probe was launched in 2004, and after an Earth flyby, 2 Venus flybys and 2 Mercury flybys, will eventually end up in orbit around Mercury in 2011.

Let's wait to see what happens at Venus today - should be some good data coming back.

Friday, June 1, 2007

iTunes U

Apple has updated it's iTunes store to version 7.2. One of the updates is access to iTunes U, which includes free lectures, speeches, sports clips and more from top universities like Stanford and MIT. I've been perusing the offerings, and it includes such courses as:

  • Modern Theoretical Physics from Stanford
  • Introductory Astronomy from UC Berkeley
  • Electricity and Magnetism from MIT
and many more, including courses on Biology and evolution from a variety of high profile schools. I wonder if we should pass this information on to the Discovery Institute or Ken Ham at the Creation Museum. They could use some grounding in basic science.