March 8, 2014
As many of you have likely heard, the Ukraine is being invaded by Russia. I saw a very powerful image which has been stuck in my head the past few days. A group of unarmed Ukrainian soldiers marched toward the Russian troops singing their national anthem.
Their wives have stood with them, standing out in the open, unarmed. They felt that if they stood beside their husbands, the Russian troops would be reluctant to fire on them.
I’ve been too busy to keep up with all that has been going on, but this is terrible.
March 8, 2014
Lately I’ve found myself just sitting around thinking that everything is in some sense eternal. I guess I should explain what I mean by that.
The other night I was out with my friend Greg and he was discussing photography, and I brought up a point that every digital photograph that could possibly be taken already exists. Think of the image as a two-dimensional grid of pixels where each color is represented by one of 65000 colors or so. If I simply wrote a computer program which randomly filled the pixels with colors, every possible photograph that could ever be taken would be there.
If you cycled through the possibilities long enough, you’d see photos of every man, woman, and child in every possible life circumstance, every era, and every emotional expression. Cycle some more and you’d see every city skyline — cities of the past and cities of the future. Cycle some more and you’d see an image of the entire Milky Way one million years ago. All of these possibilities are right there.
It’s a strange thought, but I could sit down and write that program right now. Most every time I’d see just a random fuzz of colors, similar to the black and white fuzz in television screens when they have no signal, but wouldn’t it be something else to hit the “Random Image” button and all of the sudden you’re staring at a photograph of yourself in the future — a real event that you actually later experience. Say it’s an image of me standing with my mother and father as I’m receiving my PhD, finally finished with school.
Or think about the history of all life on Earth. It’s interesting to note that the same atoms are being reused, over and over and over. They’re just being reshuffled in different ways. The atoms become grass, which is eaten by a young rabbit, which later has little baby rabbits, who later die, rot, become dirt, and then become grass once again.
If you could analyze the history of each atom in your body, you’d find that some of the air particles in your lungs were once breathed out by Albert Einstein. Other atoms in your body were once part of the body of pterodactyl soaring through the sky millions of years ago. Others were once part of a sea weed lazily moving back and forth in the waves eons ago. It’s the same materials being reused over and over and over. Life is just a thin coat over the Earth’s surface.
This makes me think about the flow of time. We tend to think in terms of these historical epochs and different periods in history, but it’s always been these same atoms. If an advanced alien race came down from space and disintegrated all of us and then reassembled the atoms of our world in a configuration similar to what it was in the 1950s, the world would then go on as if it was 1955. People would drive their big steel cars to the diner while listening to Elvis on the radio and everything about our present world would be forgotten.
I sometimes find myself missing my grandmother, but the atoms which were once her body are still around. If I had the technology, I could just reassemble her and we’d once again be sitting in the kitchen having a piece of pie. She’s dead now, but as long as the universe exists and there’s free energy to reassemble and animate her, my grandmother could always be brought back. The same applies once I die. Whether the newly assembled “copies” would be the same person, I have no idea, but we’d never be able to tell the difference.
But what about the atoms and their origin? You can trace that back to stellar furnaces and super-nova explosions, and if we go even further back, we get into the early universe and the Big Bang. But as I struggle to understand all of that, and hear about inflation and multiple universes, I can’t help but find myself thinking that if I understood things deeply enough, I would come to understand that anything is possible. There’s no reason at all to worry about anything because nothing ever ceases to exist. The possibility will always be around, and it is always possible to bring it into existence.
I saw the theoretical physicist Michio Kaku being interviewed and he described our cutting edge cosmological models as a timeless nirvana where countless interconnected universes spring out of nothing, living for a time and then dying.
I also think a lot about the brain and consciousness. Every experience I have seems to be a flow of information through matter. Brain states are just states of matter, so every possible experience I could have is possible in the same way as the digital photographs. If I had technology which could cycle through brain states, rewiring and reassembling my brain’s neural networks each time I clicked “Random Experience”, I would hear every musical composition, taste every food, feel what it’s like to live in every human body in every single era of history, experience every possible emotion, perceive every possible form, and have every single thought anyone has ever had.
I may have a very incomplete view of the world, but I’ve assembled enough pieces together to infer that time is an illusion. Eternity is all around me.
February 19, 2014
As many of you probably already know, I grew up in a very religious household. My father is actually the pastor of an evangelical church, and I was the pastor’s son. So from a young age, I was told the Bible is the word of God and everything in it is true.
I’m not here to really talk about that though. If any of you are religious, you may wonder what happened? Why did I leave the faith? When it comes to those who have lost the faith, many Christians feel like C.S. Lewis.
We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed. And as a matter of fact, if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
I didn’t simply drift away. I actually did reason my way out of it by honest argument. Some out there may find this story interesting, so I’ll tell it.
My first doubts arose when I was in my late teens and I was over at my friend Greg’s house. We used to watch movies together, and we had this period where we were kind of into conspiracy theories. You know, the Illuminati, the Bilderbergs, and all that sort of stuff. It was new to us, we were young, and it was entertaining and sometimes informative.
One of these videos dealt with religion and the ancient world. The presenter started talking about the history of the ancient world and all of their gods. He compared the Bible and Jesus to many other gods who were being worshiped throughout the ages, and you find that they all have similar stories. Lots of these deities had twelve disciples, a virgin birth, died on the cross for the sins of the world, turned water into wine, healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, rose from the grave three days later, was born in a manger, had wise men see their star in the heavens and brought them gifts, they multiplied of the loaves and the fishes, and so forth. All of these stories are way older than Jesus. The modern day Christian Jesus is just a blend of many different deities whose stories were being circulated around during that time by merchants and other travelers.
A lot of it comes from Egypt. Like why do prayers end with “Amen”? That comes from Egypt, Amun-Ra, the god of truth and light. Ideas of God being “light” come from Egpt as well, where they worshiped the sun and its life-giving forces. It’s a symbolism for day and night. The halos around ancient deities heads was a symbol of the sun and its cycles. So much comes from them. The ideas of an afterlife, the idea of blood sacrifice forgiving sins, and on and on, all has roots in ancient Egypt. And as I listened, I found myself wondering, “Is all of this true?”
When I first was learning all of this, I was understandably shaken up. I was a very religious young man, but I had also started reading philosophy at the time, and so my mind was more open than it had been in the past. When I was a kid, I was always taught that a person was to have blind faith. That’s what God wanted in someone – blind faith. But as I read Immanuel Kant, John Locke, and others, I came to feel that knowledge came from observation and empirical evidence, so I began demanding evidence for things, and I started to read books. I had never really read many books growing up, as that wasn’t what was encouraged in my household. My father used to tell me, “The reading of many books wearies the mind.” and “The only book grandma ever read was the Bible.” As a kid, I literally thought the devil worked through education.
Over a very long period, reading lots of books, my opinions on everything changed. I became more aware of scientific facts and findings, and my viewpoints became more and more based on facts and empirical observations about the world. I read a lot of history and have become aware of all the terrible things that religion does to the us. I found myself cringing as I’d read about all the holy wars and conflicts, where everyone felt they had the truth faith and everyone else had to die.
Despite all of this, none of these arguments are convincing to me nowadays. I’ve found proof that is much more convincing than stories or even the sort of history you find in history books. The ultimate nail in the coffin comes after you study biology, physics, and other forms of science. With genetics, you can use statistical methods to build the tree of life, connecting of us to all other life on Earth, just like scientists can take a child’s DNA and know you’re the father or mother. We’re all one big family, including plants, bacteria, and all the other animals.
To fully study this tree of life and how it developed would take a lifetime, but if you want a five minute breakdown of what took place, you can watch this summary by the naturalist David Attenborough.
No informed person will dispute that we humans evolved by natural selection. We’re as certain that evolution took place as we are that the Earth moves around the sun. But these can be difficult ideas at first, so it takes a while. Everyone should study and understand the fossil record at some point in their lives, looking into the rock layers, proving that life has evolved over millions of years. There’s even human fossils, showing that we too evolved, just like any other species.
But biology isn’t the only game in town. Through physics I learned that the Earth is very old. You can use radiometric age dating and can know the Earth is billions of years old. You can tell how old each rock layer is, and you see the proper fossils in each area. You can look through the layers and see ever more complex life-forms evolving over hundreds of millions of years, and you can even make predictions about what life-forms will be in each layer. You can say, “We see fossils of this species growing wings and feet here, yet earlier species in this other layer do not have any wings or feet at all, so if we look in this intermediate layer here, we should find an intermediate species between the two. ” Then people dig and search and lo and behold, it’s there. Nobody has ever once found a fossil which has been out of place. Still, I don’t want to give you the idea that this is a simple story. It’s not. For example, there have been mass extinction events and other complications.
Scientists have painstakingly went through these fossils and rock layers, dating everything, and carefully putting together a tree of life, trying to accurately tell us the story of the origin of life. It lines up directly with the genetics evidence, which lines up with the distribution of different species over the planet, and everything else.
So when a religious Christian, or whoever, tells me I need to be saved, or that I’m going to suffer eternal damnation, or whatever it is, I look at this mountain of evidence and find the whole premise of the Bible to be lacking. As best I understand it, they say that Adam and Eve sinned, and because of their doing, we were all born into sin and inherited this corrupted nature. We had disobeyed God and were thrown into a fallen world. But we have hope. Jesus came to save us from sin, and if we’ll only call upon him, we can be saved. All of that goes out of the window if Adam and Eve never existed. If we evolved, as the scientific evidence clearly points out, then there was never any original sin and there’s no need to be saved from anything.
After studying science for years and years, I’ve came to some pretty solid conclusions on these sorts of questions. It’s a complicated story, but it’s rewarding to understand what really has taken place on Earth. It takes years to study and learn all the details though. It’s not like religion where they can tell you the whole story in fifteen minutes. Science tells us that the evolution of life was complicated, but that’s to be expected. The truth is often stranger than fiction and only comes to those who are willing to dig it out and sift out the evidence.
But unlike religion, if you do question it, biologists, anthropologists, geneticists, and others can direct you to direct evidence and plausible explanations. If you ask about Noah’s ark however, questioning its size, how it doesn’t line up with the distribution of species, that so many “kinds” could never have fit on the ark much less their food, and so forth, you’re not going to hear anything convincing.
If you’re dealing with someone like me, I don’t follow my “heart”. On an issue like this, it’s not about how I feel. This is like a court trial with two different parties presenting evidence. The scientists have amassed a very convincing, coherent story of life and why things are the way they are. The religious crowd has mostly stories and emotional accounts of how their faith transformed their lives. I’m glad it helped you, but that doesn’t make any of it true.
I don’t like to argue with people about religion. I have no interest in that at all. I find that debating religious people amounts to educating them on facts and science, which they have rarely studied. That’s why we have universities. It’ll take years to master and understand it all. It’s not something you “debate” on the street in a fifteen minute conversation. It’s way too complex for that. That’s why I don’t feel scientists should even taken place in highly publicized religious debates. Many of the areas we’re dealing with can’t be quickly communicated in a few minutes.
Say you’re in a debate and the religious opponent tells the crowd that radiometric dating doesn’t actually work and can’t be relied upon. Or what if he argues that the second law of thermodynamics proves that evolution couldn’t have happened? What are you going to do, teach the crowd complicated physics in a few minutes?
I’ve studied nuclear physics in detail. I’ve taken full courses at my university on nuclear processes, studying the atom using quantum mechanics in depth. I hear them say, “It doesn’t work” and roll my eyes. Then I hear their claims about entropy, and I wonder how they seem to miss the part that the Earth is not a closed system. I know they’re B.S.’ing the crowd, but I also am a physicist and actually know what the second law of thermodynamics is. Others in the crowd remain undecided and it just comes down to your word vs theirs. “It works”, “No it doesn’t.”
Though sometimes I feel my family members think I’m in some sort of rebellion against God, really I’m just someone who followed the evidence and changed my beliefs. I could be convinced otherwise if I was presented the right evidence, but the scientific and other evidence is overwhelming, so I don’t see that happening. Still, my beliefs aren’t set in stone. You can try to convince me, but like I said, if you haven’t taken the time to understand the science, and aren’t aware of all these complicated facts of history, it’d take me years to teach you everything, and I can’t do that with every religious person who confronts me on an issue. This is especially true of say a religious person waving a tract at me in a parking lot, telling me I need Jesus.
Even so, I’m very tolerant of religion. I know how long it took me to come out of it, and how much time I had to spend in books to learn the things I’ve learned. Many people are working two jobs, raising kids, and have so many other things going on, how are they supposed to have time to look into all of this? I consider myself fortunate to have been blessed with access to all this information, not to mention the time to deeply examine the issues. Few people have that luxury.
February 15, 2014
In 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor in Ukraine went into meltdown, causing a massive ecological disaster. Radiation flooded the environment and all humans had to evacuate. The trees wilted and all the animals were dying of cancer and other forms of sickness. But what about today?
The BBC released a really fascinating story. A group of animals remained there in the area, and over several generations, they’ve evolved an immunity to the radiation. There are bears roaming the forest, pigeons and starlings in the trees, and lynxs wandering around the ground. These native radioactive animals are perfectly healthy, almost as if nothing ever happened. Here’s a photograph of a Przewalski horse, who doesn’t seem to notice that he’s being bombarded with lethal doses of radiation every hour of the day.
If you take animals from anywhere else and put them there, they develop cancer, get sick, and die. These radioactive animals are different. They’re now immune. We could never eat them, but that’s to their advantage, I guess.
In the 1980s, there was a lot of public uproar about all of this. People worried that our meddling in nature would end life on the planet eventually. This case is actually different though. Twenty-five years later, some environmentalists are joking that we should place radioactive nuclear waste in every rainforest to protect the animals and wildlife from humans.
Life is resilient. It will find ways to exploit any sort of environmental catastrophe. We’re here because a giant meteor came down from space and wiped out the dinosaurs.
February 15, 2014
A recent study published in the journal of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that mathematicians perceive the same degree of beauty in elegant equations as an artist does admiring beautiful architecture, or a musician listening to Bach.
“Many have written of the experience of mathematical beauty as being comparable to that derived from the greatest art. This makes it interesting to learn whether the experience of beauty derived from such a highly intellectual and abstract source as mathematics correlates with activity in the same part of the emotional brain as that derived from more sensory, perceptually based, sources. To determine this, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to image the activity in the brains of 15 mathematicians when they viewed mathematical formulae which they had individually rated as beautiful, indifferent or ugly. Results showed that the experience of mathematical beauty correlates parametrically with activity in the same part of the emotional brain, namely field A1 of the medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC), as the experience of beauty derived from other sources.”
The most elegant and beautiful equation was Euler’s identity.
We physicists spend so much time with mathematics, we also have this same sense of beauty. Paul Dirac once said, “What makes the theory of relativity so acceptable to physicists in spite of its going against the principle of simplicity is its great mathematical beauty. This is a quality which cannot be defined, any more than beauty in art can be defined, but which people who study mathematics usually have no difficulty in appreciating.”
I spend so much time with mathematics these days, I now viscerally “feel” and “perceive” the beauty in equations. It’s the same feeling I have when I look at the blue sky and think that the clouded dome above us is a realm of the gods. Who could define exactly what it is that makes a group of big poofy white clouds so beautiful? The same thing happens with mathematical expressions.