Quantum Hope

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Oh, no, not THAT word!

Put the word “quantum” in a title or sentence and people get nervous.  Perhaps their eyes glaze over and they hope that it will go away.  Some stop reading and skip to another article.  Others are so disconcerted by the mere appearance of the term they can’t read another word and turn on their TVs, frantically looking for reruns of The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or better yet, Oprah.  Comfort food delivered by cable. Having placed “quantum” in both the title and the first sentence, however, those folks won’t have gotten this far.

So if you are still reading, you are among a small minority who are surprisingly brave and tenacious.  For most of you, however, I still need to allay one other fear: math.  Take a deep breath.  No math.  Please, though, don’t turn off your brain.  I’m going to suggest something that is indeed within the realm of quantum theory, but from a perspective few quantum physicists would entertain.

Consider this a treat.

If you aren’t sure what the quantum in quantum physics entails, I can provide a basic definition by offering a simple word picture.  It’s a matter of scale to describe the universe.  On the very big end is cosmology.  That’s what the giant earth-based observatories,  optical, radio telescopes, and space telescopes (like the Hubble, and the Kepler and the soon to be launched James Webb), look deep into space to better understand.  Cosmologists are interested in our  Milky Way galaxy, the galaxies in our neighborhood (we have a really BIG neighborhood) and further out from there to the whole universe.  Astronomers and astrophysicists study the cosmos, the biggest stuff out there.

Quantum physics studies the small end of the universe, smaller than atoms: subatomic particles with great names like quarks, Fermions, leptons and bosons, down to the smallest of the small, called a “bit” (The bit is still theoretical and is also considered a function of entropy. Click here for an explanation [Warning: Contains math formulas]).  They also study how those subatomic particles fit together and work to make the matter we can see.  And that is what a particle accelerator like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN straddling the border of France and Switzerland is designed to do.  Remember in The DaVinci Code, where the story starts in this giant underground building?  That’s CERN.  Particle physicists and quantum physicists study the small stuff and the forces that make them work.

What does this have to do with hope?  Everything, actually, but you’ll have to read just a bit more.

Quantum physics and cosmology have one goal in common.  They both want to figure out how the very large relates to the very small.  They want to discover how the smallest quantum bit is the building block for the universe (and maybe a whole bunch of other universes, too, but we’re not going there in this post).  This great quest is called the search for the Theory of Everything, or for short, The Big TOE.  Seriously.  Yeah, you can laugh.

Everything, however, is not scientifically measurable.  Life is one of those things.  I know we can create machines that can detect life and perhaps how much life exists a one place, but life as a phenomenon in the Universe is not measurable.

The whole notion is confounding, and has been the topic of debate among we humans well before the beginning of the Scientific Revolution with the publication in 1543 of Copernicus‘ manuscript, “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres.”   For example, Aristarchus of Samos, who lived CA 310-230 BCE, published the first treatise on the heliocentric model of the solar system, On the Sizes and Distances of Sun and Moon, which was then suppressed by the Greek religious authorities of his time because it did not match their beliefs about their gods and life in the universe.  That has a familiar ring to it.

For Half a Millennium…

The past half a millennium, from Copernicus to the present, we have struggled to decide not just what the universe is made of, but what it is at all.  It is the driving force in cosmology and quantum physics.

For those of us who are people of faith, we have also struggled to decide not just what life is made of, but have equally struggled to assign meaning to a concept that seems pervasive to all humans that we label spirituality.  And the greater challenge has been to assign meaning to our religious beliefs and their long-held sacred foundations.   As our understanding of both the Universe and Life have changed (yes, I am deliberately capitalizing both words to communicate that in this context I am seeking to convey a sense of cosmic wholeness) our search for meaning has not gotten any easier.  Why after thousands of years of consciousness in this earthly setting, do we still not understand either?

Diarmuid O’Murcho, who has written extensively about defining a “quantum theology“, states,

The universe knows what it’s about.  That it does not make sense to us humans, that it often baffles us to extremes and undermines all our theories and expectations, is not a problem for the universe; it is a problem for us.  We, therefore, impetuously conclude that the universe does not care about us or about anything else…Instead of viewing it all as mindless, why not work with the idea that it is mindful? (Evolutionary Faith, p. 199).

Even as I write the words of O’Murcho’s quote, I admit they sound strange, foreign, even counter-intuitive to me.  My intellectual world has never regarded the universe as mindful.  Neither has my theological world.  Perhaps, though, that has been the problem, my problem: I have viewed these two worlds as separate, distinct, and although I may have been able to conceptualize them as meeting, like two pieces of plate glass. When pressed against each other they have a cohesiveness, but they are still to pieces of glass stuck together.  In the world of the quantum reality, there is no reason for that to always be so.  In fact, it may be that it is only rarely so, because in quantum theory, boundaries and internal existence are not bounded or exist in the way I perceive them.

Spirituality, Cosmology & the Quantum Conundrum…

I come, then, to my most difficult and confounding question.  If I can believe in a mindful God who created a quantum universe, why do I assume that this mindful Creator did not create a mindful Universe in the same way that humans (therefore, me) were created: In the image of God?

If I allow myself to just for a moment to adjust my reality to that perspective, I realize that I see, though in a glass darkly as St. Paul says when he talks about hope (not just love, 1 Co. 13:15), a reason for hope in a universe otherwise devoid and incapable of such mindfulness:

Life is the universe’s sole expression of hope, for without life the universe cannot contemplate its existence, and without hope the universe does not exist.

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The First Image of the Universe as We Never Can See It, Because Our Eyes Cannot See in Microwave Wavelengths. Image: COBE, Goddard Space Flight Center, http://mather.gsfc.nasa.gov/cobe/science.html

Less of Our Light for More Star Light

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I have participated in the GLOBE at Night program sponsored by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) for several years and continue to support it for two vitally important reasons:

As an amateur astronomer, light polluted skies wash out both the quality of what can be observed and can radically reduce the number of stars and other celestial objects that can be seen.  Light pollution affects all visual telescopes, no matter how large they are.  That is why the world’s greatest observatories are almost always built on very high peaks in very remote places far away from cities.

 

Light Pollution from the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory, Mt. Graham Int'l Obs., Arizona. Photo courtesy of Marco Pedani & University of Arizona

Every photon created by artificial light requires a human-manufactured source.  Measured in what is called “kiloWatt hours” (kWh) the electricity that is used to create unnecessary light (overlighting) is a nonrecoverable expense.  We waste billions of kiloWatt hours every year, costing us billions of dollars in the production and service used to create the light that wasn’t needed to begin with.  As we think about our energy production and the price paid to create the fuels to generate it (coal, oil, gas, hydro, nuclear–even solar, wind, wave, geothermal, and other cutting-edge energy-producing technologies require huge costs to meet our power demands), just the amount lost to light pollution cannot be justified from either a perspective of economic sustainability or the stewardship of the earth’s finite resources.

 

Large Binocular Telescope. Currently the world's largest optical telescope for total combined aperture, 16.8 meters, 662 inches (55.16 feet). Mt Graham Int'l Obs., Arizona. Photo courtesy of John Hill and LBTO, University of Arizona.

I invite you to join in the effort to change this one vital part of preserving our natural resources, not just those from the Earth but also those of the sky.  Please watch the short video, and then read the letter from Dr. Constance Walker, PhD*, Director of the GLOBE at Night campaign, and then follow the links to join in the fun of walking out your front door, looking up (I’ll bet you haven’t intentionally looked at the sky in a long time!), and with the very user-friendly GLOBE at Night instructions, instantly become an important participant in a global research project with such important implications.

Please note that the results for people living in the Northern Hemisphere must be submitted by April 4, 2011!

Note: Any connection between exposure to artificial light at night and cancer remains under investigation. The statement in the video represents that of the producers and not necessarily the views of Extreme Thinkover or GLOBE at Night.  See links below for more information**.

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Join the 6th worldwide GLOBE at Night 2011 campaign:

March 22 – April 6

With half of the world’s population now living in cities, many urban dwellers have never experienced the wonderment of pristinely dark skies and maybe never will. This loss, caused by light pollution, is a concern on many fronts: safety, energy conservation, cost, health and effects on wildlife, as well as our ability to view the stars. Even though light pollution is a serious and growing global concern, it can be one of the easiest environmental problems you can address through responsible lighting on local levels.

Participation in the international star-hunting campaign, GLOBE at Night, helps to start the process of addressing the light pollution issue locally as well as globally. The campaign invites everyone all over the world to record the brightness of the night sky. The campaign runs from March 22 through April 4 in the Northern Hemisphere and March 24 through April 6 in the Southern Hemisphere. The campaign is easy and fun to do. First, you match the appearance of the constellation Leo or Crux with simple star maps of progressively fainter stars found.  Then you submit your measurements, including the date, time, and location of your comparison. After all the campaign’s observations are submitted, the project’s organizers release a map of light-pollution levels worldwide. Over the last six annual 2-week campaigns, volunteers from more than 100 nations contributed over 60,000 measurements, 30% of which came from last year’s campaign.

To learn the five easy steps to participate in the GLOBE at Night program, see the GLOBE at Night website. You can listen to this year’s 10-minute audio podcast on light pollution and GLOBE at Night. Or download a 45-minute powerpoint and accompanying audio. GLOBE at Night is also on Facebook and Twitter. (See the links at the end.)

The big news is that children and adults can submit their measurements in real time if they have a smart phone or tablet. To do this, you can use the web application. With smart phones and tablets, the location, date and time are put in automatically. And if you do not have a smart phone or tablet, there are user-friendly tools on the GLOBE at Night report page to find latitude and longitude.

For activities that have children explore what light pollution is, what its effects are on wildlife and how to prepare for participating in the GLOBE at Night campaign, see the Dark Skies Rangers activities. Monitoring our environment will allow us as citizen-scientists to identify and preserve the dark sky oases in cities and locate areas where light pollution is increasing. All it takes is a few minutes during the 2011 campaign to measure sky brightness and contribute those observations on-line. Help us exceed the 17,800 observations contributed last year. Your measurements will make a world of difference.

Primary Mirror, Gran Telescopio CANARIAS, world's largest single aperture, 10.4 meters, 664 inches (55.3 feet). Photo courtesy GTC & ORM, Canary Islands

Primary Mirror, Gran Telescopio CANARIAS, currently the world's largest single aperture optical telescope, 10.4 meters, 664 inches (55.3 feet). Photo courtesy GTC & ORM, Canary Islands

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GLOBE at Night: http://www.globeatnight.org/

Star Maps: http://www.globeatnight.org/observe_magnitude.html

Submitting Measurements: http://www.globeatnight.org/report.html

Web App for Reporting: http://www.globeatnight.org/webapp/

Audio Podcast: http://365daysofastronomy.org/2011/03/07/march-7th-globe-at-night-2011/

Powerpoint: http://www.globeatnight.org/files/NSN_GaN_2011_slides.ppt

Accompanying Audio: http://www.globeatnight.org/files/NSN_GaN_2011_audio.mp3

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/GLOBEatNight

Twitter: http://twitter.com/GLOBEatNight

Dark Skies Activities: http://www.darkskiesawareness.org/DarkSkiesRangers/

The Milky Way as you've probably never seen it under excellent dark skies. View inludes Sagittarius, Libra, Scorpius, Scutum & Ophiuchus from Cerro Tololo, Chile. Photo courtesy of W. Keel, Univ. of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.

*Constance Walker, PhD, director, GLOBE at Night campaign (www.globeatnight.org)
chair, International Dark-Sky Association Education Committee
chair, IYA2009 Dark Skies Awareness Cornerstone Project
member, Astronomical Society of the Pacific Board of Directors
associate scientist & senior science education specialist, NOAO
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We Have Seen His Star in the East–Myth or Astronomical Event?

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Star of Wonder–Transformed from Myth to Astronomical Event?

 

The Star of Bethlehem? No, it's Canopus, 2nd Brightest Star in the Sky and a Specular Stand-in. 310 Light Years Distant. Image by D. Pettit taken from the ISS. Photo: NASA

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Prologue

This is a story that starts in the wrong place.  They’re my favorite kind.  And the wrong time.  That’s even better.  A story that starts in the wrong place and the wrong time has to be interesting.  There’s something to be said for predictability, but it rarely makes for a good plot or an intriguing ending.

This story does not have those disadvantages.  Some people have believed it was true.  Others believed it was false.  Others, still, believed it was myth, of uncertain veracity, but a beautiful, even elegant narrative.  For two millennia, Christians have believed it was part of a miracle.  Others, of different faiths, may have acknowledged it as a lovely story, but of no spiritual significance.  For the past four hundred years, as men and women have studied nature in new and innovative ways, and expanded our understanding of the Earth and the sky into a cosmos unimaginably large and old, the story’s credibility declined, seemingly moving toward the status of a fairy tale.

All of this, while true, is not the start to which I was alluding.

The Bethlehem Star? No, but Another Beautiful Candidate. 3rd Brightest Star. And It's a Double Star; Its Companion is a White Dwarf.  Photo: NASA.

The Bethlehem Star? No, but Another Beautiful Candidate. It is Procyon, 3rd Brightest Star. And It's a Double Star; Its Companion is a White Dwarf. 11 Light Years Distant. Photo: NASA.

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First, Some Historical Background

The Babylonian Cosmos. Image Courtesy: Gavin White. From: Babylonian Star-Lore, 2008. Click on the image for a larger version.

Around nine to ten thousand years ago, the human race, Homo sapiens sapiens discovered a problem.  It might have been earlier, but the record left by humans before that is very hard to read.  White (2008) in his book Babylonian Star-Lore, suggests that Babylonian astrology began as early as 15,000 years ago, although he states that the practice of astrology was quite different than the modern version.  It relied on mathematical calculations written on clay tablets and the earliest tablets have been dated to the 7th or 8th Century, BCE.  So, I’ll suggest ten thousand years, with the caveat that date might need to be adjusted with the next archaeological blockbuster discovery.  The problem was the Earth.  More specifically, the ground.

At this point I need to dispel one very important misconception: the fallacy of modernity.  The individuals I to whom I am referring are modern humans.  Same body, same brain, same capacity for intelligence, problem solving, or IQ.   Just like Albert Einstein, your neighbor Justin, who wears only faded NASCAR t-shirts, your eccentric Aunt Lizzy, or that beauty Angelica or hunk Chad (depending on your hormonal drivings) who in high school you never had the nerve to ask out.

This is the paradigm I want you to remember: ancient ≠ primitive.  Got that?

Back to our discovery.  At some point in the ancient past, one of our ancestors had the revolutionary thought that the ground was substantively different from the sky.  This was not a “well, duh,” moment.  It was a paradigm shift, perhaps capable only due to the superior huge frontal cerebral cortex of the Homo sapiens.  The shift was beyond the observation of a day/night cycle, although that would have been part of it.  This shift, like the differentiation between the sense of the boundary between my body and not-my-body, changed the human perception between earth and sky.

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The Sky is a Problem, a Big Problem

If This was the Bethlehem Star, it Would Have Really Gotten Everyone's Attention. It isn't. This is Wolf-Rayet 104, a Totally Strange Double Star, But This Time, Both Stars are Massive. 8000 Light Years. Photo: NASA/Keck Telescope, Hawaii

Stuff comes out of the sky.  Rain, snow, hail, clouds, wind, fog, as well as birds and bugs.  Some of those things are good, even edible.  Bad things like volcanic or range fire smoke and ash, dangerous wind blowing debris and biting things can come out of the sky, too.

Some things, most things actually, in the sky are beyond reach.  The Sun, the Moon, the stars, and the wandering stars.  Some stars appeared to streak across the sky; others appeared mysteriously out of nowhere glowing with a dim head and a long tail.  And rarely, a flash of a new star in the night that soon disappeared.  Or every once in a while there was an unexplainable event in which the Sun seemed to be consumed by a black disk, turning the day to dusk and all the birds stopped singing.  The same thing happened to  the Moon, its regular phases interrupted, a dark shadow crossing its face, then glowing a blood red before being released from its captivity.

The regular cycles of those things in sky that are out of reach is what we are interested in.  We live on the ground.  We can’t fly like the bugs or the birds.  We can’t live under water, either, but that is not the focus of this discovery.  Living on the ground, as we do, we know a lot about the ground.  Most of what lives on the ground keeps us alive.  Some of the other things that live on the ground can also kill us, but that, too, is secondary to our discussion.

On that day that one very bright modern human looked at the ground, maybe sifting a handful of dirt through his or her fingers, and then looking up at the sky, squinting at the sun or  gazing at the bright swath of starlight of the Milky Way, and said the equivalent of  “Huh, now that’s interesting,” and human understanding shifted forever.

From that moment, the science of astronomy was born, as well as those of geology and biology.  The problem was, earth and life were tangible.  The sky, however, was a complete mystery.

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What was the sky?

Supernova AD 1054. Chaco Canyon Petroglyph. Photo: Richard Goode, Porterville College, Calif.

Yes, that was the question: What was the sky?  What were the lights in the sky?   The daytime sky and the nighttime sky were so different.  Why was that?  Why did all the lights in the sky appear in the East, move in an arc reaching a highest point that changed with the season and then always set in the West?  But what about the stars in the Northern sky that never rose nor set?  For some of our observers, however, not knowing they lived below that line we now call the equator, the lights in the sky looked quite different, still rising and setting East to West, but those stars that never rose nor set were to the south.  Of course, there were to main players in the diurnal cycle.

The Sun, the greater light to rule the day, its brightness so intense to dare a glance of more than a fleeting moment brought pain, even blindness.  At the same time, it brought the warmth of the day, its risings and settings regular, though half of the time, the days would grow longer and half of the time shorter, and with it the corresponding warmth and seasons.  The earth tuned itself to this great annular cycle, of living and dying, growing and seeding, warming and cooling.  Our ancestors had figured out that part even before the start of our story.

The Moon, the lesser light to rule the night, possessed a soft glow that one could study without risk; its phases regular following the seasons decreed by its daytime master, its face never changing. Yet at intervals beyond comprehension, it, like the Sun, would be covered with a shadow, at times in part, at others completely.  Still the phases of the moon was so reliable that as humans began to cultivate their food, not just gather it, the Moon’s monthly journey and phases became an essential resource for the planting, growing and harvesting the crops.

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The Dilemma of the Wandering Stars

Of the night, though, what of the Wandering Stars?  The first a fleeting spark always near the Sun’s rise or setting. Next, brighter than the others, one of the mornings and one of the evenings, at times so bright it cast a light that caused shadows. Another with a glow of angry red, appearing out of nowhere and growing into a dominant light every two annual cycles.  A fourth, a great golden giant stately moving through the heavens night after night.  Also a fifth, whose trek seemed like that of an old one slowly working its way through the constellations.  And some, it is said, saw a sixth, dim grey-blue phantom only on the rarest of nights.  Against the apparent immutable backdrop of the other lights at night, why did these few shine but not twinkle like the others, and how, against all reason, did they change their direction in the sky and track back toward the East, then inexplicably again reverse and march toward the West?

Milky Way Band. Photo Courtesy of John Gleason/NASA

What was the sky?  Why did some of the lights form patterns against the black velvet backdrop of night?  What was the swath of light that cut across the sky from horizon to horizon?  What was the force or cause of their motion?  What were the faintest clouds of light, while others seemed to cluster into groups distinct from the random spread of most of the stars?

One might say the ancients had plenty of time to work this all out.  Day after day and night after night, if they chose to pay attention, they could discover patterns and recurring risings and settngs as the year progressed from the shortest days to the longest.   On every continent where humans collected, they in fact did pay attention, and observed the patterns and motions.  What they decided those observations meant and what caused them, was another thing altogether.

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The First Astronomers

Sunburst Petroglyph, Chemehuevi People, near Lanfair, CA. Photo Courtesy: Donald Austin & NASA

To explain the sky, both day and night, these earliest of astonomers drew upon the source of information they understood the best: the ground and the sea, and the abundant life that inhabited both.  Those were the things they would touch.  They made the very logical assumption that the sky was made from the same things the earth and oceans were.  They couldn’t have been more wrong.  At the same time they couldn’t have been more right.

I must again remind you of our one rule: ancient ≠ primitive.  The observers devised theories about how the earth, sea, and sky came into being, using the “materials” to which they had access.  We call these descriptions of the creation of the world, myths.  That is, if we are honest, modernocentric, even arrogant.  It can result in our overlooking key facts and observations, assigning to them to the status of fable rather than seeing myths for what they were: descriptions of the origin and  forces of nature and life.

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The Aztec Creation Story: Mother Sun Dismembered

The Aztecs provide a perfect example of a creation account that follows their observations of the natural world:

Quetzalcoatl: Aztec Lord of Morning Star & Wind

The dualistic gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, lightness and darkness, looked down from their dwelling in the sky at the water below. Floating on top of the water was an enormous Earth Monster goddess who devoured all things with her many mouths, for the goddess had gaping mouths at the knees, elbows and other joints.

Everything the twins created, the enormous, floating, terrible, insatiable goddess ate. The twin gods, normally implacable enemies, agreed she had to be stopped. They transformed themselves into two enormous, slithering snakes, and slid silently into the dark, cool water, their cold eyes and flicking tongues seeking her body.

One of the snakes wrapped itself around the goddess’s arms and the other snake coiled itself around her legs and together they tore the immense Earth Monster goddess in two. Her head and shoulders became the earth and her belly and legs became the sky. Some say Tezcatlipoca fought the Earth Monster goddess in his human form and the goddess ate one of his feet, therefore his one-legged appearance. Angered by what the dual gods had done, and to compensate for her dismemberment, the other gods decided to allow her to provide the people with the provisions they needed to survive.

Tezcatlipoca: Aztec Lord of Death, Creator of Fire, Night Sky, & Warriors

From her hair were created the trees, the grass and flowers; from her eyes, caves, springs and wells; rivers flowed from her mouth; and hills and mountains grew from her nose and shoulders.

The goddess, however, was unhappy, and after the sun sank into the earth the people would often hear her crying. Her thirst for human blood made her weep, and the people knew the earth would not bear fruit until she drank. This is the reason she is given the gift of human hearts. In exchange for providing food for human lives, the goddess demanded human lives.  Source: James W. Salterio Torres.

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The Sumerian Creation Myth: The Mother Goddess Gets Dismembered

Though the price of human sacrifice causes us to shudder, the battle with the Earth Monster goddess, with her defeat and dismemberment is hauntingly similar to the Sumerian story of the defeat of Tiamat:

Tiamat possessed the Tablets of Destiny and in the primordial battle she gave them to Kingu, the god she had chosen as her lover and the leader of her host. The deities gathered in terror, but Anu, (replaced later, first by Enlil and, in the late version that has survived after the First Dynasty of Babylon, by Marduk, the son of Ea), first extracting a promise that he would be revered as “king of the gods”, overcame her, armed with the arrows of the winds, a net, a club, and an invincible spear.

And the lord stood upon Tiamat’s hinder parts,

And with his merciless club he smashed her skull.

He cut through the channels of her blood,

And he made the North wind bear it away into secret places.

Markuk slaying Tiamat. Bas relief on stone.

Slicing Tiamat in half, he made from her ribs the vault of heaven and earth. Her weeping eyes became the source of the Tigris and the Euphrates. With the approval of the elder deities, he took from Kingu the Tablets of Destiny, installing himself as the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Kingu was captured and later was slain: his red blood mixed with the red clay of the Earth would make the body of humankind, created to act as the servant of the younger Igigi deities.

Source: Wikipedia–Tiamat

Two creation stories, having so many parallels even though those who devised them lived on opposite sides of a planet they did not know as such, and who never had had contact with one another.

The ground, the sea, the sky were all the world.  Thousands of years would pass before the problem of the sky would again be addressed.  The untouchableness of the sky would create a new question, without which, this story could not continue in Part 2.

 

MEanderthal: Fun With the Past–Ice Ages Past–From the Smithsonian

Homo Neanderthalensis, Reconstructed by John Gurche, Smithsonian, Hall of Human Origins

It Has Always Been About More Information: Survival vs Extinction.

A few months ago I got a smart phone.  The name I soon learned was very appropriate for at least two reasons.  First, it can do things that even ten years ago only the most expensive PDAs (personal digital assistants) could do, and second, it really is smarter than I am.  The learning curve is pretty steep on this device, and not being of the Digital Generation; actually that’s not quite true.  The first computer I remember being introduced to was in my senior year of high school, which used computer punch cards to run formulas.  It was about the size of a large suit case, had no monitor and had to be rolled around on a heavy cart.  It was like being given the chance to examine a treasure chest full of jewels, a coup that my math teacher had pulled off to get it on loan for a few days.  It looked something like this, except without the cassette disk drive:

Early WANG 600 Computer. Credit: Computer Museum, Grongingen, NL.

I remember clearly the assignment was to decide on a formula to punch into the cards and then feed them through the machine to get an answer.  The formula I chose was E=mc².  It’s a good thing the Homeland Security hadn’t been thought of yet, or I might have gotten a late night visit from a bunch of guys driving a big black Suburban with darkened windows.  However, once they got a look at my math grades (always my nemesis), they would have undoubtedly left laughing hysterically at the very idea of my being any threat to national security whatsoever, which remains true to this very day.

Back to the Smart Phone.  I spent several months deciding which phone I would purchase.  My daughter, the brilliant young up and coming media  guru has opted for the Apple/Mac world of computing and of course, loves everything about her iPhone.  I, however, have never been responsive to Steve Job’s siren call, because throughout my career, the organizations I worked for always used PCs.  But in a moment of uncharacteristic daring, I decided to take the leap on my phone and bought a Motorala Droid™.  All right, I like it.  A lot.  Even if it is smarter than I am.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

Now, on to the fun stuff.  The question, “What does it mean to be human?” has been asked in every generation since humans reached the point of being self-reflective sentient beings.  The question is no less important today, as the digital revolution continues to transform our lives in ways unimagined even a decade ago.

One of the most important contributions to this search for meaning has been in the area of genomics.  Unlike the racist roots of the Eugenics Movement a century ago, the development of genomics has been been a set of initiatives based on several different areas of research.  One has been researching the molecular structure of the genes that populate virtually every living cell either as DNA or RNA.  Another has been medical research to discover the causes of certain diseases and conditions (everything from diabetes to cystic fibrosis to birth defects) and attempt to develop new treatments for these debilitating and often life-shortening diseases  (Eugenics is a concern in this area, of manipulating zygote fertilization to create “desired” human offspring, or artificially designing species, among others).  What I am most interested in in this post is how the mapping of  the genome of a single species gives us an enormous storehouse of information of what happened prior to the modern form in its evolutionary development.  That leads to the tantalizing question:  What were our distant ancestors like, which hominid (or hominin, if you prefer) line did we descend from, and how far back can we read those genetic sign posts to better understand who and what humans are now?

The Human Nucleotide Molecules. Image: Public Doman

I am aware that this is an unsettling question to many people who are conservative Christians (and other faith groups, too), but I have stated in numerous posts as well as my blog on science and faith, DÎSCÎ, the Disciples Institute of Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry, that I accept the scientific evidence for cosmic, geological and biological evolution.

The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, under the leadershop of Dr. Francis Collins, MD, who is currently serving as the head of the National Institutes of Health.  Earlier, just this year, however, the long-awaited Neanderthal Genome Project was completed.  Here from Wikipedia:

At roughly 3.2 billion base pairs,[3] the Neanderthal genome is about the size of the modern human genome. According to preliminary sequences, 99.7% of the base pairs of the modern human and Neanderthal genomes are identical, compared to humans sharing around 98.8% of base pairs with the chimpanzee.[4] The researchers recovered ancient DNA of Neanderthals by extracting the DNA from the femur bone of a 38,000-year-old male Neanderthal specimen from Vindija Cave, Croatia, and also other bones found in Spain, Russia, and Germany.[5] Only about half a gram of the bone samples was required for the sequencing, but the project faced many difficulties, including the contamination of the samples by the bacteria that had colonized the Neanderthal’s body and humans who handled the bones at the excavation site and at the laboratory.[3]

Additionally, in 2010, the announcement of the discovery and analysis of Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the Denisova hominin in Siberia revealed that this specimen differs from that of modern humans by 385 bases (nucleotides) in the mtDNA strand out of approximately 16,500, whereas the difference between modern humans and Neanderthals is around 202 bases. In contrast, the difference between chimpanzees and modern humans is approximately 1,462 mtDNA base pairs. Analysis of the specimen’s nuclear DNA is under way and is expected to clarify whether the find is a distinct species.[6][7] Even though the Denisova hominin’s mtDNA lineage predates the divergence of modern humans and Neanderthals, coalescent theory does not preclude a more recent divergence date for her nuclear DNA.

Although more work will be done to clarify the findings, the implications of this research will only lead to a better understanding of the lineage of the human race.

Anatomical Comparison of Modern Human and Neanderthal Skulls. Credit: Creative Commons License

With the publication of the Neanderthal Genome Project results, the Smithsonian Institution opened a new exhibit called “The Hall of Human Origins.”

Hall of Human Origins. Image: Courtesy Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Reconstructions are: Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, & Homo neanderthalensis.

An exhibit with such revolutionary displays of explaining the history of the human race had to be more than set pieces with little placards explaining what this bone or other is what.  And the Smithsonian came through!  They developed an application for both Android and iPhones that would allow you to take a picture and using digital morphing, transform any face into one of several of our extinct ancestors.  Fun?  You bet!

Before you click on the links below to see me, enjoy this short YouTube video on how the app works:

Now, on with the show: David Devolving!

2010–The Year We Learn That Life Beyond Earth Exists?

Dr. David S. McKay, Astrobiologist. Photo: NASA

There’s a buzz out there amongst astrobiologists that before this year is out, Dr. David McKay and his research team are going to announce that they have definitively identified fossilized organisms in meteorites from Mars that have been collected on earth.

Martian microorganisms.  Martians.  Real Martians.  That bubble of perception that life exists only here on Earth will have been burst.

The next step, of course, will be to design Mars missions to determine if any of those organisms have survived Mars’ harsh and extreme history in an environment in which only extremophiles (as we now know flourish on Earth) could survive.

That those first missions will be robotic is certain.  The opportunity that a human will ever reach down and pick up a rock from the surface of Mars that potentially carries evidence of life living or fossilized in this century, at least under the sponsorship of NASA, appears increasingly doubtful in the current political and geo-centric environment.

Although we may be witness to the extinction of the hominid drive to discover the undiscovered, life confirmed beyond the delicate bubble of rock, water and air from which we were formed, literally changes the very quantumization of life itself.  It is a change that cannot be undone. From the present into the future, what it means to be living, what it means to be human will be different.  For life, as we’ve always known it, no longer requires Earth.

Martian Metorite NAKHLA 2058. Possible Fossilized Life. Microscopy Photo: NASA

There is more, however.  All technical considerations aside, if and when this announcement comes, the theological implications, as well as our geo-centric Christology, will no longer be the topic of idle speculation but confront us with a reality that demands a response to the world.

Since 1543, when Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the

Folio Pages Showing the Copernicus' Heliocentric Model. De Revolutionbus, 1543. Photo Courtesy fotosearch.com

Celestial Spheres), we have been attempting to unify our Christology with our Cosmology.  The results have been, in my opinion, at best, mixed.

Parable of the Sower, from the Plenarium or the Evangelical Book of the Year, 1516. Basel, Switzerland. Photo: Pitts Theology Library, Emory Univ.

The announcement of alien life, even microbial, requires a new conversation with a new set of rules.  It shall be a heady time, indeed.  Ours is the generation that broke the shackles of gravity and set off across the Solar System.  If, too, we are to be ones who confirm that life’s seed has been sown across the expanse of space like the Sower in one of Jesus’ parables, we have much work to do.

Here are three links:

http://spaceflightnow.com/news/n1001/09marslife/

http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2010/01/11/2169791.aspx

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/47114/proof-life-mars-come-year.html

Looking into the stars that seed the night will never be the same. Ever.

Star of Wonder–Transformed from Myth to Astronomical Event?

Star of Wonder-- Myth or Astronomical Event?

Part 1

This is a story that starts in the wrong place.  They’re my favorite kind.  And the wrong time.  That’s even better.  A story that starts in the wrong place and the wrong time has to be interesting.  There’s something to be said for predictability, but it rarely makes for a good plot or an intriguing ending.

This story does not have those disadvantages.  Some people have believed it was true.  Others believed it was false.  Others, still, believed it was myth, of uncertain veracity, but a beautiful, even elegant narrative.  For two millennia, Christians have believed it was part of a miracle.  Others, of different faiths, may have acknowledged it as a lovely story, but of no spiritual significance.  For the past four hundred years, as men and women have studied nature in new and innovative ways, and expanded our understanding of the Earth and the sky into a cosmos unimaginably large and old, the story’s credibility declined, seemingly moving toward the status of a fairy tale.

All of this, while true, is not the start I to which I was alluding.

Flores sapiens next to Homo sapiens. Photo Credit: National Geographic & Nature/ Peter Brown

Sometime around six thousand years ago, the human race, Homo sapiens sapiens discovered a problem.  The Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and the Cro Magnon (Arcahic Homo sapiens) were long extinct; one hominid now possessed all that was known to exist (the earliest dating for Homo florsiensis is currently 18K years). It might have been earlier, but the record left by humans before that gets harder and harder to read.  So, I’ll suggest six thousand years, with the caveat that date might need to be adjusted with the next archaeological blockbuster discovery.  The problem was the Earth.  More specifically, the ground.

I need to, at this point, dispel one very important, misconception.   That is the

Turkana Boy: Homo erectus, 1.5 mil. yrs. Field Museum, Chicago. Replica. Your ancestor? Yes. Your intellectual equal? Nope.

fallacy of modernity.  The individuals I to whom I am referring are modern humans.  Same body, same brain, same capacity for intelligence, problem solving, or IQ.   Just like Albert Einstein, your neighbor Justin, who wears only faded NASCAR t-shirts, your eccentric Aunt Lizzy, that beauty Angelica or hunk Chad (depending on your hormonal drivings) who in high school you never had the nerve to ask out, or even your cousin Zeke.  All right, maybe not cousin Zeke, but that is only because he hasn’t put down the game controller or said a single word since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 113 came out.  He may be more cyborg than human after all this time.

This is the paradigm I want you to remember: ancient ≠ primitive.  Got that?

Back to our discovery.  At some point in the ancient past, one of our ancestors had the revolutionary thought that the ground was substantively different from the sky.  This was not a “well, duh,” moment.  It was a paradigm shift, perhaps capable only due to the superior huge frontal cerebral cortex of the Homo sapiens.  The shift was beyond the observation of a day/night cycle, although that would have been part of it.  This shift, like the differentiation between the sense of the boundary between my body and not-my-body, changed the human perception between earth and sky.

Stuff comes out of the sky.  Rain, snow, hail, clouds, wind, fog, as well as birds and bugs.  Some of those things are good, even edible.  Bad things like volcanic or range fire smoke and ash, dangerous wind blowing debris and biting things can come out of the sky, too.

Geese flying over the surf. Oregon Coast, Sept '07

Some things, most things actually, in the sky are beyond reach.  The Sun, the Moon, the stars, and the wandering stars.  Some stars appeared to streak across the sky; others appeared mysteriously out of nowhere glowing with a dim head and a long tail.  And rarely, a flash of a new star in the night that soon disappeared.  Or every once in a while there was a day in which the Sun seemed to be consumed by a black disk, turning the day to dusk and all the birds stopped singing, or the Moon, its regular phases interrupted, too, a dark shadow crossing its face, then glowing a blood red before being released from its captivity.

Lunar Elipse, Feb. 27, 2007. Photo credit: Astronomy.com

The regular cycles of those things in sky that are out of reach is what we are interested in.  We live on the ground.  We can’t fly like the bugs or the birds.  We can’t live under water, either, but that is not the focus of this discovery.  Living on the ground, as we do, we know a lot about the ground.  Most of what lives on the ground keeps us alive.  Some of the other things that live on the ground can also kill us, but that is secondary to our discussion, as well.

Milky Way over Mauna Kea. Photo credit: Mauna Kea Observatory

On that day that one very bright modern human looked at the ground, maybe sifting a handful of dirt through his or her fingers, and then looking up at the sky, squinting at the sun or  gazing at the bright swath of starlight of the Milky Way, and said the equivalent of  “Huh, now that’s interesting,” and human understanding shifted forever.

From that moment, the science of astronomy was born, as well as those of geology and biology.  The problem was, earth and life were tangible.  The sky, however, was a complete mystery.

What was the sky?

Yes, that was the question: What was the sky?  What were the lights in the sky?   The daytime sky and the nighttime sky were so different.  Why was that?  Why did all the lights in the sky appear in the East, move in an arc reaching a highest point that changed with the season and then always set in the West?  But what about the stars in the Northern sky that never rose nor set?  For some of our observers, however, not knowing they lived below that line we now call the equator, the lights in the sky looked quite different, still rising and setting East to West, but those stars that never rose nor set were to the south.

The Sun, the greater light to rule the day, its brightness so intense to dare a glance

Total Solar Eclipse with Diamond Ring Effect

of more than a fleeting moment brought pain, even blindness.  At the same time, it brought the warmth of the day, its risings and settings regular, though half of the time, the days would grow longer and half of the time shorter, and with it the corresponding warmth and seasons.  The earth tuned itself to this great annular cycle, of living and dying, growing and seeding, warming and cooling.

The Moon, the lesser light to rule the night, possessed a soft glow that one could study without risk; its phases regular following the seasons decreed by its daytime master, its face never changing. Yet at intervals beyond comprehension, it, like the Sun, would be covered with a shadow, at times in part, at others completely.

Of the night, though, what of the Wandering Stars?  The first a fleeting spark always near the Sun’s rise or setting. Next, brighter than the others, one of the mornings and one of the evenings at times so bright it cast a light that caused shadows. Another with a glow of angry red, appearing out of nowhere and growing into a dominant light.  A fourth, a great golden giant stately moving through the heavens night after night.  Also a fifth, whose trek seemed like that of an old one slowly working its way through the constellations.  And some, it is said, saw a sixth, dim grey-blue phantom only on the rarest of nights.  Against the apparent immutable backdrop of the other lights at night, why did these few shine without the twinkle of all others, and how, against all reason, did they change their direction in the sky and track back toward the East, then inexplicably again reverse and march toward the West?

Five planets - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn - gather over the ancient Stonehenge monument in England. *Image Copyright*: Philip Perkins

What was the sky?  Why did some of the lights form patterns against the black velvet backdrop of night?  What was the swath of light that cut across the sky from horizon to horizon?  What was the force or cause of their motion?  What were the faintest clouds of light, while others seemed to cluster into groups distinct from the random spread of most of the stars?

One might say the ancients had plenty of time to work this all out.  Day after day and night after night, if they chose to pay attention, they could discover patterns and cycles.   On every continent where humans collected, they in fact did pay attention, and observed the patterns and cycles.  What they decided those observations meant and what caused them was another thing altogether.

To explain the sky, both day and night, these individuals drew upon the source of information they understood the best: the ground and the sea, and the abundant life that inhabited both.  Those were the things they would touch.  They made the very logical assumption that the sky was made from the same things the earth and oceans were.  They couldn’t have been more wrong.  At the same time they couldn’t have been more right.

I must again remind you of our one rule: ancient ≠ primitive.  The observers devised theories about how the earth, sea, and sky came into being, using the “materials” to which they had access.  We call these descriptions of the creation of the world, myths.  That is, if we are honest, modernocentric, even arrogant.  It can result in our overlooking key facts and observations, assigning to them to the status of fable rather than seeing myths for what they were: descriptions of the origin and  forces of nature and life.

The Aztecs provide a perfect example of a creation account that follows their observations of the natural world:

Quetzalcoatl: Aztec Lord of the Morning Star & Wind

The dualistic gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, lightness and darkness, looked down from their dwelling in the sky at the water below. Floating on top of the water was an enormous Earth Monster goddess who devoured all things with her many mouths, for the goddess had gaping mouths at the knees, elbows and other joints.

Everything the twins created, the enormous, floating, terrible, insatiable goddess ate. The twin gods, normally implacable enemies, agreed she had to be stopped. They transformed themselves into two enormous, slithering snakes, and slid silently into the dark, cool water, their cold eyes and flicking tongues seeking her body.

One of the snakes wrapped itself around the goddess’s arms and the other snake coiled itself around her legs and together they tore the immense Earth Monster goddess in two. Her head and shoulders became the earth and her belly and legs became the sky. Some say

Tezcatlipoca: Aztec Lord of Death, Creator of Fire, Night Sky, & Warriors

Tezcatlipoca fought the Earth Monster goddess in his human form and the goddess ate one of his feet, therefore his one-legged appearance. Angered by what the dual gods had done, and to compensate for her dismemberment, the other gods decided to allow her to provide the people with the provisions they needed to survive.

From her hair were created the trees, the grass and flowers; from her eyes, caves, springs and wells; rivers flowed from her mouth; and hills and mountains grew from her nose and shoulders.

The goddess, however, was unhappy, and after the sun sank into the earth the people would often hear her crying. Her thirst for human blood made her weep, and the people knew the earth would not bear fruit until she drank. This is the reason she is given the gift of human hearts. In exchange for providing food for human lives, the goddess demanded human lives.  Source: James W. Salterio Torres

Though the price of human sacrifice causes us to shudder, the battle with the Earth Monster goddess, with her defeat and dismemberment is hauntingly similar to the Sumerian story of the defeat of Tiamat:

Tiamat possessed the Tablets of Destiny and in the primordial battle she gave them to Kingu, the god she had chosen as her lover and the leader of her host. The deities gathered in terror, but Anu, (replaced later, first by Enlil and, in the late version that has survived after the First Dynasty of Babylon, by Marduk, the son of Ea), first extracting a promise that he would be revered as “king of the gods”, overcame her, armed with the arrows of the winds, a net, a club, and an invincible spear.

And the lord stood upon Tiamat’s hinder parts,

And with his merciless club he smashed her skull.

He cut through the channels of her blood,

And he made the North wind bear it away into secret places.

Markuk slaying Tiamat. Bas relief on stone.

Slicing Tiamat in half, he made from her ribs the vault of heaven and earth. Her weeping eyes became the source of the Tigris and the Euphrates. With the approval of the elder deities, he took from Kingu the Tablets of Destiny, installing himself as the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Kingu was captured and later was slain: his red blood mixed with the red clay of the Earth would make the body of humankind, created to act as the servant of the younger Igigi deities.

Source: Wikipedia–Tiamat

Two creation stories, having so many parallels, even though those who devised them lived on opposite sides of a planet they did not know as such, and who never had had contact with one another.

The ground, the sea, the sky were all the world.  Thousands of years would pass before the problem of the sky would again be addressed.  The untouchableness of the sky would create a new question, without which, this story could not continue in Part 2.

Rocket Powered Camels

Okay, let’s start with the obvious.  The sun, the moon, planets and stars rise in the east and set in the west.  We all know this; everybody knows this.  Even before Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo (in the 1500s and early 1600s) figured out the motion was due to the rotation of the earth and not of a cosmic celestial bowl turning over a stationary earth, the day and night cycle was something everybody just knew because that’s what everyone observed, day after day.  And aside from the occasional comet or meteor shower, everything in the sky rose in the east and set in the west.  “Sicut erat in principio, et nunc et semper, et in secula seculorum. Amen.  Alleuluia.

What few astronomical references we have from the Bible, it’s always rise in the east and set in the west.  The passage in Joshua 10:12-15 doesn’t contradict this.  According to the text, Joshua asks the Lord to stop the motion of the sun and the moon “in the middle of the day” (v. 13a), and “[the sun] did not hasten to go down for about a whole day” (v. 13b).  Some day, huh.

Neither does the curious passage in Isaiah 38, in which the Lord directs Isaiah to tell the dying Hezekiah that the sign of his healing will be, “‘I will cause the shadow on the stairway, which has gone down with the sun on the stairway of Ahaz, to back ten steps.’  So the sun’s shadow went back ten steps on the stairway on which it had gone down” (Is 38:8).  Isaiah then heals the king’s near-fatal boil by applying to it a “cake of figs” (v 21).  That’s the NASB’s translation.  The NIV says a “poultice of figs,” but to my way of thinking the whole idea of a poultice has a much higher “yuck” factor even if it is more literal.  Of course, why they just didn’t do the whole fig-cake thing to begin with, we’ll never know.  Anyway, modern Astronomy doesn’t have an answer to either of these accounts, but it doesn’t matter.  The Israelites won the battle over the Amorites, and Hezekiah got a 15-year lease on life, so don’t knock it.

All right, where is this going?  I do have a plan.

Fast forward to the Nativity narrative in Matthew, with the Magi.  When Magi AstroConsulting ™ show up at Herod’s court in Jerusalem, they said they had seen this new star in the east, that according to their Cray Supercomputers, er, magination and divinations had determined it signified a new King of the Jews.  Aside from the fact this rather impolitic announcement spread like wildfire in all the local papyrus tabloids and cable TV talking heads, their announcement, was astronomically correct.

These astronomer/astrologers were east-centric.  From our modern perspective, space is a big, big place and the whole notion of the cardinal points of north, south, east and west, are not of much significance in a universe that stretches infinitely away on all vectors from our small blue dot. That’s for us landlubbers, anyway.  Navigation by air or sea requires the correct heading or bad things will happen.

But the guys at Magi AstroConsulting ™ lived in a much cozier universe, and predicting accurately what stuff in the sky came into view, when, and in what order made all the difference (not to mention keeping their heads connected to their necks).  Therefore, prior to the Copernican Revolution, the most important direction was EAST.  Besides with artificial lighting to accompany us at all times, we in modern culture rarely look up anyway.  What’s the point?  I’LL TELL YOU WHAT THE POINT IS…oh, sorry, I don’t want to cry and get my computer keyboard wet.

So the Magi see this star rise in the east and watch its track to where it sets in the west.  Although they couldn’t compute longitude (the vertical grid circling the globe), they could compute latitude (the horizontal lines), and throwing in a little astrology to plot which constellation signifies an auspicious event in the land of the Jews, they packed up their dromedarian SUVs and headed west.  ROAD TRIP!  The Route 66 of the Ancient World!  Destination Jerusalem!  On the way back, they’d hit Caesarea Phillipi, hang out on the beach, catch a few shows.  Some things never change.

The plot thickens, of course, because in present day, every off the shelf astronomy computer software program can calculate the night sky between 10,000 B.C. and A.D. 10,000 (10,000 C.E if you want to archeologically correct), and there were some very interesting things happening in the sky between 6 B.C. and A.D. 6., but we’ll deal with that story nearer Christmas.

And as for the star guiding the Magi caravan to the house in Bethlehem?  Well, there’s west (recall they were going west) and then there’s west.  Remember, the sun sets truly in the west only twice a year: at the Spring and Fall Equinoxes.  As soon as one deviates from true south or north in a westward direction, then one is “going” west.  That’s about a 180-degree variation of “westerly.”  So, despite the fact Bethlehem is slightly southwest of Jerusalem, it’s no big stretch to get everything to line up.  Of course, the Matthew narrative is much more satisfying, so since they found the right place, don’t knock it.

Double fast-forward to modern day.  I’m standing in my driveway looking west for the newest star in the heavens to appear.  Yes, west.  Didn’t seem right, with all I have just written, but west it was.  And it wasn’t really a star.  It was the International Space Station.  The fourth brightest object in the sky, and as well, only the fourth object in the sky to be visible in daylight (not counting the rare supernova or bollide meteorite).  Why west to east?  That’s the direction of the rotation of the earth.  It’s the rotation of the Jet Stream.  Spacecraft generally are launched with the earth’s spin.  Takes less fuel.  Launch to orbit in eight minutes.

So, there I was.  8:23 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.  Out of the glow of the setting sun a golden star, the brightest object in the sky, soars overhead.  Fast!  Very fast!  About two and a half minutes from horizon to horizon.  I was stunned!  About it’s size.  Of it’s brilliance.  And of the implication that every few nights, when the clouds of the great Cascade rain forest part for even a few moments that I will be able to step outside and watch this golden orb slide overhead.

A naked eye object.  A real spaceship. A human presence in space.  Not science fiction.  Real.  Just step out of your home every few nights and look up.  You can check the schedule for your Zip Code by going to http://www.spaceweather.com and clicking on the “Satellite Flybys.”

And I imagined what the Magi might have thought if such a thing, this golden star had soared over their heads, west to east.  Going the wrong direction.  To follow that star, they’d need rocket-powered camels!

ISS Glides Over Butser, England.  3 Mar 09.  Credit: Martin Saban-Smith, http://www.m109.co.uk

ISS Glides Over Butser, England. 3 Mar 09. Credit: Martin Saban-Smith, http://www.m109.co.uk