Posted tagged ‘science’

Quick Heads Up For Some Spooky Action At A Distance Talk

July 30, 2014

Late, late, late I am in getting this out to you, but I’m doing another webcast/podcast for Virtually Speaking Science today.

I’ll be talking to my MIT colleague, David Kaiser, who is a physicist and a historian of science in our Science Technology and Society program.  He’s also an excellent popular science writer, and we’ll use the hour today (and whenever you might choose to listen) to talk Higgs, Bicep2 and gravitational waves (did the very early universe inflate? Are there butt-loads of universes?  How freaking hard is it to make cosmological measurements?*).  And we’ll talk about his wonderful book How the  Hippies Saved Physics — about the Fundamental Fysics group at Berkeley and their engagement with quantum entanglement, Bell’s theorem, spooky action at a distance and the discovery that yup, the universe does behave that strangely…which is why we are now, almost 50 years later, thinking seriously about quantum computing, encryption and the like:  actual this-world technologies that exploit properties that Albert Einstein thought no properly behaved universe should exhibit.

An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768

David’s a great explainer — so the opaque shorthand above will become much clearer very soon.  We go on the air at 6 ET — half an hour from now.  Listen here live or later (also on iTunes — search for Virtually Speaking Science and or Levenson and Kaiser) — or join us as part of the virtual studio audience in Second Life, hosted by my favorite (as in, my childhood) science center, San Franciso’s Exploratorium.

*Spoiler:  Very, very hard.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby,  An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump1768

The Most Exciting Sentence I’ve Read This Decade…

March 18, 2014

…Would be this one:

 We find an excess of B -mode power over the base lensed- CDM expectation in the range 30 < ` <  150, inconsistent with the null hypothesis at a significance of >  5 δ.

That’s from the abstract to this paper, released yesterday, in which the team using the BICEP microwave detector at the South Pole reports on their analysis of three years of data taken from 2010-2012.

So what’s that all about?  It’s the best evidence yet that a fundamental pillar of Big Bang cosmology is right, that a concept named inflation does in fact describe what happened within the first instant of the formation of our universe.  Here’s how Alan Guth, the inventor of the idea describes it:

This theory is a new twist on big bang theory, proposing a novel picture of ho the universe behaved for the first minuscule fraction of a second of its existence.

The central feature of the theory is a brief period of extraordinary rapid expansion, of inflation,  which lasted for a time interval perhaps as short as 10^-30 seconds.  During this period the universe expanded by at least a factor of 10^25, and perhaps a great deal more. [Alan Guth, The Inflationary Universe, p. 14.]

Guth’s initial version of inflation theory has been refined significantly since its origins in the late 1970s, and in its modern form inflation has become part of the basic toolkit of cosmological investigation.  The universe we observe doesn’t make sense unless something occurred to explain, for just one example, the way the universe looks basically the same everywhere, when viewed on the largest scale.  Inflation as the idea has evolved has become the best available explanation (though there have been competing models) for this and other observed cosmological properties.  But the challenge has been to find some tell-tale sign that shows* that inflation actually happened.

It’s been clear for a long time where such signs might lie:  in the cosmic microwave background (CMB),  a snapshot of the cosmos taken at a moment called “recombination,” when the universe cooled down enough to permit electrons and protons to come together to form (mostly) neutral hydrogen atoms.  Photons — light — that up till that moment had been embraced in electromagnetic dances with charged particles were then unshackled to fly freely through space, carrying with them the traces of where they’d been just before that liberation — which came just 380,000 years after the big bang.

J.M.W._Turner_-_The_Beacon_Light

Over time (13.8 billionyears), thatextremely hot (energetic) spray of light has cooled to 2.7 Kelvins — 2.7 degrees above absolute zero — and is now detectable as those very long wavelengths of light called microwaves.  This  microwave background was identified in 1965 as a generalized blur covering the entire sky; increasingly sophisticated measurements have revealed more and more detail.  Over the last twenty fiveyears those observations have turned into a probe of what happened between the big bang and the flash of the CMB itself:  each newly precise measurement constrains the possible physics that gave rise to the details thus revealed.  Step by step, each new level of detail narrow the options for what could have occurred during the big bang era — and the chain of events that lead from cosmic origins to us becomes increasingly clear.

In the 1990s,  improving resolution of CMB images revealed spots on the sky where there is slightly more energy in that microwave background — corresponding to regions in the early universe with slightly more matter-energy than surrounding regions.  Such variations account for why there are lots of galaxies full of stars in some places, and vast voids in other:  over millions and billions of years, gravity can work on very slight variations in initial density to sort matter into that kind of pattern.

With the advance of both space and ground based microwave imagers, it’s become possible to sample the CMB in vastly greater detail, and thus uncover much more than the simple (easy for me to say) evolution of structure in the universe.  For example, CMB researchers have identified several acoustic peaks in the background — literally, the ringing of the early universe, pressure waves produced by the interaction of light and matter in the very early universe.  The particular properties of those peaks reveal basic facts about the universe — and help distinguish between different theories about how we get the cosmos we inhabit from the big bang whose traces we see in the CMB.

Before today, the state of play was that CMB results were most consistent with the  predictions of inflation, compared with other candidate ideas.  At the same time though, observations that are consistent-with are not the same as direct observations of the cosmological equivalent of the miscreant’s fingerprints on the knife.  That’s what the BICEP results deliver.

In simplest terms:  modern theories of cosmic inflation say that immediately after some tiny perturbation occurs that marks the birth of a universe, it gets pulled apart by inflation — which you can think of as negative gravity, a gravitational field that stretches space-time.  The inflationary episode is so powerful that it expands the infant universe by orders of magnitude in fractions of a second — as some say, inflation provides the bang in the big bang — and it’s so violent that as space-time undergoes such wild tugs, ripples form.  Those ripples are gravitational waves — predicted by Albert Einstein, inferred from the behavior of pulsars, but never detected directly.  An observation of such primordial fluctuations, variations in the strength of the gravitational field from point to point in the early universe, would offer the first direct glimpse of traces of an inflationary episode marking the birth of our cosmos.

And that’s what BICEPs results contain:  the team led by John Kovac at the Harvard – Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Clem Pryke at the University of Minnesota, Jamie Bock at Caltech/JPL, and Chao-Lin Kuo of Stanford and SLAC report the detection of the signature of gravity waves in the CMB with the properties corresponding to those predicted to be produced by inflation.

In slightly more detail, the BICEP experiment observed a particular pattern of polarization in the light (microwaves) of the CMB that inflation would be expected to produce.   (Many more details:   web resources from the BICEP team and partner institutions;  quick semi-technical gloss on the results from Sean B. Carroll;  Matt Strassler’s take; Dennis Overbye’s account in the NYT.)

One key caveat before the wind up:  this is one result from one group.  It is reported with great confidence (that five sigma claim).  But something this big needs independent confirmation — data from the Planck satellite for example, or more ground based observations from other microwave detectors.  This isn’t yet a done deal.

Such confirmation (or disproof) will come fairly quickly — a few years at most.

In the meantime, assuming the data do hold up, what would that mean (forgive me) more cosmically?

At the very least:  that we now understand in previously unattainable detail how our current habitat emerged from nothing (or better, “nothing”).  That the idea of a multiverse — other patches of space time that underwent an inflationary episode to form island universes of their own — has now gained a boost (if one patch of space-time can inflate, so could others)….

…or to put in mythic terms:  there is grandeur in this view of life (the cosmos).  Paraphrasing an old friend, astronomer Sandra Faber, with this new, richer, more fully realized picture of the birth of the universe we have once again enriched that creation story that only science tells, the one that connects the earth we inhabit today with a process of cosmic evolution that we now can trace back all the way to just the barest instant this side of the point of origin.

A good day.

*To a close approximation — this is physics.  You want certainty, become a mathematician.

[Thanks to Dr Katherine J. Mack of the University of Melbourne, aka @AstroKatie, who helped make sure no egregious errors slipped through.  Any mistakes, major or minor, that remain are mine, all mine.]

Image:  J. W. M. Turner, The Beacon Lightc. 1840

PS:  Bonus video showing one of the founding architects of inflation theory receiving news of the result:

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: March Mammal Madness Edition

February 18, 2014

That time of the month again:  tomorrow being the third Wednesday of February, I’ll be going on the ‘tubes at my usual gig with Virtually Speaking Science for a conversation with Katie Hinde — biologist at Harvard and major-domo of the world-class awesome blog, Mammals Suck…Milk!

You can listen live or as a podcast later here.  If you’re virtually real, you can join us in the live studio audience at the Exploratorium’s joint in Second Life.  (I’ll get the SLURL up in an update and/or tomorrow’s reminder. We kick off at 6 p.m. ET.

Hinde is just a treat of an interview — fast, funny, and with incredibly rich and interesting science to discuss.  Here’s what she’s about:

Mother’s milk has an organizational effect on infant outcomes, not just by providing the energy that sustains growth, but by also contributing to immunological, neurobiological, and behavioral development.

Guided by evolutionary theory, we investigate how variation in mother’s milk and behavioral care influences infant outcomes from post-natal life into adulthood and subsequent generations.

Her research has centered on primates, but as Ed Yong discusses here, she’s a marvelously agile opportunist, and in one sweet move she managed to turn what has been a field developed on the back of very labor intensive, small sample size studies into something approaching big milk data.  Her trick?   Taking advantage of the detailed record keeping American dairy farmers perform for obvious reasons to acquire 2.4 million lactatation records from 1.4 million cows.  Now that’s some statistical power!

DAM120727

Technique is one thing — asking good questions of data is another, and that’s what makes Hinde such an interesting scholar.  She’s been looking at differences by gender of the offspring in the composition and delivery of milk.  The answer is (a) the details are all in all; different species with different evolutionary histories and behavioral landscapes exhibit different lactation patterns in the context of different behaviors exhibited by daughters and sons, and (b) seemingly obvious evolutionary stories often fail to fit what actually happens at the udder or the breast — and after, through the life of the nourished children.  You can get a sense of the field and a whiff of Hinde’s own work in her review chapter here. [PDF]

We’ll talk about all that — what the story is for cows, as compared with rhesus macaques, for example, and then we’ll talk about that research as it hits the wider world.    That’s in Hinde’s mind because of a very recent encounter with the inimitable (thankfully) Daily Mail.  We’ll talk about that monument to crap science writing, but with this twist:  a look at the importance of social media for contemporary scientists.  Hinde was able to mobilize correctives to the disastrous reporting on her research only because she has a robust presence across a number of networks — and we’ll use her experience over the last week to think about the shifting power structure in media.  A long way — but not really — from the milking shed.

And last, burying the lede as usual, we’ll get to Hinde’s annual mammalian extravaganza — her own bracket of mammals taking on each other in a nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw competition that makes the NCAAs look like toddlers in sandboxes.  Just to give you a taste, last year she pitted (inter much alia) the honey badgers against the wolverines.  Now, there is simply no mammal around that matches the wolverine for sheer, incomprehensible bad-assery (see, e.g., the tale of M3 Hinde often cites).  But Hinde is an honest bracket-builder, so home field matters.  Wolverine could wreck Honey Badger on any neutral field, but in HB’s home turf — Africa — the heat and  humidity negated the advantages of stamina and ferocity, leaving one of the  pre-tourney favorites a loser as the Madness played out.

Hinde will be running a new Mammal Madness this coming March — and that’s where the conversation tomorrow will come to rest.

As you may have gathered, I’m looking forward to this one.  Join in the conversation tomorrow.

Image:  Winslow Homer, Milking Time1875.

Winslow

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: Deborah Blum, Poison, Murder, Chemical Ignorance Edition

January 15, 2014

Hey, everyone.

It’s that season again — third Wednesday of the month (what, already?) at at 6 p.m. ET, I’ll be talking on that old Intertube Radio Machine with science writer extraordinaire Deborah Blum.  Live and later here, and/or in Second Life at San Francisco’s Exploratorium in-world theater, should you be minded to join our virtually live studio audience.

Deborah is probably known to you as the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, a really elegant book on the birth of forensic chemistry in the Prohibition-era investigations of New York City’s nascent chemical crime investigative laboratory.  It’s just a fabulous read — noir true crime with a solid steel core of great science running through every misdeed.

Jacques-Louis_David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates_-_Google_Art_Project

The PBS series The American Experience just broadcast an adaptation of the book, by the way, which can be viewed here.

There’s a lot more to Deborah’s career than simply this most recent success.  She won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee for reporting on ethical issues in  primate research, work contained and extended in her first book The Monkey Wars.  She’s published five previous books in total, all great — my favorite is Love At Goon Park, but there’s not a dud in the bunch. Far from it.  Her day job now is teaching science and investigative journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her students are lucky ducks (or badgers).

We’ll be talking about the new stuff:  poison, the emergence of systematic chemistry as a tool, the issues we face of our ignorance of so much of the chemical universe — the West Virginia spill will be our proof text there — and more.  We’ll also continue the extended conversation I’m having with several colleagues about the constraints and worse affecting the work of women in science writing.  Deborah has been a leader in organizing public thinking and discussion on these matters, so that’ll be on tap as well.

I should add what you may have guessed: Deborah is a good friend as well as a professional colleague.  So I’ve got the experience to assure you she’s a great conversationalist.  It will be an interesting hour.  Come on down!

Image:  Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates1787.

We All Know (Own) Our ACGTs

June 13, 2013

This is more a “hey, look at this” post than any considered analysis, but the Supremes just handed down what will probably be the biggest non-politics-centered decision of this or many sessions: you can’t patent genes.

Twins_Grace_and_Kate_Hoare_1876

Interestingly, this result was apparently not even close as a matter of law, as the decision, written by Clarence Thomas, was unanimous:

“A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated,” he said. “It is undisputed that Myriad did not create or alter any of the genetic information encoded in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.”

The case concerned Myriad Genetics which holds (held!) the patents on the BRCA 1 and 2 genes hat — as the Angelina Jolie story recently made famous — are in some variant (mutant) forms highly correlated with very nasty strains of breast and ovarian cancer.  The life and death stakes involved in access to the genetic diagnostics that could run $3,000 per test that Myriad controlled through its patents certainly frame this case — but the implications of this ruling are, simply, huge, as much biotech investment has chased sequences in a strategy that bears some resemblance to classic patent trolling.

The ruling did preserve what seems to me to be the original intent of patent law (see Lewis Hyde’s excellent Common as Air for an account of the origins of intellectual property ideas in the thinking of the American founding fathers).  You can still patent modifications and applications of technology to the raw material of nature that a mere sequence represents.

I really am just digesting this.  I’ve talked to people over the years who have been mournfully horrified by the constraints on research and the discovery of real public goods imposed by a too permissive patent regime — Jim Watson told me the same story that he’s repeated in public many times of being asked by Leo Szilard if he and Crick thought about patenting the double helix.  When Watson replied that he didn’t think it was (or should be) patentable, Szilard then said (Watson recalls) that maybe he could copyright it.  Watson and Crick’s incredulity at thought was typical for the time, but we’ve drifted far, far away from that now…and it’s good to see the pendulum swinging back.

But as I say, first, fast reactions here. This is a decisions that’s going to ring out for a while, and it will be fascinating to see what comes.

Image: John Everett Millais, Twins, 1876.

“I knew I was going to take the wrong train….”

September 27, 2011

…”so I left early.”

Thus sayeth that noted neutrino expert Yogi Berra, Bb.D.

Because humankind cannot live by politics alone, here’s a bit of an off-angle reaction to the biggest news in physics since Big Al (as I thought of him through a decade of film-and-book making/writing on the good Dr. Einstein) looked out of his window and wondered what would happen if the roofer he was watching slipped and fell.  Before the poor fellow hit the pavement, of course.

That would be the announcement last Friday that an Italian team of physicists sent a beam of neutrinos from the CERN high energy physics facilty on the Franco-Swiss border through the Alps to a detector in the Italian national physics lab in Gran Sasso, a journey of almost 460 miles (~730 km).  The newsworthy bit was that the experimenters measured the speed with which some 16,000 or so neutrinos covered that distance, and found that it very slightly exceeded the speed of light, “c”  — the canonical limit within Einstein’s special theory of relativity that nothing may exceed.*

The effect detected by the experiment, known as OPERA, was small:  1 part in about 40,000 greater than c.  But any breaking of the light barrier is a huge deal.  If the result stands up, we’re in for a fun ride.  There will be lots of new physics to be found.  Good initial reactions can be found all over the physics blogosphere — try this, or this to get started.

For my part, as someone who’s been observing physics from the outside since I first grew fascinated with Einstein’s work in the late 1980s, I’m reminded a bit of the last decade of the nineteenth century.  In 1894 the (to-be) Nobel laureate A. A. Michelson famously told an audience at the University of Chicago that

The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.

Timing is everything:  in  1895, just one year after Michelson gave his speech Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays, and it was off to the races into the 20th century revolutions in physics.

Recently, folks may have been forgiven for feeling at least a little bit of what Michelson did, as by the 1990s, every major relevant experiment over the previous couple of decades had confirmed the details of the Standard Model of particle physics.

That theory is not complete.   It does not encompass General Relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravity, for example, and it has a just the whiff of an ad hoc quality to it.  It has troubled a fair number of observers that the Standard Model comes with a number of dials (parameters) that have to be set by hand, as it were, to make all the sums come out right.

For all that, the theory proved for decades to be astonishingly powerful:  those twenty or so parameters have paid for themselves with hundreds — thousands, really — successful predictions.  But the frustrating bit has been that for many, many years, very clever people have tried and failed  to find something that the Model got wrong that would lead to a more comprehensive picture of reality.  Physics, if not confined to what Michelson quoted a colleague as saying — measurements of the sixth decimal place — seemed to some to be grasping for something to liven up the joint again.†

And then, of course, we got dark matter.  Dark matter has been hanging around for a while — roughly forty years, ever since Vera Rubin first measured motions in distant galaxies that implied the presence of much more mass than could be accounted for by the available luminescent matter —  stars.  We’re still waiting for a definitive understanding of what all that mass is made of.

More recently, dark energy (or a non-zero cosmological constant, if you prefer) appeared on the scene — a yet more challenging observation. Dark energy was first detected by a pair of teams measuring the light from a particular type of supernova. Reporting in 1998 and 1999, they confirmed that the universe is expanding at an accelerating pace — and putting that information into the framework of Big Bang cosmology generated an astonishing number:  about three quarters of the stuff in the universe — the sum of mass and energy present within the cosmos– comes i the form of whatever this dark energy turns out to be.

 

In other words:  we live in interesting times.  And thankfully, some such circumstances — those outside of politics — are actually interesting as in fun, rather than applying the usual torque that line evokes.

There are huge, significant new problems out there, with at least some real prospect of observational discoveries that could lead to major shifts in our understanding of the cosmos we call home.  This neutrino result would lead to another such shift — if it holds up — and it would thus stand both as an example of virtuoso measurement and as a great big sloppy kiss of an invitation to theorists who will have to rethink special relativity — for a century one of the fundamental principals of existence, a fact of life in the universe so fundamental that any physical result had to conform to it or fail.

To be sure, there’s a good way to go yet before we plunk the leaders of the OPERA team into sedan chairs and bear them off in triumph to Stockholm.  As of four or five days into the era of superluminal neutrinos, no one has found an obvious killing flaw in the work, but it’s a complicated experiment, and confirmation would be so consequential that every physicist I’ve talked to or read has cautioned me not to bet the rent money on it.

(Thanks xkcd)

But even as we wait — probably not too long, as these things go — for another experimental team to reproduce or demolish this initial finding, we can enjoy the one certain decay product of a collision between theoretical physics and the Twitterverse.

That would be neutrino jokes (perhaps an acquired taste).  Hence these, gathered by the L.A. Times.  (h/t @JenLucPiquant).

My favorite (also plumped by regular commenter SiubhanDuinne in a previous thread):

We don’t allow faster than light neutrinos in here, said the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar.

Yeah.  An acquired taste.

*There is a history of theoretical musings about faster-than-light particles that predates this experiment, but such particles, dubbed tachyons, are understood never to slow to the speed of light.  In this conception, the speed of light is a limit that can be approached from either side — below or above — but never crossed.  So, for those of us in the slow lane, the  cartoon description of the speed of light as a speed limit has been close enough to right to do the job.  We do live in interesting times.

†The “sixth decimal point” statement has earned Michelson a lot of ridicule over the years.  Certainly, it was bad luck indeed to provide such a quotable quote just one year before the gaudy show-stopper of X-rays.  But on reading this paper (pdf) on Michelson’s thinking about measurement, I’m reminded he’s at least partly the victim of a bad rap.  In his 1894 speech he expressly pointed out that two problems pressing on physicists at the time were the “constitution of matter and the ether and the true mechanism of light” — in other words, the questions that lead directly to both relativity and the quantum theory.  (Thanks to Ed Bertschinger for discussing this point with me; he is not to blame for any use I made of his knowledge.)

And though Michelson was clearly wrong in the import of his statement — the “nothing left but the details” suggestion — still, as a master of meticulous experimental technique, he can be credited with a deep, and clearly correct idea:  high precision measurement was and remains the probe through which new phenomena could be discovered.  The neutrino experiment that has prompted all this hullabaloo may indeed be the latest example of the power of experimental acuity to evoke genuinely new insights.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery, c. 1766.

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night over the Rhone, 1888.  (Predictable, I know — but a variation on the usual, and a gorgeous painting).

The Stupid, It Burns…Crunchy Con takes on Cosmology Edition

October 16, 2009

I usually lie back and enjoy Roy Edoroso’s  Rod Dreher takedowns.  There are too many massive fails out there to write everytime something stupid this way comes.  Besides, Roy practically owns Mr. Crunchy at this point;  it is as if the Crunchster’s only reason for being is not, as he imagines, to serve as an incarnate vessel for divine sparkles, but to offer an inexhaustible spring of risible material for Edoroso decant  as needed.

But, led by the Hon. Mr. Edoroso himself to the latest of Mr. Dreher’s bizarre complaints — that Bill Maher is not scientific enough to receive atheist of the year honors (sic!) — I came across this howler, left for lesser jaws to masticate.  Dreher quotes one Mark Shea approvingly, passing on this nugget of insight:

Nobody will ever die from thinking God created the universe or having some doubts about the proposition that hydrogen is a substance which, if you leave it alone for 13.5 billion years, will turn into Angelina Jolie.

Shea, I find, is a verbose (sure you want to pick up that stone, sinner? — ed.) and — how to put this? — surpassingly simple thinker, at least when it comes to anything that might actually threaten that part of his faith that depends on traditional readings of Genesis 1 and 2.

If you click through the link you’ll find an almost completely unembellished argument from design, presented (with the necessary leaven of scripture) without any apparent awareness of the fate of all such arguments to date. (Please note that that link takes you to a representative gutting by a committed believer of one of the recent design arguments.)

But never mind that.  Just stop for a moment and look at the above.  How many errors packed into a single sentence, just 20 words?

While I suppose I must give Shea props for confining his proposition to the relatively safe ground of disputes about cosmogenesis, it is certainly true that believers who question the precise form in which  God created the universe have died at the hands of those who differed from such views.  (And just to make my point clear:  I’m not trying to restart the tedious argument over who killed more, religious zealots or anyone else.  Rather, I’m simply pointing out that the claim that belief does not have consequences, include the deaths of those who differ in belief, is nonsense.

“hydrogen…if you leave it alone for 13.5 billion years…” (actually 13.7 billion in the most recent results — but that’s not the kind of error I’ mean).  This is the real howler.

The last forty five years of cosmological research have shown that whatever else is going on, you take the primordial mix of about 80 percent hydrogen, almost all the rest helium, with  a scattering of lithium…and the universe does everything but leave it alone.  It does so in most of the interesting ways under the influence of gravity, or local variations in the shape of spacetime, if you want to go all Albert on me.  See this handy Wikipedia article for the timeline and links to deeper inquiry as your interests dictate.

Once you get to star formation within those handy collections of matter called galaxies,* you can see how the universe, by not leaving hydrogen alone, makes all kinds of outcomes possible, including but not limited to the conditions that permit the formation of earth-like planets.

That process starts once the temperature at the center of a nascent star reaches ten million degrees kelvin, at which point hydrogen in the star begins to fuse — the nuclear burning that produces the heat and light of a star.   Next comes several really big steps I’m leaving out here to produce the heavy elements… but for a fun tour with a bit more detail, may I immodestly suggest you check out chapters five and six in this NOVA film, wherein you will see how stellar fusion leads to bouillabaisse.

“…into Angelina Jolie.”  This, of course, is another hit of the argument from design masquerading as a pitiful simulation of pop-culture hiptitude.  Yes it may be difficult to imagine that the glory of a Hollywood beauty could simply happen by chance, (and perhaps it might be fair to say that in many cases it clearly does not, but one must sadly note that the designers involved are all too human).

But the notion that you can’t get to something as complicated and aesthetically appealing as Ms. Jolie, or a beautiful mountain landscape, a kitten…or whatever, is simply the old teleological mistake:  the assumption that because we see a particular outcome to a process then that the process must have been directed to that one end.

That’s a mistake in formal logic; and it is belied by any number of empirical observations.  My favorite, given the significance of eyes to the history of the those who would reject Darwin for design, lies with discovery of (a) the evolutionary pathways leading to the mammallian eye and (b) the finding that eyes evolved several times in different lineages, processes that exploited different biochemical and structural resources.  See this link for an overview and further links to lots of resources.

Finally, back again to the beginning, but with a twist:  “Nobody will ever die..about the proposition…” that the universe has evolved and that human reason can penetrate the events that drove that process.  Well, actually, people die all the time because of doubt and distrust of science produced by exactly this kind of smug and willed — really intended — ignorance.

Here’s one example:  anti vaccine nonsense is a contributor, still relatively minor but tragic, to the worldwide death total from vaccine-preventable diseases.

Here’s another:  significant excess deaths due to extreme weather events are a well documented phenomenon.  Consider Europe in 2003, or Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Among the more robust predictions of global warming science is that any “average” temperature increase will actually manifest itself in part through an increase in the amount of severe weather we will experience.

It follows, therefore, that unchecked global warming will lead to excess deaths in the future…a prospect made more likely by sustained denialism by those whose iron rice bowl stays whole only so long as they know not that which it is impolitic, or simply ideologically unacceptable, to have known.

And so on.  The larger point is simple:  science is not simply a bucket of facts, out of which it is possible to choose the bits you like  — antibiotics! genetically engineered crops! my iPhone!   Rather, it is a body of knowledge, a (many) theoretical frameworks, a method for knowing.  Its results are always in some degree provisional,** but its approach is not.

To say that you can’t both deny cosomological evolution and accept biochemistry is not a claim of dogma; rather it reflects the hard fact of experience that when you choose to pursue only those scientific ideas that give you comfort, you lose.  Your ability to find out crucial knowledge of the material world suffers in significant ways.

One last aside:  I do not line up with those in the “new atheist” camp who find any engagement with religion essentially simple minded.  But this stuff is — and it’s dangerous.  Seriously:  pace Mr. Shea, people do die from ignorance and it’s Twainian companion, certain knowledge of things that ain’t so.

In that context, I believe that the duty to rip apart this kind of nonsense lies very much in the thinking-religious camp.  As a general rule, if you don’t want to be characterized by the worst arguments made in your name, be the first and best debunkers.

*Galaxies are really the object of interest here.  As the film linked above portrays, they act as kind of cook pots — vessels in which the heavy elements produced by one generation of stars are available to get swept up in the next generation, until they accumulate to the point that interesting chemistry and ultimately, at least once, biochemistry, can take place.

**though mostly much less so than anti-science skeptics would have it.

Images:  Mihály Zichy, “Falling Stars,” 1879

Leonardo Da Vinci, “Mona Lisadetail, 1503-1519.