Archive for category Science
If you’re on Facebook you’ve no doubt read the posts about how cold it is. When a reporter in Bangor threw a cup of hot coffee in the air it crystallized and blew away. Another in Minneapolis did the same with a pot of boiling water! It’s not just the cold. Having grown up in South Dakota and lived a long time in Minnesota, I’m no stranger to minus 35 degrees (NOT including wind chill). Rather it’s the duration and wide spread scope of this cold weather.
As NPR explains, this is because we are experiencing a polar vortex. Usually a low pressure cell with extremely cold air sits atop the north pole all winter. Minnesota will get the occasional minus 40 degree weather because at times bits of it come south. Due to the way continents and climates interact, the coasts stay mild as the middle grows intensely cold. Since moving to Maine I’d many times see my friends back in Minnesota experiencing minus 35 while here we didn’t go below 10 above.
That’s still the case. While we’ve been going below zero in the single digits in Maine the temperatures have remained frigid all over the northern plains. The cold here is more intense than usual.
The polar vortex comes from a larger piece of that low pressure cell moving south, and bringing with it more cold war than we’re used to. And as Time explains, this could be real evidence of global warming. The reason is that the warm gulf stream has helped keep cold air caged up north, allowing milder air to reign through most of the US. That’s why when I moved from Minnesota to Maine I was moving to a distinctly warmer climate. A lot of Arctic ice has been lost in past decades due to global warming, cooling down the north Atlantic.
Think of it like big ice cubes breaking off and melting in warmer water. While with ocean currents and depths it will take awhile, eventually that can cool the ocean enough to impact the jet stream. If that’s what’s happening, it may well be that we’re getting yet another real indicator not only of the reality of global warming (which only a few holdouts deny), but that its impact may be multifaceted in unexpected ways.
For us in the Northeastern US (and probably everywhere between Montana and Poland) global warming may mean colder winters. So how is that global warming? When the cold air leaves the polar regions, they warm up. This has been a warm winter in the Arctic, and usually frigid places in Alaska have had mild temperatures. Polar warming seems to defy expectations, but the impact of cooling oceans on the jet streams and climate patterns suggests a hard to predict but likely destabilizing climate change.
It could also mean warmer summers, altering the nature of local climates and forcing changes in just about every aspect of life. Few scientists doubt global warming, or that human green house gas production is a major factor causing it – the evidence is overwhelming. A few ideology-driven political types try to deny it, and hopefully karma will give them what they deserve for endangering future generations far more than would be the case if we acted to clean up our energy usage.
But the reality is that humans live in denial, and it won’t be until it’s too late to stop the disaster that people realize we were warned and did very little. Something like the polar vortex shows that the consequences of global warming may be very unexpected and vary from place to place. But it’s here – and expect the headlines to get more dramatic and worse in coming years.
I’ve always had a very logical argument as to why I am not a vegetarian. Vegetables are living entities just like animals. They feel in different ways, experience the world in manners we cannot comprehend, but they are life forms just as we are. Since in the animal kingdom it is natural for creatures to eat both plants and animals, there can’t be anything inherently wrong with eating meat. A cat could never become a vegetarian and survive, for example. As long as we do not over-indulge, eating other living entities, plant or animal, is natural.
Lately, though, I am rethinking my argument. Not that I’m doubting the logic, but there is another factor to take into account: corporate farming. Consider: In the Laura Ingalls Wilder book Little House in the Big Woods, Pa butchers a pig that they have been raising for some time. Every part of the pig is used, Laura and Mary even use the pig bladder as a balloon. Plants are sown and reaped, tended to by the family. In one book a locust attack ruins the harvest, such were the risks of life on the frontier.
That seems a healthy relationship between humans and nature. You may eat the plants and animals you raise, but you raise them with care. Certainly you should not be cruel to them. The food tasted better too – most of us will never know just how good natural food tastes.
This year many things are changing in my life, I feel like I’m entering a year of personal transformation. One change is to stop closing my eyes to ramifications of how I eat. I plan to think about where the food comes from, buy local, and move away from fast foods and the chemical laden processed foods that are so easy and convenient.
I was thinking about this as I walked through my local grocery store, seeing the packages of meat and vegetables, processed and ready for sale. Everything designed to entice you to buy; packages with idyllic farm scenes or products labeled “organic.” The bananas had a sticker that said “no cholesterol.” I’m glad they told me! It’s all marketing.
Then I look at the shoppers, behaving much like I have always behaved. Looking at different foods, picking them up, dropping in them in the cart. The intercom switched to the song “King of Pain” by the Police. I forced an ironic smile.
When I teach about the rise of fascism in Germany I try to explain it in a way that most people in the class end up admitting that if they lived in Germany in 1936 they’d probably have supported the Nazi government. The reason you can get something like fascism is that the culture accepts as natural and mundane that which should be condemned. It’s normal to eat genetically modified food. It’s normal to eat animals who have lived in ghastly conditions, genetically manipulated to increase profits. Assembly line cars, assembly line chickens. The fact they are alive is irrelevant, profit comes first.
How cruel are we to the plant kingdom when we manipulate every crop, altering the very nature of the environment. Farming itself is a violent act, taking the free form of nature and forcing an order to it in order to feed ourselves. But that’s the same kind of violence that a lion undertakes when he cuts down and devours a zebra. It’s part of who we are, it’s what we need to survive. We have brains that make it natural for us to move beyond hunting and gathering.
I can’t help but think that in a generation or two people will look back and see us as barbaric and ignorant. They’ll look at how factory farms treat animals, the way big corporations play with plant genetics and our penchant to not give a damn about nature if we can make money by manipulating it. They’ll wonder how we could have been so brutal.
But to us it’s normal. We don’t think about it. We’re good consumers, programmed to spend and to believe that Monsanto’s main goal is to end world hunger and that the chickens who will make up our McNuggets are happily scampering around the coop as a loving farm girl throws them seeds.
So I’m going to shift towards farmers markets, local food, and try to stop my long running contribution to the cruelty being undertaken against plant and animal. There are many family farms struggling to get by, working hard and treating their animals right. I want to give them my business, as much as possible.
Ultimately, that cruelty is really directed at ourselves because everything is connected.
Such is our culture – close our eyes, mock those who think differently and see the world as full of objects to use for our own self-interest, no matter how much damage it does to the planet – to the humans, the animals, the plants, the atmosphere, the land and sea. But I believe we are connected. Every bit of cold cruelty that we engage in or enable comes back to bite. And every bit of love we share or show returns in time to empower.
UPDATE: The comment from La Kaiser below suggests that my post may read as too broad. There are a lot of family farms here — the Daku dairy farm just up the road, Sandy River Farms that have their own store, and Marble Family farm, to name a few. These are the good guys! People struggling to produce quality food. I’m concerned about the mega-corporations that look only at the bottom line and are removed from the process. I hope that the practices shown in those images are more rare than common, but I fear that as the mega-corporations grow, it’ll be all about money.
It’s too early to say the strange weather we’ve been having is due to global warming, but as AP notes, this is what one would expect from global warming. Consider: temperatures have been rising consistently for decades. This increase correlates with increasing green house gas levels in the atmosphere, and the models and science have led to a strong global consensus amongst climate scientists: the earth is warming and humans are at least in part responsible.
Yes, there are dissents, but by and large most scientists believe that the odds that humans are creating this problem are too high to dismiss. Moreover, some scientists believe we are nearing a tipping point, in which human action pushes the earth to irreversible and sudden ecological changes. Whether humans can survive such a change with our way of life in tact is a questionable proposition.
The AP article states some pretty dramatic facts: 2/3 of the country is in drought, while some rivers have experienced floods from unexpected deluges. 3215 record highs were set in June, wildfires have destroyed 2.1 million acres so far this year (and it’s early in the fire season), and since January 1 over 40,000 new high temperature records have been set, as opposed to 6000 record cold temperatures. We’re also starting to see predicted changes in parasite and disease patterns as hotter weather (and warmer summers) allow species to survive and thrive where they once struggled.
This year the US has received the strangest weather. A couple years ago Russia was burning, and awhile back Europe had tremendous problems. Overall we’re seeing severe weather more often, precisely what one would expect if global warming theories are accurate.
One of the biggest frustrations for a rational thinker is how something as important and potentially devastating as global warming has been turned into a political issue by opportunistic politicians and corporations with massive resources. Ask someone if they believe that global warming is real and by and large ideology will dictate the answer. Even those unable to push aside the mounting evidence tend to add the caveat that “it’s not humans doing this” but some ‘natural’ event.
To be sure, climate change has occurred many times in the earth’s multi-billion year history, as have vast changes in the climate’s ecology. However there is no causal link between these changes and anything natural, but there is a clear causal link in climate science, with computer models pointing to the rise of green house gasses in the atmosphere. Looking at the deniers try to rationalize ignoring the data reminds me of the financial analysts of early 2008 dismissing talk of a dangerous housing bubble or threat to Wall Street. Ideology-driven thinking makes it hard for people to recognize errors; instead they find a way to re-interpret reality within their ideology. There’s been far too much of that in American politics in recent years, and it threatens our capacity to solve these problems.
In the excitement of Supreme Court decisions, political posturing over the 2012 elections and concerns about the economy, the real issue — how we as a planet will deal with a dramatically altered environment in coming years — may by trying to force itself into our collective consciousness.
Humans tend to learn the hard way – we wait until patterns of behavior become unsustainable before we make changes: The smoker who doesn’t quit until lung cancer hits, or the alcoholic who won’t stop drinking until his or her family and career are in shatters. Are we in the industrialized West on a similar path – with future generations looking back at how much we knew about what was going on and how little we did?
Smokers also often do quit before they get sick. Drinkers stop before their lives are destroyed. Humanity can make changes to avoid the worst case scenarios. But we have to start now and we have to take seriously the damage we’re doing to our planet. Given the state of political discourse in the US, that doesn’t seem likely to happen.
There is some hope. The Europeans have met the Kyoto Accord targets, achieving something that global warming deniers claimed was impossible. Some said it would destroy the economy, one in all seriousness told me it was a European plot to bring down the US economy by stifling us with regulations. Many European states not only have met and surpassed the goals, but in so doing have helped their economy and put themselves ahead of the US on green technology. If things keep getting worse, that edge may be a huge benefit to the European economies.
The US has to join in taking this seriously. So does China, India and emerging markets. This issue has the potential to bring us together in a way never seen before, as a common threat can induce enhanced cooperation. However, it can also divide if it’s every one for themselves in a world of immense change.
So to deniers – I ask you to think about it like this. If somehow your minority view is correct and nothing humans are doing are causing it, the most we risk if we take action is some economic costs (though these costs could turn to benefits if there are technological breakthroughs). But if you’re wrong and the climate scientists are right, the cost could be catastrophic. Rational choice theory would suggest you avoid the worst possible outcome, especially if the odds do not seem in your favor. So as you watch wildfires and power outages, storms and heat waves, think about your children and grandchildren. Ask yourselves if you are against doing something about global warming because it’s part of a political movement you identify with, or if you’ve really looked at the data and thought this through?
Ask yourself if you try to look at all sides of the argument and assess the quality of the sources, or if you cherry pick sources that agree with the point of view that you already have? Because if we don’t take our environment seriously this strange weather could get much more intense and deadly in years to come.
UPDATE: Found this image of last week’s strange weather:
Sean at Reflections of a Rational Republican threw down the gauntlet asking people to put their psychic and analytical predictive powers on the line by trying to figure out what technology will be like 100 years from now. So here are my 12 technology predictions, followed by four essentially soci0-cultural predictions (though I mix those into the technology predictions as well!)
1. The electric grid as we know it will be a thing of the past. Most homes will be self-sustaining, generating their own electricity. Even urban centers that now suck up energy like there’s no tomorrow will only use the electricity they can generate, augmenting with high efficiency batteries when necessary.
2. Homes will be heated and cooled by systems built into the house. At various points the wall to the outside will be a heat exchange system that will operate much like a refrigerator, cooling the house in summer, reversing that in winter to heat the house. These systems will be smart to maximize efficiency.
3. The array of satellites now circling the globe will be replaced by a smaller number of extremely efficient satellites that bundle their functions so as to the work now done by many diverse satellites. There will be satellite maintanence crews on orbiting space stations that can work to fix any glitches, as well as maintain efficiency.
4. The term “wifi” will be as obsolete as “the wireless” is to talk about radio. Like radio, ‘wifi’ connectivity will be ubiquitous, free (paid for via advertising and subsidies), and taken for granted. It will also be universal; a penthouse in New York and a village in Guinea Bissau will have the same access.
5. After evidence about human caused global warming became undeniable even to the skeptics in the early 21st Century, a vast program of planting trees and creating efficient oxygen generation zones first on land and then in oceans will help to turn back the tide of global climate change and create the capacity for continued sustainable development.
6. The most impressive technological advances will come in the cost and scope of water desalinization and even water creation. This will be driven by intense water shortages in the mid-21st Century when global climate change becomes extreme and the new oxygen generation programs will not yet have had much of an impact. The goal will become to have clean, fresh water for everyone by 2100, and will be achieved ahead of time.
7. A nutrition revolution will occur in the mid 21st Century as it becomes clear that the chemical supplements used in food and food packaging had been causing massive problems, especially children. This includes an alarming increase in ADHD like symptoms, autism, other mental problems, obesity and the weakening of immune systems. Calling this the equivalent to how Rome drank leaded water and wine without realizing they were poisoning themselves, chemists, farmers and the food industry will become determined to turn around the “barbaric practices” of the 20th Century (which started in the 1980s). Aided by a new global regulatory scheme, an array of ‘safe’ foods will take over. These will range from ‘natural organics,’ grown on farms in ways similar to the early 1900s and “Repli-food,” which literally will manufacture food out of a mix of natural materials much like the ‘replicators’ on Star Trek. That food will be much cheaper than the ‘natural organics.’
8. The same technology that opens the door to Repli-food will also create the capacity to construct complex materials and objects out of basic molecular raw materials. The most important benefit of this will be the ability to manufacture synthetic minerals (compounds able to serve the same function) and other materials that will run low due to over mining (copper, zinc, etc.)
9. Global monetary union leads to the obsolescence of cash. Information on ones’ wealth will be kept on central banking computers and payment made through recognition software (similar to what we have as retinal or fingerprint recognition, but less invasive and more precise).
10. Throughout the century traditional war will be replaced by what we’d call cyberwar, as a cat and mouse game will rage for decades between those wanting to disrupt the technological systems underlying civilization and those protecting them. Actual hot war will limited to third world regions and the terror onslaught of 2030. That wave of terrorism will not be driven by religious fundamentalism but anger about relative deprivation and the impact of global warming on Sub-Saharan Africa. This will motivate major developments in the ability to scan for potential nuclear, chemical or biological devices. By 2050 this technology, combined with an economic rebirth of Africa and growing prosperity, will end the great terror wave.
11. Medical technology will advance to the point that invasive surgery will become obsolete. A mix of genetic screening and proactive care will make most illnesses and major diseases a thing of the past. Cancer, heart disease, flu, the common cold, and infections like strep throat will be the stuff of history books. Back pain, head aches, migraines, and even sore muscles will be easily cured. The elderly will talk about how painful and difficult existence had been back before medical science came of age. This will be done almost completely without what we now call pharmaceuticals. Using powerful drugs to address minor symptoms will be seen as one of the major errors of early medical science. Life expectancy will rise to well over 100, though efforts to halt aging or implant brains into robotic bodies will fail completely. Philosophers will say that the technological barrier to overcoming age and death is so immense that it seems humans are not meant to be able to cheat death.
12. Modern physics will unify all forms of energy into one force, thereby solving the space-time paradox and uniting relativity with quantum mechanics. This will be done via the holographic principle, meaning that all of what we see and experience is a projection of some sort. This information will be key to the technologies mentioned above (especially replicating food and minerals, as well as medical science). The question of what it means to be human and spirituality will rise in importance. Religions will adapt to these developments, but weaken in the face of a ‘new spirituality’ that defies dogma.
1. The sovereign state as we know it will disappear. Old state borders will still be known, but mostly as historical trivia. Most of the decision making will be local/regional. The Global Union (GU) will govern transnational issues such as money, trade, security (assuring local and regional conflicts don’t lead to war) and policies necessitating cooperation across regions. The GU will have limited powers and full transparency will be demanded — all meetings, documents, and discussions are available in what we would call “on line.”
2. The new discoveries in physics and the emergence of a holographic principle theory of reality will lead to a growth of non-religious spirituality which many religious people will view as an attempt to use science to create a world religion. This will bring about a series of protests by various faiths and ultimately an agreement within the GU charter that freedom of and tolerance of diverse religious belief is a core human right. By 2112 religious conflict will be at an historical low, though practitioners of the “traditional” religions will bemoan the weakness of their faiths.
3. Neither capitalism nor socialism will survive the 21st Century. In part this is because technological progress will make work as traditionally defined all but irrelevant. So much work will be done by machine that humans will not be near as important for producing stuff (though some will guide the automated factories, develop new software, support the global infrastructure, etc.). At first this will lead to a large maldistribution of wealth as those who own the machinery amass large profits while human workers become severely underpaid since they will not be in demand.
Over time demands for change will grow, and as power is localized an agreement will be reached to guarantee everyone certain core basics (education, shelter, food, health care, equal protection, access to clean water, etc.)
With the localization of power, people then either work on infrastructure or within the robotic productivity realm, or on tasks within their community to earn Taurins (the global currency unit) for doing things that increase the quality of life. Communities also reach agreement with industries to share ownership. The wealthy remain wealthier than the rest (and those working to maintain the infrastructure and robotic industries earn the most), but competition will become less for wealth and things (since things will be abundant) and more for improving the quality of life and learning.
4. In the US, families and communities will have a comeback with the localization of power and the shift of emphasis away from materialism and consumption. The 21st Century will be rough, but we’ll make it to a much better 22nd Century!
In the first comment in response to my last post Modestypress wrote: “I’ve decided to live life as if the world I sense is “real.” I don’t see any point for doing otherwise.”
That got me thinking. I did not mean to imply the world isn’t real. Rather, is reality constituted by each of us as a subject in a world populated with objects? If so, then subjectivity is a unique personal experience. We can assume that other humans are also subjects (and ethically we tend to believe we should treat them as such), but the rest of reality consists of objects of various sorts.
If we have a view of expanded subjectivity, then the nature of reality is different. We are connected at some level with that which we experience. Rather than being discrete entities navigating an external reality, we are entities enmeshed in experience, part of a deeper unity.
Such a possibility actually gets support from cutting edge science. The most obvious example is how particles can impact each other across vast distances instantaneously. This seems impossible, the fastest information should be able to get from one particle to another is the speed of light. (To read more on the science behind it check out the Wikipedia articles on quantum entanglement and the principle of locality.)
The only way that such a result makes sense is if at some level the two particles are connected. Yet they are not connected in space-time. If they are connected it is either through something outside space-time which we cannot fathom, or space-time itself is not populated by discrete separate objects but has a deep underlying unity.
While this meshes well with many eastern religions, it also captures neo-platonic thought which heavily influenced Augustine and the early church. The idea that reality is a unified whole containing diverse perspectives and attributes is not that hard to imagine. I experience my body as me, an entity comprised of different physical attributes. I can sit in nature and imagine myself part of the entire scene in much the same way; poetry explores this kind of imagined connection quite often.
So what would it mean if reality actually was unified? What would it mean if the self isn’t only the thinking mind inhabiting a body, but actually is connected to and a part of all we experience?
First, everything we do to others (whether living or not) we would be doing to a part of ourselves. We would at some level be connected to all the pain and joy that exist in the world; if we cause pain or joy, we also would at some level receive it.
Death would have a new meaning. Rather than being the annihilation of the self, with the only hope of continued identity being either a transcendent supreme being or the possibility that a soul could be reincarnated into different bodies, death would simply be the cessation of one perspective of experience. That happens all the time. The person I was 20 years ago no longer exists in the sense that the perspective of experience I had then has been transformed into something completely different. Life is constantly changing perspectives.
If reality is unified, then no perspective has a privileged position or permanence. Death may be less an ending than a change of focus — rather than experiencing the world as a human living at a certain period in history, my perspective could shift, perhaps mingling with other perspectives or taking on a new manner of experience. Death may be the equivalent to finishing one book and starting another one — or turning the channel on a TV.
Ones’ perspective on life would alter as well. One might better know oneself by looking at the world one inhabits. What kind of reality do I experience, and why is it that I have chosen (or have been drawn to) this type of experience? What does the world around me say about who I am? Usually identity is separate from the external world, here it would be integrated. How we look at luck, coincidence and chance would change completely. Life would be a maze of interrelated coincidences, full of symbolic meaning. Rather than seeing the world as a cold harsh stage upon which one lives a short often difficult existence, it would be a rife with opportunities and possibilities that we draw to ourselves in some way.
Success and failure would alter form completely. Neither would be completely real, and certainly not permanent or all that important in the grand scheme of things. Even poverty, wealth, exploitation and violence would shift meaning – if there is unity, the “self” experiences everything at some level. The idea I’m living a comfortable life is just a focus of perspective at this moment. At a deeper level all experience is shared.
Most people would simply dismiss all this as meaningless speculation. We have jobs to do, families to raise, and the reality we experience runs by particular rules we have to navigate. However, I would argue that thinking about reality from a new perspective might actually have some beneficial consequences.
It could certainly mean letting go of a lot of stress and anxiety — just entertaining the thought that the world is not cold and cruel but rather purposeful and full of opportunity alters ones’ mood. It also could cause one to consider different goals; if this moment of experiencing life through this perspective is only a partial taste of a greater reality, then striving for material success for the sake of material success alone starts to seem pointless.
The mind would shift to looking for clues in relationships and life activities that might hint at how one can enrich ones’ experience at a deeper level. The world as a whole would be more important; the day to day struggles and dilemmas could seem more trivial. Fear of death would give way to acceptance of transitions. Hatred would become irrational, since hatred of the other would be hatred of a part of the self. Love would be the ultimate truth, in that it would entail the connection between apparent-self and apparent-other.
Human history contains many versions of reality that seemed absolutely natural to those living within them. Slavery, the superiority of one gender over another, sacrifices to Gods, tribal customs, religious faith, and secular rationalism are all ways humans have conceptualized and thus interpreted reality and experience. The idea that what seems natural at this point in time is based on a misunderstanding of reality certainly is feasible.
If we are willing to try out different ways of conceiving experience and reality we can avoid being trapped into the mode of thinking dominant in our particular culture. To me, that’s liberating, and gives me some power over how I choose to interpret my experience. Rather than accepting a world view created by otherse, I can use reason and reflection — the heart and the head — to determine what I believe to be true, and choose how I want to live my life. That is real freedom.
My garage is full of chemicals. I can kill wasps, ants, and weeds. I can kill weeds but keep the grass alive. I can weed and feed, I can fertilize, I can clean. I can clean grease, stains, and various surfaces of my car.
I have spent most of my life under the illusion that most of these materials sold to make life easier are relatively safe. I know you shouldn’t mix various cleaning materials, with some you should wear gloves (something I’ve generally neglected to do), and that too much could be bad. Yet certainly the companies that make all these things for home and garden have tested them out. And even if the market couldn’t prevent dangerous items from being made available, government regulations must focus on safety.
I’ve been using speed stick deodorant, Nivea shaving cream and moisturizer, Pantene shampoo and conditioner, and the kids have enjoyed yummy smelling colorful soaps, and plastic tub toys. We’ve been cooking with no stick pans, and drinking sodas from plastic bottles, even if they’ve been sitting in the car on hot days. It’s just life. We don’t smoke, we try to have healthy habits, but plastics, chemicals and additives are ubiquitous. The idea I should have a lush green lawn not marred by clover and crab grass seems normal. Everybody, save a few old hippies, lives this way.
I’ve now come to the realization that how we live with chemicals is analogous to how the Romans lived with lead poisoning. We’re poisoning ourselves and our children (look how autism and ADHD rates have skyrocketed) by injecting massive amounts of under tested chemicals in every aspect of our lives. I’m not sure how much poison we’re getting. People still live long, but chemicals seem to play a role in making us fatter and creating expensive health problems. Rates of cancer are up, so are a variety of other health problems. Moreover, the generation now in their 20s and 30s are far more affected by these chemicals than people my age, since widespread usage really got going in the 80s and 90s. We may not know the real impact for quite some time.
This creates a perfect storm. There is a danger that seems obvious, but it can’t be verified with certainty, and the exact impact is unknown. Moreover, studies can always be criticized (and a very well oiled chemical industry lobbying machine responds to everything) and it may be decades before we know for sure just what the impact of all this is. Humans tend to ignore issues like that — if the problems aren’t obvious, why bother?
That’s been me for years. I’ve known the chemicals in our lives are dangerous and under tested. I’ve had suspicions that my use of them was probably not all that wise. But those have been fleeting thoughts at the back of my head. They haven’t been strong enough to get me to actually dig into the science and think about changing my ways. There are classes to teach, kids to take care of, things to do. So it’s grab what’s at Walmart and whether in cleaning or lawn care, take the easy route.
In May I read What’s Gotten Into Us by McKay Jenkins, a book that gave an excellent and well supported overview of the scope of the problem, showing clearly how little we know, how studies are often hidden and attacked, and just how powerful the chemical lobby is in the US. In the EU there are far stricter regulations (so I’m going to keep using my made in Germany Nivea skin care products), here the burden of proof is not on the chemical companies to prove their products are safe, but for others to give definitive proof that there are dangers.
My wife read the book as well, and was convinced. She replaced most of our household cleaning and personal hygiene materials with Seventh Generation, Tom’s of Maine, or Burt’s Bees. I went along with it, figuring that at the very least this is the kind of thing that companies will pay attention to — if the market shifted towards low chemical alternatives businesses would have to follow. But I was still skeptical. The thing about books with a mission — and Jenkins’ clearly is convinced of his argument and has a desire to open peoples’ eyes — is that they are prone to overstatement. The book cited science, but the author is not a scientist. So I’ve been investigating further.
But the more I read the more convinced I am that not only is there a lot of uncertainty on what these chemicals are doing to us, but that the massive increase in chemical use and our exposure, especially children, is by definition extremely risky. Chemicals are powerful, they have side effects that often aren’t understood. The websites and blogs criticizing those concerned about chemicals tend to have weak arguments. They either deride/ridicue “anti-chemical” folk for being too alarmist and blaming things on chemicals that might be caused by something else.
Both of those points may be true, but that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that chemicals aren’t a problem. Same for the statement that ‘just because it’s not natural doesn’t make it bad.’ That’s true. But it doesn’t mean they are good or harmless either. Defenders of chemical usage rest on the arguments that: a) they are beneficial in helping us achieve our goals; and b) studies haven’t definitively shown the specific harm being done. Most of the evidence against chemicals is circumstantial.
OK. Consider this chart:
This rapid and alarming rate of increased obesity corresponds to the rise of chemical additives in food, many of which affect hormones and other aspects of the anatomy that influence fat retention. Is this circumstantial? Yes. The causes of increased obesity are many, despite many links connecting the two (see: The Body Restoration Plan by Dr. Paula Baillie-Hamilton for a good argument on this issue), definitive proof remains elusive.
The same goes for the rapidly growing rates of autism (and other neurological disorders) in children, increases in depression and psychological problems in adults, hyper sensitivity issues, increased allergies, and increased incidences of cancer (even if medical science is much better at curing it). If I demanded total proof that these chemicals are harmful before deciding not to use them, I could find arguments that cast doubt on every claim of harm made.
But my health is at stake. The lives and health of my children are at stake. And the evidence that harm is likely is very persuasive, even if absolute proof is elusive (it was also elusive for cigarette smoking for decades, where another powerful lobby tried to fight making such a connection). Simply the fact that chemical usage has risen so dramatically is enough to get me to realize it is irrational for me not to be concerned — throw that much new artificial under tested chemicals into our bodies and homes and its clear no one knows exactly what the result will be.
So my habits are changing. Some changes are gradual, others are instantaneous. I’ll not try to get a perfect lawn, so no more weed and feed. I will finish my Speed Stick before using the natural (no aluminum) deodorant. I’ll try to hit the Farmers’ Market more frequently and buy organic/local as much as possible, but now and then we’ll still get some fast food. Most importantly I’m going to start thinking about these things, investigating the products we use and the food we eat. Big agribusiness doesn’t care about us. Regulators lack staff and the politicians listen to the lobbyists of big money more than they listen to scientists or citizens. We have to educate ourselves and hope that enough people see the danger that we can have an impact on the market.
Chemicals are everywhere, no matter how much I change at home our world is defined by chemical usage at work, by local governments, stores, and other people. This is something we have to live with. But making some different choices at home can’t hurt — and may yield long term benefits.
A quick blog post today, as its late and we head to Rome tomorrow.
Today about thirty students made the trek to Siena, while a few others had things they wanted to investigate in Florence. The high light of Siena was the cathedral museum Santa Maria della Scala, and the famous Piazza del Campo.
Unfortunately I ended up missing a lot of the art seminar because a student got ill after lunch and I assisted her back to the train station. I ended up leaving early as well, doing some logistics for the Rome trip tomorrow.
Tonight I had my Galileo seminar, which I’ll probably redo in Rome for those who didn’t get back from Siena in time. In 2009 I blogged about Galileo during the last Italy trip, you can get more details from that post. Much of what we covered two years ago we hit on today. But this seminar more overtly built on two themes.
1. The move from humanism towards reason. Instead of humans being the center of the universe, our ability to use reason to understand nature becomes primary. While Petrarch and Dante dealt with love, and Boccaccio with lust and death, for Galileo the language of God was math. The world was not to be felt or emoted but to be understood and analyzed.
To be sure, the humanists started the move in this direction. They advanced realism and emphasized the material alongside the spiritual. With Galileo the focus now is on the abstract, seeking to use the mind to find laws of nature. Discovering the power of mathematics, Galileo and others of his era reckoned that math was the key to unlocking God’s true meaning, which was exhibited in the workings of nature.
Galileo and his contemporaries like Francis Bacon and Johannes Kepler found a contradiction in the church’s embrace of Aristotle as an authority. For nearly 300 years Aristotelian scholasticism put forth both Aristotle and the church as authorities. If you got an education, it started by accepting their authority, and learning within a framework designed to support and not contradict existing knowledge.
The problem, as Galileo noted, is that Aristotle said you are to question authority and experiment for yourself. He believed he was more true to Aristotle than the church was. This leads to the second theme:
2. Authorities no longer could control information and conventional belief. Galileo was dangerous not because he thought the earth orbited the sun — most high up in the Church knew he was right. He was a threat because he was willing to say so and take it upon his own authority to follow what the science says rather than leaving it to the clerics.
These two shifts would change western civilization forever. Galileo didn’t cause them, the same sorts of ideas were sweeping Europe. Being close to Rome where the Church had power, Galileo was more vulnerable. If he’d been in Germany, Great Britain or even still in Padova he’d probably had been fine.
At this point, the age of reason overturns the age of faith. Nature becomes something outside of humans, to be understood and potentially controlled using the scientific method to understand the laws of nature — the mind of God. Galileo would die the same year Isaac Newton was born, and Newton would take the project a step further to present a model of a “clockwork universe,” where everything can be predicted and explained (if you have enough data).
This shift away from church authority and both humanism and spiritualism pushes us towards the enlightenment. It has propelled us to progress, to build capitalist economies, to advance medical science, create new industries, and have technological devices that allow me to blog from Italy to whoever has a computer and types in my web page.
But this shift has also given us pollution, chemcials in and around us, potentially poisoning us and risking the planet’s capacity to sustain human life. We’ve wasted resources and have seen mass atrocities and abuse of this technology.
This intensifies the dilemma noted a couple days ago with Machiavelli. By emphasizing the abstract and material over the human, we’ve increasingly mastered our material world, but without really thinking of the values and consequences of our actions. By rejecting external authority we set up intense conflicts of values and ideals with no clear way to settle them.
This is also true of music, Steve pointed out, noting that in 1600 in Florence a completely new form of music emerged called opera. Important in bolting from tradition and using reason to rethink tonality was Vincenzo Galilei, the father of Galileo.
Steve also has been pre-occupied about the 1300s this trip, a period of tumult and transition. He wonders if maybe we don’t have a lot to learn by reflecting on the world in that era, even if it seems so distant. He has a point. Steve suggested that we’re increasingly distrusting reason as a primary tool, in part because it can’t handle values. Reason is a tool, but it is value free – it can serve evil, it can serve good. Perhaps what we’ve lost is that focus on the human that figures like Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio provided. Perhaps in this era of crisis and transition, we need to re-discover human values, not just more cleverly use reason.
I’ve been reading Brian Greene’s new book The Hidden Reality, which deals with various theories in physics about multiple and parallel universes to ours. It’s a fascinating book, though I’d recommend reading his previous piece on modern physics, The Fabric of the Cosmos first. Not only does it provide background information on the science of modern physics that makes The Hidden Reality easier to understand, but it is one of the best lay science books out there. Still, The Hidden Reality is worth reading.
Rather than write about the book and the various theories within, I want to speculate on what it means to think of humanity not only as not the center of the universe, but perhaps part of a multiverse with unseen dimensions that further makes our little planet seem utterly insignificant. Yet perhaps not.
I’ve before made my “ant analogy” — just as an ant’s world seems complete and understandable on an ant’s terms, reflecting the very limited mental activity of such a creature, we may be limited in ways just as profound. Just as the ant can’t comprehend the socio-political dynamics of our world, there may be as much that we can’t comprehend about the world around us. We think we see it fully, can use logic clearly, and make definitive statements about our universe and its laws, but if what is unseen is fundamental to shaping our reality, our view is inherently limited.
Consider dimensions. It’s really hard for us to imagine dimensions beyond the three spatial dimensions we inhabit. We even get headaches thinking about “space/time” as a single unified entity — space just seems to be the world out there, and time the passage of events. We know that’s not the case thanks to relativity and quantum theory, but for every day life it’s not something we can practically comprehend.
Subatomic particles like electrons are considered point particles. That seems one dimensional. Photons and other particles are considered to be without mass — and photons are pure speed, experiencing no passage of time. (And paradoxically light is both a particle and a wave at the same time). So while we can capture, measure and aim photons to use practically, an individual photon will never experience time — it is pure velocity. Mass itself is a problem — why do particles have mass? The current theory is that there is a field (the Higgs field) which creates mass (the particle moving in a field meets resistance, which yields mass — that’s imperfect, but the most easy to understand metaphor), but even the fact mass is so problematic is counter to the common sense of life in the world. Common sense, of course, is often misleading — but when it comes to core aspects of life, that’s a bit spooky!
The paradoxes of quantum mechanics are well documented. Anyone wanting a clear natural deterministic universe that runs on distinct laws has to be disappointed with where science is taking us!
Yet if there are other dimensions then one can imagine a reason why these apparent contradictions and paradoxes exist. If we are seeing only three (or four, if you count time) dimensions then we are seeing only a portion of the world. Particles may exhibit themselves only ‘in part’ in our reality, having some other source or aspect in other dimensions which we can’t fathom. Gravity seems most likely to move within dimensions, while electromagnetism seems at least to have a dynamic contained in what we can experience and measure.
This also makes the nature of life problematic. Life as we define it relies on certain attributes within a 3D environment. It is a biological definition, reflecting how chemicals interact, reproduce and adapt. Notions of consciousness, spirit, or anything other than seeing humans as extremely complex “natural” robots are inherently controversial and untestable. Biological intelligence isn’t that much different from artificial intelligence except for its complexity, speed of adaption and pristine functioning.
However, if life exists here because of processes or attributes of other dimensions — things that impact ours but cannot be seen directly — then what we consider to be life is unclear. Consciousness and spirit may be terms that describe the hidden impact of other realities on our own, while entities that appear “lifeless” in our world may actually be part of a larger ‘conscious’ organism operating beyond our own dimension. While a good down to earth scientist would dismiss this as pure speculation, it’s speculation built on the fact that we have so many unanswerable questions about existence (what is consciousness, why is there something and not nothing, do we have free will). Like the ant unable to see beyond a closed clear insect world, we may simply be unable to see what may be obvious to multi-dimensional entities.
Since Copernicus took us off our pedestal of seeing the earth as the center of everything — God’s one creation, the core of existence — we’ve been falling fast. The sun lost it’s role as the center, then the galaxy, and now there are multiple galaxies, the earth is a tiny planet amongst billions of stars, to the point that there could be an infinite number of alternate universes, and other dimensions that shape our world but can not be seen directly.
Yet all that complexity and our apparent insignificance is itself questionable. We only appear insignificant because our limited 3D space-time mentality cannot interpret the notion of other dimensions or universes in any way but one that seems to create worlds outside ourselves and far distant. Consider a four dimensional equivalent. Rome is a long ways a way. I cannot visit the Pantheon or throw a coin in the Trevi fountain. Two months from now, I’ll be in Rome and those things will be directly accessible to me. The problem is simply the dimension of time. In another dimension, it might be possible to transcend time — we simply don’t have access to that part of reality.
The oddities of modern physics may in fact reaffirm our significance, since the notion of being in the center of a 3D geographic world is meaningful only in this limited world. Expanding that analogy into other dimensions makes no sense. Perhaps it is in fact meaningful to think that the apparent isolation and uncertainty of life in a space time world is an illusion caused by our limited access to reality. We don’t know more, we don’t have an answer key to how to live life, what its purpose is, what we should value, etc., because such an answer key is wholly inaccessible in this world. Uncertainty is a core aspect of this existence.
And that possibility comforts me. I don’t need to figure it out. I don’t need to find the “right” philosophy or the “right” religion — it’s utterly impossible to know if I’ve found it, or if one exists. Instead, I need to make choices and live my life as I truly want to live it. I’m responsible for it, I determine what it means, and I can explore spiritual and philosophical ideas whether through dreams, logical analysis or prayer and meditation as I see fit. Daily problems, injustices small and large, battles over ideology and power, even horrors like torture and genocide need to be seen with that perspective. As bad as it is, we don’t know the true deep meaning and cause, so rather than responding with fear and anger, we simply need to choose how to act ourselves, being true first and foremost to the inner voice it seems each of us possess. Fear, anxiety, stress, anger, greed, hate…all are things driven by our inability to be at peace with our ignorance of the true meaning of reality. Once we embrace that ignorance and recognize it’s just a part of this life, things might become much easier.
Physics until recently has been the effort to discover the universal set of laws underlying the way the universe runs. To do so, the theories have had to get ever more bizarre — an infinite number of parallel quantum universes, 11 or more dimensions, inflation at the start of the universe, etc. All these become necessary to pursue theories that hope to be the grand “theory of everything,” a full explanation of why the physical world works as it does.
Yet, according to this month’s issue of Discover, there are reasons to doubt that there is an unchanging set of universal laws governing how the world operates. One reason is the incompatibility between relativity and quantum mechanics between the macro and micro worlds. Since the incompatibilities are very minor when dealing with very small units (subatomic particles) this doesn’t usually cause a problem. When trying to understand physics at the time of the “big bang,” however, you need both to coincide.
In some ways, calling into question the quest for a theory of everything isn’t as radical as it seems. Newton’s “clockwork universe” so defined physics before Einstein that the shift relativity and quantum mechanics brought was disturbing to the dominant world view. Even Einstein could not accept what quantum mechanics was serving up. Newton’s world was orderly and perfect, if you could know at any one time the position and speed of all objects, you could calculate back to know the past, and forward to know the future. It ran like a machine, put in motion by some “Prime Mover.” The need for an entity to put the world in motion was also a strong argument for the existence of God.
But what kind of world do we have if there are no absolutely universal laws; and what reason could there be to question them? Last year Discover had an article about the biocentric theory of the universe. This theory is radical, it posits the universe as having been created by life, not the other way around. Philosophically this is reminiscent of philosophers such as Bishop Berkeley, who correctly noted that we don’t ever truly experience reality, but only our senses of it. Reality, for Berkeley, was a persuasive illusion.
This year’s article (which I cannot find a link to) has a variety of other challenges to the idea of one set of timeless universal laws. One notes, simply, that if time is real, and time is all about change, then why should we expect timeless universal laws to underlie it? His approach (Lee Smolin, who has been working with social theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger — who posited an anti-statist notion of socialism back in the 80s) notes that the quest for a single set of laws leads to bizarre equations that cannot be measured, seen, or really even clearly imagined. That could mean that the world is really bizarre, with paradoxes and apparent contradictions that we need to find some kind of solution for, or it could mean that the premise is wrong — the search for an underlying order is misguided.
Another, Stuart Kauffman, an evolutionary biologist, believes that perhaps the universe itself, including the laws that drive it, is evolving. The laws that govern physics now may not be the same some distant point in the past. Finally, Andreas Albright comes to his challenge through his own efforts to understand the time shortly after the big bang. He found that there is no way to calculate it back to provide a single “ticktock version” of how events unfolded. It could be that time operated under different laws in those circumstances.
I think what’s happening here is simply the next step of demolishing the Newtonian view of the world as a clearly ordered place operating under laws of nature which have a clear, logical coherence. This enlightenment effort to posit a world we can understand, once we get enough data and analysis, was rooted in a kind of human arrogance – a belief we are capable of really understanding the forces which drive our existence.
I’ve used the “ant in the White House” analogy before. An ant in the White House has a world that it explores and lives in, making sense to its limited capacity. The idea of the President living there, American politics, or even the complexity of the human world is completely and totally un-knowable to the ant. The ant might get stepped on, walk across the oval office desk, or interact directly with this world — but it can’t understand it.
I believe that is probably more true for us than our human arrogance wants to accept. For my money, I find the biocentric theory the most intriguing. I would say, though, that it’s not life that creates the universe, because life as we understand it scientifically is a biological and material phenomenon. Rather, some spark of life — commonly known as spirit — would have to drive the universe and create it. Matter may be, as Berkeley argued, a persuasive illusion. Berkeley thought reality was really akin to a dream of God’s. A biocentric universe holds open the possibility of religious and spiritual explanations for the existence of the world, something many enlightenment scientists find either unpersuasive or too reminiscent of traditional mythology. Yet even if we doubt the literal truth of those myths and stories, perhaps there is some symbolic truth behind them.
And really, if there were one underlying mechanical/material set of laws that defined the universe, wouldn’t that leave the question open of why there is something rather than nothing? How could a reality with fine tuned laws just exist? For Rousseau, Voltaire and the Deists, who doubted Christian theology, this was enough to posit the existence of an “intelligent designer.” A biocentric theory does give us an “intelligent designer” – life, or the life force, or the spirit which animates life.
There is something ironic about Max Planck discovering quantum mechanics at the end of the 18th century. Physcists at that time had been convinced they solved almost all issues regarding how the physical world worked, and Planck was advised to look for a more interesting field. He decided to try to focus on a few remaining puzzles in physics, and that led him to his discovery that, along with Einstein’s theories, would destroy the old Newtonian world view. Now physicists have a similar sense that they are close to a “theory of everything,” and that it’s just a matter of tying up some puzzles about, say, incompatibilities between quantum mechanics and relativity. There will still be things to learn, but there is a sense that the standard model of particle physics along with relativity and quantum mechanics gives us a general sense of what the world is all about. The big discoveries have been made, or at least theorized (e.g., the Higgs boson).
But maybe we’re on the verge of another dose of humility — perhaps we are much farther from understanding the underlying nature of the universe than we believe. It could be that the whole idea of a timeless material set of laws has misguided western science for centuries. It might even be that the apparent dismissal of the “spiritual” by enlightenment thought was premature. That leaves us a lot more questions, but few clear answers.
Having just done a post on quantum mechanics and particle physics, fields as distant from political science as one can imagine, and whose math I cannot grasp, I tried to resist the temptation to venture into modern physics yet again, but an article in Discover has me thinking.
Stephen Hawking is perhaps the best known physicist in the world, whose long term stature is still to be determined. Putting forth theories virtually untestable at the current time, he hasn’t had the practical impact of many other of the century’s physicists. His handicap — he has suffered from “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” or ALS since the early sixties — has been a blessing in disguise. It has turned his body useless, meaning he communicates with a sophisticated computer read out and voice, and he is permanently bound to a wheel chair. He is unable to enjoy life the way most people do, and unable to do his work and calculations in a manner typical for theoretical physics. Yet, as the article points out, this also has forced him to think differently, visualizing ideas in a geometric fashion, generating insights he probably would not have had if he handled the thinking in a usual way.
Alas, for nearly thirty years Hawking has been less relevant than famous. His major works were in the seventies, and while he still is active in science and culture (appearing on Star Trek and the Simpsons, for instance), his fame is more his image — the handicapped genius scientist — than recent output. Yet his new theory is fascinating. Not being a scientist or science writer, allow me to quote Discover, July/August 2009, p. 51:
“It is not the case that the past uniquely determines the present. Because the universe has many possible histories and just as many possible beginnings, the present state of the universe selects the past. ‘This means that the histories of the Universe depend upon what is being measured,’ Hawking wrote in a recent paper, ‘contrary to the usual idea that the Universe has an objective observer-indepent history.’ This idea could cut through some long standing scientific mysteries. One debate now roiling the physics community concerns string theory, currently the leading candidate for a so-called theory of everything. String theory holds that all the particles and forces in the universe can be explained as arising from the vibrations of vanishingly small strands of energy. But it has one huge problem: Its fundamental equations have a near infinite number of solutions, each corresponding to a unique universe. Hawking’s idea provides a natural context for string theory. All those universes might simply represent different possible histories of our universe. “
Think of the implications of this theory. Hawking, like most physicists, doesn’t really like it when one starts jumping from quantum weirdness to speculation about spirituality or the nature of life. I think the reason is less that they want to hold on to raw materialism, but more that such a move seems to ignore the absolute beauty and elegance of the equations and models which generate these theories. Those models, which I am unable to appreciate due to my lack of math skill, are elegant, complex and to those who understand them, aesthetically beautiful and dramatic. To jump to speculation about spirit or God, or something like that, well, that even seems to diminish the beauty of the theory.
Yet those of us who don’t get the math have to think in mundane terms about the meaning. The article notes that this theory may be testable, since the background micro-radiation from the universe’s early days may contain evidence of the existence of other quantum universes. If Hawking is right, then the present as a point in space time is not just a determined reality that must exist, but the actualization of a particular quantum probability that is not connected with any one particular past, or determinate of any one particular future. Clearly we are not constantly shifting pasts (at least in any way we notice) , so human existence probably deals with a narrow range of quantum fluctuation (as macro objects we do not experience the wildness of the micro quantum world), but yet that may be the nature of the universe(s).
Hawking is trying, with this theory, to overcome the need for the universe to begin with a singularity — an infinitely dense point. Singularities are mathematical possibilities in relativity, but seem impossible to imagine — how can a point be infinitely small and infinitely dense? Well, general relativity and quantum mechanics have fundamental disagreements, and thus one or both of them have errors. Hawking believes that if you apply quantum physics to the start of the universe, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle could mean that a singularity does not form, and the uncertainty fosters these multiple probable universes.
That would mean that consciousness exists at a point in space time, moving through it in ways that can vary. Herein is an opening for free will, and for speculation on why consciousness has that power. It opens up room for spirituality, even religion, and a recognition that the world may be a lot weirder than we realize. But for me, there is one reason why I find myself especially enticed by this theory. In a blog I wrote last year, on June 20, 2008, I speculated on this kind of possibility: Spinoza, Quantum Mechanics and Free Will.
On a different note, in an honors course I’m co-teaching with five other professors, we had a good discussion today about history, perspective, and truth. Is there one historical past we can “discover,” or a clear set of indisputable facts? Well, if Hawking is right there are probably an infinite number of probable pasts, and at any given point what we measure affects which past exists.
OK, I think I need a drink. This is starting to make my head hurt.