Saturday, 27 June 2015

Marriage equality and the most important freedom

So many of us have lived and loved in the face of fear.  So many of us have lived secret lives, careful in case a word or a gesture reveals to the world a failure to conform. Others of us have lived lives of open rebellion against the constraints of heterosexual normality.

There has been no end of advice for us: some say that we should celebrate our difference, accept that we are pioneers for new ways of loving.  Some say that those of us who have faith should abandon that faith, rejecting their culture, because of the doctrines that condemn, but why shouldn't cultures change?

We want the freedom to not have to hide your life and your love - the freedom to have a mortgage, to raise children, to marry, to celebrate anniversaries, to care for your loved ones, and to be cared for by the one you have shared a life with.  The freedom to do all these things without having to be seen as out, because there is nothing to be out of.

This is the freedom to become invisible, to blend in with others and become a part of society.  This won't be the desire of all: some thrive on rebellion, some will forever fight for change, but the choice not to follow those paths must be there.

There is a long way to go, as the old fears will linger, but millions of us can now, finally, choose to be part of society, to follow traditions, to experience all the joys and pains of love and marriage.

You know what it is, really?  It's the most important freedom of all, the freedom that so many have that it's almost always unnoticed:

It's the freedom to be boring!

Monday, 22 June 2015

A response to Donald Hoffman's TED talk.

I have been following Hoffman's work for many years, thanks to a mutual friend.

A fascinating talk (I admire good public speakers), but I disagree with his conclusions. Evolution does give accurate perceptions, but only accurate enough. Evolution is rarely wasteful. The example of the beetle getting confused about bottles was a bad one, because evolution had not been allowed to act. Given a few thousand years, the beetle would almost certainly have evolved to distinguish between female and beer bottle. If you are going to assess evolution's power to improve accuracy you have to wait for an evolutionary time scale. The beetle's vision isn't telling it where females are - after all, beetles have no concept of females! If you assume that this was what the beetle's vision was trying to do then of course you will come to the assumption that it is wildly inaccurate. The beetle's vision was only showing is what it would have to see to mate, and that had been very accurate for millions of years. The appropriate measure of accuracy is between what we experience and what we believe we experience. 

We have pretty accurate vision. The tomato really is in front of us. We throw that because we can objectively measure how far a hand has to move to reach it. Apes can accurately assess what other apes can see so that they can hide food. That hiding involves objectively accurate assessments of lines of sight. 

Of course, our vision is only accurate to a limit. We can't see the tomato's cells or its quarks. But that doesn't mean we are mistaken in chopping it up and putting it in sandwiches.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

A moral religion must support marriage equality

You may call your religion beautiful and moderate, but if it reduces some people to second-class citizens by refusing them full marriage equality, then your religion is a problem for society, causing many people to feel rejected and hated. 

I know there are problems with extreme beliefs leading to terrorism and violence, but there is also a very widespread problem with supposedly moderate religions institutionalising prejudice. I used to think that this was not a serious problem until I watched a performance of a play about 'Proposition 8', in which a mother said "no girl dreams of being a civil partner". 

That's true - why should the dreams of children who want to think of themselves as being fully accepted and respected members of family and society be crushed? Why should a child be told that he or she is second-rate, that their love isn't as real, isn't equal? That institutionalised lack of equality can and does lead to bullying of children, and worse. 

A moral religion should not collude with such rejection, should not enable such hatred. It should teach that all are equal, that loving a member of your own sex is as wonderful and as true as the love between a man and a woman. Even this atheist accept that that would be a beautiful thing for a religion to do.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Belief in god - the Q Challenge

In the Star Trek universe there is a society of beings with almost omnipotent powers, called the Q Continuum.  Each of these beings (all confusingly called 'Q') can perform what appears to be miracles.  They play with time and space at the click of their fingers.  There is nothing supernatural about the Q - in spite of their seemingly limitless powers, they are not gods.  They are certainly not worshipped or considered sources of moral absolutes, even though they occasionally be rather friendly (although they can be deeply irritating).

The Q are conceivably true.   There are no known principles of physics that could rule them out.  And because of this, I consider that believers face the 'Q Challenge':

Come up with a single example of an observable act of a god that cannot be an act of Q.

The thing is, if there is no experience that can't differentiate between a god and a Q, then parsimony insists that the explanation be a Q.  A non-supernatural Q, a flawed, capricious being utterly undeserving of worship.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Emptier than space

Space isn't empty. The view of quantum mechanics is that space is filled with things called 'fields' - basically the potential for particles to exist.  The phrases 'electromagnetic field' and 'gravitational field' are widely used.

Electromagnetic fields can be easily messed about with by us - they are the basis of all electric motors, for example, and you can feel the forces of attraction and repulsion by playing with fridge magnets.  The gravitational field is very much weaker, and we can't easily control it, for several reasons - the first is that the gravitational force per particle of matter or unit of energy is extremely small and so the force is only significant from large amounts of matter.  We can't build a hand-held source of gravitation in the same was as we can build a hand-held source of electromagnetism (a torch).  The second reason is that gravity is almost always positive - there is no convenient anti-gravity source we can use to cancel it out.

So, we have some experience of fields, but there are many more fields that we can't easily interact with without vast and expensive machines like particle colliders.    There are at least fields for each kind of particle.  There are electron fields for example.  When particles collide in colliders they shake at these fields and, depending on the energy of the collision, they may be able to produce a wave in the field, and that wave is a particle.  Shaking up the fields that fill the vacuum is the way that particles can be made, but it's not the only way.  Quantum mechanics is based on the observation that there is always uncertainty (although very precisely defined amounts).  There is uncertainty in the rippling of the quantum fields.  That uncertainty allows for waves (particles) to spontaneously appear and disappear.  These temporary waves are called 'virtual particles'.

Considering just waves in the electromagnetic field, these virtual particles - in this case particles of light - will appear at a range of wavelengths, from gamma rays to radio waves.  Empty space is filled with these fluctuations in quantum fields.

However, we know how to block ripples in the electromagnetic field - metal cannot be penetrated by either radio waves or light.  So, if you were in space and you had a metal box with you, such as a cake tin, and you closed the lid, what would be in the box?  There would be all the ripples and fluctuations of the quantum fields in the vacuum - except for the ones that could not fit!  There is no way that a radio wave of metres in length could fit into a cake tin!   So, that cake tin would be in a strange state - it would be emptier than space!

Friday, 5 June 2015

Alcoholism - the hidden disease

The sad death of Charles Kennedy highlights the common delusion that just one more drink is not going to do any harm, and that, after all, everyone is really a heavy drinker and so it can't be all that bad. T
hat was me precisely until I recognised my alcoholism and looked for treatment. 

Eventually I found a treatment that was effective and I'm now nearly 5 years sober, although I still have to be careful. I could have gone the same way as Charles Kennedy.

 Pointing out that someone is deluded about the safety of their drinking hardly ever works, the drinker has to realise that on their own. 

What I'd like to see is much, much more publicity about the the treatments available, so people can see that there is support for those who want to give up or cut back. Information has to be provided such as the problem of 'kindling', which is that giving up and then 'falling off the wagon' has a permanent effect on the brain, so that each time of giving up results in worse withdrawal symptoms.  Giving up alcohol can be dangerous if done alone, so medical advice and supervision is a good idea.

Still, I managed long-term sobriety (so far), and I am extremely weak-willed, so there is hope for all.  If you have an alcoholic friend, relative or partner, please try and be understanding.  It's a serious disease and they need support whatever their decision about future use of alcohol turns out to be.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Relatively bad science of Interstellar


I tried to enjoy Interstellar - it looked great - but so much of it was either wrong or simply impossible.  I feel the need to point out some of the mistakes....

1. Wormholes don't let you go into higher dimensions.  They involve curvature of space and time.  When you pass into a wormhole, just as if you pass into a black hole, the space and time around you seem completely normal to you, because they are.  That's why Relativity is called Relativity - relative to you, space and time are normal.  You don't transition into a fifth dimension, you carry on through three dimensional space and time.

2. Gravity does not have the ability to break free of time.  Gravity is very tightly connected to space and time.

3. Higher dimensional beings don't have any more ability to break free of time than we do.  They would still need to somehow invent a time machine.

4. There is no way a planet could exist that close to a black hole.  Radiation from the accretion disk (the material spiralling in to the black hole) would both knock it out of orbit and blast it to bits.

5. If there was a planet that close to a black hole, with that kind of time dilation, you would need engines of phenomenal power to get to it, as maneuvering that close to a black hole's event horizon would be extremely hard.

6. If there was a planet that close to a black hole getting off that planet and away from the black hole would need vast amounts of energy, as it would be equivalent to having to approach the speed of light.

7. If there was a planet that close to a black hole it would be close to impossible to see because the light reflected from it would be red-shifted by gravity.

That will do for now!

Monday, 1 June 2015

Remember the CPU

Computers do such incredibly complex things these days, it can be hard to remember that it's all done by a series of incredibly small switches called transistors, and all of the data processing that a computer does is a matter of deciding whether some switches should be on or off depending on the state of other switches (including the switches that make up working memory).

Computer chips these days are so complex involving typically billions of switches just in the central processor, and so they can't be designed by hand.  But decades ago the first widely used processors were designed manually and were works of art.

It's possible to see what these looked like and how they worked using various on-line simulations. My favourite is which shows the operation of a simple 8-bit processor with only thousands of switches.

Alien 'brains' among us - comb jellies

If there is any chance of us meeting intelligent aliens then it has to be that nervous systems can evolve more than just once (here).  It's possible that we have found a separate evolution of a nervous system here on Earth.

The comb jellies (Ctenophora) are jellyfish-like animals that swim by the use of beating hair - cilia - rather than pulsating their bodies as jellyfish do.
These animals have no distinct brain, just a web of neural connections that transmit signals throughout their bodies.

The classification of the Ctenophora has recently changed, and it now looks like comb jellies are unrelated to any other animal that has nerve cells.  If this is true, it's possible that the nerve cells in comb jellies evolved completely independently.  This would mean that nervous systems are not unique and the likelihood of alien organisms with at least complex behaviour is greatly increased.