What do you believe if you don’t believe in evolution?

I live in a bubble pretty much empty of evolution deniers, so I haven’t had the chance to try this. But I am genuinely interested to hear someone nicely take one, say Ben Carson, through some questions that would explain what they actually believe.

Do you believe DNA controls how an organism develops from a fertilized egg?

Do you believe there is cosmic radiation?

Do you believe it (or anything) could change DNA and therefore that an organism would grow up a little different from its parents, siblings, and the other critters in the pack?

Do you believe such a difference could ever make it more likely to reproduce successfully than the other critters of its kind?

It seems to me that to deny evolution, you have to get off the foregoing train somewhere before the end, but where?

Math and TV

Mythbusters, ending this season, has a long valedictory in the NYT today, and I am ambivalent. I’ve enjoyed the show from time to time, especially when the team blew things up and broke stuff, but I’m not ready to get on board with it as a great science education motivator.  My wife and daughter have a thing for NUMB3RS, a police procedural featuring a trio of mathematicians who help the FBI, and I find it makes me impatient in a similar way. I think the problem is that Mythbusters too often ignored the mathematics that distinguishes engineering and science from tinkering, and NUMB3RS just treats math like a mysterious religious cult, complete with blackboards full of equations we never see long enough to begin to understand; when a real mathematical principle or result gets in the script, it’s drowned by the usual cop-show action/suspense noise. Continue Reading…

God, sex and violence: Bernini special!

I finally got to see Bernini’s famous shocker The Ecstasy of St Teresa in Rome. I’ve written about it before, in the context of the Olympics. I’ll haul the bastard into service again to make a different point.

Pope Francis’ generally fine encyclical Laudato Si’  descends into incoherent mumbling on the subject of population. You can find a couple of sentences indexed under population, control, indifference to. It all goes back to the Vatican’s wrongheaded view of sex. It’s for reproduction, said Aristotle and Aquinas. To quote A.P. Herbert:

And what my father used to say / Is good enough for me.

Now you and I know from experience and modern science that this is rot. Human sex, unlike that of most animals, is designed for repetitive fun as well as reproduction. The point of the fun is to cement social relationships, whether peace-making and stress relief as with the promiscuous bonobos, or bonding a human couple for childrearing. There are even specific physiological adaptations for non-reproductive pleasure: concealed ovulation and menopause in women, large penis size in men. According to Jared Diamond, the average erect gorilla penis is 1.5 inches: quite enough for a species that lives in isolated harem troops. Conflict between males takes place independently of female oestrus, so when a female gorilla is receptive, there is only one male around. Contrast well-hung chimpanzees and humans, who live in bands with multiple males competing for the available females. The well-hung part is entirely for the entertainment of both.

This won’t convince the Vatican, shaky both on experience and science. Of course, priests do learn a lot about sex through the confessional; but as with psychotherapists, they are asked to deal with a sample that is spectacularly biased towards the dysfunctional and aberrant, entirely leaving out the modal type of mutually satisfying sexual relations within stable couples. I guess that Catholic wives have stopped confessing the use of contraceptives, and Catholic husbands their indulgences in oral sex.

So let me ask the Curia a different question. What do you make of the sex in Bernini’s great sculpture, above a side altar in the minor Baroque church of Sta. Maria de la Victoria up by the Rome railway station?
Adults only image below the fold Continue Reading…

“The odds are approximately 3,720 to 1″

It’s been our trendsetting exoplanet week at the RBC. After the heavy stuff from Mike on tenured stargropers with too much immunity and from me on Renaissance cranks with not enough, here is something lighter for a rainy Sunday.

Fan image of Niven's puppeteer

Fan image of Niven’s puppeteer

We love Bruno-style speculations about intelligent aliens fron other stars. Thrint, tnuctipun, puppeteere, kzin, kdatlyno, grogs, pak, moties, and outsiders – and that’s just from Larry Niven’s imagination. But they all come up against Enrico Fermi’s famous question, made in a Chicago cafeteria in 1950:

Where are they?

I had a nice explanation for the non-appearance of intelligent aliens. No, not the one that intelligent life does not exist on earth either. Human history indicates that contact between societies at different levels of culture and technology is normally disastrous for the weaker. Any ethical civilization would minimize it, except to prevent disaster. Now any civilization capable of building interstellar ships must be ethical, or it would have destroyed itself by ecocide or the genocidal warfare enabled by the weapons available well before that technological level. Ergo, any alien civilization surviving long enough to launch interstellar ships would refrain from doing so on ethical grounds. QED.

Cute, isn’t it. The weakness is the disaster cop-out. Iain Bank’s SF novels about the very ethical and advanced Culture depend on this loophole, in the adventures of agents of the embarrassing spook agency Special Circumstances. This is set up to carry out deniable interventions in murderous lesser civilizations, for their own good of course. Closer to home, when European colonialists reached Easter Island in 1722, weren’t they justified in intervening to halt the self-destruction of the Easter Islanders described by Jared Diamond? Their population had crashed 80% to at most 3,000. It might have been – only in fact the colonialists made the situation much worse by disease and slave-raiding, reducing the native population to 111 by 1877.  Non-interference looks the better course.

I now have a much more prosaic explanation. Space is full of junk.

Continue Reading…

Competition: diasyrms for Trump

Donald Trump said this about Ben Carson, a rival for the Republican nomination :

He was a doctor, perhaps an OK doctor, by the way.

The trope usually goes by Pope’s phrase “damning with faint praise”, but I’m sure RBC readers do not need reminding that its technical Greek name in rhetoric is diasyrm.

The put-down is feeble. You can’t take away from Dr. Ben Carson his outstanding medical qualifications and stellar career. He headed the department of paediatric neurosurgery at the teaching hospital of Johns Hopkins, which likes to think of itself as the best medical school in the world, possibly with reason. It is a great tragedy that in his very last operation in Baltimore before leaving medicine for politics, Dr. Carson heroically donated to his patient half the grey cells in his cerebral cortex.

It is Donald Trump‘s pathological vanity – he is in textbooks  as an example of narcissism – that makes him far more vulnerable to diasyrm. Readers are invited to supply examples. To get you going, a better jibe from Lloyd George:

[Neville Chamberlain] would make a good Lord Mayor of Birmingham in a lean year.

My suggestions:

  • Donald Trump has demonstrated far greater acumen as an investor than Bernie Madoff.
  • Donald Trump is magnetically attractive to women, for six months.
  • Trump’s dramatic hairdo would assure him a future as a hairstyling model for the leading trade magazine in North Korea.
  • Trump regularly demonstrates his superior people-management skills in firing no-hopers on reality TV shows.
  • Donald has never, ever had sex with a pig.

Entrants please remember the praise part. Straight insults do not count, however ingenious and deserved. Example: at Oxford, I once heard the young Quentin Hogg described as “a shining wit, as Dr. Spooner might have said”.




Big History from 2300 AD

Bede writes history, 8th century

Bede writes history, 8th century

The British SF writer Charles Stross posts a challenge:

Assume you are a historian in the 30th century, compiling a pop history text about the period 1700-2300AD. What are the five most influential factors in that period of history?


For the sake of argument we assume: no singularity/rapture of the nerds, no breakthroughs that lead to wholesale invalidation of the known laws of physics, and no catastrophic events that render humanity extinct, destroy all archival records, or consign us all to a pre-industrial level of civilization.

Stross’ candidates are in the first comment on the linked thread. Brad deLong’s response is here. I reproduce both lists in fine. See also the comment threads. I contributed a comment, but RBC readers deserve a weekend play space too.

I just have three points – the replicator, advanced IT, and the stabilisation of the population are taken as read. As you would expect, there’s a lot of overlap with the earlier lists. Add your own.

JW1. The Big Crunch

Ages ago I posted my one-minute world history. Here it is again, in its 117-word entirety: Stross’ mere 600-year frame is spacious by comparison. Continue Reading…

Look Ma, No Hands

The driverless car is one of those ideas that was obvious long before it was feasible. As soon as Marconi had demonstrated radio transmission of sound, televisions and videophones were on the agenda. Engineers toyed with driverless cars in the 1920s, with no success; the scheme requires massive cheap computation, which has only become available in the last decade.

SF robot carI looked for an SF magazine cover with transport pods from the 1930s. In vain: the problem is not that writers hadn’t thought of it, it’s that it’s not sexy, in the white girl/BEM/blaster convention of the genre. The best I could find was this alarming robot enforcer from 1935. Contrast today’s unthreatening prototypes.






We don’t get the technical progress we need, but what comes easiest. Cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s? They will be in the post, some day soon. Multi-player role-playing video games, that we never missed before they showed up: step this way. Sometimes need and feasibility coincide, as with the smartphone: the prototype of the universal communicator terminal of science fiction, and a social revolution. Are driverless cars more like video games or smartphones? Continue Reading…

Courtiers and tweetstorms

We have been here before, Keith: a densely connected and hyper-gossipy society where every word can be used against you, those who speak rashly like Sir Tim Hunt come to a rapid social end, and cruel words are used as deliberately as daggers. It was the courts of Renaissance Europe: those of Henry VIII, Cathérine de Médicis, Philip II, and Alessandro Borgia.

Recently I brought up Holbein’s portrait of the English courtier Richard Southwell, a sidekick of Thomas Cromwell who rose to be Master-General of the Ordnance under both Mary and Elizabeth. The portrait shows exactly the kind of man who thrives in such a régime; a man who gave evidence in a treason trial against a childhood friend, the Earl of Surrey.

Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger

Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1536

Shakespeare had the number of men like Richard Southwell:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Sonnet 94

Tell me: would you want for a colleague, superior, subordinate, friend, or spouse a person who never spontaneously made a stupid and prejudiced remark?