Archives for category: speculations
mars

Courtesy ESA

Last week, the White House announced that humans would aim to set foot on Mars by 2033, just sixteen years from now. As a longtime space lover, I found this news momentarily exciting, but then I paused. Is sixteen years in any way realistic? I think not.

Taking people to Mars – and back again – is a massive engineering problem, on a scale we have never before encountered. I believe it’s possible to do it, but if we try to rush it, it will end in calamity. It breaks down to a number of key problems:

Radiation

Without sufficient protection, astronauts will be subjected to intense radiation from the sun and from cosmic rays for the entirely of their journey. It goes without saying that space is a hostile environment, but, given the absence of a strong magnetic field, so too is Mars. We have very little experience of the effects of long term radiation exposure on humans outside of Earth, so a huge effort is required to gain more knowledge before we go. Frequent trips to or around the Moon would help, but given the absence of any such journeys in the last 40 years, we are starting practically from zero.

Supplies

A crew of people will need to be sheltered, protected, fed, oxygenated, medicated and kept warm for up to three years from start to finish. They will need to have all the equipment they need to do their jobs, plus replacements, if something goes wrong. This implies a support structure to be in place – around Mars, on the way to Mars, on the way back from Mars and on the surface of Mars itself – before the astronauts begin their journey. That’s a lot of work – much greater than anything encountered by the lunar astronauts. Of course a very large craft might be able to bring people and supplies along in one go, but getting all this out of Earth’s gravity well and into the International Space Station will be a challenge in its own right, not to mention landing so much of it on Mars.

Getting off the surface of Mars

Apart from the Moon, we have never attempted lifting equipment – not to mention people – from the surface of another planet. The Moon, with its weak gravity, is much more trivial a problem than Mars would be. Consider the problems here on Earth. We have yet to conquer routine space launches. They require months of preparation and testing with teams of engineers to execute. Costs per launch are still in the millions of dollars. And even then, things can go wrong: launches fail regularly or are scrubbed in the last few seconds. Now imagine having to do this on Mars, where a failure, no matter how small, might mean you are left on the planet for good. We need a lot of practice at this, on Mars, before we attempt to bring people along.

Leaving them there

Sure, we could forego return craft and find volunteers to go to Mars for good, but without any prior experience of living on Mars, my guess is that they would not survive there for long. We on Earth would be treated to a real-time Truman Show of suffering, sickness and eventual death. This would quickly wipe the shine off mankind’s’ great achievement.

Contamination

Right now, we still don’t know if life exists on Mars. Even though it’s unlikely, given the harshness of the Martian environment, it cannot be completely ruled out. Small traces of methane have been detected that deserve proper investigation. If we put humans on Mars – or god forbid, leave human corpses there – we lose our chance to find alien life there forever. We will have contaminated Mars with our own DNA, making any subsequent reports of life there highly suspect. We have the opportunity to make a truly extraordinary discovery on Mars. We owe it to ourselves to search hard for Martian life before we put boots there.

Let’s take our time

I get the feeling that this sixteen year trip to Mars is a kind of prestige project for Trump, as opposed to a genuine mission of science and discovery. I would love for us to visit Mars one day, but I think sixteen years is far too soon. We have a lot of learning to do and a lot of infrastructure to build before we can proceed with a manned mission that has a reasonable likelihood of success. Perhaps I’m pessimistic, but I think that the first successful landing is less likely to be sixteen years from now, and more likely to be sixty.

Among the things I think about sometimes is how we got here as a species, and where we’re going.

We tend to think of ourselves as a young species, having only discovered writing (and with it, history itself) in the past 5,000 years, and civilisation (with its permanent monuments) 5,000 years before that. Earlier than this, our history as a race of humans goes quite dark. Archaeology tells us a few things, but the further back we go, all we have are fragments from our past. We can quite easily forget that we are a very old creature indeed. How long ago was it since we discovered language, since we started singing, since we started praying, since we discovered a sense of humour? It’s hard to say, yet it’s quite probable that such traits predate homo sapiens, going back through multiple ancestral species. Were we to travel back a couple of million years, maybe we would still see ourselves in our austrolopithical forebears.

I remember reading a book some time ago, that one group of our ancestors (or possibly close cousins) spent over a million years fashioning an early stone tool with practically no development in all that time. That’s tens of thousands of generations just hammering away with little sense of innovation. They were rooted in the animal world – lives full of fury, struggle and passion, but not one given to legacy or creative accomplishment. Maybe there were stirrings there. Maybe, every so often, one of them came up with an idea, but they were quickly hit over the head, or eaten by a lioness, before that idea (or their genes) had a chance to spread. 

I ask myself if that’s where we’re ultimately going back to. If anything has been successful in the long term on this planet, it’s been that patient toiling away with little progress through the generations. Among all the animals, a sense of constructive wonder seems to be selected against. In the single case where it has succeeded, it’s lead to an exponential increase in technological development, resulting in a potentially untenable situation full of nuclear weapons, over-population, resource depletion, multi-species extinction and the prospect of disastrous climate change. Maybe our ultimate fate (if we survive this time at all) is a return back to the animal realm. Maybe, 90,000 generations hence, our distant children will be back in the trees, or scurrying around in holes, or hammering again on rocks with little thought for art and music. 

I think about the last person in that line, looking around at her species and wondering about it all, before death finally takes her away and the universe once again becomes dim and distant to humanity.

There is a difference between Science and Religion.

Science needs evidence. Science embraces evidence. If the evidence tells you something that conflicts with your beliefs, then in science, the evidence wins. It must win, because that’s how progress happens in science. Scientists follow the evidence, irrespective of how uncomfortable that might mean towards their beliefs.

Religion needs belief. Religion embraces belief. If the evidence tells you something that conflicts your beliefs, then in religion, the belief wins. It must win, because that’s the way religion preserves itself, often passing down the generations. Religious adherents follow the belief, irrespective of whether evidence exists to support those beliefs or even if if it refutes those beliefs completely.

If you are a scientist, and the evidence starts to conflict with your beliefs, but you hold fast to those beliefs despite strong evidence to the contrary, you are no longer practicing science. You are practicing religion.

If you are a religious adherent, and the evidence starts to conflict with your beliefs, so you change your beliefs to come in line with the evidence, you are no longer practicing religion. You are practicing science.

There is a difference between Science and Religion and this difference is unreconcilable. A wide, yawning, unbridgeable gap. You either accept that evidence has primacy, or that belief does. You can’t have both. Efforts to reconcile the two are unlikely to be very productive.

There is a difference between Science and Religion, but perhaps the issue is somewhat moot. The real question is what difference this makes to most of us. The problem is our brains, you see. Our brains have an interesting relationship with ideas, both scientific and religious. In our brains these things tend to get mashed together, confused with each other. Our brains can accommodate conflicting ideas. While science and religion are different, when it comes to scientific people and religious people, the distinction is far more blurry.

Most people don’t think about religion or science all the time. Most people spend their time thinking about other things. Whether they left the heating on, the pain in their foot, the hallway that needs a paint job, the local team losing last Saturday. Most people have friends to talk to, families to care for, work to do. Muslim, atheist, Christian, secular, Buddhist: when it comes to life and everyday concerns, we become less different. We become more human. The gulf can be traversed. It’s no longer black and white. It’s complicated.

There is a difference between Science and Religion, but our humanity keeps getting in the way. 

99 Percent InvisibleOver the past few weeks, I have been listening to the 99 Percent Invisible podcast on my journeys to and from work. If you are a fan of This American Life, you will love it. It discusses the influence of design in contemporary society and how its presence is often overlooked, as if, er, by design. Over the past few weeks I have been listening to the nuances of fire escapes, nuclear bomb shelters, and signage designed to last ten-thousand years. From these few episodes alone, I’m eagerly looking forward to hearing some of their older offerings.

I thoroughly recommend their recent episode “The Sound Of Sports“. It opens a window on audio production in sports television and radio. It was originally produced in 2011 for the BBC, and is slightly dated because of it. Despite this, it makes compelling listening. 

I never fully appreciated the lengths to which sports producers introduce a sense of hyper-reality into our living rooms. Their aim is to make the experience much better than being there in person. The cameras are up close to the action, the microphones strategically positioned to pick up the nuances of the play, and at times, sound effects are introduced because the real effects are, well, not good enough. This might seem like cheating, but sports broadcasters will tell you that some of their biggest competitors are video game designers. TV audiences now expect experiences at least as good as what gamers will encounter. It’s a kind of arms race, with both teams borrowing ideas from each other so that the end effects excite us in a way the actual event might not.

We have become accustomed to the hyper-real. While long the stock-in-trade of Hollywood with their foley artists and special effects departments, such enhancements are now available to the public for free. Photos are now routinely scrubbed and filtered by the likes of Photoshop and Instagram. Home movies are slowed down, sped up and dispensed of shake and stutter. We don’t see this as a problem because it’s all about pleasuring the senses and getting across the desired intent than portraying hum-drum reality. Perhaps there will be a backlash to this, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Hyperreality is likely to push us in directions we cannot imagine today. It’s going to be a fascinating journey. 

QEDCon, the annual UK conference for science and skepticism, is over for another year. It was another terrific event. They must be doing something right, as people from all across the world have become regular attendees. The following is a personal recap of the conference.

Palace Hotel

Palace Hotel

Our venue was the Palace Hotel, close to the Manchester university district. Outside, it looks like an over-designed relic of a bygone era. Inside it’s a confusing warren of corridors, staircases and, eventually, rooms. Quite how all of the attendees managed to make their way out alive is anyone’s guess.

Day 1

Paul Zenon started proceedings with a hilarious video that managed to combine, in 5 minutes, as many woo beliefs as possible – including the drinking of a certain bodily fluid – an image I’ll find difficult to forget for a while. He then went onstage and acted the part of a false medium. Very, very funny.

Elizabeth Pisani then gave a talk on AIDS. People with HIV can now expect to have long, high quality lives; however this means that viral load continues over a much longer term, and along with it an increased risk of transmittance. The net effect is that more and more people getting are getting HIV. Higher rates of HIV lead to huge financial pressures within the medical system, as well as creating a risk of resistance in the longer term. Her conclusion is that, unless a cure is found, HIV must be reduced by addressing the riskiest of lifestyle behaviours. This is incredibly difficult to do.

Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman

Next up was Richard Wiseman, with an entertaining talk on his research career. He started the talk with a few photographic illusions, then moving on to ghost photos and pareidolia. He spoke about the attentional spotlight difference between lucky and unlucky people. He showed a video of a fire walking experiment proving – painfully for the participants – that physics trumps faith. He talked about an experiment where he and his team left wallets around the UK, and waited to see which ones got returned. He then talked about sleep, and what we can do to improve it. This is the subject of his latest book, Night School.

Beauty by the Geeks, Brigitte West and Rose Brown, then presented a talk on woo within the cosmetics industry. Both speakers had great material and great energy – evoking a bit of shock from the audience when they showed photos of people spreading sheep placentas all over their faces. I had a small problem with the talk in that it spent much too long on introductions. It would have been better to have devoted more time on the controversies and nonsense within the industry, and discussing what the science actually says. It’s clearly a hugely interesting area with a lot more to discover.

I then went to a panel discussion on The Internet – the best and worst. Angela Saini had some very coherent thoughts (“What is the worst? I think it’s people”). Unfortunately, the subject was far too wide and the discussion was all over the place. I didn’t learn much from it. It should have been more focused – internet trolling and harassment would have evoked a better discussion, I think.

I then attended a panel talk on Medical Myths and the Media. Again, this is such a huge area it was difficult to come to any conclusions or to have a particularly coherent discussion. Nevertheless, it was interesting listening to how doctors coped with the huge deluge of research papers in their area. It’s not easy to distinguish the good research from the bad stuff.

Dr. Sheena Cruickshank

Dr. Sheena Cruickshank

After the break we had Dr. Sheena Cruickshank talking about worms. No, not earthworms, instead the ones that live inside of people: hookworms, tapeworms, ringworms and their ilk. There is a negative relationship, geographically, between worm infections and allergies. In areas where worms are prevalent, there are few allergies, and vice versa in the more developed world. Worm treatment may make syndromes such as Crohn’s Disease a bit more manageable, but such treatments are not easy to implement as worms bring their own health issues. And, yes, there are people out there self-medicating on worms in the mistaken belief that it’s making them better. It was an absolutely fascinating talk.

Mark Crislip, the presenter of QuackCast, then gave a furiously detailed presentation about Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). “Integrated Medicine is where you mix cow pie with Apple pie, so that the Apple pie tastes worse”. His view is that the Placebo effect is overblown and is equal to non-treatment if there is an objective end-point. If it’s an open or subjective end point, it’s a small effect. People who say they get better, often don’t get better objectively. It just makes them feel better about themselves. Crislip is also concerned about the lack of quality standards in CAM and the many reports of direct harm.

The Evening activities kicked off with Richard Wiseman going through some of the worst scientific cover songs ever written. Geologists should never be allowed within an ass’s roar of rock anthems.

The Ockham Awards – the skeptical Oscars – were announced.

  • Kylie Sturgess won the best video award – a TEDx presentation where she talks about superstitious beliefs and practices, such as drinking urine. As she was not there (using the poor excuse that she has to make her living on a continent on the other side of the world), her acceptance speech was given by a cute kitten. She knows how we tick.
  • Leaving Fundamentalism” won the best blog. This was given to Jonny Scaramanga from Nate Phelps, of which more later.
  • The best podcast was Skepticality. This was received by Susan Gerbic on behalf of Derek and Swoopy.
  • The Editor’s Choice award was then given to the QED organisers themselves. It was well deserved for all the work these guys put into creating a brilliant experience for all the attendees. For the last 3 years, QED has been one of the big highlights of my year.
QED Organisers accepting their Ockham Award

QED Organisers accepting their Ockham Award

The comedy sections were all very different, and all excellent. Gemma Arrowsmith won over the audience with an astounding Miss World acceptance speech where she talked about how she got where she is by starting at the Big Bang and moving on from there. There was a touch of genius to John Luke Roberts’s piece. He spoke in aphorisms “Jazz to me sounds like a German saying yes, then falling asleep”, “There is nothing sadder than a slinky taking a lift”. After a few gratuitous insults, he finished with a hilarious visual sketch involving a long beard and a set of false teeth on a stick. We were crying laughing. You had to be there. Andy Zaltzman combined skepticism with religion and politics, with hilarious results. “Sperm are basically Stalinists” and “John Logie Baird invented the television in order to give the aged a reason to keep on living”. It was great stuff.

Day 2

hangovers

Paul Zenon started proceedings with a tale of mischevious hoaxing in Southampton – issuing public divorce proceedings using a pair of curtains. Local media picked it up, then world media, and finally came the psychological analyses. All the while, Zenon and his fellow hoaxers were sitting back, laughing, seeking new ways to stoke the story further.

Deborah Hyde

Deborah Hyde

The first talk of the day had Deborah Hyde talking about vampires. She traced the history of vampire stories, from Eastern Europe to the present day. Many legends are linked to disease epidemics and reports of corpses failing to rot properly. She talked about the multiple ways to (allegedly) stop a vampire, and how these legends originated. At the end she discussed a recent story where a guy died after swallowing a garlic clove out of a fear of vampirism. Deborah is an outstanding public speaker, interspersing her presentation with spot quizzes and guests being asked to come to the stage to drink blood and ashes.

Next up was Coralie Colmez, talking about the use of maths and stats in criminal trials. The probability of two events occurring equals the product of probabilities of them happening separately ONLY if both events are truly independent. A number of trials in recent history failed to establish independence sufficiently, ending up in gross miscarriages of justice. Coralie talked about the cot death story of Sally Clark and Roy Meadow, who as an expert witness, assessed the likelihood of two cot deaths to be almost impossible, without foul play taking place. Sally was jailed and was released only after a huge public outcry. Coralie also talked about the Birthday Problem and the Bayes Theorem. She got a lively discussion going in the questions afterwards.

Skeptics in the Pub Forum

Skeptics in the Pub Forum

As an organiser with Cork Skeptics, I went to the Skeptics In the Pub Forum in the breakout room. A few useful takeaways: 1) Never forget to treat your speaker as a VIP; 2) musicians are a very good resource for venue finding; 3) all venues should have disabled access if possible; 4) be wary of people wanting to do talks, as there are a few crackpots out there; 5) Meetup.com is becoming a popular online destination for meetings, at least in the UK; 6) It’s helpful to get the word out by doing a gig for other groups in the area; 7) Publicity is crucial – you still need to trawl through all the media routes. An intriguing thing for me was the use of “Interesting Talks” as a branding item.

Samantha Stein then gave a talk about Camp Quest UK. Camp Quest is a bit like the Scouts, but focused primarily on secular interests and values. There were some great activities mentioned, including talks by well known speakers, and Philosophy for Children (P4C), where kids are encouraged to think through issues and come to their own conclusions. If only there was something like that for me when I was a kid. She talked about the nasty press reception to Camp Quest, portraying atheists “grooming young children”. In the Q&A afterwards, she touched on the difficulty of government recognition as a charity because they were non-religious and they discussed “controversial” topics such as evolution. This is a travesty.

Nate Phelps

Nate Phelps

The last talk of the day was probably the most shocking of all (remember we had already had speeches on internal worms, vampire exhumations and AIDS). Nate Phelps, estranged son of Fred Phelps, talked about life within the Westboro Baptist Church, a group so hateful, the Ku Klux Klan issued a disclaimer about them on their website. He began by listing from memory all the books of the bible, as it was something demanded by his father when he was still a young child. His father was incredibly abusive – using violent beatings and psychological bullying to counteract any sense of independent thinking in his children. “You learned to stop trusting that instinctive nature that we have to distinguish right from wrong”, said Nate. As soon as Nate was 18 years of age, he left home, never to return. This wasn’t the end of the story, as Nate spent decades fighting the hobgoblins that his father had implanted in his mind. He was eventually diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He is now a vigorous campaigner against fundamentalism, calling blind faith one of the most dangerous things in society today, because it is unaccountable and not receptive to challenge. To paraphrase Nate, we live in a world of ideas, but ideas have no value unless they have been tested, vetted and subjected to the harsh light of reality. We must strive to love, and not to hate.

Throughout the talk, you couldn’t have heard a pin drop from the audience. We all got to our feet and loudly applauded when he finished. Nate’s story is at the core of why we do all this.

That concluded QED 2014. In my impression, it was as good as ever, both for the quality of the speakers, the interesting discussions, and the people I bumped into along the way. QED has a grassroots focus that makes you feel like you own a share in its success. Financial considerations aside, I’m hoping I can attend the 2015 event.

 

Further reading:

On #QEDCon, Manchester April 2014@Gwendes

Taking out the garbage: on approaching Skeptical Activism@HayleyStevens

Iain M. BanksThis is the first of a series of posts that has been in the works for quite some time. It was inspired by Iain M. Banks, a writer who, in a small number of wonderful books, imagined “The Culture”: a society where technology had taken over, creating an extraordinary utopia for its inhabitants. Iain Banks died from cancer today, at the age of 59. The likes of him we may never see again.

Imagine living five hundred years from now. Looking back on our age, perhaps they will be be appalled and morbidly fascinated by the power of something most of us take for granted today: money.

Many of us spend a huge percentage of our lives working or chasing job opportunities, with one prime objective in mind: to earn as much money as we possibly can. We do it to build a future for ourselves and our families. It’s a trade-off that we make in order to live our lives. If you want nice things, if you want a tolerable retirement, then you have to work for it.

The bargain we make ensures that many of us spend the healthiest and most exciting times of our lives in an office 8 am to 6 pm, 5 to 6 days a week. Instead of being with our family and friends, we are obliged to while away the hours with people, most of whom we would not ordinarily choose to spend our free time with. We miss out on the special occasions, the children growing up, the rich friendships, the time spent with our parents as they grow older. We forsake our interests and hobbies, following instead the financial interests of strangers who are wealthier and more powerful than we could ever hope to be. While providing many benefits, work is a leading cause of stress and fatigue. Important relationships breakdown and families split apart because of it. When you think about it, it’s a strange way to live out our best years.

The ultimate objective of all this work is retirement: spending the last few years of our life without the pressures of clock-in times, deadlines or demanding bosses. By this age, however, infirmity, ill-health or bereavement may have paid a prolonged house-call. For many, retirement comes too far too late.

A fortunate few are able to retire early, in good health, with many years left to run on the clock. For many, “retirement” does not mean hours of boredom, daytime TV and too much time on the golf course. Plenty of people still lead busy lives, with one crucial difference: what they do, they do it for themselves. Freed from the need to constantly worry about money, they can spend time following pursuits that suit them, their circumstances and their personalities. It may still be work, but with far fewer downsides.

There are also examples of people who work hard, and who love every minute of what they do. They are quite happy to spend 11, 12, 13 hours a day, plus weekends, happily beavering away at what they love. For them, money does not appear to be the prime incentive. Their work defines who they are. It’s intimately linked to their sense of self: their happiness.

This also tells us something about the nature of work. If we didn’t have to work, most of us would do something anyway. If we were freed from the need to earn money, that work might be qualitatively different, more personal, more individually focused.

It’s an intriguing idea: a future where most people would be able to choose what work they do. A world where most people, by our standards today, would be considered rich; not just in the developed world, but everywhere on the planet. On the face of it, it sounds hopelessly optimistic and unrealistic. But something like this could happen. The example of modern life suggests that work is getting scarcer by the decade – or at least the type of work done by paid humans. At the same time, exciting technologies are coming into existence that may one day enable us all to have the resources we need at our fingertips  We may need to think hard about the implications of this in the coming century.

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