Category Archives: Science

An Open Letter to David Horsey

David Horsey is a political columnist and cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times. In that capacity, he wrote and drew the following, titled, “While most Americans shun guns, the fearful keep buying more.” I’ve added a link, but since articles disappear from the Web, I’m adding the following quotation from what he wrote:

Gun owners make up half of the GOP. I would be surprised if there is not a correlation between that half and the half of Republicans who, in other polls, expressed the belief that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. I would bet they are also many of the same folks who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim or a terrorist sympathizer or a socialist or Kenya-born or all of the above. They are likely the ones who think that liberal scientists have concocted the global-warming hoax and that the Justice Department and the United Nations are plotting to disarm Americans.

Dear Mr. Horsey:

Your article drips with prejudice, and as is typcial for people afflicted with that condition, your sneering attitude has blinded you to reality. I have known quite a few gun owners since I joined their ranks. What I have seen is a subset of America that is just like the whole of the country. Some gun owners are jerks. So are some Americans. Make any disparaging remarks about gun owners you like, but the same statement would be true about any other group you care to name. What I have seen, though, and what you’d see if you took the time, is that a great many gun owners are friendly people who welcome newcomers. At shooting ranges, I’ve had the chance to shoot several types of firearms that I don’t own, thanks to the openness of others. Given the prices of ammunition these days, that’s not as small a thing as you might imagine. I’ve learned things from my fellow enthusiasts. Whatever you would picture as being the case among a group of model train collectors, the same is true about gun owners. We share with each other and with anyone who wants to be a part of our group.

But, yes, we also involve ourselves in the politics of our country. What would you do if proposals floated around constantly to limit what a columnist or cartoonist might say or draw? We do stand up for our rights. And we stand up for yours. I made my voice heard in a variety of fora when a Danish cartoonist was attacked for his cartoons about Muhammed and Islam. As a writer and college English instructor, I care a great deal about freedom of expression and academic thought. As an Other with regard to religion, it is in my interest to live in a country that respects the right of each person to make individual choices about spiritual beliefs and practices. Before you say that I’m only acting in each case in my own advantage, I am a straight man, but I support equality in marriage for gays and lesbians, and I support the right of a woman to decide what she wants to do with her body and her pregnancy.

Contrary to the quoted paragraph above, I am more of a Libertarian than a Republican. In fact, on some issues, I’m Green. I wanted a public option in the healthcare reform act, and I wanted it to take effect immediately. While I recognized Saddam Hussein as a dangerous dictator, I had strong reservations against the invasion of Iraq and was aware that he had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Barack Obama is an American citizen, having been born in the State of Hawaii. He identifies himself as a Christian, and while I’m satisfied as to his honesty there, I also know that under our Constitution, there can be no religious test for holding the office of president. On the question of climate change, I accept the scientific evidence and consensus, as I do on evolution by natural selection. The Libertarian in me wants government to have strictly defined and limited powers. I want government to protect the rights and liberties of all people in this nation and to create opportunities for everyone where such creation is possible.

When it comes to the idea of some power attempting to disarm Americans, do recall that Dianne Feinstein once said in a 60 Minutes interview that if she had had the votes, she would have pushed a bill to demand that all of us turn in our guns. The treaty that the United Nations is discussing is a thicket of bureaucratic language, but the implications of the proposals are clear. Senator Schumer’s recent bill regarding background checks includes language that if taken literally would make felons out of a great many gun owners just for doing ordinary things such as loaning a gun to a friend or leaving one stored in a home with a roommate–things that are not harmful acts. But perhaps you regard suspicion of the government as paranoia. If so, please tell me how much you trust a government that over the years has done many things that any clear-headed human being would find despicable. Suspicion and watchfulness aren’t paranoia. They are necessary and healthy states for all citizens in our kind of society.

To show you how I am not the person that you depicted in your cartoon, I make this offer: If you’re ever in northwest Arkansas, you’re welcome to join me for a day of firearms instruction and freewheeling discussion. I offer this to you, someone who showed no generosity of spirit with regard to people like me. Now, is that the action of a paranoid sociopath who resides in some alternate reality?

Greg Camp

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It’s Life, Jim, But How Do We Know It?

What does “life” mean? Hold on, now, I’m not talking about the “meaning of life.” We all know that’s forty-two, anyway. No, the question that I’m getting at is how do we know that something is alive? And no, at no point in this discussion beyond this sentence will I raise the topic of abortion.

I ask the question because I watched an episode of The Universe on Netflix last night. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that program, it’s the History Channel’s attempt to present space sciences to the masses. Occasionally, it does let slip some deep thoughts, and the pictures and animations are well done. The episode that I watched was on the subject of astrobiology. As a writer of science fiction, among other kinds of writing, this is important to me.

So here again is the question: What is life? In what follows, I’ll propose a possible definition. See what you think.

1. A living organism must reduce local entropy.

Entropy, or the second law of thermodynamics, is the observation that in a closed system, energy states must run to the lowest possible level over time. Put another way, the flow always runs from organized to disorganized. (See my desk for an example.) In an internal combustion engine, for example, the fuel, which exists at a relatively high state of potential energy, is burned. That does work, but the products of combustion now are at a lower level of potential energy than before. The universe is likely a closed system, but since it started out at a high state of energy, it has a long time to run down. Earth is not a closed system, speaking in the local sense, because the Sun provides lots of new energy. Some life instead uses geothermal energy of volcanic vents on the sea floor.

Now that you see what entropy is, consider my requirement for life. A living organism must use energy from the environment to create something more complex than its surroundings. Yes, cells eat each other, but what they produce–more of themselves–is still at a higher level of organization than minerals, atmospheric gases, and the like.

I raise this qualification to answer whether fire is alive. Yes, fire consumes food and reproduces, but what it leaves behind is less organized–at a higher state of entropy–than what was there before.

2. A living organism must create discrete units.

Is a rock crystal alive? It reproduces, and its structure is often more complex than its surroundings, but a crystal is a repetition of a relatively simple pattern. Cells, by contrast, have discrete boundaries and internal parts. Some parts absorb nutrients; some contain the genetic instructions for building and reproducing the cell, and so forth. It’s interesting to speculate as to whether a crystal could develop in that manner, but for now, what we know of them says that they are mere repetitions of an organized, but simple pattern.

3. A living organism must have the capacity to reproduce.

Is our Sun alive? In some ways, it acts like a living cell, but it can’t make more of itself. By reproduction, I mean the ability to pass on the form of the living organism through a set of instructions that will assemble a new organism that is separate from the parent. Life on Earth does this through DNA. Making more of something through accumulation–such as what happened in the formation of the solar system when small rocky bodies collided and joined to form planets–isn’t reproduction in this sense.

4. A living organism must be self-contained in its functions.

Yes, living things have to have external sources of energy to live. We all must eat. But the functions of building, repairing, and reproducing the organism have to be contained within the organism.

Is an assembly line alive, for example? It takes in parts–call them food sources–and assembles them into something more complex. But an assembly line doesn’t contain all of its functions within itself. It’s made up of the cooperative efforts of smaller units, the workers. There certainly is a level of analogy here, and the definition gets strained when we consider that multicellular organisms are something like assembly lines. I’m not happy with this part of the definition, even though I have the feeling that I know what it means. This item remains to be made rigorous.

I do want this item, though, because we have to consider whether viruses are alive. A virus is a string of RNA that takes over the machinery of a cell to make more viruses. If the virus is alive, it is only alive in a derivative sense.

What this all means:

You may be wondering why I don’t simply say that a living organism has DNA. The answer is that we may come on something that looks alive on another planet that does not use our method of encoding instructions for life functions. Consider again a crystal that is complex enough to have differentiation of parts and that does more than just copy its structure ad infinitum. Can it be alive?

Or what about computer viruses, worms, and the like? When do they reach a level that qualifies them as being alive? There’s a lot of discussion about what is required for machine intelligence, but if computers gain the ability to assemble themselves, won’t they be a kind of life?

I hot that this isn’t going to be like pornography: We may not be able to define life in a rigorous sense, but we’ll know it when we see it. But even loose definitions can work as guides.

Feel free to offer suggestions for improvement in the definition or alternative ways to define the idea.

You Never Created a Job. . .

How many times have we heard someone say, “X doesn’t deserve to lead because he’s never created a job”? Such a comment gets used also in relation to government in general and to academia. Let’s consider two cases:

1. NASA and the Military space program

It’s an old observation that our space program has created much of the technology that is a part of our modern lives. We can debate some details, but think about the communication that’s possible now. Consider how it’s possible to know exactly where we are by consulting a single gadget. The most obvious contribution is the way in which space has been opened up. This is the result of the national programs of America, Russia, and others.

These days, private companies are taking advantage of these technologies to provide products and services. Remember that space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey? A corporate transportation company carried Dr. Floyd into space and to the Moon, and he used a service that looked a lot like Skype to talk to his daughter. All of that is likely in the near future, and the companies that will provide it will have got the underlying technology from scholars and the government.

2. The Internet

And I ain’t talking Al Gore here. The Internet is the creation of DARPA, the military’s research agency, and universities. Since you’re here reading this article on-line, I don’t have to explain the value of their work, nor must I tell you about the many jobs that exist because of it. Jeff Bezos is a smart person, but he’d still be moving paper around in a hedge fund firm if it weren’t for the Ivory Tower and the Gummit.

What do we learn here? Some technologies require decades to mature. Private companies or corporations can’t spend that long and that much money to develop them. Schools and governments have the time. If we deny them the money, we shut off a great deal of potential. At the same time, having established the field, the government especially needs to open it up for everyone to participate and to get out of the way. SOPA and attempts to ban types of content between consenting adults are examples of not letting go.

We can spend our society’s money in many ways. Promoting science and technology has clear, if long term rewards. A society that wishes to thrive must do this.

Palmistry or Hand Wringing?

Monday’s All Things Considered (16 April 2012) reported on a study done at UCLA by Daniel Fessler, Colin Holbrook, and Jeffrey Snyder that illustrates why I am suspicious of claims made by supposed scientists who study human beings. The study itself can be read here.

For those who don’t have time to read the whole thing, I’ll summarize. Several hundred persons were lured in by ads on Craig’s List and other places and shown pictures of hands holding various objects–handguns, a caulking gun, a water gun, saws, drills, a paintbrush, and knives. These persons then had to guess the size and masculinity of the man whose hand was holding the object. The conclusion that Fessler and his fellows drew is that a gun makes a person seem larger. Consider the following points about this study:

1. In the interview, Fessler said that humans make an assessment of whether to “aggress” or not to “aggress” based on size. “Aggress” is the kind of word that appeals to people like Fessler. After all, his kind twisted “issue” to mean problem.

2. One would imagine that people trained in science would understand that anyone who will make a guess as to the size and masculinity of a man based solely on a picture of a hand with an object in it is someone whose opinions cannot be trusted on any subject.

3. In the interview, the All Things Considered reporter identified the handgun as a .45 caliber weapon. Look at the pictures used in the study here. The two handguns in those pictures are a Beretta 92 (or possibly a Taurus clone) and a Colt Python. The revolver is correctly referred to as a .357 Magnum in the study, but the Beretta is called a .45 there as well. Beretta 92s come in a variety of calibers, including typically 9mm and .40 S&W in America, but never in .45 caliber.

What this illustrates is that when a person’s career depends on analyzing human nature, he comes up with something, regardless of its connection to reality. Human beings are much more complex than this study accepts, and the social sciences will never understand us until they absorb a large dose of logic.

By Design

I was raised in a community that demanded belief in creationism.  Seventh-day Adventist doctrine was that the Earth is 6,000 years old and all kinds of living beings were separately created by God.  My problem was that I read too much as a child, and I saw how such a belief has no basis in evidence.

These days, I spend little time paying attention to creationism, other than reading and commenting on the posts of The Sensuous Curmudgeon.  (See the Blogroll to the right and down.)  But one of my students in my Composition I class wanted to write an argument paper on why evolution by natural selection is wrong, and this woke up my memories of doing battle on the side of Darwin.  (I was once labelled the most dangerous person on campus by an Adventist theology professor.)

The present version of creationism is called Intelligent Design.  The argument is that life is both too complex and too well structured to have come about by chance.  There is much that is wrong with such thinking, but for the purposes of this article, let’s consider just the idea that a human being is well designed.

As an analogy, think about a skyscraper.  If you were going to build one, how would you design the support columns?  For a rectangular building, you’d put them at the four corners, no?  Or perhaps you’d put one column in the center.  That second option would work better if the tower needs to be flexible.  A stable structure, though, would not have the main column off to one side with the floors extending away from it.

If human beings are intelligently designed, I have to ask why our spine is placed where it is.  For those of us to whom good nutrition has given some length of bone (as Dr. Lecter put it), height equals back pain.  After standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes or raking leaves in the yard, I want to ask my supposed designer why the human body is so poorly assembled.

The answer, of course, is that our distant ancestors went about on four legs, and a spine at the top, a ridge with rafters coming down, makes good sense.  Watch how stable and flexible a dog or a cat is.  Natural selection, though, operates within boundaries.  A special designer should have made a new blueprint for a new creature, the upright animal, but the rules of biology require working with what is available.  We don’t see something entirely new without antecedents popping up in nature.

Now why am I worrying over this subject?  After all, I’m a writer and English teacher.

For one, I’ve insisted that my students have to meet three conditions in writing their argument essays.  The subject must be 1)  Controversial, 2)  Reasonable, and 3)  Important.  Creationism fails on the second one.  Believing in it is a matter of faith alone, and faith is not something that can be argued reasonably.  Some have a hard time seeing the distinction, but it is a valuable lesson.

But there is another point to make here.  Think about science fiction aliens.  They are often well designed, either as perfect monsters or improved humans.  Vulcans, for example, live somewhat longer, are a bit stronger, have special mental powers, and don’t get eaten by gas clouds with a taste for iron in the blood.  (They also only get to have sex once every seven years, so there are trade-offs.)  The Alien in the movie of the same name had corrosive goo, lots of teeth and an extra mouth, and a nifty bone structure.  It was purpose built to show off Sigourney Weaver”s interesting features.

The problem that I’m addressing is how science fiction writers have a tendency to be intelligent designers.  I’ve faced this myself in writing one of my s.f. novels.  Alien life will have evolved on a different planet and must not look like tweaked Earthers.  At the same time, aliens have to be products of a possible set of mutations and descents.  In other words, they can’t be perfect.

That isn’t easy to do.  Tolkien spent decades constructing the cultures of Middle Earth and got believable results.  Many writers don’t take that much time.  Perhaps that’s why John W. Campbell told Isaac Asimov not to write about aliens.