Tag Archives: science

Travelling in Time

A recent article in The Huffington Post repeated the claim made by some physicists that time-travel is possible only into the future. Travelling into the future is obvious in one sense–we’re doing it right now. But what we typically mean is motion in time that doesn’t match what we’d expect. A jump of decades, for example.

Albert Einstein told us one way to go about leaping ahead into the future. All you have to do is get close to the speed of light. Or you can pass through an intense gravitational field. In both of those cases, time for you will slow down in relation to what those outside of the relativistic effects are experiencing.

But there’s nothing particularly challenging about the idea of travelling into the future. As I said, we’re doing it right now, just at a familiar rate. We understand speeding up, though, and getting to tomorrow in a hurry seems natural to those of us who live busy lives. It’s going back to the past that throws logic into a loop and threatens our understanding of who we are.

One reason for this is the grandfather paradox. It’s pleasing to note that this term comes from a science fiction writer, one RenĂ© Barjavel, but we’ll get back to that genre in a bit. The paradox goes as follows:

You go back into the past and kill your grandfather before he meets your grandmother. But since your grandfather isn’t available to be your ancestor, how did you come into being?

This paradox assumes that the universe operates according to logic, but that’s a safe assumption, given the predictive power of science. But the universe doesn’t have a law book. In physical terms, what would enforce this?

Travel to the past would require some kind of gateway between that moment and the present. Stephen Hawking offers one possible answer to what would make this impossible. This gateway–often a wormhole is suggested here–would not just allow the time traveller to go through, but would also permit natural radiation such as decaying atoms, light, and so forth to pass. But that radiation would then move forward into the future, creating a feedback loop that would rapidly collapse the wormhole. Rapidly here means too fast for someone to use it. Now since according to the First Law of Thermodynamics, energy can neither be created nor destroyed, this might itself be a violation, though energy can be transformed. A wormhole, for example, might cause energy sent into it to blueshift, and this higher frequency could be what would cause the collapse. We also have to recall that the Second Law tells us that energy can be changed into a form that cannot be used to do work. Instead of causing feedback, energy sent into the past might cease to be useful by the time it reached the present again.

Here we’re at risk of getting into deep mathematics. Sticking with the notion of causality–namely the idea that someone has to be my grandfather’s killer and I can’t be that someone if I didn’t have a grandfather–we still have the intuitive sense that going into the past should be impossible.

The way around this, one that we science fiction writers have been tossing about for decades, involves parallel realities. An excellent illustration of this is Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In it, the narrator confronts the nature of choice. At each moment, he can pick from many options what he will do. What if each one of those is actually the one he selects? In other words, imagine that at each moment all possibilities fork off into separate universes–separate expressions of each possible quantum state.

This is how I answer the grandfather paradox. I’ll throw in some dates and names to make this easier. Henry Dowland, a nineteenth century gunfighter, decides that his life in 1870-A is intolerable and travels back to 1800-A, a time before his father was born, to kill his paternal grandfather. Upon doing so, Dowland returns to 1870. But the 1870 that he arrives in is not 1870-A, but 1870-B. The act of killing his grandfather was done in a different timeline, the B line, but he brings along with him all of his personal history that he accumulated in the A line. Thereby, he can still exist, since he didn’t kill the A grandfather. He may or may not go on to live a wonderful life, but the past that he remembers won’t be what those around him recall.

What we see here is that while time travel to the past might be possible, travel to our own past may not work. As distressing as jumping around to alternative realities would be, at least this does relieve us of the burden of logical paradoxes.

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

I’ve raised the question of civility in discourse before, but it’s time to revisit the subject. Of late, I have been trolling the The Huffington Post–well, I say trolling, but really what I’ve been doing is expressing a minority opinion there. The editorial stance and the position taken by much of the commenters leans hard to the left. As my regular readers know, I’m a pogo stick on the traditional political spectrum. That’s because my core political philosophy is aimed at securing liberty for the individual, something I’ve taken to calling eleutherianism. Politics is best represented not as a spectrum, limited to one dimension, but as a multi-dimensional space.

Nevertheless, since at times the comments that I make feel to the right of many opinions expressed on the HuffnPuff, I get a chorus of replies intending to educate me on some point. The problem here is that said commenters have presumed that I don’t know what they do and thereby take it upon themselves to call me ignorant–and occasionally to correct the perceived deficiency.

What they apparently cannot comprehend is that people can have the same body of facts but arrive at different conclusions. They write comments in the manner that many of my students write argument essays by dumping a pile of facts into a posting and leaving. What they fail to understand is that facts don’t speak for themselves.

Let’s take the hot topic de jour, global warming. Some doubt the science, but rationally speaking, the facts are that the Earth is heating up, and human activity is the cause. But notice that those facts tell us precisely nothing about what we ought to do. There are a variety of responses that can be taken, from nothing at all to a radical restructuring of human societies. One can be fully aware of the facts and yet reach different answers regarding the appropriate action.

I’m not seeking consolation here. Politics, just like any other serious human endeavor, is a messy and occasionally ugly business. What I am suggesting is that we will all do better in arriving at solutions if we lay aside the urge to smugness and cease to presume that we know the facts of which our opponents must be ignorant.

Of course, there are some about whom we cannot escape the realization that they are willfully ignorant. Aye, there’s the rub. Separating the fools from the worthy adversaries is not easy. I’m asking here to give everyone a fair chance first before jumping to the conclusion that the person isn’t deserving of being heard.

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

A Draft of Moonlight

A Draft of Moonlight is now available for sale in print version or as an e-book. Here’s the blurb:

Every schoolchild is supposed to know that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren were the first human beings to reach the Moon on the 20th of July 1969. But what if that is not the true story?

In Greg Camp’s new science fiction political thriller, Robert Smith discovers a plot hatched in the Cold War Soviet Union to reshape the balance of power decades in the future. As he struggles to save Earth from disaster, he has to weed through the tangles of corporations and the Lunar government. Along the way, he finds something even more important: human connection.


Crossposted at English 301: Reading and Writing.


Hurry Up and Grow

The recent incident at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin raises once again the question of race. To me, few things are more tedious than this subject, but it remains one for heated argument, given America’s history.

For purposes of this discussion, let’s clarify two terms: race and culture.

Race: A sub-group within a species that shares a particular characteristic or set of characteristics not held by others in the same species.

Culture: The art, language, religion, philosophy, behavior, technology, and other achievements of a group of people.

We’ve been told by well-meaning agents of government, schools, and churches that racism–the belief that one racial group is superior to another–is wrong. I’m going to go further than that. Racism is stupid. Human beings are nearly identical, in terms of genetics, no matter who their ancestors were. We all ultimately come from the same stock, a group living in the Great Rift Valley in central Africa. The human genome project used the DNA of four or five humans to sequence what we all have. It is true to say that skin color, eye color, certain bone structures, and so forth are genetically determined. So is susceptibility to some diseases.

That being said, a basic scientific principle needs to be remembered here: There is more variation with a group than between groups. Who is taller, a man or a woman? Obviously, the question is nonsense. Any one reading this has known tall women and short men. One can say that on average, men tend to be taller, but there’s a huge area of overlap in heights. The same kind of thing applies to all manner of physical characteristics.

Consider especially one absurdity of the neo-Nazi killer in Wisconsin. Now the motives of that man will likely always be obscure to rational people, but we’re left to presume that he did what he did because the people attending the Sikh temple were not “white.” As Weer’d Beard points out, many Indians are the descendants of the original and genuine Aryans. I suppose that it comes down to this: Knucklehead didn’t like how they looked. Or perhaps it was their turbans.

Whatever the reason, it was crazy. Speaking rationally and scientifically, all races are equal. That statement is true, but it’s also trivial. I say that because arguing over a person’s genetic heritage is a waste of time. My ancestors come from various parts of northwestern Europe, and I like to joke that this is what gave me my intolerance for hot weather, but realistically, it’s meaningless. Yes, I get sunburns easier than people from the equatorial regions, but no matter how much I want to dodge responsibility, my urges to listen to Wagner and go on rampages is all mine and not the fault of my Norse ancestors.

So what does matter? Are there any valid measures for ranking groups of people?

To answer that, consider culture. What must a group of people do to be considered successful?

1. The basic requirement is that a group can secure its own needs–food, housing, health, and so forth.

2. Then the group has to pass on its way of doing things to the next generation.

Lots of groups achieve this much. Those that fail the first two don’t last long enough to be remembered.

3. Having succeeded in mere survival, the group must add some distinct and new thing to the totality of human achievement.

Yes, that one is vague. We can argue all day about whether a particular thing–statue, language, farm implement, etc.–is worthy, but I hope that my readers can see the general idea here.

Finally, there’s this last item:

4. The achievements of the group have lasting influence, not only within the group, but on other groups as well.

We can measure the relative worth of a culture according to this yardstick. This is not a call for one culture to dominate another. Groups of people have the right to choose whatever mode of living that they wish without having to seek the approval of others. What it is intended to do is to provide a measure that will encourage each group to do better.

Culture is affected by many things–geography and climate, history, and so forth–but the choices made by the persons in that culture also matter. But being human is fundamentally about rising above where we started. We are not forced to be merely the expression of our genes, and going on about one’s genetic heritage only holds all of us back. I don’t care who your parents were. I care what you do.

Words Fail Us

Weer’d World today informs us that Harvard University has hired a BGLTQ director by the name of Vanidy “Van” Bailey. That in itself is worthy of comment, and I will offer one soon, but it must be noted that The Harvard Crimson posted a correction on 3 July to the article reporting this hiring. Apparently, Bailey prefers to eschew “gendered pronouns” in reference to herself. The article and correction can be read here.

I am on record here on this weblog and in many other places in support of human rights, including specifically the right to be attracted to others as our natures dictate. I don’t care whether you’re gay, straight, or mix-and-match. As long as you act only with other consenting adults and as long as you have the discretion to get a room before you get to second base, you and I have no problem.

But it’s a biological fact that multicellular life, in the vast majority of species and particularly for mammals, is divided into male and female. That’s not a value judgement, nor is it a political or moral characteristic. Denying this only serves to make Bailey look foolish. She has succeeded in that, given the various comments posted to the article and correction (including two of my own). What I hope she comes to understand is that not all the comments are necessarily anti-homosexual. There are people in this world who wish to retain logic and science, while at the same time valuing personal liberty. I include myself in that group.

What Bailey is doing appears to be an effort to erase our awareness of the differences between men and women. What are those differences? There are the obvious biological ones, expressed in anatomy and physiology. Folklore suggests many others, but science hesitates to study those for political reasons. I am reluctant to take sides in that discussion, especially since it is also a fact that there is more diversity within a group than between groups, speaking in biological or sociological terms. But the XX genes do create structures that are visibly different from the ones created by XY. To put the matter another way, I would like my bank to use the term, millionaire, in reference to me, but facts are facts.

But what of BGLTQ? It stands for Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered, and Queer. That’s a mouthful, and its tastes will elicit different reactions, depending on the mouth, but I am curious as to why Harvard University feels the need for all of that to be directed. Harvard’s only job is to be an institution of higher learning. Matters of housing, civility, and law can surely be handled by the Dean of Students (or whatever strained title he or she is given) and the campus police. Students ought to be able to form such clubs as they wish, and members of the faculty ought to be allowed to organize discussions with their colleagues and with students, but the institution should have only one purpose: education.

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.