Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Kepler Is My Hero

Johannes Kepler, the German mathematician who formulated the three laws of planetary motion (a foundation for Newton's ideas later on), is my hero. I am in the middle of a biography on him, and though I don't think it is particularly well-written, I am enjoying it nonetheless because Kepler is an interesting character. What impresses me the most is not his genius but the way in which he approached thinking. Whether it was a theological, scientific, or philosophical issue, he approached it with an open mind and a keen sense of truth.

He was a devout Lutheran, and attended seminary to become a preacher and theologian. But he never just towed the party line. He was critical of both Catholics and Protestants on various issues, pointing out where each had gotten something wrong. Most of his close friends and colleagues would reject any view or opinion from a Catholic, but Kepler would aggravate them to no end by highlighting parts of the Catholic position that he thought were true. This kind of talk, as well as criticism of certain doctrines of Lutherans, resulted in Kepler being excommunicated from his own religious group. Later, in the midst of the counter-reformation, despite intense pressure (and danger) Kepler refused to abandon his core Lutheran beliefs to appease the angry Catholic authorities. His nuanced view of truth and theology was a rarity in the 16th century. Kepler was a non-partisan voice in the midst of the crazy religious wars of his time.

Kepler's Lutheran approach to science may have also helped him break from long-held assumptions about the universe. Theologically, Luther suggested stripping away centuries old dogma and established interpretation to allow the individual to read the Bible for themselves and form their own interpretation. In science, Aristotelianism had long dominated how the world worked and how the heavens were arranged. Kepler, though, didn't just accept this dogma and work within its framework; he approached the heavens too with an open mind. He was a Copernican (Copernicus was the canon law priest in the Catholic church who suggested the planets revolved around the Sun rather than the Earth) when few were, and went on to formulate cosmological laws which went against the received Greek wisdom. Kepler's willingness to seek truth whether or not it went "against the grain" led to scientific work that became a huge stepping stone to modern cosmology.

Kepler was also a neo-platonist, obsessed with mathematical beauty and harmony (so was Copernicus). Kepler thought that he could discover God's laws and the underlying harmony of the universe; this, and his exceptional mathematical gifts, are part of the reason why he ultimately pursued science instead of theology. Kepler saw his science as a branch of theology; the study of the order God had put in his creation. Kepler's story runs straight against our own received wisdom that science and theology are opposed and that religious belief is incompatible with science or scientific discovery. On the contrary, religious convictions were a primary motivation for men like Kepler (and Newton) to study the universe. Both saw themselves as uncovering the mathematical secrets God had used to make the universe run.

Kepler's intellectual approach to difficult or contentious issues is one I hope to emulate. Rarely is one person or one person's viewpoint entirely correct (including our own); we would be better off if we could admit this and, like Kepler, keep an open mind while searching for truth.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Battle of the Blogs

Unwisely, I commented on someone's blog and ended up probably wasting way too much time in an exchange of comments concerning science and religion. That person's view is typical of the so called "new" atheists like Richard Dawkins. If you're interested, our exchange can be seen here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Early Life: not so simple after all

I haven't posted on evolution yet, though it is one of my main areas of interest. Quite frankly I don't know where to start. It's also so complex that I fear that I would find individual blog posts inadequate. Maybe in the future I'll change my mind. For now, I'll just post interesting tidbits.

That standard view of evolution includes the understanding that life started out simple and grew more complex as time went on. We can now understand the biology of organisms as arising from the information contained in the genes of that organism (though epigenetics is now complicating that somewhat). Evolutionary biologists then would expect simple life to have simple genes, and complex life to have more complex genes. As time went on natural selection and mutation (primarily) would add to and modify those genes, resulting in better adapted and often more complex life forms. Nevermind that even the "simplest"organism and its genes are incredibly complicated, a new study published in the journal Nature has found that the genetic code of of the Trichoplax adhaerens, thought to be one of the earliest animals, is about as complicated as the human genome. Not only is it close to being as complicated, this animal contains genes that code for organs, specialized cells, proteins, and body parts of more complex animals. In other words, this animal contains genes for body parts, organs, etc. that it doesn't have and that only animals in the future (relative to the time of this animal's origin) would have. It would seem that instead of evolution generating complexity, the complexity has preceded evolution. Likewise, in a study published this past July in the journal Science the genome of a tiny sea anemone was also found to be quite complicated, containing thousands of genes identical to those of humans.

This throws a huge monkey wrench in the standard developmental picture of life's history. The fact that there is such a huge discrepancy between the DNA of an organism and the morphology of an organism should give us pause regarding just how much we really understand about biology. As for evolution, a scientist once said (I don't remember who) that all we would need to disprove the general theory of evolution is to find a rabbit in the Cambrian period rock strata. Well, what if we've found (in a sense) a human?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Alternative Energy Hype #2

First up: the Hydrogen Fuel Cell. The next big thing in cars, we are told, is the hydrogen fuel cell. Claims of zero emissions and environmentally friendliness abound (see here or here). It's too bad then that hydrogen fuel cells can actually produce more greenhouse gases than our good old internal combustion engines. How can that be, you say? They couldn't be lying to us, could they? Well, in a sense, no, they aren't lying to you. The cars themselves would not produce any greenhouse gases. But whence comes this hydrogen to fill our cars?

Back to that question in a second; first, how does a fuel cell work? Basically, a hydrogen fuel cell works by combining hydrogen and oxygen to form water. Hydrogen enters from one side of the cell, and oxygen from the other. The hydrogen atom is split into a proton and an electron; the proton crosses a membrane toward the oxygen while the electron is forced to go around to meet the oxygen. That travel by the electron produces some electricity (electricity essentially is the flow of electrons) which can be used to power the car. The proton, electron, and oxygen then meet up to form water.

Ok, back to hydrogen. Hydrogen is not a normal part of the atmosphere: it is too light and gravitationally escapes from Earth. Oxygen is readily available and is produced by photosynthesis. Hydrogen, though, needs to be extracted from some hydrogen-containing source. There are two primary ways to acquire hydrogen for fuel cell use. The first, and worst, is through straightforward electrolysis. An electrical current is run through water to spit the molecules and produce hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then stored for use in the fuel cell. This is incredibly inefficient; almost 80% of the energy is lost, leaving us with an efficiency of 20%. Compare that to the processes of extracting and refining oil etc., which has an efficiency of 80%. The fuel cell vehicle itself is very efficient (almost 40%) at utilizing that energy once it gets to the car, but the process to get the hydrogen fuel is so costly that the overall efficiency of electric grid hydrogen fuel cells is actually less than your average combustion engine. Besides being so inefficient, a lot of the electricity needed to split the water comes from coal plants (around 50%). This leads us to an overall greenhouse gas emissions rating that is actually higher than normal cars (~440 grams per mile compared to ~380 grams per mile). Unbelievable.

Fortunately, there is a more efficient way to produce hydrogen. It's called steam reforming. The process involves using steam to break down natural gas into its components, which include hydrogen. The hydrogen can then be stored for use in a fuel cell. This process is way more efficient than grid electric (~60% efficient compared to ~20%). The high efficiency of the fuel cell combined with the good efficiency of the production method leads to the highest overall efficiency of the major engine types in automobiles, around 22%. This does not sound very impressive, but compared to normal gas engines (~16%) it's a good step up. Unfortunately, this method of obtaining hydrogen requires natural gas. This is, of course, a type of fossil fuel. One byproduct of the steam reform process is, you guessed it, carbon dioxide. At least this second method actually does produce less greenhouse gases (~140 grams per mile compared to the ~380 grams per mile) than gasoline engines. Still, we will eventually run out of natural gas, except for the relatively small amounts that are produced biologically (in swamps, etc.).

The larger message here is that despite the hype surrounding hydrogen fuel cells, they in fact do have emissions (indirectly, through their fuel sources) and in some cases are actually less energy efficient or produce more greenhouse gases than gasoline engines. And the more efficient method may only be sustainable on a small scale (e.g. using biological natural gas).

Next: biofuels (or maybe hybrids).

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The God Gene and John Cleese

You've got to check out John Cleese's take on the gene that makes us all believe in God...here.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Alternative Energy Hype #1

Each year I teach my students about the two major biogeochemical cycles (carbon and nitrogen) and their ecological importance. We discuss the human impacts on these cycles through the use of fossil fuels or other activities, and we also of course talk about alternative sources of energy. I assign a small research project which they work on in groups. They have to learn in some detail the idea behind and specifics of a particular source (wind, solar, bio, etc.). Then they have to present it to the rest of the class with some sort of visual illustrating efficiency, costs, etc. I believe developing these other sources of energy is crucial to our future (solar and nuclear seem the most promising to me; solar is the ultimate renewable energy, nuclear is pretty close and is extremely efficient). It's important that today's students develop an understanding and appreciation of these endeavors. However, as we attempt to develop and manage the processes required to access, store, and utilize these sources of energy it's also important to ensure that these processes actually are beneficial, actually are in some real way better than fossil fuels. Some processes have unacknowledged, unpublicized side effects or costs; others are having suprising impacts where we didn't expect. There are a number of misconceptions floating around that need to be clarified. This will be the first in a series examining some of the major players: biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells, hybrids, and nuclear.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Gullibility and Politics

Why are people so gullible when it comes to politics? Intelligent people on both sides of the political spectrum seem to go crazy when it comes to their beloved candidates. On one blog I read, in which most posters lean toward the conservative side, there are constant references to "Barack Hussein Obama," obviously trying to imply something negative from the guy's middle name. I've heard of lots of rumors about his supposed Islamic beliefs and training and all that. Now we have all sorts of crazy rumors about Sarah Palin. First was that her daughter actually gave birth to Palin's latest child, with all sorts of evidence about how they looked etc. which turned out to be bogus. Now there are rumors about book bans which apparently also turned out to be bogus, with some of the books she was supposed to have banned not even being published yet at the time of the alleged banning. My wife got an email forwarded to her from a fellow grad student (in earnest) regaling her with crazy stories about Palin from "someone who really knows her." Uh-huh. And Barack Obama is actually Saddam Hussein; when was Hussein toppled in Iraq: 2003. When did Saddam, I mean Barack, begin his campaign for the senate: 2003. It all fits!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Rise of Modern Geology

In most modern texts the credit for the development of modern geology goes to folks like James Hutton and Charles Lyell. Perhaps the term "uniformitarianism" rings a bell, describing the approach that "the present is the key to the past." In other words, all geologic phenomena, past and present, can be described by the same processes we see today acting over long periods of time. Earth's history is therefore uniform and accessible to scientists today. Proponents of the other historical tradition , the catastrophists of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, are dismissed as religiously motivated quacks. Their theories only retarded science, while Hutton and Lyell paved the way for our modern understanding of the Earth. Historians have shown this common narrative to be yet another myth (see here or here) concerning science and religion.

This time, Charles Lyell in the 19th century and C.G. Gillespies in the 20th may be blamed in part for perpetrating this myth. Lyell, in his Principles of Geology, spent some time in the introduction framing the catastrophists as religious folk whose theories were based on religious bias and miracles rather than scientific evidence. Gillespies in his 1951 book Genesis and Geology set up the narrative describing certain early geologists (Hutton and Lyell) as the true founders of the discipline while ignoring the contributions of others. Catastrophists were portrayed as religious and as only impeding science by, among other things, sticking to a Biblical time scale and invoking supernatural events like Noah's flood.

The truth, of course, is more complicated. In an attempt to keep this short, I will bullet the main points:

  • First, it is true that 17th century Protestants argued for a young Earth and influenced the study of natural history in a way that did not exactly parallel our modern approach. However, the priests and theologians were studying natural history and were certainly a major part of the tradition which led to our modern approach.
  • Some catastrophists were Christians; others were not. Many made significant contributions to geology. Most were not concerned with the exact age of the Earth at all.
  • Those catastrophists who did argue for a natural history more in line with scripture were British; in other words, this was an isolated phenomena, not representative of the tradition as a whole.
  • Neptunism, a movement within catastrophism which invoked water and floods to explain geologic phenomena often had nothing to do with supernatural events like Noah's flood. Most catastrophists, Christian or otherwise, were perfectly content invoking natural events to explain natural history.
  • Catastrophists like Cuvier, Hooker, Humbolt, Sedgwick, Murchison, Werner, and de Maillet all made contributions to modern geology, including the understanding that the Earth's crust is made of ordered layers of rocks (the stratigraphical sequence). The importance of this cannot be overestimated.
  • George Cuvier was an eminent paleontologist and catastrophist who established the fact that extinction events had occurred on Earth through catastrophes, not the slow everyday processes of Hutton and Lyell.
  • Hutton and Lyell, far from being paragons of objectivity, were influenced heavily by their own religious beliefs. They were deists.
  • In their theories, the Earth was eternal and ahistorical. This is a direct result of their religious beliefs and is in flat-out contradiction with our modern understanding of the Earth.
  • The catastrophists got it right; our Earth had a beginning and has had major, different historical periods. The Earth and its history is not as "uniform" as Hutton and Lyell would have liked.
  • Catastrophists believed that the Earth was hotter back when it formed and therefore geologic processes like earthquakes and volcanoes have differed throughout geologic time. They were right. We now know that the Earth was originally molten and has been cooling ever since.
  • In short, our modern understanding is a combination of uniformitarian and catastrophist theory. Our Earth is shaped both by slow, everyday processes like weathering, erosion, movement of tectonic plates, and by catastrophic, historical events like the original formation and cooling of the Earth, extinctions, ice ages, and asteroid impacts.
This myth is illustrative of the ambition of people who would like to rewrite history in favor of a chosen few scientists whose taste in worldview more closely mirrors their own. Even non-religious scientists get lumped in with the religious ones and dismissed if they don't fit the desired narrative.

Darwin's Face Seen In Stain

DAYTON, TN—A steady stream of devoted evolutionists continued to gather in this small Tennessee town today to witness what many believe is an image of Charles Darwin—author of The Origin Of Species and founder of the modern evolutionary movement—made manifest on a concrete wall in downtown Dayton.

"I brought my baby to touch the wall, so that the power of Darwin can purify her genetic makeup of undesirable inherited traits," said Darlene Freiberg, one among a growing crowd assembled here to see the mysterious stain, which appeared last Monday on one side of the Rhea County Courthouse.

See the rest here.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Terri Gross and Catholic Priests

Terri Gross is the host of NPR's Fresh Air radio program. It is one of my favorite shows, and I appreciate her skill and style as an interviewer. However, there was at least one show where her "liberal" bias shown through in such a way that I thought it diminished the quality (and a little bit, the integrity) of the show. My intention in this post is not to argue one way or another if the media are on the whole liberal or not. But a show last year (or maybe a few years ago) where she interviewed two Catholic priests was illustrative of a liberal approach to homosexuality and the church. One priest was gay (not sure if his employers knew or not) and another was a priest who thought that homosexuals should not be part of the priesthood. Terry interviewed each person individually. At this point I don't remember the entire conversation with either priest, but one thing, or rather one question has stuck in my mind. Terri, speaking to the priest who opposed gay priests, asked, who are you to say whether or not a priest can have a different sexual orientation? Who are you to pronounce judgement on another's choices? Fair enough. The priest answered very calmly and explained that he was not anyone to judge or decide what's right or wrong. But, he said, God's moral nature determines moral laws. His (the priest's) opinion is not what makes the gay priest unacceptable; rather, it is God who has set up moral law, which is now Catholic doctrine. Now, I am not a Catholic, and it is also not my intent here to argue whether or not gay priests should be accepted by the church. I would like to point out though, that Terri asked no such challenging questions of the gay priest. I can't help but think that to be fair she should have asked a similar question. How about, who are you to judge and condemn a millenia old institution no one is forcing you to join? Who are you to tell a whole community of people that they must change their beliefs to accommodate yours? Or, more to the point, who are you to tell God (for in the view of Catholics, and Christians in general, it is God who has established Christian morality) that he must change his views? Why didn't Terri ask the tough questions to the gay priest? It would only be fair. But her assumption from the start was that the gay priest was correct and the other one wrong. Just an observation.

P.S. If I have any liberal readers gnashing teeth over this post, don't. The main reason you won't find much criticism of conservative authors/bloggers/talk show hosts here is that I can't stand most of them and don't waste my time reading or listening to them.