Entries for March 2010

March 31, 2010

Big Bang for beginners-14: Does the Big Bang theory violate the second law of thermodynamics?

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

In the previous post, I showed that the creation of the universe does not, as is sometimes thought, violate the law of conservation of energy, otherwise known as the first law of thermodynamics.

Another supposed problem that disappears under close examination deals with entropy. Entropy is a quantity that has a precise definition in science but whose meaning has not become as familiar to the layperson as other scientific terms like energy. It can be loosely related to what we call the level of disorder or the loss of information or the amount of 'useless' energy (i.e., energy that cannot be utilized to perform work). So for example a system that is more disordered (a sock drawer in which the socks have been unceremoniously dumped) has a higher entropy than an ordered system (where the socks are neatly arranged in matching pairs.) Similarly a state in which information decreases or the amount of useless energy increases can be said to be a state in which entropy in increasing.

The second law of thermodynamics says that the entropy of a closed system must either increase or stay the same. It cannot decrease. Any closed system (i.e., one in which no energy is allowed to enter or leave) that is left to itself will approach an equilibrium state, its entropy increasing until it levels out at the maximum value once equilibrium is reached. So for example, if you take a closed container of (say) helium gas into a closed room and open the lid, the helium that was at that instant just in one region of the room (a state of partial order) will approach equilibrium by diffusing until it occupies the entire room, at which point the disorder is greatest and entropy is maximum.

The second law of thermodynamics is considered to be inviolate on a macroscopic scale and is what rules out the possibility of creating perpetual motion machines. As Arthur Eddington, famous for his experiment testing Einstein's theory that light could be bent by gravitational fields, said in his 1927 Gifford Lectures (The Nature of the Physical World (1928), p. 74.)

If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations—then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation—well these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

The Big Bang seems, at first glance, to violate the second law. It starts off as a dense almost perfectly homogeneous gas (thus at almost maximum entropy) and then seems to separate into clumps that formed stars and galaxies. Hasn't order increased and thus the entropy decreased, and since the universe is a closed system, hasn't this violated the second law?

The solution here is that because the universe is expanding it keeps getting shifted out of equilibrium, and in the drive to reach a new equilibrium state, you can get pockets of order occurring without violating the second law, because the maximum allowable entropy also keeps increasing.

Back to our helium example, even after the gas has completely occupied the room, if we now increase the volume of space available to it by opening the door that connects to an adjacent room, then the gas is now suddenly in partial order again because it is in only one part of the total space allowable to it. It is thus far from equilibrium and needs to start diffusing again to reach the new equilibrium where it uniformly occupies both rooms. In other words, its entropy increases even though it was at maximum entropy before the door was opened. This happens because the increasing volume accessible to the gas also increases the maximum entropy available to it.

In more technical terms, if we consider the universe to be a sphere of radius R that is increasing, the maximum allowable entropy increases as the square of R, while the actual entropy of the universe increases less rapidly, only linearly with R. Thus even if the initial universe was at maximum entropy for its size, as the universe expands its entropy can increase while still being easily able to accommodate the increasing order we see. In fact, calculations done assuming that there exist ten planets per star, 100 billion stars for every galaxy and 100 billion galaxies (which are our best current estimates) show that the ordering of the planets produces changes in entropy of only one part in 1011 of the total current entropy. Victor Stenger (Has Science Found God?, 2003, p. 152) summarizes the situation:

No violation of the second law of thermodynamics was required to produce the universe.

I don't want to give the impression that these explanations are the last word on the subject and that all the problems are solved. Entropy is a tricky concept and there are disagreements (as is usually the case with research at the frontiers) on how to calculate it for the early universe. For example, some argue that the maximum allowable entropy of the universe remains constant even as the universe expands, and that the reason that the entropy can increase is because it started out with a small value at the Big Bang, well below the maximum. So the second law of thermodynamics is not violated in this case either.

The point is that blanket statements that the Big Bang violates the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and thus the only explanation is that it is due to the actions of a creator, are simply not true.

Next: The essential tension in science – puzzle or paradigm shift?

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity and Eve

The Bible never warned us that she was such a ditzy drama queen.

March 30, 2010

Big Bang for beginners-13: Does the Big Bang theory violate the law of conservation of energy?

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

Although the universe is mostly empty space (leaving aside for the moment dark energy and dark matter), there is quite a lot of matter in it. Some of it is in dense clumps that we call planets, stars, and galaxies. The rest is far more dilute and consists of interstellar gases and dust. And quite a lot of it is in the form of massless photons. So the question naturally arises: where did all this stuff come from? Doesn't it require a massive input of energy right at the beginning that violates the law of conservation of energy (also known as the first law of thermodynamics), one of the bedrock principles of science? The answer is simple: No.

The total energy of the universe consists of the energy due to the motion of all the particles (called kinetic energy), the energy that is stored because of the gravitational forces between the particles (called potential energy), and the energy associated with the mass of all the particles (usually referred to as rest energy).

The key feature to bear in mind is that the gravitational potential energy is a negative quantity. You can see this by realizing that in order to separate two objects, one has to overcome the attractive gravitational force and this requires one to supply positive energy from outside. This is why launching satellites into space requires such huge amounts of positive energy supplied by fuel, in order to overcome the negative gravitational potential energy of the satellite due to the Earth's attractive force.

This negative gravitational potential energy exactly cancels out the positive energy of the universe. As Stephen Hawking says in his book A Brief History of Time (quoted by Victor Stenger, Has Science Found God?, p. 148): "In the case of a universe that is approximately uniform in space, one can show that this negative gravitational energy exactly cancels the positive energy represented by the matter. So the total energy of the universe is zero." In other words, it is not the case that something came out of nothing. It is that we have always had zero energy.

Alan Guth, one of the creators of the inflationary universe model, points out that the fact that "in any closed universe the negative gravitational potential energy cancels the energy of matter exactly" has been known for some time and can be found in standard textbooks. (See The Classical Theory of Fields by L. D. Landau and E. M. Lifshitz, second edition, 1962, p. 378-379.)

But what made the universe and all its mass come into being at all? The suggestion is that the universe began as a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum. It used to be thought that the vacuum was truly nothing, simply inert space. But we now know that it is actually a hive of activity with particle-antiparticle pairs being repeatedly produced out of the vacuum and almost immediately annihilating themselves into nothingness again. The creation of a particle-antiparticle pair out of the vacuum violates the law of conservation of energy but the Heisenberg uncertainty principle allows such violations for a very short time. This phenomenon has observable and measurable consequences, which have been tested and confirmed. (The Inflationary Universe, Alan Guth, 1997, p. 272)

Guth says (p. 12-14, 271-276) that the person who first suggested that the universe and its associated space may have originated as a quantum fluctuation was Edward Tryon in 1973 in his paper Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation? (Nature, vol. 246, p. 396-397, 14 December 1973.) As Tryon says in that paper:

In any big bang model, one must deal with the problem of 'creation'. This problem has two aspects. One is that the conservation laws of physics forbid the creation of something from nothing. The other is that even if the conservation laws were inapplicable at the moment of creation, there is no apparent reason for such an event to occur.

Contrary to widespread belief, such an event need not have violated any of the conventional laws of physics. The laws of physics merely imply that a Universe which appears from nowhere must have certain specific properties. In particular, such a Universe must have a zero net value for all conserved quantities.

To indicate how such a creation might have come about, I refer to quantum field theory, in which every phenomenon that could happen in principle actually does happen occasionally in practice, on a statistically random basis. For example, quantum electrodynamics reveals that an electron, positron and photon occasionally emerge spontaneously from a perfect vacuum. When this happens, the three particles exist for a brief time, and then annihilate each other, leaving no trace behind.

If it is true that our Universe has a zero net value for all conserved quantities, then it may simply be a fluctuation of the vacuum, the vacuum of some larger space in which our Universe is imbedded. In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our Universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time.

Note that our universe likely came into being with just a tiny amount of matter. But after that initial fluctuation triggered the start of the universe, what caused the avalanche that created the massive amount of matter that currently comprise our universe? The inflationary model of the universe takes care of that problem too, although the explanation is a little technical. As Stenger says (p. 148):

[I]n the inflationary scenario, the mass-energy of matter was produced during that rapid initial inflation. The field responsible for inflation has negative pressure, allowing the universe to do work on itself as it expands. This is allowed by the first law of thermodynamics.

In other words, no energy was required to "create" the universe. The zero total energy of the universe is an observational fact, within measured uncertainties, of course. What is more, this is also a prediction of inflationary cosmology, which we have seen has now been strongly supported by observations. Thus we can safely say,

No violation of energy conservation occurred if the universe grew out of an initial void of zero energy.

In the first century BCE, the Greek philosopher Lucretius wrote that "Nothing can be created from nothing" and this assertion exerted a powerful influence over subsequent philosophers. For a long time, science just did not have a good explanation for the existence of all the matter in the universe and it was assumed that the existence of matter was just a given, an initial condition that we just had to accept and proceed from there. Religious people seized on this "How can something come out of nothing?" question to try and argue that the very existence of the universe violated of the law of conservation of energy and implied the existence of a creator who can violate such laws. In other words, it was a Deep Mystery that science has no explanation for and that could only happen by the will of a creator.

But the hope of religious people that they had finally found a safe niche for god where he no longer risked being flushed out by those pesky scientists has been dashed, just like all the other similar hopes of the past. The creation of the universe does not violate the law of conservation of energy. God is once again found to be superfluous.

Next: Does the universe violate the second law of thermodynamics?

POST SCRIPT:Baby Jesus prayer

From Talladega Nights.

March 29, 2010

Big Bang for beginners-12: Measuring the rate of expansion of the universe

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

We seem to be living in a runaway expanding universe. Given that we are confined to such a tiny region of what seems like an infinite space, how can we know so much about it? It is indeed a tribute to the doggedness of the scientific endeavor that we can investigate the universe so methodically and tease out answers to questions that at first glance might seem hopelessly out of reach. In this post, I want to give some further background about how we have figured out some of this information.

For example, how do we know the speeds of distant galaxies? The speed with which a distant galaxy is receding from us can be obtained from something called the 'red-shift' of the light emitted by it.

To understand how that is done, we first need to know that each element (hydrogen, oxygen, or whatever) emits a characteristic pattern of wavelengths of light (denoted by the symbol λ) that is unique to it and can be measured in the laboratory. So by observing the pattern of wavelengths emitted by a star we can tell what elements that star contains. If the universe is expanding (or contracting), then between the time that the light was emitted by that distant star and the time it reaches us, space would have expanded (or contracted) and the wavelength of the light would have also increased (or decreased) because of the expansion of the space. This difference Δλ=λ(received)-λ(emitted) tells us, if it is a negative number, that the star is 'moving' towards us (i.e., space is contracting) or, if it is a positive number, that it is 'moving' away from us (i.e., space is expanding). In the former case, the light is said to be 'blue-shifted' and in the latter case, it is 'red-shifted'. The size of Δλ tells us the rate at which the space is changing.

The shift is usually measured by the quantity z, obtained by dividing the change in the wavelength of the light by the wavelength of that same line as measured in the laboratory. i.e., z=Δλ/λ. So for example if we measure a spectral line for a given element in the laboratory to be 630 nm (λ) and we measure the same line from a distant star and find it to be red-shifted to triple its value (1890 nm), then Δλ=1890-630=1260 nm and hence z=1260/630=2.0.

If space is stretched in a short interval of time, then the increase in separation distance of two objects embedded in space will be proportional to the distance separating them, as can be seen by our old raisin bread analogy. So the speed of separation v (obtained by dividing the increase in separation distance by the time taken) will also be proportional to the separation distance d for the two objects. This gives Hubble's law, that the speed v of a receding galaxy is related to its distance from us by v=Hd, where H is the constant of proportionality and is called the Hubble constant. (See this paper titled The redshift-distance and velocity-distance laws, Edward Harrison, The Astrophysical Journal, 403:28-31,1993 January 20.)

If the rate of expansion of the universe is constant in time (i.e., H does not change with time), it can be shown that v/c=z (where c is the speed of light), so measuring z gives us the value of the recessional speed v. Note that z can be greater than 1, so we can have speeds that are greater than the speed of light. This is not a violation of the laws of relativity because the speeds we are talking about are the speeds due to the expansion of space and there is no limit to that. It is the local motion of objects relative to space that cannot exceed the speed of light. (Note: There are different ways of defining time and distance (and hence velocity) for the expanding universe. But while these may give different values of each quantity, the basic idea holds that recessional speeds due to the expansion of space can exceed the speed of light.)

Measuring the distance to distant galaxies is much more difficult (which I will not go into) but it can be done, though it has higher uncertainties associated with it, By obtaining the values of z (and hence deducing v) and d for a large number of distant galaxies and plotting the straight-line graph with v on the vertical axis and d on the horizontal axis, we can obtain the value H from the slope of the graph.

Note that although we refer to H as the Hubble 'constant', what that means is that we use the same value for all the observable objects at one particular time. It is possible that the value of H is changing with time. If so, at a different age of the universe, the speeds of separation may be more or less, and for each of those times we would have to (in theory) calculate the value of the Hubble constant from the slope of the graph, though we cannot do so directly in practice because the only time we have is now, so we have to infer its variation from theory. But since the value of H can vary with time, the value for the present time is customarily written as Ho.

If the recessional speed v of any given galaxy has been constant over the age of the universe (i.e., the space of the universe has been expanding at a steady rate), and if all the galaxies started out together at one point in space, then v=d/T, where d is the current separation distance and T is the age of the universe. Hence by combining this with v=Hd we get the simple relationship that T=1/H. So measuring the Hubble constant as the slope of the v-d graph immediately enables us to obtain an estimate for the age of the universe. The current value of H is 2.37x10-18s-1, which gives an age of the universe that is 4.22x1017seconds or 13.4 billion years.

Of course, this result depends on the assumption that the speeds of all the galaxies have been constant over the age of the universe. If the rate of expansion has been slowing down so that the speeds in the past were greater than they are now, the actual age will be less than 13.4 billion years. If the expansion has been speeding up, then the age will be greater. The current best estimates for the age of the universe place it as 13.73 (+/- 0.15) billion years.

The measured value of the red-shift z also tells us when the light was emitted by the distant galaxy, as a fraction of the time that has elapsed since the Big Bang. i.e, as a fraction of the age of the universe. The relationship is a complicated one that depends on the relative domination of matter versus the cosmological constant in the universe. As a rough approximation for a flat universe, this fraction is given by 1/(1+z)3/2. So in the case of a star or galaxy that has the value of z=2.0, this fraction works out to 0.192. If we take the age of the universe as 13.7 billion years, the star must have emitted its light 2.6 billion years after the Big Bang, or 11.1 billion years ago.

The current record for the highest observed red-shift is z=8.2 from an object known as GRB 090423, where GRB stands for 'gamma ray burst' and is believed to be emitted by a dying star. A value of z=8.2 corresponds to a source that emitted its light at about 1/28 the age of the universe or about 490 million years after the Big Bang. More precise calculations place the figure at 630 million years, so we are seeing something that happened almost at the beginning of our universe.

That's all for the mathematical background (except for the post-script below). In the last few posts in this series, I will get back to the verbal descriptions.

Next: Where did all the stuff in the universe come from?

POST SCRIPT: The Doppler shift

At the risk of getting too much into the weeds of theory, I want to deal with an issue that is confusing about the cause of the galactic red-shifts.

The shift in wavelengths above was described as being due to the expansion of space itself. But the shifting of light wavelengths is normally associated with something called the Doppler effect that says that if a source of light and the detector of light are moving relative to each other in a fixed space, the wavelength of light measured by the detector will also be different from the wavelength of light emitted by the source. The main point to bear in mind with wavelength shifts due to the Doppler effect (when compared to the expansion of space itself) is that in this view, speeds can never exceed the speed of light.

If the source and detector are moving towards each other, the detected wavelength is shorter than the emitted wavelength (this is called a 'blue shift') while if they are moving away from each other, the wavelength gets longer (called a red-shift), which is similar to the effects due to the expansion of space.

In the case of Doppler shifts, the relationship of z=Δλ/λ to the speed v of the moving objects is given by

z=√[(1+v/c)/(1-v/c)] -1.

We can turn this around to get


So knowing the speed v, we can get z and vice versa. So for the above case of z=2.0, the speed of the galaxy is given by v/c=0.8 and thus the galaxy is moving at four-fifths the speed of light.

In the early days of cosmology, space was assumed to be fixed and the red-shift of distant galaxies was thought to be caused by the Doppler shift as they moved away in space. But now it is more common to say that the red shift is caused by the expansion of space, not the motion of objects in space, so the interpretation of z is different and its relationship to the recessional speed is different such that there is no restriction that the recessional speed be less than the speed of light.

So how do we reconcile these two views? If we want to think of the positions of galaxies changing with time, rather than space itself expanding and the galaxies fixed in space, then we can use the Doppler shift but we have to add to that the additional shift due to the photon traveling through a gravitational field on its way to us. If we do that, then the end result is the same in both cases. As cosmologist Edward Wright says:

This depends on how you measure things, or your choice of coordinates. In one view, the spatial positions of galaxies are changing, and this causes the redshift. In another view, the galaxies are at fixed coordinates, but the distance between fixed points increases with time, and this causes the redshift. General relativity explains how to transform from one view to the other, and the observable effects like the redshift are the same in both views.

March 26, 2010

Big Bang for beginners-11: Relativity theory

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

So far I have been simply describing what the Big Bang theory says without giving much of the theoretical background. But Einstein's General Theory of Relativity (like Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection) has had such a profound effect on our relationship with the rest of the universe that I feel obliged to give readers, at least for cultural purposes, a glimpse of what the theory is and why it is so powerful, even if it remains obscure in its details. So for the sake of greater completeness and for the benefit of those who want to know more, in this post and the next I will give some of the theoretical background to what I have been saying so far, and hope that even those who are averse to algebra will stick with me through it and get some of the flavor of how the theory works.

A word of caution, though. This is not my field so I cannot guarantee that this is error-free or state-of-the-art knowledge. My goal here is to give a simplified understanding of how the important field of cosmology operates. In order to provide a narrative I will largely ignore the fact that this is a field in which there are spirited debates and disagreements over many of the details. I strongly recommend reading more authoritative works by real scholars in the field for a more complete understanding of all the alternative points of view.

The basic paradigm that the field of cosmology operates under is Einstein's General Theory of Relativity which generates the Einstein Field Equations:

Rij - (1/2)Rgij = (8πG/c4)Tij - Λgij

Without worrying too much about what each individual term means, the main idea is that the terms on the left of the equal sign (Rij and R) represent the curvature of space while the terms on the right (Tij and Λ) represent the mass and energy in the universe that causes this curvature. The quantity Tij is called the stress-energy tensor and in it is contained all the information about how all the mass and the 'normal' energy (i.e., excluding dark energy) is distributed throughout all space. Λ is what is called the cosmological constant and determining its value that has been the source of all the excitement within the last two decades. The quantity gij is called the 'space-time metric' and defines how space and time are related. So the above equation represents the fundamental relationship between the mass-energy of the universe and the curvature of space.

G is the universal gravitational constant and c is the speed of light and since these are such fundamental and important quantities, they have been measured with great precision and are found to have the values G=6.67x10-11Nm2/kg2 and c=3x108m/s. (For the most up-to-date and comprehensive compilation of data, see the work of the Particle Data Group at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, which has a section on astrophysics and cosmology that contains a very useful data table.)

If we treat the universe on a large enough scale as if all the mass and energy is homogeneously spread out (like a uniform gas or liquid) and ignore the clumping on small scales that make up the stars and planets, the equation above simplifies considerably by mathematics standards, although it is still difficult to solve. In that case, Λ is related to the density of the energy (ρΛ) of the 'vacuum' by Λ=(8πG/c2Λ, and it is this vacuum energy that is referred to as dark energy and is driving the accelerating expansion of the universe. The vacuum of space used to be considered as inert 'empty' space, but that is no longer the case.

The total energy density of the universe ρ is thus made up of what we might call matter density ρM (comprising regular matter such as protons, electrons and the like, plus electromagnetic energy and dark matter), and the energy density associated with dark energy. i.e., ρ=ρM&Lambda.

The critical density ρc that we encountered earlier and that determines the curvature and ultimate fate of the universe is something that we can calculate theoretically and is given by the expression ρc=3H2/8πG, where H is the Hubble constant (more about this and how it is measured in the next post). So &Omega=ρ/ρc, where Ω>1 gives us a positive curvature and a universe that will eventually stop expanding and start contracting, Ω<1 gives us an open universe that will expand forever, and Ω=1 gives us a flat universe that will also expand forever.

Hence &Omega = ρ/ρc = (ρM + ρ&Lambda)/ρc = ΩM + ΩΛ,

where ΩM = ρMc and ΩΛ = ρΛc.

The results obtained from the WMAP satellite say that the density of our universe is currently exactly equal to the critical density thus making Ω=1.0, and is made up of 4.6% 'ordinary' matter and energy, 23.3% dark matter, and 72.1% dark energy. This means that our current best estimates are that ΩM=0.28 and ΩΛ=0.72.

Note that since we know the values of G and H (more on this in the next post), the value of the critical density ρc=3H2/8πG can be calculated and it works out to be 1.0x10-26kg/m3. This is an extremely small number reflecting the fact that the universe is mostly empty space. This highly dilute distribution is one major reason why it is not easy to directly detect things like dark matter and dark energy.

When it comes to calculating the total energy density of the universe, the dark energy is added up with the other energies from ordinary matter and dark matter. But unlike those other forms of energy, its effect on cosmic expansion is to push outwards and increase the rate of expansion of the universe, and not pull on it and slow it down.

In those particular inflationary models that assert that Ω will always equal 1.0 for all time, since ΩM gets less as the universe expands and gets more dilute, the value of ΩΛ must increase with time to keep Ω=1, so that the outward pressure will ultimately win out over the gravitational attraction. In this model, we live in essentially a runaway expanding universe, with everything moving away from everything else with increasingly rapid speeds.

In fact, these theories suggest that the universe is expanding so rapidly that galaxies are disappearing from sight over the far horizon so we will see less and less of them as time goes by. So if we had happened to come along a hundred billion or so years later than we did, the only things we would see in the night sky would be the merged result of own Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy, which are predicted to collide in the future. The sky would be really boring because the rest of the sky would be dark and people would have thought that there was nothing else in the universe. We would not have had the vast amounts of observational data that we have now that enable us to learn so much by making all these great inferences.

Lucky us!

Next: Measuring the universe.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity has a better equation than Einstein's one

March 25, 2010

Big Bang for beginners-10: The cosmological constant

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

To understand what is going on with dark energy, we need to look at something called the cosmological constant.

Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, when expressed as equations in their most general form, contains a constant term (called the cosmological constant) whose value is unspecified by the theory itself but influences how the universe evolves with time. A positive value for this constant would have the effect of acting like an outward pressure trying to 'push' the universe apart, counteracting the gravitational attraction that is trying to pull it together. A zero value would do nothing, leaving gravity as the only (attractive) force. A negative value would be like a 'pull', adding to the attractive force of gravity.

There is nothing mysterious about such constants. Their appearance is common in scientific theories (they are sometimes called parameters) and their values are determined by experiment. Once the value of such a constant has been calculated using some data, it is fixed and the same value must be used in all applications of the theory which is why it is called a 'constant'. For example, our normal everyday theory of gravity also has such a constant G called the universal gravitational constant whose value is found by measuring the size of the gravitational attractive force between two objects that have mass. But once that has been done for any two masses, the same value of G is used everywhere and ever after, which is why such constants are so important and thus measured with great care and precision.

When Einstein first used his General Theory of Relativity that he developed in 1915 to build a model of the universe, he too needed data to obtain the value of the cosmological constant. He, like most people of that time, assumed that the universe was static and so he gave a positive value for that term, choosing it to have such a value that its repulsive force would exactly balance the attractive gravitational force. This choice gave him the static universe solution he thought he needed to get, although it was soon pointed out that the static solution he obtained was unstable and thus problematic. (The Runaway Universe, Donald Goldsmith (2000), p. 12)

The catch with the cosmological constant term lay in trying to interpret its physical meaning. Its behavior in the equation is like that of an energy density and giving it a positive value implied that the universe was filled throughout with something that had the same units as energy. But it could not be the same kind of massless energy that we are familiar with (which is electromagnetic) since we know how to detect that and this new form of energy (like dark matter) seemed to be invisible to us, except for its large scale gravitational effects.

Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity had just a decade earlier convinced scientists to abandon belief in the 'ether', which had for a long time been assumed to exist and to also permeate all of space while remaining undetectable. So one can see why people would be wary of introducing a new substance with ether-like elusiveness that might also turn out to be spurious. So having a non-zero cosmological constant term, while not violating any laws, was not something people at that time were particularly happy with and it was tolerated simply because there seemed to be no other way of obtaining a static universe.

Fortunately, the problem seemed to go away by itself. When around 1930 it was realized that the universe was not static but expanding, the need for a cosmological constant disappeared and it was assigned the value zero, in essence removing it from the equations. The theory of gravity that emerged resulted in an expanding universe solution, but one whose expansion was slowing down due to the unopposed gravitational attraction of the rest of the universe. It is like the way that a ball thrown upwards slows down because of the gravitational attraction of the Earth below it.

This remained the standard model until recently. But measurements made in 1998 of the speeds of distant galaxies and supernovae (which consist of massive stars exploding at the end of their lives and becoming so extremely bright that they can be seen at immense distances) suggest that rather than slowing down due to this gravitational attraction, those distant objects are actually speeding up. We seem to be living in a universe whose rate of expansion is increasing, not decreasing.

The emergence of observations supporting both a flat and accelerating universe has brought the cosmological constant back into the spotlight. It turns out that one can explain both these features by adding the cosmological constant back into the equations governing the laws of gravitation and giving it a positive value. But this once again raises the question of the physical meaning of this term. Since it behaves like an energy density, some scientists have postulated that in addition to dark matter (invoked to explain the otherwise anomalous behavior of the stars in spiral galaxies), the universe must also contain vast and uniform amounts of something they call 'dark energy' that we have not as yet been able to detect directly.

This dark energy is even more mysterious than dark matter. Like the electromagnetic energy associated with the photon that I discussed earlier, it may have no mass but it cannot be the same kind of energy as that because we are familiar with that form of energy and know its properties well and so would be able to identify its presence easily. So if dark energy exists, it must be a new kind of energy.

If we take the dark matter and dark energy hypotheses at face value as the explanations for the spiral galaxy and the flat and accelerating universe problems, then the results provided by the WMAP satellite has made highly precise measurements of them possible. The best current estimates are that the Universe today is made up of about 72.1% dark energy, 23.3% dark matter, with the remaining 4.6% being all the other matter that we are familiar with and know exists.

Next: Some background on dark energy, how it acts, and where it originates.

POST SCRIPT: Why don't we have more advertisements like this?

John Cleese shows us how it might be done.

March 24, 2010

Big Bang for beginners-9: Dark energy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

In addition to the appearance of dark matter, another interesting development arose when observers tried to determine the curvature of the universe, an important fact in determining the ultimate fate of the universe.

To understand this consider, as an analogy, a ball thrown upwards from the surface of the planet. It will slow down as it goes up due to the gravitational attraction of the planet's mass. But will the ball eventually fall back to the ground or will it escape from the planet and go on forever? The answer depends on both the speed of the ball and the size of the planet. For a given speed of the thrown ball, if the mass of the planet is below a certain value, its gravitational pull on the ball is not sufficient to bring it back and the ball will escape and travel out in space forever.

The same feature holds for the universe. We currently know the speeds of the galaxies as they move apart form each other. We know that the gravitational field of the other galaxies is trying to slow them down. Whether the expansion eventually stops and the universe starts collapsing again or whether the expansion of the universe goes on forever depends of the combined mass of all the other galaxies, or more precisely, the density of the universe. And in turn, the density of the universe determines the shape of the universe.

If the density of the matter in the universe is below a certain value that we can calculate (called the 'critical density'), the standard Big Bang theory predicts that the universe curves at every point in the shape of a saddle (called negative curvature) and will expand forever.

If the density of the universe is greater than the critical density, theory predicts that the universe curves the opposite way like a sphere (called positive curvature) and will stop expanding at some point and then start to collapse back into itself, like a thrown ball falling back to Earth.

Curved space.jpg

Thus the ultimate fate of the universe is dependent on the curvature of the universe, which in turn is directly related to whether the actual density is greater or less than the critical density. The ratio of the actual density to the critical density is given by the Greek letter Ω and if this quantity is greater than 1, the universe is said to be closed (finite), if it is less than one it is said to be open (infinite and saddle shaped), and if it is exactly equal to one, it is said to be flat (and infinite). This figure from a NASA website provides a visualization by analogy with 2D space.

So clearly, knowing the curvature of the universe would give us important information about the ultimate fate of the universe. There are two ways to do this: measuring the density of the universe, calculating Ω, and thus inferring the curvature as above, or by directly measuring the curvature itself. Measurements of all the visible matter in the universe seems to indicate that the density of the universe is well below the critical density, signaling a saddle shape, and that we will have perpetual expansion. Even adding in all the postulated dark matter still gives a density that is only about 20-40% of the critical density.

But it is also possible to directly measure the curvature of space. How does one directly measure the curvature of space while living within that space? An analogy with the Earth may help. We currently live on the surface of the Earth. People have known for more than two thousand years that the Earth was a sphere. For most of that time, they inferred it indirectly, by observing eclipses, ships sinking over horizon, and so forth. In more recent times people have had direct confirmation for its spherical shape as a result of having circumnavigated the globe and viewed the Earth from outer space.

But it is theoretically possible for someone to determine the curvature of the Earth even if they never leave their living room or look outside, provided they have very precise measuring instruments. All they would have to do is draw a triangle on a sheet of paper that is laid flat on the ground (as shown in the figure), measure the three angles, and add them up. As all students are told, the total should be 180 degrees. But what many don't know is that this result is a very special case that only occurs if the sheet of paper is flat.

If the surface of the Earth is curved into a sphere (and the sheet of paper follows that curvature), the sum of the angles will be greater than 180 degrees. You can easily see that this is true by imagining that we could draw a triangle large enough that one of its vertices is the North Pole and the other two vertices are on the Equator. We see that the two angles formed at the equator are each 90 degrees, which means that the sum of the three angles must be greater than 180 degrees. If the surface of the Earth had been saddle-shaped, the sum would be less than 180 degrees. The sum of the angles of a triangle drawn on a small sheet of paper would differ from 180 degrees by only a tiny amount, which is why you need precision instruments to measure the curvature of the Earth's surface this way.

To directly measure the curvature of space in an analogous manner, a satellite called the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) was launched in 2001 and the surprising result that it returned (with an astoundingly low 2% margin of error) was that the universe is neither saddle shaped nor spherical but flat, which meant that Ω=1 and hence the density of the universe must be almost exactly equal to the critical density. The unlikely coincidence of the actual density being equal to the critical density cries out for an explanation.

The 'inflationary model' of the universe, which is an add-on to the standard Big Bang theory, says that the very early universe underwent an extraordinarily rapid expansion within a tiny fraction of the very first second of life of the universe. This theory has gained widespread acceptance because a 'flat' universe would be an outcome, in addition to also solving what is known as the 'horizon' problem, which I will not go into.

So assuming that the universe is indeed flat, what is the source that is making the density of the universe exactly equal to the critical density? The solution that has been proposed is that space is filled with something called 'dark energy' that fills the entire universe (dark matter is assumed to only be present in galaxies) and this provides the amount of energy needed to make the universe flat.

But what is this new form of energy? And where did it come from?

Next: The cosmological constant and dark energy.

POST SCRIPT: Crazy health care opponents

I have not been writing recently about the health care issue even though it is important because a lot of recent activities was pure theater, mainly posturing and parliamentary maneuvering. But I will get back to it after the Big Bang series ends.

But what amazed me watching the process unfold me was the irrational and over-the-top rhetoric that was being thrown around by reform opponents. This video clip of the people at the demonstration last weekend gives a taste of the ignorance and selfishness prominently on display.

March 23, 2010

Big Bang for beginners-8: Star formation and dark matter

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

In the study of our universe so far, one fact becomes resoundingly clear. Humans occupy a tiny volume of the universe. All our scientific theories have been discovered using data that has been generated within that volume. What gives us the confidence that these same laws can be applied to distant regions as well? One answer is that we have no choice but to make that assumption. Another is that when do make such an extrapolation we get a reasonably satisfactory understanding of the behavior of distant stars and galaxies, thus justifying our decision.

But perhaps the most important reason is the Hubble result discussed earlier, that every distant galaxy is moving away from us with a speed that is proportional to the distance from us. This could only happen if either the Earth occupied a privileged place in the universe or if the universe was such that there is no such privileged place at all and every point in the universe is equivalent. The former option has been abandoned ever since the Copernican revolution. Since the location of the Earth is no different from any other point, the laws we discover here must be the same laws that apply everywhere.

This leads to what is called the Cosmological Principle, the idea that the universe is homogenous (i.e., is the same irrespective of which point in the universe we may happen to find ourselves in) and isotropic (i.e., looks the same irrespective of which direction in the sky we choose to look). But it is not assumed that the density of the universe is a constant in time, which distinguishes it from the Perfect Cosmological Principle that led to the Steady State theory. In fact, the Big Bang theory explicitly argues that the universe is continuously expanding and getting less dense as it does so.

Of course, the homogeneity and isotropy of the universe is true only on a large enough scale. On small scales, we see all kinds of non-uniformities. After all, most of space is empty with just a few pockets of dense matter consisting of stars, planets, and galaxies. For example, there is no planet like Earth anywhere near us, and when we look out at the night sky, the direction that contains the plane of our local galaxy (the Milky Way) looks very different from what we see when we look in other directions.

Furthermore, even on a large scale, the universe cannot be perfectly homogenous and isotropic because that would not have allowed for the matter that existed at the time of the Big Bang to eventually separate into the clumps that eventually led to stars and galaxies. In order to explain star formation, cosmological theories predict that the early universe must have had slight inhomogeneities and that there should be visible traces of this history. If we look out into the universe and measure its temperature in all directions, there should be very slight variations in temperature, of the order of one part in a hundred thousand. The Cosmic Microwave Background Explorer (COBE) satellite was launched in 1989 to investigate this and its results released in 1992 found just this variation, further supporting the Big Bang theory. In the image below, the changes in color show the minute temperature variation of the cosmic microwave background radiation, which corresponds to the density variation.


Although the Big Bang cosmological theory has been very successful, along the way some problems have arisen that have led to interesting developments. One problem was with the motion of stars on the outer edges of rotating spiral galaxies. If we apply established theories of gravity and assume that all the mass in the universe is what we can 'see' (i.e., matter we are already familiar with and can be observed by our detectors because they emit electromagnetic radiation), then we can calculate the speeds those stars should have. But the pattern of speeds that were observed does not agree with those predictions. The problem can be solved if we assume that there exists matter that we cannot see, i.e., matter that is outside the detection range of our detectors, although it still exerts gravitational forces since it has mass. For this reason, this new form of matter has been given the name 'dark matter'.

This so-called 'dark matter' has still not been directly detected but fairly strong circumstantial evidence has convinced most physicists that it should exist and that there is a lot it around. The amount of dark matter present is currently estimated to be about five times the visible matter that we know about and can see. Of course, if it is the dominant form of matter in the universe, then it becomes vital that we learn more about it and major efforts are underway to try and detect it. The difficulty with this endeavor, of course, is that while this dark matter may consist of things that we are familiar with (such as dust grains, nuclei, and small rocks), it is also quite possible that this matter consists of entities unlike anything that we have encountered before. So we are in a very real sense searching in the dark, not really knowing what we are looking for, how we should look, and how we will know if we have detected it. All we really know is that there seems to be a hell of a lot of it.

But that is just the kind of puzzle that scientists relish and major efforts are currently underway to solve it.

Next: If the dark matter puzzle isn't enough to keep scientists busy, we now have dark energy.

POST SCRIPT: Honoring death wishes

From That Mitchell and Webb Look.

March 22, 2010

Big Bang for beginners-7: What lies beyond the edge of the universe?

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

The idea of an infinite space that has always existed and in which everything else just moves around seems intuitively reasonable, at least to those who are comfortable with the concept of infinity. But the idea that there is no edge or boundary to the universe is much harder to grasp.

Going back to our raisin bread analogy, asking the question "What is beyond the edge of the universe?" is akin to asking what exists outside the space occupied by the dough. The answer is that there is no space outside the dough. The dough is all the space there is. This is where the raisin bread analogy starts to be misleading because we cannot help but view the dough as expanding inside the space of the oven, and it is hard to eliminate that unwanted extra image of oven walls. (If we wish, we can envisage a small portion of the dough and speak of the boundary of that portion alone, but that is not the boundary of space as a whole. It would be like speaking of the boundary of our Solar System or the Milky Way galaxy.)

To try to shake ourselves of the idea that the universe must have an edge (and center), let us try another analogy and imagine the old days when people thought the Earth was flat. A couple of natural questions for them would be to wonder where the center of the Earth was and what lay beyond the edge. There are three ways in which questions about center and edge become meaningless, as illustrated in the figure on the right which is taken from a NASA website.

Curved space.jpg

One is the bottom figure in which the flat Earth extended to infinity, so that there is no edge and no way to determine where the center is, since the location of the center of any object (such as a circle or sphere or anything else) is dependent on its relationship to the boundary of the object. No boundary means no center.

The second way to eliminate the edge and center as meaningful concepts is if the Earth is neither flat nor infinite in size but curved into a sphere, like the top figure. The idea of a center and an edge becomes meaningless here too. After all, what would it mean to refer to the edge of the surface of the Earth? Where on the Earth's surface would a center be located?

There is also a third option for the Earth and that is that it is infinite but not flat. Instead it is like the middle figure which is shaped at every point in space like a saddle that curves downward in the side-to-side direction (where the rider's legs dangle), curves upward in the front-back direction, and extends to infinity in all directions. (Apparently mathematicians have also been able to devise equations that represent a space that is saddle-shaped at every point but is finite. (The Runaway Universe, Donald Goldsmith (2000), p. 36.) But I have no idea if such a universe makes sense from a physical standpoint and am not going to consider it further.)

Which of these three models (spherical, saddle, or flat) was true of the Earth was an empirical question that was settled by careful observations and data. We now know that it is a sphere, or to be more precise, a slightly flattened sphere.

Something similar is true for the universe. Either it is infinite (either flat or saddle shaped) or it is finite in size and closed in on itself. All three shapes (flat, saddle, sphere) are analogous to the three possible options that we had for the Earth but much harder (even impossible) to visualize. Since we can see in three dimensions, visualizing a 2D surface as a sphere or flat or saddle-shaped is easy. But in the case of the universe, it is already in three dimensions and we cannot visualize how it curves. We can only deal with it mathematically. But the question of which one of these alternatives for the universe (infinite and flat, infinite and saddle, or finite) is one that can be answered by gathering relevant data. At present, our best estimate is that it is infinite and flat, a point I will return to in later posts.

If the universe is infinite and always has been infinite, what does it mean to say that the Big Bang started out as a 'small', highly dense and hot gas of quarks, gluons, electrons and photons? How can an infinite universe be small?

What is meant by 'small' in this context is that all the matter that now occupies the visible universe once occupied the small region that we identify as the space in which the Big Bang occurred.

Again we need an analogy to help us get a grip on this idea, though as with all analogies we must not take it too far because all analogies eventually break down. Think of a flat rubber sheet that extends to infinity. In a small region of the sheet, a Big Bang occurs that creates matter that is embedded in the rubber. If the sheet is then stretched in all directions (i.e., as space expands), the matter that is embedded will get pulled apart along with the sheet. So then instead of speaking of the absolute size of the universe at any time (the rubber sheet is and always has been infinite), we can meaningfully speak about by how much any given region of the sheet (i.e., the visible universe) has expanded since the Big Bang. (See here for a more thorough explanation.)

So even if the universe is infinite and always has been infinite, the visible universe that we can see could still have been concentrated in a small region in the distant past.

POST SCRIPT: Paralyzed by choice

Barry Schwartz talks with Stephen Colbert about why while some choice is good, too much choice can be bad, leaving people more dissatisfied.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Barry Schwartz
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorSkate Expectations

March 19, 2010

Big Bang for beginners-6: The evidence

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

Why has the Big Bang theory become the standard model for understanding the origins of the universe? In the 15th century and earlier, most people thought that the Earth was the center of the universe and that the stars were embedded in a celestial sphere beyond the outer planets and that the size of the universe was not much larger than the Solar System. The Copernican revolution (with the publication of his book in 1543) displaced the Earth from the center of the universe. This led to suspicions that the universe could be very large, possibly even infinite, but there were at that time no good theories to explain its origins and structure.

Einstein's General Theory of Relativity (published in 1915) provided a framework for building more systematic models of the universe and various theories began to be put forth. The initial ones argued for a static universe in which everything had a fixed and unchanging location. But some early data suggested that some galaxies were moving away from us and around 1922 models of an expanding universe were proposed, with some early suggestions that perhaps galaxies were moving away from us at speeds proportional to their distance from us. Soon after, observational data supporting that theory started coming in, most famously that of Edwin Hubble in 1929 that, while somewhat scattered, seemed to support that general idea.

If this steady movement away from us had been the case throughout all of time (a reasonable enough assumption in the absence of contradictory evidence), people inferred that if we looked back in time, then everything must have been closer to each other than they are now. And if we go back in time far enough, everything would have all converged to a single point. Thus was born the idea of a Big Bang, the basic idea of which was floated around as early as 1927 by Georges Lemaitre (a Belgian physicist who was interestingly enough also a Roman Catholic priest) and made concrete by George Gamow in 1948, along with the prediction that if this theory were true, the present temperature of the universe (as measured by the primordial photons left over from that initial state) would be around -268 degrees Celsius (5K).

At around the same time another theory called the Steady State was also proposed. This theory also assumed that the universe was expanding but that new matter was also being produced continuously to keep the density of the universe constant. The underlying idea behind this was something called the Perfect Cosmological Principle which said that the universe should look the same everywhere, in every direction, and at all times. This meant that the density of the universe should not change with time either. The amount of new matter that was needed to keep the density constant as the universe expanded was really small (about one hydrogen atom per cubic meter per billion years) but the key idea that the total matter in the universe was not constant made it radically different from the standard Big Bang model.

In 1964, the temperature of the universe was accidentally measured by scientists who had been looking for something else and was found to be -270 degrees Celsius (2.7K). This gave a huge boost to the Big Bang theory.

Another early prediction of the Big Bang theory was the relative abundance of light nuclei (hydrogen, helium, lithium), all of which depended on just one parameter, the total density of protons and neutrons at the time the nuclei were created. The measured values of the light nuclei are in good agreement with the predictions.

These successes added to the credibility of the Big Bang theory and pretty much eliminated the appeal of any competitors. The theory has since moved from strength to strength as scientists have used this basic model to make new predictions that can be tested. These later evidences include the large-scale structure of the universe and the evolution of galaxies, all of which are in reasonable, though not perfect, agreement with expectations.

There is one item about the evidence that I listed in favor of the Big Bang that might have puzzled some readers. I said that Edwin Hubble's initial data and those that came later seemed to confirm early speculations that all the objects in the universe are moving away with speeds that are directly proportional to their distance from us. i.e., if galaxy A is moving away from us with some speed, then galaxy B that is twice as far away will be moving with twice that speed.

The question is why are they all moving away from us? Don't they like us? Oddly enough, such an issue would not have been a problem to someone living in pre-Copernican times when it was thought that the Earth was the center of the cosmos. But with the Copernican revolution, it has become common to think that Earth does not occupy any special place in the universe. So wouldn't you expect at least a few galaxies to be moving towards us since we are not located at a special place in the universe? How do we explain this?

Then explanation goes back to the crucial idea that it is space that is expanding as a result of the Big Bang. We need to go back to the raisin bread analogy from yesterday. If we view the dough as space and the raisins as the matter that is dragged along with the dough (space), then as the dough expands uniformly everywhere, it is easy to show that every raisin will be moving away from every other raisin and its speed will be proportional to its distance from that raisin. This is true irrespective of which raisin we choose as the vantage point from which to make measurements of velocity and distance.

The idea that no particular point in the universe has any special significance has been extended to what is called the Cosmological Principle, which asserts that when viewed on a large enough scale, the observed universe will look the same irrespective of where the observer might be situated. This implies that the laws of science will also be the same everywhere in the universe and underlies our belief that we can apply the same laws of physics that we have discovered to work so well in our neighborhood of the universe even to the most distant reaches of it.

Next: What about the edge of the universe?

POST SCRIPT: The Galaxy Song

From Monty Python and the Meaning of Life. It captures the sense of wonder at the amazing universe we live in.

March 18, 2010

Big Bang for beginners-5: Some conceptual challenges

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

Although the story of the Big Bang in its essence is quite simple and straightforward, it contains many fascinating subtleties that are worth exploring further. It is good to get some conceptual hurdles and misconceptions out of the way right now.

When we use the words 'Big Bang' it immediately conjure up certain images. We immediately think of familiar explosions, like bombs or firecrackers going off. We envisage a big noise and the exploding pieces hurtling away from the center of the explosion and spreading out into the surrounding space at great speed. This image captures correctly the idea of a hot compressed beginning with a fixed amount of matter spreading out through space and getting cooler and more dilute with time. But there are important ways in which the image is inaccurate.

One simple misconception is to think there was a loud noise at all. The very idea of sound at those huge densities is highly problematic and it is not helpful to think in those terms. But this is a minor misconception. The major misconception that people have is the idea that space always existed and extended all the way to infinity and that the Big Bang occurred in one small region of it and the matter that was created then spread out to fill increasing amounts of that pre-existing space.

What the theory actually says is that the only space that exists is the space occupied by the matter produced in the Big Bang and that, as the matter spread out, it did not fill already existing empty space, but instead it was space itself that was expanding, carrying the matter along with it.

To better understand this difficult idea, a good analogy is raisin bread baking in an oven. The raisins occupy more-or-less fixed positions in the dough. As the bread bakes, the dough expands, carrying the raisins along with it.

The wrong way to interpret this analogy to the Big Bang theory is to think of the dough and raisins as the matter expanding into the pre-existing space of the oven.

The correct way to view the analogy is to think of the bread dough as being space and the raisins as the matter. As the bread bakes, the dough (i.e., space) expands carrying the raisins (i.e., matter) along with it. The hard thing for people to grasp is that there is no space outside of the dough. There is no oven for the dough to expand into. So the 'explosion' we speak of is not of matter expanding into space but of space itself expanding.

In addition to the motion associated with the expansion of space, there is also what we call local motion caused by the forces between objects. So for example, Earth and the planets orbit our Sun under the influence of gravity, and our solar system rotates in the spiral arm of our galaxy the Milky Way, again under the influence of gravitational forces. Protons and neutrons in nuclei move under the influence of nuclear forces and electrons in atoms move under the influence of electromagnetic forces. All these motions are due to forces acting locally and not part of the motion caused by the expansion of space itself. Back to our raisin bread analogy, the raisins are not rigidly embedded in the dough. In addition to the raisins being dragged along by the expanding dough, they may also move around slightly in the dough due to (say) air pockets near them. But when we speak of the motion associated with the Big Bang, we are referring to the motion due to the expansion of space and not these local motions.

(It should be borne in mind that the well-known assertion that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light is popularly interpreted a little too broadly. That limit applies to the speed of particles and information flow. But there are things like the collapse of the wave function and the phase velocity of wave packets that occur at speeds greater than the speed of light. As I described yesterday, in the case of the early universe, space expanded at a much faster rate than the speed of light but that too is allowed by the theory of relativity. In other words, the dough can expand faster than the speed of light but the speed of the raisins relative to the dough has to be less than the speed of light.)

One consequence of the view that the Big Bang consists of space itself expanding is that it did not occur at a point 'in' space (like a blob of dough in an oven) but occurred everywhere in space simultaneously, and that it is space itself that was initially compressed. So it does not make sense to look for a point in the universe where the Big Bang occurred and treat it as the 'center' of the universe. There is also no 'edge' or boundary to the universe, so it does not make sense to ask what exists beyond the edge either.

I will come back to these last points later because they are undoubtedly hard to grasp, especially the idea about the absence of a boundary.

POST SCRIPT: Will Ferrell tries out for a part in West Side Story

Ferrell Sings "West Side Story" on Letterman from Will Ferrell

March 17, 2010

Big Bang for beginners-4: The speed of cosmic evolution

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

What may surprise people is how rapidly the universe went from a very hot initial state to one in which it was cool enough for atoms and molecules to form. If we push our theories back as far as we dare, bearing in mind that we have stretched them to the limits and that we may well be wrong in some aspects, the earliest time that we can speak of is 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang (called the Planck time). i.e., this is 0.0000… 0001 seconds (43 zeros in all, including the one before the decimal) after the Big Bang. In other words, it is a really tiny time. It is estimated that the temperature of the universe at that time was about 1030 degrees. That is 10 followed by 30 zeros, a really huge number.

It is now believed (according to the inflationary model of the universe), that roughly around 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang, the universe began undergoing an extraordinarily rapid expansion. This expansion lasted for a very short time (a tiny fraction of a second) but it was sufficient to increase the linear size of the universe by a factor of around 1026, which is such a staggeringly rapid expansion that it boggles the mind. After that tiny period of very rapid inflation, the universe settled into the steady and slow expansion that we currently experience.

It took just one millionth of a second for the universe to cool from its extremely hot initial state to a cooler (but still very hot) 1013 degrees, the temperature at which the photons' energy became low enough that protons and neutrons could form out of quarks and gluons without being immediately blasted apart by them. So quarks and gluons existed in the free state for just about a millionth of a second after the Big Bang and ever since then have been confined in protons and neutrons. At this stage, the universe was now about the size of our Solar System.

About two to three minutes after the Big Bang, its temperature had dropped to about one billion (109) degrees, and now nuclei could also exist without being blown apart by photons. The size of our universe was now about 50 light-years (a light-year is the distance traveled by light in one year which works out to roughly 1014 miles), which is still pretty small when you consider that the radius of just our own Milky Way galaxy is about 50,000 light years.

After about 300,000 years, atoms began forming. The only atoms that could form were the very smallest ones (hydrogen, helium, and lithium) because only their nuclei existed at this time. The temperature of the universe is now about 3,500 degrees.

After about 100 million years all the matter that initially existed as a more or less uniformly spread out gas that occupied the entire universe, start forming into clumps. The atoms in the clumps attract each other because of gravity and they coalesce to form all the galaxies, stars, and planets that the universe now contains. It is estimated that the first stars began to be formed about 150 million years after the Big Bang. Galaxies started forming after about 1 billion years, when the temperature was about 20 K or -253 degrees Celsius. (The temperature scale called Kelvin (K) is used in physics and its value is obtained by adding 273 to the Celsius temperature. For very high temperatures, we can ignore this difference as well as the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit scales, which is why I have not been too specific about the temperature scale so far.)

The stars that were formed initially consisted of mostly hydrogen and helium. The energy that makes the stars so bright and hot is primarily caused by nuclear reactions in which hydrogen nuclei fuse together to form helium nuclei. It is only within stars that are above a certain size that all the other heavier elements we now have were created. At the end of their lives, these massive stars first collapse and then explode in what we call a supernova, spewing all the heavier elements that they created into space, where they end up in planets like ours. The mass of our own Sun is not large enough to explode in this way. Its life will end with a whimper, not a bang.

So that is the basic story of the Big Bang: Starting with a highly dense, uniform, and hot gas consisting of quarks, gluons, electrons and photons that was compressed into a tiny amount of space that was smaller than a golf ball, it rapidly expanded and cooled to become the vast universe we now have with all the basic elements.

Our universe began 13.7 billion years ago, stars came into being about 150 million years later, galaxies started forming after about one billion years, and our Solar System with the Sun, Earth, and other planets was formed about 4.5 billion years ago.

This graphic gives a summary of the time evolution of the universe.


If we want to run the clock further to see what happened on Earth alone, bacteria appeared about 3.5 billion years ago, followed by green plants and algae (1.3 billion years ago), the first wormlike animals (600 million years ago), fish (550 million years ago), amphibians (400 million years ago), reptiles (350 million years ago), mammals (250 million years ago), birds (180 million years ago), and humans (6 million years ago), bearing in mind that these numbers are approximate. The New Scientist magazine gives a more detailed timeline for evolution.

In subsequent posts I will examine some subtleties of the Big Bang theory and the evidence in support of it.

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on Australian TV

Richard Dawkins appeared on an Australian TV panel program called Q/A that takes questions from the audience. It is interesting that Dawkins is the person who most directly answers questions while the others tend to waffle and hedge. Calls for 'respect for religion' make their predictable appearance when Dawkins's points against it hit too close to home. Well worth watching. (Thanks to Pharyngula.)

The program is a little under an hour and can be viewed in six parts. The last two segments deal mostly with a specific Australian issue about how they treat refugees who arrive by boat, an issue that has created a huge controversy in that country.

The very last question gets back to religion with a question about the afterlife. Again compare the wishful thinking of the other panelists with Dawkins's directness.

Part 1:

(part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6)

March 16, 2010

Big Bang for beginners-3: The basic story

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

The starting point of the Big Bang story is a cosmic event that started out small and expanded rapidly (like an explosion). This event brought into being the universe we now inhabit and produced all the matter that our universe is presently composed of, though not in its present form. The time at the beginning is arbitrarily set to zero.

We do not know what happened right at the very beginning (at time zero by our convention) because our known theories are believed to not apply right at the beginning. So our story begins very shortly after the Big Bang occurred. It is believed that what existed then were quarks, gluons, electrons, and photons that were moving freely around in a hot dense gas called a plasma. (There were also a few other exotic particles that I will ignore as they are not central to a basic understanding of the evolution of the universe). As the universe expanded over time, these quarks and gluons and electrons and photons eventually became the ordinary matter that we now have. No new matter was created after the Big Bang, but the form that the matter took did change dramatically.

To understand how this process of evolution occurred, we have to understand two basic relationships.

  1. The 'temperature' of the universe is related to the average energy of the photons that the universe contains.
  2. As the universe expands and gets bigger, the same amount of matter now occupies a larger amount of space and so the density of matter gets smaller and the temperature of the universe drops.

So right at the beginning the universe was highly dense because all the matter that now exists in the visible universe was compressed into a region that was smaller than a golf ball, if you can imagine that. As a result, the early universe was extremely hot. Because the density of photons (the number occupying a given region of space) was huge and they were so highly energetic, they could (and did) blast apart every composite object they encountered, so that the only things that could exist in the very early universe were those that could not be further broken up into smaller bits, which is what we think that quarks and gluons and electrons are.

As the universe expanded, it became cooler and the photons became less energetic and after some time their average energy became so low that if some quarks and gluons happened to combine to form protons and neutrons, the photons could not break them apart anymore, so the protons and neutrons remained intact. So now the universe consisted of protons, neutrons, electrons, and (lower energy) photons, with all the quarks and gluons being trapped inside the protons and neutrons and no longer free to move around independently.

As the universe expanded and cooled even more, the photons became even less energetic and they could not break apart any nuclei that happened to be formed by protons and neutrons combining. So now the universe consisted of nuclei as well, along with protons, neutrons, and electrons. The only nuclei that formed during the Big Bang were those of the three lightest atoms: hydrogen, helium, and lithium in decreasing order of abundance, with hydrogen forming about 75%, helium about 25%, and just trace amounts of lithium. (The nuclei of all the hundred or so heavier elements that currently exist were formed in the interior of heavy stars, and so came along much later.)

As time went by, the temperature of the universe became even less, so that the photons could not break apart any atoms that formed by nuclei and electrons combining, so the universe now included atoms as well.

And finally, the temperature of the universe became so low that the photons could not even break apart any molecules that formed.

After that, as the universe expanded and cooled even further, the primordial photons in the universe (i.e., those that were created right at the beginning) had such low energies that they ceased to have any effect on anything else. They became, in effect, disconnected from the rest of the matter in the universe. But these photons still exist, getting steadily cooler, and occupy all of space, surrounding us. They give us important information about the origin of the universe, its evolution, and its eventual fate. It is these photons that are referred to as the 'cosmic microwave background radiation'.

The term 'microwave' is used because the average energy of these primordial photons now is roughly equal to that of the photons produced by your microwave oven. Fortunately for us, the density of these cosmic photons is now extremely low (only about 400 per cubic centimeter) because the universe has become so large. Otherwise we would all be cooked in this cosmic microwave oven. The temperature of the universe at the present time is about -270 degrees Celsius, very close to the absolute minimum temperature that is possible which is -273 degrees Celsius.

Next: How rapidly did this cosmic evolution happen?

POST SCRIPT: Goodbye, Peter Graves

Actor Peter Graves, actor and star of the long running TV series Mission: Impossible, has died at the age of 83. Like Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack, he was better known for serious roles but their deadpan delivery helped make the spoof Airplane! one of the funniest films of all time, one that I watch every few years and it still makes me laugh.

Here is a compilation of the scenes with Graves (as Captain Clarence Oveur), though there was a funny opening segment with the Hare Krishnas that did not make this cut.

And here is the trailer:

March 15, 2010

Big Bang for beginners-2: The nature of energy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

In order to understand the Big Bang theory, we also need to have an understanding of the nature of energy in addition to that of matter that was discussed yesterday. The word 'energy' has a technical meaning in science but has also entered into the vernacular and thus has been used to mean many things. In everyday language, it usually signifies the source of the ability to do things, such as move objects or break them up or put them together. So gasoline provides the energy to run cars, coal the energy to heat things, and so on.

Energy takes many forms. Some of it comes from the motion of objects that have mass. For example, the energy associated with the motion of a speeding car can be used to break through a fence. Wind energy comes from the motion of air and can be used to power wind turbines. Water waves in the form of tsunamis can carry vast amounts of energy that can wreak widespread destruction. Some energy is stored as chemical energy in certain kinds of matter such as gasoline and coal that are released under certain conditions. Nuclear energy is what is stored in atomic nuclei. All these forms of energy are associated with things that have mass.

But there is a form of energy that is not associated with any mass. Electromagnetic energy refers to energy that is not associated with a tangible object that has mass but still has the ability to do things. In everyday language, we do not use the term electromagnetic but instead refer to this kind of energy according to the source that produces it. Sunlight is one such case. It has no mass but it has energy (what we call solar energy) and can heat objects, as anyone who has been warmed by the Sun can testify. A microwave oven produces a similar massless energy that we use to cook food. X-ray machines also produce massless energy that we can use to see through some things. Radio waves are another form of massless energy.

All these different forms of massless electromagnetic energy differ only in how much energy is carried by a single unit of that energy. The name given to this single unit is the 'photon'. The energy that can be carried by a photon varies continuously and the popular names we assign, such as microwave, radio, visible light, X-rays, refer to ranges of photon energy that are based on somewhat arbitrary boundaries. So a photon in a radio wave has less energy than a photon produced by a microwave oven, which has on average less energy than a photon of sunlight, which in turn has less average energy than a photon produced by an X-ray machine.

The energy of each photon is tiny but any energy source that has an observable effect in everyday life, such as sunlight and microwave ovens, contains enormous numbers of them.

So to summarize in terms of increasing energy of photons:

radio waves→microwaves→sunlight→X-rays→ …

In scientific research, we often use photons to break matter up into its smaller constituents because photons can be aimed extremely precisely at small targets. In yesterday's post I described a hierarchy of constituents of matter in order of decreasing size.


I also said that it takes larger and larger amounts of energy to break up the smaller constituents. If we use photons for this purpose, then we can split a molecule into atoms using a low-energy photon, while we would require a higher energy photon to split up an atom into nuclei and electrons, and yet higher energy photon to break up a nucleus into protons and neutrons. We have not as yet produced in laboratories or accelerators photons that have high enough energy to break up protons and neutrons into free quarks and gluons, assuming that this can be done at all.

As far as we know, there is no upper limit to the energy that a photon can have, just as we do not know if there is a lower limit to the size of the basic constituents of matter. In both cases, our knowledge is limited by our present technology to produce the required energies in the laboratory. There are photons with extremely high energy (many orders of magnitude larger than anything we can produce in the laboratory) that come to us from outer space in what are called cosmic rays but we cannot corral them to use them in controlled experiments.

With these preliminaries out of the way, we can begin to explain the Big Bang theory.

POST SCRIPT: Art films

Monty Python made an art form of parodying BBC-style interviews and in this clip That Mitchell and Webb Look pay homage to them and take on pretentious films and their directors.

March 12, 2010

Big Bang for beginners-1: The nature of matter

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I was recently asked by a relative to provide a simple explanation of the Big Bang theory 'in words of one syllable', i.e., without using jargon or esoteric scientific concepts and in a way that it could be understood by non-scientists. So here goes my attempt at fulfilling that request. In doing so I have tried to follow a paraphrase of Einstein's dictum that says that when explaining something we should make things as simple as possible, but not simpler. In other words don't distort in the search for simplicity. In trying to achieve this goal, I have created a multi-part series. (I promised my relative that my explanation would be simple, not short!)

But it is inevitable that in explaining a sophisticated scientific theory like the Big Bang to non-scientists, in essence telling it in the form of a story, some distortions will creep in, not the least because this is not my area of specialization and so I may simply not be as up-to-date as I should be. An excellent site for more current and authoritative information is one put together by Professor Edward Wright of UCLA. In particular he has put together a tutorial and a valuable FAQ page that enables one to quickly find answers to questions, and I have helped myself from that resource so generously provided.

I will readily acknowledge that I will also consciously introduce some distortions by taking the kind of liberties that film makers do when adapting books to create a screenplay, by omitting those characters that are peripheral to the story in order to maintain focus and brevity. My main omissions will consist of some elementary particles of matter that do not add anything to the basic story. Those who want a highly readable yet more accurate treatment of the basics of the theory are well advised to seek out what I think is still one of the best popular treatments of this subject, and that is Steven Weinberg's The First Three Minutes (1988). Though it does not have anything about the more recent observations and refinements (such as dark matter, dark energy, and cosmic inflation), the basic paradigm it presents is still valid.

The Big Bang theory seeks to explain how the physical universe that we now inhabit came about. Since it now consists of lots of stuff, one needs to first start by looking at what that stuff (i.e., ordinary matter) consists of. This exercise turns out to be like peeling an onion. As each layer of matter is examined, it reveals another layer below it.

Most everyday stuff (plants, animals, plastics, etc.) is made up of tiny but complex entities called molecules that give them their distinctive properties and which are held together by attractive forces. To separate matter into individual molecules, we need to apply an external force that is sufficient to overcome the force that binds a molecule to its neighbors. Doing so requires us to expend some energy as well.

Each individual molecule is in turn made up of simpler entities that we call atoms, which are also held together by attractive forces. Atoms are the units of matter that distinguish one element from another, and there are a little over a hundred such elements, oxygen, hydrogen, iron, carbon, being a few of the well-known ones. The periodic table lists all of them. A very simple molecule is that of water, which consists of just three atoms, two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen, held together by attractive forces. Other molecules, like the DNA that exist in the core of our body's cells and contain our genes, consist of millions of atoms joined together.

Atoms were once considered the most basic units of matter. They were thought to be indivisible but we know now that that is not true and that they too are composite objects, consisting of a tiny central core (called the nucleus) and electrons outside the nucleus, again held together by attractive forces. Electrons do seem to be truly fundamental particles that cannot be broken up into any smaller constituents.

The nucleus of an atom, however, turns out to be yet another composite object that consists of still smaller entities called protons and neutrons.

The protons and neutrons are now known to be composite objects too, consisting of even smaller entities called quarks and gluons.

So to summarize, when we peel off the layers of matter, the component units of which it is made are, in order of decreasing size:

This is where things stand now.

Are the quarks and gluons (and electrons) the ultimate constituents of matter? We don't know for sure but given past history with the onion-like nature of matter, we should not be too surprised if searches reveal yet another layer beneath the current one.

Why is it that we do not know if quarks and gluons are the ultimate components of matter? The reason comes down to the fact that it takes force and energy to separate matter into its smaller constituents, and the force and energy required increases rapidly as one moves down the chain of matter. It takes a small amount of energy to separate molecules into atoms. It takes much more energy to separate atoms into nuclei and electrons. (Some electrons can be removed from atoms by just rubbing materials together, which is the source of what we call 'static' electricity.) It takes much greater energy to separate nuclei into protons and neutrons, which is why we need huge and expensive accelerators to do so. When it comes to separating protons and neutrons into quarks and gluons we seem to have reached the limits of our ability. We have not actually been able to create quarks and gluons as free objects but instead can only study them while they are still inside nuclei.

The reason that we cannot produce free quarks and gluons is thought to be due to the fact that the forces holding them together in protons and neutrons are like the forces exerted by rubber. When you try to separate two objects that are joined by a piece of elastic, the force you need to apply keeps increasing as the objects move apart. With real rubber bands, the band breaks at some point and the two objects break free of each other. But with the rubber band-like forces holding quarks and gluons together, we have not been able as yet to create forces that can break the bands, leaving us unsure whether they can be broken if only we could to make the forces large enough, or whether they simply cannot be broken, ever.

Next: The nature of energy

POST SCRIPT: Harry Markopolos

In my series on financial frauds, I wrote about the Bernie Madoff scandal and how Harry Markopolos's repeated warnings that Madoff was running a scam were ignored by the regulatory authorities and the media. He appeared recently on The Daily Show to repeat those charges.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Harry Markopolos
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Reform

March 11, 2010

Overdependence on technology

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I like a lot of the conveniences that modern technology provides. At the same time, there is so much new stuff that is coming out that I feel reluctant to waste my time learning things that will prove to be transient. I am also somewhat cheap and tend to wait until the dust has settled and only the truly useful is left standing before spending money on it. So an early adopter I am not. I tend to keep an eye on trends but not adopt anything new unless I think I really need it or it solves a problem that I have or it looks like something that will really improve my life.

Personal GPS navigation systems have so far not passed that threshold. Yes, I can see that it might be fun to have but so far I am not persuaded that it is a must-have.

Last Friday, someone knocked on my office door. He said that he was looking for a conference that the university was hosting. I knew that there was nothing going on in my building and asked him why he had come there. He said that this was the place that his GPS has sent him to. I asked him if he could give me the name of the building where it was to be held or the people organizing it so I might be able to help him more easily. He said no. He had simply plugged some information into his GPS device and followed its directions to the end, which happened to be my building.

It so happened that I was able, from the topic of the conference, to track down the exact location and send him on his way. But I marveled at his total dependence on technology.

He is not alone. Recently my cousin was driving to New York City from Toronto for a wedding that I also attended and depended totally on his GPS system to get him there. For some reason, the street address of the hotel was not the address that you are supposed to insert into the GPS to get accurate directions, but he overlooked that and as a result he got lost and spent several wasted hours wandering around NYC (at the end of a long drive from Toronto when everyone in the car was already tired and irritable) until he found the hotel. It had not occurred to him to carry a map with the location of the hotel on it or to use MapQuest or similar sources to gets directions as backup.

While these two cases were benign, overdependence on GPS can be potentially deadly as one Oregon couple found when they blindly followed their GPS directions into a remote forest road and became stuck in the snow for three days before they were rescued.

I myself do not use GPS because I find that I am perfectly able to get to places with just street maps or with help from MapQuest. I also dislike the idea of voices breaking into my consciousness when I am driving and telling me what to do, when most of the time I don't need directions. Before I leave to go anywhere unfamiliar, I make sure that I have located my destination on a map and created a visual map in my head, and I take actual maps with me as a backup.

There s nothing wrong with using GPS. What surprises me is that some people are totally dependent on it and have no plan B, no backup, if the GPS goes awry.

POST SCRIPT: Wedding speeches

Over my lifetime I have attended many weddings and listened to quite a few speeches and I must say that That Mitchell and Webb Look captures their over-the-top praise nature well.

March 10, 2010

Film review: Up (no spoilers)

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Up is a truly outstanding film that I can strongly recommend to anyone.

This latest animation coming out of Pixar Studios tells the story of Carl, a 78-year old curmudgeonly man who, on the verge of being forced out of the home he lived in with his beloved late wife Ellie and sent to a retirement home, decides to carry out their unfulfilled joint childhood dream of following in the footsteps of a legendary explorer who disappeared long ago in South America in search of a mystical place called Paradise Falls that harbors an exotic bird that no one else believes exists.

The explorer used a blimp to travel and this inspires the old man to attach a huge number of helium balloons to his house and use it too as a blimp to get to his destination. But a complication arises when a little boy named Russell, a novice member of a children's explorer's club, accidentally ends up as a stowaway on his journey.

You get a good sense of the set up of the film from the trailer below, though it does not hint at what happens later.

The film has comedy and adventure in abundance and never drags. After watching it, it struck me how much superior it was to the film Avatar, despite all the hoopla generated by the latter. (See my review of Avatar.) Both films are fantasy adventures. Both have highly predictable storylines, Up even more so than Avatar. You have no doubt that both will have happy endings with some bittersweet elements thrown in. Both use computer graphics extensively, though Avatar is far more advanced and has 3D.

So what makes Up so much better? The answer is simple: it has a much better story, writing, and characters with depth. It does not hurt for a dog-person like me that it also has lots of dogs. Even though the main characters are a grizzled old man and a rotund little boy, you soon find yourself really caring about them in a way that you did not about the much better-looking lead couple in Avatar. There was one short and silent sequence early on, showing the life of Carl and Ellie from childhood to old age, that was extraordinarily beautifully done. I am not usually emotional while watching films but this sequence was so exquisite and poignant that it brought tears to my eyes.

It seems to me that it is the creators of animations that are making some of the better films these days. I recently saw another excellent animation Ratatouille and that managed to make a rat (a rat!) a highly engaging character. And going back to 1967, Walt Disney's Jungle Book has remained one of my favorite films of all time, combining great songs with humor and suspense. Perhaps the reason that animations tend to be among the better films is that the creators of animations know that they cannot depend on film-star power and sex and violence to overcome a weak plot or clunky dialogue. The story, writing, and direction are always the keys to good films, and for animations they are even more important.

A good guide to how good a film is is the extent to which I pay attention to implausibilities, incongruities, and inconsistencies. In the case of Avatar, several such elements struck me even while watching the film, as I noted in my review. But while watching Up I simply did not care if there were any. Looking back, Up had a lot more plot holes than Avatar but I still don't care. Maybe the reason is because it was an obvious animation while Avatar looked more realistic, and one gives animations more slack. But I think another important reason is that when you get absorbed in a film and its characters, one does not want to let small things destroy one's enjoyment.

I have never quite seen the appeal of awards and so am baffled that there is so much anticipation about the Oscars and that people actually watch over three hours of the awards show. Having said that, I am glad that Up won for best animated feature film and was also nominated for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards. If that gets more people to see it, that is a good thing.

POST SCRIPT: On being an art critic

"People have pointed out evidence of personal feeling in my notices as if they were accusing me of a misdemeanour, not knowing that a criticism written without personal feeling is not worth reading. It is the capacity for making good or bad art a personal matter that makes a man a critic. The artist who accounts for my disparagement by alleging personal animosity on my part is quite right: when people do less than their best, and do that less at once badly and self-complacently, I hate them, loathe them, detest them, long to tear them limb from limb and strew them in gobbets about the stage or platform.... In the same way, really fine artists inspire me with the warmest personal regard, which I gratify in writing my notices without the smallest reference to such monstrous conceits as justice, impartiality, and the rest of the ideals. When my critical mood is at its height, personal feeling is not the word: it is passion: the passion for artistic perfection - for the noblest beauty of sound, sight and action - that rages in me. Let all young artists look to it, and pay no heed to the idiots who declare that criticism should be free from personal feeling. The true critic, I repeat, is the man who becomes your personal enemy on the sole provocation of a bad performance, and will only be appeased by good performances. Now this, though well for art and for the people, means that the critics are, from the social or clubbable point of view, veritable fiends. They can only fit themselves for other people's clubs by allowing themselves to be corrupted by kindly feelings foreign to the purpose of art."

- George Bernard Shaw, quoted in Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality by Hesketh Pearson (1961), p. 126

March 09, 2010

Tiger Woods skips the express line for forgiveness and redemption

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I have so far not commented on the Tiger Woods affair. While I enjoy salacious gossip as much as the next person and have followed the scandal in its general outlines, it is ultimately not a story with any deep significance. It is essentially a private matter for him and his family to deal with.

As far as I could tell, even before this story broke, Woods seemed like a calculating machine, using his skills and carefully controlling his image to rack up lucrative endorsements. He never used his celebrity status to address any issue of public interest that might be even remotely controversial. Mohammed Ali or George Clooney or the Dixie Chicks he was not. On the few occasions when his mask slipped, he revealed himself to be somewhat shallow. He may be a great golfer (a game whose appeal I find highly elusive) but that was about it. Basically, he was uninteresting as a person.

What I was curious about was how he would stage his comeback. There was never any doubt that he would and that this too, like every other aspect of his public life, would be carefully plotted and calculated by him and his handlers. His recent emergence and apology, consisting of a statement to a limited group with no questions, has been criticized as too obviously stage-managed but there was one mention of it in a brief report that caught my attention and that was when Woods referred to his religion. He said:

I have a lot of work to do, and I intend to dedicate myself to doing it. Part of following this path for me is Buddhism, which my mother taught me at a young age. People probably don't realize it, but I was raised a Buddhist, and I actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years. Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously I lost track of what I was taught.

Returning to the basic principles of Buddhism is not the normal statement of repentance that one is used to hearing from disgraced public figures in the US. Typically, they fall back on the standard sin-and-redemption trope of Christianity, saying that they know they have sinned against god because of their human weakness but have now, thanks to Jesus, seen the light, are truly sorry, and started a new life. This approach has a solid record of success. Max Blumenthal's book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party describes case after case where prominent Republican and conservative public figures, the very people who loudly condemn others whom they felt were deviating from the path of Christian morality (such as sex outside marriage, homosexuality, blasphemy, pornography, abortion, unwed parenthood, and teen pregnancy, etc.) were those who, after getting caught with their pants down indulging in those very same acts, have been forgiven and received back into the bosom of their Christian followers after making that kind of apology. It seems almost like there is a set script that everyone follows, hitting all the same notes.

It seems like evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the US can't get enough of the redeemed sinner storyline, even if it seems patently insincere to the unbiased observer. Why is this so? Maybe it is because, as Gregory Paul argues in a recent study titled The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions, increased religiosity seems to correlate with the kind of behavior that these people condemn as immoral. He says that, "conservative religious ideology apparently contributes to societal dysfunction". Paul uses comparative data from many countries and finds that "higher levels of conservative religious practice are associated with elevated levels of racial and ethnic prejudice. The patriarchal nature of traditional evangelical marriage may contribute to high levels of violence and instability, and conservative religious values do not appear to suppress uses of pornography to levels as low as those with more liberal views." (Thanks to Machines Like Us.)

Blumenthal's book supports Paul's thesis and states (p. 68) that ", an evangelical anti-porn group, found in a 2007 survey that 50 percent of evangelical men and 20 percent of evangelical women are addicted to pornography; 37 percent of evangelical pastors… called porn addiction a "current struggle.""

Thus Christians may like the idea of forgiving what they condemn as immoral behavior by fellow Christians because many of them are also indulging in similar behavior themselves, and want to keep open that escape route if their own transgressions are also discovered and revealed.

Fox News personality Brit Hume earlier suggested that Woods' Buddhism would be a hindrance for his comeback and that he might be better off converting to Christianity.

While Hume seemed to be concerned about how best to restore Woods's immortal soul to good standing in god's eyes after the danger he put it in because of his sexual escapades (because we know that the god is deeply obsessed with people's sex lives) and received some derision for his comments, I think that viewed purely tactically, Hume was right. Woods' public relations damage control would have been better served prostrating himself before Jesus than appealing to the teachings of Buddhism.

So why didn't Woods take this tried and true path? Maybe his handlers thought that religious regret, whatever the religion, was sufficient to receive absolution from his fans and thus, more importantly, his sponsors. But if it is later revealed that they tried to make Woods claim to have had a come-to-Jesus moment and he resisted because he truly believed in Buddhism and would not abandon it, that would make him a far more interesting person. It would, at the very least, provide evidence that he cared for something more than making money.

POST SCRIPT: Tiger Woods announces his return to what?

The Tiger Woods story is just perfect for an Onion parody. But be warned that it has very explicit sexual language.

March 08, 2010

The Kierkegaard Gambit-4: Why evidence is crucial

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The Nineteenth Century Variation is similar to the Kierkegaard Gambit in that both seek to deflect attention away from awkward questions. The former is aimed at those who ask religious apologists if they really believe the absurd claims of their religions, while the latter targets those who ask believers for evidence for their claims about god. Both requests are embarrassing for religious believers and so people must be deflected from asking them.

The reason why evidence needs to be produced for empirical claims becomes apparent when the situation is reversed. When non-scientists demand to see evidence for the claims of science (say time dilation or evolution), we do not fob them off by saying that it is impertinent to make such a request until they have first studied Einstein's or Darwin's works in depth. We try to explain what those scientists' theories assert and, more importantly, what evidence we have that makes us take those claims seriously. The questioners may not have the expertise to fully evaluate the evidence and for that they may need to do some studying on their own, but nonetheless we have an obligation to point them in the correct direction and indicate the nature of that evidence. Sophisticated religious apologists do not provide evidence and try to evade the issue altogether by saying that evidence is unnecessary or adopting the Kierkegaard Gambit.

The nice thing about the call for evidence is that it does not depend on expertise. If someone makes an empirical claim, we do not dismiss it simply because they may not be scientists. In fact, non-professionals often turn up evidence that has implications in astronomy, geology, biology, and physics. If you have evidence to counter the theory of evolution, then it does not matter if you are not a biologist. If you have evidence for the existence of god, by all means present it and atheists will consider it.

If the Kierkegaard Gambit is uniformly applied to all spheres of activity, then we would have to insist that only those people who can produce evidence that they have studied both science and religion in depth can form judgments about whether they are compatible. That would immediately rule out almost everybody, including many theologians and philosophers. And yet, that is not what happens. It is assumed that people like John Haught and H. E. Baber and Karen Armstrong are competent to talk about the implications of science for religion but Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne and P. Z. Myers are not. This is what makes so apropos Daniel Dennett's statement that, "Debating a religionist is like playing tennis with someone who lowers the net for their shots and raises it for yours."

What is fascinating is that ordinary religious people have no trouble understanding the need to provide evidence for their beliefs and they will attempt to do so if asked. Their evidence may be weak or spurious or inconclusive (faces of Jesus in toast, prayers allegedly answered, personal feelings, etc.) but at least they usually try. The whole problem with ultra-sophisticated religionists is that their beliefs are evidence free and thus content free which is why theology is so flexible, able to accommodate anything. If you are not constrained by evidence, then anything goes. As Carl Sagan wrote in Broca's Brain:

[R]eligions are tough. Either they make no contentions which are subject to disproof or they quickly redesign doctrine after disproof. The fact that religions can be so shamelessly dishonest, so contemptuous of the intelligence of their adherents, and still flourish does not speak very well for the tough-mindedness of the believers. But it does indicate, if a demonstration was needed, that near the core of the religious experience is something remarkably resistant to rational inquiry. (my italics)

Carl Sagan, like Charles Darwin, called himself an agnostic. Both are people that I describe as 'good' atheists', people whose beliefs are functionally indistinguishable from atheism but who go to great lengths to avoid hurting the feelings of believers, unlike us mean old new/unapologetic atheists. But what Sagan is saying here is as tough as anything that new/unapologetic atheists would say.

And he is right.

POST SCRIPT: And the murderer is…

I grew up devouring the entire oeuvre of English mystery fiction by writers like Agatha Christie. There was something endlessly fascinating about the eccentric and exotic private detective Hercule Poirot investigating murders set in quaint villages and country estates. The denouement was usually dramatic and took place in a drawing room in which the villain is unmasked and immediately confesses.

That Mitchell and Webb Look capture the mood perfectly.

March 05, 2010

The Kierkegaard Gambit-3: The Nineteenth Century Variation

The Kierkegaard Gambit (explained in yesterday's post) is a tactic used to deflect attention away from the awkward request made by atheists to believers to provide evidence for god by challenging the competence of the people making the request. I freely acknowledge that I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher nor have I studied the works of the famous philosophers in depth. But the claims that atheists make are fundamentally empirical and can be credibly made by anybody, although they do have theological and philosophical implications.

As commenter Eric reminded me yesterday, Richard Dawkins points us to the intellectual paucity of the Kierkegaard Gambit by saying "Would you need to read learned volumes on Leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?" Jason Rosenhouse and P. Z. Myers provide other responses to it. Myers has fun pondering what those who use the Kierkegaard Gambit would have said if Dawkins had been the child who pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

As I said yesterday, what atheists say is simply the following: If the existence of your god has empirical consequences, then provide empirical evidence that supports your contention. If it has no empirical consequences whatsoever, then say so and we will not interfere with your theological and philosophical ruminations because we do not really care to speculate on the properties of what we consider to be a mythical entity.

The only god that concerns an atheist like me is some kind of active intelligent entity that exists in the same world that I live in and can thus interfere in its workings capriciously, thus violating the laws of nature that scientists have worked diligently to discover. It is these very laws that provide order to the universe and have enabled us to explain its workings and to create the vast edifice of science and technology that we currently benefit from. Surely it is a matter of some import if those same laws can be overturned capriciously at the whim of a supernatural being? A god who can mess with the laws of science is not someone whose existence I can ignore.

In response to the claim that I made that "There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns", a commenter dismissed it by saying:

Absolutely specious. First off, it conflates names for God with God, showing that the questioner isn't even treating his own claims seriously. Secondly, it groups physical beings (and here I assume that he means the existence of actual "unicorns", "fairies" and "Santa Clauses" and not metaphorical ones, which do exist) with extremely complex, immaterial beings (Infinite and outside of physical existence), which either is meant as an attempt to belittle humble folks who think that they are limited and finite or simply indicative of a lack of complex approach to a complex subject out of arrogance or laziness.

It is interesting that this commenter is also claiming that there are "extremely complex, immaterial beings (Infinite and outside of physical existence)"? What does that mean exactly? What evidence is there that such beings exist at all? How does the commenter know that such beings exist if they are 'outside of physical existence' since the commenter is presumably inside physical existence? Or is he saying that they exist 'metaphorically' like metaphorical unicorns and fairies? How can one be so confident in assigning attributes to an entity for which there is no evidence?

People can have all the metaphors they want and endlessly debate the attributes of their metaphorical gods, just as they can argue about whether metaphorical unicorns are silver or white and whether these mythical animals are mild-mannered or ferocious in temperament. But they never come right out and say that their god is as much a metaphor as a unicorn. As Greta Christina so lucidly pointed out, even those progressive religionists who say that religion is a metaphor don't seem to really mean it.

When Dawkins argues with theologians and sophisticated religious believers, he sometimes encounters an alternate form of the Kierkegaard Gambit which, to pursue chess terminology, I call the Nineteenth Century Variation. They often accuse him of being 'nineteenth century' in his level of sophistication and of arguing as if they still have the naive belief of god as an old man with a long white beard in the sky. Of course, since they don't, they argue that that makes his arguments irrelevant. Dawkins wonders why they assign to him such a naïve concept of god when it should be obvious that he thinks no such thing:

What, then, is the coded meaning of 'You are so nineteenth-century' in the context of an argument about religion? It is code for: 'You are so crude and unsubtle, how could you be so insensitive and ill-mannered as to ask me a direct, point-blank question like "Do you believe in miracles " or "Do you believe Jesus was born of a virgin?" Don't you know that in polite society we don't ask such questions? That sort of question went out in the nineteenth century.' But think about why it is impolite to ask such direct, factual questions of religious people today. It is because it is embarrassing! But it is the answer that is embarrassing, if it is yes.

The nineteenth century connection is now clear. The nineteenth century is the last time when it was possible for an educated person to admit to believing in miracles like the virgin birth without embarrassment. When pressed, many educated Christians today are too loyal to deny the virgin birth and the resurrection. But it embarrasses them because their rational minds know it is absurd, so they would much rather not be asked. Hence, if somebody like me insists on asking the question, it is I who am accused of being 'nineteenth century.' It is really quite funny when you think about it. (The God Delusion, p. 157-157)

The Nineteenth Century Variation is similar to the Kierkegaard Gambit in that both seek to deflect attention away from awkward questions. The former is aimed at those who ask religious apologists if they really believe the absurd claims of their religions, while the latter targets those who ask believers for evidence for their claims about god. Both are embarrassing requests for sophisticated believers and so atheists must be deflected from asking them.

Next: Why evidence is so crucial

POST SCRIPT: Monty Python sing the Philosopher's Drinking Song

Sing along with them! Its fun! Sadly, Kierkegaard didn't make it into the song.

March 04, 2010

The Kierkegaard Gambit-2: More sophisticated excuses for the lack of evidence

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Yesterday's post discussed some of the simpler excuses offered by religious believers for the lack of evidence for god and why more sophisticated believers find them unsatisfactory. One alternative line of defense adopted by the later group is to argue that questions of existence are of no importance, that questions about god's existence transcend such mundane concerns. For such people, their concept of god is such that evidence is irrelevant.

People like John Haught, H. E. Baber, and Karen Armstrong have pursued this line of argument to such an extent that it seemed to me that they have defined god right out of existence and are thus operationally indistinguishable from atheists. I have called such people 'religious atheists' because they clearly want to be considered believers. Thus they continue to claim that god does exist but in some vague way that is exempt from the normal expectation that existence claims require at least some evidence to be credible.

At the same time, these people are often formal members of actual religious sects that demand belief in the miraculous. John Haught, for example, is a Roman Catholic theologian at Georgetown University. The Roman Catholic church in particular requires belief in a pretty spectacular set of absurdities: the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, the perpetual virginity of Mary and her bodily assumption into heaven at the end of her life, etc. Does he believe that all those things are historically factual? Does he believe in transubstantiation? How can he not believe in any of them and still call himself a Roman Catholic, since those are fundamental dogmas that all Catholics are required to subscribe to?

Albert Mohler. President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observing an online debate between Richard Dawkins and Armstrong, realizes that these ultra-sophisticated theologians have pretty much lost the game and conceded the argument to atheists. He says that the arguments of people like Armstrong are 'superficial', 'theologically reckless', and 'elegant nonsense.' He says that, "Interestingly, it is Dawkins, presented as the unbeliever in this exchange, who understands God better than Armstrong… We should at least give Dawkins credit here for knowing what he rejects. Here we meet an atheist who understands the difference between belief and unbelief."

Recently I have noticed an interesting wrinkle in the response of some apologists to the atheist's challenge to produce evidence. Instead of providing evidence, our competence to speak on this topic at all is challenged. The form of this argument is to say something along the lines of "You really don't know what you are talking about. Kierkegaard (or Kant or Aquinas or Wittgenstein or any other eminent philosopher or theologian) dealt with this issue with great depth and subtlety and until you have studied those works, you should not speak on this issue." I call this debating ploy the 'Kierkegaard Gambit', although any other impressive name in theology or philosophy will do.

As an example, here is one such comment in response to one of my posts: "I wonder why so many physicists and evolutionary biologists and software engineers think that the exploration of meaning and religion must be so fundamentally simple that they can engage in sweeping statements without actually reading anything of the thousands of years of thought on the topic."

As another example, here is the statement made by a commenter to my post arguing that religious atheists are getting even more atheistic who said, "I would suggest that you might want to bone up a bit on theology a bit before you pontificate on this particular subject… Your knowledge on religion appears to be quite limited, and you might want to learn a little more about it before you pontificate on it."

Or again, "[A]ny number of philosophically illiterate folks can pretend to deal with the existence of God and not refer to Aquinas or Descartes or Kierkegaarde or any other notable genius who has spent the time and effort necessary to think about such a difficult and weighty and fundamentally complex topic… Any arguments about moral atheism are just amateurish attempts at what Kant and Spinoza and Berkeley were doing when they wanted to hold on to all the trappings of Christianity but do away with Christianity, and I'll lay odds that anyone in the modern day who's making similar arguments is going to be roughly a jillion times less intelligent than any of those three."

That's putting me in my place, isn't it?

What is being asserted is that sophisticated theologians and philosophers, people who are much smarter than me, have studied these issues in great depth and have already explained everything and we need to go to them to find answers. God is so subtle that it is only through immersion in the works of these theologians and philosophers that we can obtain an understanding of him. Those of us who are not professional theologians and philosophers should shut up about our demands for dumb old evidence and not draw any conclusions on the question of god's existence until we have devoted years to carefully studying the works of these theologians and philosophers.

This idea that god is so hard to grasp will no doubt come as news to the billions of religious believers who think they know god pretty well and have a good relationship with him without such study.

But we atheists are not talking about understanding the nature of god. We are not talking about the meaning of god. We are talking about whether god exists or not. This should surely be the prior question and is one that depends on evidence for an answer.

What atheists like me say to religious believers is simply the following: If the existence of your god has empirical consequences, then provide empirical evidence that supports your contention. If it has no empirical consequences whatsoever, then say so and we will not interfere with your theological and philosophical ruminations because we do not really care to speculate on the properties of what we consider to be a mythical entity.

Next: The Nineteenth Century variation on the Kierkergaard Gambit

POST SCRIPT: Philosophers playing soccer

As only Monty Python can imagine. As a background note, the 'Beckenbauer' referred to is a genuine legendary German soccer star who captained their victorious World Cup team in 1974.

March 03, 2010

The Kierkegaard Gambit-1: Excuses for the lack of evidence

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I have noticed an interesting development in discussions of whether god exists. The new/unapologetic atheists have been relentless in hammering home their basic message that in the absence of any evidence in favor of the existence of god, it makes no sense to believe in such an entity. It is not a very difficult argument to understand. The position of the new/unapologetic atheists follows that of the very old 'new' atheist Bertrand Russell, who advised that "it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it is true." (Skeptical Essays, I (1928).) Or, as I said in a previous post that describes my basic assertions: "There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns."

This laser-like focus on the need to produce evidence for god has put religious believers in a quandary. Of course 'god' is the name of a slippery and malleable concept and believers often try to evade any pointed criticisms of god's existence by saying that the god the atheists deny is not their concept of god and so those arguments do not apply to them. So let's define what at least some atheists define as god. Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion (p. 31) defines the god that he finds implausible and it is as good a definition as any: "there exists a supernatural, superhuman intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us."

One can add that atheists are philosophical naturalists. Julian Baggini in his Atheism: A Very Short Introduction explains the meaning of an atheist's commitment to naturalism:

What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff comes minds, beauty, emotions, moral values – in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life. (quoted in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 13-14)

It should perhaps be clarified that the basic problem that atheists have is with a god that shares the same world as us and whose existence has some impact on the world. If believers want to postulate god as some entity wandering around in an alternate universe distinct from our own that has absolutely no contact with our universe or as some kind of metaphor that also has no empirical consequences in this world whatsoever, they can knock themselves out and we atheists would not be concerned (or even interested) in the slightest. We would pay as much attention to them as we would to people discussing whether unicorns are silver or white.

Atheists have thus set a clear target for religious believers to aim at and refute: Show us the evidence for your god. After all, most religious people believe in a god, defined as a supernatural creative intelligence who is at the very least the creator and guider of our own universe. Surely there must be at least some incontrovertible evidence of his existence? The same goes for the existence of the soul or for miracles or the afterlife.

But such evidence for a 'supernatural creative intelligence', which is the kind of god that atheists seek to refute because it has empirical consequences, has never been produced. This has put religious apologists deeply on the defensive because they know that after millennia of trying, they simply cannot point to any concrete and credible evidence for the existence of such a god.

It can be argued that the entire field of theology is based on trying to specify the characteristics of an entity for which there is no credible empirical evidence whatsoever. It should not be surprising then that there are so many religions offering so many versions of god, and that even within religions there are sects and divisions each with its own variations. In fact, if you get down to the level of a single individual, each person can argue in favor of a purely idiosyncratic god that appeals just to that individual alone. In the absence of any evidentiary requirement, how could you ever prove that person wrong? I suspect that if you take any two people who belong to the very same sect and go to the very same church/synagogue/mosque/temple and ask them to list the properties of their god, they will still not be able to agree on what their god is like. Such a lack of consensus is an indicator that we are dealing with a fictitious entity that never makes contact with the empirical world.

Instead of concrete evidence being provided, what is offered range from vague generalities such as 'everything in the world is evidence for god' to pointing to alleged miracles whose miraculous nature disappears under close scrutiny. Some naïve believers sometimes appeal to personal experience (They "feel" god's presence; god "speaks" to them, they have a "relationship" with god, etc.) but such claims are indistinguishable from any other form of delusion. Others have tried to turn the lack of evidence into a virtue, by saying that god does not want to make it easy for us to believe by providing clear evidence because he believes that faith in the absence of evidence is a virtue. Again, they do not provide evidence to support how they know that their god has this curious notion that evidence about his own existence is a bad thing when it is so obviously a good thing in every other aspect of life.

More sophisticated religious believers want to preserve their credibility as supporters of science and realize that miracles are not only in contradiction to the laws of science, they can be and have been easily explained away. They know that personal feelings and emotions are not credible as evidence. They realize that making a virtue out of the lack of evidence is obviously special pleading at a laughable level.

So what options are left to them? In the next post in the series I will discuss two strategies that are adopted: The Nineteenth Century Gambit and the Kierkegaard Gambit.

POST SCRIPT: Author Terry Pratchett on religion

March 02, 2010

Religious texts as metaphors

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In yesterday's post, I wrote about those religious believers who try to explain away some of the incredible events reported in the Bible as simplifications that were appropriate for the naïve people of thousands of years ago, and why that explanation was not credible.

Those believers who realize that even the simplification explanation is inadequate and that they need to go further in distancing themselves from the literal words of their text sometimes say that the Bible should be treated as metaphor. They assert that the stories are not meant to be taken as historically true but as vehicles to reveal underlying meaning, somewhat like Jesus's parables, and so any contradiction with science is not an issue. The catch here is that such apologists are often not willing to specify precisely how far they are willing to go along this metaphorical road. For example, are they willing to concede that the entire story of Jesus's life a metaphor? Or are there at least some elements of that story that they hold back as historical fact (Virgin birth? His miracles? Resurrection?) if the Bible is to retain any credibility to them at all as the word of god?

Greta Christina finds that those who argue for metaphors are often disingenuous:

Progressive religion says, "This is simply a story"... but it isn't sincere. You can tell that it isn't sincere by how bent out of shape it gets when people point out that it's just a story, and therefore isn't really true. Progressive religion uses the "metaphor" trope as a slippery way of avoiding hard questions when engaged with skeptics... and as soon as the skeptics turn their backs, it slips right back into actual, non-metaphorical, "belief in immaterial entities or forces that it has no evidence for" religion. Progressive religion is ultimately just as willing to ignore evidence that contradicts its comforting story as hard-line conservative religion.

Truly secular "religion," on the other hand, says, "This is simply a story" -- and means it.

The difference is this:

If you say to a "Religion is a useful metaphor" believer, "Your religion is a story, it isn't factually true, a lot of the history is mangled and some of it's flatly wrong, and all the God stuff is totally made up"... chances are they're going to get seriously defensive. They'll tell you how intolerant you are, how you're just as dogmatic and proselytizing as religious fundamentalists, how disrespectful you are to point out the flaws in religion and try to persuade people that it's mistaken, how close-minded you are to reject ideas just because they're not supported by dumb old evidence.

She uses an apt comparison with Star Trek to point out that you can always tell the difference between those who apply the "it's just a metaphor" line sincerely and those who advance it as a rhetorical ploy. Avid fans of Star Trek act in ways that are very similar to religious believers, except that they can tell the difference between truth and metaphor.

Think about it. Trekkies are devoted to a story that they find entertaining and inspiring, even though they know it isn't factually real. And there's great diversity in their devotions, similar to those among religious beliefs. Some Trekkies are intensely dedicated to the story, to the point where it takes up a substantial part of their lives: going to conventions, making costumes, buying memorabilia, watching the shows again and again. Others are more casual followers: watching the shows when they happen to come on, maybe taking in a convention or two. And different Trekkies follow different variants of the story. Some are more interested in the original show with Spock and Kirk; others care more about The Next Generation. Some weirdo fringe cultists even follow Voyager.

But they all have one thing in common: They know that "Star Trek" isn't real. Unless they're certifiably mentally ill, they know that the story they're devoted to was made up by people. And they act accordingly. Avid convention-goers don't treat casual fans as apostates; Original Showians don't treat Next Generationists as sinners and blasphemers; and none of them write editorials lambasting people as immoral sociopaths if they prefer documentaries to any sort of science fiction. And they -- okay, fine, we -- don't insist that "Star Trek" is just a story... and then get bent out of shape when people point out that it is a story, and hence that it's not true. Trekkies have a good time trying to fit the inaccuracies and inconsistencies into some sort of continuity (that's half the fun); but we understand that the show is a fictional story, with all the flaws that fiction is heir to, and we don't treat it as a divinely-inspired guide to reality and life.

That's what "it's just a metaphor" religion would look like.

Unless religious believers specify which parts of the Bible are metaphors or stories and which parts are historical (something they find hard to get agreement on even amongst themselves) the "it's just a metaphor" argument just won't fly. And they also have to address the even more difficult question of how they decide what is historically true and what is not.

In some ways, those who take the Bible as strictly a record of historical events, those people who are labeled as creationists or fundamentalists, have a more well-defined challenge. They have to create an entirely alternate science that conforms to their history. Doing so leads to its own insurmountable contradictions such as how they can live and take advantage of all the benefits that "standard' science provides while denying its validity. But at least they have drawn a clear line. Those who argue for the metaphor model have no clear and agreed-upon beacons of what should be taken as historically true and are thus navigating blind.

POST SCRIPT: And now, here is some person with his opinion

For some reason, news operations like CNN have decided that it is newsworthy to read the tweets of random, anonymous people expressing their opinions on news stories. My local newspaper, the Plain Dealer also devotes a considerable amount of its rapidly decreasing page space to actually soliciting such terse opinions, most of which are ignorant, banal, or smart alecky. Whoever coined the proverb 'Vox populi, vox dei' ('The voice of the people is the voice of god') clearly had no idea what the vox pop would sound like in the 21st century.

That Mitchell and Webb Look has the appropriate response to this trend.

March 01, 2010

The Genesis story: Simplification or fabrication?

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Religious believers occupy a continuous spectrum that range from those take their religious texts as literally true to those who say they treat them as metaphors.

For those who treat them as literally true, books like the Bible serve as infallible history texts. Although religious texts are not meant to be scientific textbooks (in that the material is not organized in a way that seeks to elucidate the laws of nature) and are not considered so even by ardent literalists, the events described as history (such as the Genesis story and the miracles) do have scientific consequences and treating those events as factual leads to conflicts with science that have to be resolved in some way.

For example, the Bible does not come right out and give the age of the Earth but its genealogies and the chronology of the kings, if assumed to be historically true, enable one to calculate it quite precisely, as was done by Bishop Ussher, Isaac Newton, and others. (See here and here for how those calculations were done.) The more fundamentalist religious believers who take everything in the Bible literally are stuck with these conclusions that impinge on science, however many contradictions and complications it causes them. That is why they eventually become essentially anti-science.

Other religious believers, being more sophisticated and not wanting to be seen as anti-science, know that they have to escape the shackles of being bound to the literal truth of the religious texts while not discrediting them entirely. One device is to argue that although the Bible is the word of god as revealed by him, at the time he chose to make his revelations god was dealing with a population that was generally ignorant, especially of the concepts of modern science, and thus had to greatly simplify the truth of how creation came about. He thus gave them the Genesis story, telling a tale of creation in a way that could be understood by the people of that time.

The implication in this mode of thinking is that if god had waited a couple of thousands of years more before revealing himself, and chosen Pat Robertson as his Moses and taken him to a mountain to whisper in his ear, he would have revealed his creation story in terms of the big bang theory, conservation of energy, and other modern scientific concepts. (Though Pat may still not have understood, not being the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, if you get my drift.)

Although this sentiment is widespread among those who are not literalists but want to preserve the idea that the Bible is a source of great and eternal truths, is it reasonable? Jason Rosenhouse doesn't think so. He takes this argument apart by pointing out that there is a big difference between simplifying and fabrication, and he gives as an example of how we try to answer small children when they ask deep questions.

When you explain something to a small child you routinely simplify the situation. You omit details and context, and express yourself in language the child will understand. It is rare, and almost never appropriate, to lie outright to the child about what is going on. Surely God could have presented the essential spiritual truths without embedding them within a fictitious story. Accommodating His presentation to the level of His audience calls for simplification, not fabrication.

Rosenhouse does not specify the rare instances where it may be appropriate to fabricate but may be thinking of stories like the stork delivering babies, because people are uneasy with talking about sex with their children until they reach a certain age. But even in such cases, it is possible to finesse the sex issue but still preserve the essential truth that a baby emerges from the mother's womb.

As a general rule, it is desirable to follow the advice of Albert Einstein who said:

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience. ("On the Method of Theoretical Physics", The Herbert Spencer Lecture, delivered at Oxford (10 June 1933); also published in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1, No. 2 (April 1934), pp. 163-169.)

More popular variants of this sentiment that have been attributed to him are "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler" and "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler." In other words, don't simplify to the point of distortion. It can be argued that any major simplification necessarily implies some distortion but the caution to bear in mind is to not simplify to the point where you have changed the very core of the idea.

One could think of many ways to tell a simplified story of the origins of the universe that approximate the best scientific ideas of current times in ways that should have been understandable, at least in their general outlines, by children now or people who lived several thousand years ago. Recently I was asked by an elderly relative who has absolutely no scientific background to explain the big bang theory to him "in words of one syllable." i.e., without jargon or the assumption of knowledge of even slightly esoteric scientific concepts. It is not that hard to do and I am preparing such a document and may post it later. In doing so, I will follow Einstein's dictum.

Rosenhouse argues that the story of Genesis does not fit the description of simplification. It so disconnected from the way we now believe things actually happened that it cannot be viewed as anything but a total fabrication. Take for example the implications of the Genesis story for evolution:

The question is: If… the Bible was not meant to provide us with scientific information, then why does it say anything about science at all?

Let us assume for the moment that evolution is God's means of creation. We can understand that He would not lay out the technical details of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, since those details would not have meant anything to ancient readers. How does it follow that His only option was to present the story of creation via an entirely fictitious sequence of events? A story which, if you accept the results of modern science, has led astray enormous numbers of sincere seekers over the centuries.

Rosenhouse correctly argues that the Genesis story cannot be re-interpreted as a simplification of the big bang theory or of evolution. For those who think that evolution was guided by god and that the Genesis story was meant to hint at that, I could easily think of a simplified story that would have served god's purpose better. "And god created the Sun and then later the Earth. In the waters he created life, first as tiny beings from which came forth worms which then became fishes that later crawled upon the land and became a multitude of animals and birds. And finally there came man. And the morning and evening were many, many days. And he saw that it was good." It needs work, but you get the idea.

The purpose of the Genesis story, as Rosenhouse says, is clearly something else, to drive home the idea of original sin and the fall from grace.

The stories in Genesis are central to the grand narrative of fall redemption, yet modern science tells us these stories are completely fictitious. Given this basic fact I can understand why so many people believe you must choose between science and scripture. What I do not understand is people trying to maintain the idea that the Bible is holy and inerrant some of the time, while utterly unreliable at other times.

Good points.

Next: What about the idea that the events in the Bible are not simplifications but are metaphors?

POST SCRIPT: A mystery solved

Ever wonder why so much of TV is so awful? That Mitchell and Webb Look explains.