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  • richardmitnick 10:43 am on February 7, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , The Atlantic Magazine   

    From The Atlantic Magazine: “The Big Bang May Have Been One of Many” 

    Atlantic Magazine

    The Atlantic Magazine

    Feb 6, 2018
    Natalie Wolchover

    1
    davidope / Quanta Magazine

    Our universe could be expanding and contracting eternally.

    Humans have always entertained two basic theories about the origin of the universe. “In one of them, the universe emerges in a single instant of creation (as in the Jewish-Christian and the Brazilian Carajás cosmogonies),” the cosmologists Mario Novello and Santiago Perez Bergliaffa noted in 2008. In the other, “the universe is eternal, consisting of an infinite series of cycles (as in the cosmogonies of the Babylonians and Egyptians).” The division in modern cosmology “somehow parallels that of the cosmogonic myths,” Novello and Perez Bergliaffa wrote.

    In recent decades, it hasn’t seemed like much of a contest. The Big Bang theory, standard stuff of textbooks and television shows, enjoys strong support among today’s cosmologists. The rival eternal-universe picture had the edge a century ago, but it lost ground as astronomers observed that the cosmos is expanding and that it was small and simple about 14 billion years ago. In the most popular modern version of the theory, the Big Bang began with an episode called “cosmic inflation”—a burst of exponential expansion during which an infinitesimal speck of space-time ballooned into a smooth, flat, macroscopic cosmos, which expanded more gently thereafter.

    With a single initial ingredient (the “inflaton field”), inflationary models reproduce many broad-brush features of the cosmos today. But as an origin story, inflation is lacking; it raises questions about what preceded it and where that initial, inflaton-laden speck came from. Undeterred, many theorists think the inflaton field must fit naturally into a more complete, though still unknown, theory of time’s origin.

    But in the past few years, a growing number of cosmologists have cautiously revisited the alternative. They say the Big Bang might instead have been a Big Bounce. Some cosmologists favor a picture in which the universe expands and contracts cyclically like a lung, bouncing each time it shrinks to a certain size, while others propose that the cosmos only bounced once—that it had been contracting, before the bounce, since the infinite past, and that it will expand forever after. In either model, time continues into the past and future without end.

    With modern science, there’s hope of settling this ancient debate. In the years ahead, telescopes could find definitive evidence for cosmic inflation. During the primordial growth spurt—if it happened—quantum ripples in the fabric of space-time would have become stretched and later imprinted as subtle swirls in the polarization of ancient light called the cosmic microwave background [CMB].

    CMB per ESA/Planck


    ESA/Planck

    Current and future telescope experiments are hunting for these swirls. If they aren’t seen in the next couple of decades, this won’t entirely disprove inflation (the telltale swirls could simply be too faint to make out), but it will strengthen the case for bounce cosmology, which doesn’t predict the swirl pattern.

    Already, several groups are making progress at once. Most significantly, in the last year, physicists have come up with two new ways that bounces could conceivably occur. One of the models, described in a paper that will appear in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, comes from Anna Ijjas of Columbia University, extending earlier work with her former adviser, the Princeton University professor and high-profile bounce cosmologist Paul Steinhardt. More surprisingly, the other new bounce solution, accepted for publication in Physical Review D, was proposed by Peter Graham, David Kaplan, and Surjeet Rajendran, a well-known trio of collaborators who mainly focus on particle-physics questions and have no previous connection to the bounce-cosmology community. It’s a noteworthy development in a field that’s highly polarized on the bang-vs.-bounce question.

    The question gained renewed significance in 2001, when Steinhardt and three other cosmologists argued that a period of slow contraction in the history of the universe could explain its exceptional smoothness and flatness, as witnessed today, even after a bounce—with no need for a period of inflation.

    The universe’s impeccable plainness, the fact that no region of sky contains significantly more matter than any other and that space is breathtakingly flat as far as telescopes can see, is a mystery. To match its present uniformity, experts infer that the cosmos, when it was one centimeter across, must have had the same density everywhere to within one part in 100,000. But as it grew from an even smaller size, matter and energy ought to have immediately clumped together and contorted space-time. Why don’t our telescopes see a universe wrecked by gravity?

    “Inflation was motivated by the idea that that was crazy to have to assume the universe came out so smooth and not curved,” says the cosmologist Neil Turok, the director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, and a coauthor of the 2001 paper [Physical Review D] on cosmic contraction with Steinhardt, Justin Khoury, and Burt Ovrut.

    In the inflation scenario, the centimeter-size region results from the exponential expansion of a much smaller region—an initial speck measuring no more than a trillionth of a trillionth of a centimeter across. As long as that speck was infused with an inflaton field that was smooth and flat, meaning its energy concentration didn’t fluctuate across time or space, the speck would have inflated into a huge, smooth universe like ours. Raman Sundrum, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, says the thing he appreciates about inflation is that “it has a kind of fault tolerance built in.” If, during this explosive growth phase, there was a buildup of energy that bent space-time in a certain place, the concentration would have quickly inflated away. “You make small changes against what you see in the data and you see the return to the behavior that the data suggests,” Sundrum says.

    However, where exactly that infinitesimal speck came from, and why it came out so smooth and flat itself to begin with, no one knows. Theorists have found many possible ways to embed the inflaton field into string theory., a candidate for the underlying quantum theory of gravity. So far, there’s no evidence for or against these ideas.

    Cosmic inflation also has a controversial consequence. The theory—which was pioneered in the 1980s by Alan Guth, Andrei Linde, Aleksei Starobinsky, and (of all people) Steinhardt, almost automatically leads to the hypothesis that our universe is a random bubble in an infinite, frothing multiverse sea. Once inflation starts, calculations suggest that it keeps going forever, only stopping in local pockets that then blossom into bubble universes like ours. The possibility of an eternally inflating multiverse suggests that our particular bubble might never be fully understandable on its own terms, since everything that can possibly happen in a multiverse happens infinitely many times. The subject evokes gut-level disagreement among experts. Many have reconciled themselves to the idea that our universe could be just one of many; Steinhardt calls the multiverse “hogwash.”

    This sentiment partly motivated his and other researchers’ about-face on bounces. “The bouncing models don’t have a period of inflation,” Turok says. Instead, they add a period of contraction before a Big Bounce to explain our uniform universe. “Just as the gas in the room you’re sitting in is completely uniform because the air molecules are banging around and equilibrating,” he says, “if the universe was quite big and contracting slowly, that gives plenty of time for the universe to smooth itself out.”

    Although the first contracting-universe models were convoluted and flawed, many researchers became convinced of the basic idea that slow contraction can explain many features of our expanding universe. “Then the bottleneck became literally the bottleneck—the bounce itself,” Steinhardt says. As Ijjas puts it, “The bounce has been the showstopper for these scenarios. People would agree that it’s very interesting if you can do a contraction phase, but not if you can’t get to an expansion phase.”

    Bouncing isn’t easy. In the 1960s, the British physicists Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking proved a set of so-called “singularity theorems” showing that, under very general conditions, contracting matter and energy will unavoidably crunch into an immeasurably dense point called a singularity. These theorems make it hard to imagine how a contracting universe in which space-time, matter, and energy are all rushing inward could possibly avoid collapsing all the way down to a singularity—a point where Albert Einstein’s classical theory of gravity and space-time breaks down and the unknown quantum-gravity theory rules. Why shouldn’t a contracting universe share the same fate as a massive star, which dies by shrinking to the singular center of a black hole?

    Both of the newly proposed bounce models exploit loopholes in the singularity theorems—ones that, for many years, seemed like dead ends. Bounce cosmologists have long recognized that bounces might be possible if the universe contained a substance with negative energy (or other sources of negative pressure), which would counteract gravity and essentially push everything apart. They’ve been trying to exploit this loophole since the early 2000s, but they always found that adding negative-energy ingredients made their models of the universe unstable, because positive- and negative-energy quantum fluctuations could spontaneously arise together, unchecked, out of the zero-energy vacuum of space. In 2016, the Russian cosmologist Valery Rubakov and colleagues even proved a “no-go” [JCAP] theorem that seemed to rule out a huge class of bounce mechanisms on the grounds that they caused these so-called “ghost” instabilities.

    Then Ijjas found a bounce mechanism that evades the no-go theorem. The key ingredient in her model is a simple entity called a “scalar field,” which, according to the idea, would have kicked into gear as the universe contracted and energy became highly concentrated. The scalar field would have braided itself into the gravitational field in a way that exerted negative pressure on the universe, reversing the contraction and driving space-time apart—without destabilizing everything. Ijjas’ paper “is essentially the best attempt at getting rid of all possible instabilities and making a really stable model with this special type of matter,” says Jean-Luc Lehners, a theoretical cosmologist at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Germany who has also worked on bounce proposals.

    What’s especially interesting about the two new bounce models is that they are “non-singular,” meaning the contracting universe bounces and starts expanding again before ever shrinking to a point. These bounces can therefore be fully described by the classical laws of gravity, requiring no speculations about gravity’s quantum nature.

    Graham, Kaplan, and Rajendran, of Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University and UC Berkeley, respectively, reported their non-singular bounce idea on the scientific preprint site ArXiv.org in September 2017. They found their way to it after wondering whether a previous contraction phase in the history of the universe could be used to explain the value of the cosmological constant—a mystifyingly tiny number that defines the amount of dark energy infused in the space-time fabric, energy that drives the accelerating expansion of the universe.

    In working out the hardest part—the bounce—the trio exploited a second, largely forgotten loophole in the singularity theorems. They took inspiration from a characteristically strange model of the universe proposed by the logician Kurt Gödel in 1949, when he and Einstein were walking companions and colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Gödel used the laws of general relativity to construct the theory of a rotating universe, whose spinning keeps it from gravitationally collapsing in much the same way that Earth’s orbit prevents it from falling into the sun. Gödel especially liked the fact that his rotating universe permitted “closed time-like curves,” essentially loops in time, which raised all sorts of Gödelian riddles. To his dying day, he eagerly awaited evidence that the universe really is rotating in the manner of his model. Researchers now know it isn’t; otherwise, the cosmos would exhibit alignments and preferred directions. But Graham and company wondered about small, curled-up spatial dimensions that might exist in space, such as the six extra dimensions postulated by string theory. Could a contracting universe spin in those directions?

    magine there’s just one of these curled-up extra dimensions, a tiny circle found at every point in space. As Graham puts it, “At each point in space there’s an extra direction you can go in, a fourth spatial direction, but you can only go a tiny little distance and then you come back to where you started.” If there are at least three extra compact dimensions, then, as the universe contracts, matter and energy can start spinning inside them, and the dimensions themselves will spin with the matter and energy. The vorticity in the extra dimensions can suddenly initiate a bounce. “All that stuff that would have been crunching into a singularity, because it’s spinning in the extra dimensions, it misses—sort of like a gravitational slingshot,” Graham says. “All the stuff should have been coming to a single point, but instead it misses and flies back out again.”

    he paper has attracted attention beyond the usual circle of bounce cosmologists. Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, is skeptical but called the idea “very clever.” He says it’s important to develop alternatives to the conventional inflation story, if only to see how much better inflation appears by comparison—especially when next-generation telescopes come online in the early 2020s looking for the telltale swirl pattern in the sky caused by inflation. “Even though I think inflation has a good chance of being right, I wish there were more competitors,” Carroll says. Sundrum, the Maryland physicist, feels similarly. “There are some questions I consider so important that even if you have only a 5 percent chance of succeeding, you should throw everything you have at it and work on them,” he says. “And that’s how I feel about this paper.”

    As Graham, Kaplan, and Rajendran explore their bounce and its possible experimental signatures, the next step for Ijjas and Steinhardt, working with Frans Pretorius of Princeton, is to develop computer simulations. (Their collaboration is supported by the Simons Foundation, which also funds Quanta Magazine.) Both bounce mechanisms also need to be integrated into more complete, stable cosmological models that would describe the entire evolutionary history of the universe.

    Beyond these non-singular bounce solutions, other researchers are speculating about what kind of bounce might occur when a universe contracts all the way to a singularity—a bounce orchestrated by the unknown quantum laws of gravity, which replace the usual understanding of space and time at extremely high energies. In forthcoming work, Turok and collaborators plan to propose a model in which the universe expands symmetrically into the past and future away from a central, singular bounce. Turok contends that the existence of this two-lobed universe is equivalent to the spontaneous creation of electron-positron pairs, which constantly pop in and out of the vacuum. “Richard Feynman pointed out that you can look at the positron as an electron going backward in time,” he says. “They’re two particles, but they’re really the same; at a certain moment in time they merge and annihilate.” He added, “The idea is a very, very deep one, and most likely the Big Bang will turn out to be similar, where a universe and its anti-universe were drawn out of nothing, if you like, by the presence of matter.”

    It remains to be seen whether this universe/anti-universe bounce model can accommodate all observations of the cosmos, but Turok likes how simple it is. Most cosmological models are far too complicated in his view. The universe “looks extremely ordered and symmetrical and simple,” he says. “That’s very exciting for theorists, because it tells us there may be a simple—even if hard-to-discover—theory waiting to be discovered, which might explain the most paradoxical features of the universe.”

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  • richardmitnick 6:14 pm on December 30, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , , , The Atlantic Magazine, What Happens If China Makes First Contact?   

    From The Atlantic: “What Happens If China Makes First Contact?” 

    Atlantic Magazine

    The Atlantic Magazine

    1
    Jon Juarez

    December 2017
    Ross Andersen

    As America has turned away from searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, China has built the world’s largest radio dish for precisely that purpose.

    [I disagree that “America has turned away from searching for extraterrestrial intelligence”.]

    Last January, the Chinese Academy of Sciences invited Liu Cixin, China’s preeminent science-fiction writer, to visit its new state-of-the-art radio dish in the country’s southwest.

    FAST radio telescope, now operating, located in the Dawodang depression in Pingtang county Guizhou Province, South China, https://astronomynow.com

    Almost twice as wide as the dish at America’s Arecibo Observatory, in the Puerto Rican jungle, the new Chinese dish is the largest in the world, if not the universe.

    NAIC/Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico, USA, at 497 m (1,631 ft)

    Though it is sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not broadcasting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The dish is Earth’s first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence. If such a sign comes down from the heavens during the next decade, China may well hear it first.

    In some ways, it’s no surprise that Liu was invited to see the dish. He has an outsize voice on cosmic affairs in China, and the government’s aerospace agency sometimes asks him to consult on science missions. Liu is the patriarch of the country’s science-fiction scene. Other Chinese writers I met attached the honorific Da, meaning “Big,” to his surname. In years past, the academy’s engineers sent Liu illustrated updates on the dish’s construction, along with notes saying how he’d inspired their work.

    But in other ways Liu is a strange choice to visit the dish. He has written a great deal about the risks of first contact. He has warned that the “appearance of this Other” might be imminent, and that it might result in our extinction. “Perhaps in ten thousand years, the starry sky that humankind gazes upon will remain empty and silent,” he writes in the postscript to one of his books. “But perhaps tomorrow we’ll wake up and find an alien spaceship the size of the Moon parked in orbit.”

    In recent years, Liu has joined the ranks of the global literati. In 2015, his novel The Three-Body Problem became the first work in translation to win the Hugo Award, science fiction’s most prestigious prize. Barack Obama told The New York Times that the book—the first in a trilogy—gave him cosmic perspective during the frenzy of his presidency. Liu told me that Obama’s staff asked him for an advance copy of the third volume.

    At the end of the second volume, one of the main characters lays out the trilogy’s animating philosophy. No civilization should ever announce its presence to the cosmos, he says. Any other civilization that learns of its existence will perceive it as a threat to expand—as all civilizations do, eliminating their competitors until they encounter one with superior technology and are themselves eliminated. This grim cosmic outlook is called “dark-forest theory,” because it conceives of every civilization in the universe as a hunter hiding in a moonless woodland, listening for the first rustlings of a rival.

    Liu’s trilogy begins in the late 1960s, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when a young Chinese woman sends a message to a nearby star system. The civilization that receives it embarks on a centuries-long mission to invade Earth, but she doesn’t care; the Red Guard’s grisly excesses have convinced her that humans no longer deserve to survive. En route to our planet, the extraterrestrial civilization disrupts our particle accelerators to prevent us from making advancements in the physics of warfare, such as the one that brought the atomic bomb into being less than a century after the invention of the repeating rifle.

    Science fiction is sometimes described as a literature of the future, but historical allegory is one of its dominant modes. Isaac Asimov based his Foundation series on classical Rome, and Frank Herbert’s Dune borrows plot points from the past of the Bedouin Arabs. Liu is reluctant to make connections between his books and the real world, but he did tell me that his work is influenced by the history of Earth’s civilizations, “especially the encounters between more technologically advanced civilizations and the original settlers of a place.” One such encounter occurred during the 19th century, when the “Middle Kingdom” of China, around which all of Asia had once revolved, looked out to sea and saw the ships of Europe’s seafaring empires, whose ensuing invasion triggered a loss in status for China comparable to the fall of Rome.

    This past summer, I traveled to China to visit its new observatory, but first I met up with Liu in Beijing. By way of small talk, I asked him about the film adaptation of The Three-Body Problem. “People here want it to be China’s Star Wars,” he said, looking pained. The pricey shoot ended in mid-2015, but the film is still in postproduction. At one point, the entire special-effects team was replaced. “When it comes to making science-fiction movies, our system is not mature,” Liu said.

    I had come to interview Liu in his capacity as China’s foremost philosopher of first contact, but I also wanted to know what to expect when I visited the new dish. After a translator relayed my question, Liu stopped smoking and smiled.

    “It looks like something out of science fiction,” he said.

    A week later, I rode a bullet train out of Shanghai, leaving behind its purple Blade Runner glow, its hip cafés and craft-beer bars. Rocketing along an elevated track, I watched high-rises blur by, each a tiny honeycomb piece of the rail-linked urban megastructure that has recently erupted out of China’s landscape. China poured more concrete from 2011 to 2013 than America did during the entire 20th century. The country has already built rail lines in Africa, and it hopes to fire bullet trains into Europe and North America, the latter by way of a tunnel under the Bering Sea.

    The skyscrapers and cranes dwindled as the train moved farther inland. Out in the emerald rice fields, among the low-hanging mists, it was easy to imagine ancient China—the China whose written language was adopted across much of Asia; the China that introduced metal coins, paper money, and gunpowder into human life; the China that built the river-taming system that still irrigates the country’s terraced hills. Those hills grew steeper as we went west, stair-stepping higher and higher, until I had to lean up against the window to see their peaks. Every so often, a Hans Zimmer bass note would sound, and the glass pane would fill up with the smooth, spaceship-white side of another train, whooshing by in the opposite direction at almost 200 miles an hour.

    2
    Liu Cixin, China’s preeminent science-fiction writer, has written a great deal about the risks of first contact. (Han Wancheng / Shanxi Illustration)

    It was mid-afternoon when we glided into a sparkling, cavernous terminal in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou, one of China’s poorest, most remote provinces. A government-imposed social transformation appeared to be under way. Signs implored people not to spit indoors. Loudspeakers nagged passengers to “keep an atmosphere of good manners.” When an older man cut in the cab line, a security guard dressed him down in front of a crowd of hundreds.

    The next morning, I went down to my hotel lobby to meet the driver I’d hired to take me to the observatory. Two hours into what was supposed to be a four-hour drive, he pulled over in the rain and waded 30 yards into a field where an older woman was harvesting rice, to ask for directions to a radio observatory more than 100 miles away. After much frustrated gesturing by both parties, she pointed the way with her scythe.

    We set off again, making our way through a string of small villages, beep-beeping motorbike riders and pedestrians out of our way. Some of the buildings along the road were centuries old, with upturned eaves; others were freshly built, their residents having been relocated by the state to clear ground for the new observatory. A group of the displaced villagers had complained about their new housing, attracting bad press—a rarity for a government project in China. Western reporters took notice. China Telescope to Displace 9,000 Villagers in Hunt for Extraterrestrials, read a headline in The New York Times.

    The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is often derided as a kind of religious mysticism, even within the scientific community. Nearly a quarter century ago, the United States Congress defunded America’s SETI program with a budget amendment proposed by Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada, who said he hoped it would “be the end of Martian-hunting season at the taxpayer’s expense.” That’s one reason it is China, and not the United States, that has built the first world-class radio observatory with seti as a core scientific goal.

    SETI does share some traits with religion. It is motivated by deep human desires for connection and transcendence. It concerns itself with questions about human origins, about the raw creative power of nature, and about our future in this universe—and it does all this at a time when traditional religions have become unpersuasive to many. Why these aspects of seti should count against it is unclear. Nor is it clear why Congress should find seti unworthy of funding, given that the government has previously been happy to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on ambitious searches for phenomena whose existence was still in question. The expensive, decades-long missions that found black holes and gravitational waves both commenced when their targets were mere speculative possibilities. That intelligent life can evolve on a planet is not a speculative possibility, as Darwin demonstrated. Indeed, seti might be the most intriguing scientific project suggested by Darwinism.

    Even without federal funding in the United States, SETI is now in the midst of a global renaissance. Today’s telescopes have brought the distant stars nearer, and in their orbits we can see planets. The next generation of observatories is now clicking on, and with them we will zoom into these planets’ atmospheres. seti researchers have been preparing for this moment. In their exile, they have become philosophers of the future. They have tried to imagine what technologies an advanced civilization might use, and what imprints those technologies would make on the observable universe. They have figured out how to spot the chemical traces of artificial pollutants from afar. They know how to scan dense star fields for giant structures designed to shield planets from a supernova’s shock waves.

    In 2015, the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner poured $100 million of his own cash into a new seti program led by scientists at UC Berkeley.

    Breakthrough Listen Project

    1

    Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA



    GBO radio telescope, Green Bank, West Virginia, USA


    CSIRO/Parkes Observatory, located 20 kilometres north of the town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia

    The team performs more seti observations in a single day than took place during entire years just a decade ago. In 2016, Milner sank another $100 million into an interstellar-probe mission.

    Breakthrough Starshot Initiative

    Breakthrough Starshot

    ESO 3.6m telescope & HARPS at LaSilla, 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

    SPACEOBS, the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations Observatory is located at 2450m above sea level, north of the Atacama Desert, in Chile, near to the village of San Pedro de Atacama and close to the border with Bolivia and Argentina

    SNO Sierra Nevada Observatory is a high elevation observatory 2900m above the sea level located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Granada Spain and operated maintained and supplied by IAC

    Teide Observatory in Tenerife Spain, home of two 40 cm LCO telescopes

    Observatori Astronòmic del Montsec (OAdM), located in the town of Sant Esteve de la Sarga (Pallars Jussà), 1,570 meters on the sea level

    Bayfordbury Observatory,approximately 6 miles from the main campus of the University of Hertfordshire

    A beam from a giant laser array, to be built in the Chilean high desert, will wallop dozens of wafer-thin probes more than four light-years to the Alpha Centauri system, to get a closer look at its planets. Milner told me the probes’ cameras might be able to make out individual continents. The Alpha Centauri team modeled the radiation that such a beam would send out into space, and noticed striking similarities to the mysterious “fast radio bursts” that Earth’s astronomers keep detecting, which suggests the possibility that they are caused by similar giant beams, powering similar probes elsewhere in the cosmos.

    Andrew Siemion, the leader of Milner’s SETI team, is actively looking into this possibility. He visited the Chinese dish while it was still under construction, to lay the groundwork for joint observations and to help welcome the Chinese team into a growing network of radio observatories that will cooperate on SETI research, including new facilities in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. When I joined Siemion for overnight SETI observations at a radio observatory in West Virginia last fall [Green Bank Observatory, a member of the Breakthrough Listen team, pictured above], he gushed about the Chinese dish. He said it was the world’s most sensitive telescope in the part of the radio spectrum that is “classically considered to be the most probable place for an extraterrestrial transmitter.”

    Before I left for China, Siemion warned me that the roads around the observatory were difficult to navigate, but he said I’d know I was close when my phone reception went wobbly. Radio transmissions are forbidden near the dish, lest scientists there mistake stray electromagnetic radiation for a signal from the deep. Supercomputers are still sifting through billions of false positives collected during previous seti observations, most caused by human technological interference.

    My driver was on the verge of turning back when my phone reception finally began to wane. The sky had darkened in the five hours since we’d left sunny Guiyang. High winds were whipping between the Avatar-style mountains, making the long bamboo stalks sway like giant green feathers. A downpour of fat droplets began splattering the windshield just as I lost service for good.

    The week before, Liu and I had visited a stargazing site of a much older vintage. In 1442, after the Ming dynasty moved China’s capital to Beijing, the emperor broke ground on a new observatory near the Forbidden City. More than 40 feet high, the elegant, castlelike structure came to house China’s most precious astronomical instruments.

    No civilization on Earth has a longer continuous tradition of astronomy than China, whose earliest emperors drew their political legitimacy from the sky, in the form of a “mandate of heaven.” More than 3,500 years ago, China’s court astronomers pressed pictograms of cosmic events into tortoiseshells and ox bones. One of these “oracle bones” bears the earliest known record of a solar eclipse. It was likely interpreted as an omen of catastrophe, perhaps an ensuing invasion.

    Liu and I sat at a black-marble table in the old observatory’s stone courtyard. Centuries-old pines towered overhead, blocking the hazy sunlight that poured down through Beijing’s yellow, polluted sky. Through a round, red portal at the courtyard’s edge, a staircase led up to a turretlike observation platform, where a line of ancient astronomical devices stood, including a giant celestial globe supported by slithering bronze dragons. The starry globe was stolen in 1900, after an eight-country alliance stormed Beijing to put down the Boxer Rebellion. Troops from Germany and France flooded into the courtyard where Liu and I were sitting, and made off with 10 of the observatory’s prized instruments.

    The instruments were eventually returned, but the sting of the incident lingered. Chinese schoolchildren are still taught to think of this general period as the “century of humiliation,” the nadir of China’s long fall from its Ming-dynasty peak. Back when the ancient observatory was built, China could rightly regard itself as the lone survivor of the great Bronze Age civilizations, a class that included the Babylonians, the Mycenaeans, and even the ancient Egyptians. Western poets came to regard the latter’s ruins as Ozymandian proof that nothing lasted. But China had lasted. Its emperors presided over the planet’s largest complex social organization. They commanded tribute payments from China’s neighbors, whose rulers sent envoys to Beijing to perform a baroque face-to-the-ground bowing ceremony for the emperors’ pleasure.

    In the first volume of his landmark series, Science and Civilisation in China, published in 1954, the British Sinologist Joseph Needham asked why the scientific revolution hadn’t happened in China, given its sophisticated intellectual meritocracy, based on exams that measured citizens’ mastery of classical texts. This inquiry has since become known as the “Needham Question,” though Voltaire too had wondered why Chinese mathematics stalled out at geometry, and why it was the Jesuits who brought the gospel of Copernicus into China, and not the other way around. He blamed the Confucian emphasis on tradition. Other historians blamed China’s remarkably stable politics. A large landmass ruled by long dynasties may have encouraged less technical dynamism than did Europe, where more than 10 polities were crammed into a small area, triggering constant conflict. As we know from the Manhattan Project, the stakes of war have a way of sharpening the scientific mind.

    Still others have accused premodern China of insufficient curiosity about life beyond its borders. (Notably, there seems to have been very little speculation in China about extraterrestrial life before the modern era.) This lack of curiosity is said to explain why China pressed pause on naval innovation during the late Middle Ages, right at the dawn of Europe’s age of exploration, when the Western imperial powers were looking fondly back through the medieval fog to seafaring Athens.

    Whatever the reason, China paid a dear price for slipping behind the West in science and technology. In 1793, King George III stocked a ship with the British empire’s most dazzling inventions and sent it to China, only to be rebuffed by its emperor, who said he had “no use” for England’s trinkets. Nearly half a century later, Britain returned to China, seeking buyers for India’s opium harvest. China’s emperor again declined, and instead cracked down on the local sale of the drug, culminating in the seizure and flamboyant seaside destruction of 2 million pounds of British-owned opium. Her Majesty’s Navy responded with the full force of its futuristic technology, running ironclad steamships straight up the Yangtze, sinking Chinese junk boats, until the emperor had no choice but to sign the first of the “unequal treaties” that ceded Hong Kong, along with five other ports, to British jurisdiction. After the French made a colony of Vietnam, they joined in this “slicing of the Chinese melon,” as it came to be called, along with the Germans, who occupied a significant portion of Shandong province.

    Meanwhile Japan, a “little brother” as far as China was concerned, responded to Western aggression by quickly modernizing its navy, such that in 1894, it was able to sink most of China’s fleet in a single battle, taking Taiwan as the spoils. And this was just a prelude to Japan’s brutal mid-20th-century invasion of China, part of a larger campaign of civilizational expansion that aimed to spread Japanese power to the entire Pacific, a campaign that was largely successful, until it encountered the United States and its city-leveling nukes.

    China’s humiliations multiplied with America’s rise. After sending 200,000 laborers to the Western Front in support of the Allied war effort during World War I, Chinese diplomats arrived at Versailles expecting something of a restoration, or at least relief from the unequal treaties. Instead, China was seated at the kids’ table with Greece and Siam, while the Western powers carved up the globe.

    Only recently has China regained its geopolitical might, after opening to the world during Deng Xiaoping’s 1980s reign. Deng evinced a near-religious reverence for science and technology, a sentiment that is undimmed in Chinese culture today. The country is on pace to outspend the United States on R&D this decade, but the quality of its research varies a great deal. According to one study, even at China’s most prestigious academic institutions, a third of scientific papers are faked or plagiarized. Knowing how poorly the country’s journals are regarded, Chinese universities are reportedly offering bonuses of up to six figures to researchers who publish in Western journals.

    It remains an open question whether Chinese science will ever catch up with that of the West without a bedrock political commitment to the free exchange of ideas. China’s persecution of dissident scientists began under Mao, whose ideologues branded Einstein’s theories “counterrevolutionary.” But it did not end with him. Even in the absence of overt persecution, the country’s “great firewall” handicaps Chinese scientists, who have difficulty accessing data published abroad.

    China has learned the hard way that spectacular scientific achievements confer prestige upon nations. The “Celestial Kingdom” looked on from the sidelines as Russia flung the first satellite and human being into space, and then again when American astronauts spiked the Stars and Stripes into the lunar crust.

    China has largely focused on the applied sciences. It built the world’s fastest supercomputer, spent heavily on medical research, and planted a “great green wall” of forests in its northwest as a last-ditch effort to halt the Gobi Desert’s spread. Now China is bringing its immense resources to bear on the fundamental sciences. The country plans to build an atom smasher that will conjure thousands of “god particles” out of the ether, in the same time it took CERN’s Large Hadron Collider to strain out a handful.

    LHC

    CERN/LHC Map

    CERN LHC Tunnel

    CERN LHC particles

    It is also eyeing Mars. In the technopoetic idiom of the 21st century, nothing would symbolize China’s rise like a high-definition shot of a Chinese astronaut setting foot on the red planet. Nothing except, perhaps, first contact.

    At a security station 10 miles from the dish, I handed my cellphone to a guard. He locked it away in a secure compartment and escorted me to a pair of metal detectors so I could demonstrate that I wasn’t carrying any other electronics. A different guard drove me on a narrow access road to a switchback-laden stairway that climbed 800 steps up a mountainside, through buzzing clouds of blue dragonflies, to a platform overlooking the observatory.

    Until a few months before his death this past September, the radio astronomer Nan Rendong was the observatory’s scientific leader, and its soul. It was Nan who had made sure the new dish was customized to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He’d been with the project since its inception, in the early 1990s, when he used satellite imagery to pick out hundreds of candidate sites among the deep depressions in China’s Karst mountain region.

    Apart from microwaves, such as those that make up the faint afterglow of the Big Bang, radio waves are the weakest form of electromagnetic radiation. The collective energy of all the radio waves caught by Earth’s observatories in a year is less than the kinetic energy released when a single snowflake comes softly to rest on bare soil. Collecting these ethereal signals requires technological silence. That’s why China plans to one day put a radio observatory on the dark side of the moon, a place more technologically silent than anywhere on Earth. It’s why, over the course of the past century, radio observatories have sprouted, like cool white mushrooms, in the blank spots between this planet’s glittering cities. And it’s why Nan went looking for a dish site in the remote Karst mountains. Tall, jagged, and covered in subtropical vegetation, these limestone mountains rise up abruptly from the planet’s crust, forming barriers that can protect an observatory’s sensitive ear from wind and radio noise.

    After making a shortlist of candidate locations, Nan set out to inspect them on foot. Hiking into the center of the Dawodang depression, he found himself at the bottom of a roughly symmetrical bowl, guarded by a nearly perfect ring of green mountains, all formed by the blind processes of upheaval and erosion. More than 20 years and $180 million later, Nan positioned the dish for its inaugural observation—its “first light,” in the parlance of astronomy. He pointed it at the fading radio glow of a supernova, or “guest star,” as Chinese astronomers had called it when they recorded the unusual brightness of its initial explosion almost 1,000 years earlier.

    After the dish is calibrated, it will start scanning large sections of the sky. Andrew Siemion’s SETI team is working with the Chinese to develop an instrument to piggyback on these wide sweeps, which by themselves will constitute a radical expansion of the human search for the cosmic other.

    Siemion told me he’s especially excited to survey dense star fields at the center of the galaxy. “It’s a very interesting place for an advanced civilization to situate itself,” he said. The sheer number of stars and the presence of a supermassive black hole make for ideal conditions “if you want to slingshot a bunch of probes around the galaxy.” Siemion’s receiver will train its sensitive algorithms on billions of wavelengths, across billions of stars, looking for a beacon.

    Liu Cixin told me he doubts the dish will find one. In a dark-forest cosmos like the one he imagines, no civilization would ever send a beacon unless it were a “death monument,” a powerful broadcast announcing the sender’s impending extinction. If a civilization were about to be invaded by another, or incinerated by a gamma-ray burst, or killed off by some other natural cause, it might use the last of its energy reserves to beam out a dying cry to the most life-friendly planets in its vicinity.

    Even if Liu is right, and the Chinese dish has no hope of detecting a beacon, it is still sensitive enough to hear a civilization’s fainter radio whispers, the ones that aren’t meant to be overheard, like the aircraft-radar waves that constantly waft off Earth’s surface. If civilizations are indeed silent hunters, we might be wise to hone in on this “leakage” radiation. Many of the night sky’s stars might be surrounded by faint halos of leakage, each a fading artifact of a civilization’s first blush with radio technology, before it recognized the risk and turned off its detectable transmitters. Previous observatories could search only a handful of stars for this radiation. China’s dish has the sensitivity to search tens of thousands.

    In Beijing, I told Liu that I was holding out hope for a beacon. I told him I thought dark-forest theory was based on too narrow a reading of history. It may infer too much about the general behavior of civilizations from specific encounters between China and the West. Liu replied, convincingly, that China’s experience with the West is representative of larger patterns. Across history, it is easy to find examples of expansive civilizations that used advanced technologies to bully others. “In China’s imperial history, too,” he said, referring to the country’s long-standing domination of its neighbors.

    But even if these patterns extend back across all of recorded history, and even if they extend back to the murky epochs of prehistory, to when the Neanderthals vanished sometime after first contact with modern humans, that still might not tell us much about galactic civilizations. For a civilization that has learned to survive across cosmic timescales, humanity’s entire existence would be but a single moment in a long, bright dawn. And no civilization could last tens of millions of years without learning to live in peace internally. Human beings have already created weapons that put our entire species at risk; an advanced civilization’s weapons would likely far outstrip ours.

    I told Liu that our civilization’s relative youth would suggest we’re an outlier on the spectrum of civilizational behavior, not a Platonic case to generalize from. The Milky Way has been habitable for billions of years. Anyone we make contact with will almost certainly be older, and perhaps wiser.

    Moreover, the night sky contains no evidence that older civilizations treat expansion as a first principle. seti researchers have looked for civilizations that shoot outward in all directions from a single origin point, becoming an ever-growing sphere of technology, until they colonize entire galaxies. If they were consuming lots of energy, as expected, these civilizations would give off a telltale infrared glow, and yet we don’t see any in our all-sky scans. Maybe the self-replicating machinery required to spread rapidly across 100 billion stars would be doomed by runaway coding errors. Or maybe civilizations spread unevenly throughout a galaxy, just as humans have spread unevenly across the Earth. But even a civilization that captured a tenth of a galaxy’s stars would be easy to find, and we haven’t found a single one, despite having searched the nearest 100,000 galaxies.

    Some seti researchers have wondered about stealthier modes of expansion. They have looked into the feasibility of “Genesis probes,” spacecraft that can seed a planet with microbes, or accelerate evolution on its surface, by sparking a Cambrian explosion, like the one that juiced biological creativity on Earth. Some have even searched for evidence that such spacecraft might have visited this planet, by looking for encoded messages in our DNA—which is, after all, the most robust informational storage medium known to science. They too have come up empty. The idea that civilizations expand ever outward might be woefully anthropocentric.

    Liu did not concede this point. To him, the absence of these signals is just further evidence that hunters are good at hiding. He told me that we are limited in how we think about other civilizations. “Especially those that may last millions or billions of years,” he said. “When we wonder why they don’t use certain technologies to spread across a galaxy, we might be like spiders wondering why humans don’t use webs to catch insects.” And anyway, an older civilization that has achieved internal peace may still behave like a hunter, Liu said, in part because it would grasp the difficulty of “understanding one another across cosmic distances.” And it would know that the stakes of a misunderstanding could be existential.

    First contact would be trickier still if we encountered a postbiological artificial intelligence that had taken control of its planet. Its worldview might be doubly alien. It might not feel empathy, which is not an essential feature of intelligence but instead an emotion installed by a particular evolutionary history and culture. The logic behind its actions could be beyond the powers of the human imagination. It might have transformed its entire planet into a supercomputer, and, according to a trio of Oxford researchers, it might find the current cosmos too warm for truly long-term, energy-efficient computing. It might cloak itself from observation, and power down into a dreamless sleep lasting hundreds of millions of years, until such time when the universe has expanded and cooled to a temperature that allows for many more epochs of computing.

    As I came up the last flight of steps to the observation platform, the Earth itself seemed to hum like a supercomputer, thanks to the loud, whirring chirps of the mountains’ insects, all amplified by the dish’s acoustics. The first thing I noticed at the top was not the observatory, but the Karst mountains. They were all individuals, lumpen and oddly shaped. It was as though the Mayans had built giant pyramids across hundreds of square miles, and they’d all grown distinctive deformities as they were taken over by vegetation. They stretched in every direction, all the way to the horizon, the nearer ones dark green, and the distant ones looking like blue ridges.

    Amid this landscape of chaotic shapes was the spectacular structure of the dish. Five football fields wide, and deep enough to hold two bowls of rice for every human being on the planet, it was a genuine instance of the technological sublime. Its vastness reminded me of Utah’s Bingham copper mine, but without the air of hasty, industrial violence. Cool and concave, the dish looked at one with the Earth. It was as though God had pressed a perfect round fingertip into the planet’s outer crust and left behind a smooth, silver print.

    I sat up there for an hour in the rain, as dark clouds drifted across the sky, throwing warbly light on the observatory. Its thousands of aluminum-triangle panels took on a mosaic effect: Some tiles turned bright silver, others pale bronze. It was strange to think that if a signal from a distant intelligence were to reach us anytime soon, it would probably pour down into this metallic dimple in the planet. The radio waves would ping off the dish and into the receiver. They’d be pored over and verified. International protocols require the disclosure of first contact, but they are nonbinding. Maybe China would go public with the signal but withhold its star of origin, lest a fringe group send Earth’s first response. Maybe China would make the signal a state secret. Even then, one of its international partners could go rogue. Or maybe one of China’s own scientists would convert the signal into light pulses and send it out beyond the great firewall, to fly freely around the messy snarl of fiber-optic cables that spans our planet.

    In Beijing, I had asked Liu to set aside dark-forest theory for a moment. I asked him to imagine the Chinese Academy of Sciences calling to tell him it had found a signal.

    How would he reply to a message from a cosmic civilization? He said that he would avoid giving a too-detailed account of human history. “It’s very dark,” he said. “It might make us appear more threatening.” In Blindsight, Peter Watts’s novel of first contact, mere reference to the individual self is enough to get us profiled as an existential threat. I reminded Liu that distant civilizations might be able to detect atomic-bomb flashes in the atmospheres of distant planets, provided they engage in long-term monitoring of life-friendly habitats, as any advanced civilization surely would. The decision about whether to reveal our history might not be ours to make.

    Liu told me that first contact would lead to a human conflict, if not a world war. This is a popular trope in science fiction. In last year’s Oscar-nominated film Arrival, the sudden appearance of an extraterrestrial intelligence inspires the formation of apocalyptic cults and nearly triggers a war between world powers anxious to gain an edge in the race to understand the alien’s messages. There is also real-world evidence for Liu’s pessimism: When Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast simulating an alien invasion was replayed in Ecuador in 1949, a riot broke out, resulting in the deaths of six people. “We have fallen into conflicts over things that are much easier to solve,” Liu told me.

    Even if no geopolitical strife ensued, humans would certainly experience a radical cultural transformation, as every belief system on Earth grappled with the bare fact of first contact. Buddhists would get off easy: Their faith already assumes an infinite universe of untold antiquity, its every corner alive with the vibrating energies of living beings. The Hindu cosmos is similarly grand and teeming. The Koran references Allah’s “creation of the heavens and the earth, and the living creatures that He has scattered through them.” Jews believe that God’s power has no limits, certainly none that would restrain his creative powers to this planet’s cosmically small surface.

    Christianity might have it tougher. There is a debate in contemporary Christian theology as to whether Christ’s salvation extends to every soul that exists in the wider universe, or whether the sin-tainted inhabitants of distant planets require their own divine interventions. The Vatican is especially keen to massage extraterrestrial life into its doctrine, perhaps sensing that another scientific revolution may be imminent. The shameful persecution of Galileo is still fresh in its long institutional memory.

    Secular humanists won’t be spared a sobering intellectual reckoning with first contact. Copernicus removed Earth from the center of the universe, and Darwin yanked humans down into the muck with the rest of the animal kingdom. But even within this framework, human beings have continued to regard ourselves as nature’s pinnacle. We have continued treating “lower” creatures with great cruelty. We have marveled that existence itself was authored in such a way as to generate, from the simplest materials and axioms, beings like us. We have flattered ourselves that we are, in the words of Carl Sagan, “the universe’s way of knowing itself.” These are secular ways of saying we are made in the image of God.

    We may be humbled to one day find ourselves joined, across the distance of stars, to a more ancient web of minds, fellow travelers in the long journey of time. We may receive from them an education in the real history of civilizations, young, old, and extinct. We may be introduced to galactic-scale artworks, borne of million-year traditions. We may be asked to participate in scientific observations that can be carried out only by multiple civilizations, separated by hundreds of light-years. Observations of this scope may disclose aspects of nature that we cannot now fathom. We may come to know a new metaphysics. If we’re lucky, we will come to know a new ethics. We’ll emerge from our existential shock feeling newly alive to our shared humanity. The first light to reach us in this dark forest may illuminate our home world too.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

     
    • Greg Long 8:18 pm on December 30, 2017 Permalink | Reply

      Wow!

      Like

    • richardmitnick 8:35 pm on December 30, 2017 Permalink | Reply

      Hey, Greg, thanks for the comment and for obviously reading enough of the article. No one knows who will ever make any kind of contact. The writer is wrong about the U.S. quitting. There is new technology at the SETI Institute, Laser SETI. Big bucks are going into that. I was a small contributor but with a lot of company. SETI@home is still running, That is the U.S. Optical SETI is running. That is the U.S.. Green Bank and the Automated Planet Finder in Breakthrough Listen are the U.S.

      FAST is a monumental achievement and will soon be aided with technology from Australia.

      So, who knows if there is anything out there and who will find it?

      Thanks again.

      O.K., back to my movie, “he Circle” on Amazon Prime.

      You are a good friend to sciencesprings and to me.

      Like

    • stewarthoughblog 1:09 am on January 1, 2018 Permalink | Reply

      Happy New Year, Richard,

      The images of all the technological devices are amazing, thanks. I do not want to be a downer, but SETI and all the extraterrestrial investigations, while arguably a proper function of science to explore the universe, are a waste of time in validating a naturalistic universe, yet, perhaps surprisingly, could be justified from a Christian perspective.

      The naturalistic.anti-theistic hypotheses that alien life is likely are totally faith-based and attempts to trivialize the complexity of life and propose its ubiquity. The present origin of life naturalistic speculation is a chaotic mess with no explanation for any of the intractable unsolved problems.

      Regarding the supposed Christian “tougher” issue, I suggest it is not. Christians know God is infinite and has the right to do all he pleases. One possible suggestion for such a large universe is that he has chosen to use it to seed additional living entities. We know of multiuniversal spirit beings, demons and angels, and that God is transcendent and not within our universe, unlike virtually all pagan religious beliefs. So, God created free willed spirit beings, and us, free willed physical beings, all with intelligence, consciousness. But, angels do not receive salvation from their evil freewill, we do, which is the essence of the Gospel and Christ. This raises questions:
      1.Why would God want additional freewilled physical beings?
      2.If not free willed, why would such biobots be needed in the universe?
      3. If 1., how would they be redeemed in the event of choosing to break God’s universal moral laws, which all have done.
      4. All the Bible relates God’s intimate relation with his children of Earth and heaven is dedicated to eternal, singular fellowship, how do they fit into eternity in heaven?
      5. Conclusion, the Bible is not lying about human’s singular relation to Jesus and God, there are no extraterrestrials, all the time and volume of space shows God’s power and glory and was needed for us and is not a waste.

      Open for discussion. HWY

      Like

    • richardmitnick 11:53 am on January 1, 2018 Permalink | Reply

      Happy 2018, Stewart.

      I do not accept “SETI and all the extraterrestrial investigations, while arguably a proper function of science to explore the universe, are a waste of time in validating a naturalistic universe…”

      More importantly for me, I do not include any religious or political influences in what I do or what I think is possible.

      You obviously believe in G-d, and so do I. This means all things are possible.

      Like

  • richardmitnick 4:14 pm on May 24, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , The Atlantic Magazine   

    From The Atlantic via SETI@home: “A Brief History of SETI@Home” 

    SETI@home
    SETI@home

    The Atlantic

    1
    Frank Drake, (Left) president of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) reviews data from radiotelescopes used to scan the universe for intelligent life.

    How astronomers deputized early internet users to help find alien civilizations.

    The year was 1999, and the people were going online. AOL, Compuserve, mp3.com, and AltaVista loaded bit by bit after dial-up chirps, on screens across the world. Watching the internet extend its reach, a small group of scientists thought a more extensive digital leap was in order, one that encompassed the galaxy itself. And so it was that before the new millennium dawned, researchers at the University of California released a citizen-science program called SETI@Home.

    The idea went like this: When internet-farers abandoned their computers long enough that a screen saver popped up, that saver wouldn’t be WordArt bouncing around, 3-D neon-metallic pipes installing themselves inch by inch, or a self-satisfied flying Windows logo. No. Their screens would be saved by displays of data analysis, showing which and how much data from elsewhere their CPUs were churning through during down-time. The data would come from observations of distant stars, conducted by astronomers searching for evidence of an extraterrestrial intelligence. Each participating computer would dig through SETI data for suspicious signals, possibly containing a “Hello, World” or two from aliens. Anyone with 28 kbps could be the person to discover another civilization.

    When the researchers launched SETI@Home, in May of ’99, they thought maybe 1,000 people might sign up. That number—and the bleaker view from outsiders, who said perhaps no one would join the crew—informed a poor decision: to set up a single desktop to farm out the data and take back the analysis.

    But the problem was, people really liked the idea of letting their computers find aliens while they did nothing except not touch the mouse. And for SETI@Home’s launch, a million people signed up. Of course, the lone data-serving desktop staggered. SETI@Home fell down as soon as it started walking. Luckily, now-defunct Sun Microsystems donated computers to help the program get back on its feet. In the years since, more than 4 million people have tried SETI@Home. Together, they make up a collective computing power that exceeds 2008’s premier supercomputer.

    But they have yet to find any aliens.

    SETI is a middle-aged science, with 57 years under its sagging belt. It began in 1960, when an astronomer named Frank Drake used an 85-foot radio telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia, to scan two Sun-like stars for signs of intelligent life—radio emissions the systems couldn’t produce on their own, like the thin-frequency broadcasts of our radio stations, or blips that repeated in a purposeful-looking way.

    Green Bank today



    GBO radio telescope, Green Bank, West Virginia, USA

    Since then, scientists and engineers have used radio and optical telescopes to search much more of the sky—for those “narrowband” broadcasts, for fast pings, for long drones, for patterns distinguishing themselves from the chaotic background static and natural signals from stars and supernovae.

    But the hardest part about SETI is that scientists don’t know where ET may live, or how ET’s civilization might choose to communicate. And so they have to look for a rainbow of possible missives from other solar systems, all of which move and spin at their own special-snowflake speeds through the universe. There’s only one way to do that, says Dan Werthimer, the chief SETI scientist at Berkeley and a co-founder of SETI@Home: “We need a lot of computing power.”

    In the 1970s, when Werthimer’s Berkeley colleagues launched a SETI project called SERENDIP, they sucked power from all the computers in their building, then the neighboring building. In a way, it was a SETI@Home prototype. In the decades that followed, they turned to supercomputers. And then, they came for your CPUs.

    The idea for SETI@Home originated at a cocktail party in Seattle, when computer scientist David Gedye asked a friend what it might take to excite the public about science. Could computers somehow do something similar to what the Apollo program had done? Gedye dreamed up the idea of “volunteer computing,” in which people gave up their hard drives for the greater good when those drives were idle, much like people give up their idle cars, for periods of time, to Turo (if Turo didn’t make money and also served the greater good). What might people volunteer to help with? His mind wandered to The X-Files, UFOs, hit headlines fronting the National Enquirer. People were so interested in all that. “It’s a slightly misguided interest, but still,” says David Anderson, Gedye’s graduate-school advisor at Berkeley. Interest is interest is interest, misguided or guided perfectly.

    But Gedye wasn’t a SETI guy—he was a computer guy—so he didn’t know if or how a citizen-computing project would work. He got in touch with astronomer Woody Sullivan, who worked at the University of Washington in Seattle. Sullivan turned him over to Werthimer. And Gedye looped in Anderson. They had a quorum, of sorts.

    Anderson, who worked in industry at the time, dedicated evenings to writing software that could take data from the Arecibo radio telescope, mother-bird it into digestible bits, send it to your desktop, command it to hunt for aliens, and then send the results back to the Berkeley home base. No small task.

    They raised some money—notably, $50,000 from the Planetary Society and $10,000 from a Paul Allen-backed company. But most of the work-hours, like the computer-hours they were soliciting, were volunteer labor. Out of necessity, they did hire a few people with operating-system expertise, to deal with the wonky screensaver behavior of both Windows and Macintosh. “It’s difficult trying to develop a program that’s intended to run on every computer in the world,” says Anderson.

    __________________________________________________________________
    Today, you can use BOINC to serve up your computer’s free time to develop malaria drugs, cancer drugs, HIV drugs.

    __________________________________________________________________

    And yet, by May 17, 1999, they were up, and soon after, they were running. And those million people in this world were looking for not-people on other worlds.

    One morning, early in the new millennium, the team came into the office and surveyed the record of what those million had done so far. In the previous 24 hours, the volunteers had done what would have taken a single desktop one thousand years to do. “Suppose you’re a scientist, and you have some idea, and it’s going to take 1,000 years,” says Anderson. “You’re going to discard it. But we did it.”

    After being noses-down to their keyboards since the start, it was their first feeling of triumph. “It was really a battle for survival,” says Anderson. “We didn’t really have time to look up and realize what an amazing thing we were doing.”

    Then, when they looked up again, at the SETI@Home forums, they saw something else: “It was probably less than a year after we started that we started getting notices about the weddings of people who met through SETI@Home,” says Eric Korpela, a SETI@Home project scientist and astronomer at Berkeley.

    The SETI astronomers began to collect more and different types of data, from the likes of the Arecibo radio telescope. Operating systems evolved. There were new signal types to search for, like pulses so rapid they would have seemed like notes held at pianissimo to previous processors. With all that change, they needed to update the software frequently. But they couldn’t put out a new version every few months and expect people to download it.

    Anderson wanted to create a self-updating infrastructure that would solve that problem—and be flexible enough that other, non-SETI projects could bring their work onboard and benefit from distributed computing. And so BOINC—Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing—was born.

    Today, you can use BOINC to serve up your computer’s free time to develop malaria drugs, cancer drugs, HIV drugs. You can fold proteins or help predict the climate. You can search for gravitational waves or run simulations of the heart’s electrical activity, or any of 30 projects. And you can now run BOINC on GPUs—graphical processing units, brought to you by gamers—and on Android smartphones Nearly half a million people use the infrastructure now, making the système totale a 19 petaflop supercomputer, the third-largest megacalculator on the planet.

    Home computers have gotten about 100 times faster since 1999, thank God, and on the data distribution side, Berkeley has gotten about 10 times faster. They’re adding BOINC as a bandwidth-increasing option to the Texas Advanced Computing Center and nanoHUB, and also letting people sign up for volunteer computing, tell the system what they think are the most important scientific goals, and then have their computers be automatically matched to projects as those projects need time. It’s like OkCupid dating, for scientific research. BOINC, and SETI@Home can do more work than ever.

    The thing is, though, they’ve already done a lot of work—so much work they can’t keep up with themselves. Sitting in a database are 7 billion possible alien signals that citizen scientists and their idle computers have already uncovered.

    Most of these are probably human-made interference: short-circuiting electric fences, airport radar, XM satellite radio, or a microwave opened a second too soon. Others are likely random noise that added up to a masquerade of significance. As Anderson says, “Random noise has the property that whatever you’re looking for, it eventually occurs. If you generate random letters. You eventually get the complete works of Shakespeare.” Or the emissions are just miscategorized natural signals.

    Anderson has been working on a program called Nebula that will trawl that billions-and-billions-strong database, reject the interference, and upvote the best candidates that might—just might—be actual alien signals. Four thousand computers at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Germany help him narrow down the digital location of that holiest of grails. Once something alien in appearance pops up—say from around the star Vega—the software automatically searches the rest of the data. It finds all the other times, in the 18 years of SETI@Home history, that Arecibo or the recently added telescopes from a $100 milion initiative called Breakthrough Listen have looked at Vega. Was the signal there then too? “We’re kind of hoping that the aliens are sending a constant beacon,” says Korpela, “and that every time a telescope passes over a point in the sky, we see it.”

    If no old data exists—or if the old data is particularly promising—the researchers request new telescope time and ask SETI colleagues to verify the signal with their own telescopes, to see if they can intercept that beacon, that siren, that unequivocal statement of what SETI scientists and SETI@Home participants hope is true: That we are not alone.

    So far, that’s a no-go. “We’ve never had a candidate so exciting that we call the director and say, ‘Throw everybody off the telescope,’” says Werthimer. “We’ve never had anything that resembles ET.”

    And partly for that reason, the SETI@Homers are now working on detecting “wideband” signals—ones that come at a spread spectrum of frequencies, like the beam-downs from DIRECTV. Humans (and by extension, extraterrestrials) can embed more information more efficiently in these spread-spectrum emissions. If the goal is to disseminate information, rather than just graffiti “We’re here!” on the fabric of spacetime, wideband is the way to go. And SETI scientists’ thinking goes like this: We’ve been looking mostly for purposeful, obvious transmissions, ones wrapped neatly for us. But we haven’t found any—which might mean they just aren’t there. Extraterrestrial communications might be aimed at members of their own civilizations, in which case they’re more likely to go the DIRECTV route, and we’re likely to find only the “leakage” of those communication lines.

    “If there really are these advanced civilizations, it’d be trivial to contact us,” says Werthimer. “They’d be landing on the White House—well, maybe not this White House. But they’d be shining a laser in Frank Drake’s eyes. I don’t see why they would make it so difficult that we would have to do all this hard stuff.”

    And so humans, and our sleeping computers, may have to eavesdrop on messages not addressed to us—the ones the aliens send to their own (for lack of a better word) people, and then insert ourselves into the chatter. “I don’t mean to interrupt,” we might someday say, “but I couldn’t help overhearing…” And because of SETI@Home and BOINC, it might be your laptop that gets that awkward conversation started.

    See the full article here.

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    The science of SETI@home
    SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is a scientific area whose goal is to detect intelligent life outside Earth. One approach, known as radio SETI, uses radio telescopes to listen for narrow-bandwidth radio signals from space. Such signals are not known to occur naturally, so a detection would provide evidence of extraterrestrial technology.

    Radio telescope signals consist primarily of noise (from celestial sources and the receiver’s electronics) and man-made signals such as TV stations, radar, and satellites. Modern radio SETI projects analyze the data digitally. More computing power enables searches to cover greater frequency ranges with more sensitivity. Radio SETI, therefore, has an insatiable appetite for computing power.

    Previous radio SETI projects have used special-purpose supercomputers, located at the telescope, to do the bulk of the data analysis. In 1995, David Gedye proposed doing radio SETI using a virtual supercomputer composed of large numbers of Internet-connected computers, and he organized the SETI@home project to explore this idea. SETI@home was originally launched in May 1999.

    SETI@home is not a part of the SETI Institute

    The SETI@home screensaver image
    SETI@home screensaver

    To participate in this project, download and install the BOINC software on which it runs. Then attach to the project. While you are at BOINC, look at some of the other projects which you might find of interest.

    MAJOR PROJECTS RUNNING ON BOINC SOFTWARE

    SETI@home The search for extraterrestrial intelligence. “SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is a scientific area whose goal is to detect intelligent life outside Earth. One approach, known as radio SETI, uses radio telescopes to listen for narrow-bandwidth radio signals from space. Such signals are not known to occur naturally, so a detection would provide evidence of extraterrestrial technology.

    Radio telescope signals consist primarily of noise (from celestial sources and the receiver’s electronics) and man-made signals such as TV stations, radar, and satellites. Modern radio SETI projects analyze the data digitally. More computing power enables searches to cover greater frequency ranges with more sensitivity. Radio SETI, therefore, has an insatiable appetite for computing power.

    Previous radio SETI projects have used special-purpose supercomputers, located at the telescope, to do the bulk of the data analysis. In 1995, David Gedye proposed doing radio SETI using a virtual supercomputer composed of large numbers of Internet-connected computers, and he organized the SETI@home project to explore this idea. SETI@home was originally launched in May 1999.”


    SETI@home is the birthplace of BOINC software. Originally, it only ran in a screensaver when the computer on which it was installed was doing no other work. With the powerand memory available today, BOINC can run 24/7 without in any way interfering with other ongoing work.

    seti
    The famous SET@home screen saver, a beauteous thing to behold.

    einstein@home The search for pulsars. “Einstein@Home uses your computer’s idle time to search for weak astrophysical signals from spinning neutron stars (also called pulsars) using data from the LIGO gravitational-wave detectors, the Arecibo radio telescope, and the Fermi gamma-ray satellite. Einstein@Home volunteers have already discovered more than a dozen new neutron stars, and we hope to find many more in the future. Our long-term goal is to make the first direct detections of gravitational-wave emission from spinning neutron stars. Gravitational waves were predicted by Albert Einstein almost a century ago, but have never been directly detected. Such observations would open up a new window on the universe, and usher in a new era in astronomy.”

    MilkyWay@Home Milkyway@Home uses the BOINC platform to harness volunteered computing resources, creating a highly accurate three dimensional model of the Milky Way galaxy using data gathered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. This project enables research in both astroinformatics and computer science.”

    Leiden Classical “Join in and help to build a Desktop Computer Grid dedicated to general Classical Dynamics for any scientist or science student!”

    World Community Grid (WCG) World Community Grid is a special case at BOINC. WCG is part of the social initiative of IBM Corporation and the Smarter Planet. WCG has under its umbrella currently eleven disparate projects at globally wide ranging institutions and universities. Most projects relate to biological and medical subject matter. There are also projects for Clean Water and Clean Renewable Energy. WCG projects are treated respectively and respectably on their own at this blog. Watch for news.

    Rosetta@home “Rosetta@home needs your help to determine the 3-dimensional shapes of proteins in research that may ultimately lead to finding cures for some major human diseases. By running the Rosetta program on your computer while you don’t need it you will help us speed up and extend our research in ways we couldn’t possibly attempt without your help. You will also be helping our efforts at designing new proteins to fight diseases such as HIV, Malaria, Cancer, and Alzheimer’s….”

    GPUGrid.net “GPUGRID.net is a distributed computing infrastructure devoted to biomedical research. Thanks to the contribution of volunteers, GPUGRID scientists can perform molecular simulations to understand the function of proteins in health and disease.” GPUGrid is a special case in that all processor work done by the volunteers is GPU processing. There is no CPU processing, which is the more common processing. Other projects (Einstein, SETI, Milky Way) also feature GPU processing, but they offer CPU processing for those not able to do work on GPU’s.

    gif

    These projects are just the oldest and most prominent projects. There are many others from which you can choose.

    There are currently some 300,000 users with about 480,000 computers working on BOINC projects That is in a world of over one billion computers. We sure could use your help.

    My BOINC

    graph

     
  • richardmitnick 11:25 am on September 2, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , The Atlantic Magazine   

    From The Atlantic: “How Artificial Intelligence Could Help Diagnose Mental Disorders” 

    Atlantic Magazine

    The Atlantic Magazine

    Aug 23, 2016
    Joseph Frankel

    People convey meaning by what they say as well as how they say it: Tone, word choice, and the length of a phrase are all crucial cues to understanding what’s going on in someone’s mind. When a psychiatrist or psychologist examines a person, they listen for these signals to get a sense of their wellbeing, drawing on past experience to guide their judgment. Researchers are now applying that same approach, with the help of machine learning, to diagnose people with mental disorders.

    In 2015, a team of researchers developed an AI model that correctly predicted [Nature Partner Journal] which members of a group of young people would develop psychosis—a major feature of schizophrenia—by analyzing transcripts of their speech. This model focused on tell-tale verbal tics of psychosis: short sentences, confusing, frequent use of words like “this,” “that,” and “a,” as well as a muddled sense of meaning from one sentence to the next.

    Now, Jim Schwoebel, an engineer and CEO of NeuroLex Diagnostics, wants to build on that work to make a tool for primary-care doctors to screen their patients for schizophrenia. NeuroLex’s product would take a recording from a patient during the appointment via a smartphone or other device (Schwoebel has a prototype Amazon Alexa app) mounted out of sight on a nearby wall.

    1
    Adriane Ohanesian / Reuters

    Using the same model from the psychosis paper, the product would then search a transcript of the patient’s speech for linguistic clues. The AI would present its findings as a number—like a blood-pressure reading—that a psychiatrist could take into account when making a diagnosis. And as the algorithm is “trained” on more and more patients, that reading could better reflect a patient’s state of mind.

    In addition to the schizophrenia screener, an idea that earned Schwoebel an award from the American Psychiatric Association, NeuroLex is hoping to develop a tool for psychiatric patients who are already being treated in hospitals. Rather than trying to help diagnose a mental disorder from a single sample, the AI would examine a patient’s speech over time to track their progress.

    For Schwoebel, this work is personal: he thinks this approach may help solve problems his older brother faced in seeking treatment for schizophrenia. Before his first psychotic break, Schwoebel’s brother would send short, one-word responses, or make cryptic to references to going “there” or “here”—worrisome abnormalities that “all made sense” after his brother’s first psychotic episode, he said.

    According to Schwoebel, it took over 10 primary-care appointments before his brother was referred to a psychiatrist and eventually received a diagnosis. After that, he was put on one medication that didn’t work for him, and then another. In the years it took to get Schwoebel’s brother diagnosed and on an effective regimen, he experienced three psychotic breaks. For cases that call for medication, this led Schwoebel to wonder how to get a person on the right prescription, and at the right dose, faster.

    To find out, NeuroLex is planning a “pre-post study” on people who’ve been hospitalized for mental disorders “to see how their speech patterns change during a psychotic stay or a depressive stay in a hospital.” Ideally, the AI would analyze sample recordings from a person under a mental health provider’s care “to see which drugs are working the best” in order “to reduce the time in the hospital,” Schwoebel said.

    If a person’s speech shows fewer signs of depression or bipolar disorder after being given one medication, this tool could help show that it’s working. If there are no changes, the AI might suggest trying another medication sooner, sparing the patient undue suffering. And, once it’s gathered enough data, it could recommend a medication based on what worked for other people with similar speech profiles. Automated approaches to diagnosis have been anticipated in the greater field of medicine for decades: one company claims that its algorithm recognizes lung cancer with 50 percent more accuracy than human radiologists.

    The possibility of bolstering a mental health clinician’s judgment with a more “objective,” “quantitative” assessment appeals to the Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatrist Arshya Vahabzadeh, who has served as a mentor for a start-up accelerator Schwoebel cofounded. “Schizophrenia refers to a cluster of observable or elicitable symptoms” rather than a catchall diagnosis, he said. With a large enough data set, an AI might be able to split diagnoses like schizophrenia into sharper, more helpful categories based off the common patterns it perceives among patients. “I think the data will help us subtype some of these conditions in ways we couldn’t do before.”

    As with any medical intervention, AI aids “have to be researched and validated. That’s my big kind of asterisk,” he said, echoing a sentiment I heard from Schwoebel. And while the psychosis predictor study demonstrates that speech analysis can predict psychosis reasonably well, it’s still just one study. And no one has yet published a proof-of-concept for depression or bipolar disorder.

    Machine learning is a hot field, but it still has a ways to go—both in and outside of medicine. To take one example, Siri has struggled for years to handle questions and commands from Scottish users. For mental health care, small errors like these could be catastrophic. “If you tell me that a piece of technology is wrong 20 percent of the time”—or 80 percent accurate—“I’m not going to want to deploy it to a patient,” Vahabzadeh said.

    This risk becomes more disturbing when considering age, gender, ethnicity, race, or region. If an AI is trained on speech samples that are all from one demographic group, normal samples outside that group might result in false positives.

    “If you’re from a certain culture, you might speak softer and at a lower pitch,” which an AI “might interpret as depression when it’s not,” Schwoebel said.

    Still, Vahabzadeh believes technology like this could someday help clinicians treat more people, and treat them more efficiently. And that could be crucial, given the shortage of mental-health-care providers throughout the U.S., he says. “If humans aren’t going to be the cost-effective solution, we have to leverage tech in some way to extend and augment physicians’ reach.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 1:59 pm on August 3, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , The Atlantic Magazine,   

    From The Atlantic: “There’s Probably Way More Zika in the United States Than Has Been Counted” 

    Atlantic Magazine

    The Atlantic Magazine

    8.3.16
    Adrienne LaFrance

    1
    Mosquito larvae are seen in Guangzhou, China, at the the world’s largest “mosquito factory.”

    New computer modeling suggests the virus has been underestimated by tens of thousands of cases.

    Try as they might, public-health officials can’t really track the Zika virus in real time. There is inevitably a lag between how a disease spreads and when the public finds out about it.

    Even in Miami, where new updates are being issued every weekday, there’s only so much officials know about how quickly and widely Zika is traveling through the population.

    Then there are the unknowns that are harder to pin down: How many cases of Zika are going uncounted? It turns out, that number may be enormous.

    Researchers at Northeastern University say federal-health officials are likely vastly undercounting Zika in the United States. In a paper that’s still under review for journal publication, they describe computer modeling that suggests there were nearly 30,000 cases of travel-related Zika in the country in mid-June, about 25 times more cases than the 1,200 or so reported by the CDC at the time.

    Researchers found the undercounting occurred in at least nine states: Florida, California, Texas, Georgia, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, and Oregon.

    “CDC is doing a great job, but it is really hard to detect cases,” said Alessandro Vespignani, one of the authors of the paper. The federal agency is faced with an exceedingly difficult task, in part because it is cobbling together data from various monitoring systems in different states and jurisdictions. The nature of the virus presents additional challenges, making it more complicated to track than other epidemics. “You have to ingest much more data and deal with another level of complexity as well as other sources of uncertainties,” Vespignani said.

    Because Zika is transmitted by mosquitoes (as well as spread between humans), researchers trying to model or predict its path have to take into consideration the presence of certain mosquito species, mosquito populations in different areas, that population’s variability with weather conditions, and so on. (Northeastern’s computer model does not take sexual transmission of Zika into consideration, even though it’s one of the ways the virus is transmitted.)

    Vespignani and his colleagues also used their model to predict how Zika will continue to move through the Americas through the end of 2016, based on how it has spread globally since 2013. (They also took into account the rate of transmission of Dengue in various regions, since that virus has much in common with Zika.)

    The modeling suggests that while the Zika epidemic has already peaked in Brazil, the number of cases is still growing rapidly in Puerto Rico, and will continue to climb well into the fall. And while the researchers say their findings should be interpreted cautiously, given the complexity of the modeling, they believe their projections offer important indications of “the magnitude and timing” of the epidemic as it progresses.

    3
    Zhang et al

    There are other computer-modeled predictions that could be useful—the estimated number of cases of Zika-related Microcephaly, a brain defect in which newborns have abnormally small heads, for example. But modeling such outcomes, especially when so much remains unknown about Zika, is difficult if not impossible without more robust clinical data. “Models can be only as good as the data they ingest,” Vespignani said.

    For the CDC, good data may be the central challenge in tracking Zika. Because the agency only counts confirmed cases of the disease, and because people who catch Zika are usually asymptomatic, there are almost certainly a significant number of people who have had the virus without knowing it.

    “Like the [Northeastern University] team, when we work on estimating components of the epidemic, we try to understand the dynamics of infection relative to the available information, always under the assumption that what we ‘see’ through surveillance is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Michael Johansson, a biologist in the CDC Division of Vector-Borne Diseases, in a statement provided to The Atlantic by a spokesman. “Many infections are asymptomatic, some are mild with symptoms that do not cause people to seek care, some cases are mistaken as other diseases, and then we get to the diagnostics which are also challenging.”

    “All of those components contribute to many fewer cases being reported than the number of infections that actually occurs,” Johansson said.

    What does all of this mean for people who just want to protect themselves from the virus? Zika should be taken as the serious threat to public health that officials have said it is. Though many cases of Zika are mild, scientists are just beginning to understand how devastating it can be—including among children and adults sickened by the disease, not just fetuses. In Utah, one man died from the virus. (And officials still don’t understand how a family member who cared for him contracted Zika.)

    The CDC has clear guidelines on how people—particularly pregnant women—can protect themselves from the virus. Until scientists learn more about how Zika spreads and how it might be stopped, it’s important to understand it could be much more widespread than it appears.

    See the full article here .

    YOU CAN HELP FIND A CURE FOR THE ZIKA VIRUS.

    There is a new project at World Community Grid [WCG] called OpenZika.
    Zika depiction. Image copyright John Liebler, www.ArtoftheCell.com
    Zika depiction. Image copyright John Liebler, www.ArtoftheCell.com

    Rutgers Open Zika

    WCG runs on your home computer or tablet on software from Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing [BOINC]. Many other scientific projects run on BOINC software.Visit WCG or BOINC, download and install the software, then at WCG attach to the OpenZika project. You will be joining tens of thousands of other “crunchers” processing computational data and saving the scientists literally thousands of hours of work at no real cost to you.

    This project is directed by Dr. Alexander Perryman a senior researcher in the Freundlich lab, with extensive training in developing and applying computational methods in drug discovery and in the biochemical mechanisms of multi-drug-resistance in infectious diseases. He is a member of the Center for Emerging & Re-emerging Pathogens, in the Department of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Neuroscience, at the Rutgers University, New Jersey Medical School. Previously, he was a Research Associate in Prof. Arthur J. Olson’s lab at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), where he ran the day-to-day operations of the FightAIDS@Home project, the largest computational drug discovery project devoted to HIV/AIDS, which also runs on WCG. While in the Olson lab, he also designed, led, and ran the largest computational drug discovery project ever performed against malaria, the GO Fight Against Malaria project, also on WCG.

    Rutgers smaller

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  • richardmitnick 7:54 pm on May 31, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , The Atlantic Magazine   

    From The Atlantic: “Galaxy Evolution and the Meaning of Life” 

    Atlantic Magazine

    The Atlantic Magazine

    5.31.16
    Ann Finkbeiner

    1
    Robert Gendler / Roberto Colombari / Hubble Legacy Archive / Subaru Telescope

    Sometimes it’s best to ignore the big stuff.

    A few weeks ago I was at a conference about galaxy evolution. In the titles of many talks was the puzzling phrase, “secular evolution.” Secular? As opposed to religious? So secular evolution is galaxy evolution that’s not in the context of religion? Surely not. I stopped listening to the talks and googled “secular.” It’s Latin, meaning “belonging to a certain age,” as opposed to “infinite.” Not helping. I opted for the extreme measure of waiting for the coffee break and asking an astronomer.

    “Secular evolution” in galaxies turns out to require a little context. Years ago when I started writing about the origin and evolution of the universe, “galaxy evolution” was a matter of connecting some pretty dicey dots. Cosmologists looked at nearby galaxies, at more distant galaxies, at the galaxies so far away you nearly couldn’t see them. And assuming that most distant = farthest back in time = youngest, then those populations of nearby galaxies were grownups, the more distant were adolescents, and the far-away, babies.

    ____________________________________________________________________________________________

    2

    3

    Secular evolution is defined as slow, steady evolution. In galaxies, such evolution is either the result of long-term interactions between the galaxy and its environment (such as gas accretion or galaxy harassment), or it is induced by internal processes such as the actions of spiral arms or bars. Secular evolution therefore plays a important part in the formation of disk galaxies, with both the disk and bulge potentially involved, but is probably relatively unimportant in the formation of elliptical galaxies.

    The most easily recognisable example of secular evolution in disk galaxies is the formation of stars in the spiral arms. This is induced by the action of the spiral structure on the disk of the galaxy. Although evidence for secular evolution in bulges is a little less clear, young stars have been found in the centres of many galaxies, including the Milky Way. One explanation is that gas has been funnelled into the galaxy centre (perhaps through the action of a bar) and a centrally concentrated burst of star formation has resulted. This is believed to be one of the mechanisms for creating starburst galaxies. Another secular evolution process associated with bars is the growth of bulges through kinematic disturbance. In this scenario, the galactic bar perturbs the central disk stars out of their regular orbits, either creating or expanding the bulge.

    The relative importance of secular evolution in the formation of spiral galaxies (compared to the primordial collapse or hierarchical merging processes) is still an area of active research.
    ____________________________________________________________________________________________

    Cosmologists arranged these populations into an evolution: Galaxies began as little blue messes, spun up into sparkly spirals, collided and merged into unchanging ellipticals. Galaxy evolution was interesting partly because it showed the universe growing up. The universe that formed those galaxies was aging with them.

    But that was populations of galaxies, not individual galaxies themselves —demographics, not myelination and hormones and bones losing calcium. So what’s secular?

    Slowly, as observing instruments improved, cosmologists could see what was changing in the galaxies themselves: Stars were born and died, galactic centers changed shapes, black holes flared and faded, gas got breathed in and out. So this is secular evolution: It means life changes that are local, done for individual necessity, unrelated to anything external; life without reference to the Big Context.

    These days I’m deeply into living secularly. And I have rules. I research stories, find their structure, work out the sentences, meet the deadlines. Dinner with a friend, drinks with another one, lunch, conversations that go nowhere but end in sweetness. Buy a mattress, weed the garden, lighten the dirt, and plant tomatoes. Agree to community service regardless of how boneheaded and boring. Be careful of who to invite over. Don’t react to this egregiously dumb election, in particular, don’t get mad about what Hillary is and has always been up against, regardless of how unpleasant it’s made her; and don’t consider the gendered implications of “unpleasant.” Ignore the social death-wish of wealth inequality. Remember that some questions don’t have answers. Remember that some problems are complex and intransigent and won’t be solved and will only evolve. Whatever the context—the universe, God, evolution, politics, society, life—let it go its own way. Stay away from meaninglessness. Don’t think about getting old. Leave death alone.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 8:11 pm on December 20, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Hacking, The Atlantic Magazine   

    From The Atlantic: “Pop Culture Is Finally Getting Hacking Right” 

    Atlantic Magazine

    The Atlantic Magazine

    Dec 1, 2015
    Joe Marshall

    1
    USA

    Movies and TV shows have long relied on lazy and unrealistic depictions of how cybersecurity works. That’s beginning to change.

    The idea of a drill-wielding hacker who runs a deep-web empire selling drugs to teens seems like a fantasy embodying the worst of digital technology. It’s also, in the spirit of CSI: Cyber, completely ridiculous. So it was no surprise when a recent episode of the CBS drama outed its villain as a a video-game buff who lived at home with his mother. For a series whose principal draw is watching Patricia Arquette yell, “Find the malware!”, that sort of stereotypical characterization and lack of realism is to be expected.

    But CSI: Cyber is something of an anomaly when it comes to portraying cybersecurity on the big or small screen. Hollywood is putting more effort into creating realistic technical narratives and thoughtfully depicting programming culture, breaking new ground with shows like Mr. Robot, Halt and Catch Fire, and Silicon Valley, and films like Blackhat. It’s a smart move, in part because audiences now possess a more sophisticated understanding of such technology than they did in previous decades. Cyberattacks, such as the 2013 incident that affected tens of millions of Target customers, are a real threat, and Americans generally have little confidence that their personal records will remain private and secure. The most obvious promise of Hollywood investing in technically savvy fiction is that these works will fuel a grassroots understanding of digital culture, including topics such as adblockers and surveillance self-defense. But just as important is a film and TV industry that sees the artistic value in accurately capturing a subject that’s relevant to the entire world.

    In some ways, cyberthrillers are just a new kind of procedural—rough outlines of the technical worlds only a few inhabit. But unlike shows based on lawyers, doctors, or police officers, shows about programmers deal with especially timely material. Perry Mason, the TV detective from the ’50s and ’60s, would recognize the tactics of Detective Lennie Briscoe from Law & Order, but there’s no ’60s hacker counterpart to talk shop with Mr. Robot’s Elliot Alderson. It’s true that what you can hack has changed dramatically over the past 20 years: The amount of information is exploding, and expanding connectivity means people can program everything from refrigerators to cars . But beyond that, hacking itself looks pretty much the same, thanks to the largely unchanging appearance and utility of the command-line—a text-only interface favored by developers, hackers, and other programming types.

    2
    Laurelai Storm / Github

    So why has it taken so long for television and film to adapt and accurately portray the most essential aspects of programming? The usual excuse from producers and set designers is that it’s ugly and translates poorly to the screen. As a result, the easiest way to portray code in a movie has long been to shoot a green screen pasted onto a computer display, then add technical nonsense in post-production. Faced with dramatizing arcane details that most viewers at the time wouldn’t understand, the overwhelming temptation for filmmakers was to amp up the visuals, even if it meant creating something utterly removed from the reality of programming. That’s what led to the trippy, Tron-like graphics in 1995’s Hackers, or Hugh Jackman bravely assembling a wire cube made out of smaller, more solid cubes in 2001’s Swordfish.

    3
    A scene from Hackers (MGM)

    4
    A scene from Swordfish (Warner Bros.)

    But more recent depictions of coding are much more naturalistic than previous CGI-powered exercises in geometry. Despite its many weaknesses, this year’s Blackhat does a commendable job of representing cybersecurity. A few scenes show malware reminiscent of this decompiled glimpse of Stuxnet—the cyber superweapon created as a joint effort by the U.S. and Israel. The snippets look similar because they’re both variants of C, a popular programming language commonly used in memory-intensive applications. In Blackhat, the malware’s target was the software used to manage the cooling towers of a Chinese nuclear power plant. In real-life, Stuxnet was used to target the software controlling Iranian centrifuges to systematically and covertly degrade the country’s nuclear enrichment efforts.

    5
    An image of code used in Stuxnet (Github)

    6
    Code shown in Blackhat (Universal)

    In other words, both targeted industrial machinery and monitoring software, and both seem to be written in a language compatible with those ends. Meaning that Hollywood producers took care to research what real-life malware might look like and how it’d likely be used, even if the average audience member wouldn’t know the difference. Compared to the sky-high visuals of navigating a virtual filesystem in Hackers, where early-CGI wizardry was thought the only way to retain audience attention, Blackhat’s commitment to the terminal and actual code is refreshing.

    Though it gets the visuals right, Blackhat highlights another common Hollywood misstep when it comes to portraying computer science on screen: It uses programming for heist-related ends. For many moviegoers, hacking is how you get all green lights for your getaway car (The Italian Job) or stick surveillance cameras in a loop (Ocean’s Eleven, The Score, Speed). While most older films frequently fall into this trap, at least one action hacker flick sought to explore how such technology could affect society more broadly, even if it fumbled the details. In 1995, The Net debuted as a cybersecurity-themed Sandra Bullock vehicle that cast one of America’s sweethearts into a kafkaesque nightmare. As part of her persecution at the hands of the evil Gatekeeper corporation, Bullock’s identity is erased from a series of civil and corporate databases, turning her into a fugitive thanks to a forged criminal record. Technical jibberish aside, The Net was ahead of its time in tapping into the feeling of being powerless to contradict an entrenched digital bureaucracy.

    It’s taken a recent renaissance in scripted television to allow the space for storytellers to focus on programming as a culture, instead of a techy way to spruce up an action movie. And newer television shows have increasingly been able to capture that nuance without sacrificing mood and veracity. While design details like screens and terminal shots matter, the biggest challenge is writing a script that understands and cares about programming. Mr. Robot, which found critical success when it debuted on USA this summer, is perhaps the most accurate television show ever to depict cybersecurity. In particular, programmers have praised the show’s use of terminology, its faithful incorporation of actual security issues into the plot, and the way its protagonist uses real applications and tools. The HBO comedy series Silicon Valley, which was renewed for a third season, had a scene where a character wrote out the math behind a new compression algorithm. It turned out to be fleshed-out enough that a fan of the show actually recreated it. And even though a show like CSI: Cyber might regularly miss the mark, it has its bright spots, such as an episode about car hacking.

    There’s a more timeless reason for producers and writers to scrutinize technical detail: because it makes for good art. “We’re constantly making sure the verisimilitude of the show is as impervious as possible,” said Jonathan Lisco, the showrunner for AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, a drama about the so-called Silicon Prairie of 1980s Texas. The actress Mackenzie Davis elaborated on the cachet such specificity could lend a show: “We need the groundswell of nerds to be like, ‘You have to watch this!’” The rise of software development as a profession means a bigger slice of the audience can now tell when a showrunner is phoning it in, and pillory the mistakes online. But it’s also no coincidence that Halt and Catch Fire is on the same network that was once home to that other stickler for accuracy—Mad Men.

    Rising technical literacy and a Golden Age of creative showrunners have resulted in a crop of shows that infuse an easy but granular technical understanding with top-notch storytelling. Coupling an authentic narrative with technical aplomb can allow even average viewers to intuitively understand high-level concepts that hold up under scrutiny. And even if audiences aren’t compelled to research on their own, the rough shape of a lesson can still seep through—like how cars are hackable, or the importance of guarding against phishing and financial fraud. But above all, more sophisticated representations of hacking make for better art. In an age of black mirrors, the soft glow of an open terminal has never radiated more promise.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 7:46 pm on December 20, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , The Atlantic Magazine   

    From The Atlantic: “The Chilling Regularity of Mass Extinctions” 

    Atlantic Magazine

    The Atlantic Magazine

    Nov 3, 2015
    Adrienne LaFrance

    1
    An artist’s rendering of an asteroid or comet striking Earth. Andrea Danti / Shutterstock

    One thing we know for sure is that conditions on Earth were, shall we say, unpleasant for the dinosaurs at the moment of their demise. Alternate and overlapping theories suggest the great beasts were pelted with monster comets, drowned by mega-tsunamis, scorched with lava, starved by a landscape stripped of vegetation, blasted with the radiation of a dying supernova, cloaked in decades of darkness, and frozen in an ice age.

    Now, a pair of researchers have new evidence to support a link between cyclical comet showers and mass extinctions, including the one that they believe wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. Michael Rampino, a geologist at New York University, and Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, traced 260 million years of mass extinctions and found a familiar pattern: Every 26 million years, there were huge impacts and major die-offs. Their work was accepted by the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in September.

    In recent decades, researchers using other methods have found evidence for a 26-million-year cycle of extinction on Earth, but the idea has remained controversial and unexplained. “I believe that our study, using revised dating of extinctions and craters, and a new method of spectral analysis, is strong evidence for the cycles,” Rampino told me.

    Other scientists who have researched mass extinctions are more measured about the latest findings. “I’m sort of agnostic [about the larger theory],” said Paul Renne, the director of Berkeley Geochronology Center. “But I was really disappointed to see they used an age-database for the craters which is full of outdated information.”

    Renne is the author of another new study that focuses on the Chicxulub crater, the massive divot beneath the Yucatán Peninsula that was created by the same impact blamed for the extinction of the dinosaurs.

    2
    Chicxulub crater. NatGeo Illustration by Detlev van Ravenswaay, Science Source

    Renne and his colleagues believe that the comet or asteroid that blasted into Earth and made Chicxulub also set off a global chain-reaction of volcanic eruptions that accelerated the end of the dinosaurs. Volcanoes were, they believe, erupting continuously for millions of years. Long enough to make Hawaii’s Kilauea, which has been flowing since 1983, seem laughable. (“Kilauea is nothing,” Renne told me. “Kilauea is a flea.”)

    And while Renne is interested in the possibility that volcanism is tied to intervals of mass extinction, that possible connection doesn’t explain what kind of cycles might trigger the awakening of Earth’s most powerful magma systems on a global scale. That’s where theories about galactic periodicity come back into play.

    “One of the earliest proponents of a periodic record [of mass extinction] was by a guy named Rich Muller,” Renne said. “He proposed a kind of phenomenological periodicity in which they didn’t really have a mechanism.” In other words, Muller found the 26-million-year pattern of mass extinctions on Earth, but didn’t immediately know what drove the cycle.

    The latest findings from Rampino and Caldeira build on the idea that regular comet showers cause intervals of mass extinctions. The showers, the theory goes, are triggered by the movement of the sun and planets through the crowded mid-plane of our galaxy. As the sun crosses that region, it disrupts great clouds of space dust. Those clouds, in turn, throw off the orbit of comets, sending them careening toward Earth.

    In another theory, planetary scientists suggested that one region of the solar system in particular, known as the Oort comet cloud, plays a key role in mass extinctions.

    2
    Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud.

    The Oort cloud is a sprawling region at the border of our solar system that contains trillions of icy bodies. Muller put forth a popular hypothesis in the 1980s that said our sun has a sort of evil twin in the Oort cloud. This hypothetical star, he suggested, has an orbital cycle such that it would perturb its neighboring objects, and send 1 billion of them hurtling toward Earth every 26 million years. The star, a binary to the sun, was nicknamed Nemesis, and playfully referred to as the death star. “The binary star, or Nemesis theory, was an alternate to the Galactic-plane story,” Rampino told me. “But the star was looked for, but never found, so Nemesis theory is out of favor now.”

    “[Muller] doesn’t even believe that anymore,” Renne told me.

    If Rampino and Caldeira are correct, the next mass extinction may not be far off—in geologic terms, anyway. Our little corner of the solar system crossed the plane about 2 million years ago, and we are now moving up and through it. “In the Galactic theory, we are near the Galactic plane, and we have been in the danger zone for a couple of million years,” Rampino said. “We are still close to the plane, maybe 30 light years above the plane, [and] a light year is 6 trillion miles … We won’t come back across the plane for about another 30 million years.”

    And while scientists can’t be sure when the next major comet or asteroid impact on Earth will be, the one that is believed to have killed the dinosaurs still stands out as extraordinary, even by mass-extinction standards. The city-sized asteroid that created Chicxulub, for instance, released more energy than 1 billion nuclear bombs when it hit the Earth.

    “There hasn’t been an impact large enough to cause a major mass extinction since the impact 66 million years ago,” Rampino said. “That was a 10-kilometer [six-mile] diameter asteroid or comet. The largest impactor in the last 66 million years was only 5 kilometers [3 miles] in diameter, which only has one-tenth the energy, so it probably wouldn’t have taken out the dinosaurs. In fact, if a 10-kilometer-sized object had hit in the last 66 million years, we wouldn’t be here. Our ancestors probably would have been knocked out.”

    The obvious next question, of course, is how do we prevent the terrible fate the dinosaurs suffered? “These events are so rare in geologic time that the odds of even our great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren witnessing them are really low,” Renne said. “The ultimate proof, which is observation, is not going to be available to us, unfortunately.” (Or fortunately, depending on your priorities.)

    In the meantime, scientists are actively scouring the skies, and calculating the orbits of monstrous comets and asteroids. “So far, none are on a collision course, but the work has just begun in earnest,” Rampino said. “Once we know one is coming, then there are several options to divert the object. (You don’t want to blow it up, that will just increase the numbers of impactors.) One possibility is to have a nuclear explosion off to one side of the comet or asteroid, pushing it just slightly off course, or possibly just hitting the object with a rapidly moving space-craft would provide enough of a nudge.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 11:34 am on December 20, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , The Atlantic Magazine   

    From The Atlantic: “The Evolution of Teaching Creationism in Public Schools” 

    Atlantic Magazine

    The Atlantic Magazine

    12.20.15
    Eric Jaffe

    A new study shows that anti-evolution lessons have become more stealthily integrated into curricula.

    1
    AP

    Some 90 years out from the Scopes Monkey Trial, and a full decade after the legal defeat of “intelligent design” in Kitzmiller v. Dover, the fight to teach creationism alongside evolution in American public schools has yet to go extinct. On the contrary, a new analysis in the journal Science suggests that such efforts have themselves evolved over time—adapting into a complex form of stealth creationism that’s steadily tougher to detect.

    Call it survival of the fittest policy.

    “It is one thing to say that two bills have some resemblances, and another thing to say that bill X was copied from bill Y with greater than 90 percent probability,” Nick Matzke, a researcher at the Australian National University and author of the new paper, tells CityLab via email. “I do think this research strengthens the case that all of these bills are of a piece—they are all ‘stealth creationism,’ and they all have either clear fundamentalist motivations, or are close copies of bills with such motivations.”

    Matzke performed a close textual analysis of 67 anti-evolution education bills proposed by local government since 2004. (Three U.S. states have signed them into law during this time: Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee.) The result was a phylogenic tree—in effect a developmental history—tracing these policies to two main legislative roots: so-called “academic freedom acts,” and “science education acts.”

    2
    This phylogenetic tree traces most of the 67 anti-evolution education policies proposed in U.S. states since 2004 to two main roots: one group of “academic freedom acts,” and another as “scientific education acts.” (Nicholas J. Matzke / via Science)

    Matzke’s analysis shows that academic-freedom acts were popular in 2004 and 2005 but have since been “almost completely replaced” with science-education acts, which emerged as the strategy of choice after the adoption of a 2006 anti-evolution policy in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana. (That policy’s lingering impact on creationist teaching was thoroughly exposed by Zack Kopplin in Slate earlier this year.) These acts tend to call for “critical analysis” of scientific topics that are supposedly controversial among experts. They often lump evolution alongside research areas like climate change and human cloning—an effort, argues Matzke, to skirt legal precedents that connect policies solely targeting evolution with unconstitutional religious motivations.

    “Kitzmiller was mostly about policies that specifically mention intelligent design, says Matzke, who uncovered an explicit link between creationism and intelligent design during that case while working for the U.S.-based National Center for Science Education. “If a policy encourages evolution bashing, and has the same sorts of sponsors and fundamentalist motivations, but doesn’t mention intelligent design or creationism, is it unconstitutional? If I were a judge, I would say ‘yes, obviously,’ but judges have all sorts of different philosophies and political biases.”

    Another marker of science-education acts is that they typically go out of their way to note that only scientific information, not religious doctrine, is protected by the policy. That’s a revealingly insecure stipulation, given that U.S. public schools are secular arenas by default.

    3
    A school bus collects students at Dover Area High School in 2005; the Pennsylvania town’s school system was a focus of a 2004 court ruling that teaching “intelligent design” as a scientific concept was unconstitutional. (AP / Carolyn Kaster)

    A review of six anti-evolution education bills proposed at the state level in 2015 shows many of these legislative tactics on display:

    Missouri. This act looks for ways “to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies”—with “biological evolution” among them.
    Montana. This House bill pushes “critical thinking” in science class on the grounds that “truth in education about claims over scientific discoveries, including but not limited to biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, random mutation, natural selection, DNA, and fossil discoveries, can cause controversy.”
    South Dakota. State S.B. 114 gives teachers full freedom to help students “understand, analyze, critique, or review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories,” with “biological evolution” mentioned as one such theory alongside global warming.
    Oklahoma. This bill—creating a “Science Education Act”—urges teachers to help students develop “critical thinking skills” about unidentified “controversial issues” with the understanding that it “not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine.”
    Alabama. Much in line with the aforementioned legislative efforts, the sponsor of this bill, Representative Mack Butler, betrayed its intentions when he noted on Facebook that its aim was to “encourage debate if a student has a problem learning he came from a monkey rather than an intelligent design!”
    Indiana. S.B. 562 only mentions “human cloning” as a controversial scientific subject, but its mission to help students “understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing conclusions,” with its caveat about protecting “only the teaching of scientific information,” tags it firmly within the science education act lineage.

    That none of these bills passed in 2015 isn’t the point, says Matzke. After all, several states have adopted such policies into law in recent years, placing millions of public-school children in the hands of educators who might promote creationist alternatives to evolution, either because they have religious motivations themselves or simply weak scientific backgrounds. That Matzke’s analysis links two such laws to science education act language—those in Louisiana and Tennessee—is evidence enough that anti-evolution policies can, indeed, adapt to new times.

    “Successful policies have a tendency to spread,” he says. “Every year, some states propose these policies, and often they are only barely defeated. And obviously, sometimes they pass, so hopefully this article will help raise awareness of the dangers of the ongoing situation.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 11:48 am on November 28, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Science vs Religion, The Atlantic Magazine   

    From The Atlantic: “Scientific Faith Is Different From Religious Faith” 

    Atlantic Magazine

    The Atlantic Magazine

    Nov 24, 2015
    Paul Bloom

    If you want to annoy a scientist, say that science isn’t so different from religion. When Ben Carson was challenged about his claim that [Charles] Darwin was encouraged by the devil, he replied, “I’m not going to denigrate you because of your faith, and you shouldn’t denigrate me for mine.” When the literary theorist Stanley Fish chastised atheists such as Richard Dawkins, he wrote, “Science requires faith too before it can have reasons,” and described those who don’t accept evolution as belonging to “a different faith community.”

    Scientists are annoyed by these statements because they suggest that science and religion share a certain epistemological status. And, indeed, many humanists and theologians insist that there are multiple ways of knowing, and that religious narratives exist alongside scientific ones, and can even supersede them.

    It is true that scientists take certain things on faith. It is also true that religious narratives might speak to human needs that scientific theories can’t hope to satisfy.

    And yet, scientific practices—observation and experiment; the development of falsifiable hypotheses; the relentless questioning of established views—have proven uniquely powerful in revealing the surprising, underlying structure of the world we live in, including subatomic particles, the role of germs in the spread of disease, and the neural basis of mental life.

    Religion has no equivalent record of discovering hidden truths.

    So why do so many people believe otherwise? It turns out that while science and religion are as different as can be, folk science and folk religion share deep properties. Most of us carry in our heads a hodgepodge of scientific views and religious views, and they often feel the same—because they are learned, understood, and mentally encoded in similar ways.

    In the first article that I ever published for The Atlantic, I argued that many religious beliefs arise from universal modes of thought that have evolved for reasoning about the social world. We are sensitive to signs of agency, which explains the animism that grounds the original religions of the world. We are naturally prone to infer intelligent design when we see complex structure, which makes creationism more appealing that natural selection. We are intuitive dualists, and so the idea of an immaterial soul just makes sense—or at least more sense than the notion that our minds are the products of our physical brains.

    I’ve continued to develop this theory with my students at Yale, doing experiments with children and atheists and adults across a range of cultures, and I still think that it is correct. But I’ve also come to see how incomplete this perspective is.

    There are many religious views that are not the product of common-sense ways of seeing the world. Consider the story of Adam and Eve, or the virgin birth of Christ, or Muhammad ascending to heaven on a winged horse. These are not the product of innate biases. They are learned, and, more surprisingly, they are learned in a special way.

    To come to accept such religious narratives is not like learning that grass is green or that stoves can be hot; it is not like picking up stereotypes or customs or social rules. Instead, these narratives are acquired through the testimony of others, from parents or peers or religious authorities. Accepting them requires a leap of faith, but not a theological leap of faith. Rather, a leap in the mundane sense that you must trust the people who are testifying to their truth.

    Many religious narratives are believed without even being understood. People will often assert religious claims with confidence—there exists a God, he listens to my prayers, I will go to Heaven when I die—but with little understanding, or even interest, in the details. The sociologist Alan Wolfe observes that “evangelical believers are sometimes hard pressed to explain exactly what, doctrinally speaking, their faith is,” and goes on to note that “These are people who believe, often passionately, in God, even if they cannot tell others all that much about the God in which they believe.”

    People defer to authorities not just to the truth of the religious beliefs, but their meaning as well. In a recent article, the philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen calls these sorts of mental states “credences,” and he notes that they have a moral component. We believe that we should accept them, and that others—at least those who belong to our family and community—should accept them as well.

    None of this is special to religion. Researchers have studied those who have strong opinions about political issues and found that they often literally don’t know what they are talking about. Many people who take positions on cap and trade, for instance, have no idea what cap and trade is. Similarly, many of those who will insist that America spends too much, or too little, on foreign aid, often don’t know how much actually is spent, as either an absolute amount or proportion of GDP. These political positions are also credences, and one who holds them is just like someone who insists that the Ten Commandments should be the bedrock of morality, but can’t list more than three or four of them.

    ___________________________________________________________

    It’s better to get a cancer diagnosis from a radiologist than from a Ouija Board.
    ___________________________________________________________

    Many scientific views endorsed by non-specialists are credences as well. Some people reading this will say they believe in natural selection, but not all will be able to explain how natural selection works. (As an example, how does this theory explain the evolution of the eye?) It turns out that those who assert the truth of natural selection are often unable to define it, or, worse, have it confused with some long-rejected pre-Darwinian notion that animals naturally improve over time.

    There are exceptions, of course. There are those who can talk your ear off about cap and trade, and can delve into the minutiae of selfish gene theory and group selection. And there are people of faith who can justify their views with powerful arguments.

    But much of what’s in our heads are credences, not beliefs we can justify—and there’s nothing wrong with this. Life is too brief; there is too much to know and not enough time. We need epistemological shortcuts.

    Given my day job, I know something about psychology and associated sciences, but if you press me on the details of climate change, or the evidence about vaccines and autism, I’m at a loss. I believe that global warming is a serious problem and that vaccines do not cause autism, but this is not because I have studied these issues myself.

    It is because I trust the scientists.

    Most of those who insist that the Earth is 6000 years old and that global warming is a liberal fraud and that vaccines destroy children’s brains would also be at a loss to defend these views. Like me, they defer, just to different authorities.

    This equivalence might lead to a relativist conclusion—you have your faith; I have mine. You believe weird things on faith (virgin birth, winged horse); I believe weird things on faith (invisible particles, Big Bang), and neither of us fully understands what we’re really talking about. But there is a critical difference. Some sorts of deference are better than others.

    It’s better to get a cancer diagnosis from a radiologist than from a Ouija Board. It’s better to learn about the age of the universe from an astrophysicist than from a Rabbi. The New England Journal of Medicine is a more reliable source about vaccines than the actress Jenny McCarthy. These preferences are not ideological. We’re not talking about Fox News versus The Nation. They are rational, because the methods of science are demonstrably superior at getting at truths about the natural world.

    I don’t want to fetishize science. Sociologists and philosophers deserve a lot of credit in reminding us that scientific practice is permeated by groupthink, bias, and financial, political, and personal motivations. The physicist Richard Feynman once wrote that the essence of science was “bending over backwards to prove ourselves wrong.” But he was talking about the collective cultural activity of science, not scientists as individuals, most of whom prefer to be proven right, and who are highly biased to see the evidence in whatever light most favors their preferred theory.

    But science as an institution behaves differently than particular scientists. Science establishes conditions where rational argument is able to flourish, where ideas can be tested against the world, and where individuals can work together to surpass their individual limitations. Science is not just one “faith community” among many. It has earned its epistemological stripes. And when the stakes are high, as they are with climate change and vaccines, we should appreciate its special status.

    See the full article here .

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