Twitter FaceBook
Home

Displaying Category 'Science!'

Nov
18
xfactor

This is Part 3 of my long, rambling imaginings. Heigh thee to Part 1 if you haven’t read it yet.

At last, the conclusion to this Tidally Locked World thought experiment… “Why such a gap between posts?” you may well ask, and ultimately it comes down to the fact that this whole concept just blows my mind. So much so that I’m not sure I’m really doing justice to it.

Reading about science and discussing it with other like-minded folks I’m continually forced to consider alternatives to my own ideas, i.e. In my comparative ignorance I’m missing a lot of potentially important stuff. For instance, it was pointed out regarding my previous discussion of plants that I wasn’t really accounting for just how remarkably differently plants in constant sunshine would develop. Our day/night cycle is critical to both the lifecycle and evolution of all the plantlife here on Earth, and so it’s terribly difficult to picture how this truly unique environment might influence the development of life… By way of a simple example, would all the plants be leaning at a crazy angle? Remember this is a world of never-ending sunrise, would the plants all be competing against each other to present the most and broadest leaf faces toward the sun? What hope would there be for an understory in conditions like those? Do natural disasters level the playing field from time to time? And that’s only one example, where I’ve been on the receiving end of quite a few. You see my dilemma?!?

So I’m going to take a different approach to the last two entries on this subject. What might happen to my human colonists on this far-flung world? How might they change in time; how might their society change?
The more I start to think about it, the more I’m struck by seemingly endless levels of complexity… You’d think being speculative I’d have it fairly easy here, but I’d also like to keep things within the realm of scientific and sociological plausibility, and I’m discovering that neither really make the possibilities seem any less infinite.
Riddle me this: how deeply can you trace your own current and historical relationship to this planet? Start with something innocuous, for instance I just added a little shake of cinnamon into my coffee filter (incidentally you should try this, it’s yummy). It’s the ground-up bark from some tree I’ve never seen, grown by farmers in South-east Asia whose culture is entirely alien to me, and it arrives here through an international commerce that I don’t directly participate in. From a historical perspective it’s one of the oldest know spices, carried to Europe along the Silk Road at first, and then later by East India Companies of various flags. It has certainly played some greater or lesser role in the lives of every one of my ancestors dating back to at least the 16th century. And all that from a little glass jar in my kitchen cabinet!

With that in mind I can’t really hope to suggest how unknown environments on an unknown world might effect unknown people in an unknown time, but there are a few notions that I find intriguing. The main one is the role of their new sun; much redder than ours, never rising or setting, casting deep shadows all across the landscape… From generation to generation there must be some sort of acclimation process that takes place, to the point at which the very idea of a sun moving across the sky might seem either outlandish or simply very difficult to imagine.
Whatever the spiritual beliefs of the original colonists, surely their descendants would develop some kind of reverence or deistic embodiment for their star. You could do some interesting stuff with a star like that too, since it’s always in the same place. Using an enclosed space split by a very thin beam (or beams) of sunlight  you could measure quite accurately any deformation in the orbit of the planet around it’s sun. Also any parallax (perceived movement of the sun’s position) caused by the orbit of a moon or moons around the planet. Here on earth it’s the kind of thing that requires some complex mathematics and finely tuned instruments, because we keep rotating relative to any observable yard-stick. On our new world it seems like it’d require no greater technological advancement than a sundial… Would such an easily accessible measure of their place in that solar system act as a defense against insular thinking? In time might it prevent the reduction of the original colonists to mere mythic figures?

The other fascinating idea to toy with is the question of how the society might develop as it spreads both sunward and shadeward. Sunward you’d have a movement of people into ever greater heat, potentially denser and richer biological environments (until those give way to baked desert and stone) sustained by both a greater degree of energy being captured within those local systems, and more evaporation – and thereby distribution – of water.
I could imagine domiciles moving underground to escape the unrelenting solar radiation, and populations developing social mannerisms intended to conserve energy in what would presumably be a labour intensive and physically draining environment; as I’m given to believe many jungle and desert cultures have here at home. Shadeward things get colder and darker. I imagine energy into the system would get locked into larger and hardier species, but what’s the payoff? Perhaps glaciers that constantly grind away at the bedrock, depositing raw mineral resources. The lack of energy resources would seem to make it a case of rapidly diminishing returns though, and at some point the giant glacial ice sheets, constant darkness and freezing temperatures would probably make it as unrewarding as the baked spot directly beneath the sun.

Through it all though the tiniest, most unfathomable little influences could work to shape any expanding human society in ways I can’t even begin to imagine. From flavours to energy densities, hallucinogens and other potentially illicit substances, the interactions with native flora and fauna, mineral scarcities, mediums of exchange, the difficulties of trade and travel… It’s an endless amount of fodder for letting the mind wander.

xfactor
19:59
 
Oct
2
xfactor

This is Part 2 of my flight of fancy. If you haven’t already read it, I suggest you begin with Part 1.

It’s day 181 in the newly founded colony. After a six month earth-span of almost paranoid attention to quarantine restrictions, during which their new home has completed nearly five of it’s yearly revolutions, the colonists are for the first time testing their now unrestricted freedom in limited ways.
So far no-one has died from ghastly alien diseases, been infected with mind-sucking parasites or gone mad from naturally occurring hallucinogenic compounds. It’s clearly something of a relief, but continues to be the subject of much investigation… Is this naive of me? Should I imagine the worst, instead of the best? Possibly, but then I wouldn’t have much of a story. Maybe it’s as simple as a temporarily incompatible biology, I don’t know, I’m not a biologist. But it strikes me that in the most cited example of Spanish conquistadors unwittingly bringing devastating diseases to the New World, those viruses, bacteria, fungal infections, or whatever still found ready-made environments in the native inhabitants. One human is, after all, much like another. To an extent one mammal is much like another, which explains how species gaps are occasionally jumped. It doesn’t seem that far-fetched to me to suppose that Humans on this alien world are different enough in their biology to not provide such ready environments. At least, not yet.

And what of the biology, the ecology of this planet? Plant life might be prolific, with a great diversity particularly of moss-like vegetation. As witnessed from orbit the colours consist primarily of much deeper greens and blue-greens than the colonists are used to. “Inky” one of them terms it, as a very chlorophyl-like compound absorbs almost exclusively red wavelengths of light. Hardy little wooden structures are seen in places, looking much like leafless, dormant shrubs, they seem to co-exist with particular types of mosses while being a distinctly different plant, sending out their runners to find and occupy those patches of their preferred moss. It seems to be a kind of symbiosis, but quite what they offer the moss in exchange is still an open question. Protection? Highways for propogation? There are toxins in this environment too, as the mosses engage each other in a kind of biological warfare, some species securing their own boundaries by poisoning them, creating interesting patterns in the patchwork landscape, and a major – but not insurmountable – headache for those colonists charged with processing nutrients out of the local flora and fauna.

Animals are scarce here, and the colder-side-of-temperate was chosen for this first colony site to offer some degree of protection from a ‘diversity overload’. They’ve seen no mammal-analogs as yet, although nothing so far rules out that possibility. The main lifeforms on land are finger-sized to hand-sized insect or crustacean analogs that graze on the surface of mosses and burrow into them for protection from the elements, and from even larger insect-crustaceans which in turn prey on them. A little troubling at first, these larger species have shown no interest in the fleshy colonists, a great relief to all, but have something of a penchant for certain pieces of electrical equipment which must therefore be kept off the ground. A flashlight left sitting on a mossy tussock will quickly develop punctures in its plastic shell, to the point of becoming unworkable if left long enough (the humble flashlight being deemed expendable enough to informally test this theory, in a world of perpetual sunrise).
The river, even in this alpine-like part of the transition zone is already a kilometer or more wide, and fast flowing. It is the dominant feature of the colonists new home, racing down toward the sun through its enormous valley. It teems with life when compared to the land, with mosses of its own, algae-like blooms of life in eddies and along the riverbanks, and various creatures. There are those quite similar to the land-based lifeforms, which themselves still generally spawn in the river, squid-like creatures, sponges in the quieter channels, underwater grasses, and molluscs with frighteningly hard shells capable of withstanding the constant grinding of river rocks in the deeper, faster channels. It’s from the river that the safest and most abundant dietary proteins are derived. In other words, my colonists are becoming fisherfolk.

After six months their culture is already changing in barely perceptible ways. Some of them have brought along old-world religious convictions, but most haven’t and try to remain, to the extent that it’s possible, objective participants in this grand experiment. But there’s something about this new world which changes people. The red sun which never sets, never even moves, hovering always just above the horizon. The river forever flowing under it, and the great valley walls directing the eye toward it like perspective lines in a renaissance masterpiece. Long shadows are cast by everything, creating stripes of light and dark all over the landscape, where a simple rock outcrop leaves a dark swathe ten times disproportionate to it’s own height and those of the tall antennas on the habitat modules finally terminate somewhere far out of sight.
Some social and cultural impact is unavoidable, but change of any sort is neither inherently good or bad. Although I’m generally not a proponent of moral relativism, what better argument could there be for it? To allow an entirely new world to influence the destiny and society of its latest inhabitants, as they themselves are now irrevocably altering that of the planet itself?

(Becoming more of a saga than I’d anticipated, that’s going to be the topic of our next exciting episode.)

xfactor
15:47
 
Oct
2
xfactor

With the news this week that the tiny red dwarf star Gliese 581 has a planet, imaginatively labeled Gliese 581 G, situated almost perfectly within it’s habitable zone, I find I’m forced to indulge in a most delightful flight of fancy. Owing to its proximity to the parent star it’s expected that Gliese 581 G will be tidally locked. In other words, like our own moon relative to the Earth, the same side of this planet always faces its ‘sun’.

For me this news was another one of those “Too f***ing cool!” moments with which modern cosmology occasionally, but quite reliably favours me. In my imagination I send out a trailblazing colony mission to settle and explore this new world; unburdened by too many obtrusive facts, since as yet the planet is still the subject of more speculation and theorising than actual knowledge.

Approaching this new system my colonists awaken from their long slumber on the Project Orion style ship, still months away from their destination, and begin the frenetic preparations, observing, calculating, measuring, sampling, recording, debating and celebrating in the freefall periods between the decelerating nuclear pulses. A common theme in their lively discussions being the possibility of finding intelligent lifeforms, and what such lifeforms might think of the regular flashes now appearing in their sky. Were it a pre-industrial society the colonists own experience suggests these might take on some religious significance, appearing as an omen for good or ill. But then who aboard could really claim to comprehend the mind of an undiscovered alien race on a world so very different from their own? Nevertheless the speculation continues unabated, with some expressing unease at the possibility that members of a more advanced civilisation might have identified precisely the nature of this new interstellar intruder, and may even now be preparing some response.
As the months pass and the planet resolves into a rocky world, banded by a clearly ecological zone with a dark blue-green hue that likely photosynthesises the redder wavelengths of the star’s light, the speculation surrounding intelligent life slowly descends into the completely esoteric as none of the expected signs are found to be in evidence. A strange hydrological cycle presents itself, from the constantly frigid dark side with its giant glaciers, an inexorable flow of ancient ice gradually melts as it’s pushed past the transitional zone, carving immense river valleys over eons; the scale of which Mars-born colonists may be prepared for, had they stood gazing out from the rim of the Valles Marineris, but which will leave the Earth-born gaping in complete, uncomprehending awe. From these valleys with their alpine-analog climates the water continues sunward, eventually spreading into seemingly unending and unbearably humid marshlands, before finally evaporating in a salty, cracked and baked desert that itself gives way to a blasted, rocky wasteland under the constant and insufferable glare of a red-hot sun. Any water by this point has long since begun its meteorological pilgrimage, to fall again as fresh snow on the dark side glaciers.

In toward this new world my colonists slowly fall, preparing to dismantle the ship, a network of satellites to be left in orbit and the remainder being given as much material purpose on the surface as could be conceived of prior to launch. This was always a one-way trip. They plan a landing in the most temperate and hospitable valley they can identify, the mission biologists becoming ever more animated as it becomes clear that these valleys often isolate strips of divergent ecologies, while the engineers plan and design their longer-term habitats, voraciously consuming all the data they can on the available material resources, the climatic conditions of their chosen site, and even the wild speculations of the biologists in their own deliberations.

For the final few hours all falls silent, the crew holding their collective breath. The last of the nuclear pulses and a long series of aerobraking maneuvers through the outer planets now lie behind them, a few short minutes of atmospheric violence and fire, an entry rather than a re-entry, is all that now remains of their journey.
In that last hour as spacefarers our intrepid colonists contemplate their new home, a celestial passenger forever bound to its unremarkable Red Dwarf star. In a rare moment of delighted and uncharacteristic agreement they dub it ‘Lister’ and prepare to land.

(The brief history of their colony, and the society it eventually generates in my imagination will have to wait for another time, because now it’s late and well past my bed time.)

xfactor
0:06
 
Aug
24
xfactor

With the future of the Australian parliament still hanging in that weird limbo of a pre-minority-government, I’m reminded of various conversations I’ve had with a good friend and fellow critical thinker about something we like to call ‘evidence based government‘. In the last few years there has been a slow proliferation of websites and blogs highlighting the merits of scientific and skeptical thinking in areas which are often the target of shysters and snake-oil peddlers; particularly on the internet where’s it’s oh so easy to spin a line of pseudo-scientific claptrap and not get called on it.
So along these lines we now have some voices of reason ranging from Science Based Medicine and its partner in crime Science Based Pharmacy, to Science Based Parenting and Evidence Based Management all based on the simple understanding that any claims someone cares to make about the material universe must by their material nature be empirically testable and verifiable, and crucially that decisions should be made on the basis of good evidence, not instinct, hunches, fantasy or falsehoods.

Politics is often treated with kid gloves though. At first appearance it might seem, and is often argued by notable skeptics, to be a subject too murky and prone to fireworks to address critically (i.e. in the way they’ll happily indulge in for medicine or the paranormal).
This is a cop-out in my opinion, not least of all because it’s perfectly possible to engage in a discussion about how political systems do or don’t work without necessarily descending into an overtly political debate. The fact is that political pundits and politicians, regardless of ideology, are constantly making material claims without supporting them by evidence; or at the most relying on the two worst forms of evidence, namely individual anecdotes and popular opinion polling.
To illustrate this let’s create a hypothetical politician, Polly. Polly is on the campaign trail making his speeches and says something like:

Wherever I go around this wonderful country I hear stories just like those of young Billy here, that there are never enough Legos to go around. Friends, my opponent has done nothing to invest in vital Lego infrastructure! Not a single thing!… I give you my pledge today that if elected I will invest heavily in Lego, particularly the latest Space Lego, so vital to the future of our country!

Campaigns are full of such hyperbole, but let’s just take a moment to pick it apart. The story Polly hears from Billy, and presumably ‘many’ other little Billys is simply an anecdote. Even if it’s an accurate representation of what Billy believes, and even if Polly is being completely honest that he hears a similar story everywhere he goes, it still has almost no evidentiary value. No matter how well travelled Polly is, no matter how many hands he’s shaken or babies he’s kissed; the very nature of the places he visits, the people who are attracted to his stump speeches, and his own inclination to credit ideologically favourable interactions more highly means that he’s never going to get anything like a statistically representative sample of his constituency.
After this he makes an entirely testable and verifiable claim about his opponent’s lack of action, but one which immediately stretches credibility. On an issue of such alleged importance it seems unlikely that the opponent would have done nothing at all to address it, and while the degree of any such action is a fair point for a debate between the two candidates, the unfounded and implausible claim adds nothing to such a debate.
We let our politicians get away with this kind of stuff all the time, as if it’s just a natural part of the political process over which we have no control, and which we shouldn’t really get too hot under the collar about. But is it? Polly himself gives us the criteria by which we can measure his relative success, should he be elected. Presumably his opponent did the same in the preceding election cycle… And yet time after time it seems we’re expected to discard those presumptive critera and apply a newer, more subjective set at the next election.
Sometimes there may really be a need to do that, but should we be prepared to do it regularly? Without any explanation?

My second bugbear is that politicians rely on a seemingly endless array of logically inconsistent and fallacious arguments. We’re happy enough to pick away at these when they’re made by proponents of quack cures, moon hoax conspiracies, or for-profit religions; why not our elected representatives?
There is a great list of logical fallacies at SkepticWiki, and if you have the time it’s good fun to browse through them with a mind to politics and politicians, but a few obvious ones stand out… Take it away Polly:

The Ad Hominem:
My opponent doesn’t know anything about Legos because he’s not married.

The Straw Man:
My opponent will never invest in Lego infrastructure. If he gets his way you’ll wake up one morning to find all Lego banned, and the only thing to play with will be that communist Meccano stuff.

The non causa pro causa (correlation confused with causation):
Since my opponent never invested in Lego and we had a recession, clearly our Lego deficiency is a serious economic burden.

The Argument from Incredulity
I can’t imagine how anyone could enjoy playing with Meccano, so Lego is the best infrastructure choice for this country.

I could go on, and on, and on, but you get the idea. These kinds of arguments are so common that even when we disagree we still tend to accept their fallacious nature and try to argue against them on the merits, which is a pretty unstable foundation by that point.

I think we can, and are entitled to demand better from our politicians. In this case ‘Evidence Based Politics‘ has nothing to do with the ideological spectrum, but describes the way in which I’d prefer that politicians represented their respective political positions.
I don’t believe that the burden here rests on the politicians themselves, but on us as an informed electorate. The nature of politics is such that politicians need to be responsive to their audience, and although at times it might seem like the authority flows from them down to us, in reality (at least in western democracies) the opposite is true. Regardless of what your political views are, the whole exercise of political discourse would be well served by constituents who increasingly ask their representatives a few simple questions, not as a challenge, but stemming from an earnest desire to have an informed debate:

  1. What is your evidence for that claim?
  2. Can you make that argument logically consistent?
  3. Is success quantifiable based on your own past criteria?

Of course politicians try to duck hard questions by answering their own,  or with the polite brush-off, and I’d be extremely naive to think that this is a roadmap to perfect politics, it’s really more of a target for soft but constant pressure. Perhaps it’s best directed at the candidates we support, rather than the ones we don’t, so that in helping to reinforce their their rickety old soapboxes with a little reason and empiricism we’re being supportive of the policies we want to see developed rather than hostile to those we don’t.

xfactor
1:07
 
xfactor
xfactor
Subscribe RSSxfactor
 
xfactor
profile
The Dose

What if every act of imagination were the seed from which a new universe grew?
What universes would you then be responsible for having crafted from the ether of the multiverse?
Mine may well be full of zombies, soviet invasions, apocalyptic wastelands, strange empires and their even stranger inhabitants, but I'd like to think that despite their idiosyncrasies they all share a general sense of hope for their respective futures.

My own little universes, made to scale...
They are the Markrocosm.
xfactor
In collaboration with Jackpotjoy Bingo, Virgin Bingo and 32Red Casino.
Designed by