Drowning in the Sea of Information

Seth Lloyd, over at Discover Magazine, writes a fascinating story, You Know Too Much, about the exponential increase of information in general, and science in particular, that we are subjected to in today’s world. Its fascinating to me not just because he uses one of my posts as an illustration of “The development of the scientific history of the universe, which now threatens religious creation myths” … its fascinating because he makes some excellent points about the glut of information that floods into our consciousness every day and the ways we must deal with it.

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The powers of 10 …

In other posts, I’ve talked about the unimaginable size of the universe. “Feeling Insignificant Yet?” talks about how big some of the other planets and stars are in comparison to us and our home planet, and in “And you thought size mattered …” I noted that as unimaginably huge as the sizes of distant stars were, the distances between them makes them seem like specks in the night. But there’s another side to that incredible vastness as well … within each and every one of us are entire universes composed of atoms and molecules that make up the cells that combine to form us.

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Past and Future Paradigms

I haven’t raved lately about Modern Mechanix, that ultra-modern purveyor of the yesterday’s tomorrows for us, but day in and day out they put up articles from the past that are both fascinating and challenging, making us think about yesterday, as well as today and tomorrow. One of the key themes there that I find so compelling is the idea of showing the “mistakes” of the past, the eddies and backwaters of history’s rivers. Whether its the electric harpoon and its efficient aid in the whaling industry, or the plans for the “do-it-yourself dive helmet,” many posts at Modern Mechanix use real examples from the past to remind us the things that didn’t quite work out as planned in all cases.

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Primates on display at the Adelaide Zoo

The Adelaide Zoo in Australia has recently come up with a wonderfully innovative PR project, called the Human Zoo, putting 6 people into an old orangutan cage on display to the public. Each group of human volunteers stays in the enclosure for a week, and is subject to the same crowds as any of the animals, with the same level of privacy, the same feeding schedule, the same kind of interaction from Zoo staff. The current group of six (group 2 is currently in the enclosure as I write this) range in age from 20 to 42, and include a social work student, and a TV production manager, all of whom volunteered to give up their week to live inside the enclosure.

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Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

That quote is usually attributed to Mark Twain, but whatever the provenance, most of us are well aware that statistics can be used to mislead us as much as they can enlighten us. There are some classic ways that stats can be used to mislead us … attempting to correlate data that has no relation is one of the most common methods. Anyone who took a first year stats course at university remembers the examples of using stats about the number of pregnant women who eat apples to show that eating apples is correlated to causing pregnancy, or using data about the number of alcoholics in a given district and the number of churches in the same district to show a correlation between churches and drunkenness. Both ‘correlations’ are examples of common fallacies that statistics can hide.

But even when fairly simple sounding claims are made, we need to look a little deeper … A good example of this is in DNA matching for evidence in criminal trials. We’ve all heard the common claim from expert witnesses in trials … a DNA match is a 1 in a billion chance, sometimes its even expressed as 1 in a trillion. We tend to think this means that the chances of 2 people matching DNA profiles is very small … in the way we typically understand the phrase “1 in a billion” with a population of 6 billion people, there should, in theory, be 6 occurrences of a 1 in a billion event. For a 1 in a trillion event, we wouldn’t normally expect it to occur in a population of 6 billion.

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The roots of fundamentalism

On the Big Picture with Avi Lewis this week, he had the Canadian premiere of Richard Dawkins‘ documentary, The Root of all Evil, discussing the dangers of religion in general. Unlike other authors on the subject, Dawkins doesn’t separate the radical fundamentalists in a religion from the moderates … in fact, he makes the point that moderate people in a religion actually give cover to the fundamentalists, and allow them to claim more honourable motives than they would otherwise be able to.

There’s no doubt Dawkins makes some excellent points, and looked at from a certain perspective, its pretty easy to see history as endless stream of religious atrocities committed by one particular group on another. Very few groups are immune, historically speaking, and very few groups are immune from charges of fundamentalism rising from a literal reading of their theological treatises. From that perspective, Dawkins’ argument is pretty convincing.

The trouble is, Dawkins doesn’t look deeply enough at things, IMO. He dismisses the notion that religions like Christianity can, and have, produced good as well as evil, largely by equating moderates with the extremists. He seems to ignore the fact that prior to a few hundred years ago, the ONLY place any human encountered the notion of tolerance, or love of fellow man, was in theory through their religion, and while in practice, that tolerance was usually less than advertised, the fact remains that prior to the Enlightenment, the only place it existed, even in theory, was in religious thought.

Further, Dawkins seems to ignore his own fundamentalism. He speaks very eloquently for the scientific method, and he explains pretty clearly (and accurately) how that method applies to empirical information gathering in the “real world.” He contrasts this with attempts by religious fundamentalists explain the empirical world through theological study, and he quite rightly shows the difference between the two method, and why the latter will rarely produce the right answer. But at the same time he does this, he ignores the greater truth, the truth that science and religion explore many of the same questions, but they do so using vastly different tools, and expecting different results. Dawkins dismisses religion’s tools, and only endorses science’s tools, and in that way he betrays his own scientific fundamentalism.

A look at evolution is probably in order here. Much of Dawkins argument is with Creationists who take the Genisis account of Creation literally, and in that, I have to say I fully support him. He seems to take great delight in trying to convince Creationists of how wrong they are, but he never once steps outside of the Creationist camp to talk to a Christian who views the Genesis account differently. His own fundamentalism forces him to continue attacking the nasty Creationist, while ignoring more moderate voices.

The fact is, Genesis is not incompatible with scientific explanations for the ‘beginning of the universe we know today.” Taking a large scale view of time, from the Big Bang through the evolution of humans on Earth, the structure of Genesis largely matches the structure of the scientific story. Genesis may get the time-line wrong (or perhaps the tools that theologists use to explore these questions aren’t so interested in specifically accurate time-lines, caring instead for getting the ideas right), but given that it comes from verbal ‘stories’ that are well over 4000 years old, it gets the sequence of events pretty accurately.

Back in May, in these pages, I did a piece comparing Genesis with scientific origin theories. I won’t re-post it here … you can go back and read it there if you like, but the fact is that Genesis and Science largely agree on WHAT happened, just not on when or how it happened, and again, these discrepancies speak to the different tools theology brings to the question vs science. Science doesn’t ever speak to WHY something happens … science will tell us in great detail the sequence of events surrounding the big bang, but it will not tell us so much about why the big bang happened. Likewise, evolution talks about the process of life developing on our planet, but has very little to say about how that process gets started, definitively. In many ways, science asks “What happened” and theology asks “Why did it happen” … but the “it” in question here is the same for both sides.

I took the title of this post from the Dawkins documentary, obviously, and I did it for a reason. The very argument Dawkins uses to advance his case that religion is the root of all evil is as fundamentalist a position as the Creationists advance, to my way of thinking. A Creationist looks at science and says “My Holy book says something different, and so I will completely reject everything about your methods and conclusions.” Trouble is, Dawkins seems to say exactly the same thing to the Creationists … “My scientific method says something different, and so I will completely reject everything about your methods and conclusions.” Frankly, I tend to think that fundamentalism, not religion, is the root of all evil, and that fundamentalist scientists can be as dangerous to the world as fundamentalist preachers.

NASA TV – Live Shuttle Video update


I posted a link awhile back to a live feed of the space shuttle.  That link was through Yahoo and it no longer appears to work, however the link at the top of this post is direct to NASA.  It should always stay active.  Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean will be space walking on Wednesday, working to help secure some solar cells to the space station.

So if you are here looking for live space shuttle video feeds, go to NASA TV here …