Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A photo-tour of an Iranian nuclear plant


If you want to see the inside of an Iranian nuclear power plant, you can check out pictures from Ahmadinejad's trip to Natanz nuclear facility:

The sprawling site, known as Natanz, made headlines recently because Iran is testing a new generation of centrifuges there that spin faster and, in theory, can more rapidly turn natural uranium into fuel for reactors or nuclear arms. The new machines are also meant to be more reliable than their forerunners, which often failed catastrophically.

On April 8, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the desert site, and Iran released 48 photographs of the tour, providing the first significant look inside the atomic riddle.

Here is a New York Times article about these pictures and an associated slide show. If you are wondering who are these people in the photograph below, or if you want your own nuclear reactor and want to know more about these funny looking tubes, check out this annotated version of this photograph.

Now I don't know much about Iranian fashion - but these shoes below really don't go well with white lab-coats:

Sunday, April 27, 2008

On Naturalism and the meaning of life



Here is a good Point of Inquiry interview with John Shook on Naturalism and the Scientific Outlook. There is a good discussion over science and naturalism, and towards the end of the interview he talks about the issue of meaning of life in the naturalist context. Here is John Shook's bio:

John Shook is Vice President for Research and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry Transnational in Amherst, N.Y. He received his PhD in philosophy at the University at Buffalo and was a professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University for six years. Among his current responsibilities are the Center for Inquiry’s Naturalism Research Project and the expansion of the Center’s Jo Ann Boydston Library of American Philosophical Naturalism.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Darwin's Garden at the New York Botanical Garden

The New York Botanical Garden has a new exhibit: Darwin's Garden - An Evolutionary Adventure. It runs from April 25-June 15 and here is a write-up on the exhibit:

IN 1860, while studying primroses in the garden of Down House, his home in Kent, England, Charles Darwin noticed something odd about their blooms.

While all the flowers had both male and female parts — anthers and pistils — in some the anthers were prominent and in others the pistils were longer. So he experimented in his home laboratory and greenhouses, cross-pollinating some plants with their anatomical opposites. The results were striking.

“He determined that if they cross-pollinate, they produce more seed and more vigorous seedlings,” said Margaret Falk, a horticulturalist and associate vice president at the New York Botanical Garden. The variation is evolution’s way of increasing cross-pollination, she said.

Now the Botanical Garden is replicating this work, and more of Darwin’s Down House experiments, in a stunning, multipart exhibition called “Darwin’s Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure.”

In all, the tour is 33 stops, spread throughout about half of the garden’s 250 acres. Visitors who enter the exhibition through the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory will encounter a replica of a room in Darwin’s house, designed so they can look through the window, as he did, to a profusion of plants and bright flowers: hollyhocks, flax and of course primroses, what Todd Forrest, the garden’s vice president for horticulture, calls “a typical British garden.” On a table stands a tray holding quills, brushes, sealing wax and tweezers, the kinds of simple tools Darwin used to conduct his world-shaking research.

Darwin grew the flowers not just for their own sake, Mr. Forrest said, but as subjects for observation and experiment, work he carried out in his home laboratory and greenhouses, on workbenches like those in the exhibition. The work displayed on the benches is typical of studies Darwin made of pollination, how plants grow, even what happens when a carnivorous plant devours an insect. Orchids on display remind visitors of the varieties Darwin studied, and how his observations and dissections of their blooms led him to conclude that particular species were pollinated by particular species of insects, a conclusion later research confirmed.

The exhibition also includes a “tree of life” map that guides visitors to the garden’s plants and describes where they fit in the natural scheme of things; books, drawings and notes, some in Darwin’s own hand; and an interactive exhibit for children.

This look really good. Plus we are tired of idiotic creationism/ID debates and evolution of flowers may probably draw less controversy (hey Dembski - stay away from these orchids). Plus, plants played a key role in Darwin's work:
It anticipates two Darwin anniversaries next year — his 200th birthday and the 150th of his world-changing book, “The Origin of Species.”

Though most people associate that book and Darwin’s ideas generally with his voyage to the Galápagos and his study of finches there, his work with plants was far more central to his thinking, said David Kohn, a Darwin expert and science historian who is a curator of the exhibition.

Even in the Galapágos he focused on plants, said Dr. Kohn, who is general editor of the Darwin Digital Library of Evolution at the American Museum of Natural History. “He did not even label the finches,” he said. “He was fascinated by plants,” particularly the way their variation and sexual reproduction challenged the idea that species were stable, a key idea in botany at the time.

As Dr. Kohn writes in the exhibition catalogue, “plants were the one group of organisms that he studied with most consistency and depth over the course of a long scientific career” of collecting, observing, experimenting and theorizing. But Darwin studied more than flowers. He was intrigued by what Dr. Kohn calls the “behavior” of plants — how they move, respond to light, consume insects and otherwise act in the world.

Read the full story here. Also check out this audio slide show.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Move over GMT - Here comes a call to adopt Mecca Time instead

Is there a way to find the center of the surface of the Earth? This may look like an impossible task - but not if you are a crank scientist and/or if you believe the world is flat. So at a recent conference in Qatar, some Muslim "scientists" and scholars urged the world to replace the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) with Mecca time...because they believe that Mecca is the true center of the Earth. Hmm...ok...wait and lets hope that ships don't fall off from the edge of the world.

Muslim scientists and clerics have called for the adoption of Mecca time to replace GMT, arguing that the Saudi city is the true centre of the Earth.

Mecca is the direction all Muslims face when they perform their daily prayers.

The call was issued at a conference held in the Gulf state of Qatar under the title: Mecca, the Centre of the Earth, Theory and Practice.

What!??! What is annoying here is not just an assault on straight-forward logic, but the fact that this is being discussed at a conference, for which at least somebody has coughed up money which could be used for real education. But its also annoying that these crank statements are considered news worthy. On the other hand, may be it is important to know that influential people (i.e. with media access in the Muslim world) really believe in such crank theories.

But lets see how is Mecca really the center of the world:

One geologist argued that unlike other longitudes, Mecca's was in perfect alignment to magnetic north.

He said the English had imposed GMT on the rest of the world by force when Britain was a big colonial power, and it was about time that changed.

Ok..so even if one grants the possibility of Mecca being on the equator with respect to the magnetic north pole (which is most likely not the case since the magnetic north pole wanders around quite a bit and has moved 1100 km in just this past century!), you will still end up with two points on the sphere where the longitude will intersect with the equator. Yes, the idea of Mecca being the "center of the Earth" is too bad to even be wrong.

There is a whole genre of making claims in the Muslim world that modern science is already in the Quran (such as modern embryology, expanding universe, etc. - see the works of Maurice Bucaille) - thus "verifying" the superiority (or the "Truth") of Islam. The claim of Mecca being the center of the world falls in the same unfortunate category. What is interesting here is the desire and reliance on science (indeed, really bad science) as an instrument to verify religion. While its not unique to Muslims by any means, such ideas are certainly more popular in the Islamic world that is still nostalgic about its golden age. These claims are rooted in religion, and may provide, for many, a justification for using imported knowledge for engineering, medical or other such professions. However, many (perhaps most?) also cringe at such proclamations that make the mockery of both science and religion.

Read the full story here.

If you are wondering how can you redeem the time you have spent reading this post, well you can check up what the magnetic north pole has been up to:
The accompanying figure shows the path of the North Magnetic Pole since its discovery in 1831 to the last observed position in 2001. During the last century the Pole has moved a remarkable 1100 km. What is more, since about 1970 the NMP has accelerated and is now moving at more than 40 km per year. If the NMP maintains its present speed and direction it will reach Siberia in about 50 years. Such an extrapolation is, however, tenuous. It is quite possible that the Pole will veer from its present course, and it is also possible that the pole will slow down sometime in the next half century.

Oil used in ancient Buddhist cave paintings at Bamiyan

Bamiyan is known for the idiotic destruction of spectacular statues by the Taliban in 2001. Behind the statues there are caves that have paintings dating back to the 7th century. But the cool thing is that some of these paintings used oil - well before the previously established date for the technique:
In many European history and art books, oil painting is said to have started in the 15th century in Europe. But scientists from the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties in Tokyo (Japan), the Centre of Research and Restoration of the French Museums-CNRS (France), the Getty Conservation Institute (United States) and the ESRF have recently identified drying oils in some of the samples they studied from the Bamiyan caves. Painted in the mid-7th century A.D., the murals show scenes with Buddhas in vermilion robes sitting cross-legged amid palm leaves and mythical creatures. The scientists discovered that 12 out of the 50 caves were painted with oil painting technique, using perhaps walnut and poppy seed drying oils.
And they found this through synchrotron spectroscopy (and here is the Wiki entry on Synchrotron - and check out applications):

A combination of synchrotron techniques such as infrared micro-spectroscopy, micro X-ray fluorescence, micro X-ray absorption spectroscopy or micro X-ray diffraction was crucial for the outcome of the work. "On one hand, the paintings are arranged as superposition of multiple layers, which can be very thin. The micrometric beam provided by synchrotron sources was hence essential to analyze separately each of these layers. On the other hand, these paintings are made with inorganic pigments mixed in organic binders, so we needed different techniques to get the full picture" Marine Cotte, a research scientist at CNRS and an ESRF scientific collaborator explains.

The results showed a high diversity of pigments as well as binders and the scientists identified original ingredients and alteration compounds. Apart from oil-based paint layers, some of the layers were made of natural resins, proteins, gums, and, in some cases, a resinous, varnish-like layer. Protein-based material can indicate the use of hide glue or egg. Within the various pigments, the scientists found a high use of lead whites. These lead carbonates were often used, since Antiquity up to modern times, not only in paintings but also in cosmetics as face whiteners.

But who did the paintings?
The paintings are probably the work of artists who traveled on the Silk Road, the ancient trade route between China, across Central Asia's desert to the West. However, there are very few studies about this region.
Read the full story here.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Private papers of Darwin now available online

Darwin's private papers can now be browsed online!
For decades available only to scholars at Cambridge University Library, the private papers of Charles Darwin, one of the most influential scientists in history, can now be seen by anyone online and free of charge. This is the largest ever publication of Darwin papers and manuscripts, totalling about 20,000 items in nearly 90,000 electronic images.

This vast and varied collection of papers includes the first
draft of his theory of evolution, notes from the voyage of the Beagle and Emma Darwin's recipe book.
Here is a news story about the release from the BBC:

The online archive about Charles Darwin is so vast it would take someone two months to view it all if they downloaded one image per minute.

"His papers reveal how immensely detailed his researches were. The family has always wanted Darwin's papers and manuscripts to be available to anyone who wants to read them," said Dr van Wyhe.

"The fact that everyone around the world can now see them on the web is simply fantastic.

"Charles Darwin is one of the most influential scientists in history. The collection of his papers now online is extremely important and therefore very exciting.

"This release makes his private papers, mountains of notes, experiments and research behind his world-changing publications available to the world for free."
While we are on the topic of evolution, check out this list of common misconceptions and myths associated with evolution, as compiled by New Scientist.

Shared misconceptions:

Everything is an adaptation produced by natural selection

Natural selection is the only means of evolution

Natural selection leads to ever-greater complexity

Evolution produces creatures perfectly adapted to their environment

Evolution always promotes the survival of species

It doesn't matter if people do not understand evolution

"Survival of the fittest" justifies "everyone for themselves"

Evolution is limitlessly creative

Evolution cannot explain traits such as homosexuality

Creationism provides a coherent alternative to evolution

Creationist myths:

Evolution must be wrong because the Bible is inerrant

Accepting evolution undermines morality

Evolutionary theory leads to racism and genocide

Religion and evolution are incompatible

Half a wing is no use to anyone

Evolutionary science is not predictive

Evolution cannot be disproved so is not science

Evolution is just so unlikely to produce complex life forms

Evolution is an entirely random process

Mutations can only destroy information, not create it

Darwin is the ultimate authority on evolution

The bacterial flagellum is irreducibly complex

Yet more creationist misconceptions

Evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics


Friday, April 18, 2008

Muslims, atheists, and scientologists

What do they have all in common? Apparently they are all viewed negatively by Americans (according to Gallup). Here is the table with other religious groups:


Ok..so Scientologists have a serious PR problem, and Tom Cruise videos are not really working. But atheists with 45% negative rating! But, these views regarding atheists haven't really changed from the 2006 survey, when this was at 44%. This is a bit odd as the last two year hasve seen a substantial increase in the discussion over atheism in the media along with bestsellers from Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. So we should have expected some change one way or the other - but may be there is a lag and we will see an effect in the next couple of years. While, most religious groups have seen a decline in net positive value since 2006, Muslims take the cake - going down from 4% net negative in 2006 to 17%.

Gallup first asked Americans to rate these religious groups in this fashion in an August 2006 panel survey, and since then, there have been declines in positive ratings for many of the more favorably viewed religious groups. For example, the net positive score for Catholics was +44 in the 2006 survey, compared to the current +32. But there were also declines in the net positive scores of Jews (from +54 to +42), Baptists (from +45 to +35), and Methodists (from +50 to +45).

It is unclear why the net positive ratings for most groups have declined, unless Americans are just less positive about religion overall today than they were two years ago. Groups such as atheists and Scientologists that rated negatively in 2006 are still rated negatively today, with similar scores over time in most cases. One exception concerns Muslims, who saw their net rating tumble from -4 in 2006 to -17 in the current survey.

Read more about the survey here, and here is a link to the 2006 survey. (tip from Framing Science)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Embryos from stem cells - a different ethical concern

NPR today had an interesting story about new and different ethical concerns resulting from advances in stem cells research:
Scientists have solved one ethical dilemma by finding a way to make the equivalent of human embryonic stem cells without destroying human embryos. But a new ethical dilemma is looming. It may be possible to derive eggs and sperm from the stem cells. Will a child someday be born to a parent who started life as a stem cell line?
Listen to the story here.

But this new ethical issue is very different - its about how one may use these stem cells. Even if one bans the possible creation of embryo from these skin stem cells, other lines of research should totally be fine. But, yes, there should be a discussion about the possibility of children born from stem cell lines. I don't know much about this topic, but I guess the concern would specifically be regarding the creation of sperm and egg from the same stem cell line (i.e. from the same individual).

(Not directly related to the story above, but this segment provides information about embryonic stem cells research - from Nova ScienceNow).

Monday, April 14, 2008

God sending signs using the Sun and ice crystals in the upper troposphere

Yes, this just in. God has sent a message to Churchgoers in Ethiopia using Sun's refraction off ice crystals associated with cold cirrus clouds, located a few miles up in the atmosphere, in a region scientists call the upper troposphere. Yes, this must be a miracle!
A halo around the sun startled people in Ethiopia during Sunday's local elections, with many seeing it as a miracle or a sign from God.
...
Churchgoers who had flocked to see the visiting Patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Shenouda, acclaimed the phenomenon as a miracle, or at least a sign of a blessing from God. Pope Shenouda himself believed it was a signal from above.

"We accept any sign from God to encourage us in our way," he said, "and confirm that we are going right in our way."

Abuna Paulos, the Patriarch of Ethiopia, added his voice to those who believe in signs from God.

"If God reveals himself from the sky," he told a press conference, "we believers do not get surprised. We only rejoice and double our efforts to thank God. Thank you, God, for revealing a sign."
But why is God revealing himself here through a Sun halo, when we have a decent scientific explanation for it? Come on, there should be a bit more supernatural element in a divine sign...

In case you are wondering about the nature of secular interpretations:
But others looked for more secular implications.

Older people in Addis Ababa remember seeing the ring around the sun once before - in the last days of the Derg, the despised military dictatorship, just before its leader Mengistu Haile Mariam fled to Zimbabwe.

But there is little prospect of the government falling in these elections.
So...what is the implication here? Whenever ice crystals refract sunlight in the atmosphere few miles above Ethiopia, a military dictatorship falls. Except this time, because the government is simply too strong and can counter this crystal magic from the sky.

Read the full story here. (from the BBC)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Some Dawkins for Sunday morning

Dawkins on Real Time with Bill Maher:


And here is CNN's Paula Zahn (asking questions with some bizarre attitude) interviewing Dawkins about Atheist discrimination (tip from Greg Laden's Blog):

Friday, April 11, 2008

Possible "Heritage Zone" around historic Jerusalem

At least these archeologists get full points for their effort: (from Science)
A small group of archaeologists is hoping to make a difference in one of the world's most divisive conflicts. At a private gathering in Jerusalem yesterday, Israeli academics proposed a plan for divvying up antiquities and control of religious sites between Israel and Palestine when--and if--peace is ever achieved. The idea is to ease political negotiations by taking the controversial issue off the table. But some just learning of the plan are skeptical it will succeed where past efforts have failed.

At issue is control of archaeological sites and material. Since the 1967 War, Israelis have excavated extensively in the West Bank, removing artifacts to storage facilities controlled by the Israeli government. If a Palestinian state is ever created, the question is whether some or all of that material would be repatriated.

For the past 5 years, Lynn Dodd and Ran Boytner, archaeologists at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles, respectively, have worked on the plan in near secrecy, conferring with a small team of Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists. The two sides have never before "sat down to achieve a structured, balanced agreement to govern the region's archaeological heritage," says Dodd. "Our group got together with the vision of a future when people wouldn't be at each other's throats, and archaeology would need to be protected irrespective of which side of the border it falls on."

This is very cool. And the plan looks quite reasonable (though, reason rarely feature prominently in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict):
The plan calls for a protective "Heritage Zone" around the oldest part of Jerusalem, extending to the city's 10th century boundaries during the Crusades. Archaeological sites in the zone would be made accessible to anyone, regardless of nationality, and any manipulation of sites would have to be done with full transparency. The plan also recommends the repatriation of all artifacts to the state in which they were originally found since 1967. To house all the material on the Palestinian side, new museums and conservation laboratories would be created.
This sounds good. But is it going to really work?
Despite the warm reception, the plan faces an uphill battle. "There have been many, many plans, blueprints, and road maps produced over the years," but previous efforts never won consensus on both sides of the divide, says Patrick Daly, an archaeologist at the Asia Research Institute in Singapore who has been visiting faculty at An-Najah National University in Nablus in the West Bank. "When plans supported by the E.U., Russia, and the American president fail to actually change the situation there, I am doubtful that an unofficial document drawn up by some well-meaning archaeologists will make any difference."
The skepticism regarding the success of the proposal is justified. But, at least they are making a fair and sincere effort. Read the full story here.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

To clone a tree...

Here is a good example of science & religion cooperation. There are plans to preserve the Bodhi tree - a sacred tree at Bodh Gaya temple, by cloning it (from The Times of India):
Worried over the health of the Bodhi tree, Bodh Gaya temple authorities have quietly prepared a plan to preserve the sacred tree, which grew from the banyan tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment more than 2,500 years ago.

The cloning will be done in a laboratory to preserve its origin. The Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee, which looks after the temple, a Unesco World Heritage site, fears that the tree may collapse because of diseases or natural causes.

The plan is part of an agreement signed between the temple committee and Forest Research Institute (FRI), Dehradun, three months ago. According to the agreement, FRI scientists will do a ‘virtual modelling’ using cells of the existing tree through a DNA finger printing exercise. The scientists have also been asked to conduct a health check-up of the tree every six months.

The tree is one of the most important icons of Buddhism. A large number of foreign tourists visit Bodh Gaya to get a glimpse of the tree.
And why worry about the tree now?
In the last one year, the tree has been afflicted with several diseases. First, it was hit by milibug, a plant disease. Last year, there was an alarming fall of fresh leaves from the tree. During their investigation, FRI scientists found that the tree was suffering because of poor maintenance.
Hmm..."poor maintenance"?? Most likely from over watering the tree. In any case, the cloning idea is a good one and this issue is a pleasant departure from the usual cloning debates.

Why are we moral?

Here is an excellent interview with Marc Hauser at the Point of Inquiry podcast. The questions at the beginning and at the end of the interview center around the issues of science, religion, and morality. Yes - morality can be explained without the supernatural and Hauser does a good job of separating science from religion on these matters. But most of the interview is about morality research, in particular, Hauser's work in the area. Here is a summary of the topics discussed:
In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Marc Hauser expounds his theory that morality has biological origins while challenging the common view that morality comes from God. He compares the human capacity for morality with Noam Chomsky's notion of a universal grammar, arguing that there is a "morality module" in the brain. He explains how his theory accounts for differences in morality across cultures, and discusses how morality could have evolved and what genetic benefit it might have afforded. He also explores the implications of his theory for the legal system, and for cultural institutions like religion and the family.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Islam and the Transformation of Greek Science by George Saliba (Video)

As part of Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion, George Saliba from Columbia University gave a lecture on Islam and the Transformation of Greek Science in March. I had posted some thoughts on the lecture soon after the event, and now the full video of the lecture is available online (see below).
Abstract
This illustrated talk examines the often repeated characterization of the role of Islamic science as preserving the Greek scientific legacy. It will demonstrate with concrete examples the extent to which Greek science had to be transformed in order to respond to ritual and cultural requirements of Islam, thus critiquing that science and eventually replacing it with a science that was more scientifically consistent. It was this transformed Islamic science that inspired later on the Renaissance scientists.

George Saliba is Professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at Columbia University. He is the author of Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance and A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories during the Golden Age of Islam.

Friday, April 04, 2008

oh no - not theology of science

The question about the purpose and meaning of life used to be a part of natural philosophy (or science - before it was called "science") a few hundred years back. One of the important steps after the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment was the separation of the purpose question from the explanation of the physical universe. This has served us well. Science can figure out the workings of the universe - but how one ascribes meaning to particular findings, is independent of science. For example, the notion of evolution of species is a scientific fact. What meaning one derives from it, is independent of the scientific idea. The same can be said for Big Bang cosmology, principles of thermodynamics, findings about planetary atmospheres, etc.

It appears that Michael Heller, who was recently awarded the Templeton prize, wants to bring purpose and meaning back into science (or at least very close to science). Here is what he has to say about science & religion (from Science):
Q: You talk about a theology of science. Can there be such a thing?
I don't think it exists. But I hope it could be created. If you are investigating the world using the standard scientific method, there are some aspects of the world that are automatically switched off. A theology of science would accept that the limits of rationality do not coincide with the limits of the scientific method, … allowing for questions such as the ultimate cause of the universe.
Hmm...now does this mean? I'm not clear about it but I hope this not meant to muddle the distinction between science & religion. Perhaps he is talking about a specific religious interpretation of scientific findings - which is fine, as long as religious beliefs do not feature in the process of science. However, I would be seriously concerned about the slippery slope here.

Q: You say science is the discovery of the mind of God. Can a complete scientific understanding of the universe supplant the idea of God?
I don't think so. I believe God is immanent, and so every law of physics is a manifestation of God. But God is also transcendent and extends beyond the universe. I don't think one day we could solve an equation that will prove that God exists.

Q: You suggest that God may be too complex for humans to understand. Why should that be?
Our brains evolved over millions of years through our interaction with the environment. Evolution required us to develop certain mental faculties to survive. We are fortunate that we somehow developed the surplus brainpower to understand things like quantum mechanics, but I doubt whether that is still enough to comprehend the full nature of reality.

Ok..so there is no problem here. These are his interpretations, and others may agree or disagree with him. But, I'm very skeptical of the theology of science bit.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Architects, composers and music in renaissance chapels

Did Renaissance architects consult composers for their chapel designs? Even if they didn't, they at least had the composers on their minds. Similarly, did composers create their music with particular architectural spaces in mind? Here is a cool short item from this week's Science:
An architectural historian has taken a choir to Venice to determine how much Renaissance architects and composers shaped each other's work. Last spring, with acousticians and musicologists, Deborah Howard of Cambridge University in the U.K. led an experimental public concert tour on which the Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge, performed Renaissance works in 11 Venetian churches and monasteries, including the San Marco basilica.

Recordings, as well as audience reactions, indicated that complex polyphonic pieces reverberated too much throughout large spaces such as the basilica but sounded right in San Marco's smaller ducal chapel. Monastery chapels were the best settings for resonant but straightforward chants. And humbler parish churches adorned with sound-damping tapestries were suited to simple hymn singing. "Each church did generate the kind of acoustic that was appropriate" to its needs, says Howard, showing that architects designed with acoustics in mind.

Composers also probably tailored their work to specific buildings, says Howard, who presented her findings at this month's Cambridge Science Festival. For example, the team found compositions calling for a double choir that in a reverberating space such as San Marco would achieve a "surround sound" effect. "We suppose that many musicians compose their work having in mind a very particular kind of place," says applied physicist Francesco Martellotta of the Polytechnic University of Bari, "but in this case, it is clearly documented."

What a fantastic example of inter-disciplinary work!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Weinberg on science, religion, and the Large Hadron Collider

A more reasonable followup to the lawsuit story regarding the Large Hadron Collider. Steven Weinberg, here answer questions about science & religion in light of upcoming new experiments at the Collider (yes, including, what does religion have to do with particle physics anyway?):
After this experiment, will we have a final theory of how the universe was created?
It is possible that this experiment will give theoretical physicists a brilliant new idea that will explain all the particles and all the forces that we know and bring everything together in a beautiful mathematically consistent theory. But it is very unlikely that a final theory will come just from this experiment. If had to bet, I would bet it won't be that easy.

As we come closer to developing an ultimate theory of the universe, how will this impact religion?
As science explains more and more, there is less and less need for religious explanations. Originally, in the history of human beings, everything was mysterious. Fire, rain, birth, death, all seemed to require the action of some kind of divine being. As time has passed, we have explained more and more in a purely naturalistic way. This doesn't contradict religion, but it does takes away one of the original motivations for religion.

You've said that Darwin's theory of natural selection was the biggest step in this direction. What about the possible findings in particle physics?
I don't think that discoveries in elementary particle physics in themselves are likely to have anything like the impact of Darwin's theory. After all, I don't know of any religious people who say that the breaking of the symmetry between the weak and the electromagnetic interactions requires divine intervention. Discovering the Higgs boson, confirming the theory of electroweak symmetry breaking, is not going to upset people's religion.
Ok...I think he has satisfactorily answered the question. Oh..but hold on. You can still keep on asking questions about this possible conflict:

What about possible contributions toward finding a final theory? Would that upset religious believers?
If we put together something like a final theory in which all the forces and the particles are explained and that theory also throws light on the origin of the Big Bang and gives us a consistent picture of cosmology, there will be a little less for religion to explain. But religion has evolved along with science. It is something created by human beings, and as human beings learn more and more their religion changes. Today, especially in the more established religious sects in the West, they've learned to stop trying to explain nature religiously and leave that to science.

But won't some people expect to find the presence of a grand designer in that final theory?
That's what was thought at the beginning, but we see less and less possibility of that. The more we learn about the universe the less sign we see of an intelligent designer. Isaac Newton thought that it would require an explanation in terms of the action of God to explain how the sun shone. Now we know that it shines because of the heat produced by the conversion of hydrogen into helium in its core. People who expect to find evidence of divine action in nature, in the origin of the universe or in the laws that govern matter, are probably going to be disappointed.

I think this is an accurate depiction of the situation. But what about purpose:

Are they also going to be disappointed about our position in nature, our purpose?
We don't see any purpose dictated to human beings in nature. Human life does have a purpose, but it is a purpose that we invent for ourselves. It takes a certain act of courage to look at nature, not see any plan for human beings in there and yet go on and live good lives, love each other, create beautiful things, explore the universe. All these take more courage without having some divine plan that we discover, but one that we rather create for ourselves.

This is a great way to put it. He outlines his views without attacking those who do not agree with him. Similarly, some level-headed answers regarding the existence/non-existence of God:

At some point will it be possible to find proof that God or the Ultimate Designer does not exist?
I don't think that we can ever prove that God does not exist. But if he does exit it might be possible to prove it.

It might be?
Well, if God did exist and suddenly made himself known by sending thunderbolts to all the people who don't believe in him [Laughs], that would be pretty strong evidence that he exists.

Do you think he would send you one?
He hasn't so far.

Would it be accurate to say that you are an atheist?
Yes. I don't believe in God, but I don't make a religion out of not believing in God. I don't organize my life around that.

Could something found in the Large Hadron Collider or in future experiments make you change your mind?
It is logically possible that something could be discovered that will make me change my mind, and it will be interesting to see if that happens. But I don't expect it. It is always possible that we will discover something in nature that cannot be explained in the naturalistic way that we've gotten used to in science and that will really require divine intervention. That hasn't happened.

Good stuff. I have always liked Weinberg. He is very thoughtful in his responses and presents his ideas clearly. Check out his collection of essays on science, Facing up: Science and its cultural adversaries.