Category Archives: Science

I love science. Science is cool.

Imaginary Time at the Sandwich Shop (A Lesson in Cosmology)

I’ve been re-reading A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, the revised and updated edition from 1998. Oh, I know that a lot of advances have been made in theoretical cosmology, quantum mechanics, and high energy particle physics over the past ten years, but I still think that much of what Hawking wrote applies. People who know better are more than welcome to correct me on this.

One concept that caught my eye is “imaginary time”. Imaginary time, Hawking explains, can be described as a timeline perpindicular to “real time”, which is the normal experience of time that we as human beings have and that we observe as a feature of the universe we observe. I have a hard time conceptualizing this, but it seems to be useful when talking about Feynman’s notion of “sum of histories”, which is a useful concept for describing how a particle travels through the infinite number of possible paths it could take. When applied to the entire universe, we can think of the universe’s progression through real time as a sum of histories over imaginary time.

From here on, things get more confusing.

Hawking explains that in real time, the dimension of time expands and lengthens the more that the universe progresses, either expanding outwards or contracting inwards. In imaginary time, though, it’s just the opposite; in other words, imaginary time contracts in a manner that is inversely proportional to the expansion of real time. The best way I have found to think of this (and I may be completely wrong) is to think of imaginary time as a way of envisioning the number of possible paths that the universe could progress on in its expansion, by which I mean the total sum of the infinite number of possible quantum states that the universe could expand into. It’s kind of like ordering a sandwich at Togo’s. One you place your order at the desk, the number of orders that you could have placed shrinks down to one. This, in essence, means that when you walked into the sandwich shop, the value of Togo’s Imaginary Time was much wider than it is when you contract it down to the one sandwich that you order.

According to Hawking, then, while the observation of the universe in real time indicates that there was a Big Bang and there will eventually be a Big Crunch (or some other way that the universe comes to an end — I, for one, like the notion of the Big Rip, which is a notion I explored in my short story “Padma”, though you’d be hard pressed to see that in there), in imaginary time, the universe has no such grand entrance into being. It just sort of coalesces out of the infinite number of possibilities of existence that existed prior to the universe’s existence. This means that, in imaginary time, at least, the universe has no distinct beginning or end, and thus no actual boundary conditions. Thus, the universe has come into being without actually having started.

Yeah, that confuses me too, and I may have gotten it wrong.

The philosophical implications of this are that there is no need for the universe to have a “beginning” or an “end”. It just IS, without having been created ex nihilo. “What need, then, for a Creator?” he asks.

With all due respect to Hawking (and he deserves a lot), I’m not convinced that there are any philosophical or theological differences between a Big Bang model of the universe’s existence, and Hawking’s model of the universe as a closed surface (so to speak) without boundaries. Really, it goes either way. You could argue that the Big Bang model requires a Creator who created the universe from a singularity or from nothing, or you could argue that the Big Bang model does not require a Creator, that the Big Bang exploded from a singularity pre-existent in a “quantum soup” of whatever sort of particle that existed prior to that event (though, of course, any notion of “prior to the Big Bang” makes no sense from a cosmological perspective). On the other hand, you could argue that the closed surface without boundaries model negates the need for God because then the universe is just one possible state of being among an infinite series of possible states of being. On the other hand, you could just as easily argue that those infinite possible states of being had to come from nowhere, so why not God? The notion that the universe’s boundary condition is that it has no boundaries does not negate the possibility of the existence of God.

I’m not arguing for the existence of God here, of course. That’s beyond the scope of my intention right now, and I doubt I’d be able to convince anyone either way if they’ve already made their mind up. I’m just pondering a possible response to Hawking’s suggestion that the bounded without boundaries nature of the universe makes God redundant: and that is, it doesn’t. Not necessarily, at least, to someone who’s already made their mind up anyway.

Of course, if you believe the Universe came into being about four thousand years ago with all of these properties built into place to make it look like it was created fifteen billion years ago — the Omphalos hypothesis — then all bets are off, and all this speculation is pointless.

With regards to imaginary time itself… Well, people who know me already know that I have joked that I find the notion of imaginary numbers as morally reprehensible. What, the infinite set of real numbers ain’t good enough for you? You have to go so far as to make up imaginary numbers to explain things? Shame on you! So I think I will take the same moral stance on imaginary time. Shame on you, Doctor Hawking! For shame!

Thus endeth our lesson on the moral implications of modern cosmological theory. I hope you enjoyed it.

Bees and other stingers

I’ve been following, off and on, the issue with the vanishing bees.  Colony Collapse Disorder is a pretty scary thing; while we don’t rely on bees exclusively for our crop pollination needs, they’re still crucial, and if the bees all go away, then things will be mighty tough.  I don’t believe we’ll face major famine and extinction, but food will be very expensive, and the human toll will still be frighteningly high.  Now, in our own little part of California, a very agricultural area, we don’t seem to have been hit particularly hard by CCD; I still see plenty of bees flying around, doing their bee stuff.  The worry is there, but seeing the bees (with whom I’ve always had pretty good relations) around makes me feel a little better.

There seem to be as many different theories about what’s happening to the bees as there are people looking at the problem.  The environmentalist wacko/doomsday theorist in me likes the idea that genetically modified crops are to blame.  It’s got a good beat, you can dance to it, and you can cast blame at the multi-billion dollar agricultural industry which is so dysfunctional in the United States anyway.  And while I do think that there are probably some aspects of the craze for GM crops that haven’t been studied thoroughly enough (if only because no one thinks to test for these things), the truth is that, according to my very few conversations with apiarists and farmers, the effects of most of these crops were pretty heavily tested on pollinating insects.  Plus, there have been GM crops in the field a lot longer than CCD has been an issue.

Another fringe theory that I’m less inclined to take seriously suggests that cell phones are to blame.  Yes, the signals from cell phones and cell phone towers can confuse bees and other insects and animals that rely on some sophisticated biological machine that we don’t quite get yet to make their way home, but the effect hasn’t been that strong.  What’s more, cell phones and cell phone towers have been around for at least a decade, but we’ve only observed CCD this past year.  The timelines don’t add up.

So it’s all still a mystery.  Major bee die-offs are not that unusual, but die-offs on the scale that we’re seeing now are unprecedented and scary.

Personally, I’m inclined to think that there may be a number of different factors which are contributing to the current problem.  Most bees in the agricultural industry are from one species, and whenever you have a large population with a nearly identical genome, you’re just asking for trouble.  Genetic variation is a nifty thing; when a new threat enters a genetically diverse population, the odds that someone in that population has a mutant gene that can fight it off and that can then be spread throughout the population rise.  But if those genes are missing, then such a threat can’t be fought off.  This kind of epidemic spread happens in any sort of ecosystem where the majority of a population has an identical genetic code, literally or metaphorically.  New computer viruses that spread havoc throughout the world do so partially because Windows computers are pretty much the same the world over, and if an exploit exists in the source code of the operating system on the computer I’m using, then it very likely exists in yours, and so the same virus can infect both.  If I’m running Linux and you’re running Windows, then only one of our computers will be infected.

So, there’s that.  I’ve also heard that GM crops can impact the immunological systems of bees; I haven’t been able to confirm that, but it’s an intriguing idea.  If it’s true, then this, combined with a lack of variation in the bees’ genetics, leaves them wide open to infection from other pathogens.  Researchers at UCSF have identified a fungus that may be the culprit, actually: a single-celled parasite called Nosema ceranae that has been found in many of the bees on which autopsies have been performed.  Since I’m not a population geneticist or a mycologist or an entomologist or an ecologist or an insect immunologist or any other sort of ologist, I can’t speak knowledgeably or authoritatively on the issue, but it’s an interesting idea.

One thing that sort of surprises me, though, is that Colony Collapse Disorder hasn’t been linked, in any of the news reports I’ve seen, with the phenomenon of the wasp mega-nests that were being found all throughout the South last year.  Seriously, we’re talking huge.  Paper wasps were building nests that filled up cars, nests with millions of insects when a nest would normally only contain a couple thousand.  These nests had several active queens at once, instead of just one.  Can you imagine walking into your barn one spring day to find that your old Chevy Packard has been packed with a monstrous paper wasp nest, and that they’ve been building smaller, "satellite" nests elsewhere in the barn as well?  Bees are fine little critters that do good and sting you only if you bug them, but wasps are flat out nuts and some of them will sting you just because they can.  And while bees disembowel themselves whenever they sting someone because their stingers are barbed, wasps have smooth stingers and can sting you again and again, and likely will, just because they’re ornery.  Doesn’t seem fair that while bees are experiencing a massive die-off, these wasps are having a population explosion.

Why the giant nests?  Another mystery, from what I’ve read, but some ecologists suggest that wasps normally experience die offs during the colder winter months which prevent their colonies from getting too massive.  But if the winter is too warm, then there’s no die off, and the colony just keeps growing and growing.  Others suggest that some of the queens are, for some reason, remaining in their original nests instead of heading out like they normally do to establish colonies of their own.  They’re lazy, but instead of killing each other, these queens learn to cooperate and build giant nests.

So, bees are dying off, and wasps are making giant nests.  It’s tempting to look for a common explanation.  If it really is an environmental factor that’s causing the giant nest phenomenon, then might the same factor have some role to play in the bee die-off?  Well, probably not, since the giant nest phenomenon was pretty localized to the American south and Colony Collapse Disorder seems to be turning into a global phenomenon.

Still, it’s fun to speculate.

Update:  Thanks to a friend of mine for pointing out this article to me about how cell phone signals apparently got linked with Colony Collapse Disorder.  Turns out it was some German researchers who were studying the effect of the radio signals generated by landlines on the learning ability of bees.  Nothing to do with cell phones at all, but the media, surprisingly, misinterpreted the research.  Imagine that.

Let's Break Your Brain

Via David Brin’s blog (have you not read anything by David Brin? No? What the hell’s wrong with you?) I found this article regarding another idea about the ultimate fate of our universe; rather than the ultimate heat death as has been occasionally predicted, or the Big Crunch as has alternately predicted, this new model suggests that if there’s enough "dark energy", then the universe will eventually rip apart into little shards that become new universes themselves.  Our own universe may have begun as a shard of a previously exploded universe; this would explain how it was that our universe, at the very beginning, started out in a state of high order instead of disorder, since as the shards rip apart from the exploded universe, they take along with them high states of order.  As the universe transitions from the state of high order to disorder, all kinds of neat things happen: galaxies, stars, planets, life, and so on.  Everything we know, see, etc., it’s all the universe just running down from its original highly ordered state.  Until the universe explodes, creating new daughter universes that will begin their own processes of entropy.  And so on.

The problem with this model, as Brin explains it, is that it requires an actual empty space for universes to explode into.  No big deal, except that standard models of the universe and of the Big Bang over the past fifty years or so have all suggested that the Big Bang did not explode into empty space, because empty space came into being as part of the Big Bang itself.  In a way, the new model of universes exploding into empty space makes a little more sense, because it’s easier to think of empty space rather than… well, than nothing, not even space.  Although I imagine that the empty space into which these daughter universes explode is very different from the empty space that we think of as existing between the galaxies or between President Bush’s ears.  The spacetime into which a universe comes into being is flat, rather than curved as the empty space in our own universe is.

Damn cosmologists.  Just when we get used to one counter-intuitive, paradoxical idea of how the universe works, they come up with another.  I swear, they do this to us on purpose.

Now, if pondering the Big Bang and the nature of the universe, hasn’t broken your brain, perhaps this video — which my younger sister first clued me in to — will do the job. Below the fold and through the cut. Enjoy.
Continue reading Let's Break Your Brain

Snips and Dribbles

Brin on Optimism
Science fiction author and noted astrophysicist (and general pundit/curmudgeon) David Brin has a fascinating entry up at his blog right now entitled, “The Ritual of the Streetcorner“. In it, he quotes a little phrase which I’ve seen elsewhere and which I’ve found is disturbingly accurate for myself: “A cynic is an optimist who has snapped out of it and realized how awful people are”. Brin is essentially an optimist when it comes to the forward progress of humanity; you only have to read his novels to figure that out.

I found this paragraph to be particularly compelling, though:

…[W]hich is more amazing? That the Enlightenment is under threat from a collusive cabal of conniving aristocrats, imperialists and extremist nutjobs? Or the fact that this routine and utterly predictable alliance, which ruled every other urban culture for 4,000 years has been staved off repeatedly, till now, by a republic — and a civilization — that has kept combining redesign and renewal and revolution with an almost infinite capacity for resilience in the face of repetitious human nature? (emphasis in the original)

It’s reassuring, in a way; he seems to be reinforcing that old saw, “In times like these, it helps to remember that there have always been times like these.” So in spite of the fact that our nation seems to be in the grip of authoritarian, backwards-looking autocrats intent on consolidating power into an entity which was never meant to have it (see Jack Whelan’s blog post, “Drift to Authoritarianism“, for some thoughts on this), there may be some cause for hope. Even though people seem, as a group, overwhelmingly stupid, you can go to any complex streetcorner and watch as people negotiate the traffic laws and rules and just seem to make things work. Brin says,

Yes, they [our neighbors] look stupid. I am sure yours do, too. Perhaps, as individuals, they are. But when they are taken together, combined, made free to interact under rules that encourage decent cooperation and competition, something happens. We all get smarter than we ever deserved to be. (emphasis in the original)

Brin’s basic point seems to be that things aren’t as bad as all that. Maybe we will wake up one morning and find that the people in our nation have given up all the liberties and freedoms our predecessors fought and died for simply to forward a manufactured and non-existent “war on terror”, but human beings, on the whole, do have the potential to create progressive societies. Brin calls himself a “flaming optimist”, because cynicism isn’t helpful. Maybe it’s a good attitude to have.

Supraluminal Follow-Up

According to the This Week In Science podcast of January 16th, some of the basic ideas behind the so-called Hyperdrive that I talked about a couple of weeks ago have actually been around since 1950, when the original physicist — whose name, sadly, escapes me, but who was German — in trying to reconcile quantum physics with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, proposed a two-dimensional “subspace” as part of his solution. In 1970-something, another German physicist took these ideas and expanded them to build a better solution to the quantum/Einstein conundrum, postulating an 8-dimensional space as a better model (incidentally, I discovered that this work formed the scientific basis for Buckaroo Banzai’s Oscillation Overthruster — hence, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension instead of the Fifth or Sixth Dimension). Starting in the late 1990’s, this theoretical work proved remarkably effective at predicting certain results in particle and quantum physics (I won’t even pretend to understand the science behind it). The trouble is, as I understand it, almost all of the theoretical work has been done in German because the original scientist refused to learn English.

So, if this work — which involves, as I mentioned, eight dimensions of space as well as hypothetical particles called “gravitophotons” — holds up, then one of the implications is the possibility of an actual FTL hyperdrive. Now, according to the scientists who have been working on that aspect, what would be required would be a huge ring surrounding a superconductor of some sort, which would be capable of producing 25 Teslas of energy (this is apparently a huge amount of energy), which would then be capable of attracting or producing the gravitophotons, which would make transit between the dimensions possible, and, thus, the hyperdrive — which is dependent, somehow, on the ability of the gravitophotons to repel gravity. It turns out there is already a working machine in Sweden that can produce the energy necessary, so it is technologically feasible. Since any ships built with this drive would have to be built in space, though, it may be economically prohibitive. For now at least.

Physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, though, writes in his new book that this sort of work involving extra dimensions isn’t necessarily at all useful in physics. I don’t know if this has any bearing on the issue or not. Nor do I know if this new theory of gravity, which dispenses with the notion of “Dark Matter” and introduces theoretical particles called “gravitons”, has any import.
Krauss, by the way, in an interview on the Skepticality podcast, made the astonishing suggestion that the universe may, ultimately, not be understandable; we may, in other words, never be able to form a complete predictive theory which explains the entire universe. This may be disconcerting to scientists of all stripes, but it’s pretty interesting fodder for writers. I’ve already got a story idea based on this. I just hope it doesn’t provide fuel for the anti-science pseudo-Christians who are trying to force Intelligent Design into our schools.

On the Religion Front

Theologian Bart Campolo once summarized Christianity thusly: “Love God. Love people. Nothing else matters.” (source)

I love this. What a great summation of the Two Great Commandments that Jesus gave. Sure, it’s cute and pithy (which is always dangerous), but it pretty much captures, for me, how I understand Christianity. Those two commandments are pretty much all that matters; everything else is (occasionally dangerous) fluff.  Of course it would never fly in the sickening parody, based on hatred and self-worship rather than faith and worship of God, that passes for Christianity in much of our culture today.  Or is that just my cynicism leaking again?
Rib Update

Ribs still hurt, mostly in my left side. Every now and then I worry that it might be indicative of something horrific in my digestive system — a tumor in my large intestine, perhaps, or liver/pancreas/spleen/muscle/etc. cancer; however, the lack of any other symptoms at all sort of reassures me on this point. My health insurance provider won’t pay for the bone scan, so I need to go back to the doctor and discuss other options. I’m just wary of doing that, since I’ve been to the doctor so many times already.

That’s all I got today. See ya later.

Supraluminal

I just think that the word “supraluminal” — which means “faster than light” — is cool. Isn’t it? It’s actually a really pretty word. Something you’d name your daughter, right?

The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, more or less. Nothing in our universe can travel faster than that, not if they want to remain, you know, real. It’s not just a matter of not knowing how to do it (we once didn’t know how to travel faster than sound, and thought it was impossible); it’s a matter of the entire infrastructure of modern physics breaking down utterly if it were possible for something to travel faster than the speed of light. When you hit that speed, time stops, your mass increases to infinity, and you effectively become a point in space, as I understand it. Photons, having no mass, can travel at the speed of light without becoming black holes, but nothing else can.

In a way, it’s depressing for those of us who like science fiction and the possibilities of intergalactic stories. The distance to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is so great that it takes light four years to reach us from there; we say it’s four light years away. Any engine that we human beings come up with for space ships is not likely to even reach a respectable percentage of the speed of light, so a journey of one of our space ships to Proxima Centauri is likely to take hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

But this past week, two German scientists came up with a paper theorizing a way to send ships to distances in space in much less time. The Moon could only be a couple of hours away, Mars a three-day ride, and Alpha Centauri no more than eighty days. This means faster than light travel. Which is impossible. According to Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy, the paper relies on the existence of several new particles that we haven’t yet observed, on parallel space (something else we’ve never observed), and incredibly complicated mathematics which I doubt I’ll ever even come close to understanding.

But it really sounds like bunk to me. Cool as interstellar supraluminal travel would be, I think that these two German scientists are either working with bad data or are trying to fool everyone. I don’t know the science involved at all, but it just sounds too good to be true. And some reports suggest that a working prototype of an engine based on these principles could be around in just five years, which is also too wonderful to believe.

On the other hand, maybe they are on to something. Once upon a time, Cold Fusion was considered impossible; now, two decades after a pair of scientists falsely announced that they had come across it, others are beginning to wonder if it might be possible after all. So maybe this German supraluminal drive just might be possible.

But I doubt it.

Guns, Germs, and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, historian Jared Diamond attempts to answer the question of why some societies succeed over others. More specifically, he sets out to discover why the European civilization apparently managed to spread out over most of the globe, conquering along its way, while the societies and civilizations on other continents — the civilizations of Africa or the New World or Australia, for example — did not. The perennial example that Diamond uses in his book is the fall of the Incan empire to the Spanish Conquistadores: the Conquistadores brought about the fall of the Incas in a decisive battle where thousands of Native American warriors died, but not a single Spanish soldier did, even though the Spanish were vastly outnumbered. Diamond suggests that the Spanish victory was due to their superior weaponry and their superior political organization.

Continue reading Guns, Germs, and Steel

The Top 10 Intelligent Designs (or Creation Myths)

The Top 10 Intelligent Designs (or Creation Myths)

Flying Spaghetti Monsters aside, this article from Live Science presents a list of the top ten creation myths of all time, from the Norse pantheon to the Judeo/Christian/Moslem ex nihilo myth.

Y’know, as a Christian, I do believe in “intelligent design” (insofar as a human defined quality like “intelligence” can be applied to God), but “intelligent design” is NOT science and should NOT be taught in science classes. It’s an interpretive framework, if anything, and as such belongs in classes on philosophy or religion. Not science. True, science has its own set of faith-based axioms (that the Universe can be explained entirely using natural laws and that these laws can be understood by human reason), but it has worked so well for so many things that it is foolish to dilute it with religion. How many vaccines for smallpox has science provided? How many such vaccines have been provided by Christianity? You get the point.

So, it seems to me that God apparently chose to use a method for creating the Universe which seems random. I don’t have a problem with this myself. It’s not incompatible with my faith. And if I believed that I could explain away everything that God does, then, well, that’d be some sort of sin anyway, now, wouldn’t it?

Just a little bit…

I’ve taken to hanging out in the talk.origins newsgroup (you can find the website here). It’s a lively place, full of debate between Creationism and evolution. Personally, I have no trouble reconciling my religious beliefs with evolution, but there are a lot of people out there who do. And furthermore, some of the most ardent Creationists have a very strange way of arguing. I was able to summarize a typical Creationist argument this way:

The Scene: I hand Bob a piece of cake, which he scarfs and enjoys.
Bob: What a delicious cake! You must give me the recipe.
Me: There was no recipe. My wife made the cake.
Bob: Well, where did she find the recipe?
Me: I told you, there is no recipe. My wife made the cake.
Bob: Of course there was a recipe. How many eggs did she use? How much sugar? How much flour?
Me: Are you calling me a liar? Are you calling my wife a liar? I tell you there was no recipe! My wife made this cake!
Bob: But… Well, how long did she bake it in the oven?
Me: There is no recipe! Look, here’s this note from my wife that says, “Here, honey, I made this cake.” What more proof do you need that my wife made the cake?
Bob: But you can’t make a cake without a recipe!
Me: My wife is the cake maker. She made this cake! Didn’t you read the note?

Jennifer suggested that I could end the dialog with Bob replying, “But… you’re not married!” Which I think is even funnier.

But I digress.

The new semester has just started, and I’m now officially a second year student in the MLIS program at San Jose State. I’m taking three classes this quarter: Beginning Cataloging and Classification, Information and Society, and Interface Design for Information Systems. I’ve been looking forward to taking the cataloging class for months now (yes, I know I’m weird); it looks pretty interesting, but also pretty straightforward. In cataloging, you get a big book, the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, Revision 2 (2002 Edition), also known as the AACR2. And it’s basically a big book full of rules for how to describe a book or other document. How big is it? Use rule 1.D4 to describe the size. Who published it? Use rule 2.B2 to describe the publication information (I’ve got those rule numbers wrong). And then there’s MARC, a way of encoding all of this information so that a computer can read it. So a MARC entry might look like 300 ## $aThe Information $bThe Sub-Information.

Fascinating, yes?

Information and Society is kind of an overview class. What is a library? What kinds of libraries are there? What do librarians really do when they’re not shushing and stamping? (Those of you harboring “naughty boy librarian” fantasies about me will be disappointed to learn that I’ll probably be doing a lot of cataloging and computer programming in that spare time.) And Interface Design looks like it won’t quite be as I expected; I was expecting some hands-on programming and development, but this course looks to be mostly theory.

Still, I think it’s going to be an interesting semester.

If I can keep from developing an ulcer and permanent migraine, that is.

See, those three classes are nine units altogether. When I finish up this semester, I’ll be halfway done with the program, which is nice. But conventional wisdom dictates that if you’re working full time and intend to have any sort of life, then maybe you should take just three to six units: one or two classes. And I do have time yet to drop a class if that becomes necessary. We’ll see whether Jennifer decides that my stress level makes me unsuitable to live with.

I have been having fun, though. Last week, I was sick with bronchitis and couldn’t go to work, so I amused myself by building a Debian Linux server out of my old Gateway laptop computer to hold all of our book information (between Jennifer and me, we have over 1,000 books; the idea is to get them all entered into our Readerware database, which is on Lucien, the computer I built).

And last night, in between updating the MP3’s on my MP3 player and reading through the AACR2 for the first time, I set about hooking up a UPS to our main household server — the one that acts as our file, printer, and mail server. I wasn’t quite successful; the manufacturer claims that it’s compatible with Linux, and there is a Linux version of the controller software on the CD-ROM that came with it, but I haven’t managed to get it to work yet.

Boy, do I know how to have fun or what?

At work, my boss told me last week that a budget was finally approved that would let them hire me on full-time and permanently instead of as a temp that can only stay here for another year or so before being forced to leave the temp pool (yay unions). I am told to expect an interview sometime this week, but not to stress about it too much. “Unless someone comes along with really amazing technical credentials,” my boss told me a few weeks ago, “The job’s pretty much yours.”

Which would be nice. But I was hired on to make our website talk to Oracle, which I still haven’t managed to do. I’m feeling a tad stressed about that, and as I meet with more and more failures to do so, the stress is getting more intense. I know I can do it. I just have to find the right wand to wave over the server while chanting, “Serverum Repairus.”

Yeah. That will do it.

As Big a Grain as You Can

Last week, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (otherwise known by their old initials: WWF) released a report which states that our planet is going to run out of natural resources within 150 years, and that by the year 2050, all of the world’s population will face severe restrictions on their lifestyle, just because resources will start disappearing.

Pardon me while I grab this salt lick.

Over the years, environmental extremists have issued dire warning after dire warning. We were supposed to run out of fossil fuels well before the end of the last century, according to some early predictions. Clean water, by some other accounts, was supposed to have vanished by 1995. Worldwide famine was supposed to have hit in the 1980’s, as well as many incurable and highly infectious diseases. The Brazilian rainforests were supposed to be completely gone by 2001. And, of course, something like 75% of the world’s species were supposed to have vanished by now.

None of these things have happened. And, honestly, some of these warnings are getting tiresome.

Oh, there have been ecological disasters in the past, of course. Scotland, known now for its broad grassy meadows and highlands, was once almost entirely covered by forests ("the deforestation of Caledonia," one tourguide told me while I was over there, "is probably the worst ecological disaster ever, and it happened well before mankind developed the technology to destroy the planet completely"). Then, of course, there was the move by Iraqi forces to set fire to petroleum refineries at the end of the Gulf War, poisoning the oceans in that area. The Exxon Valdez incident is still fresh in the minds of many people. And, of course, the vulture population in India and Pakistan is taking a frightening nosedive.

And things are not completely rosy now, either. Climate change is widely acknowledged in the scientific community (the debate centers on what the nature of the change is, and what — and who — is mostly responsible for it). There are indications that global warming is damaging the ecosystem and economy of some places in Antarctica. And so on.

But is the earth really going to expire by the year 2050? That sounds pretty extreme, even by the standards of environmental extremism.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I want there to be a planet around when our children grow up. I believe that Conservation is A Good Thing, and I have religious convictions which support that belief. And if I could figure out how to pull it off, I would ultimately like to build a career that focuses on integrating civilization with the natural world.

But the WWF and other environmental extremist groups are doing for the environmental movement the same favor that the religious right has done for the Republican party. Whatever credibility is there is being eroded away by fear-mongers and doomsayers; and there are times when I’ve felt that some of them are much more interested in promoting an agenda of eliminating modern technology all together rather than finding actual solutions to many of the problems we face. I have actually encountered environmentalists who argue that scare tactics are what people listen to, so the scare tactics are what the movement should stick with. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really work in the long run. When Doomsday passes several times without incident, people stop believing the Doomsday stories, and eventually simply start laughing at them. You lose credibility.

I get frustrated with this sort of thing. I like the Earth; I want it to stick around for awhile, and I want future generations to get to enjoy it as well. I get frustrated at "Spare the Air Days" in my own area, where the air quality gets so bad due to pollution that "sensitive groups" of people — such as people with respiratory diseases like asthma — are advised to stay indoors. And I get overwhelmingly frustrated at people who deny that there are any problems at all with the environment.

All the same, though, there are just some times when the most appropriate thing to do is to take what you hear with as big a grain of salt as you can, even if you sympathize with the group putting out the information.

The Mystery of the Vanishing Vultures

James Lovelock proposed the Gaia Hypothesis in the mid-80’s. Lovelock, a mathematician and an engineer, had proposed a model of the global ecosystem which maintains itself homeostatically; in other words, whenever one part of the system goes out of whack, another part of the system fills in. That, at least, is the basic idea of how I understand the Gaia Hypothesis; the notion that the Earth is some sort of huge "superorganism" is a bit of a stretch for the Gaia hypothesis, and there certainly are no mystical overtones to be inferred except by some New Age groups.

Something I find very interesting, though, is the role that the politics and culture of our own species can play in the ecosystem, beyond the obvious technological one. For example: in the Indian subcontinent, cultural, religious, political, and emotional factors may be contributing to an ecological disaster more than any technology.

Vultures play an undeniably vital role in the ecology of the Indian sub-continent: they eat dead things, including dead people. Without the vultures, dead and rotting animals would pose a major health hazard in the humid and hot conditions of India. In some areas, people practice a form of air burial of the dead, in which they place their dead on a platform, and the vultures come along and eat the remains. It’s surprisingly hygenic.

But now the vultures of India are dying; and no one knows why.

It has been estimated that since the early 1990’s, nearly 90% of the population of two of India’s most populous vulture species has died out completely. Where flocks of vultures used to darken the skies near the Towers of Silence in northern India, now very few are seen. Such a huge drop off in population is pretty much an ecological catastrophe; the extinction of any species is a cause for sadness, but this extinction — which it looks like it might be — could cause massive disruptions in the ecosystem of the Indian subcontinent. Rat populations, without the vultures to keep them in check, are exploding, as are feral dogs. The rat and dog populations are causing major health problems in many parts of India.

The usual suspects have been examined. Toxicology tests show no environmental toxins or poisons present in the bloodstream of the autopsied birds. And there are no bacteria present. And yet, the die-off shows signs of being a disease of some sort: vultures get sick, displaying lethargy and malaise for something like thirty days before they simply die. Indians report seeing birds literally fall down dead in flight. This mystery illness seems to have an incredibly high mortality rate among the vultures.

And it’s spreading as well. Vultures in neighboring Pakistan are becoming ill as well, with the same symptoms and the same massive die-off.

Neither India nor Pakistan have the resources or the equipment to deal with the crisis, or even to study the corpses of the vultures in the depth that’s required, and, as NPR reports, getting the tissue samples out of either country is next to impossible. India is wary of "bio-prospectors", who take genetic material from India, patent it in the United States, and do not share the rewards; while Pakistan, since September 11, is wary of allowing scientists to take the three-foot tall steel canisters which carry the carcasses onto international flights.

So I guess I have to say that I’m fascinated by the fact that this crisis, while probably natural in origin, appears to be exacerbated by human greed and human fear and human apathy.

It’s a scary prospect; I can’t think of any human diseases that have such a high transmission rate coupled with such a high mortality rate; the most fatal human illness that I know of is rabies, with a 95% mortality rate for untreated cases. Even ebola and smallpox have higher survivability rates; and rabies is awfully difficult to contract.

At one time the vulture population in India was so dense that the sky was dark with them; now it’s possible to go for days without seeing a single one. If the two species vanish, then the ecosystem will recovery; the Parsi will begin cremating their dead after millennia of sky burial. I don’t believe humanity is to blame for this crisis, but I do think that some of our human tendencies towards fear and greed are hampering the recovery from it. And because of that, I can’t help but wonder about some of the other long-term hidden costs of business as usual.

And that, basically, is what I’m writing about. Fear and distrust have become business as usual in our post-9/11 world. Perhaps, in some vague ill-defined way, there is some good in that. But the bigger consequences are ecological instability and cultural degradation; are these prices that, in the long run, we can afford to pay?

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