Saturday, July 25, 2009

By Jove

A week ago, scientists noticed a black spot on Jupiter. Apparently the gas giant was struck by a sizable asteroid or comet. CosmicLog has the details. Jupiter functions as a guard for the inner solar system, deflecting asteroids and comets out of Earth's path. Were it not for Jupiter, the Earth would be struck by asteroids a thousand times more frequently, enough to prevent the possibility of advanced life evolving. Or to put it the other way round, in order for advanced life to exist on a planet, its solar system will require a planet the size and distance of Jupiter. If it were smaller or further, it wouldn't have enough gravitational impact to protect the inner planets; but if it were closer or larger, its gravitational effects would disrupt their orbits. It has to be exactly the size and distance it is. This is one criterion of the Anthropic Principle. Thank God for Jupiter.

That's the good news. The bad news is that we're still vulnerable and need to take the threat of an asteroid strike seriously. Part of the story here is that no one saw this asteroid before it hit Jupiter. It was a complete surprise. Of course we don't have as many electronic eyes out there as we do closer to home; but to give Jupiter as big of a black eye as it did, it must have been big enough so that it should have been seen beforehand. It's only a matter of time before something that big comes our way.

I know some people will not take seriously the claim that the Earth is in danger of being hit with a large asteroid or comet. It doesn't happen that often, it's just a doomsday scenario, etc. I'm reminded of a Dilbert cartoon about pessimists and optimists. If it's been a long time since anything bad has happened (an asteroid strike in this case), the optimist says, "We're safe forever." The pessimist says, "We're due."

(cross-posted on Quodlibeta)

Space programs

I didn't link to the plenitude of commentaries on Apollo 11's 40th anniversary because they were ... umm ... plenitudinous. But here is an excellent essay by Rand Simberg that I highly recommend. It goes into the difficulties NASA has faced since the moon landings, the problems the new NASA program has faced, and rethinks the process.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

40 years

It was 40 years ago today that Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and two people -- people just like you and me -- got out and wandered around for a while. As a space enthusiast, I'm disappointed that we only went to the Moon six times and then have spent the last 37 years piddling about in low-earth orbit. We should have had permanently-manned stations on the Moon by the early 1970s (check out the Moon Society if you're like-minded), and by now we should have had manned bases on the moons of Jupiter.

Anyway, here's audio of the first Moon landing (strong language warning):

And here's video:

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Three points on abortion

-- The Anchoress quotes Sen. Tom Coburn as saying, "We now record fetal heartbeats at 14 days post-conception. We record fetal brainwaves at 39 days post-conception." Coburn, an OBGyn, makes an interesting argument about this, but my focus is in the claim about brainwaves. I had heard that there were measurable brainwaves at 40 days gestation before, but elsewhere, I've read that they're not actually observable until about 25 weeks gestation. I'm more inclined to believe an OBGyn, but does anyone out there have any info on this, and why there are such disparate answers? This raises two points: 1) if there's a functioning brain at 39 days, which is before nearly all abortions are performed, it becomes very difficult to maintain that the fetus is not a living human being, independent of the mother. By "independent" I don't mean that it could survive outside the mother so early. Rather, I mean that the fetus is not merely a part of the mother, but gives every appearance of being a little person in its own right. It has its own organs, including a functioning heart and brain. 2) If there are brainwaves there are very probably pain receptors by the time abortions are actually performed. So an abortion is not merely removing a clump of undifferentiated tissue. It is submitting what gives every appearance of being a helpless human being to a painful death.

-- Closely related, fetuses have been shown to have memories at 30 weeks gestation, and "34-week-old fetuses are able to store information and retrieve it four weeks later." Most abortions, however, are performed long before this point.

-- Also via the Anchoress, President Obama apparently lied to the Pope regarding his commitment to reduce the number of abortions. What is at issue is that, while telling the Pope this, his health care bill would include taxpayer-funded abortion, something that has been shown to increase the number of abortions by 20-35%. The study showing this increase was performed by Planned Parenthood, so it wasn't biased in favor of the pro-life platform.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


I can't believe this cartoon. It's just all the loading screens.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


The Codex Sinaiticus is online. This is one of the oldest Bibles (with half of the Old Testament and all of the New) that have survived, dating to the fourth century AD. It's things like this that the Internet is for.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


A big part of the claim that Christianity is at war with science is geocentrism, the belief that the earth is at the center of the universe. As readers of this blog are aware, this issue is almost entirely misunderstood: in the ancient/medieval cosmology, the closer you were to the center of the universe, the less privileged and esteemed you were. This is precisely why hell is even closer to the center of the universe than the surface of the earth, and why Dante placed Satan at the exact center of hell (and thus of the entire universe), immobilized in a field of ice.

The misunderstanding is that since the premoderns thought the earth was at the literal center of the universe, they must also have thought it was the metaphorical center as well. It confuses geocentrism with anthropocentrism. But this can only be maintained by completely ignoring their Aristotelian cosmology, according to which the universe was arranged in concentric spheres, with God on the outside as the prime mover. The furthest place in the universe from God, therefore -- the furthest place in a sphere from what is outside the sphere --, is at its center. Of course, this ignores the fact that in Christian theology God is not merely transcendent to the universe but omnipresent within it as well; nevertheless, the premoderns maintained that the closer you were to the center, the less valuable you were. This has been amply demonstrated by Dennis Danielson in his essays "Copernicus and the Tale of the Pale Blue Dot", "The Great Copernican Cliché", and chapter 6 in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion; Humphrey wrote an enlightening post on this issue as well.

But I find it interesting that when Christians are told that their worldview requires a belief that conflicts with science, some respond by embracing the belief in question. Thus, there are geocentric ministries today which argue that being a Christian requires belief in a geocentric universe -- although they prefer the term "geocentricity" as it doesn't have as much historical baggage. The Geocentricity website is the official site of the Association for Biblical Astronomy, "biblical astronomy" meaning Aristotelian/Ptolemaic astronomy. The second link takes you to a collection of the publications of their journal.

There's another site that bothers me more. When I was in (Protestant) seminary, my favorite theology professor used a book for one of his classes written by a Protestant-turned-Catholic entitled, Not by Faith Alone. I didn't take that class, but I did plan to someday study this book, maybe together with Alister McGrath's Iustitia Dei, and see where I came out. However, the author of Not by Faith Alone has also published a two volume work entitled Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right, volume 1 of which deals with "the scientific case for geocentrism", thus absolving me of any requirement to take him seriously. (Update: Just to be clear, I'm not tying the Catholic doctrine of justification to geocentrism. I'm only saying that particular author is not credible.)

The Geocentric Bible is essentially an online book arguing for geocentrism; he says he first heard of this view from a young-earth creationist ministry. This leads to another point: most young-earth ministries have embraced a neo-geocentrism in order to account for the problem of starlight travel time. They argue that the universe we know is actually a white hole -- a black hole so crunched that light begins to escape via quantum tunnelling -- with our galaxy (the Milky Way) at its center. They call it "galacto-centrism" since the earth is only approximately at the universe's center. I critiqued the scientific case for this claim here. For now I'd just like to point out that in arguing for this view, they appeal to the idea that if we're important to God, we should expect to find ourselves at the center of the universe. In other words, they accept the conflation of geocentrism with anthropocentrism, a conflation which is not only unhistorical, but which was invented in order to mock and ridicule Christianity. This strikes me as an extremely unwise concession: when fighting the spirit of the age, you shouldn't let it define the terms of the debate. Moreover, the fact that they have to appeal to geocentrism in order to defend their belief in a young earth makes the latter even less plausible than it already was.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


OK, I'm back in Belgium, and had very limited Internet access during my trip to the States. However, I did manage to collect a few interesting links that I thought I'd share (aren't you lucky!).

-- Five reasons Tolkien rocks. Only five?

-- James explains why the common belief that science and religion are in conflict is false. The commenters evidently think their knee-jerk reactions are more reliable than his Ph.D. studies on the subject.

-- Oo de lallies from around the world, including Russia, China, and Israel.

-- Raskolnikov argues about language, meaning, and naturalism.

-- I may have prematurely lamented NASA's desires to return to the Moon. They launched a rocket to scope out potential sites for a station. However, I'm still open to the possibility that we should just skip the Moon and head for Mars.

-- Oldest musical instrument found. It's a flute that's apparently 35,000 years old. Cool.

-- Tyson writes about a heretical movement in Christianity and reviews a book on the Peloponnesian War entitled ... wait for it ... The Peloponnesian War.

-- Some scientists speculate that Saturn's moon Enceladus may have an ocean of water deep below its surface. A large part of the interest here is that the presence of liquid water is one (of several dozen) necessary prerequisites for life to exist.

-- "I once had a girlfriend who quit journalism and went into PR “because it’s more ethical.”" Heh.

-- Buzz Aldrin explains how to get to Mars and why we should get off our butts and do it.

-- John Scalzi, author of Old Man's War, consoles me about the fact that I'm a middle-aged man writing his first novel.