Friday, 30 December 2011

Earth-like planets: is the universe teeming with life?

Astronomers have for a long time been aware of an earth-like planet. It is virtually identical in size to the Earth, similar in mass, in a reasonably habitable zone and orbits a star identical to ours. In fact it orbits the same star, the sun, and the planet is called Venus. Recently, traces of oxygen were found in its atmosphere.

Unfortunately it is either completely arid or has a form of bacterial or plant life so microscopic that it defies current detection. Its barrenness is not surprising. It has a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead and an atmosphere of sulphuric acid & carbon dioxide, no water we can detect and a crater ridden surface where the atmospheric pressure is 93x that on Earth. 
Mars is another planet that would qualify as earth-like if detected around another star but despite having water and even traces of oxygen no sign of life has yet been discovered.

Both these planets are in what is optimistically referred to as the ‘Goldilocks’ zone, where the temperature should be ‘just right for life’. It is also called the ‘habitable zone’. These terms are misleading, almost meaningless. Even the moon is in the habitable zone yet seems unable to support life: it has no atmosphere and its surface temperature ranges from minus 153 to plus 107 deg C, depending on whether you are in shade or sunlight. One of the most likely candidates for microscopic ele ental life forms  in our solar system is Europa, a satellite of Jupiter, which is well outside the habitable zone but has a lot of frozen water.

If planets like Mars or Venus had been detected in another solar system they would have been proudly presented to the media as earth-like planets circling a sun-like star in the Goldilocks zone, conjuring up images of jungles and oceans and intelligent beings.

Yet the Earth, equally hostile to life when it was formed together with the other planets, houses an abundance of life. It is the only place in our solar system’s habitable zone which supports a living ecosystem. Why? Because life has evolved to convert its surface over billions of years from a very unpleasant place (hot rock, poisonous gases, volcanoes, cometary bombardment etc.) into a paradise just before homo sapiens appeared. Even today, despite our bad stewardship, the biosphere is benign and requires no protective clothing or spacesuits for survival.

So how did it start here, when the surface was as hostile as anywhere else in our solar system and how was it able to advance the way it has? The second part is easier to at least partly answer: the conditions are benign. It has a protective magnetosphere to guard against harmful radiation from space, a circular orbit to keep the climate stable, a steady rotation about its axis thanks to spin stabilisation by the moon, tides in its oceans to encourage evolution of sea creatures to land animals, a crust with plate tectonics and chemicals that life could use, a rare position in the galaxy free of danger and offering an unobscured view of the universe.  See also  Our precious planet parts 1,2 and 3.

 Life has advanced from primitive anaerobic forms to oxygen-breathing forms by altering the composition of the atmosphere, i.e. by plants breathing oxygen out into it.  It even evolved its own protective layer – the ozonosphere – to absorb harmful UV rays from the sun. The clear skies, the view of the regularly rotating heavens and the equality of the apparent size in the sky of the moon to that of the sun, stimulated human curiosity.

To flourish it had to start. Was it by the chance juggling of chemicals? The probability of this is infinitesimal. The late Sir Fred Hoyle put it at far less than 1 in 10 to the power of 40 (1 part in 10 with 40,000 zeros after it). There are other estimates but all mathematicians come up with a vanishingly small probability, with numbers far greater than the number of atoms in the known universe. If it was by chance then life must be so rare that no other star in our galaxy or any other will have planets with life on them. SETI would be a complete waste of time.

Or is there some property of the natural order that makes life appear wherever the conditions are right (whatever they may be)? If this is the case it has two implications:
  • 1 Life could be common throughout the universe. (Incidentally, since we don’t really know what life is, in its broadest sense, we cannot say what a suitable environment is and so can’t calculate even a rough probability.)
  • 2 The universe at least looks purpose-built for life.
Backing up the 2nd implication, a number of physical constants are fine tuned for life in the universe. Sir Martin Rees (the Astronomer Royal in the UK) lists them as follows:

  •  ratio of the strengths of gravity to that of electromagnetism;
  •  strength of the force binding together the nucleus of an atom
  •  relative importance of gravity and expansion energy in the universe;
  • cosmological constant (governing the accelerating rate at which the universe is expanding);
  • ratio of the gravitational energy required to pull a large galaxy apart to the energy equivalent of its mass; 
  • number of spatial dimensions in spacetime.

    A small difference in any one of them and life would not be able to exist. I don’t see how we can escape the conclusion that the cosmos is tailored for life without resorting to unprovable, atheistic metaphysical speculation verging on magic. The simplest, most powerful and natural theory is that it is indeed designed for life. The Creator built the production of evolving life and consciousness into it when the concept of the universe was evolving in the Creator’s ‘mind’. (I am not a young earth creationist but believe the universe started from nothing 13.5 billion years ago, until any contrary evidence emerges. I do suspect that conscious beings with free will and a sense of good and evil, probably did not start until very recently, perhaps even within the biblical time scale - tens of thousands of years.)

    As the latest observations suggest that myriad millions of planets exist I am beginning to see a happy convergence. Those wanting us to discover other life forms in the universe through SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) etc., and those wishing to celebrate, rather than lament or deny, the design of it as part of their faith, have a common interest in acknowledging that the universe is designed to promote life and consciousness.

    If  life started by chance at just this terrestrial micro-segment of space-time, i.e billions of years ago on Earth, we can conclude that it is a either a fluke or that its Creator imposes life-friendly order behind the perceived randomness, as the Creator does with other random events (e.g. the digits in π, pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to it diameter [see Is there order behind random events?] form a random series but π is not meaningless).  And, of course, it still would not be possible without the extraordinary fine tuning of physical constants and prior cosmic events that led up to life’s genesis, so in a sense it would not be a fluke even in this case.

    Plenty to think about as we move into 2012 and as the astrophysical and astrobiological observations stream into the media; but treat with caution scientists' hype about 'earth-like' planets.

    Author, 2077 AD

    Thursday, 22 December 2011

    World debt: getting a grip

    The world economy is in an unstable state. Here are some data and thoughts to add to your own and hopefully cast a little light on what is happening to our global financial system. I’ve concentrated on the world’s biggest economies to try to keep things relatively simple

    Debt levels of the 4 largest economies in Europe
    as % of GDP (2009 figures) + GDP growth rate

    Total debt

    GDP growth rate 2010
    % p.a.

    So the UK is overall much more indebted than the next three largest European economies. Its household and financial institutions have collective debt of 3x the GDP, much more even than Italy or France, and its GDP growth in 2010 was the lowest of the big four . It is not surprising that the UK is unable to integrate with them. The figures will have changed since 2009 and 2010, but not substantially.

    Why did it contribute so much to the EU funds in recent years? Possibly to give it bargaining power to prevent European-led regulation of its financial services.  I have no evidence for this but I can’t think of anything else. If this is true it would have been good for the city economy and, of course, the tax revenue would have been good for the UK citizen in the short term. Nevertheless deregulation plus bad behaviour by powerful individuals in the city, together with reckless borrowing by house buyers, has put the UK in a dire situation.

    Why is the UK not in more immediate trouble than the Eurozone? I can only conclude (please correct me if you have reasons to suppose I’m wrong) that the answer lies in the willingness of the Bank of England to conjure fictional money into its bank account (quantitative easing), something the German-led European central banks have been unwilling to do. This virtual money is then used to help swell the apparent assets of the financial institutions. This is done by buying various bonds with the fictional money to force up the price of the bonds.Since the banks hold huge reserves of such bonds the value of these reserves is artificially increased, which allows the banks to lend more to businesses and house buyers as well as reduce the chance of the banks folding. Hardly a sound long term solution but what other option is available?

    Why is GDP growth important? Because it is a measure of the economic activity which in turn is a measure of the tax revenue generated. The more tax that is collected the less strain there is on government finances.

    Debt levels  as % of GDP (2009 figures) + GDP growth rate

    Total debt

    Institutions debt
    GDP growth rate 2010
    % p.a.

    Japan’s total debt (4.71 x GDP) is even worse than the UK’s overall debt (4.66 x GDP) largely due to government spending through a prolonged period of stagnation from which it is only just emerging and a financial sector debt second only to the UK’s. China is the only large economy with a healthy balance and a high growth rate. Most of its debt is where it should be – money lent to a rapidly growing commercial sector. Its financial services account for only 18% of GDP. What the above data doesn’t show is that there is a strong property bubble in China. If the price of property suddeny dropped all the debt levels in China would go up, as would some of the debt in other countries with investment in Chinese property. Growing social unrest in China may make it difficult for its government to rescue reckless spenders and gamblers in the west with the money of Chinese savers.
    None of these countries look as though they could lead the others out of debt.
    Russia, Brazil and India are all relatively healthy financially and each is comparable in economic size to any of the major European economies listed, and collectively they have a GDP about equal to Japan’s. But even these have some of their own debt problems and even if they could pool resources this is unlikely to solve the overall problem..

    Looking at various data on the web I can’t find one nation that is in overall credit. To whom or to what is all this money owed? The answer seems to be the tax payers of the future. As soon as a government builds up its financial reserves it is under political pressure to spend them on public services or, more recently, rescuing the financial institutions.   In practice, the people of the next generation will not be able or willing to pay off the debt in real money and their governments will no doubt be forced to pay it off in the way the UK and US governments have already started to: by using unearned, virtual money (quantitative easing is being used now but there are other possibilities). This causes inflation to outstrip interest rates. One can only hope this will be done in a gradual and controlled way, without causing the social chaos, Nitzchian fascism and, indirectly, totalitarian communism which blighted the first half of the 20th century.

    Or maybe I’ve overlooked something and you can see an alternative route to secular salvation. If so, please let me know and I will pass it on to the readers!

    See also Reforming the world economy

    See also the interactive chart

    Author, 2077 AD

    Monday, 12 December 2011

    Equal but not equal

    Name one human attribute held equally by any two human beings out of the 7 billion on our planet. Gender, race, skin colour, culture, nationality, social standing, job, religion, medical condition, physical strength, height, physical attractiveness, mental power, income, social position, imagination, empathy, sexual orientation, kindness ....etc. etc. Each  individual is unique.

    Yet all social progress over the last few hundred years rests on the assumption that we are all equal. In the following it is assumed that all potential recipients of collectively financed and implemented help are equal, at least within the developed world:
    •  Freedom from enslavement 
    •  Freedom from torture, harassment and discrimination
    •  Education, health and protection against crime
    •  Fire services
    •  Fair trial
    •  Protection against foreign invasion
    •  Freedom of religion and expression
    •  Alleviation of involuntary hardship
    •  Right to vote

    Internationally there are Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières, the Red Cross, UNESCO, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Scholars at Risk and scores of others.

    All act on behalf of any individual regardless of race or skin colour or nationality or religion or gender or anything else. One can argue about individual injustices but the ideal which drives these organisations is that all people are equal, a belief on which parliamentary democracy itself is founded.

    So in what respect are we equal? Before some humanly appointed authority, like a dictator or a monarch or a president or a team of scientists? According to some human construct?

    I can think of only one sense in which all people on Earth are absolutely and timelessly equal and that is in a spiritual sense. Yet if spiritual equality is just a human construct it is a product of circumstances and so is liable to change as circumstances change. For it to be sacred it must derive from God, or at least be deemed coming from some transcendental source. Listed below are cases where the divinity of the concept of human equality is not glossed over.
    • The US Declaration of Independence begins ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; ....’

    • The US constitution is based on the work of Thomas Paine and holds that all men are created ‘equal’. From where did he get his idea for equality, apart from the above Declaration? Here is a quotation from his book The Age of Reason:I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow-creatures happy.’ (He despised the church but nevertheless believed in a Creator and life after physical death.)

    • Florence Nightingale established the  foundations of the UK's NHS and all 20th century health services.  There is absolutely no doubt that her Christian beliefs were the driver. All patients were equal to her except in their suffering.
    •  Charles Dickens did an enormous amount to raise awareness of social injustice in Victorian Britain and was inspired by Jesus Christ (rather than organised religion). He was a true Christian in his beliefs, not a Sunday morning only observer of rituals, and wrote a book on the life of Christ for his children. He was not perfect (who is?) but held that we were all equal before our Creator. 
    • John Newton (the slave ship owner who wrote Amazing Grace) and William Wilberforce (a politician) were both inspired to abolish slavery by a revelation from God that all are equal before Him.

    • Martin Luther King was a Baptist minister whose Christianity inspired a non-violent movement for Civil Rights and a belief in all the higher aspirations of humanity. Imagine what America would be like now had he and his followers not been so active in 1960s. 
    • The landmark novels Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird were inspired by belief in our equality before God.. All three of these novels have never gone out of print.

    • The Holy Bible itself proclaims in Galatians 3:28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female – for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ This was written at a time when slavery and exploitation were rife and power was based on strength and cunning, as it appears to have been for hundreds of thousands of years previously. In Mark 16:15 He said to his disciples Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.’

    There is much more evidence that could be mustered– enough for a large tome by a serious scholar. I can’t really see how Peace on Earth can ever happen without the recognition of the truth which makes the statement ‘all people are equal’ any more than an arbitrary, politically correct postulate. Marx tried to found a new socio-economic order based on the idea of equality but failed to invoke the source of this idea. The result is well known.

    Peace to all

    Author, 2077 AD

    Wednesday, 7 December 2011

    Sport: the individual and the team

    I have little interest in sport other than casually kicking a ball round a field with friends or family, using coats on the grass as goal posts, and am fully aware that I’m in a minority.  Sport is so important to so many people in so many countries that it can’t be ignored by anyone purporting to want a peaceful world.

    Here are some interesting facts from the world of sport which I recently came across (Prospect, Dec 2011). They set the scene for the thoughts I express after listing these facts, and which you will no doubt find less interesting.

    • In the 18th century gentlemen thought that training was not in the spirit of sport.
    • Since 1997 the world record for the 10,000 metres has been broken five times, dropping from 26 min 31.32  sec to 26 min 17.53 sec, each time by a Kenyan or an Ethiopian.
    • The National Sports Centre at Bisham Abbey (30 miles west of London) has a large room that can simulate high altitude conditions, so that athletes can raise their red blood cell count. The World Anti Doping Agency deems this legal while banning the use of drugs to get the same effect.
    •  The major Olympic teams are assisted by physiologists, nutritionists, massage therapists, coaches, biomechanicists, lifestyle instructors and performance analysts.
    •  105 world swimming records were broken in 2008, mostly by swimmers wearing the Speedo LZR Racer suit made of a high tech drag reducing fabric tested in NASA wind tunnels. Successors to these suits were banned in 2009 because of their enhancement of performance.
    •  International athletes typically have running shoes made to measure and costing $10,000.
    •  Football boots today (as opposed to a few decades ago) make it significantly easier to control and shoot the ball, and as players get fitter the pitch seems to get smaller.

    Why do people compete?  To assert themselves, perhaps; or to test their abilities against each other and grow spiritually by accepting the limitations that competition reveals. Why is being a spectator so popular? I don’t know but people like to watch sport and talk or argue about it. Watching and following sport is evidently a pleasure, bonding strangers together in a way no other pass-time can do. It gives spectators the chance to hone their analytical skills, to feel excitement and to admire human skill and endurance. International occasions like the 2012 London Olympics help to raise awareness that we all live on the same planet.

    As an outsider I am becoming aware of two complementary trends.

    1. Individuals are playing a growing role in team sports.
    2.  Teams are playing a growing role in individual sports.

    Team sports like soccer, American football, baseball and rugby are enormously popular and it seems to me they have the potential to help weld society together and drive it forward as the power of cooperation and competition are demonstrated in front of millions. It also helps break down racial, cultural and national barriers, if only by bringing them into the open as fans misbehave. Unfortunately, in recent years there has been a tendency for individual stars to be paid enormous fees and to bask in the media limelight, which counteracts these beneficial affects of group competition. And as the pressure to win intensifies for financial reasons competition not infrequently escalates into on-pitch conflict or verbal abuse between individual players.

    So individual behaviour is becoming a problem in team sports.

    In events where one individual is pitted against another, as in athletics or motor racing, there is an increasing necessity to have a whole panoply of expertise, technology and support behind each competitor. This is inevitable. The runners have to run and the drivers have to drive ever faster, the high jumpers have to jump ever higher, to the limits of human ability – concentration, will power, endurance, self control, strategy, reaction time and skill are tested to the limit, with speed records being broken by tiny fractions of a second and high jump records  by millimetres.

    Thus the runner has a host of helpers. Experts are needed to design, develop or advise on shoes and clothes to maximise traction and aerodynamic efficiency, to personalise altitude tents to boost haemoglobin levels in the blood and recommend regimes to improve aerobic efficiency and cardio-respiratory function.  Legal advice is needed to ensure that he or she does not become disqualified by inadvertently breaking some rule or eating a substance which, after metabolisation, could lead to a false drug test result. (See also above list.)  

    In fact a modern athlete is becoming akin to a Formula 1 racing car driver. In Formula 1 racing there are large teams involving expert mechanics, R&D engineers, materials scientists, financial managers, PR officers and probably others I can’t think of.

    Are teams a problem in individual sports?

     For the competitor perhaps, in that he or she has to go through an increasingly stressful and complex regime of preparation as well as face the gruelling test of the event itself. The competition is indeed becoming a team event, with the individual sportsman becoming the front person of a team, albeit the one who has to work the hardest and take the greatest risk.

    So in conclusion one could say that individuals are becoming a problem in team events while in events between individuals the co-opted teams are altering the nature of the competition. One more way in which the world is changing.

    Author, 2077 AD

    Wednesday, 30 November 2011

    Expecting the unexpected

    Exponential change is  fundamental to many processes in nature and in human society. See this youtube video to understand what it really means.

    Here are some examples of exponential growth which you may find interesting. (They are approximate but easily checked on the web. Also, the ‘time to double’ does of course assume that the growth rates will continue. GDP stands for gross domestic product, which is normally applied to a particular country, and is a measure of economic output).

    World population growth = 1.1 %  p.a. 
    Time to double = 64 years
    World GDP growth = 4.2 % p.a. 
    Time to double = 17 years

    World GDP per capita growth = 2.6 % p.a.
     Time to double = 27 years
    World scientific, technical and medical knowledge growth = approx. 5% p.a.
     Time to double = 14 years
    The most steeply rising parameter is knowledge, measured by the number of peer-reviewed academic papers published in journals and on the web. In a sense you can't measure knowledge but this is the best guide we have.

    Increasing literacy, female emancipation, breaking down of cultural barriers, adoption of English as a world language, internet communication between labs, independent of distance, and possibly new ways of thinking encouraged by electronic media, are probably largely responsible. The rate of knowledge growth could even increase. So in the next decade or so humanity’s knowledge of nature and how to use it could have increased by as much as in all previous history. This continues a growth that started in northern Europe 400 years ago and since it does not depend much on economic growth or environmental exploitation or large amounts of energy, there is no obvious reason for it to stop short of a failure of faith in the underlying order of nature.

    As mentioned in a previous post there could be game-changing advances in our understanding of nature; and the GDP and population trends could be radically altered by the type of knowledge which is unveiled. Here are just a few possibilities to make the point:

    • A new type of pollution-free energy could allow us to spread to, terraform and colonise other planets; and this would allow, possibly encourage, faster population growth as well as huge increases in GDP.  
    • Breakthroughs in biotechnology and medicine could extend and enhance human life as well as wipe out all diseases and boost eco-friendly food production, thereby causing population to grow within the confines of our biosphere.
    • New production technology could emerge which would vastly increase the rate of GDP growth per person without using more natural resources or which allow a greatly increased cottage industry worldwide, thereby allowing local production of goods as efficiently as is possible today only by using mass production and cheap labour.

    At the same time that knowledge is racing ahead the debt burden is fast catching up with a capitalist world operating in a spiritual desert. When it does so it could force western society and its financial system to reform itself completely and this again would affect GDP, population and knowledge growth.

    Unfortunately there is no guarantee that such radical discoveries or reformations will be made but given what previous doublings of knowledge have yielded, such as the unleashing of the power of the atom and the discovery that germs come from germs, rather than spontaneously create themselves from nothing, it does not seem an unreasonable assumption.

    What is certain is that no mathematical model can possibly predict what lies ahead. Expect the unexpected.

    Author, 2077 AD

    Monday, 21 November 2011

    Body and brain: one system

    Neurological research is uncovering new mysteries about our thinking and consciousness.

    A sense of self, emotions, language , mathematical thinking, mental tendencies, willpower, rational thought and intuition all are associated not just with the brain but with the body. The associations and information transfer mechanisms are extraordinarily complex and many time-synchronised neural impulses in different parts of the brain-body system seem totally unconnected by neural pathways.

    It is not, in my view, possible to understand the overall reality of what is happening when a person interacts with the surrounding world, in a reductionist way, considering various subsystems in isolation. Each subsystem interacts with innumerable other subsystems in a miraculously complex way to result in one system  - a human being - which itself is related to other systems, including other people, the myriad living systems of nature and perhaps the whole universe.  (I hold the belief that our ultimate self is the soul: transcendental and beyond science and beyond mind.)

    Nevertheless, some of these subsystems within us are fascinating. Here are some examples from a recent article in the New Scientist (Your Clever Body by David Robson, p.35-38, Oct 15, 2011).  

    • A basic map of the body appears to be located in one part of the brain (the right temporoparietal junction). Sensory data from the body enters two different centres in the brain – the parietal cortex and the premotor cortex.  Each centre also receives data from the body map and compares the two types of data. The processed data from these two centres then stream into a 4th area called the insular cortex and it here that a feeling of embodiment is somehow generated.

    • The insular cortex is also responsible for interoception, which is the ability to become aware of bodily processes such as the heart pulse and intestinal activity. Emotional processing also occurs here.

    • Creativity and lateral thinking are affected by certain bodily movements, e.g. extending your left arm in front of you or bending your right arm at the elbow, or moving your eyes from left to right across the field of vision.

    • We associate experiences of loneliness and friendliness with feelings of coldness and warmth.

    • The physical sensation of smiling can cause a feeling of happiness, as well as vice versa.

    • Walking backwards or tensing muscles can increase your will power; and folding your arms can make you more persistent at a task.

    • When people are asked to think of random numbers they think of smaller numbers when looking down to the left, and vice versa when looking up to the right.

    • People learn and remember better when they play-act or are encouraged to gesture while reading. It is thought that movements somehow activate an implicit understanding of the material.

    There is also the  fact of mind over matter in healing or overcoming apparently impossible tasks in athletics. There is absolutely no doubt about this. The placebo effect is as much a fact in medicine as helping bones to heal by using plaster. Even more startling is the recent research which shows that neural impulses associated with, say, raising our arm, occur before we are conscious of the decision to do so.

    The more we find out about the workings of the brain-body system the more mysterious it becomes and I thank the Lord for it.

    Author, 2077 AD


    Friday, 18 November 2011

    The Google Translator: testament to a human miracle

    When feats of artificial intelligence are reported in the media it is easy to be deluded into feeling that the machine in question has some intrinsic merit and forget that what is remarkable is the human input.  So when we learn of some new peak of computer engineering we need to keep in mind the creativity, ingenuity, intelligence and perseverance behind it.

    For instance, the Google Translator.  One can enter a phrase, even a colloquial one, in, say,  Russian or English and the English or Russian equivalent comes out. The same applies to numerous other pairs of languages – even fundamentally different ones like Chinese(?) and English. Poetry, or long passages of prose, cannot of course be made sense of. Nevertheless, it is a major achievement.

    Several decades ago machine translation was almost useless and only incremental improvements were made over the years.  According to an article in the New Scientist (Oct 15) the big breakthrough was in the early 2000s, when Pentagon researchers started to programme computers to search for language patterns rather than individual words. Vast digitised collections of documents, such as millions of UN conference transcripts in six different languages, have enabled powerful pattern recognising algorithms to be developed. Google took over the research after hiring Franz Josef Och who had won a machine translation competition in 2003.

    It is difficult to know how far back to go to appreciate this achievement. One could start with the dawn of creative thought, perhaps ten thousand years ago. That would be beyond the scope of a post and take too much time, so let’s restrict ourselves to developments since the 19th century. All the following and probably more, had to occur before the software of machine translation could be written (no need to read the whole list – it’s just to give an idea of the scope of work which led to computer science ).

    • Mathematical developments, including imaginary numbers which are of particular value in the theory of electronic circuits.
    • Laws of electromagnetism discovered and expressed in mathematical form made electrical engineering possible.
    • Major advances in the science of chemistry, including the arrangement of elements into the Periodic Table.
    • Semantic analysis of languages around the world.
    • Invention of the electronic valve, capacitor and other electronic components.
    • Invention of the first punched card computers using valves.
    • Theoretical and experimental investigation of quantum theory and semiconductor band structure.
    • Invention of the transistor.
    • Painstaking characterisation of silicon and other semiconductors by research teams around the globe.
    • Collation of peer reviewed research findings into a coherent body of knowledge on semiconductors.
    • Invention of innumerable techniques in chemistry, crystal growth, purification, implanting of elements, cooling, heat processing etc.
    • Invention of the integrated circuit and the silicon chip using this knowledge.
    • Invention of the first computers based on chips.
    • Advances in information, circuit and computer processing theory.
    • Advances in pattern recognition.
    • Continual improvements in the performance computer chips (Moore’s Law etc.).
    • Continual improvements in programming languages.
    • Availability of large numbers of documents translated by people into a large number of languages.
    When a new supercomputer is announced, or a robot, or new medical device, it's easy to forget that  it embodies in the present miraculous chains and networks of human inspiration and hard work over a long period. That is what is remarkable, not the technology per se. It all springs from the unique and precious qualities of the human being, which, I believe, reflects in turn the image of our Creator (Genesis 1:26).

    Author, 2077 AD (being revised)


    Sunday, 13 November 2011

    Reweaving the rainbow

    The joy of science is marred by the denial of the divine.

     There is a philosophy held by many scientists, and it seems most science journalists, that all human beings are walking bags of chemicals that have somehow fallen out of a meaningless universe like a crystal of copper sulphate precipitating from solution. 

    This is the message of philosophical materialism...

    Poetry is nothing but a social construct. Even consciousness is a mere evolutionary accident, as is the fact that we enjoy writing and reading poetry. Likewise stories, drama, art, music, science, philosophy, mathematics, architecture, technology, craftsmanship. We way enjoy them and find them useful; but they have no intrinsic significance. Even good and evil, right and wrong are mere inventions of human beings and as for the universe - it created itself or is eternal. And free will, too, is just an illusion.

    So what is a rainbow? ‘Nothing but’ drops of water suspended in the air refracting light of different colours into our eyes. What are the colours? ‘Nothing but’ different wavelengths of electromagnetic waves interacting with our neurons to generate the sensation of colour.

    And how did the phenomenon of the rainbow and its interaction with conscious beings ultimately come to be  at this stage of cosmic evolution? Blind chance and the laws of physics. And where did the laws of physics come from? Er....

    Apart from the irrationality of believing so much order and  meaning can be generated by chance, coming from a chain of events starting ultimately from a point in space-time over thirteen billion years ago, such a worldview robs us of all wonder and awe by side stepping a host of largely unanswerable questions.

    Why at this moment do I experience the beauty of the rainbow?
    And the universe from which the rainbow emerges. Why was that created?
    What does it all mean? Where are we heading?
    Why did our Creator give us life and hold us in being with love?
    Why has the Creator given us the power to invent machines, to simulate the world through software and hardware?
    Why do we increasingly seek to help the poor, the sick and the hungry?
    Why do we regard all humans as spiritually equal?
    Why has the Creator given us the potential to improve ourselves biologically?
    Why does the Creator permit evil?
    Why does the Creator give us the freedom to choose between good and evil?
    Why is life sacred?
    What is love?
    Why can the loss of one life be as important as the loss of a million lives?
    Why do we search for truth? What is truth?
    Why do some sacrifice their lives, even for strangers?  Why do we experience beauty? What is justice?  What is sin? What is redemption?
    Why is there eternal life? What form does it take?
    Why do all forms of life have the will to survive?

    All these questions can be avoided simply by postulating that there is no God, or at least no transcendent source of being. In the process we become smug, proud, without hope, without direction, with no desire to explore or make progress, with no moral compass.

     And mind numbingly boring. The only remaining mystery is how the material world works. Beyond that there are no questions to ask, no elements of a greater reality to wonder at and no real reason to even explore the mysteries of the material world. All is pointless.

    The rainbow is indeed drops of water and interactions of light with neurons. But to the believer in the divine it is much more than this, since it brings to mind questions. Questions like the ones above. 

    So those who seek to unweave the rainbow may wish to reconsider their position.
    Author, 2077 AD

    Saturday, 12 November 2011

    W.L.Craig's tour on the existence of God

    In October 2011 William Lane Craig, an American professor of the philosophy of religion, toured England to debate, discuss and lecture on the existence of God with various scholars and philosophers in Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham, London and St Andrews.

    Click here for links to the podcasts.

    Here are some highlights drawn from his account of the tour:

    • Central Hall Westminster, London, with Dr Stephen Law who had kindly and bravely stepped in when Polly Toynbee backed out of a debate entitled Does God exist? This was attended by 1700 people.
    •  A filmed interview with Peter Vardy from Heythrop College revealed that the fastest growing subject among older school children in the UK, equivalent to high school level in the USA, was the philosophy of religion.

    • Radio interviews revealed that some atheists were reluctant to take on Dr Craig because his logic was too difficult to refute in a debate format. Fortunately not all academics were so deterred.

    • At Imperial College his lecture to science and engineering students on the existence of God was live-streamed over the internet and will already have been seen by several thousand web users.

    • On the train on his way to St Andrews the Great Church he encountered Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, an agnostic. They discussed the subject that Dr Craig was billed to talk on, ‘Has Hawking eliminated God?’ and appeared to be in  agreement that the answer was ‘no’. Dr Craig was joined by Dr Rodney Holder.

    • ‘This house believes that God is not a delusion’ was the subject of the Cambridge Union Debate. Normally, around 200 people attend this traditional event but this time there were 750, with the audience spilling over into the gallery, two overflow rooms and the bar area. The vote was won despite a hostile reception from many unbelievers in the audience: yes 243, no 229, abstentions 129.  Craig said the applause after his closing speech was the greatest he had ever received.

    • The debate with Peter Millican, an Oxford philosopher, in the Great Hall of Birmingham University was organised by the Philosophy Society and attracted nearly 1000 people. This was a  good natured event, with much mutual respect and no animosity by speakers or audience.

    • At the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford University Craig gave the ‘empty chair’ address, ‘Is God a delusion?’, so called because Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, refused an invitation to defend his arguments in the book. (He has repeatedly declined such invitations and made a venomous attack on Craig in the Guardian newspaper a few days before.) In the absence of an opposing speaker there was a productive panel discussion.

    Overall the tour was encouraging to those who believe the universe was created by a personal God and revealed a growing interest in this question by young thinkers.

    (If you feel drawn towards God but feel reluctant to take a step in that direction because you are afraid of being irrational these discourses and dialogues, and ones like them at may give you food for thought.)

    Author, 2077 AD

    Sunday, 6 November 2011

    Violence in decline?

    Recently published is a book by Steven Pinker called The Better Angels of our Nature in which he states that life has got steadily better over hundreds of thousands of years. He systematically examines data and quantifies violence in relation to the population size at the time it took place and concludes that over the millenia the chances of an individual being a victim of violent attack, enforced starvation or human sacrifice has fallen.

    Looking at the world as a whole I agree. On top of the painfully slow move towards a more peaceful world we have developed increasingly powerful means of destruction to the point where we could wipe out the whole human race many times over by nuclear or possibly biological warfare. Yet today, with a population of 7 billion, only a tiny fraction of individuals are engaged in killing each other.

    The most violent episodes by far originated in China and Mongolia. Around 15% of the world population were wiped out in each of two vicious conflicts. (See table.)
    • The Al Lishan rebellion, a civil war in 8th century China, in which 35 million died.
    • The Mongol and Tatar invasions over 1207-1472 AD, resulting in some 50 million dead.
    15% of today’s world population would amount to 1 billion fatalities. Torture, enforced starvation, massacres, ethnic cleansing, large scale human sacrifice, cultivated cannibalism and random acts of robbery have all  greatly subsided.

    Pinker points out in an interview in the New Scientist (Oct 15) that, according to Lawrence Keeley’s book War before civilisation (1996), modern states at their worst (France in the nineteenth century and Germany in the twentieth ) ‘had rates of death that were dwarfed by those of hunter-gather and hunter-horticultural societies.’ Evidence includes bashed-in skulls, arrowheads embedded in bones and fortifications. The romantic idea of the noble savage seems to be in retreat.

    In Europe, despite the two mechanised world wars of the 20th century, life has become in the main prosperous and peaceful. Even in Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Mexico, while parts seem like hell on earth to most westerners, the carnage and brutality do not compare with previous eras.

    Pinker lists the reasons (the italics are mine):
    • Governments, with police and courts having a monopoly on the use of force and incarceration (but what made people start wanting to form governments?)
    • Expansion and consolidation of kingdoms (could this not have been a consequence of less violence, rather than a cause?)
    • Commerce, trade and exchange made people more valuable alive than dead through reciprocal altruism (but was this not the case for previous societies?)
    • Expansion of literacy, journalism, history and science (could not any of these have caused a rise in violence?)
    Pinker says the changes in human behaviour were environmental rather than genetic (he believes genetic evolution has not occurred since homo sapiens appeared, in defiance of modern epigenetic findings). But is this valid? The social environment is surely the result of human behaviour. So what caused human behaviour to change? Here I believe Pinker and other materialist psychologists who think we are neurologically hard wired are stuck. The only way a materialist can attempt to explain the improving morality is by continuing genetic evolution. And why do our genetics change?

     It is my own belief that our nature, with its awareness of good and evil, is evolving spiritually over the ages and that Christian influence itself, where it is not forbidden or distorted for power purposes, has evolved and continues to evolve, with ups and downs, in dialogue with our Creator.

    Whatever the reasons for the world being a better place I thank Steven Pinker for the good news.  But there are dangers to be aware of.

    In the twentieth century there have been signs of a reverse. Wherever societies have been without a belief in a transcendental deity a human one has sprung up in its place in times of hardship: Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) in China, Hitler in Germany and Stalin in Russia. These three people were collectively responsible for around 100 million deaths and perhaps ten times that number of ruined lives. Russia even today is suffering a profound identity crisis after 70 years of enforced atheism, with Putin being turned into a god as faith in the real one continues to be undermined.

    The socio-economic system in Europe and America is built on sand, a giant Tower of Babel. I leave to your imagination what might happen if it collapses and a significant proportion of people do not even pay lip service to human decency. Hopefully the financial system can be restructured before it is broken down by debt.

    We also have to be aware that while most of us are more humane, the future of humanity could be at the mercy of violent, power-seeking minorities should the wrong technology get into their hands.  

    This is a central theme of my book.

    Author, 2077 AD

    Wednesday, 26 October 2011

    Mobilising and kick-starting Africa

    Africa is a big continent with  1 billion people (15% of the world population). The growth rate is large, the average age is low, the population having multiplied 5 fold since 1950.

    What at a material level does Africa need to mobilise itself towards prosperity? Young people are coming out of universities and schools with little opportunity to apply the skills and knowledge they have acquired. Most are trapped in areas with insufficient food and water or tribal warfare or invasion by religious extremists or exploitation and pollution by large multinational corporations or endemic corruption and discrimination.

    Africa needs hope.

    The aid organisations are doing their best and need our support. E.g. Christian Aid are doing their utmost to tackle local problems at source, with the emphasis on helping people to help themselves and tackling corruption. They also have a campaign to force western companies operating in Africa to pay a fair tax to the host countries.

    However, a grander scheme is called for to really make a difference.  What in my view is needed is a focus on big projects financed globally, especially by Europe, the Americas, Russia and China, subject to them solving their own debt problems. I suggest a concentrated effort on just three areas:

    Mobile phones network
    Electricity grid
    Water grid

    If Marshall Plan scale investment went into these projects Africa could actually become a source of employment for the western populations and allow the African peoples to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.


    This is already happening in a big way. Over 2005 to 2010 mobile phone ownership doubled to 41% of the population (the world average is 76%). Even smartphone use is significant. See New Scientist 8 October, p.21-23.

    Rapid growth stems from 4 factors: no need for land lines; World Bank, charity and corporate investment; falling hardware prices; and immediate benefits such as the following:

    • Pest control. Smartphone cameras enable crop pests to be located quickly and for diseased plants to be removed or replaced. See e.g. a system for monitoring disease in cassava (tapioca)  in Uganda.

    • Agricultural market. Buyers and farmers can communicate for the best prices and delivery arrangements. Previously farmers and buyers had to travel large distances to communicate or rely on messengers.

    • Health. Symptom checkers, medical advice and locators of local health facilities. E.g. MedAfrica.

    • Forgery detection. An Android smartphone is connected to a USB microscope to form an authentication system (PaperSpeckle) which examines the microscopic patterns in paper.

    • Technology and skill base. Smartphone applications, accessories and the infrastructure which goes with the installation of phones are becoming increasingly indigenous. This creates jobs and careers. See e.g. mlabs . Much of the training already takes place in African countries.


    Partly through climate change driven by carbon emissions from the developed world and partly through local corruption (local officials selling off stores of grain intended for lean years) millions of lives arebeing ruined by drought. Water is essential for food production, drinking, hygiene and sewage disposal. So we need a continent-wide water grid.

    Electricity is needed for lighting, air conditioning, electric and hybrid cars, trains, manufacturing, sewage and drainage pumps, irrigation systems, production lines, mines, power tools, electrical equipment, information technology and much else. Local generators can be used for, say, hospitals and pumping stations, but it is often better to have these as backups to a grid supply. Modern power grids are far more efficient than the old ones and can also be used to carry broadband signals.

    The area to be covered is large – several million square miles; but the technology for building these networks is well developed, the rudiments of a power grid exist in most areas and investment goes a long way in Africa. It is primarily a problem of money, commitment and encouraging a spirit of honesty.

    Where would the water come from? Large lakes could provide a lot but there is much potential in desalination powered by the sun. Desalination is becoming much cheaper and can be combined with solar thermal electricity generation. No doubt some nuclear power would be needed and possibly wind or tidal or wave power would be feasible in parts.

    There are over 50 different countries to be considered; and corruption, conflict and power mongering are major obstacles but once the vision is promoted and a momentum is established Africa could grow in a sustainable way. Probably new ways of living and doing things would be found by necessity and these could spread planet-wide, which could be a blessing if our present ailing system needs to be rebuilt for sustainability and to provide a meaningful way of life for its citizens.

    It is easy to forget how our economies and societies depend on communication, power and water. Installing them over the African continent would provide immediate meaningful employment and hope for Africans and for the developed world as it struggles to redefine itself.


    John, author 2077 AD