Monday, 26 September 2011

The coming paradigm shifts in science

Occasionally through history there have been very deep, far-ranging changes in our models of reality, reflecting a combination of inspiration,  creativity, technical ability and hard work by philosophers, scientists, priests, artists, musicians, poets and story tellers,  all driven by an unrelenting quest for truth.

As a follower of science across the spectrum, mainly through popular magazines, web-sites and broadcasts, and therefore not having any special authority, it looks like our widely accepted views on the universe and how it works are about to change fundamentally. Not necessarily this year, though it's possible, but in the next few decades, and when it happens it will have a big impact on the whole culture and perception of reality by the West, if not by most of the world.

It could also lead to great technological innovations – e.g. understanding the atomic nucleus led to developments ranging from radiotherapy to nuclear bombs; discovering that germs spread by reproduction rather than spontaneous creation led to huge medical developments. There are thousands of examples.

Three fields basic to our view of the universe are cosmology, physics and biological evolution. In each of these a new awareness is emerging. Partly from new observations and partly from a gradual breaking down of old prejudices. (I have not provided links – there are too many to choose from and they can be distracting when reading an overview like this.)

  • COSMOLOGY – only a couple of decades ago it was thought we were close to understanding the whole picture. Now it is accepted that some 95% of the energy in the observable universe is of inexplicable origin, comprising mostly the dark energy which is causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate but also vast amounts of dark matter. (Mass m can be expressed in energy units if you divide the energy by the square of the speed of light c) There are also a plethora of rival, and largely untestable, cosmological models ranging from the multiverse to a holographic universe.

  • ELEMENTARY PARTICLE PHYSICS – even the matter we thought we understood is not behaving according to current models. The Standard Model, whose validity depends on the existence of the Higgs Boson (the ‘god particle’ which confers mass on the whole range of elementary particles) may well not be there. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) team may be making an announcement soon. Supersymmetry has also been thrown into doubt by recent observations. We will have to wait for a final official result– it is a painstaking and time consuming process eliminating errors from the data. Note added April 2012: the Higgs Boson is now fairly certain to have been detected by 2 different methods and has a mass of about 125 GeV. Supersymmetry is the next big question - will we find supersymmetric equivalents to ordinary particles (e.g. selectrons matching electrons)?

  • QUANTUM PHYSICS – entangled nanometric particles (e.g. pairs of photons emitted from the same atom), even when light years apart, affect each other instantaneously. This is not a cranky idea – it is mainstream peer-reviewed physics. The implications are colossal. It means that time and space are non-existent in certain situations. Events seconds ago, or billions of years ago, can affect an event here and now. How many particles are entangled? Bearing in mind that, according to the Big Bang model the whole universe came from the same point in space-time, could it be that the whole universe is entangled and interconnected independently of time? There is no consensus on this.

  • EINSTEIN'S SPECIAL THEORY OF RELATIVITY – (NB: the above type of instantaneous action of one entangled particle on another has nothing to do with relativity. It does not involve particles travelling at all but reflects how reality is constructed.) We are all taught that no object is able to exceed the speed of light but CERN physicists may have found one – a neutrino – travelling very slightly faster than light. The whole physics world waits with baited breath. The neutrino is not massless, like a photon of light, so according to Einstein’s equation it would have had infinite mass when it reached the speed of light and then have become ‘imaginary’ in the mathematical sense as it passed the light speed barrier. Yet we would have known about it, so if the neutrino did exceed the speed of light there must be something wrong with the equation. Note added in April 2012: the exceeding of the speed of light by a neutrino in a vacuum was found to be apparent only. Experimental error was responsible.

  • TREE OF LIFE – this concept introduced by Darwin is revered by neo-Darwinists who still think life evolved from a single common ancestor, forming multiple branches as new forms of life mutated into existence. It now looks untenable. It is more likely that species have acquired beneficial traits by Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT) from each other, not by passing on traits genetically down the generations. Instead, viruses cut out a DNA sequence from one life form, the sequence which encodes the trait in question, find another species and insert the sequence into the appropriate position within its DNA, thereby conferring on it the desired trait once the genes in the DNA are switched on.  Leading molecular biologists are converging on this idea as the evidence mounts. Interbreeding between animal species is more common than thought previously and this can also cause HGT.

  • EVOLUTIONARY CONVERGENCE– the idea that chance mutations + natural selection cause new species to form is looking increasingly shaky because there have been innumerable cases of the same traits evolving several times over in different species (e.g. swallows and swifts have evolved similar survival solutions independently yet are genetically different species). Personally I wonder if the trait evolves only once and is then passed on to other species by HGT. Either way the Darwinian tree of life model is undermined.

  • BACTERIAL EVOLUTION – the standard explanation has been that bacteria randomly mutate and  accidentally evolve new traits in response to threats like antibiotics. It now appears that the rate of mutation, and probably the type of mutation, adapts to the stresses which the bacteria encounter, in contradiction to neo-Darwinist dogma.

  • INFORMATION GENERATION – information within a genome cannot be increased by random mutations plus natural selection. E.g. fruit flies were subject to mutations over 30 years and not a single beneficial trait evolved.  It would be like various Windows operating systems evolving by random code changes. The neo-Darwinists (who seem to be the only authority on evolution accepted by the media) are reluctant to admit this. The nearest to beneficial traits being achieved is within a species (microevolution, such as various forms of beak in finches, matching the seeds available) and in this case the coding is moved from one place in the genome to another, not created by chance.

  • EPIGENETICS– against all previous dogma it appears that when one generation acquires a characteristic reflecting its environment this characteristic can be passed on genetically to future generations. There is even some evidence that learned behaviour can be passed on. The genes themselves don’t change but the switches in the future generations turn on the appropriate parts of the genetic sequence.

  • JUNK DNA – it is not junk. No one is sure what it is but it’s definitely not junk. This term was used to describe most of the DNA in the human genome because no-one knew what it was for. Now it is becoming clear that it has a definite role.

  • ENVIRONMENT INFLUENCES GENE EXPRESSION– the environment actually switches on some parts of a gene that the organism needs to survive.

  • MUTATIONS REPAIR THEMSELVES - In every human body millions of cells mutate every day and they repair themselves by editing their own DNA. No way is this a random process. Beneficial mutations are not repaired! Presumably the same happens with all 8 million species (I’m not a professional biologist so please correct me if I’m wrong).

  • SELFISHNESS IS NOT SO GREAT– cooperation between species is rife, as the evolution of the biosphere as a single adaptive organism testifies.

There are many more unresolved problems of a fundamental nature. This fills me with joy. It means that the fragmented nature of science is beginning to be recognised and that since Truth is our mission, we are going in the right direction. Humanity can look forward to a new synthesis and a deeper, more inspiring engagement with nature.

Please use the comments facility below if you want to share comments with other readers or email me directly at 

Author, 2077 AD

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

An appeal to atheists and young earthers - enjoy the mystery

What have atheists and young earthers got in common?

Certainty in the face of mystery.

The atheist believes in  philosophical materialism, assuming that nothing exists outside the space, time, matter and energy which we detect directly with the 5 senses or via technology (microscopes, particle detectors etc.) or via direct inference, and tries to explain our existence in basically two different ways (please correct me if I’m wrong):
  1. The material world created itself out of existential nothingness.
  2. The material world is infinite in time and space.
1 is obviously irrational but so is 2, since it appeals to the physically meaningless concept of infinity (e.g. infinity is always infinitely far away even when you have travelled an almost infinite way towards it – wherever that may be; or it is 1 divided by zero).

The young earth creationists believe that the Genesis account in the Holy Bible is a literal scientific account of events over six days, ending about 6000 years ago. Since it was inspired by God before humans had evolved a scientific framework in which to interpret it why would our Creator have tried to communicate a scientific description? The biblical account surely is to show the relationship between God and humankind. There are various accounts in Genesis which, taken literally, contradict each other. The author was no fool, so it can only have been intended to deep, sacred truths as a divine metaphor – and I believe this is how the original Jewish mystics saw it. Creationism, as the word is used in the USA, is a modern innovation.

So both atheists and young earthers are denying themselves access to the mystery of being – all is explicable in terms of a magic materialisation out of existential nothingness with no first cause, or it has existed for a meaningless period of time, or it was all created in one week by a rather parochial God and there is no need to look further into the cosmic drama or meditate on its existence.

Atheists persist in refusing to accept that there are signs of intelligent unfolding of events in the living world in the face of overwhelming evidence, lest this should be taken by young earthers to mean there is a God who absolves us from the need to apply our own intelligence to understand the world. Young earthers refuse to accept any evidence which contradicts the 6-day model of creation only 6000 years ago. (Question for young earthers: perhaps I’m being too dismissive – it may be only the evolutionary time scale and details of terrestrial life which differentiates you from the scientific mainstream. What about modern cosmology? Please let me know.)

I believe the universe was created by our Creator somehow, sometime, probably billions of years ago. Just how we will never know but I believe God wants us to keep exploring with open minds, to be curious and to enjoy the wonder, like children (‘the kingdom of heaven is given to such as these’, Matt 19:14). To think we know it all in any sense is a terrible conceit. 

So if you fall into either the atheist or the young earth camp please stop attacking each other.

Why not just keep quiet and enjoy the mystery of being ?

Author, 2077 AD

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Transition Towns and C40 Cities

About 3.5 billion people live in an urban environment out of a world total of 7 billion. Not only is this total rising fast but  the consumption of resources and production of waste per person is rising, thereby putting a dangerous stress on our biosphere. So it is good to know that we do not have to rely wholly on governments to deal with this problem - two worldwide initiatives at local community and city level have been under way for several years.


These are led from the bottom up, and range from villages to cities.

Transition towns  started about 8 years ago when Kinsale Town Council (Ireland) adopted a plan to integrate human activity with natural surroundings. A couple of years later Totnes in Devon, UK, developed the idea further. Since then the movement has taken off worldwide. There are now over 300 officially recognised Transition Towns in the USA, UK, Ireland, Italy, Canada, Australia, New Zealand  and Chile.

The idea of sustainable communities grew out of the permaculture concept  in which high yielding fruit and vegetable plots are cultivated in cities, so that whole urban communities can avoid depending on the energy-intensive import of food.  The plots can be, for example, in window boxes, on waste ground, in gardens  or on the roofs of offices. Low energy high tech life styles, recyling and efficent waste disposal together form  part of the concept.

There is no fixed way to run a TT but one of the intentions is to bring more cohesion across the social spectrum during dislocation when oil production peaks and starts to decline while demand continues to rise. 

This approach to living should have an even wider appeal if food, energy and waste disposal costs escalate worldwide.


These adopt a variety of measures, each suited to a particular urban situation and are led from the top by mayors and urban managers.

in 2006 some 40 cities in various countries, having a combined  population of over 300 million,  signed to join the C40, known as the Large Cities Climate Leadership Group. 18 additional cities have joined the scheme. The USA, e.g., has ten C40 cities: Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Austin, Houston and New Orleans.  With most of the projected growth in world population concentrated in cities the need for more sustainable ways of living in them is particularly pressing.

Examples: switching from private cars to greener, more efficient public transport or cycling, roof gardens, retrofitting of homes and offfices for energy efficiency, composting, recycling, and energy generation from waste.

As with transition towns the fact that adopting green measures means lowering the cost of living is a great incentive. In the C40 case much of the cost saving will show up in local tax reductions – or at least the increases in taxes will be less than they would have been.

So overall we can be grateful that these two worldwide movements are equipping us to withstand not only food shortages, energy shortfalls and climate change but are in a sense improving the fabric of society and setting up new community structures for solving a whole range of problems that could arise in future.

Author, 2077 AD

Monday, 12 September 2011

Wanted - water in the right place at the right time

 As the world population grows and the consumption per capita also grows, fresh water is going to be increasingly in demand; not only for drinking but for sanitation and hygiene. Yet droughts in some parts and extreme rainfall in others, or even the two extremes in a given place, are making reliable, clean water supply difficult. Some 900 million people have inadequate access to drinking water while those having bad water-related sanitation or waste disposal number 2.5 billion. According to the World Bank 88% of all waterborne diseases derive from water supplies which are in some way inadequate.

What are the chances of solving this problem? In the long term quite good. It is expected that within a few decades water will become as expensive as oil is today and this means it will become viable to spend money on supplying, conserving and distributing it. But how many have to suffer or die in the mean time? Can we wait for the 'market' to solve this?

 Here are some possibilities:

Lake Baikal in Russia is fed by 365 rivers and contains 20% of the world’s fresh water and there is no reason in principle why this can’t be piped into and around China, where some 2 out of 3 cities are short of water.  Plans for this are being made but as yet there have been no decisions. It could also supply other parts of the world. China is making good progress with wind turbine and solar cell electricity, so the power needed for pumping can be produced without relying on fossil fuels .

Desalination using solar energy could supply water for irrigation and drinking in Africa. The method involves forcing salt water through membranes and this needs energy which can come from solar thermal power generation. A  large European consortium is planning to generate electricity for the European grid using steam driven turbine generators, the steam coming from solar heating plants in North Africa. Siemens, a German engineering company which is part of the consortium, has found a way of reducing by well over 50% the amount of energy needed to turn seawater into drinking water (0.5% salt or less) and has already put this into practice in Singapore.

The monsoon rainfalls are becoming increasingly heavy. It should be possible to conserve the water by diverting it into aquifers and reservoirs for use throughout the year. Political, ethnic, sectarian and religious conflicts are the chief obstacle to the large engineering projects needed. Corruption, poor management and inadequate or non-existent waste disposal  are thought to be the main causes of present water problems, although extreme weather events are not helping, the current floods in South Pakistan being even worse than the those in 2010.

Towing of icebergs, which are made of fresh water, to the coasts of countries where water is in short supply is another possibility which is becoming increasingly viable, although distribution inland will still be a challenge.

Combining these measures with more sparing use of this precious gift CAN solve the problem. In the last analysis it is a question of human will for good or evil.

Author, 2077 AD

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Libya: the state of progress

The National Transition Council (NTC) is emerging as the centre to which the world, via the UN and the unfreezing of its foreign assets, is conferring legitimacy and power. 

The NTC is headed by Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the justice minister who escaped from the Gaddafi government and organised the protests in Benghazi which grew into a violent revolution. The NTC comprises about 30 human rights lawyers and Jalil has shown leadership by insisting that he be tried for his part in the Gaddafi regime as well as threatening to resign if any of the 40 rebel forces (katibas) engage in revenge attacks.

After being in Benghazi since the start of the revolution the NTC are beginning to move into the capital, Tripoli and only a few centres of resistance remain (Sirte, Bani Walid, Jufra and Sabha). How long they keep fighting depends, possibly, on how much they trust their enemies to treat them humanely.

What are the chances of a stable representative government with law and order prevailing once military conquest is decisive enough to make this tenable?

Proposed timescale for establishing a new government.

The following times are taken from whatever date the NTC declares victory.

  • 30 days – interim government formed by negotiation within this period.
  • 8 months – multi-party elections.
  • 20 months – by when a new constitution is to be agreed.

Causes for hope:

  • The NTC was appointed in consultation with tribal and revolutionary leaders.
  •  The UN is unfreezing funds, the IMF has recognised the NTC and oil revenue could resume within months.
  •  There is a lot of political and diplomatic support on tap from the West.
  •  The attack on each town was typically done ‘democratically’ in the sense that the invading rebel force coordinated its action with an internal uprising.
  •  A substantial number of checkpoints have been dismantled.
  •  Rebels with no jobs to go to may join a national army rather than engage in insurgency.
  • The old army, police and civil service are to be kept on. Police are already returning to their posts in large numbers. (This avoids a major mistake made in Iraq, where these sources of order and administration were cast out onto the streets.)

Causes for concern:
  •  Some African immigrants and pro-Gaddafi mercenaries have been killed by rebels. Presumably they were rogue attacks rather than in any way systematic and so the consensus is that Jalil should not resign.
  •  Huge quantities of weapons, missiles and bullets have gone missing (including tens of thousands of SAM missiles). These will inevitably fall into the hands of insurgents and terrorists worldwide – not just disaffected Libyans.
  •  Katibas were the revolutionary forces derived from various towns, sects and tribes, and were privately organised and funded. They appear reluctant to submit to a unified command. 
  •  ‘Revolutionary committees’ used during the revolt were informers and these may find it difficult to regain the trust of their neighbours.
  •  Many of the fighters became exhilarated, as is all too obvious from the constant firing of AK47s into the air. Some may be reluctant to settle down to the dull, hard work of reconstructing Libya. It is much easier to destroy than to create.
  •  Electricity and water supplies are sparse and unreliable.
  •  Civil servants are not yet being paid.
  •  Other Arab regimes will be keen to finance insurgency.

If an Islamic form of a democracy can be achieved this would be a model for other countries in Africa and the Middle East, although there could be a high price to pay in human suffering if the existing monarchs and dictators are to be disposed.

On the other hand, it is possible that the groundswell of pressure for change from the world as a whole and the majority of people living in these countries could be so large, that their rulers would flee without resistance or seek a stake in a political system which they can see is inevitable.

Let us pray.

Main sources: Economist, BBC website, BBC World Service

Author, 2077 AD

Friday, 2 September 2011

Cosmic weather and climate change

A previous post showed the complex range of interacting factors which climate change models have to take into account. One of these was clouds. Depending on the type, amount, thickness and height these can have marked cooling or warming effects on the atmosphere.

The water vapour in the air is a dry colourless gas until it encounters ‘condensation nuclei’, microscopic particles floating in the air which cause condensation of water vapour into its liquid form in the same way that steam forms in bathrooms. Steam, fog and cloud are not water vapour – they consist of microscopic droplets of water which grow when the dry vapour comes into contact with the condensation nuclei.

One source of condensation nuclei now appears to be cosmic rays. Recently  CERN, an elementary particle physics lab near Geneva, has precisely simulated the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere (CLOUD, cosmics leaving outdoor droplets). The condensation nuclei created in the simulated atmosphere form about 10 times more readily when bombarded with simulated cosmic rays than when left unbombarded. So it appears that cosmic rays, mainly protons from supernovae (exploding stars) within our galaxy, typically thousands of light years away, play an important role in forming condensation nuclei and this must have a significant effect on cloud formation. 

But the cosmic rays from the depths of space do not hit the Earth’s atmosphere regularly over time. They are modulated by the solar wind and its associated interplanetary magnetic field, much weaker than our own magnetic field which offers a strong protective shield known as the Van Allen Belts. (Without these Belts life is unlikely to have evolved.)

The solar wind varies with the sunspot cycle, 11 years on average. The more active the sun the more we are protected from the cosmic rays, so the fewer will be the condensation nuclei, which means less cloud formation, which in turn means ....? No-one is sure because we don’t understand enough about the role of clouds in global warming/cooling. (Although it is fairly certain that low clouds have a cooling effect and high clouds have a warming effect.)

Apart from the cosmic rays there are other sources. Dimethyl sulphide aerosols, emitted into the air by phytoplankton in the ocean, and sulphuric acid and ammonia aerosols also affect cloud formation in ways which are not fully understood. There is also some evidence that the intensity of the cosmic ray stream itself varies over very long periods according to the position of the Earth in the Milky Way (i.e. the spiral galaxy of which the sun is part). 

So don’t blame the climate scientists if they have disagreements about the degree of global warming we can expect over the coming decades.  What cannot be denied is that most of them agree that man’s input to the weather system has caused much of the global warming since the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s.

Warming causes floods, droughts and storms. So the more we can do to stop it, or at least offset it, the better and to do this effectively requires the best possible understanding of all the influences – natural or artificial.

Author, 2077 AD