Showing posts with label cosmology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cosmology. Show all posts

Sunday, October 23, 2016

It is indeed quite a big place

Click to enlarge slightly
Hubble Space Telescope view of thousands of galaxies made
during the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey.
Credit M. Giavialisco/University of Massachusetts, Amherst and NASA

The more we learn about the universe, the less we grasp. It’s simply too big and too complicated to understand… and I’m not even sure that the words I’ve just written make any sense. In any case, the central premise of William’s Treatise on the Cosmos is that we humans were not designed to understand what it’s all about. We shouldn't even try to do so.  So let’s simply forget about that would-be question, best described as a non-question

Monday, October 3, 2016

Eternal silence

Frequently on French TV, several times a week, exceptional movies describe the universe, just above the horizon. Without such splendid reminders, I would surely shrink up and die.

Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie.
Blaise Pascal

Children speak the language of Pascal, but differently.

And a tweet from Bold Atheism transmits that language.
Through the Cosmos ? Yes, forever.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Big picture

If this tiny video doesn’t blow your mind out, then nothing will:

I like to think that all this is happening just alongside our friendly neighborhood. So, we’re looking in over the back-yard fence, as it were, and wondering what the Joneses might be up to. Well, it so happens that they might well be stirring up shit. But jeez, they’ve been doing that for ages, ever since we moved in. We should have known all along that it wouldn’t be easy, trying to win friends and influence people in that kind of vicious environment. Frankly, I dunno what to do. In any case, I’ve supplied the exact name of the intruder: Laniakea. Maybe somebody might report them to neighborhood watch.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Cosmic egg

I may be wrong (I hope so), but I have the impression that few people today are aware of the amazing scientific achievements of this humble Belgian priest, Monseigneur Georges Lemaître.

You can read all about him here. In a nutshell, he (rather than Edwin Hubble) was the inventor of the theory of an expanding universe, initiated by the Big Bang.

Several decades ago, when I first heard the wonderful story of the origins of our existence, I was enchanted by Lemaître's explanation of an incredibly small and dense so-called "primeval atom" containing all the ingredients of the future universe. A little-known US physicist of Russian origins named Ralph Alpher (assistant of the famous Russian-born cosmologist George Gamow) came upon a delightfully mysterious name for this mythical entity, which we can hardly hope to imagine by means of our primitive Earth-oriented brains. He called it the ylem. But I prefer the charming metaphor of a cosmic egg.

In the 1960s (at about the same time that Lemaître died in his native Belgium), another fabulous scientific-invention story was unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic, at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey.

The engineers Arno Penzias (right) and Robert Wilson (left) were attempting to fine-tune a so-called horn antenna, designed to capture radio signals bounced off a satellite.

No matter how hard they tried, however, they kept picking up background static. There's a famous anecdote about how they imagined, at one stage, that the disturbance might be due to the presence of pigeons that had nested inside the big metallic structure and left some mess. After clearing away the nests, feathers and piles of shit, the engineers went one nasty step forward and shot the pigeons. But the antenna persisted in picking up mysterious non-stop microwave radiation, which seemed to emanate from outside the Milky Way.

At that same moment, at nearby Princeton University (50 km as the pigeon flies), three astrophysicists—Robert Dicke, Jim Peebles and David Wilkinson—were reaching the conclusion that the Big Bang, if indeed it had taken place in the way they imagined, should have bequeathed to us an omnipresent radiation. And their calculation of the theoretical value of this so-called cosmic microwave background coincided with the annoying static picked up by the horn antenna at Bell Labs. Although Penzias and Wilson hadn't been looking for such an entity, they had in fact detected the glow of the archaic cinders of the Big Bang.

The innocent pigeons slaughtered at Bell Labs in the 1960s were to become the world's first Big Bang martyrs. In their sacrificial nest, scientists would come upon the Cosmic Egg. Today, the memory of Monseigneur Georges Lemaître might be symbolized and celebrated by the following simple but extraordinary image:

Planck map of the cosmic microwave background.

This lumpy egg-shaped image represents the state of the expanding universe when it was about 370,000 years old. At that moment, for the first time since the Big Bang, there was light in the Cosmos. This image—in which hotter regions are orange, and colder regions are blue—was released a few days ago by the European-led research team behind the Planck space probe.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Blue light in the darkness

I came across an article in the French press about an ingenious device that apparently prevents night-time drivers from falling asleep at the wheel. It's simply a blue LED lamp fixed inside the vehicle, in the vicinity of the rear-view mirror, so that it shines into the driver's eyes.

                                         — photo CNRS/Université Bordeaux Segalen

Researchers at the CNRS (French national scientific organization) and the university of Bordeaux explain that the blue light of their embedded anti-drowsiness device acts upon the driver's biological clock by inhibiting the secretion of the melatonin hormone, which is responsible for inducing drowsiness. [For an in-depth presentation of this hormone, look up melatonin in Wikipedia.] According to its inventors, tests of the blue-light technique demonstrate that it's more efficient than coffee in the prevention of drowsiness... which is the main cause of mortal accidents on French autoroutes (highways). They add nevertheless that 17 per cent of their subjects were unable to complete the tests because the blue lamp shining in their faces made it totally impossible for them to drive at all.

Everybody agrees nevertheless that it's preferable to sleep well during the week that precedes any night-time driving, and to pull over for a 15-minute nap as soon as the first signs of drowsiness appear. That explanation about the advantages of sleep as a remedy for drowsiness is a bit like saying that there's no better remedy for hunger than food.

The idea of a life-saving blue light in the darkness reminds me of one of the loveliest short videos I've ever seen, created by the US cosmologist and science author Carl Sagan [1934-1996].

Sagan's origins were Russian, and he started his prestigious career as a popularizer of science by coauthoring a book with the Soviet astrophysicist Iosef Shmuelovich Shklovskii [1916-1985], Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966).

This was in fact the first serious English-language book ever published on this exciting theme, and it fascinated me at the time, in the late 1960s. Unfortunately, it's the kind of book that has dated rapidly and considerably, and the writing style and didactic content hardly match up to the brilliance of today's great authors of popular books on physics such as Brian Greene (The Hidden Reality, 2011), David Deutsch (The Beginning of Infinity, 2011) and Lawrence Krauss (A Universe from Nothing, 2012). Often, when I'm reading, I underline fragments that have impressed me greatly. In the book by Shklovskii and Sagan, I notice that I underlined the following words: (on page 248):
For all our feelings of self-importance, we are only a kind of biological rust, clinging to the surface of our small planet, and weighing far less than the invisible air that surrounds us.
I realize that I've always been attracted to sentiments that downplay human vanity. Be that as it may, here's Sagan's video on the pale blue dot in the middle of the sky:

Talking of extraterrestrial creatures, I would imagine that most of my readers have met up with the marvelous short story by the US science-fiction writer Terry Bisson entitled They're made out of meat. You can find it on the web by clicking here. It's so short that I've taken the liberty of including a copy here:

"They're made out of meat."


"Meat. They're made out of meat."


"There's no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They're completely meat."

"That's impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?"

"They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don't come from them. The signals come from machines."

"So who made the machines? That's who we want to contact."

"They made the machines. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Meat made the machines."

"That's ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You're asking me to believe in sentient meat."

"I'm not asking you, I'm telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they're made out of meat."

"Maybe they're like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage."

"Nope. They're born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn't take long. Do you have any idea what's the life span of meat?"

"Spare me. Okay, maybe they're only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside."

"Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They're meat all the way through."

"No brain?"

"Oh, there's a brain all right. It's just that the brain is made out of meat! That's what I've been trying to tell you."

"So ... what does the thinking?"

"You're not understanding, are you? You're refusing to deal with what I'm telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat."

"Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!"

"Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal!  Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?"

"Omigod. You're serious then. They're made out of meat."

"Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat. And they've been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years."

"Omigod. So what does this meat have in mind?"

"First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the Universe, contact other sentiences, swap ideas and information. The usual."

"We're supposed to talk to meat."

"That's the idea. That's the message they're sending out by radio. 'Hello. Anyone out there. Anybody home.' That sort of thing."

"They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?"

"Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat."

"I thought you just told me they used radio."

"They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat."

"Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?"

"Officially or unofficially?"


"Officially, we are required to contact, welcome and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in this quadrant of the Universe, without prejudice, fear or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing."

"I was hoping you would say that."

"It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?"

"I agree one hundred percent. What's there to say? 'Hello, meat. How's it going?' But will this work? How many planets are we dealing with here?"

"Just one. They can travel to other planets in special meat containers, but they can't live on them. And being meat, they can only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim. Infinitesimal, in fact."

"So we just pretend there's no one home in the Universe."

"That's it."

"Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat? And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you probed? You're sure they won't remember?"

"They'll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we're just a dream to them."

"A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat's dream."

"And we marked the entire sector unoccupied."

"Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?"

"Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again."

"They always come around."

"And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone ..."

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The first second

Yesterday was a giant day for human knowledge. Scientists working at the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) in Geneva announced that the Higgs boson appears to be a reality. We are surely on the right path towards grasping (albeit fuzzily) what took place during the crucial early instants of the first second after the Big Bang. During those infinitesimal fractions of the primeval second, there must have been a tiny disturbance in ubiquitous symmetry that enabled Existence (with a capital E) to come into existence. And that moment of creation was associated with the advent of the Higgs boson.

The spirit of the hunt for this particle is well presented in the following 60-minute BBC program, produced about six months ago:

We can expect that great results will emerge soon from the LHC in the fundamental domain of supersymmetry.

Truly, I have had the privilege of living during an exciting period of human history. In 1953, when I was a 12-year-old kid starting science studies at Grafton High School, the structure of DNA was discovered by Francis Crick and James Watson. That was a fabulous moment in biology. Yesterday's announcement concerning the existence of the Higgs boson was an equally great moment in cosmology.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Awaiting a weighty book

At the end of my blog post of 16 July 2011 entitled State of things [display], I suggested that readers might sit down quietly for an hour to watch a splendid talk by an outstanding American theoretical physicist, 57-year-old Lawrence Krauss.

I've just been pleasantly surprised to learn—in a note from Krauss himself, published yesterday [display]—that this talk actually took place some two years ago, at the instigation of Richard Dawkins and Robin Elisabeth Cornwell [Executive Director of the US branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science]. Later, the Foundation decided to post the talk video to YouTube… and it went on to log over a million views. This doesn't surprise me at all, since the subject is awesome.

Not surprisingly, friends of Krauss soon got around to convincing him that he should write a book on this fascinating subject of the way in which "nothingness" transforms itself constantly (with no help from any gods, just pure science) into "somethingness". When you think about it, it's a bloody good pretext for a book, to say the least: the sort of stuff that the Holy Bible would refer to as "good news". (I'm joking, of course. The authors of the poor old Bible wouldn't know what the fuck we were talking about.)

This momentous book will be coming out on 10 January 2012. Meanwhile, you can download (from the above Foundation link) the text of a splendid Afterword written by Dawkins for the imminent Krauss book. Inspired by the famous biblical words "Jesus wept" [John 11-35], I feel like summarizing the situation: Dawkins wondered. Wondered in awe at the words of a fellow scientist… without claiming that he (or many of us, for that matter) might be capable of following all the mathematics and physics that culminate in such mind-boggling conclusions. In any case, the words of the science poet Dawkins (who speaks from my level) are beautifully inspiring. And I'm awaiting eagerly the weighty words of Krauss.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Higgs hunt

In the olden days in Australia (that's to say, when I was a kid), a simple gambling game called Two-up consisted of placing bets on throws of a pair of pennies. Obviously, there were three possible outcomes:

1. Two heads:

2. Two tails:

3. One of each:

Now, let me ask you a simple question: What is the probability of the last-mentioned outcome (one coin landing tails, and the other heads)?

Did I hear you say one-out-of-three? That answer would be wrong. The right answer, of course, is one-out-of-two. In mathematical jargon, the probability of a mixed heads-and-tails outcome is 0.5.

That banal Aussie Two-up demo was a prelude to one of my favorite science stories. Once upon a time, during a lecture in a university of present-day Bangladesh, the Calcutta-born mathematician and physicist Satyendra Nath Bose happened to make the above-mentioned mistake. Unbelievably, in front of his surprised students, Bose exploited unwittingly the erroneous one-out-of-three probability in order to provide a convincing explanation of a certain experiment in the domain of quantum statistics.

In a nutshell, quantum happenings and explanations are so weird that you can even obtain the right answers by using what might appear to be crazy reasoning... as long as everything remains mathematically immaculate. We might say retrospectively that, not only was there method in the temporary madness of Bose, but superb madness in his very method. In any case, Bose's initially mixed-up meanderings gave rise (I'm cutting a long story ultra-short) to what has since become known as Bose-Einstein statistics. This extraordinary Bengali mathematician and physicist (who needed Albert Einstein's personal recommendation in order to get a university job, since he didn't have a doctorate) finally obtained cosmic recognition through the naming, in his honor, of a subatomic particle: the boson. What a lovely story!

Let's jump forward to more recent times. Peter Higgs is an 82-year-old English theoretical physicist. Long ago, he happened to be enrolled in a secondary school near Bristol: Cotham Grammar School. The list of distinguished alumni of this quite ordinary establishment is astonishing. One of them was the Nobel laureate Paul Dirac. That list now includes the name of Peter Higgs (represented here in a portrait by Ken Currie, 2010):

His surname qualifies a fabulous elementary particle that has become the Golden Graal of contemporary physics: the Higgs boson. These days, most cosmologists believe that this theoretical entity should in fact exist, and that's why the international Cern research institute has built a gigantic machine, located on the Franco-Swiss border, that will hopefully demonstrate that the Higgs boson is a tangible reality. (Maybe "tangible" is not an ideal adjective, since it's not as if you might slice a Higgs boson in two with the help of a Swiss Army knife, or run into such a particle while strolling around in the streets of Geneva.)

The funny thing about this affair, to my mind, is that everybody carries on talking about the Higgs boson as a particle, as if it were a tiny bit of matter. That's a little like referring to light as photons. While this usage is perfectly correct from a quantum theory viewpoint, you wouldn't normally ask somebody to turn on the light by saying "Please beam us a stream of photons". It's a fact that the existence of the Higgs boson will indeed be demonstrated one of these days, we hope, by a collision of particles that might be imagined like this:

At a press conference this week, Cern representatives revealed that the mass of this particle appears to be about 125 gigaelectronvolts, and that its existence will probably be revealed with certainty as early as next year. To understand why the capture of this elusive particle would be so prized by cosmologists, it's preferable to think of the Higgs boson, not as a tiny bit of matter (so small and ephemeral that we cannot possibly comprehend it), but rather as a field. As is the case for photons, quantum theory enables us to switch freely from a particle-oriented to a field-oriented interpretation of bosons. You can look at bosons from either way, whichever happens to suit you. We're intuitively familiar with everyday fields such as magnetism (or rather electromagnetism) and gravity. Higgs bosons, viewed as a field, are extraordinary (Can any entity in the Cosmos be thought of as ordinary?) since this field pervades, totally but invisibly, all the interstices of the Cosmos.

The Higgs field is crying out to be revealed—almost certainly through a corpuscular experiment at the Cern—for the simple reason (Can any explanation in the Cosmos be thought of as simple?) that the presence of this field would be a gigantic step towards our "understanding" (Can anything at all in the Cosmos be truly understood?) of a totally mind-boggling notion: namely, the creation of being from nothingness.

At the end of that last paragraph, I borrowed the title of a famous book by Jean-Paul Sartre. But I have to add that this illustrious French philosopher would have been sadly incapable, in spite of his alleged brilliance as a thinker, of appreciating even the present modest blog post, because philosophers of Sartre's kind never imagined for an instant, strangely, that science might have anything to do with explaining the realities of the Cosmos and of our human existence. And so they never bothered to learn mathematics and physics, just as they weren't particularly intrigued by biology, DNA, genetics, computers and all the rest.

POST SCRIPTUM: Not surprisingly (But isn't everything in the Cosmos both surprising and unsurprising, simultaneously?), bosons and quarks are not far removed from snarks and boojums, as presented in the celebrated nonsense poem—an "agony in eights fits"— by Lewis Carroll. The title of my blog post, Higgs hunt, evokes mildly this association. I hope that readers will have appreciated my avoidance of an utterly ridiculous expression (the God particle) that mindless media folk have often used to designate the Higgs boson. I would have gladly taken a timid step in that silly direction, however, by referring to the Higgs boson as the Godot particle… since everybody is surely waiting for it.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

State of things

It's hard to single out the nonfiction book that marked me most when I was a young man. Objectively, I would probably have to say it was History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, since I discovered Russell's rambling and sketchy compendium in Paris in 1962 and, up until today, it has remained one of my bedside books.

Before then, a science book that made a huge and lasting impression upon me was The Nature of the Physical World by the English astronomer Arthur Eddington, written in 1928. He was a Quaker (which might have aroused my suspicions), but Eddington was also, after all, one of the first and finest interpreters of the newfangled theories of Albert Einstein. So, I was most impressed by his excellent style of science writing.

What I liked most about Eddington's views on the cosmological state of things was the fact that he left a tiny window open for spiritual beliefs and religious faith. I remember saying to myself, as it were: "OK, Eddington's explanations on the nature of the Cosmos are fine for the moment, even though they're obviously inadequate. But there's a good chance, hopefully, that we'll get around to finding God, one of these days, in the interstices." In fact, I was both a naive and lazy thinker.

In a nutshell, that's truly what I believed for years, for decades… even during the time that I fell in love, upon my arrival at Gamone, with the fabulous tale of Master Bruno, founder of the Chartreux monastic order. But the truth of the matter is that we're no longer in the same peaceful ballpark as Bruno and company. In the course of the few decades that separate me from my reading of the charming Quaker Eddington, Science has started to come apart at the seams, while Religion has been eternally rubbished.

We're awaiting news, not from a religiously-inspired science-writer, and even less from the Holy Spirit, but from the Large Hadron Collider, which talks to us in terms of String Theory. But will we necessarily understand the sacred Word of the Collider? Probably not, at least neither exactly nor explicitly, because it's all a matter of ethereal mathematics, which is akin to a mixture of abstract art and poetry. But it's infinitely better than the supposed Word of God, horribly fuzzy and irrevocably has-been.

The following video is a talk on cosmology by an amazing US intellectual, Lawrence Krauss. It lasts an hour, but I strongly urge you to get settled comfortably in front of your computer to watch it from the beginning to the end.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happiness is a great science book

In the humble and peaceful existence that I lead at Gamone, it's a fact that one of my greatest pleasures consists of having the privilege of getting stuck into various exceptional books. Some of them have become regular companions, which I've reread several times over. For example: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, and The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch. Over the last decade, various new book-reading elements have been falling into place, making it easier for a science aficionado such as me to get deeply involved in this activity. I'm thinking primarily of the Internet, which enables us to learn of interesting new publications, and to obtain in-depth background information concerning, not only the authors and their books, but also—and above all—the scientific domains to which the books refer. This is particularly true of the various life sciences that interest me—biology, genetics, psychology, human paleontology—but it is also the case for websites about physics and cosmology. All that you then need is time and solitude to carry out your reading. This is ideally the case for me at Gamone, where my only annoying distractions are the present blog (which nevertheless has a few meaningful justifications) and a little too much TV (generally high-quality) at times.

I'm perfectly aware that this kind of totally-introspective almost "absolutist" lifestyle is not helping me to become a well-behaved member of any kind of "society", be it my daily real-life environment at Choranche, or the less-tangible community of individuals with whom I enter in contact through the telephone and the Internet. But I don't look upon my personality, character and behavioral faults as things that need to be modified or "improved". I'm too old for that, and I'm really irreparably obsessed and dominated by my passion for a scientific understanding of my existence.

Today, happiness is not simply a great science book. It's rather a monumental document: The Hidden Reality, the third element of Brian Greene's trilogy that started with The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos.

I've just received it, hot off the press, and I'm taking my time to get stuck into it. I'm like my dog Fitzroy sniffing around a new food delicacy, posing it on the lawn, and trying to figure out the best angle of attack.

The subject of Greene's new book is really powerful stuff: the fascinating mind-boggling mysteries of parallel universes, or so-called multiverses, whose "existence" is strongly suggested these days by quantum mathematics and string theory (Greene's ongoing preoccupation).

I've always looked upon the respective domains of Richard Dawkins and Brian Greene as perfectly complementary quests. Dawkins is telling us what has been happening for a while on this precious little green and blue bubble named Earth, whereas Greene is concerned by a much bigger picture: the Cosmos. If I may push my favorite metaphor to its dizzy limits, the Earth and the Cosmos appear to me as Antipodean partners. For as long as we remain preoccupied by our familiar home planet, even to the extent of examining the unbelievably small and strange entities known as viruses, the Cosmos is a weird otherworldly phenomenon where common sense appears to be walking on its head. But, as soon as we turn to the Cosmos, it's suddenly the gene-based world of Dawkins that seems to be unimaginable, walking on its head, since it contains that extraordinary "thing" called consciousness. Dawkins and Greene are two sides of a single coin. Today, what is utterly amazing is that, through a certain number of great books, we can take hold of that coin and turn it over between our fingers.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Churchy physicist hits the jackpot

I often use the term "churchiness" (giving rise to the adjective "churchy") to designate a quaint tradition that consists of treasuring various aspects of the established church of a purely cultural non-theological kind. Today, I'm writing about a spectacular case of Anglican churchiness in Britain, but this phenomenon—which might be described as appreciating the religious icing more than the cake itself—can be found in all faith contexts, even in Judaism (where its adepts often describe themselves as "secular Jews").

In my article of 22 May 2008 entitled Coincidences that appear to be amazing [display], I spoke of one of the nicest little science books I've ever come upon: Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees. In that article, I resorted to humorous irony in a feeble attempt to demonstrate that we often tend to get our thoughts backwards, as it were. It would be ridiculous to assert that chance has caused celebrated rivers to flow precisely through the middle of many great cities. It's the other way round. If the Seine flows through the center of Paris, it's because the founders of the future city decided to settle on the banks of that river, at the propitious geographical site that would later be known as Paris. If a great temple existed at Ephesus, once upon a time, it wasn't the goddess herself who erected it at that particular spot, so that her followers would gather there to worship her; Ephesus was a place where many people just happened to be devout followers of Artemis, and it was normal that they should build a great temple that would soon attract hordes of worshipers of the goddess. Likewise, as Rees says, we should not seek fuzzy metaphysical explanations concerning the precise values of six physical constants that have shaped our universe. While certain observers find it nice to conclude that God alone could have dictated those six values in order to enable us mortals to come into existence and to worship Him (that capital "H" is a remnant of my personal churchiness), the obvious objective explanation—designated as the anthropic principle—is that, in the case of all other theoretical values of those six famous numbers, we humans simply wouldn't be here today, on the planet Earth, to talk of shoes and ships, and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.

Telling tale: The celebrated scientist Martin Rees (Astronomer Royal and former President of the Royal Society) was enamored of traditional British values to the point of getting a kick out of being known officially as Baron Rees of Ludlow. And this self-proclaimed atheist has taken churchiness to its extreme limits by declaring that the Church of England is a "force for good", and that we should preserve the choral traditions and architectural legacy of Anglicanism. That's crazy thinking, but brilliantly British! I would not hesitate in labeling Rees as a charming intellectual eccentric… but I prefer by far the healthy language of an authentic (non-eccentric) British intellectual such as Richard Dawkins, whose profound culture consists of dispensing with all convenient subterfuges such as churchy nostalgia. OK, we can maybe allude to churchiness, for literary reasons (as Dawkins does, when he refers fleetingly to All things bright and beautiful), but we shouldn't actually take it seriously, as something that deserves to be preserved, on a par with the findings of science. Let me say, to clarify my personal feelings, that churchiness is certainly the stuff that should be exhibited in cultural museums (which may, or may not, exist today as such), but its intellectual remnants should never be mistaken for good clear thinking.

Today, we are all alarmed to discover that the good lord (Rees, not the other fellow) has apparently sold his soul to the US spiritual force of the Dollar Deity by accepting the notorious Templeton Prize: over a million and a half lovely little tax-free greenbacks. Churchies of the world, let us arise and praise the Lord! Meanwhile, let me give my guide Dawkins the final lighthearted word: "This will look great on Templeton's CV. Not so good on Martin's."

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Back in 1980, when Christine was engaged in book layout at the Seuil publishing house in Paris, she gave me a work copy of their translation of the recent bestseller Earthshock by the British geologists Basil Booth and Frank Fitch, on the theme of colossal natural cataclysms such as the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. Curiously, this well-written text depicting extreme terrestrial violence has always remained, for me, a friendly and soothing bedside book. The inherent devastating power of our planet belittles the frequent inhumanity and stupidity of its human occupants.

The Big One, however, is likely to arrive, not from the bowels of the planet Earth, but from the sky. This little video—which I found on the excellent Pharyngula blog of PZ Myers [display]—says it nicely:

Here again, there's something strangely soothing in the thought that such a calamity could occur. In any case, I hope that Google keeps copies of blogs in their vast databases, so that my Antipodes posts are not likely to be wiped out stupidly in one fell swoop, in the first cataclysm that strikes us. Besides, I really must distribute a few extra copies of my genealogical research, for "eternal" safekeeping. Maybe the soundest security strategy would be to beam up copies of all my stuff, by laser, to a handful of neighboring stars, judged to be safe. As my great-aunt used to warn me: These days, you can't be too careful…

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Carl Sagan and our human conceit

The Pharyngula blog of PZ Myers led me to this video, based upon a profound text by the US cosmologist Carl Sagan [1934-1996]:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A universe not made for us

I found this short video on the website of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. The montage is based upon a text by Carl Sagan.

The creator of this YouTube video, who calls himself callumCGLP, describes his fine work as follows:

Excerpts from Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. More specifically, from the chapter titled A Universe Not Made For Us. I edited together the audio from the audio-book, and added the video from Stephen Hawking's Into the Universe and Brian Cox's Wonders of the Solar System. The music is Jack's Theme from the Lost soundtrack.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Goldilocks zones

I remember vaguely seeing a movie that contained a dialogue along the following lines:

QUESTIONER: What made you want to leave England?
ENGLISHMAN: Too bloody cold.
QUESTIONER: Today, why don't you want to stay in Australia?
ENGLISHMAN: Too bloody hot.

That sums up things nicely. What we're all searching for, of course, is a place that's just right.

When I was a child, I was particularly fond of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. For those of you who've forgotten this marvelous tale, here's a version I found on the web:

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest. Soon, she came upon a house. She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in. At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was hungry. She tasted the porridge from the first bowl. "This porridge is too hot!" she exclaimed. So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl. "This porridge is too cold," she said. So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge. "Ah, this porridge is just right," she said happily, and ate it all up. After she had eaten the bear's breakfast, Goldilocks was feeling a little tired. So, she walked into the living room where she saw three chairs. Goldilocks sat in the first chair to rest her feet. "This chair is too big!" she exclaimed. So she sat in the second chair. "This chair is too big, too!" she whined. So she tried the last and smallest chair. "Ah, this chair is just right," she sighed. But just as she settled down into the chair to rest, it broke into pieces! Goldilocks was very tired by this time, so she went upstairs to the bedroom. She lay down in the first bed, but it was too hard. Then she lay in the second bed, but it was too soft. Then she lay down in the third bed and it was just right. Goldilocks fell asleep. While she was sleeping, the three bears came home. "Someone's been eating my porridge," growled the Papa bear. "Someone's been eating my porridge," said the Mama bear. "Someone's been eating my porridge and they ate it all up!" cried the Baby bear. "Someone's been sitting in my chair," growled the Papa bear. "Someone's been sitting in my chair," said the Mama bear. "Someone's been sitting in my chair and they've broken it all to pieces," cried the Baby bear. They decided to look around some more, and went upstairs to the bedroom. "Someone's been sleeping in my bed," growled Papa bear. "Someone's been sleeping in my bed too," said the Mama bear. "Someone's been sleeping in my bed and she's still there!" exclaimed Baby bear. At that moment, Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears. She screamed: "Help!" Then she jumped up and left the room. Goldilocks ran down the stairs, opened the door and raced away into the forest. She never returned to the home of the three bears.

What I liked about this tale, I think, was the idea that a solid little single-son family unit could be existing harmoniously in the middle of the woods, in an isolated and independent environment. All the elements of their domestic environment had been adjusted optimally to cater for the respective sizes of the father, the mother and the son. And, when a lovely little blond girl happened to stray into this home, and evaluate its contents, she found—not surprisingly, I was tempted to imagine—that the mini-universe of the son (including his bed) was "just right".

For a long time, researchers in cosmology have been using the term Goldilocks as a metaphorical adjective to designate any remote world that might be just right for some form of life. We lucky Earthlings live in such a Goldilocks corner of the Cosmos. Maybe, elsewhere among the stars and black holes, there are other Goldilocks zones...

The NASA has just launched its Kepler satellite, designed to spend the next few years searching for Goldilocks zones inside the Milky Way.

Now, I don't wish to be a devil's advocate in any way whatsoever, because the idea of finding new forms of life appears to me as one of the most exciting human challenges that could possibly exist. But the Goldilocks metaphor disturbs me a little, for two reasons:

— We cannot exclude the possibility that the satellite might discover unfriendly places inhabited by ferocious giant Papa bears and wicked Mama bears.

— The harshest part of the children's story is that Goldilocks, having found an environment that was "just right", did not however decide to stay there. For bizarre reasons, she raced away in terror. In other words, in this otherwise delightful tale, there was no happy ending...

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Has life existed on Mars?

Ever since the 19th century, people have speculated seriously about the possibility that living organisms might have come into existence on the red planet. Tonight, like hosts of observers throughout the world, I shall be waiting anxiously to learn if Nasa's Phoenix lander has arrived safely on our neighboring planet, and deployed correctly its rich assortment of scientific equipment.

There are now several excellent videos describing the Mars rovers named Spirit and Opportunity, which landed respectively on 4 and 24 January 2004. The following video uses synthetic images to indicate what should happen tonight if everything goes fine for Phoenix:

The cosmologist Giordano Bruno was convinced that life existed beyond the planet Earth:

For no reasonable mind can assume that heavenly bodies that may be far more magnificent than ours would not bear upon them creatures similar or even superior to those upon our human Earth.

For expressing thoughts of this kind, the Inquisition accused Bruno of heresy, and he was burnt at the stake in Rome, thereby becoming the world's first martyr for science.

These days, people have ceased imagining that Mars might be populated by little green creatures who built canals. We have few ideas on the nature of self-replicating organisms that might exist elsewhere in the universe. Even the great Charles Darwin [1809-1882] may have been wrong when he suggested that life probably started, here on Earth, in a "warm little pond ". For all we know, life might be able to spring into existence in a volcano, or deep inside clouds of gas. But the presence of liquid water would appear to be conducive to the development of primitive forms of life in a context of carbon-based chemistry, as on Earth. The Phoenix laboratory might be able to inform us if this was, or is, the case on Mars.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Coincidences that appear to be amazing

In Eugene Ionesco's crazy play entitled The Bald Soprano, an English lady and gentleman discover, in the course of their casual conversation, an amazing series of coincidences. They both happened to take the same train down from Manchester and they live in the same street, in the same apartment. Furthermore, it would appear that they sleep together in the same bed. After each new revelation, there's a constant refrain, along the following lines: "How curious! How bizarre! And what a coincidence! "

In the domain of absurd exclamations, I've always been amused by the amazing coincidence concerning the indisputable fact that the Seine happens to flow right through the middle of Paris. After all, it might have flowed to the north or to the south of the city, or even far away from Paris, out in the country. Surely, the fact that the great river flows through the center of the French capital can only be explained by an intervention of the Egyptian deity Isis, namesake of the City of Light.

Last night, on TV, splendid documentaries showed us great Mediterranean ports such as Marseille and Tangiers. There was a lengthy presentation of the ancient Ionian port of Ephesus [now in Turkey]. Long ago, the temple at Ephesus dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Today, all that remains of the temple at Ephesus is a field strewn with stone fragments.

At the epoch of its splendor, many pilgrims were so amazed by the vision of the temple of Artemis that they refused to accept the idea that it had been built by humans. To construct such an edifice, divine power was surely necessary. In the same way that Isis may have guided the Seine through the heart of Paris, Artemis had once dropped down from the heavens into Ephesus to build this place in which she would henceforth be worshiped. Why not? Gods are gods, and goddesses, goddesses. Elvis Presley once built Graceland. Why wouldn't Artemis have devoted her immense resources to building a Wonder of the World? Admittedly, divine operations of this kind have never been everyday events, but there's no other way of explaining the amazing coincidence that such an edifice should come into existence at the very place whether it was intended that Artemis should be honored.

I've just been reading a fantastic little book, entitled Just Six Numbers, by Britain's Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees. As the title suggests, this well-written and inspired text by 65-year-old Baron Rees of Ludlow presents half-a-dozen numbers whose precise values have determined the kind of cosmos in which we exist. The strange thing about the precise values of these six numbers is that, if any one of them were slightly different, we would simply not be here today as human beings in the Cosmos, for the "familiar" Cosmos, and we along with it, could never have existed if the six numbers had been different.

The small book by Rees is perfectly readable and fascinating. Here's a comment from the New York Times: "Manages to be both a deep and an accessible book, and it answers a lot of the questions produced by natural wonderment. A marvelous little book." [I love the expression "natural wonderment".] So, you might like to buy it and find out for yourself what each number represents.

Rees designates his six fundamental numbers by exotic symbols. I was particularly struck by the case of the second crucial number, epsilon, whose value happens to be 0.007. Physicists say that this value of epsilon represents the force of the strong interaction that holds together the protons and neutrons in an atomic nucleus. When the fusion reactions in the Sun convert hydrogen into helium (like an endless series of explosions of hydrogen bombs), Einstein's equation E = mc2 indicates that 0.007 of the mass of the hydrogen disappears, transformed into the heat that enables us to exist. Now, we might wonder what would have happened if the epsilon value were slightly different to 0.007, say 0.005 or 0.009. Well, without going into details, we can say that the complex chemistry that has given rise to life on Earth could have never become a reality if epsilon were not in the range of 0.006 to 0.008.

Rees demonstrates that there are similar constraints in the case of the other five all-important numbers. To put it bluntly, we are faced with an amazing set of six values that appear to have been chosen precisely (by Whom?) in such a way that we humans have been able to appear here on Earth. "How curious! How bizarre! And what a coincidence! "

How might we explain such an amazing set of coincidences? Well, one possible answer that springs into the mind is that things might have unfolded in much the same way that the goddess Isis directed the Seine to flow through the middle of Paris, while the goddess Artemis dropped into Ephesus to build herself a temple. That's to say, God would have sat down in front of His personal computer and twiddled the values of the six crucial numbers until He got them right: exactly what would be necessary to insert us humans into the Big Picture.

But there's an infinitely simpler explanation. Today, Professor Rees and the rest of us privileged mortals are able to marvel at the amazing coincidences behind the six values for the obvious reason that, if these particular values didn't hold, then we wouldn't be here to talk about anything at all!

In general, this line of reasoning is referred to as the anthropic principle, and it's the only sane approach to posing and answering the fundamental question: "Why is there Life in the Cosmos? " When I wake up of a morning, I never ask myself: "Isn't it amazing that I'm still alive? " On the contrary, I declare: "Apparently I'm still alive. That's profoundly wonderful! "

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Cosmic catechism

We can summarize what we know about why we're here in the Cosmos. For want of a better title, I would call such a résumé a cosmic catechism... but the name is of no importance, so long as the information is scientifically valid (indeed true), succinct and comprehensible.

The processes of Creation have unfolded in three giant steps, which would appear to be profoundly different in their respective nature. I say "would appear to be" because we might be short-sighted in looking upon each of these three dimensions of Creation as an autonomous process of a specific nature. After all, the end result has consisted of bringing the Cosmos (including us humans) to its present state of development, and this achievement (if it can be thought of as such) seems to indicate that the three giant steps unfolded, not independently, but rather in some kind of cosmic syzygy.

• The primordial dimension of Creation was the so-called bootstrap happening, leading from Nothingness to Being (somethingness) and characterized by the Big Bang, that I evoked in my article of 2 May 2008 entitled Boot story [display].

• The second dimension of Creation was the miraculous but spontaneous and perfectly natural development of a mechanism for replication and procreation, culminating in the presence in the universe of Life... at least on the planet Earth, but surely in countless other places too. I evoked this dimension in my article of 25 December 2006 entitled The meaning of life [display].

• Finally, the third (ongoing) dimension of Creation is the work of the spectacular phenomenon of natural selection and evolution, discovered by Charles Darwin. I evoked this dimension in my article of 28 April 2008 entitled God is an aircraft [display].

It's quite amazing that this three-step structure of Creation is symbolized beautifully, in a poetic fashion, by the fuzzy Christian dogma of the Holy Trinity:

• God the Father can be thought of as corresponding to the mysterious primeval "transformation" of Nothingness into Somethingness.

• The Son, Jesus, is a symbol of the creation of Life: an event that was so extraordinary that it might be described as quasi-miraculous.

• The Holy Spirit represents, as it were, the third and final dimension of Creation: the constant evolution of novel forms of life.

This vague parallelism between our scientific catechism of the Cosmos and the theological notions of Christianity is, of course, superficial, and I am not suggesting for a moment that there is anything of a serious scientific nature in the Christian dogma. On the other hand, in trying to amalgamate the three dimensions of the Creation process, we run into mysteries of an almost Byzantine kind.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Boot story

Computer users are familiar with the verb boot, meaning to restart the machine. The full term is bootstrap, which is a noun designating the small leather loops at the back of boots, enabling you to pull them on.

There's an old metaphorical expression in English, "pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps", which means to take care of oneself, or get oneself out of dire straits, without the help of anybody else. It is said that the absurd image of pulling on your bootstraps in order to raise your whole body (into the air, say) was used for the first time in the apocryphal tales of Baron Munchausen, who apparently employed this technique to save himself from drowning in a swamp. I haven't been able to find any precise extract in the 1895 edition of the novel in English by Rudolph Erich Raspe, so I imagine that the anecdote appeared in one of the numerous literary remakes of the alleged adventures of Munchausen.

Meanwhile, I take this opportunity of pointing out that a new and complete edition of Terry Gilliam's fabulous film will be coming out shortly on DVD [I'm awaiting my copy from Amazon] to mark the 20th anniversary of its production.

Talking about boots, my room-mate at the La Parisière clinic in February used to operate his own shoe-manufacturing business in Romans, and he gave me the address of one of the only surviving small firms in this domain, started by an Armenian family in 1945.

Their tiny boutique is located on the river front, a few hundred meters up from the great church called the collégiale Saint-Barnard, where the Dauphiné province was handed over officially to the king of France in 1349. My friend had warned me that the range of shoes made by Tchilinguirian is narrow. But, if you come across a suitable model and size, you're able to purchase a product whose quality is likely to be far superior to what you find in ordinary shoes shops. I was lucky, for I found an ideal pair of boots:

Let's get back to the bootstrap metaphor, as used in computing. To understand what it's all about, we should think of a system that exists in one of two states. At the beginning, it's turned off, like an unlit lamp. Later, it's turned on, and ready to perform tasks. The general idea is that the system moves itself, as it were, from a state of total inactivity, to an operational state. And that transition is what we refer to as a bootstrap process.

Somebody suggested an easy-to-understand illustration of the bootstrap concept in the context of bridge construction. Imagine a ravine in the jungle, over which we would like to build a sturdy footbridge. How can we use a bootstrap approach to take us from the no-bridge state to the sturdy-footbridge state? The demonstration works most effectively if we imagine two men, on opposite edges of the ravine. One of them uses a bow and arrow to shoot the free end of a piece of string across the ravine. Once the string is secured, a lightweight pulley is attached to it in such a way as to make it possible to drag a rope across the the ravine. Then the rope is used in a similar fashion to drag a steel cable across the ravine. And so on, using increasingly heavier and stronger cables, up until there's a full-fledged footbridge across the ravine.

These days, one has the impression that a computer is turned on just like a light switch, so the notion of the machine "pulling itself up by its own bootstraps" doesn't really come across explicitly, let alone vividly. In the early days of commercial computing [in the late '50s and early '60s, when I worked as a programer with IBM in Sydney], we were truly obliged to understand the bootstrap concept, because the computer's memory would be totally empty, and we had to invent techniques for coaxing the machine to "swallow" fragments of code up until there was a complete executable program in its memory. In those days, the piece of string to be shot across the ravine took the form of a primordial instruction that we would spell out using switches on the machine's console. That instruction would ask the computer to read in, say, a punched card, containing further instructions, and so on. We could even sympathize with the poor machine straining to acquire a sufficiently rich stack of code to make itself useful.

Today, the bootstrap metaphor is often used in an unexpected context, of a far more profound nature than footbridges across ravines or programs in the memory of computers. The fundamental philosophical question posed by LeibnizWhy is there being rather than nothingness?—is essentially a bootstrap enigma. In the beginning, long before Darwinian evolution got into swing, what kind of a bootstrap process might have occurred to make possible the transition from apparent nothingness into somethingness? One thing is certain. In accordance with the bootstrap concept, this transition must have started in an amazingly simple fashion... because there isn't room for much complexity in the state we refer to as nothingness! So, this process couldn't possibly have been inaugurated by an infinitely complex entity of the "God" kind. That last sentence doesn't say much, and yet, for an atheist such as me, it says everything. In the beginning, "God" was certainly absent.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Cosmic video

I'm most impressed by this beautifully simple video:

The association of religious music with the images of astronomical bodies is most effective. Indeed, there's something vaguely "religious" in this vision of the heavenly bodies. Or maybe, inversely, there's something "cosmic" in that fabulous music. Or both.