xkcd: Squirrel Plan

I have to say that this is along the lines of what I think about when people confidently assert the existence of the multiverse, their favorite interpretation of quantum physics, or any other metaphysical assertion.

via xkcd: Squirrel Plan.


Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Why the Exodus, as commonly understood, probably never happened

Exodus Gods and Kings posterAt the urging of one of my relatives, I watched Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings‘.  This relative, knowing my skeptical nature, thought I might enjoy Scott’s naturalistic (mostly) take on the events in the story.  I’m sorry to say that I didn’t really enjoy the movie, which is unusual for me because I usually do enjoy Scott’s films.  It wasn’t exactly terrible, but it didn’t entertain me much.  I can’t say exactly why, but I never felt much connection with the movie’s characters.

Not that my dislike had anything to do with it being a religious movie.  I enjoy lots of fantasy movies, and for me, Biblical movies, particularly ones that focus on the Old Testament, fall into that genre.  I watch them in the same spirit that I watch movies about Greek mythology.  That’s probably why Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘The Ten Commandments‘ remains one of my favorite movies.  If it comes on TV, there’s a good chance that I’ll watch it.

But, my dislike of Scott’s movie aside, something that my relative didn’t quite grasp is that, I’m not skeptical of the Exodus story because of the supernatural events (although I am definitely skeptical of the supernatural events themselves), but because I’ve found that trying to find naturalistic explanations for the events gives far too much credence to the overall narrative.  Exodus as commonly understood, probably never happened, not even a supernatural free version of it.

To understand why, we need to start with the fact that most Biblical scholars date the writing of the Biblical books that deal with Moses and the Exodus (the Torah or Pentateuch), in stages, during the period between the 9th and 5th centuries BC.  In other words, the stories that we now have were written several centuries after the events they describe.  It’s commonly accepted that these stories were oral traditions before they were committed to writing.  And oral traditions evolve substantially over centuries.

Of course, many will insist that the Biblical traditions are an exception.  But there are other issues.  No archaeological evidence has been found for hundreds of thousands of Hebrews wandering around in the desert during the relevant periods.  It’s natural to wonder what evidence might still be around after thirty centuries, but for a population that size, based on the evidence left for other historical events, most archaeologists feel that there should be some, and there isn’t any.

Maybe the host wasn’t as large as the Bible describes.  A smaller population might not have left as much evidence.  Perhaps, but the problems don’t stop there.  Not only does archaeology not back up the Biblical narrative, it flat out contradicts it.  Israel Finkelstein, an Israeli archaeologist, has noted that Genesis, Exodus, and other early Bible books are more reflective of the political situation in the 8th century BC, rather than the one in the 15-13th centuries BC, the period when the Exodus would have taken place.


Image credit: Wikipedia

A big issue is that Egyptian territory in the period between 1500-1200 BC didn’t end at the Sinai peninsula.   It included Canaan as a collection of vassal city states.  If Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and to the promised land, he led them right back into Egyptian territory, an important detail that the Bible never mentions.  During the period when Joshua was supposedly conquering the promised land, he would have been fighting Egypt over it.

And the Joshua conquests represent another problem.  There’s virtually no archaeological evidence of a violent invasion, as described in the Book of Joshua, during the historical period when it was supposed to have happened.  This has led most archaeologists to conclude that the Israeli people arose peacefully in the highlands, gradually swelling their ranks from the Canaanite cities after they fell into decline during the Bronze Age Collapse.

Of course, there are people who claim they’ve found evidence for the Biblical narratives, but the majority of archaeologists don’t appear to be convinced.  There’s always an industry to tell people what they want to hear, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that there are TV shows and books claiming to have found evidence, sometimes with negative remarks about how blighted the archaeological profession is for not accepting it.

(Note that it would be wrong to think of this as a dispute between religious archaeologists and non-religious ones.  Many professional archaeologists are devout believers, but most don’t let their faith cloud their professional assessment of the evidence, or lack thereof.)

Now, it does remain possible that the Exodus is ultimately based on some kind of historical event.  Moses’s name is Egyptian, a common suffix meaning “son of”.  Moses might have been an exiled Egyptian who simply dropped the family part of his name.  And he might have led a group of, say, Shasu nomads from Midian or Edom north into Canaan, perhaps bringing the cult of Yahweh with them.  This group might have formed the nucleus of what would eventually become Israel.  But until someone finds an ancient inscription pertaining to these events, it’s all speculation.

Right now, the earliest historical reference to Israel is the Merneptah Stele, an Egyptian monument reciting the exploits of their military.  It includes the line, “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.”  Not much to go on, but enough to tell us that there was a people called “Israel” in Canaan at the time of this stele’s creation, sometime in the period 1213-1203 BC, and that these people had conflict with Egypt.  Maybe the tales from that conflict eventually evolved into the Exodus narrative.  But again, that’s speculation.

So, for me, finding naturalistic explanations for the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, as Scott’s movie attempts to do, is simply messing up a thrilling founding myth.  I suspect devout Jews or Christians probably weren’t satisfied by it, and neither were skeptics like me.  I think if you’re going to make a Bible movie, you should go all in and at least make it fun.

Along with numerous archaeological and historical articles, my views on this subject were informed by the following books: ‘Who Wrote the Bible‘ by Richard Friedman, and especially ‘The Bible Unearthed‘ by Neil Silberman and Israel Finkelstein.  If you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend them.

Posted in Religion | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

Interstellar: more accurate than the typical sci-fi movie, but still had issues

Interstellar posterThis week, I watched the movie Interstellar, the Christopher Nolan film about travel to another galaxy, a black hole, a wormhole, and other exotic environments.  I enjoyed it immensely, although I also had some issues with it.

In the film, at some point in the future, the Earth is dying due to a global crop blight.  With society gradually falling apart, a wormhole to another galaxy suddenly appears near Saturn, created by an unknown intelligence, and the last vestiges of NASA send desperate missions through it to find viable worlds.

Based on the limited data from those missions, three worlds look promising, and NASA sends one last mission to find out which of the planets is the best candidate.  The movie is about that mission, led by the main character, Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey), and the efforts of those on Earth, including Cooper’s daughter Murphy, to develop the science necessary to manipulate gravity and allow transport of large numbers of humanity to the new worlds.

Much was made leading up to the film’s release about its scientific accuracy.  I found the film to be far more accurate than the typical science fiction movie, but given the appalling science in most science fiction movies, that isn’t saying much.  Still, although it does take scientific liberties, it is still a cut above common space movies.

So first, from a science perspective, here are the things I liked about the movie:

  • The exterior space scenes happen without sound.  Since there’s no sound in space, a fact which most movies ignore, that immediately scored points with me.  The only thing we hear in space scenes is the musical score.  I’m hoping that with the success of this movie and Gravity, that future film and TV will be inspired to get their act together on this.
  • The only artificial gravity in the movie comes from spinning the spaceship.  A lot of movies have done this of course, but this is the only one I can recall having one of the characters get sick from the coriolis effect.
  • No background stars.  In space, when the sun or any similar source of light is visible, the background stars can’t be seen, just as they can’t be seen on Earth (although in space there’s no atmosphere to make the sky blue).  It’s only when something, like a planet, is blocking that source of light that the stars can generally be seen.
  • Although it required plot holes, I liked that Nolan made this a movie about exploration.  That rarely happens in space movies anymore and it’s a setting I miss.  (Yeah, I know, this one isn’t strictly about science, but I liked it anyway.)
  • I liked how much general relativity figured into the story.  It was a major plot point throughout the movie.  This is science fiction as its best, when it exposes the audience to scientific concepts they may not be familiar with.
  • Along those lines, I liked that the wormhole and black hole are shown to be spherical, as opposed to the usual two dimensional holes in space depicted by Star Trek and other science fiction media.
  • At one desperate point in the movie, the crew uses an orbital slingshot maneuver and an ad-hoc staging system.  This is unusually well rooted in actual spaceflight logistics (for film science fiction).
  • In general, the limitations of fuel is an ongoing issue throughout the movie.  Since most space movies (and space fiction in general for that matter) ignore fuel constraints, this is a welcome change.
  • I thought the AI robots in the film were very well done with a physically cool design.  I was apprehensive that one of them might turn out to be evil or something, but the film completely avoided that trope.
  • There is some good philosophical and scientific perspective dialog in the movie.

Ok, so, here are the issues I had with it.

  • At the initial launch, a multi-stage rocket system, similar to modern launches, is needed.  However, at the remote planets, the shuttles are able to land and relaunch back into orbit, including on worlds with gravity near or greater than Earth’s.  Not exactly consistent.
  • The operation of the shuttles seemed too much like the traditional space movie conception of something between an airplane and a boat.  The movie also implied that they flew this way in space, seemingly ignoring the actual Newtonian dynamics of spaceflight.
  • While I enjoyed the exploration plot immensely, realistically, given their capabilities in the movie, the whole thing could have been done with just the robots.  The idea that an extremely resource strapped NASA wouldn’t have seized this option is implausible.  Of course, that would have made for a far less dramatic story.
  • The ice clouds on one of the planets which are solid enough to land on, is implausible, at least as something that would remain above the ground.  (A thick layer of frozen atmosphere on the ground would have worked, but been far less cool.)
  • There was a neutron star in the black hole system.  I was sad that we never saw it.  (Although I have to admit to having no idea what it should look like.)
  • The philosophical dialog mentioned above was coupled with some nonsense dialog involving the power of love and higher level dimensions, which eventually becomes a plot point.  I suspect I’m in the minority, but I consider it lazy writing when true love is used as a plot device to have characters do something impossible.  I’ve learned to tolerate it in flighty Doctor Who episodes, but in a film which ostensibly is trying to be scientifically accurate, I found it grating.
  • I linked to a post on the plausibility of wormholes (or lack thereof) just before this film was released; the TL:DR is that wormholes require the existence of exotic mass and the regular mass of millions of stars.  The film actually dodged this issue a bit, by having someone else create the wormhole.  But it also raised the question of why the wormhole creators didn’t just help more directly rather than requiring mortally perilous missions to another galaxy.  (Maybe they were expecting robots to be sent.)
  • I was disappointed that the one character that discusses human survival instincts and the distinction it provides between us and robots, does so in a context that seemed to discredit what they were saying.

While I geeked out to the science aspects of the movie, I found the actual story to be a bit uneven.  The first half of the movie felt slow to me, although it picks up dramatically in the second half.  The dull parts annoy me, because it’s an ongoing source of frustration that the few films that have tried to be scientifically accurate have historically been dull.  Anyone familiar with science fiction literature knows that there’s no reason, other than laziness, for this false dichotomy to exist in movies.

That said, I enjoyed the movie enough to watch much of it a second time (fast forwarding over the dull spots).  As I mentioned above, I’m hoping the movie sets a new bar for space movies in general, in the same manner that Saving Private Ryan inspired most war movies to be more realistic.  Only time will tell.

Posted in Science Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Yep, Mars One appears to be a scam

I’ve written critically about Mars One before, just evaluating their claims at face value.  But it appears that I wasn’t nearly skeptical enough.  Mars One appears to be a scam.  A Mars One “finalist” candidate explains why: Mars One Finalist Explains Exactly How It’s Ripping Off Supporters — Matter — Medium.

“When you join the ‘Mars One Community,’ which happens automatically if you applied as a candidate, they start giving you points,” Roche explained to me in an email. “You get points for getting through each round of the selection process (but just an arbitrary number of points, not anything to do with ranking), and then the only way to get more points is to buy merchandise from Mars One or to donate money to them.”

“Community members” can redeem points by purchasing merchandise like T-shirts, hoodies, and posters, as well as through gifts and donations: The group also solicits larger investment from its supporters. Others have been encouraged to help the group make financial gains on flurries of media interest. In February, finalists received a list of “tips and tricks” for dealing with press requests, which included this: “If you are offered payment for an interview then feel free to accept it. We do kindly ask for you to donate 75% of your profit to Mars One.”

…So, here are the facts as we understand them: Mars One has almost no money. Mars One has no contracts with private aerospace suppliers who are building technology for future deep-space missions. Mars One has no TV production partner. Mars One has no publicly known investment partnerships with major brands. Mars One has no plans for a training facility where its candidates would prepare themselves. Mars One’s candidates have been vetted by a single person, in a 10-minute Skype interview.

I can’t say I’m shocked.  The initiative always seemed a bit suspicious to me, but I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t simply idealistic naive organizers, or cynical scam artists.  It’s looking more and more like the latter.  We may eventually establish a human presence on Mars, but it doesn’t seem like Mars One will have anything to do with it.

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Black Sails and the dynamics of power

blacksails-tumblr-avatarI recently discovered  the TV series ‘Black Sails‘.  Its a show on Starz about pirates in the Bahamas during the golden age of piracy.  It’s a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson‘s classic novel ‘Treasure Island‘.  If you’ve read that book or seen film adaptations of it, then you’re familiar with the characters Long John Silver, Captain Flint, and Billy Bones.  This is a show, ostensibly set about 20 years before the events of Treasure Island, that shows these characters in their hey day.

One of the main characters is Captain James Flint, brilliantly played by Toby Stevens.  Flint is often discussed in a hushed fearful tone in Treasure Island, despite being dead for years by the time of that story.  But the Flint of this series is very much alive, and although a character capable of calculated and breathtaking ruthlessness, has complex motivations and a tragic back story that are unexpectedly sympathetic.

Another major character is John Silver, well played by Luke Arnold.  Silver joins the crew in the first episode, and we quickly see that this is an early version of the charismatic, opportunistic, but treacherous figure of Treasure Island.  In addition to those from Treasure Island, the show has a number of characters loosely based on historical pirates, notably Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, and Anne Bonny.

The continuity between the show and the classic novel is a bit loose.  The show is set around 1715 in and around Nassau, to place it firmly in the “golden age of piracy” and during a time when Nassau effectively served as a pirate headquarters of a sort.  However, a Stevenson purist might point out that, although the book avoids naming the exact year of the story, clues in the book set it in the late 1750s or later, which would actually put an implausible 40 years between the stories.

That said, the production values of Black Sails are excellent.  The atmosphere of 1715 Nassau and on the sea vessels has an authentic feel.  The stories are well written, dramatic, and with characters having realistic motivations and dilemmas.  One key factor that the show deals with, rarely mentioned in pirate dramas, is that pirates need a market to sell their plunder.  Pirates of the Caribbean, this is not.

But the thing I find most interesting about the show is its frank portrayal of the dynamics of power and authority.  The captains, who are elected to their positions, are constantly concerned about how their crews will react to their orders, with the possibility of being deposed always present.  Many leaders on the show, such as Flint, have to balance their own agendas against the needs and desires of their crew, their partners, and other players in the Nassau society.

This is a welcome change from the way that power is usually portrayed in fiction.  Often organizations are portrayed as simply an extension of the leader’s desires, who usually hold their position due to their aura of greatness, vision, or some other idealistic characteristic.  The idea that each of that leader’s followers are following for their own particular reasons is rarely mentioned.

But in Black Sails, every captain is aware that failure to find prizes for his crew (who work for a share of the profits) will eventually lead to his replacement.  Every captain has to be careful about antagonizing Eleanor Guthrie, the Nassau business woman who purchases and resells their plunder.  (And Guthrie herself has to be careful about antagonizing the captains.)  Every captain, when considering a new course of action, particularly a risky one, is aware that they will have to sell it to their crew.

On the show, the idea that everyone must have a vested interest in a course of action is a stark reality.  This is easy to see on a show about pirates, about criminals, who are generally each looking out for their own interests.  (Although loyalty, friendship, and love do play crucial roles in the society depicted.)

But the dynamics on the show are simply a starker version of what any leader has to deal with, whether it be in war, business, or politics.  Leaders often find themselves at the intersection of external pressures from customers, partners, and competitors, and internal pressures from their organization.  Every leader has to balance these pressures.  Failure to do so adequately can often result in their position becoming untenable.

The reality is that most leaders are better thought of as middlemen between their followers and external interests.  Often their power and skill come from navigating the dynamics of those pressures.  A metaphor I’ve often found helpful is to think of a leader as a surfer on a wave.  If you’d never seen a wave before, it might be tempting to think of the surfer as controlling the wave.  But the reality is that the surfer’s skill and energy are simply involved in staying on top of that wave.  Likewise, a leader has to competently surf on top of those often competing interests.

It’s not particularly controversial that this is the reality in democracies, but, although the thresholds of trouble may be higher, even kings and dictators have to understand it, at least if they want to hold on to power.  Business managers, while not elected, often have to be aware that their employees may leave if they don’t take their interests into account.  And military leaders always have to be aware of the limits of what orders their troops will accept.

This is one reason why I often think it is usually misguided to try to convince politicians of things.  If you want a politician to do something,  you must convince their power base, their constituents (i.e. voters) and, if possible, their financiers.  Any competent politician is far more concerned about what their constituents will accept or tolerate than about some abstract idea of what they should do.  The ones who aren’t, usually don’t get re-elected.

In our society, successful leaders are almost always pulled by the sentiment of the people.  Often, when it appears that they’re not, it’s usually a case of a leader having a better understanding of where the sentiments of their constituents are than the current conventional wisdom.

Anyway, if you’re okay with the language, violence, and explicit sex scenes, which most cable shows have these days, Black Sails is a series worth checking out.  It has a surprising amount of depth.  Season 2 is currently playing on Starz, but I had to buy season 1 off of Amazon.

Posted in Society | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Just in case you’re not there yet, homeopathy doesn’t work

As I’ve discussed a few times, I’ve been dealing with shoulder pain for the last few months.  As I’ve been fighting through this, one of the things I’ve been reminded of is how many purported breakthrough or unconventional cures are offered out there, that promise to avoid the often frustrating limitations and ambiguity of evidence based medicine.  For someone suffering from health ailments, the siren call of these too-good-to-be-true miracle solutions is often overpowering.  It’s hard to be a skeptic when you’re in that situation, even though that’s when it’s most necessary.

One area that remains a powerful lure for many people is the promise of homeopathy.  But that promise is an empty one:  There is no scientific case for homeopathy: the debate is over | Edzard Ernst | Comment is free | The Guardian.

In Exeter, we conducted trials, surveys and reviews of homeopathy in the faint hope that we might discover something important. What we did find was sobering:

Our trials failed to show that homeopathy is more than a placebo.

Our reviews demonstrated that the most reliable of the 230 or so trials of homeopathy ever published are also not positive.

Studies with animals confirmed the results obtained on humans.

Surveys and case reports suggested that homeopathy can be dangerous.

The claims made by homeopaths to cure conditions like cancer, asthma or even Ebola were bogus.

The promotion of homeopathy is not ethical.

Now, the internationally highly respected Australian National Health and Medical Research Council have conducted what certainly is the most thorough and independent evaluation of homeopathy in its 200-year-long history. Already their preliminary report had confirmed that homeopathy is nothing other than treatment with placebos.

There are many unknowns in life.  Often these unknowns are unsettling or terrifying, but some appear to offer a ray of hope.  I’m not particularly fond of squelching people’s ray of hope, but false hope can lead to dangerous decisions, not the least because it could steer us away from what might be limited but realistic chances for help.

Homeopathy is one of those false hopes.  It’s one that I’ve seen many highly educated people put their faith in, even after being told that scientifically it is nonsense.  It’s popularity is a testament to the power of the human mind to believe something that it desperately wants to be true.  But it doesn’t deserve that faith.  At best it’s an utter waste of money, at worst it’s dangerous snake oil.

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Alien search won’t doom planet Earth, say scientists who want to contact ET

It’s interesting how these related stores seem to come in batches: Alien search won’t doom planet Earth, say scientists who want to contact ET | Science | The Guardian.

Fears that a major program to contact alien life could spell disaster for planet Earth were dismissed as “paranoid” on Thursday by scientists who hope to beam messages to distant worlds from powerful radio telescopes.

Researchers at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti) Institute in California want to broadcast greetings to potentially habitable planets in the hope of receiving a reply, but the proposal has met with serious objections from critics, including the cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who claim that yelling into space is reckless.

…Under an active Seti program, messages would be encoded in powerful radio signals and sent repeatedly for hundreds of years to planets that lie in the habitable zones around stars. Seth Shostak, director of the Seti Institute, advocates beaming the entire contents of the internet, giving an intelligent recipient the opportunity to decipher the history of human culture, the rules of cricket, and countless hours of porn.

…Active Seti, as the approach is called, is not universally supported though. Hawking has warned that Earth’s own history provides ample evidence that an encounter with more advanced ETs could go badly for humans. By drawing attention to ourselves, he notes, Earthlings might suffer the same fate as befell Native Americans when Columbus landed in America. Others agree. Simon Conway Morris, an evolutionary paleobiologist at Cambridge, has urged governments to prepare for the worst because aliens might be as violent and greedy as humans – or worse.

I did a post yesterday talking about how much of a long shot SETI is.  Active SETI is an attempt by SETI scientists to increase their chances.  In my mind, the results of Active SETI fall into three possibilities:

  1. Civilizations are very rare and the nearest is millions of light years away, at least.  In this case, we’d be beaming out messages into the dark, and no one would be hearing them.  Unfortunately, for reasons I’ve written about before, I think this is the most likely scenario.
  2. Civilizations are pervasive, but interstellar travel is unfeasible.  (Which is why aliens aren’t here.)  In this case, neighboring civilizations may hear our signal, respond, and an exchange of ideas, across decades and centuries, could ensue.  Some of these exchanges might dramatically increase our knowledge and capabilities.  Both civilizations could be enriched.  This is the scenario SETI hopes for.
  3. Civilizations are pervasive, interstellar travel is feasible, but for some unknown reason, on one has visited us yet.

It’s in considering why 3 might be true, that people become concerned about Active SETI.  Would we be shouting out into the wilderness and making our presence known to hungry predators?  Could it be that the reason no one is broadcasting is because it’s dangerous?  Science fiction stories abound with scenarios like this, such as Fred Saberhagan’s berserkers or Alastair Reynold’s inhibitors: alien machinery that seeks out either life, or specifically intelligent life, and, for some reason, destroys it.

It’s worth noting that if interstellar travel is feasible, the Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years circling the galaxy, with unmistakable signs of life in the spectrum of light reflected off our planet.  If anything were interested in annihilating us, conquering us, eating us, or whatever, we’ve been an easy target for a very long time, for almost one third the life of the universe.  Even if all they want is raw resources, those are a lot easier to get in the Kuiper or asteroid belts without having to deal with gravity wells or pesky resisting natives.

The only scenario where we might be in danger is if there is something out there that just doesn’t like intelligent life.  While I can’t see a way to eliminate this possibility, it’s worth considering Shostak’s retort about this concern.

But the Seti scientists have now fought back. “It’s clearly too late to worry about provoking aliens with deliberate transmissions. Any alien society that is advanced enough to launch an attack and vaporise Swindon can easily pick up the broadcasts we’ve been sending into space since the second world war,” said Shostak,

He argues that a ban on sending signals into space would have to proscribe airport and military radar systems and even city lighting which can betray the existence of technology on Earth. “Such paranoid actions would cripple the activities of every succeeding generation of humanity,” he told the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Jose.

In other words, if there is a danger from broadcasting, we crossed that rubicon long ago.  There is already a sphere at least 70 light years in radius announcing our presence.

Of course, given that, you have to wonder how likely sending deliberate messages will be to provoke a response if all the voluminous content already broadcasted hasn’t.  (In the movie ‘Contact’, the aliens initially responded by broadcasting back the first thing they received from us, a speech by Adolf Hitler.)

So, my attitude toward Active SETI is that it’s still a longshot, but that it’s unlikely to put us in any danger we’re not already in, a danger I think is pretty unlikely anyway.

Unless I’m missing something?

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments