Saturday, September 24, 2016

A Good Idea? A Bad Idea? Both? Neither? Yes!

Writing in The Atlantic, Sam Kriss suggests that the cosmological concept of the multiverse, which was designed to solve a problem, may have created some much larger ones. In fact, he says, the concept could be responsible for "rotting" our culture.

Some background first. The "multiverse" is an idea that supposed to help answer why we live in the universe we do. See, there are a number of basic physical phenomena that are pretty finely balanced and if they were to have swayed a little this way or that, life might not have been possible. Which is fine except when you hold the principle that there isn't now and never has been any force guiding or shaping those phenomena. Because the odds that a universe would develop where even matter is possible, let alone life forms that reflect on the meaning and purpose of their existences, are close enough to impossible that it doesn't make much of a difference.

One solution is called the "anthropic principle." In its most limited version, all it says is that we know the universe formed this way because we're here to observe it. In its strongest version, it's not really distinguishable from creationism. There are other points along a continuum between those two poles. Some folks reject the principle completely, though, even in its mildest form. There is no guiding hand or principle behind the creation of the universe and it was all random. Which gets us back to those impossible odds at getting us the universe we have.

But the multiverse proposes that the universe we live in isn't the only one. At every point of creation where more than one thing could happen, all of them did and each created a branching path of reality. So "somewhere" there's a universe where gravity varies with the cube of distance instead of the square of it. And "somewhere" there's a universe where matter was spread so evenly following the Big Bang that no planets or stars could ever form.

Kriss notes that as a concept strictly limited to physical properties, the multiverse does solve some issues for strict materialists. But as the idea expands beyond physical laws, it can have a real wet-blanket impact on things. Imagine that every time you made a decision, the possibility that you didn't chose was chosen, but in another universe. Every time you said "Yes," another you in another reality said, "No." Every time you decided not to do something, another you in another reality decided to do it. Every time Donald Trump said something stupid, in another reality another Donald Trump didn't. Every time Hillary Clinton wasn't truthful, in another reality another Hillary Clinton was.

Yeah, I don't buy those last two either.

Anyway, Kriss says that knowing that none of our decisions actually makes much of a difference makes us figure, "Why bother?" Why write a book or record an album or paint a picture when there are countless other realities in which we won't, and which will get along just fine without whatever it is we would have produced.

I'm of two minds about Kriss's article. On the one hand, I think he sees the multiverse concept as having penetrated much more deeply into culture than it has. There's just not that many people who know about it, let alone accept it as a way of understanding reality. Plus, it's not like culture needs advanced theoretical physics concepts to rot. Eli Roth has managed to create plenty of decay with just plain ol' retread mindless gore, for example. And although one might wonder if one universe is enough to contain Kanye West's opinion of himself, the multiverse concept is not required to observe how he and his famous-for-no-good-reason spouse have absorbed an incredibly outsized share of public attention.

On the other hand, there's something to the idea that a reality that includes all possibilities takes away much of a reason to choose from among them. Why do A when the me who does B will have a completely different result that's just as real as mine? A belief that everything -- not just the basic laws of physics -- is involved in creating new slices of the multiverse could certainly bring people to wonder what point there might be to their choices. So Kriss may just be ahead of a curve that will one day be just as damaging as he believes.

But I guess you'd say someone like me, mired as I am in my orthodox Christian theism, sort of cheats around the issue. Not because I believe the universe is 6,000 years old or the dinosaurs died out because Noah was exercising his mammalian privilege -- but because I believe our choices and actions definitely matter. They matter not because they represent some kind of unique irrevocable channeling of reality into one lane or another -- but because the choosers matter to the One who has already chosen them. And they will continue to do so, no matter how weird reality gets.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Blow-Up Pub!

Bounce houses and games at kids' parties are common and a lot of fun. Adults may join in, but there haven't always been similar things for them.

There are now, as Boston-based The Paddy Wagon Pub will rent you an inflatable Irish pub in which you may hold your lawn party or gathering. A larger version will hold 80 people but there are also smaller ones. They'll also provide proper Irish food and, of course, proper Irish beverages, if you are of age. It doesn't say on the company's website, but I imagine the catering part of the deal is limited to areas near Boston itself.

Should you be a wee bit outside the area, you can actually buy your own inflatable pub from the outfit in Ireland that makes them. Of course, then you have to provide your own food and beverages.

Although it's doubtless a fun venue for a lawn party or event, there are some things about the inflatable version of the pub that just aren't the same as the real thing. For example, they have no real floor and just rest on the ground. Which means passing out face first because one's consumption of said authentic beverages was just a bit, ah, enthusiastic is not nearly as painful in the blow-up pub. This could be a plus.

But on the down side, some forms of traditional pub entertainment are not advisable. Dart games, for example, are strongly discouraged. And it's best not to let local law enforcement have a breathalyzer anywhere near the deflate valve after the party's over.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Sailing the Seas of Titan

Big Think features an article about how a submarine would be able to explore the hydrocarbon seas of Saturn's moon Titan. It sounds very cool, with the only problem being that such a mission might not get off the ground until 2040. Actuarily speaking, that's a date with a significant chance of not being seen by your humble correspondent, who would very much like to see a mission in which a spacecraft flies a submarine to another planet's moon.

If NASA or another agency does manage to develop this mission, I would suggest the best possible name for the submarine portion of the craft is "Sebastian."

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

So We Do Know Where It Comes From?

According to a new Center for Disease Control study, you should not hug your cat, because it could kill you.

Not intentionally, although that might still happen if you mistakenly offend your furry little psychopath and then fail to appease its wrath with tuna and head scratching. But through catching a bacterial infection commonly called cat scratch fever. The CDC surveyed 13,000 cases over 8 years and discovered that the annual rate of outpatient diagnoses was 4.5 per 100,000, which was apparently more frequent than they anticipated. I know it's supposed to represent a percentage, but the idea of a half a case of cat scratch fever is still silly.

The bacteria are actually carried on fleas that are on the cats rather than on the cats themselves ("Told you so!" -- Augustus de Morgan and Jonathon Swift). So keeping fleas off the pets is a good way to reduce the risk of exposure. Since it's also a good way to reduce your risk of itching like crazy and having a houseful of fleas, a lot of people were already doing that.

Another opinion suggests that a common vector for the disease is the kitty next door, and suggests seeing the doctor so he can give you some cure. Unfortunately there is always the possibility of getting it some more, so it's probably advisable to not antagonize said kitty next door and perhaps try to calm it with a stroke of your hand (Nugent, T.).

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Cheaters Never Prosper...Wait, How Much? Step Aside...

John Warner, writing at Inside Higher Education, comments on a story from The Chronicle of Higher Education about the money to be made in what CHE calls the "new cheating economy." Warner notes that if he went to work for one of the research assistance (wink wink) firms, he could make more money that he's making teaching a course as an adjunct professor.

Warner's writing a blog post rather than a structured article, but he points towards probably one of the biggest factors in this weird topsy-turvy situation: The morphing of a college degree from a signal that the holder has developed some basic elements of a learned character into a credential for employment. Cheating undercuts the whole purpose of the former, but it makes perfect sense for the latter. Because you can't cheat your way into wisdom but you can certainly cut corners to obtain a credential.

Can a person fake understanding Plato? Not with anyone who understands Plato, I'm pretty sure (and that's a subset of individuals that doesn't include me anymore; it's been too long since I had to read him). Handing in a bought paper for a class on Plato won't make up the gap. But if that same person is being hired by, say, a financial firm, is it likely that they'll ever run into a situation where they would need to back up the ideas their hired ghostwriter put in that paper? Nope, all the HR department cares about is whether or not there's a piece of paper somewhere that says diploma on it.

I'm writing not sure of what a solution to this issue would look like. And part of that, I freely admit, is that I've got no good answer for someone who might ask me why they shouldn't cut some corners when the point of the degree is checking off a box on an application instead of developing an understanding of the world we live in and how we might want to live in it.

Monday, September 19, 2016

NASA Looking at Pluto: "What the...?"

Maybe not verbatim, but it's certain that some of the space agency's scientists were shrugging and asking something like that once they got a good look at some data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Our favorite still-really-a-planet-no-matter-what-that-doof-Tyson-says emits X-rays. Now, things that emit X-rays in space are generally hot, gaseous or surrounded with a strong magnetic field. Pluto is 0-for-3 on that score, being cold, rocky and decidedly un-magnetic. Which means that NASA almost didn't use Chandra to study it. The possibility of it emitting the rays Chandra is supposed to detect was considered so low as to not be worth the time.

Using Chandra data as well as that from the recent New Horizons probe flyby, project leader Carey Lisse said that scientists think the radiation comes from Pluto's atmosphere interacting with the solar wind -- streams of charged particles given off by the sun. This means its atmosphere is more substantial than believed and that Pluto's not doing too bad of a job holding onto it. Lisse said that other distant objects may show the same X-ray activity, which will be one of those facts that causes astronomers to get positively giddy with uncertainty.

Because pretty much nothing excites a scientist like something he or she didn't expect to happen. It's more or less why they took the job in the first place.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Performing a Needed Service

Let's pause for a moment and offer a thanks to the folks behind the website and network "Stop Click Bait." Theirs is a work of great importance.

Clickbait, if you are not familiar with it, is the kind of "You'll never guess" headline about some celebrity, oddity or weird event that draws a reader to click on it and generate ad revenue for the company that posted it. Usually, the answer is mundane and disappointing.

Sort of like the 2016 presidential campaign.