The Language of God: A Final Word

The Language of God, Closing Thoughts

By B.J. Marshall

Collins' final word comprises two points: that there is joy and peace in God's creation, and that the war between science and spirit should end. In this post, I'll discuss these two points. I'll conclude by giving a final word of my own as my journey of blogging through a book closes.

Collins' first point fits perfectly well whether one holds to science or spirit or, as I'll rephrase the dichotomy, faith and reason. I do not believe in any supernatural entities, and yet I can unequivocally say that the universe is freaking awesome! I remember having a conversation with my parents shortly after I came out as an atheist, and they questioned me as to what meaning my life had now. I told them that I had far more meaning in my life as an atheist than I did as a Christian. Knowing that this life is the only shot I have, that there is so much awesome and beauty to behold, and that there is so much suck I want to combat so my son and his generation can live all give me ample reason to get out of bed in the morning.

In fact, I am so enamored by the universe, that I find amazement in salt! I had a cold recently and used this salt/baking soda mixture as a sinus rinse. And I would find myself in awe that the elements that combined to form the salt in this little container came from stars. Billions of years ago, stars fused heavier and heavier elements before exploding. And I used some of that stellar explosion to rinse my sinuses - amazing!!

I remember being just as enamored by the idea that surrendering control to God gave one a certain sense of freedom. But now I feel an even greater sense of freedom in that my life is incredibly more purpose-driven now, because I am in the driver's seat. I no longer feel like a pawn in some cosmic game that God plays between good and evil. If I'm going to fight against evil, it's because I want to do it, not because I think I should do it because God would want me to. And, because I live in a society and not as an island, I don't think it follows that acknowledging that I'm in control and responsible for my actions drives me to nihilism or hedonism.

However, in our search for joy and peace, I disagree with Collins as to a likely source of assistance. It comes in a quote from James 1:5:

But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and will be given him.

I wonder how well this tactic worked for faith-healers, who watched their children die of easily curable ailments. I wonder how well that worked for parents killing their children for fear that they're witches. Or how Christians used the Bible to advocate slavery in the U.S.; where was the wisdom in that?

Collins implores us to work together. Even if we discount the previously mentioned source of wisdom, Christians and atheists probably have more similar goals than different goals. However, it's the thought process and methodology behind these goals that differs strongly. We both have views favoring stronger family values; many Christians want to strengthen them by fighting against homosexuality, whereas atheists want to strengthen them by fighting for equal marriage rights. We both have views supporting life, despite us having differing opinions regarding when life begins. We both want to protect our rights; Christians might think they have free speech to hang the Ten Commandments in a courtroom or say a prayer to start of a government meeting while atheists think it violates the Establishment Clause. I am reminded of Representative John Shimkus, who hoped to chair the House Energy Committee, saying that we don't need to worry about global warming because of God's promise to Noah. He might have the same goal as I do - taking care of our environment - but his way of attaining the goal is by punting to God to take care of us whereas mine is to take action based on conclusions I draw from the available evidence.

I think what Collins perceives as the war between science and spirit - faith or reason - is due in large part to the differing sense of what "truth" is. And as long as some viewpoints ground truth on the observations of objective reality while other viewpoints ground truth on subjective, traditional ideas that have no basis in objective reality - or are even contrary to objective reality - then I'm not sure this war will ever end. Sad face.

* * *

Well, that pretty much ends it for my journey through this book. It's been interesting and fun. When I came out as an atheist and my parents gave me "The Case for a Creator" for my birthday, I was a fairly new atheist who needed help understanding all the drivel in that book; this site helped me a lot. I hope my effort has returned the favor.

Thank you for being with me on this journey through The Language of God. I want to extend a warm, heartfelt thanks to Ebonmuse for giving my ideas voice. I really appreciate all the time and effort he's taken to post my series and catalogue it on his blog. I also want to thank all the readers and commenters, especially where you challenged me to think differently and more clearly. You've helped push me over the fence to "strong atheism," you've helped me refine my ability to perceive and explain logical fallacies (especially the ones I've made myself, showing that I still have a lot to learn!), and you've encouraged me to help expand this community.

The road, including this series, hasn't been easy. Since coming out atheist, I've spent a lot of time struggling with how to deal with people whose beliefs I no longer shared. I still struggle with that: I don't necessarily think all beliefs should be tolerated, and yet I find it's very difficult to argue over beliefs (maybe even attack beliefs) without people thinking I'm attacking them personally. I shouldn't be surprised (but I was) when I found the same thing with myself: When my thoughts were challenged, as they were throughout this series, my first reaction was to get defensive. I was kind of amazed at how much mental energy it took to overcome (hopefully successfully) my biases to look at challenging views with an open mind to the possibility that I could learn something.

Thanks again for reading.

Other posts in this series:

May 8, 2011, 9:13 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink7 comments

Weekend Link Miscellany

I've got a couple of links this weekend, some atheism-related, some not:

• Lost a digital camera lately? It made me smile to find out about I Found Your Camera, a website helping to reunite lost cameras with their owners.

• After the terrible and entirely preventable deaths of three people during a "sweat lodge" ceremony last year, the New Age community in Sedona is suffering a tourist backlash. Is this what it takes to make people realize that pseudoscientific gibberish is not harmless?

• "The most rapidly growing religious category today is composed of those Americans who say they have no religious affiliation." An excellent piece on the rise of atheism among young people, due in part to obnoxious evangelicals insisting that conservative politics are a prerequisite for believing in God. (Thanks, guys!)

• NPR covers the founding of a secular student group at historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. (See also).

• The FFRF stops Christian proselytizing at a Tennessee public school. One board member complains that anyone who didn't want to hear the prayers could just "put their fingers in their ears".

• A wonderful meditation on atheist spirituality. (HT: Unequally Yoked)

• And lastly, any female readers want to advance the course of science? My brother is working on his graduate thesis, and he's looking for volunteers to take this study on female sexual response. It's completely anonymous and doesn't collect any personal information.

October 23, 2010, 7:06 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments

Thursday Transcendence

I'll post another update tomorrow, but in the meantime, I came across two videos that were too wonderful not to share:

• First, this montage of stunning moments from the documentary series Planet Earth, with music by the band Sigur Ros;

• and then, this video: a recording of Carl Sagan reading his immortal "Reflections on a Mote of Dust" speech from the book Pale Blue Dot - his words in his voice, set to a slideshow of pictures of the Earth from space.

If you can watch either of these and not get choked up, you're a stronger person than I am.

October 21, 2010, 7:26 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink5 comments

The Language of God: Joy and Wishful Thinking

The Language of God, Chapter 2

By B.J. Marshall

Collins continues on his theme of the universal search for the divine with an argument from emotions. He cites his beloved C.S. Lewis, who describes this in his book Surprised by Joy. Lewis relates how this search, this intense longing, is triggered by moments of joy, which he describes as "an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction" (p.35). After reading this line several times, I still have no idea what this is supposed to mean. I desire something because I want to see a certain state of affairs come to fruition; to be continually thwarted, to have that desire permanently unsatisfied - indeed, unsatisfiable - would seem to me to be amazingly depressing. As a simple example, I desire to donate to secular charities because I want to ease the suffering of others. If I had this desire, but no one was willing to help me and I was not able to achieve this goal myself, I would feel very sad to know that there was nothing I - or anyone - could do to ease the suffering of others. I certainly wouldn't think "Gee, this unsatisfied desire is the best thing ever - way better than all other desires I've ever satisfied!!"

Anyway, back to this longing business that Collins sees as so important to transcending the natural realm. He relates a few examples, ranging from gazing through a telescope to hearing emotionally powerful descants in Christmas songs. But his understanding of emotion doesn't run too deeply: "as an atheist graduate student, I surprised myself by experiencing this same sense of awe and longing..." (p.36). Really? Surprised? Reading Collins' surprise at feeling the very natural senses of awe and longing, it made me wonder what other emotions surprised Collins during his stint as a atheist whose views were so "robust" that they completely shattered at the simple question of an elderly woman. I can picture Collins thinking to himself, "Wow. I really love my girlfriend, but how can that be since I am an atheist?" or "Huh - I find this comedian very funny, but I didn't think atheists could feel this sort of mirth!" Oh, but Collins pieces it all together at the end. You see, when he experienced the emotions prompted by the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven's Eroica following the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Olympics, "for a few moments, I was lifted out of my materialist worldview into an indescribable spiritual dimension" (p.36). See, atheists? The reason you get surprised at your emotions is because they transcend you into another realm.

Sadly, this reminded me of an e-mail conversation I had with my Catholic priest. I came out to my family and closest friends as an atheist last year, and I stopped attending church. I e-mailed my priest asking him what he thought the best argument for God was. If you had ever heard his sermons, you would know him to be very intellectual, well-read, and eloquent. I was expecting some reply from him along the lines of what Plantinga might say about warranted belief or W.L.Craig's Kalam Cosmological Argument. Instead, here is the response I got:

"I don't think arguments really do it for me. Our training was in Neo-Scholasticism and the Aristotelian arguments. Far be it for me to second guess St. Thomas Aquinas, but for me the flashpoint is pure and simple---LOVE. If there is love there is God. And I've experienced love."

I have a difficult time expressing how incredibly disappointed I was in that response. It's only marginally better than a wise friend who told me that he had doubts about God but came to faith through Pascal's Wager.

So Collins wonders what we are to make of these experiences. He posits that, if it's anything like the Moral Law, maybe these emotions are signposts pointing to something larger than us. He asserts that the atheist view is that we are not to trust these longings as indications of the supernatural, and that ascribing those to God is really just "wishful thinking, inventing an answer because we want it to be true" (p.37). I agree that emotions do not point to the supernatural, but I would not say it's just wishful thinking. In fact, I'd say it's a lack of thinking. Collins, from whom I get the impression he simply thinks humans are uncapable of wonderful emotions without God to anchor them, is content to just punt to God; otherwise, why would he have been surprised at his emotions? But, Collins tries to back up his point by citing Freud, in whose writings this "wishful thinking" view reached its widest audience.

Freud's The Future of an Illusion, published in 1927, interpreted all religious beliefs as illusions or wishful thinking based on childhood dependency. 1927 is a long time ago - Collins couldn't find anything more current than this? Now, clearly, this does not apply to all religions but only the major monotheistic religions. Freud's Totem and Taboo, which Collins quotes, mentions how our view of God and our relationship with God stem from our biological fathers. Funny, then, how I completely believe my biological father exists and that any semblance of a spiritual father does not.

Now, Collins states that he does not agree with the wish-fulfillment idea, but his reasons are arguably equally absurd. Going back to C.S. Lewis, Collins explains that, if wish-fulfillment were true, we would get a very different kind of God than the one we find in the Bible. Instead of "benevolent coddling and indulgence" (yeah, because my father was all the time coddling and spoiling me, wasn't yours?), we find a God who requires us to hold to the Moral Law, throwing in our faces the possibility of being eternally separated from the Law's Author. I agree that we wouldn't find a coddling and indulgent god in the Bible. Rather, we'd find one that condones slavery, genocide, rape, murder, and human sacrifice (unless you're Abraham, in which case God says "PSYCH!!" at the last minute). I also see a god who requires us to uphold the Amoral Law - if anything arbitrarily goes because God says so, that seems amoral to me.

Collins then does something I thought was interesting: attempt to use logic. "If one allows the possibility that God is something humans might wish for, does that rule out the possibility that God is real? Absolutely not. The fact that I have wished for a loving wife does not now make her imaginary. The fact that the farmer wished for rain does not make him question the reality of the subsequent downpour" (p.38). He tries to extend the argument: Why would a desire exist if there were no means by which one could obtain that desire? He gives some examples. A baby feels hunger; well, there is food. A duck wants to swim; well, there is water. Sure, wanting a wife does not make the wife you have imaginary, but it says nothing about whether you'd ever get a wife in the first place. Would my casting bones or stirring tea leaves make me question the reality of a subsequent downpour? No - it is possible to arrive at a truthful conclusion by completely wrong means. As far as desires existing without means of obtaining them: Who, when they were a kid and saw The Never-Ending Story, did not want their own Luck Dragon? I read the DragonLance Chronicles when I was in junior high school, and I distinctly remember wanting to be a wizard. My commute to and from work kind of sucks: I strongly desire the ability to teleport.

Collins wonders why we seem to have a "God-shaped vacuum" in our hearts and minds unless it is meant to be filled. First, I flatly deny that any such void exists. Second, granting for a moment that such a void exists, it seems pretty obvious that any size hole can be filled in with an amorphous concept. Given all the different attributes assigned to God from all different religions, I'm sure anyone who wanted to could find a God to fit any deficit they thought they had.

Other posts in this series:

September 5, 2010, 9:57 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink23 comments

Under Green Leaves

In an old essay on Ebon Musings, "Finding Beauty in the Mundane", I wrote in a contemplative mood:

Have you ever considered the trees? Though their kind of life is far grander, slower and more patient than ours, they are each individuals, as different as human beings are. They add beauty to the world, give peace in their dappled shade, freshen the air and enrich the earth, and turn even the most hard-edged urban environment into a blossoming garden. We humans grew up beneath the trees, and we love them still...

Several years later, I still find this to be true. Whether I'm depressed or whether I'm already feeling good, it's almost always the case that visiting a botanical garden or a nature preserve, or even just going for a walk on a tree-lined street, noticeably improves my mood. The sight of sunlight slanting down through green leaves never fails to give me a sense of calm and peace. I tend to think the cause is that looking up at a tree reawakens one's sense of perspective: it's hard to see your own troubles as so serious in the presence of an organism that measures time only in years and decades.

But trees have more than just aesthetic benefits. Human beings feel an instinctive attraction to nature and wilderness, what E.O. Wilson called biophilia, and we flourish in its presence. For example, in one famous study, surgical patients who could see trees outside their window recovered faster and required fewer painkillers than patients whose window looked out on a brick wall. Other studies have found that greener urban areas have lower crime rates and that being in green environments lessens the symptoms of ADHD and improves schoolchildren's academic performance. (And that's not even to mention the many environmental and economic benefits of trees, either.)

The most likely explanation for this is that millions of years of evolution have instilled in us a built-in preference for certain kinds of environments, namely those most similar to our species' ancestral habitat. Wilson argues that this is the savanna, an open grassland broken up by patches of forest. This is the habitat we evolved in, the one we're best adapted to, and when we're placed in such an environment, we tend to fare better both mentally and physically. Urban environments, by contrast, present very different stressors that the human species never evolved to deal with.

I wonder if this feeling of displacement from nature is something that plays a role in religious conversions. When people live only in cities, surrounded by concrete and fluorescent lights, separated from nature, they do feel a sense of isolation and loss, and most of them don't know why. Religious proselytizers, of course, claim they can offer something to fill that void, and to people who don't know the true cause of these feelings, it's probably an effective sales pitch.

But when you know the true source of these feelings, the imitation can't compare to the reality. As I found for myself, the feeling of awe induced by direct contact with nature at its most spectacular is an ecstasy that easily compares to anything offered by any church. That's a piece of knowledge we ought to spread more widely. If more people understood the true, natural roots of human spirituality, the artificial attractions of religion might not prove so resilient.

August 9, 2010, 5:52 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink22 comments

Surprise Me With A Fact

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

I thought I'd do a something a little different in this post.

Sometimes, when I read a science book explaining something new, I get a feeling when a piece of fascinating trivia just 'clicks' into place. I'm not sure I can better describe it, though I'm sure I'm not doing a good job of it. Like a minor epiphany where something previously unknown or unclear suddenly comes into sharp focus.

So I thought I'd throw the ball out there and ask everyone to share their favourite science facts. What incredibly cool facts do you know that make you proud to be a geek?

I myself have two I particularly love, so I'll just share them both.

Firstly, I have type B blood, which I got from my mother. My father is type A. Now, every specific gene in my body I inherited from only one of my parents, who inherited it from one one of theirs, and one of theirs, etc. So though I am an amalgamation of genes from two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc, each specific gene derives from only one person per generation as I trace it back. Now, bearing in mind all life has a common ancestor way back yonder, there must logically have been a time when blood types A and B were one, and simply diverged. We may not know how far back that time was, but we do know it was further back than the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees. So, to conclude, in terms of this one specific gene - my blood type - I am more closely related to a chimpanzee with blood type B than I am to all humans with blood type A, which includes my own father!

(I am choosing to ignore the fact that I inherited my RECESSIVE blood type gene from my father, since it was O - also his recessive gene).

The second fact concerns ants and bees (and wasps, I think, though not termites). Every hive/nest is mostly made up of females - the workers, soldiers, nurses, queen, etc, are all female. Males make up a small percentage of the hive. They just sit in a chamber doing nothing at all useful until the day they fly out, mate with the young, soon-to-be queens and drop down dead.

When a queen lays an egg (which she does pretty much constantly) she may or may not mix it with the sperm she collected when she mated - if she does, the egg will be female. If not, it will be male. This means that males have only half the number of chromosomes that the females do. Consequently, each sperm from the male will be a genetic copy of him - it will contain all the genes he has and no others (baring mutations, of course).

Now, your relatedness to either of your parents is 50%. You share 50% of your genes with each parent. Your relatedness to any full sibling is 50% too - since any gene you have has a 50% chance of being passed down to your sibling also. But that is because both of your parents had two sets of chromosomes. If, as is the case with ants and bees, the father only has one set which he passes on in full to any child, the relatedness you would have to any sibling would be 75%. In other words, any gene you have could have come from your mother or father. If it came from your mother, there is a 50% chance your sibling has it too. But if it came from your father, there will be a 100% chance your sibling has it.

In short, female ants and bees (ie, the majority of the nest/hive) are more closely related to their sisters than they are to their own mother - and the queens are more closely related to their sisters than to their own children.

I know this doesn't work exactly since the queen mates with many males, so the store of sperm she has will be from several males. So each daugther will have half-sisters, who will only be 25% related to each her. But others will be full sisters, and with them they will share a genetic bond closer than that between parent and child. Only identical twins are more closely related.

Both those facts made me take a mental step back and think 'wow' when I first thought them through. I hope I've done them justice in relaying them here.

So yes, I want to hear more fun science geeky facts! Something trivial, or something deeply profound. Something funny or something astonishing. Anything at all really. Go mad, show off! Let's all just throw our favourite science snippets into the mix and see what comes to the boil.

I eagerly await seeing what everyone comes out with.

May 26, 2010, 6:21 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink49 comments

The Dimension of Divinity

I just finished reading The Happiness Hypothesis, a book by Jonathan Haidt, who's a professor in the new science of "positive psychology" at the University of Virginia. Most of the book is a straightforward distillation of scientific research on what truly brings happiness and contentment in life, illustrated with quotes and references to famous philosophers and sages of the past who taught similar lessons. There's nothing to object to about this - I think it's a laudable thing for science to study what makes people happy and helps them flourish, rather than focusing solely on disease and dysfunction. And I even learned a few interesting tidbits - the chapter on moral hypocrisy, and why we have a much easier time noticing it in others than in ourselves, was particularly good, as was the chapter on ways that advertisers and proselytizers influence us and trick us into doing what they want, rather than what genuinely makes us happy. That's the kind of information that should be much more widely disseminated.

However, near the end of the book, the argument took a surprising turn. Haidt himself states that he's an atheist, and is careful to note that secular people as well as religious people can experience feelings of transcendent awe and wonder (he calls it "elevation"). But in the last few chapters, he has some unexpected praise for the importance of religion and the allegedly vital role it plays in human community: research on the moral emotions has led me to conclude that the human mind simply does perceive divinity and sacredness, whether or not God exists. In reaching this conclusion, I lost the smug contempt for religion that I felt in my twenties.

This chapter is about the ancient truth that devoutly religious people grasp, and that secular thinkers often do not: that by our actions and our thoughts, we move up and down on a vertical dimension... An implication of this truth is that we are impoverished as human beings when we lose sight of this dimension and let our world collapse into two dimensions. [p.184]

If the third dimension and perceptions of sacredness are an important part of human nature, then the scientific community should accept religiosity as a normal and healthy aspect of human nature... If religious people are right in believing that religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not we believe in God. [p.211]

I wasn't sure what to make of this, until I read past the end to the acknowledgements:

I am deeply grateful to Sir John Templeton, the John Templeton Foundation, and its executive vice president, Arthur Schwartz, for supporting my research on moral elevation and for giving me a semester of sabbatical leave to begin the research for this book.

That explained a lot. (If you didn't know, the Templeton Foundation is a group founded by a billionaire evangelical Christian whose major purpose is to pay scientists to say nice things about religion. See Jerry Coyne or Sean Carroll for more.)

In these chapters, Haidt speaks of the "ethic of divinity", which he says is tied to human concepts of sacredness and holiness and which runs along a continuum from purity to disgust. As an example, he discusses his research in the Indian city of Bhubaneswar, where Hindu priests from the Brahmin caste have an elaborate system of rules, similar to orthodox Jewish laws, to maintain the purity of their temples: when to pray, what to eat, what to wear, how to touch others, who is allowed to enter which rooms, and so on. He contrasts this with the Western "ethic of autonomy", that people should be free to do whatever they want as long as it harms no one.

Though Haidt recognizes the value of autonomy in a modern, melting-pot society, he has some praise for this ritualistic ethic of purity and contamination as well:

When people use the ethic of divinity, their goal is to protect from degradation the divinity that exists within each person, and they value living in a pure and holy way, free from moral pollutants such as lust, greed, and hatred. [p.188]

Haidt further explains that the goal of this system is not just to follow arbitrary rules, but that these practices have "a deeper relationship to virtue and morality... If you know that you have divinity in you, you will act accordingly: You will treat people well, and you will treat your body as a temple. In so doing, you will accumulate good karma" [p.190].

It all sounds very noble and elevating. But there's another, darker side to the ethic of divinity, one which Haidt mentions only in passing. Lost in all the pious rhetoric about maintaining the purity of one's body and accumulating good karma is this: In every society which has that vertical dimension of divinity, it's possible to move down as well as up. When an entire society is structured around the distinction between clean and unclean, holy and unholy, these ritualistic rules inevitably end up labeling not just actions as unclean, but people.

India, after all, still has its Untouchables. It still has its widows who, by tradition and custom, are confined to a lifetime of silence and isolation - even child widows who never met their arranged husband before his death. In medieval Europe, the ethic of divinity and Christian concerns about blood purity led to vicious anti-Jewish persecution - the inquisitors called it limpieza de sangre - and Hitler's racial-purity-obsessed Final Solution was the last and most bitter fruit of that evil tree. In America, it led to slavery and segregation, and still fuels opposition to marriage equality, still motivates Catholic priests who wield the Eucharist as a political weapon. In the Torah, the uncleanness of the Canaanites is invoked as a motivation for genocide by the conquering Israelite army. Ultra-Orthodox Jews assault outsiders who enter their neighborhoods and women whom they believe aren't dressed properly in public. Islam, of course, has its own purity concerns which perpetuate the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation, which suffocate women under veils and burqas, and which imprison them at home and prevent them from getting an education or visiting a doctor.

At the beginning of the chapter, Haidt quotes this line, allegedly spoken by Mohammed:

God created the angels from intellect without sensuality, the beasts from sensuality without intellect, and humanity from both intellect and sensuality. So when a person's intellect overcomes his sensuality, he is better than the angels, but when his sensuality overcomes his intellect, he is worse than the beasts.

But he fails to notice the implication - that people who follow the dictates of "sensuality" are worse than animals - and, presumably, can be treated accordingly. And the long and bloody history of religion offers all too many examples of exactly that.

Haidt may wax rhapsodic about purity laws, but if the choice is between the ethic of autonomy and the ethic of divinity, it should be more than obvious to any thinking person which one to keep and which one to jettison. No one was ever murdered, enslaved, or tyrannized in the name of autonomy. We can get by without superstitious concerns about divinity, but a society that lost its concern for autonomy would soon be plunged into a new Dark Age - as, indeed, many modern theocracies are. And he may claim that us smug, contemptuous secular thinkers have a lot to learn from the religious about purity and sacredness, but I'd turn that formula around: Before they deserve to be listened to, religious fundamentalists ought to come to us and learn from our teachings about why they need to respect the autonomy and human rights of others. Only once they've absorbed that lesson and put it into action in their own cultures do they deserve to be granted any consideration about what they might have to say to the rest of us.

February 12, 2010, 7:01 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink30 comments


You may have heard that, after an exasperating series of setbacks and delays, the massive particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider is finally up and running. Even in preliminary tests, it's set records for the most powerful particle collisions ever recorded in a lab - and when it's reactivated later this year, it's expected to set new ones.

Recently, I was struck by this quote from a National Geographic article on the LHC:

So far, the CERN team has been very cautious as it ramps up toward full power — and that's a good thing, said Fermilab's [Dan] Green.

Even if caution means that it takes a while for experiments to start, Green said, "I've been in this business for more than 20 years. I can wait a little longer."

When I read that, I was reminded of the medieval cathedral builders - the architects who embarked on these grand projects knowing, or so the story goes, that they wouldn't see them to completion in their own lifetime. This selfless labor produced some magnificent architecture - but while I admire the beauty of great cathedrals, ultimately they're sterile; they produce nothing of tangible benefit to humanity. But the same is not true of the great modern scientific experiments, the cathedrals of our time. These grand projects, while built on the same soaring scale and evoking the same reactions of awe and wonder, prove their worth by producing knowledge that expands our vision of the cosmos and humanity's own place in it.

Image via. Note the relative size of the workers at bottom left.

At right is a photo of ATLAS, one of the six particle detectors installed in the Large Hadron Collider and currently the single largest one of its kind ever built. Like an onion, ATLAS is constructed as a series of concentric layers, each one designed to detect and measure different aspects of the different kinds of particles produced by collisions in the LHC - superconducting magnets to bend the path of charged particles and reveal their momentum, calorimeters to absorb particles and record their energy, others to record radiation, velocity, electric charge, and so on. ATLAS is about half the size of the Notre Dame Cathedral, weighs 7,000 tons - about the same as the Eiffel Tower - and running at full capacity, can generate one petabyte - one million gigabytes - of raw data per second. (A network of computers will process this deluge of data to filter out the relatively tiny fraction of events that are of interest for further processing.)

Among other discoveries, ATLAS and the LHC are hoped to make the first conclusive detection of the Higgs boson, the elusive particle that may explain the existence of mass. If more esoteric ideas in physics are true - such as supersymmetry, the idea that every species of elementary particle has a previously-undiscovered, massive partner - ATLAS could also explain what makes up the majority of the universe's dark matter. If certain hypotheses of string theory are correct, it could even even prove the existence of extra dimensions.

Another modern cathedral in the making is the Thirty-Meter Telescope, an enormous ground-based observatory to be built in Hawaii atop the summit of Mauna Kea. Scheduled for completion in 2018, the TMT will boast unparalleled range and sensitivity, observing the cosmos in wavelengths from infrared to ultraviolet with resolution as much as twelve times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Image via.

The TMT's primary mirror, as its name suggests, will be thirty meters in diameter, giving it tremendous light-gathering capacity. (Hubble, by way of comparison, has a diameter of 2.5 meters.) But casting such a single, enormous piece of glass would be impossible - the mirror would sag under its own weight - so instead, the mirror will be made up of 492 hexagonal segments, each about a meter and a half in diameter and computer-controlled to work together as one. To compensate for the blurring effect of Earth's atmosphere, the TMT will use a cutting-edge technology called adaptive optics. Nine laser emitters around the telescope will fire laser beams into the sky; sensors detect the photons that are scattered back to the telescope and compare their predicted waveforms with what's actually observed. Using that information as a reference, the telescope's computers will control thousands of mechanical actuators that reshape the mirror's surface as rapidly as eight hundred times per second, with a precision measured in nanometers, to perfectly cancel out the distortion of the atmosphere - and all this as the entire massive assembly slews across the sky to keep pace with Earth's rotation.

When complete, the TMT will be able to see the oldest and faintest starlight in the universe, back to the first stars that ignited just 400 million years after the Big Bang, and the formation of the first generation of galaxies. It will be able to directly observe Earthlike planets around nearby stars, detect supermassive black holes at cosmological distances and take direct images of their accretion disks, map the distribution of dark matter with unprecedented detail, and image the universe with greater clarity than was ever possible before.

One more example is LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, currently up and running in the United States. Like the other scientific cathedrals, it shows the tremendous effort and astounding ingenuity that human beings have poured into understanding the details of the universe we live in.

The theory of general relativity predicts that cosmic catastrophes like the collision of two neutron stars or the merger of two black holes should produce gravitational waves - fluctuations in spacetime which ripple outward from their source. The direct detection of gravitational waves would confirm one of the last and greatest predictions of Albert Einstein, and could potentially provide important information about the behavior of black holes and other massive, distant objects that are difficult or impossible to observe in the electromagnetic spectrum - since gravitational waves, unlike light rays, are not blocked by cosmic gas and dust.

Image via.

LIGO has two physically separate sites, one in Louisiana and one in Washington. Each site operates an identical detector: a laser interferometer, which consists of two tubes set up in an L shape. Each tube is two and a half miles long, is filled with an ultra-high vacuum, and contains a set of mirrors at each end. A beam splitter fires a laser beam down both arms of the L simultaneously; at the far end of each, it strikes the mirror and is reflected back to its point of origin. Under normal circumstances, the two lasers bounce back in perfect simultaneity. But the ripples of a passing gravitational wave would distort space in one direction, causing one of the laser beams to return before the other, which can be detected. If both sites register the same event simultaneously (accounting for lightspeed delay), we can be certain that it arrived from a cosmological source rather than some local event on Earth.

But even the strongest expected sources of gravitational waves, such as a merger of black holes, produce an effect that will be extremely faint by the time it reached Earth, due to the great distances involved. To account for this, LIGO needs astounding sensitivity and precision. The tube arms of the interferometer are filled with an ultra-high vacuum, evacuated to a pressure of just one-trillionth of an atmosphere, to prevent scattering of the lasers by gas molecules - one of the largest and purest vacuums ever created on Earth. (By comparison, the International Space Station orbits through atmosphere a hundred times denser.) And LIGO's mirrors are cooled to just one-millionth of a degree above absolute zero to prevent thermal noise from distorting their surfaces. With these and other innovations, LIGO's sensitivity and precision are such that it can detect a change in length as tiny as 10-18 meters - one-thousandth the diameter of a proton. And future improvements in the works will increase its sensitivity by a factor of ten.

These great cathedrals, devoted not to worshipping imaginary deities but to understanding the cosmos we live in, give me hope for humanity's future in a way that few other endeavors do. Our world is still roiled by war, burdened by overpopulation, inflamed by religion, threatened by climate change. Yet in the midst of all the stupidity, all the greed and short-sightedness and delusion, there are places where human beings from many nations and cultures have come together to construct vast projects that are purely peaceful and devoted solely to the cause of gaining knowledge. There's no better testament to the fact that, when we choose, we can rise above our worst instincts and cooperate on something worthwhile and beautiful. Even more than any of the specific scientific findings they may produce, this is the most valuable lesson that humanity in general has to learn from these modern wonders of the world.

February 10, 2010, 9:36 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink26 comments

A Sense of Kinship

This past summer, I was visiting the New York Botanical Gardens when serendipity struck: this beautiful little creature alighted on a stone railing around the edge of a pool, staying just long enough for me to snap this shot:

I think, though I'm not an expert, that this is a blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis.

I don't usually like close-up photos of insects - they have an eerie, alien feel that I find disturbing. (I admit it, I'm a mammal chauvinist.) But this one is one of the rare exceptions. Looking at it again, it's hard for me not to feel admiration for this sleek, graceful creature.

With its iridescent blue scales, its impossibly frail and transparent wings, its delicate jointed legs, it scarcely seems to belong to nature at all. It looks almost like a device, a tiny whirring clockwork machine made by some detail-obsessed jeweler - except, of course, that we humans haven't yet learned to make machines of such fine and precise workmanship, nor any that pack so many marvelous capabilities into such a small package.

So much of its head is taken up by those huge, gorgeous compound eyes, it seems it has scarcely any room for a brain to process the information they take in. Yet dragonflies have keen eyesight, and are blurringly fast and acrobatic fliers - and imagine how well-tuned their organs of balance must be, to control their pitch, roll and yaw in three-dimensional space at such speeds, a task that would overwhelm a human vestibular system. And though they seem so clumsy, so fragile - adult dragonflies can only fly, not walk, and their wings can't be folded in like a beetle's but must be held out at all times - on their own small scale, they are fearsome and effective predators. And of course, like all living things, dragonflies have one more astounding ability that human-designed devices can't match: they can make copies of themselves from the raw materials of their environment!

All in all, despite all our brains, we humans can't create anything nearly as clever, as intricate, as adaptable, or as beautiful as a dragonfly. But we shouldn't feel too bad: when it comes to forging machines, we've had barely a few hundred years of practice. Evolution has had hundreds of millions of years to refine its designs, to hone and sharpen them against the ruthless grindstone of natural selection. With that much of a head start, and with all the resources of a planet to use for trial and error, it's no wonder that even this blind algorithm produces results of a beauty and craftsmanship we can't match.

And yet, the stunning truth is that we ourselves are products of the same evolutionary process. Look at your hands, your arms, and imagine tens of millions of years of natural selection pushing and tugging on them like a sculptor kneading clay, slowly molding flesh and bone into new shapes. Imagine the skeins of DNA coiled in your cells, woven out of evolution like a tapestry from a loom. Imagine the unbroken chain of your ancestors stretching back into the misty recesses of time, each one only subtly different from the last - but even subtle changes add up, until you reach a point, untold millions of generations ago, where the ancestral lines of human and dragonfly merge into the same track.

This knowledge should fill us with awe. The fact of universal common descent via evolution means that I and this glittering blue dragonfly, no matter how distant the links, are related. When I snapped that picture, it was a family reunion, of sorts - and the admiration I felt for its intricacy and beauty is the same kind of admiration I'd feel for any talented relative whose glory reflects, even if only a little, on his siblings and cousins.

The human species is like a hiker who, having scaled a long and arduous path, can finally stop at a vantage point and look back on the journey he's taken. Looking out across the landscape, we can see our fellow travelers, each one taking a different course from all the rest, all of them spreading out from a single point of origin in the far distance. Why should we not feel a sense of kinship for all the other beings who are traversing life's winding, contingent paths along with us? And why should we not marvel all the more that our astonishing existence is not the result of deliberate planning, but of a glorious, messy, freewheeling cauldron of chance?

November 23, 2009, 6:51 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink16 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

I've got plenty of goodies in the bag for this post. Frankly, more has been happening lately than I can write about - but that's okay, because there are lots of other fantastic atheist bloggers who've said it all!

• First, there's this outrageous story out of Washington, D.C., where the Catholic church has threatened to completely shut down all the social services they provide to local homeless people if they're forced to obey laws forbidding discrimination against same-sex couples.

I may write more about this later, but for now, I'm happy to send you to She Who Chatters, whose eloquent anger sums up everything I feel when I read this.

• On a related note, Atheist Revolution tells the story of a Cincinnati atheist billboard - bearing only the peaceful and non-confrontational message, "Don't believe in God? You are not alone" - that had to be moved after the billboard company was deluged with violent threats. Remind me again, what do we stand to gain by being civil and respectful and tiptoeing around so as not to offend anyone's superstitions?

• In the Washington Post, Jonathan Turley asks the cogent question of why the courts let parents off so lightly when their religious beliefs result in the painful and unnecessary deaths of their children from treatable medical conditions.

• On a less somber note, I'm happy to endorse Young Freethought, a new blog focusing on the work of atheists and freethinkers between the ages of 16 and 21. Every new generation shows a greater and greater willingness to think for themselves and challenge the old religious orthodoxies, and I'm very glad to see more young people step up to voice their convictions and add to this groundswell of free thinking. From what I've seen so far, this blog has some very promising, well-written essays already, and I'll be watching them closely to see what else they come up with. You should too!

• Finally, a reader turned me on to this wonderful website, Symphony of Science. Its creator has taken the words of famous scientists speaking about the discoveries that make us shiver in awe, then remixed them with his own brand of ambient, trip-hop music. The effect is eerie and surreal at first, but also hauntingly beautiful. It may not be for everyone, but I enjoyed it immensely. Combined with the lyrics, it spoke to me in a way that almost no other music does. (It reminds me a lot of Forest for the Trees, a band I used to listen to in high school and college.) If this interests you, I highly recommend checking it out.

November 15, 2009, 4:11 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink9 comments

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