Author Archives: Scot

O, Say Can You See?

Recent Discoveries about Oxygen on Earth and in Outer Space

I. Intro
II. What is oxygen, anyway?
III. Oxygen without life
IV. Life without oxygen
V. Conclusion

Me, Yuliya, and her son at the Hollywood Bowl this 4th of July. Fireworks, fire itself, and we animals all depend on this oasis of oxygen gas, which is all but nonexistent in the entire universe. Thanks to those trees and shrubs behind us!

This 4th of July, I took a date to the Hollywood Bowl.  On the way out of the stadium, I spotted Mars: bright, red, and high in the sky.  I pointed it out to her, and we got to talking about planets and stars.

“Didn’t I hear that they just discovered oxygen on other planets?” she asked.

I was surprised to hear that.  “I doubt it,” I said.  “Because if they’ve found oxygen, then they’ve found life!”

“Really?” she second-guessed me.  “There can’t be oxygen without life?”

I thought about it for a second.  I thought I was sure, but suddenly I wasn’t.  She had me stumped.  It seems to be “common knowledge” that there can be no oxygen unless plants, algae, and other living things make it with photosynthesis – but why should that have to be?  I came home to look further into this question.  I learned quite a bit, including the comforting fact that this is not a trivial question.  There also happens to be a bevy of interesting research news about oxygen in space and Earth.  (For the record, I did not see any such news bulletins that oxygen has recently been discovered on an exoplanet, so I don’t know exactly what she had heard).

What Is Oxygen, Anyway?

Let’s clarify an important distinction right away.  There are multiple forms of oxygen.  Oxygen is an element, which means that its smallest unit is one atom.  When oxygen is considered one atom at a time, it is called elemental or atomic oxygen, abbreviated O.  However, this form is extremely rare, because other elements find it very attractive.  Oxygen is one of the hottest babes on the periodic table.  Just as you’d expect to find gorgeous women surrounded by men, friends, or admirers, atomic oxygen is just about always bound to other atoms to form molecules.

One common compound, at least here on Earth, is two oxygen atoms bound to each other.  This substance is called diatomic oxygen, molecular oxygen, or oxygen gas (abbreviated O2).  This is the gas that plants produce and we inhale.  It’s the substance that rusts iron and feeds fire.  It is a stable molecule, and it constitutes 20% of our atmosphere, but common knowledge is right – it’s virtually nonexistent in the rest of the universe.

What gives?  Oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe and our solar system.  Almost half of Earth’s atoms are oxygen!  So why can’t all those oxygen atoms just pair up and fill outer space with O2 ?  Why was even Planet Earth devoid of oxygen gas for the first half of its history?

In outer space, hydrogen (H) is much more abundant than oxygen.  Odds are, then, that when a lone oxygen atom is zipping through space, the first atom it will bind to will be H.  OH, hydroxide, is also very attractive and will immediately bond to something yet again, very often another H to produce water.  In fact, water is one of the most common molecules in space.  It is most often found as very thin vapor or chunks of solid ice, almost never under the right conditions to be liquid.

Still, even if it’s outnumbered, we would expect some O2 to result from random collisions of O atoms.  From what we can tell from surveys of outer space, it isn’t there at all.

Why?

Believe it or not (this is what surprised me) astronomers and chemists didn’t have a good answer to that question themselves until very recently.  In fact, they didn’t even realize that celestial oxygen gas was so rare until they expressly looked for it within the last couple of decades. 1 It was only in 2015 that a team from Syracuse University and San Jose State University, led by Jiao He, found a key factor.  It turns out that elemental oxygen ranks very highly in what we call “bonding energy”. 2 This means that O binds very tightly to other particles or “space dust”.  Bonding energy is different from O’s sheer electrical attraction.  Not only do other atoms “want” to bond to O, but when they do, it is a very tight hug.  Once an oxygen atom clings to a speck of dust, it’s hard to dislodge it.  On that speck of dust, it tends to get bound up in solids such as ice or silicate (sand).  Carbon dioxide, CO2, also forms naturally in space, and early Earth had plenty in its atmosphere.  As I discussed in TEOH Section 9.II, certain microbes called cyanobacteria evolved a pathway to “breathe in” CO2 to photosynthesize glucose and then “breathe out” O2 as a waste product.  Cyanobacteria and their cousins, chloroplasts, which now live inside plant cells, are the sole source of oxygen gas in our atmosphere.

Oxygen Without Life

So, could oxygen possibly exist on planets without life?  Yes, but only under particular peculiar circumstances.  Theoretical astrophysicists have dreamed up at least two ways that other planets could have oxygen gas without life.  Let’s call these scenarios Planet Vapo and Planet Oceania.  Planet Vapo has water vapor in its atmosphere.  Under the right conditions, sunlight can photolysize the molecules of this vapor, tearing them apart to form hydrogen and oxygen gases.

The photolysis of water into H2 and O2 could occur naturally on some unique planets even without life.

In one such setting, Vapo orbits close to a special kind of sun called an M dwarf star and is exposed to extreme ultraviolet light. 3 In a more Earth-like scenario, Vapo is situated within the habitable zone of its sun.  The habitable zone is the happy-medium distance where a planet can support liquid water.  In this case, Vapo’s sun can be just about any kind of star, but Vapo must have a low-nitrogen atmosphere if photolysis is to occur. 4

 

The imaginary planet Oceania is also situated in a habitable zone.  Oceania contains a large amount of a space mineral called titania (TiO2).  Just add a dose of ordinary sunlight, and the titania catalyzes the dissolution of water into H2 and O2. 5 This pathway could theoretically yield a fairly high level of oxygen even with a small percentage of titania in the sea.

Note that Earth does not meet any of these requirements.  Earth is high in nitrogen gas and has virtually no titania.  We don’t orbit an M dwarf star.  All of our oxygen was biologically synthesized.

Planets Vapo and Oceania might be unlikely hypotheticals, but certainly no less likely than our own planet laden with life.  It is important to keep the Vapo and Oceania possibilities in mind.  In case we do ever discover another planet surrounded by oxygen, we need to understand that it could be a false lead.  We’d want to check that possibility before getting too excited, warning the public of a war of the worlds, and spending a quadrillion dollars to visit Oceania.

Life Without Oxygen

The converse of the Life = Oxygen assumption is not so simple either.  It is demonstrably possible for a planet without oxygen to support simple life forms like bacteria.  After all, that’s how Earth’s biology began.  It is doubtful, though, that life can advance very far without inhaling.  Alternative energy sources such as sulfur and iron are much less effective than oxygen, and they seriously constrain the size and complexity of organisms. 6 You might think that if we look at a planet without oxygen, it has no potential for supporting complex life.  But if you thought that, you might have bypassed Earth just as it was on the verge of a breakthrough.

Billions of years ago, cyanobacteria began releasing oxygen gas into the ocean.  As discussed in TEOH Section 9.II, this oxygen didn’t get very far at first, because there were substances such as iron in the ocean to absorb it.  In fact, the availability of oxygen spurred the evolution of protists, which consumed the oxygen, just as we breathe it in today.  Eventually, though, oxygen saturated the ocean and percolated into the atmosphere.  This Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) happened about 2.4 BYA.

New research led by Matthew Koehler at the University of Washington shows that the GOE was a little more dramatic than we had thought.  Koehler has shown that oxygenation was stop-and-go for hundreds of millions of years before the GOE.  The scientists have detected long intervals when the atmosphere became oxygenated before the GOE – some almost 300 million years earlier.  These oxygenations were transient; high-oxygen cycles were followed by crashes and low-oxygen cycles.  This intuitively makes sense; it’s a classic case of population dynamics.  When oxygen is just barely high enough to support aerobic respiration, the cells that breathe it in and replace it with CO2 will quickly deprive themselves of oxygen.  Their populations will plummet until a sufficient store of oxygen is restored.  It seems reasonable that they might have to go through this cycle a few times before oxygen reaches sustainable levels.  These cycles mean that if we find a planet with no detectable oxygen, it could be teeming with microbial life but just having a “bad air day”.

An exoplanet mature with photosynthetic life might go through low-oxygen phases like Earth did billions of years ago.

Interestingly, Koehler’s findings were corroborated by another (apparently independent) study published in the exact same month, July of 2018. 7 This Caltech team, headed by Mark Torres, also found evidence of oxygen in the atmosphere as long as 2.7 BYA.  Oxygen is a potent gas; its release ushered in a whole new chemical regime on Earth.  Koehler’s and Torres’ studies both looked at clues left behind by other elements that were impacted by O2.  Whereas Koehler studied nitrogen and the exotic metal selenium in Australia, Torres studied sulfur signatures in some of Earth’s oldest exposed rock, in Canada and South Africa.  It’s remarkable that these projects examined different elements on different continents, and both got a date of 2.7 billion years for the first significant concentrations of O2 in the atmosphere.  Eventually, of course, Earth’s plant-like and animal-like life forms reached equilibrium.  Today, the O2:CO2 ratio is about 500:1.

Oxygen has a long and complex history on Earth, and presumably the same would be true on other life-bearing worlds.  We take it for granted, but it is one of the things that makes Earth truly exceptional.  We know of no other place in the universe where creatures can shoot off fireworks in the atmosphere while they point upward, breathe deeply, and wonder about life on blue planets.

  1. E.A. Bergin et al., “Implications of Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite Observations for Interstellar Chemistry and Star Formation”, The Astrophysical Journal Letters, vol. 539, no. 2 (8/16/2000), http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1086/312843 (accessed and saved 10/24/18).
  2. Jiao He et al., “A New Determination of the Binding Energy of Atomic Oxygen on Dust Grain Surfaces: Experimental Results and Simulations”, The Astrophysical Journal, vol. 801, no. 2 (3/12/2015), http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/0004-637X/801/2/120/meta (accessed and saved 8/21/18).
  3. Feng Tian et al., “High stellar FUV/NUV ratio and oxygen contents in the atmospheres of potentially habitable planets”, Earth and Planetary Science Letters vol. 385, pp. 22-27 (1/01/2014), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0012821X13005876?via%3Dihub (accessed and saved 11/13/18).
  4. Robin Wordsworth and Raymond Pierrehumbert, “Abiotic Oxygen-Dominated Atmospheres on Terrestrial Habitable Zone Planets”, Astrophysical Journal Letters, 785:L20 pp. 1-4 (4/20/2014), http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/2041-8205/785/2/L20/meta#apjl493070s3 (accessed and saved 9/01/18).
  5. Norio Narita et al., “Titania may produce abiotic oxygen atmospheres on habitable exoplanets”, Scientific Reports 5, Article no. 13977 (9/10/2015), https://www.nature.com/articles/srep13977 (accessed and saved 11/13/18).
  6. David C. Catling et al., “Why O2 Is Required by Complex Life on Habitable Planets and the Concept of Planetary ‘Oxygenation Time’”, Astrobiology vol. 5 no. 3 (6/07/2005), http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/0004-637X/801/2/120/meta (accessed and saved 8/21/18). https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/ast.2005.5.415 (abstract accessed 10/23/18).
  7. Mark A. Torres et al., “Riverine evidence for isotopic mass balance in the Earth’s early sulfur cycle”, Nature Geoscience 11, 661-664 (7/23/2018), https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-018-0184-7 (accessed and saved 11/15/18).
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The ape-man that never was

If you know where to look, the internet has some very interesting bookshelves, like the basement of a dank library.  I don’t even remember what I was researching recently, when I found myself browsing through the 1921 textbook, “Readings in Evolution, Genetics, and Eugenics” by Horatio Hackett Newman (I swear I’m not making up these names).  On p. 87 (p. 113 of the copy) is this sketch of “The Java ape-man, Pithecanthropus erectus.”  I knew that Java Man had originally been called Pithecanthropus erectus and later reclassified as Homo erectus, though I had never quite understood why.

Now, I’m no paleontologist, but I have been researching Homo erectus quite a lot lately, and I could spot in a moment that this skull didn’t look right.  And what was that dashed line?  Two major facial features didn’t make any sense.  Look at those canines!  (C, below)  Those are “honing” canines.  Chimps, gorillas, and other apes have them, but our hominin ancestors lost them at least 6 million years ago.  What were they doing here on a Homo erectus less than a million years old?  Second, where is his nose?!  Homo erectus had a projecting nasal bone like we do.  This representation shows a concave nose like an African ape (N).  Even for an armchair paleoanthropologist like me, these features stood out as oddly as if someone had drawn a tail on a modern human.     

It occurred to me that the face must have been a guess.  The dashed line was probably a fracture (F below).  If Eugene Dubois, the scientist who discovered Java Man, had only the skullcap to work with, then he would be impressed by the oblong skull (O) and the heavy browridge (B).  These are definitely ape-like (chimp / gorilla) features.  It would only be logical for Dubois to assume — falsely, as it turns out — that the rest of the face was ape-like too.

Not much later, by chance, I happened upon a photograph of the Java Man skull.  Here it is.  The break is shaped a little differently, but indeed, it’s only the skullcap!Dubois was especially perplexed to find this skullcap with an upright thigh bone.  That’s why he named it Pithecanthropus erectus, “erect ape-man”.  He was envisioning creatures like you’d see on “Planet of the Apes”.  Later discoveries revealed the mistakes, and this species was reassigned to Homo, the human genus.  The resulting term Homo erectus, “erect human”, is redundant and does not describe anything special.  Like non-honing canines, we now know that erect bipedality goes back to the very first hominins.

I am interested in the history of ideas as well as the history of reality.  That’s why I found it such a thrill to discover this rare textbook illustration reminding us of yester-century’s forgotten assumptions.

For further reading, I discuss hominin evolution in Chapter 7 of this website-book.

Chapter 6 covers early humans, including Homo erectus.

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“A” is for Agnostic / Atheist

AWESOME

I am an atheist.  I am an agnostic.  I’m an agnostic atheist.  Most people understand these words poorly and like them even less.  I don’t proclaim my irreligious identity very often, but increasingly I feel that I should.  I know that there is nothing wrong with atheism, although public opinion is not on my side.  Perhaps it’s time to stand up and explain why I believe atheism is probably true, why agnosticism is certainly right-minded, and how these twin tenets can even be good for the world.

I. What Are Agnosticism And Atheism?
II. Why Agnosticism?
III. Why Atheism?
IV. But Isn’t It “Bad” To Be Atheist Or Agnostic?
V. Upshot

I. What Are Agnosticism And Atheism?

The words atheism and agnosticism both begin with a-, the Greek prefix meaning “without”.  Each word means “not religious” in its own sense.  When we say that someone is religious, we could be referring to what he believes (God, the supernatural, the afterlife, miracles, etc.) or how he holds that belief (a subjective sense of absolute certainty that is not objectively demonstrable to outsiders, based on faith, emotion, authority, personal conviction, etc.)

A·theism = “A” (Without) + “Theism” (Belief in God / gods).

An atheist does not believe in God or the other supernatural elements that religious people do.  The Evolution of Human Chapter 5 1 will discuss the neurological basis of our inborn belief in gods, spirits, and a supernatural world – probably a side effect of humans’ very strong theory of mind and the power of abstract thought.  Theism is a human instinct, so atheism has always been a minority point of view.  Nevertheless, some strands of atheism can be traced to the dawn of the philosophical age in the -1st millennium.  Modern atheism is an outgrowth of the 18th century European Enlightenment.  This history is traced in TEOH chapters 2 – 4.

A·gnosticism = “A” (Without) + “Gnosticism” (Mystical knowledge).

Thomas Henry Huxley in 1876, around the time he coined the word “agnostic”

Agnosticism refutes the religious way of holding beliefs, whatever those beliefs are.  An agnostic recognizes that belief goes beyond the bounds of knowledge: there are many things I can believe that I can’t really know or prove to others.  Unlike atheism, agnosticism is a relatively new term, a realization of the scientific age.  The word agnostic was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley, a 19th century English scientist and philosopher.  2  He defined it in opposition to religious people who “were quite sure that they had attained a certain ‘gnosis’ – had … successfully solved the problem of existence; while I … had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. 1 In his essay Agnosticism, Huxley keenly advised, “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” 2

Agnosticism might sound obvious in the abstract.  I think we all understand the difference between “I believe it will rain tomorrow” and “I know it will rain tomorrow”.  Many times, our “knowledge” about the rain is proven incorrect and we are forced to recognize that we had a false belief.  But when that concept is applied toward religion, most people find it impossible to apply the same standard.  Religious people are absolutely convinced that their beliefs are true.  In fact, religious / supernatural beliefs are the classic example of unfalsifiable ideas.  Nobody can disprove them!  It’s like always believing that it will rain gold coins – not tomorrow, but “someday”.  Even if it hasn’t rained gold coins for the last 10,000 days, you can always hold on to the belief that it will eventually.  Soon you’ll probably feel emboldened to say you “know” it will rain gold coins someday, because in the end either you’ll be proven right or at least you won’t be proven wrong.

Religious thought predates the age of reason by hundreds of millennia.  It is instinctual, and as such it involves many logical fallacies:

• “If it could be true, then it must be true.” (Aristotle’s classic “confirming the consequent”)
• “If I believe it, then it must be true.” (Gnosticism)
• “If my family or community teaches it, then it must be true.” (Peer pressure)
• “If it is comforting or pleasant to believe, then it must be true.” (Denial)

The agnostic is the party pooper who finally says, “But you don’t really know, do you?”

II. Why Agnosticism?

Maybe there was once a time when a person could spend his entire life in a religious bubble, knowing only one creed for his entire life. That is certainly not possible anymore. I grew up as a Christian, but I was fully aware that my Christian community taught different scriptures from Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu, and numerous other religions. I had friends and neighbors from different faiths. I couldn’t help but ask, “Which of us is right?”

I ran a thought experiment. What if Earth were visited by an alien who had never seen or heard of any of the world religions? If each religion were to present the alien with its supporting evidence, which one would make him say, “Yes, you’re right – this one is the truth!”? Some of the natural / historic excerpts from scripture could be corroborated (for example, there really was a walled city of Jericho) but the supernatural stories could not. I think the alien would have to call it a stalemate. No religion is convincingly true to people who were not raised within its culture. 3 Religion is a belief, not a truth.

In devising the space alien, of course what I was doing was taking a neutral perspective to remove my biases from the decision-making process. If there is a true religion, it shouldn’t matter what I believe. That is the essence of agnosticism – evaluating evidence objectively at face value, divorced from your own preconceived notions. Changing your mind really doesn’t hurt – don’t be afraid of it!

III. Why Atheism?

“Okay,” a religious person might agree, “My religion is a belief that I can’t prove to you. But I still believe it. You can’t prove my beliefs false either.” In fact, for a few years as a teenager I was an agnostic Christian. Why would someone go further down the path toward atheism and give up on religious belief altogether?

Some people come at atheism from moral or emotional grounds. My path was dispassionate and scientific. I was interested in the epistemology – “How do we know?” No, I can not prove that God doesn’t exist. I just find that (1) the natural world seems to be self-contained and (2) “belief in God” is due more to “belief” than to “God”.

A. The Natural and the Supernatural
B. The Psychology of Religion

III.A. The Natural and the Supernatural

People see themselves reflected in the world around them. When modern humans had the wherewithal to ask where they had come from, the first model they had was themselves. Humans can direct their willpower into making things – tools, clothing, meals, even children. By that reasoning, they probably concluded that we must be here because someone directed his willpower into making us too. When the world works in mysterious ways, we personify it as magic willpower. For most people in most times and places, that “explanation” seemed perfectly adequate.

It’s an incredibly strong instinct, because only in the last few centuries have some people realized that this explanation doesn’t clarify anything at all. A religious person once tried to convince me that we and our world couldn’t have come from a big bang, because “0 + 0 ≠ 1.” “You can’t get something out of nothing,” he said. His conclusion was that we must have been designed by God. He seemed unaware of the paradox that he was trying to resolve one hard question with an even harder one: where did God come from? If it is hard to explain mortals and the material world, it would be even harder to explain super beings in an invisible realm who can make mortals by magic willpower. It’s like saying that 0 + 0 = ∞. So why does God satisfy people as a convincing explanation?

Pre-scientific people only understood a few principles of nature. Beyond that, speculation was useless. Invoking gods was a way of punting the explanation: “We don’t understand how the world works, but there’s someone who does.” People envisioned a dualistic universe: There was the “natural” world that presented itself to our senses, but behind it all were the unknowable spirits of the “supernatural” realm. Renaissance philosophers like Descartes were interested in delineating the boundary between these realms. The popular “Flammarion engraving”, whatever its original intent may have been, is a nice visual metaphor of this perspective.

The essence of the scientific revolution was to show that some “inexplicable” phenomena had natural explanations.  The moon goes around the world because it is falling like a cannonball – it just happens to be too far away to strike Earth.  Fire burns because chemical reactions release heat and light.  Animals reproduce with DNA molecules, which obey chemical laws like other forms of matter.  Every small discovery expanded the natural world just a little more, at the expense of the supernatural.  After centuries of this, there wasn’t much left for the supernatural world to “explain” anymore, and those explanations were feeling like increasingly far-fetched punts.  It started to seem more likely that the entire idea of a “supernatural” realm was a figment of the human imagination.

III.B. The Psychology of Religion

A big part of atheism, then, is the psychology of belief.  We can’t discuss religion without addressing the natural human bias to be religious.  Without intense educational training, people acquire beliefs by becoming emotionally attached to them.  We usually hold a belief either because we want it to be true or because we socially identify ourselves with followers of a particular creed.  Almost without exception, people die with the religion that they were born into.

When pressed for evidence, religious believers justify their faith with three recurring themes:  scripture or tradition (discussed above), emotional conviction, and the perceived witnessing of miracles or answered prayers.  I have asked a few religious people how they “know” that there is a God.  None of them claimed to have seen or heard God, but they commonly described a special experience where, “I got a warm feeling inside.”  Unfortunately, such a subjective feeling inside one person cannot convince another.  We atheists believe that it is strictly in the mind.

Religious persons often speak of prayers that came true or a loved one who survived against the odds.  This is a classic example of filtering evidence.  Many good things happen without prayer, and many horrible things happen despite it.  If we are going to decide if prayer works or miracles are real, we can’t just pick and choose our favorite experiences.  One thing that is easy to test scientifically is the power of prayer, and the collective evidence for it is essentially zero. 3

IV. But Isn’t it “Bad” to be Atheist or Agnostic?

Surveys show that religious people distrust atheists, 4 do not feel “warmly” toward them, 5 and do not vote them into office. 6 Why such virulent anti-atheism?!

Religion has served some extremely important social functions in the last 10,000 years.  It has bound communities, provided the unimpeachable source for kings’ authority, and deterred immoral behavior by fear of punishment.  Organized religion and public morality are easily conflated, having emerged together when people started to live in large settlements.  To confuse matters further, Christianity and Islam became aggressively anti-heretical in the Middle Ages.  The idea persists that “turning away from God” is a terrible offense.

Religious people may distrust atheists because they believe that we are morally unrestrained. 7 If there is no God to punish us, then what’s to stop us from lying, cheating, and stealing, right?  That is a ridiculous stereotype.  Atheists are still subject to state law, and we are all judged by the same reputation networks, which are a whole new force to be reckoned with in the internet age.  More importantly, though, atheists understand that you shouldn’t have to rely on the fires of Hell to justify good behavior.  Morality has its own inherent value.  It came from people’s desire to live together in peace, and it should always be at the core of our legal systems.  You and I both believe in Good.  Maybe we just spell it with a different number of o’s.

Today’s world is pluralistic.  Followers of different religions cannot use doctrine to persuade one another of righteous behavior.  We have to rely on our common humanity to be humane.  This is increasingly urgent, because today’s “cultural divides” are largely religious divides.  Division is the very antithesis of religion’s original function.

Religious and irreligious people alike will be sharing the world for a long time.  It is important for us to understand and respect each other and not try to force each other out.  However, in closing, I am going to make a brutally honest plea to today’s and tomorrow’s youth.

V. Upshot

Yes, religion played an indispensable role in history – but that era has passed.  God was a crucial metaphor, a cosmic parent to fledgling civilizations.  Now it is our turn to grow up and leave home to strike out on our own.  Today’s human activity affects billions of people on a global scale.  When we make public policy decisions about economics, war, education, and health, we can no longer afford to leave things “in the hands of God” or to base our actions on ancient mythology and prophecies.  If we are going to be stewards of the Earth, then we should do so based on an understanding of how the world really works.

So … how will your descendants remember the third millennium?  Will we waste our time fighting about what happens in the next world, or will we unite with the common purpose of making this world the best it can be?

Scot Fagerland
2017 – ‘18

 

  1. Thomas Henry Huxley, “Agnosticism”, Collected Essays, Vol. 5: Science and Christian Tradition (1889), p. 238.  Public domain; available free online e.g. at https://mathcs.clarku.edu/huxley/CE5/Agn.html
  2. T.H. Huxley, “Agnosticism”, ibid p. 246.
  3. “Studies of intercessory prayer”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Studies_on_intercessory_prayer (accessed 5/30/2018).
  4. W.M Gervais et al, “Do you believe in atheists?  Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice”, J Pers Soc Psychol 2011 Dec; 101(6):1189-206.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22059841 (accessed 5/05/2018).
  5. Michael Lipka, “U.S. evangelical Christians are chilly toward atheists – and the feeling is mutual”, Pew Research Center (7/16/14), www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/07/16/u-s-evangelical-christians-are-chilly-toward-atheists-and-the-feeling-is-mutual/ (accessed and saved 5/05/2018).
  6. USA Today / Gallup poll, February 9 – 11, 2007.  http://news.gallup.com/poll/26611/some-americans-reluctant-vote-mormon-72yearold-presidential-candidates.aspx (accessed and saved 5/05/2018).
  7. This was the central conclusion of the Gervais study.
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Understanding Gravitational Waves

gravitational waves

A simulation of gravitational waves in the 3D space surrounding an inspiraling black hole pair.

In the 2010’s, science seems to produce miracles every day.  We are constantly enthralled by ever-changing smart phones and life-saving medicines.  Yet one of this decade’s most important science stories is something that didn’t have much media reach – the direct detection of gravitational waves.  This post will explain what gravitational waves are, how they were recently detected, and what this means for the sake of science.

What are gravitational waves?

A boat sitting on a lake displaces (pushes aside) some of the water.  As the boat moves, the displacement of water follows it.  The disturbance in the water then propagates outward from the boat in waves.   Physicists predicted a century ago that gravity can behave in a similar way.  A massive body like a star warps space-time, especially in its vicinity.  When the star is disturbed in certain ways, the space-time warp radiates outward from the star in gravitational waves, carrying energy with it.  If the star is massive enough and particularly agitated, the waves could even be detected from Earth.    

How do we know this?

Our best understanding of gravity today is Einstein’s general theory of relativity (GR).  His theory gave physicists much to think about, as it was a degree more refined and explanatory than Newton’s 17th century model of “action at a distance”.  When Einstein published this theory in 1915, however, it was mostly theoretical.  It made good sense to those (few) who understood it, and it went a long way toward explaining how the universe works on a large scale.  Believers were eager to see if relativity were really supported by astronomical observations.  There were a few early corroborations.  GR immediately explained anomalies in Mercury’s orbit that made no sense otherwise.  Astronomers knew that if Einstein were right about gravity as the warping of space-time, light rays from distant stars should be bent as they passed near the sun, slightly shifting the stars’ locations in the sky.  That can only be observed during a total solar eclipse.  The opportunity came in 1919, and during that eclipse stars near the sun did in fact appear slightly offset from their true positions.  Since then, distant galaxies have been observed acting as “gravitational lenses”, making galaxies directly behind them appear as rings of light rather than points!

Einstein was not perfect.  His model of GR was based on the assumption that the large-scale universe was static.  When it became clear that the universe is actually expanding, he had to modify his equations to suit observational reality.  Thus, even the best ideas from the smartest people cannot be taken as gospel.  They have to be borne out by reality.       

Over the decades, all of Einstein’s predictions were directly confirmed, except one – gravitational waves.  There was actually good indirect evidence dating back to the 1970s.  Binary black holes were seen spiraling in toward one another, gradually losing energy.  That observation was consistent with the idea that they were transmitting gravitational energy out into space.  Still, the next logical step in nailing down general relativity was detecting those waves and studying them. 

Gravitational Wave Detection

A gravitational wave causes periodic stretches and compressions of space.  If such a wave were headed straight toward you right now, it would cause space in your vicinity to stretch horizontally while compressing vertically, and then to stretch vertically while compressing horizontally, in a continued cycle.  To detect these fluctuations, scientists shine lasers in two perpendicular directions, essentially vertical and horizontal.  The lasers travel equal distances until they each strike a mirror and get reflected back to meet each other in the middle.  They are polarized so that, on a normal day, they cancel each other out at this middle point.  But if a gravity wave passes by, one laser beam gets longer while the other one gets shorter, and then they no longer quite cancel in the middle!  Any residual light patterns are recorded, producing a trace of the gravitational wave.   

The problem is that gravitational waves are difficult (frankly, all but impossible) to detect.  They are only generated by extreme systems like binary black holes.  There aren’t many of those within a billion light years.  By the time those waves reach us, they are inconceivably small.  A typical gravity wave is described mathematically as having dimensionless strain amplitude of 10-20.  This means that a distance of 1020 centimeters (from here to a typical star in the night sky) gets distorted by only 1 centimeter (the width of your pinky finger)!  How on Earth (literally) can we detect that?! 

The secret lies in engineering that is just as incredible as the science of relativity.  Fortunately, the lasers don’t have to shift very much to produce an interference pattern.  Mirrors are used to lengthen the lasers’ paths, thus lengthening their stretches and compressions.  The real challenge is separating out these miniscule oscillations from normal everyday movement; gravitational waves are much smaller than disturbances in the laboratory such as footsteps or even air currents.  Engineers have found workarounds.  The mirrors are suspended from four levels of pulleys, each of which dampens movement by orders of magnitude.  The whole system is controlled by advanced “noise reduction” technology.  If a truck passes by outside, the control system creates its own minor vibrations to cancel out the truck’s!  Finally, the results from one gravitational-wave observatory are checked against another one elsewhere in the world.  All these steps ensure that the equipment is not falsely reading local jostles as cosmological events. 1

A handful of gravity wave detectors such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) have been in operation since the 1990s.  They produced absolutely no results for two decades.  As a Caltech alumnus, I was long aware of and curious about the LIGO, which is a Caltech lab in conjunction with MIT and the NSF.  After some key engineering improvements in 2015, LIGO finally made a breakthrough and detected gravitational waves.  In fact, it almost immediately detected waves from three different events.  Go Caltech!  The most recent detection was just announced in June, 2017. 

Can we see or hear gravitational wave events?

Well … yes and no. 

The gravitational waves detected so far were all caused by the same phenomenon, called a black-hole in-spiral.  A pair of black holes in very close, very fast orbits around each other spiral inward for a collision.  The forces behind a system like that are impossible to imagine.  Picture two large stars, each ten times more massive than the sun.  Then shrink each star down to the size of a baseball.  As they orbit each other, they radiate energy away in gravitational waves, causing them to inch closer toward their mutual center.  After millions of years, their small size permits them to get within a few kilometers of one another.  Like an ice skater pulling in her arms, their angular momentum causes them to spin faster and faster until they are twirling at ludicrous rates, stirring the very space around them.  The gravitational waves reach a climax as the two black holes merge into one.  Only the peak of this wave is detectable on Earth, literally the split second of coalescence.  After that, the new larger black hole behaves in a spherically symmetrical way and becomes gravitationally quiescent. 

We cannot literally “see” such an event with telescopes, but a computer simulation of such a black hole mating – with gravitational waves emanating outward – is shown here: 2

Just about any wave can be converted into a sound wave so we can “listen” to it.  A black-hole collision produces a powerful but brief burst of waves that is detectable for about one second.  As shown in the video, the waves increase in frequency during that second, which we would interpret as a rising pitch.  Scientists call it a “chirp”.  You can listen to the chirps of the first two detections in this video: 3

So what?

These waves are a scientific breakthrough.  For starters, they are Einstein’s final witness.  Everything he said about general relativity is now seen to be true.  We now feel that we have a very complete understanding of what gravity does (though the ultimate question of why mass distorts space-time is still unknown). 

The first gravitational wave was detected in September, 2015 and announced in February, 2016.  It’s a pretty cool coincidence that this processing period spanned the date November 25, 2015, the 100th anniversary of publication of Einstein’s general relativity.

In addition, gravitational wave detectors bring the promise of a new generation of observatories.  Classic telescopes detect visible light.  Modern versions such as radio telescopes see outside the spectrum of the human eye, but they are still detecting variants of light, electromagnetic radiation.  Gravitational waves are completely outside the realm of electromagnetics.  They are not obscured by physical objects or dimmed by dust, so observatories such as LIGO have an unobstructed view of them wherever they occur.  They also emerge from very interesting astronomical phenomena that do not emit light.  That includes black holes, of course, and even the big bang.  The oldest electromagnetic radiation in the universe came about 100,000 years after the big bang.  Gravitational wave detectors could pierce that veil and peer indefinitely closer to the actual moment of creation.

What gravitational waves are not

The name “gravitational waves” can be a little misleading.  They are not the normal mechanism by which gravity works.  The earth goes around the sun because of the sun’s gravity, which does warp space-time in the solar system, but in a static field.  There are no gravitational waves emanating from the sun to the earth.  Waves are an exception rather than a rule in GR, simply a consequence of certain asymmetric movements. 

It is also important not to confuse gravitational waves with gravitons.  The graviton is a hypothetical construct that some theoreticians use to explain what could cause gravity in the first place (ie why mass warps space-time).  The three other forces of nature (electromagnetism, the weak nuclear interaction, and the strong nuclear force) are all transmitted by strange subatomic units called bosons, which can behave as particles or waves.  The most familiar boson is the photon, the light wave / particle.  Could it be that gravity is also transmitted by bosons?  Nobody knows.  Certainly nobody has ever detected one.  The graviton hypothesis comes at gravity from a very different direction – Einstein came at it cosmologically, on the very large scale, whereas the graviton model emerged from quantum mechanics, the study of the very small.  As for myself, I am skeptical.  Graviton theory is mathematically consistent only if it allows “hidden extra dimensions” for the gravitons to wiggle around like little strings.  It seems to be a non-falsifiable speculation.  To be clear, gravitons did not come out of Einstein’s theory of relativity.  On the other hand, GR only explains how mass warps space-time, not why.  A full understanding of gravity would have to go beyond even Einstein’s imagination. 

 

 

  1. LIGO Caltech, https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/page/ligo-gw-interferometer (accessed 8/28/2017).
  2. Simulating Extreme Spacetimes, CC BY-NC 3.0 license, https://www.black-holes.org/gw150914 (accessed 8/28/2017).
  3. American Astronomical Society, https://www.space.com/33180-how-gravitational-waves-were-converted-into-audio-chirps-video.html (accessed 8/28/2017).
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The Electoral College and Election Mathematics

Tomorrow, Donald Trump will be sworn in as one of the most controversial presidents-elect in US history. 1 Because it was a complicated election and Clinton won the plurality of votes, many protesters characterize Trump’s election victory as “illegitimate”, and (as in most elections) there is a lot of grumbling that the Electoral College system is flawed.  The underlying assumption seems to be that this system must be “outdated” since it is centuries old, and that only a one-person / one-vote rule would be fair.

Police talk to Trump protesters, downtown Los Angeles, 11/12/16

As a math instructor who has taught lessons in political science, my simple message today is this:  There is no such thing as a perfect election method.  Every conceivable system has inherent unfairness or even contradictions.  The only principle that’s really essential is that all parties agree to the rules before the election.

Here’s an example to give you an idea of how a voting system can be paradoxical.  Consider a three-candidate race among Arthur, Buchanan, and Cleveland.  The presidency will go to the candidate who receives the plurality of votes, i.e. more votes than anyone else.  A survey (which we will consider accurate!) reveals these voter preferences:

10,000,000 voters prefer Arthur 1st, Buchanan 2nd, and Cleveland 3rd.

8,000,000 voters prefer Buchanan 1st, Cleveland 2nd, and Arthur 3rd.

4,000,000 voters prefer Cleveland 1st, Buchanan 2nd, and Arthur 3rd.

If the election were held that day, Arthur’s 10 million votes would win him the election.  Cleveland would come in last place.  Discouraged by the polls, Cleveland announces at the last minute that he is dropping out of the race.  But then something very interesting happens at the election:  Cleveland’s 4,000,000 votes go to Buchanan.  Buchanan now wins the election, 12 to 10 million!

That doesn’t seem fair.  The winner changed just because the loser dropped out.  To look at it another way, the three-man election wasn’t really fair either. More people preferred Buchanan over Arthur but, with Cleveland in the race, Arthur would win.  This hypothetical election violates the “Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives” criterion of fairness.

Political theorists have a handful of other criteria for what makes an election fair.  They have names such as the Majority Criterion, Universality, Monotonicity, and Citizen Sovereignty.  I won’t bore you with the details here, but they are basic conditions that most of us would agree seem fundamentally fair.

Now here’s the kicker.  In his 1951 PhD dissertation, a Columbia student named Ken Arrow proved mathematically that no election system can possibly satisfy all of these fairness criteria all of the time!  It’s an idea now called the Arrow Impossibility Theorem.  OK, there is one exception to this rule.  In a two-candidate race, “Majority Rules” is perfectly fair.  However, while the US has two major parties, there are several minor parties too.  If we insisted that our elections be perfectly fair in every way, we would have to eliminate minor parties … and that already isn’t very fair or democratic.

I often say, “Life is 90% great, 9% imperfect, and 1% terrible.”  This is part of that 9% that we just have to accept.  Since there is no such thing as a perfectly fair voting system, we have to pick one and deal with its quirks.  In the case of the Electoral College, it is possible to get a national winner with a relatively small fraction of individual votes.  What is vital is that everyone agrees to the election system before the votes are cast.  Gray areas and surprises will happen.  We want them to be resolved by a rulebook that everyone knew they were playing by.

That’s why the part of this election cycle that bothered me most was when the Republican party was still debating its nomination rules just a few weeks before the convention!  If you recall, there was a rule from 2012 requiring a candidate to have won a majority of delegates in at least eight states in order to be considered as a Republican nominee.  As the convention drew near, dark horse candidate Trump was the only one who had met that threshold.  He started to gloat about it, but other candidates were saying, “Wait now; there’s no guarantee that rule will apply to this convention.”  I was stunned.  I would have thought the party had firmed up its nominating rules years earlier.  In fact, though, those rules were only decided one week before the convention!  That’s a problem, because rules can be crafted for or against specific candidates at that stage.

The Electoral College has some legitimate strengths and weaknesses.  The constitutional purpose was to let each state decide how to determine its electors.  Every state starts out with two votes (that’s fair when counting states) and then an additional number of votes proportional to population (that’s fair when counting voters).  On balance, the system is biased toward small / rural (presently Republican) states.  For instance, blue California has a population of 40,000,000 – as much as the 19 least-populous red states combined.  That red bloc has 36 more electoral votes than California, for the same number of people.  That’s why you actually don’t hear much talk about California in national campaigns.  It has the most diluted votes in the nation.

If we switched to a one-person / one-vote system, we would bypass the states.  It would then be essentially a race of Democratic cities versus Republican countryside.  That could pose its own challenges; for instance, it is much easier to organize and to campaign in dense cities than in sparse counties.  We would also lose the sense of regional interests.  Here is an incredible map that shows “where the voters are” as granularly as possible.  Each county’s population is represented by area, and its Republican : Democratic ratio is represented on the red / blue spectrum.  It’s hard to see any sense of party identity other than the urban / rural divide.  (Large cities are concentrated on the coasts).  Here you can see that the country as a whole is pretty evenly split.  The new “swing” areas are the most medium purple; you see a lot in Arizona, Texas, Florida, and the Northeast.

Trump can credit his victory to a handful of counties where he out-campaigned Clinton. 2 In a popular vote, the candidates would have learned how to “game” this system instead of the state-based electoral one.  Trump said so himself.

So, sure, the Electoral College system has its wrinkles.  But so does direct popular voting.  To drive the point home, the unfair Arthur / Buchanan / Cleveland example above was a popular vote.  The Electoral College is not perfect, but it’s perfectly legitimate and as good a system as any.

Love him or hate him, Donald Trump duly won the election.

 

  1. Mark Murray, “Trump Enters Office With Historically Low Approval Rating”, NBC News (1/17/17), http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/first-read/trump-enters-office-historically-low-rating-n708071 (accessed 1/17/17).
  2. Charles Mahtesian, “How Trump Won His Map”, Politico (11/09/16),  http://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/anatomy-of-trumps-election-231154 (accessed 1/19/17).
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Logic Problems involving others’ minds

black_white_hats

Sometimes to solve a puzzle you must think about what other people are thinking. In fact, the very skill of logic could have served the evolutionary function of outsmarting others.

Many scientists believe that the evolutionary purpose of logical thinking is to outsmart other people.  This Christmas vacation, my family was mulling over a logic puzzle that requires thinking about what other people do or do not know, and what they can or can not figure out based on their knowledge.  I realize that this problem has two forms, easier and harder, but they both involve the same backstory, something like the plot to the opera Turandot:

Prince Peter travels to a nearby kingdom to ask the king for the princess’s hand in marriage.  Unfortunately, two other princes are also there to make the very same request.  The king takes advantage of the competition to marry his daughter off to the smartest prince; he pits them against each other in a battle of wits.  The king seats the princes at a round table and blindfolds them.  “I have five hats,” he tells them.  “Three of them are white, and two are black.  I am placing one hat on each of your heads, and I will hide the other two.”  As he does so, he tells the princes that he will shortly remove their blindfolds.  “The princess will go to the first prince to correctly identify the color of his own hat,” he explains.  “If you guess incorrectly, I will kill you.  If you cheat by looking at your hat directly or in a mirror, I will kill you.  Don’t answer until you have correctly surmised the color of your own hat!”  He then has his assistants remove the blindfolds simultaneously.  The princes look at each other’s hats.  None of them offers an answer for several minutes.  Finally, Prince Peter laughs with delight.  “Of course!” he cheers.  “My hat is _______________ !!”  He and the princess live happily ever after.

The hard version of the question leaves off here, and simply asks, “What color was Peter’s hat, and what colors were the other princes wearing?”  You can try your hand at this question first, and if you’re stumped, peek at the clue in the easier version.

To view the clue, highlight the blank area below this line:

The “easier” (but still hard) version of the question adds, “Prince Peter saw that the other two princes were both wearing white hats.  What color was Peter’s hat?”

In order to arrive at the answer to this question (which I’m not going to post today), we have to give some thought to what the other princes would know / think, and how they would react, if they saw certain colors.  We have to assume that the princes are acting rationally (because of the high price for random guessing) but that the others have either less information or less intelligence than Peter.

____________________________________________________

This problem reminds me of a moment when I was listening to the radio at about age 12.  The DJ announced that he would award a cash prize to the 10th caller.  My first thought was, “If I wait enough time for nine people to call, then I can call and be the tenth.”  But then I realized, “Wait a minute.  Everyone else will be playing by the same strategy!  They are all going to wait and try to be the 10th caller.  Since nobody will even start to call for ten minutes, I’ll wait for 20.”  This turned into an infinite regress: “But wait.  Everybody will think the same thing again, so they will all wait 10 minutes longer, so I should delay longer … on and on to eternity!”  I wondered how this game could possibly be won.  I was flabbergasted when the song ended four minutes later and there was already a winner!  People had rushed to call!  That wouldn’t make any sense unless they hadn’t thought it through — or unless they knew that at least nine other players wouldn’t think it through.  I learned that sometimes to win a game, you have to be irrational or to assume that you are playing against unintelligent or irrational competitors.

__________________________________________________________

Finally, we come to the hardest logic problem I have ever heard.  In this problem, the rules are that each player is infinitely intelligent (but not clairvoyant).  The judge selects two different natural numbers, m and n.  (The natural numbers are the counting numbers:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, …).  The judge reveals the numbers’ sum (m + n) to Player 1, and he gives their product (mn) to player 2.

“I do not know what the two numbers are,” says Player 1.

“Neither do I,” says Player 2.

“Oh, then I do know what the two numbers are!” says Player 1.

“Then so do I!” says Player 2.

What are the two numbers?

In an ideal world, I won’t have to reveal the answers to these puzzles because someone else will in the comments below.  Is that a rational assumption?  😛

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Historic Place Names Quiz

map_crop

The world as Europeans knew it in 1670

When I was growing up, it was not too hard to find books lying around full of stories predating the world wars.  I read plenty of Sherlock Holmes, Jules Verne, and 19th century ghost stories.  It intrigued me when they related to places so exotic that I couldn’t even find them on a map.  Now that I’m researching the empires of the last few millennia, I am coming across these names again.  It’s a challenge to connect old place names to new ones, to understand exactly where they were.  It’s even more interesting to know when and why they changed.  See how you do on this quiz.

Bohemia

Byzantium / Constantinople

Dalmatia

The Forbidden City

Leningrad

New Amsterdam

The Ottoman Empire

Persia

Prussia

Sheba

Siam

Tenochtitlan

Atlantis

 

Click here for answers

 

 

 

 

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We need to stop terror, not just terrorism

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One of LA’s most intriguing corners symbolizes the nation’s fears and divisions over the War on Terror

This September 11, I feel compelled to write a few words about the War on Terror.  It is an important issue this year as Americans make big choices.  We all know that emotional thinking can cloud judgment – and the War on Terror is one of the most emotional issues of our time.  When you look at it objectively, though, you reach a striking conclusion.  Yes, terrorists are definitely evil.  But in the grand scheme of things, they are not very deadly to Americans.  When you compare the cost of this war to its benefits, it is very hard to justify on its present terms.

American conservatives describe the War on Terror as a “Clash of Cultures”.  This characterization is an ideological belief, not a fact, and it is not productive.  A look at worldwide terrorism deaths reminds us what the fight is really about:  instability within the Moslem world.  Of the roughly 20,000 terrorist deaths worldwide in 2013, a majority of them were in Iraq or Afghanistan.  90% of them occurred in 10 African / Asian countries that are home to terrorist groups.   1 These groups are militias aimed at local governments or other sects.  Most of these groups don’t target outsiders.  ISIS and al Qaeda are the main exceptions.  The US and other countries engage them directly in combat, and they strike back at our civilians.

From 2001 – 2013, the number of Americans killed by terrorist attacks was about 3,000.  Outside of 9/11/01 itself, that number is about 400, and of those only 50 were on US soil. 2 That was a whole decade’s worth of casualties.

By contrast, on a typical day (based on annual rates), 90 Americans are killed by guns at home or in the streets – by angry acquaintances, accidents, or suicide. 3  Another 90 Americans are killed in car accidents.  4  The overwhelming majority of preventable deaths in the US – 2,000 per day – are caused by our own stupid decisions to smoke, drink, overeat, and abuse drugs. 5

Terrorism is not even close to our biggest problem.

Nevertheless, more than half of Americans are “very concerned about Islamic extremism.” 6  That’s a higher rate than in Pakistan!  This disconnect is not surprising.  People don’t think with statistics.  We think with emotions.  Lifestyle-related deaths are not as evil or terrifying as terrorist attacks.

The emotionally-driven political response has been vastly out of proportion.  This war has cost trillions of dollars 7 , killed perhaps a million people 8 (wow), and sacrificed 7,000 US soldiers in combat 9 to avenge our 3,000 dead.  Not only that, but ironically most of those 400 American civilian deaths since 2001 have resulted from counterattacks against our War on Terror.

This conflict means less to the US, but more to the world, than most Americans realize.  The US needs to downscale its response, make it more efficient, and share it more evenly with its allies.  Our trillions could be much better spent on intelligence, police, and security.  Better yet, the responsibility and the budget should be spread among many nations.  The global solution to the problem is a very interesting discussion, and beyond the scope of today’s post.

As for the upcoming election, the two presidential candidates, for all their mudslinging and difference in style, have roughly similar platforms on the War on Terror.  Some of the key differences include:

  • Trump has expressed his desire to remove the US from NATO.  This would be counter-productive, as the solution needs to be international.  Trying to shore up the entire Moslem world would stretch America far too thin.  Then again, he has also spoken in favor of coalition support.
  • HIllary Clinton wants to work with Moslem Americans as a “coalition at home”.  10
  • Clinton supports stricter gun control for people on FBI watch lists.
  • Trump wants the US military to grow even larger.  Clinton supports a sustainable military with enhanced cyber capabilities.
  • Trump opposes arming Syrian rebels.  Secretary Clinton supported arming them, but Obama tried that and it backfired.  She does not include arming rebels in her presidential platform.

The more serious difference between the candidates and their supporters is their outlook on the conflict.  Trump buys into the “Clash of Cultures” storyline.  He and his voters see ISIS as first and foremost out to get America.  That outlook doesn’t get us any closer to the real problems in West Asia and their solutions.  Trump is riding on the coat tails of American fear, perceiving the terrorist danger as so large that it threatens the entire nation.

FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Yoda was just as wise when he said, “Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”  For Americans right now, it is just as important to conquer our terror as to conquer the terrorists.

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This website reminds us why terrorists attack in the West

Tornado GR4 Attack on Libyan SCUD LauncherIt surprises me that even to this day, when there are terrorist attacks on the US or Europe, people still wonder why.  “Why do they hate us?!” they ask.  They often come up with self-pleasing answers:  “They hate us because we’re free.”  “They’re attacking our way of life.” “They have the wrong religion.”

No.  ISIS attacks “us” because we attack them.  Sure, we may be on the right side of the law, but at least we should acknowledge our part in this two-way cycle of violence.

Time and again, terrorist attackers make their motives clear.  When Jihadi John beheaded US hostages, he specifically said that it was a punishment for US airstrikes.  Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind behind the Paris attacks, did not choose Paris at random.  The French military had personally targeted and tried to kill him the month before.  Why did ISIS take down a plane full of Russian passengers?  It’s not a coincidence that Russia had just begun a series of airstrikes against Syria.

And if ISIS wants to retaliate, what else can it do?  Our military is invincible and invisible.  ISIS cannot strike down drones.  We have no soldiers to shoot.  Its only option is to strike at “us”, the people, in hopes that we will cave in and implore our governments to leave ISIS alone.  Welcome to 3rd-millennium warfare.

Islamists’ war was not about us until we intervened.  Jihad is fundamentally about Asian / African governance.  ISIS, Boko Haram, al Qaeda, al Shabaab, Hamas, and Hezbollah are primarily interested in toppling secular dictators, changing borders, and establishing a caliphate.  Some of them have serious problems with Israel.  Beyond that, they don’t really care about the outside world.  In fact, ISIS is the only one particularly active outside its territory.  They only attack outsiders to keep us out of their turf, especially in retaliation for intervention.

Our news cycles are dominated by terrorist attacks.  Somehow, we don’t seem to be as aware of our side of this fight.  ISIS is being pummeled on a daily basis, reports Chris Jennewein of the Times of San Diego.  Some airstrikes are more justified than others.  Last month in Iraq, coalition bombers killed 300 ISIS militants, one of the most successful air attacks to date.  But last week, an errant US airstrike killed maybe 100 innocent civilians in Syria.  One way or the other, these attacks are sure to breed counterattacks.  The cycle never ends!

The website AirWars is a very interesting journalism project keeping track of coalition attacks.  You can find breakdowns by coalition country or by year, and even daily news.  I think it is important to stay apprised of our own activity.

Right or wrong, this is the cause of terror attacks against North America and Europe.  It’s not just random cultural hatred or religious insanity.  It’s a cycle of violence.  At the very least, we should understand the reason for these retaliations.  Only then can we decide what to do about them.

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Why do we have Leap Year?

Why is Leap Year necessary?

Leap Year is necessary because our clocks (based on Earth’s rotation on its own axis) and our calendars (based on Earth’s revolution around the sun) are incommensurate, based on unrelated cycles.  We need to fudge one system or the other every now and then to keep them synchronized.  Leap Year is just the system we have historically adopted.  Actually, even the Leap Year needs tweaks of its own.  This video discusses the first, second, and third order corrections to make clocks and calendars agree as precisely as possible!

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