On Gravity and Religious Symbolism

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I want to set the tone of this piece. Aaargghh. There, that should do it. Now you know where I’m coming from.

As background, I sometimes find myself listening to Sunday Nights with John Cleary on ABC radio. Yes, it’s a religious program, but I generally enjoy it because the host, although clearly strongly religious, present issues of the day with a strong secular brand of analysis, and is not afraid to confront the contradictions of religion, and also to question apologists accordingly. It is on that program I first learned of Bishop John Shelby Spong, and his progressive call for ‘a fundamental rethinking of Christian belief away from theism and traditional doctrines’.  A casual glance of the titles of his publications on the Wikipedia page illustrates his struggle to find any consistency between his spiritual life and reality.

In stark contrast, however, a couple of weeks ago we had one Richard Leonard as a film reviewer, and who is also a Jesuit priest. Hilarity ensued.

In conversation with John Cleary, he proceeds to review Gravity, but in a manner somewhat differently to my approach, here.

To cut to the chase, apparently the film was choc-full of religious references. And apparently (I’m going use that word a lot – so strap in) it’s not really a story of survival in space, with a sub-theme of Bullock’s grief at the loss of a child. No, it’s more a gospel highlights piece, set in space.

To be fair, it sounded like John Cleary wasn’t buying it all that much. He wanted to talk about how the visual style drove the film, and the allusions to Kubrick’s 2001. He was impressed by the minimalist story line, and the use of CGI to make aesthetic points, like the tear drifting off in zero G, describing it as a deeply emotional moment. Good points John.

But Leonard. Oh my. All I can say is, pareidolia anyone? This is definitely a ‘face on Mars’ moment.

To begin with, he obviously liked the movie, but sets up his forthcoming analysis by identifying the major theme of survival in terms of ‘choosing life’. Well, yes, that’s what happens when people try not to die. They choose life. But then he starts in on ‘inter-textuality’, harking back to his film appreciation classes in priest school, claiming that religion is a sub-plot.

Here is a selection of Mr. Leonard’s ‘faces on Mars’ views (and the odd bit of counter-apologetics):

  • Apparently Deuteronomy 30:19 is ‘there loud and clear’: choose life. Again, if you don’t want to die, yes, you are choosing life. Do we really need a bible reference to explain this? In fact, without getting too deep here, Mr. Leonard should go back to bible school on this. From my reading as a layman, this was not the intention of the quote (see here). Apparently in Deuteronomy 11:26, of the Israelites it is taught that “God did not administer justice to them according t the strict letter of the law, but allowed them mercy so that they might ‘choose life'”. So far, so good. But an interpretation by latter scholars deduced from the the words ‘choose life‘ that ‘one can learn a trade to earn a livelihood‘. Somehow I don’t think this is a key theme of the film. Just sayin’.
  • In one of the longest bows he draws, Clooney’s obsession with Mardi Gras stories is significant apparently because “it’s the night where you have your last big blowout before the sacrifice of Lent. The sacrifice of Lent can be in contrast to Fat Tuesday. The contrast was stark.” WTF?
  • On returning to Earth, the capsule plunging into the sea is a baptismal move. Yeah, right. Here are two more interpretations: It could be a child returning to the mother’s womb, or, it could be a safe way to retrieve a metal box from orbit. Take your pick.
  • When Bullock clambers onto shore, she ‘literally comes out of the mud’, which apparently is a reference to Adam who comes out of mud. Wow.
  • He gets a free-kick  because of the St.Christopher medallion in the Russian craft, and the Buddha in the Chinese one. The latter is meant to indicate that Bullock is embracing pain and not running from it.
  • When Bullock tries to raise the Russians on the radio but can’t communicate, she asks them to pray for her because ‘no one taught her to’. This he takes to mean a deathbed conversion. I hate that. People take comfort in all sorts of fantasies – religion is just another.
  • And finally, Clooney’s return to the capsule means he’s an ‘angel of life’ (and to emphasise his scholarly reading, Leonard refers to him as ‘angelos’. Yes this means angel in Greek. Impressive.) Apparently (last one, I promise) he comes back as the angel of life to help her remember the instructions because she’s given up on life. Or it could be a hallucination brought on by the depleted oxygen environment. Maybe he’s not an angel, but an inspiration. Mystifyingly, Leonard also thinks that Clooney coming back into her subconscious is also ‘deeply Freudian’. Really? Don’t see it myself.

Well, that’s it.You see what you want to see I guess.

Leonard has found extensive religious symbology in what is essential a story of survival in a hostile environment, with the focus on human ingenuity and drive to survive, which is a strong evolutionary trait.

I don’t mind Leonard being reminded of his religious symbols by the movie – that’s fine. But to subordinate human values of courage, ingenuity, mutual support, not to mention science and technology, to religious clap-trap, it’s just intellectually dishonest.

This is just a mis-guided, or desperate attempt to leverage the achievements of man to prop up an area which has in essence had no achievements for 2000 years, unless you count creative writing, cathedrals and genocide.

When the shoe was on the other foot – when Erik Von Daniken in Chariots of Fire ascribed the events in the Book of Ezekiel to alien technology, the religiati squealed like stuck pigs, refusing to have a bar of it.

Well, that’s just how I feel about this movie review.


EMF Devices – How to really build them

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I’ve been thinking.

Following my previous post on the preposterous EMF devices, I decided I would think about them in a bit more detail, as they present an interesting engineering challenge. Normally I don’t advocate spending too much time on the preposterous – my main example is academic debates about religion, for example ‘What is the ontological status of God’, which sounds impressive, but just asks, ‘does god exist’. So what’s the point? How can you academically prove that God doesn’t exist. It’s like debating the existence of the Easter bunny. The best you can do is show that the proponent is inconsistent or illogical, but that never phases them anyway.

So spending any time on the EMF con is similar. The difference here is that the real work I’m supposed to be doing this afternoon is boring me shitless, so I’ve decided to pull on the engineering hat again. Ok yes, it has a propeller on it – what’s your point?

In any case, I think it’s actually useful to understand WHY such devices are SO preposterous.

So after that long justification giving myself permission to spend time on this, let’s at last talk EMF Crystals! If you haven’t read the piece on EMF crystals already, it would be useful to do so now.

The reality

Imagine you’re standing in the middle of a pond, and waves are coming at you from all directions from other people frolicking, and also leaving you as you flap around your arms. This is only a 2D example, but in reality it’s happening in 3D. And the waves are a very broad range of frequencies, all mixed together – some visible, some radio, some UV, some very low like power lines, some extremely high like mobile phones. To take two extreme examples, power lines have EM waves at 50 Hz – that is, each second in our pond we get 50 peaks and troughs. For mobile phones, it’s around 2 GigaHerz, or 2,000,0000,000 waves per second in our pond. Not only that, for digital communications like phones, the waves are chopped up into billions of little packets for transmission, and reassembled by your phone to turn into something you can hear.

What it needs to do

So, what this device is supposed to do, is to take this vast array of EM fields hitting you from all directions, adjust them, and rebroadcast them in a more ‘user friendly’ form.

Technical problems abound, but just some of them are:

  • Firstly, the device is on your belt or your neck or somewhere, and would need to somehow deflect the waves from hitting your body, and suck them into the magic disk. If you think it would be messy trying to stop the waves hitting you in the pond, it would be many orders more difficult to stop EM waves hitting you.
  • We need different devices and materials to capture different frequency EM. An antenna or material to capture TV signals is quite different to capturing mobile phone signals. Just look at your TV antenna. TV is just a minor band in the EM spectrum, but to capture the different frequencies efficiently, we need different lengths of material, ranging from a meter or so, down to a few centimeters for UHF channels.
  • That’s just to capture the EM waves – we also need to stop them from hitting parts of our body. Ummm, not sure how they even might do that, because shielding is a big issue. Remember that we manage to receive a lot of EM inside solid structures – otherwise we moan about our phone coverage. So how we would stop phone signals in the air and from our phone from hitting our body is a decent engineering problem.
  • OK, so let’s grant it the ability to do all the above, thanks perhaps to ancient Egyptian materials. So now, it needs to ‘harmonize’, ‘clean’, and rebroadcast the signals to us in a form that doesn’t screw us up, and in fact can cause us to sing all day, according to one testimony. Firstly what needs to be cleaned? Cleaning implies there is something dirty or unwanted in the signal. Well, true, there is always noise in the system which needs to be filtered out, but this isn’t the bit that’s hurting you, according to our friends selling these devices. It’s the actual signal. So how do we ‘clean’ it? So we remove some frequencies? Well, that would alter the signal, so there goes your phone reception. Do we make them smaller? Yes, you could attenuate them, but that would kill the range of your phone so as to make it useless. What about ‘harmonize’ – this means to synchronise two or more frequency so that they are in harmony – so what are we harmonizing with? You body’s ‘natural frequencies’ they would say. Well, they don’t exist, but even if they did, and even if we could, harmonizing with them would mean changing our EM signal, so there goes our phone signal again.
  • And to do the cute bit in the previous step, the device would also need to keep track of all the EM it has collected, and presumably have some sort of storage while it does the cleaning and harmonizing and so forth, and then rebroadcast according to a schedule that doesn’t screw up our communications. If we did manage to screw up the timings between signals, then things like GPS – which relies on nanosecond timing – wouldn’t work. Yep, you’d need to be quite careful with this bit.
  • Lastly, to rebroadcast our captured, cleaned and exquisitely scheduled range of EM signals, we need two things – antennas and power. As for capturing the signals, we need the right sized antennas to re-broadcast whatever it is we now want to substitute. So that in a ceramic disc will be challenging. Then of course we need power, and the only way I can see of building this thing is with a miniaturised Zero Point Module – which is of course fictitious.

All in all, this is a bugger of an engineering problem, which would need some major break-throughs in physics to achieve. In fact, I’ve tried to think how I would even build one of these using ANY of the technology in the world of science fiction, and it’s still tricky. Let’s try:

  1. Stopping the EM from hitting the body – perhaps generate a warp bubble around the body to deflect the waves; or else use the warp bubble to dip the body in and out of an alternate universe (one without EM fields) long enough to really reduce the intensity of EM received by the body. Then we just have the radiation of travelling between universes to deal with, but that’s a problem for another day.
  2. Collecting the desired EM – Hmmm. I suppose we could modify the above warp bubble to act as a lens in all frequencies, but modulating its fundamental frequency through the entire band, so that it acts as an antenna itself, which then just leaves the problem of getting the energy, and associated data on the composition/timing of that energy into our crystal. If we could get the crystal to resonate at the same frequency as the warp bubble, then at least the impedance could be matched, and thus facilitate a transfer of the energy. Encoding data about the content would need a decent kilobit quantum computer on the crystal – with that, we could just about process all major communications frequencies in parallel.
  3. Cleaning, Harmonizing, and Rebroadcasting – I think once we have our information stored and sorted in our crystal, it’s then a trivial problem to present the information to our person in a gentle form, perhaps directly injected into the cerebral cortex would remove the need for re-broadcast EM altogether. Alternatively, an artificially generated Vulcan mind-meld with the crystal would do the trick too, but I suppose we’d need to replace that Egyptian sand with Vulcan, and that’s hard to get these days.
  4. Powering this thing – as I mentioned above, we’d need a ZPM out of the Stargate universe, and even that would need to be miniaturised. Alternatively, a few grams of black hole would give us enough for a miniature reactor and that would also do the job, but create a couple of other problems to solve – firstly carrying the crystal would be a challenge due to the massive curvature of space-time in the crystal, and secondly we would need to stabilise the black hole so that it didn’t kill us with radiation and also didn’t suck in the known universe; that latter would be kind of counter-productive. And to stabilise it means – yes, you guessed it – another warp field.

Let’s just hope they don’t invent sub-space radio for real, because that would totally bugger up my scheme, since as we all know, warp fields are transparent to sub-space radio.

Kirk out.

Gravity is awesome

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Gravity_PosterNo, I’m not referring to that gravity which is ‘just a theory’, but which is nonetheless quite a handy thing.

I’m referring to the movie, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, which I saw about a week ago, but have waited a while for it to sink in. I chose the adjective ‘awesome’ deliberately – I was genuinely awe-struck, and that doesn’t happen very often.

I thought I would pass on some thoughts on the movie, but will try not to give away any spoilers.

The first thing to be said is that the subject matter of this movie once again underlines my contention that reality is way more interesting (and awesome) than the mystical/religious/paranormal/fantasy worlds which many claim to  exist.

But now to the movie itself.

The production values are superb, as is the attention to detail. For once, the creators have actually listened to the boffins, and got the physics right. While it’s a feast for the eyes, it’s certainly not a romanticised or air-brushed telling of a routine mission gone wrong. Rather, it reinforces what a dangerous place space is for humans, and in particular, how many different ways space can kill you. And that’s what makes this movie edge-of-the-seat stuff from beginning to end (ok, they do give you a few minutes at the beginning to get the ‘wow-that-looks-fun’ feeling happening, but that’s it for relaxation I’m afraid).

I do have a few minor gripes however, but they are minor:

1. At one point Bullock has seven minutes to free the entangled chinese capsule, and suddenly appears on the outside, all suited up to begin the work of untangling stuff. I think it would have taken all of that seven minutes to find the suit (which belonged to a departed chinese astronaut), get into it, and make her way to the outside of the craft.

2. When Clooney (in his jet-pack) picks up Bullock, he tows her back using a long tether – which looked about 20m long, ostensibly to get her out of his jets. That’s fair enough, but the resulting dynamics of two bodies whipping around wreckage is unnecessary, and completely foreseeable. This also would have accelerated the depletion of the fuel in the jet-pack, as it fought against the inertia of the other body. And the fuel in the jet-pack turns out to be critical. Why not have Bullock hold onto Clooney front-on? (Like many other women would love to do, including Mrs. rb, given half a chance). This at least would have made them a single body, much easier to control.

3. The close proximity of the ISS and Chinese habitats to the shuttle orbit and location was handy, and necessary to support the dramatic storyline, but  I think that the outcome (without giving away too much), would have been a lot worse in reality.

As I said, these are minor, and don’t really detract from an otherwise excellent film.

For those of you who watch The Movie Show with David and Margaret, I was surprised with David’s comments on the movie. He felt that that a certain scene 3/4 of the way through the movie was somehow silly and inappropriate (when you see it, you’ll know which one I mean). I’m not sure what he was on, but the scene was fine with me – not out of place at all, and completely believable, given the oxygen-starved environment at the time. Was he even paying attention?

The other fail for the Movie show was the failure to acknowledge Aussie astronaut Andy Thomas, who is credited as ‘astronaut adviser’. Given the excellent performances and realism, he has to take a lot of credit.

Overall, a great adventure, well presented.

Your homework: Read Ray Bradbury’s ‘Kaleidescope’, which tells the story of astronauts ejected from an exploding spaceship, and their various conversations as they drift toward their respective fates. Compare and contrast.

A bit of wolf action

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It may surprise you to hear I don’t watch many wildlife documentaries. I’ve just never gravitated to them.

However, when one is on, I do get into it. Such was the case last night, and I got a large dose of wolves, brown bears, seals and salmon in northern Alaska; the latter two in various states of disrepair, as the former two tore into them.

I’m not going to talk about it – it just reminded me of my own adventure in Denali National Park in Alaska some 3 years ago now. On the bus through the park, I got some outstanding (if I do say so myself) footage of a wolf sneaking up on some unsuspecting Dall sheep, and thought is was worth posting.

As all this unfolded, about 2 or 3 buses backed up, and our guide said this was a very rare sight (the stalking wolf, not the backed up buses).

The video starts out with the sheep just browsing on the hillside, as they do. Off to the left, a wolf is crouching, weighing up its options. Or just resting, I don’t know, I’m not an expert.

The wolf decides a front-on assault is not on because it’s still too far away. So he takes an alternate route – he comes out of the foliage, towards the road and right past our bus, to try to get a better vantage point. Again he weighs up his options, and then… well, you just have to watch what happens.

You’ll hear some commentary – most of it is our guide, me, and mrs rationalbrain who is freaking out on behalf of the Dall sheep.


Climate Commission – An act of vandalism

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There’s only one word for it – vandalism.

As if to reinforce his anti-intellectual approach to anything vaguely resembling science, technology or social progress, our new PM (did we really do that?) has just killed off the Climate Commission, whose mission was to sift the science and provide the government and public with up to date information.

So, not only is the new government intent on dismantling any real action on climate, they have now done the equivalent of putting their fingers in their ears and chanting ‘la la la’. No only don’t they have a clue, but they don’t want to have a clue, almost as if it might be taken as a sign of weakness to actually respond to the real world rather than defend their ideology to the death.

Morons; what else can you say about people who, on behalf of a whole nation, willfully shun facts in favour of beliefs?

Speaking of morons, the those pesky climate skeptics (sorry, I meant liars) are at it again. This time, trying the further their ends by spreading more doubt, and creating an alternative to the IPCC, called the NIPCC. The NIPCC is funded by  the Heartland Institute, about which I’ve written before, for example here, here and here. Here’s an excellent article by Michael Brown of Monash University providing more background on these charlatans, as well as providing a dinner-table guide to the current status of global warming.

Happily, following the demise of the Climate Commission, there has been sufficient groundswell on this matter for Tim Flannery (formerly Chief Commissioner) to resurrect the organisation as the Climate Council, to be funded privately. Seemingly overnight, a new site was created for the purpose, and is already taking donations.

If you are at all interested in supporting this organisation, at least go there and register, watch the video, and perhaps even donate.

Book Review: The Edge of Physics

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edge of physicsThose of you who are non-technical should not be put off by the title of this book, which conjures images of arcane equations and theories.

It is in fact a travelogue – a writer’s journey around the globe to visit sites at which the most extreme science is being done, and in the process, explains the background of the science for the layman. The science he investigates is all about understanding our universe, from the origins of that universe, down the structure of the very small.

And very entertaining it is.

Mind you, some familiarity with the ‘big questions’ in physics won’t go astray – in fact the author provides as appendices brief synopses of the standard model of particle physics, and the standard model of cosmology (i.e. the big bang). Incredibly, he does this in just two pages each.

By assembling these stories into one book, the author places a strong focus on how big science needs to be to answer the really big questions. While theoretical physicists can sit with a pencil and paper to do their work, the experimentalists (and engineers who, of course, rule) need to get out and build stuff to test theories.

They build radio telescopes that span continents. They build optical telescopes that require immense structures to support and adjust them. They adapt cubic kilometers of clean ice at the South Pole to build a detector capable of catching fleeting particles from the edge of the known universe, in the hope of testing theories of the very origins of the universe. They deliver sensitive instruments to specific points in our solar system (Lagrange points – low energy parking spots) to probe the structure of the early universe, and they build huge underground tunnels in the shape of a ring to smash up particles and probe their constituents in an effort to determine, amongst other things, why stuff has mass.

I found this book engaging, with the stories of the author’s discoveries well told. Some parts do get a bit technical, but it’s easy to skip over those if you’re not interested, and instead focus on big picture.

Give it a try.

higgs - last place you look

Brain Training – Here’s a better way

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Long-time correspondent Dan Rea recently put in a request for a look at the new industry of Brain Training, citing the example of the Luminosity program.

Before Dan’s email, I hadn’t really thought about it much, although I have heard quite a bit of discussion about it. The first things that brain training conjures up for me are those hokey ads featuring Delta Goodrem and Olivia Newton John with their little gadgets, playing games and claiming it improves their brain.

The second, and more annoying thing is that one of these crowds have appropriated another of science’s words! Luminosity. You know how much I hate it when that happens, so I’m not feeling very charitable towards them, regardless of the merits of the program.

The bottom line, however, is fairly simple to summarise. Brain training by repeating various tasks improves your brain… at doing those tasks. But nothing else. In addition, while a computer may make it more fun, or less arduous, it’s not better than good old pencil and paper.

Yes, brain training, is what we old folks call ‘learning’!

Want to train your brain at chess? Play more chess. Cricket? Play more cricket. Solve little puzzles? Do more puzzles. Golf? Play more golf.(although that last one doesn’t seem to work for me).

And, wow, even the normally credulous Fox News has a reasonably balanced article on this.

But by far the best summary is by Steve Novella on Science Based Medicine. In his no-nonsense article, he reviews the latest studies for us, and summarises the findings far better than I could.

This article is written from the point of view of a journalist who tries it out for themselves – an interesting first-person perspective, but basically the same findings.

So instead of shelling out for these programs, I suggest you pick whatever you want to improve, and just, well, practice.

And here’s an idea – instead of trying to improve your brain, improve your mind by practicing clear thinking – which is what this blog has been on about.  So here’s a good place to start: one of my early posts on sorting fact from fiction. Enjoy.