Finding Ass-roids

Okay, that title is unnecessarily crude, but fuck it. What follows is a video showing the number of asteroids that have been discovered since 1980.

Can you figure out which little dot is the earth? Here’s a hint: it’s the one going around the sun (err…which one is the sun, I wonder).

One thing you might notice is the sudden burst of discoveries at right angles to the earth right near the end of the video. I’m guessing those are discoveries made by the WISE satellite, which launched in December of 2009. The WISE satellite (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) is an infrared survey satellite that is always pointed 90 degress from the sun and earth…exactly where all those asteroids are being found.

One thing that might be making you a bit nervous is the sheer number of asteroids that we can see by the end. With so many of ’em, the chances of being hit by one must be really high, right? Well, not really. Here, I’ll let my very close and personal friend whom I’ve never met, Phil Plait, explain why that is (from this post at his blog Bad Astronomy):

The distance between Mars and Jupiter is a bit roomier than depicted in the video. Remember, Mars is about 220 million km (130 million miles) from the Sun, and Jupiter is about 800 million km (480 million miles). That’s a whole lot of real estate: almost 2 quintillion square kilometers (670 quadrillion square miles)! Written out, that’s 2,000,000,000,000,000,000 square kilometers.

Yeah, a whole lot of real estate.

And that assumes those asteroids all lie in the same plane. In fact, many of their orbits are tilted, so we’re really dealing with volume. Even allowing that they may move above or below the plane of the solar system the paltry amount of a million kilometers, that means there’s really 2 septillion cubic kilometers: 2,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 cubic km! The volume of the Earth is only about a trillion cubic kilometers, so we’re talking a volume of space that could fit a trillion Earths in it!

Methinks we need not worry quite so much.

Falsified AND Unfalsifiable

From a recent comment on Good Math, Bad Math (edited here for clarity…and yes it’s my own comment):

“So you’re saying you falsified my claim, AND the claim is unfalsifiable?”

This seems to be a common response when some people are confronted with the fact that their ideas* are unfalsifiable. It’s intended to demonstrate how ridiculous such a stance is.

What’s actually happening is that a prediction is generated based on the given idea and a thought experiment is proposed which could potentially falsify the prediction. When the test is followed to it’s logical conclusion it is found to contradict the prediction and thus falsifies the claim. In rebuttal definitions are changed, values are shifted, and concepts are restated using different words, all of which serve to render that test invalid in some way, or to make the results consistent with the reworded idea. The fact that all of these change are still consistent with the original idea is a clear demonstration that it is in fact unfalsifiable.

The claim is not that “I tested it AND it’s untestable.” The claim is “I attempted to test it, but every test resulting in a falsification is simply reinterpreted in such a way as to render it unfalsified. Since this can be done at will while remaining consistent with the original idea, it is in fact unfalsifiable.”

* I am purposefully using the term “idea” here instead of “theory” because the fact that these ideas aren’t falsifiable means that they are not in fact theories at all.

Cognitive Dissonance On Display

Cognitive dissonance can be a powerful thing. Many people, when faced with information or evidence that contradicts something that they’ve believed or worked on for a long time will react in some very odd, and often counter-productive ways. There are many examples on the net of people pretending that contradictory evidence simply doesn’t exist. Watch Corny’s site (again, my fave ’cause he’s just plain hilarious) for awhile, and especially read the comments to see many times many examples of this. Others will react with anger and outrage at any hint that such and such is true when it’s been so obvious for so long to them that it’s not. I suspect that many homophobes (read: closet cases) like Rekers fall into this category.

Having said that, it’s rare to see such a thing laid bare. Often you can determine when cognitive dissonance is a factor only after spending a bit of time with the person and seeing how they react to what is said. But there are times, and they don’t happen often, when a statement is made which clearly and concisely lays out exactly where the dissonance is at.

Such a statement appeared in a recent LA Times story entitled “AP IMPACT: After 40 years, $1 trillion, US War on Drugs has failed to meet any of its goals“. Needless to say it doesn’t have many kind things to say about US drug policy. But the quote that really got to me, the one that so clearly exposes a mans cognitive dissonance was a statement made by John P. Walters, the former Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, a.k.a. the Drug Czar. In the story he’s quoted as saying the following:

“To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven’t made any difference is ridiculous,” Walters said. “It destroys everything we’ve done. It’s saying all the people involved in law enforcement, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It’s saying all these people’s work is misguided.”

My response is “Exactly!”

But of course he is unable to face the fact that any of those “ridiculous” ideas could possibly by true. So he does what he must to prove it, at least to himself.

Here’s how his logic works: If US drug policy has not been working then all the people involved in law enforcement, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. Since they obviously have not been wasting their time, US drug policy must be working. If US drug policy has not been working then all these people’s work has been misguided. Since it has obviously not been misguided, US drug policy must be working.

And of course if you turn it around the same logic applies. If these people have been wasting their time, then it must be because US drug policy is not working. Since US drug policy is working, they must not be wasting their time. It’s a nice little loop tied around his brain so that each one proves the other and he can always be right.

It’s Literally Nothing

Reflection Nebula NGC 1999
Source: Hubblesite.org

I’ve seen this image several times, and thanks to a lot of Terry Pratchett books and a bit of pareidolia, I always thought that this looked kind of like a silhouette of the Great A’Tuin emerging from the mists of  another universe. Still too far away and obscured by clouds to make out the elephants and the disc, you can nevertheless make out the head and the beginning of his shell. And of course the sun that orbits his mighty body is the cause of the back-lighting.

Now, quite apart from the fantastic image that I created in my own head, I always just figured that the silhouette was actually created by some kind of dense dust cloud getting in the way of the light behind it. The shape was surely an accident of history and all the dust and gas thrown off by some star or galaxy formed what looks to me like a giant turtle, and what must look to others like an amorphous blob, or as Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer himself, says “it’s always reminded me of a Shuttle Orbiter”.

Then Phil Plait pointed out that things are not as they seem.

Herschel finds a hole in space
Source: European Space Agency

This is an image of a slightly larger area of the sky viewed in the infrared. You shouldn’t be able to tell by looking at this image exactly where the original image was because it shouldn’t look even remotely the same. The dark clouds of dust and gas that usually cause what look like empty spaces in…um…space block the visible spectrum of light, but they are usually still hot, and so glow in the infrared. A’tuin should be glowing just like everything else in this image. And yet I can see clearly that he is part of the green blob at the top of the image. Why is that?

It turns out that it’s not glowing because there’s nothing there to glow. A’tuin still appears in the image because he was literally never there to begin with. The silhouette was never a silhouette at all, but a whole different kind of black hole. It’s a big area of nothingness in the middle of that bright cloud of somethingness.

This is why I love science. How quickly and completely does our universe change with just a little bit of information! Things that we could clearly see and thought we understood turn out to not only be different than we thought, but may in fact turn out to have never actually existed in the first place!

Where The Hell Have You Been, Man?

The long hiatus is over. After a multitude of family issues coupled with a deep abiding commitment to procrastination I’m finally back to posting on my blog. I’m going to start off slowly. For now I’ll just put forth an observation that I made a while back in a debate with a creationist.

The Cambrian Explosion, in which multitudes of new species began to appear in the fossil record is considered to have happened so amazingly fast (only a few million years) that many consider it a refutation of evolution all it’s own. Meanwhile, the fact that we haven’t directly observed a single speciation event* in the 150 years since Darwin is also refutation of evolution. In other words a few million years isn’t enough time for evolution to work, but 150 years is so much time that if evolution worked we’d have seen it directly by now.

* I’m going to steal another guys references here. Over at Corny’s blog (a favorite of mine…he’s hilarious) someone posted a bunch of references to directly observed speciation events. Please note that, being the lazy bastard that I am I didn’t actually go to verify any of these, so feel free to mock me mercilessly for being an evolutionist tool if these turn out to be bogus.

Sympatric ecological speciation meets pyrosequencing: sampling the transcriptome of the apple maggot Rhagoletis pomonella.
BMC Genomics. 2009 Dec 27;10:633.

Rapid evolution and selection inferred from the transcriptomes of sympatric crater lake cichlid fishes.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20331780
Mol Ecol. 2010 Mar;19 Suppl 1:197-211.

Adaptive radiations: from field to genomic studies.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19528644
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Jun 16;106 Suppl 1:9947-54. Epub 2009

Evolution in the Drosophila ananassae species subgroup.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19377294
Fly (Austin). 2009 Apr-Jun;3(2):157-69. Epub 2009 Apr 12.

Ahearn, J. N. 1980. Evolution of behavioral reproductive isolation in a laboratory stock of Drosophila silvestris. Experientia. 36:63-64.

Boraas, M. E. 1983. Predator induced evolution in chemostat culture. EOS. Transactions of the American Geophysical Union. 64:1102.

Crossley, S. A. 1974. Changes in mating behavior produced by selection for ethological isolation between ebony and vestigial mutants of Drosophilia melanogaster. Evolution. 28:631-647.

Dobzhansky, T. and O. Pavlovsky. 1971. Experimentally created incipient species of Drosophila. Nature. 230:289-292.

Life Without Auto-correct

A lot of people are dissing the teabaggers for their awful spelling, and to be fair it can be pretty damned amusing. Like this one (click to see the Flickr page from whence this cometh):

Here’s the problem. My spelling sucks, too. I misspell shit all the time, but nowadays the computer fixes the vast majority of those mistakes for me. Unfortunately most poster boards don’t have built in auto-correct. I think these people have just become so used to auto-correction that they forget to spell check their own work anymore. I’m not sure that my signs would be much better if I had to actually make them by hand.

(thanks Boing Boing)

Today’s Rule of Thumb

If anyone brings up Quantum Mechanics (QM) as evidence for their argument, you can safely assume that they have no idea what they are talking about.

More often than not references to QM really amount to little more than “QM is weird and doesn’t really make sense. [My idea or philosophy] is weird and doesn’t really make sense. Since QM is true, that means [my idea or philosophy] must be true too because it’s just like QM.”

Selection Implies A Selector

A while back I debated making a post about an old canard that had popped up once or twice in debates. It was usually one of the red herrings that one learns to avoid if you want to try and actually stay on topic so it’s something that I never really confronted directly. I eventually decided that it was so idiotic that I changed my mind about posting at all on the subject. I decided that no one actually takes the idea seriously.

Then a couple of days ago a post showed up on UD highlighting two different articles, and wouldn’t you know it one of the main ideas brought up in one of the articles was exactly the one that I had deemed too idiotic to be taken seriously. In the article the author summarizes an argument made by Jerry Fodor, co-author of the book “What Darwin Got Wrong“.

Before I continue allow me to clarify that I haven’t read What Darwin Got Wrong, and I’m not sure whether this is an argument put forward in the book itself. The author of the article states that the particular point being made was arrived at in a personal conversation with Fodor. As such this post is aimed not at Fodor, but the author of the article itself who for all I know may have completely mangled Fodor’s point.

Anyway back to the original theme. Here’s the relevant portion of the article:

As far as I can make out, [Fodor’s point] can be summarized in three steps. Step one: Fodor notes – undeniably correctly – that not every trait a creature possesses is necessarily adaptive. Some just come along for the ride: for example, genes that express as tameness in domesticated foxes and dogs also seem to express as floppy ears, for no evident reason. Other traits are, as logicians say, “coextensive”: a polar bear, for example, has the trait of “whiteness” and also the trait of “being the same colour as its environment”. (Yes, that’s a brain-stretching, possibly insanity-inducing statement. Take a deep breath.) Step two: natural selection, according to its theorists, is a force that “selects for” certain traits. (Floppy ears appear to serve no purpose, so while they may have been “selected”, as a matter of fact, they weren’t “selected for”. And polar bears, we’d surely all agree, were “selected for” being the same colour as their environment, not for being white per se: being white is no use as camouflage if snow is, say, orange.)

Step three is Fodor’s coup de grace: how, he says, can that possibly be? The whole point of Darwinian evolution is that it has no mind, no intelligence. But to “select for” certain traits – as opposed to just “selecting” them by not having them die out – wouldn’t natural selection have to have some kind of mind? It might be obvious to you that being the same colour as your environment is more important than being white, if you’re a polar bear, but that’s because you just ran a thought-experiment about a hypothetical situation involving orange snow. Evolution can’t run thought experiments, because it can’t think.

This final step is the idea that I thought too idiotic to warrant comment before now. The idea that a selection of one thing instead of another requires someone to make that selection is ridiculous on the face of it. “Selection implies a selector” is just as flawed as “creation implies a creator”.

A bunch of seeds are blown by the wind so that some land in your yard and some land on the road. The ones in your yard are much more likely to be able to sprout and grow while the ones on the road are much less likely to be able to do so. A selection was made as to which ones live and which one’s don’t, so who decided it? No one, of course! When something dies or is prevented from reproducing it doesn’t mean that someone somewhere made the determination that that should be the case. It just means that something died or didn’t get to reproduce.

The problem here, as is usually the case, is one of sloppy use of language. The phrase “select for” implies an active role in selecting one trait over another. This error is highlighted in the quoted section with the sentence: “But to “select for” certain traits – as opposed to just “selecting” them by not having them die out…“. This implies that there are two different things happening depending on which phrase you are using. To “select for” something is to actively decide that the trait will help survival so that trait is “allowed” to propagate. To simply “select” them by not having them die out is to passively do nothing while that trait is propagated.

In reality the phrase “selects for” is not descriptive of whether selection is active or passive as implied in the article. It is descriptive of the trait being selected and whether the same passive selection which is always present is likely to result in greater prevalence of that trait. An adaptive trait is one that increases the likelihood of survival, therefore we say that it is “selected for” because that trait is likely to become more prevalent over time due to the advantages it confers on the owner of that trait. Other traits are simply “selected” because they are just along for the ride and do not affect the survivability of the owner of that trait. If they are tied to an adaptive trait they may become more prevalent over time as well, but they are by no means guaranteed to do so. Both types of selection are passive in the sense that traits were only “selected” by not having them die out. The difference is that adaptive traits modify the likelihood of survival itself by simple virtue of their existence…without needing to have anyone or anything dictate that fact.

Having said all of that, I understand that, at least in the authors eyes, the fact that some traits which are “selected for” are inextricably linked to others which are not is an important point. The question seems to be essentially “how does it know whether to select for the adaptive trait and not the non-adaptive trait?” or possibly “how does it know to select the non-adaptive trait along with the adaptive trait?” (a quick reminder that I’m referring only to what I’ve read in the article, so if I’m misstating Fodor’s original thesis please forgive me…I’m working with essentially a summary) The answer is that it doesn’t know. It doesn’t have to know.

For any single organism, it’s survivability can be thought of as the sum of all of it’s traits whether they are positive, negative or neutral. If a so called adaptive trait reduces it’s chances of dying by 3 (to throw a ridiculously random number at it), and it’s inextricably linked to 2 otherwise neutral traits, the simple fact that it’s more likely to survive because of the one adaptive trait automatically means that the other two are coming along for the ride. So are any other traits which may have no relation whatsoever to any other trait, but which by pure accident happen to be present in that creature. The adaptive traits drive natural selection not because anything is actively causing them to do so, but because that is the simple result of the trait making survival more likely.

One final note, which has little to do with the rest of the post, but which just plain bugs me. Why the sarcasm after pointing out the traits of “whiteness” and “being the same color as its environment”? There are three main options that I can think of. One, he thought the two separate traits were in fact one single trait described separately, rendering it a non-statement like “It’s white and also it’s white.” This doesn’t seem likely since he describes exactly why this isn’t the case in the very next aside. The other option is that he believes it’s so obvious that even feeling the need to point it out is worthy of ridicule. But then why describe exactly why they are different right afterward? The last option is simply that I’m reading more into it than intended. Maybe it’s much more innocent than it seems (like faux sarcasm between friends) and only seems mocking because of the lack of context which is a constant problem in written works.