Saturday, December 21, 2013

Poultry Wars: Moral Misunderstandings in the Duck Dynasty/Chick-Fil-A Controversies

The culture wars in this country have become downright surreal the last couple of years. Most notably, two of the biggest flair-ups between red state and blue state types have revolved around, of all things, poultry. First there was the great Chick-Fil-A pie fight of 2012, which broke out after president Dan Cathy expressed opposition to same-sex marriage, saying, among other things:
"I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage'. I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about."
That one blew up on the social media sites, led to protests, counterprotests, boycotts, and widespead de-friending and hurt feelings. The main issues in that debate were gay rights and free speech for people who don't support those rights. It got surprisingly nasty.

The other free speech/gay rights/poultry bomb went off a few days ago, when the country's most famous duck hunter, Phil Robertson, was interviewed in GQ (pretty surreal in itself). When he started talking about how sinful modern society is, the reporter asked him what he considered sinful. He responded:
“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”
You probably know the rest of the story. It's been a kerfuffle of tremendous proportions. Some people think the controversy has been overblown, and that it's silly to spend this much time on it when there are people starving and dying in other parts of the world. It's true that it isn't that important, and it's undeniably ridiculous that this debate centers around a TV show about a family of rich, bearded duckhunters, but still, the issues are real. Free speech and gay rights are both very important. As for free speech, while I found Robertson's comments repulsive, I'm not sure I want to live in a society where people with those kind of views--which are held by a whole lot of people in this country, after all--are censored on mainstream channels. Honestly, I would rather know what people think than see those opinions driven underground, and be surprised by them later. But I see points on the other side, too. It's tricky.

Gay rights are also an important and tricky topic. Gays are one of the last groups still explicitly discriminated against in this country, in laws that are still on the books. In many states it's still legal to deny service to gays in restaurants, fire them for being gay, arrest them for having sex, and deny couples the same legal rights that straight couples have. Attitudes are changing, but still deeply divided, so gay rights are one of the defining civil rights issues of our time. It's also a very important issue to me, as people who read this blog will know, because many of my good friends are gay. I've seen what they go through--coming to terms with their sexuality, finding the tremendous courage required to come out to family and friends who may reject them for it, wondering whether they can kiss or hold hands in public without being accosted or even assaulted...they don't have an easy time of it, especially in conservative areas. Seeing the things they go through makes me very angry, and...well...you mess with my friends, you mess with me.

So, in spite of the beards and the ducks and the essential goofiness of reality TV, this squabble is over real issues. It's also been interesting to me because of the light it casts on public debate and ethical thinking in this country.

First, public debate. As usual, there's been a lot of misunderstanding, simplistic thinking, and sweeping generalizations on both sides. On the conservative Christian side, I've seen several people say things like, "A & E is trying to suppress the Christian viewpoint." Well, it's not the Christian viewpoint--it's the viewpoint of one subset of Christians. Not all Christians have a problem with homosexuality, and conservative Christians need to realize they don't speak for all Christians. Not by a long shot.

But something else I've seen conservative Christians say points out a common misconception on the liberal side. I keep hearing people say, "Just because we don't agree with homosexuality doesn't mean we hate homosexuals." While there is some real hatred out there, I do believe these people. Hate is not their motivation. Here I'm in danger of getting in hot water with my fellow liberals for defending the anti-gay crowd, but it's not so much that I'm defending them as trying to accurately see what's going on in their heads. To say they are all driven by hatred or fear of people unlike them is simply inaccurate, and there's no point in unnecessarily demonizing people or misconstruing their motives. Let's try to see people as they really are, instead of as we want to paint them.

This brings us to ethics. People on either side of this issue are thinking about morality and ethics in completely different ways; basing their ethical codes on almost totally different foundations.

We can get some insight into the conservative Christian way of looking at morality by looking at a statement Phil Robertson released in the wake of the controversy:
"I myself am a product of the 60s; I centered my life around sex, drugs and rock and roll until I hit rock bottom and accepted Jesus as my Savior. My mission today is to go forth and tell people about why I follow Christ and also what the Bible teaches, and part of that teaching is that women and men are meant to be together. However, I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other."
Now, in his case I'm not sure I believe him. A video has since come out that shows him saying things about gays that seem awfully disrespectful and not at all loving. But when it comes to many other conservative Christians (though certainly not all), I think the statement above describes their outlook pretty accurately. When Christians talk about the sins of others, what secular types like me tend to miss is that a central part of their view is that they are sinners themselves. Sin is seen as an essential feature of humankind. The only thing that can redeem people is God's grace, which lets Christians escape the hell they feel they deserve by accepting Jesus as their savior. So, the fact that they're saying someone is a sinner doesn't mean they hate them. They think they're sinners themselves, and may actually be trying their best to love all the other sinners--i.e. all of humanity. After all, many conservative Christians agree with more liberal Christians that the essence of Christian ethics is captured in Matthew 22:36-40. In these verses, Jesus is asked by a Pharisee what commandment in the law is the greatest. He replies:
37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
You often hear Christians paraphrasing St. Augustine's phrase, "Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum" as "Love the sinner, hate the sin." Lots of them really mean that (though you wouldn't know it listening to some religious right politicians).

OK, but why do they see homosexuality as a sin? Because several verses in the Bible say it is, and conservative Christians tend to take the Bible literally. Someone who believes the earth was literally created in six days is not likely to write off the verses about homosexuality as the antiquated views of an ancient culture, as many liberal Christians and secularists do. They're going to look at those verses, and the ones about Adam and Eve (not, as the bumper stickers say, Adam and Steve) and conclude that God created men and women to be together; not men and men or women and women. That's what liberals need to realize--if we believed those premises, we would probably draw similar conclusions. It's not so much the logic we disagree with as the axioms it's based on.

In the more technical terms of ethical philosophy, conservative Christians base their ethics on a blend of Divine Command and Natural Law theory. Divine command is the idea that what's right is what God says is right, and natural law is the idea that what is right is determined by what is natural (many liberals also engage in natural law thinking, but in different ways, and not usually about sexuality). Since Christians believe natural laws were created by God, the divine command and natural law views blend together. Of course, most people don't know these labels, but their thought processes tend to follow those theories anyway. Ask a Christian who believes homosexuality is a sin why they think that, and you'll probably hear something like, "It's not natural" or "It's against God's law."

Professional philosophers, including Christian ones, know there are serious problems with both of these ideas; the Euthyphro Dilemma in the case of Divine Command theory, and the Appeal to Nature and Naturalistic Fallacies in the case of Natural Law. But many Christian philosophers still believe in natural law (divine command less often, as far as I can tell), and make quite sophisticated arguments in its favor. Thomas Aquinas, for example, was well aware of the Euthyphro Dilemma, and accounted for it in his natural law theories.

As psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have shown, conservatives are more likely than liberals to see ethics in terms of respect for tradition and notions of sanctity and degradation; points of view that philosophers have mostly overlooked. Conservatives are more sensitive to the perceived purity or sacredness of things than liberals are. Maybe that's why morality for them is so bound up with sex (I'm guessing here, since I'm a secular liberal who finds it hard to think in those terms). Whoever first used the word "dirty" to describe sex was probably not by nature liberal.

Many conservatives think liberals are unconcerned with morality. But that's not true. We just base morality on completely different foundations. While a conservative may see outlawing gay marriage as the moral thing to do, liberals see it as immoral, because it gives gays fewer rights than straights, and makes them unhappy. When liberals set out to determine whether something is moral or not, the main questions they tend to ask are "Is it fair?" and "Does it hurt anyone?" They tend to subscribe to an ethic based on harm and happiness. Ask them if an unusual sex act is OK, and they'll probably say, "Well, are they consenting adults, and does it it hurt anybody?" If the answers are "yes" and "no" respectively, then they probably think it's OK (though perhaps not for them). In other words, there's more emphasis on the consequences of an action in terms of human happiness, not whether it conforms with some divine or natural law.

Of course, both conservatives and liberals can talk about consequences. When it comes to homosexuality, conservatives often maintain that homosexuality has negative effects. For example, they'll start talking about how if it becomes too common, the human race won't be able to reproduce itself (this kind of "what if everybody did it" argument is related to Kant's duty-based ethics as much as consequentialism, but let's not get into all that). Notice this argument is predicated on the belief that being gay is a choice. That's the only way more and more of the population could decide to be gay over time. The choice issue is an interesting gulf between conservative Christian and liberal views of homosexuality--the conservatives almost always think it's a choice. Liberals (and every gay person I've ever asked) think they had no more choice in being gay than straight people had in being straight.

So why do conservatives think it's a choice? One line of reasoning I've heard is that if being gay is against God's law, yet some people are born gay, that would imply that God makes mistakes. So it being must be a choice, because God doesn't make mistakes. I suspect that another reason anti-gay Christians want to think people choose to be gay is that if they are born gay, then it wouldn't be very nice to blame them for something they have no control over. It would be like blaming people for their eye color. Therefore, being gay must be a choice. That's not a valid argument, of course, but I really do think it's how many people are reasoning, at least implicitly.

Those who think being gay is not a choice, on the other hand, will still admit that we can't have everyone be gay. But then, you can't have everyone be a firefighter, either, yet that doesn't mean nobody should be. Anyway, most liberals think a certain percentage of people simply turn out gay, and that percentage is probably more or less constant. That's why there's no reason to worry that everyone will turn gay. I've hung around gay folks most of my adult life, and never had the slightest urge to switch teams. That's not how it works, at least for me. People who think you can just choose to be gay must find that choice easier to imagine than I do.

Another gulf in moral reasoning is that moderates and liberals are far more likely than conservatives to accept the idea that humans evolved by natural selection, instead of being created in one fell swoop--man and woman--by God. That means they see more arbitrariness in the human condition. It could have turned out differently if you rewound everything and started again. That lends less credence to the idea that there are laws of ethics somehow written across the sky. Consequently, they tend to see ethics as coming from the fact that humans are conscious beings capable of pleasure, pain, and preferences. It's about how people should live together without hurting or exploiting each other.

Of course, people think about ethics in all kinds of different ways, and I've just talked about some broad outlines that characterize conservative Christians, on the one hand, and moderate/liberal Christians and secularists on the other (as I see it). It's still too simplistic, and I'm probably wrong in significant ways. But my point is that in order to get through the impasse our country has arrived at on these issues, both sides need to try to understand each other better, instead of relying on simplistic caricatures and demonization. I think most people are basically decent, and want to know and do what is right. They just have completely different ways of figuring out what that is.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

For the Bible Tells Me So

Castle of the Pyrenees. Rene Magritte
The other day I came home to find a pamphlet the Jehovah's Witnesses had tucked into my door frame. It's entitled Can the Dead Really Live Again?, and it's answer is a resounding yes. I normally just throw those pamphlets away, but I've kept this one because of an interesting argument it uses to defend its position on life after death. It starts with a rhetorical question: "Can we really believe what the Bible says?" Then it answers, "Yes, for at least three reasons." And here's the striking thing: all three reasons are supported solely with Bible verses.

Now, I'm no logician, but I'm pretty sure that's circular reasoning. It's basically saying, "We can believe what the Bible says because of what the Bible says." In other words, it tries to support its conclusion with statements that assume the conclusion is true. The argument hovers in midair. What's needed to connect it to the firmament of credibility is firm, verifiable evidence that the Bible is true, beyond what the Bible itself says. But no such evidence is offered.

My point here isn't to debate whether there's life afer death or to bash Jehovah's Witnesses. I've known many of them, and they're usually very nice people. Nor do I want to stomp on an easy target like a cheaply-printed pamphlet. I know there are lots of Christians out there far more logically sophisticated than whoever wrote that. What I'm trying to do is point out this kind of circular reasoning, and the real harm it can do.

I don't just see such reasoning in throwaway pamphlets. I see it used all the time by certain conservative Christians to justify attitudes and laws that hurt real people in real ways. The clearest examples these days are assertions that homosexuality is immoral and that gay marriage should be illegal (or remain illegal). This country is full of people who think it's fully justified to tell two consenting adults they shouldn't be able to love or marry each other. They're willing to deny them what most people consider one of the main sources of happiness and meaning in life, and they justify this attitude, and those laws, by citing Bible verses.

That's a pretty serious stance to take. So when I hear people taking it, I always try to ask, as nicely as possible, "OK, but how do you know the Bible is right?" Responses vary, but one I've heard several times is, "Because it's the word of God." So then I ask, "But how do you know that?" Once again, responses vary, but I've actually heard people say, "Because it says so in the Bible."

So we're back to circular reasoning; to arguments built on floating boulders instead of bedrock evidence. And that's just not good enough, especially if those arguments are being used to dictate how people can live their lives. Unless there's clear and undeniable proof that: 1. There is a God. 2. God is the ultimate judge of what is right. 3. God dictated those Bible verses; then pointing to them doesn't count for much. If there isn't clear evidence for number 3 in particular, the simpler explanation for those verses is that they were written by plain old human beings...people just like you and me, except that they lived in a far more violent, sexist, ignorant, and superstitious time. If they were written by such people, without divine inspiration, why should we listen to them? Haven't we made some intellectual and moral progress since then? After all, it's no longer considered acceptable to massacre whole cities, to stone people to death for adultery, or to attribute mental illness to a legion of demons. Why should we put stock in ancient opinions about other things?

Of course, the ancients were probably right about some things. "Thou shalt not kill" seems like a pretty good moral maxim (even if it's widely ignored.) So, I'm not necessarily saying they weren't right. I'm just saying that if they were, you can't prove it by saying, "It's written in this book." Anybody can write a book. If you add, "and God wrote or inspired that book" that would certainly add more weight to the argument, but only if it's true. And if someone says it's true, then they should be able to tell me how they know that. "Because the Bible says so" is not an acceptable answer, because it just takes us back where we started. What's the evidence that takes us outside the logical circle? If you ask an astronomer why she thinks the universe began in a Big Bang, she'll start citing measurable, independently verifiable evidence: leftover radiation predicted before it was discovered, galaxies flying away from each other, predictions from general relativity and particle physics, Hubble observations of young galaxies, and so on. If she couldn't offer any such evidence, we would have no reason to take her seriously. Why should it be any different for someone quoting the Bible?

Another assertion that can't stand on its own is, "God says this is wrong." If someone says that, then surely it's fair to ask: Why? Why does God say it's wrong? Does it cause harm? If so, what? If not, then what else is his reason? Surely God doesn't disapprove of things for no reason? If someone can explain why something is wrong--by saying what harm it does, for example--then they're actually giving me a reason to consider their argument. Alternatively, if they say, "I don't exactly know why God says it's wrong, but I know he says so," then we're back where we were before, and  they should be able tell me how they know he actually says that.

If people can offer evidence for those things, then they're making an actual argument. It's not necessarily a valid one, if the evidence is unconvincing or doesn't logically support their conclusions. But at least its an honest effort. What isn't a real argument is saying, "it says it in the Bible," or "God says it's wrong." Such statements might possibly begin a convincing argument, but they certainly can't end one, despite what the bumper stickers say. By themselves, they just hover in mid-air, resting on nothing.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Newton's Weird World

If you go to a bookstore and look through the popular science section, the books on physics will mostly be about the most mind-bending modern theories: quantum mechanics, relativity, big bang cosmology, black holes, and so on. You won't find many books about the basic classical physics you learn in school. Newton's laws of motion, prisms and rainbows, magnets and electric motors--these things don't seem to strike the popular imagination. I think that's because modern physics seems so exotic (and because reading about it makes you look smart). Space and time bend and meld, single particles go through two holes at the same time (unless you try to catch them at it), black holes slow time, capture light, and may even lead to other universes...that is freaky stuff.

Lately, though, I've been realizing how freaky and counter-intuitive the old-school physics of Newton and Galileo can be. People have an intuitive understanding of physics, and it's good enough to let us navigate the surface of this particular planet most of the time, but in the grand scheme of things, it's wrong. Sometimes dramatically wrong. Most of the people who ever lived went to their graves thinking the earth is flat. They were wrong about the shape of the surface they lived on every day of their life. I would too, if I hadn't been taught differently. It's a humbling thought. 

People also assumed for thousands of years that heavy rocks fall faster than light rocks. After all, doesn't a feather fall more slowly than a boulder? It's just common sense. But Galileo thought he would test the idea anyway, and it turned out common sense was wrong. Light things may fall more slowly on Earth because of air resistance, but the deeper law of nature is that in a vacuum, feathers fall just as fast as boulders. That's well known these days, of course, so we don't really feel how surprising it is. But for people living at the time, it was earth-shattering.

It's shocking to discover that natural law runs counter to our intuition, even for things we see every day. When you start thinking about all the ways that's true, dusty old textbook physics starts to gleam a little more. Here are some examples I like:*

When I go for one of my brief, agonizing runs, I always think about how strongly the earth is pulling down on me. But I never consider how I'm pulling up on it with the same amount of force. Every object with mass creates a gravitational field, and I assuredly have mass. And every force comes in pairs--nature is symmetrical that way. I tug on the Earth just as hard as it tugs on me. It's just that the earth is so much more massive that it accelerates me a lot more than I accelerate it.

I just said the earth is pulling "down" on me. That's because I go around thinking there's a real up and a real down. But of course there isn't. And north certainly isn't up, no matter how hard it is to think otherwise. "North is up" is just a convention, and early cartographers often drew maps "upside down" before that convention was established, as in this map of Europe and North Africa from 1459. I can look at that map and tell myself it's just as valid as "right side up" ones, but it's still looks wrong. It's not, though. I am.


The most basic rules of motion can be totally surprising. For example, if you hold a rifle five feet above the ground, and I hold a bullet in my hand at the same height, and I drop it at the same moment you shoot, the two bullets will hit the ground at the same time (disregarding air resistance, etc). The high-velocity bullet falls just as fast as the low-velocity bullet. You would think the lateral motion of the bullet from the gun would somehow interfere with its downward motion ("downward" I should say) but it doesn't. The two motions do combine to create a curved path, but their magnitudes are independent.

Speaking of falling objects, the moon is falling. It's dropping like the giant rock it is. It's just that its lateral motion is balanced with its "downward" motion in such a way that it falls around the earth instead of into it. It's been plummeting for billions of years, but it's never managed to land. We've been plummeting into the sun all that time, too. It makes me a little queasy thinking about it.

Another illusion I have is that when I throw a rock, I always feel like I'm giving it a certain amount of energy. I imagine this energy fades as the rock progresses, so it finally slows down and lands. But that's not what's happening at all. When the rock leaves my hand, it's going at a particular velocity, and it would keep going at the same velocity indefinitely in the absence of other forces. As Newton taught us, objects in motion tend to stay in motion. The rock slows and falls because air resistance exerts a force that decelerates it, while gravity works to return it toward the earth. Energy is always conserved, so the energy I give to the rock doesn't fade away. Some of it is transformed into heating the air that slows down the rock, but none of it disappears.

As for heat, it's funny, counterintuitive stuff, too. In fact, it's not even stuff. It's molecular motion, and it behaves in unexpected ways. When I step out of the shower and put one foot on the tile floor and the other on a bath mat, I could swear the bath mat is warmer than the floor. But it can't be--they're both at the same temperature as the rest of the room. It's just that the tile conducts heat better than the fibers in the mat, so it sucks heat away from that foot more efficiently. That's why it feels colder, even though it isn't.

Of course, I'm speaking metaphorically when I say the tile "sucks heat", even though I may not realize it. It's not really what happens. In fact, the idea of suction is an illusion. If I take a drink through a straw, I'm not exerting a "force of suction". I'm lowering the air pressure in the straw, and that allows the pressure of the atmosphere (a surprisingly high 14.7 pounds per square inch) to push the drink into the straw. It doesn't sound right, does it? It goes against common sense.

And that's the problem with common sense.

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* You probably know these things as well as I do. My point isn't to say "Did you know that....", but to say, "We both know this; let's stop and think about how amazing it really is." That's how most of my posts are intended, actually. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Light Fantastic

"My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose" - JBS Haldane

Have you ever gotten a new camera, and decided to finally learn something about how photography works? You know, f-stops, exposure, ISO, all that stuff? I have. Multiple times, actually, because I can't seem to remember it. I'm learning again now. I was trying to figure out how aperture--the size of the hole light passes through in the lens--affects focus. I learned (once again), that the smaller the hole is, the greater your depth of field will be. Not only will your subject be in focus, but the background will be too. Make the hole bigger, and the background will be all blurry. But then I started wondering why that actually happens. Why does light that goes through a little hole stay more focused than light that goes through a big hole? That ignited my curiosity about light and lenses, and before long I had gotten out an old physics book from college to try to wrap my head around all that stuff.

That got me thinking about an idea I've always found fascinating. When you really start looking at how light behaves, it almost starts to seem intelligent. I mean, it's not really, but it gives that impression. Consider this: lenses work because they refract light, which just means they bend light rays. The reason they do is that light travels more slowly in glass than air. If you shine a beam of light through a thick piece of glass (at an angle) and onto a wall, it will bend and slow down when it enters the glass, and then bend again when it leaves. And here's where it gets weird--if a beam of light goes from point A to point B, as shown below, somehow it's able to choose the one path, among the many possible, that takes the least amount of time. That path isn't necessarily a straight line, because if it moves more slowly in glass, then it should alter its course so the distance through the air is farther, and the distance through the glass shorter.


The classic analogy is a with a lifeguard rushing to save a drowning swimmer. Imagine you're that lifeguard, standing on the beach. You look out to your left and see the swimmer in trouble, as shown below. Should you make a beeline--running, and then swimming, straight at him? No...sometimes the fastest route between two points isn't a straight line. You can run faster than you can swim, so you should run a little farther down the beach, so you don't have to swim so far. There's an optimal route that's faster than any other. Most lifeguards won't hit on it exactly. But light is smarter than a lifeguard, at least in that sense. It finds the fastest route, and it does so at, well, the speed of light. It doesn't matter if it has to bend and straighten its way through several layers of air and glass--the path it chooses will be the one that takes the least time.


How does it do that? How does it "know" which path to take? Christian Huygens came up with a plausible answer back in 1678, by thinking of light as moving in a wave, and of a wave front as the combination of many smaller waves. He was able to model refraction that way, as in this image. As the wave fronts approach the glass at an angle, each one changes angles as it slows down and enters. The change in direction will be at an angle that minimizes the time it takes for light to get from one point to another. Huygens was also able to model reflection this way, and a guy named Fresnel applied the idea to other "wavy" phenomena, like diffraction and interference. Nature is full of things that move in waves, and thus behave in all these ways, including water waves, sound waves in the air, and even seismic waves through the earth. Applying the idea to light helped turn the tide of scientific opinion away from Newton's idea theory that light was made of particles, and got physicists thinking of light as ripples propagating through space.

The Huygens-Fresnel idea does seem to provide a mechanism for how light "chooses" the shortest path, and it accurately predicts what that path will be. The problem is, light doesn't really work that way. At least, it's a lot more complicated than Huygens realized. Since the early 20th century, physicists have known that light is as much particle as wave. A beam of light is composed of countless discrete particles called photons. Each one has a frequency, which is what determines the color of visible light. Physicists once thought that brightness (amplitude) was analogous to the height of water waves--brighter light was thought to have higher crests and lower troughs. But it turns out that all photons of a particular wavelength carry the same amount of energy. A bright light is just spewing out more photons per second than a dim light.

This gums up the works for Huygens' wave theory. Even if you send one photon at a time through a piece of glass, light will still pick the fastest path. That's pretty crazy when you thing about it. How can a single particle do that? The simplistic wave theory also falls apart when you look closely at reflection. If you shine a light on a pane of glass, most of it will go straight through. But up to 16% of the photons will bounce back, which is why you see a dim reflection even in transparent glass. Light reflects from both the front side and the back side of the glass, and how much it reflects depends on how thick it is. And that's where it gets crazy once again. If you put a light detector inside a very thick pane of glass and aim a stream of photons at it, you can measure how many photons are reflected by just one surface--the front--and you'll find it's about 4% in most kinds of glass. But if you send the light all the way through the glass, and measure how much is reflected, you find a strange trend. As you keep making the glass thicker, you find that the amount of light reflected will rise and fall regularly--rising gradually from zero up to 16 percent, falling back toward zero, and then rising again. Think about that zero percent. That means, even though four percent of photons bounce off the front surface of glass, if you add a back surface it can cut that percentage to zero. What?? How does the light "know" how far away the back of the glass is when it's just getting to the front? Somehow it does, even if the glass is several meters thick. It's like light isn't just smart...it's psychic.

Of course, it's not really, but the truth is just about that weird. All this stuff is explained by the theory of quantum electrodynamics, or QED. Let's go back to light taking the fastest path through a piece of glass. If I understand it correctly, QED says that each photon takes every path from one point to another--even long ones, where it goes way off to the side and then back again. It spreads out all over the place in a very un-particle-like way, but then arrives as a particle. Each of those paths has a certain "probability amplitude" (the quantum world is all about probabilities) and oddly enough, most of the paths are about equally probable. But the probabilities mostly cancel each other out, except for those very close to the one that takes the least time. So that's the direction the light goes. A similar interaction of probabilities determines how much light will reflect off glass of various thicknesses. That all sounds crazy, and I certainly don't understand it in any deep sense, but apparently the math works just fine. Even physicists who have mastered the equations can't really explain what's going on--they don't understand why those equations work.

But they do work, smashingly. QED describes the quantum basis for most of the physical processes we see all around us; how light moves, how electrons orbit nuclei, how atoms bond together to create different materials...basically everything except nuclear physics, gravity, and certain kinds of radioactivity. Not only that, it's one of the most accurate theories in science. One of the originators of the theory, Richard Feynman, compared its accuracy to measuring the distance across the United States with a margin of error smaller than the width of a human hair. But the theory is also completely mind-boggling. As Feynman also said, "The theory of quantum electrodynamics describes Nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it agrees fully with experiment. So I hope you accept Nature as She is--absurd." Light, and everything else at the quantum level, is pretty freaky stuff. But Feynman had a deep reverence for nature, and I think his point was more about common sense than nature itself. Light is more fundamental and ubiquitous than we are--it's pervaded space and time since the universe began. Looking at nature at a wide angle, we're the anomaly, not light or any other quantum phenomenon. If we find that it's absurd from the point of view of common sense, then we've discovered yet another flaw in common sense. Who are we to say what's absurd?

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QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter / Richard Feynman

I never explained how depth of field works. Here's a video that does

Good video introduction to QED

An even more mind-blowing, but more widely known, phenomenon of quantum physics is demonstrated by the double slit experiment. Good video on it here.

Monday, November 18, 2013

We are Stardust. No...Seriously.

We are stardust                     
We are golden                       
    We are billion-year-old carbon
                         - Joni Mitchell
A Giant Hubble Mosaic of the Crab Nebula
Crab Nebula: A Supernova Remnant
Sometimes my fellow skeptics get on my nerves. So many of them focus too much on negatives--on what's false, rather than what's true. They get so fixated on debunking falsehoods and quackery that they forget to talk about how amazing the real world is. Don't get me wrong...nonsense certainly needs to be exposed, and naked emperors should assuredly be mooned. But still, there's a balance to be struck. Why spend all your time talking about what you don't believe? Why define yourself negatively--in terms of what you reject?

Since I spent my last post talking about astrology and other things I reject, in this one I want to tip the scales in a more positive direction and talk something not only beautiful and wondrous, but scientifically sound to boot. I want to talk about the stars--the stars of the astronomers, not the astrologers. Astrologers have always been fascinated by stars, and rightly so, but I think they miss what's really amazing about them. It's not that the stars influence our personality or destiny in any direct way. They are, after all, giant balls of incandescent plasma, and even the closest are almost inconceivably far away. There's zero scientific reason to think they influence our daily lives--they don't care about some race of featherless bipeds on a faraway planet, and they couldn't do anything about it if they did. But that doesn't mean we have no connection to them. The stars aren't about us, however much we might want them to be, but we are about them. Joni Mitchell was basically right--we really are stardust.

To be more specific, most of the atoms in our bodies, and almost all the elements in the periodic table, were forged billions of years ago in the interiors of stars. Many of the heavier elements were created in stellar death throes, in the titanic explosions known as supernovae. All these processes of element creation are still going on today. The elements that weren't formed in stars (mainly hydrogen and helium) have an even more impressive provenance--they were formed in the Big Bang itself, 13.8 billion years ago.

When scientists are asked what is the most amazing scientific fact they know, many of them talk about how we are made of stardust (star-forged atoms, technically). I tend to agree with them. It's an idea as stunning as anything I've ever heard, and unlike astrological ideas, it's almost certainly true. Here's the basic story scientists have pieced together.

Less than a second after the universe began, protons, neutrons, electrons, and various other particles had formed. As the infant universe expanded and cooled, between the first 3 and 5 minutes, protons and neutrons clumped together to form what would become the nuclei of hydrogen (which has a single proton), and helium (which has two). Conditions were such that this created 6 helium nuclei for every 76 hydrogen nuclei. After about 380,000 years, the radiation that had been knocking electrons away from nuclei cooled enough to allow atoms to form. The hot, glowing universe went dark, but this radiation can still detected today in the form of weak microwaves that permeate space. Astronomers call it the Cosmic Background Radiation--the afterglow of the creation of the universe.

The early universe, then, was a homogenous sea of hydrogen and helium atoms (along with a little bit of lithium). If it had stayed that way, we wouldn't be here--two elements don't make a rich-enough atomic alphabet to create complex structures like, say, us. But as things kept expanding and cooling, the weakest force of nature--gravity--began to assert itself. Matter attracted matter, and great clouds of hydrogen/helium gas started to collapse into spheres. When the pressure got high enough at their core, hydrogen nuclei were squeezed together into helium nuclei. Nuclear fusion reactions had ignited, and the dark universe lit up once again, this time with the light of countless stars. (At larger scales, of course, stars and other matter had formed galaxies, which grew as "small" galaxies combined into larger ones.)

The Cat's Eye Nebula (A Planetary Nebula)
After these primordial stars had burned for a few million or billion years (depending on their mass), a core of helium formed at their center.* The more massive the star, the hotter it burned, and the faster the helium core formed. When it did, helium started to fuse into carbon, which would one day become the backbone element for life. But the carbon core couldn't support the weight of the star, so it started to contract, while the hydrogen and helium around it burned even hotter. This caused the star to puff out its outer layers, forming a huge, cool(er), red giant star. Eventually this behemoth would blow away its outer layers entirely, forming a luminous cloud called a planetary nebula. The core would remain as an intensely hot, small, dense star called a white dwarf, which might be smaller than the earth but more massive than the sun.

Things got a little more exciting in bigger stars, several times as massive as the sun. Here again, hydrogen burned to create a core of helium, which then burned to create a core of carbon. This time, though, temperatures got high enough (hundreds of millions of degrees) for carbon to start fusing into neon. And on it went--neon fused into oxygen, oxygen into silicon, and silicon into iron. Now there was an iron core surrounded by all these other elements, still burning furiously in concentric layers. Once the iron core formed...game over. As tough as iron might seem to us, it couldn't support the weight of all those layers. The iron nuclei were torn apart, and then the protons combined with electrons to form neutrons. The core of the star collapsed and then rebounded, sending a shock wave shrieking through the outer layers of the star--blasting them apart in a supernova. Supernova explosions can release more energy in a few months than our sun ever will in ten billion years; causing the dying star to glow as bright as a small galaxy. The explosion was energetic enough to create all the remaining elements of the periodic table, and then blast them into space. All that remained of the core was a neutron star--a ball of neutrons as dense as an atomic nucleus but as big as a city, spinning several times per second and spewing jets of radiation from each pole.

These dying stars enriched interstellar space with clouds of elements beyond hydrogen and helium, capable of combining into an enormous variety of molecules, which could in turn combine into all kinds of complex, intricate structures. The new interstellar clouds of heavy elements and molecules then began to collapse again, forming a new generation of stars like our sun, born with a full suite of heavy elements. Around many of these stars, little balls of metal, rock, gas, and ice formed. We call those planets. Many of them have a wide variety of elements--potential building blocks for complex structures. On at least one of these planets, that potential was realized in the form of carbon-based life, which formed shortly after the Earth cooled. It's been evolving and diversifying ever since, creating millions of unique life-forms, from slime molds to blue whales, from giant sequoias to seahorses. Lately, it even created a race of odd, upright, talkative apes; quarrelsome creatures, but clever, too--clever enough to discover that they're made from the dust of exploding stars.

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* Helium was actually first discovered on the sun, based on characteristic spectral lines in the light it emits. It wasn't discovered on earth until later. It's named for Helios, the Greek god of the sun.

Postscript: I've heard the Joni Mitchell's song Woodstock probably a thousand times in my life (mostly the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young version), and I never noticed that line about "billion year old carbon" until I looked up the lyrics today. Nice work, Joni.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Spa Enlightenment: What's So Spiritual About "New Age", Anyway?

"The universe is cool enough without making up crap about it." - Phil Plait

One of the most interesting things about being a librarian is that it lets you see what other people are interested in. The books you keep reshelving are the ones that strike people's fancy. Some of the books that fly off the shelves the most, at least in my library, have Dewey Decimal numbers in the 130's: Parapsychology and Occultism. That's where you find the books on psychic phenomena, astrology, ghosts, occult practices, and ancient aliens who built the pyramids (or even the moon, according to one book). People eat that stuff up. Every month or so I reshelve a book called Fairies 101: An Introduction to Connecting, Working, and Healing with Fairies and other Elementals. And every month I think, "I can't believe I'm putting this in the non-fiction section."

A closely-related genre that I'm always reshelving is alternative medicine--herbalism, homeopathy, acupuncture, crystal healing, and so on. Those check out at least as often as the books on mainstream medicine. Not all alternative medicine is a kooky as the notion that fairies really cavort in our gardens, but some of those books are pretty out-there, and the people that read them also tend to be drawn to the parapsychology and occult section.

The most common umbrella term for all these things, of course, is New Age. New Age is big business, and like most people in this country, I've met some very New Agey people. One thing that always fascinates me about them is that they seem to see New Age pursuits as a kind of enlightenment--as a means of spiritual growth; a pursuit of knowledge about the great cosmic mysteries. That always strikes me as odd, because it seems almost perfectly backward. In fact, you could make an argument that most New Age pursuits are the very opposite of enlightenment.

Let me explain. If you look at a shelf full of books on New Age ideas, or the kookier forms of alternative medicine, it's hard at first to see what they all have in common. What do ancient aliens have to do with psychic divination or telepathy? Why do the people who check out books on crystal healing also check out the ones on astrology? If you think about it, these are all very different ideas. All they have in common, I think, is an air of exotic mystery. They remain in the realm of the unproven, and outside the realm of mainstream science and medicine. They are, in other words, titillating. Not only that, but they can be personalized. A horoscope doesn't just  tell you about distant stars--it tells you what those stars mean for you. I'm convinced that more people are into astrology than astronomy because, as exotic and mind-expanding as astronomy is, it doesn't have that sexy air of magic and mystery, and it will never be about us.

That's why things like astrology seem like the very opposite of any kind of enlightenment to me. Surely a crucial aspect of enlightenment, whether it's spiritual or intellectual, is to see the wonder in the universe as it really is. It's about seeing the magic in the mundane, not ignoring the mundane because you're too preoccupied with exotica. Consider this: we have specialized organs in our heads that can detect a kind of mysterious energy. This energy pervades the universe and passes in waves through empty space. It can give us detailed information about the world, if we just open our eyes to it. No really. Those organs I'm talking about are our eyes, and that mysterious energy is called light. Light and sight are both entirely astonishing things, if you stop and think about them.

The problem is that we don't. Why are so many people more fascinated by unproven phenomena like auras and psychic divination than by the sense of sight? Because they experience sight every day, and because there are no great mysteries remaining about it. If they had been blind all their lives, and suddenly started seeing, then they would see just how astounding the sense of sight really is. On the flip side, if we were all psychic, and had grown up reading each others' minds, people would be bored with that, too. It's the mystery that grabs people. The problem is that it grabs them so much that they lose interest in the staggering wonders they've seen every day of their lives, and get stuck on exotic-sounding but fictional phenomena. That's not enlightmentment--that's distracted escapism. The real wonders are just that--real. It's just that people are bored with them.*

As I said, though, most of those real wonders aren't about us in any personal way, and that's another strike against them for many new agers. But that just shows another way that New Age thinking and real spiritual growth are opposed. Wouldn't real enlightenment involve some kind of transcendence of selfish concerns? New Age culture is far too self-focused to be considered enlightened. Once I was walking down the street in a city with a large New Age presence (I can't remember which one...maybe Boulder?) Anyway, I noticed a day spa offering various kinds of personal pampering, many involving manipulation of imagined "energies." The place was called Spa Enlightenment. I thought, "Yep, that pretty much sums up the whole mindset. Self-indulgence and fantasy as enlightenment."

Once again, I don't claim any particular enlightenment myself. But I can't help thinking truly enlightened people aren't to be found living in a pretty New Age paradise getting weekly chakra alignments. They'll be in some slum or developing country, trying to help someone besides themselves. And I don't think they'll talk much about horoscopes, crystals, or aliens. They won't be distracted by a set of ideas that have nothing in common except their air of mystery and titillation. They'll be too awestruck by the endless wonders they've been surrounded by all their lives.

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* I'm certainly not saying there's no place in the world for fantasy or fiction. It's just that we shouldn't mistake fantasies for reality, or too get wrapped up in them to notice amazing things that really do exist. Fairy tales are great, but that doesn't mean there are fairies under my bed. I'm also not saying no New Age or alternative medicine idea could ever turn out to be valid and proveable. But if it does go mainstream, I bet a lot of people will lose interest in it, because it won't seem mysterious anymore. Finally, I'm not saying all people with New Agey tendencies are selfish or kooky. Some I know are much more compassionate than I am, but it's not because they read their horoscopes.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Bellybutton Hedgehogs and Piggyback Plants

My latest reading kick is a botanical one--I've been fascinated with plants the last few weeks. But one of the things that's fascinated me most about them has more to do with human creativity than any principle of botany: plants have some truly wonderful names. There's the Piggyback Plant, Bouncing Bet and Herb Robert, Grass of Parnassus, and Mother in Law's Tongue. There's Toadflax and its disreputable impersonator, the Bastard Toadflax. And there's my personal favorite, the Upright Snottygobble. As impessive as the plant kingdom is on its own terms, it's also one of the great showcases of linguistic virtuosity. What unknown poet named the stinging plant called Tread Softly, or the seemingly unclimbable Monkey Puzzle Tree? What lovestruck botanist saw a flower surrounded by lacy bracts and named it Love in a Mist? What heartbroken herbalist named Love Lies Bleeding? Who was the whimsical character that looked at fat little desert succulents and named them Warty Tiger Jaws, or Fairy Elephant's Feet?

Some plant names strike our fancy because they hint at the old and arcane. Liverwort, spleenwort, birthwort, toothwort, and several other worts got their names from the Doctrine of Signatures--the idea that a plant's shape was a clue to the illnesses it could cure. Liverworts look vaguely like a liver, and lungworts look like lungs (if you squint), so people figured they must be good for those organs. The suffix "-wort" still has an air of alchemical mystery, but it's really just an old word for "plant" or "herb". Even the word "herb" sounds more potent than "plant", or "weed", but it really has no particular botanical meaning. An herb is just a smallish, non-woody plant. It might heal you, yes, but then again it might kill you, if you are foolish enough to eat one with a name like Death Camas, Fly Poison, or Deadly Nightshade.

Many plant names come from a more religious time, when the Church and Bible were at the top of people's minds. Hence we have Friar's Cowls, Monkshoods, Bishop's Hats, Angel's Trumpet's, Job's Tears, Jacob's Ladder, and Solomon's Seal. From the darker side of theology we get Devil's Claws and Devil's Walkingsticks. Other plants evoke folk legends and mythology, like Fairy Slippers or the spiky Hercules' Club tree. Some plants carry warnings. The Touch Me Not's name is rather histrionic--its seed pods explode if you touch them, but it won't do anything more than surprise you. Dumbcane won't actually make you stupid, but it will make your tongue go numb. But some plant names truly mean business. Even a goat, which will happily eat poison ivy, will rue the day it ate Goat's Rue, and so will you, if you try it. The same goes for Dogbane. You don't want your cattle getting into a patch of Locoweed, also known as Staggerweed. As for the aforementioned Death Camas, eating that is about as well-advised as handling the snake called the Death Adder. What's in a name? A whole lot, in those cases.

Some plant names, like many words and phrases in general, are so familiar we forget how clever they really are. Larkspurs, formerly known as Lark's Heels, really do have spurs that look like a lark's heel's. Foxgloves are just the right size to slip on a fox's paws, and snapdragons will open their little dragon mouths if you squeeze their cheeks. Another plant whose name will give you an aha! moment if you stop and think about it is the Marsh Mallow. It's a kind of mallow that grows in the marshes, and it was once made into the confections know as Marshmallows.

Some plants are named for virtues, like Honesty and Obedience. Why do plants inspire such names? Can you imagine a species of rodent called Honesty? Legions of plants, of course, are named for their appearance. The Common Donkey Orchid looks just like a long-eared jackass, and Bleeding Hearts look like injured valentines. The carnivorous Cobra Plant looks just like a cobra, complete with a forked tongue emerging from under its hood, while the Snake Lilly winds serpent-like around other plants. The Old Man Cactus has wispy white spines like an old man's hair. Dutchman's Pipe and Dutchman's Breeches look just like they sound, but I can't figure out how Bear's Breeches got their name. Everyone knows bears don't wear breeches--just look at Winnie the Pooh. Finally, there are plants whose names just sound fittingly funny. The Boojum and the Baobab Tree both look like they were designed by Dr. Suess, and their names suit them perfectly, whatever they actually mean.

As great as plant names are, a more humble kingdom reaches even greater heights of nomemclature. I'm talking about the fungi--particularly their fruiting bodies, known as mushrooms or toadstools (a great word in its own right). Mushrooms have some of the best monikers ever. I'm just starting to learn about them, so I'll just mention some of the best ones I've found. There's the Freckled Dapperling and the Lawyer's Wig, the Silky Piggyback and the Dingy Agaric (which is dirty-looking, not airheaded). The Splendid Webcap and the Petticoat Mottlegill seem like well-dressed, classy fungi. But the Dung Roundhead and the Blue Green Slimehead look as disreputable as they sound, and Devil's Fingers and Dead Man's fingers are downright macabre. Most offensive of all is the Stinkhorn, which truly smells horrid, and as its scientific name--Phallus impudicus--suggests, it looks perfectly lewd. It's an ill-mannered fungus all-around. And then there are the dangerous ones: Death Cap, Destroying Angel, Poisonpie, Deadly Gallerina, and Beechwood Sickener. You don't pick a fight with a Hell's Angel, and you don't eat a Destroying Angel.

Some mushrooms are imminent enough to have single names worthy of philosophers or pop stars. In fact, one is called The Prince. There's also The Miller, The Gypsy, and a shady figure known as Deceiver. Along with the Weeping Widow, these sound archetypal and mysterious; like figures in a tarot deck. More whimsical mushrooms include Plums and Custard, Chicken of the Woods, Jelly Babies, and best of all, Bellybutton Hedgehogs. Like plants, many mushrooms get their names from fairytales: Fairy's Bonnets, Pixie Webcaps, Green Elfcups, and Elfin Saddles. Circles of mushrooms that sprout after a rain are known as Fairy Rings. Step inside a fairy ring, the legend says, and you may become enchanted. That's surely true, at least metaphorically speaking. The more I hear about the names of mushrooms and plants, the more enchanted I get.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Geologic Wonders of the Bayou Country

I had a job once that had me on the road every day, driving through some of the most amazing landscapes in the country: the Colorado rockies, and the mountains and deserts of northern New Mexico. Behind the seat of my truck were two books, called Roadside Geology of Colorado, and Roadside Geology of New Mexico. Whenever I saw particularly stunning geologic formations--hanging glacial lakes, volcanic towers jutting from the desert floor, warped layers of rock in a cliff--I would check those books to read about how they formed. There's a whole series of Roadside Geology books, mostly covering the geologic wonderland that is the western United States.

So I was surprised when I moved to Louisiana and discovered there is a book called Roadside Geology of Louisiana. Louisiana is famous for many things, but stunning geologic formations are not one of them. Roadside geology? What roadside geology? But I decided to give the book a chance, and I'm glad I did. It contains a couple of the most amazing (and disconcerting) facts I've ever read. I learned, for example, how the land I live on here is younger than the Great Pyramid of Egypt, and how the Mississippi River has been trying to jump its banks and abandon New Orleans and Baton Rouge for decades.In the last 7500 years--the proverbial geologic blink of an eye--the river and its sediments have created all of southeast Louisiana, from New Orleans south. If you could watch a timelapse film of that period, you would see the river writhing back and forth like a loose fire hose, as it jumps from one channel to another every few hundred years. 

What happens is that the river builds great delta lobes of sediment out into the Gulf of Mexico, eventually lifting itself up until it flows above the surrounding landscape, contained within shallow natural levees when it isn't flooding. Eventually, it jumps those banks entirely and finds a lower path to the sea. The old channel becomes a slow moving bayou, and the old delta starts to erode. This has happened at least six times in the last 7,500 years, building southeast Louisiana in a series of overlapping sedimentary lobes. In the 1950's, the Army Corps of Engineers realized that the mighty Mississippi was getting tired of its old path, and would abandon it for the Atchafalaya Basin within decades. They've delayed this with some heroic engineering projects, but nobody knows how long those will hold out. As Mark Twain, no stranger to the great river, once wrote, "The Mississippi River will always have its own way. No engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise."

The river's grand meanders are fascinating, but I'll write more about them another day. Today I want to focus on another of Louisiana's geologic wonders. If you make a pilgrimage to Avery Island, home of that most celebrated of condiments, Tabasco Sauce, you'll find that it's not actually an island. Instead, it's a short, round hill just over 150 feet tall and a couple of miles across. Not exactly a towering peak, but it does look odd emerging from the surrounding plains, which are billiard table flat. What's amazing about Avery Island is not its ruggedness, but the fact that it's made out of salt. That little hill is the top of salt dome; a 40,000 foot tower of almost-pure salt, poking straight through the surrounding sediments like a finger through a layer cake. Avery Island is actually one of the "Five Islands" of south central Louisiana, a chain of salt domes rising above the plains.

From Louisiana Department of Natural Resources
All these domes, as well as many others that don't quite reach the surface, have a history going back over 200 million years. During the Triassic Period, the supercontinent of Pangea began to break up. North and South America pulled apart, forming a shallow sea--the ancestral Gulf of Mexico. As sea levels rose and fell over millions of years, that sea sometimes dried up, leaving layers of evaporated salt behind. This formed a geologic stratum known as the Louann Salt, which in Louisiana lies under as much as 40,000 feet of newer sediment. 

But it doesn't always stay down there. The weird thing about salt is that when you put it under enormous pressure, it starts to act like a liquid. If there is a weak spot in the layers above it, the lighter salt will be squeezed upward like caulk, forming an underground tower of salt thousands of feet tall. 

That's a lot of salt, and salt is a valuable commodity. When I went to Avery Island last week, I saw there was a Cargill salt mine there, and a Morton salt mine on Weeks Island, a few miles away. Salt is impermeable--liquids and gases can't flow through it, as they can through porous rocks like sandstone. This means salt domes tend to trap oil and gas along their tops and sides, which is why you often find oil and gas wells dotting the landscape around them. The impermeability of salt domes is useful in other ways. Various industries have hollowed out great cavities in the salt to store oil, sludge, brine, and so on. The salt keeps these stores from flowing out into the surrounding rocks and water table. 

Well, that's how it usually works. There have been accidents. In August, 2012, one of these cavities collapsed in Assumption Parish. It was built too close to the edge of the salt dome, and the wall caved in. This caused a massive, flooded sinkhole to appear on the surface, along Bayou Corne. The sinkhole has grown to over 25 acres, occasionally swallowing whole stands of trees--slurping them right down into the ground. 

An even more spectacular accident happened in 1980 at Jefferson Island, a salt dome just north of Avery Island. A crew was working on an oil well on nearby Lake Peignour when their drill froze up. They heard a series of loud pops, and their oil rig started leaning to one side. Being men of good sense, they fled for the shore. Meanwhile, workers in the salt mine far below also heard loud noises, and saw water seeping into their mine. Also men of good sense, they got out of that mine as fast as they could--taking turns boarding an eight-man elevator while the mine filled with water. 

What seems to have happened is that the oil well drilled right into the salt mine, and pulled the plug on the lake. Before long a great maelstrom formed, and the workers on the shore watched as it swallowed the oil well, 11 barges, and a tugboat. A fisherman out on the lake barely escaped being sucked in, gunning his boat's engine against the current until he finally reached the shore. After a few hours, when all the fresh water was sucked from the lake, a canal connecting it to the Gulf of Mexico started flowing backward; dumping saltwater into the crater and forming a 150 foot waterfall that briefly held the record as the largest in Louisiana. After a while, 9 of the 11 barges popped back up to the surface. The oil rig was never seen again, and the Lake Peignour is now a saltwater lake. 

It turns out Louisiana geology isn't as boring as you might think. I highly recommend reading Roadside Geology of Louisiana, especially if you live here. If anyone sees it and scoffs, just tell them the story of Lake Peignour.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Memo: Editing Jesus

Rick Bachabee
President

Cross and Sword Coalition of America

Wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross”

Brothers and Sisters,

The Religious Right has had some real success in the the last few years. The Tea Party movement has finally brought Christ's message of small government and low taxes to state governments and the halls of Congress. I'm happy to say we're as powerful as we've ever been. 

But, brothers and sisters, I'm troubled by the things I hear from our enemies. No, I'm not talking about the Muslims or the gays. I'm talking about those who call themselves Christians, but turn their backs on far-right politics. Some of these pretenders, and their secular allies, have taken to calling us the H word. You guessed it...hypocrites. They go on and on about how Jesus loved the poor and healed the sick, and they say if we really wanted a Christian government, then we would want that government to help them. They even say that's what our Savior himself would have done! Where do they get this stuff?

Even worse, these pretenders in Christ have taken to quoting scripture, using the Bible--OUR Bible--against us. They're getting that hypocrite stuff right out of the Gospels, using Jesus' own words to call us "false prophets" and "wolves in sheep's clothing." The nerve of some people! 

Just the other day I saw people using these verses from Matthew against us:
 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Now, we all know Jesus wasn't really taking up for a bunch of ragged takers looking for handouts. It might seem like he was, but that's a misinterpretation. Some parts of the Bible should be taken literally and some shouldn't. The parts about God creating the Earth in six days, the snake that talked, Noah living 950 years; those are literally true. That's just common sense. 
But some passages require a more subtle interpretation. 

Those words from Matthew are those of Christ himself, and we all know he spoke in parables. He didn't literally mean to give food to hungry people, or invite dirty, half-dressed strangers into our houses and places of worship. I mean really, is that how our Savior would have acted? It's a parable, like the mustard seed or the camel passing through the eye of the needle.

You knew that one would come up didn't you? They love to use that part of Matthew against us. You know the one, where the rich man asks Jesus what he should do to get into heaven:
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. 23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Those verses always have been troublesome, haven't they? Personally, I don't think Christ could have really said them. Sell your possessions and give to the poor? That's practically communist! It doesn't fit in with our gospel of prosperity at all. And that stuff about how hard it is for the rich to get into heaven...what is that about? That young man was a job creator!

No, Jesus just wouldn't have said that, and he certainly wouldn't have said it twice for emphasis, like that passage implies. Of all his lessons, why would he pick that one to emphasize? Why not the evils of homosexuality, the dangers of evolution, or the importance of keeping "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance? It just doesn't make sense.

Brothers and sisters, there's only one thing to do: We've got to change those verses. That's the only way to keep people from reading them in inconvenient ways. The ones I've been quoting make Jesus out to be some kind of bleeding heart who loved everybody unconditionally. And we can't have that. 

So let me show you what I have in mind. Take the first pairs of “Blessings and Woes” in Luke. We could change those in several different ways to reflect their one true meaning, but here are my suggestions:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God rich, for you are the job creators, and yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,  for you will be satisfied are well fed now, for that proves you are hard workers. Or at least rich, and therefore blessed (see above).
But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort poor, for you have already received your handouts. 
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry who hunger now, for we cut your food stamps.
See how easy that is? And speaking of blessings, we can leave "blessed are the peacemakers" alone. That was clearly a prophecy foretelling the coming of the Colt Peacemaker; the gun that would win the west. When Jesus comes back, I'm betting that's the sidearm he'll carry. Try taking that one away, gun-grabbers!

I could do this all day, but I think you get the idea. Give it a try! Grab the Sermon on the Mount and a red pen and get busy. It's time we bring the Bible in line with our actual practices. If we start talking like we've been walking, how can anyone accuse us of being hyp...the H word?

Now, I know some of you will have qualms at first. But what are our other options? As long as we say we want a Christian government, people are going to say, "Well, then, why don't you want it to help the sick and poor?" We could cave in and let them keep church and state separate, but then we'd be taking mandatory prayer out of the schools, teaching unexpurgated science, letting homosexuals marry, and opening liquor stores on Sunday. And we can't have all that. 

The other option is to keep calling for a Christian government, and start following all that stuff about helping the poor, healing the sick, loving our enemies, being merciful, blah blah blah...  I don't know about you, but that one doesn't sound good to me either. 

No, if people keep using the H word on us, there's only one way to have our cake and eat it too, and that's editing the Holy Scriptures themselves. I know it may seem shocking. But if you think about it, we on the far right have been editing Jesus for a long time with our words and deeds. All I'm doing is pointing it out; spelling out what's usually unspoken. What should be shocking is for Christians to act in direct opposition to Jesus' words.

And that's why we have to change those words! Sure, people will give us a hard time at first, even that foolish majority of Christians who think Jesus meant what he said about this stuff. But if we keep repeating the new versions, they'll eventually forget the old ones. Americans have a short attention span these days. Besides, if we finally take over this country, then we'll be the ones calling the shots about how the Bible is read.

Yours in Christ,

Rick Bachabee

Thursday, October 3, 2013

And the Truth Comes Limping After

"A lie will go around the world while the truth is pulling its boots on."
                                                                                                   - Mark Twain

That's always been one of my favorite Mark Twain quotations. It's just so true. Except...it's not. It's a true observation, to be sure, but Mr. Twain never actually said it. A guy named C.H. Spurgeon did, in 1859. And he borrowed it from other sources, which can be traced back to 1710, when Jonathan Swift said, "Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”

Here we have a delectable irony--a quotation about how fast lies can spread is itself a lie; one that has indeed spread around the world. It proves how true it is with its own falsehood. Or...something. 

Anyway, I got an amazing lesson today about how true it really is. As I write, it's day three of the government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). In a Facebook discussion today about Obamacare, someone illustrated their objections to it by linking to an essay by a Louisiana attorney named Michael Connelly called "The Truth About the Health Care Bills." Connelly lists several reasons he believes House Bill 3200 is unconstitutional. The only problem is, House Bill 3200 is not the Affordable Care Act. It's a different piece of legislation altogether, and it never passed. I don't know whether Mr. Connelly's analysis is correct, but that's beside the point, since it never passed anyway. It certainly shouldn't be spread as if it were a critique of Obamacare. 

But that's exactly what was happening. When I looked at the Facebook link where Mr. Connelly's essay had been posted, it had been shared over 4,000 times since the day before...by people who thought it was about Obamacare. Many of them shared it with comments like, "Wake up people! Obamacare is taking away all our rights!!!" 

Whether they are right or wrong isn't the issue here. The issue is that they were accidentally spreading misinformation, and spreading it fast--sharing the link every few seconds. 

I watched the number of shares climb to 5,000, and then 6,000. Finally, I asked to join the Facebook group it had appeared on, called Repeal ObamaCare, so I could leave a comment on the post. I was accepted within 20 minutes, and posted a link to the Snopes.com article showing that the essay was not about Obamacare. 

And then, nothing happened. People just kept on sharing it. In the 40 minutes after I posted the Snopes link, nearly 1,000 people shared the essay. Finally, the guy who originally posted the link said he would take it down, and he did, just before it hit 7,000 shares. 

It was a small victory, but I'm not going to lie--it was sweet. Tilt at enough windmills, and you might knock a small one over.

Of course, as he said: "It's out there now." Seven thousand people saw that link and shared it without ever checking to see if it was legitimate. They didn't know enough about Obamacare to realize the essay wasn't about Obamacare, but they were sure they were against it, and that essay explained exactly why! Except it didn't.  But that didn't matter...it kept right on spreading. And for thousands of people, I'm sure it confirmed what they already believed in the first place.

As I said, though, my point here isn't whether Obamacare is good or bad. My point is about people's willingness to spread what they want to hear, without taking just a few seconds to see if it's true. I'm not sure the majority of people even care whether it's true, as long as it supports their point of view. I hope I'm being too cynical on that score. 

One thing is certain, though, and that's how true the old adage about the speed of lies is, whoever said it. These days it's more true than ever. While the truth is pulling its boots on today, a lie can circle the world hundreds of times per minute, multiplying as it goes. The only way to prevent that is to actually care what's true--to prefer a truth we don't like to a lie we do. Lies are swift, tough, and almost impossible to kill.  The truth is fragile, plodding, and utterly precious. It needs all the help it can get. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Thorn Trees, Avocados, and VLS's (Very Large Sloths)

Photo by Greg Hume, Wikimedia Commons
This weekend I went for a walk with two of my friends through a swamp outside New Orleans. We saw plenty of waterbirds, three young alligators, some burly swamp rabbits, and a total of seven snakes. But what impressed my companions most was a honey locust tree we came across. Those are fairly common where I'm from in Arkansas, but they aren't common here, and they had never seen one before. Hearing them talk about it, I started seeing it with new eyes. The honey locust really is a stunning tree, with its clusters of icepick-sized thorns along its limbs and trunk. It's clearly not a tree to be trifled with.

Then my friends asked a question that I had never thought to ask: why does need such huge thorns? What assailant is it protecting itself from? Is it just paranoid?

None of us had any ideas, so we kept walking and forgot about it. But the next night, in one of those weird little jolts of serendipity, I stumbled across a possible answer. I was leafing through a picture book about natural history, and saw the following passage in the section on plants: "Species with fleshy fruits use animals to disperse their seeds: many of them are swallowed whole and then scattered by birds. In prehistoric times, wild avocados may have been dispersed by giant ground sloths."

That's right, giant ground sloths. They really existed. One of the most jaw-dropping things I have ever seen is a skeleton of one of these in the Smithsonian. I had seen the dinosaurs and pterodactyls skeletons and been duly impressed, but then, in the Ice Age hall, I came across the towering skeleton of Eremotherium; one of the largest of the ground sloths. The thing is just gigantic--as big as an elephant standing on its hind legs. You could build a small tree house between its pelvis and its ribcage...and it's a sloth. I stood there and stared at it like I was three years old.

Photo by Postdlf, Wikimedia Commons
Ground sloths were superficially built like long-armed bears, and like bears, they could stand on their hind legs. Some of them could reach nearly 20 feet into the trees to browse on buds, leaves, and fruit. And some of these fruits may have co-evolved with ground sloths and other big ice age mammals, as a way to disperse their seeds.

Plants can do many things, but what they can't usually do is get up and move around. That means they have to find ways to reproduce while being stuck in the same spot all their lives. They have to get their pollen to each other somehow, and then they have to scatter their seeds so that their offspring won't grow up right on top of them. Pollen is mostly spread by the wind, or by bribing or tricking flying animals like insects, hummingbirds, and bats.

Plants scatter their seeds in equally inventive ways. Dandelions and cottonwoods send them aloft on little cottony parachutes. Maple and sycamore seeds whirl like helicopter blades as the wind catches them, and the Javan cucumber's seed has wings like a hang glider. The seeds we call burs hitch rides on animals, and on our pant legs. Coconuts disperse by floating in the sea, sometimes drifting hundreds of miles from their parent plant. Some fruits dry up and explode. Impatiens are a familiar example--their fruit may burst if you touch it, which is why they are also called Touch-Me-Nots. But even more impressive is the Sandbox Tree, AKA the Dynamite Tree. Its fruits explode with a deafening blast, launching seeds over 150 feet away.

Of course, many fruits have evolved to entice animals to eat them. Plants don't put all that energy into producing sweet, tasty fruit because they have benevolent spirits. They do it to spread their seeds. Some seeds can't even germinate unless they've been through the gut of an animal. This often weakens their tough coating, and as a bonus, the seeds end their intestinal journey in a little dollop of fertilizer on the ground.

And that brings us back to avocados. Avocado seeds are too big for most modern creatures to swallow regularly, but huge prehistoric creatures like ground sloths might have gulped them down without even thinking about it, and then deposited them later in their poop, the way birds deposit blackberry seeds. Today, the ground sloths are gone, and avocados might have dwindled away too if people hadn't come along and started cultivating them. Perhaps that's only fair, since we may be what killed off the ground sloths in the first place, along with a host of other Pleistocene creatures of the Americas, including giant bison, mammoths, mastodons, and four-tusked gompotheres; as well as the predators who relied on them--massive dire wolves, sabertoothed cats, and 1800-pound short-faced bears. The fauna of the Americas was as impressive as the African savanna until a few thousand years ago--right around the time the first humans seem to have arrived. Of course, the climate got a lot warmer at the same time, so the jury hasn't declared humans guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But they're eyeing us pretty suspiciously.

Anyway, it may be that avocados weren't the only plants left without partners by the extinction of the big mammals. Another tree I grew up around, the Osage orange, may have co-evolved with mammoths, mastodons, and their relatives. These trees once had a wide range across North America, but today they are confined mostly to Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Some biologists think this may be because their giant dispersers disappeared. In most places, Osage orange fruits simply pile up and rot under the tree. Most modern native animals ignore them, but horses eat and distribute them now. That has a certain symmetry, since Osage oranges would have evolved with native horses of the Americas, which went extinct at the end of the ice age. The reintroduction of horses from Europe may have reintroduced two old friends.

And what about the honey locust, with its menacing spikes? It's another tree that may have co-evolved with giant mammals. As prickly as it is, it's called the honey locust for good reason--its seed pods are filled with a sweet-tasting pulp that probably evolved to attract large animals, who would eat the seeds along with the pulp. If the seed pods aren't eaten, they just fall to the ground, and the seeds inside will be destroyed by insects. But if they get eaten by a large herbivore, they will pass through its gut unharmed. This is actually what happens with relatives of the honey locusts in Africa, the acacias. Elephants help disperse some acacia seeds by eating the pods. The insects attacking the seeds are killed, but the seeds do just fine; and are actually much more likely to germinate if they've made a trip through pachyderm innards. But elephants and other large mammals can be hard on acacias, too--stripping their bark, pushing them over, and browsing too many of their leaves. That's why acacias have thorns--to deter this sort of thing. Their cousins, honey locusts, have even bigger thorns. And maybe that's the answer to my friends' question. Why does that tree we looked at just this weekend have such huge thorns? Maybe it's still trying to protect itself from giant creatures that disappeared thousands of years ago. Those great beasts may seem almost mythical to us, but they were very real, and museums are full of the bones to prove it. They were certainly real to the honey locust, and it still has its thorny daggers ready, in case they ever return.

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Anachronistic Fruits and the Ghosts Who Haunt Them / Connie Barlowe

The Trees that Miss the Mammoths / Whit Bronaugh

Saving the Seeds (David Attenborough clip on acacias and elephants)