Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Dear Atheists: Be Cool

I spend a good bit of time on this blog arguing against religious fundamentalism; gnashing my teeth about creationism, school-sponsored prayer, and religiously-based discrimination. I think of myself as an agnostic humanist, and I follow groups like Americans United, the ACLU, and the American Humanist Association on Facebook. I even follow more radically anti-religious organizations like the Richard Dawkins Foundation and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. It's a good way to keep up with what the religious right is doing, and to keep tabs on how Jefferson's "wall of separation" between church and state is holding up. But I don't always agree with those more radical groups. In fact, sometimes I find them completely offensive.

For example, a while back one of those organizations posted a picture from their office breakroom. They had a refrigerator magnet of Jesus on the cross, with various magnetic garments you could put on him, like a dress-up Barbie. I thought that was offensive and unnecessary, and I told them so, as did several other people who didn't think "openly non-religious" is the same thing as "tasteless and insensitive." After a while, they took the picture down and apologized. That's when it got really disturbing. More people complained about them taking it down than putting it up. They saw it as a sign of weakness; as a capitulation to religious sensibilities. There was a lot of trollish talk about how religious people are idiots, and offending them should be a point of pride. One guy remarked, "Isn't offending religious people what we're all about?"

No, it's not. At least, it's not what I'm all about. That guy seems to have confused the words "atheist" and "jackass." They aren't synonyms, though I suspect he is both. What's the point of being offensive for its own sake? Yes, it's true that religions can cause a lot of harm--honor killings among some Muslims, the Inquisition, the Westboro Baptist Church--these are bad things.That's why it's vital that religious ideas be as open to criticism as any others--there's no reason they should get special treatment.  But there's also no reason to be nasty about it.

I admit that I like to challenge people's ideas; to make them question what they take for granted. And I want them to challenge me right back. Life is too short not to think about what we're doing here. I'm OK with causing slight discomfort, but I never want to truly offend people. And I certainly don't want to outlaw religion or "kick God out of the schools." I just want to keep religious fundamentalism from creeping further into our schools and government, and to remind religious people that the non-religious in this country are Americans, too. I do have a bit of a missionary goal--I want to try to convince people to reconsider fundamentalism, creationism, religiously-based discrimination, and so on. But I actually don't want to convert Christians to my views. I don't want to be responsible for that kind of spiritual upheaval.

Still, I do want to convert conservative, fundamentalist Christians to a more moderate, modern, and inclusive variety of their faith. And if you want to try to convince people of anything, the last thing you want to do is offend them. Being offensive for no reason isn't just ugly--it's also counterproductive. Of course, I've been known to forget that in the heat of an argument, but in my cooler-headed and less-stupid moments, I'm convinced that if you want to change someone's mind, you need to be as friendly as you possibly can. Friendlier, probably, than you think is necessary. It's actually really hard, and I fail miserably at it sometimes.

Just as some people seem to have confused the terms "atheist" and "trolling jackass", others have confused atheism with "science" or "reason." Several times I've noticed people talking about atheism, science, and reason as though they formed a natural trinity. But one of those things is not like the others. Science and reason are not beliefs, but intellectual methods, based on a commitment to evidence and logic. Atheism is a belief, and not one based on compelling evidence. I can point to all kinds of evidence that the big bang or evolution happened, but I don't know of similar bodies of evidence showing that God doesn't exist. Of course, I don't know of bodies of evidence that he does exist, either. As usual, I'm with Carl Sagan on this question:
An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.
Atheism and science, then, aren't necessarily a package deal, and if people keep acting like they are, it's going to drive religious people away from science. Is that what we want? In the same interview, Sagan also said:
When people ask me after one of my lectures, “Do you believe in God?” I frequently reply by asking what the questioner means by “God.” The term means a lot of different things in a lot of different religions. For some, it’s an outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there in the sky, busily tallying the fall of every sparrow. To others — for example, Baruch Spinoza, and Albert Einstein — God is essentially the sum total of the physical laws which describe the universe. I can’t imagine anyone denying the existence of the laws of nature, but I don’t know of any compelling evidence for the old man in the sky.
I'm with him again here. If by "God" you mean the violent and jealous deity of the Old Testament, who drowned the world in a flood and enjoyed the smell of burnt offerings, then yes, I'm an atheist. I actively believe he does not exist (and I don't say that to be offensive--it's just what I think is true.) But if "God" means a bigger, more transcendent entity that might have set the universe in motion; "breathed fire into the equations" as Stephen Hawking put it, then I don't know. Maybe there is such a grand cosmic being. As Sagan says, I don't think there's compelling evidence one way or the other. And since that's the case, neither theism or atheism should be put in the same category as science or reason. Both seem to me to require a leap of faith, and I've never had much faith in faith.

What I'm trying to say here is that atheists in the mold of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and even Ricky Gervais need to take it down a notch. Atheism isn't as self-evidently true as they think it is, and even if it is true, there's no reason to be rude. A lot of religious people assume that atheists and other secular types are all rude, arrogant, and immoral; and the more strident kind of atheist rhetoric does nothing but perpetuate that notion. You can't be nasty to someone and then be surprised when they decide you're a nasty person. All of us--atheists and agnostics; Christians, Muslims, and Jews--are only human. It's a big universe. None of us have it all figured out, and none of us have any business acting like jerks. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Blues for the Dire Wolf

I just got back from a conference in Indianapolis. I have to admit I wasn't that excited about going. Indianapolis? In March? How exciting could that be? But I was pleasantly surprised, as I often am when I visit new cities. As soon as the talks ended, I made a little pilgrimage over to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, where I gazed upon the clunky little typewriter where some of my favorite books were born. Then I headed over to the Indiana State Museum, where I had spotted a banner that said "Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons."

The huge, tusked skeletons were pretty impressive, as were many other relics thousands of times older, like the gorgeous crinoids in the image to the right. There are some really spectacular fossils under those Indiana plains.

But what really captured my imagination, and not in a comfortable way, was a 25,000-year-old dire wolf skeleton. Anybody who's read or watched the Game of Thrones series or gone through a Grateful Dead phase has heard of dire wolves, but they may be surprised to learn they really existed. In fact, dire wolves roamed the Americas from about 1.8 million years ago to the beginning of the current interglacial period, which began around 10,000 years ago. We think of such ice age creatures as evolutionary also-rans, but they were around ten times as long as our species has been so far, so maybe a little respect is in order.

Dire wolves resembled the gray wolves that are still around today, but they were much more heavily built, often as massive as Saint Bernards. They also had shorter legs than gray wolves, as well as more powerful jaws, and somewhat smaller brains. While gray wolves can hunt everything from moose to mice, dire wolves seem to have specialized on the large mammals that were common in the ice age. And that may have been their undoing. Some scientists think they couldn't survive when the big Pleistocene herbivores they lived on--horses, camels, ancient peccaries, giant sloths, and so on--started to disappear. And those creatures may have disappeared, in part, as a result of overhunting by the first people in the Americas.

Living on large prey was a dangerous game on the individual level, too. Those big herbivores could fight back, and so could other predators that competed with dire wolves, like huge short-faced bears and sabertoothed cats. It's no surprise that many dire wolf bones show serious injuries--from prey, from competitors, and even from other dire wolves (they probably fought for dominance, like gray wolves). For dire wolves, being kicked, bitten, and clawed by animals much larger than themselves was just a fact of existence.

The dire wolf I saw in Indianapolis was no exception. Something had dislocated its hip. Its femor had rubbed a smooth spot on the pelvis, just outside the hip socket. That meant it had been displaced for months when the wolf died. The poor creature must have limped along all that time trying to keep up with the rest of the pack, surviving on leftovers and possibly the generosity of its pack mates.

Its death was equally tragic. Passing the entrance to a cave, it caught the scent of a dead animal inside--an extinct peccary, as it turns out. Limping into the darkness to find a meal it wouldn't have to run down, it stumbled into a pit--the same pit that had trapped and killed the peccary. Eventually, it died, I suppose from dehydration or exhaustion.

I stared at that skeleton for a long time. Those bones had once been a formidible and intelligent animal. What was going through its mind as it struggled in the mud at the bottom of that hole? How long did it take to realize there was no way out? Did it even have any concept of death? I don't know. I do know it would have been an awful way to go.

People have often listened to howling wolves and said they're "singing the blues." I doubt there's much similarity between the two activities, but who knows? Wolves ancient and modern have tough lives--if they do sing the blues, they have every right too. A fundamental theme of the blues is the injustice of life. Could a wolf feel a sense of injustice, to have survived that long with a bad hip, only to meet a slow death in a dark hole? I know I would feel pretty aggrieved. If it were me in that hole, you better believe I would be cursing that darkness. "Are you really going to let me die in here, Universe? You are really, truly, that pitiless? How dare you?!"

But it is that pitiless, and it doesn't care what we think. That poor creature did die in that hole. And its fate wasn't uncommon. Out in California, many other dire wolves met similarly tragic ends when they followed other animals out into the La Brea tar pits and got mired in warm, bubbling asphalt. Thousands of dire wolf skeletons have been dug out of those pits; their bones blackened by the tar. Nature, as I've said in another post, is like the "rough beast" in Yeats poem The Second Coming, with, "a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun." There's no rule in nature against cruel and unusual punishment. What happens...happens.

It's not that nature is unjust, exactly. It's just that justice and injustice aren't part of its makeup. At least not for the most part--there are exceptions. Ourselves, for example. We are part of nature, and a sense of justice and injustice is part of our makeup. Maybe it was part of the dire wolf's makeup, I don't know. In any case, the fact that our sensibilites rebel at the thought of meeting a tragic, undeserved end is actually a cause for hope. It means there is some sense of justice in the universe. We tend to look for it out there in wider realms of nature, but I suspect that's misguided. The only sense of justice in nature, as far as I can tell, is inside us, and perhaps a few other sentient creatures. That means if we want to look at nature's cruelty, cry foul, and try to find a way around it, we can. We can come across a trapped animal, for example, and help the poor thing out of there. But it's up to us, and us alone. That's surely true whether there's a God or not, because history has made it clear that unimaginable tragedies happen in either case. God didn't stop the Black Death or Holocaust from happening.

But we can, or at least we can try. Think of what an amazing thing that is. Dire wolves lived hard, scary lives for thousands of generations without ever having a way to improve their lot. Even if they had some sense of cosmic justice--even if they sang that kind of blues--they had no way of translating it into reality. We do. We've done it already, in fact--smoothing out some of the roughest edges in nature as well as our own culture (though the worst among us have just found ways to sharpen them). We've fought against natural horrors like disease, and human horrors like slavery, and with some real success.

When I think about things like the fate of that ancient wolf in Indiana, I start asking where the justice is--where the tiniest spark of kindness is--out there in the universe. But I think I'm probably looking in the wrong direction. That little spark isn't "out there" somewhere. It's inside us. And what it becomes is up to us.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Seeing Further: Three Women Who Expanded Our Universe

In my reading rambles, I've come across the stories of several early female scientists I think should be better known. Since today is International Women's Day, I think I'll quickly mention three of my favorites--all women who made discoveries that helped transform the way we see the universe, and didn't receive nearly enough credit or respect for doing so. I'm not going to try to paint any sort of full portrait of their life and times. Others have done that better than I can. What other mini-biographies don't do so well, from what I've seen, is briefly explain the significance of their discoveries--the way their particular findings led to truly universal, and universe-expanding, insights. That's what I'll try to do here.

When I was a little kid, I was transfixed by a drawing in one of my books. It showed a young girl in a 19th-century dress and bonnet, gazing up at a monstrous skeleton in a cliff face. The skeleton was an ichthyosaur--an ancient marine reptile resembling a shark, but with an alligator's mouth and huge, bone-encircled eyes. The little girl was Mary Anning, who grew up to be one of the great fossil hunters in history. The way I remember the story, it told how Mary had discovered the skeleton while she was out for a walk. I loved the idea of a kid making such a stupendous find, and I dreamed that one day I would too.

Since rediscovering her as an adult, I've realized that either the book or my memory had it wrong. Mary Anning was actually part of a family of fossil collectors who lived in Lyme Regis, a town in southern England on what is still known as the Jurassic Coast. She and her brother Joseph were the only survivors of ten children born to Richard and Mary Anning in the late 1700's. Their father was a cabinetmaker who made extra money by scouring the cliffs for fossils and selling them to wealthier vacationers. His two children often accompanied him, and became sharp-eyed fossil spotters themselves. Richard died in 1810, leaving the family impoverished. Mary and her brother Joseph kept earning money the way they knew--by fossil-hunting. It was actually Joseph who discovered the ichyosaur's skull, but it was Mary who painstakingly dug the rest of the skeleton out of the rocks. She was 12 at the time.

Description of a plesiosaur, Mary Anning
Joseph became apprenticed to an upholsterer soon after his discovery, but Mary went on making her living as a fossil-hunter. She found many more ichthyosaurs, as well as the first known fossil of a plesiosaur, and made an early discovery of a flying pterosaur. All this was at a time when most scientists still believed in the Genesis creation story. The idea that species could go extinct was a controversial one, and learned men of the day assumed that living specimens of fossils would one day be found in unexplored parts of the world. Anning's discoveries helped convince scientists of the reality of extinction, and of the enormous age of the earth. She was also the first person to realize that certain kinds of lumpy rocks were actually fossilized feces called coprolites. That may not sound glamorous, but coprolites are tremendously important for figuring out the diets of ancient creatures (and even ancient people), and by extension, the environments they lived in.

Mary Anning lived her whole life in Lyme Regis, selling her fossil finds. Legend has it she was the inspiration for the tongue twister, "She sells sea shells by the sea shore." The wealthy gentleman scientists of the day who bought her major finds rarely credited her in the papers they wrote. Still, by the time of her death she had earned their respect--they recognized her as an expert in the field, even if many of them thought of a scientifically-talented, lower-class woman as a kind of anomaly in the natural order of things. Perhaps the old ideas about earth history weren't the only outdated notions she helped change.

Now lets shift across the Atlantic. By the late 19th century one could find rooms full of computers at Harvard Observatory. Of course, I'm not talking about electronic computers. At the time, the word "computer" referred to someone hired to do the tedious work of processing scientific data. Most of the computers were women, because they could be hired to work for far less than men. In fact, they earned less than Harvard's secretaries, even though several of them went on to make ground-breaking discoveries in astronomy.

One of these "computers" was Annie Jump Cannon. A talented mathematician and photographer with a degree in physics from Wellesley, Cannon went to work at Harvard Observatory, where she was given the task of cataloging thousands of stars. Scientists had found that light from stars, when passed through a prism, would divide into a rainbow-like spectrum--but with dark lines corresponding to a particular set of wavelengths. These so-called absorption spectra were initially labeled using a complex scheme based on the letters of the alphabet. Cannon convinced the Harvard astronomers to drop all the letters but seven--O,B,A,F,G,K,M--and arrange these "spectral classes" in descending order by the star's temperature--from hot blue O stars, to milder yellow G stars like the sun, to "cool" red M stars. Since then, generations of astronomers have memorized this sequence with the mnemonic, "Oh Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me." I wonder how she would have felt about that?

Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram
In any case, the chart based on her classification allowed astronomers to judge a star's temperature and color by its spectral class, even if its apparent color has been distorted by atmospheric effects and other noise. Later, other astronomers added a vertical dimension based on luminosity (brightness). The resulting chart, called the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, is a sort of periodic table of the stars. It allows astronomers who know certain of a star's characteristics, such as its spectral class, to deduce other characteristics, such as its temperature and luminosity. By plotting clusters of stars on the H-R diagram, they've been able to piece together how they evolve over their lifespans--from normal "main sequence" stars to huge red giants, and finally tiny, unbelievably dense white dwarfs (or even more exotic things like neutron stars and black holes).

Another woman employed at the Harvard Observatory was Henrietta Swann Leavitt. She was assigned to look at variable stars--whose brightness fluctuated over time. Eventually she noted a pattern in a kind of variable star called a Cepheid variable: the brighter (more luminous) they are, the longer the period between bright and dim phases. To understand the significance of this, we have to understand that stars can be bright in two ways. All stars have an intrinsic brightness, which is the total amount of light they produce, and an apparent brightness, which is how bright they seem from Earth (which depends on how far away they are.) If you take two stars of equal intrinsic brightness, the more distant one will have a lower apparent brightness. It will seem dimmer, for the same reason a distant streetlight seems dimmer than a nearby one. Intrinsic and apparent brightness are related in a predictable way--a star twice as far away will seem 1/4 as bright, one 3 times as far will seem 1/9 as bright, and so on.

Leavitt figured out the relationship between a variable star's intrinsic brightness and its period. That meant that if astronomers measured the period of a Cepheid variable of unknown intrinsic brightness and distance, then they would be able to estimate its intrinsic brightness. Then they could compare its intrinsic brightness to its apparent brightness and figure out how far away the star is. Before that, astronomers had only been able to judge the distance to relatively close stars, using a method called parallax. Now they had a new and longer yardstick for measuring the universe.

For all anyone knew in Leavitt's day, the Milky Way galaxy was the entire universe. Edwin Hubble showed this wasn't true, and he did so using the relationship Leavitt had discovered. A couple of years after she died, he found a Cepheid variable in stellar cloud known as the Andromeda Nebula. When he figured out how far away it was, he realized it was far beyond any other star ever seen. The Andromeda Nebula wasn't a cloud within our own galaxy--it was a galaxy in its own right. Today it's known as the Andromeda Galaxy, the closest large galaxy to our own. The relationship Henrietta Leavitt had discovered was the key to the realization that our own galaxy is just one little island in a universe of other galaxies.

Mary Anning, Annie Jump Cannon, and Henrietta Leavitt were never considered equals by many of their peers, though Cannon lived long enough to be recognized with a professional title as an astronomer. But each of them helped expand our view of the universe immensely. Anning helped establish the great age and mutability of life on earth, paving the way to the realization that it had evolved over time. Cannon helped classify the stars, and that classification helped astronomers see how the stars themselves change over time. Leavitt's discovery helped them realize they were seeing past the stars of our galaxy into the unfathomable reaches beyond. These were tremendous achievements by women working against enormous odds and pervasive prejudice. I think all three are pretty awe-inspiring.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Brawlers and Pistol Packers: Creature-Watching With My Nephew

There is no one standing over evolution with a blue pencil to say, "Now that one, there, is absolutely ridiculous, and I won't have it."  
- Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
My nephew Ben and I share a fascination with small ridiculous creatures. He's 11, so while I may have trouble connecting with him over comic books or Garfield cartoons, if one of us finds some weird little creeping thing, we've got things to talk about.

A few days ago I met up with Ben's family in Florida. We went out to a gorgeous white-sand beach at Fort Desoto Park, near Tampa, and set about looking at what had washed ashore. There were a few nice little shells, but the most interesting thing I found was a piece of dead sponge. Bending down to look at it, I noticed that its crevices were still inhabited by several dime-sized crabs. So I carried it down the beach to show the rest of the gang. When Ben heard about the crabs, he decided to tear the sponge apart to see what else was in there. We found a red brittle star the size of a quarter, several more crablets, and a variety of tiny worms. Then Ben found a prize: a little orange shrimp about 3/4 inch long, with one oversized and oddly-shaped claw. We admired our menagerie for a while, and then took the pieces of sponge to a lagoon to give the residents a chance in some calmer water.

We didn't know it at the time, but that shrimpy little orange critter had a secret--it was packing heat, in a very literal sense. When I got home I happened to see an article on pistol shrimp, and realized that's what we had found.

Pistol shrimp have one of the strangest weapons in nature. When prey or rivals come into their crosshairs, they aim that big claw, cock it open, and then...Blam! The claw snaps shut so fast it causes a tiny area of water to boil, forming a bubble called a cavitation bubble. This implodes with enough force to create temperatures approaching those at the surface of the sun, along with a brief flash of light and a loud pop. The recoil knocks the little shrimp backward and stuns its target. It's a wonder it doesn't tear its prey apart--cavitation bubbles created by high-speed propellers can actually dig pits in the metal. The phenomenon is amazingly violent, and quite loud. Colonies of pistol shrimp sound like bubble-wrap sizzling in bacon grease. The noise is loud enough to play havoc with sonar systems, and makes pistol shrimp competitive with singing whales for the title of Loudest Creature in the Sea.

As odd as its weaponry is, the pistol shrimp doesn't look all that strange. When it comes to full-on alien freakiness, it can't compete with some other small crustaceans Ben and I found a couple of summers ago. We were on a rocky shore in Maine, and I was laying on my belly on a floating dock, peering into the water to watch lobsters prowl around the rocks below. Then I noticed some red seaweed right in front of my eyes, attached to the dock. It looked like little clumps of red moss waving back and forth with the current. But something was funny about the motion. When I looked closer, I saw that some of the seaweed wasn't seaweed at all, but spindly little red arthopods with branched antennae on their heads, making them look like those Kokopelli petroglyphs from the southwest. They would have blended into the seaweed perfectly, but they couldn't stand still. In fact, they seemed to be brawling, clambering around in a weird inchworm motion and lashing out at their neighbors with their claws, like skinny little dreadlocked boxers.

I called Ben over to show him this spectacle. We watched them fight for a while, and then headed up to the cabin to find out what they were. We learned they're called skeleton shrimp or ghost shrimp, thought they aren't actually shrimp at all, but a different kind of crustacean called an amphipod. Skeleton shrimp attach themselves to seaweeds or sedentary sea creatures, and wait for food to float by, which they grab with claws resembling those of the preying mantis. The males are much bigger than the females, and--as is often true in such species--they fight with each other enthusiastically. The female only mates after she's just shed her skin. But that doesn't mean she's defenseless. In fact, in some species she kills her mate with a venomous claw after she's done with him. Then she starts growing about 40 eggs in a special brood pouch. In just a few days, the eggs hatch inside the pouch and she gives birth to a bunch of babies, which look like small versions of adults--ready to start the whole bizarre life cycle once again.

I don't mean to brag, but when it comes to finding aquatic oddities, Ben and I have stumbled upon some of the oddest ones out there. But there are a lot of beaches in the world, with inhabitants neither one of us has dreamed of. I can't wait for our next seaside expedition. It's hard to imagine it will turn up anything stranger than what we've already found, but then, nature is full of surprises.