Saturday, January 24, 2015

Under the High Plains Sea

The other day I wrote a post called Why I Believe Crazy Things. My point was that science is full of ideas that sound just as crazy as anything you'll find on the "Strange Phenomena" shelves in the New Age section of a bookstore. If you think about it, the idea that the universe exploded into existence from a single, tiny point sounds crazier than the idea that bigfoot roams the Pacific Northwest. It's just that in science, we also have evidence for those crazy ideas. There's solid evidence for the Big Bang, but not for the Big Foot.

Another point I've often made lately is that science lets you see beyond surface appearances and find marvels in what might otherwise seem mundane. A house down the street from me, for example, is made of an unexceptional-looking rock that was formed in a single cataclysmic day, when red-hot volcanic ash came roaring out of the mountains and buried what's now Castle Rock, Colorado. The rock doesn't look that interesting, but it is when you look beyond the surface.

So, two points: 1. Science shows you the stories beyond surface appearances. 2. Those stories are often really bizarre.

The other day, I came across a good example of both of these of these points. The crappy little cellphone picture above shows a section of high plains just southeast of Colorado Springs. The little bumps are known as the Tepee Buttes. They're not very impressive, even in good pictures. They're only about thirty feet high, and if you turn and look the other way, you'll see Pikes Peak in all its magnificence. So why notice them at all?

They're worth noticing because if you know the science behind them--if you go beyond surface appearances--you find one of those bizarre, hard to believe stories. It turns out that those little buttes sitting there on a mile-high plain, were once communities of freaky creatures living on the bottom of the sea. This was about 75 million years ago, when a shallow sea called the Western Interior Seaway covered what's now the North American plains.

"Lamellibrachia luymesi" (Click for photo credits)
Each butte marks the location of an ancient sea floor vent called a cold seep, where methane and other chemicals would seep out of the the ground. Some bacteria (then and now) can live on those chemicals--they basically "eat" methane and hydrogen sulfide. As they did so, they created growing mounds of limestone on a seafloor that was otherwise mostly mud. That's why the buttes are now limestone outcrops in the middle of a great expanse of shale. But it wasn't just bacteria. There are (then and now) clams and tubeworms that form symbiotic relationships with the bacteria, so they too can live solely on methane or hydrogen sulfide. The photo to the right shows a modern cold seep community in the Gulf of Mexico.

It's weird enough that there are communities of bacteria, clams, and tubeworms on the seafloor today, living on chemicals leaking out of the ground. But it's even weirder that there are fossil versions of these communities on the high, dry plains at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

So why believe such a tall tale? Because you can go out to the Tepee Buttes and dig up fossils of the clams and tubeworms. If you have the right equipment, you can slice open the rocks and find fossils of the bacteria that formed the backbone of the community. The evidence is right there, solid as a rock, because it IS rock.

Of course, a lot has happened since Colorado was a shallow sea. A few million years after the Tepee Buttes were living seafloor communities, tectonic forces from the west coast started reaching the interior of the continent, and the Rocky Mountains began to rise. All of Colorado--mountains and plains--were gradually lifted high above sea level. But the Tepee Buttes still sit there, telling us how the high plains were once a sea floor. They're more interesting than they look, and when you look beyond surface appearances, the tale they tell is truly strange. Strange, but true.

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Tepee Buttes: Late Cretaceous Submarine Springs of El Paso and Pueblo County

Tepee Buttes on our Horizons

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Sacred Enough to Kill For

*Note: Re-posted after the murder of secularist writer Avijit Roy in Bangladesh; a man brave enough to think and write freely even though he knew what the consequences might be. RIP

It is putting a very high value on one's conjectures, to have a man roasted alive because of them. - Michel de Montaigne
Today in Paris, three Islamic radicals walked into the office of a satirical newspaper called Charlie Hebdo and gunned down several unarmed people. Why? Because the newspaper had published cartoons depicting Muhammad and mocking radical Islam. During the attack, the gunmen shouted, "God is great!" and, "We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad."

It didn't matter that the newspaper mocked absolutely everybody, or that Muhammad has been dead for over a thousand years. These men believe there are certain ideas and certain people who simply cannot be mocked. And they believe anyone who does mock them deserves to die. They believe it so fervently they were willing to pick up guns and murder them themselves.

In other words, they didn't murder them for killing or raping anyone, or for stealing, or anything like that. They murdered them over a set of unproven, hypothetical ideas..

Nobody has ever proven that God/Allah exists, or that Muhammad was his prophet, or that God wants his followers to kill anyone who insults him or his representatives. There's no hard evidence of any of that. There are just claims made in a very old book, and it's as easy to make false claims in a book as true ones. In fact, it's far easier. That's no less true if the book is old, and venerated by multitudes. Millions of people once believed what the Iliad said about Athena, and some of them would have killed me for saying she doesn't exist. But she doesn't.

The tragic situation, then, is that 12 people were murdered today for daring to mock a set of unproven hypotheses. What's even more tragic is that millions of people throughout history have been murdered for the same reason, and by many other religions besides Islam. What's unusual about modern Islam is not that it has so many violent extremists, but that it still does.* The Montaigne quote at the beginning of this essay comes from a time when people in the west were routinely roasted alive for their beliefs.

History has shown that the ideas people are most willing to kill each other over are also the ones they are least able to prove. There's nothing in this entire world more disheartening to me than that. How could anybody be so sure of their beliefs that they're willing to kill another human being just for challenging them? Let's face it: whether he exists or not, God is invisible. You can't point to him, like you might point to the moon, and say, "See, there he is." Yet people aren't generally killed for denying the existence of undeniable things--the members of the Flat Earth Society don't need to fear for their lives--but people are killed for denying the existence of an invisible entity. That strikes me as insane. Common, but insane.

No idea is so sacred to me that I would kill somebody for questioning or mocking it. Life is far too short and precious, and the human mind is far too easily fooled. It's too easy to be wrong. [This past week, millions of people were shocked to discover they couldn't even agree on whether a dress was black and blue or white and gold.]

If I looked up in the sky and saw a great heavenly figure holding a tablet that said, "I am the Lord thy God. Kill anyone who insults me!", I would assume I had gone nuts. If a billion other people saw it and videotaped it, and it ran on the evening news, I would say, "Well, how do we know that was really God? And if it was, why would he say that? Isn't he supposed to be all-powerful and utterly good? Why would a being like that be so sensitive to insults as to wish death on his own creations? And why did he give us a mind if he didn't want us asking questions like that?" I simply can't imagine any evidence that would convince me that people should be murdered for mocking an idea (or a powerful, God-like being...should one ever unambiguously appear.)

Some ideas are surely worth dying for, but no idea is sacred enough to kill for. At least, not simply for questioning or mocking it. In fact, human ideas must be questioned, or we'll never be able to separate the good ones from the bad ones. That means all ideas; even the ones people hold sacred. If they're true, they can withstand the questioning. Besides, maybe the "sacredness" of some ideas is, as Douglas Adams suggested, an evolved characteristic of some ideologies--a kind of self-protective mechanism, like a tortoise's shell. Maybe it hasn't persisted because it's true, but because it says, "If you mess with me, I'll hurt you." That's how chain letters spread. Has the persistence of chain letters ever been an indicator of their truth? Maybe the ideas that need questioned most are those that have been hiding under that shell that says, "Don't question me."

In the paragraph above, after I wrote the phrase "sacred enough to kill for", I looked back at it and shuddered. What a truly awful phrase--the very idea is perverse and even oxymoronic. It's also tragically common. It may be one of the worst ideas humankind has ever had. Like all bad ideas, it needs to be thrown onto that vast pile of history's other horrible notions. And we shouldn't mourn it when it's gone, because no idea is too sacred to question, much less sacred enough to kill for. Life is what's really sacred.

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I'm not saying the history of religion has been nothing but violence. Religion seems to have a strange tendency to bring out the best AND worst in people. People have also done great and kind things in the name of the same religions that others have killed for.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Why I Believe Crazy Things

The other day I stopped in a rock shop and picked up this gorgeous little ammonite. While I was shopping, I overheard a couple looking at crystals. They were discussing the healing properties and energy fields supposedly associated with different ones. I rolled my eyes and wondered how anybody could believe something that crazy.

But then, after a little reflection, I realized I believe some crazy things too. I can't deny it--I go in for some pretty wacky ideas. For example, I believe that all the countless galaxies across the known universe were once all smashed together into one single tiny point. I believe that point exploded into a scorching sea of subatomic particles that would eventually evolve into the universe we see today. I believe there are dead stars in space, called pulsars, that weigh more than the sun but are no bigger than cities. They're out there right now, spinning hundreds of times per second and spewing electromagnetic radiation across the universe. I believe the earth is so old that if you tried to count its age in years you would die long before you finished.

I believe rhinoceroses, camels, and elephant-sized sloths once roamed North America. I believe a wall of ice a mile high once scoured the places where New York and Chicago now sit, and that Long Island and Cape Cod mark the places where the ice began to recede. I believe that incredibly complex things like snowflakes, Siberian tigers, and the Great Barrier Reef--which look for all the world like they were created by an intelligence beyond our imagining--can actually be made by blind natural processes.* I believe a single particle of light can go through two holes at the same time, but will stop if you try to catch it in the act.

I could go on and on listing the crazy things I believe, but I think you get the point. On the face of it, these beliefs sound just as crazy as the idea that crystals produce mystical, healing energy fields, or that your astrological sign can influence your personality. So why do I believe them? And why do I think I'm right to believe them, and that people who believe in astrology, or auras, or young earth creationism, or crystal healing are (almost certainly) wrong?

It comes down to one word: evidence. Every crazy idea I just said I believe is well-supported by scientific and mathematical evidence. If you ask a scientist why she believes in something as crazy as the big bang theory, she can tell you why. She'll point to the way galaxies are flying away from each other, to the leftover radiation that fills they universe today, to the equations of general relativity, and so on. Ask a geologist why he believes ice sheets once covered the northeastern United States, and he can show you the scratch marks, the boulders, and the terminal moraines (like Long Island) that they left behind. Ask a paleontologist why she thinks rhinoceroses used to live in Nebraska, and she will tell you to go there and look at their bones still half-buried in the ground.

Evidence. That's the difference between scientific theories, like the Big Bang and evolution, and pseudoscientific imaginings like crystal healing or the literal existence of Noah's Ark. The scientific theories aren't any less far-fetched--they're actually pretty outlandish, if you think about it--but they're backed up by evidence. It's true that it would be amazing if crystals produced healing energy fields or if stars light-years away altered our personalities, but the evidence just isn't there. It would also be amazing if the universe began in a great burst of energy that sent everything flying apart, or if woolly mammoths once roamed near the great ice sheets of Illinois. Especially if it's true.

And it is!

That's why I'm mystified when I go into a rock shop and find something like the ammonite pictured above, and see people walk right past it to the crystals (fascinating for their own reasons) and start telling make-believe stories about them. It's like seeing someone walk past a Van Gogh, stop in front of a Picasso, and start talking about how it was painted by space aliens with magic wands. That little fossil they ignored was once a creature that lived so long ago that mountains have risen and eroded away since it died. It's a creature whose gorgeous spiral shell--which reflects deep mathematical principles that show up across nature--was literally turned to stone like some mythical beast. And it's a creature with a story to tell--you can dig ammonites out of rocks on a mountaintop in the desert, and be certain there was once a sea where you now stand. That little fossil is absolutely packed with wonders, if you know the science behind it. Not only that, but those wonders are real, and backed up by hard evidence. So why do people ignore them in favor of make-believe tales of healing crystals and horoscopes? If you want to believe in crazy ideas, why not believe in the ones that have the advantage of being true?

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* Which is not the same as saying I believe such an intelligence doesn't exist (I don't have enough evidence to decide that one way or another). Maybe some super-intelligence designed a universe with the right characteristics to produce complexity without her ongoing intervention, but the evidence suggests such intervention is no longer required.