These amazing little birds just broke the world record for nonstop flight

This is amazing stuff to me!  We have a tendency to believe that existence, perhaps even the Universe, is all about the human experience.  Really?!  Stories like this are reminders that amazing stuff happens close to home without our participation or interference.  In fact, I would argue that overall our participation in the grand scheme of things has actually been quite negative in its impact.

**********
Common swifts spend nearly a year on the wing and will travel the distance of seven round-trip journeys to the moon in their lifetimes.

Source: These amazing little birds just broke the world record for nonstop flight

The data revealed that common swifts — which make a 10-month journey from Northern Europe to Central Africa and back each year — spend 99.5 percent of their migration in the air. When they did touch down, on a tree branch or patch of ground, it was only for an hour or two. Then back into the air to continue their marathon journey.

“It’s absolutely minuscule, the time they actually spend resting,” Hedenström says.

Three of the birds never landed at all. Instead they spent their entire migration aloft, traveling more than 10,000 miles without rest. No other migratory bird — not even the tenacious frigate bird, which spends weeks on the wing during long ocean crossings — is known to spend so long in the sky.

Observing Evolution in Action

I found the the following article in the Washington Post fascinating.  These scientists working in the Galapagos have been able to observe the progress of evolution even during their own lifetimes.  Not only that, they have been able to associate the evolutionary change to the DNA that is responsible for it.  Darwin had to do his work without the benefit of the tools of genetic engineering.

http://wpo.st/IK8X1

CRISPR

How many of you have heard of CRISPR?   I gather from the Wikipedia article that it somehow holds the key to a gene editing technology that is relatively simple to implement compared to  older methods in this field.  Pioneers in this area of science include Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier.   This is mind-blowing stuff with many practical applications.   You can develop approaches to tackling diseases by modifying the DNA itself.  (Think of approaches to attacking cancer in the most efficient manner without having any of the current side-effects of such treatment.) You can easily modify the DNA of pests such as mosquitoes that spread diseases as a form of pest control.  You can easily modify the DNA of plants so that they are more useful to humans. You can easily modify the properties of microorganisms so that they are less dangerous to humans, and perhaps even do useful things for them.  The possibilities are endless, and therein lies the problem.

It is a fact that we human beings have played a very significant part in determining the nature of the lifeforms that exist on this planet today.  As a process of evolution, human beings have changed over the centuries, and we have also managed to impact a lot of the things around us that we find in “nature”.  If you think that all the meats and the fruits and vegetables that we buy in the grocery store are all “natural”, think again.  They have all taken the form they are today only because we as humans have managed to affect changes to the lifeforms that are the basis of our foods in a certain way to our benefit.  We have dominated the environment of our planet in this context.  In addition to the evolutionary changes that we have caused (sped up through the process of efficient “farming”), we have also been affecting faster and more deliberate genetic changes through science in the last century or so.  While we may not have looked at what we were doing with that perspective, we have always been playing God.  And while all of this is happening, there is this moment every once in a while when we momentarily pause to consider the ethical impact of what we are doing.

The pace is now about to pick up significantly!  With simpler technology for gene editing, we have the capability to move forward much faster.  Not only that, we have the ability to open up newer frontiers in science, and with that raise a bunch of new ethical questions.

Medicine has always been about trying to take care of the problems of human beings at all stages of life and very often regardless of the costs involved.  We have been successful in extending human life significantly (for what reason, one is not always sure).  We are all about trying to make sure that people are healthy and that we overcome any health issue with all the resources available.  With the new gene repair technology, having access to all of this can become only a matter of cost.  There are of course always ethical questions involved when cost enters the picture.

But the more intriguing ethical dilemma to me will be about the process of creating a life.  It seems that not only will will be able to fix problems after birth, but we may even be able to address them before we are born.  Wow!  For example, if there is a risk of Down’s syndrome in a baby, perhaps we can now do something about it very easily before the baby is born!  Now, we are really playing God.

I suspect that some people are going to be appalled by the ethical questions that are raised, as if we are crossing some barrier that must not be breached.  But truth we told, we have always been playing God, and we have always been willing to accept any science and technology that we feel is to our benefit.  Only now the pace of “progress” increases, and this progress continues relentlessly.  It is all a continuum and the barriers that are only in our minds will be hurdled over before too long.   Where we are headed, nobody really knows.  This process started a long time ago.

The really crazy thing about all of this is even as science and technology leads us fearlessly across new frontiers, we are still unable to address some other basic requirements for humanity to thrive.  We still have inequality in the world. We still have poverty and hunger.  Crazy!

Gravitational Waves

The video in this link describes in a simple manner the consequences of the  recently announced discovery of Gravitational Waves.  Their existence is final proof that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is correct.  It also potentially gives us a new tool for extending astronomical observations so that we can learn more about our universe.

This discovery of gravitational waves also conclusively proves that Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, that is used effectively in everyday physics even to this day is only an approximation.  This approximation can still be used since it works in almost real life cases that we experience. The application of this law begins to fall apart where there are very large gravitational fields present due to massive objects and short distances between objects.  (Approximations are not necessarily a bad thing so long as you recognize them as such, and also recognize their limitations.)

Einstein was the genius who could see things beyond the boundaries of the normal human experiences that are the basis of all of our perceptions.  He could then come up with universal laws in this regard, laws that are based on science that can be proved and not simply based on belief.  He was an amazing person.

It is fashionable these days in some circles to challenge the scientific approach and scientific results, and to label some of these as beliefs, as if the scientific process is akin to following a religion and a belief system.  Such an attitude only shows ignorance, and a laziness when it comes to trying to understand things.  This kind of attitude is unfortunately increasing in societies that are supposed to be advanced.  Check this comic strip out.  (I do not want to reproduce the strip in its entirely here for fear of violating copyright.)

 

 

 

The Anthropocene Epoch

The geological time-scale of Planet Earth is classified at the highest level in supereons,  the first of which was the Precambrian.   The supereons break down into eons, then further into eras, periods, and finally epochs.  We live in the Phanerozoic eon of a post-precambrian supereon (that apparently does not have an official name for it today).  According to the experts, we are officially in the Holocene epoch, which began about 11,700 years ago after the last major ice age.  (Interestingly enough, this period of time only represents less than a millionth of the history of the earth.)

Recently, the argument has been raised that we should consider ourselves to be in a new new epoch after the Holocene. This epoch should represent the period of time when the impact of human beings on the earth has become significant and non-reversible.  In the past, epochs were broken down based on times of geological change, but the argument is now being made that one should also consider environmental impacts.  Regarding human beings, these changes probably began to accelerate with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, and the rate of change has only increased since then.  While there is probably no exact moment in time that can be pinpointed as a “turning point”, it is clear that we now cannot turn back our impact on the planet.  (I have argued in the past that all changes take place over some period of time even if some of these changes seem to be instantaneous within the time-frames that we are familiar with.)

Even though it is not officially recognized, people are calling the current period of time in the earth’s history the Anthropocene epoch.

Here is an online presence for an organization dedicated to this concept.

Even the Smithsonian is modifying its exhibition space to devote resources to talking about the human impacts on the earth.

A fundamental theme in the consideration of the existence of a new epoch is that humans have finally managed to change the nature of the planet to the extent that  we cannot ignore our environmental impacts.  The destruction caused is irreversible.   It is a sad consequence of our progress, of our knowledge and technology, of our “civilization”.  What will the post-Anthropocene epoch look like when all is said and done?   Or perhaps we will all be destroyed by some cosmic event that we have no control over and none of this will matter in the long run.  I suppose the post-Anthropocene epoch could still happen due to other reasons.

http://www.explainthatstuff.com/land-pollution.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soil_contamination

http://www.explainthatstuff.com/waterpollution.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_pollution

http://www.explainthatstuff.com/air-pollution-introduction.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_pollution

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_garbage_patch

High on the Trail

Scientists used to believe that a runner’s high was due to the release of endorphins into the system, but it was never proved conclusively.  It appears that while there is an uptick of endorphins in the blood after exercise, there is a barrier to these endorphins being absorbed into the brain.  It might turn out that this state of mind is actually caused by the release of chemicals similar to those released into the body when smoking marijuana!  Nothing has been proved conclusively yet, but if humans were more like mice….

http://www.popsci.com/runners-high-looks-lot-like-smoking-weed-in-brain

Far out man!

Nobel Prize in Physics given for work done on Neutrinos

Check out this article from the BBC.

Here are a few bullets from the article describing these neutrinos.

******************************

The mysterious neutrino

  • Second most abundant particle in the Universe, after photons of light
  • Means ‘small neutral one’ in Italian; was first proposed by Wolfgang Pauli in 1930
  • Uncharged, and created in nuclear reactions and some radioactive decay chains
  • Shown to have a tiny mass, but hardly interacts with other particles of matter
  • Comes in three flavours, or types, referred to as muon, tau and electron
  • These flavours are able to oscillate – flip from one type to another – during flight

******************************

What is more interesting to me is the process that led to where we are today in terms of the discovery, study, and understanding of these particles.  The first hint of the existence of these particles was due to an anomaly in the math related to radioactive behavior that was observed in the 1930s.  Although the existence of the particle was proposed at that time, there was no proof in this regard. Over the years physicists were able to prove the real existence of these particles through actual observations, and then, over a further period of time, overcome some issues related to a more complete understanding of these particles.  It turns out that once they were able to observe neutrinos, they still could not  get the numbers to agree as to the quantity of these particles.  The physicists who got the Nobel prize were able to discover that these particles were changing flavors continuously, while the early processes for detecting the particles was only seeing one of these flavors.  This discovery was apparently only made in the early 2000s.  It finally all made sense, and apparently the fact that these particles can change flavors during flight also implies that they also have mass, a fact that was not known in the past.

Amazing stuff!  And I am sure that we are not done yet with our proper understanding of these particles.

It is wonderful to see the scientific process lead to discoveries like this that give us a better understanding of the world that we live in.  We still have a long way to go.

It is all about continuing to ask questions, and in persisting in the efforts to get the answers. Articles of faith can often turn out to be problematic.

Digital in an Analog World (March 21st, 2014)

The digital paradigm is a key element of the technology and general thinking that drives our civilization today.  Information sharing in the electronic domain is for the most part achieved by breaking the information down into discrete, i.e, digital, levels for transmission and processing (except for a few remaining exceptions).  What we may not realize is that we also tend to use the digital paradigm almost everywhere else in our lives, outside of the technology domain, and this often times is the trigger to many of the issues we have in the world.  We tend to make absolute determinations about situations when in fact there are” levels” or grades of explanations and understandings about the realities, and a resulting ambiguity with a lot of what happens in the world.  By using the term “levels” I have already assumed a digital mode of thought, by postulating that there are some thresholds involved in the thinking process, when in fact the range of ideas and opinions that are available is a continuously variable analog process.

There are examples everywhere.  Consider definitions  used in the political world. We tend to use categorizations such as democratic, dictatorship, capitalist, socialist, etc.,  when in fact there is almost always more variation and ambiguity in the definition of political systems of particular countries being talked about, and mixed approaches to governing and addressing national issues.  But given a choice, the world will tend to categorize and compartmentalize.  When you do not want to think, names can be substituted and can perhaps be used as a basis for conflict.  When you think about it, having nations with boundaries is a completely artificial digital concept in itself.

Social arguments also tend to follow the digital paradigm.  In many cases is no compromise on topics ranging from religion to human rights (including women’s rights).  We are the owners of the one truth, we set our thresholds at one extreme, we cannot (or we refuse to) empathize with the other side, we want to set the rules, there is no room for compromise, and we are divided because of this.  It could be argued that some categorization is needed to provide a structure in society, without which there would be chaos. The challenge is to do this in a way that works fairly for everybody involved so that consideration of variety, compromise, and ambiguity are part of the process.  Why is it that the only outcomes of a court of law are that of guilty and not guilty.  Surely there are situations which are not that clear cut.  But we hate ambiguity.

Take an practical example from everyday city life.  We have traffic lights that almost eliminate the need for drivers of automobiles to think when arriving at a traffic intersection. Then we have speed limits (and other rules of the road) that are meant for safety (as if you are completely safe below a particular speed, and completely unsafe above it).  Perhaps we need some of these absolute rules because we cannot be trusted to deal properly with situations that are ambiguous, where we need to make judgment calls.  But rules still do not eliminate danger.  We are still capable of killing ourselves and others on the road.  And rules can also applied in a manner that leads to inefficiencies, such as the need to sit at traffic intersections waiting for the light to change for long periods of time when there is no cross traffic at all. Do we set more levels and boundary conditions and rules for decision making, or should we be smarter about our interactions at a traffic intersection?  Or perhaps we create autonomous vehicles and try to program the vehicles to respond to any possible scenario that can be thought of.  Is this even possible?

Categorization does also provide us with a tool that can be used to simplify the teaching process.  For example, look up information about the height of the atmosphere.  You will find that it is defined as being layered, with names for the different layers. In fact the nature of the atmosphere continuously changes with height and there are no clear layers, nor is there a clear boundary between the atmosphere and outer space.  Creating layers makes it simpler to be organized and to talk a common language to get an idea across, but it is essentially a concept in our minds.  To truly understand something, perhaps you have to embrace  ambiguity.  Consider the geographical construct of a shoreline.  Assumptions are made about clear lines delineating the land from the water so that we can try to make measurements, when in fact the delineation could be extremely complex and could be described beautifully using the concept of fractals  Here are some great examples (including that of the shoreline). (I actually think that the concept of fractals is something that is intuitive and can be taught to kids.)

When the digital mode of thinking it taken to its extreme, any form of dissent, disagreement, and attempts to argue with the rules, is not allowed.   (You will also be failed in your exams. 🙂 ) Are there folks who will argue that it is a good thing?

Things can be ambiguous in physics.  The uncertainty principle asserts that one cannot accurately know the location and momentum of a particle at the same time.  We also learn in physics that light has properties of both particles and waveforms, and there are experiments to illustrate both behaviors.   But we most probably started out learning only one of the behaviors in a school environment because it was probably more intuitive and easy to explain that behavior.  It is more difficult to comprehend things when you start talking about the subtleties.

In the world of digital communications, we find that communications becomes more efficient if are able to define more levels (of modulation), but we also learn that creating these additional levels creates more uncertainty and requires much more powerful processing (error correction) to resolve the uncertainty, until at some point we can approach Shannons capacity limit for the maximum possible information transmission rate in a noisy channel.  Perhaps, there is a similar dynamic in play in our minds on other matters, where creating more levels of consideration may be considered equivalent to embracing more uncertainty, but the ability to deal with this uncertainty requires more powerful processing in our heads. Dealing with ambiguity can lead to better solutions but it is harder to do.

You might say that there are moments in time when change is instantaneous.  Death is instantaneous. A nuclear explosion happens instantly.  How about the Big Bang?  From a human experience today, is it always the case that the experience of real life ends at the moment of death.  What if you are incapacitated and incapable of doing or feeling anything while your heart is still beating?  Some people might feel that this is as good as being dead.  Who is to decide? Consider also that time frames tend to be relative, or that the concept of time is itself relative.  There is actually a process related to a phenomenon such as the Big Bang, or even  a nuclear reaction, and processes do take some time, even if that time might seem to be extremely short. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/18/science/space/detection-of-waves-in-space-buttresses-landmark-theory-of-big-bang.html)

Looking at the concept of time frames from a different angle, consider the fact that if one were to measure the lifetime of individual humans relative to the lifetime of the universe, our existence is of the order of the order of 1 out of about 100000000 units of time (if we live that long)!  Homo sapiens have only existed for much less than less than 1/10000th the lifetime of the universe, and “intelligent life” for much less than that. Our individual existences, and even the existence of humanity are but an instant if the observation is being made from a particular perspective.  But we think we know that our real lives are not instantaneous.  It all depends on your perspective.

We can use absolutes to get concepts across, to try to organize the workings of our human society, and perhaps even to find ways to move humanity forward (using whatever definition of humanity that works for us), but I think we are truly enlightened only if we are able to get even beyond these “absolutes” and wrap our heads around the reality of the ambiguity of almost everything, and incorporate this concept into the principles that we all individually live by.  Life is analog!

The article below is somewhat related.  The argument is being made that nothing is truly alive.  But I think the actual issue here is that we are trying to fit a digital concept of life and death into a world that is really analog.  It is a hard argument to make that life and death are not real for humans.
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/13/opinion/why-nothing-is-truly-alive.html?ref=opinion
(Even if you do not read the article, click through to this website to see something unique.)