Thursday, September 15, 2016
Sunday, September 06, 2015
Although this has been generally known for decades, the global will to do anything to counteract the trend of global warming has been, basically, a dismal failure. The Kyoto protocol, so celebrated in its time (back in the 1990s), was, with all its faults, a wonder of international diplomacy. Yet there were major national polluters who never adopted it at all and others who never acted within its principles in a serious fashion. And the reason for this is obvious. In a competitive world, to ask the nations of the world to voluntarily gear down on their economic engines, is wasted breath at best. Indeed, knowing a little bit about human behavior, it should be obvious that just asking the world to try to cut down on its energy use, is a strategy of minimal efficacy.
To my mind, it kind of like asking a severe diabetic to, y'know, try to cut down on the sweets. That strategy might work on a minority of well-motivated patients, but will far and large be an abject failure. Global warming is just like many modern human diseases - they are problems stemming from human behavior. Granted, they could be fixed by simply changing people's behavior, but that just ain't going to happen. I think that continuing to harp on trying to reduce carbon emissions are well intentioned, but just are not going to cut it. The world's appetite will not slake and the CO2 will continue to rise.
So, why aren't we trying other things? There are plenty of drugs that exist which treat and control diabetes, heck there are even surgeries which may even offer a cure. Sure, most type-2 diabetes is caused by human behavior, but so what? We can treat it by intervening in other ways. Can the same be said about global warming?
Yes! The issue is not that humans are releasing too much CO2 into the atmosphere. The issue is that it stays there and causing too much warming. But there are things we can actively do which can pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and put it in safe places. This is little different from pulling sugar out of the bloodstream and putting it back into cells where it's safe. For one, a major carbon sink are the world's forests. When trees grow they grab carbon from the air and use it to grow. Granted, stopping active deforestation is the simplest and cheapest way to maintain this carbon sink, but the world could also be actively reforesting millions of acres of unused flatlands. It's so simple, but adding millions of trees to our world would be awesome for our ecology, biodiversity and would suck in billions of tons of CO2 from our atmosphere. Why is this not already being done?
Iron is an excellent fertilizer for ocean algae. With carefully selected ocean sites, we could be dropping tons of cheap iron particles which would create huge algae blooms with loads of carbon dioxide stuck within it. The algae would eventually die and then sink to the ocean floor, taking all of that carbon down with it. This literal carbon sink could keep the carbon safely out of the atmosphere for millennia. There are numerous other hypothesized mechanisms to trap carbon out of our atmosphere. Some are higher tech and may cost more, but are still worth considering. I don't need to list all of them here. If you are truly interested, the internet is available to all for perusal.
Now, managing the carbon is just one side of the equation. The other major variable is simply the heat itself. Even if atmospheric carbon levels remained unchanged, is there something we can do that would cool the Earth? Of course! What killed the dinosaurs? Global climate change set off by a meteorite which on impact released huge amounts of dust into the atmosphere which blocked the Sun's rays and cooled the Earth. It's also been shown that the release of sulfate compounds from volcanic eruptions cause climatic cooling effects. Could this be done artificially? Sure. There have even been more imaginative proposals to modify sunlight by placing mirrors or lenses in orbit.
The bottom line is that global warming is happening. The best solution would be to cut down on our emissions, but that just ain't gonna happen - and even if it did, it's probably too late. The next best thing is to make some alternative interventions. Like in medicine, there may be side effects, but I'd rather brave those than to just allowing global warming to happen.
[Plus, keep an eye on this venture. It's the most reasonable engineered mechanism for fusion power that I have yet to see.]
Friday, June 19, 2015
Interesting project and so clearly to be the food of the future. Making meat and animal byproducts like milk in the lab has clear benefits in the long run in simple terms like financial costs and environmental preservation. It'll just be quicker and easier with better quality control to make this stuff in vitro than with actual animals. With advances in food science what they produce may be indistinguishable from the natural version. It also has the added benefit of limiting the cruelty to animals, which is an endemic problem in modern factory farming. In the future it will be bizarre and backwards to eat something that comes from actual, unsanitary animals.
But besides all the above benefits, what will it do to the kosher food industry? Is it meaningful to talk about the kashrut of single cells or the byproducts of micro-organisms? If the whole world will be eating foods made from GMO bacteria or yeast - what exactly would ever not be kosher?
Perhaps it is in this way that the midrash about pigs one day becoming kosher will actually come true.
Sunday, June 14, 2015
Sunday, June 07, 2015
Friday, June 05, 2015
Sunday, May 31, 2015
This is my favorite modern Jewish philosopher this week: Samuel Lebens. I came across his work actually by accident just recently, but what I've seen so far appears intriguing. [It doesn't hurt that he kind of looks like Ted Mosby and has a great English accent.] I thought it was worth sharing, especially given the paucity of jblog material lately.
He also has separate paper which I found rather interesting about the epistemology of religious experience, which I quote below:
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Friday, February 21, 2014
Since my last post, I've gotten married, I now have a year and a half year old son and have been working hard in my surgical residency - which I am just now starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Suffice it to say that my recent life has seriously curtailed my elective reading.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. I liked the book for the most part. Besides for one odd chapter where he seem to tangentially go off on Francis Collins, Sam Harris does a good job defending the concept of a secular objective basis for morality. He does this by identifying the common values of humanity being human flourishing and wellbeing and that there are acts and social policies, etc, that objectively either progress or regress on those goals. Morality is then that which moves us towards greater human wellbeing; immorality that which moves us further from it.
Here's Harris giving the general argument in a TED talk:
It also helps that before my hiatus I had made some very similar arguments on my own. Much of my discussions were found on the now defunct blog of XGH, but as I wrote in the comments of this blogger post from 2009:
"Morals are made in response to human nature and the human condition - objective facts. People may disagree on methods and mechanisms but the goals are always to do what is in the best interests of man. And unless you believe all interests are equally rational and valid, i.e. to eat an apple is as valid a choice as is swallowing a gallon on bleach, then you must recognize a hierarchy of objectively correct decisions: that some acts, some moral codes, make more sense than others. The value of human life makes sense whereas it's non-value is self-defeating.
With that recognition and the assumed goal that rules be made to lead to the best interests of man then it becomes potentially able to be studied scientifically - objectively. Does a given moral in a given society lead to the wellbeing of man in that society? By the mere process of evolution of human civilization, we have already learned how a great deal of once-idealized moral behavior is in fact counterproductive."
Of course different people can converge on similar ideas, but it makes you wonder if Harris was a Jblog fan himself...
Wednesday, June 09, 2010
What Happened Before the Big Bang?
By Paul Davies
It is often said that science cannot prove the existence of God. Yet science does have value in theological debate because it gives us new concepts that sometimes make popular notions of God untenable. One of these concerns the nature of time.
Many people envisage God as a sort of cosmic magician who existed for all eternity and then, at some moment in the past, created the universe in a gigantic supernatural act. Unfortunately, this scenario raises some awkward questions. What was God doing before he created the universe? If God is a perfect, unchanging being, what prompted him to act then rather than sooner?
The fifth-century theologian St. Augustine neatly solved the problem by proclaiming that the world was made with time and not in time. In other words, time itself is part of God's creation.
To make sense of Augustine's concept, it is necessary to place God outside of time altogether, and the notion of a timeless Deity became official church doctrine. However, it is not without its own difficulties. How can a timeless God be involved with temporal events in the universe, such as entering into human history through the Incarnation?
Today, religious people like to identify the creation with the Big Bang of scientific cosmology. So what can we say about the nature of time in the scientific picture?
Albert Einstein showed us that time and space are part of the physical world, just as much as matter and energy. Indeed, time can be manipulated in the laboratory. Dramatic time warps occur, for example, when subatomic particles are accelerated to near the speed of light. Black holes stretch time by an infinite amount. It is therefore wrong to think of time as simply "there," as a universal, eternal backdrop to existence. So a complete theory of the universe needs to explain not only how matter and energy came to exist, it must also explain the origin of time.
Happily, Einstein's theory of relativity is up to the job. It predicts a so-called "singularity" at which time abruptly starts. In the standard Big Bang scenario, time and space come into being spontaneously at such a singularity, along with matter.
People often ask, What happened before the Big Bang? The answer is, Nothing.
By this, I do not mean that there was a state of nothingness, pregnant with creative power. There was nothing before the Big Bang because there was no such epoch as "before." As Stephen Hawking has remarked, asking what happened before the Big Bang is rather like asking what lies north of the North Pole. The answer, once again, is nothing, not because there exists a mysterious Land of Nothing there but because there is no such place as north of the North Pole. Similarly, there is no such time as "before the Big Bang."
Of course, one can still ask why a universe popped into existence this way. Cosmologists believe the answer lies with the weird properties of quantum mechanics, a topic beyond the scope of this essay.
We can now see that Augustine was right, and popular religion wrong, to envisage God as a superbeing dwelling within the stream of time prior to the creation. Professional theologians acknowledge this. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) does not mean God pushing a metaphysical button and making a Big Bang, then sitting back to watch the action. It means God sustaining the existence of the universe, and its laws, at all times, from a location outside of space and time.
Can science give any credibility to such a notion? Mostly, scientists either are atheists or keep God in a separate mental compartment. However, there is a strong parallel in the scientific concept of the laws of nature. Like the theologians' God, these laws enjoy an abstract, timeless existence and are capable of bringing the universe into being from nothing. But where do they come from? And why do these laws exist rather than some different set?
Science is based on the assumption that the universe is thoroughly rational and logical at all levels. Miracles are not allowed. This implies that there should be reasons for the particular laws of nature that regulate the physical universe. Atheists claim that the laws exist reasonlessly and that the universe is ultimately absurd. As a scientist, I find this hard to accept. There must be an unchanging rational ground in which the logical, orderly nature of the universe is rooted. Is this rational ground like the timeless God of Augustine? Perhaps it is. But in any case, the law-like basis of the universe seems a more fruitful place for a dialogue between science and theology than focusing on the origin of the universe and the discredited notion of what happened before the Big Bang.