This blog is no longer being updated. About this blog.

Five Things

The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.—Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Before I get down to the usual business, I want to respond to this idea because I’ve heard it several times in various places. I feel and express gratitude all the time. Since losing my belief in God, I haven’t been at a loss for people to thank.

I’m thankful to my parents for giving me life (and to their parents who gave them life, and so on).

I’m grateful for my wife who threw her lot in with me and risked her life to bear and raise children with me.

I’m grateful for all the innovators in science, technology, and the arts who have made my modern life of relative health, comfort, and ease possible.

I’m grateful for the groundskeepers who provide the uplifting environs where I work.

Even when I can’t find a person to thank for something (e.g. the warming light of the sun or the naked fact of our existence), I don’t miss being able to thank someone. I feel grateful—and incredibly fortunate—just the same.

This sense of gratitude without someone to thank may represent an improvement: I no longer suffer the temptation to imagine that I deserve the good things I enjoy by being faithful to God. And if I don’t deserve what I have, then all the more reason to share it with those who deserve it just as much as I.

With all due respect to Mr. Rossetti, he should have avoided offering witticisms about something that he apparently lacks experience of.

Oh, and by my count, that’s five things plus one.

Tags: , , , , ,

Comments (2)

To Reward or Not To Reward

I never tell my daughters “Good job!” or “You’re so smart!”

Am I a bad parent?

Instead of giving bland, meaningless praise, I prefer to say things like “That really looks like an elephant!” or “You’ve learned the alphabet!” so that we can celebrate their successes together. They learn to take satisfaction in what they do for its own sake rather than as a means to earn my praise. Being labeled smart as a child wasn’t an unqualified good in my life. It would have done me more good to learn to enjoy the fruits of achievement.

The New York Times has an interesting article about the current debate about whether rewarding children helps modify behavior in the long run. Rewards often work in the short term, but children seem to revert (or digress) once rewards are no longer forthcoming.

You can tell what I believe about rewards. We’ll see what the science has to say.

Tags: , , , ,

Comments off

Lamarck Was Right?!

Epigenetics has fascinating implications. Maybe Lamarck was right, at least a little bit.

Tags: , , ,

Comments (3)

Cosmic Calendar: Big Bang

Big Bang—1 January, 12:00 midnight

In its beginning, everything was a single point. This cosmic womb nurtured everything before it came to be. Every star; every planet; every flower; every lion, tiger, or bear; every Mozart, Einstein, or Madonna; every banana split, parfait, or brownie à la mode; every Illiad, I-Ching, or Bible; every hatred, joy, or love; every thing lay dormant within this primordial point. This is the story of how that point became our world, became us. This is our story.

According to current theory, all of what currently makes up the universe was packed into a space no larger than an atom. It doesn’t make sense to ask what was outside that point because even space was curled up inside this cosmic egg. It’s kind of like asking what’s north of the North Pole. Nor does it make sense to ask what happened before the point began to expand billions of years ago because time began its flow with the expansion. Our universe began in the in what is known as the Big Bang.

There was neither non-existence nor existence then. There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottlemlessly deep?

There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day. That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond.

Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning, with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that One arose through the power of heat.

Desire came upon that One in the beginning, that was the first seed of mind. Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom found the bond of existence and non-existence.

Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers, there were powers. There was impulse beneath, there was giving forth above.

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen—perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not – the One who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only He knows or perhaps He does not know. (Nāsadīya Sukta, Rigveda)

Planck Epoch: We really don’t know what was happening in the first instant of the Big Bang 13,700 million years ago (Mya). The laws of physics as we know them break down during the Planck Epoch, the first 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang.1 This notation means one tenth multiplied by itself 43 times, or put another way, 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 1, an extremely, extremely small number. According to one theory, the universe was about 10-35 meters across.2 Because all of the matter and energy of the universe were packed into such a small space, it was also ludicrously hot: 1032 degrees Celsius. This notation means 10 multiplied by itself 32 times, or 100 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000.3

It is impossible to fully comprehend how extremely small the universe was. To try, imagine a young child about one meter tall who holds in their cupped hand a sphere that is 10-35 meters across. Actually, the sphere is so small that the child’s hand would appear empty. Now, stretch the child and the sphere until the child is as tall as the diameter of the universe that we can currently see. Light travels very fast—186,000 miles per second—but it would take 93 billion years for light to travel from the child’s head to its foot. The sphere has stretched too, but if we were cradled in the child’s gigantic hand, the expanded sphere would still be too small for us to see. It would still only be a few atoms wide. This is unimaginably small.

Just as the universe was incomprehensibly small, the temperature was incomprehensibly large. For comparison, the core of our sun is only 107 degrees Celsius (i.e. 10,000,000 degrees). Multiply the heat of the sun by ten million. Hellish, we might be tempted to call it. Now multiply that hellish temperature by another million. And do it again. And again. And again. That is wicked hot!

All of the fundamental forces which govern our universe—gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces—were equally strong and acted as one during the Planck Epoch. Today, gravity attracts all matter together and is the force that keeps the Earth circling the Sun and our feet firmly planted on the ground. The electromagnetic force governs light and magnetism. It makes radio, television, and cell phones possible and it holds our atoms together. The nuclear forces govern interactions within the nucleus of atoms. In the beginning, they were a single force.

Grand Unification Epoch: At the end of the Planck Epoch, an unimaginably small moment in time, this symmetry broke and gravity became weaker, separating itself from the other forces. (Please refer to the time line.)

As the universe expanded, it cooled down. But at this early stage immediately after the symmetry of universal forces was broken, the universe was still incredibly hot: 1027 degrees Celsius.

The Grand Unification Epoch is so named because the nuclear forces and the electromagnetic force were still unified in a single force called the electronuclear force. This epoch ended 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang when the strong force broke away from the others.

Electroweak Epoch: When the strong force separated from the others, the universe had cooled to about 1015 degrees Celsius and began a period of incredible expansion known as cosmic inflation. Its diameter increased in size by a factor of about 1026 in a small fraction of a second: by the end of this epoch something that had been the size of a millimeter grew to dwarf the Milky Way galaxy. Elementary particles were stretched to cosmic sizes, all within 10-32 seconds. Big Bang indeed.

Quark Epoch: This period began 10-12 seconds after the Big Bang when the electromagnetic and weak forces separated themselves and the four fundamental forces took their present form. The universe had cooled enough that subatomic quarks and gluons—the basic building blocks of matter—could condense out of its roiling energy. The universe was still too hot, however, for quarks to bind to each other to form neutrons and protons.

Hadron Epoch: One microsecond after the Big Bang, the universe had cooled enough to allow quarks to form hadrons such as protons and neutrons, the building blocks of the nuclei of all atoms. A nearly equal number of particles and anti-particles were forged from quarks in the primordial furnace. Particles and anti-particles have an explosive relationship. When they collide, both are annihilated in an explosion that releases tremendous energy. At this point, any hadrons that were destroyed in this way were replaced by others that were created in the heat of the early universe.

The universe continued to cool, reaching the point where hadrons were no longer being created. Most of the particles and anti-particles soon destroyed each other. When the figurative smoke cleared, all of the anti-hadrons were destroyed, but a small number of hadrons were left over. You and I and everything we see are partly made of those leftover hadrons. We exist because of an imbalance in particle/anti-particle destruction.

Lepton Epoch: One second after the Big Bang when most of the hadrons and anti-hadrons had destroyed each other, leptons (such as the familiar electrons) dominated the mass of the universe. The universe was still creating pairs of leptons and anti-leptons until three seconds after the Big Bang. In a now familiar story, most of the leptons and anti-leptons destroyed each other, but a small residue of leptons survived (to later create atoms later in the story).

Photon Epoch: After most of the pairs of leptons and anti-leptons had destroyed each other, photons—particles of light—made up most of the energy in the universe. Photons were still being scattered by electrons. The universe was therefore opaque: light couldn’t shine through the thick soup of scattering particles. Protons and neutrons began to form small atomic nuclei (e.g. helium, lithium, and beryllium).

Matter Domination—1 January, 12:03 AM

70,000 years after the Big Bang (3 minutes at the scale of the Cosmic Calendar), the amount of what we would call matter had grown to become equal to the amount of radiation (e.g. light) in the universe.

Recombination and Dark Ages—1 January 12:16 AM

Up to about 379,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe was filled with a plasma. In other words, the electrons were racing around unattached to atomic nuclei (contrary to our normal experience). It was just too hot for electrons to settle down. Lightning and the sun are two common examples of plasmas. Light is scattered by plasma, so light couldn’t travel very far in a straight line in the early universe. You could say that visibility was practically zero. If you were alive then (and could manage to stay alive), you wouldn’t be able to see the end of your nose.

After 379,000 years, the universe had cooled enough to allow atomic nuclei to capture electrons and form true atoms such as hydrogen and helium. The fancy name for this is recombination. This freed the light that had been held captive by the universal plasma. The universe became transparent; visibility was no longer zero. The consequent burst of light as the universe became transparent is known as the cosmic microwave background.

After the release of photons, the universe was plunged into darkness. No new light was being generated. This was the beginning of the Dark Ages.

Observance Ideas

  • Watch a fireworks show at the stroke of midnight and think about cosmology.
  • Make your own big bang (wink wink) at midnight… while thinking about cosmology.

Further Study

A Brief History of Time by Stephen W. Hawking

The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen W. Hawking

Born With a Bang by Jennifer Morgan

Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman

QED by RichardFeynman

  1. This unit period of time is known as a Planck time after Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory. []
  2. A unit of length known as the Planck length. []
  3. A unit of temperature known as the Planck temperature. Note that I use the Celsius scale because it is more familiar than the Kelvin scale to most readers. Even though the Kelvin scale is technically more correct, at these temperatures the difference is negligible anyway. []

Tags: , , , , ,

Comments (11)

Cosmic Calendar: Introduction

I’m a sucker for a good story, and modern science has a fascinating story to tell. Only recently have I begun to wholeheartedly listen to its story. And call me self-centered, but I love stories about me. I love to hear about my past and how I came into the world. Further, a childlike curiosity drives me to understand why the world is the way it is. Science has a barn burner of a story.

The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.—Steven Weinberg

In recent centuries, we have teased out fragments of our origin story, a tale strange and vast. It is inextricably bound to the story of the origin of the universe, for the universe gave birth to us. If its story had been different, we would be different—if we existed at all. The story occurs on a timescale that is almost beyond human comprehension. We have become accustomed to think of history as a few thousand years after we learned to write, or perhaps a few million years beyond that. Perhaps the dinosaurs seem like deep history. This utterly pales in comparison to the real story. Human history is only the smallest part of the story. Even dinosaurs or callow newcomers on the universal stage. Words fail (as they often do) to convey understanding. I want to experience this story for myself, to get a small taste of the true proportions of history.

One way we have experienced our stories in the past is through rituals and festivals marked out on a calendar. Early calendars made sense of the yearly rhyme of season and flood. Within the yearly cycle, we placed holy days commemorating important events, important gods, rites of initiation, and the world’s mythic creation. The yearly repetition increased our connection to our world and imparted a sense of continuity to our lives.

Someone’s genius guided them to combine the great story of science with the calendar. The premise of the remix is simple: take the history of the universe from its beginning to the present day and condense it to the span of a single year. Mark milestones in the history of the universe on the calendar as they happen at that reduced scale.

I first saw Carl Sagan present the Cosmic Calendar as part of his wonderful Cosmos series.1 I loved flying with him as a child in his ship of the imagination. He introduced me to the beautiful and fascinating world around me as seen through the curious, playful, shrewd eyes of scientific inquiry. His Cosmic Calendar is an excellent example of how thought provoking he was as a educator. He is missed.

He presents the Cosmic Calendar masterfully and humanely, and it still inspires me. Scientific understanding has progressed since he recorded that program. For example, scientific consensus tells us that the universe is most likely to be about 13.7 billion years old rather than 15 billion, and the Milky Way is thought to have formed much earlier than Sagan stated.

I have decided to update and extend the original Cosmic Calendar and to to follow the Cosmic Calendar for a year. Rather than just reading about our history, I wanted to experience it in a modern ritual. It’s one thing to read about something or see it illustrated in a diagram; it’s another thing entirely to experience the long year and watch as milestones pass by. When something happens on the Cosmic Calendar, I’ll post about it and give some background, maybe suggesting some places to investigate further or ways to observe the holiday.

At the time scale of a revised Cosmic Calendar:

1 year = 13.7 billion years
1 month ≈ 1.1 billion years
1 day = 37.5 million years
1 hour = 1.5 million years
1 minute = 26,000 years
1 second = 434 years
0.16 seconds ≈ 1 modern human lifetime

I can’t get over the fact that my life is literally less than a blink of the eye on the Cosmic Calendar. How ephemeral am I! While I am saddened by the relatively short duration of my life, I am awestruck by the vastness of time.

If you would like to follow along, it may help to subscribe to my version of the Cosmic Calendar (XML or iCal).2

Caveat lector

I am not an expert on any of the materials included in the calendar, only an interested layman. It is highly likely that I will make mistakes in compiling the calendar. I will cite my sources—too many from Wikipedia I suspect—and endeavor to improve the calendar as time goes on.

Also note that science operates on consensus. The corollary to that is there will always be disagreement at the limits of science. I have tried to harmonize any conflicting information that I have found, but in the hands of a hobbyist, the nuances of the scientific debate is sure to get mangled.

I could have renamed this the Human Advent Calendar because this is the story of our coming into the world. It begins to answer the questions “Who am I?” and “Where did I come from?” from a human perspective. It may be self-centered, but as I said, I like stories about me. However, this shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of the idea that homo sapiens is the culmination of creation. It seems perfectly clear that we are just another wayfarer in the epic tale of this universe. The rest of the universe has just as much claim as we to the title of center of the universe.

As a last warning, science moves on. This calendar, even where it fairly represents current scientific understanding, should not be taken as dogma. If new data come in that conflict with the calendar, out with the old, in with the new; no regrets.

Further Study

Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History by David Christian

The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang until Today by Fred Spier

Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present by Cynthia Stokes Brown

Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity (lectures) by David Christian

  1. It was also published in his book The Dragons of Eden. []
  2. Anyone who wants to verify my dates can check the source code for the script I wrote just for this purpose. I sometimes used a calculator and a day-of-year table as a sanity check. []

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Comments (1)

← Previous entries Next Page » Next Page »