Mess of Pottage Blog

Luke's "Pro" Blog

More on Thanksgiving

I wrote about thankfulness a while back, but I hadn’t seen this piece from the New York Times about the health benefits associated with gratitude:

Compared with a control group, the people keeping the gratitude journal were more optimistic and felt happier. They reported fewer physical problems and spent more time working out.

Further benefits were observed in a study of polio survivors and other people with neuromuscular problems. The ones who kept a gratitude journal reported feeling happier and more optimistic than those in a control group, and these reports were corroborated by observations from their spouses. These grateful people also fell asleep more quickly at night, slept longer and woke up feeling more refreshed.

Think about that: the Bible tells you to do something that will make you more optimistic and feel happier, that will help you get to sleep quicker, sleep longer, and wake up feeling more refreshed!

That’s in the Bible! It’s not just about drudgery imposed on us by a mean-spirited cosmic killjoy. In fact, it’s almost like our heavenly Father knows how to give good gifts.

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Breathtaking

This is beautiful:

It’s the galaxy cluster Abell 2744, and it appears to be the collision of four separate clusters of galaxies. Clusters are the largest gravitationally-bound structures in the universe. That means that galaxies are bound by gravity into groups, and groups into clusters, but clusters aren’t bound do anything bigger than themselves. Our minds boggle at the size of our own stellar neighborhood, much less our galaxy, and beyond that it’s just zeroes. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,” said the Psalmist. “The night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

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People Really Are Different

This is pretty neat.

Police dogs can distinguish identical twins

In twelve trials per dog, none of them ever identified the wrong twin as a match, … even though the children lived in the same home, ate the same food, and had identical DNA. No word yet on whether these dogs will be getting their own CSI spinoff.

What is it that dogs use to tell us apart? Why would our scent be different from that of someone with the same DNA raised in the same environment? Is it nature, or nurture? Or something else entirely?

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Do You Have Free Will? I Hope So!

John Tierney blogs about free will in the Science section of Monday’s New York Times. He’s coming from a non-religious scientific point of view, but here’s the takeaway:

… [people] pragmatically intuit that regardless of whether free will exists, our society depends on everyone’s believing it does. The benefits of this belief have been demonstrated in other research showing that when people doubt free will, they do worse at their jobs and are less honest.

Tierney summarizes some of that research, which shows that determinists are quicker to cheat than people who believe in free will.

However, I would have liked Tierney to address another concern: the presupposition that the universe is deterministic. Is that what scientists think? I was under the impression scientists had identified non-deterministic phenomena in the universe, like radioactive decay. While you can determine the half-life of a radioactive isotope, you can’t predict when an individual atom of that material will decay. Is that deterministic? In other words, if you could wind the universe up again and start over from the same initial state, would those atoms all decay at exactly the same moment they did the first time? If so, wouldn’t that be prediction?

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More Stars, Types of Life, Than Previously Thought

Today’s New York Times had not one but two interesting science articles.

The first is the discovery of a new type of bacteria in Mono Lake not far from here in California. What makes it unique (compared to every other type of life on earth) is that it has DNA, but the “ladder” structure of the helix is formed using atoms of arsenic instead of the phosphorus used in the DNA in you and me and whatever we had for dinner. This is truly amazing, and raises profound questions about evolution. What does it mean that a nontrivial molecule like DNA can either (a) evolve twice, or (b) evolve once, but then survive such a profound alteration? (Interestingly, one of the scientists involved is Paul Davies, who won the Templeton Prize in 1995.)

The second interesting article is a reassessment of the number of stars in the universe. I’m always fascinated by this sort of thing, even when it’s just pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. But consider this for a moment:

“We may have to abandon this notion of using the Milky Way as a template for the rest of the universe,” Dr. van Dokkum said.

Ouch! That had to smart. Copernicus proposed that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the reverse. Since then, it’s been a matter of (ahem) faith among scientists that there’s nothing at all exceptional about us or our place in the universe. But we keep finding exceptions to that rule.

Updated (Dec. 10): apparently there are serious flaws in the study that purported to find evidence of arsenic-based DNA. I tried to read Rosie Redfield’s article, but about halfway down the page it got too dense for me to understand. There’s a point waiting to be made here about the responsibility of the science press not to hype things until they’ve been subjected to proper peer review, because people like me just aren’t as scientific as Rosie Redfield and Paul Davies.

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Starry Nights in Yucca Valley

Today is the Starry Nights festival in Yucca Valley, and it has been a beautiful night for stargazing. After going to one of the talks this afternoon, we went to the digital-astronomy presentation tonight at the community center. That was so much fun we came home and did some more stargazing from our front yard. Jupiter is gorgeous, and with my binoculars, I saw one of the Galilean satellites. The Milky Way was gorgeous, too, and cut right through the summer triangle. What a privilege it is to live in a place where you can see these things!

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
  and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Psalm 19:1

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From Dream to Waking

I read this today:

I am certain that in passing from the scientific points of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

It’s from an essay, “Is Theology Poetry?” by C.S. Lewis.

Wow.

As it happens, I’m also reading Paul Davies’ Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life, which I thought was about the Cosmological Anthropic Principle. But it turns out it’s more meta than that. (Or maybe the Anthropic Principle is that meta.) Anyway, one of the interesting conclusions I’ve drawn by the halfway point is that science really can’t fit itself in. Science can explain all kinds of things in the world, but it doesn’t seem able to explain itself.

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