Dark Energy or God?

We've known for a century that the universe is expanding. We've known for just over a decade, that not only is it expanding but that the expansion is accelerating - at least that's what observations seem to be telling us. The Big Bang theory was sufficient to account for simple expansion, but to have accelerated expansion, there must be something more, something we have called Dark Energy. While the name is ominous, it seemed to be nothing more than adding a correction to Einstein's equations of General Relativity, akin to adding an exertion of pressure which happens to get larger as the density of the universe decreases.

However, a new model published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)(abstract free, article free after a few months past publication date), proposes a "simpler" explanation: that we are in the midst of a density wave caused by the Big Bang. As often happens with modern physics theories, the concept is not so easy to visualize, even though the equations work out. Essentially, it boils down to where and when galaxies form in high and low energy densities. If the Milky Way forms in the center of a low-density trough, distant galaxies will be forming at higher-density peaks. The outward expanding wave will 'push' these galaxies away from us with a rate of expansion that appears to be accelerating.

This theory had been proposed early on as a means of explaining away dark energy, but the PNAS article is the first time equations have been solved to show that the theory can be made consistent with observation.

The biggest criticism so far is that, for the theory to hold water, we (the observer) must be in the center of the density wave. The density wave is like the outward expanding wave we see from a pebble being dropped into the pond. We might think of the Big Bang as the pebble - the source of the ripples in space and time. However, the observer must be at the center of the ripples in order for observations to be consistent. That is, in the simplest case, the Milky Way galaxy must have formed right at the center of the Big Bang. This, of course, runs counter to all the lessons we've learned in the past which tell us there is nothing special about our location in time and space. It would be an extreme coincidence for us lowly observers to inhabit the most "special" place in the universe - which naturally leads one to believe that there is purpose behind all this. In other words, taking the theory in the most simple case is an argument for God or some intelligent design agent.

To be fair, the authors say that there may have been multiple ripples with different locations throughout the universe and we may be at one of these minor sources. And they aren't saying this is truth - only that this theory may be an explanation. I, however, have no doubt that this will be quickly latched onto by believers as further "scientific evidence" for the existence of God. They will quickly abandon whatever interpretations and creative constructs they've developed from their reading of the bible to find new passages that support humans as the center of all creation. They will ignore the possibility of existences in some lowly side ripple - what's the point in that? They will ignore that the theory isn't even fully vetted. As a model, it has to explain many other observed characteristics of the universe - not just accelerated expansion.

I, for one, am grabbing the popcorn and ready to watch them spin.

Other sources:
National Geographic
USA Today


ScienceDaily Headline Gives More Ammo to the ID Crowd

Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute has been going around hawking he new book, Signature In The Cell, torturing analogies as needed to support Intelligent Design. For instance, he claims the cell has information storage scheme similar to the files and folders we use on computers today. Now, ScienceDaily News gives Meyer a juicy headline, seemingly made just for him:
Scientists Find Early Evolution Maximized The 'Spellchecking' Of Protein Sequences
As letters of the alphabet spell out words, when amino acids are linked to one another in a particular order they "spell out" proteins. But sometimes the cell machinery for building proteins in our bodies makes a mistake and the wrong amino acid is inserted. The consequences can be devastating, resulting in a garbled protein that no longer has the correct function, possibly leading to cancers and other diseases.

Such is the risk when trying to make complex subjects more accessible to the public.

P.Z. Myers Rides A Dinosaur!

P.Z. Myers and some 250 atheists visited the Creation Museum yesterday. I'm looking forward to his take. While no live blogging took place, you can find the various twitters here and more photos of the event here.

@PZMyers rides the infamous triceratops! #creozerg on Twitpic

More links to visit:
Expelled from the Creation “Museum”
A little taste of the strangeness
Creation Museum Highlight
Photos from the trip
Secular Student Alliance Conference and Creation “Museum” Trip: After the Visit
Atheists Invade Creation Museum
PZ Myers and Hemant Mehta at the Creation Museum

CreoZerg! PZ Myers and 285 Atheists Visit Creation Museum
Quick Random thoughts on the Creation Museum
The Creation Museum visit
Pharyngulates at the Creation Museum
I CreoZerg’d all day today
I Went to CreoZerg
Makul insanlar yaratılışçı müze gezisinde


HuffPo Rips Into Dembski

Barrett Brown, author of Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny, can be found on the Huffington Post ripping into ID proponetist William Dembski:
Consider William Dembski, the mathematician and theologian who rose to the top of the nascent intelligent design pack in the late '90s after claiming to have proven that certain aspects of biology can be attributable only to the intervention of one or more intelligent entities. As for who or what those entities might be, Dembski is coy when addressing a potentially secular audience, claiming that there "are many possibilities." Among these possibilities, we may determine, is that Dembski is lying; in a 1999 interview with the Christian magazine Touchstone, Dembski stated unambiguously that "[i]ntelligent design is just the Logos theology of John's Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory."
More rips here.


Mass Hysteria of 2009

Throughout the U.S., democrat Representatives are being assailed at their town-hall meetings by organized groups of angry conservatives. Like the closet confederates who could never concede they had lost the civil war, these citizens are still in denial that their party has lost the election - and lost it in a big way, at that. The base of the republican party is now exhibiting signs of mass hysteria, similar to the Dancing Plague of 1518. If you don't like 'mass hysteria', how about mass psychogenic illness, collective obsessional disorder, or collective hysteria? These are described as
...the sociopsychological phenomenon of the manifestation of the same or similar hysterical symptoms by more than one person. A common manifestation of mass hysteria occurs when a group of people believe they are suffering from a similar disease or ailment.
Symptoms first start appearing following a period of stress, as when a black man finally becomes president of the United States. These symptoms include manifestations of conspiracy theories - like the President is not a U.S. citizen, he is leading the country into socialism, he wants to kill your grandma, and he wants to take your guns away, among many others. None of these have any basis in fact, yet talking heads like Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck foster and perpetuate these myths. Corporate lobbyists also create campaigns to organize so-called 'grass roots' movements, loosely known as the 'tea-baggers'. Besides buying and hording guns at an unprecedented pace, these groups are descending onto local town-hall meetings with the sole purpose of disrupting the events by shouting down their elected representatives. Although a minority, they have been successful at gaining media attention. Their manic hysteria is cheered on by the conservative talking heads in an endless feedback loop.

But is it just the extreme right wing of the republicans suffering from this illness? From the title of a Politico article, Town hall trouble from both sides now, you might think democrats are also joining in with the rabble republicans. The article quickly clears up the misconception, though the headline is clearly misleading:
But Democrats — especially those who have expressed anything less than full-blown support for the legislation before Congress — are getting back-home pressure from the left, too.

It’s just usually a bit more civil.

On Tuesday, about two dozen activists gathered in front of Democratic Rep. Eric Massa’s office in Pittsford, N.Y., to deliver close to 5,000 petitions from New York voters urging him to support the House health care bill.
Obviously, the democrats are operating from a more traditional playbook on conducting protests, one that tells them to leave their pitchforks and torches at home. The behavior from the right, however, is increasingly uncivil and irrational, to the point that one democrat congressman has been threatened that he may lose his life over the health care bill.

While saner voices on the right still exist (example), their audiences are smaller and they are easily shouted down by 'right wing opinion media' (which is about as respectful as I can be to them). These demagogues rule over malleable minds which makes it all the more easy to perpetuate the hysteria. A recent FoxNews headline reads "Conservatives Vow No Letup in Health Protests", following with
Activists are vowing to keep up their fight against President Obama's health care plans, even as the Democratic Party pushes back hard, accusing Republicans of organizing angry mobs.
These are more than mere 'protests' and accusations of rabble-rousing is not 'pushing back hard'. It's closer to journalism - reporting the facts.

Perhaps when the country regains its economic footing, an important stressor will be relieved and rational heads prevail. But until that time, fomented irrationality may turn to hate - and we all know where that leads.


The Loch Ness Monster Disproves Evolution

If you think the Loch Ness monster disproves evolution, then you're well on your way to mastering science in the U.K. Here's how it goes:
“Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur. Could a fish have developed into a dinosaur? As astonishing as it may seem, many evolutionists theorize that fish evolved into amphibians and amphibians into reptiles. This gradual change from fish to reptiles has no scientific basis. No transitional fossils have been found or ever will be discovered because God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals.”
If you believe this, then the U.K.'s National Recognition Information Centre (NARIC) says your knowledge is comparable to that gained in some of the most respected universities and schools in Britain. That's because NARIC finds that those who hold the International Certificate of Christian Education (ICCE) are as well-educated as anyone else. The problem is that the ICCE curriculum is based on the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum, which hails from the good old U. S. of A. and, not surprisingly, provides for a very fundamentalist brand of teaching:
If, as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, you believe that the Bible is the Creator’s reliable and trustworthy handbook to the whole of life, then you will be glad to hear that the ACE curriculum is written from the literal Bible creation base.

In other words, we believe that God says what He means and means what He says.(ref)
One might as well teach from Grimms' Fairy Tales. In fact, the Brothers Grimm may even be more historically accurate. But suppose you have some overly inquisitive student who asks, for example, how the use of a non-existent creature disproves evolution? I get the feeling that such a question would never come up because:
ACE pupils are able to work with minimal supervision because they have learned the godly lesson of self-discipline.(ACE core curriculum)
Which is to say 'don't ask questions', followed by ruler smacking outstretched palm.

(see also The Telegraph and The Guardian)


Bobby McFerrin and the Pentatonic Scale

Straight from the 2009 World Science Festival, Bobby McFerrin has a little fun:

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.

(seen at The Rogues Gallery)

Dr. Collins - What About Dog Butt Jesus?

Over at the Pharyngula blog, P.Z. Myers directs our attention to a talk given by Francis Collins two years ago at a conference of AAAS Science and Technology Fellows. Eventually, Collins brought the discussion around to his ability to accommodate both faith and science under one temple. The twists and turns of logic needed obviously makes this temple something more like a carnival fun-house, complete with distorting mirrors and spinning rooms. As an example, he notes the similarities between an end-view of the DNA helix and a stained-glass rose window. He says
"What I want to do is first to give you a snapshot of some of the new discoveries that for me as a physician-scientist studying the human genome are enormously exciting and provide a real glimpse into how life works," Collins said. "I'm also going to make the argument that, for me also as a believer, research in genetics is an occasion not just of scientific enjoyment, but an opportunity to appreciate the grandeur of God's creation, and in effect, to worship."
"I'm not trying to say that there's something inherently religious" in the DNA image, Collins emphasized. "But, I think it is emblematic of the potential here of the topic to both interest people and to make them unsettled. Can you, in fact, admire both of these [images]? Can you do it at the same time? Is there an inherent problem in having both a scientific world view and a spiritual world view?"

My first thought was Spirograph. But I guess that's one of the few reasons I wasn't picked for director of NIH.

So what was Collins' point? That it's obvious just by looking around to see God's signature in all things? Or did he just want to show how silly his mind can be at times? Describing his journey to faith, Collins recounts:
As an undergraduate, Collins said, he considered himself an agnostic; as a graduate student in chemistry, he was an atheist. But as he began to appreciate biology as "beautiful stuff that made sense," and later, genomics, he also began to struggle with questions of faith. Then, in his third year of medical school, as he visited with an elderly patient who was facing death, Collins said, he experienced a crisis of faith as she asked him, "What do you believe, doctor?"
It's as if the problems suddenly became too big with no immediate answers at hand. He took the easy way out. He read the last page of the book without slogging through the whole thing. He copied off someone else's paper. He peeked at the answer to the puzzle. He took the Christian shortcut.

Despite his appointment, Collins has not shirked from publicly expressing his faith. He has gained more notoriety today for his glass half-full of faith and half-full of science than he has for his work on the Human Genome Project. Still, it's surprising to find him singing the praises of design on air. Caution to the listener: it's a scientist singing - and it sounds exactly like that. (Trivia - Collins' guitar is emblazoned with both a DNA helix, and the Christian fish.)

I have to wonder - what would Collins make of Dog Butt Jesus? Would he say it's "emblematic of the potential" to hold two contradictory views and "admire the image" as well as the concept it represents? Or would his sciency disposition kick in and compel him to say, "It's just a dog's ass!"