Monthly Archives: May 2010

Morgan Freeman and the universe

I love these scale-of-the-universe videos. The most impressive, to me, is this one, from the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History:

It’s a six-minute condensed version of their incredible planetarium software, the Digital Universe Atlas — which is, amazingly, downloadable for personal use. I’ve had the privilege of attending one of the planetarium’s public tours, where they project the atlas onto the huge dome and demonstrate exactly what it can do: zoom in for close-up views of stars and planets as desired, show the current and projected trajectories of human-made satellites, switch on the thousands of labels for all the named stars, and more. A humbling experience.

Then again, it’s hard to resist a version narrated by Morgan Freeman, that takes you down into microscopic levels as well:

Update: How could I forget? The opening zoom-out from Contact is a classic:

I especially like the audio track of Earth’s radio transmissions, running in reverse as we pull back, and dwindling down to the very earliest signals, furthest out from home. Then — silence, and vastness. And eventually, the known universe morphs into a reflection in a young girl’s eye: we are in the universe, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson says, but the universe is also in us.

(h/t Atheist Planet)

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Playing God?

Looks like Andrew Revkin has written about some of the same points I’ve made about the intersection of science and ethics, in the wake of J. Craig Venter’s feat:

The latest achievement of J. Craig Venter — rebooting a bacterial cell as a different species by giving it a man-made genetic instruction manual — is just one step on the long inevitable path into synthetic biology.

Humans have modified organisms for ages, making the dog species as variegated as Chihuahuas and mastiffs, transforming corn from a slender grass into a stalk studded with cobs of nutritious grain. But now we’re writing the software from scratch (Venter even included a “watermark” in the million-letter code inserted into the re-purposed bacterium).

Bacteria long ago were engineered to churn out insulin. Now science is poised to tell a bacterium what it is. Listening to talk radio this morning, I heard Glenn Beck railing about the research as it if had been some classified project that was suddenly revealed.

And so, right on schedule, here come the voices railing against the mad scientists who dare to play God. Interestingly, Revkin cites Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, who argues that the perception that ethics always lags behind science is false. I’ll try to find a video of Caplan’s presentation, but for now his Powerpoint document (warning: pdf) outlines his argument: that the complaints surrounding scientific advances more often than not revolve around policy and politics, not ethics (as when we talk about the malicious misuse of technology, or the impact of technology on health and the environment). When the complaints are about ethics, they usually center on two points: that life cannot be reduced to genetics, and that we’re playing God. Caplan’s document outlines a debunking of these claims, and I wish I could have heard him flesh his argument out.

In any case, he points out that explorations of the ethical implications of new technologies are often carried out before these new technologies are perfected or implemented. It’s the media that needs to do a better job of bringing the public up to speed on ethical arguments that scientists have already been wrestling with in the course of their work.

Caplan further explores the “playing God” accusation and the ethics of synthetic life here and here. A point that resonates with me:

Scientists, theologians and philosophers have been wrangling over this issue for eons. For many, the wondrous nature of what permits something to be alive has been a mystery that science never, ever could penetrate. Life is sacred, special, ineffable and beyond human understanding. Except it isn’t. […]

The deeper question: is the dignity of life imperiled by showing that human beings can create a novel living thing? I think not. There are those who are enthralled by the idea that life is a riddle beyond solution. However, the value of life is not imperiled or cheapened by coming to understand how it works.

As I’ve argued before, in debates about whether or not morality has biological roots, and whether or not discovering such roots would be a good thing: To understand something completely is not to devalue it. To grasp the biological origins of love, kindness, honor, courage, and altruism is not to feel those things any less deeply or powerfully. To know the universe is to wonder at it even more.

Knowledge — coupled with wisdom — is a good thing. Ignorance never is.

(Image via

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Make a joyful godless noise

Here’s the multi-talented Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers, at the 2010 New Orleans Jazz Fest. Brilliant:

They’re wrong, of course; there are plenty of awesome atheist songs to go around. XTC, natch:

And as always — and more joyfully — Tim Minchin:

(h/t Unreasonable Faith)

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The thrill of the new, the fear of the new

It seems that we’re getting better at manipulating life, and perhaps eventually at creating new forms of it. From the NY Times:

The genome pioneer J. Craig Venter has taken another step in his quest to create synthetic life, by synthesizing an entire bacterial genome and using it to take over a cell.

Dr. Venter calls the result a “synthetic cell” and is presenting the research as a landmark achievement that will open the way to creating useful microbes from scratch to make products like vaccines and biofuels. At a press conference Thursday, Dr. Venter described the converted cell as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.”

“This is a philosophical advance as much as a technical advance,” he said, suggesting that the “synthetic cell” raised new questions about the nature of life.

Essentially, as I understand it, Venter’s team invented an artificial genome via a computer program, assembled it with chemical components, and injected it into living bacterial cells — at which point the artificial genome overrode the cells’ original DNA and the bacteria became, in effect, organisms doing the bidding of human-made instructions.


There is, quite understandably, a lot of excitement about this. As Andrew Revkin writes, one of Venter’s goals has been “to program organisms that, at large scale, could harvest carbon dioxide and generate hydrocarbons, replacing oil as a fuel and feedstock.” And there’s no limit to what we can wildly imagine human-designed microorganisms (and eventually larger life-forms?) accomplishing: Nanomachines in the blood, perhaps, to repair cell damage, arrest the aging process, and enhance human abilities, like the technology that sustains the immortal cyborgs in Kage Baker’s Company novels. Or microbes sweeping through the atmosphere, sucking up excess greenhouse gases. (I’m reminded of the monoliths in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 — are they synthetic? are they alive? — multiplying on the surface of Jupiter and converting its gases into heavier elements, triggering its transformation into a second sun. Could such feats of engineering be in the distant human future?)

Also understandably, there are objections and concerns — some, unsurprisingly, from within the scientific community itself, because criticism and dissent are just part of how science rolls. Freeman Dyson offers a backhanded compliment: Continue reading

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Why libraries matter, cont’d. (“Who you gonna call?”)

Because when you need to do some research without being bothered by pesky ectoplasmic entities, you can depend on libraries to hire professionals to keep their reading rooms ghost-free.

See Improv Everywhere’s blog post for the inside story.

And click here to learn more about New York libraries’ unprecedented budget crisis, and how you (yes, you!) can help.

(h/t FlickFilosopher)

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Why libraries matter, cont’d.

Because the greatness of libraries doesn’t exist only in encomiums from famous authors. Libraries visibly change people’s lives today — and their impact is real. From the NY Times:

Manga clubs have coalesced in libraries in various Queens neighborhoods — Flushing, Jamaica, Long Island City — and the genre has colonized young-adult rooms in libraries around the country.

At least half a dozen Queens teenagers have seriously studied Japanese after getting interested in manga — some making sure to choose colleges that teach it, others using library books like “Japanese in Mangaland” and “Japanese the Manga Way,” said Christian Zabriskie, who as youth librarian at the Queens Library’s central branch in Jamaica drew up to 40 students to its weekly manga club meetings. One young woman discovered a love of languages and now studies Russian in college, Mr. Zabriskie said. […]

Mr. Zabriskie, 39, now assistant coordinator for youth services at Queens Library, says manga is for these teenagers what punk rock, New Wave, and Dungeons and Dragons were for his generation: a world of specialized knowledge that excludes adults and opens a private creative space for young people.

“This kind of secret, hidden knowledge gives them a power and an empowerment,” he said. “It’s this generation’s esoterica.”

But, he said, unlike other teenage rituals like graffiti or, at the extremes, gang membership, manga fandom increasingly happens at one of the safest places around — the library.

“Rather than seeking out things that may be harmful, having your secret coding be foreign literature that you read in the library is pretty great,” said Mr. Zabriskie […]

The Queens Library, the country’s largest by circulation, stocks thousands of manga volumes. At least 40 percent are checked out at any given time, and the most popular are taken out 60 times in two years before they fell apart, Mr. Zabriskie recently found by examining circulation records. That popularity rivals the blockbuster Harry Potter books. Mr. Zabriskie estimates that a third of the books left on library tables at the day’s end — the ones teenagers have pulled off the shelf to read for fun — are manga.

The manga mania, like so much else in the city during the recession, is threatened by budget cuts. Beginning in July, proposed cuts would reduce library staff by more than one-third and opening hours by nearly half, library officials say. Thirty-four community libraries would be open only two or three days a week. Mr. Zabriskie’s manga club, the borough’s largest, no longer formally meets; budget strains prevented filling his job after his promotion.

All of New York’s public libraries are imperiled by these unprecedented and potentially devastating budget cuts. Whether or not you live in New York, you can help. Here’s how.

(Photo credit: Sage Ross)

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Why libraries matter, cont’d.

“Access to knowledge is the superb, the supreme act of truly great civilizations. Of all the institutions that purport to do this, free libraries stand virtually alone in accomplishing this mission. No committee decides who may enter, no crisis of body or spirit must accompany the entrant. No tuition is charged, no oath sworn, no visa demanded. Of the monuments humans build for themselves, very few say ‘touch me, use me, my hush is not indifference, my space is not barrier. If I inspire awe, it is because I am in awe of you and the possibilities that dwell in you.'” — Toni Morrison

New York’s public libraries are facing an unprecedented and potentially devastating budget crisis. Whether or not you live in New York, you can help. Here’s how.

(Image via Bluesman of the Mind)

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