Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Category

UFOs, unexplained events, and the laugh of the day

June 8, 2007

This just hit my mailbox, and I must confess that I can’t resist posting it, even knowing the FBI is probably already monitoring this blog:

“Many will recall that, on July 8, 1947, witnesses claimed an unidentified object, with five aliens aboard, crashed onto a sheep and cattle ranch just outside Roswell, New Mexico.

” This is a well-known incident which many say has long been covered up by the United States Air Force and the federal government.

“However, what you may NOT know, is that in the month of March 1948, exactly nine months later, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Condoleezza Rice, and Dan Quayle were all born.

See what happens when aliens breed with ranch animals? This information may clear up a lot of questions.”

Actually, if I had just known that these people were in all likelihood all Pisces, it would have explained a lot. . .

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Great mysteries: Dark matter, dark energy, and gravity

March 13, 2007

This Sunday’s (3/11/07) NY Times Magazine has a really interesting piece titled “Out There.” It’s a sort of a recap of the current state-of-the-state of cosmologic research. You may remember I recently posted my wild hypothesis that perhaps dark matter is really what we call “consciousness,” or “the soul,” or one of those other terms that we give to things that are demonstrable but impossible (at least at this point) to understand.

I’m going to attempt to provide a synopsis of some of the key points of the article. But it’s only fair to provide the standard warning label:

DANGER: I AM GOING TO TAKE MORE LIBERTIES WITH THE SCIENCE OF THIS THING THAN YOU MAY BE COMFORTABLE WITH. AFTER ALL, I AM A POET/PHILOSOPHER, NOT A COSMOLOGIST. IF AT ANY TIME YOUR COMFORT LEVEL IS EXCEEDED, STOP READING IMMEDIATELY AND GO GET A GLASS OF SOMETHING COLD, YOUR CHOICE.

Here are some of the current beliefs. Since I think it’s impossible to “know” any of this (and I think the number of reversals over the history of natural science bears my thinking out), I am going to lump “facts” and theories together.

Only about 4% of the mass of the known universe is the type of matter we are made of, our planets and stars are made of, and with which we are familiar.

About 22% of the total mass is something currently called “dark matter.”

The remaining 74% is classified as “dark energy.” This isn’t necessarily energy as we think about it but an “energy-like” substance, whatever that means.

The term “dark” in this usage has nothing to do with color or brightness. It refers to the fact that these substances, whatever they are, are nonbaryonic. They do not interact with electricity or magnetism (as far as we can tell), or with photons or electrons, and thus we are unable to “see” them. But they make up 96% of the known universe.

To paraphrase one scientist, we and all of things we know anything about are merely a bit of pollution in the universe. Most of the universe is not only something about which we know nothing but something that we can’t even be sure we know how to know anything about. Time for a cold drink yet?

Then there’s gravity. Gravity is a commonly accepted phenomenon. If you let go of that cold drink, it will fall “down” and spill. But nobody really knows why. What gravity really is remains a huge mystery, despite the fact that it has been an acknowledged phenomenon for several centuries.

The theory of gravity says that the elements of the universe should be drawing closer together based on the attraction of one mass for another. But in fact, just the opposite is happening. Enter dark energy.

Dark energy is a sort of anti-gravity force that pushes things apart. In fact, the universe appears to be expanding, which would indicate that dark energy is stronger than gravity. But no one really understands what either force is.

The universe is made up of many, many galaxies. These galaxies are spinning at a very high rate of speed which should cause the stars and their ancillary satellites to fly off farther from the core based on another principle of physics, the principle of centrifugal force.

 But that’s not happening either. Current speculation says that galaxies hold together because of dark matter. Science has detected “clouds” of dark matter around various galaxies. But once again, no one knows what dark matter is.

Einstein is best known for his “theory of general relativity.” But let’s not forget that he spent the last 30 years of his life attempting to reconcile his theory with the emerging field of quantum theory, without success. Maybe we’re just not meant to know these things. And maybe it’s best that way. It leaves room for poetry alongside science.

I love cosmology, and I struggle with my limited little brain to understand as much as I can. But I think I still prefer poetry.

Now my head hurts from all of this thinking, and I’m going to head off to bed.

One of the remaining great mysteries

February 10, 2007

I am interrupting my weekly reading of The New Yorker to bring you a bulletin. There’s a great profile in this week’s (2/12) issue of two scientist/philosophers, a married couple–Pat and Paul Churchland, professors at UCSD. It’s a really interesting piece that calls out many of the issues associated with one of the great remaining mysteries: what constitutes consciousness?

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I disagree with many of their firmly held beliefs. They are monists; I am firmly in the dualist camp. I don’t deny that many of the elements of what we call “mind” are firmly grounded in the chemistry and biology of the brain. But I’m holding out for something else, something that’s not “physical” as we know it (more about that in a minute), something that for want of a better term I’ll call the “soul.”

My belief is firmly rooted in experience as well. I’ve had at least one out-of-body experience, and on several occasions found myself sharply aware that something in “me” was really not attached to my body. (And, no, I’ve never been diagnosed with any kind of “mental illness” and have somehow managed to function for a remarkable number of decades.)

The Churchlands also don’t believe that non-human animals have language. I have seen much evidence out here in the middle of nowhere that they do. I think it’s easier to see here because I can be more closely attentive. There are fewer distractions. If you’re looking at animals, you’re looking at animals, and that’s it. There have also been quite a number of scientific studies devoted to this topic, and I believe most of them have demonstrated some degree of language in even what we would consider “the lower animals.” (And how humanly arrogant is that?)

George Lakoff did his best to reduce all human thought to biology, but he never managed to convince me. I enjoyed his books, found his work on metaphor (More Than Cool Reason) immensely useful as a poet, but think he really was all wet in  Philosophy in the Flesh.

One of the things that caught my eye in this profile was Paul Churchland’s reference to a book I have loved since I was very young, Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky. Most of my generation is at least minimally familiar with Heinlein because of Stranger in a Strange Land. This was a sort of rallying-cry book in the 1960s.

But Orphans is a totally different animal, a reflection of how little we know and how impossible it is to know it all. I rank it right up there with John Wynham’s novella “Rebirth” for an understanding of the great mysteries and the ability of humans to resist ideas that challenge their current knowledge.

There are other great mysteries, of course, besides consciousness. I keep returning to the questions of dark energy and dark matter. With all of our “vast” knowledge, how can we not identify and understand the composition of more than 75% of the mass and a huge portion of the energy in our universe?

Perhaps lame thought for the morning: What if dark matter is really consciousness afloat in the universe, some sort of mass/energy that infuses biologically living beings and returns to the universe after the biological death? What do you think?