Why We Are Not Ready for Mars
There is a lot of buzz about going to Mars, but in truth we are very far from sending humans. We need a dose of reality before we get too carried away with this fantasy.
Our success rate for sending robotic probes to Mars is about 50%. A human expedition to Mars will be vastly more complicated and dangerous.
The fact is that we do not even have a design for a Mars mission. In the near future we could possibly send a crew to do a fly-by of Mars with no landing. This would involve enormous risks and costs. Even such a limited mission would require a minimum of 18 months in space.
What we cannot do is to land a crew on Mars. And even if we could, we have no way of getting the crew off of Mars and returning it to Earth.
The Mars base will need to sustain the crew for up to two years on the surface. This would require a very large and complicated setup. We will need advanced life support systems including radiation shielding, oxygen production, air recycling, water extraction and/or recycling, and electrical generation. We will also need space suits and vehicles for exploration, and laboratory space and equipment for research. And finally we will need maintenance and repair systems and spare parts to keep it all running. We will also need a medical facility. Eventually we will want to grow our own food as well.
I would envision the proposed Mars base would be as large and complex as the International Space Station. While the existence of the ISS proves that we can build such a structure, the problem comes when we try to land it on Mars. Even if the Mars base is to be built in modules, as was the ISS, there is still a lot of weight to land on the surface. As the Mars atmosphere is less than 1% as dense as Earth’s parachutes are of extremely limited use. It has been a struggle even to land small, robotic crafts on the surface. But a human mission to Mars will require modules that are much larger and heavier than anything we have sent thus far. The only way we know to accomplish such landings is to use descent engines requiring massive amounts of rocket fuel. This fuel would be very heavy and would need to be sent from Earth.
Lifting off from Mars creates its own problems. We might assume that there will be an ascent ship carrying the astronauts to an Earth return vehicle parked in Mars orbit. But the details of this part of the mission have yet to be worked out. Here again there is a fuel issue. Where is the fuel for the ascent vehicle and the Earth return vehicle going to come from? Either we need to haul it from Earth, or else we need to manufacture it on Mars. A fueling station on Mars would add even more to the cost, complexity, and weight of the Mars base. The fueling station would extract water from the Martian environment, split it into oxygen and hydrogen gasses using electricity, and then both gasses would be loaded into the fuel tanks of the rockets. The same fuel might also be used to power the rovers on the surface as an alternative to solar power.
There is no way to cost out a human expedition to Mars at this point. The mission design is still unknown. Preliminary estimates from NASA have suggested a cost of $500 Billion (one-half trillion) for one crewed mission. It would be safe to assume that we could send a thousand robotic missions to Mars for far less than the cost of one crewed mission. And, when it comes right down to it, there is very little that a crewed mission could accomplish that could not be done with robotic missions except for the flag planting photo opportunity.
We live in a time when cruise missiles have largely replaced manned bombers, and drones are replacing fighter jets. When we remove the human factor from the cockpit we greatly improve the aircraft and its performance. A cruise missile or drone has no need for life support, windows, or complicated safety equipment such as ejection seats, fire extinguishers, or life rafts. A drone is far more maneuverable than a fighter jet and can perform high-speed turns at g-forces that would kill a human pilot. Removing the human element, and the requisite life support and safety gear, creates a vehicle with a greatly reduced size and weight, and a higher power-to-weight ratio. In the same way that a motorcycle can out maneuver and outperform a car, a drone can out maneuver and outperform a piloted aircraft. And most importantly, a drone can be flown from a control room in Oklahoma instead of risking a pilot’s life in a combat zone.
Our robotic technology is increasing geometrically. Soon self-driving cars will become commonplace. So why not self-driving rovers on Mars?
Almost all of our actual science in space has been done by robotic means, from the Voyager spacecraft to the Hubbell Space Telescope to the New Horizons mission to Pluto. The Mars orbiters and rovers have yielded some great science and continue to do so even after years of activity.
And then there are the human factors to consider in a crewed mission to Mars. Just the trip out and back will be difficult for the crew. Imagine sharing a recreational vehicle with three to five other people, except in this case the trip will last about three years and all of the doors and windows will be welded shut. There will be no chance of getting away from the constant pressures and tensions that might be created from such close contact. And what happens if there are problems back home such as a seriously ill child or the loss of a loved one?
The human body is not meant for life in outer space. Extended periods of zero gravity cause a breakdown of bone and muscle mass. Even extensive exercise requiring hours each day do not fully compensate for this deterioration. Imaging an astronaut stepping onto the surface of Mars and breaking her leg due to atrophy caused by months of zero gravity.
The astronauts on the Mars mission will also be subjected to all of the diseases and conditions that affect all humans. Additionally there can and will be accidents. What can be done about appendicitis, breast cancer, heart attacks, burns, puncture wounds, and all of the other situations requiring emergency medical care when an astronaut is in deep space and several years from Earth?
Away from the Earth and its protective atmosphere and radiation belts, astronauts could be fried by radiation caused by a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection. Even cosmic background radiation could impair the crew and its mission. Micro meteors could puncture the hull or damage essential equipment.
One thing is certain. Beyond near-Earth orbit, any form of rescue is out of the question. Apollo XIII managed to limp back from a catastrophic explosion on the way the moon. But Apollo XIII was only a few days from Earth.
Three things from the world of science fiction are needed right now before we can be truly prepared for long duration space missions:
- Advanced propulsion systems that can get us to Mars and back in weeks instead of years.
- Shields or force fields to protect us from radiation and impacts with space debris.
- Artificial gravity to prevent muscle and bone loss.
With these technologies in place a crewed mission to Mars begins to look like a possibility.
Faith Demystified – What Happens When We Die?
The deepest mystery of faith is what happens when we die. Some would say that we go dark like a candle that is extinguished. Others would suggest that there is a part of us that continues. There is a whiff of smoke as the candle is extinguished, and heat energy that continues forward in time.
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come? – Hamlet
As there is no definitive answer to the ultimate question, we choose between uncertainty and illusion.
Earlier I have pledged that I would not polish the standard illusions of organized religion. The following exercise is about creating our own illusions. This is an important skill for all spiritual sojourners. In order to thoroughly understand the nature of illusions is it necessary to be able to construct your own. A musician must have skills in composition in order to understand music at all.
Illusions are not bad things, unless we delude ourselves into believing that they must be true. The story of the Tooth Fairy comforts a young child who has just lost a body part. If an illusion of death makes it easier to die, and especially if it makes it easier to live, then it is a good thing indeed. As to what illusions you subscribe to is up to you within certain conditions. If you want to believe in Charlie Brown’s “Great Pumpkin” it is no concern of mine.
Illusions are not judged by their connection to reality. Please note my prior discussion of astrology. Rather, illusions should be judged by their fruits. Does the illusion cause you to relate to the cosmos? Does it connect you to other people, even those beyond your own tribe or faith tradition? Is it a compelling expression of love? Does it advance the causes of justice and compassion? There are many forms of malevolent illusions, such as racism, violence, addiction, sexual predation, financial predation, and more. But so far as an illusion is benevolent there can be little harm done in embracing it so long as you realize that it is in fact an illusion.
Here I would like to share you my own illusion, fully cognizant of the fact that the following is an illusion.
The universe is filled with hundreds of billions of galaxies. There is no much real estate out there that it is impossible to comprehend. Every human being that is now living, has ever lived, or ever will live, has a claim to an entire galaxy. Imagine that galaxy as an extension of yourself. Imagine it as a vast reservoir of love that is a part of you. You can draw love and energy from your own personal galaxy at any time. It makes your life, and the lives of all of those around you, limitless and unbounded. The sacks of flesh in which we dwell is not who we are. It is simply a temporary manifestation of our mortal existence. Our past, present, and future are vastly more than a face in the photograph.
When we die we cast off our sack of flesh, and return to the cosmos. What we take with us from our mortal life is our memories. Our memories are who we truly are in this mortal realm. They are the sum total of the experiences that we have had, and the decisions that we have made. Those things are our immortal selves in their purest forms.
Some would ask if we face judgment. Does God separate the sheep from the goats? I believe that the only judgment comes from our own memories. In death we become enlightened. We come to know what is really important and what is not worth worrying about. Perhaps those failures that we fretted the most we might find are nothing at all, like when President Jimmy Carter confessed that he had lusted after women in his heart. The most serious failure may be in seeing a homeless person on the street and passing by without helping. The real moral test is how we loved. Did we focus on ministries of justice and compassion, or were we too busy grasping after wealth, power, beauty, or some other vain pursuit.
The universe is even much fuller than I have already described. M-theory tells us that there are not four but eleven dimensions of spacetime. The added dimensions are not fully understood.
We know that there must be more than the four dimensions of ordinary space. Einstein proved that gravity causes spacetime to bend space. That very bending does not take place in ordinary four-dimensional spacetime, but must of necessity bend in one or more of those extended dimensions.
Perhaps one of those extra dimensions are where memories go. There is a basic principle in physics that says that information may never be lost. And what is memory but information?
What we tell ourselves about what happens when we die informs our mortal existence about how to live. We construct our lives from each decision that we make. We are aware of the montage of memories that we have collected. Layer by layer and frame by frame we construct a record of who we are. Our personal montage is both powerful and profound. It is only finished after a lifetime of striving. It is the unique and authentic story of our life. It is more enduring than our flesh and more powerful than our dreams. And yes, it does continue.
THE SIXTH MASS EXTINCTION EVENT
The Earth has had five previous mass extinctions events, and we are now in number six. The current crisis is called the Anthropocene Extinction, meaning that it is caused by human activity.
Much has been published recently about global climate change. But there is a much bigger picture to see if we just “connect the dots.” The planet is in a perfect storm of anthropocentric attacks on the biosphere that taken together will severely reduce the life carrying capacity of the planet.
Forty-five percent of all mammal species are endangered or threatened. This includes everything from elephants to polar bears. Elephant populations are declining rapidly due to habitat destruction and poaching. Polar bears are starving as the loss of the arctic ice sheet makes it harder for them to hunt for seals. Recently orcas have replaced polar bears as the apex arctic predators. The large dorsal fins on the orcas have mean that they would not swim or hunt in arctic waters. But now with the substantial loss of arctic ice the orcas have expanded into this new territory.
Ice sheets are diminishing across the globe. The loss of the Greenland ice sheets will increase global sea levels by 30 feet. The loss of the Antarctic ice sheets would raise global sea levels by 300 feet. The Greenland ice sheets are showing increasing signs of collapse. There are lakes of snow melt atop of the glaciers. These lakes drain to the ground below. This lifts and lubricates the remaining ice and speeds its slide into the ocean.
Global climate change is not a future concern; it is already upon us. Hurricane Patricia was the worst hurricane on record, greater even than Katrina or Sandy. California burns while South Carolina is underwater. The weather patterns have already spun out of control. There are droughts, fires, floods, and expanding deserts.
Sea levels are already rising. In Alaska tribal villages are collapsing into the ocean. Island nations like Vanuatu are struggling to survive. In March of 2015 Vanuatu was hit by Cyclone (i.e. hurricane) Pam with wind gusts of 200 mph. It destroyed 90% of the capital city of Port Vila.
Even with all the trappings of civilization, all life on Earth depends upon its biodiversity. Who decided that it was a good idea to grow food using poisons? Consider the case of the humble honey bee. This species is critical to agriculture. It pollinates a wide variety of crops. But bee populations have been devastated by pesticides. To replace the bees in an apple orchard it would take armies of farm laborers pollinating each blossom using ladders and paint brushes.
The combination of global climate change, pollution, and over-harvesting will create a food crisis. We grow foods in arid climates unsuited for agriculture. Irrigation results in an increased salinity in the soils. Any use of irrigated land it a temporary solution to food production which causes a permanent impairment of the ecosystem. As we take ever more extreme measures to feed our growing population, every measure damages the biosphere and reduces our chances of long-term survival. We do slash-and-burn agriculture in the Amazon basin. But as this land is denuded of its foliage, the ground becomes rock hard within a few years, rendering it unusable. The only current option is to clear-cut new sections of jungle and to repeat the destructive cycle.
Food production will continue to be a major challenge. Clearly we need to create a global economic system that can provide for the needs of all of Earth’s people, and do it is a manner that is sustainable. We also need to understand that we are not the only specie on this planet, and that our survival depends upon biodiversity. We need wilderness areas, pollution free wetlands, fecund oceans, rain forests, and coral reefs. We need bees and other helpful insects, and all manner of flora and fauna to survive.
Famine may be our most urgent concern. Shifting weather patterns may cause our breadbasket regions to dry up. We have seen this before on the American plains in the 1930’s. The Sahara Desert is expanding southward into the savannah, causing civil strife and tribal, sectarian uprising as people struggle to survive. Beijing is endangered by the encroachment of the Gobi Desert.
Much of the western United States are already in severe drought conditions. There is already tension between the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley and the population centers of the coast. The San Joaquin valley is the source of one-half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The San Joaquin Valley is sinking by one foot per year due to the pumping of ground water.
Southern California depends on the Sierra Nevada snow pack for its moisture. The 2014-2015 ski season was severely impacted by a lack of snow. Early indications are that the 2015-2016 season are projected to be seriously worse.
Many civilizations have collapsed due to ecological disasters. Potable water will become as big of an issue as food. Clean, fresh water will become the new oil. One third of the Earth’s population depends on the snow pack of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau for its water. This includes China, the Indian sub-continent, and Southeast Asia. But even the Himalayan glaciers are shrinking.
Monoculture has created ecological problems since the beginnings of agriculture. Monoculture is simply the alteration of the land to support one plant or animal species. Just think about that dandelion in your yard. We kill the dandelion, often with carcinogenic poisons, because it violates our notion of monoculture. We believe that our yard is supposed to be nothing but green grass, and any competing species are swiftly exterminated. How much better it would be if we would allow our yards to be biodiverse, to create habitats, and not putting greens? We need to have a change of expectations
In the beginning humans had little power to transform and destroy nature. Our ever increasing technology has given us greater and greater mastery over the Earth and its resources, and with that power we have the power to render the planet uninhabitable. Early farmers using sticks for plows, or early hunters catching whales from canoes did not have the power to undermine the ecosystem. It is a lot easier to clear a rain forest with a bulldozer than it is to clear it with a machete.
It is hard to be optimistic about the Earth’s future. While we cannot destroy the Earth we can make it uninhabitable. It is likely that the Earth is near its peak in human population. Later in this century we will see a decline in population from droughts and famines caused by shifting weather patterns. We will continue to see a host of species going extinct. The decline is already happening. The best we can hope for is to reduce the future effects.
|Global Climate Change||Burning of fossil fuels||Increase in greenhouse gases||Increased temperatures|
|Rising sea levels|
|Increased storm intensity|
|Disruption of weather patterns|
|Floods, droughts, fires, reduced availability of drinking water.|
|Change is accelerating as warming planet releases methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas, and reduction of ice sheets increases heat absorption|
|Disruption of agriculture with accompanying famines|
|Pollution||Industrial and agricultural chemicals||Increased toxicity of biosphere||Contamination of air, ground, and water|
|Birth defects, stunted fertility|
|Destruction of ozone layer|
|Plastic Trash||Non-biodegradable and toxic detritus: Nylon fishing nets, Mylar balloons, plastic bags||Animals entangles in debris or filling their guts with plastic|
|Habitat Destruction||Destructive exploitation of wilderness to support civilization, overpopulation||Slash and burn agriculture, draining of wetlands, expansion of cities||Loss of nurseries and breeding grounds|
|Diminished carrying capacity for wildlife|
|Over-Harvesting of Resources||Using up renewable resources faster than they can be renewed||Over fishing, clear-cutting forests, poaching, hunting to extinction,||Elimination of valuable species and habitats, reduction of biodiversity|
|Disruption of food chain|
|Monoculture||Destruction of local biodiversity to support one plant or animal species||Killing predators and competitors to protect grazing livestock, clear-cutting forest to grow coffee plants, sacrificing natural environment for cash crops||Loss of genetic diversity, destruction of natural environment, disregard for biosphere|
The Evolution of Complex Life
Microorganisms, or single celled life forms, are hypothesized to be ubiquitous throughout the galaxy. Our own solar system has perhaps six planets and moons which may harbor living organisms. Life leaps into existence even in the most hostile environments and under the most difficult situations. But complex life is a much different matter. There is a wonderful book entitled, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, by Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee. This book discusses the long and arduous journey of life from microorganisms to complex life forms. The book defines complex life as meaning animal life.
While microorganisms may be ubiquitous, complex life is exceedingly rare. Our only example of a world supporting complex life is the Earth. From our sample of one body it appears that it takes some four billion years for the evolution of life from microorganisms to complex life forms. And, for the evolutionary process to work, those four billion years must be remarkably stable to allow life to flourish and develop into complexity. The reason that complex life is so rare is that there are so few venues with stable conditions over billions of years.
In the 1961 Frank Drake wrote his famous Drake Equation, which attempts to quantify the number of advanced civilizations in the galaxy. Advanced civilization was defined as a civilization with radio telescopes making interstellar communication possible. In 1984 SETI began scanning the heavens, looking for those advanced civilizations. People such as Carl Sagan used Drake’s basic model and came up with estimates of perhaps 10,000 advanced civilizations.
Now it is believed that the old estimates were wildly optimistic. Now the hypothesis is that because complex life is so difficult to create, Earth may be the only venue for complex life in the galaxy. This hypothesis, the theme of Rare Earth, has been supported by the likes of Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The assumption is that the chance of microbial life developing into complex life is so miniscule that the Earth may be the only place where this has happened. If this is true then SETI searches in vain.
Here are some of the requirements for the multi-billion year stability required for life to flourish into complex forms:
- Complex life cannot exist near the center of the galaxy. A combination of excessive radiation and gravitational perturbations would be too severe for complex live to evolve.
- Complex life cannot exist anywhere radiation hazards, such as pulsars, which can sterilize planets thousands of light years away.
- Complex life would be virtually impossible in any binary star system. The gravitational perturbations of a binary star would cause orbital instability, and perhaps cause the planet to crash into another object or to be ejected into the cold darkness of interstellar space.
- The development of complex life requires a stable solar system with nearly circular planetary orbits. Many of the extra-solar planets that we have discovered have been “hot Jupiters,” formed in the outer reaches of the system and then spiraling inward, smashing lesser planets in the process.
- The development of complex life requires a planet in the “Goldilocks zone”, at the right distance from its star so as to be neither too hot nor too cold. Moons require similar circumstances that allow for the presence of liquid water.
- Stars and planets have life cycles. Overtime the Goldilocks zone can move. Originally Venus and Earth were twins, both in the Goldilocks zone, and both most likely had life forms. Over time as the Sun’s radiation increased (10% every billion years), Venus became a hellish world of extreme temperatures and pressures. If there are any life forms now on Venus they would be microorganisms in the upper atmosphere.
- It is not only the distance from a star that is important, but also the planet’s or moon’s climate. Climate is a complex mixture of atmospheric temperature and pressure, atmospheric composition, transparency, the presence of greenhouse gases, the presence of oceans, carbon cycles which regulate the amount of Co2 in the air, and many more factors as well. As the comparison of Venus and Earth demonstrate, climate is a critical factor in the development of complex life. And this climate must remain essentially stable over billions of years.
- The development of complex life requires magnetic shielding. Earth is surrounded by a strong magnetic field, caused by a hot, rotating iron core that creates a “force field” surrounding our planet. Mars failed in the development of complex life because it lacked this force field. Mars is smaller than Earth and it cooled more quickly. As the core was solidified the magnetic field collapsed. This allowed the solar winds to strip Mars of most of its atmosphere and water. Also, with the magnetic field removed, there was no protection from intense solar radiation. Earth is protected from radiation not only by our magnetic field bus also by our ozone layer in the atmosphere.
- Complex life depends upon its home world surviving various extinction events. The Earth has undergone as least five mass extinctions, each of which destroyed at least 75% of life on the planet. Most scientists would say that the Earth is now in the early stages of its sixth extinction event. This time it is caused largely caused by human activity such as agriculture, which destroys eco-systems to create single species dominance, pollution, habitat destruction, and the burning of fossil fuels.
Given all of the impediments to the development of complex life forms, the chance of microorganism evolving into complex life forms is a very small number, and perhaps one in a trillion.
The Rare Earth book stops at complex or animal life. It does not deal at all with the emergence of technological civilizations. There are many intelligent species on Earth such as octopus, pigs, dogs, crows, and dolphins. But none of these species are apt to create civilizations or to build radio telescopes. The leap from complex life to advanced civilization may be as difficult as the leap from microorganisms to complex life.
Life in the Universe
Part 1: The Solar System
It is a virtual certainty that we will discover extraterrestrial life within the next 20 years. There are many places in our solar system that would seem to make good cradles for life. Some of the best prospects include Mars, Europa, and Enceladus.
Mars has been tantalizing us for decades with its prospects for life. We have recovered a meteor blasted off of the surface of Mars that seems to contain fossilized life forms, although not all scientist agree with this premise. There have been experiments conducted by Mars landers that gave ambiguous results on the presence of life. But perhaps the most tantalizing sign comes from the seasonal methane cycles on Mars. Methane can be produced by either biological or geological processes. But there is no geological explanation of seasonal methane cycles. The prospects are good that these seasonal methane cycles are produced by organisms on Mars undergoing seasonal transformations. Methane, that gas from decaying garbage dumps and bovine flatulence is a necessary byproduct of organic life.
Europa has a vast ocean underneath a planetary ice cap. Ice fissures allow the subsurface ocean to leak through to the surface. When we look at the surface of Europa we see a fractured ice cap covered by reddish-brown crud along the fissures. It may be that this surface crud is some sort of life form resembling an algae bloom.
The extraterrestrial life be find in our solar system will be simple, single celled organism.
Life on Earth is a thousand times more diverse than I was taught in high school biology class. In school we were taught that there are plants and animals. The Sun was the source of all biological energy. Plants converted sunlight into sugars through photosynthesis. Herbivores ate the plants and carnivores ate the herbivores. All life was beholden to the Sun.
But now we know much more. There is life everywhere on Earth, and much of it totally cut off from the Sun. There are tube worms and shrimp in the deepest ocean trenches, using chemosynthesis to convert sulfur into energy in extreme high temperatures and pressures. There are organisms living in the boiling, caustic paint pots of Yellowstone Park. There are organism living deep underground, drawing their energy from the rocks. There are organism living in frozen glaciers. When glaciers calve, these life forms create a rich biomass in the ocean, a biomass that is the bottom of the food chain for all life in the polar oceans. There is even life forms living in the cooling ponds of nuclear reactors.
Along with plants and animals, there are fungi such as mushrooms, slime molds, algae, protozoa, and these are just our closest relatives. It has been suggested that there is more biomass below ground than there is above ground.
With life on Earth this diverse and abundant, we can expect that life will be prolific throughout vast sections of the Universe. Our own solar system is full of water and organic compounds, the two essential ingredients for life as we know it. Comets and asteroids have both in abundance. Spectroscopy of the Universe suggest that the same chemistry exists everywhere. Water and organic compounds exist throughout the Universe. On Titan there are lakes of liquid methane. On Europa there is more water than exists on Earth.
The litmus test for public office should include one simple concept, namely the belief in evolution. We live in an age where the denial of scientific fact is rampant. We live in an age when Republicans do not seem to believe in science at all. They do not believe in evolution, global warming, stem cell research, or birth control. The Bush 43 White House was known for its bad science. It took climate studies and had them “spun” by oil industry lobbyists. It opposed stem cell research and the distribution of condoms in Africa to quell the AIDS epidemic.
It does not matter if a candidate is running for a local school board or for President of the United States. We cannot afford to have ignorant, backward people in either position. Evolution is a matter of scientific fact. It cannot be voted on in a school board meeting or a state legislature. Just as we do not vote as to whether the earth revolves around the sun or vice versa, evolution is not dependent upon public opinion or any sort of vote.
Science is radically skeptical and self-correcting. If a scientist proposes a false hypothesis, other scientists will review it and either support it, refute it, or offer an alternative explanation. The test of scientific understanding is in the laboratory and not in the political arena.
Evolution is as real as gravity. It has survived 150 years of scientific scrutiny. Everything in the universe evolves. Stars, planets and even galaxies are born, evolve, and eventually die. Even the very atoms of our bodies were created in super nova explosions of dying stars. Planets are created and some become habitable for life. Live evolves from the most simple single cell live forms into greater and greater complexity as time goes on. From our one known example it appears to take about 4.5 billion years for a planet to spawn a civilization.
Saying that we do not fully understand evolution is no excuse to reject it, because the same thing could be said about gravity. Even after Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, there is still much about gravity that we do not understand. And yet we know that it is real.
The rejection of evolution is possible only through the most willful ignorance. That is not a quality that we need in our elected leaders. If a candidate is ignorant about evolution, then we could rightfully expect that they are ignorant about a host of other subjects as well, from history to economics to human behavior.
The rejection of evolution is rooted in the preference for ancient religious mythology over scientific fact. I say that not as some sort of atheist or radical secularist, but as a confessing Christian and a pastor.
The biblical world view was of a flat surface covered by a dome, like a dinner plate covered by a large, inverted salad bowl. The dome was called the “firmament.” Those who reject evolution on religious grounds ought logically to affirm the “flat earth” theory deny that the earth is round.
Galileo proclaimed that the earth revolved around the sun. His views were attacked by the church as “unchristian” for the next 350 years. We can be pretty sure that Galileo was right. We use Galileo’s architecture of the solar system to send space probes to Jupiter, Saturn and beyond.
Stem cell research promises an extraordinary advance in human health and quality of life. It ought not to be stymied by narrow-minded religious bigotry. Imagine a time when the paralyzed walk again through spinal regeneration and the blind see through newly regrown eyes and optic nerves. Diseased hearts, kidneys and livers will be regenerated by stem cell injections.
We are currently discovering that the LGBT community is a threat to the established order. Nor are they a singularly heinous class of sinners as many so-called Christians would have us believe. Rather, they are simply diverse groups of people wanting to live out their lives according to their created sexuality. Gay bashing is neither a Christian virtue nor a family value. It is not an expression of religious devotion but rather a persecution of those who are different.
Global warming is real. It is affirmed by over 95% of scientists working on climate issues. The ice in the Arctic, Antarctic, Greenland and the Tibetan plateau is melting at an ever-increasing rate. The long-sought Northwest Passage is now open for navigation. I expect that within my life time it will be possible to take a cruise ship to the North Pole.
We are in the midst of the worst extinction event in 65 million years. Global weather patterns are getting progressively more disturbed and destructive. We are seeing catastrophic hurricanes, floods, droughts and fires on a planetary scale. How long before our food supply dwindles or fresh water becomes more valuable than oil?
We need leadership that has a 21st Century worldview. We need leadership that is well-educated and enlightened, and at home in the modern world. We need leadership that is fluent in science and can understand and respect what science is telling us. We need leadership that is grounded in scientific fact, knowledge, logic and critical thinking.
The Spirituality of String Theory
String Theory or its close cousin M-theory, with their ten or eleven dimensions, is a universe beyond our comprehension. Cosmologists are still struggling with its workings and what it means for our existence. The origin of String Theory was in trying to describe what happened before the Big Bang. Cosmology and theology are drawing ever closer together as both sides seek to answer such basic theological-cosmological questions as:
- Where did we come from?
- Where are we going?
- Are there other worlds like ours?
- Why is there something rather than nothing?
Perhaps the most theological question raised by cosmology today is:
Is there a design for the universe, or is it simply the result of random chances raised to the billion-billion-billion-billionth power in some cosmic roll of the dice?
There are scientists of all stripes on both sides of this divide. Both sides can make elegant and impassioned arguments to support their positions.
The old paradigm of science vs. religion basically required that you had to choose one side or the other. Either you could check the weather forecast or pray for rain. Either you could believe that everything happens by the uncaring forces of random chance. Or, you could believe in divine providence.
In the old “normal-space” view of the universe, we were bound by the three dimensions of space plus one of time. We lived in a series of boxes divided by walls, floors and ceilings representing height, width and depth. Anything that did not fit into such three-dimensional boxes was simply not part of the normal-space universe and could be ignored.
But the three dimensions of normal-space could never capture all that was happening. For example, Chinese acupuncture seems to have no medical connection to our physiology. Perhaps a better way of stating that is that western medicine cannot make that connection. And yet acupuncture seems to be providing health, strength and vitality to its adherents. The skeptic could say that any benefit derived from acupuncture could be purely delusional, caused by wishful thinking or caused by the placebo effect. But let’s not be hasty.
Acupuncture involves the flow of a special energy called “qi “, which travels along meridians of the body. But these supposed meridians appear on any western anatomy charts. The literal translation of qi is wind, breath or gas but is often translated as life force. The equivalent word in New Testament Greek is pneuma, which means air or breath but is usually translated as spirit.
Visualizing String Theory requires the ability to think in paradox, where two seemingly contradictory ideas can be held together with a sense of deeper harmony. Paradoxical thinking requires a more expansive view of the universe than does our ordinary normal-space existence with its notion of certainty. Perhaps there is some efficacy to acupuncture, even if western medicine cannot understand it. This is neither to support nor deny acupuncture, but only to suggest that there is more going on in the universe than we can comprehend with our limited, normal-space thinking.
Perhaps the extra dimensions in String Theory give us the space to allow for dimensions of existence that we have previously thought of as magical, mystical, spiritual or religious. And, here is a radical thought. Perhaps String Theory not only allows for the mystical, but perhaps even requires it.
Energy conduits enter our homes to provide radio signals, electricity, clean water, natural gas, telephone service, Internet access, and a host of other connections to the outside world. These special conduits or channels enormously affect the normal-space boxes in which we live, and provide a host of special powers that would have been seen as miraculous even a few hundred years ago. This analogy may help us to explore the extra dimensions of String Theory. Perhaps one of the String Theory extra dimensions is a channel for qi, a force that we cannot access until we understand it.
As a Christian, and more specifically a Calvinist, I have always found the universe to be a sacred place filled with divine logos. “Logo” is Greek for “word” in standard New Testament usage. But it means more than just the spoken word. It also means order, pattern, or design. When we speak of divine logos, we are speaking about the divine order that pervades all things. It covers the birth of the universe, the mating habits of tsetse flies, the DNA molecule, the Van Allen radiation belts, the formation of the planets, and the life cycles of stars.
To perceive the divine logos in all things is to live in a spiritual dimension. And now, String Theory may allow such a metaphysical statement to be incorporated into an expanded view of the universe. Perhaps there is actually in the physical universe a place beyond normal-space where spirit dwells.
Try to envision a universe with nine spatial dimensions and one dimension of time. Such is the emerging view of our universe according to String Theory. Or, if you prefer the closely related M-theory, you will have to live with a universe of ten spatial dimensions and one of time.
I used to lie awake nights pondering where the extra dimensions were to be found. I would concentrate on a corner of the room, where two walls and the ceiling met, and try to envision a fourth spatial dimension. Our whole world view of normal space is constricted to three spatial dimensions, length, width and height. Trying to envision anything beyond those is very difficult.
But the extra spatial dimensions are not like the familiar width, length and height. Rather, they seem to be curled up inside of ordinary space as the image above suggests. They are closer to us than our own skin, and yet the open up to the very edges of our universe and perhaps beyond.
To envision String Theory, we must leave behind our normal concepts of space. Normal space that is bound by boxes demarcated by width, length and height. String Theory does not involve a fourth or fifth box dimension, but something much more exciting.
Think of the extra dimensions not as spaces but as channels or conduits. Our houses are not just boxes stacked together. What makes our houses actually work are the conduits that supply us with water, electricity, heating and cooling, and connectivity. When we flip a light switch, we expect the light to come on. We do not need to know the location of the electrical wiring, and so we do not even think about it.
Of course one could argue that these conduits are simply small boxes hidden within the big boxes of the house, and that would be technically correct. An electrical cable actually does have dimensions, and does occupy specific spaces within the walls, ceilings and floors of the house. But there are no dimensions to a Wi-Fi signal. There is no wiring schematic to show where the WI-Fi signal runs. It seems not to exist in ordinary space. Because Wi-Fi is totally disembodied, it makes an even better analogy for extra dimensions.
For most of human history, if you wanted to send a message a long distance, you would have to entrust it to a human (or string of humans), who would bodily carry the letter to its destination. A human being, moving under her or his own power, can cover something like 32 kilometers (20 miles) per day, and that assumes the most optimal terrain an weather conditions. At the end of the War of 1812, hostilities continued for more than sixty days after the war had officially ended because of the difficulties in spreading word of the wars ending to remote frontier regions.
Radio communications were as much a part of the universe back then as they are now. The problem was that the combatant in 1812 lacked the understanding of radio as well as any technological infrastructure to exploit it.
Today is a much different world. It is now possible for a person in Nome, Alaska to play a chess game with someone from Pretoria, South Africa, and to conclude that game real-time within in five or ten minutes. In the old days it would have taken many years of postal chess, where one move at a time would have been mailed from one participant to another, with each move requiring weeks or even months to arrive at its destination. We have achieved on this planet a state of simultaneity. And what I mean by that is that whatever happens at any place on the planet is now knows instantly across the whole planet, or at least in those places that have the technological infrastructure to tap into the planetary communications grid.
But once we leave the confines of this planet, that state of simultaneity vanishes. On earth, light speed communication counts as instantaneous, as radio waves can circle our planet seven-and-one-half times in one second. As we reach out into space, even a signal to Mars can take up to forty-five minutes. There is no need for a message to Curiosity telling it to, “Look out for that rock!” because by the time the message gets there, the rock will be just a distant memory.
Captain Kirk could always call Star Fleet Headquarters on “sub-space” communications links.
Now back to String Theory. What if some of these extra dimensions could provide us with simultaneity throughout the universe? This unfamiliar concept would totally change our society, not to mention our conception of the universe.
Think of two stars that are 10,000 light years apart. Now let us assume that both have civilizations and that both of these civilizations construct radio telescopes at the same time. Can we call this a simultaneous event? I think not because these two civilizations are not aware of each other’s presence. It also works to say that they are not aware of each other’s presents. Because of the messaging time, neither could be aware of the other’s existence for at least 10,000 years. A signal followed by a response would take at least 20,000 years. After such a long time interval one or both of those civilizations could have died out, or have been pushed back into the Stone Age.
Civilization on earth has only been around for 10,000 years. Civilization refers to the creation of walled cities, the development of agriculture, and the creation of writing and mathematics. The earth has had radio telescopes for only 100 years, and really good ones for about 50 years. While radio has been around since the late 19th Century, there was not much in the way of outbound radio messaging that could be intercepted in other star systems until World War II. Thus, our messages have been streaming out for only about sixty years to star systems in a sphere with a 60 light year radius. The Milky Way Galaxy has a radius of some 60,000 light years.
Now, let us suppose that String Theory allows for one or more of the extra dimensions to function as a channel or conduit through which connectivity is possible. Imagine if these two civilizations could sit down for a friendly game of chess in real time.
Somehow logic demands that there be universal simultaneity. We have just not discovered the technology to understand and exploit that technology. String Theory gives us at least the possibility of knowing what is happening on Proxima Centauri right now, without the need to wait 4.2 years to receive the message via light waves.
Paradoxes are common in both cosmology and in theology. Indeed, this shared quality demonstrates how these two seemingly diverse endeavors are really quite similar, if not two sides of the same coin.
A photon can act like either a wave or a particle depending on what is being tested, or what question is being asked.
Relativity and Quantum Mechanics both are needed to describe the universe, and yet these two views of the cosmos cannot live together in harmony. Relativity describes the very large, while Quantum Mechanics describes the very small. These theories clash in such arenas as black holes, where very large massed converge in very small spaces causing the mathematics to break down.
Matter can be thought of as frozen or congealed energy. The rock in your hand feels solid and permanent, but is really only a lump of frozen energy. And it is not permanent at all, but ephemeral. One common understanding of dark energy is that all atoms will be eventually ripped apart and normal, baryonic matter will be no more.
The speed of light is the cosmic speed limit, except that this speed limit does not exist for space itself. The theory of Inflation, first proposed by Alan Guth, requires that at the Big Bang space expanded vastly faster than the speed of light. This means that the universe is vastly larger than our horizon. We can see 13.5 billion light years in any direction, because that is the age of the universe and is as far back in time as we can see. But if we could stand at that horizon, we could see an additional 13.5 billion years further on. Our Universe seems to be paradoxically both bounded and boundless.
Even our Universe may not be all that there is. String Theory and M (or ‘Brane) theory suggest that our Universe is not alone. Rather, the image of our Universe is more like one soap-bubble among countless others.
Theology is impossible without paradoxical thinking. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. Unless a believer can fully hold to these paradoxical understandings then they have not understood the incarnation and what it means.
The Holy Bible was written over some 1,400 years by hundreds of human hands. They represent many different viewpoints and cultural epochs. They record the spiritual saga of the Jews and the early Christians, written from a human perspective. And yet somehow there is divine inspiration to be found within.
The Universe was created according to the laws of science. It was formed from the Big Bang, evolved according to inflation, general relativity, special relativity, quantum mechanics, plate tectonics, evolution, genetic mutation, chaos theory, random chance, fractals and a host of other scientific
principles, known and unknown. And yet somehow it was created by God and filled with God’s logos, or divine order that permeates all things.
A good example of this divine logos is the concept of fractals. Fractal math describes how large items can be structured by simple repeating patterns. The architecture of a leaf is a fractal pattern with cells and veins growing out of the repetition of simple patterns. The arrangement of the limbs and branches of a tree are also derived from fractal patterns. Fractal patterns can create vast and elegant constructions from a few simple codes. This coding can be computer code or DNA. Coastal redwood trees can grow to over 360 feet in height. One of the joys of living in Northern California is walking through forests of these giant trees that grow to form living cathedrals. And yet, through the miracle of fractal algorithms, the seeds of these magnificent trees are no bigger than a grain of rice.
John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed Tradition, wrote that to study the creation is to study the creator. His words provided the theological foundation for all of modern science. Cosmology links science and theology.
We live in a Universe that is beyond all comprehension. And yet, the paradox is that we can learn to comprehend it. And that might be the ultimate paradox.
While I will confess to be a very partisan person, I chose never to engage in partisanship on this blog during the election. There was already way too much partisan hatred and bickering. There was already a cacophony of voices screaming insults and abuse at each other. This is no way to run an election, or a country for that matter. But now we need to sort things out and begin our journey forward. To do this we must take a painful and honest look at our nation’s troubles, and figure out how we can best come together to solve them.
We need to find a way to come together as a nation and discuss our various issues and their best solutions. In the present political climate any civil discourse seems impossible.
The Republican leader in the Senate said early on that the party’s primary goal was to prevent Barack Obama from being elected to a second term. Such a stance can only be described as destructive defiance. It seems that the Republicans, and especially those of the Tea Party persuasion, tried to sink the ship of state because they were unable to set its course. That is partisanship gone rancid. Every proposal that Obama offered up, including his quest to find acceptable compromises, were shot down by intransigent Republicans. And then, to add insult to injury, the Republicans viciously accused Obama of having a failed presidency. A failed Tea Party mutiny is a more apt description of the last two years.
In the kinder, gentler times in Washington, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill declared that, “We are all friends here after 5:00 pm and on weekends.” If only we could recapture such civility in today’s political life.
Our country is still in a mess. There is no dispute about that. We have rampant unemployment, soaring debts, a shaky, unfunded entitlement system, a collapse of the middle class, a large and accelerating gap between the haves and the have-nots. The middle class is hurting and the poor are becoming ever more destitute.
We need tax reform, immigration reform, and regulatory reform. We need to create jobs, rebuild our infrastructure, rebuild our economy, and rebuild our crumbling education system that was once the pride of the planet and the source of our great economic well-being as a nation that once allowed even our working classes to participate in the American Dream.
On the global front we are in the midst of the largest mass extinction in seventy-five million years. We need to develop a sustainable economy that does not plunder the earth’s resources or endanger its future to power our economy today. So, before we build pipelines to move shale oil down from Canada we need to stop and assess the environmental impact. Sustainability must now be a key component of every decision.
If Mitt Romney ever had a plan to govern this country he refused to communicate it to the general public. Every question directed to him was answered either by reciting his talking points or by attacking the president.
He spoke repeatedly about tax breaks for the millionaires and billionaires on the grounds that these are the job creators. But this was also George W. Bush’s line. It was a failure then and it would be a renewed failure again. It might be a good idea to give tax breaks that spawn actual job creation. But without such a linkage many of the rich would simply park their excess cash in their Swiss bank accounts helping no one.
There is already too much idle cash on the sidelines awaiting productive investment opportunities. What is lacking is not excess cash, but rather consumer demand. If you want to stimulate the economy and create jobs then put some extra cash in the pockets of the middle class so that they can go out and buy tires and refrigerators, thus creating demand and driving production.
Romney wanted to see financial regulations abandoned to free up business from government interference. But we have had three major financial crises in recent history that were directly caused by the lack of effective government regulation:
- The Savings and Loan Crisis in the Reagan era caused by deregulation of the thrift industry.
- The stock market collapse of 2000-2002 caused by the complete failure of the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate our financial markets. Elliot Richardson, then the Attorney General of the New York was the only person even trying at that time to regulate the financial markets. During this time of regulatory abdication, the predators, thieves and con-artists had their field day. The rogues list includes such names as Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, and a host of others. The financial losses from this event totaled over $5 trillion.
- Finally, we had the global collapse of our financial markets due to the “liar loans” in 2008. Mortgage companies would give loans to anyone who could fog a mirror. These trash loans were then securitized with “AAA” ratings and sold throughout the global financial markets. When this house of cards, built on corruption and regulatory abdication, finally collapsed, it created a global recession from which we have yet to extricate ourselves.
Does any of this sound like we need LESS regulation?
Romney never did explain how he could give tax breaks to the rich, increase military spending by two trillion dollars and balance the budget. Such nonsense is what George H.W. Bush called “Voodoo Economics.” He did speak of doing away with almost all federal programs that actually benefit the middle class and working poor. In a frenzy of social Darwinism he would cut funding for Head Start, unemployment insurance, Pell grants and student loans. The millionaires and billionaires would prosper mightily under a Romney administration, while the rest of us would be floundering in debt and despair, and left with no rope to climb. Even Big Bird had his head on the chopping block. Excuse me, but is not Big Bird about preschool education? While government subsidies for public television do not pay for the production of Big Bird, they do go to sustain broadcasts of Big Bird to smaller, mostly rural communities where the need for such preschool education is critical.
And then there is the strange case of Obamacare that was at the center of Romney’s attacks. Obamacare began as Romneycare in Massachusett. So, how could Romney attack what was essentially his own plan raised to the federal level?
The American health care system before Obamacare was a disgrace. The U.S. spends 17% of its GDP on healthcare, while no other country spends more than 12%. And still our health care outcomes trail most of the world. The leading cause of personal bankruptcy in this country is from medical bills. It would be hard for anyone to argue that our system did not need a major redesign.
Romney claimed that he would repeal Obamacare his first day in office. But he never told us what he would do to replace it.