16 January 2006

Monday Quote

Marcel Proust, quoted in Marc Edmundson’s Why Read?:
The mediocre usually imagine that to let ourselves be guided by the books we admire robs our faculty of judgment of part of its independence. ‘What can it matter to you what Ruskin feels: feel for yourself.’ Such a view rests on a psychological error which will be discounted by all those who have accepted a spiritual discipline and feel thereby that their power of understanding and of feeling is infinitely enhanced, and their critical sense never paralyzed… There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt. In this profound effort it is our own thought itself that we bring out into the light, together with his.

12 January 2006

Gearing Up for the Brain-God Wars

Today’s Nature includes a letter that visits a topic on which I have posted previously. Under the headline “Neuroscience gears up for duel on the issue of brain versus deity”,
Kenneth S. Kosik, of the Neuroscience Research Institute at UC Santa Barbara says we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
The argument over evolution versus intelligent design, discussed in … “Day of judgement for intelligent design” (Nature 438, 267; 2005), is a relatively small-stakes theological issue compared with the potential eruption in neuroscience over the material nature of the mind.

Siding with evolution does not really pose a serious problem for many deeply religious people, because one can easily accept evolution without doubting the existence of a non-material being. On the other hand, the truly radical and still maturing view in the neuroscience community that the mind is entirely the product of the brain presents the ultimate challenge to nearly all religions.

The slow ramping up of this debate, from Descartes’ dualism in the seventeenth century to the neurophilosopher materialists’ claims of victory today, is about to spill over from an esoteric mind–brain debate to the divisive question of whether a product of the mind, such as God, can have any traditionally valid existence whatsoever.

The debate becomes whether a deity, on one hand, stems from human imagination or biological drive or, on the other hand, has an authentic existence that the brain has evolved to perceive.
I was wondering about this just last night, in the context of thinking about sacred texts, which are often said to be written from direct revelation. It can be a complicated topic. For example, Catholics distinguish revelation (spiritual communication of truth) from inspiration (spiritual illumination to encourage or enable the mind to conceive truth) and divine assistance (spiritual prevention from making incorrect choices, the presumed source of papal inerrancy). But in all variations, there must be some point of interaction between the spiritual world of God and the physical world of the mind. How can this be anything but problematical dualism, with all the troubles accruing thereto?

Kosik continues:
The reappearance of dualism brings back dusty old memories of long-ago battles that may now need to be refought. As we saw from the media ruckus raised by the Dalai Lama’s address to November’s Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington DC (even if this did turn down to a rather low simmer on site), the potential for impassioned disagreement exists.

The matter now stands at an intellectual impasse, waiting for an issue around which polarized views will crystallize. We can expect some heady days.


09 January 2006

Monday Quote Frenzy - The Difficulty of Writing

Having just finished James Shapiro’s superb A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare – 1599, and being unable to finish anything else today, I have drawn two Elizabethan comments cited by Shapiro, on the difficulty of getting it down.

First, Shakespeare, from The Rape of Lucrece, on the problem of having too much to say:
First hovering o’er the paper with her quill:
Conceit and grief an eager combat fight;
What wit sets down is blotted straight with will;
This is too curious-good, this blunt and ill:
Much like a press of people at a door,
Throng her inventions, which shall go before.
Then, Ben Jonson, on Shakespeare’s talent as an editor on deadline:
Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,
(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
Upon the Muses’ anvil; turn the same,
(And himself with it) that he thinks to frame;
Or for the laurel he may gain a scorn,
For a good poet’s made as well as born.
And such wert thou.

05 January 2006

Hold the Fort

ArXiv is where every physicist goes first thing in the morning. Originally hosted at Los Alamos, and now at Cornell, arXiv posts electronic versions of preprints in the fields of physics, mathematics, non-linear science, computer science, and quantitative biology. There’s a lot that could be said about the whole issue of electronic publication and prepublication (pre peer review) distribution; there are some good discussions about this already posted at arXiv itself. The Wikipedia-ish aspect that I want to highlight here is that submissions are essentially unedited. Only the most obviously crazy stuff is weeded out; the more sublimely insane is there for all to read.

On Tuesday morning, there appeared astro-ph/0601022, “The red rain phenomenon of Kerala and its possible extraterrestrial origin”, by Godfrey Louis and A. S. Kumar, of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, India. The manuscript says it has been accepted for publication in the journal Astrophysics and Space Science, which is one of the many Springer Science+Business Media scientific journals. I quote the abstract in full:
A red rain phenomenon occurred in Kerala, India starting from 25th July 2001, in which the rainwater appeared coloured in various localized places that are spread over a few hundred kilometers in Kerala. Maximum cases were reported during the first 10 days and isolated cases were found to occur for about 2 months. The striking red colouration of the rainwater was found to be due to the suspension of microscopic red particles having the appearance of biological cells. These particles have no similarity with usual desert dust. An estimated minimum quantity of 50,000 kg of red particles has fallen from the sky through red rain. An analysis of this strange phenomenon further shows that the conventional atmospheric transport processes like dust storms etc. cannot explain this phenomenon. The electron microscopic study of the red particles shows fine cell structure indicating their biological cell like nature. EDAX analysis shows that the major elements present in these cell like particles are carbon and oxygen. Strangely, a test for DNA using Ethidium Bromide dye fluorescence technique indicates absence of DNA in these cells. In the context of a suspected link between a meteor airburst event and the red rain, the possibility for the extraterrestrial origin of these particles from cometary fragments is discussed.

I know that Charles Fort is not forgotten, because Wikipedia, as usual, has an excellent article on him. I first encountered him via his great work Lo!, originally published in 1931. He had been a journalist of sorts and an almost entirely unpublished novelist, but his fame rests on the results of his spending the last 30-odd years of his life in the British Museum and the New York Public Library, collecting odd reports from newspapers and journals. These reports were of such things as a shower of frogs in Nevada; a shower of eels in Alabama; a rain of brown worms in Indiana and, ten days later, a rain of red worms in Massachusetts; a shower of snails in Cornwall; a rain of blood California; deluges of nails in Texas and of periwinkles in Worcester. And so forth.

Fort seemed to be having fun, irritating what he felt were the humorless and dogmatic priests of science with his casual attitude toward verification and the outlandishness of his hypotheses. For example, he suggested that rains of toads and such came from a vast “Sargasso Sea of space.” Not surprisingly, alas, he gained adherents, like Ben Hecht, Theodore Dreiser, and Tiffany Thayer. Thayer (also a novelist) formed the Fortean Society so that, after Fort’s death, his fans could become the same kind of earnest, humorless drones that he’d lampooned. One of the Fortean Society’s better known members was Kenneth Arnold. Remember? 1947? Flying ‘saucers’?

So red rain is pretty much worth a footnote in Fort’s book. In fact, it may well have been. At least, William Corliss, who has carried on the Fortean project, notes a report of a red rain in Naples, Italy, that occurred in 1818. (Sorry, his 1974 book Strange Phenomena is out of print.)

The original reports of the Kerala red rain appeared mostly in the Indian press, although the BBC carried one story. Interestingly, the BBC reported that rains of other colors (green, yellow, brown, black) followed the red rains. The Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS) at Thiruvananthapuram first suggested that a bolide (a meteor exploding in the upper atmosphere) triggered the rain. Then, after analyzing samples of the rainwater, they reported that a filtered precipitate showed various elements — including carbon, silicon, calcium, magnesium, aluminum, iron, sodium and potassium, as well as significant traces (in parts per million) of phosphorus, titanium, chromium, manganese, copper and nickel – and more surprisingly, a red-colored cell structure that they tentatively identified as spores of some species of fungus.

Louis and Kumar took it from there. They produced two papers in 2003 (here and here, again with thanks to arXiv) that the precipitate was composed of the resting spores of an extreme hyperthermophilic microbe, which had been delivered by comet to the stratosphere above Kerala. They argued that the spores were similar to those identified in interstellar clouds by Chandra Wickramasinghe and colleagues.

Wickramasinghe has been in the news off and on, perhaps most prominently because of his testimony at the 1981 Arkansas creationism trial. For some reason, he was called as a creationist witness, even though it was his belief that life was not created on earth but rather deposited from space (the venerable panspermia concept). He and Fred Hoyle wrote a book in 1981 called Evolution From Space (also out of print), in which they argued that influenza epidemics were triggered by cometary depositions. (A good library may have the March 1999 issue of Astrophysics and Space Science, vol. 268, pp. 1-382, which is devoted to papers on the Hoyle and Wickramasinghe panspermia hypothesis.) Some of their evidence involved apparent similarities of infrared and ultraviolet spectra of microbial spores to spectra measured towards objects in interstellar clouds. This was very thoroughly debunked at the time; I have the references in a box somewhere.

Neither of the 2003 papers was apparently published, but their latest variation has, as we have seen, finally gotten through the referees – in the same journal that featured Hoyle and Wickramasinghe. This is a little surprising, as there has been general agreement elsewhere that the phenomenon was due to nothing more than an admixture of dust from the Arabian Gulf region. (Kerala is on the coast of the Arabian Sea.) The possibility of such an explanation was raised almost immediately by other scientists on the scene, such as seismologist V. K. Gaur. Later studies of satellite and lidar data, carried out by folks from the Vikram Sarabai Space Centre, also in Thiruvananthapuram, confirmed that the cause was a dust cloud that originated in the gulf countries. They published this result in the January 2004 issue of Aerosol Science and Technology.

Louis and Kumar dispute this interpretation, mostly because of their analysis of the particles in the rainwater samples. The particles show little structure reminiscent of biological cells – they have very thick outer layers, no nuclei, and only show disorganized internal clutter under electron microscopy. They show no evidence of DNA. Yet Louis and Kumar insist that they look like cells, and so that must trump the rest of the evidence. The reader can check for herself; their preprint includes lots of images from their tests.

Of course, there was little to no control over the taking of the rain samples. Dr. Gaur, who was in the region studying the collapse of a number of wells to check for possible seismic activity, addressed that point when asked about wells that were supposedly yielding red water.
I can only speculate on what has happened in these regions where the wells have opened up, but I think my speculation maybe quite accurate. There must have been a topsoil of laterite [an iron oxide]. Below it, there is soluble material that has gone down and formed clay. If you go deeper and deeper, you will find other materials… Rainwater would have flowed easily down through the laterite layers until it encountered the clay layer, where it would have got blocked. This accumulation of water over the years would have created a great pressure, weakened those walls… There is so much human activity that can also cause [weakening]. People use laterite for bricks. If the clay layer is exposed, the clay layer itself may crumble and cave in. It may look like a well.

This is all pure speculation. To be sure that this is exactly what happened, somebody must give us exact data. This question was also asked in the committee that I head to study earthquake management. I told them that there was nothing much we could make out because all the evidence we had been given so far was purely anecdotal.

If we had even a clear soil profile, we could have come up with some conclusions. We could have put some numbers on it if we had had a good sample of the soil. We could have put these numbers together and said how much pressure had built up. But this was not done. I think this was most irresponsible.

There are so many competent people in Kerala. The government could have asked any of them to do this. This should be done before we draw any conclusions. Instead you have someone coming up with a bucket of soil saying that he collected it from a red well. You do not know what else was in that bucket before the soil went into it. How can you draw any scientific conclusions? You can only speculate.

As usual, we are left with Tom Paine’s question: “is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie?” What is more likely: That Louis and Kumar are at least overrunning the evidence, treating their rain samples as uncompromised and incontestable data, and that the red rain was just contaminated by windblown desert dust? Or that space bugs fell on Kerala?

In assessing the probabilities, one might want to note that the impact of desert dust blown over long distances has been addressed for some time, at least since Charles Darwin’s 1846 paper in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London (vol. 2, p. 26). An article in the April 10, 1902, issue of Nature, applies this explanation to a variety of red rains in Europe. As quoted 99 years later in the April 11, 2001, issue (3 months before the Kerala red rain!):
The “red rain” which fell in many parts of Italy and extended as far as Vienna and other central European stations on the evening of March 10, 1901, has been subsequently studied by Prof. N. Passerini, and an account of the phenomena is now given by him in the Bolletino mensuale of the Italian Meteorological Society. The phenomenon appears to have travelled slowly from south to north… Prof. Passerini found that the precipitation of the earthy substance was accompanied with very little rain, and a rough analysis showed it to contain about 44 per cent. of fine sand, 32 per cent. of argillaceous matter, 12 per cent. of calcareous matter and about 10 per cent. of organic and volatile substances destroyed by calcination. The red colour was probably due to ferric hydrate… It is suggested that the material deposited in this and other so-called “rains of blood” that have occurred at different times in Italy may probably have been transported by a cyclonic disturbance, and may have had its origin in the equatorial regions of Africa or America.
Other episodes of red rain (and red snow), similarly analyzed, are discussed in Clement et al., 1972, La Météorologie (Paris) (vol. 24, p. 65); Bücher and Lucas, 1975, La Météorologie (Paris) ( vol. 33, p. 53); and Prodi and Fea 1979, Journal of Geophysical Research C (vol. 84, p. 6951). None of these authors found evidence of extraterrestrial microbes.

One closing thought. Charles Fort was always good for a quote; his Wikipedia entry includes a fun question to toss into the intelligent design ‘debate’:

If there is a universal mind, must it be sane?

02 January 2006

Monday Quote Frenzy - Bertrand Russell

Politics is largely governed by sententious platitudes which are devoid of truth.

The kind of arch remark one expects from arch-skeptic Bertrand Russell. This one comes from a brief work (only a few dozen pages) called An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish, which appeared in 1943. While not generally available these days, it has provided one quotation that turns up in many anthologies:
Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.
I thought that was a particularly relevant comment for the War on Terror, and wanted to put it in context. Fortunately, a big excerpt from the book has been posted on the Web, and I have extracted from that the parts that particularly interested me.

Russell focuses in particular on the platitude “human nature cannot be changed” and the variously dangerous ways in which governments exploit it. In particular:
There is one peculiarly pernicious application of the doctrine that human nature cannot be changed. This is the dogmatic assertion that there will always be wars, because we are so constituted that we feel a need of them.
It is quite striking that Russell was publishing a work that was both pacifist and deeply suspicious of all government while World War II was still under way and its outcome still in doubt. It is also fascinating, and somewhat depressing, to see how much is relevant to our own times.
I am persuaded that there is absolutely no limit to the absurdities that can, by government action, come to be generally believed. Give me an adequate army, with power to provide it with more pay and better food than falls to the lot of the average man, and I will undertake, within thirty years, to make the majority of the population believe that two and two are three, that water freezes when it gets hot and boils when it gets cold, or any other nonsense that might seem to serve the interest of the State. Of course, even when these beliefs had been generated, people would not put the kettle in the ice-box when they wanted it to boil. That cold makes water boil would be a Sunday truth, sacred and mystical, to be professed in awed tones, but not to be acted on in daily life. What would happen would be that any verbal denial of the mystic doctrine would be made illegal, and obstinate heretics would be "frozen" at the stake. No person who did not enthusiastically accept the official doctrine would be allowed to teach or to have any position of power. Only the very highest officials, in their cups, would whisper to each other what rubbish it all is; then they would laugh and drink again. This is hardly a caricature of what happens under some modern governments.

The discovery that man can be scientifically manipulated, and that governments can turn large masses this way or that as they choose, is one of the causes of our misfortunes. There is as much difference between a collection of mentally free citizens and a community molded by modern methods of propaganda as there is between a heap of raw materials and a battleship. Education, which was at first made universal in order that all might be able to read and write, has been found capable of serving quite other purposes. By instilling nonsense it unifies populations and generates collective enthusiasm. If all governments taught the same nonsense, the harm would not be so great. Unfortunately each has its own brand, and the diversity serves to produce hostility between the devotees of different creeds. If there is ever to be peace in the world, governments will have to agree either to inculcate no dogmas, or all to inculcate the same. The former, I fear, is a Utopian ideal, but perhaps they could agree to teach collectively that all public men, everywhere, are completely virtuous and perfectly wise. Perhaps, when the war is over, the surviving politicians may find it prudent to combine on some such programme.
Not content to rant, Russell also offers some useful rules by which we might ease our pain.
To avoid the various foolish opinions to which mankind are prone, no superhuman genius is required. A few simple rules will keep you, not from all error, but from silly error.

If the matter is one that can be settled by observation, make the observation yourself. Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men, by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted. He did not do so because he thought he knew. Thinking that you know when in fact you don't is a fatal mistake, to which we are all prone. I believe myself that hedgehogs eat black beetles, because I have been told that they do; but if I were writing a book on the habits of hedgehogs, I should not commit myself until I had seen one enjoying this unappetizing diet. Aristotle, however, was less cautious. Ancient and medieval authors knew all about unicorns and salamanders; not one of them thought it necessary to avoid dogmatic statements about them because he had never seen one of them.

Many matters, however, are less easily brought to the test of experience. If, like most of mankind, you have passionate convictions on many such matters, there are ways in which you can make yourself aware of your own bias. If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do. If some one maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction. The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.
He also recommends an approach that Cassirer says was favored by Kant. In a 1771 letter to Marcus Herz, Kant said:
You know that I examine reasonable criticisms, not merely as to how they might be refuted, but also upon reflection I always weave them into my judgments and allow them to overthrow all preconceived opinions that I have previously cherished. In this way I always hope to look at my judgments impartially, from the standpoint of someone else, so as to derive a third view which is better than the one I had.
Similarly, Russell says:
For those who have enough psychological imagination, it is a good plan to imagine an argument with a person having a different bias. This has one advantage, and only one, as compared with actual conversation with opponents; this one advantage is that the method is not subject to the same limitations of time or space. Mahatma Gandhi deplores railways and steamboats and machinery; he would like to undo the whole of the industrial revolution. You may never have an opportunity of actually meeting any one who holds this opinion, because in Western countries most people take the advantage of modern technique for granted. But if you want to make sure that you are right in agreeing with the prevailing opinion, you will find it a good plan to test the arguments that occur to you by considering what Gandhi might say in refutation of them. I have sometimes been led actually to change my mind as a result of this kind of imaginary dialogue, and, short of this, I have frequently found myself growing less dogmatic and cocksure through realizing the possible reasonableness of a hypothetical opponent.

Be very wary of opinions that flatter your self-esteem. Both men and women, nine times out of ten, are firmly convinced of the superior excellence of their own sex. There is abundant evidence on both sides. If you are a man, you can point out that most poets and men of science are male; if you are a woman, you can retort that so are most criminals. The question is inherently insoluble, but self esteem conceals this from most people. We are all, whatever part of the world we come from, persuaded that our own nation is superior to all others. Seeing that each nation has its characteristic merits and demerits, we adjust our standard of values so as to make out that the merits possessed by our nation are the really important ones, while its demerits are comparatively trivial. Here, again, the rational man will admit that the question is one to which there is no demonstrably right answer. It is more difficult to deal with the self esteem of man as man, because we cannot argue out the matter with some non-human mind. The only way I know of dealing with this general human conceit is to remind ourselves that man is a brief episode in the life of a small planet in a little corner of the universe, and that, for aught we know, other parts of the cosmos may contain beings as superior to ourselves as we are to jellyfish.

Other passions besides self-esteem are common sources of error; of these perhaps the most important is fear. Fear sometimes operates directly, by inventing rumors of disaster in war-time, or by imagining objects of terror, such as ghosts; sometimes it operates indirectly, by creating belief in something comforting, such as the elixir of life, or heaven for ourselves and hell for our enemies. Fear has many forms - fear of death, fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of the herd, and that vague generalized fear that comes to those who conceal from themselves their more specific terrors. Until you have admitted your own fears to yourself, and have guarded yourself by a difficult effort of will against their mythmaking power, you cannot hope to think truly about many matters of great importance, especially those with which religious beliefs are concerned. Fear is the main source of superstition and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom, in the pursuit of truth as in the endeavor after a worthy manner of life.
This, then, is the context in which that famous quote appears:
Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd. So it was in the French Revolution, when dread of foreign armies produced the reign of terror. And it is to be feared that the Nazis, as defeat draws nearer, will increase the intensity of their campaign for exterminating Jews. Fear generates impulses of cruelty, and therefore promotes such superstitious beliefs as seem to justify cruelty. Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear. And for this reason poltroons are more prone to cruelty than brave men, and are also more prone to superstition. When I say this, I am thinking of men who are brave in all respects, not only in facing death. Many a man will have the courage to die gallantly, but will not have the courage to say, or even to think, that the cause for which he is asked to die is an unworthy one. Obloquy is, to most men, more painful than death; that is one reason why, in times of collective excitement, so few men venture to dissent from the prevailing opinion. No Carthaginian denied Moloch, because to do so would have required more courage than was required to face death in battle.

Perhaps the world would lose some of its interest and variety if such beliefs were wholly replaced by cold science. Perhaps we may allow ourselves to be glad of the Abecedarians, who were so-called because, having rejected all profane learning, they thought it wicked to learn the ABC. And we may enjoy the perplexity of the South American Jesuit who wondered how the sloth could have traveled, since the Flood, all the way from Mount Ararat to Peru - a journey which its extreme tardiness of locomotion rendered almost incredible. A wise man will enjoy the goods of which there is a plentiful supply, and of intellectual rubbish he will find an abundant diet, in our own age as in every other.
The site where this extended excerpt appears is devoted to panarchy, a concept with which I was previously unfamiliar. I doubt that I can do it justice, but the basic idea (apparently proposed by a Belgian named De Puydt in 1860) is to allow all forms of government to exist and allow people to choose which one they want to live under. It is the ultimate in applying the laissez-faire principles of the ideal marketplace to politics.