Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

A cute puzzler

October 16, 2017

This came not from Car Talk but an essay I read. Imagine a ribbon girdling the Earth’s circumference. Then add just one meter to the ribbon’s length. So there’d be a little slack. How big is the gap between the ribbon and the Earth’s surface?

Most people would guess it’s extremely tiny — that was my intuitive answer — a mere meter being nugatory over such a huge distance. But the surprising answer is about 16 centimeters. If the ribbon was snug around the Equator before, how could an added meter make it that much less snug?

My wife and I puzzled over this and soon figured out the simple solution, without even using pencil and paper:

A circle’s diameter is the circumference divided by Pi (3.14+) — i.e., a bit less than a third. If two circumferences differ by a meter, then their diameters differ by almost 1/3 of a meter — say about 32 centimeters — or about 16 centimeters at each end.

The essay said only mathematicians and dressmakers get this right.


Human history in a nutshell, Part 1: Evolution

September 28, 2017

It was about six million years ago that we last shared a common ancestor with a biologically distinct gang — chimps and other apes. But our species, Homo Sapiens, is only a couple of hundred thousand years old. Between those two chronological markers, a lot of evolution happened.

In fact, over those six million years, quite a large number of more or less “human” or proto-human species came and went. The line of descent that produced us was only one of many. All the others petered out.

As the story unfolded among all these variant creatures, two different basic strategies evolved. Call one vegetarian. Its practitioners relied on a menu much like that of modern apes — fruits, nuts, berries, etc. A pretty reliable diet, but due to low nutritional content, much energy was devoted to eating and digesting — they literally had to consume a lot to get the energy to consume a lot. A big digestive system was required, diverting resources that otherwise could have gone to their brains.

The other group went for brains rather than guts. This required a high energy diet, i.e., including meat. But meat was hard to get, for such weak little critters lacking fangs and claws. Getting meat required brains.

All well and good, except that bigger brains meant bigger heads, a bit of a problem for mothers giving birth. And that was exacerbated by a second evolutionary trajectory. Hunting meat proved to be a lot easier for early humans if, instead of going on all fours, they could efficiently walk upright and even run. Doing that called for changes to pelvic architecture, which had the effect of narrowing the birth canal. So the bigger-headed babies had to fit through a smaller opening. Something had to give.

What gave was the gestation period. If humans functioned otherwise like apes do, babies would spend not nine months in the womb but twenty, and come out ready for action. But their heads by twenty months would be so big they couldn’t come out at all. So we make do with nine months, about the limit mothers can bear, and the least babies can get by with. Consequently they require lengthy attentive nurturing, which of course has had a vast impact upon humans’ way of life.

Earlier birth thus meant longer childhood, and a lot of a person’s development outside the womb as his or her brain responds to things around it. This in turn is responsible for another huge fact about human life: we are not cookie-cutter products but very different one from another. And that fundamental individualism, with each person having his own perspectives and ideas, played a great role in the evolution of our culture and, ultimately, civilization.

Another key part of the story was fire. We romanticize the mastery of fire (e.g., in the Prometheus myth) as putting us on the road to technology. But that came much later. Fire was our first foray into taking a hand in our own evolution. It began with cooking. Remember that trade-off between gut and brain? Cooking enabled us to get more nutrition out of foods and digest them more easily. That enabled us to get by with a smaller gut — and so we could afford a bigger brain.

This omnivorous big-brain model seemed to work out better than the vegetarian one; the vegetarians died out and the omnivores became us. (This is not intended as a knock on today’s vegetarians.) But notice again how much actually had to be sacrificed in order to produce our supersized brains. And that this was a bizarre one-time fluke of evolutionary adaptation. It happened exactly once. None of the other zillions of creatures that ever existed ever went in this unique evolutionary direction.

In other words, if you think evolution of a species with world-dominating intelligence was somehow inevitable or pre-ordained, consider that it didn’t happen for 99.999+% of Earth’s history. It was an extreme freak in the workings of evolution.

Indeed, it’s a mistake to conceptualize “evolution” as progress upward toward ever greater heights (culminating in Homo Sapiens). It’s because of that erroneous connotation of progress that Darwin didn’t even use the word “evolution” in his book. The process has no goal, not even the “selfish-gene” goal of making things good at reproducing themselves. It’s simply that things better at reproducing proliferate, and will grow to outnumber and eclipse those less good at reproducing. Our species happened to stumble upon a set of traits making us very good reproducers. But insects are even better at it, and there are way more of them than us.

(Much of what’s in this essay came from reading Chip Walter’s book, Last Ape Standing.)

The curse of Ham

September 26, 2017

I have written about Kentucky’s Creation Museum. Should be called the Museum of Ignorance, since its exhibits contradict incontestable scientific facts. Like the dinosaurs dying out 65 million years ago. The museum is off by 64.99+ million years. It shows humans living beside them. This might be fine as entertainment, but not for an institution purporting to be educational.

Earth to Creationists: I’m more than 6,000 years old. Around a million times older.

The museum was built by an outfit called Answers in Genesis. Not content with this slap in the face to intelligence, Answers is now building a replica Noah’s Ark. The project has received an $18 million tax break from the State of Kentucky (specifically, a sales tax abatement). How does this not flagrantly flout constitutional separation of church and state?

Ken Ham

The head of Answers in Genesis is a man named Ken Ham. Please linger upon this name.

For one thing, ham is just about the most un-kosher thing in Judaism. Kentucky’s public support for a Ham-centric project is plainly a gross insult to its citizens of the Jewish faith.

But there’s a much bigger issue. The name of Noah’s third son was Ham. Coincidence? Not very likely. This Mister Ken Ham must, beyond any doubt, be a direct descendant of Noah’s third son. He has never denied it; and it certainly explains his ark fetish.

Now, the Bible is very clear about this fact: Ham was cursed, for a grave insult to his father. Scholars differ in their exact interpretations. Some say Ham castrated Noah; others that he buggered Noah. Either way, it wasn’t nice, and so Ham was cursed by God. Ham’s own son Canaan was the progenitor of the Canaanite people, who of course were later wiped out by a God-ordered genocide; and also of all Africans, which is why they’re all cursed too.

But here is the point. In this Kentucky Ark project, Mister Ken Ham must sneakily be aiming to whitewash the above family history, employing lies to mislead the public and undo the curse that God, in his infinite wisdom and justice, laid upon all of his line. This is out-and-out blasphemy.

Some will say it should be left to the Lord to visit his divine justice upon this doubly accursed latter-day Ham. But of course God-fearing people have rarely been content to defer to that ultimate justice, and have instead so often taken matters into their own hands, with fire and sword.

I’d go with the latter.


August 22, 2017

Me, viewing eclipse

With all the pre-eclipse coverage, I somehow initially didn’t grasp there’d be much to see here in Albany, NY, quite far from the totality band. But the map in The Economist Saturday showed we’d get about 2/3 of it. So then my wife and I started scrambling for viewing options. By now it was too late to obtain the needed glasses (one risks eye damage looking directly at an eclipse without special protection). And most venues with eclipse activities were already fully booked.

We decided to try our luck at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, across the river in Troy, offering free glasses. The hoo-ha was scheduled to begin at 1:22 PM; we arrived about 40 minutes before, and there was already a huge line snaking around the building. Within a short time it was twice as long. They had 400 pairs of glasses, and we did get one. Our neighbor and acquaintance Heidi Newberg (an RPI astrophysicist) was there, helping to instruct the crowd. (I think the last time our paths crossed was actually in the Beijing subway.)

With my wife’s pinhole box

The weather report called for cloudless skies, and it started that way, so we got some good looks. My wife had also made a pinhole camera for viewing, which worked pretty well; she had decorated it with relevant poems. Unfortunately, it clouded over during the time of maximum eclipse, so we had only glimpses of that. Of course, we didn’t get real darkness, but during the maximum it did seem eerily dimmer than it should have been on a cloudy afternoon. The whole experience was pretty cool.

We get solar eclipses like this only due to a freakish confluence of facts: the moon is vastly smaller than the Sun, but it’s far closer to Earth, so when the two line up, it just happens that their profiles exactly match, producing the dramatic effect.

My wife Therese

Well. The next solar eclipse will occur in April, 2024, and with that one, we’ll get the Full Monty quite near us. I’m already praying for clear skies 😉

The Bonobo and the Atheist

August 20, 2017

Our closest biological relatives are chimpanzees. They’re not as cute as you might think; often nasty and violent. How nice then to have discovered the bonobo — an equally close cousin, but a much better role model. Anatomically chimplike, bonobos behave very differently, very social, peaceable, and they’re sex fiends. A lot of humans are in love with the idea of the bonobo, seeing them as living in a prelapsarian paradise of free love, undarkened by sin. They’re even matriarchal. How politically correct can an animal get?

This evokes Rousseau’s “noble savage” and Margaret Mead’s idealization of Samoan sexual promiscuity (which turned out to be fake news).

De Waal (at right)

The book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, seems to have been written by the bonobo. Actually by primatologist Frans de Waal, who’s studied them. He likes them. Atheists, not so much. Even though he is one himself.

A self-hating atheist, then? No, he sets himself apart from atheists who make a big deal of it. His own attitude is nonchalant — “I don’t believe that stuff, but if others do, so what?” Too many atheists, he feels, are overly obsessed with the question of truth, which he deems “uninteresting.”

De Waal’s critique of assertive “new atheists” (like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens) has become familiar. We’re told they do the cause no favor by insulting religious believers. I’ll make three points.

First, through most of history, religious dissent was not only taboo but cowed into silence by the threat of fire. Subjecting religious ideas to serious intellectual challenge is long overdue.

Second, about those fires: many atheists believe religion has done great harm, being a wellspring of violence, and we’d be better off without it. (I recently reviewed a book arguing the contrary.) This too is a debate we need to have.

And third, when billions do believe in religious dogmas (with vast impacts upon human society), their truth is hardly an “uninteresting” matter. Even leaving aside the violence, such beliefs dominate one’s entire engagement with the world. You cannot have a sound conception about the human condition and the issues facing us while being fundamentally mistaken about the essential nature of reality. That truth matters.*

But back to bonobos. For de Waal, they’re Exhibit A for the book’s main point — that morality and altruism do not come from religion. They long antedate religion’s beginnings and in fact are seen among other animals. The bonobo “too, strives to fit in, obeys social rules, empathizes with others, amends broken relationships, and objects to unfair arrangements.” De Waal relates an observation of two young chimps quarreling over a leafy branch. An older one intervenes, breaks it in two, and hands a piece to each youngster! And in a famous experiment, chimps would happily perform a task for cucumber slices, until seeing other chimps getting grapes, a more coveted reward. Then, offended by the unfairness, they spurn the cucumber and go on strike. (Some grape receivers even joined them in solidarity.) The Occupy movement sprang from the same primordial feelings.

Altruism evolved because it was beneficial within the groups that practiced it. De Waal reminds us that the most conspicuous form of altruism throughout nature is often overlooked: parental nurturing and even self-sacrifice. Not surprisingly, the basic trait extends beyond just one’s own progeny.

Altruism is commonly defined as doing something for another at cost to oneself. Yet if that makes you feel good, is it really costing you? And why are we programmed to feel good when acting altruistically? De Waal points out that, logically enough, nature makes it pleasurable to do things we need to do — like eating and copulating. Altruism falls in the same category.

The idea that humans need religion for morality is actually insulting to us. And ridiculous. While religionists say without God anything goes, we could all rape, steal, and murder, nobody wants to live in such a world, and most of us recognize that that means we don’t rape, steal, and murder. Which we wouldn’t do anyway because of our nature-given moral instincts. God is irrelevant.

De Waal doesn’t join those who wish we could be more like our bonobo cousins about sex. He explains that their promiscuity makes it impossible to know who anyone’s father is. That diffuse paternity creates a certain kind of societal structure. We humans went down a different path, with pair bonding and clear paternity, so fathers are invested in protecting and raising their offspring. Emulating bonobos would wreak havoc in human society. Indeed, to the extent some people do emulate them, it does cause social havoc.

De Waal also discusses the religion-versus-science thing. No contest, really; religion comes much more naturally to us, fulfilling deep needs. Science does not, and is a far more recent and fragile invention. He says a colony of children left alone would not descend into the barbarism of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but would develop a hierarchical society as apes do — and likely some sort of religion — but not science.

De Waal suggests that when humans lived in small bands, moral instincts could serve their function effortlessly because everybody knew what everyone else was doing.** But not when societies grew much larger. Thus were gods invented to keep “sin” (i.e., antisocial behavior) in check.

Religion serves other needs too. Some go to church for the donuts. That’s shorthand for all the social togetherness religion entails. For many it’s a matter of finding meaning in an otherwise cold cosmos, and in their own lives. And of course palliating fear of death.

And what’s truth got to do with it? It turns out truth and reality actually rank pretty low on many people’s priority lists. Indeed, many seem to have a fuzzy grasp on the concept. We see this in the political realm, where tolerance for lies is far greater than I once imagined. In religion, people believe things mainly because they want to; and this extends to other aspects of life.

But I’ll repeat: you cannot live an authentically meaningful life if its foundation is lies. And as de Waal recognizes, humanism does enable us to find meaning in life while embracing its reality rather than cocooning ourselves in fairy tales. The essence of humanism is the recognition that life is intrinsically valuable for its own sake, that our purpose is to live it as well as we can, and to make it as good as we can for everyone.

De Waal argues that religion is deeply embedded because of its roots in our biology. But we have overcome innumerable constraints imposed by nature. He does acknowledge a “giant experiment” in Northern Europe’s recent and really remarkably rapid turning away from conventional religion. And these societies have seen nothing whatsoever of the negative consequences that religious apologists warned about for eons. Those Europeans who have largely freed themselves from religion are not going to Hell — neither figuratively nor literally.

* An example of how this messes up thinking is strong support for a moral creep like Trump among the devout, who forget, among much else, the commandment against lying.

** Note the importance of language. If one chimp mistreats another, no one else may know. But in human society, with talking, word gets around. This raises the stakes for violations of social norms.

What Einstein means to me

August 5, 2017

Having read Walter Isaacson’s excellent books on Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs, I assigned myself his Einstein. Even though, of course, I already knew all about the man and his work. Doesn’t everybody? Actually, some of what everybody knows isn’t true.

One false myth is that he “failed math in school.” This was even featured in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” What is true is that Einstein’s talking was a little delayed, worrying his parents. But in school he did brilliantly, was a precocious mathematical star. Reading about his childhood intensity with math, science, and philosophy, contrasted against my own sleepwalking early life, I could see why he was a genius and I am not.

Secondly, religious believers love to claim Einstein was a believer too, a perfect validation for them. He did give them a lot of fodder, in delphic pronouncements (like the famous “God does not play dice with the Universe”), using “God” in a somewhat metaphorical rather than literal sense. I do that myself; Einstein was no more a believer than I am. He had a spasm of religiosity in childhood, but snapped out of it at age 12 and never looked back. Whatever his quasi-mystical thoughts about the nature of nature, they certainly included nothing like the God of the Bible – a book he loathed as full of lies.

In fact, Einstein’s early liberation from religion was central to his intellectual development. It gave him a deep suspicion toward all received opinion, authority, and dogma. If so many people could be so wrong about something so fundamental, what else could they be wrong about? This empowered Einstein to look at the cosmos from a fresh perspective.

(I won’t expound here the theory of relativity (but see the appendix); however, it doesn’t mean “everything is relative” – the stance of postmodernist relativism, that nothing truly is true. Such nonsense has nothing to do with Einstein.)

Here is what Einstein does mean to me.

Humanity’s quest for understanding uplifts me. At last – a being on this Earth not at nature’s mercy but capable of mastery. Some people actually hate this, calling it hubris, even wicked. I find that sad. To me our quest for knowledge, and the power it brings, could not be more noble.

Nobility lies in challenge. Ancient man, looking at his world, had so much to wonder about, with hardly a clue for finding answers. But undaunted we searched, through thousands of years, and the efforts of thousands of heroic seekers, giving us finally more understanding than anyone at the start could have dreamt of.

You must crawl before walking, and walk before you run, and that’s the history of science. Most of it was to explain what we saw. But gradually we grasped there is a deeper reality unseen. Einstein’s work, more than any other, ended our stages of crawling and walking, and took us into that deeper reality – a depth that those who commenced the great quest could not even have imagined was there to be plumbed.

The hard slog of science through the ages has been all about gathering evidence and decoding what it tells us. Evidence can come from experimentation, or (as in Darwin’s case, or all of astronomy,) observation. Yet Einstein stands out because he performed no experiments, and gathered no observations. It was all done between his own ears, by thinking. That’s what gave us a new and deeper understanding.

And so, in the end, he represents for me not just (just!) our achievement of understanding, but the wonder of our tool for gaining it: the human mind. It’s a gift we all have. I may not be an Einstein, nor you, but we are human, we are part of this great enterprise, and those brains of ours give us a richness of experience beyond measure. Be thankful and use it well.



Two things puzzle me. We see light traveling from a star to one’s eye. But it’s not just one light beam. Light from a star a billion light years away would reach anyone that distant. Envision a sphere with a billion light year radius – its surface area would be 12.56 times a billion light years squared – a very very BIG area. Every spot on that area would receive the light. How can a star emit that much light? As light spreads out from its source, the photons should get farther apart; at a billion light years, they should be so spread out that seeing even one would be statistically improbable.

Secondly, Einstein’s famous equation E = mc 2 posits the equivalency between matter and energy; the “c” is the speed of light. But why is that part of the equation (let alone squared)? I admit I’m not privy to the math behind this; but what does light speed even have to do with it? The relationship applies regardless of motion. Newton’s law that gravity diminishes proportionally with the square of the distance intuitively makes sense to me, but I can’t say that about the matter/energy proportionality with light speed squared.

We are all conspiracy theorists

June 30, 2017

Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories starts off saying it won’t be a book cataloguing and debunking them. Instead it aims to explain the psychology underlying such beliefs.

What exactly is a “conspiracy theory?” Real conspiracies, large and (mostly) small go on all the time, but that’s not what we mean. We know Lincoln’s assassination was part of a conspiracy. But a “conspiracy theory,” in common usage, is unproven — by design, Brotherton says. Its adherents think they see something deeper than others do. And — in common usage — they’re whacko.

The book’s key take-away is that conspiracy theories come from psychological quirks that are actually not the exclusive province of whackos, but affect us all. Our brains are products of a long evolution during which our ancestors faced many life-or-death challenges requiring quick intuitive responses. You had to be good at spotting predators. And if making a mistake, better make it on the safe side, of seeing something, even if it’s not really there.

This bequeaths us a highly valuable capability, for pattern recognition. The world is a place of dizzying complexity that bombards our brain with a jumble of information. To survive, to function at all, we have to make order from that chaos — to recognize, for example, that that thing concealed in the bushes is a lion. We literally “connect the dots.” And we’re so good at it that we sometimes connect more dots and see more patterns than comport with what’s really there. Thus are conspiracy theories (and religions) born. Conspiracy theories quintessentially entail seeing patterns and connecting dots.

Despite its opening disclaimer, Brotherton perhaps inevitably does fill many pages with the details and defects of popular conspiracy theories. The JFK assassination gets much attention; a majority of Americans believe it was a conspiracy. This illustrates one psychological factor: we are primed to suppose that big outcomes must have big causes. (Thus dice players, when shooting for a high number, instinctively throw the dice more forcefully.) So we refuse to believe JFK’s death resulted from a lucky shot by a pathetic little twerp, Oswald. And Oswald’s killing by another loser, Ruby, almost begs for a bigger conspiratorial explanation. But would a serious conspiracy have relied on two flakes like those? And as Brotherton also explains, truth can be stranger than fiction. (For the truth about the JFK assassination, click here.)

Another key psychological factor is confirmation bias. I’ve written before how our beliefs become impervious to correction, because we love information that seems to validate them, and shun anything that undermines them. Ironically, smarter people are more prone to this, because they are better at coming up with rationalizations to support their preconceptions and to reject contradictory data. As Brotherton writes, “we’re not always the best judge of why we believe what we believe.”

Our brains’ neuronal wiring changes as experiences are absorbed. It’s a canonical principle that neurons that “fire together wire together.” After finishing this book, I happened to read an article applying that to beliefs. A strongly held belief actually makes your brain’s wiring to go along the same pathway whenever the subject arises. Over time, this “fire together wire together” effect strengthens, as though etching grooves in the brain — making the belief ever more impervious to being modified.

Humans are story lovers, and Brotherton explains how conspiracy theories feed that hunger via the greatest archetypal story line — the underdog hero battling the powerful monster (think Gilgamesh, Beowulf, etc.). The conspiracy is the monster with evil aims. We are also natural born morality seekers, and enjoy exercising that faculty, puffing up our moralistic feathers. Thus conspiracy theories push our psychological buttons.

Not surprisingly, the kind of mind that goes for one conspiracy theory is likely to buy others, even if unrelated. One Austrian study found that conspiracy-minded people would even agree with a completely made-up conspiracy theory. Such theories don’t even have to agree with each other. Brotherton notes that some conspiracists believe Osama bin Laden was actually killed back in ’02 and the fact was covered up, but also in theories that he’s actually still alive. A “Schrodinger’s terrorist?”

And radio nutball Alex Jones never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like — Newtown, 9/11, the Oklahoma City and Boston Marathon bombings, you name it — all faked by government conspirators.

Alex Jones

(The fool in the White House appeared on Jones’s show and said Jones has an “amazing reputation.”)

What makes all such conspiracy theories ultimately laughable is the large number of (otherwise serious and responsible) people who would have to agree to be involved, and who would have to keep mum.

The book explores why some of us are more conspiracy minded than others. It has to do with the lens through which you view the world — how you think it works. A big factor is how much trust you have in general, and the degree of control you feel over your own life. But nobody feels totally in control or has absolute trust; we are all suspicious to a degree, indeed, all paranoid to a degree. This too is an evolutionary inheritance — suspicion was prudent for our ancestors, and surely even today there is much to be suspicious about — like e-mails from Nigeria. Brotherton also points out that the randomness factor in life is unsettling to us. Conspiracy theories are a way to impose some seeming order on a chaotic cosmos.

Belief in them also correlates with other departures from conventional paradigms — like belief in the supernatural, parapsychology, alternative medicine. Common to all is rejection of “what they want you to think,” so you can congratulate yourself as an independent mind. Opposition to vaccination and Genetic Modification fits right in with this too. (It’s “How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World,” as the title of a book by Francis Wheen declares.)

Most conspiracy theories spin together facts and evidence, even if drawing from them tortured conclusions. JFK is again a case in point; conspiracists are fountains of details. But evidence isn’t strictly necessary. For example, the book details the theories of David Icke, who attracts large audiences to his ten-hour lectures. Commonly enough, Icke sees the world being run, behind the scenes, by faceless conspirators for large and evil purposes. But he takes it a step further, postulating that they are actually being manipulated by a deeper “interdimensional” conspiracy of reptilian aliens called “Archons.”

I wrote in the margin, “He knows this how?”

The march for science

April 24, 2017

Quiz #1 — Who made this statement about Saturday’s march for science: “Rigorous science depends not on ideology but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate”?

a) Neil deGrasse Tyson
b) Bill Gates
c) Stephen Hawking
d) Donald Trump

The answer is (d).

Quiz #2 — Did the statement come from

a) His lips
b) His Twitter account
c) His pen
d) A spokesperson

The answer is (d).

Science is not just another belief system or “faith.” Belief and knowledge are two different things. One can say “Joe believes the earth is flat” but not “Joe knows the earth is flat.”

How we know things is called epistemology. Scientific knowledge comes from a rigorous process of deduction from observation and evidence, always open to correction through better observation and evidence. Belief has nothing to do with it.

You can believe the earth is flat, but through science we know it isn’t. You can even do fake science, cherrypicking bits of information (and making up a lot) to deny evolution, but real science knows it’s true.

You can similarly torture facts to deny climate change and/or humanity’s role in it. Or to see harm outweighing benefits in vaccination, or Genetic Modification. Pick your ideology; believe what you like. But if you prefer reality, try real science.

Photo of me at the march by Therese Broderick

The gem, mineral, and fossil show

March 24, 2017

unknownMy wife Therese had the idea of going to the gem, mineral, and fossil show held at the State Museum. To humor her, I agreed, though this isn’t really my thing. Well, something to do, a little salutary marital togetherness. I was kind of expecting a dull exhibit, but instead it was a vendor bourse, very different, quite extensive, and fascinating.

We saw some amazing and bizarre stuff; the variety mind-boggling. So many mineral names I’d never heard before, seemingly without end. Many crystals looked quite astonishing, like dramatic little sculptures.



And cool fossils. Lots of ancient cephalopods (sea creatures like squids), highly polished and beautiful; hard to believe they were not carved by cunning artists.

Many items, like those, seemed surprisingly affordable too. As a passionate collector myself (of coins), I could see how people could really get into collecting this stuff. Rocks rock!

Therese and I tend to be lookers, not buyers, at art shows and the like, and we certainly had no expectation of purchasing anything here. But when I drew attention to one small item, Therese was blown away by it. Next to all the other bigger and dramatic pieces on view, it might not have seemed like much, a very simple little thing. Indeed, its very simplicity made it dramatic in its own way. It was a piece of whiteish rock on which was perched a good sized perfect cube* of silver-black pyrite crystal, about an inch on each side. With surfaces so smooth they were mirrors. I couldn’t recall ever having seen a crystal so geometrically perfect. Therese could hardly believe this was actually made by Nature; it took some convincing.

untitled-1And this too was not terribly expensive ($45), so we bought it. No sooner had we done so, and moved on to other sellers, suddenly we started seeing similar ones, even cheaper. But none possessed quite the dramatic in-your-face perfection of ours, so I was not unpleased.

It looks other-worldly to me, as though dropped onto our planet by ethereal aliens, like something out of Kubrick’s 2001. With mystical powers.

Therese calls it spooky, saying it almost scares her, and that it changes her relationship with existence.

* Actually, it’s what’s called a rectangular prism, as the facets are not exactly square.

The Time Lords and the Leap Second

February 11, 2017

images-1My previous partner used to call me “The Time Lord” (taken from Dr. Who). Because I was a stickler for punctuality. When I was an administrative law judge, and a hearing was scheduled for 10:00, it started at 10:00 – not 10:01. (Except once or twice when I overslept.)

As you may know, a “day” is from one sunrise to another; the year has 365 days, the time it takes for the Earth to circle the Sun. Except that it actually takes 365-1/4 days. unknown-2So we have leap years. Except that it doesn’t take exactly 365-1/4 days either. So we omit the extra leap day once every 100 years. Except for every fourth century, when we don’t. This keeps things just about right.

Our “hour” is based on dividing by 24 the planet’s rotation time. The hour, minute, and second, are as long as they are simply so that 60x60x24 equals one day, with no need for any fudge factor, like with leap years. However, here too there’s a wee problem. The rotation is slowing! It actually now takes a teensy bit more than 24 hours. The discrepancy wasn’t noticed until we started measuring time with super-accurate atomic clocks.

The world actually does have Time Lords. You’ve heard of “Greenwich mean time?” That refers to all clocks being set by reference to a master clock in Greenwich, England. images-2This system’s superintendents are the Time Lords (so to speak). It’s one o’clock when they say it’s one o’clock. And to keep time absolutely accurate, since 1972 they’ve inserted, every other year or so, an extra second into the year, based on their calibration of the Earth’s current rotation time.*

A one-second adjustment might seem like no big deal. But whereas, in past epochs, people were content merely to tell time roughly by hours, lacking timepieces capable of greater accuracy, today’s world runs on global time synchronicity down to the millisecond. And it’s actually important that the exact time in New York matches the exact time in Tokyo.

For example (as Michael Lewis’s book Flash Boys, about high speed trading, illuminated), it’s crucial for financial transactions that the sequence of events – purchase orders and their execution – occur unambiguously. The extra leap second throws a monkey wrench into this. It might be no problem if, when the Greenwich Time Lords insert the leap second, all clocks and computers and time-incorporating mechanisms throughout the world automatically adjust. But of course they don’t.

There have been global gabfests trying to straighten this out. A lot of people don’t like it that some self-important British nerds get to decide what time it is, and to change it on whim. But not surprisingly the Brits are extremely reluctant to let go of this vestige of the epoch when they really did rule the world.

images-4So far, no resolution has been achieved. For a Time Lord like me, it’s terrifying to think that when my watch says it’s 10:00, it may actually be 10:00:01.


* Without such adjustment, the discrepancy would cumulate, and in around 20,000 years, noon and midnight would be switched.