Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cool clear water

The European Space Agency is planning to land a probe on the Moon's south pole in 2018 to see if there's water beneath the surface. This would then pave the way for manned missions to be able to go there without having to take water with them.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Quote of the Day

As personal and private life is lower than participation in the Body of Christ, so the collective life is lower than the personal and private life and has no value save in its service. The secular community, since it exists for our natural good and not for our supernatural, has no higher end than to facilitate and safeguard the family, and friendship, and solitude. To be happy at home, said Johnson, is the end of all human endeavour. As long as we are thinking only of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, law, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of spirit. Collective activities are, of course, necessary, but this is the end to which they are necessary. Great sacrifices of this private happiness by those who have it may be necessary in order that it may be more widely distributed. All may have to be a little hungry in order that none may starve. But do not let us mistake necessary evils for good. The mistake is easily made. Fruit has to be tinned if it is to be transported and so has to lose thereby some of its good qualities. But one meets people who have learned actually to prefer the tinned fruit to the fresh. A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much of his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind -- if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else -- then what was undertaken for the sake of health has itself become a new and deadly disease.

C. S. Lewis
The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Dennett contra Weinberg

There's a relatively famous quote by physicist Steven Weinberg : "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion." I think this is an incredibly naive claim. I would replace "religion" in that quote with "ideology." After all, good people do evil in the service of political ideologies all the time. But that's a post for another day. Right now I want to point to an interesting passage from Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea that contradicts Weinberg's claim. It's from page 264 of my copy, the third page in chapter 10; the emphases are mine.

Anybody as prolific and energetic as [Stephen Jay] Gould would surely have an agenda beyond that of simply educating and delighting his fellow human beings about the Darwinian view of life. In fact, he has had numerous agendas. He has fought hard against prejudice, and particularly against the abuse of scientific research (and scientific prestige) by those who would clothe their political ideologies in the potent mantle of scientific respectability. It is important to recognize that Darwinism has always had an unfortunate power to attract the most unwelcome enthusiasts -- demagogues and psychopaths and misanthropes and other abusers of Darwin's dangerous idea. Gould has laid this sad story bare in dozens of tales, about the Social Darwinists, about unspeakable racists, and most poignantly about basically good people who got confused -- seduced and abandoned, you might say -- by one Darwinian siren or another. It is all too easy to run off half cocked with some poorly understood version of Darwinian thinking, and Gould has made it a major part of his life's work to protect his hero from this sort of abuse.

So Dennett not only affirms that science can lead good people to do evil, but evolution in particular can do so. Of course, Dennett and Weinberg and I would respond to this charge that such people are obviously misunderstanding science and evolution in such cases. But then I don't see why this defense isn't available for religion as well.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Unofficially Voyager 1 may have left the solar system

Incredibly exciting if true. Two of the three criteria necessary for a definitive statement are positive, and the third is unclear. The most blatant is the drop-off of charged particles from our sun hitting the spacecraft. Here's what that looks like:

Yeah, that looks pretty definitive.