Fourmilog: None Dare Call It Reason

Reading List: The Science of Interstellar

Saturday, December 13, 2014 22:38

Thorne, Kip. The Science of Interstellar. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014. ISBN 978-0-393-35137-8.
Christopher Nolan's 2014 film Interstellar was eagerly awaited by science fiction enthusiasts who, having been sorely disappointed so many times by movies that crossed the line into fantasy by making up entirely implausible things to move the plot along, hoped that this effort would live up to its promise of getting the science (mostly) right and employing scientifically plausible speculation where our present knowledge is incomplete.

The author of the present book is one of the most eminent physicists working in the field of general relativity (Einstein's theory of gravitation) and a pioneer in exploring the exotic strong field regime of the theory, including black holes, wormholes, and gravitational radiation. Prof. Thorne was involved in the project which became Interstellar from its inception, and worked closely with the screenwriters, director, and visual effects team to get the science right. Some of the scenes in the movie, such as the visual appearance of orbiting a rotating black hole, have never been rendered accurately before, and are based upon original work by Thorne in computing light paths through spacetime in its vicinity which will be published as professional papers.

Here, the author recounts the often bumpy story of the movie's genesis and progress over the years from his own, Hollywood-outsider, perspective, how the development of the story presented him, as technical advisor (he is credited as an executive producer), with problem after problem in finding a physically plausible solution, sometimes requiring him to do new physics. Then, Thorne provides a popular account of the exotic physics on which the story is based, including gravitational time dilation, black holes, wormholes, and speculative extra dimensions and “brane” scenarios stemming from string theory. Then he “interprets” the events and visual images in the film, explaining (where possible) how they could be produced by known, plausible, or speculative physics. Of course, this isn't always possible—in some cases the needs of story-telling or the requirement not to completely baffle a non-specialist with bewilderingly complicated and obscure images had to take priority over scientific authenticity, and when this is the case Thorne is forthright in admitting so.

Sections are labelled with icons identifying them as “truth”: generally accepted by those working in the field and often with experimental evidence, “educated guess”: a plausible inference from accepted physics, but without experimental evidence and assuming existing laws of physics remain valid in circumstances under which we've never tested them, and “speculation”: wild and wooly stuff (for example quantum gravity or the interior structure of a black hole) which violates no known law of physics, but for which we have no complete and consistent theory and no evidence whatsoever.

This is a clearly written and gorgeously illustrated book which, for those who enjoyed the movie but weren't entirely clear whence some of the stunning images they saw came, will explain the science behind them. The cover of the book has a “SPOILER ALERT” warning potential readers that the ending and major plot details are given away in the text. I will refrain from discussing them here so as not to make this a spoiler in itself. I have not yet seen the movie, and I expect when I do I will enjoy it more for having read the book, since I'll know what to look for in some of the visuals and be less likely to dismiss some of the apparently outrageous occurrences by knowing that there is a physically plausible (albeit extremely speculative and improbable) explanation for them.

For the animations and blackboard images mentioned in the text, the book directs you to a Web site which is so poorly designed and difficult to navigate it took me ten minutes to find them on the first visit. Here is a direct link. In the Kindle edition the index cites page numbers in the print edition which are useless since the electronic edition does not contain real page numbers. There are a few typographical errors and one factual howler: Io is not “Saturn's closest moon”, and Cassini was captured in Saturn orbit by a propulsion burn, not a gravitational slingshot (this does not affect the movie in any way: it's in background material).


Reading List: A Troublesome Inheritance

Saturday, December 6, 2014 15:23

Wade, Nicholas. A Troublesome Inheritance. New York: Penguin Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-59420-446-3.
Geographically isolated populations of a species (unable to interbreed with others of their kind) will be subject to natural selection based upon their environment. If that environment differs from that of other members of the species, the isolated population will begin to diverge genetically, as genetic endowments which favour survival and more offspring are selected for. If the isolated population is sufficiently small, the mechanism of genetic drift may cause a specific genetic variant to become almost universal or absent in that population. If this process is repeated for a sufficiently long time, isolated populations may diverge to such a degree they can no longer interbreed, and therefore become distinct species.

None of this is controversial when discussing other species, but in some circles to suggest that these mechanisms apply to humans is the deepest heresy. This well-researched book examines the evidence, much from molecular biology which has become available only in recent years, for the diversification of the human species into distinct populations, or “races” if you like, after its emergence from its birthplace in Africa. In this book the author argues that human evolution has been “recent, copious, and regional” and presents the genetic evidence to support this view.

A few basic facts should be noted at the outset. All humans are members of a single species, and all can interbreed. Humans, as a species, have an extremely low genetic diversity compared to most other animal species: this suggests that our ancestors went through a genetic “bottleneck” where the population was reduced to a very small number, causing the variation observed in other species to be lost through genetic drift. You might expect different human populations to carry different genes, but this is not the case—all humans have essentially the same set of genes. Variation among humans is mostly a result of individuals carrying different alleles (variants) of a gene. For example, eye colour in humans is entirely inherited: a baby's eye colour is determined completely by the alleles of various genes inherited from the mother and father. You might think that variation among human populations is then a question of their carrying different alleles of genes, but that too is an oversimplification. Human genetic variation is, in most cases, a matter of the frequency of alleles among the population.

This means that almost any generalisation about the characteristics of individual members of human populations with different evolutionary histories is ungrounded in fact. The variation among individuals within populations is generally much greater than that of populations as a whole. Discrimination based upon an individual's genetic heritage is not just abhorrent morally but scientifically unjustified.

Based upon these now well-established facts, some have argued that “race does not exist” or is a “social construct”. While this view may be motivated by a well-intentioned desire to eliminate discrimination, it is increasingly at variance with genetic evidence documenting the history of human populations.

Around 200,000 years ago, modern humans emerged in Africa. They spent more than three quarters of their history in that continent, spreading to different niches within it and developing a genetic diversity which today is greater than that of all humans in the rest of the world. Around 50,000 years before the present, by the genetic evidence, a small band of hunter-gatherers left Africa for the lands to the north. Then, some 30,000 years ago the descendants of these bands who migrated to the east and west largely ceased to interbreed and separated into what we now call the Caucasian and East Asian populations. These have remained the main three groups within the human species. Subsequent migrations and isolations have created other populations such as Australian and American aborigines, but their differentiation from the three main races is less distinct. Subsequent migrations, conquest, and intermarriage have blurred the distinctions between these groups, but the fact is that almost any child, shown a picture of a person of European, African, or East Asian ancestry can almost always effortlessly and correctly identify their area of origin. University professors, not so much: it takes an intellectual to deny the evidence of one's own eyes.

As these largely separated populations adapted to their new homes, selection operated upon their genomes. In the ancestral human population children lost the ability to digest lactose, the sugar in milk, after being weaned from their mothers' milk. But in populations which domesticated cattle and developed dairy farming, parents who passed on an allele which would allow their children to drink cow's milk their entire life would have more surviving offspring and, in a remarkably short time on the evolutionary scale, lifetime lactose tolerance became the norm in these areas. Among populations which never raised cattle or used them only for meat, lifetime lactose tolerance remains rare today.

Humans in Africa originally lived close to the equator and had dark skin to protect them from the ultraviolet radiation of the Sun. As human bands occupied northern latitudes in Europe and Asia, dark skin would prevent them from being able to synthesise sufficient Vitamin D from the wan, oblique sunlight of northern winters. These populations were under selection pressure for alleles of genes which gave them lighter skin, but interestingly Europeans and East Asians developed completely different genetic means to lighten their skin. The selection pressure was the same, but evolution blundered into two distinct pathways to meet the need.

Can genetic heritage affect behaviour? There's evidence it can. Humans carry a gene called MAO-A, which breaks down neurotransmitters that affect the transmission of signals within the brain. Experiments in animals have provided evidence that under-production of MAO-A increases aggression and humans with lower levels of MAO-A are found to be more likely to commit violent crime. MAO-A production is regulated by a short sequence of DNA adjacent to the gene: humans may have anywhere from two to five copies of the promoter; the more you have, the more the MAO-A, and hence the mellower you're likely to be. Well, actually, people with three to five copies are indistinguishable, but those with only two (2R) show higher rates of delinquency. Among men of African ancestry, 5.5% carry the 2R variant, while 0.1% of Caucasian males and 0.00067% of East Asian men do. Make of this what you will.

The author argues that just as the introduction of dairy farming tilted the evolutionary landscape in favour of those bearing the allele which allowed them to digest milk into adulthood, the transition of tribal societies to cities, states, and empires in Asia and Europe exerted a selection pressure upon the population which favoured behavioural traits suited to living in such societies. While a tribal society might benefit from producing a substantial population of aggressive warriors, an empire has little need of them: its armies are composed of soldiers, courageous to be sure, who follow orders rather than charging independently into battle. In such a society, the genetic traits which are advantageous in a hunter-gatherer or tribal society will be selected out, as those carrying them will, if not expelled or put to death for misbehaviour, be unable to raise as large a family in these settled societies.

Perhaps, what has been happening over the last five millennia or so is a domestication of the human species. Precisely as humans have bred animals to live with them in close proximity, human societies have selected for humans who are adapted to prosper within them. Those who conform to the social hierarchy, work hard, come up with new ideas but don't disrupt the social structure will have more children and, over time, whatever genetic predispositions there may be for these characteristics (which we don't know today) will become increasingly common in the population. It is intriguing that as humans settled into fixed communities, their skeletons became less robust. This same process of gracilisation is seen in domesticated animals compared to their wild congeners. Certainly there have been as many human generations since the emergence of these complex societies as have sufficed to produce major adaptation in animal species under selective breeding.

Far more speculative and controversial is whether this selection process has been influenced by the nature of the cultures and societies which create the selection pressure. East Asian societies tend to be hierarchical, obedient to authority, and organised on a large scale. European societies, by contrast, are fractious, fissiparous, and prone to bottom-up insurgencies. Is this in part the result of genetic predispositions which have been selected for over millennnia in societies which work that way?

It is assumed by many right-thinking people that all that is needed to bring liberty and prosperity to those regions of the world which haven't yet benefited from them is to create the proper institutions, educate the people, and bootstrap the infrastructure, then stand back and watch them take off. Well, maybe—but the history of colonialism, the mission civilisatrice, and various democracy projects and attempts at nation building over the last two centuries may suggest it isn't that simple. The population of the colonial, conquering, or development-aid-giving power has the benefit of millennia of domestication and adaptation to living in a settled society with division of labour. Its adaptations for tribalism have been largely bred out. Not so in many cases for the people they're there to “help”. Withdraw the colonial administration or occupation troops and before long tribalism will re-assert itself because that's the society for which the people are adapted.

Suggesting things like this is anathema in academia or political discourse. But look at the plain evidence of post-colonial Africa and more recent attempts of nation-building, and couple that with the emerging genetic evidence of variation in human populations and connections to behaviour and you may find yourself thinking forbidden thoughts. This book is an excellent starting point to explore these difficult issues, with numerous citations of recent scientific publications.


Reading List: The Martian

Sunday, November 30, 2014 23:48

Weir, Andy. The Martian. New York: Broadway Books, [2011] 2014. ISBN 978-0-553-41802-6.
Mark Watney was part of the six person crew of Ares 3 which landed on Mars to carry out an exploration mission in the vicinity of its landing site in Acidalia Planitia. The crew made a precision landing at the target where “presupply” cargo flights had already landed their habitation module, supplies for their stay on Mars, rovers and scientific instruments, and the ascent vehicle they would use to return to the Earth-Mars transit vehicle waiting for them in orbit. Just six days after landing, having set up the habitation module and unpacked the supplies, they are struck by a dust storm of unprecedented ferocity. With winds up to 175 kilometres per hour, the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), already fuelled by propellant made on Mars by reacting hydrogen brought from Earth with the Martian atmosphere, was at risk of being blown over, which would destroy the fragile spacecraft and strand the crew on Mars. NASA gives the order to abort the mission and evacuate to orbit in the MAV for an immediate return to Earth.

But the crew first has to get from the habitation module to the MAV, which means walking across the surface in the midst of the storm. (You'd find it very hard to walk in a 175 km/h wind on Earth, but recall that the atmosphere pressure on Mars is only about 1/200 that of Earth at sea level, so the wind doesn't pack anywhere near the punch.) Still, there was dust and flying debris from equipment ripped loose from the landers. Five members of the crew made it to the MAV. Mark Watney didn't.

As the crew made the traverse to the MAV, Watney was struck by part of an antenna array torn from the habitation, puncturing his suit and impaling him. He was carried away by the wind, and the rest of the crew, seeing his vital signs go to zero before his suit's transmitter failed, followed mission rules to leave him behind and evacuate in the MAV while they still could.

But Watney wasn't dead. His injury was not fatal, and his blood loss was sufficient to seal the leak in the suit where the antenna had pierced it, as the water in the blood boiled off and the residue mostly sealed the breach. Awakening after the trauma, he made an immediate assessment of his situation. I'm alive. Cool! I hurt like heck. Not cool. The habitation module is intact. Yay! The MAV is gone—I'm alone on Mars. Dang!

“Dang” is not precisely how Watney put it. This book contains quite a bit of profanity which I found gratuitous. NASA astronauts in the modern era just don't swear like sailors, especially on open air-to-ground links. Sure, I can imagine launching a full salvo of F-bombs upon discovering I'd been abandoned on Mars, especially when I'm just talking to myself, but everybody seems to do it here on all occasions. This is the only reason I'd hesitate to recommend this book to younger readers who would otherwise be inspired by the story.

Watney is stranded on Mars with no way to communicate with Earth, since all communications were routed through the MAV, which has departed. He has all of the resources for a six-person mission, so he has no immediate survival problems after he gets back to the habitation and stitches up his wound, but he can work the math: even if he can find a way to communicate to Earth that he's still alive, orbital mechanics dictates that it will take around two years to send a rescue mission. His supplies cannot be stretched that far.

This sets the stage for a gripping story of survival, improvisation, difficult decisions, necessity versus bureaucratic inertia, trying to do the right thing in a media fishbowl, and all done without committing any howlers in technology, orbital mechanics, or the way people and organisations behave. Sure, you can quibble about this or that detail, but then people far in the future may regard a factual account of Apollo 13 as largely legend, given how many things had to go right to rescue the crew. Things definitely do not go smoothly here: there is reverse after reverse, and many inscrutable mysteries to be unscrewed if Watney is to get home.

This is an inspiring tale of pioneering on a new world. People have already begun to talk about going to Mars to stay. These settlers will face stark challenges though, one hopes, not as dire as Watney, and with the confidence of regular re-supply missions and new settlers to follow. Perhaps this novel will be seen, among the first generation born on Mars, as inspiration that the challenges they face in bringing a barren planet to life are within the human capacity to solve, especially if their media library isn't exclusively populated with 70s TV shows and disco.

A Kindle edition is available.


Reading List: Liberators

Wednesday, November 26, 2014 23:37

Rawles, James Wesley. Liberators. New York: Dutton, 2014. ISBN 978-0-525-95391-3.
This novel is the fifth in the series which began with Patriots (December 2008), then continued with Survivors (January 2012), Founders (October 2012), and Expatriates (October 2013), These books are not a conventional multi-volume narrative, in that all describe events in the lives of their characters in roughly the same time period surrounding “the Crunch”—a grid down societal collapse due to a debt crisis and hyperinflation. Taking place at the same time, you can read these books in any order, but if you haven't read the earlier novels you'll miss much of the back-story of the characters who appear here, which informs the parts they play in this episode.

Here the story cuts back and forth between the United States, where Megan LaCroix and her sister Malorie live on a farm in West Virginia with Megan's two boys, and Joshua Kim works in security at the National Security Agency where Megan is an analyst. When the Crunch hits, Joshua and the LaCroix sisters decide to team up to bug out to Joshua's childhood friend's place in Kentucky, where survival from the urban Golden Horde may be better assured. They confront the realities of a collapsing society, where the rule of law is supplanted by extractive tyrannies, and are forced to over-winter in a wilderness, living by their wits and modest preparations.

In Western Canada, the immediate impact of the Crunch was less severe because electrical power, largely hydroelectric, remained on. At the McGregor Ranch, in inland British Columbia (a harsh, northern continental climate nothing like that of Vancouver), the family and those who have taken refuge with them ride out the initial crisis only to be confronted with an occupation of Canada by a nominally United Nations force called UNPROFOR, which is effectively a French colonial force which, in alliance with effete urban eastern and francophone Canada, seeks to put down the fractious westerners and control the resource-rich land they inhabit.

This leads to an asymmetrical war of resistance, aided by the fact that when earlier faced with draconian gun registration and prohibition laws imposed by easterners, a large number of weapons in the west simply vanished, only to reappear when they were needed most. As was demonstrated in Vietnam and Algeria, French occupation forces can be tenacious and brutal, but are ultimately no match for an indigenous insurgency with the support of the local populace. A series of bold strikes against UNPROFOR assets eventually turns the tide.

But just when Canada seems ready to follow the U.S. out of the grip of tyranny, an emboldened China, already on the march in Africa, makes a move to seize western Canada's abundant natural resources. Under the cover of a UN resolution, a massive Chinese force, with armour and air support, occupies the western provinces. This is an adversary of an entirely different order than the French, and will require the resistance, supported by allies from the liberation struggle in the U.S., to audacious and heroic exploits, including one of the greatest acts of monkey-wrenching ever described in a thriller.

As this story has developed over the five novels, the author has matured into a first-rate thriller novelist. There is still plenty of information on gear, tactics, intelligence operations, and security, but the characters are interesting, well-developed, and the action scenes both plausible and exciting. In the present book, we encounter many characters we've met in previous volumes, with their paths crossing as events unfold. There is no triumphalism or glossing over the realities of insurgent warfare against a tyrannical occupying force. There is a great deal of misery and hardship, and sometimes tragedy can result when you've taken every precaution, made no mistake, but simply run out of luck.

Taken together, these five novels are an epic saga of survival in hard and brutal times, painted on a global canvas. Reading them, you will not only be inspired that you and your loved ones can survive such a breakdown in the current economic and social order, but you will also learn a great deal of the details of how to do so. This is not a survival manual, but attentive readers will find many things to research further for their own preparations for an uncertain future. An excellent place to begin that research is the author's own Web site, whose massive archives you can spend months exploring.


Reading List: Undercover Mormon

Sunday, November 23, 2014 15:56

Metzger, Th. Undercover Mormon. New York: Roadswell Editions, 2013.
The author, whose spiritual journey had earlier led him to dabble with becoming a Mennonite, goes weekly to an acupuncturist named Rudy Kilowatt who believes in the power of crystals, attends neo-pagan fertility rituals in a friend's suburban back yard, had been oddly fascinated by Mormonism ever since, as a teenager, he attended the spectacular annual Mormon pageant at Hill Cumorah, near his home in upstate New York.

He returned again and again for the spectacle of the pageant, and based upon his limited knowledge of Mormon doctrine, found himself admiring how the religion seemed to have it all: “All religion is either sword and sorcery or science fiction. The reason Mormonism is growing so fast is that you guys have both, and don't apologize for either.” He decides to pursue this Mormon thing further, armouring himself in white shirt, conservative tie, and black pants, and heading off to the nearest congregation for the Sunday service.

Approached by missionaries who spot him as a newcomer, he masters his anxiety (bolstered by the knowledge he has a couple of Xanax pills in his pocket), gives a false name, and indicates he's interested in learning more about the faith. Before long he's attending Sunday school, reading tracts, and spinning into the Mormon orbit, with increasing suggestions that he might convert.

All of this is described in a detached, ironic manner, in which the reader (and perhaps the author) can't decide how seriously to take it all. Metzger carries magic talismans to protect himself against the fearful “Mormo”, describes his anxiety to his psychoanalyst, who prescribes the pharmaceutical version of magic bones. He struggles with paranoia about his deception being found out and agonises over the consequences. He consults a friend who, “For a while he was an old-order Quaker, then a Sufi, then a retro-neo-pagan. Now he's a Unitarian-Universalist professor of history.”

The narrative is written in the tediously quaint “new journalism” style where it's as much about the author as the subject. This works poorly here because the author isn't very interesting. He comes across as so neurotic and self-absorbed as to make Woody Allen seem like Clint Eastwood. His “discoveries” about the content of LDS scripture could have been made just as easily by reading the original documents on the LDS Web site, and his exploration of the history of Joseph Smith and the early days of Mormonism in New York could have been accomplished by consulting Wikipedia. His antics, such as burying chicken bones around the obelisk of Moroni on Hill Cumorah and digging up earth from the grave of Luman Walter to spread it in the sacred grove, push irony past the point of parody—does anybody believe the author took such things seriously (and if he did, why should anybody care what he thinks about anything)?

The book does not mock Mormonism, and treats the individuals he encounters on his journey more or less respectfully (with just that little [and utterly unjustified] “I'm better than you” that the hip intellectual has for earnest, clean-cut, industrious people who are “as white as angel food cake, and almost as spongy.”) But you'll learn nothing about the history and doctrine of the religion here that you won't find elsewhere without all the baggage of the author's tiresome “adventures”.