Saturday, April 30, 2011

Bloodthirsty Syrian President Supported By The Church

As if it was needed, today another startling reminder that you don’t need religion to be able to tell right from wrong and that divine inspiration can’t guarantee you don’t mind killing innocent civilians. The current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been killing peaceful protestors out on the streets in order to prevent another uprising. Meanwhile, on BBC 4’s the Today programme, Bishop Philoxenos Mattias of the Syriac Orthodox Church came out with this statement which I’ve done my best to transcribe over the poor phone line:
"The Christian orthodox church with its deep faith in the lord supports the government and the president for the progress of our state in [the] future. [Indecipherable...] in his Easter message communicated our support for the President. The relations between the Church and the State are good and healthy as far as we are concerned. We’re happy to say that the president shows tolerance to all the Syrian Christian citizens as well as all our Muslim brothers always. It’s why we always support and respect and love the president, his regime and the government. We will always support him."
So whilst they’ve had the tripartite nature of the Trinity sorted since 325 AD, they still don’t quite understand why killing the innocent is a bad thing.
Read more

Friday, April 29, 2011

No More SETI Program

 By rights, SETI — the search for extraterrestrial intelligence — should be entering its golden age. After decades of begging or borrowing time on other people's telescopes to scan the skies for repetitive radio signals suggesting intelligent life, SETI scientists finally got their own equipment a few years ago: the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) in California. The Kepler satellite, which has found more than 1,200 possible planets around other stars so far, has handed the ATA a bonanza of promising new targets, with more to come. And there is no shortage of powerful electronics and computers to analyze any incoming data — information-processing muscle that SETI pioneer Frank Drake couldn't have imagined when he first started listening to the heavens back in 1961.

 So it was especially distressing to SETI fans when a letter went out a couple of days ago from Tom Pierson, CEO of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. "Effective this week," he wrote, "the ATA has been placed into hibernation due to funding shortfalls for operations of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory (HCRO) where the ATA is located." Admits Jill Tarter, the Institute's research director, "We've been in better shape." (See a brief history of intergalactic warfare.)

 It's not the first time SETI has faced funding challenges. In the early 1980's, Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire ridiculed the whole idea of looking for ET and forced NASA to stop funding the project. In the end, a personal visit by Carl Sagan got him to reverse course. But then in 1993, Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan did it again, pointing out (weirdly) that "not a single Martian has yet been found." Since then, SETI searches have relied mostly on private money — notably, on the nearly $25 million donated by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to help build the ATA, on the grounds of the University of California's Hat Creek Observatory.

 But Allen's donation, along with money from the SETI Institute, were sufficient only for the construction of the array, not for its ongoing operations. That responsibility went the University of California — and like most public institutions in California, the University is more or less broke (it's gotten so bad that astronomers at Berkeley have been known to vacuum their own offices because so many maintenance workers have been let go). Thanks to the disastrous economy, meanwhile, private donations to the SETI Institute have dropped off. And the National Science Foundation, which also helps fund Hat Creek, is suffering along with every other institution that depends on the federal budget. (Read a Q&A with Ray Bradbury.)

 "If you think of SETI as not just research but exploration," says SETI Institute Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak, "this is like sending Captain Cook to the South Pacific but not giving him any food or supplies." (Shostak, who seems to have nautical analogies to burn, told the San Jose Mercury News that the suspension is like "the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria being put into dry dock.")

 But Shostak insists that all is not yet lost. "ATA is in hibernation," he says, "not embalmed." A skeleton staff is maintaining the array's 42 radio dishes, computers and other electronics so that if new funding does come through, the search will be ready to resume. The SETI Institute has issued new pleas for private donations to help make that happen, and it's conceivable — though not overwhelmingly likely — that the National Science Foundation will somehow find some money stashed away.
 "We're hoping," says Tarter, "that the public will speak up about how important SETI is." A better bet is the Air Force, which is considering buying time on ATA for use as a monitoring station to keep tabs on orbital space debris that could threaten satellites.

 While ATA is the most important SETI installation, it isn't the only one, and that keeps alien hunters from despairing completely. The public often assumes "SETI" and "The SETI Institute" are one and the same, but the former is an entire field of astronomy, while the latter is just one institution. There's an ongoing SETI search using the giant Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and Harvard astronomer Paul Horowitz is looking for aliens that might communicate with lasers rather than radio beams. "The Italians have a pretty good SETI search going on as well," says Shostak, "and there's a lot of interest in China as well."

 Still, the shutdown is a blow to those who care about whether we're alone in the universe. "It's really frustrating," says Tarter. "We're here with 1,235 gorgeous new exoplanets from Kepler. This is the first time ever we've been able to say 'we know good places to look, we're not just guessing about which stars might have planets.'"

 It's even better than that: Kepler is almost certain to find not just planets, but planets of about the size and temperature of Earth. That doesn't necessarily guarantee life, let alone intelligent life, let alone intelligent life that happens to use lasers or radio waves to communicate between the stars. But as MIT physicists Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi observed in a 1959 Nature paper that laid the intellectual groundwork for SETI, "The probability of success is difficult to estimate," they wrote, "but if we never search, the chance of success is zero."

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Military Atheists Want Chaplains

In what may be the apogee of oxymoronic ideas, a gaggle of military atheists is pushing the armed forces to create atheist chaplains. That's right, the people who deny God exists apparently believe they need a "chaplain" to help guide them and reinforce their values, such as they are.
The New York Times reports that the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, along with the Military Atheists and Secular Humanists have emerged from the dark shadows of non-recognition to demand that the military treat them like any other religious group, even though they claim that religion is hooey.
According to the Times, the non-believers want "to win official acceptance in the military," for "such recognition would make it easier for them to raise money and meet on military bases." As well, then chaplains would distribute atheist propaganda and "advocate for them with commanders."
Problem is, real chaplains are, rightly, a little confused. "Do atheists belong to a 'faith group,' a requirement for a chaplain candidate?" the Times asked by proxy. "Can they provide support to religious troops of all faiths, a fundamental responsibility for chaplains?"
The Times quoted Jason Torpy, "a former Army captain who is president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers," who says atheist "chaplains would do everything religious chaplains do, including counsel troops and help them follow their faiths. But just as a Protestant chaplain would not preside over a Catholic service, a humanist might not lead a religious ceremony, though he might help organize it."

Torpy wants to meet with the military's top chaplains, who apparently aren't sure whether to meet with a man who believes in nothing.

According to the Defense Department, the Times reports, a mere 9,400 of the its 1.4 million members, or 0.67 percent, are "non-believers." But 70 percent are Christians. After revealing that statistic, the Times unbosomed this statement of incredulity: Christians "are even more dominant among the chaplain corps: about 90 percent of the 3,045 active duty chaplains are Christians, most of them Protestants."

It would only make sense that most chaplains are Christian in a military whose members are mostly Christian.
Shades of Wicca

The military atheists are reminiscent of another group that received military recognition: witches and warlocks. In February 2010, the Air Force Academy created a campus "worship circle" for pagans to practice witchcraft.
Apparently, the academy's chaplains backed the pagan idolatry. Said the Air Force sergeant behind the pagan worship circle, "The chaplain's office has been 100-percent supportive."

As for the military atheists, the Times quotes Torpy thusly to explain why the military's freethinkers and non-believers need a chaplain: "Humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews. It answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values.”
Torpy did not explain what "values" he is talking about.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Religious War After Nigerian Election, Over 500 Dead

Deadly clashes between Muslims and Christians in the north of Nigeria following the re-election of President Goodluck Jonathan has brought the death toll to over 500, according to a local civic group.

At least 516 people have died with the violence being the worst in Kaduna state, according to Shehu Sani, executive director of the Kaduna-based Civil Rights Congress.

Muslim opposition supporters of Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim and former military ruler, began rioting after the April 16 victory of Goodluck, a Christian from the south. Outraged over the 57 to 31 percent defeat, armed protesters took to the streets, chanting Buhari's name and attacking Christian supporters of the president. The violence which took place at churches, homes, and police states, also triggered retaliatory attacks by Christians.

Buhari, candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change, alleged widespread fraud in the election outcome. International observers, however, have called the

National Assembly election fair and the outcome credible.

Relief officials estimate that at least 65,000 people have been displaced as a result of the tensions.

Jonathan is beefing up security forces to some northern states where post-election violence was most severe.

"Sadly, some misguided elements do not share in the spirit of our democratic achievement," said Jonathan last week. "They formed into groups of miscreants and struck with deadly and destructive force in some parts of the country. They killed and maimed innocent citizens. They set ablaze business premises, private homes, and even places of worship."

On Sunday, explosions across Nigeria's northeastern state of Borno killed three people and wounded 14, police reported.

Authorities are blaming Boko Haram, an Islamist sect that has challenged Nigeria's government, suggesting that they are trying to intimidate voters ahead of the nationwide gubernatorial elections Tuesday.

All except two of Nigeria's 36 states are expected to hold gubernatorial elections. Nigerian election officials delayed voting in northern Kaduna and Bauchi for two days due to security concerns.

Nigeria is nearly equally split between Muslims in the North and Christians in the South. The U.S. State Department said in its 2010 Religious Freedom Report that "violence, tension, and hostility between Christians and Muslims increased" and have been "exacerbated by indigene/settler laws, discriminatory employment practices, and resource competition."

Open Doors, a persecution watchdog, ranks Nigeria as No. 23 in its list of countries where the worst Christian persecution exists. It also reports that extremist Islamic groups, using violence as a means to achieving Muslim dominance, have increased their activities.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Florida Pastor Jailed For Protesting a Mosque

A controversial Florida pastor was jailed on Friday after a Michigan court determined that his planned demonstration outside a mosque was likely to provoke violence and he refused to pay a $1 bond.

Terry Jones, 59, was sent to the county jail in Detroit after he declined to meet the terms of a ruling by District Judge Mark Somers in an apparent protest.
Somers had ordered Jones and a supporter, Wayne Sapp, to each pay $1 under the terms of an order that would have also barred them from the Islamic Center of America mosque and nearby public property for three years.

A six-person jury heard over five hours of testimony and argument before concluding that the planned protest by Jones was "likely to breech the peace."
The case pitted questions of free speech against concerns about violence in Dearborn, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit with one of the largest Muslim American populations in the United States.

Jones, 59, is the leader of a tiny, fringe fundamentalist church in Gainesville, Florida, who has generated publicity and controversy by burning the Koran as part of what he describes as a campaign against "radical Islam."
Jones, who represented himself and wore a faded leather jacket and jeans, sat stone-faced and said little after the jury read out its verdict.

When Somers asked if he was prepared to meet the terms of the $1 bond, Jones said, "No."

Prosecutors, who had sought a $25,000 bond for both Sapp and Jones, said they could be jailed for up to three years if they declined to pay the $1 bond in protest.
"I strongly voice my disagreement with the ruling," said Sapp, 42, when asked by Somers if he had any comment on the ruling. "The peace bond is to prohibit free speech."

Sapp was also ordered to jail.

Jones had asked for a permit to protest outside the Islamic Center of America on Good Friday, a time when both the mosque and four nearby churches were expected to be crowded with worshipers.

Dearborn police had denied Jones's request and asked him to protest instead in a "free speech zone" in front of one of the city buildings.
But Jones, who represented himself in court on Friday, argued that violated his free speech rights.

"The First Amendment is only valid if it allows us to say what other people may not like," Jones told jurors. "Otherwise, we do not need the First Amendment."
The American Civil Liberties Union agreed, saying police had overstepped by trying to force Jones to post a "peace bond" that could hold him financially responsible for police protection.

The civil rights group filed a motion asking District Judge Mark Somers to dismiss the case.

Somers, who had ruled in favor of prosecutors before the trial, declined to do so.
"It is unconstitutional to put a price on free speech in anticipation that the speech may not be welcome by others," said Rana Elmir, a spokeswoman for the ACLU.
Police had estimated that it would cost over $46,000 -- including the cost of a helicopter and a dump truck -- to keep violence from breaking out if Jones were allowed to protest.

Last month, Jones staged and videotaped a mock "trial" for the Koran and burned a copy of the holy book in a gesture that prompted riots in Afghanistan and widespread condemnation.
Dearborn Police Chief Ronald Haddad had told jurors that as many as 10,000 counter-protesters could assemble if Jones were allowed to appear on city property across from the mosque, city an estimate from a local imam.
(Reporting by Bernie Woodall. Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Peter Bohan)

Christianity Is Growing in China

Christianity in China is on the rise. According to a 2010 NPR report, there are as many as 100 million Christians in the country. China's communist government, which is officially atheist and frowns on religious practice while tolerating it within set parameters, has cracked down on Christian gatherings that wander astray of such parameters.

AFP's Robert Saiget reports that the Shouwang Church, one of Beijing's largest Christian groups, has adopted a defiant stance against what it perceives as religious persecution. After a spate of recent arrests on Christians who gather in public places, the church has vowed not to bow to the government's pressure to keep its gatherings out of the public eye.

"As Easter is a very important day for us we must stick to our decision to worship outdoors," said the group's senior Pastor Jin Tianming on the phone with AFP from his home, where he is currently under house arrest. "This is our uncompromising position and a matter of faith. If they arrest our followers, this is the price we are willing to pay," he said.

The government of China requires that any religious group register with the state to obtain permission to gather, and outdoor gatherings are strictly prohibited. Jin says that Shouwang, which means “to keep watch,” was established in 1993 and has repeatedly attempted to register with the government since 2006, but has been turned down each time.

Government officials have exhorted Christian groups to abide by the law and recently arrested nearly 170 worshipers on April 10 when they gathered for an outdoor service Beijing's Haidan university district.

Atheist Banned From Marching

While reading the news, I came across this story,

A court has barred atheists from holding a march on Holy Thursday, saying that would be offensive to Spanish Catholics who mark Easter with processions of their own.
In Wednesday's ruling, the Madrid Superior Court of Justice upheld a ban imposed last week by the Interior Ministry office for the Madrid region.
That office had argued among other things that the march planned in the Lavapies district of Madrid would pass by several Catholic churches and could trigger clashes with conservative Catholics. The court also said it is necessary to "protect the tourist image" of the city.
The Madrid Association of Atheists and Free-Thinkers, one of the march organizers, said the ban shows there is no separation of church and state in Spain, a largely Catholic country.

How stupid! Could you imagine the million man march being barred because it would offend some KKK members? How on Earth does it hurt anyone for Atheists to march on a so called, "Holy Day"?

People Protesting the Atheists Convention

Donna Holman of Keokuk makes her Christian beliefs known on this sign she holds Friday outside the Embassy Suites in downtown Des Moines, which is hosting the American Atheists National Convention through Sunday.Standing in the drizzle outside the Embassy Suites, Larry Carter Center and Dan Holman somehow found themselves arguing about the Bible.

You don't see much of that on East First and Locust streets, even on a Good Friday during the American Atheists National Convention.

Most of the atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and secular Americans were inside chatting collegially with one another, waiting to hear how they have become the fastest-growing segment of the population and how organized religion is heading for extinction.
It wasn't the typical Easter sermon because this wasn't the typical Easter flock. Carter Center, who ran for City Council in Des Moines before moving to South Carolina, said he founded the atheist and freethinker group in Des Moines many years ago.

He also said Holman, of Keokuk, was "worshipping a fictional character from a torturous and pornographic book."

He proceeded to cite Ezekiel 23:20, which says something about lust and donkey genitals, which Carter Center translated into sex with donkeys.
"It's in there," he said. "Read it."

"It's not in there, Larry," Holman said. "You're a liar."

Then Larry mentioned Isaiah and started shouting "rip open the bellies of pregnant women." After that, he moved on to Kings.

"I know the Bible," he said.

"You don't know the Bible."

Larry accused Dan of being insane and a fool and needing help. Dan uttered what might turn out to be the quote of the convention: "Larry, you're going to hell. God hates you. And I mean that in the nicest possible way."
Wait a minute, Dan, do you really believe God hates Larry?

"Certainly, it says that right in the Scriptures. It's right there in Psalms."

By this time, Larry was walking away, spouting more chapter and verse, shouting something biblical about "horse semen."

As Larry walked away, a woman waiting to cross the street asked Dan why he was so angry.

"I'm not angry," Dan said. "God is angry. We're here to give them a friendly warning before they plunge into hell. We've had good conversations out here with everyone but Larry."
That might be because most of the nonbelievers aren't out to convert believers. In the president's address, Dave Silverman said he isn't recruiting theists. Instead, he's after "church pew atheists" who secretly believe there is no God.

"Our only course of action," Silverman told the ballroom crowd, "is to address the church pews directly and coax the atheists out of the pews."

But back to Dan and Larry and the woman waiting to cross the street. Ann from Mason City said she was in Des Moines with her husband, who was attending FBI National Academy training.
She said she was Roman Catholic and told Dan he should put his energy into praying really hard for Larry.

"If somebody's house was on fire," Dan replied, "you'd warn them, wouldn't you?"

"I also believe in a God," Ann said, "who no matter what you believe in, when you die, if you've led a good life, God is going to forgive you."

Larry disagreed with Ann, who disagreed with Dan, after which they traded more Bible verses.

When Ann finally got around to crossing the street, another woman put down her protest sign long enough to say she disagreed with Dan, too. God doesn't hate anyone.
Her name is Ruby Hopper and she'd come in from Clinton with her husband, Dennis. (Dennis Hopper. That is correct.)

"We believe God loves everyone equally," Ruby said.

"He just hates what they do wrong," added Dennis.

Ruby said the godless people going in and out of the hotel were very friendly.

It was true. Inside, people were registering, buying lifetime memberships, looking at the books and the hand-made ceramic jewelry. The "Scarlet A" and "Darwin Tree" necklaces seemed to be popular.
They were checking out the bumper stickers that said things like, "I was born all right the first time."

Amanda Metskas was singing the praises of Camp Quest (slogan: "It's beyond belief!"). The camp offers most of the normal camping activities in addition to "Cafe Socrates," which is for kids who want to be philosophers when they grow up.

Silverman welcomed the group to "the largest American atheist convention ever."

He called himself an atheist extremist: "I hate being called a militant atheist. Militant Christians blow up abortion clinics. Militant Muslims blow up trade centers. Apparently, militant atheists put up billboards."
When Silverman asked the ballroom crowd if this was their first atheist event ever, most people raised their hands.

"Des Moines isn't a Christian city," he said. "It's an American city."

Silverman got the ballroom going again when he said atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and secular Americans were the fastest-growing segment of the population.

Silverman alluded to a scientific study using census data that found religion in nine countries — Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland — is set for extinction.
He mentioned the big million-man type of event planned for the summer of 2013 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

It wasn't the kind of Easter sermon Iowans are used to, but the ones in the ballroom room seemed to approve.

Written by 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

New Method May Aid In Finding Alien Worlds

One of the largest alien worlds yet discovered may create a huge shock wave as it plows through the wind blowing off its host star, astronomers have found. That may mean the planet has a magnetic field that protects it in its perilously close orbit. The discovery may help astronomers understand the atmospheres, and ultimately the life-supporting potential, of worlds beyond our solar system.

Scientists identified the first alien world, or exoplanet, in 1992, and since then the number has ballooned to 531. In 2008, astronomers added a planet named WASP-12b to the roster. WASP-12b is a “hot Jupiter,” a gaseous planet similar in size to our own gas giant but with a blisteringly hot surface temperature of more than 2000°C. It whips around its host star at a distance of less than 1/16th the distance from the sun to Mercury, completing its orbit once every 26 hours. In 2010, scientists at the Open University in the United Kingdom used the Hubble Space Telescope to view WASP-12b’s transit and noticed that as it crossed its star, its "shadows" appeared first in the ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths before the rest of the planet blocked the sun.

Aline Vidotto and her team at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom theorized that the out-of-sync dimming could be explained by a shock wave in the stellar wind, the stream of charged gas particles flowing off the star and immersing the planet. The shock wave is similar to that created by a supersonic jet aircraft as it travels through air, building up pressure waves around its nose that merge together. The planet’s shock wave would be pushed in front of it as it orbits at supersonic speeds, and the wave would absorb some of the UV light emitted from the star. Earth and Saturn exhibit similar “bow shocks,” but this is the first evidence of a shock surrounding an exoplanet.

Vidotto and her team calculated the distance from the planet’s surface to the front of the apparent bow shock and were surprised that it was more than four times the planet’s radius. The team reasoned that strong magnetic forces were repelling the stellar wind because gaseous pressures alone would not be enough to hold it off at such a distance, says Vidotto, who presented the findings at this week’s meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in Llandudno in the United Kingdom.

Earth’s magnetic field shields our atmosphere from the destructive powers of the solar wind, and many scientists believe a magnetic field may be a prerequisite for a habitable planet. “While WASP-12b is far too hot to support life, being able to detect planetary magnetic fields will help with our understanding of and identifying the habitable zones around exoplanets," says Joseph Llama, a Ph.D. student on Vidotto’s team.

To further explore exoplanet magnetism, the team has put together a list of potential planets that they believe offer the most promising chances to glimpse similar bow shocks. “It’s very competitive to get [Hubble] time, so we cannot ask to look at all the transiting planets,” Vidotto says.

Alan Aylward, an astrophysicist at University College London, cautions that a magnetic field may not be the only plausible explanation for the observed bow shock, noting that normal assumptions about atmospheric dynamics may not apply in such exotic environments. Still, he says, the possibility of such a field leads to many interesting lines of inquiry, including questions about how planets produce magnetic fields.

Heather Knutson, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, says the findings could help scientists know where to concentrate their observing efforts to spot new astronomical phenomena. “A consistent story with exoplanets is that they are almost never what we expect them to be,” she says.

Christopher Hitchens Speach at the American Atheist

Christopher Hitchens was scheduled to appear at the American Atheist convention, but had to cancel because of his illness.

Here is the letter he sent in his place:

Dear fellow-unbelievers,

Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death. Nobody ever wins this argument, though there are some solid points to be made while the discussion goes on. I have found, as the enemy becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before. I hope to help defend and pass on the lessons of this for many years to come, but for now I have found my trust better placed in two things: the skill and principle of advanced medical science, and the comradeship of innumerable friends and family, all of them immune to the false consolations of religion. It is these forces among others which will speed the day when humanity emancipates itself from the mind-forged manacles of servility and superstitition. It is our innate solidarity, and not some despotism of the sky, which is the source of our morality and our sense of decency.

That essential sense of decency is outraged every day. Our theocratic enemy is in plain view. Protean in form, it extends from the overt menace of nuclear-armed mullahs to the insidious campaigns to have stultifying pseudo-science taught in American schools. But in the past few years, there have been heartening signs of a genuine and spontaneous resistance to this sinister nonsense: a resistance which repudiates the right of bullies and tyrants to make the absurd claim that they have god on their side. To have had a small part in this resistance has been the greatest honor of my lifetime: the pattern and original of all dictatorship is the surrender of reason to absolutism and the abandonment of critical, objective inquiry. The cheap name for this lethal delusion is religion, and we must learn new ways of combating it in the public sphere, just as we have learned to free ourselves of it in private.

Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation (and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need). Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations.

As the heirs of a secular revolution, American atheists have a special responsibility to defend and uphold the Constitution that patrols the boundary between Church and State. This, too, is an honor and a privilege. Believe me when I say that I am present with you, even if not corporeally (and only metaphorically in spirit...) Resolve to build up Mr Jefferson's wall of separation. And don't keep the faith.


Christopher Hitchens

Friday, April 22, 2011

Has the LHC found a hint of the Higgs boson?

David Shiga, reporter
(Image: ATLAS Experiment © 2011 CERN)
Physics blogs are alive with chatter about a possible sign of the Higgs boson – or perhaps an entirely unexpected particle – in data from the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. But the claim has not gone through the experiment's vetting process and could easily turn out to be wrong, physicists say.
The LHC, which smashes beams of protons together, was built largely in the hope of netting the first observational evidence of the Higgs, which is thought to endow other particles with mass. The Higgs is the last undiscovered particle in the standard model of particle physics, which for three decades has reigned supreme in explaining how particles and forces interact.

The latest rumours of its possible sighting come from an abstract that was posted by an anonymous commenter on mathematician Peter Woit's blog on Thursday.
The abstract appears to be part of a longer paper written by four physicists involved with the LHC's ATLAS detector, though the full paper has not been posted publicly yet.

The authors of the abstract say ATLAS data shows more photon pairs than expected with an energy of 115 GeV.

That number is interesting because many physicists think the Higgs boson is likely to have a mass of around 115 GeV – at least if supersymmetry, a popular theory that wraps up some of the standard model's loose ends, is correct. (Physicists often use energy units when describing particle masses, since they are related according to Einstein's formula E=mc2.)

The Higgs should occasionally decay into a pair of photons, which would produce a bump in the photon-pair energy distribution. But if the Higgs has the properties predicted by the standard model, that bump should be much too small to see. The bump claimed in the abstract is 30 times bigger than the expected value.
The R├ęsonaances blog by physicist Adam Falkowski has a good rundown of the possible explanations for the signal. Physicist bloggers Tommaso Dorigo and Lubos Motl have interesting discussions too.

The consensus seems to be that the paper itself is real rather than some sort of hoax, but the result may well turn out to be wrong.

However, it could be that the Higgs just behaves differently than expected. Physicists have dreamed up many ways to extend the standard model that would modify the properties of the Higgs. Some of these would boost the size of the photon-pair bump, though making it big enough still seems to be a stretch.
Or the bump could be from some unexpected new particle rather than the Higgs.
But perhaps the most likely explanation is that the bump is a mistake. Particle collisions are messy and it takes a lot of careful analysis to separate anomalies from mundane background events. An error somewhere along the way could make a bump appear that isn't really there.

It is worth noting that the claim is at a very early stage. Apparently the paper has not been reviewed or endorsed yet by the ATLAS collaboration, an organisation of hundreds of physicists that runs the detector.

By comparison, the 145 GeV bump seen recently in a different kind of measurement at Fermilab's Tevatron collider in Batavia, Illinois, had the backing of the collaboration that runs the CDF experiment the result was based on.

Even if the 115 GeV bump goes away, chances are good that the LHC will have more interesting results soon. CERN reports today that the LHC has broken the record for the world's most intense beams of colliding particles, snatching the title from the Tevatron. The LHC had already broken the record for collision energy, but now it has the highest rate of particle collisions per second as well, which should speed up new discoveries.

Making the Case for Alien Life

There's no good evidence to date that life exists, or ever has existed, on worlds beyond the Earth — so it might seem odd that the field of science known as astrobiology is booming. Over the past decade or so, hundreds of biologists, geologists, chemists and astronomers have conducted research and attended conferences on astrobiology around the world, and NASA even has an Astrobiology Institute at its Ames Research Center in California.
That's because there's plenty to think about before we actually find alien life. What form, for example, is it likely to take? Where should we be looking, and how? How did life arise on Earth — was it pretty much inevitable, given the right conditions, or was it a one-in-a-billion kind of thing? Are there enough life-friendly planets out there to make the search worthwhile? (See the Hubble telescope's greatest hits.)

Thanks to progress on all of these questions and more, scientists tend to be more confident than ever that life does exist out in the universe — and First Contact, a book by Washington Post reporter and editor Marc Kaufman, is a powerful reminder of why. Take Princeton geologist Tullis Onstott, whose story, along with those of many others, Kaufman tells. In 1996 Onstott ventured deep into a South African gold mine. Tapping into rock a mile (1.6 km) below the surface, he extracted bacteria that were living cheerfully in harsh conditions completely isolated from the rest of the biosphere.

Onstott's discovery is just one of dozens that established the existence of so-called extremophiles, bacteria and other forms of life that thrive in such absurdly hostile places as the hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, superheated water spewing from cracks in the bottom of the sea and environments laced with acid, heavy metals and even radioactive wastes. Life, in short, can deal with a much wider range of conditions than anyone thought — which means a distant planet needn't be a tropical paradise to be habitable. See the world's most influential people in the 2011 TIME 100

Or take Jeffrey Bada, a marine chemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in La Jolla, Calif. Back in the 1950s, Bada's mentor, Stanley Miller, had probed the origin of life by passing electricity through a vial of organic chemicals to see what came out. Miller's published experiments were flawed. But Bada has re-examined some of Miller's unpublished ones and found intriguing hints that the origin of life may well be the rule on an Earth-like planet rather than the exception. (See the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2010.)

Kaufman also tackles the question of how many such planets are likely to exist. His lead character here is Paul Butler, now at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who has been involved in scores of planet discoveries since the first so-called extrasolar planet was found in 1995. By Butler's estimation, as few as 5% of sunlike stars may host a habitable planet — but given that there are tens of billions of sunlike stars in the Milky Way alone, that's still a pretty big number. Butler, moreover, is hardly the only, or even the most accomplished, planet hunter in the business, and his estimates don't take into account the most recent discoveries by the Kepler space probe, which is finding planets by the bucketload.

Unfortunately, the most habitable planet found so far — a world known as Gliese 581g, announced by Butler and his colleague Steve Vogt last fall — is now widely believed not to exist after all. False detections are old news in the planet game, though, and Butler and Vogt appropriately noted at the time that their find would have to be confirmed by others before it could be considered rock solid.

 The same applies to evidence of alien life, of course. Those claims have been made as well. It happened in 1996, for example, when scientists looked into a rock blasted from Mars to Earth and saw what they believed was evidence of fossilized bacteria, and earlier this year when an online journal announced a similar discovery in a meteorite that fell in the 1800s. In neither case were any real E.T. remains proved to exist. Back in the 1970s, the twin Viking probes landed on Mars and performed on-site tests of the soil, looking for life. Most came back negative, but one, designed by NASA scientist Gilbert Levin, showed suspicious activity. (See listening for aliens: what would E.T. do?)

In the end, Levin's colleagues, including Carl Sagan, decided it was a fluke — but Levin himself still insists it wasn't, and Kaufman is inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Kaufman also bends over backward for the folks who say that bacterial remains can be found in meteorites. "Research in the past decade into the worlds of extremophiles, microbes and fossils," he writes, "has proven that what's true today often is overturned tomorrow, and what's rejected today may be accepted tomorrow."

It's hard to fault Kaufman for thinking the glass is not just half full but nearly overflowing. Even if you limit your thinking to life as we know it — life based on the element carbon and dependent on liquid water for survival — the findings Kaufman writes about (and plenty he doesn't get to) all point to the notion that the Milky Way is likely teeming with biology.

And who's to say life as we know it is the only kind? Physicist Paul Davies has argued recently that the search for life is far too parochial, that alternate biologies could exist, literally under our noses, without our being aware of them. Researchers at Harvard's Origin of Life initiative, meanwhile, are considering the possibility of planets dominated by a sulfur cycle rather than the carbon cycle that prevails on our own planet — and are trying to fathom what sort of life could result. That would be life as we don't know it, but the Harvard group is starting to work out how we might detect it.

If they're right, Kaufman's claim that "before the end of this century, and perhaps much sooner than that, scientists will determine that life exists elsewhere in the universe" may actually be an understatement.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Language May Have Helped Early Humans Spread Out of Africa

The story of humanity's prehistoric expansion across the planet is recorded in our genes. And, apparently, the story of the spread of language is hidden in the sounds of our words. That's the finding of a new study, which concludes that both people and languages spread out from an African homeland by a similar process—and that language may have been the cultural innovation that fueled our ancestors' momentous migrations.

Tracing the spread of languages has been difficult. Most linguists use changes in words or grammatical structures to try to track language evolution. The English word "brother," for example, translates as bhrater in Sanskrit, brathir in Old Irish, frater in Latin, and phrater in Greek. These differences can be used to reconstruct the ancient words that gave rise to these modern ones. But unlike genes, these cultural units cannot be traced back far enough to distinguish patterns of language change much earlier than about 6500 years ago.

So Quentin Atkinson, a psychologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand who has long worked on language evolution, decided to look at language units whose pedigrees might be traceable further back: phonemes, the smallest units of sound that allow us to distinguish one word from another. For example, the English words "rip" and "lip" differ by a single phoneme, one corresponding to the letter "r" and the other to the letter "l."

Atkinson looked at the phonemes from 504 languages across the world, using as his database the authoritative online World Atlas of Language Structures, which includes phonemes based on differences in the sounds of vowels, consonants, and spoken tones. He then constructed a series of models, demonstrating first that smaller populations have lower phoneme diversity. And, as also predicted if language arose in Africa, phoneme diversity was greatest in Africa and smallest in South America and Oceania (the islands of the Pacific Ocean), the points farthest from Africa, Atkinson reports online today in Science. The pattern matches that for human genetic diversity: As a general rule, the farther one gets from Africa—widely accepted as the ancestral home of our species—the smaller the differences between individuals within a particular population.
Controlling for differences in population size and other potentially confounding factors, Atkinson then modeled the worldwide language phoneme pattern that would be expected if human language had spread from 2560 different potential points of origin around the planet. He found that the model that best fit present-day phoneme diversity patterns was one that put the origins of all languages in central and southern Africa.

Atkinson's best-fit model parallels not only the overall genetic pattern, suggesting an out-of-Africa migration of modern humans, but also subsequent events in human prehistory. Thus outside of Africa, the greatest phoneme diversity was found in languages thought to have arisen in Southeast Asia, consistent with high genetic diversity there. This suggests that Southeast Asian populations grew very rapidly soon after our ancestors left Africa. And within the Americas, phoneme diversity was smaller the farther a population was from the Bering Strait, consistent with assumptions that the first Americans came over the strait from Asia and spread as far as South America.

These parallels also suggest that human language predates the out-of-Africa migrations of 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. Atkinson concludes that language might have been the essential cultural and cognitive innovation that fueled human colonization of the globe.

Robin Dunbar, a psychologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, says Atkinson's study is a "really novel approach" that overcomes the limitations of earlier studies. "The key to this was using phoneme diversity rather than words or grammar." And Dunbar agrees with Atkinson that language evolution might have been "crucial in facilitating" the African exodus.

Bart de Boer, a linguist at the University of Amsterdam, adds that the paper "looks methodologically quite sound." But he says he is surprised that phonemes can be used to trace language evolution so far back in time—and that over the course of tens of thousands of years phoneme diversities in far-flung areas of the world have not "drifted back to the sizes found in Africa" because cultural evolution of phonemes is "much faster than genetic evolution." De Boer says that he would be happy if the paper turns out to be correct, but researchers must first be sure that its conclusions are not "caused by some methodological artifact we have all missed."

Original Article

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mystery signal at Fermilab hints at 'technicolour' force - physics-math - 07 April 2011 - New Scientist

The physics world is buzzing with news of an unexpected sighting at Fermilab's Tevatron collider in Illinois – a glimpse of an unidentified particle that, should it prove to be real, will radically alter physicists' prevailing ideas about how nature works and how particles get their mass.
The candidate particle may not belong to the standard model of particle physics, physicists' best theory for how particles and forces interact. Instead, some say it might be the first hint of a new force of nature, called technicolour, which would resolve some problems with the standard model but would leave others unanswered.
The observation was made by Fermilab's CDF experiment, which smashes together protons and antiprotons 2 million times every second. The data, collected over a span of eight years, looks at collisions that produce a W boson, the carrier of the weak nuclear force, and a pair of jets of subatomic particles called quarks.
Physicists predicted that the number of these events – producing a W boson and a pair of jets – would fall off as the mass of the jet pair increased. But the CDF data showed something strange (see graph): a bump in the number of events when the mass of the jet pair was about 145 GeV.

Just a fluke?

That suggests that the additional jet pairs were produced by a new particle weighing about 145 GeV. "We expected to see a smooth shape that decreases for increasing values of the mass," says CDF team member Pierluigi Catastini of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Instead we observe an excess of events concentrated in one region, and it seems to be a bump – the typical signature of a particle."
Intriguing as it sounds, there is a 1 in 1000 chance that the bump is simply a statistical fluke. Those odds make it a so-called three-sigma result, falling short of the gold standard for a discovery – five sigma, or a 1 in a million chance of error. "I've seen three-sigma effects come and go," says Kenneth Lane of Boston University in Massachusetts. Still, physicists are 99.9 per cent sure it is not a fluke, so they are understandably anxious to pin down the particle's identity.
Most agree that the mysterious particle is not the long-sought Higgs boson, believed by many to endow particles with mass. "It's definitely not a Higgs-like object," says Rob Roser, a CDF spokesperson at Fermilab. If it were, the bump in the data would be 300 times smaller. What's more, a Higgs particle should most often decay into bottom quarks, which do not seem to make an appearance in the Fermilab data.

Fifth force

"There's no version of a Higgs in any model that I know of where the production rate would be this large," says Lane. "It has to be something else." And Lane is confident that he knows exactly what it is.
Just over 20 years ago, Lane, along with Fermilab physicist Estia Eichten, predicted that experiments would see just such a signal. Lane and Eichten were working on a theory known as technicolour, which proposes the existence of a fifth fundamental force in addition to the four already known: gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Technicolour is very similar to the strong force, which binds quarks together in the nuclei of atoms, only it operates at much higher energies. It is also able to give particles their mass – rendering the Higgs boson unnecessary.
The new force comes with a zoo of new particles. Lane and Eichten's model predicted that a technicolour particle called a technirho would often decay into a W boson and another particle called a technipion.
In a new paper, Lane, Eichten and Fermilab physicist Adam Martin suggest that a technipion with a mass of about 160 GeV could be the mysterious particle producing the two jets. "If this is real, I think people will give up on the idea of looking for the Higgs and begin exploring this rich world of new particles," Lane says.

Future tests

But if technicolour is correct, it would not be able to resolve all the questions left unanswered by the standard model. For example, physicists believe that at the high energies found in the early universe, the fundamental forces of nature were unified into a single superforce. Supersymmetry, physicists' leading contender for a theory beyond the standard model, paves a way for the forces to unite at high energies, but technicolour does not.
Figuring out which theory – if either – is right means combing through more heaps of data to determine if the new signal is real. Budget constraints mean the Tevatron will shut down this year, but fortunately the CDF team, which made the find, is already "sitting on almost twice the data that went into this analysis", says Roser. "Over the coming months we will redo the analysis with double the data."