Transgender bathrooms, creationism, climate change denial, and the Ten Commandments

Toilet signs

Toilet signs, Ebay

Why does North Carolina want to force transgender persons to use the wrong public toilet? Why the steady stream of foredoomed bills demanding evenhanded treatment of evolution and creationism? And why endless attempts to mount official displays of the Ten Commandments, when such displays have repeatedly been ruled to breach the wall between Church and State?

Toilet etiquette is where prudery meets absurdity. Your chance of being embarrassed, let alone molested, by a transgender person in a US public toilet is probably zero, and certainly less than your chance of being shot dead at home by a toddler playing with a gun; after all, the only public display of genitalia is at the men’s urinal, and you can always use a booth if you prefer.

(It is said that an undergrad once asked Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, Provost of Trinity College Dublin, where he might find a lavatory. “At the end of the corridor,” Mahaffy grandly gestured, “you will find a door marked GENTLEMEN; but don’t let that stop you.” In the UK, of which Dublin was still part at the time, class trumps gender. Incidentally, Trinity had been admitting female undergraduates since 1903, 74 years before Harvard; I assume that sanitary arrangements were instituted to cope with this.)

It is established law in the US that the teaching of creationism serves a religious, rather than scientific or educational, purpose. It follows (Edwards v. Aguillard) that such teaching is unconstitutional in US public schools, since it violates the First Amendment separation of Church and State. There is no prospect of this ruling being overturned, unless we ever get a US Supreme Court packed by a creationist President.

It has also been repeatedly established that display of the Ten Commandments on State government property violates the US Constitution, for much the same reasons.

So why do we have States bringing in transgender bathroom laws, scientifically baseless (as discussed here by my friend Faye Flam), whose only effect would be to inconvenience and offend one particular small minority? Why did this monumental non-issue even spill over into the moronic drivelfest of the Republican Party’s nomination debate? Or attract so much attention that Pres. Obama’s statement of the obvious on the subject has been hailed as “historic”?

Why do we have a whole evolving family of “sound science teaching” bills, which would single out evolution, together with climate change, as subjects concerning which students should be taught “both sides”, or the “strengths and weaknesses” of what is in fact well established science?

And why should the current Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court keep on asserting his right to display the Ten Commandments in his courthouse? Does he really think it necessary to inform litigants that God brought them out of Egypt, wants them to be nice to their parents, and disapproves of graven images?

Stupidity? No, strategy. And a strategy that is highly evolved, if not indeed intelligently designed.

Consider how much these issues have in common. For a start, there is nostalgia for an imagined era of moral clarity and biblical belief. This feeds in to what is, I suspect, the most powerful of all political motivators, namely the sense of identity. We think as we do and vote as we do because of the kind of person we think we are, or at any rate would like to be. And these three issues translate as assertions of a very American kind of Christian identity. As a corollary, they define an enemy; the smug Liberal sneering at those who disagree with him (would that this image lacked validity). They are timeless, unlike the real issues of foreign policy and budgets; they will still be with us ten budget cycles and three foreign entanglements down the road.

And they work as attention grabbers, and as group identifiers. The major US retail chain Target thought it worthwhile to issue a statement inviting people to use the toilets fitting their self-description rather than their birth certificates; in retaliation, a group calling itself the American Family Association has launched a boycott petition that has gathered, so far, over 850,000 signatures. I do not know what evils the AFA plan to blame on Target, but they are among those who blame Darwin for Hitler, so they’ll think of something. AFA regards calls to action on climate change as impious, since the planet is in God’s hands. It also defends public display of the Ten Commandments, on the grounds that “the Ten Commandments are the basis of all of our laws.” These views form an identity cluster, and the inclusion of climate change denial is no accident.


Crabs washed up on a beach in Oregon after suffocating in low-oxygen waters. Credit: Elizabeth Gates, courtesy of PISCO, via NSF (click to magnify)

And finally, by the same token, they are perfect distractions from reality. American readers, at least, could hardly have failed to notice the transgender toilet controversy. But how many of us are even aware of evidence published earlier this month that warming is already reducing the availability of oxygen in the oceans, and that this effect will probably be widespread by the 2030s?

We could be talking about the erosion of democracy, looming water shortages in the US and Asia, the unstable world banking system, climate change, and the facts of economic inequality. Or we could be talking about who is allowed to use which bathroom. If you were a North Carolina legislator, which would you prefer?

Mahaffey anecdote from Sorenson h/t Abbas Raza. An earlier version of this piece appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.

Professor David MacKay and the Renewables Delusion

I too would like to simply replace fossil fuels with renewables, but nature doesn’t care about what you or I would like, and renewables don’t have enough power per unit area. If you think you can phase out fossil fuels in densely populated countries without phasing in nuclear, please show me your arithmetic. David Mackay’s full book and 10 page synopsis are available (in English and several other languages) here (free download)

[See however (h/t Michael Reiss); renewables according to this source already generate 24% of the UK’s electricity requirements; not of course the same as total energy requirements, but not negligible either]

h/t Michael Roberts


“I’m not pro-nuclear- just pro-arithmetic”.

The cause for a rational evidence-based approach to energy policy has suffered a huge loss with the death of Professor David Mackay  three weeks ago, on April 14th.

Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, was the author of Sustainable Energy Without Hot Air, a key text that has been my number one stop to point folks to as a starting point for understanding energy supply and demand. In particular, I have frequently cited this table which explains very well the limitations of wind and solar energy due to their relatively low energy density:

Power per unit land or water area

Based on these figures, population and current energy demand, MacKay calculates that Britain cannot live on its own renewables- they simply need too much land.

By contrast to the 2-20W/m2 that can be achieved through wind or solar pv power, fossil fuels or…

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LibDem Holyrood hopeful wants to keep Church nominees on Council Committees

I asked Robert Brown, top Glasgow Region LibDem list candidate, former Deputy Minister for Education and Young People, and current South Lanarkshire Councillor

Should we continue to leave in place the pre-devolution requirement for all Local Authority Education Committees to include three individuals selected by the Churches, sitting and voting alongside the Councillor members selected by the voters?

[Yes, I’m afraid that means what it says. Three of the members of your Council Education Committee were put there by the Churches, not the votersThis despite the fact that most Scots describe themselves as having no religion]


Robert Brown: “on the whole valuable to have the Churches involved”

His reply [emphasis added]:

I am not particularly exercised by this. I think it is on the whole valuable to have the Churches involved but I have not sat on an Education Committee and don’t really know how it works out in practice.

It is linked to the broader question of the nature of religious observance and religious education in schools. As you may know, a new, more inclusive, Code of Practice on Religious observance was developed about 4 or 5 years back* which has, I think, proved satisfactory. I can’t say any of this is an issue on which I have had any representations from constituents over the years.

I should add that school communities are increasingly diverse in both religious and cultural background and this has to be reflected in the arrangements made on these things.

TruthBeTold (2)

Book handed out to all school assembly participants at Kirktonholme Primary, South Lanarkshire, during Robert Brown’s time as Councillor

I am appalled. Here we have a former Deputy Minister of the Education, and current South Lanarkshire Councillor, saying that “I am not particularly exercised” about this, and “… don’t really know how it works out in practice.” So he tells us that he doesn’t know and doesn’t care about this gross affront to democracy, despite its effect on the governance of the schools for which he formerly had Ministerial responsibility. This effect is real; the Church nominated members sit alongside the elected councillors, and hold the balance of power on 19 out of Scotland’s 32 Education Committees. He next attempts to distract attention from this highly specific issue by smothering it in the broader general context of religious observance in Scottish schools. Finally, he states that in his view the situation in recent years “has … proved satisfactory.”


The Creation Museum, Kentucky, where Dr Iskander has lectured, presents Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) from a biblical standpoint


From Truth be Told, Chapter 7, Dinosaurs and Man

This despite two major 2013 scandals in the schools of the very region for which he had then just taken his seat as Councillor. First we had the exposure of Nagy Iskander, then a member of the Chaplaincy Committee at Calderwood Academy, as an internationally recognised six-day creationist, Then, a few months later, we had the scandal at Kirktonholme, where an Alabama-based US fundamentalist sect distributed in School Assembly their own textbooks, showing humans using dinosaurs as farm animals; it was subsequently discovered that they had been influencing the school curriculum for eight years. That sect is no longer active in South Lanarkshire schools, but Dr Iskander continues to sit on South Lanarkshire’s Education Committee, having been appointed by his own Church, the biblical infallibilist Westwoodhill Evangelical.

The Scottish Secular Society will be seeking action on the issue of Church seats on Education Committees during the life of the new Parliament. We have collected data on how the Church nominees are appointed, and find arbitrary and inefficient recruitment mechanisms, gross overrepresentation of Noah’s Ark hellfire creationist churches, and bizarre cases such as that of North Lanarkshire, where an outgoing Councillor, having been soundly defeated at the polls in 2013, now sits on the Education Committee as representative of the Boys Brigade.

More in due course

*Mr Brown seems to be referring to the 2004 report on Religious Observance, and subsequent (2011) Government guidance, which recommends that Religious Observance be non-confessional. The recommendation is non-binding, generally ignored, and did nothing to prevent the Kirktonholme scqndal of which he seems strangely unaware.

Epictetus on suicide: the open door policy

Let me commend Massimo Pigliucci’s “How to be a stoic” series, from which this is reblogged, to all of my friends who choose to ponder what it is to live well. One excerpt will give the flavour: “I love the image of life as a festival, to be enjoyed, but also from which one eventually has to take leave, either when the party comes to a natural end, or when the circumstances are such that the occasion is no longer worth one’s time and effort.”

How to Be a Stoic

Epictetus“And what does it matter to you by what way you descend to Hades? All roads are equal. But, if you want to hear the truth, the one that a tyrant sends you along is shorter. No tyrant ever took six months to cut someone’s throat, but a fatal fever often lasts a year.”

So says Epictetus in Discourses II.6.17-19, while discussing the kind of death that one does not choose, but is imposed by external events. (The reference to Hades is a concession to then popular culture of the time, since the Stoics did not believe in an afterlife.) Because death is a (dispreferred) “indifferent,” Epictetus is arguing that it doesn’t matter, really, deeply, how one dies. What makes us fearful of the event is the (inaccurate) judgment that it is a bad thing that one’s consciousness cease existing.

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Science in the World of Islam, 1: The Syllable Al-

As in Alcatraz; Alcove; Alfalfa; Alcohol; Alkali; Alizarin; Almanac; Alchemy; Alembic; Algol; Almagest; Algebra; Algorithm; Alhambra

The syllable Al- is Arabic for “The”, and is attached to the beginning of the word to which it applies.

Like English today, or Latin in Renaissance Europe, the dominant language of learned discourse for several centuries was Arabic. Arabic-speaking scholars translated the great works of the Greek philosophers and scientists, as well as studying them in the original, did likewise for the texts of Indian mathematics (from which we derive our modern “Arabic” numbering system), and made important discoveries of their own. Spain was where the worlds of Islam and of Western Christianity met, fought, and mingled for more than seven hundred years, and it is mainly through Spanish that Arabic words have entered the English language.


Prison block, Alcatraz (now a museum)

Alcatraz, an island in California famous for its prison (left), was named by the Spanish explorers for the pelican (Arabic al-qadus, the water carrier), which they wrongly believed to carry water in its bill. In a further misapplication, the word has passed into English as the name for a completely different bird, the “Albatross”. Alcove (al-qubbah, the arch) reminds us of the glories of Moorish architecture, as in the Alhambra (or the red house) in Granada. This building was decorated with abstract designs (Arabesques) of great intricacy, whose patterns show so subtle a use of geometry and symmetry that they are studied by mathematicians even today. Alfalfa (from the Arabic name for the plant) is grown for hay in dry climates, such as that of Spain. The syllable al also occurs in numerous place names. The Algarve to us is the south of Portugal; to the Iberian Arabs, it was al-Gharb, the West. A very common combination is with wadi, valley, as in Guadalquivir (al-wad al-kebir, the Mighty River, the island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific (named after a town in Spain, wad-al-Kanat, valley of merchant stalls), Guadalajara (wad-al-Hajara or valley of stones) in Spain and Mexico. There are even a few Arabic-Spanish or Arabic-Latin hybrid names, such as Alicante (al– tacked onto the Roman name Lucentum, or City of Light) or Guadalupe (wad-al-lupus, valley of the wolf) But most of the Arabic al- words in common English use refer to the Arabic achievements in science and mathematics.


Decorated arch, Alhambra (click to enlarge)

Alchemy, algebra, and Arabic numerals

Historically, the West has failed to give anything like due credit to the Arabic contribution to knowledge. A century ago, the justly renowned physicist, philosopher, and historian Pierre Duhem described the “wise men of Mohammedanism” as “destitute of all originality”.[1] I myself, somewhat more recently, was taught at school that the Renaissance was brought about by Byzantine scholars who alone had been guarding the flame of knowledge kindled in classical times, and who, after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, were dispersed throughout Europe. This account is as unhistorical as it is patronising. We can trace the golden age of Arabic science to the eighth century translation project, centred on Baghdad, which made the thought and knowledge of the Greece (and Persia and India) available in Arabic. And we must in turn acknowledge, as among the events leading up to the Renaissance and what we call “the” Scientific Revolution, the translation project centred on Toledo, that four centuries later was to translate the work of Arabic into Latin.

Our system of writing numbers was invented in India, from where Persian scholars brought it to the Arabic world. By the tenth century it had spread from there, through Spain, to the rest of Europe, so that we still refer to Arabic (as opposed to Roman) numerals. (The shapes of the actual numerals that we use follow those of the western part of the Islamic world, and have a clear family relationship to those from the eastern part, which are the ones used in Arabic writing today.)  The word algorithm originally meant calculation with Arabic numerals. The word preserves the name of the Persian mathematician and polymath al-Khwarizmi,[2] who had by around 825 CE worked out the procedures for doing arithmetic as we do, using zero, and positional notation for powers of ten. (If you think this was only a minor advance; just try doing long multiplication using Roman numerals. Masochists are invited to try long division.) The word “algorithm” has now acquired an interesting new meaning, as a procedure or set of rules for calculating an answer, and much of computing science is devoted to finding the best algorithm for a given class of problem.

AL-Khwarismi statue

Statue of al-Khwarismi, Uzbekistan

Al-Khwarismi’s writings also give us the name, and the concept, of algebra (al-jebr, sometimes translated as “balancing” or “completing”), including the rules for solving quadratic equations by completing the square. One other possible meaning of the word is “uniting” or “joining”, and in sixteenth century England it also meant “bone-setting”.

Mathematics finds practical application in astronomy. This is a science of great utility for tracking the seasons, and also for navigation (the Arabs traded as far as Indonesia), and orientation (Moslem worshippers would need to know, as exactly as possible, the correct direction to Mecca). Here Arabic scholars were greatly helped by their access to the work of the Greek astronomers of Alexandria. The Greek theory of planetary motions placed the Earth at the center, with the other heavenly bodies following epicycles, or wheels within wheels. This theory was fully developed by the astronomer Ptolemy in a work still referred to by the name of its translation into Arabic, the Almagest (Arabic al-, the; Greek megisti, greatest). However, Arabic astronomers made original discoveries in both observational and theoretical astronomy. They followed their Hindu precursors in anticipating Copernicus’ shift of the center of the revolutions from the Earth to the Sun, and developed the sophisticated mathematics required to handle the implications of such a shift. When they discovered that a star in the constellation Perseus showed varying intensity over time, they called it Algol, the ghoul (yes; ghoul is also Arabic), because it went against Aristotle’s view that everything above the moon was perfect and unchanging. The predicted motions of the moon (important in Islamic religious observance) and planets, together with a list of dates for planting, can of course be found in an almanac (al-manakh, the calendar).

The language of chemistry in particular shows evidence of its origins in the Arabic science of alchemy (al-Khemiya; from Greek chimeia, art of refining metals). If today we think of alchemy as a benighted precursor to the true science of chemistry, that is just a trick of historical perspective, and indeed the two terms were used more or less interchangeably, both in the Arabic-speaking world and in Europe, until relatively recent times.[3] While greatly discredited by its later practitioners in Europe, alchemy was the first serious attempt to relate observed chemical changes to an underlying theory of elemental composition. One piece of apparatus much used by the alchemists was the alembic (al-anbiq, the vessel, from greek ambix). Arabic craftsmen also developed the practical aspects of the subject, extracting the red dye alizarin (al-asarah, the juice) from the madder plant and developing the process for binding it to cotton. They also extracted potassium carbonate from the alkali (al-qali, the ash) made by burning seaweed, and this process was the main source of alkali for soap making and other purposes until the 19th century. The ladies of the Middle East used al-kohl (the powdered antimony) in eye makeup, a practice mentioned by the Prophet Ezekiel, who did not approve. This, strangely, is the origin of our word alcohol. Over time, this word has changed its meaning completely, from powdered antimony, to any fine powder, to a distilled essence used to suspend the powder, to the intoxicating substance ethyl alcohol (strictly forbidden to Moslems), and finally, in modern scientific usage, to any substance containing a similar carbon-oxygen-hydrogen grouping.


Phases and eclipse of the Moon, from al-Biruni’s Kitab al-Tafhim (Elements of Astrology}

Science, as I have mentioned, was pushed forward by its practical applications. Observational and theoretical astronomy, essential to navigation at that time, were highly advanced. Anatomy and medicine were also well developed, and, more than three hundred years before William Harvey, the Egyptian physician al-Nafis worked out that blood circulates through the lungs. Optics was well advanced, with knowledge of refraction and lenses, the laws of reflection from a curved surface, the fact that in vision the eye focuses incoming light, and the cause of the rainbow, which involves two refractions and one reflection from a curved surface. These discoveries in optics involved both sophisticated calculations (sine, cosine, and tangent functions were known and used), and true experiments involving water-filled bowls and light passing through slits. Arabic alchemists also conducted true experiments, and realized that sulfur and mercury were fundamental “principles” (we would say elements), although they failed to free themselves from the Aristotelian doctrine that the different metals were interconvertible.

While consciously and conscientiously built on classical achievements, Arabic science at its best was original, adventurous, and (especially in astronomy and geography) supported by meticulous observation. One of the greatest of Arabic astronomers and polymaths was al-Biruni, 973 -1048 (in 1970, the crater Al-Biruni on the Moon was named after him). He contributed to the development of observational instruments and numerical and geometric techniques, and recognised that the earth rotated daily on its axis, but was neutral on principle regarding whether the earth went round the Sun once a year, or vice versa, on the grounds that these two were observationally equivalent. He also very clearly distinguished astronomy from astrology, which, as he explained, had been concocted by astronomers to satisfy the popular demand for practical benefit from their science.[4] His other achievements include the recognition of the nature of fossils as petrified plant and animal remains, the realisation that valleys are formed by erosion, and the inference from the nature of the soil and the gradation in size of buried stones, that the plain of the Indus had been formed from river-borne sediments.

Al-Biruni’s contemporaries included Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), 965-1039, and Ibn Sina (Avicenna), 980-1037.  Ibn-Sina and al-Buruni agreed on the nature of fossils, the formation of river valleys and alluvial plains, and the implied antiquity of the Earth. Ibn-Sina’s greatest achievements, however, were in the area of medicine. These made his name familiar even in late mediaeval Europe, and he is referred to as an authority on poisons in Chaucer’sCanterbury Tales. Ibn al-Haytham was employed by the notoriously eccentric Egyptian Caliph al-Hakim to supervise engineering works intended to regulate the Nile floods. This proving impossible, he fell from favour, and it is said that he found it prudent to pretend madness. He was placed under house arrest, and his Book of Optics ranks, along with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and Bertrand Russell’s Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, among notable works written in prison.

Much Islamic art was highly mathematical. It involved a knowledge of all the ways in which the two-dimensional space of a wall could be symmetrically divided by tiling,[5] and anticipated in its practice even such twentieth century developments as color symmetry and five-fold pseudosymmetry.


Tiling, Alhambra, exhibiting colour symmetry (click to enlarge)

I have carefully referred to “Arabic” scholars and artisans, rather than to “Arabs.” “Islamic” might seem more accurate, for a culture that included Persia (Iran) and much of Central Asia, but the culture we are discussing borrowed freely from pre-Islamic sources, and many of the participants were not themselves Muslims. Throughout its greatest period, from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, it was a multicultural society, with Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian scholars and craftsmen all contributing to its rich intellectual life. Ali ben Isa, the most noted Arabic oculist, was a Christian. Saladin’s family physician, Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), was a Jew. The Persian mathematician Omar Khayyam, who systematized the solutions of cubic equations (as well as writing the lyric verse for which he is now best remembered in the West) was a free-thinking skeptic.[6] The mathematician al-Khwarizmi, whom we have already met, worked in Baghdad at the heart of the Arab world but borrowed freely from Hindu sources; both he and al-Biruni hailed originally from Central Asia, and Ibn-Sina was Persian.

Islam itself was far from being a single rigid structure. The doctrinal divisions between and within Sunni and Shi’a branches were (and are) as profound as those in Christianity between Catholic and Protestant, and in Sufism (which continues to flourish; you can now download Sufi music online) Islam has a mystical tradition that transcends all orthodoxies.

Arabic science and mathematics formed the bridge between the achievements of the ancient Greeks, and the emergence of modern science in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By this I do not mean to imply that it was merely a passive vehicle, but rather that all of these should be seen as part of the same ongoing activity. To the enlightened, science was not regarded as hostile to religion; on the contrary, the visible world was seen as testifying to its invisible Creator. When the Arabs first over-ran the Hellenized eastern Mediterranean, a deliberate decision was made to translate the Greek texts available there into Arabic, and it was by way of these Arabic translations, in the multi-cultural societies of late medieval Spain, that this ancient knowledge was restored to pre-Renaissance Europe.

1] Physics, history of; Catholic Encyclopaedia, 11:48 (1911).

2] Or, to give him his full name, Abu-Jafar Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi, “Father of Jafar, Mohammed son of Moses, the man from Khiva (now in the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan)”

3] For this observation, among others here, I am indebted to Jim Al-Khalili’s Pathfinders, Allen Lane, 2010.

4] S. Pines, Isis, 55(3), 343, 1964

5] Technically, the two-dimensional space groups

6] We consider him part of this same cultural community, although, individual in this as in so many other things, he wrote in Persian

Alcatraz prison, (c) David Corby 2006 via Wikipedia; Creative Commons license. Statue of al-Khwarismi, Uzbekistan, Image by © Melvyn Longhurst/Corbis via the blog Missed in History. Alhambra architecture and tiling, photos by author; click to enlarge.

This piece originally appeared in 3 Quarks Daily

New theory explains mystery of excess of matter in our Universe

It’s being hailed as the most significant breakthrough since Hoyle proposed the Big Bang theory.


Horsehead Nebula in Orion (representative-colour image by NASA from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii)

Symmetry would require the production of exactly equal numbers of particles and their corresponding antiparticles in the earliest instants of the Big Bang, when radiation and particle-antiparticle pairs existed in equilibrium. However, these pairs would have irreversibly annihilated each other as our Universe cooled, eventually leaving nothing behind except the Cosmic Microwave Background. The persistence of matter is only one of several disturbing asymmetries; another such is the violation of parity in beta-decay, for predicting which Lee and Yang received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957.


Horsehead Nebula in U’ (calculated by the author)

Today, however, Dr Bubba Majntser, of Mierda de Toros University, has announced his Even Bigger Bang theory, according to which the formation of our Universe (from nothing, as so eloquently described by Krauss) was, of necessity, accompanied by the formation of an anti-Universe. The excess matter in our Universe U is then precisely balanced by an equivalent excess of antimatter, while the anti-Universe U’ must, according to the well-known properties of antimatter, be proceeding backwards in time. This ensures that U and U’ can never come into contact with each other, which is as well, since if they were to do so the result would be complete mutual annihilation. Moreover, each particle in our Universe is quantum mechanically entangled with its corresponding particle in the anti-Universe, so that if the descriptor of our universe violates some symmetry law, that law is nonetheless rigidly obeyed by the direct product U x U’ of the descriptors of Universe and anti-Universe. Similar considerations will apply to every other Universe in the Multiverse. Majntser has christened this principle Bifurcated Symmetry, or BS.

HawkingBookBut his theory, for all its elegance, has already attracted criticism. The Vatican has condemned it on the grounds that it violates Free Will; if a person in the anti-Universe is necessarily constrained by entanglement to behave in exactly the same way as the corresponding person in our Universe, they cannot both be functioning as autonomous agents. Shakespeareans have pointed out that the theory violates the fundamental maxim that “What’s done cannot be undone,” since according to BS, whatever is done in U is being undone in U’, and vice versa, and this happens all the time. There is also disagreement as to whether the expression U x U’ should be replaced by U* x U’, to cover cases where time is complex, or even under some circumstances, as suggested by Hawking, purely imaginary. Strict Occamists denounce the theory as involving unnecessary SevenDaysduplication of entities, while Richard Dawkins has already tweeted his opinion that it is insufficiently critical of religion. The Oxford theologian John Lennox, on the other hand, denounces the theory as undermining his attempts to reconcile science with Genesis, since it requires either 12 (6 + 6) or 0 (6 + [-6]) Days of Creation, whereas the correct number is, of course, 7.

The most serious criticism, however, comes from the UK’s National Union of Students, who are demanding that the author of this post be no-platformed for cultural imperialism, micro-aggression by ridiculing a non-Anglophone University, and using sexist and ageist language.

Hoyle himself could not immediately be reached for comment.


Learning from creationists; radiocarbon dating

Radiocarbon dating only takes us back some 50,000 years. This makes it a much smaller threat to Young Earth creationists than, say, lead-uranium dating, which takes us back billions of years. So why do creationists single it out for attack? Because there are indeed problems with the most simple-minded application of the method, and it does not matter to the creationist that these problems have long since been solved. Creationists think, and argue, more like lawyers than like scientists. In the courtroom, changing your story under cross-examination will destroy your credibility, and yet this is what scientists do all the time. Scientists accept that even the most well-established findings are subject to revision and refinement; lawyers, like theologians, seek certainty whether the data justify it or not.


Leonard Sym’s presentation to Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub, 21 March 2016

This post is derived from a talk given by my friend Leonard Sym to Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub, and like Leonard I will follow Rapoport’s rules for debate, which specify that one should first summarise one’s opponents’ position in terms they would accept, next, list points of agreement, then point out what one has learnt from one’sopponents, and only at that stage embark on criticism.

I start with a simplified summary of the principles behind radiocarbon dating, without which the discussion would be meaningless. Most radiometric methods depend on measuring the amount of a parent radioactive isotope present in the sample, and the amount of the daughter into which it decays. Add up the amount of parent still present and the amount of daughter, and that gives you the amount of parent present initially.[1] If you know the rate constant for the decay, you now have enough information to work out how long has passed since the parent material was put in place. You can determine the rate constant by taking a known amount of parent, and counting the number of decays per second, as measured with a Geiger counter or a more reliable and up-to-date instrument such as fluorescence counter.

In the case of radiocarbon dating, the parent is carbon-14 and the daughter is nitrogen-14, which is lost from the sample.[2] So we can’t find the initial amount of parent in the way described above, because we don’t know the amount of daughter. This seems like a dead end, until we remember where carbon-14 comes from. Carbon-14 is formed in the upper atmosphere by the effects of cosmic ray bombardment on nitrogen, is rapidly converted to carbon-14 dioxide, and then mingles with the rest of the CO2 in the atmosphere (see Figure). If we assume a steady rate of bombardment, that means we will have a steady rate of production of carbon-14, and a steady state abundance of carbon-14 in the atmosphere, where the amount decaying each year is equal to the amount being formed.

Now consider what happens during the life of an organism, and after its death. As long as it is alive and metabolising, it will exchange carbon with its environment, taking it in directly as carbon dioxide by photosynthesis (for a plant) or indirectly as food (for an animal). At this stage, the proportion of carbon present as carbon-14 will be directly dependent on that in the atmosphere. But as soon as it stops metabolising, it stops exchanging, and the proportion present starts decaying according to the radioactive decay law, with a halflife of 5730 years. So it looks as if we can just use the proportion present in the atmosphere right now as a measure of the initial proportion, and compare it with the proportion remaining.


Production and decay of carbon-14**

So far, so good. Now let me list the creationists’ objections:

1) As in all radiometric dating, the decay rate is assumed to be constant. What if this isn’t true?

2) The production rate is assumed constant. But this is unrealistic, since the intensity of cosmic ray bombardment is known to change over time

3) For 150 years, and especially in the last 50 years, we have been adding carbon dioxide from fossil fuels to the atmosphere, diluting the radiocarbon since all the radiocarbon in the fossil fuels will have long since decayed

4) Considerable amounts of carbon-14 were added to the atmosphere by nuclear testing in the 1950s, further undermining the assumptions

5) What if carbon-14 is less readily taken up than carbon-12 by plants? Won’t this undermine the reasoning?

6) We can check the method by applying it to materials whose age we know, but this will only serve where we have a good historical record, and this record only goes back, at best, some 5000 years

7) The Genesis flood, which in Young Earth accounts is responsible for the formation of our fossil fuel deposits, would have further upset the clock by burying huge amounts of carbon-12. Moreover, it could have been associated with an increase in the rate of carbon-14 production, making pre-flood specimens look much older than they really are.

LibbyBookWith the exception of the first and last, all these objections have some degree of plausibility, but unfortunately for the creationists they have all long since been answered, many of the answers being set out by Willard F. Libby, inventor of the method, in his 1955 book on the subject.

1) Radiometric decay constants are just not the kind of thing that could change, unless everything else changes at the same time. We have known since the work of George Gamow in 1928 that radioactive decay is what is known as a quantum mechanical tunnelling effect, and that its rates depends on such things as the strength of nuclear and electrical forces, the mass of fundamental particles, and Planck’s Constant h, which gives the scale for all quantum mechanical phenomena. If any of these had been different, we would not have had the same kind of physics and chemistry that we have today. But we know from their structure that ancient rocks were formed under the same rules as we have today, because they contain the same kinds of elements combined to make the same kinds of minerals. The creationists have published theoretical curves for changes in decay constants, but these have no basis in science, and are generated merely to make observations fit the biblical timeline.

2) From the outset, radiocarbon dating has relied on calibration, using objects for which dates were known from historical records, then tree ring counting extending back 10,000 years. This method works because all but the outermost layers of a tree are metabolically inert, and out of circulation. The most recent calibration comes from organic debris in varves (annual layers of sediment) deposited in a lake (Lake Suigetsu, in Japan) that happens to be free of turbulent inflows. This has made possible the establishment of a calibration curve going back 52,800  years.


Near doubling of atmospheric C14 in the Southern hemisphere, as the result of nuclear testing

3) and (4) There have indeed been major disruptions since 1950, but no one uses radiocarbon dating for such recent material. The situation in 1950 is regarded as a baseline, material from that year is the standard for comparison, and 1950 is the “present” in conventional dating of “years before present”

5) It will surprise many people to learn that plants really do take up carbon-14 less readily than carbon-12. One of the lies you were probably told at school is that all isotopes of the same element have precisely the same chemical properties. This is not true, and generally speaking, heavier isotopes are slightly more sluggish in their chemical reactions. this gives rise to the process known as isotopic fractionation.


These North Ronaldsay sheep, which feed on seaweed, will show different isotopic fraction from sheep fed on grass

This effect has been measured for photosynthesis. In addition to very small amounts of radiocarbon, atmospheric carbon dioxide contains roughly 1% of the stable isotope carbon-13, the remainder being carbon-12. Carbon dioxide in plants is, as expected, slightly depleted in carbon-13 relative to carbon-12, and the effect is far from trivial; around 27 thousands of carbon-13 abundance for most kinds of plant. We expect the effect to be twice as large for carbon-14, which, using the known 5730 year halflife of carbon-14, corresponds to 435 years; not trivial when dating historical artefacts. However, exactly the same effect will apply to the material used to set up the calibration, and the errors will systematically cancel out. Ideally, the fractional abundance of carbon-13 should be measured, as well as that of carbon-12, to calibrate out any minor fractionation effects, and this is less arduous than it sounds because nowadays carbon-14 abundance is measured by direct counting in a mass spectrometer rather than, as in the original studies, indirectly inferred from sample radioactivity.

For plants, it is straightforward to match like with like. Not so for material derived from animals, where the total amount of isotopic fractionation will depend on their diets, and also on what they have been eating.

6) This objection would have had some force in 1946, when the method was newly developed. However, as already explained, we now have direct calibration back to 52,800 years before present, beyond which the amount of remaining carbon-14 is so small that using current techniques the method becomes useless.

7) This is pure special pleading. If carbon-12 had been buried in the flood, the appropriate amount of carbon-14 would have been buried with it. And the ideas of a changed rate of production or decay have been dealt with under (1) and (2) above.

There are other “objections” based on the obvious fact that organisms like cave water snails, alive right now but deriving their carbon from limestone, will have radiocarbon apparent ages measured in thousands of years. I have discussed this before. And marine specimens will always contain less carbon-14 than terrestrial specimens of the same age, because of the time it takes for mixing between the atmosphere and surface waters, and again between surface waters and the depths.

So how should we respond to the self-styled “creation scientist”? The first, and most difficult, thing is to realise that he is been perfectly sincere. He is certain that his reading of the Bible is true; but the facts of geology are also true; and it is therefore his mission to create an account that reconciles the two. If this means the mountains must have skipped like rams, then that is how they must have skipped. He will feel no more absurd at this point, than the cosmologist feels in invoking a time when our Universe was smaller than a tennis ball and its temperature was trillions of degrees. Counter-arguments will be dismissed as so many minor anomalies that will no doubt be explained away in due course. If the creationist repeats long-refuted claims, that is because he believes that there are refutations of the refutation, even if he cannot immediately call them to mind, or does not have time to explain them properly. He will remember the weaknesses of his opponents’ arguments, and attack them, while suppressing the recollection of their strengths, and in the process he will create, and then triumphantly destroy, a series of straw men. You and I of course would never do such things, but your friends might when it comes to defending emotionally precious but logically fragile beliefs; consider, for example, what passes for political discussion in your favourite pub or chatroom.

And what does this mean for debating with creationists? Simply this: don’t do it. Such a debate, unlike a discussion between people willing to learn from each other, is a zero-sum game. He will project simplicity, sincerity, and certainty, and when you come to reply, you will sound as if you are making excuses. He will present anomalies (did I mention those 2000-year-old water snails?), and when you explain the special circumstances, you will be the one who seems guilty of special pleading. His followers will end up confirmed in their convictions, as will yours, and those in the middle will come away confirmed in their own initial conviction that there are two sides to the story, both worth hearing. Which there aren’t.

But does that mean that we can learn nothing from the creationists? Not at all. In terms of Rappaport’s rules of debate, the scientific community had already come up with arguments (1) through (6), and taken the necessary countermeasures, and so cannot be said to have learnt from the creationists. But both Leonard and I have learnt a great deal from examining the creationist claims. Be smart, and learn from everyone.*

1] It is of course necessary to eliminate errors caused by the movement of material, or the presence of daughter in the initial material. There are standard techniques for doing this, for instance by measuring non-radiogenic isotopes of the daughter material, and, these days, by microsampling of single crystalline grains

2] Even if it is not lost as N2 gas, it will be undetectable against the background of organic nitrogen compounds already present

*Ben Zomah, Mishnah Pirkei Avot 4a

** extra credit for spotting (a) the misleading labelling in the diagram (h/t John Gribbin), (b) the reference in the text to Psalm 114

There are other creationist objections to radiocarbon dating, based on sample contamination or simple misinterpretation of data, but these have been discussed elsewhere  and need not detain us.

Lecture scene from Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub Facebook page. Atmospheric carbon-14 diagram public domain, by Hokanomono via Wikipedia. North Ronaldsay sheep by Liz Burke, CC BY-SA 2.0, Radiocarbon cycle schematic from ANU Radiocarbon Dating Lab materials

Intelligent Design is not Design!

A lengthy scholarly discussion by my friend Michael Roberts of the concept of design, from Paley to the present day, making important distinctions between different concepts of design, and placing the Intelligent Design (ID) movement in context. The author, a geologist and historian (and CofE priest), argues that Paley’s concept of the individual design of organisms was obsolete long before Darwin, given the discoveries of deep time and the rich sequential fossil record. Present-day ID is a curious hybrid, and its evolution is discussed in some detail. However, neither the refutation of Paley nor the demolition of ID affect broader design arguments, such as that from fine-tuning or the glory of the natural world. (Disclosure: as my friends will know, I do not find these latter arguments convincing, but I do consider them worthy of respect, and have criticised attempts to use them as justification for evolution-denying creationism, which is not.)

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

Old Scratch



The first thing I should do is to define what Design is. That would be no easy task as the word is used in so many different ways to mean so many different things. I hope some of the variety of meanings comes clear in this paper. Part of the confusion is that Design can be synonymous with the teleological argument for the existence of God, but often it is more restricted to biological structures. Hence Design means different things to different people. Distinguishing between these meanings is important as confusion reigns when one switches from one to another. To give a rough typology there are four types of design;

1 Design of the universe; – front-loading or teleological (fine tuning)

2. Guidance of natural processes through history; Asa Gray

3. Ahistorical recognition of biological structures as designed; Hooke, Paley,


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Church seats on Education Committees; your help needed NOW


Church of Scotland in General Assembly. This Church, the Catholic Church, and one other in your area, each nominate one member to your local Education Committee

This is not about religion. It is about power.

If you think it is right that three unelected Church nominees should sit, by law, on every Council Education Committee in Scotland, please ignore this post.

If you think it is wrong, and want to do something about it, please sign and share this petition:

You will find more about these unelected Church nominees, and how they are shielded from democratic accountability, here.

The petition is organised by my good friends at Humanist Society Scotland, who tell me that they will be engaging with all the MSPs and candidates in the run-up to the election, and that the petition is aimed at MSPs and candidates. It runs as follows:

I believe that all members of local education committees should be accountable to their communities through the ballot box.

Local councillors are elected to represent the views of their communities. It is inconsistent with the principles of local democracy to have unelected religious leaders.

The current requirement for religious representatives stems from a reorganisation by the Westminster Government of 1973. It is time for the Scottish Parliament to consider these aspects of local democracy.

It is undemocratic to appoint members of particular religious communities to education committees without a mandate from local voters.

Previous efforts to change this law have failed because of opposition by a small band of well-organised constituents. The response must be to show our lawmakers that we are a constituency too.

I repeat; please sign and share

Atoms old and new, 1: Atoms in antiquity

What is now proved was once only imagin’d – William Blake

Really important ideas in science are not the work of a single individual or even a single generation. The idea of an atom, for instance, was developed by ancient Greek philosophers, revived by eighteenth century chemists to make sense of their discoveries about the composition of matter, and used by nineteenth century physicists to explain the effect of temperature and pressure on gases. Our modern idea of molecules, formed with definite shapes by joining atoms together according to definite rules, was developed by chemists studying naturally occurring substances in the late nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, the structure of the atom itself was explained in terms of more fundamental particles, while the last half century has seen advances that make it possible for us to directly sense, and even move around, individual atoms.


Roman fresco, illustrating front cover of R.E. Latham’s excellent translation

Atomic theory dates back to the pre-Socratic philosophers, especially Leucippus and Democritus, who wrote and taught more than four hundred years BCE. The works of the pre-Socratics survive only in fragments, and in quotations by later authors. For example, Epicurus, some 130 years later, built this theory into his unified view of the world and morality. The views of Epicurus were beautifully expressed by the Roman poet Lucretius, who lived at the same time as Julius Caesar, in his great work De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe). According to this ancient atomic theory, atoms are eternal and indestructible. All forms of matter are built up from a relatively small number of kinds of atoms.

What led the early atomists to theories so remote from simple appearances? Greek philosophers were greatly puzzled by the phenomena of change and motion. If something is real, how can it be transformed into something that it is not? If something is in one place, how can it move, since that would imply that it was no longer in that place? Besides, how can anything move without displacing something (if only the air) that is already there, in which case which one moves first? There are serious problems here, that were not properly solved until the mathematics of fluid flow and the theory of limits were developed in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

One radical approach to the problems posed by change is to say that change itself is an illusion, and that the world of experience, in which we live and act, grow and die, is in some important sense unreal. Plato was influenced by this approach when he compared knowledge gained through the senses to a mere shadow-play on the walls of a cave. Such a view is deeply hostile to science, which relies on observation, and the influence of Plato and his followers was to greatly hinder the development of scientific thinking.

An alternative view, that taken by the atomists, is that nature consists of two components; atoms, and the void. The atoms are eternal, since nothing can be created out of nothing. Everything that happens, happens according to natural laws, otherwise nature would not be predictable. The atoms have room to move because there is a void between them. The individual atoms are unchanging, but their arrangement can change, and the forces between atoms explain why objects have a definite shape. All natural processes are caused by collisions and rearrangements of atoms. The force of the wind, for instance, is attributed to the impact of the “atoms” (we would now say “molecules”) of air on objects. As Lucretius points out, the theory is consistent with common experience – for instance, the smell of a perfume diffuses through a room, so the perfume must be giving off invisible particles. Sheepskins hung up by the sea become wet overnight; this shows that “atoms” of water have found their way from the water through the air to the sheepskin’s surface. A pit dug a little inland from the sea fills up with drinkable water. This is because sea water contains more than one kind of atoms, and the jagged ones (which are also responsible for its sharp taste) stick to the ground through which the drinkable water flows (this is remarkably similar to the modern view, in which the ions that make up salt stick to clay). He could also have mentioned the way that things dissolve in water and can then be recovered unchanged when the water evaporates.

But let us allow Lucretius to speak for himself:

The headlong force of the wind lashes the body, overthrows great ships and scatters the clouds, then swiftly whirling strews the fields with tall trees … So there must be unseen particles in the wind, sweeping the seas, the land, the clouds of the sky.

Without seasonal storms, the Earth would not be able to give rise to the produce that gladdens us, nor could living things sustain themselves and propagate. So it is better to think that the same components occur in different things, much as the same elements occur in different words, rather than that anything could exist without an origin.

Some things are primary objects, while others are assemblages, but there is no force that can destroy the primary objects, for in the end they overcome through their own sheer solidity.

In other words, rain, plants and animals must be made of similar atoms in different arrangements, in order to explain the facts of growth and feeding (Lucretius, of course, had no idea that the plants needed carbon dioxide from the air, as well as water and minerals from the soil, but otherwise his account is surprisingly modern). The force of the wind, and its ability to carry clouds, is due to the impulse of the “atoms” in the air. All the changes that we observe in matter are due to the movement of atoms and their combining together in new ways. For Lucretius, as for Epicurus and Democritus before him, the atoms themselves are eternal and indestructible.*

I should mention that this is part of a moral, as well as a natural, world view. Lucretius was writing at a time of great civil disorder. The constitution of the Roman republic, originally designed for a small city-state, was breaking down even as the territory under Roman control grew. The central authority was increasingly unable to control its own generals, and the civil liberties enjoyed by the old governing class, to which Lucretius belonged, were being trampled underfoot. War, external along the expanding frontiers or internal between one ambitious general and another, seemed endless. At such times, individuals of spirit concentrate all the more keenly on the inner freedoms of thought and feeling. Thus Lucretius wrote to free the mind of superstitious fears through the light of understanding:

This fear and darkness of the mind cannot be dissipated by the rays of the Sun, nor by the clear shafts of day, but only by the perusal and understanding of nature.

His purpose, in short, was to demystify.

Why was there no progress from such a promising beginning? Bertrand Russell (History of Western Philosophy, Chapters IX, XXVII) suggests two types of possibility, one deriving from the way society was structured, the other from political circumstances.

In the world of Greece and Rome, there was a total lack of contact between the useful arts (cookery and brewing, dyeing, metallurgy, tanning, ceramics, even medicine), which were delegated to the laboring classes, and the speculations of gentlemen. When labor is cheap, there is little pressure to improve technology, and when thinkers despise manual activity, they will not develop any experimental technique. Lucretius himself often appeals to observation, but experiment involves more than simply observing what presents itself. It is the deliberate setting up of situations in order to observe them, and no Greek or Roman gentleman would be likely to soil his hands in such a business.

Secondly, there was what Russell calls a failure of nerve. Leucippus and Democritus were great intellectual innovators; Epicurus and Lucretius were not. Leucippus and Democritus wrote as citizens of free city states at their most confident, during and immediately after Greek successes in the Persian Wars. By the time of Epicurus, these city states had been subdued by Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander. Lucretius wrote when the Roman Republic was degenerating by way of civil war into a despotic empire. Later centuries saw the decline and fall of Rome, the chaos of Europe’s Dark Ages, and the subsequent medieval reverence for authority and verbal argument rather than experience.

As Lucretius repeatedly reminds us, if everything happens according to natural laws, there is no need to fear the gods. Indeed, he regarded religious belief as a source of evil, and gave as an example how Agamemnon had sacrificed his own daughter to the gods in order to secure a fair wind for the Greeks on their way to attack Troy. He also regarded the mind as the product of subtle atoms within the body, rather than a separate immaterial entity. As for the murderous political struggles of his time, these were the expressions of misplaced ambition, itself the product of incomplete understanding.

Such views did not endear him to the early Church. Thus St. Jerome, translator of the Bible into Latin, claimed, four centuries after the event, that Lucretius’s death was suicide, that he had been driven insane by a love potion, and that his books, written in lucid intervals, had been reworked and corrected by Cicero. I have found no reason to believe that any of this is true.

.Further south and east, in the Islamic and Hindu worlds, science and mathematics continued to flourish. Muslim theologians developed their own extreme version of atomic theory, in which matter consisted of dimensionless atoms, while space was atomised into separate points and time into instants, but the scientists of the Islamic world generally followed the continuous matter theories of Aristotle. There were major advances in the practical applications of chemistry, while the alchemists made important discoveries of how different substances react. However, a proper understanding of molecules, atoms, and the relationships between them requires an understanding of the mechanics of moving particles, and quantitative understanding of chemical reactions. We would have to wait until the 17th century for the first of these, and another hundred years for the second.

*But it would be easy to see Lucretius as more modern than he really is. He believes that he can discover facts about the world using purely verbal arguments, and many of his explanations amount to nothing more than “This is how things behave, because such is the nature of the atoms that compose them.” Such reasoning gives the illusion of understanding, and is the enemy of scientific enquiry. He describes a fantastical cosmology, in which the Sun is composed of lighter atoms than the Earth, squeezed out into space when Earth first cohered. Here we should not blame him for being wrong, but should blame him for being too easily satisfied. And while Democritus regarded all directions in space as equivalent, Lucretius, following Epicurus, thought that there was an absolute direction of “downwards”, in which direction atoms were eternally falling. This although Plato, centuries earlier, had taught that the Earth was round, at the centre of things, and stationary.

Reposted from 3 Quarks Daily. Translations by the present author. An earlier version of this material appeared in the author’s From Stars to Stalagmites, World Scientific, 2012.

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