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Friday, December 7, 2012

Age Does Matter

It was the Reverend James Ussher (1581-1656) who calculated the Earth’s age as only 6,000 years old. This would make the Earth a veritable infant, as planets go.
However, science puts Earth’s age as around 4.54 billion years; creationists, however, don’t let anything as trivial as scientific facts get in the way of how they view the world around them.  

That’s why Pat Robertson’s admission that James Ussher was not “inspired” by the Lord when he calculated the Earth’s age—in short, he does not believe that the Earth is only 6,000 years old—is surprising. This is contrary to most religious fundamentalist’s views that Earth was created in 4000 BC (around the time urbanization was starting in Mesopotamia).
Pat Robertson also said that Christians should not “cover up” scientific evidence that Earth is, in fact, billions of years old.   

Look, I know that people will probably try to lynch me when I say this, but Bishop Ussher wasn’t inspired by the Lord when he said that it all took 6,000 years. It just didn’t. You go back in time, you’ve got radiocarbon dating. You got all these things and you’ve got the carcasses of dinosaurs frozen in time out in the Dakotas.They're out there. So, there was a time when these giant reptiles were on the Earth and it was before the time of the Bible. So, don't try and cover it up and make like everything was 6,000 years. That's not the Bible.

There you go, folks.
The Reverend James Ussher had put the Earth’s creation on October 23, 4004 BC (using the Julian Calendar). His calculations first appeared in 1650, when he published his work,  Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti ("Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world").
Young Earth Creationists, to this day, cite this as proof that Earth is only thousands of years old, and not billions. They also think that The Flintstones was a documentary (they think humans and dinosaurs co-existed). 
And Mightor was the prehistoric Caped Crusader 

But what effect Pat Robertson’s announcement regarding Earth’s age would be to other fundamentalists? Probably nothing. After all, it's not as if he renounced Biblical Creationism altogether.
In any case, there are a lot of creationists out there, not just the Young Earth Creationists (or the onomatopoeic-sounding YEC). There's the Old Earth Creationists, for one.

In the mean time, here are The Top 10 Claims Made By Creationists to Counter Scientific Theories:
One of the most challenging tasks for the modern day creationist to is reconcile the belief in a 6,000 year old Earth with the ever-growing mountain of scientific evidence pointing to a vastly different conclusion — namely a universe that's 13.5 billion years old and an Earth that formed 4.5 billion years ago. So, given these astoundingly dramatic discrepancies, biblical literalists and 'young Earth creationists' have had no choice but to get pretty darned imaginative when brushing science aside. Here are 10 arguments creationists have made to counter scientific theories.
1.      Humans and dinosaurs co-existed 
Quite obviously, creationists aren't able to gloss over the fact that dinosaurs existed. They are clearly a part of the fossil record. But in accordance with the the Bible, creationists insist that they lived contemporaneously to humans. And in fact, they say this explains why dragons play a prominent role in our mythological record. Moreover, creationists claim that human footprints have been found alongside dinosaur tracks at Paluxy, that a petrified hammer was found in Cretaceous rocks, and that some sandal footprints have been found alongside trilobites. Other theories suggest that the Great Flood shook up and redeposited the fossil record so that it appears that dinosaurs lived millions of years before humans arrived. Real evidence and proper interpretation of the fossil record, however, supports the idea that humans first emerged about 200,000 years ago — long after the demise of dinosaurs who went extinct 65 million years ago.

2.     Biological systems are too complex to have evolved
This is what biochemist Michael Behe refers to as irreducible complexity. He and other creationists complain that a complex biological system, what is comprised of many interacting parts, would cease to function properly in the event of any alteration. Proponents of intelligent design use this argument to claim that anything less than the complete form of a fully functional biological system (or organ) would not work at all — what would be catastrophically detrimental to an organism. In other words, all mutations have to be bad. The only way for an organism to evolve, the ID defenders say, is for God to guide the process every step of the way. This is silly, of course — organisms are not that fragile. And in fact, evolvability is an indelible aspect to life.

 Continue reading here.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The White Death, and Other Killers

The longest record for an officially confirmed sniper kill is held by British Corporal Craig Harrison. The feat occurred in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in November 2011.
Corporal Harrison killed two Taliban fighters (two consecutive shots!) at a distance of 8120 feet, or 2.47 kilometers. A third shot also sent a Taliban machine gunner straight into martyrdom.
Before that, the previous record for the longest kill was held by Corporal Rob Furlong of the Canadian Army. He sent to Islamic paradise an Al Qaeda fighter from 2.43 kilometers away in 2002 during Operation Anaconda, also in Afghanistan. 
At these distances, the bullets can take several seconds to reach their intended targets. 
Corporal Harrison used an Accuracy International L115A3 rifle for his record-breaking shot.
Like this one:

Corporal Furlong, on the other hand, used a Mcmillan TAC-50:

U.S. Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle, in his autobiography “American Sniper,” states that his official confirmed kills is 160—more than any other American service member. Nicknamed Al Shaitan Ramadi (The Devil of Ramadi) by Iraqi insurgents, Chris Kyle’s longest shot was at 2100 yards (1.9 kilometers). He used one of these bad boys, a Mcmillan TAC 338:

Snipers have always been the most feared combatants in a battlefield. Stealthy, silent, cold-blooded hunters of men—every war has produced its own share of these highly-skilled, take-no-prisoner killers.
Carlos Hathcock,  Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Vasily Zaitsev, Jack Coughlin, Josef Allerberger—these are just some of the people whose exploits are now the stuff of legends, when it comes to sniping.
But one sniper that stands above them all is a diminutive hunter/farmer from Finland—Simo Hayha, a. k. a. “The White Death.”

Simo Hayha (December 17, 1905-April 1, 2002) joined the Finnish militia when he was 20 years old. He was a hunter and a farmer before becoming the world's deadliest sniper. 
During the Winter War (1939) between Finland and the Soviet Union, he was assigned as a sniper, and immediately began bagging a number of Russian soldiers on a daily basis that the Soviets began to feel alarmed. 
They sent a task force to look for him, but the White Death took them. They sent counter-snipers; Simo Hayha killed them all, too. On a 100-day period, he took out more than 500 enemies with his rifle. When they got near him, he used his submachine gun: almost 200 soldiers he killed this way.
And this was during winter, in temperatures 20-40 degrees Celsius below zero, in several feet of snow. 
To those Russians who faced him, he must have seemed like a mythical creature that lurked in the forests, invisible, killing them one by one.
Simo Hayha used his knowledge of the forest to his advantage. He would report for work each day, dressed completely in white, with enough food and a couple of clips of ammunition for the day—it was apparently all he needed—and picked off enemies unlucky enough to blunder into his killzone.

The White Death he was, indeed.
The Soviets tried firing artillery strikes in the general area  where Simo Hayha was supposed to be, hoping to get lucky. This failed to slow him down; he was the White Death, after all.
Finally, one soldier got lucky and shot Simo Hayha, hitting him in the lower left jaw. Half of his head was missing, according to the soldiers who picked him up.
You’d think that he’d die with such horrific wound, but no. He regained consciousness the day the Winter War ended, and was out of the hospital two weeks after getting half his face blown off.  
The White Death was credited with 505 officially confirmed sniper kills—the highest confirmed kills for any sniper. Some sources even put it at 546.
According to some estimate, his total kills stands at 706 Soviet soldiers.
So, what kind of sniper rifle did he use? What kind of telescopic sight it had? Well, he used these:

A Suomi K31 SMG, and a Finnish militia variant of Mosin-Nagant rifle with iron sights
Simo Hayha preferred iron sights because a telescopic sight would have made him a bigger target. 
Yes, the White Death did not need fancy telescopic sight; iron sights would do. Also, he preferred this rifle because it suited his 5 foot 3 inch-frame.

Simo Hayha died at age 96, a legend not only in his own country, but also a legend for the whole world.

Friday, September 28, 2012

And That's Just The Local News

...(T)he only thing left to do is shout -- not moan, or complain, but yell out at the top of your voice whatever it was you had to say. What you've never said before. What perhaps you don't even know till now--Jean Anouilh

Two news articles made me think of the quoted passage above.

This bill—the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012—was passed in the Philippine Senate that Senator Guingona is trying to amend.
The article quoted Senator Guingona as saying, “Without a clear definition of the crime of libel and the persons liable, virtually any person can now be charged with a crime—even if you just like, retweet or comment on an online update or blog post containing criticisms.”

What is alarming is that the Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda agrees with the bill.
They find nothing wrong with it. 


Senator Tito Soto (the unapologetic plagiarizer nonpareil) apparently had a hand in the inclusion of libel in the Cybercrime bill; the good senator helpfully informed reporters that, “Libel is a crime. What do you think it is?”

What chutzpah!

A world of butthurt is what he must have felt against “netizens”—after all, if not for these people, his plagiarizing ways would not be exposed.
It’s because of them that the name sotto is now synonymous with copying other people’s works. At least here in this corner of the world. 

Payback time, you beeyatches!!

I can just picture him gloating.
And thanking the Good Lord that he has the power to punish those who dare criticize him. 

It did not occur to the senator and to the president and his people that censorship has never been effective in silencing critics, which, given the president’s background, is supremely ironic.
Two other senators, according to this article, are seeking to amend this breathtakingly stupid law. 

I hope they succeed, but I won’t bet on it.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—an appointee of the President—has publicly declared that her appointment is from God.
Whether she thinks Aquino is God Himself is anybody’s guess. 

No wonder these people think they can get away with anything.

Speaking of God, the second article is equally, if not more, revolting.

Charismatic group rallies behind sacked ‘ivory’ priest

Besides being linked to the illegal ivory trade, the monsignor is also accused of molesting altar boys twenty years ago. The Vatican had in fact suspended him from his position in the Archdiocese of Cebu, even before his involvement in the ivory trade was exposed.

The molestation charges were denied by the monsignor, saying that it was in fact him who was seduced and raped by those nasty boys.

Words, they fail me.

True to the revolting nature of these news articles, we find that a religious “charismatic” group has been holding prayer vigils for the priest.

Maybe it's just me, but I could not muster an iota of sympathy for this priest.
A flaw in my character, I know.

The leader of this group was quoted in the article as saying that, “Personally, between 1,000 accusations and one word of Monsignor Cris [Garcia], I still believe in Monsignor Cris.”

Oy vey, as the Yiddish expression says.

This seems an appropriate time to lie down and assume the fetal position while sucking one’s thumb. 
Or ask Futurama's Professor Farnsworth if we could go with him:

Friday, September 14, 2012

Hammurabi's Babylon

              After the Sumerians and the Akkadians, another group of Semitic people from the deserts of Arabia arrived in Mesopotamia around 1900 BC and built the first Babylonian empire.
              The new arrivals built upon the prevailing culture in the area, which was Sumerian. Led by Hammurabi, the Babylonians made the first collection of laws in history, the famous ‘Code of Hammurabi.”
The "Code"on a clay tablet

              The code had a stern sense of justice, and the principle of “eye for an eye” was advocated here. Punishment for criminals was usually death. 
Hammurabi consolidated and united the Babylonians in building a mighty empire. He improved irrigation, and organized a well-trained army. Temples were repaired, and he promoted the chief Babylonian god Marduk over older Sumerian gods. The Babylonians also added to the knowledge of astronomy, advanced the knowledge of mathematics, and built the first great capital city, Babylon.
Marduk, the Babylonian sun god.

Hammurabi established a strong central government in ancient Babylonia, and with its written laws, was deemed fair to its citizens. The government was so effective that the Romans copied it centuries later, with the same form of central government.
Economy was controlled solely by the government, and there were no privately owned businesses. The king appointed priests, who were answerable to him, to control the economy. Hammurabi also built roads, which made it easier for citizens to travel and trade. In addition, the roads made it easier for the king’s soldiers to enforce the laws. While the Sumerians had city-states and were often at war with each other, the Babylonians had one central government, with cities united under one strong king. The Code of Hammurabi was the one unifying factor in ancient Babylonia.
Hammurabi (standing) depicted here receiving his royal insignia from Shamash

The code also provided for the protection of traders and buyers (especially the buyers). We can say that Hammurabi also enacted the first consumer protection laws; responsibility on both sides (buyer and seller) was required by law. If either of them was dissatisfied with the result, the government could be called in to settle the dispute.
Taxation was handled by the Grand Vizier, who was the most important of the official dignitaries. Taxes in ancient Babylon were not as high as taxes in Egypt under the Pharaohs. In Egypt, they used taxes to build enormous buildings like the Pyramids. Babylonian taxes were used mostly to support their own citizens, and to pay for government workers.
Three classes represented Babylonian society: the awilu, a free person of the upper class, the wardu, or slave, and the mushkenu, a free person of low estate, who was legally placed between the awilu and the wardu. Slaves were mostly prisoners of war, but a number were recruited from the citizenry as well.
The basic unit of the Babylonian society was the family. Women had important legal rights; she could own properties and engage in business. The husband could divorce his wife for any reason, especially if she had not borne him any children. Children were under the authority of their parents, and could inherit property. However, a man can sometimes sell his own children as slaves if things got a little tight at home. Generally, Babylonian children were well loved by their parents.
Much of the Babylonians’ technology was inherited from the Sumerians, particularly in irrigation and agriculture. Considerable engineering skills were needed to maintain the various canals, dikes, and reservoirs left behind by the Sumerians. They had to use maps, surveys, plans, and do calculations to govern agriculture effectively. They used the mathematical system devised by the Sumerians, which was based on the number 6, not 10. They used almanacs and a reliable calendar, all of which were first developed by the Sumerians.  

Babylonians were also skilled in metallurgy, in preparation of paints, dyes, cosmetics, and perfumes. There were also provisions in the Code about surgeons, suggesting that they also made progress in the field of medicine.
The Sumerian system of education was also adopted by the Babylonians, with schools serving as the empire’s cultural centers. Students had to learn cuneiform, and they had to do a lot of copying and memorizing textbooks and Sumero-Babylonian dictionaries, which were composed primarily of lists of words and phrases and names of trees, animals, birds, insects, countries, cities, villages, and minerals. Students then also had to learn mathematics and literature. Literature for the Babylonians meant the Mesopotamian myths, epics, hymn, proverbs, and essays.
            Cities in ancient Babylonia resemble today’s villages in Middle East. Many houses were built of mud bricks, and stood only one-storey high. No windows faced the street, and rooms were arranged around an inner courtyard. One of the rooms could be devoted to the gods.
            The Babylonian civilization lasted from the 18th century BC until the 6th century BC. The city and its culture remained intact despite being conquered by various kingdoms. It continued to be regarded as a center for learning and culture even by its conquerors.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Joke's On Us

Image is from here.

Funny, but unfortunately the joke's on the voters. But I guess it’s true what they say—we get the leaders we deserve. 
After all, it’s the people who are responsible for putting men and women like these in power.

Reminds me a little of Senator Tito Sotto, (incidentally also a TV comedian) who shamelessly copied parts of his privilege speech from bloggers and is apparently unapologetic about it. He seems to be oblivious of the ethics involve in such matters. 
If he were a student who copied word-for-word some parts of his assignment from the internet, he might get in trouble with his teacher, but that's about it.

But he’s a Senator, for Christ’s sake. So yes, we do have a bit of a situation.

The trouble is, the Senator does not even realize the sordidness and the tackiness of his actions. In his mind, he should not even have to apologize--although his aide made an apology of a sort to the blogger, however lame the apology was.

The Senator, rather peevishly, said: “Why would I copy from a blogger? She’s just a blogger.” He had also disingenuously presented himself as a victim of cyber-bullying, the poor dear. 

His chief of staff, meanwhile, piously declared that what they did was not plagiarism per se, since there are no provisions in this country’s laws that penalize anyone who copied from the internet.  
Smart lawyer, that one. His professors in law school must be very proud of him.

Read about the whole sordid tale here.

But wait, there's more. 
The Senator apparently did it again during another speech in the Senate; this time, he copied parts of Robert F. Kennedy’s speech, and translated them directly into Filipino. When some sharp-eyed “netizen” (the Senator and his staff must be sick of these people) notices this, the Senator said, in his usual classy manner, “Why, did Kennedy know Tagalog?” 
Gee whiz, Senator. How hard could it be to provide attribution? Or maybe, I don't know--cite your sources?--instead of giving the impression that you yourself (or that brilliant staff of yours) came up with those ideas? That sort of thing doesn't work anymore.
We have the Internet now, remember? 

It makes me cringe, just thinking about the whole thing. I am embarrassed for him, really.

Meanwhile, the country’s newly-appointed Chief Justice is telling people that her appointment is from God Himself

Perhaps she is referring to the current President (who was actually the one who appointed her, and who, by the way, also consulted God on whether he should run for President or not), or maybe Thor; but I don't think so. She actually means the Judeo-Christian god.  

The whole thing is surreal.

They use God a lot, don’t they? It is very handy for those in power to claim that God is on their side.

As Seneca said, "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful."

If the people who are tasked with important decisions that affect millions of people are like these, then we are royally--in the words of Leonard Hofstadter--"attached to another object by an inclined plane, wrapped helically around an axis."

What should people do, when they have leaders like these?
Probably wait for the next elections to vote for a new batch of jokers out there--of which we seem to have an unlimited supply.

I don't know, maybe we do deserve them.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Reading is a Humbling Experience

I’ve always been a reader.
The very first book I’ve read (I might have been a fourth or fifth grader) was a kid’s version of Henry Ford’s biography. Lots of black and white photos of weird-looking cars, and no mention of union-busting or Mr. Ford’s infatuation with the Nazis and rabid anti-Semitism.
I then discovered the Hardy Boys, and I must have spent a good chunk of my allowance on these books, for I seem to remember entire bookshelves filled with hard-bound Hardy Boys books. Where they are now I have no idea.

A happy place

Then I got on to Mark Twain, then to the more “serious” authors—Victor Hugo, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and many others.
My library cards have always been filled with library stamps. It got so that librarians in the schools I attended (from high school to college) would let me search  for myself the books I wanted to borrow—they got tired of searching for books that I wanted, which was often located in the dustiest corners of the library.
I can still remember the delicious anticipation of opening a new book, that shiver of excitement that, as I subsequently discovered later, is almost as good as the first time you successfully unhooked a girl’s bra using just one hand.

As I look back, reading seemed to me like I had discovered a whole new world.
And you know what? I did.

I’ve never been happier as when starting a good book.  I’m lucky, I guess, that I can still feel this way.
Now, as I read a few science books by Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Bill Bryson, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Michio Kaku, and others, mixed with the excitement is the knowledge that books also make me realize how little I know about the world.

The more you read, the more you realize that you know only a molecule in the vast galaxy of knowledge.

Reading truly makes us humble.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Empty Chair, Empty Heart

And I wonder if you know
That I never understood
That although you said you’d go
Until you did
I never thought you would.

Empty Chair is my absolute favorite Don McLean song. The song’s lyrics somehow capture heartbreak without being sappy. He sings about steps echoing in an empty room, a whiff of fragrance left behind, an empty chair, and facing another night of silence staring at the moonlight, at shadows that are no longer there.
Beautiful lyrics, haunting tune.
Best listened to when alone in a half-dark room. 

It was said that singer Lori Lieberman heard Don McLean singing this song in a concert, and inspired her to write a poem, which in turn inspired the song “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” (Lori Lieberman recorded the original version of Killing Me softly…)

Turns out to be not the case. As Charles Fox, the composer, recounted, "I think it's called an urban legend. It really didn't happen that way. Norman Gimbel and I wrote that song for a young artist whose name was Lori Lieberman. Norman had a book that he would put titles of songs, song ideas and lyrics or something that struck him at different times. And he pulled out the book and he was looking through it, and he says, 'Hey, what about a song title, 'Killing Me Softly With His Blues'?' Well, the 'killing me softly' part sounded very interesting, 'with his blues' sounded old fashioned in 1972 when we wrote it. So he thought for a while and he said, 'What about 'killing me softly with his song'? That has a unique twist to it.' So we discussed what it could be, and obviously it's about a song - listening to the song and being moved by the words. It's like the words are speaking to what that person's life is. Anyway, Norman went home and wrote an extraordinary lyric and called me later in the afternoon. I jotted it down over the phone. I sat down and the music just flowed right along with the words. And we got together the next morning and made a couple of adjustments with it and we played it for Lori, and she loved it, she said it reminds her of being at a Don McLean concert. So in her act, when she would appear, she would say that. And somehow the words got changed around so that we wrote it based on Don McLean, and even Don McLean I think has it on his Web site. But he doesn't know. You know, he only knows what the legend is."
In the meantime, “Empty Chairs” will always be the song that makes one stop and look far away with a glazed look in one’s eyes.
Read the lyrics, and listen:

Friday, June 1, 2012

Not This Year

Much have been said about the world ending in 2012, because of that Mayan calendar.
However, scientists have discovered an extended Mayan calendar that doesn’t stop at 2012. So if you are planning to attend (or hold) an end-of-the-world-party this December, you might want to rethink that. 

It turns out that the Mayan calendar extends further than 2012; and, like all calendars, it really has no limit on the number of years it can count.
The Mayan calendar has its own units of counting the passage of time, its own “cycles,” that would be comparable to our days, months, or years. For example, the current Mayan “cycle,” or baktun (a cycle approximately 394 years long), will end this year. However, it is a repeating cycle, much like our years, decades, and so on. So there is a good chance that a new baktun shall begin again.
(image is from here)

In any case, there are scientists that had already questioned the accuracy of the conversion of dates from the Mayan to modern calendar. This would mean that the much-hyped 2012 apocalypse may be off by decades.
I don’t know, personally, of anybody who actually believes that an ancient people like the Mayans had an inside info on when the world will end, but judging by the hype it received, especially around the internet, I’m guessing many people fell for this hooey.
The end of the world will always be a fascinating subject for us, I guess. Especially for the religious fundamentalists, who always take it upon themselves to warn the world to turn away from its evil ways because the end is near. 

Here are the ten failed end-of-the-world predictions, according to LiveScience:

The Prophet Hen of Leeds, 1806
History has countless examples of people who have proclaimed that the return of Jesus Christ is imminent, but perhaps there has never been a stranger messenger than a hen in the English town of Leeds in 1806. It seems that a hen began laying eggs on which the phrase "Christ is coming" was written. As news of this miracle spread, many people became convinced that doomsday was at hand — until a curious local actually watched the hen laying one of the prophetic eggs and discovered someone had hatched a hoax.
The Millerites, April 23, 1843
A New England farmer named William Miller, after several years of very careful study of his Bible, concluded that God's chosen time to destroy the world could be divined from a strict literal interpretation of scripture. As he explained to anyone who would listen, the world would end some time between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. He preached and published enough to eventually lead thousands of followers (known as Millerites) who decided that the actual date was April 23, 1843. Many sold or gave away their possessions, assuming they would not be needed; though when April 23 arrived (but Jesus didn't) the group eventually disbanded—some of them forming what is now the Seventh Day Adventists.
Mormon Armageddon, 1891 or earlier
Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, called a meeting of his church leaders in February 1835 to tell them that he had spoken to God recently, and during their conversation he learned that Jesus would return within the next 56 years, after which the End Times would begin promptly.
Halley's Comet, 1910
In 1881, an astronomer discovered through spectral analysis that comet tails include a deadly gas called cyanogen (related, as the name imples, to cyanide). This was of only passing interest until someone realized that Earth would pass through the tail of Halley's comet in 1910. Would everyone on the planet be bathed in deadly toxic gas? That was the speculation reprinted on the front pages of "The New York Times" and other newspapers, resulting in a widespread panic across the United States and abroad. Finally even-headed scientists explained that there was nothing to fear.
Pat Robertson, 1982
In May 1980, televangelist and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson startled and alarmed many when — contrary to Matthew 24:36 ("No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven...") he informed his "700 Club" TV show audience around the world that he knew when the world would end. "I guarantee you by the end of 1982 there is going to be a judgment on the world," Robertson said.
Heaven's Gate, 1997
When comet Hale-Bopp appeared in 1997, rumors surfaced that an alien spacecraft was following the comet — covered up, of course, by NASA and the astronomical community. Though the claim was refuted by astronomers (and could be refuted by anyone with a good telescope), the rumors were publicized on Art Bell's paranormal radio talk show "Coast to Coast AM." These claims inspired a San Diego UFO cult named Heaven's Gate to conclude that the world would end soon. The world did indeed end for 39 of the cult members, who committed suicide on March 26, 1997.
Nostradamus, August 1999
The heavily obfuscated and metaphorical writings of Michel de Nostrdame have intrigued people for over 400 years. His writings, the accuracy of which relies heavily upon very flexible interpretations, have been translated and re-translated in dozens of different versions. One of the most famous quatrains read, "The year 1999, seventh month / From the sky will come great king of terror." Many Nostradamus devotees grew concerned that this was the famed prognosticator's vision of Armageddon.
Y2K, Jan. 1, 2000
As the last century drew to a close, many people grew concerned that computers might bring about doomsday. The problem, first noted in the early 1970s, was that many computers would not be able to tell the difference between 2000 and 1900 dates. No one was really sure what that would do, but many suggested catastrophic problems ranging from vast blackouts to nuclear holocaust. Gun sales jumped and survivalists prepared to live in bunkers, but the new millennium began with only a few glitches.
May 5, 2000
In case the Y2K bug didn't do us in, global catastrophe was assured by Richard Noone, author of the 1997 book "5/5/2000 Ice: the Ultimate Disaster." According to Noone, the Antarctic ice mass would be three miles thick by May 5, 2000 — a date in which the planets would be aligned in the heavens, somehow resulting in a global icy death (or at least a lot of book sales). Perhaps global warming kept the ice age at bay.
God's Church Ministry, Fall 2008
According to God's Church minister Ronald Weinland, the end times are upon us-- again. His 2006 book "2008: God's Final Witness" states that hundreds of millions of people will die, and by the end of 2006, "there will be a maximum time of two years remaining before the world will be plunged into the worst time of all human history. By the fall of 2008, the United States will have collapsed as a world power, and no longer exist as an independent nation." As the book notes, "Ronald Weinland places his reputation on the line as the end-time prophet of God."

And who could forget Harold Camping, who kept adjusting his end of the world predictions when the world kept going on after his predicted dates?

Sure the world will end, eventually.
But probably not in our lifetime.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Dating Game: Digging Up Fossils

Since ancient times, people had been digging up bones and other mineralized remains of creatures that lived and died a long, long time ago.
When dinosaur bones were unearthed in China about a thousand years ago, people wondered about the kinds of animals that had these bones. This was probably the start of dragon legends.

All over  the world, there are places that if one digs deep enough, one may find some ancient shells, bone fragments, a piece of petrified wood, or even a leaf print.
These relics are called fossils. They are usually found through digging. In fact, the term "fossil" comes from a Latin word that means, "to dig." Fossils are remains of ancient life; they give us clues about the distant past. Countless animals and plants that lived a long time ago were preserved in different ways. In hot and dry places, actual bones or teeth of an extinct creature are sometimes preserved; in moist places, the relic may be replaced by a rock-like copy of the original and thus fossilized. This process is called permineralization, and this takes place slowly over millions of years. This means that a fossil of a bone is no longer technically a bone; chemically, the fossil may be more like a rock. Also, if a once-living thing was a tree, the fossil may be a part of a tree trunk that underwent replacement of woody material with minerals. This is how the Petrified Forest came into being, which you might want to look up. 
Fossils range in age from 3.5 billion-year remains of algae to the 10,000-year-old actual remains of giant wooly mammoths preserved during the last ice age. Most fossils are excavated in sedimentary rock layers. Sedimentary rock is rock that has formed from sediment, like small pieces of rock, sand, or mud. These small pieces of debris are compressed and buried under more and more layers of sediment. After many, many years, they become sedimentary rock. Layers beneath are older than the layers near the surface. Paleontologists (scientists who study prehistoric life) use fossils to learn how life has changed and evolved throughout the planet's history.

 So, how do they know a fossil's age? Dating fossils is a relatively straightforward process. There are actually several methods. Here are some of them:
1.       Stratigraphy is the oldest method of fossil dating. This method involves the depth of a fossil's location. For example, dinosaur bones are usually found in sedimentary rocks; these rock layers are formed periodically over time. Newer layers are formed on top of older layers, compressing the older layers, turning them into rocks. Paleontologists can estimate the amount of time that has passed since the layer containing the fossil was formed.
2.       Scientists can also observe the fluctuations of the Earth's magnetic field. Rocks from different geological eras are affected by these magnetic field fluctuations, enabling scientists to study these, and provide an estimate of the rocks' age. This method is also called Paleomagnetic dating.
3.       Radioisotope dating of igneous rocks near the fossil can also be used. Unstable radioactive isotopes of elements, like Uranium-235, decay at constant rates. Examination of the remaining radioactive elements provides an accurate estimate of a rock's age. Radioisotope dating, however, is not used directly on fossils, since they do not contain radioisotopes used in the dating process. Instead, scientists date igneous layers of rock, found beneath and above the fossil (or fossils). These layers of rock are volcanic in origin; hence, some fossils, especially dinosaur fossils, are dated with respect to volcanic eruptions.
4.       There are fossils that are widely distributed in the planet but have a limited time span. These are the index fossils, and they are important in determining ancient biological history. Brachiopods (appeared during the Cambrian Period), trilobites (Pre-Cambrian, early Paleozoic, Paleozoic Period), ammonites (Triassic and Jurassic Period) are a few examples of these index fossils. The presence of index fossils helps scientists in making an educated estimate of other nearby fossils' age.

Excavating fossils is actually the tricky part. After locating the fossil, it must be carefully freed, without damaging it, from the rocky environment that served as its home for probably millions of years. First, the fossil (or fossils) should be labeled and photographed while still encased in rock. Its position should be noted carefully and meticulously. Using tools like picks and shovels, most of the overlying rock is removed. The rocks closest to the fossil, however, are removed with smaller hand tools like trowels, hammers, whisks, and dental tools. The exposed fossil is again labeled and photographed. Sometimes, not all of the overlying rock is removed at the dig site. The rest is carefully removed at the laboratory. Large fossils, in contrast to small fossils that are excavated with small hand tools, require more effort and bigger tools to expose-tools like shovels, picks, jackhammers, and even explosives.

Although excavated differently, both large and small fossils have to be treated very, very carefully to avoid damaging them. Fragile fossils, before removing them, are applied with a quick-setting glue using a brush or a sprayer. The fossils are packed very carefully before moving them to the laboratory. Large fossils are wrapped in paper or burlap, and applied with a layer of plaster (similar to those used in setting broken bones). Smaller ones can be packed in bags or boxes.
After being located, dug up, exposed, packed, and sent to the laboratory, it is now time to put the pieces together, much like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. It is very rare for a whole skeleton—of any animal—to be found; sometimes, there are even pieces of different animals at the same site, which can add to the confusion. Knowledge of anatomy is therefore important to piece the fossils together, and to guess what the missing pieces are.
Paleontology is the science of fossils. The term comes from the Greek words logia (science), palaios (very old), and onta (existing things). Paleozoology is the science of extinct animals; the science of extinct plants is paleobotany.
Through the study of fossils, scientists have been able to put together a "picture" of what the world was like many ages ago. They have found evidence that the Himalayas, the Alps, the Rocky Mountains and other mountains were once under water.
How did the scientists know that? For one thing, they found fossils of sea animals high up on the slopes of these mountains. Obviously, these sea creatures did not climb up there. Scientists also found out through fossils that Europe and the United States were once covered with tropical forests; and that camels once roamed the plains of North America; that elephants and rhinoceros once lived in the Philippines.

Fossils also provided the clues that enabled scientists to trace the planet's animal life back to the earliest worms and shellfish, and that the great deposits of coal and chalk were the remains of living things that died millions of years ago. Of course, through fossils, we now know that giant reptiles (the dinosaurs) once roamed the earth; that these dragon-like monsters, at least some of them, stood more than a hundred feet long—the largest land animals that ever lived. We also know that when it comes to survivability, size doesn't matter—hundreds of giant species died out and made way for creatures with more brains and less bulk.
Fossils also tell us that modern humans have existed on this planet for "only" about half a million years. Compare that to the cockroach, which has been on this planet for hundreds of millions of years. Being the planet's Johnny-come-lately, it is no coincidence that among the latest fossils are those of early humans, which are found mostly in the Great Rift Valley, East Africa.
Humans were indeed "created" last.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Under One God: The Legacy of Monotheism

Simply put, monotheism is the belief in the existence of a single god, in contrast to polytheism, which is a belief in the existence of many gods.
Until the advent of monotheism, polytheism was the norm among the early civilizations. Civilizations that worshiped many gods were traditionally more accepting and more tolerant of the gods of other people, e.g., the Sumerians, Hittites, etc. (Hittite state documents unearthed by archaeologists often bear the invocation “The Thousand Gods of the Hatti.”) 

The first monotheistic religion may have been the worship of the Sun God Aten in ancient Egypt, which was established by Amenhotep IV (1364-1347 BC).

However, this did not last, as a subsequent pharaoh eradicated the worship of Aten. Then sometime before the 6th century in Persia, Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) founded Zoroastrianism, which many  scholars believe to have influenced the three major religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  
Zoroastrianism recognizes one god—Ahura Mazda—as the creator of all things.
One of the symbols of Zoroastrianism
Of course, religious conservatives do not acknowledge the connection between Zoroastrianism and their religion. On the other hand, most religious historians believe that the major religions have their roots in Zoroastrianism. 

Other similarities between Christianity and Zoroastrianism include:
  • Holy Spirit
    Ahura Mazda has a Holy Spirit that sometimes seems to be him and at other times seems to be independent. The Holy Spirit of Christianity has the same characteristics.
  • Saviour
    Christianity has Jesus who was born of a virgin and will return at the end of time to defeat evil and establish his kingdom; Zoroastrianism says that the Saoshyant or saviour will be born of a virgin and will lead humanity in the last battle against evil.
  • The devil
    The Christian Satan parallels the Zoroastrian Ahriman or Angra Mainyu.
  • Angels
  • Archangels
    Christianity has seven archangels; Zoroastrianism has seven Amesha Spenta.
  • Immortality of soul and life after death.
  • Heaven as a place of reward for the righteous, and hell as a place of punishment
  • Resurrection at the end of the world, when the dead revive and the new world will have a fresh life and new beginning.
  • The last judgment

The “us against them” mentality fits beautifully into monotheism’s basic tenet.
It has this deadly formula: since there is only one god, the god (or gods) that other people worship must be false; hence, these other people are unbelievers.
And we all know how the major religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, treated the “unbelievers.” 
Consequently, monotheistic religions are less tolerant, less accepting, of other people’s beliefs.
Accepting the existence of other gods will mean a negation of their own. So for their religion to survive and spread, they have to deny other people’s gods. In so doing, a whole lot of mess is opened—genocide, hatred, intolerance, bigotry, wars, and still more wars.
Religious and political leaders may state that the world may be united under one God, but which God? The divisiveness ingrained in religion will never go away; uniting the world can only result in bloodbath.  
Nothing separates humanity from one another as thoroughly, as completely, as religion.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Richard Dawkins' Speech at Reason Rally

Below is the text of Dr. Richard Dawkins' speech at the Reason Rally held last March 24 in Washington D.C.


What a magnificent, inspiring sight! I was expecting great things even in fine weather. In the rain -- look at this: This is the most incredible sight I can remember ever seeing.
The sharper, critical thinkers among you may have discerned that I don't come from these parts. I see myself as an emissary from a benighted country that does not have a constitutional separation between church and state. Indeed it doesn't have a written constitution at all. We have a head of state who's also the head of the Church of England. The church is deeply entwined in British public life. The American Constitution is a precious treasure, the envy of the world. The First Amendment of the Constitution, which enshrines the separation between church and state, is the model for secular constitutions the world over and deserves to be imitated the world over.
How sad it would be if in the birthplace of secular constitutions the very principle of secular constitutions were to be betrayed in a theocracy. But it's come close to that.
How could anyone rally against reason? How is it necessary to have a rally for reason? Reason means basing your life on evidence and on logic, which is how you deduce the consequences of evidence. In a hundred years' time, it seems to me inconceivable that anybody could want to have a rally for reason. By that time, we will either have blown ourselves up or we'll have become so civilized that we no longer need it.

When I was in school, we used to sing a hymn. It went, "It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be." After that the hymn rather went off the rails, but those first two lines have inspired me. It is a thing most wonderful that on this once barren rock orbiting a rather mediocre star on the edge of a rather ordinary galaxy, on this rock a remarkable process called evolution by natural selection has given rise to the magnificent diversity of complexity of life. The elegance, the beauty and the illusion of design which we see all around us has given rise in the last million years or so to a species -- our species -- with a brain big enough to comprehend that process, to comprehend how we came to be here, how we came to be here from extremely simple beginnings where the laws of physics are played out in very simple ways -- The laws of physics have never been violated, but the laws of physics are filtered through this incredible process called evolution by natural selection -- to give rise to a brain that is capable of understanding the process, a brain which is capable of measuring the age of the universe between 13 and 14 billion years, of measuring the age of the Earth between 4 and 5 billion years, of knowing what matter is made of, knowing what we are made of, made of atoms brought together by this mechanical, automatic, unplanned, unconscious process: evolution by natural selection.
That's not just true; it's beautiful. It's beautiful because it's true. And it's almost too good to be true. How is it conceivable that the laws of physics should conspire together without guidance, without direction, without any intelligence to bring us into the world? Now we do have intelligence. Intelligence comes into the world, comes into the universe late. It's come into the world through our brains and maybe other brains in the universe. Now at last -- finally -- after 4 billion years of evolution we have the opportunity to bring some intelligent design into the world.
We need intelligent design. We need to intelligently design our morals, our ethics, our politics, our society. We need to intelligently design the way we run our lives, not look back to scrolls -- I was going to say ancient scrolls, they're not even very ancient, about 800 BC the book of Genesis was written. I am often accused of expressing contempt and despising religious people. I don't despise religious people; I despise what they stand for. I like to quote the British journalist Johann Hari who said, "I have so much respect for you that I cannot respect your ridiculous ideas."
Electromagnetic spectrum runs all the way from extremely long wave, radio-wave end of the spectrum to gamma waves on the very short-wave end of the spectrum. And visible light, that which we can see, is a tiny little sliver in the middle of that electromagnetic spectrum. Science has broadened out our perspective of that section to long-wave radio waves on the one hand and gamma rays on the other. I take that as being symbolic of what science does generally. It takes our little vision -- our little, parochial, small vision -- and broadens it out. And that is a magnificent vision for what science can do. Science makes us see what we couldn't see before. Religion does its best to snuff out even that light which we can see.
So we're here to stand up for reason, to stand up for science, to stand up for logic, to stand up for the beauty of reality and the beauty of the fact that we can understand reality.
I hope that this meeting will be a turning point. I'm sure many people have said that already. I like to think of a physical analogy of a critical mass. There are too many people in this country who have been cowed into fear of coming out as atheists or secularists or agnostics. We are far more numerous than anybody realizes. We are approaching a tipping point, we're approaching that critical mass, where the number of people who have come out becomes so great that suddenly everybody will realize, "I can come out, too." That moment is not far away now. And I think that with hindsight this rally in Washington will be seen as a very significant tipping point on the road.
And I will particularly appeal to my scientific colleagues most of whom are atheists if you look at the members of the National Academy of Sciences about 90 percent of them are non-believers an exact mirror image of the official figures of the country at large. If you look at the Royal Society of London, the equivalent for the British Commonwealth, again about 90 percent are atheists. But they mostly keep quiet about it. They're not ashamed of it. They can't be bothered to come out and express what they feel. They think religion is just simply boring. They're not going to bother to even stand up and oppose it. They need to come out.
Religion is an important phenomenon. Forty percent of the American population, according to opinion polls, think the world -- the universe, indeed -- is less than 10,000 years old. That's not just an error, that's a preposterous error. I've done the calculation before and it's the equivalent of believing that the width of North America from Washington to San Francisco is equal to about eight yards. I don't know if I believe that 40 percent figure. It stands up as being apparently so from about the 1980s. But what I want to suggest you do when you meet somebody who claims to be religious ask them what they really believe. If you meet somebody who says he's Catholic, for example, say "What do you mean? Do you mean you just want that tie as Catholic? Because I'm not impressed by that."
We just ran a poll by a foundation in Britain in which we took those people who ticked a Christian box in the census -- and by the way, that figure has come down dramatically. we just took the people who ticked the Christian box and we asked them "Why did you tick the Christian box?" And the most popular answer to that question was "Oh, well, I like to think of myself as a good person." But we all like to think of ourselves as good people. Atheists do, Jews do, Muslims do. So when you meet somebody who claims to be Christian, ask her, ask him "What do you *really* believe?" And I'll think you'll find that in many cases, they give you an answer which is no more convincing than that "I like to be a good person."
By the way, when we went on to ask a specific question of these only 54 percent: "What do you do when you're faced with a moral dilemma? Where do you turn?" Only 10 percent turned to their religion when trying to solve their moral question. Only 10 percent. The majority of them said, "I turn to my innate sense of goodness" and the next most popular answer was "I turn to advice from relatives and friends".
So when I meet somebody who claims to be religious, my first impulse is: "I don't believe you. I don't believe you until you tell me do you really believe -- for example, if they say they are Catholic -- do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?" Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!
Don't fall for the convention that we're all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits. Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated and need to be challenged and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.
I want to end now on what my colleagues from the Richard Dawkins Foundation said. I am an outsider but we have been well-staffed in America and we're going to spread the word along with our colleagues in other organizations throughout the length and breadth of this land. This land which is the fountainhead, the birthplace of secularism in the world, as I said before. Don't let that tradition down. Thank you very much.
Watch Dr. Dawkins' speech here.
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