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Even In Space, Life Perseveres June 24, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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Life, once thought to be a delicate and fragile thing that needed protection and nuturing, is turning out to be an incredibly hardy beast.  We’ve found life in the harshest and most extreme environments on the planet from deep sea hydrothermal vents where a startling variety of organisms endure temperatures up to 450 degrees C to the ice sheets of the Antartic where microorganisms live within cracks in the glaciers.  Now we are learning that even the vacuum of space can’t stop life.

n 2008 scientists sent the suitcase-sized Expose-E experiment package to the Space Station filled with organic compounds and living organisms to test their reaction to outer space.

When astronauts venture on a spacewalk, hours are spent preparing protective suits to survive the hostile conditions. No effort was made to protect the bacteria, seeds, lichen and algae attached to the outside of the Space Station, however.

“We are exploring the limits of life,” explains ESA’s René Demets.

Our atmosphere does a wonderful job of protecting life on Earth by absorbing harmful UV rays and keeping temperatures relatively stable.

In contrast, the space samples endured the full power of the Sun’s rays. The samples were insulated somewhat by the Space Station but still had to cope with temperatures changing from -12ºC to +40ºC over 200 times as they orbited Earth.

The samples returned to Earth in 2009 and the results have now been published in a special issue of the journal Astrobiology.

Lichen have proven to be tough cookies — back on Earth, some species continue to grow normally.

Believe it or not this isn’t the first example of life enduring conditions outside the atmosphere.  Tardigrades (aka waterbears) along with surviving in seemingly every extreme environment on Earth have been known to tolerate vacuum conditions for up to ten days.

While mostly a curiosity at this point this kind of research could lead to potentially interesting breakthroughs.  One off the top of my head is a better understanding of how to grow and maintain food in space.  Despite the protections put in place space craft are not impervious to radiation from the sun.  As such in addition to the myriad of other obstacles growing food in space is limited by the potential damage inflicted on organisms by solar rays.  Figuring out which food sources, and lichen is apparantally capable of being used as a food source, are resistant is a necessary step.  Growing your own food would have the advantage of reducing the cost of lifting the necessary food into orbit and provide a safety margin on long journeys when the astronauts are several million kilometers away from the nearest supermarket.


Being Atheist Doesn’t Make You Smart, Rational, Or Logical June 14, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Science.
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Atheists, my people, we must talk.  I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend making it’s way through the atheist community, a trend which quite frankly needs to stop.  See in my off time I sometimes enjoy perusing discussion boards and internet forums on the subject of religion and atheism (something I keep telling myself I’m going to stop doing.)  It’s enjoyable sometimes because occasionally I see an argument put forward by the other side that I hadn’t considered before, something which forces me to do a little self-examining and make my own arguments stronger.  All too often though all I get out of it is a laugh watching one bad and discounted argument after another being rolled out by people who at this point ought to know better.

The problem is that recently I haven’t been laughing since it’s my side throwing up the stupid arguments.

Now before I get too far into this I don’t need anyone to remind that this being the internet the level of discourse is generally somewhere between two kindergarteners fighting over a crayon and the average American Presidential debate (ooh, topical) and that I really shouldn’t be expecting great debates in that forum.  Unfortunately that argument does not apply in this case.

See that problem I’ve been noticing is that atheists in these debates love to talk about how logical and rational they and their positions are all the while behaving in a completely irrational and illogical manner.  If we’re going to pride ourselves on the soundness of our arguments then we need to ensure that we are actually making sound arguments and we don’t get to use the excuse of the Internet Fuckwad Theory to cover up our own shortcomings.  As such I would like to humbly propose the following list of things atheists really need to stop doing.

1) Being atheist does not make you smart

Or rational and logical.  Yes I know we all saw that one study that seemed to say otherwise but I would be very hesitant about bringing up something so controversial and with it’s own fair share of issues.  Even if the findings of that study turn out to be true it will only be talking about averages (i.e. the average atheist is smarter than the average believer) not that you are smarter than the average believer.

Telling a person that because they believe in a god they must be so stupid as to not understand you’re arguments not only makes you look like a pompous ass but also only manages to alienate anyone you might be debating with.  If your intention was to bring them over to your side then that is the exact opposite of what you should be doing.  It also ignores the fact that their have been many smart people throughout history who have believed in a god and in a way actually gives the theists an argument.

See any time the question of intelligence and religion is brought up it’s almost inevitable that someone will eventually say “But Einstein believed in God (or Newton/Descartes/Galilaeo/etc.)  Are you saying you’re smarter than Einstein?”  This is a pretty popular comeback since it appeals to the logical fallacy we seem to like the most; appeals to authority.  The truth is most people debating about religion (or for that matter climate change/evolution/etc.) on the internet don’t actually understand the topic well enough to be debating it in the first place.  As such any opportunity to bring in the word of someone more versed in the subject than they are is a welcome relief since it allows them to score a point without having to actually make an argument.  This is doubly annoying since as anyone with a basic background in logic knows the veracity of an argument is not based on the intelligence of the person arguing it but on the strength of the evidence in its favor.  Bringing up much smarter, more rational and more logical you are isn’t only a fallacy in itself but will almost certainly perpetuate more fallacies.

2) Stop misusing the word logical

This is one that really gets to me because I see it everywhere.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a person attack a religion for not being “based on logic” at the same time implicating that atheism is a logical belief.  Often this is said in the manner of a winning argument as if the person thinks they have made some grand insight which cannot be countered.  Hate to break it to you but all you’ve done is shown that you don’t understand what the word logical means.

Quick philosophy lesson.  Logic is a branch of philosophy which studies what makes an argument valid.  While there are a few types the one most of us are familiar with is deductive reasoning, which generally takes the form of if x than y.  A example of that might go as such:

A: All apples are fruit

B: Some apples are red.

Therefore: Some fruit is red.

The conclusion follows perfectly from the assumptions.  As such, that right there is a logically valid argument.   But is it true?

Some are probably saying “Of course it’s true, you just said it was valid” and therein lies the confusion.  A valid argument is not necessarily a true one.  All it needs to be valid is for the conclusion to follow from the premises, not that the premises be correct themselves.  To illustrate that point let’s try another one.

1: All things created have a creator.

2: The Earth was created.

Therefore: The Earth has a creator.

This also is a logically valid argument and a perfect example for why attacking religion as illogical is a terrible debating tactic.  Religions can and have produced many perfectly valid arguments for the truth of their beliefs based on the assumptions of their faith.  While we can certainly attack the truthfulness of their assumption speaking of religions as illogical only exposes our own ignorance.  Speaking of ignorance…

3) Quit parroting arguments you heard from someone else

Let me be very clear what I’m talking about here.  I do not mean utilizing arguments you read about elsewhere for yourself.  Nothing wrong with learning from another, that is after all one of the best ways to learn.  What I’m talking about is when the only argument you can muster is entirely made up by other people.  Or to put it succinctly let’s construct an imaginary (though in truth very common) exchange.

Person 1:  Atheists have faith just like theists.

Person 2:  Whatever, atheism is like religion the way bald is a hair color.

Do you see the problem there?  Simply quoting a popular saying does not advance the conversation.  It does not add to the debate.  It doesn’t even show that you understand what you’re debating about.  All it shows is that you are capable of memorizing an internet meme.  Again there’s nothing wrong with using the ideas of others in you argument but you have to actually make an argument.

Well I think that will do for now.  Honestly there are probably a few more that could be added to this list but perhaps I’ll save those for another time.  Happy debating!

Company To Establish Colony On Mars June 4, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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Been gone for awhile (vacation in Chicago) so forgive the lack of posts.  I have many backlogged but let’s start with a short one.

Making the rounds in the futurist/transhumanist community has been a promotional video from private space company named MarsOne.  As the name would imply the company is interested in establishing a human colony on Mars by 2023.  So far so ho hum but there are two elements of this plan that make it interesting.

The first is that the colony would be planned from the beginning as a permanent base, meaning that all colonists will be expected to stay for life. Anyone who signs up to be the first human on Mars will also be signing up to be the first dead human on Mars.  This is actually a pretty smart idea as it removes the problems and expenses of a return trip thus freeing up more resources for the base itself.  I can also imagine that selecting people who would know in advance that they would be in for the long haul might result in a psychologically stronger and more committed colony.

More interesting, and rather strange, is the proposed plan to fund the expedition.  According to the planners that funding would come by turning the whole thing into a giant space-themed reality show.  No, really.

Setting aside my initial gut reaction to hate anything which reminds me of reality television I can’t see how this would actually work.  People watch reality TV (so I’m told) largely for the human drama of watching terrible people acting in terrible ways.  It makes us feel better to know that no matter how bad we may behave at least we aren’t THAT bad.  Trying to slap that formula onto an incredibly complicated and let’s not forget risky mission strikes me as doomed to fail.  Either you end up with a boring reality show about focused colonists doing what they need to do to survive both the cold of space and the harshness of Mars or you end with the Kardashians in space and get to watch everything go to hell.