Sunday, November 23, 2008

The beginner.

"Whom would these men [of the establishment] fear most, psychologically, and least, existentially? The brilliant loner. The beginner. The young man of potential genius and innocently ruthless integrity, whose only weapons are talent and truth. They reject him instinctively, saying that he doesn't belong. To what? Sensing that he would put them on the spot by raising issues they'd prefer not to face. He might get past their protective barriers once in a while, but he is handicapped by his virtues -- in a system rigged against intelligence and integrity. We shall never know how many precociously perceptive youths sensed the evil around them before they were old enough to find an antidote, and gave up in hopelessly indignant bewilderment. Or how many gave in, stultifying their minds. We do not know how many young innovators may exist today, and struggle to be heard. But we will not hear of them because the establishment would prefer not to recognize their existence, and not to take any cognizance of their ideas." -- Ayn Rand.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Expanding Earth Revisited

Results of a long discussion with a bunch of geologists. That's not to say that they agree with me -- far from it -- they stated in no certain terms that I am a "jackass." But as is usually the case when dealing with academics, I learn the most valuable information in spite of rather than because of its source.

There are three lines of evidence to support the idea that the Earth is expanding, with the oceans constituting the increased surface area: They are geologic, biological, and historical.

The geologic ones are the most compelling, so I'll begin there:

1) As is well-known, the continents adjacent to the Atlantic fit together, that the Midatlantic ridge traces their breaking point, new crust is continually being created at the Midatlantic ridge, and the oceanic crust gets progressively older the further one gets from the Ridge. To verify that, take a look at the image to the right, which shows sea crust ages with red youngest and blue oldest.

2) What's not so commonly known as that the Americas fit with Australia and the Asian trench system as well.

a) Look at Australia and South America. The nub on the Eastern cost of Australia fits into the indentation in South America. Also, look at the East Pacific rise. Although turned slightly clockwise and elongated slightly, it's a perfect fit for Western coast of South America. That turning and elongation is reasonably explained by the existence of another ridge, running from the East Pacific rise to the Chilean coast, and itself producing new crust.

b) Look at the trench immediately off of Kamchatka, headed south to the Mariana trench. Notice that if you slide that trench along the curve of the Aleutian trench, it would be a perfect fit for the Western Coast of North America.

3) So the continents fit together like puzzle pieces on both ends. Is it proof that they were once connected? No. But the evidence that they fit on one end is just as good as the evidence that they fit on both ends, because it is based on identical facts. It seems to me, then, more reasonable to conclude that they were one once linked on both ends than to conclude they were once linked on only one.

4) Also interestingly, the sea crust is substantially younger than the continental crust. Like ... the oldest sea crust dates to approximately 250M years, while the continental crust dates to approximately 4B years. While those dates are based on questionable methods and shouldn't be taken as gospel, they do provide stong evidence that the Atlantic and Pacific (at least the Pacific East of the trenches) formed at the same time. Standard theory, of course, has it that all the continents were bound in Pangaea, and then split, floating their way back into the Pacific, which is (presumably) growing ever smaller. In that scenario, of course, we would expect the Pacific to be older than the Atlantic -- after all, the Pacific was already there when Pangaea broke up. But interestingly, it's not. Both oceans are the same age. And much younger than the continents.

5) The trenches in the Pacific experience extremely frequent earthquakes. There's really no question about that. But a little known fact about those earthquakes is that the earthquakes less than 300km from the surface at tensional, rather than compressional earthquakes. What that means, in simple terms, is that the wave characteristics of the earthquake indicate that it was caused by crust pulling apart, rather than being pushed together. Standard theory explains this as being a result of the downward moving, subducting slab being pulled away from the crust above it. The "Benioff zones" are also used to bolster this conclusion. As in the earthquake map above, earthquakes occur at progressively greater depth as one moves away from the center of the Pacific. This is seen as consistent with increasing depth of the slab subducting under the Asian plates.

There's a problem with that interpretation, however. Specifically: the "subduction" zones don't look like one rock going under another. The trenches, for example, are enormously deep, and steep -- usually less than 5 degrees from vertical. descending quite quickly. (Don't be fooled like I was by pictures that show them to be super-steep -- the vertical scale is consistently exaggerated, even on 3d images without a scale). They are also generally quite wide -- often approximately 50km wide. Is that what we'd expect if one giant piece of rock was being pushed under another? No way. First of all, we would expect compressional, rather than tensional earthquakes, as the subducting slab pushed against the continental slab. We have the opposite. We would expect a moderate slope toward the subduction zone that showed us the direction of motion of the slab. Instead we have a flat seafloor, followed by an enormous drop in a nearly vertical direction. Further, while we have direct physical evidence of new crust being formed at the ridges, we do not have direct physical evidence of old crust slipping under the other crust at the subduction zone. Finally, if one plate is slipping another another, we would expect an immediate rise in the crust that's on top -- but we don't have it. We have a volcanic zone some distance beyond the trench, but no slow rise right there to account for the "buried" ocean crust.

It simply does not look like subduction is happening.

But what if those trenches are not caused by subduction, but by stretching? What if the giant, steep trench is caused by the two plates pulling apart rather than being forced together? Well, we'd expect it to be steep (which it is) look the slope of a glacier when an iceberg breaks off. We'd expect it to be wide (which it is), rather than narrow, as it was continually being pulled apart. We'd expect a lot of earthquakes (which there are) from the pulling motion. We'd expect volcanos on the continental side, as the pulling motion "loosened" crust further toward the continent, creating passageways for lava from the mantle to reach the surface. Finally, we'd expect the earthquakes to get deeper and deeper as one approaches the continent (Benioff zones), as earthquakes only occur in brittle Earth, and the mantle is (except in its uppermost regions) plastic and not given to Earthquakes, and continental crust is much, much thicker than oceanic crust, allowing Earthquakes to occur at much deeper levels. Finally, we would expect the earthquakes (at least in the crust) to be tensional, rather than compressional. Which they are.

For icing, add the fact that the trenches on the Asian side of the Pacific fit the coast of North America perfectly.

Strong evidence, it seems to me, that the trenches are caused by tearing, rather than subduction.

6) Expansion without subduction. One more important point in the realm of geology. An oceanic ridge surrounds the entire continent of Antarctica. The necessary implication is that there is expansion southward. In order to absorb that new crust (and keep the size of the Earth static), there must be a subduction zone going East to West around the Earth. But there is no such beast.

So enough geology. There's also evidence in biology.

1) This map shows the present-day distribution of marsupials. Interestingly, they're found in Australia and the Americas. Now don't get me wrong -- fossils of marsupials have been found on all seven continents (including Antarctica). But the fact that marsupials survived to a much later date in the Americas and Australia supports the idea that the continents were linked, such that Australia was ecologically and biologically linked with South America -- more linked, in fact, than to the ecosystems in between.

2) Giant animals in the past: The fossil record is full of animals that could not survive in today's gravity. Arthropods bigger than humans. 3-ft long dragonflies. 2M millipedes. Giant claw reveals the largest ever arthropod" (2007), Biology Letters. And let's not forget the dinosaurs -- 350lb flying creatures, enormous saurapods, etc. No way in the world they could make it in today's world. Yet somehow, they used to. How? Maybe reduced gravity on a small world?

Finally, some historical references:

Plato wrote in the Timaeus:

"For these histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city put an end. This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent."

What a strange lie. That is, if it is a lie.

But let's not forget old Genesis.

Gen 2:5: "For the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground. But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground."

Gen 6:11: In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up.

Gen 10:25: And unto Eber were born two sons: the name of one was Peleg; for in his days was the earth divided.

Also strange historical references. That is, unless something crazy and cataclysmic happened to the Earth's geology, causing massive changes in continental configuration.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


"Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." -- Francis Bacon.

What is philosophy

Reading through "Philosophy: who needs it" by Ayn Rand. Greatness. And it left me with the question: what is philosophy?

Possible definitions:
1) Philosophy is opinion about unknowable things, and arguments to support said opinion;
2) Philosophy is opinion about the fundamental nature of being, which is knowable, and arguments to support said opinion.
3) Philosophy is the tools and structure to one's thought -- the ideas we bring to our experience in order to process experience and determine action.

I think that in practice today, most people use one of the first two definitions -- non-philosophers typically use the first one; philosophers typically use the second. But I don't think either is meaningful. I don't think philosophy is about opinions or arguments to support opinions. I think philosophy is a toolbox of logical, moral, and aesthetic precepts that we bring to our experience and choices. I think it's less about what our opinions are, and more about how we form our opinions. I think it's less about the destination, and more about the process.

Does that mean that opinions are pointless? No. But I think those opinions (when meaningful) fall outside the purview of philosophy. That is to say, my opinions about how what gravity is are not "philosophy" -- there are "science." My opinions about what good art is are not "philosophy" -- they are "taste." My opinions about how I ought to behave are not "philosophy" -- they are my morality.

Philosophy is the tools by which I come to those opinions. It is the practices of deduction, induction, and abduction. It is the practice of identifying and defusing logical fallacies. It is the practice of always defining terms precisely prior to their use.

And those tools of philosophy serve us everywhere -- in love, politics, art, work, and children.

I think that the emphasis placed on "opinions" in philosophy courses is misguided. I think that opinions should be identified, but that the meat and potatoes in philosophy should be in the reasoning that goes into those opinions, rather than the opinions themselves. That is to say, the point of a philosophy class should not be to figure out whether you are Hegelian, Kantian, and Randian. The point of a philosophy class should be to figure out how to think about all the questions raised by those people, and thereby learn how to think about the questions raised by our lives.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Science as process or community

I got into an interesting argument with a prototypical scientist-who's-been-taught-facts-but-hasn't-been-taught-how-to-think, and he made the following argument:

Science, ungtss, is a community, where everyone discusses and argues and adds to the body of working knowledge through the every changing process of research. The corpus of that research is called "THE PEER-REVIEWED LITERATURE."

I responded (in pertinent part):

Science is not a community. Science is a process -- the process of observation, analysis, and interpretation of facts. Kuhn did a great job describing and analyzing what science as a community yields -- institutional stubbornness and refusal to give the facts a fresh look.

He responded:

Man oh man, I love seeing the anti-intellectualism at work! The blatant disregard for how science is done or practiced! I'm glad you are not a doctor, Ungtss...I'd hate to see your clinical trials...Science is a community, populated by people. Your weird aristotelean/neo-platonic "science" would require that, EVERYTIME WE TRIED TO STUDY SOMETHING, we'd have to independantly come up with gravity, hydrdynamics, etc. The peer-review literature lets us draw on the knowledge and expertise of many other workers, providing us with data and interpretations that no one individual could ever match.

I found his response fascinating, because it illustrates two different understandings of what science is. To him, science really is an organic community of people. Put 10 scientists in a room and ask them what they think about an issue, and you have "science." It's personal, charismatic, and subjective.

To me, science is a process. Put 10 scientists in a lab and let them do their thing. Then examine their results. Experimentally supported results are Science -- or in the case of competing explanations for a given phenomenon, Science is the last explanation standing after the others have been falsified. Science is not exclusive to the scientific community. It is a process that can be done by anyone, but which is done primarily by the scientific community, because they are uniquely suited to do so. However, just because they are uniquely suited to perform science does not mean that whatever opinion they have is "scientific." Their beliefs are still subject to the scientific method which (unfortunately) few of them are actually taught at a philosophical level.

This really reflects the difference between the views of Feyeraband/Thagard and the views of Popper. Popper thought science was a process. Feyeraband and Thagard thought science was whatever scientists think.

What difference does this make?

1) It makes "scientists" like this monkey respond very personally to every challenge to their ideas. Challenge their opinion, and you are not challenging an objective experiment -- you are challenging their status as part of "science" -- and it makes them very angry.

2) It leaves "scientists" like this monkey unable to critically evaluate and interpret the facts, and vulnerable to group think -- because science is primarily about what the other scientists think, not the logical basis for their opinions. Present them with a challenging fact, and they don't know what to do with it. They'll just attack you personally as not being as "scientific" as they are.

3) It slows down the process of science, because scientists are not in the habit of challenging what "the scientific community" thinks -- they are in the habit of reading what all the other supergeniuses think, and concurring.

4) It makes "scientists" like this monkey attack any challenge to their paradigm as "anti-intellectual." Because if I am science, and you are challenging me, then you are challenging science.