Monthly Archives: July 2012

The God Delusion

I’ve just finished reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. My word. What an incredible book! He is extremely readable, and his passion for science really shines through – as does his humanity and his deep and abiding respect for all life, everywhere.

I was an atheist long before I encountered Dawkins, but The God Delusion made me really think about why I’m an atheist, and what my beliefs really mean to me. I wonder, very much, how many religious people really think deeply about what their beliefs mean. To them, and to the wider world. This was brought home to me at the weekend when I attended a first holy communion for Joe’s nieces. Unlike, I suspect, a fair chunk of the congregation I was listening very carefully and thinking very carefully about what was being said.

(Let’s skip past the fact that the priest, lovely though I’m sure he was, had a voice calculated to crack me up. And I’m prone to inappropriate giggles anyway. I was just waiting for him to say, “He has a wife, you know…” Plus, he really reminded me of Uncle Monty from Withnail & I. Which obviously didn’t help.)

At various points in the proceedings, the congregation was described as “sheep” or “the flock”. This in itself was very telling: people are encouraged to simply go along with everything they’re told. They’re encouraged not to think – to be like sheep! This is, to me, unthinkable! There were so many contradictions I wouldn’t know where to start. And finally – and this made me feel a little sad on a human level – the level of participation was limited to the congregation droningly repeating the words of the priest. It didn’t feel, to me, like the words or the sentiments meant anything. I may be wrong; I probably am about this. But that was the feeling I got, and for some reason it saddened me a little.

I wanted to jump up and shout from the rafters that they should all THINK! Think for themselves, about what they’re doing there and why, and what it means for them. Not because I want to convert everyone to atheism (although that would be fantastic) but because I want people to think for themselves, to be curious about the world and the universe they inhabit. Again, I’m aware that this was an hour-long window into the lives of people who are (hopefully) not restricted to the inside of a church and the inside of the Bible, but still. This is what I felt at the time.

Dawkins also points out that religion is given special dispensation, a sort of automatic respect. We must all automatically respect religion, and religious beliefs, no matter how ludicrous, prejudiced or downright cruel. Why? Why is this? There is no reason for it, and no reason why it should be so. This is not the same as going out of one’s way to offend; but voicing an opinion contrary to that of a religious person is often perceived as being “disrespectful”. From now on, that’s their problem, I’m afraid. Not mine. My difference of opinion doesn’t constitute an attack on their beliefs.

As far as the existence of gods goes I, like Dawkins, am a de facto atheist. I’m not arrogant enough to say that I am 100 per cent certain; but my level of certainty is stable at around 99.9 per cent. If irrefutable evidence for the existence of a god or gods was presented, I would change my mind immediately. That is what being a scientist is about. And that is where I differ from the religious, and where I will never understand where they are coming from.

But the thing that really baffles me, that just stops me in my tracks, is not the fact that so many people unquestioningly accept nonsense that cannot possibly be true, it is the fact that there are not enough natural wonders in this universe of ours to keep people happy. They have to invent a god. Just go out on a clear night, to somewhere dark, and look up. Look at the majesty of the heavens, and wonder at where they came from. Where they really came from. And wonder at the fact of our being here and able to wonder at it!

Religion was the science of its time; it sought to explain natural phenomena in the only way that the people of the time knew. We know better now; isn’t it time that humanity grew up? I look forward to that day immensely.

The God Delusion looked at the evolutionary origins of religion. The fact that it persists today indicates that it must once have been evolutionarily useful, and one interesting theory is that it comes from children’s tendency to believe everything they are told by their parents and guardians. Telling a child that railway lines are dangerous and should be avoided may one day save their lives; similarly with fire: “it’s hot, don’t touch it.” You can see how belief systems grow and evolve.

It’s an enormous book, looking at many aspects of religion, religious evolution and the religious mind, and it’s fascinating. There is so much to say about it, and so much more to learn. I can only recommend that you go and read it. And then read some more, and some more and some more! Include the Bible in your reading list. It’s a bit of an eye-opener in terms of some truly nasty moralising (don’t ever let a religious person accuse you, if you’re an atheist, of therefore having no morals. Because I’m damn sure they don’t get their morals from the Bible, or any religion I know). It’s also a fabulous work of fiction, and some of it is downright beautiful and inspirational.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotations. It’s from the Bible, from 2 Tim 1:7, and it’s a great message to carry with you. I’ve found it inspirational over the past few months.

I have not been given a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.

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Spiralling into a fiery death

Have you ever wondered why moths spiral into a fiery death? You know their ways: there’s a candle flame, or a bonfire, and the little furry fliers make a corkscrew-shaped moth-line right in there.

I have often idly wondered why this may be so. The answer is to be found in evolution; Darwinian natural selection, to be precise. I’m reading The God Delusion at the moment, and it’s bloody brilliant. Within its pages is an explanation as to why moths apparently commit suicide (he’s working up to asking why religious beliefs survive in the face of so much evidence to the contrary – there must have been an evolutionary advantage somewhere in our ancestry. But that’s another article).

Why did natural selection favour this apparent self-immolation behaviour? The answer is, obviously, that it doesn’t. This behaviour is almost certainly a by-product – a misfiring, as Dawkins puts it – of a useful behaviour.

Moths navigate using night lights – the moon and the stars. Because they are so far away from Earth, they are at optical infinity and rays of light emanating from them are parallel.

Optical_infinity

Light rays entering an eye from objects at different distances

Because of the parallel nature of the light rays, the insects can use them as a compass to steer accurately in a straight line. Returning home after an excursion, they simply reverse the system to find their way.

Natural selection has favoured the development of an insect nervous system that can use the night lights, and set up temporary rules to do so. The example that Dawkins gives is:

“Steer a course such that the rays of light hit your eye at an angle of 30 degrees.”

Insects have compound eyes made up of straight tubes radiating out from the centre of the eye. Think: hedgehog, and you’re close.

compound_eye_detail

Look into my compound eyes…

The ability to steer may be something as simple as the moth keeping the light in one particular tube. As long as the light is in that one tube, the moth is steering in the right direction – because all the rays of light are arriving at the tube in a parallel manner. This is the key to the spiralling behaviour.

A moth’s navigation system relies critically on the light being at optical infinity. If it isn’t, the rays are not parallel, but diverge (see image above). In this case, applying the 30-degree rule of thumb to a light source closer to home will steer the moth, via a spiral trajectory, into the flame.

logarithmic_spiral

Logarithmic spirals occur throughout nature. Look out for a blog on this very subject soon…

Although encounters with candles end in fiery death for the moth, the general rule of navigation is still a good one, and so it endures. Moths rarely meet candles; thousands of them do, however, successfully navigate every night using the moon, a bright star, or even the light from a distant city.

Dawkins points out that we often ask the wrong questions, such as: “Why are all these moths killing themselves in fires and candle flames?” when we should be asking why their nervous systems steer by a method that ends, as far as we can see, in death.

There are all kinds of strange behaviours that can be explained using Darwinian natural selection; what was the original, and useful, behaviour that morphed into the misfiring by-product? If we find that, we’ll find the answer. Not so much of a mystery after all then.

Digging deeper into life’s little mysteries is incredibly rewarding. How can one not want to learn more about the world we inhabit? Thank goodness for the curious. For they shall inherit the Earth.

Image

Do you understand the Higgs boson?

Do you understand the Higgs boson?

This post has a nice dual purpose for me. A bit of geek humour, and a bit of a demonstration that infographics are a fab way of putting lots of info into an easily-digested format.

Well, do you?

Higgs made simple(r)

Just a quickie – in my infographics travels, I came across this little gem. It’s a beautiful explanation of the Higgs boson (and the wider particle world). Grit your teeth through the first couple of minutes of very annoying background noise – the graphics that follow are well worth it!

Higgs boson explained

Higgs!

Well, this is incredibly exciting! The scientific community has been searching for this for more than 45 years – and today, CERN has announced the discovery of a new particle consistent with the Higgs boson.

There have been a few premature shouts of excitement in the past couple of years, but an analysis of the data sets shows a level of certainty that allows the teams to announce the new particle. This level of confidence is at the five-sigma point.

In simple terms, this means that the chances of observing the results they have if there is NO Higgs boson stand at around 1-in-3.5 million. Which is pretty close to saying they’re 100% sure.

Here are a few vital statistics on the new particle:

  • Mass = 125.3 GeV (gigaelectronvolts)
  • 133 times more massive than a proton
  • The particle decays into photons, Z bosons and W bosons
  • Gives matter mass
  • Holds the fabric of the Universe together

Don’t underestimate how important this discovery is. It’s a giant step forward in our understanding of how and why our Universe works. I think it is exceedingly unlikely that this will not prove to be practically useful; but even if it is not immediately practically useful, the discovery is fantastic. Amazing. Awesome!

Taking another step, walking over the next hill, is vital in our journey. Look at how far we’ve come in the past few hundred years. Who knows where we’ll be next? I’ll be watching closely. Will you?