Much Ado About Nothing

first_imgHow much can you say about nothing?  Some people can say quite a lot.  One astrobiologist just wrote a large book about it: Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life by David Grinspoon (Harper Collins, 2003).    Larry R. Nittler reviewed this new book in the March 12 issue of Science.1  Nittler describes how interest in alien life fell into the “scientific sub-basements of ‘exobiology’ and radio searches for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)” after pictures of Mars in 1965 revealed disappointing deserts of lifelessness.  But thirty years later, three developments led to a resurgence of interest in alien life: (1) the discovery of extrasolar planets (see 07/21/2003 headline), (2) evidence for probable oceans under the ice of Europa (see 02/11/2002 headline), and (3) claims of fossil bacteria in a Martian meteorite (see 03/18/2002 and 05/15/2002 headlines).  NASA launched its Astrobiology Institute in 1998 (see 08/23/2001 headline), imbuing new respectability into the study of alien life.  Nittler explains, however, why astrobiology is essentially the science of nothing:Given the current surge in scientific attention to alien life, it is easy to think that recent developments constitute a revolution of sorts.  However, our actual knowledge of alien life remains the same as it has been for centuries and can be summarized by a single word: nothing.  Nonetheless, in Lonely Planets David Grinspoon provides a masterful synthesis of the history, science, philosophy, and even theological implications of extraterrestrial life.So what can be said about nothing to fill 460 pages?  Grinspoon divided the nothingness into three sections: history, science, and belief.  In the history section, he examined beliefs about alien life from Kepler to the present.  Nittler’s review points out that pessimism about alien life has been rare.  Up until the 1960s, for instance, most people believed the dark patches on Mars were signs of vegetation.  In the science section, Grinspoon “weaves a tale of cosmic evolution from the Big Bang through the formation of the solar system and the evolution of life on Earth,” Nittler says (see 07/15/2002 headline for more on Grinspoon’s beliefs).  The author “strenuously argues against” the Rare Earth hypothesis of Peter Ward and Robert Brownlee (see 12/19/2000 and 01/14/2003 headlines), preferring to trust in “the adaptability of life to different environments and especially the role life has played in shaping Earth’s unusual characteristics.”  As to this role, and its meaning for the definition of life,Grinspoon uses the Gaia hypothesis (that Earth can in some sense be considered a “super-organism” of interconnected biogeochemical feedback mechanisms) and complexity theory to argue for a more generous definition of habitable worlds.  He holds that a key characteristic of “living worlds” should be chemical disequilibrium, with large flows of energy and/or matter.  By these criteria , he suggests, we should also be searching for cloud creatures on Venus and sulfur-based critters on the volcanic Jovian moon Io.(For more on Gaia, see 12/18/2003 headline.)The third section of the book deals with beliefs about aliens, from UFOs to SETI to politics.  There is the ubiquitous Drake equation, speculation about the future of human evolution, and much more.  Given that most evolutionists dismiss claims of UFO abductions and conspiracy theories, Grinspoon is surprisingly open-minded about the nothing we know.  But the reviewer detects a little hypocrisy:His emphasis continues to be on keeping an open mind.  SETI assumes that aliens would continuously broadcast radio transmissions for thousands of years.  Anti-UFO skeptics argue that UFOs are not alien spacecraft, because “aliens just wouldn’t act that way.”  But both assumptions are based on preconceived notions of alien behavior , about which we actually know nothing.  (Grinspoon falls into his own trap as well, dismissing popular ideas about UFOs basically because they are so “B-movie.”)Grinspoon doesn’t think humans are intelligent yet.  He seems to measure intelligence in global terms, and so does Nittler.  Here is where politics enters the discussion about nothing, where it is difficult for either of them to know where rational discussion ends and wild speculation begins:The book becomes increasingly personal in the final chapters as Grinspoon delves deeper into more speculative ideas regarding spirituality and the nature of intelligence.  He muses that humans are not yet truly intelligent and that to become so will require much better collective behavior as a species.  He seems overly pessimistic in his assessment of our likelihood of becoming such a species, based on our propensity for perpetrating violence on one another.  I would argue that such developments as the global eradication of certain diseases and the advent of international courts to try war criminals paint a more optimistic picture than the examples he gives of [email protected] and world music.  The author closes with even wilder speculation regarding species immortality and machine civilizations.Nittler sees the author as a product of the 70s, considering Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan were “family friends” of the Grinspoons.  “This background clearly colors his thinking about his subject,” Nittler says, “and his optimism about the existence of alien life sometimes comes off as wishful thinking informed by too many Star Trek episodes.”  But overall, he compliments the book for its writing style, and the fact that Grinspoon tries to be clear about where the science leaves off and the “intellectually squishy natural philosophy” begins.  “In the end,” Nittler concludes on a happy note, “Lonely Planets is an entertaining and thought-provoking book about a great deal more than nothing.”1Narry R. Nittler, “Astrobiology: Looking for Life in Far Distant Places,” Science Volume 303, Number 5664, Issue of 12 Mar 2004, p. 1614.We didn’t say the book was about nothing: he did.  We didn’t say the book contained wild speculation: he did.  We didn’t say the author was selectively open-minded: he did.  We didn’t call it a “tale” of cosmic evolution: he did.  We didn’t use the phrases “intellectually squishy” and “wishful thinking” to describe Grinspoon’s ideas: he did.  Cloud creatures on Venus, sulfur critters on volcanic Io, machine civilizations, international courts as a measure of intelligence… good grief.  Yet Nittler calls this book a “masterful synthesis” of ideas on – well, nothing.    That makes Nittler a co-conspirator, an accessory to the crime of allowing stupid ideas to get good press in America’s premiere science journal.  If a creationist made claims on this level, they wouldn’t get past the National Enquirer.  The code of silence in the Darwin Party requires that none of the brethren are to be publicly humiliated.  Even if lightly tapped with padded gloves, they must be praised as defenders of the “tale of cosmic evolution.”    Don’t be fooled by the talk about “spirituality” and “theological implications” of finding alien life.  We know what they mean, and it’s not asking “what must I do to be saved?” (see 03/11/2004 headline).    Both men unfairly attack Kepler (see our online biography).  Nittler lets him get away with libel: “Grinspoon reminds us that Johannes Kepler was a “philosopher/freak who walked the fine line between genius and delusion.”  Speak for yourselves.  Both of you would do well to read the life and writings of the father of planetary science, and learn to respect his integrity and intelligence.  His wildest speculations were tame compared to these.(Visited 10 times, 1 visits today)FacebookTwitterPinterestSave分享0last_img read more

Top award for South African TV drama

first_img5 October 2010South African television drama Hopeville scooped a Rose d’Or award for best drama and miniseries in Lucerne, Switzerland last week, beating 10 shortlisted programmes from a total of 85 international entries in the process.The awards, celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, are among the most prestigious in the international television industry, celebrating the highest standards in TV productions from around the world.First broadcast on SABC2 in 2009, and since made into a full-length feature film, Hopeville tells the story of Amos, a reformed alcoholic on a mission to forge a relationship with his estranged son Themba.When father and son arrive in the dusty town of Hopeville, they discover a community where apathy, fear and suspicion are the order of the day. When Amos decides to restore the public swimming pool – both for the local kids and for his son’s swimming career – he is met with scepticism and resistance.Through patience, determination and courage, Amos’ act ripples through Hopeville, inspiring others to take action and to do what they know is right.A co-production between Heartlines and SABC Education, Hopeville was produced by Curious Pictures and filmed in the picturesque town of Waterval Boven in Mpumalanga province.The six-episode series was directed by John Trengove, with Harriet Gavshon and Mariki van der Walt as executive producers, and features some of South Africa’s top actors, including Jody Abrahams, Desmond Dube, Leleti Khumalo, Fana Mokoena, Themba Ndaba and Terry Pheto.NGO Heartlines, in partnership with SABC Education, commissioned the series as part of its work of using television and film to help South Africans strive towards the values of humility, compassion, responsibility, perseverance, and other positive goals, in their lives.SAinfo reporterWould you like to use this article in your publication or on your website? See: Using SAinfo materiallast_img read more

Minnaar makes South Africa proud

first_img6 July 2015South Africa’s Greg Minnaar has re-written the record books after he won his 18th Downhill World Cup crown in Lenzerheide, Switzerland on Saturday, 4 July.The win, Minnaar’s second of the season in four attempts, means that he moves one above Englishman Steve Peat on the list of all-time World Cup wins. It also means that Minnaar moves up to third place in the overall standings with three rounds remaining in the season.“I’ve never been so nervous on the hot seat,” Minnaar told the UCI’s official website.“I’m trying to soak it up [18th win]. It was nerve-wracking watching [Loic] Bruni coming down. It’s incredible because I didn’t feel I had it in me this week to win and I just wanted to put in a solid run.”He added: “I think the conditions played a huge part, being so rough and tricky. I’m stoked to win my 18th World Cup, just a bit overwhelmed, really. I just tried to be safe everywhere and carry speed where I could. I knew it was going to be super close and I didn’t think I had it in me, but the team put in a big effort with bike testing all week and it paid off.”Take the ride through Minnaar’s helmet camera in Lenzerheide:Lenzerheide World Cup results (downhill men):Greg Minnaar (RSA) – 3:00.535Loic Bruni (FRA) – +0.960Lucas Dean (AUS) – +1.807World Cup overall standings:Aaron Gwin (USA) – 749Loic Bruni (FRA) – 645Greg Minnaar (RSA) – 633Source: News24Wirelast_img read more

‘Nexus between Haryana officials and illegal stone crushing units exposed’

first_imgAfter the National Green Tribunal ordered an immediate closure of all illegally operating polluting stone crushers in Mahendergarh district of Haryana, political party Swaraj India on Saturday hit out at the BJP government, saying the nexus between officials and those involved in running the crushers had been exposed. “This order of the NGT exposes the collusion between the owners of the illegal crushers and the government machinery,” said party president Yogendra Yadav. “We should hope that now the State government and the local administration will respect the order and spirit of the NGT, take strict action against erring officials and others.”The NGT had on July 24 also directed the Deputy Commissioner of Mahendergarh to ensure immediate initiation of action by way of prosecution and recovery of compensation which must be deterrent and relatable to the cost of restoration so that the illegal activity was not profitable. The orders came on the petition of Mahender Singh and Tejpal Yadav, who made a submission that the location of the crushers was close to the plantation, reserved forest and an educational institution. Besides, the area is over exploited in terms of the ground water resulting in scarcity of water even for drinking purposes.The NGT, which had sought factual and action taken report from a joint committee comprising representatives of the Deputy Commissioner Mahendergarh, district Town and Country Planning, Haryana Pollution Control Board and the Divisional Forest Officer, pointed out in its order that two reports earlier submitted were found without application of mind and were rejected. The third report had been submitted which was also inadequate to deal with the matter.The NGT observed, “The report shows the State administration in poor light. There is no explanation how potable water has been continued to be drawn without any restriction by the State administration though the area is critical in terms of ground water and in spite of such illegality brought to notice. It is also not clear how blatant violation of air quality norms is being allowed for permitting operation of the units at the cost of public health and environment. The report does not clarify how many stone crushers, if any, are legitimate which do not conflict with the environment. It appears that the State administration has not cared to fully verify the compliance of environment norms while permitting continuation of the stone crushers, even after proceedings before this Tribunal.”The order also added that the Haryana Chief Secretary may look into the conduct of the officers, who gave the earlier reports, in withholding the information which had now been given.last_img read more