Monthly Archives: August 2012

31 Days – Sugar in Space

Soon after I posted yesterday about life ratcheting its way into existence, I came across the video below. It turns out that if life were to arise in space, there might be food waiting for it!

Here’s the description from the YouTube page.

A team of astronomers has found molecules of glycolaldehyde — a simple form of sugar — in the gas surrounding a young binary star, with similar mass to the Sun, called IRAS 16293-2422. This is the first time sugar been found in space around such a star, and the discovery shows that the building blocks of life are in the right place, at the right time, to be included in planets forming around the star. The astronomers used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to detect the molecules.

This video starts with a broad panorama of the spectacular central regions of the Milky Way seen in visible light. It then zooms in to the Rho Ophiuchi star-forming region in infrared light, highlighting IRAS 16293-2422. Finally, we see an artist’s impression of glycolaldehyde molecules, showing glycolaldehyde’s molecular structure (C2H4O2).

More information and download-options:

ESO / Nick Risinger ( / S. Guisard ( / L. Calçada & NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team
Music: Disasterpeace

31 Days – Ratcheting

We have only 3 days left in this month’s 31 Days of Wonder, and I’ve saved a good one for you. I call it the ratcheting effect, and we owe our existence to it.

First let’s play cards.

If you were to shuffle a deck of cards perfectly (completely randomizing it) over and over again, how long do you think it would take until, by chance, it fell into order? (“Order” in this case means Ace through King of Spades, followed by Ace through King of Hearts, and so on — one specific order.)

Well, there are about 8 * 1067 possible ways to arrange 52 cards. By comparison, the universe is only about 4 * 1017 seconds old.  If you were to shuffle once every 5 seconds, you would have to shuffle for incalculably many lifetimes of the universe before you’d expect even one perfect ordering.

Now suppose we change the game. This time, each card has the unusual property that if it happens to get shuffled next to its correct neighbor, then the two will ride together for all the remaining shuffles.

How long do you think it will take before the deck is in order?

Last night, I wrote a little computer program to perform this experiment. On average, it took only 55 shuffles to put the deck in order. You could do that in less than 5 minutes — a lot less than even one age of the universe.

When something that’s “right” sticks, the situation can ratchet toward a desired outcome very quickly.

So what does this have to do with us? How do we owe our existence to the ratcheting effect?

Some people think the chance formation of even a single cell is wildly improbable. And so it would be if it had to form in one step, but that’s not the way it happened. Just as the cards in our second deck stuck together to form sub-units, which then coalesced further until the deck was ordered, life ratcheted up in steps, each of which was naturally preserved.

In fact, the more experiments we do in this area, and the more Earth-like planets we discover, the more likely it seems that we are not alone in the universe. Now that’s something to wonder about!

31 Days – Godel’s Theorem

So many times we have said something cannot be done and we have been proven wrong. We can arrive at points east by traveling west. We can fly in a heavier-than-air craft. Altruism can arise from competition.

That’s why it’s extra amazing to me when someone proves — really proves — something is impossible. Such is the case with one of the most brilliant insights that you might never have heard of: Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem.

In the early 1900’s, Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead laid out a way to derive all mathematical knowledge with logic — or so they thought. Their approach was to start with a few common-sense axioms and a few rules of inference and build everything up from there. This is just what you did in high school, using theorems you had proved one week to prove more theorems the next. Done right, it’s infallible.

Doesn’t it seem that if math class had gone on forever (yeah, yeah, I know…) you could, in theory, have proven every mathematical thing there is to prove?

False!” said the young logician, Kurt Gödel. “There are some statements that are true, but which you can never prove. What’s more, I’ll show you how to construct an infinite number of such statements.”

He did this by turning Russell & Whitehead’s work on itself. He showed how to make their infallible engine of mathematical facts create statements like “This statement cannot be proven.”

That’s easy to do in English (I just did it), but imagine doing it with nothing more at your disposal than the basic rules of arithmetic and logic.

As I said, Gödel proved that such statements are both true and unprovable.

They are true because he showed how to derive them from axioms and infallible logic.

They are unprovable because, well, they say they are unprovable and we have already agreed they are true!

What’s more, Gödel continued, even if those statements were added to the system as axioms, more true-but-unprovable statements could be generated from that new system.

Gödel’s achievement was as revolutionary in math and logic as Einstein’s theory of relativity was in physics. The most brilliant minds in the world had labored for hundreds of years to create a consistent and complete formulation of mathematics, and he showed this was impossible.

Of course, this only applies where Gödel proved it applies, namely the realm of math and only for those special types of statements. Gödel’s theorem should not be construed in a metaphysical way, or for all knowledge.

If you want to read more, the best and most concise exposition I could find is this humble Web page. It ends with some fun speculation about how the theorem  relates to Zen Buddhism.

If you want to read a lot more, there’s a favorably reviewed book at Amazon called Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to Its Use and Abuse.

31 Days – UFOs

August’s 31 Days of Wonder are drawing to a close so I must tuck in something I really do wonder about: UFOs.

A few years ago, I read more books than I care to admit on the subject. Ultimately, I threw up my hands. What I was reading was too strange to be true, but in some cases too convincing to be false.

I finally decided to treat UFOs as entertainment. Some people enjoy ghost stories; I enjoy the occasional UFO tale. Here for your entertainment is a compilation of UFO sightings.

Here’s one particularly puzzling case in detail.

There’s lots more on the Internet. Search around and tell me what you think!

31 Days – Music and Bonding

But wait! There’s more!!

Last time, we talked about The Beat. Now let’s mine more from today’s NPR story on cockatoos and elephants that can make music. The story ended with this remarkable observation and hypothesis.

“We now know that when people play music together, oxytocin is released,” says [Dan] Levitin, [professor of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University]. “This is the bonding hormone that’s released when people have an orgasm together. And so you have to ask yourself, that can’t be a coincidence, there had to be some evolutionary pressure there. Language doesn’t produce it, music does. So the idea is that there’s no primate society that I know of that has more than 18 males in the living group because the rivalries cause the groups to break apart and there’s too much fighting. But human societies of thousands of members have existed for thousands of years. And the argument is that music, among other things, helped to defuse interpersonal tensions and smooth over rivalries.”

Did you catch that? “Language doesn’t produce [oxytocin], music does.” Isn’t that amazing? And could it be true that one reason humans are able to live in groups large enough to make civilization possible is because we make music together?

I was reminded of the time I first set foot in the last church I attended regularly. The ceiling was relatively low (for a church) and when everyone started to sing the room filled completely with the music. I immediately felt, “I belong here.”

Congregation Singing

A Congregation Singing

And if you read my post, Why I Became a Christian, you might recall that music was important in that group-joining experience as well.

There are examples in other areas.

What do we do when an Olympic champion is crowned? Do we display the national bird of his country? Do we have him to stand on the podium in his traditional, national costume? No, we play his national anthem. His compatriots in the audience are often moved to sing along.

I remember that when I was a child I sang certain songs with my friends. I had no idea what they meant, but it was a bonding experience. (The song Jeremiah was a Bullfrog comes to mind.)

So I think professor Levitin is onto something. Making music together fosters social cohesion.

How wondrous it is that merely bouncing air molecules off each others’ eardrums brings … harmony!

31 Days – The Beat

I heard yet another interesting story on NPR this morning. This one touched on how the ability to keep time to a beat might have evolved. It definitely qualified for this 31 Days of Wonder series.

First of all, if you are not one of the few people on the planet who have not seen him already, check out Snowball the dancing cockatoo.

Even more interesting that a bird can dance is that our closest primate relatives cannot. They can’t even mark time with a stick, to a beat. To be sure, apes beat their chests and chimpanzees bang things around to display dominance, but that’s not the same as learning a beat from someone else. As the NRP story said, “Researchers tried to train macaque monkeys for four hours a day, six days a week for a year just to tap their fingers in time to a metronome. But the monkeys couldn’t do it.”

So which animals can?

Scientists have observed that species that are able to keep time to an external beat are the ones who, for other reasons, are adept at vocal imitation (and more, at the link). They also tend to be social species, which leads to the next post.

31 Days – Sky

When I arrived at work this morning and stepped out of my car, I looked up and saw the sky. It was ordinary enough, but I was reminded of a scene in the movie, Blast from the Past.

In the movie, Brendan Fraser plays a 30-year-old who has spent his entire life in a fallout shelter after a slight misunderstanding about the Russians bombing the United States. The supposed radiation having died down, his father lets him go above-ground for the first time.

SkyOne of the first things he notices is the sky, which of course he has never seen. He stares at it, fascinated, and people ask him what he’s looking at. “Don’t you see?” he asks.

They look up and see nothing.

Find an open space and take a look at the sky sometime. Pick a day when the sky is just a sky — not spectacular. Keep looking until it affects you.

That’s advice I’ve been following more and more lately. If I’m in nature, or even on a parking lot under the sky, I just keep looking until I really see. There is so much beauty and emotional power all around us if we’ll just hold still for a moment.