Starts With A Bang

Comments of the Week #145: from identical snowflakes to science and God

Kepler 186f is one of a great many candidates for a very Earth-like planet. Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech.

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.” -Neil Gaiman

Here we are, at the end of a momentous week here at Starts With A Bang! The world is changing; the president of the world’s most powerful nation has changed; but the quest to learn ever more about the Universe still continues unabated. There’s so much coming down the pipeline for next week, including a revolutionary story on where our meteorites come from, a special on the black hole information paradox, the origin of the (abuse of the) anthropic principle and more! But first, let’s take a look back at what we’ve covered this past week:

While we might also be putting together a fantastic podcast on the controversy over the Hubble expansion rate of the Universe, there’s no point in getting ahead of ourselves. There’s bonus science afoot! You’ve had a lot to say, and I’ve got a lot to highlight and respond to for this edition of our comments of the week!

The various constraints on departures of neutrino speed from the speed of light from various experiments. All experiments display upper limits, except for OPERA’s spurious positive detection. Image credit: M. Strassler (2011), modified by E. Siegel to include ICARUS and refute the initial OPERA claim.

From Denier on scientific literacy, or the lack thereof: “When you strip out competence or knowledge from making your determination on who is or is not science literate, you’re redefining the word. I will grant that literacy can not necessarily be confined to memorized facts. Knowledge on where to get the needed knowledge, be it old college text books, published scientific literature, or even authoritative people, is just as valuable. Still science literacy has to be about competence or knowledge.”

You’re almost there! By which I mean, I think you’ve finally almost understood the point I’ve been attempting to make for weeks, now. You are contending that in order to be scientifically literate, one must be capable of being competent, knowledgeable, and able to distinguish between good and bad science. Between what’s true and valid and what’s false and invalid. Between what has merit and where, and what lacks merit and where.

Albert Einstein in 1920. Image credit: “The Solar Eclipse of May 29, 1919, and the Einstein Effect,” The Scientific Monthly 10:4 (1920), 418-422, on p. 418. Public domain.

In other words, you must have all the skills necessary to be a scientist specialized in a particular area of science, for all areas of science. That is what’s required to be scientifically literate by that definition of literacy. It is why I responded to eric as I did; it’s why I respond to you as I do. Because that level of scientific literacy is not possible, nor is it desirable. It requires that we know the full extent of our knowledge and capabilities and our limitations, and this is something that no one can know. How can you know the full suite of unknown unknowns; not even your hero Donald Rumsfeld knows that!

The scientific literacy you are chasing is a myth. You can’t know what you don’t know you don’t know, and that is why you need to be humble before your own knowledge, before a real, bona fide expert, and before the full suite of experts who study something that is actually scientifically quantifiable. (And for full disclosure, I am restricting this set of standards to physical and biological sciences. Why? Because that’s what I can define as being a scientific pursuit.)

Sending any particles through hundreds of kilometers of space should always result in the particles arriving no faster than a photon would. The OPERA collaboration famously observed a faster result a few years ago. Image credit: OPERA collaboration; T. Adam et al.

From eric on the same topic, and what he’d like to see: “If drawing scientific inferences is the skill you want to test for, then the way you’d do it is to test for ‘drawing valid scientific conclusions under most circumstances’ the way you, Ethan, think that can best be done.”

It requires a level of self-knowledge that I would argue practically no one possesses. It is an unreasonable set of criteria. It is a test that everyone would fail. And that’s why I set up the two criteria I did:

  1. Be aware of what science is and how it works.
  2. Be appreciative of those who do science and work to advance our knowledge of this world.

It involves a lot of listening. It involves a lot of respect for those who know more than you, both skill-wise and knowledge-wise. There are contributions you can make and things you can analyze for yourself, but unless you go straight to the experts who can break it all down, everyone — even many scientists themselves — can get it wrong. Drawing scientifically valid inferences and conclusions is a hard problem.

Screenshot from the cover of Ragtag Media’s linked video in his comment.

From Ragtag media on identical snowflakes: “I dunno. i see a lot of snowflakes that look alike lol”

And that’s the difference between “alike” and identical. For snowflakes, there are many superficial similarities between them: the hexagonally symmetric structures, the apparently fractal-like nature, etc. The similarities are important to understanding how something works, which patterns emerge, etc. But if you think they all look alike, you’re not looking closely enough.

Two nearly identical snow crystals as grown under laboratory conditions at Caltech. Image credit: Kenneth Libbrecht / Caltech / SnowMaster 9000.

Even grown under laboratory conditions, these snowflakes aren’t identical. Similar, yes, but even from this low-resolution image, you can see tiny imperfections that indicate differences. So it is with every special snowflake you encounter, no matter their political persuasions.

The light curve over time of V1309 Scorpii. Image credit: V1309 Scorpii: merger of a contact binary – Tylenda, R. et al. Astron.Astrophys. 528 (2011) A114.

From Omega Centauri on stellar mergers: “How well have stellar mergers been simulated? And if so there must be a rough timespan for the various phases of the event, something like initial nova-like flash, then there must be a period where the star contains two cores, which eventually merge, then after a while it should settle down into a higher mass star.”

The best information comes from observations, not simulations. Measuring the various stages is the best way we get data; simulations in this regard are only as good as the models that go into them. The “flash” you allude to is lower in magnitude than the eventual brightening, which lasts for months, and then settles down over a period of a few years. But for more detail than that, you need better observations; without data to guide you in a process this complex, there’s a limit to what theory and simulations can tell you.

After the initial flash, the light and ejecta both spread outwards, creating a spectacular blooming ‘cosmic rose’ from star V838 Monocerotis. Image credit: NASA / ESA / Z. Levay (STScI).

From Sinisa Lazarek on the Hubble images of V838 Monocerotis: “The last picture in the post (the light echo)… wow… amazing. So much detail is visible!”

I think this is one of the best Hubble observations ever taken. What an unusual, beautiful star. If this was a luminous red nova, the 2022-ish merger of the stars in Cygnus that we’re predicting should confirm it in the most incredible of ways.

The effects of climate change and global warming are apparent all over the globe. Image credit: NOAA, retrieved from

From t marvell on climate change effects: “Let’s face the facts: deadly climate change is going to happen no matter what.”

I don’t know where the future tense in your comment is coming from. Peru’s agricultural industry is destroyed. We are seeing category 5 tropical storms where we’ve never seen them before. Sea levels are rising; even the most strident climate change deniers aren’t rushing to buy up land in southern Louisiana. It’s real, it’s impacting large swaths of the Earth, and everyone can see it. Accepting the science has to be a starting point we can all agree on.

Global land and global ocean surface temperature anomalies. Light lines are 12-month running means and heavy lines are 132-month (11-year) running means. Image credit: “Global Temperature in 2016”, J. Hansen et al. (2017), via

From Denier on his own views on climate denial: ”

[1] the Earth is warming
[2] it’s human-caused
[3] burning fossil fuels is the major contributor
[4] we need to do something about it

The first 3 points are tired to the point of being vapid. It’s meh and gets more meh with each telling.”

Great! So you accept these first three points, unequivocally. In fact, you accept them so thoroughly that you think everyone should accept them. I hope you’ll join that fight. Here’s a new hashtag for you, then: #NotAllDeniers.

Ted Cruz, with a loaded statement from a questionable science news source, during a hearing on climate change on December 8, 2015. Image credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images.

From Chuck on his views on climate denial: “I disagree with the view that all GW is caused by man, but whatever; it is some uncertain percent.
There is little evidence, none decisive, that the GW is Catastrophic. That is where the disagreement with most skeptics/lukewarmers lie. The main “evidence” for high sensitivity are the models, which are neither validated or verifired.
In any case models are not evidence. In fact their prediction for a temperature increase have been too high from the get-go.
Consider the ideas/data of knowledgeable people like Lindzen or Nic Lewis. Then make up your own mind.”

So… Denier? Where are you on this one? Where are you telling Chuck that the overwhelming majority of warming is caused by humanity? Where are you explaining the science of greenhouse gases and carbon emissions? Where are you refuting the scientifically invalid statements of Lindzen, who claims no warming since 2001?

At an average warming rate of 0.07º C per decade, the Earth’s temperature has not only increased, but continues to increase without any relief in sight. Image credit: NOAA National Centers for Environmental information, Climate at a Glance: Global Time Series, published January 2017, retrieved on January 18, 2017 from

Who also claims that 2016 isn’t the hottest year on record, who the year before claimed 2015 wasn’t the hottest year on record, and so on?

I know you have been around long enough to see me engage in fighting the good fight against both political sides when they get the science wrong. You’ve seen me take on anti-GMO advocates, you’ve seen me take on the anti-fluoridationists, you’ve seen me go after the anti-nuclear power crowd. If you are a fan and advocate of science, that means standing up to members of your own political side when they are wrong about the science. I didn’t even know who Nic Lewis was, by the way, so I looked him up. Holy crap.

Our climate isn’t the only thing that matters, of course, but if you care at all about the future of Earth, its humans and its non-human inhabitants, this is an issue you’ll advocate for doing something positive about, whether it’s big or small.

The Earth, our fragile blue planet, as composited by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument aboard the Terra satellite. Image credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory.

From Denier on one true thing and one false thing: “There is also a school of thought that there cannot be a complete lack of mass extinction events if complex life is to come into being. If the climate is too constantly benign, all you get is a planet of slime.”

There is a school of thought that extinctions are required. If one species reaches the top of the food chain (or fills a niche) with no competitors and no other changes occur, it may never be displaced. But organisms tend to poison their own environments if they thrive too well. Yeast cells in an endless supply of sugar will acidify their environments until they all die off. Predators in an area rich in prey with no competitors will thrive and reproduce and devour everything until their own survival is threatened. And where life thrives the most, diversity arises the most. The jungles, for instance, cover only 6% of the Earth’s surface, but contain 50% of all land species.

Daintree Rainforest. Image credit: flickr user Fordan, a.k.a. Bob Snyder.

Mass extinctions are an accelerator or a catalyst of evolution in some sense, but in no sense is it a requirement for complex life to emerge. But an unchanging climate will still see tremendous evolutionary changes; climate is not even usually the driver as far as we can tell.

A famous depiction of the creation of man. Image credit: Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling, via Wikimedia Commons.

From Omega Centauri of proving the existence of God: “Someone once said (I think it was a recent pope), that if there was proof, then you couldn’t have such a thing as faith, because faith means believing in something you can’t prove.”

That is the opposite point of the one I made, and I suppose it’s equally valid. The question I had asked relevant to this point was:

If we don’t find life in the places and under the conditions where we expect it, can that prove the existence of God?

And the answer, of course, is no. You can argue about what the evidence favors or disfavors; you can look at the beauty of the world and the values of the fundamental constants and the laws that exist and so on. You can conclude that the Universe is such that it admits the possibility of intelligent life forming. And it did; we’re here. There is no step where divine intervention is clearly, definitively required. And as such, you cannot prove that God must exist. But if your argument is, “life on Earth is unique in all the Universe, and therefore God exists,” not only is that awful logic, but your faith will be shattered the moment we find life beyond Earth. Not a good way to go.

Reaching, broadcasting and listening for the evidence of others has so far returned an empty, lonely result. Image credit: Victor Bobbett.

From John K. on God as a playwright: “About God, if we start from the Jewish/Catholic viewpoint that God is not of the universe, there would be literally no way for us to connect with him from here, on our own: the characters in a Shakespeare play could never know the poet; the figures in a Rembrandt painting could never know the artist or understand his mode of life. Unless he paints himself into the picture or writes himself into the play, that is. Like, say, in a Resurrection scene.”

Even if Shakespeare wrote himself into the play, would he be recognizable as the playwright, or would he be indistinguishable from any other character? If Rembrandt painted himself into a Rembrandt painting, would you recognize him as the artist, or would he appear as just another figure? And if God inserted himself into the Universe, would it be universally recognizable as God, or would it merely be indistinguishable from any of the other things that came to be, naturally, in this Universe? I submit that you’d need more than a playwright in a Shakespeare play, a painter in a Rembrandt composition or a human observed to be resurrected at a time when our medical knowledge was what it was 2000 years ago to recognize an outside influencer. But your mileage may vary.

Image credit: AP Photo/Dylan Lovan, of Bill Nye during the 2014 creationism debate.

From Pat Mccormick on noetics: “Professors at Princeton have been studying Global Consciousness for several years. They have some positive results. If you’re interested:

So a few years ago, there was a creationism/science debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. And there were 22 questions that creationists had for those who believed in evolution; number 7 was about noetics. Here’s the full link to my responses, but I’ve included the response to that question below.

Now, I’ll confess, I had to look this one up. I had been under the impression that noetics was only something that Aristotle wrote about, but a little research shows that it’s actually about: “how beliefs, thoughts, and intentions affect the physical world.” Well, this sounds like an interesting question: do beliefs, thoughts and intentions affect the physical world? And if so, how?

The ‘institute of noetic sciences’, or IONS, is where the Princeton link eventually leads, FYI. Image credit: screenshot from

If you want to show that beliefs, thoughts and intentions actually do affect the physical world, all you have to do is perform a repeatable, quantifiable and measurable experiment that shows that there is an effect. You don’t even need to explain how; you just need to show that there is an effect that you can measure and quantify, and that you can repeat the effect whenever you repeat the experiment. I don’t know of any experiments at present that do this, but if you can find (or perform) them, I’m open-minded.

It’s a tall order. It hasn’t been done yet, not even once, in a verifiable way. But people are trying. Good luck to you; you’ll need it.

Doesn’t-Understand-Sarcasm man, from the Abstruse Goose comic ‘Undefeated’. Via

And finally, from Andreas on winning the argument: “I guess so:

I hadn’t seen this comic before. Brilliant. And deservingly, the last word. Thanks for participating, and see you all back here next week for more science, more knowledge, more of the Universe and more Starts With A Bang!