Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Wow Event

I just finished reading "13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time" by Michael Brooks.  I enjoyed the book and found it thought provoking.  Here are a couple of thoughts.

The Wow! Event

The Wow! event or Wow! Signal was a radio signal detected by SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) in 1977.  There is no scientific explanation for the signal and it excited researchers who considered it as possible evidence of intelligent beings outside of our Solar System.  The signal lasted 72 seconds and has not been detected since. The signal provided no information other than a location in the sky.

Scientists have also been probing Mars for life and searching the cosmos for the existence of inhabitable planets.  The idea is that someday, we may want or need to find somewhere to live besides earth.  Mars is significantly less habitable than the more inhabitable location on earth.  The nearest star with habitable planets would take about 60,000 years to reach with our fastest space craft [1]

I find it ironic that many scientists are critical of religion's:
  1. Belief in an intelligent being that does not live on this earth.
    • Trying to communicate with this being through prayer.
    • For many, a great source of comfort when they "claim" to have communicated with this being.
  2. Belief that after this life, there is a place we will go to live.
    • There is no way experience this place in this lifetime.
How is SETI and the search for habitable planets any less acceptable than some of the religious beliefs and practices of today?

Placebo and Homeopathy
Another interesting subject in the book is the placebo effect and homeopathy.  The placebo effect is getting health benefits from something like a sugar pill just because we are told it will help.  A couple of interesting points:

A morphine drip will help with pain.  At some point, the morphine can be substituted by saline solution with the same effect.  This is placebo in action.  Now the tricky part.  There is a medicine that, when administered, will block the effects of morphine.  It will also block the placebo effects of the saline solution. 

Another tricky fact: it is harder for drug companies to get approval for new medications, since they have to perform better than placebos.  The problem is that placebos are getting better!  The explanation is that people have more faith in medicine, so that are more responsive to even placebos.

Homeopathy is the practice of diluting a harmful substance to provide a cure.  I guess that it is so diluted, than none of the original substance exists.  I'm still on the fence with Homeopathy, but apparently it has an effect better than a placebo.  There is something unexplainable yet real there.  I think the current problem with Homeopathy is that it is "diluted" with a lot of quackery, so you can never know if you are getting something that actually works.

Free Will
I guess there are scientists who believe that free will is not real.  They claim our behaviors are just a result of complex chemical and biological reactions.  I acknowledge that our behavior is strongly influenced by nature.  People with brain injuries and other diseases have been known to change their personalities and behavioral patterns.  But to say that all that man has created: music, art, architecture, automobiles, airplanes, man walking on the moon, the computer and the internet are just a result of chemical compulsion seems silly.  I think our lives and our world is a product of will vs. nature.  I would like to think will is winning.  As Robert Frost wrote
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.". 


vicki said...

Ron--Very interesting and thought provoking. You are very well read and you have a very eclectic taste in reading material.
(BTW--I'm reading "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind")

Kevin said...

IMHO, free will vs determinism is a false dichotomy, both on the biology side and the physics side.

On the biology side of it, the interaction between genes and the environment (hint: environmental factors cause expression and nonexpression of many genes) renders the "genetic determinism" moot; see popular works by science journalist Matt Ridley for some good examples.

On the physics side, there is good reason to doubt that you could, in principle even, go from elementary particles to a living organism in anywhere near enough of a deterministic fashion to call behavior of any complex system such as a multicellular organism predetermined. See Nobel prizewinning physicist Robert Laughlin's wildly entertaining A Different Universe for this point of view.