Earthrise / Christmas


Earthrise, taken aboard Apollo 8 by Bill Anders on 24 December 1968 (NASA photo).

With Christmas coming up, it seems appropriate to post this iconic photograph, taken by Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders on 24 December 1968, while orbiting the moon in Apollo 8. The team also did a live television broadcast, in which Anders read from Genesis:

For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell continued: “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

Commander Frank Borman closed: “And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good. And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.

And the same from me.


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Democracy, Religion, and Same-Sex Marriage in Australia

The results of the postal survey are in, and Australia has voted 61.6% “Yes” to same-sex marriage. Or rather, it seems that two Australias voted. The official results have been made available by electorate, which means that they can be correlated with demographic factors (and my readers know that I love doing that). The average age of each electorate had no effect, but religious composition certainly did.

According to the 2016 census, Australia’s stated religious composition looks like this (where the 33.3% “Secular” includes Agnostic, Atheist, Humanist, New Age, and Unitarian Universalist):

The chart below shows a strong correlation (0.82) between the percentage of “Secular” people in an electorate, and the size of the “Yes” vote. If all the “Secular” people voted “Yes” (as seems likely), this means that 58% of the religious people voted “No.” Doing some simple multiple linear regression, there was a statistically significant link between religion and voting “No” for every major religious group. This link was strongest for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Orthodox, the Uniting Church, and other non-Anglican Protestants. It was a little weaker for Anglicans and even more for Catholics, although the Anglican link was quite strong in Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, and Queensland. The Catholic link was quite strong in the last three of those states.

Electorates in the chart are coloured according to the largest religious group within them. Sydney is 52.7% Secular, for example (as well as 8.6% Buddhist, 1.7% Muslim, 1.7% Hindu, 1% Jewish, 17.9% Catholic, 2.4% Orthodox, 13.5% Protestant, and 0.5% Other Religion). It voted 83.7% “Yes.”

Blaxland is 32.2% Muslim (as well as 9% Buddhist, 3.3% Hindu, 21.2% Catholic, 5.5% Orthodox, 13.2% Protestant, 0.7% Other Religion, and 14.9% Secular). It voted 73.9% “No.”

McMahon is 39% Catholic (as well as 5.9% Buddhist, 12.4% Muslim, 2.9% Hindu, 6.9% Orthodox, 18.5% Protestant, 1.4% Other Religion, and 13.2% Secular). It voted 64.9% “No.”

Barton is multi-religious with 28.1% Secular being the largest group (as well as 5.6% Buddhist, 8.4% Islam, 5.6% Hindu, 0.2% Jewish, 22.6% Catholic, 15.7% Orthodox, 13.3% Protestant, and 0.5% Other Religion). It voted 56.4% “No.”

It does seem that there is a secular Australia, which voted overwhelmingly “Yes,” and a religious Australia of twice the size, which voted mostly “No.” If the disparate religious communities in Australia realise that they have more in common than they have thought, that could have quite a significant influence on Australian politics in the future.


A (distorted) geographical view of the postal survey results


Guns, education, religion, and suicide

My earlier post indicated that gun laws in the US had little impact on the homicide rate, when demographic factors were taken into account. This makes sense – if I want to kill somebody, the lack of a gun will merely prompt me to choose another weapon. But what about suicide? The impulse to suicide is often brief, and easy access to a gun during a suicidal episode may increase the chance of dying.

To test this, I extended my previous dataset with data on educational attainment, data on religiosity, registered gun ownership data from the ATF, age-adjusted suicide rates from the CDC, poverty rates, unemployment rates, and other demographic data. I ran all that through a regression tree analysis, using R.

Suicide rates in the chart (click to zoom) are indicated by colour, ranging from 8 per 100,000 for New Jersey and New York (yellow) to 23.7 for Montana (black). Having a college degree seems to have a protective effect – states on the right of the chart, with more college degrees, had lower suicide rates. This may relate to the higher employability of college graduates. However, states at the top of the chart, with higher high school graduation rates, had higher suicide rates. I am not sure why this is the case.

Among the states with fewer college graduates, religion had a protective effect (this is consistent with other studies). States where 77% or more of the population said that religion was “somewhat important” or “very important” to them are indicated on the chart by triangles. For the states with fewer college graduates, the suicide rate was 13.6 per 100,000 for religious states, and 17.5 for less religious ones.

Finally, the highest-risk states (fewer college graduates and less religious) split according to gun ownership. States with more than 0.008 registered guns per capita are marked on the chart with an inner dot. Among the highest-risk states, the suicide rate increased from 13.9 per 100,000 to 18.6 when more guns were present. This group included Alaska (23.2 per 100,000), Arizona (17.5), Idaho (19.2), Maine (17), Montana (23.7), Nevada (18.6), North Dakota (17.3), Oregon (16.8), and Utah (21.4). Among the more religious states, registered gun ownership did not seem to have an effect (although, of course, registered gun ownership is a poor indicator of true gun ownership).

Thus the data does seem to suggest a link between gun ownership and suicide risk, but only when other risk factors are present (low religiosity and no college degree). This is exactly what we expected, and it means that suicidal (or potentially suicidal) people need to be kept away from guns.


Happy Christmas to all my readers!

The Christmas fresco above, by Giotto, shows the Star of Bethlehem as a comet (top centre). It is likely that this fresco depicts Halley’s Comet, which Giotto saw in 1301, about two years before he began the series of frescos of which this is part. This work by Giotto was celebrated in the name of the Giotto spacecraft, which observed the comet in 1986.

Let me take this opportunity to wish all my readers a very happy Christmas (and apologies for duplicating a previous post).


On fairy tales

“About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale,” C.S. Lewis wrote in 1952. The wiseacre of our time seems to be Richard Dawkins who, two years ago, told the world that fairy tales could be harmful because they “inculcate a view of the world which includes supernaturalism” (he had said similar things in 2008). In a later clarification, he added that fairy tales could “be wonderful” and that they “are part of childhood, they are stretching the imagination of children” – provided some helpful adult emphasises that “Do frogs turn into princes? No they don’t.”

But many scientists grew up with, and were inspired by, fantasy literature. For example, Jane Goodall tells of growing up with the novel The Story of Doctor Dolittle (as I did!). In fact, many science students and professional scientists avidly read fantasy literature even as adults (as they should). The booksthatmakeyoudumb website lists, among the top 10 novels read at CalTech and MIT, Harry Potter, Dune, and The Lord of the Rings. And Alice in Wonderland was written by a mathematician.

This is a science blog, so I have a strong emphasis on scientific truth, which tells us many important ecological and physiological facts about, for example, frogs. Without science, we’d all still be struggling subsistence farmers. But there is actually more than scientific truth out there.

There is also mathematical truth. Are the links in this frog network all equivalent? Yes, they are – but that is decided by mathematical proof, not by scientific experiment. It is in fact a purely abstract mathematical question – the background picture of the frog is actually irrelevant.

And there is ethical truth. Is it OK to eat frog’s legs? Science does not give us the answer to this (although logic can help us decide if our answer is consistent with our other beliefs), but fantasy literature often helps us to explore such ethical questions. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is one superb example. Would you “snare an orc with a falsehood”? Would you attempt to take the One Ring and “go forth to victory”?

There is metaphorical truth. A frog may, in spite of what Dawkins says, be a handsome prince – there’s more to the universe than can be seen at first glance. Or, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Children often learn this important fact from fairy tales.

And there is even religious and philosophical truth. Does the frog-goddess Heqet exist, for example? Does the universe exist? Is there a spoon? The methods of philosophy are different from the methods of science, and some amateur philosophers simply state their beliefs without actually justifying them, but philosophy is actually very important. Science itself is based on certain philosophical beliefs about reality.


Aliens, C. S. Lewis, and the Fermi paradox

A blog post on the Fermi paradox someone linked me to reminded me of an essay by C. S. Lewis entitled “Religion and Rocketry.” In that essay, Lewis gives an interesting analysis of the possibilities for non-vegetable alien life, and the religious implications that such life might have. For example, such aliens (if they exist) might be simply animals.


The xenomorphs of the Alien film series are not evil – they are simply (very) dangerous animals.

Alternatively, the aliens might have “the power to mean by ‘good’ something more than ‘good for me’ or even ‘good for my species.’” Of course, knowing about good does not mean that the aliens are good. They might be irredeemably evil, in which case it is better if we never meet them.


Orcs in the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien are irredeemably evil (artwork: Antoine Glédel).

On the other extreme, there may be alien species that have never turned from good to evil. C. S. Lewis’ own novel Out of the Silent Planet describes three such species, and in “Religion and Rocketry,” he describes the rather sad results that our contact with such species could have: “We know what our race does to strangers. Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps. There are individuals who don’t. But they are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space.


C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet describes three fictional alien species living on Mars: the hrossa, the séroni, and the pfifltriggi. All are free from evil.

The most interesting option is that of aliens who, like us, have tasted both good and evil. Writers of fiction have concentrated on this kind of alien, because they often lead to more interesting storylines, and because they hold up a mirror in which we can see some part of ourselves. However, that does not mean that such aliens exist. And if they do exist, the final resolution of evil in their species, Lewis suggests, may or may not be related to that in ours.


Underneath the makeup, Klingons are creatures much like ourselves. A little too much like ourselves to be truly plausible.

Of course, if we ever meet aliens like ourselves, and those aliens are stronger than we are, things might go as badly for the human race as they did for the Native Americans. One might dream of the opportunity “to interchange thoughts with beings whose thinking had an organic background wholly different from ours (other senses, other appetites), to be unenviously humbled by intellects possibly superior to our own yet able for that very reason to descend to our level, … to exchange with the inhabitants of other worlds that especially keen and rich affection which exists between unlikes.” But perhaps it’s best if that remains merely a dream, and that any (hypothetical) aliens remain far, far away.


The novel Footfall, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, presents a slightly more plausible alternative – aliens that have evolved from herd animals. However, things go badly for the human race when they decide to “stomp” us.

Avoiding any aliens that might be out there is particularly sensible if reality resembles some of the nastier fictional alien scenarios, such as those involving the Borg, Daleks, Berserkers, or Vang. Indeed, some people have suggested that the presence of powerful implacably hostile aliens might explain the failure of SETI to find any extraterrestrial intelligent life. On the other hand, silence might just mean that there’s nobody out there.


If “resistance is futile,” it might be safer to stay very, very quiet.


Merry Christmas!

The Christmas fresco above, by Giotto, shows the Star of Bethlehem as a comet (top centre). It is likely that this fresco depicts Halley’s Comet, which Giotto saw in 1301, about two years before he began the series of frescos of which this is part. This work by Giotto was celebrated in the name of the Giotto spacecraft, which observed the comet in 1986.

Let me take this opportunity to wish all my readers a very happy Christmas (and apologies for duplicating last Christmas’s post).