Archive for July, 2010

You have to see Cosmos now, if not sooner

July 30, 2010 Comments off

When I first visited the US in 2005, I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw the DVD box set of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage sitting on the shelf in Fry’s. It featured an introduction by Ann Druyan (Carl’s widow), where she discussed how much of the work was still accurate, an addendum after each episode to highlight changes in knowledge and understanding, and was going for US$100 (~£65). I grabbed it without a second thought.

I’d have happily paid twice that for this 13 hour masterpiece on DVD. I value it that much.

While idly paging through Amazon’s Recommendations to me at lunch time today, I saw a re-mastered version of this box set had been released to the UK market. And the price: under £16. That’s for a box set containing 5 DVDs and 780 minutes of one of the best scientific, philosophical, optimistic and future-thinking works of the 20th century.

If you don’t have it, do yourself a favour and buy it now: Cosmos DVD box set (Amazon UK).

And while you’re there, please give some thought to Wonders Of The Solar System on DVD format or Blu-ray format (Amazon UK; under £13 and under £16 respectively). In my opinion, Brian Cox is the worthy successor to Carl Sagan as a brilliant communicator of science, particularly astronomy. Even his sense of wonder and awe at the majesty of the universe is the same.

Watching either of them at work is inspiring.

One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue II

July 25, 2010 Comments off

Following on from my previous quote from Cosmos, here is another quote. This one is talking about the paradox of the complexity and simplicity of a cell:

If we plunged through a pore into the nucleus of the cell, we would find something that resembles an explosion in a spaghetti factory — a disorderly multitude of coils and strands, which are the two kinds of nucleic acids: DNA, which knows what to do, and RNA, which conveys the instructions issued by DNA to the rest of the cell. These are the best that four billion years of evolution could produce, containing the full complement of information on how to make a cell, a tree or a human work. The amount of information in human DNA, if written out in ordinary language, would occupy a hundred thick volumes. What is more, the DNA molecules know how to make, with only very rare exceptions, identical copies of themselves. They know extraordinarily much.

Yet again, the final sentence strikes me as a wonderful turn of phrase, particularly as I read everything Carl wrote with the memory of his voice and its peculiar tempo playing in my head.

The Human Genome Project was only half-way through mapping the human DNA when Carl died in 1996. The Project ran from 1990-2003 and, just as we once did with hieroglyphics, we are still only just tapping the surface in deciphering what it means nearly ten years later (also see the extensive Wikipedia entry). Since this initial, mammoth breakthrough, many more donor genomes have been sequenced — it seems to be a growing industry.

And as for Carl’s estimate of the size it would take in print form, the original genome has subsequently been printed into 119 bound volumes, containing all of the three billion base pairs. Though I imagine it would make rubbish bedtime reading…

Categories: science Tags: ,

Mad Max is alive and well…

July 19, 2010 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY popculturegeek

I spent yesterday afternoon visiting a friend in Southampton, which was a nice trip away from the Home Counties for a change. The weather was beautiful, and I hadn’t seen this friend in some time.

Anyone who’s travelled the UK motorways on a weekend knows that Sunday evenings tend to be a nightmare, as half the country are returning from day trips to the coast or city, so around 6pm and for a few hours it’s nothing more than a slow-moving queue. There were occasional fast patches, but then it would slow down again. I resigned myself to the long haul, and wasn’t too worried as it was still moving. Much better than the alternative.

As I passed Winchester Services, I noticed an old white Subaru estate zip onto the same carriageway alongside and eventually behind me, and immediately begin trying to weave through traffic in a bid to get ahead. For as far as the eye could see, nobody was travelling over 40mph, yet this guy figured he’d do his best to get ahead of, well, everyone.

Soon after, I see him try to get between the car off my left rear and me by straddling the lines for some time, so I tap my brakes to give him lights and see my nose dip, and he goes mental. He instantly forces his way between the car I’m slowly overtaking and me, pulls in front of me (I was perhaps 1.5 lengths from the car in front?) and stands on his brakes. I had to stamp on mine, and it was extremely fortunate that there was nobody close behind me. As I’m shaking my head and have my hands up in a “what the hell are you doing?” way, he sticks his arm out and gives me the finger and forks repeatedly — for minute or more, over and over.

Thinking that was that, a few minutes later after I’d managed to get into the left lane, I notice that he’s being slowed by traffic in the right lane, and I coast alongside him. The carload of people turn to look as I smile, point at the driver and do a cock-sucking motion. If I hadn’t taken my foot off the accelerator as I saw him lose it, he’d have slammed into me. He changed lanes straight into mine, trying to ram me or force me off the road. Utter psycho. I think his friends got him under control, as he zoomed off into the distance after that.

He looked like a white supremacist (or a football fan; it’s hard to tell), so I figured a gay reference would flip his switch. Spot on the money. Boy I know how to wind people up.

Aside from the shock of both of his overreactions, I was calm through the whole thing. But this guy was bouncing off the walls, even before I got involved. We’re all stuck in traffic — why be a dick?

Categories: misc Tags: ,

Reverence for Religion

July 16, 2010 Comments off

I think I’ve made it pretty clear throughout this blog that I respect humanity, but I have no respect whatsoever for humanity’s religions. Beliefs have no automatic correlation with reality (experience has shown me they’re often in opposition to it), but beliefs do encroach upon reality in the actions of believers, giving us subjugation, torture, and wars all in the name of a name in a book. And it’s nearly always the name and book most popular in the country in which your parents were born. Your god smiles upon the arbitrarily accidental location of your birth! What a happy, joyous coincidence! Divine serendipity!

That’s not to say that some religions have no redeeming qualities — such as social cohesion, charity, comfort and a sense of purpose — but none of those positive qualities are unique to religion. (Unfortunately for humanity, the negative results mentioned in the previous paragraph aren’t unique to religion, either, though the justification is).

If you’ve ever wondered why I think this way, I think this quote sums it up perfectly:

“I like to point out how irrational it is to have any reverence for religion at all. We look at the ancient Greeks with their gods on a mountaintop throwing lightning bolts and say, ‘Those ancient Greeks. They were so silly. So primitive and naive. Not like our religions. We have burning bushes talking to people and guys walking on water. We’re… sophisticated.'” —Paul Provenza

It goes hand in hand with this equally excellent quote:

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” —Stephen Roberts

Such words are doubtless confrontational to believers in any deity but, in the absence of evidence for any religious text or doctrine being ‘real’ or ‘true’, they do serve to illustrate the logical chasm that exists in people who contend that their god(s) is real and that your god(s) is clearly an imposter or a delusion (they think you’re mentally abnormal). And with the latter quote, once you’ve excluded all other gods but your own, it’s really only a small step to freedom.

I don’t expect you to agree, but I do expect you to think about it. As I have probably done for your religion (as explained in earlier posts).


Hat tip: LOLgod

Let’s begin teaching creationism as science!

July 3, 2010 Comments off


Okay, let’s not. Yet still I wait for the furiously-typed refutations to come: typed on keyboards attached to computers, powered by electricity from power plants transmitted from miles away via the Internet over telecommunications infrastructure, by people who managed to avoid the above tragedies, whether by medical advancement or due to vaccinations that provided herd immunity.

Hmm, there’s a theme in the italicised terms. I wonder what it could be? Wait, don’t tell me…

That’s it: SCIENCE! From the Latin word scientia, meaning ‘knowledge.’ (Not ‘anti-religion’ as much church-/temple-/mosque-/Murdoch-sourced propaganda would have you believe).


Hat tip: LOLgod