Values, Ethics, Beliefs:
Biosphere & Global Consciousness
Sir Martin is Britain's Astronomer Royal. His TED lecture is the most important link on my entire website. And, here are the parameters that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists uses to predict the end of humanity. (The clock is at 3 minutes to midnight.)
Composed by the incomparable Jacques Brel, this is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Poignantly bittersweet, it captures the triumph and tragedy of the human race.
Every year I backpack in the Sierras, inevitably focusing on the big questions. How did all that exists come to be? Are there other Universes? Is mankind alone? Many physical constants that allow life to develop in the Universe appear to be finely-tuned. Did God sit at a control panel twisting the dozens of knobs that determine the interactions of the particles and forces that comprise reality? I discuss the views of physicists, cosmologists, and theologians.
Is ET out there waiting to be discovered?
My guess is "yes!"—
but the vast majority of extraterrestrial life is apt to be microbial.
My viewpoint follows the SETI Institute
and its founders and superstars. Included among those are Frank Drake — of Drake equation fame, Carl Sagan, Jill Tarter, Seth Shostak, and David Morrison.
Prof. Drake's car license plate reads N = L. The number of ET civilizations in the Milky Way is determined by their likelihood of survival. Our survival on Earth is not guaranteed but requires dedicated stewardship and devotion to long-term sustainability.
To paraphrase H. G. Wells, the future of humanity is a race between education and catastrophe.
This is a real photo taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft in 2006. Here the Sun is behind Saturn. With the Sun fully eclipsed, Earth appears as a pale blue dot. That blue color originates from the interaction of oxygen and water on Earth. ET would be able to tell from our spectrum that water and oxygen are here. Several proposed telescopes may be able to image Earth-like atmospheres on exo- planets.
Gemini Planet Imager started collecting exoplanet spectra in 2014. The Thirty Meter Telescope being built on Mauna Kea will greatly expand the search.
Imaging exoplanets depends on Adaptive Optics (AO)—
see video from Boston Micromachines .
The Kepler Space Telescope regularly generates headline news.
Based on its discoveries, it's now certain that
planets orbiting other stars (exo-planets) are common.
Now orbiting the sun millions of miles from Earth,
Kepler looks fixedly for planetary transits. Other future telescopes will look for biogenic atmospheres.
Here's the ultimate big picture.
Our planetary civilization is a microscopic, transitory blip at this scale. And yet, the future of civilization may hinge on our collective efforts.
Here's another magnificent video by astronomer Tony Darnell. — on the JWST ( James Webb Space Telescope), Hubble's replacement (but in IR,) which will launch in 2018. (I've had a front-row seat, as one of my close friends was designing and testing the imaging instrument. Here's the inside scoop: the JWST being tested at Goddard.)
Above, a remarkable animation from Nature showing the newly calculated position of the Milky Way (our home galaxy) with respect to surrounding galactic superclusters,including the Virgo Supercluster and the Great Attractor.
The newly discovered massive supercluster, Laniakea (Hawaiian for immeasurable heaven), includes both of them.
So, on these grand scales is human civilization hopelessly insignificant or incredibly significant?
The answer is ... both!
Planet Earth has too many human beings.
And even worse, developed countries — the United States, in particular — consume far too much. We have too many houses, too many cars, and too much stuff.
The United States has 324 million and the world has 7.4 billion.
Yes, our population growth in the USA has slowed but we're still consuming
25% of the world's resources. That over-consumption is poisoning the planet and devasting other species.
In 2015 PBS aired a show on sustainable businesses featuring
Ray Anderson (carpet manufacturer and eco-superhero (?!)).
See Ray's TED Talk..
founder, Lester Brown, is excellent.
See his video at Google HQ . Also see the wiki on sustainability.
Look at this list of the growth rates of the world's 233 countries. Lack of birth control dooms a country's future.
But, this video on
longevity/ wealth in 200 countries (from Hans Rosling) is (perhaps overly) optimistic. He argues that reducing infant mortality is the key to reducing explosive population growth in the undeveloped world. (Although persuasive, he confuses association and causation.)
That confusion is pervasive in the medical literature. I wrestled with it for a decade in my Stanford medical database research. .
My view is that reduced infant mortality is simply a marker of success. The real cause of success is women's access to birth control. Let's stop the political correctness — the major problem on Earth is too many people!
But, for a ray of hope, see Paul Hawken at Bioneers.
I heard priest and historian Thomas Berry speak many years ago.
His book, the Universe Story, combined scientific cosmogenesis with a story that emphasized the obvious creativity latent in the Universe.
His later books, particularly The Great Work focused on the wanton environmental destruction that has resulted from mankind's insane view of its perogatives.
Thomas Berry — particulary as a man of the cloth — was a great voice for the environmental movement. It's up to us to continue his Great Work.
Above is a wonderful hour-long PBS documentary on
John Muir, one of my life-long heroes and sources of inspiration. Every summer I tread the same ground he did in the Sierras and feel the same universality of nature. John Muir, through his depth of conviction and clear scientific mind, persuaded Congress to create the National Park System, beginning with Yosemite.
Nature and Culture International (NCI) is my favorite eco-NGO.
Founded fifteen years ago by entrepreneur and ecologist, Ivan Gayler,
NCI has protected millions of acres of precious rain forests in Ecuador and Peru.
Those regions have some of the highest concentrations
of unique and endangered species anywhere on the planet.
The culture piece of NCI's work is crucial. It refers to its emphasis on employing natives and local ecologists to carry out the preservation effort.
As a result, NCI's budget is super efficient — almost no money spent in the USA for staff —
almost all the money is used directly for land protection and preservation by locals.
These videos describe Ivan's vision and NCI's work:
Save the Rainforest and NCI Saving Rain Forests.
My favorite website for environmental reporting is Mongabay.com .
Mongabay's international network of reporters scans the globe for detailed and accurate information on the environment. Annually, it garners grants and awards from some of our largest foundations.
Due to falling revenues,
newspapers (like the New York Times) have had to lay off their environmental correspondents. Mongabay — getting millions of hits a month — has helped provide news coverage on this essential topic.
Here, National Geographic provides fast facts about global warming.
The evidence is abundant (and universally accepted by experts) —
global warming is real and caused by mankind.
The IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
is the definitive source of reliable information and states the consensus of climatologists .
was on top of this story a decade ago. Now, global warming is on a steamroller.
(I have several Republican friends, but none of them are climate change deniers.
The real complexity lies in the trade-offs involved in mitigation.)
Addendum — In 2013 global CO2 levels hit 400 ppm
A new study predicts that by 2080 global warming will cause a
drastic reduction (50%) in species habitats.
Brilliant cartoonist Justin Bilicki hits the nail on the head, as usual
This was an extraordinary meeting. Top environmentalists and top evangelical leaders met at Harvard to jointly promote the rescue of Planet Earth. Read their inspiring statement. People of faith need the science data. Science needs the organization/ dedication of the church. Deciding who is right about creation is far less important than taking action to preserve it.
San Suu Kyi is one of our most inspirational leaders.
Having won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, here she accepts a gold medal from Congress for her efforts to move Burma (Myanmar) from military rule to democracy despite two decades of house arrest.
This is a hard-hitting documentary emphasizing the important positive role the United States plays in world affairs. Drawing on the expertise of Harvard's Professor Niall Ferguson, it makes clear that an American withdrawal from foreign affairs would leave the world dangerously destabilized.
Delivered March 30, 2015 at the dedication of the memorial to Senator Edward Kennedy, this speech (enthusiastically applauded by many Republican congressmen), addresses the wonderful spirit of bipartisanship that Kennedy championed, even in his spirited debates with leading conservative voices like Utah Senator Orrin Hatch.
This 2011 speech to the US Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu was a stunner. It received dozens of standing ovations from the entire Congress. It hits many of the difficult issues that plague the on-going Israeli/Palestinian negotiations.
I don't condone Edward Snowden's going public with details of NSA's PRISM, but I agree with several of his assertions in this interview. Nonetheless, the 911 World Trade Center attacks, as well as the attacks in Oklahoma City and Boston, make it clear just how easy it is to cause death and destruction on a massive scale. Obviously, protecting the public both from terror plots and from excessive surveillance requires an on-going careful balance.
Starting in 2004, a series of books appeared on the bad aspects of religion: mindless belief in miracles, faith, and dogma and the crimes committed in their name. The courageous authors of those books have several online videos. Here are some favorites.
Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation
Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion
Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell
Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great
My view is that religion can have many positive aspects,
well exemplied by my many religious friends who do
I personally favor secular humanism —
traditional virtues and positive psychology without the miracles and the dogma.
(Ok, perhaps it would be even better if we had some inspiring gospel singers.)
Optimism, hope, love, kindness, charity, and compassion are wonderful — the propagation of fairy stories and falsehood is not.
(There is one grand supernal miracle — the unfolding of the Universe.)
The notion that our Universe is just one of the 10500 predicted by string-theory is a cop-out.
The animator here captures the spirit of Earth's biosphere, a living wonder, that all of us must work to preserve.
Above is one in an inspired series by musician John Boswell. See the others here — Symphony of Science.
A beautiful (and family friendly) animation stepping successively down to the smallest objects and up to the largest objects in the Universe. Click each object for pop-up info.
Poet Laureate Maya Angelou's lovely poem, written in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
The angelic voice of Enya combined with a sublime tour of the heavens —
and the beauty of untrammeled Earth.
And, here in
Enya's Caribbean Blue.
Another sumptuous collection of fantastic images of Earth, the Universe, and the Surreal. We are part of something far bigger than we can imagine.
Science strives to explain Reality: Spirit, at its most transcendent, restores its Unity.
An incredible melding of physics and music from artist engineer Nigel Stanford. Resonance lies at the beating heart of aesthetics and spirit.
This video by Peter Russell has long been a favorite.
In half an hour he presents the history of life and mankind.
Humanity has such destructive potential that we may perish unless
we can make sacrifices for a sustainable future.
A beautiful collection of thirty three videos including ones by Steve Jobs, Randy Pausch, Michael Jordan, and Barack Obama.
Here, Joseph Campbell's work on the Hero's Journey is concisely illustrated with clips from The Matrix.
In this TED video Josh Klein describes a vending machine he built for crows.
They're amazingly intelligent tool users.
When I backpack, I observe the Clark's Nutcrackers, another of the Corvidae. They can remember thousands of seed caches.
(I know my readers have all seen the wonderful 2009 movie Avatar — and we're all waiting for Avatar 2 (it'll come out in 2018.) I wrote this review when it first appeared. You may still enjoy the links.)
With breath-taking 3D graphics and a better-than-expected script
Avatar (like the original, 1977 Star Wars ) is a film I will see more than once.
(Here, I'm resisting the urge to dis the recent new Star Wars movie. Yeah, it was a big commercial success — but so, is Donald Trump.)
While the script borrows heavily from the past
(At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Dune, Fern Gully,
Dancing With Wolves), it's a great reworking of important themes.
The main dramatic conflict is a high tech army of mercenaries in the employ of a multinational corporation exploiting the natural resources of a native people who live in a pristine jungle. Sound familiar? Think Big Oil drilling for petroleum in the Amazon or Brazilian agribusiness burning forests to graze cattle. Readers of this website know my sentiments. Even my cconservative friends shrink from this kind of unconscionable 19th century exploitation. World Ending in 2012? (Vote for Sarah!)
A less readily defensible position taken by Avatar is the notion of the peacefulness and bliss of native pre-technological peoples - the assumption of the Noble Savage — that people uncorrupted by technology are less prone to violence than are modern folk.
(Of course, in fiction, to heighten drama, anything goes — but some may confuse art with life.)
Some may think that technologic society is becoming more violent. That would be wrong. Watch Harvard Professor Steve Pinker's TED Talk on the myth of violence of to be set straight.
In 1651 in Leviathan Thomas Hobbs
concludes that "(in primitive societies) the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
And, what of the avatars — meat puppets animated remotely
by the spirits of others?
Avatars have been a staple of sci fi since Wm. Gibson's Neuromancer and Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash .
An explosion of online verisimilitude is just around the corner (especially in 2016) and
somewhat later in robotic avatars .
Telepresence is now widely commercialized as in this video of Intuitive Surgical's da Vinci robot).
This is also one of the near-in paths to immortality as in Gordon Bell's Total Recall.
In the near future our online avatars will represent us politically. Facebook 2025 may be your online rep working for you 24 by 7 by 365 - coming soon to an internet near you.)
Most uplifting in Avatar is the transcendent spirit and natural wisdom
of the Na'vi (the natives) as they live in harmony with the Pandoran forest world.
Gut-level communion with Nature is gone in modern man. However, that spirit burned brightly in the writings of John Muir, of Carl Sagan, and of Thomas Berry.
The measure of our technology is whether it heightens or suppresses that spirit.
In 2010, Avatar dollars helped rescue California from avarice. James Cameron's one million dollar donation helped squash California Prop. 23, a greedy, short-sighted attempt by Big Oil to kill clean energy.)
Salman Khan started tutoring math to his relatives and
now is teaching math and science to the world via his videos at Khan Academy.
This is the future of education and the internet. Bill Gates, Charlie Rose, and Google agree.
This is a stunning TED talk.
Sam is a high school student with progeria (vastly accelerated aging.)
His lifespan will be short, but he makes the most of every day.