Reason; as the supreme authority in matters of opinion, belief, or conduct

Month: January, 2013

“Here are the most important pieces of advice that I’ve passed on to my children. One, remember to look up at the stars, and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is rare, and don’t throw it away.” – Stephen Hawking

I tell you, I’m certain of it

The strength of someone’s opinion is usually inversely proportional to how educated they are on that topic. Firstly, a rite of passage for anyone to be afforded credibility is to appreciate that no matter how educated they are they cannot be certain. Even if we feel our logic is sound, we may only be seeing what we want to see, cherry-picking information to fit our prejudices, or simply turning deaf ears to sense and reason. Further, and almost universally, it seems that the more one comes to know about any given topic, the more it becomes apparent that most issues can be many things without being clear and simple. The full picture is most often exclusively painted in shades of grey, and the people who persevere to learn about the things they don’t know eventually fathom this complexity.

I think a noteworthy component of this commitment to ignorance is that since early in the evolution of our complex brains, we have continued to be concerned by things we have not resolved as ‘understood’. How can I be sure this isn’t a threat if I don’t understand it? We take comfort in feeling we know something certainly, or alternatively; we fear the unknown. A myriad of heuristics contributed to the unchecked eventual success of our fast and adaptive brains. Simply; our brains will coarsely believe we comprehend things very early in their analysis, like the foolish judgements we make based on first impressions. This is an obstacle we must all pass to have any chance of seeing things as they actually are, and in order to realise that we could be wrong about every view that we hold. It is another great irony of life that at some level we cannot feel at ease about something – cannot arrest its analysis – until we are ‘certain’ that we know what it is. Except that the only thing we can never be is certain.

“Don’t just teach your children to read… teach them to question what they read. Teach them to question everything” – George Carlin

The 6th and the 9th of August… 1945

The 6th and the 9th of August… 1945

The detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, three days apart at the end of the first week of August 1945, were fine examples of the brazen disregard for civilian suffering that characterises war of all kinds, and that is independent of nationality. Two years later Japan’s people would endorse a new constitution that prohibited war, and today are one of the world’s most forward-thinking cultures.

Reading in detail about the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki reveals a great tragedy to be more adorned with horror than we might dare to guess. The death toll of either event is split into two categories; immediate deaths and deaths after the fact, mainly from radiation poisoning, burns or cancer. Looking at Just Hiroshima, for example, the immediate death toll was 70,000 and estimates of total death toll suggest 100,000 – 200,000. What still lingers in my mind since I first read about these events is that ‘immediate’ includes a period of 24 hours after detonation.

The closest known survivor, to the point exactly under where the bomb was detonated, 600m above the city, was Eizo Nomura. Living on into his eighties, Eizo was in the basement of a concrete building just 170m from the point below the centre of the blast in Hiroshima.


“It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” – Carl Sagan

“This brings me to the last of the big questions, the future of the human race. If we are the only intelligent beings in the galaxy, we should make sure we survive and continue. But we are entering an increasingly dangerous period of our history. Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million. Our only chance of long term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.” – Stephen Hawking in his 2008 TED talk.


“Poetry is truth seen with passion” – William Butler Yeats

Titan’s Hydrocarbon Lakes

A photo taken from the 2005 Huygens probe that landed on Titan’s surface. It is the only image from the surface of a planetary body further away than Mars.

Titan as enigmatic as Europa…

We have heard a lot about Europa. Locked in Jupiter’s orbit it is one of the smoothest celestial bodies in our solar system. We believe that enveloping an iron core, similar to Earth’s, is a massive ice crust comprised of more than double the water found here at home. Its greatest spectacle is very common knowledge today; that according to the best evidence it seems there may be a vast liquid ocean, perhaps 100km deep, under a shell 30km across. On the list of things I hope to see in my life, footage sent back from the oceans beneath is in competition for top spot.

Amazingly there is almost an even more extraordinary satellite in our solar system – Titan. Reading the details we know about Titan seem to place it closer to the realms of science-fiction than reality, but how often does that seem to be the case. Views of that most awe-striking planet, Saturn, are obscured from Titan’s surface by a dense, orange organonitrogen haze. Overall its atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, but as a strange parallel to our familiar Earth its atmosphere is adorned with clouds of methane and ethane gas. Hidden under its orange haze, Titan is only revealing its mysteries very slowly. It may be that these clouds are part of a cycle similar to that of water on Earth; including seasons, rain, and resulting rivers and seas. Certainly we know that there are dunes shaped by wind, and pictures of these can be seen on the Wikipedia page I include below. Confirming the presence of Titan’s stable bodies of liquid has been a major focus as they mark the first observed aside from our own. Radar analysis of one of Titan’s polar regions in 2006, by the Cassini spacecraft, revealed many vast lakes, seas and tributary systems. Intriguingly the lakes analysed only varied in height by 3mm at their surface, suggesting either that the winds in this region were low, or that the pools are filled with a very viscous fluid. Similar to Europa, under this strange world above, again it is thought that liquid oceans are hidden within. The vague impression we have of Titan – a cold and mysterious world tantalisingly rich with organic molecules, along with liquid bodies, and perhaps a hidden ocean yet to be confirmed – has meant that it has been studied feverishly since Voyager 1 gave us our first real glimpse in 1979. There are plans to land a probe in one of its polar lakes (images of which can also be seen on the page below), but only when the project can win the never ending funding battle at NASA. It just lost out to a mission that plans to send a probe to Jupiter in 2022 to investigate Europa, and two of Jupiter’s other moons, in more detail. Either way, we wait with patient anticipation.