science tumbled

(selections: pretty pics / longer stories)

timelordtributedetectivewizard asked: Can science answer moral questions?

A wise man named David Hume once wrote that, in all the moral systems he had observed, at some point the author proceeds imperceptibly from “is” statements, statements about how things are, to “ought” statements, normative statements about how things ought to be. But they never seem to add the necessary logical step between—how one goes from those statements about the natural world as it is, to the statements about how it ought to be. In other words, morality. What has become known to some as Hume’s Law states that one cannot logically derive an “ought” statement from a series of “is” statements.

This is a philosophical question, and as philosophers are wont to do, they still argue about it, almost three hundred years later. Some claim that Hume’s Law is false. They subscribe to a theory called moral realism. Others claim that it holds, and they are called moral anti-realists. This whole philosophical field is called metaethics, and concerns questions such as what moral statements really mean, whether one can derive normative “oughts” from facts about the natural world, and related issues.

Science is in the business of describing the world as it is. As such, scientists are rarely interested in questions about how it ought to be. Or they might be interested, but they can only come with proposals, not actual, logically deduced demands about how people should treat one another. That is philosophy, not science. Science explores and teaches us about how the world works, not about how humans should behave towards one another.

In my personal opinion, science can certainly explore moral questions, but cannot conclusively answer them. We can do polls about what people think, but is it given that what the majority thinks is true? In any other field, one would say no. When people thought the world was flat, or that the Earth, not the Sun was the center of the universe—later, of course, we realized that the Sun isn’t even the center of the universe, which has no center, but merely the center of the solar system, but that’s a tangent—would that majority opinion make it true? No.

Game theorists and others try to model how one can optimally behave in various situations. But if taken as a moral theory, that could easily lead to egoism.

Some claim that what is natural is right, but they also skip the necessary logical step between “is” and “ought”. Rape happens in nature. Does that make it right? No. That is sometimes called the naturalistic fallacy.

This is a super complicated issue that has been debated since Socrates. If you are interested, you can read Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro. Or you can read about the is-ought problem on Wikipedia. The best source, however, is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is a free encyclopedia peer-reviewed by philosophers. See hereherehere and here. But the Stanford Encyclopedia is rather dense and technical, and perhaps hard to read if you have no previous experience reading analytic philosophy.

Personally, I subscribe to a theory called moral quasi-realism, which was inspired by Hume and by Ludwig Wittgenstein and developed by Simon Blackburn. Blackburn has also written some books aimed at introducing people unfamiliar to philosophy to the field. Quasi-realism allows you to make moral statements without betraying Hume’s Law, but admittedly they have less force than if they could be claimed to be grounded in science.

In general, I have to say this is a very complex question to answer. It’s hard to answer properly without getting too technical, and I think most of the readers of this blog would lose track or patience or get bored quite quickly if I really got into it. Not because they’re dumb, just because this is Tumblr, they are unfamiliar, it’s technical and they might just want to look at pretty pictures or hear the latest in science explained in an understandable, but not dumbed-down way. That is my goal with this blog: to bring science to the people in a way that neither betrays the science by explaining it with half-baked metaphors or overhyping findings which are really just small developments in a field. But also to make it readable and enjoyable for as many people as possible.

Science is fantastic, people! It’s not just pretty pictures of galaxies or neurons or puppies transplanted with genes so they glow in the dark.

But to conclude: No, science can’t answer moral questions. Only explore them.

The Golden Rule, advocated by such luminaries as Jesus and Buddha, is still a good rule of thumb. It’s not scientific, it’s just a basic test to see if you’re being an asshole or not.

This is not scientific advice grounded in peer-reviewed journals, but it’s still damn important: be kind to one another, and as long as people are not hurting anyone else, tolerate them, whether they have the same skin color or the same politics or religion or musical tastes as you or not.

The Galle crater is a Martian crater that happens to look like a smiley face, due to the position of a curved mountain range.
Someone made a good point about our previous post about carbon dioxide melting on Mars. At normal pressure, or the very low atmospheric pressure on Mars (less than 1% of the average at sea level on Earth), dry ice does not melt into liquid. Instead, it sublimes. Sublimation is a word for the phase transition where a solid bypasses liquid entirely and becomes gas. This is what gives the familiar smoke effect you get when you expose dry ice to air. You would need a pressure of over 5 atmospheres, that is five times the pressure at sea level on Earth, or about a thousand times the average pressure on Mars, to create liquid carbon dioxide. Sublimation also occurs to a certain extent to water ice on Earth.
The point at which dry ice sublimates at normal pressure is -56 celsius, which means when the temperature goes below this, the opposite transition, from gas to solid, which is called deposition, occurs. Thus “melts” was not the right word to use in the previous post. This also gives a measure of just what spring on Mars means: the dry ice cover starts melting, sorry, sublimating when the temperature goes above -56.4 C or -69.5 F. Talk about a chilly spring!
The atmosphere on Mars is about 96% carbon dioxide. About 0.1% is oxygen. For comparison, Earth’s atmosphere is about 78% nitrogen and about 21% oxygen.
The somewhat surprising fact, at least to me, that there’s only 21% oxygen in the atmosphere lead to the invention of carbogen, a mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This mixture can be used to simulate the feeling of suffocation without actually suffocating, as the brain does not monitor the oxygen levels in the blood, but rather responds as if you can’t breathe if the blood carbon dioxide levels go too high.

The Galle crater is a Martian crater that happens to look like a smiley face, due to the position of a curved mountain range.

Someone made a good point about our previous post about carbon dioxide melting on Mars. At normal pressure, or the very low atmospheric pressure on Mars (less than 1% of the average at sea level on Earth), dry ice does not melt into liquid. Instead, it sublimes. Sublimation is a word for the phase transition where a solid bypasses liquid entirely and becomes gas. This is what gives the familiar smoke effect you get when you expose dry ice to air. You would need a pressure of over 5 atmospheres, that is five times the pressure at sea level on Earth, or about a thousand times the average pressure on Mars, to create liquid carbon dioxide. Sublimation also occurs to a certain extent to water ice on Earth.

The point at which dry ice sublimates at normal pressure is -56 celsius, which means when the temperature goes below this, the opposite transition, from gas to solid, which is called deposition, occurs. Thus “melts” was not the right word to use in the previous post. This also gives a measure of just what spring on Mars means: the dry ice cover starts melting, sorry, sublimating when the temperature goes above -56.4 C or -69.5 F. Talk about a chilly spring!

The atmosphere on Mars is about 96% carbon dioxide. About 0.1% is oxygen. For comparison, Earth’s atmosphere is about 78% nitrogen and about 21% oxygen.

The somewhat surprising fact, at least to me, that there’s only 21% oxygen in the atmosphere lead to the invention of carbogen, a mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This mixture can be used to simulate the feeling of suffocation without actually suffocating, as the brain does not monitor the oxygen levels in the blood, but rather responds as if you can’t breathe if the blood carbon dioxide levels go too high.

It’s spring on Mars! Dry ice is melting sublimating from the sand dunes to the North of the red planet. Image courtesy of NASA from the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

It’s spring on Mars! Dry ice is melting sublimating from the sand dunes to the North of the red planet. Image courtesy of NASA from the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Chaohusaurus Fossil Shows Oldest Live Reptile Birth

Icthyosaurs were giant reptiles who lived in the seas at the same time as the dinosaurs ruled the land. They gave live birth to their children. A fossil newly discovered in China, dating back almost a quarter of a billion years, shows the earliest known live birth of a reptile. The fossil literally captures the moment of birth, as there was an embryo still inside the mother, a newborn just outside her, and a third halfway between, in the process of exiting the pelvis. The headfirst posture of the second baby indicates to researchers that live birth may have evolved on land, not in the water in reptiles as previously thought.

Icthyosaurs, although they lived in the same time period and could be mistakenfor them owing to their shared reptilian inheritage, were not dinosaurs. (And neither were the plesiosaurs, which, unlike the more fish-like icthyosaurs, look exactly like you’d expect water-dwelling dinosaurs to look.) Live birth is one of the things that distinguishes them.

Although not a first per se, it still amazes me that, through fossilization, we can look back at a birth in progress that started 248 million years ago.

anothertragichero asked: If a person dies quickly, would he/she feel the pain before death, or would they just die without feeling anything since it was so quick?

This is an interesting question. A good example of rapid death would be decapitation. For obvious reasons, one can’t do experiments on humans to figure out if they remain conscious for any period of time after having their head chopped off. Ranging back to the time of the French revolution, the heyday of the guillotine, there are anecdotes about people who apparently remained conscious and responsive to stimuli for a few seconds after the head was severed. There are also anecdotes about people who promised to give a sign after death to indicate awareness, and failed to do so. These anecdotes are impossible to verify. Decapitation or any other human death by extreme and rapid trauma has never happened during any form of scientifically controlled conditions. All we can say based on these anecdotes is that it’s possible that some people may remain conscious and feel pain for a short while after such a violent death. It’s also possible they aren’t, and it seems likely to be so for the majority of cases.

Rats are frequently used as model animals in research, so scientists have taken some interest in the question, do rats feel pain during decapitation? Is decapitation a humane way to sacrifice animals in research? Monitoring brain activity in rats as they were killed, researchers found no brain activity normally associated with pain in rats who were awake while their head was cut off. That suggests the rats were not in pain. Other scientists have calculated that it would take no more than 2.7 seconds for the rat brain to go unconscious from lack of oxygen. Given the nature of the trauma, more intense brain activity would be expected, which would use even more oxygen, and so unconsciousness would result even quicker. Taken together, these data suggest that rats, at least, do not feel pain after decapitation, and if they did, the duration of the pain would be no more than a couple seconds.

We can’t directly extrapolate to humans, but we can speculate. It seems likely that humans, too, go unconscious more or less instantly, at least in the majority of cases. Given the anecdotes, it seems possible that some may retain some kind of awareness for an instant after trauma, but the evidence is weak, so we’ll have to call it an open question. It’s certain, however, that the brain cannot function without oxygen, and that oxygen would run out in a matter of seconds after the supply was permanently cut off, so at the most, one could hypothetically feel a few seconds of pain. But then again the rats’ brain activity didn’t suggest pain. So the best answer I can give is that most people will probably not have time to feel pain before they’re dead, and it remains an open question whether some rare exceptions may retain a few seconds of consciousness, but if so they wouldn’t necessarily be in pain for that time.

guldguldguld asked: I believe that we survive death. I have read that the soul is made of matter with a higher frequensy.

I have read that Yahweh created the world in six days, and on the seventh he rested. I have read that according to exact calculations of genealogies, this occurred less than six thousand years ago.

One should not believe everything one reads. This is not a question, but if it were one, it would not be well formed. Science, as far as it has been concerned with the matter of consciousness, has not found any evidence that consciousness continues past death. That is all we can say: nothing points to it. If by “the soul” you mean something that sustains our personality or consciousness, then the answer to your non-question is: no, that is not true. I can guarantee you the phrase “the soul is made of matter with a higher frequency” does not occur in any peer-reviewed scientific paper. Anywhere. Its likelihood of being true ranks up there with “the tooth fairy is made of matter with a higher frequency.”

It’s frustrating both for readers and writers of blogs that the reverse chronological nature of a blog buries so much good content. Few are willing to wade through vast archives that contain hundreds or thousands of posts. This blog has been growing at a huge rate, and lots of new readers may have missed a lot that they’d love if it were posted today. To make it easier to navigate the past, I’ve made two primary tags.

If you want to see more hypnotic quasicrystals, synthetic bismuth crystals or biuluminescent mushrooms, head over to the pretty pics tag. It represents the visual, bite-sized part of this blog.

If you want to read more in-depth, long-form articles about various science-related topics, such as fractal dimensions, breaking the seal (re: peeing), which personality tests are bullshit, the strongest magnets in the universe, the unforgettable amnesiac or the pistol-dueling prodigy who died of gunshot wound at 20 and posthumously revolutionized mathematics, head over to the longer stories tag.

If you prefer to navigate the full archives, which include absolutely everything, at the time of writing 352 posts going back to June 2008, go here or simply navigate back and forth at the bottom of each page—but you probably know how to do that if you’re already on Tumblr.

Frozen animals in Nordland county, Norway

The first image shows a moose that drowned, then the ice froze around it, in Fauske, Norway.

The second shows a school of pollock that was chased towards the shore of the island Lovund by cormorants. Then the water froze so rapidly that the fish couldn’t escape, and became trapped in the ice. This picture was snapped by a man out walking his dog, and was quickly picked up by local mainstream and social media.

2013 roundup

Some of the most interesting things that happened in science and on this blog in 2013. Previous years: 2012, 2011, 2010.

Story of the year

The story of the year has to be the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson. The new particle’s discovery was announced in July, 2012, but it wasn’t until March of this year that a full analysis confirmed its status as a Higgs boson. Either way, I didn’t pick a story of the year for 2012, so it can serve for both years, in lieu of any obvious competitors. (If you think there’s a more important science story for 2013, I’d love to hear it!)

You’ll notice that the headline above says the new particle is a Higgs boson, not the Higgs boson. This is because some models posit several Higgs bosons. The Large Hadron Collider shut down operations in February after a three-year run, but will restart in 2015 at higher energies, hopefully bringing us more useful data about the Higgs mechanism. In case you’ve lived under a rock the past five years, the reason the Higgs boson is important is because it is the particle tied to the mechanism that gives everything mass in the Standard Model of physics. Its existence has been theorized for decades, but it is only in the past two years that we have had experimental confirmation of its existence.

This year’s Nobel prizes

In physics: François Englert and Peter W. Higgs for the theoretical discovery of the Higgs mechanism.

In chemistry: Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems. In practice, this means computer models that draw on quantum mechanics in the most important parts and simplify to classical physics, which is less accurate but also less computationally expensive, in the less important parts of a reaction. Illustration of Newton and his apple fighting, then reconciling with Schrödinger’s cat from the Nobel Institute. Note that this research was done in the 1970s; although the Physics prize was highly topical, most Nobel prizes are awarded decades after a discovery; indeed, the Higgs boson was initially theorized in 1964.

In medicine: James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof for elucidating the mechanisms that drive vesicles, “storage pouches” inside the cell that transport various materials within the cell or fuse with the cell membrane to deliver them to the outside of the cell.

In economics: Eugene F. Fama, Lars Peter Hansen, Robert J. Shiller for their empirical analysis of asset prices.

On this blog in 2013

Fundamentals of Computer Science

Northern lights

Whatever you think about introversion and extraversion, it’s probably wrong

The cyclical nature of language change

The mantis shrimp can perceive categories of light we can’t even imagine

Soap Bubbles, Honeycombs, Snowflakes, Oranges on top of Each Other, and Programming Language Compilers

What, exactly, is energy?

Smog over China on October 22, 2013, as captured by a NASA weather satellite.

Smog over China on October 22, 2013, as captured by a NASA weather satellite.