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Religions against women, everywhere April 4, 2009

Posted by dorigo in news, politics, religion.
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Maybe you might get the impression that I am discovering hot water with this post, and in that case I apologize. But I cannot help logging in this site that I insist in being constantly amazed at the virulence, the shamelessness, and the violence which religious activists use on a daily basis against women, everywhere on this poor planet.

We are all used to the ferocious laws against women in islamic countries, the beating to death of mothers and daughters for futile reasons, the lack of civil rights of women there. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the Talibans were eradicated from power in Afghanistan -only to wake up later and find out that nothing much has changed. In general, when we discuss the rights of women, the situation in arab countries is the obvious issue to deal with.

Things, however, are not qualitatively very different in more “civilized” countries. Take Italy as a very clear example. A western country, a democracy, a secular power which should be able to legislate free from religious ingerence. But it is not so: through lobbying, declarations of archbishops, preaches by Pope Ratzinger, and sermons in the churches, the Vatican managed to convince the italian government to pass a law that for all practical purposes prevents in vitro fertilization. Women who want to get pregnant with medical aid have to travel to Spain or Ukraine, if they can afford it. Worse still, the health of women who accept the italian rules on assisted procreation is put to risk by insane rules whose denominator is the belief that “the embryo is sacred and has to be defended” -even at the risk of the owner of the womb. Every sperm is sacred: one cannot help hearing the old song by Monty Python sung in the background every time Cardinal Bagnasco or one of his accolites is seen on national television.

There would be other things to discuss -Ratzinger’s fight against condoms in Africa, for instance, is directed first and foremost against women. Or the idiotic laws against stem cell research. But I want to mention something else here today.

What prompts me to write about religion and women today is the news about a picture of the new Israeli government of Benyamin Netanyahu, which contains -the horror, the horror- two women: Limor Livnat, minister of Culture and Sport, and Sofa Landver, minister of Immigration. These two women were amidst 28 men in a picture taken yesterday, and shown on most israeli newspapers. The devil is in the details: see the two versions, and decide for yourself which one is the original and which one appeared on ultra-orthodox newspapers, Sha’a Tovah and Yated Ne’eman.

No violence was moved, nobody was hurt. But to me, the photoshopped picture is if possible even more disturbing than an “ordinary” violent act against a woman. Because it comes from a supposedly respectable institution, in a “civilized” country.

If I were Netanyahu, I would force the newspapers editors to publish the original pictures and present their excuses to the ministers, to the people of Israel, and to us all. Otherwise, some of the reasons why we root for Israel against arab fundamentalists are lost, and Israel itself becomes weaker in its struggle for survival.

In favor of death for Eluana February 9, 2009

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The case of Eluana Englaro, a woman in irreversible coma since 1992, is causing an institutional conflict in Italy, as well as a pitiful example of “insolence of office”.

The story is long, and if you have not followed it on the newspapers, it is hard for me to summarize its salient points. However, here is a speed attempt.

A jury has decreed that the father has the right to ask for a stop of the forced nutrition, thereby allowing Eluana to die as was her wish in case of such an infermity. The vatican screamed of homicide, and the minister of health tried to stop the transfer of the body to a clinic where the procedure could be implemented, getting to the point of publically threatening the clinics officials. Then, a suitable place was found in Udine, and Eluana was transferred there. In a crescendo of drama, while the stoppage of nutrition and hydratation of the poor body was getting started, the italian government rushed to try a urgent decree which would prohibit such a procedure. The decree, to be executive, had to go through a signature of the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano; but Napolitano had already expressed his negative opinion on such a unmotivated urgency in a matter -the rights of a person to refuse to be cured- which would have required much analysis.

Today we are assisting at several other attempts at “saving the life” of Eluana by the italian government, which is nothing than an execution of Vatican orders: a full-fledged law is being rushed through the Senate (it is just the decree rejected by Napolitano, so one wonders what difference it could make); the Police force is threatening to take possession of the rooms where Eluana is resting in the clinic, claiming that the site is non-compliant to specifications; judges are investigating on the clinic itself. In the meantime, stand-offs of pro-life and pro-choice activists take place in front of the clinic. On the right, pro-choice activists; below, pro-life activists.

I am thoroughly disgusted at the sight of a State that cannot life a life independently of its religious appendage. But disgust is not the end of the story: I am also quite alarmed by the reactionary moves of the Berlusconi government, which shows for the umpteenth time to not care for the democratic rules and the constitution, whose predicaments their decree was neglecting. Berlusconi is ignoring Napolitano’s pledge for a pacate, unrushed discussion on a law for the “biologic legacy”, which should govern the rights of citizens in matters concerning the end of life, forced cure, and related topics. By forcing a law on such matters through the parliament, Berlusconi aims at exacerbating the conflict with the head of the State, in order to create the conditions for a change of the italian Constitution, which would allow him to take Napolitano’s seat with greatly increased powers.

In the meantime, Eluana is finally dying, as she would have wanted to do 17 years ago. However, while this is happening we are assisting at pro-life fanatics claiming that the family does not really know the real intentions of their daughter, in a desperate attempt to “save her life”. Let me be clear on one thing here: if for accident or illness I fall in a persistent vegetative condition, it is my will that my life be terminated, by whatever means are found appropriate. It is my will that no forced feeding and hydratation be continued without aim if there are no reasonable chances to ever return me to a conscious state. And, being a scientist, by “reasonable” I mean 5%, not one in a million!

UPDATE: Eluana died one hour ago. Would you guess this made people silent ? Nope.  Accusations of homicide flew around in the italian Senate, catholic personalities felt the urge to express their feelings, the government claims they will bring forward their law “such that Eluana’s sacrifice has not been vain”. The disgust continues. I think it will last four more years.

UPDATE: a few links in English on the matter:

The State is laic February 7, 2009

Posted by dorigo in history, personal, politics, religion.
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The other day, while waiting for my turn to operate the automatic coffee machine in the basement of the physics department, I read a small newspaper clip hung by somebody on the bulletin board in front of the machine. It was a comment by Michele Serra, who sarcastically thanked an italian archbishop of the catholic church, for clarifying in an interview that the Church’s rules, to a christian, come before the ones of the State. In other words, Serra clarified, catholics should not follow laws, in case those collide with the predicaments of the Church. So catholic physicians, for instance, are justified if they do not prescribe the “day after” pill against pregnancy: the State demands them to do it, but Christ comes first.

We of course have very clear and present in our minds how religious fundamentalism is dangerous to the civil world, thanks to recent terrorist actions in the US, in Spain, and elsewhere in the world. It still surprises, however, to read it clearly from the words spelt by a high mushroom in the catholic hierarchy.

And today, I was reading a book on the young catholics in Italy after WWII, their organization (GIAC, the catholic action movement), and their attempts to make sense of the conflicting needs of being a good catholic and a good citizen. My father was a member of this movement in the years immediately following 1948, when Italy was a young democracy and the relationship of State and Church needed to be rethought and rewritten (he became an atheist a decade or two later, after observing for a while the fundamentalism of catholics from a vantage point).

The book, by Francesco Piva, is titled “La gioventu’ cattolica in cammino… Memoria e storia del gruppo dirigente (1946-1954)“, ed. Franco Angeli 2003. I thus found a very interesting quote by Umberto Eco, who was to become a famous italian novelist and professor of Semiotic, and back then was a member of the GIAC along with my father. On page 205 Piva clarifies things in this revealing quote:

Eco insiste sul fatto che l’educazione cattolica era tutta concentrata sul sesto comandamento perche’ era impregnata di antistatalismo e non aveva alcuna sensibilità verso i doveri sociali: “Non dimentichiamoci che l’educazione cattolica che si riceveva era: il contrabbando e l’evasione fiscale non sono peccato, perché sono contro la legge dello Stato che è contingente, non sono contro la legge divina. (…) Il problema era che uno non commettesse atti impuri: se poi fregava lo Stato…

Here is a tentative translation:

Eco insists on the fact that the catholic education was thoroughly concentrated on the sixth commandment, because it was filled with anti-statalism and it did not show any sensitivity towards social duties: “Don’t let’s forget that the catholic education that one was given was: smuggling and fiscal elusion are not a sin, because they are against the law of the State which is accidental, they are not against the divine law. (…). The problem was avoiding committing impure acts: if one then fucked the State…

Enlightening. It transpires that the archbishop mentioned by Serra in his article is not a white fly: they all have this belief deeply implanted in their roots. That, to me, is a clear reason for any politician, right or left, believer or atheist, to reject any ingerence in political decisions from the Vatican. This is another State trying to influence the law making in ours!

Black holes hype does not decay February 3, 2009

Posted by dorigo in astronomy, Blogroll, cosmology, humor, news, physics, politics, religion, science.
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While the creation of black holes in the high-energy proton-proton collisions that LHC will hopefully start providing this fall is not granted, and while the scientific establishment is basically unanimous in claiming that those microscopical entities would anyway decay in a time so short that even top quarks look longevous in comparison, the hype about doomsday being unwittingly delivered by the hands of psychotic, megalomaniac CERN scientists continues unhindered.

Here are a few recent links on the matter (thanks to M.M. for pointing them out):

The source of the renewed fire appears to be a paper published on the arxiv a couple of weeks ago. In it, the authors (R. Casadio, S. Fabi, and B. Harms) discuss a very specific model (a warped brane-world scenario), in whose context microscopic black holes might have a chance to survive for a few seconds.

Never mind the fact that the authors say from the very abstract, as if feeling the impending danger of being strumentalized, “we argue against the possibility of catastrophic black hole growth at the LHC“. This is not the way it should be done: you cannot assume a very specific model, and then draw general conclusions, because others opposing your view may always use the same crooked logic and reverse the conclusions. However, I understand that the authors made a genuine effort to try and figure out what could be the phenomenology of microscopic black holes created in the scenario they considered.

The accretion of a black hole may occur via direct collision with matter and via gravitational interactions with it. For microscopic black holes, however, the latter (called Bondi accretion) is basically negligible. The authors compute the evolution of the mass of the BH as a function of time for different values of a critical mass parameter M_c, which depends on the model and is connected to the characteristic thickness of the brane. They explicitly make two examples: in the first, when M_c=100 kg,  a 10 TeV black hole, created with 5 TeV/c momentum, is shown to decay with a roughly exponential law, but with lifetime much longer -of the order of a picosecond- than that usually assumed for a micro-BH evaporating through Hawking radiation. In the second case, where M_c=10^6 kg, the maximum BH mass is reached at 3.5 \times 10^{21} kg after about one second. Even in this scenario, the capture radius of the object is very small, and the object decays with a lifetime of about 100 seconds. The authors also show that “there is a rather narrow range of parameters […] for which RS black holes produced at the LHC would grow before evaporating“.

In the figure on the right, the 10-base logarithm of the maximum distance traveled by the black hole (expressed in meters) is computed as a function of the 10-base logarithm of the critical mass (expressed in kilograms), for a black hole of 10 TeV mass produced by the LHC with a momentum of 5 TeV/c. As you can see, if the critical mass parameter is large enough, these things would be able to reach you in your bedroom. Scared ? Let’s read their conclusions then.

“[…] Indeed, in order for the black holes created at the LHC to grow at all, the critical mass should be M_c>10^5 kg. This value is rather close to the maximum compatible with experimental test of Newton’s law, that is M_c=10^6 kg (which we further relaxed to M_c=10^8 kg in our analysis). For smaller values of M_c, the black holes cannot accrete fast enough to overcome the decay rate. Furthermore , the larger M_c is taken to be, the longer a black hole takes to reach its maximum value and the less time it remains near its maximum value before exiting the Earth.

We conclude that, for the RS scenario and black holes decribed by the metric [6], the growth of black holes to catastrophic size does not seem possible. Nonetheless, it remains true that the expected decay times are much longer (and possibly >>1 sec) than is typically predicted by other models, as was first shown in [4]”.

Here are some random reactions I collected from the physics arxiv blog -no mention of the author’s names, since they do not deserve it:

  • This is starting to get me nervous.
  • Isn’t the LHC in Europe? As long as it doesn’t suck up the USA, I’m fine with it.
  • It is entirely possible that the obvious steps in scientific discovery may cause intelligent societies to destroy themselves. It would provide a clear resolution to the Fermi paradox.
  • I’m pro science and research, but I’m also pro caution when necessary.
  • That’s what I asked and CERN never replied. My question was: “Is it possible that some of these black might coalesce and form larger black holes? larger black holes would be more powerful than their predecessors and possibly aquire more mass and grow still larger.”
  • The questions is, whether these scientists are competent at all, if they haven’t made such analysis a WELL BEFORE the LHC project ever started.
  • I think this is bad. American officials should do something about this because if scientists do end up destroying the earth with a black hole it won’t matter that they were in Europe, America will get the blame. On the other hand, if we act now to be seen dealing as a responsible member of the international community, then, if the worst happens, we have a good chance of pinning it on the Jews.
  • The more disturbing fact about all this is the billions and billions being spent to satisfy the curiosity of a select group of scientists and philosophers. Whatever the results will yield little real-world benefit outside some incestuous lecture circuit.
  • “If events at the LHC swallow Switzerland, what are we going to do without wrist watches and chocolate?” Don’t worry, we’ll still have Russian watches. they’re much better, faster even.

It goes on, and on, and on. Boy, it is highly entertaining, but unfortunately, I fear this is taking a bad turn for Science. I tend to believe that on this particular issue, no discussion would be better than any discussion -it is like trying to argue with a fanatic about the reality of a statue of the Virgin weeping blood.

… So, why don’t we just shut up on this particular matter ?

Hmm, if I post this, I would be going against my own suggestion. Damned either way.

Pope Benedict for regime change January 8, 2009

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As the israeli offensive in Gaza intensifies, and the body count surpasses the 600 units -most of them civilians, as is unfortunately common to all contemporary wars, despite the “high moral standards” of the israeli armi and the “intelligence” of its bombs- talks for a truce are getting nowhere, and it is plain to see that the IDF will not stop until they reach their goals, whatever those are.

In the meantime, we record Pope Benedict pitching in to ask for regime change, the rationale being that these leaders cannot sit at a peace table:

It is very important that, in occasion of the crucial electoral dates for many inhabitants of the region in the forthcoming months, capable leaders can emerge, who can further with resolution this process and to guide their peoples toward the difficult but necessary reconciliation, to which it will be not possible to get without adopting a global approach to the problems of those countries […]. (Translation by TD)

A reasonable thought but, being the sarcastic SOB that I am, I cannot help wondering if the Vatican is going to follow words with facts. Regime change is something we have heard George W. asking insistently for Iraq, before deciding for a direct action. After the probable failure of the Pope’s auspices, will the Vatican send troops as they did less than a millennium ago ?

The Say of the Week: ID take that! January 7, 2009

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“Why do dogs do the squashiest, most unpleasant turds that hide in the grass and spread themselves in the indentations on the bottom of your shoe, but don’t start smelling until you get indoors and then render the place uninhabitable until you’ve left every window open for a month? Why, why, why?
Come on intelligent design people, the questions you have to answer have barely begun.”

(Mark Steel, What creationists really hate is that we emerged by accident.)

I am a Bright! January 2, 2009

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Just joined the Brights’ net! You might want to check the website, I bet a large fraction of visitors here are Brights without knowing it…

Here is what it means to be a Bright:

  • A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview
  • A bright’s worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements
  • The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview

And kudos to David Orban who pointed at the site in his blog.

The Vatican against french proposal to legalize homosexuality December 1, 2008

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Just a quick note to say I continue to be disgusted by the catholic church. Answering to France’s announced proposal to universally depenalize homosexuality, the Vatican shows a huge amount of hypocrisy today. Celestino Migliore, a permanent UN observer for the Vatican, says it would bring new discrimination, since countries that do not recognize gay unions would be placed in a pillory. Here are his words:

“Per esempio, gli Stati che non riconoscono l’unione tra persone dello stesso sesso come “matrimonio” verranno messi alla gogna e fatti oggetto di pressioni”.

(As an example, countries that do not recognize the union between people of the same sex as “marriage” will be placed in a pillory and be subjected to pressure)

What can I say… I said it already: please go on like that. The catholic church is going to marginalize itself by taking such idiotic stands. Migliore, be my guest.

No sperm ? No mass. June 8, 2008

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The catholic church showed its cynical face yesterday, but also a good dose of its legendary attention to canon law, as a couple got married with a non-religious ceremony in Viterbo, and it became known that the local religious authorities had denied them the sacrament of marriage because the man was a paraplegic with a clinical condition of impotence due to lesions caused by a car accident.

No sperm ? No mass. Even worse: although I do not know the details of the handicap to the reproductory organs of the man, I fear the church would deny a religious marriage even in presence of healthy production of vital semen, if the latter had no chance of being imparted the required kinetic energy and directionality. In fact, the church allows divorce -or rather, invalidation of marriage, through an institution called sacra rota– whenever it can be proven that the sexual act of procreation cannot be carried out. Here we are talking mechanics rather than biology. And this in fact goes hand in hand with the church’s opposition to assisted procreation.

A quote I like says “consistency requires you to be as ignorant as you were a year ago”. For catholic church one would have to modify this into “consistency calls for cynicism”. When they oppose by all means -with blatant ingerence in internal italian affairs- italian laws trying to provide with some basic rights unmarried pairs of human beings living together more uxorio -as they have recently done-, they really are following a very clear plan: discriminate by all possible means against men and women who won’t have children.

I have said it other times in the past: these failures to modernize will eventually be the cause of their extinction. It may take a while though.

Does God Play Dice With the Universe ? – A review April 8, 2008

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About a month ago I received in my mail box a copy of a small, good-looking book, titled “God Does Play Dice With the Universe“. Author: Shan Gao, in his own words “an independent research scientist, or more accurately, a natural philosopher who aims at understanding the mysterious universe“. Shan is a reader of my site. He had previously contacted me to ask if I would be willing to review his new work.

Despite being a lazy reader and having no experience in reviewing books, I promised him I would: my curiosity won, as it usually does in such circumstances. So, as I unpacked the parcel that the British publisher Abramis had crafted for me, I had mixed feelings: the object I was unwrapping meant something new and potentially stimulating to write about – but it also meant work ahead.

The book turned out to consist in a bit over 100 pages neatly written in a pocket 9″x6” size, cleanly printed
and illustrated, and featuring a starry background on the cover. Does God play dice with the universe ? I admit I started browsing the book with a definite bias – the way I had been contacted, the title of the book, and the very fact that somebody should select me as a reviewer made me lean toward the idea that the author was some sort of a crackpot.

Now, I have to say I have nothing against the “category” in itself. People who try to understand reality and build their own theories have my deep respect; that is, until they become arrogant and presumptuous. Shan had been kind and unassertive in his communication with me, so my bias was not putting me in a bad mood by itself.

However, after a first quick look, I was left wondering about the soundness of my pre-judgement. For one thing, the book contained no formulas at all. I mean none, not even a few. This did not quite fit the crackpot idea I had put together. Secondly, the descriptions of quantum phenomena I came across by random browsing appeared actually rather well put together, even if of course simplified and not rigorous, and I could detect no obvious flaw in their presentation. I have to warn the reader here: I am no theorist, and my studies of quantum mechanics date a century back; however, usually I can still smell a fallacious statement if I read one.

I decided I would really read the damn book. It took me a while despite its light weight, because my reading time is scarce these days, but today I finally got to the last page, and can present some considerations in a less handwaving form than I thought I would at the beginning.

“God Does Play Dice With the Universe” is a book which builds on a few general principles of quantum mechanics and their contrariness to common sense to propose a bold, even cunning explanation of motion at the microscopic level. One which, I must add, is not scientifically justified or proven in any way; but the author’s ultimate goal is philosophical rather than scientific. That, in essence, is the reason why one feels one can accept without question the multitude of unproven hypotheses, which are presented as unquestionable facts, in the discussion of random motion and the concept of a discrete fabric of space-time.

Shan Gao’s goal is to understand the universe in a philosophical way, and indeed the book describes several views of motion from past thinkers ranging from Zeno to Aristotle, from Al-Nazzam to Bergson (“Movement is composed of immobilities“) and Bertrand Russell (“Motion consists merely in the occupation of different places at different times“). And even if one feels nervous to be confronted with divine actions while reading about quantum-mechanical concepts, and the G word appears a bit too often in the text, in the end the author can be appreciated for having put together his own “theory” and a imaginative way of looking at space and time and the way objects move. Rather than trying to summarize his ideas, let me quote an extended passage:

In a word, even if no concrete cause exists, a change can still happen as long as the change is purely random. In order to further understand this conclusion, it is necessary to distinguish two kinds of causes. One is concrete causes that relate to time, and the other is universal causes that are irrelevant to time. The former is our familiar causes appearing in the principle of causality. Such a concrete cause will result in a lawful change at a concrete time. The latter is a new kind of causes, which are similar to Aristotle’s final causes. A universal cause can result in ceaseless random changes. As a consequence, both lawful changes and random changes have their causes.

So, the principle of causality and indeterminism can be unified in a generalized principle of causality. […] To sum up, we find an appealing solution to the long-standing puzzle of indeterminism. The existence of uncaused events is actually logical. So it is comprehensible that God plays dice with the universe.

The last chapter of the book is one I did enjoy, despite -or maybe because of- the lack of physics or pseudo-physics arguments. Here, Shan Gao takes his ideas of motion and confronts them with the philosophical views of Aquinas, Newton, Aristotle, and the concept of a First Mover:

In Newton’s physical world, God has a new position […]. A moving object needs no mover. So there is no need for Aquinas’ First Mover. However, Newton’s First Mover still exists. […] No object has the ability to move itself. Then who moved the first moving object ? How did it start off if no object can move itself ? So, as Newton thought, the universe still needs some original thing that set it all in motion […] Indeed, Newton warned against using his mechanics to view the universe as a mere machine […]: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”

He concludes:

According to the new picture of random motion, objects can move by themselves. What is the
position of God in the new universe then? […] So God seems to have no position in the spontaneous universe. If God did exist, He would need to do nothing. In the profound words of the great Chinese sage Lao Tzu, “Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place“. This is the very Tao of the universe.

I liked this finish. After setting the stage with an almost mystical view of the universe, Shan Gao drops the curtain, and there is no God behind it. Or, if there is one, He is certainly not doing much for us.