Flat-earthers

Posted by Shannon

BBC News:

Ms Garwood says it is an “historic fallacy” that everyone from ancient times to the Dark Ages believed the earth to be flat, and were only disabused of this “mad idea” once Christopher Columbus successfully sailed to America without “falling off the edge of the world”.

In fact, people have known since at least the 4th century BC that the earth is round, and the pseudo-scientific conviction that we actually live on a disc didn’t emerge until Victorian times.

Theories about the earth being flat really came to the fore in 19th Century England. With the rise and rise of scientific rationalism, which seemed to undermine Biblical authority, some Christian thinkers decided to launch an attack on established science.

Samuel Birley Rowbotham (1816-1884) assumed the pseudonym of “Parallax” and founded a new school of “Zetetic astronomy”. He toured England arguing that the Earth was a stationary disc and the Sun was only 400 miles away.

In the 1870s, Christian polemicist John Hampden wrote numerous works about the Earth being flat, and described Isaac Newton as “in liquor or insane”.

Well, he was kinda right about Newton. The guy was crazy as a loon (but amazing). Read on.

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The Laboratory of Intelligent Systems (LIS) directed by Prof. Dario Floreano focuses on the development of robotic systems and artificial intelligence methods inspired by biological principles of self-organization. Currently, we address three interconnected research areas: flying robots, artificial evolution and social systems.

Link! Be sure to check out their projects page (which I would link to directly, but they’re using frames…. Tsk! Tsk!). Via this post on Current.

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I have a healthy appreciation for bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, I’m generally very anti-bullshit, especially when it comes to things like justifications for war, regressive anti-science and scaring people to (literal) death. You know: things that matter.

But I must confess, I do take a certain amount of pleasure in watching bullshit separate fools from their money. If it’s audacious enough, it can be like watching a well-crafted crime caper.

Which leads us to H2Om.
Read the rest of this entry »

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Atomic John

Posted by Shannon

The New Yorker:

In the decades since the Second World War, dozens of historians have attempted to divine the precise mechanics of the Hiroshima bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, and of the bomb that fell three days later on Nagasaki, known as Fat Man. The most prominent is Richard Rhodes, who won a Pulitzer Prize, in 1988, for his dazzling and meticulous book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” But the most accurate account of the bomb’s inner workings—an unnervingly detailed reconstruction, based on old photographs and documents—has been written by a sixty-one-year-old truck driver from Waukesha, Wisconsin, named John Coster-Mullen, who was once a commercial photographer, and has never received a college degree.

Read on.

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Neat Wikipedia Entry #8

Posted by Shannon

Sweating sickness:

Sweating sickness, also known as the “English sweate” (Latin: sudor anglicus), was a mysterious and highly virulent disease which struck England and later Europe in a series of epidemics, the first beginning in 1485 and the last in 1551, afterwards apparently vanishing. The onset of symptoms was dramatic and sudden, with death often occurring within hours. Its cause remains unknown.

Read on.

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or, Journey to the Center of Eden

JESUS CHRIST, IT’S A JESUS LIZARD! GET IN THE CAR!

According to Walden Media’s Wikipedia entry, they deny that they are an overtly Christian production company. They have had to make this denial as they are owned by Philip Anschutz (noted conservative Christian and funder of the Discovery Institute), not to mention they produced the film adaptation of your favorite Feline Christ narrative and mine, The Chronicles of Narnia.

I’m actually inclined to go along with them. As I look at their filmography, it’s all family oriented stuff, but very few of their films have overtly Christian themes. Some of their output has been absolutely atrocious, but only Narnia is clearly Christian propaganda.

At least I thought so. That brings us to Eric Brevig’s 3-D Brendan Frasier vehicle, Journey to the Center of the Earth. Wait a minute, I can hear you asking, How can an adaptation of a Jules Verne novel be seen as Christian propaganda? Well, that’s the thing: it’s not an adaptation.

The premise of this theme park ride film is that Verne’s account in Journey to the Center of the Earth is literally true. Frasier’s older brother was a geologist with some kookie ideas about lava tubes thousands of miles deep, who went off to Iceland to investigate his theories and vanished. Ten years later, Frasier comes across an old, dog-eared copy of his brother’s favorite book (guess) that’s cryptically annotated1 in ways that suggest what he was up to.

Frasier, being the sort of grossly irresponsible adult that keeps these types of movies clipping along, scoots off to Iceland with his annoyingly-surly-cum-annoyingly-eager teenage nephew (the lava-tube-kook’s son, of course). Yadda, yadda, yadda… Strained comedy happens. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

In short time, they find out from the leggy, blonde, Icelandic love interest that their brother/father was a “Vernian:” someone who believes that Jules Verne’s account of the lost world at the center of the Earth is literally true. Whether Vernians extend this to his other works is never addressed, although I’m rooting for Mysterious Island.

Through a series of unlikely events (lightning, mine cars), Frasier, the kid & the hottie end up falling down a lava tube and landing in Verne’s weird subterranean world. “He was right!” Frasier says of his dearly departed brother, “People ridiculed him for what he believed but he was right!”

This is the point in this post when I get a bit nervous, wondering if I’m reading way too much into what is otherwise simple escapist fare. “Overthinking a plate of beans,” as they say at MetaFilter. OK… is this aspect of the story speaking directly to the Creationists in the audience?

This guy takes a clearly fictional and ridiculous story and interprets it as true, all evidence to the contrary, and is ridiculed by the scientific establishment. But, get this: it turns out he was right!

I could have left this alone as a plot device, but that line of dialogue quoted above just won’t let me. In context, it seems shoehorned in, and it seems specially designed to cater to the persecution complex that most conservative Christians share these days. Especially Creationists.

Once that one line planted the seed in my mind, something else started bothering me. Despite the movie’s assertion that Verne’s novel is complete non-fiction, the reality of the underground world differs from the novel in a key way. From Wikipedia:

The living organisms they meet reflects the geological time; just as the rock layers become older and older the deeper one gets, the animals get more and more ancient the closer the characters come to the center. From a scientific point of view, this story has not aged quite as well as other Verne stories, since most of his ideas about what the interior of the Earth contains have since been proven wrong. However, a redeeming point to the story is Verne’s own belief, told within the novel from the viewpoint of a character, that the inside of the Earth does indeed differ from that which the characters encounter. One of Verne’s main ideas with his stories was also to educate the readers, and by placing the different extinct creatures the characters meet in their correct geological era, he is able to show how the world looked like millions of years ago, stretching from the ice age to the dinosaurs.

This is an element of the story that is completely thrown out the window, in favor of a smattering of “prehistoric” creatures that pop in here and there, such as bioluminescent birds, predatory plants, and a giant carnosaur that appears to be twice as large as the biggest T. rex.2 I find it surprising that this blatantly educational aspect of the story was thrown out, considering Walden’s emphasis on education. Wikipedia again, because I’m feeling lazy:

Walden Media is unique among film production companies in that it works with teachers, museums, and national organizations to develop supplemental educational programs and materials associated with its films and the original events and/or novels that inspire the films.

But you eliminate this one element, you also eliminate two Creationist pet peeves: discussion of an ancient earth and a narrative that also functions as metaphor. There’s no room for metaphor in this literal view of Verne.

Again, I realize that I may be reading way to much into this, but keep in mind that it kept me entertained when the movie did not. I had absolutely nothing else to think about! The movie is a chore to watch, in a way that has nothing to do with religion or politics. The writing is flat when it’s not sappy, the action scenes are dull and few in number3 and, as an advocate of digital filmmaking, I’m going to pretend this movie was never made. By that, I mean it displays all the staginess of a movie that was shot in a small green screen studio by someone who doesn’t know how to make that not matter. The characters always seem confined to small areas as their epic surroundings swirl around them. I didn’t see this in 3-D, mind you, but I doubt it would have helped too much. Poor Frasier… I usually enjoy him!

1 Why bother with encoding your notes if you’re going to half-ass it? Frasier and the kid crack it during a plane ride.

2 Seeing as how we never see any prey animals of any size, I have to wonder how this environment supports an alpha predator this big. /DORK

3 “The food here is terrible!” “I know! And such small portions!”

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That would have been the headline in the Autumn of 1872 if the journalists in New York could have correlated the information pouring into The New York Times about the spread of the worst equestrian catastrophe in the history of the nation – and perhaps the world.

Imagine an equestrian health disaster that crippled all of America, halted the government in Washington DC, stopped the ships in New York, burned Boston to the ground and forced the cavalry to fight the Apaches on foot. It was an equine tragedy so deadly that one wave of the infection swept south like a Biblical plague from its origin in Toronto, Canada, down the Atlantic Seaboard to Havana, Cuba, leaving everything in its path in ruins in weeks, while another branch simultaneously raced west to the Pacific.

Now imagine if knowledge of the greatest equine epidemic in North American history had been lost – until now.

Link! Via MeFi.

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The name of the mission is Solar Probe+ (pronounced “Solar Probe plus”). It’s a heat-resistant spacecraft designed to plunge deep into the sun’s atmosphere where it can sample solar wind and magnetism first hand. Launch could happen as early as 2015. By the time the mission ends 7 years later, planners believe Solar Probe+ will solve two great mysteries of astrophysics and make many new discoveries along the way.

One of those mysteries blows me away. I had no idea about this:

If you stuck a thermometer in the surface of the sun, it would read about 6000o C. Intuition says the temperature should drop as you back away; instead, it rises. The sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, registers more than a million degrees Celsius, hundreds of times hotter than the star below. This high temperature remains a mystery more than 60 years after it was first measured.

We live in a wonderfully bizarre universe. Read the whole thing.

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Einstein on religion

Posted by Shannon

“The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”

Well, I suppose that puts one of his most famous quotes in its proper context. Link! [via Digg]

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Robert Bakker interview

Posted by Shannon

Laelaps has an interesting interview with paleontologist Robert Bakker. I literally wore out my copy of The Dinosaur Heresies as a kid (I patched it back together with packing tape), and got to meet him at an orientation meeting when I was a volunteer for Dinamation.* Cool guy. Interesting interview. I don’t agree with his last answer, but he’s a religious fellow. Whatcha gonna do?

*According to Wikipedia, it no longer exists! Well, that sucks!

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