Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Breathtaking Endeavor

I've been blessed to have some breathtaking experiences in my life. I've seen the sun set on Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya and I've experienced the thunder of Victoria Falls in Zambia. I've watched whales in the Pacific, great white sharks hunting seals off Cape Point, and I've been horse-riding in the Alps. And, of course, I've had close encounters with lions, cheetahs, bears, elephants, hippos, beluga whales, and a host of other remarkable animals. But this past summer, I had an experience which, to my surprise, was as breathtaking as any of these.

Los Angeles was full of flyers advertising a new exhibit on display at the California Science Center: the NASA OV-105 (Orbital Vehicle 105), better known as the Space Shuttle Endeavor. I duly took my family to see it. What I wasn't expecting was that upon seeing it, I would literally (and I mean "literally" literally) gasp, and feel a powerful emotion of awe. (If you're reading this in a web browser, you can click on the hi-res image on the right to embiggen it and get a better sense of its awesomeness.)

Now, it's true that the space shuttle was always a big deal for me. As a kid (and, truth be told, even as an adult) I was always a huge fan of spaceships. Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Battle of the Planets, Lego Space models, you name it. I remember that as a third-grader, I did a school project which I called "Into The Future," about space exploration; in an ironic precursor of future events, a zealous classmate slammed it as kefirah!

Still, I wasn't the only one to feel such powerful emotions upon seeing the OV-105. My wife, who was was certainly no spaceship enthusiast in her youth, was tending to the baby when I entered the exhibit, and thus entered later and separately. She told me that when she saw the shuttle, she was overcome with emotion, with tears welling up in her eyes.

Why was it such an awesome sight? The shuttle is not as big as an airliner. But it does look very different. For example, instead of a smooth exterior, it is covered in textured insulating tiles - each about eight inches square, individually numbered, separately sized, costing about $2000 apiece, and fragile enough to be crushed by hand! The shuttle also has all kinds of ports and hatches and devices all over it, setting it aside as a Very Unique Vehicle. And those engines!

But it certainly wasn't just the appearance of the shuttle that made the experience so breathtaking. Rather, it was what the shuttle represented. As a child/ teenager in the 80s, the space shuttle truly epitomized the wonder of technological progress. It looked like soon there would be lunar bases and interplanetary exploration, with the USS Enterprise not far off in the future. Of course, the space program didn't quite work out that way, and it seems to have taken a step backwards with the decommissioning of the space shuttle; nowadays, the most exciting part of the space program is when a frog tries to hitch a ride. But for people my age, the space shuttle was mankind's most glorious technological achievement.

For me, seeing the OV-105 was a religious moment. Floundering for the correct response, I pronounced the blessing of Baruch shenasan me-chachmaso l'bnei adam, "Blessed is He who has given of His wisdom to mankind." This is a blessing recited upon seeing a great scholar of secular wisdom; I figured that the shuttle represents the fruits of such wisdom. 

My wife told me that when she saw it, she spontaneously wanted to recite the blessing of Baruch Oseh Maase Bereishis, "Blessed is the One who makes the work of creation." Then she felt that it would not be correct, because that is a blessing to be pronounced upon the work of God, whereas the shuttle is the work of man.

I'm not sure that it wouldn't be appropriate. The space shuttle is the pinnacle of man's technological prowess, which in turn is the result of his three-pound brain. Which in turn is the single most complex entity in the known universe - the single greatest and most remarkable element of creation. In The Challenge Of Creation, I quoted the following from mathematician Morris Kline:
A study of mathematics and its contributions to the sciences exposes a deep question. Mathematics is man-made. The concepts, the broad ideas, the logical standards and methods of reasoning... were fashioned by human beings. Yet with the product of his fallible mind, man has surveyed spaces too vast for his imagination to encompass; he has predicted and shown how to control radio waves which none of our senses can perceive; and he has discovered particles too small to be seen with the most powerful microscope... Some explanation of this marvelous power is called for.
Who would predict a universe in which the laws of nature are able to produce a being that can figure out a way to leave its home planet? Baruch Oseh Maase Bereishis!


58 comments:

  1. Perhaps this post explains how aRationalist can believe in an invisible God.

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  2. I assume you didn't literally make a bracha, but the nusach is שנתן מחכמתו לבני אדם, & see Taz (או"ח רכד)

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  3. Whenever I read the prayers from the Siddur or read Tehillim, I get the impression of a very primitive conception of the universe, in spite of all the praise for His works. We learn that Abraham conceived of G-d through sheer reasoning. But how sophisticated could his reasoning have been?

    This is mighty fanciful thinking, but one would suppose that every Yeshiva student would be required to undertake a thorough study of physics and mathematics in order to better understand and appreciate G-d's works. Of course one reason among many that this is not done (aside from the conception that all truth worth knowing exists within the confines of the Talmud) is that intellectually honest scientific knowledge more often than not leads not to deeper belief in G-d, but to greater skepticism. Witness that the vast majority of members of the American National Academy of Sciences are atheists, as shown in surveys. Of course, it is not a necessary logical requirement that more scientific knowledge leads to atheism.
    What is the answer? Should Yeshivas instill a love of the study of the natural world through modern science?

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  4. If you've never visited the Kennedy Space Center, I recommend going there on one of your future US visits. They have the Atlantis orbiter on display and so much more. While the museums, rockets, IMAX movies are all really cool, it's the bus tours to the actual launch areas and Vehicle Assembly Building that are most impressive. And, if you're lucky, an actual rocket launch.

    I'm in Florida twice a year to visit my in-laws and I'm still waiting for a visit to coincide with a vehicle launch. I'm still disappointed that I had to fly back home, early in the morning, on the day the Discovery flew Dulles Airport atop the 747 for it's final voyage to be a part of the Smithsonian. I think that would have been a sight to behold.

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  5. Is that an eruv line in the background of the first picture? (top, left)

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  6. In recent days, it was announced that another major milestone in space exploration was achieved....it was discovered that the Voyager 1 spacecraft has passed through the Heliopause and entered interstellar space. One scientist said this was the second most significant space achievement since the manned Moon landing in 1969. Up until now, the spacecraft has been within the influence of the solar wind, a stream of charged particles ejected from the Sun. At the Heliopause, the density of particles increases and their velocity suddenly decreases and the environment is now representative of general interstellar space. The relevance of this is that this is comparable to the so-called "Hydraulic jump" we all see when we turn on the faucet in the kitchen sink. When the water from the faucet hits the sink bottom, the water spreads out in all directions but we see a ring of water some distance out where the depth of the water flowing suddenly increases. This is exactly parallel to the Heliopause...the water slows down to the point where its velocity is the same as water waves created by disturbances in the flow and there is a sudden increase in the depth and the pressure of the water.
    What so impressed me when I was in university studying this is that the whole process can be mathematically modelled and the location of the hydraulic jump can be predicted! Is it obvious that mathematical constructs in our brains mimic the physical world? It is a true miracle! This played a role in my deciding to become mitzvah observant.....this and the miracle of the return of the Jewish people to Eretz Israel as predicted by the Hevi'im (the Prophets) are what convinced me that Torah observance is the way to connect to the universe and its Creator. I am sorry that many other religious Jews fail to be amazed by these things in the same way.

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  7. WFB, thanks for the correction, I updated post.

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  8. Abraham lived in Sumeria, the scientists of his civilization are those upon whose shoulders we all stand.

    If modern Yeshiva students knew half as much as he did, they would be in good shape.

    But in general, I fully agree. There are two distinct reasons to study science: the practical, so that you are not fooled or taken advantage of, and the philosophical, that you can be filled with the awe of creation, and of the achievement of mankind created b'Tzelem Elokim

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  9. For the first 3 years of my undergraduate work in university, I majored in astronomy. Unfortunately, after struggling through a year of quantum mechanics, I realized that computers were more my forte. I was blessed to have one job in my past that was a merger of my two interests. I worked as a contractor for NASA back in 1976 on the Viking project, the first spacecraft to land on the planet Mars.

    Most of the mosaic pictures of Mars were processed through software that I wrote. For those of you too young to remember Viking, here's a link to a document describing the entire mission with lots of photographs (remember, the mosaics are mine :) ): http://history.nasa.gov/SP-425/cover.htm. If you look in the last chapter on authors, you'll find me.

    One anecdotal story: I had become frum shortly before the scheduled July 4, 1976 landing (that would have been the 200th anniversary of the USA). July 4th was on a Sunday and everyone was expected to be at work, non-stop for several days before and after the landing. We all brought sleeping bags and cots to work. And I was trying to figure out what to do, what to say regarding Shabbos. As it turned out, a storm developed on Mars that lasted for several days and so the landing was delayed. The landing ended up being on July 20th (Tuesday) and I was able to work my shifts without any problems.

    I'm not silly enough to believe that the landing on Mars was delayed for my benefit. But I do smile whenever I think of that event.

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  10. This is how you should feel when learning torah

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  11. Samuel Dinkins writes: "intellectually honest scientific knowledge more often than not leads not to deeper belief in G-d, but to greater skepticism."
    That presumes the search for scientific knowledge you refer to is indeed intellectually honest.

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  12. I remember that as a third-grader, I did a school project which I called "Into The Future," about space exploration; in an ironic precursor of future events, a zealous classmate slammed it as kefirah!

    I don't see what the problem is: of course you equipped your spaceship to bore through the Rakia and then drill through the crystalline spheres, didn't you?

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  13. Obviously this is a matter of taste, but while there is obviously a tremendous amount of technology and therefore engineering knowledge that went into the space shuttle, I think that it can be easy to confuse scientific discovery with "cool things that humans can do". Manned space flight is very exciting, but we've probably gotten a lot more science out of the various unmanned missions like Voyager than from manned missions. Furthermore, we began to understand the world way before we invented modern technology. This is a matter of taste, but I a lot more impressed by what I could learn and grasp myself in a first year physics class, or even indeed just studying the history of astronomy or biology and understanding the genius of those who work with little or no technology. Again, this is a matter of taste.

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  14. David Ohsie-
    I have heard the argument many times that manned spaceflight, due to its great expense, takes away from other scientific work that can be done by robot spacecraft. All I can say is that the manned Apollo landings on the Moon returned a treasure drove of data that we would not have had there been a bevy of unmanned landings there. The trained eyes of the observers there, one of whom (Jack Schmitt of Apollo 17 had a Ph.D in Geology) picked up interesting samples and made visual observations of geological context that could never have been discerned by machines. Apollo gave immense information about the formation and early history of the Earth-Moon system.
    The results obtained have shown that the Moon is partly like the Earth in its chemical composition, and party not so. This has lead to the model that the Moon was created due to the impact of a Mars-sized object into the primordial Earth and the debris thrown off created the Moon.
    Now, take into consideration the following facts...the Earth is the only inner terrestrial planet that has a large satellite. If the Moon didn't exist, the Earth's orbit would likely be more elliptical, causing greater variations in temperature. Given that liquid water, essential for the existence of life, exists only in a narrow range of temperatures, and these temperatures are found exactly where the Earth's orbit lies (closer to the sun, too hot, too far from the sun, too cold), we lie perfectly in a life-friendly zone. In addition, if the Moon didn't exist, the Earth's rotation axis would wobble, as does Mars, and this would mean that it is possible that one hemisphere would be in sunlight for months on end and the other in darkness for the same period, just like the planet Uranus (or "Orion" in Hebrew). Again, we would have extremes in temperature, no liquid water and no life on Earth.
    In addition, computer modelling has shown that if any of the existing planets didn't exist, including tiny Mercury ("Kochav haShemesh" in Hebrew), the stable orbits of the planests, including Earth would go unstable and, again, no life here.
    Also the planeet Jupiter (or "Tzedek" in Hebrew), due to its immense gravity) did us a favor and ejected almost all the rubble and debris floating around the inner solar system which prevents major, disastrous asteroid impacts on the Earth (you can look at the Moon and see the massive number of large craters created by a huge bombardment of meteors and asteriod 3.5 billion years ago).
    I have seen atheist scientists comment about how it looks like a "guiding hand" made PERFECT conditions for life on Earth and how it sustains it in an otherwise hostile space environment.
    Add to this the fact that much of the galaxy is hostile to life as we know it due to gravitational disruptions when stars are too close and mass amounts of lethal radiation, but we are located in a nice, safe outer part of the galaxy where things are quiet.
    Mr Dinkels, I look at this and it INCREASES my faith....and I have advanced degrees in Geophysics. To each his own/

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  15. @Mr. Joseph W. Berry:
    Heartfelt thanks for sharing that with us--I don't know how the more rationalist readers of this blog would digest the story of the Martian storm, but I certainly enjoyed it!

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  16. As with ahg I would definitely say that if you enjoyed that you would enjoy a trip to the Kennedy Space Center. For me the most awesome moment was stepping into the vast room housing the Saturn V rocket. Both the sheer scale of the man built machine and some idea of the vastness of the endeavour that went into producing it literally took my breath away! (And that from someone who was born long after the "space race" was a distant memory).

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  17. Joe Berry: Something else happened on July 4, 1976. :-)

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  18. You should also check out the Saturn V rocket at the Houston Space Center. The size of that rocket, the smallness of the capsule, and the fact that it was (repeatedly and successfully) launched essentially with hand calculations is also a testament to chochmat 'bnei adam.

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  19. I saw the Discovery in Washington last year, and while it was really cool, I was underwhelmed. Somehow, I was expecting it to be more physically impressive. Instead, it looks like a commuter aircraft covered in Styrofoam.

    Y. Ben-David said...
    > I have seen atheist scientists comment about how it looks like a "guiding hand" made PERFECT conditions for life on Earth and how it sustains it in an otherwise hostile space environment.

    Douglas Adams said it best:
    “This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!'

    We evolved to fit the conditions of the world on which we happen to be, not the other way around. And while most planets (as far as we know) are not hospitable to any form of life, with an estimated 300 sextillion stars in the universe, many of which have multiple planets, is it really surprising that there would be at least one that happens to have the right conditions for liquid water?

    Somewhere out there, there may be a planet of water-soluble life whose scientists go on about how amazing it is that their planet is so dry, thus allowing for life ,and that would see our wet planet as toxic.

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  20. Adams was a fantastic sci-fi comedy writer, but he was hopelessly off with his puddle example (although Y. Ben David also didn't present his argument correctly). The point is that it is the very laws of nature that are extraordinary, producing a universe that is qualitatively unique - the overwhelming majority of possible configurations of the laws of nature would not be able to even result in universes with matter, let alone planetary systems or life. That's why string theory/ multiple universes holds such great attraction for atheists - because the underlying configuration of our universe is so special. I've discussed this at great length in my book The Challenge Of Creation.

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  21. Yannai Segal-
    I used to feel that way about the Saturn V, too. They had a terrible time fixing the problem of combustion instability in the huge F-1 engine in the first stage, and several top engineers literally worked themselves to death getting it to work on time.
    It is truly a beautiful thing, and it is amazing that something equivalent to a 36 story skyscraper can fly in the sky. I used to have a picture a of a Saturn V lifting off in my office. Then, one day, I watched a film about Operation Paperclip, the secret plan to bring Wernher Von Braun's German rocket scientists to America. Many were gung-ho Nazis. Von Braun himself was a Captain in the SS, although he strikes me as a cynical opportunist rather than an ideological Nazi. However, the head of the Saturn V project was Arthur Rudolf who WAS a true believer and who joined the SA storm troopers 2 years BEFORE the Nazis came to power. In the 1980's, proceedings were started to strip him of his US citizenship and to deport him, so he left the US voluntarily to avoid this. At the end of the film they showed mock-ups of the rockets at Huntsville and a survivor of the horrors at the Dora-Mittelwork where the V2 rockets were made in nightmarishly hellish conditions and more slave/workers died than were killed by the actual use of the rockets said he couldn't bear to look at those rockets. As a result, I removed the picture from my wall.

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  22. Rav Slifkin-
    Could you please explain what I said that was incorrect?

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  23. You were phrasing with the angle of "if things were different, we humans couldn't exist." That leaves the door open to the argument that G*3 pointed out - so something else could exist instead! The correct argument is the one that I presented.

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  24. David Ohsie-
    I have heard the argument many times that manned spaceflight, due to its great expense, takes away from other scientific work that can be done by robot spacecraft. All I can say is that the manned Apollo landings on the Moon returned a treasure drove of data that we would not have had there been a bevy of unmanned landings there. The trained eyes of the observers there, one of whom (Jack Schmitt of Apollo 17 had a Ph.D in Geology) picked up interesting samples and made visual observations of geological context that could never have been discerned by machines. Apollo gave immense information about the formation and early history of the Earth-Moon system.
    The results obtained have shown that the Moon is partly like the Earth in its chemical composition, and party not so. This has lead to the model that the Moon was created due to the impact of a Mars-sized object into the primordial Earth and the debris thrown off created the Moon.


    I don't have the enough understanding to know whether or not the manned lunar landings were "worth it" or not. For example, I don't know whether returning lunar rocks to the earth could have been done by robots of the time or not.

    My point is as follows:

    1) People (including myself) get excited about things like moon landings because they are amazing human adventures with amazing engineering behind them, without regard to how much science we get out of them. This excitement is leveraged to get funding (can be good), arouse patriotic feeling (can be good or bad), and I'm sure other purposes.

    So we should just avoid confusing the feelings of "cool, there is a man on the moon" with "we now think that we understand the origins of the moon".

    2) This leads to sometime overemphasizing the human aspects of space travel. Again, I am not enough of an expert, but I believe that the Hubble space telescope, for example, has given us a lot more good science than the space station. I'm not making an absolute argument, since the success of Hubble (in the design and manufacturing mistakes it was given) depended on the fact that it was serviceable by humans using the shuttle.

    3) Nowadays, the various geology experiments that you mentioned are going on mars using robotic explorers. I don't know what was feasible at the time of the moon landings. We haven't returned rock from mars, but I'm sure doing that robotically would cheaper than doing it with a human.

    4) As a result, my uninformed opinion is to be very skeptical of the more recent plans to send a human to mars vs. simply upping our unmanned exploration. The idea of sending a person to mars seems more to be a political/funding/marketing gimmick than something driven by the science.

    But coming back to the main point, I find Aristotle's low-tech proofs of a spherical earth to be just as fascinating, without the all the whiz-bang technology. To each his own.

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  25. Blogger Nachum said...
    Joe Berry: Something else happened on July 4, 1976. :-)


    Explanation, please. This one whooshed over my head...

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  26. Adams was a fantastic sci-fi comedy writer, but he was hopelessly off with his puddle example (although Y. Ben David also didn't present his argument correctly). The point is that it is the very laws of nature that are extraordinary, producing a universe that is qualitatively unique - the overwhelming majority of possible configurations of the laws of nature would not be able to even result in universes with matter, let alone planetary systems or life.

    That is, perhaps, most recent argument, but for most of human history, and probably for most humans living today, the argument was much simpler and intuitive: the apple grows on the tree so that we have something to eat. But apples doesn't have a will. Someone must have designed the system for our benefit. Multiply by "n" for all the obvious design elements in the world to enable life at all levels to go on.

    More abstractly: the world seems to operate mechanically on some level, but to achieve a purpose on another level. Therefore, there must be a designer out there that we don't see.

    Adams is correctly pointing out that this compelling argument turns out in the end to be a naive argument, since natural selection shows how you can get design out of non-design and purpose out of non-purpose.

    Aristotle included the notion of "final cause" (or purpose) as one of the key elements in understanding the universe. In this he was both right and wrong: if you want to understand biology, you do need to look the "purposes " served by an anatomical or physiological element. But underlying that is carbon chemistry and natural selection which are themselves "purposeless". There are no more underlying scientific theories that rely on purpose or "final cause".

    That's why string theory/ multiple universes holds such great attraction for atheists - because the underlying configuration of our universe is so special. I've discussed this at great length in my book The Challenge Of Creation.

    That may be true, but it is also true that, so far, the scientific approach of "we are not special, let's look at this objectively" has yielded good results. Anaxagoras was charged with impiety for thinking of the Sun as a fiery stone. We should avoid making the same mistakes.

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  27. David Ohsie-
    Apollo returned hundreds of kilos of Moon rocks. There is no way such a variegated sampling of so many sites could have been done with robot landers, nor could the expense of such a program be justified (Apollo was justified on political grounds, not scientific, but science hitchhiked on it very successfully). Apollo took deep core samples which no robot lander could do.

    Regarding a Mars landing, I agree with you. I oppose any direct plan to do it. There are just too many questions about the physiological problems of such long duration missions and there are questions about whether there would be psychological problems of people being cut off from their home planet for years. Don't forget the Moon was only 3 days away and could be seen all the time.
    The next step should be setting up a Moon base and learning to live relatively cheaply off the land using oxygen and possibly water available in the South Polar region. There is a place called "the mountain of eternal light" near the Lunar South Pole which, because it is always in sunlight, could use permanently illuminated solar panels to create power (the lunar night is 2 weeks long and there would be a problem providing power by way of batteries or fuel cells during such a long period). That is the future of manned exploration, in my opinion.

    G**3-
    I don't think what you are saying is any different from what I am saying. Of course, G-d can create any form of life he wants, but he created what we have here and he created a situation that allows it to continue in a stable way. Of course, if it wasn't, we wouldn't be here to discuss it, but we are and we (or at least some of us) appreciate it.

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  28. It actually is quite extraordinary that the Universe could have ANY planets capable of sustaining life. For, right now we have only succeeded in making it it harder to understand how the universe produced anything, as the constants and laws of physics are arranged in the most infuriating manner.

    And it seems like most sunlike stars do not develop in the correct way to have planets with liquid water and tides in a stable orbit. Nor is any other solvent yet discovered an acceptable substitute. And when I say an acceptable substitute, I AM NOT saying that as a terracentric person, who cannot conceive of anything else. I am saying that as a chemist, if you need a solvent which is formed from only a few simple, common, elements, which is liquid at a temperature high enough that reactions run at a reasonable speed, and low enough that complex molecules do not degrade, water is the only sensible choice.

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  29. Blogger Nachum said...
    Joe Berry: Something else happened on July 4, 1976. :-)

    There's only one thing that comes to mind.. but I thought that was obvious. That was the whole purpose of NASA's wanting to land Viking on July 4th, 1976... the 200th birthday of the United States.

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  30. " Something else happened on July 4, 1976. :-)"

    Mivtza Yehonatan - the raid on Entebbe

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  31. The multiple universes hypothesis isn't just "attractive to atheists". Now there's observational evidence consistent with it. Back in April or May of this year analysis of cosmic background radiation showed irregularities consistent with theoretical predictions of another universe impinging on ours, a bruise if you will. A special Creation just for us is no longer required of there can be arbitrarily many other universes each with its own set of laws and fundamental constants.

    As I've said before, this is one of the problems with trying to reconcile Science and Revealed Religion. It's like having two quarrelsome kids in the back seat of the car. Mom tells them to stay on their sides and not touch each other. By the end of the trip Science has expanded, and Religion is huddling under the spare tire in the trunk. Its non-overlapping magisterium keeps yielding, never the reverse.

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  32. notElon, it only seems remarkable because we've only had the means to look for extrasolar planets for a few decades. The first ones were confirmed in the early 90s. Since then, with limited budgets and fewer instruments we've found hundreds including a number in the "Goldilocks Zone" where gravity, temperature, estimated radiation and so on are hospitable to life like ours. That's in twenty short years of looking at one piece of one spiral arm of one galaxy.

    There are hundreds of millions of stars in our galaxy and hundreds of millions of galaxies in the 93 billion light year observable universe. The idea that we are unique, a special creation in a universe where the odds are so against life of any sort ever arising, becomes less plausible by the year.

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  33. "The idea that we are unique, a special creation in a universe where the odds are so against life of any sort ever arising, becomes less plausible by the year."

    Right. From 99.999999% to 99.999998 percent.

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  34. There seems to be a misconception that the Torah view of life on earth that it is somehow unique and that if it was discovered that there was life in space, particularly intelligent life, this would somehow undercut this "uniqueness" and this supposedly Torah view of things. This is totally incorrect. There is no problem whatsoever from a religious perspective about the possibility of life on other worlds. It would be interesting to know that if there were sentient beings whether they had a Torah of their own. Afterall, we view the Torah as the "users manual" for mankind...they would certainly need one also, from the same source.
    The Torah view of life on other worlds has been discussed by scholars, although I don't have any exmaples at hand (the book "Challenge" or Aryeh Kaplan, perhaps?).

    Thus, the arguments I have raised about the wonderful balance of forces that keep our world habitable has nothing to do with the possibility there might be numerous other habitable worlds. We need this balance here and now in order to keep things going for us. That is what counts.

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  35. July 4, 1976 - also the 150th yahrzeit of both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

    And of course, as pointed out already, the day of the Entebee rescue mission.

    Aryeh Baer

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  36. notElon, it only seems remarkable because we've only had the means to look for extrasolar planets for a few decades.

    This thread seems to have veered into a discussion on a search for life in the Universe. For those interested in this topic, I can recommend listening to the Astronomy 141 podcast by Richard Pogge of Ohio State University.

    The first ones were confirmed in the early 90s. Since then, with limited budgets and fewer instruments we've found hundreds including a number in the "Goldilocks Zone" where gravity, temperature, estimated radiation and so on are hospitable to life like ours. That's in twenty short years of looking at one piece of one spiral arm of one galaxy.

    Have we by now found hundreds of *rocky* planets in their planet's habitable zone? I thought that most of what have been found are gas giant size that are in the habitable zone, but could not support life as we know it.

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  37. I'm really embarrassed. I didn't remember that the raid on Entebbe was on the 4th of July. Not good.

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  38. "The idea that we are unique, a special creation in a universe where the odds are so against life of any sort ever arising, becomes less plausible by the year."

    Right. From 99.999999% to 99.999998 percent.


    That would be a doubling of probabilities. If in fact the chances of life arising on a rocky planet in its star's habitable zone is 10^-8 (I'm just copying your number here; I don't know the true number), and there are at least billions (10^9) of candidate planets, then life elsewhere in the universe becomes likely.

    The fact is that life in the universe (outside of earth) is still on the edge of science with a lot of active research. This is precisely the kind of area on which it is unwise to hitch your wagonful of fundamental beliefs.

    R. Slifkin argues not for the unlikelihood of life, but for the unlikelihood of a universe with the parameters set such that life is possible (whether only on earth or in many places). The problem there is that trying to estimate the probability of something of which we only have one example of (the universe) is a matter of speculation and is not well grounded empirically. Perhaps at some time in the future it will be.

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  39. Twenty years ago, we assumed that every sun-like star had a solar system like ours. Now we know this isn't true. And we are indeed biased towards finding bad candidates, huge planets close to suns, but the number of bad candidates exceeded all expectations. It is true that there are still probably suitable planets out there. But it has gotten significantly LESS likely not more.

    We found only TWO planets that might sustain life total. And now one might not actually exist. I for one, was crushed.

    As for multiple universes, there is still no evidence. And likely, we may not be able to say anything concrete on it for a while. What people say and what measurements actually show, once you remove the hyperbole, are very different. It would be way cool if there were, and it might explain a lot, but nothing doing.

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  40. I also don't think the argument that the universe is suited for us is necessarily good. But it certainly doesn't look worse every year. Since the discovery of entire galaxies, it actually looks better than it ever has.

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  41. Twenty years ago, we assumed that every sun-like star had a solar system like ours. Now we know this isn't true. And we are indeed biased towards finding bad candidates, huge planets close to suns, but the number of bad candidates exceeded all expectations. It is true that there are still probably suitable planets out there. But it has gotten significantly LESS likely not more.

    We found only TWO planets that might sustain life total. And now one might not actually exist. I for one, was crushed.


    There's no concept of "momentum" or "inertia" here. Perhaps some though at some point the planetary systems of most stars were solar system-like. Nothing got "less likely", it is just now we have knowledge based on actual evidence. What has been shown is that there are unexpectedly lots gas giants closer to their stars than was expected, but since we are biased to finding these, it really doesn't say much one way or the other about how many earth-like planets there are in the galaxy (or universe for that matter). If you can point to astronomers who think that there are very, very few based on the evidence we have today, I'd like to read it, since I am just an amateur here.

    In any case, I'm hoping that in my lifetime, we'll have enough evidence to actually demonstrate this one way or the other. Until then, speculation reigns.

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  42. Here is a lecture done in Winter 2012 on the current state of exoplanet discovery. This is part of a course on life in the universe.

    Slides: http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast141/Unit5/Lect36_SNW.pdf

    Audio: http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast141/Unit5/Audio/Lecture36.mp3

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  43. The probability that there's life out there? Forget Drake's equation. The answer is 50%.
    Either God wants there to be life out there, or he didn't!

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  44. Joe Berry said...
    I'm really embarrassed. I didn't remember that the raid on Entebbe was on the 4th of July. Not good.


    Joe, if it makes you feel any better, you aren't the only one. Or even the only one from Baltimore and EMC :).

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  45. Phil said...
    The probability that there's life out there? Forget Drake's equation. The answer is 50%.
    Either God wants there to be life out there, or he didn't!


    Hmmm... That gives me a 50% chance of waking up alive tomorrow. And about 1/2^370 or so of making it through the year. I sure hope that there is something wrong with this analysis...

    This does lead to a nice greeting: May God grant you a greater than 50% chance of a Chag Sameach :).

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  46. David Ohsie...

    As an aside... mazel tov on your son's bar mitzvah.

    I read an interesting book some years back which made me doubt the probability of finding life (at least complex life) on other planets. It appears to be much, much lower than one might think. The book is "Rare Earth, Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe", copyright 2000 by Drs Ward (geologist) and Brownlee (astronomer) both from the University of Washington in Seattle.

    Today, everyone is talking about finding planets and, in particular, the probability of finding planets that are close enough but not too close to their sun, that have a possible atmosphere, etc. But there appears to be much more to the requirement of what makes up a planet that can sustain complex life forms. I found the book to be very interesting. You can read the book reviews yourself at http://www.amazon.com/Rare-Earth-Complex-Uncommon-Universe/dp/0387952896.

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  47. Today, everyone is talking about finding planets and, in particular, the probability of finding planets that are close enough but not too close to their sun, that have a possible atmosphere, etc. But there appears to be much more to the requirement of what makes up a planet that can sustain complex life forms. I found the book to be very interesting. You can read the book reviews yourself at http://www.amazon.com/Rare-Earth-Complex-Uncommon-Universe/dp/0387952896.

    I think that this book was discussed in the series of lectures that I posted about before. One thing to point out is that the authors believe that life is likely common in the universe, but that complex life is uncommon. And we can test for biomarkers for non-complex life on other planets. We don't need a radio signal with a greeting in it; we can look for ozone in the atmosphere.

    The other thing is that we really don't know, which is why we need to keep looking in order to settle the question.

    This Rambam might be relevant to those bothered by this possiblity:

    But of those who accept our theory that the whole Universe has been created from nothing, some hold that the inquiry after the purpose of the Creation is necessary, and assume that the Universe was only created for the sake of man's existence, that he might serve God.
    Everything that is done they believe is done for man's sake; even the spheres move only for his benefit, in order that his wants might be supplied. The literal meaning of some passages in the books of the prophets greatly support this idea. Comp." He formed it (viz.,the earth) to be inhabited" (Isa. xlv. 18):" If my covenant of day and night were not," etc. (Jer. xxxiii. 25);" And spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in" (Isa. xl. 22). If the sphere existed for the sake of man, how much more must this be the case with all other living beings and the plants. On examining this opinion as intelligent persons ought to examine all different opinions, we shall discover the errors it includes.

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  48. (cont.)
    Those who hold this view, namely, that the existence of man is the object of the whole creation, may be asked whether God could have created man without those previous creations, or whether man could only have come into existence after the creation of all other things. If they answer in the affirmative, that man could have been created even if, e.g., the heavens did not exist, they will be asked what is the object of all these things, since they do not exist for their own sake but for the sake of something that could exist without them ? Even if the Universe existed for man's sake and man existed for the purpose of serving God, as has been mentioned, the question remains, What is the end of serving God ? He does not become more perfect if all His creatures serve Him and comprehend Him as far as possible; nor would He lose anything if nothing existed beside Him. It might perhaps be replied that the service of God is not intended for God's perfection; it is intended for our own perfection,-- it is good for us, it makes us perfect. But then the question might be repeated, What is the object of our being perfect ? We must in continuing the inquiry as to the purpose of the creation at last arrive at the answer, It was the Will of God, or His Wisdom decreed it; and this is the correct answer. The wise men in Israel have, therefore, introduced in our prayers (for Neilah of the Day of Atonement) the following passage:--" Thou hast distinguished man from the beginning, and chosen him to stand before Thee; who can say unto Thee, What dost Thou ? And if he be righteous, what does he give Thee ?" They have thus clearly stated that it was not a final cause that determined the existence of all things, but only His will. This being the case, we who believe in the Creation must admit that God could have created the Universe in a different manner as regards the causes and effects contained in it, and this would lead to the absurd conclusion that everything except man existed without any purpose, as the principal object, man, could have been brought into existence without the rest of the creation. I consider therefore the following opinion as most correct according to the teaching of the Bible, and best in accordance with the results of philosophy; namely, that the Universe does not exist for man's sake, but that each being exists for its own sake, and not because of some other thing. Thus we believe in the Creation, and yet need not inquire what purpose is served by each species of the existing things, because we assume that God created all parts of the Universe by His will; some for their own sake, and some for the sake of other beings, that include their own purpose in themselves. In the same manner as it was the will of God that man should exist, so it was His will that the heavens with their stars should exist, that there should be angels, and each of these beings is itself the purpose of its own existence.

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  49. Y. Ben David said: "The Torah view of life on other worlds has been discussed by scholars, although I don't have any exmaples at hand (the book "Challenge" or Aryeh Kaplan, perhaps?)."

    I don't have "Challenge" on hand, but I have Mind Over Matter, which is a anthology of statements by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on science.

    On pp. 306-308, there is a discussion of the possibility of life on other planets. In a footnote, he brings Rav Chasdai Creskas who held that "the possibility of extra-terrestrial life is not negated anywhere in Torah sources", while the Sefer HaIkkarim disagreed. The Rebbe himself said, "One who declares that there is no life besides on earth is limiting the Creator's abilities."

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  50. David Ohsie wrote: "Hmmm... That gives me a 50% chance of waking up alive tomorrow. And about 1/2^370 or so of making it through the year. I sure hope that there is something wrong with this analysis..."
    Yes, there's something wrong, but in a different way. True, our waking up alive tomorrow will *probably* be based on the natural order of things. We will probably follow the pattern of the past x years. However, concerning life on other worlds, we have no knowledge of any pattern. Your seeming assumption that "conditions are conducive to life" is equivalent to "life is likely" is unfounded. All we have are guesses as to what God intended.

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  51. never heard of anyone making a שחלק ליראיו on a brilliant sefer. But I like the idea...

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  52. On pp. 306-308, there is a discussion of the possibility of life on other planets. In a footnote, he brings Rav Chasdai Creskas who held that "the possibility of extra-terrestrial life is not negated anywhere in Torah sources", while the Sefer HaIkkarim disagreed.

    Could you report what the Sefer HaIkkarim wrote to indicate his belief that extra-terrestrial life is incompatible with the Torah?

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  53. David Ohsie wrote: "Hmmm... That gives me a 50% chance of waking up alive tomorrow. And about 1/2^370 or so of making it through the year. I sure hope that there is something wrong with this analysis..."

    Yes, there's something wrong, but in a different way.

    The something wrong in your analysis is the belief that any future uncertain binary event is a 50/50 proposition.

    True, our waking up alive tomorrow will *probably* be based on the natural order of things. We will probably follow the pattern of the past x years.

    It's a bit stronger than that. There are a lot of fairly complex processes going on inside your body based on carbon chemistry that your continued existence relies on. This is beside all the "man-made" engineered technologies like cars and buildings that would fail or collapse with a change in the fundamental laws.

    You are right that nothing logically compels this: Hume demonstrated that just because F=ma or E=mc^2 today, doesn't logically compel that it be so tomorrow. But we've lived with that assumption for a while and it seems to be born out. If you disbelieve, you can try the experiments yourself in a first year physics lab.

    However, concerning life on other worlds, we have no knowledge of any pattern.

    This isn't really true. We know that if you take living things off the earth and put them in similar conditions on the moon or in the international space station, they continue to live. Not a lot, but something.

    We also have some knowledge of the limits of life on earth and they are beyond what we originally speculated. So, we know where to look, but we don't know what we'll find.

    Your seeming assumption that "conditions are conducive to life" is equivalent to "life is likely" is unfounded.

    I don't maintain such a theory. We don't know yet.

    All we have are guesses as to what God intended.

    This is a variant of "God in the gaps". There are unknowns here, and in the past, we've resolved such unknowns through empirical study, not by waiting for Nevuah. We may or may not be able to resolve them here, but just like we didn't resolve the question of the composition of Sun or the Smallpox vaccine through theology, but through empiricism, it is likely that empiricism will make or break this study.

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  54. "The something wrong in your analysis is the belief that any future uncertain binary event is a 50/50 proposition."
    I was speaking rhetorically. Whimsically.

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  55. David Ohsie asked: "Could you report what the Sefer HaIkkarim wrote to indicate his belief that extra-terrestrial life is incompatible with the Torah?"

    Here is the footnote, in full, from Mind over Matter (sorry for the length of the quote):
    "Rabbi Chisdai Kerashkash, in his book Ohr Hashem (4,5) explains that the possibility of extra-terrestrial life is not negated anywhere in Torah sources. The Sefer HaIkkarim, on the other hand, quoted in Sefer HaBrit(1-3,4) is of the opinion that there is no life on the stars and planets. The Sefer HaBrit himself argues, and agrees with Rabbi Chisdai. Similarly, the Chidah in Petach Einayim (on Tosfot, Menachot, 37a) is of the opinion that such life does exist."

    The footnote apparently isn't by the Rebbe, but by the editor of Mind over Matter. In any event, it seems Sefer HaIkkarim was only understood to negate the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, but doesn't say so explicitly. I will look through the download of Sefer HaBrit from Hebrew Books, to see how he infers this from Sefer HaIkkarim.

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  56. "The something wrong in your analysis is the belief that any future uncertain binary event is a 50/50 proposition."
    I was speaking rhetorically. Whimsically.


    My apologies for overanalyzing.

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  57. I will look through the download of Sefer HaBrit from Hebrew Books, to see how he infers this from Sefer HaIkkarim.

    Thank you for the transcription. I'm definitely curious if you find more from the source.

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  58. Read it and week Cynics and A. Nuran.

    There goes the only hard evidence to day (that I know of) for the multiverse conjecture.

    http://arxiv.org/abs/0908.3988

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