Sunday, September 21, 2008

When does human life begin?

One of the most difficult and troubling basic questions of all for us is "When does life begin?"

This is an especially awkward question when it applies to human life. Rightly or wrongly, we consider our species more important than and dominant over others. See, for example, Aquinas, Animal Rights, And Christianity or Genesis 1 (verse 26) or Canadian Seal Hunt web site.

When it comes to human life, the question gets even tougher for us. It leads to intricate and sometimes fierce and vociferous debate, sometimes extended to physical attack or even murder. Imagine that: taking human life (by an anti-abortionist) when you're supposedly opposed to the very taking of human life. How irrational and contradictory we can be, how flawed!

I don't mull over such matters very often, preferring to spend my time on more pleasant matters. Strangely enough, I was led to this stream of painful thought when I took an unexpected detour while dallying in my comfort zone of technology and computing.

Perusing Wired Magazine's blog, I just came across McCain Equates Embryos and Fetuses in Stem Cell Statement (19 September 2008).

I encourage you to read the entire short article. A few brief extracts follow:

John McCain's recent statement on embryonic stem cell research was ambiguous in some ways, but clearly misleading in another: He equated human embryos with fetuses, and used language implying that farming fetuses for their tissues is a realistic possibility. ... Though the bill was unanimously approved in the House and Senate, its sponsors were criticized for failing to make clear that "fetal farming" doesn't exist.

Embryos used to produce embryonic stem cells are harvested after five days, when the embryo is still an undifferentiated blob of about 70 cells. While there is no sharp line for when an embryo becomes a fetus, nine weeks is a good rule of thumb; the industry standard for halting development on research embryos is two weeks. No reputable scientist has supported fetus experimentation. For McCain to revive the language of "fetal farming," say bioethicists, was misleading.

This was the first time that I've seen a specific number of cells specified, and a specific number of days or weeks of gestation. Why choose 70 cells rather than 80 or 100, and why is nine weeks a good rule of thumb?

Humanism aside, this is a complex minefield for bioethicists and legislators -- not to mention thise directly involved (medical practitioners, nurses, researchers, mothers, and so on). This is all very alien and uncomfortable for me, but I felt compelled to add such basic questions to this blog.

Monday, July 07, 2008

GORE LIED: Global average temperatures still down significantly since An Inconvenient Truth released

In an earlier post back in October 2008, About Asking the Right Questions, I pointed out work that had been published on the Greenhouse Effect (the issue of climate forcings, etc).

Asking the wrong questions, or avoiding asking the right questions, is famously with us in the form of Al Gore's moneymaking odyssey to spout his ideas about "inconvenient truths" -- or at least, his perception of what are truths.

Doubtless, some of Gore's perceptions are accurate, or at least reasonably so. But is he manipulating things to suit his preconceived notions of what is "the truth"?

Some people seem to think so, so it's not just me ... GORE LIED: Global average temperatures still down significantly since An Inconvenient Truth released

(Click to view a larger image)

The descending "Gore extrapolation line" on this chart indeed makes an interesting comparison with the methodologies discussed in the climate forcings charts (referenced in that earlier posting of mine).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A baker's dozen of unanswered questions

This blog is about asking questions. ... We don't even know all the correct questions to ask, much less the answers.

New Scientist has put together an intriguing list of 13 things that do not make sense that bring home this point:
  • The placebo effect
  • The horizon problem
  • Ultra-energetic cosmic rays
  • Belfast homeopathy results
  • Dark matter
  • Viking's methane
  • Tetraneutrons
  • The Pioneer anomaly
  • Dark energy
  • The Kuiper cliff
  • The Wow signal
  • Not-so-constant constants
  • Cold fusion
I'm confident that when (or if) we ever find the answers to these questions, there will be another 13 questions to take their place! Life's interesting, isn't it.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Questions without end -- Science, Religion, God

Fellow iTWire blogger William Atkins has just posted an article Science, Religion, God: Discussions by thinkers that's kicked my grey matter (what's left of it) into overdrive again.

Amongst other things, William mentions the John Templeton Foundation website, which was new to me, and refers to A Templeton Conversation which is the most recent (the third) in a series of conversations among leading scientists and scholars about the "Big Questions" ... Does science make belief in God obsolete?

The foundation's website has a Big Questions Archive which surely is very apposite to the "Basic Questions" theme of this blog!

The other two series so far are Will money solve Africa's development problems? and Does the universe have a purpose?

The contributors' responses are downloadable as PDF files, if you want to browse the responses offline.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Universe is 13.73 Billion Years Old

The latest on the "age of the universe" thread of this blog is news from NASA that it's been estimated to be 13.73 billion years old, see WMAP Reveals Neutrinos, End of Dark Ages, First Second of Universe
"NASA released this week five years of data collected by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) that refines our understanding of the universe and its development. ... WMAP measures a remnant of the early universe - its oldest light. The conditions of the early times are imprinted on this light. It is the result of what happened earlier, and a backlight for the later development of the universe. This light lost energy as the universe expanded over 13.7 billion years, so WMAP now sees the light as microwaves. By making accurate measurements of microwave patterns, WMAP has answered many longstanding questions about the universe's age, composition and development.

Microwave light seen by WMAP from when the universe was only 380,000 years old, shows that, at the time, neutrinos made up 10% of the universe, atoms 12%, dark matter 63%, photons 15%, and dark energy was negligible. In contrast, estimates from WMAP data show the current universe consists of 4.6% percent atoms, 23% dark matter, 72% dark energy and less than 1 percent neutrinos.

WMAP cosmic microwave fluctuations over the full sky with 5-years of data. Colors [in the image] represent the tiny temperature fluctuations of the remnant glow from the infant universe: red regions are warmer and blue are cooler."

Monday, March 10, 2008

Scientific American tells all?

I've been reading articles from Scientific American for fifty years or more, and still enjoy it tremendously. While there are many other extremely worthwhile scientific journals, I'm a creature of habit and this one is good enough for me!

Relative to the "Basic Questions" theme of this blog, I would heartily recommend that you read various online Scientific American articles. The following two articles in particular are very cogent summaries of several aspects of cosmology that I've mentioned in earlier posts, and they're well worth a read:
  • Misconceptions about the Big Bang - Baffled by the expansion of the universe? You're not alone. Even astronomers frequently get it wrong. ... Expansion is a beguilingly simple idea, but what exactly does it mean to say the universe is expanding? What does it expand into? Is Earth expanding, too? To add to the befuddlement, the expansion of the universe now seems to be accelerating, a process with truly mind-stretching consequences. ... The universe does not seem to have an edge or a center or an outside, so how can it expand?
  • The Universe's Invisible Hand - Dark energy does more than hurry along the expansion of the universe. It also has a stranglehold on the shape and spacing of galaxies. ... Scientists are just starting the long process of figuring out what dark energy is and what its implications are. One realization has already sunk in: although dark energy betrayed its existence through its effect on the universe as a whole, it may also shape the evolution of the universe's inhabitants--stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters. Astronomers may have been staring at its handiwork for decades without realizing it.
By the way, a subscription to the digital edition of Scientific American is only US $3.33 per month ($39.95 per year): they say "the latest Scientific American issue delivered online before it hits newsstands, access over 180 issues of scientific progress from 1993 to the present, and quickly locate, preview and download your selections ... Download to your computer for convenient offline reading ... in high-quality PDF format."