December 31st, 2010

[LINK] "Now you don't"

The Economist's article examining the question of life on Mars--is the methane detected in the Martian atmosphere product of life, or of non-living processes--made me happy. I like coming up with reasons for going to our sister planet.

One of the things that everyone agrees about methane on Mars is that it has to be short-lived. Though Mars has relatively little oxygen in its atmosphere (just 0.13% of the total) that atmosphere nonetheless provides what chemists call oxidising power, which gives it the ability to pull methane molecules to pieces. The predicted lifetime of Martian methane, based on observations of the Earth’s atmosphere and experiments in laboratories, is just 300 years. This is one of the reasons why methane was seen as an exciting discovery—its constant oxidation in the atmosphere means it would have to be replenished by some occult process. Even if there was no life involved that would, at least, require that some novel chemistry was going on.

The problem is that observations of methane on Mars imply that its lifetime must be far shorter than a few hundred years. They indicate that the gas comes and goes on a seasonal basis, with much more of it around at some times and places than others. If methane waxes and wanes with the seasons, then its lifetime must be on a par with the length of a season—several months, not several centuries.

Various suggestions as to how this might be possible have been made. There could be special catalysts in the soil, for example, perhaps created by the static electricity whipped up by dust devils. Dr Zahnle and his colleagues argue that such ideas merely pass the buck. Whatever oxidises the methane would itself get used up in the process, and so would also need to be replenished. To oxidise the methane at a high rate the planet would need to make new oxidising chemicals at that same high rate. There is no evidence of its doing so.

The known way in which oxidising power gets added to the Martian atmosphere is through the destruction of water molecules by ultraviolet light. This creates hydrogen and oxygen. Left to themselves they would recombine, producing no net change, but some of the hydrogen leaks out of the atmosphere into space, leaving oxygen—the paradigmatical oxidiser—behind. This process works too slowly, though, to account for the sudden drops seen in the methane level. Explaining these requires new ways of producing oxidising power which do nothing to alter the balance of other chemicals in the atmosphere. That seems a tall order.

There are other things which might be happening to the methane. It could be stored on the surfaces of minerals, or locked into exotic ices, or even eaten by yet more bugs. But all these, too, are inconsistent with the big picture. Mars has xenon in its atmosphere, and xenon atoms are similar enough to methane molecules that a physical process which locked up methane would lock up xenon too. Yet the xenon persists, airily unfettered. As to methane-eating bugs, a look at the planet as a whole again seems to rule that possibility out. Carbon monoxide offers a lot more energy per molecule to hungry microbes than methane does—but Mars’s carbon monoxide level is stable and much higher than the claimed methane level. Martian life might be different from terrestrial life in many ways, but it is hard to conceive of any form of life that would spurn a rich and abundant energy supply in favour of a scarce and less fulfilling one. Darwin would certainly not have approved of such pickiness.

[LINK] On the non-pagan origins of Christmas

Continuing a theme from yesterday's History and Futility post, I thought I'd share an interesting factoid I came across suggesting that Christmas--the 25th of December holiday, at least--is not a pagan appropriation but rather something rooted deeply into Christianity and maybe even empirical fact.

[C]areful study shows that Western Christians were celebrating Christmas on 25 December in the late third century, before the Sol Invictus festival was widely celebrated in the Empire. So Christians did not create this feast to oppose a popular Roman one. As far as Christmas being a "continuation" of a pagan festival, this seems unlikely when one considers the abhorrence many Christians felt toward paganism. Believers of Jewish descent did not suddenly lose their deep aversion to idolatry after Baptism, and converts from paganism often despised the religions which they left behind. Thousands of Christians died during the Romans persecutions rather than engage in pagan rites. Why would they embrace the hated celebrations of their persecutors?

So how did Christ's birth come to be celebrated on 25 December? Early Christians believed that Jesus was crucified on 25 March (according to the Julian Calendar, that is). They also believe that this was the very same day that He was conceived in Mary's womb about thirty-four years earlier. It seemed most fitting to them that the first day of His earthly mission be the same day as his last, thus connecting the mystery of the Incarnation with that of the Redemption.

So Christians celebrated 25 March as the Feast of the Annunciation, a commemoration which continues today. Since 25 December falls exactly nine months after the Annunciation, it seemed the most natural day on which to celebrate Jesus' birth (although Eastern Christians, following a different tradition, opted for 6 January, twelve days later than their Western brothers and sisters).

There may even be a strong basis for 25 December as the actual, historical date of Christ's nativity. In a recent issue of "Osservatore Romano" (the Vatican's official newspaper), Professor Tommaso Federici, Professor at the Pontifical Urbanian University and consultant to two Vatican Congregations, says that recent archaological discoveries in the Holy Land shed light on when Jesus was born:

"As long ago as 1958, the Israeli scholar Shemaryahu Talmon published an in-depth study on the calendar of the Qumran sect, and he reconstructed without the shadow of doubt the order of the sacerdotal rota system for the temple of Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 24, 7-18) in New Testament times. Here the family of Abijah, of which Zechariah was a descendent, father of John the herald and forerunner (Luke 1,5) was required to officiate twice a year, on the days 8-14 of the third month, and on the days 24-30 of the eighth month. This latter period fell at about the end of September. It is not without reason that the Byzantine calendar celebrated 'John's conception' on September 23 and his birth nine months later, on June 24. The 'six months' after the Annunciation established as a liturgical feast on March 25, comes three months before the forerunner's birth, prelude to the nine months in December: December 25 is a date of history"

Even the common argument that shepherds would not have been in the fields in December is inaccurate. That is the time of the year when sheep naturally begin giving birth ("lambing"), and the shepherds would typically stay with the sheep at night to take care of the newborn lambs. In fact, the lambing season would have been the only time of the year in which the shepherds would have stayed with the flocks during the night (see Luke 2:8).

This information seems to confirm that Jesus could well have been born on or near 25 December, perhaps even 6 January (considering the many possible normal fluctuations of gestational periods). So either of these traditional dates may be - or at least come very close to - Jesus' real birthday! The fact that December 25 happens to fall four days after the Winter Solstice is a coincidence of history (and the Eastern Christmas is sixteen days removed from the solstice, so it's harder to see a connection there).

[DM] Some predictions for the near future

I've a post up at Demography Matters where I make some nearish-term predictions abut demographic trends, everything from the growing importance of reproductive medicine to the cultural engineering of societies to take advantage of the longevity revolution and the lessons of higher-fertility societies to the emergence of Poland as a Spain-like destination for migrants.

Go, read.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Why it's getting better, so much better

I remain, as always, optimistic about the future, my personal optimism being rooted in the fact that things really are getting better for everyone. Charlie Stross had a nice piece at his blog pointing out some of the reasons why, in the aptly-titled "Reasons to be cheerful".

Prior to 1988, diagnosis with AIDS was essentially a death sentence.

Between 1988 and 2000, chemotherapy became available that was pretty horrible but made it more or less survivable if you were good at sticking to the treatment regime and had potloads of money (or your healthcare providers did).

Between 2000 and 2010, AIDS somehow turned into a non-fatal-if-treated chronic medical condition, and the drugs got cheap enough that even developing world countries can afford them; and despite the huge epidemic, AIDS is no longer killing more people than tuberculosis or malaria or the other classic hench-plagues of the grim reaper.

I'd call that an improvement. Wouldn't you?

Oh, and we're close to exterminating polio and dracunculiasis (aka guinea worm disease) in the wild. (Two extinctions I won't be shedding any tears over.)

In other news of improvements, both China and India underwent annual economic growth averaging around 10% per year throughout the decade. The sheer scale of it is mind-numbing; it's as if the entire population of the USA and the EU combined had gone from third-world poverty to first-world standards of living. (There are still a lot of dirt-poor peasants left behind in villages, and a lot of economic — never mind political — problems with both India and China's developed urban sectors, but overall, life is vastly better today than it was a decade ago for around a billion people.)

The number of people living in poverty and with unsafe water supplies world-wide today is about the same as it was in 1970. Only difference is, there were 3 billion of us back then and today we're nearer to 7 billion. Upshot: the proportion of us humans on this planet who are living in third world poverty (unable to afford enough food, water, clothing and shelter) has actually been halved.

[. . .]

Warfare ... we haven't nuked ourselves. It is now two-thirds of a century since an invading army crossed the Rhine, marking the longest period of peace in Europe since the height of the Roman Empire. Despite certain inadvisable excursions in the middle east and central Asia, the absolute number of people living in states in conditions of civil war or external warfare has dropped significantly since the previous decade, which in turn experienced a massive drop after the end of the Cold War (and proxy conflicts fuelled by it). It would be premature to hail an age of world peace, but we do seem to be fighting a lot less.

Our computers are about ten times faster in clock speed than they were circa 2000, but have vastly more (and faster) storage, are cheaper, and are crawling into everything from hotel room doorhandles to automobiles and TVs. My mobile phone today is significantly faster and more powerful — and has a higher resolution display and more storage! — than my PC in 2000. And my broadband today runs roughly 32 times as fast as it did in 2000. (Whether this is good or not is a matter of opinion, but at least it's available if you want it.)

There's been enormous progress in genomics; we're now on the threshold of truly understanding how little we understand.

[. . .]

I'm sorry to note that most of the good stuff didn't happen to those of us in the developed world — but the human world is indisputably in better shape overall in 2010 than it was in 2000. And what makes my neighbour happier without damaging me makes my world a better place.

And I think that the direction of change will continue to be good. Leaving aside what I see as a worldwide trend towards non-zero-sum solutions to long-standing problems that has only been slowed down, not stopped, by the global financial crisis, technology is going to continue to advance. Dan Gardner at Twitter called his readers' attention to this article, Barrie McKenna's "Has innovation hit a brick wall?" in the Globe and Mail, where a pessimistic approach is suggesting.

University of British Columbia economics professor James Brandery[,] in a new study published in the Canadian Journal of Economics[,] concludes that the pace of innovation is slowing dramatically in four key areas: agriculture, energy, transportation and health care.

The consequences could have a profound impact on our lives. The world’s great technological leaps typically unleash periods of rapid economic growth. Think of the impact of planting crops from seeds, the steam engine, the light bulb, the motor car, refrigeration, or the computer.

“Current and projected rates of innovation might not be sufficient to improve or even maintain living standards in the face of still rapidly growing population, global warming, and other challenges of the 21st century,” Prof. Brander writes.

His thesis is relatively simple. Look around at all the things you depend upon to live and to work. Prof. Brander argues that all the big ideas are already out there.

Innovation is literally hitting a wall, of physical and biological limits. Larger and larger investments are netting increasingly modest and incremental gains. We’ve all been living off the fruits of what our parents and grandparents achieved.

In agriculture, for example, Prof. Brander argues that the major leaps came in the third quarter of the 20th century during the so-called green revolution. Improved crop varieties, irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, improved machinery and education – these all produced remarkable increases in crop yields. But growth rates are now slowing for most major crops since the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s, he says.

“It seems likely that this (relatively) happy period of agricultural surplus arising from rapid technological progress has ended,” writes Prof. Brander, who hastens to add that he’s not “predicting famine any time soon.”

Instead, he envisions an “increasingly challenging problem of generating sufficient productivity gains in food production to feed the world’s growing population in the face of major threats to the food supply system, including global warming.” These challenges include a world population growing at about 1.1 per cent a year, the diversion of corn to produce ethanol, and vanishing agricultural land.

Innovation in energy shows a similar pattern. Prof. Brander points out that nothing in the past 30 years has come close matching the impact of electrification – and that was more than century ago. The key advances since (photovoltaic cells, large-scale wind turbines, biomass fuels) have yet to make a major dent in the dependence on fossil fuels. Other new technologies, such as hydrogen fuels, aren’t coming fast enough to match rising energy thirst.

The longer the world remains dependent on fossil fuels, the greater the risk of “potentially catastrophic global warming,” he warns.

Prof. Brander is similarly pessimistic about the transportation sector. We already have the car and the plane, developed during a “period of revolutionary innovation” from 1910 to 1960. Beyond the space program, however, the 50 years since has been marked by “incremental innovation.”

I think I disagree. Even incremental innovations can have entirely outsized effects, since it's not only the existence of innovations but their actual implementation on the ground that inspires growth. I recently came across an article in the Russian journal Global Affairs, Vladislav Inozemtsev's "Nineteen Eighty-Five". This article, mostly a criticism of Russia's decline relative to an integrating Europe, a dynamic Brazil, and especially emergent-superpower China over the past generation. He made the point that technology and its implementation advanced in entirely unexpected directions, with huge consequences for the world.

In the mid-1980s, many associated the future of humanity with nuclear and thermonuclear energy, or space exploration, but it was innovations authored in American garages by the first computer hardware engineers and software specialists that were destined to determine development guidelines. Computer technologies were personalized and turned into a means of accumulating and storing information and of communication among people. Whereas in 1985 only 7.5 million computers were produced in the world, in 2000 there were 132 million, and in 2009 – more than 300 million. The leading makers of software, chips, computers and communication gadgets entered the top ten on the list of the most expensive corporations of the world (Microsoft held first position in 1998-2000, Intel, third in 1999, Cisco, fourth in 2000, and Apple, tenth in 2009). Apple’s capitalization in 1998-2010 increased 83 times, and that of Microsoft in 1990-2000, 297 times.

The computer and communications industry remained virtually the only one where products became instantly cheaper, while their technical properties soared: the average memory of a PC’s hard disk grew 1.2 million times from 1985 to 2010, and speed, 90,000 times, while the price dropped by a factor of 4-6, even without adjustment for inflation. The information revolution has spilled over to mobile communications and the Internet, making them the fastest growing sectors of the global economy. Whereas in 1985 the world fleet of mobile phones did not exceed 5 million pieces (it was on January 1, 1985 that Britain’s Vodafone launched the UK’s first mobile network), today they number 4.6 billion, and the Internet is used by 1.9 billion subscribers, or 27.3 percent of the globe’s population. The spread of PCs and the Internet eliminated barriers to the transfer of information, it virtually deprived the closed totalitarian countries of any chance to develop, and – more importantly – it changed the essence of the economic system in the post-industrial world. As new computer technologies expand, it has become possible – especially for people of creative professions – to sell not their labor, but finished creative products; in other words, inside the traditional capitalist economy a non-capitalist sector has begun to emerge, and we are still unable to gauge the effects of this development.

My conclusion? As Dan Savage said in a very related context, "It gets better." It's gotten so much better already; the state of the world is going to continue to improve in the years and decades ahead, notwithstanding our major challenges.

What say you?