Monday, December 27, 2021

The James Webb Space Telescope: Science, Engineering, or Worship?


A lot of astronomers, scientists, and engineers got a nice Christmas present when the James Webb Space Telescope was launched successfully from the French Guiana Ariane rocket site on December 25.  A lot could still go wrong with this instrument, which has cost about $8 billion so far—a lot more than the $500 million that was originally planned back in 1996.  But if you ask whether the telescope was worth it, right away you get into imponderables that are hard to quantify.


With the possible exception of high-energy physics, astronomy has to be today's most costly pure-science endeavor.  Looking at the stars used to be the purview of professional astrologers, who kings and priests of many religions relied on to forecast auspicious times for major undertakings such as battles.  Ironically, at least up to the Middle Ages, astrology was viewed as a very practical endeavor, much as weather forecasting is viewed today.  Royal personages didn't pay astrologers to study the stars just for the heck of it—they wanted results.  And in the nature of prediction, they got results too—usually wrong ones, but just enough right guesses to keep the astrologers going. 


With the Scientific Revolution, astrology gradually gave way to astronomy, the scientific study of the stars for their own sake, so to speak.  Again ironically, one of the founders of modern science, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wanted to free what we now know as science from its tendency toward idle speculation, and make it more practical "for the relief of man's estate."  Anyone who uses modern engineered technology of any form has realized Bacon's ambition to employ scientific knowledge for practical purposes, and Bacon's dream of relieving man's estate has come to pass in ways that Bacon could not have imagined.


The improvement he might be most impressed with is the extended lifespan most of us enjoy compared to Bacon's day, and that is due in no small part to modern medical technology, although things like sanitary water systems and sewers, electric grids, and power machinery have all contributed to extending our lifespans as well. 


But the realm of pure knowledge for its own sake has also benefited in countless ways from technology, notably computer technology, which was developed initially for terribly practical reasons having to do with World War II.  Once developed by mathematicians, scientists, and yes, engineers, computers turned out to have applications in both science and engineering, neither of which could do without them today.  In the last few decades, computer software has not only relieved engineers of much tedious grungework with slide rules, tables, and graphs, it has rendered superfluous many kinds of jobs that engineers formerly did.  As technology companies will tell you, they have not yet managed to replace all their engineers with software, but some of them would like to.  Because, as a wise manager once told me, engineers are carried on balance sheets as overhead, like the light bill, and accountants are always on the lookout for ways to lower overhead.


From the point of view of gross national product, the James Webb Space Telescope is all overhead.  Yes, a lot of engineering firms got contracts to build components of it.  Yes, a lot of engineers held jobs largely because of it.  So in that respect, it generated economic activity.  But unlike giant tech firms like Google, Apple, or Facebook, NASA's piddly little $8 billion or so spent on the telescope is a small blip on the economic radar.  Yet the public pays a huge amount of attention to it.  Why?


Not because of the engineering involved, although that engineering must be the peak of the art in terms of aerospace design—hundreds of square feet of precision reflector mirrors and sheets of thin heat reflectors deployed in the unforgiving vacuum of space where you can't call up the serviceman if something goes wrong, and a coordination among a lot of disparate parts and organizations that makes an automotive company look simple. 


No, for most people, the appeal of the telescope isn't the engineering of it, necessary as that was.  It's what the thing may be able to do, which is to look farther and more carefully into the distant past than ever before, and maybe, just maybe, find evidence of living beings outside of our own planet. 


With its enhanced infrared imaging capability, the James Webb Space Telescope can potentially image exoplanets beyond our solar system, and who knows what that will tell us?  If we knew, it wouldn't be research.  In an age for which the ideas of God and life beyond the grave are losing their appeal, people need something to hope for.  And for many, astronomy seems to be a kind of substitute religion, an asking of the question, "What else is out there?" in a materialistic way that modern science is more than happy to do, in exchange for a few billion dollars here and there.


Feeling wonder at seeing the stars on a cold, clear night was what led the ancient poet, who may have been King David himself, to write in Psalm 8,


    When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast   ordained;

    What is man, that thou art mindful of him?  and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

    For thou has made him a little lower than the angels, and has crowned him with glory and honour.


That poet did not have the benefit of a telescope to see how many more stars there were than he could see with the unaided eye.  But he saw enough to see evidence of God's handiwork in them, and how small humanity seems in comparison to the vastness of the universe. 


Far from the village-atheist view that religion resisted the demotion of man from the center of the universe that the Copernican revolution brought, the Jews at least recognized that, physically speaking, humanity is just a tiny speck on the astronomical map.  What makes humanity worthwhile isn't our size, or our engineering of things like the James Webb Space Telescope, or even the knowledge that we may discover with it.  It's that we are creatures—created ones—of God, who loved us enough to "make us a little lower than the angels," and to come in human form to Earth about two thousand years ago, on a day we traditionally reckon as December 25.


Sources:  I referred to the Wikipedia article on the James Webb Space Telescope.  The quotation from Psalm 8 is from the King James version of the Bible, verses 3-5.

Monday, December 20, 2021

What's Global Warming Like in San Marcos?


Strictly speaking, I can't answer that question, although I live in San Marcos, a town of some 50,000 people halfway between San Antonio and Austin.  The reason is that global warming (or climate change, whichever you prefer) is such a large-scale event in both space and time that it's hard to attribute any particular thing to it exclusively. 


Some people have seized on this fuzziness to assert either that it doesn't exist at all—you can always debate about how accurate climate models are and whether the scientists have neglected some factor they don't know about—or that its effects are so random on a small scale that you can't say for sure what it's doing.  For reasons that are not entirely clear, many people on this side of the argument are evangelical Christians.


Other people have used the same large-scale characteristics to reach the conclusion that humanity is headed straight to the wastebasket unless we revolutionize the world, including every level of government in every country, to stop global warming in its tracks, which itself would take several generations to do.  For reasons that are also not that clear, many people on this side of the argument don't believe in God, or at least don't believe God is going to bail us out of the looming mess at the last minute, anyway.


One person who combines aspects of both sides, and is highly qualified to speak on the topic, is Katherine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech in Lubbock.  Hayhoe has a Ph. D. in atmospheric science and has spent her professional career of two decades or more publishing both in the technical literature and in efforts to publicize the science of climate change in a way that the average person can understand.  She is married to a pastor, who co-authored a book with her (A Climate for Change:  Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions), is chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, and holds an endowed chair in public policy and public law.  If anybody is qualified to talk about climate change to religious people, Hayhoe is.  And almost alone among people who talk a lot about climate change, she has a good attitude about it.


Attitudes are a lot more important than people give them credit for.  The unique thing about humanity, in comparison to the rest of the living beings on this planet, is that we can think about our situations historically over time and make long-term plans to deal with various challenges.  Plants and other animal species can adapt to changing circumstances to a degree, but not if all members of a species get killed by a sudden shift in the environment.  Only humans can anticipate something by looking at preliminary signs of its coming and plan to deal with it in advance.  But attitude will determine how well we do that.


Planning in advance is essentially what Hayhoe wants us to do.  In an interview she conducted with Tim Reckmeyer of SW Newsmedia last February, after Texas' Big Freeze, she pointed out that one side effect of global warming is to weaken the jet stream, because the Arctic is warming even faster than the rest of the world.  Weakened jet streams tend to wobble more north and south, and an unusually large wobble to the south was what let extremely cold air all the way down to Texas last February, leading to multiple power-generation failures and a week without water and power for millions of Texans, a couple of hundred of whom died as a result.  So, paradoxically, it is possible that global warming contributed to the extraordinary cold snap of last February.


On the other hand, my wife and I planted some tomato vines last March, once it got warm enough that we weren't worried about another freeze.  Our little cherry tomatoes in particular did very well this year, and the fall and winter so far have been so mild that we are still harvesting cherry tomatoes with only twelve days to go till January.  If this is global warming, it's good for cherry tomatoes, anyway.


Hayhoe points out that there are basically three kinds of things we can do about global warming:  mitigation, adaptation, and suffering.  By mitigation, she means doing something about the main things that cause global warming in the first place, chief among which is carbon emissions.  By adaptation, she means dealing with the consequences of global warming: rising ocean levels and all that means for coastal regions, and changes in crop patterns and weather cycles, including more of certain types of severe weather in some cases.  And the third thing, suffering, will happen without us doing anything about it. 


Hayhoe says that it's up to us to choose what mix we're going to have of these three things.  Obviously, if we ignore mitigation and adaptation and just pretend everything will be fine, she thinks we'll have more of the third thing—suffering.  And she may well be right, although suffering due to global warming is not always that easy to distinguish from suffering as part of the general plight of humanity since the dawn of time. 


Mitigation means things like carbon taxes and the panoply of world-government-like policies that the more extreme members of the Democratic Party would like to impose on the U. S.  I think Hayhoe would say about this that it doesn't have to be as painful as it looks, and there are plenty of opportunities to preserve economic growth for poor as well as rich countries if mitigation is done wisely.  If Hayhoe was in charge, that might work as well as she says, but not all government policymakers are as wise as Hayhoe.


And adaptation I think is something that everyone can agree on.  With CO2 levels doing what they're doing, we can fairly reliably predict that certain things are going to happen, and it's just carelessness not to prepare for them.  Conscious and planned adaptation is one of the things humanity does best, and sensible actions along these lines are probably what will get the most consensus among disagreeing parties.


We've enjoyed our cherry tomatoes this year, but it wouldn't surprise me if it all comes to an abrupt end in a world-beating cold snap.  Global warming won't change the old saying that goes "if you don't like Texas weather, just wait a few minutes."  It just may make it more true than ever. 


Sources:  I referred to Katherine Hayhoe's website ( which has a link to the Reckmeyer interview at

Monday, December 13, 2021

Will Facebook Kill Holly?


I have to be careful about how I write today's column.  I do not want to betray any trusts.  But on the other hand, a topic that up to now has been an abstraction for me has become personal.  A statistic has turned into someone I know by only two degrees of separation.  To protect anonymity, I have changed names and some details of what I will write here.  But I assure you that what I am going to write is based on facts as personally told to me yesterday by someone I will call Holly, who is a twelve-year-old girl.


Facebook, which has now renamed itself Meta, has been in the news a lot lately, and in this column as well, because of revelations by a whistleblower named Frances Haugen.  Haugen is a former Facebook employee who has made thousands of pages of internal company documents public, and has testified to Congress that Facebook's own research showed how harmful Instagram and other Facebook services are to teenagers (girls especially) at the same time that Facebook's CEO (and owner of 55% of Facebook's voting stock) Mark Zuckerberg was saying that his firm did not have such data.  The blowback from articles in the Wall Street Journal and other outlets detailing the hypocritical actions of Zuckerberg and his company have been so severe that the firm dropped plans it had announced to develop a new service for preteens called Instagram Kids. 


A recent article on the Mind Matters website described these problems and quoted results of a 2017 survey by the UK's Royal Society for Public Health and the Young Health Movement that showed, among other damning evidence, that the average age at which a child creates an Instagram account is 10, even though the software says you must be at least 13 to join.  Among users aged 14 to 24, all but one of the social-media platforms surveyed showed a negative score for well-being. 


With all this as a background, let me introduce Holly.  My wife and I have known her slightly for at least a couple of years, and when she was ten she invited us to see her elementary school's production of Peter Pan, which for an older couple with no children was quite a treat.  Although she has since moved to a nearby town, she has the opportunity to visit us now and then, and yesterday was one of those visits.


Holly is one of those girls who will rattle on about whatever she's doing if you just stand there and look interested, so my wife and I invited her in and we listened to what she had to say about what she'd been doing since we saw her almost a year ago.  She talked about horses, a vacation trip her family took back East, and then school.  She attends school in a medium-size town that has a reputation for old-fashioned conservative family values, and if something bad is happening there, it's probably happening everywhere else too. 


She had her smartphone with her, of course, and as she took it out she said her parents have put some controls on it to limit her social-media use.  While I cannot recall her exact words, the following is substantially what she said next, when we asked her how things have gone at school with COVID-19. 


"Oh, it's been bad.  One of my friends committed suicide over the summer.  They were bullying her and it just got so bad she couldn't take it anymore.  That's why I don't mind my folks doing what they did to my phone."


After Holly left and I had a chance to think about the enormity of what she told me, it began to sink in that here was a twelve-year-old girl having to deal with the suicide of a personal friend of hers, caused at least in part by the baleful influence of social media. 


I don't know anything about this incident other than what Holly told me.  Scientists would call this "anecdotal evidence" and dismiss it as useless for analytical purposes.  But it brings home the diabolical influence of social media on children in a way that no amount of statistics or studies have done for me.  Somewhere there are parents of the sixth-grader who committed suicide who will never see their daughter reach adulthood, get married, or have children of her own.  And during the girl's lifetime, because she was one of the twenty-two million users of Instagram or whatever social media platform contributed to her death, she enriched Mark Zuckerberg personally by some amount of dollars he could charge for ads on her phone.  I hope he enjoys them now, because he won't get a chance to enjoy them where he's going.


Holly, at the tender age of twelve, already seems to have a realistic sense of how dangerous social media can be.  And, Lord willing, this sense will preserve her from the hazards of using Facebook products when one is a teenage girl.  But she has all of her teenage years to negotiate ahead of her, and she is not out of the social-media woods yet.


We live in an age that is hostile to children and teenagers in many ways.  If a child manages to survive the first nine months of its existence in the womb without being aborted, as about 600,000 children are each year in the U. S., she or he becomes a kind of hobby that our economy tolerates but does not encourage—a "lifestyle choice" that burdens the otherwise ideal worker with expenses and obligations that distract him or her from being totally devoted to the job and to consumption of products and services such as Facebook.  Upon entering school, an institution that was formerly safeguarded from commercial exploitation back in the 1960s when I experienced it, the child becomes the target of 24/7 ads from streaming services, the various entertainment platforms such as video games, and eventually from smartphones.  Arrayed against each individual child is the Big Tech oligopoly of world-class expertise that extracts the last drop of attention with manipulative artificial-intelligence-enhanced algorithms that do things no ordinary human being can understand, algorithms that can intensify social interactions into a tornado of abuse that makes death at one's own hand look like the only alternative. 


We prayed with Holly before she left, for protection from the many dangers that life as a girl in America presents today.  God is more powerful that Mark Zuckerberg.  But Mark Zuckerberg doesn't seem to think so.


Sources:  I thank Denyse O'Leary for drawing my attention to the article "Facebook's . . . Er, Meta's Instagram Problem" by Heather Zeiger, which appeared at 

Monday, December 06, 2021

What Could Go Wrong With Engineered Life Forms?


That question left the hypothetical realm for reality when Michael Levin, director of the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts University, and Josh Bongard, professor of computer science at the University of Vermont, teamed together to turn frog stem cells into robots.  During the robots' seven-day lifetime, they can move, collect small particles into piles, and even reproduce after a fashion.  Developed with the essential assistance of an artificial-intelligence supercomputer, the new entities—called "xenobots" after the Latin name of the frog species from which the cells were taken—are the first step in a long-anticipated field that has up to now existed only in the realms of dystopian science fiction.


Starting with knowledge of what frog skin and cardiac cells can do, the scientists tried billions of different combinations of cells in the computer to see which ones could do interesting things.  The computer eventually came up with recipes for the assembly of hundreds of cells, which the scientists then carried out in the laboratory in a finicky process like assembling microscopic Legos, only the Legos are incubated frog stem cells.  The resulting robots did indeed move around, carry small objects in custom-designed pouches, and a Pac-Man-shaped version could even reproduce, spitting out a smaller version of itself every now and then. 


Asked about the ethical implications of their research, Levin said, "When we start to mess around with complex systems that we don't understand, we're going to get unintended consequences."  Bomgard added, "There's all of this innate creativity in life. . . . We want to understand that more deeply—and how we can direct and push it toward new forms."


Levin and Bomgard are working scientists, not philosophers, so when they talk out of school, so to speak, addressing not the technicalities of AI-driven biological multicell-organism fabrication, but the wider implications of their work, they tend to say things that are not particularly profound or original.  Anyone who has had trouble driving an unfamiliar rental car has learned that messing around with complex systems that we don't understand can have unintended consequences.  The question is not whether unintended consequences will happen—they will—but what you do about them if they do, and how you keep the bad ones from hurting yourself or others.


What Bomgard said encapsulates three streams of philosophy and religion that have been flowing since prehistoric times.  The first stream is the wonder one feels at the awesome abundance and variety of life on Earth.  "Innate creativity" implies that it's simply there somehow, a brute fact of existence that Bomgard uses the passive voice for ("There is . . . creativity.")  This ignores the fact that in every other area of human endeavor—music, art, literature, and science itself—creativity appears to arise only from human intelligence.  The elaborate architecture of termite nests, in which somehow thousands of individually unintelligent creatures cooperate to build sophisticated towers and walls, is sometimes called "creative," but is more realistically categorized as instinct.  No termite colony has ever built a Corinthian column.  It takes human ingenuity to do that.


No reasonable scientist can deny that there is a creative spirit or principle in life, but the universally-observed prohibition on talking about God in this connection forces them simply to say it's out there without saying where it came from.  But a failure to acknowledge the source of all that creativity may lead to something worse than unintended consequences later on.


The second great stream of philosophy is the human desire to know, as Aristotle points out in the first words of his Metaphysics:  "All men by nature desire to know."  Bomgard echoes this when he says "We want to understand that more deeply," meaning the creativity of life.  Up to the time of Sir Francis Bacon, philosophers sought wisdom as the highest secular good.  But since Bacon, the unadulterated desire simply to know something has been subordinated most of the time to the third great stream of philosophical inquiry:  how can we use this knowledge to, in Bacon's words, "better man's estate"? 


In more prosaic terms, the difference between the two streams is the distinction between pure and applied science, although the distinction is often more hypothetical than real.  Ask any mathematician who has spent years pursuing a theory simply because it was beautiful and interesting, and then turns around to discover that the National Security Agency has made it an essential part of their latest encryption technology.  The fact is, pure science can turn into applied science at any time, and a lot of applied science has accidentally led to advances in pure science as well.


But that ignores the question of intent, which is the critical question that so far has remained unanswered, at least by Levin and Bomgard.  I will admit that the first thing I thought of when I read about what they were doing is a phrase first used by Eric Drexler in his 1986 book Engines of Creation, a half-science and half-fiction speculation on the future of nanotechnology.  Gray goo is what the world would turn into if we managed to develop a type of bacteria that could live and multiply by consuming almost anything.  Readers will recognize the xenobot as possibly a first necessary step in making gray goo.


Levin and Bomgard say there is no chance their modified frog embryo cells will escape the lab, as they can't live outside the specially prepared soup that they were incubated in, and when they die they are as harmless as the thousands of skin cells each of us shed from our bodies every day.  Well, maybe so.  But the same curiosity and "if we can do it, we must do it" attitude that drove these researchers to make their xenobots can (I don't say will) lead to the kind of disasters that we've seen in the last couple of years.  We may never know whether COVID-19 originated in a lab accident in Wuhan or by natural means.  But even the remote possibility that it was man-made should make us all take very hard and long looks at efforts to manipulate living things in a way that could lead to harm, even if it is accidental.


Sources:  CNN carried the article "World's first living robots can now reproduce, scientists say" by Katie Hunt on Nov. 29, 2021 at  I also referred to the University of Vermont press release on the research at, and the Wikipedia article on gray goo.