Cordial Deconstruction

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Archive for the ‘Criticism’ Category

Deconstruction of the Drake Equation

Posted by Karl Withakay on August 18, 2010

I’ve been scooped by PZ Meyers, but I’m still writing this post anyway.  It fits in well with my recent posts on space;

Cordial Deconstruction of Stephen Hawking? (Am I So Bold?)

Follow-Up: Energy Requirements of Interstellar Travel

Final Follow-Up on the Probability of an Alien Invasion

Where Does Stephen Hawking Think We Can Go?

On Monday  I read this article: Proof of Aliens Could Come Within 25 Years, Scientist Says on  The scientist, Seth Shostak, cites the Drake equation when attempting to support his prediction.

The Drake equation, in case you’re not aware, is an equation that is supposed to be used to estimate the number of intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way, and it’s utter garbage.

Form Wikipedia, the equation is:

N = R^{\ast} \times f_p \times n_e \times f_{\ell} \times f_i \times f_c \times L \!


N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;


R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy

fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets

ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets

f = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point

fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life

fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space

L = the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume the equation itself is basically sound, tough that’s debatable.  In that case, the accuracy of the number we can get from this equation depends on how accurate the values we plug into the individual terms are, so let’s look at  the terms and see how well we can estimate those numbers.

The first term, R*, we have an OK, better than order of magnitude estimate for, so we’re off to not too bad a start, understanding that we’re not looking for a terribly precise value here.

For the second term, fp, we really don’t have a good number for right now.  PZ says we have “growing evidence of values” for this number, and that’s not an inaccurate statement, as long as you understand that the evidence is not quite ripe for picking yet.  While we have been making a lot of progress in detecting extra solar planets,  we’re still only good at detecting larger giant type planets like Jupiter orbiting stars similar to the sun (the Kepler mission may change that).  Because the best way we have to detect planets right now is to detect the wobble the planets induce in their parent star while they orbit, it’s easier to detect planets with a large mass relative to its parent star.  Because of this, we haven’t yet been able to detected any planets of less than several Earth masses, which means what we currently have for this number is really a lower limit for this value, but we really don’t have a good estimate for an upper limit because we don’t know how many stars have only relatively low mass planets and no planets large enough to induce a noticeable wobble.  We’re only on the second term, and we already have a little problem, but as long as we use the lower estimate for this values, we should be OK.

For the third term, ne, we really have nothing but projections using our solar system as a model.  We don’t know how many rocky planets or moons are out there, we don’t know how many of them lie in the habitable zone of their parent stars, we don’t know how many of them have the right elemental composition, we don’t know how many have relatively circular orbits (to avoid extreme temperature variances), etc, etc.  Even if we get better at detecting terrestrial planets, there are so many factors that contribute to the suitability of a planet for supporting life, many of which will be very difficult to detect, that it will be problematic to ever come up with a good value for this number.

As little as we have to go on for the third value, we have basically jack nothing to go on for the all the remaining terms.  We have absolutely no clue about any of those numbers and any attempt to make an estimate for any of them is just wishful thinking or anthropically derived values by people wanting to find an answer.

What fraction of the unknown number of habitable worlds actually develop life?  How does one even make up a number for this and keep a straight face?  Without knowing how life arose here on Earth, how can we begin to  say how probable it is anywhere else?

What fraction of the planets from the previous term develop intelligent life?  Again, who knows?  Our sample of 1 doesn’t give us much to go on.  If the dinosaurs hadn’t died out, would we have intelligent dinosaurs now?  Who knows?  We assume we are the natural, logical conclusion of the evolutionary process because we’re here, but we could be an aberration, an exception to the norm.

What fraction of civilizations develop technology that releases detectable signals?  It might seem reasonable to suggest that if they survive, that this is an inevitable outcome, but we shouldn’t be overly anthropic and assume we are the norm.  We really don’t know.  We do know that when Europeans ventured forth and explored the word, they ran into a lot of pre-industrial and stone age civilizations several millennia behind them technologically.  We can’t even say if the native Americans would have ever developed technology in America under very similar conditions to what the Europeans had let alone say what would be likely on a planets of different conditions and abundances of resources.

How long do such technological civilizations release detectable signals into space?  We haven’t stopped yet, so we don’t even have an anthropic reference number to go on here.

Frankly the best evidence we have for estimating a number for N is the lack of evidence so far.  This is basically the Fermi Paradox.  The Fermi paradox is the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations.  I would say that this is not so much a paradox as an indicator that the estimates for N are probably unreasonably exaggerated.  N must be low enough that we’re not currently detecting signals from alien civilizations.  If they’re out there, we can at least say they’re probably not close by or we’d have detected them by now, which means alien civilizations probably aren’t as widely dispersed as the optimists project.

Honestly I’m amazed that anyone tries to invoke the Drake equation, given that we can only reasonably speculate the value for N is between 0 (if you don’t count us) and millions or even billions.  I automatically loose a little respect for any scientist who seriously invokes the Drake equation; the equation is junk science and probably always will be.

Posted in Criticism, Science, Space | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Where Does Stephen Hawking Think We Can Go?

Posted by Karl Withakay on August 11, 2010

Stephen Hawking thinks we need to start looking for another home– not necessarily a replacement, but a summer home, perhaps.  He says our existence is fragile enough that we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket and that we need to hedge our bets by spreading humanity to other worlds, just in case something happens here.

I admit that we face all sorts of threats, both from ourselves flirting with disaster and from the universe potentially trying to kill us as well.  Hawking cites climate change, and nuclear or biologic war as man made threats to humanity.  We also face threats we have little power to influence, such as an asteroid impact or a gamma ray burst aimed right at us.

Hawking says “It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million”.  So what are our options, really?  I’ve already covered the relative implausibility and impracticality of interstellar space travel in a previous series of posts (here, here, and here), and we’re not talking about a little exploration scout ship here, we’re talking about an big, massive ark.  It’s arguably questionable whether we would ever have the resources to reseed ourselves on a planet orbiting a distant star if we somehow managed to find one suitable enough to relocate to.  Certainly in the 200 year time frame, we have to think more locally.  We’re talking Mars or one the large moons of the solar system.  Saturn and its moons are a long way out, and the amount of sunlight that reaches Saturn is about 1% of what reaches Earth; that’s not exactly a good setup for a self sustained civilization with no support from the potentially destroyed Earth.  Jupiter is a little closer, but the Jovian system still gets only 4% the solar energy Earth does and 3 of the 4 large moons are bathed in high levels of radiation due to Jupiter’s magnetic field to boot.  As Mercury is too close to the sun, and Venus is pretty much worse than we could hope to make Earth by ourselves, this leaves the Moon or Mars as the most likely candidates.  Mars gets about 44% the solar energy Earth does, and that’s likely enough to use to provide energy and grow crops, plus it has water and a (very) thin atmosphere.  It has no magnetic field to protect against cosmic rays , but we’ve got to work with what we have.

But, how practical is creating a reservoir of humanity on mars or the moon?  We’re not talking about a base or an outpost, we’re talking about a fully self sustained, independent colony here that has to be able to survive on its own.  It has to support a large enough population to provide sufficient genetic diversity to allow our species to survive, at least 1000 people, and it probably needs to be able to grow.  Sure Mars has water and solar energy, and with those two things, you can also have oxygen, but how independently habitable can you make it within 200 years?  How bad would the devastation to the Earth have to be before Mars was more survivable than Earth?  You either have to terraform Mars to make it earthlike enough to support an agrarian civilization , or build an entire self contained infrastructure capable of supporting itself without any support or resources from Earth.  Frankly, if an extinction level asteroid hits the Earth in the next 200 years, my money is on the people who stay behind on Earth; they’ve got a lot more to work with.  A devastated Earth is probably a safer bet than Mars.  If we had the resources and technology to terraform Mars enough to make it habitable independent of technology (technology requires infrastructure over the long term to keep it going), we’d probably be able to neutralize global warming and clean up all the pollution to boot here at home.

Any refuge inside the solar system only works for Earth specific disasters anyway.  Everything in Phil Plait’s Death From the Skies after chapter one would be just as bad for any other location in the Solar System as it would be for the earth, and I’ve previously covered that I don’t consider interstellar travel particularly likely or practical.

If we want humanity to survive really long term, we better hope we do find a way to get humanity to the stars.  Even if we get lucky and dodge all the bullets we and the universe have aimed at us, the sun’s out to get us.  In a billion years, the Earth will definitely be uninhabitable, and nine or so billion years after that, the sun will be a burned out white dwarf providing very little energy to whatever is left orbiting it at that time.  However, even if we manage practical interstellar travel, we’d only be delaying our inevitable doom.  One way or another, there will be an end to the universe as we know it.  Whether it’s a heat death where all stars are burned out and everything in the universe is in thermal equilibrium making work or energy transfer impossible, a big rip, a big crunch, or the decay of ever proton in the universe, eventually there won’t be any place in the universe for humanity to survive.  Sure, we should do what we can to stay alive, but maybe what’s really important is how we live while we are around.  After all, that’s all we really can control.  In the words of Phil Plait at TAM8, “Don’t be a dick.”

EDIT 8-12-10:  Stephen Hawking also has expressed the thought that the possibility that we might be invaded and killed by extraterrestrials is another reason why our existence here on Earth is tenuous, but I’ve already addressed why we shouldn’t worry about being invaded by ET in the posts I cited above. (here, here, and here)

EDIT II 8-12-10:  Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks colonizing other world is prohibitively impracticable.  PZ Meyers has an interesting post this morning where he discusses a post by Charlie Stross that discuses the same idea of how it is  just so absurdly impracticable that it is essentially impossible.

Posted in Criticism, Science, Space, Stephen Hawking | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

How Not to Raise Money for Public Radio

Posted by Karl Withakay on June 17, 2010

Recently I received an E-Mail from Tim Eby, general manager of KWMU, the Public Radio station here in St. Louis, asking for an additional contribution.

The E-Mail stated that the state allocation for public broadcasting stations from the Missouri Cultural Trust Fund has been zeroed out effective immediately and that this means a direct cut of $41,000 this year and an $82,000 loss in expected revenue for the station in the next fiscal year.

This seems to me like a very legitimate reason to solicit additional contributions from members, especially in light of the fact that the station eliminated one entire on-air fund drive this year .

I’d just like to point out to Mr. Eby, though, that he might need seek some advice on how to better solicit those additional funds, because using the E-Mail subject,

Help KWMU end our fiscal year with a budget surplus

probably isn’t the most effective way to let your target audience know you’re suffering from a budget shortfall, especially at a time when many people are still feeling the pain of the recession.  You don’t raise money in fiscally tight times by using the word surplus.  I imagine a lot of recipients of that email deleted it without reading it, assuming KWMU was just looking for a little extra scratch money to do some interesting things with rather than trying to cover an unanticipated loss of state funding.  Personally, I only read it because I couldn’t believe they were soliciting more money so soon after I joined, and I wanted to see how they justified the solicitation.

It only took me a few minutes to come up with three E-Mail subjects that I think would have been better:

State eliminates KWMU funding, help make up the difference

Help KWMU cover unexpected loss of state funding

Public broadcasting allocation zeroed out, please help

All of these seem like better ideas than a subject line where KWMU asks people to help them end the year with extra money.  Imagine what the collective minds of the KWMU staff might have been able to come up with if they put their heads together and spent even a few minutes thinking about it.

Honestly, did he take any time to think what kind of impact that subject line would have?  In the world of E-Mail, the subject line is arguably the most important part of the message.  It usually determines whether the E-Mail gets read or discarded, when it gets read, and strongly influences the attitude of the reader towards the rest of the E-Mail message.  The subject line of every E-Mail, even personal E-Mail, is marketing competing for the attention of the recipient.  Many people get dozens or even hundreds of E-Mails every day, and many people do not read or open all the E-Mail they receive.  Spammers realize this and devote much effort into human engineering to come up with subjects likely to compel people to open and read E-Mail.

It sure seems to me that’s its a bad idea to try and raise money by essentially telling people in your E-Mail subject that you’d like to have more money than you actually need.

I now conclude this Cordial Deconstruction of Mr Eby’s E-Mail, thanks for reading.

In case you’re wondering, I haven’t sent the station any additional money, though I’d like to.  They caught me at a bad time.  I’ve spent a lot of money lately on things like an upcoming trip to Europe, a new camera system for that trip, and a trip to The Amazing Meeting 8 in Vegas right after the trip to Europe among other things, and though I could probably afford to send more money to the station, I really should curb my spending for a little while.

Posted in Criticism, Public Radio | Leave a Comment »

Sci-Fi Science and Skepticism Fail on Syfy

Posted by Karl Withakay on June 10, 2010

A couple of months ago, I was flipping through channels on my POOP TV* and caught a few minutes of one of those really bad, direct to cable movies they run all the time on the Syfy channel.  The movie was Savage Planet and before I changed the channel, I chanced to hear the following lines of dialog spoken by one of the characters in the movie:

“I always believed there had to be a scientific explanation for everything.  Science was the only answer.  Since I’ve been here, I’m rapidly becoming a skeptic.”

I hit the record button on my DVR remote so I could preserve that line of dialog for a potential future blog post.  However, I didn’t continue watching the program, and I stopped the recording after the dialog, so I only have a few minutes recorded.

I don’t really know what the character was specifically talking about, but I imagine it had something to do with the killer space bears the reviews say the movie contains.  Regardless, this quote is an epic fail on the part of the writers of the movie.  They apparently buy into the philosophy that “science doesn’t know everything”, which is really a misunderstanding of science, since science is a process, and not a body of knowledge or answers.

To quote the Wikipedia article on science,

“Science is a systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge about the world and organizing and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and theories.”

Science is not the answer, it is the means to an answer; it is they way to provide the explanation.  If it is beyond  your ability to explain scientifically, that is not a failure of science; that is a failure of your ability and knowledge base.  Lacking a scientific explanation for a phenomenon does not make that phenomenon supernatural or paranormal, it simply means you haven’t found the scientific explanation yet.  It can be very frustrating to not have the answer for something.  It can be even more frustrating to know that the answer to that question may never be discovered during your lifetime, but that is no reason to engage in a god of the gaps fallacy and invent some supernatural explanation just so you can have an answer.

The dialog is also a profound misunderstanding of skepticism and the skeptical community.  While the word skepticism can technically mean any questioning attitude, skepticism is about challenging claims lacking empirical evidence.  It is also about challenging and examining the evidence that is used to support a claim.  Skepticism is a crucible for inquiry in which claims are subjected to the fires of scientific scrutiny to burn away the extraneous fluff, leaving only scientific knowledge and/or more questions to be answered.

I don’t really expect any better for a low budget sci-fi movie that likely went straight to Syfy, but I wanted to blog about it because I’ve heard the “Science doesn’t have all the answers” gambit many times before, and I wanted to give my take on why that concept is so wrong.

*POOP TV:  Picture Out Of Picture.  I have a 40” HDTV sitting next to my 60” HDTV.  When I was researching buying a new 60” HDTV, I wanted to get a model with PIP (Picture In Picture) because my then current TV had it, and it was pretty nifty for watching one football game while keeping track of another.  I discovered that it would cost a lot more extra to get any of the current models with PIP, more than the cost of buying a second, smaller HDTV.  So I bought a budget model 32” LCD TV to go next to my new 60” model.  I found that I liked the setup not just for watching two football games at the same time, but also for watching TV while playing video games, especially when I am just performing some boring, repetitive action to level up a character, exploit a flaw in the game to generate endless amounts of money, or get some achievement.  I liked the POOP TV setup so much that a couple years later, I sold my 32” TV to a friend and upgraded the POOP TV to a 40” model.

I have no wife or kids, I have to spend my money on something, right?

Posted in Critical Thinking, Criticism, Quotes, Sci-Fi, Science, Skepticism, Space, Syfy, Television, Thoughtful/Random Observation | Leave a Comment »

Final Follow-Up on the Probability of an Alien Invasion

Posted by Karl Withakay on June 3, 2010

This post is part 3 of my Deconstruction of Stephen Hawking’s comments about contact with alien intelligences being risky.  Part one was a general overview of why alien visitation/invasion is highly unlikely.  Part two involved some rough numbers regarding the energy requirements for interstellar space travel at the near light speed velocities required to get anywhere in a remotely reasonable time frame.

In this post I will address the hypothetical “what if” scenario where some advanced alien intelligence has made a fundamental advance/ breakthrough in physics and engineering that allows interstellar or even intergalactic travel at effective speeds far in excess of the speed of light at a relatively low energy cost.

So, what if it is possible?  What if the laws of physics as we know them need to be rewritten or at least get greatly expanded, and it turns out it is possible to travel interstellar distances in practical time frames instead of decades, centuries, or longer?  Further, what if it is possible to do so with a relatively low energy cost instead of needing energy equivalent to tens of thousands of thermonuclear weapons or the yearly outputs of thousands of nuclear reactors?

Well, in short, in that case we’re probably screwed, and there’s still no reason to worry about it because there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.

Any alien civilization that advanced would probably be so far beyond us technologically that we probably couldn’t hope to resist their invasion or even evade detection by them.  We’ve been making radio transmissions for well over 100 years, and during that time, our transmissions have been leaking into space to worlds more than 100 light years distant.  I think it’s reasonable to speculate that any civilization capable of effectively superluminal travel is likely to have an equally advanced ability to detect and locate other intelligent civilizations or suitable worlds.  If such a super advanced civilization is out there, and they are bent on conquest, they probably already have thousands or even millions of probes scattered throughout the galaxy looking for worlds to plunder in addition to their super advanced observation/ search techniques they will be using from their home world.  Basically, if they are reasonably capable of getting here, they are probably capable of finding us whether we want them to or not.

Certainly, if they are capable of getting here, there can be little question of their ability to conquer us with little difficulty, as long as they’re not to worried about our welfare.  Some might point to US and Soviet difficulties in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq as reasons to think we could have some hope of resisting a technologically superior invader, but I would disagree.  First of all, the difference in technology would be closer to trying to fend off A-10’s with paper airplanes, the Ethiopians fighting off the Italian Army in 1935, or the Aboriginal Americans fighting off European invaders, settlers, or colonists.  The Soviets did pretty well in Afghanistan until we started supplying the other side with modern military equipment.  Our problems in Vietnam have been well documented and much debated, but I think it’s at least safe to say we weren’t engaged in an unrestricted attempt to eliminate North Vietnam’s military capability, and they had some help from the Soviets to boot.  Likewise, we’re not attempting to eliminate the populations of either Afghanistan or Iraq.  I’m pretty sure we could do that if we wanted to and we didn’t care about preserving the infrastructure.  Independence Day may have been a fun movie, but it was delusional in regards to our ability to fight off an alien invasion.  We very probably have little chance against a super advanced alien invasion force unless we can find some equally advanced alien allies or a fifth column to help us.

Additionally, Stephen Hawking seems to be implying that if we just stay silent, ET may not find us.  This super advanced ET probably doesn’t need our help to find us.  Irrespective of all the radio transmissions we’ve been leaking into space for over a hundred years, ET would probably be able to detect our rich blue and green world on their own without our help.  We are already are able to detect planets only a few times more massive than the Earth orbiting other stars and detect elemental composition of stars with what would be extremely primitive techniques and technologies compare to what any superluminal civilization would have at its disposal.  It seems likely that ET would be able to find our rich, garden world whether we were here to transmit to them or not.

In summary:  If extraterrestrial aliens have the ability to get here in a reasonably short period of time without bankrupting their planetary economy, then they can probably find us, come here, and kick our butts if they want to.

Frankly, the fact that we haven’t yet been conquered by ET is a hint that maybe either ET isn’t interested in or capable of coming here and conquering us.

Posted in Critical Thinking, Criticism, Followup, Science, Skepticism, Space, Stephen Hawking | 3 Comments »

Follow-Up: Energy Requirements of Interstellar Travel

Posted by Karl Withakay on May 2, 2010

This is a follow-up to my recent post, Cordial Deconstruction of Stephen Hawking? (Am I So Bold?) where I discussed the likelihood that an alien intelligence would bother crossing the universe or galaxy to plunder the resources of the planter Earth.

In this post, I will discuss the energy requirements of interstellar travel.  Before I begin, I want to explain that I’m not going to show the math involved in the numbers, both because many people won’t be interested in the equations, and because this post is going to be long enough without showing all the calculations and equations involved.  I’ve also ignored the time dilation factor which would reduce the relative travel time of the journey for the passengers of a spacecraft traveling close to the speed of light, but it only makes a significant difference at speeds that are energetically prohibitive anyway.

First, a discussion of the distances involved when discussing interstellar travel.  To quote Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe,

“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the drug store, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

A typical galaxy is about 30,000 light years in diameter, the Milky Way being about 100,000 light years across.  The distances between galaxies is even more mind bogglingly huge; the typical distance between galaxies is about 3 million light years.  The visible universe is about 93 billion light years in diameter.  (This is the current, commoving distance, not the distance at the time the light from the furthest visible stars was emitted.)  So, to start, lets rule out intergalactic travel and focus on interstellar travel from within the Milky Way galaxy to see how practical that would be.

The nearest star to the sun is Proxima Centauri at a distance of about 4.2 light years, but Proxima Centauri is not a great candidate for habitual planets, for several reason.  It’s a red dwarf, and that could pose numerous problems.  It’s also variable, which almost closes the door on Proxima Centauri as a candidate for our hostile ET to come from.  Moving on, there are 64 known stars within about 16 light years of the Earth, so let’s just say ET is coming from our back yard, say 10 light years away, though the aliens probably wouldn’t be so local unless life is very common in the universe.

So let’s look at how much energy it would take ET to get here from an unspecified plant 10 light years away.  If we assume ET doesn’t want to spend 200 or more years making a round trip to Earth, they’re going to need to travel fast, really fast.  Even 10% of the speed of light isn’t going to cut it.  Let’s shoot for 90% of the speed of light (c).  At .90 c, it’s going to take about 11 years to make the trip from ET world to earth, if ET can accelerate and decelerate nearly instantaneously.

So now we have our target speed, but we need to know the mass of ET’s vehicle.  An object the size of the space shuttle (~110,000 kg for the orbiter by itself or around 2,000,000 kg for the whole system with boosters and fuel) seems a little physically small for an 11 year journey, so let’s try something a little bigger.  A Virginia class submarine is about 8,000,000 kg and is a craft designed for long term endurance travel; let’s assume ET’s craft is the same mass.

The amount of energy needed to accelerate an object of a mass of 8,000,000kg to.90 c is 7.45 9.32 * 10^23 Joules, which is about 180 million megatons of energy.  This is the equivalent of 3.6 ~4.5 million Tsar Bombas, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated.  It would take more than four five million kg of antimatter annihilating with the same amount of matter to produce this much energy.  It’s worse than it looks, because the ETs need to slow down to a relative stop when  they get here, which will take the same amount of energy as the acceleration, so we’re talking about 360 ~450 million megatons of energy just  for a one way trip.  But it’s even worse than that.  We are ignoring the mass of the energy source and any propellant used in for ET’s spacecraft, and we are assuming 100% efficiency in the conversion of the energy source into vehicle velocity, which isn’t going to happen in the real universe.  All things considered, without going into the increasingly complicated math (which would require us to start using calculus since the mass of the vehicle now decreases as we consume reactant & propellant), we probably need to increase our estimate of the energy requirements by an order of magnitude or so.

So, bottom line, at the end of our rudimentary estimate of the energy requirements to travel at .90 c, we’re talking about an energy requirement in the order of a billion megatons or so.

OK, what if ET is a little more patient and is willing to endure a 200 year round trip at .10 c?  The energy requirements drop to ~17,000 ~870,000 Megatons of energy (or 17,000 Tsar Bombas) for a one way trip. (It’s not a linear decrease because we’re talking relativistic mechanics here.)

(For reference, doing a little math, I calculate the Callaway Nuclear Generating Station in Missouri generates about 8 megatons of energy a year.)

So, in summary, the energy requirements are massive for velocities even 10% of the speed of light, and absurdly huge for speeds 90% of c, and even at those speeds, we are limited to about 10 light years of distance for any reasonable length journey.  Why would any ET, no matter how conquest driven they were, bother expending such energy resources to plunder the resources of another world, assuming they could even find a suitable planet to plunder in their local stellar neighborhood?

I think we can sleep soundly at night, never having to worry about Stephen Hawking’s ETs ever attacking the Earth ID4 style.

In regards to the energy requirements of some mythological faster than light propulsion system, who can really say what those would be?  I can speculate that they would be much greater than those of traveling at velocities at “significant” percentages of the speed of light, and someone else can say that as long as we are speculating about faster than light travel, why can’t we speculate about some relatively low energy process to achieve those speeds?  It’s all wild speculation if not outright fantasy at that point, so there’s really no numbers to talk about.

Posted in Critical Thinking, Criticism, Followup, Science, Skepticism, Space, Stephen Hawking | 12 Comments »

Cordial Deconstruction of Stephen Hawking? (Am I So Bold?)

Posted by Karl Withakay on April 26, 2010

Would you drive to Alaska to buy gasoline?  Stephen Hawking seems to think you might if your local gas station ran out.

Here’s my take on the ID4/ hostile aliens thing:

(And here is where I dare to Cordially Deconstruct the position of someone who is much, much, much smarter than I am)

There’s something on the order of 100 billion galaxies in the known universe, and there’s something on the order of 100 billion stars in each of those galaxies.  We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of figuring out how many of those stars might contain planets and how many of those planets or their moons might be remotely habitable by life as we know it.  I think it would be wise to assume that some forms of extremophiles could survive on worlds more hostile than what we conservatively call habitable.  And although we don’t really have any reasonable clue for estimating the probability of life arising on a suitable world, let alone the odds of intelligent life developing, 10,000 billion, billion stars is a lot of stars (10^20), and that’s a lot of spins on the roulette wheel of life to hit the jackpot only once.  In the absence of actual data, it seems reasonable to speculate that there’s life elsewhere in the universe, and some of it is probably more advanced than we are.

That being said, it also seems likely to me that inter-galactic space travel isn’t particularly likely, and we don’t have to worry about whether ET is friendly or not.

You may think this is modern arrogance, but despite mysteries like dark energy and dark matter, we have a pretty good idea of how the universe works, and it looks like the universal speed limit (can not obtain) for things with mass is the speed of light.  The practical effect of this limit is that inter-galactic travel would take an incredibly long time to get anywhere not in you own star system.  Intergalactic travel would also take an impractically large amount of energy if you wanted to travel at any velocity approaching a significant percentage of the speed of light.  Even if we speculate the discovery of some way to travel faster than the speed of light, it seems reasonable to also speculate it would extremely (prohibitively) energy intensive.

So what might we have here in an ultra-advanced, space faring, alien species?  We have ETs that have no motivation to travel to other stars for anything other than esoteric knowledge gathering that probably won’t be of any use to the folks back home anyway, since they’ll likely all be long dead by the time the explorers got back.  Listen, if you have the energy resources to travel across the galaxy (either at sub-light or superluminal velocity), you don’t need to plunder the resources of other worlds; you’ve got resources coming out of your ying tang, and you’ve got the technology to do whatever you need  with those resources.  You’d be better off just terraforming some reletively nearby world rather than traveling across the galaxy to plunder a distant Earth-like planet.

Traveling across the galaxy to plunder the Earth’s resources would be like me driving to Alaska from Missouri to buy gas if my local filling station ran out.  Why bother if I already have the resources to get there?

5-2-10:  See the followup post here:  Followup: Energy Requirements of Interstellar Travel

Posted in Critical Thinking, Criticism, Science, Skepticism, Space, Stephen Hawking | 7 Comments »

Cordial Deconstruction of a Comment Left by natalie898

Posted by Karl Withakay on April 24, 2010

In my recent Deconstruction Review of an Episode of Fringe, I made several spelling mistakes, ignorantly using the word loose in multiple places when I meant the word lose.  Natalie898 was “kind” enough to leave a comment “politely” pointing out my mistakes, and I have now corrected the mistakes.  I am embarrassed to have made the mistakes, somehow reversing the two words in my mind.  I am not, however, embarrassed to have the errors pointed out to me.  (I am embarrassed that someone noticed the mistakes before I did.)  I strive for perfection, and appreciate any assistance in achieving that perfection.  If the error is mine, then the frustration is with myself, not the person who points out the error with the intention of providing constructive criticism.

I can accept that some people have very strong feelings about proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar, but you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.  My Friend Orac would be a lot less respectful than I am being to the type of pedantry natalie898 has presented.

Here is natalie898’s comment followed by my Cordial Deconstruction of that comment:

“If you are going to complain about how the car battery thing doesn’t make sense you should learn to spell first. Loose is not the same as lose no matter the few times it is spelled incorrectly in various places on this page. Loose…really? really?”

Spelling mistakes…really?  really?

Are you disputing my position on the car batteries or simply choosing to be rude in the way you point out my spelling errors for some reason?

I don’t mind if people point out typos and spelling mistakes, but why the hostility?

First of all if you’re going to complain about spelling mistakes rather than make substantive comments or observations, you should be sure to use proper punctuation when you do so.  You are missing a comma between “sense” and “you”.  (If x, then y)  Let him among us who has a clean hand cast the first stone.

Second, how does my incorrect spelling of lose disqualify me from being able to comment on the car battery thing or in any way invalidate my position?  It is a non sequitur to claim that my point is invalid or unworthy of consideration simply because I misspelled the word lose for whatever reason.  It is also effectively an ad hominem attack, in that you are attacking me rather than my position.

If you want to point out a spelling error or my part, please feel free to do so with out the hostility.  If you would like to dispute, correct, or discuss a point in my review in a civilized and constructive manner, I welcome the discussion.

Thanks for reading my blog.

Posted in Critical Thinking, Criticism, Followup, Fringe, Television | Leave a Comment »

Educate Yourself About Cell Phone Science

Posted by Karl Withakay on December 21, 2009

Maine is considering requiring cancer warnings on cell phones.  I could take the time to write a lengthy deconstruction regarding cell phones and non-ionizing radio frequency radiation, but why bother remaking the wheel when Steven Novella has already done an excellent job addressing the subject?

There’s just no science to support the hypothesis that cell phone use can cause cancer:  There’s no biological science to show a mechanism for cell phone use to cause cancer, and there’s no observational science to show cell phone use correlates to an increased risk of cancer.

What we have instead is an unsupported and mostly  implausible hypothesis that because non-ionizing radio frequency radiation from cell phones causes measurable biological effects and ionizing radiation can cause cancer, that cell phones probably cause cancer.  Give that to a politician who cares more about being seen to act on what is perceived to be (or can be promoted as) an important issue than they do about being genuinely productive (or about taking the time to properly educate themselves on an issue before acting), and you get proposals for new, unneeded, unscientific laws.

Indoor light is non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation with far more energy than the radio frequency radiation of cell phones, and it too produces measurable biological effects, but nobody seems to be proposing cancer warnings on light bulbs.  Oh, snap!  …  Never mind, set your hair on fire and run for the hills.

Posted in Critical Thinking, Criticism, Heads Up, Media, Medicine / Health, Science, Skepticism, Yahoo Features | Leave a Comment »

Deconstruction of a Million Dollar Story: Part I

Posted by Karl Withakay on December 17, 2009

The other day, I came across an article in the on line version of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, titled, “One man’s hunt for the truth behind a $1 million bill” by Todd C. Frankel that I found doubly worthy of Deconstruction.  In this post, I will focus on the reporting; I may follow up with a post on the story itself on another day.

The article relates the story of Rodney Dukes, an East St. Louis man who found what appeared to be a one million dollar bill in a phone booth outside a gas station.

The article includes a sidebar regarding the article that includes the following statement:

“Reporter Todd C. Frankel spent more than two months following Dukes on his odyssey.”

Unless the reported was incompetent, he discovered that the million dollar bill wasn’t legit with less than five minutes of research on the internet, if he wasn’t already aware that the note was fake.  One merely has to google one million dollar bill to find the information needed to answer the question.  Additionally, the bill had the following words printed on it in the same size print as the similar words on real US currency:


I assume a competent reporter would have examined the bill close enough to discover this text.

The next statement in the sidebar is an implied admission that Frankel did indeed know the bill wasn’t real:

“As with any news story, Frankel avoided interfering with the course of events, so that the story could unfold as naturally as possible.”

As with any news story?  Like the Woodward and Bernstein investigation of Watergate?  What a load of self-righteous BS.  Does the Post Dispatch really expect us to believe that reporters would withhold evidence in a murder or kidnapping story in order to avoid interfering with the course of events?  This statement is nothing more than a self serving justification of Frankel’s withholding the truth from Mr. Dukes regarding the one million dollar note for more than two months solely so that he could have a better, longer story to report on.  Journalism isn’t Star Fleet with a Prime Directive of non-interference.  Occasionally, jury trials get moved to a different venue precisely because the news media does not hold their reporting to avoid contaminating the jury pool and affecting the course of events.  Does the Post really expect us to believe that if there was a chance the bill was real, that the paper would not have published the preliminary story the minute they got their hands on it to avoid influencing the course of events?  Sure, reporters sit on million dollar stories all the time to keep the story pure.

As much as I found the story of Mr. Dukes and his lack of reason and critical thinking itself worthy of Deconstruction, I was more strongly compelled to comment on what the Post Dispatch apparently considers journalism these days.

Shame on you to Todd C. Frankel and shame on the editors the St. Louis Post Dispatch for encouraging and publishing this shameful excuse for a story.  Did you have a good chuckle in the office with the other reporters each night as you strung along Mr. Dukes in his quest for his million dollar answer which you already possessed?  Where do you draw the line on this reporter’s prime directive of non-intervention you claim to have?

Posted in Criticism, Media | 2 Comments »

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