Archive | February, 2013

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Patents for Genetic Engineering Confuse & Miss the Point

Posted on 24 February 2013 by Jerry

Patent law covering genetically engineered foods and biotech technologies is in flux but only one outcome is on the side of history and humanity.  Courts are unsure about which products and technologies should be protected by patent.  A case filed by a 75 year old farmer against Monsanto is headed to the Supreme Court.  Another one rejected by a lower court, ratified by a federal appeals court and sent back for reconsideration by the Supreme Court is once again at the Supreme Court.

All of this controversy ignores the fundamental moral issues surrounding genetically altered foods.  In the book “Beyond Animal, Ego and Time”, an argument is made to recognize that life’s gene pool is its most commonly shared asset. The collective owner of the gene pool is life. Given its universally shared nature we should not allow any individual, corporation or government to own the genetics of any living organism that occurs naturally or any that has been genetically engineered or synthetically created.

The argument that genetically engineered products are not based on natural phenomena ignores that all of the processes genetic engineers and synthetic biologists are using were copied from bacteria and viruses which were the basis for these entire fields of science.  We must stop the profit motive as the major driver of such dangerous products.  Ownership of any life form should be illegal and no patent protection should be granted.  

That being the case, the behavior of Monsanto and the courts is instructive.  Monsanto has genetically engineered crops, in this case soybeans, to be resistant to harm from its own weed killing herbicide “Roundup”.  It has patented these and other seeds giving the farmer freedom to use as much of the weed killer as they please because it poses no risk to their genetically altered crop.  Monsanto requires a customer buy the seed from them each crop cycle.  If they plant the crop from seeds of plants grown in earlier seasons, they are still required to pay Monsanto even though the plants are from second generation seeds.  Obviously the weed killer is also supplied by Monsanto. 

At issue is a 75 year old farmer who is a good Monsanto customer for his main soybean crop but buys seed for a late season crop from a grain elevator known to have Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds.  For this second late summer planting, which has greater risk because of the higher incidence of heat, drought and floods, the farmer has to plant twice as many seeds. 

He did not pay Monsanto for seed for the later crop arguing the seeds were from a grain elevator who licenses the seed from Monsanto.   In his view if Monsanto had an issue with anyone it was the grain elevator company.  Monsanto argued he was violating a contract he signs when he buys seed for his main crop.  The farmer said none of Monsanto contracts ever spoke about seed purchased from contracted third parties. 

Monsanto has a large staff whose sole purpose is to find cheating farmers who violate its patents and contract provisions.  Monsanto argues it is illegal to grow a crop using its patented technology without permission and payment.  The farmer argues that nature makes the plants whose seed was first bought and paid for by someone else.

The issue is how long and widely does Monsanto’s patent protection reach?  When referring to self replicating life forms, how many generations of the organism are included within the patent protection?  In addition, if the protected organism is purchased from a third party, who purchased it legally, what obligation extends to customers who buy from the third party?

Monsanto’s position in this lawsuit is suspect.  In a normal market, there are multiple avenues of distribution.  Buying a product from a third party who serves as the retailer does not involve legal obligation.  In addition, it could be argued these seeds, once again in a normal market, would not be so tightly controlled because they benefit another product from the same company, the herbicide product.  This should be analogous to a razor and razor blade market where the razor is sold for a very low price because the real profit is made on the blades.  This appears to be the same relationship between the seed and the herbicide.

The entire area of patent protection rightly remains contentious.  As an example, patents were not upheld in a recent case involving a San Diego company who patented a method of determining proper drug dosage.  In this case the Supreme Court ruled that no patent should have been issued because the way the test worked was based on the laws of nature.  In another recent case, the Supreme Court overturned patents that were granted to a Salt Lake City company.  Here it ruled that patents for naturally occurring genes should not be granted because there was no alteration by human beings and they were based once again on natural occurrences.

As previously stated, because all knowledge serving as the basis of genetic engineering was derived by study and copying of natural processes used by bacteria and viruses, these products should be considered based on natural occurrences and the laws of nature.  Unfortunately, our government, the courts, and these companies prefer to ignore where these sciences came from and the natural organisms on which they are based.

Use the following links to obtain further information:

http://www.nature.com/news/seed-patent-case-in-supreme-court-1.12445

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/16/business/supreme-court-to-hear-monsanto-seed-patent-case.html

http://www.nature.com/news/us-supreme-court-upends-diagnostics-parents-1.10270

http://www.nature.com/news/the-great-gene-patent-debate-1.11044

http://blogs.nature.com/news/2012/11/us-supreme-court-to-decide-on-gene-patents-in-myriad-case.html

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Bright Idea

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Mixing Oil to Get Water

Posted on 21 February 2013 by Jerry

He was taking his Ph.D. qualifying exam at MIT and his interviewers were intrigued when he described the effect of soybean oil on glycerol.  This launched Anurg Bajpayee’s investigation of how we could use oils to remove impurities from water.  An article in the December 2012 Scientific American entitled “World Changing Ideas 2012” listed his work as one of “10 innovations that are radical enough to alter our lives”.

When soybean oil is heated to as little as 40° C it can absorb water and leave behind contaminant molecules which can be skimmed away.  Once the oil is allowed to cool, cleansed water flows back into the container.  While it is clear that you would have to use more soybean oil than is cost effective, Anurg felt the basic principle was sound if he could only find the right substance.  He was looking for a directional solvent to replace the oil.

This “directional solvent extraction or molecular desalination” served as the raison d’être of a new company, GreenTree Building Energy (P) Ltd.  Anurg Bajpayee co-founded the company in his home country of India targeting this and other water treatment technologies.  An article in MIT’s MechE News quotes Bajpayee as stating, “It’s called an extraction method because we’re extracting water from other things, as opposed to targeting a particular contaminant. It doesn’t involve membranes, boiling, or complex machinery.”

The article further states that in desalination “Contaminated water is added to a solvent, the mixture is heated up, and the water is dissolved into the solvent. The contaminants are rejected and removed, and upon cooling, the pure water precipitates out and is collected. The solvent is reused.”

Conventional water treatment involves large facilities which use reverse osmosis, requiring filtering membranes, distillation, which is energy intensive, and putting the output water back into the water table by pumping it into a disposal well.  Bajpayee’s process works even better on saltier brines such as those that are produced as a result of water that flows back into oil and gas wells.  Given all of these different water treatment needs, GreenTree sees a bright future for itself.

Earlier blog articles have identified a shortage of clean drinking water as a major problem looming in the future.  This shortage will be the result of increasing populations making greater and greater demands on an area’s natural resources and diminishing water sources as a result of climate change.  This technology, and others mentioned previously, will be essential if we are to reuse the water we do have much more cost effectively.

Use the following links to obtain more information:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=world-changing-ideas-2012-innovations-radical-enough-alter-lives

http://meche.mit.edu//news/mechenews/index.html?id=170

http://www.greentree-india.com/

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Empathy’s Possible Source and Observations

Posted on 20 February 2013 by Jerry

Researchers continue the exploration of the von Economo neuron and its connection to higher states of self awareness and consciousness.  At one time these neurons were thought to be exclusive to the part of the brain where empathy and self awareness reside in large brained animals; people, great apes, Asian elephants, whales and bottlenose dolphins.  These animals have shown self awareness in the mirror and mark tests.

Von Economo neurons have recently been found in macaques, a type of Old World monkey, and zebras.  This result coincides with the third incident seen recently where a giraffe mother refuses to leave the body of her dead calf.  Another giraffe mother spent more than two hours splaying her legs and licking her recently born but dead calf.  Of interest is the isolation of these mothers at these times for they are normally with other females rather than by themselves.  

This type of demonstration, known as nurturance care-giving behavior, is very similar to that seen in self aware animals such as chimpanzees and elephants.  It raises the question of whether zebras have an understanding of the circumstance of death.  Further supporting their uniqueness, other recent research shows that when von Economo neurons die off, in a rare form of dementia, people can no longer relate to others.

Beyond bottlenose dolphins, common long-beaked dolphins have recently been observed in a group showing great empathy as they try to help a dying member of their pod.  The research contains dramatic photos of a dolphin designated as EC08001, being assisted by five of its companions who attempted to support its body so it could breath and not sink in death to the bottom of the ocean. 

The research contains a photo with an explanation stating “Five long-beaked common dolphins are supporting EC08001 by assuming a raft-like formation with their bodies.  One animal, positioned in the center of the formation, rolled over on it back (belly up).”  In another picture, “A long-beaked companion dolphin tips the head of EC08001 upwards to help it breathe.”  A final picture is of “The carcass of EC08001 is floating vertically and exhibiting rigor mortis.  The helper dolphins continue to try to stimulate the dolphin by nudging its head and body.”

These instances of common long-beaked dolphins and zebras should add to the human realization that more of their fellow animals often are capable of the depth of understanding and emotion to which human beings are subject.  This serves as a sober lesson for us who have seen the film “The Cove” which documents the routine killing of dolphins by Japanese fishermen in a small cove located near their home town.  We begin to understand the full fear, pain and sadness experienced by our fellow creatures.

Use the following links for more information:

http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/340572/description/rare_neurons_found_in_monkeys_brains

http://www.cell.com/neuron/ (search for “Von Economo Neurons in the Anterior Insula of the Macque” and select Summary)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/19317067

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mms.12012/full

http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/21146455

http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/the-cove/

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Beyond Animal, Ego and Time: Chap 2 – Life, Death, Biogenic Sphere, Chap 3 – The Universe

Posted on 16 February 2013 by Jerry

(I’ve decided to serialize my book on this website.  As an incentive to readers to return to the site, each month I will post at least one Chapter of the book until the entire book is posted.  Go into the Archives for earlier chapters.  The book provides context for the blog, clearly explaining the underlying philosophy and identifying critical issues of our time. )

CHAPTER 2 

Life, Death and the Biogenic Sphere –

Each of us at some point realizes the inevitability of death. When we first confront our mortality we find it a frightening contemplation. Fear comes with imagination of what death or the process of dying will be like. How many of us have held or expelled our breath trying to anticipate the sensation we will experience a moment before or a moment after death? How many have thought of death as nothingness, without sensation, with no sense of time, and an end to personality and memory?

Beyond the physical level, thoughts move to larger questions of the existence of a soul and death as a transition to an afterlife. Is there an afterlife? Do we determine our fate in death with our actions in life? Do we reincarnate, returning to life in another form?

We know living things have two manifestations of existence, matter and energy. Albert Einstein informed us about the interchangeability and mutability of matter and energy. We know that all living things die. Death is the cessation of a life embodiment that contains matter and energizes it to animation. When the embodiment disintegrates, the matter and energy that constitute physical existence disperse into the universe. With disintegration and dispersion, individual consciousness of time and awareness of self cease.

Life is a profound phenomenon. As far as we know there was a time when there was no life in the universe. All was inanimate. Today’s uncertain but prevailing view is that an estimated 13.6 to 14 billion years ago a Big Bang occurred that caused the universe to expand from an infinitesimally small speck to an immense structure in fractions of a second. After an estimated 100 – 300 million years the universe cooled and matter coalesced into the first stars.3 These stars were hydrogen and helium giants that formed from clumps of matter that were between five hundred and a thousand times the size of our sun. Sophisticated computer simulations suggest they burned extremely hot with surface temperatures of 100,000 kelvins or about 17 times higher than our sun’s surface temperature. They burned for no more than a few million years when they collapsed in on themselves and exploded as supernovae. The intensity of the explosions created heavier elements adding carbon, iron and oxygen to the preexistent hydrogen and helium. Several generations of stars came into and went out of existence adding progressively heavier atoms and molecules to the composition of the universe. As heavier elements proliferated, the life span of stars grew and it was possible for planets to coalesce and form around them.

Somewhere between 13.2 and 11.2 billion years ago the window for the development of life opened. At that point stars had sufficient stability, solar systems and planets had formed and the right constituent elements were in place. Today’s prevailing view is life would not begin for another seven to nine billion years.

No one has perfect knowledge of how life began on our planet. There clearly had to be the right physical environment, chemical ingredients, time and repetitive processes for life’s beginning and perpetuation. What follows are descriptions of results from various origin of life experiments conducted over many years that show the circumstances life’s basic constituents could have come from and the possible processes that could have allowed life to begin and flourish.4 It is not necessary for the non scientist to understand each of these experiments and the resulting molecules or chemicals and their specific relationship to the most complex end result which is life. No one has successfully created new life from scratch in a laboratory. They have conducted numerous experiments which show how many of life’s constituent parts could have been created under the right natural set of circumstances in the earth’s history.

First results of the famous 1953 Miller and Urey experiments were criticized because they used the wrong combination of atmospheric components to simulate Earth’s early atmosphere. The experiments did demonstrate however that by mixing together varying amounts of ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, and ketones or aldehydes one could cause the chemicals to combine or synthesize to form molecules and macromolecules found in living organisms.

Subsequent study of experimental results from one Miller apparatus that simulated the spark discharge synthesis of lightening in the steam rich environment of a volcanic eruption showed synthesis of 22 amino acids, some of the chief components of proteins that are synthesized by living cells, and five amines.5 Amines are a class of basic organic compounds derived from ammonia by replacement of hydrogen with one or more monovalent hydrocarbon radicals. In addition, analysis of meteorites showed evidence of amino acids from similar reactions on meteorite parent bodies elsewhere in the early solar system.6 Laboratory shock compression simulations of meteorites hitting Earth’s early oceans yielded a variety of organic (carbon based) compounds, such as fatty acids and amines. When ammonia, which previous studies demonstrated could be produced by such impacts, was added to the beginning ingredients of the shock compression simulations, the experiment also yielded glycine (a simple amino acid).7

We know there had to be concentrations of these non-living molecules that combined with others to form polymers and carbon based compounds. We assume they accumulated in the early oceans and were concentrated in evaporating tidal lagoons or were absorbed onto mineral surfaces. In the laboratory, absorption onto mineral surfaces has been shown to promote concentration and combination of molecules into polymers. Experiments show that clays, metal ions or groups of ions having a positive charge, imidazole derivatives and others act as catalysts initiating prebiotic reactions and polymerization.8

It is thought that as the polymerized molecules became bigger and bigger and consequently more complex, they developed an ability to bind together and interact with each other to expand the number and type of catalysts that could create a variety of reactions. As the variety of molecules and possible catalytic reactions grew, it is thought that a polymer probably developed the ability to catalyze its own duplication.

For some scientists this would represent the first life on the planet, the first appearance of a living organism defined as a molecular entity capable of multiplication, heredity, and variation. It is generally believed the first self-replicating entity evolved in the single stranded world of ribonucleic acid (RNA). RNA is thought to have later initiated the double stranded deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) molecule. While there are suggested alternatives to replace one or more of these hypothesized steps, it is clear that we can propose a series of developments leading to the initiation of life.9

When talking about life in the universe we must differentiate between life as we know it, which began an estimated 3.5 to 4 billion years ago, and any other life that may have developed. It is possible that life has blinked in and out of existence numerous times in the history of our planet. Our life is distinguished by its sustainability and longevity.

Somewhere in a sequence of specific circumstances, our strand of life began and its process was launched. When looking back at the series of circumstances that led up to life, one can arbitrarily pick different points or junctures and identify them as when life began. For this reason our life’s beginning and time of origin will always be subject to debate. Putting aside a description of the first living entity and when precisely it occurred, most people would agree there was a first moment when our strand of life began and further there was a specific first organism.

One can imagine the conditions for the beginning of life on our planet in some geography. We can imagine the first organism as the result of a thunderstorm providing energy to a vast primordial soup full of potential. There may have been a vast number of individual entities poised to make that last change that would initiate life. One entity made the transition to become the first replicating and sustainable living organism.  Its importance is that it initiated the path that we share to the present and beyond. So while there may have been others, this organism was the first member of the sustaining and surviving life sequence of which we have knowledge, the first organism that enabled all that followed. It was our first true life form and the beginning ancestor of us all.

In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin described the process of natural selection where characteristics that enhance survivability enable some individuals within a species to survive when circumstances change. Darwin described a process where a mutation leads to a trait important to an individual’s survival. The mutated individual survives and through procreation passes the trait to subsequent individuals in following generations. A simplified view suggests that one individual (one) has a mutation and passes the trait to many (many) individuals through reproduction. In a subsequent generation another of these individuals (one) experiences the next selected mutation, which is then passed through procreation to many surviving others.

This is the simple evolutionary process of one-to-many-to-one progression. The relentless variation of life’s genetic options over billions of years produced a sufficiently wide variety of attributes and breadth of characteristics for natural selection to have what life needed to survive.

The progression of successive generations is a unique aspect of life. The relatedness of succeeding generations binds all living things into one family of existence, an unbroken chain of absolute connectedness from the first surviving individual through cell division and procreation to today’s myriad of individuals.

A biogenic sphere, a thin layer of animate matter, encapsulates our planet. It began with the infinitesimally small contribution of the first living organism and, through procreation and growth, multiplied with each succeeding generation – a simple example of the power of the life force. Since the first infinitesimally small organism, life has exponentially expanded its physical mass to include the billions of human beings and all the plants, animals, and organisms that inhabit the planet. From its infinitesimal beginning, life has evolved through an unbroken progression of generations to a combined living biomass of incredible proportions. This exponential geometrical progression of life incorporates more and more of the inanimate universe into the life process.

We can clearly see and experience the immediate impact of living matter on this planet. We need only venture outside to see the wondrous diversity of life; walk barefoot in the grass or marvel at the beauty of a hummingbird or the perfection of the flower that provides its nectar. This is in sharp contrast to the surfaces of other planets, moons, asteroids, and comets that human beings have examined. We have seen the wonder of the earth as our colorful planet with its life producing ecology rises over the horizon of the monotonous grayscales we experience on the moon. We have electronically stared out across the rocky expanse of the uniform brown and orange hued surface of Mars. We have seen satellite images of the rings of Saturn, the misshapen cratered surfaces of a number of distant moons, collected samples of a comet and have witnessed the disruption of the atmospheric swirls of Jupiter as a comet careened into its surface. While marvelous to behold across the vast distances of space, we can only be struck by the stark sterility and enormity of the inanimate universe.

Beyond what we readily perceive is another manifestation of life’s existence that becomes a part of the biogenic sphere. This is the contribution of once living matter.  This life matter has been dispersed into the planet’s environment as living organisms die. When a living organism dies its life embodiment ceases and disintegrates. The matter and energy that constituted its physical existence disperse into the environment as a constituent of the biogenic sphere. And there it stays. It is imprisoned in the planet’s grip by the gravitational field. This life mass is added to the biogenic layer of living matter that surrounds the earth.

Each once living organism has dispersed its matter and energy into the gravitational field of planet Earth. All of the matter and energy that has ever been involved in the sustainable life process encircles our planet. The matter from every living thing from the lowliest bacteria or fungus to the most intelligent mammal is here surrounding us. Adding together the collective material mass of matter and energy involved in all present and past living organisms we have a truly incalculable volume of life matter surrounding our planet.

To briefly summarize, we know the life process animates an inanimate universe. Life incorporates progressively more and more matter unto itself as an organism grows and species proliferate. Sustainable life began with a single individual capable of passing its genetic code and life knowledge on to subsequent individuals. Through a continuous one-to-many-to-one process, mutations occurring within single individuals enabled them to better adapt and survive and pass their genetic code through procreation to subsequent generations. All of the animate matter of all living organisms and that of once living entities is caught in the Earth’s gravitational field and contained within a thin biogenic sphere that encircles the planet.

 

CHAPTER 3 

The Universe

Much scientific activity has focused on determining the fundamental nature of the universe. Human perception has always been limited by our sensory capabilities. As a consequence, expanding our perceptual abilities through the use of technology has become an ongoing pursuit. Since our first sight of stars in the night sky and speculation about constituent elements of matter, we have tirelessly expanded our perceptual abilities to see farther out into the universe and deeper into its matter.

We have looked into all things small and far in the universe since the early 1600’s with Zacharias Janssen’s development of the compound lens microscope and contribution to the invention of the refractor optical telescope with Hans Lippershey and Jacob Metius, with subsequent refinements by Galileo. From our initial use of the visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, we have progressed from refracting to reflecting telescopes using visible light to infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray and radio; from earthbound to space bound and from the naked eye to computer enhanced to improve our abilities to explore outer space.

Similarly, we have moved past traditional optical microscopes to electron and scanning tunneling microscopes. We have gone from particle accelerators, such as linear accelerators and synchrotrons, to colliding particle machines of ever increasing electron volts having now passed a trillion electron volts or TeV level. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) outside Geneva, which crosses back and forth between France and Switzerland, has boosted the energy of moving protons to about 7 TeV (teraelectronvolts). At full power, the LHC will propel trillions of protons around its 17 kilometer ring (~10.5 miles) 11,245 times per second at 99.99% the speed of light.10 At four intersection and collision points the LHC will produce more than 600 million particle collisions every second.11 The Large Hadron Collider was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to test various predictions in physics, including the existence of the Higgs boson which now has been identified.  Researchers are still investigating a large family of new particles predicted by supersymmetry. The term Hadron refers to particles composed of quarks.

Recent investigation of the inner universe has increased the credibility of the Standard Model of particle physics which describes the particle structure of visible matter around us.12 Developed and defined in the 1970s and subject to significant experimental verification in the 1980s, the Standard Model has largely been substantiated. Its description of 17 particles, fermions and bosons, explains the preponderance of phenomena observed in the immediate universe. It describes three generations of fermions (quarks and leptons) where the difference between the generations is in the masses of the particles. In the first generation are the up quark, down quark, electron, and electron neutrino. In the second generation are the charm quark, strange quark, muon, and muon neutrino. In the third generation are the top quark, bottom quark, tauon, and tauon neutrino. These represent the matter particles.

In addition the model describes the bosons or force carrier particles. These are the Higgs, w, z, photon and gluon particles. The bosons integrate and relate three of the four known forces. Electromagnetism is represented by photons. The weak force, which contributes to the formation of the chemical elements, is accounted for with the w and z bosons. The strong force, which holds protons, neutrons and nuclei together, is explained with the gluons. The Higgs boson interacts with the other particles to give them mass.

On a universal scale we have gone from physically observing our solar system’s planets and moons to perceiving the shape of our galaxy, the Milky Way, and our position within it. Not only have we seen other galaxies in every direction, we have recognized galaxy clusters and ultimately super galaxy clusters. We have also discovered pulsars, quasars, black holes, neutron stars and a myriad of other space phenomena. We have extended our perceptual abilities billions of light years beyond our inherent perceptual limitations as human beings.

We now understand that obvious effects of occurrences at our normal perceptual level have related affects at other perceptual levels. For example, we know the physics of a meteor hitting the earth is more complex than our superficial perception of a rock moving through the atmosphere and hitting the ground. We understand the myriad of forces at the molecular and atomic levels in both the meteor and the surface of the Earth, from the heat generated to the explosive force at impact. We also know that very large meteors can even alter the planet’s magnetic field. Anomalies in the magnetic field are one of the effects scientists look for when searching for large meteor impact sites.

When compared to the span of life’s existence, the recognition of multiple levels of magnitude and perception is a very recent development. We are only in a beginning phase of recognizing the connectedness and interdependency of the various levels of existence. What happens at our perceptual level has interrelated impacts at the subatomic, atomic, molecular, maybe planetary, solar system, and galactic levels. Of course it requires an event of significant magnitude to simultaneously and measurably affect all of these levels.

This exploration has continued to frame a recurring question about the nature of our universe. Is it finite or infinite? This question has occupied thinkers through the centuries and has crossed many people’s minds at one time or another. Mathematicians, philosophers, and theologians have given much thought to infinity as they have tried to determine if it is merely an intellectual construct or something actually occurring in the universe. Some have thought of infinity as if it were a thing in and of itself sometimes referring to it as an infinity or the infinity.

Astrophysicists and cosmologists have debated whether infinity is a physical reality. Theologians have approached infinity as an attribute of an eternal being. It has also been described as a characteristic of something else, such as time. In addition, infinity has been dismissed by others as something beyond human comprehension and experience. David Hume observed that “Tis universally allow’d, that the capacity of the mind is limited, and can never attain a full and adequate conception of infinity: And tho’ it were not allow’d, ‘twou’d be sufficiently evident from the plainest observation and experience.”13 Aristotle described infinity as having only a potential for existence.

Infinity is more easily dealt with in the precision of mathematics. Studied in the context of a mathematical abstraction, mathematicians have defined many types of infinities, of integers and rational numbers, of cardinal and ordinal numbers. We are all familiar with the notion of a sequence of numbers and generally accept the proposition that one could continue to count for an infinite period of time, continually creating and naming progressively larger and larger numbers. Gautama Buddha, thought to have lived sometime between 563 BCE and 400 BCE (before the Common Era a.k.a. before Christ), is said to have written a number beginning with the number one followed by seventeen zero’s. He named this number an achobya.

Edward Kasner, an American mathematician who lived from 1878 to 1955, reportedly asked his nine year old nephew, Milton Sirotta, what to call a number with a one followed by 100 zeros. Milton is reported to have said the number could be called a googol whereupon Kasner named it a Googol. Building on the googol, others defined a number which begins with one and has a googol of zero’s or naughts after it (10100). This was called a Googolplex. The question remains whether infinity is more than simply a mathematical abstraction. Does it describe a core attribute of the universe?

It is difficult to think about infinity with the tool of language which is subject to interpretation and contradiction. Our language is problematic when trying to discuss or describe an infinite universe because so many words have a finite context. The word universe itself implies a single thing. One definition of universe is that it is the entire space-time continuum in which we exist, together with all the energy and matter within it. These words and phrases define the universe as finite. The word universe is often modified by words such as observable or known or visible. At least these terms refer to only the finite part we can perceive and leave the unseen or unknown to be infinite.

For centuries we have employed every available technology to explore our surroundings. As previously described, we have probed our surroundings using every known form of electromagnetic wave. In addition, we have availed ourselves of every achievable vantage point going so far as to look at the cosmos from instruments placed in outer space, such as with the Hubble space telescope which avoided the distortion caused by the Earth’s atmosphere and produced extremely sharp images with almost no background light. Furthermore, we have sent space missions hurtling into progressively farther reaches of space to extend our knowledge and indirect experience.

These investigations have produced more and more evidence that something always lies beyond our present perceptual limitations. Our experience is like a hallway that keeps elongating as we walk down it. We do not perceive a limit or an edge that is coming closer as we travel towards it. A limit to the known universe has been hypothesized however. With each extension of our perceptual ability we are theoretically looking farther and farther into the past at light that began its journey to our perception at a point and time closer and closer to a hypothesized big bang which many believe to be the beginning of the known universe. There are alternate hypotheses, however, that suggest for instance a cyclic universe.14 These theories propose a universe which has undergone an endless series of implosions or contractions reaching a point of maximum density and a reversal leading to a big “bounce” or expansion phase representing the next sequential big bang.15

That the universe is infinite is by definition unverifiable, since it is impossible to experience or absolutely verify an infinite state.  Even at that hypothetical point where we would see no further light, when we are looking at entities and light very near a hypothesized big bang or an absoute beginning of the known universe, the fact that we may not perceive light further away does not indicate a finite universe.  In an infinite universe it will only indicate a limitation in our perceptual ability.

Even the scale of the universe is beyond anything we could verify.  It is inconceivable that we will ever travel to the limits of our present perception or a distance sufficient to look back at a finite universe so as to develop a mental image of its existence. This is especially true given a present hypothesis within the scientific community that our universe is expanding and its expansion is accelerating. Finite or infinite, the scale of our universe is and surely will remain beyond direct human experience.

Since physical inspection is not possible, our resolution of the question of the nature of the universe must be an intellectual hypothesized perception. It must be driven by inductive reasoning and the scientific method. An inductive approach starts with observations of nature to find a few, powerful statements about how nature works. These statements become the basis for powerful laws and theories. In the scientific method, observation of nature is the authority. If an idea conflicts with what we understand happens in nature, the idea must be changed or abandoned or our knowledge of what happens in nature must change.

While it is impossible to directly prove or disprove the universe is infinite, it may be possible to come to the inverse or negative conclusion that the universe is not finite. There can be no greater reservoir of observations of nature than the entire collective human experience. That experience shows, with no known exception, that there is no single point, object or phenomenon beyond which nothing exists. There is no human experience of a finite end to our surroundings. Every single thing we are aware of has limits and boundaries. Also, beyond each finite thing is something else, and indeed an incalculable number of something elses. In the face of this overwhelming body of experience we cannot postulate an end or terminus anywhere. While intellectually it may be difficult to visualize, conceive of or accept infinity, given our experience, it is impossible to conclude there is any contradiction to virtually every human experience of there being no end to the universe.

In summary, the universe may be either finite or infinite but we will never be able to verify either conclusion. Its scale is beyond our perceptual limits and what we will ever be able to navigate. The totality of human experience supports the infinity of the universe because that which surrounds is clearly not bounded. Therefore we assert and accept an infinite universe.

There are cosmologists that have speculated about all manner of different structures for the universe. Some have conceived of a curved universe in a saddle shape. Some have focused on String Theory which tries to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity leading to thoughts of many new dimensions with multiple universes. Some have surmised that within an infinite universe there would of necessity be duplicate universes. While all of these intellectual pursuits provoke challenging discussion, and may even suggest further areas for investigation, they go beyond the bounds of human experience and presently verifiable science. We must not be swept up in the novelty of an intriguing thought as if it has some measure of reality or even possibility simply by virtue of its articulation.

Accordingly, these speculations should have little or no impact on our conclusions. When we use the phrase infinite universe, it is used in the broadest possible context. It subsumes thoughts of alternate dimensions, other universes and any other manifestations of which we may conceive.

 

 



[1] Albert Einstein, referring to his Special Theory of Relativity, indicated there is no such thing as simultaneity. He proposed that in order to ascertain the simultaneity of two events there would need to be a rigid body of reference that would produce spatial co-ordinates that other events could be compared to. Further there would have to be an ability to ascertain a measurement of the difference in time of multiple points of local time with some facility to set multiple clocks relative to each other. He concluded these conditions cannot be met and as a consequence there is no such thing as simultaneity. Such is the fundamental nature of relativity. Following this premise, absent the possibility of simultaneity, we assert there was a first moment when sustainable life began and a specific first individual.

[2] The phrase “life matter” refers to life’s material and energy states interchangeably and inclusively.

[3] It should be recognized that an extremely small amount of animate or once animate matter may have escaped the planet’s gravitational field on human space craft sent into outer space.

 

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Obama to Act, New Climate Assessments, and Mock Controversy

Posted on 16 February 2013 by Jerry

In his State of the Union Address, Barack Obama called for continued progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Facing an intransigent House of Representatives he indicated his administration is prepared to unilaterally impose new regulations to limit gas emissions.  These include limitations on emissions from new and existing power plants, which account for about 40% of our emissions. In the interim he will continue to work towards a political compromise on some form of carbon tax or cap-and-trade agreement.

The “National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee” has released its third Draft Climate Assessment Report.  The report which reconfirmed global climate assessments also in part parallels a recent report from the Government Accountability Office which added Climate Change to its High Risk Series.  Both reports speak of the financial risks to the U.S. from climate change events such as flooding as seen with Hurricane Sandy and 2012 which was the hottest year on record for the nation.

The Met Office, the U.K.’s national weather service, issued a revision to its climate forecast which lowered the projected temperature rise of the long term average over the next five years from 0.54 C to 0.43 C.  At the same time the Research Council of Norway also reported a cooler estimate of the world’s temperature rise by the mid-century.  They forecasted 1.9°C sensitivity to doubling atmospheric CO2 which is lower than the United Nation’s IPCC Four Assessment Report which estimated a range from 2°C to 4.5°C with 3°C as the most probable temperature rise.

These changes and new reports were immediately seized by the world’s climate skeptics as proof that estimates of climate change were overblown or the result of a conspiracy to misstate study results.  In fact, the only conclusions one can draw relates to the precision of computer modeling and the differences in assumptions used by various modeling groups.  Without placing a lot of emphasis on the very slight differences these models suggest vis-à-vis what was estimated by the U.N.  IPCC, climate deniers pointed to the differences as proof of their position.  The perspective of knowledgeable observers is that this is a politically inspired tempest in a teapot.

Use the following links for more information:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/state-of-the-union-2013

http://www.nature.com/news/obama-rekindles-climate-hopes-1.12322

http://ncadac.globalchange.gov/

http://www.gao.gov/products/gao-13-359t

http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/news/releases/archive/2013/decadal-forecasts

http://www.bbc.co.uk/ news/science-environment-20947224

http://www.globalwarming.org/2013/01/28/global-lukewarming

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