Category Archives: Science
I once asked a friend of mine who reads a great deal of Science Fiction and Fantasy what he saw as the essential difference between the two genres. He thought for a moment and said that Science Fiction “could happen” while Fantasy “could not.”
I think I know what he meant. In Science Fiction, the writer is cognizant of the physical laws operative within the story. If an SF writer were to describe space travel, Newton’s Laws of motion and gravity would be obeyed. Even here one enters a grey area: some writers would insist on using the speed of light as a fixed limitation while others would imagine a way around it.
In my high school years, I grew up on this genre and my love of science, in large measure, grew out of that reading. Several friends had urged me to read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but I resisted for a long time. When I did read it, it was as if a new world had opened up for me. It recaptured for me what I had experienced as a child on first reading The Chronicles of Narnia. There was a sense of nobility, beauty, and “rightness” about those imagined worlds that I had missed in my Science Fiction reading, which instead, seemed sterile in comparison.
The longer I thought about it, it came to me that I was encountering an unspoken presupposition that was embedded in most SF literature, that of a materialistic universe where all that mattered was atoms and molecules; chemistry and physics. In addition, I found that the more modern SF also grew more cynical, growing increasingly hostile to the very things that I loved in Fantasy. As a consequence, I read very few modern SF stories (although I do try them once in a while) and spend much more time reading Fantasy.
So how has this impacted my writing? I think, in The Halcyon Cycle, I write Science Fiction that reads like Fantasy. I spend a good deal of time thinking about the physics and chemistry behind my imagined world (I think some of my readers would argue too much, in fact), but I also have many of the elements of a Fantasy story (swords, nobility, right and wrong which transcends worlds and physical laws for example).
Check out The Halcyon Cycle Books … http://bit.ly/2qzzi4P-Author
In The Halcyon Dislocation, I postulated the existence of time quantization as a means to setting up parallel, sibling worlds. Here is the description of this concept in an exerpt from the book:
Tired and hungry, Dave and Glenn returned to their room and turned on the TV to see if broadcasting had resumed. To their surprise Jennifer McCowan, the blonde talk show host of Halcyon Music, was on the air.
“Even without social media,” said McCowan in her gentle, lilting voice, “I know that everyone is asking ‘where are we?’ and ‘what’s happened to us?’ To answer those questions I’ve asked a friend of mine to the studio. Please welcome Vlad Sowetsky.”
Canned applause welcomed Vlad.
“So, Vlad,” said McCowan, “please tell our viewers what you do.”
Vlad, a tall, big boned youth in his mid-twenties, had a long, narrow face and close-set eyes, so that the overall impression vaguely reminded one of a horse. He had shoulder length hair and stubble on his face.
“To cut to the chase, I’m a graduate student with Professor Hoffstetter, and I was in the control room when the dislocation occurred.”
“So what actually happened during the accident yesterday?”
“Well,” said Vlad, “we were running the largest test on the force field to date. The plan was to—”
“Whoa,” said McCowan, “I think you are going much too fast. Tell the audience how the Hoffstetter force field works, but no jargon, please!”
Vlad screwed up his face as if he were being asked the impossible. “The force field appears as a bubble about the size of a soccer ball when we first generate it. The time inside the bubble is slightly behind our time. When we first make the bubble, the time delay—or offset—is very, very small so that the field is thin. That is to say, anything can cross it. We expand the bubble to the desired size and then thicken it. By ‘thicken’ I mean that we increase the time offset so the field begins to have an effect. First it stops large objects. If we increase the time offset even more, we could theoretically stop air molecules or light from crossing the force field boundary.”
“Field boundary,” said McCowan. “Now you’re lapsing into jargon again and losing me.”
“By field boundary I mean the edge of the force field bubble. Shooting a missile through this barrier is, as Hoffstetter would say, ‘like trying to shoot into last week.’” Vlad was beginning to get exasperated.
“Okay,” said McCowan, “please go on. Even if I don’t understand all of the physics, I’m sure there are many listeners who will.”
“Well, we had intended to expand the force field so that it enclosed the central building in the experimental area. However, while we were expanding the bubble, the first lightning strike overloaded the equipment and the expansion continued unabated.”
This was followed by a momentary pause and a baffled look on McCowan’s face. “How big did the bubble get?” she finally asked.
“I think it expanded to a sphere about four miles in diameter,” said Vlad.
“Then a second series of lightning strikes overloaded the offset controls, and the time offset increased enormously,” said Vlad. Beads of perspiration had appeared on his forehead.
McCowan uncrossed her legs and leaned forward. “Tell the audience what you think happened next,” she prompted.
Vlad took a deep breath. “I only have a half-baked theory. Do you know about quantization of energy?”
“Vaguely,” said McCowan, a blank look on her face.
“Let me see if I can make it as simple as possible. Macroscopically, that is, in the world of meter lengths and kilogram masses, energy seems to be continuous. It flows like a stream or a river. So if I ask how much energy it takes to lift this book,” he lifted a book from the table, “you can calculate the energy in joules to as many decimal places as you like. I can lift the book to any height and calculate the lift energy for each height. But when you go down in size, ten orders of magnitude to angstroms, the world changes. When lifting electrons away from the atomic nucleus, all the rules change, and one can only ‘lift’ the electron to discrete ‘heights,’ or energy levels. It’s like being able to lift this book in little jumps.” He demonstrated by rapidly lifting and stopping the book at various heights.
“Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. You’re bringing back unpleasant memories of first year chemistry. But what has that got to do with the Hoffstetter field generators and the accident?”
“Everything!” said Vlad. “I think time is also quantized.”
“You’ve lost me again. How can time be quantized?” asked McCowan. “And if it is, what difference does it make?”
“Well, think about it in relation to the quantization of energy that you learned about in first year chemistry. We think of time flowing past us like a stream moving at a constant rate. That may appear true in our macroscopic world, but what happens if, at very short time intervals, one reaches a minimum time (I call it a mintival for minimum time interval)? What if our existence at the time interval of a mintival consists of little jumps, like a jump second hand rather than a sweep second hand? Or putting it another way, what if instead of a flowing stream, time consisted of a series of pools,” and here he paused to let his words sink in, “and our existence is a discontinuous series of jumps from one pool to the next?”
“Your theory is fascinating, Vlad, but what has that got to do with the Hoffstetter field generators?”
“I just told you that the Hoffstetter field generators cause the matter inside the field to lag normal time by a very small amount, say ten to the minus thirty-second of a second—that’s a decimal point with thirty-one zeros after and then a one. Now let’s suppose…” Sowetsky turned and kneeled on the sofa and drew three contiguous rectangles on a white board behind his seat “…that these three rectangles represent three sequential mintivals in our world, or universe, if you like. Another world can coexist with ours, as long as the mintivals of that world are offset from those of our time.” He drew three more rectangles adjacent but offset to the first three, like bricks on the side of a building. “It would be like a single reel of film containing two movies, with the odd numbered frames representing our world and the even numbered frames representing another world. If two projectors played this interlaced film with one displaying the odd numbered frames and the other the even numbered frames, one film could give rise to two motion pictures. Similarly, although two solid objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, they can occupy that space at different times, so to speak.”
“Keep going,” ventured McCowan doubtfully. “I hope our viewers are following you through all this.”
“Well, normally, when the Hoffstetter field generators shut down, they collapse back to the nearest quantized mintival. When the field generators overloaded, I believe we kicked over into the trailing mintival—hence the new world!”
“Well, I’ll be!” said McCowan, genuinely shocked. “Can we get back?”
“I don’t know,” said Sowetsky, frowning. “We only know how to make the Hoffstetter field lag time, not precede time. If we tried it again, we might jump into yet another world that lags this one!”
“You can’t be serious!” said McCowan.
“I’m deadly serious,” said Sowetsky evenly.
“We’re never going to get back, are we?” asked McCowan, her voice fading to a whisper as tears began to fill her eyes. She turned away from the camera for a moment. “I have one final question, Vlad,” she said, regaining her composure with obvious effort. “Did you tell Professor Hoffstetter about this possibility?”
“Of course! I told him not once but several times!” said Sowetsky. “That’s what burns me up so much.”
“What did he say when you told him?”
“At first he told me ‘science requires us to take risks,’ and finally he told me to stop raising the matter.”
Is this even possible? Normally in quantum mechanics, quantization comes about because of boundary conditions. Think of a guitar string. A loose guitar string doesn’t produce a pure tone. Only when it is stretched between two points (think boundary conditions) does one obtain a pure fundamental frequency along with the overtones. These frequencies represent quantization of the sound (the fundamental and overtones are related mathematically). It’s not easy to see why time should have boundary conditions and so quantization seems unlikely at first glance.
However, in 1899, the great physicist, Max Planck, proposed a natural unit of time based only on universal constants such as the gravitational constant, Planck’s constant, and the speed of light. Planck’s time (ca. 5.39 x 10^-44 seconds) is a small number indeed and is considered by many physicists as the shortest time interval possible. Similarly, the inverse quantity, 1/tp, is a frequency and may represent the maximum frequency possible. Perhaps there are boundary conditions for time and the idea of time quantization are not as far fetched as it seemed at first glance.
Relationship to Time Paradox
In any case, Planck Time, or the Mintival described by the character Vlad Sowetsky in The Halcyon Dislocation are very short time intervals indeed. They are much shorter that the time of one vibration of a hydrogen molecule or the shortest time observed experimentally (8.5 x 10^-19 seconds (2010)).
This provides a trivial solution to the time paradox. In the time paradox, one short circuits a chain of cause and effect events. That is to say, travelling back in time means the traveler invariably makes changes or initiates new causes that change the future. Or does he? There are usually two solutions. In one possible solution, each change initiates a new multiverse or parallel word strand.
A second solution (illustrated in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce (he references getting the idea from a science fiction novel) centers on the idea that the traveler cannot affect the past at all. It’s like adamant. Not even a blade of grass could be bent by the visitor.
With very short time intervals, traveling backward in time does not generate a violation of the time paradox because over these time intervals nothing happens so nothing changes. So you see time travel should be possible as long as the trip backwards is very short!
As a novelist, I am in the midst of writing the second volume of a colonization epic set in the future. Although the stories have all the aspects of discovering a new world (my second book in the series called The Battle for Halcyon is about to come out on Amazon, iTunes, and Chapters) I am interested in making the stories as realistic as possible. To be realistic I try to have characters that care about the things most of us care about: survival, freedom, friendship, purpose, meaning, and spirituality. I am therefore interested in discussions that deal with these big questions.
An acquaintance of mine in the Goodreads group the Christian Theological/Philosophical Book Club, posted an acerbic comment which was billed as the draft of a script to be presented as a monologue on YouTube.
The comment quoted from the Catholic Encyclopaedia on the topic of “belief.” I will cite certain portions of the comment for discussion since I am not sure all of my readers can open the Goodreads comment without first joining Goodreads. Here we go with the quote:
From the Catholic Encyclopaedia
Belief “That state of the mind by which it assents to propositions, not by reason of their intrinsic evidence, but because of authority”.
The commenter then goes on to interpret for us:
There we have it, Sinners: no evidence required when it comes to believing … just authority. It helps if you adopt a very severe tone when you’re dealing with matters such as this – adds gravitas to the smoke you’re blowing up people’s backsides.
I think you get the sense of the rant.
Now I am not a Catholic, but I have read many excellent, well-reasoned book by Catholics. My own experience with Catholic teaching and reasoning made me think that I was not getting the full story on the Catholic position on faith or belief in this rather one-sided monologue. So I looked up faith and reason in Peter Kreeft & Ronald K. Tacelli’s excellent book Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Peter Kreeft is a Catholic, a philosophy professor at Boston College, and has impressed me with his practical and thorough going analyses of these types of questions. All of Chapter 2 is devoted to the question of faith(belief) and reason.
As I thought about the content of the Kreeft Chapter, I realized there are three types of questions that we can ask (the question taxonomy depends on the kinds of evidence one can muster to answer the questions):
- Questions that can be answered by reason and data alone.
- Questions that can partly be answered by reason and data, but then you need to trust someone (i.e. have faith in someone) to achieve an answer.
- Some questions are so fundamental and so foundational, they cannot be proved by data and reason at all and you have to trust someone for the answer.
Note even in type 2 and 3 questions, one can always “try out an answer and see how it works.” In Kreeft and Tacelli’s analysis, they connect “taking someone’s word for it” with revelation. That is to say that for questions of a spiritual nature, God has taken the initiative to reveal the answer to us (this is the most common application of faith in this context). In other realms, I may have to trust a physicist to explain the physical meaning of mathematics I don’t fully comprehend. Or I may have to trust a medical doctor to interpret symptoms and recommend a treatment for me in circumstances where I simply don’t know enough to make a proper judgement.
Examples of the Three Types of Questions
Perhaps the three types of questions would become clearer if illustrated with an example.
Question Type #1 Questions that can be answered by reason and data alone
A mundane example of a type 1 question would be “how do I fix my car?” With enough data and problem solving skills, one should be able to work it out. Now note, I could accomplish this by faith (the Greek word for faith in the Bible transliterated pistis really means trusting someone ). That is to say I could take my car to a mechanic that I trust (faith) and have him fix it for me. Faith in a person shifts my focus from the data and reasoning about the data to the character of the person that I’m trusting. But both are valid approaches. In the end whether or not I go back to the mechanic will depend on how the experience works out (trust can either be strengthened or weakened by experience).
Question Type #2 Questions that can partly be answered by reason and data, but then you need to trust someone or something to achieve an answer
Two examples of the second type of questions: Does God exist? and How does the mind work? There are many philosophical arguments for the existence of God (Kreeft and Tacelli list twenty of them in Chapter 3), but at the end of the day, one can always say, “I don’t know if that’s really compelling.” In the end it’s not enough to be intellectually be convinced that God exists because of for example the Kalaam argument, but rather one need to go beyond the data and reasoning to the person. Similarly on the question of the mind, one can do many experiments on the mind but at the end some one has to use their mind to interpret the data. In the words of C. S. Lewis, that’s a bit like asking someone to take out their eyeball to look at it. Using the mind to analyse the mind is a form of begging the question. The measured data may be reliable, but in the end you must trust your own mind (or someone else’s) to analyse the data.
At the beginning of this blog is a picture of one of this year’s daffodils. Why do I find it beautiful? You can partly explain that by analysing the chromophores in the compounds the daffodil produces but ultimately there is a part of the answer that eludes that explanation. For me, like a beautiful painting, the daffodil was designed with my response in mind. The full answer to this question can not be achieved by studying the chemistry alone.
Question Type #3 Questions that are so fundamental and so foundational, they cannot be proved at all and you have to trust someone for the answer
The example that directly comes to mind would be the question: “What is God like?” A question that the writer George MacDonald thought was more important and more fundamental than the question “Does God exist?” If God is wicked, evil, or a trickster, he is powerful enough to fool us all. Any evidence I amass, any reasoning I apply will always face the caveat “But what if he’s just fooling me?” I can’t see anyway of getting around it. I have to trust in his goodness and see if it works out.
Now let me make a few observations:
- There are questions that one can ask in all three categories. So the questions exist. I think people who acknowledge that fact of question’s existence and try to answer them as best they can, are more connected to reality than those who try to cram all questions into category one and then either pretend that questions in categories two and three don’t exist or are meaningless.
- The most important questions (because they are the most fundamental and are most strongly linked to meaning) are in categories two and three.
- The genuine search for truth under-girds all three questions. By truth I mean, statements and assertions that are connected to reality (how things really are). Reality dictates the questions.
- Authority is related to character and trustworthiness, not power.
This sheds much more light on the definition in the Catholic Encyclopaedia. The commentary on the Catholic definition in the Goodreads comment to my mind is wrong:
no evidence required when it comes to believing … just authority
It’s not that no evidence is required, but rather that for the most important questions material evidence (in the scientific/engineering sense) is insufficient (actually woefully inadequate) for addressing these questions. In those cases one’s only recourse is to identify a trustworthy, honest, reliable, knowledgeable being and take their word for it. That process is another description of finding someone with authority (authority in this context means a character of honesty and access to the answers). So if one reads the context of the Catholic Encylopaedia definition as pertaining to the most important faith questions (type 3), it makes perfect sense because evidence in terms of archaeology, astronomy, chemistry and physics is of no value in addressing these questions.
How to Win an Argument by Manipulating the Definitions
One of the things that trouble me about the discussion by the commenter is the apparent willingness to orchestrate the conclusion by choosing a definition for faith that virtually compels the result that he is arguing for. One simply does not have that freedom with definitions. Definitions must be co-extensive with the property they are defining. If one is questioning the validity of faith in God or Christ, one needs to use the definition for faith as used in the Old and New Testaments, not simply make up whatever definition one pleases (or make up a definition calculated to make the argument outcome a ‘slam dunk’). Unfortunately a robust faith based on evidence of the senses and the reliable character of the messenger, seems to be transmogrified into what is better termed “blind faith” an irrational faith divorced from both evidence and the character of the messenger. To me that’s cheating and does not demonstrate a very high commitment to discovering the truth behind the questions one is asking (even if the answers are not the ones were were expecting). Furthermore when I read the New Testament and particularly the Gospels that is not the faith I see demonstrated.
This is the very point that John Lennox made when he came to Toronto a few weeks back. It is well worth it to listen to his presentation. I made the point in my book Questioning Your Way to Faith (Subtitled: Learning to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable) that truth-seekers believing in the objective correspondence between truth and reality, ought to always try to achieve the strongest arguments on both sides of every question, because in the end truth matters. Two friends may ending up disagreeing because they weigh the evidence (personal evidence, anecdotal evidence, as well empirical evidence) differently, but still they ought to listen to each other.
Why the Three Questions on Faith Strengthens the Christian World View
In closing I want to make two final points. Ravi Zacharias in his book Why Jesus? provides two tests for evaluating world views: coherence and correspondence. To me the three types of questions speak to both criteria. A coherent world view needs to be able to answer questions of type 2 and type 3 (especially type 3). These questions often related to meaning and purpose. But type #1 questions are also compatible with the Christian world view. For me the Christian world view is coherent because it can relate to all three questions.
In contrast to the views expressed by many Materialists, science and Christian faith are compatible. The Christian world view is founded on the principle of objective truth. Many things science advocates are later revised. Christians are wise to wait until science is truly settled and can legitimately be claiming to describe a truth. For many so called scientific questions that level of certainty will never be achieved. For those unchanging assertions that are not revised, reasoning and data are valid avenues for discovering truth.
From my vantage point the Christian world view also speaks to correspondence. Since one can ask type 2 and type 3 questions there ought to be answers. Saying the questions are meaningless is not a legitimate answer in my view.
So What Does That Mean for Me?
I can’t control how others argue, but I can control how I argue on important questions. Here are some guidelines and aspirations I set for myself:
- Be a truth-seeker. Care more about the truth than about winning the argument.
- Listen carefully to what is being said. Don’t just wait for him to finish before I launch into a rebuttal.
- Pay careful attention to the definitions. Many friends talk past each other because they use the same word in different ways.
- Respect the other person’s right to disagree, even when the evidence seems compelling to me. Proof happens in the mind and evidence can always be weighted differently.
CBC’s Fifth Estate presented a series by Mark Kelley entitled War on Wheat. Personally, I have enjoyed wheat products all of my life and I have no reason to change. However, several members in my circle of family and friends have changed to a gluten-free diet and so I was interested in hearing Kelley’s perspective on the subject. I had another reason for listening. As a scientist I am interested in examples of how scientists interact with the general public. I hope to learn how I can make my own communication more honest, open, and effective.
Every news program has a point of view. From the title, from the arrangement of the segments, and from the questions that were asked, it was clear to me that Kelley had organized the program to convince the audience that wheat is good, that “science” is almost unanimously on the side of eating wheat, and that going gluten-free is a fad promulgated by “food evangelists.” Remember, I am saying this as a person who loves his slice of bread and has found no reason whatsoever to change. Read the rest of this entry