About Ed

Host, Science on Top podcast.

Happy Towel Day 2013

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?

toweldayImagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there’s plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that’s a very dangerous thing to say.

Douglas AdamsIs there an Artificial God?, September 1998

The story behind those creationism test papers

The Blue Ridge Christian Academy 4th grade 'science' quiz that went viral.

The Blue Ridge Christian Academy 4th grade ‘science’ quiz that went viral. Click to embiggen.

You’ve probably seen these images before. They’ve been circulating around the internet for the last month or so. An American 4th grade ‘science’ test from a school that’s clearly teaching Young Earth Creationism. The student has gotten full marks, for answering the most ludicrous questions.

According to the test, dinosaurs were the size of sheep, lived with humans on a planet less than a billion years old. Fossils were caused by a ‘global flood’, and the Bible is the ‘history book of the universe’. To anyone who challenges these ideas, the child should simply ask “Where you there?”. Yeah, that’ll show ’em.

So it’s not surprising this test went viral. The claims are so ridiculous, they are ripe for condemnation. Identifying the school that supplied the test turned out to be a challenge. To the degree that even Snopes.com thought they could be faked (at the time of writing, it’s status is ‘Undetermined’)  – surely no school could actually be teaching that sort of stuff? But eventually Australian ex-patriot Ken Ham, President of Answers in Genesis, revealed the school in a blog post.

In South Carolina recently, a fourth-grade teacher at Blue Ridge Christian Academy (a nondenominational K–12 Christian school) showed students a DVD of a children’s program, in which AiG song-writer and dinosaur sculptor Buddy Davis and I are featured. In this DVD, we teach children the history of the universe from the Bible, with a special emphasis on teaching dinosaurs from a biblical perspective (as we do inside our Creation Museum). The teacher handed out a question sheet to the children to test what they learned from the DVD…
A friend of one of the parents who has a child enrolled in the fourth grade class posted the quiz sheets on the internet. The parent, like all parents who have children enrolled at this academy, had signed a statement, which acknowledged an understanding that sending their child to this Christian school would mean they would be taught biblical Christianity. The parent expressed dismay that his daughter was taught a biblical approach to dinosaurs. The quiz’s posting to the internet resulted in a number of atheist websites reposting the questions and answers, and many of them responded in rage and vehement attacks on the school.

If,  when Ken describes “rage and vehement attacks”, he means threats of violence or personal attacks, then that’s something I cannot condone. But I suspect he’s actually referring to people ridiculing his beliefs and criticising the brainwashing of children with nonsense. If that’s the case, it’s to be encouraged. Young Earth Creationism is something that has been so thoroughly debunked it has absolutely no place being taught in a science class. This is a timely reminder that we need to actively campaign to keep religion – especially Young Earth Creationism – out of science class.

For the full story of the Blue Ridge Christian Academy science quiz papers, including samples of the ‘attacks’ and summaries of some of the other subjects taught at the school, read The Friendly Atheist’s post.

Neil deGrasse Tyson on The Most Astounding Fact

“We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us.”

The most astounding fact is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on Earth the atoms that make up the human body are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars, the high mass ones among them went unstable in their later years they collapsed and then exploded scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas cloud that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems stars with orbiting planets, and those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So that when I look up at the night sky and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us.

When I reflect on that fact, I look up – many people feel small because they’re small and the Universe is big – but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant you want to feel like a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive…

– Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Most Astounding Fact (video)

Event: ‘Are we alone? The hunt for ET’

Image: Frank Vincentz / WikiMedia Commons

Image: Frank Vincentz / WikiMedia Commons

Is there life beyond Earth?

The observable universe is home to millions of trillions of exoplanets, as planets outside our solar system are called. Many of these remote realms are believed to be of similar size to the Earth, some in orbits where surface water can exist in liquid form. Does this suggest the universe is teeming with life? Or might we be alone in the vastness of space?

That’s the question a panel of eminent scientists, along with Fairfax science columnist Peter Spinks, will debate at a fascinating evening event entitled ‘Are we alone? The hunt for ET’.

Presenters will be:

  • Dr Alan Duffy, Melbourne University astrophysicist
  • Dr Katie Mack, Melbourne University cosmologist
  • Dr Rosemary Mardling, Monash University astronomer
  • Dr Christopher Fluke, Swinburne University astrophysicist

With video interviews from:

  • Mr Allen Sirota, robotics supervisor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Dr Mario Perez, NASA astrophysicist and planet hunter in Washington
  • Professor Mark Sims, former mission manager of the European Space Agency’s Mars probe, the Beagle, and now astrobiology professor at UK’s Leicester University
  • Dr David Patterson, CSIRO astrophysicist and citizen scientist with Planet Hunters

When: Friday 19 April from 6.30-8.00pm

Where: The Edge in Federation Square

Cost: $30 public, $20 for The Age subscribers. Click here to book tickets.

 

This event is not run by, supported or associated with Melbourne Skeptics in any way.

Roger Ebert, A Quintessence of Dust

Roger Ebert, film critic, has died at the age of 70. Image: Roger Ebert / WikiMedia Commons?

Roger Ebert, film critic, has died at the age of 70.
Image: Roger Ebert / WikiMedia Commons

Pulitzer prize winning film critic Roger Ebert died today at the age of 70, according to his long-time employer, The Chicago Sun-Times. While Ebert will be most well known for his prolific and engaging film reviews it is worth noting he also wrote many articles extolling science and skepticism.

In 2009, in an article warning that “new agers and creationists” have no place in politics, he wrote:

Yet they assure everyone they are “a typical Gemini,” were royalty in a previous lifetime, have a personal spirit guide, and have been told they will develop a serious disease but will recover from it. I rarely hear anyone share that they were a toilet cleaner in a previous lifetime and have a year to live at the most.

– New Agers and Creationists should not be President

Roger wrote extensively about evolution, pseudoscience and religion. Often, his writing could almost be confused for that of James Randi:

As a person who firmly disbelieves in woo-woo, I couldn’t believe he would subscribe to such flim-flammery, but I dutifully obtained the “Jungian tarot deck,” in which the ancient symbols of the tarot are seen as manifestations of our collective unconscious.

– A Dangerous Method

But in my opinion, probably one of Ebert’s finest writings was written in 2011, on the magnitude and beauty of the Universe. It’s a long read, but it’s strikingly eloquent and captivating.

I read articles about astronomy and physics. It doesn’t matter to me how much I understand. Their buried message is always the same: Somewhere out there, or somewhere deep inside, there are mysteries of which we perceive only vague shadows, and there are possibly more mysteries within those shadows, continuing indefinitely.

I urge you to read A Quintessence of Dust. Reading Ebert’s wandering thoughts through wonder, evolution, life, death and eventually art is a humbling and inspiring experience. This article, I believe, is a perfect tribute to a remarkable writer, critic, and journalist. As well as a powerful example of the inspirational power of science.

The Power of Prayer

Is this man praying for world peace? Image: Arkangel Siete / WikiMedia Commons

Is this man praying for world peace?
Image: Arkangel Siete / WikiMedia Commons

After survey results claiming “four out of five British adults believe in the power of prayer” were published on the Huffington Post UK website, Martin Robbins did some digging. he discovered the survey was conducted by – surprise, surprise – the Church of England.

Turns out the ‘survey’ didn’t even ask what the headline was claiming – it didn’t ask if the respondent believes in prayer. Instead, it simply asks “if you were to pray for something at the moment, what would it be for?” (Emphasis mine!)

And as Martin writes, the results themselves speak volumes about the power of prayer:

31% of respondents said that they would pray for peace in the world. Given the noticeable absence of world peace, there are only a few ways this plays out. Either nobody has gotten around to praying yet, in which case people are callous bastards; or God has ignored them all, in which case God is a callous bastard; or prayer doesn’t work, in which case the Christian movement is the equivalent of a town full of people still trying to call the number of their local Papa Johns two thousand years after it closed down and the phone was disconnected, speaking at the error tone even though nobody has picked up, then spotting a pizza in the supermarket two days later and insisting that it must have arrived by the grace of Papa Johns.

The brilliantly written piece is riddled with similarly quotable gems, but rather than regurgitate them all here I’ll link you to the full article.

Stephen Fry on Incuriosity

If you are hungry for food you are prepared to hunt high and low for it. If you are hungry for information it is the same. Information is all around us, now more than ever before in human history.

There are young men and women up and down the land who happily (or unhappily) tell anyone who will listen that they don’t have an academic turn of mind, or that they aren’t lucky enough to have been blessed with a good memory, and yet can recite hundreds of pop lyrics and reel off any amount of information about footballers, cars and celebrities. Why? Because they are interested in those things. They are curious. If you are hungry for food you are prepared to hunt high and low for it. If you are hungry for information it is the same. Information is all around us, now more than ever before in human history. You barely have to stir or incommode yourself to find things out. The only reason people do not know much is because they do not care to know. They are incurious. Incuriosity is the oddest and most foolish failing there is.

Picture the world as being a city whose pavements are covered a foot deep in gold coins. You have to wade through them to make progress. Their clinking and rattling fills the air. Imagine that you met a beggar in such a city.
‘Please, give me something. I am penniless.’
‘But look around you,’ you would shout. ‘There is gold enough to last you your whole life. All you have to do is to bend down and pick it up!’

When people complain that they don’t know any literature because it was badly taught at school, or that they missed out on history because on the timetable it was either that or biology, or some such ludicrous excuse, it is hard not to react in the same way.

‘But it’s all around you!’ I want to scream. ‘All you have to do it bend down and pick it up!’ What on earth people think their lack of knowledge of the Hundred Years War, or Socrates, or the colonization of Batavia has to do with school I have no idea. As one who was expelled from any number of educational establishments and never did any work at any of them, I know perfectly well that the fault lay not in the staff but in my self that I was ignorant. Then one day, or over the course of time, I got greedy. Greedy to know things, greedy for understanding, greedy for information.

Stephen Fry, The Fry Chronicles

Creationist stakes $10,000 on contest between Bible and evolution

A scene showing humans and dinosaurs together at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Image: WikiMedia Commons.

A scene showing humans and dinosaurs together at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.
Image: WikiMedia Commons.

From The Guardian:

A California creationist is offering a $10,000 challenge to anyone who can prove in front of a judge that science contradicts the literal interpretation of the book of Genesis.

A majority of scientists disavow creationism, but a June 2012 Gallup poll showed that 46% of Americans believed in a literal interpretation of the biblical version of creation. Legislation to allow students to be taught religious versions of the creation of life is currently being considered in four states.

Read the full article here.

I always recommend against reading the comments (to prevent brain explosions) but I think this comment sums the situation up brilliantly:

MissSchlegel: "He has a PhD in kinesiology..." Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.