Felinity

Felis domesticus, the common house cat, whose demeanour is limited to predation, independence, and living exclusively in the present, was suggested by English philosopher John Gray as worthy of emulation by humans, troubled by their not unrealistic fear of the future.

Lacking feline independence, dogs make better companions for isolated humans, but require more attention, such as walks for regular outdoor exercise and defecation, and they bark annoyingly.

Horses and donkeys are good companions and their neighs and brays are congenial, but they require pasture and would make inconvenient household pets, tending to knock things over and make messes.

Tardigraves are said to make excellent quiet and harmless pets by their enthusiasts, but the small size of only half a millimeter makes them unsuitable for one with poor eyesight. Moreover, like insects and arachnids, they are even less responsive as human companions than larger animals like cats or small dogs.

Mice suffer from feline predation, but my only mouse is not a rodent but a computer accessory. It sometimes dies, but can be readily revived by changing its battery, like that of my pacemaker implant (but whose battery can only be changed surgically.)

Ancient Egyptian cats were once thought divine, but as English author P. G. Wodehouse opined in his amusing short story Cats Will Be Cats, felinity is not divinity, and it may be expecting too much from humans to recommend them to become more catlike.

Mice may be prey for cats, but humans prey on one another, not for food, but to assert dominance in spheres of political and economic activity, except perhaps for family members (and in antiquity, house slaves.)

November 23, 2022

COP 27: Broken Record Plays Again

Repetition of the dangers of global warming provoking the collapse of civilization is tiresome, and confronting bad news is always either avoided or smothered by hopefulness along the lines of “yes, but if we only______.” (Fill in the blank with whatever ploy de jour suggests a way out of the oncoming disaster.)

Collective actions proposed to head off the catastrophe assume endorsement by leaders of having the capability to change human behaviour, like eliminating our unending pursuit of money and power, and live instead in harmony with the environment at the expense of personal profit.

But the inherent drive of human acquisitiveness always trumps ameliorating the global warming that will likely continue as long as the species exists burning fossil fuel.

Evading those equatorial regions destined to become uninhabitable will result in “up to three billion people forced to leave their homes by the year 2050,” as described in Nomad Century by Gaia Vince, and taken seriously by reviewers from the BBC and Times Literary Supplement this month. Absurd suggestions arise, such as  “There will then be more people available to do unwanted tasks for low wages for members of the developed world,” presumably like being cleaners and care workers to assist wealthier oldsters in their luxurious residential care homes for seniors.

What kind of world will my great-grandchildren being born this year find as they reach maturity within two decades?

The Canadian Border Services Agency and similar units of other developed countries will have little effect on three billion people knocking at their doors. The whole idea of “political borders” is bound to dissolve under the pressure of climate migrants. Hell on earth lies around the corner right now, as violence, supernatural beliefs and conspiracy theories appear, smothering rational and scientific thought & activity.

Having just passed eight billion, we may anticipate world population to begin to decline now, not after some imaginary projected peak of 10 billion in 2080, but nobody wants to hear bad news when beer is banned at an important world soccer tournament in an oil rich land destined to become an uninhabitable relic of civilization by the end of the XXI century.

Pessimism and misanthropy seem a rational response to a realistic assessment of the human condition, art and philosophy only a temporary balm, but assuredly no cure.

November 21, 2022

A Cat named Erwin

Although now only a long retired professional stargazer, I enjoy learning about the history of science, both ancient and modern ideas about the development of our understanding of the universe, from the largest dimensions in cosmology to the smallest constituents of matter in particle physics. Two fundamental concepts enabling this understanding are those of Albert Einstein in relativity theory relating mass to energy, and of Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in quantum physics, relating energy to wavelength frequency in electromagnetic radiation.

Since 1945 and the American killing of over two hundred thousand Japanese civilians with two atomic bombs “to save lives of American soldiers”, most of us are familiar with Einstein’s equation  of  E = mc2, but fewer with Schrödinger’s equation, expressing matter not as a particle but as a wave function at a very small scale.

Atomic energy enables us to not only make bombs, but to also understand the origin of radiation from stars like the sun. With quantum physics, we can predict the behaviour of subatomic particles, which has led to the development of applications throughout the world of technology, from cellphones and computers to superconductor enabled magnetic railway propulsion.

Quantum physics employs uncommon concepts like “superposition” and “entanglement”, and while necessary in dealing with subatomic particles, these only lead to absurdity when used to account for everyday macro material like pencil and paper instead of micro matter such as electrons and radioactive decay

Schrödinger devised a thought experiment to illustrate this: imagine a cat in a sealed container with a radioactive substance set up to kill the animal when emitting an occasional electron. The timing of the quantized electron emission can only be represented in terms of probability, so it is impossible to say whether he cat is alive or dead until the box is unsealed. Until then, it is both simultaneously, which is absurd.

The cat example became famous, and appears now and then on a website devoted to science humour, along with other jokes from quantum physics that those unfamiliar with its peculiarities sometimes find inscrutable.

Living alone at the beginning of my tenth decade, I recently acquired a feline companion that I named Schrödinger, but the long German surname is unwieldy for everyday use, so I just call it “Erwin” (pronounced “air-vin”) for short.

November 20, 2022

Biophysics – What is Life?

What is Life? So asked physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1944, in his little book of that title. How might we now in 2022, nearly a century later, address this enigmatic question that has been asked since the ancients, and like the first century BCE epicurean poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus, can we respond in purely natural terms, rejecting religious or supernatural ideation?

Phrased slightly differently, what precisely is a living entity? How does it differ from a non-living entity? We can describe it as a bounded region of three dimensional space containing intact matter in a continuous state of negative entropy sustained by metabolism, and directly or indirectly powered by light, i.e. visible electromagnetic radiation from the nearby star we call the sun.

Lucretius, in denouncing supernatural religion in his 7400 line poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), imagined life as “atoms in motion”, an idea derived from the earlier Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 – 270 BCE). This insight remained dormant during the era of Christendom, when superstition and myth suppressed thought about nature, other than what was “revealed” in scripture.

Two millennia after Lucretius, understanding of the basic structure of living entities has expanded from indivisible atoms to systems of molecules, leading to the 1953 discovery of the DNA molecule as information coding for every living organism.

The phenomenon of electromagnetic radiation and the laws of thermodynamics are two essential physical concepts revealing the difference between living and non-living matter, what we usually think of as the organic and inorganic nature of things..

Entropy is a measure of increasing disorder, like a cup of hot coffee being allowed to cool, dissipating energy as heat, infrared radiation. For the coffee to remain hot, it must be on a hot plate or in a microwave, with energy supplied from outside. Our living bodies are like the coffee cup, for they require a source of energy as fuel to maintain life, supplied by absorbing nutrients. This prevents the entropic dissipation of heat, and so preserves that temporary state of negative entropy we call life.

A living organic entity is inherently unstable, in that it requires this constant input of energy to exist and reproduce itself. It only continues to exist by using energy input to maintain metabolic functions like growth and repair for a period of time, and this is always limited by wear and tear of the physical structures that allowed it to maintain its state of negative entropy. When metabolism fails, life can no longer continue. Energy in the form of heat dissipates as life’s structures break down and decay.

Lucretius understood the limitation of life in 55 BCE, writing “Epicurus himself died when the light of life had run its course…there is an end fixed for the life of mortals and death cannot be avoided, but die we must.”

November 18, 2022

Global Population

As of today, global population is projected to reach 8 billion.  UN Secretary-General António Guterres warns, “Unless we bridge the yawning chasm between the global haves and have-nots, we are setting ourselves up for an 8-billion-strong world filled with tensions and mistrust, crisis and conflict.”

The world’s population is projected by the World Health Organization to continue to grow to around 10.4 billion in the 2080s, though the overall rate of growth is slowing down. Fertility rates decline among developed nations, but population growth has become increasingly concentrated among the world’s poorest countries, most of which are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Growth due to medical intervention is a major factor in this. Sierra Leone in West Africa has a current life expectancy of 50.1 years, the same as in France of 1910. In 1945 India the average was 35 years, but now it has doubled to seventy.

Projections by the World Health Organization like these tend to ignore the effect of lethal global warming on large populations in equatorial zones that will become uninhabitable, driving climate migration with its ensuing conflicts and wars ignited by desperate attempts to relocate by climate migrants moving to temperate regions.

Complicating this situation will be decreased prevention of illness and loss of effective antibiotic treatments of infectious diseases.

Following this population peak we may anticipate a progressive decline as the XXI century unfolds, and the loss of what those living in developed countries have come to expect as their accustomed lifestyles.

Moreover, the horrors of war are now made more visible to everyone with internet news and cellphones, with widely available images of mutual destruction and carnage. But this always has been the normal behaviour of human beings throughout history, raping, pillaging, and gruesomely killing one another. Formerly, descriptions were limited to written memoirs of old soldiers.

This may seem misanthropic, but the good luck of living in a developed country tends to veil the truth of human group behaviour in war, pandered to by the profits of manufacturers of weaponry, and supported by leaders of all nations (including Canada).

Be nice to draft dodgers.

November 15, 2022

Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

The political movement known as socialism includes a set of political philosophies that originated in the revolutionary movements of the mid-to-late 18th century out of concern for the social problems that were associated with capitalism.”  (Wikipedia)

Many different variants of socialism have since arisen worldwide, ranging from Marxist autocrats to elected and democratic governments, the common feature among them all being promotion of group cooperation as more important than individual competition for private ownership of resources, as in capitalist systems.

The recent appearance of the concept of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has provoked questions from students of political studies about how this new variety of socialism differs from others not defined in terms of some specific country.

A lengthy essay in the London Review of Books on October 20, 2022 by Long Ling, a government official in Beijing, was helpful to illuminate this question. Members of the Communist Party of China currently are being required to participate in an online course of study, “Guide to Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. Ten hours of lectures describing goals are provided, but limited to general statements of policies in memorizing lists of “Eight Clarifications” and “Fourteen Imperatives”, including the “Two Upholds” — specifically, “Resolutely upholding the authority and leadership of the Party Central Committee”, and “Resolutely upholding General Secretary Xi Jinping’s position as the centre of the Central Committee and the core of the entire party.”

In summary, the entire document boils down to an affirmation of a top-down structure with the top being the person of Xi Jinping. The rest of the explanation consists of platitudes about supporting all decisions of the Central Committee. The total number of party members in China in 2021 numbered 96.7 million members, organized into 4.9 million branches across the country. “All members received similar notices in January, and all gave their ‘consent’ (actively or passively.)”

This then reveals the “Chinese characteristic of socialism”, the uniform acknowledgement of the leadership of one man in one country. The cult of personality began by Mao Zedong and continued by Deng Xiaoping was not emphasized by their two successors, but has been resurrected by Xi Jinping, who has now made himself Leader for life. This status is reflected in official propaganda, and in the foreseeable future, appears to be firmly established.

How well this concept of socialism succeeds in a state capitalist mercantile economy faced with an aging population and confronted by the catastrophe of global warming and climate migration remains to be seen.

November 14, 2022                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Prophecies of Doom

Eschatological writings or scenarios of doom, are traditionally associated with splinter Christian sects like the Seventh-day Adventists, basing their predictions on interpretations of scripture, and usually associated with the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) and the Christian Book of Revelation in the New Testament.

Historically, these superstitious beliefs have arisen among those craving order in times of uncertainty and conflict. Solace provided by a deity for believers in the form of a utopian future society is usually accompanied by the elimination of others, losers felt unworthy of salvation.

A final battle between the armies of Good and Evil is supposedly to be conducted on a plain by the Hill of Megiddo, an Israeli site name anglicized to Armageddon. (This name was co-opted by a Hollywood film title in 1998, about an asteroid on a collision course with the earth.)

Eschatological speculation is again surfacing these days, not arising from religious beliefs or science fiction, but about the progression of climate change. Worries about “species suicide” and “oncoming Armageddon” are heard from world and national leaders, like Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres and US President Joe Biden. International conferences of scientists are periodically convened to assess the current status and future prospects of global warming.

Regional conflicts will not be limited to the plain by a hill in Israel or avoiding an imaginary lethal asteroid, it is the inborn greed of humans that is leading to catastrophic warming of the atmosphere and the impending collapse of civilization.

Meetings of experts and politicians are organized to promote agreements to limit burning fossil fuel as a source of energy, but promises are ignored as its sources continue to be exploited by profit driven corporations and states. Meanwhile millions drown, starve, and die in armed conflicts, while the world continues to heat, driving climate migration as the only alternative to death at home.

End times in the XXI century has its unique eschatology.

November 6, 2022 (opening day of COP27 in Sharma El Sheikh, Egypt.)

Looking Outside

My cell in the tower of the Halfway House has pictures on the walls of friends and family, calendars of Yukon and deep sky astronomical objects, prints of paintings by Rembrandt and Frans Hals, two oil paintings by Czech-Argentinian Ricardo Tschamler, and four bookcases containing the few titles remaining after downsizing last year. A replica of Picasso’s owl perches by the door in homage to Hegel, who wrote “The owl of Minerva only spreads her wings at dusk.”  An appropriate image for the the decline of rationality and gradual collapse of civilization, heralding the coming Age of  Endarkenment.

Looking out the south facing window over the neighbouring buildings amid the intermittent greenery of parks and trees, the buildings of city center lie in the middle distance and the distant Olympic range of mountains lurks across the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Illuminated by light from our star, the panorama is that of a pleasant small city on an island at the western edge of Canada. When it is dark at night and with a clear sky, I can look up and outside, beyond the atmosphere, noting its phases as our moon runs through its monthly cycle, and often see other planets in our solar system reflecting solar light. Occasionally, an unexpected bright streak of light flashes from an incandescent meteor, burning out in friction in the upper atmosphere.

After that, there’s nothing much material until the second nearest star, Proxima Centauri, 4.2465 light-years away, but the intervening space is not empty. It is replete with electromagnetic radiation of all frequencies.

Having evolved here on the third planet from our star, human vision is only sensitive to a narrow range of frequencies. Some telescopes have been designed to selectively gather and concentrate starlight of other frequencies, both ultra violet above and infra red below what we can observe.

Spectroscopic analysis of starlight enables us to understand stellar composition and evolution in astrophysics, as well as radial velocity, indicating motion in the line of sight, leading to determining the rate of expansion of the universe.

Are there living organisms on other planets beyond the neighbourhood of our solar system? Many stars have been found to have planetary companions, whose atmospheres are being investigated for evidence of biological activity. But why? What difference does it mean for humanity to know the answer? There seems to be no conceivable way to monetize such information about objects light years away, yet billions are being spent to find out.

Quanta e-Magazine breathlessly publishes this week an interesting but mostly “Human Interest” illustrated article A Dream of Discovering Alien Life Finds New Hope: “For Lisa Kaltenegger and her generation of exoplanet astronomers, decades of planning have set the stage for an epochal detection.” This is a good example of current writings about exobiology that describe and illustrate this undertaking but, as always in these popular science writings, suggest no reason for pursuing it, nor any idea of what to do, if anything, about a successful discovery.

A related but different issue pertains to SETI, an acronym for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, “an effort to detect evidence of technological civilizations that may exist elsewhere in the universe.”

Astronomer Frank Drake proposed an equation in 1961 to determine the probability of this, taking into account all relevant factors that would determine it, including the rate of star formation, the fraction of stars that have planets, the number of inhabitable planets per planetary system, the fraction of these planets on which life occurs, the fraction of these in which intelligent life arises, the fraction of these that develop communicative technology, and the average length of time civilizations are detectable.

This last factor, considering our own civilization, now approaching its self-induced collapse, shrinks the probability of finding other similar ones to close to zero, bleakly suggesting that civilization itself is a self-destructive phenomenon in the natural universe. 

November 4 2022

Toxic Masculinity

Thinking about what to write about this morning, an article about this idea in The Conversation (Canada) on this subject seemed appropriate for Halloween and the coming Day of the Dead, and I posted a response, suggesting that mating displays among animals is a natural phenomenon.

“Toxic masculinity” suggests a judgment, not an observation, and rituals occur in all species to promote reproduction, including homo sapiens. How to non-judgmentally distinguish toxic from non-toxic behaviour involving promotion of sexual reproduction is a vexatious cultural issue, and not solely limited to the presence in DNA of X or Y chromosomes.

Scholars Michael Kehler and Gabriel Knott-Fayle of the University of Calgary examine the relationship of sport culture and masculinity in a timely consideration, following a damning federal government inquiry into Hockey Canada and its failures to control sexual aggression among male participants in the sport.

The senior author Kehler responded to my comment, writing “Admittedly, ‘toxic’ masculinity is misused and since being publicly cast about so freely, contributes to misunderstandings about masculinity specifically. In this conversation, the problem is related to how masculinities are delineated on the basis of power and the exertion of power, dominance and entitlement. There is no suggestion that there’s anything natural of (sic) biological about men’s behaviors, attitudes or conduct rather, quite the contrary.”

This immediate and reasonable response from the academic author sounds faintly defensive and is understandable, given that the issue is one of psychology rather than biology. But biology cannot be ignored, for basic science trumps ideas of power, dominance, and entitlement. Observation of behaviour, what is seen to be done, takes precedence over what is felt should be done.

Academic and cultural issues about masculinity aside, near the start of the NHL season, the hapless Vancouver Canucks have now won two games and lost five and appear to be sliding downhill, as usual in their race for the bottom.

October 31, 2022

Hotels, Clubs, and Booze

Many literary discussions in these uncertain times offer reviews of a recent study by Kieron Pim of the alcoholic Central European writer Joseph Roth, a Viennese immigrant from furthest Galicia in the final days of the musty realm of Franz Joseph, the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor.

In his acclaimed biography Endless Flight, we are told “Roth called himself a Hotelpatriot“, feeling himself a stranger in every new establishment until its familiarity compelled him to relocate. An initial sense of agreeable otherness would wear off once the new milieu threatened to feel like a home, a place most of us otherwise might cherish.

Galicia disappeared after the first world war, followed by the Empire itself. A series of hotels provided shelter, but without promise of continuity, and for Roth, writing was liberating. The domesticity of a home he found suffocating, but hotels and their bars provided agreeable venues, and when he ceased feeling like a stranger in one, he always moved on to another.

Decades later after WWII, across the ocean in the southern hemisphere, Buenos Aires sported three members-only clubs in the 1950s with hotel-like accommodation for visitors: the stuffy Club Inglés for Brits, the raucous Club Americano for Yanquis, and the Club de Residentes Extranjeros or “Stranger’s Club” for everyone else. (There were also two similar German clubs, one for those exiles, mainly Jewish, that arrived before 1939, the other for Nazis who fled Europe after the war.)

On my periodic scientific business trips to Buenos Aires as member (and librarian) of the provincial English Club of Córdoba, I was entitled when visiting the Federal Capital to a temporary room in any of them. Being stateless, I always stayed in the comfortable Stranger’s Club, with its comfy lounge chairs, selection of international news magazines, a quiet bar, and low stakes bridge games in the late afternoons with fellow guests.

Years later and by then as a medical specialist, when in the UK I stayed in similar rooms for visiting members of the Royal Society of Medicine premises at #1 Wimpole Street in London. Along with healthy breakfasts, it boasted a well-stocked bar for fellow professors and clinicians to meet and rehash shared professional concerns, politics, and gossip about their colleagues after dinner.

In the USA, my Finnish grandfather, retired banker C.J. Tolonen, spent his final years as a permanent resident in a downtown hotel in Duluth, Minnesota. Like him, also aged and alone, I now reside in a similar private but non-commercial hotel-like establishment in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. It’s not a members-only club like those in old Buenos Aires or the London rooms for visiting docs — my residence here is a quasi-hotel-cum-boarding house for solitary elderly immigrants from a place that no longer exists, a “Stranger’s Club” for those of us who have lived too long, remnants from that temporal rather than geographic locale we call the past.

Like Joseph Roth, I find writing liberating, but am not a dipsomaniac like him. Anyway, unlike the Stranger’s Club in Buenos Aires, the Royal Society of Medicine in London, and the Spalding Hotel in Duluth, this Halfway House where I live has no bar, supplying only milk, fruit juices, water, tea, and coffee, as beverages.

In case of emergency however, an outlet of the Liquor Control Board of British Columbia lies enticingly across the street, displaying a wide variety of wines, beers & spirits, and a craft brewery and distillery is presently under construction next door.

Cheers!

October 29, 2022