Friday, February 1, 2002 to  Friday, February 8, 2002
S a t u r d a y ,  F e b r u a r y  9,  2 0 0 2
T h u r s d a y ,  F e b r u a r y  1 4,  2 0 0 2
Friday, February 15, 2002 to Monday, February 18, 2002

America's Military Power
Saturday, February 9, 2002

Excerpts from article describing the unique nature of U.S. military power and the plans to expand its scope in reaction to the 9-11-01 attack on America ...

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Arms makers flourish in a world changed forever

America's military power is quite awe-inspiring

When George Bush pledged that "whatever it takes, whatever it costs" America would win "the first war of the 21st century", he meant it.

The mammoth military budget the President proposed his week - a $US48billion ... or 12per cent boost after inflation - was in the context of a budget of nips and tucks, shaving money from highway building and food for the poor, and putting off dealing with old problems such as the lack of universal health coverage.

This was a war budget, a "guns before butter" budget, and not just for 2003. Military spending would increase steadily until it hit $US451billion in 2007. The numbers are huge, but it is the comparisons that stagger.

The world's only superpower, unchallenged since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, now accounts for about 40per cent of the world's total military spending, up from about 36per cent a few years ago.

Just the proposed increase is more than the total military spending of countries such as Britain, France and Italy. As for Mr Bush's designated "axis of evil" states - Iran, Iraq and North Korea - the increase alone is more than four times their combined budgets.

The first response is simple awe that one nation so bestrides the globe. Paul Kennedy, history professor at Yale University and author of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, wrote in the London Financial Times this week that he had scrutinised the British and Roman empires and found that, historically, there had never been a military giant to compare with the United States.

The British Empire was run "on the cheap"; Rome was huge, but it had a rival in Persia. "Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing," Professor Kennedy said.

That the United States, with such superiority, would seek to boost funding to Cold War levels - the proposed increase is the largest since Ronald Reagan began his build-up against the Soviet Union 21 years ago - is a signal, first, that the White House sees the struggle against terrorism as potentially as long and tension-filled as the Cold War.

Judging from the confused and angry reactions of many European nations to Mr Bush's "axis of evil" speech, it has not yet sunk in that the United States sees the world utterly differently since September11.

... America's faith that its military might would deter any attack was shattered on September11, and it is now preparing not just to retaliate against a missile attack, or against biological or chemical terrorism, but to launch a pre-emptive strike if necessary, possibly against Iraq.

A decade after the Cold War ended, America's military reach is expanding into Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. According to the Washington Post, Mr Bush has granted the CIA authority to undertake covert and lethal action in 80 countries to root out the al-Qaeda network, the broadest powers in the spy agency's history. ...

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Empire State Building Vacancies
Saturday, February 9, 2002

Complete article detailing some of the extent of the reaction to the 9-11-01 attack on America in New York City:

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Vacancy signs tell tale of fear

Vacancies have soared in the Empire State building and other landmarks in Manhattan since September 11.

With businesses fearful of more terrorist attacks on high-profile targets, the Empire State was reported this week to be 15 per cent empty, with 91,400 square metres of office space without tenants.

Available space in the 102-storey skyscraper, which after the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers again became the city's tallest building, has tripled since September 11, according to Crain's New York Business magazine.

Many tenants are leaving or seeking to sublet. "There's the feeling that the second shoe is going to drop," an estate agent, Elizabeth Martin, said. "Tenants there really fear something else will happen, and they will be next."

The company which manages the building, Helmsley-Spear Inc, has introduced tightened security in an effort to win back confidence. Nonetheless, several businesses with offices in the building say employees have resigned and clients are too frightened to attend meetings there.

The Telegraph, London

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A Recycled Universe
Monday, February 11, 2002

Excerpts from an article which might lead one to contemplate all that is from a perspective far removed from traditional religions (well, far removed from traditional religions of the monotheistic god, though quite at home with many of the cyclic ideas prevalent in eastern religions like hinduism / buddhism / taoism / confuscianism ...) and quite apart from the notion that the big bang was "the" one and only big bang ...

Quite a mental exercise required here, as contemplating the physical nature of reality requires an almost infinitely greater amount of mental effort than does the cop out from ancient myth (and the childhood of most in non-eastern cultures) known as "god (or allah or the sky daddy) did it" ...

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Universal cycle of birth and rebirth - Big
bangs result when two 10-dimensional
"branes" collide (1) and expand (2) and
then collide again (4). In this scenario,
our universe (3) marks just one phase
in this infinite cycle.

... A universal cycle of birth and rebirth occurs every trillion years or so, according to one new cosmology.

... The big bang clearly marks some kind of first. That fearsome flash of energy and expansion of space set in motion everything our eyes and telescopes can see today.

But on its own, the big bang theory would leave us in a curved universe where matter and energy aren't well mixed.

In fact, we now know that spacetime is flat and that galaxies and radiation are evenly distributed throughout.

To shore up the big bang theory, cosmologists proposed that the universe began with a burst of exponential expansion from a single uniform patch of space, whose stamp remains on the cosmos to this day.

Such inflationary cosmologies have worked so well they've crowded out all the competition.

During this past year, however, one group of researchers has started to challenge that idea's preeminence, though the field of cosmology has yet to be completely taken with the new approach.

Drawing on some cutting-edge but unproved notions in particle physics, the challengers interpret the big bang as a violent clash between higher-dimensional objects.

In the latest installment to the saga, the authors of this interpretation have found a way to turn that single clash into a never-ending struggle that rears its fiery head every trillion years or so, making our universe just one phase in an infinite cycle of birth and rebirth.

... String theory has spawned more than one attempt to do away with the big bang singularity.

... strings could also exist in a more fundamental, 11-dimensional theory.

They collapsed one of these dimensions mathematically into a minuscule line, yielding an 11-dimensional spacetime, flanked on either side by two 10-dimensional membranes, or branes, colorfully dubbed "end of the world" branes.

One brane would have physical laws like our own universe. From there, ... six of those 10 dimensions could be made extremely small, effectively hiding them from everyday view and leaving the traditional four dimensions of space and time.

... By turning back the clock in string theory, they found that as our universal brane passed through its starting singularity in reverse, it went suddenly from a state of intense but finite heat and density to one that was cold, flat and mostly empty.

In the process, it shed another kind of brane into the 11-dimensional gap. Run forward in time, the big bang appeared as nothing more than two branes smacking into each other like cymbals.

They christened this process the ekpyrotic model, after the ancient Greek "conflagration" cosmology wherein the universe is born in and evolves from a fiery explosion.

... the singularity could be interpreted as a collision between the two "end of the world" branes, in which only the gap dimension separating them shrinks down to zero for an instant.

... The pre-bang universe had to be dark, flat and infinite, seemingly by fiat. But why should it have begun in such a state?

The answer, according to the latest work from Steinhardt and Turok, has to do with dark energy, the force that is driving the galaxies apart at ever-increasing speeds.

Drained Branes - As the universe accelerates, it will become harder for light to travel between distant corners of space.

Over time, galaxies will become isolated from their neighbors; stars will wink out; black holes will evaporate quantum mechanically into radiation; even that radiation will be diluted in a sea of space.

The universe could end up much as the ekpyrotic model suggests it should appear before the big bang.

... the dark energy, combined with the milder singularity of the ekpyrotic model, provides a tidy way of setting up a cyclic universe.

Our brane and its counterpart would bounce off each other as usual, but instead of going their separate ways, they would smack each other again and again as if connected by a spring.

This attractive force between branes would in fact be a special case of the kind of force that inflationary cosmologies posit to explain the early universe's blowup.

The branes' oscillating motion would work to pump space into our universe like a bellows, explaining the acceleration that we see today.

The model is intriguing in drawing the ultimate link between early inflation and the current acceleration of the universe, Albrecht remarks, but "the case would be a lot more compelling if they were able to really show that a cyclic universe is possible."

Guth is also unmoved. He explains that although he awaits the day when cosmology merges with string theory, he expects inflation to be that cosmology. ...

In general, not all physicists are convinced that colliding branes can generate the small fluctuations in matter and energy density that inflation neatly resolves.

Such minute variations in these quantities are required to explain the way in which stars and galaxies clump together and the detailed properties of the cosmic microwave background radiation.

In the ekpyrotic model, the necessary fluctuations are supposed to arise as the branes ripple quantum mechanically, so that different areas would strike one another and take off expanding first.

The ekpyrotic camp is convinced these ripples can generate the exact variations we see today.

"I think it's surprising how well this model works in terms of reproducing everything we see and yet being so different," Steinhardt remarks. "That's quite shocking and, I think, important, because we thought we were converging toward something that was a unique cosmic story."

But the singularity remains as another hurdle.

Despite the recent advance, no one is certain whether features such as brane ripples could actually pass unmolested from big crunch to bang.

"What happens at the singularity?" Seiberg ponders. "This is a big open question." So although the singularity in string theory may be, as Turok says, the "mildest possible" one, it is still a wild card.

The dealing isn't done, however, making it too soon to say if colliding branes will hold or fold. Perhaps it will attract new players with even more imaginative ideas.

"I happen to think the cyclic model is a real intriguing one," Steinhardt says. "It has a lot of new ingredients that people haven't had a chance to play with. When they play they might find other interesting things that we missed." Or not.

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  • Scientific American [link inactive]
The Why of Sex
Wednesday, February 13, 2002

Excerpts from article describing theories regarding the success of reproduction via sexual means:

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Birds do it, bees do it -- even fruit
flies do it. Scientists are studying fruit
flies to see precisely how sexual
reproduction benefits the species

How mixing genes keeps species sound

... it’s so widespread among plants and animals that there must be some payoff. After more than a half-century of debate and 20 published theories, scientists are still trying to pin down just what the payoff is.

... It is easy to forget that sex is not the only game in town for the plant and animal kingdoms. In fact, there are thousands of asexual species now.

... It’s inefficient and genetically unpredictable. So what’s the appeal of sex, biologically speaking? Most of the world’s species reproduce sexually, but some carry out nature’s orders without a mate.

... it is rare for an asexual species to persist a very long time in evolutionary terms, suggesting again there’s something beneficial about sex.

Yet, at first blush, it makes some sense to have self-reproducing females and just dispense with males altogether, even before you consider things like singles bars.

After all, if your job is to pass on your genes to future generations — and according to evolutionary biology, that is your job — sex just gets in the way.

Consider the notion of two mating sexes. Each female passes only half her genes to each offspring, rather than all of them. And about half her brood on average ends up without a womb, which chops the next generation’s productive capacity in half.

What’s more, sex breaks up the successful gene combinations found in the parents and gambles on new, untried mixes in the next generation. Does that make any sense?

Maybe so. It’s pretty clear, scientists say, that the evolutionary lure of sex has something to do with that gene-mixing. While clones merely pass along their genetic endowment in a chunk, sexual species shuffle the deck.

To understand that, remember that the genetic makeup of an organism is somewhat like a baseball team. Everybody has a full team, with all the positions covered, but who plays at each spot differs. And there are good players and bad players in the same way there are good genes and bad genes.

Clones essentially pass their own rosters on to their offspring, while sexual species create new rosters.

... Why tinker with a successful genetic lineup?

Currently, most scientists offer two general theories about why sex is so good: It helps a species get rid of harmful mutated genes, or, alternatively, it helps the population take advantage of beneficial mutations. Call it bad genes vs. good genes.

Of course, the explanation could be some combination of those two ideas, although scientists suspect one or the other is probably the major factor.

The bad-gene idea says sex can make the faulty genes sitting ducks for elimination by natural selection, by separating them from good genes as they pass through generations.

It can group bad genes together so they get wiped out in batches when the unfortunate recipients don’t reproduce. Sex can also break up harmful combinations of genes, even when each by itself isn’t so bad.

The alternative view says sex can help good genes spread through a species or bring favorable combinations together, speeding up evolution and helping species adapt more quickly to changing environments. One version says sex helps defend populations against evolving parasites and germs, for example.

... it appears humans naturally produce harmful mutations so often that we’d go extinct if we didn’t use sex to get rid of them. But it’s not clear how often that situation occurs in other animals, and therefore how widely the bad-mutations theory of sex can be applied.

... Most evolutionary biologists probably favor theories about promoting the spread of good genes rather than those focusing on eliminating harmful mutations. ...

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Unintelligible Redesign
Wednesday, February 13, 2002

Excerpts from article which iterates the reasoning behind the outright dismissal of the latest religious arguments for god (intelligent design) ...

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This is the way creationism ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

According to scientists, teachers, and civil libertarians, the Taliban has invaded Ohio. Creationists have devised a theory called "Intelligent Design" (ID) and are trying to get Ohio's Board of Education to make sure it's taught alongside Darwinism.

Unlike creationism, ID accepts that the Earth is billions of years old and that species evolve through natural selection. It posits that life has been designed but doesn't specify by whom.

Liberals call ID a menace that will sneak religion into public schools. They're exactly wrong. ID is a big nothing. It's non-living, non-breathing proof that religion has surrendered its war against science.

Creationism used to be assertive and powerful. Darwinism wasn't allowed in schools. As Darwin gained the upper hand, conservatives fought to preserve creationism alongside evolution. They lost the war on both fronts.

Courts struck down the teaching of creationism on the grounds that it mixed church and state. Meanwhile, scientific evidence discredited the belief that the Earth was created in six days and was only 6,000 years old.

Like the Taliban, creationists were washed up. Their only hope was to flee to the mountains, shave their beards, change their clothes, and come back as something else.

What they've come back as is the Intelligent Design movement.

... Creationists haven't repainted their Edsel. They've taken out the engine and the transmission.

Without distinctive, measurable claims such as the six-day creation, the 6,000-year-old Earth, and other literal interpretations of the Bible, creationism no longer materially contradicts evolution.

The reason not to teach intelligent design isn't that it's full of lies or dogma. The reason is that it's empty.

... A theory isn't just a bunch of criticisms, even if they're valid. A theory ties things together. It explains and predicts. Intelligent design does neither. It doesn't explain why part of our history seems intelligently designed and part of it doesn't.

Why are our feet and our back muscles poorly designed for walking? Why are we afflicted by lethal viruses? Why have so many females died in childbirth?

ID doesn't explain these things. It just shrugs at them.

"Design theory seeks to show, based on scientific evidence, that some features of living things may be designed by a mind or some form of intelligence," says one ID proponent. Some? May? Some? What kind of theory is that?

... Intelligent design, as defined by its advocates, means nothing. This is the way creationism ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

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Down with Evolution!
Scientific American 0302 Issue

Excerpts from article describing the efforts of creationists to water down educational standards in the U.S.:

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Since 1920 creationists have been successful in persuading legislatures in five Southern states to pass laws favorable to their views, but the courts consistently struck them down, saying that they violated the establishment clause of the Constitution.

In the 1990s creationists began focusing instead on changing state educational standards.

The most famous attempt to do so in recent years--the decision of the Kansas Board of Education to eliminate evolution from the state's science standards--was not a success: the decision was reversed in 2001 when antievolution board members were defeated for reelection.

... In the absence of a majority favoring strict standards for evolution teaching, it is easy to see why creationists have been able to make headway even outside the circle of evangelical Christianity.

In 1996 Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the Catholic Church's commitment to evolution, first stated in 1950, saying that his inspiration for doing so came from the Bible.

Despite this, 40 percent of American Catholics in a 2001 Gallup poll said they believed that God created human life in the past 10,000 years.

Indeed, fully 45 percent of all Americans subscribe to this creationist view.

Many who are indifferent to conservative theology give creationism some support, perhaps because, as mathematician Norman Levitt of Rutgers University suggests, the subject of evolution provokes anxiety about the nature of human existence, an anxiety that antievolutionists use to promote creationist ideas.

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  • Scientific American [link inactive]

Fossil Strengthens Dinosaur-Bird Link
Thursday, February 14, 2002

Excerpts from article detailing the latest fossil evidence regarding the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds:

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Two-legged predator shows similarities to oldest-known bird

A 130 million-year-old newly discovered fossil of a small meat-eating dinosaur found in China provides further evidence of the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds, scientists say.

... The new dinosaur, called Sinovenator changii, was probably feathered and is almost the same age as the oldest-known bird, Archaeopteryx.

.. Sinovenator was a two-legged predator like the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex, but it was the size of a large chicken with a skeleton less than 3 feet (1 meter) long.

It had a birdlike shoulder joint, a wishbone and a pelvic bone that pointed backward, similar to modern birds, and was found in the fossil beds in northeastern China’s Liaoning Province, an area that has yielded other important fossils.

Paleontologists have been strongly divided over whether birds evolved from dinosaurs. But Makovicky, who co-wrote the Nature report with colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said the dinosaur fossil should resolve the issue.

“These findings help counter, once and for all, the position of paleontologists who argue that birds did not evolve from dinosaurs,” he said.

... Scientists weren’t sure exactly where troodontids were placed in the evolutionary tree because they had features that are present in birds and others found in different dinosaur groups.

Sinovenator will help eliminate some of the confusion, said Makovicky, adding that the fossil also cuts the time gap between the appearance of birds and dinosaurs that are closely related to them.

... Theropod dinosaurs, two legged predators such as Sinovenator, and birds have more than 100 similar anatomical features including a wishbone, swivelling wrists and three forward pointing toes.

“Our study suggests that dromaeosaurs (swift-running theropods) and troodontids are each others’ closest relatives and that those two groups share a close common ancestor with birds,” said Makovicky.

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