Category Archives: Cosmology

On Dying. A Message From Scientific Thinking.

Having spent several years of my life dealing on the frontline of death, it is no shock that the very nature of the end is one that I have often considered. As an atheist, the very idea carries perhaps more weight than for those lucky enough to hold beliefs in a second and eternal life.

But regardless of introspective journies, or indeed the hard moments where I have lost patients and family, there is some universality to the finale.

Beyond the Curtain

To consider the nature of death, one may begin with what we consider life. And although neurobiology may teach us many lessons about the beginnings of what we consider ‘consciousness’, it is clear that there is a difference between the passive actions of molecular machinery and the purposeful meanderings of creatures such as we.



DNA, the very building blocks of species innumerable and immemorable, has no memory beyond its structure, which within itself is only transient and ‘dies’ at the impromptu whim of little force. You would not call it alive in any real sense, any more than the bark of a tree or the ebb of a river. Motion does not mean life, only motion.

The next step up, the interaction between chains of organic molecules guided by chemical gates and gradients, is just as robotic and carries with it no semblance of intelligence. It is us that have defined agency in the evolutionarily derived actions of physics and chemistry. Once again you would not ask a melting lump of sugar how it feels.

So to jump to a creature that we consider alive we must allow for something different, the ability for an organism to not only respond to something outside of itself, (like simple molecules will,) but to manage its response over time.

It is within the structure of a third order neuron system that we begin to see feedback loops that form the basis of sentience, that is the binary form of what, as humans, we owe our special experience to. It is the macrocosmic version of these loops, interacting at incredible speeds, that give us the illusion of what we call ‘mind’

And regardless of our supposed consciousness, which until recently many believed signified some transcendental soul, we can reduce not just our minds, but our entire existence, free will included, to the non-sentient interactions of molecules carved into man-shape.

Considering this, the idea of death becomes one of both greater significance, and lesser all at once.

Before the Gates

So assuming that Science can provide explanations of how we have come to be, think and live, it is fair to demand that it provide an explanation for death. The biological model of death is quite simple; the cessation of an organism in all forms of modality except physical, which itself eventually passes with the sands of entropy. There is no room for a soul, which ceases as the machinery of the body grinds to a halt.

Whatever consciousness, thoughts or soul that once was disappears, a temporary illusion of apparent sentience maintained by the limited capacities of our brains, tempered and reminded of its presence by our nervous systems, intrinsically tied to the physical form in which it carries out it’s life. Simply put, the ‘soul’ is nothing more than a function of the soulless.

But as thinking creatures, who have achieved so much as to fly jets and write poetry, the very concept of death, beyond a question mark or ancient book, eludes us.

To ask what lies beyond, how it may ‘feel’ and what it ‘means’ is a question that Science itself has not answered beyond the retrospective analysis of those who have experienced near-death experiences. And even then, the ‘white light’ and ‘feelings of warmth’ so often attributed to a deity can be explained the death secretions of the brain in the form of DMT and other chemicals. Once again, we have applied agency and purpose to the banal.

To consider the true feeling of ‘non-being’ is simply beyond us. It is like asking what life felt like before you were born. I have no memory of the 13 or so billion years prior to my birth and will have no experience of the trillions after my death.

The experience, unless I am dramatically wrong in my atheism, will be very much the same; beyond comprehension, as there is no mechanism by which we may comprehend it. We are asking a rock to know itself.

As for purpose of life and death, there is likely none beyond which we choose. And if free will is an illusion, which many believe it to be, then the choice itself is mute. The purpose of life is simply existence but without agency or overriding design.

Freidrich Nietzsche may have come the closest in his estimations, in that purpose cannot be known as the universe itself is unknowable, and although science has taught us much about the universe, it has only shown us what and how, not ‘why.’

After the Fall.

To some, the idea of death is one of immense tribulation. I would agree myself, and no wager as simple as Pascal’s, or approach as defensive as agnosticism, changes that. The realisation of the mechanical nature of the human body and the illusory spirit is one that could, if we so let it, steal our significance in both the personal and cosmic sense. Such intellectual discussion means little to the lady dying of cancer, or the old man of kidney failure.

Such arbitrary ruminations are the gift of a far-off death, the distance of time or reality, the time to muse. But upon approaching it, either in hours, days or weeks, the intellectual arguments may provide no solace. In this sense, I very much understand why so much of the world holds on to the safety of heaven, because the reality of randomness and pointless may make life seem unfair.

Why live without purpose, why die at all?

However, even the most logical deductions about the nature of death and it’s purpose can reveal something truly astounding. And that is that if the universe is without agency or purpose, and we are nothing but illusory consciousness formed of asentient molecules, then our lives are incredibly worthwhile.

In the vast cosmos, we have sprung to life, and death is not some great messenger or test of faith, but simply the end of that cycle.

Death is neither bad nor good beyond human morality, but a cessation. The molecules in our bodies will not feel the end, or eulogise the passing of a ribosome. But those we leave behind will greave the loss of kin, another one so unlikely to have experienced life.

For me, as cynical as I am, there is a great beauty around the end of things. It teaches us, perhaps not all at once, that the true value of life is in its living.

We don’t require purpose, just the ability to define it. We don’t need free will, just the illusion of agency. We don’t need an eternal life, just the moments that make us forget about the inanity of it all.

And being a doctor and an atheist, death has taught me this; the end is common, constant and beyond knowledge, but a good life is not. So enjoy every moment, keep writing poems, keep flying jets, keep asking questions and, for as long as you can, breathe.

 

Image courtesy of Flickr.

 

 

 

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Ten Incredible Pearls of Wisdom From Great Minds

ten wisdom dawkins

The world can be a confusing place, but academics, authors, artists, poets and philosophers are just some of the many who have tried to explain things. In my wanderings through scientific texts, popular non-fiction and and documentaries, there have been a few stand out comments.

Whether it be Malcolm Gladwell’s keen insight into human nature, or Carl Sagan’s prophetic view of the world, all have resonated in some way beyond comprehension. They seem intrinsically correct, and universally true.

So here are ten incredible pearls of wisdom from the great minds.

1. On The Origins And Nature Of Human Behaviour

‘Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs.’ – Richard Dawkins, ethologist, evolutionary biologist and popular-science writer.

As the current face of evolutionary theory, Dawkins’ is no stranger to controversy. And although his work has revolutionised our understanding of the natural world, his opinions about how we must overcome our nature have caused the most conversation.

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The nature of life is conservative, selfish and driven by unconscious forces. Dawkins’ understands that to ‘be good’ you must understand our basic urges. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Dawkins’ is very aware how our evolutionary history, and how the selective pressures of the environment and each other, have shaped our behaviour. And in his book ‘The Selfish Gene‘, gives us to pause to consider the true morality of nature.

What is ‘natural’ isn’t inherently ‘moral’, and what we consider ‘moral’ is not inherently survival.  So Dawkins’ asks us to understand our primal natures if we are to best them.

2. On The Power Of Words

‘To acquire immunity to eloquence is of the utmost importance to the citizens of a democracy. ‘ – Bertrand Russell, Philosopher, Logician and Nobel Prize winner.

Although Russell is best known as a philosopher, his life of work reached deeper into the shared mind of society than we realise. By studying and writing on the academic disciplines of logic, mathematics and epistemology (the study of knowledge,) he became a strong advocate for peaceful societal reform.

A man’s words may make beautiful the macabre. Russell relied on logic to unify humanity toward a common good. Image courtesy of Flickr.

And most noteworthy are his observations of how people can be manipulated by words. The use of eloquent language, a flowery vocabulary or poetic arrangement can make the terrible seem empowering.  You need only read the words of Nazi spokesperson Joseph Goebbels to see how language can betray human decency.

We must understand a man’s motivation, and place it in the context of the sociopolitical climate, to truly understand what may be hiding behind the words.

3. On The Risks Of Virtue

‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosopher, Author and culture commentator.

As the central reference to ‘Nihilism‘, Nietzsche examined the purpose of life without purpose. His infamous quote ‘God is dead‘ instilled the idea that the concept and role of any God is limited, and that through pain and suffering we may choose a virtuous path.

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Nietzsche warned us not to become monsters in the pursuit of greatness. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Whilst an avid skeptic of religion in general, his infamous parable ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra‘ presented, in humbling terms, the true insanity of zealotry. He warns us not to lose ourselves in purpose, and to recognise how a belief in achieving ‘the good’ can lead to evil.

And in a world where popular influencers claim a moral authority, his words could not carry greater weight.

4. On The Importance Of Responsibility

‘Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.’ – Jean Paul Satre, Philosopher.

Regarded by many as the father of ‘Existentialism‘, Satre believed that existence precedes essence, and that we must find our own way in a meaningless universe. But in accepting this freedom in action, we cannot ignore our role in what comes next.

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Satre  believed that with action comes responsibility, and with freedom comes the same. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Many existentialists reject the concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour being an inherent natural motivation, and instead suggest that we make our decisions based on complex (although often incorrect,) contextual interpretations.

Not only does this mean we must be aware of our own limits, but take responsibility when they are exposed.

5. On The Stoicism Of Knowledge

The older I get, the more I understand that the only way to say valuable things is to lose your fear of being correct. – Malcolm Gladwell, Author and Journalist.

Famed author of ‘David And Goliath’, ‘Outliers‘ and ‘The Tipping Point‘, Gladwell explores the interconnectedness of humanity with the world around it. In his poignant prose he unravels what may seem miraculous, often challenging widely held beliefs.

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Gladwell has exposed and explained the hidden reasons behind cultural success and individual power. To question convention is as useful as it is risky. Image courtesy of Flickr.

His work tells us not only to dig deeper to explain the world, but that explanations may exist beyond the obvious. He also extols the value of expressing new ideas, fearlessly with no regard for your own ego.

We must challenge convention to find the truth, even if it risks our reputations.

6. On The Insights Given By Friendship

‘You can learn something about a person by the company she keeps.’ – Sam Harris, Philosopher and Neuroscientist.

Although more likely to be a figure of repute for his views on religion, Harris is a distinguished author and surveyor of the interface between neuroscience, morality and the world at large.

A fierce critic of authoritarian dogma, Harris asks us to take responsibility for building our knowledge toward creating a better world.

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Sam Harris is a vocal critic of authoritarian regimes and their numerous abuses. Image courtesy of Flickr.

He also asserts that morality itself exists independently of religious doctrine, and empowers a human approach toward a coalescence of society. And as a neuroscientist, he is all to aware of how our behaviour may make us, or betray our intentions.

So if  you want the measure of a man, consider who they value as friends.

7. On The Illusion Of Simplicity.

‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.’ – Ben Goldacre, Physician and Author.

The namesake of his popular book tells us a lot about Ben Goldacre. An academic and scourge of pseudoscience and ‘folk wisdom’, Ben uses evidence to expose the lies many are sold by the few to the many. He also tells that what is made simple, or appears so, may not be.

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Ben Goldcare makes it his mission to challenge misleading beliefs, expose bad science and explain the misunderstood. Image courtesy of Flickr.

What is claimed to simple may be complex, and what lies between may be inaccurate, underhanded and deliberate.

And with that, we should try to understand the motives behind simplification, and why it is so easy for us to be sold a lie. Amongst his many targets is Homeopathy and the risks involved in being misled.

8. On the Arrogance Of The Human Mind.

‘See that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man.’ – Richard Feynman, Theoretical Physicist, Nobel Prize winner and  Science Communicator.

Whilst it may seem odd that a theoretical physicist is so humble about uncertainty, Feynman shows us just how wonderful the universe is.

Although a pioneer in our understanding of the nature of our reality, he recognises that there is simply more we don’t know.

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Feynman studied and revealed some of the most hidden secrets of our universe, but in doing so realised that was is unknown is our greatest teacher. Image courtesy of Flickr.

The intricacies of our reality, currently hazy between the infinitesimally small and unimaginably large, appear to us through rigorous questioning and often teach us that our presuppositions are not just wrong,  revealing a drastic flaw in human understanding.

We claim to be intelligent, and yet this intelligence often blinds us to our own folly. We must revel in the wonder of whats left to wonder about, and not be afraid to look stupid doing so.

9. On The Value Of Choice And Humility

‘I was never born to write. I was taught to write. And I am still being taught to write.’ – Atul Gawande, Surgeon, Research and Author.

If you are a doctor, you no doubt are aware of Gawande. Whilst a strong advocate of evidence and comprehensive approaches, Gawande has also ventured into a philosophical musing of the human condition.

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As a surgeon, Gawande not only saves lives, but has taken it upon himself to understand what the true value of life is. Image courtesy of Flickr.

In his best-selling book, ‘Being Mortal’, Gawande examines the true value of human life, and what we lose and gain as we age. And true to his nature, he treats himself with a level of skepticism coherent with his humble world view.

We are born with a choice in a difficult world, expertise is only a measure of dedication tempered by self criticism, and arrogance undermines greatness.

10. On The Size Of Our Influence

‘The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.’ – Carl Sagan,  Astronomer, Astrophycist and Pulitzer Prize winner.

To reduce the works of Sagan to one sentence would vastly sell him short. Not only did he lead the way in popularising science, but housed a mind so in tune with the human condition that his loss is truly universal.

Having inspired legions of scientists, including protege Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sagan’s holistic approach to science and its delicate implications toward society rings as true today as it did years ago.

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Carl Sagan was not just a pioneer of knowledge, but arguably one of humanity’s greatest teachers. Image courtesy of Flickr.

He was exceptionally kind, humble and patient, expressing the very tenets he postulated as a universal ideal.

Sagan reminds us that the true beauty of the universe is not just in its nature, or its creation, but in our pursuit of explanation and the inherent ability to use this knowledge to better ourselves and future generations.

And that perspective matters, for the universe is much greater than such complex molecular machines as we. We are so very small, but in that there is much to be learned, gained and valued.

So Much Left To Learn

Ten quotes simply isn’t enough to even scratch the surface of the grand insights accumulated in the wealth of human knowledge, or beyond it. And with each quote, you may have taken your own interpretation of meaning and purpose.

Perhaps you disagree with some, or worry that they are incongruent with each other. But I am willing to contend the opposite, that each shares a unity in placing the pursuit of knowledge through humility, truth and beneficence as a true virtue.

So what are your favourite quotes? What and who has changed your life? Let us know in the comments. And if you believe, like I do, that knowledge is best shared, then help us by sharing this article with your friends and family.

What’s Next?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

Note from the Author: Upon writing this article I became very aware of just how much I don’t know, and how much I can learn. I feel it only right to follow up on this article with more information about the works and lessons of the persons featured. There are many greats not featured on this list, but don’t worry, I will find ways to include them. I do not value my opinion of what is great  above any others, I only wish to signpost what is already there.

‘Did Mars Once Hold Life?’ Discovery Of Organic Molecules May Hold Vital Clues.

An exciting discovery by NASA’s Curiosity rover has strengthened the idea that Mars may have once been suitable for life. The chance finding of organic material in an ancient lake bed suggests Mars once held the foodstuffs necessary for life.

Although not conclusive, these findings add to the growing evidence for previous life on Mars, with seasonal methane and liquid water providing cause for excitement.  Mars is inhospitable for now, but may not have always been.

And with that, the tantalising hope that life may exist beyond earth.

mars life organic rover

Mars is considered a cold, dead world. But did life once flourish? Image courtesy of Flickr.

Curiosity’s Discovery Of Organic Molecules

The discovery of these ‘organic molecules’ asks many questions. We cannot tell exactly where they came from, perhaps remnants of long dead organisms, something crash landed from space or indeed simply ancient foodstuffs.

But what we can say is that these molecules, formed of carbon, oxygen and other elements fundamental to life as we know it, could very much  suggest something significant.  Whilst it is important to note that these structures can be created without life, life can’t exist without them.

“With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life. ” – Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Science Directorate.

life organic simple mars

Life is a complex array of molecules and processes. But at its core, the foundational elements may coalesce with relative ease. Image courtesy of Flickr.

 

Food For Thought

Although direct evidence of life on Mar’s is yet to be discovered, if at all, these new findings tell us that the environment may have supported it. Biological creatures like we subsist  on organic compounds for energy, and this is consistent down the food chain.

There is little reason to thing extra-terrestrial life would be that different. In fact, many believe that the ingredients for simple life are abundant enough that finding alien organisms is almost a certainty. And the chances are that, on a fundamental level at least, we will all be built of the same stuff.

And with that, makes a strong case for a similar ecological energy source. Jennifer Eigenbrode, NASA biogeochemist says of the finding;

“It is not telling us that life was there, but it is saying that everything organisms really needed to live in that kind of environment, all of that was there.”

earth life mars organic

All life as we know it evolved from the same ingredients. And these ingredients grow universally. Image courtesy of Flickr.

A New Direction In Ancient Footsteps

Although direct evidence of extra-terrestrial life eludes us, the chances are good. Although the paucity of interstellar craft and signals presents some concerning questions, it may be that life is abundant between the stars.

And you have  to look no further than your own back yard to find out why. It is likely made of common stuff.

Whilst we imagine aliens as, well, very alien, very basic life may be a natural inevitability. Current theories of the origins of life on earth centre around the unconscious replication of favourable molecules, building more complex structures over time.

Eventually, these would become us and everything else that breathes, grows and dies. And the more we learn, the more beautiful and interconnected it all becomes.

life organic mars

The size of our universe is beyond comprehension. But can we really say that it is ours? Image courtesy of Flickr.

Given the vast numbers at hand, i.e trillions of stars, innumerable planets and billions of years, chances are that Curiosity’s discovery may be just the first of a truly cosmic collection.

So what do you think, is there life out there? What does it mean for us? Let us know in the comments below.

What’s Next?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

 

 

 

Colliding Stars May Create Black Holes. Something Weird Is Happening In The Cosmos.

Colliding black hole neutron star

A new report in The Astrophysical Journal claims that two stars may have just collided to create a black hole. If this is true, it may radically alter our understanding of how these super structures are formed. The alternative is potentially just as crazy sounding, that two neutron stars can fuse.  Either way, something very large and exciting has happened in deep space.

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A black hole traps any light within its gravitational pull. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Colliding Stars In The Deep

In an event widely discussed in the Astronomy community, August 2017 saw two distant neutron stars collide.  As well as providing detailed information about how elements may be formed and even further proof of gravitational waves, little could have prepared us for what came next.  We were left to wonder, what became of the cosmic dance partners?

 

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Neutron stars can collide, but new data has revealed their fusion may create something dark. Image courtesy of Flickr.

In his report, Astrophysicist David Pooley asserts that the two colliding stars may have created a black hole.  The research examined the nature of electromagnetic waves emitted from the site. If the two stars had combined to form a larger one, what we understand of physics would dictate a high emission of such waves.

But actually, we have detected very little. An observation convincingly explained not by a ‘Super Star’, but a black hole.

Black Holes Born

Conventional theories surrounding the birth of a black hole suggest a gradual accumulation of matter under gravity. As the mass increases, it draws in more material and increases its gravitational strength.

At a certain point, the gravity is enough to prevent light itself from escaping.

So when you look for a black hole, you look for a hole in space. Where the light should be and is not, chances are a black hole exists. Usually these result from a supernova, where the mass of a star becomes incredibly small under its own gravitational weight.

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Supernovae occur when larger stars explode. Although a sad end, it makes for a beautiful send off. Image courtesy of Flickr.

This new report expands on the circumstances in which such phenomena may develop. It may very much be that black holes are not just the result of a star dying, but a dark creation forged between two.

Research is ongoing, and we may have to wait a little while before the finding is proved beyond complete doubt. But in the mean time, we may have a new view of the darkness in the night sky.

So what do you think is really happening? And if black holes can form this way, what does it tell us about the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy?

What’s Next?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Images courtesy of Flickr.

 

Top 5 Incredible Discoveries In Space

pillars of creation top5 universe

The Universe is really, really big. And there is a lot out there. Whether you have an interest in astronomy or not, the very wonder of the Universe is, well, universal. From Interstellar’s black hole to the curious ‘Pillars Of Creation‘, there is no denying that space holds a certain beauty. And under that aesthetic, the very laws of physics not only explain the beauty, but add to it. So today, I am taking on you a whistle-stop tour through our Universe, showing you what I feel is the best of the best. So as Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says; ‘Come with me.’

Number 1: Cassiopeia A

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Cassiopeia A. Image courtesy of Robert Sullivan

Cassiopeia A is what remains of a ‘supernova’ (an exploding star.) And its actually not that far away, at least in Universal terms. Situated about 11,000 lightyears away in our Milky Way. Not only is it an incredible sight, but also the strongest source of radio emissions beyond our solar system. These emissions are some of the many we receive every day, and others like them provide an  exciting avenue for detecting alien life.

Number 2: M101, The Pinwheel Galaxy

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The Pinwheel Galaxy. Image courtesy of Rob Sullivan.

The Pinwheel Galaxy is a spiral galaxy located in the Ursa Major constellation (the Big Bear.) At around 170,000 lightyears in diameter, it dwarfs our own Milky Way. And houses around 1 trillion stars. But unlike lots of galaxies, it seems to lack a central ‘supermassive black hole‘ at it’s centre. It’s mesmerising shape is a result of its rotation and gravity, as well as the influence of the gravity of other nearby Galaxies.

Number 3: The Pillars Of Creation

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The Pillars of Creation. Image courtesy of Jack Jacowski

No list of Universal art would be complete without The Pillars of Creation. Found in the Eagle Nebula are part of a ”stellar nursery”, a huge expanse of material from which new stars are born. Our own sun was forged deep in the heart of a such a nursery. But the Pillars give us a glimpse back in time. The myriad colours represent elements present in space, such as red for sulphur  and green for hydrogen. But, like any nursery, they won’t be around forever. Eventually, cosmic winds will simply blow them apart.

Number 4: The V838 Monocerotis Halo

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The Monocerotis Halo. Image courtesy of Maddox63.

This image captures the odd expansion and ‘echo’ of Monocerotis. The ‘halo’ itself is an artefact created by reflections of interstellar dust. The red focus is caused by the giant star itself.  During the event the star became 60,000 times more luminous than our sun. NASA followed by the phenomenon over January 2002, recording the expansion of the halo and sudden dimming of the star itself.

Number 5: Hercules A

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Hercules A. Image courtesy of Hubble Heritage

This interesting phenomenon shows two high energy plasma jets ejected by a supermassive black hole. These jets are usually a result of the high gravitational energy of a black hole, and the ring like structures outside the jets suggest that these are not the first. Hercules A is around 2.1 billion light years away. Not only do these jets provide a fascinating sight, but also tell us new things about radio waves emitted in deep space.

So thats it, a short jaunt through the Universe. But there is much more out there, so why not find your favourite and let us know? And as always, if you liked it, share it!

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr. Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates.If you liked this article and want to see more, check out Ben’s work with PORP.

 

 

 

 

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