People of Light and Darkness

The big news this week is that the Large Hadron Collider, the massive particle accelerator at the European physics lab CERN, has apparently discovered the elusive and long-sought subatomic particle called the Higgs boson, which explains why other particles have mass. The hunt for the Higgs has consumed decades of effort by physicists all over the world, and its discovery fills in one of the last missing pieces of the wildly successful theoretical framework called the Standard Model. Naturally, scientists worldwide are exulting:

Here at the Aspen Center for Physics, a retreat for scientists that will celebrate its 50th birthday on Saturday, the sounds of cheers and popping corks reverberated early Wednesday against the Sawatch Range through the Roaring Fork Valley of the Rockies, as bleary-eyed physicists watched their colleagues read off the results in a webcast from CERN. It was a scene duplicated in Melbourne, Australia, where physicists had gathered for a major conference, as well as in Los Angeles, Chicago, Princeton, New York, London and beyond — everywhere that members of a curious species have dedicated their lives and fortunes to the search for their origins in a dark universe.

...At CERN itself, 1,000 people stood in line all night to get into the auditorium, according to Guido Tonelli, a CERN physicist who said the atmosphere was like a rock concert.

When I look at the massive amounts of human effort and ingenuity invested in finding the Higgs - the enormous and beautiful detectors of the LHC - I'm reminded of the medieval cathedrals that took lifetimes to build, save that the modern cathedrals of science are devoted to advancing the frontiers of humanity's understanding. This discovery is a moment that people all around the world can and should take pride in. It's what human beings at our best are capable of.

But meanwhile, while all this was happening, a hard-line Islamist insurgency in the nation of Mali was busying itself smashing centuries-old Sufi mausoleums at a World Heritage site in the city of Timbuktu, an appalling act of cultural vandalism that recalls the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan:

"We are subject to religion and not to international opinion," said an Ansar Dine spokesman, Oumar Ould Hamaha. "Building on graves is contrary to Islam."

Sometimes, I find it hard to believe that impulses so noble and so debased could come from the same species. On the one hand, we're willing to devote billions of dollars and countless hours of intellectual labor in a selfless quest for knowledge, for the pure joy of understanding the cosmos we live in. On the other hand, we have among us minds straight from the dark ages, murderous crusaders for dogma and ignorance who'd happily burn the world down if it meant never having to be exposed to any new or different idea.

The contrast between the two could drive any rational person to despair. While our hands are around each other's throats - while we squabble over a patch of ground, or how to interpret the words of a long-dead and ignorant ancestor - there's a universe of wonders awaiting us, if only we would look up and see it. Instead, we tear each other down in pointless mutual destruction, squandering our lives and resources to no benefit, when we could be cooperating and pooling our efforts to discover the even greater things that have yet to be found.

Naive as I know it to be, I can't help wondering why anyone is still religious. In an era when we're probing the deepest mysteries of space and time, how can it be that the clergy are still standing behind their dusty pulpits, reciting the laughably primitive dogmas of ancient ages, believing that everything worth knowing was pronounced by seers from many centuries ago? By now, they should have thrown off their vestments in shame and given up their doctrines as utterly inadequate. The churches, mosques and temples should have been made into museums where people can gaze in incredulity at the darkness of our past.

But instead, religion is as strong and dangerous as ever. Granted, there are many nominally religious people who are humanists in all but name: people who practice an enlightened and rational morality, who don't interpret the fairytales of scripture as literal truth, people whose notion of God is sufficiently amorphous to accommodate any scientific discovery. But there are at least as many people who proudly uphold the banner of ignorance; people whose god is small and ignorant, and who want to keep him that way; people who persecute to the limit of their power to do so, and who'd gladly use force and flame to rid the world of every dissenting viewpoint or crumb of knowledge. It's no one religion or church that's responsible for this, but a malignant seed of anti-intellectualism that's at the heart of every belief system which exalts faith over reason.

I want to believe, and still do believe, that this conflict can be settled peacefully. I hope that as science and reason extend their reach, as our greater understanding improves human life beyond every past imagining, that the attraction of superstition will fade and the belligerent faithful will lay down their arms and join us. But I can't help fearing that there will instead be a last backlash, a last spasm of annihilatory rage against the coming world, as the conflict between intellectual light and intellectual darkness culminates in a final confrontation. I hope that trial never comes... but if it ever does, I hope even more that we're ready to face it.

Image: The ATLAS detector of the Large Hadron Collider, via; ATLAS Experiment © 2014 CERN

Daylight Atheism: The Book is now available! Click here for reviews and ordering information.

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we mine on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.

Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

How humans evolved to live in the cold

Humans evolved to live in the cold through a number of environmental and genetic factors.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Surprising Science
  • According to some relatively new research, many of our early human cousins preceded Homo sapien migrations north by hundreds of thousands or even millions of years.
  • Cross-breeding with other ancient hominids gave some subsets of human population the genes to contend and thrive in colder and harsher climates.
  • Behavioral and dietary changes also helped humans adapt to cold climates.
Keep reading Show less

Study: The effects of online trolling on authors, publications

A study started out trying to see the effect of sexist attacks on women authors, but it found something deeper.

Surprising Science
  • It's well known that abusive comments online happen to women more than men
  • Such comments caused a "significant effect for the abusive comment on author credibility and intention to seek news from the author and outlet in the future"
  • Some news organizations already heavily moderate or even ban comments entirely; this should underscore that effort
Keep reading Show less