Is Religion Important?

Neiman:  Religion is important and it isn’t important. I think we’ve been misled by the idea that the central cultural divide is between religious and secular people. I think once again the divide is between people who are committed to using reason and people who are not and all three Western religion- religious traditions have one line which says, “God gave us the faculty of reason and he meant us to use it.”  You have that in all three religious traditions and you similarly of course have a fundamentalist tradition in all three religions which says, “No, no. Whatever the word of God is is the word that we have to take. God tells us directly what to do and we have to follow.”  I start the book off with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is a story that everybody thinks they know. The Sodomites sinned and God destroyed them. The question is what the sin was. People are sure that it’s fornication or at least homosexuality and people can get outraged about this and the fundamentalist right of course will use it for that reason. As a matter of fact, the Sodomites’ sins were much more complicated than that. It wasn’t fornication and it wasn’t homosexuality. It was gang raping someone to death, which is pretty much beyond the pale on anybody’s list, and according to the legends actually the Sodomites turned morality upside down. It was prescribed by law that if a stranger came in to the gates they should be gang raped to death. It’s pretty bad stuff, okay, and one could go on about that, but what’s most important about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is what happens right before it. God tells Abraham that he’s about to destroy the cities and Abraham speaks up and says, “Wait a sec. What if there are 50 righteous men inside the cities?  Surely the God of justice is not going to destroy the just and the unjust alike,” and God says, “Well, actually--  Okay. If there are 50 men I’ll save the city,” and then Abraham says, “Well, what about 45?  Certainly, you’re not going to be pedantic about this.”  It’s an extraordinary passage because it shows three things. One is universalism. Abraham doesn’t know the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is not his tribe. This is not his kin. These are just innocent people everywhere that he’s willing to take a stand for and he’s willing to stand up to God who can after all blast him in an instant. The other thing that I find important about this story is what it shows about moral clarity, which is that it’s not a matter of general principles. It’s a matter of fine distinctions and gradations and looking at particular cases, and what it shows in the end is that even if you have a direct line to God, which Abraham did, that’s not where you get your sense of ethics from. You get your sense of ethics from human reason. There is one take on the story by the way which says that Abraham wasn’t giving God lessons in ethics, God was testing Abraham, but that’s fine either way. Abraham passed the test by showing that if God proposed to do something unjust he was able to stand up to God, and I think that’s the kind of thing that shows even if you accept a religious framework you have to accept that reason, reasoning about morality in particular, plays a role.

Susan Neiman on how the Bible applies human reason to solve moral questions.

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Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
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The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

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One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


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Image: NASA
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"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

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The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

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