Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Lewis Darnell: "Life in the Universe": primitive bacteria may be common, advanced life not

Author:  Lewis Darnell

Title: “Life in the Universe

Publication: London: Oxford University Press, 2007/2009, 202 pages, paper, ISBN 978-1-85168-505-9, Introduction, 8 chapters, conclusion.  From “Beginners ‘ Guides” series

Amazon link

This book, by a British physicist,  really lays out very clearly “what life is” and the circumstances that lead self-replicating organic systems to get started and survive.  Much of his discussion goes back to basic Chemistry 101, how atoms attract electrons and form bonds and compounds. 

The most “primitive” life, the prokaryotes, don’t have a cell nucleus to store their genetic information, a strategy left for eukaryotes.  Darnell makes a case for the idea that prokaryotes may be quite common on many planets in the universe, and may be able to travel in meteorites.  For a habitat to nurture advanced life is much more improbable.

Darnell’s book was written before many of the more interesting “exoplanets”, such as those in the Gliese system, 20 light years away, were discovered.  Nevertheless, Darnell pretty much lays out how “terms of service” for advanced life comport with circumstances all over the universe.

It’s likely, for example, that only a relatively narrow sliver round the center the Milky Way, about 27000 light years from the Center, is stable enough.  But that still means a circle about 60000 light years in circumference to find other stars with solar systems with planets as “perfect” as Earth turned out to be – itself by chance.  The risks of supernova, maybe 30-40 light years away, affecting planets over hundreds of millions of years is more than we had thought, and may be more an issue during periods when the solar system revolves through a denser part of the spiral arm (right now, we're in a less dense portion and are safer; in a hundred million years or so, that can change).

Many smaller galaxies may not have habitable regions at all.

In the solar system, the best chance for interesting life may actually reside on Titan.  The largest moon of Saturn has an interesting, if frigid, reducing chemistry on its surface, and possibly a subterranean ocean (like Europa).  Imagine the possible “political problems” if both environments on Titan produced sentient life. Europa may not be quite as promising, in Darnell's view. Dartnell gives detailed discussion of the history of Mars probes, and even of the theory that a meteorite found in Antarctica in 1996 represents “panspermia” from Mars.  What’s even more “disturbing” is the idea that Venus might have developed life, even advanced life, before a catastrophe and runaway greenhouse effect destroyed it all.   If so, it is a colossal tragedy.  Is that a warning for us?

Darnell feels that it could be a long shot to build earth-like life on planets around stars not like our Sun.  But because small red dwarfs, or M stars, are so plentiful (even within 20 or so light years of the Sun), they deserve attention. Planets in the "goldilox" zone around these stars are likely to be tidally locked, always facing one side to their suns.  That could mean extremely windy and stormy conditions from violent temperatures swings.  Maybe a larger planet could be stable enough and have enough real estate in the "twilight zone" for an interesting (if politically volatile) civilization. But M stars also have problems with extremely variable output, although they last hundreds of billions of years, maybe long enough for life to learn to adapt.  Their planets also may be less likely to have stable magnetic fields, but maybe a larger planet still would. 

Life may be the way The Universe resists inevitable entropy, as required by the laws of physics.  But intelligence seems rare, but perhaps we’re early in the time scale of the universe.  We’ve almost wiped ourselves out with nuclear war.  Maybe it would take hundreds of millions of years for another civilization in the “sliver” around the Milky Way to arise, but one probably would eventually.  Another good question concerns the nature of sentience, self-awareness, and free will, up to the point that the individual ego experiences the consequences of its own actions, and sometimes of the actions of others.  By the “anthropic” principle, we can understand only our own style of consciousness.  Consider social insects.  Do individual ants have self-awareness, or is that facility reserved for the colony as a whole?  Is consciousness a basic component of physics that cannot be destroyed (because it is essentially information) once it exists?

Wikipedia attribution link for Titan picture. 

(I still have to give the Amazon link manually. I get database errors on the automated version. Still looking into why.) 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

US DOJ sues Apple, five major publishers for price-fixing on e-books, in competition with Apple

The US Justice Department has brought suit against Apple and five major trade book publishers for anti-competitive (or “price fixing”) practices in trying to counter Amazon’s dominance in the eBook and Kindle market.  (There is also Barnes and Noble’s Nook to think about.)

Industry observers sometimes claim that Amazon sold Kindle books at a loss to make them popular.  The story is here

In practice, older books are often difficult to continue selling, unless they are best-sellers or hit some popular niche in the how-to markets.  I’ve gotten calls from my own cooperative publisher about slack sales of my old books (the most recent is 2002), and my only principled answer is new material, in this case, a novel.  I’ve discussed it on my main blog and will have some sort of update here soon. 

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Life offers revised "Holy Lands: One Place, Three Faiths": spectacular illustrations, good discussions of paradoxes of faith

In supermarkets and various retail outlets, consumers will find a large paperback “Life” book, updated, “Holy Lands: One Place, Three Faiths”, written by Hildegard, Lauren Nathan, Michelle Du Pre. This 2012 update (112 pages) contains a new chapter on the Arab Spring.

Much of the focus on the book is on “who is” each of the major characters. That is, Abraham for all faiths; Moses and David for Judaism; Jesus for Christianity, Muhammad for Islam.

The chapter on Jesus does stress a certain paradox in Christian ethics, which would somewhat be followed in Islam, when properly understood.  That is to say that while the family and tribe or locality may be the most important source of social capital, it is important to reach out to everyone that is accessible to one, in other families and groups and cultures.   This outreach is necessary to grow as an individual.  On p. 38 especially, the writers indicate that “notions of pacifism and charity were alien. The idea of giving one’s cloak to a needy stranger – a brother, Jesus suggested—did not have much currency in Palestine before he existed.”   Jesus and Muhammad lived very different lives.  Muhammad had been married and was older, about 40, before he started his ministry.  Later, the book notes that Islam regards the Christian notion of Trinity as polytheistic.

The book has wonderful photographs, an inexpensive substitute for an in-person trip which is very difficult.

The book  traces the history of the area of Palestine since around 1900, and traces the history of the controversy over Israel and its reasons for occupation of the West Bank and other areas. The book has a picture of an Israeli soldier inspecting a Palestinian home and says that all young Palestinian males have to be questioned.

Don Sunukjian from Biola University discusses “turn the other cheek” from the Sermon on the Mount on YouTube (2011):

Monday, April 02, 2012

Dale Carpenter documents "Lawrence v. Texas" in "Flagrant Conduct", the case that brought down sodomy laws

Author: Dale Carpenter

Title: “Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas

Subtitle: “How a Bedroom Arrest Decriminalized Gay Americans”

Publication: 2012, W.W. Norton, ISBN 978-0-393-06208-3, hardcover, 345 pages, indexed, 3 Parts, 16 chapters, Introduction, Epilogue.

Amazon link

My first reaction to the title is to remember Randy Shilts and “Conduct Unbecoming” (1993), and in fact, University of Minnesota law professor Dale Carpenter here makes the case that repealing Texas law 21.06 helped pave the way for repealing “don’t ask don’t tell”.

I’m getting ahead of myself, of course.

On May 17, 2008, I had reviewed William Eskridge’s book “Dishonorable Passions” on the history of sodomy laws. Carpenter’s book is much more focused on the detailed history of this specific case, where in September 1998, sheriff’s deputies responded to a false weapons report and arrested two men, John Lawrence and Tyron Garner, in their outskirts Houston garden apartment for violation of 21.06.   Carpenter makes a detailed case that it is very unlikely that the police really could have witnessed the “act” to a legal standard of evidence, and that there plenty of inappropriate psychological motivations for making the false arrest.  Nevertheless, gay rights attorneys jumped on this case (and blunder by police).  The defendants would plead “no contest”; the case would percolate upward through a clumsy Texas judicial system, and the law would be upheld with weak rationalizations, and wind up before the Supreme Court.  Only about the last third of the book deals with the Supreme Court case.

Younger LGBT people, caught up in today’s debates about “equality” in marriage and the military, often seem dimly aware of what the world was like a half-century ago, when police raided gay bars and made false arrests, just to get men’s names “published” and get them fired.  There was a time when the world often consisted of witch-hunts, and not just in the military.  Sodomy laws, by giving gay men (especially) the status of unapprehended criminals, provided a “mechanism” for all sorts of collateral damage.  In some cities, until the mid 1970s, gay bars were often “protected” by the Mafia and corruption ran everywhere.  These sorts of laws encouraged corruption and deceitful law enforcement.  But the same could be said of marijuana laws today.

Carpenter argues that the real effect of laws like 21.06 were to try to outlaw homosexual status, to legally exile them from society.  The first chapter is indeed titled "A Crime of Deep Malignity". 

In 1986, the Supreme Court had upheld the Georgia law, which applied to everyone, in Bowers v. Hardwick.  But the majority opinion had focused on the idea that there was no fundamental right to engage in the conduct proscribed, even in private.  The Texas law (after a 1973 revision of the Texas penal code) applied to homosexuals only, but the majority opinion in Lawrence overturned the “reasoning” in Bowers (unusual for the Supreme Court) and found a fundamental liberty interest in private, adult, noncommercial and consensual intimate behavior.

My own take on this issue, for years, had followed the concept of desuetude, and had assumed that private behavior that cannot be proven to standards of the law should not be constitutionally criminalized.   I actually feel this way about personal drug use.  I’ve always thought that what someone does with his own body should be outside the scope of criminal law.  That’s pretty much the libertarian line.  (Pregnancy termination does create a debate, and legitimate conflict between rights, and I don’t have a problem with the essential logic of Roe v. Wade.)

The state of Texas had appealed to vague notions of implementing morality to defend the law.  Sometimes it mentioned public health, and sometimes the disintegration of the family (particularly in conjunction with the Texas GOP platform).  But the State of Texas could never explain with much convincing social science how “homosexual conduct” affected the families formed by heterosexuals (we still have the same debate with gay marriage).

Nevertheless, the plaintiffs, in Lawrence, took care to argue the “due process” part of the case in terms of societal ratification of a fundamental right – that gays have families, too.  In fact, Justice Ginsberg pointed out that Texas didn’t stop homosexuals from raising children. 

I’ve always suspected that “sodomy laws” had amounted to a proxy for (or as a way of encapsulating) a pre-existing “duty” of people to contribute toward society’s common good in gender-related areas involving sacrifice and risk-taking (including military service for men and childbearing for women, in a era when it was medically more dangerous).  I think they amounted to a crude way of saying that everyone had an obligation to help provide a future generation (and to honor past ones).   It was a way to impart a duty on everyone to add to “social capital” outside the normal economic system.  Rick Santorum, in his book [March 5,  2012 here] argued, following Scalia's dissenting  "chain letter", that the Lawrence ruling would force gay marriage to be legal, and that gay marriage would send a message to many men that making an opposite-sex marital commitment in order to raise a generation of children is no longer an important responsibility; hence, by contraposition, laws like 21.06 remain necessary; it sounds like a real stretch of "compelling state interest". That’s still a disturbing thought in today’s world where we talk about sustainability and the inability of some societies to replace themselves without immigration, and when we face an aging population.  But homosexuality is only a very small piece of the question as to why (middle-class) people have fewer children. The main reason is the economy.  We’ve made it very difficult to perform as a parent (after "choosing" to have children even in marriage), and discussions about how these sorts of responsibilities are “shared” need to happen.

It gets messier, though.  You can have a system where gays are accepted as parents and as forming families and as some progressive writers like Jonathan Rauch (“Gay Marriage: Why It is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, Good for America”, Times, 2004) have pointed out, are actually expected to.  The moral negative becomes excessive “upward affiliation” or dependence on fantasy, lookism, or perfectionism – but all of these “sins” happen in the heterosexual world, too.  The right wing winds up having to explain (outside or religious scriptures) why the mechanics of intercourse and the anatomical difference between the genders is so important in raising children or in sustaining marriage.  Ultimately, I think a lot of men fear that they can enter and sustain traditional marriages only if they know everyone else has to.

The authors sometimes mention HIV, but neglect to discuss an attempt in Texas in 1983 to toughen the 21.06 law with a bill, HR2138 (Bill Ceverha of Amarillo), advanced by the religious right, which would have banned gays from many occupations, including teaching, police (the Dallas Police Department used to “ask” back in the 1980s), medicine, and preparing food.  I (living in Dallas at the time) actually got a letter back from Texas representative  Debra Danburg, who wrote to me “  The other side is sending out quite a bit of mail. It says things such as gay people should not be allowed to work in hospitals or wherever food is served or prepared. It is really frightening in its ignorance. It is important that legislators other than myself have some contact with gay people in their districts.”  The bill died in a committee headed by Wayne Peveto, 7-2.  The Dallas Gay Alliance (in those days headed by Bill Nelson and Terry Tebedo, who for a long time ran the Crossroads Market) fought hard to keep this bill from getting off the ground.  

Dale Carpenter spoke at the Cato Institute on March 16, 2012 (see my GLBT blog posting March 18 for review of the Lambda Legal short film “Overridden”.