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It was very interesting to watch the most recent episode of  Horizon  where David Attenborough spoke about the grim projections for the world population and its potential impact on our planet.

How recently it was that the number of people topped 5 billion people in the late Eighties – now we are already almost 7 billion. The fact that the resources to sustain this quantity of people are finite means that there are only that many more people who can be accommodated before we run into serious trouble and start fighting for food. Arguably in some parts of the world this process has already started.

In fact, as some scientists think, we have already over-stretched the Earth’s renewable resources beyond the point where they can regenerate (severely depleted Atlantic fish stocks spring to mind straight away) and hence are already living beyond our means. In other words, there are already too many of us about.

There is a maximum limit of people that can be sustained, which can be calculated with reference to their average demand for consumables and the total “productive capacity” of planet Earth. The methodology of calculating these figures obviously is extremely important and I am sure there is no total consensus on the figures – and also hot debate around how these are derived. David Attenborough argues that the “lifestyle” of existing humans is all-important. If everyone wanted to live like US consumers, our planet can only sustain 1.5bn people. If we lived like Rwandans, then it is 18bn.

It’s a scary thought, and one that personally has been on my mind for a while. Whilst we all carry on living our reasonably easy lives in a consumerist society we don’t worry about the impact this is having on our world on a daily basis. So what is one to do? Surely we won’t all give up our cars, nice holidays, stop buying clothes, or quit our jobs so that we can tend our plots and grow our own vegetables.

This brings me to another thought which has already been debated on this blog. The biggest impact humans have on the environment – in terms of our carbon footprint or our demand for scarce resources – is by having more children. After all, by bringing another one kid into this world we create another human being which will end up consuming comparable amounts of “stuff” and creating comparable amounts of “waste” which will have an overall impact when taken en masse.

So whilst after watching Horizon I did indeed started feeling a renewed sense of guilt that I don’t ride a bike everywhere, or have recently indulged myself by buying a few new items of clothing, I guess should I console myself with the fact that since we don’t – and probably can’t – have children, we are sort of doing our bit for this planet, or at least not creating extra future consumers.

Hmmm.

Maybe the planet has found a way to self-regulate its population, and that is infertility of its creatures at the top of the food chain. Wise move, Mother Nature!

CuriouslyInspired

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Yesterday was marked by a number of events that all prompted me to think of science, religion, superstition and atheism.

On the one hand, there was an interiew with David Attenbourough on Breakfast where he was talking about his forthcoming programme on Darwin and Evolution. He made an interesting point which I never really thought about before. 

Every religion has a creation myth – whether this is Australian aborigines, an African tribe, Hindu or Hebrews (with Christianity borrowing on the Hebrew myth of Adam and Eve). However prior to Darwin, there was no natural explanation to nature’s unique richness and diversity on our planet, so there was no alternative, non-supernatural view to uphold. In the grand scheme of mankind’s development, it’s a fairly new theory, and as many things new of course it is going to be opposed by some (or many) religious people, as it threatens the very essence of their perception. Read the rest of this entry »

It was surprisingly difficult finding information about when LHC will restart again. Many will remember how much publicity it attracted around its switch-on time in September 09 – very soon to be followed by a total shutdown after major malfunction. Since then it’s all gone fairly quiet on this front.

Apparently, the fault was with a faulty electrical connection, which led to a leak of super-cold helium. The resulting damage was estimated at £20 million, but with other costs taken into account the total repair bill could be about £30 million.

 The Telegraph reported a week ago that “53 of the magnets used to accelerate sub-atomic particles around the machine’s 17-mile underground tunnel have had to be brought to the surface for repair or cleaning”. Since the fault was found, the collider’s fail-safe protection systems have had to be designed to prevent a similar thing happening again. Unfortunately this sounds as if insufficient time had been allocated to building mechanisms to prevent such problems before the go-live date. How embarassing this must be to Cern’s designers with the multi-million dollar budgets at their disposal!

This is the most recent article on LHC I could find. I guess we’ll be hearing more on the progress of repairs later this spring.

The rediscovery of the original apparatus and materials from 1950ies experiments to create amino acids – the building blocks of life – reignited the interest in this debate.

Original 1950ies experiments: Stanley Miller originally performed these experiments and managed to create 5 amino acids, which the theory suggests would have formed a “primordial soup” which would have been the basis for proteins and subsequent life creation on the planet. A strand of his work focussed on creating amino acids involving steam. However in the 1950ies it was deemed that the Earth’s early atmosphere was not like that, so the experiment suffered from subsequent obscurity; the kit with his full notes was lost.

Update and enrich the findings: Now that the old experimental kit and detailed notes have been located by Miller’s former student, now Professor Jeffrey Bada, the latter managed to move forwards from the 1950ies experimental results and create 22 amino acids. He argues that ancient volcanoes, similar to existing volcanoes, may well have had the atmospheric conditions that Miller used in his earlier tests. Thus, young planet’s volcanoes and thunderstorms accompanying their many eruptions could have indeed created a “little, local prebiotic factory” of amino acids, in itself was a giant step towards creating life forms of Earth.

Read the full story from the BBC here.

Divine intervention or volcanic sparks? What is particularly fascinating about this debate is that it brings back and updates the discussion about the origins of life on Earth. The scientific explanation is now supported with some fresh experimental evidence on the possibility of creating life without divine intervention – but just involving natural processes on the planet.

To date, this issue has beeb one of the biggest debate points between atheism and religion, alongside the origins of the Universe (Big Bang v God).

What would religious people’s response be on this matter of this experiment, I wonder?

LHC has been reported as damaged by the BBC earlier today. A magnet failure in the £3.6bn ($6.6bn) “atom smasher” was discovered to be a problem worse than initially anticipated. It will now be out of action for 2 months whilst it is being repaired.

It’s of course a huge and disappointing setback for the project. The original schedule anticipated that later this year some tangible experiment results would be available as work gets into its full swing. This will now be all postponed.

Unfortunately there has already been one more minor fault with LHC which was fixed earlier this week, whilst we were mostly preoccupied with the global financial meltdown.

More details from the BBC article here.

Yes, this is old news by the time you read this! LHC has started operating some 4 hours ago as I write this, at about 7am GMT time or at 5pm Melbourne time. And, stating the obvious, the world survived.

Phew, some would say. But not that we ever doubted that things would carry on as normal for the rest of us.

At about 8:30 GMT, some protons were pushed through the the accelerator to confirm it works in principle. The test worked fine – and it appears that this might be the extent of today’s work.

The bulk of LHC’s activities is apparently scheduled to take place later this year. Some would say – there is still time to destroy the world when LHC really gets going. Well, I personally don’t think so – the guys will have done their homework over the 14 years it took to build LHC. And there are other smaller “atom smashers” about, functioning perfectly well without the rest of us noticing.

Here’s to the success of the biggest Atom Smasher the world has ever seen!

Tomorrow a monumental experiment in physics will start in Switzerland. The new particle accelerator, popularly but misleadingly nicknamed “the Big Bang machine”, will generate energies previously unseen by humans on Earth, in the ongoing quest of the physicists to reproduce conditions at the very start of the Universe. They hope to glean new information about the laws of physics and possibly discover the theoretically predicted elementary particles never before recorded.

Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, cost over 8 million euro to build. One particle which might get produced as the result of this experiment is the Higgs boson, which as physicists theoreticise might help explain how all existing objects in the Universe acquire mass. It’s been the sticking point of theoretical physics for a long while.

Why is this important? The experiment might help unify the two conficting theories of the 20th century: Einstein’s General Relativity theory (which explans the Universe at a macro level), and Quantum mechanics (which deals with matter at extreme micro levels). These theories are not compatible, but are both needed for explanations of certain phenomena – e.g. when considering physics of black holes. Previous attempts to combine the equations of both theories have resulted in all matters having zero mass which is clearly wrong.

Why bother spending this much money? Deepening our understanding of the fundamendal laws of nature develops our science and technology in unimaginably rich and diverse ways. For instance this could help in the long term quest to find new sources of energy.

Physics versus religion. How did the Universe come about? As physicists probe ever closer to the time of “the Big Bang”, they hope to eventually answer this big question. Whilst this or other experiments will not likely convince religious people to abandon their faith in the Divine origin, it is bound to generate some more lively debate. Already we have seen clashes of scientists with creationists over the past few years linked to the increase in the popularity of creationism in recent years and their refusal to accept facts about the evolution (granted, this is a different area to particle physics). This debate is bound to continue for some time but I for one will want to see science prevail.

One of the possible reasons for science “losing ground” is that it has become quite complex and out of reach of understanding of a person out on the street. But it is not all smoke and mirrors. It might need to be taught better at schools or be explained in more practical terms.

Why I find this inspiring: Immense respect for the intellectual prowess of scientists, sheer advances in recent technology making such an experimental project possible, and the possibility of breaking down existing barriers to understanding of science by achieving breakthroughs that capture the world’s imagination.

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