Friday, September 29, 2006

A Lecturer in A 493-seat Lecture Theatre

I gave the first "lecture" of my life in the 493-seat Copland theatre, Melbourne Uni yesterday! I will update with more stories after this.


Saturday, September 23, 2006


This morning, I received a forwarded email which expounded on the importance of faith in God. As I am having my holidays, I proceeded to finish the article with full enthusiasm. It was when I finished reading that I decided to write something about it. I really do not want to get into habit of writing about religion frequently in my blog, but once in a while I would really like to dispel some myths commonly perpetuated in our society.

*** Before you continue ***

If you are interested in what I have to say, do read the email first here. (Thanks to Writely, the free online document writing / sharing / collaborating service)

*** Continue ***

As always, I respect and thank people who spread good religions throughout the world; however, if it involves the distortion and misinterpretation of science, I can't help but to rebut it.

In the dialogue, there was a part of the dialogue where the Professor apparently "disproved" the existence of God:
Prof: Have you ever felt your God, tasted your God, smelt your God? Have you ever had any sensory perception of God for that matter?

Student: No, sir. I'm afraid I haven't.

Prof: Yet you still believe in Him?

Student: Yes.

Prof: According to empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol, science says your GOD doesn't exist. What do you say to that, son?
If the Professor in question seriously thought that he has successfully "proved that your God doesn't exist", I doubt his credibility in teaching any science-related subject. Just because you can't feel, taste, hear, smell or see something, doesn't mean that you have disproved the thing. For example, let's say there IS a friend of mine by the name of Rifly in Melbourne. Do you believe in the existence of such a person? For sure you haven't seen him, heard of him, felt him, smelt him or tasted him, but does that mean that the existence of Rifly is disproved? No, of course! The best you can say is, "Erm, I haven't heard of Rifly, so I can't be sure whether you are bluffing me." You can't just say, "Hey, I haven't heard of, seen, blah blah blah this guy called Rifly, so science says Rifly doesn't exist!"

The author of this dialogue tried to convey the message that "science is always trying to deny the existence of God" by giving a false analogy. The fact is, no, science does not try to deny the existence of God . While it's very true that science rely on observable evidence, theories and models, it would be an error to say that science denied God because God is not observable. If there is an official science's stand on God, it would be "God is not observable by any scientific means, so we can't establish the existence or non-existence of God", instead of "God is not observable by any scientific means, so God is disproved". Just like Rifly.

(By the way, Rifly does exist. )

Next, the author tried to demonize the scientific theory of evolution, as many evangelists usually do:
Student: Now tell me, Professor. Do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?

Prof: If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, yes, of course, I do.

Student: Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir? (The Professor shakes his head with a smile, beginning to realize where the argument is going.)

Student: Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor, are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you not a scientist but a preacher? (The class is in uproar.)

Student: Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the Professor's brain? (The class breaks out into laughter.)

Student: Is there anyone here who has ever heard the Professor's brain, felt it, touched or smelt it? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol, science says that you have no brain, sir. With all due respect, sir, how do we then trust your lectures, sir?

(The room is silent. The professor stares at the student, his face unfathomable.)

Prof: I guess you'll have to take them on faith, son.
This, is the continuation of the fallacy established by the previous dialogue (the part where the professor "disproved" God).

In that short dialogue, there are a few favourite clich├ęs of creationist (people who hold to the believe that human is created by God in accordance to His image six thousand years ago). Among them are "Evolution is just a theory, not a fact" and "Have you seen evolution with your very eyes? If not, how do you know it's true?".

The thing is, those people either haven't learnt science, or have selectively forgotten the basis of science in favour of their belief.

In science, a theory being a theory doesn't mean that it's just a wild guess, a hypothesis or a preliminary model. The word "theory" in science comes with a great weight. It is very different from the meaning when I say "I have a theory that explains Eric's behaviour". In this example, the word "theory" simply means "an educated guess".

However, in biology, I can't simply guess why dragonflies have four wings, and name it "the theory of dragonfly wings" and put it up in Wikipedia. Without substantiation (agreement of other people), evidence (empirical proof), rationale (the "logic"), successful application (being able to predict future events with the theory) and so on, a guess is not a theory in science.

It is true that evolution cannot be fully proved. However, many people don't know that it is never meant to be fully proved. You can't prove any scientific theory. Nobody can name a scientific theory that has been "proved". A theory, is an explanation of how things work, is based on thousands, if not millions of validation, and is always falsifiable. While a theory is the current best human explanation of an event, it is always open to falsification, if you can find a counter-proof. However, just because a theory cannot be proved, doesn't mean that everyone should take it with a pinch of salt. The cell theory, theory of gravitation, kinetic theory of gas etc are all theories, but nobody has ever said "hey, don't lar take them seriously, they are only theories".

All theories have been used in practice, have been shown to work, have yet to fail, and have predicted events perfectly. But we can never say "the theory of gravitation" has been proved. How do we know whether it's true that every mass always comes with a gravitation force which attracts every other mass in this universe with a force according to the product of the mass and the inverse square of their distance? It can also be due to other reasons one marr... For example, it can also be some invisible super-power who's pulling every single particle towards each other in the universe. So we can never prove "the theory of gravitation" perfectly, because how do we rule out the existence of such a super power?

I guess I have to come back to the topic... It is very inaccurate for someone to say "scientists have never seen evolution at work, they are only believing it with faith". No, that's wrong. As I have mentioned earlier, evolution is not an "opinion" or a "hypothesis", it is an overwhelmingly supported theory of "how biodiversity works". Its importance in biology is as much as how important Newton's Laws are to physics. Yes, they can be falsified (as much as Newton's Laws have been shown to be inaccurate in cosmological scale), but they are still the core of science which is far from being an "opinion".

Erm, time to call an end to my writing... My last point is, the last example by the student is inappropriate, or may I say, lame. The professor's brain can be shown with MRI, CT scan, PET scan, amongst dozens of other medical procedures. You don't have to take its existence with faith. There is a empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol to demonstrate it.

I am not trying to disprove God - in fact I can never disprove God. I am only writing this to rebuke some evangelist's endeavour to distort science in order to establish God's existence. Seriously, they don't have to. Science is not in war with religion. Science's official stand on religion or God is that of agnosticism's - "We can never prove or disprove God". Science doesn't hate God.

p/s: Also, the theory of evolution does not say human evolved from a monkey. It only says that monkey, chimpanzee, apes shared common ancestors.

Updated 06/03/07: Follow-up here.


Thursday, September 14, 2006

A Window Washer

Half an hour ago, I was having my well-deserved afternoon nap in my room, high above on the ninth (top) floor of College Square. But now I am wide awake, and it's all the fault of two guys.

I was living happily ever after in my little slumber land, when some noises mischievously bombarded my eardrum, knocked out all my ossicles and stirred up all the hair cells in my cochlea, firing all those unnecessary action potentials to my auditory centre in my brain at the superior temporal lobe. It sounded like one of my neighbours was trying to plug in the electric cable into the socket. Since College Square is made of plywood, such occurrence was kinda a norm here and so I decided to ignore it and try to continue sleeping.

But something was amiss.

The sound wouldn't go away, as if my neighbour couldn't find the right holes and plug it in right away. He or she kept knocking the wall all over and making all those stupid noises. That was when I got really vexed and decided to give up sleeping to find out who the hell that was.

I came to my favourite spot - my table next to the window, where I put my laptop on. As I looked around the house, I couldn't find anything wrong at all. Nobody was at home, and Melbourne city was clearly not under missile attack. But there were something - two unidentified ropes were hanging outside my window. Just when I was starting to wonder about the origin of the rope, a guy descended rather awkwardly from above, planting his feet on the window and grasping the windows bar for support. He smiled to me and waved to me with his wiper.

He was the window washer.

The window washer outside my room.
The feeling was so eerie when he came down - he smiled at me and I almost closed the blinds immediately if I wasn't refrained by some "decency". After all, it's not so polite to close the window when someone just smiled at you, right? But then, seriously... you really need to be in my shoes to experience the feeling... He and I were only two feet away separated by a window, and I felt so watched. It's not like I was not wearing clothes or doing something indecent when he descended. It's just... I felt like a victim of voyeurism.

He proceeded to wash my window duly and left after a minute. I pretended to be busy online all the while. When another guy descended on my neighbour's window, I decided to take a picture which was the one you saw above.

This little incident was actually quite unremarkable, except for a chilling thought that I had soon after - this is the perfect form of voyeurism. On any other day, there may be someone who hangs outside the window of your building, watching what you are up to in your private space.

Just imagine what if someone is sleeping naked in the room or having sexual acts. I foresee a dramatic rise of the number of window-washer applicants in the future.


Friday, September 01, 2006

Just A Random Question

I was reading one of the latest issues of New Scientist when I encountered an interesting question by a reader:

We all have two parents, four greatparents, eight great-greatgrandparents, sixteen great-great-greadgrandparents and so on and so forth. So if I want to draw a family tree up to 10 generations, I would have 1024 ancestors above me. Now, if I reseach my family tree for up to 40 generations, I would have 240 (which is about 1012) ancestors out there. This is clearly more than all the human being that have ever lived on Earth (approximately 1011). Of course, I wouldn't have more ancestors than all the people that have ever lived, but what is wrong with my reasoning? Doesn't everyone have two parents?

p/s: The question is paraphrased to avoid copyright infringement.
This is something to ponder about. To be frank I haven't really figured it out thoroughly, but I will work hard this weekend. :)

Update: Haha, got it when I was on the way back from school (posted this one in the school computer lab). But obviously Shou Farn beat me to it, and his explanation is great!

*** Spoiler ***

Actually, the flaw in the argument is that, not all of our ancestors are unique / different. In other words, as you draw the family tree up many generations, you will eventually realize that some of the people will play many different roles in the family tree. For example, your mother's mother's father's mother's mother's father may be the same person as your father's mother's father's father's mother's father.

In fact, following the same line of thought, we can see that inbreeding must be happening in some way among human beings. By inbreeding I don't mean one person mating with his or her siblings (that would be disgusting). Instead, inbreeding can be understood as "the reunion of gene as it is passed down through different routes of family tree".

Let's just set up an example... Let's say Kenny is my daughter's son's son's son's daughter's son, and Maria is my son's son's daughter's daughter's daughter. Next, suppose I have this hypothetical, unique gene AB which is always passed down from one generation to another generation. Firstly, note that if no inbreeding has occured, the unique gene AB is only found in my direct offsprings. My daughter will have AB, my son will have AB, Kenny would have AB, Maria would have AB too. If a random person does not have AB, then he is not my offspring. However, AB is also remarkable in that it is a "marker" for the occurence of inbreeding - in a mating couple, if both persons have gene AB in their DNA, both of them must be my offsprings. In the case of Kenny and Maria, if they fall in love with each other and mate together, they are considered inbreeding. Or to use my earlier definition, the union of Kenny and Maria is the union of my AB gene.

Hope that I haven't bored you to death. :) But to me, this kind of thing is more interesting than the neural system.