Forget the unicorn

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A classic atheist response to the incredulity of religious believers is -”I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours “

A variation of this might also help. All children believe in many imaginary creatures – Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, God, Imaginary Friends, Wizards, Dragons, Fairies at the bottom of the garden, Batman, Bogeyman, Abominable Snowman, Aliens, Unicorns – but as they grow up these fall away one by one as a child understands they are made up, not real.

So, religious believer, we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer imaginary friend than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible imaginary unbeings as you grow up, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

Ties that bind

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People have always done odd things to their bodies, modifying them like petrol heads modify cars. Seems to be hardly a part of the body that some group at some time hasn’t chopped, or pierced, or removed, or tattooed. Done in the interests of group solidarity or distinction, or individual difference or status. At times done at the imaginary demand of imaginary sky beings, not infrequently involving some way of subjugating women.
…Read more

Field of dreams

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Odd moment during the recent announcement and garbled discussion of education reforms in Australia. Chief Minister of the ACT, Katy Gallagher, was asked by parochial reporters, essentially, “what’s in it for Canberra?”

She said, perhaps bemused by the stupid question, that because most if not all Canberra students were already receiving support above what was being proposed, there actually wasn’t anything “in it” for the ACT.

In hunter-gatherer societies all children are educated equally – it would be suicidal for the society to do anything else. Same with the early agricultural societies. In both cases gifted individuals may specialise in particular areas of expertise later, but all will be educated.

We lost this equality of opportunity as the accumulation of wealth by a few created a situation where better education could be purchased, and that has remained the case, and been strengthened, ever since.

Indeed in Australia the Right, themselves, one and all, the products of the best education money could buy, decided they could do better as old boys (or girls) than merely denoting a few tax deductible dollars to the alma mater. They could, they realised, get their name up on the honour roll by getting the people of Australia to pay big bucks to schools already overflowing with swimming pools and polo ponies and acres of rolling playing fields. And they could lock in such payments permanently with a clever mathematical formula which achieved bias while appearing objective. A simple formula, always applied by conservatives, and always effective = The Rich get Richer. Genius eh?

So, it’s time for a reversal of fortunes. A simple formula = To each according to his needs. Identify the poorest public schools, give them more money to build up their resources to the level of the richer public schools. And then, whisper who dare, onwards to the levels of the private schools. Oh, sorry, getting a bit carried away there. Never mind, let’s get all students onto as level a playing field, playing fields, as possible. Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of class war.

But wait, there’s more. The other conservative legacy also affects equality of educational opportunity – religion. Separation of church and state? Yeah, whatever, but separation of church and school just as important. Yet John Howard unleashed the dogs of sectarianism. Loony tunes religious schools proliferated. Students taught curriculums in which garbage like creationism can be included, because religious freedom. “The more religion, the lower the quality of education” – write that on the blackboard 100 times Mr Howard

But worse is that schooling, meant to broaden horizons, introduce new ideas, allow children to mix widely, teach the ability to think and evaluate, to see a world beyond the walls of their home, has been narrowed. Religious fanatics have been allowed to carry out home-schooling in bulk. Allowed to make sure that no child raised in the closed little worlds of religious fundamentalism is allowed to discover that there is another real world outside.

So, equality of opportunity for all students? Absolutely, stuff of dreams. But understand that it involves more than just money. I have a dream of getting all students onto the playing field of secular education.

What’s in it for Australia? Only the next generation.

The Old Astronomer*

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Look, there’s a lot of different careers I could have had. Hell, had three different ones, three and a half, as it was. But if I ever manage to decide what I want to do with my life (and yes, that is a winged chariot you hear), astronomy is right up there as a possibility.

Oh, not really a possibility, with my lack of physics and mathematics abilities. I suppose my wishful thinking was always based on Herschel, hell Galileo, staring at the mysterious skies through a telescope and seeing, things never seen before, heavenly messengers.

We are of course, long past the time when amateurs could point a telescope from their backyard and make discoveries in the cosmos. Although, that said, it is from a backyard not a million parsecs from mine that a chap does keep making discoveries, most recently of bits of a comet crashing into Jupiter.

But my old eyes are too old anyway, these days, astronomy a young person’s game, these days. Besides, had my academic careers, working in zoology and archaeology. But it’s all the same thing, really, archaeology being part of zoology, and zoology a subsection of astronomy.

What was the question? Oh, you think I need to defend those suggestions? Well, if I must, it’s your blog.

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” Carl Sagan of course, in a rather wonderful thought. We don’t need to go out to the stars, they have come to us. And not just to humans, but every living being on the planet, and the very structure of the planet we live on.

The other rather wonderful thought is that we, you and I dear reader, are related to every other human being currently on the planet, and all those who came before. And if that isn’t a wonderful enough thought, we, you and I, are also related to every other living being, animal and plant, on the planet. How good is that eh?

And not just related in the literal, direct genetic sense, but in an ecological one. As the first of the apes that would become human walked across the African savannah they began to adapt to different habitats to their nearest relatives, and to make use of different plants and animals in their diet. Their hunting will have subtly altered species compositions among their prey and plant foods. And eventually, as some groups shifted towards agriculture or pastoralism, their interactions with other species actually affected evolution, in a process we call domestication.

We study early humans in exactly the same way we study their relatives, through palaeontology, studying not only their bony remains, but, where possible, diet and behaviour. As we reach the creation of stone and other tools we call this branch of palaeontology “archaeology”, but it’s all one thing. And palaeontology is of course just one aspect of zoology.

Convinced yet?

But wait, there’s more. For a long time another branch of zoology (well, biochemistry, but really I’m in an imperial mood) has investigated the origins of life. Plenty of ideas, successful experiments in forming organic molecules in conditions approximating early Earth in terms of water, heat, electrical discharge, low oxygen, clay minerals etc. But all with the deliberately built-in, assumed requirement that organic had to come from an original inorganic chemistry on Earth. [This is, was, a necessary assumption. The nonsense from Hoyle and Wickramasinghe about life forms arriving on Earth from comet tails or whatever was not only mad-brained, but didn't affect the study of the origin of life, merely shifted the location to somewhere else where, obviously, organic must have still been derived from inorganic, and on a surface of some kind].

But the young lads and lasses of modern astronomy have shown in effect (and I never thought I’d find myself writing this phrase) that Fred and Chandra were sort of right. No, no, not in the sense of showers of frogs or beetles or bacteria from outer space, I haven’t lost my wits totally (nor my sarcasm). But what recent years of observation have shown us is that organic molecules of various kinds are common in space. Are produced, as I understand it, from dust clouds and the radiation from evolving and exploding stars. That it isn’t necessary to start from scratch to form life on this planet (and quite possibly also on Mars and moons like Titan and Enceladus), but that various organic molecules will provide a kind of kick start for electrical discharges, water, heat, clay substrates to go to work and develop the kind of self-reproducing complex organic molecules we call “life”. [This also, incidentally, makes it absolutely certain that many other millions of the planets the young astronomers are now also able to observe will also have life].

So, not just star stuff to build bones etc, but the very materials that can, in the right conditions, form life, come from out there. There is no gap between us and all the other life forms on this planet, and none between our organics and those spread throughout this awfully big universe. Another rather wonderful thought.

Oh, and of course no longer any need to distinguish between astronomy, zoology, and archaeology. And no need for me to plan (thank goodness) another end of life career – I always was an astronomer really, it turns out, just one studying the bits of the universe that happened to sit on this planet.

Not now, sadly though, a young astronomer but an old astronomer. Almost as old as the universe, I can feel it in my bones.

*see poem “The Old Astronomer” by Sarah Williams about a third of the way through my “Values” section, click tag above or http://davidhortonsblog.com/values/.

A, B, C, D… E, F, G…

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Anyway, that’s another round of chemotherapy almost completed. Neither I nor my Oncologist sure whether the first round achieved much (but had left my Neutrophils worryingly low for the start of a new cycle, so I have to have a new injection this afternoon to deal with that), but we will review again in three weeks. Some unpleasant, and mysterious, body problems this week reminded me yet again that from the moment of first being diagnosed with cancer your mindset changes. You go from being comfortable in your own skin, to being uncomfortable. And you go from happily assuming that any health problems you have are readily explainable, treatable, and short-lived, to being able to assume nothing. Your body goes from being a Known Known to one full of Unknown Unknowns. Simple views about your personal health universe rapidly give way to complex ones.

You are caught, as I said to the Oncologist this week, in the world of the Three S’s. Anything you experience could be a Symptom (of the cancer itself), a Side Effect (of the cancer treatment), or Something Else (totally unrelated to either). Life, they say, wasn’t meant to be easy. Nor, in the case of cancer treatment, is there such a thing as a free lunch, everything comes at a cost.

Anyway, all this reminded me, eating my free lunch of soggy sandwiches in the Oncology chair, machine beeping and dripping (slowly, slowly) on my right, of the debate about education this week in Australia.

The country, in some survey, had apparently ranked way down the list, 25th in this, 26th in that, 27th in the other. Our children were apparently as poorly educated as those of poorly educated countries – couldn’t be misunderestimated, we were misundereducated.

Within moments of the survey appearing on the airwaves and interwebs, as if the barriers had been opened in the Melbourne Cup, those same airwaves and interweb tubes were full of answers from experts and anyone with an opinion (to the extent that they can be considered separate categories). It was the Labor government’s fault, teacher’s fault, a funding problem, lack of attention to the three R’s, not enough rote learning, the result of education not being the same as when the opinionator was educated, school autonomy, phonics, testing programs, private schooling, and so on.

Trouble was, every Opinionperson thought the right answer was THEIR answer. That if there was a problem in education then it was the result of a single cause and had a single solution. Sadly this is the kind of simplemindedness that has resulted in many educational dead ends. When we ask the rarely asked question “is our children learning?”, just like the question “why is my stomach sore?”, we need to be aware that there are no simple answers.

Let’s start at the beginning this time with the actual survey. It was conducted in 2010, a fact that escaped media attention, so that the answer “it’s all the Labor government’s fault” didn’t really ring true. There was no consideration of how the comparisons were made, nor whether they allowed for cultural and socio-economic differences (in just the way you need to with “IQ tests”) between different countries. Nor was any thought given to desirability of high rankings. If a country was doing well because (say) of rote learning of the Three R’s, and rigid discipline in class rooms, is this really the way you want Australia to go?

But even taking the rankings at face value, concentrating on one particular aspect of what goes on in the classroom is begging for a misdiagnosis. As well as the Three R’s we also need to know whether a particular child, or group of children, falling behind in something is the result of a symptom, a side effect, or something else entirely.

Much has changed in Australia since I was a child (to start at a very remote time indeed), all affecting education in some way.

To name just a few relevant factors: The structure of suburbs and travel, play, and social opportunities for children are different; children are exposed to television and radio for hours each day as a primary source of entertainment, knowledge, and values; the values expressed in reality tv and quiz shows, for example, are much changed from my values; children are using computers in various forms for communication, games, learning; diets are much inferior to what they were; right-wing populist politicians and religious leaders have launched an attack on science and education in recent years; and on teachers themselves; and on curricula, with demands for including nonsense like creationism; money has been moved from public schools into private and fundamentalist religious schools; underfunding of preschool and kindergarten and loss of trained staff reduces the early educational possibilities; both parents working reduces the opportunities for learning at home; few homes these days seem to have books or encourage reading; peer pressure tends to put more value on the lowest common denominator of intellectual achievement; teacher are faced with larger class sizes, while at the same time having more bureaucracy to deal with, and demands that they teach more and more topics (driving cars for example, or coping with social media) that someone thinks is important; older teachers are retiring while younger ones have come through much the same social and cultural and educational milieu as their students; “National testing” has put emphasis on “learning for the test”, because schools that don’t do well in it will lose funding and students; some educator will come up with some mad-brained scheme like “phonics” and have some politician impose it on schools …

Enough, you get the idea, and I’m sure you could all add many more. And remember, before you can compare results for different countries, and come up with solutions, you would somehow, have to allow for all those variables being different between the countries.

Look, there is no doubt that Australian education would be a lot better if it followed the model of Finland, always top of these kinds of surveys, rather than America. Put more money into public education (and preschools), value teachers and education, try to get more education support in the home, and so on. But really, to make any improvements in educational performance we also have to seek changes to the way families and society are performing, to look at our media, and our social, cultural, political values, not just the Three R’s.

Easy, eh? Now, if you could just tell me why I have this ache in my shoulder, Doc…

The man who was Thursday

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When I was a teenager I used to love Gilbert Keith Chesterton. His novels (“The man who was Thursday”, “The Club of Queer Trades”, the Father Brown series) seemed to me so unique as to be works of a quirky genius; his essays revealed a smart and well-read man. But I grew out of him in adulthood, eventually finding his picture of Merrie Olde England sickly and cloying, and his constant defence of Christianity (he was High Anglican before converting to Catholicism) vastly irritating. [although, doing research for this piece, I came across more quotes from him which made me rethink a bit. Try: "Journalism is popular, but it is popular mainly as fiction". "Life is one world, and life seen in the newspapers is another." "'My country, right or wrong' is a thing no patriot would ever think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.'" "The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all." "The only defensible war is a war of defense. "]

Anyway, I thought about him the other day because of Mars (bear with me, we’ll get to it). The Mars story made me think of what is perhaps Chesterton’s most famous aphorism: “When a Man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”

Curiosity led me to check on where this quote came from, and I was in for a surprise. Chesterton never said it, never wrote it. Instead it seems to have come from a writer who inadvertently combined two other quotes – “It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense.” and
“You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief–of belief in almost anything.”

There, that’s a surprise eh, somebody misquoted to produce a widely known but wrong quote (play it again Sam). But to be fair the mangled quote does give the essence of Chesterton’s belief – if you don’t have an imaginary friend in the sky then you start believing in other imaginary things.

Utter nonsense of course. Chesterton was a very smart man with a huge blind spot of fundamentalist christian belief. Atheists are people who become skeptical about religious claims, then, examining all the evidence, find that there is none supporting the existence of a god. Do you seriously suggest, GK, that they suddenly abandon this skeptical approach in relation to other extraordinary claims? Christians (and members of other religions) have this covered – the less evidence the more faith, so a total lack of evidence requires absolute faith and therefore being perfectly at one with the religion concerned. Do you reckon, Gilbert, that they abandon this trusting belief system when faced with claims about events no more plausible than those in the Bible?

If you believe in religious relics, communion, saints, miracles, life after death, Noah’s Ark, creationism, then I submit, Gilbert, you have been primed to believe anything. Take this, for example, happening right now in 2012, in the sophisticated capital of one of the most advanced countries in the world. Note this little gem of rational thought:
“The saint died in 1552, but his forearm was not removed from his body until 1614, chosen as an object of devotion because he used it to bless and baptise thousands of people in Asia.”

Incidentally, one of the disturbing things about the story is the matter-of-fact way it is reported. As if such a loony tunes procedure was the most natural thing in the world. Would have been nice to have the reporter say “you batshit crazy loons WTF are you on about?” and return to the newsroom, story unwritten.

But, to reiterate, if you can believe that a 500-year-old pickled arm has mysterious powers, you can believe anything. Possibly you might believe, as some did recently that a small, vaguely pyramidal-shaped rock seen by Curiosity on Mars had been carved by Martians (or, as a few years ago, that an outcrop of rocks on Mars, illuminated at one time of day, was a giant carved face. Bit reminiscent really of finding the face of Jesus on a piece of burnt toast, or visions of the “virgin Mary” in a row of fence posts or stains on a wall). What do you think, GK, it was atheists who believed such rubbish?

Or, in your own beloved England, just the other day, were they atheists who thought that bright lights in the sky was a UFO, not space junk re-entering the atmosphere or a large meteorite? Is it atheists who believe in homeopathy, aliens, ghosts (when was that “exorcism” I read about?), telepathy, naturopathy,  paranormal, mediums who talk to the dead? Or is it the people who believe water turned into wine, a virgin gave birth, a burning bush spoke, the Red Sea parted, or some chap returned to life after dying and spoke to a couple of people?

Well, Mr Chesterton, your extraordinary evidence for the claim?

The sphere of private life

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When theocracy comes back to western civilisation it might begin with three young women protesting in a church and being jailed for two years. Or it will ride in on a wagon outlawing same-sex marriage. Perhaps it will come from small fundamentalist religious schools keeping their students isolated from any other thoughts, including Darwin’s dangerous idea. Or maybe it will come from leaders who pray to an imaginary being for guidance before making decisions on war.

Maybe “witches” being burnt will provide a spark. Or the loud voices demanding that women cover up their bodies, and art work be destroyed which depicts nakedness. Could it be hiding under the cloak of those who called a young Olympic runner a “prostitute”? Or of those who are certain that women must never be allowed to preach to men?

Perhaps it’s coming in that mob of wild-eyed young men brandishing AK 47s in the air and screaming “god is great” in triumph at having slaughtered other young men. Or in the ones screaming abuse about homosexuality at people attending soldier’s funerals. Or in the hands of the ones screaming at young women attending family planning clinics, or blowing them up or shooting “abortion doctors”. Or maybe it’ll be riding in a plane being flown into a tall building, or a truckload of explosives smashing into a girl’s school.

Maybe theocracy will begin on old battlefield sites being labelled as “sacred ground”. Or on pieces of burnt toast with an imaginary face. Or in a row of fence posts imagined as a woman’s figure. Or in the ancient monuments blown up as impure. Or perhaps in those places where gullible sick people are prayed upon and preyed upon by those promising miracle cures in return for a little money.

Its arrival will be speeded up by those determined to smash science. By those who preach the dominion of man over nature. By the tax exemptions for religious institutions. By the prayers at the start of parliamentary sessions. By the growing role of religious cadres in schools, in hospitals, in military memorial ceremonies, in political lobby groups. By the politicians flaunting their religious beliefs as an incentive to vote for them. By the preachers blaming a drought or a tornado on people behaving “sinfully”.

It will come from the children indoctrinated, and sometimes mutilated, at ages far too young to give consent. It will come from cults shielded from scrutiny by threats of legal action, shielded from criticism by laws limiting free speech. Will come from the poor devils refusing medical treatment in favour of prayer. Will come from big businesses with religious fundamentalist owners using their power. Will come from fearful people, made afraid by shock jocks serving political masters. Will come from the deliberate conflating of religion and race by unscrupulous leaders. Will come from words written by deluded people hundreds, thousands of years ago, believed by deluded people now to have come from one imaginary being or another.

It is enabled every time the media calls it a “miracle” when someone is saved by the full application of five centuries of western science and medicine. Every time tv channels run “serious” programs about “psychics” or “near death experiences” or “ghosts”. Every time someone is said to have “passed” instead of died. Every time someone says they will “pray for you to get better” and you don’t say “how about donating to medical research instead?” Every time someone wears a “power band” or a “healing crystal”, or recommends homeopathy.

Brought nearer every time someone says “Oh, those New Atheists, so aggressive and rude, they really should respect the beliefs of religious people”.

The bible will arrive, everywhere, wrapped in the flag and carrying a gun. Theocracy is coming to a country near you, soon, and it will take you back to the Dark Ages. The only thing needed for religion to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

“Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life” (William Lamb, on hearing an evangelical sermon)

Sitting in a tin can

6

Mars Curiosity? Brilliant, superb. We were all NASA engineers for those last ten minutes or so. The discoveries it makes will challenge our minds, lighten our hearts, make us proud, a rare thing lately, to be human.

The photo from an orbiting satellite of that parachute descent was stunning, almost unbelievable that we can achieve such things. So was the panorama the next day – there was Curiosity sitting on a dusty pebbly plain with distant mountains, just like any Earth landscape, and yet, Mars.

Oh, once it gets going what a brave new world. It will be doing proper geology. Looking at rock sequences, writing Mars geological history. And the history of its water. And, as a consequence, the jackpot, checking to see if any of the layers shows signs of past life, as they probably would (depending) on Earth.

Worth thinking about the logic of what discovery of life (past and/or present) on Mars would mean. If life is found then we immediately know, as many of us suspect, that life is abundant in the universe, and is likely to be found on any roughly Earth-size planets in the “Goldilocks Zone” distance from their star. Wouldn’t mean every such planet would have developed life – plenty of accidents like meteor strikes, supernova eruptions, runaway greenhouse effects – but it means the numbers of planets with life must be in the billions of billions.

Conversely, no evidence of life on Mars tells us very little. Means the odds perhaps a little less, but also simply means that although Mars is roughly in zone for life something else wasn’t right. Bit disappointing, but leaves us where we were.

Worth adding that if future probes find life on likely moons such as Enceladus, Titan, Europa, then this would multiply the likely places with life many times. It would also mean, if nothing found on Mars, that Mars was odd for not having life, and its history was the explanation.

So exciting times ahead (not least because life on Mars, and the moons, would, perhaps [no scientist ever lost a dollar by underestimating the intelligence of the religious public] finally put an end to the madness of imaginary friends on this planet.

And yet, and yet…

Why oh why does this magnificent machine have to be powered by Plutonium? Why oh why did the delivery vehicle use highly toxic Hydrazine, the remains of which were dumped on the Mars surface after Curiosity detached? Why are the number of bits of space junk on the surface of Mars multiplying?

You all know the “broken window” theory right? This says that you should immediately repair damage, clean up litter, wash graffiti off walls, tow away old cars, because if you leave one small mess people will think its ok to make more, and in an ever-growing snowball effect the neighbourhood will rapidly disintegrate.

Some truth in it of course (though as always the Right turns a minor idea into a truism engraved in stone as if provided by St Ronald or St Ayn). And it should have given those rightly happy NASA scientists a little cause for pause in the High Fives.

The word pristine actually once had meaning on Mars. Now it doesn’t. If one bit of junk why not another? If one lot of noxious and/or radioactive materials why not another? And another. Until before you know where you are the Martian bikie gangs have moved in. Would have been nice if Mars exploration could have been like the old National Park idea – leave nothing behind, take nothing away.

And not just bad for Mars itself. If finding life on Mars would have a positive effect back on Earth by pulling the prayer rugs out from under the priests, then dumping garbage on Mars has a negative effect back here. If it’s ok to litter Mars presumably it’s ok to litter, say, Antarctica. If it’s ok to land Plutonium on Mars then who can say nay to the nuclear power salesmen when they want to put some in your backyard?

Pity, really.

By special act

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Questions for creationists:
1. Given anoxic conditions, water, variety of chemicals, electrical discharges, complex organic molecules arriving from space, how did/does “god” STOP life emerging on planets all over the universe?
2. Since all species are variable, how does “god” STOP evolution happening?
3. Since populations of species constantly become isolated geographically, how does “god” STOP speciation occurring?
4. Given two extreme genetic bottlenecks for humans – Adam and Eve (the latter being cloned from the former!), then “Noah’s family” – how do you imagine the human race became so diverse, and abundant,  in just a few hundred years?
5. If “all the animals” were each represented by a single pair on the Ark, how did they all become so abundant and diverse in a few hundred years
6. How did “Noah” collect animals from the then unknown continents of Australia, Americas, Asia, southern Africa, northern Europe?
7.  Why did Noah have an inordinate fondness for beetles?
8. If the whole earth was covered with water of sufficient depth to cover mountains, how did any plant species survive?
9. If any plant species did somehow survive, how did they reform complex ecosystems all over the world in a few hundred years?
10. Given that all the other people of the world had different ideas how they came to exist, and that none of them “remember” the Flood, what makes you think … oh, forget it, I know your answer to that one.

And here’s a bonus question, if you finish the others early:
11. Name any two of the hundreds of thousands of biological scientists who have worked on aspects of evolution since Charles Darwin. To make it easier you can include geologists and physicists. Struggling? OK, I’ll give you a start, Alfred Russell Wallace. Over to you.

Short and stout

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Bertrand Russell famously said that if he stated that there was a teapot circling the Sun, nobody could prove him wrong, and that this was exactly the same as saying, without proof, that a god existed:

“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time”

Or as Carl Sagan put it more succinctly “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

Note that Russell was writing exactly 60 years ago, and so could happily include in his argument that the teapot was “too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes”. Sixty years on and we have massively stronger telescopes. Well, ok, he could certainly still say that the telescopes wouldn’t see a small teapot wandering through space between Earth and Mars, but a medium-sized teapot?

Telescopes can see almost back to the Big Bang, see the earliest stars and galaxies that formed. Can see the tiniest perturbations in the rings of Saturn, tiny colour differences on Mercury, changing seasons on Titan. Billions of galaxies can be seen, black holes in abundance, nebulae, distant planets circling different stars, every phenomenon of the universe. Can see every small rock and sandstorm on the surface of Mars, can see where the ice melts in Summer. Can look at details of the surface of asteroids, of comets, of lumps of rock that whizz past Earth. Can do experiments on our own Moon and see the results. Can analyse in detail the surface of the Sun, describe the history of other stars.

Telescopes can view the universe not just in the visible light spectrum, but in infrared, UV, XRay, radio waves. Can see where the “dark matter” is, can “weigh” galaxies, estimate the size of black holes. Can see the echoes of the big bang in the cosmic background radiation. Can see the arrangement of the universe in local groups of galaxies and in the super groupings.

The detail in our description of the universe is now quite astonishing. And nowhere in all that is there a sign of a teapot. Not a big one or a little one. Oh, and no sign of a fellow with a white beard and flowing robes either. Nor tall skinny gods or short stout ones. Nor any of the other imaginary elephants or buddhas or rainbow serpents. No imaginary figures, unless of course they are hiding in a sunken cave on Mars, or under the frozen surface of Titan, or shyly peeping from behind the dust clouds in a nebula, or popping in and out of a black hole in the middle of a galaxy, or, well, you get the idea. No one out there.

For the religious, like homeopaths, the less you can see the greater the proof, until the point where absolute zero evidence equals absolute certainty. So I guess they have it now – whatever the size of the telescope, or all the other devices with which we see the universe, the evidence for teapots, sorry, gods, is zero, zip, zilch, nada, nothing. Them gods ain’t nowhere man.

Nor is the teapot.