Saturday, April 16, 2011

God and Gaia in Academia

This is an interesting essay at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Apparently it's fairly common in academic circles to believe that humanity was matriarchal in prehistoric times, complete with goddess worship. Feminist Cynthia Eller countered this trend in her book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why An Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future. It reminds me of the claims that witches were proto-feminist midwives and healers who were persecuted by the patriarchy.

By itself, that's pretty interesting and makes the essay well worth reading. But then comes this quote:

Why bring this up now? Because higher education’s relaxed attitude about appointing faculty members who not only believe but who actually teach this moonshine demonstrates the hypocrisy of those who say that faculty members are acting out of the need to protect the university from anti-scientific nonsense when they discriminate against conservative Christian candidates for academic appointment. The possibility that a candidate for a position in biology, anthropology, or, say, English literature might secretly harbor the idea that God created the universe or that the Bible is true, is a danger not to be brooked. But apparently, the possibility that a candidate believes that human society was “matriarchal” until about 5,000 years ago is perfectly within the range of respectable opinion appropriate for campus life.

And then it gets really interesting.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Quote of the Day

It is difficult to undo our own damage and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave. It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it. We are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. Did the wind used to cry and the hills shout forth praise? Now speech has perished from among the lifeless things of the earth, and living things say very little to very few... And yet it could be that wherever there is motion there is noise, as when a whale breaches and smacks the water, and wherever there is stillness there is the small, still voice, God's speaking from the whirlwind, nature's old song and dance, the show we drove from town... What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn't us? What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello?

Annie Dillard
Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters

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Wednesday, April 06, 2011

And the Templeton Prize goes to....

.....Sir Martin Rees, astrophysicist and former head of the British Royal Society. This follows a Templeton tradition of honoring people like Freeman Dyson and Paul Davies whose work in Cosmology and Astrophysics touches on the big questions but who don't have much in the way of religious beliefs.

An interview with the winner is here (in which he is pretty guarded) and you can read his acceptance speech here.

The next thing to look forward to is the pissed off reaction from the nu atheist blog-o-sphere. Nothing has showed up as yet but while you are waiting you can - thanks to the wonders of flash - watch the new president of the British Humanist association pull off a selection of disco moves to Scandinavian electro-pop

EDIT - On cue here's a bit of backlash from P Z 'Pharingula' Meyers who describes Rees as mediocre and sticks him in the 'kooks' category. I guess being the author of over 500 research papers isn't enough these days.

More of the usual suspects - Jerry Coyne in the Guardian and on his blog who really reserves his venom for Templeton and is fairly respectful of Rees (The Guardian tried to stir things up by renaming his article 'Prize mug Martin Rees and the Templeton travesty'). Harry Kroto has been quoted as saying 'Shocking. Bad for science. Bad for the Royal Society. Bad for the UK and very bad for Martin'.

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Monday, April 04, 2011

What Happened When? Ancient Near East Chronology

I have always been interested in chronology, perhaps because it promises to apply some numerical rigour to ancient history. Sadly, things are rarely that simple. I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Jones' Centuries of Darkness, but ultimately found its proposal of a radical reform of ancient chronology to be unconvincing. But from time to time, I like to see how the chronological debates in ancient near eastern history (“ANE”) have progressed. The answer is usually, not by very much.

The problem with chronology is the need to pin an absolute date to relative dates. For example, if we have a list of kings of Assyria and how long they all reigned, we have a relative chronology for the Assyrians. If we also have references to the Assyrians sacking an Israelite city in the biblical records, we can pin the Assyrian chronology to the Hebrew one. And if an Egyptian pharaoh marched around Judea and this is recorded both in Egypt and the Bible, then we can attach the chronology of Egypt to our scheme as well. But we also need an absolute date so we can say exactly when a specified event happened. We can then extrapolate all our relative dates from this single absolute date to get an absolute chronology.

And herein lies the problem. Carbon 14 dates are nothing like accurate enough to provide absolute dates. The best that we can hope for is plus or minus thirty years, but there are serious doubts that the technique provides even this level of accuracy. Dendrochronology, dating from tree rings, can give you an absolute date for the year in which a tree was felled, but you cannot easily tie this to a historical event.

In fact, there is only one absolute date that everyone agrees with before the classical period. This is a total eclipse of the sun that took place on 14 June 763BC. NASA helpfully provides a map showing the path of the eclipse moving right across the Middle East (as well as a catalogue of all eclipses). Assyrian records note this eclipse in the 9th year of the reign of King Ashur-dan III. This ties all the ANE chronologies together, at least for the first half of the first millennium BC.

For chronology before 1000BC, things get complicated. Absolute dates have to be derived from observations about the rise of the star Sirius (Sothic dating used in Egypt) or the visibility of Venus (used in Babylon). But neither of these provides a single accurate date. For instance, the observations of Venus that tie to the reign of Hammurabi of Babylon occur every 60 years or so, which means that high, middle and low chronologies (with about 120 years between them) can all be argued for.

These problems could largely be solved if it was possible to date the Thera volcanic eruption that devastated large parts of the Mediterranean basin. Traditionally, this was believed to have happened shortly after 1500BC, but carbon dating and dendrochronology suggested a date of 1627BC. Evidence for the ash and pumice that the volcano ejected is laminated all over Asia Minor but, remarkably, the eruption is not recorded in any surviving records. Worse, it doesn’t even show up in the Greenland ice cores, where it should be very obvious. A likely candidate in 1642BC turns out to have been an eruption in Alaska. Quite why traces of the 60 cubic kilometres of rock ejected from Santorini do not stick out like a sore thumb or feature in any Egyptian records is odd to say the least.

So it seems by dreams of mathematical precision in the field of ancient chronology have been dashed. This probably won’t change until someone figures out how to precisely date the Thera eruption or new eclipse records turn up.

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Instapundit just received his copy of The Genesis of Science. You can't buy that kind of publicity. You're finally famous James!

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