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FROM SCIENCE SALON # 5

Does the Universe Just Go On Forever?

This Moment is from Science Salon # 5, with Dr. janna Levin: Gravitational Waves, Black Holes and the Nature of the Cosmos, which you can watch for free online.

Based on her new book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, astrophysicist and award-winning writer Dr. Janna Levin tells the epic story of the scientific campaign to record gravitational waves—the holy grail of modern cosmology.

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SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN “SKEPTIC” COLUMN FOR JULY 2017

Who Are You? Memories, Points of View and the Self

The Discovery is a 2017 Netflix film in which Robert Redford plays a scientist who proves that the afterlife is real. “Once the body dies, some part of our consciousness leaves us and travels to a new plane,” the scientist explains, evidenced by his machine that measures, as another character puts it, “brain wavelengths on a subatomic level leaving the body after death.”

Scientific American (cover)

This idea is not too far afield from a real theory called quantum consciousness, proffered by a wide range of people, from physicist Roger Penrose to physician Deepak Chopra. Some versions hold that our mind is not strictly the product of our brain and that consciousness exists separately from material substance, so the death of your physical body is not the end of your conscious existence. Because this is the topic of my next book, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia (Henry Holt, 2018), the film triggered a number of problems I have identified with all such concepts, both scientific and religious.

First, there is the assumption that our identity is located in our memories, which are presumed to be permanently recorded in the brain: if they could be copied and pasted into a computer or duplicated and implanted into a resurrected body or soul, we would be restored. But that is not how memory works. Memory is not like a DVR that can play back the past on a screen in your mind. Memory is a continually edited and fluid process that utterly depends on the neurons in your brain being functional. It is true that when you go to sleep and wake up the next morning or go under anesthesia for surgery and come back hours later, your memories return, as they do even after socalled profound hypothermia and circulatory arrest. Under this procedure, a patient’s brain is cooled to as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which causes electrical activity in neurons to stop—suggesting that long-term memories are stored statically. But that cannot happen if your brain dies. That is why CPR has to be done so soon after a heart attack or drowning because if the brain is starved of oxygen-rich blood, the neurons die, along with the memories stored therein. […]

Read the complete column

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Naming Monsters
MONSTERTALK EPISODE 131

What’s in a name? More than you might imagine, if you’re a scientist trying to officially name a new species. In this episode of MonsterTalk, we talk to Ichthyologist Ben Frable about the process (and many challenges) of scientifically identifying and naming new species.

Ben Frable (photo copyright 2011 Josh Schaedel Photography http://www.joshschaedelphotography.com/)

Ben Frable (photos ©2011 Josh Schaedel Photography)

Get the MonsterTalk Podcast App and enjoy the science show about monsters on your handheld devices! Available for iOS, Android, and Windows. Subscribe to MonsterTalk for free on iTunes.

1 Comment »

One Comment

  1. Terry W says:

    Michael’s comment in his Scientific American piece is right – the knowledge of one’s own mortality is uplifting. Unfortunately the majority of the world’s human population do not find it so. Hence, gods and religions have been invented, because humans are conceited enough, or desperate enough, to want to disbelieve that their unique and amazing consciousness could simply be dispensed with at death. This despite the simple fact that everyone who is not deluded knows that the world and the universe existed before their birth when they themselves did not, and that no-one’s consciousness has ever survived their demise.

    So, imagine a different scenario of evolution. In developing consciousness, intelligence, and language, let’s pretend that rationality preceded superstition. In the last few thousand years observations, logical thought, and freedom of expression would have formed theories of evolution and of the cosmos uninhibited by those whose thinking was predetermined by ancient myths and ceremonies.

    But there would be dissenters – let’s call them “sceptics” (English spelling as this would have been long before that language was forced upon the native Americans). Among them would have been one seer who imagined a different universe and world that were more pre-ordained. Let’s call him Darles Charwin.

    A couple of centuries ago Charwin might have put forward the hypothesis that the Cosmos, the Earth, all the species, and mankind itself, had been designed by an ethereal, but real, entity, that no-one could see or hear, but who had created and was managing everything about us, and that all the species, including humans, were its puppets who would, nonetheless, be held to account for everything they did when they died and, if they passed the test their consciousness would exist in perfection forever.

    What would have happened to Charwin when he had propounded those views? Hopefully, in the absence of violent antagonism from many competing irrational views, he would have been treated gently and cloistered somewhere, or enjoyed debating such ideas with the vast majority who understood the reasons for his need to believe such things but were tolerant of him expressing them.

    Meanwhile, the vast majority of the world’s human population would have created a philosophy of morality, ethics and tolerance far more profound than that which we have now. So, despite that religions do have, at the small scale, the ability to pull people together beneficially to act well in order to demonstrate their personal goodness, the fact is that, on the larger scale, they cause huge misery in the name of their faiths, and will probably signal the end of human progress or even existence.

    Humanity’s challenge is to educate the world’s population so that we do arrive at the point that evolution would have taken us to had it developed in that way. We have to teach the children, not argue with the adults, that humans can have a moral framework that is sufficient even while each of us knows we will cease to exist in a short time.

    But, not too short to leave a legacy, in words and deeds.

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