Human endeavors that inspire: The Hubble Space Telescope

Humanity has invented conflict, war and Religion. But not all achievements of society are bad. Quite the contrary, some of them are so magnificent they can actually restore your faith in Humanity and make you feel special to be a member of the Human family.

The Hubble Space Telescope is one of those achievements.

Hubble In Free Orbit

Image by NASA, Public Domain


The problem with observing the universe using telescopes and observatories stationed on Earth is a bit difficult because Earth’s atmosphere gets in the way. When looking at objects through Earth’s atmosphere, so-called twinkling occurs. What apparently happens is: the light which comes from distant sources passes through different densities of the atmosphere and the path of light is diverted and you don’t get precise readings.

In addition to that, atmosphere blocks ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma-rays, so if humanity wants to observe them it cannot do so through the atmosphere.

The Hubble Space Telescope as seen from the departing Space Shuttle Atlantis.

The Hubble Space Telescope as seen from the departing Space Shuttle Atlantis.



Human endeavors that inspire: The International Space Station

We all have ambivalent and contradictory feelings, sometimes about the tiniest, most irrelevant things. And when it comes to the human condition, to the status and development of humanity … well, what can be a greater source of contradiction that development of human society in general? For example, I’ll be the first one to say that we as a species are not doing nearly enough when it comes to Space Exploration and Science, but at other times I take a look what humanity has achieved and I’m filled with inspiration and almost moved to tears.


The International Space Station as photographed by a crew member on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis, By NASA/Crew of STS-132 - Public Domain (Source)


This time we’re talking about The International Space Station. This is one major human achievement and not only because it’s a technological wonder, but also because it’s a monument to what humanity can achieve once it pulls together to work on a common goal. It’s  material evidence that our petty little differences don’t matter so much, because when humanity wants a common goal it will pull it’s resources together to make that happen.


Human Endeavors that inspire: The Large Hadron Collider

Just as a wonderful piece of music or transcendental work of poetry, Science can also be an endless source of inspiration and wonder. Just think about the vastness of Deep Space, or the miniscule of quanta, and try not to be inspired. Imagine the expanding universe, the galaxies running away from us, at an ever increasing speed and try not to feel amazed. You are a part of Human species, the only species known so far that is able to understand these facts about the Universe we live in.

Today we are talking about one Human Endeavor that makes it possible for our species to do just that – gain an increased understanding of the Universe, the Large Hadron Collider.


LHC tunnel / Photograph Copyright CERN / Maximilien Brice

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator and a largest machine in the World. It was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).


Freedom to criticize Religion

In all modern democracies, one of fundamental citizen rights is that of a Religious freedom. There is no state-backed religion and there is no discrimination of people based on their religious beliefs. At least in writing, as something similar is undoubtedly written into Constitution of your own Country.


For example in my native Croatia, Article 40 of our Constitution says:

“Jamči se sloboda savjesti i vjeroispovijedi i slobodno javno očitovanje vjere ili drugog uvjerenja.”


which roughly translated means that freedom of consciousness and religion and free public display of said religion or other  belief is guaranteed. Or in the US, with the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”


This is, of course, an important right. Let’s just remind ourselves briefly why. There was no small amount of instances through history when people who had religion different than the majority was persecuted and executed. This is still practiced today in some countries, for example Burma, where intolerance, discrimination and violence against Muslims is provoked by the Buddhist community (PDF). (ah, those religions of peace …). So, I believe we can all agree that freedom of Religion is important.

The thing is, Freedom of Religion also ensures the rights of people to change their minds about their religion. This basically means, if you have another religious idea, other than the one you currently practice, you are free to act upon that idea and leave your old idea behind, you are free to change your religion.

So, this is to me evidence that as far as countries are concerned, Religion is, and should be only an idea and it should have no more privilege when it comes to criticism, than for example, politics. And we all know that a lot of politicians leave their old political parties behind, only to spew criticism on them from afar.

This is only one example. You can criticize everything, so why should only Religion be spared? Why is Religion the only thing nothing bad can be said about?


A Few words about Conspiracy Theories

Some studies1 are saying that people who believe strongly in all sorts of conspiracy theories have one thing in common: They feel like they don’t have control over their lives.


Image by Empey

Basically, it seems that most conspiracy theories appear in times of uncertainty. This is when our brains are in overdrive, trying to figure out what is happening and why is it happening. Human brain is wired to look for patterns, as this behaviour helped our ancestors survive when they were roaming the African savannas. This means we are looking for patterns everywhere, in every situation. And sometimes brain will malfunction, connecting two things that are not really connected in reality.


Scientific Theory

Making sure to avoid any confusion about what "scientific theory" in context of evolution means, Richard Dawkins in The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution wrote:

Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact.

- Richard Dawkins


What I'm guessing he meant is: evolution did happen and it's still happening. This is proven and solid. Evolution also uses and incorporates other facts that support the conclusion that evolution did happen. In this sense, evolution is a scientific theory and it is supported by facts. And of course, it is true and should be universally accepted as the truth. Creationists would not agree with this, but I would say this doesn't really matter to educated people.

But still, a lot of people say things like "that's only a theory", "why should we base our lives on a theory?, etc when they're talking about evolution, for example. Yeah, like a belief in a sky-wizard is something to base your life on? But I digress - the point of this brief post is just to share a understanding about what scientific theory is.

First thing you'll notice about scientific theories is - there's really PLENTY of evidence for them. This very fact makes them different from what we usually mean when we say "Theory" in normal speech.

Triceratops mounted skeleton at Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles, United States of America, by Allie_Caulfield Derivative: User:MathKnight - File:LA-Triceratops mount-1.jpg (by Allie_Caulfield), CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

By using words such as "FACT", instead of "theory" Dawkins does not confuse people that might not be familiar with scientific meaning of the word "theory" and sometimes I wish other scientists would do the same when talking to the public, just to hammer the point more clearly. If you read Dawkins' quote again, there's no second thought about what he meant evolution is.

Let's not get tangled in words too much, but get right into the point about evolution and other well established scientific theories. So, what does actually mean when a scientist says something is a "scientific theory"?

Well, if you simply ask Wikipedia, it will tell you:

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed, preferably using a written, pre-defined, protocol of observations and experiments. Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge.


Basically, when scientists use word "theory", they are talking about something completely different than what general public understands under "theory". When you use word "theory" in everyday speech, you actually mean "hypothesis" or "conjecture", something not tested or proven. When scientists use this word, they mean almost the same thing Dawkins meant: That what you and I mean by "fact" in normal speech.

To make an additional point, here are some scientific theories:

  • Special Relativity
  • General Relativity
  • Plate Tectonics
  • Evolution by natural selection
  • Information theory

All these theories have stood the test of time, fought-off challenges, have practical effects and are well-proven pieces of knowledge humanity has. So, don't be fooled by the words and cheap arguments that something is "only a theory". But do be critical and do try and see for yourself. A good rule of thumb would be: if there's evidence for something, it's on it's way to being true and if a idea doesn't have any evidence but requires "faith" or "trust" from you, or only focuses on trying to find flaws in competing idea, it most likely isn't true.

Request For Comments: Nutritionism

Currently thinking about "Nutritionism". I know almost nothing about it, but yet, it doesn't sound right to me. Just think about how many times have you heard "eat this and you will be healthy", only to hear that same advice declared bullshit in the very next study?

Image by Peggy Greb - This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, with the ID K11083-1.

It seems to me that Nutritionism as a science, if it indeed does belong into science has no solid foundations. Just think about it, when was the last time you heard for example that theory of gravity was debunked? Yet, I somehow have the impression this happens very often with Nutritionism.

Just look at the picture above. Wikipedia description reads:

Good sources of magnesium: bran muffins, pumpkin seeds, barley, buckwheat flour, low-fat vanilla yogurt, trail mix, halibut steaks, garbanzo beans, lima beans, soybeans, and spinach.

A reminder, "A NUTRIENT is either a chemical element or compound used in an organism's metabolism or physiology. A nutrient is essential to an organism if it cannot be produced by the organism and must be obtained from a food source."


So, I would say, when Nutritionism finds that a certain nutrient is good for you, it seems to me most of the Nutritionists will hurry to recommend foods which contain this, possibly at the expense of other foods that also contain this nutrient, but that also contain other useful things. And here my friends is where I see the potential for Nutritionists to be on the payroll of huge corporations, usually recommending products that these corporations are producing.

So, this seems to me a very dubious practice to judge foods only based on this. Because, by definition, food must contain a lot of beneficial, nutritional substances. Also, as it's discussed in this New York Times article - Most "nutritional science" involves studying one nutrient at a time, which at least to me seems shaky at best.

Yes, science when proven wrong acknowledges that mistake and goes back to the drawing board, But it seems to me that the only stable thing Nutritionism has is "eat fruits and vegetables". And not even this seems very stable. Actually, if you look at Wikipedia, it seems that Nutritionism is nothing more than the idea that the nutritional value of a food is the sum of all its individual nutrients.

Here's another article from The Scientist magazine. In this article author argues that Nutrition research uses "pseudoscientific measures". Well worth of reading.

As I said before, I know nothing about this. My instincts may be completely wrong and I hope that they are, because I believe in science and I do believe that science has a lot to say on a variety of topics, so why should be food be excluded? But I also believe in critical thinking and I believe in deciding for yourself.

This is my first attempt at doing so with regards to this field. I encourage you to do the same. If you have an opinion or a good (preferably layman-friendly) resource you recommend to read, feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for visiting!