Dealing with the real world

You know, it’s not too often that I select articles to respond to here, mostly because my readership is small and I’m fairly remote – I’d rather respond where the article appears, and reach the same audience. At the same time, I’m more often simply passing on thoughts that stand alone when I can. But this one not only deserved a response, it demonstrates some of the larger problems which bear their own examination.

BioLogos is an organization that seeks to rectify the “warfare” between science and religion, and get them to live in harmony – don’t take my interpretation of it, you can see their mission on the About page connected to that link. It’s funded by the Templeton Foundation, which has much the same goal. The problem is, there’s really no disharmony or warfare involved. Science, as I’ve said before, is merely a methodical process of learning. It examines nature and, through tests and measurements and lots of attention, finds out how things work. Scientific laws aren’t arbitrary creations of scientists, but merely expressions of natural constants – if you have no idea what they are, they still work exactly the same for you.

The conflict (which often gets treated as “warfare” and deliberate attacks upon religion if you ask the religious) comes in when nothing in the slightest supernatural, mystical, or religious is found when we do this – in other words, no evidence for religious “truths” are ever found. At all.

Normally, this shouldn’t be any big deal, right? Who cares if science can find god? Science is imperfect, but god is everywhere, and all that. Except, no one can seem to agree on what god is or does. As we get more detailed about god’s word and god’s functions and miracles and such, they aren’t actually leading us anywhere, providing any knowledge, provoking the human spirit to new heights, or, well, anything, really. Science, on the other hand, is responsible for massive gains in knowledge, ability, health, welfare, transportation, understanding, and so on. We use it, we rely on it, we’re incredibly happy with it, because it works. And after relying on religion to help us burn people at the stake, drive off demons causing headaches and convulsions, tell us who wasn’t “chosen,” and all that fun stuff from a loving god, science started giving us things that actually worked. So, we use it.

What this actually means is that religion is fading away and losing all the power it once had, and those that wielded this power are quite perturbed by this. Those that liked the idea that they were “chosen” and “saved” and guaranteed a fun time for the remainder of eternity are frustrated that this guarantee looks like it won’t stand up in court. And those that feel that the world shouldn’t be unfair don’t want to hear that “fairness” is only a human concept, and adversity just something to be dealt with. So, there’s resistance. That brings us to the article.

One World: Science and Christianity in Respectful Dialogue, Part I” by Loren Wilkinson is what BioLogos seems to think is a reconciliation between science and religion. It’s unfortunate that Wilkinson doesn’t seem to even understand what science is, much less how it works, and indicative of a greater problem with BioLogos‘ supposed mission is that this article falls so wide of the mark. The first sentence crashes spectacularly not just once, but twice:

The BioLogos Foundation, with its commitment to the “integration of science and Christian faith” is one of many signs that the 150-year-old idea of a “warfare” between science and religion is ending.

Well, the attacks of religion against science have been going on for a lot longer than 150 years, because they certainly didn’t start (as I’m sure Wilkinson is implying) with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Pretty much from the start of christianity, it’s been trashing the rights of human beings, torturing those that failed to avow their obeisance to the scripture, and pillaging those areas of the world considered not holy enough. Galileo was forced to renounce his work on planetary motion – you know, that Earth revolves around the Sun? – and Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for refusing to recant his theory that the sun was one of many such stars in the universe. You have heard of witch hunts, right? Wilkinson apparently hasn’t. So, either Wilkinson learned absolutely nothing from history, or wants to ignore it entirely in favor of minimizing the church’s warfare against people who dared examine the natural world and learn from it, as well as people who simply didn’t find scripture all that useful, who got to be tortured and killed too.

That’s part one. Part two, for the same sentence, is that BioLogos isn’t really a sign of the end of the warfare, because it doesn’t actually reconcile anything. All it’s doing is fighting to make religion seem relevant to a world that no longer needs it. Let’s keep going, because you may be thinking I’m saying that from bias or spite. On this “warfare”:

First, it obscures the recognition that science at its core, is a religious activity, in the deepest and most literal sense of “re-ligious”—that which links. Religion and science both come from the uniquely human passion to see the diverse pieces of our experience as one supple and coherent body of knowledge: thus its connection with a word like “ligament”, the tissue which holds the skeleton together.

Well, first of all, it’s one hell of a stretch to use the word in the form of its Latin roots and claim this is what it means – especially since dictionaries don’t even recognize this usage of the root, much less the word. Both “religion” and “ligament” have the same root meaning, but it isn’t “to link” – it’s “to bind.” That didn’t sell as well, I’m guessing.

But, he might actually be right that religion and science came from seeking knowledge… though he didn’t actually say this, did he? He’s trying to say they’re intended to be united, which is another stretch. I’ll let this one go, though – sure, we seek knowledge. Philosophy and astrology have the same root cause too. But one’s a semi-valid pursuit of understanding, and the other’s a pile of imagined horseshit. Examining roots doesn’t actually get us anywhere, does it? Nor does thinking that, as supposed forms of knowledge, they are united in goal and value.

There is no science without scientists, and scientists are always and only humans, probing and coming to know an inexhaustibly mysterious cosmos by means of their own passions, beliefs, hunches and theories.

No and no. Science is merely finding out how things work – it only needs scientists to express it to others. Natural laws work without human input at all. The structure of scientific investigation is in place solely because we’re fallible and prone to mistakes. And that’s where the second part of this sentence falls flat, in that science specifically weeds out the passions, beliefs, and hunches to reveal only what is. A scientist can be exceptionally passionate about the aether, for example, and believe in it fervently, but when the tests reveal it doesn’t exist, accepting that is science. I point this out because Wilkinson, having started to couch knowledge in terms of emotion, plans to use this shifty little trick later on.

Second, and more specifically, the warfare language hides the fact that the modern tradition of empirical science has deep roots in the Jewish and Christian tradition. The point was first made clearly in Michael Foster’s meticulously reasoned series of articles, “The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Origins of Modern Science”, published in the resolutely positivist philosophical journal Mind in 1934.

Actually, empirical science (christians do so love that word, “empirical”) has roots that predate christianity by centuries. The Greeks knew the world was spherical, and had pretty damn good measurements of it, before the biblical stories calling it flat and rectangular made it out of the middle east. The Romans had remarkably long-lasting architecture, aqueducts, roads, monetary systems, and such before jesus was born. Ötzi the Iceman possessed smelted ores used for tools and weapons, a thousand years before the time of the great flood. So, uh, bullshit. The point was false long before Michael Foster came along.

The warfare language implies that there were two kinds of knowledge: “religious knowledge”, established only by emotion and authority, and scientific knowledge, established by experience, experiment and testing. If true this would be a disastrous situation, culturally and personally, since it would doom “religious” people to living in a pseudo-reality constructed from dogma and wishful thinking, and “scientific” people living in a meaningless world of emotion-free “facts” each of which they must establish for themselves.

I agree with Wilkinson, it would be disastrous for “religious” people (his quotes) to live in a pseudo-reality constructed from dogma and wishful thinking. Only, that’s exactly what they do. That’s why there’s a conflict with science – because the real world doesn’t demonstrate any of the properties they really want it to have. Boo hoo.

Meanwhile, people do live in a world of emotion-free facts, and despite Wilkinson’s placement of scare-quotes around the word, facts do indeed exist (for an organization that supposedly supports science alongside religion, this seems like a snarky thing to let slip by, doesn’t it? It’s the kind of thing that a godbot that denigrates science would do, actually.) And yes, these facts have no emotions – how stupid can your point be? Emotions are the traits of living species. Wilkinson wants to imply here that scientists do not feel emotion, but perhaps even he knew that this was one piece of bullshit that he couldn’t pull off. That doesn’t stop him from implying that science dismisses emotions further down in the article, though. This is a favorite within religious arguments, as if emotion is the key to knowledge or “truth.” You’ll see it a lot.

But meaning? Yes, there’s another of the favorite words of the religious, and I’ve addressed this too. Despite the fervent avowals of every religion that this is what they specifically provide, I haven’t actually seen it. Depending on who you ask, it’s to “spread the good word” (seems to be a lot of trouble to go through, floods and wars and all that, to let people know about an omnipotent being who could establish it in our minds in an eyeblink,) or it’s something mysterious we aren’t meant to know – this one invariably comes up when the religious get stumped. Neither one really does anything for me, sorry to say. The chair I’m sitting in is “meaningless,” as are the rocks out in the yard. But we can find a use for both, and even gain knowledge from them. In fact, the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge works pretty damn well as a meaning to me, but that’s simply because we evolved to seek it. So?

We live in one world, part of which we know on authority, part of which we know on experience.

Ah, we come to the common religious tactic of assertion! Just a little sentence fragment, intended to justify and legitimize scripture by saying we know something on “authority.” But, pray tell (yow I’m a hoot,) what is this knowledge that we gained on authority? Can we use it in any way? Is it the creation of the world in seven days? The garden of eden? Noah’s flood? Tower of babel, david & goliath, samson & delilah, jesus, peter? What bits have given us something that contributes to our lives and advancement as humans? Be careful now, because I don’t work from christianity being the only religion in the world, and you’ll have to prove that christians, with this special knowledge, are more advanced than others without it. I’ll be demanding real evidence.

Because, the real reason we have BioLogos and Wilkinson trying to become one with science is that science has that legitimacy they both want, and do not have from their scripture. The more we know, the sillier the biblical stories get, and that’s been going on for a few hundred years now.

From here, Wilkinson then starts mixing jargon-speak about scientific models with philosophical speculation about how adam & eve can fit into the facts of evolution – supposedly, you can take this inane concept about human progenitors and “model” it. No, you actually can’t, and the point he’s trying to hide in the smoke is that both human history and simple logic render the adam & eve story as fatuous. Models give us the means to examine what affect such a premise would have on human development – just saying “we modeled it” is meaningless. What do the models measure and produce? Well, they don’t produce anything, because in order to even try to apply their model into what we know about evolutionary development, they have to change the criteria from the scripture to fit the facts. That makes the scriptural accounts an admitted dead end. Even if the model produced some kind of results, the results couldn’t then tally back into scripture because that’s not what they tested in the first place. In fact, they tested nothing at all, because this talk about models didn’t actually involve any method for which models are used. It’s simply a way to make mere idle speculation sound important.

I want you to notice something here, too, because it’s exceptionally common. Wilkinson doesn’t seem to have any issues with trashing “facts,” most especially when they don’t go the way he’d like them to, and his ignorance of church history is phenomenal. But then he openly tries to use science (or an abject bastardization of it, anyway) as a way to give scripture an improved stature. Notice that we’re not even finding biblical accounts that predicted scientific findings, a pretty solid method of saying that knowledge can come from scripture. We’re warping scripture to try and blend it into what science has already established, and in doing so, holding up scripture as “knowledge from authority.” Cute, isn’t it?

It gets better. On the detailed rebuttals from Jerry Coyne and Eric MacDonald:

Both write from within that familiar fog of confusion (typical of both a-theist and religious fundamentalisms) which arises whenever we assume that the only relationship between religion and science is one of warfare.

You are, of course, welcome to read their input and see if either of them seems to be in a confused fog, or treating the advancement of this model theory as “warfare.” Both, instead, know very well that reliable knowledge comes from evidence and support, function and testability. They address why the model theory fails. But it doesn’t work for Wilkinson’s agenda to have to deal with facts, so he openly resorts to demonizing the opposition, perhaps hoping (and probably being right in far too many cases) that his intended audience isn’t bright enough to see for themselves.

And it goes on, with Wilkinson attempting to draw a metaphorical use for genesis by claiming it defines man’s relation to the cosmos, the purpose of it, and the purpose to man. That is accomplishes none of these is simply ignored outright – again, if it has been asserted, there is no reason to support this assertion with something so crass as evidence, is there? Welcome to what you receive when you seek real answers from religion.

Theologians throughout the entire history of christianity have spent untold years trying to reconcile scriptural accounts in some euphemistic or metaphorical way, but none of them have ever stood up to scrutiny, much less produced any kind of supporting evidence. Sooner or later, you have to come to the realization that the story is simply bullshit. The very fact that it’s taken this long (and will still continue at least a little bit longer) is evidence that the search for religious knowledge isn’t going to work until you treat it like science does, and accept the bad results with the good. It’s fine to start with a premise and see how well it fits, but when it doesn’t, even after all this time, you need to look for something that does. Oh, wait! We’ve already found that long ago! Thus, the “warfare” isn’t a duel between science and religion, but between emotional crutches and accepting reality. And if you want to challenge the idea of our current theories being “reality,” I’ll let you have that point – we can’t prove anything beyond a shadow of a doubt, we can only find what has the greatest evidenced support. That example of greatest evidenced support that Wilkinson alludes to in the beginning, mind you, forms the backbone of biology, anatomy, medicine, and other disciplines, and manages to both function and predict with incredible accuracy. You know, that’s kinda why we use it.

The article even goes so far as to call biblical scripture a “data set,” which is so astoundingly dishonest about science and data that it shows BioLogos as the lie that it is. No one intending to promote science in any way as a useful function could consider haphazard writings from several thousand years ago as “data,” except as evidence that humans indeed had a language then. And of course, to consider it useful information, you would then, if you had an honest bone in your body, have to consider all of the other scriptural “data” as well – you know, the ones from religions that don’t agree with christianity. BioLogos, naturally enough, cannot do that, because it says right there in their mission that christianity is the only standpoint they promote. You may notice that they do not establish why christianity wins this competition, but I imagine that if you ask, you’ll get answers much the same as Wilkinson’s wordy but vacuous article here.

And that’s really the lesson to be learned from all this. When you’re in pursuit of your agenda, you can resort to a lot of tricks to try and establish support for it. Putting together a long litany of impressive-sounding points only works if someone is concerned by the sounds, not the content. If the content won’t stand up against critical examination, you may actually get called on your blatant and biased attempts to skew the results in your favor – in which case, you can decry the language and the disrespectful tone as Wilkinson does. This ignores the fact that nothing in his treatise smokescreen deserves respect, but only demonstrates a shameless manipulation of both facts and emotion. This is the legacy of religion – if you dare to examine the history, you’ll find that this hasn’t ever been different.

My question has always been, why do people find this so compelling? Isn’t the flow of bullshit from the most valued proponents embarrassing enough to avoid? Doesn’t the lack of a decent argument indicate something?

There’s always a way

Skimming through my archive photos looking for a topic for a blog post, I found one! Amazing, isn’t it? Anyway, one of the things I tell my photography students (and anyone else that will listen) routinely is that chasing equipment isn’t the key to getting those wonderful images they’ve been after. I’d use myself as an example, because I’ve worked on a shoestring all my life, but I may not be getting the wonderful images they’ve been after myself. I’ve gotten plenty that I’ve liked, so we’ll just stick with that and proceed from there.

I have a page set up on this topic already, but briefly, elaborate equipment doesn’t magically create good images, and the lack thereof doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to work around it. While I have always had an interest in aquatic things, and love snorkeling, I’ve never gotten scuba-certified and never owned an underwater camera. So, I cheated, and while I lived in Florida, I set up a small fishtank to work from. Snorkel trips down to the nearby saltwater lagoon, close enough to walk or bicycle to, provided lots of small subjects, and the tank afforded me something that I wouldn’t be getting even with a decent underwater camera rig: the ability to control conditions, lighting, and be handy when certain species displayed something noteworthy.

From time to time, I would spot a subtle, fast, and very shy fish in the lagoon, but had a very difficult time getting close enough to obtain a decent shot. Plus, shooting from above the surface almost always results in distortion and glare from the rippling surface.


I did what I could, but I knew that even with an underwater camera, I wasn’t getting close enough to these spooky buggers to get any kind of clarity through the water, certainly not a nice detail shot. But then one day, I spotted a small collection of fry, baby fish, that I was able to herd into a more enclosed area and scoop up an example in a collecting jar that I’d been carrying with me routinely. Once home, I installed it in my tank, adjusted the lights, and set to work. The fish only had a limited amount of room to dart away within, the suspended sediment was much reduced, and I could adjust the lights to get the perfect angle.


Is that better? This (after a very brief search with a guess at the name) is a Redfin Needlefish (Strongylura notata,) and while my grinning model here isn’t 5 cm (2 in) long, they apparently can get to be quite large. My wild example at top is probably in the range of 15-25 cm if memory serves.

But you want a better look at that head, don’t you?


I sharpened this a little bit to bring out those teeth better, considering that they’re probably half a millimeter in length, or less. Even with a proper underwater macro lens and a lighting rig that could illuminate a subject this close, there’s very little chance I could get close enough to such a subject in the wild without resorting to baiting, and a whole lot of patience. Instead, my actual costs were for the fishtank and the off-camera cord for my flash unit, and I shot a sequence of photos in the space of a few minutes before releasing this guy back where I caught him.

So, before you throw money at more camera gear, see what can be accomplished with a little thought. Every piece of equipment, every technique, has its good and bad points, and it’s probably better to examine the good points of what’s available to you now (and the bad points of the waiting and the cost of the new equipment,) rather than reversing that as too many people do, and weighing the good points of the new equipment against the bad points of their current equipment. Your wallet, and perhaps your spouse, may be much happier, too.

Lucky guess

I amused myself earlier this evening by doing a little astronomical shooting, but in a strictly casual way. I have an 8-inch Galilean telescope which I can use to get fairly decent photos like the one for this post, but it’s packed away and I wasn’t motivated enough to dig it out. Instead, I simply used the 170-500mm zoom lens, both with and without the 2x teleconverter. I found that the teleconverter didn’t provide any edge in these conditions, and simply worked without it.

Later, looking at the details of the lunar surface in this sample from the shoot, I began wondering about Tycho, the remarkably prominent crater seen here at lower right, even visible to the naked eye. The ray pattern of ejecta extends across almost half the diameter of the moon’s surface, and the impact itself had to be devastating. The subtly remarkable trait about it, though, is the direction that it faces. The moon is in what’s called a synchronous rotation, keeping one side (mostly) towards Earth as it orbits. This has resulted in the near side being relatively light on craters, while the far side is absolutely covered with them. The stronger Earth gravity basically captured most of the debris that might have impacted the near side. Tycho, however, marks a distinctive contradiction to this, and presents some indication that the asteroid that caused it passed rather close to Earth.

I started to wonder how it compared with the Chicxulub (“cheek-shoe-lube”) impactor, the asteroid that struck 65 million years ago and was most likely responsible for the extinction of nearly all dinosaurs. That one had produced a debris cloud that extended across much of Earth, and potentially caused catastrophic changes to climate through the suspended atmospheric particles and volcanic aftereffects. Were they similar in size? And how old was Tycho, anyway?

The answer was rather surprising. Tycho is approximately 108 million years old, young for a lunar crater, but much older than Chicxulub at 65 million years. And also much smaller, the crater being slightly less than half the size of Chicxulub’s, or at least what Chicxulub had been before climatological erosion and plate tectonics nearly erased all traces of it. The surprising part is that they both are theorized as being from the same origin, the breakup of an asteroid after a collision in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, roughly 160 million years ago. The debris from this produced many small asteroids known as the Baptistina family, two of which creating Tycho and Chicxulub after they were ejected from the belt by the impact and captured by Earth/moon gravity, another being the current asteroid 298 Baptistina. So two devastating impacts to neighboring bodies were actually caused by siblings, if the theory is correct.

The wide time lag between the two impacts isn’t anything odd – while we might picture chunks hurtling across space in a direct line towards impact, the reality is that debris and dust tends to be nudged and drifts across space, and may be temporarily captured by planetary gravity in an unstable orbit. Eventually, the gravitational influences of two close bodies produces a combination of pulls that sends the debris into the path of the orbiting planet or moon. In cosmic terms, the 43 million year difference between the two impacts is relatively small.

Tycho, by the way, displays evidence that its impact produced molten rock and deep scarring, while Chicxulub created a region of underground (and underwater, now) caverns called cenotes. You should check out the Wikipedia page on the impact – it was a mess.

Also interesting is that Manicouagan Crater in Quebec (enter “51.374100 N 68.672437 W” in the online mapping site of your choice, like Google Maps or Bing – you’ll probably need to zoom out) is only 70 km (43 mi) in diameter in the visible ring, compared to Tycho’s 85 km (52 mi) and Chicxulub’s 180 km (112 mi). Yet Chicxulub isn’t even visible (21.352998 N 89.100186 W), while Manicouagan, at 215.5 million years several times older than Chicxulub, can easily be made out from space. The secret is the terrain they’re within. Manicouagan sits in the middle of a tectonic plate, one that is very flat and has no mountains to produce lots of water flow – in essence, it is a swampy lowland, so erosion is slow. Cruise around your map and see – there are lots of impact craters of varying ages all throughout the region, including a cool double crater. Chicxulub, meanwhile, sits very close to the boundaries of several tectonic plates and has undergone significant changes in the intervening time – the Central American region is not volcano-riddled for nothing. The surface evidence of the crater has long since been driven away, but the subsurface remnants still exist. Another, even younger one sits under the Chesapeake Bay and may be about the size of Tycho.

While all of these sound like very long times ago, in geological and cosmological terms they’re recent. The ugly truth is, other such impacts could happen at any time, and the asteroids or comets that might cause such a catastrophic impact need only be a few kilometers across (Chicxulub was estimated to be something like 10 km in diameter.) That’s small. Our ability to spot such asteroids isn’t that great right now, which means we may have little warning of one approaching. Regardless, we have virtually no way of doing anything about it anyway. While our space program meanders along begging for table scraps left over from pork-barrel military projects that mostly chase ghosts, we’re gambling that the next big impact won’t happen until we’re ready. But of course, we’re spending billions because we’re terrified of a scattered band of extremists making shoe and underwear bombs. Am I missing something?

Another update

Spurred on by this post, I added a page about exposure to the Tips & Tricks gallery on my main website. It can now be found here, and covers what the camera is doing, what you’re after, and how to achieve what you want.

Exposure isn’t a simple subject, so don’t expect a quick explanation, but hopefully this will help you understand it if you need help. Take a look and see what you think!

Something to add

For some time now, I’ve been playing with several ideas about introducing school kids to critical thinking, because I feel it’s a trait that’s sorely needed, and sorely lacking, in the US today. It doesn’t help that I have no educational background, no relation to schools, and no connections to anyone that does – working in a vacuum is probably not the best way to go about this, which is why I haven’t been pouring a lot of effort into it. You’re reading exactly where the majority of my efforts go.

Something I read recently caused me, just an hour ago, to realize that something else could be added. Skeptics and critical thinkers have a lot of resources, and there’s a commonality to much of it – some of this is owed to Carl Sagan, who outlined a great collection of information in Demon Haunted World. There are lists of common fallacies to thinking, and some contribution from the scientific method and its practices to eliminate bias and error. I don’t recall ever running across this one, however, but it strikes me as a good one to include.

I was reading a book about Richard Feynman’s life, who’s best known for his work on understanding quantum electrodynamics, as well as being a bit of a character and an enthusiastic science educator. He was directly involved in the Manhattan Project, the program that developed the atomic bomb, and he later reflected on the ethics of his participation in this. When he was recruited around 1942, Germany was a fierce threat to Europe and, perhaps, even America, and it was believed they were hard on the trail of their own atomic bomb. Feynman, like the majority of Americans at the time, felt obligated to do his part in halting the Nazi tide, and horrified at the thought of such a powerful device in Nazi hands.

Before the Manhattan Project reached fruition, however, Nazi Germany collapsed, and the threat from that quarter effectively vanished. This didn’t really change the project for Feynman, and apparently not for anyone else. To all appearances, by this time (several years of constant involvement in,) it was both an overriding goal and a puzzle to solve, and it did not occur to Feynman that the reason he was involved in it in the first place had vanished until long after the bombs had been used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The point I’m making isn’t about the ethics of nuclear weapons, or about what should be someone’s proper motivations. I’m more looking at how we may get involved in something for the right reasons, but once committed, we change from having an overriding goal to treating things as a challenge to our abilities. We sometimes make a decision, then put that factor entirely out of our heads as a “done deal” and proceed towards meeting this goal, without evaluating whether the goal remains, or is worth the time, effort, money, commitment, or emotion we are putting into it. Most times, I think we do this with minor projects – I suspect everyone can remember a special occasion they were trying to make “just right” and ended up getting terribly stressed over, without realizing that such occasions are usually to relieve stress. But Feynman’s words brought home that this is probably a very common trait, and one that we should be aware of.

It pays to step back, routinely, and look at what we’re trying to accomplish from a distance, to maintain perspective. It’s valuable to keep the reasons why we do things firmly in mind, and to recognize that these can both change, and may only be worth a certain investment anyway (replacing the washing machine might be expensive, but after four days and a significant amount of emotional turmoil trying to fix it, maybe it’s worth the money?) And it’s important to recognize that our minds shift gears, and small goals or advances take over the importance from larger ones, while masquerading under the rational decision that started the process. I suspect gamblers labor under this all the time, convinced that one more attempt will justify the time and money invested already. I know I’ve done it with photography projects (I just recently threw out a camera strobe project I started years ago to save some money, which I replaced with a manufactured unit just a few less years ago when it never worked as planned.)

We can be reluctant to abandon a puzzle unsolved, or a project uncompleted, but if they’re not fulfilling our larger goals reasonably, we should be able to see this for what it this. We must remind ourselves to take the time to look, though.

Too cool, part seven

One of the more interesting things about paying attention to new science releases is watching our knowledge grow. Bearing in mind that many of the books that I read growing up were not published that year, I’ve watched our knowledge about the age of the universe, the origins of the planets, and even theories of where our moon came from get changed and solidified as new info poured in from space exploration. I got to see man walking on the moon, Skylab, Viking, Mir, watched the shuttle develop… it’s a trip.

And so is this. A couple of decades ago, astronauts reported seeing flashes extending upwards from the tops of thunderheads, confirming a few reports from airline pilots of the same thing, which had been roundly dismissed by meteorologists at the time – there was no mechanism nor reason for lightning discharges to travel upwards into the rarefied atmosphere.. Eventually, both photos and video were obtained, from shuttle flights and residents on the various space stations, and the phenomenon gained more attention.

Just days ago, it got a lot more interesting. The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has been monitoring gamma ray bursts from all directions since its launch, and one of the directions it was receiving rays from was the tops of thunderstorms (it was intended to be monitoring space, but hey, you pay attention to whatever you get.) Now, they got something even more: direct evidence that the gamma rays produced by thunderstorms are giving birth to antimatter.

No, this isn't antimatter nor gamma rays, but you gotta give me credit for a cool illustrating image anyway...

Definitely check out that link for some great video and explanations. Basically, lightning is sometimes powerful enough to produce not just an electrical charge and ionized particles, but gamma rays as well. And the gamma rays occasionally interact with atoms in the atmosphere and produce a pair of particles: an electron (negative charge) and its antimatter evil twin, a positron (positive charge.)

If you remember your physics (I just barely know enough to get all this,) antimatter is rare, and on contact with normal matter, they react and annihilate each other with a tremendous burst of energy for their mass. Science fiction back from the fifties to the seventies was full of uses for antimatter, but it’s not exactly easy stuff to handle, and it takes a lot of energy to produce in decent quantities – we generally use cyclotrons and particle accelerators (like the Large Hadron Collider) to create just a smidgen of it, at a ridiculous cost that makes it impractical to consider for those uses.

Here’s the cool part. The Fermi telescope registered it all because the antimatter followed Earth’s magnetic lines, and just so happened to be whipping past in this natural highway just as Fermi was. The antimatter contacted Fermi and reacted with electrons orbiting atoms that made up Fermi’s structure. The resultant burst of energy, also a gamma ray, registered on Fermi’s own detectors. In other words, Fermi detected its own “blood” as it was shot by a positron stream. And not once, but twice, as most of the stream whipped past/through, hit a “mirror” point someplace downstream in the magnetic field line (I don’t pretend to understand this,) and came back past again milliseconds later. Fermi was shot coming and going, struck by both the initial round and the ricochet. In true movie hero style, Fermi is plugging away with two infinitesimal bulletholes in it (actually, more than that – Fermi has detected antimatter five times now, and the collision was likely from a stream of positrons rather than a single antibullet.) Don’t let me give you the wrong idea – we’re still talking teeny tiny here, and Fermi has undoubtedly taken more damage from colliding with interstellar dust than those antimatter bursts.

It’s startling the amount of energy that’s routinely being discharged here, and interesting to consider the process. Atmospheric temperature differences and humidity create charged areas within storms that discharge as lightning (it’s still not really known exactly how this works,) and this can create an electron flow upwards. The electrons accelerate, and contact with atoms emits gamma rays. Subsequent contact with atoms by these gamma rays creates an electron/positron pair, and subsequent contact of those positrons with electrons again creates gamma rays, again. And we detect the gamma rays by the energy they dump into electrons. It seems very circular, but really, electron interaction with energy is key to damn near everything – you’re reading this through a much more convoluted path utilizing a few trillion electrons. We should have a National Electron Day…

Thanks to Jen at Skepchick for the link.

Wait a minute…

I have a book entitled, “Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years” which details the shuttle missions from the perspective of the astronauts. It’s from the editors of Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine, is definitely a cool read, and provides plenty of photos. One in particular caused me to stop and stare at it closely. It’s reproduced below, photographed directly from page 143 of the book, the only place I have found this image. For those of you who are very sharp-eyed, the distortion comes from the original, the wide-angle lens used for the image, and not from my shooting with the page leaning away from me…

Scott Andrews, Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine

Credit: Scott Andrews, © Air & Space/Smithsonian



What you’re looking at here is Discovery on the launch pad, obviously well before launch time (there are too many people around,) but I have no idea what mission or even which of the two pads, 39-A or 39-B.The big grey platform under the shuttle is the pad itself, still atop the crawler (the lower half, separated by the dark line) that brings it from the Vehicle Assembly Building. I’ll have more on that shortly.

To the left of center, there’s a massive structure supported on the left side by a couple of columns, or seemingly so – the inner one is actually a light pole and well in front of the structure, not connected at all. This whole structure, hinged pretty much smack in the center of the image and supported by wheels on the bottom of the column, can swing closed over the shuttle while it’s on the pad, allowing for payload work just before liftoff. You can see a long white section that encloses the payload bay. And something else. Look at the dark spot in the lower right corner of the payload enclosure area (on the structure, not the shuttle itself.) I’ll give you a closer look.



This is as good a resolution as I’m going to get, limited by the print process of the book itself. But is that a guy standing there?

Yes, that’s a door, and yes, the scale and the proportions are right, it would appear. There’s just no reason for anyone to be there, I would think, and it’s something like a ten or twelve story drop not far ahead of him (of course, it has to be male.) I started looking at every image I could find of the launch pads, and have never seen anything resembling this in any other photo. See for yourself, here (sans the crawler,) and here (a wonderfully detailed image from someone’s vacation shots – I can’t find their name on the site, just igbarker.com.) And while I’m at it, this is a shot of the whole structure closed over the orbiter, and I think this is an image of a payload being prepared for lifting up into the structure, before being slapped into the orbiter itself.

The only thing that has me hesitant is that there is another person in the image I reproduced at top (not visible at this res,) and he’s in a T-shirt – the daredevil above looks like he’s in heavy clothes. But now I’m on a quest to find out more. Anyone with any ideas should feel free to write me directly, or comment below.

But what if I’m wrong?

Yeah, we’re back on the subject of debating religion, but at least I’m warning you ahead of time, and providing other topics you can go to as well. I’m that kind of guy ;-)

Among the many common debates that arise is a simple question, posed by religious folk to atheists: “What if you’re wrong?” And initially, it often seems like a valid question. While I suspect many people come to it independently, it’s best known as Pascal’s Wager, after the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who is as known for this as he is for inventing a computer language that did not achieve popularity until 340 years or so after his death – unlike George Cobol, who was never known for his programming language and instead garnered his fame through Hollywood Squares. Anyway, Pascal’s Wager basically says, “If you believe in a god but you’re wrong, nothing is lost, but if you don’t believe in a god and you’re wrong, you burn in hell for eternity, so you’re better off believing, ya know?”

Continue reading “But what if I’m wrong?”

On composition, part seven: Depth

So our next topic of discussion on the subject of composition is “depth” – what it does and how to present it.

Depth is one of those things that is subtle, but very effective, most especially in landscape photography. Drawing the viewer into the photo, making them feel that they have a window into your image, rather than a flat “painting,” can give a much better impression. Photographs are, by nature, two-dimensional; you cannot change viewing angle for your monitor right now and get a different perspective, or dodge to the side and see what was hidden behind a tree. But we can fool the viewer into interpreting depth in our images, and this makes them more dynamic. Many beginning photographers take “straight on” images, lining their friends up together in a wall in front of the camera and shooting at eye level – this is what makes snapshots. But if you think in terms of providing depth to the image, you can create a much better photo with only a tiny amount of effort.

We read minimal clues when we look at images, things like objects getting smaller with distance, parallel lines appearing to converge (think roads and railroad tracks,) and a very sneaky one, the curvature of the view as we look downwards versus straight ahead, as seen here. Going for a lower vantage point and a wider-angle lens (I believe this was 24mm on film, which is 15mm on most digital SLRs,) we seem to be seeing straight ahead in the center of this image, but actually downwards into the water towards the bottom of the frame – and we really are, due to the optical effect of wide-angle lenses. You can enhance this by aiming slightly downwards to bring more of the foreground into the image, to make that distance and change in perspective apparent. If you asked most people what the subject of this image is, they’d say, “the waterfall,” but that only takes up 15-20% of the image. The subject is more the setting itself, the placid pool in the rocky alcove, and the waterfall only adds charm rather than taking over the image. For this, I used a small aperture of f22 for a high depth-of-field, keeping the very close stones in the bottom of the pool, as well as the distant waterfall, in tight focus. This provided the added effect of blurring the moving water, since I needed a slow shutter speed to let in enough light past that small aperture for a proper exposure. Naturally, the camera was on a tripod for this.

But you can induce depth exactly the opposite way, too, by using a wide aperture and thus cutting your depth-of-field down very short. This means that subjects within your frame with only a small separation of distance between them can have different focus – your main subject is in tight focus, but something only a short distance behind it or in front of it goes out of focus, making the idea of depth even more distinct. You can see an example of this (and more about how to do it) on this page. You can also exaggerate this effect by using a longer focal length, or by getting very close to your subject. Both of these result in higher magnification, and depth-of-field drops shorter with more magnification, plus it gets shorter with closer focusing distances. Alternately, wide angle lenses give the greatest depth-of-field, most especially at long focus distances.

Anything that either draws a line or shows distinct reduction with distance perspective works very well for inducing depth in the image – the two fisherman in this image demonstrate this nicely. You can also use, as mentioned above, roads, fences, and even fields of distinct objects like flowers, which will give the viewer specific shapes to see reducing with distance. Getting closer to any of these will exaggerate the effect, making them loom larger in the bottom of the image and increasing the disparity of sizes within the frame.

This leads us to another compositional element: leading lines. Our eyes naturally follow implied paths, which curiously could very well be an evolutionary trait, helping us spot the easiest passages and game trails. But in images, it means we track such lines with some expectation of seeing something at the end of them, and as a photographer you can use this trait. Here, I had plenty of positions to take on this road, but I chose this particular side because it placed the moon almost directly above the converging lines of the road and verge, and even has some subtle help from the treelines. Timing it to let a car go past gave greater emphasis to the road and provided some light down there – otherwise, if I’d exposed to let the moon light up the road surface, the moon itself would have been far brighter and glaring. Overall, the subtle message is a destination under a brilliant moon… gosh, look at me, I’m playing around being artsy. You don’t even need a subject at the end of your leading lines, if you want there to be mystery or even the idea of going nowhere, if that’s your message. Just remember that the viewer follows them, so use them judiciously.

By the way, I just wanted to point out that the two images I’ve used so far have their own balance, a subtle emphasis towards one side or another, and thus they were placed alongside the text appropriate to leading into the text, rather than away from it. Meanwhile, if you remember the Rule of Thirds post, you might notice that the roadside image hews pretty well, placing the road in the lower third and the moon almost precisely at the focal intersection of the upper left cross – but the waterfall image doesn’t fit well at all, breaking the rule more than it fits. So, did you like one better than the other before I mentioned this? It’s no use asking you to consider them now that I’ve tainted your subconscious with what’s “good” and “bad”…

Getting back to depth, there’s a pair of effects illustrated here that can be used as well, in the right conditions. Atmospheric haze increases with distance, so images over a significant distance can show depth if you capture the bluish haze that separates, for instance, distant hills, and you can select light and weather conditions to enhance this, such as early morning as the fog is lifting. Notice how there is a distinct foreground row of trees, with the hill and the peak behind them in a slightly different color due to haze. Additionally, autumn colors not only provide a rich, pleasing palette, but often serve to distinguish individual trees from one another, once again increasing that feeling of depth. Had this image been taken in high summer, the trees would all have been the same color and would blend together, reducing the idea of depth. But here you can almost judge exactly how far away the peak is, can’t you?

As another aside, I mentioned in a previous composition post that being aware of the clouds can make a difference, and waiting for them to be right for the subject is time well spent. For this one, I waited for the clouds to provide a break around the peak, because I found the image stronger with a blue sky background rather than a cloud back there, and it provides some contrast to the reds and oranges of the foliage.

Three of my favorite examples of depth in images (well, my own images, anyway) can be found here, here, and here. As with any compositional element, there are circumstances where it works better, and others where it does not, or isn’t really needed. It’s an easy thing to play with, and can be induced from plenty of photo opportunities, so have fun with it!

My apologies

If you had any difficulty with this site in the past day or two, I apologize. Some settings got skewed I believe, and it took me a while to recognize them. I think everything is back to normal now (and upgraded to boot.) If you’re still having issues, try to reach me on the Contact page above, or through my main website Feedback page.

I’ll be back with real content shortly. Thanks for your patience!