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The Lounge: Chat. Relax. Unwind. > Ian, tell us about the conference and give us something to discuss

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message 1: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6171 comments I put it on my calendar the Ian was going to a conference and that I wanted to know what happened there. I hope he'll give us something to talk about.


message 2: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11776 comments Hello Scout. Yes, I did say that, and in my last two blog posts (which come out on ianmillerblog.wordpress.com, and are copied to Goodreads every Thursday my time) I have started to discuss some of the issues. If you want to discuss something as they come up, please feel free to do so, or alternatively just ask a question here.


message 3: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6171 comments Let's discuss them here. Just give us one idea at a time.


message 4: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11776 comments Hmmm - I am not quite sure how to go about that, and I would prefer someone else to raise a question so at least we are discussing something that interests someone else, but here goes a starter. The first post I made on the conference involved the issue of how scientists talk to ordinary citizens, i.e. non-scientists but interested. The problem here is that often scientists assume a certain amount of background, so the question might be, should the scientist be permitted to assume something that is reasonably simple? Should the non-scientist at least clearly state what (s)he doesn't understand early on?


message 5: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6171 comments In any discussion, everyone has to be on the same page. The scientist can make a statement, but it's up to the rest of us to ask questions and get clear on what's being discussed. You know, Ian, that I have no problem exposing my ignorance in order to understand the science :-) And I do want to understand. So go ahead and tell us something and see what happens.


message 6: by Leonie (new)

Leonie (leonierogers) | 1579 comments I think that science literacy amongst the general populace has actually been reducing (at least here in Australia) and that we shouldn't assume things.

For example: People often tell me that they don't want to take/eat anything that might be a chemical. When I respond that everything that goes in or out of our bodies is actually a chemical, they look at me like I'm mad. And then I explain that water is a chemical. Some grasp this, some don't, no matter how the context is explained. Many simply lack the basic chemistry to understand that everything is effectively made up of chemicals.


message 7: by Philip (new)

Philip (phenweb) | 3079 comments Ian wrote: "Hmmm - I am not quite sure how to go about that, and I would prefer someone else to raise a question so at least we are discussing something that interests someone else, but here goes a starter. Th..."

I think the ignorance question is one of the reasons government is poor. Where the majority of politicians and civil servants have no scientific understanding beyond high school leads to dismissal of scientific fact/opinion in the same way that politicians dismiss different political arguments. We have a society, including much of the media, that is opinionated on science with no expertise on the subject. The qualifications of the opinion makers and leaders are limited to MBa and PPE. Hence you have global warming dismissed as a political gimmick rather than based on fact.

I once blogged on the issue regarding understanding of IT in major organisations. I broadened this to the apologetic laugh you get about not understanding mathematics. I am no sicentific expert, certainly not a chemist. but it is clear the scientific advisors to governments have an almost impossible task. No wonder scientific progress our action on critical issues is delayed.
There have been notable exceptions, Carl Sagan, Richard Hawking and now David Attenborough who can appeal direct to the populace thanks to their popularity via mainstream media.

To answer directly, at last, Ian's question... you have to assume some basic knowledge but I think that base level is exceptionally low.


message 8: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6171 comments What in the world? Are you guys just thinking of reasons that Ian shouldn't share his knowledge with us? You both have made it evident that you're knowledgeable, and who cares about the general public? We're not the general public: we're people who love to learn.


message 9: by Leonie (new)

Leonie (leonierogers) | 1579 comments Scout wrote: "What in the world? Are you guys just thinking of reasons that Ian shouldn't share his knowledge with us? You both have made it evident that you're knowledgeable, and who cares about the general pub..."

Not at all, Scout, you've got the wrong end of the stick there, or perhaps I didn't express myself particularly well.

It was all about 'Should the non-scientist at least clearly state what (s)he doesn't understand early on?' that I was responding to, and also 'The first post I made on the conference involved the issue of how scientists talk to ordinary citizens, i.e. non-scientists but interested. '

The question is really interesting, and what I was getting at was that assuming knowledge in the general public is a thing fraught with danger, certainly in Australia.

Ian, I'm keen to hear the responses at the conference to your question.


message 10: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11776 comments Scout wrote: "What in the world? Are you guys just thinking of reasons that Ian shouldn't share his knowledge with us? You both have made it evident that you're knowledgeable, and who cares about the general pub..."

OK, let me take this as what it actually says. The conference was about the probability of there being life in the Universe, and of finding it. The issue of scientific communication came up at the end of the conference, and I am sorry to have to tell Leonie that I am not sure what the responses were to that speaker because Air NZ had altered my flight schedule and I had to leave and miss the final discussion. I raised it here to see what you all thought.

So, back to the main conference. I shall start a separate thread on Seth Shostak and SETI because that is probably the easiest thing for most of us to discuss.

Other points. One presentation had it that early life started through a steady rain of carbonaceous chondrites, from the outer asteroid belt, providing the necessary raw materials. I disagree with that. In my presentation, the reason life started was because the materials required for reproduction to start had to come from below the ground, and probably in hot pools around thermal areas such as at Rotorua, which is where the conference was held. My argument is, no matter what, if it cannot reproduce it is not life. At the end of the conference there was a tour of some thermal areas, but I did not attend those because I have been there so many times.

The problem then is, how did the necessary materials get there to start with? My argument is that Earth is actually a rather special planet, and most will not be like it, and won't have life. You will have seen that people seem to want to drill into Europa in the hope of finding under-ice life. It won't be there, because the Jovian moons are very nitrogen and carbon deficient. Europa has then tiniest of atmospheres, with 100,000 times more oxygen in it than sodium, and more sodium than nitrogen!

If any of that is interesting, I can start a thread on that, or we can continue here. Meanwhile, my blogs are on Goodreads, so every Thursday NZ time I shall add part of the puzzle. If anyone wants to raise something here I shall try to answer.


message 11: by Leonie (new)

Leonie (leonierogers) | 1579 comments I just realised that while we are friends on Goodreads, Ian, I wasn't 'following' you. I shall now score a nice little reminder each time you blog.

What a pity you weren't able to hear the answers to your questions. On the other hand, you were flying with the airline that makes the best ads ever.

I'm not sure whether anyone here is familiar with https://theconversation.com/au but I find it an excellent site that often posts fascinating insights into various fields. And a bonus is that you can comment/discuss each article, should you so wish. Some articles are science based, but it runs the whole gamut of subjects and is contributed to by universities all over the country.

I believe it's now spread to other countries.


message 12: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11776 comments Interesting link, Leonie. I had never heard of it before, so I shall check it out.


message 13: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6171 comments I apologize, Leonie. I see that you were only answering Ian's question, not discouraging him. Again, sorry. And after reading your post, I found that I wasn't following Ian, either. I've corrected that and hope to see his blog posts.


message 14: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6171 comments Ian, you posed the question, " How did the necessary materials get there to start with?" How would you answer that question?


message 15: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11776 comments Scout, that is the topic of my blog posts. It is going to take about three posts to get to the details, but the short answer is they were accreted as solids from heat processed dust in the high temperature zone of the accretion disk. For example, if nitrogen hits certain dusts, e.g. containing calcium, nitrides are formed, and under slightly acidic conditions, you get ammonia. Basically, I believe all of Earth was accreted as solids.


message 16: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6171 comments I had to look up the definition of accrete. Is this the best one? Come or bring together under the influence of gravitation.

I think I need an address for your blog, if that's ok.


message 17: by Leonie (new)

Leonie (leonierogers) | 1579 comments Scout wrote: "I apologize, Leonie. I see that you were only answering Ian's question, not discouraging him. Again, sorry. And after reading your post, I found that I wasn't following Ian, either. I've corrected ..."

No worries, Scout 😊


message 18: by Nik (new)

Nik Krasno | 16053 comments Can a living organism be created or recreated in a laboratory from non-organic elements today to prove a theory by an experiment?


message 19: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11776 comments Scout - to me accretion means bringing together the dust to make larger objects such as boulders, asteroids, planets and stars. The end accretion of larger objects is certainly due to gravity, but gravity is too weak to get anything started. I must go into that on the blog, which, as an aside, is http://ianmillerblog.wordpress.com but it is also copied to goodreads.

Nik, it is unlikely life will ever be made in the lab de novo. The reason is, it just takes too long. However, we can work out the likely steps, and show in the lab how it could be done. As an example, we know how adenine can be made from ammonium cyanide (just leave the ammonium cyanide lying around for a while - Stanley Miller left a sample in liquid nitrogen for 35 years and got it - that is a career-type experiment! At normal temperatures it is somewhat quicker.) Given adenine and ribose in the presence of phosphate adenosine-5-phosphate has been made under alleged biogenetic conditions. (I dispute that, but I have proposed an experiment that would get around the issue.) Given adenosine-5-phosphate and the corresponding uridine phosphate, a "RNA" polymer of 140 mers has been made inside a lipid vesicle, which would mimic the cell wall, and that was done in an afternoon.

I shall try to give more details. If anyone finds anything too difficult to follow, let me know and I shall try to clarify, but you will have to accept a little basic chemistry, such as that adenine is just adenine. The very fundamental reasons why ammonium cyanide forms it, say, would be too difficult without the necessary chemical background.


message 20: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6171 comments When you say it just takes too long, approximately what length of time are you thinking about?


message 21: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11776 comments My guess is the evolution of life could have taken thousands, or maybe millions of years, depending on how you define life. The problem is that even though RNA can be polymerised reasonably quickly, it takes quite a while to get membranes that will get it going, but then the RNA assembled by random may take a while to get to the stage where it can do something else. The problem as I see it is that that stage needs to provide an improvement to be locked in - nature does not plan - but we really have no idea how long that will take.

This in part is why I see Martian exploration by people to be of interest. With a bit of luck we can find chemical "fossils" that will give us clues as to how it progressed.


message 22: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6171 comments Are you of the opinion that the evolution of life was by chance and not by design?


message 23: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11776 comments If you mean is there a designer, then no. However, the evolution of life follows the laws of physics and chemistry, which means for life to evolve, the components have to have energy minima, which I suppose means these laws happen to be in a form that encourages life. Such laws are universal, and are expected to apply everywhere. Accordingly anywhere in the Universe where the necessary conditions are met, then I believe life will evolve.


message 24: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6171 comments OK then, everything was by chance, totally random with no design. Can't agree with you. I could ask you who made the "laws," as that assumes a lawmaker.


message 25: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11776 comments Scout, to say "no design" is a little misleading because evolution tries things at random, but some work and some don't. Those that do are kept, which is why our DNA is so long. The nucleic acids can easily add stuff, but it is unusual to alter the pre-existing stuff, although it can happen. (Cancers are an example.) Think about having a heap of coins, and assume a sequence of exactly HTHTHT has a some desirable outcome. Now, when you toss a coin, it starts the sequence. If the next one is different, you tack it on, if it is the same you toss it back into the bucket for tossing later. Keep this up and eventually all the coins will be in the sequence you want. Each addition is random, but the rule keeps them forming the right sequence. Obviously sequencing nucleic acids is a bit different, and to start with they will just add by random choice, but soon they are big enough to be able to loop around and form a catalyst that does something useful. At that point, that nucleic acid strand does that, and when it reproduces, its additional strand keeps doing that. It is not long before the good ones learn to digest the bad ones, and so sone useful steps towards life sort themselves out. It is not that there is a conscious designer, but when the most useful starts digesting the less useful you can't stop various life forms being created. However, as you might guess, this could take quite a while to sort itself out.

The "laws" are simply like gravity - molecules fall down energy wells and try to be as stable as they can


message 26: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6171 comments You speak of evolution as if it has will - "evolution tries things at random." I'd say that that's an admission that there's an energy that drives evolution.


message 27: by Graeme (new)

Graeme Rodaughan Evolution requires two things.

Mutation and death.

The first can be random, but the second is anything but random. Death is a powerful selective pressure on any population and will reap any members of a population who are not 'fit,' for that environment.

Where fitness is defined as the capability to produce viable offspring to the 2nd generation. (for humans = grandchildren).


message 28: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11776 comments Scout, I do not mean evolution plans - it doesn't. It tries all sorts of things, but each one is always only a very minor adaptation. If the change is too radical, the "product" will be deficient in some other way, and it will be eaten by something else. An example of where we can see that in action is the evolution of dog breeds. As I understand it, all our dogs originated with the timber wolf, but if you look at the modern variety you see what planned intervention can produce. However, in most cases these could never survive in the wild. Think of the poodle - hardly a top-end chasing predator. In the wild, any poodle would simply die out in a wolf pack. In a sense there is design in nature, but not from a designer, but from what is adequate to survive and reproduce in a niche.


message 29: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6171 comments I know about evolution, but you speak of evolution as if it has a will of its own - "It tries all sorts of things, but each one is always only a very minor adaptation." Have you thought about this "it" you speak of and where the driving force originates?


message 30: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11776 comments Then I misled you, Scout, which sometimes happens when you try to explain complicated thoughts with examples that could be interpreted another way. What I meant was that suppose there are a million entities that I shall call a species (say a wolf). About 30,000 years ago, suppose there were a million wolves, and to survive, they all have to eat. Almost all of them hunted as per usual, but a small number of them got lazy, or cunning, and they noticed that humans hunted, and made something of a hash of cleaning up the carcasses with their stone tools, so they crept in and finished off the job.

After a while, humans saw that it could be to their advantage if they could use wolves to help with the hunting, but they needed to keep them friendly, so they kept some meat and gave it to the wolves when these friendly ones did something to help the hunt and the wolves cottoned on. Then they started to have pups near the humans, and the humans were friendlier to the tamer wolves. When the wolves got even friendlier, they got a little trapped because they lost their pack hunting skills, and then the humans started keeping the pups that they liked more.

As you can see, there is no overall planning here, just each party going after its own interests, but very gradually this subset of wolves were being transformed into dogs that we have. The transformation happens by the ones that are best suited for the new niche being selected by the niche and the others killed off.


message 31: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6171 comments No, you didn't mislead me. You actually made my point for me. As with humans selecting for certain characteristics in wolves, I believe that there was a force in the beginning selecting for certain combinations of elements that resulted in life.


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