Ken Ham slams religion

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For a man who claims to be reli­gious, Ken Ham cer­tainly has a neg­at­ive view of reli­gion. io9 reports that he has denounced the Smithsonian for pro­mot­ing nat­ur­al­ism. So when he wanted to den­ig­rate nat­ur­al­ism why did he use the word reli­gion?

It’s rare that any­one poin­tedly say­ing sci­ence is a reli­gion, is using the term reli­gion in a pos­it­ive sense.

So to cel­eb­rate, I’ve added Religion as a new Creationism Card.

Religion as a creationism card

Creationism Cards, col­lect the set!

In pos­sibly related news, I’ve had an uptick in end-times email in my inbox.

In the UK we’ll soon hear that ‘cod’ fish fingers are up to 100% sea…

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In the UK we’ll soon hear that ‘cod’ fish fin­gers are up to 100% seahorse.

Reshared post from +Sean Treacy

These are not the fish you’re look­ing for. 

One-third of sea­food mis­labeled, study finds
Fraud com­mon in sea­food labeling. Sushi houses the worst offend­ers, study finds.

Deal or no Deal?

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There’s a crime­wave in south­ern England. Deal Town Council have been been reck­lessly using the coat of Arms gran­ted to Deal Borough Council in 1968. As her­aldry afi­cion­ados will know, Deal Town Council cov­ers a slightly dif­fer­ent area than Deal Borough Council. Therefore there’s been a stretch of almost 40 years of law-breaking since the bor­ough coun­cil was dis­ban­ded in 1974.

Deal Town FC have also been told their kit is illegal due to their badge. Presumably because people might con­fuse them with the entirely non-existent Deal Borough FC.

Embedded Link

Town and foot­ball crest ‘unlaw­ful’
A town and its foot­ball club are told that it is unlaw­ful to con­tinue using their crest.

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Visiting Stonehenge and Purchasing Spirituality

Drunk man standing on a stone at Stonehenge acting like an arse.
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I’ve remembered it’s com­ing up to that day again. I went to Stonehenge for the sol­stice once. I’m glad I went, but I doubt I’ll go again. There were a couple of big disappointments.

One was the lack of a vis­ible English Heritage pres­ence. There were an estim­ated 20,000 people there who wanted some con­nec­tion to the past. I would have thought that was a good tar­get audi­ence for EH. At the very least there’s money to be made with the Solstice 2012 t-shirts to be sold. The offi­cial sol­stice blankets for those who for­got to bring one, sol­stice kagouls and umbrel­las for when it rains and so on. It’s also an excel­lent time to attempt guilt-tripping people into join­ing EH to sup­port access to ancient sites. They might have trouble with this last one as they’re not known for sup­port­ing access to Stonehenge on the sol­stice, but it’d be worth a try. The impres­sion I got (rightly or wrongly) was that EH had aban­doned the site for the night.

Drunk man standing on a stone at Stonehenge acting like an arse.

A rev­el­ler wel­comes the arrival of lager and, pos­sibly, the Sun.

The other was the sheer mess around the site. Everyone got a bag as they went in for their rub­bish. It doesn’t have to look like this. After all the fight­ing over access in the 1980s and 90s, is this a place people come are they here to cel­eb­rate or to conquer?

On the plus side I got a les­son in the dif­fer­ence between mod­ern Pagans and New Agers. The Pagans ten­ded to look dig­ni­fied and patient. Quite a few had their cere­mo­nial robes on, but not all. The easi­est ones to spot were those who’d let their beards down for the night.

In con­trast the New Agers were laden with mys­tical kit, and were often very purple. They’d looked agit­ated and annoyed. Every time someone elbowed in the ribs, she’d be wear­ing a pointy hat as if to com­pensate for the clothes she was wear­ing would ideally be on someone taller. There’d also be a purple scarf and purple jumper hid­den beneath at least half a dozen medal­lions. I should have heard them com­ing with the vari­ous eso­teric bangles and brace­lets they were wear­ing.
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Collaborating with Aliens

UFO behind Delphi
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UFO behind Delphi

The Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi. Nothing to see here.

I’ve been kick­ing around an idea for a paper for a couple of years. Every so often Stephen Hawking will announce that con­tact with an extra-terrestrial civil­isa­tion would be a Very Bad Thing. Therefore silence, or as close to it as pos­sible is a good idea. It’s not just Stephen Hawking, many other people agree. Hawking makes the point that con­tact from Europe to other regions hasn’t gone well for the nat­ives since 1492. I think this is a bet­ter argu­ment than “Aliens are scary”, but I think he’s using the wrong ana­logy. There is room for a paper that takes another view. There’s a couple of reas­ons I haven’t pushed on with it.

The main reason is that I’ve not been clear about where the paper could be pub­lished. Ok, Hawking hasn’t pub­lished his belief as a paper either, but he’s a fam­ous phys­i­cist. Famous phys­i­cists are pre­sumed not only to be experts on Physics, but all sci­ences, pseudos­ciences, etc. I can’t claim this expert­ise. If I’m going to say any­thing mean­ing­ful I should at least have it scru­tin­ised. This is the second prob­lem. It would be weird if my pos­i­tion were unequi­voc­ally cor­rect, par­tic­u­larly as we have no data at all on extra-terrestrial con­tact — unless you con­sider the Mars nano-bacteria that were announced and then dis­missed as a trial run. I could rely on review­ers to pick up obvi­ous errors or blind spots, but there’s surely a bet­ter way to fix prob­lems before sub­mit­ting to a journal with some collaboration.

I am part of a group of people who were apply­ing to have a blog hos­ted some­where. I think that’s very likely to not hap­pen. I’ve been quiet here, partly because of a broken arm and partly with a pile up of work that I need to sort through because it’s been delayed by my arm. It’s a shame because the site has a big audi­ence, but maybe not too big a shame as this site has a qual­ity audi­ence. What I’m inter­ested in now is if a col­lab­or­at­ive or even massively col­lab­or­at­ive paper could be writ­ten and how could it work.

Before even dis­cuss­ing tools there’s an issue over dir­ec­tion. As I said at the start, I think Stephen Hawking is wrong. You might think he’s right. He may even be right even if the method he got there was wrong. One of the inspir­a­tions for this approach is Timothy Gowers’ col­lab­or­at­ive approach to solv­ing math­em­at­ical prob­lems. He pulled together a group of people to tackle a prob­lem for a couple of years that he alone could not solve. The prob­lem was solved in seven weeks by a method that came as a sur­prise to him. I can see how that can demon­strably work. In the case of this paper, the sample is zero, and the res­ult is (expec­ted to be) a counter-opinion. Without a real­ity check is it pos­sible to write such a paper with open collaboration?

Alan Cann has used another method. He put up a paper for open peer review. I think it was a clever idea and I could do the same. My worry here is that some of the ana­lo­gies will be out­side my period and I think there could be very good and insight­ful com­ments from people who say, “No, you’ve got this wrong. You should be look­ing at…” In my opin­ion this makes the paper bet­ter and it’s worth author credit. If you give the per­son credit then to an extent you tor­pedo the claim that the paper is pre-reviewed because to some extent it’s self-reviewed.

I’m try­ing to think of a work­able solu­tion, and you’re wel­come to tell me I’m wrong about this too.

I think I should put up the first draft of the paper, prob­ably on Google Docs. I prefer DokuWiki, but leav­ing it open for com­ments and edit­ing could leave it wrecked. For the people who leave sub­stan­tial com­ments which can be pos­it­ive or neg­at­ive, but also indic­ate a dir­ec­tion to go for­ward with the paper, I offer co-authorship. I close the paper from pub­lic view and we write and re-write until it’s ready to go to a journal that’s either OA or happy to have an arXiv pre-print up. The gamble here is that enough people will see the call to review the first draft that it gen­er­ates a sens­ible amount of feed­back to improve it.

Ideally, I’d like to have a sys­tem that can re-used so that I can use it for gen­eral his­tory or archae­ology papers as well as odd ones like this. The reason for choos­ing this topic as the test sub­ject is that it’s doesn’t mat­ter that much to me if it gets massively delayed and it will very neatly high­light some areas where I am emphat­ic­ally not an expert and that col­lab­or­a­tion could be useful.

If your Stonehenge theory is nonsense, is mine rational because it’s not yours?

Revellers at the solstice in Stonehenge
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Revellers at the solstice in Stonehenge

Sound at Stonehenge

I’m cur­rently work­ing with a group of blog­gers on a site to be launched some­where in the next few months. I’m not sure where yet. One of the fea­tures of the site is an informal rule that we won’t com­ment on news till at least seven days have passed from mak­ing the head­lines. There’s a couple of reas­ons for this.

We’re all busy. Chasing the news is work and takes time. If we get stopped before we can fin­ish it could be a while before we pick up the story again. In the mean­time hot news has become old cold news and the key points have already been said a dozen times by every­one else. The post gets spiked and the time is wasted. Intentionally plan­ning for a longer cycle changes how you approach a story and gives you not just the story to ana­lyse but also the reac­tion too. In the case of the Stonehenge acous­tics story the reac­tion is more inter­est­ing than the base story itself.

As a reminder Stephen Waller presen­ted a talk at a meet­ing of American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver. In it he pro­posed that the design of Stonehenge was related to aud­it­ory inter­fer­ence pat­terns between the sound of two flutes being played. Andy Burnham points out the obvi­ous prob­lem in his com­ment.

Waller rigged two flutes to an air pump so they played the same note con­tinu­ously” OK, fine, so how on earth is this rel­ev­ant to the prac­tic­al­it­ies of an ancient soci­ety? In order to get strong, static can­cel­la­tions in the sound you would need equal and unvary­ing sound pres­sure levels from each instru­ment, and for the sources to be from the same two points in space. How pre­cisely would two flute play­ers do this in prac­tice without an air pump? ie hav­ing to take breaths and carry on this trick for any length of time. This is utter nonsense.

Andy Burnham is pretty much gold in this thread. In reac­tion to the idea this sound could be achieved by cir­cu­lar breath­ing, he also adds:

I don’t thin cir­cu­lar breath­ing is the answer — it’s pretty dif­fi­cult on low res­ist­ance wind instru­ments such as the flute. Didgeridoos and such­like won’t exhibit this effect — you need a high fre­quency pure tone — as close to a sine wave as pos­sible — ie a flute. Bagpipes wouldn’t work either, unless someone inven­ted some sort of ‘flute bag­pipes’. A reedy bag­pipe sound is rich in har­mon­ics. The har­monic fre­quen­cies from the two instru­ments won’t cre­ate stand­ing wave can­cel­la­tions in the same places in space as the fun­da­mental tones, so you won’t get same strong can­cel­la­tion effect. And as I said you also need two fixed amp­litudes and closely fixed point sources for the effect to work.

Sound is a dif­fi­cult sub­ject for archae­olo­gists. Flutes or pipes seem likely, as to drums, but the closest pre­his­toric musical instru­ments, that I know archae­olo­gists have found, are lurs from Denmark. These date to around the 8th cen­tury BC and sur­vived because they were bronze, not organic mater­ial like wood or bone. You can see them in the logo for Lurpak but­ter. It’s been a while since I’ve read about this, so I’d be sur­prised if there weren’t now some­thing older known. There are a couple of can­did­ates for bone flutes that are older, this is the most prom­ising arte­fact, but I don’t know how widely accep­ted they are yet.

Even though there’s scant evid­ence for music in the Neolithic and Bronze Age British Isles, it’s an odd leap to say it didn’t exist. Music in some form seems to be a con­stant in human soci­ety, so this is where a min­im­al­ist approach breaks down. But it’s not just musical instru­ments that are miss­ing. I sus­pect a lot of Stonehenge is miss­ing too.
Bits of it have broken off and it’s easy to spot where stones were miss­ing but refilling these gaps, as many recon­struc­tions do, doesn’t go far enough for me. The stones are the skel­eton of Stonehenge. We don’t know if they were the whole body. We do know that the skel­eton was a lot of work. The hard sar­sen stones are craf­ted like wood, with tenon and mor­tice joints. Archaeologists cur­rently believe that the blue­stones were trans­por­ted from far Wales. In light of this what else would have been at a liv­ing Stonehenge?

If you visit places of wor­ship in mod­ern times, there’s a bit more than stone. There’s wooden seats, often dec­or­ated rather than plain. The walls are painted, win­dows often dec­or­ated. It’s not unusual to find holy books n plush vel­vet cush­ions and tex­tiles dyed in strik­ing col­ours draw­ing the eye here and there. We also know tex­tiles were used in Neolithic and Bronze Age times. So after the thou­sands of man-hours shap­ing the stones, how likely is it that Gareth turned to Shane and said: “That’s that done. No point in wast­ing time dec­or­at­ing it with tartans or drapes. That’ll just be tedi­ous and gaudy.”?

Once you add tex­tiles into Stonehenge the acous­tic and visual prop­er­ties change. There are many argu­ments that “If you look out of this gap you can see this star,” but you can’t if Blodwyn’s nifty eth­nic rug is in the way. As sci­ent­ists archae­olo­gists need a min­im­al­ist model of Stonehenge as a found­a­tion to build on, but this min­im­al­ist model is an unfin­ished work. It’s a tool to build an idea of what Stonehenge looked like on. If you’re going to say that it’s the fin­ished model and we don’t need tex­tiles, then all recon­struc­tions should show any­one there naked because there’s no evid­ence for the clothes people wore there either.

As Andy Burnham poin­ted out, Steven Waller’s approach misses the prac­tical use of Stonehenge by ancient peoples, and in this case adding people into the past makes Waller’s pro­posal either unwork­able or an aston­ish­ing Jenga tower of spe­cial plead­ing. It’s safe to say I’m uncon­vinced, but I’ve not been too impressed with some of the reac­tions to the story either. “Crank’ seemed a com­mon opin­ion, If Steven Waller were a crank then by present­ing his work at a sci­entific con­fer­ence he’s still closer to pro­fes­sional prac­tice than archae­olo­gists who issue a press release now before a talk in a few months time.

In fact a browse of his web­site shows he’s not likely to be a crank, just ter­ribly unaware of the dif­fer­ences in approach between US and UK prehistory.

The bulk of his work is on rock art at American pet­ro­glyph sites. The acous­tics of rock art in the US is a new field, but pro­du­cing some inter­est­ing res­ults. Some archae­olo­gists are find­ing archae­oacous­tics much more intriguing than, to pick a ran­dom example, archae­oastro­nomy. But American pre­his­tory is dif­fer­ent to British pre­his­tory. They have a richer rock art record, espe­cially in the south­w­est. They also have eth­no­graphic records and research that can help con­nect mean­ing to sym­bols. It’s not per­fect, and I’d like to debunk one inter­pret­a­tion of a site this sum­mer, but it’s very very dif­fer­ent to the lim­ited things we can say about rock art here. It means that Waller’s American work can rely on cul­tural inform­a­tion that we simply don’t have here. What is accep­ted by US archae­olo­gists about US sites is extremely spec­u­lat­ive when applied to UK sites.

Very few people have com­men­ted on work around archae­oacous­tics in gen­eral in rela­tion to this story. A few com­menters have men­tioned Deveraux’s work, but mainly the thrust has been this story must be debunked. I don’t think for a moment archae­olo­gists have con­sciously decided the out­sider must be expelled, but I won­der if an eager­ness to por­tray this as non­sense indic­ates some­thing more. Subconsciously does reject­ing Waller as non­sense and the oppos­ite of what you do men­tally reaf­firm that your own the­or­ies must there­fore by default be sound reasoning?

For some­thing more pos­it­ive about how sound can be explored in archae­ology, Alan Boyle has writ­ten an inter­est­ing piece on MSNBC’s Cosmic Log.

What lies beneath Achill-henge?

Achill-henge
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Achill-henge

Achill-henge. Photo by Seequinn

It’s good to see Achill-henge being picked up by the BBC. This is a story that’s been around for a while. I think RTÉ’s video report is access­ible world­wide. The BBC just has a webpage that’s an intro­duc­tion to the story. You can also listen to the radio pro­gramme (world­wide I think) with the rel­ev­ant seg­ment at 6m04s.

It’s not a bad story, but from an archae­olo­gical point of view it misses the most inter­est­ing things. Firstly build­ing this ertsatz archae­olo­gical site may have dam­aged a real site. Usually before con­struc­tion there will be test digs to check the con­struc­tion won’t des­troy some­thing of his­tor­ical import­ance. Achill is an extremely sens­it­ive archae­olo­gical site. There’s a long run­ning field school there because it has such a rich archae­olo­gical record. If you’re a fan of pre­his­toric remains, it seems a bit mad to risk des­troy­ing one to make a copy.

The second thing is the tem­plate chosen for the site. It’s Stonehenge. It’s a shoddy Stonehenge as any­one who’s been there could tell you, but it’s clearly a ring of tri­lithons. You don’t get those in Ireland. There’s a romantic ideal that the pre­his­toric British Isles were all Celtic but, as we learn more about sites, it’s becom­ing clear that there are dis­tinct­ive dif­fer­ences in tra­di­tions around the islands.

Tomnaverie Stone Circle

Tomnaverie Stone Circle. Photo by Cameron Diack

This is Tomnaverie Recumbent Stone Circle. The recum­bent bit is the low stone in the middle, flanked by two tall stones. There’s plenty of stone circles like this around Aberdeenshire, but you don’t get so many of them any­where else. There is a pos­sible astro­nom­ical align­ment. These circles tend to be set up so that the sum­mer full moon appears to roll across the top of the recum­bent stone every 18 years or so, due to the way the Moon’s orbit wobbles.

Drombeg Stone Circle

Drombeg Recumbent Stone Circle. Photo by Todd Slagter

This is Drombeg Recumbent Stone Circle. It’s com­pact and tidy, but the tallest stones are on the oppos­ite side to the recum­bent stone. This is more typ­ical of Irish circles. The tall stones can be seen as a delib­er­ate a portal for entry. The astro­nom­ical align­ments are dif­fer­ent for Irish circles. They tend to be facing south-westish and this could be an align­ment to winter sol­stice sunset.

Even though they look sim­ilar, these stone circles could be telling us very dif­fer­ent things about belief. If we trust the pat­terns emer­ging from study­ing groups of monu­ments, not just the ones we like, then they’re almost oppos­ites. The key event in Scotland seems to hap­pen with the Moon in sum­mer. In Ireland they’re look­ing to the Sun in winter.

There’s an ongo­ing argu­ment about whether sum­mer sun­rise or winter sun­set was more import­ant at Stonehenge. I favour winter sun­set, but to some extent this is just as reflect­ive of how you view pre­his­toric life as it is about the data. In addi­tion there’s plenty of evid­ence show­ing that Stonehenge was repeatedly remod­elled, includ­ing a pos­sible shift from lunar to solar alignments.

In any event whatever the tra­di­tion was at Stonehenge it’s a massive leap to think what happened there was reflect­ive of beliefs across the Irish Sea. Stonehenge is so embed­ded as an iconic brand for pre­his­toric archae­ology in the British Isles, that British pre­his­tory is now col­on­ising per­cep­tions of what a pre­his­toric Ireland would look like.

I don’t know to what extent that’s a good thing. Modern states are recent inven­tions, and some archae­olo­gists will cringe at the idea of a pre­his­toric Ireland or UK. Recognising mod­ern bound­ar­ies don’t apply to the past is a sens­ible fea­ture. At the same time an appeal­ing com­mon past does risk los­ing some of what makes places loc­ally distinctive.

Photos:
Achill-henge. Photo by Seequin. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.
Tomnaverie Stone Circle. Photo by Cameron Diack. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.
Drombeg Stone Circle. Photo by Todd Slagter. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.