Science and Sin: Random Links

Even though I haven't been blogging much recently, I've still been accumulating a large number of links, far too many for one sitting.  I've noticed that they all seem to mostly belong to two categories: Science or Sin.  So that tells you which things I find interesting.  Here they are:

♦  This tool will tell you immediately whether your email address has been compromised by any known data breaches.

♦  "Molecular Dynamics" is the name of computer simulations to describe the behavior of atoms in motion.  Instead of reading the rest of the links, you should try out this online Interactive MD simulator.  (The name is a bit of a misnomer, since in this case there are no molecules, just `atoms' interacting with a force law which is attractive when the atoms are a bit close, but repulsive when they get very close.)  Despite the fact that it has only 2 space dimensions, there is still a clear distinction between solid, liquid, and gas phases (except above the critical point, where the atoms are too crowded for there to be a sharp distinction between liquid and gas).  See if you can adjust the pressure and temperature so that solid, liquid, and gas phases all simultaneously coexist!

♦  Galileo: the first science publicist?

♦  Although the Catholic Church may have had some temporary hangups about Heliocentrism, it seems the Church has never had any problems with String Theory.  In 1277, the Bishop of Paris condemned as heretical the propositions that God "could not make more than three dimensions of space simultaneously" and that God "could not make several universes".  To be clear, it's OK not to believe in extra dimensions or universes, but if you think they couldn't have existed, then you are telling God what he can and can't do, and that puts you in the same geometrically-misguided camp as the Spherical Heretics.

♦  Haven't checked how good it is, but here's some interesting looking online math and science tutorials at

♦  Apparently scientists found (in an asteroid) some diamonds which could only have been formed in a planet bigger than Mercury but smaller than Mars.  Of which there are currently none in our Solar System.  But one of the things I learned in Graduate Mechanics (see also #3 here) is that the Solar System is surprisingly unstable over periods of many millions of years.  You might think that the small gravitational effects of planets on each other would be more or less random.  But if any two of the orbits happen to synch up into a small whole-number ratio (e.g. 3:2) then these small effects happen in a consistent way each cycle.  Sometimes they accumulate, causing large changes to the system (e.g. a planet may be ejected from the Solar System).

♦  Around 49 million years ago, a bunch of freshwater Azolla fern blooms sank down to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and sequestered about 80% of the CO2, causing the planet to shift from a "greenhouse Earth state, hot enough for turtles and palm trees to prosper at the poles, to the icehouse Earth it has been since."

In other news, we are now dumping large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere.  Every time you take a breath, you are getting about 40% more CO2 in your lungs than people got before the Industrial Revolution.  (By the way, there's a name for the political philosophy that we shouldn't allow random large changes to the world because of the risk of unintended consequences.  It's called conservativism.)  Here's one good solution.  Sometimes, my fellow conservatives, we need to allow a small change to prevent an even bigger change.  :-)

♦  ...or I guess we could try to stop supervolcanos instead.

♦  This is not really a political blog, but I hope nobody thinks I don't condemn all the bad things just because I don't talk about them much.  I continue to believe that we should not have elected President Trump, that as citizens we ought to speak respectfully about the President (no matter who fills the office), and that one of the things we should respectfully say is that he's done some incompetent and immoral things.  As one little example of the latter, consider the pardon of Joe Arpaio several months ago.  (The guy who wrote the editorial is some kind of socialist, but facts is facts.)  On the whole, I'm pleasantly surprised by how little he's been able to implement his specific political agenda, but I would prefer to have a President who doesn't systematically undermine his own Cabinet members whenever they try to do anything useful.

♦  If we don't like judges reinterpreting the Constitution, then there's a case for reforming Article V to make it easier for people to change it when there is enough popular consensus.

♦  Since the US justice system is almost entirely based on plea bargains, it's worth knowing that there are countries like Germany that manage to avoid it entirely.  Not sure it is possible with our judicial system though.

♦  What is the most effective means of dealing with people with reprehensible political opinions?  Is it punching Nazis, like Captain America?  Is it mockery?  How about something with a proven track record—befriending people who think they hate you?  The last link is about St. Daryl Davis, a black musician who talks to KKK members, and has numerous KKK robes in his closet given to him by people who he convinced to leave the organization.

♦  People often assume that people mostly only believe in religions because they were raised in them.  They also often assume (perhaps because of their social circles) that deconversion from religion is common while conversion is quite rare.  Actually, both events are quite frequent.  In the USA, the statistics seem to say that religiously unaffiliated people are actually more likely to convert to a religion, than religious people are to become unaffiliated:

"Paradoxically, the unaffiliated have gained the most members in the process of religious change despite having one of the lowest retention rates of all religious groups. Indeed, most people who were raised unaffiliated now belong to a religious group.  Nearly four-in-ten of those raised unaffiliated have become Protestant (including 22% who now belong to evangelical denominations), 6% have become Catholic and 9% are now associated with other faiths."  (page 2 of Pew link)

Of course "unaffiliated" is not necessarily the same thing as atheist (although probably most "unaffiliated" households at least do not provide strong social pressure to believe in God or any particular religion.)

♦  James Mellaart (1925-2012) was one of the great archaeologists of the 20th century (or so it seemed); he made several major finds but had a tendency to be involved in controversy over the acquisition of artifacts.  But recently it was revealed that he engaged in a course of systematic fraud that casts doubt on his entire career.  This is the guy who popularized the idea of a prehistoric Mother Goddess religion, although this had been disconfirmed by scholarship long before the discovery of his wrongdoing.

♦  Also from St. Brandon Watson's blog, one of the best answers I've ever seen to the rather silly Argument from Lots of Space that some atheists use.

♦  A radio debate between St. Luke Barnes (whose book I mentioned here and here) and Sean Carroll, about whether Naturalism or Theism best explains the universe.

♦  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Cosmology is pretty good as these things go.

♦  Stanford researchers on the analogue of dark matter in biology: 99 percent of the microbes inside of you are unknown to Science.

♦  Speaking of Stanford, it seems that St. Jane Stanford — the cofounder and architectural designer of The Leland Stanford Jr. University, named after her scholarly son who died at the age of 15 before he could attend college — was murdered, quite possibly by the first President of the University (whom she intended to fire, before her sudden death by strychnine poisoning).  Fun fact, when this story was told to me at a dinner party, two other people shared accounts of academic poisoning scandals, e.g. the time Oppenheimer tried to poison his tutor at Cambridge (but he changed his mind before it was too late).

♦  Passing from the 6th commandment "Thou shalt not murder", to the 4th commandment to keep the Sabbath (including allowing your servants to rest): Just-in-Time Scheduling is the oppressive practice of telling part-time workers at the last minute what their hours are, based on obscure computer algorithms.  Without of course paying them for the hours they had to set aside for work, but didn't end up being assigned to.  This makes it difficult for workers in the retail industry to regularly attend church, attend to children, or indeed have any kind of outside life.

This is bad and it should stop.  "You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land in your towns" (Deut 24:15).  If anyone reading this happens to be complicit, then "Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you.  The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty" (James 5:4).  So repent from your wicked deeds, turn to the Lord and seek forgiveness!

♦  Apparently the literary trope of intimidating the natives by predicting an eclipse you just happen to know is scheduled to occur soon, actually happened once, although the instigator was a crackpot who didn't know how to calculate the radius of the Earth correctly, and was incidentally a tyrannical oppressor himself...

♦  An interesting article by Catholic apologist St. Jimmy Akin on whether the Exodus happened (readers can compare to my own take here).  Fun quote:

If you read the military records left by Egyptian pharaohs, guess what! They never lost a battle! (Though we do sometimes read about them “winning” battles progressively closer and closer to home as their armies were forced to retreat.)

♦  A nice review of St. David Bentley Hart’s new translation of the New Testament.  It's pretty cool but one thing it is definitely not is letting the New Testament speak for itself apart from an agenda, since Hart is very opinionated about a few very specific topics.

One notable eccentricity is he bends over backwards to translate in a way which allows for (but does not require) belief in universal salvation, generally by translating αἰώνιος as something like "in the Age" where other translations say "eternal".

Less defensibly, St. Hart (who is Eastern Orthodox) also claims that the Protestant belief in salvation apart from works has no basis in the text, and fights against it by translating ἔργα (which is a fairly generic term for doings or deeds) throughout St. Paul's letters as "observances" rather than "works".  E.g. Hart translates Gal 2:16 as "A human being is vindicated not by observances of the Law but by the faithfulness of the Anointed One Jesus" (click on the link to compare to other translations).  Hart claims that St. Paul "rejected only the notion that one might be `shown righteous' by `works' of the Mosaic Law—that is, ritual `observances' like circumcision and keeping kosher" (from the Preface).

However, the `Jewish rituals' interpretation of ἔργα (works) and νόμος (law)—while within the possible scope of meaning in certain contexts—fails to make sense of several key passages in Romans.  For example, in Romans 2:14, when the Gentiles are a "law to themselves", this clearly refers to their conscience rather than to Jewish ritual.  Or in 4:6, when St. Paul writes that "David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works" (NIV), is it really plausible that King David's song about forgiveness is about the blessing of not having to obey Jewish ritual law anymore?  Isn't it more likely about him being forgiven for an ethical breach, like maybe sleeping with Bathsheba and murdering her husband?  Or in 7:7, the "law" which Paul says he was condemned by is "Do not covet", which highlights an ethical problem, not a ceremonial one!

Inconsistently, St. Hart retains the traditional translations of ἔργα as "works" and πίστις as "faith" in the famous passage in James 2:24 which says that "a human being is made righteous by works, and not by faith alone"!  However, this apparent contradiction is to be resolved theologically, I do not believe that a translator should put his thumb on the scale by rendering the exact same contrasting pair of words differently in these verses, to support a preferred theological agenda.  (Less importantly, it seems that if he is going to write "Logos" in the opening of John, it would have been nice to also use it in passages like James 1:18, "He chose to give us birth through the word of truth..." where λόγος seems to have a similarly expansive meaning.)

♦  Is Critical Thinking Epistemically Responsible?
Yes, Critical Thinking Is Epistemically Responsible!

♦  Teaching people lists of fallacies is insufficient for critical thinking, because almost all supposed "fallacies" become legitimate arguments in certain circumstances, and only careful thinkers can tell the difference.

♦  On being an informed media consumer, with reference to the mythology from Genesis of the Tower of Babel.  The final conclusion is a bit exaggerated, but makes an interesting point.

♦  One more reason to engage in critical thinking: the mindless, uncritical use of a single statistical method throughout the social and medical sciences.

♦  But the education grant world is even worse.  Where worse means not just being incapable of distinguishing between succeeding at one's goal and the strategy you choose to implement it, but also horribly racist things like assuming children must be in greater need of "help" just because they are black and poor, and therefore putting them in remedial math classes (without ever checking their math ability) where they aren't taught appropriately.

♦  If you'd like to send money to a good cause where rational people actually check to make sure that it is highly effective at helping people, then please consider the charities endorsed by GiveWell, a nonprofit that does just this.  Not surprisingly, the best bang for the buck is spending money in 3rd world countries, usually for public health.

(GiveWell only rates secular charities.  If you want to give effectively to Christian evangelism then I personally recommend either Wycliffe Bible Translators or the Jesus Film.)

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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19 Responses to Science and Sin: Random Links

  1. Andrew2 says:

    The link for the Azolla event seems to be missing - I presume this is it?

  2. Ashley Zappe says:

    If you like jesusfilm, check out

  3. Peter Culbert says:


    Re Exodus, pl see attached link re possible numbers involved. Interested to know what you think.

  4. TY says:

    Glad you're back.
    On politics: Millions of Evangelical Christians believe Trump was sent by God to be president. Dyed-in-the wool atheists think the election of Trump is further reason that there is no merciful and just God. Let’s hope Mueller was also sent by God to intervene and save the U.S. democracy redouble her efforts to be the shining beacon on the hill.

  5. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for the link, Peter.

    It seems at least as plausible as any other explanation for the high figures in Exodus. It does seem a little odd that, if the Israelities were really having 9 or 10 children per generation, that their numbers only increased from 70 to about 5000 in the space of about 400 years. But perhaps high child mortality, together with slavery and genocide towards the end of the period, might explain this.

    I doubt that any of us are in a position to figure out God's long-range plans concerning American democracy. What we know is our own religious obligations in the political sphere: namely to pray for our leaders, and to work towards a more just society.

    Thanks for the link!

  6. TY says:

    I share your sentiments about praying for our leaders totally and, as you know, that is a tradition in all Christian denominations that I know of. But you really got me thinking about a larger question: does God have any interest in the future of any country. Mankind as inhabitants of planet earth, yes; “nations” with defined physical boundaries and spheres of influence? Probably not. God is not passive, however, and though the ages, he warned nations through the prophets. But whereas God is very much interested in our future (John 3:16) he doesn’t appear to override free will which can be channelled into good and evil. I find your blog post Flesh and Spirit central to this larger question and a fascinating read,

  7. Aron Wall says:

    A major theme of the Old Testament prophets is that God judges nations as nations, not just as individuals. (Quite a few of the prophetic books have long sections in the middle describing God's judgements concerning specific nations. Daniel even seems to suggest that there are angels associated with specific nations.)

    At the end of the Book of Revelation, it says of the New Jerusalem that "The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it" (21:24), and that "The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it" (21:26). And while we know from Genesis that the fruit of the Tree of Life gives immortality, Revelation adds that "the leaves of the Tree are for the healing of the nations" (22:2). Once the idolatrous nationalistic monsters are slain, the true heart of each nation will be revealed through its saints and artists. No city or nation can ever die, if it was ever truly loved by those who love God.

    The mistake is getting too wrapped up in the petty politics of our own day, thinking that we can predict the future and somehow bring in the Kingdom through force, rather than by being the sort of people that God wants us to be.

  8. TY says:

    Aron, that last paragraph may help explain why the world is in such a mess today. There are millions who believe in "dispensational pre-millennialism" and their influence does not stop at politics but reaches into foreign policy. I read a distressing piece by Diana Butler Bass , "For many evangelicals, Jerusalem is about prophecy, not politics" in God help us mankind!
    Thanks so much for your reply.

  9. Aron Wall says:

    I don't subscribe to "dispensational pre-millennialism". BUT it actually is true that the Bible includes prophecies of the restoration of Jerusalem and the mass conversion of the Jews to Christ.

    Whether the fulfilment of these prophecies is related to the contemporary state of Israel, remains to be seen. Certainly they do not justify any unjust actions Israel might take in its military policy.

    It's important never to define your theology or politics as against something, simply because a group you dislike is for it. You have to read the Bible (and/or think through the ethical question) objectively and decide on the merits of the particular case.

  10. TY says:

    Thank you Aron. On another subject elated to "Galileo: the first science publicist?" Here is an interesting read related article on the scientific method, confirming theories by predictions and observation. "Why some scientists say physics has gone off the rails. Has the love of "elegant" equations overtaken the desire to describe the real world? by Dan Falk / Jun.02.2018. The "mathemisation of physics" critique is not unique to physics. In my own field, that has long been a criticism and on-going debate, but to hear this criticism in physics -- built on maths -- is surprising to me a non-physicist.

    Has modern-day physics strayed from the "undivided world"?

  11. martin says:

    The link to the lunar eclipse article doesn't work, this one does:

  12. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks martin, it's fixed now.

  13. Hamid says:

    Dear Aron,
    As a thought experiment, suppose that one gets the chance to meet Jesus Christ in person nowadays and Christ tells him that he has not committed any sins whatsoever in his lifetime up until when he has met Jesus. The million dollar question is if he will still be fortunate enough to be able to recognize Jesus Christ as he is; i.e. as the Savior. This same question of course might be asked in Islam concerning the Imam!
    It appears to me that when one reduces philosophy to sciences such as in analytic philosophy, e.g. in mathematical physics, one might possibly lose a great deal in descending from theology, religion, or ethics.

  14. flavio says:

    Talking about science, I would like to know what are some cutting edge topics in General relativity(i intent to d a PHD in this area). Thanks.

  15. Eugene Bird says:

    Dear Aron, I enjoy reading some of your commentary and popularizations of science, but I am surprised about your feelings about politics. The alternatives are socialism (how are Russia, Venezuela, California, and Cuba doing?) … and the democratic party, whose entire national committee was fired for what are obvious federal campaign law violations, and who lack any compelling ideas to make life better or spread freedom, and who are constantly making false characterization and accusations to make up for a lack of ideas. Some of us, your admirers, also admire Joe Arpaio and President Trump because, for a change, they are enforcing the law. Arpaio was trying to save the bankrupt state of Arizona by enforcing the laws that the federal government isn't. If you ever watch the interviews he granted Univision, you'd see he is NOT racist. I speak fluent Spanish, and I can tell you that Univision and the others are constantly promoting crime spreading hate for law and authority. It is so shameful in my opinion. It is … infuriating what they get away with … that they falsely try to frame everything as racism … when all their stories are based on race for race's sake. My legal Hispanic family has suffered so much (salary depression, decreased education and health spending, etc.) … and in Obama's Illinois my entire family lost their jobs to industry that moved to Mexico and failed to pay their pensions (Norge/Maytag). It used to be the greatest state - Illinois, now it is 49th in employment, a laughing stock, and congresspeople like Luis are focused on ILLEGAL immigrants instead of the state's legal residents. Let Trump fix the problems. No one else has accomplished as much; I am sorry that his imperfections hurt your sensibilities. Take heart - you are always telling us that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is going to destroy everything anyway. Let us use the Earth's resources for your well-being - we will fix the issues - it seems the quality of life has always gotten better in the past 500 years. We are not regressing from the Industrial revolution backward any more than we can go back to the classical physics from the quantum. Aron, you are a wonderful educator and great person, I wish you well.

  16. Aron Wall says:

    Dear Eugene,

    Thanks for your kind remarks.

    My objection to Arpaio is not that he enforced immigration law, it is that he broke the law by doing so in an inhumane and cruel manner. Did you even read the article I linked to? Here's a sample:

    Felix Torres was the latest in what the Phoenix New-Times had begun calling Joe Arpaio’s “parade of corpses,” with “endless” numbers of court cases over “needless deaths and injuries in the jails.” Arpaio refused to disclose the number of deaths in his facility, despite evidence that inmates were committing suicide at a rate that “dwarfed” other county jails.

    But it was not just those who died in Arpaio’s jails that suffered. Everyone did, because Arpaio made clear he wanted them to. Even though most of the inmates were legally innocent, Arpaio called them “criminals” and thought up ever-more sadistic treatments for them. First, of course, were the infamous tents: inmates would be forced to live without air conditioning in the Arizona heat, which reached well above 110 degrees. (At one point it reached 145 within the tents, causing the inmates’ shoes to melt.) Even the showers provided no relief; they were kept near boiling temperature. Winter was somehow even worse: the tents were unheated, but Arpaio would not permit warm clothing, not even a jacket. A former inmate wrote in the Washington Post that it was “freezing, achingly cold,” and that detainees wrapped their extremities with plastic bags. “I was in so much pain,” he said, that even now he cannot be cold without being reminded of it.

    Arpaio instituted chain gangs, and boasted that he had the first all-female chain gangs, soon to be followed by juvenile chain gangs. He took away every small comfort that could possibly make life in such conditions tolerable: no coffee, no cigarettes, no newspapers, no television. (Sometimes he permitted The Weather Channel “so these morons will know how hot it’s going to be while they are working on my chain gangs.”) He fed inmates meals that cost as little as 15 cents each, and was proud of the fact that the food was rotten and contaminated. Only two meals were provided per day, leading some inmates to lose unhealthy amounts of weight (a federal court eventually ordered Arpaio to meet USDA requirements), and Arpaio imposed a bread-and-water diet on any detainee found committing an “unpatriotic act.”

    Medical care for those who suffered from mental illness was “dangerously inadequate.” Arpaio “tortured inmates who were on psychotropic medication by locking them in unbearably hot solitary confinement cells.” Those with physical vulnerabilities were mistreated, too; a paraplegic had his neck broken by guards and a pregnant woman lost her baby after officers left her in her cell instead of taking her to the hospital. It even took a federal court order to ensure “functional and sanitary toilets and sinks, with toilet paper and soap.” (Take a moment to visualize what happens when an overcrowded group of people does not have access to any of these things.) Arpaio introduced a policy that only those who could prove they were U.S. citizens could visit family in jail, meaning detained immigrants could not see their spouses or children. (At one point, an interpreter and U.S. citizen who worked for the county was also prohibited from entering the facility, because he was a Latino who could not instantly produce paperwork showing his citizenship.)

    None of this served any purpose other than furthering Arpaio’s attempts to build a brand out of callousness. “Jails are intended to be punishment,” Arpaio said (although jail[s] aren’t intended to be punishment, because most people in them haven’t been convicted of a crime yet), and he joked that the facility was his own personal “concentration camp,” dismissing all concerns as “civil rights crap.”

    This quote does not include several other serious offenses described in the article, including retaliation against journalists who criticized him. Arguing about whether he was racist is irrelevant; no amount of talking nice on TV can change what he actually did to people he didn't like. If you want people who break the law to go to jail, how about if we start with sadists who illegally abuse their positions of power to torture people?

  17. LC says:

    Wondering if you would be willing to comment on Sean Carroll's article trying to give a naturalist account of reality (why there is something rather than nothing) -

  18. Pablo says:

    Dr Aron Wall : I only wanted to know if you fully agree with this : mv is implacable because it must be this way because the protocol to deal with crackpottery must be implacable because there is a long history behind , a history of psychopaths, death threats ... a long story of horrible unimaginable things which have been happening since ordinary people had a full access to the web.

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