Posts Tagged‘Science’

God of the Gaps.

I’ve always been fascinated by people who are incredibly smart and religious. To me they seem to be diametrically opposed as education goes up the evidence for God’s existence starts to come under question, usually to the point of pushing people to be either agnostic or atheist. For me it was mostly my distaste for the study of religion (I found it boring) and the ham fisted approach that my science teacher had to reconciling the Anglican school teachings with actual science.

For those both gifted and religious the most common explanation I get is the things we can’t yet explain come under the purview of a god or the God. I watched a video of an interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently that sums up why that approach is fundamentally flawed:

Taken to its logical extreme, as in as our knowledge approaches the limit of all we can ever know, God then can only exist in infinitesimally smaller gaps. Logically then the belief in such an entity seems irrational as God is then just an ever shrinking pocket of ignorance. You can of course neatly sidestep this argument by saying you fully believe in your faith regardless of what science says and I’ll neatly sidestep any argument with you on the matter because I’m sure neither of us will walk away happy from it 😉

Portal 2: A Worthy Successor.

There’s a lot to be said for a game that genuinely treads new ground, daring to defy the current norms. I’m always a big fan of these experiments because they’re so refreshing in a world that’s constantly dominated by the same games repeatedly even if I do enjoy some of those titles. The original Portal was one of these such games bringing in a game mechanic unlike any that had come before it. Despite the unusually short length Portal managed to capture the hearts and minds of nearly everyone who played it with it’s distinctive humor and characters, spawning several memes in the process. Portal 2 picks up where its predecessor left off and will take you much deeper into the Portal universe.

This review contains spoilers about major plot events since I wouldn’t be able to review it properly without talking about them. If you’re planning to play Portal 2 sometime soon I’d recommend bookmarking this and coming back later 😉

The game starts off with an interesting tutorial that puts you as one of the test subjects in the Aperture Science laboratories. It appears that you’re one of many test subjects who are kept in a state of hibernation and a disembodied voice walks you through some exercises to make sure you’re not turning into a vegetable. When you next awake however the bright room you were in is now in a major state of disrepair and the voice from before states that you’ve been asleep for 9999 days. You’re then introduced to a new companion, Wheatley, a personality core who assists you in escaping the Aperture Science laboratory whilst also providing comic relief at nearly every turn.

Running through these run down test chambers familiarizes you with the basic portal mechanics that were the staple of the original game. Wheatley guides you along this journey and eventually finds you in the chamber of a dormant GlaDOS and attempts to acquire an escape pod for your escape. Unfortunately he activates GlaDOS who identifies you as Chell, the protagonist from the original Portal, and proceeds to send you back to the test chambers so that you can further science once again, you monster.

The next section of the game is in essence identical to its predecessor with each chamber being a single puzzle. The differences come from the environment which, whilst not as run down as the initial chambers you went through, show signs of being in disrepair with GlaDOS attempting to fix the problems as you enter each chamber. Apart from the introduction of the jump pads (devices used to make some of the velocity based puzzles a bit easier) there’s nothing really exciting about this section of the game. Indeed I found myself a times wondering how long I’d have to put up with this since whilst the original was adventurous and inventive this just seemed exploitative, a cop out seeking to cash in on the Portal IP.

It’s quite possible that I just didn’t enjoy the formulaic nature of this particular section of the game. I loved the humor in the original because GlaDOS was always attempting to maintain the appearance of being a computer without any emotions, whilst in this one she just seemed felt like a disembodied human who was angry at me for trying to kill her. Still the puzzles were enough to keep me going and I made it through to the next section, the reunion with GlaDOS.

Wheatley’s usurping of GlaDOS was an interesting plot point although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect him to turn on me immediately. However the next section proved to be my favorite by far as it takes you back to the very beginnings of Aperture Science, hidden deep underground in a former salt mine. The setting feels very 1960s post-apocalyptic, with all the remnants of the initial Aperture laboratories showing their age. The attention to detail in these parts is absolutely staggering, with the paraphernalia lining the offices giving you that distinct feeling that you’d gone back in time. I spent quite a lot of my time here just soaking in the atmosphere of it all, thoroughly enjoying the fleshing out of the Aperture back story.

Of course the old Aperture also had old test chambers too and with them comes the introduction of another new game mechanic: gels. The gels are in essence paints that can cover nearly any surface that give them a certain property. Blue for bouncing, orange for ultra speed and white for turning surfaces into ones capable of having portals on them. I found them to be quite intriguing, especially when they let you loose with a full on stream of the substances so you can paint the entire room in your chosen color, even if there’s really no point to it at all.

However this brings me to a point of difference between the puzzles in Portal 2 and its predecessor. The original Portal felt very much like there were multiple options to solving the puzzles, some of which the designers had obviously not intended (especially if you watch the speed runs). Portal 2, whilst still providing many challenges, feels a lot more like there’s only a single solution and you’re just figuring out exactly what that is. The jump pads and gels demonstrate this quite aptly since they both have to be (or have been) placed in their exact positions for the desired solution. There are some exceptions to this of course (like the first room with the white gel) but its definitely one of the areas that Portal 2 falls down in comparison to its predecessor.

Along the way you pick up GlaDOS who’s been transformed into a shadow of her former self being powered entirely by a potato. She provides some interesting commentary during your journey through the old Aperture labs and seems to get quite excited when Cave Johnson, the founder of Aperture Science, addresses you over the intercom via pre-recorded messages. She stays with you the entire time but isn’t as chatty as Wheatley was before her which I was quite thankful for when I was stuck on some of the puzzles.

Eventually you make your way back to the current Aperture labs where Wheatley has taken over the test chambers, many of which are GlaDOS’s creations with the wall panels rearranged to spell TEST in large letters across one of the walls. This of course is all leading up to the point where you face up with Wheatley in his current form in a boss fight that feels oddly-similar-yet-completely-different from the original boss fight in the original Portal. Of course nearly every mechanic you’ve used previously makes an appearance in this and for those who’ve completed the fight there’s a scene in their that tickled the space nut in me just right.

Of course whilst the single player game is the main selling point for most buyers Portal 2 ups the ante by including a separate co-op experience that you can play with a friend or random stranger on the Internet. Initially I choose to find someone randomly as none of my playing buddies were online and I must say the matchmaking system works perfectly, finding me a partner in science in under 30 seconds. Of course it’s not as enjoyable as it would be with good friends so I decided to put it off after a couple chambers, but I did give it a good run through last week.

Whilst they’ve gone to great lengths to make the co-op in Portal 2 pretty painless without voice communication it’s quite a lot better with it. Still though the pinger tool they give you, basically a laser pointer that can mark stuff or set a timer, still comes in handy when trying to guide (or be guided by) your partner. The puzzles themselves are quite interesting as well especially when GlaDOS takes you outside the test chambers to retrieve information left behind by the former human scientists. Her humor in these sections was also far more enjoyable as she taunts the robots and gets frustrated as they show human traits like high-fiving or hugging each other.

Overall though Portal 2 proves to be a worthy successor to the original Portal. I had had my misgivings about the game during the first half of it, feeling that the changes made to it were only skin deep. However the old Aperture labs turned me right around making me heavily invested in both the characters and the plot of the game. The puzzles, whilst many feeling like single solution jobs, still managed to keep me guessing and were incredibly satisfying once accomplished, especially considering I did not once reach for a walkthrough (although I’d put the credit for this to the game designers themselves, not my amazing playing ability). The co-op is also quite a fun experience, especially when done with a close friend. If you liked the original Portal or are fan of intriguing puzzle games then you won’t go wrong with Portal 2 and I’d highly recommend giving it a play through.

Rating: 9.0/10

Portal 2 is available on PC, Xbox360 and Playstation 3 right now for AUD$49.99, $108 and $108 (PS3 edition includes a free Steam copy) respectively. Game was played on the PC with total game time around 7 hours for the single player and 2 hours spent on the co-op missions without finishing them all.



Science Reporting vs Actual Science

It seems every other day we’re bombarded with promises of new technology or scientific breakthroughs that can revolutionize the way we work, live and play. Whilst there is a great amount of research being done around the globe which will in turn lead to tangible benefits for all of us it would seem that we’re always told of technology that’s “just around the corner” or “at least a decade away from practical implementation”. It would seem on the surface that scientists are spending most of their time 10 years behind where they should be, rather than working on something that will provide real benefits now.

However it is prudent to note that the media is great at drawing wild conclusions from even small scientific discoveries. The majority of them fell under the umbrella of wild speculation, and I’ve got a couple of examples to show you.

One of the best I’ve seen is Resveratrol. Here’s a quick blurb on what it’s effects are:

A quick googling of this term brings up over 3 million sites with 10 or so links for you to buy the product. Even though this is completely unproven we still have people heralding this compound as a cure for many human ailments. The main reason it has taken off so well is probably due to its life extending properties, which has only been proven so far in mice.

Another more recent one was the re-ignition of the cold fusion debate, seen here:

Twenty years to the day that two electrochemists ignited controversy by announcing signs of cold fusion at an infamous press conference in Utah (watch a video of the 1989 event), a separate team has made a similar claim in the same US state. But this time, the evidence is being taken more seriously.

Back in 1989, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons at the University of Utah announced the tantalising prospect of abundant, almost-free energy, but their claims of fusion reactions in a tabletop experiment were dismissed by nuclear physicists, not least because such reactions normally occur inside stars. The few watts of extra energy they found were widely considered a fluke.

Now Pamela Mosier-Boss and colleagues at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) in San Diego, California, are claiming to have made a “significant” discovery – clear evidence of the products of cold fusion.

Most people will read the top half of the article and not see the clarifications that come at the end. Whilst New Scientist usually does a good job of reporting on science discoveries articles like this are so easily picked up by regular journalists and turned into sensationalist dribble that only causes people to think that scientists are promising more then that can deliver.

If you read over the article you’ll discover that they in fact haven’t discovered anything to do with cold fusion, just evidence of energetic neutrons which are unlikely to be created in such a reaction. If it did turn out to be a cold fusion reaction I’d be among the first to congratulate them on freeing us from our energy constrains, but call me skeptical when I see something that doesn’t even actually generate power as being heralded as cold fusion. I would have much preferred to see this article under the heading of “Energetic Neutron Creation in Room Temperature Environments”, although that’s not as sexy or provocative as “Neutron tracks revive hopes for cold fusion”.

So to all those people out there who are wondering where our flying cars are or why we haven’t cured the common cold yet please remember this: The media is not a factual source of scientific information and any breakthrough you hear about has more then likely been sensationalised. There are many great people working on pretty much every aspect of our lives without us knowing about them, and it is they who will bring about real progress to the world.

The Science of the Human Condition.

I’m not usually one to newsbot¹ but this article got me thinking in a direction that I wanted to share:

People with strong religious beliefs appear to want doctors to do everything they can to keep them alive as death approaches, a US study suggests.

Researchers followed 345 patients with terminal cancer up until their deaths.

Those who regularly prayed were more than three times more likely to receive intensive life-prolonging care than those who relied least on religion.

The team’s report was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

It suggests that such care, including resuscitation, may make death more uncomfortable.

Just over 30% of those asked agreed with the statement that religion was “the most important thing that keeps you going”.

Let it be known first that I like religion, it does a lot of good things for otherwise lost and direction-less people. It is very interesting to note this funny little bit of science and it does give rise to some interesting philosophical points.

It would seem that believers in religion would at the time of their deaths be more comfortable with the idea of passing onto the next plane of existence. Since they are guaranteed by their faith that there is something waiting for them on the other side that should put their mind at ease.

Or does it?

The time leading up to your death really becomes the ultimate test of your faith. You start thinking about your legacy, how you led your life and what will become of the world when you depart it. Then if that isn’t enough you will then start to think about whether or not you’ve lived your life close enough to the rules that were set out by your religion, and more likely then not all the things you’ve done wrong in that time. Needless to say this would lead to desperation more then acceptance, since you would want more time to reconcile your faults before passing on and receiving your final judgement.

Atheists on the other hand believe that there is nothing after death just as there was nothing for them before birth. If you’re truly in touch with that kind of belief (Atheists have faith to you know) then you know there’s nothing you can do to change it. Although I would postulate that before  the point of no return, I.E. before the doctors have tried everything to save you and haven’t said “x days/hours to live”, they would behave much the same as the religious attempting every possible avenue to extend their mortal existence.

It may just be that the religious have more reason to continue living, since they have more work to do before they pass on.

After reading some discussion on this topic someone posted a quote that I’ve believed in most of my life, ever since I left Christianity as my religion:

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” – Marcus Aurelius

It is interesting to note however the one flaw in this line of thinking. That the Gods and us share a similar line of thought, and our definitions of just and unjust are similar. Therefore, we can only assume (take in faith) that should the Gods be just and you live a good life that Marcus is correct.

¹Since I can’t find a definition for this word, I shall coin it now. Newsbot, when used as a noun, refers to a person/blog/entity that takes a story directly from the news and then takes some or all of the content and posts it on their site/medium with a small amount of additional detail, usually an opinion or drivel. When used as an adjective it refers to the process of hunting down news to regurgitate somewhere else in order to appear that you’re actually producing content, when really you’re just repeating someone else’s hard work and trying to add a bit of flavour. If you can’t guess already I think people who produce newsbot blogs don’t add any value, but that’s another post for another day 😉

Science and Religion.

I was brought up in your typical “Protestant” Christian family. Although we weren’t strictly religious we still went to church on Christmas and Easter and I did scripture studies all the way through primary school. I even ended going to Radford College here in Canberra, which is Anglican but I don’t think my parents really cared as long as the basis was Christian. I didn’t last long there and I’ll tell you why.

It’s around that time in a boy’s life when he starts to question the world around him. I became increasingly disdainful towards my parents and of course started the usual teenage rebellion. Although this started with just plain disobedience there was one significant turning point that I still remember very clearly to this day.

Sitting in Science class my teacher proclaimed that science and religion didn’t disagree with each other. Whilst at the time I found this to be confusing (and did outright disagree with it) the notion did send me down a path of self discovery. I found the more I read into the teachings of the bible the more I didn’t believe in it as faith. When it came time to do this like my confirmation I couldn’t go through with it, because there was always a nagging voice in the back of my head telling me that I didn’t agree with this practice.

However, now being many years wiser I can see where my science teacher back then was going. Science is the how and when of what happened. Religion is the why. Now science can’t explain why we came into existence, that’s not the point of scientific study. On the other side, religion has a tough time describing how we came into existence without falling back on scripture. It is this distinction that I fail to see from many hard core Atheists like Richard Dawkins, who seems more content to show the baseless nature of faith instead of seeing its application as an explanation of that which can not (currently) be explained by science.

The reason behaviour irks me is that science and religion are constantly fooling around with each other and they’re not doing each other any good. It’s like a classic destructive relationship were both partners blame each other for their misery yet neither one of them is willing to break it off. The problem is that both of them have a tendency to bring out the holy crusader hiding in everyone, ensuring that both sides of the debate have defenders who go to any lengths to disprove their opponent.

So what can be done about this? I personally believe that religion has no place in real world matters, and as such should be separated. This is the classic separation of Church and the State, which appears to have a blurred distinction of late. It seems more and more that religion plays a big part in international affairs and this is what concerns me. Areas of great scientific research, such as cloning and stem cell research, have hit major roadblocks due to people’s beliefs. Now this is where religion should keep out. Sure, I believe that religion can and should weigh in on the ethics side of things but after that, they should step back. Any block on science that comes directly from religious teachings is in my view unacceptable.

My solution to this problem? I don’t think I could say it any better than the Simpsons did in the episode “Lisa the Skeptic”:

   Judge Snider: Lisa Simpson, you are charged with destruction
                 of an historic curiosity. A mis-demener. By the
                 larger sum, this trial will settle the age old
                 question of Science vs. Religion. Let the opening
                 statements commence.
Religion Lawyer: Your honour over the coming weeks and months we will
                 prove that Lisa Simpson willingly destroyed...
                 [Lisa notices the angel on a nearby grassy hill through
                 a window]
          Lenny: There's the angle!
                 [they all run out to see the angel]
   Judge Snider: I find the defendant not guilty. As for science vs.
                 religion I'm issuing a refraining order. Science should
                 stay 500 yards from religion at all times.

That’s right you two, stay away from each other.