Go West

The sun doesn't rise in the east.

Think about that.  Really wrap your mind around the concept.

Of course the sun doesn't rise in the east.  It's Earth that rotates and causes the illusion.  We all know this.  Yet, sunrises and sunsets are so ingrained in our social consciousness that we have trouble breaking free of them.

Civilization shifts westward.  While not an absolute trend, it's definitely a trend that is visible in history.  A lot of thought has been given to why this trend exists, but the most reasonable and testable hypothesis has to do with sunsets.

As the day goes on, the sun appears to sink into the west.  Like the sunrise, sunsets are built into our social culture and tend to represent the end of things: the end of the day, of a life, the passing on to something we cannot follow, etc.

So, it's only natural that those people who are seeking to break molds or to escape from the limits of their lives will chase the sun and try to reach that sunset.  That means moving westward.

So, this migration started in eastern Asia aeons ago and is "currently" at the West Coast of the US.  That has many people convinced that Japan/China/eastern Asia are next up for the migration, completing the loop and perhaps starting another.  But, if the true motivation is "chasing the sun", as it were - reaching beyond the limits of the known/current to something else - then that makes little sense.  Indeed, the supposed rise of Japan in the late 80's collapsed, and even China's "supremacy" of global markets at the moment is driven largely by unsustainable fiscal policy on the part of China's government.  India may be on the brink of tremendous famine thanks to a new wheat disease, and no other country in the region is set for major growth.

So, if we can't keep going west, but we have to go somewhere... the only place to go is out.

Time to *really* start chasing the sun, and get beyond sunrises and sunsets altogether.


Astronomical fun facts

The sun doesn't rise in the east.  It actually doesn't rise at all; the earth rotates.  It can be difficult to remember this when watching it from the surface of the Earth, but doing so can really help change one's focus.

The space station is about 200 miles above Earth's surface.  If you could drive vertically as easily as you could drive horizontally, it'd take you about 3 hours (at normal 65 mph) to get there.  If you then decided to drive off to the moon, pack a few snacks: it'll take you another 6 months.

99.86% of the mass of the solar system is in the sun.  Jupiter is less than 0.1% of the mass of the solar system, yet it's 2.5x the mass of all the other planets combined.  That means that there's enough non-planetary mass in the solar system to make up 21 Earths.  Might get a little crowded around here.

The mass of the solar system is about 1.989x10^30 kilograms.  There are 6.022 protons and/or neutrons in 1 gram, or about 6,022 in a kilogram.  That means, in the solar system, there are approximately 12,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 protons or neutrons (electron mass is mostly insignificant).  This is off slightly, since some of that mass is converted to energy.

Contrary to popular belief, the Moon doesn't orbit the Earth: they both technically orbit a common gravitational "locus", similar to the way two people holding hands and spinning orbit some point between them.  Because the Earth has significantly more mass, the locus is "within" the Earth - a few thousand miles off-center, about 1000 miles below the surface - so, from a distance, Earth looks like it wobbles around its axis.  Also, the Earth - and all the planets - don't actually orbit the sun for the same reasons.  In fact, because of the distances involved and the density of the sun, the locus of Jupiter (also called the center of mass) is generally 30,000 miles above the surface of the sun, though the "wobble" of the sun changes dramatically depending on planetary alignment.

The milky way (our galaxy) is about 100,000 lightyears across and 1,000 lightyears thick.  This tells us that the volume of space it occupies is roughly 7.8 trillion cubic lightyears.  If we assume the high-end estimate of 400 billion stars, that means there are an average of 1 star per 19 cubic lightyears.  This isn't really accurate, since stellar density is far higher in the center of the galaxy than at the edges; out by us, the actual density is closer to 2300 cubic lightyears per star.

If we assume that radio waves have been broadcasting from Earth in some form since around 1880, then those signals fill a volume of space of approximately 9.2 million cubic lightyears.  That means our radio broadcasts have reached less than 4,000 stars and just over 0.0001% of the galaxy.  Needless to say, the odds that any of the planets near us could support life, much less *do* support life that could notice our broadcasts, is pretty low, but we've only just scratched the surface of the galaxy as a whole.


Right to Life

So, I'm going to approach a very delicate subject from an angle that I rarely hear expressed coherently.

The abortion debate is very contentious, with members on both sides railing about rights to life and quality of living and such.  A quick question - really, the question - is whether or not the foetus has the same rights as the carrier.

I'm going to side-step the moral questions for a moment and merely tackle this specific question.

First off, we have to understand what we mean when we refer to the rights of the carrier.  As I'm in the U.S., my viewpoint will, be skewed slightly towards that political climate, but that should have little impact eventually.

The ethology of the U.S. states that various rights - life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, etc. - are imbued in all humans; this isn't stated in the Constitution, mind you, but it's often used as a governing principle when interpreting the meaning of the Constitution.  So, from a legal aspect, we can state that "humanity" is one required principle for a certain level of rights.

Obviously, there are rights imbued to citizens, who are classified as natural or naturalized - both of which are specific processes or conditions.  The easiest way to qualify as a citizen is to be born in the U.S.; since the foetus obviously isn't born yet and, furthermore, likely hasn't gone through a naturalization process, it cannot be a citizen.

Furthermore, there are certain "rights" viewed as existing to "all living things", generally enforced or seen as dictated a reduction of animal cruelty and such.

So, that gives us a framework for the "rights" aspect of a "thing": if it's alive, it has a certain level of "rights" that aren't necessarily universally enforced; if it's human it has other "rights"; and if it's a citizen, it has even more.

The carrier obviously qualified for all of the above without question.  So, we focus on the foetus.

The foetus is, as stated, not a citizen since it has never been born and has never participated in naturalization.  So, the rights of US citizens to not apply.

Is the foetus alive?  In some sense, yes.  However, as stated, this does not guarantee a granting of rights: we kill living things all the time, and very rarely is an ethical question raised.  Usually such ethics are only called in when the living thing is capable of demonstrating a sensation of pain; it's questionable at what stage a foetus is able to do so, though observation seems to indicate that such sensation is possible only at around the start of the third trimester.

However, again, that isn't necessarily sufficient justification for the absolute prevention of killing; we still kill/harm living things that can feel pain, often for seemingly "trivial" reasons.

The third criteria is the crucial matter and the hardest to gauge: is the foetus human?  To do so, we have to define what it means to be "human", something that is very difficult to do.

Inarguably, for most of its life, a foetus has little resemblance to a born human being beyond the biochemical - even once tissues start differentiating, the physical anatomy takes weeks to become recognizable.  A foetus that is delivered before the end of the second trimester is not likely to live: survival rates, even with the best medical care, are barely 50% at 24 weeks (two weeks before the end of the second trimester).  (This fact, combined with the development of the ability to feel pain, is generally why there is the current "third trimester" limit on elective abortions.)

Many people, mainly the religious, argue that a foetus is human from the moment it is conceived; the justification for this appears entirely religious, but I'll try to tackle it from an evidence-based perspective.

Merely having the genetic material of a human does not make something individually "human": cancer cells, for example, have all the genetic requirements for "human" but are killed all the time.  Many even have slightly different genomes (usually through mutation) and thus might actually qualify as a separate life form from the host, but this doesn't stop us from killing said cells.  Clearly, society as a whole uses some other criteria for judging the "humanity" of a being.  Formalizing that criteria would go a long ways towards clearing up the abortion issue.

As a final consideration, it can be argued that, until the foetus is independently viable (again, around the start of the 3rd trimester), it cannot be truly considered an "independent life" and is instead either part of the carrier (as an organ or other growth) or a parasite.  Carriers regularly excise either from their bodies, sometimes under medical requirement and sometimes electively.

If the foetus is not independent, it has no "rights" as an entity.  If it is independent but isn't human, it has no rights normally associated with humanity.  Even if it is human, it has no rights associated with citizenship.

It's clear that, if society could formulate answers to the first two questions (those of independence and humanity), the issue of abortion could be solved ethically once and for all.  From the known evidence, I currently think the current 3rd-trimester limit is the most scientifically justified ethic, but it is society as a whole that needs to resolve the issue on the basis of all evidence.


In the beginning

... there was nothing, because there is no beginning.

As one of my favorite authors, Terry Pratchett, has written, stories don't start - they weave.  What seems like a beginning is just the continuation of something else.  Tom Stoppard once wrote, "We do on stage what most people do off, which is a kind of integrity if you look at every exit as an entrance somewhere else."

And there's the rub (to quote another bard): nothing is ever truly first.  There's always something that came before.  Even all the way back to that seminal event (that may or may not have occurred) called the Big Bang, and even prior to that - because for the singularity to "expand", it had to exist first, which means something was there before the Big Bang.

This is the trap of thinking in four dimensions - of thinking in terms of "time".  Time, you see, isn't a location, it's a direction.  It's flow - as in, time *is* flow and nothing else.  We have no method to describe it that isn't self-referential.  We have no tools for measuring it directly.  And yet we observe its assumed effects.

We could argue that time is part of the universe we know, and that therefore time itself came into existence as part of the big bang.  However, that solves nothing; it just complicates matter.  For something to "pre-exist time" implies the existence of some kind of "supertime" (the same way that stating something as "outside our universe" implies something larger): it doesn't solve the problem, it merely shifts it up a level.

Furthermore, because of how time is - flow - once it existed it had always existed.  Wrap your mind around that one for a few seconds: if time itself comes into existence, then any notion of "past" had to come into existence also, so "as soon as" time existed, there were past, present, and future already formed.  Once time was around, it had to have always been around, because "always" is a concept of time.

Anything that happens "outside" time - without a time dimension - would, by definition, happen simultaneously/constantly/forever (there really isn't a non-temporal word that works).  That means that what existed "before" the big bang would have to co-exist with whatever exists "after" the "universe" created by the big bang finishes/collapses/ends/whatever.  In essence, not only is the big bang still happening in the "superuniverse", but it's also already over.

And yet, we see the stories weave as we always have, one second before the next.  And just as no story every really begins, no story ever really ends - it just becomes part of another story, another path to weave.