Those cute, fluffy killing machines

I like cats.  I like dogs too, but I appreciate cats.  But those cool, purring, graceful creatures are formidable killers.  One estimate is that cats kill as many as one out of ten birds.  From ABC:

Cats are responsible for the deaths of 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals every year, according to research conducted by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. [Read more...]

Why conservatives are skeptical of environmentalism

From Charles Krauthammer:

As Czech President (and economist) Vaclav Klaus once explained, environmentalism is the successor to failed socialism as justification for all-pervasive rule by a politburo of experts. Only now, it acts in the name of not the proletariat but the planet.

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Why dogs are nice but wolves are mean

Dogs and wolves are pretty much identical genetically.  And yet dogs make loveable pets, whereas wolves can almost never be domesticated.   Why is that?  Scientists may have figured that out.  [Read more...]

If materialism is wrong, what can replace it?

Alvin Plantinga is surely one of the best living philosophers.  He is also an evangelical Christian.  The New Republic, no less, has printed his review of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.  Nagel, an eminent philosopher, is an atheist, but he recognizes the force of the intelligent design arguments and in this book (published by Oxford University Press), he dismantles the materialists’ assumptions.  What is especially interesting, though, is how Plantinga interacts with Nagel and challenges his atheism:

Nagel rejects nearly every contention of materialist naturalism. Mind and Cosmos rejects, first, the claim that life has come to be just by the workings of the laws of physics and chemistry. As Nagel points out, this is extremely improbable, at least given current evidence: no one has suggested any reasonably plausible process whereby this could have happened. As Nagel remarks, “It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.”

The second plank of materialist naturalism that Nagel rejects is the idea that, once life was established on our planet, all the enormous variety of contemporary life came to be by way of the processes evolutionary science tells us about: natural selection operating on genetic mutation, but also genetic drift, and perhaps other processes as well. These processes, moreover, are unguided: neither God nor any other being has directed or orchestrated them. Nagel seems a bit less doubtful of this plank than of the first; but still he thinks it incredible that the fantastic diversity of life, including we human beings, should have come to be in this way: “the more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes.” Nagel supports the commonsense view that the probability of this happening in the time available is extremely low, and he believes that nothing like sufficient evidence to overturn this verdict has been produced. . . .

he thinks it is especially improbable that consciousness and reason should come to be if materialist naturalism is true. “Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science.” Why so? Nagel’s point seems to be that the physical sciences—physics, chemistry, biology, neurology—cannot explain or account for the fact that we human beings and presumably some other animals are conscious. Physical science can explain the tides, and why birds have hollow bones, and why the sky is blue; but it cannot explain consciousness. Physical science can perhaps demonstrate correlations between physical conditions of one sort or another and conscious states of one sort or another; but of course this is not to explain consciousness. Correlation is not explanation. As Nagel puts it, “The appearance of animal consciousness is evidently the result of biological evolution, but this well-supported empirical fact is not yet an explanation—it does not provide understanding, or enable us to see why the result was to be expected or how it came about.”

Nagel next turns his attention to belief and cognition: “the problem that I want to take up now concerns mental functions such as thought, reasoning, and evaluation that are limited to humans, though their beginnings may be found in a few other species.” We human beings and perhaps some other animals are not merely conscious, we also hold beliefs, many of which are in fact true. It is one thing to feel pain; it is quite another to believe, say, that pain can be a useful signal of dysfunction. According to Nagel, materialist naturalism has great difficulty with consciousness, but it has even greater difficulty with cognition. He thinks it monumentally unlikely that unguided natural selection should have “generated creatures with the capacity to discover by reason the truth about a reality that extends vastly beyond the initial appearances.” He is thinking in particular of science itself.

Theism would account for all of this and Nagel mostly agrees, though he raises some objections that Plantinga easily disposes of.  But here is where the issues get especially interesting.  What is Nagel’s reason for atheism, even though he cannot accept materialistic naturalism?  In an earlier book, quoted by Plantinga, Nagel is very honest in articulating what, I suspect, lies behind much atheism:

I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers…. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

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Steam without boiling water

Engineers at Rice have devised an ingenious process that allows the generation of steam without boiling water using nanotechnology (particles that are extraordinarily small) plus ordinary sunlight.  Among other applications, this could revolutionize the possibilities of solar energy.

In the Rice experiment, the researchers stirred a small amount of nanoparticles into water and put the mixture into a glass vessel. They then focused sunlight on the mixture with a lens.

The nanoparticles — either carbon or gold-coated silicon dioxide beads — have a diameter shorter than the wavelength of visible light. That allows them to absorb most of a wave of light’s energy. If they had been larger, the particles would have scattered much of the light.

In the focused light, a nanoparticle rapidly becomes hot enough to vaporize the layer of water around it. It then becomes enveloped in a bubble of steam. That, in turn, insulates it from the mass of water that, an instant before the steam formed, was bathing and cooling it.

Insulated in that fashion, the particle heats up further and forms more steam. It eventually becomes buoyant enough to rise. As it floats toward the surface, it hits and merges with other bubbles.

At the surface, the nanoparticles-in-bubbles release their steam into the air. They then sink back toward the bottom of the vessel. When they encounter the focused light, the process begins again. All of this occurs within seconds.

In all, about 80 percent of the light energy a nanoparticle absorbs goes into making steam, and only 20 percent is “lost” in heating the water. This is far different from creating steam in a tea kettle. There, all the water must reach boiling temperature before an appreciable number of water molecules fly into the air as steam.

The phenomenon is such that it is possible to put the vessel containing the water-and-nanoparticle soup into an ice bath, focus light on it and make steam. . . .

Halas said the nanoparticles are not expensive to make and, because they act essentially as catalysts, are not used up. A nanoparticle steam generator could be used over and over. And, as James Watt and other 18th-century inventors showed, if you can generate steam easily, you can create an industrial revolution.

via Making steam without boiling water, thanks to nanoparticles – The Washington Post.

How shale is sparking an American industrial revival

You want some good economic news?  Technology to extract natural gas from shale formations has created an abundance of cheap energy that is bringing back manufacturing, attracting overseas investment, and solving our energy problems.  From Washington Post journalist Steven Mufson

The shale gas revolution is firing up an old-fashioned American industrial revival, breathing life into businesses such as petrochemicals and glass, steel and toys.

Methanex Corp., which closed its last U.S. chemical plant in 1999, is spending more than half a billion dollars to dismantle a methanol plant in Chile and move it to the parish.

Nearby, a petrochemical company, Williams, is spending $400 million to expand an ethylene plant. And on Nov. 1, CF Industries unveiled a $2.1 billion expansion of its nitrogen fertilizer manufacturing complex, aiming to displace imports that now make up half of U.S. nitrogen fertilizer sales.

These companies all rely heavily on natural gas. And across the country, companies like them are crediting the sudden abundance of cheap natural gas for revving up their U.S. operations. Thanks to new applications of drilling technology to unlock natural gas trapped in shale rock, the nation’s output has surged and energy experts almost unanimously forecast that prices will remain low or moderate for a generation. The International Energy Agency says that by 2015, the United States will overtake Russia as the world’s biggest gas producer.

via The new boom: Shale gas fueling an American industrial revival – The Washington Post.

The rest of the article gives more details of what the natural gas boom is doing for the economy.  Of course, some people want to stop it.