Celebrating the Winter Solstice at The Humanist

Posted on 20th December 2014 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment
Winter Solstice Article in The Humanist
Winter Solstice Article in The Humanist

The Humanist has posted my celebration of the Winter Solstice, the annual cosmological event around which almost all of the season’s holidays orbit, in the article The Darkest Day: A Quintessentially Humanist Celebration.

Here’s a sample:

The winter solstice connects me to Galileo, who revealed humanity’s true relationship to the Sun, usurped our place at the center of the universe, and was among the myriad revolutionary intellects that ushered in the Enlightenment. Those rational minds set humanity on the path of scientific and cultural progress to which we owe all our technological conveniences, modern egalitarianism, and a quality of life that would appear magical to all the generations before us. Every day our news is filled with the scientific discoveries of their philosophical descendants, always further resolving our understanding of our place in the cosmos.

And so the most significant yearly event in human history, the one upon which all other major winter holidays are founded, is quintessentially humanist. Before our ancestors began seeing “fairies in the garden,” as Douglas Adam describes it, and added religious layers over the solstice, they simply looked out over the dawn horizon and saw the Sun rise over a particular mountaintop or tree and knew it was going to start climbing north again. And that gave them hope.

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How the IPCC’s Climate Report is a Model of Good Science

Posted on 22nd February 2014 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment
Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis
Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis
Credit: IPCC

Weighing in at over 1,500 pages, surveying the results from thousands of journal articles, and written by 259 experts from fields including meteorology, physics, oceanography, statistics, engineering, ecology, social sciences and economics, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis is the single most thorough, most comprehensive, and most accessible document in existence for understanding what we know and how well we know it concerning the subject of Anthropogenic Climate Change. The IPCC will publish four reports this year, but this first is my favorite. Any discussion on the subject of Climate Change should orbit this document.

More importantly, anyone wanting to understand the science and understand what constitutes good science, should pay attention to this document. How do we define “good science?” Let’s see how it applies to this latest report:

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Creative Commons Children’s Book: ABC’s of Biodiversity

Posted on 23rd December 2013 by Ryan Somma in Creative Commons Works,Ionian Enchantment

Download a PDF Version Here (30MB)

Download a PPTX Version Here (103MB)

This book is another tool in the myriad strategies we parents use to teach our children. The ebook format allows something print books don’t: an alphabet book with 10 examples of each letter. This means there are 260 images in this book. That can be quite overwhelming, but that’s nothing compared to the Earth’s actual biodiversity.

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Evolutionary Wonders in a Newborn Baby

Posted on 20th October 2013 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment

Want to get closer to your primal beginnings? Have kids. During nine-months of pregnancy, you will learn about all the evolutionarily-influenced mechanics of giving birth, from the fetal acrobatics involved in maneuvering an enormous head required to house our big brains through a birth canal constrained in size so that human females can walk upright. Next time you look at a newborn baby, take a moment to appreciate these many echoes to our primitive origins.



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Bird Feeders, Pornography, and Other Evolutionary Traps

Posted on 9th June 2013 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment
“Examples of animals exhibiting maladaptive responses to evolutionary novel objects and becoming trapped. (A) A Cuban tree frog (Osteopilus septentrionalis) ingesting a decorative light that mimics the bioluminescent qualities of its insect prey. (B) A black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) killed by the ingestion of small, often colorful, floating garbage that mimics food items. (C) A giant jewel beetle (Julodimorpha bakewelli) attempting to mate with a beer bottle that produces supernormal strengths of coloration and reflection cues associated with female conspecifics [74]. (D) Mayflies blanketing, mating, and ovipositing on a storefront window that strongly reflects horizontally polarized light, their primary habitat selection cue in locating natural water bodies.”
Credit: (Source) Images by James Snyder (A), Chris Jordan (B), Darryl Gwynne (C), and Will Milne (D) (Copyrighted, reproduced here as fair use).

Carl Zimmer has an article summarizing the research presented by Robertson, Rehage, and Sih concerning evolutionary traps, when “rapid environmental change triggers organisms to make maladaptive behavioral decisions.” In other words, we change the environment in ways that cause animals to exhibit behaviors harmful to themselves.

Zimmer gives the example of the albatross, which “will peck at brightly colored pieces of plastic floating in the water, for example. It’s a response that used to give them energy but now can fill their guts with trash.” Witherington gives the example of sea turtles, which “have evolved the tendency to migrate toward the light of the moon upon emerging from their sand nests. However, in the modern world, this has resulted in them tending to orient towards bright beach-front lighting, which is a more intense light source than the moon. As a result the hatchlings migrate up the beach and away from the ocean where they exhaust themselves, desiccate and die either as a result of exhaustion, dehydration or predation.” Sea turtles also mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and consume them. In 2011 Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz won an IgNobel for their research on the giant jewel beetle, which attempts to mate with a certain brand of beer bottle because they exhibit “supernormal strengths of coloration and reflection cues associated with female conspecifics.”

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Carnival of Evolution #54: A Walkabout Mount Improbable

Posted on 1st December 2012 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment
Mount Ranier Panorama
Mount Ranier Panorama
Credit: Tyler Foote

I hope everyone enjoyed their holiday dinosaur this Thanksgiving, and thank you joining me in this delightful excursion out into the wide wonderful world of ideas and expressions in evolution.

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The Science of Mindfulness Meditation and Practice for the Rational Skeptic

Posted on 27th August 2012 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment

Jump to:
The Science Fiction of Meditation
Mindfulness Meditation
Science of Mindfulness Meditation
Experimentally-Observed Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
How to Meditate

The Science Fiction of Meditation

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was a deeply flawed movie on many levels, but there was one moment in the film that I thought was brilliant. The Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn is in the heat of a duel with the Sith lord Darth Maul, when a force field comes in between them, momentarily pausing their battle. Darth Maul impatiently paces back and forth along the shield, staring at his opponent with murderous rage. Qui-Gon, in contrast, drops to his knees and begins meditating.

Qui-Gon Jinn Meditating
Qui-Gon Jinn Meditating
Credit: 20th Century Fox / Lucasfilm

I recently spent a Saturday morning at a meditation workshop hosted by Amma Sri Karunamayi, where I followed a warm-up yoga session taught by my brother (yes, the same one from this epic debate of religion vs science), who was also her devote, with three straight hours of mindfulness meditation interrupted every half hour with my need to change sitting positions in order to restore feeling to my legs. As a skeptic, I had to resist the urge to roll my eyes when they spoke of magical energies stirred by the yogic practice, feeding jade idols butter, and sitting in the presence of a woman who is supposedly the latest incarnation of some Hindu goddess, but also as a skeptic I am open to new experiences and practicing mindfulness meditation for three hours in a group setting where social pressures would help keep me focused was something I strongly desired to try, and I confess I came out of the experience fairly high. I felt like I was floating, calmly detached from the world around me. The feeling carried me through an hour of beltway traffic and I remained non-stressed for the rest of the day.

It was a high very similar to one I would get as a youth from immersing myself in a good book or going deep on a programming task for several hours. Not surprisingly, I was also discovering Star Trek at that time in my life, and was idolizing Mr. Spock for his emotional detachment the cool logic I hoped would help me survive middle school and admired later in life for the idealization of mental discipline. Vulcans are often portrayed in a state of meditation, and Trekkers describe three types of Vulcan meditation:

Mental meditations have the purpose of developing the intellect. One might consider doing a logic puzzle or studying a foreign language a mental meditation, albeit a simple one. Emotional meditations explore the breadth and flavor of our emotions: for one cannot hope to control a thing without first understanding it. Physical meditations consist of various strenuous exercises done in a particularly mindful manner.

I do like the idea of mental and physical meditations, and do practice such disciplines in real life, but the definition here of “emotional meditations” is highly lacking. It doesn’t make sense that one would “explore the breadth and flavor” of something one wants mastery over, but is it possible to cognitively master one’s emotional states and calm the mind of all its chatter?

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Welcome to Life, A Guide for New Members of Species Homo Sapiens

Posted on 30th July 2012 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment

Download a PDF Version Here (9MB)

Download a PPTX Version Here (14MB)

I was walking through the local forest trail a few months ago, and it was getting dark. As the sky shifted from blue to black, the full moon rose up through the trees creating a stunning scene. I realized my ancient ancestors were just as awe-inspired by that glowing orb in the sky, but my present-day awe was much deeper for knowing the moon as an object in space several hundred thousand kilometers away, circling the Earth for the same reason things fall to the ground, much of its mass once belonging to the Earth, lit up by the Sun, and causing the oceans to rise and fall as they follow its orbit.

At once I realized how crucial it was that this cherished knowledge of my place in the Cosmos was something I needed to give my son, Sagan.

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Naming is Not Understanding

Posted on 28th May 2012 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment
Evil Eye Galaxy, Messier 64 (M64)
Evil Eye Galaxy, Messier 64 (M64)
Credit: NASA

Before becoming a parent, I was well-acquainted with the word “colic.” According to my mother, I suffered from severe colic as a baby, keeping her up all night for weeks with my crying. I’ve also heard parents toss the term about when talking about their baby-raising trials and tribulations. After having our son Sagan, I got to hear the term from one of our pediatricians concerning him having a crying episode one night as a possible explanation for the outburst.

Curious about this seemingly common medical condition, I decided to look up the definition myself:

The strict medical definition of colic is a condition of a healthy baby in which it shows periods of intense, unexplained fussing/crying lasting more than 3 hours a day, more than 3 days a week for more than 3 weeks. [Bold Mine]

There’s that word there, unexplained. For years I thought this word “colic” described a phenomenon that was understood and therefore natural. The etymology of the word, pertaining to “disease characterized by severe abdominal pain” in the early 15th century suggests the infant’s crying is explainable, but in reality the term colic is just a fancy way for your pediatrician to say, “I don’t know why your baby is chronically crying.”

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Being Labeled for What I Don’t Believe Versus What I Do

Posted on 26th March 2012 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior,Ionian Enchantment
The Reason Rally
The Reason Rally

I remember unexpectedly having that conversation with my mother in law while riding in the car recently:

“What do you mean Sagan isn’t going to be raised Christian?” she asked when we accidentally let slip that he wouldn’t be going to a Christian church.

“There’s lots of possible belief systems out there,” Vicky answered, “and we’re going to let him decide for himself.”

“When he’s old enough, he can read the Bible if he wants,” I said.

“Old enough?” Grandma asked.

“Ummm,” I hesitated and decided to just let it out, “Yeah. When he’s old enough to read stories about daughters getting their father drunk to have sex with him, a husband giving his wife to be raped by a mob and then chopping her up into pieces to mail to his allies, a prophet summoning bears to devour children for teasing him about his male-pattern baldness, fathers sacrificing their virgin daughters to god as thanks for victory in war, mothers entering contracts to eat one another’s’ sons, … You know, when he’s old enough to be exposed to those kinds of stories.”

“Ha. Ha,” Grandma chuckled. “Yeah. I see what you mean.”

It’s so strange that in a world where humans can see to the edge of the Universe, live to a century through modern medicine, access unimaginable volumes of information online, and fly all over the world that I am still put in the awkward position from time to time of having to explain to someone that I don’t believe in any of the mythical invisible entities known as “gods.” It’s also awkward because I don’t walk around all day thinking about the fact that I don’t think about such deities. I don’t identify as a non-theist any more than I identify as a non-Mr. Snuffleupagusist. I identify as a Scientist a person who focuses on our shared empirical understanding of the natural world revealed through experimentation and inductive reasoning.

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