A Humanist Advent Calendar

Posted on 23rd November 2018 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment,science holidays
Boys with Advent Calendars

Boys with Advent Calendars

My mother took my siblings and I through a Christmas Advent calendar one year. A new-ager raised Christian, she held a positive view of the Bible. I can’t recall any of the biblical stories from those sessions preceding the chocolates each night, but I do have a fond nostalgic memories of the familial fellowship.

So last year, I thought I would try my own advent countdown to the holidays in the spirit of tradition. Except, we would focus on appreciating the empirical world around us as it informs our Humanist worldview. After all, Christmas coincides with a northern-hemisphere earthfull of other celebrations right around this exact same time.

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Closest Thing I Have to Religion: Robert McCall’s “The Prologue and the Promise”

Posted on 8th October 2018 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment
Robert McCall's The Prologue and the Promise

Robert McCall’s “The Prologue and the Promise”

I was unfamiliar with the name Robert McCall when I first stumbled upon “The Prologue and the Promise,” the mural he painted for Disney Epicot’s Horizons attraction in 1983, but I was very familiar with his visionary artwork. His imaginative futuristic designs feature in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and numerous NASA conceptual artworks envisioning future habitats for humanity.

His mythic painting of human past, present, and future has never lost its breathtaking effect on me since discovering it a few years ago. I once posted the mural to a forum of scientists sharing their favorite paintings with the caption “closest thing I have to religion.” I was moved when another community member solemnly replied, “I just learned something about myself.”

The reply reminded me of my own experience in discovering I was a humanist. I had a vague sense what I believed but had never heard it articulated until authors like Carl Sagan and Kurt Vonnegut made me aware there was a community of people who believed in their fellow human beings. I strongly suspect the world is full of humanists, people believing in the power of our human collective to achieve great things through science, reason, and progress. It’s just that so many of us don’t realize it. Humanism is an ever-evolving belief system that depends on a myriad of diverse voices trying to express and define it.

That’s why I find McCall’s mural so powerful. Without words it inspires me more than the best prose. It sums up in one single epic image the Humanist worldview, our appreciation for all who have come before us and our optimism for a better future.

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The Illuminating and Enigmatic Daisyworld Thought Experiment

Posted on 16th July 2018 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment,Pure Speculation
Daisyworld Simulation

Daisyworld Simulation

I’ve previously written about James Lovelock’s Daisyworld, a thought-experiment meant to support the Gaia Hypothesis. This is the idea that complex ecosystems create a self-regulating environment conducive to perpetuating life. Examples of this include increased plant growth reducing CO2 in the atmosphere or bacteria drawing salt out of the oceans stabilizing salinity levels.

Ten years ago, I was enamored with the hypothesis, but am much more skeptical now seeing it tested on our own planet. With rising CO2 levels, fertilizer runoff effects, plastic, and other pollutants impacting ecosystems across the Earth, I only see destabilizing feedbacks as a result. Yes, the environment could become so destabilized as to kill the human race and let nature evolve new ecosystems–a pessimistic view I don’t share as I believe we are smarter than the challenges we face–but such an outcome is easier explained with straightforward evolution and adaptation.

My skepticism aside, I still love Lovelock’s planetary fable as something to ponder. Daisyworld is a planet covered in white and black daisies. When there are too many white daisies, the planet gets colder as more light is reflected into space and allows the black daisies to thrive as they absorb more solar radiation. When there are too many black daisies, the planet warms from the solar energy being converted into thermal. Then the white daisies thrive by keeping cool in the heat. Eventually the planet reaches an equilibrium of white and black daisies that maintain a stable temperature in which they can both thrive.

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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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