Sunday, March 30, 2008

Is there life out there?

Okay, sure, so this is Internet post #4,572,366 on whether there is life in the universe. A Google search for the phrase "extraterrestrial life" gives 728,000 returns. But it's something I've been thinking about lately, so there you go.

Most interpretations of the Bible would seem to preclude the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. The idea that God would have created humans and Vogons in His image makes us uncomfortable at best. Of course, the early 16th century idea that He'd created Native Americans in His image was borderline heresy. But regardless, the Bible certainly doesn't give much positive indication that God created life anywhere else, at least not any intelligent life that we would consider as having a soul.

Now let me present a more scientific approach to the idea. In 1960, Frank Drake developed what is now called the Drake equation, used to estimate the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy we could contact. Without getting into the technicalities, it basically says that this number is dependent on things like how quickly stars form, how many of those stars have planets, how many of those planets could support life, how many of those actually do develop life, how many of those actually develop intelligent life, and how many of those civilizations develop the technology to communicate beyond their world. The greater the value you place on any of those variables, the greater the likelihood that there are other civilizations out there trying to call us.

Let me simplify it a bit. If there are so many stars in the universe, doesn't it seem pretty likely that there's got to be life on at least a few of them? I mean, unless God really did say, "Humanity, you're it," then the chances that there aren't other civilizations out there right now, writing their own histories, developing spaceflight, and watching Survivor, seems like it'd be pretty slim. According to most astronomers' estimates, there are 100 billions stars just in our galaxy. And they estimate that there are 125 billion galaxies in the universe. So there are something like 1.3*10^22 stars in our universe. Let's says that life developing is very rare, so that it only occurs in one solar system out of a trillion. That means there would still be 13 billion different planets with life-forms out there, enough for at least a few more episodes of Star Trek.

But then you come back to God. With all that space out there, do you really think he would've created it all just for us? Doesn't that idea seem a little, I don't know, self-centered?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sorry, Mommy

The Monkey and I spent quite a while last night trying to take apart one of Mommy's wall clocks so he could see how the insides work. I told him that sometimes these things aren't made to be taken apart and that people just go buy new ones if they break. After messing with it for a little longer, I told him there'd be no way to open it without breaking it. He walked into the kitchen and told Ann that she was going to have to buy a new clock because we were about to break this one.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Faith vs. science

I read a lot of geeky science stuff. For years I've had a subscription to Scientific American. Recently however I've become weary with their constant religion-bashing. The creation vs. evolution debate is one that will not go away for a long time, and both sides have a lot to apologize for, but Scientific American has gotten to be almost childish in their constant low-blows and insults of anyone with a less than atheistic worldview.

I won't get into my personal opinions of the creation vs. evolution issue - that would definitely be a blog post of its own. I'm still constantly amazed by how disparate the views of the scientific community and the views of the religious community are. I'm tired of the "us against them" mentality. I have a very science-based education and outlook of the world (T might call that "modernist"), but I don't have any problem reconciling that with my God-centric perspective either. Haven't we moved past the era of Galileo Galilei, when scientists would be brought before the pope and accused of heresy? Why do we still have events like education boards voting against teaching evolution in schools?

The fact of the matter is, scientists and theologians are all after the same thing: truth. Or call it Truth, if you like. There's no such thing as opinion when it comes to Truth: either something's right or it's wrong. Science and religion have very different ways of figuring out what Truth is, but it's still the same Truth.

One of my favorite movies is Contact (I also love the book by Carl Sagan that it was based on). At the end of the movie a minister named Palmer Joss, played by Matthew McConaughey, is defending the scientist Eleanor Arroway, played by Jodie Foster. He says. "As a person of faith, I am bound by a different covenant than Dr. Arroway - but I believe our goal is one and the same: the pursuit of the truth."

So I would propose a new paradigm (although I'm sure I'm not the first to propose it). Instead of continuing this pointless argument over which is the "right" truth, science or religion, let's just agree that we're all after the same thing, the single universal Truth that exists.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Night at the banya

I love to have authentic cultural experiences - times when you can experience a culture as it really is, not in an overtly tourist setting. Asados at our church in Argentina, eating at the traditional Japanese restaurant the last time I was in Tsukuba, or the time my dad and I went on the two-day-long boat ride through the rain forest in Costa Rica.

This is my third trip to Russia, and I don’t think I can say I’ve truly had a Russian cultural experience until now. And this particular experience would probably qualify as one of the most bizarre I’ve had anywhere. I should warn you that the rest of this post might qualify as PG-13, so proceed at your own risk. Even so, I can promise you that every word of it is absolutely true.

On Tuesday night I was invited to the banya, which is a Russian spa or sauna. I’d been warned about some of the strange practices that take place at the banya, but they were even more weird than I’d thought. First I walked into the antechamber - kind of like a dressing/relaxation room. You know how you go to the gym and you’re in the locker room and there’s always that one guy who walks around completely naked with no shame? Okay, now imagine that there are ten guys in the room, and they’re all THAT GUY. Let me clarify for you here: there were ten guys, and they were all COMPLETELY NAKED. I was sort of ready for some nudity, but I don’t think you can ever be completely ready to see something like that.

The next thing I noticed was the smell: a combination of male body odor and fish. These Russian dudes (not known for their grade-A personal hygiene to begin with) were just sitting around sweating and eating smoked fish. And I’m not talking about nice little smoked salmon strips like you might put on a bagel, I’m talking about whole smoked fish: heads, tails and everything. These guys would cut the fish into pieces with knives or just rip the meat apart and then suck it off the bones. Now, this could’ve been a very manly experience if it’d been venison or bacon they were eating, and they hadn’t been completely naked.

Let me clarify something else from my last paragraph: they were SITTING around sweating and eating. A couple of them had towels on, but most of them were just sitting on wooden chairs or (I’m totally serious here) a vinyl covered chaise sofa. The butt-germ ramifications of this experience alone are staggering to consider. Due to the high humidity and the moisture from the sauna itself, everything in this room is damp: the chairs, the table, the floor, the fish, EVERYTHING.

I decided to “go European” and stripped down to my… well, my nothing. So I suppose I was Naked Guy #11 here, although I did keep my towel nearby. And so help me, I didn’t sit on the vinyl.

As strange as all this may seem, it only gets weirder. After we got undressed, we moved into the sauna itself. Given that Houston between July and September technically is a sauna, the artificial-sauna experience is not one I’m very familiar with. We stepped into the sauna and it was hot, considerably hotter than any other I’d been in. There were about five other guys already in there, and it wasn’t very big to begin with, so it took a considerable amount of concentration to move to an open seating place without there being any, shall we say, touchage. I sat down and proceeded to not think about how much my nostrils hurt just trying to inhale. Our host, a very interesting fellow named Valeri, tried to explain how the banya experience works. Since his English is rather poor and he was already fairly sauced by this point, understanding what he was saying took far more effort than I was willing to expend in a sauna that was (I’m not exaggerating here) around 200 degrees F. After sitting in the hot-bath for a few minutes, we were to run back out into the room and jump into a pool of water. This pool was maybe six feet long and six feet deep. I’d love to say that it was a nice warm hot-tub, but it was just a tile-lined tub of VERY cold water. So after five minutes or so of sauna-ing, jumping into this tub of water was one of the most physically shocking experiences of my life. After this, I was instructed to return to the sauna for another round of “Life as a Microwave Burrito.”

Seriously, I still haven’t gotten to the weird part. Valeri came back into the sauna carrying a handful of "venik," dried birch branches. He then made me stand up while he whipped my back with the branches. Had everyone in the sauna not been undergoing the same “therapy,” I might have felt very violated. Instead, I felt only moderately violated. Then, he had me turn around while he whipped my chest with the branches. Supposedly the branch-whipping brings the toxins out of the skin. I think it’s just an excuse to beat other guys with sticks. It got even more bizarre when he started yelling: he’d slap me a couple of times with the branches, then let out a long yell, then whip me some more.

After a few minutes of me sitting in the heat, being beaten with branches by a naked Russian guy and wondering how I’d gotten myself into this particular situation, I was instructed to run back out and jump into the pool. This process repeated itself several times; over the course of the evening I did the sauna/ice-bath combo about four times. Keep in mind that the first thing everyone did after sweating in the hothouse was to jump into the pool. The pool of standing, non-recycling water. So by the end of the evening, the water had taken on a lovely, gray, Russian man-sweat mistiness.

After doing this a couple of times, I started to feel uncomfortable in the sauna. Not like “hey, why am I spending my evening with a bunch of naked guys?” uncomfortable, more like “hey, I’m starting to feel light-headed and over-heated” uncomfortable. I walked back out to the antechamber, sat down, and measured my heart rate at 120 beats per minute.

After a while, we all re-gathered in the antechamber and Valeri suggested we re-hydrate… by drinking beer. Of course, any modern Western medical practitioner will tell you that the best way to get fluids and minerals back into your body is by consuming alcohol. I had half a glass of beer, poured out of a two-liter plastic bottle, that tasted like a combination of Miller Lite and horse sweat. We eventually got dressed again and went out to the bar area where - you guessed it - we started to drink again. I managed to get by with drinking only two vodka shots. They broke out the snacks: bread, fish, and some sort of pureed fish paste in a can that my coworker compared to the delicate flavors of Fancy Feast. This went on until 11:30 at night - drinking, eating, attempting to understand the slurred speech of drunken Russians trying to speak English, and attempting to understand the slurred speech of drunken Americans trying to speak English. Finally, we managed to slip away - by which I mean we managed to outrun Valeri, who was coming after us to sing one more cheer.

So in summary, I’d have to rate this as one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had. It’s one that will be funny in time, but for now is just strangely creepy.