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Ben Gilliland's blog

Putting Earth back in its place...

How Galileo, science and observable reality have been lying to you for 400 years (but not really)

When you write about science, you expect to receive all sorts of different letters and emails from those that occupy the world outside. Some of this correspondence comes in the form of ‘job well done’, others come as ‘I think you’ll find’, but always the most baffling are the ‘science is a lie’-type emails. Most of the latter come from religionists of one type or another and usual involve evolution.

Science writers get used to this sort of email. We are used to being harangued for using tools like observation and evidence by those that rely upon faith alone to inform their world-view. But every so often an email drops in your inbox that truly takes your breath away.

Meet the jawless wonders

Imagine the scene – you have been thrown more than 400million years into the past. Unfortunately for you, the place where England will come to a rest in 400,000 millennia is still just a wide expanse of ocean, so you are left floundering around in the water.

Suddenly, panic grips you as feel a disturbance in the water. All sort of images flash through your mind, but the strongest is of a colossal prehistoric beast streaking, teeth at the ready, toward you from the depths. You feel something brush against your foot and instinctually you try to kick it away. But its too late, you have just been gummed by jawless – terror of the deep!

Adding to the sum of our parts

Early humans interbred more than previously thought.
New human relative discovered in Siberia.

We humans like to think of ourselves as being the pinnacle of evolution. We see humanity sitting atop a pyramid made up of all that came before us. At its foundations are the single-celled beasties that kicked it all off, then, as we move up, we pass fish, amphibians, primitive mammals, apes, hominins and so on.

It’s all very neat – every step of our evolutionary journey is separate and compartmentalised – with the inferior giving way to the superior in a neat, linear conveyor belt of succession.

But we are quickly learning that such chronological segregation applies no more to us than it does to any other creature on the planet.

All quiet on the Cosm front... an excuse

An apology from the Cosm Overlord

Any web-slinging, www-dot-surfing, science-hunting folk who have found themselves on these pages in the last couple of weeks might have found that CosmOnline has been neglected of late. I apologise for my lack of postings and uploadings and will shortly being taking action to remedy the situation.

In my defence, I have been horribly busy for the last few months and, as I am a one-man band, CosmOnline has suffered as a result.

‘But what have you been doing, oh Cosm Overlord, that has caused you to neglect us so?’Do I hear you cry?

The power of ten per cent

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘weight of popular opinion’ but how does this opinion gain its mass in the first place? Today, with the power of TV, radio and internet social networks, a new belief is a relatively easy seed to sow, but to propagate that belief so it grows to become a consensus seems an almost impossible task.

If a population contains 60million individuals, what percentage would you have to convince to tip the balance? If an idea were a tangible object that you could pick up and place on a set of scales, logic would suggest that they would only tip when you reach a figure of more than half the population. But it turns out that reality is a little stranger than that.

Scientists at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York have found that, for a belief to conquer a population, you only need to convince ten per cent of the people. The researchers ran computer models that simulated the adoption of an idea and found that, as long as the number of people holding a minority opinion stays below ten per cent, it would take longer than the age of the universe for that group to become the majority. But, once the minority opinion passes that magical ten per cent take-up, it becomes an unstoppable train to consensus city.

Robots reach for the Moon

[Robotic hand: Shadow Robot Company (Montage: Ben Gilliland)]

No future history of humanity would be complete without robots. If the great prognosticators of science fiction are to be believed, robots will be with us every step of the way as we extend the reach of Homo sapiens across the galaxy.

Robots will be the mechanised equivalent of the slaves that helped the great empires of the past spread across the continents – even the word ‘robot’ is derived from the Czech word ‘robota’, meaning forced labour or drudgery. Small robots will carry out menial chores; humanoid robots will perform tasks too dangerous, or too tedious, for an advanced human race to bother itself with and, every so often, they will rise up and try to crush their weak, fleshy overlords.
In the real world, robots haven’t even come close to fulfilling their sci-fi duties. Sure, we have robots that will mow our lawns and entertain our children. They have been used in industry for decades, but where are the C3POs, Cylons and Metal Mickeys?

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