Sunday, September 25, 2011

Abraham Lincoln's copper brain

Is our universe an intelligent living organism or a dead machine that came into being by accident with no one manning the control knobs?

To answer that age-old existential question, let's ask none other than Honest Abe Lincoln, our 16th President, who presumably would not lie at all, much less about something as important as this.

Well, we won't actually ask the fleshly Honest Abe -- too late for that -- but rather his copper likeness on the U.S. penny.

The copper Lincoln, of course, cannot speak, but he does have the right moves, so to speak, to give us a suggestive answer.

Flip a penny ten times and you get a totally random heads-tails outcome.

But the longer you stretch out any series of flips, the less randomness you will get in the heads-tails result. Indeed, the longer the series of flips, the closer and closer the outcome will creep toward exactly 50 % heads and 50 % tails.

This will happen in every experiment. Every time. As dependably as gravity or a morning sunrise.

An extremely long series of flips will time after time have an outcome that is virtually exactly 50 percent heads and 50 percent tails. Many flips, little randomness. Few flips, lots of randomness. A middling number of flips, a middling amount of randomness.

Question: How does The Great Emancipator, made of pure copper and no neurons, axons or dendrites, know how to behave this precisely?

Scientists answer blithely that it's the Law of Probability. But why -- we persist in asking. "Just 'cause" is the reply, and the matter is closed.

Of course, to a philosophically inclined person, the matter is far from closed.

The mystery of mindless copper Lincolns behaving so precisely and dependably is a metaphor for the incredible orderliness of this seemingly conscious universe that skeptics dismiss as random and accidental.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Has Science Found God’s Fingerprints on the Control Panel of the Universe?

Have scientists examining the laws of nature found the hidden hand of the Creator?

In recent decades, scientists have discovered a multitude of freakish coincidences in nature which have worked together to bring about a universe suitable for intelligent human life to evolve. And against stupefying, astronomical odds.

Consider: The force of gravity is just what it has to be, with very little tolerance for deviation. But gravity could have had an infinite number of alternative strengths. Or consider the force holding together the nucleuses of atoms (the so-called “strong force”); it has exactly the properties it must have for atoms to form correctly.

In fact, thousands of these so-called “anthropic” (human-friendly) coincidences have been discovered, and more are turning up all the time. Water, essential to life, “happens” to be liquid at temperatures that are most favorable to life.

Had one or another of these natural forces or phenomena varied by even the smallest of margins, a chain-reaction of consequences would have taken place, “fouling up” the requirements for a universe in which intelligent human life could evolve. The cosmos is like an extremely complicated Rube Goldberg machine, where every part must be just so to get the rolling ball from one end to the other.

Scientist Paul Davies commented: “It is hard to resist the temptation that the present structure of the universe, apparently so sensitive to minor alterations in the numbers, has been rather carefully thought out…” Davies adds: “The seeming miraculous concurrence of numerical values that nature has assigned to her fundamental constants must remain the most compelling evidence for an element of cosmic design.”

Indeed, to say that this incredibly fined-turned universe got from the Big Bang all the way to us without a blueprint, by sheer accident, would be like saying that an explosion at an electronics factory could accidentally produce a mistake-proof, functioning circuit board.

Or, would it be saying that, after all? The skeptics, actually, have counter-attacked.

Although scientists all agree that this universe is uncannily human-friendly – against mind-numbing odds, not everyone sees God’s fingerprints on the levers and the buttons of the cosmic machinery.

Among other things, the dissenters argue that our universe is just one of staggeringly many such universes in an inconceivably large “multi-verse.” The forces of nature, some argue, are randomly generated in each universe, and ours happens to be one of the very few universes in which things accidentally worked out just right. (In another universe, for example, the force of gravity may have randomly been generated at 1,000 times the strength of our gravity during that universe’s Big Bang.) Therefore, if we had not won a stupendous cosmic lottery by accident, we wouldn’t be here now to be asking these questions about our shockingly human-friendly universe.

So the debate continues.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Does Abraham Lincoln still walk the White House corridors?

Does the ghost of the Great Emancipator still walk the halls of the White House? It’s a startling question to ponder as the 202nd anniversary of Lincoln’s log-cabin birth in 1809 comes up this Wednesday, Feb. 12.

Trust-busting President Teddy Roosevelt said in the early 1900s: “I see him in the different rooms and in the halls.” Depression-era President Franklin Roosevelt’s valet fled the White House’s second floor screaming one day after spotting Lincoln’s specter.

The most striking of many stories came from the Netherland’s Queen Wilhelmina: Late one night during a state visit, she heard a knock at the door of her White House guest room. Opening the door, she fainted when she saw Lincoln’s tall frame stooped under the door jamb, wearing his trademark top hat.

Some paranormal observers have wondered if our greatest President might be earthbound by his sudden and violent death or by a deep love for a country he watched over in its time of agony.

White House employees – and President Calvin Coolidge’s wife Grace in the 1920s -- allegedly several times saw the ghost of the 16th President at a window in the Oval Office, where Lincoln used to look out with concern over the Potomac River to Virginia during the Civil War.

Britain’s famous wartime prime minister Winston Churchill refused to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom during his many White House visits after supposedly sighting the phantom during the first and only occasion he slept in the room.

President Ronald Reagan’s daughter, Maureen, was quoted in Newsweek magazine as saying she and her husband woke up one morning to see the “transparent figure” of Lincoln standing at a window, looking out. President Reagan’s dog reportedly would not enter the Lincoln bedroom but sometimes stood outside it, barking.

Lincoln supposedly had a premonitory dream shortly before he was fatally shot in the head by assassin John Wilkes Booth in the final days of the Civil War after General Lee’s surrender of the largest Confederate army.

In the dream, Lincoln heard subdued sobbing, left his bed and wandered downstairs, going from room to room, still hearing the sobs but seeing no one. Finally, in the East Room, he saw a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments, guarded by soldiers. The body’s face was covered. "Who is dead in the White House?" Lincoln asked one of the soldiers. "The president,” the soldier answered. “He was killed by an assassin."