When Darwin set out to sea

On December 27th, 1831, the HMS Beagle set sail on a five year voyage. Accompanying the crew, acting as the ship’s naturalist, was a young Charles Darwin. The implications of the discoveries made during this voyage would only become clear to Darwin over a period of decades, and would change our view of the universe over a period of a century. The deep scientific discourse over the theory of Evolution – the age of the Earth, the mechanism by which traits are passed on to descendants, the way in which competition shapes species – would involve some of the most famous and colorful characters in the history of science. Besides Darwin, there was Lord Kelvin, Gregor Mendel, and many others.

When I was a student and learned of the work of Kelvin, I had no idea that he spent part of his career “proving” the Earth was too young to support evolution.  It was upon the discovery of radioactivity that Kelvin’s ideas were swept aside, since his fundamental assumption – that Earth had no source of internal heat other than that left from the planet’s formation – was wrong. Amazing stuff, a good example of how the random walk of scientific investigation leads to a deeper understanding of older ideas in an unrelated field.

I kept the Beagle’s voyage in mind this holiday season. While it has nothing to do with the Christ story, it’s important to remember that despite rampant fundamentalist tendencies across the world, religions are mutable. In that they are mutable, it is wise to never cast aside and “ugly fact” about nature to preserve a “beautiful idea” from ancient human culture. Instead, why not use the truth about nature to inform our beliefs where they intersect with the universe? I know, I know – in saying that, you say I don’t understand beliefs, or religion, when I say things like that. Or, maybe, I just have a different view of the universe than you, one informed by many visions of nature, one which (I hope) respects all of creation, and not just some words in a book. Yeah, it’s a book that’s important to many people; but to me, the larger book of creation, writ cosmic and writ subatomic, gives me an additional deep connection to the universe even at times like these.

The random walk of science has many interesting destinations. The Beagle marks just one of those random walks. May our society live to fund many more such spinoffs.

Last sunset in Wisconsin . . . 2008

Last sunset in Wisconsin, 2008The first half of our travels are nearly over. We set out from northern Wisconsin a little later than planned, but that was fine. We arrive in Milwaukee later than expected, but that’s also fine; we saw our last sunset in Wisconsin on this trip. Last one for 2008, in fact. Every time I come back to Wisconsin, I remember why I miss it and I forgot why I left. Oh, right – physics.

Getting screwed by Vista for Christmas

I came to Wisconsin to escape the annoyances of daily life and enjoy an actual Christmas break, something that the Federal government robbed me of last year. I’ve been having a great time. But today, some of the old humdrum kicked me in the teeth.

One of my aunts (in-law) gave me a DVD of pictures from her trips to Ireland and Little Rock, Arkansas. I was excited, because some of the pictures are of a saw mill build in 1933 (and never meant for actual sawing) and is the last building used in “Gone with the Wind” that still stands. Not a fan of movie, but it was a pretty histroric and epic film. More important, the saw mill landscaping was done with a secret concrete recipe known only to one of the builders, who according to my aunt took the secret to his grave.

Earlier this year, Jodi and I bought an Ubuntu PC from Dell for her parents. It’s working great, and seems to suit all their needs – Skype for seeing their grandkids, printing, e-mail, web browsing, photos. I popped the DVD into the drive only to be greeted with, “Cannot mount volume. Invalid mount option when attempting to mount the volume . . . ” I did some digging around, and learned that Vista produces data DVDs in the UDF format, which is supposed to be a universal standard format – but they adjusted it so it’s unreadable by anything BUT XP and Vista [1]. This means a lot of angry people in the linux community who have purchased Vista machines for work compatibility, but now cannot make compatible standard media between the two systems. All because of a greedy, greedy company.

Screw them. Go ahead and try to separate me from my media with your non-standard little proprietary scams. I’ll just give a memory stick to my aunt and try to get the photos that way. How dare they further wall a small part of the world that can afford Windows from a larger part of the world that can only afford the free and thoroughly excellent linux OS. How dare they try to lock me into their elitist software formats with the shiny “free” photo apps and “free” file formats. “Free” isn’t really free if you can only use that freedom within a well-defined narrow box called a “Windows PC”.

Microsoft, you make Scrooge look like St. Peter and the Grinch look like Mother Teresa.

[1] http://ubuntuforums.org/showpost.php?p=4021352&postcount=11