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Friday, July 19, 2013

The Square Cube Law and How It Killed Giants

We are so used to the idea of giants that we take it for granted that they exist, or must have existed at one point in our history. 
You know, those very large and very tall human-like creatures, carrying a humongous club, and being very nasty. Like this:

And if you are a typical, god-fearing Catholic Pinoy, you would swear that not only are they true, you even saw one beside that big-ass, scary-looking tree not far from your home, one night when you were going home after an evening of binge-drinking with your buddies. And the bastard’s smoking a cigar as long and as big as your leg! Or you know someone who saw one of those cigar-smoking monsters.

This creature is called a kapre—a cigar-smoking giant wearing a loincloth.

Or maybe a tikbalang—a half-man, half-horse creature about as tall as a kapre. Unlike a centaur, however, a tikbalang is a giant with the torso and arms of a man, and the head and legs of a horse. 

Scary creatures, these—and, if I may add, folktales about these creatures are awesome! (Philippine folklore is rich and very entertaining, filled with terrifying creatures straight out of your worst nightmares; Neil Gaiman has stated in an interview that his favorite Philippine mythological character is the manananggal.) 

Are these creatures possible, though? Do Kapres and Tikbalangs exist, in real life?

No. Kapres, tikbalangs, or even Cyclop and King Kong and other giant creatures are un-possible, and that’s because of this thing called “The Square Cube Law.”
A scientific principle often ignored by scriptwriters, the square cube law (first proposed by Galileo), states that when an object undergoes a proportional increase in size, its new volume is proportional to the cube of the multiplier and its new surface area is proportional to the square of the multiplier.
For example, if you double the size of a cube, its surface area is increased four times, while its volume, or weight, is increased eight times.
Alright, so imagine a perfect cube of that fruity lime-flavored gelatin dessert sitting on a plate. Let’s say the cube is 1 inch in all directions. But, seeing as how there’s always room for Jell-o, you say you want “twice as much”. So, you would be expecting a cube that is two inches tall. Twice as much, right?
Not so! It may be twice as tall, and twice as wide, but the other measurements of size have more than doubled. The surface area has been squared, and the volume has been cubed. (hence Square-Cube Law) So, going by the volume, you actually have eight times more Jell-o in a 2-inch-sized serving as you do in a 1-inch-sized serving. A serving 4 inches across would contain 64 times as much Jell-o!
This exponential growth puts a hard limit on how big your Jell-o serving can get before it overwhelms the structural integrity of gelatin. As the volume increases, so does the weight of all that Jell-o pushing down on the bottom-most layer (the mass is growing faster than the footprint, so the pressure increases) If you visualize this growing cube on your dinner table, you can picture it begin to bulge and eventually crush itself into a gooey mess.

Or think of a six-foot man, who suddenly became twice as big. His surface area is quadrupled, and his weight is increased eight times. With all that weight, he wouldn’t be able to stand on his own legs, because although they may have become twice as long and four times as wide, his weight in the meantime became eight times heavier. He wouldn’t be able to stand, much less chase anybody around. His legs would snap off.

The evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane, in his essay On Being the Right Size,discusses proportions in the animal world and the essential link between the size of an animal and these systems an animal has for life.”
The bigger an animal gets, the more would they have to change their physical shape, but the weaker they would become. There is a reason why an elephant is shaped that way, or why a mouse (and other creatures of that size) has that kind of bone structure.  
So, giant ants, giant scorpions, etc. does not, and would not, exist. Billions of years of evolution have determined the correct size for them.

Read more about the Square Cube Law:

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How To Slay Demons

If there is one book that I wish everyone (or at least, a great number) would read, it would be Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World.

Carl Sagan, with a model of the Viking lander 
I visited several bookstores a few months ago looking for a copy, but I did not find any. The bookstores I visited all had prominent displays of those “Shades of Grey” books, and many, many editions and translations of the Bible (you really can’t miss those two), but no Carl Sagan books, unfortunately. 
Or any other sciencey books, for that matter. 

Carl Sagan was an American astrophysicist who popularized science and promoted scientific thinking in his books. Published in 1995, “The Demon-Haunted World” is one of those books that the rather trite expression “eye-opener” applies perfectly. The book promotes critical thinking to be applied in everything, to help people avoid being bamboozled by charlatans and crackpots (like the people on this list) who deceive and hoodwink others.
It helps us know the difference between valid science and pseudoscience, between casuistry and sound reasoning, and keeps us from being gullible and to have a healthy dose of skepticism. 
Critical thinking enables us to escape the gravity pull of superstition that keeps us mired in stupidity and ignorance.

Carl Sagan's “Baloney Detection Kit” comes highly recommended and is very useful in slaying "demons" (don't leave home without it!):

§  Seek independent confirmation of alleged facts.
§  Encourage an open debate about the issue and the available evidence.
§  "In science, there are no authorities. At most, there are experts."
§  Come up with a variety of competing hypotheses explaining a given outcome. Considering many different explanations will lower the risk of confirmation bias.
§  Don't get too attached to your own ideas, lest you get reluctant to reject them even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
§  Quantify whenever possible, allowing for easier comparisons between hypotheses' relative explanatory power.
§  Every step in an argument must be logically sound; a single weak link can doom the entire chain.
§  When the evidence is inconclusive, use Occam's Razor to discriminate between hypotheses.
§  Pay attention to falsifiability. Science does not concern itself with unfalsifiable propositions.

The book also has a list of common logical and rhetorical fallacies:
    • Ad hominem - attacking the arguer and not the argument.
    • Argument from "authority".
    • Argument from adverse consequences (putting pressure on the decision maker by pointing out dire consequences of an "unfavorable" decision).
    • Appeal to ignorance (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence).
    • Special pleading (typically referring to god's will).
    • Begging the question (assuming an answer in the way the question is phrased).
    • Observational selection (counting the hits and forgetting the misses).
    • Statistics of small numbers (such as drawing conclusions from inadequate sample sizes).
    • Misunderstanding the nature of statistics (Majority of people in Manila die in hospitals; therefore stay out of hospitals! )
    • Inconsistency (When two propositions are asserted that cannot both possibly be  true).
    • Non sequitur - "it does not follow" - the logic falls down.
    • Post hoc, ergo propter hoc - "it happened after so it was caused by" - confusion of cause and effect.
    • Meaningless question ("what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?).
    • Excluded middle - considering only the two extremes in a range of possibilities (making the "other side" look worse than it really is).
    • Short-term v. long-term - a subset of excluded middle ("why pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?").
    • Slippery slope - a subset of excluded middle - unwarranted extrapolation of the effects (give an inch and they will take a mile).
    • Confusion of correlation and causation.
    • Straw man - caricaturing (or stereotyping) a position to make it easier to attack.
    • Suppressed evidence or half-truths.
    • Weasel words - Broadly, any word or words used with the intention to mislead or misinform (e.g., using words like, "many people say...", "according to experts...", etc.). 
If you’ve ever engaged in any debate (especially online), you’re already familiar with some of the concepts on the list above.
I’ll provide examples on each one on my next post on this blog.  

In the meantime, I wish you a world free of demons and full of light.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Ali Ahmed, Egypt's Boy Wonder

In an interview by Egyptian news outlet El Wady, Ali Ahmed displays unbelievably astute observation and intelligent commentary on his country’s political, social, and religious condition, considering he’s only twelve years old. TWELVE YEARS OLD! I bet many of our politicians can’t even spell “fascist theocracy.”

I am awed— I am humbled!—by this kid’s intelligence and cogent observations. This video has gone viral these past few days.

Although the interview occurred last October, his views are  more relevant now than ever, as the Egyptian military removed from office President Mohamed Morsi last week, a year after he was elected to office. 

The twelve-year-old spoke passionately on topics like religion’s undue influence on politics, society’s disingenuous treatment of women’s rights, and the lack of social justice.
The kid would put to shame even our country’s current crop of leaders—both political and religious.

Watch the interview, and weep:
(Note: the interview is conducted in Arabic; English subtitle is provided. If you are wondering about the accuracy of the translation, and you suspect that the kid is actually discussing Spider-Man's inclusion in the next Avengers movie, check out this Reddit thread)

Here is the text of the Ali Ahmed interview (you're welcome!):
Ali Ahmed: My name is Ali Ahmed, I am in 1st Grade Preparatory [12 years old]. I’m here today to help prevent Egypt from becoming a commodity owned by one person and to prevent the confiscation of the Constitution by one single party. We didn’t get rid of a military regime to replace it with a fascist theocracy.
Interviewer: Fascist theocracy? I don’t even know what that means.
Ali Ahmed: Fascist theocracy is when you manipulate religion and enforce extremist regulations in the name of religion even though religion doesn’t command that.
Interviewer: Who taught you all this?
Ali Ahmed: I just know it.
Interviewer: How did you know it?
Ali Ahmed: I listen to people a lot, and I use my own brain. Plus I read newspapers, watch TV, and search the Internet.
Interviewer: So you see that the country is not doing well and has to change?
Ali Ahmed: You mean politically or socially? The social objectives of the revolution are yet to be achieved—economic empowerment, freedom and social justice…there are still no jobs. The police still jails people randomly. As for social justice, how can a news anchor get 30 million Egyptian pounds while some people still pick food from garbage? Politically speaking, where is the Constitution that represents us? For example, women are half of the society, how come there are only seven ladies in the Constituent Assembly, six of whom are Islamists?
Interviewer: So you think they are going to manipulate the Constitution?
Ali Ahmed: What is built on falsehood is false itself. Even if the Constitution is nice but the assembly that drafted is bad, we will end up with something bad. Don’t bring me eighty good articles and twenty bad ones that will ruin the country and then tell me this is a Constitution.
Interviewer: Did you read the Constitutional draft? [Ali nods] Where on the Internet?
Ali Ahmed: Yes. For example, they say that women are equal to men in all matters except in matters that contradict Islamic law; but then Islamic law allows men to discipline their wives. This can’t work in society.
Interviewer: Why not? What’s the problem?
Ali Ahmed: The problem is that it’s outrageous. I can’t beat my wife and almost kill her and tell you this is discipline. This is not discipline; this is abuse and insanity. All of this political process is void because the Parliament in the first place is void—popularly and constitutionally void. Some parties based their campaigns on mixing religion and politics. Mosques were mobilizing voters. They distributed sugar and cooking oil to the voters and many other things like that…  

Sugar and cooking oil? Interesting. In the Philippines, politicians do it with rice, a can of sardines, and instant noodles. The Catholic priests just threaten voters with eternal damnation, should these voters vote for politicians who do not toe the Catholic line.

You know your country is in trouble when a twelve year old boy makes much more sense than your country's elected leaders. The world needs children like Ali Ahmed. 
With more kids like these, maybe there would still be hope for the planet.
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