Science and our Future Headaches

I have written and published a number of science fiction ebooks, and within these, buried below the story, I try to show what science is about, and what its nature is. I have also tried to show how the future is not necessarily the desirable time we would hope it to be, at elast in terms of the economies. At first sight, this is not a winning strategy as far as ebook sales go. If you look at the most recent big seller and use that as an example, you might assume that if you want to make money, as is shown by the 50 Shades of Grey exercise, you write about sex. That of course, is a little misleading, and is an example of a particularly dangerous form of faulty logic, and unfortunately, this faulty logic is all pervasive in modern society. The actual answer is a little more like, if you want to make a lot of money, you write about things that a lot of people want to read. To get the logic right, you need a correct premise. In this case, the author’s returns from royalties are proportional to the number of sales, therefore to make more money, you must make more sales. A lot of people wanted to read 50 Shades of Grey, but a lot of people also want to read about other things, such as thrillers, more conventional romance, and so on.

One thing that people do not seem to want to read a lot about is correcting faulty thinking. That is fair enough because if you are reading solely for pleasure, you may not want to read something that offers you the opportunity to spend some effort thinking about something. Nevertheless, while I may not be very effective in what I am trying to do, I still think it is worth trying. The problem, as I see it, is that we cannot continue the way we are. Our economic model is one of exponential growth, which means growth is proportional to what is there. So, you may ask, where is the faulty logic there? It has served us eminently well to date. There is no reason to believe we cannot continue.

One problem with exponential growth in the economy is that it requires a corresponding exponential growth in resource consumption, and that is not possible on a finite planet. The amount of resources that can be harvested must be a function of the surface area. Now, if we are talking food, the experts tell us we have been able, in the past, to maintain the required growth by using more fertilizer, by employing genetic engineering, by using advanced pesticides, and so on. However, there comes a time when such growth meets new limits. There is only so much sunlight falling on a given area, and that provides one limit. A limit that will come sooner is the available water supply. Most people ignore this, but a number of areas in the world have been taking more water than is being replaced, and sooner or later what is there runs out. I have heard that California is soon going to face a far more serious water shortage than the average citizen is prepared for. But there are many other places where, yes, there is sufficient water now, but not for a significant expansion in crop levels. Then, if that is not bad enough, there will come a time in the future when the deposits of easily available rock phosphate decline. There will still be phosphate, but not at the levels we have been using. Then on the industrial scale, there are a number of elements that are becoming increasingly more difficult to obtain.

There is a more insidious problem that I put into one of my novels. Exponential growth tends to favour getting more deeply into debt, and this is helped by the exponential decline in the value of our money, again helped by politicians. The reason debt is favoured is that as the economy grows it is easier to repay it. However, the corollary is that should the economy decline, it becomes increasingly difficult to repay debt. Given that many countries have debts at levels they simply cannot repay now, an extended reversal of growth will have very serious consequences.

Now, the usual answer to such growth limits is that science will give us further options. Perhaps it will, but not unless science is supported. But apart from that, surely it is prudent to take what precautions we can now, without seriously reducing our standard of living? Some simple examples include, if waste, and particularly e-waste, were recycled, or at least put somewhere where it could be available later, that might help the elements issue. We could help conserve fuel and help the climate change problem by everyone not driving an SUV to the grocery store every time a trivial purchase was desired. In short, there are a lot of things we can do. But first, we have to wake up to the need to do them, and that requires logical thinking, and the ability to analyse a situation. So yes, maybe I am not succeeding in what I am trying to achieve, but at least I am trying. What is everyone else doing to try and make life better for their grandchildren?

Science and the afterlife.

Science is not about a collection of facts, but rather it is a way of analyzing what we observe. The concept is, if you have a good theory it will predict things, then you can go out, do experiments, and see if you are right. Of course, in general it is not so easy to form a theory without resorting to nature, which means that most theories largely explain what is known. Nevertheless, the objective is to make a limited number of predictions of what we do not know. Someone then goes out and carries out the experiments, tests or whatever and if the theory is correct, the observations are just what the theory predicted. That is great news for the theoretician.

That is all very well, but what happens when there is a phenomenon that cannot be the subject of an experiment. In a previous post (http://wp.me/p2IwTC-6q ) I remarked that my Guidance Wave interpretation of quantum mechanics permitted, but by no means required, life after death. This cannot be experimented on and reported, however there are a number of reports of people who claim to have “almost died” or momentarily died and who have been revived and then given quite strange and explicit stories. What can science say about them?

One comes from a book I was given to read. Written by a pastor Todd Burpo, it tells of what his son, who was just short of four years old at the time, reported after he had nearly died in hospital. The son made several statements, all of which entailed an “out of body experience” and most involved a short visit to heaven to sit on Jesus’ lap. However, two of the descriptions were of more interest to me, because they described how the “out of body” boy saw his parents, each in a different room, and described what they did. In principle, there is no way he could have this information. The story also has a very frustrating element. The boy described the marks on Jesus’ hands, from the crucifixion. The pastor took that as clear evidence, because how would the boy know where the marks were? The most obvious reply is, he lived in a religious house and there probably were images around. Further, and this is the frustrating part, the standard Roman crucifixion did not have nails through the hands, so the boy was wrong, right? The problem is, Jesus did not have a standard crucifixion. What usually happened was that the victim was left on the cross until the flesh had more or less rotted away or had been picked by the crows, then the residue was disposed of, but not given a burial. To cut the body down and give it for burial was never done, except this time. Accordingly, if it were non-standard, it may have been the soldiers put the nails where it would be easier to get them out later. In short the killer evidence essentially ends up as useless. There is then the added complication that if true, Jesus may have given the image the pastor wanted.

The second is also interesting. Harvard neurosurgeon Dr Eben Alexander was in a coma for several days caused by severe bacterial meningitis. During his coma, he too had a vivid journey, first into other rooms, from which he described people’s actions that he had no possibility of knowing about through his physical body, and then into what he knew to be the afterlife. Now he had previously been a skeptic about this, and considered such accounts to be hallucinations, but in his own case his neocortex was non-functional during his coma, and furthermore, he gives nine different scientific reasons why what he experienced cannot be due to such hallucinogens or imagination. Since I am not an expert in brain function, I cannot comment usefully on his analysis. On one hand he is a prominent neurosurgeon, and should be an expert on brain function, so his analysis should be taken seriously, nevertheless, as Richard Feynman remarked about science, the easiest person to fool is yourself.

Perhaps the most spectacular accounts have been presented by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, a psychiatrist. She had noted that if children have this experience, they always see their mother and father if the parent is dead, but never if they are still alive. Christian children often see Jesus; Jewish ones never do. One particularly unusual account came from a woman who described what people were doing trying to resuscitate her after an accident. She claimed to have had this out of body experience and had watched everything. What is unusual about this is the woman was blind; the out of body “her” could see everything, but when she was resuscitated, she reverted to being blind. Another unusual report was from someone who met one of his parents in this “afterlife”, who confirmed being dead. This parent had died only one hour previously, five hundred miles or so away.

At this point we should look at the structure of a scientific proposition. There are two conditional forms for a statement that apply to a proposition under a given set of conditions:
(a) If the hypothesis is correct, then we shall get a certain set of observations.
(b) If and only if the hypothesis is correct, then we shall get a certain set of observations.
The difference lies here. In (a) there may be a multiplicity of different hypotheses that could lead to the observation, such as a hallucination, or a memory dump. This would apply to observations that the person could have recalled or imagined. In (b) there is only one explanation possible, therefore the hypothesis must be correct. Obviously, it is difficult to assert there is only one possible explanation, nevertheless, seeing something in another room when nearly dead seems to only being explained by part of the person (the soul, say) travelling out of the body into the other room.

So, where does this leave us? Essentially, in the position that there can be no proof until you die. Before that it is all a matter of faith. Nevertheless, as I argued, my guidance wave interpretation of quantum mechanics at least makes this possible within the realms of physics, but it does not require it. Accordingly, you either believe or you do not. The one clear fact though, is that if you do believe, it will almost certainly make dying easier, and that in itself is no bad thing.

Why I question many scientific statements.

From a few of the previous posts, where I have ventured into science, it may be obvious that I am not putting forward standard views. That leaves three possibilities: I don’t know what I am talking about; I am wrong; I might even be right. One of those options makes a lot of people who listen to what I say uncomfortable. Comfort comes when everything falls into place with your preconceptions; a challenge to those preconceptions requires you to think, and it is surprising how few scientists want to be the first person to stand up and support a challenge. So, why am I like that?

It started with my PhD. My supervisor gave me a project; it was a good project, but unfortunately it got written up in the latest volume of Journal of the American Chemical Society after I have been three weeks into it. He gave me two new projects to choose from whereupon he went away on summer holidays. One was, as far as I could see, hopeless, and worse than that, it was highly dangerous. The second I could finish straight away! He wanted me to measure the rates of a reaction of certain materials, and according to the scientific journals, it did not go. So, I was told to design my own project, which I did. I entered a controversy that had emerged. For those who know some chemistry, the question was, does a cyclopropane ring engage in electronic conjugative effects with adjacent unsaturated substituents? (Don’t worry if that means nothing to you; it hardly affects the story. A very rough explanation is, do they slosh over to other groups outside the ring, or must they stay within the ring?) There were a number of properties of compounds that included this structure that had unusual properties and there seemed to be two choices: the proposed quantum effects, or the effects of the strain.

This looked fairly straightforward, but I soon found out that my desire to do something that would not be easily done by someone else had its price: the chemical compounds I wanted to use were difficult to make, but I made them. The first series of compounds were not exceptionally helpful because a key one decomposed during measurement of the effect, but I soon got some definitive measurements through a route I had not expected when I started. (Isn’t it always the way that the best way of doing something is not what you started out trying to do?) The results were very clear and very definitive: the answer to the question was, “No.”

The problem then was that the big names had decided that the answer was yes. My problem was, while I had shown conclusively (to my mind, at least) that it did not, nevertheless there were a number of properties that could not be explained by what everyone thought the alternative was, so I re-examined the alternative. I concluded that because the strain was caused by the electrical charge being moved towards the centre of the ring, the movement was responsible for the effects. Essentially, I was applying parts of Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, which is a very sound part of physics.

What happened next was surprising. In my PhD thesis defence, there were no real questions about my theory. It was almost as if the examiner did not want to go down that path. I continued with my career, waiting for my supervisor to publish my work, but the only paper was one that kept away from controversy. Accordingly, I decided to publish papers on my own. Unfortunately, my first one was not very good. I wanted to get plenty of material in, and I had been told to be brief. Brevity was not a virtue, because I later found out nobody really understood the first part. That was my fault, thanks to the brevity, but the good news was, from my point of view, while that first paper used one piece of observational fact to fix a constant, and thus calculate the key variable, every time subsequently I took the theory into uncharted waters, it always came up with essentially correct agreement with observation. I calculated a sequence of spectral shifts to within almost exact agreement, while the quantum theory everyone else was using could not even get the direction of the shifts right. So I should have been happy, right?

What happened next was that a few years later, a review came out to settle the question, and it landed on the quantum side of things. It did so by ignoring everything that did not agree with it! I was meanwhile employed, and I could not devote time to this matter, but much later, I wrote a different review. The journals I submitted it to did not want it. One rejected it because there were too many mathematics; others said they did not want logic analyses. I posted it on the Chemweb preprint server, but that seems to be history because while it is supposedly still there, I cannot find it. If anyone wants to see it, enquire below. My key point is that the review shows over sixty different types of experiments that falsify the standard position, but nobody is interested. All the work that falsified the prevalent dogma has been buried. Yes, it is still in the literature, but if Google cannot even find my publication when I know the title and the date and the location, how can anyone else find what they do not know about?

So, this is an aberration? I wish. I shall continue in this vein from time to time.

Homochirality – how I believe it originated

In a previous post I issued a challenge that was issued prior to my talk to the Wellington Astronomical Society: can you work out how homochirality arose in life? To remind you, chirality is what causes handedness. If you have gloves, your left hand has its glove and the right hand its, and one cannot really replace the other. Homo chirality means there is one only form of handedness, thus in your body, sugars are D sugars (right handed) while all your amino acids are L, or left handed. The problem is, when you synthesis any of these through any conceivable route given the nature of the starting materials, which have no chirality, you get an equal mix of D and L. On the other hand, if you synthesize the molecules through a chiral entity, chirality remains. Think of using a left-handed glove. If you use it as a mold for a plaster cast, you will keep making casts of left hands, not right hands.

How did nature select one lot and neglect the others? The real reason for asking this, though, was not to do with chirality. Most people can get through life without stopping to worry about why their proteins are made from L amino acids. Space travellers landing on another planet might, though, because if you landed on a planet where all the amino acids were D, then you could not eat their food and be nourished. However we are here. No, the real reason was, this is a chance to show how to develop a theory.

Everyone develops theories, for example, “Who trashed the letterbox?” is an example I gave in my first ebook, which was about developing theories. The book was mainly about scientific theories, so don’t rush out and buy it unless science really interests you, but that point is valid about life. If you look at the web, you can find many places where people theorize on political matters. That would be very good for democracy, if they did it properly, but not so good if the methodology is very bad. Most simply jump to the first conclusion their prejudices lead to, and if that is the way we intend to run our democracy, then we are in trouble. The reason I picked on this issue of chirality is that it is easy, and it is unlikely to run into prejudiced anger and hence can be considered dispassionately.

There are numerous scientific papers devoted to the question of how homochirality arose: they consider the weak force (which does not apply to chemistry anywhere else); materials adsorbed on special clays (without asking how the material can get off again, or why another clay won’t give the complementary material); polarized light (why is there not the opposite result with oppositely polarized light); and even an assertion there is a weak preference in meteorites.
I believe the answer is strangely simple when instead of starting at the beginning with a mixture of both forms, you stop worrying about how it happened, and start asking why it happened? Why would emerging life discard half of the resources available to it? After all, if it did, why did not some other form use both? By using both, it would have twice the amount of resource, so it should be able to survive better, and should prevail.

The obvious answer is that life chose one form because it had to, so where is homochirality so important? The answer is reproduction. What happens is reproduction is governed by nucleic acids that can form a double helix, or duplex. If you have a strand, complementary nucleobases get absorbed on the strand, and if all the bases can link through the phosphate esters, they form their own helix. When that strand is complete, the strands can separate, and the process starts again. That is the essence of reproduction. Now, the problem is in joining those phosphate esters because the appropriate parts have to be in the right place. The new strand has to have the same degree of twist, in the same direction. This is where the chirality comes in. To get a regular twist, or pitch to the helix, all the ribose units have to have the same handedness. Think of making a bolt, and a nut to fit it. If the bolt has right hand thread, then suddenly lurches every now and again into left hand thread, how can you make a nut to fit it?

If a sugar came in with the opposite chirality, the twist would be wrong, the ends would not match up, and the base could not join the strand. It would then go away and nothing would happen until the correct pitch to the helix could be supplied, and that is with the correct chirality of the ribose. At first, strands with any mix could occur, but duplexes would only form with one chirality, and when one came along, since it could reproduce and the others could not, inevitably it must prevail.

Why does that go out to all the other molecules? Because they are made either directly or indirectly from RNA molecules. (RNA is the generator of enzymes.) Accordingly, everything that comes from the chiral RNA will also carry the appropriate chirality.

Was that so difficult to conceive?

Why do we do science?

What is the point of science? In practice, most scientists use their knowledge to try to make something, or solve some sort of problem, or at least help someone else do that. (Like most occupations, most junior ones turn up to work and work on what they are told to work on.) But, you might say, surely, deep down, they are seekers of the truth? Unfortunately, I rather fancy this is not the case. The problem was first noted by Thomas Kuhn, in his book, “The structure of scientific revolutions”. In Kuhn’s view, scientific results are almost always interpreted in terms of the current paradigm, i.e. while the data are reproduced properly, they are interpreted in terms of current thinking, even if that does not fit very well. No other theory gets a look-in. If a result does not conform to the standard theory, the researcher does not question the standard theory. The first effort is to find some way of accommodating it, and if that does not work, it may be listed as a question for further work, in other words the researcher tries to persuade someone else to find a way of fitting it to the standard paradigm rather than taking the effort to find an alternative theory.

According to Kuhn, most science is carried out as “normal science”, wherein researchers create puzzles that should be solved by the standard paradigm, in other words, experiments are set up not to try to find the truth, but rather to confirm what everyone believes to be true. This is not entirely unreasonable. If we stop and think for a moment, an awful lot of such research is carried out by PhD students, or post-doctoral fellows. The lead researcher has submitted his idea as a request for funding, and this is overseen by a panel. If you submit something that would not get anywhere within the current paradigm, you will not get funding because the panel will usually consider this to be a waste of time. On top of that, if you are going to include a PhD student in this work, that student needs a thesis at the end of his work, and that student will not thank the supervisor for coming up with something that does not produce results that can be written up. In other words, the projects are chosen such that the lead researcher has a very good idea as to what will be found, and it will be chosen so that it is unlikely to lead to too great an intellectual challenge. An example of a good project might to make a new chemical compound that might be a useful drug. The project might involve new synthetic work, there will be problems in choosing a route, but the project will not founder on some conceptual problem.

Natually, the standard paradigm clearly must have much going for it to get adopted in the first place. It cannot be just anything, and there will be a lot of truth in it, nevertheless as I mentioned in my first ebook, part 1 of “Elements of Theory”, any moderate subset of data frequently has at least two theories that would explain the data, and when the paradigm is chosen, the subset is moderate. If all that follows it to investigate very similar problems, then a mistake can last. The classic mistake was Claudius Ptolemy’s cosmological theory, which was the “truth” for over 1600 years, even though it was wrong and, as we now recognize, with no physical basis. If you wish to find the truth, you might follow Popper and try to design experiments that would falsify such a theory, but PhD theses cannot be based like that as it is too risky that the student will find nothing and fail to get his degree through no fault of his.

What brought these thoughts on was a recent article in the journal Icarus. The subject was questioning how the Moon was formed. The standard theory of planetary formation goes like this. After the star forms, the accretion disk that remains settles the dust on the central plane, and this gradually congeals into larger bodies, which further join together when they collide, and so on, until you get planetesimals (objects about the size of asteroids) then, apart from the asteroids, eventually embryos (objects about the size of Mars) which gravitationally interact and form very eccentric orbits, and then collide to form planets (except for Mars, which is a remaining embryo). All such collisions once planetesimals form are random, and the underpinning material could have come from a very large region, thus Earth was made from embryos formed from material beyond Mars and Venus. The Moon was formed from the splatter arising from a near glancing collision of a Mars-sized body called Theia with Earth.

If you carefully measure the isotope ratios of samples of meteorites, what you find is that all from the same origin have the same isotope ratios, but those from different parts of the solar system have different ratios. As an example, oxygen has three stable isotopes of atomic weights 16, 17 and 18. We have carbonaceous chondrites from the outer asteroid belt, a number of samples from Vesta, some from Mars, and of course unlimited supplies from here. The isotope ratios of these samples are all the same from one source, but different between sources. We also have a good number of samples from the Moon, thanks to the Apollo program. Now, the unusual fact is, the Moon is made of material that is essentially identical to our rocks, at least in terms of isotope ratios.

This Icarus paper carried out simulations of planetary formation employing the standard theory, and showed that since the Moon is largely Theia, the chances of the Moon and Earth having the same ratio of even oxygen isotopes is less than 5%. So, what conclusion do the authors draw? The obvious one is that the Moon did not form that way; a more subtle one is that planets did not form by the random collision of growing rocky bodies. However, they drew neither. Instead, they really refused to draw a conclusion.

I should add that I have in interest in this debate, as my mechanism outlined in Planetary Formation and Biogenesis has the planets grow from relatively narrow zones, although the disk material is always heading towards the star to provide new feed. The Moon grows at the same distance as Earth (at a Lagrange point) from the star and hence has the same composition. The concept that the Moon formed at either L4 or L5 was originally proposed by Belbruno and Gott in 2005 (Astron. J. 129: 1724–1745) and I regard it as almost dishonest not to have mentioned their work, which predicts their result provided the bodies form from local material. Unfortunately, the citing of scientific work that contradicts the standard theory is not exactly frequent, and in my view, does science no service. The real problem is, how common is this rejection of that which is currently uncomfortable?

You may say, who cares? It may very well be that how the Moon formed is totally irrelevant to modern society. My point is, society is becoming extremely dependent on science, and if science starts to become disinterested in seeking the truth, then eventually the mistakes may become very significant. Of course mistakes will be made. That happens in any human endeavor. But, do we want to restrict them to unavoidable accidents, or are we prepared to put up with avoidable errors?

Origin of life, and a challenge!

Here is a chance to test yourself as a theoretician. But do not worry if you cannot solve this. Most people will not, and I predict nobody will, but prove me wrong! And as a hint, while nobody actually knows the answer, as I shall show eventually, getting a very reasonable answer is actually relatively simple, although you need a little background knowledge for the first question.

Just before Christmas, I posted with the title Biogenesis: how did life get started?” (http://wp.me/p2IwTC-6e ) but as some may have noticed, I did not get very far along the track indicated by the title. The issue is, of course, somewhat complicated, and it is easier to discuss it in small pieces I also mentioned I was about to give a talk on this early this year. Well, the talk will come on March 4, so it is approaching quickly. Accordingly, I have put out an abstract, and am including two challenges, which readers here may or may not wish to contemplate. Specifically,
1. Why did nature choose ribose for nucleic acids?
2. How did homochirality arise?
Put your guesses or inspired knowledgeable comments at the end of this post. The answers are not that difficult, but they are subtle. In my opinion, they are also excellent examples of how to go about forming a theory. I shall post my answers in due course.

The question of, why ribose, is a little complicated and cannot be answered without some chemical knowledge, so most readers probably won’t be able to answer that. Notwithstanding that, it is a very interesting question because I believe it gives a clue as to how life got underway. RNA is a polymer in which each mer is made up of three entities: one of four nucleobases, ribose and a phosphate ester. The nucleobase is attached to C-1 of ribose (if you opened it up, at the aldehyde end) and the phosphate is at C-5 (the other end, ribose being a five carbon sugar. The nucleobases are, in general, easy to make. If you leave ammonium cyanide lying around, they make themselves, but that is the only thing that appears to be easy about this entity. Sugars can be made in solution by having formaldehyde, which is easily made, react in water with lime, and a number of other solids. That seems easy, except that when you do this, you do not get much, if any, ribose. The reason is, ribose is a high-energy pentose (five carbon sugar) because all the hydroxyl groups are eclipsing each other in the closest orientation (axial, for those who know some chemistry). In the laboratory, double helix nucleobases (duplexes) have been made from xylose and arabinose, and in many ways these have superior properties to ribose, but nature chose ribose, so the question is, why? Not only did it do it for RNA, but the unit adenine – ribose – phosphate turns up very frequently.

Adenine combined with ribose is usually called adenosine, and the adenosine phosphate linkage turns up in the energy transfer chemical ATP (adenosine tripolyphosphate), the reduction oxidation catalysts NAD and FAD, where the AD stands for adenosine diphosphate, and in a number of enzyme cofactors, to give solubility in water. Giving solubility in water is an obvious benefit, but putting a sugar unit on the group would also do that. Giving an electric charge would also be of benefit, because it helps keep the entity in the cell, nevertheless there are also other ways of doing that. You may say, well, it had to choose something, but recall, ribose is hard to make, so why was it selected for so many entities?

The phosphate ester also causes something of a problem. In the laboratory, phosphate esters are usually made with highly reactive phosphorus-based chemicals, but life could not have started that way. Another way to form phosphate esters is to heat a phosphate and an alcohol (including the hydroxyl groups on a sugar) to about 180 oC, when water is driven off. Note that if water is around, as in the undersea thermal vents that are often considered to be the source of life, the superheated water converts phosphate esters to phosphate and alcohol groups. Life did not start at the so-called black smokers, although with sophisticated protection mechanisms, it has evolved to tolerate such environments. Another problem with phosphate is that phosphates are insoluble in neutral or alkaline water, and phosphate esters hydrolyse in acidic water.
However, notwithstanding the difficulty with using phosphate, there is no real choice if you want a linking agent with three functions (two used up to join two groups, one to be ionic to enhance water solubility). Boron is rare, and has unusual chemistry, while elements such as arsenic, besides being much less common, do not give bonds with as much strength.

Homochirality is different matter. (Chirality can be though of like handedness. If you have gloves, your left hand has its glove and the right hand its, even though they are identical in features, such as four fingers and a thumb. The handedness comes from the fact you cannot put those fingers and thumb on a hand where the top differs from the bottom without making the right hand different from the left.) The sugars your body uses are D sugars (think of this as right handed) while all your amino acids are L, or left handed. The problem is, when you synthesis any of these through any conceivable route given the nature of the starting materials, which have no chirality, you get an equal mix of D and L. How did nature select one lot and neglect the others?
Put your guesses below! In the meantime, my ebook, “Planetary formation and biogenesis”, which summarizes what we knew up to about 2012, is going to be discounted on Amazon for a short period following March 6. This is to favour those going to my talk, but you too can take advantage. It has a significant scientific content (including an analysis of over 600 scientific papers) so if your scientific knowledge is slight, it may be too difficult.

What now for Ukraine?

As the situation in Ukraine seems to deteriorate, the question is, what now? Accurate information is, understandably, rather scarce but from a strategic point of view, most parties seem to be digging in, more with a view to making the problem worse than in improving it. The first step in forming a strategy is to have a clear goal, and from what I can make out, the various parties have goals that are essentially irreconcilable. My guess is that the following is approximately what the goals are, but I could be wrong. Poroshenko wants to exert control over all of what he claims is Ukraine on the basis he was elected president of it, except of course the parts that don’t want him were not given a vote. The leaders of Eastern Ukraine want independence from Poroshenko. Crimea is part of Russia again. The position of the US and NATO is less clear. They claim they want Ukraine united, but the real position may be that they want to put one over Russia, and have military bases close to Russia. Russia almost certainly wants fewer missiles aimed at it, and not in Ukraine, and additionally, it wants to support Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, who reports say either are or most certainly will be oppressed by right wing militias. Missing from all this is what do the average Ukrainian want? Do they all want the same thing?

The West has sent Ukraine various supplies to help those afflicted by the war, and sent them to Kiev, where they have been sent eastwards. From what I can make out, a very high per centage of these have been hijacked and looted. Further, the land near the separatists may or may not have Ukrainian regular soldiers present, but they most certainly have right wing militias and paramilitary groups. The separatists may or may not have irregular soldiers from Russia, and they may or may not have been supplied with weapons from Russia. Everyone says they have, but it should be recalled that there were a number of arsenals in Eastern Ukraine that are now under separatist control, and from what we can make out, most of the weapons used by the separatists are of Soviet age. Thus the BUK missile that brought down the airliner was designed and supplied up to thirty odd years ago.

So, what to do? Germany and France have apparently argued for a demilitarized zone between the east and west and a cease-fire. In my opinion, that is not going to work unless there are good troops there to enforce it. The problem with a cease-fire is that its only real purpose is to buy time until some permanent settlement is reached. Even in Korea, there is a permanent settlement, at least to the extent it has survived for nearly fifty years. But this will not work while the right wing militias want to bring the East to heel. The US is talking about giving Kiev better arms. What that will do, based on recent history, is to first better arm the militias, who are uncontrollable, and secondly they will be looted and sold off, and may well end up in terrorists hands. Worse still, if the US supplies military aid, Russia will be obliged to match it, which will merely escalate things. If the US sends “advisors”, or troops, Russia will match it. The danger of a real war breaking out if someone makes a mistake is only too obvious. Suppose a US weapon was used against Russians in Russia, now what?

So what should happen? My view is that the previous cease-fire was time wasted. What the West could do is to try to get Putin onside by promising not to have Ukraine in NATO and promising not to have missiles there, then offer Ukraine an independently monitored election, district by district, to decide what they want to happen. There must be sufficient external force to guarantee militias stand down, and clear instructions to the parties that undermining this process will not be tolerated. At the end of this, those districts that have a majority to secede should be permitted to do so. I know, people will say, this is interfering with a sovereign nation, but my response is, it is actually offering the people the chance to get what they want, not what various other parties that do not live there want. After the election, if any districts do secede, then there should also be financial assistance to permit those who do not want to be a minority in a district to move. In all probability, the numbers moving each way should be roughly equal. That would be expensive, but nowhere nearly as expensive as an all-out war.

What do you think?