Friday, February 22, 2013

Science, Neural Interfaces, and Electing a Pope

Change happens. Lately, it's been happening a lot. I'm not always comfortable with change, but realize that it's part of living in this creation. (January 18, 2012)

I like the sort of change we call "learning," and that's been happening a lot, too. This week, we learned about another set of planets circling another star; and are on the verge of learning about how we learn:
  1. Kepler-37b: Smallest Exoplanet (So Far)
  2. Proper Channels, Headlines, and Vatican II
  3. Neural Interfaces and Ethics
  4. Mapping the Human Brain

Faith, Science, and Seeking Truth

I think I understand why dedicated secularists say that religion is against science and reason. Folks who are religious at the top of their lungs making the same claim - I know the history behind that quaint notion, but I think they're wrong.

That's because I believe that God wants us to use our brains: and that truth isn't something to fear:
  • God
    • Created/is creating everything
      (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 268, 279, 301, 302-305)
  • We
    • Are supposed to seek God
      (Catechism, 1)
    • Can learn about God
      • By studying what He created
        (Catechism, 31-36, 282-289)
        • This knowledge
          • Gives converging and convincing arguments
          • Is not proof in the scientific sense
          (Catechism, 31)
      • Through divine revelation (37-38)
  • The universe is
    • Good and ordered
      (Catechism, 299)
    • Being completed
      • It is "in a state of journeying"
        (Catechism, 302)
    • Beautiful
      • And may be studied
      (Catechism, 341)
  • Honest research can't contradict faith
    • Because God made the universe
    (Catechism, 159)
I posted that list before, fairly recently. (February 10, 2013)

1. Kepler-37b: Smallest Exoplanet (So Far)

(Karl Tate, via, used w/o permission)
"The smallest exoplanet yet found orbits Kepler-37, a sun-like star located about 215 light-years from Earth. ..." (
"Found! Tiny Moon-Size Alien World Is the Smallest Exoplanet"
Elizabeth Howell, (February 20, 2013)

" The discovery of a strange new world about the size of Earth's moon has shattered the record for the smallest known alien planet, scientists say.

"The newfound alien planet Kepler-37b is the first exoplanet discovered to be smaller than Mercury. It whips around its parent star every 13 days and has a roasting surface temperature of about 800 degrees Fahrenheit (427 Celsius), researchers said. It not a promising contender for life, they added.

"Astronomers found Kepler-37b and two other, larger planets (called Kepler-37c and Kepler-37d) orbiting a star about 215 light-years from Earth using NASA's prolific Kepler space telescope. Finding such a small exoplanet with the Kepler spacecraft was a stretch, but some attributes of Kepler-37b's parent star made the discovery possible...."
Kepler looks for transiting exoplanets: ones that come between their star and us during their orbit. The orbiting observatory can't "see" the planets: it records how much light is coming from the star. If the star dims by the same amount on a regular schedule: Occam's razor suggests that a planet is getting in the way.

Kepler-37b's star has fewer sunspots than ours, so it shines more steadily than our star: letting Kepler-37's planets stand out more clearly.

More Hot Planets

"... Kepler-37b has a diameter of about 2,400 miles (3,860 kilometers). It takes 13.4 Earth days to orbit its parent star....

"...Two other known planets populate the Kepler-37 system. Kepler-37c has about three quarters the diameter of Earth and orbits its star in 21.3 Earth days. The third planet, Kepler-37d, is about twice the size of Earth and completes an orbit in about 39.8 Earth days. The three Kepler-37 planets all orbit within the radius of Mercury's orbit around the sun.

"Due to its size and high level of surface radiation, tiny Kepler-37b is thought to be a rocky exoplanet like Mercury, with no atmosphere or water.

"The star Kepler-37 formed 6 billion years ago, about 1.5 billion years earlier in cosmic history than the Earth's sun. Kepler-37 is about 97 percent as bright as the sun, and has 0.8 of the mass of the sun...."
(Karl Tate,
There could be more planets circling that star, in larger orbits that haven't brought them between Kepler-37 and us. Then again, maybe we've found all the worlds circling that star.

Looking for Another Earth

If or when we do find another planet that supports life, it's likely to be around a star like this: about a old as our star; about as bright, or dimmer; without dramatic variations in brightness.

Who knows? Maybe a few years from now an Earth-like planet will have passed between Kepler-37 and us, and analysis of starlight passing through its atmosphere shows that it has water: and oxygen. At a distance of about 215 light-years, it's not exactly 'in our neighborhood:' but it's not all that far away, either.

Learning more about how vast, ancient, and astounding this universe is doesn't threaten my faith. As I've said before, honest research can't contradict faith because God made the universe. (Catechism, 159)

By the way, if there is an Earth-like planet circling Kepler-47, one that supports life, I don't think that there must be people living there. I don't think that there can't be people there, either. (January 29, 2012)

That star and its planets are about 1,500,000,000 years older than our home: but it doesn't necessarily follow that people started using fire and building robots a more than a billion years before we did. Or maybe it does. That's something we don't know. Not yet, anyway.

On the other hand, maybe people are living there: descendants of folks who traveled between stars while trilobites swam the seas of Earth; and who more recently have been devoting their time to unscrewing the inscrutable. And that's another topic.

2. Proper Channels, Headlines, and Vatican II

"God will help choose next Pope, cardinal stresses"
CNA/EWTN News (February 21, 2013)

"Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani of Lima, Peru, discouraged a spirit of intrigue surrounding the upcoming conclave and said the new Pope will be chosen with God’s help, regardless of nationality.

" 'I think that geography has nothing to do with it,' the cardinal said on Feb. 16. 'The right person needs to be sought out with the help of God, regardless of where he is from.'

"Responding to media questions about whether the new Pope should be from Latin America, he explained that 'geographical or political considerations are not going to be part of the conclave.'

"While he said that it is 'understandable that there are people who think this way,' he warned that it is not good for the media to promote this understanding or to make bets or create 'intrigue.'..."
I agree that it's "not good" for news media to give the appearance of drama, conflict, and intrigue to reporting of a routine clerical process. But that's the way it is.

Given pressures to finish before deadline, and write a story that'll grab attention, it's probably easier to interview someone from a weirdly extreme political action committee, filling in the gaps with whatever 'the gang' said at the water cooler, than it is to study two millennia of ecclesiastical history.

Besides, newspapers and network news are in the business of selling papers and advertising. Can you imagine an editor running "Due Process and Proper Channels Expected in Papal Election!" as a headline? Even an exclamation mark doesn't make it seem particularly exciting.

I'm expecting some colorful reporting, and even more colorful online discussions, concerning the next Pope. Particularly since Vatican II is indirectly involved.

Fallout from 'In the Spirit of Vatican II'

"New Pope will handle Pius X Society decision"
David Uebbing, CNA/EWTN News (February 21, 2013)

"The effort to reach an agreement between the Church and the Society of St. Pius X will be passed on to the next Pope, Father Federico Lombardi said.

" 'An important point is that these days people have spoken about a deadline for Pius X priests and a conclusion to the situation. The Pope is confiding the decision to the next Pope, and no conclusion will be made on this date,' said Fr. Lombardi, the director of the Vatican press office.

"Archbishop Gerhard L. Muller, the head of the Vatican doctrine office, originally set Feb. 22 as a deadline for the Society of St. Pius X to reach a decision about accepting a doctrinal preamble that was sent to the society.

" 'The purpose of dialogue is to overcome difficulties in the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council,' Archbishop Muller told CNA July 20, 'but we cannot negotiate on revealed faith, that is impossible. An Ecumenical Council, according to the Catholic faith, is always the supreme teaching authority of the Church.'..."
Secular resources sometimes call the Pius X Society a "traditionalist" Catholic organization. I think I understand how upset some Catholics were that headquarters was reviewing how the Church proclaims the Gospel. As I've said before, change can be unpleasant: even if the change is necessary, and good.

I don't think it helped that at the grassroots level, at least here in America, what Catholics got was trendy goofiness done 'in the spirit of Vatican II.' I wasn't a Catholic at the time, and that's yet another topic.

The Real Vatican II

Back then, during the 1970s, some Catholics who liked the way their parish had done things in 'the good old days' apparently decided that the Holy See had gone crazy: and that their friends and some local priest were the only 'real Catholics' left. The Pius X outfit is a particularly large, well-organized, and international, example.

A half-century later, quite a few folks still seem convinced that they're the only 'real' Catholics left. I don't doubt that they're sincere. But that doesn't make them right.

Vatican II wasn't the liturgical joke that 'in the spirit of Vatican II' nonsense might suggest. Happily, folks who don't mind learning about the real Vatican II have the documents available online; in Byelorussian, Chinese, Czech, English, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swahili:
Finally, Vatican II didn't change the rules that matter. Nobody, including the Pope, is allowed to change what God has revealed. (Catechism, 65-67) The Decalogue won't change, we're stuck with loving our neighbor, and I'm okay with that.

No Mourning

"Pope considering changes to papal election rules"
Estefania Aguirre, CNA/EWTN News (February 20, 2013)

"Pope Benedict XVI is considering modifying the laws that govern how a Pope is elected, given the circumstances created by his resignation.

"Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, told journalists Feb. 20 that Pope Benedict is thinking about publishing a document to further clarify the conclave section of the Apostolic Constitution.

"This means he would have to issue a motu proprio - a new set of legal regulations - before he steps down on Feb. 28. The Latin title 'motu proprio' is a designation that means the document is personally signed by the Pope and is issued solely under his authority...."
"...'In any case, the question depends on the Pope's judgment and if this document comes about it will be made known through the proper channels,' Fr. Lombardi added."
(Estefania Aguirre)
As Father Lombardi said, whatever Benedict XVI decides, the document will go "through proper channels." Like I wrote in an earlier post, the Pope resigning hasn't happened all that often: but it has happened before. All we might be looking at this time is some fine-tuning of the procedures.

The article pointed out that there's no need for one of the routines we've gotten used to over the last few centuries. Since Benedict XVI will almost certainly be alive when his successor gets chosen, there's no need for the usual nine days of mourning.

3. Neural Interfaces and Ethics

"New bionic hand may let amputees feel again" (February 18, 2013)

"Thanks to wiring that connects it directly into the nervous system, a new bionic hand may one day return dexterity and the sensation of touch to an amputee.

"The new prosthetic limb was unveiled by Silvestro Micera of Switzerland's École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston.

"Micera and colleagues tested their system by implanting 'intraneural electrodes' into the median and ulnar nerves of an amputee. The electrodes stimulated the sensory peripheral system, delivering different types of touch feelings....
We've had electronic/neural interface devices for some time, like cochlear implants that essentially plug a microphone into the ear's data feed.

Silvestro Micera's neural interface experiment also involved taking data from nerves that control muscles, and sending that out through the interface:
"...Then the researchers analyzed the motor neural signals recorded from the nerves and showed that information related to grasping could indeed be extracted.

"That information was then used to control a hand prosthesis placed near the subject but not physically attached to the arm of the amputee.

" 'We could be on the cusp of providing new and more effective clinical solutions to amputees in the next years,' said Micera, who is Head of the Translational Neural Engineering Laboratory at EPFL...."

Doing Good: Is It Right?

Let's say that this research leads to prosthetic limbs that not only look and act a bit like the original, but let the person wearing them feel with the artificial fingers, and operate the prosthetic hand the same way he or she operated the one that's missing. Will it be okay to use these prosthetics? Or is helping amputees defying the will of God?

I don't have authority to say what the Church will decide, but I can make an educated guess. Organ transplants have been an established medical procedure for quite a while: and are another case of people swapping out missing or defective parts for something that works. Organ transplants are okay, and donating organs after death "is a noble and meritorious act...." (Catechism, 2296)

Ethics still apply, though, in organ transplants and research. (Catechism, 2292-2296)

My guess is that plug-in limbs with neural interfaces will be treated like organ transplants: a good idea, provided that ethical guidelines are followed.

More about this research:
"World's first artificial hand allows patients to feel touch"
PTI, via Times of Oman (February 19, 2013)

"In a breakthrough, a bionic hand which allows the recipient to feel 'lifelike' touch sensations is to be transplanted on to a patient's arm for the first time in Italy....

"...Being able to feel the hand as if it is their own will allow people to use it in a 'more natural, rich and effective way,' said Micera who developed the device.

"Studies show that up to 50 per cent of hand amputees do not use their prosthesis regularly due to less than ideal functionality, appearance, and controllability.

"But Micera is paving the way for new, smart prosthetics that connect directly to the nervous system. The benefits are more versatile prosthetics with intuitive motor control and realistic sensory feedback in essence....

"...This interface holds great promise because of its ability to create an intimate and natural connection with the nerves, and because it is less invasive than other methods.

"It also provides fast, intuitive, bidirectional flow of information between the nervous system and the prosthetic, resulting in a more realistic experience and ultimately improved function...."

4. Mapping the Human Brain

(from the Human Connectome Project, via BBC News, used w/o permission)
"A side view of brain pathways, from the right. At far left is the visual cortex, connected by a large bundle, green, which connects to the frontal lobes. At centre, the vertical pathways in blue serve voluntary movement, connecting the motor areas of the brain with the spinal cord and muscles. The green path at centre is the right cingulum bundle, here seen from the side. The cerebellum, which controls coordinated movement, can be seen at bottom left." (BBC News)
"Scans reveal intricate brain wiring"
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (February 16, 2013)

"Scientists are set to release the first batch of data from a project designed to create the first map of the human brain.

"The project could help shed light on why some people are naturally scientific, musical or artistic.

"Some of the first images were shown at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston.

"I found out how researchers are developing new brain imaging techniques for the project by having my own brain scanned.

"Scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital are pushing brain imaging to its limit using a purpose built scanner. It is one of the most powerful scanners in the world...."
I'm excited about this research. Science and technology are fine, as long as they're used in ethical ways. (Catechism, 2292-2296)

I'm fairly sure that someone's going to find a way to use this technology, or the knowledge we gain from it, to hurt people. That doesn't mean the technology is evil, or that science is Satanic. 'It has something to do with free will,' and that's yet again another topic. Topics. (Catechism, 407, 1730-1742) (June 27, 2012; May 23, 2012)

Not Hardwired

"...The brain's wiring diagram is not like that of an electronic device which is fixed. It is thought that changes occur after each experience, and so each person's brain map is different - an ever changing record of who we are and what we have done.

"The HCP will be able to test the hypothesis that minds differ as connectomes differ, according to Dr Tim Behrens of Oxford University, UK.

" 'We're likely to learn a lot about human behaviour,' he told BBC News.

" 'Some of the connections between different parts of the brain might be different for people with different characters and abilities, so for example there's one connection we already know about in people who like taking risks and (a different one) for people who like playing it safe....'..."
(Pallab Ghosh)
We learn - that's fairly obvious. How we learn, remembering experiences and occasionally changing our habits based on what we've learned, has been a puzzle. Scientists think that memory and learning involve changing connections in the brain: but we haven't been able to verify that. Now, it looks like we can.

I'm not worried that learning how our brains work will 'prove' that God or free will don't exist. Again, God made this universe, so honest research will show another facet of God's design. (Catechism, 159)

"...Wouldn't it be Fantastic...?"

"...[One of the lead researchers, Professor Van] Wedeen used visualisation software that enabled him to fly around and through these pathways - even to zoom in to see intricate details....

"...'We don't have imaging methods as we do for the heart to tell what's really going on. Wouldn't it be fantastic if we could get in there and see these things and give people advice concerning what their risks are and how we could help them overcome those problems?'

"The brain imaging technology is being developed for a US-led effort to map the human brain called the Human Connectome Project. ..."
(Pallab Ghosh)
I agree with Professor Weeden. This research may help folks spot problems while they're still minor. I also think that someone's going to find a way to misuse this knowledge: but that's true of anything people do. Again, that's - another topic.

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Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.