What school didn’t teach me.

I just heard a great poem concerning what the poet didn’t learn in school.

This got me thinking, what didn’t I learn? Let’s see.
In the land of “thinkers and poets” – I learned nothing about philosophers (German or otherwise).

One of my high schools was named after indispensable biologist Ernst Haeckel - I never learned anything about him in class.

I did not learn about the moon landing. Or any space exploration or astronomy for that matter.

My sex ed class did not include even a hint of a description of female orgasms, LGBT-anything or rape.

I did not learn about the Herero and Namaqua genocide in German South-West Africa (today: Namibia). In fact, I didn’t learn anything about the German colonial empire.

I got a rudimentary education on the history of the US (Columbus, white people and natives are not friends, “get freshly imported slaves here!”, separate fountains, free market), the UK ( Magna Carta Libertatum! A king! A Queen! Exploration! Child labour! (England, really, no mention of the Irish Famine etc.)), France (French Revolution, Napoleon) and (curiously?!) Australia (James Cook, white people and natives are not friends).

– What I didn’t learn about is Asia and Africa. I learned today, age 29, that the very first Emperor of China was Qin Shi Huang, the guy build the Great Wall and united the Chinese writing system, kinda worth a mention, no? What is going ON in India?! Why didn’t I learn about the Apartheid?

I did not learn about dinosaurs.

While I can tell you a shocking amount about rose windows in Gothic architecture, I’d be stumped if I had to explain how bridges or airplanes work.

A badminton net has to have a height (on the sides) of 1.55 m [I DID have to learn that in school!] – but how do I prevent myself from dying of a heart attack or stroke?

… I think I could go on. How comprehensive should education be? What do other people learn? Do Spanish people learn about the Spanish Inquisition? Do the Japanese learn about Nanking? What do Israeli children learn? Are we all scientifically illiterate because we don’t care or simply lacking introduction to science?

My problem with consequential moral reasoning in two sentences.


We can only make assumptions about the consequences¹ of an act, we can’t confidently predict them.

Thus, to agree with a consequentialist answer is to make assumptions about an act without knowledge of the actual consequences, so consequential moral reasoning is
not possible.

¹DefinitionConsequentialism, as its name suggests, is the view that normative properties depend only on consequences. This general approach can be applied at different levels to different normative properties of different kinds of things, but the most prominent example is consequentialism about the moral rightness of acts, which holds that whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act or of something related to that act, such as the motive behind the act or a general rule requiring acts of the same kind. © http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/

Types of Farms

Here is a list of farms. There is a debate and no clear demarcation of the smaller farm types, thus this list contains definitions I find plausible personally only.

Intensive Farming (IF) – the commercial farming operations that make the vast majority of our food, mono-culture

Organic/Bio Farming (OF) – same as IF but with environmental considerations and almost exclusively mixed farming

Homesteading (H) – people living ‘off the grid’, personal production of everything plant-to-animal, usually additional income generated from produce-sales

Hobby Farming (HF) – farming produces some plant-to-animal produce but isn’t exhaustive, may or may not generate some income from farm

Lifestyle Farming (LF) – farming done purely as a recreational and aesthetic pursuit, no income generated from farm produce

Annual Rainfall in Berlin and Adelaide – and their related Agricultural Use.

I decided to try answering the questions: “What is the annual rainfall in your location?” and “Do the types of farms in your area match the rainfall?”

Chosen were two cities: Berlin, Germany (my hometown) and Adelaide, Australia (my future hometown).


Neither Adelaide City nor Berlin have much farming of their own but the state that surrounds them (Berlin is its own state but is encircled by Brandenburg and agriculturally co-operates with it) have the following data:

Adelaide shows huge variations in rainfall throughout the year. February is the driest month, June the wettest. 54% of South Australia is covered in farmland of which the main commodity is sheep (11 million).

Fine wool and hair sheep perform well in areas scarce in nutritional grass and thus fit quite nicely to the area.

Berlin has a more consistent amount of rain. The driest and wettest months are the same as Adelaide’s but the differences are much less severe. Brandenburg, its surrounding state, is mostly composed of farms growing winter wheat.

Like all types of wheat, winter wheat is a cereal that needs consistent rain. Again, the agricultural use fits nicely to the area.

(all information comes from statistical agencies in both countries)

Astronomy & its Siblings – a MOOC Guide to the Universe

I’ve been taking a lot of Massive Open Online Courses since their installation and lately one of my very favourite fields has seriously taken off: here is a list of current and upcoming MOOC’s in astronomy and its related fields:

Relativity and Astrophysics [edX]


Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe [edX]


Exoplanets [edX]


Galaxies and Cosmology [coursera]


粒子世界探秘 Exploring Particle World [coursera] - this course is taught in Chinese


Analyzing the Universe [coursera]


Imagining Other Earths  [coursera]


Confronting The Big Questions: Highlights of Modern Astronomy [coursera]


The Diversity of Exoplanets [coursera]


AstroTech: The Science and Technology behind Astronomical Discovery [coursera]


Philosophy and the Sciences [coursera]


Introduction to Astronomy [coursera]


Origins – Formation of the Universe, Solar System, Earth and Life [coursera]


Emergence of Life [coursera]


From the Big Bang to Dark Energy [coursera]


Astronomy: Discovering the Universe [open2study]


Planetary Science &  Astrophysics [MIT OpenCourseWare]



Physics 20B: Cosmology [UCIrvine OpenCourseWare]


A very brief reflection on the definition of philosophical subfields.

Mathematical Philosophy = using math to solve philosophy issues.

Philosophy of Mathematics = using philosophy to analysis mathematics.

If a philosophical field is called “Philosophy of …“, it will be concerning the nature of that field. For example, the Philosophy of Science deals with the nature of science:

Is the scientific method the best and most justified tool to do science? What makes a scientific theory valid? What phases does a theory go through from the point of conception by the scientist until its declaration as science? What is pseudo-science?

If a philosopher would employ science to solve a philosophical problem however, he would be doing Scientific Philosophy.

Gravitational Lensing – background check

My astrobiology course is currently talking about methods to detect exoplanets. My new favourite thing to think about is gravitational lensing – the  concept that stars will distort light coming from stars or galaxies behind it. It’s the whole space time curvature story Einstein has eloquently described in his theory on general relativity.

(c) astro.berkeley.edu

Because I like to get background information on ideas, I quickly researched and dug up this really interesting paper:


It essentially tells the story of Rudi Mandl, an amateur scientist with a great idea who, in 1936, was lucky enough to be directed to Einstein. Mandl wondered:

“If there’s a star, and there’s a star behind it, aligned with the Earth, doesn’t it bend light just as an optical lens?”

Einstein dismissed the idea. Mandl however was not easily defeated, he reworked his idea (one of which Einstein corrected when he dismissed him earlier) and appealed to the one thing no self-respecting scientist can resist: the fight against pseudo-science.

Why this man is so interesting, is that his speculations went far beyond hypotheses of how to astrophysically prove general relativity. He had ideas about his lensing hypothesis affecting the forming of life on Earth (by influencing early mutations). Einstein called Mandl’s ideas “fantastic” and he meant it in the original sense.

Mandl never quite got the recognition he deserved. He was a Jew (this was 1936, Germany everyone) and he was a nobody. Like today, if you aren’t someone in the scientific community, you are unlikely to be ever taken seriously.

Still, Mandl was better off than some, because Einstein did eventually and reluctantly, publish the astrophyiscal ideas in Science, stressing to its publisher how he was pestered so much by Mandl, that he just caved in and that he was sure it was of little value and he wants to barely be associated with it.

The rest is history.

Contemplating Inspiration

Who or what inspires? What is inspiration anyway? Is it finding a role model? Is it sudden creative realisation? Is it someone or something that words or does things better than one?

I came up with three concepts that inspire me:

1. Feminism - In a political sense, feminism must be based in the theory of justice (John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1971 & Justice as Fairness, 2001), thus must be entitled to equal rights and equal standing. In a moral sense, feminism must strive to eradicate all forms of oppression, since if one form of oppression persists, the eradication of another will not be fully possible. With this, it is one of the most universal and fundamental theories and quite inspiring indeed.

2. Humanism/Existentialism/Atheism - “Every man is the architect of his own fortune”. All three concepts presented have the underlying assumption that humans are able and meant to decide about their own lives as they see fit. Humanism is concerned with what makes a human human and tends to use the methodology of treating humans with dignity and tolerance. Existentialism is the idea that between reason and morality lies another entity and only if this entity is explored can an actual picture of what a human is be drawn. Essentially, what I do on my own and not what I do because one does it, is existentialist.
Atheism is the denial of the existence of a deity. Faith or belief predetermines what is right and wrong, before a person can evaluate  a scenario by himself. Since this disables a person to think independently, theism has to be denied and atheism pursued.

3. Wishful-absolute pacifism - Pacifism is the decision to oppose violence and war. Absolute pacifism is the confirmation that no violence of any kind, even when faced with self-sacrifice, is permissible. Absolutism is a null hypothesis and thus difficult, if not impossible to obtain; if I step on a bug by accident, I am violent. If I kill to eat, I am violent. If I self-defend against crime, I am violent. Thus, a wishful-absolute pacifist is a person who tries to be absolute only in the realm of his ability. In reality, that would be described as a contingent pacifist, a pacifist only on some [most] conditions but with unavoidable exceptions. The ideal however, is the inspiring concept.

Wolfgang Spohn’s Ranking Theory

The Lakatos Award 2012, an award given for outstanding contributions to the philosophy of science, has been won by Wolfgang Spohn, a German professor from the Universität Konstanz.

He won for his work on ranking theory and its connectivity to Bayesian networks (which is a system of probability – if you have box A and box B and those boxes are connected, then they are also influencing box C etc.)

From what I understand his basic theory goes something like this:

If Andrew (A) believes to a degree (d) that he is smart (s), than (s) can be substituted by any other equal proposition (like Andrew being dumb (d)) and becomes equally the unharmed truth, regardless of the consequences.
That can be done because we assumed that only the proposition, thus the content of a thing matters, not its expression.

In consequence, if we get to know Andrew and figure out he is indeed very smart, we can thus conclude that (d) is unlikely and rank it lower on the possibility scale than (s).

How that differs from probability theory is in its impact.

In probability theories I can only rank (s) over (d), but I cannot express how much or that say (r) [Andrew is in fact legally retarded] does not apply.

Ranking theory adds a valuable variable which is (d). I can now assign a degree of disbelief that I have about (r) and (d).


s(0), d(1), r(2)

s, the idea that Andrew is smart, is ranked with a 0, because I least disbelieve it. That does not mean I believe it btw.
d, that Andrew is dumb, I disbelieve to a degree of 1.
r, that Andrew is legally retarded, I disbelieve to a degree of 2.

Since that are all the variables given, this concludes the degree of disbelief I have for the mere content of the idea.

Now the whole theory goes quite a bit deeper (and much more mathematical) in Spohn’s book, but I won’t attempted the rest.

What is interesting is the implication of his work.

The saying “being all things equal” is thereby contested, coming from a law & economics school an interesting implication indeed – it’s also interesting in the light of science.

Science tended, for a long time, to study things in the most simplistic way, usually a single issue at a time, using “ideal conditions” to apply simple concepts. It is clear however, that many simple concepts cannot be applied to complex processes, making it necessary to develop not the simplest way but the most interconnected one. Ranking Theory maybe of help here.

Lakatos Award announcement
The Laws of Belief: Ranking Theory and Its Philosophical Applications
Profile of Professor Wolfgang Spohn



Channelling your inner bear:

On Human Hibernation 

Imagine that your childhood dream of being an astronaut is finally in arm’s reach: NASA is looking for well-educated 40-somethings with solid bone structures, medical training, an unusual ignorance of cancer awareness and nothing to lose. You are about to put the win in Darwin! Just one problem… the mission NASA is planning will be going to Mars and the funds are drastically reduced, thus, you can go, but you can’t use up any precious space for luxuries like food, water or toilets. Space plumbing is complicated and costly, storing food and water is expensive too. For a flight to Mars, the bare minimum of food, e.g. granola bars, would amount to 400kg that have to be carried and stored. That’s a few millions right there. And a space toilet might amount to a staggering 19$ Mio. Now as the gravity-spoiled human that you are, you are wondering if the Mohawk-wearers at NASA have lost their mind by wanting to eliminate said amenities but perhaps they are on to something –

What NASA is envisioning is hibernation. Instead of wasting energy and producing waste, they would rather see the astronauts having a good nap just like the brown bear.

Many animals hibernate in winter. The arctic ground squirrel will drop its body temperature to barely 0°C and you may try but rousing it will be a feat. Bats also drop their body temperature but unlike squirrels, they can be easily disturbed, classifying them as facultative hibernators. Then there is also the Common Poorwill (with a poor will to stay awake?), he is named “The Sleeping One” in the Hopi language and the only known bird to deserve the name.

But relevant to NASA and science in general, is the brown bear. Unlike its hibernating buddies, he does not drop his body temperature by much. Bears have been found to hoover somewhere between 37°C and 30°C. Why that is so interesting, is because it is awfully hard for a large animal to heat up after an extended period of being cold, therefore the fact that large animals like bears can hibernate without the risk of dropping their body temperatures too low, is a circumstance applicable to humans.

Usually, humans don’t hibernate. But there have been a few cases of accidental hibernation of humans that are rather surprising.

In 2006, a 35-year old Japanese man named Mitsutaka Uchikoshi managed to walk over a mountain, slip in a stream and break his pelvis, landing him in a field unable to move. Naturally, when you break your pelvis on a lonely mountain side you are doomed. So Mister Uchikoshi remembers seeing the sun on the next day and feeling… very comfortable. That’s the last thing he remembers until he was found 24 days later by a mountain climber and send to a hospital. The doctors in said hospital presumed him dead, seeing that he lost a lot of blood, hadn’t drunken or eaten in 24 days and had a body temperature of 22°C. In true Japanese superhero fashion however, Mitsutaka woke up, most likely scaring the medical staff to death. He walked out of the hospital shortly thereafter with no brain damage whatsoever. He is not the only example. In February 2012, a Swedish man was found in a sleeping bag in his snowed-in car near Umea, telling the freaked out passer-by’s he has been there since the 19. December, only occasionally eating some snow. My favourite is probably the tale of Anna Bågenholm, a Swedish lady who broke into a frozen lake in Norway, head-first, in 1999, submerging into the ice and getting trapped under a 20cm thick ice blanket. Her two friends on arrival only saw her skies sticking out and held unto them until rescue teams arrived. Anna had found an air pocket to breathe and somehow stayed conscious for 40 minutes. The total rescue, with various failed attempts, took an hour and twenty minutes however.

It took the ambulance helicopter another hour to transport her to the Tromsø University Hospital (note to self: don’t go skiing in areas too far away for any reliable survivability). Even though her friends, both doctors, performed CPR on her and she received oxygen, she did not breathe. Her body temperature was recorded at 13.7°C, the lowest temperature ever recorded in a human being from accidental hypothermia. The anaesthesiologist, who treated her in the hospital, commented that she looked “absolutely dead”. Anna eventually started to breathe again and not just that, she recovered enough to have, as of 2009, worked as a radiologist in the hospital that saved her life.

These and other examples seem to indicate that under special circumstances, humans seem to have a shot at hibernation. Could we somehow artificially make someone hibernate? If we could, Mars could be a much more realistic journey option and if we could extract blood from hibernating humans, we could inject it into donor organs and preserve them for over double the time we have now (6 hours) and thus, make survival for transplant patients more likely.

But it is important to point out that most people whose core body temperature plummets to less than 28°C do indeed die. While Anna’s baseline rate (the energy a person uses at rest) dropped to 10% of what is normal, requiring her to need very little oxygen, most people will have lasting brain damage from a lack of O2.

But some can be resurrected. If we learn how to hibernate humans simply and safely, it might be one small step for a fridge but one big chapter for the history books.