Die deutsche Übersetzung dieses Textes findest du unten!
If you have read a few of my blog posts, you will have noticed that I like to write about the future. This is mostly due to the many newspapers and books that I read. Here’s another look into my magic crystal ball.
The gender discussion is now finding its way into our language. This is a positive development, as the language that all of us use for communication should be respectful of people who are ‘different’. Language should be inclusive; if it isn’t inclusive, it reflects that our society and we as citizens aren’t.
It is a challenging topic though, as in many languages certain words have a clear ‘sex’. In English, and in my native language Dutch, this isn’t so dramatic, since in these two languages only a few forms exist. For example: “Look, a horse! It is beautiful” is the sexless form. “Did you ask the doctor?” is sex-neutral, and only by going into more detail, the sex becomes apparent: “Did you ask the doctor and what was her answer?” So, in English or Dutch, it is quite easy to navigate the cliffs of sexism.
How different is the German language! Here, many words have a pre-assigned sex. Sexless examples are: das Pferd, das Kind, das Mädchen (the horse, the child, the girl. Confusingly a girl is sexless as the word contains a diminutive; let’s skip that for the moment). But all other words are either male or female: der Arzt and die Ärztin (the doctor), der Lokomotivführer and die Lokomotivführerin (the trainengineer), die Krankenschwester and der Krankenbruder (the nurse), even der Mond (the moon),and dieBlume (the flower) have a sex.
The current gendering results in German sentences such as “Sehr geehrte Bürger*Innen” (“Dear citizens”. Notice the use of the *). In this way, some people now write (and speak) about Arzt*Innen, and Lokomotivführer*Innen. The difficulty is that German grammar knows many more articles than der/die/das. For instance: “Der Stein war zu groß. Ich habe den Stein verkauft.” (The stone was too big. I sold the stone). In regards to correct gendering, this can become quite complex, and the result isn’t very pretty.
The biggest challenge: all current proposals for gendering are half-assed solutions. and as we all know, only radical solutions drive true change.
It doesn’t take much of a crystal ball to see how the German language will change over the next 20,30,40 years. Most likely (like in real life) the absolute male and female forms will disappear. This will probably happen because the articles die/der will disappear, for instance as follows: “Das Doctor arbeitet in das Krankenhaus” (The doctor works in the hospital), “Das Stadt, das Blume und das Mond sind schön” (the town, the flower and the moon are beautiful – notice how perfectly this works in English?) or even “Das Frau kauft das Blume” (The woman buys the flower), and “Das Stein war zu groß. Ich habe das Stein verkauft.” (The stone was too big. I sold the stone.)
Conservatives will probably fight this tooth and nail, which is not unusual for changes in language. In the end, reality dictates what a language looks like, not artificial regulation or feeble attempts at conservation. Language constantly changes, and usually at the speed with which society changes. And our surrounding world is changing rapidly.
Wenn du einige meiner Blogposts gelesen hast, wirst du bemerkt haben, daß ich gerne in die Zukunft schaue. Hier ist ein weiterer Blick in meine Kristallkugel.
Die Geschlechterdiskussion findet nun ihren Weg in unsere Sprache. Dies ist eine positive Entwicklung, da die Sprache, die wir jeden Tag für die Kommunikation verwenden, Menschen, die anders sind, respektieren sollte. Sprache sollte inklusiv sein; wenn sie nicht inklusiv ist, zeigt es, daß unsere Gesellschaft und wir als Bürger es nicht sind.
Es ist jedoch ein herausforderndes Thema, da in vielen Sprachen bestimmte Wörter ein klares „Geschlecht“ haben. Auf Englisch und in meiner Muttersprache (Niederländisch) ist dies nicht so dramatisch, da in diesen Sprachen nur wenige Formen existieren. Zum Beispiel: “Look, a horse!” ist die geschlechtslose Form. “Did you ask the doctor?” ist Geschlechstneutral. Nur wenn man mehr Detail nachliefert, wird das Geschlecht offensichtlich: “Did you ask the doctor, and what did she say?” Auf Englisch und Niederländisch ist es also ziemlich einfach, die Klippen des Sexismus zu navigieren.
Wie anders ist die deutsche Sprache! Hier haben viele Wörter ein vorab zugewiesenes Geschlecht. Sexlose Beispiele sind: das Pferd, das Kind, das Mädchen (Verwirrenderweise ist ein Mädchen geschlechtslos, da das Wort eine Verkleinerung enthält). Aber alle anderen Wörter sind entweder männlich oder weiblich: der Arzt und die Ärztin, der Lokomotivführer und der Lokomotivführerin, die Krankenschwester und der Krankenbruder, der Mond, die Blume.
Die aktuelle Geschlechterdiskussion führt zu Konstrukten wie “Sehr geehrte Bürger*Innen“. Auf ähnliche Weise schreiben (und sprechen) die Leute jetzt über Arzt*Innen, oder Lokomotivführer*Innen. Die Schwierigkeit besteht darin, daß die deutsche Grammatik viel mehr Artikel wie “der, die und das” kennt: zum Beispiel: “Der Stein war zu groß. Ich habe den Stein verkauft“. In Bezug auf korrektem Gendern kann dies komplex werden und ist nicht sehr hübsch.
Die größte Herausforderung: Alle aktuellen Vorschläge zum Gendern sind halbherzige Lösungen. Aber: nur radikale Lösungen treiben echte Änderung voran.
Es braucht keine Kristallkugel, um zu sehen, wie sich die deutsche Sprache in den nächsten 20,30,40 Jahren ändern wird. Höchstwahrscheinlich (wie im wirklichen Leben) werden die absoluten männlichen und weiblichen Formen verschwinden. Die Artikel werden verschwinden, wie im Satz: “Das Arzt arbeitet in das Krankenhaus”, “Das Stadt, das Blume und das Mond sind schön“, oder sogar “Das Frau kauft das Blume“, “Das Stein war zu groß. Ich habe das Stein verkauft”. Wenn du versuchst, diese Sätze ins Englische zu übersetzen, wirst du feststellen, daß die englische Sprache diese Änderung bereits durchlaufen hat (“The stone was too big. I have sold the stone.”)
Konservative werden sich mit Hand und Fuß gegen diese Änderungen wehren, was für Sprachreformen nicht ungewöhnlich ist. Am Ende diktiert die Realität, wie eine Sprache aussieht, nicht künstliche Regulierung oder schwache Erhaltungsversuche. Die Sprache ändert sich ständig und normalerweise mit der Geschwindigkeit, mit der sich die Gesellschaft ändert. Und unsere Welt verändert sich rasant.
Today’s world is complex. We are bombarded with a never ending flood of information; through news, social media and personal conversations. News hits us from all corners of the globe: a hundred years ago nobody would have known (or cared) about forest fires on the other side of the world; today we feel directly affected by them. In addition, we are more than ever confronted with developments that impact all of us, such as the Corona/Covid19 pandemic (see previous blogpost) or climate change.
How to handle this confusion? Only a level-headed “cool analysis“ of the facts can help us deal with this complicated world. Without reliance on facts, the world becomes even more complex and reality even more difficult to handle. And we start making mistakes… who wants to base decisions on wrong facts?
But how to distinguish fact from fiction? People spread half truths or lies in a number of ways. Here’s an example of how that works.
Creationists are convinced that, based on the texts in the Bible, the world is only a few thousand years old. You can think about this any way you want, many will conclude that his perception is wrong (as a biologist, I am slightly biased in this matter). But that is not the point to make here. What is more important is that the creationist has two options. First, the creationist could decide that the biblical text is correct and that no further discussion is needed. The creationist could then simply stick to this belief and not enter into any further discussion with anybody. This would be 100% consistent. After all, we all believe in certain things, and sticking to those beliefs is fully acceptable. Sure, it may have some disadvantages for the creationist: this person might feel isolated as many people will smirk at this idea, and/or the creationist wouldn’t be able to gain more followers. The creationist would definitely get less air time on national television. Many religious groups follow such an approach (e.g. the Amish people in the USA, who self-isolate pretty efficiently). Perfectly fine: they can go on with their lives, and everbody else with theirs. We mutually respect one other and might even enjoy our differences.
The alternative for the creationist is to collect information to prove that the world is indeed only a few thousand years old. The apparent advantage for the creationist is that the creationist can continue to interact and discuss with fellow humans, thus there is less risk of having to live the life of a recluse. It also provides a feeling that the theory is scientifically validated. And you can actually get invited for a quirky interview on TV.
This is the Creationist Dilemma: the creationist needs to choose between these two options. We are not discussing the pros and cons of creationism. This blogpost addresses the dilemma that confronts many believers in many topics.
There are tremendous flaws in choosing the second option: the Creationist Trap. In choosing the second option, the creationist starts to collect (scientific) evidence that “proves” that either the evolution theory has weaknesses, or that creationism is correct. In other words, the creationist starts out with a theory and then picks and chooses the evidence that supports that theory.
However, this is not how science works. To put it bluntly, it completely contradicts human intelligence.
Let’s use an example. Imagine a driver in a rattling car in the desert. This driver may firmly believe that it won’t break down (~theory) because it was checked before the ride, the tank is full, the wipers and horn are working, and the concerned passengers were wrong in the past (~facts). Based on which the driver could conclude: we will continue driving! (~action).
In contrast, real science starts out by collecting facts, from which a theory is created. To stay with the car example: oh my, the motor doesn’t sound good at all (~fact); is it breaking down? (~theory), let’s stop and check the motor before it gets worse (~action, leading to the collection of more facts to finetune the theory).
The “beauty” of the creationist approach is that it allows anyone to “prove” anything.
Example: climate change. Many climate change deniers have a reason (their starting “theory”) for their denial of human-caused climate change. Perhaps they fear for the economy, or their job. Or they love big cars that use a lot of gasoline, or the theory doesn’t fit their understanding of freedom. Perhaps deep down inside they are afraid of change. In any case, they fall victim to the creationist’s dilemma: instead of simply saying: “Hell, I am not going to change my ways. I’m going to produce carbon dioxide and I don’t care what’s going to happen to the climate” (which would at least be consistent), they are tempted to start collecting data that “substantiates” climate change isn’t happening: they choose option two and fall into the creationist trap. They may refer to irrelevant climate change events that happened thousands of even millions of years ago, or to other „mistakes“ that so-called „experts“ made.
You think the Earth is flat? You think that the whole corona reaction was unnecessary? Do you believe humanity never landed on the moon? Are vaccines bad? Is homeopathy a proper medical treatment? You think brushing your teeth has no benefits? It is possible to find an abundance of information to support ANY of theory. But is that a valid approach? No.
How to spot people that have fallen victim to the Creationist Trap?
(1) Always question: why is this person making a certain statement? What is this person’s underlying motivation? In the case of the creationist it is simple: religion. Anti-vaxxers may be driven by fear or mistrust in institutions (like Big Pharma). In many cases the motivation may not be directly obvious, e.g. climate deniers may have many different reasons at the same time. And many won’t even tell or disclose what motivates them. Sometimes they do not even know themselves.
(2) Are the person’s statements overtly negative, in a sense that the person is trying to disprove a theory? An expert (this can be a scientist, but also a football coach, an iron monger or an accountant) makes mostly positive statements about theories, since they know the underlying facts. They feel comfortable with the evidence on which the theory is based. Howver, a flat-earther is in constant defence against scientists, the media, the world, and is thus attacking the idea that Earth is a globe.
(3) Another telltale sign: is the person heaping up more and more evidence (true or false) from as many sources as possible to make their point? And if one argument doesn’t work, quickly switches to the next one?
(4) Is the person relying on (sometimes amazingly good) oratory skills, is this person a smooth talker? Does the speaker transport knowledge or emotion? Knowledge and facts can be very boring; emotion can be very gratifying and exciting.
(3) An expert knows that no one can know everything about a discipline. As a result, an expert will regularly use phrases such as: “there is no data to support that idea,” or even simply admit “I’m not sure.” A person stuck in the creationist trap will not allow any doubt to shine through. They do not discuss; they debate.
(4) Is the evidence provided actually related to the topic? Are observations pulled in from cases that may seem similar, but that are in fact unrelated: whataboutisms? Typical statements to watch out for are “they were wrong about XYZ too” or “something similar happened then-and-there, and it turned out be completely untrue.”
Certainly, the indicators above may apply to any individual. But if many start to bubble up at the same time, your alarm bells should start to go off.
In the end, the scientific method relies completely on common sense, the two are inseparable. Facts know no religion, no politics, no emotions. But they are key to get your rattling car out of the desert.
During a walk with friends in our favorite, nearby forest, we talked about the corona pandemic. At one point, someone mentioned that whatever may happen, it is a certainty that humanity will survive forever. I didn’t contradict the point at the time, as I didn’t want to be regarded as overtly pessimistic, but as the author of post-apocalyptic adventure, I have read many articles about the future of humakind and have developed my own views. Realistic and not pessimistic views, I always like to point out.
Humanity has been around for about 300,000 years, which on the scale of the birth of life on the planet (3.7 billion years ago) is a mere blink of an eye. All organisms constantly mutate and change, and although a minority of species may have survived for very long times (“living fossiles,” like jellyfish, certain types of fish or crabs, all of these are relatively primitive in structure), most organisms tend to mutate and change over time (to better adapt to modifications in their surroundings). It is a good guess that humans will also continue to mutate and evolve, so it could well be that a few hundred thousand years from now, Homo sapiens will have given rise to a new species, a Homo futuris. At that stage it might well happen that Homo sapiens will disappear, just like homo neanderthalensis did disappear about 40,000 years ago. Clearly, the overwhelming power of evolution is, by definition, not favorable for the eternal existence of any species.
More dramatically, looking back at the history of life on our planet, several mass extinctions occurred over time. The disappearance of the dinosaurs is definitely the most well-known example, but scientists have identified at least five such dramatic events over the past 500 million years. In addition, the Great Ice Age began about 2 million years and ended 10,000 years ago, and has also been identified as a major cause for the extinction of many plants and animal species; especially many mammals. The mammoth, the saber-toothed tiger and many other mega-fauna species went extinct about 10,000 years ago. Life on our planet is constantly changing, and this will continue to happen; there is no guarantee that Homo sapiens is in some way “immune” to getting extinct.
One could argue that humans may be able to somehow “fight” against these evolutionary trends, e.g. through the use of advanced technology. Although humankind has progressed scientifically, and inventions like antibiotics or other medications, or the advance of genomics, may offer a clue how this could be done; but realistically, the technology to safeguard our eternal survival isn’t available currently. It is questionable whether we can fight or control the evolution of our species – or if we want to do so.
On the other hand, our technological prowess is now greatly endangering our species. About 5500 years ago the earliest form of writing appeared. This was a watershed moment in humanity’s history, as it allowed the storage and dissemination of knowledge. This has led to magnificent inventions that have greatly improved our lives. Modern healthcare, more efficient production of food, better communication to tackle problems – I would argue that all of these have positive impact on our lives and help halt unnecessary disease, famine and suffering.
But let’s not fool ourselves: these technologies also encapsulate the potential to wipe out humanity in a very short timeframe. As an example, there are about 400 nuclear reactors on the planet. Should, for some reason, the maintenance of these reactors be halted, within weeks sufficient radiation would be released into the atmosphere to greatly endanger our existence (I explain this point in my soon to be published new novel). Individual humans may show considerable intelligence, but as a group we behave like primitive bacteria – as another example we continue to push back nature (e.g. through deforestation) and this is now seen as one of the reasons that the SARS, MERS, and the Corona outbreaks occurred (perhaps you should stay tuned for more pandemics in the future). And finally, through the release of copious amounts of carbondioxide into the atmosphere, humanity is changing the climate, to an extent where we can expect tremendous changes to occur in our ecosystem. Many species (for instance all the mammals larger than the cow) may will disappear, and in contrast, other species will gain more dominance: those that we regard as weeds, pests and varmints.
Humankind’s survival is not a given. This isn’t a pessimistic view, it is realism. As an optimist at heart I also believe that we are can change the tide.Read more about evolution in my other blogposts.
A few years ago, I was hosting a business dinner in New York, with half a dozen men and women after a day of intensive meetings. Perfect food, some great wine, and a great group of people from hard- and software companies, the majority from the USA, some from Europe.
Initially, the conversation focused on business, but as the evening got older, it turned to other topics. We discussed politics, history… and computing. These folks were all computer specialists and most with a degree in engineering. At a certain point, the discussion turned to the theory that we, as humans, do not exist, but instead, we are just avatars, simulations within a very sophisticated software, running on very advanced hardware. This theory is not new: Elon Musk is one of its proponents. It is based on the observation that computers are becoming more and more advanced and that the distinction between virtual reality (VR) and “real” reality seems to disappear. The metaverse seems to support this theory too. Sometime in the far future, somebody will be able to create a computer that doesn’t just simulate a single human brain (which according to some estimates may be possible in 50 years or so), but the brain of all humans. It is just a matter of scale; throw in some quantum computing, sufficient hardware, and real-time analytics with deep machine learning, and it should be possible to achieve.
Thus, at this very moment, we might be imagining to be physically alive; today and here on this planet, whereas, in reality, we are just characters in a very advanced computer game being played by an acne-faced teenager 200 years in the future. Everything that we experience: all pain and war and suffering and all love and rewards and happiness would then only be part of a simulation.
Little speaks against this theory from a technical standpoint. As long as technological progress continues to accelerate at the same pace it has for the last 150 years or so, this is easily imaginable. This is naturally also a weakness of the theory: life on Earth, as well as history, hardly ever were linear. We only experience a very small fragment of all of history, yet we consider our lifespan to be all-encompassing. For instance, about every 1000 years or so, a major volcanic eruption happens, which tends to dramatically alter the progress of humanity’s culture. Nevertheless one could argue that such catastrophes might delay the development of a super VR computer, but the delay doesn’t mean that it could never be created.
So why do I still think there is no value in the theory that we are all just part of a very advanced computer simulation? At the Free University of Amsterdam where I studied biology many years ago, one of the highlights of the first year was a course in Philosophy and Methodology of Natural Sciences. I have forgotten the professor’s name, but the man did a tremendous job at hammering home some basic scientific principles. I am not sure whether students still get such courses today, but this was really worthwhile stuff. The course also dwelled on the value of theories and hypotheses. What is a valuable theory? To get to the point: a theory only has value if it can be either proven or disproven. One can theorize about everything, put forward the wildest ideas, but if you cannot test a theory, it is worthless. So, the “simulation theory” MIGHT be true, there is NO way to prove or disprove it; it is a theory that isn’t falsifiable. By what criteria could anyone prove that we are, or are not part of a simulation? After all, at some time point, the simulation would be so perfect that it couldn’t be identified as a simulation anymore, it would be like real life. It is similar to stating that we are created by an invisible fairy living at the bottom of our garden – a theory that people may shrug at, or ridicule, but which would be very hard to prove or disprove. And, as my professor taught me thirty years ago, non-falsifiable theories have, from the scientific point of view, no value.
After being involved in several discussions on social media about the creation of the universe, I decided to jot down a few ideas about this challenging question: how was our universe formed? This text is based on discussions with several people, and it is by no means comprehensive.
Science has shown that the universe was formed about 14 billion years ago through the Big Bang. But what does the space look like into which our universe is expanding? This is an incorrect assumption. In fact, during the Big Bang, space and time were created. That means that space was infinitely small at that time point. Since then, space is expanding, but not into a ‘room’ that already existed. This also means that our universe originated where you are now… in fact: it originated everywhere. This is completely opposed to “common sense”, but one of the cornerstones for understanding the universe.
Do multiple universes exist? First of all, the universe (as the name suggests) means EVERYTHING (the observable Universe, with a radius of 46.5 billion light-years, probably contains 200 billion galaxies, each with an average of 100 million of stars). To describe how this universe came into being, astrophysicists create models and formulas. And based on those mathematical models (which are universally applicable), it cannot be excluded that an endless number of other universes exist in parallel. There could even be a variant of you in another universe – walking around with a tail. However, these are mathematical models. We can’t see those universes. We can’t look beyond our own space and our own time, so this is all hypothetical. We can only be sure that our own universe exists.
What existed before the Big Bang? We can not see these hypothetical multiverses, and likewise, we can also not see what happened before the Big Bang, since time and space came into existence with the Big Bang. Any hypothesis about what happened before the Big Bang or what caused it is speculation or fantasy (and in some cases religion). As Stephen Hawking indicated (and I hope I recap that correctly), the question is senseless, as we can only see or model our own universe. We can’t make any statements beyond what can be observed.
But the universe must have been created by something? Personally, I think it’s the wrong question to ask. As human beings, we are locked in cultures where everything must have cause and effect, and everything has linearity. As an example, from our perspective, time flows very regularly, but Einstein showed that speed and gravity will make time run slower. This seems senseless, as we can’t observe this (in our daily lives). We tend to believe in cause and effect; that only nothing comes from nothing. But this may well be a meme in our society or culture… the human brain always wants to find patterns, reasons… but perhaps some things happen without a cause? The question seems to be dictated by our culture. Perhaps this question is comparable to: “what is the sound of the smell of the number 7?” To some (esoteric) people, this question may be logical, to the rest of us it doesn’t make any sense. Any suggestion for what caused our universe to come into existence doesn’t resolve the question of its origin. It could for instance be a goddess, or another, bigger “universe” or whatever. But this fantasy entity (we can’t detect / see it) must then have been created too. Thus, this only adds an additional layer of complexity to the discussion. The truth of the matter is that you exist, and all the rest and the entire universe exist too. What can’t be observed “isn’t”, whereas the universe “is”. If non-existence would be the normal state of the universe, you wouldn’t be here.
Always wondered how to find Betelgeuse? Here are the directions.
Betelgeuse is also called α-Orionis. Betelgeuse originates from the Arab word yad al-ǧauzā, the Hand of the Giantess, sometimes also referred to as the shoulder star of Orion.
Why is Betelgeuse intriguing?
Betelgeuse is a giant star and is classified as a red super-giant. It has about a thousand times the diameter of our sun and has about ten thousand times more luminosity, as a result of which Betelgeuse can easily be seen in the night sky, as it is the tenth brightest star. This star is of great astronomical interest. Its radius was the first to be determined by interferometry and it varies by about 15%. As a result, Betelgeuse’s brightness varies a factor between +0.3 and + 0.6. This is one of the very few stars that are visible from Earth as a surface, not just a point in the sky. Most likely this star is an amazing 500 light-years away.
In the opinion of astronomers, Betelgeuze will end up as a supernova (read this Guardian article from 2020). Opinions vary when this event might take place: it could happen within the next thousand or one hundred thousand years. The resulting supernova will be easily visible and will shine over the entire firmament. With a red giant of this type, you can expect a 16,000-fold increase in luminosity. This supernova could reach the brightness of the full moon. Luckily enough, the axis of rotation of the star does not point towards the Earth, and the gamma-ray flash would not be strong enough that it would affect the Earth’s biosphere. Now, THAT would be a post-apocalyptic experience! The remnant of this supernova is expected to be a neutron star based on the mass of 20 solar masses.