Don't Drink That!

Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy - Paracelsus

Today, I want to talk about what may just be the most ubiquitous fallacy in public discourse. I had been working on a piece about the pernicious and condescending practice of delivering adenoid-driven explanations as a means of asserting superiority, another ubiquitous feature of modern discourse, but each time I begin cataloguing examples, better examples come along, and it's turning out to take a bit longer than expected. In that light, I thought something quick and dirty to keep you occupied, dear reader, would be worthwhile.

What makes the fallacy I want to discuss particularly disheartening is that it isn't restricted to those one would normally identify as prone to irrationality and failures of logic. That fallacy is, of course, poisoning the well.

This is a fallacy that's rarely committed in its own right, generally serving as the underlying motivation for the commission of very many fallacies of relevance. It's of particular moment now, as this fallacy has become something of a default for apologists not only of religion but of almost any position, and we see it especially in political spheres. It's even become an issue in the global rationalist community.

Let's unpack it a bit and see what it looks like, and then we can move onto some examples of its commission taken from the public sphere. All the examples I'll cite are pretty current, and there's at least one instance we've already looked at in another post. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The well-poisoning fallacy is a fallacy of relevance. Like all fallacies of relevance, it falls under the general heading of 'red herring' or what I like to call the 'quick, look over there' fallacy. We've looked at quite a few fallacies of relevance before, notably here, among other places, and they all have one key feature, namely that they have no bearing whatsoever on the veracity of an argument. The most common instances fall under the general heading of genetic fallacy, which we examined in considerable detail here. The genetic fallacy is committed when an argument is either accepted or rejected based only on the source or of some characteristic, whether real or imagined, of the source of the argument. Common examples are the argumentum ad populum - appeal to popularity - and the argumentum ad verecundiam - appeal to authority or reverence.

In the case of poisoning the well, it's most often used as a means of attempting to shut down discourse. It's essentially saying 'you shouldn't listen to this person because...' most often followed with some other fallacious appeal or, in many cases, an entirely invented characteristic.

The most common instances of this fallacy in public discourse come in the form of 'appeal to motivation', which is itself a fairly obvious fallacy. What motivates somebody to make an argument has no bearing at all on whether the argument has merit or is sound. Let's look at some examples so we can get a feel for how it works.

Virtue-signalling: I chose this example because this accusation appears to be the fallacy of the modern age. An accusation of virtue-signalling is an attempt to dismiss what somebody is saying based only on a perception of the motivation for saying it. It has exactly nothing to do with the content of what they're saying or its veridical value.

People have opinions about things. Those opinions can be motivated by different things, and the motivation to voice them can also be motivated by different things, regardless of whether those opinions are genuinely held. It's entirely probable that people give voice to opinions purely because they think they look good voicing them but to actually assume that and to use it as an excuse to dismiss an argument is to commit this fallacy. To actually give voice to it in public discourse is not only to commit the appeal to motivation, it's also to engage in poisoning the well.

As an aside, although this is an informal fallacy, not being directly related to structure, the underlying premise is rooted in a fallacy that's fully formal. I always think it useful to highlight this, because we can very easily overlook fallacies if we don't delve into what's going on. 

In this case, the fallacy is the old favourite and the most common formal fallacy committed in discourse, affirming the consequent. To see how this is formal, we should break it down into syllogistic form.

P1: Virtue-signallers make statements that make them look good.
P2: This statement makes the arguer look good.
C: The arguer is virtue-signalling.

Formally:

\( \dfrac {P \Rightarrow Q,\ Q} {\therefore P} \)

My go-to exposition of this fallacy highlights the problem nicely.

P1: All men are mortal.
P2: Hitler was mortal.
C: Hitler was a man.

As always, this looks fine on the face of it, right until I tell you that Hitler was my next-door neighbour's cat. Many things are mortal, and this argument discounts all of them.

As we can see then, the accusation of virtue-signalling, while informally fallacious in its own right, committing the well-poisoning fallacy, is predicated on a formal fallacy. Many things can motivate a statement, including virtue-signalling, but also the wish for things to be better for people, or any number of other things, and the premise underlying this accusation discounts all of them.

I'll leave that there, because smuggled fallacies like this are going to be the topic of a more complete treatment in the near future, as these are the most difficult fallacies to deal with. In general, though, where you spot an appeal to any sort of motivation or, indeed, where an outcome is cited as categorical evidence of something - the ever-popular 'look at the trees' trope among them - there's an instance of affirming the consequent smuggled into the situation somewhere.

Nazi sympathies: Another instance is one I've covered before in slightly different context, notably here where, among other instances, a popular rational blogger was accused of being a Nazi sympathiser because he advocated free speech. As in the other example, no attempt was made to actually address the content of the argument, it was merely asserted that he sympathised with the views of Nazis on no other grounds than that he thought that punching them in an attempt to silence them was an affront to the most basic of our freedoms. Once again, this is nothing but an attempt to stifle discourse.


Guilt by association: Of course, appealing to motivation isn't the only means of well-poisoning employed in common discourse. Another is particularly troubling to somebody like me, because it's not an attempt to stifle discourse, but an attempt to excoriate one's personal associations.

An example of this popped up only a few days ago on Twitter, and I thought it worth mentioning here just so that the problems inherent in it can be exposed.

It was suggested to a writer of some repute that, if she associated with people who doubt gender identity, that she was denying transgender people the right to exist. It should be fairly obvious just from this statement of the situation that there's a reasonably close correlation to the above situation with advocating for freedom of speech even where the opinions being expressed are distasteful. In this instance, though, there are deeper problems.


The first and most obvious problem is the attempt to control other people's interpersonal relationships based on one's own views of who we should be associating with. I won't go any deeper into that, not least because I really shouldn't need to discuss what a toxic notion it is that somebody purports to be in a position to define the relationships of another based on their own criteria.

On the other hand, while I can sympathise that some might not wish to associate with people whose opinions they find undesirable, it does pose some problems, and they're problems that somebody who's really interested in addressing attitudes toward the gender spectrum should be deeply concerned with.

All else aside, people's positions can change or, at least, I hope they can. It's a measure of intellectual honesty that one's opinions can be influenced by information. It isn't always easy to find the route to doing this, as we discovered in Patterns and the Inertia of Ideas, where we examined cognitive inertia and some of what it can take to overcome it. However, we do know that minds can be changed given the right motivation. What can't be done, however, is to change the minds of those we disagree with when we won't give them the time of day. In order to challenge notions we find unpalatable, we have to be prepared to meet them, even to the degree of treating them as charitably as we can in order to engage in reasonable discourse.

Ultimately, nobody should want to live in an echo chamber. Setting aside other considerations, we can only ever be completely confident of being able to argue our own positions if we can countenance having them challenged.

In the end, it's only through dialogue that we can really hope to enact the change we wish to see in the world. Attempts to silence those whose opinions we disagree with, either by actually silencing them through violence or by insulating ourselves from them accomplishes nothing, except possibly to drive those unwelcome opinions underground for them to fester until the sociopolitical landscape changes sufficiently to air them again. I, for one, don't see this as a desirable tactic. As I said in the previous article on free speech, nobody learns anything while fists are flying.

My excellent friend Jackson Wheat did a nice little video on the 'Guilt by Association' fallacy, which I'll include at the bottom.

Anti-democracy: This one's pretty funny, in some ways. It's one I've been accused of, and I'm far from being the only one. This has been levelled at many, many people in the wake of last summer's Brexit vote, notably those who voiced the opinion that the UK's leaving Europe should be subject to a second referendum once we get a clearer picture of just what Brexit will look like. The level of cognitive dissonance required to hold the position that wanting another vote is anti-democratic is pretty special, however you slice it. More importantly, the position falls prey to its own critique, since what it's actually voicing is the notion that the people shouldn't be allowed to speak once they've spoken. Under such silly reasoning, Parliament should still be under Whig control, since the people spoke in 1715, and that settles the matter. Never mind that the landscape has changed completely, and the Whig party hasn't existed since the year Darwin published his seminal work! 

There's an important point in there about that changing landscape. When the Brexit referendum took place, nobody had the faintest idea of what it would look like. In reality, we still don't. It's fairly clear that many who voted to leave were using their votes in protest. Many have expressed 'buyer's remorse'. One leave voter, only the following day when the count was finalised, said that she didn't think that the leave vote would win, and that she's only voted leave as some sort of joke. In the end, the leave vote won, and now it looks like nobody commissioned with securing the best future for the nation is remotely interested in pulling us back from the brink, including those who promoted remaining in the EU.

I won't dwell on that any further, but I did want to mention one more example of well-poisoning. This one is slightly different, in that the motivation for poisoning the well is pure deflection. This is a tactic that found prominence in the US election cycle last year, and has been carried over into the post-election political arena. 

Whataboutism: This is an extremely pernicious tactic in discourse and, although it's a time-worn fallacy, it seems to have grown new legs of late. 

You'll all have seen it on the TV news shows, where a question was asked about some questionable action Komrade Trichindova engaged in that ended up all over the news, and some idiot Drumpf surrogate deflecting to some allegation, usually fabricated out of whole cloth, concerning some action of Hillary Clinton. Now, before we even get started, I'm already on record as saying that I'm no great fan of Clinton but, in terms of suitability for the presidency when given a choice of her or the orange buffoon, there was simply no competition. That aside, we're more concerned with the underlying logic of the above deflection which was, as near as I can tell, the entirety of Snackface's campaign strategy. It's a logical nonsense, and the only reason for employing it in any setting was to burn up the air-time so that there was no time to answer the question put to the surrogate.

Bad enough, though, that this tactic was employed throughout the campaign. What's even worse is that it's still being used by the White House even now. Only Thursday, Sarah Sanders, White House Press Secretary, appeared on Fox News. Fox has traditionally been a safe venue for the Trump administration but, in a rare instance of being presented with a tough question, Bill Hemmers asked Sarah Sanders a question about the ongoing investigation into possible collusion with Russian actors during the election. Without skipping a beat, Sanders leapt straight to talking about how Clinton had, as secretary of state, been involved in a deal involving American stocks of uranium.

This isn't an isolated incident, either. It's pretty much universal whenever Trump, his representatives or his surrogates are confronted with a difficult question. Trump himself still can't stop talking about the election win, although I suspect that this is simply because he's a moron, and not motivated by anything as intelligent as deflection.

I think we've covered the important bases, but I think a brief (non-exhaustive) list of terms whose invention and invocation serve no other purpose than to poison the well is in order. If you see these terms, remember what we've discussed here.

Epithets:

  • Cuck
  • Snowflake
  • Libtard
  • SJW
  • RWNJ
  • Leftie
  • Scientism
  • Cupcake
Appeals to emotional or psychological state, in which you're accused of being:
  • Angry
  • Rattled
  • Caffeinated
  • Menstrual
These and more are being employed for no other purpose than to poison the well and to deflect away from the argument. Look out for this, and hold the poisoner's feet to the fire.

I hope this was useful/informative/entertaining. Thanks for reading. Nits and crits gratefully received, as always.


7 Reasons Why Apologists Should Stop Trying to Logic

Greetings, dear reader! 

Today's outing is a quickie, a new entry into the hackenslash challenge.

Before I get on with it, a little housekeeping. The astute among you will have noticed that the URLs have changed. This is because, as alluded to over the course of the past few months here and elsewhere, I'm preparing to migrate this site to a more professional setting, with a newly designed website. To that end, I've purchased this domain. I had said at the outset that I didn't intend to spend much time or effort on design but, as the blog has grown more popular and my regular readers on social media channels have commented, I felt it was time to do something about that. I'm also going to be starting to approach publishers in the coming months, to see if I can generate some interest in the book that has always been the end goal of these missives. These comments have also impacted the way I've been thinking about the long-term future of the blog. I have other writing projects rattling around, including maybe a book and maybe a series of books about the unsung heroes of science, a topic that's very dear to me.

Blogspot has been pretty good for me, although there are limitations to implementation that have always bugged me. I always wanted to be able to use html/php tags and LaTeX in comments, so that I can reply properly and so that others can utilise them in their questions and comments. I'm sure that there are ways to deal with these limitations right here, but I also feel that having my own site with complete control is the right way to go for the future.

I must apologise on that front, because one of the consequences of pointing to the new domain has been that all comments submitted via Google+ up until this point have been lost. This was my fault, as I pointed the blog to the domain during the registration process without double-checking the implications of doing so first. Had I been more methodical in this process, I'd have archived the comments first. I'm going to attempt to recover them via G+ or by reverting briefly to the blogspot domain, but only if it doesn't constitute a prohibitive amount of effort. If this can be done reasonably easily, I'll either restore the comments or add them in at the bottom of posts. It would be a shame to lose them, because the comments section has been a source of some great comments, some of which have led to new posts in their own right. Also, there was one comment that I came across the other day when reviewing a post to make sure that it comprehensively answered the question of somebody who asked a question on Twitter, that I really do want to recover, as it was from Hapless Pete, who we met in On Death, and who is no longer with us.

So, let's see what 'logic' has been offered up, shall we?

This particular outing is a response to an attempt at rebutting one of my previous posts, All Kinds of Everything, which is a debunking of the three classic omnis and free will. It was to be an outing addressing what convinced this person of the existence of god, but she's posted this blog while I was finishing other things, and it seems more appropriate to address this. As we'll see, the failure of logic offered up as allegedly refuting my earlier work is, to put it as politely as I can, comprehensive. 

This will possibly not be comprehensive, as I have little intention of burning any more time on this than it warrants and, given that it doesn't warrant any time at all, I'm addressing it only as it's been presented, and will not be going back to read my original post so that I can address the complete failures of context that I know will be there. This will, however, be an exercise in the noble art of fisking.

So, without further ado, let's crack on:

Stephanie begins with this (incorporating what she's responding to in italics):
Argument on omniscience: “To summarise what I said there, because we’re limited to what we can observe, and because there’s no observation we can make, even in principle, that can tell us that what we observe is, in a fully ontological sense, real, we have to stop short of this kind of absolute statement and admit that there’s a limit to what we can know… It’s quite literally an omni-limitation, and it applies equally to any entity that could reasonably be described as a deity.” 

Tony’s assumption that we can “equally” apply our physical limitations to our Creator places God on equal footing as man. One cannot logically assume that the eternal Creator of our magnificent universe should be put on equal footing as the inhabitants on the third rock from the sun in the Milky Way Galaxy. 
Here's the first of many failures of logic. Stephanie characterises my assessment as being predicated on physical limitations, when it's supremely clear that this is a logical limitation. With this objection, Stephanie has demonstrated that she hasn't actually grasped the argument at all. One can, at a stretch, think of the system of god's knowledge to be like a Gödel statement (Phil Scott will have my guts for this), in that it is a logical impossibility to show completeness from within the system. One would have to step outside the system to be sure that it contains 'all knowledge' and, of course, there is no 'outside', even were there a means to get there. 

There is, to my mind, only one possible escape to this conclusion and, prior to beginning this, I confronted Stephanie with it on Twitter. After much evasion, in which she failed singularly to address the question, the following:


It is worth noting that Stephanie objected to this by saying that she hadn't said that God was immune to logic, only that he was immune to my logic. Two things to note about that, the first being that the aforementioned evasion was specifically trying to pin her down on that point, and the second being that there is no 'my logic', there is only logic, something repeatedly pointed out to her in the course of said evasions.
If we consider the billions of people who have inhabited this planet and the many great minds who occupied positions of authority over the centuries, one can make the reasonable assertion that all of the great minds together do not match the knowledge of the mind from which they were derived.

Each man is apportioned a share of a much greater mind and can never exceed that greater mind, just as a river can never exceed its source. And our source knows all.
And this is pure blind assertion, with no basis in evidence. It can be dismissed on that basis alone. 
“Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite” Psalm 147:5.
As we go on, I don't intend to include all the bible quotes or to give space to cited apologetic. If this is supposed to stand in evidence of anything, it fails. Feel free to see Stephanie's post and raise anything I fail to address in the comments.

Quoting the bible at an atheist is much like flinging turds at passing strangers and expecting them to thank you for it. I've covered the logical problems of holy books as sources of information at some length elsewhere, notably here, so there seems little point in going over that ground again.
Tony is correct in his observation that humans are limited in what we can observe. Yet what we observe in the physical world is as the tip of an iceberg. Beneath the surface of our observations lies the truth.
And again, this isn't a physical limitation, it's a logical one, and Stephanie's approach to this issue betrays a paucity of understanding not only of the rudiments of logic but epistemology generally.

This objection fails.
The disciple Paul pointed to the importance of opening our eyes to the spiritual world when he made the following observation in his letter to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 4:8) “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary and what is unseen is eternal.”
And we should be interested in what Paul says on this subject because?

Moving on...
Argument on omnipotence: “Can god construct a pile of bricks so heavy that he can’t lift it?” If he can’t, he’s not omnipotent. If he can, he’s not omnipotent.

To answer this question, one must first consider the characteristics of our Creator, along with the creation that He has advanced. Envision the universe and its planets, stars, and ever expanding dimensions. Hugh Ross (2016, p. 75) states, “A remarkable sequence of events over the course of a billion years somehow worked together to place the solar system’s eight planets (not to mention its other objects) in their current orbital positions.

The observation that these positions provide optimally for the existence and survival of advanced life on Earth adds considerable weight to what science and philosophers refer to as the anthropic principle, or the law of human existence. Some loathe it while others embrace it for the enormity of its implications. In brief, the anthropic principle states that all features of the universe appear fine-tuned for the benefit of human life.” This principle forms the foundation of the teleological argument for God’s existence.
Somehow? It's remarkable that somebody with a doctorate in astrophysics characterises the well-understood processes involved in the formation of the solar system by reducing them to 'somehow'.  

Moreover, Ross has horrendously mischaracterised the anthropic principle here.The anthropic principle is simply the suggestion that, if the universe were sufficiently different to prohibit our existence, we wouldn't be here to describe it. It certainly does not state that the features of the universe appear fine-tuned for life. This is a massive commission of the fallacy known as 'affirming the consequent', which I covered in detail here. I also covered fine-tuning in somewhat greater detail here. To summarise that post in a nutshell, the universe is NOT fine-tuned for life, life is fine-tuned for the universe, by virtue of having arise under its constants. 

Moreover, the apologist is massively equivocating on the concept of fine-tuning as it appears in the lexicon of physics, wherein its role is to point out that certain parameters must fall within a narrow range of values if the model under consideration is correct.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German philosopher (1646-1716), advanced this version of the cosmological argument in support of God (Craig, 2010).
Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence.
If the universe has an explanation of its existence, the explanation is God.
The universe exists.
The universe has an explanation of its existence.
God.
Leibniz was a great thinker but, like many of his time, the product of a hegemony of religious doctrine spanning most of two millennia. However, his being a great thinker didn't free him from the biases of his time, and here we see the big one manifest in spades.
All cosmological arguments fail for exactly the same reasons. This one's no different. 

P1, P2 and P4 are unsupported blind assertions. The argument is a failed attempt to define god into existence and, from Stephanie's perspective, smacks of an argumentum ad verecundiam.

I should also note that the notion of existence as a predicate rears its ugly head a couple of times in there but, given that Stephanie has demonstrated a colossal failure to parse considerably simpler logical notions than this during the course of her sojourn into mindless drivel, there's not much point getting into why that's a problem for the time being.

For more on cosmological arguments and why they fail, see my previous post on the Kalam.
Around a century ago, scientists proffered the Big Bang Theory of the universe. The Big Bang theory states that around 13.8 billion years ago, all matter in the universe was concentrated into an incredibly tiny point. A hot explosion occurred and the universe began to expand and is still expanding today, as evidenced by fact that galaxies are continuing to move away from us. The Big Bang Theory is the leading explanation of the how the universe came into being (Howell, 2017), despite its theological implications.

What are its theological implications? Since we know that time, space, and matter began with the Big Bang, what existed prior to its expansion had to be unbounded by time (eternal), intentional, powerful, and immaterial. What existed prior had to have the ability to power inflation of the universe and stop an infinite regression of matter. These are the characteristics we attribute to God: the uncaused cause.
My regular readers, being aware that cosmology is actually my primary area of scientific interest, will know that I've covered the ridiculous categorical statements erected here elsewhere, so I won't treat this in any detail, except to note a few things. First, there is no 'the' big bang theory. The big bang is the name we have for the observed expansion of our local cosmic iteration. The statement that we 'know that time, space and matter began with the big bang' is, not to put too fine a point on it, complete arse-water. There is literally zero justification in any of physics for the notion that time began at the big bang. It's a popularly-held notion which was never a robust conclusion and which stems from the original big bang theory, which stands falsified. All else aside, just what is meant by the term 'universe' is open to equivocation.

We certainly have good reason to think that our local expanse had something like a beginning, but that's entirely theoretical, and even our theories don't go all the way to any beginning. They hit a brick wall at the Planck time, and an observation wall at the surface of last scattering. I've covered all of this in considerable detail in a series of posts which I'll link at the bottom of the page. Suffice it to say that we have plausible models dealing with the instantiation of our local expanse, whether it constitutes the totality of the cosmos or not, and whether it literally arose from nothing or from pre-existing stuff. What this means in practice is that the assertion that the big bang has any theological implications is quite simply unmitigated guff with no logical basis.
In other words, the characteristics of our Creator must far exceed the limits of His creation. The one who formed and designed planets and stars certainly would not be limited by a “pile of bricks” of any size. Tony has mischaracterized our Creator as one bounded by physical limitations, yet God is metaphysical, omnipotent, and far beyond anything we can even conceive.
 And here was see what that diversion into irrelevance was all about. It's the 'quick, look over there' school of argument (of course, I'm being as charitable as I can be in that assessment, because it's also possible that Stephanie simply doesn't grok the logic of the argument).

The problem is that she wasn't clever enough to make the diversion complete, and now she's highlighted it again, along with her failure to grasp the implication of the argument, and has made it about physical limitations. 

This is a simple logical principle of two abilities that stand in direct contradiction of each other. One is constructing a pile of bricks too heavy to lift, which I can do, the other is being able to lift a pile of bricks of any size, which I can't do. What Stephanie has done, then, is to answer 'no' to the question, and said that God can't construct such a pile, because he can lift any pile. Therefore, he isn't omnipotent.

It's telling that she doesn't grasp this, which is far and away the easiest of the arguments in my post to deal with. All she has here is apologetic flim-flam, and even that fails miserably.

Now then, what's next?
Argument on omnipresence: “This means that, on its own, something being in multiple locations is not an attribute that points to divinity.”

To be in multiple locations at once is impossible for humans. We cannot physically and concurrently be in India and Japan or in any two distinct locations at once. Only one unhindered by the boundaries of time and a physical body can be concurrently in our past, present, and future: God. In other words, omnipresence is an attribute of God.
This would be almost funny if it weren't so wrong and stated with such confidence. Is bilocation impossible for humans? Modern physics says otherwise. Certainly (see what I did there?) it is highly improbable for a human to be in multiple places at once, but impossible? Afraid not. 

One of those posts linked at the bottom on cosmology explains why this is so. In that post, The Certainty of Uncertainty, we looked at some of the implications of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and what it means in the real world. Among the things we looked at was the phenomenon of quantum tunnelling, which is actually a function of superposition (bilocation). We also noted that something the size of a human can also experience quantum tunnelling, though the probability is so small that it's unlikely to happen within the entire lifespan of the universe. If bilocation is possible, the so is a superposition of all locations. It's unlikely, but it doesn't break any physical law.

The rest is blind assertion and, again, can be dismissed on that basis alone. It's not even clear at this point that the assertion of being concurrently in past, present and future is even coherent. This is entirely dependent on subscribing to a particular ontology of time, and we all know the value of ontology. As I like to say, metaphysics is to thought what praying is to helping.

Next up:
Argument on omni-benevolence: “Now, a simple reading of any of the major holy texts of monotheism will rapidly disabuse you of the notion that the entity described in them is in any way good.”
“If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both. This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form” –Lewis, 1940, p. 17).

The problem of pain... [snip vacuous bollocks]
This doesn't even rise to the level of being worthy of a response, since it's a response to an argument I didn't make. It suggests that I argued that, if god is good, there would be no pain. I don't make stupid arguments like that and, frankly, to erect a summary of an argument by an apologist like C.S. Lewis and treat it as if I'd made it is beyond insulting. For all his popularity and grasp of certain topics, Lewis couldn't think his way out of an open gate.

I will say that it's worth noting that Stephanie has elided the vast majority of this section, in which what follows directly after the cutoff point made the following clear:

What my argument was actually dealing with was not the existence of pain, but God's own actions in causing suffering. What's really interesting is that, in this section, Stephanie quotes the book of Job. Let that sink in for a minute. Remember that this book deals with the horrendous treatment of one of God's most faithful for a fucking bet. He completely fucks Job over, killing all his family and subjecting him to misery, just so that he could wave his cock about in front of Satan.

Oh but,' the apologist will say, 'he gave him a new family afterwards' as if that makes it all OK again. Moral arbiter of the universe? Do me a fucking lemon.

Moreover, it constitutes nothing more than preaching, and I have no intention of giving it oxygen.
Argument on vicarious redemption: “I alone must bear the burden – whatever that might be – for the things I’ve said and done. The idea that I could simply divest myself of this responsibility is anathema to me, as it should be to any entity with any moral rectitude. This, completely aside from the accompanying suggestions that a) this occurs with absolutely no input from me concerning my desires in this regard and b) that the process for this has precisely nothing to do with my contributions to society and the well-being of humanity, relies only on believing in an entity that, should it actually be worthy of the appellation ‘deity’, should have neither want nor need of my belief or, indeed, my worship.” Tony goes on to say that humans invented this notion as a means of scapegoating.

Tony is correct in his assertion we should hold ourselves accountable. God also holds us accountable though He gave us free will to make choices that sometimes go against His will.

The Parables of the Lost Sheep... [and other biblical and apologetic drivel snipped]

In summary, the atonement was complementary to the gift of free will. It was not simply a means by which early societies scapegoated God to absolve themselves of their sins.
This completely fails to address the argument. All else aside, the statement that I go on 'to say that humans invented this notion as a means of scapegoating' is a misrepresentation of what I actually said, and doesn't deal with the objection in any way, because it fails to address the immorality of divesting oneself of one's sole responsibility for one's deeds. 

Pure misdirection.
Argument on the coexistence of evil: “Observation tells us that evil exists as defined above. In this context, there can be no entity that has all three of those omnis and for evil to still exist. If an entity knows all about evil, has the power to stop it, and doesn’t, it isn’t benevolent, let alone omnibenevolent. If it’s omnibenevolent and omniscient and doesn’t, it can’t, thus it isn’t omnipotent. If it’s omnipotent and omnibenevolent and doesn’t, it’s ignorant. This exhausts the possibilities, and shows that no entity with all three attributes can co-exist with evil.”

Some skeptics justify their lack of belief in God with the assertion that evil exists.
I know of no sceptic who does this, and I certainly don't. My lack of belief doesn't require justification beyond the fact that I'm a sceptic. The null is the rebuttable position for any given claim, and no justification for holding to the null in the absence of supporting evidence is required. That's why we refer to it as the logical default, because that's what it is. 

The 'assertion' (as if an assertion is all it is) that 'evil' exists is not a justification for not believing, it's a counter to the claim that God knows what's going on, cares about our well-being and has the power to do something about it. 
They make the monumental assumption that God’s goals are necessarily our goals. They question why God, who has the power to stop evil, doesn’t do so at times.
No, they make no assumptions, and they don't question why god doesn't do so 'at times', they question why he doesn't do so ever. This is not an argument against the existence of God, it's an argument against some of the purported characteristics of God.
They question human suffering stemming from tragedies such as the massacres in Manchester and Las Vegas and devastation from hurricanes in Texas, Puerto Rico, and Florida.
Again, this misses the point of such questioning. These events make perfect sense on a dynamic planet populated with fallible humans, but none whatsoever on a planet ruled over by an all-powerful entity who knows what's going on and actually gives a shit.
To understand this issue, we need to examine the purpose of good and evil. The world isn’t a perfect place because if it were, we could never grow the sorts of characteristics needed to be more consistent with the example of Jesus Christ. We’re here to grow and learn from our mistakes, because learning from our mistakes is what helps us to grow. We’re here to persevere through pain, to show empathy around those in need, to demonstrate faith when tested. In other words, we’re tested in all sorts of ways to grow characteristics like determination, faith, perseverance, empathy, and love. How could we ever truly understand love if we hadn’t experienced its counterpart? How could we ever develop hope if we never had anything for which to hope? How could we ever develop humility if we had never been humbled? So, the fact that the Lord has put us into a world with all of these yin and yang sorts of good and evil characteristics is to improve us and make us more like Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
Pure preachy nonsense, with no logical content whatsoever. 

As it happens, I have no use whatsoever for the terms 'good' and 'evil', as I also detail in the post that Stephanie purports to refute. They suggest the existence of moral absolutes, which is a complete nonsense. I dealt with that notion at great length here.
Argument on free will: “The sceptic will argue that omniscience and free will are not compatible, because omniscience entails determinism.”

Determinism is the concept that God has preconceived of our lives, so skeptics argue that God cannot have omniscience while granting us free will if our lives have been predetermined. This is a complex concept to understand, so I’ve tried to slowly unpack the answer.

By understanding unbounded time, we can better understand God’s omniscience and the free will He has bestowed upon us. Omniscience means that God is all-knowing. Skeptics often conflate His knowledge with His control over us, thinking that for God to be all knowing, He must have control over our actions. He must have predetermined our lives.

Alternatively, I suggest that the reason God knows our future is not because He’s controlled our future, but because He’s seen our future. Just as a journalist can skip through the pages of the newspapers in which she has published, moving back and forth in time, God can move back and forth in time. So, the real time that constrains us does not constrain Him. He sees our decisions and actions and knows whether we’ll be in the Lamb’s Book of Life, not because He’s predetermined our destiny, but because He has watched us as we exercise our free will through the lens of unbounded time. Furthermore, God is always in the present, yet He is unbounded by linear time so He is concurrently in our future and our past. According to Revelation 1:8, the Lord God “who is and who was and who always will be.”
Wow! It's almost like Stephanie either didn't read or didn't understand the argument I presented! How can that be?

The simple fact is that she's erecting an objection that I already addressed. You can tell, because I knocked down the suggestion that my argument commits the modal fallacy*. One can only come away with thinking that Stephanie doesn't known and didn't bother to find out what any of that means or what the modal fallacy is, which again goes to her competence to even approach the debate table of somebody well-versed in logic. 

It's worth a tiny diversion here to point out that Stephanie didn't actually address the content of my argument or even cite it, she simply took my statement about what a sceptic would say and then ran with that as if it constituted the entirety of what I had to say on the subject.

Suggesting that God's knowledge doesn't constitute his control of the future as an objection to my argument is precisely to accuse me of committing the modal fallacy, when I expressly debunked the notion that I was committing this fallacy in the very post she purports to rebut. The failure of logic here is complete. 

I suggest to Stephanie that, rather than looking merely at the statement of the problem, she actually look at the full argument. It's an essential rule of debate-centred discourse that you actually pay attention to what you're arguing against and be certain you fully understand it prior to formulating a response, and certainly prior to crowing in public about how you've refuted anything.

No, God's omniscience entails determinism not because he causes it to be, but because he has perfect future knowledge, thus the future is fixed. It isn't a requirement for him to have fixed it, only that it is fixed and, because his knowledge is allegedly perfect, cannot turn out another way.
C.S. Lewis described this concept this way: “Our life comes to us moment by moment. One moment disappears before the next comes along; and there is room for very little in each. That is what time is like. And of course you and I take it for granted that this time series – this arrangement of past, present, and future – is not simply the way life comes to us but the way things really exist…But many learned men do not agree with that. It was the theologians who first started the idea that some things are not in time at all: later the philosophers took it over: and now some scientists are doing the same. Almost certainly, God is not in time…If a million people are praying to Him at ten-thirty tonight, He need not listen to them all in that one little snippet which we call ten-thirty. Ten-thirty – and every other moment from the beginning of the world – is always present for Him.”

This is a difficult concept for some to grasp, but according to C.S. Lewis, it fits within Christianity. People may choose to ignore the concept, which is fine, yet it serves to understand several important aspects of God and the free will He has bestowed upon us.
And still wondering why we should be interested in what Lewis has to say about anything. This is not a difficult concept for me to grasp, not least because I understand time a good deal better than Lewis did, not least because I have access to all of 20th century science on the topic, while he did not.

The ontology of time is not known, nor will it or can it ever be, I suspect. Treating it as a settled question is asinine. If you speak to those who actually work in the field, they can't even tell you with any certainty what time is, so for Lewis, a complete novice in the this respect, to assert that time works this way or that way is beyond asinine and wandering into the realm of the utterly fucking stupid.

In summary, it seems apposite to classify Stephanie's outing in the immortal words of physicist Wolfgang Pauli:

Das is nicht nur nicht richtig, es is nicht einmal falsch!


I look forward to any cogent objections, but I don't intend to give Stephanie any more space here unless she presents something that's actually worthy of my attention, which this was not. You'll all forgive me, I hope, if I allow respiration to continue operating within normal parameters in the interim.

Thanks for reading.

Further reading on cosmology
It Wasn't Big, and it Didn't Bang
You Must Be Off Your Brane!
The Certainty of Uncertainty

*The modal fallacy is a fallacy of scope. Properly, this fallacy is committed when the distinction between contingency and necessity is overlooked. In logic, necessity is a technical term, distinct from the vernacular definition, denoting that something cannot fail to obtain. in other words, in the language of possible worlds, there is no possible world in which something that is necessary can fail to be the case. Contingency is a term meaning that the obtaining of one thing is reliant on the truth of something else. Sceptics are often accused by apologists with a little training in logic of committing the modal fallacy in treating free will and omniscience, because they assume that determinism is contingent on god's omniscience. In fact, it's precisely the opposite, in that omniscience is contingent upon determinism. You cannot have perfect future knowledge without the future being set.

On the Shoulders of...

Those who have learned to walk on the threshold of the unknown worlds, by means of what are commonly termed par excellence the exact sciences, may then, with the fair white wings of imagination, hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst which we live - Ada Lovelace

Earlier this week was Ada Lovelace Day and, after my last outing, which was emotionally draining and took some recovery, I thought I'd do something a little more pleasant and cobble together a quick tribute to women in STEM to celebrate. I started, some time ago, to write a post about the unsung heroes of science. It's a massive topic, for fairly obvious reasons, but even I didn't realise just how massive. Just in researching one of the people I'd intended to write about, it quickly became apparent that a post was simply insufficient to even begin to broach the subject, and the idea has burgeoned into a book, or possibly a series of books. Almost all of the people that I wanted to include in that post were women, not least because, despite genuinely Earth-shattering contributions to the sciences, they seem to be equally Earth-shatteringly under-reported which, in my opinion, is nothing short of criminal. It's a sad and damning testament to the attitude of society that most of the women here are hardly known outside scientific circles.

Research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics has traditionally been dominated by men. This is not, as one might think, because these aren't suitable topics for girls, or because girls shouldn't worry their pretty little heads about them, despite what you may have heard. Some of the most important people in the history of these fields have been, and continue to be, women. Still they're horribly under-represented in these areas of academia.

Don't let that put you off, though. It can be hard, but only you, by taking up these subjects and excelling in them as we know you can, can make the difference and begin to erode the dominance of men. You can do this, by being the difference you (and we) want to see in the world.

So here's my little tribute to the awesome women who've made essential contributions, to science especially, as that's what I know best. Let it stand as a flavour of what's to come.


I'm going to start with one of the great heroes of physics and mathematics.

Amalie Emmy Noether was born in Erlangen, Germany in 1882, and her story is one of those that should inspire, yet she's little known outside the sciences. The daughter of an autodidactic mathematician, Max Noether, whose own contributions to mathematics were substantial, most notably in algebraic geometry, Emmy originally qualified as a teacher of English and French. She decided, however, to pursue the study of mathematics, and attended Erlangen University. At that time, women were allowed to study at university only at the discretion of the professors delivering the courses. Eventually finishing her dissertation in 1907, she worked at Erlangen for the next seven years without pay. 

In 1915, David Hilbert and Felix Klein invited her to the University of Göttingen, then a world-renowned centre of mathematical research. Because of objections by faculty of the philosophy department, she gave lectures under Hilbert's name for four years - again unpaid - until the approval of her habilitation in 1919, which allowed her to become a doctoral supervisor. Emmy didn't actually get paid for her lectures until the creation of a special title 'algebra lecturer' in 1923.

Noether went on to have major impact on various fields in mathematics and physics, notably abstract algebra, topology, Galois theory, and many other areas. I'll briefly come back to this to show just how profound her influence was, and how that influence still impacts discoveries being made today.

Her biggest contribution was a unification of disparate concepts in physics, collectively known as 'conservation laws'. Anybody who's done any study in physics at any level at all has come across these, but it's worth a little unpacking. First, though, on the route to understanding, we need to talk about symmetry. This takes us a little off course but I think it's worth it, because it will give greater clarity later on.

Symmetry is one of the most important concepts we discuss, not just in STEM, but outside it as well. Art, architecture, music... However, it also plays massively important roles in biology, chemistry and all areas of nature. Where it takes on the deepest meaning, however, is in modern physics.

We all remember, I'm sure, learning about symmetry in maths class. For some of us, that requires a pretty long memory. It's not a difficult concept to grasp in its most basic terms. 


Picture a square. Draw lines that bisect it exactly, and you can see the lines of symmetry. We think of it as all the places you can fold it exactly in two. This is a good guide to symmetry, but it doesn't really capture the essence of what symmetry is. Think, instead, of each of those lines as an axis about which the square can be rotated and still look exactly the same when you're done. This also applies to rotation about the axis going from front to back through the centre of the square.

Now pick the square up, move it one metre to the right, and drop it again. You'll see that, aside from its location, it looks exactly the same as it did in the original location. This is also a feature of symmetry.

In the jargon, changes to a system are known as 'transformations'. A symmetry, then, is any instance of a transformation that has no effect on the outward result. This is going to become important, as we explore other, slightly less obvious symmetries.

Two of the most important of these symmetries were first formalised by Galileo Galilei, famed for dropping balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa (although this tale is almost certainly apocryphal) and for getting into hot water with the church for suggesting that the Earth wasn't the centre of the universe. He noted that any experiment conducted facing East, to pick a direction at random, should yield precisely the same results as the same experiment conducted facing West, or indeed any other direction. You should easily be able to see the parallel here, and precisely why this is the same kind of symmetry as rotating that square about any given axis. As one might expect, this is a case of rotational symmetry in precisely the same way. 

The second of these important insights was that an experiment conducted in Pisa should yield exactly the same result as the same experiment conducted in Rome. This is a slightly different kind of transformation, so it isn't immediately obvious how this relates to symmetry. In this case, we're looking at an instance of what's known in the jargon as 'translational symmetry', and it exactly reflects the act of picking up the square and moving it a metre. 

So, what about conservation laws? 

The first one of these to appreciate is probably conservation of momentum, as it's one we all have some experience of. This law is expressed in Newton's First Law of Motion thus:
In an inertial frame of reference, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.
This is, of course, the modern statement of it, as Newton's original formulation is problematic, especially in dealing with rigid bodies, deformable bodies and other things such as non-inertial frames, but this is what we're all familiar with. Mathematically, it can be expressed (for completeness) in the form:

\(\sum F=0 \Leftrightarrow \dfrac {dv}{dt} = 0\) 

This assumes a constant non-zero mass. In natural language, if the vector sum of all forces acting upon a body is zero, then the velocity of the body remains constant. Remember that velocity is a vector quantity, meaning that it has both magnitude and direction, thus the velocity can change even while the speed - a scalar quantity having only magnitude - remains unchanged.

Confused? Wondering what all this has to do with symmetry?


Enter Emmy Noether.

David Hilbert, widely regarded as probably the most influential mathematician of the early 20th century, along with Felix Klein, formulator of the Klein bottle, one of the possible solutions to the topology of the universe, invited Noether to Göttingen to help the to understand Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, as her expertise in invariance, they hoped, would help them to grapple with it. Hilbert had noted that conservation of momentum seemed to be violated by it, because it suggested that gravitational energy could gravitate. Noether resolved this apparent paradox and, along with it, provided one of the fundamental tools of modern theoretical physics. Along the way she laid the groundwork for what ultimately became the research that won this year's Nobel prize for physics; gravitational waves.

What Noether did, in a nutshell, was to unify all symmetries under a single framework and, in so doing, tied them all together, along with all conservation laws. In particular, her first theorem shows that every single differentiable symmetry was a manifestation of some conservation law, and vice versa.

"Well," you might say, "so what?"

It's difficult to express just how important this idea is. It's especially important because symmetries and the breaking thereof are among the most important concepts in physics. Why do we inhabit a universe dominated by matter? CPT symmetry violation. Why can nothing travel faster than lightspeed?  Lorentz invariance symmetry. Rotational symmetry is conservation of angular momentum, the same principle that relates the orbital velocity of the moon to the area of the wedge swept out in a given period of time. Translational symmetry is conservation of momentum, the same principle underpinning Newton's First Law above. Here's a table of exact conservation laws and their respective symmetries.



It really is impossible to overestimate the contribution Emmy Noether made to modern physics and, frankly, I could carry on in this vein for hours (and that's without even leaving her first theorem, which is a tiny portion of her contribution), but I really must crack on, because there are still quite a few to talk about. I'm not going to cover any of them in quite this detail, but Emmy was worth it, and it's a travesty that her name is so little-known outside academic circles. As far as I know, no complete biography of her exists for adults, only two children's books. I highly recommend finding out about her and her many contributions to science and mathematics.

So, let's move on and look at some other amazing women in science. 

Next up, somebody whose influence on the modern world is difficult to calculate. Her work was not only the foundation of the nuclear age, it ultimately killed her. I'm talking, of course, about the most successful person in the history of the Nobel foundation's prizes for science, Madame Marie Curie.


Thankfully, this is at least a name that most are familiar with. Born in Poland, then a kingdom of the Russian Empire, to two teachers, Marie studied initially in the famous 'Flying University', an underground academic establishment rooted in traditional Polish scholarship and resistant to the ideologies of first the Prussian and later the Russian authorities.

She later moved to Paris, following her sister Bronislawa, and completed her studies. She was a pioneer in the study of radioactive materials and discovered two new elements, both radioactive. The second of these, radium, became ubiquitous in commerce, because it was luminescent. It found its way into paints used on watch and clock faces, all kinds of beauty products, and even toothpaste. This, of course, was before it was properly understood how damaging radiation is to living cells.

Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel prize and the first person to win two - still the only woman to have done so, which is fairly damning in and of itself. She also remains the only person to have won Nobel prizes in two different scientific disciplines, sharing the 1903 physics prize with her husband Pierre and physicist Henri Becquerel, whom we met briefly in Calilasseia's wonderful guest post on radiometric dating, and winning the 1911 prize for chemistry in her own right. Indeed, Curie's family won a total of five Nobel prizes between them, making them a remarkable family by any measure.

She was a pioneer in isolating radioactive elements, coined the term 'radioactivity', developed mobile X-Ray technology for field hospitals during World War I, and founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw. These are still pioneering centres of medical research to this day.

Curie died in France in 1934 of aplastic anaemia, a direct result of her research in radiation and her work in field hospitals during the war. The influence of her work underpins much of the modern world, not least in nuclear weapons and energy, as well as having huge relevance in areas such as the aforementioned radiometric dating.

Next up, something of an oddity that many will have heard of in a completely different context. 


Hedy Lamar was an Austrian actress and one of the most popular leading ladies in Hollywood in the thirties and forties. She starred alongside some of the biggest names in the history of film, including Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, George Sanders and Bob Hope.

What's not widely known about her is that she was also something of an inventor. Largely autodidactic, she dabbled in quite a few things. She attempted to invent a tablet that, when dissolved in water, could carbonate water. She made improvements to stop lights, and she did some self-study in aerodynamics which aided Howard Hughes in improving his aircraft designs, being largely responsible for the earliest curved wing designs to aid efficiency.

During WWII, she learned that the torpedoes in use at the time, radio controlled, could be fairly easily jammed, which meant that they could be driven off course and fail to hit their targets. Borrowing on knowledge she'd picked up from her first marriage to Austrian arms manufacturer Friedrich Mandl, she had the idea of a frequency-hopping system that would allow torpedoes to modulate their control frequencies, thereby hampering attempts to jam them. With her friend, pianist George Antheil, she developed a miniaturised pianola mechanism with radio signals. This device was patented in 1942, although implementation was problematic, so it wasn't used during the war. However, an updated version of the same device appeared on US Navy ships from 1962. 

In 1997, she was co-recipient of the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award along with Antheil, and they were both inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

I'm going to move on to another pioneer of modern science that has sadly been largely overlooked.

Since the publication of Darwin's epic work in 1859 that identified the process that directs evolution, and the work by Gregor Mendel in quantifying heredity, the race was on to identify the precise mechanism which drove the inheritance of traits. Only a decade later, in 1869, Friedrich Miescher, a Swiss surgeon, isolated a 'microscopic substance' in the nuclei of cells in pus from discarded bandages. Due it's source, he named it 'nuclein'. Less than a decade later again, Albrecht Kossel isolated nucleic acid and identified the five primary nucleobases. Then in 1919, Phoebus Levene, a Lithuanian born American, pinned down the nucleotide unit of base, phosphate and sugar.

Discoveries proceeded at a pace until, in 1952, Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase - the latter being yet another overlooked name in science but for whom we have insufficient space here - finally confirmed the role of DNA in heredity. Only a year later, Francis Crick and James Watson, working at the famed Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, published work identifying the helical structure of DNA.

It's fairly well-known by now that their work would have been impossible without the input of somebody else, then working as a research associate in X-Ray crystallography at King's College, London. That researcher is, of course, Rosalind Franklin. This is, at least, a name that most will have encountered. It was her imaging studies and, in particular, one image, photo 51, that gave them the much-needed clue. It's been suggested that this picture was actually taken from her drawer without her knowledge by Maurice Wilkins, though there is some doubt as to the veracity of this claim. It's certainly the case that it was Franklin's work, and especially a lecture she delivered in November 1951 at King's College, dealing with two forms of the DNA molecule and in which she specified the water content of the molecule - critical to molecular stability - and the fact that the phosphates were located to the outside of the molecule, were crucial to all later constructions.

Crick and Watson received the 1962 Nobel prize for chemistry. The rules of the Nobel society prohibit posthumous awards and, sadly, Franklin had died of ovarian cancer in 1958, aged only 37 years old. To be fair to Crick and Watson, both men acknowledged that Franklin should have received a Nobel for her contribution, had it been worn prior to her death.

It's worth noting that her work also included major contributions to the structure of viruses, among other things, and that these contributions were at least recognised in her lifetime.

Next, another favourite of mine, and again at least one that many have heard of although, I suspect, that's more to do with how the discovery that made her famous was initially interpreted.

Born in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, Jocelyn Bell first became interested in astronomy while her father, an architect, was working on Armagh Planetarium. Unfortunately, girls weren't allowed to study science, but her parents were having none of that, and just as well. Jocelyn went on to study physics and, as a post-graduate, was working on a radio telescope that she'd worked on the construction of with her thesis advisor, Antony Hewish. While analysing data sets, she discovered a strange repeating signal that, due to its regularity, was thought to be of non-natural origin, much like the submarine pulsing in The Hunt For Red October. Once terrestrial sources were ruled out, this left only extra-terrestrial intelligence as a candidate, because no natural source was known that could emit a signal with such regularity. The source of the discovery was dubbed LGM-1 - 'little green men'. Of course, as we now know,  this turned out to be a previously unobserved type of star, a pulsar, which is a star made primarily of neutrons, rotating rapidly and beaming out radio jets, hence the regularity of the radio pulses.

Hewish was awarded the 1979 Nobel prize for physics (along with astronomer Martin Ryle), for his work in the development of radio aperture synthesis that made the discovery possible, but Bell was excluded from the award. She went on to have a distinguished career and, despite the exclusion, has no regrets about it.

Just room for one more, and this is a really special one. 

During the fifties and sixties, the US and the USSR were locked in a war of ideology. This war played out on many fronts, but perhaps the front on which they waved their todgers about the most was the space race.

Now, getting to space, even low-Earth orbit, is no trivial matter. The technological challenges in this were absolutely colossal. The Germans had made a good deal of headway in rocketry during WWII, and of course many of the scientists, not least Werner von Braun, the father of rocketry, had ended up in the employ of the Americans, so the foundations were pretty much in place.

What's not immediately obvious to a non-scientist is the enormous amount of mathematics involved, in calculating trajectories, mass to fuel-mass ratios to ensure sufficient fuel not just to get off the planet but also to return safely.

This is where our next hero comes in. 

Katherine Johnson, in her own words 'grew up counting everything'. She showed a gift for mathematics even as a young girl in Greenbrier County W.Va. Her parents arranged for her to attend high school in a neighbouring county, as Greenbrier didn't offer public schooling to African-Americans beyond 8th grade. She graduated high school at 14, and earned degrees in mathematics and French by 18 at West Virginia State College. After teaching for two years in a black public school, she entered a graduate programme at West Virginia University in Morgantown, the first African-American woman to do so, though she became pregnant after a year and dropped out.

In 1958, she heard at a family event that the organisation that would eventually become NASA were hiring mathematicians, She applied and was taken on as a 'human computer'. This was extremely advanced work, plotting trajectories, and she was responsible in large part for the success of the American space programme. Most of this was in a time when segregation was still rife, in a sphere dominated by men.

Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by Barack Obama.

I'll leave it there, other than to say she wasn't alone in this journey, much of which can be seen in the fantastic Hidden Figures, starring Taraji P. Henson as Johnson.

Finally, I'm just going to list some of the incredible women who've contributed to STEM fields with some of their achievements, many of which have gone largely unnoticed by the general public.

Henrietta Leavitt - Discovered the relationship between the period and luminosity of cepheid variable stars. This discovery allowed them to be used as 'standard candles', meaning that they could be used for distance calculations beyond the limits of parallax, and eventually paved the way for Hubble's observation that the universe is expanding.

Lise Meitner - Co-led the team, along with Otto Hahn, that discovered fission of uranium under absorption of an additional neutron. Her work with Hahn, and further work with Otto Frisch, was the foundation of our understanding of fission, and led directly to the nuclear bomb and fission reactors used in the generation of power un nuclear power stations. Element number 109 in the periodic table is named after her. She also wasn't included in the nomination for the Nobel prize granted for this work, the 1944 prize for chemistry that was awarded to Hahn.

Dorothy Vaughan - Supervisor for NASA. One of the female computers responsible for calculations involved in space missions. When her department was being disbanded, she taught herself COBOL programming language so that she could operate the newly-installed digital computers at NASA. Also a subject of the film Hidden Figures mentioned above, played by Octavia Spencer.

Mary Jackson - Engineer for NASA. One of the female computers for NASA mentioned above, and the final subject of the film Hidden Figures, played by Janelle Monáe. Can't recommend this film highly enough.

Dorothy Hodgkin - British chemist who developed X-Ray crystallography and discovered the three-dimensional structure of biomolecules, including penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin. She was awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1964.

Vera Rubin - American astronomer whose pioneering work in the rotation rates of galaxies produced the discovery of a discrepancy between observed angular motion and the theoretical predictions of General Relativity, as discussed in an Scale Invariance and the Cosmological Constant. This was one of the great paradigm shifts in our understanding of the constituents of the universe.

And finally...

Just a few words about the woman at the head of this post.

Ada Lovelace was a mathematician and logician, and the first person to recognise the potential for computers to solve analytical problems beyond mere calculation. She worked with Charles Babbage on his 'analytical engine', a mechanical computer. As the writer of the first true computer algorithm - a means for the analytical engine to compute Bernoulli numbers, she was the world's first computer programmer. In notes she prepared for a lecture on the analytical engine in Turin, she wrote:
"it might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine...Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent."
I'm going to finish with some shoutouts to notable women around today who might, should things not improve considerably as one hopes they will, be the unsung heroes of the future. Here's to hoping that that doesn't happen, and that women and other minorities find their places at the table in precisely the manner they deserve. What I've represented here is a tiny taste of the incredible work that women have done in the furtherance of science, often without the recognition that any man could expect for a similar contribution. This has to change, because science progresses fastest and brings the greatest benefit when every capable mind is given licence to explore. I'm going to restrict myself to the marvellous women I follow on twitter in STEM and scicomm, and I recommend you follow them all. 

I also hope that anybody reading this will leave some more names in the comments. Tell us about your favourite women in STEM, what they do, and how we can access their work.

Dr Janna Levin - Cosmologist at LIGO. Work has been historically focussed on nontrivial topologies of the universe, and implications for the size of the universe, specifically whether it's finite. Author of the marvellous Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space, a history of LIGO from first concept to gravitational-wave detection, the discovery that won this year's Nobel in physics (unfortunately not for Dr Levin).

Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein - Theoretical astrophysicist working in early universe cosmology, cosmic expansion and acceleration and dark matter. Staunch advocate and mentor to minority students, and vocal activist for equality in and out of the sciences.

Dr Yana Weinstein - One of my favourite tweeps, whom we've met in several past outings (she always brings me the best WOTI*), Doctor Why is aptly named. She questions everything. Quite literally. Founding partner of Learning Scientists, who we met in Does My Class Look Big in This? along with the equally brilliant Dr Meghan Sumeracki they, with their partners Dr Cindy Nebel and Dr Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel, are behind a quiet revolution in education. Their evidence-based techniques and strategies for learning and retrieval are gently but forcefully shaking up the way we think about learning. Their techniques are being used and lauded by teachers all over the world.

Prof. Alice Roberts - Palaeopathologist, osteoarchaeologist, every other kind of biologyologist, author, TV presenter and merciless debunker of creationist woo, as well as Professor for Public Engagement in Science at Birmingham University. 

Dr Katie Mack - Astrophysics research fellow focussing on dark matter at University of Melbourne.

Dr Clara Nellist - Particle physicist working on the ATLAS project at CERN.

Dr Sarah Tuttle - Instrumental astrophysicist working on novel approaches to imaging diffuse matter.

I'm going to leave this here, but I may update this with other awesome and kickass women in STEM. If this is a topic that interests you, I have another article about an amazing project bringing STEM education to young women (and young men) in Kenya, which you can find HERE.

Maybe you, too, can appear in an article like this in the future. Or maybe, just maybe, you can be the woman who doesn't need an article of this nature, because you've managed to shatter all the barriers and show that all minds are needed to better progress in science.

Thanks for reading, and don't forget to leave comments about the women in STEM fields that inspire you.


*Wrong On The Internet - somebody always is.