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Jean M
04-14-2013, 05:22 PM
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22105898

Galileo was a great scientist partly because he wasn't afraid to admit when he was wrong, argues Adam Gopnik, who only wishes some of the people who write to him could do the same.


When you write for a living, over time you learn that certain subjects will get set responses. You're resigned to getting the responses before you write the story. If you write something about Shakespeare, you will get many letters and emails from what we call the cracked (and I think you call the barking), explaining that Shakespeare didn't write the plays that everyone who was alive when he was, said he had.... The oddest response, though, is if you write making an obvious point about an historical period or historical figure, you will get lots of letters and emails insisting that the obvious thing about the guy or his time is completely wrong.

Now these letters and emails come more often from the half-bright, some of them professional academics, than from the fully bonkers or barking. You can tell the half-bright from the barking because the barking don't know how little they know, while the half-bright know enough to think that they know a lot, but don't know enough to know what part of what they know is actually worth knowing.

Not long ago, for instance, I wrote an essay about the great Galileo, and the beginnings of modern science. I explained, or tried to, that what made Galileo's work science, properly so-called, wasn't that he was always right about the universe (he was very often wrong) but that he believed in searching for ways of finding out what was right by figuring out what would happen in the world if he wasn't.

One story of that search is famous. When he wanted to find out if Aristotle was right to say that a smaller body would always fall at the same speed as a larger body, he didn't look the answer up in an old book about falling objects. Instead, he threw cannonballs of two different sizes off the Tower of Pisa, and, checking to make sure that no-one was down there, watched what happened. They hit the ground at the same time. ...

In that essay I wrote about Galileo I compared him to John Dee, the famous English magician, alchemist and astrologer, who was one of his contemporaries who was also a consultant to Queen Elizabeth I, and who read everything there was to read in his time and knew everything there was to know in the esoterica of his time - but didn't know what was worth knowing.

He knew a lot about Copernicus, for instance, but he also spent half his life trying to talk to angels and have demons intervene to help him turn lead into gold.

Well, it turns out that John Dee the magician and astrologer has his admirers - indeed his web pages and his fan clubs and his chatboard, just like Harry or Liam or Justin - and they took up the cause of the old alchemist with me. How dare you knock John, his fans, some of them half-bright, some of them just a little, well, barking, insisted. Wasn't he a formidably erudite man particularly on just those subjects - stars and orbits and falling objects - that Galileo cared about too? Why shut him out of the scientific creed.

Well, that was the point I was making. And it seems to me worth making again - and then again and then again. It just can't be made too often.

The scientific revolution wasn't an extension in erudition. It involved instead what we might call a second-order attitude to erudition - and if that sounds fancy, it just means the human practice of calling bull on an idea which you think is full of it, and being unafraid to do so...

Entertaining piece.

MikeWhalen
04-14-2013, 07:40 PM
excellent piece, pity the ones who need to read it most, will never think its about them

M

apophis99942
07-20-2013, 08:11 AM
"Astrology" that is based on actual scientific method is closer to the natural sciences; I know of no one who denies, for example, the impact the Moon has on oceans. We would call that astronomy or something very near to it. This is what is seen in a farmer's almanac. It has a root in Ptolemaic reasoning and is often referred to as "natural astrology".

The common part of astrology is at best "sacerdotal" and has been largely supplanted by fields such as psychology and electrical engineering.

lgmayka
07-20-2013, 05:47 PM
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22105898
Entertaining piece.
Entertaining because the writer is guilty of precisely what he criticizes. The writer repeatedly accepts the conventional "wisdom" of his social group without ever bothering to compare it against actual scientific or historical research. The writer is himself an excellent example of the "half-bright" but actually quite ignorant person he despises.

Here are two examples:

- The writer takes it as a given (i.e., without historical research) that the American Civil War was about slavery, and viciously ridicules anyone who disagrees. Most American high schoolers are correctly taught what historical research indicates: That although the South was preoccupied with maintaining its "peculiar institution" of slavery (http://sunsite.utk.edu/civil-war/reasons.html), the majority of Northerners considered other issues more pressing (at least partly due to ignorance of how bad conditions in the South really were). Four Northern states maintained the institution of slavery throughout the war. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Britain_in_the_American_Civil_War#Slavery) Lincoln himself was, at least initially, primarily concerned with maintaining the Union intact as an example of republican democracy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Britain_in_the_American_Civil_War#The_Emancipation _Proclamation), slavery or no. Perhaps only in his Second Inaugural Address (http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres32.html), when the war was almost over, did Lincoln publicly proclaim that the (permitting of the) Civil War was a Divine punishment for the moral horror of slavery:
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Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
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And of course, the British came close to entering the American Civil War on the side of the South (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/03/books/review/book-review-a-world-on-fire-by-amanda-foreman.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0), according to some historians, despite the prior abolition and public abhorrence of slavery in Britain.

- The writer refers to Galileo's Simplicio as "the original half-bright guy." In actuality, Galileo has Simplicio make the most profound statement about both science and theology in the entire book (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/horizon/sept98/galileo.htm):
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If God had wanted to make Earth's waters move in a way other than by making Earth move, Simplicio says, He certainly could have done so -- "Upon which I forthwith conclude that, this being granted, it would be an extravagant boldness for anyone to limit and confine the Divine power and wisdom to one particular conjecture of his own." The "particular conjecture" to which Simplicio is referring, of course, is the Copernican system.

Simplicio's closing statement doesn't sound very explosive. It seems likely that Galileo felt the same way. Yet Galileo's enemies later convinced Urban that, if the statement came from Simplicio's mouth, Galileo's intent must have been to make fun of it and, worse, of Urban himself.

Galileo was strong-minded but not stupid. The problem was that Simplicio's assertion had been a standard papal argument and censors had directed Galileo to include it in the book. Clearly, in Galileo's thinking, the argument had to come from Simplicio. Conceivably, Galileo forgot that the argument had been Urban's.
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Simplicio is correctly pointing out that science can never claim to have arrived at the final, absolute truth. That is not science's goal, and it does not have the means to achieve it anyway. Science searches for models that explain past observations and predict future behavior; therefore a scientist must always consider the possibility that future observations may require adjustments or even radical changes to the previous model.

Historians, similarly, have no direct "window" to the past. They must rely on surviving evidence--for the most part human testimony, which may be incomplete, incorrect, or even deliberately untruthful. Recommended reading is "History Is Written by the Winners," by George Orwell (http://alexpeak.com/twr/hiwbtw/).

Jean M
07-20-2013, 06:40 PM
Gopnik was born in Philadelphia and reared in Montreal. His parents, Irwin and Myrna Gopnik, were professors at McGill University, from which Gopnik graduated (BA). He has an MA in art history. He is the author of Angels and Ages: A short book about Darwin, Lincoln and modern life (2010), which points out the many viewpoints on Lincoln. I think we can take it that he is well aware of the history of the American Civil War, and using that as an illustration precisely because


If you write about Abraham Lincoln and emancipation, you'll be bombarded, on a Fort Sumter scale, with people telling you that the American Civil War wasn't really fought over slavery.

If every US high school student is being taught that slavery was not the only factor, we cannot be surprised that people absolutely rush in their thousands to point this out, smug in their self-satisfaction at knowing (they think) more than this chap with a funny name who writes for the New Yorker. But the point is that a history of emancipation which ignores the American Civil War, treating it as irrelevant, because (what clever clogs we are) we know it wasn't fought over slavery, would be a silly history.

lgmayka
07-21-2013, 02:38 PM
If every US high school student is being taught that slavery was not the only factor, we cannot be surprised that people absolutely rush in their thousands to point this out, smug in their self-satisfaction at knowing (they think) more than this chap with a funny name who writes for the New Yorker.
My point is that the author is the smuggest, most self-satisfied, and therefore in one sense the most ignorant of the bunch. He uses one of the most anti-scientist, anti-historian words of all: obvious. Whatever he has chosen to believe is "obvious," and everyone who disagrees with him is "half-bright."

Your own post, Jean M, attempts to defend the author in two ways: (1) by citing his academic credentials, essentially the argument-from-authority (as if "authorities" are never wrong and never arrogant!); and (2) by drastically changing the meaning of his own words, in order to make him sound more reasonable and less haughty. I will quote his own words:
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The oddest response, though, is if you write making an obvious point about an historical period or historical figure, you will get lots of letters and emails insisting that the obvious thing about the guy or his time is completely wrong.
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Beyond the specific issues he cites is the utter arrogance of insisting that his views are "obvious," and that he is therefore exempt from any need to put forth evidence and debate counter-evidence.

Jean M
07-21-2013, 09:27 PM
I simply cited his background and one relevant publication to make clear the extreme unlikelihood of your claim that Adam Gopnik had done no research on the American Civil War. I am not arguing from authority that he must be right on the specifics of the causes of the war, on which he advances no argument. His piece is higher-order reasoning i.e. thinking about thinking and how we know what we know. It is not a piece about the American Civil War.

Let me use a different example of the phenomenon he discusses. It is absolutely obvious to the average man in the street that a medieval castle was built for defense. It is so obvious that you might think no-one could argue with this. You would be wrong. The half-bright breed of academic loves to show himself (he imagines) superior to those clods in the street by writing learned tomes arguing against the obvious. Did you know that some castles never actually faced a siege in their whole history? Did you know that they could act as estate headquarters? Do you understand the power of the status symbol? Oh golly you ignorant man in the street you, this academic knows much better! This is a classic case of knowing enough to think they know a lot, but being unable to see the wood for the trees. The medieval castle is exactly what it looks like. If it worked well enough to deter people from attacking in the first place, all the better! And of course it had other uses. People don't make war all the time. But let's not miss the obvious right in front of us complete with drawbridge and handy nooks for archers by getting all caught up in the Yuletide merriment in the Great Hall. :)

TigerMW
08-07-2013, 04:58 PM
... If every US high school student is being taught that slavery was not the only factor, we cannot be surprised that people absolutely rush in their thousands to point this out, smug in their self-satisfaction at knowing (they think) more than this chap with a funny name who writes for the New Yorker. But the point is that a history of emancipation which ignores the American Civil War, treating it as irrelevant, because (what clever clogs we are) we know it wasn't fought over slavery, would be a silly history.

I don't care one iota about Gopnick, one way or the other, although I agree with the general premise that people should strive for objectivity in decision-making and discovery, thereby trying to avoid assumptions.

I think there is another lesson in here. The truth isn't simple and oftentimes we can summarize sound bites, as politicians and the media seem to best, in ways that end up being misperceived.

It would be silly to say that the Civil War was fought only over slavery. It would also be silly to say that issues over slavery were not relevant to the causes of the Civil War. We can discuss this more deeply, but hopefully we all agree on these two points.

Any simplistic summary statement to say the Civil War was fought or not fought over slavery can not easily communicate the complexities of the situation. One could preface such a summary statement with research, i.e. polls that show the majority opinion of people in the northern states thougt the abolition of slavery was worth fighting a war over. If that poll had been done, there would be more credence in the simple summary statement attributing the war to it.

I don't know what the answer would have been in such a Civil War era poll, however, that poll would only be one measurement. A poll counting heads does not show the depth of emotion and energy that a minority can generate to induce action. I will cite the pre-war abolishment movement.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Brown_%28abolitionist%29
John Brown is one of my favorite characters, but not necessarily out of admiration. In 1859, abolitionist John Brown led the raid at Harper's Ferry against a US Federal armory. Can you imagine that? That's suicidal. Of course, he was tried and hung but he lives on in the "John Brown song" that eventually turned into the "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Some may consider the song propaganda, but emotional responses elicited were very real.

So what was the Civil War fought over? ... probably different things to different people, but abolitionism was an important causal factor in building coaltions at the time.

apophis99942
08-12-2014, 12:15 AM
A note about astrology. It appears that a form of it does not include the retrograde movement of planets. But do planets in actual astronomy retrograde?

VinceT
08-12-2014, 01:48 AM
OT:

A note about astrology. It appears that a form of it does not include the retrograde movement of planets. But do planets in actual astronomy retrograde?
Yes and no. Apparent retrograde motion is an artifact of perception (i.e. a body in orbit appears to reverse direction momentarily due to positional change of the observer in relation to the target and the background - see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72FrZz_zJFU), but can also be actual physical phenomena, i.e. if a body ejected from a foreign system is captured into orbit by another in a direction opposing the prevalent rotation of the capturing system.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retrograde_and_prograde_motion

warwick
08-12-2014, 02:13 AM
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22105898

Galileo was a great scientist partly because he wasn't afraid to admit when he was wrong, argues Adam Gopnik, who only wishes some of the people who write to him could do the same.



Entertaining piece.

He's a very intelligent journalist but he's not a scholar or specifically qualified in science or history. It's a very interesting piece on science by someone who's never actually done any science.

Jean M
08-12-2014, 10:40 AM
There has been interesting follow-up, summarised by historian of science Darin Hayton: http://dhayton.haverford.edu/blog/2014/03/


A year ago Adam Gopnik hailed Galileo as the founder of modern science and defender of free rational thought. Historians of science took him to task for his depiction. Gopnik (like Soter) defended his characterization of Galileo, lambasting the “half-bright” pedants and dullards in the process, eliciting yet a further reply from historians, e.g., this one. Two months later, science writer Ed Yong linked to and praised Gopnik’s piece: “Galileo was a great scientist because he wasn’t afraid to admit when he was wrong. If only more of us did the same.,” sparking another response from Thony C.


He concludes:


The flat earth is another episode that gets recycled, despite popular and scholarly work refuting it (I’ve ranted about the power of the flat earth myth).

Unfortunately, I fear these rearguard efforts will have no more effect this time than they have had in the past because they fail to provide readers and audiences with something. It’s easy to be condescending, to dismiss these triumphalist distortions of the past as reassuring modern audiences of their superiority. But such an approach is not helpful. Those of us who get worked up over the Cosmos’s version of Bruno or Obama’s invocation of Columbus and the flat earth or Gopnik’s use of Galileo come off sounding like churlish pedants who have missed the forest of truth for the trees of irrelevant detail.

Rather than righting all the wrongs, perhaps we should start telling our own stories in compelling ways.

warwick
08-12-2014, 04:02 PM
He just was wrong:


Gopnik ignores considerable recent work on Galileo—noted by Henry Cowles—and dismisses both Mayer’s work and historical scholarship more broadly (in language reminiscent of Roger Highfield’s):

http://dhayton.haverford.edu/blog/2013/02/06/gopnik-on-galileo/

He makes the same types of errors that he criticizes in others, which include commenting on the history of science when he himself is not familiar with the scholarship, which is in keeping with much scientific journalism, which has shallow depictions of science and its history.

It matters when you write a piece in a major magazine of record, such as the New Yorker, and are wrong. Likewise it matters when people claim the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, although slavery was not the only factor, and, they haven't read recent historical scholarship on the period.

This is a problem that occurs when journalists summarize the history of science; they claim erudition that they do not have, and don't acknowledge their errors. Likewise, there is often sloppy reporting of recent scientific findings. It matters, and it is not pedantic to criticize, because he reports the history improperly, and that reflects laziness, i.e. he couldn't be bothered to familiarize himself rigorously with the academic literature. He's not an authority, and that's the problem. He claims a false authority on the subject.

Also, we have a recurring problem in which journalists, who seek celebrity over journalistic rigor, read a few items on a subject, declare themselves experts, and then publish in major journals or newspapers of record. There's a good reason to defer to an academic who has spent a lifetime specializing in a subject. Otherwise, often, history is distorted by popular, journalistic accounts by writers in well-known publications.

Jean M
08-12-2014, 04:41 PM
He just was wrong.

But in what way? Are you saying that Galileo was not a scientist? Are you saying that Galileo should not be held up as an example of the scientific approach? Or are the points upsetting to academics the kind of nuance that it would take a PhD thesis to really get into? Or worse, the artificial products of a system that rewards originality, however absurd.

Academic fury over popular accounts has a cure. From the same blog post you cite:


It’s all too easy to criticize Gopnik’s essay, but maybe there’s another way to look at Gopnik’s piece. What was Gopnik trying to accomplish in writing his essay? Why did he bother? Why did The New Yorker publish this essay? What is Gopnik’s and The New Yorker’s audience looking for in such an article? Maybe we should try to avoid our reflex to criticize and, instead, adopt Lynn Nyhart’s suggestion: “Instead of noticing (and complaining about) science writers who take our best material and get it not-quite right, we could sometimes choose–and then learn–to write the way they do.” That’s not to say we should forgive Gopnik his missteps, mischaracterizations, misleading over simplifications, misinformation, and mis-whatever-the-error, but to acknowledge that he’s doing something we are not.

warwick
08-12-2014, 04:43 PM
But in what way? Are you saying that Galileo was not a scientist? Are you saying that Galileo should not be held up as an example of the scientific approach? Or are the points upsetting to academics the kind of nuance that it would take a PhD thesis to really get into? From the same blog post you cite:

If he ignores recent scholarship, which he did, then he is guilty of the same issues that he criticizes, such as ignoring recent scholarship on the Civil War.

That essay wouldn't get a good grade in an undergraduate history of science course at Harvard, because you have to be familiar with the literature, even as an undergraduate.

warwick
08-12-2014, 04:46 PM
But in what way? Are you saying that Galileo was not a scientist? Are you saying that Galileo should not be held up as an example of the scientific approach? Or are the points upsetting to academics the kind of nuance that it would take a PhD thesis to really get into? From the same blog post you cite:

If he ignores recent scholarship, which he did, then he is guilty of the same issues that he criticizes, such as ignoring recent scholarship on the Civil War.

When you do this
Gopnik ignores considerable recent work on Galileo you don't do well even in an undergraduate history course.

Jean M
08-12-2014, 05:34 PM
If he ignores recent scholarship, which he did, then he is guilty of the same issues that he criticizes, such as ignoring recent scholarship on the Civil War.


So in fact you don't know of anything he actually got wrong. You are taking the word of someone else that something or other was missing from the piece. No surprise. It was an article in the New Yorker. I have written popular pieces for magazines of a few hundred words. Its an art. You know from the start that this cannot include everything ever written on the topic. It cannot include everything you the writer know about the topic. You have to condense with minimum actual distortion, which is not easy. You have to have something to say and get your points across in a lively way.

Some people popularise simply to make money and have little regard for the truth. They are deservedly criticized in academia. Others popularise because they feel that their research is not really part of the body of knowledge if almost nobody knows about it. Someone I knew well was passionately committed to popularising his discipline because he felt it would otherwise not get funded and not attract new students. The general public had to be engaged with the subject. He succeeded brilliantly.

lgmayka
08-12-2014, 05:39 PM
Galileo, like so many scientists today, was obstinately reluctant to admit he was or even might be wrong (http://thonyc.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/gopnik-galileo-and-ed-yong-galileo-not-admitting-being-wrong/).
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Such speeches have had historians of science all over the Intertubes banging their heads against the wall in collective displays of disbelief because even a cursory survey of the history of science would show that the exact opposite is true, scientists hang on to their cherished theories until the bitter end against all sorts of opposition and refuting evidence and Galileo is a prime example of such behaviour.
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Before Galileo had finished writing his Dialogo Kepler had already delivered his three laws of planetary motion thus completely refuting the Platonic axiom. Kepler’s laws were strict mathematical laws derived from Tycho Brahe’s empirical observations. Here was modern science in action if ever there was and Galileo ignored it clinging to the clearly refuted Greek orthodoxy, why?
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Kepler’s work on the planetary orbits was a much better and more convincing argument for heliocentricity than anything Galileo had produced. In fact it was the Epitome Copernicanae combined with Kepler’s Rudolphine Tables that led to the acceptance of heliocentricity in the seventeenth century and not Galileo’s work. If Galileo were to include Kepler’s work in his Dialogo then he would be merely the messenger and not the creator so he simply ignored it and stuck to the Platonic axiom that he knew to be wrong.
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In 1618 a spectacularly bright comet was visible over Europe, which was of course carefully observed by nearly all the leading astronomers. One notable exception was Galileo who because of ill health had been unable to take part in the observations...Asked for his opinion on the nature of the new comet Galileo, who as already noted actually knew nothing about it, took the strange step of attacking the Jesuit astronomer Orazio Grassi who had carefully observed the comet and based on his observations had correctly calculated that the comet was a supra-lunar celestial body. Galileo now claimed that Grassi was wrong and presented what was in essence the out dated and discredited Aristotelian theory that comets were sub-lunar meteorological phenomena...Here is Galileo bizarrely lecturing Grassi that investigations of nature must be empirical and mathematical in a situation where Grassi’s investigations were just that and Galileo’s own were definitely not...He had to win the argument at all costs even if he was horribly wrong.
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As formulated by Galileo/Sarpi there would only be one tide a day but as every coastal inhabitant knows there are two. There is also another problem for this theory there already existed a better theory to explain the tides, a theory that we now know to be true; they are caused by the moon.
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Galileo is convinced that his theory of the tides can deliver the empirical proof he so desperately needs for heliocentricity. If it were true then it would indeed the only such proof he has to offer. All the other arguments he marshals in his masterpiece are suggestive that heliocentricity might be a viable alternative but none of them is a proof or anything remotely like it. He needs his theory of the tides. He spent thirty years trying to cure its very obvious defect and failed but he is still not prepared to abandon it. Now as already pointed out there existed a much better empirically based explanation for the tides the lunar theory, one that for example Kepler backed. It of course lacked an explanatory mechanism but one could set up a research programme based on the concept of attractive forces, an idea that Kepler was already playing with, to find that mechanism, which is of course exactly what Newton did. If however Galileo accepted the greater plausibility of the lunar tide theory then his only “proof” of heliocentricity was down the drain so we look for a reason to reject it.
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Jean M
08-12-2014, 05:54 PM
@lgmayka - You win! ;) Or rather Thony C does.

warwick
08-12-2014, 06:20 PM
Galileo, like so many scientists today, was obstinately reluctant to admit he was or even might be wrong (http://thonyc.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/gopnik-galileo-and-ed-yong-galileo-not-admitting-being-wrong/).
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Such speeches have had historians of science all over the Intertubes banging their heads against the wall in collective displays of disbelief because even a cursory survey of the history of science would show that the exact opposite is true, scientists hang on to their cherished theories until the bitter end against all sorts of opposition and refuting evidence and Galileo is a prime example of such behaviour.
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Yes, thanks for that. Thomas Kuhn also makes the same point with respect to resistance to new paradigms.

apophis99942
09-07-2014, 02:41 AM
Thank you. But how then should astronomy be used? Our concept of time is that time goes only one direction - forward. How can a planet observed from the same point on Earth at the exact same time be in two different places on different astronomical/astrological charts? Which chart would be most credible and why?

Pardon me, as I simply want to posit the questions and I do not really expect comprehensive answers to them yet.

apophis99942
01-01-2015, 03:15 AM
Here's a thought.

Is it smarter to send human DNA to i.e. Mars by remote device and have its changes monitored from here rather than trying to risk human lives trying to colonize new planets so soon?

IMO there's a lot that we don't know about how human DNA transforms under new planetary conditions.