The Trouble With Trolleys

Listening the other day to BBC Radio 4, the UK’s national talk radio station, I caught the end of one of those strange shows that attempt to prove that being intellectual can be cool. (As usual, it failed dramatically to do so.) Called The Philosopher’s Arms, it is supposed to be set in a pub and features audience interaction that involves clinking cutlery on glasses. Really. I usually change channel as soon as I come across it.

This time, though, the subject was trolley ethics, which I find fascinating, so I gritted my teeth and kept listening. My hope was that a big problem with the best-known example of this philosophical discipline would be explored. Sadly, though, it was left undiscussed.

There are plenty of variants on trolley ethics, but they all involve thought experiments to explore a human dilemma. As the name suggests, these experiments feature a trolley. (In the UK we’d call it a tram.)

The idea is that a trolley is out of control, running along a downhill track. You are sitting in a control room where you can press a button to change the direction of a switch (points) in the track. If you take no action, —> Read More Here

Brazil Creates Amazon Rainforest Reserve Larger Than Delaware

SAO PAULO, Oct 21 (Reuters) – The Brazilian government said on Tuesday it has put an environmentally rich area of the Amazon rainforest under federal protection, creating a reserve larger than the U.S. state of Delaware.
The new reserve, called Alto Maues, has 6,680 square km (668,000 hectares or 1.65 million acres) of mostly untouched forests that are not known to have human presence, the Brazilian Environment Ministry said.
Declaring a federal reserve means forest clearing and similar development are forbidden.
Putting large areas of mostly intact rainforest under federal protection is one of the tools the Brazilian government has to combat deforestation and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
The creation of these reserves is part of the country’s climate policy. Deforestation is the main cause of carbon —> Read More Here

Iso-Propyl Cyanide Detected in Star-Forming Region Sagittarius B2

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array have detected an unusual carbon-based molecule called iso-propyl cyanide (i-C3H7CN) in Sagittarius B2, a giant molecular cloud of gas and dust located 27,000 light-years from Earth and just 390 light-years from the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. The search for molecules in space began in the 1960s, [...] —> Read More Here

Science, Religion and the Assumptions We Make

One of the great advantages of being a Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican Observatory is that, since we are supported by the Church, we don’t have to worry about writing proposals, sitting on committees or even teaching classes. We can concentrate on doing interesting, long-term scientific projects.

Of course, we do have our own personal commitments. I live in a community of a dozen Jesuit priests and brothers (most of us with doctorates in astronomy or related fields), and as a community we care for each other… picking up a fellow Jesuit at the airport, or taking an elderly brother to a doctor’s appointment. But generally our vow of celibacy means that we’re free to go where the work calls us, whether it’s traveling to conferences or staying late in the lab. We don’t have to worry about a child with the flu or a spouse’s job search.

There is one call on our time, however, that my married colleagues don’t face. It’s the emails and letters we receive, regularly, asking us about our lives of science and faith.

Of course, the whole reason the Vatican established a Vatican Observatory was to show the world that the Church supports science. Answering that —> Read More Here

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