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"OH WATERS, TEEM WITH MEDICINE TO KEEP MY BODY SAFE FROM HARM, SO THAT I MAY LONG SEE THE SUN." - Rig Veda
HERE's a fact to flatter the unbelievers among you: the bright young things at the University of Oxford are among the most godless groups ever studied in the UK. Of 728 students surveyed in 2007, 48.9 per cent claimed not to believe in any god, with 49.6 per cent claiming no religious affiliation. And while a very small number of Britons typically label themselves as "atheist" or "agnostic" (most surveys put it at about 5 per cent), an astonishing 57.3 per cent of the Oxford sample did.
This may come as no surprise. After all, atheism is the natural stance of the educated and the informed, is it not? It is only to be expected that Oxford students should be wise to what their own professor Richard Dawkins calls "self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery" - and others call "faith". The old Enlightenment caricature, it seems, is true after all: where Reason reigns, God retires.
Of course, things are never quite that simple. Within the sample, for instance, the postgraduates (that is, the even-better educated) were notably more religious than the undergraduates, in terms of both belief in God and self-description. Although the greater number of non-Europeans in the postgraduate population is almost certainly a significant factor here, evidence from elsewhere backs the idea that there is no straightforward relationship between atheism and education.
Let's look at some results from the World Values Survey, an international attempt to assess the global state of socio-cultural, moral, religious and political values. The 2005 results show that while there is a clear positive correlation between education and lack of belief in God, the effect is slightly weaker, not stronger, among those with a university education (14.8 per cent were non-believers) compared with those whose highest attainment was secondary level (17.2 per cent).
What is more, the survey shows a far stronger correlation between education and certain "irrational" beliefs: for example, only 29.6 per cent of those without even an elementary education believe in telepathy, compared with 51.8 per cent of people with degree-level education.
Ironically, sociologists, psychologists, economists and, particularly, cognitive anthropologists have become so skilled at explaining why humans seem to have such a widespread bias towards theistic beliefs that a new question readily presents itself: if religion comes so naturally to us, why are so many people, especially in western Europe, apparently resistant to it? In the UK, for example, a sizeable 43 per cent said they had "no religion" in the 2008 BSA survey.
What we need now is a scientific study not of the theistic, but the atheistic mind. We need to discover why some people do not "get" the supernatural agency many cognitive scientists argue comes automatically to our brains. Is this capacity non-existent in the non-religious, or is it rerouted, undermined or overwritten - and under what conditions?
While Bousso was working on his observer's-eye view of the multiverse, cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin of Tufts University in Boston was formulating another approach to the global picture. Vilenkin, too, had become dissatisfied with past approaches to measure making, and had decided there had to be a better way. Together with Jaume Garriga of the University of Barcelona in Spain, Vilenkin thought there might be some clues in an earlier breakthrough made by Argentinean physicist Juan Maldacena at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
Maldacena had been working with string theory to build model universes when he made a startling discovery. He found a model in a bizarrely shaped universe with five dimensions that is exactly equivalent to a simpler model on its four-dimensional boundary. This is a classic example of what is known as the "holographic principle", the idea that for a space in any number of dimensions, all the physics inside that space can be encoded on its outer boundary in much the same way that a two-dimensional hologram on a credit card can encode all the information about a 3D object.
Vilenkin and Garriga figured the entire multiverse must similarly have a holographic image living on its boundary (arxiv.org/abs/0905.1509). In the case of the multiverse, though, the boundary is not a frontier in space, but in time, infinitely far into the future. Could it hold a uniquely defined measure for the multiverse?
Before Mars can become the next great frontier for human exploration, we need to send more robotic missions to gather as much information as possible about our planetary neighbor. But what kind of robot has the right combination of weight, cost and range, while still being able to carry out groundbreaking science?
Cue the Tumbleweed Mars rover, an ingenious concept vying for attention in the hope of becoming an entirely different method to explore vast regions of the Martian surface, one that rolls across the surface instead of six-wheeling.