Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Was Noah's Ark a Sperm Bank?

"And God said unto Noah, [..] make thee an ark [..] the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits." (Gen. 6:13-15)

A cubit is the distance between an adult's elbow and tip of the finger, approximately 45 cm. The ark was thus 135 meters long, 22.5 meters wide, and 13.5 meters high. These are presumably outer measures, and hence the habitable volume of the ark could not have been much more than 35000 cubic meters.

Even the most conservative estimates state that there are at least two million species of animals alive today, and surely a comparable number of plants, fungi, etc. A large fraction of species live in water, but could not survive if their ecosystem would suddenly submerge a mile deep - according to the bible even high mountains were submerged. There are approximations that the number of species of a given body length L is proportional to L raised to some power between -1.5 and -3. For example, if we use the frequent choice of -2 and we knew there is one 10-meter long species, then there are 100 one-meter species, ten thousand 10-centimeter species, etc. If we limit the species size to a tenth of a millimeter (for example, assuming evolution (!) will sufficiently rapidly reproduce the smaller species), approximate that species are half as wide and high as they are long, and integrate the product of volume and number of species over the species length, we obtain a total volume of approximately 125000 cubic meters.

We have already exceeded the available volume in the ark by a factor of 3.5, and we are yet to cram in the other sex and enough food for animals and soil for plants for the 150 days the bible says Noah sailed. Remember also that God required Noah to provide accomodation for his extended family, and in order to avoid extinction by inbreeding, he would have had to take tens if not closer to a hundred individuals of all other species as well. All this is a little too impressive for a six hundred year old man.

Unless Noah was in fact history's first documented case of sperm banking. If a small forest of Giant Sequoias were a challenge to fit in the ark, a sachel of fist-sized cones or a teaspoon of seeds would not. A rough calculation shows that all necessary genetic material could easily be fitted in a negligible part of the ark leaving the rest free for all the technology needed for recolonization, deep-freezing sperm, artificial wombs and all the other technology necessary to recreate mammals without living parents. That's truly impressive technology, but far more plausible than the alternative. And hey, the guy was six hundred years old - that's plenty of time to write any number of dissertations on all required fields, and a good reason to become a drunkard afterwards, like Noah did.

In fact I predict that this will be the method that humans will use should we some day colonize other stars systems. We will send unmanned ships ahead, and once they reach their destination we submit by radio (or laser) the genetic information, culture, and without a doubt a large number of software updates to the distant ships.

But there's still something fishy about Noah and the ark. Noah had sent out pigeons to search for land. When the waters abated and the ark hit mount Ararat one pigeon came back with an olive leaf. However, here lies a contradiction: olive doesn't grow high on Ararat and all ground-level olives must have rotten by then.

My Alma Mater

I graduated and now work in the Helsinki University of Technology (HUT). Since 2003 Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University has maintaned a yearly ranking of the 500 best universities in the world. We were ranked as 371st, 349th, 446th, and last year 447th in an unfortunate declining trend.

Surely this must only be a coincidence with the rampant managerialism we have experienced at my Alma Mater. In a few years we've been blessed with several administrative procedures for determining salaries, counting working hours, managing travels, and accepting bills, just to name a few. The least common denominator of all these systems is that they are rigid, vaguely documented, self-contradictory, their IT implementations suck big time, and they cause a huge net increase in management work of really annoyed professors and other staff who really should concentrate on teaching and research instead.

No wonder the Shanghai list ranks us low because our own salary policies rank our degrees even lower: our M.Sc.'s teaching courses, working in or leading a research project can be paid from 50-75% of the salary paid to a person in a non-teaching position with the lowest job grade requiring a corresponding degree, typically a non-science degree from another university. For example, at default performance Linus Torvald's salary could be at most 2178 euros per month, or roughly $40000 a year, whereas if he (or some bureaucrat) neither taught nor researched he would be paid at least 2931 euros per month. No surprize that the name of this new salary system, UPJ, is widely used as a profanity among current teachers and anybody trying to recruit competent personnel to a (practically oriented) research project.

And in accordance to the Parkinson's Law the administration is growing rapidly. In addition to increasingly filling the days of teachers and researchers, administration is a major recruiter of new people. I listed every open position at HUT closing on the second half of 2006 or the first half of 2007 as they appeared on the official recruitment page. I ignored part-time positions, graduate schools and stipendiates and counted only "serious" jobs. Considering the main function of our university it was surprizing to see that barely half, 83, of the 160 positions were primarily for teaching and research. Furthermore, 62% of the 77 non-teaching positions were tenure positions, which is significantly higher than the 25% of HUT overall.

I also wish to bring into our memories the intelligent design conference that was held in the Helsinki University of Technology on the 22nd of October 2004. Our ranking on the Shanghai list dropped by nearly 100 positions in the next update.

But maybe there's hope. There are still able and hard-working people here, and in a few years HUT will be merged with two other universities and funded by a foundation with a significant industrial contribution. Some see that as a threat to academic freedom, but I'm hopeful that the board of the foundation may have the courage to tackle the managerialism and let the able and hard-working people focus on the real work: teaching and research.