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Posts Tagged ‘science’

27 AUGUST, 2012

Richard Feynman on the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society

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“In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar — ajar only.”

“I fully expected that, by the end of the century, we would have achieved substantially more than we actually did,” lamented original moonwalker Neil Armstrong, who passed away at the age of 82 last week. Implicit to his lament is the rather unsettling question of why — what is it that has held mankind back?

That’s precisely what the great Richard Feynman explored when he took the stage at the Galileo Symposium in Italy in 1964 and delivered a lecture titled “What Is and What Should Be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society,” published in the altogether excellent The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library), titled after the famous film of the same name.

Feynman shares in Armstrong’s dirge:

We are all saddened when we look at the world and see what few accomplishments we have made, compared to what we feel are the potentialities of human beings. People in the past, in the nightmare of their times, had dreams for the future. And now that the future has materialized we see that in many ways the dreams have been surpassed, but in still more ways many of our dreams of today are very much the dreams of people of the past.

He attributes much of this disconnect to a profound lack of mainstream understanding of and enthusiasm for science, making a case for the wonder of science:

… people — I mean the average person, the great majority of people, the enormous majority of people — are woefully, pitifully, absolutely ignorant of the science of the world that they live in, and they can stay that way … And an interesting question of the relation of science to modern society is just that — why is it possible for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modern society when so much knowledge is unavailable to them?

Incidentally, about knowledge and wonder, Mr. Bernardini* said we shouldn’t teach wonders but knowledge.

It may be a difference in the meaning of the words. I think we should teach them wonders and that the purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more. And that the knowledge is just to put into correct framework the wonder that nature is.

He goes on to take a jab at just how unscientific pop culture is — and how culturally condoned certain unscientific beliefs are:

… as I’d like to show Galileo our world, I must show him something with a great deal of shame. If we look away from the science and look at the world around us, we find out something rather pitiful: that the environment that we live in is so actively, intensely unscientific. Galileo could say: ‘I noticed that Jupiter was a ball with moons and not a god in the sky. Tell me, what happened to the astrologers?’ Well, they print their results in the newspapers, in the United States at least, in every daily paper every day. Why do we still have astrologers?

[…]

I believe that we must attack these things in which we do not believe. Not attack by the method of cutting off the heads of the people, but attack in the sense of discuss. I believe that we should demand that people try in their own minds to obtain for themselves a more consistent picture of their own world; that they not permit themselves the luxury of having their brain cut in four pieces or two pieces even, and on one side they believe this and on the other side they believe that, but never try to compare the two points of view. Because we have learned that, by trying to put the points of view that we have in our head together and comparing one to the other, we make some progress in understanding and in appreciating where we are and what we are. And I believe that science has remained irrelevant because we wait until somebody asks us questions or until we are invited to give a speech on Einstein’s theory to people who don’t understand Newtonian mechanics, but we never are invited to give an attack on faith healing, or on astrology — on what is the scientific view of astrology today.

The solution he proposes pits good science writing and critical debate as the necessary prick in the filter bubble of public interest:

I think that we must mainly write some articles. Now what would happen? The person who believes in astrology will have to learn some astronomy. The person who believes in faith healing might have to learn some medicine, because of the arguments going back and forth; and some biology. In other words, it will be necessary that science become relevant.

[…]

And then we have this terrible struggle to try to explain things to people who have no reason to want to know. But if they want to defend their own point of view, they will have to learn what yours is a little bit. So I suggest, maybe incorrectly and perhaps wrongly, that we are too polite. There was in the past an era of conversation on these matters. It was felt by the church that Galileo’s views attacked the church. It is not felt by the church today that the scientific views attack the church. Nobody is worrying about it. Nobody attacks; I mean, nobody writes trying to explain the inconsistencies between the theological views and the scientific views held by different people today–or even the inconsistencies sometimes held by the same scientist between his religious and scientific beliefs.

(Granted, since 1964, we’ve seen the rise of “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism” — Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris — who, along with countless scientists, consistently ensure a constructive lack of “politeness” in the debate.)

Feynman also reiterates a crucial point about the nature and purpose of science and critical thinking — the role of ignorance and the importance of embracing uncertainty, met with enormous resistance in a culture conditioned for grasping at answers:

A scientist is never certain. We all know that. We know that all our statements are approximate statements with different degrees of certainty; that when a statement is made, the question is not whether it is true or false but rather how likely it is to be true or false. ‘Does God exist?’ When put in the questional form, ‘how likely is it?’ It makes such a terrifying transformation of the religious point of view, and that is why the religious point of view is unscientific. We must discuss each question within the uncertainties that are allowed.

[…]

We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and there is no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty. People are terrified — how can you live and not know? It is not odd at all. You only think you know, as a matter of fact. And most of your actions are based on incomplete knowledge and you really don’t know what it is all about, or what the purpose of the world is, or know a great deal of other things. It is possible to live and not know.

Feynman concludes by doing what he does best, bridging science and philosophy to expand the specific question into a broader meditation on human existence:

So today we are not very well off, we don’t see that we have done too well. Men, philosophers of all ages, have tried to find the secret of existence, the meaning of it all. Because if they could find the real meaning of life, then all this human effort, all this wonderful potentiality of human beings, could then be moved in the correct direction and we would march forward with great success. So therefore we tried these different ideas. But the question of the meaning of the whole world, of life, and of human beings, and so on, has been answered very many times by very many people. Unfortunately all the answers are different; and the people with one answer look with horror at the actions and behavior of the people with another answer. Horror, because they see the terrible things that are done; the way man is being pushed into a blind alley by this rigid view of the meaning of the world. In fact, it is really perhaps by the fantastic size of the horror that it becomes clear how great are the potentialities of human beings, and it is possibly this which makes us hope that if we could move things in the right direction, things would be much better. What then is the meaning of the whole world?

We do not know what the meaning of existence is. We say, as the result of studying all of the views that we have had before, we find that we do not know the meaning of existence; but in saying that we do not know the meaning of existence, we have probably found the open channel — if we will allow only that, as we progress, we leave open opportunities for alternatives, that we do not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth, but remain always uncertain — [that we] ‘hazard it.’ The English, who have developed their government in this direction, call it ‘muddling through,’ and although a rather silly, stupid sounding thing, it is the most scientific way of progressing. To decide upon the answer is not scientific. In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar — ajar only. We are only at the beginning of the development of the human race; of the development of the human mind, of intelligent life — we have years and years in the future. It is our responsibility not to give the answer today as to what it is all about, to drive everybody down in that direction and to say: ‘This is a solution to it all.’ Because we will be chained then to the limits of our present imagination. We will only be able to do those things that we think today are the things to do. Whereas, if we leave always some room for doubt, some room for discussion, and proceed in a way analogous to the sciences, then this difficulty will not arise. I believe, therefore, that although it is not the case today, that there may some day come a time, I should hope, when it will be fully appreciated that the power of government should be limited; that governments ought not to be empowered to decide the validity of scientific theories, that that is a ridiculous thing for them to try to do; that they are not to decide the various descriptions of history or of economic theory or of philosophy. Only in this way can the real possibilities of the future human race be ultimately developed.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is a treasure trove of genius in its entirety — highly recommended.

* Chairman of the conference

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22 AUGUST, 2012

Ray Bradbury’s Unpublished Poems and His Meditation on Science vs. Religion

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“It is a small thing, this dear gift of life handed us mysteriously out of immensity.”

We recently took a trip back to the day before NASA’s Mariner 9 mission reached Mars in 1971, when Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury — whom we lost just a few short months ago — joined New York Times science editor Walter Sullivan in a remarkably prescient conversation about Mars and future of space exploration, later released as Mars and the Mind of Man (public library). Among the day’s many gems were three unpublished poems by Ray Bradbury, which he shared with the audience, alongside a poignant meditation on science vs. religion — a subject we have far from put to rest since:

In the last few years, I have found myself returning again and again to the problem of science and theology. This problem has thrust itself into the center of a series of poems I have written. I have for some time now thought that the conflict between religion and science was a false one, based, more often than not, on semantics. For when all is said and done, we each share the mystery. We live with the miraculous and try to interpret it with our data correctors or our faith healers. In the end, survival is the name of the game.

One upon a time we created religions which promise us futures when we knew there were no possible ones. Death stared us in the face, forever and ever.

Now, suddenly, the Space Age gives us a chance to exist for a billion or two billion years, to go out an dbuild a heaven instead of promising one to ourselves, with archangelic hosts, saints waiting at Gates, and God pontifical on his Throne.

This second* poem of mine is titled ‘Old Ahab’s Friend and Friend to Noah Speaks His Piece.’ It is written from the viewpoint of the whale speaking to future men, telling them they must build a whale and live inside it and go out into space in it and travel through time to survive forever. Here is the conclusion of the poem:

I am the Ark of Lie. You be the same!

Build you a fiery whale all white.

Give it my name.

Ship with Leviathan for forty years

Until an isle in Space looms up to match your dreams,

And land you there triumphant with your flesh

Which works in yeasts, makes wild ferment,

Survives and feeds

On metal schemes.

Step forth and husband soil as yet untitled,

Blood it with your wives, sow it with seeds,

Crop-harvest it with sons and maiden daughters,

And all that was begat once long ago in Earth’s strange waters

Do recall.

The White Whale was the ancient Ark.

You be the New.

Forty days, forty years, forty-hundred years,

Give it no mind;

You see. The Universe is blind.

You touch. The Abyss does not feel.

You hear. The Void is dear.

Your wife is pomegranate. The stars are lifeless and bereft.

You smell the Wind of Being.

On windless worlds the nostrils of old Time are stuffed

With dust and worse than dust.

Settle it with your lust, shape it with your seeing,

Rain it with your sperming seed,

Water it with your passion,

Show it your need.

Soon or late,

Your mad example may imitate.

And gone and flown and landed there is White Whale craft,

Remember Moby here, this dream, this time which does suspire,

This kindling of your tiny apehood’s fire.

I kept you well. I languish and I die.

My bones will timber out fresh dreams,

My words will leap like fish in new trout streams

Gone up the hill of Universe to spawn.

Swim o’er to stars now, spawning man,

And couple rock, and break forth flocks of children on the plains

On nameless planets which will now have names;

Those names are ours to give or take.

We out of Nothing make a destiny,

With one name over all

Which is this Whale’s, all White.

I you begat.

Speak then of Moby Dick,

Tremendous Moby, friend of Noah.

Go Go now.

Ten trillion miles away,

Ten light-years off,

See from your whale-shaped craft;

That glorious planet!

Call it Ararat.

(The poetic picture of the phoenix-whale Bradbury paints is reminiscent of the beautiful Whale Fall cut-paper animated short for Radiolab.)

* Bradbury shared another poem, which remains his best-known, earlier in the discussion:

IF ONLY WE HAD TALLER BEEN

O, Thomas, will a Race one day stand really tall
Across the Void, across the Universe and all?
And, measure out with rocket fire,
At last put Adam’s finger forth
As on the Sistine Ceiling,
And God’s great hand come down the other way
To measure Man and find him Good,
And Gift him with Forever’s Day?
I work for that.
Short man. Large dream. I send my rockets forth
between my ears,
Hoping an inch of Will is worth a pound of years.
Aching to hear a voice cry back along the universal Mall:
We’ve reached Alpha Centauri!
We’re tall, O God, we’re tall!

Lastly, in the “Afterthoughts” section of the book, in which the panelists revisit the subject a year after the Mars mission, Bradbury shares one final poem, touching once again on the subject of the mysterious:

THAT IS OUR EDEN’S SPRING, ONCE PROMISED

What I to apeman
And what then he to me?
I an apeman one day soon will seem to be
To those who, after us, look back from Mars
And they, in turn, mere beasts will seem
To those who reach the stars;
So apemen all, in cave, in frail tract-house,
On Moon, Red Planet, or some other place;
Yet similar dream, same heart, same soul,
Same blood, same face,
Rare beastmen all who move to save and place their pyres
From cavern mouth to world to interstellar fires.
We are the all, the universe, the one,
As such our fragile destiny is only now begun.
Our dreams then, are they grand or mad, depraved?
Do we say yes to Kazantzakis whose wild soul said:
God cries out to be saved?
Well then, we go to save Him, that seems sure,
With flesh and bone not strong, and heart not pure,
All maze and paradox our blood,
More lost than found,
We go to marry stranger flesh on some far burial ground
Where yet we will survive and, laughing, look on back
To where we started on a blind and frightful track
But made it through, and for no reason
Save it must be made, to rest us under trees
On planets in such galaxies as toss and lean
A most peculiar shade,
And sleep awhile, for some few million years,
To rise again, fresh washed in vernal rain
That is our Eden’s spring once promised,
Now repromised, to bring Lazarus
And our abiding legions forth,
Stoke new lamps with ancient funeral loam
To light cold abyss hearths for astronauts to hie them home
On highways vast and long and broad,
Thus saving what? Who’ll say salvation’s sum?
Why, thee and me, and they and them, and us and we…

And God.

He concludes with this exquisite meditation on mankind’s timeless quest for immortality. (Which leads one to wonder whether today’s singularity set is any different from history’s religious cults, grasping at promised lands underpinned by little more than the very human and very vulnerable fear of mortality, of ceasing to exist and refusing to believe in nonexistence.)

The universe is full of matter and force. Yet in all that force, amongst all the bulks and gravities, the rains of cosmic light, the bombardments of energy — how little spirit, how small the decimal points of intelligence.

Dumb, sometimes — yes. Awful, quite often. Dreadful apish brutes on occasion following occasion. That’s how we things that represent intelligence seem to ourselves, and quote often truly are.

And yet I would not see our candle blown out in the wind. It is a small thing, this dear gift of life handed us mysteriously out of immensity. I would not have that gift expire. Crossing the wilderness, centuries ago, men carried in covered cows’ horns the coals of the previous nights’ fires to start new fires on the nights ahead. Thus we carry ourselves in the universal wilderness and blow upon the coals and kindle new lives and move on yet once more.

[…]

Why, sweet Jesus, what’s the use of looking at Mars through a telescope, sitting on panels, writing books, if it isn’t to guarantee, not just the survival of mankind, but mankind surviving forever! Good God in heaven, we were born to live, and live in mystery, which crowds all about and would smother us if we let it.

[…]

Some of you will immediately say we go to pollute Mars. You are the people who see a partially filled glass as half empty.
I see the glass as half full.
I say we go to save Mars from itself.
And do ourselves favors, meanwhile.

Paradoxically stated: what is not polluted is elevated. I live inside the last word.

Hear Bradbury read in this short excerpt from the panel:

More than three decades later, Bradbury revisited the subject of space exploration in this rare 2003 audio interview.

Complement with Bradbury on doing what you love — some of the best life-advice you’ll ever receive.

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21 AUGUST, 2012

What Actually Happens While You Sleep and How It Affects Your Every Waking Moment

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“We are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive.”

The Ancient Greeks believed that one fell asleep when the brain filled with blood and awakened once it drained back out. Nineteenth-century philosophers contended that sleep happened when the brain was emptied of ambitions and stimulating thoughts. “If sleep doesn’t serve an absolutely vital function, it is the greatest mistake evolution ever made,” biologist Allan Rechtschaffen once remarked. Even today, sleep remains one of the most poorly understood human biological functions, despite some recent strides in understanding the “social jetlag” of our internal clocks and the relationship between dreaming and depression. In Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep (public library), journalist David K. Randall — who stumbled upon the idea after crashing violently into a wall while sleepwalking — explores “the largest overlooked part of your life and how it affects you even if you don’t have a sleep problem.” From gender differences to how come some people snore and others don’t to why we dream, he dives deep into this mysterious third of human existence to illuminate what happens when night falls and how it impacts every aspect of our days.

Most of us will spend a full third of our lives asleep, and yet we don’t have the faintest idea of what it does for our bodies and our brains. Research labs offer surprisingly few answers. Sleep is one of the dirty little secrets of science. My neurologist wasn’t kidding when he said there was a lot that we don’t know about sleep, starting with the most obvious question of all — why we, and every other animal, need to sleep in the first place.

But before we get too anthropocentrically arrogant in our assumptions, it turns out the quantitative requirement of sleep isn’t correlated with how high up the evolutionary chain an organism is:

Lions and gerbils sleep about thirteen hours a day. Tigers and squirrels nod off for about fifteen hours. At the other end of the spectrum, elephants typically sleep three and a half hours at a time, which seems lavish compared to the hour and a half of shut-eye that the average giraffe gets each night.

[…]

Humans need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours they are awake, and the body innately knows when this ratio becomes out of whack. Each hour of missed sleep one night will result in deeper sleep the next, until the body’s sleep debt is wiped clean.

What, then, happens as we doze off, exactly? Like all science, our understanding of sleep seems to be a constant “revision in progress”:

Despite taking up so much of life, sleep is one of the youngest fields of science. Until the middle of the twentieth century, scientists thought that sleep was an unchanging condition during which time the brain was quiet. The discovery of rapid eye movements in the 1950s upended that. Researchers then realized that sleep is made up of five distinct stages that the body cycles through over roughly ninety-minute periods. The first is so light that if you wake up from it, you might not realize that you have been sleeping. The second is marked by the appearance of sleep-specific brain waves that last only a few seconds at a time. If you reach this point in the cycle, you will know you have been sleeping when you wake up. This stage marks the last drop before your brain takes a long ride away from consciousness. Stages three and four are considered deep sleep. In three, the brain sends out long, rhythmic bursts called delta waves. Stage four is known as slow-wave sleep for the speed of its accompanying brain waves. The deepest form of sleep, this is the farthest that your brain travels from conscious thought. If you are woken up while in stage four, you will be disoriented, unable to answer basic questions, and want nothing more than to go back to sleep, a condition that researchers call sleep drunkenness. The final stage is REM sleep, so named because of the rapid movements of your eyes dancing against your eyelids. In this stage of sleep, the brain is as active as it is when it is awake. This is when most dreams occur.

(Recall the role of REM sleep in regulating negative emotions.)

Randall’s most urgent point, however, echoes what we’ve already heard from German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg, who studies internal time — in our blind lust for the “luxuries” of modern life, with all its 24-hour news cycles, artificial lighting on demand, and expectations of round-the-clock telecommunications availability, we’ve thrown ourselves into a kind of circadian schizophrenia:

We are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive. Even the worst dorm-room mattress in America is luxurious compared to sleeping arrangements that were common not long ago. During the Victorian era, for instance, laborers living in workhouses slept sitting on benches, with their arms dangling over a taut rope in front of them. They paid for this privilege, implying that it was better than the alternatives. Families up to the time of the Industrial Revolution engaged in the nightly ritual of checking for rats and mites burrowing in the one shared bedroom. Modernity brought about a drastic improvement in living standards, but with it came electric lights, television, and other kinds of entertainment that have thrown our sleep patterns into chaos.

Work has morphed into a twenty-four-hour fact of life, bringing its own set of standards and expectations when it comes to sleep … Sleep is ingrained in our cultural ethos as something that can be put off, dosed with coffee, or ignored. And yet maintaining a healthy sleep schedule is now thought of as one of the best forms of preventative medicine.

Reflecting on his findings, Randall marvels:

As I spent more time investigating the science of sleep, I began to understand that these strange hours of the night underpin nearly every moment of our lives.

Indeed, Dreamland goes on to explore how sleep — its mechanisms, its absence, its cultural norms — affects everyone from police officers and truck drivers to artists and entrepreneurs, permeating everything from our decision-making to our emotional intelligence.

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