Blog Archives

Quote for the Week

I think that with all the emphasis on achievement, careers and competitiveness, science education has become — with notable bright spots to be sure — a joyless, alienating and frustrating experience for millions and millions of kids.  There are those science-fair-winner types and then there’s the rest of the class, not grooving on the material and hence, they find out, doomed to mediocre futures. Seems like ambivalence and hostility aren’t such surprising responses to such a message. … I think things might go better if the narrative of our scientific understandings of nature — what some are calling “Big History” — were told early and often, capturing the interest and imagination of students from a young age. They might then be eager to learn the problem-solving, evidence-based process of scientific inquiry that has led to these understandings.

–Ursula Goodenough, “It’s Time For A New Narrative; It’s Time For ‘Big History'”, in 13.7: Cosmos & Culture (10 February 2011); courtesy of Wikiquote

Quote for the Week


Most physicists use quantum mechanics every day in their working lives without needing to worry about the fundamental problem of its interpretation. Being sensible people with very little time to follow up all the ideas and data in their own specialties and not having to worry about this fundamental problem, they do not worry about it. A year or so ago, while Philip Candelas (of the physics department at Texas) and I were waiting for an elevator, our conversation turned to a young theorist who had been quite promising as a graduate student and who had then dropped out of sight. I asked Phil what had interfered with the ex-student’s research. Phil shook his head sadly and said, “He tried to understand quantum mechanics.”
So irrelevant is the philosophy of quantum mechanics to its use, that one begins to suspect that all the deep questions about the meaning of measurement are really empty, forced on us by our language, a language that evolved in a world governed very nearly by classical physics. But I admit to some discomfort in working all my life in a theoretical framework that no one fully understands. And we really do need to understand quantum mechanics better in quantum cosmology, the application of quantum mechanics to the whole universe, where no outside observer is even imaginable. The universe is much too large now for quantum mechanics to make much difference, but according to the big-bang theory there was a time in the past when the particles were so close together that quantum effects must have been important. No one today knows even the rules for applying quantum mechanics in this context.

–Steven Weinberg, Dreams of the Final Theory (2011), Ch. 4. Quantum Mechanics and Its Discontents

My 2020th Post, Legends of the Fall, and Blogging: What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

My 2000th blog post went up on 15 December.  Lots of things were going on, including taking care of a sick child, so I did nothing special for that occasion.  I have had in mind a post that I’ve wanted to do for some time, and since I didn’t do anything marking post 2000, I’ll make the post now as post 2020.  I used to like the old cartoon Sealab 2020 way back when, so that’s an interesting synch, anyway.  What the heck.

I had never thought to get into blogging.  Being of the tail end of the Baby Boom generation, I was well into my adulthood before the Internet started to become the phenomenon it is now.  I had had some experience with intranet BB’s and such in college, but not that much.  Even though I was a math major, at my university we still were doing things mostly the old fashioned way.  It wasn’t until the mid 90’s that I got an email address (long since defunct), and in the late 90’s that I started spending lots of time in cyberspace.

Read the rest of this entry

Quote for the Week


Cum ergo audimus, Deum omnia facere, nil aliud debemus intelligere, quam Deum in omnibus esse, hoc est, essentiam omnium subsistere.

When we are told that God is the maker of all things, we are simply to understand that God is in all things – that He is the substantial essence of all things.

–John Scotus Eriugena, De Divisione Naturae, Bk. 1, ch. 72; translation from Hugh Fraser Stewart Boethius: An Essay (London: William Blackwood, 1891) p. 255; courtesy of Wikiquote.

A Nature Documentary for Thursday Morning: The Magical Forest

Quote for the Week


A cultural inheritance may be acquired between dusk and dawn, and many have been so acquired. But the new “culture” was an inheritance of darkness, wherein “simpleton” meant the same thing as “citizen” meant the same thing as “slave.” The monks waited. It mattered not at all to them that the knowledge they saved was useless, that much of it was not really knowledge now… empty of content, its subject matter long since gone. Still, such knowledge had a symbolic structure that was peculiar to itself, and at least the symbol-interplay could be observed. To observe the way a knowledge-system is knit together is to learn at least a minimum knowledge-of-knowledge, until someday — someday, or some century — an Integrator would come, and things would be fitted together again. So time mattered not at all. The Memorabilia was there, and it was given to them by duty to preserve, and preserve it they would if the darkness in the world lasted ten more centuries, or even ten thousand years…

–Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz; courtesy of Wikiquote

Miller’s magnum opus, one of the masterpieces of 20th Century science fiction.  I’ll be putting up a post on it in the near future.

Quote for the Week


These new justifications are termed “scientific”. But by the term “scientific” is understood just what was formerly understood by the term “religious”: just as formerly everything called “religious” was held to be unquestionable simply because it was called religious, so now all that is called “scientific” is held to be unquestionable. In the present case the obsolete religious justification of violence which consisted in the recognition of the supernatural personality of the God-ordained ruler (“there is no power but of God”) has been superseded by the “scientific” justification which puts forward, first, the assertion that because the coercion of man by man has existed in all ages, it follows that such coercion must continue to exist. This assertion that people should continue to live as they have done throughout past ages rather than as their reason and conscience indicate, is what “science” calls “the historic law”. A further “scientific” justification lies in the statement that as among plants and wild beasts there is a constant struggle for existence which always results in the survival of the fittest, a similar struggle should be carried on among human ­beings, that is, who are gifted with intelligence and love; faculties lacking in the creatures subject to the struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. Such is the second “scientific” justification. The third, most important, and unfortunately most widespread justification is, at bottom, the age-old religious one just a little altered: that in public life the suppression of some for the protection of the majority cannot be avoided — so that coercion is unavoidable however desirable reliance on love alone might be in human intercourse. The only difference in this justification by pseudo-science consists in the fact that, to the question why such and such people and not others have the right to decide against whom violence may and must be used, pseudo-science now gives a different reply to that given by religion — which declared that the right to decide was valid because it was pronounced by persons possessed of divine power. “Science” says that these decisions represent the will of the people, which under a constitutional form of government is supposed to find expression in all the decisions and actions of those who are at the helm at the moment. Such are the scientific justifications of the principle of coercion. They are not merely weak but absolutely invalid, yet they are so much needed by those who occupy privileged positions that they believe in them as blindly as they formerly believed in the immaculate conception, and propagate them just as confidently. And the unfortunate majority of men bound to toil is so dazzled by the pomp with which these “scientific truths” are presented, that under this new influence it accepts these scientific stupidities for holy truth, just as it formerly accepted the pseudo-religious justifications; and it continues to submit to the present holders of power who are just as hard-hearted but rather more numerous than before.

–Leo Tolstoy, Letter to a Hindu, IV

Quote for the Week


In this age of specialization men who thoroughly know one field are often incompetent to discuss another. The great problems of the relations between one and another aspect of human activity have for this reason been discussed less and less in public. When we look at the past great debates on these subjects we feel jealous of those times, for we should have liked the excitement of such argument. The old problems, such as the relation of science and religion, are still with us, and I believe present as difficult dilemmas as ever, but they are not often publicly discussed because of the limitations of specialization.

–Richard Feynman, Remarks at a Caltech YMCA lunch forum (2 May 1956); courtesy of Wikiquote.

Quote for the Week


Nature may reach the same result in many ways. Like a wave in the physical world, in the infinite ocean of the medium which pervades all, so in the world of organisms, in life, an impulse started proceeds onward, at times, may be, with the speed of light, at times, again, so slowly that for ages and ages it seems to stay, passing through processes of a complexity inconceivable to men, but in all its forms, in all its stages, its energy ever and ever integrally present. A single ray of light from a distant star falling upon the eye of a tyrant in bygone times may have altered the course of his life, may have changed the destiny of nations, may have transformed the surface of the globe, so intricate, so inconceivably complex are the processes in Nature. In no way can we get such an overwhelming idea of the grandeur of Nature than when we consider, that in accordance with the law of the conservation of energy, throughout the Infinite, the forces are in a perfect balance, and hence the energy of a single thought may determine the motion of a universe.

–Nikola Tesla, “On Light And Other High Frequency Phenomena” A lecture delivered before the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia (24 February 1893), and before the National Electric Light Association, St. Louis (1 March 1893), published in The Electrical review (9 June 1893), p. Page 683; also in The Inventions, Researches And Writings of Nikola Tesla (1894); courtesy of Wikiquote

Quote for the Week


A great swindle of our time is the assumption that science has made religion obsolete. All science has damaged is the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jonah and the Whale. Everything else holds up pretty well, particularly lessons about fairness and gentleness. People who find those lessons irrelevant in the twentieth century are simply using science as an excuse for greed and harshness. Science has nothing to do with it, friends.

–Kurt Vonnegut, Bennington College address (1970), courtesy of Wikiquote