A really good pain in the ass

I’m reading an excellent book on critical thinking by Christopher DiCarlo called How to Be a Really Good Pain in the Ass. I heard an interview with him on Freethought Radio (I’m sensing a trend), and I thought I’d check it out. I didn’t find too much stuff online about the book, so I’m posting this talk. It’s pretty long, but it presents the main questions he raises in his book: How do humans go about investigating truth claims? What’s the difference between natural and supernatural worldviews? It’s top-notch skepticism and enjoyable reading. Check it out.

The words of an angry militant atheist

If you’re like me, every time you post a link to Pharyngula someone chimes in that P.Z. Myers is loud, obnoxious, aggressive, childish and – if I share his immature attitude – the discussion may as well come to a close before it even begins. Ah, yes, that horrible old curmudgeon PZ – isn’t he just the angriest person you’ve ever read?

Well, he also wrote this:

Science also has the power to transform our sense of identity. Some of us are no longer People of the Word, members of a special tribe bound together by the narratives and rules in quaint old books. We are instead the People of Reality: we are united by common knowledge, by a sense of universality, by our commitment to evidence. Personally, I find no sense of myself in the Judeo-Christian fairy tales I was brought up with–they are too narrow, too bigoted, too false. The words of my people are written in the strands of DNA I find in every cell of my body, and the story they tell is clear and inspiring. We are all products of the natural world; stars died to create the elements we are made of, and 4 billion years of churning life struggled and was born and died to shape us. We are close kin to every single human being on the planet, without exception — there is no tribe that is outside our family. And even deeper, we are related to every living thing on earth. You simply cannot get any more universal than the scientific story of life.

Well golly gee willikers, folks – he’s a poet, too.

Knowledge increases wonder

Gravitational lensing by a black hole.

My father was a chemical engineer. In the last year of his life he was reading Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.” He used to talk my ear off about black holes and the speed of light. I was more interested in listening to the Misfits, growing my hair out, and skating the local mini ramps. But his enthusiasm was contagious.

I remember him telling me that a person traveling on a space ship at the speed of light would age more slowly than a person on Earth. I remember him telling me that nothing — not even light — could escape from a black hole. He was fascinated, electrified by these ideas. And he wanted to electrify me with them as well.

Some of what he said must have registered with me, though, because a few years ago I found myself in a quandary about those same two subjects: black holes and light speed. Memories of him came flooding back to me, and I suddenly wished I had paid more attention when he spoke. Then it occurred to me that I could simply read a book and find out for myself.

The book I read shocked me much as Hawking’s book must have shocked my father two decades ago. It was amazing: here was a book so rich in information, so eloquent in explanation and so unpretentious in its delivery that I couldn’t believe it was that easy. Could the secrets of the universe really be available to someone with no background in science or mathematics, and for the price of a paperback?

What a discovery! (The book, by the way, was “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan). A window opened and the fresh air of inquiry filled the room. You could find out nearly anything you wanted to know just by opening a book. I’d just discovered what goes by the moniker of “popular science” writing.

The funny thing was that I was no stranger to books. I’d worked in bookstores for years but routinely snubbed the science section. I’d always considered it one notch above psychology (yawn). Today it’s the first place I go when I enter a bookshop, and I comb the shelves with alacrity for exciting new writers.

My love of science writing is manifestly a love of science writers. They’re the ones who translate the complexities and intricacies of science to a general public (how I reviled the general public in those days, too!) and make it the stuff of page-turners. I may never have an advanced understanding of chemistry or physics, but there are dozens of writers capable of explaining the structure of DNA and quantum tunneling who make me feel as if I do. This is no easy task.

When I read about carbon dating (Earth is about 4.5 billion years old), universes popping into existence from nothing, probabilities and the evolution of species I long to share my increasing knowledge with my father. Knowledge increases wonder, and there’s no danger of running out of either in the world of scientific discovery. It seems every day we hear about some new milestone: an “Earth-like” exoplanet revolving around a nearby star, fossil fish with feet, and a particle that moves faster than light (alas, a false alarm).

Science has a reputation as being boring, difficult and elitist. Who doesn’t conjure up an image of nerds in white coats and Coke-bottle glasses, puttering about and torturing mice in a sterile lab? But the reality is rather different. Just consider the word “revolution.” It comes from Copernicus, the man whose revolutionary idea was that the Earth revolves around the sun. Galileo was tried — and condemned — by Inquisition enforcers for his adherence to Copernican cosmology. Only later did the word enter political jargon and become more or less synonymous with “upheaval.”

Science has always been at the forefront of social progress. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Founding Fathers were all scientifically literate men, if not scientists themselves. Nor should it be surprising that totalitarian regimes are fundamentally anti-scientific. The beauty of science is that free inquiry is required for it to work. It is fundamentally a liberal enterprise whose archenemy is dogma.

This is because it seeks truth: not truth as we wish it to be, but truth as things are. And this is why science and religion are (despite many attempts to reconcile them) largely incompatible. Religion is a set of fossilized ideas. What was “true” two millennia ago is just as “true” today. It resists change. Science, on the other hand, thrives on it. It is not a heresy to challenge the most established ideas in science; it’s de rigeur. It’s how progress is achieved.

I began this piece by talking about my father. Now that I’m a father I think about him often. He wasn’t a perfect man. He could be extremely difficult at times, had a bad temper and often meted out punishment that outweighed the offenses. Of course, it’s nearly impossible for me to be objective about him. But in the last years of his life he was able to ignite in me a passion for knowledge that I hope to pass on to our daughter. And that’s what I call progress.

Jacob Bronowski

Bronowski at Auschwitz

I’ve just finished reading Jacob Bronowski’s exhilarating Ascent of Man (1973). It had been on my mental bookshelf for a while, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. In his introduction, Richard Dawkins states that there is a memorable passage on nearly every page of the book, and he’s right. I haven’t underlined (virtually – I read it on my Kindle) a book so much in ages. Apart from a few quibbles I had with his repeated use of “the birth of Christ” as a time-marker (it seems out of place in a book celebrating the ascent of reason and science), I was taken on a kind of magic carpet ride of the human intellect. Bronowski was a master of communicating exceedingly difficult ideas to the uninitiated, a tradition whose most brilliant star was arguably Carl Sagan.

Here is a beautiful passage about the education of the young:

“Of course there were great civilisations. Who am I to belittle the civilisations of Egypt, of China, of India, even of Europe in the Middle Ages? And yet by one test they all fail: they all limit the freedom of the imagination of the young. They are static, and they are minority cultures. Static, because the son does what the father did, and the father what the grandfather did. And minority, because only a tiny fraction of all that talent that mankind produces is actually used; learns to read, learns to write, learns another language, and climbs the terribly slow ladder of promotion.”

This passage is followed by another a few pages later, which I think sums up Bronowski’s views rather well:

“Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts. Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, primarily of what we are as ethical creatures. You cannot possibly maintain that informed integrity if you let other people run the world for you while you yourself continue to live out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs. That is really crucial today. You can see it is pointless to advise people to learn differential equations, or to do a course in electronics or in computer programming. And yet, fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not the commonplace of the schoolbooks, we shall not exist. The commonplace of the schoolbooks of tomorrow is the adventure of today, and that is what we are engaged in.”



Too much of nothing

Well, I finished A Universe From Nothing, and the “nothing” business was cleared up in the end.


Apparently “nothing is unstable” is a fundamental principle which gives rise to the inevitability that out of nothing something will eventually arise. Nothing can’t stay nothing for long, it seems. For me this is still a bit like poetry; I’m not having much luck envisioning total emptiness, bereft even of space. I keep thinking, “How do I begin to think about that?” Krauss himself admits that talking about “why is there something rather than nothing?” can seem a bit like counting the angels on the head of a pin (a favorite pastime of medieval theologians). The difference is, of course, that “physicists can count their angels and can get it right to the nearest angel in a total of 10 billion.” That last phrase is from Richard Dawkins’ afterword.

I’m now listening to Krauss on the Point of Inquiry podcast, hoping he can shed some further light on nothingness for me.

Nothing much

I’m reading Lawrence Krauss’s new book, A Universe From Nothing (every so often I enjoy punishing myself by trying to figure out what cosmologists are learning about the cosmos). About the first half of the book is setting up the main premise, which is that things – particles, bagels, universes – can indeed spring forth from, well, nothing. At first I was confused, because Krauss uses “nothing” to mean both “empty space” and “nothing, not even empty space.” Not being a cosmologist or theologian, I can get my head around empty space, but I have trouble picturing the concept of absolutely nothing. I mean, if even space-time is absent, then what are we to do?

My impression is that this works mathematically and theoretically (which is good), but how can a human being even conceive of this kind of nothingness? It’s not a blank slate; there simply is no slate. Then, through something called “quantum fluctuations”, a slate appears. Then, after about 13.5 billion years, Shakespeare. It’s mind-boggling.

I haven’t finished the book yet, and I’ve just gotten to the meat of the matter, so perhaps this deep, disturbing nothingness is adequately explained further in the book. But right now I’m depleting my store of imagination trying to figure out where quantums are fluctuating if there is no longer any where for them to fluctuate in.

Warning: this will hurt your eyes

This is an optical illusion – via Michael Shermer. Don’t stare at it for too long or you might begin to feel dizzy.

This radial sunburst illusion is known as the Asahi figure, and the researchers analyzed people’s eyes while they stared at it, and a number of other similar optical illusions. And just as if they were staring at an actual light source, their pupils contracted.

Science Saved My Soul

One thing I love about the Internet is that no matter how much cool stuff you come across there’s always something that makes you think, “How did I never see this before?” Yesterday I was listening to an interview with Phil Hellenes on the Thinking Atheist podcast about his awesome video “Science Saved My Soul.”

Today I went and watched the video, and I’m sharing it here for anyone who may have missed it.

Science vs. religion

I just wanted to get this down before I forgot it:

• Science is like walking into a pitch-dark room with a small, powerful flashlight. You may not see much at first, but it may stop you from stumbling. Slowly, painstakingly you’ll begin to form a pretty good idea of where you are.

• Religion is like walking into that same room with a glow-in-the-dark Lightsaber. Sure, it feels cool, but you keep swinging away at invisible phantoms. And the light cast is too weak to actually see by. May the force be with you!