Posts Tagged ‘science’

Stephen Hawking

March 28, 2018

Stephen Hawking had a horrible illness, given only a few years to live.

He lived them, and then fifty more. He had ALS (motor neuron disease) which destroys muscle control. There is no cure or treatment.

You know that sci-fi trope of the disembodied brain in a vat? That was Stephen Hawking, more or less, because his body was so ruined he might as well have had none. All he had was his brain. But what a brain.

So despite losing virtually everything else, against all odds his brain kept him going for over half a century. To me, this is the Stephen Hawking story. I’m unable to appreciate fully his scientific achievement. But I’m awed by its being achieved in the face of adversity that also defies my comprehension. Stephen Hawking represents the godlikeness of the human mind.

Another awesome thing about humanity is the ability to adapt. That’s why our species thrives from the Gobi Desert to the Arctic tundra. And as individuals we often make truly heroic adaptations to what life throws at us. Viktor Frankl wrote (in Man’s Search for Meaning) about accommodating oneself psychologically to surviving in a concentration camp. Stephen Hawking too adapted to horrible circumstances. Perhaps he did not curse the fates for that, instead thanking them for vouchsafing his mind. Which, undaunted, he employed to get on with his life and his calling.

That included authoring the least read best-selling book ever, A Brief History of Time. I actually did read it, and was on board till the last chapter, which kind of baffled me.

A character conspicuous by his absence in that book was God. We have trouble wrapping our heads around how the cosmos can have come into existence without him. Of course, that merely begs the question of where he came from. But Hawking’s scientific work (as partly embodied in his book), while not dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” in explaining the existence of existence, did carry us closer to that ultimate understanding. He didn’t conclusively disprove God — but did make that superstition harder to sustain. (And why would God create ALS?)

Hawking was a scientist, but not a “hands-on” scientist, because he soon lost use of his hands, could not even write. Communicating became increasingly difficult. Only thanks to advanced computer technology was he able to produce that familiar mechanized voice — in the end, only by twitching a muscle on his cheek. This too a triumph of mind over matter.

And so it was literally only within the confines of his brain that he worked, probing at the profoundest mysteries of the Universe by pure thought alone. (That was true of Einstein as well.) Of course, lots of other people do likewise and produce moonshine. Hawking (like Einstein) produced deep wisdom, expanding our understanding of the reality we inhabit. An existence upon which his own frail purchase was so tenuous.

An existence that’s poorer without him.

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The Earth Moves

November 6, 2014

UnknownEarly peoples might be forgiven had they viewed the stars as just a kind of wallpaper, without significance. Yet we always sensed something important out there, and struggled to understand it.

Unknown-2It was not stupid to think the heavens revolved around a stationary Earth. A few early theorizers saying otherwise were considered crackpots, and for sound reasons. If the Earth moved, why wasn’t everything on it jostled? And wouldn’t something thrown straight up fall at a distance? But the killer argument was parallax. If the Earth travelled, the stars should appear at different perspectives at different times. Yet they didn’t! Nobody realized how vastly distant the stars are, making the parallax effect infinitesimal.

While the heavens appeared to revolve in unison, a few stars didn’t follow the program, instead moving in seemingly crazy patterns. They were called “planets” (Greek for “wanderers”). This anomaly really bugged the ancients.

images-1Eventually the Second Century astronomer Ptolemy came up with a model with the stars moving on fixed spheres, but the planets using some complicated extra circles (“epicycles”) to account for their oddball movements. It was actually brilliant. But unfortunately, as astronomical observations got ever better, the scheme had to be continually rejiggered, growing ever more convoluted.

Copernicus

Copernicus

Copernicus thought of trying a radically different construct. If the Earth were a planet, circling the Sun, a lot of the complications went away. But he was reluctant to publish (he first held the book in his hands the day he died in 1543), partly because the calculations still wouldn’t work out. That was because Copernicus still assumed circular orbits.

images-3Then Johann Kepler took up the challenge. Kepler was obsessed by “the harmony of the spheres” — that in God’s perfect Heaven, everything went round in perfect circles. With access to Tyche Brahe’s immense store of accurate astronomical observations, for a decade Kepler bashed away at it, trying to somehow make the circles work. And then something truly amazing happened. Kepler realized he was wrong. He went back to it — and teased out the truth. The planets travel not in circles, but ellipses; their speeds vary with their closeness to the Sun; but for equal time intervals, they sweep out equal areas of their ellipses. (See picture.)

It was beautiful; it finally perfectly explained the movements; and it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck to think that Kepler, despite craving a different  answer, could transcend his own preconceptions and figure it out.

Unknown-1Meanwhile, Galileo’s telescope proved Copernicus right about the Earth circling the Sun. The Church — having in 1600 burned the philosopher Giordano Bruno alive for saying so — browbeat Galileo into publicly denying it. “And yet it moves,” he supposedly grunted under his breath. And the Church was unable to suppress his book, Sidereus Nuncius (“The Starry Messenger”) which persuaded intelligent people who was right.

But we were not done yet. Why did the planets move as Kepler showed? What made them move at all?

Aristotle had theorized that anything moving had to be somehow pushed. But why a thrown object kept moving was a vexing puzzle for two millennia. Eventually, Galileo and Descartes developed the idea of inertia — anything moving keeps on moving unless something stops it (commonly, friction). And that movement would be in a straight line, unless something deflects the path. But why then didn’t the planets fly off in straight lines? What was deflecting them?

images-4It was a 23-year-old Isaac Newton who, in 1666, finally put it all together. What reconciled the theories of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo was yet another new idea — gravity. Of course we’d always known apples fall downward; but had never guessed this force was universal, acting even on planets. Newton worked out that gravity is proportional to mass and diminishes with the square of the distance between objects; and, voila, that this explained Kepler’s laws of planetary motion.

And so, at last, those little creatures who’d gazed with puzzlement at the cosmic wallpaper punched their way through to understand it. Again my neck hairs stand up.

Unknown-3Of course, even today, we still don’t know everything. Not even, in fact, why gravity does follow Newton’s law. Einstein got us closer, with the idea of mass bending space; you’ve seen the illustrations, with bowling bowls on mattresses. But that seems to me more metaphor than explanation; and physicists continue struggling to integrate gravity with the other fundamental forces to produce a “theory of everything.”

Yet the story I’ve told is the story of humanity growing up: our evolution from a mentality shaped by myth and superstition, steeped in mystery, to one of dispelling mystery by application of reason to observed reality. images-5I’ve read about it in Richard Tarnas’s eloquent book, The Passion of the Western Mind. And he points out that the new modern mindset was not just limited to science. Just as the old cosmology, tethered to religious dogmas, was replaced by a new rationalist view, so too everything in civilization, previously grounded in tradition-bound ideas of divine sanction — absolute monarchical power, aristocratic privilege, arbitrary laws, exploitive economics, etc. — could likewise be supplanted by new and better systems founded upon rationalist concepts of independent human dignity. And so it is coming to pass.

Benjamin Franklin: Reason versus Romanticism

January 17, 2014

UnknownToday is Benjamin Franklin’s birthday.

Impressed by Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio, I thought I’d read his Benjamin Franklin – though familiar enough with the subject that another immersion might have seemed redundant. Not so.

Franklin was actually at one time the world’s most famous scientist. We all know the kite story. I’d recently read somewhere that it’s a myth; that Franklin wrote hypothetically about it but never actually tried it. Isaacson convincingly puts that to rest. Franklin was not an armchair theorist but a “hands on” scientist who loved tinkering and experimenting.

Painting by Benjamin West

Painting by Benjamin West

And the kite experiment was in fact very important, as it changed our understanding about electricity. Its immediate practical application was the lightning rod, a huge boon to mankind that made Franklin a global hero. But, more significant, as Isaacson explains, electricity was a curiosity when Franklin came to it; he left it a science.

This would have been enough to immortalize anyone. But Franklin was also a prolific writer – Isaacson says he was the best in the colonies. He also served as postmaster for them all, cutting a letter’s delivery time between New York and Philadelphia to one day (!). imagesAnd somehow Franklin also found time to spearhead foundation of America’s first lending library; a volunteer fire-fighting system; a militia system; a hospital; a police force; and the University of Pennsylvania – America’s first non-sectarian college.

In the latter effort, and the others, Franklin, ever the practical man, had scant use for religion. We constantly hear America was founded as a “Christian nation.” The founders would have gagged at that, as their intent was quite the opposite – Unknownto get as far as possible from the old world of dogmatic religion married to state power. Yes, you can find selected quotes giving lip service to conventional pieties – but Jefferson also wrote privately calling religion a form of insanity, and Washington apparently never in his life penned the name “Christ.”

“Deism” was the word of choice, to eschew formal religion while avoiding the dicey term “atheist.” And in those times, quitting God entirely was an intellectual leap very few could manage. Yet the only “religious” belief Franklin really held was to do good by others. And he it was who put “self evident” into the draft Declaration of Independence (in place of “sacred and undeniable”) – thus changing a religious slant to an assertion of Enlightenment rationalism.

Of course, I haven’t even touched upon Franklin’s greatest role: in public affairs as revolutionary, diplomat, and constitution maker. Isaacson quotes the French statesman Turgot: “He snatched lightning from the sky and the scepters from tyrants.”

As some of the civic initiatives noted above show, Franklin was a great one for creating associations, always believing more can be accomplished when people work together. images-1And he was really the progenitor of the greatest association ever: The United States of America. As early as 1754 the “Albany Plan of Union” was conceived by Franklin (who promoted it with our first and most famous political cartoon). That plan incorporated an innovative political invention of his: federalism.

Isaacson’s summation is eloquent. Franklin represents one of two main intellectual currents: reverencing down-to-earth middle class virtues (industry, honesty, temperance, sociability), versus despising them in favor of supposedly more profound and transcendent aspirations. It is Franklin’s Enlightenment ethos versus the romanticism that followed; reason versus feeling; head against heart. Not only have Franklin’s bourgeois values been mocked by sophisticate critics, but also his worldly metaphysics, by those spinning loftier spiritual confections (out of nothing, of course).

Mundane and even simplistic though Franklin’s philosophy might ostensibly seem, Isaacson instead sees something very deep indeed. Always eschewing lofty pretensions, Franklin’s insight grasped the core of what truly mattered: quality of life for the ordinary person. Everything he preached and did was aimed at that. And it was this Franklinism that built, very much through the assiduous personal efforts and influence of the man himself, our American society, so wonderfully conducive, above all others, to that worthy end.

images-4Well, after reading all this, mostly lying out in my lounge chair*, I say to myself that like Franklin I ought to get off my duff and do something.

Maybe tomorrow.

* I wrote this last summer; I have a backlog of blog posts.