Class Warfare Blog

January 6, 2020

Academic Writing

Filed under: Education,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:41 am
Tags: ,

The Conversation web site ran an interesting article on the third of January (Academic Writing Can Be Boring – But There Are Good Reasons for That) which gave some history of academic writing and why it tends to be dry and, well, dull.

Since I taught academic writing to my chemistry students I have some interest in this topic and I think there were a few things left out, at least as they apply to serious writing about chemical subjects.

Academic journals all set their own formats so that topic will not be covered but in addition:

  • Chemists are writing about their experiments which all occurred in the past, so they use past tense. In fiction writing exclusive use of the past tense is a manuscript killer because it implies that everything already happened, and so no change can occur. So, some history can be covered but there is no tension as to what might happen next because everything has already happened.
  • The only “actors” are the chemicals, so everything is written in passive voice, e.g. “water was boiled, chemicals were mixed, heat was applied.” They do not write “I boiled some water, etc.” because it doesn’t matter who boiled the water, just that it was boiled, so passive voice–impersonal (no pronouns other than “it,” etc.) is the rule of the day. This adoption would be lethal in fiction writing because there are no actors in the writing, so no characters.
  • There is no suspense because all formats start out with an abstract, which tells all regarding the article. This is so very busy scientists can read a synopsis of what was done to decide whether reading the details is worthwhile. (There is even a publication called “Chemical Abstracts” which published just the titles and abstracts of all of the chemistry articles appearing in the other journals. There is way too much stuff published to not supply these tools. (Of course, with the advent of computers and the Internet, there are tools that automatically search journals for a set of key words you supply, and many others.)

As a consequence, chemistry journal articles are dry and lifeless, exactly the way we want. The focus is on the chemicals and what they did . . . when . . . etc. The names at the top of the article tell you who did it, and there is no other mention of them otherwise. (Although this “rule” is breaking down somewhat.)

An Anecdote As a teacher of freshmen chemistry to freshmen, part of the lab portion of the course involved writing formal reports. Just before I retired, I got the number of such required reports down to exactly two. All students were supplied with written instructions as to how to do this. They even got a lecture going over these things. If something egregious showed up in the first set of reports, a “grade killer” provision was made for the second one. As an example, students seem to be addicted to formatting titles as if they were sentences (first word capitalized, period at the end). Since I was a part-time editor I made an attempt to figure out how this came to be and I believe it was from a practice of modern magazine ad formatting. The ads in magazines used to have “zingers” at the top, which were essentially titles, to attract attention. At some point, magazines figured out that having a sentence at the top of the ad implied something was being said and made it more read-worthy. Since students read a lot of magazines and very few books, this “format at the top” became their exemplars of “titles.”

In any case when this started showing up, it became my first “grade killer.” After leading a discussion of title formats (which resulted in the meta rule “If in doubt, capitalize all of the big words.”) I told them that if they instead formatted their title as if it were a sentence, they will have effectively killed their chance of getting an A on the report. (The grade being killed was the possibility of getting an A, not an automatic F on the report. I was not an ogre. If they formatted their report title as a sentence, the max grade they could get was a B.)

The first time I imposed this rule, the percentage of reports with titles formatted as sentences was ____ ? What do you think? I though it should be 1-3 percent. If you guessed 40% you hit the mark. I was shocked. What happened to all of the grade grubbers that were supposedly filling our college classrooms?

I tried all kinds of things, like supplying them with checklists of things to look over before submitting their reports (and lots more). The effects of these were small. (This ineffectiveness on my part fueled my early retirement to some extent.) End of Anecdote

Scientists have to learn how to write for other scientists. Even non-scientists (and I assumed the vast majority of my students would not become scientists) have to be able, from time to time, read something written for scientists and be able to decipher it, just as all U.S. citizens need to be able to read the Constitution and be able to decipher it . . . usually with some help.

I like my chemistry writings like I like my Martini’s “dry, shaken, not stirred” or some such.

Having said all of the above, I absolutely love the writings of gifted science writers. These are people who make science come alive for lay audiences. This is another gift altogether.



December 27, 2019

Race to the Bottom?

Filed under: Culture,Race,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:16 am

Today in The Guardian there was a lovely article that explained why we believe in racial stereotypes based upon the work of Angela Saini “How I Changed My Mind About the Biology of Race” by Philip Ball <subtitle> Angela Saini’s book Superior showed me our misconceptions about race and science arise from a habit of the mind.

Here is an excerpt:

“Saini shows that what we have understood by race encodes the belief that literally superficial aspects of our appearance act as markers for innate differences we can’t see. And here’s the problem: it does so for good reason. In times past, and sometimes still today, the strong correlation between your appearance and your culture meant that visual differences really could act as proxies for certain differences in attitudes, traditions and beliefs.

“Our brains are exquisitely adapted to pick up on such correlations – and, unfortunately in this case, to conclude that they are causative. We instinctively assume that differences in behaviour that are in fact due to culture must be linked to – even caused by – characteristics of appearance. That is what the traditional notion of race is all about. But genetics has found no such innate origins of behavioural differences between “races” – and it is highly unlikely, given what we know about genetic variation, that it would.”

This makes a lot of sense, based upon how we behaved when “others” were automatically labeled dangerous.

November 25, 2019

Impossible Burger . . . Possibly?

Filed under: Culture,Economics,Science,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 11:17 am

The irony is palpable. The “health industry” is telling us in a loud voice that we should eschew “highly processed foods” in favor of using fresh ingredients, cooked to eat . . . and at the same time we are also urged to consider hamburger substitutes, such as is being served in the Burger King Impossible Whopper.

The commercials for the Impossible Whopper make it look very appetizing. The burger glistens with fat as if right from the grill. The edge of the burger patty is irregular as if it were formed by hand. Yum. So, I tried one. In appearance, not so good. the patty had a very regular edge, as if it had been extruded through a die (which I suppose it had) and glistening fat was nowhere in evidence. The color was closer to grey than the brown and black version (often with a pink interior) shown in the advertisements.

The aroma was minimal and the texture not bad. The flavor compares with ordinary burgers, so quite an accomplishment. If burgers were ranked on a scale from exquisite a la Bill’s Place in San Francisco used to make to dog meat burgers (mostly filler), this one would be near the middle of that scale, so mediocre, but not in a bad way.

I have always felt that vegetarians should be creating their own dishes (Porcini Mushrooms and mashed potatoes, yum!), not trying to mimic meat dishes, but I realize that to get the majority of people to come along with a more environmentally favorable diet, some copycatting is going to have to occur.

So, as copycats go, the Impossible Burger is meh, but a good deal farther along that road than the lamentable “garden burger.” And it is, without fear of contradiction, a highly processed food. I have no idea how nutritious it is.

I think a lot could be done to ameliorate the woeful environmental record of the meat industry, first would be to eliminate factory ranching of cattle and pigs and the like and go back to free range everything. This would not only reduce the carbon footprint of the industry but would save soil and has many other benefits. The increased cost of meat and fowl produced that way would also lower its consumption.

November 18, 2019

Ah, It Is Called Promiscuous Teleology

Filed under: Philosophy,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 9:44 am
Tags: ,

I ran across this very interesting blog post by George Hargrave (Promiscuous Teleology: Mislead By Our Evolutionary Past). Here are a number of excerpts:

“Humans, in particular children, frequently view and interpret the world in terms of purpose. They attribute something’s existence to its role or telos rather than its causal necessity. If you were to ask a child, ‘Why do mountains exist?’ they are more likely to respond, ‘so that animals have something to climb,’ than they are to with a more careful response that considers how they were actually formed. This cognitive bias — where humans use heuristics in an attempt to award a purpose or role to everything — is called ‘promiscuous teleology’.”

“The purpose-seeking psyche of humans is an evolutionary by-product of an historical struggle for survival that generously rewarded teleological rationalisations.”

“The perils of this cognitive tendency extend to religion also where its prominence has contributed to the propagation of beliefs in the supernatural. Even today only 47% of Americans believe Darwin’s theory of evolution to be true, with the other half opting for a belief in creationism and a transcendent deity.”

“Purposes are something reinforced by evolution and seemingly created by evolution.”

Scientists, actually natural philosophers, were not immune to this fallacy. Aristotelian physics, for example, claimed the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) were striving to reach their natural place in the universe. A rock fell not because of the forces of gravity but because it strived to reach its natural place. This is why I refer to Aristotle as a natural philosopher, rather than a scientist. Philosophers start with thoughts, add more thoughts, and conclude in thoughts with an occasional sprinkling in of evidence. Sciences, by contrast, have thoughts but immediately try to link those thoughts to observable behaviors that can tell the scientist whether their thoughts are any good as a description of nature. Scientists have a full-time arbiter of their ideas (nature) whereas philosophers have only their thoughts. (This is why philosophers are professional disagree-ers. To agree with their colleagues would leave them with nothing to say.)

So, purposes are something reinforced by evolution and seemingly created by evolution. I can hear apologist heads exploding all the way from here.

November 12, 2019

OMG Where Do They Get These People (Sometimes a Blurb is Enough)

Filed under: Culture,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 9:41 am
Tags: , ,

I subscribe to a number of book recommendation lists, which is how this book came to may attention: Mind to Matter: The Astonishing Science of How Your Brain Creates Material Reality by Dawson Church. Here’s the blurb: (Note: I am sorry it is so long but it is also effing priceless.)

* * *

I am not, repeat NOT, recommending this book.

Best Health Book of 2018 – American Book Fest.
Best Science Books of 2018 – Bookbub.

Every creation begins as a thought, from a symphony to a marriage to an ice cream cone to a rocket launch. When we have an intention, a complex chain of events begins in our brains. Thoughts travel as electrical impulses along neural pathways. When neurons fire together they wire together, creating electromagnetic fields. These fields are invisible energy, yet they influence the molecules of matter around us the way a magnet organizes iron filings.

In Mind to Matter, award-winning researcher Dawson Church explains the science showing how our minds create matter. Different intentions produce different fields and different material creations. The thoughts and energy fields we cultivate in our minds condition the atoms and molecules around us. We can now trace the science behind each link in chain from thought to thing, showing the surprising ways in which our intentions create the material world.

The science in the book is illustrated by many authentic case histories of people who harnessed the extraordinary power of the mind to create. They include:

  • Adeline, whose Stage 4 cancer disappeared after she imagined “healing stars”
    • Raymond Aaron and two of his clients, each of whom manifested $1 million in the same week
    • Elon Musk, who bounced back from devastating tragedy to found Tesla and SpaceX
    • Graham Phillips, who grew the emotional regulation part of his brain by 22.8% in two months
    • Jennifer Graf, whose grandfather’s long-dead radio came to life to play love songs the day of her wedding
    • Harold, whose 80% hearing loss reversed in an hour
    • Joe Marana, whose deceased sister comforted him from beyond the grave
    • Rick Geggie, whose clogged arteries cleared up the night before cardiac surgery
    • Matthias Rust, a teen whose “airplane flight for peace” changed the fate of superpowers
    • Wanda Burch, whose dream about cancer told the surgeon exactly where to look for it
    • An MIT freshman student who can precipitate sodium crystals with his mind
    • John, who found himself floating out of his body and returned to find his AIDS healed
    • Dean, whose cortisol levels dropped by 48% in a single hour

In Mind to Matter, Dawson Church shows that these outcomes aren’t a lucky accident only a few people experience. Neuroscientists have measured a specific brain wave formula that is linked to manifestation. This “flow state” can be learned and applied by anyone. New discoveries in epigenetics, neuroscience, electromagnetism, psychology, vibration, and quantum physics connect each step in the process by which mind creates matter. They show that the whole universe is self-organizing, and when our minds are in a state of flow, they coordinate with nature’s emergent intelligence to produce synchronous outcomes. The book contained over 150 photos and illustrations that explain the process, while an “Extended Play” section at the end of each chapter provides additional resources. As Mind to Matter drops each piece of the scientific puzzle into place, it leaves us with a profound understanding of the enormous creative potential of our minds. It also gives us a road map to cultivating these remarkable brain states in our daily lives.

* * *

This is what happens when you blend a few facts with a few opinions. It has been discovered in the past years that we do not interact directly with “reality.” To be able to keep track of reality, we create a simulacrum of it in our minds and interact through it. This gives us quite a number of benefits. For one the simulacrum requires less detail and so a lot of the information streaming into our sensory organs can just be jettisoned, unless it has a significant effect upon your ability to survive. Consider that right now you have this truly immense sensory organ, your skin, which is sending sensory information to your brain for . . . what? Storage? Processing? What was the side of your thigh feeling 20 minutes ago? That didn’t get stored, eh? What happens to sensory information that gets sent to the brain and doesn’t get storied? (Hint: Bye-bye, useless info.) Another benefit is we can experiment with things in our imagination without the consequences of trying them out in reality, e.g. I shoulda punched that guy in the nose!.

Okay, so you take this evolutionary feature and you combine with the opinion, say, “everything happens for a reason.” What do you get? You get the nonsense of this book. A massive testament to the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (the Latin means: “after this, therefore because of this”) and is an informal fallacy that claims that since event B followed event A, event B must have been caused by event A. It is often shortened simply to post hoc fallacy.

So, someone prays for their illness to be cured and voila, their illness is cured and they believe their prayer was answered. The doctors, nurses, hospitals, antibiotics, all of that stuff . . . is irrelevant.

Since “we create our own reality,” in our minds we actually create physical reality. WTF? This phrase (“we create our own reality”) has been used a lot in the personal development community, but it is a metaphor, not a physical claim. To claim that it is physical is a little like saying I made this painting of the tree outside my window . . . therefore it is the tree outside my window. Hello? We are creating a virtual map/simulation of reality in our heads. That is not the same as creating the reality outside our heads.

Can you imagine if this “version” of reality were actually the case. We would have dueling realities on display currently. “I want the #23 bus to come now!” versus “No, I want the #35 bus first!” “I want my mother to dies soon so I can have my inheritance” versus “Oh god, I don’t want to die yet, I want to see my latest grandchild first.”

Do we get banjo music in the background as these duels of will take place? Or does each reality get expressed separately? Talk about a multiverse! We would be up to our asses with realities. where would we put them all?

And the dishonesty in the phrasing of things! Consider “• Graham Phillips, who grew the emotional regulation part of his brain by 22.8% in two months.“ The way this was worded, it sounds as if this guy did the deed himself. If so, how did he do this? Was it through telepathy, mental manipulation of existing matter or the creation ex nihilo of new matter? If he could do it at all, why did it take two months. Were drugs being used? Were transfusions of stem cells involved? I guess you have to buy the book to find out. And don’t get me started on “• Elon Musk, who bounced back from devastating tragedy to found Tesla and SpaceX.” Gosh, a human being bouncing back from tragedy and doing something significant. Now that almost never happens! Must have been the magical creation of reality, I am sure.

Charlatans to the right of me, charlatans to the left of me, into the Valley of Ignorance I rode!

Addendum The opinion “Every creation begins as a thought.” may just be true, but what about all of the thoughts that are not creations, e.g. I think I will have a beer and a sandwich? How come I have to go to the store, buy the ingredients and make my own damned sandwich? How come my mind can’t create one on demand? What is it about physical reality that these people just can’t live with?! Inquiring minds want to know!

November 11, 2019

Scientists Don’t Always Hew Toward Logic

Filed under: Reason,Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 8:07 am
Tags: ,

In an article on the Answers in Genesis web site, Jason Lisle, who has a Ph.D. in astrophysics and has published several credible papers on the sun, stated this:

“The Christian worldview is what makes science possible. The universe is always logical because logic is a description of how God thinks. God is perfectly rational. And since God’s mind controls the universe, the universe will always be logical. Being made in God’s image, human beings have the capacity to think logically, although in our sin we sometimes fail to do so. The success of science is, therefore, evidence that the Christian worldview is correct.”

He made this comment after saying “The branch of physics dealing with how the universe operates at very small scales — interactions involving particles smaller than atoms — is called quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is weird.”

I don’t think he will get a counterargument from anyone who has studied quantum mechanics that “Quantum mechanics is weird.” But, just what sins are preventing us from logically grasping what is going on in the quantum realm? He doesn’t say . . . interesting.

With regard to “And since God’s mind controls the universe, the universe will always be logical.” it seems the good doctor is espousing philosophy that is “early church” at best, which was based ex post facto upon Aristotle’s physics. In that physics, things that move had to be continuously pushed along, or they stopped. There was no inertia/Newton’s First Law of Motion. The planets moved in their heavenly orbits because there were angels pushing them along. They didn’t have room for Apollo’s fiery chariot for the Sun but if it weren’t for their faux monotheism, we might have had that, too. But in modern physics, the universe toddles along without the need of an “intelligence” behind it.

I cannot imagine Jason Lisle is this stupid (having read part of a book he wrote, I also can’t see him as being ignorant). I have to assume that he is engaging in willful wishful thinking. He so desperately wants to have a god controlling his life, that he is willing to sacrifice any common sense and basic physics knowledge he may have possessed.

This is unfortunate because religious apologists hold up people like Dr. Lisle as examples of scientists who believe and find their beliefs compatible with their science . . . when in fact, this seems to be a case of massive compartmentalization. Compartmentalization is where we hold incompatible ideas separately in our minds so they do not conflict. The religious audiences of the apologists are not usually in a place to recognize how “off” the science is from mainstream practices. Here, two separate compartments seem to be being smashed together with brute force.

And, Dr. Lisle ends with this:

“Although God is logical, he is also very creative. His ways and thoughts are far above ours (Isaiah 55:8—9). And therefore, some aspects of the way God has chosen to uphold his universe may seem very strange and surprising to us. Quantum mechanics is a great example of this. And yet, we trust that the universe will always be rational, if not always intuitive, because it is upheld by the mind of God.” In other words he uses the example of the illogic of quantum physics as an example of God’s rationality. It is so absurd, it must be true.* (*Apologistical Logic)



October 28, 2019

The Differences Between Science and Religions

Filed under: Culture,Reason,Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:25 am

Burn, baby, burn!

From the blog of the Center for Inquiry of the Freedom From Religion Foundation: “It’s therefore unsurprising that Pastor Greg Locke, a fundamentalist Baptist preacher from a Tennessee church chose to burn a copy of the excellent book, The Founding Myth, by FFRF’s Andrew Seidel. It’s a great book, exposing the nonsensical lies spread by the religious right in their claims that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I didn’t expect Pastor Locke to read the book, though I am jealous that apparently homophobic, bigoted bible thumpers warrant a free copy and secular movement lawyers don’t (yes, that’s a hint, Andrew). But burning the book, and posting a video of it on Twitter, is a particularly nasty and frightening step beyond simply using it as a paperweight or re-gifting it at Christmas.

Ah! On one side you have “wherever the evidence leads” people and on the other you have “Blah, blah, blah . . . (with fingers in their ears) people who do not want to hear evidence, unless it supports their biases.

Can you imagine a scientific opponent to the theory of evolution burning a copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species or The Descent of Man? Or maybe performing an exorcism on a college science department?

Who in their right mind would not think that “burning books” has very bad optics, as they say, so videoing the activity for posting on YouTube is what, cluelessness squared?

I don’t know who I am quoting but “there is no cure for stupid.”

PS It is a very good book, as reviewed here. Highly recommended.

October 22, 2019


Dr. David Eagleman is one of my favorite public scientists. (He was the writer and presenter of the six-hour television series, The Brain with David Eagleman on PBS (highly recommended).) In this lovely YouTube video (God vs. No God – And the Winner Is? ) he address what we know versus what we do not know (a theme of my last several posts) and introduces his idea of possibilianism. He prefaces that introduction with a description of the “debate” between “strong atheists” (anti-theists) and fundamentalists being carried out in books. He feels that the extremes are being represented in that discussion, but not the vast middle ground. Dr. Eagleman suggests that there is a vast possibility space between the extremes and that these possibilities are being ignored in the “great debate.”

He gives some examples of possibilities, a number of which are far-fetched but he addresses that by indicating that he was asked if he meant that “anything goes” when defining this pile of possibilities. His answer was “No . . . anything goes at first. Then we use the tools available to us to address them.” And those things that are disproven need to be crossed off the list. He gives the example of the religious claim that the earth is 6000 years old and contrasts that with the evidence that it is 4.5 billion years old, give or take.

He reinforced his call of possibilianism with a call for intellectual humility. His presentation is engaging and entertaining as always and. . . .

This is a lovely idea and it has been implemented in public discourse, just not in a systematic way. People share all of their ideas with others. We are a social species, after all. So, the ideas of crystal power, vaccinations are evil, aliens have been manipulating our DNA for millennia, etc. have been out in the open and are being discussed along with practical means to address climate change, wealth inequality, providing healthcare for all citizens, etc. In fact so of the somewhat dubious ideas seem to get more attention that the serious ones. I suggest that our possibility space is actually well populated at this point.

But the flaw in this idea is that it is based upon people making a commitment to submit their “possibilities” to the process and to abiding by the outcome. I suggest that this is not something most people are interested in. Why submit my cherished beliefs/private conjectures/unproven theories to a confirmation process, one that may show them to be correct, but may also show them to be nonsense? I don’t think so. As much as people want to be shown to be “right” they are vastly more driven to show that they are “not wrong.”

The history of Christian churches shows this often enough. Look at how resistant the Catholic Church was in allowing the Shroud of Turin to be tested scientifically. The same is true for a great many other “miracles” they claim are valid. If they don’t play the confirmation game, they can’t lose because they can have it however they want without fear of disconfirmation by not playing.

For people whose ideas are arbitrarily placed in the possibility space and tested, without their permission or confirmation, there are several procedures to follow. Discrediting the people, the process, and the data are all tried and true approaches to keeping their cherished beliefs sacrosanct. And, then, human gullibility always reigns supreme . . . after all Jim Bakker still has a ministry.

And, on top of it all, this is an inefficient use of effort. If trying to get from Point A to Point B for a vacation, for example, what do you think about the process of establishing all of the possible routes first, then evaluating them to find the best one? Rather we take shortcuts to find a sensible option, whether it is optimal is not important. We decide to take our car, then get out a road map and look for lines (roads) on a map connecting A with B, starting by leaving A in the general direction of B (not in all possible directions) and having road characteristics that appeal (freeways if time is short, back roads if the journey is paramount). Part of the attraction of possibilianism to rational people seems to be based upon getting some of the intellectual garbage we have created and culturally kept into their cross hairs, so it can be dispensed with. I don’t think the owners of those “ideas” will play that game.

October 21, 2019

Is Religion Driven by the Fear of Death?

Filed under: Culture,Reason,Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:48 am

Nan posted on one aspect of this article, but I thought it was the least interesting part of the article (Doubting Death: How Our Brains Shield Us From Mortal Truth by Ian Sample—Subtitle: Brain Seems To Categorise Death As Something That Only Befalls Other People).

I thought the interesting part was a psychological experiment that possibly showed that our brains automatically exclude thoughts about our own death. There may be no evolutionary benefit coming from dwelling on our own death, so we do not.

The implication I got was that the label pasted on religions as being death cults, primarily fostered by a fear of death, is a mistake. My comment was that the people I have encountered in my life spend little to no time a thinking about death in the specific or the abstract. The people who do this, in my opinion, are people who are selling something. Since we, apparently, want thoughts of our own demise to go away, a religious promise claiming that death isn’t so bad should fall on fertile ground, no? It is not that we have spent much time thinking about the topic, we are just presented with a way to avoid thinking about it. (I have noticed that when people are asked what Heaven will be like, they make something up on the spot . . . because they have given no thought to it beforehand . . . well thought beyond “being with Jesus,” or some such platitude.)


October 20, 2019

The “Limits” of Our Understanding, Part 2

As I mentioned in my last post, I am reading a book whose subtitle is “The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning.” I just got started so I don’t have much to say about the book, yet, but I have an initial reaction to a couple of things (one of which was covered in the previous post). Another of these was a metaphor used by the author called the Island of Knowledge. Basically it likens our total knowledge to an island in a sea of the Unknown. As we learn, the island gets bigger and likewise has a greater/longer shoreline where it contacts the unknown. So, as we learn more, there is even more to learn.

As metaphors go, this is fairly accurate, but it is also misleading. If you take it seriously, the “shore” would increase as the square of the diameter of the island, so our acknowledged ignorance would increase at the same rate as our knowledge. Implied is that the more we know the more we need to know. Sounds a little depressing, no? (Interestingly, our acquisition of knowledge as a species is accelerating.)

Let’s consider an example—knowledge of the universe around us.

In early history we believed that the “heavens” were limited to what we could see and were controlled by various deities (depending on your religion/culture). Fast forward about 5000 years and the telescope shows us that there is more there than meets the eye and we no longer believe that the planets and stars move in “their heavenly courses” by being propelled by supernatural entities. It seems that Newton’s theory of gravity accounted for “everything” quite nicely with no supernatural help. Just one hundred or so years ago, we felt that our Milky Way galaxy was “everything,” only to find out that it is one of myriad (hundreds of billions at least) similar galaxies. Today, we know that the universe is unfathomably immense (possibly infinitely so), expanding, and billions of years old.

Some consequences of this are that the nearest star is 4.3 light-years away from us in space and time. The light we observe from that star was radiated out 4.3 years ago. This is the closest star, all of the others are farther away in both space and time. Our galaxy contains hundreds of billions of stars and planets (best estimate) and is 70,000 light years away from the next closest galaxy. That is a vast distance and also 70,000 years of time away from here.

So, you can see our expanding “Island of Knowledge” has introduced trillions of objects to us we know next to nothing about. Argh! However, the vast majority of those objects are too far away in space and time to have any effect upon anything happening here and now. So, our need to know anything about those objects is a matter of curiosity and not necessity. All “unknowns” are not equal.

Anything happening in that neighbor galaxy will take 70,000 years for us to find out, so “Meh.” But what if 70,000 years ago a ferocious gamma ray burst occurred . . . in our direction . . . and it will arrive in just a few months. (Such a burst, if intense enough, could sterilize if not kill every living thing on this planet.) The time gap between us and “them” precludes direct communication, trade, mining, etc. but that doesn’t mean that things that happened in the past and are just being perceived here can’t have some effect, no? Yes, . . . and . . . again the sheer distance protects us. As the distance between a source of electromagnetic radiation and us increases, the intensity of the radiation decreases by the square of the distance. Did I mention that the other galaxy is 662,000,000,000,000,000 km (70,000 light years in km) away? Squaring that number creates a really big factor by which to decrease the intensity of the radiation. (I focus on radiation because it can travel at the speed of light and matter only a tiny fraction of that.) This is why we can only see a few thousand star by naked eye in even the clearest night sky. The others are far enough away to be too dim to see.

As another example, consider in our own solar system, how the distance to the Sun controls the planetary conditions. Mercury is so hot metals can flow ion its surface. The outer planets are so cold that common gases here on Earth are liquids and solids there. The reason for this is simply that the Sun’s radiation is diluted (as the square of the distance) the farther you get away from it. (If you have ever sat around a campfire in cold weather, you know this.)

So, back to “The Island of Knowledge.” It is true that the more questions we answer, the more questions become possible. Absolutely true. But that certainly doesn’t mean that those questions become more significant. In fact, it seems that they become less significant in many cases. And, again, the Platonic thinking of there being “ultimate knowledge” or “perfect solids,” and whatnot can lead one to think pessimistically. But philosophically this is the equivalent to taking the question “If a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody there to hear it, did it fall?” and transforming it into “If a tree falls in a forest on another planet, in another galaxy, did it really fall?” The first question helps college students learn to think. The second question would only elicit “Meh.”

Next Page »

Blog at