Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Noci-Notes ‘Skeptics and True Believers’ - #4

(First of this series.)
` It is now time for me to go over Chapter Three – The Known and the Unknowable!

` I admit it. I’m guilty of being strange in some ways and then rambling on about it in my notes. I often have trouble grasping metaphors or visualizing things in my head. I don’t even seem to understand what drives the True Believer, which mostly explains why I am not one of them.
` Nobody’s perfect.
` I don’t even trust myself to explain science, probably because my attempts have failed in the past so many times. I suppose this is because people are not willing to take my word for it.

` I don't really know why.
` Though I do technically have this authority, I’m going to let Raymo take over for a minute:

Science is boring by design. Scientific communication has evolved a style that is deliberately devoid of passion, poetry, and the longings and despairs of the human heart. Why? To get on with the business of finding out how the world works. Science is the one human endeavor that has proven relatively immune to the passions that divide us. There is no such thing as Jewish science, Christian science, Muslim science, Buddhist science. There is no such thing as male or female science, black or white science, Democratic or Republican science.
` This is not to say that individual scientists can’t be sexist, racist, or politically committed, or that science itself hasn’t been shaped by Judeo-Christian, European, male-dominated origins. But by keeping, as best we can, human differences out of the communication of science, we have forged a tool for human improvement that is anchored in repeatable, verifiable observation, rather than in prejudice and passionate conviction.
` Of course, don’t think that I am unaware of the fact that science is sometimes used, and distorted, usually for the ulterior motives of politicians and others with their own agendas. While most scientists would never exaggerate or fabricate their results in order to prove a point, it certainly happens sometimes when larger entities are at the controls.
` That aside, the work of the scientist is meant to expand our finite, little island of knowledge into the sea of more-or-less infinite mystery, as per Raymo’s analogy. Being myself, I find it hard to connect this with actual knowledge and actual mystery. It’s a visualization thing, I suppose.
` Basically, the point is that the tiny bit of knowledge we have forged into our bleak surroundings steadily grows, despite the fact that mystery intermingles with it and presses on it from all angles. The weaker points of scientific knowledge oftentimes cannot be built into stronger ideas – though some of the relatively strong conceptual structures are only deceptively so. These unstable and tenuous pieces are inevitably prone to breaking down under the weight of other structures into their underlying factual components and will have to be rebuilt (made sense of) in another way.
` Or, we can use Raymo’s much better-thought-out analogy, originally taken out of his book Honey From Stone:

We live in our partial knowledge as the Dutch live on polders claimed from the sea. ‘We dike and fill. We dredge up soil from the bed of mystery and still the mystery surrounds us. It laps at our shores. It permeates the land. Scratch the surface of knowledge and mystery bubbles up like a spring. And occasionally, at certain disquieting moments in history (Aristarchus, Galileo, Planck, Einstein), a tempest of mystery comes rolling in from the sea and overwhelms our efforts, reclaims knowledge that has been built up by years of patient work, and forces us to retreat…
` To further this analogy, he adds two points; ‘(1) The growth of the island does not diminish the sea’s infinitude, and (2) the growth of the island increases the length of the shore along which we encounter mystery.’ In other words, with the expansion of knowledge we have yet a broader horizon, more questions that we know to ask. Presumably, the number of questions will never cease to grow.
` The best condition for the creative work of the artist and scientist, he adds, is to keep one foot on the shore and one in the sea of mystery. Conveniently for myself, that is how I am best at operating.
` Next, Raymo goes on about the sense of being star-struck. Arcturus, and other bright stars, radiate for distances of hundreds of millions of light years in every direction. Of that light, the human eye can only pick up about one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
` Using another marine analogy, the oceans of earth are composed of about 320 million cubic miles of water, which is quite a bit of water. Dipping a pencil point into the ocean results in the tip being damp with a larger fraction of ocean water than the fraction of Arcturus’ light that hits the retina!
` And yet, this is ‘enough to excite the retina, signal the brain, form images, open our minds to the universe of the galaxies, inspire poets and artists, frighten, elevate, surprise, and ignite the shudder in the spine.’
` Yes, it can be pretty terrifying, and I know it! Once, I had a dream in which I almost went insane by nearly comprehending the size of the universe. Even apparently experiencing the size of the solar system in the area closest to the sun made me cower and try to look away from the dream as it unfolded.

` It reminds me of a scene in one of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books where one character’s brain is hooked up to a machine that makes people go insane by forcing them to comprehend the size of the universe.
` I suspect, however, that since I woke up in a cold sweat, quite uninsane though shaken for weeks, I may have had what I like to call a ‘fairy cake anomaly’ – apparently, I could not entirely carry out this task on my own. In any case, I managed to escape with my sanity.
` Barely.

` Ah, the next little section of the book contains part of an interview with Richard Feynman which I have previously referred to in response to Denny, who (apparently) commented that understanding the universe seems to take the magic out of it. [If you like, you can review the comments from that post.]
` At that time I had just read the beginning of Feynman’s book, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, although I had ironically paused in writing this post just before the point in the book where Feynman explains why analysis does not interfere with beauty:
First of all, the beauty [the artist] sees is available to other people – and to me too. Although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is, I can appreciate the beauty of a flower.
` I recommend holding that bit in your mind for a moment if you tend to think along the same lines as Denny’s statement – as many people do. ...Now:
At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty.
` I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter: there is also beauty at a smaller dimension – the inner structure. The fact that the colors in the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting – it means that the insects can see the color.
` Is that not also neat to think about?
` It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which a science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
` Yes, I would have to agree – science actually adds ‘magic’ to the world, because the more there is to perceive – the more that is visible – the more there is to appreciate! That is why science is so good for one’s creativity. All those bits of knowledge can inspire a lot. Plus, it’s fun.
` As Raymo puts it:

The scientist who does not allow herself to be spiritually empowered by art is the poorer for it. And the artist who dismisses science has closed himself off from half of the human adventure. As Feynman says, with his usual mischievous grin, “It’s much more wonderful to know what something’s really like than to sit there and just simply, in ignorance, say, ‘Oooh, isn’t it wonderful!’”
` As for myself, I do not really understand how anyone can say otherwise – it’s simply incomprehensible to me. I don’t know if that’s a good thing more than a bad thing. Regardless, all the curiosity and imagination that is involved in science is just as rich as in other contexts, such as art and philosophy.
` The only difference is that it is directed towards finding out things and therefore helpfully limited by what we can discern as existing (through means of not being able to prove it doesn’t exist). And yet, by doing this we can add more things onto the list of ‘facts’ from which to inspire creativity and imagination.
` It’s a fun little cycle.

` Well, that is all for now. Hope you enjoyed it. There will be more in a few days. Until then, be brave as you pick your way out of my lab. Watch out for the acid-spitting poultry; one of them has a sinus infection!


Galtron said...

By George, you're right! What a concept! Science is boring in order to be more fun!
You just set your personal things aside and let reality dictate the ideas that pop into your head!
And not to change the subject, but I think there is such a thing called Christian Science, it just has nothing to do with science. Or Christianity, as far as I know.
(Ouch! You know, you should maybe carry these acid-spitting birds around when old drunks and naked lawyers start after you!)

Denny said...

Ok, think that there might be hope for me yet ! I think that maybe im starting to understand ! holy revelations batman...

S E E Quine said...

` Yessss! Another underling to flock to my side when it comes time to take over the media and destroy.... I mean... glad to know you're understanding this fairly well!
` Really, I think everyone ought to be exposed to this kind of thing. Not only does it make one more aware of what science is all about - which almost nobody is! - it is also quite a handy thing to use in real life!

Aaron said...

I agree with your conclusions as well Doctor.

Acid spitting poultry always give me heartburn.

S E E Quine said...

` Grah! I've escaped from the library! Where was I? Oh, yeah:

` Mua ha ha ha ha haaaaa! More fresh meat!

` ...Speaking of which, you should see what the salmon can do!!