Anybody want an encyclopedia?

The Encyclopedia Britannica is going out of print–the company is just going to concentrate on online services from now on, according to the Times.

Back in the 70s we bought the first of the macropedia/micropedia sets of the Britannica — a big expense for newlyweds.  We still have it, sitting unused in its own special bookcase.

I remember the controversy over the new structure, which seemed unnecessarily complicated to me (and lots of other people).  I used to dip into the encyclopedia a bit, but I haven’t opened a volume in years.  I occasionally think it would be interesting to see what the state of knowledge was in some field back then, but I was never curious enough to actually find out.  I don’t think our kids ever used it.  The Times article mentions that these encyclopedias are widely available on Craigslist and eBay.  We’ve tried to give ours away–surely someone would have a use for it!.  But no success.  The world has passed it by.

Free to a good home…

Update: Some of us were reminiscing about encyclopedias, and we recalled that there was an Encyclopedia Britannica booth at the Harvard Coop way back when, manned by a distinguished silver-haired guy wearing a tweed jacket who patiently answered all the questions from the crowds besieging the booth desperate to purchase the latest edition.  Okay, that last part was a lie.  We never saw him talking to anybody, except maybe one of the clerks in the Coop’s book department.  We figure that the only people who would buy an encyclopedia at the Coop would be rich parents who thought that their kids needed one for their dorm rooms.  Why should Muffy have to trek over to the library and share an encyclopedia with the unwashed masses when she could do her research in the comfort of her well-appointed room?

What was that guy’s story?  How did he end up sitting by himself on a stool, waiting in vain for someone to ask him about the difference between the macropedia and the micropedia?  There’s a depressing novel in there waiting to be written.

The Big Bang Theory and Pope Pius XII

I’ve started reading A Universe from Nothing — $11.95 for the Kindle edition, not cheap for a short book but not ridiculous, I suppose.

The Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe was first proposed by a Belgian priest/physicist, George Lemaitre, in the 1920s. There’s some significance there, because religious people find the Big Bang very appealing.

Georges Lemaitre

During my endless commute I’ve been listening to a fabulous Open Yale course on Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics, and the professor, Charles Bailyn, notes that Catholic scientists tended to favor the Big Bang explanation, while atheistic scientists preferred the alternative Steady State theory.  The Big Bang was the one that finally received convincing empirical support in the 1950s, and here is Pope Pius XII exulting:

It would seem that present-day science, with one sweep back across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux, when along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies.  Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, [science] has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the world came forth from the hands of the Creator.  Hence, creation took place.  We say: “Therefore, there is a Creator.  Therefore, God exists!”

Here is Pius XII, who always struck me as a pretty grim-looking guy:

Pope Pius XII

Pius’s approach is standard.  The belief comes first, and if there is corroborating evidence, the believer will embrace it.  He may even come to believe that it’s the basis of his belief.  In this case, the pope is delighted to embrace modern cosmology when it can be interpreted as confirming the Church’s teaching.  But of course the teaching was there before the cosmological evidence, and it has no empirical basis whatsoever.

It is Krauss’s contention that the cosmological playing field has now changed.  And this is going to cause problems for theologians who have been content with the Big Bang Theory.  He notes that, when he talks about a universe from nothing, they challenge his definition of the word “nothing” — that it’s not really nothing if something can spontaneously appear out of it.  Ultimately, he thinks they want to define it as “that from which only God can create something.”  Which may make theologians happy, I suppose, and people who want to hold on to their beliefs.  But not the rest of us.

Stuff I Should Have Read in College

One of my background projects, which should take me well into the next century, is to read some of the books I should have read before real life took over.  After college it’s hard to go back and fill those gaps.  For me, these gaps are in political philosophy, moral philosophy, and economics.  Mostly, I’d like to understand why so many people believe so many things that seem to me to be obviously wrong, raised as I was as a knee-jerk liberal.  Am I the one who has these things wrong?  This is almost impossible to conceive.  On the other hand, how can I be sure?

So, let’s start with John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government.  It is also almost impossible to conceive, but I have nothing interesting to say about this treatise.  Even so, I’m going to say these three things:

  • Modern life is amazing.  You can pull John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government out of the air at no cost and read it on a device that also contains all your old photographs as well as Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and some games your kids have put there without your permission.  On the other hand, you have to put up with suboptimal optical character recognition.  It took me a while to realize that when I came across the word “cloth”, Locke really meant me to be reading the word “doth”.
  • Lock spends an inordinate amount of time explaining the duties parents have to their children, and vice versa.  This seems to be significant to his theory on how government developed historically, but it’s really pretty uninteresting to a modern reader.
  • Locke apparently was absent the day they taught about the three branches of government, because he comes up with something called the “federative” branch instead of the judicial branch.  (He got the first two right.)  The federative branch has to do with foreign policy, which he lumps in with the executive branch.  Apparently Montesquieu later came up with the right answer.

The no-free-will experiment, avec video « Why Evolution Is True

What is more interesting than free will?  Jerry Coyne finds it interesting, anyway.

The no-free-will experiment, avec video « Why Evolution Is True.

Also Sam Harris, according to Coyne.  During my endless commutes I have been listening to lectures by John Searle on the philosophy of mind, and he openly admits he hates lecturing on free will, because he has no good solution for it.  The only way he can make sense of free will is by invoking quantum indeterminacy, and he openly warns you to stop believing philosophers when they bring up quantum indeterminacy.