Meanwhile, back on Mars

I’ve temporarily replaced Mars with Fenway Park in my header, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lost interest in Mars!  Here’s a video of the descent:

This comes via Jerry Coyne, who has more detail.

And here is Sarcastic Rover, whose Twitter feed is pretty funny.  If I knew how to show tweets in a blog, I would do so.  Anyway, here’s a sample:

Hey NASA? If I find life, am I supposed to kill it, or be friends with it? If the answer isn’t kill, then forget I said anything.

It’s probably funnier as a tweet.

Knock-knock-knockin’ on the Large Hadron Collider’s door

I’m sure you’ve all been waiting with bated breath (or baited breath, which Google Ngram Viewer tells me is skyrocketing in popularity) for my final thoughts on Lisa Randall’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door.  Here are previous thoughts.

First, Lisa Randall is obviously a supremely brilliant and accomplished person.  This really makes me want to hate her, but I can’t quite.  She’s obviously doing her best to explain this hard quantum stuff to the likes of me, and it only kind of leaks out along the edges that she received word that LHC had finally been turned on (or something) while she was in Barcelona for the world premiere of an opera for which she had written the libretto.  Just shoot me now.

When I have difficulty understanding a science book like this, I naturally assume it’s me, not the writer. Undoubtedly that’s true here.  But even with that I think the book is a bit of a slog, because Randall doesn’t have an interesting point of view on her material, or at least an engaging style with which to simply tell the story.  Everything just kind of sits there.  It felt like a long term paper, and I’m being forced to give it an A because I can’t really find anything wrong with it.  I wonder if Randall ever got anything besides A’s.

Second, the book has a somewhat short shelf life, and it’s already apparently out of date.  The main part of the book is a description of the Large Hadron Collider and what we might discover from it.  The book came out last year, when the results were just starting to come out.  Here we are a year or so later, and one of the major theories she describes, Supersymmetry (SUSY for short), has apparently fallen by the wayside based on analysis of the 2011 results.  (I don’t know why I frequent the blog Not Even Wrong, since I understand virtually nothing the guy says — but, unlike Randall, he says it very engagingly!  The vision of the LHC results taking down the life’s work of thousands of theorists is terrifying–and, I’m sure, true.)

Finally, why does she have to add the “g” to the end of Knockin‘?  If Knockin’ was good enough for Dylan, why isn’t it good enough for her?  Anyway, here is Dylan, unplugged, with the original:

More on Kitcher and Scientism

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Philip Kitcher defends his essay (which I talked about here) against the criticisms it received from people like Jerry Coyne.  One of the criticisms is that he’s attacking a straw man — no one would claim that the study of history (let’s say) isn’t scientific in some meaningful way.  He claims there are such people.  I haven’t read the ones he mentions, so I can’t say.  He also reiterates his belief that the arts make a contribution to knowledge:

Knowledge is sometimes advanced not by arriving at some new true statement, but by reframing concepts.   As my essay argues, particular kinds of history and anthropology are very good at generating this sort of cognitive advance (besides the people I mention, think of Levi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Carlo Ginzburg). The same can be said for poetry, drama, fiction, visual art, and music. The great artists teach us to see the world differently, to divide it up in new ways.  That sometimes has profound consequences for our ways of living (witness my opening example) – and it sometimes affects the ways in which the sciences are practiced.

His “opening example” is about Britten’s War Requiem and our understanding of the bombing of Dresden.  But, honestly, I still don’t get it, and neither does Coyne, although he is more interested in religion and how it relates to charges of scientism (not that Kitcher claims religion to be a source of truth).  I suppose you could say we understand something about the horrors of war from reading the poems of Wilfred Owen, and we feel this understanding more deeply because his poems are so powerful.  Maybe Catch-22 helped us to see war differently, to reframe the concept of what it means to be a soldier.  Maybe this has consequences for our ways of living.  But, you know, big deal.  We’ve known about war since the Iliad.  What matters is the  aesthetic experience itself, which to me just isn’t particularly related to understanding or truth or knowledge.  What have I learned from listening to Beethoven’s Ninth?  Beats me.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth listening to Beethoven’s Ninth.

I think Kitcher needs to write another essay so I can be convinced otherwise.

What can we learn from Shakespeare — or the Beastie Boys?

Scientism has been a term of considerable opprobrium for some time. The Wikipedia article has lots of definitions; this one is representative: “the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable.”

The New Republic recently ran an essay by Philip Kitcher called “The Trouble with Scientism,” where he refers to it as “natural scientific imperialism.”  He says:

The enthusiasm for natural scientific imperialism rests on five observations. First, there is the sense that the humanities and social sciences are doomed to deliver a seemingly directionless sequence of theories and explanations, with no promise of additive progress. Second, there is the contrasting record of extraordinary success in some areas of natural science. Third, there is the explicit articulation of technique and method in the natural sciences, which fosters the conviction that natural scientists are able to acquire and combine evidence in particularly rigorous ways. Fourth, there is the perception that humanists and social scientists are only able to reason cogently when they confine themselves to conclusions of limited generality: insofar as they aim at significant—general—conclusions, their methods and their evidence are unrigorous. Finally, there is the commonplace perception that the humanities and social sciences have been dominated, for long periods of their histories, by spectacularly false theories, grand doctrines that enjoy enormous popularity until fashion changes, as their glaring shortcomings are disclosed.

He then tries to make the case that these observations represent differences in degree rather than differences in kind, and that the humanities and the social sciences have much good to offer in advancing human understanding.

I have to say that the whole essay seems to me to be an exercise in demolishing a straw man.  He never bothers to quote anyone advocating any of the positions he criticizes.  For example, he says:

The contrast between the methods of the two realms, which seems so damning to the humanities, is a false one. Not only are the methods deployed within humanistic domains—say, in attributions of musical scores to particular composers or of pictures to particular artists—as sophisticated and rigorous as the techniques deployed by paleontologists or biochemists, but in many instances they are the same. The historical linguists who recognize connections among languages or within a language at different times, and the religious scholars who point out the affiliations among different texts, use methods equivalent to those that have been deployed ever since Darwin in the study of the history of life. Indeed, Darwin’s paleontology borrowed the method from early nineteenth-century studies of the history of languages.

Well, duh.  Is anyone saying that (for example) the professors arguing about whether Middleton was a co-author of All’s Well That Ends Well aren’t doing science of a sort?  I suppose they’re out there, but I’ve never encountered them, and Kitcher doesn’t point us to any of them.  Historians, linguists, social scientists, musicologists — they are all using variants of scientific methodology to increase our knowledge.  Things may be messier in these fields than they are in physics — we’re not likely to ever know for sure whether the pro-Middleton or anti-Middleton folks are right; but they are clearly approaching the controversy as scientists — marshalling evidence in favor of one theory or another.

So, that’s one problem with the essay.  But the more serious problem is that Kitcher never quite gets to the point he implies that he’s going to reach, the one that usually comes up when people start talking about scientism: how art and religion are equally valid as science in arriving at truth and understanding.  Isn’t literature another way of knowing about the world?  Doesn’t religion teach us things that science can’t? Aren’t there, like, non-overlapping magisteria?

Let’s leave aside religion for now.  Let’s consider Shakespeare.  Obviously we don’t go to Shakespeare for knowledge.  You won’t learn the truth about Richard III by reading or watching Richard III.  You’ll come away from reading A Winter’s Tale think that Bohemia has a seacoast.  So maybe we don’t get the truth from Shakespeare; but what about the Truth?  Don’t we learn what it is to be human from Shakespeare?  Doesn’t he advance human understanding?  I suppose.  But that doesn’t seem to me to be particularly special or interesting.  I could read psychological reports about jealous husbands and probably learn as much about them as I do from watching Othello.

We read and watch Shakespeare for the aesthetic experience his plays provide — the beauty of the language, the artfulness of the plotting, the joy and terror we feel as his characters make their way through those plots.  Anything else is incidental.  So, I don’t get it.  I don’t learn anything special from Shakespeare.  As far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t add to my knowledge of the world.  Brian Vickers (not the NASCAR driver) does science; Shakespeare, not so much.

Oh, yeah.  Same thing for the Beastie Boys. And Beethoven.  And Vermeer.

This doesn’t say anything about the value of Shakespeare (or the Beastie Boys) versus the value of science.  Lots of things have value.  But I’m still waiting to be convinced that literature and music somehow advance human knowledge in the way that science does.

A Universe from Nothing

I finally finished the book.  It’s fairly short — please note that Summit is twice as long and a quarter of the price, and it contains absolutely no equations (although I’ll admit it has lots of Russian names to keep track of).

The first part of the book is an overview of the current state of cosmology — suffice it to say that things are looking weirder and weirder, and the more scientists find out space and time and matter and energy, the more difficult it becomes to present a tidy narrative like the Big Bang of why things are the way they are.  Much of this material was also covered in the Yale astronomy course I listened to, but that doesn’t mean I can understand it at even the most general level.  I certainly can’t judge whether Krauss is right.  He seems to have the credentials, although anyone who would write a book calledThe Physics of Star Trek has some ‘splainin’ to do (although it could be a great book, for all I know).

Krauss discusses the ramifications of modern cosmological research in the second part of the book. So:

Something from nothing. This is the key discussion.  There is now a scientific approach to understanding “creation” — how something comes from nothing.  It will undoubtedly not satisfy theologians, but putting creation ex nihilo within the reach of scientific explanation means that theologians and philosophers become irrelevant to the discussion.

The anthropic principle.  This is the puzzling concept that physical laws seem fine-tuned for our existence. If some of the baseline constants of the universe were even slightly different, life couldn’t have formed and we wouldn’t be here to measure those constants and ponder this puzzling concept.  Another way of thinking about this is Einstein’s famous question: “What I want to know is whether God had any choice in the creation of the universe.”  (What Einstein meant by God is not what theologians mean byGod.)  That is, do the laws of nature have to be what they are?  If not, why are they what they are?

The trendy cosmological response to this is the theory of multiverses, which Krauss supports.  There are lots of universes, goes the theory, maybe an infinite number, of which ours is just one.  Krauss says:

[I]n discussions with those who feel the need for a creator, the existence of a multiverse is viewed as a cop-out conceived by physicists who have run out of answers–or perhaps questions.  This may eventually be the case, but it is not so now.  Almost every logical possibility we can imagine regarding extending laws of physics as we know them, on small scales, into a more complete theory, suggests that, on large scales, our universe is not unique.

(That final sentence is not one of Krauss’s better ones.) If ours is not unique, then there is nothing special about the laws that govern it — they just happen to be ones that allow for the development of intelligent life.

Of course, to make this science, the multiverse theory has to be testable — and how can you test it if you can’t see or experience or measure anything outside our own little universe?  So is it science?  This guy, at any rate, doesn’t think so.

Here is Krauss’s summary of his book:

We have discovered that all signs suggest a universe that could and plausibly did arise from a deeper nothing–involving the absence of space itself–and which may one day return to nothing via processes that may not only be comprehensible but also processes that do not require any external control or direction.  In this sense, science, as physicist Steven Weinberg has emphasized, does not make it impossible to believe in God, but rather makes it possible to not believe in God.  Without science, everything is a miracle. With science, there remains the possibility that nothing is.  Religious belief in this case becomes less and less necessary, and also less and less relevant.

The afterword by Dawkins is inconsequential.