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Surrealism and surreal reality

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — perception and plutonium ]
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The sureralist master and master surrealist Salvador Dali here invokes optical illusion to illuminate the fickle nature of our perceptions of (non-surreal) reality:

As for reality itself, it has its own form of surreality — in this case, the dismal facts of plutonium stockpiles and their disposal, and their implications for politics (not to mention its conceivable / inconceivable continuation by other means).

All of which is unpleasant to conteplate, seldom discussed, and thus itself a form of perceptual illusion:

FWIW, I see a visual connection between these two images, although that may ba a personal quirk not shared by others. Again, a quirk of perception?

**

Readings:

  • RFE / RL, As Putin Swipes At U.S. Over Plutonium Disposal, Nuclear Cooperation Takes A Hit
  • Cheryl Rofer at Nuclear Diner, Plutonium Disposal Difficulties
  • Yesterday’s learnings in science and religion

    Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — theo-ecology, with a side of spaghetti ]
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    First, a Nobel laureate makes a distinction that should be of interest to all who study war — as also to those who “ain’t gonna study war no more”. Lucy Hughes-Hallett begins a New Statesman book review titled Chernobyl and the ghosts of a nuclear past thus:

    “This not a book on Chernobyl,” writes Svetlana Alexievich, “but on the world of Chernobyl.” It is not about what happened on 26 April 1986, when a nuclear reactor exploded near the border between Ukraine and Belarus. It is about an epoch that will last, like the radioactive material inside the reactor’s leaking ruin, for tens of thousands of years. Alexievich writes that, before the accident, “War was the yardstick of horror”, but at Chernobyl “the history of dis­asters began”.

    If we are not approaching the Eve of Destruction, nor the Zombie Apocalypse, nor an outbreak of nuclear war or some abominable plague, nor the Islamic Qiyama nor the Christian Armageddon, nor the drowning of our major coastal cities nor rapid heat death of most or all human life on earth, and if we forgo the notions of the anthropocene age, or the impoending singularity, why then the distinction that we have left the age of war (as teh major concern of the human race) and entered the age of disaster may be of interest, taxonomically speaking.

    But I understand that last paragraph contains a vast “if” encompassing a large range of “nors”.

    **

    Okay, getting back to what I hope is the positive side of the ledger while keeping an eye of the negative, A Western Soto Zen Buddhist Statement on the Climate Crisis just came out:

    As Buddhists, our relationship with the earth is ancient. Shakyamuni Buddha, taunted by the demon king Mara under the Bodhi Tree before his enlightenment, remained steady in meditation. He reached down to touch the earth, and the earth responded: “I am your witness.” The earth was partner to the Buddha’s work; she is our partner, as we are hers.

    From the Buddha’s time, our teachers have lived close to nature by choice, stepped lightly and mindfully on the earth, realizing that food, water, medicine, and life itself are gifts of nature.

    The Japanese founders of Soto Zen Buddhism spoke with prophetic clarity about our responsibility to the planet and to all beings. In Bodaisatta Shishobo/The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Dharmas Dogen Zenji, the founder of Japanese Soto Zen, wrote:

    To leave flowers to the wind, to leave birds to the seasons are the activity of dana/giving.

    **

    One particular concern of mine has to do with the impact of global warming on the heartlands of Islam, and Mecca in particular, as mentioned here in an NYT piece titled Deadly Heat Is Forecast in Persian Gulf by 2100:

    The research raises the prospect of “severe consequences” for the hajj, the annual pilgrimage that draws roughly two million people to Mecca to pray outdoors from dawn to dusk. Should the hajj, which can occur at various times of the year, fall during summer’s height, “this necessary outdoor Muslim ritual is likely to become hazardous to human health,” the authors predicted.

    Here’s another distinction worth pondering, this one drawn from the same NYT piece, quoting Erich M. Fischer of the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science at ETH Zurich:

    Anyone can experience the fact that humidity plays a crucial role in this in the sauna. .. You can heat up a Finnish sauna up to 100 degrees Celsius since it is bone dry and the body efficiently cools down by excessive sweating even at ambient temperatures far higher than the body temperature. In a Turkish bath, on the other hand, with almost 100 percent relative humidity, you want to keep the temperatures well below 40 degrees Celsius since the body cannot get rid of the heat by sweating and starts to accumulate heat.

    **

    Staying with Islam, and parallel to the Zen declaration above, we have this Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. Section 2.8 reads:

    In view of these considerations we affirm that our responsibility as Muslims is to act according to the example of the Prophet Muhammad (God’s peace and blessings be upon him) who –

  • Declared and protected the rights of all living beings, outlawed the custom of burying infant girls alive, prohibited killing living beings for sport, guided his companions to conserve water even in washing for prayer, forbade the felling of trees in the desert, ordered a man who had taken some nestlings from their nest to return them to their mother, and when he came upon a man who had lit a fire on an anthill, commanded, “Put it out, put it out!”;
  • Established inviolable zones (harams) around Makkah and Al-Madinah, within which native plants may not be felled or cut and wild animals may not be hunted or disturbed;
  • Established protected areas (himas) for the conservation and sustainable use of rangelands, plant cover and wildlife.
  • Lived a frugal life, free of excess, waste, and ostentation; Renewed and recycled his meagre possessions by repairing or giving them away;
  • Ate simple, healthy food, which only occasionally included meat;
  • Took delight in the created world; and
  • Was, in the words of the Qur’an, “a mercy to all beings.”
  • **

    It is curious to find Walid Shoebat, a vigorously anti-Muslim Christian apologeticist, making some of the same points in a piece titled It Is Now Confirmed And Scientists Now Predict That Mecca Will Be Destroyed By Extreme Heat:

    While many will cry “global warming”, it will actually be the sun heating up (Deut 28.23,24) (Zech 14.17). Another form of judgement prophesied by Isaiah appears to be extreme heat – heat severe enough to kill people:

    ‘Therefore … the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men are left’ (Isa 24.6)

    The book of Revelation appears to speak of the same end time events and predicts extreme weather as part of God’s judgement upon the nations. There will be fierce, scorching heat:

    ‘The fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun, and it was given to it to scorch men with fire. Men were scorched with fierce heat …’ (Rev 16.8,9)

    The Bible also predicted (as scientists now do) that Mecca will be “uninhabited”: “After her destruction, Babylon [Arabia] will merely be a home for demons, evil spirits, and scavenging desert creatures” (Revelation 18:1-2).

    **

    And finally, on a lighter note — sticking with religion, at least arguably, but definitely moving from science to science fiction, we have this (theological) ruling from a Nebraska federal district court in Cavanaugh v. Bartelt:

    This is not a question of theology: it is a matter of basic reading comprehension. The FSM Gospel is plainly a work of satire, meant to entertain while making a pointed political statement. To read it as religious doctrine would be little different from grounding a “religious exercise” on any other work of fiction. A prisoner could just as easily read the works of Vonnegut or Heinlein and claim it as his holy book, and demand accommodation of Bokononism or the Church of All Worlds. 6 See, Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle (Dell Publishing 1988) (1963); Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (Putnam Publ’g Grp. 1961). Of course, there are those who contend—and Cavanaugh is probably among them—that the Bible or the Koran are just as fictional as those books. It is not always an easy line to draw. But there must be a line beyond which a practice is not “religious” simply because a plaintiff labels it as such. The Court concludes that FSMism is on the far side of that line.

    And may the force be with you — or what’s a metaphor?

    Federal Court Rules In Favor Of Today’s Children

    Monday, April 11th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — further education & elucidation in matters scientific and legal are welcome ]
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    Tablet DQ generations

    **

    Full disclosure: Forbes‘ headline in its entirety reads Federal Court Rules On Climate Change In Favor Of Today’s Children — and that’s not a bad intro to the topic of this quite exceptional ruling.

    Other reading:

  • Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, Victory In Landmark Climate Case
  • US District Court for the District Of Oregon, Kelsey Cascade Rose Juliana, et al v USA, et al
  • Scientific American, Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago
  • Pope Francis : Francis Bacon

    Monday, March 28th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — and a tradition of natural philosophy profound enough to include Francis of Assisi ]
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    It’s a small point, perhaps, but M. Anthony Mills had a piece in The New Atlantis last Fall titled Is Pope Francis Anti-Modern? — which I ran across today because today 3 Quarks Daily posted it — and in it, Mills to my mind makes a false dichotomy between Pope Francis and Francis Bacon.

    Thus Mills writes:

    Pope Francis’s picture of nature is indebted to Genesis, the Biblical prophets, and the writings of Irenaeus, Aquinas, and Francis of Assisi — and, arguably, Plato and Aristotle — as well as to the twentieth-century theologian Romano Guardini (whose book The End of the Modern World is cited a number of times in the encyclical). But it is not true that doing so puts Pope Francis at odds with modern science. It does pit him against a particular understanding of modern science, bequeathed to us by Francis Bacon and, perhaps more importantly, by the Enlightenment philosophes such as Voltaire who claimed Bacon as the “father of experimental philosophy.” This view of science continues today in the cult of technological progress, which sees every problem as amenable to technocratic solution, no matter the environmental, social, cultural, or spiritual cost. This is what Pope Francis refers to and criticizes as the “technocratic paradigm.”

    To the contrary, at the end of his Preface to the Instauratio Magna, which Jerome Ravetz quotes in the final paragraph of his magisterial Scientific knowledge and its social problems, Bacon writes:

    Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all; that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things; but for the benefit and use of life; and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.

    And to bring the opposition between their two views into a nutshell, Mills writes of “the Baconian technocratic paradigm, which understands science and technology together as instruments for controlling and exploiting all of creation” — while Bacon is in fact opposed to such control and exploitation, as we see when he attacks certain of his contemporaries for precisely those failings:

    For we create worlds, we direct and domineer over nature, we will have it that all things are as in our folly we think they should be, not as seems fittest to the Divine wisdom, or as they are found to be in fact.

    **

    There are indeed two visions of science at work across history, as Ravetz is at pains to show. Perhaps we can see them best by comparing the two instances in which Mills and Ravetz respectively situate yet another Francis, St Francis of Assisi.

    Mills, as we have seen, locates him — along with the current Pope — on the anti-modern, and hence anti-Baconian, side of the ledger:

    Pope Francis’s picture of nature is indebted to Genesis, the Biblical prophets, and the writings of Irenaeus, Aquinas, and Francis of Assisi — and, arguably, Plato and Aristotle — as well as to the twentieth-century theologian Romano Guardini

    For Ravetz, St Francis is indeed a participant in one of two distinct streams of world exploration — the one he terms a “romantic” philosophy of nature:

    Looking back into history, we can find a similarity of doctrine or style, and sometimes a linking tradition, as far back as the Taoists of ancient China, through St. Francis of Assisi, to Paracelsus, William Blake, and Herbert Marcuse.

    He continues:

    Not every one of these figures would claim to be a natural scientist of any description; but as philosophers, poets or prophets, they must be recognized as participating in and shaping a tradition of a certain perception of nature and its relation to man. Granted all the variety of their messages and styles, certain themes recur. One is the ‘romantic’ striving for immediacy, of contact with the living things themselves rather than with book-learned descriptions. Another is ‘philanthropy’; the quest is not for a private realization, but for the benefit of all men and nature.

    And here’s the difference. Francis Bacon, Ravetz finds, stands clearly on this same “romantuc” side of the ledger. For:

    As deeply as any of his pietistic, alchemical forerunners, he felt the love of God’s creation, the pity for the sufferings of man, and the striving for innocence, humility, and charity; and he recognized vanity as the deadliest of sins.

    **

    Let me recapitulate that final paragraph of Ravetz’ book, quoted entirely from Bacon:

    Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all; that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things; but for the benefit and use of life; and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.

    This is virtually a monastic ideal of science, one which would be found most suitable in the halls of Hesse’s Castalia, and one well-suited to the Benedict Option as formulated by Rod Dreher.

    It is also, and significantly, as Ravetz points out, compatible with the truth concerns of Taoists, poets and theologians…

    **

    Hermann Hesse, it seems to me, gives a deeper and wider acknowledgment of both streams, bringing their “hard” and “soft” strands together in his history of the Glass Bead Game:

    How far back the historian wishes to place the origins and antecedents of the Glass Bead Game is, ultimately, a matter of his personal choice. For like every great idea it has no real beginning; rather, it has always been, at least the idea of it. We find it foreshadowed, as a dim anticipation and hope, in a good many earlier ages. There are hints of it in Pythagoras, for example, and then among Hellenistic Gnostic circles in the late period of classical civilization. We find it equally among the ancient Chinese, then again at the several pinnacles of Arabic-Moorish culture; and the path of its prehistory leads on through Scholasticism and Humanism to the academies of mathematicians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and on to the Romantic philosophies and the runes of Novalis’s hallucinatory visions. This same eternal idea, which for us has been embodied in the Glass Bead Game, has underlain every movement of Mind toward the ideal goal of a universitas litterarum, every Platonic academy, every league of an intellectual elite, every rapprochement between the exact and the more liberal disciplines, every effort toward reconciliation between science and art or science and religion. Men like Abelard, Leibniz, and Hegel unquestionably were familiar with the dream of capturing the universe of the intellect in concentric systems, and pairing the living beauty of thought and art with the magical expressiveness of the exact sciences. In that age in which music and mathematics almost simultaneously attained classical heights, approaches and cross-fertilizations between the two disciplines occurred frequently. And two centuries earlier we find in Nicholas of Cues sentences of the same tenor, such as this: “The mind adapts itself to potentiality in order to measure everything in the mode of potentiality, and to absolute necessity in order to measure everything in the mode of unity and simplicity as God does, and to the necessity of nexus in order to measure everything with respect to its peculiar nature; finally, it adapts itself to determinate potentiality in order to measure everything with respect to its existence. But furthermore the mind also measures symbolically, by comparison, as when it employs numerals and geometric figures and equates other things with them.”

    Basta!

    Semblance as translation

    Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — an MIT physica professor works in language games on biology ]
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    two solar machines
    Both a tree and a solar panel absorb and transform solar energy, and dump heat into their environment. How would a physicist explain why only the tree is alive?

    **

    I’m posting this because of one sentence:

    When you refuse to let go of two things that are divergent in the way they cause you to talk,” he says, “it forces you in the direction of translation.

    I found it in an intriguing article, How Do You Say “Life” in Physics?

    After a brief intro to MIT physicist Jeremy England, the article touches on interdisciplinary translation — which, when you think about it, is a very Koestlerian sort of bisociative process:

    Different fields of science, too, are languages unto themselves, and scientific explanations are sometimes just translations. “Red,” for instance, is a translation of the phrase “620-750 nanometer wavelength.” “Temperature” is a translation of “the average speed of a group of particles.” The more complex a translation, the more meaning it imparts. “Gravity” means “the geometry of spacetime.”

    Then we get theological, with a twist:

    “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth …” Here, the Hebrew word for “create” is bara, the word for “heavens” is shamayim, and the word for “earth” is aretz; but their true meanings, England says, only come into view through their context in the following verses. For instance, it becomes clear that bara, creation, entails a process of giving names to things; the creation of the world is the creation of a language game. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” God created light by speaking its name. “We have heard this phrase so many times that by the time we are old enough to ponder it, we easily miss its simplest point,” England says. “The light by which we see the world comes from the way we talk about it.” That might be important, thought England, if you’re trying to use the language of physics to describe biology.

    Finally, we get the basic bisociation laid out in plain words:

    As a young faculty member at MIT, he neither wanted to stop doing biology, nor thinking about theoretical physics. “When you refuse to let go of two things that are divergent in the way they cause you to talk,” he says, “it forces you in the direction of translation.”

    **

    I hadn’t thought much about translation as a form of semblance until now, but it opens vistas..

    An interesting article.

    The tree and the solar panel — there’s much food there for analogical thought.


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