With seven to eight excellent biographies of J. Robert Oppenheimer already written, one might grimace when he comes across another one. However, this one is written by Abraham Pais, one of the premier scientific biographers of the century. Pais was Einstein's assistant in Princeton and wrote what many consider to be the great man's preeminent biography, 'Subtle is the Lord'. He also personally knew many of the other greats of the century like Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, and Dirac. Pais himself was a distinguished physicist and spent a few years in Princeton when Oppenheimer was director of the Institute for Advanced Study. Any biography of this other great man written by such a worthy biographer is most welcome. The book releases on March31, and I eagerly await it.
Nullius in verba
Peregrinations of a restless soul
Thursday, February 24, 2005
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
GOD, SCIENCE, AND THE COMMON GOOD...
When I was a kid (eons ago) my father once gave me a very interesting book to read. The name of the book was 'In Search of Ancient Gods' written by a Swiss 'scientist' and 'archeologist', Erich Von Daniken. The book made the audacious claim that our earth had been visited many thousands of years ago, before the dawn of civilzation, by intelligent beings from outer space. Not only were these beings superintelligent, but, as evidence of their arrival, they also planted indisputable proof of the event. To back up this claim, Daniken traveled all over the world, and collected 'indisputable' evidence of his tales, including drawings of aeroplanes, sculptures of 'spacemen', enormous cryptographic symbols carved in caves, and even 'runways' for alien spacecraft drawn out in fields and meadows. He also said that what we call Gods were actually these supremely mysterious and beneficient visitors. While much of the evidence was later deemed as misinterpreted, and even fabricated, fans of Von Daniken continue to abound (with a website devoted to him), and he is still a best-selling author and speaker. I confess that I was fascinated as a child, and it was much later that I found out that he was a pseudoscientific, persuasive smooth talker.
Why do people want to believe so much in religion, God (Actually this particular concept is vastly more convoluted and really even beyond my comprehension, compared to some of the others. So while I mention it in this post, I will meekly try to post some more coherent stuff on it later) astrology, creationism, crop circles, and other kinds of pseudoscience? My (initial) two cents on it:
1. All of us (except the most impassive hearted) are looking for sources of emotional and spiritual support in our life. Does science and rational thought offer this? Unfortunately for many people; no. All science offers is a current best, tentative picture of the world, riddled with uncertainty. Moreover, the methods of science are hard and difficult to master, involving much patience, hard work, and determination. And one cannot guarantee success even at the end of this arduous process.
Contrast this with religion or God or all such similar ideas. They offer a quick refuge to our mind; never mind that their existence cannot be proved. They offer positive hopefuls as opposed to negative certains. After all, it is better to do wishful thinking and believe in an all-beneficent deity whose existence cannot be proved, than believe in a reality generation system (science) whose results themselves don’t necessarily offer psychological comfort. So the argument is largely psychological. We all like to believe that there is someone watching over us, who would make sure that we don’t come to harm if we pray to him (This, in spite of the fact that praying to him does not always bring about good fortune; in that case it is easy to say that that happened because we are sinners!)
Secondly, nobody can deny that these stories make fascinating reading material, just like the fairy tales we listened to as children. So are we still children?
2. The other reason, I suspect has to do with sheer egos and complexes. People, who are deeply religious or believe in pseudoscience, nonetheless believe in the fruits of science; in fact, they cannot live without them just like others. They are using science every time they drive their car, use their hair-dryers, or watch television. In other parts of their day, they, in my opinion, seem to forego their beliefs in the results of science and technology and are going to church, praying to God at home, and consulting astrologers. This sometimes would appear schizophrenic (if not downright hypocritical). The best example of these are the so called ‘scientific creationists’ belonging to the Institute for Creation Research, who are required to have an advanced scientific degree in order to become a member. Many of them have PhDs. So in effect, these distinguished scientists are giving up their scientific faith in order to convert to religious faith, while still appearing to don the cloack of science.
Now I have no personal argument with such people. If they kept their ideas to themselves, people like me would be mildly amused. I am also not saying anything at all about the character of these people, in so far as that is concerned, they are just like you and me. However, I can definitely say that they are being ‘unscientific’. Please note that I am not making a judgment on whether what they are doing is good or bad, or right or wrong. I am simply saying that it is ‘unscientific’.
It is remarkable how many people take offense if they are called unscientific! In hindsight though, it is not surprising. These people see themselves as successful engineers, doctors (and sometimes even scientists!), and in general people who take a rational attitude toward life. All this that they have done is surely ‘scientific’. So how dare can I say that this one action of theirs makes them unscientific?! Again, the explanation is psychological. People don’t like to be told they are unscientific. This is because of the aforementioned reasons; they are using the benefits of technology in their life, technology, which they don’t deny, is based on scientific principles, and suddenly there comes along some upstart who says that because they believe in God or astrology, they are unscientific; it hurts their ego. Maybe I should rephrase my statement to make it more precise. I should say ‘These people are unscientific when it comes to God, religion and astrology’ (I should make MY statement sound as scientific as possible!). I doubt whether people will accept even this cheerfully…(I suspect that their way out will be to say, ‘You cannot talk about a scientific attitude when it comes to God). This is also the reason why there is a science-religion rift in the first place. Religious people frequently see scientists (‘scientists’ here is used in the broadest sense of the term; I would include people like doctors and engineers among them) as self-aggrandizing know-alls who prophetically claim to have the answers to everything. In no small part due to the publicity by the press, many scientists are seen as ‘singular lights of rationality in a world full of darkness’ (something which they themselves don't claim to be). Now, if these people study even the most elementary of scientific knowledge in a critical manner, they will know that this is far from the truth. However, it is true that science and technology has provided us with explanations of many natural phenomena, as well as material comforts, to an unprecedented extent. In so far as that is concerned, scientists and scientific practitioners have a significant amount of knowledge about the world and they can use it to great results, good as well as evil. I think that because of this, many deeply religious people are caught between a rock and hard place. On one hand, they don’t want to adopt a scientific attitude toward everything in their life, and want to believe in some things on the basis of faith alone. On the other hand, they know that scientific knowledge is certainly not nonsense, and scientists may not wield power but they certainly contribute towards a deep understanding of the world and the well being of humanity. Many of them surprisingly also understand fully, that faith is not compatible with the scientific method in general. However, they don’t want to appear ‘selectively and conveniently scientific’, as this may lead to them being called hypocrites by many. The effect of such a situation is to make many religious people somewhat embittered against scientists. I don’t hesitate to say that to some extent, it is a situation similar to that of the fox and the sour grapes…
All this time, I have tried to put forth the situation as I see it, from the religious point of view. Now let me try to make a case for scientists (or scientific thinkers). First of all, it is almost a triviality to say that even they need emotional and spiritual support in their lives; we are all bound by this common yearning, which is unique to us as human beings.
Coming to the first point, the psychological argument is, I think well-taken. But the important question is, what do we really want from life? Do we want to be happy and live in ignorance, or do we want to face the bitter truth? If the goal is the first one, then I don’t think there is any contradiction in a scientist who invokes God before conducting an experiment, in the hope that God will make his experiment go right. He wants to be happy and this act makes him so. Once this stance of being happy is taken, it can essentially accommodate almost everything. In this case, even if the experiment produces wrong or discouraging results, the scientist can convince himself that had he not prayed to God before, it would have been much worse! The point is, if we want to be happy, then there is not much use in thinking about whether a particular action is rational, irrational, scientific or non-scientific. But is this attitude really keeping in tune with morality? Many times it is clearly not. For example, a man can be happy because he hears voices in his head (which he assumes is God speaking) that tell him to go and murder someone. He is happy to do that because he ardently believes in something. Does this make sense?
My point is, that it is better to face the bitter truth than live in ignorance.
Interestingly, does even science show us the way toward this bitter truth? Well, first of all, scientific truth should not be classified as ‘bitter’ or ‘favourable’ since whatever it is, that’s the way it is. There is no use trying to cloak the nature of scientific truth in human attributes. However, more importantly, science never claims to have found ‘the truth’, no matter whether it is bitter or not. I think this is an important point, which actually goes dead against what religious people think about the infallibility of science. There is no ‘truth’ as far as science is concerned. In fact, we don’t even know what the truth might look like. What we have are merely good and bad models of reality. Some of them (like quantum mechanics) are very good indeed (Although I still think it does not make much sense to ask whether they represent ‘the truth’). Others, like evolution, have some ambiguities in them, but still represent the best possible model under the given circumstances, and commensurate with the current evidence. Even though they may have certain weak points in their details, the overall argument is almost indisputable. This is a far cry from religion or astrology or creationism, where extremely general laws and entities, which are almost non-verifiable, are thought to control the lives of human beings. If it is anyone who claims to believe in ‘the ultimate truth’, it is religious people, and not scientists.
Therein rises the conviction that science is tentative. Frankly, I think that religious people have never understood the meaning of the word ‘tentative’ in this context. They think that because science is tentative, it is not a good representation of ‘reality’. So they think that their ‘models’ of reality like ‘God’ ‘creationism’ and ‘astrology’ may be better, or at least equally valid descriptions of reality. It is important to understand that there are countless things in science, which are supported by rock solid experimental facts. Because of this, it is almost impossible, if not impossible, that a theory like gravitation can be wrong. I do not deny the fact that there is a ‘finite, non-zero probability’ that apples will suddenly start rising up from the ground. However, there is so much experimental evidence to support the contrary hypothesis, that it is almost perverse to consider that as a valid possibility.
Most ‘models’ like God and creationism, are not supported by one iota of experimental evidence and are far from even being ‘tentative’. Now one way to circumvent this problem is to forsake experimental evidence itself and say that there would be a method different from ‘experiment’ that scientists had never imagined in their wildest dreams. If that is the case, then one must also be prepared to give up his belief in what he sees, feels or hears; in most cases, ‘experiment’ refers to nothing more complicated than recording and measuring what we see, hear, smell and touch. I doubt whether such a person will be judged a rational person by anyone, whether scientific or not! (Although I am sure that scientists attached to the philosophical interpretation of quantum theory will try to convince me that there are many such people among them!) The bottom line is that the usual argument made by such people is a ‘reductio ad absurdum’ argument, which is one of the most general tricks used by pseudoscientists to make their case, and in fact is, I believe, the reason for their valid existence in the first place. Simply hurl accusations at scientific theories without producing evidence of your own. Unfortunately, ‘guilty unless proved innocent’ may be a good strategy in the capricious court devised by the human judicial system, but it is anything but a convincing maneuver in the much more stringent court of scientific proof. In science, lack of proof for a theory does not, ever, mean proof for another theory. A theory is considered valid, if and only if definite, causal, unambiguous proof can be procured for it. Again, this is ‘merely’ a point that reinforces the previous simple fact about science; ‘It is not an easy state of affairs’. (Nobel Laureate Max Perutz even wrote a book called 'Science is not an easy life'!)
In my opinion, it is religious beliefs that are uncertain and science that is much more certain. It is ludicrous and perverse to gang up on the small amount of uncertainty present in scientific theories, especially when there is no certainty at all in pseudoscience. From the viewpoint of science, religious beliefs simply don’t make sense because they are unverifiable.
So what about the ‘emotional factor’ that we were talking about? All of us need a refuge, no matter how strong we are, which we can turn to occasionally. Sure. But why should it be God? I firmly believe, for one, that a strong and loving family can provide any amount of emotional support that a person needs. It’s a pity that in today’s indifferent world, this is not seen as frequently as it should be. If THIS is the reason that people turn towards God, I must say our world is in a sorry state of affairs indeed! However, I agree that even with such a family, many of us yearn for that missing spiritual ingredient in our life, which we turn to in solitude or when we are disturbed. It is heartening to think of an omniscient, knowing and smiling force, which would becalm us in such moments, and personally I see no contradiction in people turning to that abstract entity called ‘God’ in such moments. However, we have to ask ourselves how far we have to stretch this emotional buttress? Do we want to let it influence other parts of our life, and our very existence, not to mention that of others? The real problem begins when this entity starts to dominate our lives and our psyche to such an extent that we become slaves of our own state of mind. My question is, why can’t we turn to God only when we need him, just like how we go out into the mountains only when we need a vacation? Nobody insists on converting his residence into a vacation resort full of mountains, does he? So why do people have to insist on having God in every aspect of their life, dictating every small action of theirs, and finally trying to completely overwhelm their interactions with the rest of society? Why does God have to play a role in stem cell research, college and school education, political decisions, and health care decisions? I believe that one of the greatest problems of our society has always been the constant effort to unify church and state by hook or crook (something which the Christian religion itself forbids). Nobody would have a real problem if religious people kept their religion, beliefs and God to themselves (Of course, this is part of a much much greater problem, one of the greatest of the world's concerns, encountered since the dawn of the modern world; the Crusades, Israel-Palestine, Kashmir and the Christian-Jew conflict represent the tip of this humungous iceberg). I would respect a person who believes solely in God and simply does not believe in science, countless times more, than I would a person who tries to dress up God in scientific clothes to try to convert scientists to his creed. This situation is very different from appealing to God on a very personal, and an ‘available as per need’ basis. I remember an illuminating quote from Voltaire; ‘If God did not exist, man would have to invent him!’ I think that this is a truism. The tragedy is that we have let the truism become a dogma.
The point of the whole argument is that we need God because that concept provides us with a virtual and comforting force that is ‘perfect’. We believe it is perfect because we don’t ask that its existence be verified, nor do we even think that it can be done. While such an attitude is ok for indulging our emotional insecurities (and I am not saying this in any derogatory sense; all of us have them and need to indulge them), it is a great tragedy if it is going to pit us against science and rationality, which has provided so many benefits to us and showed us the path to knowledge. I think that the whole argument is about the simple adjustment to harsh reality that all of us need to make. Science is not perfect, but it is the best thing we have. If we think that’s unfair and uncertain, we should understand that that’s the way the world is. It’s our problem if we cannot come to terms with it. While it is understandable in an emotional sense that religious people turn away from the harsh, uncertain ways of science, it is quite unforgivable that they are not wise enough to understand the beauty of scientific knowledge, the solace that it offers by providing many explanation that ARE largely certain. And it is the biggest tragedy of all, that they would put the world’s and our future generations’ rationality in permanent peril by compounding their disdain for science with a firm and frequently fanatic conviction in ‘their God’ and ‘their beliefs’. They want to oppose rationality simply because they don't like it or understand it. So, to counter the ‘psychology argument’, it suffices to say that we need to accept the harsh reality that is science and the world. Richard Feynman put it directly and plainly; “That’s the way nature is. You don’t like it? Go somewhere else! To another Universe, where the laws are simpler!”
P.S.: There is absolutely no personal offense intended in the above post. I have many great friends who are deeply religious people, and even if we have perpetual arguments, there is never anything personal in them. In all this debate, it is heartening to see that the basic mores and values of human relationship still hold strong and unscathed.
Tuesday, February 22, 2005
MODERN ART?? NO! DRUGS!
Incredible as it may seem, these are electron microscope pictures of crystallized DRUGS, including many common and important ones. There are literally hundreds of these and much more at Molecular Expressions.
There is beauty in the world at many scales of existence...
2. Taxol (The best selling anti-cancer drug)
3. Omeprazole (Omez; Antacid)
4. AZT (The first worldwide anti-HIV drug)
5. Heroin (Need to say what it is?!)
6. Atorvastatin (Lipitor; currently the best selling-drug in the world)
7. Caffeine (The daily dose of stimulation with questionable medical value)
8. Ibuprofen (One of the most common anti-inflammatory drugs. Perfectly safe?)
9. Fluoxetine (The famous Prozac; from depression relief to suicidal tendencies...)
10. Sildenafil (Viagra; The wonder drug?!)
Friday, February 18, 2005
YOU DRIVE ME CRAZY BABY...
The sex pheromone of the female German cockroach, Blattella germanica has been identified by researchers from Cornell university as 'gentisyl quinone isovalerate'. A tiny speck of it can lure males from literally miles away and drive them crazy. The researchers synthesized the pheromone after identifying its structure. Then they put it right alongside a pathogen that was lethal for the cockroaches. The males would get attracted to the compound, get infected by the pathogen in the death trap, and then spread this killer among themselves. The researchers say 'This is like spreading syphilis among the cockroaches'. The German cockroach is the most prevelant cockroach worldwide, and one of the most widespread pests in history.
The research was published in the February 18th issue of Science.
I was reminded of some similar research published by star Harvard chemist Stuart Schreiber in the early 1980s, when he synthesized the sex pheromone of the American cockroach, a molecule with a very unusual structure (For chemistry enthusiasts, a bis epoxide). The defining moment for Schreiber came when he put a whiff of the synthetic chemical on the antennae of male cockroaches; they went into a mating frenzy, and in the end, all that was left was broken legs and antennae...Schreiber's wife Mimi recounts how, when he used to come home from his laboratory, she used to insist that he wash and rewash and take a shower at least twice; these pheromones are super-active in incredibly small concentrations, and she was petrified about inviting scores of unwanted guests!
(Later, Schreiber became a founder of the new science of 'chemical genetics'-using small organic molecules to control key genetic events like regulation of the cell cycle. In the opinion of many, he is definitely a contender for the Nobel Prize)
On a similar note, here is an incredibly high resolution photo of an apparatus developed by one of the authors in the Science paper, designed to measure the response of fly antennae to various fruit 'smells'.
NUTSHELLS OF THE UNIVERSE...
In 'The Universe in a Nutshell' Stephen Hawking brings his characteristic wit and clarity to explaining the most esoteric and exotic concepts of modern physics to the reader. While I personally think that the poor man has been too glorified by hagiographical readers, there is no doubt that he is one of the most brilliant physicists of our time, and has an unlikely existence; struck by motor neuron disease in his twenties, doctors gave him two years to live. Battling all odds (and a difficult marriage) he stuck it out, becoming totally paralysed in the process, but contributing fundamentally to our understanding of the universe.
In 'Music to move the stars', his now divorced wife brought out an endearing portrait of the man. Hawking's own book 'A brief history of time', was one of the best-selling science books ever. Personally, I think the book's success owed more to the condition that it's author was in, and to the subject itself-astrophysics has always drawn many enthusiasts-than the actual content, which nonetheless was very interesting.
In 'The Universe in a Nutshell', Hawking builds upon his previous exposition and leads the reader through a whirlwind tour of such things as black holes, Schrodinger's cat, 'm' and 'p' 'branes', worm holes and time travel, and discusses those eternal questions of what is time, whether god exists, and whether the universe has a beginning or an end. Again, I really think that the true appeal of these topics lies in their fantastic science fictional and also religious implications, than their actual scientific content; most readers, including me, could never ever hope to understand the complex math behind these things.
This book is perhaps the best illustrated popular science book I have ever come across. Hawking has put in much thought about the lavish character illustrations, cartoons, and pictures that virtually inundate the book (including one with Hawking having Marilyn Monroe on his lap...fictional, of course!). Once or twice, an equation stares at the reader, but not anything that requires an understanding of more than secondary school math.
All in all, a very entertaining journey through a fantastic world-except that in this case, a lot of it is supported by hard science.
One of my favourite quotes from the book, which Hawking delivers with simple clarity (in rough paraphrase):
"Astrologers make predictions about the future of human beings based on the motion of the planets. This would be a scientific proposition and can be verified, but only if they stuck out their necks and made definite predictions. However, astrologers cleverly escape the test of scientific veracity by making predictions that are so vague that either they can never be verified, or in general, they will always be true. For example, 'You will experience beneficient happenings in the next few days' or 'Travel highlights your future'!"
However, Hawking also says that the real reason why scientists don't believe in astrology is because by any stretch of imagination, they cannot envisage the laws of physics acting in such a way that would cause the motion of the planets to actually influence the life of these tiny, insignificant (from the point of view of the universe!) specks on a small planet called earth!
Monday, February 14, 2005
'Redneck Ode to Valentine's Day':
(Although parts of it are predictably mushy, there's some interesting good ol' Southern humour in it)
Kudzu is green,
my dog's name is Blue
And I'm so lucky
to have a sweet thang like you.
Yore hair is like cornsilk
A-flapping in the breeze.
Softer than Blue's
And without all them fleas.
You move like the bass,
Which excite me in May.
You ain't got no scales
But I luv you anyway.
You have all yore teeth,
For which I am proud;
I hold my head high
When we're in a crowd.
Still them fellers at work
They all want to know,
What I did to deserve
Such a purty, young doe.
Like a good roll of duct tape
Yo're there fer yore man,
To patch up life's troubles
And stick 'em in the can.
Yo're as strong as a four-wheeler
Racin' through the mud,
Yet fragile as that sanger
Named Naomi Judd.
When you hold me real tight
Like a padded gunrack,
My life is complete;
Ain't nuttin' I lack.
Yore complexion, it's perfection,
Like the best vinyl sidin'.
Despite all the years,
Yore age keeps on hidin'.
And when you get old
Like a '57 Chevy,
Won't put you on blocks
And let grass grow up heavy.
Me 'n you's like a Moon Pie
With a RC cold drank,
We go together
Like a skunk goes with stank.
Some men, they buy chocolate
For Valentine's Day;
They git it at Wal-Mart,
It's romantic that way.
Some men buy fine diamonds
From a flea market booth.
"Diamonds are forever,"
They explain, suave and couth.
But, I got you a gift,
Without taste nor odor,
Better than diamonds...
it's a new trollin' motor!
Saturday, February 12, 2005
LORD OF THE FLIES:
Just finished watching 'Lord of the Flies', based on Nobel Laureate William Golding's classic novel. Although I had read the novel a few years ago, somehow the story did not make a real impact on me then. It's one of the most thought provoking movies I have seen in recent times (of course it's really the STORY that's thought provoking).
In a nutshell, the story challenges the idea of civilization that we take so much for granted and asks whether human beings are truly civilized or not. Of course, the negative answer for this can be supported by scores of events in world history; the holocaust being the most prominent example. However, in the Lord of the Flies, Golding makes the perspective somewhat more chilling and penetrating as it's seen through a child's eyes.
The Lord of the Flies brings up again the fundamental issues associated with heirarchy and mob psychology. It tells the story of a group of English schoolchildren stranded on an island during WW2. In order to survive, they must work together, and Ralph, a natural leader takes a democratic attitude towards this, delegating tasks and taking votes before embarking on endeavors and decisions. Supporting him is his sidekick Piggy, a chubby boy with a rational mind. However, quite naturally, away from the restraints of home and parents, many of the other boys want to play, swim, or hunt pigs. Gradually, Ralph starts to lose his touch, and his suggestions start being neglected, and then downright opposed. Leading the opposition is Jack, an aggressive and short-tempered boy. Slowly, he forms a clique of his own, which finally includes most of the other boys. In his new role, Jack assumes a totalitarian bearing. Rumours of a 'monster' in a cave further fuel Jack's group's crazy emotions, and finally, during a savage looking dance of glee (which follows just after they have killed a pig), they end up spearing to death one of Ralph's proteges, mistaking him in the night for the 'monster'. After this, things slide down completely, as the last threads of civilization are broken. During a seemingly benign act, in which Ralph and Piggy try to establish a truce with Jack's group, Piggy is killed with a big rock from the top of a cliff by two boys from Jack's band. The whole story finally ends with Ralph barely escaping with his life, pursued by Jack and his savage eyed henchmen. (The boys are finally and quite unexpectedly rescued by Navy officers).
The Lord of the Rings raises a number of questions about mob psychology and the robe of civilization that we claim to have donned. I thought that the most pertinent were the following two:
2. The Lord of the Flies really talks about the true meaning of being civilized. It reinforces the message that we seem to be civilized merely because of the restraints of society, and given an opportunity, even the most benign among us can engage in barbarism, especially when controlled by mob psychology (A fact again exemplified by the story of many brutal regimes). The fact that this story is about children makes it very much striking. For the boys on the island, the simple fact that there were no elders or parents to keep them in check led them to commiting unspeakable acts. (I will let a child psychologist build on that aspect of the story)
3. In my opinion, the other note the story concludes with is more optimistic. In The Lord of the Flies, evidently, the conflict between the boys is a matter of the survival of the fittest. It is also obvious that, in the end, the 'fittest' is not signified by the clear headed and pacifist Ralph, but by the belligerent Jack. Interestingly, in a civilized and 'normal' modern world, Ralph, with his level-headedness and non-agressive and democratic nature, probably would have been a much more successful leader than Jack! In fact, Jack could have easily been cast on the sidelines because of his aggressive and rash personality. This fact only reassures us that with the passage of civilization, the shift of preference from Jack to Ralph probably demonstrates that we HAVE become civilized.
Thus, in my opinion, the Lord of the Flies leaves us with two important messages; that civilization has been a hard earned legacy, and that we should still keep on fighting to preserve it, since even now it's linked to our sanity by a surprisingly fragile connection.
1. I woke up really early even though I knew it was a Saturday
2. I ate three bowls of cereal even though it was lunchtime.
3. I made a heroic attempt to refrain from watching 'The Pianist' because I knew that it would keep me occupied and my mind tortured for the next three days, bringing back many memories and questions. I succeeded!
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
...AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY:
J. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, two guiding lights of science and morality of the twentieth century. This photo was taken at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, where Oppenheimer was Director, and Einstein a member. Einstein had permanently come to the United States in 1933 to escape Hitler's anti-semitism.
I am starting to fear that I have an obsession with J. Robert Oppenheimer. I first read about the man back in college, and was immediately struck. Since then, I can say without hesitation that I have read ALL of his biographies ( some 7-8, at least as signified by Amazon.com and many other authoritative books; would be glad if you could point one out to me that I have missed) multiple number of times. Yet, I cannot seem to have enough, and keep on checking them out of the library again and again, and ordering and reordering them from other libraries via Interlibrary Loan (ILL). (See my review of Jeremy Bernstein's book, 'Oppenheimer: Portrait of an enigma')
What is it about the man that so attracts me, just like it attracted his students and a host of other people back in sunny California in the 1920s and 30s? Extreme intelligence? Austere sublime nature? Knowledge of things wide and diverse? I don't know.
All I know is that this slavish admiration that I have for him would be merely another reason to pounce on his new biography that has very recently been published in honour of his hundredth birth anniversary. In 'J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century', acclaimed biographer and writer David C. Cassidy spins a riveting and extremely interesting tale which puts this great man in context, in the middle of a century that witnessed great upheavals. In these, he was the observer as well as the participant. The most striking general scientific paradigm of the century, apart from the revolutions that were breathing new life into the fabric of the cosmos and of life, was the beginning of 'big science'. It was also the beginning of the 'American century' as we know it, spurred on by the advent of science and technology, and the fortuitous happenstances that the unfortunate act of war brought upon this country. People like Oppenheimer were right in the middle of this prophetic change. Although this particular subject with specific reference to Oppenheimer has been tackled in a disconnected way in many of his other biographies and books, Cassidy is probably the first one to weave the man and his times together into a coherent and insightful whole. In many ways, Oppenheimer defines the scientific and moral personality at the heart of those times. In a way, 'Science' and 'Morality', both in a general way provide a good description of the time that was the twentieth century.
Growing up in New York, Robert attended the Ethical Culture School, a school whose strikingly moral looking philosophy believed in the inherent importance of ethics and the noble constraints of morality aimed at the betterment of mankind, independent of creed and religion. However, this institution was torn between the dictums of morality and the callings of practicality when war broke out in Europe. It had to reconcile itself with the Wilsonian Ideal of 'the morality of the victors'. Cassidy lucidly depicts this institution, and the changes which forced it to revisit its professed philosophy, something which has been rarely seen in detail elsewhere. Young Robert was also affected by this philosophy, and later on, coupled with the austere messages from the Bhagavad Gita which he read, it turned his personality into a strange and at many times, tortous, conglomerate of right and wrong.
In the 1920s, Oppenheimer was most fortunate, and well poised to participate in perhaps the greatest revolution that science had seen, the twin package of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. In those days, the focus of scientific excellence was in Europe, with Copenhagen, Cambridge and Gottingen being the greatest centers of learning in the world. There, people like Niels Bohr, Ernest Rutherford, Arnold Sommerfeld and Max Born were training an entire generation of outstanding physicists and chemists, and Oppenheimer was fortunate to be one of them. However, war leaves its deep and far reaching scars, and as the shadow of totalitarianism extended across this magnificent continent, the reins of science became free to be harnessed by men and women who were causing ripples in the scientific world. The practical mindedness and 'can-do' spirit of the American psyche first became apparent in those times. A country that was struggling with depression slowly but surely rose to the cause. The foresight and action that has always characterised American science and business first emerged during those times. Foundations like the Rockefeller foundation started sending promising young men to Europe to quarry in the exquisite knowledge that was being created there. These men and women came back to their country, with a determination to make it second to none in science. Universities forged alliances with industry, unheard of amounts of money started to be donated by wealthy philanthropists for scientific research. The University became the archetypal epitome of discovery and scientific freedom. Men like Oppenheimer and his colleague, Ernest Lawrence, were among the initiators of this wave of technological excellence that can be seen today. Everything suddenly became big; 'big science', 'big machines', like Lawrence's magnificent cyclotron, 'big money', and big America. Cassidy profiles this period of unprecedented progress very well.
Then came war. First and foremost, it brought the United States a windfall of the most brilliant scientists of the time; Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, John Von Neumann, Edward Teller, and the biggest fish of them all, the austere sage Albert Einstein. As someone said, 'The Pope of Physics has moved'. His home became the new Vatican of physics. All of these great men and women came to their adopted country to escape the ravages of racial discrimination and fanatic nationalism initiated by Hitler and Mussolini. Europe, as they knew it, was on the wane. Their beloved continent was never to be what it was before. On the other hand, they had arrived in the new land of opportunity. American science would start booming, and American leaders of science would be ecstatic. A whole group of 'scientific managers' (another creed that would be the legacy of big science) took the administrative responsibility of steering their country's scientific resources, in their hands. Among these were Robert Millikan and Arthur Compton, both Nobel Laureates, Vannevar Bush, a close confidant of Roosevelt, and James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard. They made sure that research was well-funded and scholarships were doled out to bright young people without reservations. Promising American men and women of science would no longer have to leave their nation in order to become scientific apprentices at the meccas of learning. They could now rely on their own leaders, extraordinary men who were poised for breakthroughs in science and technology. Undoubtedly leading this remarkable generation, at least in physics, was Robert Oppenheimer. Under his tutelage and guidance at the University of California, Berkeley, America's best physicists now had a home of their own, and a father figure whom they idolized. Almost every theoretical physicist of the time who later went on to high deeds, sometime trained under Oppenheimer.
Then came war, and ironically, it brought the United States good tidings, at least in the beginning. More brilliant emigres. And more money to fuel the great machine of technological progress. War production suddenly galvanized into action all that work force that had laid dormant during Depression times. The United States had become the most resource rich and advanced nation in the world. All that 'big science' that had begun could now be put to good use. As if being called to such a cause, an event came to the notice of scientists, one that would change America and the world forever. Fission, and then Pearl Harbour gave an impulsive and unforseen impetus to the nation's scientific and political establishment. The rest is history. Oppenheimer became the head of the world's most top secret laboratory. The war amassed the American work force and capital power as never before. The most expensive project in history produced the most destructive weapon the world had ever seen, obliterating entire generations in a heartbeat. Although it ended the war, it stirred up many more problems and questions than it had solved or answered. Politics had finally become inextricably enmeshed with science, another legacy of the American century. America was a superpower now, although the threat of communism would always be a thorn, in no measure small, in her side. The state of the times was also driven home when Oppenheimer had his security clearance taken away by men from the Government having a perverse sense of patriotism, another instance of the unfortunate but permanent amalgamation of politics and science.
Cassidy's book portrays this century well. It WAS an American century, there is no doubt about that. It changed many things forever. Scientific research would no longer be the same, requiring and engendering intense competition between giant institutions for unheard of funds, a trend that is all too obvious today. It also produced technology that we have yet to psychologically come to terms with, and maybe never will. And it raised eternal and tortous questions of morality that continue to be harrowing. Robert Oppenheimer, in a way, epitomized all of this, many times as an initiator. He and his avuncular predecessor Niels Bohr, both struggled to cope with the paradoxical nature of the most destructive weapon that would possibly end all wars. It did not turn out to be that simple, though, as the years showed, and we permanently became mortals walking a devious precipice. Oppenheimer's brilliance, versatility, and moral persona put him in a position where he could influence the world around him, and he did. But he raised many many questions that he would grapple with till the end, regarding the complex and deep repurcussions which his science had produced in the form of a terrible weapon. Because of his unusual intelligence and foresight, he was in a unique position to be a part and a questioner of those important times. The American century, inspiring as it is, is also sobering. Oppenheimer's life is a telling representative of the problems that we have solved in our quest for scientific as well as moral truth, and the many more new problems that we have created. Most importantly, Cassidy's book and Oppenheimer's life both tell us that whatever else happens, we must never cease to explore.
I greatly enjoyed the book.
I had requested two checked-out books about six months ago which I had still not received till today. Usually the policy is to inform the person who has checked them out to return them in 14 days. Suddenly, I saw them yesterday on my advisor's shelf. However, I did not say anything to him that time. Then today, I get an email from the librarian saying that she has finally received those books which had been checked out many months back, and 'apparently, they had been 'held' by a professor who never checks his emails'. I don't want to spoil her sweet sense of frustration by telling her that 'the professor' is MY advisor.
P.S.: This is the beginning of my attempt to train myself to write 'non-article' type posts on my blog. Although I am getting a feeling I am not going to last too long...
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
February 8, 2005:
One of the most interesting things about fragrances, and this was one of the reasons I got interested in them, is the origin of their constituents. These constituents, in natural or synthetic form (usually synthetic; the natural ones are horrendously expensive) constitute the basis of those myriad notes that we smell, every time we use a shampoo or a soap, clean dishes with a detergent, or open a perfume bottle. Consider these two, some of the most fascinating ones I have read about:
Formed in the gut of the sperm whale. The whale’s gut contains a complex mixture of mucus, enzymes, and other secretions, which act on the food that it eats. After months of smoldering in the gut, it is finally burped out in the form of a huge blob, white in color, on to the surface of the ocean. But the story is not over yet. This blob floats on the surface of the ocean for months, sometimes years. The action of sunlight, oxygen, and seawater catalyzes a unique and complicated mixture of chemical reactions in it, causing it to become creamish-brown. The result is Ambergris, born of the sea, and washed up on the beach just like Amber (hence the name).
Ambergris is one of the world’s most prized perfumery materials. It is also one of the oldest perfumery materials documented, and records date back to the Egyptian era.
Natural Ambergris is fantastically expensive, priced in the international market at a cool 20 lakh rupees per kilogram (about 45000$), many times its equivalent in gold. In the US, its possession is illegal, due to the ban on sperm whale hunting. However, I was very fortunate that my uncle in India, who works with a top perfumery company, had a tiny sample for me to smell. He had found it washed up on some beach once, and he had managed to get it to his lab and extract the invaluable material from it. The smell of ambergris is very rich and complicated, a mixture of many ‘notes’, as they are called by perfumers. ‘Animalic’ is the description of one of the main notes in the substance. These days, there have been many synthetic substitutes for ambergris, and these are used worldwide in a variety of perfumes and other products.
This mystical substance is found in a very few places in the world, India and Cambodia being two of them. In fact India is one of the main exporters of this substance to the West.
Like Ambergris, I found the origin of Oudh very fascinating.
There is a certain species of tree, mainly found in the Indian northeast. The tops of these trees get afflicted by a specific variety of fungus. The fungus attacks the wood, completely changing the color from an austere white to a decomposed, charred black. However, it is precisely this fungus-eaten wood that is the source of this priceless material. Again, I was fortunate to have smelt it at my uncle’s place. Like ambergris, oudh also has a complicated smell, with a distinct animalic note. It is also very expensive, costing anywhere from 10-15 lakh rupees per kilogram.
February 7, 2005:
It’s strange what kinds of things smells can remind us of. I was taking samples of chemicals for smelling from Prof. Lanny Liebeskind’s lab. I opened Cabinet labeled no. E-M and the general and complex mixture of the smells of hundreds of chemicals reminded me of…cashew nut fruit (‘kajucha fal’)
Another cabinet (I forgot which one) reminded me of the 'smell of the bedroom' of our neighbour, and old lady (‘Shejarchya aaji’) with whom we were on very good terms. She passed away a few years ago. Why was that smell wired into my mind? Because many years ago (8 or so), when I was in 10th standard, I used to spend a lot of time in that room, which was occupied by the old lady’s grandson. He was in 12th standard and was staying there that time, because it was closer to his college (Ferguson). We were very good friends for a short period of time, and I used to hang around in his room many times. It's strange that usually, these things would almost never be on your mind, and a single chemical stimulus is what's required to instantly elicit them.
Speaking of memories, here is what the perfumes from the perfume shop at Charles De Gaulle airport at Paris reminded me of on January 28th, 2005:
1. Eau des merveilles (Hermes): Raw tamarind (Actually I think this smell is quite common in Colognes)
2. Chanel no. 5 (The famous perfume created by Ernst Beaux): Nivea Cream
3. Amor amor (Cachard): Cassata ice cream
4. Envy me (Gucci): very nice, familiar but couldn’t place it.
5. BVLGARI: Lychee
6. L’ instant de Guerlain and Coco Chanel: Very nice and familiar but could not place them.
By the time I finished, the shop assistants (I am sure there is a nice French word for them) were hovering around me. Needless to say, they looked disappointed when I left after investigating many, and buying none.
And speaking of the subjectivity of smell, another thing today convinced me of the general nature of this phenomenon. My friend from Prof. Liebeskind’s lab, who was helping me out with making the samples, was used as a ‘test subject’ by me. Initially, he balked and wouldn’t go near any bottle. I told him that the smell was good. He said that he completely trusted me that it was good, but no, thank you, and please take the bottle away (The famous perfumer Luca Turin says that when he asks people to smell something at scientific conferences, they react as if he had asked them to remove their clothes or something!). Why do we have this natural repulsion against smelling? As if it were the most deplorable of our senses, something that is an unpleasant artifact? It is only now that we have begun to appreciate the enormous potential value that smell has, mostly unconscious, in our daily life and interactions, not to mention the fact that it forms the basis for a 20 billion dollar industry. Nowhere is this more apparent than in France, a country obsessed with smell. Perfumes are the third largest money makers for France, right below defence and aerospace!
Anyway, coming back to my friend, later, mirroring the way in which the frogs gradually lost all fear of the big log after they realized it was harmless, I slowly won him over. I gave him samples of beta-citronellol and phenyl ethyl alcohol, and of citral, the first two of which smell unmistakably like rose and the third one smells unmistakably of lemon/lime (at least to me and to many perfumers!), and are in fact common perfumery materials. After sniffing both, he said that not one of them remotely smelled like either rose or lemon. Either the sense of smell is REALLY subjective, or he has a REALLY bad nose! However, this incident again brings up the question of olfactory recognition as influenced by cultural and social background, and nationality. How many times has my friend, who is from Hong-Kong, actually smelt rose or lime?
Some other smells included valeric acid, which smells positively like the world's biggest men's locker room (I am NEVER going to smell that again), and guaicol, positively smelling like smoke.
Monday, February 07, 2005
THE SUM OF ALL PARTS...
One of the most important principles that we have learnt in our quest for truth in the last five thousand years (roughly from the beginning of 'modern' civilization), is that the sum of parts does not necessarily explain the whole. In fact, far from it, sometimes it makes the mystery even more exciting and rich. This is one of the most enduring paradigms that we, explorers into the unknown, have to unravel.
For example, cell biologists and chemists can conjure up of a model of a cell based on their understanding of every individual part and organelle, and yet all attempts to create 'artificial cells' have been to no avail (at least in a comprehensive way). Sociologists try to understand the complex interaction between human beings. They are far from even understanding the parts; yet whatever understanding they have creates more complications than it resolves, towards the understanding of the whole. Marriage counsellors pinpoint exact problems with husband-wife relationships. They gather exhaustive data by interviewing thousands of couples, perform intricate surveys, and write best selling coffee table books to please the general public and give them high hopes. Yet, and this may be one of the greatest puzzles of them all, no one understands definitively, the key to a happy relationship! Astronomers gather data and analyze lucrative pieces of the puzzle of the Universe, and it only deepens their awe of the mystery. Evolutionary biologists, in an attempt to trace the roots of perhaps the greatest puzzle of all, search for phylogenetic relationships between organisms, and look for evidence that will link the facts to explain the grand scheme of evolution. And yet, no one can actually explain how evolution took place.
In my recent beginner's study of the fascinating world of fragrances and perfumes and smell, I learn the same thing. Open a bottle of a famous perfume-Chanel no. 5 for example- and give it to a perfumer. By smelling that creative blend of ingredients, the perfumer can analyze the mix exactly the way a trained listener may analyze a symphony. There are top notes, bottom notes, and middle notes, notes which are ephemeral and vanish after a caress to your senses, and warm, heavy notes that linger in unspoken pleasant memory. Every perfume is an exquisite act of creativity, fuelling the complex unconscious desires and hopes of human beings. Yet no perfumer can convincingly proclaim a formula for a new blockbuster perfume. At the heart of the enigma is how we smell, the 'last mystery of the senses'. No one knows how that happens. Again, what we are learning is the sum of the parts is not adding up to the whole. More on this later.
What is that piece of puzzle that we are missing? Why, after centuries of investigation, do we not understand the workings of the unified whole? One very interesting metaphor, and this is something I just gained out of Stephen Jay Gould's superb book 'The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister's Pox', is to compare the whole maze of our understanding of the human and natural world, with the mystical and tortous maze of the Minotaur. Embodied in spirit as the brave Thesues, we are venturing into this convoluted but fascinating framework to understand what 'the truth' is, if there is any. At the beginning of the labyrinth is particle physics, the ultimate in abstraction, manifested in the building blocks of the Universe. As we wind our way in gradually, we come to more and more 'softer' disciplines; chemistry, biology, and finally, the humanities, social sciences and ethics. At the center is the veritable Minotaur, the apex of understanding and meaning, which we must conquer. However, the problem in all of this is that, because our structure of exploration is a labyrinth, it is a ramified journey that we must undertake. At the beginning, we stand on firm ground in physics, guided by the ultralogical principles of mathematics. But as we make our way in, at every point, there are ramifications, which simply grow in number as we progress to the 'softer' sciences. Which way must we choose at every point? Robert Frost's immortal 'The Road Less Travelled' may guide us in the process, but only, as Robert Oppenheimer once said, at the cost of losing meaning and knowledge, which we would have gained had we treaded the other path.
Our journey in the last five thousand years can be quite neatly described, I think, using this wonderful metaphor of Stephen Jay Gould. Many times, when we have hypothesized an incorrect theory, gone to war with the wrong hopes and understanding, or gotten stuck in the quagmire of professed new social understanding, we have probably gone the wrong way. We became quite lost on this path, and it would have been quite hopeless, had it not been for Ariadne's magical golden thread which guided us back to the beginning, wiser now with the experiences that our wrongdoings and mistakes brought to us. What is this thread? I would like to think that it mainly represents two unwavering guiding principles- unification and conscience. With unification in mind, we never lost sight of the big picture, never lost the realisation we are merely explorers in an unending and fascinating scheme that nature has set forth before us. The realisation of unification also brought the advent of conscience, that abstract but all too real uniquely human value, which binds us to our fellow human beings, and also fosters a deep relationship with nature. It was these two values, that made us find our way back with conviction, so that once again we could make our soul indomitable and begin on a new 'road less travelled'.
So then, what about that missing ingredient that makes everything work? When would we find that? Does it really matter? Whether it is Stephen Jay Gould, The Bhagavad Gita, or the beautiful poem 'Ithaca' by C. P. Caravy, we are again led to the same message. Tread on the path my friend. With the fascination of the means, you would cease thinking about the end. In our quest, we assume the guise of the immortal Ulysses who braved all, kept the end in sight, but never let it overwhelm the means, even when all hopes seemed to be lost. An enduring favourite sounds apt here:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T.S. Eliot -- "Little Gidding" (the last of his Four Quartets)
Thursday, February 03, 2005
JET-LAG BLUES EXPLAINED?
I have been uniformly told by many people that they feel much more jet-lag when they go to India, than when they come back here. I too experienced this when I went to India this time. There, I was begging for sleep for almost 4-5 days, whereas here, I was on my feet and back to work almost immediately. I was thinking about this phenomenon for a long time. At first, I thought it had something to do with 'travelling against the sun as opposed to travelling towards the sun' but it does not makes sense. Now I have come up with two possible explanations, quite simple ones, which I think may play a role:
1. Usually, flights from India to the US start at about 2.00 in the morning (plus or minus 2-3 hours). Since that is our normal sleeping time, we usually get at least 5-6 hours of sleep right after the flight starts. Then, when we reach our transit spot in Europe (Frankfurt, Paris, etc.), we are reasonably refreshed. After waiting for 2-3 hours, we board the connecting plane for the US, and again have a fitful sleep of a couple of hours. So we arrive in the US smiling and happy.
Now consider the converse. Flights from the US to India usually start sometime around 5.00 in the evening (plus or minus 2-3 hours). We are in no mood to sleep during that time. Now, we ARE in a mood to sleep about 5-6 hours later, when it would usually be 10-11 in the night and our normal sleep time. So we do fall asleep, but then we are rudely awakened in about 3-4 hours because we have reached our transit spot in Europe. There, we cannot fall asleep because we have to catch the connecting flight to India after 2-3 hours. We then board the flight and, irrespective of how much sleep we get now, our normal sleep schedule has already been disturbed, and we arrive in India much more groggy eyed. So I think the bottom line is that, in general, when we travel from India to the US, we somewhat maintain our normal sleep schedule and are more or less well-rested by the time we arrive. That does not happen the other way round. Since my assumption rests on the constancy of the time of departure, a way to test this hypothesis would be to take a survey and ask passengers who have departed from India and the US at times radically different from the usual times how they feel.
2. For many of us, I think that the other reason may be psychological. When we come to India, we are on a vacation. So we can afford to be much more relaxed and indulge in jet-lag. We don't care when and for how long we fall asleep because we are in the warm confines of home. That makes us 'take undue advantage of jet-lag'! On the other hand, when we come to the US, we have to be on our toes. There's backlog work to do, deadlines to meet, and appointments to keep. We cannot, at least mentally, be too much relaxed, and let jet-lag take undue advantage of us. We force our body to adapt to this comparatively draconian change, and resist complacence as much as we can. So we quickly adjust to our routine. Since my assumption rests on the existence of a sense of responsibility in people, a way to test this hypothesis would be to take a survey and ask people who don't give a damn about their schedule, irrespective of where they are, how they feel!
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
FACTS AND THEORIES...
In the perpetual battle between evolution and the pseudoscience of creationism, it is important, if worth your time at all, to be clear about the exact meaning of words that are used as salvos in the fray. Like I mentioned in an earlier article/post, a favourite and now quite cliche tactic of creationists is to point out that evolution is 'only a theory' and so it may be subject to revision; ergo even their 'creationist theories' should be admitted as 'valid descriptions of the creation of life and mankind'. These kind of statements show a positive lack of understanding of all aspects of science as it is well-understood in today's world. Many words have been written lambasting creationists about their absurd approach, and while I always teem with contention whenever I read about creationism bombast, sometimes I refrain from hurling my own loads of criticism, simply because I don't think it's worth my time seething over all this pseudoscience. I put in my infinitely tiny bit once in a while by perpetually arguing with the (thankfully few) creationists I know, by obsessively criticising them in general whenever the opportunity for doing so presents itself, and by writing posts and articles (like this one) as frequently as I can. (Actually I am criticising the doctrine of creationism, not creationists, although sometimes, you tend to get out your rage on the wrong parties and things. I apologize for that)
Recently, the editor of the journal 'Nature Structural and Molecular Biology', Boyana Konforti
wrote a nice editorial titled 'Theory, fact, and the origin of life' about this precise use of rhetoric in the battle between scientists and pseudoscientists (Feb 2005 Issue). I liked it a lot, and here are a few excerpts, including some illuminating paragraphs by star biologist and anti-creationist Stephen Jay-Gould:
"The latest argument against Darwinism is known as 'intelligent design.' Believers of intelligent design hold that life is so complex that it cannot be explained by the random workings of natural selection. Instead, if evolution occurred at all it could only have been directed by a creator.
The use of intelligent design to limit the teaching of evolution recently came in the form of a statement that school administrators in Dover, Pennsylvania are expected to read saying (among other things) that 'because Darwin's theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact.'
The religious, constitutional, and political ramifications of intelligent design can and will continue to be debated but not here (at least not right now). Instead, there are two factual problems with the above statement that are worth considering. First, colloquial definitions of the word 'theory' are used to denigrate the place of evolution in the world of scientific knowledge. In science, an idea can be a theory and a fact at the same time. Stephen J. Gould put this well:
In the American vernacular, "theory" often means "imperfect fact"—part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus the power of the creationist argument: evolution is "only" a theory and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is worse than a fact, and scientists can't even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): 'Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science − that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was.'
Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don't go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's in this century, but apples didn't suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.
Moreover, "fact" doesn't mean "absolute certainty"; there ain't no such animal in an exciting and complex world. The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us falsely for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.
Evolutionists have been very clear about this distinction of fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred. Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory—natural selection—to explain the mechanism of evolution.
- Stephen J. Gould, "Evolution as Fact and Theory" Discover, May 1981
The second point is that Darwin's theory of evolution is silent on the 'origin of living things' − that is, how life on earth began. Darwin himself mused that life could have arisen 'in some warm little pond.'
So the next time you are asked about evolution and intelligent design you can avoid the more hot button issues—lack of objective scientific support and separation of Church and State—and instead take the philosophical highground and talk about the importance of knowing the difference between theories and facts and why Darwinism and evolution have nothing to do with how living things came to be, just what happened once they were here."
I really liked the fact that Konforti talks about avoiding the 'more hot button' issues in a tongue-in-cheek manner. If you think about these points, they are the most singular reasons for arguing against the teaching of creationism in schools. But since even such obvious points cannot sway the opinion of the creationists, Konforti wisely advises taking the high road. Talk about the distinction between fact and theory. If even that does not work, in my opinion, now is the time to turn your back.