In defense of scientism

[Originally posted on robertelessar.com on July 20th, 2017]

On this 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, I want to talk a little bit about science, and how it, in principle, can apply to nearly every subject in life.

The word science is derived from Latin scientia, and earlier scire, which means “to know.”  I am, as you might have guessed, a huge fan of science, and have in the past even been a practitioner of it.  But science is not just a collection of facts, as many have said before me.  Science is an approach to information, and more generally to reality itself, a blend of rationalism and empiricism that calls on us to apply reason to the phenomena which we find in our world and to understand, with increasing completeness, the rules by which our world operates.  Personally, I think there are few—and possibly no—areas into which the scientific method cannot be applied to give us a greater understanding of, insight into, and control of, our world and our experience. Continue reading “In defense of scientism”

Phone calls aren’t old-fashioned, and a call from me isn’t worth the effort, anyway.

There’s a Facebook meme that I sometimes see, and it goes something like this: “Call me old fashioned, but I prefer a phone call to a text message.  I want to hear your voice, to have a personal connection, not just read what you have to say.”

I don’t think I have the words exactly right, but the gist of the thing is there, and it’s the general message and attitude of it that I want to address to begin with.  The attitude conveyed by the meme seems to be one of self-righteousness and self-congratulation—though probably most of the people who share it don’t feel that way.  To many of us that’s the way it comes across, though, and I have little doubt that the originator of the meme felt smug and snooty as he or she created it.

It’s to that person that I’m really addressing the first part of this post, but I also want to speak to those who thoughtlessly share the meme, causing real pain for some people, one of whom is me.

First, and perhaps foremost, I want to address the absurd notion that a phone call could ever be “old-fashioned.”  Humans have had telephones—in any form—for barely over a century, and for the first half of that time, the phone was a rarely used, and a rarely owned, item.  Phones as a ubiquitous means of communication only came into common existence in the latter half of the twentieth century, and became something each person carried on their person only within the last decade or so.  Writing, on the other hand—text messages, if you will—has existed in one form or another for millennia. Continue reading “Phone calls aren’t old-fashioned, and a call from me isn’t worth the effort, anyway.”

The problem of attribution

The era of Facebook memes bearing quotes, to say nothing of the siloing and compartmentalization of views experienced in online life, has led me into a minor quandary, and I want to get my thoughts out on the matter, for your consideration and potential feedback.

I am a great fan of the idea of intellectual property, being, as I am, a writer of both fiction and nonfiction.  The writer has the right to what he or she writes, just as any artist has for his her or works of art, and musicians have to their music.  I think most people agree that it’s unethical—and certainly it is illegal—to use another person’s created work against his or her wishes, especially if one is making money by doing so.  Even works in the public domain—including those that were written so long ago as to be considered ancient, such as the works of Homer, Plato, and Sophocles—shouldn’t be reproduced in whole without giving credit to the author.  We should remind ourselves of the source of such works, and give credit to the memory of those who have written words that we found moving; certainly, we must give credit to the creators who are still living, especially if we are going to make money in the process.  We should also, in the latter case, get permission, and usually we should pay them. Continue reading “The problem of attribution”

Use your f*cking turn signals

Use your fucking turn signals, people.

I shouldn’t have to say anything more.  Actually, I really shouldn’t even have to say that, but apparently, I do, because there are astonishing numbers of people who rarely or never seem to use their fucking turn signals.

This is a pet peeve of mine (obviously), but I think it’s a legitimate one.  Turn signals are one of the simplest of all the buttons, lights, switches, levers, and knobs in your car, but the way many people approach their use, you’d think that activating them required a degree in rocket science.  It’s harder to steer than it is to use your turn signal.  It’s harder to use the gas, it’s harder to use the brake, it’s harder start the effing car.  It’s way harder to turn on the radio and/or change stations, or (god forbid) to text and drive.  There’s absolutely no excuse for not signaling. Continue reading “Use your f*cking turn signals”

Courage and Liberty

I must admit that I was a troubled upon reading that residents of several states will soon need to bring their passports in addition to their driver’s licenses with them to board domestic flights, starting in 2018.  I was troubled, but I was not surprised.

There was simply no reason to be surprised.  The Real ID act was signed into law more than a decade ago.  It was, apparently, passed in response to the fact that many of the 9/11 hijackers boarded their planes using fake ID’s.  That terrorist event was also the trigger for the creation of our very own KGB…which is more or less the same acronym as the DHS.  (KGB translates roughly as Committee of State Security, in case you didn’t know…a pretty close equivalence to the Department of Homeland Security).  Of course, we’d already long had the NSA, which acronym has a similar meaning, but its efforts and activities have typically been far more clandestine and less overtly intrusive than those of the DHS (though troubling, nonetheless). Continue reading “Courage and Liberty”

Against “cultural appropriation.”

I recently read an article that was written in response to a conflict between two professional athletes about the nature, the problem, and even the hierarchy, of “cultural appropriation.”  My thoughts upon reading about this frankly ludicrous conflict were basically the same as my general reaction to all accusations of “cultural appropriation,” and they are more or less as follows:

“Congratulations!  You are clearly and irrefutably safe.  Indeed, you are clearly and irrefutably among the safest creatures ever to grace the surface of this hazardous planet.  You have adequate, clean water, you have abundant food, you have superb shelter, you have protection from predators, from attackers, and from invasion, and you have a lifestyle that provides you such abundant and luxurious free time that you can invent problems about which to be outraged.” Continue reading “Against “cultural appropriation.””

Adulation and congratulations to Kip Thorne and his Nobel co-recipients for their confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves

Kip_Thorne_at_Caltech
Professor Kip Thorne of Caltech

I just wanted to write a brief posting about how delighted I was to learn that Kip Thorne was one of the scientists who shared the Nobel Prize for physics this year, for his part in the long-awaited confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves.

I’ve been a fan of Professor Thorne’s for more than two decades now (roughly), and have long regretted that he wasn’t more of a public figure, though that’s probably by his own choice.  I first heard of him in the post-script to one of the episodes of the original “Cosmos,” (added when the series was re-shown on TBS).  In that post-script, Carl Sagan mentioned that when he was writing his novel “Contact,” he wanted to ascertain if there was a legitimate, scientifically valid way for a sufficiently advanced race to travel great distances through space in reasonable lengths of time.  The person he asked, he said, was Kip Thorne, and it was Kip Thorne who gave him the information he used to create his worm-hole-using alien race in the book.*

If memory serves, Carl Sagan also mentioned that Kip Thorne had written a science book for popular consumption, called “Black Holes and Time Warps.”  (You can find it here on Amazon.)  The next time I was at a book store—probably Borders, my favorite book store, the loss of which has been a source of bitter heartache to me—I found a copy and bought it.

I have rarely been so pleased with a science book.  If you’re interested in a wonderful, thorough, but well-explained treatment of some of the more extreme aspects of General Relativity, I can’t recommend anything more highly.  Even Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene have not produced anything better (that I have read) on this subject, and if you know me, you know that’s high praise indeed.  This is one of those books that, when you read it, makes you feel brilliant.  This is because the author understands his subject so well that he can convey it in absolutely clear terms, illustrating it literally and figuratively so that these mind-warping (and space-warping) concepts make perfect sense.

Congratulations to Professor Thorne, and to his co-recipients for the recognition of their work on gravitational waves.  I remember that, when I first heard about the LIGO observatory, some years ago, and how it worked, I thought, “But wait, won’t the lasers and the space they pass through be compressed and stretched by gravitational waves exactly the same amount?  Won’t that negate the measurable effects of the waves and make the laser interferometry wash out?”  Obviously, this was not a question that wouldn’t have occurred to the people creating the observatory, and they knew why it wouldn’t be a problem, or at least not an insurmountable one.  I wish I’d thought to ask someone in the know when the question occurred to me.  I wish I’d known whom to ask (certainly at that time I could not have asked Professor Thorne himself, though nowadays he could probably be reached through Facebook or Twitter).

Anyway, I was more than happy to have my own dubiety (is that a real word?) smashed when the announcement was made that the waves had been detected, and then again, and now again, only within the past few months.  It’s not astonishing quite in the same way as when I first heard of the discovery that the expansion of the universe was accelerating (Wow, what an excellent, world-changing surprise that was!), but in other ways it’s just as awe-inspiring.  We (the human race) are on the leading edge of a whole new era of astronomy, one that could someday let us peer back past the last scattering surface that produced the CMB and catch glimpses of a time ever closer to the Big Bang.

I get chills.  Seriously.

So, despite all the other, horrible news, of disasters both natural and man-made, that we’ve all had to endure over recent days and weeks, we should take heart in the knowledge that knowledge is possible, and that, however easy it is to destroy things, the power to learn, the power to create knowledge, and thence to create new prosperity, is clearly much stronger.  If it were not, civilization would long since have been destroyed.

These are the sorts of thoughts that people like Professor Kip Thorne inspire in me…and I tend to be a gloomy person by nature.  Congratulations, Professor Thorne, and congratulations also to Rainer Weiss and Barry Barish, Kip Thorne’s co-recipients.  It’s people like you who help keep life worth living for people like me.


*Kip Thorne was also responsible for the bits of the movie “Interstellar” that were actually scientifically accurate, and he certainly cannot be blamed for any departures from legitimate scientific realism one finds therein.