Monday, August 11, 2008

Mister Big Science

Those who know me well say I'm a Big Science guy. Some people even refer to me as "Mister Big Science." Well, I might not go quite that far. That math stuff kind of confuses me a bit, but otherwise I'm right up there. I'm not so much down with recently passed-on Solzhenitsyn. I'm really keen though on Richard Feynman. Fire? I can dig it. And the electricity devils are totally cool to me. The little snowmen homunculae who make ice in my fridge are some of my best friends. Slavic mysticism? Like, nope. But Science? It's big. I like it! Read this article below and you'll like it too.

"Cargo Cult Science", by Richard Feynman

(Adapted from a Caltech commencement address given in 1974; HTML'ed from the book "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!")

During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas -- which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn't work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact, that we have difficulty in understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked -- or very little of it did.

But even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFO's, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth. And I've concluded that it's not a scientific world.

Most people believe so many wonderful things that I decided to investigate why they did. And what has been referred to as my curiosity for investigation has landed me in a difficulty where I found so much junk that I'm overwhelmed. First I started out by investigating various ideas of mysticism and mystic experiences. I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that. Then I went to Esalen, which is a hotbed of this kind of thought (it's a wonderful place; you should go visit there). Then I became overwhelmed. I didn't realize how MUCH there was.

At Esalen there are some large baths fed by hot springs situated on a ledge about thirty feet above the ocean. One of my most pleasurable experiences has been to sit in one of those baths and watch the waves crashing onto the rocky slope below, to gaze into the clear blue sky above, and to study a beautiful nude as she quietly appears and settles into the bath with me.

One time I sat down in a bath where there was a beautiful girl sitting with a guy who didn't seem to know her. Right away I began thinking, "Gee! How am I gonna get started talking to this beautiful nude woman?"

I'm trying to figure out what to say, when the guy says to her, "I'm, uh, studying massage. Could I practice on you?"

"Sure", she says. They get out of the bath and she lies down on a massage table nearby.

I think to myself, "What a nifty line! I can never think of anything like that!" He starts to rub her big toe. "I think I feel it", he says. "I feel a kind of dent -- is that the pituitary?"

I blurt out, "You're a helluva long way from the pituitary, man!"

They looked at me, horrified -- I had blown my cover -- and said, "It's reflexology!"

I quickly closed my eyes and appeared to be meditating.

That's just an example of the kind of things that overwhelm me.

[Great speech.]

The following piece is more Big Science. I'm a little more familiar with this kind of biological chemistry than the other. It's still big, though. Like science.

Laurie Anderson, "O Superman."

O Superman. O judge. O Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad
O Superman. O judge. O Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad

Hi. I'm not home right now
But if you want to leave a message
Just start talking at the sound of the tone

Hello? This is your Mother
Are you there? Are you coming home?
Hello? Is anybody home?

Well, you don't know me, but I know you.
And I've got a message to give to you.
Here come the planes.
So you better get ready.
Ready to go.
You can come as you are, but pay as you go
Pay as you go

And I said:
OK. Who is this really?
And the voice said:
This is the hand, the hand that takes
This is the hand, the hand that takes
This is the hand, the hand that takes

Here come the planes
They're American planes
Made in America
Smoking or non-smoking?

And the voice said:
Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall
stay these couriers from the swift completion
of their appointed rounds
'Cause when love is gone, there's always justice
And when justice is gone, there's always force
And when force is gone, there's always Mom

Hi Mom!
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms
In your automatic arms
Your electronic arms
In your arms
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms
Your petrochemical arms
Your military arms

In your electronic arms

It takes a lot of courage to be not-a-hero. It takes courage to act honestly when convenience and career dictate quietude and complicity. It takes courage to do the job right and finish it regardless of the pressures to rush and pretend and smile and forget. It takes courage to just continue alone and do the right thing in a cold lab under the glare of scowls. Not all oppression is jackboots and rubber truncheons. Yes, Solzhenitsyn bravely faced torture over the years. Feynman asks for something different, and it too is bravery. It's the unremarkable and even forgettable bravery of ordinariness. Step by Cartesian step one faces the mob in white lab sheets daily. One resists the daily compromises of little corruptions, the things only you and the other guy would notice and no one will say a thing. Yeah, well, I know stuff, baby. It's why they call me...

Mister Big Science.


Rob Misek said...

I'd like to share an interesting observation about liberals in general.

Many claim to understand social values like truth, science, logic, and choosing right over wrong behavior.

But should the proof of truth conflict with their mantra of personal liberty, they quickly discard shared values and become all about anarchy.

It seems kind of flaky to me. Signs of a mental illness perhaps.

truepeers said...

I like the idea so much I think you should start a school, informal of course, and hand out degrees when someone has lived up to the responsibly ordinary, as determined by a committe of those who know what they know.

MBSO - M. Big Science Ordinaire

The MBSO, what every non-corrupt kid wil dream of hanging, on the wall.

Dag said...

I'd like to share with you the etymology of the word Science.

Greek: Skhizein: "To split, rend, cleave."

Sound familiar?

truepeers said...

yes, so much begins with the knife!

I see that shed and ski share the same etymology.

So I guess it would be really propitious to do our science in the ski shed, eh?

Dag said...

I find it interesting that "religion" means "binding," and that "science" means "taking apart." The latter is closely related eytmologically to mental illness. It's not meaningless.

Science and religion are not the same pursuit, not for the same purpose, and not toward the same end. Science is not bad religion and religion is not bad science. They are not related in sense or goal. The one is public, the other private. Religion, to clear up any ambiguity, is public. Science is private. Religion without communion is pointless, I suspect, a solipsism. But science, "Little Science," is the pursuit of man with man's self, inductively, in pursuit of the universal through the splitting up and examination of the personal. One can pursue that individual course regardless, in a Cartesian fashion, and arrive at a conclusion that might well be schizophrenic, cut off from oneself and from the communion of souls. Maybe all those atomic beings are Truth. The point would be to ask and keep on finding out. The point would be not to find out, but to find out more. No communion but the communion of forever diminishing Incredible Shrinking Men alone in their privacies shouting across ever wider distances. Then, maybe in some end of infinity, the paths will become pattern.

Solzhenitsin is off-track in his vision of huddled and fearful peasants cowering in the cold and baying at the Moon like a pack of God-intoxicated animals. Better to dissolve into the Mystic of aloneness, step by lost step into the furthering gloom. That freedom is ours if we choose it. What a great thing it is. "To see the universe in a grain of sand."

truepeers said...

Gotta part company here, Dag, that we may be re-united...

Maybe all those atomic beings are Truth. The point would be to ask and keep on finding out. The point would be not to find out, but to find out more. No communion but the communion of forever diminishing Incredible Shrinking Men alone in their privacies shouting across ever wider distances.

-and of whom/what would you ask? It seems to me that ultimately the sacredness of the individual can only be confirmed by recognition of a communion that defends the individual as sacred, where we all sign on to a covenant to guarantee each other's freedom... Politics brings us back to some minimal religion, howevermuch we think in scientific ways... or those with a stronger bond will defeat our freedom.

I would contest that science is private. I think I understand the sense in which you are speaking here, as an individual attempting a certain rigour in personal thought. But there are two further points to make:

1)professional science works not only through the widespread adoption of a scientific attitude but through a huge network of shared references or inscriptions, that experiments may be communicated, reproduced, etc. This is public work, even as membership in this network is effectively closed to all but those with credentials. It may well be that you or I, if geniuses, could come up with a genuine innovative insight into matters chemical or physical, say; but if we did, not being scientists, not having access to the journals, labs, etc., there would be no way for us to communicate this insight to others. At best we might, if we were lucky, be able to convince some friendly real scientist to take up our idea and present it in a way that it could enter the network and become a legitimate public point of reference. As privacy, our science goes nowhere and is thus not really science. For the truth of science must be proven in public. OTherwise, we can never be sure that what we intuit is a scientific and not a mystic truth.

This is one of the things that shows the difference between the human and natural sciences. Genuine advances in the human sciences can be made by the non-credentialled by just entering the public marketplace for art, writing, good and innotive actions, etc. But the scientific marketplace is closed to most. It is thus semi-"private" in order to preserve its publicness against too much undisciplined publicity.

2)it seems your thinking here remains resolutely metaphysical, the language of both science and much mysticism. You take for granted the ability of the kind of declarative sentences used in both scientific and your thought to refer to human reality. But what are the limits of this form of writing and thinkng to conceiving the generation of language (the defining human quality) itself? It may well be that you cannot use this un-self-questioning metaphysical language to think seriously about language and the essential or pimary difference between the material and the transcendent that language effects.

The most serious, rigorous, form of thinking about the inherently paradoxical nature of human language is, in fact, a minimal form of "religious" thinking that is only religious to the extent this is necessary to any serious anthropology. It seems that those without this "scientific" (because most minimal and rigorous) religious/anthropological thinking, are forever fated, at the end of scientific journeys to jump into mysticism. The alternative may be to question the paradigmatic assumptions inherent in the metaphysical language you are using to conceive of human reality.

THere are some things you can talk about but cannot show with metaphysical language, i.e. the nature of the significant difference between sign and thing, material and transcendent. And because you are able to talk about, if not show, all levels of reality within a common imperial tongue, you may be predisposed to the misconception that you have a handle on them. When you then realize you don't, when you embrace the aporia, you can then be attracted to mysticism that is too indulgently or unnecessarily mystical. One might be able to minimize what must be cast into the aporia if one were somewhat more "religious" or respecting of religious thinking in matters where such thinking is appropriate, i.e. concerning the emergence and reproduction of signs.