Monday, June 7, 2010

My New Blog Home

Just a note to anyone stopping by, my new posts are happening over at National Public Radio's site.

The new blog is called 13.7 Cosmos and Culture.

See you there!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Frankenstein in Chains, Science Restrained.

Why do people fear scientific research? When, if ever, should research be curbed? Marcelo Glieser has posted an interesting essay on Fear of Science over at Harmonice Mundi.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Harmonice Mundi: The Work Begins

Greetings All.

So a new project has begun! Together with some scientist and science journalist colleagues I am starting a new project dedicated to exploring science and its proper context withing culture and the human experience of a sacred. Together with KC Cole, Marcelo Gleiser, Ursula Goodenough and Staurt Kauffman I invited everyone's participation.

The new blog is called Harmonice Mundi: Cosmos and Culture in Context and we will each be contributing. The topics will be familiar ones to those who have read the posts here but will range over a larger set of possibilities.

Please come by and join the conversation.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Where do Facts Live?

It has been a while since I have been able to post. My research group recently received a large grant from the DOE to use fusion machines to study astrophysical jets. Getting things started on that grant along with the other equally fun and challenging science projects my group is involved with has been eating my blogging science/religion/philosophy brain.

(For those interested in the use of fusion machines to study astrophysical phenomena - a subject which relatively new and very cool you can check out this link)

In my continuing research for the new book I have, however, been playing with some ideas that are new to me and I just wanted to share one of these on this fine fall morning (in upstate New York at least).

The hallmark of popular notions of science is the belief that it gives us access to an objective world. For most people science is about facts - Newton's constant G, the mass of an electron, the wavelength of blue light. These facts and their manipulation through theory have given science its power of the world and over our lives.

Traditional religious life also has its "facts" though in this domain the certainties are "derived" from scripture. The hallmark of popular notions (and practice) of religious life is a certainty in these facts of a "spiritual" universe.

The conflict of course comes because of the differing ideas of what a fact is and how it is derived. As a practicing scientist I am much enamoured with the potential to overthrow existing theories (and their interpretation of facts) in ongoing empirically based investigations. This is something that is rarely built into the structure of a religious institution. Still what I am struck by is the ubiquity of the human need for facts, for a supposed solidity in discreet chunks of knowledge. This is not a surprise of course. Our little lives are rounded by a sleep, as Shakespeare said, and the twin darkness's capping our experience make life both weird and scary. Certainty would be great if it were possible. But is it? And what price to we pay for imagining it to be so?

In the that vein I wonder how much we lean on the certainty we think science gives us as a crutch, a replacement, for the certainty which is now more difficult to maintain through traditional religion (this is related to the point Walker Percy makes in Lost in the Cosmos). For me the real radical promise of science is not its certainty but its constant creativity, its demand that we be willing, forever, to upend our most cherished beliefs. There have been many philosophies (and some religions) that emphasized the point that life is flux. Is this a place to ground our groundlessness?

Now clearly there is a world out there pushing back but... Are we demanding more of our predicament when we imagine that we can imagine the horizons away? Perhaps we have allowed ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security that we were never meant to have.

Just thinking out loud...

On a separate note I will try and post once a week for the foreseeable future. Hopefully on Mondays mornings. (its good to have a deadline even if its one you invented for yourself.)

Monday, September 28, 2009

No Finality for the Final Frontier

Time to give up on manned space travel for a while?

I have been thinking a lot about this since the Augustine report was issued a month ago. The report, commissioned by the Obama administration to examine the future of the "Space Program", was unusually blunt in its assessment of the nation's direction in space. In essence the answer was "nowhere." The commission came to the conclusion that given typical levels of funding, NASA was simply not going to be able to achieve any of the lofty goals of getting back to the Moon or on to Mars. Since the levels of funding are not likely to get higher anytime soon (especially in this economic climate) the comission seemed to say something like "figure out something else to do but stop pretending we can have both grand and achievable goals."

As someone who is part of the NASA astrophysics research universe I have always wondered why the humans-in-space part of the NASA budget seemed so essential when the robots-in-space part was doing so well. Its hard to argue that the Hubble Space Telescope has not had a huge impact on the public perception of NASA and US science. While I certainly want to see a permanent human presence in space, the lack of clear direction (the Space Station is clear example of a clear lack of direction) of that very expensive effort made it difficult for me to understand the never-ending cuts in the astrophysics/space science aspects of NASA's work.

Now, with the Augustine commission's report, it seems like the potential to at least address the issue realistically will hover out there for a bit.

What would it mean to give up, for a while, the manned program? Would it be a loss of something mythic and necessary? Would it be the first step in giving up completely like the Chinese fleets poised to discover the new world and then called back to be burned by a xenophobic emperor? Could it, on the other hand, be the first step in figuring out a rational, realistic plan for a human presence in the extended solar system (rather than just low earth orbit).

I for one think it would be better to have a long term workable plan than another pie-in-the-sky vision that everyone knows will never be funded. And in the meantime we could use a fraction of that money to find extra-solar planets, search for gravitational echoes of black-hole collisions, watch new stars being born, drill for life on Europa etc etc etc. All the cool things possible from space via telescopes and robotic probes.

I for one am ready for that kind of trade off.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Machine Time: Gains and Losses

From Time by Barbara Adam

As it melded into our social relations, decontextualized and disembodied, clock time facilitates an acute present orientation and a sense of distance, disconnection, independence even from the physical world and external influences. When machine-time, which has no consequences, no cause and effect, no accumulation, no irreversibile change, no memory and no purpose, is employed as a synchronizing and organizational tool, an illusionary set of temporal relations are set in motion that become real in their lived consequences. In factories, people become synchronized to the clock-time rhythm to be treated as appendages of the machine. The machine time gets elevated as the norm to which they are expected to perform. Children are educated in accordance with its mechanistic beat. Public life is regulated to its invariable rhythm....

All times are equal under the clock. Time created to human design irrevocably changed the human-time relation. The ultimate transcendent and recalcitrant became malleable and manageable. It yielded to human control. With its aid, moreover, unprecedented rationalization and undreamed of levels of efficiency in productivity and social organization were achieved.

This is the change we are heirs to. So much gained. So much lost. Now, perhaps, we must find some middle way, some sanity in place and duration that sustains and maintains all we are capable of.