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Number of posts: 75
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By Dave Pruett:
“If the planet dies, all causes are lost causes.” — Anonymous
Humanity’s fate hangs on a tight race between two tipping points: a scientific one and a cognitive one. Scientists use the term “tipping point” to refer to a runaway feedback loop that, when triggered, abruptly and irreversibly changes the behavior of a system, such as the climate. For example, when permafrost melts, it releases methane, 50 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Thus: global warming, melting permafrost, more atmospheric methane, more global warming…
de facto heresy
“… if you believe in God, then intellectually you cannot believe in man-made global warming … You must be either agnostic or atheistic to believe than man controls something he can’t create.” — Rush Limbaugh
Conflict between faith and science is as old as science itself. In 1543, Copernicus’s great work, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, laid the groundwork for a new model of the cosmos, with the sun, rather than the Earth, at its center…
better angels of both parties
“Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” — Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert
When was NASA’s finest hour? Most would say, “The Apollo moon landing.” As a bit of an insider, I have a different take. NASA’s finest hour, hands down, was the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. Two and one-third days into the nominal nine-day voyage, a ruptured oxygen tank left the spacecraft crippled, the mission in shambles, and the lives of three astronauts in jeopardy. Mission controllers, engineers, technicians and astronauts worked around the clock to stabilize a dire situation and work the impossible, bringing Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise home alive.
united we stand
At first blush, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street appear as bookends: opposing grass-roots movements on the political right and left, respectively. At second blush, the Tea Party seems the more successful. In the 2010 mid-term elections, one-third of Tea Party-backed candidates won, reclaiming the House for Republicans. And an unknown Tea Party libertarian just defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia’s GOP primary. Occupy’s one obvious success is searing the 99 percent meme into the national consciousness. But a look under the hood of each is instructive.
the choice is ours
Not until 1804 did the Earth’s human population first exceed one billion. Between 1804 and 2014, a 210-year period spanning just three consecutive human lifetimes, population skyrocketed: to 2 billion in 1927, 4 billion in 1974, and 7 billion at the end of 2011. What spurred such explosive growth?
It’s not accidental that the Homo sapiens explosion coincided with the advent of the Industrial Age…
“Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ [linking smoking with disease] that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy….” (Internal 1969 document of Brown & Williamson, a tobacco company, outlining their strategy to undermine medical science linking tobacco to cancer and heart disease)
I belong to a progressive faith community that is deeply concerned about the state of the Earth…
devil in the details
Having just completed a three-part series titled “An Educator’s Lament” on the symptoms, causes and stakes of the demise of American education, I was planning to retire the keyboard for a few days. Then the news broke on Vergara v. California. Alas, I feel compelled to weigh in. Vergara v. California concerns teacher tenure — the granting of “permanent” teaching positions — in California’s system of K-12 public education. On June 10, 2014, California Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, who oppose California’s tenure statutes, and against the California Teachers Association, which favors them.
educator's lament: part 3
“You have to be confused before you can reach a new level of understanding anything.” — D. Herschbach (Harvard University chemist and Nobel laureate)
In the summer of 2007, I attended “Boot Camp for Profs” in Leadville, Colorado. For an entire week, a maverick team of educators from multiple disciplines — geology, chemistry, education, biology, and psychology among others — bombarded 30 college and university professors with the theory and practice of learning.
educator's lament: part 2
“Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” — Wm. Butler Yeats
In the previous two posts — In Defense of Light and Magic and An Educator’s Lament: Part I — I argued that education is 1) the guardian of liberty, 2) the cornerstone of democracy, and 3) under siege in America. Today, we’ll delve into why. The primary culprits include neglect, austerity, anti-intellectual/anti-science attitudes, good intentions gone awry, and malevolence aforethought.
educator's lament: part 1
“A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives.” — James Madison
Education is the cornerstone of democracy. The writings of both Madison and Jefferson are chock full of admonitions that only a generally enlightened public can hold at bay the forces of tyranny.
Following an engineering degree and a stint in the Air Force, I taught high-school mathematics for three years, before eventually becoming a university mathematics professor. Why the change of direction, and why math? Nearly four decades after that sudden tack, a young woman came to my office requesting a letter of recommendation and answered these questions better than I could have. “Why do you want to teach math?” I asked…
“Government should prevent an immoderate accumulation of riches.” — James Madison
In a previous post, we revisited Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “Beyond Vietnam” speech of April 4, 1967. King, confronting head-on America’s “triple evils” of racism, economic injustice and militarism, challenged America to find its true values and “come home.” Polls and statistics suggest that, in the 47 intervening years, America has not “come home” and sadly is further from home than ever.
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” — Matthew 6:21.
On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. made public his opposition to the Vietnam War, articulated in his iconic “Beyond Vietnam” speech. Presented at Riverside Church in New York City, “Beyond Vietnam” was the most controversial speech King ever delivered. In it, he confronted head-on America’s “triple evils” — racism, economic injustice, and militarism — and called for “a radical revolution of values” to restore our nation’s integrity. Afterwards, many supporters, black and white, abandoned him…
message of every ad
“Forfeit your sense of awe and the world becomes a market place.” — Rabbi Abraham Heschel
“A culture is a people enacting a story,” wrote Daniel Quinn in Ishmael. So Americans, what’s our collective story? Pose this question to virtually anyone and you’re likely to get a blank stare in response. Most of us pay no heed to our mythology. It’s the water we swim in, and we take it completely for granted. Or worse, we discount whatever smells of mythology.
“This we know: the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” — Chief Seattle, 1854
On January 31, the Department of State issued its environmental assessment of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline. If built, the KXL will transport petroleum from Canada’s Alberta tar sands to a neighborhood near you. At least that’s the hype. The safe bet is that the oil will be sold to the highest bidder…
The tipping point of the 2012 presidential election may have been the unauthorized release of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” speech. Preaching to a closed and select group of the well-heeled, Romney complained that 47 percent of Americans “are dependent upon government,” “believe that they are victims,” “believe that government has a responsibility to care for them,” “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing,” and, perhaps worst of all, “pay no income tax.”
“When fascism comes to America it will be carrying a cross and wrapped in the flag.” — attributed to Sinclair Lewis
Dr. Danny Pruett, my dad, passed away peacefully on January 4, his three grown children by his side. He was 90 and had willed himself back from the brink so many times that we began to think him invincible: heart attacks, bypass surgery, hips replacements, ruptured diverticulum and esophagus, multiple abdominal and back surgeries, atrial fibrillation, and more.
love the silence
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” –from Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”
Years ago, I ran across a cartoon with the caption “The Mayfly Graduation.” Mayflies, if you aren’t an entomologist (and I’m not), belong to the insect order Ephemeroptera, because their lives are so ephemeral. Depending upon the species, the average lifespan of an adult mayfly ranges from 30 minutes to an entire day.
sacred economics to heal
Pope Francis’ recent encyclical is sending shock waves around the world. In addition to exhortations to the faithful, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) packs a scathing critique of “unbridled” capitalism and consumerism. Here’s the flavor of the Pope’s message:
Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.
anger and unresolved pain
There is considerable cultural wisdom embedded within idioms, fables and nursery rhymes. Consider “The early bird gets the worm,” “The Tortoise and the Hare,” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Which makes the “sticks and stones” adage such a glaring exception.
As a child, I broke three bones, once turning my forearm into a stair step by slipping from a swing — at the zenith of its rearward arc — onto wet grass.
coax our jaded existences
“Awe is the beginning of wisdom.” — Rabbi Abraham Heschel
Years ago, a friend confessed that she was not at all religious. Then, in the next moment, she described her reaction upon first beholding Monument Valley, whose stark, unearthly beauty provoked her spontaneous tears. My friend, although not conventionally “religious,” was deeply spiritual, I believe, for the ability to be awed is the hallmark of a receptive spirit.
deep mystery of the universe
“The labor of seaweed as it concentrates in its tissues the substances scattered … throughout the vast layers of the ocean; the industry of the bees as they make honey from the juices broadcast in so many flowers — these are but pale images of the ceaseless working-over that all the forces of the universe undergo in us in order to reach the level of the spirit.” — From The Divine Milieu by Teilhard de Chardin
No one, in my estimation, bridged the gulf between science and faith better…
In the last post, I came out of the closet. I’m an Occupier. For most of the past two years of my affiliation with Occupy Harrisonburg (#OHB), I’ve participated in its small but vibrant Economics Working Group (EWG). I’ve never before had any interest in economics, nor have I any expertise. So what drew me in? It’s simple, really. For much of my professional life, I’ve taught introductory calculus to college students, and in Calc I, we learn a basic principle that apparently no politician (OK, Elizabeth Warren excepted) or mainstream economist understands.
A confession. This retired academic mathematician and author has been hanging out with the unwashed hippies, anarchists, and “economic terrorists” of Occupy Harrisonburg (Virginia). I =n truth, the sandals-on-the-ground experience is a lot different than you’d gather from the mainstream’s jaundiced portrayal of Occupy. In our semi-rural neck of Virginia, Occupy Harrisonburg (#ohb) has met weekly — uninterrupted and without incident — for nearly two years.
For most of my life I remained woefully ignorant of Darwin. That changed in 2003 when I traveled to London with a group of academicians to study “British Science” in situ. Our guide — a chemistry prof contemplating retirement — wanted to hook a replacement to carry on his successful study-abroad course. It worked; he hooked two, myself included.
The group’s first stop: the National Portrait Gallery off Trafalgar square. There, scattered among centuries of British monarchs, we encountered towering figures of the scientific era.
Mind & Brain
“Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science, but [humans need] both.” — Fritjof Capra
A conflict between “science” and “pseudoscience” is now playing out on the national stage. The conversation is long overdue. I speak of the recent flap surrounding two TED lectures on the nature of consciousness — by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock — that were initially removed from YouTube because TED’s scientific curators deemed them “pseudoscience.”
“There is neither spirit nor matter in the world; the stuff of the universe is spirit-matter. No other substance but this could produce the human molecule.” — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Before Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) earned renown as a titan of philosophy, he was an amateur astronomer, and a damn good one. Kant correctly hypothesized that extragalactic nebulae are in fact “island universes,” …
“If ‘dead’ matter has reared up this curious landscape of fiddling crickets, song sparrows, and wondering [humans], it must be plain even to the most devoted materialist that the matter of which he [or she] speaks contains amazing, if not dreadful, powers.” — Loren Eiseley in The Immense Journey
In opposing the Vietnam War, Senator J. William Fulbright wisely understood: “In a democracy dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not in its taste, but in its effects.” Similarly for science.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” — John Muir
When Descartes partitioned the world into the res extensa (material objects) and the res cogitans (mind), he treated the two domains quite differently. In chapter VI of Meditations and Principles (1644), he writes:
“… there is a vast difference between the mind and body, in respect that body, from its nature, is always divisible, and that mind is entirely indivisible.”
“The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.” — J.B.S. Haldane
In the previous post, we discussed a fiendishly clever gedanken experiment posed in 1935 by Einstein and co-workers and designed to expose presumed flaws in quantum mechanics (QM). When the so-called “EPR paradox” was finally tested experimentally in 1977 at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the results were a resounding victory for QM, while ringing the death knell for Einstein’s cherished principle of local causes. The “EPR paradox” — and Bell’s Theorem, which ultimately led to its resolution…
In three previous posts we’ve discussed assumptions that science once embraced, later to discard as invalid or unnecessary. Thus far we’ve dispatched with absolute time and space (Part 2), determinism (Part 3), and dualism (Part 4). Today we examine the principle of local causes.
Einstein, who deposed Newton, grew intellectually stodgy in old age. With respect to quantum mechanics (QM), he was positively reactionary. A die-hard determinist, Einstein rejected the statistical implications of quantum theory. In a letter to his friend and fellow physicist Max Born, Einstein confided: “Quantum mechanics is very impressive. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real McCoy. The theory produces a good deal but hardly brings us closer to the secret of the Old One.”
“The very act of observing alters the thing being observed.” –Werner Heisenberg
Since Jan. 8th’s post, we’ve been discussing assumptions that science initially embraced either explicitly or tacitly, later to abandon them as invalid or unnecessary. In the last post we rang the death knell for determinism. Today let’s ring it for dualism.
“God does not play dice.” –Albert Einstein
Since my Jan. 8 post, we’ve been discussing assumptions that science initially embraced, either explicitly or tacitly, only to abandon later as invalid or unnecessary. These include most of the following: dualism, determinism, reductionism, absolute time, absolute space, the principle of locality, materialism and realism. The last post addressed absolute time and space. Today we ring the death knell for determinism, the collateral damage of two revolutionary scientific developments of the 20th century. Let’s review them in reverse historical order.
Science's Sacred Cows Part 2
“We are to admit to no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” — Isaac Newton
In January 8th’s post, I asserted:
Science remains most true to itself and of greatest value to humanity when it assiduously avoids unnecessary assumptions. Over the long arc of history, science has initially embraced — then discarded — most of the following tacit assumptions: dualism, determinism, reductionism, absolute time, absolute space, the principle of locality, materialism, and most recently, realism. In subsequent posts, we’ll examine each …
Today, let’s discuss the notions of absolute space and time.
In a 1983 address to an international symposium on Galileo, Pope John Paul II issued a stunning pronouncement:
The Church is convinced that there can be no real contradiction between science and faith. … It is certain that science and faith represent two different orders of knowledge, autonomous in their processes, but finally converging upon the discovery of reality in all its aspects…