S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 24 March 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Those Darn Scientists!

 

[Monster Mash]

A little

less than five years after the

Japanese cities of Hiroshima and

Nagasaki were destroyed by

atomic bombs, a physicist and

Russian émigré

named Gregory Breit was given an

unusual job by the US

government. Other scientists had

been thinking about the "Super,"

the bomb that would use hydrogen

fusion to produce unimaginably

powerful explosions, and they

had one kind of nagging concern;

Robert Jungk describes this

concern in the book Brighter

Than a Thousand Suns. As Jungk

puts it, the possibility

"mentioned" by physicists

gathered on the campus at UC

Berkeley to discuss the bomb

("on a green lawn among high

cedars, or in one of the

many-windowed lecture rooms, to

the accompaniment of the regular

chiming of the campanile ...")

was that "an irresistible global

chain reaction might be released

by the Super, which would

transform the entire planet in a

short time into a flaming and

dying star."

 

Ah, yes, that

would be a pity. More tea,

Professor Teller? (No thank you,

Professor Oppenheimer. But do

try the scones.)

 

Breit worked

his slide rule, calculated the

half-life of the doomsday

shroud, and recommended that a

few scientific and military

leaders attempt to survive in

some of the nation's deepest

mine shafts. The military

leaders wholeheartedly agreed,

arguing forcefully against

allowing a "mine shaft gap."

 

Well, no - although a certain

movie does begin to look less

like apocalyptic slapstick and

more like a gritty social

documentary. Breit figured out,

of course, that a hydrogen bomb

could be exploded quite safely

indeed - and the rest is

history!

 

[Giggy]

See how much fun it is

to learn new things? OK, let's

do philosophy next.

 

In the March

issue of The Atlantic Monthly, biologist,

author, and 40-year Harvard man

Edward O. Wilson declares - or

at least declares a hope for - a

return from chaos, an end to the

vagaries of postmodern notions;

we are, he insists, entirely

capable of marching toward

"consilience," toward a complete

and integrated understanding of

the universe and our place in

it. Leading the march, in

Wilson's vision, are the

clear-eyed apostles of a new

Enlightenment, empiricists who

will one day "reach agreement on

a common body of abstract

principles and evidential

proof;" who will arrive, that

is, at a "clear view of the

world as it really is," at the

"underlying cohesion" which

"promises that order, not chaos,

lies beyond the horizon."

 

So: Build sufficiently accurate

measuring devices and put in

some quality time at the

chalkboard, and you build a

tower of Inductive Fact that

stretches high enough to put you

face-to-face with God - or

permits you, at least, to see

the George Burns-shaped outlines

of whatever turns out to be the

ultimate and single reality. A

signal of this coming together,

Wilson argues, is that the many

disciplines of thought -

astronomy and biology, astronomy

and history, natural sciences

and liberal arts, Maya Angelou

and your squinty-eyed high

school chemistry teacher - will

increasingly grow to share the

same principles, like many ropes

twisting ever tighter circles

around a single pole; each rope

is attached to the same place at

one end, after all, and so can

only end up gathered closely

together, intertwined, united.

Not sure where the actual

tetherball fits into this

analogy, but work with us.

 

[Steve]

Standing contrary to this notion

of unity, Wilson adds, are "the

philosophical postmodernists, a

rebel crew milling beneath the

black flag of anarchy," who most

likely deserve to be placed "in

history's curiosity cabinet."

This, despite the fact that

their corrosive way of thinking

has "seeped, by now, into the

mainstream of the social

sciences and humanities" - oh,

and despite their threat to good

ol' empirical science, which

they view, subversively, as

"just another way of knowing."

 

Wilson is a prodigious

name-dropper, but the names he

uses - René Descartes and

Francis Bacon, mostly - are less

interesting than the names he

doesn't use: Werner Heisenberg,

say, or Albert Einstein. He does

dip a quick nod in the general

direction of the 20th century:

 

"Science traveled on its own
way. It continued to double
every fifteen years in
practitioners, discoveries, and
technical journals, as it had
since the early 1700s, finally
starting to level off only
around 1970. Its continually
escalating success began to give
credence again to the idea of an
ordered, explainable universe
... Yet the enormous success of
reductionism, its key method,
worked perversely against any
recovery of the Enlightenment
program as a whole. Precisely
because scientific information
was increasing at a geometric
pace, most researchers thought
little about unification, and
even less about philosophy. They
thought, What works, works ...
There was another, humbler
reason for the lack of interest
in the big picture: scientists
simply didn't have the requisite
intellectual energy."

 

Those darn

scientists! They could have seen

God through the microscope, if

they'd just tried a little, but

they couldn't be bothered; they

were too busy doubling their

silly little discoveries. Get

with the program, guys - you're

making Ed Wilson really mad. (Is

it the postmodernists? Have they

gotten to you? Just cough twice

if you can't speak freely....)

 

He doesn't mention it in really

explicit terms, but powerfully

implicit in Wilson's argument is

the notion that scientific

progress is, if practiced with

discipline and purpose, actually

progressive, a straight line of

increasingly precise

understanding: Scientist A

carries the ball to the 40-yard

line; Scientist B carries it to

the 35-yard line on the next

play; Scientist C busts loose

and sprints for the Absolute.

("I found God! High five!")

 

The problem, of course, is that the

history of science has tended to

reflect Scientist B's

realization that, whoops, we're

pointed at the wrong end zone -

followed by Scientist C's

decision that, no, we're

actually playing on the wrong

field, with the wrong ball, and

the team colors are really silly

and ugly, and the Gatorade

is.... Hey, who let Dr. Leary

join the team?

 

Promising undergraduates studying physics

at the turn of the century were

occasionally discouraged from

the field by their teachers, who

knew full well that their branch

of science was explored just

about to its end; with no great

discoveries left to be made, why

keep the really bright kids

trapped in a dead-end alley? As

startling new discoveries were

actually made and startling new

theories advanced, the elite of

Germany's science faculty were

certain they knew exactly what

they were seeing: "Jewish

physics," an effort to distort

the well-established realities.

(When Heisenberg defended

Einstein's work, among others,

in a newspaper piece, fellow

academic Johannes Stark called

his reasoning "an aberration of

the Jewish mind," despite the

fact that Heisenberg wasn't

Jewish - a story Thomas Powers

recounts in his extraordinary

book, Heisenberg's War.)

 

[]

The debate between proponents of

"pure" and "Jewish" views of the

world ended academic careers,

many years before the Nazis

began to take that particular

argument to its true extreme.

Pretty soon, though, it would be

a German who pushed the

boundaries out - and the

radical, aberrant Jew who would

argue for purity, insisting that

God didn't play dice with the

universe. That fresh young

"rebel crew of anarchists,"

anti-science as they are, would

have a hard time topping Werner

Heisenberg's 71-year-old

chestnut - which he recounted in

plain terms in an essay a few

decades more current:

 

The atomic physicist has had to resign
himself to the fact that his
science is but a link in the
infinite chain of man's argument
with nature, and that it cannot
simply speak of nature "in
itself." Science always
presupposes the existence of man
and, as Bohr has said, we must
become conscious of the fact
that we are not merely observers
but also actors on the stage of
life....

 

The scientific method
of analysing, explaining and
classifying has become conscious
of its limitations, which arise
out of the fact that by its
intervention science alters and
refashions the object of
investigation. In other words,
method and object can no longer
be separated. The scientific
world-view has ceased to be a
scientific view in the true
sense of the word....

 

 

Oooh, you ... you ... anarchist!

Come out from under that black

flag right this minute!

 

The supposition that science can

build its tower to the Absolute,

brick upon brick, assumes also

that Werner Heisenberg's physics

grew directly from the

foundation of Philipp Lenard's

physics, of Johannes Stark's

ordered view of physical

reality. Not so; science has

plainly not built one continuing

and ever greater edifice. It has

built one edifice after another,

based on the empirical, proven

"knowledge" of each builder -

and it has torn down each

edifice to build the next.

Scientific rationality is a

mighty fine thing, and three

cheers for the polio vaccine,

the new, improved life span, and

Olestra - but it is not

stalking, and cannot capture, a

single truth; what then? It stops?

In fact, far from each

field of inquiry growing toward

one another, some fields are

themselves growing more and more

internally unclear. The New York

Times reported, earlier this

month - among others, of course

- that astronomers are

increasingly in a lather over

the direction of the entire

universe, particularly as their

tools grow more powerful,

producing more precise and

far-reaching data: Shrinking? Or

expanding? Or, um, maybe, uh....

Not, the Times notes, the first

time these questions have been

asked: In 1917, realizing that

his theory of general relativity

implied that the universe was

expanding - which he considered

impossible, at the time -

Einstein "added a term to his

equations later called a

cosmological constant, a fudge

factor intended to cancel out

any change in size."

[]

We can't

help but remember, and remember

often, that scientists were

doing that quick double check on

the whole end-of-the-world thing

not so long ago in the big

picture of human history, at the

opening of this half of the

current century: Hey, before we

light this sucker - think it'll

turn the planet into a dying

star? Kind of a careless

approach to opening some of

those doors, and not so

thrilling a picture of

progressive, rational induction.

There is an "underlying

cohesion" that connects us all,

a long and blissfully silent

order that "lies beyond the

horizon," and we're each headed

there sooner or later. But it's

not what you would probably call

"consilience" - and it may come

a little quicker to people who

think they can know everything.

Given the choice, we'll take the

chaos.

 
courtesy of Ambrose Beers