Monday, July 25, 2005

Critical Lessons

A few days after writing about the duplicity of the New York Times, I recalled a salient paragraph by Jorge Luis Borges:

In the third article, "Free Thought and Official Propaganda," [Bertrand Russell] suggests that elementary schools should teach the art of reading newspapers with incredulity. That Socratic discipline would be useful, I believe. Very few of the persons I know have any acquaintance with it. They let themselves be deceived by typographical or syntactical tricks. They think that an event has occurred because it is printed in large black letters. They do not wish to understand that the statement "All the aggressor's attempts to advance beyond B have failed miserably" is merely a euphemistic way to admit the loss of B. What is even worse, they practice a kind of magic: they believe that to express any fear is to collaborate with the enemy. Russell proposes that the State endeavor to immunize its citizens against such deception and trickery. For example, he suggests that school children should study Moniteur bulletins, which were ostensibly triumphant, to learn about Napoléon's last defeats. A typical assignment would be to read about the history of the wars with France in English textbooks, and then to rewrite that history from the French viewpoint.

Great idea, don't you think? (Russell was often a great thinker, but like too many modern intellectuals he failed to apply his own critical stance to his own ideas: the proverbial "liberal" double standard.)

The only exception I take to this paragraph is the idea that the State will educate its people to think critically. You might as well put the fox in charge of the henhouse. The last thing in the State's interest is an educated citizenry (such a people might know enough to check its expansion and the erosion of their own liberties!). It is much more realistic that the people themselves to organize such efforts—and it is truly the genius of the American people (as opposed to the British or the Argentines) to organize themselves into such intermediate institutions.

Jorge Luis Borges, "Two Books," Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952, Ruth L.C. Sims, trans. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), 131.

Perhaps of interest: Personal Exemption

Personal Note: My recently acquired job requires me to move in the next few weeks. On top of that I'll be away at a meeting later this week. Posts will be in frequent. Might I suggest looking back at some of my earlier posts during this period? Writing about perenniel themes has the advantage of not losing currency with time.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Smithsonian Archives Show Trial Photos

The Smithsonian has recently discovered some previously unpublished photos of the Scopes "Monkey Trial" (Tennessee vs. John Scopes, 1925). They're worth a gander:

Unpublished Photographs from 1925 Tennessee vs. John Scopes "Monkey Trial" Found in Smithsonian Archives

John Scopes, Dayton, Tennessee, June 1925

Clarence Darrow interrogating William Jennings Bryan (seated, left), July 20, 1925

(HT: Washington Times, USA Today)

Posts on Smithsonian's role in the evolution controvery:

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Abyss Calls to Abyss

Thirty-six years ago today at 10:56 pm EDT, Neal Armstrong descended from the Apollo 11 lunar module and stepped onto the lunar surface. By merely walking on an extra-terrestrial body, the ancient scruples that had deified the heavens were definitively cast down. Armstrong's was the small, even mundane step crowning one of the most awesome human undertakings.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. (President Kennedy, May 25, 1961)

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. (President Kennedy, September 12, 1962)

Is there any contrast so striking as the achievement of the lunar landing compared to NASA's present morass of clueless impotence?

Why is NASA so helpless? Further, why bother about space anyway?

These are good questions that only NASA administrators lack the presence of mind to avoid. In the latest New Atlantis, Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society, scrutinizes NASA and President Bush's Mars initiative. Zubrin makes a great pitch for manned missions to Mars. So great that he very nearly rekindles the excitement in a space skeptic like me.

Critique of NASA and The Plan

Zubrin takes to task the Aldridge Commission's endorsement of NASA's present listless state. He observes that historically NASA has operated in either of two "modes":

  1. the destination-driven Apollo Mode, and
  2. the production-driven Shuttle Mode.

In Apollo Mode, technology is devised to serve the mission, while in Shuttle Mode, the mission is devised to farm out money to constituencies, such as NASA labs and technology companies. Almost needless to say, Shuttle Mode is incredibly wasteful and directionless, blowing with the political breeze. The Apollo Mode was not only more successful in achievement, but also in developing technology.

Furthermore, Zubrin faults NASA's lack of technical expertise on top (causing the often-observed stark division and subsequent miscommunication between managers and engineers that results in disasters like Columbia) and he observes that the great success of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory comes from its directors as well as its managers being superb scientists or engineers.

Insofar as it gives NASA a definite direction, Zubrin has nothing for praise for President Bush's new space initiative to return us to the Moon and then to Mars. But he doesn't shy from levelling seering criticism at the initiative's wastefully slothful time-table and even more the knuckle-headed implementation plan cooked up by NASA's new Exploration Systems Missions Directorate (ESMD).

The time-table proposed by the President is so slow that current technology that could be adapted to the new mission will have fallen into years of disuse by the time it is needed. The schedule is so slow that it will vastly balloon the total cost of getting us to Mars. (A good thing if the goal is to buy votes, but a bad thing if your goal is Mars and the national interest.)

In a word, the problem with ESMD's plan is its extraordinary redundancy and reduplication of effort. Indicative is the third flaw that Zubrin notes:

[I]t fails to respond to the presidential directive. As currently constituted, the hardware used in Spirals 2 and 3 is used to support lunar missions only, with no regard for Mars requirements. But the president's policy directive clearly specified that a central purpose of the lunar program is to enable sustained human exploration of Mars. These orders were effectively ignored by the designers of the plan."

The Meaning of It All

All of these remarks on the implementation of the President's plan ignore the issue of why we should try to send men to Mars. Zubrin turns to this question in his final section.

[I]n the long run civilizations are built by ideas, not swords. The central idea at the core of Western civilization is that there is an inherent facility in the individual human mind to recognize right from wrong and truth from untruth. This idea is the source of our notions of conscience and science, terms which, not coincidentally, share a common root.

Both our radical fundamentalist and our totalitarian enemies deny these concepts. They deny the validity of the individual conscience, and they deny the necessity of human liberty, and indeed, consider it intolerable. For them, conscience, reason, and free will must be crushed so that humans will submit to arbitrary and cruel authority.

Yes! The West will prevail through ideas. Despite the abject terror of European power-elites at admitting it, our civilization is founded on the Christian Faith.1 Medieval Christians preserved what was good of ancient learning after the greed and decadence of pagan wealth hollowed out and imploded the old Empire. And they built a new civilization based on logos, reason, and the Logos. The Renaissance didn't materialize out of thin air, but stood on the shoulders of the steady efforts of the medievals. Without medieval Christians, there would have been no scientific revolution.2

Yes, that's right, Bob, keep going...!

Against this foe, science is our strongest weapon, not simply because it produces useful devices and medical cures, but because it demonstrates the value of a civilization based upon the use of reason. There was a time when we celebrated the divine nature of the human spirit by building Gothic cathedrals. Today we build space telescopes. Science is our society’s sacred enterprise [???]; through it we assert the fundamental dignity of man. And because it ventures into the cosmic realm of ultimate truth [???], space exploration is the very banner of science.

Reading the words I've emphasized was like driving a formula-1 racecar full-throttle over "severe tire damage" spikes. It is possible that "space exploration as religion" is just a rhetorical tool that Zubrin uses to reach a presumably secular audience. But I am not so sure.

Space Is Empty

Not long ago, I attended an informal meeting of space enthusiasts to brainstorm ways to make space flight possible. Throwing a human being and his miniature life-sustaining world beyond the planet's atmosphere is an expensive proposition whose societal benefits are not all that obvious. What most struck me about the gathering was that the most enthusiastic about space were simply casting about for a credible excuse for the rest of us to pay for their joy-ride. It's a "solution" in search of a problem.3

Unanswered is the question: what in particular about space is supposed to make us happy?

In a sense, space is a big (very big!) Rorschach test, a massive ink-blot that tells us more about ourselves than about anything else. Perhaps we look to space to avoid the here and now.

One of the cornerstones of the modern psyche, as exemplified by Star Trek4 is that humanity will somehow find fulfillment in the vast "other" of the universe. If it is not Almighty Space will bring meaning to everything, then it is the personal "others" that inhabit it.

But are we searching the outer universe to avoid gazing on the emptiness within?5

"Deep calleth unto deep with the voice of thy water-spouts." It was God whom [the psalmist] addressed, who "remembered him from the land of Jordan and Hermon." It was in wonder and admiration he spake this: "Abyss calleth unto abyss with the voice of Thy water-spouts." What abyss is this that calls, and to what other abyss? Justly, because the "understanding" spoken of is an "abyss." For an "abyss" is a depth that cannot be reached or comprehended; and it is principally applied to a great body of water. For there is a "depth," a "profound," the bottom of which cannot be reached by sounding.... If by "abyss" we understand a great depth, is not man's heart, do you not suppose, "an abyss"? For what is there more profound than that "abyss"?

Can the abyss of space fill the abyss of the human heart? But space is just "more of the same." Scientists would have us believe that no place in the universe is unique. How can we be satisfied with more of the stuff that already fails to satisfy?

If space is not the Final Frontier, what is? Perhaps we need to re-examine the dimension most intimate to our existence: time.

Modern life fosters the myth of human mastery over time. It is a scientific-technological illusion. Modern comforts surround us in a cocoon of self-satisfaction, untouched by the rigors of the world beyond our wills. “The world of our making becomes ever more mirror-like,” as Daniel Boorstin wrote. The apparent permanence of institutions, things, and even people in a stable society leads us to take for permanent what is evanescent. Recording and replaying devices give us the idea that we can bottle experience and relive it at will. The empirical method of science itself contributes to the illusion: the repeatability of experiments assumes the non-uniqueness of the present moment or at least that the experimenter possesses a space-like mastery over time. In truth a replayed experience can be at best only very similar to the original; no moment is ever truly the same as any other and humans will never master time as we have space. No matter how hard we try, we cannot go home again. Present realities inexorably drain into the past. The entirety of our life is an inexorable journey toward death. No matter how much of the world we conquer, we cannot avoid that final mystery that masters us all.

As finite beings, we do not have arbitrary control over the span of our lives, but we can control how we spend the here-and-nows that, put together, make our lives.

We need to consider the possibility that the otherness of space and the otherness of extraterrestrials won't ultimately fill our hearts, and that perhaps we need to look much closer to home: to the other person right in front of us, and the Infinite Other in whose image that person was created.

In Sum

So what should we do about NASA? Should we go to Mars? My answer is that NASA is worthwhile if we can re-inject it with purpose (the very thing that modern scientists, like Dawkins and Gould, would have us believe doesn't exist). The Mars mission is a worthy endeavor, a meaningful achievement. It could even help reinvigorate the West's faith in human reason and the mind's ability to grasp the world's meaning...


...but not if we insist on investing space with "ultimate" meaning.


Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. (Ps 42:11)

Some cool Apollo 11 links:


1. See, for example, Thomas E. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Civilization.

2. Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos

3. The "weightlessness" of space, for example, is not unique. The experience of anyone free-falling is identical, as Einstein's general theory of relativity has made evident.

4. Cf. Star Trek: First Contact (1996). (More on the Trek religion in future.)
Trek Trivia: In the "Tomorrow is Yesterday" episode, the Enterprise crew intercepts a radio report that the first manned moon shot will take place on Wednesday. Apollo 11 was launched nearly two years after the filming on 16 July 1969, a Wednesday.

5. "Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." (Lk 17:21) Cf. the final words of Joseph Conrad's Kurtz who can no longer avoid looking within: "There is nothing" (Heart of Darkness).

Robert Zubrin, "Getting Space Exploration Right" The New Atlantis 8 (Spring 2005), 15-48.

Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 257.

John F. Kennedy, "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs" (Delivered in person before a joint session of Congress, May 25, 1961).

John F. Kennedy, "Address at Rice University on the Nation's Space Effort" (Houston, Texas, September 12, 1962).

Aurelius Augustinus, Expositions on the Psalms 42, n. 12.

A Periodic Periodic Table

I just ran across a Slate slide show desribing a new way of laying out the periodic table [alt] of the elements. It turns out that Phillip Stewart's "Chemical Galaxy: A New Vision of the Periodic Table of the Elements" has actually been around since November 2004.

Check out the slide show:

Start from the beginning, or
cut to the chase

(Here's an enlarged, legible image)

Basically, it's the old table, but wrapped so that the ends meet, and the tops converge in the center. The new arrangement's circularity manifests the table's periodicity quite elegantly.

The modern [standard] table artificially breaks up the sequence of elements at the end of each row. Certain elements fit into it uncomfortably; for example, hydrogen sits above lithium, with which it shares few properties. And entire groups are relegated to footnotes.... (slide 4)

Stewart has preserved the sequential march from light to heavy elements and all Mendeleev's groupings. But here the rows don't end abruptly, and related elements that were previously separated, like neon and sodium, have been reunited. There's no need for footnotes, and there's a convenient spot for neutronium (sometimes called "element zero" because it has no protons at all), which never found an appropriate perch in the old table. (slide 5)

The new circular arrangement also has the advantage of allowing the Lanthanides and Actinides (typically separated) to be visually integrated into continuity with the other elements.

Aside from possible diffculty to chemical novices, the only problem I can see is that the lettering is too small compared to the size of the table, making it difficult to see across the classroom for all but the largest poster sizes. Then again, maybe they just want to sell larger posters....

Also useful: Stewart's own Technical Notes

Susan Kruglinski, "A New Periodic Table of the Elements" Discover 26:6 (June 2005), 88. [subscription required]

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

All the Newspeak That's Fit to Print

Editorial Note: The present post is another political one. If you don't like politics, or my take on it, my next post will be more philosophical in nature.) People I respect, like Denyse O'Leary, don't seem to understand how politics and policy fit into the ostensible subject of this forum. Unfortunately I failed in my explanation of the blog's title to expand adequately on the meaning of "physics." I owe you an explanation. Please be patient.

As we saw in "Why Real Physics?, the de-anchoring of purpose from nature not only destroys nature, but also subverts language, making it an instrument for devaluing human life. Following tonight's rhetoric1 in response to the President's announcement of his nomination of Judge Roberts, it is fitting to reflect on the abuse of language.

Phrases like "a voice of reason and moderation" and "embodies the fundamental American values of freedom, equality and fairness" apply only to supporters of legal abortion. While any opponent of abortion "threatens to roll back the rights and freedoms of the American people." These examples are from the New York Times, which, as we saw with regard to Tom Woods, is unabashed in its role of liberal advocacy.

Those with a less antipodean native tongue may find helpful this list of futher translations: Democrat Nomination Translation Table (Hat tip to Tim Carney)

Garbage flows downhill. The Times' misuse of language was first perfected in the academy.2 Compare to the classic Frequently Used Words and Phrases of the PC Lexicon from Harvard's Penninsula.

The co-opting of language for political power is precisely the kind George Orwell epitomizsed in 1984 as Newspeak:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [the totalitarian Party], but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever....

It would have been quite impossible to render [the Declaration of Independence] into Newspeak while keeping to the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink. A full translation could only be an ideological translation, whereby Jefferson’s words would be changed into a panegyric on absolute government.

The moral of the story: the man who says language has no meaning and is only an instrument for power speaks meaningfully only about himself.

Upholding a Grand Tradition

The paradigmatic example New York Times newspeak was its cover-up of the famine from Stalin's forced agricultural collectivization of the Ukraine. Millions starved to death while correspondent Walter Duranty decried the reports as fallacious.
In 1933, at the height of the famine, Duranty wrote that "village markets [were] flowing with eggs, fruit, poultry, vegetables, milk and butter. ... A child can see this is not famine but abundance." (Berlau)
It was Duranty who knowingly denied the famine in dispatches to The New York Times with descriptive euphemisms such as "serious food shortage," "mismanagement of collective farming," a conspiracy of "wreckers" and "spoilers" who had "made a mess of Soviet food production" (i.e. poor Ukrainian peasants who resisted collectivization) and the like. "There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation," he wrote, "but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition." There was suffering, Duranty admitted but "to put it brutally - you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs..." (Kuropas)

No longer are they sons and daughters, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters. They are raw materials indifferently to be used or crushed.

(Further Duranty quotations collected here.)

As Myron Kuropas describes, the Times continued its tradition with its justifications of the wholesale slaughter conducted by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge in 1975. But Pol Pot's two million is hardly an itchy nose compared to 70 million famine-stricken Ukrainians.

The Times has yet to admit any fault. After all, how can one sin if one acts in the name of The Revolution?

If the Times doesn't blush at covering up mass genocide, we can hardly expect it to suffer pangs of conscience over the 34 million children of the post-Roe generation (a third) who will never see the light of day.

More recent Times shananigans here:

Flunking Journalism Ethics 101: NYT Allows News Reporter to Write Op-Ed on Evolution Controversy


1. Transcript of Leahy and Schumer remarks: [FoxNews] [WaPo?] [NYTimes?] Doubtless largely crafted long before the identity of the nominee was clear. Being a speech-writer for such single-note clients must be a boring job: perhaps an industrious programmer could train his computer to do the job at the push of a button. On the other hand, it might be fun to push the limit for the number of histrionic proclamations of imminent apocalyse can one string together in a paragraph without evoking unbridled laughter. More reaction quotations: [AP-NYT]

2. Cf. Thucydides' description of tha Athenian plague as beginning in the head (History of the Peloponnesian War, 49).

David Stout, "Democrats Warn Bush on Choosing Successor to O'Connor," New York Times (July 1, 2005). ["Warn"! O my!]

George Orwell, 1984 (1949),Pt. III, ch. 6.

John Berlau, "Duranty's Deception" Insight (July 7, 2003).

Myron B. Kuropas, "Making omelets at The New York Times," The Ukrainian Weekly 71:10 (March 9, 2003).

Arnold Beichman, "Pulitzer-Winning Lies," The Daily Stardard (June 12, 2003).

Abortion as Self-destructive

Dan Allot has written a thought-provoking piece online at American Spectator:

Post-Abortion Depression

Some significant sentences:

Another study in the non-partisan American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse reported an increase in substance abuse experienced by post-abortive women. Women who had no history of substance abuse prior to their first pregnancy were, on average, twice as likely to abuse alcohol, more than twice as likely to abuse marijuana, and nearly three times as likely to use cocaine, as women who did not abort. In fact, there have been dozens of recent studies confirming the strong association between abortion and subsequent drug and alcohol abuse, which, in turn, are strongly correlated with depression.

In another study that accounted for prior mental health problems, post-abortive women were found to be much more likely to attempt suicide. Gissler et al. discovered that while the mean annual suicide rate among Finnish women was 11.3 per 100,000, the rates associated with women who obtained an abortion (34.7) were significantly higher than in the population.

Even apart from the morality of taking an innocent life, behind all the negative consequences to the mother lies the fundamental problem: abortion is a short-term solution to much deeper problems. Illegitimacy, for example, is only the outward manifestation of a psychic poverty that seeks sexual satisfaction apart from the fruitful union that is its purpose. "Saving" women (and their cowardly men) from the natural consequences of their choices only reinforces irresponsibility, but even more it denigrades their awesome vocation to bring new human life into the world. The empirical results only confirm what the ancient wisdom would have said: that to reject the purposes inscribed in one's being can bring only sadness, not fulfillment.

Daniel Allott, "Post-Abortion Depression " The American Spectator (7/19/2005 12:08:11 AM).

Monday, July 18, 2005

Resurrecting 1950's Naivete

National Public Radio has recently resurrected the 1950's Edward R. Murrow radio program “This I Believe.”

The particular program I heard featured Elizabeth Deutsch, who as a 16-year-old had been on the show 50 years ago. Before turning to her "mature" take on life, NPR played her original spot. It crackled with the the naive optimism and stilted righteousness that ruled the airwaves before the traumas and the 1960's and the self-indulgence of the Baby Boomers dragged the culture deeper into materialism. It even sounded like it was in black and white.

Ms. Deutsch's 2005 views were just what you'd expect to hear on NPR:

Many of my early traits remain, including skepticism about religious authority, curiosity about the world and the lofty desire to live a righteous life. The world I see now worries me at least as much as it did in the 1950s.


Being a kind person and striving for social justice remain high priorities for me, but not for religious reasons. The "simple faith in the Deity" expressed in my teenage essay has faded over the years. Still, after the events of 9/11, I returned to the Unitarian Church, the same denomination in which I was active when I was 16. I've come to appreciate once again that communal reflection about life's deeper matters is sustaining and uplifting and provides a consistent nudge in worthy directions.

I thought it would be useful to bring to your attention Walker Percy's mordant observations of the original program:

On the program hundreds of the highest-minded people, people in the country, thoughtful and intelligent people, people with mature inquiring minds, state their personal credos. The two or three hundred I have heard so far were without exception admirable people. I doubt if any other country or any other time in history has produced such thoughtful and high-minded people, especially the women. And especially the South. I do believe the South has produced more high-minded women, women of universal sentiments, than any other section of the country except possibly New England in the last century. Of my six living aunts, five are women of the loftiest theosophical pan-Brahman sentiments. The sixth is still a Presbyterian.

If I had to name a single trait that all these people shared, it is their niceness. Their lives are triumphs of generous feelings. And as for themselves: it would be impossible for even a dour person not to like them.

Tonight's subject is a playwright who transmits this very quality of niceness in his plays. He begins:

I believe in people. I believe in tolerance and understanding between people. I believe in the uniqueness and the dignity of the individual—

Everyone of “This I Believe” believes in the uniqueness and the dignity of the individual. I have noticed, however, that the believers are far from unique themselves, are in fact alike as peas in a pod.

I believe in music. I believe in a child's smile. I believe in love. I also believe in hate.

This is true, I have known a couple of these believers, humanists and lady psychologists who come to my aunt's house. On “This I Believe” they like everyone. But when it comes down to this or that particular person, I have noticed that they usually hate his guts.

I suppose with the implosion of liberalism, the NPR crowd would prefer to forget the last 50 years ever happened.

Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York: Ivy Books, 1961), 94-95 (ch. 11).

Friday, July 15, 2005

Planet Found in Triple-Star System

This item caught my attention. Scientists have found a planet stably orbiting in a triple star system 149 light years from Earth:

Discovery of a First: A World With 3 Suns

The planet orbits the main star with a period of 3.35 days (distance from star: 4.5% Earth-Sun distance), while the other two stars orbit a common center of mass that orbits the main star every 25 years (elliptical orbit with average distance from main star: 12.3 times Earth-Sun distance). The planet is a Jupiter-like gas giant. (Helpful orbital diagram)

Here's an animation of what you'd see standing on a moon of the planet: [Quicktime]

What's the import?

But the paired companion stars to HD 188753's primary star, scientists now realize, would presumably have burned away the disk of gas and dust out of which a planet could have formed. According to the standard orbital migration model, the newfound planet should not exist.

Oh well. Back to the drawing board....

John Noble Wilford, "Discovery of a First: A World With 3 Suns" New York Times (July 15, 2005).

Mark Peplow, "The triple sunset that should not exist," Nature (online: 13 July 2005).

Maciej Konacki, "An extrasolar giant planet in a close triple-star system," Nature 436 (14 July 2005), 230-233.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

"Flat Earth" Flat Wrong

Tom Woods1 has written a great article debunking the myth that anyone ever thought the Earth flat:

The Flat Earth Myth

Interesting excerpts:

European monarchs’ initial hesitation to support Columbus’s proposed expedition had nothing to do with the idea that the world was flat and Columbus might fall off the edge. It was precisely the accuracy of their knowledge of the earth that made them skeptical: they correctly concluded that Columbus had drastically underestimated the size of the earth, and that therefore he and his men would starve to death before they made it to the Indies. (Thankfully for them, of course, the Americas, which no one knew about, fortuitously appeared in between.)


Uncritical acceptance of the myth was too tempting for many scholars, since it fit in so well with the caricature of Christianity they were already inclined to draw. "If Christians had for centuries insisted that the earth was flat against clear and available evidence," explains Russell, "they must be not only enemies of scientific truth, but contemptible and pitiful enemies."

Take that, Jacobins: happy Bastille Day!

1. Tom's most recent claim to fame is The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, which on top of being a New York Times bestseller, was roundly denounced as dangerous by the Times's editors. (The Times wouldn't promote censorship, now would it?) If that's not enough recommendation for the book, please take my word that it's well worth reading. Even the most wary are surrounded by so many liberal lies that we can't help but believe at least some of them; this book is the red pill.

Jeffrey Burton Russell Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (New York: Praeger, 1991).

For completeness: Flat Earth Society (their custom URL no longer works; perhaps lack of interest and funding?)

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Why "Real Physics"?

Friends have inquired about the meaning of "Real Physics," as well as of the subtitle "A Realistic Exploration Into Nature."

Physics comes from the ancient Greek phusis for nature (see full article on etymology). Physics was originally synonymous with natural philosophy, hence the full title of Newton's foundational Principia is Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.

Since Newton's time, what we currently call physics has become exclusively mathematical. This program has found wild success: quantity is a powerful way to describe the material world. But it is not the only way, and in fact it is not the most meaningful way. Quantity alone gives us only nature's dry bones.

Specifying the physics of this blog as "real" signals my intention to "flesh out" our picture of the natural world and our way of exploring nature. It is not so much that science lies to us about nature, but that its presentation is incomplete. The lie is to pretend that science presents us with the full and only truth about nature.

The quotation under the subtitle, “What we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument,” comes from C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man.

Without intrinsic meaning, nature has no moral value. If moral values are not part of nature then they are unnatural, which means there are no real constraints on human action. Human rights lose all meaning.

An agenda, perhaps not fully conscious, informs the rejection of intrinsic purpose. Those who deny nature's meaning do so in order to impose their own meaning, and to use this power to manipulate other men. Now, this agenda may not be the original reason they turned to science—in fact they were likely hoodwinked into denying nature's meaning in the first place—but the tenor of modern natural science is so superficial that it is difficult to resist a purely utilitarian attitude toward nature, and eventually toward one's fellow men. At the very least, superficial science itself poses no obstacle to being manipulated and used to manipulate. At worst, the lie of completeness removes meaningful obstacles to manipulation.

Quality, Not Quantity

Purpose is synonymous with meaning. Another way to look at the devaluing of nature is to see how superficial science pretends that nature is purposeless. The fields of ethics and morality study how to reach happiness. "All men seek happiness" is a tautology, even if everyone disagrees what constitutes happiness.

As Aristotle says, it is quality and not quantity that leads to purpose. Denying the reality of qualities, modern science rejects purpose and the possibility of happiness.

The importance of safeguarding the reality of qualities is a subtle point with vast implications. Superficial science would have us believe that the redness of an apple is simply a subjective impression produced by electromagnetic radiation of wavelength 650 nm. On the contrary, if man knows any truth at all, the redness of an apple is a reality that truly exists in the apple. Redness is an objective quality.

To deny the objectivity of qualities is to lock yourself in your mind. If redness is only a subjective impression, if it is produced by the mind in response to physical stimuli, then it is impossible to speak of any two people seeing the same "red." In fact one cannot speak of a knowable objective world. (And to be perfectly consistent, one cannot speak at all; speech implies meaning and truth.)

Science at its truest and wisest cannot deny the reality of qualities, because its touchstone is the sensible, empirical, measurable world. To say that black and white have no reality is to deny the possibility of reading an experimental instrument, and thus to deny the possibility of observation and experiment. As Anthony Rizzi puts it, "we only know quantity through quality" (138).

Very tellingly, if denying quality's reality not only traps individuals in themselves, but also corrodes the bonds between individuals that constitute communities. The belief that each person imposes his own will to create his own reality is very obviously inimical to living in common and seeking a common good.

Wider Dangers

If there is only quantity, then our system of government, which is predicated on the reality of rights-bearing individuals,1 is meaningless. If there is only quantity, then all is matter in motion. There are no forms, there are no substances, there are no wholes. You and I are not ensouled bodies created in the image of an all-powerful Creator, nor are we simply self-aware bipeds; we are not even animals—as that concept itself is meaningless—but merely an arbitrary agglomeration of matter in motion. Certainly he pulled the lever that caused the explosion that launched the metal projectile that punctured the intervening soft tissues that caused a sudden decrease in blood pressure. But without referring to substances, you can't call it "murder."


1. A more subtle problem, but with more radical implications is that the thought of Locke, et al. that form the matrix of our society presume that we are fundamentally self-sufficient, autonomous individuals. No: we are born dependent into a community of love—the family; it is the family that brings us forth and that forms who we are as persons. If we fail to realize the limitations of these Enlightenment fictions, we will tend to fracture reality to fit that artificial ideal.

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.

Anthony Rizzi, The Science Before Science (Baton Rouge, LA: IAP Press, 2004).

See also the Nature Institute's "Toward a Science of Qualities"

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Showing the Human Face of Human Clones

Saturday I chanced into my friend Alfred, who generously invited me to join him for the sneak preview of The Island. The film opens generally July 22, and I think it's worth seeing.

I'll briefly review the film here, and publish a more thorough analysis after the official premier.

The director, Michael Bay, is responsible for such action/effects whoppers as Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and The Rock. The present film follows this tradition of "extra cheese" but fortunately there is a significant portion of meat underneath.1 (This is Bay's first film without Jerry Bruckheimer producing.)

Ewan McGregor plays an average man, improbably named "Lincoln Six Echo," dissatisfied with his life as a survivor of a global contamination. He and the other surivors inhabit a highly regimented, enclosed facility and their only source of hope is the possibility of winning The Lottery for transferral to the paradisical last uncontaminated place on earth, The Island.

The trailers don't shy from revealing that "there is no island," so it can't be spoiling the film too much to tell you that Lincoln discovers the entire story behind the facility is a fabrication—to say nothing of the survivors' very lives being physically fabricated. In reality, the survivors are "insurance policies" for "sponsors" on the outside, that is to say, they are clones of rich folk on the outside who want backup organs or wombs. Contrary to public image, being selected on The Island is not a happy fate, but means having an organ harvested for one's sponsor.

Scarlett Johansson is "Jordan Two Delta"2, Lincoln's mostly-Platonic friend and clone of glamorous actress, Sara Jordan3. (Sara appears only in a store-front advertisement, an actual Johansson spot for Channel from last year. There's plenty of other product placement in this film, to say the least.) Djimon Hounsou plays Albert Laurent, the bounty-hunter tearing up Los Angeles for his prey. Hounsou also starred in Amistad and the film draws the significant parallel between slavery and the inhuman plight of the clones.

This film's basic message is much needed. It is important that we assent to the transcendent value of human life, but also that we form our emotions (C.S. Lewis & Plato: "the chest") to conform to the human reality hidden in cloned embryos.

In short I recommend seeing this film. With realistic expectations it is very enjoyable. Don't walk in expecting a Gattaca-quality sci-fi art film with an air-tight plot. Do go expecting a sympathetic and occasionally thought-provoking portrayal of a class of human beings whose continued abuse and neglect depreciates all human life.

Caveats for parents

The film is MPAA rated PG-13 for intense violence, some language, and a brief (about a min) sex scene. The sex scene appeared only near the end (to fulfill what is apparently an obligatory these days), but I can't speak authoritatively on its content as I removed my glasses.

Lincoln's implausibly improvised escape perpetuates the popular myth that good things just happen (like the new-agey belief that something spontaneously arises from nothing...). Granted: the clones are innocents and, as the saying goes, "God watches over babies, drunks, and the U.S. of A.," but children need to learn that, while providence will sometimes cut us a break, success largely requires planning and hard work (just like producing a motion picture...?). As Benjamin Franklin wisely said, "I am a strong believer in luck and I find the harder I work the more I have of it." Of all the fantastic elements of this film, and parent would be wise to bring this easily missed point to their childrens' attention.

1. Ironically the cheesiness of the film is a great thing. Hollywood films are by nature cheesy, and who would have thought a Hollywood film would even get near such a "pregnant" topic? Yahoo movies has a clip of Bay, McGregor, and Sean Bean discussing "the morality of cloning"; I haven't been able to get it to show on my machine yet, so caveat emptor.

2. The clones' third names designate their generation or batch, but is it pure coincidence that the male lead's name ends in "o" and the female's in "a"?

3. Johannsen's alter ego shares her initials.

Michael Bay, dir., The Island (2005). [Official Site]

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Dies Domini

A little Sunday memento mori to add some bite to your reflections:

Dies Irae, Dies Illa

The post's commentary is good, but try reading the words along with the sound recording. Haunting.

In response to those who would relegate religion to the purely subjective1, the ultimate question is: will the Last Judgement be an objective event?


1. Ala Gould's non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA); see for example Lawrence Kraus's May 18, 2005 "Pay no attention to the man behing the curtain" NYTimes op-ed: School Boards Want to 'Teach the Controversy.' What Controversy?. (Hat tip to Thoughts on Christianity and Science)

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Debate in Darwinian Territory

In case you're interested and have nothing better to do, you might like to read the brief offensive I launched Thursday in the wake of Cardinal Schönborn's op-ed "Finding Design in Nature" (which I posted about same day). This Darwinian fire-fight1 took place in the New York Times's online backyard. I don't know that I took any prisoners, but I at least inflicted a few thought-provoking questions. These were unanswered: hardboiled materialists seem rather impervious to thought.

A couple responses were themselves thought-provoking, and raise some issues worth investigation. Not all of the correspondents were that lucid, but these provided unparallelled entertainment. It's always fun to read the frustrated sputterings of secular humanists, particularly when their worldview is straitjacketted to what the Times editors see fit to print. We can only pray that someday, they'll realize they can't beat objective reality, but will just have to join it.

Here are links to my first post and last post at the New York Times Forum. Please note that you do have to sign up for access to the site, but there is no charge.


1. "Darwinian fitness contest" might be more appropriate, but the inevitable associations with Richard Simmons don't fit the combat metaphor.

UPDATE: another Times article:

Cornelia Dean and Laurie Goodstein, "Leading Cardinal Redefines Church's View on Evolution," New York Times (July 9, 2005). (Hat tip to Thoughts on Christianity and Science)

Friday, July 08, 2005

Contrarian Demographics

Steve Sailer, as usual, has some great items on his homepage and blog—stuff you definitely won't find in the mainstream media (MSM), and backup up with good quantitative analysis (which you also won't find in the MSM).

How legal abortion hollowed out the black middle class
Uses a 1996 Brookings Institution policy brief called "An Analysis of Out-Of-Wedlock Births in the United States." The effect of legalized abortion on illegitimacy conformed to what anyone with their feet on the ground would expect (but our elites seem clueless about):

Before legalization, the birthrate for married black women was 129 and for unmarried black women 91. A decade later, the married black birth rate dropped from 129 to 93, while the unmarried black birth rate fell only from 91 to 86. So, social changes, including abortion legalization, had barely any effect on the unmarried black birth rate, but drove down the black married rate sharply.

Moreover, black women weren't getting married as much, in part because of the collapse of the shotgun wedding...

Interestingly the brief maintains that after Roe, "Sexual activity without commitment was increasingly expected in premarital relationships."
"Affordable Family Formation"—The Neglected Key To GOP's Future,
In this VDARE article Steve describes three differences between GOP and Democratic voters (Dirt, Mortgage, and Marriage Gaps) and advises the GOP to tell voters, "We're on the side of making it affordable for you, and your children and grandchildren, to form families. The Democrats are on the side of dying alone."
WSJ's Taranto pushes his "Roe Effect" half-truth again
Here Steve disputes the idea that the Democrats wouldn't have lost (or at least lost so badly) had they not aborted their future constituency (an idea that I've trumpetted before in this forum).

Also here's an interesting post on African economics at Contrarian Views: aid to Africa hurts the common people.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Humble Pie, Baked Not Evolved

On the subject of evolution, we Catholics tend to look down our noses at our Evangelical brethren, whom we tend to see as needlessly exercised about secular boogie-men like Darwin. We tell ourselves that they're so untutored in Christian history as to reject use of our God-given faculty of reason, so their excitement about Darwin must come from a similarly unfounded suspicion of science. And the neo-Darwinians have been all too eager to flatter our vanity.

Today we receive the prelude to a correction from Holy Mother Church, transmitted through (of all places) today's New York Times. The Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn, writes an op-ed on "Finding Design in Nature." An eminent Thomistic philosopher and member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Schönborn is best known as editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first universal catechism since that of Trent. In the Times, he writes

Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

The truth is that Darwinism is an abdication of reason. To propose chance as a cause of anything (including genetic information) is to abandon the bedrock of science, the principle of causality: "Everything has a cause either in itself or in another." Darwinism boils down to a fundamentalist-style belief. (See also this post on Carl Sagan's brand of ol'-time religion, and very good comments to this one.)

Darwinism is likewise an abdication of moral responsibility. Chance and determinism rule the universe1, so man is only a "trousered ape," in C.S. Lewis's words. Charles Darwin himself sees the moral implication of his theory is the removal of all limits to human behavior and he even describes genocide as the inevitable outcome of his system. (And I haven't mentioned Darwin's desciples, like Francis Galton, the "father" of modern eugenics.)

Most importantly, Darwinism adnegates hope in Divine Providence. On this point, Pope Benedict's proclaimation at his installation (from which Schönborn quotes) is most significant:

We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.2


1. Cue "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi" from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. [1-min WAV sample][MIDI]

2. "Necessary" meaning 'part of God's eternal plan,' not 'being one's own cause of existence.'

Christoph Schönborn, "Finding Design in Nature," New York Times (July 7, 2005). [Online edition sponsored ironically by "Kinsey: Now on DVD"—Kinsey the trousered-ape impersonator.]

Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, Mass, Imposition of the Pallium and Conferral of the Fisherman's Ring for the Beginning of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome (April 24, 2005).

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


Hope is the certain knowledge that life's evils have an end—that when we are denied a good, it is because there awaits something greater.

These last few years' suffering has dragged me through the valley of desolation to the threshold of despair. I used to say that the secret to happiness in life was to lower your expectations, but in a way that I can't credit myself, I have learned that my cynical aphorism was backward. The problem is not expecting too much, but settling for too little.

In one film, Abbott and Costello are fishing in a rowboat. Costello catches a fish and uses it as bait to catch a bigger one. He repeats this procedure several times, each time catching a larger fish and using it for bait. Finally he hooks a fish so big that it pulls him overboard.1

Our lives are a big game of double-or-nothing. If we refrain from grasping at our little hopes, eventually the Lord will send us a hope so big that its ecstatic fulfillment will consume our whole being.

There are hopes and there is Hope. Our little hopes rise and fall. Some are fulfilled, some fall by the wayside. Yet beyond these ups and downs is a greater Hope, and winning and losing both have the purpose of opening our hearts to receive it.

Through suffering comes the wisdom of Hope. Hope is the most difficult virtue2 and it is the one we most need in this age that denies purpose and pouts over suffering.

My parents' extreme—even senseless—love has come home to me only in my adulthood. I discovered that they want to give me everything to make me happy—and in fact they have always wanted to give me everything, but feared spoiling me. By denying my desires, they left me a greater gift.

Hope recognizes that God has always wanted to give us everything for our happiness. We err in resting our eyes on glittering goods that cannot satisfy, instead of looking beyond to our true fulfillment.

Ultimately Hope points beyond our senses, far outside this world's shrivelled confines to something, some One.

Hope is the certain knowledge that life's evils have an end—that when we are denied a good, it is because the Lord holds something greater, far greater, for us.

Our suffering purchases a priceless truth. Take this lesson to heart, my child: today's tears will vanish in the radiance of the joy to come.


1. Jean Yarbrough, dir., The Naughty Nineties (1945).

2. Charles Peguy, Portal of the Mystery of Hope, David Louis Schindler, Jr., trans. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1996).

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Lighter Elements

I thought that whether you're working today after the long weekend (assuming you were fortunate to get one) or on vacation, you might appreciate a few items to lighten the summer heat:

A friend tells me that the cold-fusion claim has been disputed and withdrawn. I'm still waiting for confirming documentation, but I'll let you know the result.

UPDATE: This statement was based on miscommunication. My apologies.


This week having begun with Independence Day, I thought it appropriate to reflect on the meaning of patriotism. It is sadly little known that C.S. Lewis writes wonderfully on the subject in The Four Loves.

Editorial Note: The practice of some blogs is to intersperse selections of an outside text with the blogger's reflections. Instead of "gilding the lily" by gratuitously inserting my meager self, I'll let you read selections of Mr. Lewis straight—take him as you will.

Lewis identifies five kinds or strains of patriotism, but it is reasonably clear that he most upholds patriotism as an affection or... of home, of the place we grew up in or the places, perhaps many, which have been our homes; and of all places fairly near these and fairly like them; love of old acquaintances, of familiar sights, sounds and smells. Note that at its largest this is, for us, a love of England, Wales, Scotland, or Ulster. Only foreigners and politicians talk about "Britain." Kipling's "I do not love my empire's foes" strikes a ludicrously false note. My empire! With this love for the place there goes a love for the way of life; for beer and tea and open fires, trains with compartments in them and an unarmed police force and all the rest of it; for the local dialect and (a shade less) for our native language. As Chesterton says, a man's reasons for not wanting his country to be ruled by foreigners are very like his reasons for not wanting his house to be burned down; because he "could not even begin" to enumerate all the things he would miss.


Of course patriotism of this kind is not the least aggressive. It only asks to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude toward forgeigners. How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realised that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs—why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.


Where the sentiment of patriotism has been destroyed this can be done only by presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light. If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for 'their country' they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity. This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men still needed to be comvinced that their country's cause was just; but it was still their country's cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important. I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds—wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine—I become insufferable. The pretense that when England's cause is just we are on England's side—as some neutral Don Quixote might be—for that resaon alone, is equally spurious. And nonsense draws evil after it. If our country's cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.

The glory of the old sentiment was that while it could steel men to the utmost endeavor, it still knew itself to be a sentiment. Wars could be heroic without pretending to be Holy Wars. The hero's death was not confused with the martyr's. And (delightfully) the same sentiment which could be so serious in a rear-guard action could also in peacetime take itself as lightly as all happy loves often do. It could laugh at itself.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1960), 23, 24, 29.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Nothing Comes from Nothing

While I was hunting down that Hawking quotation for my previous post, I ran across a book review of Kitty Ferguson's The Fire in the Equations. The author of the review is an excellent writer Stephen M. Barr, University of Delaware physicist.

As I might have expected... Barr very clearly (more clearly that I have) untangles the muddle of something and nothing that befuddles scientific atheists.

Another class of ideas involve explaining the Big Bang as a quantum event. In quantum mechanics one can have particles being "created out of the vacuum." That is, there can be transitions from a state with no particles to a state with one or more particles. By analogy it has been suggested that spontaneous transitions can occur from a state with "no universes" to a state with one (or more) universes.

Whether this makes sense as physics is not yet clear. But if it does, will it give us creation ex nihilo without God? Only if one equivocates about what "nothing" and "universe" mean. A quantum state without any particles or even without any "universes" is not nothing-it is a quantum state.

Perhaps the distinction can be illustrated with an analogy. There is a difference (if not a spendable one) between a bank account with no dollars in it and no bank account at all. To have a bank account, even one with a momentarily zero (or negative) balance, requires having a bank, an agreement with that bank, a monetary system, a currency, and banking laws. Similarly, to talk about states with various numbers of "universes" requires having a quantum system with different possible "states," and laws determining the character of those states and governing the transitions among them. The term "the universe" should really be applied to this whole system with its laws, and not, as is misleadingly done in such discussions, to "space-times" that are coming into and going out of existence.

Hawking had it right: having equations that describe a "universe" (or anything else) coming into being does not mean that these equations must be describing anything real. Having a story about fairies does not mean there are fairies.

Barr concludes with a classic quotation:

The Latin apologist Minucius Felix, writing around 200 a.d., said, "If upon entering some home you saw that everything there was well-tended, neat, and decorative, you would believe that some master was in charge of it, and that he himself was superior to those good things. So too in the home of this world, when you see providence, order, and law in the heavens and on earth, believe there is a Lord and Author of the universe, more beautiful than the stars themselves and the various parts of the whole world." The greatest contribution of science to the "search of God" has been to bring into fuller view the grandeur of this providence, order, and law.

This is just common sense: you can't get something from nothing. Or, as that soulful street-sage Billy Preston sings,

Nothin' from nothin' leaves nothin'
You gotta have somethin'
If you wanna be with me

This ain't rocket science....

Stephen M. Barr, "The Gods of the Physicists," First Things 65 (August/September 1996): 54-57.

Kitty Ferguson, The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion, and the Search for God (Grand Rapids Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994).

Minucius Felix, Octavius, chapter 18. [The ancients were masters at rheortic, weren't they?]

Billy Preston (and Bruce Fisher), "Nothing from Nothing," Kids and Me (1974).

Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003). [In case you're interested in reading more by Barr, this book is great!]