Field of Science
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in The Biology Files
P.S.: For the uninitiated, 'Phodni' refers to the mixture of spices, almost ubiquitous in Indian, and especially Maharashtrian cooking, that invariably contains turmeric powder.
Why do people want to believe so much in religion, God (Actually this particular concept is vastly more convoluted and really even beyond my comprehension, compared to some of the others. So while I mention it in this post, I will meekly try to post some more coherent stuff on it later) astrology, creationism, crop circles, and other kinds of pseudoscience? My (initial) two cents on it:
1. All of us (except the most impassive hearted) are looking for sources of emotional and spiritual support in our life. Does science and rational thought offer this? Unfortunately for many people; no. All science offers is a current best, tentative picture of the world, riddled with uncertainty. Moreover, the methods of science are hard and difficult to master, involving much patience, hard work, and determination. And one cannot guarantee success even at the end of this arduous process.
Contrast this with religion or God or all such similar ideas. They offer a quick refuge to our mind; never mind that their existence cannot be proved. They offer positive hopefuls as opposed to negative certains. After all, it is better to do wishful thinking and believe in an all-beneficent deity whose existence cannot be proved, than believe in a reality generation system (science) whose results themselves don’t necessarily offer psychological comfort. So the argument is largely psychological. We all like to believe that there is someone watching over us, who would make sure that we don’t come to harm if we pray to him (This, in spite of the fact that praying to him does not always bring about good fortune; in that case it is easy to say that that happened because we are sinners!)
Secondly, nobody can deny that these stories make fascinating reading material, just like the fairy tales we listened to as children. So are we still children?
2. The other reason, I suspect has to do with sheer egos and complexes. People, who are deeply religious or believe in pseudoscience, nonetheless believe in the fruits of science; in fact, they cannot live without them just like others. They are using science every time they drive their car, use their hair-dryers, or watch television. In other parts of their day, they, in my opinion, seem to forego their beliefs in the results of science and technology and are going to church, praying to God at home, and consulting astrologers. This sometimes would appear schizophrenic (if not downright hypocritical). The best example of these are the so called ‘scientific creationists’ belonging to the Institute for Creation Research, who are required to have an advanced scientific degree in order to become a member. Many of them have PhDs. So in effect, these distinguished scientists are giving up their scientific faith in order to convert to religious faith, while still appearing to don the cloack of science.
Now I have no personal argument with such people. If they kept their ideas to themselves, people like me would be mildly amused. I am also not saying anything at all about the character of these people, in so far as that is concerned, they are just like you and me. However, I can definitely say that they are being ‘unscientific’. Please note that I am not making a judgment on whether what they are doing is good or bad, or right or wrong. I am simply saying that it is ‘unscientific’.
It is remarkable how many people take offense if they are called unscientific! In hindsight though, it is not surprising. These people see themselves as successful engineers, doctors (and sometimes even scientists!), and in general people who take a rational attitude toward life. All this that they have done is surely ‘scientific’. So how dare can I say that this one action of theirs makes them unscientific?! Again, the explanation is psychological. People don’t like to be told they are unscientific. This is because of the aforementioned reasons; they are using the benefits of technology in their life, technology, which they don’t deny, is based on scientific principles, and suddenly there comes along some upstart who says that because they believe in God or astrology, they are unscientific; it hurts their ego. Maybe I should rephrase my statement to make it more precise. I should say ‘These people are unscientific when it comes to God, religion and astrology’ (I should make MY statement sound as scientific as possible!). I doubt whether people will accept even this cheerfully…(I suspect that their way out will be to say, ‘You cannot talk about a scientific attitude when it comes to God). This is also the reason why there is a science-religion rift in the first place. Religious people frequently see scientists (‘scientists’ here is used in the broadest sense of the term; I would include people like doctors and engineers among them) as self-aggrandizing know-alls who prophetically claim to have the answers to everything. In no small part due to the publicity by the press, many scientists are seen as ‘singular lights of rationality in a world full of darkness’ (something which they themselves don't claim to be). Now, if these people study even the most elementary of scientific knowledge in a critical manner, they will know that this is far from the truth. However, it is true that science and technology has provided us with explanations of many natural phenomena, as well as material comforts, to an unprecedented extent. In so far as that is concerned, scientists and scientific practitioners have a significant amount of knowledge about the world and they can use it to great results, good as well as evil. I think that because of this, many deeply religious people are caught between a rock and hard place. On one hand, they don’t want to adopt a scientific attitude toward everything in their life, and want to believe in some things on the basis of faith alone. On the other hand, they know that scientific knowledge is certainly not nonsense, and scientists may not wield power but they certainly contribute towards a deep understanding of the world and the well being of humanity. Many of them surprisingly also understand fully, that faith is not compatible with the scientific method in general. However, they don’t want to appear ‘selectively and conveniently scientific’, as this may lead to them being called hypocrites by many. The effect of such a situation is to make many religious people somewhat embittered against scientists. I don’t hesitate to say that to some extent, it is a situation similar to that of the fox and the sour grapes…
All this time, I have tried to put forth the situation as I see it, from the religious point of view. Now let me try to make a case for scientists (or scientific thinkers). First of all, it is almost a triviality to say that even they need emotional and spiritual support in their lives; we are all bound by this common yearning, which is unique to us as human beings.
Coming to the first point, the psychological argument is, I think well-taken. But the important question is, what do we really want from life? Do we want to be happy and live in ignorance, or do we want to face the bitter truth? If the goal is the first one, then I don’t think there is any contradiction in a scientist who invokes God before conducting an experiment, in the hope that God will make his experiment go right. He wants to be happy and this act makes him so. Once this stance of being happy is taken, it can essentially accommodate almost everything. In this case, even if the experiment produces wrong or discouraging results, the scientist can convince himself that had he not prayed to God before, it would have been much worse! The point is, if we want to be happy, then there is not much use in thinking about whether a particular action is rational, irrational, scientific or non-scientific. But is this attitude really keeping in tune with morality? Many times it is clearly not. For example, a man can be happy because he hears voices in his head (which he assumes is God speaking) that tell him to go and murder someone. He is happy to do that because he ardently believes in something. Does this make sense?
My point is, that it is better to face the bitter truth than live in ignorance.
Interestingly, does even science show us the way toward this bitter truth? Well, first of all, scientific truth should not be classified as ‘bitter’ or ‘favourable’ since whatever it is, that’s the way it is. There is no use trying to cloak the nature of scientific truth in human attributes. However, more importantly, science never claims to have found ‘the truth’, no matter whether it is bitter or not. I think this is an important point, which actually goes dead against what religious people think about the infallibility of science. There is no ‘truth’ as far as science is concerned. In fact, we don’t even know what the truth might look like. What we have are merely good and bad models of reality. Some of them (like quantum mechanics) are very good indeed (Although I still think it does not make much sense to ask whether they represent ‘the truth’). Others, like evolution, have some ambiguities in them, but still represent the best possible model under the given circumstances, and commensurate with the current evidence. Even though they may have certain weak points in their details, the overall argument is almost indisputable. This is a far cry from religion or astrology or creationism, where extremely general laws and entities, which are almost non-verifiable, are thought to control the lives of human beings. If it is anyone who claims to believe in ‘the ultimate truth’, it is religious people, and not scientists.
Therein rises the conviction that science is tentative. Frankly, I think that religious people have never understood the meaning of the word ‘tentative’ in this context. They think that because science is tentative, it is not a good representation of ‘reality’. So they think that their ‘models’ of reality like ‘God’ ‘creationism’ and ‘astrology’ may be better, or at least equally valid descriptions of reality. It is important to understand that there are countless things in science, which are supported by rock solid experimental facts. Because of this, it is almost impossible, if not impossible, that a theory like gravitation can be wrong. I do not deny the fact that there is a ‘finite, non-zero probability’ that apples will suddenly start rising up from the ground. However, there is so much experimental evidence to support the contrary hypothesis, that it is almost perverse to consider that as a valid possibility.
Most ‘models’ like God and creationism, are not supported by one iota of experimental evidence and are far from even being ‘tentative’. Now one way to circumvent this problem is to forsake experimental evidence itself and say that there would be a method different from ‘experiment’ that scientists had never imagined in their wildest dreams. If that is the case, then one must also be prepared to give up his belief in what he sees, feels or hears; in most cases, ‘experiment’ refers to nothing more complicated than recording and measuring what we see, hear, smell and touch. I doubt whether such a person will be judged a rational person by anyone, whether scientific or not! (Although I am sure that scientists attached to the philosophical interpretation of quantum theory will try to convince me that there are many such people among them!) The bottom line is that the usual argument made by such people is a ‘reductio ad absurdum’ argument, which is one of the most general tricks used by pseudoscientists to make their case, and in fact is, I believe, the reason for their valid existence in the first place. Simply hurl accusations at scientific theories without producing evidence of your own. Unfortunately, ‘guilty unless proved innocent’ may be a good strategy in the capricious court devised by the human judicial system, but it is anything but a convincing maneuver in the much more stringent court of scientific proof. In science, lack of proof for a theory does not, ever, mean proof for another theory. A theory is considered valid, if and only if definite, causal, unambiguous proof can be procured for it. Again, this is ‘merely’ a point that reinforces the previous simple fact about science; ‘It is not an easy state of affairs’. (Nobel Laureate Max Perutz even wrote a book called 'Science is not an easy life'!)
In my opinion, it is religious beliefs that are uncertain and science that is much more certain. It is ludicrous and perverse to gang up on the small amount of uncertainty present in scientific theories, especially when there is no certainty at all in pseudoscience. From the viewpoint of science, religious beliefs simply don’t make sense because they are unverifiable.
So what about the ‘emotional factor’ that we were talking about? All of us need a refuge, no matter how strong we are, which we can turn to occasionally. Sure. But why should it be God? I firmly believe, for one, that a strong and loving family can provide any amount of emotional support that a person needs. It’s a pity that in today’s indifferent world, this is not seen as frequently as it should be. If THIS is the reason that people turn towards God, I must say our world is in a sorry state of affairs indeed! However, I agree that even with such a family, many of us yearn for that missing spiritual ingredient in our life, which we turn to in solitude or when we are disturbed. It is heartening to think of an omniscient, knowing and smiling force, which would becalm us in such moments, and personally I see no contradiction in people turning to that abstract entity called ‘God’ in such moments. However, we have to ask ourselves how far we have to stretch this emotional buttress? Do we want to let it influence other parts of our life, and our very existence, not to mention that of others? The real problem begins when this entity starts to dominate our lives and our psyche to such an extent that we become slaves of our own state of mind. My question is, why can’t we turn to God only when we need him, just like how we go out into the mountains only when we need a vacation? Nobody insists on converting his residence into a vacation resort full of mountains, does he? So why do people have to insist on having God in every aspect of their life, dictating every small action of theirs, and finally trying to completely overwhelm their interactions with the rest of society? Why does God have to play a role in stem cell research, college and school education, political decisions, and health care decisions? I believe that one of the greatest problems has always been the constant efforts to unify church and state (something which the Christian religion itself forbids). Nobody would have a real problem if religious people kept their religion, beliefs and God to themselves (Of course, this is part of a much much greater problem, one of the greatest of the world's concerns, encountered since the dawn of the modern world; the Crusades, Israel-Palestine, Kashmir and the Christian-Jew conflict represent the tip of this humungous iceberg). I would respect a person who believes solely in God and simply does not believe in science, countless times more, than I would a person who tries to dress up God in scientific clothes to try to convert scientists to his creed. This situation is very different from appealing to God on a very personal, and an ‘available as per need’ basis. I once heard an illuminating quote from someone; ‘If God did not exist, man would have to create him!’ I think that this is a truism. The tragedy is that we have let the truism become a dogma.
The point of the whole argument is that we need God because that concept provides us with a virtual and comforting force that is ‘perfect’. We believe it is perfect because we don’t ask that its existence be verified, nor do we even think that it can be done. While such an attitude is ok for indulging our emotional insecurities (and I am not saying this in any derogatory sense; all of us have them and need to indulge them), it is a great tragedy if it is going to pit us against science and rationality, which has provided so many benefits to us and showed us the path to knowledge. I think that the whole argument is about the simple adjustment to harsh reality that all of us need to make. Science is not perfect, but it is the best thing we have. If we think that’s unfair and uncertain, we should understand that that’s the way the world is. It’s our problem if we cannot come to terms with it. While it is understandable in an emotional sense that religious people turn away from the harsh, uncertain ways of science, it is quite unforgivable that they are not wise enough to understand the beauty of scientific knowledge, the solace that it offers by providing many explanation that ARE largely certain. And it is the biggest tragedy of all, that they would put the world’s and our future generations’ rationality in permanent peril by compounding their disdain for science with a firm and frequently fanatic conviction in ‘their God’ and ‘their beliefs’. They want to oppose rationality simply because they don't like it or understand it. So, to counter the ‘psychology argument’, it suffices to say that we need to accept the harsh reality that is science and the world. Richard Feynman put it directly and plainly; “That’s the way nature is. You don’t like it? Go somewhere else! To another Universe, where the laws are simpler!”
P.S.: There is absolutely no personal offense intended in the above post. I have many great friends who are deeply religious people, and even if we have perpetual arguments, there is never anything personal in them. In all this debate, it is heartening to see that the basic mores and values of human relationship still hold strong and unscathed.
There is beauty in the world at many scales of existence...
2. Taxol (The best selling anti-cancer drug)
3. Omeprazole (Omez; Antacid)
4. AZT (The first worldwide anti-HIV drug)
5. Heroin (Need to say what it is?!)
6. Atorvastatin (Lipitor; currently the best selling-drug in the world)
7. Caffeine (The daily dose of stimulation with questionable medical value)
8. Ibuprofen (One of the most common anti-inflammatory drugs. Perfectly safe?)
9. Fluoxetine (The famous Prozac; from depression relief to suicidal tendencies...)
10. Sildenafil (Viagra; The wonder drug?!)
Fenn won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2002 for developing EI, a technique that is of great value in determining the structure of large biomolecules, especially proteins.
Leading scientists still reject God
Nature, Vol. 394, No. 6691, p. 313 (1998) © Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
Edward J. Larson
Department of History, University of Georgia,
Athens, Georgia 30602-6012, USA
3816 Lansdale Court, Burtonsville,
Maryland 20866, USA
"Our chosen group of "greater" scientists were members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Our survey found near universal rejection of the transcendent by NAS natural scientists. Disbelief in God and immortality among NAS biological scientists was 65.2% and 69.0%, respectively, and among NAS physical scientists it was 79.0% and 76.3%. Most of the rest were agnostics on both issues, with few believers. We found the highest percentage of belief among NAS mathematicians (14.3% in God, 15.0% in immortality). Biological scientists had the lowest rate of belief (5.5% in God, 7.1% in immortality), with physicists and astronomers slightly higher (7.5% in God, 7.5% in immortality). Overall comparison figures for the 1914, 1933 and 1998 surveys appear in Table 1 below".
"As we compiled our findings, the NAS issued a booklet encouraging the teaching of evolution in public schools, an ongoing source of friction between the scientific community and some conservative Christians in the United States. The booklet assures readers, "Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral". NAS president Bruce Alberts said: "There are many very outstanding members of this academy who are very religious people, people who believe in evolution, many of them biologists." Our survey suggests otherwise."
1. As a favourite tonic in the middle ages to cure everything from warts to impotency. The dosage which was prescribed at the time would surely have caused even the most hardened physician of today to faint.
2. As a favourite poison to put an end to disliked lives and lovers, used throughout the ages. This includes a recent case where a woman murdered not one but two husbands with phoshorus. In the absence of forensic science, one of the most convincing indications of phosphorus poisoning was the observation of a glow emanating from the dead body in the dark- a phenomenon which almost certainly led to the haunting tales of phosphorescence in 'The Hound of Baskervilles'.
3. As the ubiquitous energy releasing element; in the form of the chemical currency of cells, ATP, phosphorus essentially makes life possible.
4. As an industrial necessity in the dank and gloomy match making factories of 19 century England. More than any other, this was the element which gave employment to millions, led to some of the first large scale industrial strikes we know, and also caused the horrific disease ('phossy jaw') which causes the jaw to rot away.
5. As an element of death again, this time as the major component of the infamous phosphorus bombs, which took the lives of hundreds of thousands in the most macabre manner, during the WW2 bombing of Hamburg and Dresden.
6. As the element which literally feeds the world; as a constituent of fertilizer, its importance is unparalleled.
7. As a scaffold for the most poisonous substances known to man-the nerve gases which today threaten civilization as never before, causing death in a few seconds.
Emsley has investigated these and many more incarnations of this diabolical element in great and striking detail. He writes with great eloquence, and convinces us of the remarkable role that phosphorus has played not only in industrialized life, but indeed, in world history. With it are associated some of our most potent glories and follies and it is representative of the subtly strange power that a single element can wield on human life. I want to stress that I am not being biased as a chemist, but that this is in fact one of the few books I have come across which will be very interesting to any layman. Since school, we have always been taught that 'carbon is the most important element for life. Think again. The history of Phosphorus is at once shocking and essential knowledge.
"Discovered by alchemists, prescribed by apothecaries, exploited by nineteenth-century industrialists, and abused by twentieth-century combatants, phosphorus is one of nature’s deadliest–and most fascinating–creations. Now award-winning author John Emsley combines his gift for storytelling with his scientific expertise to present an enthralling account of this eerily luminescent element. From murders-by-phosphorus where the bodies glowed green, to the match factory strike that helped end child labor in England, to the irony of the World War II firebombing of Hamburg, to even deadlier compounds derived from phosphorus today, The 13th Element weaves together a rich tableau of brilliant and oddball characters, social upheavals, and curious, bizarre, and horrific events that comprise the surprising 300-year history of nature’s most nefarious element".
One of the adjuncts to this hobby involves reading and listening to interviews with scientists in books, magazines, and on the internet. In these interviews, almost all of the scientists talked to are characteristically modest, reserved, and even politically correct. At best they are reverent to an excess, at worst they are cautiously critical. This is most and expectedly so during Nobel Prize interviews, where they represent the human face of science and have an image to maintain.
The most outstanding example of the frank scientist which I have ever come across is of course the inimitable Richard Feynman. In his many biographies and his autobiography, he has repeatedly appeared as the apotheosis of the fearless inquisitor, the irreverent explorer, the man who would tell the Pope that his ideas are 'baloney', if he really felt they were. He has battled it out with such stalwarts as the great Niels Bohr, the Princess of Sweden (at the Nobel Prize ceremony), and fellow Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe. Countless others who would make a show of pomposity or would put on would get the classic Feynman treatment. But behind this candor was an intense, almost obsessive desire to get to the heart of issues as honestly as possible, to simplify matters as much as possible, and most importantly as he would always emphasize, to accept Nature as she is. For a long time, I never thought I would again hear or read about someone like that.
That's why I was completely bowled over after listening to Martinus Veltman's interview on the Nobel Prize website. No one can take Feynman's place, but he came close. A particle physicist who has made fundamental contributions to the most abstract fields of theoretical physics, he has been one of those people who are most at ease performing mathematical gymnastics in obscure reaches of their mind. Veltman won the prize along with his student Gerardus T'Hooft in 1999. His interviewers were both Swedish, a dignified young lady, and an equally dignified elderly man. The lady's countenance was calm, and the posture in which she sat on the chair, with one hand on her lap and the other one on top of it, reminded me of formal upper class New York ladies posing for the camera around the turn of the 19th century. Across the table was the subject of their interview, the heavily bearded Veltman, who reminded me of Professor Challenger from Doyle's 'The Lost World'. One of the peeves I have with the Nobel Prize proceedings is the fluency of the interviewers. I think that these people are seldom well versed in the art of asking elegant questions. Most of them are Swedish. This in my opinion, hampers the quality of the interviews, because frequently, the interviewers do not make themselves absolutely clear and eloquent. Perhaps it is part of the effort of the Nobel Committee to keep it all in the family only by including their own people in all events.
The interview started with the interviewers asking Feldman about the difference between the European way of learning and the American one, and between old and new ways of learning. Veltman replied that in the old days, it was much less disciplined, with students given the freedom to discontinue their studies if they wished and to return back to them some time later. Today, with tight research budgets and the image of graduate students as 'customers', things are quite constrained. The point which Veltman made, made an impression on me. He said that sometimes, students are simply not mature enough to carry through their research. They have to take time off, grow as a thinker in whatever way they deem fit, and then return back armed with prudent knowledge. This is simply not possible today, and I felt that it is an unfortunate reality.
Then came the salvos. When the woman asked him about other interests, he frankly replied that he had none as such. He said that from that point of view he was 'a professional idiot'. When they asked him if he believes that the twenty-first century would be one of biology, he simply said that he had no opinion about that. But his answer made sense. He said that if someone would have asked a physicist in 1899 about future progress in Physics, could he have ever have been able to predict the wonderful and earth shaking discovery that Max Planck was going to make at the turn of the century? Or the harrowing truths about space and time that Albert Einstein was going to arrive at in a few years? In that respect, prediction is futile. Good point. Veltman looks like the most impassive scientist of the time. But actually it's simple. If he does not know something, he does not proffer thoughts on it. We need such people, but I could not help but think that Feynman would have been infinitely more interesting in such a situation. I was realising that Veltman's candor was unsettling to the interviewers. Especially the woman seemed hesitant, even scared to ask him further questions.
But the most revealing answer was yet to come. One of the most frequently asked questions to physicists today, is whether they would discover a 'unified theory of everything' that would combine all the laws of physics that we know. Top notch scientists like Stephen Hawking have given much impetus to popular public conception of this idea. It turned out that a few weeks before Veltman's interview, an article had been published in Scientific American in which the brilliant and well known physicist Steven Weinberg had said that progress towards a unified theory would be made on a concrete basis till about 2050. Weinberg won the Nobel Prize in 1979 for working in an area similar to Veltman's field, and over the years, through his books and writings, has also become a popular expositor of physics. When Veltman was asked what he thought of this, his reply was, "I find it annoying if not stupid. There is nothing in Physics which suggests that Unification is a must. If it's a part of Nature, fine. If not, fine too. Let's not tell Nature how she should be. The only reason Unification has caught on is because the Physicists want to sell it. Also, they are all blindly following something only because Mr. Einstein said it should be so, and because he had made it his life's work".
Apart from Veltman's candid comments on Weinberg and other contemporary physicists, what struck me was the catch phrase. Let's not tell Nature how she should be. Vintage Feynman. Or Bohr for that matter. I was led back to the time of famous discussions between Bohr and Einstein. Einstein used to pontificate extensively on God. "God does not play dice". "God is subtle but not malicious". Bohr's simple reply: Einstein, do not tell God what to do. Feynman used to say that his goal is not to discover some deep philosophical question about the Universe, but to simply find more about it. He used to say, "That's the way the Universe is. You don't like it? Go someplace else. To a different Universe where the laws are simpler!". I think it's quite a humbling thought. Many times, our solipsistic minds are so clouded by preconceived notions that we forget the much greater power that Nature wields on us. Divisions of Science into various fields of study, employment of specific experimental techniques, even casting of the laws of Nature in mathematical form, represent nothing but a kind of inability on our part to understand it any other way. It's our convenience. If it works, it works. Nature is indifferent. It's a hard reality that we have to contend with. You don't like it? Shop somewhere else...
Aristrocrat 1 (after thinking for twenty minutes): OK! 3
Aristocrat 2 (after thinking for an hour): Sorry! I give up.
No doubt this gentle slander was Gamow the prankster making fun of Hungarian scientists, many of who were among the most brilliant of the century. But further on in this fascinating chapter on the 'Mathematics of Infinity', Gamow talks about a real tribe of people in the deepest jungles of Africa called the 'Hottentots'. Apparently these people speak one of the most phonetically constrained languages on earth. The consequence-they really cannot count beyond three. So that if the Hottentot has to say how many hogs he killed for dinner, or how many enemies he slew in battle, and if the number exceeds three, he will simply say 'many'. With such a limited power of expression, how does a Hottentot father know, for example, how to share his goats equally among his two sons? In doing this, the Hottentots display what is one of the simplest but most ingenious methods of counting ever, and one which has deep reperscussions even in the most abstract and bizzare reaches of mathematics: Comparison. The father will simply line up the first goat for the first brother with the first goat for the second brother, the second goat for the first brother with the second goat for the second brother, and so on. If in the end, no goats are left over, that means that the goats have been equally distributed. This is how the Hottentots have got over their debilitating difficulty of counting beyond three. This method of establishing a one to one correspondence between things for counting them is so simple, that one would think it must have been discovered by all the arithmetically challenged people in the world.
Apparently not. In some recent amazing research published by linguist Peter Gordon from Columbia University, a tribe of people has been discovered in the jungles of the Amazon, which simply cannot count beyond three, no matter what. The reason, Gordon claims is that these people simply don't have NAMES for numbers beyond three. This conclusion roils up a long debate which connects the fields of Linguistics, Philosophy, Cognition and Mathematics: the relation between language and the real world. To do this, Gordon travelled into the Amazon jungle to visit the Piraha tribe, a remarkable group of only 200 people or so, who are some of the last artefacts of the simple life on earth. To test their counting skills, Gordon conducted the simplest tests. For example, he placed a row of ten batteries on the table and asked the Piraha to duplicate the row. Negative. Next, he drew successively, rows of one, two, three and ten lines on a sheet of paper and asked them to duplicate them. Negative. Lastly, he placed candy in a box which had pictures of a certain number of butterflies on them. He then shuffled the box with others and asked the Pirahas to pick the one which had the candy in it. In this case, even with the lucrative reward inside the box, the Pirahas could not pick the right one if the butterfly number exceeded three.
For me, this was an astounding finding, precisely because I used to think that anyone who would have a problem counting beyond three would at least not have a problem when it came to DUPLICATING objects greater than three in number, by applying the simple process of comparison demonstrated above by our friends the Hottentots. I still have to read the original article because it's not gotten published in detail yet. One interesting question springs to my mind. Can the Piraha at least distinguish between, say, twenty matches and thiry matches? If that is the case, then it would seem that our mind has a remarkable ability for 'counting without counting'. The real question is, what exactly happens in out brain when we count? Is counting just a conditioned reflex incorporated by parents and teachers in us as children, so that "one" is instantly identified with the abstract entity "1" in mathematics and so on? Or is counting an innate act wired in our brain at birth? Whatever the case is, one would expect that simple duplication does not need counting: you merely need to assure for example, that you place a battery in front of every battery in the initial row, no matter how many there are. In fact, if someone does this and correctly duplicates the row of batteries, I would NOT say that he is 'counting' in the literal sense of the term. From this point of view, I would deem Gordon's experiments as being inconclusive to whether the tribe was 'counting' or not. But ironically, it seems that the tables have been completely turned on us, because the tribe could not even do duplication. The only conlusions that eminent researchers have drawn from this fact is that languaage must be irrevocably linked with math. However, I fail to see again how a 'duplication' experiment can say the final word about 'counting'.
Why were the Pirahas unable to duplicate the row of batteries? I don't know, although I would agree that the observation is very fascinating.
Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that all our knowledge about the world is made possible through language, and that without language, even thought and logic do not exist. At face value, this seems to be a valid conclusion. What happens when I try to solve a logical puzzle? I say to myself, either silently or loudly, "Ok, this is the case...hence....therefore" and so on, until I reach the solution to the puzzle through more or less articulated expressions. But a more introspective analysis may make us think that the logic inherent in the world and in nature would be independent of language. However, any step on our part towards resolving this matter is doomed, because we can only use language to talk about language! This is a long standing and probably the most famous and intractable puzzle in logic, mathematics and philosophy. How do we talk about the nature of logic itself, but not using logic? How do we dissect the most abstract intimacies of language, without using language at all? Wittgenstein was very much aware of this self engulfing problem, like the serpent who perpetually continues to swallow his own tail, even as the tail moves away from him all the time. That is why the last paragraph of his famous work "Tractatus Logico Philosophicus" contains a most profound and provocative phrase; "Whereof we cannot talk, thereof we must remain silent". Wiggenstein would surely have loved to know about this discovery.
The problems of language and counting are as old as humanity itself. Gordon has made a path breaking discovery and one that would surely shed light on fundamental issues in a variety of fields. However, I am skeptical about his concusions drawn from the 'Duplication' experiments, and amazed by the results themselves. In fact, such events are quite profound, so that I would need to think more about this discovery and not draw any rash judgements from it. But Gordon also provides a marvelous example of that central principle common to all acts of discovery and progress; experiment and observation, something which can relegate even the most beautiful theory to non-existence, and elevate even the most mundane sounding theory to eternal glory. Science and Society, both benefit from this almost final judge of contention. As to Wittgenstein's proclamation, maybe the following can give a possible answer:
"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should confirm by observation"!
1. Tribe without names for numbers cannot count: Amazon study fuels debate on whether the concept of numbers is innate.
2. First 'black' drug nears approval: Controversial study suggests treatment should factor in the patient's ethnic group
3. Gene therapy cures monkeys of laziness: Switching off key gene turns layabout primates into keen workers
Now in this new biography, Bernstein brings his well known skills at chronicling famous scientists to bear upon this remarkable man. There have been a few biographies of him so far. Probably the one by Peter Michelmore is most compelling. (The Swift Years: The Robert Oppenheimer Story)The closest that one can get to knowing him well is through his touching and insightful collection of letters, chronicled by Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner.(Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections) But almost forty years after his death in 1967, what made him tick still seems a mystery. Was it his innate charisma and the blue, innocent, harrowing glare of his eyes, or his lightning fast mind? Was it his incredible knowledge about all things intellectual, from physics to Dante to the Bhagavad Gita? Was it his mesmerising command over the English language, a mixture of spell binding and obscure words, that drew hundreds to his lectures? Or was it his role as the Hamlet and conscience of the atomic age? Certainly all these factors contributed, but Robert Oppenheimer is still not completely unraveled.
However, Bernstein makes a sincere and moving attempt to do this. He is very well qualified for the task. Over the years, he has written extremely informative and entertaining biographies of physicists. He is also a well trained physicist himself and has worked at some of the better known centres of physics in the world-Harvard, Los Alamos and the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Most importantly, he worked at this famous institute at a time when Oppenheimer was its director and some of the most acclaimed scientists were flocking there to work at the frontiers of knowledge. Bernstein does not intend this book to be a biography of Oppenheimer. Instead, he says that this is 'The biographical column for the New Yorker which he never wrote.' Bernstein focuses on the main events in Oppenheimer's life which gives the reader much insight into his human nature. He begins every chapter with a curious and affectionate anecdote about his life. Like the time when the absent minded professor went on a car ride on a moonlit night with one of his female students, and then got out for a stroll and walked all the way back to his home, completely forgetting about her. Or warm recollections about the great man from some of the people who knew him the best- fellow Nobel Prize winning physicist and friend Isidor Rabi for example. The most interesting part of the book probably is the one that sheds light on Oppenheimer's tenure as director of the Institute for Advanced Study, one of the most acclaimed intellectual ivory towers in the world, where Bernstein had an opportunity to observe Oppenheimer almost daily. The stories of the odd men and women who worked there during the 1950's make entertaining reading. For example, here's a hilarious exchange between an aggressive young American mathematician (AM) and an elderly French mathematician (FM) which Bernstein overhears:
AM: Prof. Leray, do you watch any movies?
AM: What about gangster movies, Prof. Leray? BANG BANG?
AM: Do you have gangsters in France, Prof. Leray?
FM: Yes, but they constitute the Government.
There were many similar small anectodes in this book which I did not know. The main focus in all of this is the towering intellect at the head of the institute. Bernstein discusses the warmth behind many of the small favours that Oppenheimer did for others, and the formal notes which he sometimes used to post on the notice board ('Members are kindly requested to play touch football out of earshot of the library'). Bernstein also discusses Oppenheimer's security clearance hearing, a painful event for him and his family, and a shameful act on the part of certain members of the Government. All through the book, the author brings an honest, personal perspective to the life of this great man, one who did commit follies in his life, but which I think should be excused in light of the great positive influence he had on people around him and on science in America. In that era of distrust and bitterness, Robert Oppenheimer was a guiding light to everyone and a champion of freedom, full of insight, compassion and understanding. It is important that he be remembered in the same spirit that Einstein and Russell are remembered. Bernstein's book helps tells us why.
“There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry. There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors. Our political life is also predicated on openness. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. And we know that as long as [we] are free to ask what [we] must, free to say what [we] think, free to think what [we] will, freedom can never be lost, and science can never regress.”
J. Robert Oppenheimer
Upon reading these statements by Dirac, what strikes me the most is that they are extremely logical and well thought about. It also makes me realise how most of us usually have no qualms about sacrificing clarity in language at the expense of elegance and even sophistry. At the same time, I also realise that it is because of this that things like poetry exist, where you say less in more words. Dirac never appreciated poetry. But we need to, if we want to express our emotions and feeling in the exquisite framework that language gives us. From that point of view, the world needs just one Dirac, no matter how badly. The irony is that, given his immense and unique talent and brilliance, there can in fact be only one Dirac...
Been there, watched Spidey 2. I did not expect too much from it, and you cannot expect to see Oscar winning elements in such movies. It was good but not great. I liked the first one more for its novelty. But what interested me the most was the character of Dr. Otto Octavius. The most striking fact that I noticed was that he almost intentionally seemed to be modeled after Dr. Edward Teller. Since Teller was one of the most important scientists of the century and not really a household name, I wish to say a few words about him.
For those of you who may not be familiar with this name, Teller, who died a few months back and was well in his nineties was one of the most brilliant physicists of the century. (In)famously known to the public as the 'father of the hydrogen bomb', Teller was born in Hungary. An intense fear and revulsion for Communism was instilled deep in him as a child, evoked by the revolutions then shaking the country. Teller, like many other eminent scientists of his times decided to seek newer lands in his quest for science and freedom. A streetcar accident in Leipzig in Germany resulted in his foot being amputated, but only gave further impetus to his determination to make it big in life. At the time, the new Quantum Mechanics was being successfully applied to many problems, and Teller plunged right into it, getting a PhD. with the famous physicist, Werner Heisenberg. After some notable research, he finally, like many others, emigrated to the United States and became a Professor at the University of Washington, where the chairman of the Physics department was the eccentric Russian genius, George Gamow. The Second World War forced Teller to think about the application of physics to military problems, and he developed many useful theories, including a theory of armor penetration with his friend, the eminent Physicist Hans Bethe (who later won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the reactions that fuel the sun). Bethe, then as now at Cornell University, is 98 and still going strong. In the summer of 1942, Robert Oppenheimer invited him to participate in a group discussion at Berkeley, where they would discuss the plausible theory behind contruction of an atomic bomb. Teller, as someone who always would think about fantastic ideas that would not always be tangible, thought of whether a fission bomb could possibly used to bring about nuclear fusion. At the time, the fission bomb itself was far from being a reality, and Teller's ideas were rightly perceived to be far fetched. Another amusing incident concerns Teller's fear that the atomic bomb would produce enough heat to light up the entire atmosphere and destroy the earth. However, after due calculations, Bethe found out that this would not happen. The culmination of that discussion and other events led to the establishment of the famous bomb laboratory at Los Alamos, and the Manhattan Project. During the course of that development, Oppenheimer made Bethe the head of the theoretical division at Los Alamos, a move which greatly irked the volatile Teller. However, it was an insightful move, just like so many others in the future, on the part of the brilliant Oppenheimer, because Bethe's more steady and persistent approach to solving problems was more important to the project than Teller's brilliant but rash ways of jumping to conclusions and conjuring up novel ideas. After that event, relations between Oppenheimer and Bethe, and Teller were always strained. Oppenheimer deserves credit for putting up with Teller's idiosynchrasies, including his playing the piano late in the night and disturbing neighbours. However, Teller made some valuable contributions to the project, especially in the development of the implosion method. The end of the war and the dropping of the atomic bomb evoked feelings of great guilt in most of the scientists, especially Oppenheimer, and most of them vowed not to work anymore on atomic weapons. But not Teller. He was convinced that the US would need to develop as many atomic bombs as it could to keep the Russians in check. Most importantly, he began to relentlessly push the effort for building an H bomb. The first Russian atomic bomb in 1949 spurred Truman to order a crash program to build the H bomb. Although Teller's ideas about bomb design, confident as he was about them, were certainly unworkable in the beginning, a feasible design soon began to take shape because of the contribution of other brilliant scientists. Especially notable in this regard was the Polish emigre mathematician, Stanislaw Ulam (who later was a prime contributor in the development of Monte Carlo methods). The first US H bomb was finally exploded in 1952. Even after this event, Teller continued to push for more atomic power. 1954 saw a significant watershed in Teller's life, when Oppenheimer was convicted of having Communist sympathies during the McCarthy Communist scare. Oppenheimer went on trial, and was almost unequivocally supported by scores of scientists and administrators, who testified in favour of his brilliance, his leadership and his loyalty to the United States. Teller was among the exceptions who said that it would be better if they took away his security clearance. The board finally ruled against Oppenheimer. This resulted in Teller becoming alienated against most of the scientific community, and he began a period of exile. However, there were those in Washington who liked his belligerent anti communist views, and they continued to seek his advice. Teller even managed to start a whole new laboratory in California specially devoted to weapons research. All this only pitted the scientific community more against him. From 1960 onwards, Teller made important contributions to physics and weapons research. Presidents sought his advice and he was active on the political scene. In the 1980s, he again became well known for his advocation and conception of the 'Star Wars' missile interception system developed by the Reagan administration. Many scientists argued that the Soviet Union could easily incapacitate the system and that it was just a big waste of money. But Teller's influence was considerable. In the 1990s, he continued to write, speak and support weapons development. In the last few years, he very rarely made public appearances. Edward Teller was a maverick scientist, without a doubt extremely brilliant, creative and original, but volatile and sensitive. Unintended slights could hurt him, and he managed to make a few enemies and lost many friends because of his belligerent views.
I personally am in two minds about Teller. He was a good man by heart, but just like many others, emotionally sensitive. And he made many mistakes which were obviously dictated by his strongly opinionated views and his emotions. One of the greatest tragedies which I personally feel Teller faced, was that even today, most people remember him as the 'Father of the H bomb'. This is unfortunate because Teller made many important and lasting contributions to Atomic and Molecular physics. Among other contributions, he gave one of the most accurate quantum mechanical descriptions of the Hydrogen molecule. He developed a theory of energy levels in crystals which is very important for Chemistry and Solid State Physics. He also co authored a paper on the adsorbtion of gases on surfaces, which is one of the highest cited papers in Chemistry today. Its a pity that most people remember him for his weapons research and not for these fundamental contributions.
I was surprised how much Otto Octavius resembled Teller, even physically, right from the bushy eyebrows, to the penetrating sense of humour. Octavius was also working on the dream which made Teller famous; fusion. Like Teller, Octavius can also be dark and brooding, not prepared to accept defeat. Teller and Ocatavius, they both represent the conscience of the scientist who has been given a gift. He has to decide how he uses the gift. Whatever the verdict, one thing is for sure; Ocatavius in the movie and Edward Teller in History, will always leave their mark upon the world.
Note: Teller's autobiography is "Memoirs; A twentieth century journey in science and politics"
I will continue to write about these topics on both blogs.
The research was published in the February 18th issue of Science.
I was reminded of some similar research published by star Harvard chemist Stuart Schreiber in the early 1980s, when he synthesized the sex pheromone of the American cockroach, a molecule with a very unusual structure (For chemistry enthusiasts, a bis epoxide). Schreiber's wife recounts how, when he used to come home from his laboratory, she used to insist that he wash and rewash and take a shower at least twice; these pheromones are super-active in incredibly small conecntrations! Schreiber published his work in the Journal of American Chemical Society (JACS henceforth)
On a similar note, here is an incredibly high resolution photo of an apparatus developed by one of the authors in the Science paper, designed to measure the response of fly antennae to various fruit 'smells'.