Thursday, August 25, 2011

From Atlantis to Infinity

Ok, folks... I'm actually pretty proud of this one. I'm still learning how to use the software (kdenlive), but I feel like I'm at least starting to get the hang of it! This is my tribute to the NASA Space Shuttle Program, specifically the final flight (Atlantis, STS-135, July 8th 2011). To paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson, America is forgetting how to dream. Images/footage courtesy of NASA. Creator commentary forthcoming!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Philosophy Rules

I wanted to link this particular editorial from the IoP's monthly magazine, but it's not up on the web yet. So I'll give you a synopsis. The editorial is "Critical Point: Philosophy rules" by Robert P. Crease, in the August 2011 edition of Physics World.
"Philosophy is dead." So say the venerable physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow on the first page of their recent bestselling book, The Grand Design.
Physicists declaring philosophy to be lifeless is nothing new.... Why do physicists so often, and confidently, condemn a field that is not their own? Where are their instincts to be inquisitive, resist overstepping what they know, withhold judgment until certain and accompany claims with error bars?...
For philosophers, the world includes more than physical matter. As the Harvard University philosopher Steven Shapin writes in his book, Never Pure, "Plants photosynthesize, plant biochemists are experts in knowing how plants photosynthesize, [while] reflective and informed students of science are experts in knowing how plant biochemists know how plants photosynthesize." In other words, the world studied by science researchers includes not just objects, but also connections between scientists and objects.
Human beings, after all, engage with the world in different ways.... [S]cientists are not like plants whose product is knowledge.... Human beings... interpret both the world and themselves....
Hawking's theoretical stance as an observer of fundamental structures, too, is only one way for humans to engage with the world, and not the default setting either....
The lifeworld is the domain to which philosophers bring their torch of discovery. They study similarities and differences between various modes of being in the world.... To study this is not to undermine or critique these activities, but to understand and help cultivate them.
The critical point, Crease argues, is that philosophers do not attempt to "adopt a 'view from nowhere'," but instead, "when philosophers think about science, they struggle to be self-aware of that horizon and how it affects human self-interpretation." Philosophers approach the same questions in a different way. "Philosophy has moved on and remained current since the time of Plato's Academy in Athens, despite physicists' assertions to the contrary," Crease points out. And we scientists would be well advised to realize how similar our own assertions sound to those of the anti-evolution establishment. We know that the science of evolution has itself evolved since Darwin's initial postulations; why do we not afford the same courtesy to philosophy?
On the first page of his book Subtle is the Lord..., the physicist Abraham Pais reports a discussion with Einstein in which the latter asked Pais if he "really believed that the Moon exists only if I look at it." One could hardly think of a deeper, more challenging question about the concept "to exist." Yet Pais smoothly characterizes the conversation as "not particularly metaphysical." Discussing the meaning of reality is ok, evidently, so long as it is done in an amateur way.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Dying yet another death

In the breakroom down the hall, my friends laugh and share stories over coffee. I sit with lead in my stomach, too frightened to speak, hardly able to breathe. It is like this every single time, and yet I can't help it. I have no control over my reactions. Tomorrow morning I get on a plane, and to me it might as well be hell.
Have you ever experienced a panic attack? They are, in fact, so similar to heart attacks that many people have been hospitalized for the wrong one. Your heart beats heavy and irregular, you sweat and tingle and shake and can only manage shallow breaths, your muscles go numb, your gut churns and your head swims. And yet somehow the idea is brushed off as simply "anxiety;" it's social, it's psychological, it's not harmful. It's nothing. So you don't like flying? Have a beer and get over it, they say.
For some reason, the modern Western ideas about psychology are only just now coming around to realizing that psychological problems can physically harm you. "The danger, however, is no less real because it is imaginary;" Sir James Frazer wrote in The Golden Bough over a hundred years ago. "Imagination acts upon man as really as does gravitation, and may kill him as certainly as a dose of prussic acid." But only recently do we see depression medications meant to treat physical pain as well as psychological pain, and the like. Many cultures around the world and throughout history have understood psychological problems to be intricately linked to the physical body; to a Chinese farmer, for instance, "depression" connotes just as much "stomach pains" as it does "sadness." And to me, being forced onto a plane is the same as having a gun held to my head. The response is just as real.
The irony is two-fold. First, if my fear comes to fruition and I die in a plane crash, then I no longer have to suffer my fear; the fear is self-defeating. Second, because the physiological response is so intense and so physically damaging, the fear itself has the potential to cause bodily harm; the fear of death is killing me.
We cannot continue the ruse that we are separate psyches trapped within a physical body. The pieces are irrevocably connected as a whole. And damage to the one can cause damage to the rest.
If nothing else, I have to write because it is calming; I hope that, in seeing my final thoughts on paper, the Fates play a joke on me and allow me to live to eat my words. But the reality is, I write because the rational majority of my brain can't override the emotional core, and so I spend my time convinced that I'm about to die. And every flight, every prolonged fear of death, is just the same as dying.
Maybe someday people will understand. Maybe.