You are currently browsing the monthly archive for March 2010.

Richard Feynman’s father taught young Richard the way I’d like to teach my own children; whether I do it nearly as well, I can only hope.

One day . . . my father took me to the forest again and said, “In all this time we have been looking at the forest we have only seen half of what is going on, exactly half.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

He said, “We have been looking at how all these things grow; but for each bit of growth, there must be the same amount of decay–otherwise, the materials would be consumed forever: dead trees would lie there, having used up all the stuff from the air and the ground, and it wouldn’t get back into the ground or the air, so nothing else could grow because there is no material available. There must be for each bit of growth exactly the same amount of decay.”

There then followed many walks in the woods during which we broke up old stumps, saw frizzy bags and funguses growing; he couldn’t show me bacteria, but we saw the softening effects, and so on. [Thus] I saw the forest as a process of the constant turning of materials.

This is a deep idea, a powerful idea. There is wonder in this idea, the idea that the atoms inside me were once in a tree, and that, once they leave me, they might find their way into another tree, or a bit of fungus, or even just a patch of soil. We are connected to the universe in so many different ways.

But there is also danger here. The danger is in being carried away into what Richard Dawkins called “bad poetic science.” When I look at the forest, noticing, as Feynman’s father did, that there is no waste of materials, that everything is used, what I see is not a story of cooperation and sustainability, a ecosystem-wide hand-holding kumbaya session. Instead, I see the unbridled avarice of capitalism left unchecked. Wherever there is a resource, something will exploit it. Wherever there’s a living to be made, however meager, something will eke it out. Interesting, no doubt, but a model for the life we want to live? No thank you.

Is nature wasteful? Of resources, not so much, perhaps (though I’d argue that nature is incredibly wasteful of one resource, energy. So much light energy impacts the Earth every day, and life makes use of only an insignificant fraction. But why worry – the Sun will always rise tomorrow.) But in other ways, nature is utterly and irretrievably wasteful. And these are ways that really matter to us.

Nature is wasteful of individual life. How many times, in Disney nature flicks, do we learn that predators bring down the old and weak, thereby keeping the species strong? Nothing could be further from the truth! Predators overwhelmingly take the very youngest, long before they have the opportunity to show whether they’re weak or not. Consider that of 1000 sea turtle eggs laid on a beach, only one will grow into an adult turtle. What happens to the other 999? Down the gullet. 999 lives wasted, the vast majority eaten before they’re more than a few days old. And don’t believe that the one is the strongest. So much of this is chance – did the raccoon find the nest, did the seagull or crab grab me or my sister, did the game fish snap up me or my brother?

The same is true for virtually every species. Far more young are born than could ever reach maturity. If any human society treated its young in this way, I think “wasteful” would be the kindest word we’d give it.

Nature is wasteful of innovation. For the most part, unique solutions to life’s problems are wiped out by natural selection. Natural selection is deeply conservative – until the environment changes. Then, suddenly, the rudimentary lung or the ability to digest lactose that was just a hindrance before is suddenly the key to survival. But how many innovations are wasted because the environment is unfavorable?

Nature is wasteful of its own “mistakes”, and it makes them freely. The HIV virus is in part so dangerous because it is so bad at copying itself. Eacn new generation will be loaded with mutations. Most of these are useless or fatal. But a rare few, totally by chance, make the virus better able to survive – and more deadly to its hosts.

And we should recognize this same danger in our own lives. Our genomes are sturdier than that of HIV. But they aren’t perfect. What’s more, our sexual way of reproduction is a rolling of the dice. With each generation, we take the chance that two recessive genes will come together and be expressed. Rarely, such a combination leads to a better adapted individual. But much more commonly the result is a birth defect that leads to pain, misery, early death. This waste is the direct consequence of life’s history of taking the 1 in a million chance that this next innovation will actually help. The 999,999 times it doesn’t? Well, we’ll just try again.

When we speak of finding solutions in nature, we should be very careful to avoid bad poetic science. Yes, our way of life is unsustainable. But can anyone point to anything we humans have done that goes against the lessons taught by nature? Is there a single creature out there that, given the chance, would have the wisdom to avoid our same mistakes?

Male gorillas and lions kill babies that don’t belong to them, in order to speed females into estrus. Should we, as well? Elephants destroy trees, turning forest into savanna and savanna into grassland. Is this a model for our survival? Nile perch released (yes, by humans, but do the perch care?) into Lake Victoria gobble up the cichlids, thereby destroying biodiversity. Do the perch stop to think what they’re doing? Parasites such as HIV kill their hosts, then die themselves. Sharks, victimized by humans who cut off their fins and leave them to die, in their own behaviors bite off the flippers of sea turtles, leaving the rest of the turtle (too big and too hard to swallow) alone to bleed to death. 

There is much to learn from nature, but much of it is a lesson in what not to do. If we as a society are to survive on this planet, it will not be by reproducing a more “natural” way of life. Instead, it will be through a denial of our inbred and selected “nature,” that drive that tells us to reproduce in large numbers (at least a few will survive), kill our enemies, take what we can get when we can get it and don’t worry about tomorrow.

Nature is a wasteful mess. Only by learning not to behave as nature would urge can we hope to build a better world.

Caroline (7 years old in two weeks) and I did the experiment described in the previous piece, and we both decided to write about it. Here’s what Caroline wrote (spelling slightly improved by dad):

How Things Flot

If you put a cony in your hand and jupe you will fell a funy thing in your stomick because there is no wate on you and not on the cony ether. It can oly flot for a few sekins becaues thar is nuthing under it. It gets all its wate back when it tochis the grownd.

Brevity is the soul of wit (or Whitt, as in Caroline, science writer in training).

“A sense of wonder,” Richard Fortey said, “cannot be purchased over the counter at the superstore. Nor can it be wheeled out of the corner cupboard at the behest of some curriculum or other. Instead,” he wrote, “it steals up on the child unexpectedly.”

Wonder might arise from a beautiful demonstration of a complex piece of equipment. Or it might steal up from the perfection of a starry sky. This particular piece of wonder falls somewhere in between.

Place a nickel on the back of your hand. Hold your arm straight out, with the nickel toward the ceiling. Now jump.

What happens to the nickel? For just a moment, when you reach the highest point of your jump and then fall back down, the nickel floats! Why? Because as things fall, they are weightless! Weight isn’t gravity pulling down. Instead, weight is the ground (or your chair, or your hand on the nickel) pushing back up!

This simple fact leads to so many places. Why do heavy and light objects fall at the same rate? Because when they’re falling, they’re not heavy or light! They have no weight, and so a heavy object falls at just the same rate as a light object.

 

Why do astronauts float in the space shuttle? Almost everyone thinks it’s because there’s “no gravity in space.” But that can’t be true, otherwise why would the shuttle orbit the Earth at all? In fact, astronauts float because they and their shuttle are falling. And because they are falling, they have no weight.

Why, on the other hand, do you feel your weight on an airplane? Because, unlike the space shuttle, an airplane isn’t falling. Instead, the airplane is pushing down on the air, and the air is pushing back up on the airplane.

Finally, what is gravity, anyway? Albert Einstein was asking himself this same question when he realized that if he fell out a window, he wouldn’t feel his weight on the way down. This realization, what Einstein called his “happiest thought,” led to the General Theory of Relativity, which is, without a hint of hyperbole, one of the greatest accomplishments of our species.

We think of gravity as this pervasive thing, everywhere, impossible to avoid, constantly dragging us down. Yet you yourself (and your nickel) can overcome the entire force of the Earth just by jumping up. Wonder is as close as the soles of your shoes.

I have an article in this month’s Odyssey magazine about PLOrk, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, a group that uses (you guessed it) laptops to make music.

I don’t find it very interesting.

Artists have always used technology to make art – from the technology of colored paint in the caves of France thousands of years ago to the technologies of cell phones, laptops, and YouTube today. While the art might be interesting for art’s sake (or it might not be), I don’t see that the use of technology is intrinsically interesting in itself.

This particular issue of Odyssey is all about the connection between science and art. As this is a subject I think about a lot, you might think I’d find something worthwhile in the issue.

I really don’t.

Here’s why: I think the traditional approach to exploring the supposed interface between art and science is misguided. It turns science into a mere sidelight, not the point. So sure, there’s a ton of science in how a clarinet works, but that’s not the interesting thing about a clarinet. The interesting thing is that when a great clarinetist plays, she can make you think of a beautiful spring day, a person crying in anguish, a mischevious cat (think Peter and the Wolf), or the quiet sadness of unrequited love.

Linking the science of how the air moves in the clarinet is a bit of a cheat. It’s taking something inherently interesting and trying to link your (by implication) uninteresting topic to it. It reminds me of how vegetables are often named after things that taste a lot better than vegetables. Butternut squash. Beefsteak tomatoes. Buttercrunch lettuce. The science of the clarinet.

Instead of the science of art, I’m interested in the art of science. Copenhagen isn’t science. It’s a play about science, scientists, and the worlds they create for themselves. An amazing play.

When Neil de Grasse Tyson talks about supernovas and the stuff that makes us, he isn’t doing science. His subject is science, but his performance is art. He inspires. de Grasse Tyson is an artist. An amazing performer.

When They Might Be Giants sing “Science is Real” they aren’t doing science. They are singing about the joy, wonder, and beauty they’ve found in understanding something about the world. Amazing musicians.

For many years, science has tried to glom on to the arts, like a beefsteak tomato. What I’m much more interested in is the idea that art might start to look to science, and find there a subject worthy in its own right of artistic interpretation.

“Why teach math and science?”

According to six posters prepared by OMSC (The Ohio Mathematics and Science Coalition), the reasons are these (I’m paraphrasing):

– you need math and science to get a good job

– you need math and science to be a good citizen

– you need math and science to build critical thinking skills that will help you with everyday tasks.

I actually believe all three of these claims (spread among five different posters, in slightly different forms) are dubious – either in truth or in importance. But that’s not what I’m writing about – at least not yet. Instead, what I’m writing about is a poster that is much more to my liking.

With their sixth poster, OMSC makes this claim:

“Why study mathematics and science?”

“To appreciate the beauty and complexity of the arts, nature, and so much more of our world.”

On the other hand, art teachers get to this last idea a lot quicker.

“Why teach art?”

According to http://www.princetonol.com/groups/iad/Files/why.htm

Not because we expect you to major in Art.
Not because we expect you to create art all of your life.
Not so you can relax or just have a hobby.

WE TEACH ART
So you will be human.
So you will recognize and appreciate true beauty.
So you can communicate from the very depths of your soul.
So you will be sensitive to life and the peoples within it.
So you will be closer to an infinite beyond this world.
So you will have more love, more compassion, more gentleness –
more life. 

Notice how neatly the “not”s of the “why art” answer match the first three reasons of the “why science” posters.

Now I’m not denying those “why science” ideas from OMSC have some value. I’m sure they excite the donors and politicians. But if you want to excite the learners (and after all, if they’re not excited, none of the rest of it matters), as Randy Olson would say, you’re talking to the wrong organ.

Art types are used to talking to the heart. Science types are used to talking to the head. But that’s just habit. Science, like art, is fundamentally not concerned with utility. Instead, it is about being human. As Richard Feynman said, “Physics is like sex. Sure it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”

So why do we do it? Science, I mean, not  . . . the other. What’s most interesting is that the “practical reasons” for studying mathematics and science all have measurable results. Better job, better world, better decisions. The “appreciation” reason isn’t so easy to measure. Yet it’s the one, through self-motivation, through lighting that spark that keeps on burning, that might (if you have faith) lead to all the others and more. Maybe. Or maybe it won’t, and that’s ok, too, because it’s about the learner and the learner’s choices. It’s about ideas that catch you.

It’s the difference between what is easy and what is important. Science and math education lead to higher-paying jobs. That’s an easy thing to measure. Science and math education lead to a stronger, more competitive nation. Science and math education lead to better problem-solving skills. All these things can be measured, quantified, put on a graph.

But inspiration? Inspiration is wishy-washy, wispy, hard to get hold of. There’s an old saying that when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I think there’s a corrolary to that: when you’re a hammer anything that can’t possibly be a nail becomes invisible. If the hammer is testing, quantification, measurable behaviors, I fear that these less graph-able concepts like appreciation become invisible.

I applaud OMSC for taking a chance with such a wishy-washy concept with one of their six posters. But I have some suggestions for expansion. OSMC, if you’re out there, these are for you, free of charge.

WE TEACH SCIENCE

– because science is one of the things we human beings do. Charles Darwin roaming Patagonia, discovering how life became.

– because the world is beautiful beyond measure, and science can reveal that wondrous, unfathomable beauty. James Clerk Maxwell, capturing a light beam in his mathematics.

– because the world is mysterious, and unraveling that mystery is as rewarding as any poem or song. Albert Einstein, looking for the idea that would bring time and space together as one.

– because science teaches us who we are, a young and fragile species on an ancient world in an enormous, lonely universe. Jill Tartar and the other scientists of SETI listening, listening for whispers from afar.

– because science is a pathway to hidden worlds. Christian Huygens, discovering with the simplest of equipment that the stars are suns, only very far away. The Sun is a star, only very close up. The universe is vast, and we’ve only just begun to explore it.

– because science is a grand and unending adventure, a love affair with life. And as Carl Sagan said, when you’re in love, you want to tell the world.

I read a fiction book. I don’t do that often, but this one sounded intriguing (and also seemed similar to a book I’ve written but have yet to get published), so I took a shot.

For a while, I was in love with this book. Also, it was different enough from my own that I wasn’t morose about getting beaten to the punch. The grandfather in this book is my new hero, and the person I want to be for my own daughters – or granddaughters if I’m ever lucky enough to have any. Many, many times the relationship between Calpurnia (Callie Vee) and her granddaddy brought tears to my eyes.

And then it happened. The ending. I won’t be the poop who gives it away, but to my mind the book didn’t so much end as just run out of steam. Maybe that’s the way the real world works, but I don’t want the real world. I want magic, power, consummation. I want Calpurnia to- well, if you want to know what I want her to do, you’ll have to wait for my book (fingers crossed). I think my ending is better.

This has happened before, with almost all the fiction books I’ve read in the last few years (not many). Wicked. The Fountainhead. Now this one. All left me at the end either wanting to heave the book across the room, or (in this case) feeling like a dog who, after chewing on a delicious bone, has had it suddenly ripped away without explanation. Fiction writers need better endings.

However, as I’ve just set a bar for myself, I’d better come up with a better ending for this entry. I’ll do so by quoting my new hero, Captain Walter Tate (CSA, retired), twice.

“I don’t have that many days left,” he said as we sat together in the library. “Why would I want to spend them on matters of drainage and overdue accounts? I must husband my hours and spend every one of them wisely. I regret that I didn’t come to this realization until I reached fifty years of age. Calpurnia, you would do well to adopt such an attitude at an earlier age. Spend each of your allotted hours with care.”

and then, much more briefly,

“all science begins with astonishment.”

Thanks, Granddaddy Tate, for a great ride. And to author Jacqueline Kelly, despite the ending, thank you for my new hero.

The residents of Earth live out their lives in the warm light of their yellow Sun, totally unaware of the grave danger they face. For these Earthlings routinely pollute their environment with tons  upon tons of a powerful and dangerous waste gas. Slowly, imperceptibly, this gas changes their world, yet the Earthlings plod on, blissfully ignorant of the growing threat.

For a new creature has appeared on this world, crawling on its belly through the muck that lies beneath gently lapping waves. This creature thrives on the Earthlings’ waste gas and, most horribly, fills its belly with the very bodies of those self-same pollutors!

Sound like the beginning of some terrible science fiction story? Maybe, but this story really happened in the shallow seas of Earth, around six hundred million years ago.

The “Earthlings” of the story are ancient life-forms called stromatolites. Some stromatolites look a bit like cauliflower, others more like grasping fingers. They are not plants or animals, but layered colonies of a very simple kind of life called cyanobacteria.

Cyanobacteria are microscopic, one-celled creatures (your body is made of between fifty and one hundred trillion cells). When they come together, these tiny beings can form the colonies we call stromatolites. Building layer upon layer, stromatolites range in size from a football to half a football field.

Around three and a half billion years ago, the cyanobacteria perfected an amazing skill: they learned to mix sunlight, seawater, and a gas called carbon dioxide to make food. We call this process photosynthesis, and it is still the key to life on Earth.

Yet in time, photosynthesis spelled doom for the stromatolites. The waste gas from photosynthesis is oxygen. Over hundreds of millions of years, oxygen slowly built up in the oceans and atmosphere. Finally, around six hundred million years ago, oxygen opened the door to the evolution of a new kind of living thing. We call them animals.

Among these first animals were creatures we would recognize as worms. They gathered the oxygen produced by the stromatolites, and used the oxygen to help digest food. Their favorite food, it turned out, was stromatolites. The digestive fires sparked by the abundant food and the copious oxygen gave the worms insatiable appetites. In about 100 million years, these early predators had virtually wiped stromatolites from the face of the Earth.

Those early predators are with us still. In fact, one of them is reading this very passage. Every time you eat a cheese sandwich, you are combining fuel with the waste gas oxygen, just as those early worms (your own distant ancestors) did so many millions of years ago.

The only stromatolites left from this horror story we call evolution live in extremely salty environments where worms, snails, and other predators cannot survive. When we look at a shallow, salty bay (like Shark Bay in Western Australia) and see a “forest” of living stromatolites, in a sense we are looking back in time, catching a glimpse of our planet’s first polluters, organisms that, through their own lack of insight, spelled their own doom — and helped create the world as we know it today.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
March 2010
M T W T F S S
« Feb   Apr »
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  
A blog by Stephen Whitt

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 82 other followers