Category Archives: Religion

The gap between us

Is there a gap in our society that needs bridging? Between say the followers of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, between those on the left and those on the right, between liberals and conservatives?

Furthermore do the present country wide demonstrations against newly elected President Trump, mean that the gap is there and still very much alive? Or is it what we would rather be the case, that the recent statements of President elect Trump, as during his talk with President Obama in the Oval Office, imply that the gap, while still there, is less than it was? For it does seem to be that just the fact of being the newly elected president nullifies the irresponsible positions and statements of the candidate who came before.

And what about Hillary? Was she speaking of a gap or separation between us when she said, “You know, to be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?  The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, the ‘you name it.’”

Are there people like that? Are the “deplorables” real? The Blacks will tell you, yes, there are racists out there, as will gays confirm the presence of homophobics, women of sexists, immigrants of xenophobics, and Muslims of Islamaphobics.

So is the principal gap among us that between those of us who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and those of us who are not? No, I don’t think so. (Also, no one is never just any one of those sorry characters alone.)

The gap, I think the principal one, is as always the gap between the “haves and the have-nots,” these two groups out numbering by orders of magnitude racists, sexists, and the others. In fact, the gap between rich and poor has probably been with us since the advent of civilization some 10,000 or so years ago, that point in our history when wealth accumulation became possible.

Prior to that time in our history there were the so-called hunter/gatherer societies but the anthropologists who study these people have, as far as I know, not yet uncovered among them Hillary’s deplorables and the “you know whats,” nor the legions of the poor and the jobless of today. Was it, perhaps, because the land was only there to use, not to take, as in the time of the native Americans?

But I’ve done it once again, while writing losing my north, my direction. What I had intended to write about was not all the above but the single, and for me most troubling gap of all, that being the ability gap (or gaps). For it is, I believe, differences of ability that most separate us. Even in just one family sometimes these are not easy to overcome.

At one extreme these gaps are huge, that between me and Richard Feynman, or between me and LeBron James, or between me and Beyonce. Take any ability, any one of the seven abilities, or as Howard Gardner called them, “intelligences,”  —musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and an eighth, naturalistic, and then you will see that the distances between us in respect to any one of these is huge.

So we all might on a scale of 1-10, for each of these abilities, place ourselves in respect to the “amount” of the ability in our possession, the one end, a 10, representing respective abilities of Richard Feynman, Lebron James, and let’s say Bach or Mozart (in place of Beyonce), and at the other a 1 representing (there was a point when I wanted to say Donald Trump, but I no longer believe that, because in his  case things are changing, for the better?)…?

If we were to do this, scaling in this manner our own abilities, that which happens in school, almost on the first day, when we begin to compare others to ourselves and see ourselves being compared with others, then almost on that very first day the ability gaps between us are visible to teacher and student alike. When this happens, this kind of learning about our own “worth” compared to others, we may at best be only at a loss for words. If we’re lucky we won’t be at the bottom of the scale in anyone of the seven intelligences. But there may be those who are, and if so these might, and probably are in many countries, labelled à la Hillary the “real” deplorables, (except when it’s much too politically incorrect to do so).

I think it’s clear that everyone knows, if not understands, that abilities are not evenly distributed, and in order to go on living with one another, in order not to be constantly envious of one another, even occasionally coming to blows and doing battle, we have to learn to live with and accept our differences. Most of us probably do. For we have no choice than to accept that we are very different, one from another. In my own case I’ve long accepted a number of big disappointments about myself, that for example I’ll never make it to Master level of chess, or teach classes of differential calculus at MIT, and I know that I’ll never have a role to play in a production of the Metropolitan Opera.

It is on this very point that our public schools have by and large failed. Failed because they have tried to hide the differences among their students, not wanting to admit that their students need individual attention, their abilities varying so widely that it makes no sense to pretend they don’t and keep them all together working at the same task or lesson, and while doing so making little or no progress. (That which we call the failure of our schools.)

Even worse the school people have I think, tragically, because of the lives that are hurt by their doing so, made the goal of a four year liberal arts college education the goal of everyone. It can’t be of course but the school people go on acting as if it were, and as a result they go on neglecting the real abilities of the students, pretending that college is within the reach of their real abilities whereas too often it’s not.

Now I would return to the gap between us that needs bridging. For that gap, I believe, results to a large extent from the huge differences in our abilities. The poor white working classes, many of whom did not attend college and while in school were academically challenged to say the least, during the recent election by and large supported Trump. The college educated, the academically gifted, the members of the country’s elite ruling classes by and large supported Clinton. Different abilities may have brought this situation about, but now the differences seem to be differences of class.

I know of only two methods of closing what I will now call the ability and often resulting wealth gap between us. But the redistribution of the country’s wealth, that remedy for wealth inequality, which has been most often tried by governments, and perhaps even ever so slightly diminishing differences of wealth, is not one of them. Differences of ability are still not within the government’s power to modify, let alone change.

One method to bridge the ability gap is and has been for some time, religion. And in fact one religion, Christianity, for example, came upon the inequality scene among men with the principal goal of encouraging men to love one another, paying no attention to any inequalities, differences of ability, wealth, or class, among them. If I were to love say, LeBron and Beyonce, and love was returned, of what importance would then be our differing abilities? None at all.

So I’m not convinced that religion is not the way to go. It may be, but it is not my way. My way is science, which means looking about one with a kind of skeptical curiosity while wanting to know as much as one can about one’s situation, about one’s surroundings, about the people and the things that one (everyone, regardless of ability level) encounters, about where one is on the earth,… all of this being an attitude requiring no particular ability and to some not small extent being within the power of us all.

And this for some is where science and religion come together. Given a population of Christians (or Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Confucians, Sikhs, et al.) and scientists the gap between people would disappear because neither religion nor science would give importance to skin, surface differences, the very differences that ignorance makes so much of.

In the past religion, forgetting the spirit of the book while being taken up by the words,  has too often failed to be true to itself, while so far, anyway, science has not. Both science and religion point us towards the very deepest possible understanding of ourselves, of the meaning of life, and this understanding, within the power of each and everyone of us, doesn’t depend on any one or more, even on greater or lesser amounts of one or more of the seven abilities, as exceptional or extraordinary as these might be, the logical-mathematical ability of a Newton, the musical-rhythmic ability of a Mozart….

Pacem in Terris and the Meaning of It All

In a Review of Richard Feynman’s The Meaning of it all, Timothy Ferris calls it to our attention that  Feynman views the 1963 Encyclical of Pope John XXIII, “Pacem in Terris,”  as one of the most remarkable statements of our time. Ferris is no less impressed than I that the Pope, God’s representative on Earth, and Richard Feynman, one of man’s principal spokespersons for a Godless Earth and Cosmos, are of the same opinion regarding the “meaning of it all,” regarding what’s important, regarding what’s really important in respect to how we should fashion our lives together, regarding the moral or ethical underpinings of our lives.


Here is what Feynman says about the Encyclical at the very end of the Meaning of it All, the end of This Unscientific Age, the third of the John Danz lectures:

I consider the Encyclical of Pope John XXIII, which I have read, to be one of the most remarkable occurrences of our time and a great step to the future. I can find no better expression of my beliefs of morality, of the duties and responsibilities of mankind, people to other people, than is in that encyclical. I do not agree with some of the machinery which supports some of the ideas, that they spring from God, perhaps, I don’t personally believe, or that some of these ideas are the natural consequence of ideas of earlier popes, in a natural and perfectly sensible way. I don’t agree, and I will not ridicule it, and I won’t argue it. I agree with the responsibilities and with the duties that the Pope represents as the responsibilities and the duties of people. And I recognize this encyclical as the beginning, possibly, of a new future where we forget, perhaps, about the theories of why we believe things as long as we ultimately in the end, as far as action is concerned, believe the same thing.

Now this is not what most often happens, a Pope and a Nobel Prize winning physicist being of one mind. Feynman’s bonding with the Pope’s words in this instance is certainly remarkable, but probably no less so than the Pope’s own words regarding peace on earth, Pacem in Terris.

What does the Pope have to say in the Encyclical? But first what is an Encyclical? An Encyclical is a papal document in the form of a circulating letter concerning Catholic doctrine usually addressed to patriarchs, primates, archbishops, and bishops of the church, this one some 40 pages and 16,000 words long, much too long for me to include in this Blog post. I’ve read it myself (it’s readily available online if you follow this link, Pacem in Terris). I agree with Feynman that it is a truly remarkable document.

Now in my eighties this is my very first real contact with an Encyclical. Pacem In Terris  was the last one of a total of eight Encyclicals from Pope John. Pope Francis, the present Pope, has two to his name so far. The greatest number of Encyclicals, 85, were from Pope Leo XIII, between 1878 and 1903. The very first document to be given the name Encyclical is a letter, “Ubi Primum,” written in 1740 by Pope Benedict XIV.

No summary of the Pope ‘s 40 pages and 16,000 words is possible, but the following selections from Pacem in Terris should give you a good idea of what impressed Feynman. There are 172 paragraphs in the original document. I’ve selected a few of these that seem particularly relevant to us today, in the throes of a very painful and unsatisfactory presidential election cycle. Would that our politicians of all stripes stop whatever it is they are presently doing and read though this Encyclical of John XXIII.

To Our Venerable Brethren the Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, Bishops, …


1. Peace on Earth—which man throughout the ages has so longed for and sought after—can never be established, never guaranteed, except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order.
2. That a marvelous order predominates in the world of living beings and in the forces of nature, is the plain lesson which the progress of modern research and the discoveries of technology teach us. And it is part of the greatness of man that he can appreciate that order, and devise the means for harnessing those forces for his own benefit….
4. And yet there is a disunity among individuals and among nations which is in striking contrast to this perfect order in the universe. One would think that the relationships that bind men together could only be governed by force….
9. Any well-regulated and productive association of men in society demands the acceptance of one fundamental principle: that each individual man is truly a person. His is a nature, that is, endowed with intelligence and free will. As such he has rights and duties, which together flow as a direct consequence from his nature. These rights and duties are universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable…
11. We must speak of man’s rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of illhealth; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.
12. Moreover, man has a natural right to be respected. He has a right to his good name. He has a right to freedom in investigating the truth, and—within the limits of the moral order and the common good—to freedom of speech and publication, and to freedom to pursue whatever profession he may choose. He has the right, also, to be accurately informed about public events.
13. He has the natural right to share in the benefits of culture, and hence to receive a good general education, and a technical or professional training consistent with the degree of educational development in his own country…
16. The family, founded upon marriage freely contracted, one and indissoluble, must be regarded as the natural, primary cell of human society. The interests of the family, therefore, must be taken very specially into consideration in social and economic affairs, as well as in the spheres of faith and morals. For all of these have to do with strengthening the family and assisting it in the fulfilment of its mission.
17. Of course, the support and education of children is a right which belongs primarily to the parents.
18. In the economic sphere, it is evident that a man has the inherent right not only to be given the opportunity to work, but also to be allowed the exercise of personal initiative in the work he does.
19. The conditions in which a man works form a necessary corollary to these rights. They must not be such as to weaken his physical or moral fibre, or militate against the proper development of adolescents to manhood. Women must be accorded such conditions of work as are consistent with their needs and responsibilities as wives and mothers.
20. A further consequence of man’s personal dignity is his right to engage in economic activities suited to his degree of responsibility. The worker is likewise entitled to a wage that is determined in accordance with the precepts of justice. This needs stressing. The amount a worker receives must be sufficient, in proportion to available funds, to allow him and his family a standard of living consistent with human dignity…
21. As a further consequence of man’s nature, he has the right to the private ownership of property, including that of productive goods. This, as We have said elsewhere, is “a right which constitutes so efficacious a means of asserting one’s personality and exercising responsibility in every field, and an element of solidity and security for family life, and of greater peace and prosperity in the State.”
22. Finally, it is opportune to point out that the right to own private property entails a social obligation as well.
23. Men are by nature social, and consequently they have the right to meet together and to form associations with their fellows. They have the right to confer on such associations the type of organization which they consider best calculated to achieve their objectives…
25. Again, every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own State. When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that he is a citizen of a particular State does not deprive him of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men…
28. The natural rights of which We have so far been speaking are inextricably bound up with as many duties, all applying to one and the same person. These rights and duties derive their origin, their sustenance, and their indestructibility from the natural law, which in conferring the one imposes the other…
30. Once this is admitted, it follows that in human society one man’s natural right gives rise to a corresponding duty in other men; the duty, that is, of recognizing and respecting that right. Every basic human right draws its authoritative force from the natural law, which confers it and attaches to it its respective duty. Hence, to claim one’s rights and ignore one’s duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other.

Nationalism and Religiosity, like nothing I have ever seen…

Turkey Chooses Erdogan

Life in Turkey seems to be, even more now than before the recent failed putsch, thoroughly immersed in two “layers,” that of religiosity, of Islam, and that of nationalism, in Turkey’s case nationalism meaning a kind of blind adherence to an all powerful state.

In this country Donald Trump would similarly immerse us in the same two stifling cultural baths, those of religion and patriotism. And this alone explains the much talked about Russian connection between Trump and Putin, both men freely and cynically making use of God and country as the principal means, not for the benefit of their respective nations, but for their own personal enrichment.

Erdogan Supporters Gather In The Streets
ISTANBUL, TURKEY – JULY 18: Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave flags as they gather in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square on July 18, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey.  (Photo by Kursat Bayhan/Getty Images)

Christopher de Bellaignue, in a NYReview of Books article, Turkey Chooses Erdogan, writes: “Since a group of senior military officers, backed by thousands of armed soldiers, came close to toppling him on the night of July 15, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought comfort in the bosom of his angry, exhilarated people. The country has spent the past three weeks in a state of collective hyperventilation. The combination of nationalism and religiosity is like nothing I have seen in twenty years of following Turkish politics.”

Religion and Science, July, 2016

Albert Camus, in Beyond Nihilism, 1950

(La Politique n’est pas la religion, ou alors elle est inquisition.”


July 4, 2016

News ISIS Terror

By God!

Vigils in Baghdad for the victims of 2 Terror Attacks in 1 Day

BAGHDAD — The death toll from a suicide bombing in a Baghdad shopping district reached 200 on Monday, fueling calls for security forces to crack down on ISIS sleeper cells blamed for one of Iraq’s worst single bombings.

Numbers rose as bodies were recovered from the rubble in the Karada area of Baghdad, where a refrigerator truck packed with explosives blew up on Saturday night when people were out celebrating the holy month of Ramadan.

Its streets and sidewalks were filled with young people and families who had broken their daylight fast at the time.

despairing man 1
A relative of a bombing victim visits the site of Sunday’s attack. AHMAD ALRUBAYE/AFP – Getty Images

The toll stood at 200 killed and 176 wounded by Monday afternoon local time, Baghdad official Mohammed al-Rubaiy told NBC News.

The attack is believed to be the deadliest in nearly a decade in the beleaguered nation.

ISIS claimed the attack, saying it was a suicide bombing. Another explosion struck in the same night, when a roadside bomb blew up in popular market of al-Shaab, a Shiite district in north Baghdad, killing two people.

scores 1
Baghdad Blast Kills Scores in Busy Market

The attacks cast a shadow over victory statements made last month by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government, after Iraqi forces dislodged ISIS from Fallujah.

Government officials ordered the offensive on the ISIS stronghild in May after a series of deadly bombings in Shiite areas of Baghdad that they said originated from the city, which is about 30 miles west of the capital.

baghdad 1
The scene of the suicide car bomb atack in the Karada area of Baghdad on Monday. AHMED SAAD/ Reuters

In a sign of public outrage at the failure of the security services, Abadi was given an angry reception on Sunday when he toured Karada, the district where he grew up, with residents throwing stones, empty buckets and even slippers at his convoy in gestures of contempt.

Karada is a largely Shiite district with a small Christian community and a few Sunni mosques.

Iraqi and foreign officials have linked the recent increase in ISIS attacks — especially large-scale suicide bombings — with the string of losses the group has faced on the battlefields across Iraq over the past year.

Mourners carry the Iraqi flag-draped coffins ofBaghdad bombing victimse Talib Hassan, 35, and Hamza Jabbar, 37, during their funeral procession at the holy shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, Iraq,onSunday. Anmar Khalil/AP

Iraqi security forces, supported by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, have retaken the cities of Tikrit and Ramadi, the Anbar provincial capital.

At the height of the extremist group’s power in 2014, ISIS had deprived the government of control of nearly one-third of Iraqi territory.

Now the militants are estimated to control only 14 percent, according to the prime minister’s office. ISIS militants still control Iraq’s second-largest northern city of Mosul, north of Baghdad.


July 2, 2016

Planetary Science

By Jove!

juno one

A mission to Jupiter is designed to investigate the giant planet’s history—and the histories of its cousins in other solar systems

juno 2

IN 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus proposed, in a mathematically rigorous way, that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, and thus that all things do not revolve around it. In fact, only the Moon does so. Seven decades later Galileo Galilei provided more direct proof of Earth’s lack of specialness. He looked at Jupiter through a primitive telescope and found that the planet had four moons of its own.

Four centuries after Galileo’s discovery, it remains impossible to understand the solar system without understanding Jupiter. The sun accounts for 99.8% of the solar system’s mass. But Jupiter, which is more than twice as massive as the other seven planets put together, makes up most of the rest. Its heft shapes the orbits of the other planets, the structure of the asteroid belt and the periods of many comets. And the four moons observed by Galileo (seen to the left-hand side of Jupiter in the picture above) have proved merely the biggest members of an entire solar system in miniature: at the moment Jupiter has 67 known satellites.

The picture was taken on June 21st by Juno, a probe belonging to NASA, America’s space agency, that is named after the Roman goddess who was both Jupiter’s wife and his sister. If all goes according to plan, Juno will become a 68th satellite of Jupiter on July 4th, arriving almost five years after it was launched. Though Jupiter has had other man-made visitors, all but one of them simply flew past it on their way elsewhere, taking a few photographs to send back home while they gathered energy from the Jovian gravitational field in a so-called slingshot manoeuvre, to speed their journeys up. Only Galileo, which arrived in 1995, has previously gone into orbit around the place.

Dancing with death

Doing so is a risky business. Juno, which is, at the moment, moving at around 250,000 kilometres an hour, is one of the fastest man-made objects ever built. When it arrives its guidance computer will have just over 30 minutes to slow the craft down and thread it into a series of long, looping orbits that will cause it to swoop to within 4,500km of the tops of Jupiter’s clouds and then zoom out again to a distance of more than 2.5m km. If anything goes wrong during this deceleration, the probe will have to fix the problem itself. Assistance from Earth will be impossible, for radio signals from mission control in California take nearly an hour to reach it.

Yet a fix may be needed. Jupiter is a hostile place. Its enormous magnetic field traps and accelerates high-energy particles (mostly protons and electrons) thrown off by the sun. That gives it the fiercest radiation belts of any planet in the solar system. Such radiation plays havoc with electronics. Galileo suffered more than 20 radiation-related glitches over the course of its eight-year mission. These included repeated resets of its main computer, glitches in its cameras and problems with its radio.

Juno’s electronics are protected by a 200kg titanium vault that has walls a centimetre thick. Its looping orbits are designed to minimise the time it spends in the most radioactive zones. Even so, the radiation will take its toll. NASA expects the craft’s visible-light camera and infra-red instruments to endure for eight orbits or so. Its microwave sensor is rated for 11. Then, in February 2018, when its circuits are on their last legs, it will fire its engine one final time, propel itself into the Jovian atmosphere and destroy itself—a fate already suffered by Galileo. NASA is required by law to ensure that there is no chance any hardy Earthling microbes could hitch a ride to the Jovian moons—especially Europa, which is thought to have beneath its icy surface a liquid-water ocean that might conceivably support life. Juno’s immolation will avoid any possibility of contamination in the future.

All of this drama is to serve the study of a planet that remains mysterious. Last time, withGalileo, “we learned enough to realise that we don’t understand a lot of things”, says Scott Bolton, an experimental physicist who is the Juno mission’s chief. One particularly mysterious thing is Jupiter’s origin.

Jupiter belongs to a class of planets called gas giants. (Saturn is another such, and many more have been identified in planetary systems surrounding stars other than the sun.) Researchers know that it was formed from the same primordial cloud of hydrogen and helium (with a scattering of other, heavier elements) as gave birth to the sun. But how exactly this happened is unclear.

A theory called “core accretion” holds that a rocky core formed first, assembling itself under the influence of gravity from dust grains, then pebbles, then boulders and so on. Once this core acquired sufficient mass, it began attracting hydrogen and helium from the primordial cloud, and would have enough gravity to hold onto them. If this view is correct, Jupiter might be thought of as a rocky planet similar in a way to Earth, but with an absolutely humongous atmosphere. The core-accretion theory, though, has a timing problem. Light exerts pressure, and the pressure of light from the infant sun should, calculations suggest, have driven off most of the hydrogen and helium of the primordial cloud before Jupiter had a chance to grab it.

A rival hypothesis argues that Jupiter formed without the need for a large rocky core, from a knot in the gas cloud itself. That would make it quite a different beast from an overblown terrestrial planet. One of Juno’s jobs, then, is to try, by measuring subtle variations in Jupiter’s gravitational field, to determine whether the planet has a core, and if so how big it is. This will not, of itself, be enough to resolve the question of how it formed. But it should narrow the range of possibilities.

Jupiter’s atmosphere is another part of the puzzle. Back in 1995 Galileo dropped a probe into that atmosphere, and this probe reported back comparatively larger helpings of certain heavy elements, including nitrogen and argon, than are found in the sun. This suggests either that Jupiter formed in the cool outer reaches of the early solar system, where such elements would have been more abundant, before migrating to its current position, or that the heavy elements in question were supplied by comets and asteroids from those outer reaches. But there was much less of one heavy element—oxygen—than there should have been. The probe detected little water, the compound into which gas-cloud oxygen is overwhelmingly bundled. So, either astronomers’ theories of why Jupiter is blessed with so many heavy elements are wrong, or else, by sheer bad luck, Galileo’s probe dropped into a particularly dry part of the planet’s atmosphere.

There is evidence that something like that may, indeed, have happened. Observations by terrestrial telescopes suggested that the probe, which survived for less than an hour before contact was lost, ended up in the downdraft of a giant atmospheric convection cell. This might well have been drier than the surrounding atmosphere because much of the water in it would have condensed and fallen as rain or snow when it was on the upward side of the convention cell.

Either way, says Dr Bolton, “all we can do is go back and do it again”. And Juno will attempt just that, sampling a different part of the atmosphere with each of its diving loops. Combining measurements from all over the planet should help sort the theoretical sheep from the goats.

Nor is it theories of the formation of Jupiter alone that are at stake. The chance to poke and prod a gas giant up close could help to shed light on how planetary systems other than the sun’s have formed. One of the big surprises of exoplanetology, as the study of such systems is called, has been the discovery of a type of planet known as “hot Jupiters”. These are gas giants which orbit close to their parental stars—in some cases having orbital periods measured in mere handfuls of days. (By contrast, the orbital period of Mercury, the planet closest to the sun, is 88 days.) Everything researchers think they know about planet formation suggests such worlds could not have formed in their present locations. The radiation from their parent stars would have disassembled them as fast as they formed.

The assumption, then, is that they must have come into being elsewhere and then migrated closer to their stars. But how that happens, or how common it is, is still unclear. Reconstructing the history of the solar system’s own biggest gas giant could help astronomers understand how billions of other planets in the galaxy came into being, too.

A probe to Jupiter has arrived successfully

July 5, 2016


NASA’s ambitious project aims to uncover information on the origins of the solar system

IT WAS exactly rocket science. In the early hours of Tuesday morning, cruising at a speed of around a quarter of a million kilometres an hour, some 868m km from Earth, and with Jupiter, the solar system’s biggest planet, looming in its cameras, a small space-going robot called Juno began a delicate task. This was to slam on the brakes and slow itself enough to allow it to be captured by Jupiter’s gravity.

Orbital insertions are difficult manoeuvres at the best of times. But Juno was beyond any human help. It had about half an hour to complete its job and, even at the speed of light, messages from the probe back to its masters on Earth would take longer than that to arrive. If anything went wrong it would therefore have to cope on its own.

In the end, everything went flawlessly. Back on Earth, watching humans breathed a sigh of relief: “To know we can go to bed tonight not worrying about what is going to happen tomorrow is just awesome,” said Diane Brown of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which built Juno.

Over the next couple of years, in a series of looping orbits designed to minimise its exposure to Jupiter’s fierce radiation belts, the probe will poke and prod the giant planet. Jupiter, along with Saturn, is one of the solar system’s two “gas giants”—big planets with extremely thick atmospheres made mostly of hydrogen and helium. It is more than twice as massive as all the other planets in the solar system put together. But it has had only one other probe, Galileo, which arrived in 1995, dedicated to its study.

Juno will examine Jupiter’s atmosphere, characterise its magnetic fields and try to determine whether there is a rocky core below the deep, roiling atmosphere, or whether the hydrogen and helium simply get denser and denser the further down you go. NASA also hopes that understanding Jupiter—especially how and where it formed—will shed light on how the early solar system evolved. That will help astronomers understand planetary systems revolving around stars other than the sun. The study of such exoplanets has thrown up hundreds of examples of “hot Jupiters”, giant orbs that orbit close to their parent stars. Every model of planetary formation says these could not have formed in situ. The assumption, therefore, is that they formed elsewhere before wandering closer to their parents. If Jupiter shows signs of having done something similar, that could help the understanding of millions of other gas giants elsewhere in the galaxy, too.  



It’s Memorial Day weekend (or the Fourth, or Thanksgiving) and this year in particular, the year of Trump, when politics and religion are not, or should not be, on the table.

In the Boston Review of  June 07, 2016, Jonathan Kirshner has this to say, among other things, about Donald Trump:

One of the two major political parties in the United States has chosen an ignorant, unqualified, strutting game-show host as its candidate for president. An upper-class scion cultivated in the cloistered hothouse of inherited wealth now posturing as a populist-nativist, Donald Trump is a dangerous huckster drawing on the dog-eared pages of the demagogue’s handbook, rallying his supporters with the timeless tropes of fearmongering and scapegoating. The only thing that makes this pampered princeling stand out from the rogues’ gallery of his predecessors (and his global peers) is that he comes across as even more vain, entitled, and thin-skinned than the average preening Mussolini pounding his chest from the balcony.

And among the replies to Kirshner is this one:

The other republican candidates–with very few exceptions–that strutted up to play their miserable role in this election impressed me as astoundingly obvious hypocrites whose lightweight ‘minds’ scare the bejesus out of me.

Hillary too does not impress me, except perhaps for her word-perfect regurgitation of the usual, age-old and threadbare cliches.

Trump strikes me as quintessentially American–proud, smart, humorous, made of tough stuff, honest–you know, the way the US of A used to be, when it (they) still counted for something of worth.

America (and the rest of the western world) seems  to have totally forgotten how it  got to me a leader among nations.

There you have it, in these two passages you have the reason why in this instance politics, but religion also, are not on the table at our national holidays, —the reason why we mostly avoid talking politics (and religion) when with our family and friends. For we find as our differences rise to the surface, while not turning to thoroughly disliking, if not hating, one another, that we do begin at worst by screaming at one another our different opinions, or at best we may hit the pause button, turn away from one another, and then go our own separate ways until the next family get-together brings us back.

Now in this Trump vs. Hillary election year probably most of us will hold more or less one or the other these positions, either that Trump is an ignorant, unqualified, strutting game-show host, or that this same man Trump is quintessentially American–proud, smart, humorous, made of tough stuff, honest.

It seems to me that these sorts of sharp, often ugly differences among us most often seem to rise up in just two areas, in addition to politics, there is, of course, religion. And hence both subjects are, as we have learned over and over again, to be scrupulously avoided if we would hold onto our friends and family members possessing radically different political and religious positions from our own. Why is it this way? What is it about politics and religion that leads to these clashes?

Why cannot one’s political or religious beliefs be subject to reason and compromise, why cannot a middle ground be found? In the past these differences have most often led to wars, the European Wars of Religion for example, these being after all for the most part wars over nothing but different opinions.

And in parts of the world today this is still the case, as we see right now in the Middle East. Why can’t rational, frank discussions among thinking individuals replace wars, which after all are never an answer? And why do those bits of non-rational discussion, the loud and shouting exchanges we so often have with one another when we get together, only lead, never to revised opinions, but only to further entrenchment of our respective positions?

I suppose we have made a kind of progress. Steven Pinker, for example, has charted the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, claiming that we are living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.

And it’s true that no one expects the shouting differences appearing during the present election campaign at the candidate rallies and party conventions will lead to shooting wars. However, it is the case that our representatives in Washington, separated as they are mostly by political or religious differences, or both, are as a result unable to compromise, meaning unable to forget their differences and act for the good of the country as a whole.

Religious Freedom or Bigotry

The 15 states named below are all led by one, two, or all three of the following:  a Republican governor, a Republican House, a Republican Senate. All 15 are trying to provide legislative protection for what they call the “religious freedom” of their constituents, “freedom” in this case meaning the freedom not to have to provide services to a public holding other beliefs, religious or not, than theirs.

These people, not my people, but still people might say,“My refusal to serve a lesbian (or at an earlier time, a Black) ought to be respected, protected even. To now be obliged, as you would have it, to serve, say, a member of an LGBT group is a violation of my own religious freedom. For my religion holds these LGBT individuals to be outside of what I believe is acceptable and proper behavior, contrary to my own, Christian beliefs.”

“ So I ask you, why doesn’t my belief, well founded as it is in the Bible, as well as in the Muslim and Jewish sacred texts, enable me to choose those whom I serve, and yes to refuse to provide a wedding cake or a wedding service to those with beliefs opposed to mine?”

Here are the details of various State Legislation seeking “Religious Protections.” As provided by the Associated Press research services, April 6, 2016. One would wish that things were different, but they’re not.

Lawmakers in numerous states have advanced measures this year that would strengthen religious protections for individuals, organizations or some businesses that decline to provide services to same-sex couple based on their religious beliefs.

mossouriIn this photo made Thursday, March 31, 2016, gay-rights supporters take part in a rally outside the Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo. A proposed constitutional amendment in Missouri would protect some businesses citing religious objections while denying goods or services related to same-sex weddings which passed the Senate after a failed 37-hour filibuster by Democrats and now needs House approval before it can be put on a ballot this year. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

While some are narrowly tailored to protect clergy, others are written more broadly, potentially applying to an array of businesses. Some bills already have been sent to governors while others are pending in the legislature. A few already have failed to pass before legislative sessions ended.

Here’s a look at some of the bills that have advanced in state legislatures over the past year:

Continue reading Religious Freedom or Bigotry

Prophets, Jesus and Muhammad, are of the past. Scientists, Darwin and Einstein, of the future.

God and Nature

Prophet: A person who believes he has spoken with God and as a result becomes, and often, as it seems, God’s voice itself among men.

Scientist: A person who sets out to gain a greater understanding of Nature and becomes thereby a voice, if not the voice, of Nature among men.

Men once looked upon nature as something to be looked through or just overlooked while they directed their looks to something else, usually to things of the spirit, and, if they were religious, to God. The men who led and held sway for thousands of years were the so-called prophets, —Moses, David, Jesus, Muhammad and countless others.

But now things are different. Men look with their eyes wide open to nature, don’t try to go beyond it, look to understand nature, as well as their own place in nature. The men who do the most looking are scientists, don’t think of themselves as prophets, don’t pretend to know the answers to the ultimate questions.

They are rather like the natural philosophers of old, recalling their roots in ancient Greece. Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Hubble, and countless others, are scientists.

One might say that the prophets are of the past, the scientists of the present and future. In the ancient world prophets held sway. In our world, the scientists do.

And there is a conflict arising from these two ways of seeing. In spite of Bin Laden of the camp of the prophets having been crushed by Obama of the camp of the scientists, the struggle between the two camps continues.

In fact there’s a civil war raging right now between those who fashion their lives from a careful reading of the prophets and those who fashion their lives from what they’ve learned about nature and human nature from the scientists.

The prophets, the few that may remain, go on speaking of their first hand encounters with God but few are paying attention and listening.

On the other hand the scientists, now numbering in the millions, continue to write up their own first hand encounters with nature and hundreds of millions of us are paying attention and listening. And our lives are enriched thereby, as much or more so than at an earlier time when the lives of our forebears were similarly enriched by the words of the prophets.

‘God Bless America’

07jacoby-master675Kissimmee, Fla., 2012. Credit Alec Soth/Magnum Photos

Sick and Tired of ‘God Bless America’

by Susan Jacoby, New York Times, FEB. 5, 2016

THE population of nonreligious Americans — including atheists, agnostics and those who call themselves “nothing in particular” — stands at an all-time high this election year. Americans who say religion is not important in their lives and who do not belong to a religious group, according to the Pew Research Center, have risen in numbers from an estimated 21 million in 2008 to more than 36 million now.

Despite the extraordinary swiftness and magnitude of this shift, our political campaigns are still conducted as if all potential voters were among the faithful. The presumption is that candidates have everything to gain and nothing to lose by continuing their obsequious attitude toward orthodox religion and ignoring the growing population of those who make up a more secular America.

Ted Cruz won in Iowa by expanding Republican voter turnout among the evangelical base. Donald J. Trump placed second after promising “to protect Christians” from enemies foreign and domestic. The third-place finisher Marco Rubio’s line “I don’t think you can go to church too often” might well have been the campaign mantra. Mr. Rubio was first christened a Roman Catholic, baptized again at the age of 8 into the Mormon Church, and now attends a Southern Baptist megachurch with his wife on Saturdays and Catholic Mass on Sundays.

Democrats are only a trifle more secular in their appeals. Hillary Clinton repeatedly refers to her Methodist upbringing, and even Bernie Sanders — a cultural Jew not known to belong to a synagogue — squirms when asked whether he believes in God. When Jimmy Kimmel posed the question, Mr. Sanders replied in a fog of words at odds with his usual blunt style: “I am who I am. And what I believe in and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together.” He once referred to a “belief in God” that requires him to follow the Golden Rule — a quote his supporters seem to trot out whenever someone suggests he’s an atheist or agnostic.

The question is not why nonreligious Americans vote for these candidates — there is no one on the ballot who full-throatedly endorses nonreligious humanism — but why candidates themselves ignore the growing group of secular voters.

Yes, America is still a predominantly Christian nation, but evangelical Christians (including multiple Protestant denominations), at 25.4 percent, are the only group larger than those who don’t belong to any church. At 22.8 percent, according to Pew, the unchurched make up a larger group than Catholics, any single Protestant denomination and small minorities of Jews, Muslims and Hindus.

Critics have suggested that there is no such entity as secular America, because the nonreligious do not all share the same values. One might just as easily say the same thing about the religious. President Jimmy Carter, for example, left the Southern Baptist Convention because he disagreed with its views about women — but Mr. Carter remains his own kind of devout and liberal Baptist in the tradition of his 18th-century religious forebears.

Secularists remain politically weak in part because of the reluctance of many, especially the young, to become “joiners.” Rejection of labels may be one reason so many of the religiously unaffiliated prefer to check “nothing in particular” rather than the atheist or agnostic box.

But it takes joiners to create a lobby. The American Center for Law and Justice, an organization focused on the rights of Christians, gathered more than a million signatures on a petition protesting the imprisonment of Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor and convert from Islam who was one of four Americans freed in last month’s prisoner swap.

For small secular organizations, a million signatures for any cause would constitute a supernatural happening. I spent a few years working for the Center for Inquiry, a humanist think tank that merged last month, in a rare union of secular forces, with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Michael De Dora, the center’s public policy director, argues that secularists must work with liberal and mainstream religious groups on issues of mutual concern.

Yet there is some controversy over coalition building between those who consider themselves “hard” and “soft” atheists. I suppose I must be a “soft” atheist for believing that there is a huge political upside to ad hoc coalitions with liberal religious groups.

Freedom of conscience for all — which exists only in secular democracies — should be at the top of the list of shared concerns. Candidates who rightly denounce the persecution of Christians by radical Islamists should be ashamed of themselves for not expressing equal indignation at the persecution of freethinkers and atheists, as well as dissenting Muslims and small religious sects, not only by terrorists but also by theocracies like Saudi Arabia. With liberal religious allies, it would be easier for secularists to hold candidates to account when they talk as if freedom of conscience is a human right only for the religious.

Even more critical is the necessity of reclaiming the language of religious freedom from the far right. As defined by many pandering politicians, “religious freedom” is in danger of becoming code for accepting public money while imposing faith-based values on others.

Anyone who dismisses the importance of taking back this language should consider the gravity of the mistake made by supporters of legal abortion when they allowed the anti-abortion movement to claim the term “pro-life” after Roe v. Wade.

Secularists must hold candidates to account when they insult secular values, whether that means challenging them in town hall meetings or withholding donations. Why, for example, would any secular Republican (yes, there are some) think of supporting the many Republican politicians who have denied the scientific validity of evolution? Politicians will continue to ignore secular Americans until they are convinced that there is a price to be paid for doing so.

“God bless America” has become the standard ending of every major political speech. Just once in my life, I would like the chance to vote for a presidential candidate who ends his or her appeals with Thomas Paine’s observation that “the most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason.”

Susan Jacoby is the author of the forthcoming book “Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion.”

Those who ought to read this won’t


We’ve all heard that our public schools are failing to educate the people. What they were supposed to do, in the words of their visionary and principal founders, Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann, was to turn out capable, wise, and responsible citizens of the new republic.

And of course the schools have never done anything like this, but they’ve never ceased right up until today, some 200 years since their founding, to defend themselves and what they are doing from the principal charge of having failed to make at least large numbers of us into responsible citizens of our Republic.

I will mention here just two striking bits of evidence of the widespread failure of the schools, just two from many hundreds of them. And these two I take from some of the loudest noises reaching us from the presidential campaign now going on.

There are two groups of primary voters, by and large Republican, who are making most of the noise, and while doing so showing little knowledge, little awareness of the traditional, both liberal and conservative values that have made our country great. Instead, for example, of welcoming immigrants to the country, they would turn them away or what is even worse deport those who are already here. And we need not even speak of the wall they would build.

One large group of the school failures, if not dropouts, are the evangelicals. The real history of the country (not to mention the history of the world) is of no significance alongside their sacred books, that is the writings in the bible. While they ought to have read history, of civilization, and of the planet  earth, they have spent their time reading the bible. They don’t seem to have understood that the bible is not a history, but a work, a work of literature, a great one, written by tens if not hundreds of different authors. And author views and opinions, and even wisdom, may be gained by reading the bible, but not the truth, and certainly not what the Evangelicals pretend to know, the knowledge of good and evil.

The evangelicals are in the thralls of their own religious dogma, one that doesn’t free them but ties them to other true believers from other religions. And in fact their allies are the extremist Jewish settlers in Palestine, and the others everywhere like them, including, although they probably won’t admit this, the Sunni and Shia extremists now engaged in a bloody and destructive war where the innocent thousands are being forced to flee or stay and be killed, and this because of their own incorrect reading of their own sacred book the Quran.

The schools ought to have taught their graduates that free and open societies, under the rule of laws created not by God but by representatives of the people, are what holds the promise of the very best life for all of us. And that it is incumbent upon the graduates to preserve that freedom and openness to which the schools ought to have introduced them. Instead, their graduates, and in particular the Evangelicals, would close themselves off from others, destroying what would or should have been a natural acceptance of those different from them in the process, and all the time telling us how to live, citing their sacred work, the bible as the single and sufficient source of truth.

They say they are defending the family. Now it is one thing to defend the family that which by itself may be just fine, but it is something else entirely to begin with one’s own definition of the family, saying what a family is and what it is not, saying for example that families started by two men or two women are not families.

For the hundreds of years of our country’s history, of which the Evangelicals have learned very little while in school or out, a freedom and openness to the new ought to have shown us that families, meaning groups of us, come in all forms, in all sizes, in all colors, and the only truth, the only proof of a family, whether it is a family or not, is how the members treat one another, with compassion and understanding to begin with. For ultimately there is just the one family, the Family of Man, and who would exclude anyone from that?

So far the Evangelicals do not rule the world, “Thank God.”. At the present time there are still thriving groups of moderate and tolerant peoples, in both the Eastern and Western worlds, where open and free societies, under the rule of law and not religion, are considered the very highest good, and where religious dogma, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or other, is the greatest obstacle, Hélas! to their realization.

And the other noise, the second noise of which I speak, coming out of the primary elections, the other bit of evidence of the ignorance of our people? What is that? Well that has to be, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, Donald Trump and his followers.

Conspiracy Theory a la Iranian

In a Times article, Iran President Pushes Back Over Anti-US crackdown, an unidentified operative working for the Revolutionary Guards in an interview with state TV said:

that the crackdown aimed to dismantle a network of journalists that he called “pens for hire,” asserting they had sought to plant articles against national interests. “Their objective,” he said, “is to change the lifestyle of people and shape public minds.”

In other words our “objective,” that is, the objective of the American government including President Obama, is to shape the minds and thereby change the lifestyle of the Iranians.

It does sound like an anti-Iranian American conspiracy. Well not exactly, because we’re not hiding it, we’re not conspiring to change the life style of the Iranians, and in particular the members of the Revolutionary Guards. Rather it is exactly what we would most like to do. So if that’s the conspiracy we’re guilty and should be imprisoned.

Since the Cold War with Russia, and probably before, this has been our intention. For given a closed society, such as Iran, we would open it up. Furthermore, that is probably, although unstated, very much the intended intention of our journalists abroad, —to open up any closed society to the world, and of course thereby, as in this particular instance, bring down those doing the “closing,” the Revolutionary Guards along with their eminence grise the Ayatollah Kamenei.

To this we plead guilty.