Category Archives: Science

Jared Diamond on Common Sense

About the Edge Foundation, I take this from Wikipedia:

The Foundation is an association of science and technology intellectuals created in 1988 as an outgrowth of The Reality Club, and that currently, its main activity is contributing to the Edge website, edited by  John Brockman, who among other things is the author of The Third Culture, a growing movement towards (re)integration of literary and scientific thinking, a nod toward British scientist C. P. Snow‘s concept of the two cultures, of science and the humanities. On the Edge website scientists and others are invited to contribute their thoughts in a manner readily accessible to non-specialist readers.

In recent years Edge has posed its members an annual question, for example in:

  • 2006: “What is your dangerous idea”? The responses formed the book What Is Your Dangerous Idea?, which was published with an introduction by Steven Pinker and an afterword by Richard Dawkins.
  • 2009: “What Will Change Everything? What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”
  • 2014: “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”

This year’s Edge Question is:

WHAT SCIENTIFIC TERM OR CONCEPT OUGHT TO BE MORE WIDELY KNOWN?

Edge founder and editor John Brockman himself has this to say about this year’s question:

Of course, not everyone likes the idea of spreading scientific understanding. Remember what the Bishop of Birmingham’s wife is reputed to have said about Darwin’s claim that human beings are descended from monkeys: “My dear, let us hope it is not true, but, if it is true, let us hope it will not become generally known.”

And he continues with his own answer to the question:

Of all the scientific terms or concepts that ought to be more widely known to help to clarify and inspire science-minded thinking in the general culture, none are more important than “science” itself.

Many people, even many scientists, have traditionally had a narrow view of science as controlled, replicated experiments performed in the laboratory—and as consisting quintessentially of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. The essence of science is conveyed by its Latin etymology: scientia, meaning knowledge….

…. Science is nothing more nor less than the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great figures in history, or the structure of DNA.

It is in this spirit of Scientia that Edge, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, is pleased to present the Edge Annual Question 2017. Happy New Year!

John Brockman, January 1, 2017


You can read all 206 answers to this year’s question on the EDGE website. Below I quote just one of these answers, that of Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of “The World Until Yesterday.” I particularly liked what he had to say in his answer that it is “common sense” that ought to be more widely known.


Beware of getting caught up in the details of an argument

You are much more likely to hear common sense invoked as a concept at a cocktail party than at a scientific discussion—but it should play a bigger role in such discussions, where it is sometimes deficient and scorned. This is especially problematic when scientists get caught up in the details of an argument and follow it to an implausible conclusion.

Consider an example from the field of archaeology. Throughout most of human prehistory, human evolution was confined to the Old World, and the Americas were uninhabited. During the last Ice Age, humans finally crossed from Siberia into Alaska over the Bering Strait land bridge. For thousands of years thereafter, they were prevented from spreading further south by the ice sheet that stretched, without interruption, across Canada, from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

The first well-attested settlement of the Americas south of today’s Canada-U.S. border occurred around 13,000 years ago, as the ice sheets were melting. We see the sudden appearance of stone tools of the Clovis culture, named after the town of Clovis, N.M., where they were first recognized. Clovis tools have now been found all over the lower U.S. and south into Mexico. That sudden appearance of a culture abundantly filling up the entire landscape is what one expects and observes whenever humans first colonize fertile, empty lands.

But any claim by an archaeologist to have discovered “the first X” is taken as a challenge by other archaeologists to discover an earlier X. In this case, archaeologists feel challenged to discover sites with different stone tools that date from before the Clovis culture. Every year now, new claims of pre-Clovis sites in the U.S. and Latin America are advanced and subjected to detailed scrutiny. Most of these claims have eventually been invalidated.

Still, a handful of pre-Clovis claims have not yet been discredited. The most widely discussed are for sites at Monte Verde in Chile, Meadowcroft in Pennsylvania, and one site each in Texas and in Oregon. As a result, most American archaeologists currently support the thesis of pre-Clovis settlement.

But this seems to me an implausible view, defying common sense. It would require that the first human settlers south of the Canada-U.S. border were somehow airlifted by nonstop flights to Chile, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Texas, leaving no unequivocal signs of their presence at intermediate sites. If there really had been pre-Clovis settlement, we would already know it and would no longer be arguing about it. That is because there would be hundreds of undisputed pre-Clovis sites distributed everywhere across the Americas.

Just like everyone else, scientists need common sense.



If you want to know more about the Clovis people, go to

The Clovis Point and the Discovery of America’s First C ulture

to read the article by Charles C. Mann in the Smithsonian Magazine, from November 2013


Thanks to Cathal O’Connell!

I couldn’t resist putting Cathal’s work published in Cosmos Magazine on my own website.

Six physics equations that changed the course of history   


Pivotal points in the past few centuries saw human innovation advance in leaps and bounds, and all thanks to physics. Cathal O’Connell explains the equations and how they transformed history.


As the story goes, English mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) contemplates the force of gravity on seeing an apple fall in his orchard, circa 1665. – Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Physics equations are forms of magic. They allow us to explain the past, such as why Halley’s comet visits every 76 years, and predict the future – as far as the ultimate fate of the Universe.

They place limits on the possible, as in the efficiency of an engine, and they reveal possibilities we could never have imagined, such as the energy inside an atom.

Occasionally over the past few centuries, a new equation endowed the next generation with a new magical tool, and so changed the course of history. Here are some of the most pivotal.

1. Newton’s second law of motion (1687)

What does it say?

Force equals mass times acceleration.

In other words …

It’s easier to push an empty shopping cart than a full one.

What did it teach us?

Together with Isaac Newton’s other two laws of motion (the first says you need a force to move something, the third says every action has an equal and opposite reaction), this equation forms the foundation of classical mechanics.

F=ma allowed physicists and engineers to calculate the value of a force. For instance, your weight (measured in newtons) is your mass (in kilograms) multiplied by acceleration due to gravity (on Earth, about 10 metres per second squared).

Saying you “weigh” 60 kilograms is incorrect in physics terms – your actual weight is about 600 newtons. This is the force pushing down on your bathroom scales.

But was it practical?

This equation was crucial to the arrival of the mechanical age. It’s used in almost every calculation which involves using force to cause movement.

It tells you how powerful an engine needs to be to power a car, how much lift an aircraft needs to take-off, how much thrust to lift a rocket, how far a cannonball flies.

2. Newton’s law of universal gravitation (1687)

What does it say?

Any two massive objects pull on one another across space. But the force decreases rapidly the further apart they are.

In other words …

We’re stuck to the Earth’s surface because our planet is comparatively big with lots more mass.

What did it teach us?

For centuries, the Universe had been divided into two realms – the earthly and the celestial. But Newton’s law of gravitation applied to everything. The same tug that causes an apple to fall from a tree keeps the Moon orbiting the Earth. Newton gave us the first direct connection between everyday life and the movement of the heavens.

But was it practical?

For a long time, the equation’s main use was to calculate the orbits of planets. The space-age of the 1950s and 60s saw it used in practice – to send satellites into orbit and astronauts to the Moon.

One failing, which Newton himself admitted, was that he did not know “why” gravity operated. It took nearly 230 years for Albert Einstein to come along and explain gravity as arising from the warping of spacetime by massive objects in his theory of general relativity.

Even so, general relativity is only used in extreme situations, such as when gravity is very strong, or when great precision is required, such as for GPS satellites. In most cases Newton’s 330-year-old equation is still good enough.

3. Second law of thermodynamics (1824)

What does it say?

Entropy (a measure of disorder) always increases.

In other words …

It’s no good crying over spilt milk. Disorder and mess are inevitable in the Universe.

What did it teach us?

While trying to analyse steam engine efficiency in the 19th century, French physicist Sadi Carnot stumbled upon one of the most profound equations in all of science.

It tells us some processes are irreversible, and may even be responsible for the arrow of time. In one of its simplest forms, it says heat always travels from a warm object to a cold one.

It can also be applied to the grandest scales. Some have applied it to describe the ultimate fate of the Universe in the form of “heat death” where all the stars are burnt out and nothing’s left but waste heat.

Others have used it to wind back through time and describe the origin of the Universe in a moment of zero entropy (or perfect order) at the instant of the Big Bang.

But was it practical?

This law was important for developing technologies of the industrial revolution, from steam to internal combustion engines, to refrigerators and chemical engineering.

In real engines, some energy is always wasted – so the law also showed any efforts at perpetual motion were ultimately futile.

4. The Maxwell-Faraday equation (1831 and 1865)

What does it say?

You can create a changing electric field (left side of the equation) from a changing magnetic field (on the right) and vice versa.

In other words …

Electricity and magnetism are related!

What did it teach us?

In 1831, Michael Faraday discovered the connection between two natural forces, electricity and magnetism, when he found a changing magnetic field induced a current in a nearby wire.

Later, James Clark Maxwell generalised Faraday’s observation as one of his four fundamental equations of electromagnetism.

But was it practical?

This is the equation that powers the world. Most electric generators (whether in a wind turbine, coal-fired plant or a hydroelectric dam) work by converting mechanical energy (from steam or water) to rotate a magnet. By running this process in reverse, you get the electric motor.

More generally, Maxwell’s equations are still used in almost every application of electrical engineering, communications technology and optics.

5. Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence (1905)

What does it say?

Energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared.

In other words …

Mass is really just a super-condensed form of energy.

What did it teach us?

Because of the size of the constant in the equation (the speed of light squared, an unimaginably huge number) a colossal amount of energy can be released through converting a tiny amount of mass.

But was it practical?

Einstein’s most famous equation hinted at the potential for the huge amounts of energy released in nuclear fission, when a large unstable nucleus breaks into two smaller ones. This is because the mass of the two smaller nuclei together is always less than the mass of the original big nucleus – and the missing mass is converted into energy.

The “Fat Man” atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki in Japan on 9 August 1945 converted just one gram of mass to energy, but produced an explosion the equivalent around 20,000 tonnes of TNT.

Einstein himself had signed a letter to US president at the time Franklin Roosevelt recommending the atom bomb be developed – a decision he later regarded as the “one great mistake” of his life.

6. The Schrödinger wavefunction (1925)

What does it say?

It describes how the change of a particle’s wavefunction (represented by psi, the candlestick shaped symbol) can be calculated from its kinetic energy (movement) and its potential energy (the interactions on it).

In other words …

It’s the quantum version of F=ma.

What did it teach us?

When Erwin Schrödinger formulated his equation in 1925, it placed the new theory of quantum mechanics on firm footing by allowing physicists to calculate how quantum particles move and interact.

The equation looks a bit weird because it uses the mathematics of waves. (Subatomic particles are “wavy”, so their interaction is described as interference of waves, rather than like billiard balls.)

But was it practical?

In one of its simplest forms, it describes the structure of the atom, such as the arrangement of electrons around the nucleus, and all chemical bonding.

More generally it’s used for many calculations in quantum mechanics and is fundamental to much of modern technology from lasers to transistors, and the future development of quantum computers.

Supply and Demand

I’m told my blog posts are much too long, or too wordy, and that’s the principal reason they’re not read. I don’t believe that, but I’ll accept it as being true.

(I think my blogs are not read for two reasons, one being that no one is being directed to go there, and two, if they do get there they will quickly see that I have nothing original to say.)

But for those who see my blog as too long, here’s a short one as a quick fix, at least in this one instance. I take my question from FEE, the Foundation of Economic Education, the question being:
“Which is More Accurate, Say’s Law or Keynes’s Law? And to help you with an answer,

Say’s Law: “Supply creates demand.”
Keynes’s Law: “Demand creates supply.”

supply-and-demand

Then given enough answers we’ll tally the results.


Our Universe, Billions and billions

Carl Sagan in his book, Billions and Billions writes:

Our Universe is composed of some hundred billion galaxies, one of which is the Milky Way or as we like to call it, “Our Galaxy,” although we certainly do not have possession of it.

It is composed of gas and dust and about 400 billion suns. One of these, lodged in an obscure spiral arm of the Galaxy, is our Sun or local star, — drab, humdrum, ordinary.

Accompanying our Sun in its 250 million year journey around the center of the Milky Way is a retinue of small worlds. Some are planets, some are moons, some asteroids, some comets.

We humans are one of the 50 billion species that have grown up and evolved on a small planet, Earth, third from the Sun. From the Earth we have sent spacecraft to examine some 70 other worlds in our system and so far have reached the surfaces of four of them—the Moon, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter, engaging ourselves thereby in a truly mythic endeavor.

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….

PBS GENETIC DIVERSITY QUIZ, What differences make a difference

Along with many other writers and commentators I’ve written more than once about Donald Trump’s abysmal  ignorance,

in regard to so many things, in regard to this country’s and the world’s past history, in regard to the present, to what’s happening right now, and in regard to where his ignorance is perhaps most pronounced, and most frightening if he ever were to win the presidency, in regard to the physical and biological, as well as the political sciences. In short,  he is mostly ignorant regarding just about everything you’d assume he should know having been chosen as the presidential candidate of one of our two major political parties.

Trump’s ignorance was especially noticeable for me during the Presidential Debates, when at so many moments during those debates, when I would have wanted him to say something interesting and thoughtful, perhaps revealing his own up until then still hidden but perhaps (?) intelligent take on things? But he was a disappointment. No matter what the question from the moderator, Trump seemed only capable of repeating the shallow and superficial and “nasty”, although colorful  words and expressions of the “Trump rallies,” intended to arouse among his no less ignorant listeners their devotion to his cause  as well as their anger against “crooked Hillary.”

In these debates the most he would ever say regarding the policies of the other party, was that their policies were failures and that he, Donald Trump, while making America great again, would scrap them all, the tax code, the excessive regulations on business and entrepreneurship, the Obama immigration and trade measures, as well as the affordable care Act, put into effect also by President Obama. And other than to say he would scrap the measures of his predecessor he said little or nothing of what he would do to replace them, only such things as that he would deport the illegals and build an impenetrable wall between us and our neighbors to the South.

Then just the other day I happened to see the following Genetic Diversity Quiz on the PBS.org web site, exploring the question, what differences make a difference. A great question. What if Donald Trump were to take the quiz? Well he probably never would because he hates to be exposed, as not being better, more knowledgeable than everyone else.

Take the quiz  yourself and see how you would do with the differences that make a difference. If the Donald were ever to take it how do you think he would do, not only in this quiz but in other comparable quizzes, say on U.S.History, economics, the Political and natural sciences, the great books, the great works of art and music, all the knowledge that represents the great and real achievements of man living in a free and open society.

I wonder if Trump even understands what that means, to live in a free and open society, especially given his oft stated opposition to free trade, in a society where the free movement of people and goods is the norm. Especially given his authoritarian and bullying stances on so many things.

Anyway, here’s the quiz (a cure for racism?). Let me know how you do.


GENETIC DIVERSITY QUIZ
What differences make a difference?

  1. Approximately how old are modern humans?
    1. 170,000 years
    2. 40,000 years
    3. 70,000 years
    4. 1.2 million years
    5. 5 million years
  2. Which group has the most genetic variation?
    1. Humans
    2. Chimpanzees
    3. Penguins
    4. Fruit flies
    5. Elephants
  3. What is the source of genetic variation in humans?
    1. mutation
    2. genetic drift
    3. natural selection
    4. sexual selection
    5. environment
  4. Which two present-day populations are most likely to be genetically similar?
    1. Italians and Ethiopians
    2. Senegalese and Kenyans
    3. Italians and Swedes
    4. Chinese and Lakota (Sioux)
    5. Saudi Arabians and Ethiopians
  5. What caused differences in skin color to evolve?
    1. The environment
    2. Natural selection
    3. Sexual selection
    4. Tanning oil
    5. We don’t know
  6. If you know a person’s skin color, what can you predict about them?
    1. their blood type
    2. their height
    3. the likelihood they will get certain inherited diseases
    4. whether or not they have musical talent
    5. none of the above
  7. An individual from which country is most likely to carry the sickle cell trait?
    1. Ireland
    2. Greece
    3. South Africa
    4. Samoa
    5. Mexico
  8. Your ancestors are likely to include:
    1. Nefertiti
    2. Julius Caesar
    3. Qin Shi Huang – first emperor of China
    4. All of the above
    5. None of the above
  9. Which continent has the greatest human genetic diversity?
    1. Europe
    2. Asia
    3. North America
    4. South America
    5. Africa
  10. If a catastrophe wiped out everyone except people in Europe, how much of the total genetic variation in our species would be left?
    1. 50%
    2. 38%
    3. 94%
    4. 21%
    5. 74%

Continue reading PBS GENETIC DIVERSITY QUIZ, What differences make a difference

“What is the feeling” between the two magnets?

Richard Feynman explains “why” questions in general are asking for an explanation in terms of the familiar.

 

 

Nic Astaire

In case you missed the layman’s answer:

When you push your hand against a chair, contrary to how it seems to you, the atoms of your hand DO NOT come in contact with the atoms of the chair. The electrical forces repel the atoms WITHOUT ANY CONTACT (although the distance is so small you’d need a microscope to see the spaces between the atoms).

With magnets its the same, except that the distance is large enough to be seen without a microscope due to alignments of the contributing forces.

form Quora

 

Will the Nautilus survive the sixth great extinction?

nautilus

But first a few words about life long learning. That’s an expression that’s overused, or not used enough, or rather used but not understood. In fact, there’s probably not a school or college that doesn’t mention life long learning in its brochure materials.

What’s going on here? Well it’s simple, we would prepare our students to become in their own lives life long learners. That’s the bottom line, more bottom than even the monstrous, obscene, sometimes life long debts the students are accumulating while attending their schools and colleges.

But are there lifelong learners out there among the graduates of our schools and colleges? How does one judge their presence? Are there any lifelong learners among the millions of Americans who are going to vote for Donald Trump? Those who would vote for Trump what can they possibly know about the history of the West, about the Enlightenment, about art and music, about literature, about math and science, all those subjects that ought to have a greater place in our lives out of school than in school, those subjects that ought to be what life long learning is all about.

The greatest irony is that now, in the 21st century it has never been easier to learn. The incredible achievements of mathematics and science, the great works of art and music and literature, the histories of times past, the nature of other civilizations, of other cultures, of other ways of life have never been so readily accessible, so completely within our reach.

While thousands of brave individuals, hundreds of thousands are making these treasures available by means of the ever new electronic media, putting the knowledge of most everything out there within the reach of most everyone, it’s just not happening, that people are becoming more enlightened, more open, more tolerant, more liberal and/or more conservative.

People seem rather to be closing up within themselves, shutting themselves off from others who are different, from most of the wide world, wanting to hold tight to whatever they may have from the past rather than going out into what is fast becoming without them the bravest new world that men have ever seen.

I’m reminded again of Richard Feynman’s question, of the relation of science to modern society —Why is it possible for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably content in modern society when in fact so much knowledge is available to them?

I stumbled upon the article below just this morning in the Review, Cosmos. And I might just as well have stumbled upon any number, thousands, tens of thousands of other no less interesting and informative articles. As I say it’s never been so easy to find out more about our world. We are no longer just cave dwellers putting the best of ourselves on to the walls of a cave in southwestern France.

I think it’s our greater and greater knowledge of our world that saves us, that brings out our humanity, that makes us (well not all of us, helas! but perhaps the life long learners among us) more inclusive, more tolerant, the very sort of qualities that what life long learning should be all about.

Anyway, here’s just one example of the millions of doorways, in this instance a magazine article, leading to new knowledge. Here the subject is extinction. What does that mean? Is it the same as death? What did it mean to the cave dwellers? Did they even know the word? What does it mean to us now?

For even today, with all the knowledge available to us, we still have to come up with our own answers, just like the cave dwellers. We’ll have to decide what meaning to give to extinction, and in particular to the so-called sixth extinction that is now going on and for which we are probably mostly to blame.


The big five mass extinctions


Viviane Richter is a freelance science writer based in Melbourne

Biologists suspect we’re living through the sixth major mass extinction. Earth has witnessed five, when more than 75% of species disappeared. Palaeontologists spot them when species go missing from the global fossil record, including the iconic specimens shown here. “We don’t always know what caused them but most had something to do with rapid climate change”, says Melbourne Museum palaeontologist Rolf Schmidt.

End Ordovician, 444 million years ago, 86% of species lost
— Graptolite 2-3 cm length

Graptolites, like most Ordovician life, were sea creatures. They were filter-feeding animals and colony builders. Their demise over about a million years was probably caused by a short, severe ice age that lowered sea levels, possibly triggered by the uplift of the Appalachians. The newly exposed silicate rock sucked CO2 out of the atmosphere, chilling the planet.
060715_holodeck_1Credit: JAIME MURCIA / MUSEUM VICTORIA

Late Devonian, 375 million years ago, 75% of species lost
— Trilobite, 5 cm length

Trilobites were the most diverse and abundant of the animals that appeared in the Cambrian explosion 550 million years ago. Their great success was helped by their spiky armour and multifaceted eyes. They survived the first great extinction but were nearly wiped out in the second. The likely culprit was the newly evolved land plants that emerged, covering the planet during the Devonian period. Their deep roots stirred up the earth, releasing nutrients into the ocean. This might have triggered algal blooms which sucked oxygen out of the water, suffocating bottom dwellers like the trilobites.
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Credit: Chip Clark / Smithsonian Institution

End Permian, 251 million years ago, 96% of species lost
— Tabulate coral, 5 CM

Known as “the great dying”, this was by far the worst extinction event ever seen; it nearly ended life on Earth. The tabulate corals were lost in this period – today’s corals are an entirely different group. What caused it? A perfect storm of natural catastrophes. A cataclysmic eruption near Siberia blasted CO2 into the atmosphere. Methanogenic bacteria responded by belching out methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Global temperatures surged while oceans acidified and stagnated, belching poisonous hydrogen sulfide.  “It set life back 300 million years,” says Schmidt. Rocks after this period record no coral reefs or coal deposits.
060715_holodeck_3Credit: JAIME MURCIA / MELBOURNE MUSEUM

End Triassic, 200 million years ago, 80% of species lost
— Conodont teeth 1 mm

Palaeontologists were baffled about the origin of these toothy fragments, mistaking them for bits of clams or sponges. But the discovery of an intact fossil in Scotland in the 1980s finally revealed their owner – a jawless eel-like vertebrate named the conodont which boasted this remarkable set of teeth lining its mouth and throat. They were one of the first structures built from hydroxyapatite, a calcium-rich mineral that remains  a key component of our own bones and teeth today.  Of all the great extinctions, the one that ended the Triassic is the most enigmatic. No clear cause has been found.

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Credit: Paul Taylor / Natural History Museum

End Cretaceous, 66 million years ago, 76% of all species lost
— Ammonite 15 cm length

The delicate leafy sutures decorating this shell represent some advanced engineering, providing the fortification the squid-like ammonite required to withstand the pressure of deep dives in pursuit of its prey. Dinosaurs may have ruled the land during the Cretaceous period but the oceans belonged to the ammonites. But volcanic activity and climate change already placed the ammonites under stress. The asteroid impact that ended the dinosaurs’ reign provided the final blow. Only a few dwindling species of ammonites survived. Today, the ammonites’ oldest surviving relative is the nautilus. Will it survive the sixth great extinction?
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Credit: JAIME MURCIA / MUSEUM VICTORIA

 

Feynman’s Question

One might ask why is it possible for Donald Trump to stay reasonably happy when woefully ignorant of the science of the world he lives in?

“I say, and I think you must all know from experience, that people– I mean the average person, the great majority of people, the enormous majority of people– are woefully, pitifully, absolutely ignorant of the science of the world that they live in, and they can stay that way. I don’t mean to say the heck with them, what I mean is that they are able to stay that way without it worrying them at all– only mildly– so from time to time when they see CP* mentioned in the newspaper they ask what it is. And an interesting question of the relation of science to modern society is just that– why is it possible for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modern society when so much knowledge is unavailable to them?”
Richard Feynman, in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, 1999

*From Wikipedia: CP-symmetry, often called just CP, is the product of two symmetries: C for charge conjugation, which transforms a particle into its antiparticle, and P for parity, which creates the mirror image of a physical system. The strong interaction and electromagnetic interaction seem to be invariant under the combined CP transformation operation, but this symmetry is slightly violated during certain types of weak decay. Historically, CP-symmetry was proposed to restore order after the discovery of parity violation in the 1950s.

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Einstein lecturing at the College de France, Paris 1922