Nero is not fiddling, but making ugly noises

Among the frightening news reports that fill our newspapers in our times, I came across one (on October 21) with the following lines: “A catastrophic reduction in the flow of the Colorado River — which mostly consists of snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains — has always served as a kind of thought experiment for water engineers, a risk situation from the outer edge of their practical imaginations. Some 30 million people depend on that water. A greatly reduced river would wreak chaos in seven states: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.”  

This is but one example of the ominous unimaginable water scarcity that, according to experts, is almost inevitable all over the world in the next few decades during which, ironically, there will also be an overabundance of sea-water that would wipe away many coastal regions.The predicted catastrophes, so say many who seem to know, are in the foreseeable future when many of today’s children will be in the peak years of life.

In this projected scenario we (ordinary citizens) have no alternative but to do our little to diminish the individual environmental disturbance that each one of us is causing at various levels of intensity, and go about our business and human relationships, while trusting political leaders, planners, and engineers to do the best they can to avert the evitable, and minimize the impact of the inevitable.

But what is sad and incredible to contemplate is that in this backdrop so many people are deeply engaged in intercultural squabbles, deafening debates on God and Religion, recriminatory ideological combats, tall claims of religious uniqueness, mindless convictions of sectarian and racial inferiority, pride in national histories, incessant intergroup hate, and the like.

Is this because the imminence of catastrophic global ecological disasters is so little understood and internalized, or because our passion for group elation and sensations of sectarian superiority far exceed our instinct for survival, I wonder. 

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Being Optimistic

A reader: “I tend to be a little optimistic and hold on to the belief that a little goodness exists in the hearts of the average, ordinary person in spite of all the prejudiced and pernicious propaganda and brainwashing they are subjected to.”

 Thank you for re-affirming what I used to feel very strongly in my earlier years.I am holding on to it even now, as something more than a straw whenever I experience a drowning sensation in my thoughts about the human condition today. Even as the divisive and parochial forces are fanning the fires of mutual anger and hate, there are, as we know, many men and women of goodwill who think in human rather than in parochial terms and strive to do in their different ways many little things beyond hoping and praying to instill a sense of humanity and mutual respect in all of us.

I am well aware that such people are branded as naive idealists at best and as unwitting agents of destruction of their own groups at worst.

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On Watson’s Comments

News item: “On 17 October 2007 one of the world’s most eminent scientists was embroiled in an extraordinary row last night after he claimed that black people were less intelligent than white people and the idea that ‘equal powers of reason’ were shared across racial groups was a delusion.” 

We live in an extraordinarily confused and insecure age. A long-range effect of colonialism, cultural hegemony, free-trade, globalization, color-blind immigration, and multiculturalism is that deep in the hearts of countless people in every race, religion, region, and nation, of every language, culture, and group, there lurks a fear to the effect that what they have considered to be theirs for many generations is now under threat of dilution or destruction, or will soon be taken over by others of alien vintage. Added to this is the great discomfort at the thought of the weakening and eventual dissolution of the most dearly held religious beliefs that have given comfort, security, and stability during countless generations. The fear and discomfort find expression in a hundred ways.

One mode of reaction to this predicament is to decry, degrade, or demean others (real or imaginary enemies and institutions) in explicit or implicit ways. Often this is done in the language of   religion, nation, or science so as to clothe the irrational (though in some instances understandable) fear in a framework of authority, collective self-interest, or empirical evidence.

The recent statements of James Watson sound shocking and are certainly unbecoming of a responsible scientist. But this is only one example of the manifestations of fears and cultural discomfort. It is important to realize that it has received considerable recognition mainly because it was in English (a widely read language), and by an individual of considerable scientific reputation. Echoes of such views are expressed in direct or convoluted ways by thinkers and leaders in many other groups as well, and spilled out routinely in listserves which, with all their benefits, have also become powerful global networks for the dissemination of hate, misinformation, and pseudoscience. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, when it is coated with hateful passions and diffused, it becomes toxic.

Awakened thinkers in enlightened societies recognize the untenability, anachronism, and potential danger in racist, xenophobic, sexist, and other distorted convictions that were public and widespread in ages past, and they challenge and condemn the propagandists of pernicious and prejudiced views, even while giving them to right to speak out their minds. It is too early say how far or for how long they will be successful in shielding the world from the resurgence of culturally stifling and harmful thoughts all over the world.  

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Science and Poetry

Let us look into some of the common elements between science and poetry. To the superficial observer, indeed sometimes even to the devotees of the fields, the two may strike as contrasting endeavors, as different from each other as day and night. Yet the two have a great deal in common: In both instances creativity plays a fundamental role, and even as in a hundred versifiers there may be but one genuine poet, so too in the realm of science the routine searchers are many and mechanical; the truly great scientific minds are few and far between.

In poetry, as in science, the urge to create is stronger than the plans to execute. When the poet Poe said that for him poetry was not a purpose, but a passion, he was also expressing the feelings of the true scientist to his own field.

Both science and poetry are efforts to cast truth and nature in symmetry and harmony. To the poet, “poetry is truth dwelling in beauty,” and to the scientist science is truth dwelling in beautiful formulas. Truth, that elusive entity, is of significance only to the seeker.

Thus, the difference between poetry and science lies in the modes of perception and in the framework of the search, not in the inspiration of the quest.

Even when the poet speaks out against the scientific conception he comes closer to the scientist in his description. William Blake, that inspired mystic who regarded “Reason as the Devil, and Newton as its high-priest,” and who proclaimed that “Art is the Tree of Life…Science the Tree of Death,” did echo powerfully the romantic revolt against a mammoth mechanical view of the universe such as was being suggested by 18th century physics and astronomy. But when he spoke of the raptures as one strives

To see the World in a Grain of Sand

And Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your Hand

Eternity in an Hour,

he was merely putting to rhyme and rhythm the thrills of the scientific investigator. For when the chemist analyzes the elemental constitution of a sand particle, or the physicist probes into its atomic structures, they too see a world in a grain of sand. When the botanist describes the magic of wild flowers, their forms and their colors, and the plant histologist uncovers the biochemical turbulences that provoke their emergence and their transformations, they too see heaven in action in a wild flower. When the cosmologist computes the very limits of the universe, and the astronomer captures electromagnetic subtleties from distant galaxies, they too hold infinity in their hands. And when the astrophysicist examines the evolution of stellar systems he too holds eternity in an hour.

No wonder then that the pure scientist has always been sensitive to the charms of poetry. Galileo was an admirer of Ariosto, and knew the entire Orlando furioso by heart, as Euler could recite the Aenid from beginning to end. The mathematical physicist Simon Poisson mastered long passages from Racine and Corneille. Newton, Davy, Watt, Maxwell, Lallande, Ampere, Faraday – to name but a few of the great scientific minds – all showed more than a passing interest in poetry. Some of then even composed verses themselves.

Yet, not many poets have been enthusiastic students of scientific disciplines. Indeed when they do write on science they often tend to disparage the scientific enterprise, and make pitying references to the inadequacies and emptiness of science as they see it. From the pathological contempt for the science expressed by some of the more extreme romantics to the modern schools of inquiry into the illogical and the irrational which venerate the absurd in the inspired, if mistaken conviction that magic and mystery-mongering would lead to higher levels of reality, many gifted poets have painted the methods and fruits of the scientific quest in terms and images that connote pity and ridicule.

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Agnosticism, Atheism, Religion, and Science

Agnosticism is an expression of humility, and does not imply an attack on what others believe in.Atheism is a strong attack on a deeply cherished and long-held-as-sacred belief (in the existence of a Divine Principle).

Therefore,   atheism sounds (even if it may not actually be) arrogant to the ears of believers, because it is an explicit rejection and repudiation of a belief that is dear and sacred to believers. With all the well-recognized negative impacts on society and civilization, religions have also done (and continue to do) much good for billions of people, at least as they see it. Atheists have every right, in a free society, to articulate their profound faith in the non-existence of any God, but if they do this with claims that science proves atheism, they should expect a diminution in respect for science from the public which may not be all that equipped to understand what is meant by their statement.One can be an atheist without knowing any science.One can be a theist while being a good scientist. There are ample instances of both kinds.Both atheists and religious people have the responsibility to condemn all the atrocities that have been done and are still being done in the name of God and religion. But atheists will be doing a great service if they don’t associate this with science, not only because there are a good many scientists who are theists, but also because one can make the atheist argument without hanging on to the coat-tails of science. Indeed, many keen thinkers from ancient Greece, China, and India to the modern world have written eloquently and convincingly on the atheist position without saying that atheism is the only possible or inevitable conclusion to which Science takes us.It is only when scientists explicitly attack religion that antagonism to science arises. So long as science goes about its creative and exploring business, people are not against science.

If scientists say that there is biological evolution which is one of wonders that Almighty God has wrought in the Universe, many deeply religious people would embrace evolution and respect science also. But when scientists (on however valid a ground) keep publishing books to the effect that God is a delusion, God is not great, or people who believe in God are under a spell, while they may make fellow atheists feel great for expressing their own disbelief more cogently and eloquently, they are also likely to turn more people against Science. Science is not an offensive word, but atheism is to many people. If anything, we need to use the word science more and more and explain to the public what a fine, noble, and enlightening enterprise science really is, rather than shy away from it because a few brilliant writers are using it as a weapon against people’s religious beliefs. Respect for science and a clear understanding of its framework are more important for civilization and more urgent for society than the cessation of periodic visits to church, mosque, synagogue,  and temple, or the termination of the celebrations of Christmas, the Ramadan, Hanukkah, and Divali.

Science and Culture

Science and Culture Science, as we all recognize, is one of the most lofty expressions of the human spirit. It is the consequence of the irrepressible urge in the human mind to explore, understand, interpret and explain the world of perceived reality. This urge and efforts to give vent to it have been there in all cultures at all times: thus arose all the magnificent mythologies and the ancient insights of pre-modern science. Since the 16th century, however, germinating from countless fructifying factors, there emerged what has come to be known as modern science whose tools and methodologies have been significantly different from those of its counterparts of previous centuries. What distinguishes this science from all previous ones is that has transcended the boundaries of race and religion, of language and tradition. Today there is an international network of scientists that has no specific national or ethnic  affiliation. Culture is another manifestation of the human spirit an has various different expressions. There is language and literature, art and music, religion and tradition, games and food, custom and costume, politics and poetry: all these are culture-based. They are as varied and colorful as groups in the world. When we travel to different countries, or even to different regions of a single country, we recognize the variety and diversity in cultural expressions. Thus, we are confronted with the following situation: On the one hand we have science: the all-embracing unifying force in the world at large; and on the other hand we have culture: which is a powerful and enriching indicator of how different human beings can be. How can we put the two in the same bottle? The answer to this lies in the following: It turns out that practically every manifestation of culture has been affected in one way or another by the emergence of modern science. This is a very crucial point. Ordinarily we are inclined to think that scientists work in their laboratories, bankers in banks, actors in the theater, artists in studios, politicians in government places, etc. But what is interesting is that practically every other activity in human society has been profoundly affected by the rise of modern science. And these influences have been significant enough to transform every human enterprise. Let us consider a few instances of the impact of science on culture.

Technology: The most fundamental aspect of any society is its material framework. There can be no significant contributions to culture and civilization if all the people have to toil for the bare needs of survival. Whether in ancient Egypt or China, Greece or India, it was a handful of people of the privileged classes who created and left for posterity great cultural legacies. The founders of human culture and the contributors to it  could not have accomplished this but the fact that their material needs were taken care of by the labors of oppressed and less gifted individuals, and that one needed the blood and sweat of countless and now forgotten thousands for erecting the magnificent structures of temples and cathedrals, pyramids and great walls that have survived the ravages of centuries.

We all know how in many different ways the emergence of modern science has come to the assistance of human muscular exertion in every conceivable manner, and indeed added considerably to the overall quality and comfort of everyday life. The blending of science and technology is in fact a rather recent phenomenon in human history, for many generations in many societies impressive technology flourished without any serious scientific underpinnings. It was not until 19th century with the rise of thermodynamics and the conscious application to the notions of efficiency, breakthroughs in the science of electromagnetism and the consequent invention of the electric motor and the generator, and in our own times, the harnessing of the electron and through our understanding of the laws of the microcosm that technology has become a rich harvest of science.

Literature: The literary traditions of the human family go back to very ancient times. From primitive poetry to the great epics and mythologies, ancient literature was largely religious visions, powered by the human capacity for fantasy and verbal expression that created great literature. Here again, the rise of modern science had an enormous influence. If, in the 17th  and 18th centuries, a poet like Pope extolled Newton and science, and a writer like Jonathan Swift parodied it, in the course of the 19th, many rebelled against the rigid logic and consequent success and adoration of science, and called for a romantic abandon of proofs and experiments in the quest for truth. In the 20th century there have been other efforts to go beyond the so-called realism on which the scientific search seems to be based.

But then, the views and discoveries of modern psychology as to the nature, intricacies, and functioning of the human mind have found rich expression  plays and novels. Even giving due credit to the these  matters produced some of the masterpieces of literature,  one will have to grant that a great many literary works of our own times have been inspired by modern scientific  understanding of human action and behavior. Then, of course, some poets and essayists have transformed scientific findings into literary compositions. Add to all this the considerable body of writing known as science fiction, and you have some idea of the role of science in literature. Here too, some ancient writers have leaped beyond the everyday reality of the world around, and fantasized on undreamed of possibilities of their times, to create some wonderful situations. However,  the science fiction of today is has solid science as its basis.

Philosophy, as a quest for truth and understanding,  has always been a hand-maiden of science. Indeed, science itself used to be known as natural philosophy. Its major theoretical branch of epistemology has been seriously affected by the rise of modern science. Indeed, Rene Descartes, who is sometimes regarded as a founder of modern philosophy, was no less one of the founders of modern science. In the course of the 18th century, those who wrote on causality, determinism, freewill, induction, deduction, the capacity of the human mind to understand, etc., were all imbued in the science of the times. Hume, Kant, Laplace, were all versed in 18th century physics.

Epistemology is one of the quintessential  components of philosophy. For ultimately, how we investigate truth, whatever it be, how can we know anything at all, if we do not know what knowing and knowledge is.   It is deep probing into the nature of human knowledge about space and time that inspired Ernst Mach and eventually enabled Albert Einstein to formulate the theory of relativity.

And of course we all know how our understanding of the microcosm with the rise of quantum physics and the associated principle of indeterminacy gave rise to a host of epistemological problems that have yet to be resolved to the  full satisfaction of everyone. Today no one can say or write anything serious or significant in epistemology without some familiarity with the discoveries and world views of quantum physics. Add to this, the cosmological discoveries of the 20th century, and the astrophysical speculations on the fundamental constants, leading to the celebrated anthropic principle, and we have some idea of the role that science has played in the field of philosophy.

What about a field like Ethics which seems to be far removed from science which deals with matter and motion, electricity and magnetism, physiology and neurology? Certainly, most of the basic notions of ethics arose in the context of religions. But science too has played a role our formulation and understanding of ethics.

After all the scientific enterprise itself functions on the basis of certain value systems: such as the disinterested quest for truth, honesty in reporting, objectivity in evaluating situations, etc. Then again, advances in human physiology and psychology have revealed that adhering to some of the traditional ethical injunctions can only have a positive impact on our overall well-being.

Finally, and this is seldom consciously or overtly recognized: the spirit of the Enlightenment – which is not viewed very favorably these days in certain circles – has resulted in many positive changes in human societies. The sense of justice and quality and the rejection of the notions of superiority of one race or creed over others, for example, are new notions which have emerged only after the Scientific Revolution. Gender equality, the demand for human rights, decency in international relations, all these have come about as a result of the more universal system of values that are consonant with the scientific world view and are contradictory to traditional perspectives of the human family which tend to be more parochial.

Finally, and most importantly, as a result of the negative impacts of technology as well as the globalization of trade, information and education, we have become aware of the interconnectedness of the biosphere, of environmental factors, and of web of life. Thus, science becomes relevant in the discussion of global ethics too. A good deal has been said and written about science and religion. After all, at one time the two were intertwined in many cultures in inseparable ways. In our own times, as we all know, the relationships between science and religion has been drawing more and more attention by scholars. Whether one feels that the two have nothing in common,  or that they ultimately lead to the same insights, or that they blatantly contradict each other, one cannot be indifferent to the topic itself.

Less obvious topics for discussion are science and sports, science and music, science and politics, science and food, etc. for in each and every instance science has influenced the growth and development of the field. Through loud-speakers and the radio or  computer imitations of Bach, music has been influenced.  Through vacuum-packaging and the microwave oven, food habits and cuisine have been affected. The audio  tape-recorder has had significant impacts on politics.  

The point is, there is not a single domain of human activity or culture  in the modern world which has not been touched in one way or another by the rise of modern science. That is why a forum for the exploration of science and its impacts on and interrelations with the various aspects of culture would be of considerable interest in general, and of great importance if we wish to understand and appreciate the role that science has been playing during the past four centuries.