Thursday, November 9, 2006

The Current State of Strings

Those of you interested in the esoterica of modern physics might like to read this article by Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia, and the author of The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos.

Greene talks about the present state of string theory and the criticism it is weathering for its inability so far to come up with verifiable predictions. It's a very interesting piece which ends with this:

String theory continues to offer profound breadth and enormous potential. It has the capacity to complete the Einsteinian revolution and could very well be the concluding chapter in our species' age-old quest to understand the deepest workings of the cosmos. Will we ever reach that goal? I don't know. But that's both the wonder and the angst of a life in science. Exploring the unknown requires tolerating uncertainty.

I can't help but wonder why tolerating uncertainty is okay for scientists who work in the realm of the testable and empirical but not okay for religious believers who are constantly admonished by such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins that their beliefs are untenable precisely because there's too great an element of uncertainty in them.

It's also worth noting that string theory is a perfectly acceptable topic for discussion in high school physics classes even though, because it's not testable, it does not meet the criteria of a scientific theory. Yet intelligent design, even though it, too, "could very well be the concluding chapter in our species' age-old quest to understand the deepest workings of the cosmos," is ruled out of bounds in public schools because it's allegedly not testable. Very strange.

Military Deaths in Perspective

The number of Americans killed in Iraq continues to climb and October was a particularly awful month with the number of dead hovering at a little above 100. This is terrible, of course, but the media, in their unceasing attempt to discredit what is being accomplished there, deliberately conveys the misleading impression that this number is somehow an intolerable calamity.

That it is tragic there is no doubt, but the numbers dying in Iraq might be put into some context. For example, in the days preceding the Normandy invasion of WWII close to 800 American soldiers were killed just during the rehearsal for the landing.

More contemporaneously, throughout the month of October there were approximately 3450 people killed in traffic accidents in the U.S., and roughly 1400 people murdered.

These numbers dwarf the number of fatalities in Iraq but they are never trumpeted on the evening news. Why is that? These victims are every bit as precious to their loved ones. Their lives are no less important. So why do the networks not keep a running tally of how many people have been killed in traffic accidents or by homicide? The reason apparently is that there is no political benefit to be gained by reminding the public of the number of accident and murder victims every night. As long as the military deaths can be blamed directly on George Bush, however, we'll continue to hear about them. It's not that it's news, it's that it's politics, and the news media are major players.

The question that needs to be asked and openly debated by the media is not how many soldiers have been killed today but rather is their sacrifice worth the cost? Does what we're accomplishing in Iraq justify, in the long term, the loss of American lives? This is a debate it would be very worthwhile having, but don't count on the major news outlets to hold it. Many of them are simply not interested in looking seriously and candidly at the likely consequences of pulling our troops out of harm's way.

Dennett Defies Death and Denies Deity

Daniel Dennett, the famous atheistic Darwinian philosopher from Tufts University, has recently suffered a life-threatening heart problem. He discusses his condition here and graciously thanks his believer friends for their prayers but, not believing that there's really anyone to pray to, wishes they would do something more rational and efficacious.

In the course of his remarks he makes some confused comparisons between the ethical standards of medicine and the ethical standards of religion, but we may charitably chalk these up to the effects of his medication.

In any event, his meditations may be of interest to those who are familiar with Dennett's work.