Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Foxtrot on XKCD

Bill Amend, creator of the Foxtrot comic, draws a guest comic that channels XKCD surprisingly well. Turns out Bill is a former physics geek. Who knew?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Isaac Newton as a college kid

I am currently working on not one but two new courses so I will be posting less frequently. However, when I have time and something interesting to write about I hope to continue the blog.

One of the new courses is going to be based around a history of physics, so I am reading Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton by Richard Westfall. Newton came from a wealthy family, but his relationship with his mother and stepfather seems to have been somewhat strained. When he went off to college (Trinity College at Cambridge), he seems to have had little financial support from home. As a result, he went as a "subsizar." Subsizars were at the very bottom of the social scale at Cambridge. They had to do chores and errands for the other students: cleaning their boots, emptying their bedpans, and such fun stuff.

Newton seems to have had few friends (not surprising for someone in his social position) and little interest in the gambling, drinking, and  prostitutes that many students spent their time on. He does mention going to the tavern on occasion, but only after he had gotten his B.A. He plunged himself into books instead.

The curriculum was crusty and antiquated when Newton arrived. In principle, one studied the classics, meaning that you studied Greek so that you could read Aristotle. In practice, everyone knew that graduating was a formality once you were in. Newton's notebooks from his college days show that he started reading the standard texts, but soon left off without bothering to finish them. Instead, he started off on an unsanctioned path of study of his own invention.  He read Galileo, Robert Boyle, and Thomas Hobbes. He devoured Descartes, and began writing comments on him and others in a notebook he labelled "Quaestiones quaedam Philosophcae," pointing out ways that Descartes's theories could be tested by simple observations.

He figured out a way out of his lowly status, too. He began lending money to other students, and recorded these loans meticulously in a notebook. He did not record any interest paid on these loans - but presumably received some, for soon he was hiring other students to do the menial tasks he was supposed to do for others.

Graduation was not a problem, but what to do after it was. There were "elections" to scholarships for further study, held only once every three or four years. Newton's chance came up in 1664. His curious program of study didn't bode well for the outcome, however. His tutor took him to the newly appointed Lucasian professor of mathematics, Isaac Barrow. Barrow quizzed him about Euclid - but Newton had skipped Euclid, and worked his way painstakingly through Descartes's mathematical writings instead. Barrow never thought to ask Newton about Descartes - presumably one who understood so little of Euclid would have no knowledge of the newer, higher math. And Newton was too shy to mention it himself.

Nevertheless, Newton was given the coveted scholarship. How this happened is a mystery. Perhaps Barrow saw something of Newton's genius, and pushed him through. Perhaps someone else came to Newton's rescue, playing his patron. Certainly he would never have obtained the scholarship without someone supporting him from within the college. And without that support, Newton would not have been able to continue his studies. He most likely would have had to return to his family estate and play the landed gentleman role, overseeing the crops and the cattle. To that unknown benefactor, the world owes a great debt.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Direct link because you can't see the whole picture here.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Freaks of Nature

I just finished reading Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature, an enjoyable Young Adult novel about a girl caught between her convictions and her church. On the recording I listened to, author Robin Brande interviewed biologist and author Kenneth R. Miller, on whom she modeled the main teacher character in the book, Ms. Shepherd. Ms. Shepherd, like Miller, is both a scientist and a person of faith.

The interview made me think again about something that seems to me a big problem for anyone who thinks they can reconcile modern science and Christianity; namely, that evolution is a process that necessarily involves a tremendous amount of suffering. I can understand that, logically speaking, there is no problem with saying that evolution is the means by which God chose to create life on earth, including human life. But evolution's creative engine is the violent death through starvation or predation of most of the individual organisms that have ever lived. How do you reconcile that with the loving Christian God? I don't recall ever finding an answer to that, in Miller's book or anywhere else.

So, recalling that I had a copy of Finding Darwin's God on my bookshelf, I pulled it out to see what I could find. A section entitled "No More Mr. Nice Guy," begins like this:

Of all the concerns expressed by Christians with respect to evolution, the strangest, the least logical, the most bizarre is the idea that evolution is too cruel to be compatible with their notion of a loving God.

OK, this sound very promising: Miller is going to proceed to explain why this complaint is illogical and bizarre, right? Well, let's see.

Miller says we need to keep two things in mind. First, "cruelty is relative." He points out that his lobster dinner is a cruel death from the point of view of the lobster, but just a good meal for him. Second, "we cannot call evolution cruel if all we are really doing is assigning to evolution the raw savagery of nature itself. The reality of life is that the world often lacks mercy, pity, and even common decency.... Evolution cannot be a cruel concept if all it does is reflect the realities of nature...."

Well, but why not? It seems to me that all Miller has done is to re-state the problem. Life is cruel and frequently involves violent, painful death. Why would a loving, kind, God choose this as her means of creation? Saying that this is just the "reality of nature" doesn't answer the complaint in the least.

From here, Miller goes on to point out that contemporary research into the evolutionary origins of altruism shows that what we often think of as the "good" behaviors can arise out of evolution as well. Fair enough, but it doesn't have anything to do with the original complaint.

OK, so is the objection illogical? Let's try to lay it out as a logical argument from the point of view of a Christian who accepts evolution.

  1. God created life on earth.
  2. Life on earth arose through evolution.
  3. Therefore, God chose evolution as his means of creation.
  4. Evolution involves the suffering and death of living creatures.
  5. Therefore, God chose a means of creation that involves suffering of living creatures.
How can Miller resist this argument? (1) is a basic assumption in Christian thought, and I don't think Miller would try to deny this. (2) is well-established scientifically and clearly accepted by Miller. You could object to (3) by saying God didn't have any choice in her means of creation - but this would deny God's omnipotence. Miller also clearly recognizes that (4) is true. So I don't see any way Miller can resist the conclusion (5).

The only response I know of to this argument is along the lines of "Sometimes suffering is necessary so that a greater good can come about." Miller doesn't make any attempt at such an argument, but it is a common response to the problem of evil. But does it make any sense in this context? I don't think so: surely, if God is omnipotent, and if her goal was to produce intelligent, moral, beings, she could have just zapped all of us into existence - plants, animals, humans, and all - without going through all the pain of millions of years of evolution.