My Photo


  • Jen-Luc Piquant sez: "They like us! They really like us!"

    "Explains physics to the layperson and specialist alike with abundant historical and cultural references."
    -- Exploratorium ("10 Cool Sites")

    "... polished and humorous..."
    -- Physics World

    "Takes 1 part pop culture, 1 part science, and mixes vigorously with a shakerful of passion."
    -- Typepad (Featured Blog)

    "In this elegantly written blog, stories about science and technology come to life as effortlessly as everyday chatter about politics, celebrities, and vacations."
    -- Fast Company ("The Top 10 Websites You've Never Heard Of")
Blog powered by Typepad
Bookmark and Share

« the plural of apocalypse | Main | a plague upon my house »


That was an interesting blog---you would probably like Neil Stephenson's
Baroque Cycle novels--"Quicksilver" etc. They weave Newton, Leibniz, Hooke and others into a fascinating historical novel/soap--sort of a "Newton meets Pirates of the Caribbean".
Speaking of quicksilver, if you go to your link for the Large Zenith Telescope, the very last photo shows my former undergrad lab partner, Paul Hickson( Now UBC Prof) testing the mirror.

A rule I have come to use when dealing with fundamentalists is "never presume humour or maliciousness when you can assume stupidity". Personally I've just basically arrived at the conclusion that I simply CAN'T overestimate the stupidity of fundamentalists, because each time I lower the bar, we find someone with even more amazing limbo skills of denial.

Of course though, it's not really stupidity. It's that their faith is so insanely strong and right, that it becomes brittle, to the point where any mere mention of ways of thinking other than their own, even if we ourselves cannot even imagine how such would impact them, is considered an insult and a slight against them.

We that view the world rationally and pluralistically have a hard, if not impossible (we can understand such theoretically, but never really 'get' it) reallu grasping an Absolutist mindset because of HOW we view things. They simply don't use the same processes that we do.

It might very well be stupidity, but it could very well be something more insidious.

But Sarah in Chicago, the saddest thing is that the scientists too sometimes grasp at "an absolutist mindset" instead of "a rational and pluralistic one." How do we best work gainst this polarization and teach and exemplify respect and tolerance?

I hope you get up to Griffith Observatory where they have a replica of Galileo's telescope and statue in a place of honour, overlooking his solar system depicted to scale on the courtyard. Perhaps Galielo's totem saved the observatory from fire.

Thats "NEAL STEPHENSON" not "NEIL" in case I have generated any
interest. In addition to the historical novels, he also has a remarkable book on code-breaking called "Cryptonomicron", and a cyberpunk Sci Fi book called "Snow Crash" that has
the funniest first 30 pages that I have read anywhere.

Janet: the "absolutist mindset" that you accuse scientists of showing
is just an impatience, to put it mildly, with sloppy thinking that
uses comfortable, but fuzzy buzzwords to justify supernatural conclusions.
Most scientists that I know are anything but absolutists. But they do get
abit rabid when concepts like "quantum" are perverted by postmodernists.

Gordon Wilson says: "Janet: the "absolutist mindset" that you accuse scientists of showing
is just an impatience, to put it mildly, with sloppy thinking that
uses comfortable, but fuzzy buzzwords to justify supernatural conclusions."
Then Gordon, you cite the postmodern use of "quantum" as an example of this. While I deeply understand your impatience and even peevishness, given the Fundamentalist attacks on science, nonetheless this is the rhetoric of a defensive and closed-minded attitude (a "fortress mentality"). Just read what you have said! And I wasn't "accusing" scientists, by suggesting a limitation in the field (among some of its members) that I think curtails the effectiveness and beauty of the scientific enterpise. Several fields of study might suggest that ANY outlook that justifies showing "extreme impatience" at every instance of something that is labeled as "sloppy thinking" is not demonstrating a "rational pluralistic" attitude, but a "rational monolithic" one, reminsicent of the Newtonian Enlightenment. I explore the deep similarities in the way Fundamentalists construct their positions and the way hard rationalists among the scientists do, and trace both back to the early days of science when very absolutist truth-claims were first being made in the West. These hard-line religious and scientific camps know little about the history of Christianity or the hhistory of science and very little of the philosophical depths of religious or of scientific thought. If you are open to exploring this, I invite you to my website where a conversation on these topics has been going on: at But I have to warn you, I am a literary theorist and a theist! I also love science and have studied and taught the history of physics for many years....
I agree with you scientists about the wrongheadedness of creationism, for example. But when many scientists justify lumping ALL religious thought together with Fundamentalism, and when they know very little about postmodern theory when they condemn it, I have to speak up for pluralism in the disciplines and ways of knowing. We need to have the honesty and the interest to listen respectfully to voices outside our own field of expertise. What really strikes me is that the physicists of the Einstein/QM hey-days were so aware that their new paradigms changed the truth-claims of science and changed and limited our understanding of the nature of reality (Bronowsky, Bohr, Heisenberg). But today the physicists have back-pedaled for political reasons (or are less broadly educated, as in the case in our universities in general), and seem (perhaps unwittingly) to deny any change in the status of scientific explanation from Newtonian times. Since I've worked in theory of knowing all my life, to me this seems to be simply an understandable lack of training in epistemology, which postmodern thought is all about. (For example, many scientists seem to think that postmodern thought suggests "scientific truth is merely socially constructed." This is not at all where cultural studies is going. This also involves a huge and unsupportable generalization -- "postmodern thought" -- and a deep misunderstanding of what cultural studies is all about.) I wish there could be genuine interdisciplinary conversation on this and my weblog is devoted to it. Sorry to go on for so long, but if you start at the beginning of my posts you'll see how shocked and disillusioned I was by the shallow and even hate-filled responses of participants on physics blogs to any form of theism at all. A historical perpsective on all this current rancor could introduce more light and understanding. Notice the interview with Richard Dawkins at 3 quarks daily (which I recently discussed), when he says he believes that something "awe-inspiring" and "transcendent" is out there behind the physical universe. It just isn't "God," he says!! Scientists are filled with awe and a sense of the sacred about the elegant formalities of the universe they study. There is so much there, held in common with deeply religious or spiritual people. This current warfare before science and religion is really tragic. But we make a huge mistake to become MORE hardline and fundamentalistic ourselves in response to these pressures. Sorry to go on for so long on someone else's blog! Forgive me, Jennifer.

SORRY -- I don't know why my posts are appearing twice!

Janet: It is almost funny that you accuse scientists of being "less broadly educated". It is, to me, obviously the opposite. Despite evidence to the contrary, when I was doing undergrad honors physics and math, I took the Honors English requirement course, and ended up getting the first year English prize...I say this not to brag, but to show that many scientists have
broad interests. I find most in the humanities have basically a grade school understanding of science because they lack any math skills.
As far as theism and post-modernism go, I do admit that you are arguing with a brick wall. I totally agree with Sam Harris, Dawkins, and Steven Weinberg, among other enlightened thinkers ( including Sean Carrol). I think that
Alan Sokal had a good read on post-modernism...

I suppose this isnt fair, but what-the-hey:
or look up any paper by Luce Irigaray for enlightenment.

Maybe none of us today are as broadly educated as people like Jacob Bronowski and Niels Bohr were. (I was comparing us to THEM, not scientists to humanists.) I was thinking especially of the Bronowski episode in The Ascent of Man, called "Knowledge and Certainty." (There's also some Feinstein book, I think, with a double-page spread called "Eight Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics." I wish I had it these days. Does anyone recognize this?) It seems to me that all around the internet (and certainly in the political realm) there are these enclaves of absolutism denouncing anyone who disagrees with their line. I'll look at Sokol. But I know most scientists misinterpret postmodern thinkers because their way of thinking is focused differently. It's as hard to read them as it is to do advanced physics, no wonder they don't understand one another. But why do they not even want to understand one another? I wish I could and keep trying to explain where the disconnect lies.

Okay, I knew the name was familiar. You're referring to the hoax article accepted for publication in a cultural studies journal. But you know, it's actually a great reference and I'm going to write on it -- thanks. The opening three paragraphs set up this rigid polarization between the (outdated) scientists who believe in "an external world," "scientific law," and "the scientific method" and on the other hand, these trendy and triumphant postmodern thinkers, such as "the feminists and poststructuralists," who believe their critiques have "demystified" and debunked all of that. What a false dichotomy. And "no external world"? (Perhaps the journal was so happy to get a real live physicist who seemed to be writing in their area that they excused the naivete and extreme reductionism of this opposition, which is after all fairly representative of what some scientists think the critiques do boil down to...)

I'm afraid we are never going to agree---your ideal of "pluralistic" thinking is not what drives scientific discoveries and progress--it is the "monolithic"
focus that is required. Newton said he made progress by thinking about one idea constantly. We dont need to get away from the way Newton did science, and we dont need innumerate humanists to tell scientists what they actually are doing. Postmodern dreck is postmodern dreck, whether it is in music, literature, or, ( forgive the theistic blasphemy), God help us, postmodern "scientists" and their epistemological "interpreters".

BTW there are 8 interpretations of QM in the book, "The Ghost in the Atom" edited by Paul Davies, and JR Brown--transcripts of BBC interviews with 8 prominent scientists like Wheeler, Bell etc.

The notes to the Sokal article are hysterically funny! Good job! Gordon, you made my day with that link!
I agree that within a way of knowing, monolithic focus can be fine, as long as it is submitted to the rest of the disciplinary community for review and development. The problem is with any way of knowing claiming to have the one monolithic method for thinking rationally for itself, to the exclusion of the other legitimate ways of knowing, addressed to other aspects of reality, and having other methodologies.
The relationship between the scientist and physical reality HAS changed from what it was in Newton's day, because of advances in methodology, and this is fascinating, and we would all benefit from more epistemological humility. It's not really science's job to notice this change, but science needn't be offended by it either. Science has to deal with the cultural uses that are made of it, just like faith has to, unfortunately, or just like lit theory has to.
Finally, I do have to confess that as a poststructuralist thinker myself, the deconstructive bandwagon in the U. S. often made me pretty sick. My son has had to endure at university some useless classes filled with shallow postmodern tripe. But the great thought is nonetheless very important and doesn't deserve to be lumped in with the deriviative stuff.

I don’t see much difference between the actions of the church in Galileo’s time and the actions of the present scientific community when a new idea for defining the universe is proposed. Have you ever tried to publish or present an idea that runs counter to certain passages in today's scientific bible?


“The universe's most powerful enabling tool is
not knowledge or understanding
but imagination"

Jeff: You dont know what you are talking about. Jennifer---EO Wilson once commented that Stephen J Gould used the "squid defense"-- when attacked, disappear in a cloud of ink.
Enough of my time spent on this. I find both your ideas frightening.

The Church found Galileo’s ideas frightening not because they did not have merit but because they went against the beliefs of the establishment. This resulted in considerable delay in scientific progress.

Can you be 100% sure the only reason why you find our ideas frightening is because they have no merit or could some of it be because they go against the beliefs of the establishment.


Well, I've been traveling, and ill in the process, with only sporadic email access, so have only just returned to the blog to find Gordon storming off in a huff. I'm not sure what idea of mine he finds "frightening," but we hope he comes back some day...

As regards the faith/science conundrum, clearly I enjoy poking fun at fundamentalist nonsense as much as anyone, but I do recognize that they are a tiny, highly vocal subset of the broader Christian/religious community, and it's a bit unfair to paint all professed "believers" with the same brush. Some are actually quite rational and sane. :) Galileo, for instance, and Isaac Newton, who never let their personal faith sway themn from what the scientific evidence told them. My take is generally, "Keep your religion out of my science, and we'll get along just fine." It's when religion tries to masquerade as something it's not, when the bible is used as a textbook instead of literature, that problems inevitably arise.

SNOW CRASH, BTW, is a fantastic book, one of my favorites in the sci-fi genre, although for some reason I had trouble getting into Cryptonomicron (or however it;s spelled). Poeple keep raving about it, so I suppose I should give it another shot, along with the Baroque trilogy. The concept is certainly the sort of thing I'd like; maybe it was the execution that made me struggle.

"Science without religion is lame.
Religion without science is blind."


Oops, sorry Jennifer--your ideas are fine--I meant Janet's ideas of
pluralistic thinking and having "monolithic" research "vetted" by the disciplinary communities... Sorry I confused your names...
I happen to believe we need more focused people like Newton and Galileo and
Herschel, and many fewer "meta-analysts" like post-modern deconstructionists.
Also, I think that Stephen J Gould was silly writing about Science and Religion as non-overlapping magisteria---clearly, he was an atheist and was
trying to appear politically correct as it is unacceptable to be an atheist in the United States.

Last post for now--btw Jeff, spell Einstein correctly or you score
many points on John Baez' crank index. Also, Einstein was a pantheist
leaning towards atheism and many of his quotes have been misconstrued, as for example have Stephen Hawkings' ( eg " For then we would know the mind of God" at the end of " A Brief History of Time." Hawking is an atheist with a mischievous bent, but I am sure that that quote gets used by IDers and their ilk.

Dear Gordon

My apologizes to you, our readers, and Einstein.

I agree with you that we need more focused people like Newton and Galileo who based their theories on experimental observations of instead abstract mathematical equations like the string or quantum theorists.


Jennifer: I keep getting drawn back into this discussion ---you may need
the stage hook soon. Jeff: once again, I think you are wrong. Scientists dont base their theories on experimental observations. The theory comes first, almost "a priori" as an attempt to EXPLAIN some aspect of reality ( often using abstract mathematical equations), then it is checked against observations. It must be a rare case when a scientist takes a bunch of empirical data, and then cooks up a theory. For a good view on this
read David Deutsch, "The Fabric of Reality".

1) The masses in a 2-body system revolve around their common center of mass. For the earth and the sun, this point is inside the sun. For the earth and the moon, this point is about 2/3 of the way between the center of the earth and its surface. In both cases the simplest description is to say the smaller object revolves around the larger one.

2) It is a fact that Creationists, particularly young-earth Creationists, include persons who reject other parts of science that run up against their interpretation of Scripture. This can include the constancy of the speed of light, heliocentrism, and/or much of the physics related to radioactive decay rates. I can say this because I have talked to them, in person. Brownback's specific set of beliefs in this area remain unclear, but that blog is unsurprising.

3) Item 2 might help you understand why the Conservapedia leaves an inaccurate impression of what Galileo was persecuted for, and by whom. [I say inaccurate impression because he *was* persecuted for not obeying the Church ... having been ordered to not say the Earth moved, whether in accord with Copernicus or for any other reason.]

4) The Conservapedia misrepresents the issue of epicycles. Copernicus did use additional epicycles, but that was to describe more detailed data than Ptolemy had used a millenium earlier. An equivalent Ptolemaic system would need even more epicycles than Copernicus had used, just as it takes an infinite number of them to obtain what you can get from an ellipse.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Twitter Updates

    follow me on Twitter

    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
    • Hiroshima Bomber
      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
      1/4 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
    • Laser Beam
      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
      7 oz orange juice
      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
      Fill with Sweet and sour
      Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.
    • The Black Hole
      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
      1 oz. Kahlua
      1 oz. vodka
      .5 oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
      .5 oz. dark rum
      .5 oz. Amaretto
      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.