I’ll only say this one thing…

Of this whole private matter of the Schiavos and the Schindlers, I’ll only say this: I wish that the legislators who tried to meddle in private affairs, that the President in his pajamas with so much determination, that these enthusiastic and sometimes agressive protestors in Florida, would take all the effort they focused on one braindead woman and turn it toward the wider lpublic issues of health and healtcare, food and support for the relative poor or the severely poor, and education for all Americans. They’ve let the plight of one family move their passions; let those passions move past this meddling and into the productive business of the People.

Shaken by a Nation’s Ignorance

Despite the intervening 24 hours, I am still pretty shaken by the young voices from yersterday’s “News Hour with Jim Lehrer” segment on the debate on evolution. My wife and I discussed this last night on the way home from work, and a little after she watched the re-run of the program on PBS. At first, the discussion was just me venting all the frustration I felt about how… well, about how ignorant those kids in the program seemed.

Jodi has a way of calming me. Mostly, this time it involved letting me talk (at length) about how I felt. Afterward, I came to a few realizations after our conversation. First, these are teenagers. They are products of their households. Given their position in the so-called “Bible Belt”, it’s not a surprise that they don’t understand the distinction between truth and belief. Second, it’s the **parents** of these kids that are at fault. Poll parents on their religious or political beliefs, and poll the kids, and it’s a documented fact you’ll see a strong correlation

After distilling my concerns through discussion with Jodi, I think I arrived at the kernel of my concern (apart from how we, as scientists and teachers, communicate the meaning of “theory of gravity”, “theory of evolution”, etc.). In our society, the first thing we do (at least, as Christians) is take our kids to church. They go to church before they ever go to school. Their heads are thus filled – or, at least, exposed – to all these confusing accounts of history, interpreted through the limited eyes of 2000-4000 year old cultures, tainted by the political or sociological aims of the authors of these religious texts. We fill their heads with stories (lies?) about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy. Then when they go to school and start learning about the real world, we expect them to reconcile these two drastically opposing interpretations of the world: fact and belief.

I know Jodi and I will have a lot to discuss about how we’ll raise our kids, and what half-truths or lies we’ll tell them to make their lives more fun. But on one thing we did agree: we should expose them to non-religious, non-faith issues as well as religious issues. You can’t send a kid to church and expect the school to undo the damage. You have to approach these things rationally.

I think God had it quite right when he said (and here I paraphrase), “Proof denies faith.” Faced with truth, how can faith withstand? Even in science, proof has denied faith again and again. Take the advent of quantum mechanics. So many brilliant physicists were so convinced that energy has to come in continuous units; so many physicists were so convinced that the orbits of electrons around the atoms could take any value. Yet, these beliefs had testable consequences. Because of this, you could take them to task. When this was done, the evidence stacked up against both. Energy had to come in discrete packets; orbits had to have discrete radii. Continuity, a bedrock of scientific belief, fell to the truth of the quantum postulate.

I imagine many such things will happen in science still. The key here is that scientists, confronted with testable consequences and results opposing their assumptions, change their minds. Maybe not all at once, and maybe not all scientists. But most will, and most will make tremendous progress when they accept the truth and deny the faith. I am sure that our cherished beliefs about nature, such as CPT invariance (the basis of quantum field theory, which is in turn the foundation of the Standard Model), will be challenged in the coming decades. We can only make progress by accepting that fact, should it happen.

I would call on all religious fundamentalists to take this lesson to heart. Progress can only be made when you accept the truth about the universe. Otherwise, you lock yourself in a conflicting and myopic view of the world, a small box that traps your soul. Proof denies faith, but if you must have faith then at least reconstruct it around that truth.

Debate about Evolution

I am shocked. Sickened and shocked. If you have a connection to the internet, or a TV, listen to the report on tonights “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” (“http://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/index.html”:http://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/index.html) . This report by the News Hour’s science team has detailed interviews with students in rural America, proponents of Christian creationism and its pseudoscientific spinoff, intelligent design, and real scientists. I’ll put a link to the archived audio when it appears later.

I was first turned **green** by the audio clips of students. Kids who really believe that it’s easier to think humans were made from dust; easier to believe that we appeared fully formed 10,000 years ago; that the concept that the universe was created in a Big Bang is hard to swallow, but some unknowable all knowing prime-mover is more believable.

I guess what struck me most is that they kept using the work “believe” or “belief”. And that’s exactly what their misguided standpoint is: a pure belief, contradicting established facts about the origin and nature of this universe and our own species. The truth is that they are confusing belief with rigorous scientific investigation. For instance, I doubt that Hopi tribe native Americans believe that Man was created 10,000 years ago; I doubt that the ancient Chinese saw Adam and Eve as the first people, made from dust (or a rib); I doubt that the native inhabitants of Africa thought that humans inhabited a garden and were kicked out for listening to a snake. In fact, that’s just it: beliefs are different for all people at all times.

However, fact and truth are universal. Science provides a framework for eeking the truth out of the universe. It’s a fact that no matter where you come from or who you are, when empowered with the scientific method you can search for evidence of the creation of humans only 10,000 years ago in their present state; you can test the hypothesis that we were the first inhabitants of Earth (or nearly so, by a few days); you can test whether or not the universe is steady or expanding, whether it is consistent with creation 10,000 years ago or with a big bang that happened 13.7 billion years ago. People from all cultures and climates, all beliefs and faiths, can apply their brains to the universe and come up with the same answers as scientists in the 1700s, or 1800s, or 1900s.

That’s the point, I guess. Belief is not universal. Belief changes with the experience of a person, the character of their upbringing, their exposure to systems of faith. Fact and truth are universal.

The truth and fact of evolution is not in dispute, at least not by the largest majority of learned people who take the time to study the world and not just talk about it. The processes that select some traits in an environment, and suppress others, are well established from the smallest cells to the largest predators. The development of our own solar system is a result of a kind of natural evolution, thanks to the protective existence of Jupiter. It shielded the inner regions of the solar system from rogue planets and asteroids and comets, thus facilitating the formation of Earth, Mars, and Venus. Thank goodness for that. If Jupiter hadn’t protected this region of space, we wouldn’t have been able to evolve here, rise up and express creative thought, and then been able to concoct crazy explanations about how we believe the universe arose.

Damn you and bless you, Jupiter.

One last thought. In the course of this “News Hour” report, they interview a right honorable gentleman who was launching a creation science museum. He said that the problem with science is that it can’t talk about the past, since we weren’t witnesses to the past (the big bang, dinosaurs, etc.). Therefore, science should have nothing to say about the past because anything it uses to do so is based on beliefs about initial conditions. That would then imply that he thinks the Bible is an accurate record of the history of humans, and establishes the initial conditions. But isn’t that predicated on the much shakier belief that (a) nobody tampered with the record (i.e. though translations from one language to another) and that (b) it came straight from the mouth of God to the page of the book?

Seems to me given how unreliable people are in general, one is resting on pretty bad earth assuming nobody had an agenda with the Bible. I think it’s much easier to believe that Carbon-14 decays predicably at any epoch of time, or that the blackbody radiation of the universe can be used to estimate the age of the universe, just as the blackbody radiation from a hot oven can give you an accurate measure of when the heating element was turned off.


Here is the link to the “News Hour program on the debate about evolution”:http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/education/jan-june05/creation_3-28.html

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

It has been a VERY long time since my last entry. I have a lot to catch up on, so this will have to be brief.

First, I went to Washington D.C. two weeks ago to lobby for increased funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the National Science Foundation. While my field, High-Energy Physics (HEP), and biology found themselves fully funded in the short-term, mid-term investments in all fields are being sacrificed for the needs of existing, as well as far-distant and yet unrealized, facilities and programs.

Our goal – that is, the goal of the SLAC and Fermilab User’s communities – was to discuss with legislators what we do, describe the strong outcry from academia and industry (“http://futureofinnovation.org/”:http://futureofinnovation.org/), and ask for their support to fund the DOE Office of Science at a “constant levek of effort”. This phrase means adjusting the budget to accomodate the consumer price index (~1.7%) and salary increases (~2%). This should be compared to the President’s request for a 3.8% **cut** to the Office of Science in the coming fiscal year.

I scheduled 6 appointments, one each with the offices of Senators Kohl, Lieberman, Sununu, and Kennedy and Representatives Obey and Capuano. I also joined my Fermilab and SLAC colleagues on some of their visits. I think that the majority of these visits were an overwhelming success; most of my appointments were positive, expressing support for the mission of federally funded science as well as an understanding of the trouble to the economy. They also expressed interest in dear colleague letters that were starting to circulate in the House and Senate calling for an increase for the Office of Science.

I spent a wonderful weekend with my Nana (grandmother), right after returning from D.C. I rarely get a chance to see her, so this was a real treat to be able to spend four days with her in Maryland. We went to church together, had a wonderful lunch at a crabcake place near her home, and spent the weekend cheering and jeering the college basketball teams heading into the “sweet sixteen”.

The week after D.C. was a chance top renew my research efforts. The first half of the week was a no-go, mostly due to catching up on my responsibilities to my working group and MIT colleagues. At the end of the week, my colleague Robert McElrath came down from Davis to attend a conference at SLAC. He stayed at my place, and we burned a lot of midnight oil discussing QED and two-photon backgrounds to this invisible bottomonium decays analysis. We also discussed new strategies for attacking the signal and the background; we discussed the need to generate a generic QED background simulation to develop suppression strategies; we setup a list of goals for the next few weeks, him on the theory and me on the analysis. So far, this is an extremely fruitful collaboration.

So as of tomorrow, I get to have a fresh look at my own analysis again.