Passing Thanksgiving

I’ve been silent the last week, but that was primarily due to the intervention of the Thanksgiving holiday. Those three days right before the holiday’s start were filled with meetings to finalize or start reviews of several projects, a code freeze for the Braidwood experiment, and my initiation of an analysis framework for the B+ → τ+ ν. Yes, it’s winter-time for particle physics, the second of the two busiest times of the year for my field (the other is summer). With many changes occurring in the world around me, I was refreshed by the prospect of a vacation from physics, time spent with Jodi and our friends.

Jodi returned from the Soudan Mine last Sunday, very late at night. Needless to say, we were both happy to be back together again and looking forward to Thanksgiving and the subsequent Christmas decorating, a tradition in both our families. Jodi had a wonderful menu ready for this holiday, and several of our friends joined us at our cottage for an evening of good food and good conversation. We had another dinner on Saturday night with several more friends, this time centered on a delightful marinated steak that Jodi has made on several occasions.

Tonight, I decided to finished the vacation by closing out the last DVD of the “Evolution” series I’ve been renting from Netflix. This last disc explored the evidence of humanity’s evolution and spread throughout the world, our control over our own evolutionary process through toolmaking and self-awareness, and finally the role God has left to play in a world governed by evolution through natural selection. This last topic was the one that made me the most concerned, as it discussed the social role of evolution by centering on two groups: students at Wheaton college coming to their first personal confrontation with belief and science, and high-school students seeking to get “creation science” taught alongside evolution in biology class. For me, the most personal moments were the interviews with science teachers at that high school. They expressed all that frustration and failure that I feel whenever people confuse science and faith. In particular, they expressed that fundamental disappointment when they realized that these kids, so bright among all their peers, clearly did not understand what science is, and what it is not. This personal failure they expressed was really the focus for me.

To take the edge off these matters, I wanted to go out for tea and conversation with Jodi. We hit Borders in San Mateo, and while browsing the science section waiting for Jodi to come back from the restroom I ran across the new book “The Politically Incorrect Guide To Science”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/089526031X/qid=1133151823/sr=1-3/ref=sr_1_3/103-5715057-2504644?v=glance&s=books, written by anything-but-a-chemist,-physicist,-or-biologist Tom Bethell. Bethell, who has argued that the danger posed by AIDS is something of a myth, puts forth arguments against global warming, evolution, and stem cell research. From a man who is not trained in basic science by any of his degrees, this is bold: to claim that all of these topics are somehow a leftist agenda. I decided to flip through the section on Evolution, only to be confronts by the hollow grange hall of typical arguments: gaps, testimony by scientists who suddenly woke up one day and decided they didn’t believe in Evolution, etc.

There aren’t words for how annoying it is to see this claptrap in print.

Sigh. What perked me up after all this misleading bollox from non-scientists was an article by buddy Mandeep sent out to me, arguing the President can’t have it two ways. He can’t say evolution and intelligent design need equal time, while at the same time insisting we must invest to fight bird flu before it evolves into a human-to-human transmittable disease. When you argue that non-science must be taught alongside science, then you ought to at least get up in front of America and say, “If you can’t get Tamiflu, get on your knees and ask for forgiveness from the Lord.” At least he wouldn’t be a flip-flopper if he said things like that.

I Want Snow

I just got off the phone with Jodi, and she said it’s snowing in Minnesota. I WANT SNOW!!!

Right now, this is the best I can manage:

A Symphony of Lightning

Now that we’re off daylight savings time, I leave work only to be greeting by a world cloaked, a thin veil of bright sky clinging to the ridgeline of the Santa Cruz mountains. Tonight, however, was just a little bit different. While we’ve been enjoying some cool, cloudly days this week, tonight we were all treated to huge spiderwebs of lightning spun across the clouds.

The sky was the color of wet ash, clouds stretched from the north and west down across the San Francisco bay. As I left SLAC and headed north on highway 280, I saw the crack of grey-blue sky above the mountains, a pale reminder that behind the veil hides a beautiful sunset. A slight wash of orange impinged on the grey clouds, thinning and vanishing as I looked east.

It was just as I was leaving SLAC that I saw the first flash in the sky. At first I thought it was phantom lightning, a lightning whose flash is seen reflected on the clouds but whose seed, the brilliant tendril of electric blue, was hidden from view. It was only once I merged into thick, rush hour traffic that I was treated to the first, humbling lightning web. Three arcs spanned the night sky, a fourth appearing to shoot from the clouds to the ground behind a mountain. As I reached the Farm Hill Road exit, I decided to leave the highway and go to the scenic view high above on the Canada College campus. Dodging traffic and swinging into the parking lot on the eastern side of the hill, I killed the lights and switched off the engine.

My patience was rewarded a minute later with a true spiderweb of electricity. The flash was momentary, but it seemed a set of irregular, concentric blue cracks in the clouds had suddenly been spun by the furious tension high in the sky. A slow, laborious thunder responded a few moments later, sounding like the painful breathing of a man fighting tuberculosis. This weather, the color of the night sky, the sound of the thunder, all seemed to make the night a picture of ill health. This was a rare beauty, though, a kind of weather I once admired regularly in the Midwest but of which I have been starved here on the peninsula.

The Politics of Science, the Science of Politics

It’s a good day, and a miserable day, all at once. This day is like a simultaneous quantum superposition that, once collapsed, remained in a state of indefinite distinction. I awoke this morning a little after 6 so that Jodi and I could hit the polls before she boarded her flight to Minnesota. It was dark, wet, and cold when we left for Clifford School, just down the mountain and down the road.

Sometimes, polling place workers get a big head about their job. Sure, they’re the gatekeepers of American democracy. But they’re also fellow citizens. We were greeted by the fact that the Clifford School hosted three precincts, and we didn’t know to which we belonged. A very nice gentleman invited us in before polling started and tried to help us find our precinct, but a lady who also worked there shooed us out and proclaimed we couldn’t come in until the “Hear ye, hear ye!” was sounded. Sigh.

We voted, and then I dropped Jodi at the airport and went to work. I finally sorted out the half-dozen or so projects I’m currently involved in, and then worked with my group for the afternoon. I just had a short break to check the news and saw that “Kansas’ board of ed has voted to adopt language that redefines science and allows for non-science to enter into the curriculum”:http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20051108/ap_on_re_us/evolution_debate;_ylt=AlksCNr_sbuq7K0LL6lhdhqs0NUE;_ylu=X3oDMTA3MjBwMWtkBHNlYwM3MTg-.
This is the sad part of the day. While it was refreshing to once again partake in democracy this morning (excepting the incident with the poll nazi), it was disheartening to see the opinions of a vocal minority with no formal training in science override the standards and practices of a state education system.

In many ways, these state education board members who supported the weakening of science are setting up a false idol. If reason is the lord of nature, and if nature is the world that we humans must spend our lives appreciating and exploring, then certainly to set aside reason and admit superstition is to erect a false idol. If they really believe that they are creating academic freedom while they are promoting religious security, then they deserve neither academic freedom not religious security. Do they not realize that by redefining science itself in their standards, they risk creating a generation, much like students before the Sputnik era, ill prepared for the demands of this world?

In a world where diseases daily evolve to adapt to our drugs and our immune responses, and in a world ruled by natural laws whose work allows us to even exist in the first place, we are likely going to see an increase in students who don’t know that there is a difference between a theory and a hypothesis. This scares me. That’s a world where every idea has merit, without the value of experimentation to filter the wheat from the chaff. Academic freedom is only partly the right to pronounce any idea you want; within such liberty there is also responsibility, the responsibility that once ideas are proposed they only continue to have merit if, when applied, they lead to greater knowledge and deeper understanding. Academic freedom is both liberty and reponsibility, and Kansas has only adopted half of this equation.

So here we are. With great institutions like Kansas State University now challenged by a future breed of students ill-equipped for the rigors of reason, who knows what struggles an already burdened scientific community will now have to address? This must, in part, be how it felt to be an enlightened scholar on the edge of the middle ages, the warmth of reason one side, the chill of religious zealotry on the other. I only wish the world had learned from its first battle with this artificial pitting of religion against science, science against religion.