Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Giant In His Field


It is a sad truth that, for the vast majority of human beings, their actions during their lives don't really move the needle at all in terms of humanity at a global scale. While this may be depressing to many, my point is to highlight someone who was the exception to this rule.

When Albert Einstein died in 1955, the most common question that was asked was "Who is going to carry on his work?" Which, as it turned out, was a silly question ... the mantle was taken up quite ably by people like Kip Thorne, Fred Hoyle, Carl Sagan.

And Stephen Hawking.



Stephen Hawking was truly a giant in the realm of physics. His book "A Brief History Of Time" introduced some fairly esoteric concepts -- the curvature of space in dimensions beyond the three we can directly experience; the truly bizarre things that happen inside the event horizon of a black hole -- in a way that made them accessible to the general public without sacrificing any of the scientific and intellectual underpinnings behind these concepts. He inspired millions (including yours truly) to study further the weird, wonderful, fascinating universe that exists at the subatomic and quantum levels.

All this without being able to move or speak.

History will remember him for being one of the greatest minds in human history. Scientists will be studying and refining -- and in some cases refuting -- theories he postulated for decades, even centuries, to come. There will be talk of his genius, the ways in which he opened whole new avenues of study. There will be occasional blurbs talking about his guest appearances -- on "The Simpsons," sitting down for a beer with Homer; playing poker on "Star Trek: The Next Generation;" his ability to repeatedly get the best of Sheldon on "The Big Bang Theory."

Sadly, as with any event like this, there are also conspiracy theorists popping up with decidedly wacky ideas of "the truth." One particularly entertaining one that I found is that Hawking actually died in 1974 and had been replaced by the Illuminati with a doppelgänger, apparently with the intent of further securing world domination.

Now that Hawking has exited this mortal plane, there are those who are asking who will take over. Which is all well and good, as far as it goes ... after all, there is absolutely no doubt that another mind will come along who will succeed Hawking in the popular consciousness in much the same way that Hawking succeeded Einstein. But the question misses the point. It's not as much about the who as it is about the what.



It was Hawking's examination of the universe at both the cosmological and quantum levels that has done more to further human understanding of the very nature of our existence than just about anything else. Say what you will about religion, politics, culture ... Hawking made it possible for us to understand that all of these things are mere manifestations of the behavior of matter and energy at the most fundamental level, and that the divisions between us are almost purely arbitrary.

Yes, there will be another great mind that comes along. Yes, it is entirely possible that this mind will be able to prove that Hawking was wrong about some things. This is as it should be ... after all, science is all about discovery, and learning, and exploration, and quite frankly nobody learns anything by always getting it right. But there will never be another Hawking.

Science -- all of humanity -- has lost a giant. While we grieve for that loss -- and rightly so -- we can gain a small measure of comfort by the legacy he leaves behind.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Republicans, Democrats, And Other Usavory Life Forms


So there have been a number of you out there (the exact number is, I believe, two) who have been wondering where I've been of late. A few weeks ago I explained that I had taken some time to put the finishing touches on a play I was writing (you can find my article on this process, and why nobody with the sense of a bucket of gravel would ever do it voluntarily, here). That wasn't the entire story.

The main reason I stepped away from politics and current events -- reasons, actually -- has more to do with my mental health than anything. See, I found myself getting sucked into "debates" that were nothing of the sort, and I have reached the conclusion that voicing my opinion -- and, more to the point, trying to to get someone with an opposing viewpoint to engage in thoughtful debate -- a quixotic enterprise at best. It had become apparent that civic discourse had, of late, descended into nothing more than name calling and propaganda. On both sides.



This was taking its toll on me. Between the seemingly willful ignorance on the part of some, and outright hostility from many, it became very clear that one of two things was going to have to happen if I was to avoid sinking into a pit of despair from which there was no return. Either the tenor of online dialogue was going to have to change on a very fundamental level, or I was going to just have to step away from it all. Since I don't have enough influence to change hearts and minds at that (or pretty much any) level, it became clear that I just had to bow out and admit defeat.

Which I have done. I have gone so far as to limit my consumption of current events to headlines I see online every once in a while, weekly doses of Bill Maher and John Oliver for topical comic relief, and occasionally telling friends of mine "You know what? I'm kinda done with that for the time being."

However, as I have since discovered, civic discourse had not descended to a new low ... it has always been there. The only difference between the trump era and the pre-apocalyptic times before that is that, in the past, there had been sort of an unspoken agreement to not expose this lack of rational thought as anything systemic. So for this, I guess trump might actually deserve some credit for exposing this ... being as corrupt and dishonest as he is has shone a harsh light on everybody else in Washington who is as corrupt and dishonest (if not more). On both sides of the aisle.

I am rapidly discovering that Democrats and Republicans are birds of a feather. Both parties are less interested in governing and more interested in maintaining the divide between the governors and the governed. The Legislative Branch legislates based not on what is best for the country as a whole, but what is best for members of Congress. The Executive Branch maintains a distance from governing and seems to focus more on legacy. The Judicial Branch, long considered impartial arbiters of dispute, is being exposed as nothing more than just a slightly different flavor of partisan hacks.

And in popular discourse, the ostensive goal of using debate to present a point in a thoughtful manner has been openly dismissed in favor of shouting matches in which the only goal is to prove that the other guy is wrong. Fox News trumpets proudly an action taken by donald trump, even when the same action taken by Barack Obama was seen as a catastrophe for democracy. MSNBC does the same thing -- castigating trump for doing something that garnered praise for Obama when he did the same thing.

Over and over I see the same arguments repeated by the right: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are criminals; donald trump is making America great again, and on and on. And on the left, the narrative is that Hillary actually won the election and it was only a quirk of the Electoral College that handed it to the ignorant philistine trump, Barack Obama will go down as one of the greatest presidents in history, etc.

In absolutely none of these cases are any attempts made to actually present supporting arguments in the hopes of swaying undecideds to that point of view. Instead, it has become a contest of who can shout the loudest. News has been replaced by propaganda. Debate has been replaced by argumentative shriekery. Thoughtful, civil disagreement has been replaced by accusations -- of mental illness, incompetence, weakness, corruption.



I want no part of it.

Therefore, this will serve as my formal announcement that I will no longer be commenting on current events, except -- perhaps -- in unusual circumstances. Instead, I will be offering up gentler commentary on less divisive topics -- the process involved in writing a play, for example, or meditations on scientific questions (such as this article in which I offered a possible explanation for what dark energy actually is), or musings on the sociological and psychological underpinnings of the lack of civility in our current debate.

I will not be doing any of the following:
  • Commenting on trump's incompetence. There are plenty of people out there, almost all of whom are better qualified than I, who are willing to take up that mantle.
  • Debating Republican vs. Democrat anything. It's kinda like arguing about the difference between bad steak and really bad steak.
  • Getting into any electoral weeds whatsoever. Quite frankly, if treason charges were darts then Washington would be a dartboard with nothing but bullseyes in every direction, and to be honest I have not seen very many challengers out there (with a couple of notable exceptions at the local and state level) who look to be any better than our current crop of hacks.

I gotta lie down.

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