Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Head Rush with Kari Byron

Head Rush is a new show on Science Channel, starting in August, geared toward middle-school age children, covering "mathematics, science, technology, engineering, natural history and space with hands-on experiments, video shorts, viewer questions and answers, games and visits from other members of the Discovery family (think STORM CHASERS and even CAKE BOSS)."  And best of all, Mythbuster Kari Bryon is goint to be the host! She'll be great, and I'm looking forward to seeing the show.

I remember watching all kinds of science-y shows when I was young:  Mr. Wizard, Bill Nye, etc., and they certainly shaped my views, and my love of science today.  And still today, watching shows like Mythbusters feed that curious kid inside me whenever I watch.  I certainly hope this show will bring the same energy and passion for science and experimentation that Mythbusters does, and with Kari at the helm, I'm confident it will.

In the above article, Kari says: "Hosting HEAD RUSH gives me a chance to show that you don't have to be a scientist to be passionate about science."  I certainly agree with this, and I'm glad it will be an important message in the show.  But to me, another message that kids need to hear is that they can become scientists themselves; you don't need to be some kind of a genius to become one.  I think the one problem with the shows I watched as a kid, was that it felt like what they were showing me were cute science experiments that were fun to do, but I never felt like it was really "what real scientists do."  It was only later that I realized the being a scientist is not some impossible dream, but something I could really work toward, if I wanted to.

I recently saw a collection of pictures drawn by seventh graders before and after a trip to Fermilab in Illinois.  They also wrote about who they thought scientists were, both before they went to the lab and afterwards.  The most striking thing I noticed was that after meeting scientists, a couple of the students expressed surprise that maybe they could become scientists some day.  It was quite cool to see their preconceptions changed after meeting the researchers there, and it would be great if there was some way to do that on a larger scale, such as with a children's science show like Head Rush.

I'm not sure what Head Rush's plan is in this case, and perhaps they haven't thought about this as a goal for the show at all.  And I'm not saying it will be a bad show if it doesn't get this point across.  I just think it's something that would be really worthwhile.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Outbreak of Whooping Cough in California

910 cases of pertussis in California, and 5 dead children, a 400% increase from last year, most likely due to unvaccinated children.

Thanks Jenny McCarthy!

Honestly, who are these people continuing to deny that vaccines work?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Religious Moderates and Accomodationism

A bunch of atheist bloggers have been talking about accomodationism recently, starting off with Jen's (aka Blag Hag) review of the Communicating Science Symposium at the Evolution 2010 conference in Portland, OR.  The talk on Communicating Evolution turned out to be a Francis Collins / BioLogos accomodationism love-fest, spouting on about how we shouldn't make religious people cry.  PZ and Jerry Coyne (the latter of which was at the conference) have responded to her post, and I'm not above following the atheist blog bandwagon for scraps.  

Jen already hit on the fact that accomodationism has nothing to do with discovering the truth, and more about winning as many people to the pro-evolution side as possible.  To me, it's rather insulting to but the kiddie gloves on when discussing the real consequences of our knowledge of science.  It's like tee-ball, where everyone gets up to bat, there's no score, and everyone gets the same trophy at the end of the season.  It's probably a good idea for those five-year-olds to teach them the basics and not crush their self-esteem, but if you continue to treat them that way, they never learn about sportsmanship, which is not just about playing nice, but also hard (but fair) competition, which is pointless when you're allowed to run around the bases with no consequences whatsoever, and leads to kids who aren't equipped to deal with adversity.

But these posts also got me thinking about other things as well.  Acommodationists are quick to try and claim the middle ground for liberal religious people, between fundamentalists who believe every word of their respective holy book, and fundamentalist atheists, which is on my list as one of the most idiotic phrases I've ever heard.  Fundamentalism refers to a strict adherence to a set of dogmatic principles regardless of evidence to the contrary, of which I've rarely met an atheist with this quality.  At least in my experience, atheists are much more likely to explain their reasoning and evidence for holding a particular position, and many have named ways in which they could be shown to be mistaken.  You may disagree with the interpretation of evidence and its importance, but that doesn't make the other a fundamentalist.  What acommodationists mean when they say "fundamentalist atheist" is that they defend their position, and don't simply slink away when someone disagrees with them about a magical sky fairy (or faerie, if you're into that sort of spelling).  

But even if there were fundamentalist atheists, for argument's sake, the accomodationist argument relies on liberal religious people, in fact, being more scientific* than their fundamentalist counterparts when it comes to beliefs about nature and god, and therefore should be respected as simply a different opinion by other scientists.  Of course demanding respect for your position a priori is the antithesis of scientific.  By presenting evidence for their beliefs, and demanding it of others, atheists are being scientific.  I'm not suggesting that atheists have to ram arguments down the throat of theists whenever the opportunity arises, but in my experience, that is rarely the case, particularly in scientific settings (the flame wars in online forums and blogs can be a bit much, but that's the case for just about every subject imaginable).

Even comparing liberal religious people to fundamentalists, there is no guarantee that someone from one group is going to be more scientific about a specific belief than someone form the other group, if we really consider what that means.  We can laugh about young-earth creationists who think that the Earth was created after the advent of agriculture, but it seems that these wacky beliefs is due to their attempt at reconciling their evidence for a god (i.e., the Bible), with evidence from the rest of the world.  The core belief that god exists is generally based on the same evidence for both the liberal and fundamentalist believers.  There are some who have more sophisticated sounding arguments (Catholics are good at this), but when you ask them to explain it, it ends up either being the same arguments normal folk use with gussied-up language, or meaningless nonsense.  The difference is that liberals are more willing to accept both evidence from their holy book along with evidence from the natural world, generally leading to believing some more conventional things about nature, but balanced by the incoherence between beliefs about nature and god.  So the specific beliefs about god are more similar between liberals and fundamentalists than one might initially think.  

The problem is science relies on holding your beliefs with as little regard to your own personal emotional response to the consequences as possible.  And religious people seem to hold their beliefs based on their emotional attachment, rather than evidence from the outside world, regardless if you're a fundamentalist or not.  There are some religious people who really have thought about their beliefs objectively, and still came to the conclusion that god exists.  However, those that I've met are not going to cry about atheists who disagree with them asking questions and having arguments about these beliefs, because that's what a scientific person does.  If you're not willing to discuss and defend your beliefs about a particular subject, that's fine.  But don't complain when others, who may or may not disagree with you, do.  

Note that by scientific, I don't mean smart, sophisticated or right.  I just mean that one puts evidence (by experimentation or other means) over emotion and intuition when holding beliefs about the nature of things.  We all have been wrong, even when we base our beliefs on evidence.  But to me, it's the best way we have for learning about the world. 

Friday, June 25, 2010

Zero Punctuation Reviews Dante's Inferno

I recently discovered Zero Punctuation, a video game review done by Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw (who also writes a blog called Fully Ramblomatic) for The Escapist.  It's called Zero Punctuation, I believe, because in his videos, Yahtzee talks at an incredibly fast pace for five minutes, seemingly without taking a breath, all the while mercilessly criticizing the game he's decided to review through a series of funny and often scatological metaphors.  I'm not much of a gamer anymore; I haven't had much free time since selling my soul to the PhD committee at Northeastern, but the reviews are funny enough on their own.

I was watching a few of his older reviews, and I came across one for Dante's Inferno.  I had heard about the game through some of the atheist blogs I read, so I wanted to know if it was any good at all.  Turns out it was mostly shit (although Yahtzee is generally critical of everything that isn't Saints Row 2, so I'm not sure how bad it really is).  Though I don't know how many of you are gamers, the first 45 seconds or so is a rapid fire takedown of the God of the Old Testament.  It's like a NonStampCollector video on crank.  I thought you all would enjoy it:

I also love the joke at 4:00 (I know, I'm a man child).

You should check out some of his other reviews as well. Although mostly about video games, he's not afraid to make fun of Jesus, The Pope, and homeopathy, just to name a few subjects I've seen his berate thus far.

EDIT:  Here's a link to the video in case the embedded one won't show up for you.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Brookhaven National Lab's new blog

ScienceBlogs has just added a few new blogs, including one for the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, NY, called Brookhaven Bits & Bytes.  I find this very cool, given that I grew up about 15 minutes away from BNL, and I know a number of people who have worked there, both currently and in the past.

I remember visiting the lab a number of times when I was a kid, getting to see the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, where they collide, you guessed it, heavy ions (such as gold), at relativistic speeds.  It's essentially a smaller, less powerful version of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.  In fact, it was the world's most powerful collider until the LHC was operational.  The sheer size of the RHIC is amazing, and to think about single atoms needing so long of a track boggled my mind as a kid.  To think the the LHC is more than 7 times larger (17 miles long by circumference, as opposed to 2.4) is absolutely incredible.  I may not get a chance to see the LHC in person, but the RHIC was quite cool in and of itself.

I know being able to see things like the RHIC as a kid certainly influenced my love of science, so I'm glad to see that I'll be able to keep up with what's going on at BNL through the blog.

(via Pharyngula)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"This is purely speculative on my part and not based on any fact"

I don't know why I continued to read beyond that statement.  And yet I couldn't look away from the complete inanity of Republican congressional candidate Bill Randall, who is suggesting that President Obama and BP conspired to intentionally spill oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

In fact, even before that direct quote, the article reads:
Randall, who has aligned himself with the tea party movement, readily acknowledges that he has no evidence that what he says is true. But that is not stopping him from making the claim as he campaigns in the June 22 GOP runoff to face incumbent Democratic Rep. Brad Miller on the November ballot.
Then we get to hear it from Randall himself:  "Now, I'm not necessarily a conspiracy person," Oh, I beg to differ, Mr. Randall.  He continues:  "but I don't think enough investigation has been done on this."

How exactly do you investigate a claim that isn't based on a single fact?  I imagine someone convincing Mr. Randall that there is a tiny elephant living under the couch in his living room, but it disappears if you lift up the couch to look.  Then I picture Randall trying lift up his couch really fast to see the tiny elephant, over and over again.  He gets his flashlight and looks under the couch without lifting it up to see if he can find it.  Maybe he searches his house for miniature elephant droppings.  And without find any evidence, he believes the story anyway.

He also says:

Is there a cover up going on? I'm not saying there necessarily is. But I think there's enough facts on the table for people that (they) really need to do some investigative research and find out what went on with that and get a subpoena of records and everything else

What facts?  You haven't presented a single one!  In fact you explicitly told us earlier that your speculation is not based on any.  Does Mr. Randall have some sort of short-term memory disorder?  I would say that Mr. Randall is slandering the president, except that slander requires you to present a falsehood as truth, and Randall can't even manage to act as if he's telling the truth, or that anyone has good reason to take anything he says seriously.

What's most disheartening about this, is that I can already predict that plenty of people from his party will agree with him, and with any luck this will become another rallying cry for the tea party.  When did it become OK in this country to make accusations against another person, while explicitly telling everyone you have absolutely no evidence on which to based your accusations?  I thought some of these hard-core conservatives were afraid of America becoming a "police state," and yet many people are accept guilt without any evidence.

I can at least understand where a distrust in science may come from, because for many people science can be intimidating, and often leads to unintuitive truths about the way the world is.  But to go all out and reject basic reasoning boggles my mind.  Even those who may be religious still rely on evidence throughout their day to day existence.  You don't believe in a tiny elephant under your couch, because there's no evidence for it.  Why would you believe this yahoo, when he's telling you straight out that there's no reason to believe him.

I originally planned to make a joke at the end here, accusing Mr. Randall of something and then telling you all have zero evidence to back it up.  But I can't bring myself to actually do it, because I don't find this story funny at all.  In fact the more I read it, the angrier I get.  Perhaps I'll be proven wrong, and this accusation will be properly ignored, but I'd be very surprised.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Touchdown Jesus Destroyed by Lightning!

Plenty of people have already written about this, I don't have much to add.  For those who haven't seen it.  Here's "Touchdown Jesus" before:

And after:

Anyone else getting a terminator vibe from the wire frames that are left?

I'm eagerly awaiting Pat Robertson's explanation for all this.

Friday, June 11, 2010

That's a new one

A new argument for keeping children with same-sex parents out of Catholic schools, by Michael Pakaluk (from The Boston Pilot):
... it seemed a real danger that the boy being raised by the same-sex couple would bring to school something obscene or pornographic, or refer to such things in conversation, as they go along with the same-sex lifestyle, which--as not being related to procreation-- is inherently eroticized and pornographic. He might expose other children to such things, as he might easily have encountered them in his household...
And here's his tag line at the end of the article:
Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Philosophy at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, VA, where he teaches courses on ethics and the philosophy of marriage and the family. 
What exactly is "philosophy of marriage?"  And why is an idiot teaching it?  EDIT:  Ahh, that's why he's teaching it: The Institute for the Psychological Sciences is a Catholic insitution.

He later retracted the statement:
I wish to retract the third point in this column. I expressed what I wished to say poorly and in a way that might give offense. If it caused offense to anyone, I sincerely apologize.
Of course, this isn't really a retraction.  He doesn't think he was wrong, he's just afraid he offended too many people.  Because he's a sniveling wuss.  If you believe the homosexual lifestyle is inherently pornographic, then man up and say so.  If you're not willing to say what you believe and defend it, then shut the fuck up.

I, for example, think Dr. Pakaluk is a ignorant bigot, who belongs to a dangerous cult of Jewish zombie (and the mother of said Jewish zombie) worshipers that condemns harmless homosexuals while protecting child rapists, all while stealing ridiculous sums of money from the gullible and indoctrinated masses.  Dr. Pakaluk teaching a class on ethics is like Ken Ham teaching a class on evolutionary biology.

I won't be retracting any of that.  And if you're offended by that statement, I have a video for you to watch.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What happens when BP spills coffee?

Kind of off-topic for my blog, but I thought this was very funny.  It's by the Upright Citizen's Brigade.

Helen Thomas' comments

We've all heard about Helen Thomas' comment by now.  To start with, I'm posting what was actually said (because so few articles about it are doing so):
Questioner:  Any comments on Israel?  We're asking everybody today.  Any comments on Israel?
Thomas:  Tell 'em to get the hell out of Palestine.
Questioner:  Ooo.  Any better comments on Israel?
Thomas:  Remember, these people are occupied.   And it's their land.  It's not Germany, it's not Poland...
Questioner:  So where should they go?  What should they do?
Thomas:  Go home.
Questioner:  Where's home?
Thomas:  Poland, Germany...
Questioner:  So you're saying the Jews should go back to Poland and Germany?
Thomas:  And America, and everywhere else.

I transcribed this myself from the following video:

Now I agree that what Thomas said was insensitive, and pretty stupid.  Telling Jews to go back to Poland and Germany, knowing why they left there, was an incredibly poor choice.  She has since apologized, and rightfully so.  

I also disagree with her main point.  It may be the case that Israel was essentially taken from Palestinians after World War II.  But that was over 60 years ago.  The people living there now are so far removed from that.  Poland and Germany are not their home.  Every piece of land on Earth has been taken from some group of people by another group at one time, most places multiple times throughout history.  I don't think America should be given back to Native Americans at this point, nor do I think Israeli Jews should have to leave either.  The people who live in Israel now should stay there.

But disagreeing with Thomas does not mean I think her statements were odious or anti-Semitic, as many people are now saying about them.  It is not anti-Semitic to oppose Israel.  I don't support Israel's actions with regards to Palestinians, among many other things.  To suggest that Jews don't have the right to do whatever they want, and that they aren't the "chosen people" is not antisemitism.  It's the desire to treat both Israelis and Palestinians equally.

Her suggestion that Jews go home to Poland and Germany has a bad connotation, but it was not an ominous comment.  We can see this easily by looking at the hypothetical:  What would happen if the Jews actually did go back to Poland or Germany?  Nothing.  They would live in Germany or Poland (or America or anywhere else; Thomas did say other places besides Germany and Poland).  I don't want to suggest that we forget what happened there during the Holocaust.  But it was over 60 years ago, and Jews are free to live there as they wish, just as anyone else can.  From some of the comments I've seen, however, you'd think Thomas is sending Israelis right back to the gas chambers.

It seems that the uproar over these comments is mostly due to America's unquestioning allegiance to Israel, regardless of their actions.  And it's too bad, because Helen Thomas was an excellent journalist, willing to ask difficult questions to presidents on both sides of the aisle.  

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Eddie Izzard - Marathon Man (Part 2)

I wasn't planning on writing about this again, but after watching the rest of Eddie Izzard's show Marathon Man on YouTube, I have to tell you that the second and third episodes are even better than the first.  (You can read my initial post here for the basics on what the show is about, if you haven't heard about it already.)

I expected this show to be inspiring.  A man who has never run seriously before, running 43 marathons for a very worthy cause (Sport Relief).  I also expected that he would make it, or at least do very well, better than expected of him, for a couple of reasons.  First, I don't think they would have aired a show if it weren't interesting, and I think having cameras and people watching you is great motivation to keep going, whereas if no one is watching it's easier to bow out.  Eddie makes this comment a number of times throughout the show: that he has to complete this challenge, because he doesn't want to hurt the charity, and people are watching that will be critical, or at least disappointed, if he can't do what he sets out to do.

But I also notice that people who end up becoming famous for what they do, whether they are an actor, comedian, scientist, author, etc., tend to be incredibly motivated people.  They will work their asses off, with no guarantee that they will succeed (i.e., become famous).  Not everyone who is motivated will make it, of course, but those who do must work pretty damn hard to get there above everyone who doesn't.  It became evident very early that Eddie is this type of person.  When running through Edinburgh, Scotland, we learn that he started out as a street performer, and did that for a number of years before becoming a more mainstream comedian, and later an actor.

Given all that, I wasn't surprised that Eddie completed the marathons.  It was certainly inspiring to see someone put themselves through all that for a good cause, and I don't want to diminish what he did.  I don't think it was easy at all, but not unexpected given the circumstances.

But what really was surprising, and incredibly moving, was the way he seemed to bring the U.K. together, behind him throughout his runs.  Fans and runners often met him and ran along side him at various points to keep him company.  At one point, a few young boys on bicycles came along, and had Eddie's crew call their moms to make sure it was alright for them to be riding their bikes out of town.  It was quite cool to see some many people, all over the country, becoming enamored by what he was doing.

This was most evident at the end of the second episode, while Eddie was running through Northern Ireland.  He starts by stopping in Bangor, where he lived as a kid, to visit family and friends.  He is naturally a bit apprehensive about running in N. Ireland, given the religious conflict going on there.  Although the violence has somewhat subsided recently, emotions are still on high there, and the situation is still very tense.  Throughout his runs, Eddie has carried the flag of the country in which he was running, the English Cross of St. George, the Welsh Red Dragon, and Scotland's St. Andrew's Cross.  However, flags are a touchy subject in Northern Ireland, with the Protestants usually flying a version of England's flag called the Ulster Banner, and Catholic flying the Irish green white and gold flag, in support of a united Ireland.  Eddie decided to design his own flag, which was green (the colors worn by their soccer team), and included the white dove of peace in one corner.  He hoped that it wouldn't be considered controversial.

Here's Eddie with his flag for Northern Ireland 

But as he ran through Northern Ireland, you saw the same thing we saw earlier.  People were coming together to run with him, and support the cause.  Protestants and Catholics were running along side, without conflict.  At one point Eddie remarks that we have a Protestant, a Catholic, and an Atheist running together, which doesn't seem astonishing to me at first glance, until you realize where he is.

He also stopped to see a Sport Relief event going on.  It's a soccer league for kids, to keep them off the streets, where they end up becoming part of the violence.  Instead, we get Protestant and Catholic kids playing soccer together, and realizing that we're all basically the same.  Even more reason to laud Eddie for support this organization.  They are doing really important work, and doing it in a way that is fun and rewarding (especially for kids).  Getting kids together from these different religions is the only way, in my opinion Northern Ireland will be able to move past the problems it has had.  It appears to be getting better, and more work like that being done by Sport Relief will certainly help.

That end to the second episode was the highlight of the documentary to me, but the entire thing was incredibly well done.  I highly recommend you watch it on YouTube.  Here's the beginning of the second episode (there's a link to the first in my original post).  

Monday, June 7, 2010

We're having a carnival!

A blog carnival, actually...

If you're not familiar with the concept, blog carnivals are sort of like magazines made of blog posts.  Bloggers submit a post to a carnival, and the ones which are selected get all posted in one place.  There are tons of carnivals, each of them presenting blog posts on a specific topic.  They are meant to help people find new and interesting blogs they haven't seen before.  Carnival of the Godless is dedicated to posts from a godless/atheist perspective, which has been around for over 5 years, with a new carnival every other week.  The last CotG was hosted at No Forbidden Questions on May 23rd.

I'll be hosting the carnival, here on Infallible Failure, on September 12th!  I'm excited to see what submissions I get, and I look forward to reading and presenting them to all of you, my faithful readers.

If you enjoy reading atheist blogs, and are interesting finding some new, potentially interesting bloggers that you may not have found otherwise, I highly recommend following the carnival around.  I've found a number of really superb bloggers through it, and it gives me a lot of ideas for things to write about here.  And if you write a blog, you should consider submitting on of your posts to the carnival.  It's a great way to get your writing read by a lot of new people, who may not have found your blog otherwise.

You can learn more about submitting articles to CotG here.  And check out my edition of Carnival of the Godless in September!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Feynman Letters - On Religion

As I said in my book review of Perfectly Reasonable Deviations (a collections of letters written by and to Richard Feynman), I wanted to write a few posts about some of the contents of the book that I thought was interesting and relevant in some way.  Since this blog is primarily about atheism and religion, I thought I'd start with Feynman's thoughts on the subject.

In addition to all of the letters the book contained, there were also a number of appendices, which include articles and things referenced in his letters to give them context.  One of them was an interview he did for the T.V. show Viewpoint, in 1959.  Originally, the television studio, KNXT, who recorded the interview wanted Feynman to record another interview, giving him a number of different reasons why.  In a letter to Feynman refused:
Yesterday I heard an audio tape recording of the interview.  I found that I had ample opportunity to express my views, that these views were expressed honestly and  sincerely and in a calm logical and undogmatic manner.  I cannot conceive that antagonism could result from the way I expressed myself, but only perhaps from the fact that I did express myself.
The letter doesn't go into detail about the specific content that could be found objectionable.  But after reading the interview, I suspect is has to do with the religious views he expressed:
I mean, from what I learned about science, I can't be practicing in the conventionally religious sense.  It doesn't fit together.  It seems to me that the ideas of conventional religion... are very limited.  They didn't realize the tremendous extent of the world, or the length of time in which things have been going on... 
He expands upon this, before beautifully summing up his objection to religion in a single sentence:
The stage is too big for the drama.
He just doesn't see why God would create such an amazing and complex universe, if his goal is to "watch human beings struggle with good and evil."  His knowledge of how the universe appears to work suggests that the Bible and other holy books are mistaken.  He goes on to describe his scientific worldview, and how dogma is its antithesis:
You say you're not sure of anything -- we're not sure of anything in the sciences; the thing is we don't know.  As we learn more, we get more and more sure, more or less, that is still more likely to be sure, or that such-and-such an idea is more and more likely to be false.
You can't accept something absolutely.  You're not sure.  Once you get that feeling, you lose the inspirational value of the religion.  
He does go on to say some good words about religion, that it inspires many people to do good, and improve the world.  But he notes that the problem seems to be the entanglement of the morality we get in religion with its metaphysical claims:
Nothing that I learned about the distance to the stars teaches me that the golden rule is not likely to be true, or that I ought to kill or not kill.  It's got nothing to do with it.  But the people who develop religion have put something in.  In addition to those other propositions, about what moral values are, they put something else in -- that I would also believe in certain miracles performed by [Jesus].  I don't think those miracles are true.  I still can thinking that the teachings of a great philosopher are worth paying attention to.  The science does not make any immorality.  It wants the religion to not say anything about the metaphysical structure of the world - that is to say, how it came about, how old it is, whether or not it's possible to have a virgin birth.  Why does it have to know that?  Why is it necessary.
This point reminds me of Sam Harris' TED talk about science and morality, and why I disagree with his claim that science can directly answer moral questions*.  Science can often help us learn more about the way the world really is, which can help make better decisions, because we have more information.  But we still need a moral philosophy in order to determine what we ought to do, given that information.  Science may someday be able to tell us whether a fetus at X weeks suffers, and how much, but we still need some way to determine that we should try to reduce suffering.  This was Feynman's response to a letter he received from from Lawrence Cranberg, a physics professor, about Feynman's article "The Relation of Science and Religion," in which he says that "moral questions are outside of the scientific realm."
Science can help us see what might happen if we do [certain things], but the question as to whether we want something to happen depends on a choice of the ultimate ethical good.
He doesn't mention religion in many letters, usually only when a question about religion is asked of him.  What is clear from a number of his letters is that he cared deeply about science education, and getting youngsters to understand what a real explanation is.**  Although this letter is about science textbooks, his views about religious explanations comes through a bit:
One gets the impression then that science is to be a set of pat formulas to standard questions.  "What makes it move," quickly all hands are eagerly raised, the lesson is learned, they are to say "Energy makes it move," "Gravity makes it fall," The soles of our shoes wear out because of friction."  Just words, nothing is explained.  It is like just saying "Because of God's will" and having nothing left to look into.
Finally, I want to leave you with another short quotation, which I think sums up Feynman's apparent views of religion, although it was not directly about religion at the time.  When writing about a female professor at Caltech, who was initially denied tenure after her department had unanimously recommended her.  She was eventually granted tenure after a settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Feynman wrote a letter to the editor of the California Tech (Caltech's student newspaper):
In physics the truth is rarely perfectly clear, and that is certainly universally the case in human affairs.  Hence, what is not surrounded by uncertainty cannot be the truth.

* To be fair, most of his talk was somewhat ambiguous on this point.  He could simply mean what I have stated here: that science gives us better information to make these moral decisions.  That said, he has not responded that way to this criticism made by several others, so I assume that's not what he meant in his talk.

** I plan on writing about some of his other letters on science education in another post.  Stay tuned!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Eddie Izzard - Marathon Man

Eddie Izzard videos are fairly popular on atheist blogs and websites.  He's a very funny comedian, and he often talks about God and creationism in his act, and in interviews and such. Recently he has had a show on the BBC called Eddie Izzard: Marathon Man.  In it, he runs 6 marathons a week for 7 weeks straight around the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland); a total of 1,160 miles.  Note that Izzard has never been a runner, and at the beginning, was not in spectacular shape at all.  This is all in an effort to raise money for Sport Relief (which you can learn more about here).

I've only watched the first episode, but I'm already excited to watch the rest of it this weekend.  He is of course very funny throughout the show, dealing with aches, pains and blisters with scathing wit and sarcasm, specifically toward his support staff.  But we also get to learn a lot about him.  To distract himself during his runs, he talks with the camera crew, and the occasional running partner, about his transvestitism, and his mother, who died of cancer when he was 6.  On his journey, he visits the house where he last lived with is mother in Wales.  Through it all, we get to see his extraordinary determination and strength.  Although religion was not mentioned in the show (at least in the first episode), it's such an inspiration to see him doing this to help others, as a fellow atheist and humanist.

The episodes are up on YouTube.  (Here is the first part of Episode 1; each episode appears to be broken into 6 videos.  You'll have to follow the links to the rest of the episode on your own.)  I thought some of you might find it enjoyable and inspirational, as I did.

BTW:  For any of you Dr. Who fans out there, David Tennant narrated the documentary.  I'm running on all my geeky cylinders now!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track

I have a huge man-crush on Richard P. Feynman.  And if you don't, I judge you for it (unless you're a woman, in which case, it should be a regular, run-of-the-mill crush).  He was a brilliant scientist who could make complex phenomena understandable to us less-brilliant folk.  He understood what science is all about, something you rarely see communicated so clearly, even from other scientists.  And he's a joy to listen to, no matter what subject he's talking about.  Just search for "Feynman" on Youtube, and prepare to spend a few hours listening to the man speak (I almost typed "waste" rather than "spend" here, but that would have been a mistake.  Listening to RPF is certainly not time wasted).

So last week I was hanging around in Barnes and Noble in Boston before I had to catch a train back home, when I came upon a book called Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track.  Michelle Feynman, RPF's adopted daughter, collected tons of letters written by and to her father throughout his life, and compiled them into this book.  I'd read Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman (Adventures of a Curious Character) a while ago and loved it.  I had never heard of this collection before, and felt like I had found a jewel here, and bought it immediately.  I was more than right.

I've made it about half way through the book so far, and it is absolutely amazing to read the variety of things RPF thought about, and shared with others.  We get to see his mind at work on the research he's working on, the love he had for his wives (his first wife, Arlene, who died of tuberculosis in 1945, and his second while Gwyneth, who moved from England to California to become his housekeeper) and his children, his views on math and science education, and his willingness to take time out to answer physics questions from everyday people with care, patience and compassion.

Even when you'd expect a scientist to be annoyed, such as when a man claimed to discover a new fundamental force in the universe using a washer and some string, Feynman responded with his own experiment to prove that there was no new force.  But most importantly, he did it kindly, without being rude or condescending.  When most people wouldn't have even bothered to respond, Feynman was truly interested in bettering another person's understanding of the way the world works.  Through these letters, you see how much Feynman respected science above everything, and how much he loved doing it.  (There is one instance which could be considered an angry response from Feynman, but it was brilliantly articulated and I happen to think he was fully justified in his response.  I'll be writing about that one in a later post.)

One of the criticisms I've heard about Feynman is that he was egotistical and fake.  To me, these letters don't support that at all.  A number of times, someone will write to him about errors in one of his lectures or books, and his response is always the same.  "You're probably right, I probably made a mistake."  He reminds again and again that there's no such thing as an authority in science.  Nature speaks for itself, regardless of what he, or anyone else says about it.  And to suggest that some of the things he did were "phony" or "fake" doesn't hold much water when you read his letters.  You may not agree with some of his positions (e.g., not accepting honorary degrees), but he stuck by his principles, and there doesn't seem to be anything fake about it. 

I think anyone who enjoys Feynmanisms, or who enjoys science in general, will love this book.  But I think this book has a much broader appeal.  I think anyone can appreciate someone who loves what they do, and wants to share it with others.  He often gets letters from students and parents about what the students should be studying, and how to become a scientist, and his advice is always to follow your passions.  If you truly love to do something, you'll inevitably work hard and become good at it, and you'll enjoy it.  Whether that leads you to physics, chemistry, art or anything else, it doesn't matter.  I think that's a message that everyone can appreciate, coming from someone who followed his own advice. 

Rather than do a normal book review and leave it at that, I've decided I also want to share a few of my favorite letters from the book and my own reactions to them as I read through the rest.  I have a few already I want to share, and I'm sure I'll find more as I continue to read.  Some of them resonated with me very deeply, and others I just find amusing or relevant, or just show you something you may not have known about RPF before.  I'll be posting them in the next few days, so stay tuned!