Our Window On Reality

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, October 18, 2014

Humans have five senses, but we experience them as a gestalt.  I call that sensation of perceiving everything around us as our window on reality.  A mouse or cockroach would have a much smaller window on reality.  I doubt a bacteria or virus have a window, but if they did, it would be incredible tiny. Humans naturally think they have the largest window on reality because of our egocentric belief we are the crown of creation. We’re not.

And can you imagine the window on reality that God has, if such a being existed? For all our glory we are limited beings, neither angels nor devils, but just a creature of random evolution, one among an unknown many, that use self-awareness to view reality out the window of their limited senses.

Humans that are deaf or blind, or have lost their sense of smell or taste do have smaller windows, and if you close your eyes, you can shut your window to a fraction of perception, but not completely. When you are asleep or unconscious, your window does shut to your conscious mind, but your unconscious mind still peeps out. Only when the brain dies does your window shut completely.

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The astounding thing about reality is it’s indifferent to the self-aware beings that view it. Reality existed before we were born, and will continue to exist after we die. Our life is merely a short time span when we wake up and look out our window on reality and then we die, and our windows closes forever. Human brains have a tendency to explain what they see out their window by making up stories. Because most of these stories have no relationship with the truth of reality, this tendency is called the narrative fallacy. The human mind has evolved through three stages so far: faith, reason and science. Faith and reason only created delusions about what we see out our windows. Our collaborative efforts at science gives us the hope that we’re all measuring the same reality.

Our window on reality distorts our perception to the size of reality. We assume we’re seeing 100% but we don’t. The visual spectrum is a tiny fragment of the electro-magnetic spectrum. Our range of hearing is also a tiny fragment of sound frequencies. We’ve all heard stories about the fantastic senses of various animals and imagined what that would be like. And then there’s the matter of perspective. The window on reality an eagle peers from at thousands of feet above Earth is much different from ours as we walk along the sidewalk.  And imagine how reality would appear if we had three eyes spaced equally distant around our head giving us a 360 degree view.

If you are familiar with cosmology you’ll know our view on reality is extremely microscopic compared to the true size of reality. Imagine being an atom and how much you’d know about the Earth from your tiny viewpoint of reality.  Compared to the known universe, you’d be smaller than an atom. The same logic holds true for the sub-atomic worlds that are invisible to us, because the ultra small can be truly large from the right perspective.

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What would our window on reality feel like if we had eyes that could focus from what a scanning electron microscope can see to what the Hubble telescope can take in? We’re building robot bodies now that will eventually have artificial minds. We could give them all kind of powerful senses we don’t have. Their window on reality will make ours feel like a peephole.

We expand our window on reality using our imagination to give us virtual windows on reality. If you look up at the night sky you can imagine what you can’t see with your knowledge of astronomy. When we walk through forests, or along tidal bays, we can annotate what we see from knowledge of biology, botany, chemistry and geology.

It is tragic that our narrative fallacies have distorted what we see out our window on reality. We kill each other over disagreements about what we think we see. To kill someone is to close their window forever. That doesn’t change reality. Nor does it confirm your narrative fallacy. We can believe anything, but only science, with consistent observations, reveal what we might be seeing.

JWH

Manned Mission to Mars or Gigantic Space Telescopes?

Which would be more exciting to happen in  your lifetime:  humans landing on Mars, or discovering life on a planet in another star system?  If we were willing to spend the money, and some big money at that, we could explore Mars, or we could build gigantic space-based telescopes to hunt for life on other planets orbiting nearby stars.  In our lifetime the Hubble telescope greatly expanded our vision of reality.  Then the Kepler telescope discovered thousands of exoplanets, letting us know that planets are common.  Building a very large space telescope would allow us to detect what’s in the atmospheres of those planets, including chemicals that indicate life, or even intelligent life.

Growing up in the 1960s with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs I was crazy for manned space exploration, but over the course of the last several decades I’ve been more thrilled with the rewards of robotic missions to Mars, missions to the rest of the solar system, and especially by space telescopes.  NASA has two upcoming spaced based telescopes that I’m trilled to see launched, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).  And ESA has plans for CHEOPS.

If you pay attention to space news, you’ll know that there are many people out there with different goals for space exploration.  Some want to go back to the Moon, others to Mars, some to asteroids, and many want to build fantastic space based observatories.  You can divide them into two groups – those who want manned missions, and those who want robot missions.  I’d prefer both, but what if we don’t have the money for both?  What gets the most bang for our bucks?

Manned missions are exciting and let us feel like we’re progressing towards greater heights of civilization and accomplishment.  Robot missions expand our awareness of reality at a much faster pace than we’ve ever imagined.  However, I feel that manned missions without the goal of permanent colonization doesn’t offer that much for our money.  If we went to Mars to build a new home for humans, to spread our eggs to another basket, then it would be worth all the money we could throw at the project.  If we only send a few people there over a period of decades and then stop, then I’d rather put all our money into robotic missions, especially gigantic space based telescopes that hunt for life in other stellar systems, and giant SETI projects.

If I’m lucky I might live another quarter century and I’d really like to know that we’re not alone in this universe before I die.  Sure, I’d love to know we could send people to Mars and back, but that’s not as exciting as knowing that life, and especially intelligent life exists somewhere besides Earth.  As a lifelong science fiction reader I’ve always felt that to be true, but I’d like to have proof.

Now that the economy is improving, that so many billionaires are starting private space programs, and Thomas Piketty is creating a movement that proves higher taxes would improve capitalism, we might have more money for space exploration, both manned and robotic.  Like I said, it would be great to finance both kinds of missions.  However, if I got to vote, I’d campaign for building a gigantic space based telescope, something far bigger than anything on the drawing boards at the moment.

I have no idea how big will be big enough.  Would building telescopes with kilometer size apertures on the far side of the Moon or out in L5 orbits do the job, or would it take building several large space telescopes positioned around the solar system to create a gigantic hyper-telescope interferometer array?

The trouble with all this is most citizens of the world do not care about science or spending such vast sums of money to learn more about reality.  That’s a shame because spending big bucks gets us big knowledge.  If we had spent the trillion dollars we spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on giant space telescopes we’d know if we were alone or not in the universe.  Or we could have a K-12 and higher education school system that would have produced vast armies of scientists and dazzling inventors and make us far more richer.  Money spent on science pays off more than money invested anywhere else.  It’s a shame we’d rather invest so heavily in war, and other forms of self-destruction.

I wish our species was smarter.

JWH – 7/16/14

A Documentary a Day Keeps the Psychiatrist Away

Most people are put off by documentaries and nonfiction books because they fear they will be educational, especially the mind-numbing kind of education they were exposed to when sentenced to 13 years of hard learning back in their K-12 prison days.  And yes, many documentaries and nonfiction books are as painful as classes back in high school.  However, and I mean a really big however, some documentaries and nonfiction books are mind blowing far out fun and entertaining – if you get off on learning about new things about this world and reality.  A good documentary should educate, but a wonderful documentary will entertain, and a great documentary will inspire.

As I have gotten older, I have become jaded to normal television entertainment.  It takes Breaking Bad quality to make me watch fictionalized television shows, so to fill up my old TV watching time I’ve turned to documentaries.  I’ve discovered if I can find the right documentaries I’m far more entertained than by watching 98% of fictional television shows.  More than that, I’ve discovered that watching a great documentary is uplifting for my mood, even if it’s about a depressing topic.  And the best documentaries inspire me with hope.  Documentaries can be elixirs for the soul.

For instance, last night I watched Touching the Wild on PBS Nature, about Joe Hutto spending seven years with Wyoming mule deer.  It took Hutto over two years of patiently following a herd of mule deer daily before they accepted him.  Eventually, he got to know them so individually that he named them.

Touching the Wild is about more than making friends with wild animals.  It’s an extremely profound philosophical work, about existence and death, about mind, language and intelligence.  One of the things that I’ve been learning from all of these documentaries is science is discovering that that animals are much closer to us mentally than we ever wanted to believe.  We are not God’s chosen creature.  We have no right to claim dominion over all the other creatures of this planet.  Nor can we claim our intelligence makes us superior. 

I am not a religious man, but this film was Biblical in its impact.  Strangely, I had seen Noah this weekend, and it makes you wonder if there was a creator, if he wouldn’t despise humans and want to wipe us out.  Christians babble on endlessly about being saved from sin, but I think it’s a childish cop-out to want to be forgiven.  We need to stop sinning to atone for our sins.  Watching Touching the Wild is like walking in Eden, we can blame the serpent all we want, but it is humans that are destroying paradise.

I was going to write this essay by listing dozens of great documentaries I’ve seen lately, but that would be too wordy I think.  I think instead I should tell you how to find great documentaries.  The highest qualities documentaries on TV are on PBS.  The next best source is streaming Netflix.  For instance I showed my friend Olivia Samsara yesterday that’s from Netflix.  She was blown away.

Cable TV has a lot of channels with documentaries and nonfiction shows, but most of its crap.  Sorry, but it’s true.  Some of it’s okay, but be careful.  The History Channel has such great potential, and sometimes it even has good shows, but all too often it has suspect information.  I wish it was peer reviewed by actually historians.  It would be great if actual Ph.D. historians had a chance to evaluate their documentaries in follow-up shows, because it would be enlightening to teach folks how they are being misinformed.  The History Channel has some good shows among the schlock, like The Universe, but they aren’t as well made as the science shows on PBS.  They tend to endlessly repeat the same animations and information.  Fox has redeemed it’s news division with Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a 13 episode series currently appearing on Sunday nights, that would make Carl Sagan choke up with pride for his protégé Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Like I said, PBS is where it’s at, when we’re talking about documentaries on regular television.  Currently Wednesday nights are called Think Wednesday, that start with Nature and NOVA, and follow up a three part series called Your Inner Fish, based on Neil Shubin’s book of the same name.  Your Inner Fish should give creationists apoplexy and intelligence designers their worst nightmares, but for people who understand evolution it’s a thing of beauty.  If only Darwin could have lived to see it.

NOVA has been running a series on animal intelligence and last night show was about dogs.  Anyone who loves dogs should watch it, especially if you’ve wondered why your favorite pet knows when you are coming home.  By the way, if you have a Roku, get the PBS channel, and you can watch these shows if you missed them.  The Roku PBS Channel keeps current shows around for a few weeks like Hulu.

Throughout the week, PBS has fabulous documentaries.  Just take a chance and try some of them out.  They cover every subject you can think of, and more than you can’t.

The variety of documentaries at Netflix streaming is practically endless.  New ones appear faster than I can keep up.  If you add one to your queue, Netflix will recommend ten more on the same topic.  Often when I add one documentary, I’ll end up adding eight or ten because Netflix is good recommending more that fit my tastes.  And if you aren’t a documentary junky, you’ll be surprised by how many documentaries are being made each year.   Just look at four music documentaries I recently watched.  The variety of all documentaries makes the word diverse quaint.

I’m not much of a traveler, so documentaries are my lazy-ass way of traveling the world.  I’m also on the shy side, so documentaries let me meet people I never would in real life.  But you have to be careful, some documentary film makers are very persuasive, and it’s easy to be convinced into believing bullshit.  We’re so used to fiction, that we accept what we see on TV.  That’s bad.  Being educated can be thrilling, and it doesn’t have to be boring.

What you really want, is to be inspired.  And sometimes you’ll find inspiration in the strangest places.  I’m not into fashion, but I found the documentary on Bill Cunningham, a fashion photographer for the New York Times, who is in his eighties and rides a bike around Manhattan, as very inspirational.  That’s the best thing about documentaries – seeing stories about people who stand out in their effort to achieve their ambitions.  Quite often I watch shows about people that overcome so many obstacles that aren’t in my way and still do things I only dream about.  They make me want to be a better person.

If I’m feeling blue and watch an inspiring documentary, my mind and soul will be uplifted.  If I’m feeling tired and watch a great documentary, I’ll be energized.  There’s more to TV than cop shows and sitcoms, and before reality shows, there were documentaries – shows about the real reality.

JWH – 4/17/14

The Science of Faith

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I am writing this in response to attacks on the TV show Cosmos by religious believers.  Cosmos represents a litmus test about the public’s understanding of science.  The series represents an overview of what science has learned in the last four hundred years.  Despite all the efforts of modern secular education, I think many of the ideas presented in Cosmos are new to a majority of the public.  Science and technology succeed in our society without the majority of the population even understanding it.

Cosmos represents a good consensus of what science knows about reality, and yet it is often in conflict with many people’s personal beliefs about how reality works because of their religious education.  Whether they accept it or not, science is in direct conflict with religion.

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Religion is wildly popular  because people want to believe.  People want to believe because of psychological needs.  Religion is 100% hope for certain fantasies to be true.  Believers validate their beliefs by getting other people to share their hopes.  But, what if the faithful applied the rigor of philosophy and the discipline of science to their religion?  Truth about reality is revealed not through our personal desires, but through what works for all people.

Why are there so many different religions, sects, creeds, beliefs if they are true?  They can’t all be true.  Why is there little consensus among believers, and much contention and hatred?  Religious wars are infamous for their cruelty.  Now the faithful feel under siege by science.  And some even invent pseudo-sciences to defend their beliefs.  If their beliefs were an actual feature of reality wouldn’t they be universal and testable?

Instead of attacking science, or making up fake science, the faithful should apply science to their beliefs.  First, they should find the core beliefs they all share and develop a consensus as to what is true about God or gods.  Anything your religion believes that all the other religions don’t, should be immediately crossed off the list of things that are probably true.  If something is universally true, it should be universally believed by all people.  False beliefs can be infinite because we can imagine anything, but universal truths should be finite because reality only works one way.  What are the universal truths in religious beliefs?  If a religious concept doesn’t apply to all humans on Earth, or even all aliens on every planet in the multiverse, then it should be doubted.

Science works by seeking such universal truths, and this is why the faithful feel under attack.  Not only does science work in a consistent manner, with a fantastic track record, but it’s truth works the same for Americans and Chinese, for Russians and Iranians.  Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus can barely agree on anything amongst themselves, much less with other religions.  If the religious really want to prove themselves, they need to band together and make one religion.  The obvious reason why religion is false is because there are too many of them.

If you are a firm believer in any metaphysical concept, you have to consider it a desire on your part unless you can find consensus with others.  That’s why religious people are so big on converting new recruits.  Getting someone else to believe like you do, validates your own fantasies.  If you really want to believe in something that’s true outside of your head, you need to be more scientific.  Any belief you hold that isn’t shared by a majority of the other seven billion people on this planet should be considered suspect.  Science succeeds because it’s under constant suspect.  Ideas have to taking a beating and keep on ticking – by everyone.

Even if six billion believers get together and form an absolute consensus on Laws of Religious Concepts, it won’t necessarily mean these beliefs are true without additional proof.  If the consensus is there is one God and that God listens to everyone’s prayers, then you need to test this hypothesis.  Let’s say every day six billion people all pray for the same unique thing each day.  If the prayers are answered repeatedly over years, then you can assume your theory is correct.  If it is not, you will have to alter your theory to there is a God but he doesn’t listen to people.  You will need to find a way to test this hypothesis.

However, even without scientific proof, the beliefs of the faithful can never be considered real unless they find more consensus.  Religious minded people would help their cause if they sought agreement rather than constantly splintering into smaller groups.  You can’t beat science by altering the rules of science.  You can’t beat science by lying about it.  You can’t beat science by putting your head into the sand.

I can think of two beliefs that a majority of religious believers might embrace.  One, there is a creator.  Two, the Golden Rule.  And those two might still cause a lot of arguments.  But beyond that, there is little agreement among the faithful.  Which to me, means there’s little reason to believe them.

Instead of attacking science, the religious should embrace each other.  You can’t elevate religion by undermining science.  Religions have always succeeded by war – by killing the unbelievers.  If you want to prove your religion is true, prove what you believe, not what everyone else believes is false.  Science succeeds because it proves what’s true, what works.

My challenge to the faithful, start proving your beliefs work universally.  I’ll consider the first step towards that proof when all religions become one.

JWH – 4/7/14

Who Is Watching Us If There Is No God?

One of the prime appeals of religion is a father figure who watches over everyone and everything.  I’m a lifelong atheist, so I don’t think about a personal God who listens and watches over me.  Yet, I know that the faithful need a higher power they feel is watching over them.  That desire to be noticed is very important to most people.  People cling to the concept of God for just a few reasons despite all the endless varieties of religions and their verbose theologies.  They don’t want to die, they want to be protected, they want someone to always care about them, and they want divine justice.

Last night I watched TB Silent Killer on the PBS documentary series Frontline.  This incredibly intense show on drug resistant tuberculosis in Africa was very hard to see, but I think very important not to miss.  Follow the link to watch the show.  It answers my question:  Who is watching us if there is no God?  We have to watch each other, either personally, or by films like this, or on the news, or by any other form of journalism, and even by the Internet and smartphones.  People have always wanted a God to watch over us, but as we evolve and learn about the scientific nature of reality, it’s obvious there is no father figure watching us 24×7.

What people want is to be saved from death and suffering.  The people in TB Silent Killer suffered greatly for months and years, and often died.  They felt no one was watching, that no one cared, and most importantly, no one would rescue them from their fates.  And they hated the unfairness that they were sick when others were not.  It wasn’t a just reality to them.  Watch this film to see how deeply you care, and contemplate possible answers.

As a self-aware species, and as we become enlightened and realize there is no magic in the sky, we have to learn how to create substitutes for all those hopes we put into God.  We really do want a superior being that cares for every sparrow that falls from a tree.  I can understand that desire.  I believe the human race has to become its own father figure.  We have to care for everyone else on Earth, and for all the animals too.  We have to learn to answer each other’s prayers.

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At end end of the show they asked each person what hope they had.  Most of the people were waiting for death, for after years of suffering, their hope of being rescued was long gone.  But the little girl they featured, Nokubheka, said she wanted people to invent safe pills that would cure TB.  She had been taking highly toxic medicines for months.  And she was right.  The way to answer her prayer is for science to find a cure for TB.  That should be something everyone wants because TB is airborne and it’s fast becoming drug resistant.  The show teaches about MDR TB (multi-drug-resistant TB) and XDR TB (extensively drug-resistant TB).  Remember how AIDS began in Africa, well it was a hard to spread retrovirus.  TB is very easy to spread, and it’s airborne.  You don’t have to have sex with the infected to catch it, just stand near them.  Yes, you should watch this show.  You should care.

While watching the show I also wondered how else we could help these people, or anyone that suffers a horrible disease like them.  All the victims in this documentary talked about being lonely, afraid, isolated, and bored.  Because of their contagion, they have to be isolated, but I wondered if they would have been happier if they had the Internet or smartphones.  Maybe a charity could be created that provides a social network for the sick and dying – one that would create a sense of being watched and cared for.  Call it The Sparrow.  It might even be a substitute for the desire to have a caring father figure watch over them.

When it comes down to it, we can plead for magic from an invisible being, or we can answer our own prayers with our own real abilities.

JWH – 3/26/14

The Theological Implications of the Multiverse

Because of recent research in gravity waves and inflation, the theory of the multiverse moves further toward reality.  While creationists are still fighting for equal time to oppose the 1859 theory of evolution, science has gone on to discover endless other aspects of reality that counter the Biblical view.  I don’t know why creationists focus so exclusively on evolution when millions of other scientific discoveries are also thorns in their theological sides.

When humanity thought the Earth was the center of everything, contained within the celestial spheres, it was possible to imagine our reality being constructed by a super being, especially if you believed the whole thing was only 6,000 years old.  Even then it was an extremely far out idea to buy.  After the sun was moved to the center of the universe, and Earth was just the third planet, it became a lot harder to imagine a God that could create the solar system with some kind of magic spell.  For a long while after that, we assumed all of reality was the Milky Way galaxy.

As reality got bigger, it got harder to imagine a single being creating it.  But still, reality was manageable with just a billion stars.  Then Edwin Hubble came along and showed us reality is composed of billions of galaxies.  How can any theology handle a reality that big?

If we live in a multiverse, it might not be billions of universes, but an infinity of them.  Or there might be another layer, so there are billions of multiverses in a megaverse.  It seems science can’t find any end to large or small, nor a beginning of time.  This has got to wipe out all ancient theological theories.  It’s time to start over.  Reality is too big for any kind of God, and we’re too small for any kind of special consideration.

Humanity needs to start over and throw out all theology and come up with a new working hypothesis about our place in reality.  Instead of thinking of ourselves as the crown of creation, we need see ourselves closer to an intelligent virus that accidently came about through random evolution with no  higher being watching.  Seen from orbiting telescopes, humans are little smudges that have infected this planet.  We’re quite deadly, killing off most of the other life forms on Earth.

We have a decision to make.  Shall we take responsibility for our actions?  There is no God judging us.  We only judge ourselves.  And it might not even be possible for our species to become fully conscious of its actions and act.  We might breed ourselves out of existence.  It should be pretty obvious to all by now that no God will intercede.  We will not be punished if we don’t act, nor will we be rewarded if we do.  We merely can choose to act.  We can preserve ourselves, other species, and the planet Earth – for a while. 

Nothing last forever in the multiverse.

Please read.

JWH – 3/24/14

More Science, Less Fiction

As a lifelong science fiction reader I’ve always had an on again, off again relationship with science, but now that I’m retired I’m thinking about a deeper commitment.  Science fiction inspires a kind of love for science that’s not very realistic.  Science fiction is a marijuana high of smoking science, and is about as scientific as two dopers discussing theories of reality.  Science fiction is a good gateway drug to science, but sooner or later you have to move on to the harder stuff – physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics.

Most folks today have little knowledge of science, and most of those who do, have a Newtonian model of reality in their heads.  The hard to intuit relativity of space-time, and the bizarre quantum world is beyond all but a few to incorporate into their seeing of how things work.  We truly live in a science fictional world, where a little bit of science creates a lot of fiction. 

Back in the 1950s and 1960s when I was growing up, science fiction was about the future, but our lives in the 21st century present are very science fictional.  We live in times described by Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Growing up reading science fiction gave me a view of the future that’s turned out to be wrong.  Before I die, I’d like to assemble another view of the future, to imagine what things will be like after I die.  But this time, hopefully, I want to install a more realistic science.  We can’t predict the future, but we can shoot down a lot of crap ideas.  I’d like to die with a reasonable idea of what my brief visit to reality was all about.

I read about 52 books a year, or on average, one a week.  I’d like to be more systematic about reading science books, but I don’t want to give up reading other kinds of books.  Actually, I don’t want to create any rigid rules to live by at all – anything I feel obligated to do, I won’t.  But lately, I’ve been reading a lot of great popular science books and I realize to better understand what I’m reading will require some applied effort.

For example, I’m currently listening to Time Reborn by Lee Smolin, and he mentions reading Einstein’s original papers from 1905 as a young student.  Smolin says they are quite easy to understand, far better than most science papers, and they set the standard for science papers in their clarity of thought.  I’ve always assumed they could only be read by genius level scientists.  It just so happens I have a copy of Einstein’s Miraculous Year:  Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics.  Now, I’m torn.  Should I stop reading Time Reborn and read Einstein?

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Smolin makes it sound like reading Einstein’s original work is the foundation of all his scientific thinking.  This makes me think instead of reading the latest popular science books I should instead be reading older ones.  I’ve always dismissed science books older than a few years as being past their expiration date.  Maybe this is a false assumption. 

When I bought Our Mathematical Universe, I read an interesting reader review at Amazon where Michael Birman said:

Years of reading science books have produced a personal pantheon of the finest I’ve ever come across. There are several aspects of Tegmark’s book that have placed it amongst the three finest popular science books I’ve ever read. The other two books are Albert Einstein and Leopold Infield’s The Evolution of Physics and Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy (Commonwealth Fund Book Program). The first book, The Evolution of Physics, is still the clearest exposition of classical and (relatively) modern physics ever written, despite its age. It remains the most authoritative, concise and profound discussion of the source of Einstein’s world-shattering ideas, and has never been surpassed as a book written by a great scientist for a popular audience. Kip Thorne’s book combines personal reminiscence and scientific exposition with an elegance and depth that makes it my choice as the finest modern popularized science book. Thorne proved that you can write about science in an engaging manner without sacrificing either intelligence or necessary relevant technical detail.

You guessed it, I ordered those two books too.  So just starting two new books has gotten me to buy three old books.  The trouble with reading current physics books is they are often so ethereal that I don’t know if I’m learning science or reading science fiction.  For the last many years, I’ve been constantly drawn back to the 19th century in literature and history, so I’m thinking I might need to return to that century to study science.  I need to learn the physics that led up to Einstein.

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Then there’s the whole gnarly issue of math.  My math abilities are slight.  How far can I really understand science without math?  I’ve bought a bunch of math history books, and a Great Course on the history of mathematics.  Part of my retirement benefits is getting to take two free courses a semester, and there are many online math courses.  If I wanted to, I could study math again.  And I might.  Although I wonder at making such an effort in my retirement years when I seem to be forgetting faster than I’m remembering.

Reading Einstein (I’ve already started) does make you think about the physical world differently.  To understand time in the way Smolin is talking about it in Time Reborn will take a lot of contemplation.  More and more I realize the value of Einstein’s thought experiments.

In the modern world we’re easily fooled by pre-digested knowledge we get from television.  The new Cosmos might look dazzling, but to understand it requires ignoring the frenetic CGI dazzle and returning to a slow Amish like simplicity of thought.  Just doing the math to model 13.8 billion years on a generic 365 day calendar is enlightening. 

I’ve read lately, but I’ve forgotten where, that if the most complex science can’t be explained to the average person without mathematics then that science isn’t really understood by the scientists either.  I’d like to believe that.  I’d like to believe I can understand science even if I can’t prove it mathematically.  But I shouldn’t give up on studying math either.  What I need to do is go back to the beginning and learn math historically, and progress forward through time.  Start with the Babylonians, and then the Greeks, and see if learning math in the order it was discovered will help me see a mathematical reality.

Growing up in a gee-whiz era of science and technology makes it hard to tell science from fiction.  Even the science books I read, and the science documentaries I watch, are full of fiction, even though they are factual in intent.  If I don’t comprehend what they say correctly, then I create mental fictions to explain what I think I see.  Science fiction novels that I’ve always loved to read, took science concepts and intentionally made wild fiction out of science.  Such hopeful expectations from science fiction has corrupted my mind about science.  I now need to rethink both science and science fiction.

I’ve been a life-long atheist, and been skeptical of religion, mysticism, the metaphysical and paranormal, thinking instead that science is the only valid course to understanding reality.  But the more I study science, the more I feel the need to be skeptical of my own knowledge of science.  It’s very easy to fool oneself.  Eye witnesses are notorious unreliable, and we tend to feel that other people can be tricked and not us – that what we see is real.  But isn’t that another fiction?

How much do you know could you prove?  Can you really prove the Earth orbits the Sun?  Humanity has discovered a lot of scientific knowledge in the last four hundred years, but how much could you prove yourself?  Being told something is true doesn’t mean you understand why its true.

Even if science fiction didn’t exist, we still live in a science fictional world, not because of rocketships and robots, but because we fictionalize science, we fictionalize what we’re told is true, we fictionalize everything we don’t know, and even the things we do.

JWH 3/14/14