String Theories in Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 8, 2016

String theory must be in trouble if Sheldon Cooper, a fictional character from the popular TV series, The Big Bang Theory, decides to give up working on the theory after twenty years of dedicated effort. String theory is an elegant mathematical theory that seeks to explain how the Standard Model unites with the  quantum theory of gravity. In recent years string theory has come under attack because its not falsifiable, implying it’s not scientific. This is quite controversial. But don’t worry, string theorists are far from packing it in, see the new book Why String Theory? by Joseph Conlon.

Why String Theory by Joseph Conlon

I think these science wars defining the scope of science are a good analogy for what’s going on in science fiction. Many, if not most, science fiction fans want to believe the future holds unlimited possibilities, and science and technology will eventually create everything we can imagine. For some deep psychological reason, most science fiction readers do not want to believe our species has limitations. They hate the idea that faster-than-light travel might not be possible. And are horrified at the suggestion that colonizing the galaxy might be an unrealistic pipedream. Let’s face it, true believers of science fiction want Star Wars or Star Trek to become humanity’s future. They passionately cling to Arthur C. Clarke’s First Law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” In other words, they want to believe nothing is impossible.

What if science does discover we have limitations? What if we reach the limits of what we can observe or infer by all our extended senses of technology? What if we can’t build machines that can test string theory? Or find clues to prove the existence of the multiverse? As long as we know we can’t go further, we can assume that we can, and science fiction has hope. But what if science conclusively finds the boundaries of our existence? Should science fiction stay within those boundaries? Aren’t stories outside those boundaries called fantasy? I believe Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2015 novel Aurora explores these very questions.

Aurora KSM

Shouldn’t science fiction be about the possibilities of science? Aren’t we really wanting to believe the inverse of Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – that magic is just technology we don’t understand? Isn’t that how God created Earth in The Book of Genesis? I’m afraid most fans of science, even beyond the science fiction fans, are hoping that science will magically make anything we want happen.

Science Wars by Steven L. Goldman

Few people understand the limitations of science. I highly recommend one of The Great Courses from the Teaching Company called, Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It by Professor Steven L. Goldman. (Just one credit at Audible.com.) Goldman starts with Plato and Aristotle and takes us through the centuries showing how scientific thought emerged in natural philosophy and then science. Science is far more complicated than the Scientific Method. Science cannot state absolute facts in the philosophical sense of explaining the Truth of Reality. Current scientific theories are our best statistical explanations for what we experience. Theories are always supplanted by newer theories. Newtonian physics was excellent at explaining reality in the 17th century, but Einstein explains reality better in the 20th century. Is Newton wrong for not seeing what Einstein did? Will Einstein be wrong when someone comes up with a better theory?

One of our limitations is we never get to know. We only get to know the best explanations we have at the moment, and most people’s working knowledge is based on theories hundreds of years out of date. Any fundamentalist Christian is working with a 2,000 year old model of reality. If you don’t know the new theories, the old ones feel perfectly good. And aren’t most science fiction readers hoping for the future based on theories long out of date?

Basically string theory was getting too far ahead of science. String theory is like the concept of galactic civilizations in science fiction, it just sounds so good, that we insist it must be true.

But here’s the kicker. If we don’t want to live in fantasyland, we have to stick with the current best theories that are falsifiable. Religion and most of philosophy aren’t, and look where they’ve taken us.

I lean towards believing science will eventually show us our limits. One limitation that’s under examination by science philosophers is whether or not we can examine reality without our subjective bias. That understanding is limited to our perceptions and how our brain works, and that will always color what we discover. I wonder, when we invent machines that think, if they will discover aspects of reality that we can’t see because of this limitation? And if they do, can they report it to us. Right now whatever we see with the telescope comes through the limits of our perceptions. What if we invent a telescope that can see for itself. Can we ask it: Are you seeing the same reality we do? Can you see things we don’t?

It might turn out that humans will never discern strings, but our machines will. Can science determine that? Or is even that only possible within the realm of science fiction? If you pay attention to reality, we live with endless limitations now. There is no reason to believe that our species has no limitations. There’s no reason to believe science is unlimited. I think it helps us to know what is falsifiable by science, and even expect science fiction to work with those limitations. Isn’t that what distinguishes it from fantasy?

JWH

Explaining Reality With More Than One Book

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 8, 2015

What are the minimum number of books you’d have to read to get a good overview of reality? Would they all be science books, or would we need philosophy, history, mathematics or even religious texts to go beyond what experimental results can’t cover?

There are billions of people on this planet who explain existence with the help of just one book. These sacred works have been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years, well before science and scholarship. It’s quite understandable to want just one manual, but is this world explainable in words? Science experiments offers an alternate explanation to ontological questions, but requires reading a library of books to understand. That might be why billions stick to their single volume guides.

On the Origin of Species

Is there a single science book that can compete with The Bible, Quran, Tanakh, Tao Te Ching, Rig Veda, Diamond Sutra, etc.? Does science even try to give one book believers what they want? A book on cosmology or biology explains aspects of reality but without telling people how to live. People who live by just one book, read for guidance, not explanations. They want the world to be easily explained, fair and just. The trouble is science splendidly explains how reality works in tremendous detail, but offers no guidance how to live. We followers of science are left to find our own purpose, because science clearly shows everything in this reality is a product of impartial statistical events.

Do people choose one book solutions because reality is overwhelming, preferring simple myths instead?

How many science books would a person of faith have to read before they could understand the existential nature of their lives? Because believers are taught from an early age to believe in their single books, their non-scientific views are deeply ingrained in their minds, and hard to reprogram. Apparently, anything we learn as children sticks with us, and is very hard to erase. If children were taught Darwin at an early age, and their one book was On the Origin of Species, would the world be psychologically different?

Few scientists understand the actual science of things beyond their narrow specialty. If everyone had to read the original research of all the discoveries of science, we wouldn’t have much time for anything else. Most supporters of science understand reality through popular science, which is only an approximation of real science. Our knowledge about reality is collective knowledge. People who argue against evolution are really arguing against millions of books and research papers.

I once bought On the Shoulders of Giants by Stephen Hawking, which reprints the original scientific writings of Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Einstein, but I could not read it—at least for long. If I devoted my life to it, I could probably understand this book after a few decades of trying.

What would happen if schools showed documentaries that recreated all the great science, mathematics and engineering experiments of history, so that little kids saw how people discovered details of reality for the first time? Would seeing be better than reading?

I’ve read hundreds of nonfiction books and seen just as many documentaries, but I’d be hard press to point to a selection and claim they are the basis of my beliefs. Of course I have a confusing, muddled view of science and mathematics, and couldn’t actually teach what I know either. However, because there are endless views of The Bible or Quran, I tend to think even having just one book to master doesn’t lend itself to consistent explanations.

Despite all the books I’ve read about Einstein, and all the documentaries I’ve seen that explain his work, I still can’t comprehend relativity. Evolution makes sense to me, but I couldn’t teach it. I can understand why other people might not comprehend evolution.

Maybe we should ignore books altogether. Maybe we should strive to teach kids the basic concepts of science by having them recreate the experiments themselves. I’m getting sort of old, but I wonder if there are any experiments I could learn to do, that would allow me to see how a basic aspect of reality works. For example, I’ve been taught the sun is a big ball of hydrogen. Is there anyway I could prove that for myself?

For 2016, I plan to read On The Origin of Species. I wonder how close I can get to seeing the science behind it, and how much will remain just a story, a myth, a generalization? And after that, I want to find another science book that will take me closer to understanding real science rather than popularization. Einstein discovered relativity with thought experiments. I don’t think there will be many books I can comprehend actual science without mathematics and experimental apparatus, but there might be a few. I’m sure it’s more than one.

I ask my friends who believe in The Bible to distrust what it says, but am I not a creature of faith by my acceptance of science from popular sources? Who knows, maybe one book guides are one too many. Maybe we shouldn’t believe anything unless we can recreate the experimental proof ourselves.

JWH

What Is Outside of the Box?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 9, 2015

We are constantly advised to think outside of the box. This usually comes on the job, when a breakthrough is needed because doing things the old ways are obviously no longer working. But what is outside the box? For a CPA, it might be new ways to shelter taxes, or for a NASA engineer, a completely novel way to land a rover on Mars, but for most people it means, “Try thinking other than the way you’ve always thought.”

Think-Outside-the-Box

To understand how that’s done really requires knowing what’s in the box and what’s outside the box. I like to think of the box as our skull. Our brains are inside a bone box, connected to the outer world by five sensory input ports. You can read 2,500 years of philosophy about what’s outside the box, but it essentially comes down to three things. Solipsistic thinkers believe only the self exists and there’s nothing outside the box. It’s all an illusion. Theistic thinkers believe we are souls embedded in a physical reality created by God, that obscures a greater spiritual reality . Finally, scientific thinkers believe there is a vast singular objective reality outside our heads that can be understood through gathering evidence with scientific and statistical methods using our five senses.

Each of these viewpoints can hinder the perception of what’s outside of the box through rigid adherence to beliefs about what might potentially be outside the box. Which is why we’re constantly told to think outside the box. If you believe your religion explains what’s outside the box, then why are there so many other religions? Which one explains reality? If you believe the religion you were brought up to believe, how can you know if you’re not culturally brainwashed? To think outside the box would require studying a good sampling of all religions, and then deciding which theological ontology is the most valid, if any. Any scientist who’s heard the phrase paradigm shift will understand their own potential for rigid thinking that blinds them to something new.

Inside our heads, we build the walls of our box with cultural brainwashing. Most people think the way they do because they were taught to think that way by parents and peers. We seldom escape that original packaging. Anyone who is completely confident in believing what they were taught are delusional. And even when taking on new views, it’s very easy to take on new delusions about what’s outside the box. Can we ever really know what’s exists outside our skulls?

It’s very easy to find masters of hidden wisdom who to claim to teach the ultimate secrets to what’s outside of the box. Just watch this entertaining video about thinking outside the box. It’s a come-on for the esoteric belief in hidden knowledge called Kabbalah. I highly recommend watching this video because it’s very convincing. And that’s the trouble, there’s an infinity of convincing cases made to what’s outside the box. There are plenty of other ancient systems of hidden knowledge, like Gnosticism and Pythagoreanism. Folks have been trying to figure out what’s outside the box for thousands and thousands of years. Yuval Noah Harari suggests in his book Sapiens that humans have been inventing ideas since the cognitive revolution 17,000 years ago. Homo sapiens are experts as making shit up—it might be our defining characteristic.

For the last five hundred years, science has been trying to measure data from outside the box by looking for consistent behavior. During the time it has developed an extremely statistically consistent view of what’s outside the box. It’s precise down to enough decimal places to allow scientists to send probes to Pluto billions of miles away or let giant heavy-than-air jumbo jets fly around the world.

We all live in a subjective reality created by our minds which give us delusions that we know what’s outside the box. We’d like to believe there an objective reality that is the same for all seven billion of us to perceive. Subjective reality might be too powerful to ever let us comprehend what’s outside the box. Culturally we carry the baggage of thousands of years of religious and philosophical thinking that provide no actual evidence to what’s outside the box. Zen Buddhists work to teach people to see directly with their senses and forget corrupting concepts, but few people can do that.

Often to think outside of the box requires us to stop thinking inside the box. It helps to let new concepts inside.

If you’re following the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, so far all the candidates are rigidly thinking inside their boxes, and so are the voters. Essentially politics have become a way to form coalitions of like minded subjective thinkers, usually based on the same moldy old issues inspired by subjective desires. If there is an objective reality out there, we must work on the actual problems that we face to let us live safely in that objective reality. If it’s a solipsistic or metaphysical reality, it hardly matters. Sadly, most voters are seeking candidates that validate their delusions. Isn’t time we all start wondering what’s actually outside our boxes?

Flammarion_Woodcut

JWH #971

The Science Fiction in The Martian

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 5, 2015

Most folks call The Martian science fiction, even when most of the articles I read about the book and movie praise its science. After I thought about it, I find it very difficult to find anything science fictional about The Martian. When does fiction mutate into science fiction? Science fiction has always been notoriously hard to define. Does rocketships and a Mars setting automatically make The Martian science fiction? Is being set slightly in the future make it science fiction? In terms of publishing categories and movie marketing labeling, it’s pretty natural to call The Martian science fiction, but I’m wondering if that’s old habit or lazy convenience.

martianteaser-hermes

Don’t get me wrong, I love super hard science fiction that doesn’t stray far from scientific laws. But from the vantage point of when I grew up back in the 1950s and 1960s, our lives in the 2010s are already science fictional. So it’s hard to discern everyday far out from imaginative far out. The Martian would definitely be science fiction if it was written back when Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were telling stories about going to Mars hoping to inspire humanity to really go. Isn’t Andy Weir and his work a child of science fiction, but not necessarily science fiction? Aren’t we too close to going to Mars for stories about going to Mars to be called science fiction?

One reviewer said The Martian should just be called fiction. Even if we haven’t gone to Mars yet, it doesn’t mean a story about going to Mars is science fiction. Science fiction speculates about the possibilities of what science might discover, and The Martian uses science that engineers routinely apply now to existing space missions. About the only fantastic speculation I can see The Martian is the belief that the United States will spend trillions of dollars on a Mars mission sometime in the near future. The only area where I see Ridley Scott pushing believability is the scale of his Mars rockets, rovers, habitats and equipment. It’s been a while since I read the book, so I don’t remember if Andy Weir imagined everything so big.

Science fiction is about a sense of wonder that pushes the limits of knowledge. Sure it’s often unbelievable and even ultimately unscientific, and although science fiction is fantastic like fantasy fiction, science fiction is something we want to believe is possible even though it’s probably not. The Martian is far out, and has tremendous sense of wonder, but isn’t it too mundane to be science fiction? Isn’t it really just fiction? We could do everything in The Martian if Uncle Sam would write NASA a big enough check. And I say again, that’s about the only thing I think is science fictional in The Martian.

I’m wondering if there are qualities to science fiction that we don’t understand. That it’s too easy to call anything about the future, or anything that takes place in outer space as science fiction. Maybe we don’t know what to point to when we’re looking for the essence of science fiction. For 99.9% of people, science fiction is the perfect label for The Martian. The book and movie are wonderful, inspiring and filled with a powerful sense of wonder. I think they make people feel like they used to when they were kids reading science fiction for the first time. However, I think there is something more to science fiction. Something elusive that we can’t easily pin down. Something that we long for when we’re old, and wish we could find it again. I’m not sure that’s in The Martian. I believe it has too much science for that ineffable quality.

Nor do I mean any criticism of The Martian by thinking about not calling it science fiction. It’s a standout story and movie. I was just wondering when times get so close to science fictional if we need to reserve the label for stories a little more into the twilight zone.

JWH

Why Science is Not Myth

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 29, 2015

My book club was discussing Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari when Linda said she liked how the author compared capitalism to religion. Tim replied that many things are like religion, including atheism. Cayce then added everything boils down to myths, including science. I knew what Tim and Cayce were getting at, that we all use our beliefs like a religion, and that we understand aspects of reality through stories, but I objected that science should be called another myth. Cayce then countered that I should show him a photograph of an electron. Tim then commented that science often gets corrupted and misused. Cayce then said that science can’t prove anything, and can only offer a probability that never approached certainty.

Flammarion_Woodcut

I wanted to argue more, but by then, it seemed like we were getting into a private discussion, boring the rest of the group. However, I think it’s extremely important to define why science is not myth. First I think we need to define the word myth. For our purposes I’d say myths are stories that explain reality. However, one definition of myth is a false story – “That’s just a myth.” I’m not sure if Cayce was arguing that science is a myth because it’s just another story explaining reality, or that no story can explain the absolute truth about reality, so they are all myths.

I believe it’s important to distinguish that science is not myth because it’s the only cognitive tool our species has developed to explain how reality works. Myths, religions and philosophy have failed at explaining reality, and what sets science apart is its success. Science is the only system of thought that has consistently worked even though it doesn’t offer absolute certainty, or answers to all questions.

One reason why myths sometimes appear to work is believers assume our reality is not the real reality, that we live in an illusion, and a higher reality contains the truth to our existence. Some believers in myths believe reality is mutable and thought can shape reality. However, I’m working on the assumption that there is an external reality, that it’s part of a single reality, and reality can be understood by observation.

To assume science is just another myth, is to suggest that reality is unknowable. It implies that the knowledge we’ve gained from science is just another illusion. I reject that for two reasons. First, science is a method, not a belief. Second, the results of science is too consistent.

Myths impose concepts on reality. Science reveals patterns in reality. Myths come from the inner world of our subjective minds. Science studies objective reality outside our brains. Science and myth are polar opposites.

Too many people today think the data collected by the process of scientific research as something you can accept or reject. There are two problems here. One, the current results of science can be uncertain, and two, people want to believe what they want to believe. It’s unfair to judge science because people don’t like the results, or the results are inconclusive. Science constantly refines what we know about reality because it never stops gatherings new information. Myths never do that.

Myths are popular memes. We keep myths going because people like them. For instance the idea of heaven. There has never been on shred of evidence that heaven exists, but most people believe in it.

Myths are ideas we want to be true. Scientific ideas are ones we prove to be true. Myths require no evidence. Science does.

The reason science is not myth is because science is a technique not an idea. The results of the scientific method are statistical data. Mythology produces infinite possibilities. Science shows us consistent patterns.

Science does not depend on belief. Gravity works whether you believe in it or not. So does evolution and climate change. Electrons exist without us seeing them. Seven billion plus people use electrons every day. Electrons are immensely dependable and predictable. Cayce was holding an iPhone when he asked for a photograph of an electron. I should have pointed out that an iPhone is better evidence of electrons than any picture.

Mythology produced countless human cultures before the advent of science. Since the advent of science culture is homogenizing around consistent scientific results. The Comanche of North America, the Australian aborigines, or even the Israelites of the Old Testament could imagine living in any kind of reality they wanted, but they could never have built a Boeing 777 or IMAX theater. Citizens around the Earth are seeing a consistent reality because science showed us how to build cars, computers, cell phones and CT scanners.

Humans around the globe rebel against science because they want their myths. This is why I’m making such a fuss about refusing to accept science as myth. We have a clear choice. We can live in the illusion of what we want to believe, or we can use science to study how reality actually works and adapt our minds and culture to what’s real.

JWH

A Different Flavor of Science Fiction–The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert is fiction about the heart of science. Alma Whittaker, the protagonist represents the empirical ideal, while Ambrose Pike stands in for the mystical and metaphysical. The Signature of All Things is another kind of science fiction, a story about scientific thinking, set in the 19th century, the century where the scientist came into being, the century where we turned from reading the word of God to reading all things natural, the century where evolution was revealed as the driving force of creation.

I love The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert so much that I hunger to know how it was written. This book is such a perfect mixture of historical detail, psychological realism and imagined characterization that it becomes deeply philosophical, going well beyond just a great story. I can’t help but believe it’s Gilbert’s personal statement about the nature of reality. I don’t know if Alma Whittaker is Elizabeth Gilbert, but she’s probably the woman Gilbert would want to be if she lived in the 19th century. Don’t let any prejudice about Gilbert’s earlier books keep you from reading this one.

If you love stories of the 19th century, especially ones about natural philosophers becoming scientists, then you should read The Signature of All Things. Gilbert’s sprawling tale covers two lifetimes beginning in the 18th century and ending in the 19th, and includes sea voyages, botany, biology, lithography, Tahiti, Captain Cook, Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. This time around, we get to live an alternate history where there is a woman scientist, Alma Whittaker, who made some very great discoveries on her own. Alma Whittaker is the person you’d want to be if you could reincarnate backwards in time.

If you’ve ever fantasized about living in the 19th century and becoming an amateur scientist yourself, The Signature of All Things is among the more detailed of such fantasies. Science fiction has always looked to the future, but the future hasn’t turned out to be everything it was cracked up to be, so many science fiction fans have turned to fantasy, and many of them love steampunk, a retro look at the Victorian era. This book isn’t steampunk, but it wears the same appealing fashions. I think there are many deep rooted psychological reasons why us futurists have turned to look backwards to Darwin and Dickens. This book is historical, but not quite historical fiction. It has intense sense of wonder, but it’s not science fiction, not in the traditional sense, but it should appeal to the science minded person.

Science fiction itself evolved out of Victorian era sense of wonders, and we grew up believing in lone inventors who could master the magical incantations of science. We love all those butterfly collections, scientific sea voyages and dinosaur hunters.

Orchid lithograph

The Signature of All Things is a love letter to those who embrace the natural world over the metaphysical.

The entire time I read The Signature of All Things I kept wondering how Gilbert imagined her novel. I’d gladly buy The Making of The Signature of All Things if Gilbert would write it. The book is an amazing feat of imagination, research, inspiration and psychology. In one sense it’s a feminist fantasy, and on the other hand, it’s a fantasy for anyone who reveres the 19th century. I got on the Internet hoping to find clues as to how and why Gilbert wrote this novel, and I luckily discovered that Gilbert had a Pinterest page devoted to The Signature of All Things. The financial success of Eat, Pray, Love let Gilbert spend three years researching The Signature of All Things. Few writers get such an opportunity, and her hard work paid off in a big way.

The first fifty pages of the book is about Henry Whittaker, a fascinating character that could have easily overshadowed the main character, his daughter Alma. Alma Whittaker is the ultimate free-range child educated by her stern Dutch mother, Beatrix. Alma was born January 5, 1800, so she ages with the century. Alma grows up on a huge estate outside of Philadelphia, and her father invited the most interesting men in the world to visit. Even as a child, Alma was expected to carry on an adult conversation at the dinner table. She mastered many living and dead languages, read everything in her father’s large library, and taught herself to become a botanist, specializing in mosses.

I can’t begin to chronicle all the ideas in this novel. Gilbert distilled her three years research into five hundred pages of fiction, and on almost every page, I wondered about her choice of detail to reveal. The book is tightly plotted, with an abundance of vivid characters, and the reader travels around the world three times. And it’s not until the end, that everything finally comes together. It’s a very satisfying ending, yet I wanted to know more. I wanted to know how and why Gilbert made her writing decisions.  I found some of the answers I sought in this interview:

Victorian scientists were big on developing classification systems, mapping every scrap of land and sea, inventing coordinate grids and measurement systems, taxonomies, and most of all, collecting. Science in the time of Dickens was small enough in scope, that most intelligent individuals could be well-versed generalists. There is a special kind of appeal to science before relativity and quantum mechanics. A gentleman or gentlewoman with a microscope and telescope could confirm most of what they read, and it was still possible to keep up with the reading in most fields.

Alma Whittaker, is a woman that wants to understand, and through almost endless hardships, becomes enlightened.

JWH

Faith in Science

I am reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, an overview of the men and women who brought about the age of computers. At other times during the day I’m listening to The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr, a book about how automation is making humans dumber. Isaacson gives the history of computers starting when they were first imagined as mechanical devices, but really came into being as electronic devices using vacuum tubes, and finally evolving into solid state devices we know today after the invention of the transistor.

Here’s my problem. I can sort of visualize how a mechanical calculator works, at least for adding and subtraction, but beyond that my brain explodes. I especially can’t conceive of how vacuum tubes were used to make a digital computer. I started taking computer programming classes in 1971, and even passed two semesters of assembly language. I used to be pretty good at binary and hexadecimal arithmetic.  But it’s extremely hard for me to imagine how a computer actually works. Essentially, it’s all magic, and I just accept that it’s possible to build a computer according to the laws of science – but my acceptance is really faith in science.

Nicholas Carr believes the more work we give to computers the dumber humans will become. Watch these two videos, and tell me if you understand them. The first is from 1943 and is about the basics of a vacuum tube, obviously a device essential to most of industrial progress at the time, but a forgotten tech today.

This is the technology that scientists used to build the first electronic programmable computers. Can you in any way conceive of how they get from vacuum tube to data processing? How much would I have to know to understand how the first computers were assembled? I keep reading about vacuum tubes, and even though I get a slight glimpse into their nature, I cannot for the life of me imagine how they were used to create a machine to do arithmetic, and show the results – much less understand the commands of a programming language, no matter how primitive that language.

I then thought maybe I’d understand vacuum tubes better if I could understand how they were made.  I found this film.

This film makes me mightily impressed with scientists of the late 19th and early 20th century. If civilization collapsed it would be a very long time before we could ever reinvent the vacuum tube, much less a computer.

What these two short films show me is human knowledge is divvied up so everyone learns extremely tiny pieces of total knowledge, but collectively we can create magical machines like an iPhone 6. A smartphone represents countless forms of expertise I will never understand, or even fathom with any kind of analogous modeling. An iPhone 6 probably has the equivalent of billions of vacuum tubes as transistors shrunk down into a solid state that are only individually visible with an electron microscope. It’s fucking magic. There’s no way around it. I know it’s science, but to my mind any mumbo jumbo I come up with to explain the miracle of a smartphone is no better than the incantations in a Harry Potter novel.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all were Renaissance beings that knew everything the entire human race had learned up to this point? Would we all have more respect for science if our K-12 education had been about recreating how we got to our current level of technology? What kind of curriculum would be required so that each graduating class had to build an ENIAC to earn their high school diplomas? That would only put them 70 years behind the times.

I don’t want to live by faith in science, I want my brain to comprehend science.

I think Carr might be right. I think we’re passing our knowledge off to machines and slacking off ourselves. One day we’ll have intelligent machines that can actually do anything any scientist in history has every done. And all we’ll know how to do is double-tap an app icon to get it started.

JWH