"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, March 24, 2014

Science And Meaning–Does The Big Bang Matter?

A few days ago scientists at Harvard reported that they had observed gravitational waves consistent with the Big Bang Theory.  If the universe started with a massive explosion sending matter and energy out in all directions, then these waves would be the ‘smoking gun’ that scientists have looked for since Alan Guth predicted them 35 years ago.

These waves, however, are not just clear evidence that the Big Bang happened, but explain why it happened – how something could be created out of nothing.

Guth discovered what might have made the universe bang to begin with. A potential hitch in the presumed course of cosmic evolution could have infused space itself with a special energy that exerted a repulsive force, causing the universe to swell faster than the speed of light for a prodigiously violent instant. (Dennis Overbye, New York Times 3.24.14)

I have just now gotten around to reading the articles about the discovery, not because I was interested in this new cosmological discovery but because I wasn’t.   I have barely enough time to suss out what I am doing here let alone ponder how the whole kit-and-caboodle got started. 

As college sophomores we all banged on about being and nothingness, God and Infinity, and the space-time continuum, then went to Mory’s and forgot about it all.  Interest picked up a few years later when we saw Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey.  The Big Bang with all its power had to have produced more than just Earth and human beings.  How arrogant and senseless was the assumption that we are alone.

We soon forgot about that argument as well.  Law school and Wall Street demanded all of our time; and in my case India was hard enough to decipher without complicating limited reason with cosmology. The Big Bang may have spit off the chunk of matter that we now live on, but my challenge was to fit India into my traditional, white-picket-fence, golf club and Ivy League world.

The Big Bang seemed remote and irrelevant. So did ornithology, ichthyology, and all other inquiries into the nature of how things worked. Only when scientists started tinkering around with human nature – what made us all tick and what was responsible for the surprising similarity of culture and behavior – did I lift my nose out of my curry and rice. It was beginning to look like human nature, unchanged for millennia because of hardwiring, was in for a retooling. Soon the advances in recombinant DNA research would enable genetic selection for all traits. Not only would we be able to create offspring who looked like Scarlett Johansson or ran like the wind; but we would be able to tinker with human nature itself – get rid of the nasty bits like the selfish gene and replace it with a more kind and considerate one.  Or borrow from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and create a fundamental human engine which was even more unstoppable and willful than they ever before.

At the same time that genetic research was moving into uncharted territory, Information Technology was exploding, and there was no doubt that a brain-computer interface would soon enable a completely virtual world.   The two discoveries together would revolutionize human nature and human society.  A visitor 1000 years in the future would be unable to make any sense out of old photographs of the 2000s.

Once I understood the dimensions of these radical discoveries and understood that once the train left the station there was no stopping it, I lost interest in the science behind them.  Occasionally an article would catch my eye – “British Scientists Improve on Crick”…”Think Like A Computer?”…”Human Cloning Within Our Lifetime?” – but they all corroborated the initial scientific/philosophical projection of fundamental genetic modification and virtuality.  After 10 million years, human beings were clearly ready for a new model. So I went back to the business of muddling through and trying to make sense out of my own life.  As Chekhov said in his short story Ward No. 6, the only reasons we are on earth is to search for understanding and to scorn vanity.

In that short story Chekhov debates the issue of stoicism and suffering.  Ragin has built his life on a stoic belief of random determinism.  The dice are rolled, the cards are dealt; and one could as easily end up a doctor as a peasant.  All people die regardless of wit, talent, or intelligence.  All people suffer, and there is no point in intervening to alleviate misery.  Ivan Dmitrich counters Ragin by saying that because Ragin never suffered, his stoicism will always be theoretical, academic, and therefore irrelevant. “You will howl when your finger is slammed in a door”, Ivan Dmitrich says.

This short story gets to the heart of the issue of scientific relevance.  How does knowing that my mind is hardwired and that my actions are predictable; or that my bloodstream flows with hormones and enzymes that regulate temper, self-control, and sexual urges make any difference at all?  Is the drama of Othello any more or less resonant because some strand of male DNA is programmed for jealousy? Or because some extra drip of testosterone drove him to believe the preposterous story that Cassio was bedding his wife? It doesn’t matter what internal mechanisms were propelling Othello to his doom.  A door got slammed on his finger and he howled.

There is no doubt that much of human nature is hardwired.  Some scientists have conjectured that jealousy is as much of a human survival instinct as food or sex.  It is a protective mechanism which assures the integrity of lineage.  Non-jealous men do not produce offspring.  Basic reflexes – flight, fear, shock – are certainly pre-programmed; and sexuality, temperament, and intelligence may be dealt to us in our genes. But whether or not we are products of nature or nurture, our finger still hurts when it is caught in the door.

I am not alone in my dismissal of scientific inquiry.  Forty percent of all Americans reject the theory of evolution, believe in aliens, and are convinced that Armageddon will occur in our time,  Part of this is because we are a deeply religious, Christian nation; and our belief in the absolute word of the Bible cannot be challenged. 

We as a nation are very divided on our attitudes towards science.  In addition to the profoundly religious, there are those of us with enough of a specialized background to be fascinated by the conundrums of number theory, theoretical physics, and neurology.  Science illuminates our lives whether or not it answers the persistent, niggling philosophical questions on our minds.

There are others who appreciate scientific inquiry and realize that modern nations are built on scientific principles and applications; and will always vote for more resources to keep us at the top of the class.  We are less interested in science as philosophy than as a practical economic engine.

Last but not least, there are the tens of millions of Americans who work two jobs, drive to work in a beater, flop down in front of the TV with a beer and a box of pizza, and fall asleep to American Idol.  They don’t even know what the Big Bang is let alone be excited by gravitational waves.

Of all these, I share the most with the last.  I have no time for science.  Although I lead an easy life compared to the door latch man on an assembly line at the Chevy plant in Gary, we both are here-and-now people.

There is an exhibit of Audubon’s original paintings and Havel’s prints at the New York Historical Society in New York.  Audubon had a remarkable eye, and his paintings depict not only an accurate record of the physical bird but depict something of its essence.  He captures each bird’s grace, strength, repose, aggressiveness, and vigilance. Audubon is an artist, and he has stylized each painting to express his own personal vision. 

There are now millions of birders in America, some of whom are searching for the spirit of Audubon, but others who are interested only in identifiable songs, habitat, markings, tail feathers, or coloring.  They are the amateur army deployed at the unwritten request of the ornithological generals who are less interested in how birds look but why they look that way. They are the anti-Audubons.

There was a recent exhibition of birds in classical Chinese paintings as compelling and moving as any of Audubon if not more.

There may be ornithology behind these paintings, but their meaning is derived from the vision of the artist.

I am pleased to know that there are gravitational waves pulsing evenly through the universe, and wonder what the look like or what they would feel like if you got caught in one; but as far as relevance, meaning, importance to my life or understanding of it? Zero.

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