Thursday, March 12, 2009

Death By Black Hole

A great title for a book, that alone made me want to read it. Of course, this is the type of book I will almost always pick up from the library. It is a collection of essays on science for the magazine Natural History. It covers a wide range of topics, usually relating to physics, from particle physics to astrophysics. I love this stuff and I only wish I retained enough math to be able to read more technical discussions than these rather general essays.
The essays are informative and entertaining. A lot has changed in the 17 years since I took my particle physics class at BYU, so I am always interested to learn more. Not only does he describe what is happening in science, he describes the edges very well. By edges I mean the places where scientists are not sure what is happening and are actively searching for answers. That is always the most interesting part of any science. The problem today is that to get to that edge, you have to take years of schooling to understand what they are looking for. Once the edge could be explored in your home lab or a field (if you were Benjamin Franklin) now you need millions of dollars and a space telescope.
The book is a bit repetitive, though that often happens with collections of essays because each one had to be self contained and couldn't refer to last month's issue. There has been a bit of editing to smooth out the sequencing and to make it an easier read.
While I enjoyed all the essays, I took exception to the last one, entitled, The Perimeter of Ignorance. Here is the author's basic premise,
Writing in centuries past, many scientists felt compelled to wax poetic about cosmic mysteries and God's handiwork. Perhaps one should not be surprised at this: most scientists back then, as well as many scientists today, identify themselves as spiritually devout.
But a careful reading of older texts, particularly those concerned with the universe itself, shows that the authors invoke divinity only when they reach the boundaries of their understanding. They appeal to a higher power only when staring at the ocean of their own ignorance. They call on God only from the lonely and precarious edge of incomprehension. Where they feel certain about their explanations, however, God hardly gets a mention.

He goes on from this hypothesis to give some quotes from Newton and other scientists, who do indeed see an explanation for the unexplainable in the presence of God. He then links this tendency to the current vogue for intelligent design. That also follows, more or less. I have my own issues with intelligent design, at least how it is being explained and used in the public sphere, but I won't go into all that here. The problem I have is that the author considers an appeal to deity as an admission of failure and the mental equivalent of throwing up your hands and saying, "Heck if I know, only God could figure that out, I will just go find something easier to study, like Paris Hilton." He says, in talking about intelligent design and the dangers of it,
I don't want students who could make the next major breakthrough in renewable energy sources or space travel to have been taught that anything they don't understand, and that nobody yet understands, is divinely constructed and therefore beyond their intellectual capacity.
Since when is saying something is divinely designed the same as saying we are not capable of understanding it? As a devout person, but one who would have been a scientist, if not for a few chance decisions and a problem with basic arithmetic, I find everything divinely inspired, even those things we do understand. Too many people equate religion with ignorance, without considering the fact that the intelligent people who believe, must have a valid reason for doing so. And similarly, there are many ignorant people who have no religion. I cringe whenever a particularly proud, ignorant and Christian person is on the news saying something stupid because that just reinforces this ignorance=religion stereotype. I'm here to say intelligence=true religion. Believing in ignorance is just superstition whatever belief it may be. The more you understand your own beliefs, the more you want to learn. Our brains are designed to increase in knowledge, anything that does that helps all of us, no matter what the information may be.

Death By Black Hole and other cosmic quandries. Neil deGrasse Tyson. W.W. Norton & Company. 2007

1 comment:

jendoop said...

This is why I cringed when I admitted to the book discussion leader that I attend a religious bookgroup: "Too many people equate religion with ignorance, without considering the fact that the intelligent people who believe, must have a valid reason for doing so." Then I just couldn't bring myself to tell him that I'm completing my bachelor's degree at 35 years old. I feel like I have to argue for my own intelligence because I have 4 kids and actively believe in God. This issue will also be "fun" when I get to grad school.

The argument you gave is why we need more religious people in the sciences, instead of turning our back on the field as a pagan study.