Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Monogenes - Unigenitus - Only-begotten

See here for a comic strip approach to this famous matter... And see SLJ's The Savior of Science for more meat.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Holy Saturday Meditation

What matters so much about Father Jaki was not his dozens of books, or his many talks, or his careful scholarship. What matters was his life of prayer, his dedication to the Savior of Science, the Monogenes, the Unigenitus, to Christ the Word Incarnate... who died, and was buried.

And who rose again on the third day.

As Chesterton said so brilliantly,

Our God knows the way out of the grave.

May the souls of GKC and FBC, Pierre Duhem and his wife and children, and Father Stanley L. Jaki, OSB, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Rejected!

Yes, it is a wonderful thing, being rejected. It keeps us humble, and as I have said previously, humility is foremost of virtues required of a scientist. It also provides us with the opportunity to become closer to Christ, Who Himself said He "must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation" [Lk 17:25]

But as we know, the stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone. [Ps117:22]

What sort of rejection am I talking about?

Oh, just the usual, suffered by real scientists like us.

Actually I had noted this in my own discipline, computer science. When (for example) I was in some industrial setting where I needed to thoroughly analyze a problem in detail before embarking on its implementation, and I asked countless questions about the issue, then wrote a paper describing my findings and considering the ways of going about the solution, they said, "Oh Mr. Thursday, you are such an academic. You ought to go back to the ivory towers, because here we need to get things done." And then, when I was doing my graduate work, and I sat down at the computer and rattled off a "breadboarded" sort of complete test jig program to demonstrate some abstraction, they told me, "Oh Mr. Thursday, you are not really a computer scientist at all. You are just a programmer." And that last word was said with all the disdain and snootiness and snob-style capable of the tenured faculty who has a very sophisticated computer in his office and uses it for (what else) e-mail and word-processing.

Oh, dear... but in both cases I went back to my dorm or my home, almost chortling the phrase, "I sit squarely on the fence." For in industry, I was able to get things done, and in a far more upgradeable fashion than the crack team of some 20 programmers with associated management and ancillaries, because I had examined the theory which underlies the problem. And in academics, I was able to get things done, because I was being a scientist, and studying the Real Thing, and not navel-gazing at some abstraction which could never incarnate in practical software.


But Doctor, few of your readers are computer scientists, and as interesting as your personal experience may be to you what about this far more important topic of the rejection of scientists?

Yes, it is just the same, in a more general form, and far more hazardous to us, and to the discipline as a whole, to say nothing of its eventual impact on society.

I refer to the near-complete rejection of scientists who are DOING SCIENCE. Scientists who try to adhere to Newman's and Duhem's precepts - to the precepts of the Middle Ages, those gloriously powerful tools whih get things done (see the famous quip by Chesterton about turning to the doctrinal principles of the Thirteenth Century "inspired by the general hope of getting something done". [GKC Heretics CW1:46]) Those precepts, principles, rules and methods which kept all the disciplines together, working at once, and also coordinated them, glorying in their distinctions and profiting from their alliance in the pursuit of Truth, which is the Love of God through knowledge of His Cosmos and the Service of our fellow Man.

Yes, there is rejection of true scientists, of those who are not mere minions or tradesmen (which could be quite dignified)... those who have not prostituted their dignified discipline in pursuit of Greed or of something even worse. This rejection is to be found in a variety of forms, as a chemist might classify them, depending upon the characteristic pH (percent Heresy) of the surrounding medium:

The secular world rejects us because we cast doubt on their pet philosophies - especially evolutionism and all its corollaries such as eugenics, birth control, abortion, and genocide. Because we distinguish Philosophy from Science, and Engineering from Science, and Theology from all these - while admiring history and literature and the fine arts of all sorts, and using them, aiding them, and relying on them to support us also. But most especially do they reject us because we stand firm on our belief in God, the creator of heaven and earth, in Jesus Christ the Only-Begotten, "through whom all things were made" with all the related tenets of orthodox dogma - knowing that these are the foundation which makes Science possible. (These folks would have us deny our faith for them to recognize us as a "scientist" - which is as absurd to base such characterizations upon merely personal traits. One might as well say no scientist can be red-haired, or weigh less than 100 kilograms, or be born on a - ah - a Thursday. hee hee!)

But it is not just rejection from the secular world which confronts us. We are in some sense used to that. It's the rejection by those who are in so many ways our compatriots in faith, fellow believers, people who may be in many ways far more moral than ourselves.

One branch of the orthodox world rejects us because we refuse to condemn Intelligent Design - while another branch of that same orthodox world rejects us because we refuse to give full and complete consent to Intelligent Design. Never mind that design in nature is both self-evident and utterly impossible of demonstration, as well as being not Science be it writ large or small or in any font from any print shop or computer one may choose. And if one turns to mathematics or philosophy for support, one might as well (as Tolkien phrases it) "go to the Elves" - a risky business, "for they will say both Yes and No."

Still another branch of the orthodox world rejects us because we cannot agree to a unswervingly literal interpretation of that 144 hour Original Schedule, with its flat and motionless earth with its four corners underneath that hard dome which keeps the waters above separate from the waters below, to say nothing of the anthropomorphic descriptions of God's arm, breath, etc. Everyone knows the sun moves in the sky, and the most convinced disciple of Galileo (who did get it wrong anyway!) will use the term "sunrise" and "sunset". And there sure LOOKS like a dome up there... and no one feels the earth move, except during tremors, etc. But one cannot speak about these things as a scholar without causing rancor - or without being rejected. Certainly something is going on, and it is not the business of a book (no matter how holy or true) to tell us The Way Things Are, when we can go there and see them for ourselves. Such things are not faith. The commandments do not specify the principles of addition or subtraction, but without such things, one cannot discern whether an act is theft or gift-giving. Likewise, it is not a dogma, but a truth of biology that life of the independent organism begins at conception - witness any book on embryology, or the Federal Laws protecting unborn turtles. There are plenty of such examples, but let us proceed.

Finally, there are some who reject us because we have rejected Aristotle and the horde of odd-thinkers from the ancient world, who (lacking the light of Faith) made such little progress into the study of the world, and gave us the hilarious distortions such as "heavy things fall faster than light things" or "the Milky Way arises from swamps" and so on. (There are others; Jaki cites several of them in his work.) It was not just a refusal of these gentlemen (and centuries of their students) to examine reality, it was in some cases an infatuation with one's thought - or perhaps with one's elegant literary work, which is not always the same thing. Such a view was answered in a wonderful manner by Father Jaki:
For it is one thing to propose an inference as being very plausible and another to assert its reality and in the least uncertain terms at that. In this respect even a Maxwell could not avoid the pitfalls set by an unquestioning faith in mechanism. ...
[SLJ The Relevance of Physics 80]
Hmm, are we getting to the critical point finally?

Recently there was an encyclical called "Faith and Reason" which left out the most important quote, one which was a succinct synthesis of Newman and the whole Medieval tradition:
It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:236]
Of course many people, not just scientists, get itchy with such words like "faith" because they assume it's the same as "going to church" or something of that kind. And to try to make us look silly, they say faith is a "childish" sort of thing, and they are "grown up".

Sure, having faith demands a certain personal response - that's why we DO science in the first place, because we BELIEVE that there are truths to be learned, in the lab, in the field, with telescope or microscope or test tube or computer. We base our work on very childish questions, too: What is this? What does it do? What is it good for? And perhaps the best, and most pungent: Why is it like that? And the one which keeps us happy that there's more to do: Now that we know a little about it, what MORE can we find out?

But asking questions is exactly what the most profound of theologians do, as anyone who has ever taken even a casual glance at the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas would know. It's childish, even stunning, in its own way, with the hard things it asks. Such as "Is there a God?" - to which (as GKC recalls) Aquinas responds: "it would seem not, for the following reasons..." You can find that bit in Chesterton's The Thing CW3:289 but he is referring to the Summa Theologica I, Q2, A3: Aquinas really asks the question, and answers like that - though he does say a good deal more. If you want something even more stunning, and in some ways even more relevant to Science, there's another eariler question which asks "Is there anything?" (as GKC points out, and this is another one of those Prominent Phrases For Posting On Lab Walls) "He answers 'yes' for if he said 'no', it would not be the beginning of his study, but The End." If there isn't Something, what are we studying? Ahem.

Obviously, Faith does not exclude questions. But one cannot build anything with only questions:
...St. Thomas' work has a constructive quality absent from almost all cosmic systems after him. For he is already building a house, while the newer speculators are still at the stage of testing the rungs of a ladder, demonstrating the hopeless softness of the unbaked bricks, chemically analysing the spirit in the spirit-level, and generally quarrelling about whether they can even make the tools that will make the house. Aquinas is whole intellectual aeons ahead of them, over and above the common chronological sense of saying a man is in advance of his age; he is ages in advance of our age. For he has thrown out a bridge across the abyss of the first doubt, and found reality beyond and begun to build on it.
[GKC St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:543]
And we who are doing science are truly Thomistic, truly scholastic, even if we know nothing about such philosophy. Indeed, we are often more philosophical than they, and more dogmatic than many worshippers, since we assume the dogmas:
A mother does not say to her child, 'There is a personal God, the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe'. She says, 'God will be pleased if you are good'. She is quite as dogmatic as a college of theologians. Nay, she is more dogmatic, for it is more dogmatic to assume that a dogma is true than to declare that a dogma is true.
[GKC Daily News Feb 13 1906 quoted in Maycock, The Man Who Was Orthodox]
And yet again we are rejected since we often have no clue what dogmas we are assuming, and lack the technical terms to begin to delve into them.

Why ought that be a problem? Many theologians, philosophers, and intelligent people from the entire realm of what are still called "the liberal arts" use electricity and internal combustion, refrigerators, computers, cell phones, digital cameras - or even paper and pens or pencils, which are also exalted forms of technology - without having any technical terms. They too assume certain dogmas... but they too join the chorus in rejecting us.

There is a rather dramatic bit from Chesterton which might explain what's going on:
Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing thin might feel that he expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance. Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair like tow) called him a dark man, while negroes considered him distinctly blonde. Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad - in various ways.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:294-5]
Yes, in some sense, those who reject us are mad. But - please do not misunderstand me. All these who reject us - some of whom are no doubt heretics of various sorts - may be quite good people, and I (who am not without sin) cast no stone by writing in this fashion. I do not condemn these, though I surely wish they were willing to study at least a little of what it is we do, and not just condemn it.

But I must say, it is clear they are not being very good students, whose primary purpose is to acquire the truth of things. They are not following Cardinal Newman's methods regarding the endeavors of education, which is nothing more than the Medieval approach to the organization of the intellectual disciplines, that very grand Chestertonian style which keeps both extremes:
...we want not an amalgam or compromise, but both things at the top of their energy; love and wrath both burning. ... Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points. One can hardly think too little of one's self. One can hardly think too much of one's soul.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:296, 299]
We might be better scientists if we are also better philosophers, better musicians, better writers, better historians - and better worshippers. I do not name those other disciplines to suggest we should somehow simultaneously become experts in them - for all the impetus of the modern fad called "multi-discipline" this was once much more than a marketing ploy in the Middle Ages when people had more (and better) sense. They knew that one could advance philosophy by doing music well, or art, or science... and vice versa. But we are not singletons, we live in a social world, and there used to be a commandment about loving our neighbor. The experts in other disciplines are also our neighbors, and it's about time we begin to recall that.

Let us, in the end, recall that when we die, God will not ask us how many theorems we proved, how many stars, minerals, or species we discovered and documented, how many genomes we sequenced, how many novel organic reactions we managed to characterize, how many algorithms we proved or improved.

But He will want to know if we remained true to our discipline - to further His glory, and to be of service to our neighbor. Let us be rejected, providing we do not lose sight of what really matters.



There is no better test of a man's ultimate chivalry and integrity than how he behaves when he is wrong...
[GKC "The Real Dr. Johnson" in The Common Man 120-1]

Monday, March 19, 2012

Our Patron, A Fortiori

As Chesterton loved to point out, Jesus had His own literary style, which "had among
other things a singular air of piling tower upon tower by the use of the a fortiori; making a pagoda of degrees like the seven heavens." [GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:332] That is, the use of the phrase "how much more" as we see in cases "if God so clothes the grass that today is and tomorrow is
cast into the oven - how much more...." [Mt 6:28-30]

I mention this with some apology, since I have not posted since the feast of St. Albert back in November - and if he, the patron of all Science, is our patron, then, a fortiori, how much more is St. Joseph, who is the terror of demons, and the guardian of Jesus, "in Whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (scientia)" [Col 2:3]

My time, alas, does seem to be constrained these days, but I will give you something to consider on this feast, something which touches a most intimate yet most important branch of science - a branch which St. Joseph knew, and guarded. It ought to remind us that our work must also be guarded... there was a reason for the old epigram about casting pearls before swine - but I cannot explore that matter today. Rather, consider this excerpt from SLJ:
Without that faith even the most splendid displays of liturgical paraphernalia have turned into a hollow show of mere nature, and a very fallen nature indeed. Such a nature finds nothing noteworthy in Luke's narrative of the Nativity, so full of tactfulness that shows him to be far more than a mere physician, however sensitive about that special right to privacy which is the particular prerogative of a woman. If anyone, then Luke, the physician, could have gone, under the cover of medical reporting, into clinical details, such as the various discharges concomitant with giving birth to a child. No trace in Luke's account of that morbid curiosity which one confronts time and again in the apocryphal accounts of Jesus' birth.

Luke is taciturn, though eloquently so. After stating in a lapidary style that following Mary's arrival with Joseph in Bethlehem, “the days of her confinement were completed” and that “she gave birth to her first-born son,” Luke makes a statement that should startle any perceptive woman (or man) even in these days of “painless births” and of almost rudely quick dismissals from maternity wards. Even fifty, let alone two thousand years ago, one would have considered it very risky on the part of a woman to give birth with no assistance from other women, or to get up immediately after birth to take care of her infant child. But this is precisely what Luke states: “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the place where the travelers lodged” (Lk 2:6-7).

Concerning this last statement Christians have for some time fastened on secondary details, like the manger and the heartless locality that had no room for a young woman ready to give birth to her first child. Even the swaddling clothes became part of a romanticism, however well-intentioned. Yet in more realistic times it was still seen that something miraculous was conveyed by Luke's notice about Mary herself doing all that, an activity hardly to be expected from a woman who had just given birth. Moreover, no one was more conscious of the absence of anything “clinical” in Luke's narrative than was Jerome, still the greatest of Christian biblical exegetes: “Should the woman giving birth be overtaken by pain, midwives pick up the crying infant and the husband will hold the exhausted wife.... But in no way should this be thought of the Savior's mother and of that just man, Joseph. Here is no midwife; no need here for women to be fussing about. His mother herself wrapped Him in the swaddling clothes, herself mother and midwife.” Such was one of Jerome's arguments against Helvidius, who went down in theological history as the only one in Patristic times who denied Mary's virginity in giving birth.
[SLJ Bible and Science 180-181]


* * *

I do feel I have to add something, a sort of postscript, lest my point about mentioning one particular title of our patron be misunderstood. I think it is about time that we recall we have Enemies... they want to disrupt everything which is good, distract us from our duties, entice us to self-interest... they are very powerful.

But we have allies who are more than a match for our adversaries...

St. Joseph will guard us too, providing we remember to choose the paths which lead to God, even when they lead into the laboratory or the workshop, to the depths of the ocean or under the earth, or the furthest reaches of intergalactic space or subatomic structures.... it is said in the Creed, and every scientist should repeat it daily:
Per quem omnia facta sunt = Through Christ all things were made.
St. Joseph the worker, spouse of Mary, foster-father of Christ, terror of demons, pray for us!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

For the feast of our patron...

Today is the feast day of the patron saint of all Science, Saint Albert the Great.

May he intercede for all scientists and workers in laboratories or offices, for students of science of whatever age or degree, for professors and teachers: may we be brought to that wider vision and deeper humility which this exalted study deserves: that in our work we may glorify God and serve our neighbors.

For today, then, let us consider this excellent and cautionary excerpt from Jaki:
...the first major work of synthesis by Aquinas, the Summa
contra gentiles
(completed in 1257), aimed at countering the occasionalism and fatalism contending with one another within Muslim theology and philosophy. The task, as can be guessed, centred on questions about the Creator and the nature of human intellect. The stratagem demanded that Aquinas should not be found wanting in his admiration for Aristotle, the Philosopher. In fact, Aquinas departed from Aristotle only in cases where the Christian creed allowed under no circumstance for a compromise. This attitude of Aquinas was carried over in full into his Summa theologica (completed in 1273), a work in which synthesis, not polemics, dominated. The surprising extent to which Aquinas went in accepting Aristotle’s cosmology and physics can be seen by taking a look at only one chapter in his massive opus, the 91st Question in its Third Part, where he discussed “The Quality of the World after the Judgment.” The topic, imposed by the concluding tenet in the
Christian creed, meant a most acute confrontation with the very heart of Aristotle’s cosmology and theory of motion. The contents of the five articles of Quaestio 91 show that the presence of cyclic features in the world was an unassailable truth for Aquinas, who firmly reasserted the efficient causality of a rotating sky on everything in the sublunary world. He found no fault with the generic return of physical patterns, including plants and animal species. He also went along with Aristotle on the point that the cosmos would of itself go on forever through endless begettings of individuals.

That Aquinas still had not become a hapless prisoner of the Aristotelian world view was due to his awareness of the guidelines set by the Christian creed about the cosmos. Against Empedocles’ claim about a cyclic rejuvenation of the cosmos he noted that the new heaven and earth were supernatural, “just as grace and glory are above the nature of the soul.” Against the coupling of the precession of the equinoxes with the cyclic theory of the world, his principal argument was that this would allow the exact calculation of the moment of the world’s end, in patent contradiction to the Gospel. He opposed the idea of an infinite endurance for the world through endless cycles on the ground that this would also mean that the number of the elect would become infinitely large: “But this is not in keeping with our faith, which holds that the elect are in a certain number preordained by God, so that the begetting of men will not last for ever, and for the same reason, neither will other things that are directed to the begetting of men, such as the movement of the heaven and the variations of the elements.” For Aquinas, a Christian and a Saint, the ultimate raison d’être of the cosmos consisted in its subordination to man’s eternal, unique and supernatural destiny.

This last point should also reveal a distinctly negative impact which can be exercised by tenets of the Christian creed about research concerning the destiny and duration of the world. They not only can save physical theory from an imprisonment into Aristotelian or other a priori postulates, but they can also create the illusion that some all-encompassing “final solutions” have been acquired about the physical world in the scientific sense. Aquinas is, indeed, notable for his lack of appreciation of experimental investigation. His case is, however, more that of individual temper and preference than of methodological dictates. His master Albertus Magnus, was a most enthusiastic advocate of experimental investigation and he found in the contingency of the world the justification to his prolific collection of data concerning natural history. There was no difference between disciple and master as far as the ominous cloud of the doctrine of eternal recurrences was concerned. Albertus’ dissertation on De fato shows not only his awareness of the issues at stake for humanity, but also his familiarity with the history of the question. He referred to Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Ptolemy, the Arab astronomers especially to Albumasar, and, of course, to the Church Fathers. Christian consciousness had already achieved a firm tradition in the matter.

Emphasis on experimentation was a new wine which easily could prove heady. It could produce firebrands, and Roger Bacon was one of them. Evaluations of his place in the history of science oscillate between lopsided encomiums and studied neglect. The first extreme was usually adopted by those ready to take great visions for actual accomplishments. They were joined, ironically enough by those for whom the beginnings of science coincided with the apocryphal story of Galileo and the tower of Pisa. For these the unusual friar is the classic example of a great mind struggling in the fetters of institutional obscurantism. The other extreme, the stance of silent treatment, is usually taken by those who grudgingly have come to recognize that Galileo never dropped balls to test the law of free fall and that, what is perhaps more reprehensible, he did not refer to his medieval predecessors to whom he owed so much. This is not to suggest that Roger Bacon was a forerunner of Galileo as far as the laws of motion are concerned. But Bacon’s impetuous crusading to secure the service of science on behalf of the Christian faith has much of the boldness and drama that became the hallmark of Galileo’s career. Within ten years of the composition of the Opus majus in 1267 he was imprisoned on suspicion of holding novel views.

Friar Roger was certainly not censured for his emphasis on the basic unity, interconnectedness, and interdependence of all branches of learning. There could be nothing wrong about his reasoning that since the Creator was one and there was only one creation, its understanding too had to form one single body of truth. Again, he merely echoed the Church Fathers’ somewhat naive interpretation of cultural history according to which all the science of the heathen had come from Moses, or if not, it had to be considered a form of “natural” revelation. Nor was anything shocking, in an age of great ferment, in his insistence that the Church should make the most of the Greek scientific corpus which was being rapidly recovered and translated in Bacon’s lifetime. Theologians of his time could only nod in agreement on reading his warnings about the difference between final and efficient (secondary) causes, a distinction that intended to render its due to supernatural destiny as well as to temporal endeavour. They should have felt gratified by his assertions of the forever partial character of man’s knowledge about the world and by his stricture of Aristotle’s claims about a priori, definitive verities concerning the processes of nature.

Bacon might have stunned his contemporaries by his visionary references to contraptions by means of which men would fly, speed across dry land, and see faraway objects as if they were at arm’s length, - but dreaming was not necessarily harmful. His concoction of a magic powder with never-before-experienced explosive property was a different matter, yet many an alchemist enjoyed the good will of both political and ecclesiastical potentates. At any rate, the gunpowder seems to have been the only real experimental success of the one whom some called the Father of experimental science. His continual reference to the need of experimenting had much to commend itself, but others, like Albertus Magnus, deserved no less credit on that score. There was nothing revolutionary in his, at times inordinate, praise of mathematics. To speak of mathematics as the most certain of all forms of human knowledge was a fashion of the time, and everybody saw proof of this in the superior exactness of astronomy over all other branches of science.

Bacon was not the first, nor the last, to be trapped by the glitter of perfection, but his case has a particular moral. Admiration of an outstanding perfection can easily turn into sweeping generalizations and this is precisely what happened to him. The vista of the unfailing retracement of their courses by celestial bodies imposed on his mind the idea of an inexorable determinism of events. True, he did his best to safeguard man’s freedom and moral responsibility. His prolific analysis of the influence of stars and planets could, however, easily undercut his otherwise sincere persuasion about man’s uniqueness in the inexorable turnings of nature’s great machinery. His case shows also the difference between the hapless capitulation of most Arab commentators of Aristotle to the idea of cyclic determinism and the unwavering refusal of their Christian counterparts to consider serious compromise on that crucial issue.

[SLJ Science and Creation 10 "The Sighting of New Horizons" 225-7]

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Very Relevant Gift

Yes, I've been busy and not had time to resume our study of the Scientific Method, though my mental note-taking is proceeding. Meanwhile, a few weeks back I had lunch with a friend who is also a doctor, and we discussed some of our topics... as a result he gave me a most relevant gift. It seems funny to think of writing a discourse upon the epistemology of Science by starting from a blank lab notebook, but perhaps in the future I will have some time to make a few comments about it here.

I looked to see whether Father Jaki talked about such things, and found several strangely relevant references - likely there are others, but due to my time constraints, I will limit myself to these:
In his later years, Newton spent much precious time on erasing from his manuscripts and notebooks the name of Descartes, lest posterity learn a thing or two.
[SLJ "God and Man's Science: A View of Creation" in The Absolute Beneath the Relative and other essays, 62]

In the twelve years between 1904 and his sudden death in 1916 at the age of 56 he [Pierre Duhem] not only continued his prodigious series of publications in theoretical physics, but filled 120 large-size notebooks, each 200 pages long, with excerpts from medieval manuscripts which he had to beg from other French libraries. He had no microfilm, no xerox machines, no dictaphones, not even ball point pens at his disposal. Above all, he had no research assistants of any sort.
[SLJ "Science and Censorship: Hélene Duhem and the Publication of the Système du monde" Ibid, 178]


He [Darwin] might have been cured of his illusion about the evolution of his religious beliefs had he reread in his late years his early Notebooks. Available since the early 1970s in easily accessible edition, those Notebooks make it absolutely clear that the Darwin of the late 1830s was a crude and crusading materialist.
[SLJ "Monkeys and Machine-guns: Evolution, Darwinism, and Christianity" Ibid, 190]


To advance science therefore was to break with inherited ways of thought, a break with blatantly careless reasonings, "scientific" prejudices, and self-flattery, or, in short, to initiate a revolution. To this he [Lavoisier] referred as early as 1773 in his laboratory notebook, where he described his program as one that "seemed destined to bring about a revolution in physics and chemistry."
[SLJ The Relevance of Physics 151]

As my friend the doctor wrote, "Remember, it's for Posterity." Let us keep this principle in mind as we work.

P.S. There is an exciting episode about one of SLJ's own notebooks (and another about his exploration of the notebooks of Olbers!) both of which appear in A Mind's Matter, but I will leave these for another time.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

If only you had been more careful in your work, you might have discovered a planet!

Last time we heard from Father Jaki about probing into an apparent discrepancy in the third place to the right of the decimal, and how it related to ths discovery of argon.

Today, let's hear from another writer - one of the most wonderful and relevant (and brief) chapters I have ever read in any science text - one on which I hope one day to preach a lecture or three. It deserves to be studied, and ought to be copied and read at the start of every academic year, and proclaimed annually in every laboratory! Yes, really.

Here is just one of its dramatic paragraphs:
In the history of astronomy can be found numerous cautionary tales which illustrate the fatal consequences of messy and muddled observational records, as well as of preconceived ideas regarding what is likely or possible, and of emotional bias - expectation, disappointment, surprise, hope. No fewer than 19 pre-discovery observations of Uranus have been identified, from 1690 (by Flamsteed) onward. It is true that many of these in no way reflect upon the technique of the observers, since a single observation would quite possibly not reveal its planetary character. [*] But that none of theese observations should have led to the discovery of Uranus is incredible. The case that is most relevant to thematter of observational records concerns the French astronomer Lemonnier, who in January 1796 observed Uranus six times over a period of nine days, including observations on four consecutive nights. His records of observations were kept in a particularly untidy and unsystematic fashion (one of the Uranus observations was noted down on a paper bag that had contained hair powder), and this certainly contributed to his failure: in a well-kept record the anomalies between these nine observations cold not have failed to strike him - and he would have anticipated Herschel in the first planetary discovery of historical times by twelve years.

* On the other hand Herschel detected its non-stellar character before its motion had been established.

[J. B. Sidgwick, Amateur Astronomer's Handbook, Section 32: Observational Records]
Please read that again, and ponder this in particular:
...the fatal consequences of messy and muddled observational records, as well as of preconceived ideas regarding what is likely or possible, and of emotional bias - expectation, disappointment, surprise, hope.
Don't be thinking of getting your name into the books. Think of the fact that you may have abandoned your humility - your childlike attitude towards Reality, and substituted Superstition - or belief in Phlogiston, which is the same thing. (If you don't know what that is, I suggest you look it up.) Remember, even the great Maxwell was caught:
For it is one thing to propose an inference as being very plausible and another to assert its reality and in the least uncertain terms at that. In this respect even a Maxwell could not avoid the pitfalls set by an unquestioning faith in mechanism. ... "There can be no doubt," he asserted categorically, that the ether "is certainly the largest body of which we have any knowledge."
[SLJ The Relevance of Physics 80-81 quoting JCM's "Ether" in the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica]
And, no, he was not talking about an organic chemical with an oxygen between two other groups, like (C2H5)2O. (Ahem, a little chemical humor there, hee hee.)

Let us use caution and DILIGENCE! Yes, diligo = "I love"... it is our choice, our selection... and we ought to be fervent in our work. Let us LOVE Reality, our cosmos, our work... and our God Who made it, and our fellow humans for whom we do such work: "Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you did it for Me" - and that will include even our research as long as we have done it well, and for the sake of our common humanity, rather than out of pride or selfishness.

Yes, to the shock of many professors, and even more administrators, there's a deep truth lurking in "publish or perish" and it is not associated with tenure or professional status. Another day we'll explore where St. Paul spoke on this topic - it's stunning...