Marching for reality

The Thinker by Rodin

So the missus and me drove across the river to participate in the March for Science yesterday. No, not the Potomac River. We don’t live near Washington, D.C. anymore. The river in this case is the Connecticut River and the place was Kendrick Park in the town of Amherst, Massachusetts. You know, where the spinster Emily Dickinson wrote all that love poetry to imaginary lovers.

We weren’t alone. Mostly we sat around with hands in our pockets as other marchers filed into the park. Some had signs. Some were in costume. One young kid was dressed as an astronaut. One man dressed as Ironman. There were some people in uniform. No, not cops. Actual scientists. We also had some medical professionals. Anyhow, they wore white lab coats. Slowly what looked like a couple of hundred people at best grew into a much more sizable crowd. It was hard to count the crowd as they streamed in impressively toward the start of the march at 10 a.m. My guess is that we were at least 600, with as many as a thousand.

The short march to the Amherst Town Commons meant forming a long queue on the sidewalk. It took a good half an hour for all the people in the park to actually start ambling down the sidewalk. So let’s say there were 800 of us marchers. Considering how few people live in the Pioneer Valley, at least north of the Holyoke Range, 800 is quite a crowd. Aside maybe from football games and graduation ceremonies at nearby UMass Amherst (where many are from out of town), it’s rare to see a crowd of this size around here. It’s kind of unnatural.

Amherst MA March for Science marchers
Amherst MA March for Science marchers

Which made this march of among the four hundred or so across six continents pretty impressive in the grand scheme of things, at least in terms of per capita representation. We hardly packed them in like they did on the national mall. We didn’t have Bill Nye the Science Guy as our speaker, just a local neurologist and a few others from the crowd who came forward before we marched. It was all very low-key and had a spontaneous feel to it, organized as a lot of these are in a few weeks using a Facebook group and depending a lot on word of mouth.

Our neurologist spokesman in the lab coat spoke about how ironic it was to have a march for science. No one ever recalled this being done before. That’s because until recently the idea of a march for science seemed absurd. It’s kind of like marching for sunny days. This was of course before our Electoral College unwisely put into office a president who doesn’t believe in climate change, and whose head of the EPA is working to turn it into the Environmental Degradation Administration.

Amherst MA March for Science marchers
Amherst MA March for Science marchers

So the march had a very surreal feel to it, as the virtues of science should be obvious to anyone with at least half a brain. For much of our country’s history, we were proud of our scientific achievements and our scientists. Like Albert Einstein, they showed up on our stamps. Those of us who remembered the space race remember how science was supercool back then. It also brought forth the information age, evidenced by the smartphones most of us carried, each with enough power and circuitry to best the computer that in 1997 beat chess champion Gary Kasparov. Science has also extended human life enormously, helped provide the means to feed our exponentially expanding population, cleaned much of our air, put a man on the moon and has at least one spacecraft actually traveling between stars. Who could possibly be against that?

It turns out plenty of people are against it, at least when it interferes with their agendas. For science whether it likes it or not tends to be a disruptor. It provides incredible advancements and insights but it does so sometimes by offending those who don’t like what it reports. Science discerns what is, but not always perfectly. As science gains better insights into reality, what we thought was reality sometimes gets revised. And that’s also why some people are offended. Science can find no God that matches the one we are told exists in our Bibles or Koran. If it could I’m sure scientists would be first to broadcast the news. Scientists aren’t saying there is no God, but that science doesn’t reveal one. A process that requires peer review and skepticism is of course perceived as a threat to those who depend on ignorance to retain power.

And thus the absurdity of a march for science. But we live in an age of alternative facts, an oxymoron so enormous it’s hard for the rational among us to put our brains around the notion. To say you believe in alternative facts essentially says that you suffer from profound cognitive dissonance. If I arise around 7 a.m. and look to the east I am likely to see the sun rise. In the world of alternative facts, it could be a sun setting, or not a sun at all. Perhaps it is the hand of God, or the hand of Manos.

So perhaps we were not marching for science, but marching for reality. As one of the more popular signs at yesterday’s rally said: “There is no Planet B”. And that pretty much says it all. We march not just for reality, but for our lives and those who come after us. To deny reality means to doom humans as a species on this planet. To deny that pumping more carbon dioxide, methane and greenhouse gases into the air and think it’s not causing the atmosphere to warm is really insane. Your local science teacher can prove it pretty simply in a test tube in the chemistry lab of your local high school. If you are going to dispute that then either you are denying reality or you are doing it to gain short-term advantage and profit for you and people like you. It doesn’t matter which it is, because it is evil.

I am convinced that we are nearing the end of this anti-science age. This cannot stand because to deny reality means death itself. If there is one phobia we all share it’s a fear of death. Which makes science deniers evil and if they actually believe what they preach likely clinically insane too. Marching for science is marching for reality. We all want to live. We will not allow those who lead us to kill us.

Our Wild, Wild Universe – Part Two

The Thinker by Rodin

I don’t often write about the universe. It’s been ten years since I wrote about the physicist Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Universe. It seems that I cannot get enough of the story, at least when it can be brought down to the terms a layman like me can understand. Some months back Cosmos returned to television, a sort of sequel to the series of the same name hosted by the late astronomer Carl Sagan broadcast on public TV in 1980. This series is hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and showed up, curiously enough, on the Fox Network, a network known more for its lowbrow entertainment than this nerdy stuff.

I’m catching up on the series now on Netflix. I find it compelling in a strange way, so compelling that I am putting aside other really compelling shows like House of Cards and Ken Burns’ documentary The Roosevelts to give it precedence. It tickles my curiosity and sense of wonder. The more you explore what we know about the universe, the more wondrous it becomes. deGrasse Tyson does a great job of conveying the immensity and the wonder of our universe. The series is aided by wondrous CGI as well, the sort that was simply unavailable when Carl Sagan hosted the series (although for the time his CGI was quite sophisticated). The combination of CGI, storytelling and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s infectious way of story telling makes it a very compelling series.

It brings out the natural pantheist in me. Natural pantheism is sort of a religion that simply expresses reverence for our universe the way it is. As you finish episodes of this version of Cosmos, you should feel the pull of natural pantheism too. Most of us who are religious tend to appreciate the faiths that we have been brought up in, in part perhaps because its message is much simpler to grasp than the amazing immensity and complexity of the cosmos, to the extent that we can understand it. Traditional religions also tend to concentrate on people and our needs, aspirations and questions. They are human centric. Studying the cosmos as it is, is not human centric at all except of course that we are self-aware creatures. We also have developed a scientific method that allows us to continually gain in understanding of the cosmos and our part in it.

deGrasse Tyson does a great job of explaining how we came to understand how the universe actually works. This too is a compelling story. In it certain scientists like Newton, Faraday and Einstein become something like secular saints, because they each solve great mysteries. In the process they reveal not just what is, but how the master clock works and sometimes how we can work it to our advantage. It’s a story of great detective work spanning thousands of years.

The series is spawning new thoughts within me, particularly in the area of evolution. It is clear to me that evolution does not exist merely here on Earth, but across the universe as well. The universe evolves too, creating more and more complex elements that make life possible. Is there life in the universe, aside from our planet, of course? Now the answer seems simple: yes. Life doubtless exists elsewhere, in many forms. In fact it probably permeates our galaxy and much of the evolved universe. This is because all the building blocks are there, particularly carbon and heat, which is hardly unique to the Earth. In addition, as deGrasse Tyson points out in Episode 11, it is probable that microbial life travels between planets and between solar systems, seeding life itself across the galaxy and the universe. It just happens so slowly and over so many millions of years it is hard for us to see.

To me it gets much simpler. The universe itself is a living creature. The universe does not necessarily think or breathe, attributes that we associate with life but at least to our understanding is something done very quickly. But it is clearly evolving and becoming more complex with time. It is unfolding and through nuclear processes and gravity it is creating the complex, like carbon molecules, from the simple: the collapse of hydrogen gases by gravity into stars and their subsequent explosion. And like all living things, the universe seems destined to die. Like our body though it does not all die at once. It will take billions of years to die as the forces of the big bang move objects further and further from each other. The universe will catch a bad case of pneumonia and then pass on. With the big bang so powerful that no contraction of the universe seems possible, its energy will dwindle out, much like a firework. Whatever happens after that takes us to realms beyond the known laws of physics.

So yes, the universe is alive and it is also a vast system. Systems by nature are complex entities, and the universe is complex almost beyond our fathoming. Systems imply rules and order and some understanding, which if you believe in God suggests your belief is not unfounded. Systems also are comprised of many pieces that interrelate with one another. Our universe interrelates with itself. Forces like the nuclear forces and gravity are the means that enforce an interrelationship. It also means that everything is connected to everything else. We sometimes suffer the illusion that we are alone. We may feel lonely, but we are never alone. We are always intimately connected with everything else simply because we are all a part of everything else.

It is individuality that is an illusion, although as deGrasse Tyson points out not only are we part of a universe so immense that few of us can understand it, there is also a universe within ourselves. Within a breath of air that we inhale, there are more atoms inhaled than there are stars in the universe. If there is a miracle, it is that we have evolved to self-awareness. We have a pretty good idea how it all fits together now, and our part in it.

With life must come death. On the universal level, our life is like the lifespan of a bacterium on a bar of soap: very short indeed. By nature we cannot maintain such complexity for that long and even if we could the universe will shift in ways that would kill us. It’s no wonder then that universe seems cold, heartless and unfathomable. We are destined to die, and die very quickly on a universal time scale. However, we remain part of the fabric of something far more immense and alive: the universe itself.

We are a part of something immensely grand and complex indeed, with our part to play. We have the privilege, thanks to shows like Cosmos, to understand our what it is and our part in it. And that is awe-inspiring and for this agnostic a fitting and satisfying part to play.