Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Cosmos slips into a black hole: Thoughts on Episode 4 "A Sky Full of Ghosts" Air Date 3.30.14

I'm constantly trying to push the new Cosmos on anyone that will listen.  I've been posting all over the place urging everyone to watch.  But this week's episode (S1:E4 "A Sky Full of Ghosts") left me with some mixed feelings. 

My concerns are mostly about the goofiness the show allowed itself in slipping over the event horizon of a black hole. IMHO, the show should stick with what it's made abundantly clear it's about: the observable universe. I fear that the show risks some credibility and opens itself up to charges of hypocrisy if it allows itself to engage in gross speculation, and even fantasy. NDT has pulled no punches in going right after people who don't believe in evolution, who believe the universe is only 6,500 years old, etc. Maybe a little too directly, given that this show is about turning people on to science, not settling scores. NDT can make these sort of pugnacious statements because he can always say those beliefs don't hold up in the face of the physical evidence, the observable universe. But when the show allows itself a "thought experiment" that it admits has no basis in observation, then we're entering fantasy land. To be consistent with its core approach, IMHO, the show simply should've stopped at the event horizon and NDT should've admitted that that was the limit of our knowledge -- so far.

I also was not a big fan of the Sagan bit at the end.  I loved the ending of the first episode, when NDT pulled out Sagan's calendar, and showed that appointment with the young NDT. That was incredibly moving, and you could see that NDT was getting emotional just talking about it. I choked up watching that bit. That is the kind of thing that works well in an introductory episode, and sets up the relay from mentor to student, from Sagan to NDT. But I felt like going back to that event again in this episode was a bit gratuitous, and felt a bit maudlin. It also a felt a bit too on-the-nose with its parallels to William Herschel and his son.

All that said, this remains the most important television on the air today, and I'm a committed fan. I do think the show should be consistent, and stick to the observable universe, instead of trying to get a bit wild in an attempt to blow our minds. Reality -- as we can see it so far -- is already mind-blowing enough.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Doing What Comes Naturally: Playing Devil's Advocate re Natural vs. Unnatural

In 1994, a college roommate and I got into a heated argument about our microwave.   The argument wasn't about whose turn it was to clean the microwave, or who had spattered tomato sauce all over the inside of the microwave.  The argument was about whether the microwave was "artificial."  

This argument was, I recognize, pretty standard fare in the repertoire of drunken or high arguments with college roommates.  But the two sides of the argument went pretty much like this:

Side A (my roommate): The microwave was artificial, that is, a technology created by man that did not previously exist in nature.  

Side B (me): Humans are animals, products of nature.  How can anything produced by humans, who are products of nature, be deemed artificial, and not also products of nature?

I know.  Is your mind blown yet?  Also, don't bogart that J, yo.  

Side A is conventional, and accepts a conventional definition of the term "artificial": 

: not natural or real : made, produced, or done to seem like something natural
: not happening or existing naturally : created or caused by people
: not sincere

Merriam-Webster Online.

Side B is a typical mid-90s college rhetorical move: what does anything mean?  How can we draw lines?  Isn't natural vs. unnatural a false dichotomy?

For some reason, watching the last few episodes of Cosmos brought me back to this relatively stupid argument.  In the second episode, the show reviews the history of mass extinctions on earth.  These were, undoubtedly, natural events.  Given that these were events produced by nature (i.e., volcanic activity, meteor strikes), were they tragic?

What about the natural course of extinction of various animals (saber tooth tiger, woolly mammoth) due to natural climate change, or the activity of other, natural animals -- including man?  Should we feel bad about those extinctions?  Wasn't that nature just taking its course?

Certain creatures seem to adapt and thrive even as we humans radically transform the planet.  The territory of coyotes has expanded dramatically with our development of North America.  Rats and cockroaches have also thrived with the spread of our species.  Our polluting and warming of the oceans has led to the rise of the jellyfish (probably our favorite topic on this blog).   Are these "good" or "bad" developments?  Are some species more valuable than others?  

Some species die out over time.  That is life on earth.  Circumstances change, and species adapt or die.  New species rise in new conditions.  Nature has no stasis.  We may like the current assortment of species we have on the planet, but it's just a fact that they can't all stay with us forever.  (Or, perhaps, us with them.)

You can guess where this is headed.  Should we feel bad about what we, as humans, are doing to the planet?  Other animals, natural as can be, have altered the climate in the past, though obviously not to the extent that we are.  Humans want to have comforts, and luxuries, and the nice things other humans have.  That is a human desire, but also a natural, animal desire.  Humans want to have sex, and have children, and eat foods that make them feel good.  How do you stop that?  Legislation?  Democratic legislation?  (Or would this be a good example of how something like the Chinese model may be more effective than the democratic model currently on view in Washington, D.C.?)

This argument is, granted, an argument for just sitting back and doing nothing.  It is the ultimate laissez faire justification: we are products of nature, so let us do what we feel like, because that is what is natural.  Any attempt to dictate what the masses should do from on high will ultimately be misguided because it will not be directed by the wisdom of the market/herd/flock/hive mind.  The wisdom of the few is outweighed by the wisdom of the many.

The objections are obvious: unlike animals, we are capable of rational thought, of understanding the consequences of our actions, of disciplining ourselves for the good of our species, of the other species on the planet, etc.  We are capable of argument and persuasion to change the behavior of others.  

But who gets to decide what should be done?  What sacrifices must be made?  Who must give up wealth and comfort for the more intangible benefits of sustainability?  Actually, we know who: the powerful and the rich.  Those who control wealth, and the flow and content of ideas.  (But, again, is it artificial, or bad, that certain individuals or entities are powerful?  Did they end up that way through unfair, unjust, or artificial means?  Again, what does artificial mean?  What is fairness?  Those are contested terms.  Who's to say what on what fair field those terms should be justly defined?) 

And, yes, underpinning much of this argument is the assumption that what is "natural" is better than what is "artificial."  But we all know of all of the examples that disprove this.  For example, it may be "natural" to want to punch someone in the face, but we restrain ourselves because of "artificial" social norms, laws, etc.  Isn't it better that people are not constantly getting punched in the face?  (Honestly do not know the answer to this.)

To be clear, the above is not what I believe.  Far from it.  Just playing devil's advocate.  Like I was with my roommate and the microwave.  Just to be a pain in the ass.