Tag Archives: Einstein

Reviews ~ Loving Science through the Eyes of a Theist

Where the Conflict Really Lies  by Alvin Plantinga, available in hard cover for around $25.00

conflictSome time ago I decided that I would make it a goal to “go back to school.”  This time I intend to study in a subject area that I never had time for while I was building a career in accounting and business management.  I intend to study philosophy.  I find the subject of thinking on how we think wonderfully absorbing.  Part of that wonder is how we view the universe and how much we are only now beginning to understand.  Consequently, when I run across someone who seems to think that the word “lobotomy” and the word “theist” are interchangeable; well, I find it odd. Depending on the circumstances I may even consider it amusing.

Recently I was watching the series, Stephen Hawking’s Universe.  There is a segment in one of the episodes where the work of Monsignor George Lemaitre is discussed.  If you do not recognize the name, Monsignor Lemaitre was the first astronomer and physicist to postulate the “primeval atom.”  (Hoyle’s Big Bang).  Another physicist had a similar idea based on Einstein’s relativity equations, but it was Lemaitre that realized what the actual proof of his theory would be.  He was, basically, looking for Hubble’s results.  He was an avid proponent of the theory of an expanding universe and argued long and hard with such luminaries as Einstein against the steady state universe.  He made sure he was present at the Mount Wilson observatory to discuss Hubble’s new findings about the expanding universe while Einstein was there.  The Catholic official now responsible for caring for Lemaitre’s papers and research said something I found much to my own liking.  There are two ways for science and religion to have a conversation.  One is sitting at the table together and attempt to talk, in which case the conversation usually degenerates.  The other is for the religious to simply do good science.

And they have.  There is much ink spilled on the controversy between Galileo and the church.  The church had accepted the views of an ancient Greek as interpretation of scripture.  You may have heard of Ptolemy.  However, Galileo was a devote Catholic and his faith was not shaken by his great discoveries.  Kepler, Newton, Einstein, and many, many others had no issue being theists of one brand or another and still have the drive to know all they could know about the universe in which we live. Many of the men of science that did so much to build the foundations of what we know today were in pursuit of what they saw as the mind of God.  This tradition is still going on.  There will always be those who choose to be willfully blind, whatever their world view may be.  In Plantinga I found a kindred spirit and a thinker that was perfectly comfortable in a universe where arduous scientific investigation can co-exist with a belief in some form of a “Prime Mover.”  Plantinga writes from the world view of a Christian.

Where the Conflict Realty Lies develops Plantinga’s position that there is only superficial conflict between science and religion, but very deep conflict between science and naturalism.  He has no beef with evolution; only unguided evolution.  His philosophical point of view is that it is very difficult to build a case that purely random, natural selection would select for a reasoning, rational mind.  If the whole focus of evolution is survival and the propagation of the species, then what purpose does the development of mathematics, physics, set theory, and other abstract thoughts serve which are so fundamental to advanced sciences today?  Where does Bach and Mozart come in?  What survival instinct do the arts protect and preserve?  Evolution based purely on natural selection is not forward looking, it does not anticipate need; it reacts to current changes and accidents of mutation.  Even using the proven theories of adaptability (a change in a complex organism becomes permanent because it can be adapted to other uses) does not completely explain the human drive to explore, to build, …to think.

Then there is the question of why we should come to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable?  Just because we can train an animal to respond in a certain way given certain cues, what gives the sentient human being that extra push to “seek that which is true?”  What helps us sort through what to believe as true?  I know the scientist will say that it is experience and experiment.  We can duplicate circumstances and we KNOW this to be true.  However, sometimes we find out we didn’t have the whole picture.  And sometimes the only proof is what we can deduce and calculate that appears to successfully predict future outcomes.  I believe without hesitation that stars explode and in the process create the elements of which we are made.  I have not seen it happen.  I do not have a nuclear lab in my basement.  I know this to be true because I have seen the work of others (at least that part I understand) and that interpretation appears to fit what I know of the universe.  It does not impair my belief.  My belief makes my knowledge of these things all that more alive and gives the experience of learning a deeper richness.

Although there is a bit of probability mathematics here and there, Pantinga’s book is written for the serious layperson.  The thinker that wants to understand a bit more about what the argument really is.  It provides a basis for the thought process that accepts those things which have strong scientific support, but still looks further to test and stretch that knowledge.  It is the kind of conversation that allows a person to question points that are unresolved without being accused of refuting the whole field of inquiry.  Perhaps, in the end, Lemaitre’s admirer and curator is right.  The best way to have the conversation is for the theist to do good science.

Plantinga presents a strong case that allows the theist to sit down comfortably with the scientist and to mutually discover the wonders of this amazing universe.

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Filed under My Bookshelf ~ Current times, My Journey with Job, Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck

Alternative History ~ More Than an Adventure, It’s a Mind Expanding Point of View

As my readers know by now, I am a history junkie.  My banner pretty much says it all because I believe there is much we have left behind that could teach us about what we have “yet to find.”  My writing tends to explore both the past and the future and is, consequently, driven by research.  For this reason I like to find fiction writers that do much the same thing because it helps me at least try to share the passion I have for my subjects with my readers.  Learning how people build fictional worlds that attract an audience helps me see the parts that interest readers so I can arrange my factual material in an engaging way.  My current interview target gave me some very interesting ideas.  We will visit my thoughts after we hear from Rob Cerio (www.robcerio.com).

Steampunk World Building and the importance of knowing your history…

One of the trends in science fiction and fantasy literature is toward the rapidly growing genre known as “Steampunk”. For those that are unfamiliar with the genre, it’s a world of steam engines, Victorian sensibilities and fashions, and good old human courage. For those that write Science fiction, it’s also a nice departure from our usual, dreary dystopias and a walk into a brighter world. I have heard it described by many to be the shared universes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, or by others as visions of the future as envisioned by the 19th century. What most of these definitions fail to realize is that Steampunk at its core is an exercise in alternative history, and the best Steampunk Authors do a lot of research into the Victorian era, and the technology and terminology of the time to give their worlds authenticity.

dgstorecovThe key point of divergence between our real world and the imagined universe that most Steampunk stories use is the inventions of Charles Babbage. In 1822, Babbage proposed a device for completing complicated mathematics that he called a “Difference Engine”. The device was intended to replace error prone humans in the calculation of complex polynomial tables for engineering and science reference material. He later refined this design by the mid 1800s broadening its usage to an “Analytical Engine:” a very basic computer. The tremendous cost of building these intricate machines proved too high for him to continue his research.  If he had it was entirely possible that the Computing Revolution of the mid 1970’s could have happened a hundred years earlier, in the “age of steam”, most notably before the development of the internal combustion engine.

Which leads to a neat question… “If modern computing had been applied to the refinement of the steam engine, would we have ever developed the internal combustion engine?” Somehow, I don’t think my uncle would appreciate his Corvette if he had to shovel coal into it every 300 miles.

Steampunk literature suggests that the great scientists and engineers of the Victorian era would have made tremendous advances with access to Babbage’s Difference engines. We are asked to imagine a world where the Montfoglier Brothers used computers to turn their Ballooning experiments into practical airships… A world where Nikola Tesla was able to figure out the Unified Field theory 60 years before Einstein even got a job as a patent clerk… A world where Captain Nemo’s Nautilus was a practical machine instead of a flight of fancy.

As a result, to write confidently in the steampunk genre, there is a lot of research you have to do, especially since readers of your fiction will absolutely call you on any errors in facts or style. (I had an editor return a story because a character used the term ‘patsy’ when the word wasn’t in popular usage until the 1920’s or so). On your reading list should be at least one of the works of Jules Verne, and of H.G. Wells, as well as some Mark Twain. The first two are to help you establish the conventions of the genre, the third to help you get the tone and jargon of an American of the period set into your mind. Depending on where you set your story, you may need to look into the real-world history of the country in question.

Many Steampunk stories are set in Great Britain and the United states, but the genre has been opening up to include the Far East, Africa, and the moon. This is great for authors that love writing in the genre, but I still cringe every time someone refers to it as “Space: 1899.”

In my case, the post-Civil War America that my short story “The Great Steamship Race” is set in is very much our current reality. Despite my embellishment of ironclad airships, the tensions in the post-war south and animosities that were held onto for generations are still in evidence. The race that takes place between my fictional airships Natchez and Robert E. Lee is based upon a real event and real historical figures that I discovered while researching other works. While some authors might look at the restrictions of using real history to frame an alternative history story as a chain binding them from telling interesting stories, I would say that they haven’t researched thoroughly enough. The Victorian era of both British and American history is rife with vibrant characters that truly shine when handed futuristic technology.

In addition to old fashioned library and internet research, there is quite a bit of real world research you can do to give your locations and Steampunk devices life. I am lucky enough to live in New Orleans, where one of the last steamships operates on the Mississippi River. By asking politely, I was able to get a behind the scenes tour of the engine and boiler rooms of the vessel, as well as a rare look at the wheelhouse. While not everyone has a steamboat in their backyard, there are steam locomotives that still run the rails in most states as tourism ventures. While much of what you learn by observing these machines in action may never make it onto the page, knowing the smell and feel of these amazing machines in action will help give your fictional versions life. I would also recommend trying on some Victorian era clothing… while I have never personally worn a corset, many of my female author friends insist that it was key to bringing a certain perspective to their heroine’s lives.

Me, I just settled for a top hat and a pair of aviator goggles.

 

So, the ideas that Rob has popped into my head?  If you have ever watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series you may remember a segment where he mentions that the Greek renaissance of science and math that started somewhere around 570-495 BCE was squelched by Pythagoras and his mystics.  If not for him then the first ship on the moon may have had a Greek name and it may have been centuries before the Americans made their landing.  Maybe, maybe not.  As a race we tend to fear those things that we do not understand.  We give them the aura of mystery and magic and sometimes call them evil.  Or, we do our best to control them.  Some of those “mystics” Mr. Sagan was so perturbed with became the fathers of a more lasting modern science: Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Kepler, and on and on.  There are several Jesuit priests in the mix as well.  Many men, and women, discovered much about our universe while seeking the mind of God: and shared their passion by showing the world what they found.  Sometimes it is a war between the mystics and the rational thinkers; sometimes it’s a matter of timing.

So, what I learned from a point of view such as Rob’s, is a way of inserting or taking away a concept that could change helicopterhistory in order to better understand the pivots of that history.  For instance, what if Leonardo had gotten his whirly bird off the ground?  It is interesting that Rob mentions Mark Twain as a source since he used this approach himself.  If you haven’t read A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court you should give it a try.  An excellent example of “what if they had this!”

Thinking through the “could have beens” help us better understand the “what is now” and may help us build a better “what will be.”  In the meantime, check out Rob’s website and see what he is up to.  You can also let me know what you would like to learn about as we explore our history, our thoughts, our hopes and dreams.

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Filed under Stuff about Writing ~ Research Tools, Stuff about Writing ~ Tips and Tools

Spooky “action at a distance”

Photo provided by Melissa Bowersocks through WANA Commons.

As my knowledge of the world of blogging expands I have found other ways to communicate with my readers and to expand the types of knowledge I can bring to their attention.  I have rearranged a few things on this site to better utilize the category function and to free up “page space” for more static information.  Some of you have noticed the addition of information helpful to writers and authors.  Now we will add another subject line, science.

I am not a scientist.  I am an avid reader of science.  My husband introduced me to the principles of quantum mechanics and physics some years ago and, in the process, the philosophy of science.  Our interaction between his science (and philosophy) and my philosophy shaped the growth of many of my earlier writings.  So, it only makes sense to use this forum to introduce those ideas that most fascinate me and that tickle my philosophical bone.  As my books reach publication, you will, perhaps, recognize some of these thought patterns in the text.

So lets look at some of the concepts that help us understand just what kind of universe is it that we live in.  We will begin with “entanglement,” Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance.”

Wikipedia describes this term thus:  “action at a distance is the idea of direct interaction of two objects that are separated in space with no intermediating agent or mechanism. […]  More generally “action at a distance” describes the break between human intuition, where objects have to touch to interact, and physical theory. The exploration and resolution of this problematic phenomenon led to significant developments in physics, from the concept of a field, to descriptions of quantum entanglement…”

Originally it was thought that entanglement only lasted a brief instant.  In other words, shortly after two pared particles/systems were separated, what happened to one seemed to impact the other.  Evidently, when we measured some defining portion of a state (defined simplistically as position and momenta) of one particle/system,  then that portion of the definition of state would be reflected in the distant particle/system.  The example used in the below referenced article is that if one person tosses a coin the outcome is purely random.  Entanglement is when the results are duplicated exactly by a second person tossing a coin.  Later physicists determined that the phenomenon occurred no matter how far apart the particles or the systems were;  the activity of one impacted the activity of the other.  Now, through the work of a very young physicist, the mathematics are developing that the systems do not even have to be identical to impact each other.  This ability to communicate without any overt interaction is at the root of quantum computing.  It is also the foundation for a hoped-for encryption process that cannot be cracked for use in banking transactions.  It is really amazing stuff.  An article recently published by Wired, “Teen Solves Quantum Entanglement Problem” at least attempts to explain the process to us mere mortals.

Of course what interests me is what this theory could mean on a philosophical level.  Do we really know the impact of our actions on the universe?  Do we understand how the activities in some far distant reach of our home may impact things around us, in us?  The further we probe into the mysteries of our universe and our minds, the more interesting the fabric of our existence becomes.

Brian Greene, author of many books on physics and a narrator of a NOVA program on string theory was interviewed by NPR.  When asked about the philosophical side of the things he was working on it was clear that he was non-committal on his religious position.  He wasn’t pro or con, he just didn’t think about it.  He did, however mention that his brother was a Hindu.  Often, Brian would discuss the new and interesting things he was finding in his field with his brother.  The response?  These things were spoken of millennium ago in the Sanskrit texts.  So, “is it something we’ve left behind?”

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Filed under Natural Sciences from the Observation Deck