Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Windmills Of PHYSICS TODAY

It is very tempting to regard someone like Robert Sungenis as a kind of ersatz Don Quixote, a Don Quixote who not only sees imaginary monsters in windmills but whose imagination first conjures up imaginary windmills and then converts those fantasy windmills into imaginary phantoms. But the surprising truth is someone like Sungenis actually can find real windmills waiting to be transmogrified by a suspicious imagination.

Take, for instance, the current (July) issue of a science magazine called “Physics Today.”

If you look through this month’s issue of Physics Today you’ll see articles with titles like, “Whiskers Of Tantalum Trisulfide Twist In Response To An Electric Field.” That’s certainly the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a physics magazine. You’ll also see an essay titled, “The Case For Extra Dimensions,” describing how the new Large Hadron Collider will help string theory investigations. Again, the kind of thing you’d expect in a physics magazine. But in the book review section you’ll find a review of Dan Hooper’s, “Dark Cosmos: In Search Of Our Universe’s Missing Mass And Energy.” The review is written by Daniel Holz, an astrophysicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and contains the following passage:

“The study of cosmology has led to a steady diminution of humanity’s importance. We’re not at the center of the solar system. We’re not at the center of the galaxy, and our galaxy isn’t even unique. We’re not at the center of the universe, because there is no center. And now we’re even entertaining the possibility that our universe is only one of many—and a grossly atypical one at that. As if these indignities weren’t enough, cosmologists are now confident that everything we touch, see, or feel is a tiny fraction of what’s out there. All the stars and planets and people are just a minor frosting on the true elements of the universe: dark matter and dark energy.”

Now that’s a pretty weird thing to say.

I don’t live or work within the world of modern science, but when I was younger I often spoke with astronomers and I still, now and then, speak with physicists and other science professionals and I’ve never heard even one science professional speak of his or her emotional response to science as “diminution” of their importance, or of the results of some investigation as “indignities” visited upon them. Quite the opposite, if there is one commonality among the science professionals I’ve known it’s the sense that understanding the world around us is energizing, that figuring out how something works or why something is the way it is, is the coolest thing a person could do. In fact, the physicist who wrote the essay about the Large Hadron Collider in Physics Today (the physics babe Lisa Randall) once characterized her own emotional response to science this way: “As I learned more science, I grew to love it. ... Engaging with the unknown is irresistibly exciting. I found it thrilling to find connections between apparently disparate phenomena and to solve problems and predict surprising features of our world.” [from Warped Passages”]

Scientists, in general, in real life speak of science using words like ‘excitement’ and ‘fun’ and ‘thrilling,’ not words like ‘diminution’ and ‘indignities.’

However, in the media, in contexts defined by editors and publishers, this other rhetoric is actually not uncommon. Editors and publishers seek out the tiny minority of scientists who for psychological reasons of their own use such rhetoric or, more likely, are willing to use such rhetoric to fulfill the constant academic imperative of getting published.

People whose only experience of the world of science comes through the media—magazines and books—react to this media creation rather than to the real world of science. Media fashions, range-of-the-moment demographic appeals, convenient cliches—these kinds of things create an artificial reality and some people live immersed in the artifice. For people interested in science and religion, the unreality is every bit as unreal. It is almost understandable that people like Robert Sungenis might come to envision dark machineries of pernicious conspiracy theory ticking away behind the scenes.

No comments: