Modern Physics Puts Elegance and Beauty Over Practical Value

(p. C9) Fundamental physics, says David Lindley, has lost its way. “I am ready to declare that research in this area, no matter its intellectual pedigree and exacting demands, is better thought of not as science but as philosophy.” His book aims to show how physics emerged out of airy speculation in the 17th century and, in recent years, has sunk back into it. “The Dream Universe” is not a book that will please philosophers, nor indeed historians, though physicists will find the argument a familiar one.

The problem, says its author, has been an excessive reliance on “mathematical elegance and beauty and whatnot” in fields such as “particle physics, the unification of gravity with quantum mechanics, and cosmology.” . . .

“The Higgs mechanism is no one’s idea of beautiful mathematics,” Mr. Lindley writes. “There’s nothing natural or inevitable about it, certainly nothing elegant. But it does its job.” The same applies, it appears, to one of the biggest breakthroughs in astronomy of recent decades, the confirmed reality of a previously theorized quantity driving universal expansion at an accelerating rate. “The beauty or otherwise of the cosmological constant is a non-issue,” the author writes. “It has practical value, and that’s what matters.”

. . .

The modern rot set in, he maintains, with theoreticians such as Hermann Weyl and Paul Dirac, who spoke of beauty as well as truth in physics. “Galileo would have been aghast,” Mr. Lindley writes. “He had no patience with mystical blather.”

. . .

Mr. Lindley complains that “the more physics pushes into the subatomic world, the more arcane the mathematical tools it draws upon.”

For the full review, see:

Andrew Crumey. “Pulling on a String.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, June 13, 2020): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 12, 2020, and has the title “‘The Dream Universe’ Review: Pulling on a String.”)

The book under review, is:

Lindley, David. The Dream Universe: How Fundamental Physics Lost Its Way. New York: Doubleday, 2020.

A Map as Large as the Territory It Represents

(p. A4) As more reliable data comes in, said Dr. Spiegelhalter, “the Covid-19 pandemic is rapidly becoming a constrained problem.”

. . .

Statistical science, he said, “is a machine, in a sense, to turn the variability that we see in the world — the unpredictability, the enormous amount of scatter and randomness that we see around us — into a tool that can quantify our uncertainty about facts and numbers and science.”

But as he acknowledged in his book, “The Art of Statistics,” models “are simplifications of the real world — they are the maps not the territory.” (This is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “On Exactitude in Science,” about a map growing as large as the territory it was meant to represent.)

For the full review, see:

Siobhan Roberts. “Embracing the Uncertainties of the Pandemic.” The New York Times (Wednesday, April 8, 2020): A4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 7, and has the title “Embracing the Uncertainties.”)

The Spiegelhalter book mentioned above, is:

Spiegelhalter, David. The Art of Statistics: How to Learn from Data. New York: Basic Books, 2019.

If You Value Your Life, Do Not Cut in Line for a Popeyes Chicken Sandwich

(p. A18) The authorities are searching for an unidentified man who they say fatally stabbed another man in an altercation while waiting for the new Popeyes chicken sandwich in Maryland on Monday night [November 4, 2019].

. . .

Kevin Tyrell Davis, 28, who had cut a line designated specifically for customers ordering the sandwich, was confronted by another customer once he reached the counter, . . .

An argument broke out, and seconds later Mr. Davis was stabbed once in the upper body, the police said, adding that they found a knife at the scene.

. . .

The two men were not associated with each other before the crime, the police said.

. . .

Mr. Davis was rushed to a hospital, where he died from his injuries, Ms. Donelan said.

For the full story, see:

Derrick Bryson Taylor. “Man Is Fatally Stabbed Moments After Cutting Line for Popeyes Chicken Sandwich.” The New York Times (Wednesday, November 6, 2019): A18.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 5, 2019, and has the title “Man Is Fatally Stabbed Over Popeyes Chicken Sandwich.”)

Lacking Absolute Certainty, Evidence Can Get Us to “True Enough”

(p. A17) As in his earlier books, Mr. Blackburn displays a rare combination of erudite precision and an ability to make complex ideas clear in unfussy prose.

If truth has seemed unattainable, he argues, it is because in the hands of philosophers such as Plato and Descartes it became so purified, rarefied and abstract that it eluded human comprehension. Mr. Blackburn colorfully describes their presentation of truth as a “picture of an entirely self-enclosed world of thought, spinning frictionless in the void.”

The alternative is inspired by more grounded philosophers, like David Hume and especially the American pragmatists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Mr. Blackburn repeatedly returns to a quote from Peirce that serves as one of the book’s epigraphs: “We must not begin by talking of pure ideas—vagabond thoughts that tramp the public highways without any human habitation—but must begin with men and their conversation.” The best way to think about truth is not in the abstract but in media res, as it is found in the warp and weft of human life.

Put crudely, for the pragmatists “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” We take to be true what works. Newton’s laws got us to the moon, so it would be perverse to deny that they are true. It doesn’t matter if they are not the final laws of physics; they are true enough. “We must remember that a tentative judgment of truth is not the same as a dogmatic assertion of certainty,” says Mr. Blackburn, a sentence that glib deniers of the possibility of truth should be made to copy out a hundred times. Skepticism about truth only gets off the ground if we demand that true enough is not good enough—that truth be beyond all possible doubt and not just the reasonable kind.

For the full review, see:

Julian Baggini. “BOOKSHELF; Beyond a Reasonable Doubt; A philosopher argues that truth is humble, not absolute: “A tentative judgment . . . is not the same as a dogmatic assertion of certainty”.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, July 25, 2018): A17.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 24, 2018, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘On Truth’ Review: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt; A philosopher argues that truth is humble, not absolute: “A tentative judgment . . . is not the same as a dogmatic assertion of certainty”.”)

The book under review is:

Blackburn, Simon. On Truth. Reprint ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

“Rand’s Entrepreneur Is the Promethean Hero of Capitalism”

(p. B1) Few, if any, literary philosophers have had as much influence on American business and politics as Ayn Rand, especially now that Donald J. Trump occupies the White House.

President Trump named Rand his favorite writer and “The Fountainhead” his favorite novel. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has cited “Atlas Shrugged” as a favorite work, and the C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo, said the book “really had an impact on me.”

. . .

(p. B2) In business, Rand’s influence has been especially pronounced in Silicon Valley, where her overarching philosophy that “man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself,” as she described it in a 1964 Playboy interview, has an obvious appeal for self-made entrepreneurs. Last year Vanity Fair anointed her the most influential figure in the technology industry, surpassing Steve Jobs.

. . .

“Rand’s entrepreneur is the Promethean hero of capitalism,” said Lawrence E. Cahoone, professor of philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross, whose lecture on Rand is part of his Great Courses series, “The Modern Political Tradition.” “But she never really explores how a dynamic entrepreneur actually runs a business.”

. . .

“Mention Ayn Rand to a group of academic philosophers and you’ll get laughed out of the room,” Mr. Cahoone said. “But I think there’s something to be said for Rand. She takes Nietzschean individualism to an extreme, but she’s undeniably inspirational.”

As the mysterious character John Galt proclaims near the end of “Atlas Shrugged”: “Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.”

For the full commentary, see:

James B. Stewart. “COMMON SENSE; Tough Times For Disciples Of Ayn Rand.” The New York Times (Friday, July 14, 2017): B1-B2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 13, 2017, and has the title “COMMON SENSE; As a Guru, Ayn Rand May Have Limits. Ask Travis Kalanick.”)

Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, quoted above, is:

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House, 1957.

Caring Bonds Among Sentient Beings Refute “Anthropodenial”

(p. 1) The two old friends hadn’t seen each other lately. Now one of them was on her deathbed, crippled with arthritis, refusing food and drink, dying of old age. Her friend had come to say goodbye. At first she didn’t seem to notice him. But when she realized he was there, her reaction was unmistakable: Her face broke into an ecstatic grin. She cried out in delight. She reached for her visitor’s head and stroked his hair. As he caressed her face, she draped her arm around his neck and pulled him closer.

The mutual emotion so evident in this deathbed reunion was especially moving and remarkable because the visitor, Dr. Jan Van Hooff, was a Dutch biologist, and his friend, Mama, was a chimpanzee. The event — recorded on a cellphone, shown on TV and widely shared on the internet — provides the opening story and title for the ethologist Frans de Waal’s game-changing new book, “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.” Continue reading “Caring Bonds Among Sentient Beings Refute “Anthropodenial””

Dogs Feel Guilt When They Hurt Their Humans

(p. 6) Dr. Horowitz concluded that whether dogs take on a guilty look — lowered gaze, ears pressed back, tail rapidly beating between the legs — is unrelated to whether or not they followed orders. If the owner scolds them, they look extremely guilty. If the owner doesn’t, they still sometimes look like this, but less often.

One problem, however, is that our rules are of our own making, such as “Don’t jump on that couch!” or “Keep your nails off my leather chair!” It must be as tough for our pets to grasp these prohibitions as it was for me to understand why I couldn’t chew gum in Singapore.

It would be better to test behavior that is wrong by almost any standard, including that of their own species. The Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz gave one of my favorite examples, about his dog, Bully, who broke the fundamental rule never to bite your superior.

Humans don’t need to teach this rule, and indeed Bully had never been punished for it. The dog bit his master’s hand when Dr. Lorenz (p. 7) tried to break up a dogfight. Even though Dr. Lorenz petted him right away, Bully suffered a complete nervous breakdown. For days, he was virtually paralyzed and ignored his food. He would lie on the rug breathing shallowly, occasionally interrupted by a deep sigh. He had violated a natural taboo, which among ancestral canines could have had the worst imaginable consequences, such as expulsion from the pack.

For the full commentary, see:

(Note:  the online version of the commentary has the date March 8, 2019.)