Bob Schwartz

Tag: science

Calling All Magicians or Time Travel Technologists: Help Bring Back the Original American Revolutionaries

Practical magic is a very popular subject for fictional speculation. So is time travel. If either of those turn out to be real, the one thing I would do with those practices is to bring back the venerated founders of America—our original revolutionaries and constitutional architects.

Their inspired vision of an enlightened democracy was a gift to us and to all civilization. Since at this moment there seems to be major misunderstanding, misrepresentation or ignorance of the essential principles, these political heroes would be the best people to explain themselves.

I see them making the rounds of the news networks. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, the whole lot, appearing on CNN, MSNBC and especially Fox News. They would be subject to vicious criticism and character assassination, of course, but those who stood up to and defeated King George III would have little trouble dealing with the 2018 Republican Party and Sean Hannity.

Ben Franklin would have a particularly good time. Besides his scathing wit, Franklin would focus on Trump’s frequent reference to attending the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin was founder of the University of Pennsylvania, and would suggest that if he knew Trump would someday be bragging about it, he would never have founded the university in the first place.

So, if you are a magician or time travel technologist, here is an opportunity to do immense good with your skills. Bring back the Founders. Now.


Alternating Current

Alternating Current

Edison said
Man was not meant
To ride a wave
To alternate between
In out
Give receive
To breathe.
The vessel will not hold
He said
If you fill and pour
Fill and pour.

Joshu’s dog
Nansen’s cat
Might still be alive
If he were not so stubborn.

Poor master Edison
Could see so far
But only in one direction.

The Age of Enlightenment Has Left the Building (At Least in America)

Age of Enlightenment: an intellectual and scientific movement of 18th century Europe which was characterized by a rational and scientific approach to religious, social, political, and economic issues.

It was great while it lasted. At times difficult, but fun too. The Age of Enlightenment gave us, for example, the American Revolution. Helpful.

If more evidence is needed that the “rational and scientific approach” is going or gone, here is the new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on the role of carbon dioxide in global warming:

“There’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact…So, no, I would not agree that carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change disagrees with him. Almost all scientists disagree with him. The current EPA website disagrees with him (though that will be fixed). Many junior high school students disagree with him (though our new Secretary of Education should be able to fix that too).

The Age of Enlightenment doesn’t have a special holiday, because it is already embedded in so much we do (see, for example, the Fourth of July). But maybe we should at least recognize its passing. We’ll miss it, more than we know.

Bodhi Day Riddle: Fig Newtons

Fig Newtons

Here is a riddle for Buddhists, scientists, cookie lovers or anyone else who likes a challenge:

Why should Fig Newtons be the official cookie of Bodhi Day, the day of the Buddha’s enlightenment?

(For more serious posts about Bodhi Day, see here and here.)



November 14, 2016, 6:49am


The moon looks bigger
Than the sun.
Do you see
What we know?

Star Trek Koan


Captain Kirk faced a crisis on the Enterprise. He summoned his ship’s doctor and his ship’s engineer. Bones says, “Damn it Jim, I’m a doctor, not an engineer.” Scotty says, “I’m an engineer, Captain, not a doctor.” Who is right?

Independence Day and STEM Democracy

Thomas Jefferson with Telescope

Is the increasing hegemony of STEM education dangerous to the future of American democracy?

In Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison, Professor I. Bernard Cohen might see it otherwise. As one of the most eminent historians of science, he makes the case that the familiarity of some Founding Fathers with science inspired the new nation, and that the shape of the new democracy was directly based on scientific principles.

One review notes about Professor Cohen’s theory:

The Declaration of Independence, which he [Jefferson] wrote, reverberates with echoes of Newtonian science, as when he invokes “self-evident” truths or “laws of nature.” Benjamin Franklin, far from being a mere tinkerer or inventor, pioneered the science of electricity. Franklin also developed a demographic theory that North America would become a population center of the British world; this led to the policy according to which the British annexed Canada rather than Guadeloupe as the spoils in the war against the French (1754-63). John Adams, who studied astronomy and physics at Harvard, was a founder of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. And James Madison, a devoted amateur scientist, drew on scientific metaphors and analogies in his Federalist articles.

Maybe. But in fact, most of those in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress from which the Declaration of Independence emerged were not scientists or even science fans. And even those whose philosophy was shaped in part by science enjoyed a much broader education, one that gave complete dimension to their thinking, what we now call liberal arts. So that while the intriguing questions that Professor Cohen raises are significant, so is the parallel question: If the Continental Congress had been mostly or entirely filled with 18th century scientists, just what kind of Declaration would have been produced, and more broadly, what kind of nation would we be?

Nowhere can the nexus of Big Science and Big Political Philosophy be better seen than in Richard Rhodes’ magnificent book The Making of the Atomic Bomb. It is sort of a fun house mirror of what Cohen claims for the American founding. Rather than world-changing political thinkers with a scientific bent, we have equally historic scientists with a worldly and philosophical bent. They had been educated in the early 20th century, many in Europe, and the standard for education then and there was broad learning beyond the laboratory. In the end, their science was driven by the realities of World War II and Hitler, but that did not stop them from philosophical ponderings and quandaries about the work they were doing and its ultimate impact.

So, yes, it may be that science did help give us what by all measures is a remarkably robust and resilient democracy, starting with the rousing rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence. And we should educate scientists, to make progress and to advance the liberty, peace, and security we want. But we should also have many other thinkers, scientists or otherwise, who are capable of leading and having enlightening debates about exactly what we do need and want, and about the means we choose to get there, and about where it might lead. We do need scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians. But it is never enough, not nearly enough, at least not in this democracy.

Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’

Laudato Si'

The Pope’s new encyclical, Laudato Si’, has been much in the news. Whatever you’ve heard about it, if you haven’t seen it, you really don’t know the whole story.

You’ve heard it is about the environment and climate change, which is in small part true. You’ve heard Catholic presidential hopefuls such as Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal admonish the Pope, their spiritual father, telling him to stick to religion and stay out of politics.

The encyclical is much bigger than climate change, the environment, and certainly bigger than Bush or Jindal or dozens of politicians. It is a big statement about the moral and religious shortcomings of this modern world and us modern people. You don’t have to be Catholic or Christian or faithful or religious to read and appreciate it. You just have to read it.

It is full of inconvenient and uncomfortable truths. Which is probably why the coverage has focused on the environmental exhortations, rather than on the broader cultural, media, technological and social ones. In essence, it is nothing less than a call for radical evolution, in the spirit of the radical evolutionary upon whom the church is built. There are plenty of established institutions and powerful interests and individuals, including the media, who could be forced to change if such radical evolution came to pass. And many of them don’t want to change, and don’t even want us to listen to the Pope talking about it.

The encyclical is a long and deep but very readable work. Download it, sample it. You don’t have to read it all, or all at once. It is naturally grounded in theology, and in some particular theology, but be assured that the observations and conclusions don’t require you to hold any sectarian beliefs. It only requires that we believe that things are far from perfect, and that after we take a close look at ourselves and others, we believe that we have the power and obligation to make things better.

It is filled with so much quotable inspired thought and inspiration. Here is just one brief excerpt:

114. All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.

Laudato Si’ PDF

Laudato Si’ epub and Kindle

Interstellar: Not thinking is the best way to travel

Soul Nebula

The new movie Interstellar takes on big questions and concepts. About the nature of everything. It is more like an invitation than a text, more like an appetizer than a feast. How much of that can you pack into a movie anyway?

Whether or not you’ve seen it, or liked it, or tried to understand it, here is something to consider.

What available paths are there to addressing these issues?

Being one of the travelers who journeys to the far reaches of time, space, and the other numberless dimensions.

Being a scientist who theorizes about that.

Being a director who makes a movie about that.

Being a viewer who watches a movie about that.

Being someone who thinks about that.

Being someone who stops thinking about that and journeys to those far reaches.

The list isn’t comprehensive, none of these is exclusive of the others, none of these may be best. But if you did see Interstellar, or have seen the dozens of movies that address this, or read any of the thousands of texts that address this, or are just curious, do investigate that last possibility. You may discover that the place beyond thinking looks like all the wonders of Interstellar. With fewer movie stars and special effects. But much more real.