Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How Science Works III: Maxwell's Revenge - The Sequel to the Prequel

The triumph of Maxwell's Equations and the discovery of the true nature of light as electromagnetic waves left Science feeling pretty smug and satisfied.  At the end of the 19th century, it seemed that science now knew everything, understood everything, and all physicists could now go home and finally get some weeding done, or something.

Except for one or two (well, three actually) niggling little problems that were hardly worth mentioning, everything was now wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow.  Oh, alright.  I'll go ahead and mention them anyway.

Maxwell's equations, as you will recall, predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves that would propagate at the ludicrous speed of 186,000 miles per second.  But propagate in what exactly?  Didn't moving waves need something in which to move?  And that speed - just exactly what object or reference frame is that speed relative to?

Max Planck in 1878.  His
physics teacher advised
against a career in science,
saying, "Everything has already
been discovered." 
The third problem didn't rear its head until some years later when a gifted young musician with the improbable name Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck was hired by an electric company to try to work out how many electromagnetic waves it took to light a lightbulb, thus unwittingly starting a long-running joke that he later admitted he "never really got."

He also happened to be a gifted mathematician, and when he applied himself to the current understanding in 1894 of electromagnetic radiation, he found that a hot glowing filament was predicted to emit an infinite amount of very short-wavelength radiation, which clearly and demonstrably was NOT the case at all.  After talking to other scientists about the problem, he realized that one way for his equations to match the experimental results was to assume that electromagnetic energy could only be emitted in very small, discrete lumps that he called  "Energy Units."  Everyone else said, "That's a stupid name," and started calling them Quanta.

The trick worked, though Max Planck implored other scientists to please not take this purely fictional assumption about "quanta" too seriously. But to his dismay, along came this high-school dropout and obscure patent clerk with no discernible musical ability who proved, using an experiment called the Photoelectric Effect, that indeed light energy was found only in discrete quanta known as Photons.  And thus the entire field of Quantum Physics was born and Max Planck and Albert Einstein were both given Nobel Prizes in Physics.

This made them very, very upset, as you can well imagine.  They spent the rest of their lives trying to prove that Quantum Physics was not correct.  That "it was just this thing, you know?  It's all that scoundrel Maxwell's fault."  But to no avail.  As empirical evidence mounted, more and more physicists had to concede that it was not just the only theory that explained and predicted the fantastic new discoveries being made all the time, it was also by miles the most accurate theory ever for calculating expected experimental results.

And it all happened as an inevitable outgrowth of the physics that was basically known as early as 1831.  Planck or Schrödinger or Heisenberg didn't wake up one morning and decide to start a whole new paradigm in physics.  No!  This was thrust upon them simply for trying to understand the physics that they already had - the sensible physics discovered in sensible laboratories by sensible people like Ampere and Faraday.

Back to Maxwell's equations, there were two other unresolved issues: what were these waves "waving" in, and what is the speed of light relative to.  The equations were completely silent on both these issues, and for good reason.  The answer to the first turned out to be "Nothing," and the answer to the second, "Everything."  Nobody was prepared to hear either of those answers, but the empirical evidence was rock-solid and mounting.  Electric and magnetic fields are capable of propagating themselves with no help from anything, real or imagined.

As the earth turns on its axis daily and swings around the sun yearly, and as the sun revolves around the galactic center every 200 million years and as the galaxy whizzes through empty intergalactic space towards Andromeda, how fast are we actually moving at any given moment?  If you're sitting down, you're not moving at all, relative to the chair.  And it turns out, relative is all there ever is.

The problem is that Maxwell's equations say the speed of light will always be 186,000 miles per second, relative to everything, all the time.  How can that be?  If we move towards a source of light, shouldn't its light be moving towards us at a speed faster than 186,000 miles per second?  You'd think so, but it just doesn't!

Albert Michelson and Edward Morley tested that claim with their light-speedometer (an interferometer).  They found absolutely no change in the speed of light, no matter the time of day, day of year, direction of the experiment, or anything else.  Zero. Nada. Nichevo. Nichts. Zilch.  It just never changes, ever.  Maxwell's Equations don't care about the relative speed of the source or the observer.  They simply say that the speed of light is always the speed of light, period.

Of course nobody believed that for a moment.  No one except Albert Einstein, anyway. He applied himself to the mathematics and eventually in 1905 found that if Maxwell's equations were true, then there were a number of other things that must also be true.  The passage of time must depend on how fast something is moving.  The apparent length of objects must depend on their speed as well.  By 1915 he had worked out, ONLY as a result of Maxwell's Equations' refusal to place a reference frame around the speed of light, the following astonishing predictions:

  • Space curves in the presence of mass.
  • Light bends in the presence of mass. 
  • "Black Holes" could exist.
  • Time slows for objects near mass or moving very fast.
  • Gravitational Waves must exist and have certain properties, but are possibly too weak to ever be detected. 

As empirical evidence supporting each of these claims piled up and as attempts to rule out Einstein's "Relativity Theory" failed again and again, scientists had to accept that maybe, just maybe, Maxwell's equations were right, after all.


And that is more or less the story of how all of Modern Physics consisting of Quantum Mechanics and Relativity got started by one guy and his four harmless-looking equations.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How Science Works II: The Prequel.

Magnetism has been known to humans since ancient times.  Even Aristotle (600 BCE) speculated in his usual pointless way about the possible spiritual nature and moral implications of magnetism.  Little real progress was made in understanding the actual nature of magnets before 1820 when Hans Christian Oersted made the accidental discovery that a magnetic field can be created (!) by the flow of an electric current.  Up until then,  only "God" could create a magnet.

Of course nobody believed him until he actually proved it.  Current on: the compass needle deflected perpendicularly to the electric wire.  Current off: the needle resumed pointing north.  The Occam's Razor explanation (and there were no competing explanations even in the running that did not somehow involve fairies, magic, or other untestable nonsense) was that electric currents truly did create magnetic fields, every single time.  It was part of Reality.  It was an objective fact.

Shortly thereafter, André-Marie Ampère quantified the discovery by experimentally determining the relationship between electric currents and magnetic fields.  Rendered in English, the relationship goes something like this:  "A steady moving charge of J Coulombs per second must have around it a magnetic field the strength of which at any point is B.  The direction of B at all points is at right angles to the electric flow in the right-handed sense, and has a gradient (direction of most rapidly decreasing magnitude) that is kind of perpendicular-ishy to its own direction."

While philosophy students may argue endlessly about the meaning and accuracy of each of those words and the various implications and applicability of their sequence, the precise relationship is stated without any ambiguity whatsoever when the language of quantities is used:

\mathbf{\nabla} \times \mathbf{B} = \mu_0 \mathbf{J} .

This relationship predicts the strength of induced magnetic fields with an accuracy that rules out any other  relationship.  But is this just a convenient model for representing empirical data, or does it have a deeper meaning?

Just eleven years later, Michael Faraday made the unexpected reverse discovery that magnetic fields, when moving or changing, induce electric currents.  The exact quantitative relationship goes something like this: A magnetic field's time rate of change produces an electric field with a specific strength and spatial gradient that pretty much only a diagram full of wiggly lines and pointy arrows could adequately convey."

Mathematically, it is simply

\nabla \times \mathbf{E} = -\frac{\partial \mathbf{B}} {\partial t}.

And that was the state of Science in 1831.  Well, the science of electricity and magnetism, anyway.

By 1864, not much had changed and people still didn't know why these mysterious forces existed and what they were good for.  Much less understood was the mystery of why one natural force should be capable of creating the other, and why artificial man-made concepts like mathematical equations, of all things, should be so good at describing something natural.

In an attempt to plumb these mysteries, James Clerk Maxwell sat down to puzzle it all out.  He wrote down on his pad the equation for the relationship between electric charge and electric forces (Gauss' Law), the equivalent relationship for magnetism, the relationship between magnetic fields and electric fields (Faradays's law) and the relationship between electric currents and magnetic fields (Ampere's Law), which he then corrected to include the possibility that electric fields might sometimes be varying in time.  This is what he wrote:

\nabla \cdot \mathbf{E} = \frac {\rho} {\varepsilon_0}

\nabla \cdot \mathbf{B} = 0

\nabla \times \mathbf{E} = -\frac{\partial \mathbf{B}} {\partial t}

\nabla \times \mathbf{B} = \mu_0\mathbf{J} + \mu_0 \varepsilon_0 \frac{\partial \mathbf{E}} {\partial t}\

He decided to see what all these laws might imply when taken together.  This is only something that can really be done using mathematics.  But in English, the argument might go something like this.

"A changing magnetic field produces an electric field, which itself is necessarily changing and therefore produces another magnetic field, which itself is necessarily changing and produces another electric field, which itself is changing and produces . . . " and so on forever to infinity.

This "solution" to what are now known as Maxwell's Equations is mathematically in the form of sine or cosine waves and looks something like this:

Source: Wikipedia.  Red is the electric field, blue is the magnetic field.  And there
is something not quite right about this representation, but it's too
technical to worry about here.

According to Maxwell's Equations, these "waves" travel through nothing in particular at the curious speed

c = \frac{1}{\sqrt{\mu_0 \varepsilon_0}} \ .

The speed of these "waves" is calculated as you can see from nothing besides experimental values of the properties of electricity and magnetism.  Its value is approximately 300,000,000,000 m/s or 186,000 miles per second.  Sound familiar?  Maxwell thought so, too. Because just two years earlier, an ingenious Frenchman named Leon Foucault (of pendulum fame) used an ingenious spinning wheel invented by an ingenious Englishman named Charles Wheatstone to determine that the speed of light was pretty close to 186,000 miles per second. Ingenious!  But is just it a coincidence?

Maxwell didn't think so either, but for a while he was quite alone.  What do magnets and wires have to do with light, anyway?  That's a totally different branch of physics.

But overwhelming empirical evidence soon forced the scientific community to accept "electromagnetic waves" as no mere mathematical artifact but as a proven reality.  The evidence was first provided by Heinrich Hertz 22 years later.  In 1886 He demonstrated irrefutably that electromagnetic waves A) existed and B) were in fact identical to the natural spectrum of radiation that includes all visible light.
Source: Wikipedia.  Visible light is a mere tiny sliver of the vast spectrum of electromagnetic waves.

What does this say about science and mathematics?  It is an example of how science, far from being just some kind of philosophy, is actually the gradually unfolding truth about nature.  It is the objective search for objective truth which, as a collective endeavor, inexorably overcomes individual humans' subjectivity, bias, assumptions, beliefs, ignorance and desires.  A group of philosophers, by contrast, can never become any smarter than they are at the start, no matter how much they argue with one another.

What this episode says about mathematics is even more profound.  What appears to many as a mere mathematical "trick" done by manipulating symbols according to arbitrary rules is actually something of far greater meaning.  Mathematics made the discovery of the true nature of light by showing that ordinary laboratory Electricity and Magnetism must necessarily also imply electromagnetic waves.  How did it do that?

Mathematics frees Reason from all constraints and provides tools for feats of quantitative reasoning and logical analysis that would be impossible otherwise.  The connection was always there in the data, but no one could think linguistically all the way through the problem before.  Mathematics takes out all the ambiguities and allows the scientist to see things perfectly clearly in a way that nothing else can.

But wait!  There is something even more profound to learn.  If the mathematical forms of Faraday's Law and Ampere's Law were no more than good models of the data, basically "curve fits," then they could not have lead to a profound discovery that was not guessed nor even sought.  Maxwell's Equations were able to make such a left-field and totally accurate prediction, namely the unheard-of, undreamed-of existence of "electromagnetic waves," because those mathematical expressions represented something far more meaningful than mere formulas that happen to fit the data.

We might consider electromagnetism a "black box" that produces effects that we can measure and predict even though we don't actually knowing what's going on inside. Physical laws expressed in mathematical form represent not just the numerical form that empirical measurements are likely to take, but very accurately represent what is actually happening inside the black box.  That is the difference between a model and a Theory: a model need only reproduce results, but a Theory must provide an increased understanding of what is actually going on inside nature.  It must have the power both to explain and predict.

Ampere's Law and Faraday's Law are no mere models, but parts of an accurate theory of electromagnetism that at a deep level exposes how these two forces are actually different aspects of the same thing.  The Theory of electromagnetism so formed was true and powerful enough to lead us, without any further empirical input required, to a totally new discovery.  Namely, electromagnetic waves.

And that, my friends, is an actual, real and historical example of How Science Works and why Mathematics is its only useful language.

Stay tuned for Maxwell's Revenge: The Sequel to the Prequel!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

How Humans Work

A perfectly complete and accurate description of humans would require a book of some seven or eight billion chapters.  And you can understand why, since you would most likely concur that everyone is different.     But wouldn't it be possible to create a manageable number of categories or general archetypes of humans and describe them instead?

Attempts to do this have been made ("He's an A-type personality, she's introvert-impulsive B-sub-dominant," and so on) with limited usefulness.  To be really accurate, the number of categories, sub-categories and sub-sub-sub-sub-categories grows until there are at least seven billion of them.  Yes, people are all different, but did you know they were different in at least seven billion different ways?

Mathematically the problem can be described as a seven-billion-dimensional data set, and here we are, trying to pick out some kind of overall pattern or rule.  By analogy, a ".WAV" file with 44,000 measurements per second of a sound waveform can be compressed to about a tenth the size by approximating the waveform with polynomials, giving you an ".mp3" file that contains basically the same sound information while taking up a lot less space on your hard drive.  This is called a "projection" and allows us to represent high-dimensional data sets by re-casting them in terms of a handful of really useful, definitive parameters.  Provided such useful parameters can be discovered or guessed.

The first approach with categorizing humans required way too many parameters because people are so complex and dynamic.  Someone can be a "type A" at breakfast and a "Connector/dealmaker" at lunch. So what about categorizing behaviors instead?  Again, even behaviours are so complex that we'd need thousands of categories, and in the end there would still be no explanation for them. We do not give up, but instead go up one level further.

What creates behavior?  Our conditioned thinking creates behavior.  Can thinking styles be grouped into a small number of distinct categories?  It turns out that they can.  In the 1950's, Dr. Clare W. Graves Ph.D. administered questionnaires to thousands of people, and dived into the data looking for patterns. What he discovered was the following.

There are identifiable systems of thinking or general groupings of values that people have which largely predict and explain their behavior.  A "value" is an idea which people hold to be important and which underpins their beliefs about right and wrong, expected norms, their understanding of the world and of other people.  Sometimes values can be in conflict, such as the value placed on truthfulness versus the value placed on kindness.  Can you always be both truthful and kind?  Often one value has to take precedence over the other, and the specific hierarchy of values is like a fingerprint identifying a group of people as distinct.

These values hierarchies or systems of thought fall into distinct strata of social evolutionary development, beginning, naturally enough, with Level 1: basic survival.  At this level, right and wrong are defined in terms of the organism's survival.  Right is what fills my belly, wrong is anything that doesn't.

Few individuals other than infants and extreme sociopaths exhibit this style.  The obvious weakness of this level of thought is that all alone, survival is quite difficult.  We need other people, but we can't treat them like objects to be used for our own survival and expect to be given any different treatment in return.  This creates an evolutionary pressure to expand the thought style to Level 2: Tribal/Family thinking.

At Level 2, right and wrong are defined by what is right or wrong for the tribe, as determined by an absolute Matriarch or Patriarch.  Any specific ideas about ethics are extended to members of the tribe, but usually no further.  You may feel badly about hurting a fellow tribal member, but have no qualms whatsoever about killing a person who is not a member of your tribe. Tribal thinking is fairly successful for small, isolated populations, but has two major drawbacks.  First, where do good leaders come from if everyone always lets the chief do all the thinking?  Second, and closely related, is the lack of opportunity for self-expression, self-determination, and individual freedom. This creates the evolutionary pressure for the next stage, Level 3: The Self.

In Level 3, the typical style of thinking is one of developing one's own tastes, preferences, property and domain.  Any leader of a Level 2 structure must necessarily embrace at least some of these values, if not even higher ones.  Right and wrong are a considered decision about one's best self-interests, both long-term and short-term.  The major drawback to Level 3 thinking is the high level of R-rated violence that inevitably follows when two or more Level 3's attempt to claim the same property.

As populations expand and tribes come in to close contact with each other, the pressure to limit such violence creates the next plateau, Level 4: The Institution. Most political bodies, schools and churches exhibit this style of thinking and systems of values.  Right and wrong are now written down in rules that apply to everybody.  They are no longer relative, but absolute.  Ethics become universal in the sense that hurting a complete stranger is just as wrong as hurting a close family member; stealing a bean is just as wrong as stealing a sack of gold.  One weakness of this level is that each institution assumes that all other institutions have the same rules as it does. This leads to misunderstandings between nations, churches, political parties and your major bowling leagues.

Because individuals steeped in Level 4 values believe those values to be absolute and universal (aided by the strong desire of the institution to promote that belief), they have a hard time explaining the actions of strangers.  When someone doesn't behave in the expected way, we think, "What is wrong with that stupid person?  Is he insane, or just evil?"  Republicans think that Democrats are either stupid, malicious or misinformed, and Democrats think exactly the same about Republicans because they both think that their specific hierarchy of values is the only possible one to exist.  Baptists think that Mormons are all going straight to Hell, while Mormons think that Buddhists are really missing the big picture. Muslims think that everyone is a Muslim, just that most of us are really, really bad at it.

Similarly to the Tribal/Family level, Level 4 has two major disadvantages.  One being the formation of suitable leaders, and the other being limitations to individual self-expression, innovation and expansion of one's horizons. This sets up the evolutionary pressure for yet another dimension which Dr. Graves imaginatively called Level 5.

The focus again turns to the self, but this time integrating the values of all previous levels.  Ambition, creativity, the urge to explore, and the desire to lead all characterize the style of thinking that many have termed "Entrepreneurial" or "Creator" style.  Right and wrong are defined in terms of what works both for the self and for the institution.  There is a willingness to bend the rules somewhat while holding to the underlying principles of the rules.  There is also the ability to reconcile disagreements between Level 4 groups by identifying their common ground.  All notable leaders of Level 4 groups such as nations, religions and schools have exhibited Level 5 or higher thinking styles.

While some individuals who find themselves transcending the rigid structures of human society return to those structures to lead them, others go off in their own directions to make scientific discoveries, start companies or entire new industries, found new religions or start entirely new bowling leagues.  But to many Level-4-thinking people, these mavericks will appear to be recalcitrant Level 3 individuals who need to be brought back into the one true flock before they hurt themselves or somebody else.

This story continues with the obvious disadvantages of Level 5 individuality leading to new, post-modern styles of organizations for the benefit of some collective purpose (Level 6), and then to yet another transcendence to a higher, even more flexible and powerful Self (Level 7).  But these individuals are very rare, and we doubt that they can even be spotted at all since they take on the characteristics of a chameleon, adapting easily to the style of thought best suited to any situation.

Most of us today will find ourselves juggling a combination of Institutional, Tribal and Self (Levels 4, 2 and 3) styles of thinking and systems of values that influence our behavior and make us who we are.  We may think like an institution while at work (Level 4), like a tribal  member at home (Level 2), and at some other level within a specific relationship we may have.

When circumstances open a door, we may either be pushed or move voluntarily using our free will through it into a terrifying new world in which few safety nets exist, where we thrive or die, publish or perish, sink or swim, lead or get out of the way. The ultimate, highest purpose of any level 4 institution is not to keep people locked safely inside, but to prepare them for that day of transcendence.

Any description shorter than the book with seven billion chapters in it isn't going to perfectly describe humans.  But I personally found that this model describes how humans work to a degree sufficient to be at least interesting if not actually useful.

Monday, October 22, 2012

How Science Works

People who are not scientists often assume that science works more or less in a way that they are able to conceptualize.  They assume that when a scientist "feels like it," he or she will come up with a new idea for no reason other than their desire to be famous.  Then if the other scientists like the idea, they all get together and agree that this will be their new "thing."

But if still other scientists have a different idea, or if they do not like the first scientist, they will not agree to adopt the idea as their new "thing," and so ensues the "Scientific Debate."

In areas such as politics, religion, philosophy and baseball, these kinds debates are unresolveable because they are not based on any objective reality.  The proponents of competing ideas can at best separate into factions so they can be around people who agree with them and allow them to feel comfortable about their ideology.  Thus we have the Democrats versus the Republicans, the Protestants versus the Catholics, and the National League versus the American League.

People assume that science must work the same way. One result of this assumption is that people will think that any general agreement among scientists can only be the result of widespread collusion and a ruthless conspiracy to silence dissent. For people with no training and experience in real science, this is the obvious and only possible conclusion because they have never known anything to be any other way.  They can therefore be forgiven for being so utterly, stupidly, mind-numbingly ignorant.

While science without doubt is an imperfect human activity conducted by imperfect humans, as a system it is yet capable of eventually overcoming humans' imperfection and their tendency towards subjectivity, emotion, conservatism and prejudice. The "Scientific Debate" as a process is therefore singularly different from any other human activity.

How does science work?  To begin with, new scientific ideas are not created just because someone wants to be famous.  There is always an objective motivation and a critical, specific need.

For example, the alchemists of the middle ages, though not yet scientists, began to see how the Aristotelian idea of Earth, Wind, Fire and. . .  um . . .  Cheese or something (no, maybe it was Blood, Sweat, Tears and Young . . . ) was pure nonsense.  They became aware of things called Elements, but still dared not openly disagree with their ideological Master.  Later, Atomic Theory and the Periodic Table of Elements became universally accepted by their scientist descendants, not because they owed its proponents a favor or because they were required to do so to get accreditation, but because overwhelming empirical evidence compelled them to accept these ideas. They were the only ideas that successfully predicted and explained what was happening in reality.

As new technology became available and scientists had interesting new tools with which to probe the nature of matter, observations did not support the view of atoms as homogeneous little balls of stuff as was assumed.  Experiments were giving strange results, as though 99.99% of the mass of the atom was concentrated at an unimaginably tiny point at its center.  It was time for a new idea, and as bizarre as it seemed, the Nuclear Theory of Matter was born.

Scientists didn't just accept this new idea in a meeting after a focus group and checking the polls.  That might be how politics works, but science isn't politics. Scientists tried every imaginable experiment to try to debunk this new idea.  What we don't often hear about are the dozens of alternatives that were quickly debunked, disproved, and discarded, not because they weren't popular with voters, but because they didn't work in reality.  They were objectively false.  But scientists were unable to disprove the Nuclear Theory of Matter, and eventually, after every conceivable alternative was tried and every conceivable test was applied to the idea, it had to be accepted that the simplest explanation for the objective facts before them was that the Nuclear Theory of Matter, if not exactly the Truth, was indistinguishable from Truth at that point in time.

Advances in all fields of science follow the same pattern.  An objective observation can't be explained, so a new idea is formed.  The idea is assumed to be wrong, and every conceivable means to prove it so are attempted.  Most ideas get proven wrong (e.g. Chiropractic, Orgone Energy) and are never heard of again among serious scientists.  Those that can't be disproved by any objective means end up contributing to our understanding of objective reality and invariably lead to new questions to be answered.  Bad "theories" are a dead-end but correct theories always bear viable fruit.

Many people believe that a new scientific discovery might come along at any moment and throw all previous understanding out the window.  This is completely false and stupid.  It is also harmful, because it causes people to assume that whatever science knows today must therefore certainly be incorrect.    Irresponsible and ignorant reporting of medical research is mostly responsible for fueling this particular brand of mass ignorance.  The truth is that once an understanding of reality is achieved, it is here for good.

Aristotle's ideas about matter were utter nonsense because they were not science.  They were religion dressed as philosophy.  They were untested beliefs, dogma, rhetoric or even a form of prayer that people repeated whenever they wanted to exert their authority as a learned disciple of Aristotle.  This idea was overturned and replaced by something true: Atomic Theory.  But wasn't Atomic Theory overturned by Nuclear Theory?

I argue that it was not.  It is still essentially true and still useful, but no one regards it as complete or even relevant to non-Atomic situations.  Similarly, is Nuclear Theory still true now that we understand the components of the nucleus, and even the components of those components?  I'd say it is even more true because it is now more complete and accurate than ever.

Were Issac Newton's famous Laws of Motion rescinded when Quantum Mechanics and Relativity came along?  Actually, one of the often overlooked consequences of Quantum Mechanics is that when you have a collection of more than a few dozen atoms, such as a baseball or a voter, they as a single body no longer behave according to Quantum Mechanics but instead obey Newton's Laws, or laws indistinguishable from them, to the letter.  This is something that Quantum Theory predicts and requires!

Also, one important result of Relativity Theory is that when relative speeds are quite low, say ten times faster than the speed of the fasted vehicle ever operated (the Space Shuttle flew 17,000 miles per hour) then Newton's Laws are obeyed to a precision that is indistinguishable from perfection.  In other words, Relativity predicts and requires that Newton's Laws are obeyed.   Far from overturning a once-proven theory, new scientific advances begin by confirming, embracing and solidifying the truths upon which they build.  

Science doesn't work like most of the other things humans do.  It does not work by popularity, by the dictate of authority, by Revelation, by aesthetic or rhetorical persuasion, by the law of supply and demand, or by social coercion.  Science is a collective human activity that systematically and inexorably weeds out nonsense and thereby exposes objective Truth.

Unlike almost every other human activity, science is not exclusive.  Anyone of any race, color, gender, political or religious persuasion, age, physical capacity, musical talent or lack thereof can participate in science.  Science is open to everyone and anyone, as long as you can do math.

How Religion Works

Please don't assume I'm anti-religion or anything.  I'm not!  I think religion is a fine thing and that everyone should have some in moderation.  I would only not wish you to labor under any misapprehension about where religion comes from or what it means.   Or to assume that religion somehow endows you with extra rights and privileges, such as the "right" to blow up women, children and gynecologists with whom you do not agree.   Or the "right" to get your special religion passed into legislation.  Consider this post a sort of "getting started" user's manual for your experience with religion.

If your religion has been transmitted to you through the spoken words of another human, or in the form of printed material utilizing any sort of written language or "book," then you should be aware that the religion has been extensively filtered, shaped and influenced by humans (if not entirely fabricated by one, as in the case of Scientology).  Do not let this fact deter you, however.

But if your religion has been transmitted to your mind directly from the mind of God, you do not need to worry about the intervening influence of other humans.  In this case you only need to wrestle with the question of why God doesn't let others in on the secret also.  He may have a very good reason for keeping everyone but you out of the loop, or you could even have imagined the whole thing from the start. Just something to think about the next time you find yourself shouting and waving a big sign in public, or the next time you're mixing up chemicals for some new bomb "god" told you to build.

For example, you might just want to ask this "god" person why, if he's so powerful, he couldn't just miraculously make an explosion appear, and leave you out of it.  And if he is so just, why he would blame you for having qualms about the whole bomb project in the first place.  If you ever find yourself in such a predicament, I implore you to give these questions some serious thought, preferably while following all of your doctor's instructions regarding the use of various medications.

I should point out that not every "direct transmission" religious experience leads to atrocities. There are good reasons why we seldom see a Buddhist Zen Master being detained and strip-searched at the airport.  Usually the worst crime that results from this form of religion is excessive smiling and periodically emitting obscure statements.  Mormons, too, are known for smiling far more than common decency permits.  The next time you see one, . . . ask him where his companion has got to.  Ha, ha!  Just some harmless mormon humor there, because you never see just one, they're always in pairs.  Stop them as they pedal down your street, and if they are smiling indecently ask them about the direct Revelation that they personally have received from God.  Go on, I dare you.

Back to the main topic, if you have the ordinary kind of religion based on a book, TV show or Hollywood blockbuster movie, then it is important that you discuss religion only with people of your exact same religion.  Because every group has its own definitions for key words, its own hierarchy of values in order of importance, and because these things are often unspoken and implicit, a conversation about religion with someone of another faith can have disastrous consequences.  You might say something like, "Rhubarb is nice," but your listener might instead hear, "your church is like a pasture - loaded with sheep and full of . . ."

It is important in a multicultural world not to assume that your definitions or your values and their relative priorities are the same as everyone else's, even though that is the assumption upon which every major church, nation, school, or any level-4 structure is built.  Some people's religion is to believe in a God, while others' is to believe that there is no God.  If there were a way to objectively prove that one or the other is right, then it wouldn't be religion any more, it would be called Science and believing in it would have no purpose. Therefore it is vital that you not try to pass laws or elect candidates that mainly appeal to you on religious grounds.  If this were to happen often enough, you might wake up one morning and find that your religion has been taken from you and replaced with US Government Standard Issue All-Purpose Belief System Revision 2.1.d, by which point it will have long since lost all meaning or purpose.

And what, pray, is that purpose?  Well, I tend to look at it this way.  If one takes the bleak view of life as being like a sermon on Superbowl Sunday - rather pointless and short - then one is likely to be miserable in the world and unmotivated to even try to make a difference.  But if, on the other hand, one firmly believes he is a part of a greater divine scheme or plan, then that same person living in that same miserable world can have a totally different sort of experience with it.  For it to work, however, you have to be totally, completely, unquestioningly convinced of your special, unique, divine place in the universe.  The incredibly, unimaginably vast universe.

Thomas Jefferson is remembered to have said words to the effect that the purpose and goal of every life is to minimize pain.  If there were an ounce of truth to that curiously unenlightened example of "enlightenment" thought, then clearly the only logical course would be immediate universal suicide of the entire human species.  That is the only way of assuring that pain is in any way minimized.  What Jefferson got wrong were the words "pain" and "minimize."  If there is such a thing as a universal purpose and goal of every life, it would not be to minimize anything, and it wouldn't be at all interested in pain.  Instead, why not maximize your joy.

Therefore if someone has a religion that brings him joy and purposefulness, whatever you do don't try to talk him out of it and don't pity him.  Instead you should maybe try to find out what time the meeting starts.