Archive for July, 2008

On Why Science Is Fun

July 17, 2008

It’s been slow going over here at the Book Mill.  I’m reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is enjoyable, but it is taking a long time to read.  I do almost all of my reading on the train, and let me tell you, reading about the theory of relativity and the history of quantum physics at 8am is a challenge.  Read about superstring theory, or take a nap?  Lately I’ve been choosing napping instead of reading. 

But, this is some great writing.  The idea of the book just came from Bill Bryon’s natural curiosity on how things work and his dissatisfaction with boring old science textbooks and how they suck all of the fun out of science.  Anyway, I love this book.  Everyday I learn something new.  I get to work and I tell Sashana what I’ve learned and we talk about quantum leaps and how electrons can be nowhere and everywhere at the same time.  Here’s something interesting I learned:

It isn’t possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale.  Even if you added lots of fold-out pages to your textbooks or used a really long sheet of poster paper, you wouldn’t come close.  On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over a thousand feet away and Pluto would be a mile and half distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you woudn’t be able to see it anyway).

Also, when a baseball is thrown at 100mph from the pitchers mound, it gains about 0.000000000002 grams by the time it reaches home plate.  Isn’t science awesome?

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The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

July 7, 2008

I took a break from reading this past week.  On Monday night, there was a fire in the apartment below Manny and his family.  It was the superintendent’s apartment.  The super and his entire family were badly burned and their apartment is completely destroyed.  On Wednesday, the super’s 14 year old grandson died from his burns.  We are hoping and praying the rest of family pulls through.  So it has been an emotional week, and instead of reading, I’ve been thinking over the fire and how fragile this crazy life really is.  The thing that kept the fire from spreading?  It was because the family wasn’t able to reach the door to get out of their apartment.  They couldn’t open the door.  Because they couldn’t open the door, the fire didn’t spread upwards into the rest of the building.  But because they weren’t able to open the door to escape, some of the kids were trapped in their bedrooms and couldn’t get out until the firefighters broke down the door and rescued them.  I know its cliche to say, but when you think about how quickly everything can change, you realize what is really important in life.  And that is the people you love.  There’s really nothing else.

Which brings me to The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.  Charles Darwin’s favorite daughter, Annie died of a mysterious illness when she was only ten years old.  Darwin referred to the time she died as the time he gave up on Christianity.  The death of his daughter, combined with Darwin’s knowledge that natural selection lead to the evolution of species rather than divine law made the concept of God impossible for him to believe.  This was what made Origin of Species so controversial.  Quammen writes:

It was a bigger issue that whether humans and monkeys share a common ancestry.  It was the issue of whether humans and monkeys, along with lobsters and dandelions and all other living creatures, share an absence of special divine appointment.  In plain language: a soul or no soul?  An afterlife or not?  Are humans spiritually immortal in a way that chickens and cow’s aren’t, or just another form of temporarily animated meat?

Darwin’s theory of natural selection depends on variation among species, and these variations are completely random.  There is no divine intervention, there is no higher purpose of life and death.  And yet despite all of Darwin’s experiences and knowledge of evolution and the origin of humans, it was not enough to make him disbelief in a higher divine power.  He believed in, according to Quammen, “a Supreme Being in the fuzziest sense, given rise to the universe and set it in motion according to the mechanics of fixed laws.” 

Can you imagine what Darwin thought of his daughter as he wrote about natural selection and how it meant that human life was nothing special.  What of the soul of his daughter?  Was there no special purpose in her life?  Was she not any more special than the barnacles he was studying at the time?  Maybe that’s what kept him from being an all out atheist. 

Anyway.  Tomorrow I resume reading.  I really want a light novel or something.  But last week I went the the Strand Annex on Fulton Street (where everything is 20% off because they’re closing that location, all NYC’ers should go) and picked up some more science books.  I don’t really want to read them.  Maybe I’ll go the library tomorrow and get me some light reading.