Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In the Universe, and a complaint about scientist stereotypes.

One of the things that always confuses me of people who try to invoke quantum mechanics to explain wacky self-empowerment techniques is that they seem to feel like knowing how things work takes away the mystery and wonder of life. Some creationists do the same thing, accusing people who try to actually figure out how species came to be through evolution of taking away the wonder by describing it woodenly and without emotion in cold, stainless steel and white linoleum laboratories where robotic chemists and biologists are separated from each other by giant walls and spend their time working to destroy everything that is creative in the world.

Which is, of course, all bullshit. The appeal of science (for me, anyway) is that things are more interesting when we actually understand how they work than when we just sort of make up answers. Things don't become more magical and mysterious because you mistunderstand Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle or because you're using a weird interpretation of what wave function collapse implies, and they don't seem to me to become more beautiful if you choose to disregard literally every bit of scientific evidence in order to believe that everything showed up as is about 6000 years ago (they're on my mind because Florida just approved science education standards which support evolution by a 4-3 vote before moving on to the next item on the docket, voting on the sex of a cat). Part of it, I think, stems from this ugly stereotype of scientists as cold, unfeeling and uncreative which of course could be applied to some, but is too often applied across the board by people who have some kind of disdain for science as insufficiently artistic. To me, the process of natural product synthesis or trying to figure out how membranes behave is incredibly creative and shows an appreciation for nature that I fear that a lot of people who buy into the quick and easy school of half-understanding quantum mechanics don't want. Stereotyping scientists as having no interests other than understanding the world around them is equally false, and really just amounts to a cruel lie.

The other part of this, and the thing that got me thinking about this subject, is that I don't think things need to be embellished to be astounding, and certainly not past the realm of believability. You don't need to make up new and crazy things about black holes or quantum mechanics or the properties of pore formation in a lipid bilayer upon heating because they're interesting enough in their own right. Making things shiny and throwing around hyperbole does help the public relations campaign that science has engage in to get funded, but I occasionally see things that are a bit over the top.

Yesterday, when I was reading through Nature at work (which I was actually doing this time, instead of stealing it off of Ben's desk), I came across this.

The Most Intense Laser in the Universe

Which, yeah, I guess. Probably. I don't know if there are naturally occuring lasers (I don't think they're are), and if that's the case, what they mean is "The Most Intense Laser in the World". Sure, you can expand it to the universe because we don't know of any other planet that has beings that are making lasers, but it just seems like a weird leap to make. First, because there could be other laser-using beings out there (again, just playing the odds given the immensity of the universe), but also because it just seems like hyperbole.

Then again, maybe they're on to the right idea. Maybe I should run with that. Start asking whether Dave Littlefield was the worst MLB GM in the universe. If we somehow play out of our minds and win the tournament, Team Rich Ahn will be the best Northwestern Co-Ed League Intramural Floor Hockey Team, 2008 season in the universe. This month of blogging has been pretty difficult for me in the universe.

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