Profile of Polkinghorne

Discover offers a look at Anglican priest and particle physicist John Polkinghorne:

“When he describes his line of work, John Polkinghorne jests, he encounters “more suspicion than a vegetarian butcher.” For the particle physicist turned Anglican priest, dissonance comes with the territory. Science parses the concrete: the structure of the atom and the workings of the brain. Religion confronts the intangible: questions about ethics and the purpose of life. Taken literally, the biblical story of Genesis contradicts modern cosmology and evolutionary biology in full.

Yet 21 years ago, in a move that made many eyes roll, Polkinghorne began working to unite the two sides by seeking a mechanism that would explain how God might act in the physical world. Now that work has met its day of reckoning. At a series of meetings at Oxford University last July and September, timed to celebrate Polkinghorne’s 80th birthday, physicists and theologians presented their answers to the questions he has so relentlessly pursued. Do any physical theories allow room for God to influence human actions and events? And, more controversially, is there any concrete evidence of God’s hand at work in the physical world?”

Read here.

MacDonald on “Cosmos”

Tom MacDonald writes at God and the Machine:

“The final question to all this is “Why”?

Why are we replaying the Bruno story in a documentary about space?

What is the purpose? What is the result?

Is it to show how science and religion came into conflict? The Galileo case would be a better example for that, but people already know that one and Galileo didn’t have the benefit of a cinematic death that makes his opponents looks like mindless savages.

In the development of theories about the cosmos, Bruno was almost irrelevant, and perhaps even harmed those debates because he meshed those theories with a staggering level of heresy and New Age-style nonsense. He was a hermeticist and cabalist, and viewed heliocentrism not as some verifiable scientific truth, but as a sign of the return to the true, superior religion of ancient Egypt. He saw his work as a corrective to Copernicus, who failed to understand the religious significance of heliocentrism. He was more influenced by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, an occultist and magician, than by anyone else. His work had little to do with science.

Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa would have been a far better figure to illustrate the development of the idea, but he died peacefully in his bed, a cardinal and officer of the papal court, so he’s not as useful as Bruno.

Bruno makes for good propaganda, and continues the Church versus Science lie so dear to the hearts of reactionary atheists. Never mind that it’s not true and that we have only one scientist really punished by the Church at least in part for his science, and that was 400 years ago.”

Read here.

Campbell on “Cosmos”

Science 2.0‘s Hank Campbell reviews the first episode of Cosmos:

“It starts out well. Tyson tells us we are going to explore the very large and the very small and then he flies us through space, a lot like he does in his brilliant Hayden Planetarium show. We get rogue planets, distant suns and 100,000 light years of context in just a few minutes.

Then suddenly we get a claim that Giordano Bruno is responsible for the concept of the universe – because he read ‘banned’ books. Lucretious wasn’t science – there was no scientific evidence for his claim that wind caused earthquakes or worms spontaneously generated – it was philosophy, and his book was not rare in 1600 AD, people were also not martyred for reading it, and yet we get told a philosophical belief in infinity was what got Bruno into trouble.

It’s an immediate disconnect for people who know science history because it smacks of an agenda. I instead object because it is flat-out incorrect. To claim that Bruno promoted the concept of the universe, a “soaring vision”, despite persecution, while simultaneously being hired over and over by the institutions we are told were oppressing him, makes no sense. That segment of the show makes it sound like he was a devout Christian tormented by reason rather than what he was – a cultist who engaged in confirmation bias to pick and choose anything that matched his beliefs.”

Read here.

Some Thoughts on Airplane Windows

Spike-Interior-Screen (Spike Aerospace)

“I know by experience that a favourable reference to ‘Nature’ in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters… People, so the thought runs, ought to be discontented, and it is our job to multiply our wants and not simply to increase our enjoyment of the things we have already.”

(George Orwell, “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad“)

And there’s so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see,
But everywhere I go, I’m looking

(Rich Mullins, Here in America)


I usually take books with me on airplanes, but in most cases I don’t end up reading much. This is in stark contrast to my usual behavior on the ground; at home I am seldom without something to read. On planes, however, my attention is attracted elsewhere: I usually end up spending the entire flight watching out the window. The view is usually mostly clouds, but watching the weather patterns change as the landscape shifts underneath  is alone worth a few hours’ fascination. Add to this speculation over and contemplation of the geometric road patterns and clusters of buildings, and an average plane flight over ordinary land can become mesmerizing.

“There is no such thing as an uniteresting subject,” wrote Chesterton, “the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.” If this is true of subjects, it is even more true of sights. Chesterton adds, “The higher qualities exist entirely in the bores, the lower qualities in the bored.” I find landscapes and the passing small scenes of nature and human habitation fascinating. My wife and I often take our children on long car drives on the weekend for similar reasons: we delight to see the fascinating glimpses that pass by as we drive along the roads. Every tree and hill, every corner of the road and old country store or typical house’s yard hides a quietly epic story. We’ll never know them all, but the whispering sights are compelling.

“This typical gift of the born biologist [is] the gift for observation,” writes Etienne Gilson. Observation is at the heart of science, and observation leads its way, if followed to its end, to contemplation. The scientist seeks to know, in his own particular sphere, what is; and consideration of what is, ending in praise and gratitude, is the heart of contemplation. In the end, the philosophers tell us, what is and what is true and what is good and what is beautiful are one. The observer, then, or the contemplative, must keep his eyes open.


The Spike Aerospace company is planning to construct a small, supersonic private jet plane, which, in lieu of windows, is outfitted with cabin-length screens that display outside views. In place of the smallish widows typical of passenger jets, wall-sized unbroken views of the surrounding airspace will surround flyers. The views would be provided by a series of cameras outside the aircraft that provide images to be displayed inside.

To get the practical concerns out of the way, there are a number of issues that would affect this technology as a replacement for windows. In the first place, it would only work if you were viewing from reasonable distance from the screen—and only as long as you did not move. Unlike normal windows, there would be no change in perspective as you shifted your viewing angle. A second issue involves the rate at which the image is refreshed. If it is noticeably delayed, even by a small amount, the difference between the plane’s motion as seen by the eye and the plane’s motion as sensed by the inner ear could result in major cases of airsickness.

Time will tell whether this proposal ever becomes reality, but if we leave these technological concerns aside, the idea of an “enhanced” window experience appeals to me. A wide, unencumbered view of the sights that I normally enjoy from my constrained window seat seems intriguing. If such technology can be made to work, it might in fact serve to provide the same experience as airplane window watching, but on a more comfortable and accessible level.

Yet it is not the difficulties of making it work that seems to me to be the biggest challenge to this sort technology being used well; the chief challenge would seem to come from other technology. My most common experience on planes lately has been of my fellow passengers sliding the shades shut of their windows so as not to interfere with the screens on their iPads and phones and DVD players. I do not say this to criticize; after all, an iPad may simply serve as a more portable library of books. But the point is that the passengers are looking elsewhere than out the windows. My observation has been that views out of windows—whether of cars or planes—are quickly judged to be boring. I suspect that the large window-screens of the Spike airplane would soon meet the same judgment, and the technology would be adapted to allow the display of movies and sports games and selected entertaining backgrounds.


My youngest daughter has become fascinated with the movie Finding Nemo, and claims that she is Nemo, the clownfish. Just to demonstrate the happy place of technology in our own lives, we have played for her on our television an hourlong video of a saltwater aquarium with clownfish, streamed over Amazon’s  video service on our Roku box. The Luddite might object that a video of a clownfish is no substitute for the real thing, and he is right, but a saltwater tank (or a diving expedition on the Great Barrier Reef) is far beyond our abilities, and we are happy to use technology to bring her the next best thing. In any case, I am perhaps more interested in encouraging her to watch the real fish on the videotaped aquarium than the animated movie, as charming as it may be, and she finds the video aquarium to be fascinating. In one of my favorite essays, “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad“, George Orwell writes, “I have always suspected that if our economic and political problems are ever really solved, life will become simpler instead of more complex, and that the sort of pleasure one gets from finding the first primrose will loom larger than the sort of pleasure one gets from eating an ice to the tune of a Wurlitzer. I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and — to return to my first instance — toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.”

It is perhaps childish to be most fascinated by a swimming clownfish, or the clouds passing by a plane, and childish too to think that technology could be used in the furthering of such a nobly idle pursuit. More likely it will soon be turned to advancing flashier distractions. Perhaps, though, the better word is not childish but childlike, and one can hope that the technologies will find, here and there, more fresh and innocent users.


Image: Spike Aerospace

Carroll on the Philosophy of Nature

William Carroll writes at Public Discourse (“The Limits of Life: -1359712483qyBBiology and the Philosophy of Nature“):

‘For some time, astrobiologists have been studying what are called extremophiles, organisms that live in extreme conditions. Do we get closer to understanding the origin of life the more we advance in our knowledge of life at its frontiers?

It is precisely such a question that is properly in the domain of the philosophy of nature. It would be of considerable benefit for biologists and other natural scientists to become acquainted with the insights this discipline offers. The philosophy of nature is a more general science of nature than any of the diverse empirical sciences. It depends upon the various natural sciences to understand nature, but the philosophy of nature concerns topics that are not specific to any one of the sciences, but common to them all: the nature of change and time, how physical entities are unities (as distinct from mere heaps of elements), and what the differences are between the living and the non-living.’

Read here.

New Measurement of the Electron

Ars Technica reports:

‘A precise value for the mass of the electron is one example of the sort of statistic that physicists are eager to collect. Last Wednesday in Nature, a team of German physicists reported a new electron-mass measurement that offers a precision to parts per trillion. It is a “remarkable 13-fold increase in precision,” according to Florida State University physicist Edmund G. Myers, who published an accompanying perspective on the research paper.’

Read here.

Martin on Sheed on Sanity

Catholic World Report offers an interview with Hampton University’s Dr. Joseph Martin about Frank Sheed, the Catholic writer, and his conviction that reason finds its fulfillment in the Faith:

Sheed’s apologetic anthem was animated by a counter-rhetoric of Christian Realism, one he grounded in a bass line of “Sanity.” With the onset of modernity Christians were faced with the accusation they dealt in an unreal idealism – pie-in-the-sky sentimentalism, versus real life. Sheed cried “foul”, turning the charge on its head. Christian Faith isn’t escapism: it provides the one alternative that conveys a convincing narrative. And it is the Catholic Church, he maintained, despite centuries of hypocrisies and failings, that remains the custodian of the Christian Gospel, and is thus the rightful home of the “honest lover of truth.”

“Nothing is rightly seen save in the totality to which it belongs; no part of the universe is rightly seen save in relation to the whole,” Sheed explained. “But the universe cannot be seen as a whole unless one sees God as the source of the existence of every part of it… The man who does not see God may have vast knowledge of this or that section of being, but he is like a man who should know all about the eye never having seen a face. His knowledge is of items in a list, not of features in a face. The shape of things, the proportion of things, the totality of things, are unseen by him, indeed unsuspected by him.”

It was this “shape and totality” of things to which Sheed gave his life to understanding and unfolding. His entire apologetic was what G. K. Chesterton called “The Outline of Sanity.”

Read here.

Einstein & the Steady State Universe

Following up on the post about Einstein’s early preference for a Steady State versus Big Bang cosmology, here’s a new story, also from Nature, describing a recently discovered draft written by Einstein outlining a Steady State theory:

“A manuscript that lay unnoticed by scientists for decades has revealed that Albert Einstein once dabbled with an alternative to what we now know as the Big Bang theory, proposing instead that the Universe expanded steadily and eternally. The recently uncovered work, written in 1931, is reminiscent of a theory championed by British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle nearly 20 years later. Einstein soon abandoned the idea, but the manuscript reveals his continued hesitance to accept that the Universe was created during a single explosive event.”

Read here.

UPDATE: John Farrell offers some good discussion about this find.

Lunar Meteor Strike

Last September, a roughly meter-wide meteor struck the Moon, creating an explosive impact that would have been visible to the naked eye (although it’s unclear whether anyone actually saw it), and which was captured on video (above). A study of the impact has just been published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Astronomers calculate that the impact created a 50-m-wide crater, which may be imaged by lunar orbiters in the future. Read more about this story at Nature.

Listening to the Waves

20140224-183155.jpgImagine sitting on your porch with a nice drink, closing your eyes, and listening to the soothing sounds of nature—the cries of birds, the rustling breeze, and the faint sound of distant waves. And by distant, I mean on the order of light years. This story from RealClearScience describes the latest developments in the long search for gravitational waves. In theory, gravitational waves are produced when extremely massive systems undergo dramatic events, such as the collision or formation of black holes. These events can send gravitational waves traveling through space, although at incredibly tiny scales. Previous attempts at detecting the waves have tried to detect the contraction of massive metal rods; the new detectors look for shifts in the interference patterns created by two intersecting, long-distance laser beams. One day a detector like this may finally “hear” the rolling waves as the Earth bobs ever so slightly in the wake of a distant black hole birth. Read here.