June 16, 2010

Not even wrong

I've been reading a very good book about theoretical physics titled Quantum, by an English philosopher-physicist named Manjit Kumar. It's all about the debate between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr about the nature of reality at the subatomic level. Like most liberal arts types with intellectual pretensions, I like to read this kind of stuff so I can throw around terms like "quantum jump" and "valence electrons" and "uncertainty principle" (that's the formula pictured) and sound real rigorous and, you know, smart. Kumar even allows the lay reader some respect: he uses actual formulas in his book. Imagine that. American scientists who write for the general public might throw in E=mc2, but that's as far as they'll go. Otherwise, they lose book sales, of course.

Among the colorful characters and anecdotes, Kumar recites one I had heard before about Wolfgang Pauli, the Austrian physicist who many considered a virtual peer of Einstein. Einstein and Bohr agreed that Pauli's immense intellect and mental quickness, coupled with his scathing wit, intimidated them both. That seems like quite an achievement: to intimidate Albert Einstein intellectually. Goes to show, I guess: there's always somebody faster. At one point, Pauli, commenting on a paper written about quantum physics by another, lesser light, dismissed it as "not even wrong." I'd heard that before but didn't try to figure out what he meant. So thinking about it, and coupling it with something I had read recently by Richard Feynman (I take my pretensions seriously, you see) in which Feynman said that the true method of science was trial and error, that we learn by mistakes and constant improvement of accepted knowledge, I thought I had a glimmer. What Pauli was saying was that the work in question was worthless even as elimination of a wrong approach. It didn't suggest a different approach to other scientists (enlightened by the failed analysis in question), it wasn't even "in error," it was simply irrelevant. It was so far off it didn't have anything to do with anything. Pretty funny, thought about that way. The depth of some minds...

Okay, so watching the Obama speech last night about the BP oil spill, I had the same kind of reaction. Obama is not even wrong. His leadership has become so completely irrelevant that it cannot be judged as helpful or counterproductive. His way of approaching things cannot be used to suggest another, better way of handling things. All that you can do at this point is to say that whatever it is that he's doing has nothing to do anymore with the fate of the nation.

I don't know if you've seen this clip from The Daily Show, but here it is in living color: Jon Stewart going through Obama's complete repetition of the Bush-era transgressions against civil liberties:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/16/stewart-critiques-obama-f_n_613937.html.

Glenn Greenwald has been writing about these things in meticulous detail for a long time, and I suppose I have, too. I just don't get it. What is he doing? I have no idea. Anthony Romero, head of the ACLU, began a speech recently in which he stated, quite frankly, that he was "disgusted" by the Obama Administration's approach to due process and civil liberties.

There's really no hope here, none at all. If Obama abdicates the throne and does not run in 2012, then the ascension of the Right Wing is a virtual given. 2012 is so far away, and economically the country just keeps sinking. The commercial real estate market, the public pension plans, the state budgets -- they're all in dire peril, in danger of failing. The level of national indebtedness and the delta between tax receipts and government spending have moved to absolutely preposterous dimensions. There is no movement to reorder public spending away from military campaigns, even though the obviousness of their unaffordability is ridiculously apparent. There is simply no plan, nothing, a complete vacuum.

Adrift upon a sea of oil-filled troubles, with no captain, no one to lead us to try anything new. No one even wrong.

1 comment:

  1. hammerud2:22 PM

    It is interesting to me that disillusionment with Obama, when it comes from the left, is over issues of substance; but when it comes from the right it is because he is black.