December 14, 2013

Saturday Morning Essay: Homage to Corinth

Brought to you by Peet's French Roast French-pressed...

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  I Corinthians 13:11.

I'm sure any number of my readers can appreciate the irony of quoting Saint Paul and Carl Sagan seriatim.

One perspective to bear in mind at all times, when we indulge in contemporary Doomsaying, is that the human race is in fact, as a physical certainty, bound for extinction.  We often forget that in our giddy New Age narcissism.  During the second half of the Sun's main sequence, probably within the next 1.5 billion years, the luminosity of our closest star will increase to such an extent that the Earth's atmosphere will be effectively boiled away.  That will be it for life on Earth.  

So it's all relative, you know?  It depends on the time frame you choose.  We are desperate to head off disaster now in the hope we can be around to face certain disaster later.   That's as good as it gets.  The best case scenario.  I didn't make these rules governing organic life versus implacable universe.  I simply live subject to them.

The Sagan clip above is kind of thrilling in its insights.  Facing his own extinction, Carl's deceptively simple description of the conundrum of modern human existence essentially says it all.  The interview was nominally about Carl's book on the "demon haunted world" (the retreat in modern times into unscientific obscurantism), but Carl quickly pointed out that there was really nothing new about such thinking.  It's just that in the face of modern technology and industrial civilization, it had become exceedingly dangerous.  

It's sad that we've lost public intellectuals of Carl Sagan's caliber.  No one has really taken the place of the likes of Sagan, Richard Feynman and a few others.  Immensely intellegent thinkers with a comprehensive appreciation of the human condition in its broadest terms.  

In my reading of physics books for the general public, such as Time Re-Born by Lee Smolin (currently in my regular Kindle rotation), an observation that recurs is the mysterious reality that the physical laws governing the universe can be represented by a mathematical system of human devising. If you throw a ball, as Galileo observed, the arc it describes as it falls to the ground will be a parabola. You can throw it high in the air, a fastball from the shoulder, a casual toss across the yard: always a parabolic curve.  That curve can be stated as a simple mathematical function and graphed.   Legend has it that Galileo was in church (of all places for him) when he noticed that the chandeliers, moving with the wind, had the same period regardless of the amplitude of the swing.  

T \approx 2\pi \sqrt\frac{L}{g} \qquad \qquad \qquad \theta_0 \ll 1  \qquad (1)\,

And thus modern pendulum timekeeping was born, a simple technology that lasted until the 1930's.  Naturally, Galileo had to be placed under house arrest.

In the environmental books of the late 1960's and 1970's, books by writers such as Barry Commoner, Paul Erlich, Wendell Berry, Herman Daly and the studies written by the Club of Rome group, this capacity for mathematical representation of Earth's realities was being deployed.  When Paul Erlich estimated an approximate time for doubling of human population of about 37 years, he wasn't really guessing; he was using exponential algebra, the stuff you learn in high school.  Such writers were not writing books full of ominous ecological warnings because they were hysterical or were showing off.  They were performing services pro bono publico, as Galileo had done.

So why didn't these clear warnings do any good?  I think that's what Carl Sagan is talking to Charlie Rose about.  As Craig Dilworth describes in his majestic Too Smart For Our Own Good, we have been capable of amazing technological breathroughs in energy utilization (particularly fossil fuel use), nuclear weaponry, food production, electronic circuitry, materials science, medicine and many other technical fields.  Yet the regulation of all this scientific know-how, and capacity for self-destruction, remained as ever in the hands of the scientifically illiterate - the kind of democratic government that a bell-curved demographic always elects.  A Parliament of Morons.

The avaricious, venal, thoroughly corrupt "guardians" of our fate, bought-and-paid-for solons like James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Joe Barton of Texas, cast the environmental warnings as a threat to our "freedom," of our economic rights to prosper and live the American Dream.  Environmentalists ("Eco-Nazis," as Rush Limbaugh would call them) were urging socialism disguised as self-restraint, and a government takeover of business, and regulation of "consumer choices" - an environmental police state.  The warnings of climate scientists became a particular target of the Evangelicals, as Mr. Inhofe, op. cit., would describe.  Man cannot bring about his own destruction because that's God's job.  Economic freedom as defended by the demon-haunted Evangelicals: there's your perfect Doomsday storm, Carl. If you were only around to see how right you were.

The conservative, religious, obscurantist framing of the argument worked.  In the Land of the Free, as Dick Cheney told us, conservation was "a personal virtue."  It could never have anything to do with public policy.

And so it never really has.