Category Archives: Science

What Is Science?

There are any number of terms and/or concepts bandied about these days that mean many different things to many different people. One of the important features of clear language is the understanding that we all pretty much agree on what words mean. I use the qualifier “pretty much” because definitions shouldn’t be written in stone, impervious to lexicographical evolution. But if I say to you, “Watch out, there’s an angry hornet on your right shoulder,” it’d behoove you to know that yours and my definitions of “right,” “shoulder,” and “hornet” jibe.

Awful [Image: Fotolia/AP]

All languages are fluid, constantly changing. English is no better or worse, in that sense, than any other tongue. Take, for instance, the words terrific and awful. Anybody today who uses either term is conveying a meaning that everybody would get. Something terrific is good to an almost superlative degree. Something awful is bad, to the same extent. Yet terrific originally denoted something that inspired terror. Awful, on the other hand, described a thing or idea that filled one with awe, the interior, say, of the Ulm Cathedral in Germany, once one of the tallest structures in the world. Its stone steeple reaches 530 feet into the sky. Imagine being a rustic Briton in pre-skyscraper days, arriving in the Teutonic big city and strolling up to the edifice. She or he’d be filled with awe. “This,” she’d say, “is awful!”

Back then, those within earshot’d know precisely what she meant.

If she said the same thing today, listeners would be scratching their heads.

And, by the way, most people refer to that structure, officially the Ulm Minster, as a cathedral but, truth is, it is no such thing. A cathedral, technically, is the home church of a bishop, the headquarters of what is called in the Christian nomenclature a See.

See? A didact from the Holy See (the official name of the sovereign state whose capital is the Vatican City), might shake his finger at you for calling the Ulm structure a cathedral, but no one else on Earth would. That bit of inexactness (or, some might say, laziness) among the hoi polloi has led to an effective change in the meaning of the word cathedral. Most people today would say it refers to any grand or awe-inspiring church.

For pity’s sake, the very term hoi polloi itself can mean something quite different from the original intent. About 75 years ago, the term meant the unwashed masses, rubes, un-sophisticates, the common clay. As such, obviously, it was a slur. People of a certain “noble” rank used it to describe the slobs of no rank or wealth they had to suffer seeing whenever they ventured out from their safe estates. Pretty straightforward, no?

No. Here’s the Merriam-Webster definition of the term hoi polloi:

  1. The general populace. The masses
  2. People of distinction or wealth or elevated social status. Elite.

Well, which is it?

Fortunately for us in the year 2021, few use the term. It, again, is an insult. Perhaps it fell out of fashion because nobody could could guess with any assurance what you meant when you uttered it.

Back when I was a kid, white people started copping terms from black people, who themselves had been copping terms from jazz hipsters. One of them was bad, as in good. My father and brother used to whip themselves into a frenzy watching the Chicago Bears play football every fall Sunday afternoon. One day, my brother said of Dick Butkus, the legendary Hall of Fame middle linebacker whose very name at the time conjured an image of the immovable barrier, the unforgiving force or, simply, the best pro football defender alive, “Man, he’s bad!”

My father, not yet hip, was flummoxed. You could almost see the wheels spinning within his head: Butkus? Bad?

I could go on. Hipster once was a descriptor most wannabe cool guys would have loved to be called. Anybody who played bebop jazz or listened to it was a hipster. Charlie Parker was a hipster. Lenny Bruce was a hipster. The Beat Writers were hipsters. Outsiders, rebels, anti-establishment types. Today? Let’s go to the Wikipedia reference, Hipster (contemporary subculture):

Affluent or middle class youth?! Charlie Parker? Lenny Bruce? Allen Ginsberg?

Like I said, language is fluid. Dig?

This, natch, is all preamble to the question, What is science? This is important because people are using the term promiscuously in public discourse, on social media, and in their own minds. In fact, the very word has become a definitive marker as emotionally and forensically fraught as religion once was (and, to a vanishing extent, remains). When someone says “That’s just science,” they’re really saying, “That’s the truth, and if you don’t believe it, you’re not going to hell but, man, you’re out of it.”

Problem is, people who buy into astrology, for instance, will argue that the practice of it and belief in it is firmly grounded in science. They’ll say people have been working on its charts and formulae for thousands of years. It’s a noble and entrenched science.

Anti-vaxxers swear to their gods that they have science on their side. Those who believe genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are poison say their stance is science-based. Conspiracy theorists explain the origin of COVID-19, the collapse of several Manhattan skyscrapers after the 9/11 attack, even the idea that John F. Kennedy was, as The Onion headline blared, “shot 129 times from 43 different angles while riding through downtown Dallas in a motorcade,” will tell you, That’s just science.

In each of the aforementioned cases scientific consensus held an opposing view.

The word science today too often connotes Received Wisdom just as much as the Bible or the pronouncements of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon once meant to their adherents. In many cases, science is the new Bible; scientists the new priests. The hoi polloi (there’s that word again) casually surf the internet and, finding some quote or assertion by a white lab coat-wearing figure, accept the same without question.

Science, in millions and millions of people’s minds, is now orthodoxy.

Like so many terms, so many ideas, science today is becoming meaningless.

Which is a damned shame because, not terribly long ago (before the Age of Trump and, to be sure, before the advent of the internet) the word had a hard and fast meaning.

People say, “Science says…,” as if there’s some authority, some panel of infallible experts who speak in its name. As if all the scientists of the world are in lock-step agreement on things. As if there’s a daily or weekly report issued by them, the purpose of which is to posit inerrant truths.

Thing is, scientists are nothing more than a bunch of human beings trying to do the best they can in their chosen fields. There are good ones; there are lousy ones. This is not to belittle their efforts. But it can be assumed that if 90 percent or more of the practitioners in any scientific discipline buy into an idea, it’s likely spot on. Of course, scientific consensus has been wrong before. Many times, in fact. Think of things like phrenology, social “survival of the fittest,” Piltdown Man, the Steady State universe, and many other now-debunked but one-time accepted truths.

Oliver G. Alvar wrote in 2019:

Science makes mistakes, there’s no doubt about it. If it claimed to possess perfect knowledge of the world, it would be no better than religion or other dogmatic doctrines. Unlike religion, science doesn’t deal in absolutes, but in probabilities — which is how we conduct our everyday knowledge anyway.

Science is humanity’s accumulated body of knowledge, ever-changing, constantly being refined, the particulars within it occasionally refuted. With each passing day practitioners of experience, capability, and acclaim within it are trying to make it better, more accurate, closer to the truth. The best of scientists innately grasp that they’ll never fully know any “truth,” yet, they still strive toward it.

They do their work following the guidelines of the scientific method. It’s utterly logical and exquisitely simple. Here’s a chart I found in the website Lumen:

You see the box reading “Form a hypothesis…?” That’s a term people usually conflate with theory. “That’s your theory,” people might say when they’re really implying, “You’re full of shit.” A hypothesis is a guess based on observation, an unproven stab. A theory is a hypothesis that has been either proven or shown to be so overwhelmingly unassailable that it works quite well as a model of understanding, evolution, say, or the Big Bang.

In any case, scientists are not the spiritual kin of Moses, who came down from Mount Sinai carrying the Ten Commandments. People throughout history have craved such a prophet, such a visionary, certain of “truth.” They still do today. If anything, the impulse within us to embrace such a man (always a man) is less in the year 2021 than it was in 1921 or, for that matter, 1121 or 1121 BCE. That’s good. Yet it remains.

Moses, essentially, said, This is so. Ideally, scientists say, This just might be.

Leave it to Isaac Asimov to put it best:

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…”

Asimov

Good scientists that he was, Asimov got a bigger kick out of being puzzled by something than he got from finding any sort of “truth.”

Hot Air: What Does a Pencil Look Like?

A Different Direction

Join me in something new here.

For the last year or more, I’ve been averaging only a post a month on this global communications colossus. When I started The Electron Pencil back in 2012 and running through 2019 or so, I was striving — and mostly succeeding — in putting up a post a day herein. For the last couple of years of that run, I wrote about the 45th President of the United States more than any other topic. Much more. The truth is, what in the hell else was there to write about starting in the summer of 2016? What had once been a Simpsons cartoon joke had become — improbably, alarmingly, disturbingly — serious business. The joke was on us.

Funny-Not Funny.

So, as I say, I wrote, angrily for the most part, about President Gag. And, truth be told, it eventually became a millstone. Thinking and writing about Trump, that is. By ’19, I was sick to death of him and the country that had elected him on a technicality. Next thing I knew, i was going weeks at a time without putting up a Pencil post.

Even though this Holy Land has had a new president for some five months now, I’ve not yet got back into the groove of posting regularly, much less daily. And for that period of time I’ve been wondering what to do with this tool I have at my fingertips and that I pay for, I might add. I subscribe to the WordPress Business package, an option that allows me to put up podcasts and get all sorts of analytics and bells and whistles that the WP free basic package lacks. I pondered long and hard about simply going back to basic and saving the yearly premium subscription fee. Hell, I even tossed around the idea of closing down this shop altogether, but I abhor that option most of all.

Back at the beginning (the year 1 AP, or Anno Penicillum * ) I did a lot of local news coverage and opinionating here, another thing I lost pretty much all my ardor for as Bloomington, like the rest of the country, became a soap opera of antagonists snarling at each other, righteous brothers- and sisters-in-arms convinced everyone on the other side of even the most innocuous issue was in league with Satan, or at least an aspiring child pornographer. I eventually lost any desire to continue wading into the cesspool of local news and issues as well.

[ * Some sources have the word penicillum as the Latin translation for the American English pencil. Those sources go on to assert the Latin word actually meant small penis back in the days of Cicero and Augustus Caesar. I suppose I get the connection, pencils and penises sort of resemble each other — emphasis on sort of. Once I learned this, though, I was hooked. Yep, I’m definitely denoting each year of the Pencil era as an Anno Penicillum.]

Bill Bryson

In any case, I’ve considered any number of different ways I could go with this blog and website. The one, though, that keeps popping back into mind has to do with science. Loyal Pencillistas know I’m a voracious reader. I purchase books the way some people buy cars or wine or Hummels. That is, obsessively. At the Book Corner, where I still work a few hours each week, when people ask me what I like to read, I tell them history and science. Hell, my favorite living author is Bill Bryson, who writes about both topics (as well as language and travel).

So, yeah, science. I love science. Or shall I say sciences? Every single one of them. Astronomy, particle physics, engineering, medicine, biology, geology, archeology, anthropology, mathematics. Name a hard science and I’m in on it, as much as an unlettered layperson can be. The soft sciences — psychology, sociology, and political science — you can keep. I mean, I’ll converse with anybody about those topics; for pity’s sake, I’ll converse with anybody about anything. But I’m fairly averse to accumulating books on those subjects and I take the pronouncements emanating from mavens in those soft sciences with a grain of salt. But the sciences that traffic in testable, demonstrable, observable principles? Friends, count me in.

Ergo (don’t you just love Latin?), I want to turn this Pencil thing into a fun science reader. Sure, why not? The idea being in each post I’ll ruminate * on a specific science or topic, illuminating it with a light, hopefully witty, touch. Let’s look at it as a digest of Things Every Adult Ought to Know. Every adult and a goodly number of exceptional kids, too.

[ * Most dictionaries define ruminating as 1) thinking deeply about a subject and 2) chewing cud. Don’t you just love American English?]

What’s She Thinking About?

Don’t you agree there is a floor-level of knowledge the grown-up human beings of the 21st Century ought to possess? We don’t necessarily have to be on intimate terms with quantum electrodynamics (the daddy-o of which, Richard Feynman, once famously said

Richard Feynman

anyone who purports to truly understand that particular science simply doesn’t) but, dang mang, we should by all rights know the difference between tensile, torque, shear, and compressive strength (we’d like to feel safe and secure when driving across big, high bridges) or what the four macronutrients are for human beings (water, fats, carbohydrates, and proteins). We don’t need to be PhD candidates in any of these sciences but, golly, we’d better know a little something about all of them.

For that matter, each and every one of us should know who Rosalind Franklin, Cecilia Payne, and Loney Clinton Gordon were. BTW: I’m not linking to their names here because I want to do future posts on each of them and more.

I’m going to start up this new Pencil push sometime within the next few days. If you dig it, keep coming back. If not, there are plenty of other ways for you to occupy your time in this world. Speaking of the world, did you know a University of Texas researcher determined that if everybody alive on Earth today hoped to enjoy a lifestyle similar to the average American, we’d need the resources of ten planet Earths.

See what I mean? That’s the kind of thing I’ll traffic in when this new Things-Every-Adult-Ought-to-Know phase of the Pencil kicks off.

See you soon.

Does This Look Like a Bunch of Penises to You?

The Pencil Today:

THE QUOTE

“That’s one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.” — Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

STEEL WILL

Forget Columbus. Forget all the rest of the pirates and rapists and genocide artists and pathological acquisitors we were force-fed as heroes in elementary school.

Neil Armstrong and his mates, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, rode in a shiny white tin can a quarter million miles away from Earth to a place where there was no air, no water, no natives to beg for help from (then kill) — I mean, honestly, can you imagine any more audacious, courageous thing to do?

Aldrin, Collins & Armstrong

Farewell, explorer.

THE CAPITOL OF LIES

Make sure to catch this weekend’s edition of “On the Media.” Host Bob Garfield interviews former NPR Congressional Correspondent Andrea Seabrook, who quit her job, basically because she was sick of the bullshit spewing from the mouths of politicians these days.

Andrea Seabrook

Which is admirable — to an extent.

Seabrook tells Garfield she’s running from lies. “The lies that I’m talking about are just the complete and total disingenuousness of almost everything that’s said all day long in the US Capitol.”

She gives examples of how pols from both parties break the 8th Commandment as a matter of course.

The obvious question is, why do Seabrook and her colleagues let the bums get away with it? She acknowledges their complicity in the great lies. Journalists, she says, collude with pols “by covering what politicians say all day every day, rather than what they don’t say. As journalists, walking into a situation where we know it’s political theater and then recording those words and playing them back to the American people as if they were news plays into the game that they’re playing.”

House Of Lies

Still, she doesn’t say why she continued to play the game even after recognizing that she’d been drawn in. Why, for instance, did Seabrook never say to a pol who was lying, bald-faced, to her, “That’s not true! Why do you say such things?”

Seabrook is starting a new website called DecodeDC which, she promises, will dig beneath the lies.

The problem is only political geeks and policy wonks will go to her site. The vast majority of the citizenry will be stuck with commercial media reporters who not only play the game, but love it.

Maybe Seabrook is heroic for chucking it all. Maybe it would have been more heroic had she stuck it out with NPR and rebelled from within.

THIS. IS. SCARY.

Here’s how I waste my time. How about you? Share your fave sites with us via the comments section. Just type in the name of the site, not the url; we’ll find them. If we like them, we’ll include them — if not, we’ll ignore them.

I Love ChartsLife as seen through charts.

XKCD — “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.”

SkepchickWomen scientists look at the world and the universe.

Skepchick: Click For Full Article

IndexedAll the answers in graph form, on index cards.

I Fucking Love ScienceA Facebook community of science geeks.

Present/&/CorrectFun, compelling, gorgeous and/or scary graphic designs and visual creations throughout the years and from all over the world.

Flip Flop Fly BallBaseball as seen through infographics, haikus, song lyrics, and other odd communications devices.

Mental FlossFacts.

Click For Full Article

SodaplayCreate your own models or play with other people’s models.

Eat Sleep DrawAn endless stream of artwork submitted by an endless stream of people.

Big ThinkTapping the brains of notable intellectuals for their opinions, predictions, and diagnoses.

The Daily PuppySo shoot me.

Electron Pencil event listings: Music, art, movies, lectures, parties, receptions, games, benefits, plays, meetings, fairs, conspiracies, rituals, etc.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

◗ IU Bill Armstrong StadiumHoosier women’s soccer vs. Missouri State; noon

◗ IU CinemaFilm: “Alice”; 3pm

First United Methodist ChurchVoices United: Benefit for Interfaith Winter Shelter, featuring Heidi Grant Murphy, Kevin Murphy, Grey Larsen & Cindy Kallet, Rachel Caswell, Tom Walsh, Jeremy Allen, Steve Zegree; 4pm

The Player’s PubMusic: Andra Faye & the Rays; 6pm

Bryan ParkSunday Outdoor Concert series: Creek Dogs; 6:30pm

◗ IU CinemaFilm: “Surviving Life”; 6:30pm

Bear’s Place — Ryder Film Series: “Take This Waltz”; 7pm

ONGOING

◗ Ivy Tech Waldron CenterExhibits:

  • “40 Years of Artists from Pygmalion’s”; through September 1st

◗ IU Art MuseumExhibits:

  • “A Tribute to William Zimmerman,” wildlife artist; through September 9th

  • Willi Baumeister, “Baumeister in Print”; through September 9th

  • Annibale and Agostino Carracci, “The Bolognese School”; through September 16th

  • “Contemporary Explorations: Paintings by Contemporary Native American Artists”; through October 14th

  • David Hockney, “New Acquisitions”; through October 21st

  • Utagawa Kuniyoshi, “Paragons of Filial Piety”; through fall semester 2012

  • Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Weston, & Harry Callahan, “Intimate Models: Photographs of Husbands, Wives, and Lovers”; through December 31st

  • “French Printmaking in the Seventeenth Century”; through December 31st

◗ IU SoFA Grunwald GalleryExhibits:

  • “Media Life,” drawings and animation by Miek von Dongen; through September 15th

  • “Axe of Vengeance: Ghanaian Film Posters and Film Viewing Culture”; through September 15th

◗ IU Kinsey Institute Gallery“Ephemeral Ink: Selections of Tattoo Art from the Kinsey Institute Collection”; through September 21st

◗ IU Lilly LibraryExhibit, “Translating the Canon: Building Special Collections in the 21st Century”; through September 1st

◗ IU Mathers Museum of World Cultures — Reopens Tuesday, August 21st

Monroe County History CenterPhoto exhibit, “Bloomington: Then and Now” by Bloomington Fading; through October 27th

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