Links and Comments: Modern Physics; Evolution and Strangers; Coming out in totalitarian societies; Elizabeth Kolbert on Mars

Sunday’s New York Times has a “Gray Matter” essay on A Crisis at the Edge of Physics by Adam Frank and Marcelo Gleiser* is about whether the empirical method — validating theories via predictions and evidence — does not work for some modern scientific ‘theories’. Or perhaps those ‘theories’ don’t count as proper theories. The prime examples are string theory and supersymmetry, as the next steps beyond the standard model (which does not unify all four basic forces). If high-order ‘theories’ can solve this unification mathematically, but cannot be validated through any kind of evidence, what’s the point? The authors compare these ideas to Ptolemy’s epicycles, which similarly ‘explained’ the orbits of the planets without any kind of evidence, but were accepted for 1500 years. The resolution to this quandary may come with upgrades to the Large Hadron Collider, which potentially might discover the predicted supersymmetric particles.

*Gleiser is author of a recent book The Island of Knowledge: The LImits of Science and the Search for Meaning, which I have in my to-read stack, and seems to be about this issue in many manifestations. There are also books like Jim Baggott’s Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth, which claims science has already gone off the rails on these issues.


And an interesting op-ed in Sunday’s LA Times by Robert Sapolsky [a biology professor at Stanford], The evolution of encountering, and embracing, strangers. (Beware the annoying ads that block the page for 15 seconds.)

For nearly all of human history, people lived in small hunter-gatherer bands, with some flow of individuals between neighboring bands that regularly encountered one another. In other words, your life was spent among people you knew.

But as has been explored by sociologists and psychologists, once humans developed proto-cities with thousands of inhabitants, starting around 9,000 years ago, something unprecedented occurred: We began to spend a lot of time around people we didn’t know very well at all.

Generosity and cooperation are common in small groups where everyone knows each other, but plummet when dealing with anonymous strangers. Thus…

…it is only when societies get large enough that people in them regularly encounter strangers that “Big Gods” emerge — deities who are concerned with human morality and who punish our transgressions. The gods of hunter-gatherers generally couldn’t care less whether we’ve been naughty or nice.

The point of his essay is that, upon seeing his son’s graduation from high school, he realizes the people in modern societies regularly *break* close social ties in order to move on — to move off to different cities, start a fresh life. It’s a process never experienced by our ancient ancestors.


Heartbreaking story in NYT, North Korean Defector Opens Up About Long-Held Secret: His Homosexuality, about a man who defected from North Korea for reasons he wasn’t even aware of, except that he knew he felt no sexual attraction to his wife. Because he grew up

in the totalitarian North, where the government maintains that homosexuality does not exist because people there live with a “sound mentality and good morals.”

It wasn’t until he defected to South Korea that he understood that there was even the concept of homosexuality — though even in that country the topic is taboo.

And an analogous story also in NYT (and reproduced in the San Francisco Chronicle, and no doubt other subscribers), about transgender: Transgender Children’s Books Fill a Void and Break a Taboo.

Sam Martin was browsing in a Boston record store 23 years ago when an unusual photography book caught his eye. Mr. Martin flipped through its pages, which featured portraits and interviews with women who had become men, and started to cry.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m not the only one,’ ” said Mr. Martin, 43, who started transitioning to male from female after he bought the book. “When I was growing up, I never saw people like me in movies or books.”

There is a range of human experience and perception that totalitarian societies, and religious conservatives in democratic societies, seek to suppress and deny — for what can only be characterized as socialistic reasons. Reproduce and multiply, for the good of society, for the good of the race. But it’s the arc of history, especially now in the internet age, and as the human race’s survival is relatively more assured than it was a century ago or a millenium ago, that these forces will give way to reality, to acknowledging the common humanity of such sexual minorities, and other minorities that have previously been marginalized over human history.


Nice essay by Elizabeth Kolbert*, in the June 1 New Yorker, about Project Exodus: What’s behind the dream of colonizing Mars?

Nice essay that contrasts the practical difficulties of getting to Mars with the fantasies about getting there, and the potential consequences if we do.

“Humans carry biomes with us, outside and inside,” he writes. NASA insists that Mars landers be sterilized, but “we can’t sterilize ourselves.” If people ever do get to the red planet—an event that Conway, now forty-nine, says he considers “unlikely” in his lifetime—they’ll immediately wreck the place, just by showing up: “Scientists want a pristine Mars, uncontaminated by Earth.” If people start rejiggering the atmosphere and thawing the regolith, so much the worse.

“The Mars scientists want to study won’t exist anymore,” Conway writes. “Some other Mars will.”

With some discussion of Chris Impey’s new book Beyond: Our Future in Space, another book on my to-read stack.

*Kolbert is the author of The Sixth Extinction, winner of the Pulitzer prize and at least one other literary award IIRC as best science book of 2014; I read it on my plane flights a week ago and will write it up and summarize it here in the next week or so.

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