Sunday, August 07, 2011
Friday, July 15, 2011
Monday, July 04, 2011
by Zoë Pollock
The Big Bang merely separated out a uniform state of chargelessness into many individual instances of charge, positive and negative. The same goes for matter and energy generally: the total amount of matter and energy in the universe seems to be balanced out by huge amounts of "dark matter" and "dark energy," which express themselves in terms of gravitational attraction. The Big Bang didn't create all that energy, as such. Instead, it seems to have turned an initial Nothingness into a "much more interesting and potent" Nothingness -- a "Nothing that has been separated into opposites to give, thereby, the appearance of something."
The main point is that the Big Bang doesn't mark, necessarily, the creation of something out of nothing. If that happened at all -- and it may be, Atkins points out, that there was has never been absolutely Nothing, in a total sense -- then it probably happened further back in the pre-cosmological past. Instead, it marks the emergence of texture, differentiation, and particularity out of even, unchanging featurelessness.
(Video: Timelapse from the Atacama Desert, in Chile, that has been digitally rotated so that the stars stay steady while the earth rotates, via NASA.)
Friday, July 01, 2011
Part of the logic behind insurance is that it's a risk pool; none of us knows when we're gonna go, so we agree to split the costs. But genetic profiling may increasingly give each of us our own set of pre-existing conditions, good or bad. And that may test people's willingness to chip in for the health costs of their fellow-citizens. When "it coulda been me" turns into "nope, it couldn't", we may start seeing...hm, I was about to say "a breakdown in social solidarity", but then I remembered we're talking about America here. How about "even less willingness to do anything for people who aren't as lucky as you are."
Thursday, June 30, 2011
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
By Matthew Cameron
Yesterday’s Brookings Institution event “PhDs, Policies and Patents” focused on ways the government can invest in research and technology that will spur innovation and lead to long-term economic growth. Although much of the discussion had to do with biomedical advancements and infrastructure development, the lessons from the conference relate to higher education as well. Specifically, there is tremendous potential to use online technology to lower the skyrocketing cost of college attendance. This is necessary because expanding access to higher education is a surefire way to boost innovation and the nation’s economic prospects – individuals who graduate from college conduct more research, develop more technologies, and earn higher incomes than non-degree holders.
Unfortunately, a combination of skewed incentives, backwards priorities and traditionalist mindsets make this a difficult objective to achieve. Universities have little reason to cut costs because their reputations directly benefit from higher per student academic spending. So even if a school achieves cost savings without sacrificing quality – say, by replacing large, intro-level lectures with online courses – it will be regarded as less prestigious by many ranking methodologies. Public colleges face an additional problem. State support for higher education has declined steadily during the past few decades, and recent budget crises have exacerbated this trend. This means that if public schools save money by embracing online courses, state legislatures likely will view it as an opportunity to further reduce their appropriations to higher education. This means the benefits of cost savings would not accrue to students through reduced tuition but rather to state governments that could avoid raising taxes or cutting other services. Finally, university faculty view online technology as a threat to their role at the heart of the higher education system. This was evident during an exchange between George Mason University Prof. Tyler Cowen and Stanford University Prof. Tim Bresnahan at yesterday’s conference. When Cowen raised the possibility of universities employing fewer professors once online courses are widespread, Bresnahan responded defensively by asserting that he does more than just teach.
Obviously, Bresnahan has a point – the specialized expertise and personalized guidance that professors can convey to students in higher-level college courses truly is indispensible. For entry-level lectures with hundreds of students, however, faculty members often don’t do much more than teach. They don’t grade papers, they don’t meet their students and they aren’t able to delve into the finer details of the subjects they teach. These classes aren’t just a waste of students’ money, however; they’re also a drain on professors’ time. If they were freed from their obligation to teach such classes, professors would be able to devote more effort toward their niche in the higher education system – stimulating students’ intellectual curiosity through personal interactions and engaging learning experiences.
All of which is to say the problem the U.S. faces today isn’t how to make higher education more affordable. Rather, it’s convincing various groups that doing so will benefit them.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
A reader writes:
It seems to me that the debate between spiritualist and scientific interpretations of the psilocybin experience depends on a false alternative. It's true that a scientific perspective rules out witnessing supernatural facts. But that's not the same as ruling out witnessing spiritual facts, at least not in the sense that most people mean by the word "spiritual".
It is entirely compatible with what science has revealed about the world that human individuals bear a profound kinship to other parts of the universe, a kinship that ought to have tremendous value. The common misconception that science - unlike the Medieval world-view it replaced - implies our alienation from the world - our being strangers in a valueless world indifferent to our fates - ignores what science has shown. Darwin's theory, for example, shows the profound connections that all creatures, including human beings, bear to each other. We learn about our own bodies by studying the genes of house flies!
If contemporary science is right, we are parts of the universe in a more profound way than most religious traditions have ever suspected. Furthermore, we play a very special role in the universe: we (as well as other sapient species, if there are any) are the universe becoming conscious of itself - matter coming to the realization of its own existence, both the fact of it and its nature.
The realization of our connectedness with and kinship to everything is a deeply spiritual one. If anything should be valued (and valuing is a non-negotiable part of human experience), then this reflexive awareness that, through our existence, the universe has of its own beauty, power, and complexity, should be. The valuing of this profound fact is as spiritual an experience as I can think of.
Of course, it's not the same kind of spirituality as many mainstream religions offer. It's true that it eliminates the notion of a personal God, separate from the universe, with an interest in the fates of each and everyone of us. But the alternative it offers is still profoundly spiritual. As one of your other commentators noted, the idea that our existence is fleeting makes each moment precious and irreplaceable. Each human individual is a unique manifestation of the universe's growing awareness of itself. I certainly find this thought awesomely spiritual. And psilocybin experiences give individuals the direct experience of such facts. One looks at a tree, and one feels at home with it, part of the same enterprise, in some sense.
This is exactly what science teaches. But psilocybin enables one to experience such facts directly - thus its spiritual value. It is one thing to theoretically appreciate a natural phenomenon - say a supernova - and another to experience it directly through instruments, like telescopes. I think psilocybin is an instrument that enables us to experience directly facts that science has long appreciated theoretically: that we are profoundly at home in this universe, and have a special role in it - that of constituting its growing awareness of itself.
This may be a kind of Spinozistic pantheism enhanced with a Hegelian conceptualization of the human role in it. So it's not the kind of spirituality preached by most religions. But it is a kind of spirituality consistent with science, that makes clear why the human experience of and connection to nature is of paramount value. It is this spiritual insight that the psilocybin experience can reveal in a uniquely direct way.
But what if the universe being conscious of itself is a workable definition of God? In which case, we are indeed made in the image of God but our consciousness is limited by our humanity, by the "fall". I find far less conflict between these spiritual experiences and the religions that feel threatened by them than others do.