Friday, August 15, 2014

Ooey Gooey Was a Worm, a Mighty Worm Was He!

I want to go back for a moment to something I quoted from Neil DeGrasse Tyson a few days ago:
If you are one of those people who don't like thinking about astronomy because it makes them feel small, Tyson suggests looking at it a different way ... If you "see the universe as something you participate in — as this great unfolding of a cosmic story — that, I think should make you feel large, not small. ... Any astrophysicist does not feel small looking up in the universe; we feel large."
How many people don't like thinking about astronomy because it makes them feel small?  What does it have to do with science?  As I indicated yesterday, scientists are apt to brag that science is supposed to make us feel small, because religion supposedly makes us feel big -- but much of religion is devoted to quashing pride and reminding us of our smallness and insignificance before the Deity.  (Except when we make him mad -- then we're not so insignificant after all: our sinfulness puts all Heaven in a rage.)

Besides, if you feel large when you look up at the universe, something is wrong, because you are small, whether you're an astrophysicist or a pastry cook.  Tyson is saying that doing astrophysics fosters delusions of grandeur, which if true would discredit astrophysics, rather than recommend it.  Anyway, isn't science supposed to be about Finding the Truth and not about feeling big or small?

I've mentioned before the feminist historian of science Evelyn Fox Keller and her book Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death (Routledge, 1992).  Here's another bit from it that interested me, drawn from
the real lives of those contemporary scientists who got their start as boy scientists, producing explosives in their kitchens, bathrooms, or, if they were lucky, in a hand-fashioned basement laboratory.  (A generation ago, a common sideline of these basement laboratories used to be the production of “stink bombs” – ready to be set off by the young scientist whenever crossed by an uncooperative or angry mother.)  We are all familiar with the preoccupation many boys have with explosives, and with the great affective investment some of them show in producing bigger and more spectacular explosions – often indeed, continuing beyond boyhood into student days – but perhaps those of us who have spent time around places like MIT and Cal Tech are especially familiar with such behavioral/developmental patterns.  We would probably even agree that these patterns are more common in the early life histories of scientists and engineers than they are in the population at large.  Certainly, for the great majority of the scientists and engineers who started out life as play bomb experts, the energy invested in such primitive attempts at the resolution of early conflicts has been displaced onto mature creative endeavors that leave no trace of their precursors.  But in some cases, such traces are evident, even conspicuous.  As the result of a handy convergence between personal, affective interests and public, political, and economic interests, a significant number of these young men actually end up working in weapons labs (just how many would be interesting to document) – employing their creative talents to build bigger and better (real rather than play) bombs.  In other cases, traces of earlier preoccupations may be evoked only by particular circumstances – for example, the collective endeavor of a Manhattan Project.  The differences between these adult activities and their childhood precursors are of course enormous.  Yet it seems to me that the affective and symbolic continuity between the two nonetheless warrants our attention [49-50].
Just parenthetically, Keller reports that at Los Alamos, a successful bomb, a "bomb with 'thrust' [was] identified as a boy baby, while a girl baby [was] clearly identified as a dud" (50).

Anyway, this passage reminded me that even a sissy like me was fascinated by explosions when I was young.  I never built a basement lab to cook up my own explosives, but I loved cap pistols and fireworks.  Keller allows that many, perhaps most such boys outgrow their early fascination with things that go boom for "mature creative endeavors," though some move on "to build bigger and better (real rather than play) bombs."  I'm sure I recall a later passage in the book where, I thought, Keller mentioned that at Los Alamos, the physicists would relax on weekends by going into the desert to play with conventional explosives, but I can't find it now.  Looking around online, though, I found this more recent story:
Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico accidentally blew up a building on December 16 with a Civil War-style cannon. According to an occurrence report [pdf], which was first reported by the Project on Government Oversight, the lab's Shock and Detonation Physics team was testing a large-bore powder gun when they heard a "loud unusual noise."

About 20 minutes later, the researchers ventured out of their bunker to see what had happened. Upon further investigation of the facility’s Technical Area 15, the team discovered that Building 562 had been blown apart. Two doors were "propelled off the structure" and concrete shielding blocks were blasted off the walls. Parts of the cannon were also found lying on the asphalt nearby. The Facility Operations Director declared a "management concern" regarding the explosion. No-one was hurt, but sources told POGO that damages could cost $3 million. The lab reported that it has conducted a "critique" of the incident.
The reports give the impression that these "accidents" -- there are evidently quite a few of them -- occurred during regular research, but why would scientists at Los Alamos be working with, "testing", a "large bore powder gun"?  I suspect that they were just playing around and that a "loud unusual noise" was the aim of the exercise, not an accidental or unwanted side effect. Well, boys will be boys, eh?

The probability that many scientists were driven by a desire to make big booms and big stinks before they started seeking Truth doesn't in itself discredit science, but it does undermine scientists' pretensions to being above the irrationality of the stupid masses.  While I was working on this post I stepped into my local video emporium and saw that Neal DeGrasse Tyson's remake of Cosmos was playing.  Coincidentally (or was it?) I walked in on the segment on the Big Bang Theory that he'd told NPR about.  Tyson spoke slowly and sententiously, his big liquid eyes as full of staged sincerity as any televangelist's -- but then, that's what he is, a tv preacher bringing us the Good News according to Hawking and Darwin.  And his god (created, like all gods, in his own image) is a kid cooking up a Big Bang in the basement, so that he'll feel big.