Thursday, December 7, 2006

physics as mysticism in popular culture

I am always flabbergasted when people think that a book on string theory is more accessible to the public than a book on the genetics of animal development. For years i've noticed the popularity in the publishing industry, pop scene of high level physics over this middle earth range of biology, chemistry. I've come to think that the scientific world, media world is shortchanging the public on purpose.

By spreading the word about biology, chemistry, geology, cellular automata, computer science, scientists can actually teach the public about concrete things around them that they've had experience with, that they can grasp - how parts come together to make the creatures that we hang out with. This stuff can be visualized, people can learn to work with parts, they can and should learn to fix cars! when i was a kid i built electronic circuits and computers from scratch out of parts!

By teaching about the nitty gritty of chemistry, scientists can teach the public about the direct level through which people interact with this industrial civilization. Everything we interact with on a daily basis is chemistry: household poisons, fertilizer, petroleum, plastics, global warming, trash incineration, medicine...
Again, when i was a kid, i had a chemistry set.

But notice in the past 20 30 years since i've been a kid, the industry has toned down the accessibility of good chemistry sets and electronic kits to kids. While kids aged 17 18 are being sent out on the roads to get drunk and smash their brains out in car accidents at alarming rates, they are NOT allowed to buy chemistry sets with glassware, alcohol lamps and slightly poisonous chemicals in them. god forbid they should CUT THEMSELVES on some broken glasswear.

Every computer USED to come with the BASIC programming language, a language so PITIFULLY EASY to just jump in and kluge together mechanisms that work, and there were tons of books on how to start using it that were REALLY easy. this is much harder to do today.

Hell, even cars are almost impossible to work on compared to 30 years ago.

And physics: the market floods the public with books about cosmology, quantum mechanics, STRING THEORY for chrissakes!... the very far away in time and space, the innaccessably tiny! My feeling is that these subjects (EXTREMELY MATHEMATICAL) are in their REALITY very inaccessible to the public to even hope to understand. The math takes YEARS to master. No one could POSSIBLY do any experiments at home. The phenomena are mostly innaccessible to us. The way of thinking about relativistic cosmology, or quantum phenomena have very little to do with how you think when you fix a car or a computer. it has (contrary to mystical thought) nothing to do with how animals and plants grow and act.

What is being marketed is: MYSTICISM. The market is playing into the public's desires, handing them woowoo voodo stuff to make 'em feel happy, dreamy... let 'em think science blends in with their mystical dreams of spirits living in some otherdimensional heaven while the science/industrial complex is busy trashing the Earth so that the american public can live on the high hog using resources and producing waste 10X that what the rest of the world does.

to be continued:

I) galileo and the church on algebraising science and making it inaccessible to the public.

II) my attempts at teaching basic physics and math without all that algebra. geting it in your gut.

III) why i think our new knowlege of middle range phenomena is more important than that of subatomic and cosmological: because the middle range knowlege will help us with everyday problems of how to build stable creative civilization out of PARTS and managing industrial pollution, agriculture etc...

iv) also the danger that cosmology quantum voodoo encourages people in their beleifs of OTHER DIMENSIONS, heaven, souls, while learning the basics of middle range phenomena can help us understand and fall in love with THIS Earth, which feeds and houses us. and birthed us. yeah we are star stuff, fuck that we were birthed out of an african savanah full of apes. major concern because i fear that wanting to go to heaven will lead some of us to trash this earth to get there. (rapture bullshit)


Anonymous said...

Hi Bar...

I also had a chemistry set as a kid...a little lab in the basement. Now, just to get some glassware costs a fortune, let alone basic chemicals! (I used to love to heat cobalt chloride and watch it change color!) I mean, just try finding a chemistry set at a department store or toy shop! Helped me develop a reverence for science, the scientific method, and all the possibilities hidden within and waiting to be discovered.

You're right...almost impossible for kids to explore science now as we did. What happened to us? What IS HAPPENING to us?!

And I suspect you're also correct that these changes will have more exploring the world...too expensive, too dangerous. So we turn inward?

I'm all for inner exploration, but not if it's merely a substitute!

David (hanazir)

blackskimmer said...

i wonder if this is indirectly a cause of why physicists for the past 20 years have got lost in string theory; a largely mathematical construct without much experimental basis, which doesn't seem to be working.

though the age thing doesn't quite match, or maybe it's popular because the young phd students are younger than us and didn't play with chemistry sets and cars, just video games!

Anonymous said...

That was beutiful. Amazing how so many people argue with me about quantum and they don't know mechanics. or basic college algebra.

I'm a young phd student and I didn't have a chemistry set. I lived in the woods and on the beach though. I played outside.

I think kids can still be curious and learn this stuff if the parents help culitvate it. And maybe you have the parents that talk to you instead of letting the tv and video games be a baby sitter. And maybe if they're not swamped with 87 different afterschool activities.


barry goldman said...

oh, god, swamping the kids with 87 different activites to make 'em mini CEOs before they hit puberty even...

god help us.

yeah i don't think kids are allowed to play anymore.