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February 26, 2008

You math-and-science types, enjoy this

Godparticle160 Me, I don't understand one word of it. But it looks like it would be worth reading if I could.

(Via The Corner)

(Image © National Geographic)

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Rolley Haggard

This hunt for “The God Particle” reminded me of the joke about the mother of all supercomputers.

When the eggheads at the National Science Laboratory proudly rolled it out to the public, they bragged that it could “answer any question in the world.” They then invited a skeptic from the audience to come up and “ask a question, any question.” The skeptic came up, pondered for a moment, and then asked the computer, “Is there a God?” A hush fell over the audience as everyone waited to hear the answer. The computer blinked and whirred a couple of times and then replied, “Now there is.”


Someday, Gina, when everyone's feeling perky and gracious toward one another, perhaps we could explore the stigma against illiteracy and cultural ignorance, and the absence of stigma for innumeracy and scientific ignorance. Nothing personal intended whatsoever (not even in fun); I just find it odd that humanities people can admit ignorance of a body of knowledge without fear of humiliation, while science people get laughed to scorn for having not read classic works of literature. Again, I'm not trying to pick a fight; I just see it as an odd cultural phenomenon, and I wonder if it's unique to America and/or to modern times.

Sincere thanks and applause for stepping outside your comfort zone (and admitting it!) to offer us that link.

And the article is an interesting skim in that it shows the uncertainty of the foundation of their field of study exhibited by physicists (who, as I recall, tend to frequently be religious) as contrasted to the firm conviction of truth exhibited by biologists, paleontologists and geologists (all of whom tend to be atheistic, unless you count the worship of Darwin).

Samuel X

That's actually from a short SF story (I think it's called "The Last Question," but I don't remember - I always thought it should be called "Deus Ex Machina"), in which the computer involved is quite frankly galactic in scale. After getting that answer, the skeptic realizes the implications and tries to turn it off, but is swiftly felled by clear-sky lightning. Which also fuses all the switches together.

I've never quite figured out whether it was meant to be a diatribe against religion, or science.

In related news... really awesomely huge machine. With PIPES.

Gina Dalfonzo

Hmm. I hadn't thought about it that way, LeeQuod -- and if I've ever been scornful of non-literature-readers, I abjectly apologize. As I've just demonstrated, I have no grounds to be scornful of anyone. But it's possible that with my little one-track tunnel-visioned English-major mind, I have a tendency to think, "How could anyone find literature hard?" while at the same time thinking, "How could anyone find math and science easy?" (I won't deny that I cringe when someone tells me -- as someone did the other day -- that she likes a certain series of books because they're "easy." But it's not because I think she's stupid -- on the contrary. It's because I think she's smarter than she thinks she is, and she's missing out.)

My friend Mike, in his logical and rational way, keeps trying to convince me every time I bring up my abysmal lack of understanding of numbers that anyone can be successful at math and science. Alas, I know too well it's not true, and that ought to be enough to keep me humble. If you ever see me getting above myself, just ask me something about differential equations (that is a real term, isn't it?) and watch me wither like a salted snail.


Exactly, Gina. I routinely work with people who think "If you don't know the Three Laws of Thermodynamics at not merely a casual but actually a deep level, well then, you're an idiot." The Point, with its preponderance of "literary types", is sometimes a welcome respite. (Must one self-identify as a particular "type"? Leonardo da Vinci is a hero of mine, even though he was a terrible writer.)

But again, I'm not thinking about anything you've done or haven't. (Far from it; your behavior is exemplary.) I'm thinking how someone can say "I'm not good with numbers" with low risk unless they're in a crowd of geeks, while saying "I'm not good with words" would be socially far riskier in many more environments. Personally, I struggle greatly with colleagues who cannot spell or express themselves well, but are quite intelligent with computers - I'm still tempted to think of them as kinda dumb. A co-worker recently wrote that he wanted to agree with an answer of mine by writing "Dido." I knew him well enough to know he meant "ditto". And English is his only spoken language.

Personally, I'm reluctant to admit in public that I only know Herman Melville via movie versions of "Moby Dick" and "Billy Budd". I feel like an educated adult should have read these works. But at the same time I feel that an educated person should know at least superfically what a quark is.

I'll post more in response to Regis's latest.

(And by the way, my instructor for differential equations - "diffy-Qs", we called them - was very boring and left us to learn the subject mostly on our own, unsuccessfully. And because of that, Physical Chemistry - which began on day one with partial differentials - made me consider other career options... thank God. :-) )

Diane Singer

Try being an English teacher tasked with teaching technical writing to a group of science majors. Over the years, I have had to wade through many term papers on topics that are totally foreign to me. I've learned a lot along the way, but mostly I've just been impressed with what my students know that I don't. As for this link, I sent it to my physics/chemistry major husband. When push comes to shove, I've been known to get him to read some of my students' papers! It's nice to have a scientist in the house.

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