Monday, December 05, 2011

Cognitive dissonance

Daughter Margaret gave me Lisa Randall's new book for my birthday, and I have just now got around to reading it. Randall is an eminent theoretical particle physicist and cosmologist at Harvard University, who the media seems to adore as much for her stunning good looks as for her physics. Certainly, she gives the lie to the idea that cutting-edge mathematical physics is a man's game.

Her book is Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World. She is a terrific explicator of such esoteric aspects of physics as the Large Hadron Collider and multiverses. But what I found most refreshing about the book is not the physics, but her emphasis on "scientific thinking."

The Large Hadron Collider -- the biggest and most expensive scientific instrument ever devised -- may "illuminate the universe," but it won't have much influence on the "modern world." Whether or not the machine discovers the sought-for Higgs boson will have zero effect on the national debt or resolving the health-care crisis. The relevance of string theory and multiverses to the peace of nations is zippo.

But the kind of thinking that led to the LHC and string theory has everything to do with the quality of life in the modern world, and Randall is careful to make that point.

Curiosity, creativity, rationality, openness, and tolerance, unconstrained by dogma are characteristics of the scientific temper. Randall writes:
Scientific thought recognizes that uncertainty isn't failure. It properly evaluates risks and accounts for both short- and long-termed influences. It allows for creative thinking in the search for solutions…The scientific method helps us to understand the edges of the universe, but it can also guide us in critical decisions for this world that we now live in.
Nothing new here for those of us who have imbibed the scientific spirit, but given the current flourishing worldwide of political and religious fundamentalisms (not least among the current crop of candidates for president of the United States), one has to wonder to what extent the scientific temper has illuminated the "modern world," even as people enthusiastically construct their lives upon the technological and medical advancements that flow purely from a way of thinking they feel constrained to reject.