LARB Radio Hour Interview!

This is one of the best interviews I’ve done about #thedialoguesbook so far. Eric Newman is an excellent interviewer, and for the first half of the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) radio hour we covered science and its intersection with art, culture, philosophy, religion, politics, and more!

You can listen to it here.

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LAIH Luncheon with Jack Miles

LAIH_Jack_Miles_6_march_2015_2 (Click for larger view.)
On Friday 6th March the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities (LAIH) was delighted to have our luncheon talk given by LAIH Fellow Jack Miles. He told us some of the story behind (and the making of) the Norton Anthology of World Religions – he is the main editor of this massive work – and lots of the ins and outs of how you go about undertaking such an enterprise. It was fascinating to hear how the various religions were chosen, for example, and how he selected and recruited specialist editors for each of the religions. It was an excellent talk, made all the more enjoyable by having Jack’s quiet and […] Click to continue reading this post

Heaven’s Parameters

Oh… I forgot to get around to letting you know the result of designing the universe required in a previous post. The result is that it is a radiation (“light”) filled universe with positive cosmological constant [tex]\Lambda[/tex](and so space wants to expand due to negative pressure – much like ours seems to be doing). The radiation density wants the thing to collapse. There’s a balance between the two, and it turns out that it is when the two densities (radiation, and vacuum energy) are equal. This is only possible when there is positive curvature for the universe (so, not like ours), as you can see from the Friedman equation if you were that way inclined. So the universe is a 3-sphere, and if you work it out, the radius of this 3-sphere turns out to be [tex]a=\left(\frac{3}{2\Lambda}\right)^{1/2}[/tex]. The temperature of the radiation is then computed using the usual Stefan-Boltzmann relation.

The equality of densities turns out to result from the fact that the effective potential of the equation is at a maximum, and so this universe turns out to be unstable… It is a radiation-filled version of Einstein’s matter-filled static universe, which is also unstable. It is larger than Einstein’s by a factor of [tex]\sqrt{3/2}[/tex].

Einstein was said to have arrived at his static universe on the grounds of what he thought was observationally clear – the universe was unchanging (on large scales). […]
The equality of densities turns out to result from the fact that the effective potential of the equation is at a maximum, and so this universe turns out to be unstable… It is a radiation-filled version of Einstein’s matter-filled static universe, which is also unstable. It is larger than Einstein’s by a factor of [tex]\sqrt{3/2}[/tex].

Einstein was said to have arrived at his static universe on the grounds of what he thought was observationally clear – the universe was unchanging (on large scales). Hubble […] Click to continue reading this post

On Physics, Spiritualism, Fiction, and Non-Fiction

On Monday evening I chatted with Deborah Cloyed, author of the recently released novel “The Summer We Came to Life”, which I finished reading over the weekend. The conversation was recorded for Rare Bird Literature’s Rare Bird Radio site, and so you can listen. (Embed at the end of this post.) We talked about her use of various physics ideas (Copenhagen and Many Worlds quantum mechanics interpretations, parallel worlds) in her skillfully crafted novel about four friends, loss, the afterlife, and friendship.

At this point, some of you are yelling “Run, run for your life, Mr. Scientist!”. But No. No, no, no. I think that’s a mistake. Deborah is, first of all, writing a novel, not trying to push some self-help book that cherry picks a few ideas from science, conflates them with some stuff people want to hear, and trying to make a buck out of it. Second of all, she really loves the science, and seems to have read a lot about the subject, unusually widely. You don’t ignore someone who really cares about the subject and wants to know more, especially when they want to include it in the work they are producing. So when we were introduced a while back, she thought it would be fun and interesting to have a conversation about various things, and I agreed. I got the chance to comment (at her request) about what I thought she was doing with the science, and how the final result worked, I got to ask her what she thought of it, and from there we talked about lots of related topics, including the whole idea of mixing […] Click to continue reading this post

Got Your Rapture On Yet?

Well, it’s 7:00am on Rapture Day and what am I doing? Drawing. I’ll do a bit of gardening later. It’s not a bad way to go, really.

…And then I’ll check back online to see some more funny reporting on the oddly Raptureless Rapture Day, like this Guardian article I’ve been looking at. So far, the most fun has been looking at the headline of various articles, such as:

“After the Rapture, who will walk your dog?” (NPR)

“Apocalypse Now. … No, Now!” (HuffPo)

“Apocalypse Not Now: Rapture fails to materialize” (Guardian)

(I may update with others later.)

…And although I tend not to read comment streams in newspapers and YouTube and so forth, because of all the general ickiness, I’m making an exception for these articles. My favourite so far is way down on the comments on the Guardian article…. people had been making lots of good jokes, and then someone wrote:

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A Treasure Trove!

As I’ve mentioned before, I listen online to Radio 4, one of the BBC radio stations I love for its variety, breadth and depth of programming. Between it and NPR affiliate KPCC, my day is usually rather full of (spoken-word) radio of a wide variety. I’ve noticed that Radio 4 has been doing a programme called “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. The Director of the British Museum does a 15 minute programme on each of 100 objects and talks about aspects of its historical significance. (If you think you don’t like history (maybe bad experiences in school or something like that) this might be a great way back into the subject for you. Not liking a subject is usually, I find, an issue with how it was presented to you and not with the subject itself.) It’s a lovely way of quickly plugging into aspects of world culture in interesting ways, and rather reminds me of the short series that we here at USC in the College Commons called The Cultural Life of Objects, organized by my colleagues Anne Porter and Ann Marie Yasin. (See also the Collections event, and my post about it.)

The BBC series is about half way now, and it has been quite wonderful. I strongly recommend it to you. Here’s the marvellous thing: The entire series can be podcast […] Click to continue reading this post


Over at Wongablog, Andrew points to a post he did over at Humanist Life in which he reviews “Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science”, by Richard Holmes. This is one of my favourite topics, and it is certainly a book I’m planning to read, although I have not done so yet.

Andrew writes thoughtfully on the book and the matter in general, and so I’ll leave you to wander over there and have a read of it. To tempt you, an extended (I hope Andrew does not mind) extract: […] Click to continue reading this post

On Science and Politics

No doubt you’ve been aware of the recent debate that has been raging about whether or not the scientific case for climate change has been exaggerated by various scientists, in the light of the content of a long series of emails. It’s all over the news, and so I am sure I don’t need to point to all the news stories, commentaries, and – sad to say – convenient distractions that have been constructed on the basis of them by the climate change deniers, especially those with vested interest in the status quo. (Follow the climategate tag at The Intersection for some of the links, and a sampling of the discussions, and do look at the Nature editorial for example.) This matter, and the debates it has reignited, is of course a major issue in view of the upcoming work to be done by the leaders of the world’s major economies in Copenhagen later this month.

A key point here is to realize that when science intersects with politics – especially the kind of rabid, personal, dirty politics that surrounds the climate change issue – the grey areas that are already present in honest science can get further muddied by the fact that scientists are human beings who don’t always act perfectly in all situations, and whose actions (well emails suggesting certain actions) can also be subject to question (especially when we don’t have all the facts concerning context, etc, on several of the emails which seem very ambiguous to me).

There are two things to keep in mind. The first is that there is a global community of scientists at work here, with so many different approaches, motivations, contexts, data sets, and so forth that have been brought to bear on the matter of climate science. To think that a series of emails from some small subset of them (that may or may not suggest that data have been presented unevenly, for whatever reasons) can undermine a huge body of work and conclusions from an entire worldwide scientific community is to seriously misunderstand what science is about, and how it works. jenga_gameIt is not a tall, tottering late-stage game of jenga, where there’s a danger that at any moment one of the little wooden sticks will wobble and bring the whole game crashing to the ground. Instead, it is a highly interwoven collection of findings, ideas, analysis, and conclusions that are supported by a wide variety of pieces of evidence, all arriving at the same striking picture – Our world is changing fast and our actions are highly relevant to these changes both past, present and future. Instead of a jenga construction, think more of a woven tapestry. Pulling out a few threads changes it a little bit, but it does not make the whole thing unravel and destroy the picture. Or, if you like, think of a pyramid structure, like the lovely Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán in Mexico (image borrowed from here). […] Click to continue reading this post


It was Darwin’s birthday earlier this week, with lots of celebrations of the man and his work going on in many places (in addition to the year-long celebrations for Darwin year). On the other hand, there was at least one events last week that were rather sad and definitely not cause for celebration. You may have heard that evangelist Ray Comfort decided to launch an anti-science campaign on 100 university campuses by distributing copies of Darwin’s Origin of Species with a 54 page introduction written by Comfort which is basically a poorly written misleading piece of nonsense.

The day after this happened (I’d forgotten all about it as I am on a mission in Europe right now) I got an email from a USC student, Arvind Iyer, who was not only concerned about the content of what was being given out, but the very idea that such access could be given to the Comfort group. He wrote a letter to the campus newspaper, the Daily Trojan, about this, but they chose not to take up the issue at all. I’ll reprint it (with Arvind’s permission) and the end of this, and you are free to discuss with him in the comments what you think of his thoughts.

The issue of access (and freedom of speech, etc) aside for a moment, there is the issue of what kind of response is worthwhile. Most people just ignore the issue, saying that it does not matter, or that we should “live and let live”, etc., and in an ideal world where our society has a better grasp of basic science education, and where science and religion are not so tangled up in so many political discussions, I’d have agreed, but we do not live in that world. As a result, there needs to be some […] Click to continue reading this post

Slaughter at the Podium

debate_on_catholic_church1I simply insist that you take the time out to watch this video*. It is of a debate that took place on BBC television, the motion being “Is the Catholic church a force for good in the world?”. It was between Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry on one side (against) and Anne Widdecombe and Archbishop John Onaiyekan on the other (for). Dogma vs Reason, when it comes down to it. Now, it is one thing for the side that is in favour of the motion to be a bit lame compared to the duo they are up against, but it is really unfortunate that Anne Widdecombe was put up as the defender of the church as she has been so utterly arrogant and unpleasant in every appearance I have ever heard or seen her in, […] Click to continue reading this post

Dawkins, Atwood and More – On Darwin!

As you may know I’m a Margaret Atwood fan (read my immoderately breathless account here), and I also think that Richard Dawkins is an excellent scientist and science communicator. On the other hand, as you also know from earlier discussions, I don’t think that his take-no-prisoners approach to the science and religion discussion is the best way forward. Anyway, I found this marvelous Newsnight special from last month. A celebration of Darwin and his work. It has lots of discussion about Darwin then and now, cultural and scientific impact, the ongoing debates, a new staging of a play, a recent film, and participating is Atwood, Dawkins, and the Rev. Richard Coles and the poet Ruth Padel (who is also a descendant of Darwin.) It is in four parts and […] Click to continue reading this post

Armstrong on God

karen-armstrongSo what is the origin of the whole God idea anyway? Is God very old, or a relatively new invention? From where emerged that omnipotent being , that so many subscribe to, which apparently lives outside of the rules of Nature? Where did the severe rifts between science and God first come about? Were some of our greatest scientists, such as Newton, responsible for creating the modern God? What is the role of God now, and where does it/he/she sit in the landscape of our current society? (Image credit: Gerry Penny/AFP/Getty Images.)

Questions such as the above are fascinating to ponder and by now you must have gathered that I don’t subscribe to the Atheist-fundamentalist view that the matter is treated well by simply declaring that people who believe in God are stupid or otherwise broken in some way. And yelling it in their face. It’s much more interesting than that.

Karen Armstrong writes very well about the issues I mentioned above, and recently was on NPR’s Fresh Air talking about her new book, “The Case for God”. She examines a great deal of history of the idea of God, and (among other things) reminds us that the common, often over-simplistic, personal God created in our own image (the one that probably creates the most religion problems in the world), is one […] Click to continue reading this post

Summer Reading: Sheril on Science Friday

unscientific_america_book-coverI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney have written a book, “Unscientific America” with an excellent discussion about science literacy. You know from reading here that this is a favourite issue of mine (look under categories such as science and society), and by far the primary reason I blog, and do the various other activities I mention such as appearing on TV and radio shows, consulting for film, theatre, TV, etc, contribute to popular level articles, making films, and other things. It is vitally important, if we are a truly democratic society, for all to participate in the conversations we have about science – whether it be about issues to do with medicine, lifestyle, environment, energy, or just for its own sake: it is part of our culture. Sadly, science (and scientists) is still on the margins of the national conversation – people are afraid of it, giggle about how bad they were at it at school and then decouple from the conversation, mostly only pay attention to bleak or incorrect pictures of it in the media and entertainment (or for political gain), and so on and so forth.

What Sheril and Chris are doing in the book is examining the extent to which this […] Click to continue reading this post

Categorically Not! – Awesome

cat_not_optical_puzzleThe next Categorically Not! is this coming Sunday May 29th. The Categorically Not! series of events that are held at the Santa Monica Art Studios, (with occasional exceptions). It’s a series – started and run by science writer K. C. Cole – of fun and informative conversations deliberately ignoring the traditional boundaries between art, science, humanities, and other subjects. I strongly encourage you to come to them if you’re in the area. Here is the website that describes past ones, and upcoming ones. See also the links at the end of the post for some announcements and descriptions (and even video) of previous events. (Image above right is from the excellent Categorically Not! – Really? event back in April 2006, described in an earlier post here. It was all about illusion, with examples from the world of optical illusions, and from literature.)

The theme this month is Awesome. Here’s the description from K C Cole:
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