Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book Report: The Grand Design

As soon as I discovered that there was another book out by Stephen Hawking I immediately went over to Bay Books to get a copy of The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. They had sold out of their first shipment on the first day, much to their own amazement at the book's unexpected popularity, so they added my name to the back-order list. When they called me to say the new shipment was in, I immediately went over and bought one.

It's an easily-readable book, highly understandable to anyone with the slightest knowledge of physics and mathematics, and partially understandable even to someone with no science background at all.

The book briefly traces the history of our knowledge of theoretical physics from the days of the ancient Greeks, through the Renaissance, and up to modern times. Most of the major contributors are mentioned: Archimedes, Pythagoras, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Michelson and Morley, Einstein, Feynman, etc.

Each contribution is briefly and understandably described. When they get to quantum theory, of course, there's no such thing as a correct but easily understandable non-mathematical description. Quantum theory simply can't possibly make any intuitive sense at the human scale of perception. Hawking and Mlodinow do their best, however, and it's at least as good as anybody else has ever done without plunging into the inscrutable depths of advanced mathematics.

Now here's the part that religious leaders are upset over. Our current scientific knowledge still has many large gaps, but the God Of The Gaps concept is no longer viable because the gaps aren't God-shaped. There are just too many logical and mathematical possibilities for the universe to have come into existence without the kind intercession of a conscious decision-making creator.

The burden of proof is now upon theologians to come up with a sufficiently drastic modification of their theology to be compatible with our present-day knowledge. I don't think they're up to the task. All I've heard so far from the theological community is impotent bleating about how Stephen Hawking doesn't understand theology. But why should he even try to understand make-believe? He's done a great job dedicating his life to understanding reality.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Burning Korans (yawn)

For now, it appears that a scheduled Koran-burning party down in Florida somewhere has been put on hold. Is it because the sponsor simply wimped out? Is it because he struck a deal of some sort? Is it because he suddenly realized that book-burning is symbolic of censorship, which is un-American?

Whatever the reason, I'm not sure I care. In our modern era of mass printing, purchasing a few Korans just to burn them has no practical effect except to increase the profits of Koran publishers. While we're at it, throw in a few Bibles, Rig-Vedas, Torahs, copies of The Shack, the Book Of Common Prayer, hymnals, and whatever religious hogwash you can afford to waste. On the other hand, please don't. It's wasteful and environmentally harmful.

I'm all in favor of religious crybabies of all stripes inciting each other to throw tantrums. It's great entertainment. But I wish we, as a social order, wouldn't be so wimpy with them when nonparticipants are caught in the crossfire.

Here's my modest proposal. Establish a judicial principle whereby anyone convicted of a crime for which a religious motive can be identified must serve out his sentence without being allowed to possess any religious artifact, receive visits from any religious leader, nor participate in any religious ritual.

I'm all in favor of freedom of religion as long as it's nothing more than peaceful fellowship. In fact I even participate in the Episcopal church for that reason. But it's time to stop giving religions any special treatment and begin recognizing them for the mere institutionalized mental disorders they really are. Yes, including the Episcopal church, which I feel qualified to criticize because I know it from the inside.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Random Thoughts About Randomness

If there were no God, could things happen randomly?

If there were no God, could things happen chaotically?

Oh by the way, randomness and chaos are mathematically different. In a random sequence, each event is independent of all other events. In a chaotic sequence, each event is highly dependent on all previous events in an incomprensibly complex pattern. Not that this difference is much noticed by the common folk, you understand.

If there were no God, would logic be valid? Or to put it another way, if there is a God (or several Gods) would his omnipotence be restricted from doing anything self-contradictory or otherwise logically impossible?

If there were no God, would the principles of arithmetic still be valid even if there was nothing to do arithmetic on?

If there were no God, could mathematical functions, such as conics, sinusoids, exponentials, etc. be conceptually meaningful even if there was nothing for them to describe?

If all the above questions can be answered "yes" and I suspect they probably can, but I can't prove it, then doesn't that suggest that everything that all known laws of physics are based on can exist without God?

If all that's true, then in the absence of God, what could stop the universe from existing?

When radio was first invented, radio hams began noticing that the laws of physics describing how their radios work bear a striking mathematical similarity to the laws of physics applicable to other topics in physics.

Then a Nobel Prize winning physicist named Richard Feynman came along and wrote a series of lectures on physics in which he explained how all the laws of physics in all the topics in physics are based on these same few mathematical principles.

And just yesterday I read something about how Stephen Hawking has said essentially the same thing in a new book, based on even more evidence than Richard Feynman had available to him. I haven't yet read Stephen Hawking's new book, but I'm looking forward to doing so.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Property Values

In the area around Huntingtown, Maryland, about 25 miles north of my place, the electric company is putting in additional lines which require new poles. These poles are larger than the old poles and have a new and unusual appearance. Personally, I think they look just fine.

But the residents of Huntingtown are complaining that the new poles are horribly ugly and will depress property values. I have two comments.

First, think what would happen to property values if the electric company were prevented from putting in the new service, and adequate electric power delivery became unavailable to their community.

Second, the component of the property values being affected is the location desirability, not the actual property built on the location. This should make it obvious that the change in property values, be it up or down, is not the doing of the owner, but the doing of others in the community, and therefore the location desirability is not really the property of the owner, but something the owner ought to be paying the community for.

The problem would resolve itself if our property taxes were shifted off of actual property, that is, the property the owner actually put there (or paid to have put there), and onto the location component. This would automatically compensate the owner with a tax break for anything beyond his control that made his location less desirable, and charge him extra for any doings of others that made his location more desirable.

Henry George proposed something like this clear back in the nineteenth century, and it sounds like a good solution to problems like the good folks of Huntingtown are experiencing.