Overweening Generalist

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Free Radicals, by Michael Brooks

I never tire of contemplating how Copernicus and his co-conspirators gave us a convincing heliocentric view, and how that ricocheted and echoed down through time and changed the way individuals conceived of themselves in the cosmos. To knock the geocentric view out of the picture was quite the coup, eh? Then Darwin (and aye: Alfred Russell Wallace and scads of others) carries off an even bigger move: we're part of a long line of mammals; we're not God's Special Kids. Einstein and Hubble and many others made us understand that we're only part of a so-what solar system, one of quintillions (at least!) that exist. (Hubble space telescope sees a tribe of galaxies from the dawn of the universe.)

And yet some human egos need to resist these insults. To me, these new models constitute knowledges that are compliments to human ingenuity, having the added bonus of being "true."

Copernicus called nature "God's temple," and said we can know God through studying Nature...which got the Vatican to put his Copernicus's book on the Index. We do not know what, if any, drugs Copernicus took, but I do see him as a mystical weirdo, one of the guys on my team.

Darwin seemed very upset that he was upsetting the God-fearing. He had a lot of physical ailments, but he published his books anyway, and I continue to be staggered by his accomplishments. He followed up on some Wild Ideas put forth by thinkers in the immediate previous generations, ideas from disciplines not his own, like geology. And he persisted, despite sicknesses, as if possessed, because the Wild Ideas were interesting and might allow him to midwife some Wild Child of his own. One of my favorite sociologists of knowledge, Randall Collins, makes a very persuasive case that the most valuable thing an intellectual can do is to open up new spaces for other intellectuals to think in. And what a space Darwin opened up! Jaw-dropping...

                                                        Charles Darwin

Einstein seems sorta embarrassed by how he developed his world-shattering ideas: daydreaming, goofing off, tinkering around with images. He had mystical ideas about how Nature worked, but the his math wasn't up to snuff to prove them. As Michael Brooks writes in his recent book, Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science, "His papers are riddled with errors and convenient omissions - though they were lazy fudges rather than, as with Newton, deliberate frauds. Einstein repeatedly failed to take account of known facts when formulating his ideas." (p.7) Supposedly Einstein once said, "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." His inspirations had no traceable source, hence Brooks's term for Einstein's animus: "mystical." It was clear to Einstein that working on the most interesting unsolved problems in physics could not be done logically, deductively, step-by-step: this would be beyond human capacity. No, he used Something Else...And one of the results was the ending of WWII.

Well, Brooks's book wonderfully extensionalizes/elaborates on Paul Feyerabend's main thesis: that "anything goes" in science. It's the best on this subject I've seen yet. I'd like to say that Feyerabend (mentioned in the book) would be pleased, but you never really know with Feyerabend.

Another Brief Riff on Perspective: Science as a "Brand," 1945-Now
Brooks says his book is about "the humanity of scientists - and what that really means." And he juxtaposes this with a narrative foisted upon almost all of us: the scientists are basically slightly less caricatured versions of Mr.Spock, from Star Trek. Brooks says this is a "cover-up" that's been wildly successful "because even the scientists haven't understood what has been going on."

Here's the Science brand after 1945: It's "logical, responsible, trustworthy, predictable, dependable, gentlemanly, straight, boring, unexciting, objective, rational. Not in thrall to passions or emotion. A safe pair of hands. In summary: inhuman." (p.2) Brooks elaborates on this at length, and it's a slam-dunk to me, an inveterate reader of dissentual data about this Science brand, which I smelled as bovine excreta at age 17. But it's the details and solid research, coupled with an investigative journalist's style - Brooks has a PhD in quantum physics - coupled with an enthusiasm to shine light on the cover-up, that makes the Brooks book so eminently readable.

Almost every fantastic breakthrough in science does not meet the "scientific method" narrative they still brainwash kids with in the schools.

To those interested in Buckminster Fuller's thesis about scientists as "Wizards" that the Machiavellian Owners of the World bought off: there's much here to build on Fuller's argument. (I'm mostly referring to Fuller's criminally underappreciated GRUNCH of Giants.) Brooks quotes Michael Schrage in referring to the bankers/corporations/energy moguls after WWII, when physicists were seen as the "Merlins of the Cold War...their wizardry could tip the balance of the superpowers in the twinkling of a quark."

Q: If the Scientist-as-Spock story is hooey, then what does go on?
A: Dreaming, cheating, mania, drugs, daring self-experimentation, pranks, and High Weirdness in general.

But let me return to perspective.

                                       "Earthrise," taken xmas eve, 1968, Apollo 8

Stewart Brand on LSD in San Francisco
In the mid-1960s, Brand, who paid attention to seemingly everything that would later change the world - was high on acid on a gravel-covered roof in the beatnik-y North Beach district of San Francisco. He was thinking about space flight and how astronauts had recently gotten glimpses of Earth from space: a new perspective. Then he remembered hearing Buckminster Fuller give a talk in which he thought a major flaw in humanity's assumption about itself that has led us to a possible brink was that, even though most of us "know" the world is round, we don't really conceptualize of our planet that way. We tend to conceive of the world as flat, and if we could only carry around with us the image of "a round ball, isolated in space, an island in an inhospitable cosmos, perspectives would change." And Brand, on LSD, became transfixed on allowing us all to see a picture, a photo of the Earth. He worked tirelessly, like a campaigner, writing NASA, getting college kids all riled up, writing the UN, the Soviets, members of Congress. He started in February of 1966, and by the end of 1967, photos of from Apollo 8 - one taken by William Anders, and called "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken,"by Galen Rowell in The 100 Greatest Photographs That Changed The World, was perfect for Brand's purposes. (Brooks, pp.15-17)

Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot"
The words are from Sagan, watch this 3 1/2 minute video. Is this perspectival-feeling "olde news" to you? Or do you still feel it? Are we jaded? Does anything shift inside you? Or do you remember when it did, but now you're concerned with the multiverse or dark matter? Does this seem "cheesy"to you? Or does it make you melt, emotionally? What does it do to your sense of "self"?

Oh, now we can access via library DVDs, the science channels on TV, other amazing cosmological schtuff on You Tube...other planets, galaxies, taxonomies of galaxies, etc. But the pale blue dot was what Bucky Fuller wanted us to feel so we'd start to think we all live on this spaceship planet together, and do we really want to make it an armed madhouse? Michael Brooks makes a good argument that we  might never have gotten this perspective without radical, anarchic thinkers.

                                                        Dr. Lester Grinspoon

Carl Sagan was a bigtime pothead. He was good friends with Harvard MD Lester Grinspoon, who was a pioneer in medical pot. Brooks relates how Sagan liked the creative insights cannabis gave him, and tried to capture these by tape recording them so he'd be able to access them and take these ideas seriously the next day, when his buzz was gone and he needed to write. Dig this bit from Sagan via Brooks:

"If I find in the morning a message from myself the night before informing me that there is a world around us which we barely sense, or that we can become one with the universe, or even that certain politicians are desperately frightened men, I may tend to disbelieve; but when I'm high I know about this disbelief. And so I have a tape in which I exhort myself to take such remarks seriously. I say, 'Listen closely you sonofabitch in the morning! This stuff is real!'." (p.246)

Brooks's Free Radicals tells of the somewhat likelihood of Francis Crick's LSD use, and how it may have helped Watson and himself to discover the structure of DNA. Kary Mullis's LSD use is now-legendary, and he thinks it was a valuable asset in his discovery of the polymerase chain reaction technique, for which he won a Nobel Prize. Richard Feynman's pot smoking and LSD use is mentioned, as is William James's experiments with nitrous oxide.

But the true value of Brooks's wonderful little book is that he has quite thoroughly dismantled the "brand" of Science being done by slightly human Mr. Spock-types we were all taught; he gives a withering number of examples in a breezy prose that the business of making scientific breakthroughs is anything but clean and orderly and rational. It's thoroughly, gloriously, anarchic.

A 90-second bit with Michael Brooks:

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