Physics and Astronomy

Richard Feynman is not allowed to have sex.

A few days ago, a blog article was published by Matthew Francis called, “The Problem with Richard Feynman“. It got picked up by a few outlets, including 3 Quarks Daily. In the post, Francis argues that legendary physicist Richard Feynman should not be thought of as a hero – despite his significant contributions to science – because of some disreputable behavior and attitudes sprinkled over his 70 so odd years on earth.

I obviously agree that Feynman was flawed (so are you, dear reader, and so am I), but he certainly wasn’t flawed enough to deserve demotion from hero status, at least in my opinion (and also in the opinion of most commenters on the post). On the contrary, having studied Feynman pretty closely, I’ve always thought that one of the most remarkable things about him was that his heart seemed as big as his brain. One only needs to read the letter he wrote to his first wife, some 16 months after she passed away from tuberculosis, to get a sense of this. You might also watch this full-length documentary featuring interviews with several friends. The more I learned and continue to learn about Feynman, the more I feel a genuine respect, almost love, for the guy.

And so I had to respond to Francis’ bizarre post, which goes so far as to accuse Feynman of being a “sexual predator”:

…what if a hero was a sexual predator, someone who admitted to some really creepy behavior? What if this person also happens to be a Nobel laureate, a founder of a whole field of research, and an admirable thinker on a number of complicated topics? How do we deal with the two realities together?

In short, how do we cope with the problem of Richard Feynman?

Sexual predator? One has to assume – since Francis provides little evidence to support such a claim – that this accusation is in reference to Feynman’s admitted womanizing, chronicled in his autobiographies and elsewhere. The specific “facts” Francis lays out are as follows:

“Feynman pretended to be an undergraduate to get young women to sleep with him. He targeted the wives of male grad students. He went to bars and practiced a technique that isn’t so different from the reprehensible “game” of the pick-up artists (PUAs).”

That’s it. That’s all Francis points to. Those things make someone a sexual predator? Were the undergraduates underage? Were the wives of male grad students assaulted? Were the women in bars Jedi-mind tricked? Might it not be possible that women sometimes want sex, that Feynman was charming and seductive, and that these two forces occasionally found one another? Is Feynman not allowed to have or pursue sex (if that’s the criteria for being a sexual predator, who on earth isn’t?)? I’m not condoning affairs or leaving behind pregnant girlfriends (another accusation of Feynman strangely not covered in Francis’ article), but can any thinking person, with the limited knowledge we have about Feynman’s life, honestly equate these items to sexual predation? The answer is no, they can’t. Which means Francis either isn’t thinking or isn’t honest in this particular post.

With that out of the way, what about the fact that Feynman was sometimes “mean” to others? Shouldn’t such moral depravity disqualify him from being lauded as a hero? That seems to be the gist:

And let’s face it: Feynman frequently unkind toward men too. In his memoirs, he tends to spin things to make himself into the smartest one in the room, and to make even his friends look like losers by comparison. Excessive self-deprecation is one thing, but it seems a trifle unfair to take potshots at friends in a medium where they can’t defend themselves.

A trifle unfair to take potshots at people who can’t defend themselves: say, like accusing a dead scientist of being a sexual predator? This entire criticism – that Feynman was occasionally mean or derisive – is almost too silly of an accusation for grown ups to even bother with, but I have to wonder what memoirs Francis is reading and whether or not he’s missing a bit of the point. For example, when Feynman comes across as the “smartest one in the room” in his essays, it’s almost always as a foil to some pompous or stuffy authoritarian figure or self-proclaimed expert. We all know Feynman perpetuated the “myth of Feynman” and that many of his stories and essays were heavily exaggerated or apocryphal (another reason it isn’t entirely responsible to use them to impugn), but we also know that Feynman was intensely honest and quick to admit when he knew little about a subject or specialty: “I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about…I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.” To see just how far the above passage stretches reality, here are a few quotes literally picked out in under two minutes by flipping at random through Feynman’s “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”, that contradict Francis:

At that particular time I was not quite up to things: I was always a little behind. Everybody seemed to be smart, and I didn’t feel like I was keeping up.

I was ready to put my hand up and say, ‘Would you please define the problem better,’ but then I thought, ‘No, I’m the ignoramus; I’d better listen.

I felt so stupid…He was always deflating me like that. He was a very smart fellow.

If Francis’ post had stuck with a premise like this: Feynman gets all kinds of attention for great things he did, but he was also human and did some bad things too and we have keep those things in mind – I wouldn’t have had a problem with it, and I don’t think many others would have either (other than that it’s maybe too obvious to merit a post). But to go so much further, to say that we shouldn’t consider Feynman a hero and – most egregiously – to accuse him of being a sexual predator, that’s where it all goes off the rails.

Francis’ final paragraph begins thus: “Feynman is no hero to us, brilliant as he was.” I’m not sure who the us is – the representatives of the website? – but Feynman is in fact a hero to me and to many others and will continue to be so. I’m not ignoring his flaws. I’m aware of them. Just as I’m aware of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s flaws. It’s just that I’m much more aware of these individual’s strengths, which are what we look to in heroes. Strengths are what inspire us. And inspiration is the reason we need heroes.

Richard Feynman’s rigorous defense of the scientific method, his intellectual integrity, his contagious enthusiasm for life and learning, his immense contributions to human knowledge – these qualities and more like them far overshadow the ill-advised romantic dalliances for a reason: they’re rare.


Debate is up! William Lane Craig vs. Sean Carroll at New Orleans Greer-Heard Forum

Good folks, the much talked about debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll is now available for viewing on YouTube (embedded below). The proceedings from the second day, which you will recall included presentations and responses by two members from each side (Alex Rosenberg and Tim  Maudlin with Carroll and Robin Collins and James Sinclair with Craig) don’t seem to be available yet but should be shortly. After you watch, I recommend you check out the comment section of Sean Carroll’s post for some opinions on how he fared.

Enjoy (and post your thoughts below)!

The Main Event:

Does God Exist? William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss, First Post-Debate Analysis

If you read my post here, you know WLC and Lawrence Krauss just finished a three-night debate series at various locations throughout Australia. The host organization is currently working on editing the videos, and they should be released soon. In the meantime, I’ve been following Life, the Universe and Nothing’s facebook page to read reactions from those in attendance, trying to piece together how each performed.

As you might expect, comments are mixed, with theists generally siding with WLC and skeptics with Krauss. Surprisingly, however, there is a little buzz suggesting that Krauss actually trounced WLC in the final debate (recall that WLC is almost never beaten in debates by atheists, not because he makes good arguments, but because he’s such a practiced and formidable debater). Here’s a brief review from Christadelphian Unbelievers:

I never thought that I would live to see William Lane Craig beaten in a debate with an Unbeliever; but tonight (16 August 2013) I saw him outgunned by Lawrence Krauss.
The moderated discussion in the Melbourne Town Hall was packed to the back and it was a thrilling night. Bill spoke first with his usual style and closely reasoned arguments. It was WLC at his best and I cringed at the thought of Lawrence having to handle such a strong presentation.But when it was LMK’s turn to speak we were treated to a devastating barrage of blockbuster points one after another that never seemed to end.

The moderated discussion afterwards was poorly moderated by someone who hardly spoke a word and at times looked as if he was reading a newspaper. The two protagonists tore into each other unrelentingly; but WLC sensed that he was fighting a losing battle and before long Krauss had taken over the evening.

In one sense there was nothing new in the points made. It was the dazzling new style of Krauss that amazed me. He’d done his homework, learned from his losses to WLC in the past and lifted his game substantially.

Nevertheless, Bill did well and acquitted himself with his usual dignity. He was firm, but respectful to Lawrence; his keen intelligence added considerable depth to the scintillating discussion. I only wish that the discussion had lasted into the early hours of the morning. It was superb.

I’m excited for the videos, and have been checking for them every day since last week (I will post as soon as they go up). Krauss apparently used a “bullshit” buzzer in the first debate to combat inaccuracies and lies, in addition to creating this post-debate video:

A family photo from space – Cassini to snap Earth’s picture on July 19th

You might be familiar with Carolyn Porco’s 2007 TED talk, in which she introduced the world to some truly breathtaking photos taken from the Cassini robot spacecraft (launched in 2007). Well, Cassini is still up there, and on July 19th (from 4:27pm-4:42pm CST), it will be snapping another high-res photo of Saturn that is once again expected to feature earth in the backdrop, though this time in natural color. This will be the first time in history the people of Earth have known in advance their picture is being taken by a spacecraft millions and millions of miles away.

To celebrate, Porco and the Cassini team are encouraging people to spend a few moments outside during the actual photo time (you can look that up for your local area here) to reflect on and celebrate our existence, and to maybe even smile or wave for the camera. The event is officially titled, The Day the Earth Smiled.

For a very brief history of seeing our “pale blue dot” from space, and the impact that can have on our perspectives, see Robert Krulwich’s recent blog post highlighting several famous pictures here. And please don’t miss this –

The Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Destructive Power of “Maybe Not”

I came across another interesting Sean Carroll video today (watch here) on the strengths and weaknesses of God as a theory (not a purely scientific theory either, but simply an “idea about the universe which may or may not be true”). Carroll briefly covers the Kalam Cosmological Argument, a deductive attempt to prove that some sort of prime-mover or first-cause was necessary to create the universe. I last saw this argument while attending a Reasonable Faith seminar in Dallas entitled “Does Science Bury God: A Refutation from Physics”. Here it is in full (there are various forms):

Modern rendition of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

Modern rendition of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

Now, the first thing to note is that this argument is not a refutation from physics. That’s because it’s not physics – it’s metaphysics. The second odd thing is how often this argument is still used. It’s been so badly beaten by so many people that I’m a little confused  as to why it keeps getting offered (most notably and skillfully, or greasily, by William Lane Craig). You don’t have to be a professional philosopher to refute it, but Carroll offers you the easiest way:

Just look at the first premise and say, “maybe not.”

It certainly has not been proven that everything which begins to exist must have a cause. Lots of things do, but if experience has taught us anything it’s that our observations are limited and generalizing can get you in trouble, especially in areas you cannot conceivably test (such as the rather broad spectrum of “everything”). As soon as one premise fails to be completely established, the deduction fails and the argument is of little use. There are obvious additional flaws as well – namely that most theologians will exempt God from the first premise (saying something like, well, He didn’t begin to exist, He always existed, and therefore doesn’t need a cause) but that begs the question and assumes the conclusion the argument is setting out to prove.

Then of course there do seem to be examples in physics of things coming into existence without causes – see Victor Stenger. The verdict’s still out on the the universe having a beginning (that is, there are scientifically consistent models describing situations in which the universe does not have a beginning). And, just for kicks, even if we were to accept the premises as all true, it wouldn’t get us any particular God. You would still have all the work ahead of you to demonstrate the truth of Judaism or Christianity or Islam or any tiny, single, pitiful attribute of any creator.

How would the Kalam Cosmological Argument look using the scientific ethos? Simple:

  • Everything which begins to exist might have a cause
  • The universe might have begun to exist
  • Therefore, the universe might have a cause

Well. Waters it down a bit, no?

“Too local, too provincial” – Richard Feynman on beauty in (probably) the best video on YouTube

This has to be one of the best videos on YouTube – Feynman just has a perfect voice for this type of thing. I’m in the middle of his biography, Genius, by James Gleick, and it confirms what you can pretty much tell from the clip – he was a force of nature and easily one of the top scientists of the 20th century.

And also very sweet. You can read the letter he wrote to his first wife, Arline, two years after she had died of tuberculosis.

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms” – Muriel Rukeyser

That pretty line above is from poet Muriel Rukeyser, and it’s used skillfully by physicist Sean Carroll in his keynote speech at the 2013 American Humanist Association Conference in San Diego just a few days ago. The talk is titled “Purpose and the Universe” and if you’ve never heard Carroll lecture before, I recommend sitting down for an hour and giving him a listen. He’s entertaining, likable, and has a knack for lucidly explaining concepts like quantum field theory in just a few slides.

Highlights for me included:

  • Carroll’s claim that the “laws of physics underlying the experiences of our everyday lives are completely known.” He’s of course not saying that physics is done or that there aren’t undiscovered particles or fields, but that we do know a complete regime of physics, and anything else we discover won’t have any real application to our lives. He explains exactly how we know that, and why we can rule out certain alternatives (assuming quantum field theory is correct). The completeness of this regime has obvious explanatory power, and can absolutely demolish particular claims that would require a different set of physical laws – one obvious one is astrology and another, which is equally implied by the laws but harder for many to accept, is life after death (see this blog post by Carroll for more on that).
  • Carroll’s disagreement with many of his atheist/humanist colleagues that science will be able to supply answers to questions of purpose, right and wrong, and ultimate meaning. These concepts, Carroll thinks, must be judged more practically and cannot be reduced to the laws of physics (though any answers we come up with certainly shouldn’t be incompatible with the laws of physics).
  • Learning that the underlying reality of the universe is made up not of particles but of waves and fields. The act of observation distorts the field in a certain way so that we “see” particles, though at its base nature is simply a collection of vibrating fields.
  • Special guest Richard Dawkins (who was in town to moderate a panel on “Religion as Child Abuse”) asking a question at 1:00:56 and making a slight correction to one of Carroll’s slides. How cheeky.