Everybody was suffering from illusions, until we came along.

Everybody was suffering from illusions, until we came along. October 15, 2018

 

Wiki CC sjdsl;lal
I remember when atoms resembled miniature solar systems, with hard, solid, little planet-like electrons orbiting a granular “sun” composed of protons and neutrons. My notion was out of date even then.   (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)

 

We’re about to head out for lunch with our good friends Michael and Margie Draper, who are visiting from Indiana.

 

But, in the meanwhile, here are a couple of nice quotations that I’ve gathered for something that I hope eventually to publish:

 

The late anthropologist Loren Eiseley, in The Firmament of Time:

A scientist writing around the turn of the century remarked that all of the past generations of men have lived and died in a world of illusions.  The unconscious irony in his observation consists in the fact that this man assumed the progress of science to have been so great that a clear vision of the world without illusion was, by his own time, possible.  It is needless to add that he wrote before Einstein, before the spread of Freud’s doctrines, at a time when Mendel was just about to be rediscovered, and before advances in the study of radioactivity had made their impact—of both illumination and confusion—upon this century.

Certainly science has moved forward.  But when science progresses, it often opens vaster mysteries to our gaze.  Moreover, science frequently discovers that it must abandon or modify what it once believed.  Sometimes it ends by accepting what it has previously scorned.  The simplistic idea that science marches undeviatingly down an ever broadening highway can scarcely be sustained by the historian of ideas.[1]

 

Science writer K. C. Cole:

So much of science consists of things we can never see: light “waves” and charged “particles”; magnetic “fields” and gravitational “forces”; quantum “jumps” and electron “orbits.”  In fact, none of these phenomena is literally what we say it is.  Light waves do not undulate through empty space in the same way that water waves ripple over a still pond; a field is only a mathematical description of the strength and direction of a force; an atom does not literally jump from one quantum state to another, and electrons do not really travel around the atomic nucleus in orbits.  The words we use are merely metaphors.  “When it comes to atoms,” wrote Niels Bohr, “language can be used only as in poetry.  The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images.”[2]

 

[1] Loren Eiseley, The Firmament of Time (New York: Atheneum, 1984), 5.  

[2] K. C. Cole, “On Imagining the Unseeable,” Discover (December 1982): 70.  

 

Now, some will reflexively take the above as an attack on science, because that’s what the neurochemical events in their brains require them to do.

 

But they’re wrong.  Of course.  I simply recognize that science is a human enterprise, subject to human limitations, and that it is, itself, limited — which is actually a primary source of its strength and certainly of its effectiveness.

 

 

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