Part II – The Big Bang, the American Revolution, Constitutional Construction and other related notions.
Welcome back to Part II of this diatribe, and do refill your beer or wine glass as il Padrone now continues….We were looking at the immenseness of the universe in terms of both its population by stars and sheer distances, noting along the way, without digressing, that our National Debt has taken on some similarities in the size department.
As described by its proponents, if you roll the clock back, the roughly 13 billion or so years since the Big Bang is alleged to have happened, all those trillions of stars, their surrounding planets, their moons and whatever else is out there, would get closer and closer together, until it was all scrunched up into a single, minuscule point, the so called “singularity.”
When you think about what that notion actually means, I can understand a person’s hesitance to accept it as being possible. Picture a car in a junk yard about to be crunched into a block of metal that will be shipped to a mill, melted and recycled. You start out with a roughly nine foot by six foot wreck and crunch it up into a block that is now three feet on each side. Impressive? Yes. Heavy? That too. Now suppose you start adding every car on the planet, then the trucks, boats, buildings, people…. You get my drift, no? Then add in our solar system, the rest of the Milky Way, then all of the other 170 billion galaxies out there. Then beat all that stuff down into an infinitesimally small point. Now you have a singularity.
Just how big is that infinitesimally small point? We don’t know, but we have theories. Well, how did the point get there? We don’t know, but we have theories, scientific, religious, philosophical and yet to be thought of. Then what’s it made of? We don’t know, but we have theories. Okay then, what made it go bang? We don’t know, but we have theories….Really? Then what do we actually know about all this? Apparently that there is still a lot we don’t know….But, we have theories.
My point was, and remains, unless you are sentinent about these matters (arguably a poor choice of words at this juncture) you can begin to accept what is still theoretical as fact. Watch.
Simple term, gravity is. We all know what it means, do we not? Nope. What? We know how to describe its effects, we can describe our experiences with it, but we do not know really what it is or what causes it —even after such intellectual giants as Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, and thousands of other scientists of lesser fame did their very best to do so. But we have theories.
In this regard, scientists stand not alone — even the Supreme Court must, on occasion, wrestle with matters they cannot satisfactorily get their prose about, witness Justice Potter Stewart, writing in his concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, on the notion of obscenity “…I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description (‘hard-core pornography’); and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that….” There is a notion to guide you through life!
That we do not presently know what gravity is precisely, is a fact — but we do know it when we see it, or, more aptly, feel it. Every notion we have as to what it may be, is, presently a theory (read, opinion.) This is as good a time as any to say, “Wow!” Louder! I can’t hear you!
Ignorant though we be as to what gravity really is, we are very adept at describing how it works. Because that is so, we can describe how a cloud of mostly hydrogen gas and dust out in the cosmos can, through gravitational attraction, coalesce through increasing degrees of density, until the conglomerated mass hits a critical number and commences fusing hydrogen atoms into helium atoms and thus, literally, a star is born.
In a cosmic coincidence, perhaps, just as people and stars are born, so too do they die. After the birth of a star, the fusion process continues, turning hydrogen into helium, that into carbon, the core shrinking in size and increasing in density with each shift in fusion. What happens next depends on the size of the star. Those of slightly larger than our Sun’s size and smaller, are not dense enough to continue the fusion of carbon into heavier elements. Instead, they swell into red giants, eject some material, then the now carbon core cools into a white dwarf — which, if you think about it, being carbon condensed under intense heat and pressure, results in a giant diamond. As we humans are presently unable to reach and harvest the wealth of diamonds resident in neighboring white dwarfs, the price of a diamond solitaire remains, astronomical, so to speak.
Stars that are between 1.4 time the mass of the Sun (solar masses) and less than 5 solar masses, become neutron stars; and, those that are larger, become black holes, a notion that takes us to the outer limits of our present ability to understand things. To begin with, these massive stars continue fusing elements all the way up the periodic table of elements to iron, which, for whatever reason, doesn’t fuse into anything heavier, but once the core is fully converted into iron, watch out, a really spectacular supernova is on its way.
Because of the intense heat in the outer layers of the dying sun, all of the other elements in the periodic table are able to form, in varying quantities, all of which are blown off in the blast of the supernova, where, in time, they coalesce into new stars, planets and, big surprise, ultimately help to make people too. This is an ostensibly scientific fact, garnered from the observation of the spectra from a now impressive number of actual supernovas that are confirmatory of what began as a theory — proof the scientific method works. Taken to its logical extension, then all the elements in our human bodies apparently started out as an ejaculation from a dying star, found their way to Earth and ended up in us, making each of us, literally, made from stardust — a notion I will return to shortly. It is what is left after the supernova that causes things to leave the empirically provable and enter into the theoretical.
You can blame Einstein, who started things going by doing the initial math to explain general relativity, inclusive of showing that gravity can affect light. A few months later, German physicist, Karl Schwarzschild, calculated what we now call the Schwarzschild radius, which is the distance from the center of an object such that, if all the mass of the object were compressed within that sphere, the escape speed from the surface would equal the speed of light. When you go over that limit, all hell breaks loose, because elements of Einstein’s field equations now become infinite — a notion akin to gravity in the sense we know how to describe it but really cannot comprehend what it really is.
Suffice it to say, as elegantly beautiful, consistent and dependable the mathematics are in human experience, they become woefully inept to explain such easily described situations as a number divided by zero, which is defined as infinity, but means, what, precisely? In a world where most of us (except apparently Congress) cannot truly comprehend what a trillion of anything is, how are we to cope with what is infinite? Simply put, we can’t. All I can say, here, is that when the answer to a larger mathematical or physics problem is “infinity,” the real answer is always, “We don’t know” — all assertions to the contrary notwithstanding.
For our purposes, all we need to know is that when a star of greater than 5 solar masses collapses gravitationally, it collapses into a singularity. There’s that word again. Is it the same kind of singularity from which the Big Bang started? We don’t know…but we have theories. Our mathematics tells us that the now collapsed star is so gravitationally intense, not even light can escape from it, rendering us unable to see it (because in the absence of any light radiating from it, it is essentially, well…invisible) and thus the term, “black hole.” We can measure its gravitational effects on surrounding stars; and, if they are actively feeding on a neighboring star, we can spot the intense radiation that escaped being dinner…but we can’t actually see the damned things. Thus, in a truly bizarre turn of events, now we know it when we don’t see it!
The defining feature of a black hole is the appearance of an event horizon — a boundary in spacetime (the novel concoction of Einstein that interweaves three dimensional space with its fourth dimension, time, another notion we do not really understand, other than in passing, so to speak) through which matter and light can only pass inward towards the mass of the black hole. Nothing, including light, can escape from inside the event horizon. The event horizon is referred to as such because if an event occurs within the boundary, information from that event cannot reach an outside observer, making it impossible to determine if such an event occurred. In lay terms, we cannot, by definition, know what the hell goes on inside a black hole. We can theorize (express opinions) and criticize each other’s opinions, that’s about it. On reflection, however, as the goings on inside a black hole are beyond our present ability to understand, what with infinity making gravity even less understandable, perhaps the event horizon is needed to separate the unknown world inside the black hole from the real world where we presently confused denizens live.
We have recently learned that at the center of all (or most) galaxies, lies a super massive black hole, which may be crucial to galaxy formation in the first instance. Now might be a good time to note that this immense place we call the Universe, is actually made up of remarkably tiny stuff.
As matters (pun intended) turn out, there are similarities as between the macro and micro. To begin with, as was noted in Part I of this diatribe, the macro-verse is immense, with extraordinarily large empty spaces between the galaxies as well as between the stars within a galaxy — so large and wide are the empty spaces, that even when two galaxies collide, as they sometimes do, packed though each be with stars, most never hit another star, go figure. Well, it turns out the micro-verse is to small what the macro-verse is to big. The diameter of a hydrogen atom is on the order of one-tenth of a nanometer (10-8) roughly one-millionth the diameter of the thickest of human hairs in size. The nucleus of a hydrogen atom, a single proton, has a diameter of one-millionth the diameter of the atom it forms with its single electron (10-14) relegating much of the atom to empty space (sound familiar?)
Put into macro-verse terms of scale, if the nucleus were the Sun and the innermost electron an orbiting planet, its orbit would be in the order of 5 times the distance between the Sun and Neptune. Go ahead, that deserves a “Wow!” To me, visualizing the unimaginably small is as difficult as visualizing the unimaginably large, they’re both, well….unimaginable.
Particle physicists, discontent with a sub-atomic world comprised of only three elemental particles (protons, neutrons and electrons) pushed further (read, solicited funds for more powerful particle accelerators and smashed things up a bit more) and discovered the protons and neutrons are made of still smaller stuff, quarks — which come in six types, affectionately called “flavors” of up, down, strange, charm, bottom and top. You will find no comparable flavors at Ben & Jerry’s, but I digress.
Quarks, in combination with leptons (which also come in six types, also called “flavors” of electron, electron neutrino, muon, muon neutrino, tau and tau neutrino) and gauge bosons (of which there are thirteen, all of which are force carriers of one sort or another) make up all of the matter in the universe.
Why do we need to know all this? When you separate out what we do know from what we don’t, and you track the history of our developing scientific understanding of Nature, you begin to note similarities to a broad range of other human endeavors, including politics, law and religion, which shouldn’t be surprising, as they are all quests after some aspect of Nature.
That humans are curious about the world in which they live, and have lived, appears to be a fact. The ancient Greeks coined the term “element” to describe the notion of the most fundamental bits of matter from which no further reduction could be had, and believed the world was made up of five elements, earth, wind, fire, water and aether. Similar notions were held by the ancient Japanese, Chinese, Hindus and Buddhists. There is no question that these beliefs were held, as there are writings that have survived to document the fact that they existed and were discussed. The notions survived and arguably held back what we would call modern scientific inquiry, until well past the dark ages. Perceptive though the ancients were in terms of pondering and discerning that complex matter, such as humans, were made of simpler stuff, their understanding of what that simpler stuff was, was wrong.
The first known listing of “elements” in the “chemical” sense, was made by the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, in 1789, which listed the then known elements and numbered a mere twenty three. By the time Dmitri Mendeleev developed the first periodic table of elements, in 1869, the list had grown to sixty six. Thanks to continued research and modern nuclear physics, the periodic table now contains 117 known elements.
The term chemical element refers to those empirically determined bits of matter that can be reduced to its simplest form and structure, while still retaining its identity as an element, and consists of a single atom of whatever the atom is — the distinction between each element being the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus and electrons orbiting the nucleus. Discovery of chemical elements expanded our understanding of Nature, but it was still wrong.
That things could be made up of something smaller than a chemical atom didn’t occur until the notion of an electron was first postulated in 1874 and experimentally confirmed in 1897. Protons were not experimentally confirmed until 1918 and neutrons were only discovered in 1932. And, yes, as a result of the development of particle accelerators, the first built in 1929, we now know the notion that everything was made up of protons, neutrons and electrons was technically right, but wrong in the sense that the first two particles can be further divided into even more fundamental ones.
At the sake of repeating myself (which my children say I do, often) no one has or can ever see any of these things. They’re too damned small. Their existence was theorized by theoretical physicists and mathematicians, and then confirmed by experimental physicists, by smashing beams of billions of protons and other sub-atomic matter against each other and examining the fallout, that comes in the form of spun off matter that can be measured. The process is akin to running two locomotives into each other at very high speed, then trying to determine what they were made of by examining the wreckage. If this strikes you as a very difficult and expensive way of going about things, you are right on both accounts, but there are presently no other means of garnering the information we seek.
Have a sip of your beer or wine as you are pondering this….are you getting the picture? Everything, everywhere, including us, is made up of the same basic stuff (quarks, leptons and gauge bosons) which, for reasons we truly do not understand, forms into larger stuff, some of which appears to be solid, some of which appears to be “living” and most of which is just empty space. As you slap yourself upside your head with your hand in wonderment at this assertion, given the spacing issue above described, your hand should pass right through your head. That it doesn’t, is a result of the forces conveyed by the gauge bosons, according to our particle physicists. That you instead can read and ponder what I just said, should perhaps prompt you to wonder how all of this could be a remarkable coincidence resulting from an as yet inexplicable boom that went off 13 or so billion years ago?
Let’s ponder this a bit further and return to the “stardust” issue. The birth and death of a star in the process I described is independent of whether the original ones were placed there by the hand of God, were always out there, or developed out of the Big Bang. What matters is that now that we can study them, regardless of where they came from, they exist, and die, in conformity with now confirmable scientific testing. When we add what we have now tested and confirmed as to the sub-atomic composition of all that emanates from these dying stars, it develops we are all made literally made of the same basic “stuff.” Put another way, there are no gold quarks or carbon quarks. Three of your basic quark, quarks, in the proper flavors, combine to make the protons and neutrons that combine to make your gold or carbon atoms — but that is merely how they happened to combine and present themselves for your viewing pleasure. Underneath, it’s all the same stuff. At the sub-atomic level, needless to say, the same stuff that could have made a rock, or a puppy, made you instead! (I hasten to add, if you are unable to distinguish yourself from either, we are presently unable to say why.) Think about that the next time you are inclined to regard negatively someone else, whose view of life differs from yours. Whatever that difference is, must be due to something other than what you both are made of, chemically. If we have a spirit component to us, we have yet to devise an experiment which can detect and measure it. That does not mean we don’t have one, only that we presently don’t know how to look for it.
So what makes some quarks and leptons make an inanimate object and others an animate (living) thing? Where have you been? We don’t know!
What makes some conglomerations of quarks and leptons look at other conglomerations of quarks and leptons, at all, and then poke and prod some of them to prove they are conglomerations of quarks and leptons? We don’t know — but unless we really are in a matrix of sorts, we do. Why? We don’t know!
Perhaps, you, as do I, notice a subtle pattern here. We really simply don’t know a lot about what we would like to — but desire is an inadequate substitute for empirical proof. Temptingly plausible though many a scientific theory be, they remain an opinion until the proof can somehow be gotten, if ever it is. I posit for your consideration that it may be an essential part of Nature, whether divinely created or mere happenstance, that some matters are not to be empirically proven.
It is admitted by the proponents of the Big Bang that, try as they might, no presently understood physics can explain anything that happened from less than some small fraction of the time when everything actually went “bang.” Accordingly, there is no definitive explanation as to what made the singularity go bang, or why. The issue is a bright-line border that separates “science” from “religion.” Sans empirical proof of a “divine hand” making the singularity go “poof” many scientists are (rightly in my opinion) unable or unwilling to admit to the existence of such a hand. I say, “good!” That keeps the scientists relegated to the apparently never ending search for better physics and empirically testable scientific truths and the notion of “faith” a viable part of the human experience. I use the term “faith” here in its broad sense, to wit, the notion of complete trust or confidence in someone or something, which extends well beyond any religious or spiritual notions. Accordingly, a scientist’s belief in the ultimate truth of the present theory of the Big Bang is an act of faith on his or her part.
In my head, one of the essential elements of any religious belief worth having is that of “faith.” Well, duh! If we could empirically prove (or disprove) the existence of God, gods, or any other “divine” intervention, from the get-go, so to speak, it would be a fact, and we would no longer need faith. Should such affirmative proof ever be developed, it would eliminate an otherwise entirely wonderful set of leaps. Depending upon what the “proof” showed, we might also need an impressive number of tribunals to deal with the fallout of such a discovery. Those of faith assure us that whether we ever prove God exists in this life, He will surely deal with us in the afterlife. Belief in that notion, because we have no proof one way or the other, is presently an act of faith. If you get to an afterlife, and are explaining yourself to God, His existence would, at that juncture, be a fact.
Negative proof would strike me as being equally disturbing. All historical acts of heroism, charity and intellectual pursuit would, in my mind, be rendered rather meaningless, no? With nothing to look forward to in the afterlife, why break your ass being good or productive in this one? It’s too simplistic to say there are rewards for such model behavior in this life to warrant it. In my mind, those rewards are out there because while the masses are not necessarily regular church, temple or mosque goers, there are more believers in something than in nothing, and cumulatively their beliefs affect how we allocate our resources.
Belief in a deity (or deities) larger and more powerful than the likes of us humans antedates recorded history and has been embedded in our cultures over a procession of generations. These belief systems supplied the ethos that civilized society, such as it is and was. Science has given us a much better, if, as yet, incomplete, understanding of our physical world, but has done nothing of any consequence to prove, or disprove the possibility of a deity. Accordingly, faith continues.
Consider this. I’m only guessing, but I believe your basic ant doesn’t spend any appreciable time pondering the mysteries of life or any afterlife. Actually, I don’t believe they ponder anything. Any given ant’s lot in life is essentially determined by its birth. If born royally, without the benefit of a pre-k, grammar and high school and college education, they grow to adulthood, carefully preened by their minions, they fly off to start a new nest (if queens) or to impregnate a new queen and then get eaten (if princes.) If low born, they work, either inside or outside the nest, and die. I’ve never read an account of a low born ant deciding it was actually a prince and setting off on its own to form its own colony. Ant colonies go to war with one another, but it appears such hostilities are for the purpose of securing food or territory, which equates to new food sources. In such battles, I’m thinking the ants on the front lines are fighting out of instinct, rather than any sense of honor, or belief that their sacrifice for the colony will be amply rewarded in ant heaven. Thus, in my perhaps overly simplistic mind, an ant colony is pretty descriptive of what a human colony would behave like, sans faith.
While we continue as a species to have varying degrees of barbarism perpetrated on our fellow humans by those with the power to do so, we seem to me, less so than we were a millennium or two ago. I posit this knowing we are presently at war in Afghanistan, were recently in one in Iraq, in another in Kuwait before that, in Vietnam before that, in Korea before that, and in two World Wars before that — and that was only the last century. In none of those conflicts was the American military deployed to secure food or territory for the American nest. Conscripts and volunteers alike, put their lives on the line for the people back home and those that were being subjugated by the applicable despot de guerre for reasons having nothing to do with instinct and everything to do with some degree of faith that what they were doing was somehow the right thing to do. Those fighting against us had comparable degrees of faith they were doing the right thing too — but their side lost and the victors get to write (and right) history.
Call me crazy (I do) but in my opinion, dogs have faith. Not the church going kind, but the generic leaping kind. Having long ago traded their feral instincts for domestication, dogs develop faith in their masters — that they will feed them, walk them and pet them. In return, they develop a sense of territoriality about the home in which they live (okay, sometimes scented with their urine to keep their bearings) and bark when an intruder presents him or herself at the threshold. You can train a dog (or a rat) to do tricks or perform some simple task, in return for food, and they will repeat the trick on faith of getting the reward. If you cheat the dog too often out of the treat, psychologists (read, scientists) say you have “extinguished” the behavior. I say the dog now has lost its faith in getting the treat. Regardless, when my dog looks to the heavens, I’m relatively certain it is not to ponder the Big Bang theory, what lies ahead in doggy heaven or the nature of God. To the best of my knowledge and belief, as the alpha male in our family, our dog ponders “god” when gazing upon me. The koi in my pond in the yard do likewise when I approach, as I’m the one who usually tosses in the food pellets.
Before I go to human faith, let’s go back and get some numerical perspective. We have the Big Bang set at roughly 13 billion years ago. The Earth and the rest of our solar system formed roughly 5 billion years ago. We can date the earliest fossils of bacteria back to roughly 3.5 billion years ago and the earliest animal fossils to roughly 600 million years ago. The earliest fossils of the “Homo” genus of mankind date back to roughly 2.5 million years and the demise of all other versions of humans, other than our present species, to roughly 30 thousand years ago. Got that? Modern man has been in control of Earth for roughly .6 billionths of the time our planet has been around. Writing is a mere 55 hundred years old and general relativity is not yet a centenarian. Farming is roughly 10 thousand years old, law and engineering roughly half that and the first perception that the “universe” might be constructed of atoms half that again. I note here that despite all the mining, archeological digs, bomb craters and various and sundry other holes made in the Earth’s crust, through today, not once has a piece of an alien, its spaceship or any accouterments ever been dug up and reported to the rest of us.
Being humans, although Aristarchus postulated that the sun was the center of the universe in roughly 280 BC, when Galileo turned his telescope to the stars in the 1600’s to confirm the century earlier Copernican theory that the sun was the center of the solar system, not the universe, about which the Earth revolved, the Catholic church tried him for heresy, thus underscoring the tension between science and religion.
Need I point out here the countless millions, whom, over time, have been executed or imprisoned over holding the wrong political views? We humans are wildly conflicted about our beliefs and apparently prepared to go to extremes over them. Much of history is an object lesson in the need to discern between “fact” and “opinion” — with the former often turning out to be merely the latter, on closer scrutiny or better experimentation.
Call me a curmudgeon (my kids do) but to me, the efforts of any organized religion to suppress or distort any genuine scientific research or discovery, because it is perceived to threaten the validity of a religious tenet, is no more, or less, intellectually offensive than the deliberate distortion or suppression of alleged scientific evidence or research to suit the desired scientific and political ends of the researcher. Any religious tenet worth believing shouldn’t be capable of being refuted by scientific inquiry. Conversely, no scientific theory can be so important or valid if the data needed to support or confirm it needs to be fudged, or must deliberately ignore contrary data. With this in mind, I will confine myself here to merely noting that man-made global warming is a theory, not an empirically established fact, and the subject of a separate diatribe I will post soon.
The spill-over of religious, political and other human goals into what should be the intellectually pristine pursuit of pure science is old news and essentially to be expected as the practitioners of all are mere humans. It is the apparent magnitude of the problem that disturbs me. Unless you do a little research yourself, you might not know, for example, that scientists who attempt to do research on politically unpopular subjects (say, one that might adduce evidence that the Big Bang theory is wrong) are denied access to the instruments needed to conduct their research, or funding for it. Yet, the evidence of such conduct is out there on the net, not in the New York Times science pages or the Scientific American. What does this mean? To me, it means that the hard sciences have been infected by the same forces with political agendas that have overtaken academia and government. How do I know? I follow the Woodward and Bernstein maxim from the Watergate era, “Follow the money.”
The hard sciences are funded through a combination of governmental, academic and private research. There is a degree of overlap, as governments fund colleges which do research, as does private companies. World governments, inclusive of our own, being secretive to some extent about how much they precisely spend on anything, are difficult to pin down with any great precision with respect to precisely how much they spend on scientific research. For 2006, the last year for which I could find any compiled data, the number for that spent by the combined “developed world” on research and development appears to be in the neighborhood of $1.7 trillion. That’s a tidy bit of samolians.
The toys used to make discoveries in the hard sciences are not cheap. No sir! A world class telescope to be built today costs about $2 billion. A particle accelerator such as the one built in Europe at CERN, had a budget of $9 billion as of June 2010. The space shuttle Endeavor, launched in 1992, cost $1.7 billion to build and is already retired from service. I believe you have my point. The days of a Thomas Edison experimenting with electricity in his lab at Menlo Park (funded by his sale of the quadruplex telegraph to Western Union for $10,000) and producing a light bulb or a generator are mostly gone. If you want to do hard science today, you need big bucks behind you, Apple and Face Book being exceptions rather than the rule.
So how does a scientist go about getting a telescope to gaze at the macro-verse; or a particle collider to do likewise with the micro-verse? Let’s face it, the only places to find money on the cosmological scale it takes to fund big research is big government, big business and big academia. Government gets its money through taxation of the governed. Big business gets its money through raising capital and making profits. Academia gets its money through tuition, endowment and bleeding the other two Bigs. The people manning the telescopes, particle accelerators and other toys of big science, are not the people in charge of securing, or doling out, the money. Politicians, bureaucrats, executives and administrators do that. If you smell trouble with that scenario, your sense of smell is doing fine.
We have heretofore noted our elected officials discern nothing illogical or inappropriate about raising in excess of $10 million to secure a job that pays $174,000 per year for six years — they’re the same people who spent $15 trillion more than we presently have on hand (our National Debt) and have obligated us to another $58.95 trillion of unfunded debt for what we now call “entitlements.” Call me suspicious, but these people do not strike me as the fiscally responsible type. The Federal Election Commission reports that President Obama has thus far raised $217 million for his 2012 re-election campaign. He has no primaries of consequence and is touted as perhaps raising up to $1 billion before all is said and done — this, for a job that pays, with all the cash perks added up, $569,000 a year. Are you joking with me? Sadly, no.
A few years back, in 2008, we had a burst in what is now called the “Housing Bubble” during which the sub-prime mortgage market did a melt-down akin to what happened in nuclear reactors in Chernobyl in 1986 and more recently in Fukushima in 2011. We will not bog down in a discussion of how and why it happened, and simply note that at the bottom of it was the lethal combination of a congressionally mandated regulatory scheme that had as its mission to foment home ownership amongst people who were of less than stellar credit-worthiness, mortgage lenders more than willing to make risky loans to them, bundle them up and sell them to unwitting investors; and, a real estate market that became over-inflated by the excess demand, which collapsed when the economy, then the real estate market backed off. In brief, a collection of politicians, bureaucrats and financial executives did their respective parts to foment disaster.
Academia is next. All denials by the universities to the contrary notwithstanding, through the confluence of tuition costs that are too high, debt loads to finance same too onerous; and, the rewards of the financed degree over-rated, in the opinion of some highly regarded economists and businessmen, such that the makings of an educational bubble are all now in place. An analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York showed that student loan debt stands at $870 billion nationally, surpassing the nation’s outstanding balance on auto loans ($730 billion) and credit cards ($693 billion) as of third quarter, 2011. An April 2012 Associated Press analysis of government data reports that half of college graduates are either jobless or are underemployed, holding positions as retail clerks or waitresses that do not require a college degree. As I write this, the May jobs report came in and sank the stock market for its biggest single day loss in 2012.
The American big three in charge of doling out research dollars simultaneously under-impress and scare me. Their European counterparts are no more impressive or less scary. In roughly 17 days, Greece may depart the European Economic Union. Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland may take turns being next. That the world is in a precarious financial condition strikes me as more of a fact than an opinion. Handing out money to people who want it, in return for their vote is an old concept, that has worked for quite some time to keep an entire political class in control of things. So long as the population was growing, economy doing likewise and tax revenues increasing, borrowing to fund these payoffs worked. Unfortunately, our better educated, more prosperous; and, arguably more selfish younger generations haven’t done their part to reproduce sufficiently to keep the tax rolls growing and postpone financial judgment day. To close out my earlier point, the same brain trust that runs the governments, institutions of higher learning and corporate boardrooms, most of whom cannot distinguish between a quark and a lepton, nevertheless decide whether and how much to fund any research in these areas. As political expediency is the hallmark of their other financial decision-making, it strikes me as logical to assume it is equally at play in the allocation of research funding. If so, we have reversed the scientific method, by looking for only what we want to find.
So, how did things come to be this way? If you think about it, the entire human experience, so to speak, is an animate version of the inanimate Big Bang. Whether we started out as pond scum or had our original ancestors hand placed here, we have evolved socially into something quite different from what we started from — due in part to expanding our knowledge about Nature, and much of that acquired by trial and repeated error. Of course, on the scale of millennia, a few often repeated mistakes get lost in the dust of history.
The philosopher, Santayana is known for the saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” With that notion in mind, I (finally) offer some additional historical context then my observations to the American Revolution and its aftermath.
Why were the Revolutionaries revolting? In a word, taxes. Sound familiar? It should. The kick was, inter alia, that the Colonies were being taxed without having their own elected representatives in British Parliament. The perceived abuses went beyond taxation to be sure, as it extended to forced quartering of soldiers, denial of trial by jury and an entire litany of complaints, all centered on the lack of an actual voice in the government by those who were being governed and iterated in great detail in the Declaration itself. Very un-ant-like.
My question is, “What would have happened of old King George III had relented and given the Colonists a few seats in Parliament?” By contemporary standards, in my opinion, the newly elected representatives would have raised more money than the seat paid, to get elected, sailed off to England, taken their seats, gotten bribed by the lobbyists for whatever groups were handing out bribes at the time and we’d have missed, inter alia, the best exposition on human relations ever written and a perfect Revolution. Did I digress? I can’t tell anymore.
What was most remarkable about the American Revolution was not its ultimate success, but the fact that it was thought of and acted on at all. Theretofore, although kings and governments were periodically overthrown, and replaced, no collection of humans ever thought to actually declare themselves independent of their entire political union and form their own.
When the Revolutionaries did so, they attributed their right to do so to “natural law” — stating most eloquently, “…When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation….”
The Revolutionaries didn’t stop there — they then set forth perhaps the most important statement on human rights ever written, “…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness….”
Viewed as an assertion by several conglomerations of quarks and leptons, even if they happened to congeal as wealthy white men at the time they made it, it is nevertheless a remarkable one, both in its express import and in its continued relevancy in a now much different world than the one asserted.
That the quarks and leptons making the assertions had a degree of religious faith is irrefutable, witness their references to “Nature’s God” and the “Creator.” What is not in there, precisely because of what would follow in the Constitution, regarding the notion of freedom of religious belief and worship, is any declaration of a specific or official “God” — that was left to the very unalienable Rights of those who chose to believe or disbelieve in whatever. That is a pretty advanced notion for 17th Century quarks and leptons congealed as human beings to have.
Since I mentioned it, let’s get to it. We hear a lot today about the conflict on the Supreme Court (and all affected by their decisions) between the so called “strict constructionists,” who believe the Constitution should be construed strictly according to its express terms, and those who believe the Constitution to be a “living document” capable of reinterpretation over time.
I side with the strict constructionist quarks and leptons, because those who set it all up did two intellectually good things that favor strictness in construction. First, by setting up a government that had three separate, distinct and co-equal branches, a system of “checks and balances” as it is described, at a time when the Revolution itself was commenced to escape from tyrannical governmental administration, the Framers clearly feared having any one branch over-power any of the others. A judiciary able to not only nullify what a legislature and executive had made into law, but also free to invent new law (rights, powers, etc.) through reinterpretation of the Constitution, would give it too much power.
My second basis is because the Constitution is amendable — and has successfully been amended 27 times, with an additional 6 unsuccessful attempts. That it has been amended, and in doing so added a number of new rights and protections for the electorate, tells me the mechanism the Framers set up works fine. Those quarks and leptons who oppose that notion are, in my opinion, either impatient, or confident that whatever amendment they would have made, would be voted down by the electorate — either of which would be further reasons the Framers would favor strictness in construction. While we of late bend over backwards as a society to accommodate all kinds of minority rights and freedom of expression, I believe we are still a society within which the majority rules.
That the Framers were all white, male and wealthy land-owners or businessmen at the time of the adoption of the Declaration and the Constitution is not perceived by me as a basis for rejecting or loosely construing either document. Instead, it is rather proof of its vitality and ability to be improved upon over time, using the apparatus set up to do so. There simply was no human society in existence at the time in which both were adopted in which women or blacks were enfranchised to vote, and slavery was still in existence in Europe and elsewhere as well. The Constitution was amended to abolish slavery in 1865, after a bloody 4 year civil war was fought to repatriate the 11 southern slave states that attempted to secede from the Union. Black males were enfranchised by a Constitutional Amendment adopted in 1870 and women likewise by one adopted in 1920. In my mind it is more important that we got there, using the framework established to get us there, than that it took longer to get there than had any individual branch decided to do so unilaterally.
Some conglomerations of quarks and leptons thought it appropriate to enslave and exploit other conglomerations — but other such conglomerations saw fit to risk returning to stardust, so to speak, to abolish that practice. Why? We don’t really know, do we? Yet, it strikes my particular conglomeration of quarks and leptons as illogical to believe they did so without faith that their sacrifice was for a worthier cause. Those who fought on the other side no doubt believed their cause just as worthy — but they didn’t know their quarks and leptons were fundamentally no different than anyone else’s. If they did, they may have thought otherwise.
In case you missed it, the current resident of the White House happens to be a conglomeration of quarks and leptons presenting as a black man. Whether you voted for him or not, he was popularly elected in the manner in which all of his predecessors in the position were and that he could was a direct result of the Constitution having been amended in the manner set up to do so. That he was elected is proof that our American society is a different one from that which existed at the time the Constitution was ratified and from that of a mere 50 years ago — much in the same way the Universe is a different one from that which existed a few eons ago (the time scale is a bit different.)
Go ahead, have another sip, if you’re still reading you earned it! My conglomeration of quarks and leptons would now like to absorb some of their inanimate cousins, presently in the form of a beer. Thank’s for the attention.