A Visit to the American Museum of Natural History

20150503_125425Prepare to feel small.

Whenever I am in New York, I love to go to the American Museum of Natural History. One of my favorite exhibits is inside the Rose Center for Earth and Space. It winds around the room and deals with scale, from the largest to the smallest known objects.

In the center of the room is the Hayden Sphere. I didn’t get a good picture of it directly, but you can begin to get an idea of the size from the people walking around it in some of the photos.

As you make your way around the room, you’ll see panels that read, if the Sphere is one object in the Universe, then the small model in front of you is another object in the Universe. It begins with the scale on which the Sphere represents the observable universe

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Albert Einstein

Einstein pipeHis name has practically become synonymous with “genius.”

And that’s not all.

He was perhaps the first great scientist who was also a great moral philosopher.

A German Jew by background, Albert Einstein was a believer in humanity with a universalist worldview. In 1935, he wrote: “In the last analysis, everyone is a human being, whether he is an American or a German, a Jew or a Gentile.”

His idiosyncratic religious beliefs remain a subject of controversy, a subject on which the Israeli physicist and philosopher Max Jammer sheds some light in his 1999 book Einstein and Religion. On at least one occasion, it seems the famous scientist was comfortable referring to himself as “religious,” and many of his quotations referring to the force or entity he called “God” are well-known.

But Einstein rejected the concept of a personal God, or a God who responds to the prayers of individual people and intervenes in the world:

“I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals. . . . My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we can comprehend of the knowable world. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.

Einstein’s views earned him some strongly-worded responses from some American religious leaders in his time. These remarks were often clothed in the ugly language of antisemitism. One such leader wrote, “we invite you, if you do not believe in the God of the people of this nation, to go back where you came from.” Another offered, “In the past ten years nothing has been so calculated to make people think that Hitler had some reason to expel the Jews from Germany as your statement.”

Perhaps aware of these critics, Einstein was less than comfortable using the term “atheist” for himself. He said instead, “you may call me an agnostic,” and wrote, “I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our being.”

Christopher Hitchens described Einstein as a “genius” whose mission was “to spread the message of enlightenment and humanism.”

Sounds good. That’s what I want to do too.

Stick-in-the-Mud Science

stonehenge winter solstice

Science doesn’t always have to be hi-tech.

Indeed, you can learn things just by driving a stick into the ground.

Any old stick will do, as long as it’s straight.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson explores this and other topics in his book Death by Black Hole. Chapter 5 is called “Stick-in-the-Mud Science.”

In this chapter Tyson goes on to discusses various ancient religious and cultural sites around the world in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Stonehenge in England is only one famous example. These sites doubled as “low-tech astronomy centers” and continue to fascinate many modern people for a variety of reasons.

The astronomical knowledge required to build these sites, he says, “is not fundamentally deeper than what can be discovered with a stick in the ground.” So why are so many people still so astonished by the scientific achievements of these ancient civilizations?

Tyson goes on to speculate as to an answer:

Perhaps these ancient observatories perennially impress modern people because modern people have no idea how the Sun, Moon, or stars move. We are too busy watching evening television to care what’s going on in the sky. To us, a simple rock alignment based on cosmic patterns looks like an Einsteinian feat. But a truly mysterious civilization would be one that made no cultural or architectural reference to the sky at all.

Today is the Winter Solstice. Do yourself a favor and look up at the sky at least once today. Think about all the ancient civilizations for whom this was one of the most important days of the year and about the common humanity that links us all together. And if you’re really feeling ambitious, hammer a stick into the ground and see what else you can learn.

Something From Nothing?

Star explosion in space

Why is there something rather than nothing?

It’s a good question. And one that philosophers have wrestled with over the centuries.

Lawrence Krauss looks at it as well in his 2012 book A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.

Krauss is a leading theoretical physicist, science educator, and American Humanist Association 2015 Humanist of the Year. Like his colleague Richard Dawkins, he believes that philosophical questions such as these should not be exempted from scrutiny by science.

Krauss begins his answer by re-examining the question itself:

Whenever one asks “Why?” in science, one actually means “How?”. “Why?” is not really a sensible question in science because it usually implies purpose….

So, rather than, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” the question becomes, “How do we get something from nothing?”

Krauss begins by presenting the “cosmological term” from Einstein’s 1917 theory of general relativity. Einstein later called this “the biggest blunder of his career,” but the cosmological constant, as it became known, has since been given new life by science.

It represents the mysterious energy present in

the nothingness we normally call empty space. That is to say, if I take a region of space and get rid of everything within it— dust, gas, people, and even the radiation passing through, namely absolutely everything within that region— if the remaining empty space weighs something, then that would correspond to the existence of a cosmological term such as Einstein invented.

This mysterious dark energy is thought to account for over 70% of the matter and energy content in the universe.

The same phenomenon of “something from nothing” can also be observed on the smallest of scales. Quantum mechanics dictates that the total energy of a given system cannot be determined exactly if measured for only a fixed, finite time interval:

A key tenet of quantum mechanics…is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which, as I have mentioned, states that it is impossible to determine, for certain pairs of quantities, such as position and velocity, exact values for a given system at the same time. Alternatively, if you measure a given system for only a fixed, finite time interval, you cannot determine its total energy exactly.

This allows for the existence of so-called virtual particles, particles that spontaneously come in and out of existence on the shortest of time scales. These particles cannot be observed directly, but the measurement of their effects represents

the best, most accurate prediction in all of science….we can calculate the value of atomic parameters and compare them with observations and have remarkable agreement at the level of about 1 part in a billion or better! Virtual particles therefore exist.

It gets better. Not only is it possible to get something from nothing, but

virtual particles reflecting the particles and fields that convey the strong force between quarks are popping in and out of existence all the time…and, in fact, when we try to estimate how much they might contribute to the mass of the proton, we find that the quarks themselves provide very little of the total mass and that the fields created by these particles contribute most of the energy that goes into the proton’s rest energy and, hence, its rest mass. The same is true for the neutron, and since you are made of protons and neutrons, the same is true for you!

There’s still a lot about this theory we don’t understand, like the effects of these mysterious virtual particles on truly empty space. But it can offer increasingly precise explanations for how it is possible to get something–indeed, everything–from nothing:

The answers that have been obtained— from staggeringly beautiful experimental observations, as well as from the theories that underlie much of modern physics— all suggest that getting something from nothing is not a problem.

That’s pretty awesome. And I’ll take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.