Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Feminist Man in the Midwest

That sentence describes me. I can not say that this was always the case, but I can say that I've acquired the wisdom to call myself a feminist for a couple years now. I don't particularly feel like describing my journey into feminism, but after a brief conversation at the skeptical conference I want to outline why I'm a feminist.

In the first place feminism is not some monolithic man-hating organization. Anyone reading this probably already knows that, but I frequently here it described that way. There is a considerable amount of diversity within feminism and what it means to be a feminist. I honestly can't even claim to have an expert understanding of all feminist positions. I can only claim that I think strict gender roles and expectations can be harmful to individuals, and that I choose to help establish gender equality in my day-to-day life (as that's where it really begins).

So what does all that entail? For me, it just involves speaking up and asking questions. There are a lot of mores and folkways that strike me as silly and outmoded, but I would like to replace those social constructions with better ones. So I question norms in the hopes of finding better answers. Feminism encompasses some moral positions that anyone ought to defend, like rape prevention, access to birth control, and pay equality. Nobody argues against these things (well, OK, there are a few who argue against birth control, but it's nonsensical). I've argued against feminism without realizing the contradiction. But feminism, as a philosophical position, is beneficial to both men and women: It puts our social expectations in human terms, general terms that can be fulfilled by anyone in spite of their sex. I think that this more general formulation helps us to respect each other as humans, which is really what I think feminism is all about. There may be general sexual trends within a population, but we ought to also find ways to encompass those who don't follow those trends. Feminism is one of those answers.

Feminism can cover a host of issues and topics, none of which I am an expert on, but most of which I find interesting and enjoy discussing and reading about. I tend to approach feminism more from a male perspective, and think that the social expectations of men can be harmful and should therefore be questioned. (shocking, I know, seeing as I'm male).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Skepticon II

For the longest time I found the notion of an atheist movement to be odd. While I have been an atheist for a long time now, I thought people found meaning in religion, and it didn't seem like to nicest thing in the world to go around removing people's meaning. Further, it seemed odd to form organizations around the idea that God Is Dead. I wasn't always as certain of this as I am now, but I figured that anyone who bothered to actually continue looking for truth would at least be able to rationalize one way or the other, and while I was sure that Atheism was the right conclusion, at least theism offered a structure for individuals to tackle moral problems.

I no longer feel this way. At least entirely. I still don't feel terribly great about poking holes in people's beliefs, but there are good reasons to believe things and bad reasons to believe things. Further, while I am intrigued in continuing the philosophical debate on the existence and nature of God, as well as everything that might entail, I am certain now that a movement for atheists is a good thing. I was convinced of this by Skepticon II.

The main problem, as I hinted to above, that I had with the New Atheists was that I perceived it as a destructive movement as opposed to a generative movement. I knew that God did not equate to goodness, and took offense when someone thought I couldn't be good because I didn't believe in God, but it seemed supremely silly to me to gather together to destroy the beliefs of others. Quite simply, this isn't the case. If Skepticon II is a good sampling of what the New Atheism has to offer, then while I disagreed with individual's that spoke there, that was a common theme amongst many people. And my impression was that this sort of disagreement and debate was encouraged. This means that, while we all agree on the non-existence of God, there are still questions and problems that we all still have and disagree on.

So, while it seems that Atheism would be destructive, it was the exact opposite: It was generative to the point that everyone had a point of contention with something which was a widely positive experience to myself -- especially because everyone there never once listed "The Bible" as a good reason to do something.

Further, while I have a group of atheist friends that I generally hang around, I'm a fairly quiet and complacent fellow who doesn't speak out to many people. While I enjoy and very greatly value this group of friends, it was also fun just to hang around people who are relatively similar to myself in their general metaphysical world view and to feel that I wasn't fundamentally alone. There was a community of people who wanted to bullshit about science, literature, music, politics, teaching, philosophy, alcoholic drinks, often all in the same conversation. This was something else that wasn't stated explicitly, but that seemed I noticed: The New Atheism is an intellectual movement. The speakers all had an intellectual discipline, and they shared their specialty in their speeches -- something I highly enjoyed. I especially enjoyed seeing science being shared glibly with anyone who chose to show up. Further, the science was embraced by those who attended (at least, those whom I talked to). It was not shunned as some hum-drum boring routine you have to go through in order to pass a class. (Sorry for the minor bias towards the science, but it is what I study. I also enjoyed the philosophers and historians, as well as the debate on the existence of God)

So, it is a generative movement, and it is a movement that actually values intellectual labor (something desperately lacking in my experience). Further, it's filled with enthusiastic individuals who enjoy finding like-minded people (which, really, who doesn't?). I find that hard to object to. Thank you to all who set it up and all the speakers who came.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Research for Killing

I just returned from a presentation given by a man who works for the US Army in developing better ordinance. The primary reason for my visit was to ask him about his ethical justifications on doing research to further the cause of war. His primary reasons were:

1) For the people in uniform, so that they can come back home.
2) A human in a democracy follows the will of that democracy even if he disagrees with the democracies stances, and attempts to make political change if he does disagree with those stances, but still supports all political decisions.

I can't accept these as good ethical reasons, but I'm glad he answered without hesitation, and he acknowledged that it was actually a difficult quandary -- so he was aware that there was a gray boundary.

As I interpret his ethical justification the reason is "Patriotism!" which fits well with the zeitgeist of our times, but I fail to see that as a good ethical argument for just about anything. If all actions that are patriotic are justifiable so long as they're vindicated by some form of democratic unity, then the south was right to own slaves. I find any justification on the weapons industry hard to justify because you're dealing with something that's pretty fundamental, ethically -- you're furthering man's ability to kill people. And if the 20th century tells us anything, furthering that ability doesn't really deter use. It just makes as that much better at killing people, exactly as the research intended.

Plus there's this whole side to it that makes me think that they're taking the easy way out: It's friggen' easy to destroy things. It's much, much harder to actually produce something useful or interesting.

I think I'm going to be a curmudgeon when I grow up. *grumble, grumble, grumble...*

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Unpacking Equations

Equations are poetry. In the abstract they signify shapes, in science we add the significance with units and measurements. It is the cross-over between shape and meaning that creates the poetry of equations. Looking at a common example:

The poetic meter of equations comes from the standard method of algebra. It helps in unpacking the meaning. This reads: The gravitation force between two objects is the mass of object one multiplied by the mass of object two multiplied by a constant, divided by the square of the distance between those objects. This is really just a first step in understanding, as that it a lot of information to process. Actually, I think the reason we use equations is because they help us to process massive amounts of information with less effort. Plus they're all objective 'n shit, which Scientists happen to think is a good way to stay hip with the kids.

The first reading is akin to substitution. You have mathematical symbols that can be translated into words, and stating those relationships using words helps in understanding what an equation is saying in the grand scheme of things. In this case I understand that the mass of both objects can differ, so if the mass of either object changes, so will my force. In this case, it has a positive correlation between the force, whereas an increase in distance has a negative one -- or, in more accessible language, the heavier the objects involved are the greater the gravitational force between them, and the further apart they are the lesser the gravitational force is between them. Something else to note is the fact that the decrease happens at a squared rate, where mass is only linear (unless, of course, you increase the mass of both objects under consideration by the same amount). All that's left is big "G" which never changes. It's actually just something that's determined by measuring, and it's a factor that makes this equation work.

So, the equation states a relationship between things we observe. But if they're an actual relationship, we can also determine other parts from the Force, such as the mass of an object in space, without actually measuring that mass on a scale. Or, for this same equation, we can determine the Potential Energy of an object.

The definition of energy is a Force applied across a distance, or for the above:

dF = G((m*M)/r^2) dy

where "m" is the mass of any object on the earth, and M is the mass of the earth. I put it in y so that it will appear more familiar in the end. In this, we simply integrate from point zero (the ground) to whatever point above the ground we're interested in, and thus obtain:

PE = (m*M) [(-1/r)] from 0 to y = -GmM/y

And so we have a statement about the universe from the above equation that required a little digging to see. Big M and G do not change, and the potential energy is the negative of an inverse relationship between the mass of the object on earth and the distance that object is moved away from the surface of the earth. Not only did this require a little digging, if you haven't had a background in Calculus then it probably didn't make as much sense. While it is preferable to be lucid, I'm trying to make a point: That math is a language. The meter of a poem and the conventions of language bring out the meaning in lines. The operators in math is this meter that creates the poem describing what we see, and thereby, letting us as humans understand  at a deeper level than once we did. While what I use and look for in poetry might differ, the experience is largely the same. You read an equation over and over again, looking for the implicit relationship and meaning, and make connections over time that reveals a deeper truth -- in the case of poetry, about the emotion, and in the case of equations, about the universe.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Infinity and Electron Probability

A thought today from Pchem:

Infinity is a relative term. One meter away from the nucleus of an atom is infinity, and 10 billion billion kilometers away from the sun is infinity. Since infinity is a general concept, rather than a number, it can be defined anywhere. So, if we consider the probability of finding an electron such-and-such a distance from the nucleus, we can find the probability that it will be from that point inwards, or the probability of finding the electron between two points by doing the same method but subtracting the smaller value. We know that the probability of finding the electron converges to 0 at infinity, but infinity can be anywhere we set it to be. Supposing you want to find the probability of finding the electron on Mars (as was the example given today), you can find the probability between "Nucleus and Mars" (A very high number), and you can then find the probability between"Just beyond Mars and Infinity". Then you can subtract "Nucleus and Mars" probability from "Just beyond Mars and Infinity" to get a real probability of finding the electron on Mars. I think this all arises because we can set infinity anywhere we want (which is necessary for the concept of infinity to be of any use).

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

It ain't that weird

For all the hullabaloo I've read in popular science books and the strong emphasis my physical chemistry text book places on the differences between classical and quantum mechanics, half-way through the semester I'm sitting here saying to myself: It ain't that weird. I half-way wonder if the only reason it seemed weird initially was because everyone told me how friggen' weird quantum mechanics are. Sure, an electron doesn't behave like a baseball. Is there really any reason why we think that it should? Even in Physics 1, whenever dealing with real objects we would make it clear that we were inventing a point that made all the classical laws apply (Center of Mass), but that this point wasn't a real point, so that if the object were destroyed mid-flight, the center of mass would still continue due to inertia. And, actually, the originators of quantum mechanics knew that it would be absurd to propose a physical system that entirely violated what had already been observed, so they built equations around the idea that as you took the limit of them that you would get classical results. So what gives? Why does every voodoo mystic and half-baked spiritualist in the world think the deep secret of the universe lies in quantum mechanics? I certainly acknowledge that I'm going at this at the depth of Chemistry, and not at the depth of physics (half way through and we've just started spectroscopy. I'm told that physicists tend to finish their first semester of quantum with solving the hydrogen atom), but all the quantum "Weirdness" is still there.

Really, the quantum concept can be introduced utilizing series and sequences. And seeing as we don't exactly live at the size of electrons and can only interpret spectroscopic data to make inferences about what's going on, it makes perfect sense that the wave equation is an abstract description of what's going on, and we need observable values that we in the macroscopic world actually can see. In fact, it almost makes MORE sense than trying to plot out the trajectory of electrons and protons, because we can't actually see these things, and testing what we can see is exactly what science is all about.

Maybe it's the shift from determinism to the "probabilism" (no, not a real word) that really gets people, but half-way through, and fully realizing that quantum mechanics aren't yet entirely complete... I seriously enjoy learning about and thinking about them, but I'm just not quite grasping what's so weird about them. Difficult? Certainly. Abstract? Yes. But the same held (and still holds) true in my classes on chemistry, physics, and mathematics.

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Why Evolution is True" by Jerry Coyne

I enjoy pop-sci books written by those qualified to write them. Jerry Coyne certainly meets that criteria on "Why Evolution is True", but he also fulfills the other part of why I enjoy reading pop-sci: I learn in an entertaining and easy sort of way. The majority of the time Coyne reviews a good chunk of data collected thus far that supports the theory of evolution while demonstrating the basics of how the scientific method works. However, despite doing this, one does not need a background in science to understand the arguments for evolution -- everything is straightforward and fairly easy to comprehend. There is some occasional ribbing of theism involved, but the ribbing is directed towards the current creationist movement that biologists have to contend with more than the grand philosophical questions of theism. This approach shows that Coyne is more concerned about the scientific stance of evolution and the reasons for its truth rather than any particular over-arching metaphysical stance. Some reviews term this ribbing as "Preaching to the choir", but Coyne never lets on what his particular religious stance is. Instead his overall concern isn't the existence or non-existence of God, but the lack of proper scientific argument from self-described creationists and the Intelligent Design community.

What I found particularly enjoyable was his treatment of the debates on evolution within the biological community. Not being a biologist, and having taken all of a single college course on biology, I found it refreshing to be able to review the variations on evolution currently being debated. Overall, Coyne presents the truth of evolution in an entertaining way with references to boot. I would recommend the book to those not in biology but wanting to have a clearer understanding of why the theory of evolution is on par with the atomic theory, as well as a deeper understanding of the social issues at hand (the last chapter covers these) from the standpoint of a biologist who is currently working in the field. We need more popular science books just like this.