Feynman, on the inconceivable nature of nature

August 27, 2007

NOVA had a couple of good programs on Richard Feynman that I wish I had — it had never occurred to me to look at YouTube to see what people might have uploaded.

I ran into this one:

Richard Feynman struck my consciousness with the publication of his quite humorous autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. I thought it was a wonderful book, full of good character portraits of scientists as I saw them in my undergraduate days, only more famous ones. He followed that with What Do You Care What Other People Think?

By then, of course, Feynman was one of my heroes. His stories are useful in dozens of situations — his story of joining the samba bands in Rio testify to the joy of living, and the need for doing new things. Brazil was also the place he confronted the dangers of rote learning, when students could work equations perfectly for examples in the book — which they had memorized — but they couldn’t understand real world applications, such as describing how the sunlight coming off the ocean at Ipanema was so beautiful.

Feynman wrote about creationism, and about the dangers of voodoo science, in his now-famous essay on “Cargo cult science” — it’s so famous one has difficulty tracking down the facts to confirm the story.

Feynman’s stories of his wife, and her illness, and his love for her, were also great inspirations. Romance always gets me.

I failed to track him closely enough. During the run of the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, we had the misfortune of having scheduled a hearing in Orlando on January 30 (or maybe 29), 1986. We had hoped that the coincidental launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28 might boost our press response. Of course, the Challenger exploded. Our hearing went on as planned (we had a tough schedule to meet). The disaster affected our staff a lot, those who were in Florida, and the rest of us in Washington where many of us had been on the phone to Florida when the disaster occurred.

Feynman’s appointment to the commission studying the disaster was a brilliant move, I thought. Our schedule, unfortunately, kept me tied up on almost every day the Challenger commission met. So I never did walk the three blocks down the street to meet Feynman, thinking there would be other opportunities. He was already fatally ill. He died on February 15, 1988. I missed a chance of a lifetime.

We still have Feynman’s writings. We read the book aloud to our kids when they were younger. James, our youngest and a senior this year, read Surely You’re Joking again this summer, sort of a warmup to AP physics and his search for a college.

And we still have audio and video. Remembering Feynman makes even the most avidly atheist hope for an afterlife, just to get a chance to hear Feynman explain what life was really all about, and how the universe really works.

Other notes:

Tip of the old scrub brush to Charismatic Megafauna.


Spanking fetish

August 27, 2007

Start of the new school year, hits on the major post I did on spanking in schools pick up a little. Interest runs in waves, roughly with the dates of new semesters, or with a proposal to ban it altogether.

One question I get asked occasionally in e-mail is, who supports spanking? Apart from the one school district named in the article I cited in the earlier post, there is a core of supporters who now claim Biblical authority for spanking. It’s a move among religionists, as odd as any other religion-based behavior I can think of.

No kidding. Notice there are multiple parts to that topic on that blog.

It’s the comments that creep me out. These people treat spanking as a fetish. (See Frank’s comments here, or this one, showing it’s a movement (or cult).

What would Jesus use to strike a child? The question itself is repugnant.


Rachel Carson and DDT “ban” save millions of lives

August 27, 2007

Some are Boojums is back — that’s good news for truth seekers, science error debunkers and historians who care about accuracy.

Some are Boojums author Jim Easter guts the anti-Rachel Carson case in his relaunch post.

Pay particular attention to what Jim writes in conclusion:

That’s right. The 1972 DDT ban did nothing to restrict the chemical’s use against malaria, but had the effect of eliminating the single most intense source of selection pressure for insecticide resistance in mosquitos. As the rest of the world followed suit in restricting agricultural use of DDT, the spread of resistance was slowed dramatically or stopped. By this single action, William Ruckelshaus — and, credit where it’s due, Rachel Carson — may well have saved millions of lives.

Steven Milloy is invited to add that to the DDT FAQ any time it’s convenient.

Particularly notable is Jim’s work to make available the much miscited administrative law ruling by Judge Edmund M. Sweeney. It is now available on-line, so the critics can now provide accurate citations to the decision, if their intent were to inform the public, instead of maligning the truth and misleading the public.

Mr. Easter’s applied history work in this effort is notable. The internet misses much of near-recent history, especially from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Much of today’s political discussion could benefit from information that would be available in libraries, had libraries not suffered from great budget and priorities cuts in the last 20 years. Jim Easter’s contribution to making a more complete record of the history of DDT and the history of the EPA deserves applause.


Alberto Gonzales resigned . . .

August 27, 2007

. . . Friday, but the president didn’t tell us about it until today.

According to the the New York Times (which broke the story):

“The unfair treatment that he’s been on the receiving end of has been a distraction for the department,” the official said.

Injustice even as he leaves. It’s the fair treatment Gonzales received that should have forced him out. The U.S. Justice Department is a mess above the political appointee level, with serious mismanagement, mal-management and lack of management threatening justice and the administration of law at several levels.

Other notable coverage: The Washington Post story now includes notes to Gonzales’s terse announcement, and links to recent stories in the Post which lend perspective and a lot of information.


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