Friday, October 3, 2008

1. FAITH: I THINK IT'S TIME WE HAD ANOTHER TALK.

It was almost a year ago that we discussed different meanings of the word "faith" (WN 30 Nov 07) . Dictionaries list at least two meanings of "faith": total confidence based on scientific evidence, and spiritual conviction regardless of the evidence. In science, refuting an accepted belief is celebrated as an advance in knowledge; in religion it is condemned as heresy. Operationally, the scientific and religious uses of faith are thus exactly opposite. We used the Templeton Prize to illustrate the problem (WN 11 Jul 08) . Three months ago, however, John Templeton died, prompting an editorial in Nature on the "Templeton Legacy." Noting that Templeton had poured more than $1.5 billion into "research at the interface of science and spirituality," Nature concluded that concerns of scientists over conflating science and religion are "unwarranted." Translation: money is money. To quote John Templeton, "So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities." An atom smasher maybe? I have no doubt "spiritual realities" will be discovered, as long as the Templeton Prize remains larger than the Nobel.

2. CREATIONISM: THE NOBEL IS SMALLER, BUT IT WEIGHS MORE.

It often seems that creationism is a peculiarly American affliction, but in the UK last month it infected, of all places, the Royal Society. Michael Reiss, the Royal Society's director of education, appeared to endorse the teaching of creationism - worse, Reiss, a biologist, is also an ordained priest in the Church of England. This outraged Richard Roberts, 1993 Nobel prize for gene splicing; he was joined by Harry Kroto, 1996 Nobel prize in Chemistry, and John Sulston, 2002 Nobel prize in Medicine, in demanding that Reiss step down or be fired. Reiss resigned, and there is now discussion of a rules change to make sure clergy cannot fill such positions. That won't rule me out. For those who of us who are neither Nobelists nor billionaires, however, what are our options?

3. SUPERSTITION: BELIEF IN THE AGE OF SCIENCE.

The circulation of Nature is larger than that of What's New by Bob Park by a few orders of magnitude. Moreover, I am highly unlikely to be chosen for the Templeton Prize. In desperation, I wrote a book, Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science. Published by Princeton University Press, the book explains why superstitious convictions persist long after they are shown to be ill-founded. Like everything else on our planet, the explanation involves evolution, and the book discusses the continuing evolution of Homo sapiens. The book is reviewed in the October issue of Nature Physics by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of Why People Believe Weird Things.

4. LHC: IF IT WASN'T A BLACK HOLE, WHAT SHUT IT DOWN?

A federal judge in Honolulu dismissed the lawsuit seeking to stop operation of the giant collider, not because the science fiction writer who filed the suit was a few neurons short of a full compliment, but because CERN is not in Honolulu. Meanwhile, the LHC will be officially inaugurated on 21 Oct 08.

Bob Park can be reached via email at whatsnew@bobpark.org
THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND
Opinions are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the University, but they should be.