Sunday, February 12, 2006

Destroy the World From the Comfort of Your Own Home

An article (registration required) in the February 2006 Scientific American magazine describes a new class of subatomic particle accelerators that can fit on a tabletop. Traditionally, these devices are huge; sometimes miles in size, and cost billions. The new plasma accelerators are small and cheap. Particle accelerators make forms of matter that haven't existed since Creation, so there is always the theoretical possibility that one of these exotic new kinds of particle could be highly dangerous, to the point of threatening the world or even the Universe.

Is doing this kind of research a mortal sin?

They also have an article on Jackson Pollock paintings. A researcher has determined that Pollock's drip-paintings have a fractal structure that is consistent over a huge range of scales. A "fractal" is a complex geometric object that has an increasing amount of detail as you look closer: sea-coasts, for example, have a fractal structure. A self-similar fractal, like Pollock's paintings, have smaller patterns that reflect the pattern of larger details. This is similar to the finding that the Classical architectural orders have a self-similar fractal structure, as do the buildings of Louis Sullivan and his pupil Frank Lloyd Wright: see the article The Fractal Nature of the Architectural Orders. Music also has a self-similar fractal nature.

The same magazine has two articles, "Hit" Songs Unpredictable, Thanks to Peer Pressure, and Expectations Influence Sense of Taste. The first article states that aesthetic judgments are situational, while the second article states that sensations are subjective.

I'd rather see studies on how closely test subjects can make objective judgments in spite of subjective and situational factors; now that is classic science! Traditionally, aesthetic judgments are just one form of moral judgment; and moral judgments are influenced by objective, subjective, and situational factors. Right reasoning tries to eliminate the nonobjective factors. These new studies just show that people don't try to be intellectually virtuous.

I used to like Scientific American better than now; in fact the best issue for me was the very first issue I got back in about 1976. For a while, the magazine often had politicized articles on the Cold War, of the kind that encouraged capitulation to the Soviet Union, later it had political global warming articles. The modern magazine is more subjective and kind of dumbed down, and I miss the rarefied scientific attitude of the old magazine. The editors seem to have forgotten the old definition: "science is the virtue of conforming the intellect to the truth".


  1. You have a gift for extracting the truth from subjectivity.

  2. I attended a lecture given by Alice von Hildebrand: she said that she was highly criticized by her Marxist collegues for teaching about the concept of objective truth. Modern philosophy dispenses with the idea of truth and instead focuses on subjective feelings.

  3. It has been a running joke in the high energy physics field for decades: whenever a big, new particle accelerator comes online, some scientist makes a dire warning that it could destroy the world, or even "tear the fabric of spacetime" (whatever that means). Cautious scientists, in reply, would carefully answer that yes, it is possible, but very highly unlikely, like winning the lottery two times in a row.