Friday, March 29, 2013

The Arrogance and Injustices of the Nobel Prize in Physics

Shortly after the turn of the century, Vilhelm Bjerknes published his hydrodynamic theorems regarding circulation.  It turns out that there are strong analogies with regard to this mathematics with some aspects of electromagnetic theory, such that Bjerknes' theorems are relevant even outside the domain of hydrodynamics - the physics of fluids (and meteorology, which can be thought of as a subset of hydrodynamics). 

Bjerknes was acquainted with the Nobel laureate Hendrik Lorentz, who was very much impressed with the work of Bjerknes.  Even with such a famous supporter, however, Bjerknes was not to receive the Nobel Prize in physics.  The history of the prize is that astrophysicists and geophysicists have been systematically eliminated from consideration for the prize in Physics.  While many important findings in astrophysics and geophysics can be argued to be of too narrow a scope to be eligible for the award, this seems notable inappropriate when it comes to Bjerknes' work, which had important impacts outside of geophysics and even outside of hydrodynamics.

Subsequently, it turns out that Carl Gustaf Rossby was also mentioned as a potential recipient of the Nobel Prize in some circles.  Unfortunately, I can find no documentation of that, nor can I track down what I heard about that episode.  At some point long ago, someone (I don't recall who) told me that not only was Rossby eliminated from consideration, but it was rumored that there was an unwritten rule within the prize selection committee that no meteorologist would ever even be considered for such a distinction.  This story may or may not be apocryphal.  I'd appreciate any information about that that anyone can offer!

But the main injustice of the exclusion of meteorologists from the prize is the case for Edward N. Lorenz, the person who was the first to recognize the sensitive dependence on initial conditions of nonlinear dynamical systems.  That this discovery would be made by a meteorologist is not particularly surprising, given the challenges associated with weather forecasting.  What's important is that the theory he first documented, now often referred to as "chaos theory" is widely recognized to be important in any field where the governing processes are nonlinear, which includes most of science, including not only physical science, but biological science, and even social science!!

Now that Lorenz has died, it is no longer possible for him to receive the award - it isn't awarded posthumously.  This is a great stain on the record of the selection committee for the Nobel Prize in Physics.  They have shamed themselves by missing the opportunity to recognize one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th Century - Chaos Theory surely is on a par with both Relativity Theory and Quantum Physics in terms of far-reaching impact.  The enormous injustice of not awarding a Nobel Prize to Lorenz can no longer be rectified but it does serve to put the Nobel Prize in Physics in a shameful light!  They are extremely arrogant, evidently, despite being presented on a daily basis with the humbling experience of trying to understand the natural world.

I had the opportunity to meet him on two separate occasions - Ed Lorenz was a wonderful man, easy to talk to, and who was not particularly impressed with himself, despite his having made many exceedingly important contributions in addition to Chaos Theory.  As discussed here, he likely was not particularly bothered by not receiving a Nobel Prize.  He certainly received a lot of awards, and deservedly so.  For Ed Lorenz, though, the work itself clearly was all the reward he really cared about.  This makes him such an awesome role model for aspiring young scientists.  The lack of a Nobel prize in no meaningful way detracts from the valuable legacy his career left us.  It only brings shame on the prize selection committee!

So, the story goes ...

So there's this deity that's infinite in all respects - been around infinitely long, has infinite powers, infinite knowledge, infinite benevolence, etc.  Let's put aside the logical conundrums tied to those infinities and contemplate the biblical story.

Apparently, sitting in some unknown location other than the Universe, this deity decides to create the Universe for some unknown reason.  Maybe he was lonely or bored?  Anyway, the job is done in 6 days (Why did it take 6 days?  Why not create all of it in an instant?), so this whirlwind of activity inexplicably has exhausted the supposedly infinite deity, and he needs to rest for a day.  Then, presumably, he resumes his chores - including monitoring everything everywhere within the Universe.

During the creation of the Universe, this deity chose to create a man and a woman (Rumors of the woman being created from the man's rib are not confirmed by all biblical accounts.).  This first couple gets free run of a wonderful place called Eden on Earth.  It's not entirely clear what purpose our first couple was created to serve, but it turns out they apparently were imbued with insufficient intellect to grasp the deity's fantastic plan for them, anyway.  Hence, they simply have to obey!  It must be a pretty complex plan, because the infinite deity knows all and can do anything - but it should be straightforward to make a plan perfect for all time when you control everything and know everything! [The deity evidently wants you to beg him to change his plan (interceding on your behalf) through the process of "prayer" - but it would seem that unless your requests match the plan precisely, it's not likely he'll change it just for you. Or, in other words, he won't change it at all.  Perhaps he just enjoys hearing you beg for stuff?]

Anyway, perhaps the man and woman are there to form a two-person cheerleading squad for the deity - I suppose everyone needs to be recognized for their accomplishments.  But why does an infinite deity need that from humans?  Sounds like a narcissist to me. I guess that would be infinite narcissism!  Well, anyway, we have two cheerleaders on the whole Earth, which is nothing more than an infinitesimal speck in an enormously vast universe, created just for them!  A very generous allotment for lebensraum, that!

Unfortunately for our cheering couple, the deity also saw fit to create an "evil opponent" (called satan) to his plan.  I guess without opposition, it would be too easy and might possibly become boring.  Satan takes the form of a talking snake (Why not a talking lobster or a talking aardvark?) and convinces the woman to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, which had been forbidden to the cheerleaders (Why is it forbidden?  If it's forbidden, why even put it there in the first place?), and she compounds the problem by convincing the man to eat that fruit, too.  This enrages the deity (Didn't he know that was going to happen?), so he expels them from Eden, makes them ashamed of their bodies, and curses them with the blame for their original sin (the fruit, remember?).  The blame for this horrific original sin (eating fruit) is to be visited on all generations of all humanity from that moment to the end of the Universe.  Note that satan was created with inferior power, so he must ultimately lose - the game is "fixed" in the deity's favor!  The deity allows satan complete freedom to promote evil for the time being, but for reasons of his own (mysterious plan, inferior intellect - remember?), this evil will go on only until some unspecified future date, at which time the Universe will end and the deity will proceed to kick satan's ass and put a permanent end to evil, apparently by ending the entire Universe! 

After being cast out of Eden, the man and the woman have two sons, but one kills the other in the first "documented" incident of sibling rivalry.  Somehow, these three people manage to populate the Earth with other human beings (in a classic case of an extremely limited gene pool).  Unfortunately, all those humans are stained by original sin, and many of them descend into various other forms of forbidden activity (eating pork and lobsters, same-sex intercourse, etc.) as well (Again, didn't the deity know that was going to happen?  Did he not create those humans to do precisely what his fantastic plan called for them to do?), so he decides to kill everyone off, except for one notably righteous family, who must build a boat big enough to hold male/female pairs of all the creatures of the Earth (except for the dinosaurs and all other species now known only through fossils).

Then a great flood kills everyone and all living things on land apart from those lucky enough to be riding it out in this magical boat.  (Evidently, sea creatures were spared, but then what killed off the dinosaurs in the oceans, and other currently extinct marine species?)  When the floodwaters recede, the family and all the creatures on the boat re-populate the Earth (Again, a pretty limited gene pool!).  Good for the pairs on the boat (lots of acceptable procreative sex!), but not so good for all the other land-dwelling creatures killed off by the flood.  Thus, an apparent mistake in the deity's creation (How does such an infinite being make such an egregious mistake?) is corrected - just wipe the slate clean by killing almost everyone (genocide) and start over.  Oh by the way, why not just re-create everything from scratch?  Why did the deity need to use procreating pairs of critters?  Would it be too exhausting for this infinite deity to do it all over?  Maybe he enjoys watching humans and animals have sex?  He is watching everyone and everything, all the time, of course - think about that next time you're considering oral sex!!

Well, moving on, the deity decides that staining everyone with original sin might have been another blunder (!) in his fantastic plan, so rather than simply forgiving us that sin, he decides on a more complex procedure:  it begins by creating a duplicate of himself but in human form.  This he does by sending the holy ghost/spirit (the deity in yet another form) to impregnate a woman (Mary) without engaging in sexual intercourse, thereby conceiving the deity in human form.  An angel explains to Mary what's going to happen.  Angels represent another one of the deity's creations but are, apparently (with one notable exception) unstained by sin. Not much is known about angels, actually.  The one sinful exception amongst the angels seeks to become the deity for some reason (Was that part of the fantastic, mysterious plan, or just a flaw in his design?), and so is cast down, thereby becoming satan, in a huge philosophical role reversal - from pure servant to evil opponent.  Hmmmm ...

Anyway, the deity-fetus is born as a jew to Mary and Joseph, into the humble world of the Middle East and becomes a great preacher (rather than following the family business of carpentry), attracting hordes of followers.  But the plan is that this pisses off the evil jewish clergy so much that they enlist the Romans to kill off this preacher muscling in on their territory - as the plan calls for them to do.  It's natural (for late Bronze age people, anyway) to use a blood sacrifice to wash away the original sin (previously imposed by the deity in his fantastic plan, recall).  So the deity-human is executed in the particularly grisly fashion of being nailed to a cross.  However, because this particular human is not what he seems to be but is, in fact, the deity himself (overheard praying to himself, thereby asking favors of himself in an apparent schizophrenic episode), the story has a happy ending.  Two days later, lo and behold! - the deity resurrects himself from the dead!  (Why 2 days?  Why not right away?  Hmmm - no answer.)

So now the original perfect (?) plan seems to have changed - under the new deal, everyone who accepts the deity (called "jesus" in his human form) as their savior is forgiven the original sin and spared the necessity of spending an eternity in hell.  It's rather like showing your loyalty within a biker gang - be a loyal, obedient gang member and you're in for all the fun and games.  But if your loyalty and obedience waver, then it's curtains for you!  A carrot and a stick, if you will.  Why is it so damned important to accept jesus?  Well, clearly, your own self-interest is at stake!  That's not too hard to fathom, is it?  Just like the Hell's Angels (or the Mafia).

By the way, the infinite deity knows what choices you will make throughout your life, and he created you expressly to make those choices according to his fantastic, but utterly mysterious plan.  He only gave us enough brainpower to worship him and obey the rules - not enough to understand his plan.  That was his choice during the creation process.  Nice deal - that way, he doesn't have to try to explain things to his dumb-ass kids.  He knows they're too stupid to even try an explanation.

Of course, you might have the misfortune of not being born into the right time and place to learn about jesus.  Too bad for you!  Sorry, but the escape clause in the revised plan only works for those who accept jesus.  That's why christians work soooo hard to convert you!  Christians always have your best interests at heart!  And they need money for their churches (which are tax-exempt!) for some reason.  Their deity forces them to go on endless fundraisers (and missions to convert heathens)!

Moving on with the story, after jesus died and was resurrected, the deity completely ceased any activities here on Earth that might actually reveal his existence on the basis of tangible evidence.  After all, now that the revised plan is in place, it would be far too easy for humans to believe in a deity who actually showed himself on a regular basis.  Why just about everybody would be "saved" in that case!  We can't have that!  (Why not?  Paradise might get overpopulated, I guess.  Must be some limits on how big the place can be.)  So now, everyone who wants to be saved from eternal torment (who wouldn't?) must accept jesus entirely on faith (i.e., without tangible evidence) - and/or on the words within late Bronze Age scriptures written thousands of years ago by people who had only myths and legends to call upon for explanations of what was going on.

In addition to offering the carrot and the stick to humans (Calling it free will, even though he already knows what they're going to choose and must have created them to do just that in accordance with - wait for it - the perfect and utterly mysterious plan!), the deity is everywhere watching, and he knows not just what we're doing but what we're thinking about doing!  Like Santa Claus, he knows if you've been good or not - and he disapproves of most of those urges and impulses he created within you (like sex) unless they're narrowly confined to certain forms.  Any "deviation" from these forms and you're in deep trouble! By the way, he also disapproves of using the brain he gave you to think for yourself - you simply must obey his rules (which he sees fit to change from time to time), and you certainly shouldn't be asking impertinent questions!  How dare you question the perfect, mysterious plan?

Yeah, it's a great, eternal story, all right.  As I write this, it's "Good Friday" when we "celebrate" an agonizing blood sacrifice intended to fix a mistake made by an infinite deity.  I could go on, but this is already long enough - it all sounds like utter nonsense to me.  If it somehow manages to bring you comfort, I'm okay with that, but don't expect me to buy in.