Science & Society

Science and Society and how they get along.

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Location: Santa Barbara, California, United States

I'm a physicist and science consultant specialized in optics, lasers and optical engineering. This blog, StarkFX, looks at what applications physics is finding today. Or, if you are looking at my StarkEffects blog, it displays my views about and interest in the interface between society and science.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Evolution and Intelligent Design, my View.

Long before Darwin's time is was quite well known that plants and animals could be altered by selective breeding. Our success as a species was quite possibly the result of our mastering the arts of agriculture which are essentially genetic engineering. In this case, human intelligence had intervened to create conditions which favored the survival of traits we appreciated.

What follows is my version of evolution.

Darwin's genius was to recognize that it was quite possible for species to change over time due to natural pressures, a process he called "Natural Selection".

How is it possible for such complex systems as we find in biology to develop over time? It is possible because we are in the midst of an energy flow. What I'm talking about here is our planets happy circumstance of locally decreasing entropy. Ordered systems can only come about in a location where entropy is decreasing and that happens to be the situation with our earth. Energy from the sun (a high temperature body) impinges on the earth and is eventually reradiated from the earth (a relatively low temperature body) so that, locally, we enjoy a decrease in entropy (at the expense of the rest of the universe, of course). The study of self organizing systems and ordered systems arising due to such an energy flow situation is absolutely fascinating. At the heart of life is this local decrease in entropy.

Natural selection then, is the process proposed by Charles Darwin to explain the history, why the traits we see are the ones that survived. Natural pressures mostly associated with organisms getting their share of the energy flow and thus being able to propagate their own ordered systems, "selected" for the traits that were a combination of efficient and self propagating. The thing that is really exciting about sex is that it makes adaptation efficient. Sexual reproduction is what put natural selection on steroids so that we have the marvelous array of living traits that we see in the world today!

My societal concern with evolution is this: If we dismiss the concept of natural selection because it does not fit in our world view of how we came to be, then we could very well close our minds to understanding biology at all. The fact of evolution and the theory of natural selection lead to experiments and theories that increase our understanding of biological systems and allow us to manipulate them for our purposes. Acceptance of this theory lets us imagine how biological system came about under natural pressures and this imagination game leads to tests and analysis that can tease out the details of these extremely complex systems, systems that are not always logical, and not always efficient, but are always self propagating and efficient enough to survive for now.

If we dismiss the fact of evolution and the theory of natural selection, then we are left with accepting the systems as they are with no concept of why they are that way. It will be much harder to find the details of these complex systems if we can't give them a history.

Nothing is more dangerous than a society that closes it's eyes to tangible evidence because it doesn't agree with what we already know. Such arrogance allows no room for learning. We must be humble enough to realize that we don't know anything yet and we will always be that way. I know that is not comforting. But our progress in knowledge requires that we realize the nature of knowldedge -every piece of the puzzle reveals an ever increasing number of missing pieces.

Of course, absolute certainty about your world view has it's own rewards. No more worrying about your lack of knowledge, no more indecision, -you "know" how it is and you know what must be done. People respond well to that. Nature couldn't care less. Do you wonder why this trait was selected for?

Troy Stark

Sunday, December 04, 2005

How do we make math exciting?

I've been fascinated by good lectures on math and science, lectures that displayed the beauty of the subject. Actually, math has always been driven by aesthetic motivations so it is no wonder that there are many who find the subject absolutely enthralling. Unfortunately, there are a great many more in our country (USA) that will never be able to see how sexy science and math can be. The reason is that a good foundation in these subjects is essential before the deeper beauty can be appreciated.

How can we get young people excited about these subjects? How can they start to enjoy the satisfaction of thinking and the thrill of that "aha" experience you get after hours of trying to solve a math problem and then suddenly you have the answer?

My little website is devoted to an attempt at showing how exciting these subjects can be, but I will need help. Right now, my way of asking for help is to offer you a chance to show off. If you have a great article or just a page showing the beauty of these subjects or just a great way to explain a math or science topic or subject then please send it to me. I will be creating a page or several pages to display these articles. Your name and your email address as well as any links in your article will be kept intact since we want to give credit where it is due. This is a chance for you to show off your knowledge, and if you are really involved in science and math, you probably love to show off your knowledge (I think most of us do). Your help in this matter is needed, desired and will be very appreciated.

Troy Stark