Friday, December 31, 2010

The first earth shaker: Copernicus

Let's continue our exploration of the birth of modern science ...

Since early history the scientists who studied the heavens were the only scholars to use mathematics, and the terms astronomer, astrologer and mathematician were virtually interchangeable. They calculated the dates of the holy days, developed methods to draw astrological charts, and forecast the position of the zodiac signs and the movement of the planets. However, despite their skillful observations, measurement and calculations, many open issues remained unanswered, some unquestioned. Their theories could not account for the changes in the brightness of the planets, nor for their apparent retrograde movement (at times some planets seem to move backwards.) Their models did not explain why Venus and Mercury were never seen far from the sun, and they could not even agree on the order of the planets. They did calculations, and it was not their role to ponder such matters. How the world worked was a theological question that only the Church was allowed to answer.

All this changed in 1514 when a Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) circled amongst a few of his friends an unsigned hand-written book called Little Commentary. In his book, Copernicus introduced the heliocentric model, in which the sun  – rather than the earth – was at the center of the universe and all planets, including earth, were orbiting around it. With a single model Copernicus explained the apparent movement of the planets, the sun and the stars. His model could also account for the changes in the brightness of the planets, and offered a singular method of ordering them. Copernicus also managed to calculate  the relative distances of the planets from the sun with amazing accuracy (his figures showed less than 10% difference from our current measurements.) However, Copernicus knew that  all the advantages of his model would not protect him from the hostility of the orthodox authorities and the Inquisition. It was not until 1543 – the year of his death – that he eventually published his complete work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


People take the lift to use the Stairmaster in the gym on the 14th floor. Why don’t they use the stairs to the gym instead?  

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Birth of Modern Science

(continued from: Aristotle and the Science of the Church)

While the Church maintained control of the knowledge of the world, and prohibited most non-scripture studies, alchemy was the exception. The study of alchemy did not challenge the Church’s view of the world and therefore, could be practiced.

For over 900 years, from about 500 to 1400, philosophers in Western Europe, surrounded by a cloak of secrecy, predominantly occupied themselves with the search for the mythical philosopher’s stone (the substance that would transform everyday material to gold, and produce the elixir of immortality). Many practical techniques, like distillation, were developed during this period, but the understanding of the world and its working remained unchanged and unchallenged.

During this Dark Age of European science, Arab science flourished. Arab philosophers cultivated an intellectual environment that encouraged the sharing of ideas, open discussion and debates. The scientific methodology they had developed was based on experiments to distinguish between competing scientific theories, citation, peer review and open inquiry. This framework, which is the base of all modern science, led to many invaluable breakthroughs in all areas of science: chemistry, physics, optics, astronomy and mathematics.

It was the fall of Constantinople (now Istanbul) that brought Arab science to the attention of the Western European philosophers. Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, had been a major intellectual center. Its conquest by the Turks in 1453 led to an exodus of scientists and philosophers to Western Europe.

Coinciding with the recent invention of printing by Gutenberg around 1450, the scientific knowledge these scholars brought with them (including Arab science) became widely available, and readily absorbed by western philosophers. The seeds for a new worldview were planted in a fertile soil, and science of the stars – the oldest of all natural sciences – was the natural place for them to germinate.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Quotes From the Honest Guru

If God loved women as much as he loved men, he wouuld have created them, too, streamlined not to stand in long public toilet queues.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Aristotle and the Science of the Church

(Continues from: Church and Science: the battle begins)

Once the Church assumed political power, its interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures was the only science permitted. Whenever a new philosophy was adopted, it became an inseparable part of the Holy Teachings, impossible to question or challenge.

No philosopher dominated the Holy Teachings more than the Greek philosopher Aristotle (BC 384–322): the most renowned student of Plato and the teacher of Alexander the Great. His collection of lectures, covering the entire field of knowledge known in the Mediterranean world of his day, spanned over 150 volumes. He developed the art of reasoning and logic, and his biological observations and classification of animals were far ahead of his time. For example, he classified dolphins as mammals, a classification that only in the 19th century was confirmed.

Although at first the Church forbade his teachings whether public or private (Council of Paris in 1210) in 1366 he received the Church’s full recognition, and his views became regarded as possessing an almost divine authority. This was ironic as Aristotle himself had used logic and observation to draw his conclusions, and as an advocate of debate and freethinking, he did not believe in blind obedience to authority, but rather that science grew out of curiosity and wonder, to which religious myth gave only provisional satisfaction.

Aristotle supported the geocentric model in which the earth was the center of a finite spherical universe, and all celestial bodies: the sun, moon, planets and stars circled around it in an eternal, perfectly circular motion, driven by the force of a Prime Mover. According to Aristotle, there were two distinct sets of laws, one for the earth, and the other for heaven. He dismissed Democritus idea of the atom as worthless, and instead believed that everything was made of a combination of four elements: earth, water, air and fire. The combination of these elements in each object determined how fast it would strive to reach the center of the earth – the heavier an object was, the faster it would fall. Aristotle also postulated a fifth element, ether, which he believed to be the main constituent of all heavenly bodies.

On earth, Aristotle suggested a hierarchical model he called The Great Chain of Being. It was not only a systematic method of classification, but also a scale of value – the higher an item was in the hierarchy the more it was worth. It gave organic items higher value than inorganic matter; living organisms were placed higher than planets; and within living organisms worms were at the bottom and men at the top. In Aristotle's view, the universe was ultimately perfect, which meant that the Great Chain was also perfect with no waste or duplication – each link contained exactly one species. This left no room for change or development and led to the doctrine of fixed species: if every link is occupied and none is occupied twice, no species can ever move from its original position. To do so would leave one level empty and put two species on another level.

It is easy to see why the Church adapted to Aristotle so willingly and why it eradicated any potential challenge. Aristotle’s philosophy separated the transient, corrupt earth from the perfection of the eternal heavens, and left room for the Divine and the angels beyond the outer spheres. (Some, for instance, speculated that the angels were pushing celestial bodies in their orbits.) The Great Chain of Being was treated not only as a description of nature, but also as philosophical justification for social immobility; that is the futility of people attempting to change their status and position in society. Man, at the very center of the universe, was the crown of the creation. Christians were superior to every other man, and the Church was assigned to rule. This was a law of nature. This was the way the Church wanted it to remain.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Church and Science: the battle begins

(continued from Science Vs. Religion)

Must scientific and religious viewpoints collide, or can there be consistent description of the universe in which each is equally valid? To answer this question, let’s start by exploring the origin of this rivalry. 

In ancient Rome, Christianity was a persecuted secret society, and it was not uncommon for emperors to turn the people against the Christians at times of trouble. But when in the year 310, General Constantine, divinely inspired to take the cross as his standard, won the battle against general Maxentius – the battle that made him the emperor – he pronounced Christianity to be the religion of Rome. It didn’t take long before the persecuted Christian minority had gained enough power to start persecuting others. 

In 385, Priscillian, a Christian theologists, won his place in history for being the first Christian executed by the Christian authorities. The Church sentenced Priscillian, with six of his companions, to death for heresy: that is, for not following the official line of the Church. For centuries to come, his execution set the stage for how the Church dealt with any of its subjects who questioned its teachings. 

By the early Middle Ages, the Church, which had continued to consolidate its power, had established itself as the spiritual leader of the “civilized world”, and often as the political and economical superpower, successfully challenging rulers and states. 

To strengthen its authority further, the Church positioned itself as the custodian of all truth, which it alone was authorized to expound under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It actively eliminated any challenge to its teachings by allowing only the officially correct views of nature and scripture; and in 1231 it established the Inquisition to maintain and defend the integrity of the faith, and to examine and forbid errors and false doctrines. 

Heretics became the enemy of society. 

In the beginning, interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures formed the foundation for the science of the Church. However, whenever the Church council adopted a new philosophy – even those philosophies that were originally banned – it became an inseparable part of the Holy Teachings, impossible to question or challenge. 

I often wonder how many of those who strongly believe that their religious views make them good believers, realize that not so long ago, the same institutions that promote their current ‘good believer’ views, would have put them on the stake for the very same beliefs.

(to be continued)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Science vs. Religion -- the real question

In the outer rim of a 200 billion stars galaxy, a blue planet, earth, is traveling at a staggering speed of over 100,000 kilometers per hour. It would have disappeared in the vastness of space, if it were not for a mysterious and invisible force of gravity that keeps it orbiting, for all eternities, round a medium-size yellow sun, 150 million kilometers away. 

Every 176 years, four other planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, are lined up on the same side of the sun. This was not known to the ancient astronomers and astrologers, whose picture of the universe did not include Uranus (discovered in 1781) and Neptune (discovered in 1846). This fact, however, inspired the farthest exploration in the history of humankind, when in 1977 two spacecrafts, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, were launched to reach the aligned planets. The extraordinary photos they beamed back, and the new information they are still sending from the final frontier of our solar system, some 15 billion kilometers from home, have made this exploration a great triumph of science and our understanding of the laws of nature, without which none of this could have been achieved. 

These laws of nature: the principles of motion, action and reaction and gravity, are the very laws that started the age of scientific exploration and changed our understanding of nature forever. Although this new worldview did not directly contradict the principles of faith, it did threaten the monopoly the religious authorities enjoyed as the guardians of all knowledge, as declared, for instance, in the Council of Trent (1546): 

No one relying on his own judgment and distorting the Sacred Scriptures according to his own conception shall dare to interpret them contrary to that sense which Holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge their true sense and meaning, has held or does hold, or even to interpret them contrary to the unanimous agreement of the Fathers. 

This powerful position was not to be given away without a fight; so rather than choosing to become the patrons of the sciences and embracing the new discoveries in order to strengthen faith and belief, the Church and its judicial institution, the Inquisition, chose to declare the new worldview heresy and its holders heretics. 

The birth of modern science into this environment still influences our way of thinking nowadays, nearly 500 years later. Because, while only esoteric minorities will not embrace the many improvements that only science could bring (medicine, transportation, communication, to name just a few) many still view the scientific worldview to be a threat to their beliefs. 

Is it a real threat? Must scientific and religious viewpoints collide, or can there be consistent description of the universe in which each is equally valid? These are deep philosophical questions that have been discussed for generations by religious people, scientists and philosophers. But whatever philosophical conclusions they may reach, for most of us, the real question is whether we, a society empowered by science-born technology, can afford to run our society on ancients principles devised far before the knowledge to create this technology was even conceived. 

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Media: The War Israel Has Lost

The Middle-East war is fought in many fronts. While Israel has maintained its militarily superiority,  it’s been continuously defeated on the PR and Media fronts, which it tends to neglect.  The way the recent flotilla event was conducted PR-wise, is merely the tip of the iceberg of Israel inability to comprehend the importance of International Media and PR as a legitimate warfare strategy.  In this case, for instance, assuming that Israel needs to maintain the siege on Gaza, let’s see how it could have conducted a Media-savvy operation.

1.       In the months prior to the flotilla voyage, Israel could have preempted and published the identity of those passengers with links to Al-Qaeda and Hamas.  This would have made it apparent that the intentions of the Flotilla passengers were not necessarily peaceful.  It would have also made some of the genuine humanitarian activists on board reconsider the trip, as I believe that many of them were unaware of the terrorist affiliation of their crew mates.
2.       When the Flotilla neared Israeli water, all communication with the ship should have become public.  This would have made the non confrontational alternatives known. That is, that Israel didn’t object to the transportation of the humanitarian aid, and that the flotilla was welcomed to the Israeli port of Ashdod, where it would be inspected, and the cargo, accompanied by some of the flotilla’s members, would be shipped to Gaza by land. It would have also made it clear that sending in troops, was the last option, only after every other compromise had been declined by the ship.
3.       The preparation of the Flotilla passengers for violent confrontation should have also been broadcasted live, before the commando boarded the ship. After all, Israeli helicopters were flying above the ship and could easily have broadcast the violent intentions of the passengers.
4.       The Israeli commandos themselves should have made it visibly media-clear that their guns were paint-guns rather than real ones. Trying to fix the wrong perception after the event, once the public had made their mind, was predictably ineffective.

The result of confrontation with the Israeli professional army was known in advance. This leaves us to believe that the purpose of the confrontation was to be defeated, and thus score another win on the PR front. This is a war that Israel has been neglecting for too long, and must master, at least as much as it has mastered the military front. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A naive question about Israel, Gaza and hypocrisy

The Israeli attack on the flotilla to Gaza has heated up emotions around the globe. But leaving emotions aside, the Gaza situation raises many question. 

The first one that comes to mind, is about the siege itself.  Because, while Israel is condemned for the marine siege of Gaza, a territory from which thousands of rockets have been launched onto Israel cities, Gaza has another border, a border with Egypt. Rafah is the border crossing between Egypt and Gaza. However, except for a few short periods, the crossing has been closed since 2007. 

Egypt, a country of brothers to the Palestinians, has stopped any access to Gaza. Do they have a reason that Israel doesn’t? Why don’t we see attempts to break the into Gaza through the Egyptian border? Why aren’t they condemned

Monday, May 31, 2010

Quotes from the Honest Guru

All men are created equal. 
Discrimination starts only after birth.

(image credit)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Quotes From the Honest Guru

What does liberal mean, when so many liberals have no tolerance towards any illiberal opinion?

(image credit: iddieforana)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

It wasn’t not me; it's my brain’s fault

(image credit: iangti)
Scientists have recently claimed that anti-social behavior, especially amongst youth, is caused by chemical imbalance in the brain. In other words, the research states that youth are not responsible for their behavior. It’s their brains’ fault. The social implications of this research are staggering.

Sociologists and criminologist now claim that we must consider this research when judging youth criminal and anti-social behaviors, and treat them as if they were irresponsible for their acts. However, only a couple of generation ago anti-social behavior was far less common among young people. Have our brain changed that much? Unlikely

After all, the greatness of our mind is that it gives us the ability to shape and control it, but only if we believe we can. Taking away our responsibility to control our own mind makes us incapable of doing so.

Blaming our brain processes, as if they were a disease, for our behavior is a path that we, as a society, must never take. Not only will it open the door to justifiable criminal or anti-social behaviors, it will also justify discrimination based on physiological criteria. After all, if we believe that our physiology takes away our choice and determines our behavior, discrimination based on physiology and background is the right thing.

It’s been a long and painful journey to learn to recognize people for who they are, and not for their background. Do we really want to risk reversing this great achievement? Don’t we want to encourage the human spirit to overcome the limitations of the body, rather than write off the human spirit altogether, and treat people as if they were nothing more than predictably-behaved bag of chemicals? Or is it really all we are?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Quotes From the Honest Guru

Religions take everything that your DNA naturally wants to do to survive and procreate and makes it wrong.


(image credit: scart)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Quotes from the honest guru

‘I’m happy for you,’  she lied –
only when conforming with mediocrity
will people truly sympathies.