Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Have a light Ten Days of Newton

In her Wild Side column yesterday in The New York Times, evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson pointed out that:
Sir Isaac Newton, the founder of modern physics and mathematics, and arguably the greatest scientist of all time, was born on Christmas Day.
    ...Newton was born in England on Christmas Day 1642 according to the Julian calendar...But by the 1640s, much of the rest of Europe was using the Gregorian calendar (the one in general use today); according to this calendar, Newton was born on Jan. 4, 1643.
Ms. Judson suggests that an alternative reason for our annual winter holiday could be to have an extended festival in honor of Newton.
After all, the festival of Christmas properly continues for a further 12 days, until the feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6. So the festival of Newton could begin on Christmas Day and then continue for an extra 10 days, representing the interval between the calendars.
For an explanation of why the Julian calendar was supplanted, plus a summary of Newton's career (including his interest in religion and alchemy), I recommend Ms. Judson's column.

She even suggests a song in honor of Newton’s Birthday festival. The final verse begins:
On the tenth day of Newton,
My true love gave to me...
For another article on Newton, you might consult Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The real Bill Ayers

In the recently concluded presidential race, I was unwillingly thrust upon the stage and asked to play a role in a profoundly dishonest drama. I refused, and here’s why.
So begins William Ayers’s first public statement about John McCain's attempt to defeat Barack Obama by demonizing him by association with an "unrepentent domestic terrorist." I invite you to read Mr. Ayers’s complete statement, titled "The Real Bill Ayers" and published yesterday in The New York Times.

The comments on Mr. Ayers’s statement are also instructive. Times readers are well-educated, well-informed, and generally very thoughtful.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Why Pakistanis aren't protesting the Mumbai massacre

In his op-ed piece today in The New York Times ("Calling All Pakistanis"), Thomas L. Friedman asks a question:
On Feb. 6, 2006, three Pakistanis died in Peshawar and Lahore during violent street protests against Danish cartoons that had satirized the Prophet Muhammad. More such mass protests followed weeks later. When Pakistanis and other Muslims are willing to take to the streets, even suffer death, to protest an insulting cartoon published in Denmark, is it fair to ask: Who in the Muslim world, who in Pakistan, is ready to take to the streets to protest the mass murders of real people, not cartoon characters, right next door in Mumbai? [emphasis mine]
    ...We know from the Danish cartoons affair that Pakistanis and other Muslims know how to mobilize quickly to express their heartfelt feelings, not just as individuals, but as a powerful collective. That is what is needed here.
Maybe Thomas L. Friedman is right that such a protest is needed. But I doubt that it's going to happen. And I have a question of my own: Why not?

The reason seems to be that people in a Muslim society (people who fancy themselves completely subservient to "Allah") don't seem to ever get that motivated unless they think their religious dignity is being insulted or threatened. Obviously, people who think their religion calls on them to kill other people (even by killing themselves to accomplish it) value their religious beliefs incommensurably higher than they do lives (even their own). Fortunately not many Muslims (but still a horrifying number) sign up to strap on the explosives, but unfortunately, as Sam Harris reported in his 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, an international Pew Research Center survey indicates that quite significant percentages of Muslims in many countries feel that it is acceptable to kill in "defense of Islam"—whatever that means1.

I don't have a copy of Harris's book to quote from, but I did find on the web a May 22, 2007 Pew Research Center report on Muslim Americans. The report appears to derive from later findings of the same Pew Global Attitudes Project that Harris cited. American Muslim responses to the question, "Can suicide bombing of civilian targets to defend Islam be justified? How often?" are compared with those of Muslims in some European, African, and Middle Eastern countries. The percentages of Muslims who responded:
    "Often/sometimes"     ["Rarely"]
U.S. (all Muslims):    8%    [5%]
    (younger than 30):    15%    [11%]
France:    16%    [19%]
Spain:    16%    [9%]
Great Britain:    15%    [9%]
Germany:    7%    [6%]
Nigeria:    46%    [23%]
Jordan:    29%    [28%]
Egypt:    28%    [25%]
Turkey:    17%    [9%]
Pakistan:    14%    [8%]
Indonesia:    10%    [18%] [pp. 59-60]
I quote the "rarely" answers [in brackets] because Harris added those figures to the "often/sometimes" answers to come up with the percentage who felt that suicide bombing to defend Islam could be justified at least in some circumstances. Thus, he might have said: In the United States, 26% of Muslims 18-29 feel that suicide bombing to defend Islam can be justified. Which is how USA Today reported it:
Poll: A quarter of younger Muslim Americans support suicide bombings in some circumstances
My point is that there seems to be a swell of opinion among Muslims that religion tops everything (as in mine versus yours [or your life]). So don't expect any protests of the Mumbai killings in Pakistan.
  1. Were the Catholics from Europe "defending Christianity" when they punished or put to death the Aztecs who wouldn't convert?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

"Other possibilities beyond the brute either/or...."

Another edifying passage from Julian Barnes's Nothing to Be Frightened Of:
In one of my novels I had a character imagine that there must be other possibilities beyond the brute either/or, the ultimate would-you-rather, of 1. God exists, or 2. God doesn't exist. So there were various alluring heresies, like: 3. God used to exist, but doesn't anymore; 4. God does exist, but has abandoned us; 8. God did exist, and will exist again, but doesn't exist at the moment—He is merely taking a divine sabbatical (which would explain a lot); and so on. My character got up to number 15 (there is no God, but there is eternal life) by the time he, and I, reached the end of our imagining powers.
    One possibility we didn't consider was that God is the ultimate ironist. Just as scientists set up laboratory experiments with rats, mazes, and pieces of cheese placed behind the correct door, so God might have set up His own experiment, with us playing rat. Our task is to locate the door behind which eternal life is hidden. Near one possible exit we hear distant ethereal music, near another smell a whiff of incense; golden light gleams around a third. We press against all these doors, yet none of them yields. With increasing urgency—for we know that the cunning box we find ourselves in is called mortality—we try to escape. But what we don't understand is that our non-escaping is the whole point of the experiment. There are many fake doors, but no real one, because there is no eternal life. The game thought up by God the ironist is this: to plant immortal longings in an undeserving creature and then observe the consequences. To watch these humans, freighted with consciousness and intelligence, rushing around like frantic rats. To see how one group of them instructs everyone else that their door (which even they can't open) is the only correct one, and then perhaps starts killing anyone who puts money on a different door. Wouldn't that be fun? [p. 187]

Monday, December 1, 2008

"It is difficult for us to contemplate...."

A passage from Julian Barnes's recent book of ruminations on death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, that I found particularly compatible with my own view:
It is difficult for us to contemplate, fixedly, the possibility, let alone the certainty, that life is a matter of cosmic hazard, its fundamental purpose mere self-perpetuation, that it unfolds in emptiness, that our planet will one day drift in frozen silence, and that the human species, as it has developed in all its frenzied and over-engineered complexity, will completely disappear and not be missed, because there is nobody and nothing out there to miss us. This is what growing up means. And it is a frightening prospect for a race which has for so long relied upon its own invented gods for explanation and consolation. Here is a Catholic journalist rebuking Richard Dawkins for poisoning the hearts and minds of the young: "Intellectual monsters like Hategod Dawkie spread their despairing gospel of nihilism, pointlessness, vacuity, the emptiness of life, the lack of significance anywhere at any time and, in case you don't know this useful word, floccinaucinihilipilification." (It means "estimating as worthless.") Behind the excess, and the misrepresentation, of the attack, you can smell the fear. Believe in what I believe—believe in God, and purpose, and the promise of eternal life—because the alternative is [expletive] terrifying.... [pp.171-172]