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The Insight of Neil deGrasse Tyson

Responding to this page at

“Neil deGrasse Tyson Lists 8 (Free) Books Every Intelligent Person Should Read”

Anthony Mannucci says:

And yet, there is something missing here. We need a new religion that takes into account all the knowledge that is displayed in these volumes. This new religion should be based on the current scientifically-derived origin story of the human species: big bang through evolution. (This story could change, but for now it’s the best that we have).

None of the books cited here provide such a perspective. A religious perspective is needed because of human nature. One cannot avoid some measure of faith in the conduct of human affairs. Science does not supplant what religion provides.

I’d add the following:

None of these books explain why ISIS destroyed the ancient Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra. Do these books explain the rise of Nazi Germany? The Bible is included in this list to show that it’s easier to be told what to think rather than to think for oneself. What explains the passion and activism of those seeking to destroy other cultures? NGT is an inherently rational human being who expects a rational world. Unfortunately, a rational world is not required by, and is in conflict with, the scientific genesis story that he himself believes. Human evolution was not guided by a rational hand or a rational plan. The human nature that exists today is here because it survived very difficult and harsh conditions. Human nature is defined by its survivability, not by its rationality.

Scientific mind, artful mind

In my previous post, I referred to Richard P. Feynman’s attitudes towards science and math. I would like to bring back Feynman’s memory. Feynman held interesting opinions about how scientists are treated in our society. It seemed to be a sore point with him.

Feynman has written many times about how our culture appears to respect the artist more than the scientist. It seems to me that this was a source of constant frustration to him. If true, should we be surprised?

Consider the goals of the artist versus those of the scientist.

The artist seeks to create feelings in those who view his or her art. There may also be an intellectual connection to the art, but the main purpose of art is how it makes you feel.

The scientist seeks to learn how nature works. Science is far more intellectual than emotional. Science is often supported for its practical benefits. There is a practical connection, but for most people not an emotional one.

Great art can make you feel happy, uplifted, centered, curious and validated.

It is perhaps surprising that great science can bring these feelings also. Generally it is only scientists who experience these feelings from science. Most people have a very limited emotional connection to science.

As a scientist, I am one of those people who connects emotionally to science. More precisely, I connect emotionally to nature and natural law. The encompassing power and beauty of natural law is stunning to me.

Let’s get back to Feynman. As one of the leading physicists of his day, he had to root out how nature behaves at a very fundamental level. Feynman won his Nobel Prize for the development of the first quantum field theory, which is a law of nature that includes the electromagnetic force (electricity and magnetism). This was a major achievement, because such theories had to explain exotic concepts such as the “wave-particle duality” and the “equivalence of mass and energy” (relativity theory). The “explanation” was fully quantitative, and  produced precise numbers that agreed with laboratory measurements for specific experiments. This quantitative aspect is most impressive, and requires the use of mathematical concepts that are quite advanced and beyond the grasp of us “mere mortals”.

Feynman created models in his head of how the math and the physical concepts worked together to create natural law. His abilities in this regard were genius. In the end, though, he could not explain what he developed. This is not to his detriment. Such explanation is beyond the realm of science, because we have no measurements that tell us why nature is as it is. Without data, the scientific method has no application.

Back to emotion. It is not surprising that what is beyond our grasp is less popular than what we understand. Artists create feelings in us, which becomes our connection to the artist. Scientists tend to create feelings in only a few of us: other scientists. Non-scientists might be amazed, or perhaps repulsed, by what scientists create. The direct emotional connection is lacking, so scientists are naturally less popular than artists.

I urge you to go beyond the science and contemplate natural law directly. Contemplate your place in a physical universe that defines who you are (physically), how long you can live, and what you must do to survive. Contemplate the regularity and predictability of nature and what the means to you. Contemplate the universal nature of physical law: it is the same here, as it is across the street, as it is across the universe. It is so for all time.

How do you feel when you contemplate the majesty of physical law?