Archive for the ‘Reason’ category

The Beauty of Reality…and Miley Cyrus?

04/03/2012

When I was an undergraduate one of my lecturers had a phrase. It would come after he had introduced us to some amazing fact that defied our everyday “middle-world” expectation or displayed the power of science. The wave-like interference of particles, for example, or how measurements of the cosmic-microwave background match the theory so elegantly (as emphasized by the always excellent xkcd).

After “dropping the knowledge” he would turn from the board and look at us; as if speaking to us all individually, but at the same time, and say:

“If you don’t find that amazing, there’s something wrong with you.”

You could claim he was just preaching to the choir, he was after all giving a physics lecture to physics students. But I think he was talking about something deeper. What if you knew someone, who, after seeing the sun sink over the ocean from a mountain-top,only said, “Meh!” Or someone who bypassed the greatest works of art and music, and instead turned to wallpaper samples and the Bay City Rollers. In short, there is a beauty and a power in reality, as revealed by science, that is equal in every way to the most admired masterpieces of paint, sculpture or sound, Something that goes beyond simple interest in scientific facts, and captivates you from that moment when you feel that exquisite sensation of the penny-dropping and  you’re flooded with sudden understanding.

If you don’t get that feeling, then either, you have not been introduced to the power of science in the right way (a ringtone of Vivaldi’s Storm is not going to have the same effect as being at the symphony) or there is something wrong with you.

That something, at least, does appear to be right with Miley Cyrus who posted this on her twitter feed.

Lawrence Krauss is an excellent spokesman for cosmology and space science, and it is hard to understate the awe that accompanies the thought of atoms scattered across the space to become you. And though, he is a well-known skeptic and critic of religion, I believe that the “Forget Jesus,” part of the speech was not meant as a jibe as Christianity. It is an effective, if provocative, comparison and you can’t blame a guy for trying to add some dramatic flare in giving a public lecture. If you’re trying to talk about something being destroyed so that you can live, JC is the obvious reference point. However, with all of my admitted meagre respect for the Bible, a giant ball of fusion-power plasma erupting into a supernova is a fair bit more impressive a death-scene than being nailed to a plank of wood.

However, Ms Cyrus being famous for country-music, the genre most associated with middle-America, the reaction of her fans could be seen a mile off.

Further reactions can be seen on twitter here.

As the reactions of offended Christians go, this is very mild. Some of the responders clearly indicate sharing Ms Cyrus’s awe of our stellar origins. However, the Lords of PR swiftly swung into action, citing the image and the quote as “sensitive content” and, as far I can tell, closing any further comment. I wouldn’t be surprised if some kind of apology and clarifying statement was to follow, as “damage control.”

To me, this is just sad. That a celebrity cannot stretch herself and try to express some wonder at the beauty of the world revealed to us by science, without being forced into self-censorship by petty morons.

In other circumstances this would be a miracle to science promoters; a celebrity with a large youth following stepping up and saying “Hey there’s more to this science-stuff than nerds looking at test tubes, and some it’s pretty damn awesome.” But no, instead everyone has focussed on three words, in a speech that contained such beautiful truths about the universe, that formed part of a comparison made for dramatic effect. “So forget Jesus.”

This is not even a (specifically) anti-religious point, but rather a point about people’s fascination with petty details when they could be gaining an insight into the workings of the universe itself. It just seems like being presented with a stunning landscape of a mist-shrouded forest around a snow-capped mountain, and complaining that one of the trees has “The Rangers suck!” carved into the trunk. Feel free to insert your own favourite sports team as needed.

Maybe that’s the “something wrong” my teacher referred to. Sometimes we (myself included) can all be too shallow to see the wood for what’s written on the trees.

Hat tip: Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True.