Sunday, August 20, 2006

Tell Me Why

Have you heard of the branch of pure mathematics called topology? Up until a couple of days ago I had not. Topology is a branch of mathematics that deals with shapes. Different shapes can be deformed or reworked into one another. The topologists are interested in so called "closed" forms that have a fixed extent or limit.

After reading a general description, I'm still reasonably certain I have only the slightest grasp of what it means--certainly in a mathematical sense. But its relevance just might extend well beyond the abstruse world of higher math.

Topology is in the news because Grigory Perelman, a Russian mathematician, some three years ago, informed the world he'd solved this mathematical problem known among mathematicians as the Poincare conjecture. Then the Russian disappeared. The world's foremost mathematicians continued the Russian's work and now, three years later, have reached a "cautious optimism" regarding Perelman's conclusions. Many are now suggesting that not only is it a remarkable achievement in mathematics--but of human thought itself.

Dr. William Thurston of Cornell has said, "You don't see what you're seeing until you see it, but when you do see it, it lets you see many things." Thurston goes on to say that, "curiosity is tied in some way with intuition." For most of us non-mathematicians this easily sounds like obscure gobblygook, but just possibly there may be something else to consider....

That something else is the two words curiosity and intuition. Where do they come from? Why do some people appear to have more of it than others? Does one need curiosity before intuition takes place or might it be the other way around? Why or how did Albert Einstein for example, sitting in a trolley car in Vienna, come up with the idea that time itself depends on where the observer is? Was he merely bored as he traveled back and forth from his dull job at the patent office? And will the latest mathematical discoveries get us any closer to an understanding? Are you curious?

Will the rising cost of a barrel of oil--and the difficulty of having easy alternatives--stimulate new energy sources? Is it scarcity that will push and develop our curiosity and intuition? History is full of examples where shortages led to new inventions as well as new energy sources.

The writer Deborah Blum, in an article in The New York Times, remarked that President Bush's veto of the embryonic stem cell legislation follows a fairly consistent pattern of those that have opposed medical and scientific "progress" on religious and moral grounds.

In the 11th and 12th century the Christian church warned individuals that using medicine to treat illness indicated a "lack of faith." As recently as the 19th century cries of "Satanism" were shouted when doctors began using chloroform to reduce the pain of childbirth.

Religious benightedness and incurious rulers have always been with us. But dogged persistence followed by evidence and success more often than not triumphed over ignorance.

To what degree does a vibrant, creative society encourage curiosity and respect intuition? To what degree does it ultimately demand evidence? What will we learn next about the Poincare conjecture?

Monday, August 07, 2006

Iron Age Fantasies

The most recent human obscenity, this time in Lebanon, again demonstrates that national borders have become almost irrelevant--certainly when it comes to global degradation.

The Israeli bombing of oil storage facilities and power plants has turned the Lebanon coastline into a black oil slick, which is apparently spreading to Syria, Turkey, Cyprus, and who knows where else. We know it will likely have disastrous consequences for marine life, but it will also impact areas within Lebanon and Israel, due to deforestation, habitat destruction, and air and water pollution. It may turn out to be a major environmental catastrophe in the eastern Mediterranean.

Some scientists now believe that China, in the not to distant future, may account for "a third" of California's air pollution. While China itself is well on its way to becoming an environmental disaster, it could, as well, drag the rest of the world with it. An atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington, after analyzing particulate matter (from Asia) at monitoring sites in Oregon said, "There is no place where you can put away your pollution anymore."

In the simplest of terms, even if the United States suddenly became the most environmentally enlightened nation on the planet, unrestrained growth in countries like China and India, with more than two billion inhabitants, could turn our planet into a nightmarish hell at the very least.

The option, however, is not to throw up our hands in despair or cling to some Iron Age fairy tales. There are no beautiful virgins waiting in the ether, nor did some Old Testament sociopath give some sand dunes to a particular group of people. The only "miracle" is this extraordinary planet we live on. We push even harder for global change. Earth is worth it.