Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Children's Science Books

When you pick a book from the library to teach your kids about science, you expect a little accuracy, right?

This is part of a letter I wrote the library:

In your collection you have the book The Elements Carbon by Giles Sparrow, Benchmark Books.

We checked this out to teach our daughter about carbon, and I was startled to find a large number of errors and omissions in this 30-page book. I list these below. Some are merely careless, but others are egregious enough to merit reconsideration of the author and/or the series. I will not critique the writing style at this time; I'm a physicist, not a professional writer.


Page 4, Paragraph 3. Atoms cannot be seen even with 'extremely powerful microscopes.' There is a way of imaging some atoms in arrays, but this is not a microscope as understood by the children who read this.

Paragraph 4. 'which move around the nucleus in shells' is wrong. No simple description will be accurate, but you could use 'orbit nearer or farther from the nucleus in patterns we call energy shells' and be far more accurate.

Paragraph 5. 'Atoms are only stable if their outer electron shell is full.' This is misleading at best. (Ask yourself 'What does "stable" mean?') Instead say something more like 'Atoms don't combine easily with other atoms if their outer electron shell is full. Very heavy atoms are a little more complicated.'

Page 5, Paragraph 2. 'Carbon is very reactive.' This is wrong. Say instead 'Carbon reacts with many other atoms.' The term 'very reactive' means that it takes little or no added energy to initiate the reaction.

Page 6. The image of pencils is captioned with a claim that pencil lead is really graphite. However, all the pencils in the picture are colored pencils--which use plastics and clay, but not graphite!

Page 7, Paragraph 3. 'Diamonds can only be split by an expert who knows . . .' This is false. A non-expert can break one too, for instance by dropping it on the floor. Say instead something like 'Diamonds can be split by a blow along a direction in what is called the plane of cleavage. Experts use these to help shape diamonds for jewelry.'

I omit various complaints about a global warming screed, fuzziness in distinguishing compounds and mixtures, misunderstandings about plastic decompostion, etc.

Page 27. The pictures ought to clearly distinguish the double bond from the single bonds. This is standard practice; I don't know why the author didn't do it here.

Page 28, Paragraph 2. Instead of 'The character of an atom depends on how many even tinier particles called protons there are in its center, the nucleus,' say the correct 'The character of an atom depends on how many of the tinier particles called electrons it has. An atom has the same number of electrons and protons. The protons are in its center, the nucleus.' Atomic properties are determined by the electrons in the atom.

The book also omitted simple things like an explanation of why the columns for non-metals don't go all the way down in the periodic table, where C14 comes from, and other things referenced and left mysterious in the text.

The pictures of graphite pencils have no graphite in them, and pictures of double bonds look just like single bonds, I think somebody's editor was out to lunch. I wouldn't trust anything in this series.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

A touch of irony

I generally wear a Bush/Cheney button when I go through library mall. The "Have You Registered Yet" folks tend not to bother me, and it rings an amusingly discordant note in Kerry/Nader land. Yesterday I went past a dusty old hippie wearing a faded Tshirt. He did a double take and tried to spit at me, but couldn't work up a mouthful fast enough. His psychedelic shirt's emblem enshrined the words "Peace" and "Acceptance."

Friday, September 24, 2004


The doctrines of Mary are a mess. What led people to imagine that she was sinless from birth? I find no warrant for it in any records of her. And why multiply hypotheses unnecessarily?

With this curious doctrine Mary becomes different from all the rest of us--disconnected from us in a fundamental way--more like Jesus than Eve.

Without it; if Mary was a sinner like the rest of us, Mary becomes the archtypal Christian. As Jesus' life grew in her, she sinned, but God kept working. She fell short, but God kept working. She had no idea what Jesus meant by His dry comments about "my Father's house," and she got annoyed with Jesus, just as we do. Jesus obeyed her, just as He obeyed the laws of nature and of the country He lived in. Neither Herod nor Caesar had a clue as to who they were commanding, but Jesus obeyed their laws. Jesus had John baptize him, even though John said it should be the other way around. Jesus was in a wicked world (not made perfect for his arrival), was subject to its rules, and brought transformation with him for those that would have it. And Mary accepted her role and obeyed when it mattered.

I'm aware that the Catholic Church claims that it has been received wisdom from earliest days that Mary was sinless, but absent any even nearly contemporary evidence for it I have to reject this as a pious fiction. And it is easy to see where it came from--an argument from analogy.

If Mary's womb was a temple for the baby Jesus, obviously it had to be pure, so Mary had to be pure, which implies Mary had to be sinless, right? The problem is that there are other equally good models to argue from. Recall that Jesus touched the (unclean!) dead body of the widow's son. He didn't become unclean; the touch resurrected the son, who was of course now clean. So in the argument about Mary, put "purified" for "pure." It is just as good (or bad) an argument, but the conclusion is different: Mary would have been purified by God's working through her, not in some unique Immaculate Conception.

Is my model true? Maybe. It is as untestable as the Catholic one, but seems more in keeping with other ways God worked (think of Isaiah's unclean lips) and indeed with Mary's own words ("henceforth" as opposed to from her birth). I think I'll keep it as a working hypothesis.

Time and theology

Theologians don't seem to be trained in physics or math. I've been reading Theology and Sanity by Sheed, and some of the arguments he brings to bear are rather less than plausible to a mathematician. Sheed is merely trying to support existing Catholic doctrine with existing arguments, so I won't blame him for the failures.

Take the doctrines of angels. He and others (including Mortimer Adler) spilt a great deal of ink on the nature of angels assuming that they are spiritual beings. But that is the rub, isn't it? I find several unacknowledged assumptions built into this structure. Do we understand clearly what is meant when the Bible uses the word spirit? Are all creations closely intertwined? The model he uses is of the absolute spirit God who creates matter, spirit, and the matter/spirit hybrid called man. But I do not see any justification for this beyond its obvious simplicity. Given that the Bible was written for men about God's relations with men, it is hardly surprising to find that it is not a textbook on fishing. And in fact it lumps almost all fish together. It seems risky to assume that when it uses the word spirit to describe angels (messengers) it intends spirit as a single type of creation; and then try to derive all sorts of surprising characteristics about angels from that assumption. Some early church fathers even spent time trying to describe the orders and hierarchies of angels. I'm agnostic about that--I don't see warrant for it in the texts.

Theologians seem to use infinity in a different way than mathematicians. Any schoolchild knows, thanks to Cantor, that there are many infinities. As any mathematician knows, it is not hard at all to have systems without an ordering. (Hence the Panglossian "Best of all possible worlds" is not well-defined; you can't a priori say that one creation is better than a different one.) If you want to use anologies, you could speak of God as a maximal infinity and spirits as infinite--but if so you easily see that just as there is a lot of room for different infinities, there could be different orders of spirits in an almost Gnostic progression. I will not say this is true. In fact I don't believe in such a hierarchy myself. I merely point out that since it is possible, angelology that relies on the uniformity of the word "spirit" falls to the ground.

And, of course, just because there exists a hierarchy of infinities doesn't mean we can obviously classify any particular infinity in that chain. It was found that it doesn't matter whether you assume that the size (cardinality) of the infinity of the points on the line is equal to the size of ℵ_1 or not! This isn't obvious (certainly not to me), but the implication is clear enough: you can't always tell where the infinity you have fits in the big picture. And do we understand spirit as well as we understand infinity?

Setting angels aside (what an interesting conceit!), consider the nature of time. Philosophers taught long ago that time (and motion) were closely tied together with space. Modern physics calls space-time a single thing, with rotations possible among all its directions (under known rules). Either way, space and time are both created things, and God the creator of both cannot foresee anything. Why?

It makes no sense whatever to talk of God knowing the future. He sees everything--our past, our present, our future--in His Now. This isn't my discovery; it has been known for well over 1500 years. What isn't so obvious is that the limitations of our language have been the source of the dispute over predestination versus free will. We have no language to describe God's operation with time in eternity. Not only that, but every attempt we make obscures some aspect of God's nature and action. The executive summary is that there is no necessary contradiction between God's creation/sustaining of the universe and our having a role in its creation. But try to describe this. Just try. If you describe God as outmaneuvering men's sin to win the war, you lose the sense of His unity beyond time and make it sound like God is also bound by time. If you describe His ultimate victory, you make it sound like we have no free will in the matter. If you try mixing the viewpoints you just sound confused. Our words mislead us.

Purgatory is another vexed issue; the abuses of this doctrine sparked the Reformation. In brief the idea is that our sinful natures need to be cleansed of their sinful tendencies before we can enter heaven. One would expect such a cleansing to be both painful and joyful. But the notion that we spend time there is uncalled-for. This is after death, remember? Time is for the body. What our spirits will experience in place of time is undefined. Call it aeveternity if you like. You still don't know what it is, and talking about spending more or less time there is talking nonsense.

The notion that Mary or any of the dead in Christ intercede for us assumes several ill-specified details of life after death and before judgement. Do souls in paradise experience time before they are resurrected? If not, how in the world could we communicate with them? I do not know what happened to Elijah, and I'm afraid I see no way of getting from "I do not know what happened" to the proposition "There are saints in Paradise who can hear us and intercede with God for us."

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Jimmy Swaggart

I was only vaguely aware that Jimmy Swaggart was back on TV. And now he's condoning murder?

I understand that the Abbey of Gethsemani offers retreats. I think maybe Jimmy could benefit from a couple of years of keeping Trappist silence and meditating on Matthew 12:34-37.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Is it still a religion if it doesn't believe in anything?

I'm not surprised any longer, but it still hurts to see things like this.. At Trinity United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas:

For the congregation of the church, at 600 E. 50th St., a witch leading worship isn't scandalous. It isn't even that unusual. Trinity members have hosted American Indian shamans, Buddhist priests and other faith leaders, including Wiccans, before. They even practice their own pagan-inspired rituals at services. "It's not my way or hell," said Trinity member Linda Eldredge. "All are welcome here. Everybody's got something to offer."

Are these church members Christian? That's God's call. Is this church Christian? Not even close. Is it anything? Rev 3:15-16?

Saturday, September 11, 2004


This morning we got up a bit late, and my eldest son was playing Rudder’s Requiem. He asked me if I remembered what today was. I answered, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” He of course went on to say “Yes, but.” I knew perfectly well what anniversary today was, and I was pulling his leg—and reminding us both who was really in charge.

The trick is to remember that the day is God’s even on 11-Sep-2001. It is pretty easy on 11-Sep-2004. In the middle of a disaster I find myself getting distracted.

No, I’m not saying I should be glad for the abominable men who cast off all humanity to crash into buildings or shoot school children in the back or blow themselves up in pizza parlors, or who cheer on these villains. They’ve sold their souls for vengeance; they are outlaw; and I’ll do whatever is in my poor power to defeat them.

But I know that despite the hurricanes and the more horrible human evils God is still there. And somehow He is going to make something good no matter how demonic our actions. Somehow. Somehow. He’s done it before.

My son says Rutter's Requiem

Friday, September 10, 2004

Fab Lab

I'm always delighted to see stores like this. Takoradi Technical Institute in Ghana got an MIT Fabrication Lab, which includes a 3-D miller, laser cutter, and miscelaneous other tools and programming systems to run it. They deliberately don't maintain a supply of the raw materials, on the grounds that the local folks will find local materials just as suitable (and obviously less expensive). Younger kids learned quicker than the older folks (less embarrassed to fail), and I don't doubt that the system will be getting a thorough workout over the next few years.

Another set of data points on Islam

In The New Statesman, Ziauddin Sardar points to possible sources of reformation in sharia. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board declared that the triple talaq is wrong and promised a new model marriage contract dealing with (among other things) limiting divorce and making sure women got a share in farm property.

In Pakistan there have been protests against the Hudood Ordinance, responsible for the ghastly way rape victims are treated there. (There's no distinction between rape and adultry--for either party.) Nothing will change unless the Council of Islamic Ideology wants it to, and they don't.

Morocco revised its family code (Moudawana) back in 2001 to outlaw the talaq, allow alimony and child custody, require that men wanted a second wife prove in court that they can treat them both with absolute justice, and so on.

Every change in the law is justified - chapter and verse - from the Koran, and from the examples and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. And every change acquired the consent of the religious scholars. Even the Islamist political organisations have welcomed the change. The Party of Justice and Development described the law as "a pioneering reform" which is "in line with the prescriptions of Islam and with the aims of our religion".

In Malaysia the prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (controversially) wants to formulate a progressive Islam:

Badawi, who is a trained religious scholar, took the term "hadhari" from Ibn Khaldun, the 14th-century Muslim historian and founder of sociology. The term signifies urban civilisation; and Islam Hadhari emphasises economic development, civic life and cultural progress. When Muslims talk about Islam, says Abdullah Mohd Zain, a minister in the prime minister's department, "there is always the tendency to link it to the past, to the Prophet's time". Islam Hadhari gives equal emphasis to the present and the future. "It emphasises wisdom, practicality and harmony," says Zain. "It encourages moderation or a balanced approach to life. Yet it does not stray from the fundamentals of the Koran and the example and sayings of the Prophet."

In Indonesia the two largest Muslim organizations (about 60-80 million followers) are trying to

promote a model of Islamic reform that they call "deformalisation". "The overemphasis on formality and symbolism has drained Islam of its ethical and humane dimension," says Abdul Mukti, chairman of Muhammadiyah's influential youth wing. "The first mission of deformalisation is to recover this missing dimension." Its second mission, he says, is "to separate the sharia from political realms". Islamic law, Mukti explains, cannot be imposed from the top - as it has been in Pakistan - but has to evolve from below. Indeed, the overwhelming view of scholars and thinkers I met recently in Indonesia - including teachers at a state religious university - was that the formal links between Islam and politics must be severed.

Both Malaysia's Islam Hadhari and Indonesia's deformalisation emphasise tolerance and pluralism, civic society and open democracy. Both are likely to spread. Malaysia is trying to export Islam Hadhari to Muslim communities in Thailand and the Philippines. Meanwhile, Morocco is trying to persuade Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to adopt its model of family law.

I have no way (besides waiting 10 years or so) of knowing whether these are fringe movements or something more substantial. I'd bet that a lot of Muslims will discount the Indian group as bowing to government pressure, but Morocco wasn't under any pressure I know of.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Euthanasia in Belgium

The backers of euthanasia swore up and down that there would be safeguards, that only competent adults would be allowed to opt for suicide. They lied. Since the above Reuters link is apt to vanish, an edited version follows:

Belgium considers euthanasia for children

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgian lawmakers belonging to Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt's ruling Flemish Liberal party have introduced a bill seeking to expand the country's controversial euthanasia legislation to include minors.

Senators Jeannine Leduc and Paul Wille said in the bill that terminally ill children and teenagers had as much right to choose when they wanted to die as anyone else.

"Their suffering is as great (and) the situation they face is as intolerable and inhumane," the senators' bill read on Wednesday.

A controversial law decriminalising euthanasia came into force in Belgium in September 2002.

Patients wishing to end their lives must be conscious when the application is made and repeat their request for euthanasia. Their doctor must fill in a form and consult another physician before making a final decision.

Is anybody ready to hear "I told you so" about slippery slopes, or do people have so much invested in their pet ideas that they can't afford to admit they were wrong?

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Greyhound eavesdropping

At Rockford a young black lady boarded the Greyhound and sat by me. Her T-shirt read "My boyfriend won't care because he won't know." After a few minutes settling in, she pulled out a pink cellphone and started a 45 minute conversation with a sorority sister. (Assuming, that is, that a monolog punctuated only by "Can you hear me?" and "Are you listening to me?" qualifies as a conversation.) I found it deeply sad to hear of her travails with boyfriends ("I don't need to fly to Philadelphia to be kickin' it when I can find somebody local" of one and "I told him he had an NBA attitude without an NBA paycheck" of another). She hungered for affirmation and couldn't seem to find a guy who was both "cute" and affirming. "I need to reevaluate my life."

Perhaps instead of priding herself on being "open" enough that a threesome wasn't out of line, she should look at her shirt and ask herself if living as a commodity is going to satisfy her need for love.

And then Chicago came. And there was never an opening for making radical suggestions, or indeed any conversation.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Andre Norton's "Magic" books

A few weeks ago I looked up and read/reread Andre Norton's -x- Magic books to see if they were suitable to recommend to my youngest daughter. All four of them revolve around one or more children growing and maturing through magical adventures.

  • Octogon Magic shows a girl learning proportion and courage through reliving events from the lives of unfortunates who found magical refuge in the Octagon House. This is well-integrated, and I think the best of the lot.
  • Fur Magic has a fearful boy cast back into a beaver before the Indian Time of Change, and forced to defeat the Changer. This is a pleasant emersion in a blended American Indian mythology, but the repeated supernatural "knowing what to do next" stretches believability a bit far.
  • Dragon Magic follows four troubled boys who become aides to heroes of history and myth. Some of the adventures are very fine, but the adventures don't always blend smoothly with the real life lessons.
  • Steel Magic has three children put right troubles in a magical land by their ability to wield iron. This one is perfunctory and dull. Skip it. Norton sometimes succumbed to the temptation to crank out formula books. Pretend she didn't write it.

For my daughter: Octagon Magic. She's not so interested in boy's adventures.

Picasso's Pizza

In Dodgeville we saw a restaurant rejoicing in the name Picasso's Pizza. We already had campfire plans for dinner, and didn't stop to sample. The phrase is evocative, if not appetizing. What might you find? Perhaps a jagged block of cheese atop a Guernica-twisted canvas of dough? Flounder instead of anchovies? Or a sad pizza recalling his "blue period?" "Drive on, James!"

The wind in wet oak trees

We camped at Cox Hollow in Governor Dodge park. The name misleads: the campground is actually on a ridge above the valley, and consequently almost mosquito-free. I destroyed a number of tent stakes trying to penetrate the packed gravel the parks must inflict on campsite, but the ferocious thunderstorm that night proved that I hadn't gotten the tents taut enough. We lay there listening to the dripping of rain and of twigs torn off the tree tops high above us, punctuated by the ranger's bull horn warning of the the violent storm we were already in the middle of (and which stopped as we drove to the ranger station to learn the forecast).

As we toweled out the tents the next morning I found that oaks and hickory trees hold rain very well. In pine forests you can hear the sighing of a gust of wind far away, and the sighing sweeps closer, is upon you, and away. Among the oaks, you hear the patter of rain far away, rain closer, and then--you realize that the rain is just droplets shaken from the tree tops hitting leaves halfway down, with a few large ones splattering around you for a moment or two. And a few nuts fall too, just to keep you on your toes.