Sunday, May 25, 2014

Review: Things that Matter

Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics
by Charles Krauthammer

     Thank you Mom for the gift of meeting the special person.  The sharing in  Charles Krauthammer's "Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics" was like sitting in the living room listening to an incredibly educated, well informed, personable, amiable and reasonable person.  My mother likes for me to meet people like this so I can understand why she gave me the book.  It is actually, largely, a collection of his articles written for the Washington Post.
     I knew that Mr. Krauthammer was a TV news commentator of the conservative perspective. Due to the fact that my wife and I have not had a television in our home for over 30 years of marriage I do not (and have not) listened very little to Mr. Krauthammer.  This book is the primary source of information about Mr. Krauthammer and having now read it I can see why he so highly sought as a commentator.  Mr.  Krauthammer knows history and he is aware of the a larger picture about the present that includes the human spirit.
     I was surprised that Mr. Krauthammer was once a liberal.  His transition to "conservative" was driven by his questions, reasons, observations and validations.  Now, clearly, he is a "conservative" though with caveats.  He does not match all the stereotypical check boxes that some have come to associate with grass shewing, rednecks unaware of the larger world except for what they see in the sights of their unregistered gun during hunting season.  In his book he shares data supported insights, humor, uses rational scientific theories (like evolution) and opposed the death penalty.  Even so he is a conservative like myself. 

     One of the things that Charles has is historical and political insight that is rarely clearly presented.  An example is his comment on the communist revolutions of the 20th century (pgae 3):

          "The Russian Revolution and its imitators (Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese, Cambodian) tried to atomize society thoroughly- to war against the mediating structures that stand between the individual and the state-that the most basic bonds of family, faith fellowship and conscience came to near dissolution"

     This statement captures volumes of works by many authors and scholars who have looked at these revolutions.  The state and the individual is all that a liberal needs and the elimination of the mediating structures of  family and faith are eradicated for the sake of the state.  I could tell on page 3 that this person was special.  He mentions (on page 135) the end of all the jibberish about revolutions similar (including the French) with  Sint-Just's famous formulation: 
     "The Republic consists in the extermination of everything that opposes it".  This brutal circularity of logic not revolution but nihilism".

        The author also has a sense of proportionality that leads to humor laced throughout the book.  Humor that softens the bite of his reasoning at times like on his treatment of American arrogance: 
            "My beef with American arrogance is not that we act like a traditional power, occasionally knocking off foreign bad guys who richly deserve it.  My problems is that we don't know where to stop-the trivial victories we insist on having in arenas that are quite superfluous. Like the women's Hockey game in the 2002 Winter Olympics.  Did the U.S. team really need to beat China 12-1?"

       A conservative like Charles cites evolutionary psychologists that explain "children and ladies to the life boats first". He dares to then  reveal that mothers are the key to nurturing our youth and no one can do it better.  So while he his calling on the primary need to protect and care for children, the recognizes the primary care givers of children are women he is left with men being the last to the lifeboats.  It is kind of humorous to realize, as the author does, that he is a sexist and chauvinist even if his position is well reasoned and contrary to our modern society that ridicules and mocks such chauvinism.

     How about a conservative against the death penalty?  Sort of like an oxymoron but I am refreshed to here him espouse a position described by Saint Pope John Paul II described on page 153:
    "Thus those who oppose capital punishment...on the grounds that an advanced civilized society should strive to preserve public order and social peace with an absolute minimum of official violence to life and liberty." then later "it would be a credit to our society to try and get by without the noose and the gag."
       On page 195 Charles says "There is great power in owning your own death-and even greater power in forever dispossessing your infidel victims of theirs."  This New testament idea actually held by a conservative. 

    The standard checklist of unthinking conservatives wanting to harshly treat humanity clearly does not apply to Mr. Charles Krauthammer.  I was glad to meet him and read his thoughtful prose!  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Fabulous "Particle Fever"! (with caveats)

     On Saturday of this last week I saw a small market but impressive dramatized documentary called "Particle Fever".  I was, as a Physics teacher, delighted that the pursuits of scientists (called Physicists) be depicted and highlighted in a largely positive way.  How do you entertain movie goers with a 50 year story about the scientific discovery of a sub atomic particle that no one will ever see? No matter how critical the particle is to the structure of our universe this topic would need very special treatment to become "entertaining".   The movie does a superb job in humanizing, dramatizing, honoring and even uplifting those people who seek truth in the physical sciences.  The movie certainly entertains even with the flaws and imperfections readily highlighted by critics (like myself).
    Typically our culture uplifts all sorts of pursuits that are, in my mind, entertaining and trivial.  There is the pushing and hitting of people on a field to make a ball cross over a line for points in a 60 minute period (often stretched to 120 minutes) as the most popular single event in our national culture annually (football).  In our culture those who may dance and act provocatively will be rewarded with huge sums of money and honors (though I admit this takes talent and training too).   I myself am part of this sports and entertainment culture (and recognize the human potential it reveals) but I also see the huge accomplishments of our scientists and engineers who help us understand our world and continuously make our daily lives more comfortable and physically pleasant.   Our culture does, in a limited way, support a cadre of people who seek truth and comprehension of our physical world.  This movie highlights this cadre of people that we, as a culture, take for granted.
     How does one highlight, dramatize and honor the human discovery of an idea like the "God Particle" (also called the Higgs Boson) in an entertaining way?   This movie honors and captures the human side of this pursuit (so the technical part of the story which causes eyes to glaze over is left lightly treated).  This "Particle Fever" does a profoundly good job at taking a 50 year journey of science and allowing us to see the people who dedicated life and livelihood to this pursuit in a highly entertaining way.
    Viewers of this film see an inspiring scientific breakthrough as it happens in the eyes of  six very different scientists with the launch of the Large Hadron Collider in Europe.   These six people are from different countries, different backgrounds and are in different states of life.  They are all united in the search for truth about our phsyical universe.  This is easily the most expensive experiment in the history of the planet that probed the edges of what  the edge of technical capabilities.  Scientists from over 100 countries pursue the goal of recreating conditions that existed just moments after the Big Bang and find physical properties of the "imagined" Higgs boson (a speculated particle 5o years ago) that explains the origin of our universe and the structure of all matter. 
    So I need to mention the "caveats" that do not do fatally harm and clearly aim to add insight and drama to the story.  
     The first caveat is an apparent political shot at the Rebublican Party for the termination of the United States version of the particle collider (Super Conducting Super Collider).  The real story is not so simple as depicting a single party bringing about an end to financing of this search for truth.  While the movie depicts Republican congressman ranting against the project it fails to recognize that the Republican Ronald Reagan presidential administration first envisioned and supported the effort, then George Bush (1st) supported and financed the initial efforts to build an American version of the collider.  The project failed to be completed in the United States for a variety of reasons that appealed to both parties.  The project was ambitious (eight times the power of the European CERN project) would have consumed far more resources.  Democrats saw a need to help the less fortunate with unemployment benefits and what they see as social justice oriented expenditures.  When the initial civil contruction of the tunnels ran well over budget and the democratic president faced mounting national debt the program was ended with the help of both parties.  Even those in the Physics community (from what I could read in the early 1990's) were split with scientists who needed funds for smaller projects seeing support dry up for that huge "hole in Texas".  I understand that the movie needed to simplify the struggle for the sake of entertainment but this particular depiction strikes a blow at the common saying I have heard "Science has friends on both sides of the aisle.  Science needs friends on both sides of the aisle."
    The second caveat is the use of obsecenties and terms that are offensive to a large portion of the people who would likely support this big effort in science.  While I do see that these "snippets" add emotion, drama and diversity it also allows people to draw the wrong conclusions about the effort and the people involved in the effort.  I do understand that one could cite the " reality" of verbal expression when the emotion on hearing of catastrophic failure was realized.  Even with these recognitions, on my part, I do think the inclusion of offensive language could hurt the movie in the very audiences that would enjoy watching the movien.
    Entertaining stories require struggle.  The scientist heroes in this film confront all all sorts of huge obstacles.  Economic, political, technical and finally philisophical issues arise to challenge the huge effort.   Mark Levinson is a physicist turned filmmaker and so this film is quite revealing in terms of framing the technical and scientific issues at the core of the struggle,  Particle Fever is a one of a kind fabulous presentation of scientific discovery using big science.  Until I saw this movie I thought such effort would be impossible but this movie has proved me wrong.  It is a among the best I have ever seen of any type (even with the caveats).


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