The oxymoron of subatomic particles

Science, like money, is a human invention that is very useful when used properly and very dangerous when misused. Both money and science can be very useful; on the other hand, a lack of either can be very problematic. Neither science nor money has the strength and significance to be the foundation of a person’s life. A human life based only on science, like a human life based only on money, is sadly crippled and unable to handle the crises that can strike a life emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

One of the strengths of science is also one of its weakness: science continually changes. The more effort people put into studying the world, observing the world, experimenting with things in the world, and making predictions based on those experiments and observations, the more likely it becomes that new theories will shape science and direct scientific inquiry on paths that, until that time, were unexpected.

Science was practiced in ancient Egypt, Babylon, India, and China, developing differently in different places. Western science (which drew upon scientific observations and theories from Egypt, Babylon, and India) began roughly twenty-four centuries ago with the philosophers of ancient Greece. Among their efforts was an attempt to determine the basic building blocks of the physical, or observable, world. One early philosopher suggested that everything material is made of water—a reasonable guess, since water can assume so many forms, from ice and snow to liquid water to vapor. Others suggested different basic materials rather than water. Pythagoras and his followers proposed that everything observable consists of numbers. Greek philosophers tended to seek internally consistent explanations of the world, even when those explanations seemed contrary to observation. One group, for example, insisted that motion is logically impossible and is only an illusion—that the true universe is stable and unchanging. Until the invention of calculus many centuries later, scientists and philosophers were not equipped to refute the logic that suggested that motion cannot happen in the world.

A basic teaching of western science since Greek times has been the assumption that all physical items consist of tiny unbreakable pieces. These were named “atoms” from the Greek word for “unbreakable.” For many centuries, most western scientists considered four elements to be represented among the atoms: water, earth, air, and fire. Alchemy—the predecessor to modern chemistry—observed and experimented with physical items with the assumption that all such items consist of tiny unbreakable pieces of water, earth, air, and fire. Modern western science would never have developed without the alchemists of medieval Europe. Far from living in “the dark ages,” the medieval alchemists were at the forefront of science, culture, and civilization.

Chemists eventually demonstrated the existence of far more than four elements—for example, that water is not a basic building block, but water can be divided into hydrogen and oxygen. As they continued to experiment and observe, chemists developed a series of mathematical relationships among the elements, re-suggesting the possibility that number is the most fundamental building block of the universe. Modern physics grew out of modern chemistry; roughly one hundred years ago, western scientists began to find particles that seemed to be building blocks even of atoms.

Understand that subatomic particles are an oxymoron. Atoms are supposed to be unbreakable—the word “atom” was created to communicate that important idea. Finding that atoms contained protons, neutrons, and electrons changed the rules of science; evidence of quarks and other subatomic particles continued the process of demonstrating that atoms, though important, are among the worst-named ideas in all of science.

Huge powerful machines have been built to study the tiny pieces of atoms. Smashing atoms to observe their particles has been compared to smashing an old-fashioned watch to try to guess how it functions. One scientist, Leon Lederer, joked that God “seems to be making it up as we go along,” since every layer of discoveries suggests a new layer of tiny pieces even smaller than those already demonstrated.

Scientists continue to study the world, to try to understand how things work. They observe and experiment, not only with subatomic particles, but with viruses and other disease-causing agents, medicines, genetics, and the climate of the planet. Sometimes most scientists agree with each other about how things work; other times their research seems to contradict the research of their peers. We are all familiar with the constant revision of nutritional studies—first eggs are good for us, then they are bad for us, then they are good for us again. The old tradition of individual scientists plugging away in their laboratories to manage great discoveries has long been supplanted by teams of scientists funded by government grants and by corporate investments. Political agendas and the hope to generate a financial profit inevitably shape the work of today’s scientists. Their work is important and should not be curtailed; but every scientific discovery must also be accepted with the proverbial grain of salt. That salt is as important an ingredient as any other contribution to scientific investigation. J.

The Times: they are a-changin’


Sixteen years ago (plus a few weeks), my family and I moved into the house where we live today. I arrived alone one Sunday—the others were staying with friends until the truck arrived with our stuff. I had a sleeping bag, a coffee maker, and a few other things I would need. I ran out to the store and bought I few things I had forgotten I would need—including a coffee mug—and made myself at home in the nearly empty house.

Early in the morning, when I was half-asleep and half-awake—for who can sleep soundly in new surroundings?—I heard a car stop outside the house. Somebody threw something at the house and then drove away. I wondered about that event as I drowsed, but when I was awake and dressed, I found a copy of the local newspaper lying on the front steps.

That morning, I phoned the circulation number of that newspaper, told them that the previous owners had moved, but I wanted to receive the daily newspaper. I gave them a credit card number, and for the past sixteen years I have had a newspaper to read each morning. There were a few days when delivery failed to happen because of ice and snow, but otherwise I’ve been able to eat breakfast and sip my coffee and read the world news, national news, local news, sports items, human interest items, comics, and opinion pieces at my leisure.

The newspaper is a mild luxury—rates rose to the point that I’ve been paying roughly a dollar a day to receive the news printed on paper. But I’ve read newspapers ever since I was a little boy and my father brought the afternoon paper home each day and picked up two different Sunday papers each week. When I was in college, my friends and I split the cost of a subscription and shared the daily paper. Rarely have I been without a newspaper to read each morning—generally only on vacations, and even then I sometimes was able to get access to a newspaper.

This morning, a note was included with my morning paper. The carrier is no longer going to deliver to some subscribers on her route. I assume that, since I received the note, I am one of the subscribers who will be dropped.

The newspaper is making a transition to becoming purely electronic and digital. The editors expect to keep charging a dollar a day for people to read the daily news on their phones and other devices. I am not going to be one of those digital readers. I already pay for an internet connection, and I can get news and sports information and even comics for no additional charge online. The newspaper office is closed today, but tomorrow I am phoning circulation, canceling my subscription, and asking for a refund of any outstanding balance.

For years the decline of the newspaper has been predicted, announced, and considered. The newspaper I’ve received for the last sixteen years is imitating many more famous newspapers in making this transition to a digital format. Many other newspapers have gone out of business. I suspect this newspaper will go out of business soon; I don’t think many of their loyal readers are going to pay a dollar a day for information already available online.

Change happens, whether we like it or not. I’m not really complaining—after all, I am sharing this news in a digital format. But I will miss that morning read, and getting the news off a computer screen will not be the same. It may take a while for me to adjust to this new way of life. J.

The final straw

A few years ago I found a radio station I truly enjoyed. It played music from fifties hits to contemporary hits—you could hear Elvis and Taylor Swift and the Beatles and the Police in the same fifteen-minute set. It played the longer version of songs. It never played the same song twice on the same day, and it mixed up its songs enough that you were not likely to hear the same song more than once a week. It boasted that it did not broadcast a lot of “DJ chatter.” OK, it boasted of that a bit too often, but that’s a minor complaint about a station I genuinely loved.

On November 1, 2015, it started playing nothing but Christmas music. Not even carols—just songs like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” As soon as I realized what it was doing—about the third song in—I switched to a classical music station, and my car radio stayed on that station until spring.

I should point out that I listen to the radio only in my car. At home if I want to hear music I choose a CD. Even my morning wake-up alarm is music off a CD. But my car does not have a working CD player. (OK, it does not have a broken CD player either. It has a broken cassette tape deck.) I avoid talk radio. I avoid country music. I avoid current top forty hits, or whatever they call that kind of music now. That leaves me with Oldies and Classic Rock; but I really enjoyed the eclectic mix of that one radio station I had found.

When I returned to that station in the spring of 2016, they had diminished their library to seventies and eighties hits. They played the shorter version of songs. (Think of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” with a truncated monologue at the beginning and the final instrumental riff removed.) Even with those annoyances, I was willing to listen. I like a lot of songs from the early to mid eighties, as well as some songs from the seventies. Listening was not as satisfying as it had been, but it filled the time driving to work and back, driving to school and back, driving to church and back.

In fact, they added one feature I enjoy: on Sunday mornings they rebroadcast a Casey Kasem Top Forty countdown from the eighties. I hear the lower part of the countdown on the way to church and get to enjoy the bigger hits on the way home.

But they went to a Christmas-heavy format again last November, sending me once more to the classical music station. When I returned in January, I found that they had hired a morning DJ who chatters. He has listeners call in (or text or Facebook-message) to converse with him about oddities he has discovered while surfing the internet. Even worse, he talks over the instrumental introductions to songs.

Today he broke the final straw. He talked over the entire instrumental introduction to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” and then he also cut off the ending of the song. The instrumental part of “Eye of the Tiger” makes the song—without that part of the music, it’s actually a pretty lame song.

I have switched back to the classical station. And I probably will never return. J.


War and migration

Citizens of the United States might assume that, when the wealthy and powerful people of the world gather to talk about important issues, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are high on the agenda. The rest of the world has some interest in the result of this year’s presidential election, but many other items are of far greater interest, even to Americans.

War and migration is probably the greatest preoccupation for those concerned about contemporary events. Violence in north Africa and west Asia—and the many thousands of people fleeing that violence—affects lives and businesses all over the world. No one who is involved in politics or in economic decisions can afford to ignore what is happening.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus noted that “wars and rumors of war” would continue until the Day of his return. One hundred years ago President Woodrow Wilson promised that the Great War would be the last war in history. Instead, it has been labeled “World War I.” Jesus was right; Wilson was wrong. Migration has also been a constant theme of history. People move to escape violence. They move to find jobs or to locate food. They move to enjoy better weather. They move to escape oppressive governments and to find greater freedom. Sometimes they move simply because they are bored.

In some cases governments encourage immigration. Russia once invited German families to relocate into Russia and farm land that was empty. American businesses (such as the railroads) used to advertise in Europe for workers, promising a better life in the New World. The Statue of Liberty in New York welcomes “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” Just as often, governments try to limit immigration. Ancient China and ancient Rome built walls to keep the “barbarians” out of their land. Rome even paid some “barbarians” to live on the border and defend it from the next wave of immigrants. Tourists still visit Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China, but those walls were not very effective barriers against the Xiongnu, the Mongols, the Goths, or the Huns.

The United States once set the standard for an effective modern method of welcoming refugees. When thousands of people fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the United States found homes for many of those people. When 125,000 Cubans escaped to Florida in 1980, the United States again found homes for them. Both times, the refugee families originally were housed on government property, such as underused military bases. Sponsors were sought and found for these families: relatives of the refugees, other families from the same land, church groups, charitable organizations, and anyone else who was willing and able to help. Refugees were documented and observed; they did not disappear into the general population. Sponsors cared for them and helped them to find homes and jobs and to adjust to life in a new and different culture.

The change was not always easy. American citizens were uneasy about these refugees from another part of the world. In 1980, rumors traveled quickly that the Cuban refugees contained many criminals, mentally ill persons, and other undesirables. In retrospect, the number of such people among the Cuban refugees was proportionally less than in the general population of the United States. Acts of violence did occur among the refugees in their camps while they waited for sponsors. Some of the refugees were displeased with the quality of life in the camps and with the length of time it took to find sponsors for all of them. Their protests over their condition were not always peaceful. Eventually, the United States was able to absorb these many refugees. They are part of the mosaic of cultures that compose the United States today.

Patterns of migration in the twentieth century actually affirm the values of American government. People fled the totalitarian socialist governments that called themselves Communist, seeking the freedom of societies that were democratic and capitalist. The Berlin wall was a powerful symbol of the difference; it was built, not to keep immigrants out, but to keep East Germans from leaving for the west. When Vietnam was divided into a Communist north and a non-Communist south, a few Vietnamese families moved north, but a million Vietnamese moved south. The escape from Cuba in 1980 is another reminder of the difference: that one vast migration alone dwarfs the number of people who have tried to enter Cuba during the decades that the Castro brothers have been in charge there.

The system that worked in 1975 and 1980 can work again today. International cooperation can shelter refugees from north Africa and west Asia for a short time while sponsors are found to integrate these people into a new culture. They can be documented and observed. The risk that terrorists lurk among these refugees is no greater than the risk of home-grown terrorists. Sponsors can be trained and equipped to watch for warning signs and report their suspicions to the proper authorities. That would make these refugees likely to be less dangerous than the boy next door.

Compassion for human beings requires more than walls and guards on the border. Today’s needy refugees can become the hard-working foundation of American and European enterprise tomorrow. Fear of people who are different is a common human trait. Refugees probably will be more frightened of their new neighbors (who outnumber them) than the neighbors are of them. Genuine compassion and sincere curiosity about those who are different can overcome such fear. While compassionate people deplore the violence that makes migration necessary, a touch of kindness can change a terrible situation into a blessing, both for the refugees and for those who welcome them. J.