MattAndJojang's Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Science

“Silence, Please”

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Photo: veer.com

Photo: veer.com

“Silence, Please.” No one expected that such a plain, nondescript phrase would be used by the government of Finland to promote their country.

It was in March, 2010 when a group of 100 marketing experts met in Helsinki to brainstorm on how to attract tourists to Finland. Over drinks they discussed the various strengths of their country. The problem was Finland was known as a quiet country. Finland is also known for exceptional teachers, and an abundance of wild berries and mushrooms — not exactly compelling ideas to make a country a world-class tourist destination.

Then out of the blue someone said that quiet wasn’t such a bad thing after all. That set them to thinking.

A few months later, they came out with a “Country Brand Report.” It highlighted themes that could make Finland a preferred tourist destination. Among other things, it emphasized Finland’s renowned educational system and school of functional design. However, somewhat surprisingly, a brand new theme emerged from the report: silence. “Silence is a resource. In the future, people will be prepared to pay for the experience of silence,” the report stated.

A year later, the Finnish Tourist Board decided to put out a series of photographs of lone figures in Finland’s official travel site, with the caption “Silence, Please.” It is one of the most popular pages, and has proven to be the most popular theme in attracting tourists to Finland.

Why are people attracted to silence? Are there tangible effects of silence?

In 1859, Florence Nightingale wrote,”Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on sick or well.” She observed that noise can be a source of distress, and loss of sleep for recovering patients. Surprisingly, she asserted that sudden noise can be a cause of death among sick children! Was she exaggerating?

Research proves that she was right. Chronic noise can cause high blood pressure. Increased levels of noise are linked to sleep loss and heart disease. In 2011, the World Health Organization concluded that 340 million residents of Western Europe annually lost a million years of healthy life because of noise. It also asserted that 3,000 deaths was directly attributed to excessive noise.

Silence as a subject of scientific research only began to appear in 2006. Strangely, it was studied only accidentally.

The physician Luciano Bernardi started out by studying the physiological effects of music. He says, “We didn’t think about the effect of silence. That was not meant to be studied specifically.”

Bernardi observed two dozen subjects while they listened to six musical tracks. He found out that the effects of listening to music could be correlated with changes in blood pressure, carbon dioxide and circulation in the brain. It is not surprising that a physiological change is linked to a condition of physical arousal. This made sense since active listening requires alertness and attention.

But what surprised him was the drastic effect of the inserted stretches of silence between the musical tracks. The two-minute pauses proved more relaxing than listening to music!

Silence, which was considered irrelevant at the start of the research, became the main object of the study. What they concluded, is that silence seemed heightened by contrast, perhaps because it gave the subjects a release from paying attention to the music. “Perhaps the arousal is something that concentrates the mind in one direction, so that when there is nothing more arousing, then you have deeper relaxation,” he says.

Ever since Bernardi’s ground-breaking study, other neurological experiments have reinforced Bernardi’s key findings.

Noora Vikman is a consultant on silence for the government of Finland. She lives in the eastern part of Finland, a quiet and isolated place, surrounded by quiet lakes and forests. Standing in the Finnish wilderness, she strained her ears to pick out the faintest sounds of animals or wind. “It’s strange,” she says, “the way you change. You have all the power–you can break the silence with even with the smallest sounds. And then you don’t want to do it. You try to be as quiet as you can be.”

— Matt

Note: This blog post is based on the article “This Is Your Brain on Silence” by Daniel A. Gross

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Written by MattAndJojang

September 2, 2014 at 7:20 pm

Reimagining the Cosmos

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Photo: Craig Goodman/Flickr

Photo: Craig Goodman/Flickr

A thrilling, mind-bending view of the cosmos and of the human adventure of modern science. In a conversation ranging from free will to the meaning of the Higgs boson particle, physicist Brian Greene suggests the deepest scientific realities are hidden from human senses and often defy our best intuition.

The choice to live or die. That’s the only question that ultimately matters. And, you know, when I read that I was quite young and it was almost kind of a shocking sentence to read, but it also seemed to me right. I mean, that is the only question that ultimately matters to the individual, but then as I got older, I began to see things a little bit differently, because to me, the question of whether life is worth living, to me, is intimately dependent upon what life is and what reality is, because ultimately your life is lived within reality.

— Brian Greene

Click here to listen to the conversation with Brian Greene


Dr. Brian Greene is a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University. He is also co-founder of the World Science Festival. His books include
The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos and The Hidden Reality.

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February 2, 2014 at 12:43 pm

Hubble Telescope’s Ultra Deep Slice of Heaven

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A video that will inspire you to think more deeply about your place in the universe.

Space. Patches of complete black, void of light. We see nothing. And yet, our species peers more deeply and seeks for what it cannot see. Our curiosity is a springboard, a launching pad for that leap of faith into the unknown.

So, what did we do. We committed, and we pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at one of those dark patches in 1996. The result: one of the most important images ever taken. Where we saw nothing, there were galaxies — more than 3,000 of them. And when we looked more deeply, our field of view expanded to more than 100 billion galaxies.

Our vision of ourselves is forever changed now. The unfathomable depth of the universe adds to our sense of awe and wonder. We derive new meaning from the expanding context ushered forth by these Hubble images. The questions about the intersection of science and religion are changing, and the soil is richer and more fertile than ever before for making sense of our place in it all.

~ Trent Gilliss

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November 3, 2013 at 8:57 am

Why Higgs boson matters

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Photo: CERN

Photo: CERN

On Oct. 8 Francois Englert of Belgium and Peter Higgs of Britain won the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics for their theory on how matter acquires mass.

This work — which they began researching in the 1960s — was confirmed last year by the discovery of the Higgs boson (a subatomic particle nicknamed “the God particle”) at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva.

If this has anyone scratching their heads or wondering how it fits in with their faith, then it’s time to check back with what a Catholic physicist and a Catholic astronomer had to say about this mysterious particle during the summer.

U.S. Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, the Vatican astronomer, told Catholic News Service that the particle finding “indicates that reality is deeper and more rich and strange than our everyday life.”

When people go about their everyday business working or relaxing, they don’t think about the tiniest building blocks of physical matter, but “without these underlying little things, we wouldn’t be here,” he added.

Brother Consolmagno said the Higgs boson had been nicknamed “the God particle” as “a joke” in an attempt to depict the particle as “almost like a gift from God to help explain how reality works in the sub-atomic world.”

Because the particle is believed to be what gives mass to matter, it was assigned the godlike status of being able to create something out of nothing, he added.

These conjectures are not only bad reasons to believe in God, they are also bad science, he told CNS.

“You’ll look foolish, in say 2050, when they discover the real reason” for a phenomenon that was explained away earlier by the hand of God, he said.

But he did point out that faith and hope can exist in the scientific community. For example, “no one would have built this enormous experiment,” tapping the time and talents of thousands of scientists around the world, “without faith they would find something,” he said.

“My belief in God gives me the courage to look at the physical universe and to expect to find order and beauty,” he said. “It’s my faith that inspires me to do science.”

Father Andrew Pinsent, a former particle physicist who worked on an experiment at the previously mentioned CERN, wrote a column about the Higgs boson finding this summer for the Catholic Herald in England. The priest, currently a research director at Oxford University, said the discovery has “no obvious implications for theology” but said it is still “worth reviewing its implications for the human quest to understand life, the universe and everything.”

The priest pointed out that the research that went into discovering this subatomic particle was done in part to “fulfill one of the most noble human aspirations: to know the causes of things.”

He said the Higgs boson finding “is a piece of the puzzle of how (not why) the universe works” but he also said it was “scarcely a final answer.”

– Carol Zimmerman

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October 11, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Religion and Science

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Title page for Einstein’s 1930 essay, “Religion and Science.” Throughout the rest of his life, even after 20 years of living in the United States, Einstein would primarily write his manuscripts in German. Later, his manuscripts would be translated into typewritten English. (Courtesy: The Albert Einstein Archives, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

This article originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine (November 9, 1930)

Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of deeply felt needs and the assuagement of pain. One has to keep this constantly in mind if one wishes to understand spiritual movements and their development. Feeling and longing are the motive force behind all human endeavor and human creation, in however exalted a guise the latter may present themselves to us. Now what are the feelings and needs that have led men to religious thought and belief in the widest sense of the words? A little consideration will suffice to show us that the most varying emotions preside over the birth of religious thought and experience. With primitive man it is above all fear that evokes religious notions — fear of hunger, wild beasts, sickness, death. Since at this stage of existence understanding of causal connections is usually poorly developed, the human mind creates illusory beings more or less analogous to itself on whose wills and actions these fearful happenings depend. Thus one tries to secure the favor of these beings by carrying out actions and offering sacrifices which, according to the tradition handed down from generation to generation, propitiate them or make them well disposed toward a mortal. In this sense I am speaking of a religion of fear. This, though not created, is in an important degree stabilized by the formation of a special priestly caste which sets itself up as a mediator between the people and the beings they fear, and erects a hegemony on this basis. In many cases a leader or ruler or a privileged class whose position rests on other factors combines priestly functions with its secular authority in order to make the latter more secure; or the political rulers and the priestly caste make common cause in their own interests.

The social impulses are another source of the crystallization of religion. Fathers and mothers and the leaders of larger human communities are mortal and fallible. The desire for guidance, love, and support prompts men to form the social or moral conception of God. This is the God of Providence, who protects, disposes, rewards, and punishes; the God who, according to the limits of the believer’s outlook, loves and cherishes the life of the tribe or of the human race, or even or life itself; the comforter in sorrow and unsatisfied longing; he who preserves the souls of the dead. This is the social or moral conception of God.

The Jewish scriptures admirably illustrate the development from the religion of fear to moral religion, a development continued in the New Testament. The religions of all civilized peoples, especially the peoples of the Orient, are primarily moral religions. The development from a religion of fear to moral religion is a great step in peoples’ lives. And yet, that primitive religions are based entirely on fear and the religions of civilized peoples purely on morality is a prejudice against which we must be on our guard. The truth is that all religions are a varying blend of both types, with this differentiation: that on the higher levels of social life the religion of morality predominates.

Common to all these types is the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God. In general, only individuals of exceptional endowments, and exceptionally high-minded communities, rise to any considerable extent above this level. But there is a third stage of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form: I shall call it cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to elucidate this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it.

The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear at an early stage of development, e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learned especially from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer, contains a much stronger element of this.

The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another.

How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to another, if it can give rise to no definite notion of a God and no theology? In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.

We thus arrive at a conception of the relation of science to religion very different from the usual one. When one views the matter historically, one is inclined to look upon science and religion as irreconcilable antagonists, and for a very obvious reason. The man who is thoroughly convinced of the universal operation of the law of causation cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events — provided, of course, that he takes the hypothesis of causality really seriously. He has no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion. A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.

It is therefore easy to see why the churches have always fought science and persecuted its devotees.On the other hand, I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. Only those who realize the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue. What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe and what a yearning to understand, were it but a feeble reflection of the mind revealed in this world, Kepler and Newton must have had to enable them to spend years of solitary labor in disentangling the principles of celestial mechanics! Those whose acquaintance with scientific research is derived chiefly from its practical results easily develop a completely false notion of the mentality of the men who, surrounded by a skeptical world, have shown the way to kindred spirits scattered wide through the world and through the centuries. Only one who has devoted his life to similar ends can have a vivid realization of what has inspired these men and given them the strength to remain true to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is cosmic religious feeling that gives a man such strength. A contemporary has said, not unjustly, that in this materialistic age of ours the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people.

~ Albert Einstein

Written by MattAndJojang

November 10, 2012 at 8:23 am

Cosmic Origami

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Even empty space has a kind of structure, and we don’t understand that at all. In fact, most of us would guess that empty space does have a structure but on a tiny, tiny scale. There’s fascinating ideas and one of the fascinating ideas is that if you could chop up space on a very tiny scale, you would find that what we think of as just a little point in space is actually a tightly wrapped origami of extra dimensions over and above the three that we are familiar with.

~ Lord Martin Rees, Astrophysicist

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September 6, 2011 at 1:59 pm

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Albert Einstein’s Faith: Was the Great Physicist Spiritual?

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Albert Einstein sailing his boat on Saranac Lake. (courtesy of The Fantova Collection, Princeton University)

Albert Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, remains difficult for me to grasp fully. But I feel I have come to understand something of the man — his expansive spirit, his relentless curiosity, and his reverence for the beauty and order of nature and thought. I was daunted as I began, but delving into Einstein was a delight.

And there is a logic of sorts to that, as humor was an aspect of Einstein’s genius. Freeman Dyson suggests that his ability to make light and to laugh, even at himself, was one key to the magnitude of his scientific accomplishment. Science is often about failure. Einstein himself proposed that he made so many discoveries because he was not afraid to be proven wrong, repeatedly, on his way to all of them. But Einstein also employed humor to philosophical and ethical effect, weighing in trenchantly on mankind’s foibles.

Einstein held a deep and nuanced, if not a traditional, faith. I did not assume this at the outset. I’ve always been suspicious of the way Einstein’s famous line, “God does not play dice with the universe,” gets quoted for vastly different purposes. I wanted to understand what Einstein meant as a physicist when he said that. As it turns out, that particular quip had more to do with physics than with God, as Freeman Dyson and Paul Davies illuminate.

Einstein did, however, leave behind a rich body of reflection on the “mind” and the “superior spirit” behind the cosmos that has never made its way into popular consciousness. He didn’t believe in a personal God who would interfere with the laws of physics. But he was fascinated with the ingenuity of those laws and expressed awe at the very fact of their existence. Throughout his life, he thrilled to all he could not yet understand. He was more than content with what he called a “cosmic religious sense” — animated by “inklings” and “wondering,” rather than by answers and conclusions. Here is a passage that comes close, I think, to a concise description by Einstein of his quintessential “faith”:

“A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty — it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves … Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.”

With Paul Davies, I was able to pursue how Einstein changed our view of space and especially time, a subject that has always intrigued me. Before Einstein, as Davies describes it, human beings thought of space and time as fixed and immutable, the backdrop to the great show of life. But we now know they are elastic and intertwined, part of the show themselves. Einstein described our perception of time as an arrow — traversing linear and compartmentalized past, present, and future — as a “stubbornly persistent illusion.” Such language is evocative from a religious standpoint. As Davies discusses, it echoes insights that run throughout Eastern and Western religions and ancient indigenous cultures. Davies finds an affinity between Einstein’s view of time and the religious notion of a reality “beyond time,” and of “the eternal.” And because he speaks as a person conversant in current advancements of Einstein’s science — cosmology and the Big Bang, black holes, even the search for life beyond this galaxy — his insights carry for me a special weight of authority and, yes, wonder.

I came across many wise and touching pieces of writing by the spiritual Einstein while preparing for these conversations. Einstein was a passionate letter writer. He wrote to fellow scientists, friends, and strangers. He loved responding to the letters of schoolchildren. One of his correspondents for a time was Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. He had struck up a warm friendship with her and her husband, King Albert, just before World War II. In one tragic season in the midst of already tumultuous political times, her husband died suddenly, as did her daughter-in-law. Einstein wrote to her:

“Mrs. Barjansky wrote to me how gravely living in itself causes you suffering and how numbed you are by the indescribably painful blows that have befallen you. And yet we should not grieve for those who have gone from us in the primes of their lives after happy and fruitful years of activity, and who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.

Something there is that can refresh and revivify older people: joy in the activities of the younger generation — a joy, to be sure, that is clouded by dark forebodings in these unsettled times. And yet, as always, the springtime sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding; and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms.”

I emerged from these discussions with a new sense of Albert Einstein — not just as a great mind, but as a wise man. He was fully human and flawed, certainly in his intimate relationships. But he was undeniably an original, and not just as a scientist. If past, present, and future are an illusion, as he said, none of us ever really disappear. We all leave our imprint on what is now. I have a profound sense of Einstein’s imprint, and it comforts me. I suspect that if he heard he was the subject of a program called Speaking of Faith more than 50 years after his death, he would make a funny, kindly, self-deprecating joke. But if he could listen with twenty-first-century ears, he might be intrigued by how his generous, questioning, “cosmic” religious sense is deeply kindred with the religious and spiritual yearnings of our age.

~ Krista Tippett

Written by MattAndJojang

June 4, 2011 at 9:42 am