January Discussion of Heisenberg

February 3, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

I am always amazed at the amount of information and understanding that I gain from the Natural Science discussions at Harrison Middleton University. Since my childhood, I have immersed myself in nature, but rarely attempted to study the natural sciences until more recently. At HMU, many students are interested in the difficult and amazing philosophical questions incorporated in the natural world. Therefore, our most recent discussion of Newton, Heisenberg and Hawking was no letdown. In fact, I have been thinking about this discussion all week. Each participant brought a diverse background to the discussion which always helps widen the scope of our understanding and imagination, I believe. We discussed a few of Isaac Newton's first definitions from The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Then we read Werner Heisenberg's Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory. Last, we read one chapter from Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time.

In setting up the discussion, I gravitated towards these pieces mainly due to Heisenberg's Interpretation. I wanted to better understand if Heisenberg argues that chaos founds quantum mechanics, or if, instead, he leaves the possibility open to the possibility that humans simply cannot adequately study the small bits that make up quantum theory. Either way, Heisenberg insists that scientists continue using the same language as before. He says, “[w]e must keep in mind this limited range of applicability of the classical concepts while using them, but we cannot and should not try to improve them”. As one who studies literature and language daily, I found this paradox particularly instructive. The repercussions of changing scientific language makes science bulkier, denser and perhaps more difficult to grasp. It could also potentially make it inaccurate. Or, in sticking with the same terminology that describes large-scale physical events, we run into the potential for absurd or meaningless statements, or even overpopulating a word with definitions. Any of these dilemmas presents problems. Yet, Heisenberg was insistent. He demands that we stick with our known definitions, those first mapped out by Newton (and others) and apply them as best as possible to quantum mechanics.

I did get the impression, from Heisenberg, that language was of vital importance. I did not, however, understand that he claims quantum mechanics to be unpredictable. To me, he seemed to say that humans lack adequate measuring sticks. Stephen Hawking notes Einstein's reaction to Heisenberg's theory. He writes: “Quantum mechanics therefore introduces an unavoidable element of unpredictability or randomness into science. Einstein objected to this very strongly, despite the important role he had played in the development of these ideas. Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contribution to quantum theory. Nevertheless, Einstein never accepted that the universe was governed by chance; his feelings were summed up in his famous statement 'God does not play dice.'” Upon first reading, I assumed that Einstein understood Heisenberg to say that uncertainty will always underlie our scientific understanding and Einstein could not accept that conclusion. This may in part be true, but upon review and discussion, I am thinking that Einstein believes that God gave humans the ability to think through these problems. Einstein knows that current rhetoric and abilities do not meet the needs of quantum physics, but he allows for the human brain (endowed by God) to figure out a plan to make it possible.

Neither Heisenberg nor Einstein definitively claim that quantum behaviors are without pattern. Instead, they claim that it is difficult to study quantum behavior, even using modern technologies. Einstein then adds that humans are endowed with a pretty sophisticated system of navigation. We judge and measure the world in terms of our physical reality, which only offers bits and pieces of information at a time, but it does not preclude progress or deny a better understanding of quantum mechanics. Precisely at the spot where our awareness of the world breaks down, our senses (and therefore our language) inevitably fail. And yet, we have mental capabilities which allow us to design ways to overcome this. We have designed means of which to see farther into the universe, to travel into space, to go beyond atomic behaviors into quantum behaviors. In his Interpretation, Heisenberg asks scientists to continually rely, however, on the analogy that makes the most sense to the audience. He asks that we use the language of physics. And yes, it is paradoxical.

And so, the Merriam-Webster dictionary lists quantum as:

- any of the very small increments or parcels into which many forms of energy are subdivided

- any of the small subdivisions of a quantized physical magnitude (such as magnetic moment)

We continue to apply existing language (even if it is in metaphor only) to such a complex topic.

While science and technology change rapidly, it is refreshing to have conversations that span such a chronological spectrum. Moreover, it is vital to understand, honor and respect these concepts which came to us even from Newton. Our current infrastructure is founded upon principles that few stop to think about. Newton's elements are as fun to study today as they were in his day (also because they are so easily reproducible). Not surprising, then, is Hawking's assertion that, “The only areas of physical science into which quantum mechanics has not yet been properly incorporated are gravity and the large-scale structure of the universe.” I take that as an invitation to apply the language of physics, combined with the elements of reason and imagination. I take that as a challenge!

Thanks to all of our January Quarterly Discussion participants. If you are interested in the next discussion, email

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Pet Connections

December 16, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

I have been trying to put my finger on just why we own pets. They're costly, time-consuming, usually messy and, in general, not visibly useful. I have been re-reading some of country veterinarian and writer James Herriot's stories in order to better understand the transition from working animals to friends and companions. Herriot noticed and wrote about the change in society's relationships with animals. Though often categorized as children's literature, his writing offers wonderful perspectives about life in general. He recognized and wrote about the fact that typical working animals are also great companions. There is something special and important about having a warm, loving, trustworthy friend which seems more useful than just about anything else we have commodified.

I do not know why anyone else owns a pet, but I'll offer a reason as to why I own one. Growing up, I had many pets which I cared for and loved. Yet, I did not understand the full attachment and responsibility that one has to a pet until I owned one as an adult. The most difficult decisions are made by adults. I have owned two cats now, as an adult. The first one, Pride, was a stray that we adopted and I grew to love. Typically an independent cat, he stuck close to the house when he got sick. He also purred nonstop. Cats, apparently, do not purr when alone and we still do not know precisely why they purr. Once sick, his purring actually increased. He either must have known that his end was close or he sensed my anxiety. It seems to me that purring is nearly always appropriate, whereas the human emotional releases are not nearly as soothing to others. When people cry, humans often hug or also cry. But purring actually does soothe humans. I will never forget that even while being euthanized, Pride purred. I am convinced that it was more for me than for him. To me, this is the very essence of connection.

I am in awe of being a part of such a strong connection, and so even though it was difficult, I did end up rescuing another stray cat. It is not surprising to say that I love this one too. In the end, I think that we own pets for their absolute willingness to trust. They do not judge, they know little of sin or evil. They talk in their own way, they interact according to their own personalities and comfort levels. Humans observe their patterns in order to connect because we want to feel connection just as much as they do. Communication across beings is surely something very unique, almost supra-natural.

The following quotes taken from an NPR article about people with serious mental illnesses who have bonded with a pet enlightens human need in general. I feel that connections are meant to be explored and not taken lightly. I also find that it is an appropriate time of year to dwell upon our relationships with both humans and animals. Enjoy and relish those around you!

~ “One study participant placed birds in his closest social circle. When he was hearing voices, he said that they 'help me in the sense, you know, I'm not thinking about the voices, I'm just thinking of when I hear the birds singing.'”
~ “Another said that walking the dog helped them get out of the house and with people. 'That surprised me, you know, the amount of people that stop and talk to him, and that, yeah, it cheers me up with him. I haven't got much in my life, but he's quite good, yeah.'”
~ “As one person in the study said, 'When he comes up and sits beside you on a night, it's different, you know. It's just, like, he needs me as much as I need him.'”


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January Quarterly Discussion Review

January 29, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Let me begin by stating that organizing and leading Harrison Middleton University's Quarterly Discussions is one of the best parts of my job. The participants always challenge me as do the texts and authors. This quarter, I chose something completely foreign to me and I am absolutely ecstatic with the result. For January's discussion, we read from Euclid's definitions in The Elements as well as a selection from Alfred North Whitehead's Introduction to Mathematics. The discussion truly brought the two works to life for me, especially in comparison with each other. I will briefly describe some of our conversation below. Please enjoy this segment of our conversation, and consider joining us for our next discussion (Kafka in April). Email me at any time at: .

Euclid begins The Elements with the definition of a point. It is ironic to think that it was necessary to unpack the definition of a single point, but it was. We discussed this idea as a basic, abstract unit from which structure is created. In other words, the point can be viewed as the first building block in Euclidean geometry. This sounds obvious, but consider the concept of creating a number of definitions from scratch. Euclid had the benefit of some previous mathematicians and philosophers around him, but he essentially created this mathematical process. He explained a logical structure where, previously, none existed. Euclid explained abstract definitions with simplicity and precision. Mathematics is often a field of precision, and his simple clarity of reasoning may be one of the best examples of logic to this day. That this ancient Greek text continues to survive at all may be a testament to its worth. At first, the definition of a point did not appear to be innovative, however, as I began to understand the scope of Euclid's theories and applications, I wondered at his ability to locate and define the point at all.

Euclid's Elements stem from his studies of the earth. (Geo is Greek for earth, and metron is Greek for measure.) Therefore, Euclid had the foresight to realize that his observations and measurements of the earth had larger implications, but he also realized that his observations were limited by a definiteness. In order to open them to wider applications, he needed to find a way to abstract these measurements into definitions. Therefore, Euclid began to synthesize, simplify and apply his data. While Euclid discovered geometry in a very concrete way, he catalogued it in abstract language in order to increase its applicability.

Alfred North Whitehead calls mathematics an 'abstract science'. Whitehead reinforces the need for simple, direct mathematical language when he says, “The reason for this failure of the science to live up to its reputation is that its fundamental ideas are not explained to the student disentangled from the technical procedure which has been invented to facilitate their exact presentation in particular instances. Accordingly, the unfortunate learner finds himself struggling to acquire a knowledge of a mass of details which are not illuminated by any general conception.” His statement reinforces the same instinct that drove Euclid to begin The Elements with basic definitions. Geometry exists as a bridge between the natural world and human understanding. Yet it is written in abstract language which allows for a wider application. In other words, grappling with mathematical definitions allows all of us an opportunity to solve problems for ourselves, even in unrelated fields. Geometry, discovered through concrete means, has abstract applicability, while understanding the abstract may lead us back to a specific resolution.

Therefore, when Whitehead states that our abstract and inaccurate laws may be 'good enough', he actually means to say that our approach is vital, and our precision may be good enough. The definition and application of infinity supplies one example of this idea of 'good enough'. After we attempted to unpack the idea of 'infinity', the group concluded that: if infinity is the negation of the finite, then neither of those terms are representable. Instead, they are abstract definitions meant to guide us in some way. However, the adjective 'infinite' grants us an ability to talk about infinity without addressing specific quantities. Things can be infinitely large or infinitely small...both of which signify something endless or boundless. Furthermore, while infinity cannot be grasped with certitude, indefiniteness is merely an unknown.

These beginning conversations could spark endless conversation in my mind. I find applications in science, poetry, nature, social sciences, etc. Euclid's graceful simplicity combined with Whitehead's invitation to study our world led to an exemplary conversation. Whitehead states, “The vital point in the application of mathematical formula is to have clear ideas and a correct estimate of their relevance to the phenomena under observation”. Understand the idea, clarify your parameters and explore a new phenomena. The world is as big (or small) as we make it.

Thanks to all of our participants!


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