July 21st, 2011

independent minds

Science and Sanity and the 9/11 Decade

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York and host of an educational science show for PBS.  He tells this really funny story about the sky in the movie Titanic when the ship sank.  James Cameron got the sky wrong.  Very few people would have noticed that but Dr. Tyson did and eventually got to talk to James Cameron about it.  He is an excellent orator and makes a hilarious tale of the whole thing.  He is competition for Bill Cosby with his Noah story.

On the far from amusing side Dr. Tyson lived not far from the World Trade Center and was at his home on 9/11.  He was able to video some of the destruction and had to abandon his home because of all of the dust in the vicinity.  He posted an email about the experience the following day and it is on his website.

www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/read/2001/09/12/the-horror-the-horror

http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/read/2001/09/11/the-horror-the-horror

In 2007 Dr Tyson released a book, Death by Black Hole, And Other Cosmic Quandaries.  I haven't read it but it sounds like it could be quite amusing.  Maybe he specializes in Black humor.  But of course the whole point of Black Holes is GRAVITY.  Gravity is a major force in the universe.  It was gravity that pulled the Titanic down as portrayed in the movie 10 years before Dr. Tyson's book.

It will soon be ten years since his more horrific experience.  But gravity is involved in that also.  Living in New York, Dr. Tyson cannot help but have seen numerous skyscrapers.  And as an astrophysicist he can't help but know and think a lot about gravity.  How much has he thought about what it takes for a skyscraper to hold itself up?  The Empire State Building will have its 80th anniversary this year.  Wikipedia says it was designed from the top down.  That make sense for a very simple reason.  They could compute the weight of the structure as they designed it and add the maximum live load and know how much weight the next few levels had to be strong enough to support.  By simply repeating the process all of the way down the building the designers could be assured of having sufficient strength over the entire height.  The building has lasted 80 years.

But what does Dr. Tyson think about an airliner supposedly causing the complete destruction of a skyscraper more than 2000 times its own mass in less than two hours?  Has he thought about how gravity must affect the distribution of steel in any skyscraper?  Who knows?

My intent is not really to get on Mr. Tyson's case.  But after TEN YEARS what happened to those skyscrapers is a global socio-psychological issue.  This gets into epistemology.  The physics and the psychology professions are participants in this decade long misadventure.

Epistemology: from Greek ἐπιστήμη (epistēmē), meaning "knowledge, science", and λόγος (logos), meaning "study of") is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope and limitations of knowledge.  It addresses the questions:

    * What is knowledge?
    * How is knowledge acquired?
    * How do we know what we know?

How can we determine what could or could not have happened on 9/11/2001?

I never saw the World Trade Center either before or on 9/11.  I have only seen postcards and electronic images.  But for this issue to be unresolved after TEN YEARS is a travesty of science if there ever was one.  Before 9/11 I would have regarded the physics of skyscrapers as beneath the notice of most physicists.  What kind of electronic computers did they use to design the first atomic bombs?  They didn't have any.  The Empire State Building was completed 14 years before then.  It did not take ten years to get to the Moon from the date of JFK's statement of intent.

But there are some things we KNOW about all skyscrapers.  Every level must be strong enough to support all of the weight above.  The designers had to put in enough steel to support that weight.  Consequently the amount of steel tends to increase down the building.  But this presents a problem for a straight down collapse especially if it is supposed to have happened in less than double the amount of time for a mass to fall from the top of the skyscraper through empty space.  How could the ever increasing mass be accelerated downward faster than gravity could do it without slowing down the mass falling from above?  The conservation of momentum may not be used by architects very much but it is pretty basic to physicists.

There is considerable difference between what scientists know about how reality works and what the average citizen of planet Earth knows.  What is the responsibility of scientists to clarify any questionable events?  What is the responsibility of the media?  But Dr. Tyson may be on a tightrope in this regard.  He is a scientific celebrity with a TV show which is intended to impart scientific information and promote the scientific perspective of reality.  But how is most of the human race supposed to comprehend 9/11 when for most people it is only "real" through the eyes of the media.

In 1933 Alfred Korzybski published the book Science and Sanity.  He was the son of an aristocratic Polish family whose members had worked as mathematicians, scientists, and engineers for generations.  He came to the United States during World War I after being injured to serve the Russian war effort by less violent means, helping to sell war bonds and organizing the shipments of war material to Russia.  He stayed in the US after the war and began development of what he came to call, General Semantics.

Korzybski's work maintained that human beings are limited in what they know by (1) the structure of their nervous systems, and (2) the structure of their languages.  Human beings cannot experience the world directly, but only through their "abstractions" (nonverbal impressions or "gleanings" derived from the nervous system, and verbal indicators expressed and derived from language).  Sometimes our perceptions and our languages actually mislead us as to the "facts" with which we must deal.  Our understanding of what is happening sometimes lacks similarity of structure with what is actually happening.  He stressed training in awareness of abstracting, using techniques that he had derived from his study of mathematics and science. He called this awareness, this goal of his system, "consciousness of abstracting".  His system included modifying the way we consider the world, e.g., with an attitude of "I don't know; let's see," to better discover or reflect its realities as revealed by modern science.

But in the 1930s there was no television or Internet, there was only radio and newspapers for global communications.  There were two incidents in the late 1930s which might be compared to 9/11 as media events.  There was the Hindenberg crash in 1937 where a reporter gave a tragically moving account for the radio.  And there was Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast which was a totally fictional event but had many people panicking to escape imaginary Martians.  But neither had pictures with video repeats, again and again and again like on 9/11.  But neither of those events were excuses for war or were being hotly debated ten years later.

This incident is at the feet of people we call scientists.

What can one say at the thought of this Newtonian physics problem not being clearly resolved in the next 1,000 years? 

The Horror, the Horror!