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Science News

A Conversation with Alan Lightman 226

An anonymous reader writes "LiveScience has an interview with Physicist, novelist, and science writer, Alan Lightman with regards to the future of science and what the next "big" discoveries might be. From the article: "Generally attack against science is part of a greater attack against intellectualism in general. I think right now we're in an anti-intellectual period in the United States, but I think the pendulum will swing back in the other direction again."
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A Conversation with Alan Lightman

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  • RE (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Alex P Keaton in da ( 882660 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @05:52PM (#14727597) Homepage
    From TFA: "In the next 100 years we will have some organisms that are half human and half machine."
    Half defined how? By mass? By function? There are hybrid man machines now- mechanical hearts, knees, and implanted erection pumps.
    For the hubub about attacking science, is there really that much innovation being stifled? The loudest people get the media coverage. That is why, despite the fact that everyone knows they are nuts, PETA is always on the news. And why when anti-science groups go after science, they are on the news.
    • Re:RE (Score:3, Insightful)

      I'd say by any definition. No matter how you slice it, there will be half-man, half-machines in the next 100 years.

      We're fairly close to that already on a couple different slices.
    • Left half human, right half machine!

      which is better then top half machine, bottom half human.

    • Why dont we see groups on the other side of the coin making huge piles of noise too?

      For example, we see the anti-gay movement making big noise about how gay relationships and gay marage and gay people adopting kids and stuff is all bad, why doesnt the other side make just as much noise arguing the opposite.
      Why dont we see the groups like the farmers here in australia being attacked by PETA for "mistreating" their sheep fighting back with just as much noise (i.e. getting out there into the media with just as
      • What planet are you from where the extremists in support of all the causes you mentioned aren't just as loudmouthed as the ones who aren't? (Well, except for the mistreated sheep thing, which I haven't heard anything about either way.)
  • Anti-intellectual? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DarkHand ( 608301 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @05:53PM (#14727614)
    I think right now we're in an anti-intellectual period in the United States, but I think the pendulum will swing back in the other direction again.

    Anti-intellectual? The US is more pro-intellectual than it has been in a very long time. It's finally cool to be smart, to an extent. If anything, the pendulum is only just beginning to swing back in our favor. It may not look like it now, but we just need to give the pendulum more time.
    • No kidding. This Kansas evolution/intelligent design stuff has been going on for years and years. However, in present day it is convenient ammo for anti-republican rhetoric.
      • by smorpheus ( 868363 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @06:17PM (#14727826) Homepage
        Actually, no, the fact that these cases are now coming to court, and that the Kansas Board quite recently decided to include ID in the classroom is why the issue has come to a forefront of media coverage.

        These are titantic anti-intellecutal events that go signficantly beyond "anti-republican rhetoric."

        Let's not forget recent events at NASA [nytimes.com] which seem more concerned with crippling science in order to avoid hurting creationist's feelings. The scientists (i.e. IMO, intellectuals), won that battle, but they shouldn't have even had to have fought it in the first place.

    • It's getting better, but it still isn't back into a "pro-intellectual" period. Ignore the people around you- the ones you have to worry about in terms of being an "intellectual" state would be the people in the government- and they could be more supportive.
    • by ZipR ( 584654 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @06:15PM (#14727804)
      Can't say I agree with you. Look at our recent elections -- winners have won through largely anti-intellectual platforms. Of course, they haven't done it overtly, but through portraying themselves as common, simple people and by portraying intelluctuals as untrustworthy.
      • > Can't say I agree with you. Look at our recent elections -- winners have won through largely anti-intellectual platforms. Of course, they haven't done it overtly, but through portraying themselves as common, simple people and by portraying intelluctuals as untrustworthy.

        Actually, at the Federal level the current anti-intellectual clique holds power by a pretty slim margin, and IMO they didn't get it by portraying intellectuals as untrustworty, but by sucking up to specific special interest groups {big
      • by toddbu ( 748790 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @07:02PM (#14728232)
        Of course, they haven't done it overtly, but through portraying themselves as common, simple people and by portraying intelluctuals as untrustworthy.

        I don't get why this has to be an either-or proposition. I consider myself an intellectual, yet I live a simple life. In fact, I find most pure intellectuals to be very simple people. They eat simply, don't get very involved in politics, and generally keep to things that interest them. I find those who portray themselves as being sophisiticated to be generally dishonest, because they take things that they know little about and pretend as though they're experts.

      • Actually they won by portraying OTHER POLITICIANS are untrustworthy.

        To call a politician an intellectual is a bit of a stretch. I can count intellectual politicians on one hand and still have a finger left to pick my nose.
    • by Peter Trepan ( 572016 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @06:25PM (#14727897)
      Anti-intellectual? The US is more pro-intellectual than it has been in a very long time. It's finally cool to be smart, to an extent. If anything, the pendulum is only just beginning to swing back in our favor. It may not look like it now, but we just need to give the pendulum more time.

      If you're basing this on the newfound popularity of computer geeks, I'd argue that it's not cool to be intellectual, but to be percieved as potentially rich and powerful. If anything, I'd say American society is trending toward complete apathy.
      • If anything, I'd say American society is trending toward complete apathy.

        I'd write a reasoned response disagreeing, but I just don't care.

      • If nerds were cool, then the poster might have something, but geeks have nothing to do with intelligence. No matter what they think of their wide collection of Tee shirts may say.
      • "If you're basing this on the newfound popularity of computer geeks, I'd argue that it's not cool to be intellectual, but to be percieved as potentially rich and powerful. If anything, I'd say American society is trending toward complete apathy."

        I disagree. I think that geeks are becoming recognized as less shallow, more intellectually satisfying and more interesting than non-geeks. What is my basis for this? Mainstream media.

        Take a look at recent hits...the movie Garden State....Beauty and the Geek....

    • But don't pretend that the pendulum is swinging back, or is going to anytime soon. We've been resting on our laurels and are complacent. A lot of us don't know how to read, and the ones that do don't even grok grammar. lol. In short we're going to get beaten to all hell by globalism (despite our 'free trade' treaties where we actually try to forestall it). And when you can't compete on competence or skill or qualifications you have two choices a) pretend you are 'all that' anyway and keep sinking or b)
    • There's a big difference between pro-intellectual and pro-technically skilled. A useful metaphor might be the difference between science and technology.
    • Its not so much that it is anti intellectual...I think what grandparent meant is that it is swinging to the religious, anti-scientific end of things. I know plenty of intellectual religious people...of course I think they're fools for believing in god, but thats their problem.

  • by mmell ( 832646 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @05:54PM (#14727618)
    or is this just another guy wasting oxygen?

    Here, I'll tell ya where science'll go in the next quarter-century - first, in the area of physics we'll rediscover the stick and the stone. In the area of astrology, we'll rediscover the power of the stars over our lives and our fates. In the area of biotechnology, we'll discover that we should wash our hands before we eat our latest kill; and also not to hang around the warm, softly-glowing remains of the "cities".

    There. My predictions look like they have at least as much chance as Mr. Lightman's (for the record, he seems to have spent some thought on his answers, and he exhibits a certain intelligence level, but this is like me preparing a schedule for my boss showing all unplanned outtages for the next three months!).

    • I met him in college years ago when he held a discussion for the honors program at my school. I have a signed copy of Einstein's Dreams in my library. This was a very small group - perhaps 15 students, 2 faculty members, and him, so it was more informal and personal.

      In person, he comes across as very sincere and intellectual. I believe that he has a good, rational, critically-thinking mind, and thus, compared to many other humans, the oxygen he uses is much less wasted.
  • Finally (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Ignignot ( 782335 )
    Someone has discovered a color scheme more repulsive than slashdot's IT section! I couldn't even let the page fully load before I closed it to prevent blindness. In this one story, I think we can forgive people for not RTFA'ing.
  • by truthsearch ( 249536 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @05:58PM (#14727670) Homepage Journal
    Frink: Well, you should think of stuff that people need, but which do not exist yet.
    Homer: You mean like an electric-blanket-mobile?
    Frink: Well, I suppose that's possible...or you could think of stuff that exists and find a new use for it, like...
    Homer: Hamburger earmuffs.
    Frink: Well, that may...
    Homer: So long sucker!
    Frink: What?! Okay, calm down, Frinky. These babies will be in the stores while he's still grappling with the pickle matrix!
  • by WillAffleckUW ( 858324 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @05:59PM (#14727679) Homepage Journal
    words that he's said like this response:

    "I think science has always been under assault to some extent. I think there are fashions in cycles in which science is attacked for a period of time and is embraced for a period of time and it's attacked again. Generally attack against science is part of a greater attack against intellectualism in general. I think right now we're in an anti-intellectual period in the United States, but I think the pendulum will swing back in the other direction again. I agree with you that we're not seeing anything now that hasn't happened in earlier centuries."

    will come back to haunt him.

    Everyone knows that any so-called science that attempts to invalidate The Great Spaghetti Monster is heresy and will be rewritten - or rather, redrawn with crayons - in the classrooms of our nation.
    • Yet they used this as an example of an attack on science. "nonbelievers of global warming".
      Since when did belief have a place in science?
      Should we be worried about possible global warming? Yes. Should we act to reduce carbon emissions? Probably. Do we have proof of global warming? Not currently. So many people have such a firm belief that they are scientific that they are sure that no thinking person could question their belief.
      Kind of like some people I know that go to the UU church but have a FSM bumper s
  • well (Score:3, Funny)

    by revery ( 456516 ) * <{charles} {at} {cac2.net}> on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @06:00PM (#14727685) Homepage
    I think right now we're in an anti-intellectual period in the United States, but I think the pendulum will swing back in the other direction again

    Primarily because it would be anti-intellectual to expect any other sort of response from a pendulum?

      I myself believe it is the Greek goddess of swinging things, Pendulus (she also has two other uhm... circles of influence) that maintains the expected reciprocation, but to each his or her own....

  • OK, can anyone point to a single line in that interview that suggests this guy knows anything that qualifies him to hold forth on "the future of science"? He seems to have a strong layman's familiarity with current work in physics, a high school student's background in any other science and a lot of pompous namedropping about the novels he's read.
    • I'm not sure if Alan does, but his brother has a history of breaking in to military computers. [imdb.com]
    • by mhore ( 582354 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @06:32PM (#14727942)
      OK, can anyone point to a single line in that interview that suggests this guy knows anything that qualifies him to hold forth on "the future of science"? He seems to have a strong layman's familiarity with current work in physics, a high school student's background in any other science and a lot of pompous namedropping about the novels he's read.

      Sure. He has a B.Sc. in Physics from Princeton, a Ph.D. in Physics from Caltech... his thesis advisor there was Kip Thorne... and is good friends with many of the big names in science (for example, Gell-Mann... the quark guy). I'm sure he has a much stronger familiarity with physics than a layman. You'd be surprised what being in those circles does for one's perspective on science and its direction. :) Mike.

      • I said "current". He has a doctorate, obviously, and someone else points out that he was a prominent working physicist for a while, although he's not now.

        At any rate, however up to date he is with physics, he clearly doesn't know a damn thing about what's cutting edge in biology and he doesn't even mention any other science.

    • In that article, perhaps none. But on his website [mit.edu] you can find that he has a doctorate in theoretical physics from Caltech, has been an astronomy professor and research scientist at Harvard, and is now a professor at MIT in the science writing program.
    • The most basic of searching would locate his qualifications.

      Here's his information from MIT [mit.edu], and an excerpt below:

      Lightman's scientific research has focused on gravitation theory, the structure and behavior of accretion disks, stellar dynamics, radiative processes, and relativistic plasmas. His research articles have appeared in The Physical Review, The Astrophysical Journal, Reviews of Modern Physics, Nature, and other journals of physics and astrophysics. For his contributions to physics, he was elected a

  • popular fashion (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Bloater ( 12932 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @06:02PM (#14727708) Homepage Journal
    > I think right now we're in an anti-intellectual period in the United States

    It is normal for the dominant fashion of a nation to be modelled on its leader (eg making yourself look like you've got syphillis was popular hundreds of years ago, when the rich and powerful all had syphillis).
    • It is normal for the dominant fashion of a nation to be modelled on its leader

      Which is fine when your leadership is stable, lasting anywhere from 10-40 years. When you know you're guaranteed a leadership change every 4 or 8 years, doing so starts to make you look a bit psychotic.

      Interesting about the syphillis though. Never thought of it that way, and never encountered it in my readings of history. Now I'm curious to see if it's true - it sounds like something made up after the fact to emphasise the decad

      • > Interesting about the syphillis though. Never thought of it that way, and never encountered it in my readings of history.

        I could be mistaken, but I thought European aristocrats would paint their lesions black to make them look acceptable, people would paint similar black blobs on themselves to look like the powerful.
        • I could be mistaken, but I thought European aristocrats would paint their lesions black to make them look acceptable, people would paint similar black blobs on themselves to look like the powerful.
          You might be getting confused with smallpox scars. From the 17th century small black patches made of velvet or other materials were stuck over smallpox scars (and scars caused by other diseases, including syphillis, but to a lesser extent).
    • Do you have any links to read up further on the syphillis thing? Thats a very interesting cultural phenomena that I'd love to learn more about.

  • by Red Flayer ( 890720 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @06:07PM (#14727744) Journal
    Well, /.ed for me. But to comment on the summary:

    ""Generally attack against science is part of a greater attack against intellectualism in general. I think right now we're in an anti-intellectual period in the United States, but I think the pendulum will swing back in the other direction again." "

    I'm not so sure about the pendulum eventually swinging back. I think American culture tends to look away from those things we are not the best at -- and since we're losing the lead in science, Americans will no longer consider scientific achievement to be a benchmark of success. Sour grapes and all that.

    he fact of the matter is that intellectualism is no longer the primary route to riches, fame, or other rewards in the US. Sports figures and other entertainers dominate pop culture. Intellectuals do not get elected to national positions of leadership, nor do they often get elected to state leadership positions.

    As other nations take the lead in various areas (whether it's scientific achievement, literature, or what-have-you), Americans will always find something else to feel superior and smug about. We've seen this since the dawn of mass media.

    What scares me is that the American superiority/inferiority complex seems to be directing itself at world power. Sure, we're not the smarterst anymore. Nor are we the most productive. But you can bet yer bottom dollar that we could whup anyone if we devotyed the resources to it.

    My end point is this -- the American inferiority complex, reinforced by the loss/coming loss of our lead in economy, science, athletics, etc, is leading to a classic bully syndrome. The wars in the Mideast we'll be fighting aren't just about oil -- they're also about proving to ourselves that we're still #1 in some fashion, that we still matter.

    Sorry for the long-windedness, but the only way we're going to "swing back" is if people push really hard for it. There's no natural tendency to do so, IMO.
    • intellectualism is no longer the primary route to riches
      Look at the Forbes 400. I think you'll find more intellectually inclined people than sports figures and entertainers. They include software developers, mathematicians, economists.
      • I think he means that such is no longer perceived as the primary route. Is the average American teen more likely to perceive themselves becoming a nuclear physicist... or hitting the big time on American Idol? In the garage working on whatever will create the next Microsoft... or recording their garage band? Landing a college scholarship to become an engineer... or as the next step in getting picked up by the NFL?

        Unfortunately, too many of those kids also flunked math, and don't understand that the odds o

      • There's a very strong difference between an entrepeneur and an intellectual. An intellectual attempts to solve problems for the intellectual curiosity, whereas an entrepeneur solves problems so as to make money. Just because you are smart does not mean you are an intellectual.

        You can be anti-intellectual and still appreciate entrepeneurs. An important aspect of anti-intellectualism is the belief that those eggheads should quit fucking around and get down to business. An entrepeneur (or an engineer, to a les
      • "Look at the Forbes 400. I think you'll find more intellectually inclined people than sports figures and entertainers. They include software developers, mathematicians, economists."

        But, most people don't look at the Forbes 400. They look at movies and television programming. The Forbes 400 is less and less relevant to American culture.

        Also, the majority of the people on the Forbes 400 didn't rise to the Forbes 400 through their own actions -- they earned their money the old-fashioned way -- they inhe
    • > he fact of the matter is that intellectualism is no longer the primary route to riches, fame, or other rewards in the US.

      Has it ever been?
    • Elected? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by PCM2 ( 4486 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @06:57PM (#14728195) Homepage
      Intellectuals do not get elected to national positions of leadership, nor do they often get elected to state leadership positions.
      Maybe not, but you could rightly describe Karl Rove as an intellectual.

      Whoever said that intellectualism contributes toward strong leadership? You could say the two are somewhat exclusive -- one requires a degree of introversion and introspection while the other calls for the opposite.

      Really what you need are leaders who recognize and respect the value of intellect, and who will act upon the recommendations of smart people. To a certain extent, George Bush owes his successes to the fact that he actually does do that. I don't buy that he's as much of a hayseed as he pretends to be. The reason he doesn't do what I would like to see done isn't because he's stupid; it's because he doesn't share my priorities.

      • I didn't mean to imply that we need intellectuals as politicians (though, I'd much rather have a thinking man/woman in a position of leadership, someone who is willing to recognize that some issues are not one-sided); the point I was making with that sentence was that the lack of intellectuals in public office is a symptom of the anti-intellectualism that pervades most of the country.

        Re: GWB, I agree that he's craftier than is commonly perceived. But, it's one thing to select capable advisors and to take
    • by Anonymous Coward
      My end point is this -- the American inferiority complex, reinforced by the loss/coming loss of our lead in economy, science, athletics, etc, is leading to a classic bully syndrome.

      The economic/intellectual/productivity fear happened in the 80's. Remember how the smarter, more productive Japanese were taking our jobs and taking over the country? You had similar "Buy American" and "The Cold War is over & the Japanese won" fear mongering.

      The wars in the Mideast we'll be fighting aren't just about oi
      • "Remember how the smarter, more productive Japanese were taking our jobs and taking over the country? You had similar "Buy American" and "The Cold War is over & the Japanese won" fear mongering."

        But fear-mongering is not what we're seeing now. I don't understand this parallel you're drawing when what the American culture is experiencing now is not remotely the same as the cultural attitude during the 80s.

        "The wars in the middle east are about securing strategic resources and trade"

        That's not all
  • by mhore ( 582354 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @06:27PM (#14727914)
    Nice guy. Living in Memphis and all, I had the chance to meet him a few months back. He gave a lecture mirroring his new book (The Discoveries -- good book, by the way. Has a physicists perspective on ground-breaking pubs, and then the original pubs themselves, mostly unabridged). Since I also live in Memphis, there is a lot of that bible-belt mentality here... Earth is only 6,000 years old, etc. Anyway... somebody asked a question at the end, obviously of a pro-Intelligent Design slant, trying to get him to comment on it. It's refreshing to hear his take on the absurdity... and I can only hope that since he has status outside of the science community as well as within that his comments will make people think. (Basically... his answer was science and religion address different questions. Don't try to mix them).

    Mike.
    • Basically... his answer was science and religion address different questions. Don't try to mix them

      Yes, that attitude might have held water a couple centuries ago. But physics has been trying to understand the fundamental "nature" of the universe for quite some time and even goes so far as to extrapolate back to the big bang, which is itself a creation story. Biology seeks to explain life itself.

      What exactly do you think religion should cover? The attitude of seperation is exactly the attitude that allowe
      • What exactly do you think religion should cover? The attitude of seperation is exactly the attitude that allowed Intelligent Design in the door in the first place. The fundamental attitude of ID is that everything that Biology can't adequately explain, probably can't be explained and just is because that is the way God made it. It puts a big stop sign up at the edge of current scientific understanding and tells us to look no further because that is just the way God made it and it is beyond our human compreh
  • by truckaxle ( 883149 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @06:53PM (#14728157) Homepage
    You know things are bad when you come across a parody [theonion.com] and you stop for second and check to be sure they are not really serious.
  • I think I might give this article a pass, based on that quote
  • How's his son David doing? Last time I heard anything about him it was 1983....
  • by That's Unpossible! ( 722232 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @07:13PM (#14728334)
    The global internet is making the world smaller. The idea of the nation matters less and less. In the future, everyone will be brown, and smart people will lead the world in wealth, power, charity, and evil.
  • free thought is bad in a nation whose government uses irational fear to control the populace. if we actually used our brains we would wake up and complain about all the liberties we are giving up.
  • by Ogemaniac ( 841129 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @07:34PM (#14728483)
    Anything to do with cosmology and string theory will have no impact on our daily lives by 2100. Stem cells, while interesting, have been blown way out of proportion relative to their actual importance. They will (in some incarnation) probably play a role in the only point I agree with here - the biotechnical merging of man and machine. I think the anime series "Ghost in the Shell" is not terribly far off the mark with respect to how this will transform our lives.

    On the other hand, there are two big technological transformations that were completely missed that I am convinced will happen this century:

    1: AI. It's always 30 years away. But it is much less than 100 years away. Computers will be as smart as us by mid-century and much smarter by 2100, by when we will have the MotherBrainSkyNet.

    2: The energy revolution. A combination of rising dinofuel prices, falling renewable prices, and mid-century industrial fusion will completely change our use of energy. Global warming will be large averted.

    The world of 2100 will be richer, cleaner, and more peaceful than that of today. The biggest problem will be convincing people to have enough babies.
    • That's the path technology is just beginning to start down--taking human intelligence and augmenting it synthetically. Google and Wikipedia are great examples; in seconds I can have information at my disposal on almost any subject or topic. The systems are dumb tools under human direction, but highly complex in their operations. The future holds greater responsiveness, availability, portability, and customization. The future will still be led by humans, but they'll be remarkably well-informed, with near per
      • and we will spend a lot of time trying to find our ghosts.

        The problem now is not lack of information, or lack of access, but indeed the opposite. There is far, far too much of it! I am a scientist. Papers in my sub-sub-sub specialty are now being produced so fast that I can no longer read them all, or even give them more than a glance. I do not think there is much hope in "augmenting" our abilities without completely moving them outside of our bodies. Our brains are pretty well optimized for their j
  • by FooGoo ( 98336 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2006 @08:14PM (#14728752)
    It is the job of the intellectual to sit around and think up stuff. It is the job of the scientists to tell the intellectuals that they are either full of shit or right on. It is the job of the revolutionary to change the world. If you consider yourself one of they above but do the job of one of the others you are doing the rest of us a disservice. Scientists should never be intellectuals and logic and intellect are not comparable.

    My job as a gadfly is to tell everyone they are full of shit. Which makes me idealy suited to post on slashdot.
  • Personally, I think it's an expression of despite for the arrogance and mass murder conducted by intellectuals and scientists, during the past century. It does seem that intelligence is a self-limiting genetic trait.

How can you work when the system's so crowded?

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