Friday, September 28, 2007

John Macquarrie, R.I.P.

Philosophers around the world recently mourned the death of John Macquarrie, whose astute mind helped explain the difficult thoughts of geniuses like Martin Heidegger and Rudolph Bultmann to the rest of us. Spending most of his career at Oxford, he examined a broad spectrum of belief systems, from Roman Catholic to Baptist, from Quaker to Lutheran. He was known both for his fairness and for his profound understanding.

One of his central ideas was that, when a philosopher speaks about God, the words and sentences must always be understood as somewhat symbolic, and not entirely literal. In speaking about the central Being of the universe, human language is simply not capable of expressing such facts directly. Therefore, the most serious texts will always be not completely literal. Any text which is understood only on a literal level with either be not very profound, like the owner's manual for your DVD player, or will have important hidden truths available only to the reader who uses a more symbolic method of interpretation. Macquarrie's concept is this: to be literal is to be overly simplistic, and understanding the existence of the universe is not a simple task. Macquarrie hypothesized that God is Being - using the word "Being" to indicate pure existence - the thing which keeps the universe from disappearing.

Interestingly, the philosophers who influenced Macquarrie the most, and the ones whom he most influenced, were the ones with whom he had some disagreement. Heidegger, who did much to consolidate the concept of "Being," was opposed to much of what Macquarrie believed, yet Macquarrie appreciated Heidegger's analysis of this concept. In Europe after World War II, when so much had been devastated, it became clear to many people that they had to return to a serious analysis of God and His nature. Macquarrie's philosophy was one of several which led the way to hope and a peaceful modern Europe. He was born in 1919 and died in 2007.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Compton Effect

Arthur Compton studied at the University of Wooster in Ohio, and was later professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He earned the Noble Prize in 1927 for discovering the "Compton Effect" which dictates the amount of change in an x-ray beam when it passes through matter.

Compton was intensively active in the Presbyterian Church. Explaining his work in physics, he said, "a supreme intelligence brought the universe into being and created man. It is incontrovertible that where there is a plan there is an intelligence - and orderly unfolding of the universe testifies to the truth of the most majestic statement ever uttered." He went on: "beyond the nature that science teaches is the Spirit of God that gives order and meaning and purpose to human life."

"Compton scattering" (or "the Compton effect") is the decrease in energy (increase in wavelength) of an X-ray or gamma ray photon, when it interacts with matter. Inverse Compton scattering also exists, where the photon gains energy (decreasing in wavelength) upon interaction with matter. The amount the wavelength increases by is called the Compton shift. Although nuclear compton scattering exists, Compton scattering usually refers to the interaction involving only the electrons of an atom. The Compton effect was observed by Compton in 1923; he earned the 1927 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery.

Compton scattering is of prime importance to radiobiology, as it happens to be the most probable interaction of high energy X rays with atomic nuclei in living beings and is applied in radiation therapy. In material physics, Compton scattering can be used to probe the wave function of the electrons in matter in the momentum representation. Compton Scatter is an important effect in Gamma spectroscopy which gives rise to the Compton edge, as it is possible for the gamma rays to scatter out of the detectors used. Compton suppression is used to detect stray scatter gamma rays to counteract this effect.

Inverse Compton scattering is important in astrophysics. In X-ray astronomy, the accretion disk surrounding a black hole is believed to produce a thermal spectrum. The lower energy photons produced from this spectrum are scattered to higher energies by relativistic electrons in the surrounding corona. This is believed to cause the power law component in the X-ray spectra (0.2-10 keV) of accreting black holes. The effect is also observed when photons from the Cosmic microwave background move through the hot gas surrounding a galaxy cluster. The CMB photons are scattered to higher energies by the electrons in this gas, resulting in the Sunyaev-Zel'dovich effect.

Paul or Saul?

You have to feel a little sorry for him - so many people hated him and tried to kill him during his life, and in the nearly two thousand years since he died, they've continued to accuse him of simply being nasty!

But, according to Harvard professor Harvey Cox, and Garry Wills, a professor at Northwestern University, "Paul was neither an anti-Semite nor a misogynist ... Paul frequently commends women leaders in the congregations and proclaims that in these new messianic congregations there should be 'neither male nor female, neither slave nor free.'" What about those claims that Paul was anti-woman? It's true that he commands that women should always wear headcoverings in certain meetings, but he also gave orders about what men should and should not wear: everybody needed to dress appropriately, both men and women.

Paul simply wanted to "tell Jews everywhere that the messianic era they had prayed for had dawned and that a certain rabbi from Nazareth, slain by the Romans as a threat to their empire and raised from the dead by God, was the long-anticipated Messiah ... the hour had now come ... to welcome the gentiles into the covenant." Paul was an expert in that covenant, having worked in the San Hedrin (the Jewish high counsel) as an assistant to one of the San Hedrin's members; Paul knew the Jewish writings - the Tanakh and the Talmud - in great detail, being himself one of the most orthodox Jews.

This new religion would grow rapidly: "the time was ripe for just such a message. With the Roman pantheon in decay - dismissed by thoughtful people as mere superstition - and with Roman society rife with moral decay, Jewish monotheism and morality held a powerful attraction. Large numbers of gentiles were already attending synagogues but hesitated to undergo the circumcision and dietary restrictions required for conversion. At the same time, many Jews were looking for a more universal expression of their faith, in keeping with the emerging cosmopolitan culture. Paul's message attracted both. He taught that God had given his law to both Jews and gentiles, the former in the Torah, the latter by nature. All had fallen short, but now all were forgiven and called to constitute a single new and inclusive community."

Although extremely well-educated in matters of spirituality, Paul was not ignorant of politics: "the Roman Empire was not just the background of Paul's life and work but shaped his every word and deed. The empire was shaky, and Paul discerned its inner rot. He saw his task as preparing infrastructure that would replace it when it collapsed. Thus he gave the congregations he organized a political, not a religious name: ecclesia, meaning an official assembly of citizens. When these upstarts insisted that there was someone higher than Caesar to whom they owed supreme loyalty, Roman officials saw that they threatened the symbolic capstone of the whole system. The empire executed Peter and Paul, and Jesus before them, because the imperial elites did not view their movement as a harmless, otherworldly cult but as a real and present danger."

Muhammed on a Personal Basis

So who was this guy, who started Islam? Exiled from his home tribe, he formed an army: "there were epic battles with the Quraysh and other tribes, and Muhammed was a fighter and tactician." His military abilities, both to lead soldiers, and to use sword himself, became legendary. After the battle of Badr, he ordered the unarmed prisoners to be executed. He ordered several poetesses and poets in Medina to be killed, because they had expressed doubts about him. He organized the murders of several hundred men in the town of Banu Qurayza, suspecting them of disloyalty.

His family relationships were sometimes problematic: desiring "the wife of his adopted adult son," he took "her to be his fifth wife." He seemed to have a total of somewhere between eleven and thirteen wives, of who the youngest was engaged to him at age six, although she did marry him until she was nine years old.

(Quotes from Karen Armstrong at the University of London, and Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times.)

Steps to Fascism?

Psychologist and author R.J. Lifton has analyzed the mental adjustments which people make when forced to live in a totalitarian state - the way in which they attempt to make peace with the fact that they must do things which they find to be immoral: a soldier ordered to kill civilians, a teacher forced to present political propaganda to his class. The clearest examples are Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China, and Hitler's Nazi Party.

Lifton did a psychological study of the doctors who worked under Hitler's rule, and identified five steps by which they were seduced into silence, instead of protest:

First, there was coercive sterilization: Those who were to be sterilized included patients suffering from: mental deficiency, schizophrenia, manic depressive insanity, epilepsy, Huntington's chorea, hereditary blindness, hereditary deafness, grave bodily malformation, and hereditary alcoholism.

Second, killing of "impaired children" in hospitals.

Third, killing of "impaired" adults.

Fourth, killing of "impaired" inmates of concentration and extermination camps.

Fifth, mass killings.

Do we find eerie parallels to events in our own society? Consider: In the early to mid-1900s, forced sterilization was legal in sixteen states. Private individuals and prominent foundations supported the creation of the Eugenics Record Office to promote eugenics in American society. Eugenics is "the study of hereditary improvements of the human race by controlled selective breeding." Later, Jack Kervorkian assists over 100 people to kill themselves, Oregon institutes legalized physician-assisted suicide legislation. From 1998 to 2004, 208 persons with terminal illnesses have killed themselves. Eighty-seven percent cited the fear of losing autonomy as one of their concerns, and the death of Terry Schiavo in Florida is brought about through dehydration and starvation by discontinuing the administration of nutritional substances. Finally, New Jersey becomes the first state to legalize (and fund) human cloning experiments. The only reason for having these human cloned embryos is to terminate them in embryonic stem cell research experiments. Experience has shown that cloned animals are "impaired" and it is believed that cloned human beings would be just as impaired: "A review of all the world's cloned animals suggests that every one of them is genetically and physically defective. Ian Wilmut [lead scientist on the Dolly cloned sheep project] said, 'There is abundant evidence that cloning can and does go wrong and no justification for believing that this will not happen with humans.'" The Sunday Times of London reported that "gene defects emerge in all animal clones," indicating that anyone willing to make a human clone would be knowingly imposing a defect upon that human, and would be equally ready to exterminate that human for being defective.

Lifton comments: "The Nazis based their justification for direct medical killing on the simple concept of ‘life unworthy of life'. While the Nazis did not originate this concept, they carried it to its ultimate biological, racial, and ‘therapeutic’ extreme." Have these terrifying views, that human life has little value and can be terminated at will, crept into our culture?