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Trump has promised to make America great again. He is doing this in several
ways. He just announced a funding cut (over a billion dollars) to the National
Institutes of Health. We can go back to the days when if you get sick, the
doctors won’t know what to do, and you can just go home and die.
way Trump is making America great again is by sending us back several decades
to the time when all of our energy requirements come from coal and oil. I am
sure that the massive campaign contributions from coal and oil companies is
simply a coincidence. Most industry and most people want clean energy, but the
coal and oil companies do not. America is one of the leaders in developing new
clean energy technology. This is about to end, and doesn’t China know it. China
is actually happy about Trump’s decision because it means that China will
become the supreme leader in the energy of the future. It is almost like a
president saying that we will resist this new internal combustion technology
and focus our regulations to ensure that horses continue to dominate our
clean energy technology has an irreversible momentum. There is no way to stop
it, no matter how much Trump tells us that solar and wind energy are from the
Devil. People want it, industry will continue to invest in it despite federal
government threats. In addition to being good for the Earth, it is superior
technology. This point was made in an article published in Science by someone you’ve all heard of.
climate denialists—among whom there are very few scientists—will now have a
meeting at which they will proclaim that all scientists who study global
warming are traitors to America. The meeting will be chaired by Texas
Republican representative Lamar Smith, who is famous for having said that he
saw no evidence for global warming. The democratic staffers piled up papers of
evidence in front of him, but he didn’t even look in that direction, so he
still has not seen the evidence. Just about the only scientist they can find to
defend the denialist theory is John Christy, an atmospheric scientist from the
University of Alabama at Huntsville. Christy has made it clear that his
opposition to global warming science is based on his reading of the
Bible—which, by the way, he is reading incorrectly. Here is a report from Science magazine
about this upcoming meeting.
you, President Trump, for leading us boldly into the twentieth century. Next
up, the nineteenth century!
coming-of-age experience in literature and science was when, in sixth grade, I
read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the
Sea (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers), in English of course. Soon I hope
to read it in French. (I already notice that the French title was “under the
seas,” not sea.)
Verne is considered to be the father of science fiction. In addition, one
biographer called Verne “the man who invented the future.” It would seem that Verne was ready to embrace a scientific and technological
future for the human species. What a surprise it was, therefore, for me to read
Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century
(Paris au vingtième siècle), in which he
created a nightmare future that was ruled by science and technology. As someone
said, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” This
quote has been attributed to everyone from Niels Bohr to Yogi Berra. So far, no
one has attributed it to Verne. But, at any rate, Verne got it wrong, though
the manuscript of this novel was found in 1994 in the proverbial locked drawer
of a desk which Verne’s grandson had inherited. Verne’s publisher rejected the
manuscript in 1863. And for good reason. It is a structurally flawed novel with
two-dimensional characters. And it was overwhelmingly depressing. At least Twenty Thousand Leagues had an uplifting
ending (see below), while this book (I will spoil it since you probably won’t
read it) the protagonist falls into the snow and freezes to death.
than to attempt a summary of it myself, I quote extensively from the Wikipedia
summary, in bold italics below, but I add some of my own comments, not in
Paris in the Twentieth
Century (French: Paris au XXe siècle) is a science fiction novel by Jules
Verne. The book presents Paris in August 1960, 97 years in Verne's
future, where society places value only on business and technology. Written in 1863 but
first published 131 years later (1994), the novel follows a young man who
struggles unsuccessfully to live in a technologically advanced, but culturally
backwards world. Often referred to as Verne's "lost novel", the work paints a grim, dystopian view of a technological future
novel's main character is 16-year-old Michel Dufrénoy, who graduates with a
major in literature and the classics, but finds they have been forgotten in a
futuristic world where only business and technology are valued. Michel, whose
father was a musician, is a poet born too late. In fact, the opening of the novel was
of Michel getting an award for writing Latin poetry. The science and technology
professors of the big university scoffed at the arts and humanities, “spouting
like a steam engine.”
Michel had been
living with his respectable uncle, Monsieur Stanislas Boutardin, and his
family. The day after graduation, Boutardin tells Michel that he is to start
working at a banking company. Boutardin doubts Michel can do anything in the
The rest of that
day, Michel searches for literature by classic 19th century writers, such as Hugo and Balzac. Nothing but books about
technology are available in bookstores.
In fact, the bookstores did have books of poetry, but the poetry was all in
praise of mathematics and technology, such as Harmonies Ėlectriques and
Méditations sur l’Oxygène. One of the poems began, “Le charbon porte alors sa
flamme incendiaire Dans les tubes ardents de l’énorme chaudière...” Yes, it is
as bad in French as it sounds (“Horreur, s’écria Michel”).
resort is the Imperial Library. The librarian turns out to be his long-hidden
uncle, Monsieur Huguenin. Huguenin, still working in the arts, is considered a
"disgrace" to the rest of the family, and so was barred from
attending Michel's birthdays, graduations, and other family events, though he
has followed Michel's life—from a distance. This is the first time they meet in
person. Huguenin tells
Michel that his father was “un musicien de grand talent, né pour un siècle
meilleur,” a great musician born for a better century. In fact, he refers to
our present age as “notre âge crapuleux,” which I thought meant “our crappy age”
but crapuleux actually means totally motivated by money. Chapter 10 consists of
a tour of Uncle Huguenin’s library crammed with non-scientific books that could
be found nowhere else.
At his new job,
Michel fails at each task with Casmodage and Co. Bank until he is assigned to
The Ledger, where Michel dictates the accounts for bookkeeper Monsieur
Quinsonnas. Quinsonnas, a kindred spirit of 30, writes the bookkeeping
information on The Ledger. Quinsonnas tells Michel that this is a job he can do
in order to eat, have an apartment, and support himself while he continues
working on a mysterious musical project that will bring him fame and fortune.
Michel's fear of not fitting in is resolved; he can be a reader and still work
on his own writing after work. In
fact, Quinsonnas’s apartment is almost completely filled by a giant piano.
The pair visit Uncle Huguenin and are
joined by other visitors, Michel's former teacher Monsieur Richelot and
Richelot's granddaughter, Mademoiselle Lucy. Quinsonnas and Michel both dream
of being soldiers, but this is impossible, because warfare has become so
scientific that there is really no need for soldiers anymore—only chemists and
mechanics are able to work the killing machines. But this profession is denied
to even them, because "the engines of war" have become so efficient
that war is inconceivable and all countries are at a perpetual stalemate. Verne said that fighting lifted the
spirit (Se battre élève l’âme) and seemed to mourn the end of war. Verne’s
character also missed the old days when there were courtroom battles and
convictions instead of just financial settlements out of court.
Before long, Michel and Lucy are in love.
Michel discusses women with Quinsonnas, who sadly explains that there are no
such things as women anymore; from mindless, repetitive factory work and
careful attention to finance and science, most women have become cynical, ugly,
neurotic career women. Verne depicts
twentieth-century women as downright ugly: long, skinny, and dry. Their waists
were flattened, their faces austere, their joints stiffened (La taille s’aplatit,
le regard s’austérifia, les jointures s’ankylosèrent). Their noses stuck down
below their lips (un nez dur et rigide s’abaissa sur des lèvres), and they were
nothing but acute angles (de la ligne drote et des angles aigus). In
fury, Quinsonnas spills ink on The Ledger, and he and Michel are fired on the
spot; Quinsonnas leaves for Germany. Of course, the misogynous
Quinsonnas blamed Eve for the fact that he lost his temper.
In a society without
war, or musical and artistic progress, there is no news, so Michel can't even
become a journalist. He ends up living in Quinsonnas' empty apartment while
writing superb poetry, but lives in such poverty that he has to eat synthetic
foods derived from coal. He eventually writes a book of poetry entitled Hopes which is rejected by every publisher
Michel briefly has a job at the Great Drama
Warehouse, where popular entertainment is churned out quickly and sloppily.
Each play was required to have “soixante-quinze mille calembous” (75 thousand
puns). Michel, who loved serious literature, quit this job, saying “plutôt
mourir de faim,” better to starve to death.
As the year 1961
draws to a close, all of Europe enters a winter of unprecedented ferocity. All
agriculture is compromised and food supplies are destroyed, resulting in mass
famine. The temperature drops to thirty degrees below, and every river in
Europe freezes solid. In despair, Michel spends his last bit of money on
violets for Lucy, but finds that she has disappeared from her apartment,
evicted when her grandfather lost his job as the university's last teacher of rhetoric. He is unable to locate her
amongst the thousands of starving people in Paris. He spends the entire evening
stumbling around Paris in a delirious state. Michel becomes convinced that he
is being hunted by the Demon of Electricity, but no matter where he goes, he is
unable to escape its presence. He
wanders into a morgue, with “les cadavres rigides, verdâtres, et boursouflés,
étendus sur les tables de marbre,” stiff, greenish, swollen corpses extended
upon marble tables, but even here there is bright electrical illumination. As
Michel wanders, he finds the tomb of Heloïse and Abélard fallen into ruin, the glorious
past forgotten. Is this depressing or what?
In the climax of the story, the heartbroken
Michel, bereft of friends and loved ones, wanders through the frozen,
mechanized, electrical wonders of Paris. The subjective narrative becomes
steadily more surreal as the dying artist, in a final paroxysm of despair,
unconsciously circles an old cemetery and finally collapses comatose in the
snow. You will never guess what his
last word was. If you guessed “Lucy,” you are right. “Oh! Lucy, murmura-t-il,
en tombant évanoui sur la neige.”
description of the technology of 1960 was in some ways remarkably close to
actual 1960s technology. The book described in detail advances such as cars
powered by internal combustion engines ("gas-cabs") together with the
necessary supporting infrastructure such as gas stations and paved asphalt
roads, elevated and underground passenger train systems and high-speed trains
powered by magnetism and compressed air, skyscrapers, electric lights that
illuminate entire cities at night, fax machines
("picture-telegraphs"), elevators, primitive computers which can send
messages to each other as part of a network somewhat resembling the Internet
(described as sophisticated electrically powered mechanical calculators which
can send information to each other across vast distances), the utilization of wind power, automated security
systems, the electric chair, and
remotely-controlled weapons systems, as well as weapons destructive enough to
make war unthinkable.
The book also predicts the growth of suburbs and mass-produced higher education
(the opening scene has Dufrénoy attending a mass graduation of 250,000
students), department stores, and
massive hotels. Verne depicts a
giant canal that connects Paris with the ocean, and gigantic ships big enough
to be floating gardens. A version of feminism has also arisen in society, with women
moving into the workplace and a rise in illegitimate births. It also makes
accurate predictions of 20th-century
music, predicting the rise of electronic
music, and describes a musical instrument similar to a synthesizer, and the replacement of
classical music performances with a recorded music industry. Verne’s
example of the degeneration of modern music was none other than Richard Wagner
projected into the next century. Verne said Wagner’s four-hour operas were not
so much to taste as to swallow. His music, Verne thought, sounded like someone
sitting on a keyboard. Ah, if Verne could only have imagined what
twentieth-century music, with its dissonances, actually did sound like! Whether
it was melodic and expressive like Stravinsky or like a gray mixture of
dissonance as in Webern, it makes Wagner’s music seem very tame. In
addition, [Verne] predicts that the entertainment industry would be dominated
by lewd stage plays, often involving nudity and sexually explicit scenes.
Verne’s example of this from the nineteenth century was Jacques Offenbach,
whose female “jumpers” wore swimsuits “showing them as nature made them.” In
another place, Verne writes “le flambeau de l’hymen ne sert plus comme
autrefois à faire bouillir la marmite,” which I think means “the flame of the
hymen does not serve, as in the old days, to make the stew boil.” I’m not sure
what this means, but it can’t be good.
In some ways, the modern
world is worse than Verne could have imagined, but in some ways it is better.
The modern publisher, on the last page, told how many grams of carbon dioxide
equivalent were produced by publishing each book. Verne did not imagine global
warming; and he could not have imagined science helping us to prevent global
could a writer who loved science so much imagine that science would create a
nightmare future? I can suggest an answer to this question. In Verne’s
twentieth-century Paris, all of science was in the service of making money,
whereas the science that M. Arronax viewed from Captain Nemo’s underwater
drawing-room was a view of the wonders of the ocean. Twenty Thousand Leagues ends with (I quote from memory), “The
writer of Ecclesiastes said, millennia ago, That
which is far off and exceedingly deep, who can find it out? Of all men now
living only two can answer in the affirmative: CAPTAIN NEMO AND MYSELF (his
caps).” Science can liberate our minds to understand the world, or it can
enslave us. To Verne, either future was possible. Unfortunately, the real
twentieth and twenty-first centuries more closely resembles Captain Nemo’s acts
of terrorism than his exploration of the sea.
main message I get from Verne’s forgotten novel is that science and education
are whatever we make them to be. They can be used to open our eyes to beauty or
to enslave us to Mammon.
conservative Christians believe the Biblical statement, which I am in too much
of a hurry to look up right now, that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of
wisdom.” Most agnostics and humanists would vigorously reject this statement.
But maybe it is, in a way, true. If so, how?
Christians really do mean “fear.” And by fear of the Lord, they mean that we
should be afraid, very afraid, that if we question so much as the tiniest point
of doctrine that they assert about
the Lord we will go to Hell. The fear of disagreeing with any of the
self-appointed spokespeople of God is supposed to be the basis of all wisdom.
they have it wrong in two ways. First, I think they misunderstand “fear,”
giving it a modern English interpretation. They think it means that we should
be very, very afraid of asking questions such as “How do you know that thing
that you assert?” But instead I believe that “fear” means awe and wonder. One can
have a great deal of technical knowledge about the natural world, but unless
one feels awe and wonder then the natural world is not God’s creation but is
just a pile of resources for rich Republicans to make money off of. Most
scientists I know—and I know a lot of them—feel awe and wonder at the cosmos
that we are privileged to investigate. It is we, the scientists and anyone else
who feels awe and wonder, are the ones who truly fear the Lord.
the Biblical statement says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, not the entirety of it or the end of it.
Conservative Christians think that your unthinking acceptance of their
assertions about the Lord is the entirety and the end of wisdom.
I do not assert many of the traditional doctrines, I do have the fear of the Lord as the beginning of my wisdom: I feel
awe at the universe, and I use that as my starting point for learning more
about it, from my own research and investigations by others.
first learned about balanced pathogenicity back in the 1980s, it made me feel
good about the world. This is the process in which germs evolve into milder
forms over time. Natural selection favors the milder strains of germs because
they can spread more readily. Any germ that kills its host is at a
disadvantage. There are many examples in which diseases used to be very
virulent, but today they are milder even without vaccination or medication.
Examples include smallpox, which in Europe and North America evolved into a
mild disease; leprosy, which today is a slow skin disease but used to kill people
quickly. There are even diseases such as the “sweating sickness” that had major
outbreaks in Europe in past centuries but appears to have evolved itself out of
existence (it persists only in very mild forms): there are no diseases today
that have exactly those symptoms. Balanced pathogenicity was part of the
balance of nature in a blessed world.
Or so I
thought. That’s what I wanted to believe.
started learning about the exceptions. Waterborne diseases such as cholera do
not evolve into milder forms. Insect-borne diseases may evolve into even worse
forms. So I had to change what I taught and wrote: balanced pathogenicity
applies to diseases that spread to a new host by close proximity to the victim.
My main example was ebola, which, I thought, will evolve into a milder form
since the worst forms of it keep healthy people from coming in close proximity
to the victims.
turns out that even ebola can evolve into a worse form, as explained in this
article by Carl Zimmer.
I suppose that this evolution of worse forms of ebola is a temporary reversal
of the overall trend of balanced pathogenicity. But I am now having to make so
many “exceptions to the rule” that I am beginning to wonder how much of a
pattern balanced pathogenicity really is.
original feeling about balanced pathogenicity came about because I wanted to
believe that there was a fundamental goodness to the world. Bad things happen,
but within them is the seed of a better world. This was partly because I got my
optimism from the same source that I got my original information: Rene Dubos. I
learned about balanced pathogenicity by reading his Man Adapting and Celebrations
of Life. He was a scientist and informal philosopher in the same mold as
Lewis Thomas. A great thinker. But his “gospel” was that evolution ultimately
produces a better world. I wanted very badly to believe that evolution was a
good process that God incorporated into a good world. But the world in which
evolution works for the Greater Good is more of a Shangri-La than a real world.
pathogenicity happens, except when it doesn’t. Evolution makes the world
better, except when it doesn’t. Creationists look for scientific reasons to
believe God is good. Theistic evolutionists look for scientific reasons to
believe that evolution produces goodness that God intended. In this particular
sense, I am not sure that theistic evolution is much of an improvement over
an email to his Oklahoma constituents, Oklahoma Senator James Lankford
(Republican; are you surprised?) boasted of how honored he was to work with
such a morally dignified president as Donald Trump. Then he trotted out a
litany of horror stories about Obamacare, which he said Republicans would
repeal and replace. The criticisms he made were valid, but at the present time
the Republican Health Care Plan is for poor people to go under the bridge and
die. Now maybe later they will come up with a plan, and it might even be better
than Obamacare, but if you trust them to do this, you will be waiting (perhaps
under the bridge) for a long long long time.
then he railed against all the federal money being spent to save the American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus), an endangered
species in Oklahoma. (I prefer the French term, menaced species, l’espèce menacé, over endangered
species.) Burying beetles bury animals and lay their eggs in them.
seems to think that, if we would just quit trying to save the American burying
beetle, our economy would blossom into prosperity for all—at least, for all of
the people who are important to Republican Senators. He wants to launch an
investigation against all those evil scientists who do not simply adore every
word that comes from Trump’s mouth. Of course, the investigation would cost
more than the entire American burying beetle program. But he thinks it is worth
doing, in order to put those scientists, the very ones who refuse to worship
Donald Trump, in our places.
maybe the beetles will win in the long run. I can just imagine Senator Lankford
laying out in a pasture, looking up into Republican heaven, and then falling
into a deep sleep, only to awake and find himself, too late, buried in mud (it
would take a thousand beetles to do this, but this is all in my imagination
anyway) and with beetle grubs devouring him.