Sunday, December 26, 2004

2004 MN4

As many people have heard, Earth-crossing asteroid 2004 MN4 (estimated diameter 440 meters) will pass extremely close to Earth on April 13, 2029. So close will the asteroid pass, in fact, that there is a 2.2% probability that it will hit us. That's comparable to the odds of rolling snake eyes the next time you throw a pair of dice. (Via Jay Manifold)

The scientific community has devised an "impact risk scale" called the Torino scale. Zero is nothing to worry about; ten is a certainty of a global catastrophe; no known object has heretofore exceeded a one. 2004 MN4 is presently a four.

The energy released in an impact depends on the composition, density and actual size of the object. (The present size estimate is based on brightness, but if the asteroid is unusually light or dark in color then it could be smaller or larger.) The estimates I've seen are all larger than 1000 MT, which is something like the total yield for all of the weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The effects depend on where it would strike, but they would most likely be regional rather than global.

I must confess to mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, the prospect of disaster (what better term, etymologically speaking?) is distressing. The horrifying earthquake in Indonesia this weekend, and the devastating tsunami that has killed so many in southeast Asia, show what such events can mean. But for those of us who are fascinated by space, and who have followed the discussions of the impact hazard over the last decade and a half, there is also something in us that says, "Cool."

Actually, the danger from 2004 MN4 need not be so great. It will probably miss the Earth, and we will probably know that it will within the next few months. By the time you read this, our estimate of the risk may be very much less. On the other hand, if it does hit the Earth, we will have a generation to be ready for it. We will very likely know its impact point rather exactly, well in advance, so that we can make necessary evacuations. There will be many opportunities between now and then to send probes to inspect it and have a better idea of the asteroid's physical properties, to predict its likely effects.

We may even wish to consider modifying its orbit. My back-of-the-envelope calculations tell me that a delta-vee of only a few centimeters per second, accomplished many years before the coming impact, would be enough to ensure a miss. With an asteroid mass of around a hundred million tons, a fairly ordinary large rocket could do the job. The Space Shuttle solid rocket boosters each produce about 15 million Newtons of thrust for over a hundred seconds; a couple of these, attached to the asteroid and fired, ought to be enough. (Getting a couple of SRB's to an asteroid, that's much more of a problem!)

So we might harbor a secret hope that something like 2004 MN4 will be just what the doctor ordered to summon the political will in our society to invest in a serious spacefaring capability. We children of the Apollo age have waited three decades for the next steps in exploration that we once thought were only a few years away. Maybe a real, tangible threat will persuade humanity to head for the stars. This is not a very admirable attitude, perhaps, but it does account for some of the eagerness and excitement that such news brings.

But maybe there is something deeper going on here. And that will be the subject of my next post.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Christmas Eve

Ice and snow and temperatures down to zero. Branches and trees sheathed in shining glass, bent over under the weight or else just snapped off. One branch, a couple of hundred pounds of wood, fell about sixty feet onto our driveway, just a few seconds after my younger daughter scooted out of the way. She was fine (thought it a bit of an adventure), but the TV/computer cable was hit. Luckily, our electricity never failed, though it did for several of our friends, some of whom are still without power two days on. So various holiday plans have been recalibrated, and we'll have fifteen for Christmas dinner tomorrow. It will be more Christmas-ish than ever.

Once in a while I have the opportunity to preach a sermon at our church. Someday I will blog about what that is like. For now, here is the sermon I preached on the day before Christmas a few years ago. A Merry Christmas and every blessing to all of you.

Things seen and unseen
(sermon preached at Harcourt Parish, 24 December 2000)

Advent has been for us, as it always has been, a season of waiting, of anticipation, of preparation. But that means that Advent has been, as it always must be, about something that we do not yet fully see. It is about the thing that we are waiting for, that we anticipate, for which we prepare. Advent is about God’s promise to us. But the meaning of a promise can only be found in its fulfillment, a fulfillment that is yet to come.

I must confess to you that I do not find all of the seasons of our liturgical year equally meaningful. Epiphany I have never really figured out. The season after Pentecost is such a huge, amorphous thing that I’m not sure that there is anything to figure out. But Advent, I appreciate. I appreciate it, I think, because it is so much like the whole of our lives.

Kierkegaard said that life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. So it is with Advent. We must traverse Advent from beginning to end, but its significance lies at the end, not the beginning. And that makes Advent a strangely empty season to me. A season of waiting must necessarily be a season of absence.

This is not a bad thing. Indeed, I think that it is a holy thing. If God is to fill us, we must be empty. If he is to lift us up, we must be low. If he is to reveal himself to us, he must be hidden.

We are surrounded by invisible realities. I am not for the moment talking about spiritual things; I speak scientifically. There are ten thousand physical things happening all around, but only a tiny fraction of them can be perceived by us.

Consider the light itself. This space is well-lit; we see very clearly; but most of the light in this room is light that is invisible to us. Its waves are too short or too long to affect our eyes. So narrow is the range of color that our eyes can see, it is as if we could hear musical notes only within a single octave, and were deaf to notes higher or lower than that. A few octaves up, in ultraviolet light, this is a very dim room. A few octaves down, in the infrared range, these lights and these candles are even brighter than we see them – though the windows, on a cold winter’s morning, are dark. And the faces and hands of the people around you are glowing with their own warmth. But we cannot see all that, for we are blind to those colors.

This sanctuary is teeming with electric and magnetic fields, slow and invisible currents of air, cosmic ray particles and neutrinos that zoom through us every moment. Our bodies are made of trillions of cells, each one too tiny to see, each one containing molecular machinery of astounding complexity. Weird quantum physics holds the atoms together and makes matter solid. All of this is concealed from us by the limitations of our five senses. And so the whole thing seems to us just a little bit fantastic.

I think that we human beings have trouble thinking about and understanding and believing in the invisible. It does not come easy to us. And even when we do accept in an intellectual way that there are realities we cannot touch or hear or see, that belief does not have for us the same emotional or imaginative force that we feel from the tangible world. It is easy not to believe in what you cannot see or touch; and even if you do believe, it is easy to act as if you didn’t.

And that, I find, is what Advent is about. There is so much in our lives that we do not understand – so much that seems strange or pointless or horrible. Our power of sight is so very imperfect. But in Advent, we remind ourselves of what we are, and where we are on our journey. We learn to live with the knowledge that our knowledge is limited. We live by faith, the assurance of things invisible. We live in hope, awaiting the fulfillment of the promise.

Yes, this is Advent. But these are after all the closing hours of Advent. The long wait is almost over. Tomorrow is Christmas. This is that time before dawn when the sky is already light, when we begin to see what the new day will be like.

God is doing something astounding, and Mary and Elizabeth are the first to know. And they are overwhelmed by it. Their joy and amazement seems to leap off the page of Luke’s gospel. Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Who am I, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Mary answers her, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

The words of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, are well-known to us. We have spoken them and sung them and read them throughout this and every Advent. They are among the most familiar words in all of Scripture. They are beautiful and profound.

Consequently, I find it a little difficult actually to hear them. Any text that you have heard or read a hundred times, that you know by heart, is oddly resistant to being read the hundred-and-first time. It’s like trying to pay close attention to the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” – and realizing that most of it is a single, long question. The words are worn so smooth in our memory that it takes effort to recover their meaning.

There is a world, the ostensible, common-sense world, in which the proud and mighty prevail, and the lowly stay lowly. The rich are fed, and the hungry go away empty. And it often seems that this is the world we inhabit. But Mary turns it all around. Not only has God blessed her, despite her lowly state; this is how God has always acted, how he will always act. God has always fed the hungry and sent the rich begging. If we once thought otherwise, we have been victims of a kind of optical illusion. We have forgotten the limitations of our own sight. Those who are proud before God are not great – they are insane. Those who are mighty are also mortal. Those who are rich have no place in their hearts to receive God’s grace.

In the great gift that God has given her, Mary recognizes the meaning, the reality of every gift that God has given. And the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says almost the same thing. Temple sacrifice and ritual were meaningless in themselves. The sacrifice of a bull or a goat did not really remove sin; the ritual was not in itself pleasing to God. But these things pointed beyond themselves, to the true sacrifice of Christ for us, to the life of obedience to which he draws us.

Listen closely to what Mary says. Our long Advent is almost at an end. The promises are beginning to be fulfilled. And this is what God’s promises to Israel, to Abraham and his descendants, really mean. This holy child, who even now begins to grow within her: This is who God really is.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The abolition of man

Via Rand Simberg, an article by Will Saletan on a biotech conference about genetic modification of humans. It is a bit breathtaking to read of the disregard the scientists and engineers have for the doubts and concerns that most of the public have over such work.

From the point of view of the researchers, the basic problem is one of public relations. The poor idiots in the laity are full of prejudices and irrational fears. They have unscientific views about the human life. Millions believe, for example, that we must regard human life as sacred, and thus fundamental issues of human life must be approached with humility and awe. This kind of thing can get in the way of those who want to demystify the processes of life and take charge of them. So the genetic engineers must move carefully. If the millions get the wrong idea, they might use their political power to intervene and regulate, which of course they will do stupidly.

The concerns of the Great Unwashed must therefore be taken into account, not as serious intellectual and moral challenges, but simply as social and political obstacles to be countered by effective marketing.

The researchers are not bad people. They want to make sure that human beings -- the ones that are permitted to exist, anyway -- can lead healthy, happy lives. They really do believe that they are on the side of enlightenment and benevolence. A biologist I know once off-handedly remarked that she favored harvesting stem-cells from human embryos, etc. "I am not afraid," she announced, with a confident smile that let everyone know that she, at least, was not encumbered by medieval prejudice.

And I thought, Why the hell not?

I am no luddite. I am very reluctant to place constraints on the search for knowledge. I think that the alleviation of human suffering is among the noblest possible goals. It is true that I take a more spiritual view of human life than my more naturalistic and materialistic friends. But even if we are robots, shouldn't we have a little more fear and trembling as we grab a screwdriver and begin to pry open the black box on our chests marked "Control Unit"? The fact that we can become used to an idea, so that it no longer disturbs us or worries us, is really no sign that it shouldn't.

Other ... critics may ask, 'Why should you suppose that they will be such bad men?' But I am not supposing them to be bad men. They are, rather, not men (in the old sense) at all. They are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what 'Humanity' shall henceforth mean. (C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man)

A look at the enemy

A military chaplain in Mosul posts an account of his experiences yesterday, during the aftermath of the bombing of US troops there. It's riveting, and moving. Wretchard at Belmont Club has commentary, sharply observed as always. The terrorists followed up the initial attack with a mortar attack on the hospital, where the wounded and those who were trying to help them were closely gathered.

It may be true that America's great sin is hubris. We must always guard against being too cock-sure of ourselves, or presuming that we are always in the right. Our power is great, and it has not always been used wisely. Self-doubt and self-criticism are moral obligations.

But there are other obligations, too, when we are fighting such men -- men who think their cause justifies any atrocity. We must never become like them. And, God helping us, with every bit of strength of muscle and brain and heart, we must utterly defeat them.

God bless the men and women at the spear's point.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


This post at The Diplomad (rapidly becoming a favorite stop of mine) makes a perceptive analogy. Many countries, particularly in Europe, want the US to be the rat-catcher of the world: they call on us to get rid of the pests, but they feel free to despise us and criticize us for our "cruelty" and general lack of refinement.

A few years ago, the catchphrase was, "America cannot be the world's policeman." I suppose we'll have to settle for the title of exterminator.

A disturbingly persuasive view

Via Roger L. Simon, a remarkable speech from April given by Haim Harari, a well-known physicist from Israel, on the essential problems of the Middle East.

Harari believes that Israel is in fact a rather peripheral issue. The real problem is the failure of Arab Moslem societies from Morocco to Pakistan. He lists four elements of the crisis:
  • Suicide murder, which is driven by hatred and against which there can be no complete defence;
  • A culture dominated by lies and incitements to violence;
  • Money, which provides the bad guys lots of resources; and
  • Complete disregard for laws and international standards of behavior.
I read this aloud to my wife this morning while she was making hummus. It is a bleak picture, but (as my wife said) disturbingly persuasive.

Once upon a time

(Originally posted 11/16/04)

This happened many years ago. It concerns two people I know, whom I will call Annie and Bill (not their real names). They had known each other since high school. Annie had gone on to college and graduated, after which she worked in radio. Bill had tried college but had quit after only one year, after which he went back to work the family farm. He was drafted into the Army, and while he was in the Army they were married.

Their first son came during their Army days. After Bill got out, they went back to the farm, which he shared with his older brother. It was hard for the place to support two families, but they did their best to make a go of it. Bill and his brother ran a variety of businesses on the side to make extra cash. Annie became a farm wife. Their second son was born, and then their third.

The third pregnancy, which had not been planned, was pretty dicey. Annie's blood pressure would drop and she would pass out with little or no warning. She taught her oldest boy (now five years old) to dial the telephone and call for help when this happened. The last months were pretty tense, but in the end their third son came and was handsome and healthy.

Soon after this, Bill decided that there was not really much of a future for him and his family on the farm. So he sold his share to his brother and went back to college to get his degree. Annie and the boys moved in with her mother, a widow who now lived in the old family home down south. Bill enrolled in the State University three or four hours away, majoring in agricultural economics. He worked long hours at the university farm and drove home for the weekends. Meanwhile, Annie did her best at her mom's house to raise the kids.

But it wasn't easy. After a couple of years, money began to run short. Annie's mother had very little money to contribute, and the money from Bill's scholarships and university farm work just would not make ends meet. So Annie prepared to start working full-time. She took a couple of courses at the local junior college to become certified to teach in the state. She found a job to start teaching in the fall. Then, in the spring, she learned that she was pregnant again.

In those days, of course, abortion was not legal. But by modern standards, in retrospect, it seems to me that an argument could be made that an abortion was justified in this case. A new baby would probably wreck the family's plans to get Bill through school. They already had three little boys, all under the age of nine. Annie's last pregnancy had been risky. Her doctor was telling her that this time she would need to stay off her feet and take extra precautions. And at one point, the doctor, listening to the fetal heartbeat, suspected that she was carrying twins.

As I said, abortion was not legal in those days. More to the point, however, Annie and Bill would never have considered an abortion, ever, even if one had been available. The unborn baby laid an obligation on them -- an obligation that they did not choose, but one that they willingly embraced. They shifted their plans, figured out how to cope, and before Christmas they had, not twins, but their fourth son, whom they loved very much.

The fourth son was me.

This is why I have never been able to bring myself to agree with the pro-abortion people. How could I? I owe my own life to the fact that, for the society I was born in and for my parents, an unborn baby brought obligations that could not simply be ignored, even when they were heavy, even when they threatened your own dreams. I can't bring myself to say that my parents were wrong about this. And if they were right, then that fact affects everything.

How can anyone, faced with the mysterious contingency of his own existence, approach this subject with anything but awe and reverence? I can understand someone who, as a matter of sober and tragic judgment, thinks that society must permit abortion. But how can such a person suppose that those who come to different conclusions are simply intolerant bigots who are seeking to oppress women? Yet that is exactly what many "pro-choice" people do think, including some of my best friends and a great many of my academic colleagues. (Whenever possible, I keep my mouth shut. You may chalk this up to moral cowardice, if you like.)


As for my story, it had a happy ending. Indeed, it had a ridiculously improbable happy ending. My maternal grandfather had in the 1930's bought the mineral rights to a piece of land in Oklahoma, telling my grandmother that she should never sell it. There is oil there, he said, and this will take care of you when you are old. (He worked on oil pipelines for many years and knew a thing or two.) Years after my grandfather died, during the summer before I was born, oil was indeed discovered under that land, and the royalty checks began to come in. They paid for my birth and for the rest of my father's college education. (He took a double load of classes to finish as quickly as possible.) The checks supported my grandmother for the rest of her life, and they continue to support my mother, who is now in her seventies.

The crucial decisions about me were made well before the magic oil money showed up. The Lord, we are told, works in mysterious ways. I suspect that sometimes, just for fun, He indulges in the obvious.


(Original version published 11/24/04)

Holidays fall into two categories. Some, like Halloween, are simply occasions for some sort of reveling, often the vestige of some half-remembered pagan festival. These I think have no particular moral significance, though they can be lots of fun. I am fond of Halloween, but not particularly moved by Valentine's Day (a sentiment, or lack thereof, that I luckily share with my wife). The second kind of holiday is what we can call the Holiday Proper, the "holy day". These are all, more or less, days of thanksgiving.

What is gratitude? It is the acknowledgment of indebtedness. It is the first and foremost obligation for those who receive a gift. It is the creature's proper response to creation, the redeemed's proper response to redemption, the living's proper response to life. We have received -- and every day continue to receive -- gift after gift, boon and benefit that we never paid for. And most of the time, we can never repay such debts. How can I repay my parents for raising me? How can I repay those who gave their lives in war to make my country free and secure? How can I repay God for my life, or for the lives of my family?

The main obligation that gratitude imposes is not one of repayment. Yes, there may be obligations for action: "Go and do likewise." But the first obligation is about our minds, about our hearts. Once we really acknowledge our indebtedness, certain attitudes are no longer possible for us. Suppose a man risks his life to save mine. Afterward, I do not have to think that he is handsome, or intelligent, or flawless, or even my sort of fellow. I do not have to become his best friend. I do not even have to think that he acted wisely when he saved me. But I am not allowed to despise him.

One of the few things that makes me really angry is ingratitude. As my daughters have learned, this particular lack of grace is very likely to earn a tongue-lashing from Dad. I may overdo this; but it is nonetheless a touchstone of my thinking. I do not easily accept ideas or opinions that smack of ingratitude.

And there are lots of ideas and opinions about that smack of exactly this. Many modern ideologies are based on the assumption that our ancestors were fools or knaves, or that the multitude of our neighbors and fellow-citizens are greedy racist religious fanatics. This is, perhaps, something that can be observed most clearly on a college campus. For a college depends for its life on a rich intellectual and institutional heritage; on a peaceful and prosperous society, blessed with law and liberty; on the patronage of thousands of the bourgeoisie who send their sons and daughters (along with cartloads of their treasure) to be educated by us. And if our livelihood and the chance to follow our vocations in pleasant surroundings depend on all this, then we should not despise the thinking and the values of the scholars, clerics, leaders, warriors and people of business who have made it possible.

What I'm up to

My favorite writer in the blogosphere is Bill Whittle at Eject, Eject, Eject. A couple of months ago he wrote:
The front line now, at this critical time, is in the hearts and minds of our own people. That’s where the real battle is now. That is our weakest point, our breach, our point of failure. We have not made the case to enough people and time is running out.

So maybe now, at this absurd point in this new kind of war, we’re the crack troops, we old and useless pajama patriots reduced to printing up pamphlets to sell war bonds to the weary, to make the case for holding on to an unglamorous, uninspiring, relentless grind because that – not Normandy and Midway – is the face of war in this gilded age of luxury and safety and plenty.

Maybe that’s our job. Maybe we can help cover some small gap in the lines.

We’ll see. But for now, I will take up the sword of the pajamahadeen, and rise up: just another citizen-wordsmith, trying to put words and ideas where they are needed: into the stumbling gaps, exasperated expressions and defensiveness of a brave and exhausted man under a lot of pressure.
Whittle is right. Like him, I believe that we are now in the middle of a terrible fight, a fight for the soul and the survival of our civilization. One battlefield of that fight is right here, in the exchange of word and idea that is the real heart of that civilization. Here millions of men and women shape their views of the world. Here they inform or deceive themselves, sharpen their minds or dull them, and for good or ill choose what side they will take in the battle. What happens here, matters.

We've recently finished an election, one of the "hottest" in my lifetime. Passions have been high and there has been a lot at stake. The blogosphere has been ablaze. The right guy won, in my opinion. Nevertheless, the fight of ideas has not remotely ended. It has only changed.

But the troops are tired, maybe. We need some reinforcements. And, um . . . that's me.

(Melodramatic? Self-aggrandizing? OK, yeah, maybe. Think how Bill Mauldin might have drawn it. Willie and Joe, hard veterans of a hundred battles, look at a scrawny new kid who has never heard a gun fired in anger and who has no idea what is ahead. "I'm your reinforcements," he says. Comical. More comical, if true.)

This blog is supposed to be my own meager contribution to the debates of the day, great and small. It is also supposed to be a tool for me to sharpen my own thinking. Ideas that I present here will get straightened and corrected and refined; others, perhaps, will simply be discarded. Now and then I will try out a line of argument that I do not endorse simply to see where the holes are. I will try to be honest about what I'm doing. I hope the process makes for good reading.

In the first incarnation of this site, I blogged anonymously. The advantage of this was that it gave me the freedom to try out half-baked ideas without unnecessarily offending my friends or -- let us be blunt -- taking any real heat for controversial ideas. But on this key issue, I have changed my mind. So, gentle reader, let me introduce myself.

My name is Ben Schumacher. I teach physics at Kenyon College, a small college in Ohio. My wife of twenty years is a mathematician at the same institution. We have two daughters and two cats. My real expertise is in quantum information theory, a smallish area of theoretical physics and mathematics, but my interests include history, politics, world affairs, technology, theology, science fiction, movies, music, and a bunch of other things. It is probably safe to describe me as conservative in my general philosophical and political outlook; more about me will very likely become obvious as this project progresses. This blog will go light on the quantum mechanics and heavy on current affairs, with an admixture of cultural and spiritual commentary. In short, you may expect a thoroughly amateur production.

Reboot . . .

Palimpsest (n.) -- writing material (as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased. (From Merriam-Webster Online)

For those of you who have visited this site in the few weeks of its existence, my apologies. I have reconsidered the form and function of the blog, and have therefore rebuilt it along slightly different lines. It seemed best to erase the handful of posts that had already appeared. What seems worthy will be back, edited, in a few days.