Saturday, August 20, 2016

The American Founding Fathers – Heroes or Swindlers?

Declaration of Independence United States
For some time now I have been quite fascinated with early American history, including the founding fathers of the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and the first presidents of the United States – in short, the global experiment that was to become the United States of America, a nation that has managed to propel itself to a global superpower in its relatively short existence.

I am also surprised at the admirable level of individual liberties in its heyday, which can be contrasted with its apparent lack or restrictions of freedoms throughout its own history. How can the land of plenty and of dreams and opportunity at the same time systematically conquer and oppress its own denizens as well as foreign lands? How can both freedom and lack thereof be a symbol and trademark of the same nation?

In search for such answers I decided to look for America’s founding moments and used, for the main part, Howard Zinn’s national bestseller People’s History of the United States as my reference point. Some may immediately dismiss this work as being rather biased or too focused on its own political motivations, but I shall disregard that since the same can be said about traditional history books and other documents on this era; they also tend to distort and omit information and facts for their own convenience in assistance of their own particular political motives.

So let us start with the American Revolution. Now it had been my impression that this was a case of budding national identity and conscious independence from the occupying British forces. This was presented in my mind as a somewhat romantic revolt of the oppressed against the oppressors similar to and predating the French storming of the Bastille with its glorious (at the time quite revolutionary) slogan of Fraternity, Liberty, and – most importantly – Equality.

But there were other unseen factors at work when it comes to the Boston Tea Party. The American revolution was, in fact, propagated and propelled by relatively wealthy residents (most of them English) who were adverse at being controlled, bossed about and taxed by the British Empire. At around 1770, the top one percent of the population consisting mainly of property owners controlled 44 percent of the wealth in the American colonies. (As we are acutely aware, current statistics have even worse showings.)

England at the time had its own shares of wars on the new continent mostly against the French, and although merchants were able to rack up fortunes in this situation, for most people it meant higher taxes, unemployment as well as poverty. With the Stamp Act in 1765 the British Empire taxed the colonists to pay for the French war, which elicited uprisings here and there and culminated in the Continental Congress, an illegal government, that favored separation.

This committee adopted the Declaration of Independence, written by Tomas Jefferson on July 4, 1776, declaring not only independence of England but also stating that all British law was to be null and void, which would, of course, include the hated Stamp Law or any future taxation imposed upon the wealthy elite of the colony.

Now I tended to see this declaration of independence as a revolt of the masses against the British occupying forces, but this was not necessarily so. First, many Americans were omitted from the get-go, including Indians, black slaves, and women. When the founding fathers proudly proclaim that all men are created equal, that linguistically not only excluded women in their point of view, but also all white men who did not have any property to their name.

As a result, all those who were property-less were not allowed to vote or participate in town meetings. Apart from the aforementioned blacks and slaves (freed or not, plus there was also a small proportion of white slaves among them), Indians (whose very land was occupied by the colonists to begin with) and women (who still used their little influence to shape a war against slavery as they intimately knew what oppression and lack of rights felt like, regardless of their status or wealth), this also included sailors, journeymen, apprentices, and servants.

To Jefferson’s defense, a man that despite it all I have strong admiration for, he was generally against slavery and he initially wanted to include black people in this declaration. Yet this did not sit well with most of the politicians of the time and would have created an evident dilemma for the slave owners in the South.

Furthermore, since Thomas Jefferson himself owned slaves, it would have been hypocritical for him to push for similar rights for that large part of the American populace. So the rights of black people had to be shelved until after the Civil War, pushed somewhat further with the Civil Rights Movement and even today they are broadly speaking still not on equal footing with the white population.

What is also striking in this exclusion of most American residents is the fact that a lot of them had actually fought in the war for independence and ended up in the same, if not worse, condition as before. In fact, patriotism was invoked in the general population to rebel against the British forces in order to obtain freedom and independence, but little did they know that they were merely fighting for the increased rights of the elite few.

Such situations are nothing new today since ideas of patriotism and civic duties have led to mindless acts and wars throughout American history. In addition, many of the poor were given the opportunity to make some money by enlisting in this cause, the same way, the military ensures that they can attract and motivate those who are desperate with hopes and promises of benefits, economic and otherwise.

Although military service was mandatory at the time, the rich could pay off their duty or provide a substitute. This is aside from government officials, ministers, and Yale students and faculty who were automatically excluded from military service.

On a different note, African-Americans, Indians, and mulattoes were immediately excluded, perhaps because the government did not want to teach them military skills that could be used against itself. For instance, Blacks had requested to fight in the Revolutionary War in exchange for their freedom, but George Washington flatly rejected them. The South continued to be reluctant about arming the Blacks in fear of a large-scale and violent slave uprising.

We can see that patriotism played a role in inciting masses to wage war even in America’s early days. But come to think of it, it is rather strange to speak of feelings of patriotism in a place that did not officially exist yet! There was no America or American culture or identity to speak of, so what was the root for this patriotism?

It might have been an indiscriminate ideal, but it cannot be equaled to the liberation of other cultures who had been oppressed by occupying forces yet had a clearly defined and demarcated culture and tradition, for instance, the East Indians against the British forces. Essentially, the British and the American settlers and colonists were not too far apart in culture and tradition.

Finally, as Howard Zinn claims, ruling elites are aware of the fact that war is a way to secure themselves from any kind of internal war. This would be the time to unite against the common enemy outside and often across the border, be it a threat from Nazis, Communists or, more recently, terrorists. As such, some of the domestic problems can be swept under the rug in the heat of the moment thereby ensuring the continuous existence of a status quo favoring the rich and wealthy.

Let us provide another example here. In Maryland, according to the constitution of 1776, if you wanted to run for governor you had to own 5000 pounds of property; for senators, it was 1000 pounds. In other words, a whopping 90 percent of the population had no chance of holding office, and this practice is in many ways continuing today and is somewhat extended through lobbying forces as well as media exposure; it may come as no surprise that there is a billionaire vying for the President’s office as we speak.

There are also two more observations I would like to add on here. First, although the American Revolution is said to have brought about the separation of church and state, this is not exactly so. After 1776 the northern states adopted taxes forcing everyone to support Christian teachings.

In fact, religion was embedded in almost every aspect and institution of the American way of life, not to mention, the language and expressions of the common people as well as politicians. It is strange to see common phrases like “In God we trust” or “God bless America” in what is deemed essentially a secular state and government.

Moreover, Zinn makes a valid point about the government and its parties. The two-party system in the United States gives its citizens a certain amount of choice, yet that choice is limited in many ways. One thing, however, that both parties, regardless of political motivations or ideology will have in common is to protect their own interests.

This may be in terms of influence or wealth, but it is also regarding their own status as a political entity. A government cannot and will not (and I would even argue should not) be against itself; put differently, a government cannot be anti-government or else it would shoot itself in the foot.

However, a wider array of choices would be a good idea as it could reflect and integrate other voices and provide a more balanced government; while independents are gaining ground, they are still far away from having significant influence in the political process, Bernie Sanders and his revolutionary movement excepted.

So what did the United States do once they had secured their free and independent nation? After the British had lost all control and say over the colonies, the Americans decided to expand their territory. They fought against the Indians or tricked them with false promises and revoked contracts and deals, including morally and even legally questionable Indian Removal acts and treaties; they took over parts that had belonged to Mexico and Spain, such as California and Florida, and they also fought the Mexicans in order to appropriate even more land.

To conclude, I am not quite sure whether the founding fathers were heroes or swindlers, but would perhaps settle somewhere in-between (although I do believe that Thomas Jefferson was indeed ahead of his time in many ways, followed by John Adams to some degree). Interestingly – and conspiracy theorists hold onto your hats - both of these founding fathers not only died on the same day but it happened to be also Independence Day, the celebration of the birth of the American nation, on July 4, 1826!

What we ought to keep in mind, however, is the fact that we should balance and measure our perception of historical events in their own given context. Case in point is the often-cited Second Amendment. This was at a time where there was still the danger of losing one’s independence as a budding nation as well as the danger of being attacked by Indians, or rather, it served to give Americans the means to fight against the Indians.

It was also generally a time of survival under harsh environmental conditions where the rule of law had not been fully established or enforced yet. The situation is quite different today and current day weapons have changed as well.

The old rifles could not even come close to the power of harm and destruction that modern weapons inflict and we see this embodied in horrible tragedies of current mass killings. Using modern weapons under the guise and pretext of the Second Amendment would be the same as allowing people to use tanks and grenades for their safety, which is a rather ludicrous idea.

Also, we must rethink the way language was used in the past. The freedom and liberties we have today, we often take for granted, but in its founding moment, this was very new and untested territory indeed. Freedom of speech and religion are things of utmost importance, and the founding fathers may have realized this, but they lacked the historical experience and hindsight we have today.

That makes it all the more important to not only safeguard those liberties but ensure that they are upheld and enforced by our follow citizens as well as politicians now and in the future. The American nation was built on great hopes and promises and has often fallen short on them in its own history, including the witch hunt of the McCarthy Era.

Sure, in its foundation, there was a lot of self-interest involved. The game was rigged in favor of the wealthy elite from the beginning and is embedded in its constitution. Yet at the same time, there is also so much potential in it if it is followed religiously; especially if its laws and clauses are fully enforced and expanded, such as the statement that all men (and women) regardless of religion, race, or sexual identity are created equal and are consequently given access to the same rights and opportunities as any other citizen. This is the American Dream indeed, and hopefully this great nation does not lose sight of these noble goals.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Intimate Relationship between Astrophysics and Arts

Unveiling the Universe Series Sylvester James Gates Jr. 2016
One of my constant and recurrent joys is to attend the exquisite lectures of the Unveiling the Universe series presented by TRIUMF and held at Science World. Last night we had the pleasure to see S. James Gates Jr., a renowned American scientist who has investigated such awesome and awe-inspiring astrophysical concepts, such as supersymmetry and string theory, who looks a little like Morgan Freeman and sounds a little like Denzel Washington (only somewhat higher-pitched) and who serves on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The title of the talk included bits in Italian (L’arte della fisica), but the lecture itself did not contain any words in that language; nonetheless, it was still confusing as it seemed to be about the Art of Physics yet at the same time to deal with how to access one’s creativity app (whatever that meant). I remember having previously read a somewhat similarly titled book The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism by Fritjof Capra and being quite impressed by it.

Towards the beginning of the lecture, Gates Jr. promised math-phobic folks like me that there would be little mathematics involved, but then he showed us slides and slides of mathematical equations. It was quite distressing indeed, while his blunt claim that you cannot be a serious astrophysicist if you do not have the necessary mathematical qualifications was a bit of a downer for me. So much for my own (dashed) hopes of being a hobby-horse astrophysicist in my spare time.

Yet at that moment, more than ever, did I realize just to what degree mathematics is similar to a given language. It has its own symbols and notations as well as grammar structure and it is understood only if you have sufficient background knowledge and experience. Gates Jr. compared it often to a musical score (another language of its own); a musician would turn it into sounds in their head whereas a layperson would merely scratch their head over the scribbles and ants crawling up and down the lines.

One of the most surprising connections in this lecture was the relationship between physics and the arts. He showed us images and short animations that were representations of some of the equations he had shown us previously. Not that it was any easier to comprehend, but it showed us that the two disciplines could be closely linked and related. I found it most stunning to hear that Schoenberg’s twelve tone technique was just another type of representation of the mathematical Vierergruppe!

Gates Jr. also made a point that religion was indeed involved with science to some visible degree. In fact, many are not aware (myself humbly included) that the first proponent of what later was to be known as the Big Bang theory was presented by the Belgian Catholic priest / astrophysicist Georges LemaĆ®tre. Initially, he called his theory “hypothesis of the primeval atom” with the even cooler tag of “Cosmic Egg”! Interestingly, his theory of an expanding universe was erroneously (!) contested by Einstein.

Although science and religion have had their fair share of shared accomplishments, each side is more often than not wary of the other. This might be perhaps due to the fact that their methodology is rather different. Science is more of a path, with many crooked sideways, while it gets things more often wrong than right.

However, when science does it get it right, it is worth all the effort and sweat. Science, overall and in Gates Jr.’s words, is less interested in truth but more in accuracy, while the latter is something that can be measured. Part of the problem is to find the right fine-tuned tools.

For instance, the space-time curvature actually makes a sound, as crazy as that may sound! Gates Jr. compared it to a creaky floor in an old house and these sound waves leave traces and can be recorded by equipment that is extremely precise and detailed. Space-time is treated as any other material and physical thing in the universe, which is, of course, mind-boggling to think of. But now it can be even measured!

In other words, once proven mathematically, the hypothesis in question would become the accepted and chosen one until, of course, a new, better and more integral theory came along. It might take some considerable time for it to happen, but patience often pays off.

For instance, some of Einstein’s theories (excluding his “blunder” about the expanding universe) have been proven to be accurate after all! As Gates Jr. mentioned at some point during the talk, the world is a quantum mechanical one and we have the measurements to prove that.

Moreover, there was a consistent focus on imagination and creativity. To quote Einstein, imagination is, in fact, more important than knowledge. At this point, Gates Jr. gave us a personal example. He was trying to think outside of the box and wanted to gain a new perspective on certain theoretical issues. This proved frustrating.

However, the best thing to do when you simply cannot crack the code is to let it be. This does not equate with giving up but it is more like giving it a rest for a while. So he turned to comics and to watching cartoons. Ironically, even though we relax our mind, it still continues, like a computer, to process information in the background, i.e. our subconscious.

And as he was watching the PowerPuff girls (I assume his daughter was watching it at the time), he suddenly had the answer he was looking for! Taking one of the heads of the PowerPuff girls as an example, he showed us on a slide how it solved the contentious astrophysical issue he had been battling with. Suddenly her head turned into another equation including strings.  

This was the so-called Muse that worked and operated indiscriminately on both artists and scientists alike. Without imagination, there would be little science after all. And it is all those creative steps from the past that have led to the technological world we enjoy today. Maxwell and Hertz would be pleased to see how their findings were to a large part responsible for today’s cellphone technology, and they might be playing Pokemon Go against each other if they were still alive.

Yet with such technological prowess, hazards also appear. The powerful equation of Einstein’s E = mc2 has led to both, a revolutionary form of creating energy as well as the threat (and actual use) of atomic bombs. It is a yin / yang situation, a blessing versus a curse, and it is our collective responsibility as humans to choose the side that helps to propel us forward instead of destroying our species.

Finally, I enjoyed his manner of responding to failure. Failure is a part of our lives and brilliant scientists like him are not immune to it either. So how did he personally deal with it? He bowled.

Anytime, he did not do well on his exams, for instance, he would go out bowling. And in fact he, according to his own account, became quite a good bowler during his years of university. He even joined championships, but fortunately for us all, he did not change or abandon his allegiance and remained true to his scientific inquiries instead of competing as a professional bowler.

It must be said that Gates Jr. was quite courageous to pick a relatively new topic for his thesis, namely string theory. The downside was that there was not too much research about it; the upshot was that during his defense he could make things up as he went along as his supervisors did not have the previous knowledge or background to challenge him in any meaningful way.  

On a final note, I had my own test at this lecture. The quite affable and humorous Outreach director Marcello Pavan from TRIUMF had claimed that he would allow younger audience members to ask their questions first; the shorter you were the higher your chances to be picked during the Question and Answer period.

So for the first time, I decided to bring my seven-year-old son along. It was his first astrophysical lecture and he has some budding interest already in the field, especially regarding black holes. However, his question was about the future of the universe; in fact, he wanted to know what would happen in a hundred years from now.

True to his promise, Marcello Pavan did end up picking my son, and Gates Jr. explained that 100 years may be a lot for us humans, but for the universe it is even less than a snapshot. To put its 13.8 billion years of existence into perspective, we are the proverbial blimp on a long endless stretching line. That is something to be humble about, although many people take themselves for the center of the universe (they are not!).  

Overall, this was one of the higher-echelon lectures I had the pleasure of attending at this outstanding series. They did not only provide snacks in the form of popcorn, but also sufficient food for thought and Gates Jr. was apart from his credentials and experience also humorous and down-to-earth. I am already counting down to the next talk; hopefully, my son will come along not only to learn something new along the way but so I could have him ask my own questions during the Q & A session.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

American Use of Atomic Bombs to Show Power

On August 6 and August 9, 1945, the United States under Harry Truman and despite criticism from General Eisenhower and Manhattan Project scientists dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. The first explosion destroyed 90 % of Hiroshima and immediately and indiscriminately killed 80,000 people alongside tens of thousands afterwards due to radiation exposure; the second nuclear bomb killed 40,000 people in Nagasaki, according to the History.Com website.

The official pretext for the dropping of the atomic bombs was to defeat the adamant and even suicide-driven Japanese army and to avoid or cut down on American casualties. Dropping the bomb would, according to US authorities, lead Japan to its knees and would accelerate their complete surrender, thus ending the war more quickly in the Americans’ favor.

Although most of that is true (lives, on the American side at least, had been spared and the war came to a much faster conclusion) I believe that the main motives for dropping the atomic bombs are, in fact, comprised of other more strategic reasons.

I think that the first and main reason was to show the rest of the world the power and might of the United States with its newly acquired arsenal of destructive weapons. The second reason was that this would serve as a type of real-life experiment on the effects and consequences of the atomic bomb both as a vivid and indelible warning to others but also as a type of research project using the Japanese as guinea pigs.

Particularly after World War II, the United States was preparing to become a superpower and the capability and addition of nuclear weapons managed to reinforce that status. After the plight and chaos that had befallen upon Europe through the Nazis and the subsequent defeat of their so-called Third Reich, the two powers that came into global focus were the United States and the Soviet Union, setting the stage and groundwork for the ensuing decade-spanning Cold War. 
Although the US government claimed that the atomic bombs were a necessary evil to ensure the winning of the war against Japan, in reality, the war with Japan was not a significant threat to the US at that stage. In fact, Japan was already on the losing side and it would have been only a matter of time until they would have had to surrender anyhow.

Yet this situation posed an occasion for the US to flex its muscles before the eyes of the world. This was the perfect opportunity to use atomic bombs without fearing any kind of serious or damaging reprisal by the enemy as Japan was weaker and had no manner of responding in a similar vein.

In fact, the Japanese did not have access to any even remotely destructive weapons of that ilk. By utterly destroying Japan through the devastating use of nuclear weapons, the US would then be able to instill fear in all of its enemies and adversaries and would begin to dictate global politics.

Yet my question has always been, why did the US drop two instead of one bomb and why in such successive fashion with a time span of merely a few days? There are claims that Japan was ready to surrender after the effects of the first bomb on Hiroshima, but that they were given little time to make this known or to respond.

As the war was not that pressing from the point of view of the United States, meaning they were not cornered in any substantial way, why not wait at least a week before such devastating destruction. In fact, the first bombing would have sufficed, so why did they do it twice and kill additional Japanese civilians in the process?

One of the possible factors could be the study of the after-effects of the bomb. What would it be like to unleash this mega-bomb on a real city with civilians? The second plutonium-based bombing provided additional cases and data with which Americans could study more closely what happens to the cities and the people; in fact, the second bomb known as “Fat Man” was even stronger and more powerful than the first one, the uranium-based bomb entitled “Little Boy” dropped on Hiroshima.

All of this might also be the underlying motive for sending doctors and scientists to Japan for supposedly aiding them; in fact, they were more interested in documenting what happens to people that are exposed to radiation.

Seen from a moral perspective, this has been a very shameful blot in the history of the United States. Had they just dropped one bomb and shown regret at the devastation, it would have been perhaps somewhat - to a very small degree, of course – understandable. But to repeat the same deplorable and highly immoral action twice is unforgivable and reeks of injustice.

All of this puts certain matters into perspective as well. The US, as a superpower, is in the driver’s seat of deciding who can and who cannot have access to nuclear power. The recent talks regarding Iran is a clear example of that. Yet ironically, the US is also the only power in the world that has actually used nuclear weapons, so they might not be the best judge in such matters due to their own checkered history.

From a compassionate and humane point of view, I think that nuclear weapons should have been banned from the get-go especially after one has clearly witnessed its catastrophic effects on the Japanese populace. Yet, in reality, it had the opposite effect and was used as a driving force to gain power over others, leading to the nuclear arms race between the Americans and the Soviets.

They say that today’s bombs have a much more devastating effect than the ones used in Japan. I do not doubt that. Yet I also find it hard to understand the logic behind it all. How can more nuclear weapons make any country, let alone the world, safer?

This is not a Second Amendment issue as the Founding Fathers could not have remotely fathomed what degrees of destruction this land of opportunity would be capable of inflicting down the line. Also, with recent threats of atomic weapons falling into fanatic hands or volatile presidents, this danger has only increased the gravity of this situation.

Come to think of it, how can atomic bombs possibly protect us from the enemy? This is one of the cases where using it would not only wipe out your enemy but you yourself in the process. So what is exactly the point here? Who wins a war that both sides will lose?

Finally, I would like this horrible tragedy in Japan some seventy years ago to serve as an example for future generations and politicians in the world to refrain from ever using weapons of such kind, no matter what the underlying circumstances.

In addition, one should stay far away - preferably a million miles away - from gung-ho cowboy presidents who think that wars and bombs are the solution for world peace. It happened once in Japan, and it ought to never ever happen again!