Revolution #167, June 7, 2009

Thoughts on the Origins Symposium

We received the following correspondence from a reader:

I've just been watching videos on the web from a conference that drew together scientists from many realms to discuss some of the biggest scientific questions of the day. There were many different and fascinating topics discussed at this symposium. And it made me think about a lot of questions about the importance of a scientific method and approach—and I wanted to share some of what I learned with readers of Revolution.

The conference was the "Origins Symposium"—held April 3-6th at Arizona State University. There were public lectures in front of thousands of people, panels and dialogues—and an assembly with a thousand high school students from Phoenix who engaged with Nobel prize winners.

The symposium brought together world famous scientists who have played a big part in efforts to popularize science—like physicist Brian Greene who is also a prime force behind the World Science Festival that takes place in New York City in June, Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, and the main organizer of this conference Lawrence Kraus—a theoretical physicist who along with others at "Origins" has been involved in the "Beyond Belief" conferences held each year. (see Revolution #75

The topics were some of the most interesting things that we as humanity are still trying to understand about our world and universe: how did the universe begin and what do we know and not know about it, what is physics learning about the nature of matter and the fundamental forces at work in the universe, is our universe just one of a series of "multiverses",  how did life arise and evolve, what are the chances and evidence there may be life on other planets, and what is the origin of human uniqueness and consciousness? And there were stimulating conversations on science and society.

The panels and discussion opened up avenues into what science is learning, but also gave a sense of what science actually is and how it works—demystifying it even as challenging people to learn more about some complex things.

It's not only exciting and mind-blowing to venture into all of this—it's also important. I want to encourage people to watch the "Origins" videos online. Your mind may get blown and opened up as mine did (

The symposium organizers clearly hold a deep desire to open up scientific understanding to the broadest masses of people and to be part of transforming the situation where so many people don't know about, are turned away from, or even hostile to science. In the panel "Science, Society and the Merchants of Light," Brian Greene spoke about the need to engage people with the "big, wonderful ideas of science." He talked about encountering so many kids whose eyes light up and say with amazement, "that is Science?" when he tells them about the latest discoveries in cosmology or particle theory.

A central reference for the symposium—was responding to the attacks on science and the efforts to undermine and even destroy the scientific method that have come from powerful and highly placed fundamentalist forces in this society and in the world. Anthony Grayling, Professor of Philosophy from the University of London, contrasted how science and fundamentalist religion come at the world. Grayling said science is a "way of doing things, a way of thinking and of finding out and of testing it." He contrasted a scientific mindset—which is "prepared to not understand things yet, prepared to be open-minded, prepared to recognize that solving a problem may very well generate a number of new problems" and excited about that prospect, vs. a religious mindset that wants neat, easy answers, is uncomfortable with uncertainty and uses that as an excuse to stop thinking about it.

In the discussions, there were some interesting things said about the Bush years and Obama in terms of science. A number of participants mentioned that with Obama, things have turned a corner and are now "headed in the right direction."

Under Bush global warming research was suppressed, evolution attacked and the scientific method undermined. In certain respects, Obama has departed from Bush—appointing actual scientists to oversee certain panels in contrast to Bush's promotion of religious fundamentalists, pledging to expand funding for science, etc. Obama has promised that "scientific integrity will be restored." But more profoundly, just as on the question of abortion, Obama is seeking to bring together lunatic religious fundamentalist morality with reality-based science around a "common ground." And two antagonistic forces can only find common ground with one side capitulating to the other.

As one example, according to a recent email from the organization "Defend Science" (, while claiming to lift the restrictions Bush placed on federal funding of stem cell research, Obama does not plan to challenge a congressional amendment which curtails the development of new needed stem cell lines. According to the N.Y. Times, the Dickey-Wicker amendment, "specifically bans the use of tax dollars to create human embryos—a practice that is routine in private fertility clinics—or for research in which embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury." Melody Barnes, Obama's chief domestic advisor, told the NY Times Obama "has not taken a position on the ban and does not intend to," adding that Obama "recognizes the divisiveness of the issue" and the "range of beliefs on this."

This amendment protecting literally a clump of human cells in opposition to research which can provide new scientific insights and potentially help tens of millions of people with a range of diseases, puts fundamentalist morality over the needs of humanity.

The well known astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson challenged the overall positive feeling about things under Obama at the symposium when he said, "I'm cynical in a fundamental way here…after several tours of duty in Washington D.C. learning how the sausage gets made. I have come to conclude that this stated resurging interest in science does not derive from any deep, romantic sense and longing to understand our place in the universe. In my judgment…it comes about because enough people are coming to learn that innovations in science and technology are the foundations of tomorrow's economy. And we're watching our economy fall while the economies of other nations who have made these investments rise. And so, in the end, since nobody in a capitalist system wants to die poor, at some point science and technology ends up reigning supreme. I wish it was for more lofty reasons than just not wanting to die poor, but I'll take it if I can get it."

There's much more to say on this topic of what is and isn't changing under Obama, and how Obama can only continue to chain science to the service of the capitalist system and also seek to merge it with faith, which means severely constraining it and undermining the actual method of science. But it's a subject for another time.

MR. BRIAN GREENE: It's interesting, you began by asking, how have we done, and we have done really well. And you think back to Newton, he was trying to figure out the motion of everyday objects, from throwing a ball, to the motion of the moon, and he did a really good job, and he did such a good job, that it took us a long time before we were able to make the next dramatic steps, but we have. We have been able to understand how molecules work, how atoms work, subatomic particles, we have been able to go the other direction, figure out how neutron stars, black holes, entire galaxies, and the whole universe, we really have a fairly good understanding of our huge range of physical scales. That is a tremendous achievement, but it also sets up a challenge. We are now investigating realms that are so far from everyday experience that it really requires us to be a bridge from very unfamiliar territory, molecules, atoms, and particles, and the strange features of the quantum world and black holes and so on, we need to be the bridge so that the general public recognizes how important these studies are, and how exciting it is, the wonder of science, the inspiration that you can get from the ability of this thing inside our heads to go so far beyond and really grasp the universe in a very deep way. So it has been a great time, 350 years, but the success also sets up a great challenge.

One of the Origin's webcast was a dialogue between physicists Lawrence Krauss and Brian Greene. Greene is one of the scientists working on string theory. The theory says basically, inside the particles of matter we know about—the electrons, protons and sub atomic particles, etc.—there may be smaller vibrating filaments whose vibrations give rise to various properties of matter which are "played" like notes from a plucked string. Greene said that string theory seeks to unify the theories of general relativity—which explains the universe on the very large scale— and quantum mechanics—which explains the very small. So far, these two theories can't be resolved, and string theory seeks to do so.

Greene said that he doesn't "believe in" string theory, but that right now even though it is still untested and purely theoretical, it still remains the best hope for making sense of the breadth of what is known. Greene made the point that unlike the "theory" of evolution, which has been proven over and over again by evidence from many directions, string theory should really be called string "hypothesis," because it has not yet been backed up by actual evidence or even tested in the real world yet. Greene said that he's not in the game to prove one thing right or wrong, but to take things one step further.

Krauss commented that people think scientists are wedded to their ideas—but scientists want to be proven wrong if they are wrong—because then the opportunity to learn something new arises. And one point made by several physicists was that you deal with reality, whatever it turns up—and "nature surprises us." This approach to the truth—to knowing it and not fearing it, and to actually welcoming new things, unexpected things and new directions—because they give one the opportunity to learn more deeply—is something I felt was very important to learn from and popularize.

In the main the "Origins Symposium" was a fascinating look at what is science learning and a vehicle for developing more understanding. It also raises the possibility to me of what science could be. It made me imagine what could happen in a world where the masses of people have made revolution and have state power and are using that state power to uproot inequalities and oppression and to open up all kinds of new realms of thinking in the arts, intellectual thought and science. Where the commanding premise in society as a whole is to search for and engage with reality, with what's actually true. Where people are not prevented from learning about science in the natural world and human society, but instead encouraged and given the means to learn all this, and on that basis transform the world in all kinds of unexpected ways.

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