The View of the Universe from the Nevada Desert

By Sean Carroll | June 12, 2006 2:53 pm

The first-ever YearlyKos get-together has now come and gone. For me it was an interesting experience on several levels. First and foremost, it was an opportunity to meet in person several bloggers whose work I had long admired from afar: PZ Myers of Pharyngula, Chris Mooney of The Intersection (and The Republican War on Science), Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise (a guest blogger from way back), Stephen DarkSyde of Daily Kos and Unscrewing the Inscrutable, and a number of others. Only secondarily, I kicked butt at the Riviera poker tables, held my own at slightly higher limits at the Wynn, and got destroyed at the MGM Grand.

There was a great feeling of history being made — a real-life collection of committed political bloggers and diarists, talking politics and ideas and strategies and generally trying to figure out how to move things forward from these early days of promise in which the blogosphere finds itself. And there were plenty of big names around to verify that something important was going on — Harry Reid, Wesley Clark, Bill Richardson, Mark Warner, Tom Vilsak, Howard Dean, Joe Wilson, Maureen Dowd. The place was thick with journalists, guaranteeing that the gathering would not pass unnoticed.

Deep down, though, I learned once again that an environment of political activism is not for me. I’ve volunteered and been active politically in very minor ways in the past, and I am always reminded that I should go back to academia where I belong. Of necessity, political action feeds on fervent commitment to the cause and a deep-seated conviction that one’s opponents are worthless scoundrels. Even when I do believe those things, I can’t quite give myself over to such stances uncritically. I’d rather contemplate the ins and outs of different aspects of an argument, even if I do end up resolutely on one side; politics (as opposed to governance) has little time for such nuances. At the same time, when I do take a position, I have little interest in softening its edges for political consumption, or reducing complexities to soundbites in order to convey a message. The complexities are the fun part! Don’t get me wrong; somebody has to do it, and I have incredible admiration for those who fight for the right side with passion and perseverance in the political arena. I just don’t want it to be me.

The good news is: science! Thanks largely to DarkSyde’s efforts, there was a substantial presence of science bloggers at YearlyKos. A “Science Bloggers Caucus” on Thursday night, which I expected to collect a dozen or so misplaced souls who weren’t interested in the gatherings sponsored by some of the big political blogs, instead packed a room to overflowing with over fifty energetic participants from a wide cross-section of demographics. The bad news is: politics! Even when the science bloggers got together, there wasn’t much (any) talk about the substance of science; it was all about how to combat skepticism of evolution and climate change and stem cell research and so on. Not that this was anything other than inevitable; it was a political-blogging conference, after all. The tragedy is that our society finds itself in a place where scientists need to waste time combatting Intelligent Design when they could be sharing exciting news about the latest developments in evolutionary theory. We do have to keep up this fight, but it’s important to simultaneously mix in a healthy dose of science for its own sake (which all the great science bloggers actually do), to remind people why it’s so fascinating and worthwhile in the first place.

Besides the Thursday science bloggers caucus, DarkSyde also organized Friday morning’s Science Panel, which was a smashing success. We heard talks from Chris and PZ, as well as Wendy Northcutt of the Darwin Awards and famous science supporter and retired four-star general Wesley Clark. Lindsay took pictures.

Wesley Clark

I enjoyed the talks a great deal. Chris gave an extremely polished and hard-hitting presentation, his skills obviously honed to a fine edge by months of book-touring. PZ warmed my heart by telling it like it is:

Some like to say America is a Christian nation. I think that misses the point: we have been and are a science and engineering nation. The riches we enjoy right now arose from invention and discovery and industry.

But it was Clark’s presence that was the biggest coup, and might have had something to do with the incredible attendance for a session that started at 8:00 a.m. on a Friday. (Although, as a matter of fact, almost everyone stood around to hear the rest of the talks.) I’ve always liked Clark as a prospective Presidential candidate, and the fact that he chose a venue devoted to science as the place to give his speech was a nice bonus. The speech itself was interesting and essentially completely extemporaneous. There was some expected stuff about how great America is, and how that greatness relies in substantial measure on our scientific expertise. But he also wasn’t afraid to address the complicated relationship between science, politics, and religion. He professed to believe in God, which is what you expect a politician to do (and is likely to be perfectly sincere, I have no idea), but went on to insist without hedging that religion should be kept clearly separate from both science and politics. He even brought up stories of officers in the armed forces who told soldiers that they would go to Hell if they didn’t believe in (the right) God — and said in no uncertain terms that those officers should be thrown in jail. (One interesting thing about being a prospective national candidate is that anything you say can potentially get you in trouble. To guard against this, you are followed everywhere by a handler who sits in the audience while you speak, ready with hand signals to let you know if you are treading onto dangerous territory and should skip to another subject. Apparently no such intervention was required during Clark’s speech. But I definitely need somebody like that to follow me around.)

Best of all, we learned that General Clark’s secret dream while growing up was to be a high-energy physicist! Only once he got to West Point did the realization dawn that one could not be both a career army officer and a working scientist; becoming Supreme Allied Commander in Europe for NATO must have been lukewarm consolation. (To be fair, he did mix up the inverse-square law with the equation for motion under constant acceleration, so perhaps he made the right career choice.) And, to my delight/horror, he went out of his way during his talk to mention the string theory landscape! You can’t make this stuff up. Clark brought up Leonard Susskind’s book The Cosmic Landscape as an example of the extraordinary ideas that contemporary physicists are contemplating in their efforts to make sense of Nature, and in particular as a warning against any claim that the origin of the universe could only be understood by invoking a God of the gaps.

There was a brief question period after Clark’s talk, but I did not rush to the microphone to explain that an anthropic resolution of the cosmological constant problem relied heavily on a problematic choice of measure on the space of observers in the multiverse. You would be proud of me.

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  • Stan Tralins

    Freedom, free speech and healthy disent remain alive
    on the internet. Let’s give praise to c-span, cnn, Public radio & TV…. and the blogosphere. We miss Bill Moyer who got kicked off public tv because he told the truth.

  • quasar9

    Hi Sean, before I start I think you know by now we are opponents on various subjects:

    “Even when the science bloggers got together, there wasn’t much (any) talk about the substance of science; it was all about how to combat skepticism of evolution and climate change and stem cell research and so on…”

    Every ‘belief’ becomes a religion – the religion of evolution (without a God) versus the religion of evolution (with a God); or the religion of evolution with no God versus the religion of a man not genetically descended from apes (God or no God).

    The religion of Darwinism should have no time for prolonging the life of genetic defects, or finding the cure for genetic defects. It is a contradiction of survival of the fittest, and not necessary for survival of the species. Paradoxically, I presume that apart from those who are against abortion, you ‘actually’ appeal to conservative religions who believe in prolonging life, even when life must resemble some form of hell or at the least the worst type of purgatory imaginable.

    So where do you stand on Climate Change, are you pro the Oil & Nuclear industries, and/or pro alternative sciences. They are only mutually exclusive when competing in some Darwinian ‘political arena’ for funds.

    “He even brought up stories of officers in the armed forces who told soldiers that they would go to Hell if they didn’t believe in (the right) God รขโ‚ฌ” and said in no uncertain terms that those officers should be thrown in jail.”

    The brutality of war is that you need soldiers to obey commands, not to have a conscience or question orders, whether your God is Money or Oil, or land.
    The reality is that 1000 British soldiers have deserted, forcing the ‘British Government’ to consider a new law preventing soldiers from refusing to occupy foreign land. I think it is the same with the Israeli Army.

    In the trenches in first world war, imbecile officers from both sides (german + british) would shoot any man who refused to charge, nevermind deserters. And I presume similar things happened in the war of Independence between Enland + The US, and the Civil War netween the North & South.

    This is not about Right or Wrong, this is not about survival of the fittest, this is about sacrificing other men in the power disputes of landowners, aristocrats and monarchs (or their republican equivalent Senators).

    Who does the US send to find its wars abroad, in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan or Iraq? The sons of Cuban immigrants, the sons of afro caribbeans, the sons of other immigrants whether latino or european, who join the US military for citizenship, those who join for adventure and the killing, led by carrier officers, the son of the elite, looking for glory & medals.

    You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

    Me thinks your Right Wing Darwinism is no different from the Conservative Right Wing Christian Zionism. No matter what colour your skin, you are what you believe. That your views may differ does not make your views right. And if they are right why pussyfoot around the bush. Why need to soften the ‘truth’ to make the truth pallatable to a majority?

  • Cynthia

    If General Clark is ever elected president, then he might ought to appoint Susskind as his Chief Environmental Adviser. Using his cosmic landscape model, Susskind might be able to devise a viable method to divert deadly carbon emissions from planet Earth to one of those defunct vacua in the infinite landscape
    ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ quasar9

    Love your smile Cynthia,

    but the ‘real’ General Clarke is of the build Pentagon style nuclear bunkers variety, to preserve the darwinist elite from the fall out, knowing full well there is nothing you can do about CO2 but stop producing it.
    President Clarke would not only go all out nuclear on nuclear power expansion, but consider going nuclear to apply the ‘laws’ of Darwinism: reduce the proliferation of ‘inferior’ races.
    And of course invest in Star Wars technology, and Star Wars (Star Trek) escape routes for the ‘chosen elite’

    Maybe that is the true ‘destiny’ of Darwinian civilization. It was certainly the dream of hollywood producers. Reality is just slow playing catch up.

  • http://www.dailykos.com/ DarkSyde

    Sean was likely too modest to mention that during the talk, PZ singled him out, along with his cohorts here–in a room packed full of science bloggers–as one of the best science resources in the blogosphere. I believe that portion of the talk ended with something like “How often can you talk to a cosmologist on demand? At Cosmic Variance, you can do that anytime of day.” Sean was also ready to step in if we were short a speaker, which provided a much needed element of stress reduction for me. And for that I thank him.

    This year, we focused a lot on politics and biology. It’s the times we live in, sad to say, and that’s the topic I write about the most on Daily Kos. If there is a next year’s YK, for me and/or for science, I hope to invite a representative from the cosmology community, with Sean being at the top of the short list. What could be a cooler science topic than the beauty and nature of the universe we live in and the ultimate questions flowing from that vast reality, that each of us comes here to learn about & discuss?

  • Belizean

    Of necessity, political action feeds on … a deep-seated conviction that one’s opponents are worthless scoundrels.

    Sean,

    You should consider moving over to the Right. While we on the Right are aware that scoundrel exist among our opponents, we tend to view Leftists not as worthless scoundrels but as misguided fools whose hearts are in the right place. [Just being honest, no offense intended.] Kind of the way one thinks of nice people who happen to believe in astrology.

    Regarding one’s opponents as evil incarnate tends to be more of a Leftist thing.

  • Elliot

    Belezian wrote:

    “Regarding one’s opponents as evil incarnate tends to be more of a Leftist thing.”

    LOL. Just go back and listen to the Bush/Rove regime rhetoric about Saddam Hussein and Osama (when we were still interested in catching him)

    Sean,

    You should take every chance you can to diss the anthropic principle. Otherwise people might actually believe that it has some explantory power.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean
  • Cynthia

    Sean,
    I’m in an absolute state of shock…You actually uncovered evidence that Right-Wingers think Leftists are across-the-board-evil-doers…May the Wrath of God now come down from the Heavens and strike down all of us Leftists.. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Belizean

    Elliot,

    It should have been clear from Sean’s post and my response that we’re talking about domestic political opponents (unless I totally misunderstood the context). Guys like Saddam, Zarqawi, and Osama are evil incarnate.

    Sean,

    I followed your links. It looks like Malkin thinks extreme leftists are nuts, Coulter thinks they’re treasonous, and Savage thinks they’re insane. None seem to think they’re “worthless scoundrels” or evil incarnate.

  • Elliot

    Belizean,

    Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rove et al are evil incarnate. Responsible for many more deaths than Bin-Laden and Zarqaqi combined. Estimate range into the 100,000 range military and civilian casualties for a war based on lies and delusional notions of an expanding American empire.

    This isn’t a left thing its a demonstrable fact.

    Elliot

  • Belizean

    Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rove et al are evil incarnate.

    Elliot,

    Thanks for making my point.

  • http://skepticrant.com LBBP

    “Even when the science bloggers got together, there wasn’t much (any) talk about the substance of science; it was all about how to combat skepticism of evolution and climate change and stem cell research and so on. […]

    There was a brief question period after Clark’s talk, but I did not rush to the microphone to explain that an anthropic resolution of the cosmological constant problem relied heavily on a problematic choice of measure on the space of observers in the multiverse.”

    Well, for myself, I resisted the temptation to run up to you at the panel, and bombard you with questions regarding the role of gravity during the inflationary epoch. Maybe I should have.

  • Elliot

    Belezian,

    Explain it to the families of the dead and crippled…

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    LBBP, of course you should have. That’s what real-life get-togethers are all about.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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