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The Night I Gave Up Physics

Wednesday, April 29th, 2020: Musings, Science.

Cult of Genius

My Dad was a rocket scientist. He grew up during the Great Depression, when there seemed to be harsh limits on human potential. But World War II inspired technological innovations and a resulting leap in the industrialization, wealth, and power of our society. In high school, Dad read avidly about the exciting discoveries and inventions of his time in Popular Science magazine.

As World War II drew to an end, chemistry emerged as the glamorous science that offered “miracle products” and “better living through chemistry.” Dad began his career developing some of these products – for example, melamine, used in unbreakable dinnerware – in a research lab. From there, he advanced to the aerospace industry, where he developed rocket fuel for nuclear missiles.

My own childhood inherited this postwar optimism and passionate faith in science, technology, and innovation. Science and technology would bring us ever-increasing comfort, convenience, power, and speed, ultimately rocketing us into Outer Space! We were living in the Space Age, and President Kennedy, a national icon of youthful optimism, became one of its heroes, analogous to Elon Musk today.

But this scientific and technological innovation required the mastery of mathematics and other difficult subjects, nudging us further toward a meritocracy, in which power is achieved by those with the most advanced training and skills in the areas our society values most – those with superior ability, “aptitude,” and ultimately, “intelligence.”

Thus arose a cult of intelligence and “genius,” which signified the highest achievement in the most difficult field of endeavor. In our newly “scientistic” society, with its absolute faith in science, the most difficult field was believed to be physics. And the greatest achievement in physics was the Theory of Special Relativity, discovered by Albert Einstein, who was now recognized as the smartest human who ever lived – the very definition of a genius.

In general science and academia, as well as being the most difficult science, physics is considered the fundamental science, the science upon which all others are built, and the Laws of Physics are considered the most fundamental laws of the universe. Physics grapples with matters which used to be the sole province of the Judeo-Christian God. Hence it wasn’t just Einstein, but every exceptional physicist who became acknowledged as the smartest humans.

Dazzled by Choices

Growing up in that era with a rocket scientist Dad, it was unsurprising that I devoured science fiction and dreamed of being a scientist, and with physics as the most important science, the science of geniuses and everything from the atom bomb to space travel, it was no surprise that I was drawn to that subject. In junior high, even before I was old enough to study science, I was captivated by media accounts of lasers, the latest and coolest product of physics. In media and the popular imagination, lasers appeared to be the “death rays” forecast in science fiction, but they also promised unlimited benefits to peacetime society.

In the classified ads of Popular Science, I found an offer of blueprints for building a solid-state ruby laser. I ordered it, and when it came, although the technology was fairly simple, it was way over my head, so I consulted our high school physics teacher, and an older neighbor who was a ham radio geek and handy with electronics.

As the builder of a laser I become a local celebrity, and around the same time, IQ tests were administered in our schools and I was found to be exceptional. When I advanced to high school, I discovered a phenomenon well-known to talented students in our educational system. I became the target of seduction by teachers who were frustrated by their bored, unmotivated, underachieving students, teachers who were competing with other teachers for limited funding and equipment. In me, they saw a potential new star in their field, someone whose future glory they could eventually bask in. When they lobbied the administration to buy new equipment and teaching aids, they were doing it for students like me.

Our physics teacher had already become an early mentor. But after the IQ test, it emerged that I had equal aptitude in every subject. The only difficulty was to choose between them! Most people struggle to find something they excel at – I struggled to pick from seemingly infinite choices.

Our math teacher bought a computer for me – a long metal box topped with flickering vacuum tubes – and set it up in its own special room. Our English teacher enlisted me in a small circle of elite pupils to meet weekly in her home for readings and analysis of contemporary poetry. Our biology teacher lived on a farm and caught wild animals for me to study, including a beautiful, sleek black snake with a glistening yellow belly that became my favorite pet.

But the teacher I loved the most, and was the most loyal to, was my art teacher. He was the only one who exposed us to things that challenged not only our intellects but our most fundamental beliefs and values. He wasn’t pandering to our youthful attraction to cool fads, he was trying to make us uncomfortable, to get us to experience the world in new ways. He was truly wise, and he became my lifelong mentor.

Mastering academic subjects was so easy for me that I looked for more inspiration outside of school. My mom was an English teacher working on her master’s degree at Indiana University, and I accompanied her on trips to campus, where I picked up books on world religions, philosophy, and psychology. I devoured Neitzsche and Jung, inspired without really understanding what they were writing about. All that reading just filled me with urgent adolescent questions about the fundamental nature and meaning of life. I had mystical dreams and felt myself in the grip of profound mysteries.

Science of the Bomb

Of course, it was now the late 1960s, and my whole generation, average students as well as prodigies, were in revolt against the beliefs, values, and institutions of the older generation and its Establishment. Boys were threatened with the Draft and military service in a brutal war in a distant tropical jungle. We were shocked by horrific images in the media, and slightly older peers were returning home in body bags. This was the atmosphere in which we came under relentless pressure to quickly figure out what to do with the rest of our lives. Pressure to pick the right next step, college or vocational school, and the right career to ensure our future success – assuming we survived the draft and the war.

In early 1968, our government escalated the war, and the death toll accelerated. Closer to home, pacifist hero Martin Luther King, Jr. and liberal icon Robert Kennedy were assassinated in rapid succession. College students held desperate antiwar protests around the world, culminating in the chaotic, bloody Democratic Convention in Chicago, the big city of the Midwest – the city where my parents had met, a little more than 200 miles northwest of my home town.

The dangers and decisions I faced in the near future seemed more and more daunting. In the fall, at the start of my junior year, I don’t remember deciding on a particular career. Who does, after only two years of high school? But our physics teacher announced that I’d been selected as one of our state’s delegates to the National Youth Conference on the Atom, to be held in Chicago. And a newspaper clipping says that I planned to be a research physicist.

This prestigious event for high school students had been organized by the nation’s public utility companies, all of whom had been engaged in promoting nuclear energy. Since the 1950s, nuclear science, and in particular nuclear or “high energy” physics, had been considered the most cutting-edge of the sciences. It was the science that claimed to probe the essence of reality, the fundamental nature of matter and energy that supposedly make up everything in the universe. But it was also the science of war and mass destruction, the science of the Bomb, which my generation was trying to ban. Nuclear science badly needed a flattering makeover.

I didn’t record my feelings on being chosen for this honor, but I’m sure that despite any misgivings about the subject, I was impressed and excited about the trip. I’d be accompanied by our physics teacher, but I’d have my own hotel room, and at the age of 16, I’d be visiting a world-class city without my parents, staying in the center of the world-famous “Magnificent Mile” of North Michigan Avenue.

Eternal Danger

The Sheraton-Chicago Hotel turned out to be a massive, towering complex combining a 42-story Art Deco structure, faced with elaborate relief sculptures, and a newer, shorter contemporary annex. On arrival, I was advised to check out the 14th-floor pool, an ornate facility inspired by the architecture of Ancient Egypt. And for the first night’s dinner, I was taken to the hotel’s high-end restaurant, Kon-Tiki Ports, a phantasmagorical immersive series of themed spaces inspired by explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s bestselling book. I’d never seen anything like Michigan Avenue, the Sheraton, the pool, or the restaurant, and I can remember feeling like Alice through the looking glass, or down the rabbit hole, or whatever. Transported to a completely overwhelming alternate reality. The pregnant darkness, the millions of multicolored lights, the frenzied, random motion, the thronging, sophisticated voices. Modern people who experience almost everything through a tiny two-dimensional screen will have a hard time imagining the sensory overload I felt there as a teenager from a small farm town.

During the three-day conference, I attended lectures and demonstrations in the hotel’s spacious auditoriums. I saw a research physicist from Oak Ridge National Laboratories operating a gas laser, far more sophisticated than what I’d built. I went on a tour of Argonne National Laboratories and got up close to a famous research reactor. It was all overwhelming, but nothing left a lasting impression, except the reactor, which felt chillingly ominous, an object of profound, nearly eternal danger.

The conference schedule began with “hard science” topics like particle physics and space science, but the agenda became more transparent in the final sessions: “Nuclear Energy Centers for Underdeveloped Nations,” “Tapping Latent Science Talent in the Ghetto,” and most critically “The Flight From Science.” In the final lecture, a physics professor from the University of Chicago tackled what she believed to be my generation’s fundamental problems with science. But in keeping with the boosterish tone of the conference, she focused on superficial, simplistic arguments that were easy to refute, ignoring the deeper and more troubling critiques of the emerging Counterculture.

On Friday night, after dinner, the physics teacher and I parted. We returned to our separate rooms, and I put on a warm coat, took an elevator to the ground floor lobby, and set out into the big-city night by myself. A 16-year-old kid from the cornfields, loose in the city of Al Capone and John Dillinger. The city where my parents had met during the birth of bebop. It was truly the city where my existence had been made possible.

The Night I Gave Up Physics

I don’t remember many details from that night. I do know I wandered down to the Loop, Chicago’s center, where I left Michigan Avenue for State Street. Near the Loop, Michigan mostly hosted corporate offices, which were dark at night, whereas State was the street of theaters and nightclubs. Photos of nighttime Chicago typically show a blaze of light. But wherever I went in that night of hazy memory, what I remember most is darkness and mystery. Shadowy towers looming above me. Shadowy strangers on mysterious missions. A sense that I was invisible, a secret agent, a silent observer, a child posing as an adult. A sense of danger mixed with a feeling of new power and potential.

What could I do in a place like this, away from the safety and comfort of my family home? I’d read Emile Zola’s Nana, the tragic story of a Parisian prostitute, and I knew that some of the people around me had to be hookers, gangsters, violent criminals. Actors, directors, corrupt politicians, multi-millionaires, captains of industry. The kinds of people I’d only read about or seen in movies.

Somewhere along my nocturnal path through the heart of the city, I felt myself absorbed into its mystery. As tiny and insignificant as I really was, I felt my heart swelling with feelings I didn’t begin to understand. After all, I was an adolescent! Everything about me was in constant flux, evolving toward the unknown.

But there was one thing that became crystal clear on that solitary exploration. I would not become a physicist, or any kind of scientist at all. Nothing I’d heard or seen at the conference had moved or inspired me. None of these high-powered professors or researchers had captured my interest. It wasn’t a question of my ability – there was clearly nothing in these subjects that I couldn’t master. I knew I could achieve just as much as any of these eminent scientists if I wanted to.

I also knew my generation was rebelling against science, specifically the military-industrial complex that employed so many scientists, but also against the broader dominant paradigms of European culture. But I don’t think my generation’s rebellion motivated my decision to abandon science. What I realized was that my essence is to seek experience – in all its beauty, horror, magic, and danger – to process it, and to return it in the form of art, music, poems and stories. I feel things profoundly and I’m driven to create in response. I’d always known that, but in the turmoil of adolescence, the pressure to decide on a career path, and the competitive seduction of my teachers, my thoughts and feelings had remained muddled and conflicted. Until now. Until that night alone in downtown Chicago.

Real-Life Education

Eighteen months later, when I graduated from high school, it was with our town’s art scholarship. But that was long before the internet, and even before the now-widely-available comparative reviews of colleges and universities. The only way I knew about colleges back then was word-of-mouth: from family, teachers, and the guidance counselor in our little farm town.

Sure, everyone had heard of legendary schools like Harvard and MIT, but to a kid in the boondocks they were as distant and unreal as the moon. Nobody seemed to know anything about art schools, but my broad talents suggested that I needed an equally broad education. Our high school guidance counselor solved the problem for me when he received a recruitment package from the University of Chicago, in that vibrant, mysterious city where my parents had met and I had forsaken a  career in physics. That was where I started my long, winding, and ultimately misguided path through what our society calls “higher education.” Ahead of that mess, my real education was waiting for me, outside the ivory tower.

I entered college on the eve of a recession, and it quickly became evident that a career in the arts wasn’t going to support me. After a couple of years mastering anatomy and the classical techniques of figurative drawing, painting, printmaking and sculpture in Chicago’s picturesque Midway Studios, I was forced to fall back on my math and science skills. And ironically, the degrees I ultimately obtained – BS and MS – derived from a branch of physics: dynamics, the science of motion and change, the science of Einstein and his Theory of Relativity. So I gave it up that night in Chicago, only to be forced back into it a few years later – although I never ended up actually working in the field.

It took me decades of hard living to begin to overcome the cultural conditioning of my formal education. So much misdirection, so many false gods, such a narrow scope of knowledge – our precious Western Civilization. There were a few solitary voices along the way urging me to question authority, but they were drowned out by the dominant paradigm. My childhood pastor, Richard Merriman, who urged us to reject received wisdom and think for ourselves. My junior high and high school art teacher, Mel Gray, who challenged me by asking hard questions and listening patiently to my long, agonized answers. My freshman social science professor, Bill Zimmerman, an antiwar activist and founder of Science for the People, who revealed that, far from being an objective search for truth, science is a political activity, a tool of the imperialist state and the capitalist economy, and scientists should always be held responsible for the practical applications of their work. Richard McKeon, the spellbinding philosopher who framed the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But most of my so-called teachers were just trying to indoctrinate me in the same gospel of Western Civilization that they’d been programmed in themselves: the Greeks, the Romans, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, Bach and Beethoven, Galileo and Darwin, blah blah blah.

Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t really think for myself until I’d gained a broad and deep experience of life outside the ivory tower. In ghettos and barrios, on movie sets and rural communes, in nightclubs and underground performance spaces, in jail cells and courtrooms, on military bases and toxic waste sites, in mines and oil fields, in remote farming villages and Indian reservations, in mountain and desert wilderness.

From that mature perspective, looking back on the formal education our society provided in my childhood and youth, some of which was generally acknowledged to be the best in the world, it’s easy to see that it was primarily an indoctrination in imperialist European culture. After I escaped that system of indoctrination, I struggled for decades to break through the veil of illusion it created, to correct the errors in thinking and overcome the bad habits.

Science of Death

One of those errors is the paradigm of reductive, mechanistic science, represented by physics and chemistry. Physics and chemistry are so universally accepted as the foundation of science that virtually no scientists today question them. But they originated in a wacky, controversial thesis from Ancient Greece, which held that everything in nature is assembled from tiny, invisible particles called atoms, and anything can be understood by analyzing its component parts. Of course, you have to destroy things to break them down into their component parts, so this principle of reductionism was essentially destructive. This destructive principle was initially validated by the transformative, and most often the destructive, power of early chemistry, beginning a feedback loop in which science was progressively validated by its power to destroy nature and transform natural resources for human purposes.

The material universe, including living organisms, was a machine for Descartes, which could in principle be understood completely by analyzing it in terms of its smallest parts….The belief that in every complex system the behavior of the whole can be understood entirely from the properties of its parts is central to the Cartesian paradigm. (Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life)

Physics and chemistry were initially one science, based on this atomic model. Models – simplified man-made structures which are presumed to represent aspects of nature – are fundamental to the scientific method. They are usually termed “mathematical models” because mathematical formulas and equations describe their behavior, but in the beginning, scientific models were uniformly inspired by man-made machines – particularly the Asian and Middle Eastern mechanical clocks and computers that were the earliest known complex machines. These machines inspired the cosmological theories of Galileo and Copernicus. And it became accepted practice, which continues unquestioned to this day, for scientists to base their models of nature on man-made machines.

Ironically, it turned out that the atoms and molecules of physics and chemistry – these tiny natural machines that were the building blocks of the periodic table – could only be observed by still more and more powerful machines, often via acts of destruction in “atom smashers.” As models proliferated, particles became waves, and waves became strings, but it was always the same old same old – invisible phenomena that only physicists could observe, and only using ever more powerful machines.

As the European sciences solidified into a hierarchy with physics and chemistry at the foundation, they also split into the physical sciences – the sciences of nonliving matter – and the life sciences – the sciences of living organisms. Traditional indigenous societies avoid that distinction – they view all of nature as alive. Even geologists acknowledge this when they speak of the living rock.

Physics has its own history of naive mysticism, which is usually interpreted as the harmless eccentricity of sages with big brains. Prominent theoretical physicist David Bohm maintained that all matter possesses consciousness – but no one really took him seriously.

Instead of living habitats in specific places, the physicist imagines abstract mathematical space. Instead of natural cycles, events, and progressions, the physicist contemplates mathematical equations based on the linear variable “t.” Rather than living ecosystems, the physicist sees “matter” and “energy” – mathematical abstractions which can only be detected by machines. The European distinction between living and nonliving matter has enabled us to justify our ruthless destruction of natural habitats and overconsumption of natural resources. Physics and chemistry, the sciences that gave us napalm and nuclear weapons, are the scientific leaders in this destruction. They are the violent sciences of death.

This circular, self-validating thinking – nature is a machine which can only be studied by breaking it down using other machines, I understand how this machine works, hence I can transform nature for my purpose, hence I understand nature – is the essence of most science today. But there was a brief period from the late 1960s through the early 1980s in which a minority of scientists – part of the Counterculture – rebelled against mechanism and reductionism, seeking to replace it with holistic science, a science in which entities are only studied as components in systems, the way we actually find them in nature. A more objective, holistic, life-based science would have its foundations in ecology – the study of nature – and anthropology – the study of humans.

The great shock of twentieth-century science has been that systems cannot be understood by analysis. The properties of the parts are not intrinsic properties but can be understood only within the context of the larger whole….Accordingly, systems thinking concentrates not on basic building blocks, but on basic principles of organization. Systems thinking is ‘contextual,’ which is the opposite of analytical thinking. (Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life)

By this point, physics should be obsolete. But it remains far too essential to the exploitative, coercive agenda of the state and its economy. After the 1970s, the idea of holistic science was rapidly swept aside and mostly forgotten as computers, genetics, robotics, and other reductive and mechanistic paradigms triumphed in furthering the ends of the capitalist marketplace and the imperialist state.

As we perceive reality as a network of relationships, our descriptions, too, form an interconnected network of concepts and models in which there are no foundations….Since there are no foundations in the network, the phenomena described by physics are not any more fundamental than those described by, say, biology or psychology….Physics has now lost its role as the science providing the most fundamental description of reality. However, this is still not generally recognized today. (Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life)

Physics and chemistry represent what is sometimes called Big Science – science which is funded and directed primarily by governments, including the military-industrial complex. Whereas they are considered the foundation sciences, they are actually the least objective sciences, because they are implicated in the power politics of the imperialist state. Claiming to define the fundamental laws of the universe, physicists are not even smart enough to grasp the concept of the Umwelt, recognized by pioneering ecologist Jacob von Uexkull. The knowledge of each living species, including humans, is limited to the sensory, experiential bubble we live in. We can never understand what’s outside that bubble. Far from the smartest humans, physicists are among the most naive and ignorant, confined in their circular theoretical universe of mechanical models and violent machines.

As a chemist and a rocket scientist, my Dad worked with some of the most toxic substances known to man. They destroyed his health and ultimately his livelihood, so that by the age of 55 he had to transition to part-time work, and by the age of 60 he was essentially unemployed, financially insecure, and becoming an invalid. The 10-square-mile rocket plant where he worked became a toxic Superfund site. The miracle products he helped develop in the 1950s were eventually found to be polluting our environment, poisoning our water supplies, killing wildlife, and changing global climate. This is the vicious cycle of science and technology. Scientists and engineers innovate in isolation, ignorant of the larger context for their work. Their innovations are promoted by entrepreneurs, media, politicians, and teachers, with little or no consideration for the long-term consequences in nature and society. Young people are attracted to novelty and pursue careers in the most exciting fields of their day. Decades later, scientists in other fields discover that these innovations are actually destroying us and our habitats.

What tragedies and misery we set our kids up for, hoping for their success in a toxic society, urging them through an educational system that indoctrinates them in destructive paradigms!

Even the most primitive tribes have a larger vision of the universe, of our place and functioning within it, a vision that extends to celestial regions of space and to interior depths of the human in a manner far exceeding the parameters of our own world of technological confinement. (Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth)

Beneath the veneer of civilization, to paraphrase the trite phrase of humanism, lies not the barbarian and animal, but the human in us who knows the rightness of birth in gentle surroundings, the necessity of a rich nonhuman environment, play at being animals, the discipline of natural history, juvenile tasks with simple tools, the expressive arts of receiving food as a spiritual gift rather than as a product, the cultivation of metaphorical significance of natural phenomena of all kinds, clan membership and small-group life, and the profound claims and liberation of ritual initiation and subsequent stages of adult mentorship. (Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness)

Where do the little people of the world turn when the big structures crumble or grow humanly intolerable? At that point, it becomes important for us to know what a political and intellectual leadership devoted to the big system orthodoxies will never tell us: that there are small alternatives that have managed to bring person and society, spiritual need and practical work together in a supportive and symbiotic relationship. (Theodore Roszak, Person/Planet: The Creative Disintegration of Industrial Society)

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