The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

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Unweaving the Heart

Science only adds to our appreciation for poetic beauty and experiences of emotional depth
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Nineteenth-century English poet John Keats once bemoaned that Isaac Newton had “Destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism.” Natural philosophy, he lamented, “Will clip an Angel’s wings/Conquer all mysteries by rule and line/Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine/Unweave a rainbow.”

Does a scientific explanation for any given phenomenon diminish its beauty or its ability to inspire poetry and emotional experiences? I think not. Science and aesthetics are complementary, not conflicting; additive, not detractive. I am nearly moved to tears, for example, when I observe through my small telescope the fuzzy little patch of light that is the Andromeda galaxy. It is not just because it is lovely, but because I also understand that the photons of light landing on my retina left Andromeda 2.9 million years ago, when our ancestors were tiny-brained hominids. I am doubly stirred because it was not until 1923 that astronomer Edwin Hubble, using the 100-inch telescope on Mount Wilson in the hills just above my home in Los Angeles, deduced that this “nebula” was actually a distant extragalactic stellar system of immense size. He subsequently discovered that the light from most galaxies is shifted toward the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum (literally unweaving a rainbow of colors), meaning that the universe is expanding away from its explosive beginning. That is some aesthetic science. (continue reading…)

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A Bounty of Science

A new book reexamines the mutiny on the Bounty, but science offers a deeper account of its cause
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The most common explanation for the Bounty mutiny pits a humane Fletcher Christian against an oppressive William Bligh. In her 2003 revisionist book, The Bounty, Caroline Alexander recasts Bligh as hero and Christian as coward. After 400 pages of gripping narrative, Alexander hints that the mutiny might have involved “the seductions of Tahiti” and “Bligh’s harsh tongue” but concludes that it was “a night of drinking and a proud man’s pride, a low moment on one gray dawn, a momentary and fatal slip in a gentleman’s code of discipline.”

A skeptic’s explanation may seem less romantic, but it is more intellectually satisfying because it is extrapolated from scientific evidence and reasoning. There are, in fact, two levels of causality to consider: proximate (immediate historical events) and ultimate (deeper evolutionary motives). Both played a role in the Bounty debacle. (continue reading…)

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