Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 31, 2016

The Lanthanide Series

Filed under: Film,science — louisproyect @ 3:37 pm

In a 1956 lecture titled “The Two Cultures”, C.P. Snow lamented the failure of scientists and those involved with the humanities to understand each other’s world: “Not to have read War and Peace and La Cousine Bette and La Chartreuse de Parme is not to be educated; but so is not to have a glimmer of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.”

If he had had the occasion to a see a film like “The Lanthanide Series” that opens tomorrow at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, he would have not only made an exception for the director Erin Espelie but urged everybody he’d ever met to see the film as an example of how the two cultures could be bridged.

The title of the film derives from the fifteen metallic chemical elements in Mendeleev’s Periodic Table that begin with atomic number 57 and ends with 71. The first in the series is lanthanum, which is Latin for “to lie hidden”. These elements are also known as the rare earths but as Espelie points out, they are not rare at all. They can be found in abundance but the process to extract them from the surrounding soil and non-valuable compounds is complex and expensive.

For the rare earths that come under Espelie’s scrutiny, each of the Latin names becomes a way of meditating on other possible meanings that transcend the laboratory or factory framework. What “lies hidden” is not only an element that can be used in making glass or electron cathodes but the memories of past love affairs or childhood traumas that are evoked through Espelie’s voice-over narration from a variety of sources, including Robert Browning, W.B. Yeats and Virginia Woolf. Throughout the film, we hear musical accompaniment to her meditations both on science and being human (a term more appropriate than “the humanities”) from Jim Morrison, Meredith Monk and John Cage. All of it is completely spell-binding and amounts to a documentary “art film” that pushes the cinematic envelope in a way that I have not seen in years.

Erin Espelie is a filmmaker in residence at the University of Colorado who is also the chief editor at Natural History magazine. As probably the most obvious example of her ability to straddle the two cultures, she has a degree in molecular and cell biology from Cornell University and an MFA in experimental and documentary arts from Duke University.

Throughout the film, there are astonishing examples of her erudition in both disciplines but her ability to synthesize them in a way that leads to a higher understanding. She alludes to Primo Levi, the Jewish chemist who was a prisoner at Auschwitz and who wrote “The Periodic Table”, a collection of 21 tales drawn from his life story, each titled by a different element. In “Cerium”, an element in the Lanthanide Series, he describes how he found some in an Auschwitz laboratory where he was being forced to work. He whittled them down to make lighter-flints that were bartered for food sufficient enough to keep him alive until the allies liberated him in a few days. It is obvious that Primo Levi was another exception to C.P. Snow’s rule and very likely an inspiration for Espelie’s film.

While most of the film is focused on the individual and his or her relationship to the commodities based on rare earth elements ranging from microphones to glass, there is an awareness of their role in a global economy ever-increasingly threatened by war and environmental despoliation. In her review of Europium, she recounts how a truck driver leaving the Mountain Pass Mines in California (the largest producer of the element in the world) pulled up alongside her parked car on the side of the road to see what she was up to—more out of curiosity than anything else. When she told him that the steady procession of enormous trucks away from the mines just like his couldn’t possibly be filled with a relatively scarce output, he was candid enough to admit that they were not loaded with Europium but contaminated radioactive water—the result of an industrial accident of the sort that typifies mining today. Where were the trucks going with the carcinogens? You guessed it. They were being dumped in the Pacific Ocean.

Europium, which is used in cathode ray tubes, is now being mined mostly in China, where lax (or non-existent) environmental regulations have led to ground water contamination that caused a cancer epidemic. It also seems that Afghanistan is a major possible source of this and other rare earth elements. While much of the left harped on the country’s value as a link in Eurasian petroleum pipelines, it is just as likely that the USA was even more interested in the possibilities of extracting elements that are critical in all sorts of high technology from computers to cameras whatever the cost to the Afghan people.

“The Lanthanide Series” is not to be missed.

April 9, 2016

Isaac Newton and “junk science”

Filed under: science — louisproyect @ 2:18 pm

Today’s Washington Post has an article with the rather lurid title “Isaac Newton spent a lot of time on junk ‘science,’ and this manuscript proves it”. It turns out that he was “super into alchemy” as reporter Elahe Izadi puts it:

Sir Isaac Newton — the 17th-century scientist, mathematician and father of physics? Yeah, you know him.

But you may not know Newton was super into alchemy, a medieval “science” that preceded chemistry. Practitioners believed it was possible to transform one metal into another. The ultimate goal was figuring out how to transform lead into gold, and the elusive “Philosophers’ Stone” was a substance theorized to do just that.

A newly discovered manuscript, written in Newton’s hand, underscores his fascination with what’s now considered nothing more than mystical pseudoscience. The document, held in a private collection for decades and bought earlier this year by the Chemical Heritage Foundation, describes how to make an essential ingredient of the Philosophers’ Stone.

This document is one of many handwritten by the English physicist best known for establishing the law of universal gravitation.

“Newton was intensely interested in alchemy almost his whole life,” said James Voelkel, curator of rare books at the foundation’s Othmer Library of Chemical History. “These alchemical manuscripts consist of about a million words he wrote in his own hands.”

Alchemy, also called “chymistry” in England back in the 17th century, preoccupied Newton for decades. Following his death, many of his manuscripts were held by his family until they were auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1936. Dozens of private collectors bought his alchemical manuscripts, which had been labeled “not fit to be printed” when Newton died in 1727. Most of these papers have since been donated to Cambridge, except for a handful like the one acquired by the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

I got a chuckle out of this since it hewed to the standard narrative about alchemy being “junk science”. Just over 10 years ago I reviewed Cliff Conner’s “People’s History of Science” for Swans (http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy34.html) that puts alchemy into proper perspective. It is worth reposting here:

Cliff Conner’s A People’s History of Science
by Louis Proyect
Book Review

Conner, Cliff: A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives and ‘Low Mechanicks’, Nation Books, New York, 2006, ISBN 1-56025-748-2, 554 pages

(Swans – February 27, 2006)   Cliff Conner’s A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives and ‘Low Mechanicks’ does for science what Howard Zinn did for American history. It is an altogether winning attempt to tell the story of the ordinary working person or peasant’s contribution to our knowledge of the natural world. Just as scholars like Zinn remind us that a slave, Crispus Attucks, was the first casualty of the American Revolution, so does Conner show that humble people were on the front lines of the scientific revolution.

Over the course of this 500 page encyclopedic but lively effort, we learn about unsung heroes and heroines, like Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, a seventeenth century Dutch linen draper who began using magnifying lenses to examine fabrics but went on to pioneer the use of microscopy in the scientific laboratory. He was looked down upon by the scientific establishment as “neither a philosopher, a medical man, nor a gentleman… He had been to no university, knew no Latin, French, or English, and little relevant natural history or philosophy.”

In addition to telling their stories, Conner challenges conventional thinking about how science is done. At an early age, we are indoctrinated into thinking that science starts with pure ideas and then descends into the practical world. In reality, many of the greatest breakthroughs in our knowledge of the world were a result of the practical need to solve a pressing problem, some of which were related to mundane matters of trade and bookkeeping.

Perhaps no other example in Conner’s book dramatizes this as perfectly as the rise of numeric symbols, which came out of the “routine economic activities of farmers, artisans and traders.” Specifically, Sumerians devised symbols to keep track of grain. Rather than repeating the symbol for each grain multiple times, they devised a shortcut where the grain symbol would be drawn once, and prefixed with a numeric symbol. This technique was developed in lowly counting rooms rather than in the court hierarchy.

The next big breakthrough, positional numeration, also had common traders as midwives. This technique makes a digit’s value dependent on its relative position in a number. For example, “9” in the number 2,945 means nine hundred but it indicates “90” in 2,495. Imagine how difficult it would be to do simple calculations without such a system. Try adding the Roman numerals MMCMXLV to MMCDXCV without cheating (converting to positional numbers) and you will see how difficult it is. This is not to speak of the daunting task of multiplying them!

The introduction of the place-value system (together with the symbol of zero to hold “empty” columns) is particularly relevant to Conner’s mission in creating a people’s history of science. To begin with, it democratized arithmetic by making it accessible to all levels of society. Secondly, it did not originate with elite mathematicians but with anonymous clerks — perhaps ordinary accounting clerks — in India between the third and fifth centuries AD. Finally, this revolutionary innovation relied not on mathematics journals or other scholarly venues, but was transmitted by merchants pursuing their trade on routes between India and the rest of the world.

It should be noted that in addition to telling the story of how ordinary people contributed to science, Conner’s book is also a valuable contribution to correcting Eurocentric bias. Eurocentric historiography tends to identify civilization as a unique product of Western Europe that diffused around the world, particularly through the colonization of supposedly backward societies like India. Since science is considered one of the major achievements of Western Civilization, it is most helpful to discover that many of its vaunted contributions originated elsewhere. As such, Conner’s history belongs on the bookshelf next to James Blaut’s Colonizer’s Model of the World, Janet L. Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350, and a number of works by Jack Weatherford, the anthropologist who has written about the contributions of Native Americans and, more recently, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. In such works, our understanding of who makes history is radically challenged — for the better.

There is another dimension to the story of positional numeration that keeps getting repeated throughout Conner’s book, namely the resistance of elites to such breakthroughs despite their reputation for welcoming new knowledge and ways of understanding the natural world. There was a struggle to suppress the “Algorists” who advocated positional numbering — in Europe and in some places Arabic numbers were banned from official documents.

The reputation that elite scientists have for being impartial and above superstition is often belied by their conduct during times of great stress, especially as the old order is being challenged by the lower classes. In such times, they tend often to rally around the status quo, even if that means throwing standards of objectivity out the window. One of the more interesting examples is the great European witch-hunting craze of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Despite popular views of scientists resisting beliefs in the supernatural, a wholly new “science” of demonology grew up under the auspices of the same elites who were promoting the scientific revolution. King James VI of Scotland was a leading theorist of demonological science but he was also Francis Bacon’s royal patron. According to Conner, some of the most prominent spokesmen of the Royal Academy, an official scientific society, defended witch-hunting, among them the court scientist Robert Boyle.

What explains this anomaly? As it turns out, elite doctors were in a bitter rivalry with female folk healers at this time. As Francis Bacon put it, “In all times, witches and old women and impostors have had a competition with physicians.” There was a need to stamp out “evil witches” but good witches as well. These included midwives and any other women who were prevented by law from entering medical school in those days.

The aforementioned Robert Boyle, who is considered an exemplar of Baconian science, is a prime example of how “heroes” of the scientific revolution are celebrated at the expense of the commoners who made their work possible.

Robert Boyle was an aristocrat, who inherited a fortune from his landlord father Sir Richard Boyle. The father relied on his aristocratic position to defraud Irish landowners. Boyle was honest about how he gained scientific knowledge: “I freely confess that I learned more of the kinds, distinctions, properties, and consequently of the nature of stones, by conversing with two or three masons, and stone-cutters, than I did from Pliny, or Aristotle and his commentators.”

With his vast fortune, Boyle was able to set up workshops and staffed them with all sorts of craftsmen, from machinists and glassblowers to lens grinders and alchemists (yes, alchemists!). Although Boyle took credit for what happened in his laboratories, recent scholarship concludes that very little of the work was done by Boyle himself. One of the most important inventions was an air pump that was almost certainly constructed by his assistants, despite bearing his name (machine Boyleana).

The presence of an alchemist in Boyle’s laboratory might raise eyebrows for a modern reader who is accustomed to thinking of this in terms of astrology, witchcraft and the other “black arts.” It is to Conner’s credit that he not only puts alchemy into its proper context, but has some positive words to say. Although alchemy is understood today mostly as a means of turning base metals into gold, it originally meant working with metals in general. The roots of both chemistry and alchemy in early metal crafts are evident from historians of science. Arab alchemists discovered sal ammoniac and prepared caustic alkalis. (The word alkali is a variant of al-qili, the Arabic term for sodium carbonate.)

In the spirit of giving credit to those who came before us, Conner makes sure to acknowledge the influence of a number of radical scientists and historians of science who blazed the trail for his study. Some of these men and women were either in or around the Communist Party in the 1930s, when “science for the people” was the watchword of the movement.

One of the most remarkable of these figures was a Soviet physicist named Boris Hessen, who was responsible for challenging the “Great Men of Science” approach in the same manner that Marxist historians of his time would highlight the efforts of working people and peasants in changing society throughout history. One of the major figures that Hessen reevaluated was Isaac Newton, the author of Principia, or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, a work that would seem to embody the idea-descending-from-above paradigm.

Hessen argued that the preconditions of Newton’s theory were not “in the empyrean of abstract thought” (Conner quoting Hessen), but in his social environment, which was shaped by “the disintegration of the feudal economy, the development of merchant capital, of international maritime and of heavy (mining) industry.” Newton was challenged to come up with practical solutions to the pressing commercial problems of the day, including the need to measure longitude at sea. Indeed, the third section of Principia is devoted to the problems of the planet’s movements, gravity and other forces that could help to solve the problem of maritime navigation. As it turned out, it was not Newton’s theory that came to the rescue, but a timepiece produced by an ordinary watchmaker.

It is important to stress that Conner does not discount the obvious importance of a Newton or an Einstein, but simply wants to restore some balance in understanding how knowledge of the natural world has developed. It is a product both of the intellect and of experimentation by practical people. It is also obvious that modern science has become much more shaped by mathematics and abstract theory than was the case in earlier times.

Science has become much more a specialist’s discipline as capitalism has consolidated its rule. When the search for profit becomes the driving force of society, it is only natural that the academy is shaped to satisfy that requirement. Advanced degrees and professional societies become the norm, as does the tendency to give ethics the short shrift. Scientists become all too happy to produce scientific studies showing that tobacco will not cause cancer or that atomic energy is the safest source of electricity.

Conner covers these questions in depth in the final chapter, titled The Scientific-Industrial Complex. In July of 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote that science will usher in a kind of New Millennium in which jobs will be plentiful, a higher standard of living universal and disease conquered. But a month later Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be leveled to the ground. The Cold War would soon be initiated and a Defense Industry would become joined by an umbilical cord to research institutes like MIT, Stanford, and Cornell.

As a long-time socialist, Conner remains undaunted. If capitalism is threatening the world with global warming, toxic pollution of the air, ground and water, and weapons of mass destruction — all facilitated by scientific “advances” — then it will generate oppositional forces as it always has. In Marx’s words, capitalism creates its own gravediggers.

The movement has many constituents. At least one of them is rooted in science itself, namely environmentalism. Using the tools of science (biology, soil chemistry, etc.), people such as Rachel Carsons and Barry Commoner have explained how the forces of production are threatening the survival of humanity and the natural world alike.

Just as was the case during the rise of science in the 16th and 17th centuries, “outsiders” were treated with hostility by the elites, most especially women. In some ways, the antagonism toward Rachel Carsons evokes the witch-hunting of an earlier epoch:

Because “in postwar America, science was god, and science was male,” it was inevitable that the author’s gender would be a conspicuous element of the campaign against Silent Spring. The chemical industry’s flacks portrayed Carson as a hysterical woman whose alarming view of the future could be ignored or, if necessary, suppressed. She was a “bird and bunny lover,” a woman who kept cats and was therefore clearly suspect. She was a romantic “spinster” who was simply overwrought about genetics. In short, Carson was a woman out of control. She had overstepped the bounds of her gender and her science.

Scientists on the payroll of the polluting corporations believed they could dismiss her arguments on the grounds that she was “an outsider who had never been part of the scientific establishment. … Her career path was nontraditional; she had no academic affiliation, no institutional voice.” Most damning in their eyes was that “she deliberately wrote for the public rather than for a narrow scientific audience.” But in spite of the scientific elite’s attempts to marginalize her, this “people’s author” ignited a momentous social movement in defiance of Big Science. “We live in a scientific age,” she declared, “yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself.”

Carson put forward “her own, alternative scientific method: people’s observations and interpretations were as important as those of scientists, and community ethics served as the standard for making decisions about environmental risks.” As for her influence on the practice of science itself, by redirecting interest toward ecology and away from traditional mechanistic and reductionist approaches, Silent Spring had a major impact on the way biological knowledge would henceforth be pursued.

The People’s History of Science is a singular achievement. Not only does it inform the reader about the role of the common man and woman in scientific innovation over the ages, it is also an important guide to further research in the area. With a 25-page bibliography, it invites us to become fellow researchers in an area of vital interest to the left. With the daily challenges to a proper scientific understanding of the world — ranging from nonsense about Intelligent Design to global warming denial — it is incumbent upon us to develop and strengthen our knowledge of the world in the spirit of the words in Bukharin’s introduction to Philosophical Arabesques (reviewed on swans.com recently):

Today’s working-class hero is totally unlike the young ignoramus in Fonvizin, who asked, “Why do I need to know geography, when carriage drivers exist?” [A reference to an 18th century play.] It is the workers’ enemies who are playing the role of ignoramus. It is they who are increasingly turning their backs on the intellect, which refuses to serve their ends. It is they who snatch up stone axes, the swastika, the horoscope. It is they who are starting to read haltingly from the book of history, sounding it out syllable by syllable. It is they who pray to stone goddesses and idols. It is they who have turned their backs on the future, and like Heine’s dog, to which they have fitted a historical muzzle, they now bark with their backsides, while history in turn shows them only its a posteriori. Fine battles are now breaking out amid the grandiose festivities, and conflict envelops all areas.

 

March 21, 2016

How did the universe begin? How will it end?

Filed under: cosmology,science — louisproyect @ 10:09 pm

The last entry in the latest Harper’s Magazine Index, a compendium of interesting factoids featured each month, reminded me that I wanted to say a few words about cosmology:

Percentage of Americans who feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least once a week: 46

I am one of those Americans who had such feelings, often twice a day. It has always been with me to some extent but much more so after seeing the documentary on the Hadron Collider titled “Particle Fever” that I reviewed just two years ago. The film can be seen on Amazon streaming, as a DVD from Netflix or for $2.99 on Youtube:

It is entirely possible that my review didn’t exactly represent the purpose of the Hadron Collider but this was about the best I could come up with:

A hadron is a composite of subatomic particles (quarks) that have mostly been identified, except for the one that is at the hub: the boson. It is commonly referred to as the Higgs boson, after the British physicist who theorized its existence back in 1964. Don’t ask me to try to explain this (as if I could) but the boson is viewed as the critical sine qua non for the creation of the universe. As the film barrels along at an exciting pace, we learn that if the experiment fails to prove its existence, some physicists will conclude that reality consists of multiple universes each with its own set of discrete laws of physics. While that sounds like a good plot for a Star Trek episode, some of the physicists interviewed in the film—including uber-physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed, who is a multi-universe adherent, fear that it will make the task of a unified theory of matter impossible.

Multiple universes each with its own set of discrete laws of physics? That’s pretty difficult to imagine but for someone like myself just about all these theories about the origins of the universe, its certain termination, and fundamental laws of astrophysics such as gravity, etc. are virtually impossible to imagine, let alone understand.

Does any of this have anything to do with Marxism? Says Louis Proyect to Louis Proyect: “I’m glad you asked that question.”

Frederick Engels took a stab at the question of gravity in “Dialectics of Nature” and seemed about as in over his head as me in a fragmentary chapter on “Mechanics and Astronomy”:

Newtonian gravitation. The best that can be said of it is that it does not explain but pictures the present state of planetary motion. The motion is given. Ditto the force of attraction of the sun. With these data, how is the motion to be explained? By the parallelogram of forces, by a tangential force which now becomes a necessary postulate that we must accept. That is to say, assuming the eternal character of the existing state, we need a first impulse, God. But neither is the existing planetary state eternal nor is the motion originally compound, but simple rotation, and the parallelogram of forces applied here is wrong, because it did not merely make evident the unknown magnitude, the x, that had still to be found, that is to say in so far as Newton claimed not merely to put the question but to solve it.

To the displeasure of the scientists involved with Higgs boson research, it has been popularized as the “God Particle” in a 1993 book titled “The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?” by Leon Lederman, a physicist who shared the Nobel Prize in 1998 with two other men researching neutrinos. Like everything else falling within the rubric of astrophysics, trying to get a handle on neutrinos is nearly impossible for the layman especially when they are described simultaneously as having the dimensions of thousands of galaxies and being massless. What the fuck?

Just by coincidence (or maybe there’s more than just a coincidence), a lot of the breakthroughs on understanding the origins of the universe begin to take place just around the time of the Russian Revolution and its stormy aftermath and largely through the pioneering efforts of Albert Einstein who wrote an essay for the first issue of Monthly Review in 1949 titled “Why Socialism”. In case you’ve never read it, it is good reminder of what the word “socialism” once meant as opposed to the vaporous formulations of Bernie Sanders:

The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before.

Maybe the people who set up the Marxism Internet Archives understood that Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory was worth including even though few people would be able to understand much of it. This much I am fairly sure about, his work was about understanding time, space, gravity—the building blocks of the universe so to speak—but not so much about how it began.

That is much more the bailiwick of men and women who developed the “big bang” explanation for the origins of the universe. Among the earliest proponents was a Catholic priest named George Lemaître who concluded that the universe was expanding, a theory that was soon supported by Edwin Hubble. It was of some interest that a priest was a pioneer of the “big bang” theory, especially since it was compatible with Catholic doctrine. For Pope Pius XII it validated Catholicism even though Lemaître resented making such a connection and eventually persuaded the Pope to drop the matter.

As the most famous physicist since Einstein, Stephen Hawking—like him—is known by everybody but understood by few. He is notable for synthesizing Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, the field that Nils Bohr developed in the 1920s. Einstein highly respected Bohr but could not embrace a theory that he viewed as incomplete. It probably would not be a stretch to say that Hawking was able to synthesize Einstein and Bohr.

Quantum theory, as I understand it, is mostly focused on subatomic particles but at least one physicist applied to astrophysics. Born in 1930, Hugh Everett split his time between weapons research for the Pentagon and explaining how It All Began. He developed something called the Universal Wavefunction that supported the idea that quantum mechanics could make multiple universes possible, a notion that Nils Bohr found reprehensible when Everett presented it to him in a 1959 visit to Copenhagen. (I should mention that Hawking is another supporter of this idea.)

Discouraged by the reaction that Bohr and others had to his work, Everett abandoned physics and focused on arms research, even hoping to cash in on the Vietnam War. In 1973 he made another career transition into software development and launched a company called DBS where he developed a passion for programming—of all things. The man died of a heart attack in 1982, the result of a life style of smoking, boozing and overeating that made him even more vulnerable to an early death than Christopher Hitchens. His belief in quantum immortality, a thought experiment about as obscure as anything in this field, did not do much good in the end, nor did it do much for his daughter who killed herself in 1996, asking in a suicide note that her ashes be put in a garbage can just like her father had requested in a will. (As an atheist, he thought that’s where one’s remains belonged.)

Everett’s son Mark discovered his dead body. As leader of the rock band Eels, Mark Everett writes songs about death, mental illness and loneliness. After his cousin died while working as a stewardess on the jet that hit the Pentagon on 9/11, he wondered if it might have struck his father’s old office there.

I recommend the BBC documentary on Mark Everett titled “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives” in which he performs and interviews his father’s fellow scientists about which a Scientific American blogger wrote:

Visitors to the film’s Web site can read two previously unpublished documents that Everett’s son, EELS singer-guitarist Mark, 45, found among the 25 boxes of his father’s belongings. One of the documents is from an early draft of Everett’s doctoral dissertation, in which he uses the metaphor of an amoeba splitting to explain his many worlds theory. In the other, he responds to cosmologist Bryce DeWitt, who told Everett that his theory was a “beautiful mathematical formula, but I do not feel myself split,” according to Byrne.

Getting back to Hawking, it is worth noting that his political views hew close to Einstein’s even if not as well grounded in historical materialism. In a Reddit session, he gave this reply to a question about technological unemployment:

If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.

Also, like Einstein, Hawking is a critic of Israel—so much so that he honored the BDS movement by pulling out of a conference there in 2013.

As indicated above, I am fascinated by the questions of how the universe began and how it will end even though most of the articles I crosspost to Marxmail sail over my head. I am not sure how much Alan Woods understands about astrophysics but he and his followers are certainly not shy about offering their opinions.

On the In Defense of Marxism website, you can find a three part article by Adam Booth on “The Crisis in Cosmology”. In part one Booth wants to make it clear that Marxists have no truck with any theory that the Pope could embrace, even mistakenly. The “big bang” and some related theories are just too close for comfort as a kind of creation myth:

All of these theories – whether it is the standard SMBBC model [Standard Model of Big Bang Cosmology], the steady-state Universe, or the cyclic Universe – suffer from a similar problem, in that they envisage a closed, finite Universe, a bounded space that exists with nothing outside of it. But how can there be a boundary to the Universe? What is beyond this boundary? Nothing? To talk of an “edge of the Universe” is as nonsensical as to talk of the beginning of time.

Yeah, how can there be a boundary to the Universe? Unless you run into a barrier erected by Thor or something.

Booth identifies the problem as one of a scientist’s allergy to the concept of Infinity:

The Universe can only be understood as a dialectical unity of opposites: an infinity of finite matter that is itself infinitely divisible and transformable. That is to say, there is an infinite amount of matter – matter that is itself finite in size and endlessly changing. All attempts to banish this infinity from cosmology have only led to even greater riddles and confusion, to talk of “singularities” where all the laws of physics break down. But a singularity is nothing but a theoretically infinitesimally small point, which, in turn is simply an inverted infinity. Far from removing infinity from the Universe, therefore, the cosmologists have merely re-introduced it by the back door.

It is hard to argue with this—even if it is just as hard to argue with those who hold the opposite view because when it comes to cosmology, there is very little way to ultimately “prove” anything. You can only operate on the basis of evidence, for which the “big bang” seems to be accumulated aplenty as time goes by.

The other two articles in Booth’s series mostly amount to arguing against the wisdom of synthesizing quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Plus some quotes from Lenin’s polemic against Empirio-Criticism, a work that is mostly of interest to the archivists among us.

His final article claims that many of the scientists involved in cosmology are contributing as much to the social good as cosmetologists. Like Keynesians (!), they are spinning their wheels on the public’s expense:

In this view, the field of modern cosmology has become, at best, a fairly harmless form of Keynesianism – a way of employing and funding a few hundred (or thousand) scientists who would otherwise be out of work. At worst, current cosmological research is a colossal waste of scientific resources which, far from being harmless, is actually damaging the wider credibility of science by dressing up nonsense as serious and important theoretical research.

You get the same sense of ennui from Christy Rodgers who wrote a CounterPunch article titled “Is the World Living or Dead?” on March 4, 2016 that was prompted by the front-page news about scientists finding evidence of gravity waves, a phenomenon that would confirm Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Without quoting Lenin, Rodgers is even more compelling than Booth on the crisis that has befallen physics:

Instead of illuminating ever more of the cosmos, theoretical physics now seems committed to its disappearance in a cloud of unknowing: it proposes that the universe is almost entirely made up of matter we cannot observe and do not understand, and is being torn apart by anti-gravitational energy in quantities unpredicted by any theory, whose source is also unknown. And (according to string theory) the universe is dependent for a unification of its major forces on the existence of infinitesimal extra dimensions that can never be observed or completely described because they are infinitely variable, and generate an infinity of hypothetical universes that can never have any meaningful relation to ours.

I suspect that the question of the origins of the universe will remain insoluble until a deus ex machina appears to tell us mortals How It All Began, maybe Thor riding to earth on a white stallion with a flow chart in hand.

What is more easy to wrap your head around is the idea of it all coming to an end. Scientists generally believe, whatever their particular commitment to quantum mechanics, string theory, the big bang, etc, that the universe came into existence 14 billion years ago or so and that our planet was born about 3.5 billions years ago.

In their 2003 book “The Life and Death of Planet Earth”, paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee see things winding down starting around a billion years from now as the sun begins its inexorable transformation into a “red giant”, a radiating death star that will dry up the oceans and kill everything on earth. Pretty fucking depressing, no?

As it happens, Ward and Brownlee are also the authors of the 2000 “Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe”, which makes the case that we are probably the only advanced species in the entire universe, which itself will come to an end around a hundred trillion years from now as the fuel, which makes the stars radiate, runs out. Sort of a “peak hydrogen” hypothesis.

I get sad meditating on the inevitable disappearance of life on earth and the universe itself. But I am even sadder thinking about the likelihood of a “quantum suicide” taking place long before that. Gosh, I’d be happy if homo sapiens can make it to a million years from now, just one/one thousandth of the time before the oceans dry up in the approaching “red giant” scenario.

Then again, I despair of us making it to a thousand years from now, given the indifference that our ruling classes have toward civilization, human life and everything else we hold dear. With the intensity of global rivalries advancing on a daily basis and with the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons, it seems like the likelihood of making it to 2116 is guarded at best.

In 1950, Albert Einstein, who had praised socialism the year before in Monthly Review, warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons in a pithy fashion: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” As was the case 67 years ago, the choice is between socialism and barbarism. As long as we have a billion years or so in front of us, let’s make the best of it.

August 22, 2014

Gunning for Vandana Shiva

Filed under: Ecology,farming,science — louisproyect @ 1:20 pm
The New Yorker, GMOs and Chemical Farming

Gunning for Vandana Shiva

by LOUIS PROYECT

Perhaps nothing symbolizes the decline of the New Yorker magazine more than the hatchet job on Vandana Shiva that appears in the latest issue. Written by Michael Specter, the author of “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress”, the article is a meretricious defense of genetically modified organisms (GMO) relying on one dodgy source after another. This is the same magazine whose reputation was at its apex when Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking articles on DDT appeared in 1962. If DDT was once a symbol of the destructive power of chemicals on the environment, GMO amounts to one of the biggest threats to food production today. It threatens to enrich powerful multinational corporations while turning farmers into indentured servants through the use of patented seeds. Furthermore, it threatens to unleash potentially calamitous results in farmlands through unintended mutations.

Specter represents himself as a defender of science against irrational thinking. Since many activists regard Vandana Shiva as grounded in science, it is essential that he discredit her. For example, he mentions a book jacket that refers to her as “one of India’s leading physicists”. But when he asked her if she ever worked as a physicist, she invited him to “search for the answer on Google”. He asserts that he found nothing and furthermore that no such position was listed in her biography. Not that I would ever take an inflated publicity blurb that seriously to begin with (having read one too many of those for Slavoj Žižek), I wondered what being a physicist would have to do with GMO in the first place. Is a degree in particle physics necessary for understanding the transformation of vast portions of the Gulf of Mexico into a dead zone because of fertilizer-enriched algae?

read full article

UPDATE

Wouldn’t you just know it? Bard College hired GMO hustler Michael Specter as a Visiting Professor of Environmental and Urban Studies.

I suppose that makes sense given that Stewart Resnick is on the board of trustees, the agribusiness billionaire who has diverted water from the commoners in Fiji and California to improve his bottom line and buy more politicians. When a college hires a big-time promoter of GMO to lecture on the environment, you just chalk that up to Leon Botstein’s Wizard of Oz con artistry.

 

Screen shot 2014-08-22 at 12.48.03 PM

April 26, 2012

Guy Robinson Jan. 1928-Oct. 2011

Filed under: philosophy,science — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

I just learned from Les Schaffer, the technical coordinator of Marxmail, that Guy Robinson died a few months ago. He learned this from Rosa Lichtenstein who received word in turn from Guy Robinson Jr. Rosa has made a number of Guy’s articles available on her website.  Rosa is a well-known and stubborn critic of dialectics as should be obvious from the name of her website and obviously found an affinity with Guy’s mixture of Marx and Wittgenstein:

In my opinion, Guy is one of the few Marxist Philosophers whose work is genuinely worth reading. Indeed, I’d go much further: I cannot praise his book, Philosophy and Mystification (Fordham University Press, 2003), too highly; it seems to me that this is how Marxist Philosophy should be done.

I only encountered Guy’s work in 2005, but I soon saw that he had anticipated several of my own ideas — except he manages to express in two paragraphs what it takes me several pages to say! Unlike the vast majority of work that claims to be Marxist, Guy’s work is a model of clarity. It is no accident, therefore, to see Guy writing in the Wittgensteinian tradition.

I had my own affinities with Guy. Like him, I was a graduate of Bard College. I was also a philosophy major, with 57 credits toward a PhD. Unlike Rosa, I never quite got Guy’s enthusiasm for Wittgenstein. When I was at the New School from 1965 to 1967, mostly trying to avoid being drafted, I got much more out of my seminar on Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Mind” than the one on Wittgenstein’s various writings. The dialectic in Hegel’s philosophy never sounded “unscientific” to me and only prepared me in my postgraduate studies of Marxism in the SWP’s school of hard knocks.

Guy was one of the most genial people I ever got to meet in person as a result of my Internet scribblings. Back in 1998 I attended a talk by Guy at the Brecht Forum in NYC and spoke to him and his son afterwards. Both had been to Nicaragua and worked on a construction brigade. Since my natural inclination is to bond with anybody who was involved with the Sandinista revolution, I made a point of writing up Guy’s talk for Marxmail and PEN-L (this was before the days of blogging). I wrote in part:

Marxism and the Enlightenment

A couple of months ago I attended a talk at NYC’s Brecht Forum on “Philosophy and Marxism” which is relevant to this discussion. The speaker was Guy Robinson, who taught philosophy in British universities for 25 years. He retired in 1982 and moved to Nicaragua where he worked with construction brigades. He now lived in Dublin and his new book “Philosophy and Mystification” had just been published by Routledge.

Robinson’s main point was that modern philosophy evolved in order to meet the needs of the rising bourgeoisie. It aspires to be universal but conceals the very particular and historical needs of the class which was coming to power in the age of Descartes. One of the purposes of Marxism is to make this connection and expose the class bias of bourgeois philosophy.

One of the schools of thought that Marxism vies with in this project is post-structuralism or postmodernism. The pomos are also interested in showing that the claims of universality are specious. Robinson described the pomos in pithy terms, as “hunters of zeitgeists,” who try to capture historical trends as if they were animal specimens to pin on the wall like trophies. In the process of debunking “universality,” the pomos also trash history. This is where Marxists and pomos part company, as well as on the issue of class.

Apparently Guy really liked what I wrote since he not only made a point of looking me up on his occasional visits to New York but also called me out of the blue from Ireland every couple of months.

Guy was always very modest about his writings and even more so about whether he was a Marxist or not. All I can say is that he was a stimulating writer even if I had become skeptical over philosophy as a discipline. When I was first coming around the Trotskyist movement and heard Marx’s observation about “the point is to change it”, I resolved not only to drop out of graduate school but put all the philosophy stuff behind me. That being said, I always had time for Guy Robinson.

In addition to the articles on Rosa’s website, I recommend a visit to Guy’s Philosophical Nuggets, a blog he launched in 2007. You’ll get both aspects of his thought, the one shaped by Marx and the other by Wittgenstein. You’ll also find a fascinating log of his correspondence with Thomas Kuhn that is interesting both for its reflections on science as well as Guy’s considerable charm:

Dear Tom

How could I not respond immediately to such a gracious and enthusiastic reaction to my letter and paper!

Sorry you have had such a tough medical time and hope that’s pretty well behind you.

I’m not surprised that you don’t remember that lunch you gave me in Princeton, (graciously, again as we had only brushed glancingly by one another at that famous Bedford conference in 1960-whatever.) But I have it in my mind that at that lunch you told me that you had been to the same tiny school I went to, Solebury, but only for a year before transferring to Germantown Friends. (We used to play Germantown in Football and always got slaughtered – Well, we only had fifty boys in the whole school.) Am I dreaming all that?

Still keeping to the personal: Who am I? Not sure how to answer. Brief CV: after Solebury, I went to Bard at the time of Mary McCarthy (The Groves of Academe gives a distorted account of those times and my teacher.) It was a pretty interesting place, though. My introduction to philosophy was via Aristotle, and his conception of philosophy’s business, I am coming to see has kept me away from the disastrous ‘theorizing’ conception of philosophy that has held pretty much sway since Descartes. (I’m working on getting clear about that question of philosophy’s business in the process of trying to bring out in an introduction to what has always been there implicit in the scanty few pieces I have published and now want to collect. I certainly don’t think that my second paragraph gives a knock-down argument against Realism. -As you can imagine, I don’t believe in those – But it’s something to think about.

Guy’s articles on Rosa Lichstenstein’s website:

http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/making_materialism_historical.htm

http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/Robinson_Essay_Two_Introduction.htm

http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/Robinson_Essay_Three_The_Concept_Of_Nature.htm

They are all collected here (foot of the page):

http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/other_material.htm

Rosa adds that she will be posting his unpublished book Philosophy and Demystification over the next few months.

June 21, 2011

Some mind-blowin’ shit

Filed under: Film,science — louisproyect @ 2:09 am

Handout/GETTY IMAGES – A large flare was detected erupting from the surface of the sun on June 7.

As the sun awakens, the power grid stands vulnerable

By , Monday, June 20, 3:33 PM

The sun is waking up.

And on June 7, it woke up Michael Hesse. At 5:49 a.m., the solar scientist received an alert on his smartphone. NASA spacecraft had seen a burst of X-rays spinning out from a sunspot. The burst was a solar flare — and a “notably large one” at that, Hesse said later.

The sun has been quiet for years, at the nadir of its activity cycle. But since February, our star has been spitting out flares and plasma like an angry dragon. It’s Hesse’s job to watch these eruptions.

If a big one were headed our way, Hesse needed to know, and fast, so he could alert the electric power industry to brace for a geomagnetic storm that could knock some of the North American power grid offline.

Hesse gathered his team at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, where he is chief of the Space Weather Laboratory, and fed the latest data from four sun-staring satellites into powerful computers.

At 7:49 Hesse got his answer. An animated chart traced the predicted path of a huge arc of plasma — hot gas — hurtling through the inner solar system. But only the tail of the plume would lick Earth, arriving June 9 and driving a dazzling display of the northern lights from Alaska through Maine.

While a video of the eruption captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory showed an enormous plume spraying from the sun, this solar tantrum would not be the big one — it would not be the 1859 event all over again.

Sept. 1 of that year saw the largest solar flare on record, witnessed by British astronomer Richard Carrington. While tracing features of the sun’s surface, which Carrington had projected via telescope onto paper, he saw a sudden flash emerge from a dark spot. Although such sunspots had sparked curiosity for centuries — Galileo famously drew them, too, in the early 1600s — Carrington had no idea what the flash could mean.

Within hours, telegraph operators found out. Their long strands of wire acted as antennas for this huge wave of solar energy. As this tsunami sped by, transmitters heated up, and several burst into flames. Observers in Miami and Havana gaped skyward at eerie green and yellow displays, the northern lights pushed far south.

A knockout punch

Such a “Carrington event” will happen again someday, but our wired civilization will suffer losses far greater than a few telegraph shacks.

Communications satellites will be knocked offline. Financial transactions, timed and transmitted via those satellite, will fail, causing millions or billions in losses. The GPS system will go wonky. Astronauts on the space station will huddle in a shielded module, as they have done three times in the past decade due to “space weather,” the scientific term for all of the sun’s freaky activity. Flights between North America and Asia, over the North Pole, will have to be rerouted, as they were in April during a weak solar storm at a cost to the airlines of $100,000 a flight. And oil pipelines, particularly in Alaska and Canada, will suffer corrosion as they, like power lines, conduct electricity from the solar storm.

But the biggest impact will be on the modern marvel known as the power grid. And experts warn that the grid is not ready. In 2008, the National Academy of Sciences stated that an 1859-level storm could knock out power in parts of the northeastern and northwestern United States for months, even years. Report co-author John Kappenmann estimated that about 135 million Americans would be forced to revert to a pre-electric lifestyle or relocate. Water systems would fail. Food would spoil. Thousands could die. The financial cost: Up to $2 trillion, one-seventh the annual U.S. gross domestic product.

Utilities say they’re studying the issue, with an eye toward understanding how to protect the grid by powering down sections of it during an hours-long solar storm.

Their efforts are motivated, in part, by the sun’s increasingly frequent outbursts. Every 11 to 12 years, solar activity ramps up. After a quiet season, the sun is now spitting out flares again, with activity expected to peak in 2013 and 2014, said Dean Pesnell, a solar scientist at Goddard.

“The sun is not partisan, it doesn’t listen to diplomacy, and sanctions don’t work,” said Peter Huessy, president of GeoStrategic Analysis. Huessy wants Congress to enact rules that would force power companies to better protect the power grid. “The sun has its own clock. And we don’t know what that clock is, except for once every hundred years or so, it has a coronary.”

full: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/science/as-the-sun-awakens-the-power-grid-stands-vulnerable/2011/06/09/AGwc8DdH_story.html

Final minute of “Knowing”, a sci-fi movie starring Nicholas Cage

May 31, 2010

The Snake Charmer

Filed under: science,swans — louisproyect @ 3:47 pm

The Snake Charmer: a Life and Death in the Pursuit of Knowledge, by Jamie James, Hyperion Books, 2008, ISBN-13: 978-1-4013-0213-9, 260 pages.

(Swans – May 31, 2010)   Last January, while idly channel-surfing on my television set, I stumbled across a show titled Venom in Vegas that featured snake expert Donald Schultz spending 10 days in a glass box with 100 venomous and constrictor snakes. Schultz is from South Africa, where he competes with fellow snake handler and countryman Austin Stevens for publicity.

In 1986 Stevens pulled off a similar stunt in the name of generating awareness about gorillas, an endangered species. He set a Guinness World record by spending 107 days and nights in a cage with 36 of the most dangerous African snakes. On the 96th day, he was bitten by a cobra, but refused to leave the cage after being treated with anti-venom.

Of course the most notorious of these snake handlers was the Australian Steve Irwin who died in 2006 after being stung in the heart by an aptly named stingray. Unlike Schultz and Stevens, Austin handled all sorts of poisonous creatures, including the ocean-dwelling stingray.

After finding my curiosity jogged by Schultz’s stunt (an excerpt is here), I decided to read a book about the late Joe Slowinski that came out in 2008. Titled The Snake Charmer: a Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge and written by Jamie James, it tells the rather sad story of a legitimate scientist — rather than a showman — who was bitten by a many-banded krait in September 2001 during an expedition in Burma, just before the WTC attacks. The many-banded krait’s venom is rated 16 times more powerful than a cobra’s. Slowinski died right around the time the buildings collapsed.

Although I am by no means fixated on poisonous snakes, I do find myself drawn to exceptional human beings, particularly those with tragic flaws. That described Joe Slowinski to a T. A July 13, 2008 review of James’s book accentuated the dark side:

No matter how hard James tries to make Slowinski sound roguishly charming, how often he mentions his “disarming, gap-toothed smile,” how earnestly he swears in the epilogue that he sorely feels the loss of someone he never met, I could not help reading between the lines: intentionally or not, he makes his subject sound like a Class A jerk.

It isn’t Slowinski’s redneck genius persona — meeting academy donors in a baggy T-shirt, smuggling reptiles without permits, kicking down his own door to impress a date when he forgets his keys. That was just snake shtick. Nor is it his earlier “starving graduate student my work is everything” ethos, even when he shouts at his not-well-off father for offering to buy him a table so they don’t have to eat while sitting on the stairs. Nor is it the poses James puts him in: the boy Hercules, age 5, brandishing a rat snake “as thick as his own little arm,” or the carnival man dazzling Burmese villagers just before his death, the sun “glinting penny-bright” on his goatee as he “free-handled the dangerous serpent they called ngan taw kyar (‘royal tiger snake’) with cool bravado.”

Rather, it’s his ruthlessness. His toying with snakes while drunk, terrifying friends. His treatment of his only long-term girlfriend, whom he dumps over the phone. His theft of the prize specimens of a Brazilian herpetologist; caught with her snakes dead in his freezer, he blames the language barrier, claiming he thought she’d granted permission. And the coup de grace is his final, fatal blunder. Relying on bribes and half-truths, he smuggles an expedition of 16 scientists and 130 porters into one of the most remote and malarial corners of the world without official permission or a doctor — just a first-aid kit so meager it wouldn’t have served a Boy Scout camp-out.

While all of reviewer Donald G. McNeil Jr.’s points are true, he leaves out the more admirable sides of Joe Slowinski, not the least of which is a dedication to the pursuit of knowledge. In an era of creationist obfuscation and backwardness, it is necessary to pay tribute to Slowinski as someone totally dedicated to evolutionary science.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy61.html

May 20, 2010

A guest review of “Outsider’s Reverie”

Filed under: science,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 4:15 pm

LESLIE, I HARDLY KNEW YE
Cliff Conner
Outsider’s Reverie: A Memoir by Leslie Evans (Los Angeles: Boryana Books, 2009).

Les Evans was my mentor. No teacher, no professor, no counselor, no guru was more influential in developing my worldview, my ability to think, whatever literary talent I have, and even my physical fitness. Reaching that conclusion forces me to acknowledge that I was a rather late bloomer, because according to Leslie Evans’ memoir, the period during which we worked together closely was October 1972, when my thirtieth birthday was already in the rearview mirror, through February 1975.

It is evident that I owe an immense debt to Les Evans. I see the Les Evans I knew and admired looking out at me from the cover of this memoir written by Leslie Evans, and I am forced to conclude that they are one and the same person. But as I read the text, I often found it difficult to reconcile the alter egos. I see some significant continuity between Les and Leslie: both were/are highly talented writers, with a gift for storytelling and finding the interesting anecdote or literary allusion necessary to illustrate any point. Leslie’s intense interest in ideas, the ability to clarify those ideas, the subtle humor, the attention to detail—all are familiar characteristics of Les’s prose.

But the ideological content of Leslie Evans’ reminiscences is as foreign to me as the Pandorian landscape in Avatar. The person who most strengthened the foundations of my own rationalist view of the world now apparently embraces the most outlandish forms of irrationalism! A relatively minor corollary of the transition is a shift from strongly defending Marxist philosophical and political views to renouncing them.  This is somewhat unsettling for me. External challenges to one’s own worldview are not nearly as distressing as the revelation that the integrity of its foundations may have been somehow compromised. If I am to maintain my own bearings, the Les–Leslie conjunction demands examination and analysis.

Is the difference between Les and Leslie simply a function of the passage of time? Is it a familiar tale of a radical mellowing into moderation—a leftwinger “moving to the right” as he ages? Apparently not, because on the evidence of Leslie’s testimony, the irrationalist element of his outlook was present from his earliest years as a family legacy. His parents were hardcore occultists who participated in—and involved young Leslie in—séances and other forms of communication with the spirit world. As I was reading Leslie’s straightforward account of his parents’ idiosyncratic beliefs, I assumed he was reporting them with a degree of tongue-in-cheek skepticism, but after learning from later chapters of his present outlook, I suspect I may have been lending my own interpretation to his words.

It is not particularly remarkable that a lad raised in that belief system would engage in astral travel and fear ghosts in adulthood, but what astonishes me is that not the tiniest hint of any of this was even remotely evident to me during the two-and-a-half years when I spent eight to ten hours a day in a small office and in almost constant conversation with him. I don’t think I was so comatose that I could have missed it. The Les I knew was a Marxist theoretician and proponent of philosophical materialism of the first order. Forgive me a brief descent into pop Freudianism, but I can only suppose that during that period of his life Les sublimated his interest in the occult into intense political activity, and when the political movement he chose proved disappointing, his otherworldly side—Leslie—resurfaced.

Although subordinate to larger ideological issues, it was Leslie’s about-face from Marxism to anti-Marxism that first manifested itself and was of greatest concern to me. Many of you who are reading this review will know the organizational background that Les and I shared (because you, too, shared it), but for those who don’t, I will back up here and explain how I came to be working with him in the first place. In 1966 I became outraged by the monumental, world-historical crime against humanity known in American textbooks as the Vietnam War. I channeled all of my youthful energy and passion into opposing that horrendous imperialistic murder spree and soon found myself in a small protest group called Atlantans for Peace. There I met a socialist activist named Nelson Blackstock who recruited me to an organization named the Young Socialist Alliance. (We really were young once!)

The YSA’s Marxist ideology appealed to me as a comprehensive worldview.  It offered (to use a medical analogy) diagnosis, prognosis, and therapy for the ills of the human race. Diagnosis: capitalism; prognosis: deepening crises ending in utter destruction; therapy: socialism. Whatever the shortcomings of Marxism and its large variety of practitioners, I continue to this day to find it a more satisfying weltanschauung than any of its rivals. The attraction is more than intellectual; it is visceral. The fundamental values of Marxism as I understand them reflect those I feel most deeply: human solidarity with the slumdogs of the Earth, abhorrence of injustice, and loathing of hypocrisy. I think that when people abandon Marxism, their commitment to those values wanes first and then they adjust their belief system to justify their new value system.

From Atlanta and the YSA I graduated to New York City and the Socialist Workers Party, and in October 1972 I was asked to join the staff of the SWP’s theoretical magazine, the International Socialist Review, or ISR.  Les was the editor of the ISR and I was one of two associate editors.

When I arrived at the ISR office, my writing skills were raw and amateurish. I became a professional writer under Les’s tutelage. Whatever ability to formulate a coherent narrative or argument I had gained from formal education was a blunt instrument that my experience on the ISR staff honed into usefulness. I now learn, from Outsider’s Reverie, that my instructor was often himself just a step or two ahead of his pupil. In recounting his own tutelage under Joseph Hansen, Leslie cites numerous “lessons” that were identical to those he imparted to me. Knowing that does not lessen my gratitude to Les.

Another of Les’s remarkable talents was not so easily transmitted. He could stand up in front of an audience on a moment’s notice and deliver a perfectly coherent hour-long lecture on any number of topics, from the history of the Chinese Revolution to the theory of the declining rate of profit. There was nothing superficial about these instantaneous discourses. If recorded and transcribed, they would constitute well-organized essays requiring very little editing to be worthy of publication. Apparently that ability to speak extemporaneously requires qualities of mind that cannot be taught, because I don’t think I could develop it with a lifetime of trying.

I mentioned in the first paragraph that Les’s positive influence on me extended even to my physical state, and I suppose I should explain that.  When I joined the ISR staff I was 31 years old, weighed 235 pounds, and had struggled against obesity my whole life. In Outsider’s Reverie Leslie charitably describes me at first acquaintance as “a big affable man.” Long story short, Les introduced me to the Atkins low-carbohydrate diet, explained its entire theoretical basis to me with great gusto, and convinced me to give it a go. I did and it worked. Six months later I weighed 165 pounds, and have maintained more than half of that weight loss ever since.

The middle chapters of Outsider’s Reverie, which cover the period of Les’s years in the SWP, are the core of the autobiography; they portray the subject in his prime. They were the most interesting to me because they describe his interactions with many other members of the organization, some of whom I knew well and some not so well. As a member of the leadership bodies of the Party, Les had interactions with central leaders—Jack Barnes, Barry Sheppard, Tom Kerry, Farrell Dobbs, Joseph Hansen, George Breitman, and the patriarch, James P. Cannon—most of whom were only remote presences to me. In spite of his later alienation from Marxism, Leslie’s insights into the characters of the people he describes are incisive and valuable in understanding the further development of the SWP.

But how trustworthy is Leslie’s retrospective account of Les’s activities and beliefs? As an eyewitness to much of what he describes in these chapters, I can vouch for their fundamental honesty. In contrast to most “renegades’ narratives,” Leslie’s explication of the Marxist views Les and I once shared strikes me as remarkably accurate. There is no attempt, as far as I could see, to rewrite history and deny committing what he now considers to be the errors of his youth. In fact, there is a page at the beginning of the volume, just after the title page, that lists a number of the books Les wrote and edited in his Marxist days—books of which Leslie is apparently proud although no longer in agreement with their contents. There are frequent intrusions of Leslie’s current critique of Les’s Marxist views, but the dividing line between past and present is kept sharp enough that readers should not be confused.

A phrase I used above—“ the further development of the SWP”—was euphemistic. From the perspective of both Les and myself the Party crashed and burned in the 1980s. Again, Leslie’s account of its decline and fall is, in my opinion, essentially accurate. What he writes about our separation from the SWP (we were both ejected after Kafkaesque “trials”) and what happened afterward is a valuable contribution to the growing body of literature on the Party’s transformation into a grotesque caricature of its former self.

Outsider’s Reverie thus joins Barry Sheppard’s The Party and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s When Skateboards Will Be Free on the bookshelf of recent SWP memoirs. Comparing these three is difficult because they are for the most part incommensurable. Barry’s book is, as its subtitle states, a political memoir, while Leslie’s and Saïd’s are intensely personal. The latter two are similar both in their high literary value and their antipathy to Marxism but differ in that Leslie (as Les) was actually a central participant in the events he describes, while Saïd was a child (a true “outsider”) observing his parents’ activities in the SWP. Nonetheless, they both offer useful insights into the SWP’s demise. Sheppard’s The Party focuses on the upside rather than the downside of the SWP’s history, but he is working on a second volume that will cover the Party’s self-destruction and his own role in it. Sheppard’s approach is as straight-ahead as it could be. The other two books come at the subject from oblique angles and add an emotional dimension to understanding it. A forthcoming memoir by the late Peter Camejo, which should be in print very soon, will no doubt be another valuable addition to this body of literature.

Joseph Hansen died in January 1979. In retrospect it seems that his departure left a leadership vacuum in the SWP allowing a younger leader, Jack Barnes, to assert full control over the Party and initiate a drastic transformation in its political program and organizational procedures. Les was among the first to recognize these changes as a process of terminal degeneration. Sometime during 1982 he shared his fears with me, but I had already reached similar conclusions. We both joined the opposition current led by George Breitman, Frank Lovell, Lynn Henderson, Jeff Mackler and Nat Weinstein, and within two years the entire opposition had been expelled. Les and I then both joined Socialist Action, which was formed to uphold the historic Trotskyist program of the SWP, but Les did not remain a member long.

I think the last time I saw Les was probably about 1984, and the last time I heard from him as Les rather than Leslie was 1988, when he sent me a copy of an article he had written. By then I already knew that he had begun to question some of the political views we had formerly shared, most notably with regard to the Chinese Revolution. The article, “The Limits of Socialist Planning,” although not an explicitly anti-Marxist critique, seemed to me at the time to represent a decisive step in that direction. And indeed, in Outsider’s Reverie, Leslie confirms that it was “sometime in 1988” when “I was no longer a Marxist.”

I didn’t have to wait for the publication of Outsider’s Reverie to know that Leslie’s ideological outlook had undergone significant revision. Some e-mail correspondence with him a few years ago revealed that he had developed a great deal of sympathy for the Israeli position in the Middle East. I was curious about how such a conversion to Zionism could have come about but could only speculate. I had earlier reached a tentative conclusion that Leslie had adopted “neocon” politics, but I see now that his transformation was far more complex than that.

The key to understanding Leslie’s complicated ideological trajectory appears to me to be found in the title of his memoir. Why did he consider himself an “outsider”? As one of the SWP’s leading journalists and theoreticians, and a member of the Party’s National Committee, he had always seemed to me to be much more of a movement insider than I was. But it seems that he perceived himself, from early childhood on, as in some sense external to the human race as a whole, or at least outside the mainstream of human events. (I am reminded of Temple Grandin’s description of herself as an “anthropologist from Mars” who studies the human race as an external observer, but hers is a case study in Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.)

As a child whose parents immersed him in the fringe world of spiritualist true believers, it is not surprising that he would have felt alienated from “normal” society and separated from the mundane concerns of ordinary human beings. As a result he seems in his youth to have always been drawn to esoteric pursuits. When in young adulthood he encountered the small Trotskyist movement, it was its apparently exotic nature and pariah status that attracted him.

This was a revelation to me, because it is so completely opposite to my own attitude when I first discovered the socialist movement in Atlanta, Georgia. Its smallness (five members, counting myself), its peculiarity in the eyes of nonmembers, its distinct Marxist lingo, its foreign-sounding tradition of calling each other “comrade,” and all the other things that set us apart from the rest of humanity were not selling points that recruited me; they were barriers I had to overcome before I would join. I had no interest in being part of a small group of virtuosi possessed of arcane knowledge. The movement’s only value to me was in its potential to grow to mass proportions. I took the last line of the Internationale seriously: “The international party will be the human race.” As I saw it, the YSA and SWP were the most effective organizers of struggles—against war, against racism, against bigotry and oppression of all kinds—that I thought should and could win majority support.

How did that work out? It was a partial success, because we did indeed play a significant role in building a mass movement against the Vietnam War. The SWP itself, however, did not turn out well, but I still consider the attempt to build it to have been a worthy effort. The point is that I was motivated not by esotericism but by its opposite—not by the SWP’s remoteness from the rest of the human race but by its potential connections to it.

In his memoir Leslie restates his pro-Israel conclusions at some length.  As an indication of the extent to which I did not know him, he now says he considers himself to have been Jewish all along, but there was no hint of any such identity in the years we worked together. I don’t recall whether he ever explicitly told me so, but I remember thinking that he was of Scandinavian ethnicity.

A conversation with Jack Barnes after the June War of 1967, Leslie writes, led him to conclude that although the Party’s official stance had always been against Zionism rather than Jews, the “unchallenged leader” of the SWP held views that “seemed nothing less than anti-Semitism.” Going along with the party line against Israel, he says, “is the one political position I took in those years that I was ashamed of afterward.” I cannot know what Jack Barnes’ private attitude toward Jews may have been then, but I strongly reject any suggestion that the Party’s anti-Zionism was in any sense anti-Semitic. Our pro-Palestinian political stance was founded first of all on solidarity with the Palestinian people as the victims of Israeli repression, but we also made clear our genuine concerns for the Jewish people, who have been misled by Zionism into a death trap in the Middle East. That danger continues to intensify.

Aside from that general statement of position, I won’t attempt a rebuttal of Leslie’s defense of Israel. Much could be also said in response to his new stance against the Cuban Revolution, but it has all been said elsewhere, so I will not repeat it here. As for his explicit embrace of the paranormal and the supernatural, that is not something that lends itself to argumentation anyway. As Jonathan Swift wisely observed, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” I will simply remind Leslie of something Les told me long ago that seems applicable to the present situation: Trotsky once observed of James Burnham that his renunciation of the materialist philosophy of Marxism could ultimately be attributed to “a spark of hope for an after-life.”

Leslie’s lengthy defense of the plausibility of paranormal and supernatural phenomena urges readers to keep an “open mind” on issues such as the existence of ghosts and astral travel. That admonition may seem unexceptionable, but there are limits beyond which giving the benefit of a doubt becomes untenable. As the song  says, “If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out.”

I will also forego the great temptation to respond in detail to Leslie’s resurrection of all the old quantum theory chestnuts for yet another assault on philosophical materialism. This is what I call “physics mysticism” and it has become something of a bête noire for me. Contrary to the claims of various mystical authors, modern physics, properly understood, does not offer any support at all for paranormal or occult phenomena.

Leslie’s primary argument boils down to an appeal to the authority of physicists. He writes that his investigations revealed that “the common-sense and philosophical-materialist views of reality are quite far from the thinking among cosmologists and physicists” today. Among the ideas that “raise questions about the underlying nature of reality that challenge both ordinary common sense and the viewpoint known as philosophical materialism” is the Many Worlds hypothesis, which, he says, has “become mainstream, with some 30 percent of physicists at a 1999 conference declaring their agreement.” Another such idea is “the quantum mystery of entanglement,” which is bolstered by the authority of “Nobel laureate physicist Brian Josephson at Cambridge,” who suggests that it “may offer a physical basis for reports of telepathy or clairvoyance.”

I never thought debunking the claims of psychics, spiritualists, and assorted purveyors of supernaturalism would be a good use of my own time, but I used to enjoy reading a little magazine named The Skeptical Inquirer, which was devoted to doing exactly that. Some of the magazine’s stalwart contributors were professional illusionists—stage magicians. These were latter-day followers of Harry Houdini, who tirelessly exposed fraudulent claims of other illusionists who pretended to possess supernatural powers. Their exposés of “scientific” ESP studies, flying saucer reports, and phony magicians often involved demonstrating how skillful illusionists like themselves could fool anyone who was predisposed to falling for their illusions.

Charlatans like Uri Geller would frequently trumpet the endorsement of scientists who he had persuaded that he really could bend spoons with his mental powers alone. The illusionists of The Skeptical Inquirer would then pay the same scientists a visit, also fool them with similar parlor tricks, and then show them how they had been duped. After many years of this, they concluded that the easiest people in the world to hoodwink are physicists—because they think they are too smart to be fooled. I am therefore underwhelmed by Leslie’s appeal to the fact that some gullible physicists give credence to reports of clairvoyance and other paranormal phenomena.

I have focused mainly on the chapters of Outsider’s Reverie that concern the author’s life at the time I knew him, but for both of us there was life after the SWP, and Leslie’s memoir continues to be interesting as it proceeds into the 1990s and beyond. Perhaps as another manifestation of his “outsiderness,” he and his wife Jennifer moved into the notorious part of Los Angeles that now serves as the bleak setting for the television drama Southland. As white folks in a mostly nonwhite and immigrant neighborhood, they stood out, and despite the constant gang activity and drug-related violence that surrounded them, they stayed. The matter-of-factness with which Leslie describes witnessing murders from his window is remarkable.

He and Jennifer didn’t see themselves as social missionaries or anything of that sort; they simply wanted to live and let live. They united with other homeowners in their immediate vicinity to form a neighborhood improvement association, and through struggle they survived. They now have “neighbors we have known for two decades, who make this place a small town within the great impersonal city.” The transformation from Les to Leslie has reconciled him with “the actual society we live in,” so that he no longer sees “the United States, its government, its press, and its major institutions” as evil. Leslie has come in from the cold; he is no longer an outsider.

(Cliff Conner is the author of the magisterial People’s History of Science.)

February 8, 2009

A Flock of Dodos

Filed under: Film,science — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

The other night I stumbled across “A Flock of Dodos” on the Showtime cable network, a somewhat overly whimsical documentary on “intelligent design” that I still recommend heartily. It is directed by Randy Olson who received a PhD in evolutionary biology from Harvard while studying under Stephen Jay Gould. Olson changed careers in the mid 1990s and became a documentary film-maker with Michael Moore as his most obvious influence. Using himself as a central figure, Olson interviews both sides of the debate seeking to make it entertaining to a mass audience. He largely succeeds although nobody is better at this than Michael Moore obviously.

Olson got the inspiration for this movie in 1999 after he his mom began sending him clippings from her hometown newspaper in Kansas about the state school board’s decision to integrate intelligent design into the high school science curriculum. On top of that, she lived next door to John Calvert, a lawyer who was spearheading efforts to promote intelligent design both in Kansas and nationally.

One of Olson’s first interviewees is Dr. Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University who wrote “Darwin’s Black Box”, a kind of bible for the intelligent design movement. Unlike the more openly fundamentalist advocates of creationism such as William Jennings Bryan, people like Behe try to couch their arguments in scientific terms, albeit in a specious manner. For example, they like to compare two mountain ranges, one in the Rockies and the other in South Dakota that just happens to include Mount Rushmore. Behe holds up the two pictures and asks Olson what conclusions you can draw from them. Obviously, it is easy to state that the first mountain range is a product of seismic events, erosion, etc. But you must conclude that Mount Rushmore was designed. By analogy, something as marvelous and as elegant as the eye must be a product of design as well since the contingency of Darwinian evolution would surely be incapable of producing such a result.

In one of the more successful attempts at humor in the movie, the frequently inelegant outcomes of evolution are depicted, especially those that relate to the digestive system, a rather less inspiring example of plumbing-particularly when it comes to rabbits. It seems that the rabbit first has to excrete out the semi-digested food it takes in and can only absorb it fully after eating it in the form of feces, which “A Flock of Dodos” films in its less than glorious dimensions.

Much of the film is devoted to an investigation of the Discovery Institute that is largely responsible for promoting intelligent design through its access to rightwing foundation funding. If you go to their website, you won’t find much in the way of dinosaurs being only a few thousand years old. When addressing the question of whether intelligent design theory is the same as creationism, their FAQ replies:

No. Intelligent design theory is simply an effort to empirically detect whether the “apparent design” in nature acknowledged by virtually all biologists is genuine design (the product of an intelligent cause) or is simply the product of an undirected process such as natural selection acting on random variations. Creationism is focused on defending a literal reading of the Genesis account, usually including the creation of the earth by the Biblical God a few thousand years ago. Unlike creationism, the scientific theory of intelligent design is agnostic regarding the source of design and has no commitment to defending Genesis, the Bible or any other sacred text. Honest critics of intelligent design acknowledge the difference between intelligent design and creationism.

Although there is little hope for serious change coming out of the Obama administration, it seems likely that public schools and colleges will not be as receptive to creationism and intelligent design over the next four years. After all, it doesn’t cost a Goldman-Sachs manager anything to preserve the separation of state and church.

For a good introduction to the issues surrounding intelligent design, rent “A Flock of Dodos” from Netflix.

July 27, 2008

Tecnica

Filed under: Africa,Latin America,science — louisproyect @ 4:06 pm

I was president of the Tecnica board in the late 1980s through 1992 when it went belly-up. Relying heavily on donations from liberal and radical foundations, it was victimized by the FSLN getting voted out of office in 1990. Nicaragua was no longer sexy. We had already launched a technical aid program for the ANC and the frontline states but it was not well-established enough to survive the downturn in funding.

In 1984 I went down to Nicaragua to observe the elections with a delegation from the Guardian newspaper, a weekly radical publication that went out of business in 1992. Nothing in my experience in the SWP prepared us for what a living revolution would be like. The same kind of peasants who were fighting for land in El Salvador were now enjoying a much better life on cooperatives in liberated Nicaragua. Health care was now universally available and literacy programs were making people real participants in the political life of the country.

When one of the members of my delegation found out that I was a computer programmer, he slipped me a leaflet that some people in the Bay Area had put together. They were looking for computer programmers and other skilled professionals to work in Nicaragua. After the Sandinistas had taken over, a lot of the better paid workers had fled to Miami just as had happened in Cuba after 1959. As soon as I got back from Nicaragua, I called the number on the leaflet and spoke to Michael Urmann, an economist who had launched the project called Tecnica. I agreed to go back to Nicaragua for two weeks with a delegation of about 15 other technical specialists and give some classes on structured programming techniques. I brushed up on my high school Spanish and returned with my course notes.

I ended up teaching at the Central Bank in Nicaragua, their version of the Federal Reserve. About one out of four students seemed like committed Sandinistas but the rest were like young people anywhere. They simply wanted a better life. Like young computer programmers everywhere, the job was a means to an end.

I was all set to take on a new job at the Ministry of Construction supporting the largest mainframe in the country, which was about 1/10th the size of the computers I was used to working on at home. The people at this agency were more political than at the Central Bank and I was knocked out to hear revolutionary folk songs being sung over lunch. Things were never like that at my jobs at Houston and Boston banks.

On my last night in Nicaragua, Michael Urmann persuaded me to go back to New York and start a chapter of Tecnica there. At that point they were primarily based in the Bay Area and he was trying to build a national organization. He had hopes that we could eventually become a kind of radical version of the Peace Corps. He needed a political veteran like me to get kick-start things on the East Coast. Largely in recognition of my organizing skills, I was named President of Tecnica after it became incorporated as a nonprofit.

In trips out to the West Coast, I got to know Michael Urmann well. Like me, he was a veteran of the sectarian left and around the same age as me. As a member of the Maoist Progressive Labor party, he went to work in a warehouse in the 1960s long before the SWP made its “turn”. After a few months of backbreaking work with little to show for it politically, he dropped out of the PLP and went back to grad school. We had lots of laughs when we exchanged stories about factory work. We also laughed at the absurdity of turf wars between the Maoists and the Trotskyists in the 1960s. Like Peter Camejo, we had moved on to a more sensible place.

The project flourished through most of the late 1980s. Every month we sent down about twenty volunteers to work with Nicaraguan agencies, including the engineer who had responsibility for repairing electrical pylons blown up by the contras.

We also worked with a young American engineer named Ben Linder who found his way down to Nicaragua on his own. We raised money and provided some technical assistance for a small-scale hydroelectric project he had initiated in contra-infested northern Nicaragua.

On April 28, 1987 Ben was killed by contras while working on the small-scale hydroelectric dam that was his pet project. It sent shock waves through the movement and drove home the risks of working in Nicaragua. As a sign that we would not be intimidated, volunteer applications doubled in the months following Ben’s murder.

We received another shock the very same month. FBI agents went to the personnel offices at the workplace of twelve returned Tecnica volunteers and called them in for interviews in front of their boss. They were told that Tecnica was at the center of an espionage ring that was running high technology out of Nicaragua to Cuba and the Soviet Union. Anybody who had ever been to Nicaragua would realize how ridiculous this charge was. There was only one elevator in the entire country.

A number of important newspapers and politicians condemned the investigation and forced the FBI to end its harassment. This opening paragraph from a May 19 1987 Washington Post editorial was typical:

IT IS NOT ILLEGAL to travel to Nicaragua. Any American has a right to go there and to teach, repair tractors, help with the harvest or work in a clinic. Many do go, some as a concrete expression of political opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, others for purely humanitarian reasons. This can be extremely dangerous. One American volunteer, Benjamin Linder, who went under the auspices of a group called Tecnica, was killed there last month. And it can be unpopular, since the Sandinista government understandably does not have many friends in this country. But it is not illegal.

In December of 1987 I traveled to southern Africa with a small Tecnica delegation, including Michael Urmann. We were to meet with the African National Congress and leaders of some of the “frontline” states, including Mozambique, in order to see if an expansion of our volunteer program into Africa was feasible.

Since the ANC was still in exile in this point (apartheid was on the ropes but not ended), we ended up in Lusaka, Zambia where most of the top officials lived, including Thabo Mbeki, the future president of South Africa.

We were invited to his house for a meeting to figure out whether there was a basis for future work. Mbeki lived in a two story house in a rather upscale neighborhood that was unlike the rest of the city. I noticed a Mercedes-Benz in the driveway.

His life-style was different from the average Zambian’s. On the way over to his house in a cab, Urmann asked the driver why so many office buildings were uncompleted. Since housing was one of his academic interests, such matters were always uppermost in his mind. The cabbie glared at him and said, “The buildings are not finished because you people took all the money with you.”

After our discussion with Mbeki ended, his wife Zanele asked me to take a look at her laptop computer. She was having trouble saving the file she was working on, which was Oliver Tambo’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the ANC.

Me: Mrs. Mbeki, you need to put in a formatted floppy diskette into the B drive in order to save Tambo’s speech.

Zanele: What is the B drive?

Me: It is right here (I pointed to the slot.) Let me take care of it for you. (I formatted the diskette and got everything in order.) You are all set now.

Zanele: Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. I was so desperate.

I felt like my existence had finally been vindicated. Other people would be chosen to make monumental speeches. My purpose was to make sure that the speech would not disappear in some technical black hole.

On June 10, 1987, a couple of months after Ben Linder’s murder and the FBI sweep, NY Newsday did a big story on Nicaragua activists and included a mini-profile on me. The author, a likeable fellow named Jonathan Mandell who was clearly sympathetic, wrote about me:

Lou Proyect works in a Wall Street investment bank, one of 25 “database administrators” who sit in a numbing row of fluorescent-blanched cubicles and stares at computers until the end of the day. It is the latest variation on the kind of job he has held for 19 years. Tacked to the wall of his cubicle is the latest article cut out from PC Week, a personal computer trade magazine: “IBM’s PS/2s aren’t all that revolutionary.” Neither, he says, is Lou Proyect.

I can’t even remember what point I was trying to make at the time. Was I trying to say that I was not some stupid sectarian blathering about revolution? Or was I just trying to make sure that Goldman did not decide to fire me after the article appeared?

Goldman did eventually get rid of me but it had nothing to do with politics, but the need to cut costs after the stock market crash in 1987–although I suppose that this is political as well. After 3 years of consulting I ended up at Columbia University where I lived happily ever after.

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