atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#3253: How much f-ing crap do I KNOW, anyway?

When my nephew was here a few weeks ago, he and I kept up a running conversation in which he asked me questions with very complex answers.

For example, "What is superconductivity?" And so I found myself explaining to him everything I could remember on the subject.

Besides that, I told him about neutron stars, tides, Bose-Einstein Condensates--and totally independently of me he asked if neutronium could form a Bose-Einstein condensate!!--other forms of degenerate matter; we discussed theories about supernovae, talked a bit (pun intended) about binary logic; antimatter; time travel; Hawking radiation; and a shitton of other things besides that I now can't even remember.

Towards the end of his visit, as I was driving him home, he said that he'd thought he'd try to stump me...and failed: I always had some kind of explanation to answer his question.

Well...when I was in public school and taking the standardized evaluations every year ("the SRA test", they called it) I consistently scored in the 99th percentile in science. Math was always my worst subject but I was right up near the top in science. I did pretty f-ing good in the other subjects, too. My lowest-ever score that I recall was math, somewhere in the 80th percentile. Think about that: better than 80% of the other students in my worst subject.

I just don't know where the hell I got all this stuff from. Was it from reading hard science fiction? Some of it must have been; also I've made a casual study of physics over the years, as well as astronomy--even venturing to the places where physics and astronomy become indistinguishable--but that can't be all of it. Can it?

I knew the theory behind the atomic bomb when I was in 6th grade well enough to explain it to other people. That one, at least, I know I got from reading Heinlein; but what about the rest of it?

In 1991 I plowed through Feynman's QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter but I had to work for it. It was the toughest physics tract I'd ever tackled, and at that it was meant to be a popular treatment, not a technical paper. But once I had digested it, suddenly I understood how lenses and other electromagnetic devices work. Holograms, fresnel lenses, the double-slit experiment, all of it snapped into sharp focus.

But this kind of knowledge is why I can't take anthropogenic global warming seriously. I couldn't see how a 100 parts-per-million change in the composition of the atmosphere could lead to the magnitude of climate change the AGW folks were predicting. I especially had trouble with it once I learned that all the infrared that's absorbed by CO2 is absorbed at a much lower concentration of CO2 than even the pre-industrial levels of 280 PPM. That to double the amount of IR that could be absorbed, we'd have to increase the CO2 concentration to a point that would be actively poisonous to us.

It's taught me to be skeptical of claims made by "think tanks". "Use of X can lead to an increased chance of Y!" is essentially meaningless. "Can" is used in place of "may", which means might; and "might" also means "might not". So whenever you hear someone try to tell you that "Use of Bisphenol A [BPA] might lead to breast cancer" you have to remember that the statement can also mean "Use of BPA might NOT lead to breast cancer". Why? Because both statements are equally true. Check this out:

You might die today by having a satellite fall on you.

You might not die today by having a satellite fall on you.

Both of those mean exactly the same thing: there is a possibility that a satellite could fall on you and kill you. You're talking about a probability; and the idea with the scaremongers is to magnify that probability and make it sound as if even looking at BPA will turn your breasts into gigantic tumors. Hence "can" rather than "might"...even though in that sentence construction they mean the same thing.

* * *

Here I am trying to sound all smart and shit, and I can't even stay on-topic. How pathetic.

* * *

And all of this knowledge that I've accumulated, I managed to do so in spite of my public school education, not because of it.

If I had been stuck only learning the science they taught me in public school, I'd be as scientifically illiterate as most people are--not able to understand how a cable box can sort one channel frequency out of 200, or reacting in ignorant horror to the idea of living near a nuclear power plant, or never even bothering to consider how much effort goes into providing the gasoline we pump into our cars.

My knowledge of science (and engineering) makes natural spectacles even more breathtaking. I understand how the rainbow is made, right down to the quantum electrodynamic theory that explains how rain refracts light to make rainbows, and when I see a rainbow I am in awe with how such a simple rule can make such a complex thing happen.

Because I know these kinds of things, it's that much harder for our would-be masters to trick me into behaving the way they want me to. I don't buy AGW because I can see the glaring flaws in the (alleged) science. Because I understand basic economics I oppose "high speed rail" projects. I'm not convinced that banning Freon did anything for anyone except DuPont, who had a bunch of patents on hydroflourocarbon refrigerants which were useless as long as chlorofluorocarbons were legal to manufacture; it certainly made no difference to the "ozone hole" over Antarctica, which was discovered in 1956 and which has not varied materially since then.

My knowledge of statistics and chemistry are weak, yet they're strong enough for me to evaluate the bunkum that our mainstream media tries to sell as "the latest science" and reject it as--well--bunkum.

I suppose that in the event of a total societal collapse my knowledge and experience will stand me in good stead. People who can fix things will be highly sought after; people who can make things and do things will not starve the way people who can only shuffle papers will.

But overall I believe that if our educational system was worth all the money we pay for it, our kids would not only be first in the world in math and science, but would love to learn about it the way I do, and--indeed--my nephew does.

At least, a lot more of them would.

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