Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hawking's Bang

Stephen Hawking's latest book: The Grand Design left me quite disappointed. It was announced as a new approach to the classical question: Does (a) God exist? Hawking and co-author Leonard Mlodinow however  turn around the pot and declare instead: God is not necessary for explaining the world and the creation to exist. They formulate their basic questions as follows:

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Why do we exist?

Why this particular set of (physical) laws and not some other?

Before however the authors come to answer these points in the last chapter on page 171 of their book the reader gets a flash course in old, modern and most recent physics, somewhat short for the layman to grasp but a good repetition for persons interested in the topic who have read this before. Luckily once in a while the authors like to be funny, e.g., when they explain symmetry that a flipped donut looks exactly the same, unless it has a chocolate topping, in which case it is better just to eat it or We have observed that the moon is not made of Roquefort cheese which is bad news for mice. These remarks have the advantage of keeping the reader alive.

Let us see how the authors tackle the answers to the questions posed above: Spontaneous creation of matter i.e. new worlds in fact can be explained in combining relativity theory and quantum mechanics within the space dimension of a Planck length. A Big Bang starting within the dimension of 10-35 meters can macroscopically nicely be  illustrated  with the appearance of micro bubbles in a boiling liquid where some of those will expand to form big vapor bubbles. Within this image time has an origin and the question of what was before time zero becomes meaningless. New universes are spontaneously created out of the energy of empty space due to quantum fluctuations. Only to say that Einstein disliked quantum mechanics as for him God doesn't throw dice.

The picture of micro bubbles in a boiling liquid can further be stretched: Only those micro bubbles, i.e., Big Bangs will expand into universes where the combination of physical constants and laws just fit each other. The world in which we live would not exist if constants like the gravitational constant, the speed of light, the electron radius etc. were not those they are. Varying the values of our known physical parameters just a few percent will lead to unstable universes, i.e., to worlds that cannot exist.

Remains the salient question: Why do we exist? In a first step also here the authors stress a mathematical model called the Game of Life where structures using energy and following defined laws reproduce themselves. Viruses do that, even the evolution to higher forms of life can be understood as complex systems of limited size that are stable and reproduce themselves. Darwin's selection principle fits nicely into this pattern. However the formation of life in the form of self-producing structures as they are known to us requires as necessary conditions water, oxygen and a friendly habitat with temperature variations remaining within certain limits just like mother earth provides. Living structures can and will react when stimulated within limits otherwise they will die.

 This however does not explain why and when beings possess a free will. For the authors the behavior of a robot is predictable because it is calculable. When however a living being has more than about 1027 atoms, we would therefore have to say that any complex being has free will - not as a fundamental feature, but as an effective theory, an admission of our inability to do the calculations that would enable us to predict its actions. Nice try, but is the statement that because we are unable to calculate a structure the convincing evidence for the existence of a free will? And is it this free will that pushes us to believe or not believe in a somewhat reduced God, a God just throwing dice? There was this other approach exactly 40 years ago when Jacques Monod in his book: Le hazard et la nécessité denied us our free will. Monod suspected a genetic defect as the origin of man's quest for God, a fault that we according to him must overcome. Oh Lord, where in all this is the personal God that Jesus told us we shall call our Father!?

Hawking and Mlodinow summarize: Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exist, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going and The fact that we human beings - who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature – have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph. But perhaps the true miracle is that abstract considerations of logic lead to a unique theory that predicts and describes a vast universe full of the amazing variety that we see.

Today I read in Murphy's Law Calendar: There are some things that are impossible to know - but it is impossible to know these things. Now I think I am more than ready to read Küng's book about what he believes!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

My Fairy Tales

In 1792 Emperor Leopold I donated a School of Philosophy and Catholic Theology in Breslau (Wrosaw) that was called Leopoldina after him. As a Catholic institute run by the Jesuits in Protestant Breslau the new university was an important instrument of the Counter-Reformation in Silesia. A symbol of the Jesuit influence is the Auditorium (Aula) decorated in the late Baroque style. Although I am not an aficionado of that genre I was impressed when our group visited the hall.

The Aula Leopoldina

The flowers are in Poland's red and white.
The motto Quod (bonum,) faustum, felix fortunatumque sit
is taken from Cicero's 'De Divinatione' (1, 45, 102):
May the outcome be good, propitious, lucky and successful

Strolling through the university quarter afterwards I looked into the window of a second hand bookshop and caught the sight of a battered edition of Märchen der Brüder Grimm.

This rang a bell deep inside. Didn’t I love my fairy tale book my mother read from 
with those colored pictures? Later I devoured the stories of Schneewittchen und die sieben Zwerge (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), Frau Holle (Mother Hulda), Aschenputtel (Cinderella), Der Froschkönig oder der eiserne Heinrich (The Frog Prince), Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot (Snow-White and Rose-Red), you name them! Somehow this my book got lost during the war.

I entered the Antykwariat of Andrzej Jaworski and examined the book.It was indeed the same edition I once had owned and the price in Reichsmark was still written in the back in pencil: 2.85! The bookseller had pre-priced it for 48 Słoty where I would have given him easily double the price. I didn't trade and as the old man apparently hadn't noticed the greedy glint in my eyes he offered me the treasure for only 40. My fairy tale!

Indeed the pictures are impressive. Here are two examples:

I liked the piece of Lebkuchen (a mild gingerbread) Hänsel had broken off
from one corner of the roof


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Duelling is crazy

Ferdinand Lassalle fighting for Social Democracy
and human rights
While I was in Polish Wrosław, formerly German Breslau, I visited the Jewish cemetery. As it is not in walking distance from the city I took a taxi. My young driver only spoke broken English whereas Wrosław's older generation is often quite at ease with German.

One trip to the cemetery was 18 Słoty so I asked my driver how much it would cost if he waited for me 20 minutes and took me back downtown afterwards. He answered: Another 18. I said: But you have to wait for me. He continued: For that fare I shall wait the whole afternoon. I promised him 50 Słoty for all, including a 20 minutes waiting time for my only intention was to visit Ferdinand Lassalle's tomb. This guy founded the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein in Leipzig on May 23, 1836, and is considered the father of social democracy in German speaking countries. Note that Lassalle was far from being a proletarian for he died prematurely, shot in a duel.

An old man guarded the entrance to the quiet graveyard. He was born the same year as me and with him I talked German. He offered me a special price for the entrance fee if I bought a brochure about the Jewish cemetery, on sale in several mayor languages. He strongly recommended a visit to the graves of Edith Stein's parents strangely enough buried in separate plots. Edith Stein as professor Edmund Husserl's assistant once taught and lived in Freiburg before she converted to the Catholic faith and entered the Order of the Carmelites. When the Nazi persecution became violent her order sent her to a hideout in a Dutch convent. All in vain, the Gestapo tracked her down and transported her to Auschwitz.

Lassalle's tomb made from black marble
Nevertheless, my attention was rather focused on Lassalle's tomb that was clearly marked and well kept. I took several photos and then went back slowly to my waiting taxi passing the weather beaten tombstones of the Werth- and Pringsheims, the Rubin- and Edelsteins, the Cohens and Meyers.

I asked my driver to take me to the recently redecorated synagogue. This a relatively small building hidden in a backyard cannot be compared with the impressive Breslau synagogue that the Nazis burned down in the Reichskristallnacht on November 9, 1938.

I just arrived in time to catch the tail of a guided tour in German. A female guide informed us about Breslau's long gone rich Jewish culture and history. She frequently took advice in Polish from an older small gentleman dressed in black and wearing the kippa. Still impressed by Lassalle's "aristocratic" death I asked him how the Jewish faith considered fighting a duel, a deed that the Catholic church regards as a deadly sin. The interpreting guide said: Here is an interesting question and translated it for the male expert. After some deliberation he simply answered: I don't know.

We continued our guided tour passing many photos of famous Jewish personalities from Breslau among them Max Born, the Nobel prized physicist, well known to me. Suddenly a door in the back of the room opened and an elegantly dressed gentleman wearing a beard and a kippa entered. The guide introduced him as the Great Rabbi of Wrosław. In his one hand he carried a briefcase in the other he held a Starbucks grande coffee to go. He greeted our group briefly in German and then started in an accented Polish telling us about the present Jewish community in Wrosław counting 300 members. While I was deliberating whether his coffee was kosher he continued explaining that a recent report on CNN about Jewish revival in Poland has given rise to 20 telephone calls per day from people discovering their Jewish origins. When he had finished his lecture I used the opportunity to formulate my question again. Following some back and forth discussions between our guide and the Rabbi he answered: It depends.

After the tour I walked around a bit studying the exhibition and eventually left. And there it happened that just in front of me walked the Great Rabbi and the small gentleman in black ... and they were talking in English! I approached and said: Pardon me Rabbi, was there some misunderstanding? Maybe I should have asked my question in English and repeated it accordingly. He turned to me: Oh you mean Lassalle fought a duel because of a woman? That's crazy! and left me stunned.

And suddenly everything fell into place: CNN, the coffee to go, his accented Polish. He was an American of Polish origin sent to Wrosław as a development worker (Entwicklungshelfer) for the Jewish community.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stranded in Gelnhausen

On my way to Dresden for a one week trip to Wroclaw (Breslau) and Cracow (Krakau) I started in Freiburg on Saturday, October 9, at 6.52 a.m. taking the InterCity Express (ICE) direction Frankfurt or instead at 7.15 a.m. since the train from Basel arrived in Freiburg twenty minutes late. Initially, I didn't worry about the delay but rather enjoyed the Butterkuchen (a piece of cake made from yeast dough covered with sugared sliced almonds roasted in butter) and the pot of coffee that one gets served at the seat. This treat has become my favorite standard whenever I travel by ICE in Germany.

That I did eventually make it in Frankfurt's central station was because the connecting train arrived on the other side of the same platform and was delayed too. Soon after the ICE to Dresden had left Frankfurt in the direction of Fulda, the loudspeaker informed us about an abandoned Aldi plastic bag in coach 22. Oh, oh! A few minutes later, the train ground to an unscheduled halt at Gelnhausen station. All passengers had to leave the train, the platform, and even their luggage behind.

Gelnhausen is a small town in Hesse with beautiful half-timbered houses where the poet Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen was born in 1622. He is famous for the first German novel ever written: The adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus during the Thirty Years War. Besides, Gelnhausen sports the remains of a Kaiserpfalz (Emperor's palace).

Waiting at a safe distance on platform 1 for the big blow
Time was too short for a visit, although it took 30 minutes before the Federal Police arrived for an investigation into the plastic bag affair. At the same time, we were waiting at a safe distance on platform 1 for another 90 minutes. Luckily enough, it was a beautiful sunny day.

A female German shepherd on her way to sniff explosives
Suddenly the crowd opened a passage for an awe-inspiring police officer and his dog. From then on, it still took another hour before the sniffing dog had declared the plastic bag as clean. In the end, we were invited to re-mount the train and meet our luggage again.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Conquest of Space and Time

Professor Peter Günther's talk describing how the Puritan heritage developed into a political religion made me think about two points: Possible future developments in America's drive to new frontiers and as Herman Melville saw it: the political Messiah having come in the American people.

Reaching New Frontiers
Once the settlers had arrived at the West coast of the American continent and had in a first phase pitched up their tents on the beaches of the Pacific Ocean had they not reached their final goal? No, to me President Kennedy's call to make it to the moon within a decade was a manifestation and continuation of the pioneers' spirit of conquering space and time. And even today there are frontiers to be reached, e.g., in science where the US has the highest rate of Nobel Prize winners.

What about old and new social challenges and how to meet them? The Puritan attitude, i.e.,those who in this life count themselves already among the chosen people, clashes with charity for the unsuccessful and miserable neighbor. Is this the reason that for some Americans socialism is the devil in person? In 1848 Theodor Mögling a leading figure during the German revolution in Baden-Württemberg gave the following definition, “Socialism wants the unification of forces on a voluntary basis to reach goals that cannot be reached by an individual alone. The freedom and self-determination of an individual however must only be limited to a degree necessary for reaching the goal.” What could be wrong with that?

Spreading Freedom and Democracy
Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George:
You too have the right of self-determination.
Would you like your pockets being emptied before
 or after your death?
Contemporary cartoon by Th. Heine
We Europeans and particularly we Germans will never forget America's intervention during two world wars where in a second attempt the US succeeded at "imposing" democracy in Central Europe. The first attempt had to fail because President Wilson somewhat naively left the execution of his 14 Points to the Europeans. As Stephen Clarke writes in his book 1000 Years of Annoying the French, “Britain's Prime Minister, Lloyd George, thought the Allies should be less lenient on the Germans. He wanted to punish them while keeping their country healthy enough to act as a barrier against the new Communist state of Russia in the east. The French, though, were obsessed with bringing Germany to its knees. Remembering the Franco-Prussian War, France's Prime Minister, the 77-year-old Georges Clemenceau, was determined that the Germans should never be strong enough to invade France again - which makes it hard to understand why he insisted on a peace treaty so harsh that they would come back looking for vengeance only twenty years later.”

After the first aborted attempt followed the second that was successful. In 1945 Europe was in such a shambles that only massive American help (the Marshall Plan) prevented the Western half of the continent from drifting under communist rule too. The American seed mostly fell on fertile ground. Germany now is a stable democracy even to the point of being admired by some less fortunate countries.

The next international hot spot where the US successfully missionized was South Korea. The following, Operation Vietnam, however failed leaving deep scars in how America sees itself. I will skip the Iraqi War so next comes Operation Enduring Freedom focusing on Afghanistan. Here a Western Alliance is fighting the Taliban both militarily and politically together with the US with the latter providing the lion's share as usual. Defending the US and Germany against the Taliban at the Hindu Kush? With respect to our troops more than two thirds of the German people deny that statement and would prefer to pull our personnel out by tomorrow. My personal conclusion is: at the bitter end the Alliance will not have established a democratic regime in Afghanistan but will count thousands of lives lost and billions of U$ and euros burned.

Is there another way to meet the aggressiveness of the militant fraction of Islam? The question is not answered. The latest remark of our federal president, “Germany has a Christian-Jewish (yes!!) past but in the meantime Islam belongs to Germany too,” neither helped nor calmed down the debate.