Naturkundemuseum — Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften: Astrohistory Shadows

Around the iron staircase, sunset shadows on ascending descending voyage into the universe, on meteorites that hit Germany.

Reading: Sean Carroll — The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself

Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself made it onto my reading list because of another theoretical physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, who reviewed it mid-2016. I’m reading it now because I need my regular fix of sciencey, astrophysics stuff and it seemed to compliment the other stuff I’m reading at the moment (also all the other science books on my list are textbook affairs with commensurate eye-bleeding price).

I have to say from the outset I’m not the imaginary audience for The Big Picture, nor am I especially enjoying it. I wish I was because I enjoy the hell out of what he writes about, and appreciate he can do hard science without pissing all over philosophy and the humanities, unlike quite a few popular atheist science bros. He manages to rope in Wittgenstein (who is always wholly relevant and informative in any situation), my dear favourite Leibniz gets a go for calculus, as well as best of all possible worlds, and principle of sufficient reason; he even manages to have an entire chapter on gender and identity and I’m showing my age here but I’m still pleasantly surprised when I see how unremarkable these matters have become — even in the last decade, in fields not explicitly feminism/queer/gender studies/etc.

So why am I not enjoying it so much? It could be the recurrence of disproving Laplace’s and/or Descartes’ demons, or explaining from extrapolations of different parts of physics the impossibility of (or at least extremely unlikely) things like mind-body duality, having a soul, life after death, god. Which makes it an invaluable book for people who themselves have questions and doubts about these subjects, but from my personal experience kinda useless in persuading even the most casual of ‘spiritual’ types to give up their astrology.

I used to be a much more diligent atheist, until atheism was taken over by white hetero bro New Atheism colonialism and ruined it for the rest of us. I like Caroll in this regard because he isn’t absolutist. Paraphrasing here, he says while nothing we see or know about the universe requires a god, nonetheless that does not preclude one (or many), just that if there was a god or gods, they would have to adhere to the laws of physics like the rest of us do — as far as we can tell by the current, pretty bloody good state of our understanding of physics. He also says that irrespective of the existence or not of god or gods, religion serves a cultural purpose spanning millennia that saying “God doesn’t exist, because physics” isn’t going to miraculously cause mass conversion to atheism.

For a white, hetero male writing on the Big Questions — historically the domain of self-congratulatory alpha males — he’s done a banger of a job of steering through all that anachronistic baggage. But steer through that he does, stopping off along the way to describe then disabuse us of what’s fundamentally a Christian, or Christian-derived view of the universe.

Maybe it’s because he tries to cover so much that it feels to me he paraphrases philosophers’ and scientists’ ideas so they read like, “close enough”, as with describing Lucretius’ concept of the clinamen (which I don’t think he actually named, but was what he was describing), or Leibniz’ ideas. Or maybe it’s that he holds on somewhere to an uncritical belief that physics is above all this and is the one neutral — as well as correct — way of viewing and understanding the world. The correct part, sure, as far as we can tell now, but neutral? I wonder if some of the hostility directed at 20th century philosophers by scientists (which again, he isn’t doing) is because the logic in pointing out that language creates the world is pretty solid. Whether it’s Wittgenstein, Derrida, or others, even after throwing out whatever bollocks they wrote, we’re left with this. And to have a bunch of soft humanities academics repeatedly and in various ways tell the hard scientists their rationality and neutrality is dubious at best, because language is a limit on describing and experiencing the world, is going to get messy.

It’s not even a question of agreeing or not with him. Newtonian physics? Yup, same for Einstein’s relativity, general or special. Quantum mechanics also. It might be that I find the experimental side of things lacking by comparison to the theoretical. For example observations of cosmic microwave background by COBE, WMAP, and Planck observatories currently provide the best evidence for, and more or less confirm the Big Bang theory, specifically the inflationary model. Questions such as “What is the universe?” “Where did it come from?” “What was there before it existed?” while not definitively answered are comprehensively narrowed down. The discovery of the predicted Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider and concurrent lack of discovery of new particles also set limits on possibilities, or at least pushed various other competing theories to do some heavy re-theorising. But mentions of these experiments seem sparse compared to Descartes and his cogito ergo sum. More of the former and less of the latter would have moved things along far more enjoyably.

But maybe all this, multiverses, the Planck era, macroscale quantum theory are too advanced for the intended reader, like introducing all the exceptions to the rules before explaining why the rules as are they are and where they came from. For my imagined intended audience, then: it’s comprehensive and brings together a lot of threads of physics from the history of Western science and philosophy that make it a good general introduction. It’s kinda boring though. I’d rather read Sabine Hossenfelder or Ethan Siegel, whenever they get around to writing a book.

Finally, the history of Western science since the Enlightenment has been one marked by arrogance, overreach and the worst of humanity given legitimacy through its declaration of rationalism. And one marked by frequent declarations of , “Yeah, we learnt our ethical lesson, we’ve got it right this time,” before cocking it up again. I’m not sure there can be a grand Theory of Everything, which is what Carroll is proposing. Like Mark Zuckerberg imagining he can reduce people and their desires to code, or transhumanists imagining they can upload their minds, it speaks of a smallness in understanding the world and a meanness in how they value it. There is always something that remains, that cannot be assimilated, a residue this reductionism cannot account for and cannot consume.


Muzeum Geologiczne Instytutu Nauk Geologicznych PAN w Krakowie

Wandering down a side street in Kraków Old Town, I see a Geological Museum. I knew there is a mineral museum somewhere. This wasn’t it. I was a little chafed at both museums housing the large mediæval art collections were closed for restoration, and having no real aim in mind and liking all things geo and tectonic, decided to go in. The archæological museum as well was directly around the corner.

It’s a really small museum, more of an exhibition, a room about 60 square metres. What it doesn’t have in size, the Muzeum Geologiczne makes up for with an utter lack of wasting of time. There was a really nice guy on the desk who gave me a folder for english translations of everything … everything, but wow if every museum took attention to detail like this one did. Information overload? Yes! And! “The rocks. You can touch, also.” Excitement!

A clarification, it’s a museum of the geologic history of Kraków and neighbourhood predominately, with some general Poland and Carpathians thrown in as required. It starts with a nice geologic map of the area and NS and WE cross-sections. Then it throws a wall-sized map of all the impact craters and other stuff that’s slammed into Poland from above.

The main room is split into three areas: the left wall with covering several geologic periods from Precambrian to Holocene, the right covering plate tectonics in the region (with some tasty photos of limestone cliffs), and the centre display cases of wood, plant, and shell fossils from the various epochs. Plus a monstrous cubic block of salt.

It’s brief, consistent, and comprehensive for such a small exhibition. Each period has a stratigraphic log, text explaining the different processes at work and the resulting rocks, minerals, landforms, samples of minerals, rocks, ore, crystals, all in a glass case, and then a few bits to pick up and turn over. It sounds a little dry but for me it wasn’t. Probably because it wasn’t 3 hours of room after room of this. It’s obviously been assembled by knowledgeable and passionate geologists, who don’t dumb down the information, yet also present it carefully and attractively. And yes, nicely lit. Actually, it needed about half a room more, to give more room for information to the fossil display cases and the geologic maps.

I wasn’t sure what to blog; I photographed almost everything. So, a few samples and minerals because it’s been a while since pretty invaded supernaut. And that block of crystal salt? It’s about the size of a small person. (And some of the translations I did myself as the fossils weren’t translated in the folder.)


Museum für Naturkunde

Another Sunday and my first Berlin museum for the year. I’ve been remiss. Since before Bologna, I’d planned for my next museum visit to be the Museum für Naturkunde, or to give it its full title, Museum für Naturkunde — Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung an der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, otherwise more succinctly known as the Naturkundemuseum. Sunday probably isn’t the most clever choice for a day to go there, packed to the atrium’s glass ceiling with kids going bonkers and their attendant families, causing the building to ring and vibrate in sympathy.

First stop once bag and impedimenta were dumped is the audio guide booth. Free! In English also! And a special version for kids 6 and older. I feel somewhat like a nouveau dilettante with my appreciation for audio guides, partly, “What use can this guide be? To me?” and quite a lot, “Excellent! Audio Guide!” The Naturkundemuseum falls so entirely into the latter it goes on to previously untravelled regions of brilliance, so much so that I had to dispense with it in some rooms if I wanted to leave the museum the same day — and that even before I pushed the ‘more info’ button, available in addition for around a third of the audio items. As an illustration, it took more than a hour to get around the first World of Dinosaurs room even missing a couple of the audio accompaniments.

Dinosaurs! The Giraffatitan brancai (which I have in my head from childhood undifferentiatedly for all such Sauropods as Brontosaurus) or Brachiosaurus brancai, is exactly Giraffe-ish, or Elephant with Giraffe neck stuck on each end, the forward one with the head about 13 meters above. The audio guide said there is some hypothesis based on the skull shape it may have also had an Elephant’s trunk. All that plus feathers sounds indeed preposterous, though it was only a couple of decades ago the entire skeleton was revised, giving it an entirely different appearance, so perhaps not.

Masses of fossils from the 150 million year old Tendaguru Formation in Tanzania surround these giants, acquired from when Tanzania was known as German East Africa, which is something that always taints museums for me, the circumstances under which such exhibits were obtained and the complete lack of acknowledgement of them. Nonetheless, Pterodactyls! Including the incredibly famous Archaeopteryx, which I forgot to photograph and like the Mona Lisa is far smaller than one would imagine.

Making it out of Dinosaur land (after the beautiful Kentrosaurus aethiopicus), I arrive in System Erde, great pieces of Gniess, Granite, and other high-pressure metamorphic rock, volcanoes, black smokers, plate tectonics, and Chicxulub, or more generally, Earth getting the buggery whacked out of it by cataclysmically huge meteorites. There are a couple of large shatter cones also, as well as a map of Germany showing the Nördlinger Ries impact crater.

From there, I wandered into the vast room of Evolution in Aktion, confronted first by the two-storey high and around ten metre wide Biodiversitätswand, around where I heard an innocent young thing ask, ”Daddy, where do they get all the animals?” and the panicked scramble for a reply that wouldn’t cause an Outside Context Problem, “Well … people … probably give them to the museum … when they’ve died …” It was beautiful and horrific. On the glass wall forward of a Black Panther that blended tail-wards into a Leopard spots (possibly a melaninistic Black Leopard) it said, “As an optically oriented species, humans are trained to recognise visual differences as edges. This is sometimes a trick of nature, since not everything that looks different really is something different.”

I paused on the audio guide around here, it was simply too full of people, and facing several more unknown rooms, I decided to accelerate. One of the grand stairwells has had its height made use of for the Kosmos und Sonnensystem exhibition, with a video of the formation of the universe playing far above for the lucky ones lying on the very comfortable looking circular sofa below. Planets, yes. Much better is a superb collection of meteorites. Part-way up the first flight of stairs is a display of Meteorite classification, Chondrites, iron meteorites; the next landing has a display of meteorites that have pockmarked Germany.

Here things got disorganised. Parts of the museum are closed for repairs and rebuilding. This breaks the circular progress through the museum, instead it becomes a retracing of one’s steps before continuing, then doubling back again. I doubled back and landed in the Mineraliensaal.

Oh, this is beautiful! It’s huge, vast high ceiling, scores of metres long and a dozen wide, full of vertical cabinets interspersed with display tables all, all of them stuffed to the gullets with mineral samples. It’s like an entire, living ecosystem in itself, representing some 75% of the world’s known minerals. I could have really remained in here for a whole day alone. Unlike the other exhibitions though, this one is decidedly 19th Century in form, simply those endless cases with tiny labels and no context, no audio guide. I do though prefer that in this instance, as the alternative would likely be a drastically reduced selection, rather than several rooms of this size each deliriously full and sumptuously arranged. I’m pretty sure I’ll be going back just to spend a day in this room.

On to the Wet Collections, the Alkohol-Forschungssammlungen, another two-storey high hall, this time full of eerily glowing glass receptacles fixing amphibians, fish, mammals, spiders … it’s the stuff of horrors for me. It’s also only viewable from the outside circuit, so I took off to the Einheimische Tiere exhibition, also dead animals, taxidermied, rather than preserved. I liked the Nebelkrähe — the Hooded Crow — because there is a large gang of them in Uferstr, and it looked a little sad, lost, and underdressed in the museum next to all the ~geiers, hawks and other splendid aviators.

I was getting tired by now, so the bird section was somewhat perfunctory. I stopped by the Museum shop on the way out. They had Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday on the shelves, which caused me to doubt the seriousness of their (the Museum’s) engagement with its public; it’s almost like giving genuine consideration to Intelligent Design. They did have nice breakfast bowls with Archaeopteryx on them, and besides the bizarre inclusion of Diamond, quite a few books I’d throw Euros at.

So, Museum für Naturkunde! Go on a non-weekend day (though week days are probably rife with school groups); use the audio guide, I think it’s the best I’ve heard; take supplies (there is no café at present); go early and leave late; go again, it’s a little uneven with the renovations and it’s not the American Museum of Natural History, but it’s bloody good, especially the minerals.

faith is a corrosive virus

A couple of days ago I was reading an article in which the manifestations of – especially fundamentalist – religion were compared to psychosis, the hearing of voices, being dictated to by a higher external source, and cultivating an extreme us-and-them attitude. As much I really don’t care what people think or believe in, as at the heart of all religions is a compassion and respect for each other, a morality that continues to exist in the foundations of secular contemporary societies, I also would really like to live in a world in which atheism and a large scepticism and mistrust for superstition was the accepted norm.

Actually, I’m very anti-religion and really cannot comprehend how rational, intelligent, educated people can be awash in dogmatic supernatural personality cults, so reading Richard Dawkins annihilating faith and dogma from a scientific perspective was one of the pleasures of breakfast today, and Ethan Zuckerman at …My heart’s in Accra is my blog of the moment.

“Faith can sometimes be caught like a virus from a charismatic preacher or a book,” Dawkins tells us. But it’s usually hereditary. Children always seem to adopt the same religion as their parents. Somehow they always believe that it’s the right one. This is a result, Dawkins believes, of indoctrinated as children.

The arrogance of faith, Dawkins argues, is that people argue, “I know the truth and nothing will change my mind.” Or “my holy book”, “my priest” or “my inner voice” tells the truth and there’s no need to look further. Science, Dawkins argues, is filled with doubt and skepticism, while faith is exactly the opposite.

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