Divine Neutrality, Blog. Science, Philosophy

Right Wrongs

August 1st, 2015

Drowning in the ocean of injustice.

Context: An atomic bomb was dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima, Japan in August of 1945. This event was the critical one which ended the Second World War. Some claim that it was an act of savagery needlessly killing many because the war could have been ended without that event.

Dear Ted:

Thank you for the passages from Zinn. (H. Zinn, 2010, “The Bomb”) Your outrage against the injustice portrayed by Zinn is understandable. My world outlook forbids me from accepting Zinn’s thesis without scrutiny but let us accept it for the sake of conversation. The thesis is this:

    Influential advisors, mainly Jim Byrnes, led President Truman, in 1945, to sacrifice the lives of over 200,000 people unecessarily, by dropping an atomic bomb on them, for the sake of a political power gambit: to pre-empt any Russian influence in the defeat of Japan. To “let us dictate the terms of ending the war.”

Let’s grant this interesting thesis. What are we to make of it?

I know, Ted, what you make of it. A reason for moral outrage. A call to wake fellow citizens to this atrocity committed by our government.

To what purpose? To let the decision makers know that inhumane actions will earn them the curses of posterity? To let politicians know that future bad behavior will lose them their constituency? To inaugurate more responsible leadership, a more humane society?  May these come to pass.

Ted, I am grateful that there are human beings like you, about. Our world would be a seethingly evil place were there not compassionate, selfless and concerned people among us. The lives of many are blessed because of your dedication. There is power in your indignation.

What I would like to understand is this: how do you keep from drowning in the evident ocean of injustice, suffering and misery around us?

For every exposé by Zinn, ten thousand lay buried. And without any Zinns at all there are valid calls for justice and humanity in every direction. Against the torture of human beings. For the care of the poor, the oppressed, the sick. For the rescue of the persecuted and of the refugees migrating to escape war. How bear the overwhelming burden of what is so evident; that the calls for help are interminable? And valid!

Most must be ignored. Else what time is left for play, for art, for merriment, for the fanciful, for adventure, for science, for theater, for rejoicing and celebrating life? For irrelevancy? For delicious decadence? Musn’t one ignore injustice – at least for intervals of time? Were the burden of injustices to infuse all art and dance and music it would be a sorry world. As sorry as it would be to lose those who fight for justice. Ones meagre allotment of life’s spare moments may be rationed in many ways: used to play games, used to be entertained, to go shopping, for socializing, used to explore nature, to succor the needy, to right wrongs and to promote justice, to analyze the righting of wrongs  . . .

Fighting injustice is one of the passions; as consuming and noble as that for art or for dancing or for science or playing tennis or buying clothes …  We allot our most precious life moments to these enthusiasms. Fighting injustice is a passion. It has an appeal to some. It is ignored by others. They are consumed with other enthusiasms.

Righteous indignation is a very compelling emotion. When it engulfs me I lose perspective, become humorless. So I try to minimize it. I cannot be righteously indignant and celebrate life. Jubilation and anger don’t coexist.

Therefore my reaction to Zinn’s news is not righteous indignation. This news is about one of, perhaps, ten million wrongs to be righted; on my ranking, not worth my time. I am no activist to make the world a better place. There is no respite from that angry task.

Worse, the task may be in vain. The goal is too elusive to be achieved. From my readings the decision to drop the atom bomb is the norm for history. It’s what I would expect. Of government. Of business. Of academe. Of my neighbors. What any constituency demands of its leaders is decisive actions on the basis of personal conviction.

‘The world will be a better place’, thought Byrnes and Truman, ‘if Japan is kept out of Russian hands. A blow of overwhelming awesome power would accomplish it. That 200,000 Japanese would die was of minor concern; they, the enemy, would enslave us if they could.’

Truman and Byrnes were sure what ‘good’ was. One cannot imagine that they viewed their action as atrocity; as doing evil? Not even Zinn would say so, I’m sure. They perceived their decision as a good. They believed they were working from a broader perspective; steering the ship of state not only by the sea at its bow but by the look of the whole broad ocean of history around them.

And, indeed, many would not fault them. Suppose the Russians had invaded before the war ended. The atom bomb preceded the scheduled Soviet invasion only by days. With their troops in Japan the Russians would have leverage for a voice in the peace. They had just such leverage in Eastern Europe and in Germany. There the Soviets created despotic puppet states in which generations of people suffered abuse of human rights, lived poorly and in terror. How would the Japanese have faired under such Soviet domination? Not happily, I’m sure. Were 200,000 lives worth fifty years of prosperity and freedom from Soviet oppression? I expect even Japanese could be found to say that it was.

Values change. A generation ago the virtue of eating meat was unquestioned in the West. Now less people eat beef. One commonly hears the moral rationale, “I only eat what I, myself, could kill”. That principle would restrict me to lettuce, flies and mosquitos! Too unappetizing a principle for me to contemplate. But those who know the ‘good’ view my choice to eat beef as bad.

Any number of things might have gone differently if Byrnes had not prevailed. These scenarios would be the theses of alter-Zinn historians full of righteous indignation that Truman withheld the bomb when, in the name of humanity, he could have used it.

Acting within the context of their situation – the hysteria of war and their personal prejudices – a decision was made to make the world a better place. From our present broad humanitarian perspective we find the world is not a better place. Or is it?

May my words be powerless, Ted, to sway you from your crusades.


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July 1st, 2015

Sadye Stories

queue My mother’s name was Sadie. By some coup of whim I had thought she spelled it ‘Sadye’ when I suggested that name for our new born daughter to her mother. My precious wife, Elfi, acceded so our daughter became Sadye.


Sadye was a 5 year old in kindergarten in 1997. The children were on an outing. They were invited to visit a nearby farm. We lived in a rural area where this was easily possible. I and a few other children’s parents had come along to help.

Kevin, a mentally impaired child, is a member of the class. He is attended by both of his parents. They are making an effort to ‘mainstream their child’, to give him some quality of life even with his great handicap. Kevin needs them. He makes sudden explosive shrieks, animal-like groans and grunts. He can’t help it. These sounds issue from him uninvited.

I hear the other children’s parents. One says to another in anger, “That child shouldn’t be here. It’s disturbing for our kids.”

But what about Kevin?  Should he be quarantined from humanity?


At age 6, Sadye enthusiastically discusses the color of the Easter eggs and where she found them but never the nature of the Easter bunny. Where the eggs are hidden is a far more compelling question than anything about the existence of  a multicolored-hard-boiled-egg-laying rabbit.

For Whom the Blessing?

It’s winter. Cold outside and even inside; especially at night. In the morning I wake my 9 year old daughter, Sadye, with loving kisses. I sit down carefully on the edge of her bed, bend over to gently stroke her forehead and whisper quietly, “Good morning, my lovely. Time to get up out of those cozy warm covers. Are you awake?”

Eyes kept closed she nods sleepily; by which she means that she has received the message and will shortly get up. I leave the room, go to the kitchen and greet my wife preparing breakfast. Ten or fifteen minutes later Sadye comes out. Well. Often she does. Occasionally she takes longer or comes out in a mood less than jubilant. But usually she bounces out of her room all showered, dressed and ready for the day.

Any adult must perceive the beauty in having a loving father for an alarm clock. One must certainly get out of bed somehow – by the clock or otherwise. Better wake to kisses than to shrill ringing. And how does young Sadye view the ritual. She would portray it this way: “In the morning my father comes in to make me get up and get dressed.”

There is no rancor in this. She doesn’t compare my kisses to an alarm clock. She compares them to ‘not having to get up at all’. So the ritual is a blessing, not so much for Sadye, as it is for her father.


Living in the woods there is outdoor tidying to be done. The brush grows high in early spring and becomes a fire hazard. It must be cut down. The debris foliage is gathered into large dome-shaped stacks; each perhaps 7 feet high and 30 feet around. To dispose of them, I burn such stacks of brush to ash. It’s done before the fire hazard season begins, in early May. There are brush burnings every spring all over the neighborhood.

A stack of brush is mighty to behold for a 6 year old. It’s a lot of stuff. Sadye watches the burn. In the end all that stuff ends up as a small pile of feathery ash no more than 3 inches high. And the weight of the ash is far less than the weight of that big pile of brush.

I ask Sadye, “What happened to all that stuff? The ash is far less stuff then the original brush was. Where did it all go?”

Looking at me in puzzled surprise she answers with assurance “It burned up.” She accepts the dematerialization of matter as a fact of nature. Movie and TV fairies often disappear in clouds of smoke.

“Where did it go?” had no significance or meaning. The question was, “How do you account for the matter that was there?”  Sadye’s perception was, “It ceased to exist. The matter became nothing. Why should it go anywhere?”

Up to the middle of the eighteenth century the whole world shared Sadye’s perception. Then Antoine Lavoisier asked himself that question and aswered it by experiment. He was careful to include the weight of everything involved – the substance burned, the air around it and the residue. And he found that the stuff did go somewhere.

The smoke was ‘matter leaving’. Matter went up in the smoke. The wood reacted chemically with oxygen in the air and combined with it to spew matter into the air. Lavoisier had discovered that, although matter may change its form or shape, its mass always remains the same. That’s what all the subscript and prefix numbers in every chemical formula do; account for mass. That mass is to be accounted for, is the foundation stone of all of chemistry.

How remarkably fertile that innocuous question has been: “Where did it go?”

Lavoisier’s was one of the greatest minds of his time. He was guillotined by the French revolution. The revolution that helped bring enlightenment into the world killed its most enlightened citizen.

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What is Energy?

June 1st, 2015

An Abstract Reality

my wayWhat IS energy; that you buy it, use it, have it and notice it in others? (“The kids have such energy!”) You never see it, never touch it. Never smell it or hold it. What is the nature of such a substance? Energy is not coal. Nor oil. Nor sunshine. Nor boys playing soccer. These are said to possess energy. But what is this energy that they posses?

Here is the remarkable answer: “It is a numerical quantity which does not change when something happens.” R.P. Feynman 1962

That energy is a “quantity which does not change” means that if it grows less in one form then it must increase in another. So that the total amount doesn’t change. When I pay, say, $.15/kilowatt-hour for electrical energy, my purpose is to see it transformed into mechanical energy to run my refrigerator and into light energy at night for my reading convenience. Energy is something that can be transformed from one form into another. The totality of it persists (is conserved) as its form changes.

Electrical energy is made from the mechanical motion of wires in magnetic fields. The mechanical energy driving this motion comes from the thermal energy of heat which in turn comes from the chemical bond energy stored in coal or oil. There is energy of motion. There is energy of position – say of an apple feeling the force of earth’s gravitational pull. There is chemical energy stored in the binding of atoms to one another. There is nuclear energy stored in the binding of the nucleons inside the nucleus of an atom.

But what, then, is energy?

It is a mathematical attribute found to exist in nature. That there is a quantifiable concept called energy emerged from the mathematics invented to describe the physical world.

The concept was born about 1807 when Thomas Young gave the first quantitative formula for the energy that is to be associated with motion. It was wrong by a factor of 2 but soon corrected. The energy to be associated with a mass, m, in motion moving at a speed, v, is given by the formula mv2/2. The energy of position (in the gravity field of the earth) to be associated with the same mass being at a height y above sea level is mgy, where g is a known numerical factor.

The genesis of the idea that such a thing as energy exists is exemplified in this joystick graphic. In it you see that a mathematical quantity is conserved throughout the turmoil of physical events.

You can throw or drop the apple by clicking on the appropriate button. The graphic numerically displays the apple’s attributes as they change with time; its speed (positive means ‘going upwards’, negative ‘going downwards’), its varying position and the time at which each is measured. (The actual time is displayed numerically but the motion graphic shows it slowed down for convenient viewing. A 1-second interval is viewed in 10 seconds.)

As the apple, in its motion, follows the laws of nature, its position (height above the ground) grows or shrinks drastically and its speed keeps changing all the time. But remarkably, an arithmetic function of its speed (the square) plus another function of its position is shown to be constant throughout the motion.

In the graphic, the sum shown is actually computed repeatedly from the two terms above it. This sum turns out to be the same number no matter what is going on in the motion. You may freeze the motion and check the computation at any stage of the trajectory. Then release the motion to freeze it again at another time – say 0.2 seconds later. You will see that although all the physically measurable quantities – the ones above the summation line – have changed markedly, the mathematical construction combining them is constant. This mathematical construction is conserved! It doesn’t change with time even though so much is happening.

It was from the reckoning illustrated in this joystick graphic that an idea was born. The idea is that there exists an ethereal mathematical something called energy that is conserved in all physical processes. Any such process can only change the form of the energy – not its magnitude. In the falling apple, position energy changes into motion energy. Mathematical expressions soon followed describing electrical energy, magnetic energy, chemical energy, heat energy and all the other forms. Over a hundred years ago Einstein taught us that mass is a form of energy. The equation for mass energy is E=mc2.

Afer a few centuries of hearing about it we have come to adopt, as something completely familiar, a mathematical relationship between measurable quantities. This mathematical insight brought a completely abstract and invisible property of nature into common acceptance. The word energy is popular with everyone. It has achieved recognition.

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