Wednesday, February 24, 2016

More St. Augustine: Thoughts for Lent

St. Augustine and the Fire of Wisdom
Here's a quote from St. Augustine's Confessions that's particularly apt for this season of Lent:
"I struggle each day against concupiscence in eating and drinking.  It is not something I can resolve to cut off and touch no more, as I would with concubinage.  The bridle put on the throat must be held with moderate looseness and moderate firmness. Is there anyone, Lord, who is not carried a little beyond personal need?" St. Augustine,  as quoted in Augustine Day by Day for 24th Feb..
Lord, give me strength to be both moderate and firm.

Added 26th February:
"Your fast would be rejected if you were immoderately severe toward your servant.  Will it be approved if you fail to recognize your brother or sister?I am not asking what food you abstain from, but what you love.   Do you love Justice?   Well, let your love be seen!  ibid, for 26th Feb.. 
Added 28th February:

All these endeavors for fasting are concerned not about the rejection of certain foods as unclean, but about the subjugation of inordinate desire and the maintenance of neighborly love.Charity especially is guarded:  food is subservient to charity, speech to charity, and facial expressions to charity.   Everything works together for Charity alone."  ibid, for 27th February.
The last sentence in the last quote is difficult to understand.   I think it means that our Lenten vows as to what we speak and how we look at others are altogether subservient to what we do in love (charity) for our neighbors.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Book Published: "Top Down To Jesus, Book 1: Pascal Was Right"

This is the cover of my new book*.   It's just been published on   Here's a cut from the preface to let you know what it's about:

"At a relatively advanced age (four score and somewhat more) I’m jumping into the shallow end of the authoring pool by writing several books. This project may be as optimistic as that of the 99 year old buying green bananas, but one can but try.
The Title, Top-down to Jesus, reveals the thread that ties them all together: “Faith seeking understanding”, as put by one of my heroes, St. Anselm of Canterbury. And, as one of my other heroes, Pope St. John Paul II, wrote
Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” Encyclical, Fides et Ratio

In Book I, Pascal Was Right, I write about my conversion to the Church. It came about, not as a vision of Our Lord or by the sound of His Voice, but by a rational process. In discussing “Pascal’s Wager”, why the prudent person should believe, in God, I’ll explain whence the subtitle for this book. I should add, there have been moments in which the Holy Spirit has come to me more directly, moments aided by music, and I’ve written about those also.

The book is divided into four parts, which reflect my road to faith and how the Catholic Church sustains me:
Part 1—My Road to Faith, Part 2—Being a Catholic Jew, Part 3—My Moral Choices, Part 4—Loving Our Enemies.
Twenty-five years ago I became interested in the Church because of its anti-abortion, pro-life stance, so this first Book includes chapters on the moral stance I take as a concomitant of my Catholic faith. I came to the Church as an agnostic Jew, so I also explore the differences and the similarities between Catholicism and Judaism. Many Catholics, including those in the Church hierarchy, recognize that the two faiths are linked, as a recent article in Our Sunday Visitor shows.
The reader will notice there are lots of quotations. I love quotes—there are so many people who have said things more eloquently and more to the point than I could, that it seems a shame to let them remain hidden. And it is easy now to get an appropriate quote: just google the subject and see what comes up. So, please bear with me if you get tired of looking at all that italic type; if you remember some of these, you may be able to amuse your friends and confound your enemies by the appropriate quotation."
Thanks for looking.

* Revised, 5th February, 2016

Friday, February 12, 2016

Peeling back the onion layers:
Gravitational waves detected!

Gravitational waves of a compact binary star
by MoocSummers (from Wikimedia Commons)
"Falling in love is not at all the most stupid thing that people do, but gravitation cannot be held responsible for it."Albert Einstein, scribbled on a 1933 letter to him about the effects of gravity on people falling in love.
"Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire."  Teilhard deChardin
Gravity is a contributing factor in nearly 73 percent of all accidents involving falling objects. ” Dave Barry 


Many of you have read about the recent experimental detection of a gravity waves by LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), another jewel-in-the-crown of empirical confirmations of Einstein's General Relativity theory.   And it came, appropriately, on the 100th anniversary of the publication of that theory.

I'm not going to expound on the science of this fine piece of experimental work or try to give a "horsies-and-duckies" explanation--that's very well done in the linked publication and in a fine post by Matt Briggs,  Gravitational Waves and Discovering Cause, and comments thereto.    Rather, I'm going to use this as an excuse for expounding on what I believe science is all about.   In these arguments,  I'll rely on my own 52 years  experience as a practicing chemical physicist (or in other environments, biophysicist, medical physicist and even--horrors!--physical chemist).


There are two principal schools of the philosophy of science: scientific realism and scientific anti-realism (or scientific empiricism).    The realism school holds that what sciences tells about the universe mirrors an underlying reality.   I've discussed the anti-realism school in another blog post,  "Tipping the Sacred Cow of Science", in which I discuss Nancy Cartwright's book, How the Laws of Physics Lie and the work of Bas van Fraassen.    These philosophers hold that scientific theories do NOT mirror reality, but are rules used to "save the appearances", i.e. to give mathematical descriptions useful for prediction, as in the use of Ptolemaic epicycle to predict planetary motions in the sky;  to put it another way, science is "descriptive" not "prescriptive".

The only scheme I've found that represents reasonably well how science works is that given by Imre Lakatos, the scientific research programme, which scheme has also been adapted for other disciplines, e.g. theology, economics.   The scheme can be viewed as a hard core of accepted principles (e.g. the Galilean Principle of Relativity that the laws of motion are the same in all inertial frames, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics), surrounded by a layer of theories that confirm or in accord with the core principles and an outer layer of experimental tests confirming or rejecting the outer layer theories.

The theories and auxiliary data in the protective layer are networked to each other and to the core.   For example, the relativistic formulation of black hole growth and radiation is linked to the Second Law of Thermodynamics and to quantum mechanics.  (For an interesting view of the Lakatos scheme in other disciplines, do a Google search "images Lakatos scientific research programme".)   The Lakatos scientific research programme does show how science works, but as far as I can see, it does not lay claim to either scientific realism or anti-realism--it's epistemic, not metaphysical.


My view of science is based on much post-retirement reading in the philosophy of science and on my work from 1954 to 1997  in spectoscopy, nmr and MRI--studies crossing several disciplines--chemical physics, biophysics, molecular biology, medical physics.    In the ** Note I've given an illustration from my research life of how science works (or should work), but here I'd like to focus on a prime example--the development of the Standard Model for  elementary particle physics.

In an early post (15th April, 2013), God. Symmetry and Beauty I: the Standard Model and the Higgs Boson, I discussed the development of this theory.   I'll summarize here the points relevant to the modus operandi of science and show how they are in accord with the Lakatos model.   First,  in the Lakatos outer shell there were experimental findings that did not fit well into any established theory, what was termed the "elementary particle zoo".    Second, two principles in the inner core governed what theories would be acceptable and esthetically satisfying: symmetry and gauge invariance.   An auxiliary theory proposed early on by Higgs, utilizing an auxiliary principle of "symmetry breaking", was developed to enable gauge-invariant theories to be employed and yield mass values for elementary particles.    Some other theories were developed that made predictions that were falsified and so were discarded.    The final icing on the cake was the  detection of the Higgs boson by very high energy scattering experiments, thus completing the experimental verification of the Standard Model theory.


Gravitational Wave Data,
from Caltech Media Assets
(scan down to get full description)
LIGO is another example of Super Science,  massive experimental enterprises designed to test/confirm fundamental theory, as in the CERN experiments for detecting the Higgs boson.   Did it do so?    Weren't all the other experimental confirmations, listed below, of Einstein's General Relativity theory sufficient?
"the gravitational deflection of light, the perihelion shift of the orbit of Mercury, the gravitational red shift, the frame-dragging effects of Gravity Probe B, and the rate of gravitational-wave energy loss from neutron-star binary pulsars" John G. Cramer, Gravity with 4-Vector Potentials
The answer to that question is no.    Another theory, G4V (Gravity with 4-Vector Potentials--see link above), has been proposed.   For the properties listed in the quotation above, the G4V theory gives predictions identical to those of Einstein's General Relativity theory.   They differ in the predicted properties of gravity waves by differing in the predicted wave polarizations***.     At the time when this post was written it appears that the observed waves correspond to the Einstein GR predictions.     Thus  the experiments will have fulfilled their mission, to decide which theory fits reality better, Einstein's or the G4V.


Since this blog is "Reflections of a Catholic Scientist", I should say something about what this means to me, in terms of my faith.   I believe there is an underlying reality revealed partially by science, that as one peals back the layers of the onion, we get closer to the core.   I also believe, along with Bernard d'Espagnat, that we will never know altogether what that core is.   I believe that we will not know that,  because the core is God, the Holy Trinity, and God is only known by what he is not.   He cannot be comprehended in His Entirety.

I also believe that God has given us insight to use science to perceive with wonder His Creation.   In the words of Psalm 19a
"The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.  Psalm 19 (KJV)
 "What benefactor has enabled you to look out upon the beauty of the sky, the sun in its course, the circle of the moon, the countless number of stars, with the harmony and order that are theirs, like the music of a harp?" St. Gregory of Nazarian, Sermon as quoted in The Office of Readings for 15th February, 2016.


*There have been many books and articles written about the philosophy of science.   Some of these contain useful and/or interesting stuff.   Unfortunately many of these philosophers have not done science, and this lack of experience shows in their philosophic work.   I can think of only three who have written both philosophic and scientific papers:  Fr. Stanley JakiMichael Polyani and Bernard d'Espagnat, all of whom I admire (for different reasons).  

**I want also to illustrate how science works with an example from my own scientific career.  So as not to blow my own horn (too much!), I'm going to try to show not only where I succeeded, but where I erred.
A few years into my first academic position at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon University) a graduate student in my research group was facing a road block with his research problem.   A well-established theory was not giving results matching his data.  After a lot of thought, it appeared that the gap lay in that higher energy levels of the compound (potassium ferricyanide) he was studying.   Searching the library, I found a publication by Schwinger and Karplus (recalling my earlier graduate course in quantum mechanics) that offered a road to a solution.   After several weeks of intensive devotion I wrote a paper that incorporated  density matrix techniques to account for contributions of all electronic levels and submitted it for a publication.   One reviewer pointed out a serious deficiency--I had neglected to account for mixing of excited states with ground state.  I acknowledged he was right, asked him to co-author the paper with me and we collaboratively worked it up for publication.   There is an equation stemming from that work, (Google "Kurland-McGarvey Equation") that is widely enough used in the specialty that it doesn't need footnoting for reference.    So one more small brick in the scientific edifice.

***The polarization of a wave gives the direction of the wave intensity relative to the direction of propagation of the wave.   For example, for light, an electromagnetic radiation wave,  the polarization is in a direction perpendicular to the direction of propagation.   For gravity waves, the situation is more complicated: the polarization is a tensor rather than a vector.   (See this link.)

****For some neat videos and pictures, go to the LIGO Lab Gallery.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

More St. Augustine: What a marriage should Be

St. Augustine and the Fire of Wisdom
Here is another thought from "Augustine Day by Day" (February 5th) that seems particularly appropriate for these times.
"This problem often arises:  if a man and a woman live together without being legitimately joined. not to  have children but because they could not observe continence; and if they have agreed between themselves to have relations with no one else, can this be called a marriage?
Perhaps, but only if they have resolved to maintain until death the good faith that they had promised to themselves, even though this union did not rest on a desire to have children."
The Good of Marriage 5, 5

About Me

My photo

Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.