APS News


Claim Many Artists Used Optical Devices

"The Back Page" article in the December 2000 APS News discusses the long-standing argument that the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer used a camera obscura as an aid to painting. The article is interesting in itself, and also in conjunction with another article in another publication. An article by Lawrence Wechsler in the January 31, 2000, "New Yorker" presents an intriguing and controversial theory by the contemporary British painter, Joseph Hockney. Hockney claims he was struck by the fact that, in a comparatively short time, artists progressed from not using (presumably not understanding) perspective to using it with remarkable skill and accuracy. He cites an observation by the German art historian Norbert Schneider, who said that "It remains a source of continual astonishment that so infinitely complex a genre should develop in so brief a space of time, indeed within only a few decades of the fifteenth century, especially in view of the constraints imposed upon it by the individual requirements of the patrons."

Not coincidentally, in Hockney's view, is that this development in artistic technique coincided with the development of lenses. He believes that many artists used optical devices as aids. For example, he points out that Caravaggio, who was criticized by his peers for working in cellars with limited lighting, didn't leave behind any preparatory studies for his very complex compositions. Hockney argues that Caravaggio used a camera obscura and traced directly onto the canvas. He believes that many other artists did similar things.

Hockney himself has been working with a camera lucida (which can't have been used in the fifteenth century since it wasn't invented until 1807). Hockney's evidence for his theory about the development of realism in art is all indirect, and he is careful to credit the genius of the artists for the quality of the resulting work. He regards the (supposed) optical devices as tools, which skilled people can use much more effectively than others. Needless to say, there is a great deal of skepticism in the art world about Hockney's ideas. But it is interesting that there is evidence that optical devices may have contributed to the production of great works of art, hundreds of years ago as well as more recently.

Matthew Lybanon
Naval Research Laboratory

An Energy Crisis of Neglect

When the OPEC oil embargo struck in the seventies, President Carter, dressed in a sweater and sitting in front of a wood fire, called it "the moral equivalent of war". The country responded strongly - for one thing people turned en masse to their own wood-burning fireplaces.

Today the energy crisis is really more serious than in the seventies. The cost of heating with natural gas is soaring, California is experiencing rolling blackouts, and the problem is not the very temporary one of an embargo, but of deep internal problems of supply and demand, of depletion of natural resources, and of neglect by policy makers and professionals in the field.

Today we have about fifty million fireplaces in America and twenty-seven in the White House, but the number of them used for domestic heating is negligible. Yet their potential is vast. What TIME called "The Physicist's Fire" delivers five kilowatts of radiant power at 30% efficiency, with minimum maintenance. And only a small fraction of homes heated with wood fires instead of electricity would save thousand of megawatts.

It is obvious that the physics community should be centrally involved. I hope the April APS meeting will feature papers on our energy problems, and that we shall stop neglecting a problem that falls squarely within our professional jurisdiction.

Lawrence Cranberg
Austin, Texas

Microscopic Halos Favor Recent Creation

Here is a creation/evolution issue pertaining to nuclear physicists, astrophysicists, and cosmologists. I have reported Earth's foundation rocks, the granites, contain microscopic halos traceable to the alpha decay of certain primordial Po isotopes. Their short half-lives demand almost instant creation of the host rocks, prior to the Po decaying away. Geologists resisted accepting this result; so two decades ago I challenged them to sustain their objections by: (i) duplicating just one Po-218 halo in an annealed piece of granite, and (ii) synthesizing a small piece of granite to confirm that it can form naturally. To me the prolonged silence about this test means the Creator uniquely designed both the Po halos and the granites to spotlight Genesis' literal six-day creation of the visible cosmos and its seventh-day memorial. In 1997 I published a new cosmic model based on a finite, nonhomogeneous, vacuum-gravity universe with a nearby cosmic Center (C), and showed it accounts for the 2.73K CMB, the CMB at higher z, and the Hubble redshift relation. More recently, for year 2001, I reported it also accounts for six other of big bang's major predictions.

Robert V. Gentry
Knoxville, Tennessee

Physicists Have a Distorted Sense of History

In the January 2001 issue of APS News, Morton K. Brussel took issue with Freeman Dyson's characterization of religion as a force for building community, citing the Taliban in Afghanistan and other famous cases of religious abuse of citizens as his reason.

The actions of the Taliban don't represent the power of religion by itself. The aim of the Taliban is to build a religious state, to tie all secular political power to religious authority. Most if not all of the ugly abuses of citizens by religious organizations in the history of the world - the witch hunts, the Crusades, the violent struggles between Catholics and Protestants, the persecution of native religions by conquering colonial forces, the Taliban, etc, came about because secular political power was tied to religious authority.

When religion and state power are combined, then the religion is, of course, going to get exactly as violent as the furtherance and maintenance of state power requires it to be. Because religion is not some external force field put upon the world, but a human adaptive enterprise that can be adapted and fitted to many functions - as is also true with science.

Why are the Taliban so violent, when the Koran preaches peace and justice? Any religious group that succeeds in securing and maintaining state power in a violent land is going to have adapted their religious belief system so that it supports the violence needed to achieve that state power.

The founding fathers and mothers of America were right to value a separation of religion and state to the extent that they would lay down their precious fragile human lives fighting for it on the bloody field of battle. That was a very wise commitment on their parts, because it led to a great flowering of religious thought unburdened by the needs of furthering and maintaining the power of the state.

This was good for religion, not bad. This is one reason why American are so religious. Because we vastly improved Western religion by unhooking it from the burdens and temptations of state power.

But at whose feet can we lay the horrific abuses of the Stalinist and Maoist regimes?

The aim of Marxism-Leninism was to create a state based not upon religion, but on science. Marxist-Leninists deeply believed that there was a rational, scientific way to engineer an economy, and a rational, scientific way to engineer the lifestyles and belief systems of everyone under their state power, into one rational scientific whole.

But these idealistic scientific socialists committed atrocities numbering in the millions. These were purely rational atheist atrocities, and a large percentage of the victims were religious followers who refused to renounce their religious faith in the name of scientific socialist atheism.

By the way, Lenin himself came from a physics family. His father was a student of Lobachevsky, his brother studied physics before he was executed for terrorism against the Tsarist state, and the original career plan of young Vladimir Ulyanov was to study physics, possibly under Lobachevsky as well.

Millions of human beings were slaughtered in the 20th century in the name of so-called scientific socialism. It is just as fair, or unfair, to blame those deaths on the general human practice of science, as it is to blame the atrocities committed by religious state power on the general human practice of religion.

Frankly, I am appalled at the distorted and selective sense of history that seems common in the physics community. Millions of people died under the banner of a more scientific way to live and and OOPS, we forget. Because we're all upset at religion, because Galileo got put on celebrity house arrest by the Pope. (During a time when women accused of being witches, and heretics without close connections to the Pope, were hanged or burned alive by the hundreds, let's consider what almost happened to Kepler's mother, for example....)

Let's get over ourselves, please, and look at human history in a less hysterical and more balanced manner, one that doesn't inevitably lead us to a simplistic victimization scenario between science and religion. Human history is a much more rich and complex story than that.
Patricia Schwarz
Pasadena, California

Kansan Dissects Soft Creationism

Moorad Alexanian's letter in the January APS News is a useful example of the new "soft" approach of creationists which is becoming increasingly widespread. Typically, it uses many of the techniques of familiar old-style creationism but dressed up in more intellectually respectable language and with a considerably narrowed attack (usually limited to evolution).

It is a useful exercise to dissect his letter and expose all the unstated assumptions and logical jumps. He first says that all those who believe in a Creator are not Young Earth Creationists (as claimed by Brush in the November issue). I urge you to go back and re-read Brush's back page; you'll see he didn't make that claim. This is the first instance of the "Wedge Strategy", which is to make a forced choice between science and (their kind of) religion. They understand that if they can force this choice, in our culture, science will lose.

He says Darwin's evolution includes the origin of life. It doesn't; it's only a theory about its development. Later on he says "What people object to is the teaching of an atheistic worldview in the guise of science. Students of faith ought not to come out of biology classes with the notion that there is no God." There are two assumptions here. The most obvious is the idea that if someone becomes an atheist, someone must have taught them atheism. There is no recognition that someone might come to conclusions independently. Secondly, though he rightly condemns the mixing of theology (or anti-theology) into science class, it is clear from his letter that what he means by atheism is the idea that life arose and developed "entirely by natural means." He believes intervention by God along the way is required, and teaching science without including this is atheism. (Since he apparently believes God created everything, are we supposed to mention that in every science class in every field of science? And all other classes?) He says, "The evidence for evolutionary transition of humans from apelike ancestors is not abundant enough to conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that it has occurred. That is why the overwhelming majority of Americans still believe in a Creator."

Note here (1) A claim which would be big news to people working in the field. This claim is typically supported by repetition, which actually is a very effective propaganda technique. (2) The use of legal rather than scientific language regarding verification. (3) The forced choice-if A is wrong, then (my) B must be right. In this case it's done as descriptive. Note also the Wedge-you accept the evidence for human evolution OR believe in a Creator.

He wants us to teach that evolution and cosmology are "working assumptions". Again, let's examine: "Unlike physics, evolution and cosmology are sciences in the sense of forensic science." Note that cosmology is given in counterpoint to physics here. Imagine a sentence starting, "Unlike physics, acoustics is...". Creationists try to set aside special status for evolution (and sometimes cosmology) because it includes dealing with the past. This is false on several counts. (1) Nearly all physics relies on indirect evidence. We don't see quarks or phonons, we infer their effects. (2) There is considerable "benchtop evolution" now, even finding biotech applications, and much of the past Universe is directly observable along our past light cone (we "see" the microwave background and primordial galaxies). (3) The crucial criterion for science is confrontation with experimental data, which comes in many forms.

He names a number of famous physicists who were Christians, and two biologists who are atheists. (True in the case of Dawkins, questionable with regard to Darwin). Better join Our Club (the smart guys) and reject demon evolution. He is a member of the staff of the "Earth History Research Center", (headquarters at Southwestern Adventist University) which states as its goal, "Our mission is to develop a view of origins that is scientifically credible, and consistent with the Biblical account of origins, for a world that has largely abandoned belief in its Creator."

This organization promotes a great deal of material designed to cast doubt on the age of the Earth. This doesn't belie his comment about Young Earth Creationists in and of itself, but it calls into question his motives in making the comment about Brush near the beginning of this letter. You'll find there (http://origins.swau.edu/) things designed to convince you coal and sediments could have been rapidly deposited, radiometric dating is highly unreliable, much of geology can be explained by worldwide Flood, etc. Note that they have real scientists working for them.

He notes that the fundamental question of origins may not be a scientific question. If not, then he says we may need to look to an Intelligent Designer. (1) There is no such thing as a scientific question, only a scientific way of looking for answers. (2) This method may or may not work for specific kinds of questions. (3) He and anyone else are welcome to look for answers in non-scientific ways. They merely aren't welcome to pass them off as science, especially in public schools.

The voters in Kansas, most strongly in the Republican primary, rejected the people who attempted to inject religion into the state science standards. This didn't happen accidentally. It required vigilance and a collaborative effort of scientists and many other people with diverse backgrounds, including clergy. Some of what we've learned can be found on the website of Kansas Citizens for Science.  I also recommend the National Center for Science Education.

I urge readers to particularly be alert for "Intelligent Design", the latest repackaging of creation science which is attracting many educated persons (medical doctors, engineers, and humanities grads seem highly susceptible). Although it may be "creation science in a cheap tuxedo" as L. Krishtalka has said, this tux seems able to impress many people who are not experts. No part of the country is immune. We in Kansas fought back publicly, which drew a lot of press. Look in your back yard.

Adrian L. Melott
University of Kansas

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Editor: Alan Chodos
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